The X-men and their world belong to Marvel, no profit or copy right infringement intended.

 

Challenger

This is movie-verse and the begining of Gaveedra's story, before his arrival to the mansion

 

Gaveedra's trainer was more nervous than he was. He watched the older man pace in front of him, limping slightly from the old wound that had driven him from the circuit years ago. Gaveedra stood calmly, though he was eager inside. Not nervous and not afraid. Never afraid.

"<Remember what I told you, boy.>" He said. "<Don't linger - this place'll kill you quicker than your opponents.>"

<"Yes.">

<"And watch it going out the gate, some of 'em will try to take you down while everyone's sorting themselves out.">

<"Yes.">

They were backstage, waiting for the loading dock to open onto the gauntlet that was road to the final challenge of the Championship battle at the Blood Pit. They weren't alone, other gladiators and their trainers were clustered in isolated spots, each passing the last few moments in their own way. Gaveedra could hear that he was not the only one who was getting a last minute lecture - and many of the lectures echoed his. There were no cameras here though, giving Gaveedra more privacy than he'd had in months - ever since he'd begun the long road to this point. The dock began to grind and clank and silence fell among the waiting fighters.

<"Here, boy.">

Gaveedra glanced at his trainer then held out his wrist impatiently. A narrow steel cuff was locked over the butter yellow leather of his wrist support, chaining his longsword to his right wrist. Though he could fight with either hand, he preferred his right, given a choice. Settling the hilt in his hand, Gaveedra kept the blade close to his legs to avoid striking anyone unintentionally. There would be plenty of bloodshed later.

His trainer reached up and clapped him on the shoulder. <"Go on boy and good luck.">

Gaveedra nodded and went to stand with the cluster of gladiators waiting at the big steel doors. There weren't many left of the original challengers and Gaveedra was by far the youngest, most of the others were older, like his trainer. At this level in the circuit, experience meant more than simple strength and reflexes. Some of them carried wounds from the earlier combats - everyone had fought hard over the past few weeks to earn the privilege to stand before the big, gray painted door and wait. Gaveedra rubbed his thumb over the smooth steel ball that topped the pommel of his sword, eyeing the others.

Gentelischi was perhaps the best of them. She had balance, skill, strength and experience. Some of the scars that ran down her long, dark body were self inflicted - a primitive and powerful decoration - but many were not. Like Gaveedra, there was nothing to read on her face but watchfulness. Roller though, shifted from foot to foot and all that could be seen on him was a kind of animal eagerness. When Gaveedra had first seen the man, top-heavy with muscle, roaring and howling under the glare of the cameras and the shrieks of the Audience he had dismissed him as a show-off with little actual skill. Roller had been the one to nearly put him out of the challenge in an early match - beating him soundly and nearly breaking his hip. He'd had to work his exhausting way back up from the middle ranks after that fight and had barely made it to the final round.

Spike and Drag were paired fighters - chained together - and Gaveedra wondered what they would do if they made it to the end - there could be only one winner. Would they, finally, fight each other? And depending on another like that seemed a potentially fatal weakness. Not since the cadre had been sold off had Gaveedra fought with anyone at his back.

The others, all were good, some he'd faced off with in the early ranking battles. The eight of them were the finalists and they'd face the gauntlet then - the Champion of the Blood Pit.

He was being studied in turn. Hard eyes ran over him measuring the protection the yellow leather vest could afford, searching for wounds that had been dealt over the last few days but had now healed. Gaveedra checked the wounds he could see; marking those who seemed incapacitated as good targets. The Blood Pit wasn't about honor or dignity; the Audience here wanted to see blood and pain - and lots of it. Gaveedra was good at giving the Audience what they wanted.

So was everyone else he was facing and Gaveedra was very aware that at this last stage of the challenge, he would likely die if he lost. The earlier elimination battles were until someone yielded but the final round was until your opponent was down and out. When everyone was armed with swords and spears, axes and daggers that usually meant to the death.

The door crashed down, Gaveedra threw up an arm to protect his eyes from the flying dust and grit. The Blood Pit was always full of filth and trash - part of the style, he supposed, and easier to maintain. A dim, tiny room was revealed, dull gray with a red double-headed bird sloppily painted on the floor.

<"Cargo elevator."> One of the others grunted.

"No fuck." Spike snapped in English.

They all moved warily into the box, each staking out their little space and watching for ambush. Above them, the red lights of cameras gleamed. The show had begun.

The elevator ground it's way slow way down. With no windows, they had no idea how far down. The gauntlet was reserved for the championship match and Gaveedra had never run it before. He looked around at the others, trying to see if there was any sign that the rest had been here before.

Roller caught his eye and grinned - gesturing at the long, raw slice down the side of his face. It had been expertly stitched closed and sealed; Roller might look like he'd just climbed out of a trash heap but like all the gladiators he had an entire stable of doctors, guards, trainers and servants to care for him. They all had patrons as well, but Gaveedra was the only one with an owner. <"Gotta watch my step around you eh, 'Star? Or you'll take my nose off next time.">

<"That would be wise."> Gaveedra agreed. The others chuckled. The elevator jerked to a halt and the laughter cut off.

The opposite wall slammed down - the crash muffled by a heavy layer of sand. Gaveedra inhaled, trying to guess at what might be out there on the empty looking arena. The roar of the Audience was like a weight, pressing down on him and lifting him up at the same time. The arena was open at the top and ranks of seating were packed with screaming, howling fans. A heavy, musky odor rolled into Gaveedra's nose and throat and he grimaced in disgust.

<"Dogs!"> He spat.

<"Great."> Gentleschi muttered. Roller rushed out with a roar, swinging his short, heavy sword, the Audience howled its approval, drowning out the barks and howls of the dogs as they rushed out from behind a series of low walls. There was no ceiling beyond a sturdy web of metal bars - the room was open to allow the Audience it's view but fenced off to keep the gladiators from attempting to escape the death trap they were in.

<"Go!">

They all rushed out, spreading out immediately to avoid attacks from other fighters rather than using the tactical advantage of their numbers to fight the dogs. They were at more risk from each other than from the dozen or so animals around them.

There was an animal shriek of agony and the smell of blood joined the animal stink. Roller shouted in triumph. Gaveedra was sprinting over the sand, straight towards the only exit and the dogs. Brown and black with solid heavy bodies and powerful heads they seemed as well trained as he - working in pairs to take down the gladiators. Their trainers were standing at the barriers, watching worriedly. With a rush, they were on him.

Gaveedra leapt, legs tucked beneath him and swept his sword down. There was the solid chunk of flesh and bone; a spray of blood. The dog didn't even have time to cry out before it was dead, nearly cut in half. Good blow, he thought in satisfaction. It's partner spun and leapt with a snarl, Gaveedra twisted mid-air as teeth snapped by his leg. He hit the sand, drove forward with a short stab, missed and danced back struggling to pay attention to animal in front of him as well as the possibility of another attack. The dog rushed him, fast, swinging wide on his left side. Gaveedra spun in a spray of sand and got in a quick slash that crippled the animal. He ran on, leaving it there to howl and writhe on the bloody sand.

He hated animals.

Gentleschi was well ahead of him and Roller was close behind. Spike and Drag were back there - among the surviving dogs and one of the gladiators was already down, fighting to regain her feet in a growling mass of animals, bright blood splotching her showy green costume. The crowd was chanting and exited, pouring their eagerness down onto the fighters below. The press of sound and heat, the grate of sand under his boots and the smell of blood made Gaveedra's heart pound like a drum, driving him on. Above, the Audience cheered their favorites - he could hear his own stage among the others.

There were snarls behind him and pounding feet, a curse and a yelp as Roller struck at the dogs chasing them. Gaveedra sprinted toward the metal ramp, pleased that Roller was the one to be forced to deal with the beasts. He pounded up the ramp, bloody sword out and wary of ambush.

Breathing hard, he kept moving aware that Roller was behind him and likely to take advantage of that fact. It looked like Gentleschi had run on - keeping her lead. The next little while was an interlocking tangle of dim hallways and wary sliding around corners. There were plenty of places for ambush. Though there were cameras everywhere the Audience didn't have direct access to the place - to keep them from alerting any of the fighters below.

Hearing footsteps behind him, Gaveedra decided to use this place as it was obviously intended. He slid around a cluster of rusting pipes and sank into readiness, point of his sword glittering in the reddish light. Chewing nervously on his lip, Gaveedra waited for the steps to draw near.

It was no one he knew and it was over before it really started. A startled shout as Gaveedra uncoiled and struck like a snake. The snap of his sword in a disabling blow to the man's knee, a glance at the wide shocked eyes - too soon yet for pain - and he was moving on.

Gaveedra pushed his hair from his face and shook the blood from his sword, flexible rubber soled boots quiet on the metal grating. Seven - or perhaps six - left.

Shouting ahead and the scuffle of combat made Gaveedra jog forward. The air was changing, less stuffy as if the hallways were opening out into another room. He caught the scent of Gentleschi, Spike and Drag too. A shout of pain - Spike, he thought - and the combat was over by the time he reached the place.

Gentleschi spun to face him, limed in light and breathing hard. Gaveedra stilled, shifting uneasily. He didn't want to face her if he could avoid it. He had hopes that the gauntlet would take her out - or another gladiator. She grinned, waggling the pick-like axe that was her second weapon. Her short sword was painted red with fresh blood.

<"We have plenty of time, little warrior.">

Gaveedra stiffened insulted but he held up his free hand. Insults weren't going to make him rush her. <"What is ahead?">

<"Come and see for yourself.">

Warily, he went forward; Gentleschi stepped aside body language prepared but not treacherous - he hoped.

The hallway ended - abruptly - in a little platform over a deep pit of sand. Gaveedra frowned at it then shot a glance at his fellow gladiator. She only shrugged and gestured to the center where Drag was struggling to regain his feet.

The sand was piled high on the sides of the pit, reaching to just below the platform, but the center was much lower and sand funneled persistently down, already beginning to cover Spike who was unmoving at the bottom. The ceiling was open, like the first room, to the noisy Audience above which suggested that the pit was an event in itself.

<"Got a hole in the bottom, I think. Like an hourglass."> Gentleschi commented as they watched the sand shift and slide under Drag's feet. He couldn't climb back up. <"Might pull them under if they don't find a way out.">

Gaveedra thought she was right. There was no purchase down there and the sand was constantly fed from a series of small holes towards the top. <"There were other passages.">

Gentleschi shrugged and, after a measuring glance at Gaveedra, sat on the edge of the platform to test the footing. <"I'm not going to wade through all those second rank players back there.">

She gave Gaveedra an amused glance and put away her weapons. <"What about you, pretty boy?">

Gaveedra glared at her but did not move as she eased her weight onto the sand, pressing as close to the wall as she could. She held her place, barely.

"Fucking bitch!" Drag yelled up at her. "I'm gonna gut you when I catch you!"

Gaveedra suspected that Drag was going to be doing little else the rest of the contest but struggling to stay alive down there. His threats were empty.

Gentleschi ignored him, moving slowly and with precarious care along the edge of the room. Small trickles of sand slid from under her feet, gathering momentum and piling up around Spike. Gaveedra could see sweat sliding down her face and shoulders; but she moved very smoothly, determinedly relaxed. He watched, trying to figure out if the risk was worth it. About three-quarters of the way across, Drag started pounding on the sides of the pit, triggering an avalanche of sand.

With a cry of rage, Gentleschi sprang desperately for the other side, footing rushing away even as she leapt of the platform across the room. She caught the edge with the fingertips of one hand and, muscles straining, she hung there - her gasps of effort loud enough to be heard over Drag's cursing and the Audience. Gaveedra watched, breath quickening, as she managed better purchase and - in a show of raw strength - muscled her way onto the platform to lie there a moment, legs hanging off the edge and heaving for breath.

Finally, she stood turning to give Gaveedra a saucy wave and shooting an accurate wad of spit down to Drag. The Audience roared their approval as she spun and ran on.

Gaveedra looked down at Drag who was red-faced with fury and fear. He was hauling at Spike; chained to the other man's wrist, if Spike got buried he'd be pulled under too. As he moved down there, he caused the sand at the sides to spill faster into the center both adding to his own problems and making crossing the sand almost impossible. Also, Gentleschi was a woman, she had a lower center of balance than Gaveedra did. He wasn't sure that he could make the same crossing she had.

But - he glanced up at the Audience watching them all through the bars. She'd challenged him. If he went back to find another way around the Audience would measure it as cowardice. Frowning, Gaveedra turned away while the Audience boo-ed and catcalled behind him.

He didn't go far, turning back and hearing the Audience go quiet with a quick, satisfied smile. Then he sprinted down the hallway, sword flashing by his side. At the edge of the platform, Gaveedra sprang up and out with a shout, using all the unnatural strength he had. He dropped his weapon, straining desperately up with both hands. The weight of the sword chained to his wrist jerked his right arm down, pulling him out of line, then Gaveedra's left hand slapped the bars roofing the cage. He clung, panting, arm aching. Ignoring the sting of his calf as he cut himself with his own swinging weapon, he struggled for purchase. The Audience, screaming in delight above him, gave him the strength he needed to secure his grip.

The rest was - relatively - easy. He swung his way across the room, above Drag's increasingly panicky curses and beneath the storm sound of the exited Audience. Pumping his legs, Gaveedra dropped down into the opposite hallway and - sparing no glance for Drag and Spike - he went on.

Four left, he thought. The number of gladiators had been cut in half. Gaveedra wondered how much longer the gauntlet went on. He was getting tired - part of the plan, he suspected. Pitting weakened, exhausted opponents against the rested Champion was just the way things were. There was nothing fair about the fighting circuit.

What he found next was that Roller had gotten ahead of him somehow. He discovered this when the man rushed out with a yell and tried to gut him. It was only Gaveedra's reflexes that saved him from more than a shallow slash on his side, a leg sweep drove Roller's sword away long enough for him to get his own weapon between them. More confident now, Gaveedra circled the older man, looking for an opening. Roller was bloody but Gaveedra thought it was not his blood. They danced back and forth for awhile, neither able to get a definitive strike in. Gaveedra had reach but Roller was quicker than he should be and very good with his weapons.

Someone got bored.

There was a rumbling sound as machines shifted, Gaveedra fixed his attention hard on Roller too wary of the other man to look aside even for an instant. When Roller suddenly bolted, he was caught flat footed and stared after him in bewilderment. Then he saw the door - or more accurately - he saw the door rolling down. Behind him was the sand pit and a search for another way to the end of the gauntlet, if there even was one. Gaveedra shot forward, watching Roller duck under, wondering if he was going to make it. At the last moment, he threw himself onto his belly, sliding beneath the last foot or so of space with a final twist and jerk to keep his feet from being crushed. The door ground shut, Gaveedra tried to leap back to his feet only to be jerked up short.

Roller was already coming around, Gaveedra took in the fact that the room was completely enclosed in heavy duty scratched transparent plastic - no live Audience above - but didn't have time to wonder at that or why the floor was wet. He spared a frantic glance at his right hand, chilled at the sight of his sword trapped under the door. He wrenched at it but the weight of the door had it pinned securely down - and Gaveedra could barely rise to his knees with his hand chained to his weapon. The drip of water all around them rose to a patter then a rush as pipes above began to pour water into the room.

Both gladiators glanced around, panic beginning to widen Gaveedra's silver eyes. There was a short metal ladder across the room, leading to a safety door set in the ceiling. Roller laughed, relaxing as Gaveedra struggled frantically to free himself.

<"Sorry, 'Star. Looks like I'll be keeping my nose after all.">


Water was soaking into Gaveedra's leather leggings, ice cold, as Roller began to slosh away.

<"W-wait."> Gaveedra stammered, beginning to shake with cold and nerves. He did not want to die like this. <"Roller. Do not let me drown.">

The other man cast a look over his shoulder and shrugged. <"What'ya want kid? Me to chop off your wrist? You'd bleed out anyway.">

"Nein." Gaveedra tipped his chin up and met Roller's eyes, his own filled with fear and pride. <"Drowning is no death for a warrior.">

He chewed on his lip as Roller stared at him. The man's hard face softened slightly with something like pity and with a shrug he waded back. <"Fine, kid. Hold still then and you'll die by the blade and get your place wherever bastards like us end up.">

Gaveedra held still.

Roller came to him and with a matter of fact grunt, swung down, trying for a quick - mercy - kill. Quick as a snake, Gaveedra's free hand shot out and he jerked Roller down - using the other man's momentum to pull him off his feet. He did not want to die here. He twisted to wrap his legs around one of Roller's, crying out as the gladiator managed to stab him in the side.

<"Stupid brat!"> Roller shouted then choked as Gaveedra knocked heads with him then pushed the stunned man face down in the six inches of water.

Roller heaved under him, normally strong enough to throw Gaveedra off but - his pinned arm anchored Gaveedra. As long as he could keep a grip on the big man, he'd keep him down. Roller thrashed, twisting his weapon around to try for another blow while Gaveedra struggled for an immobilizing hold. Roller rolled, managing to get his head above the swiftly rising water for a breath. Riding Roller's broad back, Gaveedra got Roller in a half headlock only to scream again as the man tried to heave to his feet and nearly wrenched his arm out of it's socket. Soaked, tears of pain sliding down his face, Gaveedra got a knee on the man's weapon hand and shoved Roller's head back under the water.

Roller heaved and struggled under him, grabbing his hair and knocking Gaveedra's head against the wall. Gaveedra, dazed, flailed with his free hand, got an accidental grip on Roller's balls and wrenched them ruthlessly. He regained his hold while Roller howled and doubled over, forcing the man's head under the water. Roller's struggles grew violent, then frantic, then convulsive. Pressed so close, Gaveedra felt the moment when reflex won and the gladiator dragged in a breath of water. He felt the panicked wildness beneath him - the convulsive heave of his chest, the reflexive kick and writhe, the tremors and finally - stillness.


With the water rising beyond his chest, Gaveedra shoved Roller's body away and fumbled around until he found the short sword. Gulping air, he ducked down to wrestle with the chain. The point of Roller's heavy sword was too broad to fit into the small steel links. He couldn't get any force behind a blow under the water. Desperate, Gaveedra wrenched and pulled, probing with the short sword beneath the door - sealed with a heavy rubber gasket - trying to free his weapon. He struggled wildly, thrashing in the water as it rose around him. Sobbing with frustration and fear, he realized he couldn't get free.

Kneeling there, water at his neck Gaveedra clutched at the useless sword in his hand and shook. Finally, he took a last, deep breath and went under.

In the cold, with his own heart thundering in his ears, Gaveedra pressed is right hand flat to the metal floor. There was no leverage down here. He pressed the heavy tip of Roller's sword against his thumb. He didn't want to do this but when he tried to reach up to the air above - he couldn't. The water was too high. Gaveedra shifted the blade minutely, until it was pressing gently at the joint - the easiest place to cut. Chest aching, he braced his feet as best he could, then drove all his weight onto the sword. Pain was his signal and Gaveedra wrenched his maimed hand free, bursting up from the water with a shriek of agony.

Blood was gysering from his hand, staining the water crimson, as Gaveedra swam towards the ladder. He struggled up and through the little round door, letting it slam shut behind him. Teeth chattering, dizzy with shock, Gaveedra pulled his leather wrist brace down over his hand, pulling it tight to slow the bleeding until it healed. Then - he sat there on the filthy floor, water dripping from the ends of his hair and the tip of his nose and shook.

It was long moments before Gaveedra could make himself go on. He was desperately tempted to simply sit out the rest of the battle and throw the match. Only his training - and his pride - made him pull himself to his feet and go on. He didn't know what his owner would do if he gave up like that but Gaveedra was sure it would not be pleasant.

Stolen sword drooping in his weary hand, Gaveedra went on.

With only three left, Gaveedra wasn't surprised that he ran into no one on what he hoped was the last leg of the gauntlet. Another series of twisting passageways offered nothing but a wounded gladiator, curled around a dislocated shoulder and glaring warily up at Gaveedra. Gaveedra walked wide around him and moved on.

There were only two.

Gaveedra could hear the wild roar of the Audience ahead, <"Gentle! Gentle! Gentle!">

By the time he got there, it was all over. The reining Champion was nothing but another body on the bloody sand and Gentleschi, swaying and battered, raised her arms to the roar of the crowd.

But there were still two and Gaveedra, hesitating at the passageway, knew only one of them could walk out of here. The Audience faltered and Gentleschi looked around. Unwillingly, Gaveedra walked out under the bright lights, the cameras and the thousands of staring eyes.

<"Gentle"> Gaveedra called in the quiet. The woman twisted around to face him. Taking in his sodden, bloody condition she shook her head.

<"Quite the run, eh Shatterstar?">

At least now she gave him the dignity of his showname. Gaveedra knew there were mics to pick up their conversation and that he should shout out some rehearsed and enthusiastic challenge. But - he was tired. He didn't want to fight Gentleschi and she didn't want to fight him but - neither had a choice. There could be only one.

<"I'll sleep for a week when this is over."> He said. Gentleschi's mouth quirked.

<"Or longer.">

Gaveedra smiled. <"Or longer.">

They moved away from the dead Champion to a clear space in the arena as the Audience above began to pick up speed.

<"Kill!- Kill! - Kill! - KILL!">

Some were shouting Gentleschi's show name, others his. The huge room thundered and roared as the Audience stamped and clapped and pounded their feet on the bleachers. It was a sound Gaveedra had heard for years; the Audience above applauding his sweat, tears and blood. It was the reason he was here - that Audience and it's endless hunger. It had chewed up six lives today with more to come. Always before the Audience had given him strength; their excitement and delight when he won a match set his own heart pounding. But now - he was exhausted and Gaveedra felt a strange spark of resentment. If the Audience wished to see blood spilled, why could they not do it themselves? It wasn't something he'd wondered before.

He pushed everything from his attention but Gentleschi across from him. She was injured too - limping and blood stained, her snug leather pants painted red from her hip to her metal reinforced boot. His own wounds had already stopped bleeding but he was one-handed. Gaveedra didn't know when, or even if, his thumb would grow back but it certainly wasn't going to happen in the course of the match.

Gaveedra shifted Roller's sword in his hand, not fond of the hilt-heavy balance. Gentleschi's gave flickered to the weapon and she gave him a quirk of a smile.

<"Roller won't be joining us?">

Gaveedra shook his head. <"We are the last.">

Gentleschi nodded and leapt. Gaveedra was tired, surprised, and barely fast enough to dodge aside. He swung at her as she went by but he hadn't adjusted to the different weight and length of his sword and missed entirely.


That was what made Gentleschi so very, very good. She never telegraphed. Even as she spun around and Gaveedra crabstepped around her, he still could not read anything in her eyes or body to tell him what she might do next. They both rushed forward at the same instant. Gaveedra drove a knee into her wounded side, punching at her face with the heavy hilt at the same time. Blood splashed his yellow leather pants and Gentleschi yelled, staggering, slapping his arm aside with the haft of her axe. They parted and crashed together again. And again. Again.

The parted, circling each other like wary animals, panting harshly. Gaveedra thought he had a broken nose - and Gentleschi had slowed him down a lot by raking that steel toed boot down his shin and nearly breaking his ankle - but she was tiring quickly. He'd been at her wounded side every chance he could get - neither had been able to get a weapon strike in yet - and blood was running freely down her leg. She didn't have long and she knew it.

If Gaveedra was more mobile, he'd simply wait her out but they were both lame now and Gentleschi was pushing the fight - hoping to take him down before she faded from blood loss.

The Audience was quiet above, the ones who paid enough to sit at the last arena were usually educated enough to follow the details of a fight. Occasionally, there'd be a shriek or a whistle as someone tried to distract them but Gaveedra was so used to that that it barely registered.

Gentleschi rushed him and Gaveedra was determined to take her down. He parried her sword, flicking his wrist to bring his weapon around. Gentleschi twisted, Gaveedra spun in a flurry of sand, going for another strike. Got kicked for his trouble, seeing the her looming to his right Gaveedra brought his sword around for a clumsy block and that put him in the wrong place.

The pain was so sudden that Gaveedra could only grunt and hit the sand. Hot blood rushed along his neck and bone grated where she'd sunk her pick-axe into his shoulder. Hitting the ground was agony and Gaveedra let out a raw shout. He rolled violently, feeling the axe jerk free from his shoulder in a hot rush of blood. Gentleschi was above him; he could hardly see for the dazzling lights and he was in no position to do anything. Gaveedra flailed out with his mutilated hand - unable to feel any pain from it over the pain in his shoulder - tossing a handful of sand up as Gentleschi bent to finish him off.

The old trick worked well enough - it made her dodge at least - and Gaveedra's fingers hooked into the strap of her boot. He yanked hard, struggling to bring his sword up despite the fact he couldn't really feel that arm anymore. It was really only luck as Gentleschi spun out of his grip and her bad leg chose that moment to give way. It was only luck that his sword wasn't ready for any kind of strike. She fell on it. She screamed and so did Gaveedra when she fell on him as well.

They both lay there, neither quite dead and in no condition to stand. Gaveedra could feel Gentleschi's shocked panting. He'd impaled her neatly through the lower back and gut - missing both spine and kidney. She might live to fight again. If only one of them could get up and - as the last gladiator standing - declare the match over before the both bled to death.

Gaveedra shoved weakly, wiggling in the sticky red sand. He wasn't sure if Gentleschi was even conscious. He hoped not. No one could expect him to kill an unconscious opponent. He was able to pull himself to his knees, then swaying like a reed, to his feet.

The Audience roared his name over and over while Gaveedra looked down at Gentleschi. Her eyes cracked open, vague and full of pain as she lay there in a pool of their blood. Blood dripped steadily off his fingertips. It was almost over.

Gaveedra dragged on his professional smile and lifted his hand high as the screaming of the Audience crested.

Shatterstar was the new Champion.

Gaveedra felt nothing but tired.

END (072003)