Magic Strikes Chapter 17

THE REAPER WAITED AT THE FAR END OF THE sand. Inhumanly tall and packed with thick muscle, he had the build of a champion weight lifter, his body so overdeveloped it resembled an action figure. If I went up against him, I'd have to strike at a joint - if he clenched up, the sword might not penetrate all that muscle.

The Reaper wore black boots, and nothing else. Swirls of henna designs covered every inch of his pale body. He carried two heavy bearded axes, sharpened to razor gleam, each three feet tall. They were meant to be used two-handed.

Saiman entered the ring, his long legs moving slowly. He towered over the Reaper by a foot or so, which made the axe fighter just over seven and a half feet. Despite the height difference, they probably weighed the same. You could see Saiman's ribs, and the Reaper would have trouble picking up coins from the ground without crouching.

A Red Guard closed the fence door and scurried away to the protection of the wall.

As the gate clanged shut, the resolve drained from Saiman. A light trembling began in his arms. He hunched his shoulders. I could taste his terror from where I stood. The Reaper sensed it too and grinned, baring his teeth. They were filed to points, like the teeth of a shark.

The smell of blood and hot sand invaded my nostrils. I squinted against the bright glow of huge feylanterns and took a step to the Pit . . . and almost bumped into a guard barring my way.

"No further. If you exit the gate, your fighter forfeits the match."

It wasn't my fight.

I leaned against the golden arch. Jim halted next to me. It was up to Saiman now.

The Reaper tossed one of his axes in the air. It spun, the bluish blade shining as it captured the torch light, and he caught it with deft quickness. The crowd loved it.

A gong tolled through the chamber. As its deep ring died, Saiman glanced back at us.

"Come." The Reaper's voice was a raspy growl, touched with that same accent I couldn't quite place. He motioned with his axe. "Come! I cut you down to size."

Saiman hesitated.


Saiman turned halfway, facing me. His eyes brimmed with fear. We should've never put him into the damn Pit. He wasn't a fighter. No matter how big he was, unless he had courage enough to kill for his survival, he would be simply cut down.

"Move," I whispered. That first step was the hardest. Once he broke the dread chaining him and struck the first blow, he would be fine. But he had to move.

The Reaper raised his arms wide as if asking the audience for an explanation. Boos and jeers erupted, at first isolated, then gaining strength, until they swelled into a wall of sound.

The Reaper held up his axe. The noise died down. "I cut you now," he announced.

He advanced, flexing, hefting his axes. Saiman took a step back. The Reaper smirked and kept coming. An ugly grimace skewed his face. He raised the axes and charged.

Saiman dodged, but the edge of the left axe caught his thigh. Blood drenched the frost-white skin. Shock slapped Saiman's monstrous face. The axe fighter paused to soak in the applause.

Saiman stared at the blood. His lips trembled. His eyebrows came together. A wild light danced in his deep eyes.

Pain, I realized. Pain was his trigger. Saiman was afraid of pain, and once it lashed him, he would do anything to keep it from hurting him again.

With a terrible bellow, Saiman swung his club. The Reaper leapt aside and the club smashed the ground, sending a spray of sand into the air. Without a pause, Saiman swiped the club up and charged. The Reaper jumped back. The club's steel spikes fanned his face. The Reaper ducked left, right, but Saiman whipped the club at him as if it weighed nothing. The axe fighter ran.

All thought vanished from Saiman's glassy eyes. He roared and chased the Reaper back and forth through the Pit, his face terrible to behold, his mind lost to fury. I wasn't sure he knew where he was or what he was doing here, but he knew he had to kill the fleeing Reaper.

"Ice him," Jim murmured. " Ice him."

Our stares met and he shook his head. Like the Norse warriors of old odes, Saiman was lost to his berserker rage, too far gone to remember he had magic.

The Reaper stopped. As the club whistled past his chest, a hair short of ripping him open, he pivoted and struck at the club's handle with his right axe, trying to knock Saiman off balance.

It was a good move. Saiman's momentum, aided by the Reaper's strike, would drive the club forward, leaving the Reaper free to cleave at Saiman's right arm and side.

The axe connected to the club. Ice swallowed the blue axe blade, shot up the handle to the Reaper's arm, and caught his fist. The Reaper screamed. Desperate, he chopped at Saiman's elbow, but the giant let go of the club, hurtling it and the Reaper into the wire fence. The Reaper's back hit the wire right in front of me. He barely had a chance to bounce off. Saiman loomed above him, his face deranged, locked his hands into one enormous fist, and brought them down onto the Reaper's skull like a hammer.

The Reaper dodged at the last moment and the blow landed on his right shoulder. Bones crunched. The Reaper howled. Saiman reached for the Reaper's shoulders. His enormous hands gripped his opponent's flesh, and Saiman jerked him off his feet as if he were a child, and smashed his head into the Reaper's face. Blood flew, staining Saiman's features. He threw the Reaper against the fence and pummeled him with his fists, breaking into a rabid frenzy of blows.

The fence shuddered and quaked. With each crushing punch, wire cut into the Reaper's overmuscled back, leaving bloody, diamond-shaped gouges. His head lolled. Saiman struck and struck, growling, oblivious to the red mess of blood and bone that stained his hands. The wire cut deeper and deeper.

"He's going to push him through that fence like a sieve," Jim growled.

The crowd had gone silent, stunned by the ferocity of his onslaught. Only Saiman's labored breathing, laced with furious grunts, echoed through the Pit.

I turned to the guard. "The Reaper's dead; pull him off."

The guard gave me a look reserved for the mentally ill. "Are you out of your mind? Nobody's going to get into the Pit with him. You step in there, you're his target."

A group of patrolmen gathered behind us. "Jesus," one of them murmured.

There was nothing left to do. We stood and watched Saiman vent his rage and terror on a battered piece of Reaper meat.

Four minutes later, the magic drained from the world in an abrupt gush and Saiman finally stepped away from the corpse. The thing that slid to the floor of the Pit no longer bore any resemblance to a man. Wet, red, soft, it was just a heavy mess of tissue, stuffed into black boots.

Saiman retrieved his club. The trance dissipated from his face. He looked around, shook his head as if surprised to find himself there, and raised his weapon.

A lonely male voice from the left screamed, "Yeaaaaaahhhhh!"

The audience exploded in an avalanche of cheering.

Saiman turned, buoyed by the applause, and stumbled, favoring his blood-drenched leg. He was about to make history as the first man with regeneration to bleed to death.

"This way!" I jumped and waved my arms. "Come this way!"

Saiman shambled about in a bewildered daze.

"Here!" Jim's roar momentarily overwhelmed the noise of the crowd, punching my eardrum. I stuck my finger into my left ear and wiggled it a bit.

Saiman jerked and pivoted toward us. Recognition ignited in his eyes and he limped to us, dragging his club behind him. The guard swung open the fence door and took off like a frightened rabbit. Saiman paused at the fence. Oh, for God's sake.

"Come on, this way." I waved my arms at him. "Come on!"

He limped through the gate, using his club like a crutch, sagged, and would've fallen but Jim slid his shoulder under him. Suddenly the hallway was full of Red Guards. They closed about us like a wall of black and red.

"Blood loss." Saiman's voice came in a gasp.

"Next time, remember to heal," Jim grunted, keeping him upright.

"I won."

"Yes, you did," I agreed. "Very well-done."

Saiman dropped his bloodied club. I picked it up and fought not to bend double under the weight. Sixty pounds at least. I maneuvered it over my shoulder.

We moved down the hallway, shielded by the guards on all sides.

"You plant the bug?" Jim murmured.

"Yes. Pushed it into his chest. I need to sit down."

"Keep it together, almost to the room." Jim's face showed no strain, but the muscles on his arms bulged with effort.

"It's over," Saiman gasped. "I'm so glad it's over."


I thought to point out that I wasn't a gentleman, but Rene's voice had that "shut up, I'm working" tone that left no room for discussion.

She surveyed us. Saiman sat on the floor, with his back against the wall. He had drunk almost a gallon of water before the bleeding finally stopped. The wound sealed and now his eyes were closed. Jim stood next to him, making everyone feel unwelcome in the close vicinity of his personal space. Behind Rene four Red Guards blocked the entrance to our room. Two more stood inside, watching us as though we were thieves in a jewelry store.

"The Reapers are a new team. This is their first loss."

Second, technically, if you counted the fellow in the parking lot.

"We're going to do this by the book. The Reapers are grounded. You have one hour to clear the premises and be on your way, which will give you a reasonable head start. I strongly urge you not to linger. We want to avoid unpleasantries outside the Pit."

There was a slight commotion outside.

"The Reapers are here to congratulate you."

"Are you out of your mind?" I stepped between the door and Saiman. Slayer was in my hand.

I didn't recall drawing it.

"It's a twenty-year tradition," Rene said.

The guards parted, and Mart and the tattooed Reaper stepped into the room. Rene and the Red Guards looked like dogs who had just sighted a deer.

Mart leveled his thousand-yard stare at me.

"We congratulate you on your victory," Cesare boomed.

"Very nice. They heard your congratulations," Rene said softly. "Be on your way now."

Mart was still staring at me.

"On your way," Rene repeated with a bit of force.

He turned toward the door and hurled a narrow stick at me. I dodged but I didn't have to. The Red Guard next to me slashed at it with his short blade, cutting it in midflight. Two halves of my hair stick fell to the floor. A little souvenir someone had plucked from the body of the snake man in the parking lot and delivered to Mart.

Rene's rapier pointed at Mart's throat. "One more and you and your team are permanently disqualified."

Mart smiled at me: a charming smile full of genuine joy.

I showed him my teeth. Bring it.

He bowed slightly, unconcerned by the point of the poisonous rapier an inch from his neck, turned on his toes, and left.

Rene followed him out.

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