305: Match Games

on October 27, 2008 in Book 11

In Which Mackenzie Steps Out

“What’s up?” Steff asked me when I got back to my seat… and after letting Two and me exchange our ritual greeting. I’d stopped to get some caramel corn and cotton candy, so the trip wouldn’t feel like an unmitigated waste. “Who was it?”

“Mariel, of all people,” I said. “She doesn’t want me watching Puddy’s next fight… or Puddy doesn’t. I’m not sure.”

“Why the hell not?”

“She said it’s ‘distracting’,” I said.

“You’re kidding… can her puny little human eyes even see us all the way up here?” Steff asked.

“Well, yes and no,” I said. Steff had a tendency to underestimate human sensory abilities, but in this case I thought she had a point. “I mean, me and everybody else with puny little human eyes can see the action all the way down there just fine, but she’d have a hell of a time picking a face out of the crowd at this distance.”

“So, you told her to go to hell?” Steff asked

“No, uh, actually… I told her I’d leave and come back.”

“Oh, good,” Steff said.

“What?” I asked. I’d been bracing myself for a different reaction.

“For a moment there, I was afraid you were a doppelganger.”

“It’s not a completely unreasonable request,” I said.

“Yes, it is, Mack,” Steff said. “She asked you to do something you have no reason to do. That’s the definition of an unreasonable request.”

“That’s not what unreasonable means,” I said. “And anyway, I didn’t have any reason to say no.”

“Mack, hon, when somebody tells you to do something you don’t want to do, you don’t need a better reason to say no than that.”

“That’s what I’m saying… I didn’t not want to not watch… hold on, let me start that again,” I said. “In the first place, I only came here to see Ian… I mean, if I could have worked it out so I could show up when he comes out, watch him fight, and then leave when he’s out, I would’ve done that.”

“Oh, don’t even pretend like you aren’t enjoying this now,” Steff said.

“I am,” I said. “I’m just saying, I don’t have some huge investment in watching as many fights as I possibly can tonight… and absolutely none in seeing Puddy. If I skip Puddy’s, I’m not missing out.”

“Can you say that even after seeing her performance in her first bout?” Steff asked. “You’re not super-super curious to see what she does this time, or what her next opponent does to compensate after watching the last one?”

“Okay, I’m a little curious,” I said. “But on the other hand… I’ve already seen the show once, and I doubt she’ll have an entirely separate but equally impressive trick up her sleeve for the encore.”

“You’re just making excuses for why you gave in,” Steff said.

“I’m not,” I said, shaking my head. “I just… don’t feel like being a spiteful person tonight. If I’m in somebody’s way and they ask me to move, I move. I don’t ask myself ‘Do I like this person?’ or ‘What’s in it for me?'”

“Yeah, well, that’s because you’re a bit of a wuss, hon,” Steff said.

“Okay, I’ve done it out of wussiness in the past,” I admitted. “But I still don’t see how it’s a bad thing.”

“I agree,” Two said. “It’s polite.”

“It isn’t, though,” Steff said. “I haven’t checked, but I’m sure leaving the fighting venue when your abusive ex-roommate’s girlfriend asks you to isn’t covered in any etiquette manual.”

“Oh, I was talking about moving when you’re in somebody’s way,” Two said. “That’s the polite thing to do.”

“Look, whatever,” I said. “It’s my decision, anyway, and I choose not to make things difficult.”

“So what are you going to do if Puddy wins and goes onto the next round?” Steff asked.

“How many rounds are there tonight?” I asked.

“Five,” Steff said. “They don’t have a championship fight until midterm.”

“So she’s got a maximum of three fights,” I said. “That’s not a big thing.”

Steff shook her head, blowing out through her nostrils in disgust.

“It isn’t,” I said. “Anyway, I promised.”

It seemed like Tomaso’s use of his double image spell had broken a seal, as more and more fighters were pulling out flashy special enchantments… blasting light at their opponents’ eyes, getting a temporary speed buff, imbuing their blades with lightning or ice, and things like that. Steff didn’t know the exact rules and parameters governing what was legal and not, offhand. I tried to extrapolate from what we saw. It didn’t seem like anybody was directly de-buffing their opponent, afflicting them with blindness or sleep or anything like that, or using a ranged attack… somebody could turn their axe to lightning, but they couldn’t shoot lightning from their axe.

Either that or it was just a case of nobody having that kind of an enchantment… again, it went to the nature of things. It was in the nature of an axe to strike things. A spell which was sympathetic to that aim would have an easier time finding purchase on the axe than another one. To put it another way, an axe was an axe and a wand was a wand… you hit things with the axe, shoot them with the wand. It was possible to make an axe that shot things, but it would be more difficult than making a wand of equal power.

The crowd’s reaction to the enchantment use was a mixed bag, and it hinted at the reasons for the restrictions. The lightning axe got a big response, but when one person won his match by teleporting directly behind his opponent and stabbing him in the back, the crowd booed. Evidently this had been an entirely legal maneuver, as there was no conference in the pit like there had been for Puddy, and no hesitation in awarding the win.

“People came to see fights,” Steff said. “Teleports are legit, but there’s an expectation that they’ll be used defensively.”

The next fight after the blinking backstabber was between two women, the first such match of the second round. There had been more in the mix of the elimination round… in fact, at first it had seemed like the fights were broken up by sex as in the first tier of the elimination round, all the battles involving girls had been completely girl-on-girl. The subsequent tiers and the second round had been more mixed. It also seemed like the disparity in numbers between girls and guys had evened out a bit.

“It seems like we’re seeing more female fighters,” I said to Steff. “I mean, I know we saw a lot of these girls in the elimination round, but it seems like they’re… concentrated.”

“That’s because there aren’t many casual gladiatrixes in the tourney nights,” Steff said. “On the open nights, you get a lot more of the silly bitches who come in all giggly and shit and just hide behind their daggers until somebody puts them out of their misery. The male equivalent of that is a lot more likely to think he can actually compete… and because men tend to have muscles and a warrior culture, they’ve got a slightly better chance in actual competition.”

“What are the open nights?” I asked.

“Usually Wednesdays,” Steff said. “Basically, everybody signs up, gets matched up, fights once, and goes home. I did it a couple of times last year, before I got put on academic probation.”

“What for?”

“What else? Shitty grades,” Steff said.

“Oh,” I said, more relieved than disappointed that it wasn’t something else.

The second round ended, and the third round began. Puddy was set for the fourth match-up. The first two fights showed cautious, clever fighters exchanging blows rather than showing off their flashy magic… one of them had been given a third-round bye, but of the other three, I thought only one of them had blown his magic use the previous round. He was eliminated.

“Ooh, hey, watch this guy,” Steff said on the third match. “He’s a bit of a douche, but he showed me his cape after class. It’s like sex, in cape-ular form.”

The guy she was talking about was a dark haired guy with a black cape and some kind of red mask over the lower half of his face. The illusionists caught him, and I saw that it was a crimson scarf. His eyes… assuming the illusionists weren’t retouching them for effect… were black with flecks of crimson in them. He was pale, like Steff, and his ears had a full and distinct elven point to them. According to the program and the big board, his name was either PATTERSON or ASPHODELOS.

I was guessing the latter.

“I think I would’ve remembered seeing him in the first round,” I said.

“He got a bye,” Steff said. “Not a lot of elves go for the pit, but he says it’s the only thing that can ‘slake his unholy thirst’.”

“His what?”

“Can’t you tell, Mack? He’s a vannabe,” Steff said.

“A what?”

“A vampire wannabe. Have you ever seen an elf with that color hair? Next time the illusionists give him a close-up, see if you can spot the glam job on his eyes.”

“I think I saw that,” I said. “Somebody should tell him what real vampires look like.”

“Don’t you know that’s just foul slander, Mack? Slander and lies!” Steff said. “Odious myths perpetrated by the bleeding kinds in order to keep the night lords marginalized and hidden in the shadows.”

“The bleeding kinds?” I repeated.

“I told you he was a douche,” Steff said.

“I just can’t believe somebody would actually pretend they have a horribly debilitating curse that…”

“See above, in re: douche,” Steff said. “See also: watch.”

Asphodelos stalked towards Patterson with his cape wrapped around his forearm, which he had held up in front of his face. His weapon was hidden from our view behind it. Patterson had a weapon that was a short pole with axe heads on both ends. He came at Asphodelos warily, keeping a two-handed grip on his pole, holding it more or less horizontally in front of him. As they came closer, Patterson whipped one end of the double axe out at Asphodelos’s exposed hand at the end of the cape. The dark-haired elf flinched back, bunched the cape up around his fist, and then started forward again.

Patterson feinted a high blow, and Asphodelos raised his cape-arm like he’d block the axe blade with it, but Patterson pivoted his weapon and popped him a blow with the other head. From the way Asphodelos was using it like a shield, I expected the axe to be deflected or hopelessly entangled in it or something, but instead, it seemed to pass through it without disturbing the material at all. Though it should have passed through the space Asphodelos’s body was occupying, he gave no sign that he’d been hit.

Patterson quickly stepped backwards to reappraise the situation.

“He’s got an extradimensional space on the outside of his cape?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s better than that,” Steff said. “He’s wearing an extradimensional cape backwards. It’s actually a cloak of voluminous something something… it’s woven out of the same shadowstuff they use to make portable holes. I told you it’s sexy… but before Asphodelos came along, the cheesiest thing anybody ever used them for was carrying around two-story ladders and such for cheap sight gags. He figured out that even though there are rules limiting armor and defensive enchantments, the only rule for personal dimensional spaces is that you can’t duck inside them for a timeout. Technically, his opponent could be disqualified if he stumbles inside it.”

“And nobody’s thought to change the rule because of him?”

“Oh, this is the first time he’s pulled this,” Steff said. “You’ll notice he doesn’t seem to have a strategy beyond ‘hold my cape up in front of me’. If he’d put the damned thing down and go after the guy, he’d probably win.”

“Why’d you tell me to watch him, then?” I asked.

“Well, I thought he was going to do something cool with it,” Steff said. “I mean, if I had full elven reflexes and a cape like that, I’d goad my opponent into attacking, then snap it up and try to get his weapon or arm stuck in it, then stab the fucker up a bit. He pretty much let on right away that he didn’t mind if his opponent hit the cape, which is just stupid… you’ll notice Patterson didn’t fully commit to that swing.”

“And now they’re just circling,” I said.

“Yeah,” Steff said. “Lame.”

Patterson seemed to think so, too. He held his axe-pole-thing in one hand, and began to twirl it, then ran at Asphodelos. At the last moment, he raised it up over his head and swung it. His hand and a good deal of the haft disappeared into the darkness of the cape, but the rest of the length and the axe blade came down unimpeded on Asphodelos’s head.

Match Patterson.

“See, his arm was completely wrapped up in the cloak,” Steff said. “There was nothing to block the swing.”

“Couldn’t he have thrown the cape up over his head?” I asked. “Elven reflexes, and all that?”

“Probably… but if he was thinking of stuff like that, he probably wouldn’t have just stood there with the cape in front of him in the first place,” Steff said. “Probably the only thought in his head was ‘ha ha, I cheated the system.'”

Between Asphodelos and the teleporter, it was becoming more and more apparent why they tried to limit the use of enchantments. Unrestricted, they could turn what would otherwise be a contest of skill into a magical arms race, where the person with the most money for gear won.

And of course, that brought us up to Puddy’s second match. As promised, I got up and started heading for the exit as Asphodelos and Patterson were leaving. Steff knew better than to talk me out of a promise. The arena was full of excited murmurs as I headed for the top, and then off to the side door. I checked to make sure I’d be let back in, and ducked out into the hall. There were a surprisingly large number of people hanging out there, with programs and vendables that told me they were ostensibly there for the fights.

They all looked pretty comfortable, though, so it didn’t seem like they’d ducked out because of Puddy. I kind of wondered why they would pay admission and then not watch, but then I realized that the whole thing was four hours long. I also remembered back to my high school days. It had always seemed like the skirmish matches were as much a social thing as a spectator one, for a lot of the kids. At least, that was the impression I’d picked up, hearing them talk about it in the halls… there was as much said about who’d been caught making out behind the stands, or who’d got into a fight, or whatever, as there was about the actual match.

It was hard to tell what was going on from the competing choruses of cheers and boos that was going on inside the stadium, but I’d brought my program with me, and after a particularly loud crescendo, it changed to reflect BANKS LABELLE winning. I headed back inside to find out what had happened.

“Nothing much,” Steff said. “She came out, looking a little ticked off or frustrated or something, but did basically the same routine. Her opponent was a better fighter than the last one, and was ready for her strength and speed, so it was a lot closer. If you stick around for her next fight, you’ll probably see her get knocked out of the running.”

“I promised,” I said.

“Did you promise to skip all her fights, or her next one?”

“I’m not going to weasel my way around it,” I said. “If Ian and her both become regulars, I’ll, you know, talk to her and work out an understanding, but for tonight, I’m going to keep my promise.”

“Well, Dobbs is coming up at the end of this round,” Steff said. “At least you’ve got a fifty-fifty chance of seeing him go down in flames before the night’s through.”

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