Yet he was still at a loss for how it could turn into a total riot in a matter of minutes, the first of its kind since the violent final days of the arena’s previous incarnation. What should have been the highest-grossing fight since Ma’Quiver first showed up in Bodeen was fast degenerating into the biggest net loss in the arena’s history since he first re-established the place. At first confident that his own private army could hold two people at bay, but now that all of his henchmen were occupied, he found himself torn between his caged prize, which he had his men haul back into his private den behind the viewing box and across the hall, and his waning confidence that the two men he had left would be any match for the two who were surely coming for him.
Much to his dismay, the rest of his entourage had already fled, leaving only his two highest-paid bodyguards to wait with him as the chaos grew outside.
“I’ll pay you both triple to stop those two—”
Then the loud crash outside in the hallway told him that any escape he may have had a couple minutes ago just got cut off. That heavy, reinforced steel door he had installed as one of his first orders of business in this place proved no match for the orange energy blades that sliced right through it like a hot knife through butter. In a flash of motion too fast for either guard to aim, let alone shoot, at, Ma’Quiver kicked one Red-Band, then the other, into opposite walls, followed by a blurring streak of orange stun blade, sending their guns flying uselessly into opposite corners.
While Bertona wailed in alarm, Shades walked in and picked up the nearest power pistol, and Justin kept watch at the door, Max dashed over to Bandit’s cage. Aiming carefully to avoid his feline friend, Max swept first the top of the bars, then the bottom, with his energy blade, allowing Bandit to simply step out the front.
With a look of blazing fury on his face, Bertona whipped out a power pistol of his own, aiming in Max and Bandit’s general direction—
Ma’Quiver moved so fast Bertona didn’t catch even a glimpse of it as the gun flew from his hand.
And Justin’s thought to warn Max froze on the tip of his tongue at the sight of the man’s wrist hanging at an entirely wrong angle. Even Shades stared, slack-jawed at that one, certain somehow that that was the fastest he had seen— or, rather, not seen— him move yet.
“You bastard!” Bertona screeched, apparently too shocked for the full extent of his own injury to completely register, snarling at Ma’Quiver, “You dare to bite the hand that feeds you!?”
“I don’t need you,” Ma’Quiver told him, grabbing him by the front of his jacket and slamming him against the window overlooking the grounds below, hard enough to crack the glass. “I see now that I never needed you.”
“I told you my friends would come for me,” Max reminded Bertona, patting Bandit on the head. Then the big cat turned his attention to his captor, growling low and menacing as they strode toward the pinned promoter.
“You tried to have it both ways with them, too, didn’t you, Berto?” Ma’Quiver hissed in quiet contempt.
Caught between the creaking glass, all that held that deadly drop at bay, and the pissed-off panther stalking him, reality finally seemed to settle in for Bertona, who visibly shrank into his own jowls, whimpering, “Please… Please call him off…”
“He has a name,” Max informed him, “and so do I.”
“Bandit? Right?” Bertona’s eyes bulging as the aforementioned feline came closer. “Max… Please…”
“We’re free to go, right?” Max pressed.
“Yes! Of course!” Bertona went on. “I said I would be willing to part with him, right?”
Meanwhile, Max had spotted that shipping manifest Bertona had waved in his face only hours ago, tearing it in half. Then he spotted the sniveling man’s half-smoked cigar fuming in its jade ashtray, using its smoldering tip to light the page. Once the dubious document was reduced to a pile of ashes sitting in that jade tray, Max finally addressed him.
“Fine,” Max replied, putting his hand on Bandit’s side, soothing him and saying, “It’s alright now… It’s over. You’re free, and that man is so scared, he’s not even worth fighting… It’s time for us to get out of here…”
Max’s words calmed the big cat noticeably, and at last he relented, but still glared at him with a distrust mirrored by his human companion.
“Pathetic,” Ma’Quiver spat in disgust, letting Bertona slump to the floor.
“Max…” Bertona stammered, regaining some of his composure now that he was no longer stuck between a rock and a hard place, “I see now that you’re a much more capable man than I gave you credit for. I know we got off on the wrong foot, but wouldn’t you consider working for me? Nikopol could use—”
“What do you mean, no?” Bertona blurted, crawling toward his desk. “I’d make you the head of my elite guards. I’ll pay you double what I offered Ma’Quiver to train my men…”
“Don’t talk like I’m not here, you creep,” Ma’Quiver remarked, kicking him for emphasis.
“You still seem to think we’re for sale.” Max looked him square in the eye. “Our answer still stands. No.”
“I think you’re pissing him off,” Justin advised him.
“Very well. Five times!”
“You don’t seem to understand your situation, do you?” Shades chimed in from the door, wanting to put a stop to this before Bertona could stall for any more time. “You’ve made Max awfully angry…”
“Ten times! I’ll even hire your crew! You’re throwing away a fortune!”
“No more games.” Max turned toward the door. “I’m leaving.”
“Wait!” Bertona called out, noting the coffer Justin was still clutching in his arms, saying, “You, at least, seem to know the value of a credit. Perhaps you could reason with these folks, talk some sense into them. What do you say?”
For his part, Justin handed the box to Shades, saying, “Just a sec…”
Both he and Ma’Quiver tensed up visibly, the latter alarmed at Shades’ unease about this.
“Nice to see that at least one of you isn’t a fool…” Bertona grunted as he hauled himself up against the desk with his good arm and turned toward his seat, “After all, there’s money to be made here—”
Justin didn’t even need Ma’Quiver’s insane speed; Bertona still never saw it coming as Justin punched him out.
“I see,” Justin mused as Bertona collapsed to the floor like a slab of beef. “Follow-through, right?”
Shades nodded. “Follow-through.”
Even as Ma’Quiver sighed with relief, he couldn’t help but appreciate that punch, as Justin packed a bit more of one than he would have expected.
“You’re just like all those assholes back in the Triangle State, who think they can get whatever they want from everybody just by waving some money around,” Justin told the groaning heap on the floor as he strode to the corner to pick up the other Red-Band’s fallen gun. “I may be a mercenary, but I don’t sell out my friends. So tell me, where’s your fuckin’ money now?”
With that, he knocked the ashtray off the desk, spraying ash all over Bertona’s face.
“And if you ever call my best friend a fool again, I’ll kick your ass myself.” Taking the coffer back from Shades, he said, “Come on. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
For good measure, Bandit kicked up some of those scattered ashes at Bertona as he turned and walked away, a gesture Shades couldn’t help but be reminded of a house cat scratching in a litter box.
“Bet that bastard isn’t used to that kind of treatment!” Shades laughed in spite of himself.
“I imagine not,” Ma’Quiver agreed, then turned serious. “That greedy fool wasted a lot of time. I’m sure the Bodeen Militia’s already been called, so it won’t be easy getting back out of here.”
Turning back toward the door to the private box, the sounds of ensuing violence echoing in to them, Shades said, “We probably can’t go back that way anymore…”
“Let’s take the back ways,” Ma’Quiver recommended.
“Good idea!” Max recalled being led through these halls only hours ago.
“But do you know your way?” Justin asked.
“Of course I do,” Ma’Quiver replied. “I’ve been here longer than you guys, and know my way around Bodeen.”
“Then let’s go,” Shades said, wanting nothing more than to be back aboard the Maximum, and well on their way to anyplace else.
With that, Ma’Quiver led them through the lesser-used passages, taking out the occasional Red-Band or Militia guard as they went.
And so two warriors left Nikopolas Arena, both undefeated.