11:20pm, 31st December. Impenetrable
Suddenly, another blue column of light shot down from the night sky to drive into the very centre of the arena. Max spun to face it, his sword whipping up. The crowd gasped as the electricity in the air amped up again. Sparks fluttered in space, but Max ignored them, his focus lasered in on the shaft of light and the shape forming inside it.
Then the blue column snapped off and a massive figure remained, still shrouded in a shimmering golden haze. Slowly, the aura faded and Max got his first look at the creature beneath. His eyes squinted as he took in the gargantuan beast.
Like an ogre direct from a fairy tale, the creature was gigantic, standing over seven feet tall and bearing the bulk of an elephant. Two tree trunk like legs supported its obese mass, while two stumpy arms with no hands protruded from each side of its torso. On top of that, it was ugly. Pale grey skin hung off its loathsome form in great craggy folds, its skin tone mottled and patchy like mouldy bread.
Then Max looked up at its bald, pale head and found above its wide, slavering mouth, only one eye staring back at him. The eye was central, but oblong in shape, stretching from one side of its face to the other like it had been pulled across the front of its skull.
Instantly Max knew what that meant. The creature did not need peripheral vision as it could probably see clearly across a wide field of sight with no blind spots. There would be no sneaking past this thing. He would be fighting this foe head on in all directions.
Max stepped to his right, but the alien did not move. Max continued side stepping and as he moved further sideways, the creature finally turned its head to track him, but still it made no move to attack. Daring a quick look down, Max found his second sword blade lying on the grass where the previous alien had perished. Without removing his focus from the being, Max bent down, picked up the second blade and deftly put the two weapons back together.
‘Javelin,’ he said into his comms. ‘Toss it out.’
Immediately, a portal opened in the wall nearby Max and out flew a fist sized metal cylinder. It hit the grass and rolled to a stop near his feet. Max took two more careful steps and then inverting his sword, skewered it into the turf. Still without removing his gaze from the alien, Max bent down and picked up the metal object. Feeling it in his hands, he found the etchings over a small touch pad and pressed it.
In a blink, telescopic, metal extensions shot out from both ends. One end thickened to a blunt finish, while the other end tapered to a lethal pin point. Max hefted the missile out to the side with his right hand and then raised it to shoulder height. At the same time, Max pulled his sword clear of the turf and held it ready too.
Staring the beast down, thirty metres distant, Max locked his mental cross hairs onto the creature’s chest. In a flurry, he charged forward two steps and unleashed the javelin. Soundlessly, the missile drove through the air, its deadly point glittering. The creature did not react and the javelin smashed into its chest, the point digging into the insipid, folded skin, forming ripples like a pebble falling into a pond.
The beast did not flinch. In fact it did not move at all and immediately Max knew why. The moment the javelin’s point hit its skin, the weapon bounced back and away, failing to penetrate. The attack had been futile. The alien’s skin was its armour and no blade or missile was getting through it.
Max subconsciously turned the sword in his left hand and then passing it unlooking into his right hand, he cast it away towards the weapons portal from where the javelin had come. It would be useless in this bout.
‘What do you want?’ Kris asked.
‘Don’t know yet,’ he replied. ‘I’ll have to test this thing first to find...’
A blur of movement from the creature’s chest suddenly cut Max’s reply short. Like a panther, he dived to the right, rolled and came up on his toes to look again at the creature. A flabby gash had opened up on the giant’s chest, but there was no sign of what had apparently just shot out of it towards him.
‘What the hell was that, Kris?’ he asked.
‘It shot something out of its chest,’ she replied. ‘Like green golf balls. Hang on! What’s that, where the things landed?’
‘You tell me. I’m not taking my eyes off this thing in case it does it again.’
‘The balls, they’re smoking on the grass.’
Max was now moving slowly in a gradual arc towards the weapons portal, his steps fluid as he shifted his weight and balance from foot to foot. He would not be taken by surprise again.
‘What do you mean they’re smoking?’ he asked. ‘Are they on fire?’
‘No,’ Kris said back vaguely. ‘I think they’re melting, like they’re made of acid or something.’
‘Must be corrosive,’ Max said as he came closer to the weapons portal, his eyes still locked on the slowly turning monster, watching him move. ‘Toss me out a big shield, a little shield and a knife.’
‘You heard him!’ Kris called out.
A few seconds later, three items slid through the portal to drop to the grass below. Max sidestepped a little further and without breaking his focus on the beast, leaned down and first picked up the knife.
The blade was a standard combat knife that was also perfectly weighted for throwing. It was sheathed and Max slapped the weapon against his right hip, the material shrouding the sheath sticking to the fabric of his combat suit. Another piece of engineering brilliance from Abdullah’s engineering think tank.
Then Max reached down and grabbed a shield with each of his hands. The smaller shield was a perfect disc, just over half a metre in diameter and light weight, making it perfect for easy manoeuvrability and close quarter combat with a sword. Its front surface was as smooth as pressed metal and shone like polished silver, flashing under the overhead lights like a mirror in the sun.
The second shield was massive. A full two metres in height and a metre wide, it was thick, but completely see through, allowing its bearer to hide fully behind it, but retain full sight of any opponent. It was also relatively lightweight considering its bulk.
Max hefted the straps of the big shield onto his left arm and the bindings of the smaller shield onto his right arm. Testing the weight and feel of both shields with his own balance, Max satisfied himself he was ready and then stepped off towards the giant.
With careful paces, he began closing the gap between them. With no clear plan of how to attack this alien, Max remained on his toes and alert, both shields raised. To discover this being’s weakness, he would need to provoke it into attack, which would either provide a path to victory or get himself killed.
Then it happened. Max saw the creature’s chest sharply convulse and the gash spat out a short stream of apple sized missiles directly at him. Chancing the strength of the big shield, Max jammed it into the ground and braced himself behind it.
The missiles smacked into the clear guard like machine gun bullets. Max’s orange shoes slid slightly backwards on the turf as he tried to hold his ground against the barrage. Then he noticed that the missiles had not bounced off and instead had stuck to the shield and were now smoking. Max could also hear a slight sizzle and see the clear material of the shield beginning to bubble where the missiles had lodged.
They were corrosive. Not much, but enough. The shield could take a lot more punishment yet, but under a big enough onslaught it would eventually fall apart. As for what it could do to human skin, that was not an attractive thought.
The barrage stopped, so Max straightened up and eyed off the creature through the top half of the shield. He also tossed the small shield aside. It would be useless here. He needed more protection than it could afford.
Max began moving again, but this time changed his path to move diagonally forwards to the creature’s left. He still needed to find a weakness. Now only ten metres away, the creature shuffled its massive legs to keep Max in its wide line of sight. The movement caught Max’s eye. It was ungainly. Awkward even, like the alien was only just mobile and preferred to not move if it could avoid it.
Then before Max could formulate a plan, its chest convulsed again and another round of missiles shot out. Max quickly brought the shield up again and dug his toes in against the force of the impacts. Instantly the front surface of the shield began to blister and hiss. Then something else happened.
Without moving its feet, the creature twisted its torso and flicked its left arm out in front. In a blur, a tentacle erupted from the end of the arm to bridge the distance to Max and smack into the shield, disrupting Max’s balance. The creature twisted the other way and its right arm shot round and out came another tentacle to bash into Max’s shield. This second blow caught Max well off guard and sent him flying backwards to land and slide on his back to a halt, the huge shield lying over him like a cover.
Then Max felt the ground shake and knew what that meant. Snapping to his feet, the shield up in front again, Max found the alien loping towards him, its massive, flabby bulk, sloughing like a dough ball. Its pace was very slow, but it was mobile and now Max knew it had two whipping tentacles in its armoury as well as the corrosive balls and impenetrable skin. This just got a whole lot harder.
Max lifted his shield and doing his best to hold it out to his right side for protection, he started to run. Directing his path in a wide arc around to the alien’s right, he tried to get around to its back side. The alien halted its loping and attempted to continue turning to keep Max in front, but Max accelerated. A volley of bullets suddenly shot out from the creature’s chest, only one of which connected with the shield, the rest shooting past behind Max.
As Max ran further, he kept his focus on the alien’s one, over-sized eye, trying to get outside of its field of vision. Then, as he ran further around to the back of the creature, he found something odd and stopped in his tracks. The creature did in fact have two eyes. On the back of its bald skull, there was a second, identical eye, stretched across and staring. It literally had an eye in the back of its head. Getting in behind the alien’s field of vision was impossible. Max needed another plan.
Suddenly, another sharp burst of corrosive balls sprayed at him. Max easily side stepped them, but failed to see the ploy. As he stepped left, Max stepped straight into the ambush of the nearest tentacle arm shooting out and knocking him backwards off his feet again. The force of this blow was lessened by the shield, but still it stunned him.
The world monetarily disappeared behind a black veil and Max’s centre of gravity went missing. Knowing he was flying uncontrollably through the air, Max came to his senses just in time to feel the full force of the ground pummel him as he rolled to a stop, ten metres behind where he had been standing.
Again Max felt the earth tremoring beneath him. The creature was coming. Max lifted his head and found himself to be still a shade groggy and with very little time to get clear. Rising to his feet, Max lifted the shield just in time as another barrage of balls fired forth from the loping alien’s chest. Max dug the shield in and absorbed the hail of balls, but the acidic effects of the previous bursts had weekend the shield.
The see through material buckled inwards and Max shied back. Then the shield smashed completely through as a tentacle crashed into it and without the protection of the shield, impacted Max’s chest to send him flying backwards again, this time like a rag doll.
High up in their family private booth, Elsa gasped, her hand whipping up to her gaping mouth. Millie squealed and Jason cowered. Elsa’s wide, glassy eyes took in the full scene, her pupils dilated open and sucking it all in. She watched as her husband’s feet lifted off the ground. She watched as Max’s body flailed uncontrollably. She watched as her hero slammed into the turf and rolled to a halt, unmoving.
The crowd sat stunned. The joy of the first victory now lay buried beneath the brutal reality of this second duel’s awful twist. Their champion was down, beaten senseless by a brute of a monster. Disaster rose up from the floor of the arena and fear clenched at the hearts and throats of all watching.
Abdullah’s fist clutched his prayer beads as he muttered a prayer. Joe placed his hand against the glass of his booth, sending his own prayer out across the space. Kris gaped, her hands balled up on her head.
Meanwhile, the creature continued to bear down on Max, the grass beneath its bulk being trampled and broken as it blundered ahead. Kris’ eyes goggled as she watched the horror unfold. Max was out cold and about to die.
‘Get up, Max,’ she whispered. ‘Get up.’
And then he moved. First Max’s hands snapped open as though they were feeling the grass beneath them. Then Max’s head shot up, his eyes instantly locking onto the lumbering beast bearing down on him and finally, he was up.
In one single powerful motion, Max drove himself upwards with his arms and then continued the drive with his legs, propelling him high into the air and into a flawless backward somersault.
The creature shot out a tentacle, but as Max’s feet approached the ground to land, he twisted and the tentacle snapped past his side. Now on the ground, Max sprang sideways and was instantly at full sprint, legging it in a wide arc outside of the reach of the alien’s assault armoury and towards where he had discarded the small shield.
‘Toss out some javelins,’ Max rasped as he sprinted, ‘and a broadsword.’
‘Done,’ Kris replied, almost breathless as she struggled to react to how quickly Max had gone from out cold to full action.
Max ran to the small, silver shield and scooped it up, turning as he did and just in time too as another stream of acid balls shot out of the alien’s chest. This time, without a big shield to hide behind, Max had to wield his smaller shield about to deflect all of the missiles. Two bounced off to smoke on the grass, but two stuck to the shield and instantly it began to pit and steam.
The creature was too far away to strike out with its tentacles, so while it reloaded its chest cavity with more acid balls, Max looked behind him and found the broadsword and a pile of retracted javelins lying behind him against the wall and below a weapons portal.
Dropping the still smoking shield to the grass, Max picked up the broadsword and drove the big heavy blade point first into the ground next to him, so its hilt was close and easy to grab. He then picked up a javelin and pressed the button to loose the telescopic extensions. Max then stuck the javelin into the turf next to the broadsword and finally recollected the small shield. A quick inspection of the front face of the shield revealed it would probably only be good for one more barrage of corrosive balls. That would have to do.
Looking back up, Max found the beast slowly waddling towards him, trying to get its tentacles in range of a strike. Max braced himself and waited for his foe to come closer. He had a plan, but it was far from well thought out.
Inside his mind, Max was calm. The world again faded behind a white fog and he was alone with his senses. His Nar’gellan instincts were firing his thoughts and actions, but his human composure kept him focused. Max could feel the electricity in the air, tingling through the light sweat on his skin. He could feel the slight sea breeze stirring the hairs on his arms. He could feel the humidity, sticky and thick around him. Max could also feel his heartbeat, steady and strong, slightly elevated, but slowing as he focused.
Max was in control, his entire being poised to strike, but he needed the beast to strike first. His success depended on it. His everything depended on it and then it happened, the speed of it all a blur to the crowd, but to Max, a languid slow motion.
The beast’s chest twitched and four more acid balls shot out, directly at Max’s head. He saw them coming and held his stance as he watched them grow larger and larger in front of him. Then at the last minute, Max ducked and all of the missiles sailed overhead. Now came the next part.
Max knew the creature’s left tentacle was already shooting out across the space to ambush him as he crouched below the incoming acid balls. Snapping up, Max pirouetted to the right, dropped the shield and wrapped both hands around the hilt of the inverted broadsword next to him.
The alien’s tentacle flicked past Max, but he would not let it go untouched. Smoothly and with lightning speed, Max pulled the broadsword clear of the grass and swung it murderously down in as tight an arc as he could. The massive blade scythed the air and struck the tentacle as it reached full extension next to Max.
The serrated edge of the blade cut deeply. A spray of green liquid misted into a cloud as the broadsword carved through the pale grey appendage. A moment later the tentacle retracted back, but the leading metre of it fell to the turf, diced off.
The crowd roared. The creature roared. Max dropped the broadsword and without looking, reached behind him to pluck the javelin out of the ground. Shuffling his feet, he looked up at the giant alien to find it writhing and contorting on its huge legs, its other, intact tentacle whipping around like an out of control fire hose. The monster was distracted by its pain. The brief respite allowed Max to fix his focus on the creature’s front eye. He took two steps forward.
In a smooth, but potent action, Max hurled the javelin at the giant creature’s head, seeking to skewer it through its eye. The javelin soared true, but the creature’s agitated state made the target too hard and the missile drove into its forehead instead, bouncing off to no avail.
Despite his shot having missed, Max knew he still held the advantage. The alien was still heavily distressed at having its tentacle hacked off and so, Max was unguarded and free to attack unharried, but how to kill it? His plan had been a good one, but he had been too far away, so there was only one thing to do. He needed to be closer.
Reaching down to his right thigh, Max unsheathed his knife and launched forwards, his orange shoes a coloured blur against the green grass. Like a bolt of lightning, he darted straight at the massive alien. The creature’s flailing tentacles, both good and injured, whipped around in a frenzy, but Max dodged and dived to get past them and right up to the creature’s huge bulk.
As soon as he got in close, Max jumped high and using the folds in the creature’s skin as toeholds, he scaled up the monster’s hide in two bounds and latched himself onto the head. Once there, Max came eye to eye with the creature. Up close, the alien’s eye was no longer just an oblong, black smear. It was in fact like a rainbow coloured honeycomb, a micropattern of hexagons arrayed in a kaleidoscope of hues and saturations, but Max was not there to admire.
The creature was instantly aware of Max’s intention and shook its great bulk, snapping its head from side to side and shaking its body, but Max held on with his left arm wrapped around the top of the alien’s scalp. Raising his right hand, the knife gleamed and flashed.
Elsa held her breath, her mouth open and her body frozen. Abdullah’s fingers paused playing with his prayer beads and Joe leaned in closer to the glass, his nose almost touching the pane. Peter remained transfixed. Kris’ fists balled so tightly her nails dug into her palms. Time seemed to slow as the crowd watched Max hold his blade out ready to strike. The beast thrashed and bucked, trying to dislodge him and then the blade flashed one last time.
Max drove the blade inwards, driving it squarely into the centre of the alien’s eye, right up to the hilt. A gurgling roar filled the stadium only to be drowned out by the ecstasy of the crowd. The creature’s full body convulsions became too great for Max to hold on and he was thrown out to the side.
This time he controlled his impact with the ground and rolled straight to his feet. Quickly Max turned, his instincts still forcing him onto his toes, wary and ready, but the duel was over.
The hideous, grey brute was still flailing around, but was now completely aimless, clearly in its death throes. Max stepped backwards away from it just in case some final, biological death mechanism erupted from it. Then it died. Suddenly the convulsions just stopped. It froze for a moment and then toppled over, its disgusting, flabby skin flopping about.
Max watched it fall, emotionally agnostic to its death. He had won, but all he could do was merely acknowledge it. There was no celebration. No internal joy or satisfaction. It was simply a job done because as the crowd rejoiced his second victory, Max knew the ordeal was far from over.
He had defeated two foes. He had won two duels, but now came the third. Now came the hardest. Now came Macktidas.