“You’ve earned my respect,” Ma’Quiver told him once he was finally up. “I’ve only used that technique as a finisher here. You’re the first to ever get up from it.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Max muttered, shaking his head and wondering if he would even be able to get back up again if his opponent did that a second time. Especially since he was still at a loss for what that even was in the first place.
“Then you should take this as one, as well…”
Max, already dreading the implications of that pronouncement, stepped back a couple steps as Ma’Quiver disappeared yet again. This time finding himself bombarded by flashes and flickers of punches and kicks as he threw up his arms in a frantic effort to guard. Only, much like the first time, somehow it was coming too fast for him to keep up with. Try as he might, Max was steadily driven back by this blindingly fast barrage of blows.
Which came to a jarring end with another uppercut like the first one, that sent Max sliding across the floor, right up to the edge.
Max looked up to see the mysterious warrior standing right where he had been at the beginning of the attack as he rose to his feet on shaky legs. If the crowd went wild at that last round, they really raised the roof for Ma’Quiver kicking it up a notch. Even as Max began to wonder how he did that, it raised the even more troubling question of whether or not he had any chance against someone like him.
“Not bad. You actually blocked a couple of those…” Ma’Quiver remarked. “But can you keep it up?”
“I’ll try not to disappoint you,” Max replied. Knowing full well that if he hadn’t seen Ma’Quiver’s moves up close a couple times before he did whatever he did, there was no way he would have managed even this much. Fearing another onslaught like that last, from his adversary’s tone, Max rolled over, quickly scrambling away from the edge.
“I see,” Ma’Quiver commented, “so even after seeing that, you still want to defeat me?”
“No,” Max told him, “it’s more like I have to defeat you.” Though he was still at a loss for how. Thinking about Bandit, it was enough to make him scream, yet he was increasingly certain he had just run up against the brick wall of a challenger even tougher than Erix. Just when he was beginning to fear there was no hope of saving his friend, he tried a new approach, telling him, “You’re not my enemy, Ma’Quiver, but I have to fight you anyway. I’m actually trying to help my friend, and to do that, I have to win this fight…”
“Sorry, Max, but I’ve got a reputation to maintain,” Ma’Quiver informed him. “If I let a no-name contender like you beat me, I’d be the laughing stock of these parts. Not that I really care about what they think, mind you, but I have my pride as a warrior. I’ve won ninety-nine fights here, and you’re gonna be the one-hundredth. You won’t get past me without putting up the fight of your life!”
And then it was on again.
Before Max was entirely ready, he was once again bombarded with a blur of attacks neither his eyes nor his body could completely keep up with. The only thing he could think of to do was to jump to the side, hoping to take advantage of Ma’Quiver’s forward momentum to get in behind him. It was a plan that should have worked, yet somehow Ma’Quiver managed to about-face and catch Max’s foot in mid kick, shoving him back.
Max pounded his fist in rising frustration as he got back up again.
“You pick up on other people’s moves quickly,” Ma’Quiver observed, actually breathing hard for the first time in this entire confrontation, “a useful skill… Or did you actually notice? But how long can you hold out?”
“As long as I have to.”
Though Max wasn’t sure how much more abuse he could take out here. While still steady on his feet, if this Ma’Quiver kept breaking through his defenses like this, he doubted he would be for long. The only things allowing him to stop any of them was both parts observation, as well as the fact that, if he wasn’t mistaken, that last volley of attacks had slowed down a bit, to where he could almost see them. Yet he knew it was still no use if his hands and feet couldn’t keep up with it, as well.
“Tell me, Max,” Ma’Quiver demanded, giving him a level look as he spoke, “why are you being so stubborn about this? You don’t strike me as the Sore Loser type, so what is it? Is the money that important to you? Is someone else betting on your matches? Or do you have some card up your sleeve you haven’t played yet? Why do you keep getting back up now that you’ve seen my power?”
All the while, all Max could think of was his oldest friend, who had been the one constant in his life all these years, whom he feared he was moments away from failing him in his hour of need. No longer heeding his opponent, he found himself gazing up into the stands, up at Bertona’s private box. So close, yet so far away. Taunting him. It was then that Max realized the implications of the direction each of them was facing.
And so he gave Ma’Quiver his answer, pointing up at his feline friend’s plight.
“I see.” Ma’Quiver nodded. “So be it. I acknowledge you, Max. Seeing as how my ultimate techniques involve skills that you, my friend, clearly do not possess, I will refrain from using them from here on. Let’s see if you can beat me in a fair fight!”
With that, he stepped up again, forcing Max back on the defensive. Though at least this time he did so at a speed Max could actually keep pace with. All the while, the grim realization dawning on him that it wouldn’t even matter if he had the strength left to fight any additional bouts if he never made it past this one.
“Come on!” Ma’Quiver challenged, jumping right in close and grabbing Max by the front of his shirt. He then leaned in close, whispering, “I don’t know what happened between you and Berto, but the House runs this game, and they expect us to put on a good show. No one’s gonna believe the Undefeated Champ lost without one hell of a fight.” He then subtly relaxed his grip, shouting, “Now show me what ya got!”
Max broke free, kicking Ma’Quiver away.
“That’s more like it!” Ma’Quiver seemed to be taking in the crowd’s mixed response as Max hesitated. “Bring it on!”
And so Max did, deciding that his only remaining option was to gamble on this guy’s unexpected generosity. Feeling that his only chance was to hold out against him, he took the fight back to Ma’Quiver, throwing caution to the wind, hitting him with everything he had. Much like before, the quick and nimble fighter took it all in stride. Unlike before, though, the counters were more manageable.
At least until Ma’Quiver slipped in behind him, putting one arm around Max’s neck, hissing, “Don’t get sloppy now. I never said I was gonna throw this fight, just give you a fighting chance.”
When he felt Ma’Quiver’s grip loosen up, Max elbowed him and hauled him over his shoulder.
Ma’Quiver rolled away and bounded back to his feet, and their blazing intensive sparring match continued, much to the audience’s rabid enthusiasm.
At least until Max heard a familiar voice call out to him from off to his left.
It took him a moment to spot his friend, but sure enough, there was Justin, standing in the front row, one level above the inner circle, which was reserved solely for fighters and Nikopolas staff. Arm cocked back, and his intuition made out what it was he was holding before his eyes could, just as Justin threw it. And then there was no time to wonder where his friend came from, or whether or not Shades was also with him, as his laser sword sailed through the air in his general direction.
Only more than a little off, his treasured blade skittering across the floor toward the edge.
Before he knew what he was doing, Max dashed across the intervening space, diving and snatching it up just as it was about to tumble over the brink.
It wasn’t until after he scrambled back to his feet and already brought the radiant green energy blade to bear against Ma’Quiver, that his mind finally caught up with his reflexes.
With what he was actually doing.