[Ch1&2]        
         
         
         
         
    
“Tahu, the Master of Fire versus the Porcupine!” the Agori excitedly exclaimed, leaving even viewers who’d somehow missed all the promotion leading up to this night in no doubt as to what exactly they were about to witness.
“Tahu’s fight!?” I turned to Kopaka in disbelief, but again he offered no reply, no explanation, nothing… except in that his facial expression had turned about as glacial as I’d ever seen it. He clearly wasn’t watching this for its entertainment value... then why was he?
“That’s right, Durzek,” the Glatorian sharing commentator duties added to his colleague’s excited declaration. “Tonight is the fight we’ve all been waiting for, folks: the Master of Fire faces off against his toughest challenger yet. We’ve made it past the opening rounds, though as you can see, it’ll still be a moment before the Arena is clear of the remnants.” A short cut to a closer overview of the arena revealed chilling evidence of the night’s previous proceedings, including numerous pieces of scrap metal that staff Agori were still gathering up and an ominously large, deep-red stain on the ground nearby.
“That sure was one impressive beat-down on the part of Lady Soraka’s latest,” Durzek recapped. “Certainly better than her contestant’s performance last week.” He turned to his co-presenter: “tell me, Evahl, what happened to him again?”
“He won’t see the arena again,” Evahl answered in a somehow jovial tone. “We all know what happens to those who bring dishonor to Soraka’s name.” The explanation was accompanied by a downright cringe-worthy ‘guillotine’ gesture on the part of Durzek. “Exactly,” Evahl confirmed.
“Well, tonight’s main man’s head will stay on his shoulders for now,” Durzek remarked, “but the same cannot be said of his opponent. Still, it looks like we’ll be done getting the rest of him out of the way soon, and you know what that means: the crowd is getting pumped for the next one.”
“And you know, after a show like that, there’s no telling what’s in store with the main fight,” Evahl picked up seamlessly from his co-presenter. “This sure was one hell of a crowd-warmer, though of course we all know who’s about to really turn up the heat.” His obvious clichéd reference to the Master of Fire elicited a chuckle or two from Durzek. Terrible jokes aside, if a fight that ended in one gladiator having to be removed from the arena in pieces was merely considered a ‘crowd-warmer,’ what in the world were they expecting of Tahu and the Porcupine? I shuddered to think of it, in part of still-graphic memories from the last fight I’d seen.
“And here comes the Porcupine now!” Durzek suddenly turned his attention to one of the entrances into the battleground below as the crowd began to erupt in cheers, heralding the imminent appearance of the iron-clad Skakdi. “Of course he was the one responsible for Soraka’s humiliating defeat last week,” the Agori announcer wasted no time in reminding us, “and we all remember his finishing move against the Lady of the Frost.” ‘Finishing move’ was putting it generously. I would’ve described it more as an execution. “Brutal, brutal stuff, but that’s what he’s known for. No doubt we’ll see more of it tonight… and there he is, folks.” Distinctively clad in shining silver, heavily spiked armor, the Porcupine strutted in sporting the traditional wide-toothed grin and with his two-handed morning star slung over his shoulder, which combined with his posture conveyed a picture of arrogance that surely described his entire personality in an instant. Unfazed by the fact that there were still some clean-up workers present, he marched into the center of the arena, almost kicking one of the unfortunates aside in the process. Once there, he raised his weapon over his head, raising and lowering it several times as though he was already triumphant, and looking at the crowd’s reaction I wouldn’t have been surprised if he was. I glanced at Kopaka for a moment; his eyes were shooting daggers at the screen.
“Reveling in it as we all do,” Evahl observed proudly, “but few know how to please the crowd like the Porcupine. Put on a show: any match in there could be your last.”
“It could be,” Durzek added in a somewhat sarcastic tone, “but I got a feeling that it won’t be this one. Not for the Porcupine.”
“Maybe not, but then again, he is up against the Master of Fire,” Evahl countered, then gestured at the opposite entrance to the one from which the Porcupine had appeared: “…and it looks like he’s just arriving now.” With the Skakdi’s display over, all eyes turned to the other entrance. Moments later, a bright flash of orange-yellow light lit up the entrance tunnel, revealing for a split second the silhouette of Tahu approaching. The crowd immediately lit up again as the Toa Nuva of Fire made his appearance and proceeded to march quickly and stoically towards the center of the arena. Unlike the Porcupine, he didn’t do much to acknowledge the crowd, didn’t revel in the energy of the place the way he had only a week before. No, this time he made it abundantly clear that he meant business. Also, I noticed his right arm was still bandaged up underneath the armor. When he reached the center right across from his opponent he stopped, looked him up and down, then apparently decided to give the crowd something after all. He turned to face a section of the audience, raised and ignited his swords over his head, then brought them down quickly at his side while turning around to send heat-waves in all directions. Standing only twenty or so feet away, the Porcupine didn’t so much as move a muscle at the display.
“And there it is, the greeting,” Durzek explained for the benefit of those who weren’t familiar with Tahu’s opening routine. “Still good, maybe, but if we’re honest it’s getting just a bit stale now.”
“Yeah, it’s becoming more and more like he’s looking to save the fire for the fight,” Evahl agreed. “Still, those burning blades have heralded plenty of spectacular wins for him, including last week’s end of the Lord of the Skrall.”
“Ah yes, the furnace technique,” Durzek remembered, immediately calling up that image for me to wince at. “It works especially well against heavily armored opponents, doesn’t it?”
“That it does, and they don’t come much heavier than the Porcupine,” Evahl noted. “At the same time, that morning star is capable of devastating hits if granted a clean shot. Really, both these fighters are going to be trying to set up for that one killing blow. Beyond that, no tactics last even ten seconds into a fight.”
“I can’t wait to see that happen,” Durzek added excitedly, “and neither can thousands of fans out there. It looks like we won’t have to wait long, ‘cause our pickup crews have just cleared the field. Well, cleared it as much as possible, right? Right?” he smiled and prodded an elbow in his co-presenter’s direction as if to say “get it?”
“As much as possible,” Evahl agreed. However, even a cursory glance over the battleground indicated it was far from clean; the large armor scraps had been removed, but nothing had been done about the many smaller pieces or the disturbingly fresh stain on the ground. While the two fighters squared up against each other, I took advantage of the momentary lull in the commentary to try and figure out why in the world Kopaka was wanting to watch this. Already, it was an embodiment of everything he’d denounced about the spectacle of the arena fights, and rightfully so, but he kept watching intently all the same.
“Sorry, but why do you want to watch this?” I asked. He didn’t respond, not even with so much as a gesture or anything suggesting me to stay quiet. He wasn’t answering anything, and even if he had he would almost certainly have been cut off by the announcers.
“And they’re ready to go!” Durzek excitedly announced, only to follow it up with “…which means we’ll be back right after this!” Cut to commercial. I immediately turned back to Kopaka.
“Really, why?” I asked again. Rather than looking to me, he looked down at the ground, apparently planning on waiting out the commercials. “I mean, why aren’t you… you know, meditating or something like that,” I suggested. “Why this? You know it’s going to be awful either way.”
“It will be,” he acknowledged but went no further.
“Then why?” I kept pressing on. “Do you want to see Tahu die or see him kill someone else? Wasn’t Stronius bad enough?”
“No,” he answered curtly. “Watch, Lis. Watch what this world has become.” As he said that, his voice took on an incredibly dismal tone. If there’d been any doubt about his reluctance to watch this before, they were gone now; he found no entertainment in this whatsoever, but still felt the need to show it to me. Was he trying to draw something meaningful out of it, something to teach me?
“But I’ve already seen this,” I reminded him. “Stronius, live, in person. It’s awful, it’s a travesty; I get it. Why put yourself through this?”
“Just watch,” he repeated solemnly.
“Fine, but you know it won’t end well,” I relented. This fight… it was going to be the death of a Toa either way. The only ways to come out of this fight were in victory or in pieces; the former would only be another nail in the coffin Tahu’s title as Toa, while the latter would mean two Toa Nuva’d have to be buried next week. I waited out the rest of the break dreading the end of it and mulling over the situation, trying to come up with some better reason for why Kopaka wanted to watch this. I came up with nothing.
“Welcome back!” Durzek called out the moment he was back on air. “The gates are down, the weapons readied, and ARE YOU READY TO SEE SOME CARNAGE!?” That last question was probably directed more at the live audience, who of course went wild at the prospect of carnage. Cameras established the scene with shots from all angles within the arena, until at least they settled on the two fighters standing across from each other in ready poses. Evahl provided the countdown:
“Tahu, the Master of Fire versus the Porcupine, round 1! Begin in Three, Two, One… FIGHT!”
I expected the fighters to be upon each other in an instant, but for a second both held their positions as if expecting the other to charge. When neither did, they slowly approached each other, circling, ready to strike at any moment but not willing to expose themselves to do so. Silence ruled the commentators, too, until Durzek eventually mentioned something about them sizing each other up. He’d barely uttered the words when, apparently bored of the status quo, the Porcupine suddenly leapt forward and took the first swing. Tahu was ready, parrying the morning star by redirecting its swing with both of his blades while sidestepping out of the way. He tried to follow it up by planting a sword into the Porcupine’s side, but the Skakdi proved more cunning than that; he looked like he’d given the attack everything, but in fact even as he came down with the swing he’d already been moving to avoid the inevitable counterattack. Still, it left him in little position to retaliate quickly and moments later the fighters found themselves squaring up a few feet apart again, waiting for the other to make a move. The air was tense; even the crowd was silent in anticipation. Ever the crowd-pleaser, the Porcupine soon attempted to move in again, only to find his attack deflected just like before. The cycle repeated itself several times more; tactically, Tahu was doing the sound thing by not biting and buying time for his opponent to make a mistake, but as time passed the crowd went from awaiting the action with great anticipation to getting bored at the lack of major action, which the commentary began to reflect.
“Oh, he’s going to have to do something soon,” Evahl reminded everyone. “Everyone might be anticipating a kill, but if this fight goes the distance this tip-toeing around each other isn’t going to earn him any points at all.”
“Yeah, we’d better get some action soon,” Durzek added. The Porcupine immediately obliged with what was definitely his most committed attack yet; he pulled the morning star back over his shoulder in an instant, then quickly moved forward to bring it down on Tahu. The Master of Fire changed tact, too: rather than using his weapons to deflect the attack, he attempted to sidestep it to get a good opportunity to strike back. He was successful on both counts, as the Porcupine’s weapon found nothing but air until it hit the arena floor hard enough to crack the stone and the flame swords found their mark on the Skakdi’s right arm. It was still a glancing blow at best, since Tahu had to be careful to avoid running himself into the armor spikes of his opponent, but it was technically first blood. The commentators wasted no time in announcing it over the arena’s speakers, and the crowd immediately cheered for it; as far as they were concerned, that move just kickstarted the real fight. Having momentarily lost momentum, the Porcupine attempted to ward Tahu off with a low, backhanded swing of his morning star; it worked and Tahu was forced to quickly take a step back to avoid the weapon, allowing the Skakdi to get up and follow him while chaining multiple swings of his weapon together in a surprisingly smooth, fast, and continuous motion. Now the one off balance, Tahu was forced to take back one step after another without much opportunity to maneuver around the whirling thing, attempting to parry a few times as he did so. However, parrying didn’t get him very far against the mass of metal coming at him, continuously driving him back.
By the time the fighters had moved about halfway across the arena, Tahu’d apparently had enough as he tried to put some weight behind his swords while pushing them into the path of the morning star to break the chain. It was a mistake; the way the porcupine wielded it may have made the weapon look light, but it had built up tremendous momentum and Tahu found himself knocked completely off-balance. The porcupine used what momentum remained to swing the weapon around one more time and catch Tahu flat on the chest with an upswing, sending the master of fire hurtling backwards until he tripped and landed on the ground. Momentarily fazed and having to catch his breath, Tahu could do little to stop the earth-shattering overhead swing that was no doubt to follow; the Porcupine raised the morning star over his head, the crowd erupted, I looked away… and then a loud horn announced that the time for round one had run out. For a moment, time itself seemed to stopped entirely as both fighters froze in place, but after a moment’s hesitation the Porcupine disappointedly lowered his weapon. This wasn’t the time for a finishing blow. Tahu’d been saved by the bell... for now.
“And that’s round one, and nearly the end of the fight right there,” Durzek excitedly proclaimed.
“Indeed,” Evahl took over, “as we saw some great work by the Porcupine there with that windmill attacking style…” I stopped listening, and looked to Kopaka instead. He was still watching, though nothing in his posture or expression indicated that he was in any way invested in his brother’s fight.
“That… that was too close,” I remarked, hoping to get some commentary from the Toa of Ice in return. “One second more and that would’ve been it.” It took a moment or two before he responded.
“My brother misgauged his opponent,” he said bluntly without so much as glancing in my direction. “It has brought him close to death on multiple occasions.”
“Right… so do you think he will win?” I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not he’d done some kind of analysis of the fighters’ performance to make a prediction.
“He will not if he continues to fight as he has so far,” Kopaka answered. “He has been unusually cautious by his own standards, and it does not suit him.”
“True… most of the action came from the Porcupine. Nothing like last week’s fight.” I remembered how much more aggressive Tahu’s been against the self-proclaimed Lord of the Skrall. “Why do you think he’s doing that?” I asked.
“You are the expert on people, are you not?” Kopaka replied with a question. “What do you think?”
“Something must’ve happened…” I began to reason out loud, but I barely got that far before the ‘something’ popped into my head: “Pohatu.” Kopaka returned to looking at the screen, not giving so much as a nod to indicate yes or no, but already I was piecing things together in my head: Tahu was playing it cautious exactly because he didn’t want to make a mistake; he wanted to leave the arena alive to attend his brother’s funeral. Hell, he’d probably be giving a speech or something there. This fight had to be really bad timing for him, especially given its high stakes…
“And we’re back!” the voice of Durzek interrupted my thinking, prompting me to return my attention to the screen, too. “Tahu, the Master of Fire versus the Porcupine, round two!” the Agori announced with frantic hand-waving motions. Evahl immediately offered some insight of his own:
“Yes, and after a first round that was relatively light on action, both fighters will be looking to take it up a notch. Remember, even that round nearly ended in a K.O. on its own, but both fighters are still in good shape. With my experience I can tell you that that won’t be the case after this round, oh no.”
“Yeah, you usually see a lot more risks being taken in the second round,” Durzek added, “especially by the side that probably lost the first.”
“…which I’d say was Tahu,” Evahl concluded. “He’s played the long game so far, but the lack of effective action from his side and that crucial mistake at the end have cost him dearly. Can he make up for that? Right now, no one can tell.”
“Well, then let’s get this thing going, shall we?” Durzek said as he turned around to face the arena and its rabid crowd. “WHO’S READY TO PAINT THIS PLACE RED!?” he questioned their readiness in a particularly tasteless manner, but boy did it get a response. Really, ‘rabid’ is the best way that I could describe the crowd, and the loud cheers and roars continued as the Agori led the them in to the countdown. “THREE! TWO! ONE! FIGHT!”
Clearly still riding high from the end of the last round, the Porcupine wasted no time in closing in on Tahu this time around. However, he was dealing with a Toa more determined this time, a Toa who once again parried his morning star out of the way as soon as it came within striking range. However, where before Tahu had played it relatively cool and slow, now his follow-up was immediate; having re-directed the Porcupine’s attack to the ground next to him, he immediately took two steps over and swung both of his weapons into the Skakdi’s back. The armoring present even there meant that the initial effect had to be minimal, but the impact did knock the Porcupine further forward, messing with his balance and giving Tahu time for the real response: he ignited his blades and sent bolts of fire off of them and into his opponent’s back. For a moment, it was quite a nice light show, but other than some scorch marks on the back of the Porcupine’s armor it still appeared to have little effect, and by now the iron-clad Skakdi has managed to turn around and was coming at Tahu again. Again, he attempted to bring the morning star down on the Toa of Fire’s head, and again the latter managed to parry it aside and into the ground where it immediately ended the useful life of another of the arena’s stone floor tiles. Tahu again made multiple strikes into the Porcupine’s back while latter recovered, his now-ignited weapons always leaving streaks of fire in their wake to make for a much better show. The pattern repeated itself two or three more times before the Porcupine appeared to realize that he was rapidly getting nowhere, though the fact that Tahu’d broken one of the spikes jutting out from his spine probably had something to do with it. When he turned around after weathering yet another series of counterattacks, he opted not to immediately launch into a charge again. Instead, he readied his morning star in a defensive posture, beckoning his opponent to come at him.
Tahu did just that; having worn the Skakdi down somewhat, he attempted to charge him by using one of his blades to parry the morning star to the side while striking with the other. It worked, and he was able to follow it up with a devastating series of sword strikes, wheeling both blades around him in a continuous motion while streaks of fire jetted off in their trails, accompanied by a cacophony of metallic clangs. Unable to muster a response in time, the Porcupine was forced to back up, then back up again and again as Tahu steadily drove him across the area in a whirlwind of metal and fire. This was the Tahu that I’d seen fighting the week before… and as the announcers feverishly attempted blow-by-blow commentary, one of them mentioned that he might be working up to a furnace, a chilling prospect as far as I was concerned. Still Tahu relentlessly pushed on; only when the Porcupine’s back was nearly against the arena wall did he at last let off, quickly taking several steps back to avoid any opportunistic swing regardless of how quick it could be. The iron-clad Skakdi had to take a moment to come to his senses anyways, and Tahu took advantage of it by powering up both his swords and then planting them into cracks between the arena floor tiles. Immediately, bright orange streaks shot down the cracks and filled the area between the stones underneath the Porcupine’s feet; he only had a moment to realize what was happening before, heralded by a slight rumbling beforehand, the ground suddenly erupted in fire and flying stone slabs below him.
“IT’S THE ERUPTION!” one of the announcers identified the move. For a second or two, the fire completely obscured the Porcupine from view, and I feared that by the time it ended, the sight that remained would be akin to that of Stronius after the furnace move. Then suddenly a bellowing roar, a battle cry overtook the sound of the eruption, and the Skakdi came charging out of the column of fire, straight for Tahu and with his morning star fully drawn back. With his swords still planted in the ground, Tahu had no time to react as the weapon swung for him, connecting with full force onto the left side of his body. The impact sent him hurtling sideways and forced him to let go of one of his blades. He just about controlled the landing and regained his bearings, but now found himself squaring off against a snarling, seething Skakdi in armor covered in soot and with smoke still rising from many areas inside. I couldn’t imagine the burns the guy had suffered, but if anything they had only pushed him into a blind rage. Immediately, he let out another roaring battle cry as he charged the now wounded Toa. Hurting badly on his left side, Tahu only just managed to avoid the blow, after which he attempted to scramble towards where his other sword was still sticking up from between two of the floor tiles. The Porcupine came at him again as he did so, swinging from behind; Tahu saw the attack coming at the last moment and dropped prone to let it sail over him, but this left the morning star to go on and hit the standing sword, sending it flying into the wall several tens of feet away. It was now completely out of reach, and the Porcupine was already raising his weapon once again to bring it down on the Toa of Fire. For a moment, the scene was almost a carbon copy of how the first round had ended, but this time, we were only halfway through…
The Porcupine brought his weapon down over his head with incredible force; Tahu just managed to roll out of the way, but the impact of the weapon against the ground broke several of the floor tiles in half and sent some smaller pieces flying in all directions. Tahu managed to get back on his feet while his opponent picked up his weapon again, and retaliated by sending more fire bolts in his general direction. They didn’t have much effect, and the Porcupine charged for him once again. Tahu was forced to leap out of the way without so much as a moment’s opportunity to mount any kind of counterattack. He quickly regained his bearings again, but now the Skakdi was on the offensive and he wasn’t going to let it go. Swing after swing, he relentlessly moved forward without leaving Tahu any opportunity to get close enough to strike back. Across the arena they went, until eventually they reached the opposite wall. Tahu literally bumped into it, apparently unaware of how quickly they’d shifted across the battleground, and now all of the sudden he had nowhere left to go. Again the Porcupine moved in, aiming to hit the same spot on which he’d gotten such a good hit before, but as it turned out Tahu had prepared for exactly that plan, and he reacted with surprising speed for someone as seriously wounded as he had to be. He leaped upwards, then pushed off of the wall to propel himself over the top of his opponent with a flip and land right behind him. Before the Porcupine could turn around, Tahu struck at him from that position with a low, back-handed swing that cut across one of the few vulnerable spots on the Skakdi’s armor: the insides of his knees. A loud “Aargh!” escaped from the Skakdi’s mouth as his left leg momentarily collapsed; Tahu took advantage by swinging for the other knee, which he just managed to nick as well. For a moment, the Skakdi was on his knees and Tahu looked about to take a third swing, this time for the neck. However, before he could get that far the horn sounded yet again. Round two had ended, and this time it was the Porcupine who owed his life to that. Both the announcers and the crowd were going wild over the action all the same.
“That… that was gruesome,” was all I managed to get out. Not that I had expected anything less, mind you, but this round had gone back and forth in such tension that I noticed my hands were shaking afterwards. Looking over to Kopaka, I noticed the expression on his face had changed: he was angry, furious even, but still just managing to keep it all bottled up while the telescreen showed Tahu retrieving his sword and both fighters receiving some hurried, rudimentary medical aid to prepare them for the final round. I didn’t dare ask any questions this time around, and for the moment I was numb to whatever the commentators were going on about… I just sat there, waited, prayed that somehow the next round wouldn’t be worse. After a few minutes that felt like much more, Tahu and the Porcupine were squared up once again, both standing with considerably less poise but both clearly burning with a hatred of the other, ready to kill them whenever the opportunity presented itself. The commentators once again led the countdown to round three.
“THREE! TWO! ONE! FIGHT!”
author's notes: the first action-focused chapter I've written in quite a while, and like most such chapters it pretty much took shape on its own as I was writing it; I didn't have to spend all that long planning it compared to last chapter, which was a nightmare by comparison. New record for longest chapter yet, too...
I'll post more chapters as I finish them. As always, post any questions, comments, and/or observations below. Enjoy!