303: Split Decision

on October 23, 2008 in Book 11

In Which The Crowd Goes Wild

“Yep, it’s definitely Puddy,” Steff said. “Smaller than life and exactly as ugly.”

“Is that her armor or the school’s?” I asked. She definitely hadn’t kept it in the dorm when we were roommates.

“Probably a little of column A and a little of column B,” Steff said. “It looks like something from an exhibition match… when they don’t need them any more, or when they get replacements, they sell the old ones to students for a relative bargain.”

“So it’s a costume?” I asked.

“It’s a showpiece,” Steff said. “I mean, it’s actual armor, but whatever care and/or magic went into making it went towards making it all fancified like that. Our man Tomaso’s going to make mincemeat of her, extra fine.”

She pronounced his name like “Thomas O.”

“I don’t think that’s how you say it, Steff,” I said.

“Eh… tomato, Tomaso,” Steff said. “Either way, he’ll get the job done.”

I wasn’t nearly as confident as Steff was of his chances. First, Puddy had got a bye where neither he nor his opponent had, and Blake had beaten him essentially by having more power and a few lucky shots. Blake was a big guy, but I didn’t think anything he’d done was out of bounds of human strength. Puddy was much stronger than that, and at least competent enough to pass the elimination round.

“Is this part single elimination or double?” I asked Steff.

“Single,” Steff said. “Once you’re out, you’re out, and Puddy’s about to be out. Look at her hotdogging down there… she doesn’t know what’s going to hit her.”

She was playing to the audience, turning around in a full circle with her gold-plated arms up over her head, her double-bladed axe held in one fist as she pumped the crowd up. Tomaso was either feeling cautious or honorable. He took a few steps from the edge of the ring and assumed a ready stance, but waited for his opponent to turn and address him.

She finally did, about a couple seconds after playing out the crowd’s patience. She turned in place and gave a little bow to him that looked awfully curt from where I was sitting, and then proceeded to skip across towards the center of the ring, swinging her axe like a kid playing with a toy wand.

A moment later, my mind processed the distance between us and the actual size of the circle, and I realized she hadn’t been skipping… she was making great big leaping strides. It put me in mind of a documentary I’d seen: Giants at a Distance. Puddy was no giant, of course… of all the fantastical creatures she claimed descent from, the one she most resembled was the least fantastic: a dwarf. I knew the power in her arms, though, so I could well believe she had that kind of strength in her legs.

Steff, on the other hand, had never tried to arm-wrestle a drunken Puddy.

“That axe has to have a serious lightening enchantment on it,” Steff said, in an uncommonly awed tone. “She’s tossing it around like it doesn’t phantom-weigh anything.”

“She’s, uh… pretty strong, actually,” I said.

“She’s not that strong,” Steff said. “If that’s a real dwarven axe, it should weigh about a fuckload. That’s an Imperial fuckload, of course, not a naval one.”

“Yeah, of course,” I murmured, not really focusing enough on her words to sort out the thread of her humor. I was watching the scene unfolding below, with a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that I knew what was going to happen next.

I didn’t, of course… know, I mean. I didn’t have a clue. I was watching Puddy prance around an arena while dressed up like the theme park version of a Metropolitan centurion. She could have pulled Honey’s complete tea service out of her ass and offered Tomaso a crumpet, and it would have only been slightly more startling than her initial appearance.

But that’s how I felt… like I was watching an inevitability approaching.

Tomaso, for his part, looked either amused or bemused. Hell, if I were in his shoes… seeing this bizarre, really solidly built girl bounding across the ring at me with a brush on her head, I probably would have been D-All Of The Above-mused. I glanced up at the jumbo illusion to get a better look at his face, but the illusionists were favoring Puddy at the moment and so instead I got a shot of her in three-quarters profile, smiling like a cherub, with a few curly wisps of her reddish-blonde hair poking out from under the bill of her helmet.

She looked like she was on top of the world… and of course she was. A whole arena full of people had just cheered her appearance, and all she had to do to make them cheer again was win. Who needed friends when you had the roar of the crowd? She probably wouldn’t even know the difference.

I felt a little sorry for her.

I felt really, really, really sorry for Tomaso.

He was approaching her with small, careful, measured steps, like he was dancing a tango or a waltz or something that has small, careful, measured steps. I’ve never really been up on ballroom dancing. He’d decided to take the ridiculous-looking fighter seriously… that was probably smart. She had got a bye, after all, and he had to have noticed the quickness of the axe, and the fact that the armor didn’t begin to weigh her down…

Okay, so maybe there were stories in arena fights… this one even had a sympathetic but doomed protagonist.

Puddy made the first real move, swinging wildly and leaning forward to stretch out as far as she could before Tomaso realized he was inside the arc of her reach. It looked like she was holding her axe by just the very tip of the haft, in order to stretch out as far as she could. Considering he was a big tall guy with a big long sword, I couldn’t fault her the strategy, especially since she could manage a swing like that so blindingly fast.

It wasn’t quite fast enough, though. Tomaso’s caution saved him. He stepped back, pulling his arms in close and… though this may have been more instinctively reflexive than functional… arcing his back out so that his stomach seemed to draw in.

Puddy had jumped the mark a bit, but she kept up the offense. She reeled her over-extended weapon back in, raised it over her shoulder and vaulted forward, swinging it down vertically. Tomaso twitched to the side of this oddly sprite-like charge, and then narrowly avoided a flurry of further jump-and-chop attacks. He seemed to be practicing an economy of movement, never moving more than he needed to even when it was obvious he really had to haul ass to get out of the way. Their weapons clashed several times, but he never met her axe blade head-on with his sword… he brought his blade up to slap it off-course.

I realized I was picturing the fight in my head as an animation… there was an interesting contrast between Puddy’s weightless-looking leaps and Tomaso’s calculated evasions. Of course, with a tall, dark-skinned guy in gray armor versus a short blonde girl in gold, it probably would have had a different villain as a show…

There I went again. This was a sporting match, not a story. Puddy wasn’t a villain, particularly at the moment.

“She’s like you, with coordination,” Steff said.

“What?” I asked. The comment seemed to be completely out of the blue, and on top of that, it was of the same general species as, “Like Amaranth, only uglier.” Somebody like me but coordinated wasn’t like me.

“She’s not jumping, she’s stepping,” Steff said. “Bounding, the way you do when you run.”

“Told you she was strong,” I said.

“There’s got to be some heavy enchantments on that armor,” Steff said. “No way it’s a costuming department cast-off… I wonder who the hell rated it for the fight?”

Tomaso got a moment to slip out of Puddy’s sights and catch his breath when one of her bounding steps very nearly carried her out of the ring. That had been a forfeit during the elimination round… if that hadn’t changed, then it seemed like his best chance for carrying the evening here. I had a feeling he wouldn’t go for that. I didn’t know the guy, of course. Maybe it was the writer in my head enforcing a plot on the scene I was watching. Maybe I was subconsciously associating him with Gloria… was that racist? Whatever it was, I had a feeling he wouldn’t go for victory-by-technicality.

He brought his blade up, holding it vertically in front of him, and rotated it. There was a flash and he went all blurry and shifted to the side… to both sides, actually. Suddenly Puddy was facing two of him. One, presumably was an illusionary fighter, carrying an illusion of a spectral copy of his weapon, while the trio of illusionists kept the whole tableau going as a midair mirage.

Illusions of illusions of illusions… I wondered if the fights were being televised. That would be another level of illusion on top of things.

Both the Tomaso figures were moving more or less in the same pattern, though the spell apparently was good enough to give the duplicate slightly different “business” to carry out, as they were angling their weapons slightly differently and didn’t have the same exact expression fixed on their giant projected faces.

They both backed away from her at the same time, spreading out like the arms of a V. One circled around Puddy to the left and the other circled around to the right. Unless the duplicate itself had some kind of spectral body capable of inflicting spectral-spectral wounds with its spectral-spectral weapon… if that was even possible… it would be over when they came in for the attack. Whichever one Puddy swung at, her axe would probably blow through him like he wasn’t there… whether he was or not.

If she picked incorrectly, he might get a good solid hit in. If not, game over. If she pressed the matter by going after one, she’d be completely turning her back on the other. He’d turned what might have been her sure thing into a fifty-fifty chance.

“Why didn’t he use that in the first round?” I asked. “It might not have made a difference if he didn’t think to do it before he got hammered, but you’d think he would have gone for whatever advantage he could get.”

“They set arbitrary limits on using active enchantments like that,” Steff said. “Back when arena fights were real, enchanted weapons were rare, they weren’t given to gladiators lightly, and the fancy effects all had limited uses per day or long cool-down times… the mockboxes got around all that because you got a fresh copy every match, but people got tired of coming to see fights when everybody went for the meteor option right away. So, there are rules… if he’d used it in his first match, when he could lose without being eliminated, he couldn’t use it now. He probably wasn’t planning on using it until much later in the evening.”

“Well, he’s got a fighting chance now,” I said.

“Fighting chance, nothing,” Steff said. “Look at the rapey little twat chasing her tail… she’s rattled, Mack. He’s gone off program and she doesn’t know what to do.”

She was wheeling in place, trying to keep both in sight as they circled around to keep one behind her. They stalked in closer, cautious and slow.

But not quite cautious enough…

Puddy repeated a version of her first trick, spinning in place, her arm stretched out wide and her axe extended as far as it could go. It passed through one Tomaso with no apparent resistance and then struck the other one… who promptly fuzzed out and disappeared.

Yeah… the first Tomaso? Real.

Thanks to the magic of high-end mockboxery, he had once again been split in two, one real and one illusionary. The only thing that saved my cookies was that I was focusing on the actual size figures down on the floor.

The arena was silent. So, amazingly, was Steff. The only sound I could hear was the soft crunching of a sugar cookie, and then Two began to clap. She clapped very softly… probably what she considered to be the bare minimum… but it carried in the stillness, and seconds later, the rest of the crowd was up on its feet, clapping and hollering. The applause went on for longer than a lot of the preceding fights had, but when it ended it didn’t just fade out or die… it turned alarmingly and progressively ugly.

Somewhere out in the crowd, a ripple had started, and it grew into an undercurrent, and then that became the current. Some people were booing, other people were muttering or murmuring, and others were looking around at the rest of the people because they didn’t understand what exactly was going on.

Go ahead and guess which category I was in.

“She’s snuck in a ringer,” Steff said. “She must have brought in one axe for weigh-in with a bunch of regular blah enchantments, then she switched it out somehow for that monster when it was time to get it mocked. That’s the only way she could have got it into the arena.”

“Wouldn’t they check the enchantments on the weapons that come out of the mockboxes to make sure they match?” I asked.

It seemed to me like it should have been possible to load a weapon with a bunch of illusionary properties that wouldn’t take effect for the physical weapon… though whether or not that could be hidden from divination was another question.

Not that I thought that was what had happened here.

“They’re supposed to,” Steff said. “Maybe she bribed a marshal?”

“I really don’t think it’s the axe.”

“She’s buffing, then,” Steff said. “What a dumbass. She must have been decent enough on her own for Callahan to seed her into the second round, but she threw that away. When they get it sorted out, her ass is going to be more barred than a pack of minstrels… look, here comes the marshal and a pair of diviners.”

The black-and-white clad official was strolling across the field with a pair of wizards in gray. Callahan was stomping across the floor from the other side, yelling and snarling. She actually stomped on Tomaso’s legs… which unfortunately for him were apparently his actual legs, as the rest of him was coming into view above the waist. I thought she was going to go after the marshal, but instead she headed right for Puddy, screaming her head off.

I kind of wished I could have heard what she was saying. I kind of was glad I couldn’t.

Puddy started screaming back. She ripped her helmet off and whipped it at Callahan, but it was a wild throw and went way wide… and way far, too. It sounded like it crashed into the arena wall below us.

The crowd was rumbling all around, and it was hard to tell if more people were getting riled up over Puddy for having possibly cheated or the officials for stepping in after such an impressively brutal victory. Some people were actually chanting her name… her nickname, I mean… though they were pronouncing it more like “putty” and less like pudding. A small but vocal group of people on one side were chanting for Tomaso. A lot of people all over were yelling “Bullshit!”

The marshal had grabbed hold of Puddy’s axe, and one of the diviners was going over it while the other one surreptitiously held her hands out towards Puddy’s back. She shook her head, and the other one nodded. The marshal shook his head. I had no idea if that was good news or bad news for Puddy. He ambled over to where the two women were screaming in each other’s faces, their voices actually carrying above the crowd even if their words weren’t, and got Callahan’s attention. Even without any illusionists broadcasting it, the general gist of her expression was readable from the stands… and so was the triumphant sneer on Puddy’s face.

Somebody came hurrying over with a crystal and put it in Callahan’s hand. She didn’t bother to hide her disgust as she raised it to her mouth.

“After reviewing all enchantments on the weapon and the aura of the combatants, the marshal of the lists has upheld the ruling in the pit,” she announced. “Banks-LaBelle wins.”

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6 Responses to “303: Split Decision”

  1. pedestrian says:

    in a real fighter, cheaters prosper

    Current score: 0
    • MackSffrs says:

      She fought with ordinary and crappy gear, her only “slight of hand” is hiding her, what, 5/32 non human blood relations?
      Very exotic ones at that.

      Current score: 3
  2. Erm says:

    If the “clone” spell is an ability of the mocked weapon, then the clone is actually a mock illusion of a real illusion of Tomaso, carrying a mock illusion of an actual illusion of the mock illusion of the weapon. My head hurts. 😛

    Current score: 2
    • Athena says:

      I didn’t even make it all the way through that before my head imploded

      Current score: 0
  3. Daezed says:

    I keep wondering if this has something to do with Puddy’s supposed dragon-blood…. Or, if being part hamadryad, she has perhaps got an Away like Amaranth and Barley, and used that somehow…. I guess she also could have tossed something away in her helm, but… Meh.

    Current score: 0
    • zeel says:

      The common theory is that she has a Faery gift, making her “the stongest in the room” – so she is stronger than a half demon.

      Current score: 2