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(Contains: nudity, violence/gore and strong language)
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!

HAVE FUN!

YOUR BENEFACTOR

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.
Crucible Round 1: vs. Zixa Final Draft
:iconcrucible-of-irk:

Final draft is here, and just in time for the deadline!  By "just in time" I mean "two hours left."  I'm not fucking around like I have for previous OCTs, it's time I took things seriously. 

I'm trying first-person for an OCT, not my usual method.  Hoping to really put you guys behind the eyes of a psychotic Irken this time.  Also, any text in all-caps italics is from the Benefactor, some of it quoted directly from prompts offered by the OCT.

I wanted to make Zixa's death sort of poignant.  She and Kizzo would not, for the most part, hit it off, but to me she's kind of a tragic character.  I also ended up having her pretty seriously brutalize Kizzo.  Whoops.  Good thing Kizzo's made of pretty stern stuff.  There will be up to 11 survivors of this round, so that's up to four more rounds to go in the Crucible - and I'll have to escalate at least a little for each further round.  Poor Kizzo's gonna be falling apart at the seams by the time I'm done with her.

This is the final version of this chapter, now, but feel free to leave any critiques that occur to you.  I really don't mind criticism, and I need to improve for later rounds.

Crucible, Benefactor (c) Krimzonite
Zixa (coming soon) (c) InvaderZixa
All else (c) me
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Name: Kizzo

Species: Irken

Age: 313 (equivalent to 33-year-old human)

Sex: Female

Height: 5’4 (165 cm)

Weight: 141 lbs. (64 kg)

Occupation: Tattoo artist, mercenary, and bounty hunter.  Describes herself simply as an artist.

Tool or Weapon: Metal Claws - Kizzo’s weapon of choice.  These sharp metal claws extend in front of a clenched fist by about 14 inches.  There are two blades on the glove.  The blades are a couple of inches apart and both have a slight downward curve; they’re sharp on the downward-facing side, but also near the tips on the top side, making them effective for piercing and slashing alike.  They’re also good for disarming and tripping opponents.  Fingerless gloves made of a tough black spandex-y material and two buckles affix them to her arm.  Nothing about these is indestructible, although they don’t rust or easily dull.  The blades are retractable, and Kizzo wears them much of the time.  Normally, Kizzo has a matched pair; the tool she awakens with is only the right glove of the set.

Written physical description: Kizzo is a lithe, muscular, very flat-chested, and very heavily tattooed Irken woman.  She's got bright leafy green skin (the result of lots of sun exposure) and lurid pink eyes.  Her antennae have been hacked off down to the bottom inch or so; Kizzo wears hearing aids (chrome triangular pyramids vaguely resembling cat ears) over them that protect the last bit of them.  Her tattoos include thick black tiger stripes all over her limbs, back, sides, and head. The stripe pattern is continued on the middle of her face with an X-shaped tattoo between her eyes and mouth, but she doesn’t have any stripes on her chin, throat, or front torso.  That’s not to say the skin is bare – there’s a bullseye tat over Kizzo’s heart, and the words “YOUR AD HERE” stacked vertically in Irken on her stomach.  Kizzo has no colored tattoos – it’s all black ink.  She’s also got scars all over her body, most faded from age and careful medical treatment, only a few new enough to disrupt her tattoos.  Notable scars include puncture wounds straight through the palm of each hand and suture wounds above her left ankle where her foot was once severed and reattached.  She wears tan flip-flops, a bright blue vest with white buckles down the front, and yellow short shorts with an elastic waistband.  However, she prefers to go nude, especially while fighting, and will shuck her clothes possibly before even encountering her opponent (environment permitting).  Her PAK is of a normal size and shape, but its four pink panels are placed on the top, bottom, left and right, equidistant from each other.  A set of chrome, blunt-tipped tentacles are contained within the PAK; she most often keeps the lower one deployed, using it like an animal's tail.  Her other tentacles have been locked by the Benefactor for the duration of the tournament.

Personality: Kizzo's a lot like the classic free-spirit manic-pixie-dream-girl character type, but she also kills people.  Also, dating her doesn't bring boring nice guys to any startling revelations about themselves, mostly because she doesn't date boring nice guys.  She's friendly, proud, flirtatious (regardless of gender), casual, patient, narcissistic, completely relaxed about her nudity, bad with authority, and switches from peaceful to violent with a disconcerting serenity.  She'd like to say she's a nice girl, and sometimes she is (she has a good eye for what people want or need and enjoys giving it to them), but terrifyingly often she isn't.  She's prone to singing, humming, or whistling, and is invariably off-key.  Her likes include the beauty in all things, killing people who don't appreciate the beauty in all things, the beauty in killing people who etc. etc., her body, nature, predatory animals, and bright or striking colors.  Dislikes include restrictive clothing, formal clothing, drab clothing, protective clothing (on other people), fascism, anything she thinks is fascism, and the Patriarchy.  She fears becoming old or disabled, radioactive fallout, artificial eyes (she doesn't run screaming, but they make her quite uncomfortable), mimes, and old, disabled, radioactive mimes with artificial eyes.

Brief History: Kizzo was originally a Scientist of the Empire, part of a research team sent to a planet with no sentient life to appraise its value as a potential target of colonization.  Of the twelve Scientists present on the unguarded mission, ten performed their job exactly as directed, and found the planet within acceptable parameters.  However, Kizzo and the team leader, Filc, were both deeply touched by the natural beauty around them, so far removed from the artificiality they grew up in.  Knowing they were Defective but unwilling to put their sterile Empire above this unspoiled world, the two entered into a pact, slew the other ten members of the team before they could report any meaningful findings, and ran off to live life in the jungle.

Unsurprisingly, this didn’t work out.  Kizzo and Filc were captured by military police investigating the team’s failure to report in, and brought to stand Existence Evaluation Trial.  Against Kizzo’s wishes, Filc took every responsibility for the slaughter on his own head and was executed so that Kizzo, whom he claimed to have coerced using his height and authority, would go free.  Kizzo was indeed acquitted and returned to her work as a scientist, but shortly afterward fell off the map, apparently dying in a shuttle crash.  She reappeared five years later in a backwater colony, almost unrecognizable from all the tattoos, her antennae hacked off, with a new PAK that now identified her as an “Artist.”  For a while, she did local bounty hunting to supplement her income, but then a strange Irken named Jaxom showed up in her tattoo parlor to get the number “2” tattooed on his collarbone.  Afterward, he invited her out on a date, and eventually, to join him in mercenary work.  Although the romance didn’t last, their working relationship has, and Kizzo’s been part of Jaxom Farms Mercenary Company ever since.  She also continues to run a tattoo parlor out of the first floor of their office.  One day, a mysterious man came in to get a tattoo removed - a tattoo of a starmap on his back. Kizzo secretly took a picture of the tattoo before removing it, and out of curiosity followed the map to a lonely little planet called V-2413.  The last thing Kizzo remembers is her ship suddenly going unresponsive in orbit around the planet...

Strengths: Kizzo's constantly in motion while fighting, making the best of her superior agility.  She flips, tumbles, and tentacle-swings around her opponent, using her environment as much as possible (even hiding in ventilation ducts in buildings).  She excels at attacks of opportunity: one mistake by her opponent, one opening, can result in a mortal wound.  Her hearing aids enhance her hearing to a level significantly sharper than a normal Irken's.  She's quite strong, and often grapples with her opponents, using her one available tentacle for additional advantage.  She'll even use the tentacle as a pulley for leverage if she's outweighed.  She's not a real doctor, but her biologist training and tattoo experience leave her well-versed in the anatomy of Irkens and many of the other most common races in Empire space.  She's an experienced combatant, with all the little advantages (especially in combat awareness) that it brings.  Her extensive tattooing has trained her to have a high pain threshold, particularly for her skin, and her longtime nudity has left her resistant to heat and cold.  She's cold-hearted enough to have no problem finding a reason to kill anybody.

Weaknesses: Kizzo's biggest weakness is that since she wanders around in the nude, she's very vulnerable whenever she stops moving – whatever the reason.  Anything with homing capabilities or that creates a lot of shrapnel is also an issue.  Her acrobatic fighting style also burns a lot of energy, so she'll typically tire faster than her opponent, and she's forced to either end fights quickly or seek a hiding place to catch her breath.  She has her claws for close-range combat, and her tentacle can attack at a slightly greater range, but she's unable to fight back against anything that can stay more than a dozen feet from her.  If her hearing aids are destroyed, she's rendered mostly deaf.  It's a well-guarded secret, but she's extremely ticklish on the sole of her right foot (the one that hasn't been severed and reattached), and can be reduced to near-helplessness if tickled.  Her pride or her sudden bouts of kindness could be detriments in the harsh world of survival tournaments.  Her fears (mentioned above) could give her pause as well; a crippling injury in particular could trigger her fear of being disabled and make her freeze up long enough to be easily finished off.  She's used to fighting with claws on both hands (and to a lesser extent, with the full set of four tentacles), and that could throw her off.  Her aptitude with technology is standard for Irkens, but not exceptional.  Her sometimes bizarre behavior (especially by a Loyalist's standards) means she may not play well with others when it's necessary.

Other Information [Optional]: If Kizzo thinks she has the upper hand or the fight is even, she'll make a lot of trash-talk, but when her metaphorical back is to the wall she'll shut up.
Crucible Entry: Kizzo
Post Round 1: Kizzo has retained the "spike" from Zixa's Cadaceus staff, a thin four-foot cone of hollow but durable white metal with a pointed tip, and will use it as an off-hand weapon and for parrying.  As for wounds, she's got scrapes on her hands, inner forearms, toes, and the balls of her feet, a bruise above her right eye, a nasty puncture wound on her abdomen, a puncture wound right through the palm of her left hand, a thin burn across her right bicep, and several minor puncture wounds where sharp teeth bit into her left shoulder.  The puncture wounds are her more serious injuries, and it's up to my opponents how long has passed since the fight (I'm saying about two days for my own entry).  Kizzo's PAK functions well enough that these wounds won't become infected under current conditions.

Edit 3:
Altered backstory again.

Edit 2:
Altered the profile to reflect that most of her tentacles are locked for the tournament, removed unnecessary backstory about finding V-2413.

Edit:
I've added the blank official entry sheet for The Crucible as a thumbnail image for this deviation, as requested by the Crucible staff.  I've also made minor edits to Kizzo's profile, specifying that her tentacles are blunt-tipped and including her hearing aids as both a strength (when functioning) and a weakness (if broken). END EDIT

My entry to another Invader Zim OCT, :iconcrucible-of-irk:.  This time I'm using Kizzo, my vicious, claw-wielding, full-body-tattooed, nudist Irken catgirl.  Compared to Samsa, she's a lot simpler to write.  No easier to draw, though. Sorry not sorry

I like the look of the Crucible.  The pacing seems pretty fast, and it's described as suited for experienced OCT competitors, with less extensions and shorter rounds.  I'd highly recommend it to anybody who can handle that.

The Crucible (c) Krimzonite
Invader Zim (c) Nickelodeon and Jhonen Vasquez
Kizzo (c) me
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(Contains: violence/gore and strong language)
Trial-By-Fire: Young Blood Chronicles

Round One: I Am Not a Boy

Samsa blinked and gasped.  Warm, moist air rushed into his respiratory sacs.  Everything around him was a mix of murky earth tones and a lurid shade of pink.  The air smelled of decay and brackish mud and some cloyingly sweet nectar, and was quiet except for some sort of mating insects.  He shook his head to clear it and then looked around more slowly, taking it all in piecemeal.  It was a swamp.  A swamp full of some kind of pink, fluffy plant.  “Where am I?” Samsa asked aloud, not really expecting an answer.

He got one.  “BEEP!  You are on the Planet of Fuzz.  Welcome to Round One of Trial-By-Fire!”  Samsa turned to find the camera drone he had dealt with earlier.  Of course it had teleported in with him.

“Why did you beep just now?” Samsa asked.  The voice was bad enough without the voicemail-message beep, which was louder than necessary by an order of magnitude.

“BEEP!  I am required to always answer the contestant when a question is asked of me!  I provide the minimum amount of companionship to ensure contestants who are not insane do not go insane!  At least not from isolation!  The BEEP is a prompt!”

“Oh... okay.”  Samsa liked having companionship, but the drone's voice was... well, he wasn't that desperate just yet.  He turned around and immediately tripped over something nearly his own size, falling into the smelly mud face-first.  Coughing and spluttering, he wiped his face off and looked at what he had tripped on.  “Whuzzis?” he mumbled, forgetting for a second that -

“BEEP!  CONGRATULATIONS, CONTESTANT!  You have found your CAAAAAAAAAAAAARE package!  That marks your first objective for round one... coooooomplete!”

“Objectives?” asked Samsa, and then he immediately gritted his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut against the -

“BEEP!  You have three objectives this round!  Objective the first: Find your care package from the Tallest, and the sticker located within!  Objective two: Find your opponent!  Objective three: your opponent is dead!  Once all of those things are true, I am empowered to teleport you to the location of the next round!”

“Okay.”  Samsa was now looking over the box-shaped object he had tripped over.  It was box-shaped because it was, in fact, a box.  A gunmetal-grey box made out of something sturdy enough to be dropped from orbit.  It had been right in front of his feet and half-submerged in mud, so he'd missed it at first.  He wiped mud off the top and sides, looking for an opening.  He found hinges.  Wrong side.  “This was a really easy objective,” he said, enunciating the last word carefully.  He remembered it from a book Rith Zith had read to him once.

“Yeah, well, you got lucky, Blacky!”  The droid pointed at Samsa with one claw and made a sweeping gesture with the other.  “All this tournament's contestants got teleported in here somewhere, but not all of them got teleported in practically on top of their care package!”  Samsa found a latch, then another.  He popped them both loose, and the box opened itself with a hiss of hydraulics.

Inside, on the very top, was a sticker.  It was a little cartoon of the button Samsa had pressed to teleport out, complete with “glow lines” around the button built into the sticker, laid flat across a sheet of wax paper.  Samsa peeled it off and stuck it to the middle plate of carapace on his forehead, smiling and sticking his tongue out.  “D'aww!  Let me get a close-up shot of that for the highlights reel!”  Ignoring the camera for the most part (as he usually did in the Filter arena), he threw the wax paper into the swamp and dug further into the box.  There were a roll of bandages and some other stuff he recognized as first aid gear, or “nurse stuff” as he thought of it.  He didn't know much about them other than that most of it went directly on wounds and vaguely in what order, so he left it as it was.  Beneath that was paydirt – ten compartmentalized boxes covered on one side only in plastic wrap.  These he recognized, too – MREs.  Meals ready to eat.  Not Samsa's absolute favorite food in the world, but he wasn't picky, and he was hungry.

Samsa tore the plastic wrap off, triggering a chemical that heated some parts of the meal and chilled others.  In just a few seconds, he could smell the hot cheese bubbling.  “Yeah, those MREs can sustain an adult Irken with a  PAK for ten days or more!” the drone bragged.  “Even an adult PAKless Irken has an easy three days of food there, so you should be fine... oh, you're hungry now?  Well, that's no problem, it shouldn't take too long to find... your... opponent.”  The droid was temporarily dumbstruck by the ferocity with which Samsa was attacking his plastic food tray.  “Jeez, kid, you'd think you'd never eaten before – AAH!”  A drop of sizzling cheese spattered onto the drone's lens.  “I'm hit!  Mayday!  Mayday!”  The drone spun wildly out of control for a moment before it realized it had a tiny windshield wiper equipped.  By then, Samsa had finished the first MRE... and started on a second.

Samsa didn't stop until he had polished off three of the ten MREs, well over 2000 calories.  Satisfied, he belched loudly for the now-speechless camera drone and pushed himself up to his feet.  He walked to the other side of the box and pushed the lid closed, then shoved the whole thing up onto dry land with a few grunts of effort.  “Uh... alright... so, kid, how about we find that opponent of yous?  She can't be more than a couple miles, they wouldn't have teleported anybody closer to you than her...”

“Later.”  Samsa flopped down on his back in a short, grass-like patch of the pink vegetation.  It was soft and comfortable, and the source of the sweet smell.  He yawned.  “Nap first,” he said, turning his head to the side, and found himself looking unexpectedly at the skeleton of a small rodent-like creature.  “Hunh.”  He reached over and plucked a diminutive rib off the creature's torso, noticing the way the pink threads grew among the bones and out the eye sockets.  The rib was only about the size of a comb's tooth, although of course curved.  He rolled it around between his fingers, then shrugged, popped it into his mouth, crunched down, and closed his eyes.

* * *

“Hmph.”  Kroe stepped her way around another shrub of pink fuzz.  That stuff was nasty, and ever since she'd seen a dying bird-thing caught in it, she'd been giving it a safe distance.  She stopped, looked around, looked up just to be safe.  Absentmindedly, she scratched at the fading bruise on her neck where Mor's chains had dug in the day before.  That hadn't been fun.  Now she was in the damn tournament, though, and she'd just have to make the best of it.  “How much further to that care package?” she grumbled to her camera drone.

“You've been going the wrong way for miles!” The bot said, flailing its tentacles in exasperation.  Kroe just made a “yap yap” motion with her hand in response, her other hand fishing for her antennae-phones.  Maybe she could listen to some radio instead.  “Well, at least we're near your opponent.”

“Say what now?” Away went the headphones.  Kroe took another close look around.  Nothing.  She climbed a stunted, pink fuzz-studded tree.  Looked around again.  “Ah-hah.”  She leapt out of the tree, hit the soft ground in a crouch, padded forward, sticking to the dry spots to minimize noise.  Brushing past some bushes, she came into view of what could only be her target.  And a box.  An opened box.  He had opened her package!

She pre-emptively shushed her camera drone (which, to its credit, was making no sound except the quiet whir of its propulsion drive), and stalked forward, sticking her tongue out in concentration.  It was a small guy, roughly Irken in shape, although she couldn't be sure because of the black armor he wore.  He was prone on the ground, belly-up, which was odd, especially since he was in that pink fuzz.  Was he stupid, or... maybe already dead?

She was close enough now to look closely.  He was alive.  His chest was rising and falling.  Definitely Irken, too.  She could see pale green eyelids.  His eyes were closed, his breathing was regular.  He was asleep.  In the fuzz.  “Wow...” she whispered.  Small guy, big head.  The pink fuzz had actually tried to dig in on his hands, feet, one side of his face, apparently without much success on those armor plates.  It was digging in a little on a small vulnerable spot on his throat, and some of the threads were reaching toward his eye sockets, which also seemed exposed.  “What's his name?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

“Samsa.”  The drone's voice was very much not a whisper, and Samsa's eyelids started to flutter, purple eyes cracking open.  Kroe grumbled and drew her gun.

“Hey, Samsa.”  She pointed the gun at him and gave him a soft kick to the ribs, drawing a grunt of discomfort and surprise as he snapped fully awake.  “Caught you napping,” she said mockingly, and squeezed a laser blast right into his forehead, just above that stupid sticker  She was expecting to burn a hole right through his head.  Instead, all she got was a ruddy brown glow from his armor's forehead plate as a circular patch of it was superheated.  Samsa started thrashing in pain, too, first stiffly as he ripped the pink fuzz loose from his body, then more wildly.  Grumbling, she put her foot down on his chest to hold him still (or still-ish), and fired again into his forehead, this time getting some tangible results.  Specifically, Samsa shrieked in pain and his forehead plate shattered from the heat.  “Nice,” she said, lifting her foot.

The mistake nearly cost her her life.  Samsa was up on his feet in a matter of seconds, and still directly under her, his eyes level with her stomach.  Wicked claws, pink threads still clinging to them, slashed upward with killing force.  Kroe was fast, and that kept her from being disemboweled, but a claw still caught her across her inner forearm, spattering rust-colored blood along a nearby tree trunk.  Kroe cried out a half-formed profanity and staggered back, firing a few wild laser shots.  One struck Samsa in the shoulder and he yelped and ducked behind some foliage.

Kroe steadied herself and took stock of her situation.  That guy's armor, whatever it was made of (ceramics?), was pretty effective, even against laser blasts.  His claws were lethal, too.  She checked her arm wound.  Good news; she could still use her hand just fine, although it stung like a bitch.  Bad news; the wound was a bleeder.  She'd have to end this quickly.  At least he was small, and didn't seem to have any ranged weapons.

“Excuse me,” a quavering voice said, not too far away.  Kroe's antennae folded back.  He sounded so young.  The small body, the big head and eyes, the voice... she was fighting a Smeet.  Well, if they thought she'd be squeamish about that... well, okay, she didn't find the idea pleasant, but she'd do it if she had to.  “Are you my opponent?”

“Of course I am,” she snorted.  “I shot you twice in the head, didn't I?” And you didn't have the decency to die, she added mentally.

“Okay, good,” the voice said, and Kroe blinked in confusion.  After a few seconds, he added, “I don't want to have to kill people who aren't my opponents.”  A moment passed, and there was a rustling, off to the side of where Samsa had been talking from.  Kroe trained her gun on the spot, but after another second, Samsa burst from the foliage a distance away from where she had been aiming.

As she wheeled around and fired more laser blasts at Samsa, another part of her brain was taking stock of him, filing information away for later.  His forehead had a blistering burn on it – that laser shot had hurt him through the armor, but it was just a flesh wound.  A plate from his shoulder was gone too, and the burn on the exposed wintergreen skin there was less serious – maybe he had taken that plate off himself.  There was an intensity in his eyes – this kid had seen no shortage of fights.  When she stopped firing wildly and took a half-second to steady her aim, he brought up both arms in front of his face and took a laser blast on the forearm that could have otherwise hit his eye and killed him.  “Shit,” Kroe spat, and drew the knife from her boot, switching her gun to her bleeding off-hand.

She swiped her knife at his eyes as he drew close, and he ducked under it, slashing at the meat of her thighs.  Kroe jumped up and back, letting Samsa's momentum carry him under her, and came down with a boot on his arm, dragging him entirely to the ground.  She slashed at the back of his neck... and the knife scratched harmlessly along it.  Samsa must've felt it, though, because he let out a wail and his free hand raked across her shin, tearing through the rubber of her boots, the synthetic cloth of her tights, and the skin underneath.  “Shit shit!”  Kroe's leg flinched back, letting Samsa push himself up to his hands and knees.  She fired two more wild laser shots onto his back before he pushed off on all fours into a sloppy tackle, spilling them both into the swamp water.

Foul water splashed across Kroe's face, and she spat it out, kicking blindly to get Samsa away from her.    She was rewarded with a grunt of pain and the sensation of something cracking against the toe of her boot, and pushed herself away.  The water sizzled painfully against her skin where it was exposed – her hands, her face, her wounds.  She wiped her face and looked up in time to see Samsa get ready to pounce, and held him back by slashing her knife at his face.  He flinched back, and she put two plasma shots into his chest, shattering a piece of his armor when they hit in roughly the same spot.  He yelped and fell back into the water – which was only burning him where his armor was gone, she noticed.  In fact, it had seemed to cool off a couple of other places where he'd been shot.

“I'm going to kill you,” Samsa said, in a tone that suggested killing her was some unpleasant chore that he knew he had to do, like math homework.  It sent chills down Kroe's spine, although she'd never admit it.  He leapt forward and she slammed him square in the chin with a kick, shattering another piece of armor along the right side of his jaw and knocking him back into the swamp water.  She HAD him now and it was a clean shot and she brought up her gun...

And the shots went wide, sending a cloud of steam hissing up a full meter from Samsa's exposed chest and head portions.  “Triple shit,” Kroe said.  The pain and the blood loss were affecting her, and her coordination was suffering.  She had to get some distance, apply some first aid to herself... but Samsa was already back on his feet.  Kroe turned, holstered her pistol, and ran, the slash on her leg slowing her only a little.  It wasn't enough for Samsa to outpace her, but it was enough that the shorter Irken could more or less keep up.

Salvation came in the form of an outstretched branch at what was, for her, waist height. She vaulted over it, grabbing it with her good hand as she did so.  She pulled it along behind her for a second, and just when the resistance peaked, she let go, shaking off the feeling of pink fuzz trying to cling to her wet palm and fingers.  The branch snapped back, and Kroe glanced behind her.  Samsa had been quick enough to duck, but the branch had caught him in the antennae and shattered some of the armor on that, leaving him howling in pain and disorientation.

“Enjoy the taste, kid,” Kroe chuckled, finding a tree and climbing it.  The tree wasn't entirely overtaken with fuzz, so it would be high ground and a relatively safe place to bandage herself up as long as the branch she picked was stable.  If Samsa started climbing the damn thing, she'd feel it, even if she didn't see him.  “You did some damage, so I can't end this quickly.  I'll have to drag this out.  And that means I'm gonna make you suffer. “

* * *

Over twenty-four hours had passed since the first skirmish between Samsa and Kroe, although Samsa had no way of knowing it.  At the orphanage, he'd been too young to learn how to tell time.  Later, he lived in the Filter, which was built on a small moon of Devastis.  The “day” on that moon was very long, and natural light was slim, so Samsa had never had a proper day-night system on which to tell time.  The Filter ran on Imperial Standard time, but to the gladiators it made little difference.  Samsa's only internal clock was based on the time it took him to get hungry again after he filled up on food, and of course that depended on how much he had eaten.

Most of the MREs were gone.  Samsa had sneaked back to the care package whenever he'd gotten the chance, grabbed one, and scarfed it even faster than usual.  The second time Kroe had caught him, and the third time she'd been waiting for it.  The pizza pockets from that particular meal were scattered in the mud now.  Then later Samsa had caught Kroe eating one of the meals and nearly taken her foot off with his claws.  At some point Samsa had gotten another meal in peace, and noticed that at some point Kroe had made off with another of the meals herself.

Not that the stalemate had just been over food.  The two of them had spent most of the last day only vaguely aware of where the other was, jockeying for location.  Whenever Samsa threatened to close in,  Kroe would shoot at him and force him to dodge back into the trees.  Whenever Kroe tried to get herself to a properly defensible location, Samsa would already be right on top of her by the time she got there. The sun had set and risen again on the Planet of Fuzz, and no decisive wounds had been inflicted.

But the stalemate couldn't last forever.  One of them would make a critical mistake, and soon.  Samsa knew it.  He was a child, but he wasn't stupid, especially not in the realm of tactics.  Kroe was wounded, wounded worse than him.  And her main advantage was having a gun, but it couldn't last forever.  Samsa had already found a laser battery lying in the dirt, acidic-smelling smoke wafting up.  She'd fired at him again since then, but maybe this battery was her last one.  Meanwhile, Samsa's carapace had already half grown back in the places where it had broken, and he had no ammunition to run out of.

But only on the surface did Samsa have all the advantages.  He was dead tired, and Kroe... wasn't.  Her beat-up, decrepit old PAK didn't seem to work (it lacked the quiet bubbling sounds Samsa would hear from most of the Irken gladiators), but the knife girl (as he thought of her) was as tireless as a bloodthirsty crowd.  He also got hungry faster than her, faster than any other Irken he had ever met, and food was scarce.  She could outlast him if it came down to that.  His forehead wound was an issue, too, even if it wasn't life-threatening.  The stinging pain was always on the edge of his mind, and the broken, blistered skin occasionally wept jade-green blood and banana-colored pus into his eyes, threatening to temporarily blind him.  The carapace growing back was no help here – it was slowly growing down over the offending wound, rubbing against it, and itched terribly.

Samsa peered out from behind his cover, careful not to let the pink fuzz rub against his forehead wound.  It was dangerous, but as long as he kept moving, it wasn't gonna kill him... but he'd gotten it on his forehead wound a while ago, and it was a world of pain.  The flags of his antennae scraped against  the back of his head, the armor pieces on them dragging them down flat against his skull now that some of the lower segments of antenna carapace were gone.  There, fifteen meters dead ahead, he saw the rippling-light effect of Kroe's camera drone.  Both bots had cloaked themselves and shut up once the fight started, but for whatever reason the stealth cloak wasn't perfect.  Where Kroe's drone was, Kroe couldn't be more than a few feet away.  And she didn't know that this time, Samsa had brought more than just his claws and teeth to the fight.

He had closed half the distance to Kroe's bot when the woman herself leapt into view.  She had rusty orange bloodstains on the bandages decorating her arm and leg, and her skin was blotchy from water irritation, but her grin bespoke cruel confidence.  “You're goin' down, kid!” she taunted, drawing her gun.  Samsa responded with a low hiss and flicked out a roughly triangular black shape from his right hand.  The shard, a broken-off piece of his own carapace, flew straight and embedded itself deep in Kroe's jacket, piercing a few millimeters into her skin underneath.  “Ugh, what?” Kroe winced as more rusty orange welled up around the black-on-off-black, but she squeezed off a few shots at Samsa, only scoring a glancing hit on a spine on his back before he ducked into cover.  She sucked in a breath and yanked the shard out.  “This stuff is just going to ruin my day, all day, isn't it?”

That may as well have been Samsa's cue.  He leaned out from the shrubs and threw another improvised shuriken, this time aiming for Kroe's big mouth.  She spat another curse and leaned her head out of the way, but her left antenna lagged behind, and the shard hacked right through it an inch below the flag.  It was a lucky shot, but it left Kroe screaming in pain, so Samsa wasn't going to complain.  He dashed forward, kicking up mud as he closed the last few meters between them.  Still screaming, Kroe started shooting at him.  His bicep and ribs lit up in dull pain as the plates over them were flash-heated by laser fire, and Samsa dropped into a slide, taking advantage of the wet ground.  Kroe made another impressive leap before he could get close enough to slash at her, and aimed down at him, sticking her tongue out.

The shot missed.  That could've killed me.  I was lucky.  Samsa dug a hand into the soft ground, halting his momentum and allowing him to pull himself up into a crouch and turn a quick one-eighty all at once.  Kroe ended her leap in a combat roll right out of Basic Training, pivoted, and squeezed off a couple more shots at Samsa, but he was right on top of her again.  A shot went wide and hit a high patch of pink fuzz on the tree, igniting it.  Turned out that pink fuzz not touching anything wet was highly flammable... and it burned with a cyan flame.

Samsa grabbed the barrel of her gun and jerked it forward, ignoring the burning heat from touching the business end of the thing.  Kroe pitched forward, caught off-guard for a second.  That second was all Samsa needed to sink his teeth into Kroe's left forearm, biting down with bone-crunching force.  She drew her dagger, now beyond pain, beyond screaming, and took a stab at Samsa's eye socket.  That saved her arm... or at least, most of it.  Samsa came away with a chunk of bloody flesh and a splinter or two of bone, and a blade tip against his temple – a killing blow for anybody else – scratched against  armor and glanced off harmlessly.

“What the hell are you?” Kroe asked, staggering back.  Samsa saw her eyes flicker toward the gun at his feet, where it had dropped from her limp hand.  She would try and go for it again.  He couldn't relax yet.  He chewed twice and swallowed, dropping into a stance half-remembered from the Vortian Rin Kan in the arena two days ago.  Kroe gritted her teeth, and her fingers on her good hand tensed against her dagger.  “I asked you a question, kid.”

He thought back to the words, the words he had heard so many times since the fighting had started, the words the guards had said, the nurse had said, the audience had said, so many opponents had said.  So many dead opponents, dead by his hand.  By his tooth and nail.  “I'm not a kid,” Samsa mumbled.

“What was that?  Speak up, I can't hear you past that wad of MY FUCKING ARM in your throat.”

“I'm not a kid!”  Samsa shouted, and Kroe charged him.  The words had seemed unkind at the time – to say that he wasn't Irken, that he was a beast, a monster, not even a person.  But what was being a person?  Was it being like Kroe, cruel, self-absorbed, a bully, just as vicious as him, but using a gun?  If that was what being a person was about, it suddenly didn't seem so important.  “I'm an ANIMAL!”

He ran forward to meet Kroe, a hurricane of spinning claws, his exposed skin flashes of lightning against the black-green storm clouds of his armor.  Kroe leaped over him, using her height and agility.  But it was the same trick again.  Time for the other surprise he had brought for her.  He had picked the longest threads of pink fuzz he could find, handling them only with his hands and other still-armored parts of his body.  He'd soaked them directly in the mud and muck and swamp water until they were stained olive drab and smelly and swollen up to twice their usual thickness.  And then he had tied them all together, knotting and braiding them all into a crude length of  thin rope which he'd wrapped around his belly for safekeeping.  It wasn't much, but when she had been expecting just claws, it made all the difference in the universe.

The loop of rope wrapped around Kroe's ankle and yanked mid-leap, pulling her off-course.  It wasn't much, maybe a decimeter or two, but it was enough that she hit the ground in a heap instead of a roll, and without nabbing her gun.  “Fuckshitcockfucker!” she said frantically, grabbing for her gun, but the bad landing had cost her just enough time and rattled her head just enough that Samsa was able to kick the gun into a deep puddle before she got to it.  He turned on her, but she had her dagger out, forcing him to step back with a wild slash before cutting herself free.  “You want to be an animal, fine!” she snarled.  “You'll die like a fucking dog!”

Samsa stepped forward, ready to parry a blow from her dagger with his carapace-plated arms.  Instead, he got a swift kick between the legs.  He gasped and his upper body snapped forward.  Blood spilled into his eye from his forehead wound.  Kroe pulled back her leg, grinning at the bits of armor plating dropping from his groin, and kicked him again in the unarmored shoulder, dislocating it and spinning Samsa around.  A third kick to the calf knocked him to his knee and broke another plate, and she hopped into the air, bringing her foot down across the back of his head, smashing more carapace and driving his face into the dirt.  He coughed burning mud out of his mouth, but his efforts to get up were aborted when Kroe put her foot down on his uninjured arm.  “Not even a PAK to fuck up, that's a shame.  Well, kid, it's been... protracted.”

“What does protracted mean?” Samsa asked from the dirt.

Kroe blinked and hesitated in stabbing her dagger downwards.  “Means, like... long.  Stretched out.  Longer than it had to be.”

“Oh, okay.”  Samsa suddenly thrashed backwards, stabbing the spines on his back up against Kroe's leg.  She hissed and shifted, and he was up.  It was just like the beginning of the fight, only this time it was two exhausted, blood-soaked, wounded contestants kept going only by their last adrenaline surges.  The outcome was nearly the same, too – but this time, Samsa had been aiming for her arm.  His claws pierced behind the wrist and burst up between the two bones of her forearm.  The force of the blow and her knee-jerk reaction (pull away from the thing that is injuring you) worked together to toss the knife straight into the air as it dropped from Kroe's limp fingers.

“COCKSUCKING... son of a bitch...” with one last gasp of effort, Kroe brought her elbow of her other arm down on Samsa's collarbone, breaking another piece of armor.  The shock against her wound on that arm meant the attack hurt her more than it did him.  “I didn't come all this way... to die here...”  Samsa's fingers tightened on one of Kroe's forearm bones, squeezed, and pulled, dragging her down to her knees.  Samsa tilted his head back, leaned away from Kroe, and caught her Bowie knife by the handle in his mouth as it fell back down.  “Hey, nice catch.”  Then Samsa's head snapped forward again.  He whipped his head from right to left, using the knife in his mouth to slash her throat.

Samsa spat the knife out and stepped back.  Kroe sagged forward one inch at a time, her eyes dull, her mouth still working but unable to produce any more sounds.  Blood streamed from her forearms and her throat.  Finally, she finished whatever last obscenity she had chosen, and dropped forward like a marionette whose last string had snapped.  Samsa, meanwhile, was popping his shoulder back into place, and finally letting the tears of pain fall.  He looked around reflexively to scan the crowd, as he would at the end of many of the battles he had fought sober, but there was no crowd.  Instead, the sky was blocked out by billowing smoke, leaving the spreading blue flames to provide a ghostly faerie-fire light across the swamp.

Just when Samsa had thought about how there was no audience, the camera droids decloaked, reminding him that there, in fact, was a bigger audience than ever.  Kroe's camera, which had tentacles and a camera lens built like a single detailed eye, stayed back, letting Samsa's bot with his cheese-grater voice and his little pair of claws loom right in Samsa's face.  “Hey, great work, Blackie!  You met and killed your opponent, and you got the sticker... hey, you didn't lose the sticker, did you?  That's important!”

“Kroe picked it up,” Samsa said, and held out the knife.  At some point, she had picked the singed sticker off whatever shard of forehead carapace it had stuck to, and restuck it along the pommel of her knife.  “S'mine again now.”

“Yes, yes it is.  Good contestant.”  Again, the done produced the hard-light hologram of a button.  “Well, press this whenever you're ready to go on to the next world.  If you haven't pressed the button in twenty-four Irken Standard hours, I am obligated by my programming-”

“I'll press it now,” Samsa said, interrupting.  His stomach grumbled.  “Actually, in a little while.  I'm hungry.  Food, nap, button.”  Ignoring the bot's complaint to its counterpart about how meatbags were always hungry, he thought.  Off to his right was the “care package” and its last MRE.  On his left was Kroe, no longer conscious, her heart weakly beating for perhaps only seconds longer.  Fresh meat, skin-on and bone-in, marinating in its own blood, or a last box of hot, cheesy 'people food.'

Samsa turned left.
Trial by Fire Round 1: Versus Kroe
Hold your Bat Boy, touch your Bat Boy,
No more need to hide...
Love your Bat Boy, save your Bat Boy,
Don't deny your beast inside.

Bat Boy: the Musical, "Hold Me, Bat Boy (Reprise)"

Ah.  Had time to spare this evening, a little bit, at least.  And just enough energy left to proofread properly before submitting.  About 5450 words all told.  Satisfies the minimum length requirement, doesn't drag on too long.  Good length for a round 1.

Let me say that oreog has been a fantastic opponent, helpful with any questions I had.  She DID give me permission to use her character's point of view, if anybody's wondering.  I've been told that's something I should make sure my opponents are okay with these days.  I was a little stumped on how best to use Kroe as an opponent at first, but eventually the inspiration flowed.  She's a good character, and Oreog's a good artist, and I won't be mad if she wins.  Y'all should check out her version of this fight if you haven't already.

I told you all Samsa's opponents would influence him, and I'm sorry to say Kroe is NOT a good influence.  Her words and actions have sent Samsa on his first step towards a path of embracing his savage nature.  Will he be swayed from this path?  Well, let's see what future opponents look like.

Trial By Fire (c) :icontrial-by-fire-oct:
Kroe (c) :iconoreog:
All else (c) me.
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Name: Lux Cipher

Species:  Unicorn

Gender:  Male

Age: 27

Cutie Mark: A prism shines down a rainbow of light, in which a 5-pointed star is silhouetted.

Description: An elegant, well-proportioned unicorn, a hair on the tall and slim side, with a solemn-looking face.  He has a coral-pink coat, whitish mane, hooves, and tail with pearlescent shades, and yellow eyes.  He wears his mane and tail short, but they are thick and luxurious, and he has a matching mustache and beard.  His eyes, unnervingly, seem to be always wavering back and forth, casting doubt at all times as to what he's looking at.

Occupation/History: Lux is the scion of a unicorn family with a history of work as royal servants, sometimes as guards, but more often in civilian capacities like translators or code-breakers.  Lux himself works as a Canterlot librarian, but during his rebellious teenage years, he picked up one lasting habit – his practice of Discordianism.  He was a faithful member for years before celebrating Discord's return – and then mourning his quick recapture by the Elements of Harmony.  During these events, he gained prominence, and when a schism formed in the church at Discord's “rehabilitation,” he was thrust into a leadership position.  The majority of the church celebrates Discord's newer, kinder persona, while a large splinter sect led by Lux still wait for the “real” Discord, or scheme to bring him back.  Balancing his day job, church responsibilities, and a relationship with fellow splinter Discordian Fig Newton has taken its toll on Lux as of late, and he's beginning to fray under the stress.

Personality: Lux is, unlike many librarians, very outgoing and friendly.  He's quite charismatic and wins friends quickly, and in fact has so many friendships that he doesn't value most of them.  He's not afraid to be flamboyant, even camp, in his mannerisms.  He's terrible at his job (no organizational skills whatsoever), but keeps it by keeping the favor of his superiors.  Sometimes he dozes off when other people are talking at length, especially when he's otherwise sleep-deprived.  He's quite intelligent but sometimes lacking in common sense.  He loves to be the best and the center of attention and will actively work to keep it that way.

Abilities: Lux has talent with light magic, enough that it would at least be a factor to even experienced combatants.  He can blind foes, and to an extent cast illusions – but he's more in his element dispelling them.  His magic can also reveal hidden things of all sorts, including stripping away invisibility or other stealth spells, and with sufficient power, changeling magic.  He's a gifted public speaker and charismatic enough to be a leader.  
MLP OC: Lux Cipher
Here's a new OC that I just came up with when inspiration struck me incidentally.  I wanted to name a pony after Lucifer.  After some thought, I connected a few ideas together and this character gelled.  Another of the major ideas was about the Discordian cult and the schism it must've suffered when Discord was turned to "good" by Fluttershy.  Also, I decided at some point I wanted a gay pink unicorn.

MLP (c) Hasbro
Character (c) me
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Trial By Fire: Young Blood Chronicles

Audition Round: Hey Freak

Oh, the ring.  How he hated the ring.

Samsa squinted through the bars at the arena, his eyes starting to adjust to the bright lights out there.  He hated the way those stadium lights reflected off his carapace.  Or, more often, how much they didn't reflect.  It seemed like his carapace absorbed everything sometimes, and light was often no different.

They brought out the Plains arena today, which was especially bright, with no real cover to provide shade.  Samsa hated the Plains arena; it was his worst one, and not just because of the brightness, although it was definitely the one he could least camouflage himself in.  He hated more the lack of cover or obstacles to exploit.  They had to get right to the fighting.

He couldn't see his opponent, just the similar darkened entrance room across the arena where his opponent would be, but he hated him.  He didn't know the man, but he knew he'd opted to fight Samsa earlier than he had to.  That was reason enough to hate him.  It would ruin Samsa's day, and get the other guy killed.

He especially hated the woman next to him, the Planet Jacker standing a full foot and a half taller even when he stood up straight.  She was a slaver working for the Filter, here, bringing in new gladiators, but she was also most often the “handler” for Samsa and the other class champions.  She'd been champion herself, once.  Samsa could only see Gobi's golden eyes and a strip of lavender skin between the cowboy hat and the gas mask, but he could tell she was smiling.  He hated everything about the Filter, and she loved it all.  She'd won a thousand battles and stayed on working here because she loved it so much.  She terrified him.

“That's yer cue,” she said, turning to look at him.  “Git on out there.”

Samsa's black-armored hands clenched on the bars of the window.  “I don't wanna.  I hate this.”  His voice came out quavering, swallowing up the “I”s.

Gobi made a dismissive noise.  “The Filter's great stuff.  Ya just hate yerself.”

She was half right, Samsa admitted, feeling another pang of, despite everything, hunger.  He hated what he did to the people out on that ring most of all.  He didn't remember much from the orphanage, but he remembered learning that killing people was wrong.  But the people in charge of the Filter made him kill.  When he wouldn't, they withheld food.  And when Samsa was hungry, he couldn't control himself.  Other Smeets his age could control their hunger.  Why wouldn't he hate that about himself?  “M'not going out there,” he murmured finally.

“Oh yeah you are,” Gobi replied smugly.  A shining steel hand flashed out from under her duster, clamping firmly against the carapace on his right upper arm.  Samsa had almost no time to squirm before Gobi's other, purple-fleshed hand flicked out, a syringe prepped to go.  She knew I wouldn't go, he realized, as her practiced hand slid the metal point between the plates of his carapace, piercing the skin of his inner elbow.  The syringe was all ready.  She knew.  “This'll just make ya remember what ya love,” Gobi said, still smug.  She was always smug around Samsa.

He hated the needle.

* * *

Rin Kan shaded his eyes against the stadium lighting as he stepped into the arena.  The young Vortian's blue skin and the brown leather of his vest shone in the light, catching the eye of every one of the arena's patrons.  Good.  He was sick of being disrespected, ignored, left behind.  That kind of treatment had left him struggling with debt until eventually he wound up bought like cattle.

Rin's arms dropped to his sides.  Well, if he was going to be cattle, he would be a bull.  His arms bulged as he tightened the grips on his weapons – a pair of wicked knives, curved almost to the point that they were sickles.  For the first time, his squat stature had worked in his favor, landing him in the Medium class rather than the more difficult Large class of gladiator fights, and the first two battles had been pretty easy.  The champion was supposed to be tougher... but he was just a child.  A child!

Speak of the little devil, he was coming out of his respective entranceway now.  What people had said was true – covered in black armor, head to toe.  Well, people also said you could break through the armor with a good blow.  Rin settled into a fighting stance – arms extended, legs wide, one blade diagonally in front and one behind - as the announcer called finished his spiel and signaled the start of the fight.  He'd given up listening to Moze's “color commentary;” it was generally of an insultingly crude disposition, and besides that didn't generally include any useful strategic information on his foes.

For a moment, Samsa didn't do anything after Moze called for the start of the fight.  He just stood there, arms limp, looking around the arena.  As he finally locked eyes with Rin Kan, Rin's eyes narrowed, but Samsa's purple orbs were wide and unfocused.  What's wrong with him?  He seemsconcussed or something... Rin started to relax his stance, but snapped back into discipline when Samsa suddenly charged him at a dead run.  “Hey freak!” Rin shouted, goading him forward.  “Taste steel!”

Samsa pounced, his clawed bare hands poised to rip into Rin.  Amateur, Rin sneered.  He hopped to the side, and brought his rear blade up to intercept Samsa's throat in midair.  He saw, heard, and felt Samsa's carapace breaking apart under the force of his blow – glossy black splinters fell around the edges of the knife, and the vibrations of the break travelled up the blade and into his arm.  Rin could taste victory, for an instant – but then Samsa tumbled in the air, grabbed Rin's forearm, and dug in with his talons, dragging them both to the ground.

Rin screamed in pain as the Irken's armor-backed claws ripped into the tendons of his arm.  His hand unclenched uselessly and the knife bounced away.  He hit the ground hard on the shoulder of his wounded arm and his bulky horn bounced against the grassy dirt.  He tried to scramble up and get his other knife into play, but Samsa was back up on all fours first, and he pulled himself onto Rin, knocking him flat on his back and pinning his good arm.  Rin tried to follow up his scream with a roar of anger, but Samsa's mouth flashed open, and suddenly Rin's voice fell silent – as the armored Irken reared back up with a mouthful of flesh and windpipe.

When Rin realized his throat had been ripped out, he tried to swallow – but couldn't.  That part of his body was gone.  His vision started to fade.  It had been over in only a few seconds.  How?  I got him right in the throat.  Samsa reared his head back to swallow, exposing his throat again, and Rin saw the truth – a gaping plate of armor was gone, but Samsa's wintergreen flesh underneath was unmarked.  Somehow the armor had absorbed all the force of his blow.  Wish I'd had armor like that, Rin thought, lying his head back on the grass... he was suddenly very tired.

* * *

Samsa stared at the floor.  It was lushly carpeted, not what he was used to.  He wanted to hate it, but couldn't, even though it belonged to Partch and was part of his office.  Partch ran the Filter.  He was the Tallest Irken Samsa had ever seen in person, and he was terrifying.

Samsa was lined up with the three other Champions.  On his left, Rith Zith sat with his tail coiled, his spade-shaped head bowed respectively.  The Small champion was a weird hybrid of Meekrob and Vortian, and didn't look quite like anything else Samsa had ever seen, but he was nice.  He cared about Samsa and wanted to best for him.  On his right, Taboo picked at her nails with apparent disinterest, but her jaw was tense.  The blue-scaled, tattooed Soltecian woman was the current Large class champion, and she usually ignored Samsa.  Looming behind her was a monstrously large Planet Jacker with an Irken PAK incongrously sticking out of his forehead.  Piledriver was actually the PAK's personality, not the Planet Jacker's, which explained why the slouching Planet Jacker wore the PAK legs like a massive set of Irken antennae.  He was also nice enough to Samsa, but he really only cared about himself and took little effort to hide that.

Opposite the room stood, or sat, the top brass of the Filter.  Partch himself sat at his desk, his spiderlike hands clasped.  The old businessman was almost bleached of color, and looked thoroughly dead except for his slow blinking once in a while.  Appearances were deceiving; Partch was, despite every effort from nature and, occasionally, his gladiators, quite alive.  He was flanked by two tall Irken women in fur coats, one leaning against the wall of the office, and the other sitting cross-legged on the side of Partch's desk.  They looked casual, but they scared Partch as well.  They weren't there to amuse Partch; they were there to protect him.  On one side of the desk stood Moze, the announcer and another ex-Champion.  He was a grinning mass of pits and scars dressed in suspicious-looking leather, and his fingers were twitching at his side on his remaining non-transplanted hand.  On the other side of the desk, Gobi leaned against the wall, arms folded calmly, and next to her stood Stepp” the arena's general manager and the only one in the room who couldn't defend himself in a pitched battle – which was probably part of why he was always so nervous.  Stepp was speaking now, and had been for a few minutes, but most of it had gone over Samsa's head.

“And that's basically the gist of it.” The chubby Irken gestured to the small robot that had been floating next to him.  It resembled nothing more than a football-sized Spittle Runner ship, with its maroon metal frame, propulsion systems along the rear and underside, and a pair of primary 'claws' on its lower front that could be used to grip or secure itself to a perch.  The robot's similarity ended with the cockpit – instead the thing had an elaborate camera lens.  “The Tallest want one of our best for Trial By Fire, but just one – they said they didn't want to encourage contestants to form any alliances.”

“And the winner gets a wish!  AND A POSTER!” The droid was very enthusiastic, but his voice was like a cheese grater straight to the antennae.  Stepp and Samsa both winced.   “All you have to do is fight your way through several skilled foes without dying!  On various planets!  So, who wants it most?  Don't all shout at once!”  There was an uncomfortable silence that follwed.

“Look...” Rith spoke first.  “That prize sounds fantastic, it really does, but... I can run the numbers.  I'd probably die out there.  Only one contestant will survive out there.  Here, I'm a big fish in a small pond, and I'm content with that.  I'm comfortable.  Count me out.”

The Piledriver nodded in agreement, his “antennae” rattling across the metal life-support tank on his back.  “With all due respect, sir, I've GOT my wishes already!  I'm treated like a warrior-king here, and all I have to do is fuck up 3 meters of musclehead once or twice a week?  The Filter is the best life I've ever known!”

“The chances of victory are remote,” Taboo added.  “Many unknown variables to consider.  The Filter is the devil I know.”

“I'm disappointed, but I understand.”  Partch's voice was cold and biting as a winter gust, but without malice.  He was being honest; there would be no punishment for this decision.

“That's a shame.  What about you, blacky?  All you gotta do is push the button.”  To Illustrate the point, the droid created a hard-light hologram from its camera lens.  Now, floating in front of it, translucent and glowing, there was an actual big red button for any gladiator to push.

“Samsa wouldn't want to...” Rith began, but then he saw that Samsa had, indeed, stepped forward.  “...I stand corrected.”

Gobi chuckled.  “Atta boy.  You're better off here, but if'n you wanna show some backbone, you've picked the time to do it.”  Piledriver clapped and whistled encouragingly as well.  “Remember, though, you've got to fight for real this time.  I won't be there to drug you and make you want to fight on this planet.”

“That's for the best,” Partch said.  “The boy fights better without the drugs.  Anybody else would've been killed in yesterday's fight, Gobi, and that Vortian could have been spared for another day.  It's damned inefficient is what it is.”

“Boss-man's right,” Moze chimed in.  “Ten seconds of fighting and two minutes of the freak eating a guy isn't good television, Gobi.  Probably best we let the medium champ slot open up for a while.”  Samsa sighed and walked towards the droid, approaching the hologram.

“Are you sure this is what you want to do, Samsa?” Rith asked plaintively.

“Mm-hmm,” Samsa said, scratching at his throat.  The new carapace plate was still growing in, and it itched.

“You could die.  I mean, you could die here, but there... Samsa, you're going to die.”

Samsa blinked back tears.  “Mm-hmm.”  He raised his hand, tried to stop thinking about the fact that somebody would be sad if he died after all, and pressed the button.
Trial By Fire: Young Blood Chronicles Intro
"Hey there little freak you remember me?
We were never introduced properly.
Hey you gonna cry?
You don't look so tough in the light of day,
But we ain't gonna murder you right away..."

Bat Boy: The Musical (London), "Hey Freak"

Well, here's my entry for :icontrial-by-fire-oct:.  It's late, but I was unable to access deviantart starting mid-afternoon on Saturday.  It was pretty nerve-wracking.  Luckily, the OCT already announced they were accepting late entries today, so I'm safe at any rate.

This first chapter is downright emo.  It'll pick up a bit now that Samsa's out of the Filter, the arena where he's been growing up.  The contest should give him reason to express a much wider emotional range.

Invader Zim (c) :iconnickelodeon: :iconjhonenplz:
Trial-By-Fire (c) its owners
All else (c) me
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deviantID

avatarjk137
Justin
Artist
United States
Current Residence: Florida?
Favourite genre of music: It isn't the genre, but the quality that matters.
Favourite photographer: ...HUH?
Favourite style of art: anything that actually involves drawing things.
Operating System: Windows.
MP3 player of choice: Zen Nano Plus. iPods are lame, run-of-the-mill drek.
Shell of choice: Cardboard Carapace.
Wallpaper of choice: Changes at least weekly.
Skin of choice: Mine.
Favourite cartoon character: Toughie. Maybe Zim.
Personal Quote: Your life is measured by how happy you are and how happy you make others.
Interests

Journal History

Time for a new journal!  I'm feeling somewhat better on that subject, thanks to everybody for your support.

Been a while since I got into a good old IZ OCT.  :iconresisty-uprising-oct: looks like just that.  Irkens only, just like the first Blood-Sport, but for a different reason: this time, the plot focuses on a forced survival tournament the Resisty is holding with their prisoners of war after successfully taking back the Empire.  It's a really neat plot opportunity, even if you're only going to do it as a "what-if" for your main plotline like I'm going to.  I'm gonna enter Kizzo, an OC I haven't given the spotlight to yet (trust me, she'll be in her element).  It's not happening for a while still (no admissions deadline yet), so just because you're in Blood-Sport doesn't mean you have no time for this.  Go check it out.

Not much else going on.  I'm still judging the third Blood-Sport, still in PGO if I survive this round's eliminations.  I'm still struggling with Tumblr addiction.  I'm no longer employed, but I stayed long enough to make about two grand, which will go toward my grad school career (I've applied, and I'm working on the stuff the English department needs from me).  Still playing DnD and other tabletop games, still hanging out with my friends at the local college.

I'm also in the closed beta for Mechwarrior Online, which I think will soon be an open beta.  If you guys played the Mechwarrior series before, or just have a decent gaming PC and think the idea of strapping yourself into a 100-ton robot and shooting other guys in 100-ton robots sounds fun, go check it out and reserve yourself a username at mwomercs.com/  The game's free to play, but uses a system where you can spend real-world money to buy mechs of your own more quickly.

Well, I'm gonna go make dinner.  We're trying a recipe for spinach and mushroom quesadillas.
  • Mood: Content
  • Listening to: Homestuck song mashups
  • Watching: Gravity Falls
  • Playing: Mechwarrior Online
  • Drinking: Iced Tea

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:iconskarita:
Skarita Featured By Owner Feb 24, 2015  Student Digital Artist
It's your birthday, happy birthday, have a thing. sta.sh/01sdt2bbxyn5
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:iconavatarjk137:
avatarjk137 Featured By Owner Feb 24, 2015
Eeeeeeeeeeee

Thanks!  This is awesome!
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:icongvozdi:
Gvozdi Featured By Owner Feb 24, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
Aye, happy birthday guv
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:iconavatarjk137:
avatarjk137 Featured By Owner Feb 24, 2015
Danke.
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:iconsaintheartwing:
SaintHeartwing Featured By Owner Feb 24, 2015  Student General Artist
Happy Birthday! :iconbirthdaycakeplz:
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:iconavatarjk137:
avatarjk137 Featured By Owner Feb 24, 2015
Thanks!
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:iconravenpuff:
Ravenpuff Featured By Owner Dec 6, 2014
This just makes me think Metal Fang vs Red Velvet
www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfkR5o…
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:iconavatarjk137:
avatarjk137 Featured By Owner Dec 6, 2014
Heh.  I like it.  Thanks for the link.
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:iconravenpuff:
Ravenpuff Featured By Owner Dec 7, 2014
Yar welcome =D
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:iconravenpuff:
Ravenpuff Featured By Owner Jul 19, 2014
Did I forget to tell you I finished the final reaction image a while back? I think I forgot to tell you I finished the final reaction image a while back.

I finished the final reaction image a while back.
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