In Which Champions Battle (pt 2)
I could hear his footsteps when he came through the door, right as I slipped into the back, the storage space or whatever it had once been. “Adam?” I called, hesitantly. “Mr. Dark? Let’s talk about this reasonably, why don’t we? I’m truly, truly sorry for the lies. I shouldn’t have done that, like I shouldn’t have done a lot of things. But I’m not your enemy. Tyrone is manipulating you. You can’t trust a single thing that he says.”
He said nothing in reply for several long seconds, seconds I used to creep closer to the back exit. Finally, he called back, “Come out. Come out of there, wherever you’re hiding.”
I swallowed hard. “Give me a second.” I knew he wouldn’t wait, but I felt the need to say it anyway. Half-standing and half-leaning against the wall, I shrugged off my jacket and pressed it to a particularly nasty cut on my arm, hoping it would quell the bleeding at least a little. When I was satisfied that I’d done as much as could be done about the wound, I moved away from the wall in a defensive position. Back into the ring.
Dark was standing by the door, backlit, facing out rather than at me. He had something clutched in his hands, hiding it under his own coat. “You have no idea what Tyrone told me,” he said. “I didn’t trust the guy either, but he made some points I couldn’t argue with.”
“He’s killed so many of us,” I said, not believing what I was hearing. “He doesn’t have an ounce of respect for any of us, and you’re not an exception. Whatever he said, he’s using you, Dark, and once he has what he wants he’ll kill you too.”
“He wouldn’t.” I could hear him clenching his jaw. “He’d keep his word. I have to believe he’d keep his word.”
“‘His word?’” I repeated. “What word?”
I saw what he had in his hand.
My stomach dropped.
“I’m sorry, Jackson. You’re a fine kid, really. I am sorry.” There was a flashing, a glinting from the outside light, as he, with one sleeve wrapped around his hand, loaded the gun. His hand snapped away the second he was done, like holding a hot coal.
I bolted for the back again, hoping the darkness would cover me. “What the hell, Dark?” I shouted. “You said this was a challenge. You know the Code as well as anyone, and the Code says no weapons! What the hell is this?”
“He said it would be easier this way.” I couldn’t even tell if he was talking to me or just thinking out loud. “He said...he said it would be easier!” I peered around the corner, met his eyes through the gap in the door. Dark was still standing in the doorway, but it was almost closed now, making him harder to see. However, even without the backlight, I could clearly see him raising one arm. Raising the gun.
“What the hell is this?” I repeated, tense, waiting for the shot. “Where is your honor, Dark?”
“My honor,” he echoed. “I can’t care about my honor. I can’t care at all. I have to do this, for my people.”
“For your people?” With incredible caution, I moved a step forward. One step. Another step. He didn’t fire; he wasn’t going to fire, or at least, I was confident enough that he wasn’t going to fire to approach him. “Did Tyrone strike some kind of deal with you? He did, didn’t he? He asked you to do something for him. He wanted you to stage this contest, didn’t he? So he could get rid of me without getting his own hands dirty. He must have given you that bullet, there’s no other way you could have gotten that.”
“Yes, I got it from him.” His voice was strained, reminding me of a bowstring stretched so far it was on the brink of snapping. “It has to be this way. It has to....” Now he was definitely thinking out loud.
This impasse, this standoff, lasted for what felt like minutes. It was several seconds at least -- I counted the time between thunder and lightning strikes two or three times. I’m sure we stood there for at least a full minute. Waiting, waiting, waiting for someone to move, someone to give in, someone to snap.
Dark snapped first.
I heard a metallic cracking noise, and a cringe went through my entire body; I ducked, expecting to feel a bullet rushing past, or worse. But the sound wasn’t a shot. It was the gun hitting the floor, thrown to the ground. “I can’t,” he groaned. “I can’t do it. It feels wrong, the whole thing feels wrong but that’s a bridge too far. If we’re going to do this, we do this by the Code.”
It seemed futile to protest that we didn’t have to do anything. As relieved as I was to no longer be staring down a loaded gun, now I had to stare down what might be much worse than a loaded gun. For not the first time in my life -- not the last, either -- I was angry at the stupid Codex Lupus. Yeah, sure, it’s important to have rules, especially when you aren’t human and your activities aren’t necessarily inside human law, but there were times like this when I wished it just wasn’t there.
It doesn’t make sense to follow the lex de iusto proelio, or fair combat law, when it wasn’t a fair combat happening.
I wondered for a wild second if Mark had ever felt something like what I was feeling now. Surely it was different -- he really had wanted to fight, at least for a time. But he had also told me, the last time I saw him, that if there was another way out he would have taken it. He kept fighting because he thought he had to, he thought it was my life or his.
I think Adam was feeling more like Mark than I was. Like it was my life or his, for one had to be lost.
“Fine,” I said. “We do this by the Code, then.”
And then, despite all the protests, I realized that I was angry at him. It wasn’t the battle rage talking, I was truly angry. Adam Dark, supposedly one of the greatest Alphas in the country, had sold out his own kind to the Defenders. Lycans stand by their own was the most basic rule we lived by, before any Code or any law, and he had broken it. I didn’t think he deserved to die for that, necessarily, but in that moment I wanted to see him punished. I wanted to hit him, and more than that I wanted to make him feel the shame he should.
I wanted to beat him. Fair combat or no, even if this was a setup, I wanted to beat him.
That thought fueled me, feeding the flames of my rage and my strength. When the fight had begun again in earnest, I fought with everything I had in me. “May optimum win,” I muttered under my breath -- may the best win. I sustained wounds that would stay with me for days, weeks, after the fight ended, but I delivered just as many. The bare, dust-covered concrete of the floor was spattered with both our blood.
One slash to my lower jaw went deeper than the rest -- I could already tell it was going to leave a scar. But, like most of the fights I’ve been in, there wasn’t a moment that stood out more prominently in my memory than others. My head was suddenly less clear; the realization that I was angry, and the realization of just how very angry I was, had hit all at once, blinding me, like a fistful of sand to the eyes. I was striking, striking, striking, wildly as a maniac.
Running, circling each other, the “arena” slowly moved. From the front room to the back room, closer by the second to the exit. When we were only a few feet from the door, I made a break for it. Too sore to take opening it with my weight, I lost a few crucial seconds forcing the knob, but the second it was open, I ran like hell...and tripped.
Beyond the door wasn’t the exit. It was the freaking staircase. I went from running like hell to stumbling, dragging myself up and tripping on more stairs. Dark’s footsteps, my footsteps, echoed off the walls in the tight space.
I kicked in the top door, running to the far wall of the office it opened into. There was a single window, overlooking the sidewalk, with no way to climb out. It was as empty as the downstairs, with no exits except for the staircase. The staircase that Adam Dark was currently charging up.
I took a deep breath, readying myself for whatever was coming. It ends here.
I threw myself at him before he even reached the stairs. He was only caught off-guard for ten seconds or so, enough time for me to drive my knee up into his solar plexus. The kick left him doubled over and staggering to the wall, scratching rifts in the wall as he caught himself. That was my chance.
I grabbed his arm, twisting it even as he fought back. He was still strong, even as both of us had been weakened, and I had to struggle to keep him pinned. We both slammed into the wall; I knocked my head against it, making me see red star-points.
The fight seemed to be draining out of Dark, drop by drop, since the gun incident. Whether it was fatigue, loss of resolve, both, or something else entirely, I couldn’t say, but he wasn’t fighting quite as hard as he had been at the start. He hit back, making me falter slightly, but moments later I had him entirely pinned. He sank his claws into my shirt, trying to push me away, but it did the exact opposite.
I struck the center of his chest again; he fell to the floor, back against the wall, and my boot landed on his torso. “Get up,” I commanded, “if you can.”
He tried to stand. I was pushing back, certainly not making it easy for him, and it showed -- he couldn’t stand. “Goddammit,” he muttered, sounding more awed and disbelieving than frustrated or even disappointed. He couldn’t believe that I had beaten him.
I couldn’t believe it, either. There had been no real indication that the tide was turning, no sudden rush of war strength, no single blow that had brought him to his knees. In one second, it was simply over, and I didn’t feel satisfaction. I felt nothing.
“I think it’s safe to say,” I growled, “that I’ve won.”
Dark nodded, sighed. “I think you have.” His expression was peaceful, the look of a man making peace with his gods, as he tilted his head back to expose his neck. “Go on,” he said. “No need to prolong the inevitable. You’ve earned it.”
For a second, I would’ve done it. Thinking back on this moment, even the next day, I was ashamed to say so, but I would’ve done it. The thought of taking his position, taking over Nashville, appealed to some little devil sitting on my shoulder, and it whispered in my ear, He doesn’t deserve it. He’s a traitor, how can he lead us? How can he lead anyone with his lack of honor? I didn’t have to hurt him; there were veins in the throat that could be severed so the victim would bleed out almost instantly. It could all be over, with one stroke.
And then I recovered myself. Yes, Adam Dark was a traitor, yes, he was probably unqualified to lead us in his current state. But there were ways to handle that. Maybe he was, according to our laws, even deserving of death, but that wasn’t for me to decide. That was something to be decided in a council, by all of us.
I removed my foot. “Get up.”
He opened his eyes. “What are you doing?”
“I’m not going to kill you. This was never a challenge, so you’re wrong, I haven’t earned anything. I don’t have the right. We’re going back to the pack house, and this whole mess will be worked out properly. We do this by the Code, right?”
His face was contorted in pain, and he started shaking his head violently. “There’s no point now. It’s over. Sooner or later he’ll know.”
“Tyrone?” I laughed, carelessly waving my hand. “You think I’m afraid of Dante Tyrone? Did he ever tell you just how he lost his eye?”
“His eye?” Dark muttered, finally trying to get up.
“Yes, the side of his face covered in scars. That was me. He’s tried to kill me more times than anyone or anything else has.” I rolled up my sleeve, having discarded my jacket downstairs. “This scar is the closest he’s ever come. The closest anyone’s ever come, actually, but I’m still alive. I do not fear Tyrone, do you understand that?”
“You should,” said a third voice.
My heart found its way into my throat and stuck.
Adam’s eyes were wide. He slumped, looking at the ground. “We’re too late,” he groaned. “I told you he’d find out. It’s over.”