Clash Of Blades
11pm, 31st December (6 hours later). Clash of Blades
Max walked warily yet purposefully onto the flawless green turf of the arena, his senses piqued and his frame tense. He was alone inside the boundaries of the enclosure with no clear sign of his first adversary, but despite the absence of his foe, he knew it was close. The atmosphere over the island had become more and more charged as the evening had drawn later.
At first the late afternoon winds blowing over the island had picked up, blustering the palms and foliage until right on sundown, a brief, but powerful thunderstorm ripped overhead. This had caused chaos for the arriving dignitaries and world leaders. Helicopters were buffeted, while ground staff raced in near panic to execute emergency landing and rescue procedures.
Then, after the storm had passed, the atmosphere had remained charged, only slightly, but definitely. This charge had persisted through sundown and the length of the night so far. It had put everyone on an even sharper edge than was expected, considering the world might be just about to end. Something was lurking out of sight, preparing to attack. The world was being stalked.
Max had stayed close to Elsa and the kids, the family virtually shutting itself up in their own private quarters inside one of the stadium stands. Only at the end had Abdullah, Joe and Peter come to see them and wish him luck. It had been a brief coming together and largely symbolic as Max’s mental preparation had already pushed him past meaningful engagement with others outside of his family. Max was loaded and ready to fire. The arena beckoned him.
Elsa had been brave with no tears. Millie and Jason had just asked him to be careful and then after a final and lingering family hug, Max had left their quarters and made his way downstairs. It was time for destiny to make an entrance.
Max had met Kris in the main weapons yard downstairs and together they had checked their communications kit, Max with his earpiece in place and microphone stuck to the base of his throat and Kris with her headset. They both knew the system was also wired into Abdullah and Joe’s private booth as well as Elsa’s. They could all hear Max and Kris talk, but none of them could talk back for risk of distracting him, not even Elsa.
Then Kris had handed Max his first weapon. His sword. He had hefted it and twisted it and then lowered it to his side. Finally and wordlessly, Max gave Kris a hug and that was it. He left the world behind. Striding through the doors and into the arena, Max was on his own.
Standing now on the turf, his sword held out to his right side, cocked and ready, Max scanned the grassed surface with no idea of what to expect as his first opponent, so he expected nothing, except to have to fight for his life. The electricity in the air had intensified. Random, tiny blue sparks now crackled all around like miniature firecrackers.
Max knew the crowd surrounded him, the twenty thousand strong mass loud and raucous, but he had closed it out. All was quiet in his world. Everything was still as he waited. Inside himself, Max had slowly unfurled his Nar’gellan instincts, ensuring his human emotions kept them in check. Now, standing on the arena surface, Max’s alien urge for combat and blood was barely contained. He was like a fighting dog, straining at its chain to break free and wreak carnage upon his first foe. Max’s muscles rippled as they flexed and tensed.
Then, he felt it. The electricity in the air amped up and Max raised his head to fix his gaze on the centre of the arena. Suddenly, a brilliant blue column of light shot down from out of the inky blackness of the night sky to stab into the green grass.
The crowd gasped. Max did not flinch. Then the light snapped off and a golden figure stood in its place, lustrous and tall. Slowly the glow hazed away and there it stood, Max’s first foe.
The creature was humanoid in shape with two arms, two legs and a head as part of a tall and lithe build, similar to an Olympic high jumper. Dressed in a shiny, purple, lycra type suit, the alien radiated a shimmering metallic sheen that enhanced its extraterrestrial nature and dazzled all who looked upon it. However, Max’s attention cut straight through the distraction to the katana like sword in the alien’s hands, which demonstrated its true intent. The creature also wore a helmet with a mirrored visor, so Max had no clue what the alien’s face looked like or what form its eyes took to take in its vision.
All up, the enemy did not look overly dangerous, but Max knew that was folly. Macktidas would not have sent a patsy down for him to slay. This creature was here to test him and expose any weaknesses he had and if possible, exploit them and kill him. This seemingly mundane being was absolutely lethal and Max could only treat it as such.
Then, two more shimmering columns of blue light appeared either side of the creature and a few moments later, two additional and completely identical creatures stood in front of Max as well. Three foes. Max heard Kris gasp in his earpiece. Macktidas had cheated. The golden rule of only one opponent per bout was already out the window. Well, so be it. Max had no recourse. No judges to complain to. All he had was his hands, his feet, his skills and his will and they would have to be enough.
The three sword wielding creatures fanned out and started to advance. Max raised his sword and eyed them off. As a trio, they moved gracefully and in harmony. Max started to move as well, side stepping carefully to the left, crossing his feet over as he went and trying to circle around to engage only the creature on that end. The ploy failed as the three foes automatically adjusted and wheeled as one line, keeping Max squarely in the middle. Max realised the counter move and stopped. Trying to be clever was not going to work. This was going to be a full frontal assault. Max would have to weather the first brunt and manoeuvre himself out to an edge during combat.
Suddenly, the charge came as all three creatures launched as one, their swords whistling through the still, thick air. Max stepped to the right, parried the blow from the furthermost right attacker and rolled. Rising back to his feet, he was immediately on the defensive with all three assailants instantly reforming and crowding in around on three sides, their blades flashing.
Max back peddled as he defended, his sword barely repelling the triple blades. The speed and agility of his attackers was too much for him to even contemplate a thrust or a strike. He had time only to parry, dodge and keep moving just fast enough to avoid being cut down.
His progress backwards increased as his foes ratcheted up their aggression. Max’s spatial awareness told him he was fast coming up on the boundary of the arena, which meant he was running out of room to manoeuvre. Max tried to keep moving to the right to spin the melee back towards open ground, but the trio cleverly kept adjusting their progress to keep him hemmed in.
Even one scratch of those blades could be fatal if they were poisoned in any way. Max needed to get clear and regroup, then find a place to make a stand and get on the front foot. Victory would not come while terms were being dictated to him, but suddenly he was out of room.
Max’s foot pressed up against the wall and then a plan spawned in his mind. His preferred design of the wall to be four foot high with a ledge on it in front of the protective, see-through barrier was immediately going to pay dividends. Spinning a full three sixty degrees to his right, Max knocked a strike clear and then sprang straight up and back to land on the ledge. Immediately cart wheeling to the right with no hands and back to the crowd, Max cleared a horizontal slice that passed underneath his head.
Suddenly, he was clear. Bounding away to the right, Max sprinted along the ledge and away from his foes. As he ran, he could hear the crowd banging on the see-through barrier next to him, the hands and faces of the stadium workers pressed against it, spurring him on. Running as fast as he could, Max traversed about fifty metres back towards the centre of the arena. He could not see the three creatures, but he knew they were close behind him. He would have to hit the ground swinging to stay alive and so he did.
Springing sideways to his left, Max somersaulted back onto the grass. As his feet hit the turf, he planted his right foot and flicked his gaze round to see all three creatures bearing right down on top of him. He had been too slow.
Instantly, Max was back on the defensive. Three blades whistled around him and all he could do was duck and dodge, well and truly on the back foot now, flailing his own sword, trying to parry everything that came his way. Max knew he was struggling, badly. Fear did not touch him, but frustration did. He was better than this and then it happened.
As Max flicked his sword across to his left side to block a slash, the attacker on his right side slashed its own weapon and the hilt of its sword connected with Max’s forehead. Then another blow from the middle foe’s sword hilt hit him under the chin and Max felt his feet leave the ground.
Max remained conscious after the blows and surreally saw the trio of creatures slide away at the bottom of his field of vision and the night sky slide in to replace them. Max knew he was airborne on his back and slowly back flipping as he sailed away from the fight. Max also knew he had let go of his sword. Where it was now, he had no clue, but that was not his first concern. He needed to land safely and get himself back into the fight and more importantly, get on top of it.
As he sailed through the air, Max dropped his right shoulder and arm and forced himself to twist, torso first until he was face down in mid air. Just in time, he crashed into the grass, chest first and slid on the slick grassy surface. Fortunately Max got his hands down first to break the fall and keep the wind in his lungs. As he slid, Max turned his focus inwards. By getting smashed, he had inadvertently bought himself a few seconds of respite.
Coming to a stop, Max rose up and crouched on all fours. Looking down, he saw his own blood drip and splash onto the lush, green grass of the arena surface. The stadium crowd and in fact the whole world had now completely disappeared behind a white fog, impenetrable and silent. Max was alone, but that was okay. That was how he needed it to be.
He had just taken a battering and needed to focus. He wasn’t hurt, not really. If he survived the night, the shallow gash on his forehead would heal quickly enough. Max certainly wasn’t scared either. In fact, he now knew exactly what he had to do to get through this bout. He had wondered for the past six months what it would be like in the arena. The chaos of the crowd. The atmosphere beneath the lights. Even the feel of the humid night air. All of it he had wondered about, but now Max knew it all and on top of that, he also knew how to beat this foe. All three of them.
Looking up, Max saw his instrument of victory. The fog receded a little to reveal his sword, skewered into the ground, its hilt and handle sticking out of the grass like the Excalibur of legend, the perfectly smithed blade glittering beneath the stadium lights, its perfection belying its lethal capacity to kill. All Max had to do now was rise to his feet, walk the handful of metres towards it and take hold of the handle. With the blade in his hand, he would have victory secured.
Max knew that his foes were bearing down on him from behind, mistakenly sensing that he was wounded and vulnerable. Without rushing, almost casually, Max straightened and rose to his feet. Pausing momentarily, he stepped off and in a few paces reached his destination. Looking down at the weapon, he paused again. Max’s mind imagined him reaching down and grasping the leather strapped handle. Then Max imagined pulling it effortlessly clear of the turf and twisting it to hold it upright in front of his face, his second hand coming up to rest on the handle directly beneath his other. Mentally, Max could feel the surprising lightness of the weapon. He could also see the glimmers of light rippling along the keen, double-edged blades. Max could even feel the weight of the humidity infused air, the hair on his arms and legs cloyed with a slight bead of sweat. He was ready.
Reaching down with his right hand, Max repeated the scene in real life. A moment later he stood with his sword in front of his face, his gaze watching the light play down the blade edges. His foes were almost upon him, the sound of the crowd starting to diffuse through the thinning fog, coming back to him, or perhaps he was returning to the world.
Looking up into the crowd, a patch of fog faded to show a section of the stadium, a private viewing booth, mid way up the stand. The booth’s floor to ceiling glass framed three figures huddled together, looking down on him like an angel and two cherubs. Elsa, Millie and Jason. There they were. Every reason in the world he needed to live was standing there looking over him. Now Max was really ready.
Behind him, Max’s foes were launching into the air, preparing to strike him down. Max’s fingers gripped the handle of his sword even tighter. The noise of the crowd roared back into his senses and the green grass of the arena sprang back into clarity. Stepping lightly, but firmly back onto the ball of his left foot, Max spun, his sword slicing the air. It was time to fight. It was time to live.
The blow he smashed back into his attacker’s blade, showered sparks into the night air. The attacker stumbled backwards, caught off balance by the ferocity of the blow. Max immediately followed through with another aggressive strike that sent a second attacker’s blow skittering off sideways. Spinning on his foot, Max shot out his right foot and pounded it into the chest of the third charging attacker, sending the creature airborne backwards to land on the ground and roll awkwardly back to its feet.
Suddenly, Max was back in the fight, the evidence being all three foes had paused to stand still around him, just watching. Max held his sword up and slowly looked at each of them in turn. This was how he had imagined it. This was how he needed it to be.
‘What’s he doing?’ Joe asked into the communal comms system.
’He’s getting into the fight,’ Abdullah said. ’He needs to own it by taking it away from them. This is how he wins.′
Up in her private booth, Elsa listened to Abdullah’s comments and said quietly under her breath, ″This is how he lives.′
Down in the arena, Max’s hardened glare held the three attackers at bay, the trio slowly circling him like a pack of wild dogs on the savannah, closing in to kill their prey. Max kept his sword up in front, his double handed grip like a vice. Then, without looking down, he slid his thumb up to the base of the hilt and pressed the button. A click sounded and the sword instantly became something completely different.
The trio of creatures suddenly stopped circling and watched as Max’s sword split cleanly into two identical weapons. The powerful magnets that held the two halves together as a whole were now inactive, allowing Max to pull them apart and hold them out to the sides in each hand. Now he was twice as lethal. Having only a single blade before had slowed him down, allowing him to focus only on defence. With two blades, he could now take the fight to them. The fight was now his.
Again, the three slim creatures charged forwards as a single unit. Their swords carved the air, but Max was up to it. With speed greater than theirs’, he whirled and slashed, sending his enemies’ blades bouncing away, not just in defence, but with aggression. Sparks skittered through the air and with the first onslaught smashed away, Max launched his own attack. Spinning and slashing, jumping and slicing, his twin swords assaulted the three creatures, forcing them to recoil and back away. Slowly, but surely, Max began to corral the trio back towards the nearest edge of the arena, their cohesion and alignment as a group deteriorating.
‘That a boy, Max,’ Kris muttered. ‘Now start taking them out.’
Max drove forwards, his left sword thrusting and his right sword slashing away a feeble strike. Pivoting, he spun hard to his left and with both swords slicing horizontally, he smashed away the blade of the left hand attacker, knocking the creature off balance and stumbling to the ground. The central attacker quickly leapt over its downed comrade, its own sword raised overhead and arcing murderously downwards, chopping to kill. Without looking up, in the blink of an eye, Max crouched, planted and sliced upwards with his right blade, evading the blow and striking his own contact at the same time.
Unexpectedly to the crowd, but not to Max, the leaping creature’s hands separated from its forearms, the shimmering sword spinning upwards into the air with both of the creature’s hands still locked onto the hilt. Purple blood sprayed outwards as the wounded attacker stumbled to its knees. The crowd went nuts. Not even Max’s ice cold concentration could keep the sound out. Twenty thousand screaming human beings rejoiced as one, their hopes suddenly springing to life as their hero drew first blood.
Up in Elsa’s private booth, she remained silent, holding her children close as their father stood stoically in the arena below them. She knew he was now in control, but his life and theirs were still far from assured. The night remained desperately dangerous.
Down in the weapons yard, peering through the plexiglass, Kris silently clenched her fists and her jaws, a fierceness she had never felt before glaring from her eyes. Then another voice entered her ear piece. It was Abdullah.
‘I see now he spoke the truth,’ the Sheikh said quietly, ‘and we never had cause to doubt him. He knows who he is and what he has to do. He shines with belief and it humbles me.’
‘He’s our man, Your Majesty,’ Kris replied, ‘and the show’s just started.’
Down on the grass, Max ignored his downed foe and instead coolly turned to face its remaining comrades, eyeing them off. Instinctively they backed slowly away. The table had well and truly been turned. Now they were the prey and they knew it.
Straightening to his full height, Max held both swords out wide and began to pace towards them. The remaining two aliens unconsciously stayed close to each other, the natural herd mentality kicking in when a predator is on the prowl. Max did not afford them the time to regain any of their lost confidence. He had to end this and end it now. He moved in.
Max’s swords instantly became a blur, their movements betrayed only by the flashes of reflected light and the frantic parries and dodges of his opponents. The two creatures immediately started back peddling, shoulder to shoulder at first, but slowly Max started to drive a wedge between them. Smashing their swords away, he steadily split them apart and singled them out. Spinning and slashing, Max worked his way in between the two of them, until he was effectively battling one on each side of himself. The aliens thought they had gained the advantage now, but that was false. Max had them where he needed them.
Max found a steady rhythm of sword play that kept both attackers safely at bay and then with that equilibrium set, he ratcheted up the hostility. His left side opponent hacked at him and with one sword, Max blocked it and instantly followed through with his second blade to smash his foe’s sword away, causing the creature to stumble off balance. Without closing to kill, Max spun back to the other creature and repeated the manoeuvre, sending it stumbling away too. Spinning back to the first creature, Max leapt into the air, just as the alien lunged at him. Again with one sword, he flicked the attacker’s sword safely away and while still spinning in the air, Max’s second blade whipped around at neck height and an instant later, the alien’s head lopped upwards and clear of its shoulders.
This time the crowd went berserk, the noise absolutely deafening as all twenty thousand human beings in the stadium launched to their feet and screamed. Not just blood this time, but the first kill. It was more than most had dreamed of and all of a sudden, hope flooded the arena, if only for this moment in time.
Kris jumped and screamed, punching the air. Elsa closed her eyes and a breathless sigh passed her lips. Millie and Jason squealed. In the private booth next door, Sheikh Abdullah, Joe and Peter silently watched. As the dead alien’s body crumpled to the ground, Abdullah nodded and said a silent prayer to Allah.
Down in the arena, no sooner did Max’s feet touch the ground than he had spun to face his final able foe. The creature stood almost aimlessly, its sword wavering in front of itself. No semblance of confidence remained in the alien’s manner. Max refused it any respite. With the crowd roaring for more blood, he went straight on the offensive. He did not want to take the chance that Macktidas would cheat again and send down some more attackers to regain the upper hand in the bout.
With one blade up and the other angled out to the side, Max walked briskly forward. The creature immediately started to shuffle backwards, even before the first blow came. Max adjusted his line slightly and forced his foe to change direction. Within a few steps, the alien was back pedalling back to where its still living, but incapacitated comrade was stumbling around.
Then, Max tensed and both of his swords flashed into action. He tempered his speed, forcing the alien to fend constantly and not be able to attack. Max’s swords whirled in perfect choreography, keeping his enemy exactly where he wanted it to be. With patience, he wheeled the creature through one hundred and eighty degrees, placing it in front of him and the third, wounded creature behind him.
Kris squinted at the scene unfolding out in the middle. Max had the upper hand and all he had to do was make a final strike and the bout would be effectively over. Unconsciously, she muttered aloud into her headset.
’Kill it, Max. Kill it now.’
A hundred feet away, Max held his foe in place with his steady sword play and then replied, ‘Whatever you say, Kris.’
Kris’ mouth gaped. The man had time and awareness to talk back. In the middle of a duel to the death, Max still found time to listen to her and speak back and then it happened, almost too fast for her to see it.
Max half stepped back and allowed his enemy a little extra room to move, inviting it to attack. The alien stepped forward and slashed downwards towards his left shoulder, but Max anticipated the move and with his left sword he cut across his body and knocked the blow away, while quickly following with his right sword to smack the opposing blade away even harder. Using his attacking momentum, Max spun on his right foot and stepped forward with his left to close the gap between him and his stumbling enemy. Lifting his left sword up, Max speared it forwards using a backhanded grip to drive it squarely into the chest of the alien, skewering it.
In the same spinning movement, Max whipped his right sword around and flung it, the blade glittering as it spun, hilt over tip until it hammered into the chest of the third, injured alien behind him. The hapless creature flew backwards as the weapon buried itself up to the hilt in its torso. Meanwhile, the alien in front of Max dropped its own sword and stood dumbly on its quivering legs, looking down at the sword sticking out of its own chest. Feebly, it reached up with both hands to touch the blade, almost as though it needed to feel the weapon to believe it was there, sucking its life away. Finally, the creature fell backwards to the ground, dead.
The crowd surged again and now there was aggression in the combined voices. Surprise at one death had been replaced by bravado that their champion had now tallied up three deaths and a duel score of one to nothing. The crowd knew two more bouts were coming, but Max had won the first fight, even when the bad guys had cheated and now surely nothing could stop him?
Max stood still in the centre of the human maelstrom, allowing the jubilation to wash over him, but not be absorbed into it.
‘Thanks for the tip,’ Max said to Kris.
Kris smiled. ‘Never doubted you. Not for a second.’
Suddenly, the dead alien in front of Max, shimmered and vanished. He looked around and found the other two bodies already gone.
‘Here comes round two,’ Max muttered.
‘Get those swords up,’ Kris replied, an edge in her voice. ‘I don’t think you’re getting any rest time.’
Max turned round to look at Kris and nodded. He then looked directly up above to Elsa’s private booth. Max stood motionless for a moment, staring at his wife and their children. He then raised his left sword up and tapped the hilt against his chest, directly over his heart. Max watched as Elsa stood up, her silhouette framed against the backdrop of light in the booth. Delicately, she placed her own hand on her own heart. Neither of them smiled. Neither of them dared. Death still lurked in the shadows.