The tungsten carbide flexed and burned like a muscle. Ben’s brain tracked the dispersed cloud of particles only because he knew them, had lived his entire life with them. They were a part of his body, but the effort burst blood vessels. Red liquid dripped down his nose and out the corner of his eye.
His mind had more difficulty tracking the blur of Ivan’s fist as it smashed toward his face, coated in titanium. The other bruises stung on his abdomen, on his forearms, the memory of impact recent and brutal.
Ben’s jaw tightened. Lips spreading, he bared his teeth and the tungsten carbide clenched to solidity. Ivan howled when his fist struck it midway through his punch. Ben dissolved the shield the moment the momentum of Ivan’s fist was spent, the effort making him grunt.
Ivan’s smile widened and he pummeled Ben with titanium fists, each strike mired in tungsten carbide that materialized around Ivan’s fist a moment before it hit Ben. “Better,” the tall man said, eyes wild, his voice carrying to Ben over the roar of the crowd. “Much better.”
“But not enough.” Roaring, Ivan swept Ben’s leg, flipping him onto his back in the sand. Ben glimpsed the ceiling of the Arena moments before a titanium coated heel smashed down onto his sternum. Spittle and blood exploded from his mouth.
Ivan stepped back and pumped his fists into the air. A wave of noise, thousands of voices roared in response. Ben couldn’t breath and darkness swept in from his peripheral vision.
“I don’t know what you think you’re doing,” Rice said to Madame Harmon. They stood over Ben’s unconscious body, which lay between them on the examination table. The Madame, clad in a silvery, elegant dress, eyelashes decorated with laminated butterfly wings, looked at Rice. Rice crossed her arms and continued, her gaze on Ben’s unconscious face. “He can’t fight. He looks pathetic out there. The mob is starting to get bored. Ivan’s going to kill him—”
“What’s your point?” Harmon asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Cut him loose,” said Rice. “Find someone else.”
“We’ve already obtained other nanoblade users because of his participation,” said Harmon, her elegant lips curling in a smile. “They have only agreed to play because they want to fight him.” Rice rolled her eyes. “Ivan knows this and will refrain from killing him.”
“It’s ridiculous,” said Rice, frowning.
Harmon shrugged her elegant shoulders. “As long as he’s making money, and I’m making money, why don’t you make some as well?”
Rice’s gaze slid to Harmon’s emerald eyes. “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em?”
“Why not?” said Harmon.
Rice turned to face the woman fully. “I will never, ever fight in your games,” she said, her voice quiet and serious, eyes steady. “I can’t stop Ben from doing this, but—”
“That’s not what I meant,” said Harmon, leaning forward towards Rice.
Rice blinked, her brow clenching. “Then what?—”
“I’ll pay you to train him,” she said.
Rice’s lips parted to speak, paused, then continued. “What makes you think I’m qualified to do that?”
Harmon waved an elegant hand gloved in jewels. “Please,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “If I know what happened in Burmata, don’t you think I know about your work for the Barter—”
Rice made a choking sound and waved her hands. “I got it, I got it.” Harmon fell silent, a slight smile curling her lips, and Rice glared at her. Twisting her lips Rice said, “You’re resorting to blackmail?”
“Well, not necessarily. Let’s just say if he wins, you’ll win,” said Harmon. Rice’s eyes narrowed, and she remained silent. The moments passed as she and Harmon considered each other. Ben groaned, interrupting the silence. “Think about it and get back to me,” Harmon said. She turned and left the room, closing the door behind her.
Ben’s eyes fluttered open. He groaned and touched his chest, which had turned an unpleasant blue and purple color. He withdrew his hand quickly. “Shiiiit,” he moaned.
“Cracked sternum,” said Rice, dragging her gaze away from the door through which Harmon had left. “I used a Hex frame under your skin to reinforce it for the time being. You should be okay on the shuttle tomorrow, but you’re going to feel it, probably through the deadening.”
“I can feel it now,” said Ben.
“At least he didn’t turn your face into a punching bag this time.”
“I feel so lucky,” Ben said, his voice faint.
“You should,” said Rice. “You’re ugly enough as it is.”
“Your bedside manner could use some work,” Ben said. He sat up with a wince and took the shirt she handed him.
Rice raised an eyebrow. “Sort of like your fighting skills? He was playing with you out there.”
“Well, it turns out survival skills and fighting skills aren’t the same thing,” Ben said. He considered the shirt he would have to pull over his head to put on. With a wince, he set it aside and reached for his jacket.
As she helped him with the sleeves, Rice said in a casual tone, “What if I helped you?”
“They’re one on one fights, Rice,” Ben said.
Rice rolled her eyes. “I mean give you a few tips, spar with you a bit. You know, practice.”
Ben’s shoulders sagged. “You’ll kick my ass,” he said.
Rice grinned. “Yeah, but then maybe Ivan won’t.”
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