The troll grinned.
"Keep smiling, pretty boy." I swung the swords, warming up my wrists.
Curran was eyeing the golem. The damned thing was silver.
"The golem is mine. Don't screw with my shit."
"In this Pit, everything is mine," he said.
The sound of the gong was like my heart exploding.
Magic sliced from Cyclone. The air accreted around me and clamped me down like a wet blanket, growing heavier, compressing, squeezing . . . The air lock. I froze. Across from me, Curran stood still like a statue, a small smile curving his lips. He recognized the spell as well.
The vamp flew across the sand.
The golem ran toward me.
A hard, cold blade of magic ripped through us. Somewhere in the stands a hoarse scream announced a Master of the Dead losing a vampire. Go, Dali.
The air clamped me like shackles and froze, fixing me in a death hold. Good enough.
Curran exploded into warrior form. A seven-and-a-half-foot-tall nightmare rose in his place: layered with muscle, dark gray, stripes like streaks of smoke against a velvet pelt. This time, instead of the awful meld of human and lion, a lion head sat on his shoulders, complete with enormous jaws. Only Curran could do this: keep most of his body in one shape while turning a part into another.
I launched myself into the air. The air lock shattered with a sound like torn paper. It was designed to restrain a panicking victim. The more you struggled, the harder it held you. But let it settle and you could shatter it with sudden movement.
The golem veered left, heading for Dali instead. Cyclone stumbled, momentarily woozy from having his spell broken.
The troll was on us. I darted close, under the troll's gut. Wood or no wood, he walked, which meant his knees bent. I thrust my swords between his legs and sliced the backs of his knees.
He didn't go down but he grabbed for me. That's right - look at me, you overgrown log.
A sick stench of decomposition spread through the Arena. My eyes watered.
The demonic monstrosity that was Curran landed on the troll's back. The awful lion jaws gaped wide and clamped on to the troll's thick neck. White teeth flashed, bit, sliding between the cervical vertebrae, and sliced the spinal cord like scissors. The troll's head drooped to the side, dark blood bubbling gently to stain his shoulders. Curran grabbed the skull and tore the head from the neck. His face snapped into the horrible chimera of half-human, half-lion, and he hurled the troll's head at Cyclone.
The mage made no move to dodge. He just stared, stunned. The head smashed into him, taking him off his feet. He fell limp. I whipped about.
Dali slumped inside the ward, her hands crossed protectively over her head. Her face and shoulder were wet with blood, tracing the long rip in her shirt. But the wound had already sealed.
The golem struck at her, his blades a whirl of metal, and bounced from the ward, each hit sending a pulse of burgundy through the spell. A pile of putrid flesh sagged next to Dali with a small rectangle of rice paper stuck to its top. A lonely kanji character glowed pale blue from the paper.
She'd done it. She'd taken out the vampire.
"You okay?" I shouted to her, too late remembering that she couldn't hear me.
She raised her head, saw me, and held out her thumb.
"Hey, tincan boy!" I barked. "Bring it!"
The golem turned, raising a cloud of sand into the air, and charged me. I waited with my swords raised.
He lunged. The blade slid by my cheek, fanning my skin. He was preternaturally fast. But it wasn't my first time. I matched his speed.
Strike, strike, strike.
I blocked him every time, letting his blades glance off mine. A familiar welcome warmth spread through my body. My muscles became pliant, my movements easy. He was fast and well trained, but I was fast too and trained better.
The blades became a whirl. I laughed and kept blocking. You want to go there? Fine. Let's go.
My only chance lay in tiring him out. It was hard to put a blade into a man's eye.
Unfortunately, that was the only part of himself he'd left human.
Minutes flew by, sliced to shreds by the cascade of gleaming blades. The crowd had gone so quiet, only the ringing pulse of our swords breached the silence. He couldn't keep this up indefinitely and I was just warming up.
Curran loomed behind the golem. The glance cost me - a well-placed thrust sliced my left shoulder.
"No!" I barked.
Curran clamped the golem in a bear hug, trying to crush his throat. Silver flowed and metal spikes punched from the golem's back into Curran's chest, impaling him.
Curran roared in agony.
The sound shook the Pit. Pain and thunder rolled and combined, nearly bringing me to my knees. In the crowd people screamed and covered their ears.
Gray streaks slid through Curran, eating up his fur. The idiot just held on tighter. The golem spun, his movement slowed slightly, his spikes still protruding through Curran's back . . .
The universe shrank to Curran and his pain. I had to break him free. Nothing else mattered.
I attacked, leaving a slight opening on the left side. The golem committed. He thrust, throwing himself into a lunge. I didn't try to block. The slender blade sliced between my ribs. Ice pierced me, followed by a sharp, painful heat.
I plunged Slayer's blade into his left eye.
It slid perfectly into a sheath of flesh. I buried it deep, putting all my strength behind it. A one-in-a-hundred kind of strike.
The golem's mouth gaped. His silver skin shook, draining from his body, and as it drained, a scream was born in the depths of his throat, at first weak, but growing stronger. Finally it burst forth in a howl of pain and surprise.
Curran broke off, snapping the spikes.
The last smudges of silver drained from the golem's skin. He toppled to his knees. I put my foot onto his shoulder and pulled my blade out. He fell facedown. I walked off, across the sand, and thrust my hand through the blood ward.
It solidified around my hand in a flash of red. For a moment a translucent red column enclosed Dali, and then it shattered, melting into nothing. I grabbed her and hauled her out of there. Behind us Curran staggered to his feet.
The crowd erupted. God damn harpies. I turned on my foot, stared at them, and yelled, "Fuck you all!"
They just cheered louder.
I marched out of the Pit.
At the gates, Jim took one look at my face and moved out of my way.
I stomped into our quarters, straight into Doolittle's makeshift hospital. Curran followed me, slapping the door closed. I whirled around. The beast melted and Curran stood before me in his human form. Black spots peppered his chest where the spikes had pierced his flesh.
I stared at him for a second and smashed my fist into his midsection, right over the solar plexus. He grunted.