“Max had damn well better be here…” Justin muttered as he scanned the crowd.
A crowd even larger than he had anticipated, despite Nikopolas Arena’s considerable size. Hundreds of people in just their quarter alone, packed almost to capacity. Moving among the spectators were several groups of Red-Bands, traversing the stands in pairs. One carrying a shoulder-strapped lockbox and taking wagers, the other bearing a tablet and recording them. As well as at least a couple dozen others scattered about, serving as security guards.
“Well, if he’s here,” Shades assured him, having joined his friend’s search in the interval between matches, “we should be able to spot him easily enough since Bandit went out with him.”
And if so, would have indeed gotten to watch more fights than they would get to. Then again, given that it was his understanding that upper tier matches were fought only by those who won in the lower tiers, it meant that he and Justin would presumably get to make up for quantity with quality in the bouts they did get to see. Of course, he found the tier system itself intriguing, for although no stranger to the concept of drawing lots to decide blocks in a tournament lineup, he had never seen anyone use the randomized drawing to shuffle the match-ups in successive levels, rather than fixed fighting brackets leading to a final showdown.
Even the audience wasn’t let in on who was facing who until the beginning of each fight. Then again, given that this arena seemed to be funded on gambling, he was fast starting to suspect that the randomized format was also part of the show, likely to raise the stakes on the upper tiers. So far, Justin had cooperated with him about not betting anything until they had seen enough to make a more informed decision about it.
“I know, but I still can’t believe he left without us.” Justin also still couldn’t quite shake off that uneasy feeling from earlier, seeing Max’s boots, and especially his laser sword, just lying around like that, so he was glad Shades was right about the scanner units stationed at the entrance only being able to detect power pistols and the like, as he was also carrying Max’s blade concealed, in addition to his own staff. They had even waited for a while after lunch to see if the two of them had merely stepped out, in spite of how unwelcome Bandit seemed to be in these parts, until waiting any longer would mean missing all the action here. “Doesn’t he know how much of a pain in the ass it’s gonna be to find him in this place?”
From the moment Shades eyed the arena from afar, he was quite sure the view from the cheap seats would probably be less than ideal. After all, his old friend, Arthur LaRoch, played football one year in high school, and he had made a point of attending as many games as his budget and work schedule would allow, despite the fact that he couldn’t care less about sports. A bunch of gorillas beating each other up over a coconut… was how his aunt so aptly summed up his own opinion of the game. Still, he had to admit that it at least yielded the wisdom to bring binoculars to big outdoor events.
“Um, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem…” Shades trailed off, his focus shifting back to center stage as he watched the next two combatants enter the ring. Couldn’t quite admit what he was seeing as he tried to make some sense out of the scene unfolding before him. “Looks like he’s the main event.”
Based on the audience’s reaction, he was beginning to suspect their friend had made quite a name for himself in just one short day.
“What the hell is he doing down there?” Justin demanded. “And why didn’t he tell us he was gonna fight? As far as he’s made it, we could’ve won a lot of money!”
“You know, he didn’t really strike me as the type…”
Shades couldn’t help feeling uneasy about this turn of events, wishing he could figure out precisely why. Recalling Justin’s remarks from back at the ship out of left field, Shades noted that Max was sporting new footwear. This didn’t look like a barefoot contest any more than it had sounded like one in any of the descriptions he’d heard, though he had to concede that his friend may have picked up the wrong impression listening to his own talk about martial arts tournaments back on Earth. All the same, though, that explanation failed to satisfied his intuition.
“Give ’im hell, Max!” Shades called out, deciding to just run with it.
“Kick his ass!” Justin added.
Once the fight began in earnest, it quickly became apparent that Max was up against one tough customer. As their exchange escalated in intensity, so, too, did the atmosphere in the stands. The air of anticipation more than suggesting that not just Max, but this other fighter, especially, had everyone around him on the edge of their seats with his eye-catching blend of fighting skill and showmanship working the crowd as much as his opponent.
“Damn!” Justin remarked. “Who is that guy?”
“Him?” the guy next to him said, pointing to Max’s opponent, “That’s Ma’Quiver. He’s the undefeated champion of Nikopolas Arena, and the greatest fighter Sarna’s ever seen!”
And Shades was not seeing any reason to doubt it.
“Really?” No matter how hard he tried, Justin couldn’t quite keep the worry out of his voice. “How many fights has he won?”
“So far, he’s won ninety-nine, and this’ll be his hundredth,” the man replied, not even bothering to take his eyes off the fight. “You must be new around here. You didn’t bet on that other guy, did you?” he laughed. “I mean, he is pretty good, but his luck ran out when Ma’Quiver was chosen as his opponent!”
“Never mind the boots,” Shades muttered, for now that he knew Max’s whereabouts, the answer only served to raise more questions, “if Max is down there, then where the hell is Bandit?”
Now that he thought about it, he strongly doubted their feline friend would be allowed to just come waltzing into an establishment like this.
Yet both his and Justin’s concerns were abruptly derailed as Max turned the tables on this Ma’Quiver, turning his own momentum against him and hurling him over the edge.
“Oh yeah!” Justin shouted at the other spectator, even as an awed hush fell over the stands, “Max has never lost a fight, either!”
Even as Shades opened his mouth to politely correct his friend on that score, the words froze on his tongue as the crowd let out a collective gasp at what happened next.
His nagging sense of foreboding, he noticed, had not entirely deserted him as he watched this guy come back from the brink of defeat with a clever move he wasn’t so sure even Max could pull off. Realized he was holding his breath just like everyone else. He glanced over at Justin for a second, seeing his friend too slack-jawed to even eat his own words.
“Aw yeah…” the fan Justin was arguing with breathed, almost too quiet for either of them to hear, “He’s gonna do that move…”
And that was when he saw it.
Or, rather, didn’t see it. At first, Shades wondered if he had blinked, but that Ma’Quiver seemed to vanish for a moment, and Max went flying. He blinked a couple times, certain he was seeing things.
Yet Max was still down for the count, his mysterious opponent standing over him. Ma’Quiver seemed to regard Max for a moment, then turned as if heading for the extension bridge, then paused again.
“What the fuck was that!?” Justin blurted, apparently as confounded as Shades.
“Awesome!” the Ma’Quiver fan gushed, Shades quickly getting the feeling that this was what the audience was really watching this fight to see. “I’ve only seen it twice before! Everybody calls it Shadow Fist, and it’s his ultimate attack! That’s the end of… that… guy…”
Max was slow getting back to his feet, as slow as that fan’s last couple words, but Ma’Quiver seemed inclined to let him rise or fall of his own accord before continuing, and Shades wondered how much of it was sportsmanship, showmanship, or just plain overconfidence, and in what measure.
As the match resumed, it quickly became apparent just how much of a disadvantage Max was really operating at. At first, things carried on much as they had before, only now their friend was a good deal more wary of this strange adversary. And rightly so, they soon discovered, for, much as both of them feared, this Ma’Quiver indeed had more where that last attack came from.
If my eyes aren’t deceiving me, Shades thought, I just saw that guy go… shadow… For lack of a better word. As if Ma’Quiver’s moves were invisible, as all he could see of them were flashes and flickers of movement. There was also an accompanying sense of something happening when he did that, and he felt he should have a better idea. Somewhere along the way, he had gotten into a conversation with Master Al once, about stuff he had seen in video games, but there was nothing his sensei had heard of, no technique that bore any resemblance to what this guy was doing.
The closest thing he had ever seen to it was in dreams. A thought he found rather less than reassuring as he reminded himself that he was in a different dimension, becoming acquainted with an expanding list of things he never knew existed. Which did not bode well for Max, as he surely couldn’t withstand much more of this kind of punishment.
That, of course, brought him back to the question of why his friend was still hanging in there, despite the fact that he had no plausible way to win, since that Shadow move was clearly more than just a one-shot. He knew Max could be stubborn, but also very sensible, especially if there was nothing at stake. Thus he couldn’t shake off the gnawing worry that something was missing from this equation.
“He hasn’t fought this hard since that time Erix took me hostage… What’s he so fired-up about?”
Both he and Justin got their answer a moment later, when, during a pause in their confrontation, Max pointed up into the stands. Up, at what appeared to be a private box. And in that box, prominently displayed, a cage.
And in that cage, Bandit.
“So that’s it…” Shades’ intuition rapidly filling in the missing pieces of the puzzle. Lurking underneath it all, though, the unsettling certainty that Max would never willingly wager his friend’s life or freedom for anything.
While Shades was busy smelling shenanigans, he failed to notice that Justin, having seen quite enough, was headed down to the standing-room only section, near the pit, with a mind to do something about it.