Around the middle of Year 4961, Standard Imperial Calendar, news of an extraordinary new gladiator began to swirl around the galactic perimeter. Quietly at first, whispered rumors and "Hey did you hear" (in various languages and forms of communication) around the water-dispenser. (Or the functional equivalent thereof, depending on planetary customs and species biology). That an extraordinary gladiator would be talked about was not rare. If a census could be accurately taken, the most common topic for conversations conducted in the Empire probably involved in some way or the other gladiators and their doings
But there were several things unusual about the news filtering out from Araneta, the planet where the Colosseum and the rest of the enormous infrastructure needed for the Games was located. (It was said that a great portion of the planet's economy depended simply on catering to the needs of the Games and the millions who came to be spectators. The quarterly reports submitted to the Imperial Revenue Service, most reviled of all Imperial departments, proved that it was true, and that without the Games, Araneta would most probably lapse into a feudal state of development within generations.)
For the first thing, the gladiator in question was only of Padati-rank. The gladiators were matched up against each other according to a rigorously-enforced hierarchy, and everyone, without exception, started off at Padati rank. Padati-ranked gladiators numbered in the thousands, tens of thousands, and fought the rawest battles in the galaxy. They were allowed no sort of modern weaponry or armor, only hand-crafted things made with natural and non-manufactured materials - leather and cloth and hand-forged metals (but that was rare) - hand-forged blades, clubs, and other melee weapons. They fought in torch-lit sandpits, not the vast, well-lit arenas of their higher-ranked brethren. And they died every hour, but no one really cared, because there would be a thousand more Padati-ranked fighters just drooling to have their chance in the pits.
Padati-ranked gladiators died quickly and easily, and there was no use getting excited about one until he had killed the requisite one hundred opponent gladiators and advanced to the rank of Rochus.
But this one - yes, they were whispering about her by the time she killed her fiftieth gladiator.
That in itself was already enough to indicate that perhaps this might be one of those who made it to Rochus. But she'd killed her fifty opponents - every one of them - in unbelievably short fights. Every single one, it was whispered, had been killed within seconds of the start of the battle, killed by throwing-daggers flung into vulnerable spots on the body. This had initially made her unpopular, in fact - such fights were boring and the audience was stunned and angered by the lack of spectacle. But victory is its own spectacle, no matter the way it was reached, and the sheer number and regularity of her wins compensated for the workmanlike way in which she achieved them. Still, they wondered - what stable would supply such non-crowd-pleasing slaves?
And that was the other peculiarity about her. Where was she from? The silver dragon twining about her left forearm was her stable-mark, and if looked up she was registered to the stable 'Silberdrache', but - what the hell was Silberdrache? There were no other slaves from the stable, nor had they appeared in any records before the mysterious gladiator began her astronomical rise up the Padati ranks. She didn't even have a name...
"The gladiator from Silberdrache," they called her, and then just Silberdrache, and finally at the end "Drache."
And all the while her kill-count racked up, steadily, steadily, and unceasingly.
Deep within the barracks allocated to Silberdrache, Tenten finally allowed herself to relax. She collapsed into a free-floating lounger, its airgel-filled depths automatically adjusting to her size and weight. She let her head sink into the little roll-cushion that had formed underneath it and stre-eetched, finishing off by going completely limp. It had been a hard day, and it was only here she felt really safe on all of Araneta. She'd been sure to scan for bugs before coming in - the outside halls were lousy with surveillance devices both organic and tech-based, but a clever double-blind system shunted their attention to an android version of her currently 'sleeping' in the bedroom assigned to it. Her opponents were baffled by the fact that all this unfairly lethal gladiator seemed to do was sleep, eat (lightly) and go out to fight. It amused her to make them think so - moreover, they then underestimated her.
She shook her head, feeling the heavy-silk filaments brush against her bare back. She wore a head-covering made from the mane of an Srinnsri female, which gleamed in the dark, was a thousand different shades of silver that ranged from storm-cloud to mythril, shimmered like fish-scales - and covered her ears. She'd had it molecularly-bonded to her scalp, and had to shave her own brown hair short - and it was a wrench - but for the sake of disguise it had to be done. It would burn like acid to have it removed, and her ears - despite the long-term anesthesia she'd injected in it - would be cramped for weeks. But - she repeated to herself - it must be done.
It must be done. Sometimes she felt that this ought to be the one-sentence summation of her life. She wore her tail wrapped around her waist, like a sash. Sometimes she taped it down her leg. No one knew she had one. She'd made a small slit in her skin and spilled the dark-brown nanoworms she used for disguise. They were rare, and cost her a good amount of credits to obtain from the R&D nano-labs, but they were worth it. They crawled underneath her skin, turning its color into a deep, faintly metallic bronze that was better than any dye or tattoo, before dissolving into harmless plasma in her body. She'd injected gold tarass-ink directly into her eyes, and now the flat coin-bright surfaces glowed faintly in the dark and there was no hint of the former color - nor that she'd once had pupil, iris and corneal. She'd clipped her small claws, wore false teeth, and in all other ways made herself look quite different, and unrecognizable as a Yongbax. She hated it...
But because she must bear it, for the mission, she did so.
There was a buzzing in her ears - the bone-induction speakers she'd had installed in her skull were vibrating, alerting her to an incoming comm. She sighed, debated muting the whole system, but realized that to do so was stupid - she couldn't afford to turn down potential intelligence. Her eyes glazed slightly as she slipped into the viewing-mode for her implant - her mind was able to handle the really good thought-recognition wetware packages, but she liked to use other input sources as well, just for back-up and to keep in practice. She flicked her fingers, and an elaborate key-console made of light glimmered in the air - she brushed her fingers through and across it like a pianist of Earth Ancient coaxing music from their ebony-and-ivory instruments. She didn't trust herself to send visual or audio data right now, and text could be ciphered and scrambled half a hundred different ways in an instant. Not that she expected her comm-signals to be breached, but just in case...
There wasn't really any new intelligence, just an anxious Lee - she'd left him flying her pride and joy, the retrofitted warship Soushoryuu, and monitoring things from a safe position in Araneta's lower orbital ring. Her first order of business when arranging things was always, always, to have her get-away ride readied. She sent him a soothing text and reminding him to make sure the Soushoryuu's engines were jump-ready, and then shut off the commlink.
Tomorrow she'd kill her hundredth gladiator. (There was no doubt in her head that she would) Then she would rise to Rochus. And from there on, gods be kind, to Ashva, then to Calvus, and finally Raja-rank. Once at Raja...
But those were thoughts for another day. She'd already laid in the plan, and she could go over it again once nearer to the actual event.
Drache went from strength to strength, rising through the ranks at the same insane speed. She got better, in fact, as the weapons-classes upgraded, taking time now to kill with flare and flash, fulfilling the class-challenges as if they were walks in the park. Her following now numbered in the tens of millions. Other stables had spent the same amount of credits - and killed unfortunate underlings - in a vain attempt to learn more about Silberdrache - both the stable and the gladiator that had taken the name. They hit dead walls at all counts, headed off by experience, intelligence, a Jayd'thi's psychic powers and - well, really, an utter lack of anything to find.
Half a standard Imperial year into her mission she was on the verge of reaching Raja-class, and the entire universe was watching. These included Ino, the Jayd'thi who had given her the mission to begin with, and the silent, shadowy figures who had contacted her in the first place.
"Are you pleased?" Ino murmured, as they all watched Tenten bounce around the Araneta Coliseum like a Janjayn simian high on uppers, twin vibroblades out and glowing with a thin veneer of energy-light. The crowd watching live at the Coliseum roared their approval as she landed behind the massive Bayn alien who was the last of the horde who had been ordered to kill her three days ago, which was the time this long endurance-battle had begun. There had been three hundred and fifty gladiators prepared to meet her, all armed according to Calvus-standards while she was given only a covering made of hand-tanned fur. They were dropped in the central plain of Araneta, far from civilization.
She'd slaughtered them all, and hunted the last one through the dark miles of Araneta's carefully conserved jungle back to the Coliseum, where he now bayed desperately for quarter even as she played with him - played like a predator who knew her prey was much below her level.
The crowd screamed for blood. She gathered herself and leapt.
"...very," came the low, smooth voice from the only chair in the room, voice intent as he watched the dark-and-silver Drache decapitate the Bayn with one cross-cutting slash of her twin blades (pilfered off her twenty-seventh kill and having served faithfully since then.)
"Very pleased," he repeated, as Drache stood triumphant over her last enemy.
Thanks to BlueGreenApples, Toboe, and JudoCreature for prodding me along to finish this! Without them, seriously, this would have languished forever. I realize I am not so much a review whore as a discussion whore. Forgive me. (bows)
The gladiator rankings are based off old names for chess pieces.