"Welcome! Welcome to the house of combat where death and life dance on the edge of the blade." Her voice was deep for a female and it carried through the Arena. "Let the Games begin!"
"Sophia," Saiman said. "The producer."
The woman disappeared back into the Gold Gate.
A huge scoreboard suspended on chains slid down from the ceiling and stopped just above the Midnight Gate. Two names written on white paper in beautiful calligraphy sat in twin wooden frames: RODRIGUEZ VS. CALLISTO. The odds beneath it said -175+200. Rodriguez was a slight favorite to win. If you bet on him as the winner, you would have to put in $175 to get back an extra $100. If you bet on Callisto and she won, for every $100, you'd get your money and $200 back.
"Both human. Mildly interesting." Saiman dismissed the scoreboard with a wave of his hand.
"The Reapers, Kate? I'm eager to hear your assessment."
"Both Mart and Cesare are fighters?"
"Have you ever seen them bleed?"
"Cesare. During a bout with a werejaguar, he suffered several deep gashes across the chest and back. Mart so far has been untouched."
I nodded. "Have you noticed how perfect Mart's skin is?"
Saiman frowned. "Its tone is quite even, but I don't see your point."
Not surprising. Someone who treated skin like clay he could mold and mash at will wouldn't realize the significance of a perfect complexion. "Pimple" was simply not in Saiman's vocabulary.
"Ordinary people have blemishes. Acne, bruises, blackheads, clogged pores, small scars. Mart has none. His skin is completely uniform and unnaturally perfect."
"Perhaps he has accelerated healing."
"I've seen shapeshifters with scars, and they regenerate broken limbs in a couple of weeks. A normal human's history is written in their skin, Saiman. We have training scars from before we got good enough. But he has none. How long since you first met him?"
"So he has been in Georgia since late summer. Have you ever seen him sunburned?"
"A man with skin that shade should develop a nice crispy crust after half an hour under Atlanta's sun. Why is he paler than a flowering dogwood? And have you ever seen him with a different hairstyle?"
I could almost feel wheels turning in Saiman's head. "No," he said slowly.
"Hair always at the same length?"
I nodded. "Let's talk about his buddy Cesare. Tattooed from head to toe?"
"Did you notice that all of his ink looks perfectly fresh? First, most people get tattooed over a period of years. A complicated design takes time. The process is ritualistic for many people and as important as the result. Ink fades over time, faster if exposed to the sun. All of his tattoos - at least everything I could see - were the same color, bright black. As if he never goes outside."
"Perhaps he simply planned his tattooing ahead of time and used sunblock."
"I doubt very much that a man could walk into the tattoo parlor and unroll a full body plan of tribal designs. In any case, you said he bled. Deep wounds would cause distortions in his designs, especially considering how intricate his are. A thickening here and there, smudged, broken lines. I saw none."
A troubled expression disturbed the handsome symmetry of Saiman's face.
Once blood, fluid, or any other tissue was removed from the body, the owner could no longer mask its magic. An m-scanner picked up traces of that magic and registered it in different colors: purple for vampire, green for shapeshifter, blue or gray for human. I didn't see the problem: take a blood sample, run an m-scan, anything not blue or silver meant nonhuman.
An m-scan was foolproof.
"Have you m-scanned them?"
"Several times. Both register blue. Pure human."
Odd. "The m-scanner is a hell of a thing to rebut," I said. "But the fact remains: you have two China dolls, one almost albino and the other painted with pretty black swirls. And they really don't like you. I'd get a bodyguard, Saiman. And I would warn him to expect unusual things from your attackers."
Two humans walked out onto the field. Rodriguez was in his forties. Short and wiry, he had chosen a short, curved kukri blade. Front heavy, it was designed to sink into flesh almost on its own. Callisto topped him by a foot and outweighed him by about thirty pounds. Her olive-skinned limbs were disproportionately long. She carried an axe. A silver chain wound about her right arm.
The gong tolled. Callisto swung her axe. Had she caught Rodriguez, the blow would've cleaved the smaller fighter open, but Rodriguez danced away, nimble like a cat. Callisto struck again, a diagonal blow that exposed her left side. Rodriguez refused to commit and dodged instead. The crowd jeered.
I leaned on the railing, tracking Rodriguez across the field. He had both experience and skill.
But a dangerous ferocity tinted the sneer on Callisto's face.
"Who will win, Rodriguez or Callisto?" Saiman asked.
"A hunch. She wants it more."
Rodriguez lunged. His blade hacked Callisto's thigh. Vermillion drenched her leg. I smelled blood.
Callisto snapped her arm. The chain swung in a pale metal arch and wound itself about Rodriguez's neck with unnatural precision. The end of the chain reared above the fighter's shoulder and at its end I saw a small, triangular head. Metal jaws came unhinged. Small metal fangs bit the air. Callisto pulled. The links of the chain melded into a serpentine body in a shimmer of steel.
The metal snake clenched its coils. Rodriguez chopped at it in a desperate frenzy, but his kukri slid off the steel body. He was done. The crowd roared in delight.
Rodriguez's face turned purple. He went down to his knees. The sword slid from his fingers and plunged into the sand. He clawed at the metal noose constricting his throat.
She just watched him. She could've stopped it at any point. She could've killed him with her axe. But instead Callisto simply stood there and watched him suffocate.
It took fully four minutes for Rodriguez to die. Finally when his legs stopped drumming the ground, Callisto retrieved her chain, its links once again mere metal, and shook it at the crowd. The spectators howled.
I unclenched my fists. It had taken every ounce of my will not to jump into the Pit and pull that thing off Rodriguez's neck.
I hadn't believed I could think less of Saiman. He proved me wrong.
Four men in gray scrubs emerged from the Midnight Gate, loaded the corpse onto a stretcher,