Before today, he had only seen Nikopolas Arena from afar, a massive circular coliseum looming over the surrounding neighborhood, as the impending prospect of having to fight within it now loomed over him. Of course, just the portions he was led through, from the storage room that served as his makeshift cell to the upper-storey room where Mr Bertona presided, he could tell this place was big. Being led back downstairs and down still more halls, into a waiting area near the center of the arena, with rows of stands stacked almost to the outer wall several stories above, and an almost dizzying distance back, revealed to him just how big.
Combined with more people than he had ever seen in his entire life, all in one place, instilled a near-paralyzing sense of disbelief at the idea of actually going through with this.
That mounting sense of pressure bearing down on him made it difficult to focus as the Red-Band he was sent down with tried to give him a crash-course in House rules for matches. Somewhere in the midst of all that, he was given a pair of boots of unfamiliar design, and softer soles than he had ever seen, along with the Nikopol’s quip that no footwear in arena fights was allowed to have cleats, spikes, steel toes, or other hidden weapons. Going part and parcel with what the man was already explaining about the fights being strictly unarmed.
All this in the space of the few minutes between matches, and already he was up. As if Bertona was apparently that certain of his participation, even before their private audience. Struggling against a mounting sense of disorientation at how far off course his life had blown in one morning, he prepared himself as best he could for the bout right before it began.
One of the improvements Nikopol had made to the place was to renovate the center of the pit, the ring itself consisting of a circular platform surrounded by a nearly twenty-foot gap— farther than most people could jump— cutting combatants off from the outer edge of the pit. Not that jumping it would do him any good in this situation anyway, yet a part of him couldn’t help seeing it as a challenge of sorts. As he crossed one of the two retractable bridges that served as the only way in or out of the ring, Max looked down, seeing a hanging web of safety nets circling the pit below. Unlike the spikes Shades said were rumored to have once lined the bottom during the final, decadent days of a dynasty overthrown long before they were born, at least according to local legend.
On the far side of the ring, he watched his opponent cross over the other bridge, reminding himself of the Red-Band’s impromptu lecture about the fights. A match could be decided by knock-out, ring out, submission, surrender, or be decided by the House at its discretion. While he was putting on his ill-fitting new boots, they had pressured him to write his name on some document, saying something about signing a waiver, something about liability in case of injury or death. Which he had to admit was a possibility in such an open-ended fight, in spite of the rule that anyone who killed their opponent would be both disqualified and banned from ever competing again. In itself, a rule both he and Shades had found a measure of relief in, as his friend said he wouldn’t have anything to do with the place if they conducted death-matches.
A sentiment Max agreed with wholeheartedly.
Then there was no more time for contemplation as the walkway withdrew behind him, even as he set foot on the platform, leaving him alone with his first contender.
A face he found he recognized as they both approached the center of the platform. One of the men who accosted him this morning, and the look on his face told Max that this guy definitely remembered him. Unlike at the docks, though, this time he wore a tank-top, with his faction’s signature arm-band curiously missing.
“What are you doing here?” Max demanded, as a voice on the arena’s public address system announced their match.
“What do you mean, kid?” he shot back. “We don’t just run this place, we train here, too! All Nikopol members are required to fight.”
“But your band…”
“We’re not allowed to show them in here!” the Red-Band warned him, “So why don’t you just shut up about it?”
“FIGHT!” the announcer’s booming voice finished, shouting even louder than the rest of his spiel.
The Red-Band wasted no time rushing Max with a flurry of punches, immediately putting him on the defensive, and very clearly trying to push him back over the edge.
Max quickly picked up on this, sidestepping after backpedaling several steps, even managing to trip his opponent, sending him stumbling toward the edge instead.
But the Red-Band managed to stop himself a couple feet short of falling off.
“Bastard!” he muttered, turning to face Max, striding up to him. “You gave us a lot of trouble back at the harbor. Now it’s payback time!”
“I could say the same to you,” Max reminded him, the awkwardness of his current situation taking a back seat to his resurgent outrage as he recalled the events of only a couple hours ago. “Guess that means I don’t need to hold back here.”
“Don’t make me laugh!” the Red-Band shouted, jumping back in with another barrage of punches.
This time, Max stood his ground, blocking his attacks from a more assertive stance, glad that Shades made for such a solid defensive sparring partner. He had to admit, at first he wasn’t so crazy about having to fight again so soon after all of his injuries were finally healed, especially his arm, but now that he was here, he quickly found his fighting spirit coming to the fore in spite of his own caution. But his adversary wasn’t finished yet, catching Max with a swift kick that finally drove him back.
“Is that all you’ve got?” the Red-Band taunted. “If it is, you better quit! I’m seventy-four and thirty-three in here. Do you know what that means, kid?”
“Nope,” Max told him, “and I couldn’t care less.”
Scowling at Max with open contempt, the Red-Band charged him again. Having gained a sense of his opponent’s form and tactics from those last couple exchanges, this time Max answered with a few counters of his own. The fight quickly became more active, moving around the ring as both combatants adjusted their footwork, angling to out-maneuver the other. Max, especially, having to be careful not to let himself be drawn or pressed too close to the edge, noting that the best strategy was to hold the center.
Something this more experienced competitor excelled at.
Yet, despite starting out on such an aggressive footing, the Nikopol began to run out of steam as Max weathered his assault. Feeling the other guy’s attacks slowing down, Max stepped up his counter-offensive, quickly breaking through his guard. Seeing that this was his best chance to end this, Max went all-out, forcing him back toward the drop.
As his last punch jarred the Red-Band off-balance, Max nailed him with a high kick, plowing him staggering all the way over with a frantic wail.
“That’s for Bandit…” he hissed, looking down past his still-extended foot to see his adversary bounce off the outer wall before landing on the net.
Max stepped back toward the middle, turning in a full circle, eyes wide, taking in the crowd cheering, their roar of approval nearly deafening compared to during the fight.
It was only as the cheering died down that he noticed the bridge was back. Grateful for the guaranteed breaks between bouts, as he couldn’t help remembering his battle with them in the Harken Building, and the idea of having to hold that platform against one challenger after another was almost as daunting. At least the ring-out rule gave him a way to avoid having to pin a rough character like him, or worse, having to K-O him, likely turning into a brutal, drawn-out war of attrition that would leave him battered and exhausted in the face of successive matches still awaiting him.
And already his keeper was waiting on the other side, as if there was anything he could do besides fight his matches and try to go the distance.
Max slumped in one of the benches that lined the inner circle, which was reserved for arena combatants and staff, trying to take full advantage of this break in the action. Recalling Bertona’s final words before they parted (We’ll be watching you from my private box with my new pet. Try not to disappoint.), he gazed up at the stands. Sure enough, there was a squarish block jutting out from one section most of the way up, with a very prominent Nikopol faction banner draped above it, where Bandit was waiting for him.
“Hey, man!” a voice called from around the bend, “Not bad for fresh meat!”
“Yeah!” added another, “He put up a hell of a fight! He should fight Ma’Quiver!”
Max turned his attention back to his own section as the next fight began, seeing the owner of that voice run up to him. About Shades’ height, of slight build, with short, unkempt brown hair and wide eyes. Striking him as oddly out of place with a red band on his arm.
“Looks like he got too full of himself there,” the young man remarked as he sat down next to Max, “but you’ve got some kick-ass moves yourself! Mind if I ask who you are?”
“Max,” he replied, “and you are?”
“Oh, I’m Tim,” he said, “but that’s not really important right now. So, what brings you to the island of Sarna?”
“Just passing through,” Max told him, quietly hoping he could make those words stick before the end of the day. Now that his first fight was over, he couldn’t help noticing the competition dividing their attention between the current contest, and glaring at him. Especially now that this fellow had taken an interest in him. “Say, what’s with these guys? Do all of them work for Nikopol?”
“Of course not,” Tim answered. “I mean, some ’em do, even if they’re not allowed to show it in the ring, but a lot of ’em work in Bodeen, or farther inland. Most of those guys are hoping to win some money, or have someone else betting on them out in the stands. And since the House sets the odds on each fight, they don’t always like new blood in the game. Especially since he showed up…”
While Max was grateful for a friendly face in the midst of so many enemies, he found himself torn between listening to this man’s already valuable intelligence about this place, and his own instincts telling him to pay more attention to the two battling it out in front of him. Either of whom he might end up having to take on later, so seeing their fighting style now could be a decisive advantage later. As he observed the match, it quickly became apparent to him that one of them clearly held the upper hand.
“So,” Max turned to Tim, noting that his attention had also shifted to the fight, “who is that guy?”
Tall and lanky. With shoulder-length black hair, and dressed in loose-fitting pants and a sleeve-less tunic that Max noted were well suited for hand-to-hand combat. He stood a whole head taller than his opponent, and so did his fighting skills. Max didn’t have to watch long at all to tell this guy was good, seeing how calmly, almost casually, he blunted the other fighter’s attacks against a frustration and desperation growing more and more apparent with each failed shot.
“That’s Ma’Quiver,” Tim told him, “the reigning champ.”
Max could believe it as he looked on, seeing this Ma’Quiver unleash a barrage of punches and kicks. A high-speed combo Max couldn’t help but wonder if he’d be quick enough to defend against himself. Now that he had finally gone on the offensive, Ma’Quiver quickly shattered his guard, blasting him back, completely off-balance, and finishing his spectacular counter-attack with an uppercut that sent him sliding across the floor and into the pit.
And the crowd went nuts for it.
“Amazing, isn’t he?” Tim asked, raising his voice to make himself heard over the roar of the audience. “Since he came to this island, he’s remained undefeated in ninety-five fights, so that makes his ninety-sixth!”
Max, of course, was impressed even without those numbers, which he was now wondering if that was what that other guy was bragging about. Much as he liked the challenge, he reminded himself that Bandit’s fate still hung in the balance, putting a harsh damper on his martial admiration. After all, if what this fellow said was true, then that would make this Ma’Quiver the single biggest obstacle in his path to freeing his friend.
“Hey! Scrub!” one of the other Red-Bands called out to Max’s new acquaintance, “You ain’t got time to be flappin’ yer gums with that loser! We got work to do!”
“Oh! Right!” he called back, hopping to his feet and rushing off. “Coming!”
“Total waste… Can’t fight worth shit, and only wants to watch.” The Red-Band folded his arms in plain disgust. Seeing Max watching Ma’Quiver cross the bridge so the next fight could begin, he smirked, adding, “Knock yourself out, kid. I got fifty C ridin’ on him in the upper tier matches.”
While he was admittedly rather inexperienced with gambling, Max was beginning to suspect this was what Bertona had in mind, and he wondered just how many fights it was going to take.