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Pavel thought to himself, these men weren't thugs; they were his saviors. If he could help people in any way he would absolve himself of some guilt at least. This was his chance. "What do I need to do?" He asked.
Anatoly smiled a predator's smile, "You're going to help us stop the greatest menace to this country and its people." He paused for dramatic effect, "We are going to kill Petrov."
Pavel was shocked, this man was mad. He'd been a fool to believe Anatoly's message of hope; all he wanted was someone else to help him commit a murder. Pavel wasn't a murderer, and he wasn't going to become one. "I'm not going to kill a man." He stated.
Anatoly laughed as only the insane could; his eye shined in the darkness, "Who said anything about killing a man?"
Boris hung over the edge of the ship vomiting into the water. He hated boats, and his hangover wasn't improving anything. Still, how else were they supposed to find Petrov without ship? He only wished Anatoly wasn't so desperate to find his old enemy, the ship was plowing through the dark sea at forty knots, about twenty faster than the old trawler should be going.
Another wave rushed from the others and caught Boris in the face. He stumbled backward gagging on saltwater and vomit.
"Careful!" called Yuri from the prow of the vessel, "If you die now I'd have to be the one to throw you overboard, and you know I couldn't fucking lift you!" Boris hacked up the rest of the water and growled under his breath. He was getting sick of Yuri trying to be funny. He imagined everyone else was too. That idiot poked fun at Vlad's temper, Pavel's depression, Mikhael's quietness, and his own obesity. The only person Yuri didn't bother was the captain, and for good reason.
Boris had known Anatoly for years, but still knew next to nothing about him. He could be happy one moment, and thrown into a murderous rage the next. Boris figured it was because of Petrov, as were his deformities. The fat man shuddered at the thought of Petrov, Anatoly had told him terrible stories about-
"Captain!" shouted Yuri as he pointed toward the distant horizon, "There's something out there! Is it him sir?"
"Anatoly, we have been friends for a long time, so when I ask you this I want a serious answer- why the hell did you bring these people along with us?" Vlad sneered and looked down from the helm of the ship. Yuri was stretching from the prow like an idiot trying to act out the Titanic. Starboard, Boris was expelling all the vodka he'd drunk the previous night; Vlad had told him he shouldn't drink before they set off. He continued, "Boris is a good man, but he wasn't made for the sea, and the others, they're just slowing us down."
"Vlad," cut in Anatoly, " Do not be a fool. You may not like it but we need those men, and they need me." Anatoly spoke deeply and slowly, as if contemplating something. "And each one is going to fight his hardest because he has nothing to lose, and everything to gain."
Another time Vlad would've thought Anatoly sounded wise, standing there stoically with one mighty hand holding the entire ship on course. But now, he just sounded too hopeful, too trusting.
"Why would they fight for you? You've told them what they're facing, but none of them will believe it until they see him. And when they do, they'll cower because this is your grudge, not theirs."
Anatoly was silent for a moment, then spoke, "It does not matter what is mine, or what is yours, or what is theirs. Petrov will die because he must." The captain finished, sounding satisfied with his answer. Vlad was tired of his dodging the point. He was about to reply when a call came up from Yuri.
"Captain! There's something out there! Is it him sir?"
Anatoly's eye widened and his muscles tensed; he jumped from the helm onto the deck. A startled Vlad was left trying the control the wheel in the choppy waters. Yuri pointed to the setting sun; a massive shadow could be seen. Anatoly snatched up one of the wicked looking harpoons from under the railing and stared out into the sun. This was it, he was finally going to kill that bastard who got his arm, Iron Petrov. Anatoly stared into the sun, looking for a sign that his quarry was nearing. His heartbeat slowed and his expression of mad joy turned to sour disappointment as he observed the beast.
"Yuri," he said, trying to sound as calm as he could, "tell me what that is."
Yuri squinted, a moment later he said "A whale, sir. I'm sorry, from here it looked like a shark."
"Stop calling me sir, this is not the military. And THAT is not Petrov." Anatoly began to stop back up the stairs to the helm, but paused. "Petrov is much bigger."
Three weeks into the voyage, and Pavel had seen nothing. Yuri had told him about the whales he'd seen, however, the only life for hundreds of miles seemed to be on this old fishing trawler. Pavel wondered why they had come this far North anyway. He doubted anything could survive up here, even the beast the captain had described. He didn't think something like that would be capable of existing. Again he regretted coming aboard with Anatoly and the rest. If he hadn't been drunk off his ass he'd be back in Murmansk, crying into his vodka. He'd prefer that, Pavel thought, as the ship sailed around a large chunk of ice jutting from the water.
He looked down at his watch, 4:00, time to be relieved by Mikhael. Pavel turned and looked over the deck leaning against the ship's rail. It didn't look like 4:00 to him, but then again, days always looked grey up here. While waiting for Mikhael he began counting items on the deck; a daily routine he'd fallen into , it wasn't like there was much else to do. One, two, three waterproofed barrels of high explosive he'd stopped worrying about long weeks ago. Eight spears stashed under the railings on each side. He counted the steps, eleven, he counted them again. Then again.
If he'd bothered to turn around, he would've seen the tip of a fin sliding under the ship.
The alarm clock began its shrill beeping; Mikhael opened his sleepy eyes and groaned. An arm went out and slapped the top of the clock halfheartedly. Surprisingly the alarm stopped, and the tired man threw off his thin blanket. He was already clothed, in fact, he hadn't changed in a few days. Nobody had. Yawning, Mikhael bent over to pull his boot on; it was the last thing he would ever do.
The back end of the vessel was shattered as a gargantuan snout smashed through the underside. Splinters rained down on the water and what remained of the rapidly-sinking ship. Everyone onboard had what seemed like an eternity to gaze at the monster. The thing's head alone must've been twenty feet long. Its jaws were wide open, and they could all see Mikhael disappear, screaming, behind rows of foot-long teeth. Scars covered its skin, testaments to a lifetime of killing. Worst of all were his eyes; they weren't the doll-eyes associated with sharks, they were a thousand times worse. The single one that glared down at the men was a black hole. Something that sucked in courage and strength, something that made men's blood run cold. Pits of nothingness where ambitions went to die. This was Iron Petrov.
Time seemed to seemed to flash forward to make up for the pause. The shark's maw closed and it sank under the churning ocean as fast as it had come. Pavel was left standing on the deck of the ship, screaming. "There's no fucking way this thing is real! There is no fucking way in hell this thing is real!" he shrieked in a high-pitched voice. There was the sound of glass shattering as the icy seawater rose to his knees.
The last part, it's all about 3,700 words
"PETROV YOU SON OF A BITCH!" roared Anatoly as if he were fighting a man. He slung the black market AK-47 from his shoulder and loosed an iron rain on the beast as is sank. The windows shattered, Anatoly, Vlad, and a stunned Yuri were covered with tiny shards of flying glass. The captain was firing at nothing but water when the click signifying an empty magazine came. He wasted no time tossing the gun to Vlad; reaching into his coat he pulled out another magazine and shoved it into Vlad's full hands. "If I don't kill him, one of you will." he growled; it was an order.
Boris was sinking, he was going to die and he knew it. The shark had come from nowhere, no it had come from somewhere, it had come from hell itself. He could see the form of the creature circling around the ship through the murk, it could probably just eat the ship in one bite. Playing with them, Boris thought sadly, it's just playing with them. His lung were starting to burn, his vision was fading, the freezing waters had numbed his body. What alarmed him though, was the fact that he didn't really mind dying it wasn't as bad as he'd expected. Petrov suddenly broke away from the ship, as if sensing Boris was passing peacefully. He continued dreamily staring through the water as the shark opened its mouth. His only regret was that no one would avenge him. He knew there was no way any of the others could kill Iron Petrov.
Yuri came to and saw Vlad and Anatoly rush out onto the deck. He followed them, only find that there wasn't a deck anymore. The two men were standing up to their chests in water. A dazed looking Pavel was unmoving a few meters away. Yuri had believed the captain's tale about the shark, but he hadn't believed it was so big. He regretted ever accepting Anatoly's offer; he would rather fight a hundred more wars, kill a thousand more people than be where he was now. Petrov's fin began to rise up, circling the ship, and Yuri realized there was no way to quit.
Vlad fired as more of Petrov's huge flank rose above the water. The leviathan was peppered with bullets, but if it was injured it made not sign. This thing was fucking unstoppable, it would kill them all. Beside him, Anatoly waded through the water, harpoon in hand. He climbed up onto the railing and looked down at Vlad as he smiled sadly. Jamming the tip of the harpoon into the wood, he tossed Vlad another clip. "Good luck Mudak."
Vlad laughed halfheartedly as he reloaded the gun. "You're the one who's going to need it, not me."
Anatoly shrugged, "I know what's going to happen to me, I won't need luck for it." He turned to the still unmoving Pavel, the water was up to his neck. "Thank you for coming," he said genuinely, "no matter what happens, remember that you died a hero's death." He looked up to Yuri, who had climbed above the sinking wreckage. "Do svidanja Yuri." He said as he waved. The soldier waved back.
His goodbyes completed, Vlad watched as the captain hefted his spear, and jumped.
Captain Anatoly slammed into Iron Petrov's side, burying the spear at least a foot into him. Something the shark hadn't felt in a long time tore through it: pain. It thrashed a tail the size of a truck's trailer behind it. Vlad tried to unload as Iron Petrov's massive tailfin smashed into him. There was a disgusting wet crunch, Vlad was sent flying through the air and was dead before he smacked into the water. Petrov turned, and rammed straight into the ship. Anatoly slammed into the side of his ship and was knocked from Petrov.
Whatever was left of the ship was crushed under the organic engine of destruction. Yuri was thrown from the debris, landing painfully; Pavel was forced under. Yuri scrabbled for something to hold onto, only to find that he had landed on one of the H.E. barrels.
No better way to die, he figured as he pulled a pistol from his damp jacket. He set it against the barrel of explosives, and prayed it would work. It did.
Anatoly was sinking through the water, but he couldn't tell. Around him, everything was pitch black. There were only two things on Earth that were real, Petrov and himself. The shark swam through the darkness above him, hunting one of the others. Suddenly there was a flash, the darkness was lit by a blinding white light. He felt the shark's pain as it twisted and turned in the darkness. He could feel its blood warming the waters around him, its silent roars shaking the foundations of existence.
The creature, in fear and pain, turned to flee to the safety of the darkness below. Anatoly wasn't going to let that happen.
He reached out his single arm to grab the sinking spear before him. His hand wrapped around the heavy wooden shaft; he held it out, and Petrov was hooked.
Anatoly swung around on the harpoon; he was right between the shark's jaws. Deeper and deeper the beast swam, trying to escape the pain on the surface. The captain was pulled backwards by the force of the water, his hand slid down the spear despite his iron grip. His head throbbed; he was going too far down, the pressure was going to kill him
So close; he was so close to defeating the beast. This couldn't be how it ended. Eaten by Iron Petrov, the shark he'd sworn to kill. He was fading fast, there wasn't much time left. A familiar weight whacked at his leg, his knife. Anatoly took a moment to pray. This would be for his crew, this would be for Vlad, this would be for all the people this bastard was going eat if he didn't kill him, this would be his redemption.
Captain Anatoly Koslov let go of the harpoon. His arm whipped around to the knife at his belt, he tore it from the sheath, and was swept down the beast's gullet.
Outside, there was no more hate, no more malice in Iron Petrov's voidlike eyes; only terror.
The Arena's Din
Part 1 of 4
The arena was buzzing, the crowd intoxicated by the spilt blood, eagerly awaiting more like a drunkard awaiting another pint of brew . Din watched the crowd from behind the gate leading on to the battlefield, his cheek and forehead pressed against the metal bars.
A voice drifted towards him from somewhere deeper in the catacombs. "Are you having second thoughts?"
Din turned and faced the man. "No, I'm not." He recognized the man as Icar, an ardent investor in the Games, and an adored person of the people. He was also a devil in disguise and the reason Din took foot onto the battlefield.
The man drifted heavily out of the shadows, stopping just far enough to remain out of Din's chained reach. "This will be your last battle, you know. The pot is large enough already that your debt will be more than absolved. What remains should be enough to feed you and your family for months. What do you think of that? Do you still think I'm evil?"
"You expect me to show gratitude? I've been nothing more than a bargaining chip to you for the past year. Even now, how could I find comfort? My life is still on the line, the lives of my family as well."
Icar snorted. "I have confidence I'll see you once again after this is done. Dead or alive, it doesn't matter. I'll get paid either way." He laughed heartily as he faded back into the shadows.
"For your sake, let's hope I'm not alive," Din said to himself, turning back towards the battlefield. He realized that the fight was over, palace guards escorting both warrior and corpse off the field. Looking towards the other gates, he could see his opponents - three others. It was to be a four-way match. He, Din, the champion of the Southern Sands, and Sza the Beast of the East were the highlight fighters. He couldn't recognize the other two, but they looked just as anxious for the fight as he felt. It was a good sign.
When the roar of the spectators dimmed, Prince Kailyn spoke. "Good people of Abralah! Let us welcome our neighbors to the east, who have brought us much to look forward to, as we prepare for the next battle. For your entertainment, I bring to you your champion, Din, the destroyer of men. He whose quick wit and daring exceed that of any merchant. Whose force in battle cannot be contained. Today will be his truest test. He will be facing the Beast of the East; part man, part beast, all power. Can the Champion of the South outwit the power of the Beast? Or will the brute strength of the East put an end to our Champion? Warriors--" The crowd erupted into cheers as the Prince raised his arms. "Battle!" The gates opened as the Prince dropped his arms, signaling the start of the match. The shackles cuffed around Din's wrists fell to the ground. Taking the nearby sword in hand, he headed onto the field.
The crowd's cheers intensified as they saw Din. Their cheers shook him like a strong gust and he had to stop himself from shivering in disgust. He could almost smell the putrid stench of their breath mingled with the stale odor only an unwashed mass could produce. Across the field, three other men approached as well. He brought his sword up, covering his flank with the fat blade. As anticipated, the two strangers reached behind their backs and drew pistols. It was no surprise, neither man held swords, yet the crowd drew back in puerile shock.
The fight had begun.
The sound of metal on metal rang out as each of the gunmen opened fire on the two champions. The force of the bullet against the metal blade was easily diverted as Din twisted to let his sword redirect the projectile. Din checked on Sza. As expected, the man had deflected his bullet as well. The two gunmen were taking hesitant steps backward as they reloaded their weapons. Before he could finish reloading, Sza took the head of his gunmen. It was with such ease it made Din's stomach churn. Din's gunman was quick, and was already taking aim. Din brought up his sword and deflected the bullet towards Sza. The Beast let off a smile as a tuft of sand erupted just ahead of him.
Din further closed the gap between him and the pistol, pulling away from Sza as the man continued to smile widely. Din brought his sword up as the gunman blasted another shot. Din pulled back slightly on his sword, and sent the shot towards Sza's chest. Din heard the gunman curse as Sza blocked the full force of the bullet. The man really was a beast.
Closing the few steps between him and the pistol, Din brought his sword up across the gunman's throat. He felt a pang of guilt as the defenseless man fell. Reaching towards the ground, Din scooped up the loaded pistol with his offhand. He then ducked to his right as Sza's sword struck towards him.
"It's you and me, Champion," Sza taunted.
Din collected himself into a defensive stance and brought his sword level. The fat, flat blade was good only for slashing. He'd have to rely on speed to dodge Sza's savage attacks.
The Beast struck out at him, nicking Din's shoulder as he stepped out to the right. Din drew up his sword, but the Beast slapped it away. He rolled with his momentum and quickly got to his feet. He tried to take aim with the gun but Sza was quick bringing his sword up. By the time the Beast brought his sword back down, Din had put some distance between them, allowing time for him to think. Angered, Sza charged. He held his sword ahead of himself like a ram. Din feigned to the right once again, drawing Sza's sword, but jumped out to the left, bringing his sword across the Beast's ribs.
The man barely let out a yelp before quickly recovering and charging again. Din conceded ground, taking a few steps back before chopping towards Sza's chest. He cut the man across his bare breast but the wound was shallow. Sza brought his own sword up, and caught Din across the cheek and nose. Din dropped the pistol as he slapped a hand to the wound. The momentary shock was immediately forgotten as Sza took advantage of Din's vulnerability. Using the flat of his blade, Din slapped aside Sza's chops, gaining small cuts with each. Sza pushed Din further away from the pistol. As strong as he was, Din knew he couldn't defeat the Beast with strength alone.
The Beast continued to advance. With each chop, Din gave ground, and in time could barely deflect his foe's blade. The Beast suddenly drew back and walked away from DIn. "Is that it? Are you truly the best this shit of a city has to offer?"
The Arena's Din
Part 2 of 4
The crowd was going crazy; half cheering the Beast, the other taunting Din. He needed to act, and quickly. Utilizing Sza's pause, Din advanced with his own attacks. The Beast spun as Din tried for the man's stomach, but was easily dodged. He brought the sword back up, but the Beast side-stepped. He swung for Sza's throat, but he calmly tilted his head back, Din's blade passing just under his chin. The Beast brought his off-foot up and caught Din in the chest. The air forcefully escaped him as he hit the ground. Before he could catch his breath, Sza was coming down with his blade. Din rolled to the side. As Sza recovered, he sent his foot into Din's ribs, rolling the man even further.
Din came to a stop on his stomach. Pushing himself up, he tumbled forward to avoid another of the Beast's kicks. When Din regained his feet, he was unarmed. Sza, however, continued to approach, all the more intimidating now that Din lacked his weapon.
Staying low, Din waited for the first swing. When it came, it came strong and low. Din hopped up, flat in the air as the blade passed below him. When he came back down, he landed on all fours and tumbled behind Sza. Using his momentum, Din jumped back up to his feet and began running. Sza recovered quickly, however, and pursued Din closely. He could almost feel the Beast's breath on the back of his neck. He ran with purpose, however, and upon reaching the gun on the ground, he dove towards it. Twisting in the air, he scooped up the weapon and shot it before hitting the sand.
Sza, the Beast of the East, stiffened and fell forward with his momentum. He hit the ground hard, face in the sand, and motionless. The crowd was shocked. The world felt still as Din lay in the sand, staring in disbelief at the body of the Beast.
Cheers. The crowd cheered heavily. The force of it hit Din and held him against the sand for a moment. When he recovered his strength, he pushed himself upright. Without flourish, he dropped the pistol and walked back towards where he entered. This time, however, the catacombs didn't seem so dark; his tenure was done.
As soon as he reached the gates he was greeted by a pair of armed guards. In that moment, he wished he still had his sword. "Congratulations." Icar said, from behind his armed retinue. The two guards took a step from each other, allowing Din to look the poisonous toadstool in the eye. "The guards here will escort you back to your cell until-"
"What? No, I'm done with this. I'm going home-- now!"
"You misunderstand, Champion. I must draw up your papers before you can go home."
Din didn't savor the idea of having to wait in the fighter's cells, but at least he was free. "Fine. What about my pay?"
Icar pulled open the pouch at his waist and picked out a couple coins. He weighed them in his hand, bouncing the coins in his palm, before finally tossing them at Din's feet. Scooping up the loose coins, Din counted them out. "This is far less than you said I would get."
"Oh? Is it? Well you see, now that I can no longer profit from your... skills, I had to charge additional interest on your loan to cover expenses for your stay here at the arena."
"Gruel three times a day for the past year is not worth four gold pieces."
"Take that up with the Quartermaster. Right now, I have more important business to attend." With a cursory flick of his wrist, the Guards stepped forward and grabbed Din by the arms.
Din bucked against his restrainers, testing their strength. "You better not take your time with those papers."
Icar laughed. "Champion," he mocked, "I plan to take more than just my time."
Din lay restless on the floor of his cell, illuminated by the light of the moon. Icar had yet to free him, and he was beginning to fear his freedom wouldn't come at all. A whisper from just outside his cell grabbed his attention.
Din turned over and dashed towards the cell bars. "Sherah? Is that really you my darling?"
Sherah crept closer to the bars. She grabbed Din's outstretched hand and placed it upon her cheek, savoring his touch. "Why do you remain behind these bars, Fardin? Please don't tell me you're still fighting."
"It's only a mistake; a momentary delay in my return home." Din reached out with his other hand to stroke his wife's hair. It felt smooth and so soft; he wished he could bury his face in it. And the touch of her cheek, the warmth of her skin; if he were as strong as the Beast was, he would have ripped through the bars and carried her home. Sherah moaned softly as a single tear streaked down her face. "Do not lament my heart. Hush. Tell me, how did you get here?"
Sherah finally looked up, the moisture in her eyes reflecting what little light hung in the air. "Noushin, our neighbor; her husband is a guard. He helped sneak me in. We do not have long."
"Why have you come? It is too dangerous for you to be here. And what of Yeshua?"
"I couldn't wait to see you. Noushin told me you were still being held; I feared they would never release you."
"But what of my son?"
"He is with her. You worry when your mind should be on your wife instead."
"I'm sorry my love." Din continued to stroke her hair and hold her gaze. Finally, he remembered the small purse he earned. "This is all that I've won, take it with you." Sherah obliged and tied the pouch around her waistband. "I swear I'll never leave your side again."
Unbidden tears began to streak down Din's cheek. Having his wife so close for the first time in over a year was rapturous. "I'm so sorry... I'm sorry I put us through this..."
"Hush my love," Sherah said, trying to offer comfort. Soon, her tears joined his. "I love you; I am proud to call you my husband. No other man would have done what you have for me and our son."
"I love you too, Sherah, I love you too."
She reached into the cell and wiped the tears from Din's downcast face, cradling it with her hands. She pulled him close and kissed him through the bars. The touch of her lips spurred Din's sorrow. All he could think about was the possibility of never seeing her or his son again. She drew back at the sound of a knock, deeper within the darkness. "I will wait for you tomorrow."
"Yes, do. I swear, by the stars in the sky, at night's fall we shall be embraced beside the fire." Din watched as the shadows enveloped his wife. When he was sure she was gone, he crawled to his corner and, with a small stone, scratched another peg into his count. He then rested his head and stared at the mark, somehow sure it was his last.
The Arena's Din
Part 3 of 4
"It appears a small error has occurred with your papers. Unfortunately, you'll need to fight in one last battle, as a proper release," Icar was explaining. He had approached Din's cell early in the morning, his usual retinue at his side.
"So yesterday's fight didn't kill me, you're hoping this one will? Is that what you're playing at?"
"You presume upon your own importance, Champion. I'm not that petty. Survive this battle, and you'll be free."
"Why are you leading me along?" Din sighed in exasperation. None of the man's actions made sense. If he wanted to keep Din here, why pay him? Why plant false hope. Something wasn't adding up. "Will you at least tell me who I'm fighting?"
"It's more what than whom." Icar's lips curled into a sinister smile.
Din shot to his feet and hit the cell gate hard, his hand reaching out towards Icar's throat. "I swear I'll kill you. I swear it!"
"Why so worried?" The question hung in the air as Icar left the room laughing.
Din thought furiously. He knew his upcoming match was no hope. He knew what it was they would pit him against, and he knew he wouldn't survive- - no one has. That would only mean Icar wanted him dead. That being the case, why give up the coin, why make him believe he would be free? The answer struck him like a thunderhead. He fell to his knees. He had lost after all. There was only one reason for the man's action.
Icar knocked on the door of the hovel, careful not to scratch a ring. He didn't need to hang around the arena; he no longer had business there. Now, he sought to use a bit of his time filling something other than his wallet. When no response came, he tried with his foot, applying more force into his knock.
Sherah answered the door. A vision of beauty, her loose curls hung around her shoulders, framing her delicate features and accentuating her cleavage. He allowed his eyes to feed upon the sight of her, stirring his loins. His lips suddenly felt very dry.
"I have news-"
Just then, a small child pushed passed his mother, his smile deflating when he realized it wasn't his father at the door. "Mama, who is this man?"
"Yeshua, don't be rude." Turning to address Icar, "He anxiously awaits the arrival of his father. What news do you bring?"
"Perhaps it is best we discuss this inside? I've just made all haste from the Arena and the foregoing of a cart has fatigued me."
"Yeshua, go out to your friends. I'll call upon you if your father arrives." Uncertain, the boy looked up once between Icar and his mother. "Go on," Sherah encouraged. Obviously upset, the boy stomped out of the hovel.
"Quite a spirited boy."
"He gets it from his father. Speaking of which," Sherah said, as she guided Icar to a seat on a small, ratty couch, "when can I expect my husband's return?"
"I wish I could say my visit was under better circumstance, but the unfortunate truth is that your husband has been killed in the arena. I fought for his freedom as best I could but in the end the Prince proved too formidable an opponent. He insisted your husband have a grand exit from the Arena; you know how involved he's become in the games as of late. I am so very sorry for your loss."
Icar was surprised to find that Sherah showed no sign of grief. Her face was serene. He was quickly losing patience with the pretense.
"Leave my house. Leave me and my family alone." Sherah said suddenly before she glided to the door, her steps neither hurried nor angry. Her lack of emotion was frustrating. It made it difficult to read her.
Icar stood and made towards the door but stopped short. "I understand you're grieving, but there is the matter of the small amount I gave your husband yesterday. You see, it wasn't owed him and so I am forced to consider it a loan."
"The pittance you gave my husband was earned many times over, fighting for your benefit. I owe you nothing!" She laughed then, weakly. "You're as much the monster, if not more, my husband said you are; I only wish I'd seen it earlier. "
It was surprising how such a simple statement could change a man so completely. He hated the pretense just as much as he knew Sherah did; her calling him out was a welcome relief. Placing his hand on the door, he shut it behind himself. Finally satisfied, he watched as Sherah's face became a mask of indignation, then anger, and then fear. The last expression he saw, before he struck her to the ground, was that of understanding. She understood what he planned to do, but entertaining the idea that she understood Icar's machinations fascinated him. He paused momentarily, his lust battling his logic. She could make a great tool. He had heard of her intelligence and beauty; it was in part why he had desired her. She could prove very useful if precisely placed in the Royal court, able to get anywhere with her beauty, and able to deftly maneuver conversations for her advantage. Alas, a tool that useful would need to be forged, and unfortunately for Sherah, she was too loyal to her husband for her own good. Then an idea, bright and ingenious, struck him. He quickly extrapolated the possibilities and was almost giddy. He would be able to satisfy both logic and lust after all. Bending over Sherah, he placed a firm hand on the small of her back, pinning her to the ground. He undid his dagger and placed it near by in case it was needed. She stirred weakly-had he hit her hard? He hadn't realized.
"Your husband owed me more than his coins could repay. My reputation is something, as you must know, I cherish deeply, and I would kill before having it soiled. His fate was his own doing." Sherah moaned and struggled against his hand, her bucking becoming stronger as she returned to her senses. Before she could scream, Icar flipped her onto her back and placed a hand roughly against her mouth as he continued to free himself below. "I do admit I've had plans for you for quite some time. It's unfortunate it has come to this, but you and your husband have forced my hand. Call me a monster if you'd like; curse my name; wish death upon me; it doesn't matter. Without me, this city would fail. I am the people, and the people love me." Finally freeing his lower half, he worked on Sherah's. "But, and fortunately for you and your son, I am a forgiving man. I offer you this: produce me a daughter and I will spare what remains of your pathetic family. Or you can fight me, as your husband did, and share his fate. Along with the louse you call a son."
Without allowing her to respond, Icar continued to force his will upon Sherah. He would enjoy himself; he worked hard to get her into this position. He couldn't, however, stifle his imagination. Perhaps this whole pathetic mess could be salvaged. Whatever suspicions surfaced after today would be well worth the effort. Without realizing it, he found himself laughing. A more perfect shepherd could not have been chosen for the people of Abralah.
The Arena's Din
Part 4 of 4
Din was running out of energy and ideas. There was no penetrating the skin of Alkai. The man, or whatever it was, did not bleed or wound. Cuts would momentarily reveal metal beneath the skin, before the wound sealed itself. He was truly invincible, a fact many Champions before Din quickly discovered.
The thing continued to approach, but Din couldn't find the strength to hold his ground and soon felt his back smack against the wall surrounding the battlefield. He dropped to the ground and rolled away, trying to evade the monster, but it was too quick. It reacted with impossible speed, and its strength far exceeded the now deceased Beast of the East.
The crowd was beginning to boo him. Chanting spread through the spectators cheering Alkai's victory-- this was his final chance. He closed on the metal man but his blade was met with his opponent's. Pulling away, he side-stepped to the right and cut across the metal man's gut. Again the skin parted, but the part was quickly healed. In reward for the attack, Din received another gash along his left shoulder, just barely able to duck past the counter attack. Trying to maintain his intensity, he dipped back away from a high chop, feigned to right, and swung for the thing's neck, pulling towards the left. He struck it with the thick of the blade, but rather than passing through, the blade jammed in the man's neck. It was caught in a seam connecting neck and head. His opponent flailed and kicked Din away, who used the force to free his sword. When he hit the sand, it was nearly impossible getting back up. He found the strength in knowing he found the thing's weakness.
Trying to catch his breath, he gave it ground. The crowd was once again mixed between both warriors. He could hear the spectators closest to him begging the metal man for Din's death. He could have killed them himself.
As Alkai approached, Din steeled himself for a swift succession of attacks. When it came, it came hard. The thing chopped through the air with ease. High to the right, he slapped it away. Middle and left - no, upper left; he guided it roughly. Then suddenly the blade was sawing through his side. Pain shot through him. Panicked, he mustered what remained of his strength, and chopped at the things neck, but the blade only reverberated as it struck metal. He tried again, even as his opponent's blade opened a gash in his thigh, with no success. Finally, channeling the last of his strength, he jammed his sword into the seam in his opponent's neck with the force of his body. Alkai once again began flailing as the two fell. The force of the fall pushed the sword deeper into the crevice. Bleeding out, Din watched as the thing stopped flailing and its skin sloughed off. Beneath was all metal shaped to look human.
The crowd cheered. He had succeeded in defeating Alkai, but in the end lost not only his life, but perhaps sacrificed that of his family. As he thought of them, he felt the world darken around him, the cheers of the crowd dimming. In his mind's eye, he saw himself sitting with his family beside the fire, just as he promised. They laughed as his son jumped around as if he too were a warrior. No matter what happened to them, Din knew that, despite whatever came next, he would be with them again.
Icar sat as his desk, finally back at his warehouse. He felt satisfied, but more than that, he felt accomplished. Much had transpired that required further contemplation. Many problems had been solved, one very large one included. Now he was faced with other concerns. His child: would there be one? Would it be a girl? Would she take after her mother? The issue would have to wait, however, until he received more information. He'll have to set a spy on Sherah, of course, to avoid her escaping. Not that she would. A woman and a child would barely make it a day in the desert.
And what of his reputation? Before Din's death, before Icar had him placed in the games, the man had openly spoken against Icar. It had been nearly a year, and yet he still felt the backlash. Now that Din was dead, the reminder of Icar's less savory aspects was gone, leaving the sheep to believe whatever he wanted. This would be most important in the coming months, as he had little doubt rumors surrounding the birth of his daughter, of his actions with Sherah, would spread quickly. Perhaps he wouldn't let her, and her child, live after all. It was too much of a liability.
There were a lot of problems for him to solve. Many things begging for his attention. Cracking his knuckles and scooting his chair closer to his desk, Icar dug in.
Sanction came nearly half a year ago. These things cannot be rushed. It is the height of rudeness to ask someone to defend their life hastily. No, such things must take time and do take time. On that very day I was told, word was sent to my quarry and the appointment for this arena was made. Yes, this should be done properly; after all, in this time my father's become no deader.
Joseph is my name. When I was barely old enough to miss him, word was sent of my father dying in the war. He died in a hasty rush that cost a foolish and worthless young commander nearly all of his forces. From there his blade was retrieved and now it sits next to me. It sits in a sheath that has only ever belonged to me.
I did not decide then. Children do not decide anything. But I knew of sadness. I knew he'd never tell me another story in the comfy chair. Looking back I could not have comprehended the sadness in Mother's face and as an adult I dare not cast a fresh view on then and lend my own ideas. That would be a dishonor. Her pain was her own. Mine was the selfish kind of pain. It was the type you feel before you know the depth of the world around you. Those were the emotions of a child and I am not that anymore. Now, I am a man.
My choice was made when I was just barely a man. I had just started university under general studies with a notable lean to the arts. And then it came byway of the news. There was another war. There's always another war. I might have missed my father and then gone to bed if they didn't interview someone with a name I knew. He was high of rank and regard. He had lived through many a battle and his thoughts on that which approached were well considered. That man was the reason my father had died. I made my choice then.
The system is thus. One has a right to seek personal justice but not infringe on the greater good. For a duel to be sanctioned the accuser must stand ready to take the others place. To take someone's place you must of course be qualified to take their place. It's estimated that somewhere between four and six percent of university attendees are in duel preparation. It's nothing through the schools of course, but the statistics of duel applications connect the dots.
At my university one fool thought to form a school club around avengers. He was well meaning and shot down. Official judgment said that duel prep was not school run and thus it was inapplicable. No one reminded him that these otherwise fine people had nothing in common besides something you don't chat about. Such an act of community would prove him right. No one stuck out their head.
Several minutes remain until the call. I should check my sword. I grasp the sheath and raise it as the texture and weight that have become part of me register. I take the handle and pull it forward, bringing the blade to light with a flourish. Such a move you may see from a leading man in the theater. Perhaps I might have found myself in the theater. Perhaps, thoughts for another time.
The blade, a standard long sword, has a share of gouges and pits along its thick metal. Still it has passed durability standards by the council. Barring the unforeseeable, it will stand true for this fight. That, plus an edge honed with care, and there's nothing left to do but feel sword in one's hand and know it. I weigh it in my hands and assume first stance. My training sword was of the same make and model. It was close enough for theory but to truly know I'd had to risk the wear on this, and it has not failed me. I know the swing of this sword as well as I know the sway of my arm while walking. I know its grace. And with this it is nearly time. I sheath the sword anew and give it a glace of respect. I am done here and move forward.
Forward I go into the main stage of the arena. My foe is across from me. He is a rugged, black haired man, taller than me by an inch and at an age where experience will still outweigh weariness. I can feel his eyes consider me. Our attention is called away by the arbitrator.
The arbitrator stands in his appointed place in the center risers and reads the regulations of the duel. He wears his coat of office in dull grays as to respect the sacrifice at hand. To his sides are legionnaires who will only stand unless called upon. Their duty is to enforce that which is read. If some underhanded measure is taken or if a victor denies his foe the final mercy they will strike without ceremony. But until then all they do is stand. The reading is over. We turn to each other once more.
My sword is bared, as is his. "You may begin." comes from the risers. He holds his sword in front of him and close to his body. It falls to me to close some of our twenty pace distance. This I do, slowly. I consider each step until the gap is halved. I make as to rush from his left flank and with this he turns his defense. I pivot my body to the right. He sees the ruse as he was meant to and swings for me. I duck and make a stab at his calf. He is quick enough to lower his sword and deflect the blow. I roll with the impact and regain my footing.
He is still fast and his strength is known when I block his swing. We do not linger. We break and he swings again. I am able to turn it. Then it is my chance and I take a horizontal stroke at mid body. His blade catches mine and he takes a step to use the momentum against me. Our swords still locked, a hard fist connects to my jaw. "You do not only fight the sword." My instructor told me that once as I nursed a kicked in rib. Her words resound in the sparks of pain.
The punch has served enough to separate us. Both of us expand upon this by a step. We make a rough circle around each other before he moves in and takes a hard swipe. I take the blow along the broad edge of my blade and it glides down almost the full length. By sheer fortune I shake it away before my hand and make my own zealous attempt. From the clash I am shaken and the tip of my blade finds his hand. It is a small cut, but it is the first cut.
Again we separate. His face remains a mask. No excursion or pain can be read. Does my face bear the same or am I confident fool? When he strikes at me I almost have my answer. His strength overcomes and I stumble. At the instant I find the ground he finds my side. The pain, through the pain I lash blindly as an animal. In the same motion I roll and rise to my feet. I see him and lunge. My attacks are basic, instinctual, every one deflected. With blades called high away from his body I spin and kick. It comes with a satisfying crack. I kick again, straight and his body retracts. We return to steels and trade clash after innumerable clash. He takes a lunge. I step aside and swipe. His body falls before his head does.
I drop the sword and fall to my knees, finally allowed to feel again. A distant voice calls the legionnaries to retrieve me. When my wounds are tended I will be sent to my post. The blood on my sword pools at the cracks.
May I lead only childless men.