Crucible Of Irk: Written In Blood
Round 1: Broken Dolls
I awoke face-down on a hard, non-porous surface. Stone? My back was getting warm. I opened my eyes. Yeah, stone. My body didn't hurt, exactly, but there was a heaviness to it. I willed my PAK to give me a tox report. Instantly data scrolled across my vision. I moved it to one corner of my sight with a thought so I could focus on where I was. Outside, certainly. Some wild place on a planet... V-2413?
I lifted my head and realized I had been lying in a small puddle of my own drool. I stuck my tongue out in disgust and got up on my hands and knees, looking around. All around me were cliffs, cliffs in every shade of tan, beige and brown. I was in a huge canyon, over a hundred meters deep, on a decently spacious ledge a third of the way down. Vegetation was sparse, but there were some shrubs poking out and even a few meager tree branches growing out the sides of the cliff. Sunlight painted the clouds, and even some parts of the exposed bedrock, a rosy shade. It was all so beautiful I couldn't help but smile.
Smiling comes easy to me these days. Easier than it did when I was a scientist for the Armada. Yeah, most folks wouldn't know it from looking at me, but I'm a 100 percent pure, honest-to-goodness tube-born Irken. Grew up under the surface of Irk, assigned a life as a scientist, trained in zoology, mostly. Good enough at my job. Had no idea how unhappy I was. If a Loyalist saw how my eyes got when he heard me talking about my first experience actually seeing unspoilt nature, they'd call me a Defective. Morons, all of them. The defect is with them, with anybody who couldn't appreciate-
Whoops, this isn't really the time for brooding about the Empire. I was still on my hands and knees on a rock face somewhere. I saw my reflection in the spit puddle I'd been sleeping in, and that made me smile again. Even after sleeping in my own drool on a rock, I looked good. I admired my face – inspected my condition, yeah, that's the ticket – in the puddle some more. My eyes, skin, and tattoos formed a striking contrast of pink, green, and black. The tats formed thick stripes on my skin, starting with an X above my lips and a wide V on my brow-line. They continued down my back, with more on my sides and limbs. I pitied the artist who couldn't wear their magnum opus wherever they went. “Yeah, I'd fuck me,” I said, affecting a deep, husky voice.
The tox report was back... finally. Grade X Neuro-Stun... pretty standard stuff. Strong enough to KO Irkens and Planet Jackers with a good dose, not so strong it would kill Trillens. Hell, I'd use it. The heaviness was nothing to worry about, I'd be right as rain soon. I got to my feet, experimentally. Flexed my fingers, toes. Yep, all still there. Wiggled my antennae. Yep, still pretty much gone. Hearing aids were functioning normally, though. Two hearing aids; blue vest, buckled; yellow shorts, in-place (if whomever had gassed me had also tried something kinky, I'd have figured it out by now); two tan flip-flops, lightly flopped; one claw, retractable... wait. I should have two claws. Where was Lefty?
I checked my PAK's inventory. A week's worth of MREs and a holosphere. I'd been robbed. No commlink, no moneys, no backup set of claws with laser-blades for the heavy-duty work... even the food I had brought was gone, replaced with different food! Admittedly, better-quality rations than what I had brought, but that wasn't really the point. I tried deploying my PAK tentacles to climb the cliff, get myself a better view of the situation. Then I got an error message, and I started to really get worried. IN THE INTEREST OF FAIRNESS, THE BENEFACTOR HAS LOCKED MANY OF YOUR PAK'S TOOLS AND WEAPONS! HAVE A WONDERFUL DAY! A detailed inspection revealed that three of my four PAK tentacles had been locked, although they were nice enough to leave me the bottom one, which I usually kept out anyway. I thought of it essentially as a tail. It swished agitatedly around my legs now, the metal rings whispering my stress as they shifted against each other. My field tattoo kit was also locked, to my dismay. What if I found an artistic calling out here?
I turned my attention to the holosphere. It wasn't something I'd brought. A mental command ejected it from my PAK's storage into my waiting hand, and I brought it around to look directly at it. Silvery finish. Nice. I'd dealt with these before – spheres that produced holograms. Style over substance, in my opinion, not that I was one to throw stones. These things were good at what they did, but it usually wasn't very much. The lack of user interface was the problem, really. This one had a compass and some kind of meter built in... thermometer? Altimeter? That wouldn't make sense... I gave it a few gentle taps and it finally started up its primary purpose: showing me a damn hologram. Specifically, it showed me a glowing teal square with some lighter turquoise words on it in Irken.
WELCOME TO THE CRUCIBLE!
A TRIAL OF HARDSHIP AND BLOODSHED, ONLY THE STRONGEST AND MOST CUNNING CHAMPION CAN MAKE IT OUT ALIVE. WIN, AND REGAIN YOUR FREEDOM AND THE FAME AND RICHES YOU SO RIGHTLY DESERVE! FAIL, AND DIE LIKE THE REST. IT'S KILL OR BE KILLED, AND THE ONLY RULE IS THAT YOUR OPPONENT IS DEAD BY THE END OF THE ROUND! AND REMEMBER, NOBODY LIKES A FENCE-SITTER, SO FIND YOUR OPPONENT AND GET TO KILLING! OR ELSE!
P.S.: PLEASE HOLD ONTO THIS HOLOSPHERE FOR FURTHER UPDATES. IT SURE CAN BE A PAIN TO TELL YOU HOW TO FIND YOUR OPPONENT BEFORE THEY FIND YOU IF YOU LOSE IT! AND THEN YOU'LL PROBABLY DIE!
“Ugh.” I rolled my eyes and waved away the hologram, dropping my hand to my side. “Benefactor... more like mal-efactor.” I grimaced. “You drug and kidnap me, you steal my shit and mess with my gear, and now you're putting me in a deathmatch. You guys think I'm gonna take all this lying down?!” I gritted my teeth... and then I started to really think about it.
Why had I been out poking my nose around V-2413 in the first place? For curiosity, mostly, but riches and fame were pretty high on the list. Hell, it had been a treasure map in the first place. As for fighting for my no-good life... well, that was already sorta my day job. I looked at the claws on my right hand – a pair of fourteen-inch nano-sharp blades that could pop out from behind my knuckles at the slightest provocation. Apparently my competition was weak enough that I had to fight with three tentacles and a claw tied... for 'fairness.' This was gonna be a cinch. I had it in the bag. “You know what, Benny?” I shouted to... well, I assumed cameras or something were out there. “You're right! I'm absolutely gonna take this lying down!” Well... metaphorically lying down. I wasn't gonna find my opponent prone, after all.
After a few minutes of hiking and light rock climbing, I found my opponent prone... well, close to it. I found her sitting on the ground, hunched over and muttering darkly to herself. That was a promising start. Unfortunately, she was on the other side of the goddamn gorge from me, and it was a ten meter gap at this level. I didn't have any ranged weapons. She didn't seem to, either, but that would be a big assumption to make. Come to think of it, I was assuming she was my opponent. The first Irken I came across here would probably be my opponent, but...
I fished out my holosphere and pointed it at her. It helpfully told me which way was north (behind me on my left). I shook it a little and pointed it again. This time a small hologram of another text box popped out. NAME: ZIXA. YOUR OPPONENT.. There. That didn't have to be so hard. As I put the thing back in my PAK, I called out to her. “Hey! Hey! Zixa! Am I pronouncing that right? It's a short 'i', right?” She didn't answer. Well, we were gonna have to kill each other eventually. I slipped my flip-flops off and tossed one at her head. And I missed by a meter. I corrected my aim and managed to catch her across the brow with that one. Closer... I was aiming for the thing on her head.
“Ow, hey!” Looked like I finally got her attention. She scrambled to her feet, rubbing her forehead and making a hissing sound, and also giving me a good look at her. The girl looked only marginally more like a normal Irken than me. She was about my height, a bit slimmer and some indeterminate amount younger. She was wearing what I could only describe as an off-brand version of an Invader's uniform – it looked a lot like one, but the tunic pattern's stripes were off. Also, she had a... I'm gonna say that was a scrap of cloth taped over her scalp. Her antennae were mostly normal female antennae, except one had what looked like a tiny chili pepper hanging off of it. And her eyes... no. Those were not Irken eyes.
My PAK helpfully alerted me that it was clamping right the hell down on my unnecessary adrenaline surge, and my elevated pulse didn't last more than a few seconds. Focus, Kizzo. They look like those shitty lenses Invaders too stingy or Luddite to use holograms buy for their disguises. Not scary at all, just cheap plastic garbage. It occurred to me that Zixa had just shouted something at me. “Pardon?!” I asked, screaming across the gap. I pointed to my antenna clips. “Winds are pretty strong here, and I'm a little deaf!” I was very much not deaf, but no need for her to know that.
“I asked what the hell that was for!” She shouted. “Who throws a shoe? Seriously!”
“Well, I need you to hang onto those... I'll get to that. Hi, I'm Kizzo, we're supposed to fight to the death because Crucible thing...?” She nodded in understanding. Good, she knew the situation. “Yeah, that's about the gist of it. So I guess that's reason enough to throw stuff at you.” I glanced down. Far below Zixa's ledge, almost directly below her, a tree branch poked out from the cliff that could on a good day be described as “sturdy.” It'd do.
“If we're supposed to fight, we should just...” she blinked. “Oh. You're all the way over there.”
“I'm working on getting over there!” I insisted, taking a few steps back from the ledge. “That's why I need you to hold onto the flip-flops. I can't get over there in those.” I leaned back, cracking the joints in my neck and spine experimentally.
“Maybe if you hadn't beaned me with one,” she said, sticking her tongue out. Then she kicked the flip-flop that had hit her in the face off the ledge. I gasped melodramatically as it floated down toward the bottom of the canyon.
“You're going to pay for that!” I shouted, unbuckling my vest. She scowled at me, tensing up... she seemed ready to dodge a laser or something. Instead, I just took off my vest and held it in front of me, an armhole in each hand, and she blinked. “I'm kidding. Those were barely worth the rubber they're made from. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm gonna kill you, but only because that's why we're here.” With no further preamble, I sprinted forward, kicking off the ledge to fly into the air over the heart of the canyon. Her confusion turned to a very pleasing look of slack-jawed shock as I grinned and lifted the vest above my head, letting the air catch it. Then I started to fall down past her, still some distance short. “Sit tight, I'll be up soon!” I called, plummeting out of her line of sight.
In only a few more precious seconds, I would hit the brightly glowing river at near terminal velocity. Oh, I didn't mention the river yet, did I? The luminescent cyan current at the bottom of this canyon? It looked nasty. I'd noticed it before while climbing, but I glazed over that part so I could introduce Zixa... Anyway, the vest wasn't much of a parachute, only slightly better than nothing for creating drag in the air. But it had another use. Just as my PAK started to offer velocity warnings, I reached the tree branch I had noticed earlier. I slid the vest over the branches and tensed against the bone-rattling impact on my shoulders, the branch bending down more and more as it absorbed more of the force of my fall. With any luck, it'd hold, and then I could start to slingshot back up and –
It didn't hold. With my momentum almost entirely canceled, the branch snapped and I continued the fall, sans vest. Oh well. I was close enough to the cliffside now to slam my PAK tendril into the side, using that as a makeshift brake. It slowed me down more, and the cliff wasn't quite sheer – after a couple of seconds, the canyon had narrowed toward me enough for me to get my hands working to brake my momentum further. That left my rear half to fall faster, and soon my legs were below me – I put them to work braking, too, and I finally reached a complete stop, clinging to a jagged rock face by my bare hands and feet (except for the one fingerless glove where a retractable claw was attached) and my PAK tentacle. “Wow, that hurt!” I said brightly.
I took stock of my position. I had fallen farther than I'd hoped I would. Looking down at the river, I could see I was now close enough to watch my shoe splash as it hit the liquid. A cloud of unpleasant-looking steam began emanating from it as it sank below the current. Then I noticed my vest fluttering down past me (being bright blue, it was pretty noticeable) and snagged it with my PAK tentacle. That's enough feeding my stuff to the river for the moment, thanks. Luckily I wasn't acrophobic or agoraphobic. I don't think I could live with being such a pussy.
I hauled myself up onto the nearest ledge above me. It was kinda narrow, but I could at least sit there with my legs dangling over the side and check those damage warnings my PAK was flashing. I had scraped up my hands, inner forearms, toes, and the balls of my feet something fierce. I had some raw and torn skin there, but my PAK was already going to work with the platelet supplements and the mild painkillers. Besides, I had intimidated the fuck out of Zixa. She didn't know what to expect from me now. Of course, I didn't know what to expect from her, but it didn't hurt.
“Best watch out, babe,” I said, my fingers tensing with anticipation. “My best work tends to be permanent.”
Now, I'm not stupid, whatever you may have assumed. I knew there was a decent chance that Zixa would try to get the jump on me by coming down the cliff to meet me partway. Or, she would pick somewhere that let her get a nice high ground advantage. I wasn't sure what kind of weapon she had, aside from “probably not a gun.” That would make it harder for her to cling to any sort of high ground advantage. She probably wouldn't have the reach to stop me from just getting out of her arms' reach and gaining the high ground over her. Unless she was really fast...
I had also been trying to crack the locked functions on my PAK. I'd found backdoors into turning on some of my old surveying equipment – the altimeter, barometer, Geiger counter, that kind of stuff. Mostly the lock was concerned with anything I could use as a weapon, so that stuff was where I had no success. I'd tried all the classic, stupidly easy passwords. Swordfish. Password. Tallest. So on and so forth. No dice. I was just gonna have to go without my other PAK tentacles, at least for a while.
I was actually most of the way back up the side of the cliffs, having just passed one of the wider ledges, wide enough to lay on and sprawl out a little. I had climbed dozens of meters already, and was beginning to suspect Zixa was just going to wait for me at the top like I asked. Actually, she was pretty stealthy, all things considered. I didn't see her coming.
But I heard the grains of sand in tread of her boot faintly grind against the stone.
I pushed off from the rock, not hard, just enough to give me some space as I dropped four meters to the wide ledge below. Not a second later, the spot where my head had been was occupied by some kind of white spike. I let my tentacle tail hit the ground before me and push me to the side, rolling to my feet and giving me some space so Zixa and I weren't close enough to kiss. Zixa, for her part, stuck a three-point landing despite the whiffed attack, her free hand clutching some sort of staff or rod sort of thing. It was a milky white, essentially a little more than a meter of thin, pointy white cone topped on the blunt side with an orb. Little sparks of multicolored electricity danced along its length. I instantly disliked the staff, mostly because I couldn't easily figure out what it did. “Pretty slick dodge,” she muttered.
“Thanks!” I said brightly, unclasping my vest again. I didn't let my eyes waver from her. I didn't want to have to fight with my clothes on, but she might not give me the option to just undress before she dove in. “Pretty slick landing on your end.” I pulled off the vest, avoiding any sudden movements, and tossed it to the side, letting it crumple against the cliff face.
“Thanks... why are you getting naked?” Her eyebrow was raised incredulously.
I rolled my eyes as I slid my pants down. Everybody I run into at the Crucible is going to ask me this question, aren't they? “I just like fighting this way.” I tossed the shorts on top of my vest. “Couldn't wait for me at the top?”
She smacked her lips. “I was... getting hungry.”
“Okaaay.” So much for being the crazy one in this fight. “Didn't they leave you with rations?”
“Prepackaged garbage,” she snapped, and looked away, her eyes wandering over the cliffs. “Too much like the stuff back at the lab. I like real food. Irken meat is... real. And you're just my type. Female... a real special snowflake...”
She was looking away. Amateur mistake. I broke into a sprint, extending the claws as I closed the distance. I pulled back my arm... couldn't wait to carve out those stupid false eyes... Damn, she was fast. And also not as distracted as she looked. She brought up that staff vertically and parried my claw with a thicker part of the length. The white metal rang hollow at the impact, but it was some tough stuff – I barely scratched it, even with most of my thrusting force behind that attack. Our weapons shook against each other as we applied greater and greater force, me leaning into the attack and her pressing both hands against her staff, until finally she pushed me back.
“Pretty good, kid,” I admitted, charging back in. She flipped the staff around and swung high, holding it by the orb on top, which looked like a poor way to maintain a grip to me. I dipped under the slash and came at her abdomen, but she threw a fast snap kick right out of basic training. I managed to take it on the shoulder instead of in the teeth, and it was powerful enough to knock me off my feet! This girl was unnervingly strong for her waifish build... probably enhanced somehow. My PAK 'tail' steered me into a back roll where I could come up on my toes and free hand. Just in time, too – she pressed her advantage by moving forward and using the staff like a rapier, trying to skewer me with the pointed tip. I parried a rain of thrusts and swung my tail out to sweep her legs. She hopped over it, but it broke her offensive momentum. We paused for a moment, just out of each other's reach, breathing heavily. “Pretty damn good,” I amended.
“You're not bad yourself,” she replied, and then added, seemingly to herself, “for a naked skank.” I scowled. Shade thrown! She might have been baiting me, though – instead of going for a direct attack, I feinted that I would do that, and then instead flipped over her. The ledge was too narrow to circle around her, but a true acrobat finds a way! I stunned her with a tail smack to the head, landed, spun, and decapitated her – well, that was the plan. Instead, she deflected the tail with her staff, turned, and was ready to block my claws as well. This time, as she did so, a jolt of red lightning flickered across the staff and up my claws, giving me a mild shock. Unfortunately, it was enough to make my arm spasm, and she pushed it back, knocking me off-balance, and slammed the orb into my gut, knocking me back against the wall.
“Fucking staff,” I muttered, scrambling back away from her and dodging her follow-up. “What's with that thing?” In response, she smirked and swung it orb-out at me. I thought I was out of her reach, but luckily, I realized something was up and ducked anyway. The orb disconnected from the spike, joined only by shimmering strands of red, blue and green energy, and swung out like a flail, smashing against the cliff face hard enough to crack it. If I'd been slower, I'd have taken that metal ball to the temple.
Okay, that was it, the staff had to go. Zixa was unable to press her attack for a second while the orb and spike rejoined, and I dove forward with another thrust at her face. She brought up the staff between my two claws and parried again, but this time I immediately twisted with as much force as I could muster. She started to lose her grip, and leaned forward to tighten it again. I wrapped my tail around the staff (doing my best to ignore the fact that it was shocking me) and pulled forward, dragging her forward as she dug her bootheels into the ground. Perfect. She had committed her entire body to this, while I still had a hand and both feet free. I slapped my hand to the ground and brought both feet forward, stomping down on her thighs. She didn't expect me to exert force that way, and fell back, the staff bouncing loose from both of our grips. I fell back on my elbows and ass and watched in satisfaction as it slid over the cliff, dropping out of sight.
“Cadaceus!” She cried, reaching out for the damn thing, as if that would bring it back. Wait... I actually tensed for a minute, wondering if she could call the staff back with a command word, but that didn't actually seem to be the case. She turned to me, snarling, “You're gonna pay for that,” and then she was on me. I raised my claw to counterattack, but that was actually her primary target, and she had a hand grabbing my wrist before I could bring the weapon forward. She raised her other hand in a fist, glaring into my eyes, and I grabbed her wrist with my free hand. We struggled for a moment, her on top and me trying to roll her over or get my tail involved. I hate to admit it, but she was stronger than me. Skinny bitch was definitely augmented, genetics or cybernetics or something. Even being crazy doesn't make you this strong all by itself. I finally got my tail around her elbow, and I thought I could gain the advantage in this grapple, but then she leaned forward and bit me on the shoulder, and at this point I fully appreciated how Zixa's teeth were not normal Irken teeth, but something much sharper and very well suited for biting into flesh.
I won't deny it, I screamed like a little girl. It hurt that much. I thought she was gonna go for the jugular next, and I'd be a goner, but it didn't seem to occur to her. Instead she used the opening to unbuckle my weapon and pull it off my hand. “Hah!” Zixa crowed, her lips smeared a darker jade green with my blood. She discarded the claw glove behind her. A blast of steam hissed out of her PAK, framing her in a translucent cloud that softened the light around us. “Let's see how you like being disarmed!”
I responded by snaking my metal tail around her neck and yanking it backwards as hard as I could. She gagged, spine bending back, and grabbed at the PAK tentacle with both hands. I wouldn't be able to maintain that chokehold, but I could use the opportunity to get my head and shoulders off the ground and start pummeling at her ribs with a bit of leverage. She relented and got up off of me, hands on my tail, and I pulled in a leg and snapped it up into her groin. She dropped the tail, staggered back and sucked in a hissing breath – the pain stunned her long enough that I was able to get to my feet. “I got bad news for you, kid,” I said, rolling the joint of my wounded shoulder. It hurt, and my PAK was reporting minor damage to three muscle groups, but it was also flooding me with painkillers and endorphins. I wouldn't be slowed down significantly by the wound. “I don't need my weapon to kill you.”
She licked a bit of my blood from her lip. “Let's see about that,” she said, smirking confidently, and then stepped forward with her hands up, holding a boxing-like stance also out of basic military training. She came at me with a simple combo – two jabs, a hook, an uppercut – that was effective enough to force me to give ground. Her strength was a big asset here – she could throw quick, accurate attacks that I couldn't do my big sweeping dodges around, and still threaten enough harm to keep me solidly on defense. I tried to sweep her legs again, and again she hopped over it – this time with enough forward momentum to follow up with an aerial jab that caught me in the brow. She landed and pulled back a fist to press her advantage, but I put both hands on her shoulders and snapped my head forward in a headbutt square in the middle of her face, above her upper lip.
The problem with textbook fighting is opponents like me who don't play by a rulebook. Her head snapped back and her hand pressed my own head back, keeping me from repeating the attack. Using my tail to help push me forward, I drove my knee into her gut. She doubled over, her hand faltering, and I adjusted my grip on her shoulders, lifted her up, let her body lean forward like it wanted to, and smashed her to the ground in a perfect, neck-shattering powerbomb.
Okay, maybe it was a pretty sloppy, non-neck-shattering powerbomb. It was still pretty awesome, and I threw back my head and laughed triumphantly, as was appropriate. She groaned, clutching her newly abused skull and the weird piece of cloth taped to it. “Now, how to finish you off... I could keep up the wrestling theme and elbow drop you,” I proposed. She groaned. “Or I could lift up your prone form over my head and snap your spine on my knee like-” At this point, she rolled to her left, dropping right over the ledge. “Or that,” I said, feeling a bit deflated. It would be too much to ask for that fall to kill her.
Well, nothing for it but to finish her off. I took stock of my injuries (nothing worse than the bite wound; I'd have a bruise above my eye and maybe another on my stomach) and recovered my claw glove, which she hadn't tossed entirely off the ledge like I had her staff. I slid it back into place, retracted and extended the claws experimentally, and was satisfied. I considered putting my clothes back on... nah, I'd leave them here for later. Instead, I hopped down, claw and 'tail' at the ready to finish this.
Was this girl kidding me with this? I made my way down to the next wide-ish ledge and found Zixa, having recovered her staff, just slumped over in front of it, on her knees. She had to know I'd be coming down after her. There was nowhere to hide, but would it kill her to be ready for me? No. It would do the exact opposite of kill her. It could save her goddamn life. It was almost like she was actually crazy in a way that complicated her life, instead of it just being an affectation that keeps people guessing. Nah. No such thing.
I slid silently down to the cliff, staying out of her peripheral vision and being careful not to repeat her own earlier mistake and let grinding sand on the rock make noise. Padding up behind her, I extended my claws silently (I regularly oil the mechanism, because I'm a self-respecting professional) and pulled back my arm. Quick, merciful, a little anticlimactic, sure, but if she'd wanted to die in an exciting way, then her head should have burst like an overripe melon when I slammed it down during my powerbomb earlier.
And then a little row of tiny holes on her PAK hissed, and a cloud of murky gas shot out. “Oh Irk that's foul!” I staggered back, coughing, and my own PAK started issuing warnings about how that stuff wasn't gonna rot my flesh off my bones, but I would do well not to inhale it. While I was coughing up as much of it as I could, Zixa finally got up, Cadaceus clenched tightly in her hands, head bowed. “Hey, you're up,” I said, coughed one more time, and smiled. “Ready for round 2?”
“I'm... so cold...” she muttered. I was about to ask if she was serious, but she headed off the question by flicking out the end of the staff at me again, the electricity dancing around the orb. I dodged to the side and – wait. Cliff face to one side, empty space to the other. I instead leapt above her, kicked off the cliff face, and landed on her far side, aiming both a slash and a tail strike at her as I passed. She leaned away and twisted the staff to block both attacks, but she was a little sluggish this time. Whether it was her abrupt change in mood or a good old head injury, I was able to draw a pair of bloody lines along her scalp before she pushed my claw away. I landed, grinning. She held the side of her head and pulled away, bringing her bloodied glove down in front of her lowered face. “Hm,” she said, as if it was something only minimally interesting to her.
“'Hm'?!” I snapped. “Fucking 'hm'?! I'll give you something to 'hm' about!” I leapt in with the claw again, and again she blocked with her staff, looked up to lock eyes with me and oh sweet baby Jegus what the fuck instead of eyes she had two screens filled with goddamn static I did not sign up for this I did not sign up for anything come to think of it...
“Sorry for restraining you, but you just wouldn't co-operate.” The voice buzzed with artificiality. A prosthetic, and not a great-quality one. I was strapped to a cold, metal table, and it was dark. The owner of the voice loomed over me, a horned silhouette with glowing blue rectangles where his eyes should be. Instead of compound eyes, or solid-colored orbs, or even irises and pupils, he had crosshairs sliding about in those rectangles, examining every inch of me. “You're a perfect specimen, aren't you?” A droplet of something fell from his face and landed on mine. It was black and it smelled like motor oil and disease. “Shame you're not my type.”
Pain. Pain snapped me out of the flashback. Zixa had decked me. My internal clock told me only a second had passed. “You're making Axis restless,” she said, implying that was supposed to mean something to me. She threw another punch, but she was still lagging. I doubled over backward dodging it, and continued that motion into a handstand. Balancing on my free hand, I slashed at her shins. She parried with her staff, and that let me batter her face and her stupid fucking artificial eyes with my heels, not doing much damage but disorienting her. She staggered back a step, and I had the room to spin into a real upside-down heel kick across her jaw, nearly knocking her off the ledge. She suddenly caught herself with the staff and weaved out of my reach as I hopped back to my feet. More steam leaked from her PAK and she hugged herself. “Hopeless...” she said, jaw trembling.
I couldn't take much more of this. “I'm sorry to hear that,” I drawled. “So sorry, but the Benefactor would've confiscated all my fucks...” I made an obscene hand gesture. “If I gave any!” Oddly, it wasn't the insult that seemed to trigger Zixa, or the gesture, but the word “Benefactor.” The static snow faded from her eyes, although the pupils were more contracted than before. The muscles in her face suddenly tightened a bit, bringing her default expression closer to a rictus grin. That was an expression that unnerved me, and I said, “Look, sorry, I've been kind of on-edge this morning. Deathmatch, you know. It's a shame we couldn't meet under better circumstances. You could use some tats, a little needlework and you'd look-”
“No needles!” snapped Zixa suddenly. Her fingers were twitching, clenching and loosening on her staff. “No doctors! You're just like them! My body is just a playground to you!”
“More of a canvas, really,” I said brightly. Then Zixa let loose a peal of laughter and I took back every conclusion I had drawn earlier, this girl was really gen-u-ine not-funny crazy. “So is this Axis talking now?”
She did another bone-chilling laugh. “Nope. Still Zixa.” Then she sent that damn orb hurtling at me again. I weaved under it, but the chains of energy connecting it to the staff passed flickering through my right arm, leaving a burn across it. That ruined my counterattack and left me open to her going low and flipping me over her back. I landed in a crouch, turning as I rose, and suddenly my abdomen exploded in white-hot pain as Zixa kicked me in the gut. Too much pain. Something was wrong. I fought the instinct to squeeze my eyes shut and saw, through tears, a small, bloody knife sticking out of the toe of her boot. “The Benefactor confiscated a bunch of blades from me,” Zixa cooed. She cooed! She was cooing now! “He missed a few, though.”
My PAK helpfully warned me that my squeedlyspooch was punctured, and suggested going to a hospital. I ignored it, breathed as deeply as the imaginary knives in my chest would allow, and straightened up, keeping my free hand pressed to the wound. “I'm gonna take you apart, kid,” I hissed. “There won't be enough left to bury. You're gonna be fertilizer.”
“I'd like to see you try!” She stepped forward and stabbed at my leg. I dodged to the side, but she had intentionally telegraphed the attack. She let the staff carry her weight, swung around to dodge my counterattack, and caught me in the already-wounded gut with a heel, sending me careening over the edge of the cliff.
The fall wasn't the bad part. Actually, it wasn't the landing either. I knew how to fall safely, I worked as a stuntgirl on a movie set once. Highly educational, I recommend it for any aspiring rough-and-tumble bounty hunter. Anyway, I bounced down some rocks for a rough few seconds, protecting my most vital parts, and then landed on my butt on the widest ledge yet below. I was pretty close to the river, now, and I could hear the stupid holosphere ticking in my PAK storage; whatever it was supposed to measure, it was finding it. I lay back and let the world stop spinning for a moment. “Round 2 goes to Zixa...” I sighed.
That was the bad part – when Zixa came crashing down right behind me, impaling the pointed end of her staff through my left hand. I don't think I need to describe how that one felt. “Round 3's looking pretty good for me, too,” she crooned. Then she sat on me, planting her butt down hard on my gut wound. “You're the one who's gonna be fertilizer. After I eat you.” She giggled. "You'll be shit, you see." Then she started pounding on my face.
”You missed again.” The short, red-cloaked Irken I had slashed disappeared into mist, and three more came at me from behind, slashing at me with knives for hands. I dodged out of the way. “Lackluster offensive, Kizzo.” Keep's voice was in my head, a product of her powerful telepathic abilities. “You need to find your motivation.”
“I'm trying!” I slashed at all three of them in one stroke. More mist. “I reach into that well of anger, and it doesn't help an Irk-damned bit!” I dodged again. Hoo, that one was close. Of course, it wasn't real... probably. That was the way Keep fought. Ten, maybe twenty illusory assailants with knives, and one real one.
“Anger is not your motivation,” she said, and I parried a slash from her. Real. Aha! “Anger motivates me, but you and I are very different creatures.” I kicked her square in the chest and... illusion? What the fuck? “I am sustained on hatred, bubbling through my veins black and hot. That's not you. Why do you fight?”
“What do you mean?” I blocked a slash – real – and another one coming from another direction – fake. “I fight because I love it! I fight for the sheer joy of fighting!” I ducked under another slash. “Wait, that's it!” I smiled and swept my leg at the one that had been false before. It was real now. Kizzo exhaled roughly as her shoulder hit the floor. “Taste that joy.”
There it was. I smiled serenely as Zixa straightened, gasping through her teeth after punching my face in. She smiled back, not at all serenely, and punched with her right arm. My PAK tentacle – my tail – caught her arm and pulled her off balance, close in to my smiling face. She snarled and pulled back her left fist. I caught it with my right – my weapon hand, stabbing up, into and through her wrist from her blind spot from being so damn close up to me. As she screamed and pulled away, I twisted the blades, doing as much damage as possible. She yanked the staff out of the ground, and out of my hand. I swiftly rolled to the side, and she slammed the orb down where my head had been a second ago with enough force to send chips of cracked stone flying into the air.
I kept that smile going as I rolled smoothly to my feet. “You're looking pretty confident,” Zixa said, clenching and unclenching her wounded hand experimentally. Her thumb didn't seem to be working anymore. “I'm going to enjoy wrecking that expression, and then I'll go back to wrecking that face!” She grasped the staff in both hands and flailed wildly, sending the orb crashing down into the ground over and over and kicking up more shards of stone. Her by-the-book, military style was out the window, which was a blessing and a curse. The attack was inaccurate, but it was hard to approach through, and bad luck would be fatal here. I had to deal with the Cadaceus once and for all.
So I turned to the cliff we'd just fallen down and leapt as high as I could onto it, catching my fingers on a small, five-centimeter ledge a few meters up. “I'll be right back,” I said, scrambling up higher as the orb cracked against the cliff dangerously close to my foot. Alerts from my PAK told me I was flooding my body with far too much adrenaline and painkillers, and I promptly told those alerts to stuff it. I needed to not be feeling the hole in my hand or the punctured vital organ right now. I was too busy making gravity my bitch.
Nine meters up, I looked down. Zixa was just shaking her wounded fist at me angrily now, gesturing for me to get back down there. I grinned and obliged, pushing off the cliff and rolling back into a swan dive. I got a smile of surprise and delight out of her – well, that was good, I aimed to please – before she realized I was dropping claw-first toward her and brought her staff up to parry. I snapped my claw forward and drove all the force of my drop down onto the end of her staff, and felt pain tingle along my body as electricity lanced up my claw and into my flesh. Then my blades broke through into the hollow part of the orb, and I was twisting free, falling to the ground, and sticking the landing. There was a loud snap, and the red, blue and green bolts disappeared for good. “CADACEUS!” Zixa howled. “What did you doooo?!”
I pulled the ruptured sphere of white steel off my claw and tossed it behind me. It bounced once and then splashed as it fell into the river. “Sorry, that was pretty clumsy of me. I was just thinking of how fun it would be to do something crazy and break that thing.” Zixa snarled, stepped forward, and stabbed the spike at me, but she didn't have quite the reach or poise that she did when she was using the orb as a handle. I parried with my claw and socked her one in the cheekbone with a left hook. That eye flickered to static a moment before returning to normal. I giggled, despite the fact that the eyes still made me want to curl into the fetal position. “That just looks like shoddy workmanship.”
“Shut up!” She flexed her free hand – her uninjured right hand – and metallic claws popped from the fingers of her gloves. Another surprise the Benefactor missed. I cartwheeled out of the way of the attack just in time, putting myself between Zixa and the wall. Snarling, she came at me with the claws again. On one arm and one leg, I twisted and caught her wrist in the corner of my raised knee, and wrapped my tail around the ankle on that side. I kept twisting, and drove her outstretched claws right into the cliff wall, breaking the thin blades at various points along their lengths. She fell against the wall and slashed at me with the spike of her staff, forcing me to break the grapple and flip away. No more laughter from her now, I noticed. Good. The laughing madness didn't hold a candle to the actual fulfillment I was getting out of this fight.
I settled back into an animalistic stance, tail curled above me, free hand on the ground, and beckoned her forward with a smile. She came at me with the spike again, getting in close, and I straightened up and parried it with my claws. She brought up her foot, the boot knife popping free again, but this time I was prepared – I slammed my elbow down above her knee and forced the foot back down, snapping the blade cleanly off against the ground. “Looks like I'm breaking all of your toys,” I said, still smiling easily. She came in jaws-wide for a bite of my neck, and I drove my shoulder into her chest, driving her back a step. “Think fast!” I swung my claws down at her face – a slash that would blind her if it connected – and she blocked quickly, clumsily, with her spike.
I twisted my claw and expertly pulled away, and the fingers of her already-mangled hand came away with it. The spike of the staff dropped as well; she couldn't hold it anymore. She stared numbly at her dropped fingers for a second. Despite the biting and the rage, it seemed to me like she'd fully returned to her senses in the past few seconds of fighting. She smiled – not with insanity, but in relief – and then her expression hardened and she came at me again, her raised fists (well, fist and stump) marking a return to her textbook military style. But the textbook doesn't have much for when you're fighting at a limb's disadvantage. She threw out a punch. I caught it – damn, that was still a strong punch – and slashed her along the inside of the elbow, cutting tendons and ligaments and generally disabling it. “Nothing personal,” I said breezily, following her with a step forward as she flinched back in pain, and I drove the claw into her chest, pressing forward until I felt it scrape into her PAK on the other side.
Zixa weakly gripped at my arm with her stumpy, bleeding hand. “Don't beat yourself up over it,” she gasped, smiling back at me. “This is how I've always wanted to die.”
“Really?” I asked wryly, stumbling back and catching myself as the adrenaline started to wear off. I was gonna hurt so much tonight... “Covered in blood and wounds?”
“It was gruesome...” she coughed up some mix of fluids that should probably have stayed inside of her. “...and I went down fighting. It's romantic, you know?”
I sighed, still smiling. The smile was more for her than me now. “Yeah. I was young and romantic once. Then he died.”
“I wish I had somebody to be romantic with.” She attempted a wistful sigh. It came out pretty wet. “I guess I have a lot of wishes that won't come true.”
“You could always fall for me,” I said, turning on my heels and pulling her impaled body around with me. Then I kicked her off the cliff, laughing at her shocked face as she fell backwards towards the water. “Get it? It's a pun!”
She never did respond, but I think she got it. Then she splashed into the river and I found out that the blue liquid it was full of was NOT water. I mean, water burned exposed Irken skin, but this stuff was really caustic. She was full-on dissolving. I cringed and looked away. That hadn't been as beautiful as I'd hoped, but this sunset... now that was beautiful. I lay gingerly back on my side, staring at the pinkish tints playing off the higher cliff faces. Time now to lay back, let my PAK dutifully keep me from dying of sepsis, and watch nature's splendor.