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.
"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."
"ALL RIGHT, GENTLEMEN."
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.
WE DELIVERED THE GIANT TO DURAND'S ROOMS under the pretext of Durand wanting to meet him. Inside Saiman sank onto the opulent bed. His body shuddered and assumed the shape of Thomas Durand. He closed his eyes and fell asleep. I covered him with a blanket and we were off.
We left the Arena without any incidents, mounted, and headed back to Downtown.
Jim rode as if he were wrapped in barbed wire: stiff, shoulders rigid, keeping as straight and immobile as he could.
"That horse deserves a medal for not throwing you."
A torrent of obscenities washed over me. Having spent a considerable amount of time in Jim's company before, I was able to distill the gist of his displeasure from his filthy tirade: if he had known the tech was going to hit, he would've brought a gas-guzzling vehicle instead of two pieces of meat with skinny legs and a hysterical disposition.
We veered south and circled Downtown, aiming for the south end of Unicorn. The Reapers always headed north in a straight line. Chances were, they might have caught a whiff of our scent, but would suspect nothing when it turned right, away from their route.
We made it there a few minutes after four. The sunrise was still a long way off. Ahead Unicorn lay, a blighted scar on the urban surface. Crumbling office towers, twisted and gutted, sprawled on their sides among the rubble, like sterns of damaged ships about to sink into the stormy sea of mangled asphalt. Moonlight glittered on the piles of shattered glass, the remnants of a thousand broken windows. Yellow hairs of toxic Lane moss dripped from abandoned power lines, feeding on metal.
Several blocks from Unicorn the terrain grew too rugged for horses. Unlike the northern end, where streets sometimes ran almost right up to Unicorn, here debris choked the passageways, making islands of gravel in the rivers of sewage. The stench brought tears to my eyes. I'd never had a burning desire to wear a used diaper on my face, but I'd imagine the effect on my nose would have been very similar.