301: Saturday Night Lights

on October 21, 2008 in Book 11

In Which A Hockey Match Fails To Break Out

The eight-sided arena seemed like a very different place than it had at the dance, now that it had the crowds of people thronging inside it. It had seemed agoraphobia-inducingly cavernous then. Now the impression was more like a hive swarming with buzzing insects. The fact that it was brightly illuminated might have been a factor, too.

Steff and I found common ground in admiring the historical murals, though I think our interest in them came from different angles. We didn’t have much time to stop and pore over them, because of the masses of people trying to get to their seats, but we had some lively bits of discussion about the ones we passed.

“Did you notice, though?” Steff asked me.

“What?”

“The subjects of the pictures,” she said. “The people in them.”

“Yeah, it’s all humans winning,” I said. “Mostly over ‘monster’ races.”

“The winners write the history books,” Steff said. “Or in this case, the historians only wrote about winning.”

“Yeah, it isn’t like humans are the undefeated champions of everything,” I said. “A painting of the Unnamable Emperor driven down on his knees in front of the orc chiefs would fit right in with the others, if it weren’t for the green skin on the winners and the pink skin on the losers.”

“Did you just say ‘pinkskin’?” Steff asked. “You’re turning into a little agitator, aren’t you?”

“I was being descriptive,” I said.

We found our seats on the second tier down and settled in. While the other students seemed to take the nymphs’ presence somewhat for granted, the crowd of people from town and the surrounding settlements were very interested in her. She was getting a lot of attention of a less than completely polite sort, but she took even the most obscene catcalls as sincere compliments.

“You’re a sweetheart!” she called to a man who’d just asked her if she’d like to warm his face up. “I’m a little busy with my friends right now, though.”

“I think Amy’s going to have her hands and other assorted parts full during halftime,” Steff said.

“How do you read this program?” I asked, trying to sort out what it was telling me.

As uninterested as I was in the subject, having a piece of reading material in my hands made me want to read it. It didn’t matter what it was… it could have been the warranty card for the hinges on a fridge door. The fact that I couldn’t puzzle out what it was saying was frustrating. There were some little icons that were obviously stylized weapons and armor, but it looked like they thought some of the fighters had three hands.

“It’s simple,” Steff said after I complained about the lack of a legend. “They have three divisions: light, heavy, and unarmed. Well, four divisions if you count open, but that’s really just all of the above., and they only do that later in the year, with the higher-ranked people from the other three. That’s what the bold symbols next to the names mean: the sword is light, the axe is heavy, and the fist is unarmed. The other symbols after the weapons are their actual gear, which can be swords, axes, or something else entirely. See how more of the heavy fighters are using a single weapon, or a weapon and a shield, while the light fighters are more likely to fight after the elven style… by which I mean dual wielding, not butt fucking.”

“Okay, that’s what confused me… I thought some people were using two swords and a dagger. How do they cram so many people into four hours?” I asked. There were oodles of names crammed into three columns in a solid block at the top of the program, and after that the schedule was a mishmash of “to be determined” and other names. I figured the TBDs would be the winners of the earlier rounds, but I didn’t know how they winnowed so many people down to so few in single combat. “It looks like a lot of these people are fighting at the same time.”

“Well, first of all, notice that there are five rings inside the pit,” Steff said, pointing to the white chalk outlines on the hard packed dirt floor. The circles were arranged in a cross or an x. “When they do mass battle exhibitions, or a fight between two champions, they usually use the whole ring, but that’s too much space for a one-on-one match with untested fighters… too much room to spread out, too hard to get somebody backed up against the wall and make them fight. So, they give them a smaller space to play in.”

“And then they have multiple fights going at the same time?” I asked. “Doesn’t it get confusing trying to watch all of them?”

“I wouldn’t sweat it, hon… you don’t even want to watch one of them, remember?” Steff said.

“Shows how much you know,” I said, giving her a smirk. “I want to watch exactly one of them.”

“Good point,” Steff said. “Anyway, compared to hit-counting sparring and the like, fights to the death don’t normally last very long. Because by definition it only takes one fatal wound to win. The fact that mock death doesn’t have any real consequences makes them go even faster… it makes the fighters less cautious. So, that right there helps them have an action-packed evening. But the other thing to keep in mind is that there’s no way to rank the fighters except by having them fight. So they start the evening off by pretty much throwing everybody at everybody in what they call a ‘rush’… five fights going at all times, with the next pair of fighters waiting at the side of the ring to step in. Some nights they do what’s called endurance rounds, where the winner stays in… but mostly they do it tournament style. The people in the first round of fights go through three sub-rounds of double elimination match-ups, which winnows out most of the competition pretty quickly. It’s mostly spectacle, but after the dust settles, you get to see real fights between increasingly skilled competitors.”

“How do they do the unarmed fights?” Amaranth asked. “They can’t exactly do them to the death, can they?”

“No, they’re decided by submission or total incapacitation,” Steff said. “Which means they can go on longer. That’s why they do them separately. They put them in the third quarter, to give the finalists in the armed divisions a chance to rest up before the final bouts.”

“So, why are there already some names filled in for the later matches?” I asked.

“Those are fighters with some established rank,” Steff said. “They get a bye.”

“So… before he moved, Ian was getting a free pass to the second round?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Steff said. “Which means he impressed Jilly or the assistant coach a little bit. I wonder if that’s why he changed divisions… maybe he wanted less pressure for his first match?”

“Or maybe he’s just more experienced fighting with his hands?” Amaranth asked. “I think a lot of people have never really used the weapons they’re carrying outside of class, but there are lots of opportunities for a young man to get into a fistfight.”

I turned my face to hide my blush. It was obvious to me why Ian had moved, of course… the whole reason he’d come to the arena was to get his violent impulses out of his system. Those were the impulses he indulged in when he hit or slapped me, whether in play or in anger. He’d probably decided that swinging a sword just didn’t have the same visceral impact as connecting with a fist.

“Oh, hey, check it out, Mack,” Steff said, thrusting the program in front of my face. “Look who’s got his bad self a third round bye.”

“Gerald Dobbs… Dobbs?” I said. “As in, Callahan’s teaching assistant?”

“Yeah, that’s him,” Steff said. “That’s awesome.”

“See, Mack,” Amaranth said. “That’s two people you know who are fighting tonight, one in each half. Aren’t you glad you came now?”

“I guess,” I said. “Maybe he’ll get his butt kicked…”

“Dobbs is a lousy teacher but he isn’t a bad fighter,” Steff said. “Though, if they put him in the third round that means there’s a decent chance he’ll lose at that level.”

“Maybe Callahan slipped him in,” I said.

Steff snorted.

“What, you think anybody would stop her if she wanted to?”

“Favoritism usually implies that somebody is a favorite,” she said. “Anyway, if he doesn’t deserve to be in that tier, he’ll definitely get his ass kicked.”

“So, how do you know who’s fighting each other, in this big list?” I asked. While there was an even number of names, there weren’t any obviously marked pairings.

“Other than knowing the Sword People are going to be with Sword People and the Axe People with Axe People, you really don’t,” Steff said. “Because the fighters don’t… it helps keep them on their toes. That was Jill’s innovation. The good ones will have watched and studied the people who are already seeded into the tiers above them, but in her opinion, you get a better impression of a fighter’s overall skill by throwing them into unknown situations and seeing how they react.”

I wanted to say something about Steff’s bizarre doting on “Jilly”, but at that point, the crowd noise diminished sharply, from “babble” to “murmur” and then to “hush”. I looked down into the center of the arena and saw the unmistakable figure of “Jilly” Callahan, with her leathers and her mohawk. Officials in black and white striped tabards and other figures in white robes were spreading out across the floor. Callahan raised an amplifying crystal to her face, and I got ready for what sure to be an entertaining if cringe-inducing tirade.

I was disappointed.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” she said. “Thank you and welcome on behalf of the Magisterius University College of Martial Combat. We are very pleased to be bringing you a fresh crop of fighters who are all eager to show us what they can do, along with some returning favorites. Our first ten competitors have already been selected and notified, and they will be taking to the rings shortly. But first, I’d like to say a few words of gratitude to our very generous partners who make these evenings possible…”

It was already the most words I’d heard out of Callahan’s mouth without “fuck” or “shit” or an invocation of the herald who isn’t light, and she was just getting started being reasonable and pleasant. The one thing I counted on from her, and she’d disappointed me… oh, well.

I figured she was winding things up when she started walking backwards from the center of the middle ring towards the edge. Sure enough, twenty fighters had entered the pit and were heading for the various rings. Ten of them positioned themselves at opposite sides of the rings, and the other ten stood in a line off to the side. They were the second batch of contestants, I figured. Callahan started rattling off names faster than I could follow, especially as several of them were foreign.

“Which fight are we supposed to watch?” I asked Steff. “The middle one?”

“The interesting one,” she said. “See the guys in purple down on the floor?”

I looked and saw three men… I thought they were men, but the tunics made it hard to tell at a distance… dressed in purple with green fringe.

“Those are the illusionists,” Steff said. “They’ll throw highlights up in the air… if you hear a bunch of people groan or cheer and you didn’t catch what they saw, look up, because it might get a replay. Though they have a hard time keeping up during the elimination round… like I said, it’s mainly just one big chaotic spectacle.”

As the matches began, I saw how accurate Steff’s description was. The lead marshal blew a whistle, and five separate combats began at once. Two of them were heavy combatants, the rest were light. In one of the side rings, the two fighters pounded across the circle, one with a pair of hand axes and the other armed with a short sword. The axe-wielder had his arms upraised and screamed wildly as he came on. The swordsman didn’t seem to be running quite as wildly.

It was over before any of the other battles were even joined… Axe Guy slashed at his opponent’s head and missed, and got the phantasm of a sword in his guts. Within a second of his fall, a giant image of the two had appeared above the pit, showing in clear detail the look of panic on the swordsman’s face as the axe blades whizzed by, and giving an unnecessarily detailed view of the spectral disembowelment.

It was only an illusion, I told myself… even more, it was an illusion of an illusion. I tried to enjoy the recursion and ignore the gore.

“Noobs,” Steff said, shaking her head as they withdrew and the next pair of fighters moved in. “Oh, look at these guys…”

“The ones in plate?” I asked, thinking she was pointing at the farthest ring from us. They both seemed to have the opposite problem of the hatchetman. Despite their heavy, all-enveloping armor and shields that could have doubled as toboggans, they both had an overabundance of caution and were shuffling very slowly around the very edge of their ring.

“No, the ones on the right,” she said. “Those are the ones to watch.”

They were the other pair of heavy fighters, though they seemed to be more reasonable both in their armor choices and approach to the combat. It looked like one of them was wearing mail with heavier armor strapped to his shoulders, forearms, thighs, and chest, which gave him more mobility. The other one looked like he was wearing solid plate on his torso but had his arms bare. The first one was armed with a great big broadsword , and the other one had a flail consisting of a spiked ball on a short chain. They were approaching each other warily, but steadily.

“One of those guys is going to lose this match, but I’ll bet they both end up making it past the rush,” Steff said. “They’re way better than any of these other clowns.”

“You’ve seen them fight before?” I asked.

“No, but just look at them,” Steff said. “And if your poor human-ish eyes can’t make out the fine details… well… just look at the rest of the jokers.”

“Oh, look out!” Amaranth shouted, half-rising from her seat and cupping a hand by her mouth.

“What?” Steff and I both asked, realizing we’d missed something.

“He foot-faulted, or something,” Amaranth said, pointing to one of the armored titans who was being pulled aside by a marshal. “The poor dear didn’t even get to fight.”

“He’ll get another chance,” Steff said. “Anyway, it’s his own fault for not stepping up.”

Probably for lack of anything more gripping to capture, the illusionists showed a rotating image of the metal-booted foot stumbling backwards across the white line in slow motion, three times from different angles.

Meanwhile, the opponents in the center had come together. They were trading blows fast and furiously, but even my less-than-discerning eyes were enough to see that they weren’t particularly skilled. Like poorly-choreographed actors on TV, or the children who imitated them in the backyard, they seemed to be focusing on hitting their swords against each other instead of going for fleshier targets. While I was watching them hack and slash and flail away, there was an “ooh!” from the crowd.

I looked up and saw the skilled heavy fighters coming together. The flail-wielder, a big bald man with a black dwarven-style beard tucked into his armor, stepped up towards the swing of the swordsman, a tall Argenti man. He caught the blade with the handle of his weapon, and the chain wrapped around it. He started to wrench the trapped weapon to the side, but the dark-skinned fighter twisted his blade around and it was the flail that went flying from its wielder’s hands.

It seemed like he should have been dead at that point, but he laced his fists together and swung them like a mace at the swordsman’s head, then turned and ran to retrieve his weapon.

“Can he do that?” I asked. “In the armed division?”

“He just did,” Steff said, grinning like a cat. “I don’t think it’s going to save him.”

His shirt would have made a passable cast iron stove but it wasn’t so great for bending over in. The swordsman recovered from the staggering blow and came after him, forcing him to scramble out of the way while his fingers stretched out for the haft of his fallen weapon. He got it up and whipped around, swinging it wildly at just over waist height. The ball collided with the swordsman’s right arm… the magnification clearly showed a point slipping under the plate and through the links of the chain, though it didn’t go in deeply. The swordsman’s face darkened, though he kept his jaw firmly set and didn’t cry out. He simply took a step back and shook his injured arm like he was trying to shoo away an insect, then adjusted his grip to favor the other one and came on again.

It wasn’t that the fight was terribly interesting. It was just more exciting than the others.

The other rings all swapped out their fighters at least once before their contest ended. They’d come together, clash, and then fall back with no more than minor hits. The tall swordsman had a greater stride and would have had a clear advantage in reach if they’d been using the same weapons, but the flail’s chain made up for a lot of that.

The swordsman showed more discipline, I thought, but his opponent was rewarded for his risks. The bearded one ended up with a cut on his cheek when the swordsman punched him with the hilt of his sword after their weapons became bound again. In turn, he got a punishing blow to the armor protecting his left shoulder… there was no penetration, but it had to hurt. Both his arms were now at least slightly impaired.

The flail-wielder showed more caution now that he had a clear advantage. He didn’t go for a killing blow, but tried to keep his opponent on the defensive, attacking high to make him lift his sword up when it was clear he was more comfortable having it in a middle position or lower. He took several more smashing hits, including one where the ball slipped past the breastplate and sunk multiple spikes into his side. He leaned heavily to the side after that, like a ship listing after taking on water, or whatever it was that made a ship list.

The outcome was becoming more and more inevitable, but waiting to see when and how it came was keeping me on the edge of my seat.

Okay, so there was a kind of a plotline to it, after all.

It finally ended when the spiked ball came swinging at the taller man’s head and he couldn’t raise his sword to block it or move fast enough to get out of the way. I closed my eyes to avoid seeing just how well the mocking spell could render the results of that.

“He got lucky,” Steff said. “He was good… they both were… but that could very easily have gone the other way. Unless he’s very, very unlucky, we’ll be seeing the islander again.”

I checked the time on the big board hanging over the seats on the opposite side. It was seven minutes after eight. According to that timepiece, the matches had started at two after.

“That was only five minutes?”

“That’s a long fight,” Steff said. “Exhaustion will start to wear the heavy fighters down if they go much longer than that. Uh, are you okay, Amy?”

I turned to Amaranth, and saw her jaw open wide, her lips curled and trembling, and her eyes wide. She was staring at the space where the illusions were now showing clips of all five ongoing battles. Her normally somewhat sunny complexion had gone as pale as Steff’s skin.

“It’s just illusion,” I said, reaching for her hand.

“I know,” she said. “It’s just a little… extreme… for me. I think I’m going to go be sociable somewhere else for a while.”

“You want company?” I asked.

“I’m sure I’ll find some,” she said, then kissed me on the cheek. “You can stay here and watch with Steff, and wait for Two. I’ll be back.”

“Okay,” I said. “I love you.”

“Love you, too, baby,” she said, and then she fled towards the end of the row and up the stairs.

In order to avoid a similar gross-out, I made a point of watching the actual action instead of the giant replays. I followed Steff’s recommendations as to who were the fighters to watch… the skilled ones, that is. She also liked to point out the particularly inept ones, but I wasn’t a big fan of humiliation as entertainment.

Other people’s, I mean.

The two heavy fighters we’d watched in the initial bout both won their subsequent match-ups quickly and handily. Against my better judgment, I found myself looking forward to their fights in the later rounds, when they’d be fighting opponents of more equal skill. Having seen their struggle against each other and then watching them dispatch outmatched opponents, it was obvious which made for a better show.

Half an hour went by faster than the first five minutes had, and Two arrived soon after.

“Hi, Mack! Hi, Steff!” she called, speaking loudly to be heard over the sound of ringing steel and the roar of the crowd. She was dressed for cold weather in a powder blue coat with a white furry lining, and carrying a small disposable plate with a frosted cookie on it.

“Hi, Two!” we both said.

“Thank you for inviting me and for getting me a seat,” she said, sliding past me and into the empty one on the other side of Amaranth’s. She held out the cookie to me. “I bought you this.”

“Thanks!” I said.

“You’re welcome,” she said. “I knew you wanted one.”

“But you could have given me one for free, earlier,” I said.

She shook her head.

“They were for the bake sale, earlier,” she said. “After it started, they were for buying, and now this one is for eating.”

“Yeah, and again, thank you so, so, so completely and incredibly much for making them, Two,” Steff said.

“You are so, so, so completely and incredibly welcome, Steff,” Two said.

“Well, your generosity will not only help the plight of marginalized students, but it also got me out of spending two hours behind that table,” Steff said. “You are a goddess among golems.”

“No, I’m not,” Two said, undoing her white scarf and slipping off her pom-pom earmuffs. She glanced down at the ongoing bouts, then up at the leader board, and then turned her attention downwards again. “Go, Phillips!” she yelled. “Yay, Marten! Get him, Horton! You can beat her, O’Neal!”

“Um, Two, hon,” Steff said, gently interrupting her, “you’re only supposed to cheer for one person in each fight, not both of them.”

“No,” Two said, shaking her head. “You’re mistaken. You’re supposed to cheer for the fighters from your school, and they are all from my school. Anyway, this way is more fair.” With that, she finished shouting encouragement for the rest of the combatants, and then for the two who’d came in during the interruption.

Steff laughed, and then she started doing it, too. She was a little less methodical than Two was, and more inventive, shouting things like “gouge his eyes out!” at one fighter and then “go for the throat!” at his opponent. Before long, I joined in the cheering, as well. It was silly… but then, the whole exercise was silly. More importantly, it was fun.

Then the fight in a side ring ended and nobody came forward to take their place. I saw that there wasn’t anybody waiting on the sidelines any more.

We were coming to the end of the elimination round.


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7 Responses to “301: Saturday Night Lights”

  1. pedestrian says:

    love both titles

    to whit, A.E. is a very clever wit

    and her descriptions of the fights are superb.

    Current score: 0
  2. WsntHere says:

    I live in Odessa, Texas, home of the Permian Panthers. “Friday Night Lights” is about a ciy so wrapped up in football that the school board and residents turn a blind eye to doping school kids so they can play hurt. The whole football culture here is twisted. The author would have been hurt if he had stayed until it was released. A lot of people still cuss his name. Fun and games…

    Current score: 1
    • Anthony says:

      Oh, footbaall is a scary and twisted game, corrupt from top to bottom. Friday Night Lights only scratches the surface. Look up a book called Pros And Cons sometime for a deeper look into the dark side of the football culture.

      Current score: 1
  3. MentalBlank says:

    Not being American, Gridiron football I enjoy a little as a spectator sport, but I don’t really get the culture behind it except at an intellectual level from media I have seen it in.

    I enjoy the strategy to it, but overall I’d prefer Rugby of the two. The armour seems excessive to me 😛

    Current score: 1
  4. Moridain says:

    To say I love Two is redundant, since I think it is impossible not to.

    Current score: 2
  5. Nessie says:

    could not restrain commenting. Two cheering for both fighters is in fact -exactly- what happens at the mock-combat bouts at smith college, and it frequently -and hilariously- spirals into steff-style commentary.
    ftw.

    Current score: 3
  6. PrometheanSky says:

    I have the great fortune to live in an area where there are a couple of armed combat schools, and have enjoyed a good sword (and spear, and halberd, and glaive, etc..) fight from time to time. It is unbelievably exciting, even if the weapons are made of foam.

    Current score: 0