Tag Archives: Hadrian

Desert Steel Chapter 16

-Awakening

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Sebastian awoke with a thumping headache. His mind was a tempest of incoherent events. There’d been a… fight, and they’d… lost? No, he’d lost, but they’d won. The memories came rushing back in a flood, and Sebastian felt relief. Not because of the victory, although that pleased him. He was relieved because his mind was still working. His memories still there. His intelligence and memory were his prize possessions. He didn’t know if he could handle losing them.

The room was pleasingly dark and cool. He was reclined in some sort of armchair covered with a plush down duvet.  He did a brief check of his injuries. His nose had been set, and was held in place with duct tape. Sebastian touched it tenderly with his left hand. It seemed to be set straight. Sebastian pulled his right hand out from under the covers. His ring and pinkie had been taped together. The hand looked normal otherwise. He elected not to touch it. Looking at his hand drew his attention to his arms, which were bruised all the way up to the elbow. He traced his face with his hands. His lip was split but scabbing over. His face was swollen, his left eye still sealed shut. He hoped his eye would open and his depth perception return before he needed it.

“You should see the other guy.”

The voice surprised him, and he couldn’t stop himself from flinching. A quick search turned up Hadrian, who was slouched at the sofa. His arm was up along the top of the sofa. In the murky darkness, Sebastian took a while to see the arm was in a splint. He’d only recognised Hadrian by his body. His face looked like a misshapen tumour it was so swollen and bloodied.

Sebastian was silent for a moment, a whole queue of questions battling to be asked. At last he settled for:

“What time is it?”

“Evening,” Hadrian said. He smiled, or at least Sebastian thought he did, the swelling was obscuring. “Time for the after-fight party.”

Sebastian, who hated parties with a passion, snuggled deeper into his comfy chair. “Where you would normally be?”

Hadrian laughed. “With a titty in one hand and a beer in the other. Toast of the town. Instead, here I am, in a dark room with a bum arm. Oh how the mighty have fallen.”

Sebastian grunted noncommittally to this. He changed the subject. “It’s entertainment, right?”

Hadrian laughed again. He had a relaxed air of extreme confidence. “Yeah, you’re a sharp one. Big money, too. Kids lap it up, their parents shovel out the cash. They pay a lot to give their darlings one slice of joy in this damned desert. We used to do staged stuff with our own team, like in wrestling, but it got dry. So we switched to genuine fights with strangers.”

“Do you take bets?”

“Yeah. Makes up about half our revenue, I think. You lot were hundred to one against.”

“Good job to have,” Sebastian observed.

“Definitely. I get the good cuts of food to keep my muscle mass up, and the chicks that are here can’t keep their paws off me.”

“When you win.”

“Whenever. You seeing this body? Except, of course, when my face is this much of a mess.”

“Sorry.”

Hadrian laughed again. “No worries, mate. That’s showbiz.”

The phrasing caught Sebastian’s ear. As did the accent. “Are you Australian?”

“Yeah. Are you a kiwi?”

“Yes.”

“Sheep-shagger.”

“Fuckin’ Aussie.”

Hadrian gave another peal of laughter. His laugh sounded like wind chimes in a gale. Sebastian decided his guard was far enough down.

“Do you really kill the losers?” he asked with practised disinterest.

“Nah. We just say that to get you riled up.”

Sebastian nodded. His smile was smug and self-satisfied. There was silence for a moment.

“What if I’d said we did?” Hadrian asked pointedly. “What’d you do?”

“Hrm.” Sebastian replied. He became lost in thought. The dull thump of party music permeated the thick walls.

“Well that’s comforting,” Hadrian said, before erupting into another round of laughter.

Sebastian gifted Hadrian a weak smile. In truth, he didn’t know what he’d have done. He didn’t have the moral assuredness of Tanaka, nor the moral apathy of Jax, nor even the moral cowardice of Pauly.

“So where are we?”

“A cellar,” Hadrian replied. “Nice and cool and quiet. You want to know what sucks about injuries out here though?”

“Sure.”

“No ice packs, so swelling takes forever to go down. The world is robbed of my beautiful face for far too long.”

Sebastian, who thought that Hadrian’s face, unlike his body, was distinctly average, said nothing.

“Your boys will be out there enjoying the party too. I’m sure Mister ‘Rightning’ is out there stealing all my girls.” Hadrian’s voice wasn’t bitter. His jokes were gently mocking instead of mean spirited.

Sebastian’s thoughts turned to his team for the first time since he’d woken up. He felt a guilty twinge.

“My guy get his knife back?”

“Braveheart? Yeah. All weapons were returned. Yours are on the table there.” He indicated with his good arm.

Sebastian saw that they were, both his knife and revolver. He leant over, pleased to note his head didn’t hurt from this, and picked up his gun. It was loaded.

“You’re kinda lax with security aren’t you? It’ll bite you in the arse one day.”

“What do you mean?” Hadrian asked.

“You keep us in a cell with only one guard, who fell asleep. Which can lead to… incidents. You held us at gunpoint with rifles pressed right up against us. With those long barrels do you have any idea how easy they are to grab and disarm? And after having beaten me seven shades of blue, you’re sitting here unarmed while I have a loaded revolver.”

Hadrian waved away the concerns, completely unfazed. “Nah, mate, no worries. You seem a good sort.”

Sebastian was astonished. He felt embarrassed for even thinking of these points. Then he burst out laughing. The mirth rasped against his dry throat.

“Good luck, man,” he said once his chuckles had abated.

“I don’t need luck. I make my own.”

Sebastian managed to quell his amusement this time. “You could at least have shifts for the guards.”

Hadrian shrugged his perfect shoulders. “Erica’s the one who takes care of that kind of stuff.”

Sebastian cycled back through his returned memory. “That the black chick?”

“Yeah.”

“Prison guard’s got to be the worst job in the group, and she seems to have something against Amy.”

“Not my problem. I don’t worry about that sort of things.”

“Aren’t you the leader?”

“Obviously. Alpha male numero uno.”

“Then it is your problem.”

It was Hadrian’s turn to be non-committal and silent. Sebastian decided he’d done his good deed for the day.

“I’m thirsty and hungry. Do we injured just languish back here with nothing?”

Hadrian’s pulpy face shifted to what may have been a smile. “Course not.” He chucked two objects that had sat by the foot of the sofa over to Sebastian. Sebastian just managed to catch them with his good hand. The first was a can of beer, the second something soft and warm wrapped in cloth.

“Careful, I’m injured!”

Hadrian ignored this protest. “It’s only room temperature, but it’s better than if it was left out in the desert. It would be boiling if we did that. Enjoy it. This is what being a pro fighter can get you.”

Sebastian unwrapped the second package. It was a home-made pie, maybe even made in Terra Deserta from locally grown ingredients. He took a bite. The crust was irregular and overly thick, the meat unrecognisable, and the gravy lukewarm. It tasted like heaven. His face split into an irrepressible smile.

“I know right?” Hadrian said. “It’s shitty by Earth standards, but it’s ambrosia over here.”

“Mmhmm.” Sebastian agreed. He took another ravenous bite.

“Y’know,” Hadrian said. “I think that’s the first time I’ve seen the smile reach your eyes.”

Sebastian’s smile didn’t waver, but the bombproof shutters slammed down in his eyes. He took his third bite, finishing off the pie. “Tasty.”

Hadrian smiled cryptically. “I do know why Erica and Amy are fighting,” he said, changing the subject.

“Really? Why?”

“Steve and Erica are an item. Erica is very jealous, Amy got a mite too friendly when she and Steve shared a shift.”

Sebastian gave a smug smirk, then asked, “Is ‘too friendly’ a euphemism for…?”

“Nah. All she did was chat with him. Which you’d do if you’re on a six-hour guard shift.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

Hadrian shrugged. “To show you I’m not oblivious.”

“What do you care?”

“You seem a cool dude. I don’t want you to think I’m an idiot. I’d like to be your mate.”

Sebastian stared, deadpan. Finally, he said “Good one,” although he didn’t seem to mean it.

Hadrian gave the same cryptic smile as he had before. “Drink your beer. Let’s have our own little party right here.”

Sebastian cracked open his can. “Cheers.”

“Cheers.”

He’d just taken his first sip when screams and shouts rode in over the distant music. Both he and Hadrian burst to their feet. Sebastian’s twisted knee ached, but not badly. They exchanged glances, and rushed out the door.

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Desert Steel Chapter 15

-The Fight Part 3 (Raijin)

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There was a hushed silence as Tanaka entered the ring. In part it was because of the impressive but disturbing display the last fight had been. It was also, however, because of Tanaka’s demeanour. The cheery and confident delinquent with the sunny smile was gone. A wrathful god, marked with blood and spit, had emerged. Hadrian felt a terrible unease in his stomach. He knew instinctively that this man was different. His men had sensed it too. They stood around, unsure whether to start the round. He nodded to the Dwayne, the announcer. Dwayne hesitantly raised the megaphone up.

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! IT’S THE FINAL ROUND!! GIVE IT UP FOR LORD SHIVA AND RAIIIIIIIIIIIIIIJINNNNNN!!!!!”

Adil rang the bell.

Tanaka had had a whole plan laid out for his fight. He was going to announce to the crowd that he was the holy lance of justice. He was going to give Hadrian one minute to attack him, before he would take him down in one hit. He was going to tell Hadrian this on the stage for the whole crowd to hear. His final move would have had a grand declaration, and been as showy as possible. He discarded that plan.

He was on Hadrian in an instant with a flurry of blows. His fists were blurs, spamming Hadrian’s defences until they broke through. He varied the attacks and their angles. His body jived and twisted, dodging any attempted counters. Hadrian tried to strike but he was beaten back under the cumulative weight of the blows. He couldn’t tell how many times he was being punched. It was like trying to punch a cloud while dodging lightning strikes.

He gave up on punches, and went for a kick instead. Tanaka leapt over the leg and delivered a spinning jump kick of his own. It nearly unscrewed Hadrian’s head. He went down and Tanaka straddled him. Tanaka began pounding Hadrian’s head ferociously, alternating between fist and elbow strikes. Hadrian tried struggle at first, but his strength was waning.

Adil rang the bell without being prompted by Hadrian. Tanaka disengaged immediately. He wasn’t out for vengeance. He was out to win, and he needed to stay inside the rules.

Hadrian got up and strode over to Adil. His face was a mess, but his displeasure shone through.

“The crowd will notice that round wasn’t as long as the others,” he said. He could feel Tanaka’s red-rimmed eyes burning into the back of his head.

Adil looked worried. “But the fight!”

“The fight is lost, no matter how you delay it. We’ve unleashed a demon.”

“Should we forfeit?”

“No. This is the climax. I’ll just have to face him.”

Adil nodded, and rang the bell once Hadrian was back in position. Tanaka didn’t charge in this time. He waited, his arms raised in a unorthodox guard. Sebastian’s spit was smeared across his face like war paint. Hadrian charged in, swinging a big haymaker.

Tanaka caught the outstretched arm, locked it, and brought his elbow down. Hadrian’s arm cracked and bent the wrong way. The crunch was sickening. He howled and collapsed, clutching the broken arm. Tanaka let him fall, and walked over to his corner.

Jax nudged Sebastian with his foot.

“Hey,” he said.

Sebastian groaned but stayed unconscious. Jax shook him.

“Hey,” he said, louder.

Sebastian’s eyes fluttered open.

“My head hurts,” he groaned, his eyes misty. Then they focussed sharply, and scanned the area. He managed to see Jax looking down on him, not unkindly, and Pauly, who was smiling with unfettered relief, before a hot spike of pain seared his brain. He squeezed his eyes shut until the pain passed.

“I think you need to see this,” Jax said.

Sebastian allowed himself to be helped up into a sitting position. Tanaka was approaching to their corner of the ring. Hadrian… Hadrian was lying on the ground, his arm clearly broken and his face a pulpy mess. Relief washed over Sebastian, followed by surprise. Tanaka’s appearance was shocking. His fists were red with blood. His orange-blonde hair with the black roots was slicked back, looking like a flame with a black heart. His eyes were red-rimmed from crying, and were now ferocious and stern. Blood and phlegm was smeared on his forehead, nose and cheeks in an inverted Y. Most shocking of all was his face. The ever-cheery, open, friendly expression was gone. In its place was a cold and dead mask.

Without a word, Tanaka prostrated himself to them, first kneeling and then bending forward until his forehead touched the ground. He held the position while speaking to them, his head still lowered. Hadrian’s men, who’d been entering the ring, hung back confused.

“I, Tanaka Daisuke, beg your forgiveness! I treated things like a game and did not consider the consequences!” he shouted.

Sebastian smiled wryly, or at least thought he did under his injuries. Tanaka was earnest, at least.

“Why are you talking so weird,” Jax asked. “Just say sorry like a normal person.”

Tanaka stayed down, his face hidden.

“And yeah, you were a complete fucking idiot. You ran into an ambush, shouting your head off. You tried shoot someone with a pistol that was too far away. You thought a fight to the death was some kind of silly fucking joke.”

Sebastian smiled and let Jax blow off his steam. The rant grew in colourful curses before he cut Jax off with a wave of his hand. It was all he could manage but Jax went silent.

“Anything you’ve got to say?” he asked Pauly.

Pauly scratched his head. “Nah. I think Jax covered it and then some.”

Sebastian felt sleepy. He quelled the sensation. He had to get this right.

“Tanaka, wipe the stain off your face… But never forget why you got it.” He then realised Tanaka was second-language English and probably didn’t understand the symbolism. “You’re forgiven.”

Tanaka’s head shot up, grinning ear to ear. “I beat the shit out of him, didn’t I?”

“Hell yeah you did!” Pauly whooped.

Tanaka jumped up onto his corner pole and raised one finger to the sky. “I, Tanaka Daisuke, am Raijin, the holy lance of justice! I will be a hero one day!”

The announcer took his cue.

“THE NEW CHAMPION BY DECISIVE KO… THE RAGIN’ RAIJIN, THE HOLY LANCE OF JUSTICE…. TANAKAAAAAAAA DAISUUUKEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!”

The crowd cheered.

Sebastian gave up, and let sleep envelop him.

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Desert Steel Chapter 14

-The Fight Part 2 (Stubbornness)

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“ROUND THREEE! SHIVA VERSUS…. THE STAR. STUDDED. STRANGERRRRRRRRRR!!!!!”

In this type of situation, Sebastian would normally feel that primal keening for danger. He didn’t this time, maybe because he saw there was no hope of victory. Sebastian raised his guard. He drew on his crystal clear memories of martial arts manuals he’d read on the internet. They dissolved away when he got hit in the face, hard. Sebastian smiled wryly, and jumped back. Just as when against Jax, Hadrian charged in, keeping the intensity up. Unlike Jax, Sebastian held him back with a low, straight kick to the hip that killed the momentum. Sebastian let out a deep breath, for what felt like the first time in ages. Then he stepped in hard and fast, and gave a punch that stretched his reach to his limits. He was taller than Hadrian, and had long arms, so he could use his reach to his advantage. Hadrian ducked under it, stepping in himself. He landed a counter that made Sebastian’s teeth clack together.

Sebastian staggered back into the ropes. He didn’t bother to raise a guard, and instead tried get some breath back. He calculated correctly, because Hadrian had lost interest and turned back to the crowd.

“You don’t have to try too hard, you know.”

Sebastian turned and looked down on Tanaka’s round face. “Huh?”

“Just go down in the next phase,” Tanaka said. “I’ll handle him.”

Sebastian shook his head. “I’m never going to give less than everything in a fight for my life. And neither should you,”

If Tanaka had a response Sebastian never heard it, because he was grabbed and lifted away from the ropes. Hadrian had returned to the fight. Sebastian was hopeless in Hadrian’s iron grip as he was thrown down into a suplex. Knowing this, he tensed himself and rode out the impact. He rolled away the instant the grip loosened. He got to his feet unsteadily. Hadrian was up in a gymnastic kip-up. Sebastian put up his guard again. Hadrian changed tactics, and started launching high kicks. Sebastian tried block one, but it blew right threw his defence and cracked him across the cheek. He gave up on defending, and instead launched another one of his long reach punches. On only one leg, Hadrian couldn’t dodge. Sebastian’s fist smacked him in the jaw.

Sebastian felt a warm glow of victory. This was the first time Hadrian had been dealt a proper blow. It vanished as Hadrian’s kick connected, sending him tumbling. He landed face to face with Tanaka.

“Just stay down,” Tanaka said. He wasn’t concerned for Sebastian. Just cheery and confident.

Sebastian shook his head and got back up. The world spun. Things weren’t looking good. He bit down on his cheek, focussing on the pain. The world stabilised.  Sebastian didn’t bother with his guard, it was worthless. Hadrian was weakest when launching an attack. This was going to be a good old-fashioned slugfest.

Hadrian launched a hook, and Sebastian fired back another long reaching punch. Both made their marks. Hadrian’s crushed Sebastian’s ear and sent him reeling sideways. Sebastian’s hit Hadrian’s cheek bone. Sebastian’s hand stung like crazy. He hypothesised he’d broken a few bones, but he ignored it. He threw another punch, the other hand, same style. It connected again, opposite cheekbone. At the same time Hadrian’s fist pulverised Sebastian’s nose. Blood gushed down over his mouth and onto his chest. Sebastian ignored it. Another round of blows were exchanged. Sebastian’s lip was split, Hadrian’s face paint smeared off on one side. Another round. Sebastian left eye was bruised. Hadrian’s cheek bone was suffused with a purple hue. He was beginning to show damage. Hadrian broke off from the fight, and moved over to his corner again. Sebastian made no move to follow him. His left eye was swollen shut, his nose broken and bleeding, his lip split and bleeding, and his right hand broken.

The bell rang. It was the end of the round but Sebastian stayed standing, for fear he’d never be able to get back up again if he sat down.

“Just tap out.”

Sebastian turned to Tanaka. “No.”

“It’s just a fight.” Tanaka whined. He was no longer calm and confident.

Sebastian leant over the rings. His face was hideous, and not just because if its wounds. “It’s real life. It’s my life. It’s our lives. It’s never ‘just a fight’.”

Sebastian returned his attention back to Hadrian. His depth perception was gone and he was dizzy. He got ready for another round of fighting. The bell rang.

Hadrian had had enough of the slugfest, because he attacked straight away. He delivered an eye-wateringly fast high kick that attacked from Sebastian’s blinded side. Dazed as he was, Sebastian didn’t even react as the kick hit his temple dead on. Sebastian stumbled. His vision was greying out. As he half-fell, half-walked, he blacked out several times, only to wake himself up. By sheer miracle, he managed to plant a foot to stabilise himself. He placed it oddly though and as his body weight came upon it his knee twisted. The pain kick-started his consciousness. He came rushing back, and managed to put a steadying hand on the ropes. His head felt like it was in a vice.

“You… you don’t need to stay up,” Tanaka pleaded to him. Sebastian ignored him, feeling guilty about exploiting Tanaka’s sympathetic nature.

The whole world buzzing, Sebastian got back on two feet and weaved a path to Hadrian. He placed his hands on Hadrian’s shoulders. He looked like he was about to collapse and Hadrian didn’t attack. In fact, he looked mildly worried. Without warning, Sebastian headbutted Hadrian as hard as he could. The sudden movement of his head felt eerie and wrong. As soon as he heard the crunch of bone on cartilage, a wave of nausea overwhelmed him. He staggered away from Hadrian, who was clutching his nose, and dry heaved over the side of the ring.

Hadrian’s nose appeared to be broken, although it wasn’t bleeding. He touched it, winced, and then exchanged worried glances with the cowbell man. His opponent was deteriorating. He seemed to be clinging to the fight by sheer stubbornness alone. This was going far beyond the parameters he wanted in a fight. He was saved from indecision by the Japanese captive banging on the ring.

“Forfeit,” he yelled. “He’s done.”

The crowd started booing again, as with the last forfeit. It was less than before, however. This fight had been getting far more brutal and far less pretty.

Hadrian was relieved. He’d been losing control of the fight.

“No.” The words cut through all other noise. They were unyielding. The bloodied, battered man was back on his feet, fists up.

“You’ve forfeited,” Hadrian said, in disbelief.

“He doesn’t get to decide that. You don’t get to decide that.” The man’s words were slurred from concussion and blood. The crowd started to cheer, a little hesitantly. “I alone decide. I’m not leaving this ring until I can’t stand.”

Hadrian was trapped, he realised. The crowd was getting behind the man’s resilience. He couldn’t force him off the ring. He just had to end this fast. He nodded to Adil, his man with the cowbell. He didn’t want it said he gave the man no warning. The bell rang, and he planted his hardest punch into the man’s head.

For Sebastian, it was as though the world had ended with a clap of thunder. He was unconscious the whole way down, and didn’t wake up until he’d bounced twice on the plywood floor. He was on his stomach, staring at his corner. He pushed himself up on his knees, every part of his body rebelling. His eyes met with Tanaka’s once again. Tanaka was as white as a sheet, all his confidence and cheer gone. He was blinking back tears.

“Just stay done. Please. I can win. You don’t need to.”

A whole speech bobbed up out of Sebastian’s magma lake. About how he had to, because he couldn’t trust Tanaka to win. About how Tanaka’s lack of seriousness meant he hadn’t earnt the right to win for his team. But he didn’t have the energy, and he felt these words had already been communicated to Tanaka.

What Tanaka needed to understand was the emotion behind them.

Sebastian spat in Tanaka’s face, a mix of phlegm, blood and a small touch of bile. It landed squarely on his forehead and ran down his nose and onto his cheeks. He recoiled in shock and revulsion.

Sebastian, using the ropes as support, got back onto his feet, and planted them.

Hadrian observed his hand in mute amazement. He’d been going for the temple, the softest part of the skull, but the man had turned and taken it on the brow. As a result, he was still standing and Hadrian’s hand had broken. Hadrian didn’t know if the move had been intentional or instinctive. He didn’t know which made the man more dangerous. Whatever. He’d been careless. This time, he’d put the guy down for good.

Sebastian didn’t bother throwing a punch as Hadrian approached. He was far too unbalanced. He did try shove him away when Hadrian grabbed him, but the strength was gone from his arms. He fell helplessly when Hadrian pulled him over. Once he felt the pressure around his throat, he finally realised what was going on. He punched up at Hadrian’s chest, the hits awkward because of the angle. Over and over again he punched. His fists bounced off Hadrian’s chest. The grey tunnel returned to his vision, closing up until his view was a needle point of light. Then that too winked out. His arms finally fell.

Hadrian breathed out a relieved breath and dropped the limp body. The man had fought until the very end. It was crazy- the man’s final punches had been weak and ineffectual- but for a moment Hadrian had feared he would lose.

“WHAT A MATCH! GIVE IT UP FOR LORD SHIVA AND THE STAR STUDDED STRANGER!!!”

The crowd applauded as Sebastian was lowered down from the ring. The wheeze as he breathed through a broken nose and blood was the only sign that his collapsed form wasn’t dead. Tanaka knelt reverently by his side. He still hadn’t wiped the spit from his face. It sat red and vivid against his light olive skin. He wiped tears from his red-ringed eyes and ran his hand through his hair. The combination of grease and sweat slicked it back, keeping it out of his eyes. He was determined. He was serious.

He stepped into the ring.

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Desert Steel Chapter 13

-The Fight Part 1

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One of the guards, who was wearing a Bedouin style robe, pulled a cowbell out of the folds. He rang it with his knuckle. To the roar of the crowd, Hadrian, or Lord Shiva as he was known, charged forwards. Pauly, slow on his best days, was overwhelmed by the noise. He didn’t even twitch when Hadrian’s meaty bicep ploughed into his face. Pauly was taken right of his feet, his legs kicking up and his neck straining under the force of the blow. He landed on his back on the plywood floor, which boomed under the impact. It sounded worse than it felt, barely. Hadrian bounced against the cables a few times before jumping up and dropping his elbow into Pauly’s gut. Fortunately, Pauly’s dense muscles absorbed the majority of the hit. He managed to scramble up and escape to the corner of the ring. Hadrian got up and paraded around in front of the crowd.

Face stinging, stomach aching, Pauly realised he needed to fight back somehow. He threw a clumsy and telegraphed punch. Hadrian ducked under the swinging arm, popped up behind Pauly, and booted him in the back. Pauly was sent staggering into the ropes. They were still hard and unpleasant despite their plastic wrapping. He tried another punch, this one an uppercut. Hadrian merely leant back, watching the fist sail by. He launched a flurry of punches that knocked the wind out of Pauly’s lungs. Wheezing, Pauly attempted to charge him down, but was instead neatly tripped. He was sent sprawling onto the unpadded plywood for the second time.

On the ringside, Sebastian watched with dimming hopes. Hadrian was muscular, which had been obvious and intimidating from the start. He was gymnastic, which was further discouragement. But against the group’s most muscular fighter, Hadrian was also revealing himself to be fast. He dodged around Pauly’s swings with unhurried ease. Sebastian saw Jax’s and his own odds dwindling. They lacked muscle, and he now knew their speed would not fill the gap. Sebastian looked over at Tanaka. He was watching without a single sign of concern. But this same man had walked into an ambush shouting out that he’d be a hero. Was he delusional?

Hadrian climbed up to the second cable on his corner, sighted Pauly’s recumbent figure over his shoulder, and rallied the crowd.

SHIVA! SHIVA! SHIVA!

On the third, climatic cry, he leapt backwards, falling and twisting. The crowd watched in breathless silence. Hadrian landed with a resonating slam, his shoulder cracking Pauly’s ribs. The crowd erupted with cheers. Pauly’s hands scrabbled weakly at Hadrian’s chest. Hadrian looked at Pauly, looked at the crowd, and nodded to the bell holder. The nod was subtle, but Sebastian noticed it. The bell man rapped the bell once, and Hadrian disengaged, striding back to his corner. Pauly, dragging in each breath with agonising effort, rolled over and crawled over to the cables. By upper body strength alone, he pulled himself to his feet.

“What..? Is happ… enning?” he managed. His ribs sent shards of pain shooting up his side when he breathed.

“End of the round, I think,” Sebastian replied. “More importantly, how are you?”

Pauly managed a weak but brave smile. “I’ve been better. I think he’s broken my ribs.”

Sebastian nodded. “Just cracked, I think.”

“What’s… The difference?”

Sebastian didn’t tell him a lose bone chip or broken end could puncture an organ, something that would be certain death out here. It was a concern Pauly didn’t need. “Not much. Listen, your punches are pointless. They’re slow, and they’re obvious. He may be the peak of the male aesthetic mountain, but your arms and chest are bigger, and stronger. So try grab him. One good grip might be all you need. After all, he’s showboating. Got it?”

Pauly nodded just as the cowbell was rung again and Hadrian came out of his corner. Hadrian hopped around a bit, showcasing some fancy footwork that was wasted on Pauly. He then threw a right hook like a cobra strike. Pauly swung both his arms wildly, but they missed out on gripping anything. This gave Hadrian an opening to rush past Pauly and come flying back in a dropkick. Pauly stayed up and tried grab the now grounded Hadrian but he rolled away. Hadrian wound up and then sprung up onto his feet. Two more grabs missed Hadrian, who danced between them. Finally, Pauly got a grip, his thumb hooking under Hadrian’s armpit. He consolidated his hold, his left hand grabbing Hadrian’s side. Pauly froze.

He twisted his head to look back at his team.

“What do I do now?” he asked. Hadrian politely refrained from breaking free or striking back. The three on the side shrugged, and exchanged looks.

Jax hazarded a cautious “lift him?”

Pauly shifted his left hand grip to the inside of Hadrian’s thigh, and strained. His ribs screamed in protest but he ignored them. ‘I am desert steel’ he thought, his mantra. Hadrian’s feet lifted off the ground. Pauly’s biceps bulged. He got Hadrian up to his chest. Hadrian remained unresisting. With one last gargantuan effort, Pauly heaved Hadrian up above his head. A line of pain seared his side and he almost lost his balance but he managed to steady himself. His two arms were held up in a v shape, his elbows locked, and on them rested Hadrian. Pauly froze.

He twisted his head to look back at his team.

“What now?” he hissed. His team shrugged again.

“Drop him hard?” Sebastian offered.

Pauly went to do just that, moving his arms forwards to chuck Hadrian onto the floor, or maybe out of the ring. The weight above him shifted. Suddenly, his right arm was jerked backwards, while his left side was still pushing forwards. His forward leg twisted, and he fell down hard, a weight on his back driving him down harder. The floor bounced, the unsecured centre of the plywood flexing in and then out, acting like a drum. He tried get back up but the weight on his back was immovable. His right arm was being pulled back painfully, his shoulder felt ready to pop out of the socket. His ribs screamed.

“THERRRRRRRRRRRRREEEE IT IS FOLKS! THE LYNCHPIN AERIAL REVERSAL!!!!!! GIVE HIM A BIG HAND!!!”

Pauly’s shoulder was near dislocated to thunderous applause.

From Sebastian’s viewpoint, the move was a lot clearer. Hadrian had wrapped himself around Pauly’s right arm and fallen backwards. The weight shift had sent Pauly over, unable to break his fall. Then he’d pulled the right arm into a painful lock. It sounded almost bland when simplified and described, but the move had been poetry. The gravity-defying twist to shift the balance. The graceful descent. The forceful lock. The fluency between actions. The sensual flexing of his perfect body in action. There’d been an undercurrent to the action, however. Hadrian had stopped playing around, and gone for the kill. He was controlling the progression of the matches. Drawing them out was going to be even more difficult than Sebastian had initially anticipated.

“I give, I give!” Pauly screamed.

“Tap the floor, hard.” Hadrian ordered, in a near whisper. With his blown eardrum, Pauly almost didn’t hear it, but fortunately for his shoulder he did. He slammed the ring floor with two more dramatic and resounding thumps. The pressure came off his shoulder, to his immense relief. The cowbell rang once again. Hadrian got up and started riling up the crowd again. Pauly just dragged himself off the ring, collapsing at his group’s feet.

“You did well!” Sebastian said, having to shout over the megaphone that was blaring out the victory announcement.

“I did jack shit,” Pauly puffed. “He was just playing around.”

Jax was shaking his limbs in warm up. “I’m fucked, guys. I can’t fight fair.”

Sebastian nudged Amy. She glared at him. “What?” she hissed, the words acid.

“What happens if one of us cheats? Goes for a low blow?”

“You’re shot dead where you stand.”

Sebastian turned back to Jax. “I think you’d better fight fair,” he observed wryly.

“Fuck, man,” Jax said, before using the elasticity of the cables to jump into the ring. “I fucking hate getting the shit kicked out of me. It’s never fun.”

Hadrian was circling back round the ring, still hyping the crowd up. He spun on nimble feet and raised his guard. Jax half-heartedly did the same.

“ROUND TWO!!! SHIVA VERSUS RATMAAAAANNN!” the megaphone man rumbled. The cowbell was rung again and Hadrian darted forwards.

Regardless of what Jax had said, he was actually a decent fighter. His punches had good form, and he was fast, far faster than Pauly. The problem was that where Jax was good, Hadrian was better. Jax hopped around, and then went in for a left hook. Hadrian dodged, landed a stunning uppercut, ducked under a reflexive straight, and then gave a body shot that lifted Jax full off the ground. Jax manoeuvred back, trying to find space, but Hadrian kept the gap closed. Jax tried drive him back with a quick succession of jabs, but Hadrian batted them aside. He double faked his approach, and then gave a direct punch to the face. It was like getting hit head on by a steam locomotive. Jax reeled back, dropping his guard, and Hadrian fell back.

Sebastian watched with growing suspicion. Twice now Hadrian had given openings. He was either confident or stupid. Or the fight was about the entertainment, not the victory. As the fight continued, this third possibility was growing ever more likely. Sebastian didn’t let it bother him. The reason for the openings didn’t matter, and his turn was soon approaching by the look of things. He checked on Tanaka, to see if the comprehensive pounding was fazing him, but he was still unworried.

Jax waited for his vision to stop blurring from tears before moving away from the ropes. He was moving sluggishly now, and his head felt both oddly clear and foggy at the same time. He took a step in and sidestepped, just in time to dodge a punch that hummed as it passed. He stepped back again. Hadrian didn’t approach at first but when Jax continued to hang back he moved in. Jax leapt back, felt the cable dig into his back and dived and rolled just in time to escape a colossal onslaught. The crowd began to boo this cowardice. Jax ignored it as he backed up in the ring, his face still stinging. Hadrian was ignoring him for now, instead addressing the crowd again. A chant got started somewhere in the back eastern row, and spread.

KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL.

Hadrian wiped his nose with his thumb and dropped back into his guard. Jax body tensed up, ready to leap away.  Hadrian came in to the left and Jax spun out right. There was a dense thump and his thigh felt like it’d just run into a log. Jax went down. Hadrian had faked him out with punches and then delivered a low kick that had numbed his leg and thrown him down. Fucker! Jax tried to get up but Hadrian strolled over and gripped him by the armpit and side. In an imitation of Pauly’s move that mocked it by being superior to it in every way, Hadrian heaved the thrashing, cursing Jax into the air, held him there for dramatic effect, and then slammed him onto the plywood.

Jax’s back took most of the force, but his head still whipped back and hit the floor hard. At that point Jax had had enough. He was looking up at Hadrian, who stood wide legged and confident. His eyes alighted on Hadrian’s unprotected crotch, and his booted feet which were lying beneath it. He rose halfway, seeing blood.

Sebastian saw the change in Jax’s eyes, and he saw the obvious target of Jax’s rage. He hammered on the floor desperately. Jax and Hadrian both froze and stared. Sebastian waved his arms parallel to the ground. He remembered seeing it down by referee’s in some sports, and he figured it looked legitimate.

“Forfeit,” he said. “We give up this round.”

The cowbell man looked at Hadrian, who shrugged. The cowbell was rung. The crowd burst out into even bigger boos. The megaphone man started announcing the result and attempted to console them.

Jax got up, furious, and stormed over to his corner.

“I wasn’t fucking done,” he said.

“You were about to go for his balls,” Sebastian said. “You were going to be shot dead.”

“Whatever,” Jax said, although he knew Sebastian was right.

“Wait,” Sebastian said, the ghost of a smile on his face. “Don’t tell me you were thinking: ‘If I hurt him bad enough then my team can win the next round and live, even if I die’.” Sebastian said, in a modestly good affectation of a Boer accent. His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “Jax, are you… Tsundere?”

Jax’s face relit with new rage. “No, I’m fucking Yandere because I’ll kill you shits!”

“How do you know that term?” Sebastian asked. “Could you be an ‘anime watching freak’, to quote yourself?”

Jax face transitioned from angry flush to blush. “So what if I do?”

Sebastian and Tanaka burst out laughing.

“Wha-what do you watch?” Sebastian managed between giggles.

Jax blushed even deeper. “Moe Moe Bubble Girls,” he admitted.

Tanaka’s and Sebastian’s laughter graduated into body convulsing guffaws. The image of a neo-nazi watching moe girls was too bizarre and hilarious. Jax stood at the corner of the ring impotently, his fists clenched. Sebastian recovered himself and jumped up into the ring. He patted Jax on the shoulder.

“I needed that, mate,” he said, and Jax softened a little.

Jax dropped down, leaving Sebastian alone with Hadrian in the ring.

Sebastian raised his fists. There was just one objective in his mind. After seeing Hadrian’s display, it wasn’t winning. He needed to make Tanaka take the fight seriously, one way or another.

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Desert Steel Chapter 12

-Match Day

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Sebastian woke early the next day, nerves inhibiting his ability to sleep. The sand in his clothes and the bed had further amplified his discomfort. This discomfort was also coupled with a full bladder. He got up and peed haphazardly into the gezunder, with a few splashes and side sprays wetting the floor. Zipping up, he went to the small barred window. Placed high on the wall, it may have been unreachable to Tanaka, Jax and Pauly. On tip toes Sebastian could just manage to peer over the sill and through the bars. It was just before dawn. Sebastian could just see the night sky that he so loved to see, but the cruel sun was rising. The black sky was being bleached blue and the stars snuffed out one by one.

Sebastian sat, shivering from both nerves and the early morning cold. There was movement in the bunk above him, and duly Pauly swung his legs over and dropped down. He looked awful, and was shivering like a wounded animal. He was clenching his jaw to stop his teeth from chattering. Gingerly, he went to the potty and tried to pee. At first he was too tense to do so. Eventually a stream flowed, although it was shaken everywhere by his trembling. He turned and their eyes meet. He jolted, then awkwardly got his dick back into his pants. Suddenly something poked him in the back and he leapt away.

It was Jax’s foot. He was drawn and haggard, a look accompanied by a swollen brow and black eye. Despite this, his face was lit by a supernatural energy, and he looked better than he had in days. Sebastian recognised the look. He’d observed it in school bullies, and in the kids that pulled the wings off flies or burned ants with magnifying glasses. It was the light of gleeful evil and sadism. Jax smiled, put his finger to his lips to mime silence, and then jerked his head towards the couch. The guard from last night was still there, and she was asleep. Apparently their captors didn’t take their guarding too seriously. Sebastian could see why, the cage was pretty indestructible without any tools.

Jax gently lowered himself from the bunk. His boots whispered across the wooden floor. His fly came down with a gentle susurration. Jax got right up against the bars, and peed. His initial stream fell short, but his second had a furthered burst of power. It splashed against her reclined booted feet. Jax began chuckling maliciously, as the purr of water on leather filled the room. Some urine made it further, wetting the guards ankles. The guard stirred, before snapping her eyes open and leaping up. Jax jeered joyfully. Pauly, for whom going along with bullying was second nature, jeered too. Sebastian didn’t go that far. However, he’d been locked up, forced into a fight to the death, and watched his comrade be hurt twice, so he smiled along. The guard was jumping between furious and disgusted. This created a confusion that left her frozen just long enough for Pauly, buoyed by his partner’s jeers, to pick up the potty and splash her in the face. There was a shocked silence. Pauly felt instant regret. It was an emotion with which he’d grown painfully familiar over the years of being carried along too far by a group. Sebastian was toeing the line between malevolent satisfaction and guilt. Jax was only happier still. His smile threatened to split his head in half. He delivered an outpouring of victorious and imaginative insults.

The guard gaped, gasping with horror and disbelief. Tears sprung into her eyes and she began to cry, albeit with extreme resistance. Sebastian was tipped over into the guilt side.

“You-you idiot! There’s no fucking water in this fucking desert! Do you understand that? I can’t shower! I’ll smell of piss for months!” she screamed. With large gulping sobs she recovered herself, and the person that returned was a demon of pure rage. She picked up her rifle, and worked the bolt action to put a bullet in the chamber. She levelled it at Jax. “Fuck you!”

Jax stared down the gun. “Shoot me then, you bitch.” His voice was fearless and defiant. For a moment, Sebastian felt he’d caught a glimpse of the true Jax. A man who’d just lost his best friend, nihilistic and depressed. But then it was gone, like a mirage in the desert.

The gun remained pointed at Jax for a whole minute before the guard shook her head and raised the barrel up and away. “You’re not worth it.”

“No one’s worth killing,” Jax replied, “but we do it anyway, you pussy.”

The guard scowled and dried her face with the dry bottom part of her shirt. Sebastian found the midriff she exposed painfully erotic for reasons he couldn’t explain.

Tanaka had slept peacefully through the whole altercation. He carried on for another hour still before awaking calm and rested. He smiled at everyone, even the guard. For a man only an hour or so away from a fight for his life, he was unbelievably confident and energetic. He bounced around the cell, shadow boxing, dancing, chatting incessantly. Everyone else watched him resentfully, their stomachs churning and their bodies trembling. The guards came to take them to the ring. Tanaka bounded to the door, raring to go. Pauly’s legs gave out and he had to be caught and supported by Sebastian. Sebastian gave one last plea.

“Tanaka, please, take this seriously.”

Tanaka just winked and lead his guards out.

The instant they left the jail the noise hit them. It was the loud noise of a hundred people not being loud individually. The verandas were lined with spectators, mostly parents with their children. Some of them were holding up signs, most saying ‘Lord Shiva’. Sebastian wondered why a Hindu god was being celebrated now. Some kind of quasi-religious sacrificial fight? A weak cheer was raised as they walked down the main strip, along with a scattering of boos. Tanaka waved and smiled. They walked the full length of the main drag. They were then marched back to the centre of town, and down an alleyway to a clearing on the outskirts of the oasis farmland.

The space was roughly circular, and flat. People were already seated in a ragged circumference at the edges. The prime spot was a row of wooden benches in the shade of the buildings, and it was already full. Others were kneeling in the dirt in areas still in morning shadow. The sun exposed areas, already scorching, were only inhabited by a few brave souls. In the centre was a ring. Four poles had been driven deep into the hard-packed dirt in a square of about 6 metres squared. The sun had bleached them a ghostly white. Through some method the floor had been elevated about half a metre.  Sebastian suspected either a wooden frame or a stack of pallets. To obscure whatever messy framework there was, tarpaulin had been stapled to the sides. For flooring, a layer of thin plywood had been lain out and screwed in. Three lines of cables of threaded steel were strung at high tension between the poles. To soften the hard metal duct tape had been wrapped around it. It looked ominously like a execution stand. The group was lead to the far left corner, and made to line up.

One of the guards sniffed the air.

“Smell likes piss,” he exclaimed. He leered at the four prisoners. “One of you babies pee your pants?”

All together, excluding the oblivious Tanaka, they turned and stared mutely at their prison guard. She glared at them, then forced a sickly sweet smile.

“I think we can leave the teasing alone, Steve,” she said.

Steve was bemused. He contented himself with one last sneer before turning his attention away from the group. Their prison guard tapped the butt of her rifle, clearly communicating that she’d be happy to silence them with violence if such favours weren’t effective. Another time, Jax may well have pushed onwards and taunted relentlessly. This time he was preoccupied, as was everyone except Tanaka.

The noise level from the main street began to pick up. A rhythmic chant was rising, and snatches of words began to carry over to the ring. ~EEEEEVA…~~ORD…..~SHEEEEE.

“Sounds like a baboon orgy,” Pauly joked half-heartedly.

“Or a religious cult praying,” Sebastian said.

There was activity around the ring too. Young men and women scuttled about: setting up a speaker system running off a diesel generator, laying out a threadbare and sandy red carpet, and handing a barrel-chested man a megaphone. The equipment must have been extremely expensive to acquire and maintain so far out.

A woman rushed over to the group.

“You guys need stage names,” she said breathlessly. She glared at their prison guard. “Amy was supposed to have gotten them from you in the morning.”

Amy, the piss roasted away in the heat but the smell lingering, glared back. There was some kind of rivalry present, although what kind Sebastian could not tell.

“You guard the cells next time, then,” Amy said.

“Maybe I will,” the girl replied snootily. “We don’t want the prisoners carrying knives around.”

“Girls, we don’t have time for this,” Steve said.

“I’m sowy, Steve honey,” the girl said, speaking in a cutesy voice and clutching his arm. Steve smiled and softened. In that instant, Sebastian decided he disliked the pair. He felt a sympathetic twinge for his prison guard. He might have given her a supportive look had he been someone else, but his steel eyes gave away nothing.

“Names, now,” Amy said.

Sebastian was now on her side in the familial ‘no one treats her like that except me’ manner. He spoke straight away without resistance. “The Star-studded Stranger.”

“Nice one,” Tanaka said.

“Jax,” Jax said.

“I’ve heard you guys talking, that’s your normal name,” Amy said.

“It’s a nickname.”

“Not good enough.”

Jax paused. “Ratman,” he said, but the words seemed painful, like he was chewing shards of glass.

“What about you, big guy?” she asked, looking at Pauly.

Put on the spot, Pauly’s mind was empty. “I don’t know.”

“Big guy it is, then. Jap?”

Tanaka grinned ear to ear. His fist shot up into the sky. “Raijin, the holy lance of justice!”

“Fantastic. There. Done,” she turned to the girl. “Problem solved, Erica.”

Erica rolled her eyes and pranced back to the man with the megaphone.

The chant was reaching a climax, and it was spreading to the people around the ring. Some of the workers and guards even joined in. SHEEEV-A… SHEEEEV-A… LOOOOOOORD SHEEEEVA. With a crinkle of static, the man activated his megaphone. His barrel chest  inflated.

“UNDEFEATED FOR SEVENTEEN MATCHES!” Pauly and Jax exchanged nervous glances. That wasn’t good. “UNDISPUTED CHAMPION OF THE RING!! MASTER OF NINE DIFFERENT MARTIAL ARTS!!! FAMED ACROSS THE DESERT FOR HIS LYNCHPIN AERIAL REVERSAL!!!! THE TRANSFORMER!!!!! THE DESTROYER!!!!!!! HIS NAME IS…” The man paused for dramatic effect. The silence rippled outwards across the crowd. More people were streaming in from the street, taking up the less desirable sunny seats. It was so quiet their individual footsteps could be heard. The man took another deep breath. His voice was joined by that of the enthusiastic components of the crowd. “LLLLLLLLLLLLLLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORD SHHHHHHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIVAAAA!”

The stereo started blaring a generic hip-hop instrumental, heavy on the brass. Bounding out of the alleyway came Hadrian. He’d stripped out of his v-neck, and was barefoot. He still wore his puffy pair of shorts. Likewise, the spiked hair, the ear gauges, and the large wooden bead garland remained. What was truly eye-catching was that his torso and face had been dyed a bright blue. It was like looking at a Greek statue vandalised with blue paint. He energetically bounced around, waving an adulating crowd into louder and louder cheers. He got up close to some of the onlookers, before darting up the red carpet and diving onto the stage. He climbed up onto the wires at his corner and waved some more. He then leapt into a corkscrewing backflip that he landed effortlessly. The crowd adored it.

Sebastian didn’t allow himself to be drawn into the wrestling-like spectacle. His eyes were forcibly in boredom mode when they wandered over to Tanaka. Alarm bells rung, and his mind sprung to attention. Tanaka was enthralled by Hadrian’s spectacle, but he was also excited. There was a hunger in his eyes that Sebastian recognised, because it was the same hunger he had. The hunger for danger, and for a challenge. And just like that, Sebastian knew Tanaka was about to leap into the ring as the first challenger. He acted straight away, hugging Tanaka around the shoulders. He didn’t care how silly he looked.

“Pauly! Get in the ring now!” he shouted.

At first, Pauly didn’t hear. His burst eardrum was facing Sebastian, and the roar of the crowd in the other. He turned around dumbly. “Huh?”

“Jump in the ring!” Sebastian managed to say just as Tanaka wriggled free. Pauly’s eyes light up with comprehension. He leapt underneath the lowest cable into the ring. He beat Tanaka, who had been standing further away, in the nick of time.

Pauly got unsteadily to his feet, brushing sand off his front. His synapses were firing off in a confused fashion. He didn’t actually click to the fact he was in the ring until he came up face to face with Hadrian. Or rather, face to impeccably sculpted chest, considering the height difference. Pauly’s mind was still in a cloud of surprise and befuddlement. He melancholically rued his unexciting and lame stage name, and wished he’d come up with a better one. Hadrian gave a friendly smile, his white teeth glowing against blue-stained lips. The megaphone man wound up for his announcement.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNNDDD IT’S OUR FIRST ROUND, FOLKS. LORD SHIVA VERSUS… THHHHHHEEEEEE BIG GUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUYYYY!”

Pauly’s brain finally got the memo. ‘Aw shit,’ he thought.

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Desert Steel Chapter 11

-Quarrels

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“You fucking idiot!”

Sebastian kicked at Tanaka’s legs to emphasise his point. Tanaka remained infuriatingly calm. His only reaction was to lift his shins up to block the blows. They weren’t very hard. They were meant to show seriousness, not to harm.

“What the hell were you thinking?!” Sebastian asked, his leg scything low.

“I am going to be a hero,” Tanaka said calmly. “A hero wouldn’t back down from a challenge. A hero wouldn’t sneak.”

“This is real life! Not one of your stupid fucking anime! People who do that in real life die!”

Tanaka stuck his chin out stubbornly. “I am Raijin. I will be a hero.”

“You’ll kamikaze and become a corpse!”

Tanaka’s eyes flashed victoriously. “But I’ll die a hero.”

“You’ll die an idiot!”

The guard got up off the sofa and banged the butt of her rifle against the bars.

“Hey! Break it up, and shut it up!” Her voice confirmed that she was female.

Sebastian ignored her. “Trying to shoot thirteen armed people with a six shooter isn’t heroic, it’s stupid!”

The guard’s mouth dropped open. “You were actually going to try that? Are you insane?” she asked incredulously.

Suddenly, Jax, who had been sitting sullenly in the corner unnoticed, lunged for her gun, reaching through the bars. She twisted just in time and stepped back. She neatly jabbed him in the face with the gun stock. Jax reeled back, clutching his eye socket.

“You fucking bitch!”

The woman, with surprising levity, stuck her tongue out at him. She sat back down at the sofa, well out of reach.

Jax sat down, still holding his brow. “Fuck!”

“Nice try though,” Pauly said. He’d meant to sound encouraging and kind, but it came across as sarcastic. Sebastian laughed, his anger cooling, and Jax glared at Pauly with his one good eye. Pauly cringed. He expected another one of Jax’s outbursts, but Jax’s rage swerved and directed itself at Tanaka.

“This is your fault, you animes watching freak!”

“I don’t watch anime,” Tanaka said.

“Not the point, you useless chink. You’ve fucked us over and now we’re caught. Fuck!”

“We’ll be fine, don’t worry,” Tanaka said. “But I don’t watch anime. I was a delinquent, not a child.”

“Whatever, man. You’re a retard, not a loser that watches Chinese cartoons. Hurray.”

Sebastian joined back into the conversation. “How can you guarantee we’ll be fine. This is real life, you dick. There’s no plot armour to save us. The hero doesn’t always win. The hero doesn’t always live. Get that through your head.”

Tanaka sat down on his bunk. “I’m bored with this conversation.” He laid back and pulled his hat over his face. Jax and Sebastian stared in disbelief. Within minutes, light snores started emanating from the hat.

“Motherfucker,” Jax breathed.

It was past midnight by Sebastian’s mind clock when the outer door swung open and a small contingent marched in. Three men and one woman armed with the same bolt action rifles entered first, and lined up either side of the path to the cell’s door. The woman on the couch got up to, but not hurriedly, and she didn’t stand at attention. Sebastian noted this to suggest the group had a respected leader, but not a feared or strict one. A man entered unarmed, and Sebastian assumed he must be the leader.

He was probably just under six feet tall, and he carried himself with self-assured confidence. His blonde hair, presumably bleached judging from his dark eyebrows, was short and gelled into a sea of spikes. His ears, like Tanaka’s, were pierced, but his were wooden gauges that had expanded large holes in his ear lobes. He had a pair of old-timey goggles on his forehead and a large necklace that looped down over his chest. Bright red spheres, made of wood and the size of a fist, decorated the necklace in an unbroken chain.  He wore a v-neck that plunged below his sternum, and puffy shorts. What stood out most, however, was his body itself. He had the body of a Greek god, except with bigger lats. What struck Sebastian wasn’t how strong or muscular he looked, but how aesthetically perfect his body was. Whereas Pauly’s pectorals look over-inflated and odd, his were slabs of granite. The way his thighs curved into the knees was a thing of art. His body was the outcome if Michelangelo’s David and Arnold Schwarzenegger had a love child. It was the golden ratio personified.

“Any trouble?” he asked.

Their guard nodded. “That one tried grab my gun,” she said, pointing at Jax.

The man walked right up to the bars. “Tsk, tsk. What would you even hope to do with it, locked in there? Take a hostage?”

Jax snarled back. The man took no notice. “Now if you had, I can assure you we would have only gone to every length to kill you all. Do you understand? Down that path lies only oblivion.”

“My grandfather was Scottish,” Jax said.

The man tried raise one eyebrow, and failed. It wriggled like a caterpillar on his face, and then both raised upwards into an arrogant leer. Such imperfection on his face, when contrasted to his perfect body, was jarring. “So?”

“So,” Jax said, and in one smooth motion he’d pulled a knife from his sock and grabbed the man by the neck. He wasn’t as fast as Tanaka, however, and the man had plenty of time to react. He grabbed Jax’s knife hand and back flipped, in a move so effortless and graceful that it seemed to defy gravity. Jax’s arm was twisted painfully and he dropped the knife, screaming. The man adjusted his necklace and picked up the knife. It was, Sebastian saw, a sgian-dubh, a knife traditionally worn in a highlander’s sock. The man passed the knife to the guard, who put it in her belt.

“Give me back my grandfather’s knife, you whore!” Jax screamed, now clutching his arm, with his brow still swollen up from his last injury.

“You’ve lost the right to have that knife,” The man said calmly. “But you can regain it, and everything else: your guns, your freedom.”

“How?” Sebastian asked bluntly. He had no patience for bullshit anymore.

The man smiled. “Simple. The four of you have to fight me, one at a time, fairly. You win, you go free.”

“And if we lose?”

“You die.”

Those words sucked whatever good feeling was left out of the room. Tanaka, Jax and Pauly were stunned speechless. Only Sebastian kept thinking, trying to work out all the details.

“Do each of us have to beat you?”

“No. Just one of you wins, and then you all go free.”

“What are the rules?”

“Keep the fight within the ring. No weapons. No hits to the groin. No eye gouging. Locks, grappling and throwing are all allowed, as are punches and kicks. Only one opponent in the ring at a time.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow morning. Agreed?”

Sebastian stared the man down with his lifeless battleship grey eyes, or at least tried to. The man’s eyes were shielded by self-assurance. “What if we don’t?”

“You die now.”

“Agreed, then.”

The man smiled again. “Great! My name is Hadrian. Prepare to put on a show.”

“Fuck you.”

If this bothered Hadrian, he didn’t let it show. He just left, taking his four person honour guard with him. The guard stuck her tongue out at Jax again, and sat back down on the sofa.

Tanaka leaned back contentedly while sitting on his bed, a smug smile on his face. “You see? Did I not say we’d be fine?”

Jax, still rubbing his slowly recovering arm, was incensed. “Fine?! Didn’t you see the fucker twist my arm like it was nothing?! With a fucking back flip! I can fight dirty, but I’m shit at fighting fair.”

Pauly agreed. “I don’t even know how to fight… I uh, never really had it come to that. Also, he was built like a bear on steroids.” He looked pale, and he was breathing unevenly.

Sebastian nodded, his face unreadable as always. “I’ve only ever gotten lucky in a struggle, and luck doesn’t work on those kinds of backflips.”

Tanaka rolled his eyes. “Didn’t you hear? Only one of us has to win. I was the King of Tokyo back in high school. I was the Lightning God Delinquent, undefeated for three straight years. I can go first, defeat him, and we can all go free.”

Sebastian kicked him in the stomach, not hard but enough to show his anger. “What if you lose, then? What if he’s better than you? We all die? This isn’t a fucking game. It’s real life.”

Tanaka shrugged. “I won’t.”

“You can’t know that for sure.” Sebastian took his foot off Tanaka’s stomach, and strode over to his bunk. “We need to increase our odds. Tanaka, if you’re our best fighter, then you’ll go last. The rest of us, try to win, but if we can’t do that then hang on as long as possible. We need him tired out.”

Tanaka scowled. “That’s not honourable, nor heroic.”

“You don’t get a choice in this decision. Our lives are at stake too. You’ll fight him last, and you’ll fight him with everything you’ve got. You’ll take this seriously. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Tanaka said, but Sebastian saw nothing but defiance and stubbornness in his dark eyes. He closed his own eyes and cursed softly under his breath.

“Pauly, you’ll go first. Jax, second. I’ll go right before Tanaka…” He glared at the Japanese teen who was now absentmindedly relaxing on his bunk. “…And let’s just hope to god or anyone else who’ll listen that he’ll take this seriously.” Sebastian knew the guard could hear everything, but he didn’t care. Their strategy was uncomplicated, and obvious. If they were good enough, it was also unbeatable. If they weren’t, the Greek god of backflips would defeat them.

Sebastian sat down heavily on his bunk, causing a layer of sand that had inevitably formed on the bed to bounce up. “Credit where it’s due, though, that was a good idea with the knife, just bad execution,” he said to Jax.

Jax tried find sarcasm in Sebastian’s words, but where Pauly’s words had been distorted by his efforts to show kindness, Sebastian’s were delivered in the toneless drone he always spoke in. It was devoid of emotion. There was nothing but unbending literalness in that voice.

“Thanks,” Jax said. “Thank my grandpa. He died when I was thirteen, but he was the best of the cesspit of genes they called my family.” As an afterthought, he added, “I hope I get it back.”

“What reason do you think they even bother with this whole charade of a fight. I mean, they ambushed us, captured us, and now want to fight us,” Sebastian wondered aloud.

Jax banged on the bars and pointed to his new lady friend. “Why don’t you tell us, you sadistic bitch?”

The guard scowled at him and looked around. She saw a heavy glass ashtray on the floor by the sofa, a luxury good that was strange to see this far out. She chucked it at his head. It hit the bar instead, bouncing off and ricocheting into the desk. It took a chunk out of the wood. Jax flinched back, and then skulked off to the far corner.

“Entertainment?” Pauly suggested, with some apprehension. He was still getting used to putting forward ideas and putting himself out. Back in New York he’d been too afraid of the social repercussions to put out his own ideas. In Terra Deserta where a missed idea could mean death, he was forced to do so. Every time he did, he felt the same uneasiness as he shed the ghosts of his past. “He said: ‘Put on a good show’, didn’t he?”

“‘ Prepare to put on a show’, but yeah,” Sebastian said, quoting the exact words. “But entertain who? Themselves?”

“Why not?” Jax asked. “You keep looking for rational answers here, Sebby.” Sebastian hated being called ‘Sebby’, and Jax knew it. “It’ll be your undoing. What you need to realise is that here on Terra Deserta, a lot of people are just stark raving mad.”

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