While that first guy he had fought wasn’t quite the toughest of his opponents, he was by no means the weakest of the half dozen he had lasted through so far. And unlike him, he recognized none of the others from this morning, thus he was not always sure which ones were Red-Bands, making the others more than a little awkward since he now knew that only a portion of those competing here were part of the Nikopol faction. Though he was beginning to suspect that word was getting around about him among the Nikopols, since he increasingly sensed he was getting two distinctly different kinds of glares from the competition. Of course, some had simply come to try their luck, test their meddle, or just looking to make a little money, robbing him of the edge of striking a blow for Bandit, while still having to defeat them without fail anyway for his sake.
Once he started to get used to having an audience while he fought, he began to notice that the crowd seemed to have their own favorites, and that he was fast becoming one of them. He tried to take some encouragement in having an increasing number of them on his side in this mostly hostile territory. For whatever that was worth.
If only he had come by this place of his own volition, he might have been able to go all-out for the challenge of it, just to see how far he could get. Instead, he had no choice but to fight cautiously, to conserve his energy and try not to reveal too much to his rivals watching from the sidelines, as his friend’s fate was riding on every match.
Competition whose ranks were now shrinking in number since the second tier, even those who remained served to raise the bar for every bout from here on out. So far, those he had faced were all more skilled than any of the security guards he and Shades fought in that creepy mall, and at least as tough as those thieves they ran into in the Kona Islands, who admittedly had numbers on their side. Much to his relief, though, he at least hadn’t met anyone of half of Striker’s— let alone Erix’s— caliber in here.
Then again, Max was pretty sure that was all about to change as he entered the ring and saw who his next opponent was.
Naturally, Max had been trying to keep track of all the fighters as best he could, just as they were watching him, but he especially focused on Ma’Quiver’s matches, as he could already tell, even without any of the others’ commentary, that this guy was a cut above the rest. Under other circumstances, he would have enjoyed such a chance to put his skills to the test, but in this situation, it was a struggle to try to shake off this sense of dread in the face of these grim new odds. Judging from the spectators’ response, it looked as if his growing fan favor was in danger of being eclipsed by a much greater favorite.
The walkway retracted behind him as Max wondered how he was going to handle this.
“You must be new to these parts,” Ma’Quiver quipped as he strode toward the center, “I haven’t seen you around here before. Nice to see some fresh blood in the game…”
As the two combatants approached each other, Max could feel the intensity in the stands, rising to a level he hadn’t felt in either his own, or Ma’Quiver’s, fights.
“The name’s Max,” he replied, deciding to play it even more cautiously while he tried to figure out what he was dealing with. “You must be this Ma’Quiver fellow I’ve been hearing so much about.”
Up close, the arena’s undefeated champion was even taller than Max, with a wiry, sinewy build that hinted at both speed and power to match, with sharp green eyes that almost seemed to look right through him.
“And let me guess,” Ma’Quiver intoned quietly, “you’re not impressed, right? Did I miss anything?”
“Well, no, actually I—”
Before he could tell Ma’Quiver that he was, in fact, impressed, the announcer’s voice boomed out the start of the match, and Max was abruptly cut off by his opponent’s fast-break offensive. Driven backpedaling out toward the edge so fast he could hardly keep his feet under him, he barely managed to sidestep in time to avoid losing the fight before it had even rightly begun.
“Oh,” Ma’Quiver smiled as he turned before Max could regain his footing to counter-attack, “you’re better than I thought. Just as I expected. But why are you hesitating?”
Max angled around him, keeping a wary eye on an adversary whose sheer foot-speed had caught him off-guard in spite of having watched him fight earlier. Now that he had seen this guy in action, face to face, Max could see that he was at least as fast as Erix, much to his dismay. So confident, yet so calm, with that same knack for entertaining the crowd while still holding the advantage against everyone he faced.
Concluding that the best way to deal someone that fast was to strike first and keep them on the defensive, Max jumped in, deciding to take the fight back to him. Yet Ma’Quiver took Max’s assault in stride, blocking all of his attacks as casually as he had seen him do to others, only now he was on the receiving end of that treatment.
“That’s more like it,” Ma’Quiver remarked, blocking Max’s kick and shoving him back. “I was hoping you were better than these meatheads, but surely that’s not all you got!”
“Of course not!” Max shot back, springing back to his feet. What’s with this guy? Thinking of Bandit, he focused back on his original goal, reminding himself that, like a growing list of times before it, defeat was not an option.
“Glad to hear it.”
And Ma’Quiver launched another sharp offensive that Max staggered back from. This time, though, Max was better prepared for it, jumping aside much sooner. Unfortunately, his opponent had already accounted for this, pivoting and following Max in his new direction to continue his attack.
Taking a serious risk against someone of Ma’Quiver’s agility, Max dropped down, sweeping his legs with a low kick, which his opponent couldn’t quite avoid, tripping him up and giving Max a few seconds’ breather.
“Okay, now I’m impressed,” Ma’Quiver admitted as he caught himself. “Nobody here has ever stopped that combo before. It looks like I can actually have some fun with you, Max! Now show me what ya got!”
And a massive cheer went up from the stands as the two of them continued exchanging blows, moving around the arena in a furious dance. Max fighting as much against a growing sense of desperation as his opponent, feeling that his only chance of getting past this round was stretching farther and farther out of reach. Fast coming to the conclusion that, if not for his past experience against Striker and Erix, he doubted he would have lasted even this long.
Max could quickly tell that this mysterious fighter’s confidence was more than just bravado. He was proving himself to be easily as skilled as Erix, possibly even more so. And he was fast understanding that the only way to avoid exhausting more of his strength, and leaving himself worse off in subsequent bouts, would be to take a dangerous gamble on ending this one quickly.
Taking a tactic he felt he was getting entirely too accustomed to against stronger adversaries anymore, Max allowed Ma’Quiver to press him closer to the edge. As if this guy wasn’t already a consummate master of holding home ground, effectively locking Max out of the center anyway. It was a definite risk, since those who fought here often were more mindful of such hazards than in other battles he’d fought, still it was the best plan he could think of at the moment.
Waiting until Ma’Quiver had pushed him within a few paces of the side, then, just as he suspected, his opponent went for another rapid combo. Which Max focused all of his attention on catching the first punch of. In a fluid motion he had practiced many times with Shades and Justin, he stepped aside, sliding his attacker along the course of his own momentum.
In this case, stumbling and falling over the edge.
Max’s sigh of relief, though, was cut short by the collective gasp of over a thousand people, at first thinking it was perhaps shock that someone had actually beaten Nikopolas’ undefeated champion, at least until he saw it.
As he stumbled back, too far away now, he realized dimly, to do anything about it, he spotted a pair of hands grasping the rim of the fighting ring. Before Max could figure out what to do, torn between a pressing need to win this match for Bandit, and an indisputable sense of shame at the idea of kicking him when he was down, as Erix had done to him not so long ago, Ma’Quiver swung from side to side a couple times, finally getting one leg back up over the edge. Thus he was still standing there, dumbfounded, as the opponent he thought he had defeated bounded back to his feet.
Much to the audience’s thunderous amazement.
“No way!” Max gasped, watching his formerly fallen foe escape his precarious position, wondering all the while where this mysterious warrior learned to fight like that.
“Thought you could get rid of me that easily, huh?” Ma’Quiver grinned at him, giving Max the strong impression that not only was this guy holding back, but was also hiding something. And Max got the sinking feeling he was about to find out what he was really up against, as he said, “You seem to be getting the hang of this arena, but let’s see how you handle this…”
Ma’Quiver seemed to tense up for a moment—
Then Max couldn’t quite follow what happened next. Ma’Quiver seemed to vanish from right out in front of him, then he was right up in his face. He didn’t even see the punch that nailed him in the face.
Didn’t even feel it until he hit the ground a couple paces away from him.