10: THE ARENA
The two men encircled each other in the center of the arena, the red sand beneath them wafting up like crimson ghosts with every shuffle of their feet. A fist shot forward in a motion akin to a rattlesnake strike. This time, the fangs found nothing but air, and the fist recoiled. Almost simultaneously, another fist uncoiled, shooting out in an arching path that was destined to terminate on the exposed ribs of its victim. A sickening thud followed, mixed in with the sound of something cracking. Bone. The crowd oooooed in response and flesh rippled as the impact force propagated through the victim’s body, and his frame staggered back, off balance.
The attacker moved in swiftly, grappling his opponent by the arm and yanking him over his shoulder. The victim’s back was slammed remorselessly into the sand, setting off a frenzy of crimson ghosts this time.
The victim tried to will himself up but met the end of another snake like jab that threatened to sink his nose bridge, into the rest of his face. His head snapped back off the sand and then back on it. He lay very still and unmoving. There was no sound from the crowd for a moment. Finally, the victim gasped and panted heavily. He was alive. The crowd cheered, just as much for the victor as it did out of relief.
Maggy, Kaya, and Clieo were also among the crowd, seated in the stands of the colossal arena. They watched the proceedings intently and in silence. Maggy finally cracked the silence that had enshrouded them.
“Clieo… is your friend sure he wants to try out for the Gaian military?” Maggy asked.
Maggy glanced at Clieo. Her eyebrows were furrowed in concentration. She was worried. Maggy had known her long enough to tell. And she was trying to believe in the one she called Hope, but would it be enough?
“Clieo…” Maggy started.
“His name is Hope. I’m sure he’ll be just fine.” Clieo stated firmly. She looked at Maggy and smiled.
Maggy found herself smiling back reassuringly. Deep within, the logical part of her whispered and urged her to be realistic with Clieo. They had talked on the way to the arena. All three of them. The events surrounding their landing on Gaia had been strange and tragic at the same time. Both Maggy and Clieo had lost a grandparent and parents, respectively. The Seraph had suddenly stopped after Martha had disconnected. Whatever spark she had, it had saved them and ended her life. All they could recall was seeing a blinding flash of blue light wash over their pods soon after, and then… nothing. But Martha had given them a message.
My children. I have listened to all of you and I need to tell you this one thing before I go. There are trials and tribulations ahead of you like you’ve never known. But you can overcome them. That is why you have been imbued with such power. But to overcome, you must work together, all of you. And you must find the other four. Do you understand Maggy?
…you must work together, all of you.
“Yeah, he’ll be just fine.” Maggy finally responded.
She glanced at Kaya, who sat quietly, her eyes transfixed on the arena. Kaya had mentioned her brief encounter with the medic and the observation she made about her body temperature.
That is why, you have been imbued with such power.
“Maggy…” Kaya said softly.
“Stop thinking and enjoy the contest okay? We all need a little hope from time to time.”
Kaya’s eyes never left the arena but they were playful and reassuring.
“Fine... fine. Let’s cheer for Hope.”
She turned her gaze back to the arena just in time to see a skinny boy with wavy brown hair, enter the arena. He was dressed in black battle gear that was a bit too big for him. The shoulder and elbow guards slid loosely around and the boots forced him to walk a bit awkwardly. His opponent was none other than the ruthless victor of the last battle.
Shit… this isn’t gonna be good.
Hope stood in the center of the arena, his heart pounding at a million miles a minute. He suddenly felt like the unfortunate mouse dropped into a confined space with a very hungry cat. The man standing opposite him stared incredulously at him for a while.
“For once I’m willing to disappoint the spectators.” The man said. “Go home boy.”
The man turned around and walked away.
“Fight me!” Hope yelled out, causing the man to stop and glance back at him.
Unlike Hope, his battle gear fit snugly on his big, muscular frame. He had short, silver hair and a cold metallic stare. He was tall, towering over the boy by at least a foot and though his face had a clean shave, it was clear to see it had taken its own fair share of bruising, in the past.
“I’m seventeen.” Hope continued. “I was eligible to join last year. And I’m ready this year.”
“Very well then. Let us test your eligibility.”
“I know I am eligi…”
The thud caused an instant reverberation in Hope’s skull. He realized he had been struck in the head. His eyes drifted to see the rest of the man’s very muscular left hand follow through with the blow that had been delivered.
Holy shit. When did he close the distance?
Hope felt like his brain was swimming. He thought he saw a right fist coming in an upward arch, happily flying towards his sternum. Hope twisted backward and his left pectoral muscle was massaged with a glancing blow. The man was open on the right, his sides exposed. Hope moved in with closed fists. He struck out and got a blow into the man’s ribs. It felt like someone trying to use a sponge to make a dent in an iron bar.
The man brought in his right hand so his side was covered against the next blow. He pivoted away from Hope so his back was to him. Hope was still trying to figure out why he would leave himself so open when he felt the air in his lungs rush to escape through his mouth. He gasped as he saw the back kick that had connected with his midsection.
Hope was flying through the air and then tearing through the sand. He finally came to rest in a crumpled heap a few meters away. The invasive sand had gotten into his ears, eyes, mouth, and nose. It paid no respect to his hair either. But that was the least of Hope’s worries. His skull protested against the movement of his head with pulsating painful throbs that quickly escalated to spikes of pure agony if he moved it too quickly. And his entire mid-torso felt like an anvil had been dropped on it. He pushed himself up with his arms, but they sputtered and gave out. He was lying face first on the sand once more.
Hope could barely pick out the crowd’s chanting. He suddenly felt a shadow cast over him and knew his opponent was standing over him. The crowd continued to chant his opponent’s name.
Duran! Duran!! Duran!! Duran!!
“Go home kid.” Duran said, an unusual softness seeping into his voice.
“Try again next year.” The softness was gone and the cold tone back.
Hope lay still, and gritted his teeth, not out of pain, but anger at himself.
He had lost. He had failed.