And it genuinely didn’t help, the way Ma’Quiver was looking at him, either.
The crowd, meanwhile, fell into a stunned silence at this strange turn of events.
“And here I had you pegged for a man of honor…” the mysterious warrior sighed, shaking his head slowly.
“Ma’Quiver… I…” Max stammered, as much at a loss for words as he was for moves in the wake of Justin’s impulsive attempt to help him. In another first, he began to wonder if he should toss aside his blade to fight. “I… didn’t ask him to do that.”
Max was just about to shut it off, when his opponent chimed in with an implication of his actions that had completely slipped his mind in all the confusion.
“You do realize that you just got dis—”
But was cut off by a voice calling out from the sidelines.
“Hey! Ma’Quiver!” shouted the friendly, helpful young man Max had talked to earlier, “Your sword!”
Then tossed an object that could be only one thing. As Max stood there, dumbfounded, Ma’Quiver zapped halfway across the ring to snap up his weapon, sliding to a halt and turning to face him.
“Foolish gesture…” Ma’Quiver muttered, firing up a pair of parallel orange energy blades. Much like with the Cyexian pirate captain Striker’s sword, the difference in blade length created an illusion of curvature. Aside from the color, the other chief difference he noted was that there was no axe-shaped guard on this one, just a small square of hilt. “Now we’re both going to be disqualified.”
The entire arena had gone silent, and many eyes turned to the private Nikopol box, where Mr Bertona was well known to oversee the arena matches.
From within his viewing box, Bertona took a long, deep gulp of cigar smoke, then blew it all out at once. Looked down at the two combatants, studying the mood of the crowd, then over at Bandit, his face hardening in stubborn resolve. Pressing the intercom button, the one that patched him through to the judges, he made his pronouncement.
A moment later, the announcement broke in over the public address system for all to hear, announcing: “THE HOUSE WILL ALLOW IT! LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE MATCH WILL CONTINUE!”
And a deafening roar of enthusiasm erupted from the stands as Ma’Quiver assumed a fighting stance.
“You heard the man,” he said, though Max could hardly hear him over the din, “the show must go on. Continue with swords?”
“Agreed.” At least now Max didn’t feel so bad about it.
It took Max a moment to regain his bearings, but the sight of Ma’Quiver charging at him with a laser sword was enough to get him moving. At least now that his opponent was no longer unarmed, he felt a little less ashamed over this unexpected twist. All the same, the fact that this guy also carried a sword didn’t bode well for his chances at swordsmanship being too much better than he had fared at hand-to-hand.
Sure enough, Ma’Quiver also proved himself a consummate swordsman, matching him move for move as the audience cheered on this unprecedented fight. Both of them unleashing fast-paced swordplay, the like of which most of the crowd had never seen before. Between his arms and his blade length, Ma’Quiver’s reach was greater than Max’s, allowing him to control a much larger zone.
Contemplating the tactics they had practiced in sparring, Max weighed his options. With tonfa, Shades would try to get up in his face, negating both his reach advantage, and the zone, entirely. Justin, on the other hand, would try to flank him, guarding tightly and looking for a prime opening. But with Ma’Quiver’s reflexes and agility, Max suspected that being outmaneuvered was probably a rare occurrence for him.
“So, you really wanted to win this badly…” Ma’Quiver intoned, pressing Max back as they locked blades. “Your friends must mean a lot to you.”
“They do.” Max pushed back, trying not to lose focus against a resurging sense of shame at his ever more desperate situation.
“And you must mean a lot to them, as well.”
“Of course.” Max held his ground, even though he was increasingly certain that his own conviction was the only thing holding Ma’Quiver back. “Justin meant well… Please don’t hold it against him.”
“You’re serious?” Ma’Quiver demanded as they resumed their exchange.
“Yes,” Max told him. Having finally figured out something he might offer someone who already had what he wanted. Realized that, as long as he was playing by Bertona’s rules, he had no chance, that his only hope was to play this match by Ma’Quiver’s. “Help me, just this once, and in return, I promise I’ll fight you again, for real, in a time and place of your choosing. Win or lose, I’ll hold no grudges.”
“I’m really not your enemy, am I?” Ma’Quiver asked as he leapt in again.
“No, you’re not,” Max answered, his sense of shame giving way to frustration as he tried to gauge his opponent’s reaction, “but I will fight you, if that’s what it takes. It’s all I have to offer. I know I’m no match for you, but I won’t abandon my friend.” Risking a look up at Bandit, “Even if I have to fight you a hundred times… even if I have to fight all of them…”
With that, Ma’Quiver disengaged and stepped back, smiling.
“Good. You’re as strong as I thought you were. But your heart’s not really in this fight, is it, Max?” And though Max was grateful for the chance to catch his breath, he was still also anxious of where Ma’Quiver might go with this next. “It’s no fun fighting someone whose fighting spirit is so out of balance…”
From that tone of open disappointment, Max wondered if he should perhaps brace himself for the worst.
“Tell me,” Ma’Quiver grinned, glancing over at the sidelines, “how far can you jump?”
“Just follow my lead, Max.”
With that, Ma’Quiver dashed toward the edge of the arena, taking a flying leap.
Much to everyone’s amazement, even Max’s, he cleared the gap, landing gracefully on the other side. Before the startled Red-Band standing next to him could make a move, Ma’Quiver knocked him over the railing with a boot to the head. He was able to take down a second one with his stun blade before any of the other guards on that level regained their initiative.
Taking this as both his cue, and a personal challenge of sorts, Max followed suit, making his own jump, rolling to a somewhat less graceful landing on the other side. He bounded back to his feet in time to join the fray as Ma’Quiver took on the Red-Bands, both in and out of uniform. While the two of them cleaned out the guards on that level, most of the other fighters fled the inner circle in panicked confusion.
Save for one.
“Ma’Quiver!” cried Tim, scrambling up as the last guard hit the ground, “What are you doing!?”
“I’m bustin’ out of here,” Ma’Quiver told him. “I suppose this was how it was going to happen anyway, the way things were going. Thanks for holding on to my sword while I fight. I never trusted Berto with it.”
“Who would?” Tim shrugged. “So you’re really leaving Bodeen, aren’t you?”
“You knew I wasn’t going to stick around for longer than I had to.” Ma’Quiver turned to Max, saying, “Glad to see I was right about your skills. If you’re not from Sarna, that means you’ve got your own ship, right?”
“Yes,” Max replied, “but where are you going with this?”
“Anywhere but Sarna,” Ma’Quiver told him. “If we succeed in rescuing your friend, I expect to hitch a ride with you. I’m also holding you to your word about that rematch. Got it?”
“Of course,” Max answered.
“Then here,” Tim said to both of them, holding out a pill in each hand. “You’ll need your full strength to beat the House, won’t you?”
“Thank you, Timofar,” Ma’Quiver took the pills, then said, “Now that the Nikopols have seen you help me, you should probably flee Bodeen, as well.”
“I will,” Timofar assured him. “I really enjoyed watching you fight. I feel like I learned a lot from you. I hope we meet again someday.”
Tim clapped his shoulders, then took off.
“Here,” Ma’Quiver handed Max a water bottle from the nearest bench as he popped his pill, “take it. We’ll need all the help we can get. I just hope you friend is up to it.”
“They will be,” Max replied, swallowing the pill and taking a swig, as he had seen Shades do with the ship’s stock of vitamins, “both of them.”
“That helps,” Ma’Quiver said, relieved at news of even one more ally than he had hoped for. “Follow me. We don’t have much time.”
Max could see exactly what Ma’Quiver meant as he looked up and saw the growing chaos in the stands. Yet, even in the face of such grim odds, he felt a rising surge of energy with him, and with it renewed hope and determination to see this through.