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Crucible of Irk: Written in Blood

Round 3: The Lovers/The Fighters

Part 2

Once Pike calmed down, he brightened up considerably.  He was definitely still a bit suspicious of me, and his expression turned stormy whenever the conversation drifted towards anything after the maze.  On the other hand, my self-description (which was truthful, if not all-inclusive) didn’t faze him, including the part where I did mercenary and bounty work.  He blushed a bit when I complemented his tattoos (a black triangle above his right eye and a counterpart below his left eye), and once I brought up his weapons, he absolutely didn’t (or “dinnae,” to hear him say it when he was excited) shut up.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to talk shop with somebody about implements of death.  Pike made his own weapon and his own armor, and his designs were very clever, doubtless.  But his boundless enthusiasm wouldn’t help him recover when he needed to rest and focus on healing his wounds.  I finally yelled at him to shut up and sleep, and then he only did so after I assured him I’d keep watch in case another drone or something came by. I also had to reiterate that I would not kill him while he was vulnerable.  “It’d be such a dick move.  I wouldn’t even be happy afterwards,” I said.

I actually had originally planned to get some sleep myself, but I ended up feeling guilty about telling him I’d keep watch, so I did.  It was boring as shit.  If you ever have the means, I highly recommend not keeping watch.  Get an app for your ship’s computer to do it or something.  In the morning, though, he was in significantly better shape, thanks to a combination of my care and PAK-enhanced healing.  I spent a few minutes patting myself on the back, and then we continued on.  Well, we got reoriented to one of my claw marks, and Pike showed the way he’d come in.  Then we moved on.  “So, what’s the deal with the dragon head thing?” I asked after walking got boring.

“Th’ murder crab ah mentioned, this was his weapon.”  Pike patted it.  “Krull, tha’ was his name.  He called it a blaster… ah guess it is one.  A big one.  It needs a power source, but ah can wire it to mah PAK batt’ries, the ones mah armor uses.”

I clapped my hands in sudden recognition.  “Krull!  Yeah, I remember that guy.  Jaxom convinced me to read up on rival bounty hunters one day.  The metal crab guy.” I whistled appreciatively.  “You beat that dude?  I’m impressed.”

“Yea, well, he punched all these holes in me.”  A gesture to the wounds I’d helped him treat, aside from the bandages on his wrist.  For lack of anything better to use, I’d torn up my shorts as bandages.  He was grossed out until I pointed out I hadn’t used the crotch part.  That portion, looking more like a pair of briefs, rested on my head, where he’d placed them as a joke.  “That was a nightmare, that fight.  Jus’ tryin’ ta kill me from beginnin’ ta end.  Ah’m not cut out for these ternaments.”

I shrugged.  “Hardly anybody is.  That’s why they’re generally not mandatory.”  We turned a corner, heading towards a dull mechanical roar that had been getting louder.  “Hello.”  Ahead of us was a particularly narrow stretch of the maze, the walls little more than a meter and a half apart.  That was actually convenient, because there was no floor for that ten-meter stretch (or a meter in each direction around it).  Instead, there was a straight drop into a stretch of what looked like industrial-strength shredder-grinders.  Those things could chew through I-beams, we wouldn’t stand a chance.  “This one doesn’t look like it needs teamwork,” I observed.  “Maybe we weren’t necessarily going to have met up by this point.”

“Ah’m not sure even this blaster would put a dent in those teeth,” Pike said, grimacing down at the shredder.  “Ah don’t suppose ye see an off switch, do ye?”  Peering over the edge, he didn’t notice me stretching behind him.

“These physical tests are a cinch,” I said.  “Smeet-level stuff.  Watch and learn, padawan.”  As he turned toward me, I leapt past him, running diagonally up the wall at full tilt.  After a few meters, I lost the diagonal and started to lose height.  No problem.  I kicked off that wall, hit the opposite wall, and kept going, squeezing out a bit more height.  By the time I was falling again, I’d made it past the whole gap.  I stuck the landing on solid ground, and turned the flinch at the nagging pain in my rib into a spastic little celebratory dance.  I let out a strained “Woo!” followed by a “let’s see you do that!”

“Tha’s na’ happenin’!”  He called across the gap.  The hard light flickered to life on his armor again, this time in red.  “Oi’ve got an idea, though.”  He tossed his PikeSpike (great weapon, stupid name, in my humble opinion) across the gap and over my head to clatter behind me.  Then he leapt forward over the pit.  Not a jump he would ever make, but he used his longer arms and legs to just suspend himself over the pit like a spider, stabilizing himself by applying pressure and using friction to hold his body up.  Then he started scooting towards me, first pulling his legs forward, and then his arms.  He looked a bit ridiculous, but it was effective.  His height-to-weight ratio worked out really well for him this way.  He didn’t even look too strained.”

“Bravo,” I said, applauding as he made it to safety, falling against the ledge above the grinders but getting both arms onto the ledge.  I lent a hand, but he didn’t seem to really need it, barely grunting as he pulled himself up.  “The red armor’s nice.  What’s the difference between that and blue?”

“Th’ blue one protects me,” he explained.  “This one’s more about strength augments.”  He dismissed the holograms.

“Do you have any other colors?” I asked innocently, continuing onward.  I mean, I wanted to know for the inevitable fight, but I was also genuinely curious.

“Nah, jus’ the two.  It’s already got offense and defense.  Wha’ more do ye need?”

“Speed augment?”  I suggested.  “Somebody like me would deff want a speed augment.  Or a healing augment?  That’d have been a huge boon to you.  Or… ooh, a stealth augment.  Active camo and sound dampening.  What color light would that be?  Black light?”

---

It was hours more travel that day, and most of the traps were pretty easy to deal with.  The spike trap and the swinging pendulum blade trap were disappointing, those didn’t even scratch us.  The old walls-that-shoot-arrows trap was at least good for an adrenaline rush.  I was beginning to wonder if the Benefactor was trying to lure us into a false sense of security, or if he was just an old movie buff.

“Mm.”  We’d hit another gap in conversation, after Pike’s depressing account of Sygin.  “My first opponent wasn’t much older than a Smeet herself.”  Although I wasn’t sure if Pike was much older than she was… he had a sort of youthful enthusiasm thing going.  “She was, like, mentally ill or something.  I don’t enjoy killing people like that, but she was violent, you know?”

Whether Pike “know” or not is a question that will be lost for the ages, because a metal cylinder, smaller than the drone, popped up from a concealed hole in the ground in front of us with a soft beep.  “Get down!” Pike yelled, and while I did, I didn’t expect him to come slamming down on top of me, covering both our heads with his arms as best he could.  The cylinder hung in the air for a half-second that seemed like an eternity, then it exploded in a storm of sound and fury and hot shrapnel.

When the ringing in my mostly-artificial antennae started to fade, I pushed Pike off me.  He’d activated that blue armor of his, but after the blast, it had vanished.  It seemed to have absorbed most of the shrapnel, though.  I felt a couple of stings where little bits had pierced me, but they hadn’t gone too deep and they weren’t too big.  Pike was, from my first impression, only a bit worse off than me.

“Dammit,” I said, helping him to his feet.  “That’s twice you saved me now.”

“What?!” he asked.

“That had better be temporary.”

---

As it turned out, yes, the hearing loss was just temporary, as was the loss of his defensive matrix.  And luckily, we didn’t have to deal with any more Bouncing Barbaras, which would have actually literally killed me if Pike hadn’t known exactly what they were (he later explained them to me.  At length).  “Yeah, his hammer definitely had room for a mini-fridge,” Pike agreed, rubbing his chin.  “Did he like any of the ideas?”

“Yeah, the head-on-a-chain.”  I stopped.  “Do you hear something… squirmy?”

“Somefin’ squirmy?” he repeated incredulously, but before I could throw out some sarcasm at him, the ground beneath us (we should have known loose dirt was suspicious) burst outward as a dozen thick tendrils shot straight up.  I had barely popped my blades to counterattack when a tentacle wrapped around my right arm, then my left, then my legs, one even intertwining with my PAK tendril.  “Git off me, ya bloody wanker!”  Pike was in more or less the same predicament as me.  A closer look at the tentacles revealed they were pale grey, with a thin sheen of bubblegum-pink slime.  There was a slight tingling numbness spreading from where the tentacles touched my bare skin, which boded poorly.

“Pike, help!”  I shouted.  “It’s got some sort of contact venom!  Also, several large tentacles and naked women are a dangerous combination!”

“Sonovacrap!”  Pike set his jaw and activated the strength plating, getting himself enough arm strength to struggle properly against the tentacles.  He was able to bring his spear to bear, free one arm, free the other, and then fire the Pike.  I would have finished freeing myself first, because that shot could have easily been screwed up and impaled me or something, but what do you know, he pierced the tentacle holding my right arm.  Its grip slackened, and I suddenly had my claws free.  My claws then did what claws do best, first to the tentacles focusing on me, then to Pike’s.

About three seconds later, the remaining tentacles and gel-leaking stumps retreated underground.  “Yeah!” I shouted, striking a dramatic pose, bent over with my claw in the air behind me.  “Go back to your own genre!”  About a second later, I keeled over as the venom finished turning my legs to metaphorical jelly and faceplanted.  “You know, this dirt is surprisingly soft.”

“Alright, c’mon.”  Having retrieved the other half of his weapon, Pike grabbed me and scooped me up.  “That’s three to one now,” he said.  “Ah hope ya dinnae have a death wish or somethin’.”  He draped me over his shoulder like a fireman.  It gave me a good view of his butt.

“What, me?  Nah, I just have an appreciation for the finer things in life.  Like this.”  I still had some strength in my left hand, so I pinched his butt.  He yelped and shook me, and I snickered.

“Some professional you are,” he said.  “Let’s git out of Tentacle Hall, and then camp until ye kin move again.”

---

“Until I can move again” was, unpleasantly, the better part of a day.  Would have been even longer if I hadn’t eventually figured out the components of the poison so my PAK could specifically target it.  Still, we could use the time to heal our aching muscles (adventuring is hard work) and continue healing our wounds.  Only that one rib of mine hurt at all at this point!  Mostly.  I really needed another sixty or seventy hours off my feet to heal it, and I really wasn’t going to get that.

We’d exhausted our Crucible escapades to talk about, so conversation was starting to drift further back.  I’d told Pike about more or less the entirety of my days at Jaxom’s stupid mercenary company, minus some of the most recent shit.  And I’d learned Pike worked for the Solace Syndicate.  Good for him.  Maybe soon he’d unclamp about this lady of his.

Early on our next trek brought bad news, though.  We’d come full circle, back to my first claw marks.  “Dammit dammit dammit!”  I pulled at my last remaining scrap of clothing between my teeth and my hands.  Pike gave me a look, and I calmed down just a bit.  “I thought following the right wall the whole way would get us there!” I explained.

“Yea, I was followin’ because ya seemed ta have a plan in mind,” he agreed.  “But some mazes kin be built specifically ta foil that strategy.”  He squinted in concentration.  “Our prize is in the middle of this maze.  Tha’ would make it easy to go nowhere forever by followin’ either of the first walls ya find.”  He smiled wanly. “Good thing ya also marked yer progress.”

“Yeah…” I sighed.  “We’ll have to backtrack.  Good thing we broke half the traps.”

---

“Ah don’t remember this trap!”  Pike yelled, taking cover behind a corner.

“Good!”  I leapt over another blast of plasma as the turret fired it.  These things would vaporize me with a single hit, but they were slow moving.  I vaulted over the cannon turret and slashed with my claws.  No good.  The armor was even thicker than Gavril’s.

The turret pivoted to follow me – fast enough that I would be dead once the adrenaline wore off – but then a smaller blast of heat and light slammed into the turret.  Pike yelled wordlessly over the top of that dragon-head cannon he’d taken.  The turret spun to fire back at him, and facing 180 degrees away from the gun, I finally found an access port.  I pried it open as it was firing again; it noticed and tried to turn back toward me, but it was too late.  “Violated!” I bellowed, jamming my claws into the un-armored control panel in the port.  The thing shut down at once.

“Hot damn, Scree; that was gold!” Pike yelled, rushing out from behind the corner.  Then he stopped and blushed as he realized what he said.

I splayed myself on top of the turret, although it was uncomfortably warm, and gave him my best shit-eating grin.  “So tell me about Scree,” I said.

---

“Wow,” I said, when he was finally done.  “You’re a terrible cook.”  He scowled and punched me in the arm.  “Seriously, though… you two sound like a great pair.  I hope you and she both make it through.”  We’d set up camp for the third time… even though we were in a giant underground labyrinth with neither firewood nor tents, so ‘setting up camp’ consisted of ‘find a spot where there’s no traps, and sit down against the walls.’

“Ah hope so too,” he said, and his eyes were a little misty.  I gritted my teeth.  I knew a cry was coming on, and I wasn’t great at this sort of thing.  Finally, it came out.  “Whoi the fuck do we have to do this?” He asked, choking up.  “Kill an’ die for public amusement… everywhere across the whole damn universe… it’s really fucked up.”

I wished there was a fire so I could poke at it restlessly.  “It’s not really so bad,” I said.  He glared at me through his tears.  “I mean it.  It toughens us up, you know?”

“Toughens one of us up,” he said thickly.  “At tha price o’ thirty or sixty dead.”

“Don’t make it sound so permanent,” I laughed.  “I know two guys who died in the first two Bloodsports.  They’re both still around!”  He looked at me goggle-eyed.  “We’re irkens, Pike.  The cyborg scourge of the universe.  Recover the identity chip from our PAK – it doesn’t even have to be the whole PAK! – and whip up a clone with some genetic material, and bam!  Whole new body, in young adulthood!”  I sighed happily.  “If it happens to me, Pike… I’m gonna get to do ALL NEW tattoos.  Can you imagine?”

Pike was still kinda goggle-eyed.  “Clonin’ is kinda a desperate, last-chance thing, isn’t it?  And ain’t it real expensive?”

“It costs a cool few million moneys,” I admitted.  “But at the high end, mercenary work is every bit as lucrative as it is dangerous.  So we keep an account open with a clone lab.  You know Q Boks?  Old-as-balls Vortian, won the second Bloodsport?” Pike nodded numbly.  “I work with that guy!  I tattooed a sweet eight-point-star on his face where his old body had that acid scar.  You can’t recognize him at all anymore, the new body’s young.”  I sighed and shook my head.  “Young and tight.”

“Vortians dinnae even have PAKs!” Pike spluttered.

“I know, but he was wearing a stolen one for half that tournament, and the identity chip was wiped.”  I laughed.  “Oh, man, he was so mad when Jaxom woke him up.  He really wanted to die, and Jaxom was all ‘no, no dying, you’re mine forever!’  And if you think that’s bad, well, it’s also why he was a terrible boyfriend.”  I stopped smiling. “Aww, I made myself sad.”

“Well, ah’m glad ye can afford to die.”  Pike crossed his arms.  “Scree an’ I aren’t that long on funds.”

“You should sell some patents or something,” I said.  “But look, if I kill you, and I find out Scree survives her tournament – and I’ll probably find out because she’s come to kill me or something – then I’ll spring for cloning you.  Not if Scree dies, though.  Instead I’ll just tattoo a mural of you two as star-crossed lovers on some fat guy’s back or something.  You’re looking at me funny again.”

“Ye jus’ offered to bring me back from tha dead!”

“Yeah, under a certain set of circumstances.  Irk, you treat death like it’s permanent or something.” I inched closer to him as he shook his head dismissively and took another bite of rations.  “So… CASUAL SEX?”

He almost started to choke.  “What?!”

“I was offering for us to have casual sex.  You know, to ease the tension.”  I took a piece of his rations and ate it as sensually as I could… which wasn’t very sensually.  It was trail mix.

“N-no!”  He yanked the mix away from me, extending the metaphor.  “Ah’m in love with Scree, an’ you look kinda like her an’ you also kill people but yer WAY different an’…”

“Yeah.  That’s kinda the tension you need to work through.”  I sighed.  “Look, if you don’t want to, I understand, but I think it’d be good for you, and I’m pretty sure it’d be good for me.”

“No.  Wait… will ya not bring me back if I dinnae have… uh…”

I considered it for a moment.  “Nah, that’d be pretty petty.  And also messed up of me.”

“Good.  Ah’d really rather save myself for Scree,” he said.  Then he blushed again at having said too much.

I gave him the full Cheshire Cat grin.  “Oh, Pike, don’t tell me you’re a virgin.”

---

“Finally,” Pike sighed.  The next… afternoon?  Time of day was pretty meaningless in this underground maze.  We’d finally found the heart of the maze, the large green dome I’d seen from the edge.  And we’d finally learned why we needed two people in the heart of the maze.  There were two levers, about three meters apart.

“So stupid,” I said, as I pulled one lever.  “I could have used my tail to pull the other lever and killed you two days ago.”  Inside the dome was… well, it was a room.  It was bright, clean, filled up the inside of the dome.  The floor was still stone, but it was a bit better-polished.  At the far end of the dome was a teleporter like in the train.  And next to it was a sign.

The teleporter will only activate when one of you is dead.  Go to it, contestants!

- Your Benefactor

“I really hate that guy,” I said brightly.  I unsheathed my claws.  “Alright, Pike, let’s do this.”

He didn’t raise his weapon.  “Ah won’t fight back.  Jus’ make it quick.  An’ bring me back if Scree makes it through.”

“Don’t be a bitch, Pike,” I said.  “Put your dukes up.  I want a fight.”

“How can ye fight me after hangin’ out wif me as pals for three days?”

“Cognitive dissonance.”  I smiled, but it was forced.

“What’s the point?”

“I want it, that’s the point.”

“Why do ye wanna suffer and hurt me before ye can move on?”

“I dunno…” I was scowling now.  “It wouldn’t feel right otherwise.  Now come attack me!  I need to earn this!”

“Ah dinnae fuck ya!” he shouted back.  “Why should ah fight ya?”

“Fight me or I won’t bring you back,” I said coldly.

“Why?!  Wha’ does it matter?!”

“I can’t kill you when you’re not defending yourself!” I shouted.

“Why not? Ye’ve done horrible stuff!  Ya tol’ me all about it!”

“I can’t do this!”

“Why tha hell not?!”  He was crying now.

So was I.  “Because you’re better than me!”  I threw back my head.  “Okay?!  I can’t kill you while you stand there and pine for your lover!  I need you to attack me, so at least some part of me will believe the lie that you deserved it!”  My chest was heaving.

He sobbed.  “Yer a good friend, ya know that?”

“Shut up and hit me.”

He pointed the bottom half of his spear at me, and fired.

I leapt over it.  The dome was too small to maneuver in.  Only room for a forward assault.

The last thing Pike ever saw was me flying claws-first at him.

“Was it real?” I mouthed.

“Is anything?” he mouthed back.  Then the claws pierced into his orange eyes, past them, deep, until I scraped the inside rear of his skull.  I pulled the blades out and climbed down off of him, realizing I’d been standing on his bent knees for that kill.

Pike fell like a tree.  I wiped the last scrap of my yellow shorts on my blades, cleaning off the blood, viscera, and grey matter.  I threw it away and grabbed Pike’s PAK.  This time he didn’t object when I popped it open, nor when I yanked out a significant chip.  I stared at it for a moment, and considered throwing it away.  Instead, I sighed and dropped it into my own PAK’s storage compartment.

As I grabbed Pike’s signature stupid-name weapon and dragged it over to the teleporter, my PAK informed me that I’d finally hacked the Benefactor’s locks and could use my PAK tentacles and tattoo kit again.  Perfect timing, as usual.

“The mythical treasure of V-2413 had better be pretty fucking spectacular,” I muttered, using the PikeSpike to rap on the floor of the teleporter.

End
Crucible Round 3: Vs. Pike Part 2
So, yeah.  There's actually a Grand Unifying Storyline for most of my OCT entries.  It's most obvious here because Kizzo works for the same mercenary group as Q, which is the rival group to Domm's.  Sadly, Aut and Samsa didn't survive their OCTs, which means they don't go on to form meaningful connections with my other groups of characters.  Of course, Aut wouldn't have had meaningful connections, he would've become a horrifying creature that needed killing.  And Gobi is off doing her own thing.  She canonically survived her loss, but was discouraged and humiliated by it.

Things that could've/should've been in this entry:
- Proper bolding and italicization, which shouldn't impact the readability too much, but there should've been a strikethrough in the first paragraph of part one, that really screws up the syntax.
- A longer fight at the end, instead of a shouting match and a Single Stroke Battle.
- I was gonna find something for Sygin's staff to do.  You'd be surprised how much this one bothers me.
- I actually fit in every scene of the maze travel I wanted to do, but I wanted more stuff to happen between scenes and get only mentioned, like a zombie attack.  Maybe a ham demon.
- I had originally planned for Kizzo to be more bothered that Pike had saved her more times than she'd saved him.  It didn't flow naturally into the dialogue.
- Kizzo actually maybe was going to destroy Pike's PAK chip and be a total liar.  I decided her outburst just beforehand meant she'd have to actually take the chip and at least fulfill the letter of the agreement.  She has a weird sense of morality, but just because it's way different from a normal person's doesn't mean she doesn't occasionally agonize over it.
- Pike needed a stronger build-up of the fact that Kizzo's casual attitude about cheating death kinda fucked with everything he thought he knew, leading to his hesitation at the end.


Part 1: avatarjk137.deviantart.com/art…
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Crucible of Irk: Written in Blood

Round 3: The Lovers/The Fighters

I faded in and out for a while, after that whole Gavril debacle.  Am I going too hard on myself, calling it a debacle?  I mean, I won.  But I also got caught up in a good one-liner, and I had only blinded him, not killed him, and he totally broke eleven or twelve of my ribs.  I won’t tell you how many of my ribs he actually broke, according to my PAK.  It’s embarrassing.  Anyway, I beat him, but at that point he kinda let me because he was so damn ugly he knew he couldn’t finish the tournament blind and in crippling face pain.  And ugly.  Poor guy.  He just needed a good tattoo artist, but my needles were still locked by the Benefactor’s damn hack.

Lost my train of thought.  Where was I?  Oh, yeah, fading in and out.  No wonder I lost the thread.  Anyway, about eight hours after Gavril died, I was conscious for a while, trying not to cry anymore while I was presumably on hidden camera.  And trying to unlock my PAK features again.  I actually wrote a program to just spam the program with passwords, although I couldn’t dedicate much processor power to it.  It could take weeks to find the backdoor.  Oh, don’t give me that face.  I’m not even good with computers, but they teach this shit to Smeets.  Every Irken who grew up in the system knows basic programming language.  I can’t do much more than run Tetris in my PAK, though.

ANYway, I noticed around the eight hour mark that I’d gotten a message from the Benefactor.  It had actually already been a while.  I pulled the Holosphere out of my PAK and shook it like a magic 8-ball until text floated up.

“Such a fantastic round! What a nefarious fighter you are, and how unfortunate for your opponent that they failed to be quite as devious.

Due to rather unusual and oddly magnificent circumstances, only two of you remain in any official capacity.  As such, welcome to the Final Round of The Crucible.  May you leave with your body parts intact and your opponent's decimated corpse left in the dust.

Of course... we'll not make it easy for you.  Oh no.  We've a specific treat of a location set aside just for you, with certain... stipulations in mind for getting out.

More information will be provided to you once you utilize the conveniently located teleportation unit at the rear of your rail car- or what's left of said rail car.

Granted, you'll be stepping into the unknown, putting your life in the hands of fate and all that... but unless you want to wind up trapped on the planet for the remainder of your days, however long that may be, then do be a dear and get it over with.

We leave you with one final clue; Two heads are better than one in this, your Final Crucible!”

Oh, fantastic. Just one more fight, apparently, because some assholes no doubt couldn’t kill their opponents without dying themselves.  I laughed, at them, and at my own hypocrisy – I hadn’t evaded death with all that much room for error.  So there was supposedly a teleportation unit here.  Well, I’d better hurry up and find it – nah, I’m pulling your lekku, I went back to sleep.  Well, sleep-ish.  Blissful unconsciousness, if I’m being honest.  I spent a couple of days gingerly munching on rations and healing up before I went to teleport out, despite being in a moving train car exposed to open air which was really surprisingly cold and thin.  A lesser being would be at risk from the environment, but this was the sort of thing PAKs dealt with as second nature.  I considered getting in there, wounds and all, the next time I woke up, but I figured the Benefactor wouldn’t want an anticlimax, and a couple of days were a safe amount of time to test their patience.  Then I hobbled my way over to the back of the car.

I took stock of my body, since I was up and walking again now.  My ribs were still pretty tender, but the fractures were sealing, and my wounds from Zixa had scarred over.  I caught my reflection in the semi-mirrored metal of a fire extinguisher. The bruise on my shoulder from the hammer’s shaft was a dark olive-colored splotch, and jade-colored blood had crusted on my chin and all down my now topless chest.  I stuck my tongue out at myself and scraped at the blood with a finger, removing a comically small amount of it.  Oh well; at least I’d clean up pretty.

It wasn’t a huge surprise that I’d missed the teleportation unit earlier, considering it folded into an alcove.  There was sort of a showerhead-looking thing that had flipped out of the wall, and now projected a meter-wide circle of light onto the floor.  The space directly above the circle was shimmering.  “Bottoms up,” I said with a smirk, and stepped in.

---

As my eyes refocused on my new location, I shut them.  I wanted my first impression of the place to be sounds and smells.  First, I smelled sweat and blood.  No, wait… that was just me.  Well, it was at least partially me.  I inhaled again, this time smelling damp stone, and mildew, and rust, machine oil, decay… I didn’t hear much, though.  I opened my eyes and found myself in a van-sized, gloomy room made of rough-hewn stone, lit in sickly teal from a crystal jutting from the ceiling.  “Kinda small,” I complained.  “And I had five bucks riding on volcano arena.  It’s such a classic hell metaphor.”

Suddenly, I heard a chime from deep within my PAK.  Another message on the Holosphere.  As I took it out, a stone panel slid back and upwards in the wall, revealing itself to be a door.  Beyond was… well, more rough-hewn stone and sickly teal lighting, but in much more impressive dimensions.  The floor in front of me sloped downward, flanked on either side by high walls.  The virtue of the slope was that I could see out across the arena, the kilometers-long arena, a huge concave labyrinth with high walls and dead ends all about, and a huge crystal sphere in the center.  Still would have gone with lava, but this was actually pretty impressive.  Very… dungeon-y.  I read the latest prompt from the sphere.

“Carved under the stone shell of V-2413, we have taken the liberty of endowing this winding maze with some of the most sadistic and deadly traps your lost little soul can imagine.  There is no surviving these labyrinthian tunnels alone, either.  You'll need a partner to get through.  Fortunately for you, you've someone with a solid head on their shoulders nearby!  Or one would hope, given how they made it to the final round....”

So that was the gist of it.  Find my opponent, work with them, for however long it took to get to the end of this damn maze, and only then kill them.  I tried to imagine the best case scenario: my opponent is an asshole, I kill them right away, and I can make it through on my own.  Worst case scenario… same thing, except I turn out not to be able to get through on my own.  That meant all the more likely scenarios in between meant actually having to work with… whomever I found.  That drew a sigh from me.  Ah well.  I don’t benefit from a terribly trustworthy appearance, what with the tattoos and nudity, so I’d have to just be even more charming and cooperative than usual.

With that in mind, I pulled off my pants and grasped them in my free hand, where I could more easily use the bright yellow shorts as a distraction or toss them away.  Thus prepared, I ventured into the labyrinth.  Conquering the maze should be as simple as surviving the traps and following the right wall.  I’d get to the end eventually… right? Also, I’d need to meet my partner at some point.  If the maze couldn’t be beaten alone, it would probably be designed so we could find each other quickly enough.

At the first intersection, I left a single slash in the stone corner with my claws as a marker, and continued to hug the right wall.  A few dozen meters more, and I did the same at the next intersection.  Another few dozen meters and corner, and I found… a dead end.  Well, that couldn’t be helped. I backtracked to my claw mark and continued on.  A couple more turns and I found my first trap.  Oh, and it was a classic, the laser grid!  One of the lasers towards the end moved up and down, too.  Nice.  The only question was, would these lasers slice through me or set off an alarm?

As it turned out, I never found out.  I flipped, cartwheeled, hopped, rolled, walljumped, and acrobatic-fucking-pirouetted right through every laser, pausing to strike a pose or two on the way.  I wasn’t gonna pretend I wasn’t born to handle that obstacle.  Granted, afterwards I screamed like a little girl from the pain in my half-healed ribs, but I waited until after the acrobatics to do it.  And I don’t think I re-broke any of the bones.  Well… maybe one.  Ow.

---

Yeah, resting from that sidelined me for another hour or so.  This time, I didn’t sleep.  I didn’t feel safe sleeping in the maze, not when I hadn’t even seen my opponent yet.  Instead, I just waited as long as I could bear before getting back to it.  Three turns, two intersections, and a dead end later, I still hadn’t found shit.  No opponent, no end of the maze, nothing.  Calm down, you stupid bitch, I told myself.  You’ve only even hit one ‘deadly’ trap so far. I nodded to myself.  You’re right, sassy inner voice!  I’m a stupid bitch.  Oh, speak of the devil.

Coming around the corner in front of me was a small, spherical floating metal object.  It was dotted with glowing seams and plates that could presumably unfold or slide around or something, and a glowing light or two that looked to be a sensor of some sort.  As it came into view of me, it paused, bobbed as if in a little bow, and let loose an auto-tuned “vYOOoww.”  It was kinda cute, actually.

I shrugged as it floated closer.  “You don’t look like my opponent.  I’m guessing you’re a trap.”  As it drifted to about five meters from me, its panels suddenly depressed slightly, and bright blue bolts of electricity shot out of it.  They seemed to behave like the bolts contained in a plasma lamp, curving through the air and almost caressing the walls and floor as they hissed along it.  Except the burn marks it was tracing in the stone suggested otherwise.  And me without any method of ranged attack except a metal tendril connected to my central nervous system.  “Oh, fuck me.”  I did what anybody in my position would do – I ran like hell.  As I turned the corner, I looked behind me.  Yep, that thing was following, and it didn’t stop spraying energy in a dozen different directions just because I was fleeing now.

I sprinted for about two minutes, during which I hardly gained a second on the damned sphere, and by the end of which my chest felt like it was on fire.  I was beginning to feel like it was a futile effort, so it was almost convenient when I ran into the dead end.  I turned and popped my claw, feeling the unmatched adrenaline rush of being cornered by a predator.  I could probably disable the thing, but it was gonna hurt me real bad on the way.  “Get back,” I hissed, slashing at it, but it kept advancing without hesitation.  The thing didn’t seem to have a self-preservation instinct.  Maybe if I hadn’t been cornered, I could have lured it back into the laser field…

“Git away from her, yah overclocked Skoimall toy!”  With that heroic outburst, a large projectile suddenly slammed into the back of the drone, impaling it and knocking it into me.  However, the drone’s propulsion unit had absorbed most of the force (although it was now busted) and the plasma had shut off, so I just took it to the gut and wrapped my arms around it like a surprise medicine ball.  The thing was busted, and only shooting off the occasional spark, so I dropped it, admiring instead the metal spear embedded in it.  I yanked it out for a better look.

It was a finely crafted, silvery metal, ornately designed with a barb and several hollows.  It was still pretty sharp, and I was lucky there hadn’t been sufficient force to pierce both sides of the drone, or I’d have been skewered, too.  “Pretty smooth, buddy,” I said, looking up… and up… damn, he was tall.  More than two meters!  ‘Buddy’ was approaching me warily, another spear of the same material in his hand.  It had a larger, symmetrical spearhead, but (judging by the material and design) was obviously part of a matched pair with the one he’d killed the drone with.  “You saved my bacon just now.”

‘Buddy’ smiled at me and relaxed his grip.  “Ah’m just glad to see you again,” he said, eliciting a confused frown from me.  Irkens in his height class were memorable, but I didn’t know this guy.  He was distinctive enough, too – orange eyes, antennae tipped with a sort of spearhead shape, a couple of facial tattoos, and his red-and grey bodysuit was producing some sort of blue hard-light armor.  My frown brought a frown from him.  “Yer not Scree…” he said, squinting at me in confusion.  It was around this point I noticed the rough shape he was in under his glowing armor and impressive height.  A bloody wound on his thigh, a ridiculously bloody one at his waistline, bloody bandages on his wrist, a cut on his cheek and a bruise on his forehead, one of his antennae was hacked open and bent at a funny angle… and his face was beading up with sweat.  He looked feverish, pale, and even more drawn than a guy of his height and build should already look.

“The name’s Kizzo,” I said, holding his smaller spear at a mostly relaxed angle.  “If you’re a couple rounds into this Crucible thing, you’re my final opponent.”  Judging by his expression, he didn’t really want to hear that.  “Yeah, sorry.”

“Ah, crap.”  He shifted back into a combat-ready stance… and only managed to stumble, his armor flickering out as he steadied himself against the wall.  I dropped the spear and started walking closer to him.  He dropped his own spear and scrambled back, dropping flat on his ass.  Then he reached behind his back… and when he brandished his arm again, the hand and wrist were covered with a bulky, impressive device forged to look like a dragon’s head.  “Stay back!”  He yelped.  “Ah’ve got a dragon!”  The dragon head’s jaw dropped open, as if in reaction to his bizarre threat.

“Calm your tits!” I shouted at him, and taller than me or not, he flinched.  “You need medical treatment, you dolt!  I’m not gonna kill you yet.”  He hesitantly lowered his weapon.  “You’ve got some wounds, and you’ve done a pretty shitty job treating them.  Looking at you, I’m guessing blood loss and infection.  Did you read the Holosphere for this round?”  He blinked at me.  I grabbed his spear and cracked the head against the wall for emphasis.  “I asked you a question!”

“Y-yes!”  He was trying to get to his feet again now, and struggling.  “Yes, I read tha Holosphere!  It said a maze, and ah’d have to work together with moi opponent to not get killed!”  The stuttering and the accent were kinda cute.  “And in tha first round, ah had a kid, a sweet, oisolated Irken kid who couldn’t even read the prompt!  Ah could’ve worked with him, no problem!  But then ah had to foight a murder crab…” Murder crab?  “…and ah wasn’t sure if ah’d be dealin’ wif someone reasonable or not!  And you seem noice enough, but you look so much loike her an’ ah mistook you fer her but… you’re…” he squinted at me again, looking down again from a standing position, and suddenly hopped back, pointing..  “Yer butt naked!  Whoi are ya prancin’ aboot in yer damn birfday suit?!”

“Wow, rude.”  While he’d been hysterical, I’d been checking out his spear.  It was actually hollow and open at the bottom.  Looking over at the other spear, I could see that they fit together.  And there was a trigger… a launching mechanism.  Springs wouldn’t be powerful enough for weaponization… electromagnets, probably?  I walked over to retrieve the other spear, giving him a good view of my “birfday suit” as I did so.  “I’m just a big fan of maximum freedom-of-movement.  You don’t see me picking on you for walking around with a bunch of LCD projectors all over my body.”

That drew an “oi!” from him, but I pressed on, reuniting the two spears.  As I expected, they clicked right together.  “Listen, I was worried you’d be an asshole too, but the Benefactor has been pretty straight with me so far, and I imagine we probably will need to work together for at least a few of these traps.  You’ve got some nasty infected wounds.  I’m a tattoo artist; I know all about treating flesh wounds.  Let me help you out, and then after we get some rest, we’ll tackle the rest of this maze tomorrow.  And when we get to the center…” I shrugged sheepishly. “Well, the Benefactor will probably make us kill each other.”  He looked grave, and I hastily added, “But we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.”

He snatched the completed spear from my hand.  I let him have it and gave him my most winning smile.  Finally, he heaved a sigh.  “Foine.  Ah’ll trust ye to patch me up.  Probably couldn’t kill ye in the shape ah’m in, anyhow.”

“If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead,” I said brightly, although I mentally added if my ribs held together.  I circled around behind him, to his obvious bafflement.  “Hold still, I’m gonna open up your PAK.”  I noticed he also had some kind of collapsed wooden stick slung across his back, below his PAK, but he turned before I could get a good look at it.

“Yea, not happenin’.”  He gave me his best try at a stern glare.  Even with the height, he couldn’t make it credible.  “Ah said you could patch up moi wounds.  Me PAK’s foine and dandy.”

I rolled my eyes.  “This is just medical… uh, whatsyername.”

“It’s Poike.”

“Alright, Poike.  I’m just-“

“No, Poike.”  I must’ve still looked baffled (and I was), because he pointed to his spear.  “Paaaiiihhhke,” he enunciated.  “Loike the spear.”

“Oh, PIKE!”  I chuckled.  “Sorry.  Your accent’s like, wow… anyway, I just need to tweak your hormone and enzyme levels, stuff like that, to help you fight the infection.”

“Tha’s exactly what ah cain’t have ye touchin’.  Lookit me.”  He gestured up his body.  “’m way too tall fer normal health.  Ah need ta keep mah hormones at the current level fer mah health.”

I snorted.  “Fine, I’ll just do external treatments.  But do yourself a favor and order a manual drop of your T-cell count.  They’re doing more harm than good right now, you’re starting to suffer autoimmune symptoms.”  I grabbed his uninjured wrist.  “Now have a goddamn seat against the goddamn stone wall and let me teach you how to dress a wound properly.  I’m not going to carry an invalid through this maze.

End Part 1
Crucible Round 3: Vs. Pike Part 1
First part of my Crucible entry against :iconinvaderrail:'s Pike.

Oh, man.  I am not terribly satisfied with this.  InvaderRail also submitted his under the gun, probably after procrastinating forever like I did, and that's probably the only reason I have a chance at victory here.  It's been too long since my last OCT finals, and it shows.  Some stuff was cut for time, sometimes obviously, and also most of the formatting didn't make it through the submission process intact.

I did like Pike, though.  That accent is fun to do.  He's a great character with some really fun features.

More commentary in part 2.

Part 2: avatarjk137.deviantart.com/art…

No edits have been made to the content of this entry.  I've only properly filled out my artist's comments and tags.  If I'd edited the content after the deadline, I'd have fixed the formatting, trust me.
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Crucible of Irk: Written in Blood

Round 2: Hammers and Nails


I slept that night, after Zixa’s death.  I can feel you judging me for that.  “Irkens don’t sleep,” you say, and maybe you snort derisively.  That is how we market ourselves, admittedly.  But if you’ve read this far, you know I’m a bit of an aberration.  I don’t usually sleep, but I’ve set my PAK up so that I could if I wanted to.  It’s handy if you want to heal faster, and I very much did.  And if you want your conscious and subconscious minds to go to work on each other… well, it’s good for that too.

I dreamed of being strapped to operating tables, while that diseased, plugged-in Vortian stared down at me and whispered cryptically.  Sometimes he was alone, sometimes a tall android – forged metal in the shape of an Irken – leered down at me from the side while the Vortian whispered to it.  Then the Vortian reached for me, and… if anything further happened, I didn’t dream of it.

There were other dreams, too – I dreamed of the team.  Jaxom coming to have the “2” tattooed on his collarbone… his winning smile, his sculpted physique, the sparkle in his electric-blue eyes.  An incubus in Irken form.  I was his lover, then his partner on the battlefield.  We found a rejected experiment of an Irken on a derelict ship, feral and wounded.  And Jaxom bought an old Vortian at a slave auction, recognizing something fierce in his remaining orange eye.  Keep and Q.  I dreamed of Jaxom’s corpse, slumped and headless on the ground, and of Jaxom bursting again whole and beautiful from the vats, bellowing that nothing could kill him as steaming gel dripped from his body.  I tattooed the “3” on his collarbone, and later the “4.”  We were an unlikely foursome, but for a while, we were unstoppable.  I should’ve known it wouldn’t last.

In the morning, a ferocious thunderclap woke me.  I opened my eyes to see a section of the cliff slide loose a few hundred meters down the canyon from me.  Then another charge, buried deep in the cliff face, went off.  I got to my feet, wary, but the explosives weren’t an attack.  All these tons of displaced stone, sliding into the stream of acid at the bottom of the canyon, were only to provide me with a more climbable path to the exit.  Once the loose stones had calmed, it was a simple matter to climb to the top, even with my injuries.

I checked my Holosphere, and the new message was provided to me:

“Well, well, you survived. Congratulations!

Now, you must be terribly confused, and even a little lost. Have no fear, for now that you've eliminated your predestined foe, you'll find coordinates in the holosphere in your possession. Once you've follow those relatively simple directions through whatever winding, twisting trap you awoke in, simply wait, and your transport to the next arena will arrive.

But if you don't wait, or ignore those instructions, then say farewell to any hope you may have had of leaving this planet alive.

Your choice!”


Good old Benefactor.  I spent a few moments mustering the willpower to NOT kick the Holosphere into the acid stream hundreds of meters below, and instead shook the damn thing like a magic 8-ball until the display switched over to the promised coordinates.  At least they weren’t all that far.  An hour’s march through the pockmarked wasteland around the canyon led me to what appeared to be a set of monorail tracks (…track?), a huge, squared piece of concrete and metal.

And then I saw the train.

I naturally take more to the beauty of nature than to technology, but let me tell you, that train was striking.  It was black and angular, fearlessly artificial; it would seem like it was sculpted from a single piece of dark metal if not for the glowing lines shot through it.  And its scale, hoo-wee.  Trains that were over 100 meters long, that was unsurprising.  SINGLE TRAIN CARS that long, two dozen meters wide and tall?  That thing seemed to be too big to be on a single rail.

Approaching, I noticed a wall panel of the train had swung out and down to form a ramp big enough to drive construction equipment up or down.  Inside, everything was reinforced metal and very sparse.  Support pillars stretched from floor to ceiling, which was not the train’s roof – there was a second level.  I quickly spotted both a ladder and a freight elevator leading up to it.  The walls were decorated only with soft lights and signs that might have been safety instructions in a language I didn’t recognize.  On the floor and ceiling, I noticed metal loops and collapsible hooks that probably secured cargo in place.  Forget construction equipment, this thing could house a battalion of tanks.

I was in the middle of whistling appreciatively when the ramp folded back up behind me, sealing itself into a section of wall again.  I steeled myself against motion, which paid off a second later when the train lurched forward.  Within a few minutes, we were speeding forward at… well, I had no idea how fast we were going.  There were no windows, and the ride was smooth for the most part, so there wasn’t much indicator of speed.  Inside the train, it was just me and my sense of wonderment… and that didn’t last.  I sat against a support beam, complained aloud about how bored I was, ate some rations, complained aloud some more, and finally, went back to sleep.

---

“Keep it busy!” Jaxom had a tendency to shout, so he was normally hard to ignore, but I could hardly hear him over the shriek of fatigued metal and the staccato of gunfire.  “I need time to build up a charge!”  Easy for him to say.  He got the job where he screamed orders and stood still.  I got the job where I was dancing around the mech’s upper body, feinting slashes at its cockpit.

The laser blades I wore scored deep cuts in the bot’s reinforced armor, but the cockpit’s window was force-field-reinforced and I wasn’t getting through.  Still, I was fast enough to evade as the mech’s arm took another clumsy swipe at me.  “You’re going down, chicken walker!” I howled, spinning wildly.  An irregular chunk of armor a half-meter across dropped away, searing red where I had cut into it.  That did it.  A salvo of small rockets launched from pods on the mech’s shoulders… then turned around and headed towards me.  I guess I rated the extreme response.  “I’m bailing!” I shouted, running down the mech’s arm and taking a leap off.

As I reached the apex of my jump, a bolt of searing lightning slammed into the mech’s chest, causing the whole thing to crackle like a plasma lamp.  The force field must’ve been shorted out, because those rockets blew right through the cockpit window on their way down.  I heard a hoarse Vortian scream briefly, then fall silent as either the rockets or the electricity got him.  Then something blew in the mech’s torso, and I joined the pilot in a world of pain.

I wasn’t close enough for the explosion to kill me, just close enough to wish I was dead.  I received what I later learned were first- or second-degree burns on most of my skin, and the concussive shockwave sent me tumbling end-over-end and forced the air out of my lungs, stopping just short of fracturing more than a couple of my bones.  I was falling into a white void… and then a dark silhouette caught me, and I was flying up again.  Jaxom had engaged his jetPAK and made a diving save.  “Good teamwork!” he shouted, never mind that I was right next to him now, and my hearing aids had no eardrums to pop.

“Thought I had bought the farm, there,” I gasped out.

“Don’t talk like that.”  It was an order.  Jaxom’s face was hard.  “You know that I’ll never let you down.”


---

This time, a jarring impact woke me.  I wasn’t used to sleeping so much; it didn’t take too much disturbance to break the pattern for me.  As I took stock of myself (wiped the drool from my face, hastily crammed my rations back in my PAK, all that nonsense), I heard a hiss of air, that kind that accompanied an airlock’s unsealing.  I turned back to the wall panel I’d entered through, but it was unchanged, even monolithic.  Then I heard the panels to the rear of the train sliding.  I turned and walked cautiously towards the new opening.

The hatch (it was far too wide to be a doorway) framed maybe the largest Planet Jacker I’d ever seen.  He was over two meters tall, and had the bearing of somebody even impossibly larger than that.  Maybe it was the blue plate armor that covered everything except his hands and bald head, or the impractically large hammer attached to his back, or maybe it was just his serious expression and the way he carried himself.  His pale green eyes blazed in the dim light, and his darker green skin shone – actually, it looked raw, like he’d been in a snowstorm.  He had a Planet Jacker’s signature nutrient tubes hooked to the corners of his lips, giving him the appearance of a perpetual frown.  He squinted down at me.  “Are you… the Benefactor?”

I stifled a groan.  “Bad news, big man.  I was gonna ask you the same thing.  And you know what that means.”  I began unbuttoning my shirt, taking the time as I did to inspect my injuries on my hand and abdomen.  They looked pretty good.  I didn’t seem to be infected, and I wasn’t terribly likely to reopen them now.  Good old PAK.  No medicine like a PAK.

His scowl deepened as he shifted mental gears.  It didn’t take him too long to reach the same conclusion as I did – he wasn’t dumb.  “We’re both competitors.  No reason to bring us together except to fight.  This train isn’t bringing us to the arena…” he brought out a Holosphere identical to mine and pointed it at me.

I grabbed my waistband in each hand, pulled, and hopped out of my pants in one quick bound.  “It is the arena,” I finished.  I tossed my shorts away and twirled my vest in my left hand.  “You double-checking with the Holosphere?”

“No harm in making sure… Kizzo,” he said, as some basic information on me popped up in front of him.  At least that’s what I assumed it was, the hologram was too far to read and backwards, besides.  “Uh… why are you naked?”

“I fight this way,” I said, smiling.  I got this question an awful lot. “I like being unfettered in a fight.  The opposite of your defensive tactics, I see.”  I lashed my PAK tail playfully.  He scrunched his face up in what I suppose was distaste.  “Oh, don’t judge me.  I don’t tell you how to… let me guess, hammer people?”

“Don’t mind if I do,” he said coolly, pulling the hammer off his back and hefting it with ease.  Maybe it was hollow or something.  He took a menacing step toward me, then another, bellowing, “Prepare to be pancaked by-“

“Wait!”  I held up a hand in protest.  He stopped, albeit with an annoyed grunt.  “One last thing, uh… you have me at a disadvantage.  I didn’t look up your name.”

“Gavril.” He nodded respectfully.  “Scout Division.  Now, this better not be a trick.  I’m sick of dirty tricks.”

“Kizzo, professional mercenary and tattoo artist,” I said, giving a quick nod in return.  “Look, we’re both professionals here.  Before we get to killing each other, let’s make sure whoever wins knows if anything critical happened.  You haven’t made contact with anybody outside the tournament, have you?”

He sighed.  “No, and I’ve been trying.  You?”

I shrugged.  “All my comm equipment was on my ship, and I have no idea where it is.”

“Same.”  He gritted his teeth.  “Let me guess, you’ve got gaps in your memory too?”

“Yeah.”  I rubbed my scalp.  “My PAK’s tox report says I got space-roofied.  Ten to one odds, same drug was used on you.”

He grunted.  “That’s a little more knowledge, at least.  Anything else you wanted?”

“Yeah.  DIRTY-TRICK-AFTER-ALL!” I suddenly tossed my vest into his face, popped my claws, and sprinted forward.  Unfortunately, he didn’t stay blinded as long as I’d hoped.  Even as he took the first blind swing with his hammer to keep me away, he did it with only one hand, yanking my vest away as he did so.  The guy was phenomenally strong – not only did he swing the hammer one-handed, but when I hopped up and perched on the head of the hammer, that didn’t even throw him off-balance enough to fall.  Instead, he just glared at me past my vest, which he tossed away unceremoniously.  “You’re cute when you’re mad,” I said teasingly.

He yanked his hammer upward with a grunt, and I borrowed the upward motion to front-flip towards his head.  He quickly turned his hammer around, blocking me with its padded shaft, and I hooked the back of my knees around it.  I no longer had a great angle of attack at his vulnerable head, but it gave me a chance to test the joints of his armor for weak spots.  My claw flashed out, drawing sparks from his abdomen and his elbows, looking for weak seams.  He kicked at my head, trying to get me off the hammer, but I was fast enough to drop to the ground on all fours, lash out with the claws again (upwards this time), and test his ankle joint.  Nope, that was solid too.  “Hold still,” he seethed, trying to stomp my head.

I rolled clear of his huge boot, grabbed his heel, and slid my bare skin along the metal floor of the train, right between his legs.  I even slashed at his knee and crotch as I passed by.  The bad news was that he had reinforced joints on his armor.  The even worse news was that he wasn’t much for banter.  “You’re well-protected, aren’t ya?” I said brightly, getting to my feet.  Then I had to leap away at full tilt: his hammer absolutely crushed the spot where I’d been standing, even warping the heavy-duty floor of the train.  I had a new appreciation for the sledge of the thing – it was covered in blunt, square studs on each striking end.  That thing would annihilate me with a single hit.  And while he wasn’t as fast as me at close range, he wasn’t slow, and he took long strides.  I wouldn’t be cowed, though.  “How long do you stay fresh in that can?”

“Don’t try my patience, mercenary.”  He whipped his hammer through the air, causing me to hesitate in my next advance.  That made him smile, for he knew he had put The Fear in me.  I would surely die if I made a single mistake, and that knowledge sat at the forefront of my mind; that was The Fear.  “Now, as I was saying before you so rudely interrupted, prepare to be flattened by my Titanite Ballista Hammer!”  He leapt toward me like the tremendous frog that he basically was, and brought the hammer crashing down, leaving another, even deeper dent in the floor.

I was long gone, of course.  Behind him, in fact.  “You actually threatened to pancake me before,” I teased, getting inside his most comfortable weapon range.  He swung a backhand fist at me, and I had to lean back hard to avoid it.  I took the chance to swipe at his armpit, but even that was reinforced with a tough secondary material.  He had the top-of-the-line Jacker armor, it seemed, the kind adapted for work in everything from 0 to 11 standard Vort atmospheres, as well as pitched combat.  I was leaving scratches deep enough to affect the resale value of the suit, but I hadn’t actually hurt him yet.  “So what’s the deal with that hammer?  Does it unfold into a ballista?”

“No, that’d be stupid!”  His arm whipped back around to grab me.  I absolutely could not allow him to grab me, and I vaulted right over him, trying for a decisive strike at his cranium this time.  No dice.  He leaned back and threw his arm up, and I was stuck running my claws along his bracers again – although I did get a little piece of the back of his hand this time.  I landed and hopped back.  First blood was better than no blood.  “Do your claws have an alternate function as a monkey wrench?” He asked.  I guess that was his attempt at mocking me.  I gave it a C-.

“No, but there’s no room in my claws for that,” I countered.  Then I backflipped away as he balanced the hammer’s weight against his own for a spin attack that was almost graceful.  A support beam was in his way, and the impact of his hammer crumpled it over like a piece of modern art and only barely halted his spinning momentum.  I tried to ignore the visceral impact the crunching-metal noise had on me.  “You could have, like, a flamethrower inside that hammer head.  Or a generator.”  He swung at me again; I weaved under it and darted in for a strike, but he hopped back and bought himself time to guard with the shaft held horizontally.  My claws rattled against the shaft as I pushed, but I couldn’t even budge him.  He was stronger than even Zixa had been by a sight; at least he had the physique for it.  “Or, like, a mini-fridge.”

“There’s nothing in the hammer head!”  As if to emphasize, he began pushing forward against me, forcing my bare feet back on the floor.  I tried to dig in with my feet and tail, pushing my free hand against the shaft as well, and made absolutely no headway.  If I let this keep up, he’d slam me against a wall and have me cornered.  “It’s just a solid fucking block of Titanite!  Its destructive power rivals a siege engine!  Hence the name!”  I reached back and grabbed the spike from Zixa’s Cadaceus, pulling it out of my PAK with my left hand.  It was long enough that from this weapon-locked position, I could take a stab at his face with it.  He halted his momentum fast enough to avoid being blinded, although I did carve a deep line across his right cheek.  He winced and pulled back.  “You’re just full of tricks, aren’t you?  The last girl I fought only had one.”

“The last girl I fought had a weird staff thing,” I said.  I realized I was panting.  I couldn’t keep this kind of battle up; I was tiring, and he seemed ready to keep hammer time going.  “This half is mine now.”  He swung again at me, and I hopped back again, but this time I had a careful idea of where to hop to.  I lashed out with my tail and slapped the button to activate the freight elevator.  As the platform rattled to life, shuddering upwards, I dashed back in.  This time, he thrust the head of the hammer at me, ready to hook it in any direction I dodged in.  I dodged up, using the head as a stepping stool.  He flipped me upwards again, but carefully checked his swing this time, following up with another thrust.  It hit me in the gut, but since this wasn’t how the hammer was meant to be used, he only winded me.  I clung to it like a barnacle on a ship’s hull, and he shook it, trying to shake me loose, but I was tenacious.  I even wrapped my single PAK tentacle around the end of the shaft, just beneath the head.

“Get OFF!” He tried to scrape me off with a support beam, but that was my cue to drop off, swinging myself inwards with my tentacle.  He did something I didn’t expect – he dropped the hammer entirely, letting it crash to the floor so he could block my weapons with his hands and armored forearms.  He caught my Cadaceus in one hand, and my claws in the other – I was drawing blood from that hand, but not enough to make him loose his grip.  This was bad.  He could wreck my weapons like this.  I saved myself with some quick thinking – I used his grip as leverage and drove both feet into his chin.  He made a wordless noise and tossed me and my weapons away; even that thoughtless throw got him about three meters of room.

I landed on hands and knees and immediately righted myself.  “Ha!” I taunted, “Got your hammer!”  I did indeed have it in my tail’s grip, and he wasn’t holding it.  I tried to flee his reach… and fell over like a goddamn idiot and faceplanted, barely jerking the hammer.  That thing weighed nearly as much as I did!  It had to be over thirty-five kilograms!  “Maybe your hammer’s got me,” I groaned, unwrapping my tail from the damn thing.  Just in time, too.  He scooped it up in both hands, jogging towards me, and took what was almost a golf swing at me with it.  I dodged – barely.  Those studs whizzed by my head, missing by a centimeter.  I could hear the bluntness and mass of the thing.  If you looked up ‘heft’ in the dictionary, you’d see a Titanite Motherfucking Ballista Hammer.  “Okay, gotta go, bye!”

“You can’t run!” he shouted, swinging again, but I was about to show him that, in fact, I could.  I leapt away again, leaving him to dent the wall (Irk, I think that blow shook the whole train!), and ended my leap clinging to the ladder I had noticed earlier.  I scrambled up it like a Smeet playing hide-the-drugs, which was fortunate, because the hammer’s next victim was the third and fourth rungs.  I stared down from out of Gavril’s reach.  He scowled up at me… and at the ladder.  Even if he could climb it in full armor with that hammer on his back (and maybe even without those rungs, he could) he’d be totally vulnerable to attack from above – the best direction to attack him from.  And I had raised the elevator so he couldn’t follow me with that.  Not quickly, at least.  He slapped the button that would bring the elevator back down.  “I’ll be right up,” he rumbled as I scrambled up to the second floor.  “Take this time to think about your impending fate.”

---

A few minutes later, I was back on the first floor, catching my breath behind a pillar.  As soon as I was sure Gavril had taken the elevator up, I’d slid back down the ladder and hobbled off into the train car he’d originally been in.  Surprise surprise, it was basically the same as mine, except undamaged.  He hadn’t left anything back here except his rations (in a very basic satchel, since he lacked a PAK), so I just took the ladder up to the second level of his car.  I couldn’t hide here for long, but I really just needed to catch my breath.  He hadn’t actually injured me.

The thing was, I hadn’t actually injured him either, not in a way that mattered.  He had a cut on his face, and a couple on his hands.  They didn’t seem to slow him down.  I had to really get him good in the head, or take a hand off entirely, if I wanted to put a stop to him.  And no quick cut would do it, either, for killing him.  He was covered in thick, ropey muscle and solid bone.  I’d have to get a clean hit to cleave through that.  And his armor covered his fleshiest spots, the ones that wouldn’t need a clean hit.  Even his neck was protected by the armor.  His only real soft weak points were his nutrient tubes (and that would be more long-term damage; in the short term it might just enrage him), or his eyes, and they were precious small targets.  Hmm…

Well, I was out of time to do silly things like plot and breathe.  Mister Serious Hammer was here; I could hear him clomping in my general direction.  “Come on out and face me, naked girl!”  He bellowed.  Then he clomped right past me.  Was he really this stupid?  I crept into step behind him, sneaking closer, getting ready to pounce.  “You can’t hide from me forever.”  His words were a warning, like a stern teacher heading off mischief before it started.  He stopped.  I stopped.  Then he thrust the bottom of his hammer’s shaft directly backwards.  It was surprisingly fast, and caught me in the shoulder, knocking me on my naked ass.  I had to tumble away before I was pulped.  No, he wasn’t really that stupid.  I had to get legitimately creative if I wanted to get him good.

I stayed at a wary distance from him, far enough that I’d have ample time to respond if he charged at me.  Problem was I didn’t have any offensive tools at this range either.  “Not bad,” I said, rubbing my shoulder.  I’d have a fresh bruise there.  “Tell you what, if you kill me, I’m rooting for you to win this whole thing.  Have the Benefactor give you a new hammer, one that shoots lasers or ball lightning or something.  And have him enroll you in Remedial Banter, you’re a boring conversationalist.”

“I’m just focused on the task at hand.”  He paced back and forth, considering me and the surrounding area.  Experimentally, he nudged one of the collapsible hooks on the floor with his boot.  Then he pushed it upright.  “One day, you’re gonna stop dodging to open your mouth, and somebody’s gonna shut it.  Maybe today.”

“Not bad, not bad.   You DO have banter potential!”  I ducked behind a pillar for a moment.  I didn’t want him to see that I was unbuckling my claw.   “But don’t you at least want the hammer to have a length of extendable chain hidden inside the head so that you could use it as a flail?  This last guy I fought with a hammer, he had a jet turbine hidden inside his to power up his swing.  It was pretty snazzy.”

Gavril seemed to stop and consider for a second as I emerged from behind the pillar.  “The chain would be an interesting addition,” he conceded.  Then he swung the hammer like a golf club again.  This time, though, he hit the metal hook on the side that wouldn’t push it back down into the floor, instead breaking it off of its hinge and sending it whizzing at my head.  I brought up the Cadaceus spike to block, and the hook ricocheted off at a shallow angle, still taking some skin off the side of my head as it passed.

The next projectile Gavril sent at me was the one thing I didn’t think he’d throw – the goddamn hammer.  I had to dive to my hands and knees to not get knocked flat as the thing flew past.  It bounced off a pillar, leaving a dent – not as devastating as Gavril’s actual swing, but bad enough that I didn’t want to have to deal with getting hit by it.  I’d be… inconvenienced.  At this point, something occurred to me as I was regaining my footing – I was between Gavril and his hammer.  This seemed like a good thing, a combat advantage for me.  Then I noticed Gavril bearing down on me, ready to clothesline me with his thick, well-plated arm.  And again, I felt The Fear.  “Fuck no!” I gasped, rolling away.

Gavril laughed at that.  It was just a single chuckle, really.  Still, I was glad to hear he wasn’t completely humorless.  When I’d dodged, he’d taken the opportunity to continue on and retrieve his hammer.  That still left his back to me for a second.  “You’re quite elusive,” he commented, picking up the monstrous tool.  I leapt at him wildly.  The end of his hammer caught me again before I got within claw’s reach.  “But it’s just a matter of time.”  I tossed the Cadaceus at him, and he deflected it with a raised forearm.  “After all, if you weren’t meant to get hammered, why would you carry that huge nail?”

I responded by thrusting my tail over his raised forearm.  He wasn’t ready for a frontal attack from my tail – after all, the blunt-tipped PAK tentacle didn’t have anywhere to really squeeze against him, and it lacked the force to effectively bludgeon his armored form or to pull his bulk off-balance.  But he hadn’t noticed until too late that I’d strapped my claws to the end of it.  The twin blades were perfectly spaced to sink deep into his eye sockets.  Oily, vomit-colored viscera slid along the blades and poured down his face.  His words caught in his throat.  “The Cadaceus?” I asked, grinning smugly.  “The nail is a metaphor.”  I pulled the claws out.  “For my dick.”

Yessirree, I was feeling pretty good about myself.  Right until over a hundred kilograms of blinded Planet Jacker barreled into me in a full-tilt shoulder tackle.  He’d dropped his measured grunts in favor of a bellow of blind (heh, heh) rage.  I was too surprised to be fast enough to peel myself off his shoulder mid-charge, and I found myself slammed against the side of the train car with bone-crushing force.  Literally.  The spiked layers of his shoulder pad dug in between my ribs, and then the force behind the armor itself broke those ribs.  I dropped to the floor, coughing and spluttering, as he took a single giant step back.  “DIE!” Gavril screamed, and brought his hammer down in a way that suggested he might in fact be annoyed at me.

Turns out the big hammer swings aren’t as easy to dodge when you have five or six or ten broken ribs.  I made it out of there probably only because the Jacker’s rage was urging him to favor maximum force over efficiency.  So now I’d be vapor instead of liquid if he got me.  Actually, when he pulled back from that swing, I saw a piece of the floor come up with him.  I could see down to the first level from here. Of course, I had bigger problems.  I rolled away from another slam, despite the fact that rolling made me cry like a Smeet.  And he was, of course, blind, so the fact that I was crying out in pain ironically made him able to track my location again.  I had to stumble away and hope it was quiet enough that between the dull roar of the train’s movement and the sound of his own frenzied screaming, I was hard to track.  “YOU RUINED ME!”  Gavril wasn’t any better at conversation like this, but to be honest he wasn’t much worse.  It was kind of a lateral move.

Unfortunately, he seemed to think that too.  He stomped right past me again, although this time he was actually blind rather than me being hidden, and he was using his hammer as kind of an absurd blind man’s cane that crushes people to death.  He tilted his mutilated head back, addressing the whole train.  “EVEN IF I KILL YOU, KIZZO, I CAN’T WIN LIKE THIS!  SADISM IS ALL THAT’S LEFT TO ME!”  He slammed the elevator button the same way he’d done everything else in the last couple of minutes – with renewed rage.  “Enjoy your wounds,” he choked out, his voice thick and bitter, as he slowly descended.

If I sat down now, I wouldn’t be getting back up to finish him.  My chest was on fire.  I staggered over to the ladder and tried to slide down it.  I made it halfway down before falling off, landing square on my back and allowing my PAK to slam itself into my already-traumatized ribs.  After that I just lay there crying for a second.  “Come down already?” Gavril asked, mocking in only the way a man who’s lost everything can mock.

“Ugh…” I replied, forcing myself up on my hands and knees.  I couldn’t stand anymore.  I was full of fire.  I remembered the mech Jaxom and I had taken down all those years ago.  I hurt now like I did then.  But this time there was no Jaxom to keep me afloat.  I’d have to muster up that will to survive all by myself.

“Now who’s the worst at banter?”  Okay, I deserved that.  I crawled and crawled, biting back sobs, occasionally hiccupping a bubble of blood.  Gavril trudged after me, resigned, dragging his hammer now like an executioner’s axe.  “This was just my job, you know.  I was just here to survey the planet for Jacking.  If I get through to anybody, this planet is firewood.  And so is everybody on it.  You, the other contestants, the Benefactor…” He stopped and sighed as I dragged myself to the threshold where our two train cars were joined together.   “Me, probably.  I might get a medal, some new eyes from the Jacking Squad.  But you know… I’m not gonna get my hopes up.”

I turned to face him, pushing the Cadaceus spike into the rubberized seam where the two airlocks were joined.  I forced myself up onto one knee, and made the titanic mental effort it now took to manipulate my PAK tentacle and wrap it around another of those folding hooks.  “Pity.  You had pretty eyes,” I forced out through gritted teeth.  “In another life, I could’ve given you a nice tattoo on that bald head.”

“That wouldn’t be very professional,” he said, and I got another grim chuckle out of him.  “Thanks for broadcasting your location.”  He took a flying leap toward me, ready to bring down his hammer one last time.  I was ready for it too.  I yanked myself clear using the hook, agony or no agony.  The only thing the Titanite Ballista Hammer slammed down on was the Cadaceus spike, driving it into the bottom of the airlock seam with enough force to rip the two cars out of their lip-locked state.

There was an unholy howl of wind as both cars were exposed to the outside air.  The two cars, each with the metal and rubber of their respective rear ends torn, separated by about a meter.  In that meter of open air were the spike, the hammer, and Gavril, floating in the void for a fraction of a second.  Gavril’s expression will be burned into my memory forever.  In that expression I could see that he knew I was luring him into a trap.  It was the face of acceptance.  Gavril’s face was actually very expressive, considering he could make a face like that without his eyes intact.

Then he, and his hammer, and Zixa’s spike, all fell onto the track and were sucked under the other car as it relentlessly ploughed forward.  He would be ground into the track with tons of force, and yet, no sooner was he sucked under than a shower of sparks started spitting from under that train car.  After a few seconds, the gap between the two locomotives started widening as the resistance between the car and the track continued to hamper the train’s speed.  See, now that was a beautiful ending.  I mean, it wouldn’t leave a pretty corpse, but it was poetic.  Gavril was in death as he was in life – unrelentingly, unbreakably solid.

A flash of color flew past me, and I realized it was my vest, flying out into the wasteland.  Realizing anything not nailed down was in trouble, I staggered away from the hole I had made, snagging my shorts as they tried to fly outside as well.  I got some good distance, and then I sat down against an intact pillar, wrapping my tail around it.  The wind was noisy, but I liked it.  It was good company.  Besides, it was very cold now, and the cold soothed the fire in my chest.  I set my PAK to devote everything it could toward healing and shut my eyes.
Crucible Round 2: Vs. Gavril
Woof, cut it a little closer with this one.  I'm back to my OCT bad habits, I guess.  I planned this since the pairings were announced, then wrote it all in the last week.  Most of it in the last day.  I did, at least, act on the critique offered by my judge in round 1, working the flashback sequences in via a way that made more sense in-story and trying not to let the frenetic pace of Kizzo's fighting style screw with the flow.

I really enjoyed working with Gavril  He's a very archetypical character and I enjoyed that.  Plus, that hammer is awesome.  I think I probably went a little more off the rails with him than I did with Zixa, who had a very vivid personality with some very specific information on what she would do in some very specific situations.  I had no idea how Gavril would react to a crippling injury, and I didn't think to ask mayflower in time.  Ah, well.

A little over 6000 words, total, making it slightly shorter than round 1.  I regret nothing.

Kizzo (c) me
Gavril (c) xmayflowerx
The Crucible (c) Krimzonite

:iconcrucible-of-irk:
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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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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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:icon1amtheit:
1AmTheIT Featured By Owner May 21, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
Hello! C:
Would you be interested in a roleplay?
Reply
:iconavatarjk137:
avatarjk137 Featured By Owner May 22, 2015
No thanks.  RPing wears on my writing motivation, so I don't do it often, and only with people I know well.  Thanks for the offer, though!
Reply
:icon1amtheit:
1AmTheIT Featured By Owner May 22, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
Thanks for your time. uvu
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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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