AUTHOR'S NOTE: Last chapter of this story arc. Yeah, it's a pretty short one.

Oookay, Sheila thought, her heart hammering in her chest with adrenalin, anticipation and fear. All I gotta do is beat her up until she screams for mercy. She looked at her opponent's face. Senefa's expression was calm, utterly without fear. It was not overconfident or haughty, it was simply empty. Yeah, right. I don't know what would make her scream.

Sheila twirled the staff in her hands, getting a feel for its balance. It was her mother's; Sheila's was back on Grunwald. It had been made of fine Tall Trees wood and immersed in a hardening agent that made it nearly as tough as steel. It felt light and strong in her hands.

Senefa pulled off her belt and withdrew the piece of metal from the holster. It was roughly about a foot long. She tossed the holster to one of the Elementals, then pressed a stud in the middle of the staff. With twin metallic thunks, the staff extended to either side, with a length the same as Sheila's staff. Ah, crap, Sheila thought.

Both women stretched and limbered up. A few of the Sentinels yelled encouragement and sent catcalls the Falcons' way, but the Clanfolk were eerily silent.

"Are you ready, warriors?" Malthus called out.

"Aff," Senefa simply answered.

"Let's do it," Sheila said.

"Then begin."

Sheila went into a stance, half expecting Senefa to come at her right off the bat. Nothing of the sort happened. Senefa simply stood, looking at Sheila as if the other woman had lost her mind, and waited. Sheila then began to stalk closer, her feet moving around, trying to throw Senefa off as to which way she was coming. Senefa moved out a slight distance so that Sheila could not trap her against the circle or throw her out of it with a quick shove. Senefa's movements were quick, but sure, each foot deliberately placed on solid, dry ground.

Total economy of movement, Sheila analyzed. Nothing's wasted. Even her breathing is perfect. Both women's breath steamed the cool air. Think, Sheila. That's the way the Clanners fight. Her unarmed combat is no different. Cold and calculating. Sheila smiled, and let it turn into a feral grin. Okay. Scream and leap offensive it is.

With a sudden shout from the bottom of her lungs, Sheila dashed forward, swinging the staff in an arc that would end at Senefa's face. Senefa had been holding her staff loosely in front of her, but her synthleather gloves cracked as she brought the staff up to block. Sheila continued forward and leapt, aiming her knee for Senefa's nose. Senefa vanished beneath her in a blur.

Oh shit, Sheila had time to think. Senefa had squatted , throwing out her left leg to catch Sheila's planted right foot, and using one of her hands to assist Sheila's momentum. Sheila managed to twist in midair so that she landed on her backside. She slid in the mud, nearly going out of the Circle. The Falcons let out whoops and bone-chilling shrieks.

Sheila quickly whipped around, getting to her knees, but Senefa had merely turned around and waited. She had a slight smile of derision on her face. Sheila grumbled a few choice curse words and stood, her once pristine white dress uniform now stained green and brown.

Sheila took a breath and ran at Senefa again, this time not shouting. The Clan MechWarrior stood her ground. Sheila threw a clumsy downward strike, but Senefa did not fall for such an obvious feint, merely leaning back away from it. Sheila, however, had anticipated that, and dropped low, letting go with her left hand, reversing the staff with her right hand to swing at Senefa's side. Senefa's metal staff sang through the air as it cracked into Sheila's, trapping it against the ground.

But Sheila had anticipated that, as well. She knew the Clans were also vulnerable to surprises. Senefa barely had time to look around as Sheila's left fist crashed into her mouth. Now it was the Clanswoman's turn to go flying, landing hard on the wet grass.

Sheila saw blood on her knuckles and resisted a wild, primal impulse to lick it off. Damn, she thought as she rushed forward, not giving Senefa time to recover, she managed to roll with that punch, and she's already kipping up...she's fast...

"I kin death for thee, Snowbird!" Senefa screamed, her bottom lip split. All pretense of superiority gone, she swung her staff at Sheila's midsection. Sheila countered, thrust back, and was blocked. Senefa next aimed for the head, had that blocked, as was Sheila's riposte. The sound of their staves cracked around the Circle. No one hooted or jeered now; they simply stood and watched as the two young women did their level best to severely injure and/or kill the other.

Sheila shot her staff forward again, expecting a block, but hit empty air. Too late she realized that it had been Senefa who had anticipated her this time, ducking the thrust and kicking upwards. Sheila easily read the pattern on the bottom of Senefa's boot before everything went black for a moment. Sheila threw a panicked kick out as she crashed back into the wet grass.

Feeling as if her head had miner 'Mechs probing for gold in it, Sheila staggered up to a sitting position, knowing she was too slow, expecting the impact of metal at any moment. None came, and she hazily saw Senefa lying ten feet away, gasping for breath in dry heaves. Sheila's hasty kick had caught the Clanswoman squarely in the stomach. Something tasted coppery on Sheila's lips, and she hesitantly felt her nose. It hurt, but didn't feel broken, though there was plenty of blood streaming from it. She wiped it off as best she could, and slowly got to her feet. Senefa, having hacked up what little was in her stomach, saw the movement and did the same. Both smiled at each other for a moment, a silent compliment.

Senefa popped her neck, spun the staff in front of her, and charged forward, incredibly fast. Sheila blocked a sideways swing and then an overhead one. As Senefa shifted to strike to the side, Sheila thought she saw an opening and went for it, swinging her staff at Senefa's exposed back. Too late, she realized that the Clanswoman had anticipated that, had even planned for it; she ducked and let the staff pass over her head, the wood plucking at her hair. Sheila had overextended her swing, leaving herself wide open. She thrust the staff straight out at Sheila's face. Sheila just managed to turn her cheek in time so that the metal tip crashed into the side of her face and not her teeth. She staggered, feeling as if her jaw had been broken, and Senefa, spinning with the grace of a dancer, swept Sheila's legs out from under her. The mercenary crashed to the ground hard, knocking the wind from her, and worst of all, losing her staff.

Sheila rolled over on her stomach, gasping for air, the world very hazy. Finally her vision cleared, except for a red haze of pain from a bleeding nose and a cracked cheekbone. She slowly looked over and saw Senefa standing five feet away, one polished boot on Sheila's staff. She held her own staff in front of her, smiling. She was letting Sheila stand up and recover. Senefa glanced at the edge of the circle, only a few inches from Sheila's left hand. The implication was clear: give up or continue to be beaten. Sheila might have, except for the triumphant smile on Senefa's face. Sheila wiped her lips free of blood, spit more of it onto the grass, and stood straight, determined to wipe that smile off the Clanswoman's face or die trying. She saw behind Senefa her parents and Max, all with looks of horror on their face. She walked a little further into the circle, giving herself some room, and went into a stance, holding her hands in front of her, side turned. Sheila could not resist giving Senefa a come-hither gesture. Senefa's smile broadened, either in respect, contempt, or just the prospect of further bashing the mercenary into the wet grass.

She did, too. Senefa moved forward again, swinging the staff. Sheila blocked with her hands and tried to grab it, but Senefa was too fast, withdrawing the staff just out of reach, hooking her feet behind Sheila's ankles and tripping her up. Sheila went down again, now bleeding from a shallow cut on her arm as well where the sharp edge of Senefa's staff had slashed her. Senefa leapt backwards, away from any riposte Sheila might launch. Instead, Sheila got back to her feet.

Senefa walked forward this time, spinning the staff, then swept it across at Sheila's midsection. Sheila dodged, slapping the staff aside, then blocked a vicious overhead swing that would have split her skull, crossing her arms. The impact reverberated up her arms and they went numb, almost as if they had been broken. Sheila staggered back, slipped on the grass, and fell. Once more Senefa pulled back, and once more Sheila managed to get to unsteady feet, coughing and bleeding. It took a moment for her to get her breath. The Falcons were screaming at Senefa now, yelling at their champion to finish off the upstart freebirth. Senefa looked down at Sheila, her smile gone. Sheila read the play of expression on her opponent's face: Senefa was beginning to feel foolish, like she was beating a puppy or a kitten. It was no longer a battle of equals. It was, simply, no longer fun. She looked towards Malthus, who inclined his head towards Sheila, in an obvious move that Senefa should finish the fight now.

Max, on the sidelines, caught the movement. He looked at Sheila, who was weaving unsteadily, her hands shaking with exertion, her once pristine white uniform now stained and bloody. He tried to press through the infantry. "I'm ending this," he growled. "She's killing Sheila out there."

Calla slapped his hand against Max's chest. "Wait a second." He had thought about ending the match himself, but then he had noticed something in his daughter's eyes. They were bright, but not with exhaustion. Arla's lips began to curve into a slow smile.

Senefa started forward once more, not twirling the staff or making any show of force. She intended to sweep Sheila's legs out from under her and this time stand on her chest, ending the fight for good. Sheila's eyes drooped and she blinked; Senefa, with a trace of pity, tensed to make the final strike.

And then Sheila hit out with everything she had. She suddenly straightened, planted her left foot, and lashed upwards in a vicious kick aimed at Senefa's head. Senefa's eyes widened at the sudden attack and instinctively brought up the staff to block. Sheila had thought that she might, and hoped that she would. Senefa's grip on the staff was still somewhat loose, and her mind was still adjusting to the fact that her opponent was not yet beaten. Sheila's boot caught the staff dead-center and kicked it out of Senefa's hands. It sailed into the air and came down in the Sentinels' side of the circle; Tooriu Kku simply reached up and caught it in one beefy paw. Senefa jumped backwards, nearly losing her footing as she did so. Inwardly, she cursed, knowing she had just fallen for the oldest trick in the book.

Sheila did not repay the courtesy of giving Senefa a chance. She leapt forward and tackled the Clanswoman, sending both of them sliding in the mud. Senefa squirmed and managed to turn over, but Sheila, who recalled a childhood memory of watching a strongman fight a greased pig, got an arm across Senefa's throat. Gripping her hands together, Sheila pressed upwards in a classic chokehold. She tried to dig her knee into Senefa's back, but Senefa was still slipping around too much. Sheila was close enough to see that the hold was having its effect, however; Senefa's face was turning beet red and she was gasping, trying to get her breath. Sheila tightened the hold, Senefa scrabbling at her arms. "It's over," Sheila whispered into Senefa's hair. "Just give up!"

Senefa said nothing, but Sheila abruptly realized that her flailing arms was not desperation. Senefa was searching for something, and found it. She dug her fingers painfully into pressure points on Sheila's wrist and elbow. Sheila yelped in pain and let go. Senefa got her knees under her and stood up with a shout of exertion, snapping her head backwards. Sheila had to stand up or have her nose smashed by the crown of Senefa's skull.

Sheila backpedaled for room as Senefa whirled, throwing a clumsy kick at her, still winded. It had its effect, however, as Sheila's right boot slid in the mud, nearly causing her to fall. Senefa saw her opening and took it, rushing Sheila, turning at the last moment so the mercenary's block was in the wrong place, and savagely ramming an elbow into Sheila's ribs. Sheila doubled over, setting her up for Senefa's follow-up, a closed-hand smash to the face. Sheila fell backwards, seeing stars.

Senefa tried to close for the kill, but slipped in the mud herself. She had to stop and catch her breath, her throat still bruised from Sheila's attempt to strangle her. Sheila moaned in pain as she sat up, facing Senefa only two feet away. "I know...I got...a rib...why...won't you...just...stay down!" Senefa huffed.

Sheila spit out a gob of blood. "Go screw yourself..." Sheila growled, then remembered the revulsion the Clanfolk had shown earlier. She took a chance, and grinned at Senefa through bloody teeth. "...you freebirth pile of shit."

At that moment, Sheila realized she had just pushed Star Colonel Senefa too far. The Clanswoman's eyes bulged and seemed to turn red. From the hissing she heard from the crowd, Sheila guessed she had just given a mortal insult. Senefa let out an unearthly shriek, leapt to her feet, and brought down her fist down in a brutal piledriver aimed at Sheila's throat.

Sheila's grin remained in place, as she realized something else: Senefa had lost control of herself.

The mercenary, still on her back, twisted in the mud and let Senefa's fist smack into the mud. Grabbing Senefa's arm with her left hand and using it as a brace, Sheila repaid the Clanswoman back in her own coin, putting everything behind a punch to the stomach. Even so, Sheila felt the other woman's stomach muscles tighten to take the blow, but it was enough to make Senefa crumple around her fist. Sheila tucked her legs under Senefa, who was gasping for breath like an asthmatic, and kicked her off over Sheila's head. Senefa tried to spin in midair to come up on her feet, but the result was that she landed on her face instead of her back.

Sheila, in a surge of adrenalin, continued the flip and came up lightly on her feet. She let the energy built up in the flip continue to throw her backward, aiming her elbow at the back of Senefa's skull. Senefa managed to squirm away, but this only meant that Sheila's elbow came down squarely on Senefa's forearm. There was the crunch of bone, and Senefa screamed in pain.

For a moment, there was only silence as the two women lay practically intertwined. Senefa's crushed arm was trapped under Sheila's body. The Clanswoman screamed again as Sheila rolled over the fracture and punched her in the cheek. She tried to get up, but Sheila pummeled her again, knowing that she had to render Senefa unconscious–or to kill her–before she would give up.

But the fight was out of Senefa. She had barely enough strength to keep her face out of the mud. Sheila grabbed her by the hair at her temples. "Damn...you...yield..." Sheila struggled out. She was nearly out on her feet as well. "I swear...to God...I'll drown you...in the mud..."

Senefa brought her uninjured hand around and gripped Sheila's right arm weakly. She tried to pry it off and failed. To Sheila's surprise, the Clanswoman began crying. "I...I yield," she whispered. "Stravag...I yield."

Sheila let go of Senefa's hair and weavingly stayed on her knees. She looked at Khan Malthus. "She says...she yields," Sheila puffed.

Malthus broke from the crowd and strode forward. He bent down on one knee and placed his ear near Senefa's. She said something too low for Sheila to hear, then her eyes rolled up into her head and she collapsed into the mud. Malthus carefully turned her over, motioned to one of the Elementals to come forward, then looked at Sheila. There was respect in his eyes, but there was also hatred as well, and Sheila knew that she had made at least one blood enemy that day. Malthus opened his mouth to deliver a curse, then thought better of it. Instead, he sighed. "Very well, Sheila Arla-Vlata. You have won the Trial. Second Try is yours."

The Inner Sphere side of the circle erupted in cheers. Sheila gave a weak grin, then limply fell backward into the mud.