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Rin-zler ... Rin-zler ... Rin-zler ... !

The stadium trembled with a thunder that most of the residents of asteroid JA307020 had never experienced in nature, a steady drumbeat that made Sam's heart skip and jump uncomfortably in a futile effort to match. The chant was almost incomprehensible amidst the roar of thousands of voices, but there were few who attended these underground arenas that did not already know the reigning champion's name.

Rin-zler ... !

Sam swallowed in the thick air, feeling sweat trickle down the back of his neck beneath the jacket's hood. //I'm not sure this is the right - //

//Just wait. You will see.//

Conducted through bone directly to the inner ear, the siren's alluring accent was as clear as if she had whispered to him while cheek-to-cheek. He had to fight the urge to shrink away from the unexpected intimacy amidst the blood-lust of the arena, and in that pause, the tenor of the crowd abruptly shifted - just before he was nearly shoved right over the forward benches as the bodies around him surged in ecstatic howls.

Arms were flung up like wild grass before a storm, bodies heaving up and down in waves as the spectators cheered for their favorite. He could only catch glimpses of the arena floor at first; the flat, polished surface painted an almost blinding white.

Easy to see the players against. Easy to bleach clean after a game.

In still frames amidst the chaos, the arena favorite walked from a hidden entrance toward the center of the fighting ring - a lean, ghostly figure, limned in black and red, as if he was entering battle while already draped in the raiments of another, earlier one. There were streaks of carmine in the ragged thatch of hair - framed by the silhouette of a woman's raised arm, bangles glittering near her elbow - crimson splashes across one bare shoulder, serpentine swirls that danced in the brief space before a man's head tilted high and blocked them from sight. There was a brief divide in the arena's currents, as two shoulders collided and bounced apart, revealing a ruby gleam ... no, two. A pair of perfect circles, swinging in counterpoint, the diamondine edges even brighter than the scarlet gloves which clutched them.

//Two battle discs ... // he breathed, forgetting that the throat mike needed little more than a flex of muscles to transmit.

//I told you he was special, Sam Flynn.//

He twitched at the unsolicited response, resisted the urge to look back and meet those ethereal, khol-lined eyes; the small, secret smile. //He has to be Amplified, then - // No one wielded two discs, not without being either fatally distracted or losing one within seconds.

//He has a demon's eyes ... like drops of blood. Even more red than those of the albino caste in System 4.//

At least, no one unaided. And no one had eyes like that without Amplification. He could feel the itch of more than just sweat creep down his spine as he growled, //If you already knew that, why did you even bring me here - !//

//Shhh, patience, Sam Flynn! Watch first. Then I will explain.//

He though to make some comment on how much patience he had already exhibited in entertaining her cryptic leads, but by now, the champion had walked beyond the obstructive line of spectators and stood openly within the center of the arena floor. The noise was finally beginning to die down, and Sam would have expected their favorite to raise a disc to rekindle their fervor, but there was no further movement - just the too-small figure in the center of the white space; head bowed, shoulders slumped.

There was no confusion amongst his loyal following, though. Voices hoarse from their earlier adulation, the whispers began again, even as gates ground open around the arena floor.

Rin-zler ... Rin-zler ...

Six stepped inside the ring as the gates closed again. Two eyed all those present with uncertain shuffles and nervous hunches. Four eyed only the one who stood at their center. All were clad in the arena's black body suits, their vital stats splashed in holoprint overhead, identifiable by the unique stencils of light marking their torsos and limbs.

Even as Sam blinked upwards, additional screens flashed opened and equalized, displaying varying angles of the fighters themselves. Hovercams had been deployed, the fist-sized spheres gleaming as they swooped into the arena proper.

//He's going to fight them all?// he mumbled, voice thick with disbelief.

//No. There are always some who are not brave or smart enough to fight with the others.//

His brow knit. //What do you mean - //

The crowd abruptly pushed forward with a roar. Sam's breath caught, disoriented by the sudden sway of bodies around him, and he had to brace a hand against a shoulder before him though the man didn't seem to notice. Four opponents had suddenly sprung forward, their mouths open in matching rictuses, while two had hung back as the siren had predicted, facing each other instead with their white-rimmed discs raised.

A cam bravely shot between two fighters and darted past the arena champion as he raised his head. Sam blinked up at the holoscreens, and caught a single snapshot of those red gleaming eyes, staring right back at him -


- before the screen became a wash of blinding scarlet. Sam winced back, squinting, and even before the cam finished adjusting its levels for the actinic sweep of an activated disc too near, Rinzler was in the air.

The live editors stretched his leap into a surreal performance of aerobatic grace. He spun, back arcing, suspended for a breathless moment at the apogee, a disc slicing through the space where legs had been just a split second before. One arm unfurled, momentum shifting, hips twisting, and a disc left a crimson comet's trail as it sliced down. A foot lashed out, cracking across a cheekbone, sweat snapping away as the man reeled and, finally, Rinzler was down; one disc cocked back, the other humming in angry warning by his flank.

On the ground, in the ring, there was already blood splashed across the pale surface and one body lay unmoving, a second rolling drunkenly back to its feet.

Sam stared in numb silence while the people around him shrieked in approval. Rinzler's movements were preternatural, merciless, as florid as they were brutally precise. A battle disc, properly wielded, could slice through even ceramic armor like wire through soft cheese, and Sam had no doubts that Rinzler knew to the exact fraction of a degree a disc needed to be angled in order to accomplish precisely that.

//Is this what Amplification does for a human?// The red discs suddenly parted, streaking away from their wielder. A ragged cry was relayed through the stadium speakers as one buried itself in a fighter's shoulder and the other slashed past a dodging opponent as if in a near miss - just before it richocheted from the arena's warded boundaries to pass through the back of his neck in a spray of garnet drops.

//No.// Rinzler didn't even turn his head as he sprinted forward, merely stretched his hand out in a blind catch of the returning disc as he sprang. His knees slammed into the chest of his initial target, and even as the cameras slowed their toppling into something strange and serene, an intimate dance of savage elegance, he plucked his first disc from its bloody sheath, braced against their impact with the floor, and then slammed it home again. //This is what Amplification does for Rinzler.//

Three bodies down. Four. Five, as the two who had faced off against each other became one alone.

Sam had no more questions as the last two contestants stared at each other, the hovercams circling slowly about them like scavengers waiting for the feasting to begin. The champion's one remaining opponent has realized his mistake, and now, left with time to contemplate his inevitable end, took a step back with a visible tremble to his disc. Rinzler's head bowed in a strange, mute gesture - it looked like an acknowledgment, but Sam thought he tasted weariness in it - before stretching into a feral stalk.

The man broke, began to backpedal.

Rinzler lunged, stooped, launched himself.

Pale and dark limbs flashed through the air, struck, battle discs clashing with a screech and hiss amidst a shower of sparks.

A mercifully brief gurgle as one struck true.

A screen overhead abruptly winked out while the other cameras swooped and swarmed, rearranging themselves to reveal one of their brethren fallen, smoking and sputtering, a now dark and quiescent battle disc lodged in its body. The disc's edge was splintered, nearly sliced through, revealing glimmers of half-melted circuitry within.

The stadium shook. A single hovercam swung about, circling the undefeated champion, step-zooming in from a more cautious distance as Rinzler tilted his head back, arms sinking limp at his sides ... and Sam felt the breath freeze in his lungs, his heartbeat suddenly drumming louder than even the cheers; for once, leaning forward as eagerly as the rest of the spectators.

It was ouroboros that were painted upon Rinzler's shoulders, the eternal cycle; perpetual re-creation, forever at an end, forever at a beginning. There was an almost delicate lacework of circuit-like cicatrices down one cheek, glinting ruddy copper in the arena's show lights; tell-tale scarring from an Amplification that had either been rejected by the body, or that had been done in haste, with little care.

Another step-zoom, and near-invisible nanotubes beneath the skin - now traced by runnels of gore - were visible along the bare arms, running their length before disappearing beneath the scarlet controller gloves. The red eyes were half-lidded, almost torpid, unfocused; the champion as blind and deaf to his surroundings as if he stood alone in the arena, rather than in the midst of his triumph and worshippers.

Sam exhaled shakily, had to clench his hands against the tremor of adrenaline. The face lifted up to the lights, the camera, hair fallen away from features pared down to their hollowed foundations, was the face of Sam's guardian from twenty years past ... and Rinzler looked as dead inside as the corpses strewn by his feet.

He had to swallow twice before he could husk, //Can you get me to him?//

He did not need to look back to know those pale, perfect lips were curled in knowing satisfaction.