Lady Mina left the room and followed Asten up the stairs to the seats that Heron had prepared for them, elevated above the fighting ring. Arden was already there, sitting beside Heron at the best seats in the house, arms crossed and face set in a scowl.
“Now, now, don’t be so disappointed, Arden, my friend,” Heron said, laughing as he noted Arden’s facial expression, “How were you supposed to know that Winson damaged his leg in the last fight, and can no longer move the way he used to?”
“But you knew,” Arden growled, then shook his head, “I suppose I should have known you wouldn’t make a bet unless you were certain.”
“Which begs the question,” said lady Mina, interrupting their musings, “Why did you agree to this ridiculous bet with Halifax?”
Heron turned to her with a gentle smile on his refined face, but in his eyes, she observed the shrewd calculations he was known for. “I made a bet because I am certain, my dear, what else is there to say?”
She sat down beside him, while Asten took his place behind them. Although the young man was obviously trusted by Halifax, none of them saw any reasons to treat him like anything other than an errand boy.
“If that is all you’ve got, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed today,” she said, accepting a cup of wine, presented to her by the staff, dressed in the same dark and green colors as in the gambling house above.
Heron had built his fighting ring below the place of his business, making these fights take place literally underground, as well as figuratively. Lady Mina took a sip of her wine, which was an exquisite red — Heron always did have good taste — and looked down into the circular ring below, currently being prepared by other staff.
The fight that had ended moments before had been brutal, which was evident from the amount of blood the cleaners had cover with fresh sand.
“You don’t seem to like him very much, this Halifax,” Heron noted, following her gaze to the ring, “And yet, I detect a note of worry in you. Have our ice-queen gone soft?”
She glared at him and scoffed. In response, Heron just gave her one of those scrutinizing glances that made you certain he was looking right through you. In the end, she decided it was better to deflect his attention, rather than meet it head on.
“If I am worried, it is not for him, but for us.”
“Oh? Do tell.”
She looked back down to the ring, where the preparations were being finalized. “Tell me, Heron,” she began, her gaze distant, and voice monotone, “Do you believe in fate?”
“Of course,” the man laughed, “I am businessman. Fate is my business, after all.”
He shrugged. “Business is all about risk and reward, just like gambling. I play smart, keep an eye on the odds, and take the necessary risk required. If I keep my wits sharp, I am rewarded with more wealth than I risked. Similarly, fate rewards those who invest money, time, and people in the right places at the right time; thus, one might say that business is a game of fate.
“I see. I suppose that is one way of putting it.”
“Why do you ask, My Lady?”
She kept staring at the ring, where the evidence of bloodshed had vanished into the coarse grains of sand, as if nothing had transpired. “I do not like the thought of fate,” she said, taking another sip, “Fate presupposes a plan, which suggests a planner. When I imagine the kind of mind that would think up the travesties of our world, I fail to even comprehend the capacity for cruelty such a planner must possess.”
Heron raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. “Therefore,” she said, continuing undaunted by his apparent skepticism, “I would much rather believe there to be no planner, than despair at the thought of there being one.”
“I suppose there is a point in there, somewhere,” Heron noted, dryly.
“There is,” she affirmed, and turned to look straight in his eyes, “I believe we have fallen into the hands of one such planner —one whose cruelty is fathomless and merciless— and whether I believe in him or not, from this moment forth, we are doomed to follow the fate he lays out for us.”
For a moment, they held eye-contact. On the other side of Heron, Arden looked down into his own hands, which were quivering. Behind her, she felt Asten stir and heard the distinct sound of a dry swallow.
“That is an extreme evaluation,” Heron said, his voice barely audible, “I hope for all of our sakes that you are wrong, lady Mina.”
“Believe me,” she said, tossing what wine remained in her glass into her mouth before repeating herself, “Believe me Heron; so do I.”
“Fighter’s to the ring!” The announcer called, breaking the silence that had crept up on. The moment of truth was here.
Hamelin walked into the ring with his head held high. His small stature immediately drew whispers in the crowd, who surrounded the circular ring behind a wooden fence. On the raised platform above, he identified Heron, as well as his newly acquired subjects, all sitting together.
Probably already scheming on how to get rid of me, he thought excited at the thought of betrayal. A true vexen enjoyed the act of unraveling a scheme against oneself almost as much as scheming against others.
He waved at them, grinning when he received nothing but Heron’s iron gaze in return. Something seemed to have put them in a somber mood, but there was a lot on the line in this fight, so perhaps it was to be expected.
Since they were being no fun, Hamelin instead turned his attention onto the his opponent. On the other side of the ring, stood a bull of a man, muscles bulging out like massive snakes circling his body. He was at least three times Hamelin’s size, with legs as thick as wooden logs, and fists the size of boulders.
All in all, he looked everything the muscle-head that Hamelin had expected. He did indeed go with Astoc, Hamelin thought, recalling the information he had gathered on Heron’s fighters. Astoc was an experienced fighter, having survived in underground rings across the kingdom for at least a decade.
He really wants to win that bet, chuckling to himself, Hamelin flashed his teeth to the brute. Astoc bared his teeth in return, smashing his fists together.
“From the north! The bare-fisted killer, Astoc!” The announcer called, earning himself a joyous roar from the crowd in return, “And from the south, the challenger…” The announcer halted, giving the audience enough time to begin murmuring among themselves.
“The rat king, Halifax!”
Boos echoed through the room, as most guests saw the results as a foregone conclusion. How could one the size of a child ever compete with a man like Astoc?
Besides the uneven match, his strange moniker was also causing a raucous. Calling himself the king of rats was a bit too melodramatic for his tastes, but Heron had insisted that he needed a title if he was to fight.
Shaking his head, Hamelin put up his fists and awaited the sign to begin. Astoc, meanwhile, stood with his guard down and a big fat grin on his face.
“Fighters, prepare yourselves…” The announcer called. Astoc cracked his neck, still looking pretty damn smug about himself.
Hamelin moved. With lightning speed, he approached his opponent. A rush of wind passed him by, as he barely avoided a kick. There was no doubt in his mind that receiving just one proper blow from Astoc was a death-sentence.
Weaving past the initial attack, Hamelin closed in on Astoc’s other leg. With a closed fist, he hit the side of the man’s knee, then escaped out of reach before he could be grabbed. Astoc growled and spit on the floor, then said, “You little rat. Just stay still and let me pummel you.”
“That would be bad manners,” Hamelin said, smiling.
This time, Astoc approached first, lowering his center of gravity. With such a massive difference in size, Astoc might have the advantage in power, but it meant nothing if he could not catch Hamelin.
That was the ultimate test of this fight; speed versus power. Hamelin knew he could not win through force alone — even if his strength was enhanced manifold through withermancy. Ultimately, the disadvantage in mass and reach meant he had to get creative.
Awaiting his moment, Hamelin stepped into Astoc’s reach again, avoided his attack and aimed a quick attack at the same leg as before. “You little…!” Astoc growled, not of pain, but annoyance. Even with his repeated strikes, there was little damage done.
With quick footwork, Hamelin stepped back out of the man’s reach and took a guarded stance. He could not rely on the luxury of a drawn-out fight, as he needed not only to win, but win in a dominant manner.
He had to show both Heron, Arden, and lady Mina what he was capable of, and Astoc was going to be his guinea pig.
“Oi, lardass,” Hamelin taunted, smiling viciously, “How are you so slow?”
“You think I’m slow?” Astoc bared his teeth, then rushed in with an impressive show of speed. Hamelin sidestepped the man, pivoting on one foot, dealing a third blow to the same knee.
Howling with anger, Astoc whirled around as well and swept his leg into a low kick. Jumping over it, Hamelin landed into a roll, using the momentum to spin around on his back and hit Astoc’s knee for a fourth time with his leg.
Another rush of wind passed him by, this time as he avoided a massive fist, which struck the ground with a heavy ‘crack’. The giant lashed out to the side, just as Hamelin jumped backwards, receiving the blow with his hands and using the force to send him back out of reach.
Making one somersault in the air, he regained control of his balance, retaking his stance. Though he had diverted most of the blow, his hands were still shaking from the pure strength of his opponent.
I suppose this is as far as I go in a straight fight, Hamelin thought. This was the first time he’d had the opportunity to test the limits of his training, since he had gotten this new body, and the results were disappointing.
“Humans are too fragile,” Hamelin growled, as he shifted his stance to a position on all fours, “It’s better to do this the vexen way.”