Bonus Story: Pit Stop

on September 8, 2008 in Other Tales

Here it is, this week’s bonus story. With no clear frontrunner except Barley, I tried to combine a couple of requests. Next week I may try to do something for the “parental” crowd. Enjoy, and thanks for the support.

Jillian Callahan leaned back and put her booted feet up on the desk. This was the reason she had a desk. Well, it was one of the reasons. It was slightly more comfortable than the floor, when the right mood struck her. It beat an orcish marital bed by a long way. If it wasn’t the cleanest desk in the world, it was certainly the least cluttered.

Every once in a while, somebody in some branch of the university would try to put their department on a paperless office plan. Should the martial college undertake such a project, it would have found no more enthusiastic supporter than Callahan. The only papers to be found anywhere were a series of elaborately detailed drawings she’d taken off the Johnson kid, which were securely locked away inside the desk drawer.

There were a few weapons on the walls, but not as many as might have been expected. Most of the weapons in the room were actually hidden. There was nowhere she could stand and not reach something useful with either or both of her hands. The filing cabinet in the corner contained no files, but a large bottle of whiskey and other miscellaneous supplies.

“So, you want to be a gladiator,” she said to the young man who stood uncomfortably, back by the door. “Do you think you could hit a girl?”

“Will I have to?” he asked, uncomfortably.

“It’s mocked weapons,” she said. “Mostly. But no, you don’t have to fight anybody you don’t want to. Could you, though?”

“…no. No, I couldn’t.”

“What’s your name, kid?”

“Ian. Ian Mason.”

“There are three things you need to know about the pit, Mason,” she said. “First is that it takes all comers. Matches need losers as well as winners. Everybody who walks through the door and says they want to be a gladiator gets to go in the ring, if they really want to. Half of them back out. Most of the rest go in, they fight one match, they lose, and they’re done. Either way, there’s a place for you if you want it.”

“I want it,” Ian said.

“The second is that it doesn’t play favorites. Some people will tell you that you’ve got to win the crowd… but while you’re doing that, your opponent is winning the match. If you’re doing your job right, you won’t see the crowd. You won’t even hear them. If you’re doing it right, then for one moment the whole world shrinks down to just two people… you and your opponent, and all you have to do is take that world and make it a little smaller.”

“What’s the third?”

“That’s not something I can tell you,” she said. “It’s something you have to find out for yourself. You ever go out for skirmish, Ian?”

He shook his head.

“We get a lot of skirmish rejects in here,” she said. “Big, tough warrior men who couldn’t make the cut, so they think they’ll come down here and impress me and I’ll get them on the team. I don’t give a shit about skirmish, though. The administration thinks that because I fought in the war, I should be brilliant at skirmish, but it doesn’t work like that. I’d rather be in the pit.”

“Which war?” Ian asked.

“It doesn’t matter. The thing is, in skirmish, you can launch yourself screaming against a fortified position as a distraction, knowing that if your side wins because of it you’ll get to share in the glory, and you can do the whole thing over again next match. War’s not like that. You can take one for the team… and plenty do… but it doesn’t do you any good. Resurrections from the battlefield are about as common as deaths in high school skirmish. In the pit, though, in single combat… there is no team to take one for. If you die, you lose. It isn’t real. You can afford to take stupid risks, knowing that whatever happens to you is just an illusion, but still… winning is living. Dying is losing. That’s as stark as it gets. Do you know what the two greatest warrior races are, Ian?”

“Uh, dwarves and…”

“Don’t say dwarves,” she said, shaking her head. “Dwarves are good at fighting, and they can hold a position like no other, but at the end of the day they think the goal of war is to die for their clan. It’s elves, Mason… ogres and elves. Ogres, because they’ll do anything to kill, and elves, because they’ll do anything to live. You cross an ogre with an elf and you get the scariest son of a bitch you’re ever going to meet on the field of combat. None of that horseshit about laying down and dying for your country. That’s the other side’s job. There’s no honor or glory in pissing your life away. The glory is in winning. The honor is in living. If you fight like the ogres and the elves, you’re fighting to win and to live.”

“Why are you telling me all of this?” Ian asked. “Is it part of the standard pep talk?”

“I don’t do pep,” she said. “I’m telling you because you’re interesting. I asked you if you could hit a girl. Every time a guy tells me he wants to be a gladiator, I ask him if he could hit a girl. Some people say yes and mean it. Some people hit me. That’s the right answer, by the way. It’s the only time that is the right answer, too, so don’t get any ideas. A lot of people lie and say they could. A few guys admit they couldn’t.” She swung her legs around off the desk and put them on the floor. “But you… you’re the first guy who ever lied and said no.”

“I wasn’t lying,” Ian said.

“You were,” she said. “I won’t even bother listing all the ways I could tell. Human muscle tone is easy enough to read, without even adding those ridiculous faces into the mix. You made it easier than easy, though.”

“Okay, so why are you telling me all this, then?”

“So you’ll understand that there are no lies in the ring,” she said. “If you bring them in with you, they’ll just weigh you down.”

“Is that the third thing?”

“No,” Callahan said. “I already told you, you have to figure that one out for yourself. Khersis God, you’re as dumb as some of the kids in my mixed melee class. If you don’t want to fight girls, you won’t fight girls, but you won’t advance. Everybody’s on the same ladder, you see. If you don’t care about that, you’ll do okay… but you’ll never be as good as you could be.”

“I just want to get some aggression out,” Ian said.

“It never works like that.”

“Like what?”

“Gladiator therapy,” she said with a smirk. “People come in here thinking they can beat their problems away with a phantasmal axe, or face their fear of death, or whatever, but it’s just like mental healing: it won’t work if you’re not honest with yourself.”

“I just need an outlet,” Ian said. “I don’t need to beat up girls for that.”

“Who said you’d be the one doing the beating?” she said. Ian said nothing. “Alright, then. Let’s go on down and I’ll find somebody to put you with. You can show me what you can do.”

Ian stood back while the deceptively petite, wiry woman strode past him to the door. He followed her out into the fitness center hallway.

“You know they had a fucking dance in here last night?” she asked. “Can you believe that? They used my arena for a dance floor. The faculty bathroom smelled like someone had sex in it.”

“Uh, that sucks,” Ian said. He didn’t know how much of what Callahan had said about reading muscle tone was bullshit, but he was glad he was walking behind her.

“I hope to hell somebody picks a fight with me before the day’s over. I need to break somebody.”

They headed down three sets of stairs, into the staging area outside the arena. As it was around lunch time, there were quite a few fighters hanging around, swinging their weapons at the air or sparring with each other.

“Grady!” Callahan said, and a guy with a similar build to Ian finished his axe swing and turned to face them. “This is Ian Mason. He wants in.”

“You any good?” Grady asked. His head was shaved, but covered in stubble.

“Guess we’ll find out,” Ian said.

“Mock boxes along the wall,” Callahan said. “Armor’s allowed in the ring, but we’ll see how you fight and move without it before we make any decisions there.”

“We?” Ian asked.

“I am a coach,” Callahan said.

“I’m just not sure how all this works,” Ian said. “I mean, you said it yourself: this isn’t a team sport. Whose side are you on?”

“The winner’s,” Callahan said. “Until I know who that is, I’m on everybody’s side. The ring doesn’t play favorites and neither do I. Go mock your sword and then get over there on the mats. Use the green ones.”

Ian nodded, then went to the boxes stacked like cabinets against the wall. He put his sword in one with a green door and closed it. He took a moment to pull his flannel jacket off and sling it on top of the boxes before he opened it and pulled out both the sword and the illusionary copy. He left the original with his jacket, and went to meet Grady on the mats.

“Do we just fight?” Ian asked, glancing halfway at Callahan.

“No, you have to finesse him a little,” Callahan said. “Forty-five minutes of foreplay is usually about… of course you fight.”

“I mean, can I… if I have…”

“You do whatever you can to put him down, as long as you’re not pulling a real weapon out of your ass. Go on the count of three, guys. Three!”

Grady stepped forward on the shout, jabbing at Ian’s head with his heavy, double-bladed axe of black iron like he was punching him. Ian had already had his sword halfway up; he got a firm grip with both hands on the hilt and caught the axe on it inches before his face. He felt a biting chill emanating from the dark metal, like tendrils of cold were reaching out and grabbing at his vitality.

Ian grunted and set his feet, then twisted the locked weapons around. At the same time, he reached into his sword and invoked its own power. The blade was suddenly wreathed in golden flames, tinged blue where they touched the axe’s metal. Ian’s opponent yelped and stumbled backwards.

“Nice piece, Mason,” Callahan said, chuckling. “Show him you deserve it.”

They stalked around each other in a circle, Grady feinting with half-swings, testing Ian’s reflexes and goading him to counterattack. Ian did no more than adjust the angle of his sword a bit, to keep it in the best position for defending.

“I’ve heard about you,” Grady said, making a low swing at Ian’s knees, forcing him to jump back a bit.

Ian answered with a swing of his own, while Grady’s axe was over-extended. His opponent ducked underneath the high slashing arc.

“What have you heard?” Ian asked, getting his sword up in time to catch the next blow, aimed at his head. The sword’s flames flickered and even vanished where the axe struck, though they sprang back to life when they fell apart.

“You’re with that girl,” he said. “The man eater.”

“I’m not dating any man eater,” Ian said.

“It’s what I heard,” Grady said. “She’s a man eating slut. My cousin said he banged her.”

“Good for him,” Ian said. He launched a flurry of strikes, bringing the sword down at Grady’s right shoulder, then his arm, and then his side. The first two blows clanged off of metal, but the third nicked him in the skin, leaving a small line of blood and angry red skin.

“He said… he said it was a gangbang,” Grady said, pulling back. The wound was small but clearly painful. He was bending over a bit to the side.

“Your cousin’s name Gabe?” Ian asked.

“It’s true, then?”

“Your cousin’s an idiot,” Ian said. “And not in any danger from man eaters. But you probably know that.”

He launched himself again at the axe-wielder, who was slower to move his right arm now. Ian came at him high, making him raise the axe to block, then twisted around and slashed at his exposed torso from the left. The phantasmal sword blade passed through his stomach several inches deep… the “green” copy didn’t treat him to any illusionary guts or serious gore, but it left a satisfyingly bloody gash and blistered skin.

Knowing that the game was almost over, Grady hefted his axe and charged, swinging wildly. With all his weight and zero caution behind the blows, Ian wasn’t able to hold him off. There was a jarring collision between their weapons, the flat of Ian’s flaming blade smacked him in the face and then went out as the hilt left his hands, and the iron axe bit deep into his left shoulder as the two of them toppled over backwards.

His arm immediately went lifeless. His whole left side was going numb. He could feel a pulling sensation, like something was setting hooks deep inside his chest and tugging them up towards the axe.

Ian howled in pain and anger. He reached up and hooked his right hand in Grady’s mouth, wrenching hard to the side before the other man could react. The phantom blade left his flesh, and some strength flowed back into his left side, though the arm remained useless. Grady, his face twisted with rage, raised his axe up over his head, ready to slam the butt of the haft down on Ian’s face.

Ian punched him in the jaw as hard as he could, then jerked himself over onto his side, throwing his attacker off. Grady lost hold of his weapon. His skull hit the floor just past the edge of the mat with a loud thunk. Ian pushed himself up with his good arm and got to his feet. He grabbed the stunned fighter’s foot and pulled him back on the mat.

Grady kicked out at him with his other leg. Ian dropped him and stomped hard on the back of his knee, then grabbed his sword. Grady rolled over to face him, his hand groping for his axe. It closed around the handle as Ian rammed the point of his sword through his neck, igniting it at the same time. Grady collapsed backwards onto the mat, “dead”.

Panting and sweating, Ian turned around and was surprised for a moment to find Callahan watching him. Feeling was flooding back into his arm. It wasn’t a good feeling that was flooding back… he’d gone a few steps beyond “pins and needles”. It felt like fire ants were crawling through his veins administering their own version of a wake-up call.

“Gutsy,” Callahan said. “In a mock combat, teeth are the one real weapon that anybody has. I wouldn’t have expected you to put your little mittsies so close to his voluntarily.”

“Yeah, well, neither did he,” Ian said. “Did I pass the audition?”

“What do you think this is, bard class?” she asked. “I told you the pit takes all comers. This was just so I know where to put you.”

“And where are you putting me?”

“On the B rolls,” she said. “Not terrible, not great. I’ll start you off on Saturday night. Get here early in the morning if you care how well you do, or show up at eight if you just want to get out there and die. ”

“You don’t seem too bothered about which I do,” Ian said.

“I’m not,” she said. “I’m on the winner’s side, and there are always enough people who want to win if you don’t.”

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2 Responses to “Bonus Story: Pit Stop”

  1. pedestrian says:

    such a lovely callousness.

    reminds me of my stupid years brawling at the old Hurricane Bar.
    considering the scars and skull topography i came away with, i sure wish those magic boxes were actual!

    Current score: 2
  2. Jechtael says:

    Okay… so… wow. Were I not in a committed relationship, and had I access to that universe, I would be first in line for a mock battle with Ian. (Granted, I tend to use my teeth instinctually, but I’m fairly certain I’d lose anyway… in a similar sense to how Mackenzie lost to Sooni in the battle that destroyed the lounge TV.)

    Current score: 0