Talis had heard of someone running for their life. But he had never heard of someone running for their death.
Of course, if he didn't get to his destination in time, another Glatorian would die instead. Talis would rather die a thousand times than let that happen.
Talis wasn't afraid of death. He was a warrior, in the harsh deserts of Bara Magna. He had served as a Glatorian in the arena, and as an escort through the dangerous desert, and he had danced with death more times than he could count. He always knew that one day, he would actually die, and he had accepted that long ago.
But he also knew that, before he died, he had to confess his feelings to the woman he had a crush on. And that scared him more than death ever could.
Of course, all men had difficulty admitting their feelings for someone. That was just part of life. But in most cases, the woman's life didn't hinge upon what you said. And there was also another reason Talis had never been able to confess his feelings for this woman: he had killed her sister.
He couldn't even remember what the match was about -- some dispute between Hollici and her friends and a group of snooty Water Tribe Agori. Regardless, a match had been arranged between Talis and Hollici's sister, Lina.
Lina was still new to being a Glatorian, and at first, Talis had the upper hand, and it looked like Talis was going to be the winner. Then it happened. Talis stumbled, and Lina managed to get behind him. Talis was ready, his Thornax Launcher loaded with what he thought was a ripe Thornax fruit, but was actually over-ripe. Talis fired blind. The fruit struck Lina in the neck... and exploded, killing her almost instantly.
Talis was devastated when he found out what he'd done, and refused to accept his victory, becoming the first -- and only -- Glatorian to concede to a deceased opponent. Only the Water Tribe Agori he was representing disputed it, and they gave up quickly.
Talis had had feelings for Hollici before, and was trying to work up the nerve to tell her until that match. After the match, his dreams shattered. How could she ever reciprocate his feelings, after he had killed her sister? So he had never told her, or anyone else. He had hoped his feelings would go away. They didn't.
Then, recently, something unexpected happened: someone had killed the Skrall warrior Bonder, and framed Hollici for it. The Skrall leader, Tuma, decided to settle the matter with an arena match, which was basically the same as condemning her to death; no one had ever defeated a Skrall in the arena, not even the best Glatorian.
Hollici's friends had tried to prove Hollici's innocence, but they ran out of time. Most of them had gone to see what they all knew was going to be Hollici's last fight.
But then there was an Ice tribe kid, Ishth. He refused to give up, and was still following the trail of clues with the help of a Glatorian from his tribe, Storn. Storn let slip something he shouldn't have known, and Ishth realized that Storn was the real killer.
Ishth had threatened to go to the Agori leaders with this, but Storn had simply laughed. He told Ishth that he had friends of his own who would verify that he was somewhere else the day Bonder died, and the Agori would believe their word over a kid's claims.
But Storn didn't realize that Talis had heard. Talis couldn't bring himself to watch Hollici's execution, and was about to offer his assistance to Ishth when he overheard Storn's confession. Ishth didn't know what to do until Talis came to his aid. Talis had said that he was going to run to the arena, stop the match (if it wasn't over already), and convince the Agori leaders that Storn was the real killer. Talis was much faster that the Agori kid and he quickly left Ishth in the dust.
He supposed that was good. Ishth might try to tell the Agori the real truth. What Storn had said was true, though: that wouldn't work. If Hollici was to be saved, Talis had to lie.
Of course, none of that mattered if Hollici was dead before he got there. Talis pushed himself as fast as he could go, faster than he'd ever run before. His legs felt like miniature Thornax were going off inside them every second, but Talis didn't stop. He couldn't.
The arena was in sight. Talis could hear the cheers of Agori from the crowd. Of course, that could mean anything. There were some Agori who didn't care about Hollici's life; they just wanted to see a good fight, only caring about their own entertainment. Their kind disgusted Talis.
Talis crashed through the door into the arena, and what he saw caused his heart to leap into his throat. He was too late. Hollici was on the ground, unmoving. A Skrall warrior stood over her, his sword in the air, poised to deal the final blow. The Skrall's sword fell through the air... and was blown out of the Skrall's hand by a Thornax.
"Stop!" Talis yelled.
Well, he got their attention. Everyone was looking at the intervener, including the Skrall in the Arena. For his part, Talis was looking at Hollici's body, still lying prone in the arena. Was she alive? He couldn't tell from here.
"What is this, Talis?" asked Raanu, the Fire Tribe leader.
Talis couldn't answer for a moment; his run to the arena had taken all of the breath out of him. Finally, he managed to talk. "Holl... ici... didn't... kill... Bonder," he said. "I did."
A gasp rose up from all the Agori and Glatorian in the Arena. Even the Skrall leader was shocked, and nothing ever surprised him.
Talis composed himself, catching his breath, and then spoke up again. "I will not let Hollici die for something I did," he said. "I can't. I... I love her."
That did it. The arena couldn't have been more silent if it was an empty graveyard. Now it was time to sell the lie.
"Bonder was a jerk, and he didn't deserve to live. I couldn't stand watching him bully Hollici every day, so I got rid of him. But I didn't expect Hollici to get blamed for it.
"At first, I couldn't admit it. I was afraid to die," Talis lied. "But I can't live while she dies. I won't."
Finally, Talis turned to face the Skrall warrior still standing over Hollici. "Leave the Jungle Tribe woman alone." Talis unsheathed his sword. "Your fight is with me."
There was, of course, no point in fighting. Even in peak physical condition, there was no way Talis could beat a Skrall, and his race to the arena had drained him to the point where he could barely stand. He would be lucky if he lasted 10 seconds against the Skrall.
But if he was going to die, he would go down fighting.
The Skrall glanced up at Tuma, and the Skrall leader nodded. Retrieving his blade, the Skrall warrior faced Talis. "For Bonder's death, you die," the Skrall growled.
Talis didn't waste energy replying. He glanced away, seeing Hollici's friends dash into the arena to Hollici's body. After what felt like forever, one of them stood up.
"She's still alive!"
Talis breathed a sigh of relief, and then turned to face his opponent. Hollici was alive, and Talis prayed that she would stay that way.
He also hoped for one final thing: after he died, only Ishth would know the real truth. It would be up to him to tell Hollici's friends what really happened so that they could bring the real killer to justice.
Then there was no more time for thinking. The Skrall charged, and Talis prepared for the fight of his life.