A/N: Entry for Rowan Rawr's Valentine's Day contest! :D Please review to let me know what you think about it - it'll only take you a second, and it means a lot to me :) You'll also see some Saga of Larten Crepsley characters and references in here - who else is so excited for Ocean of Blood next month?
"Hey! You, with the orange hair!"
Larten was decidedly opposed to anyone who addressed him as 'you with the orange hair', but as he turned to see his caller, he found it hard to dislike such a cheerful face. The vampire was shorter than Larten almost by a head, but his stocky build and general gait gave him the appearance of being larger.
"Hullo!" the brown-haired young man said, grinning from ear-to-ear. "'Name's Gavner Purl." Gavner put out a thick hand, which Larten slowly accepted in a shake. "Have you been at the mountain long?"
"Only just two nights," Larten told him. "My name is Larten Crepsley, and this is my friend, Wester Flack."
"Wester," Gavner greeted him with a handshake and an equally warm smile. "You two were this close to being the last ones to arrive for council." And Gavner held up two fingers to indicate just how close they had been. "But we're waiting for two more. Perhaps you know of Mika Ver Leth, the General?"
"Yes," Larten said, and Wester nodded.
"He and his assistant, Arra Sails, are taking a while," Gavner said. "Between you and me, I'd feel awful being the last ones to arrive for Council."
"I thought 'between you and me' statements were generally accompanied with a hushed tone," Larten grumbled.
Upon seeing the downtrodden look on Gavner's cheery face, Wester said, "Don't mind him. Larten was love-struck over an Arabian princess we met last summer, and when she left him for another man, he fell into a bit of a rut."
"Hurmph," Larten grunted, then folded his arms and stalked away.
"He doesn't like it when I talk about his personal life," Wester added, sighing. "Actually, since you're here, I might as well ask: are there many vampiresses around who might be able to take his mind off things? What about that Arra who's hopefully coming soon? She must be roughly our age."
Gavner chuckled. "Arra and I have only met once, but I feel I got to know her pretty well. I think she'd definitely be able to help him move forward."
"Oh, she's nice?" Wester said excitedly.
"I don't know if 'nice' is the word I'd use," Gavner grinned. "But she hit me so flaming hard in the head I couldn't remember my name for a damn month. But then, I'm only a half-vampire...maybe you two would take less of a beating. But I'd say, put her in a game with Larten and he'll forget that Arabian princess existed."
The Festival of the Undead had begun, and the Halls of Sport were wilder than a cage full of rabid hyenas. Wester and Larten stood side by side, anxiety-ridden and hesitant to partake in any of the festive hell that had broken loose. As it was not their first Festival of the Undead, they were not quite as consumed with the thrill of it all, and instead had decided to lay low and avoid any challenges that could embarrass them. Larten had secretly made up his mind to pick an equal-seeming opponent and challenge them himself later on, to prove to the others that he was not weak. He felt confident enough in his abilities that he assumed he would be able to win, but he'd insure it looked like a good match, at the very least.
Unfortunately, Larten was given no such choice. As the crowd of vampires lurking around the halls began to die out, Larten and Wester found themselves in sight of those who were fighting. The ground fighters - the martial artists, the spear fighters, the wrestlers - couldn't see them, but those who fought on the ropes or bars had an overview of the hall.
"What do you think they're looking at?" Wester asked, standing on tiptoes.
Larten had been drifting off into sullen thoughts and hadn't paid much attention to the world around him, but now that Wester called it to his attention, he did realize that quite a crowd had gathered just in front of them, facing the bars.
"I am not sure," Larten said. "But let us go see; it must be something worth watching, if it has a hoard of drunken vampires standing still to watch."
Wester snorted and the two hurried forward to join in the observers.
"What's going on?" Wester asked a small blonde half-vampire, who was standing at the edge of the group, looking out of place.
"Another fight's going to begin soon," the slight young man answered, gesturing at the bars. "They want to see if anyone can beat her."
"Beat who?" Wester asked, but the answer was obvious. A small dark-haired young woman stood on the bars, twirling a staff in front of her menacingly.
"She hasn't been beaten yet tonight," the blonde boy said. "And I don't think she will be."
"Why isn't anyone fighting now?" Wester asked.
"She wants to pick her next opponent carefully," said the blonde. "She said she wants an actual challenge before the night is through." The boy sighed as though the woman's arrogance and persistence saddened rather than annoyed him.
Larten, for his part, was silent as he watched her. He couldn't quite make her out - she was in the middle of the bars, several up from floor level, and it seemed as though her face had been hit more than once this night; half of it was swollen and bruised, and her lip was dripping blood down her chin and onto her shirt. But as Larten watched, she leapt down and forwards, more into view, and the flash in her storm-grey eyes sent the clear message that her staff would not be lowered any time soon.
Still looking the woman up and down, taking in all he could, Larten almost didn't notice when she stopped twirling her staff and tucked it under her arm. She reached one hand out and pointed, not at one of the eager vampires standing at the edge of the pit, but to the back of the crowd; to Larten.
The blonde boy and Wester raised their eyebrows at one another at the unexpected challenge. Before Larten could fully comprehend what was going on, he was being pushed and shoved forwards through the crowd. Somewhere near the front of the pack, someone thrust a staff into his hands, and then, only as he was thrown onto the bars, did he begin to come to his senses and realize what was happening. And he didn't like it.
Sure, Larten had wanted a good fight that night, but he hadn't wanted it to be against a woman. If he lost, the humiliation would be worse than he could cope with, and if he won, well, most would undermine his skill and point out that his opponent had been the young woman in front of him, a smaller, lighter, younger vampiress.
Now that he stood closer, he could see something of a smirk on her face. Feeling the need to introduce himself before leaping into battle, Larten bowed his head politely to her.
"I am Larten Crepsley," he told her, his head nodded.
"Arra Sails," she replied, "and if you hold that bow any longer, I'll crack you in the back of your head."
Larten straightened up and cleared his throat. "I apologize," he said, reaching out his hand for a shake, but Arra only whipped her staff from under her arm and leapt to a bar several feet up. "Very well," he said stiffly, retracting his hand and readying himself for the fight.
Several vampires on the ground shouted for the fight to begin, and Larten made the first move. It was a strategy he'd always thought to be effective: make the first move to intimidate your opponent. He jumped straight in the air, just as Arra had before the start of the battle, and landed a couple lengths in front of her. He landed sturdily and surely, hoping to see her twitch, or give any indication that it had at all rattled her. But instead, her smirk grew into a smile and a short laugh escaped her lips.
"You haven't been watching me fight, have you?" she said, and though she posed it as a question, everything connotation in her voice made it a statement.
"I cannot say that I have been, no," Larten said. "But no matter; I have fought on the bars before."
"But you've never fought me on the bars," she said, and she jumped up to the next bar. "I can guarantee you, you've never fought anyone like me."
"Oh?" Larten said, leaping up to join her. The vampires below were beginning to heckle them for more talking than bloodshed. "And what exactly does that mean?"
"I'm sure you'll figure it out," she said, and she chose that moment to attack.
Larten thought for sure that she was releasing some sort of special, signature move as she launched forward and crouched low to sweep out his legs. Making a quick mental note to congratulate himself later for his quick thinking and reflexes, he leapt yet again into the air to avoid the strike but this time, he didn't simply land on the bar above him. Halfway up, something collided sharply with his spine, and he was sent flying forwards, only managing to cling on to his staff with one hand.
He landed hard on the bar he had just tried to leave and had to wrap one arm quickly to keep himself from falling. Landing on his chest had knocked the wind out of him, and his back was spasming angrily from the blow of Arra's staff. He expected to feel it again in his side, to knock him to the ground, but no such strike came and he quickly clambered to his feet.
Arra had barely moved, but she was smiling at him now.
"And is that what you meant?" Larten asked, almost blushing when his voice came out his breathless gasps. "Because I was not defeated by your attack, which I will admit was tricky. But if that was the method you are accustomed to decimating opponents with, I am afraid it has not worked on me."
"'The method'?" she repeated quizzically. "Oh, if you thought that was my never-fail move, you are mistaken, Crepsley. I was merely adding interest to what is beginning to look like a very boring fight. If that had in fact knocked you down, I would have been very disappointed, and ashamed that I picked you out of the crowd, thinking you would be a good match."
"You are talking to distract me," Larten growled, beginning to grow frustrated with the fight.
"Am I distracting you?" she said, and she began to slink forward, her footwork catlike and barely making the bar quiver. "That's not entirely my fault, is it? You want to know what my mentor always taught me - I've always found it helpful in fights."
Without warning, she sprung at him, crashing the side of her staff into his floating ribs and causing him to shout as he once again soared back. "Pay attention to yourself!" she barked loudly. "Don't let others distract you! Focus on your opponent only enough to anticipate their next move, nothing more."
Larten landed on his tail-bone, and this time he was unable to grab the bar. He slipped off the edge and fell, landing hard on his left side on the stone floor below. He was only partially aware of the vampires around him as they began to cheer; Arra Sails had beaten yet another vampire. Larten groaned in pain and felt his face grow red as he sat up, directing his gaze from everything but the floor.
A pair of feet landed softly next to him and Arra crouched down and lifted the bottom of his shirt. She traced her fingers over the growing bruise where she'd delivered the final blow and Larten grimaced.
"Broken," she told him. "And your back is bleeding. Nothing you won't survive."
"I am sure," he said irritably. She offered him a hand to help him up, but as she had earlier, he ignored it. He got up to his feet painfully and took a couple steps. Wester and the two half-vampires they'd met in their time at the mountain - Gavner, and the blonde boy, whatever his name was - were hurrying down the ladder that led into the pit towards Larten.
"You all right?" Wester asked. "You landed pretty hard."
"I am fine," Larten said through gritted teeth. "It was not a fair fight."
"Don't be a poor loser," Arra told him. "I won, fair and square. If you have a problem with it, redeem yourself tomorrow."
"I will fight you again tomorrow if you promise to shut up and fight like a vampire," he spat.
Arra's smirking smile widened. "Fine. And you can promise not to be such an arrogant bastard."
He grunted, then slowly made his way to the ladder, wondering how in the name of the Vampire Gods he was going to feel well enough tomorrow to face her again.
"You know, you don't have to do this."
Wester was sitting on the ground in front of Larten's coffin while the latter sat on top and applied an ointment on his many bruises. Seba had guaranteed him it would reduce the inflammation in his muscles temporarily in preparation for his match that night. Despite the fact that Wester had had to tip his friend's coffin to the side just so Larten could climb out when he'd first woken up, Larten was set on making it to the bars to battle Arra Sails again.
"I know that I do not have to," Larten grumbled, wincing as his hand grazed across his chest. "I would like to regain some honor in fighting in a fair match."
Wester wanted to point out that there had been nothing unfair about the match, but he bit his tongue, sensing that perhaps Larten was not in the mood to be contradicted. "You lost no honor when you lost the match," he settled on instead. "I've been asking around, and it turns out, Arra wasn't just undefeated last night - she's been undefeated for the past two years. No one can beat her, not even her own mentor."
Larten grunted. "Mika Ver Leth is not built like a fighter for the bars. But I am slender and fast, with a strong center of gravity and quick feet. Besides all that, I should be able to beat Arra Sails based on age and experience alone."
"Sometimes age and experience aren't everything, Larten," Wester said, standing to help Larten get to his feet. The ginger began to walk stiffly around his room, trying to loosen his muscles.
"If not age and experience, than size and strength," Larten said stubbornly. "I will surely beat her, and if I do not, it is a fluke caused by the injuries she inflicted yesterday."
Wester sighed. "You know, she's right? You are one bull-headed, arrogant bastard." He gave Larten a teasing grin. "I've got to go talk to Seba, I'll see you at the fight."
Larten nodded at him as he left the room, then tried to start stretching out: one more hour, and he'd be facing the vampiress he'd found himself obsessed with beating.
The hour passed faster than Larten could have imagined possible, and he soon found himself limping rather quickly to the Halls of Sport for fear of being late. Halfway there, a familiar voice called to him.
"Oi! Need a hand? You look a little sore."
"No, thank you," Larten said, turning to see Gavner and giving him a tight smile. "I am fine."
"You still want to fight her again?" Gavner asked incredulously, falling into step beside Larten and holding his hands up slightly, almost as though preparing to catch Larten should he topple over. When Larten nodded, Gavner snorted. "Ha! You're mental. She's going to kill you even worse than yesterday, if not for the fact that you told her to fight like a vampire, because you're already a bloody mess."
"I do not understand why you all doubt my capabilities," Larten grunted. "I am perfectly suited to beat her."
"Mmhm, sure you are," Gavner rolled his eyes. "Good luck, mate. I hope you'll pull through."
"Thank you," Larten said, exaggerating the contempt in his voice and making Gavner chuckle.
The Halls of Sport were considerably less crowded than they had been the previous night, but it seemed a sizable crew gathered around the bars, presumably to watch the undefeated Arra Sails take on the beaten, broken, and doomed Larten Crepsley.
When Larten hopped onto the bars, staff in hand, he looked around for Arra, but she was nowhere to be seen. A funny zing in his gut made him think that maybe she'd decided she wouldn't be able to beat him and would no-show. That wouldn't be an honorable thing to do, and Larten realized that he was actually looking forward to fighting her almost as much as he'd looked forward to beating her.
No sooner had the thought process ended than the vampiress herself sprung onto the bars across from him, holding the same staff she'd used yesterday under her arm. "'Evening," she greeted him, a gleefully victorious look already on her pale face. "You're a mess."
"Good evening," he returned politely. He wanted to remind her that she hadn't beaten him yet, so she should wipe the grin off her face, but he didn't want to still sound bitter from last night's spat after their fight. "You look remarkably tidy for one who was hardly distinguishable last night."
"Showers do that to you," she told him, winking, and though it caused a little flutter deep in his stomach, he completely ignored it. "I wanted to clean up, so we could see just how much damage you can do. I'll give you some bonus points if you can give me some bumps and bruises."
He took the comment in his stride. "I will not need points when I have beaten you. But perhaps it will be nice to know what my opponent truly looks like."
It was true that the she looked different: now that the blood and majority of swelling had gone away, she looked like an entirely new person. While she bore some scars, probably just as many from Vampire Mountain battles as real fights, her face was softer than any of the male vampires Larten had ever seen. He'd never looked especially closely at vampire females, but he knew none of them looked quite like Arra. Granted, all the vampiresses he'd met were old friends of Seba's and on the older side, but still, Arra held a bit of human-like attractiveness. At least, he thought so. But he reminded himself that she's cleaned up just for this match - maybe she was trying to use feminine charm to distract him? She didn't seem like the type who'd even consider sinking to that level. Maybe she was doing it to mock him. That seemed more like it.
"You ready?" Arra asked. "I've got things to do after I've knocked you on your ass again."
"You mean, you have places to be taken on a stretcher once I have shown you what I truly have to fight with," Larten said, smiling. He was beginning to feel confident and more comfortable; Seba's remedy cream was helping.
"We'll see," Arra said, flashing a smile back at him.
They readied themselves, taking a couple steps back and staring each other right in the eyes. At the very least, her eyes were recognizable from last night's battle; they were still the mysterious, almost marble-like grey.
The fight began this time with Arra swinging the first blow. She launched herself forward and struck towards Larten's head - it was a slower swing than it would have been had she been trying to knock him down immediately, but she wanted to feel him out, test him; she hadn't learned much about him last night, apart from the fact that his ego got in the way of his fighting.
Larten saw the strike coming and was able to lean back and let the end of the staff only just miss him. Arra launched back again as he took a swing at her knees.
"I could see that strike from a mile away," he told her. "If you think you can beat me with slow swings like that, you..."
"I thought you didn't want to talk during this match?" she interrupted, and Larten shut his mouth immediately. "Good," Arra nodded. "Let's make it a silent fight."
Silent fight it was. For the next several minutes, the two exchanged a number of blows, occasionally nicking each other, but doing no damage. Larten felt better and better as they went on. He wasn't giving it his all just yet, and he felt as though at any given moment, he could spring forward and finish the match. He had no intentions of doing so early on; that was, not until Arra's staff collided sharply with his already-broken ribs and he let out a holler of pain. As he partially doubled over, he saw her spring forward, ready to finish the fight, and he made his strongest move yet, flipping the tip of the staff up sideways and feeling it catch behind her knees. Her staff left her hands, and as her legs flew out in front of her and she spent a millisecond in the air, Larten thought that he had just won the fight. But somehow, as she fell to the bar she'd been swept off of, she managed to twist to her stomach and had reached out for his staff. Determined not to be disarmed, Larten tightened his grip, only to have her give it a violent twist. Had he not been so intent on ending the fight with the weapon in his hands, she would have merely been holding his staff as she landed on the edge of the bar and slid off to the ground. But instead, as his hands clenched around his staff, the strength of her twist sent him sprawling to the side, while it stalled her long enough to get her feet under her and onto the bar. Larten stumbled off the edge, and before he could comprehend what had happened, he had landed flat on his back on the rock hard ground.
"Friendly advice?" Arra's voice called down from the bars above, and she slowly hopped her way down from bar to bar until jumping down to stand once again next to her defeated opponent. "In the future, don't be so damn cocky. If you get over your ego, you might actually beat me in one of ten. That's a compliment."
"You are a natural sweet-talker," he sneered sarcastically and made to get up, but he was unable to pull himself off the ground.
The Festival of the Undead ended while Larten rested in his coffin. One or two broken ribs he could live with, but Arra had snapped his six lowest in their latest battle. It would only take them a week or two to heal completely, and he knew exactly what he planned to do once they were better. Though Larten hadn't seen her since their second battle, he'd heard through the general mountain chatter that Arra had mentioned offhandedly that she would fight him as many times as he wished. He wished to fight her as many times as it would take to win.
Two weeks after their first battle, he challenged her to another - another battle he lost. Three nights after that, he lost to her for the fourth time. A week later, his fifth loss. During their latest battles, hardly any words were exchanged. Larten would appear in the Halls of Sport, and she would either be there already or appear shortly after. They would greet each other curtly, fight, and when Larten hit the ground, she no longer went to talk to him.
It was an obsession. An obsession with winning. No, an obsession with beating her. Larten felt as though it had become his sole goal in life. It wasn't as much a tear-down of his confidence, as she often seemed to think, but rather an annoyance. He refused to fight anyone but Arra.
Eventually, their matches became a nightly happening. Larten would wake up, stretch out his now permanently sore muscles and ignore the pleas of Wester and occasionally those of Gavner and Kurda, the blonde boy he'd spoken to before his first match with Arra, that he should give it a rest. Once he'd eaten, he'd go to the Halls of Sport, which he would inevitably leave anywhere between five minutes and an hour later, once again defeated.
"You know," Arra's voice sounded hazy as Larten lay face down on the floor, regaining his consciousness bit by bit, "you're the most persistent opponent I've ever fought. Usually, after a couple matches, they give up, at least for a while."
"I am not a quitter," Larten told her, pushing himself up onto his hands and knees, and then shakily up to his feet. "I should have beaten you by now."
"Yet there you stand, about to pass out," Arra smiled, and she reached out and grabbed his elbow to prevent him from falling over as he gave a particularly violent sway. "Really, I think you need to take a break. Give it a couple months, recuperate. I'll even help you train." She winked, and Larten growled at her and her damn condescension. "You can come back and fight me later. I mean, I'm obviously not going anywhere." She laughed, and it made Larten's chest tighten - irritation at her, he supposed it was, but for some reason, it wasn't the feeling he was used to when mad.
"I am not giving it a break," he said flatly.
"Fine by me," she shrugged. "See you tomorrow night, then." And she jumped back on the bars to take on another opponent.
It was the closest thing they'd had to a conversation since their second match, and it had only made Larten feel worse. The tightness in his middle wasn't going away, and he found himself unable to think about anything but the next time he would see her - their fight tomorrow.
Tomorrow came too quickly for his muscles and too slowly for his head. Larten didn't sleep that day at all, and when Wester sat up and stretched, Larten took that as the signal that it was night again and time to get himself up.
"Fighting Arra today?" Wester asked automatically. This was how every night started, with Wester asking the obvious question.
"Yes," Larten answered shortly, as usual.
But rather than Wester trying to convince him that he was being stupid and stubborn, as he did most nights, he instead stood still and silent and watched as Larten readied himself. Eventually, Larten became aware and Wester's unwavering eyes on him, and he turned, hands out to the sides questioningly.
"It's just - you know what I'm thinking?" Wester said. "You know what - or who - you've forgotten about?"
Larten stared blankly at his good-as brother for a few seconds in complete silence. "No," he said finally. "What are you talking about?"
Wester smiled. "If you can't remember, I'm not reminding you. I was getting sick of your brooding. Not that I especially like seeing you beaten to a pulp every night, but it's preferable."
Larten grunted and turned away from Wester, continuing to ready himself.
"You know," Wester started again, sounding a bit held back, as though he was trying to find a way to correctly package what he was about to say. "Maybe it's not beating Arra you're obsessed with."
Larten felt the invisible fist that had been clenched around his insides since last night give a squeeze. "What do you mean?" he asked Wester.
"I mean, maybe this obsession of yours doesn't have to be quenched by fighting her. Maybe it's just...you know..." Wester swallowed down the smug grin, "...her that you're obsessed with."
Larten looked at Wester for a moment. "Absurd," he said finally, and the fist had suddenly become so tight that he wheezed out the word.
"No playing around today," Arra told Larten, her first words to him as he jumped up onto the bars. "I'm not giving you any breaks; I'm not in the mood."
"I would not expect you to," he bristled. "What has you in such a huff today?"
"Mika," she said, and the tone of her voice when she spat her mentor's name made Larten wonder what had happened. "We had a bit of a spat yesterday." She gave her staff a furious twirl and flicked the long fringe of her hair out out her bloodshot eyes, around which were dark circles. If Larten didn't know her better, he'd almost have wondered if she'd been crying. She didn't look well; her shoulders were slumped and her hair thrown up so haphazardly that she'd missed entire pieces of it when tying it and they hung limply down past her shoulders.
"Oh?" he said. "What about?"
"It's a long story," she sighed. "But nothing new. We've been arguing a lot lately."
"Really?" Larten said, putting one end of his staff on the bar beneath him and leaning against it. "You are a full vampiress and completely capable of taking care of yourself. If you are unhappy with him, then you have more than a right to go off on your own, without him."
"I do," she sighed again. "And I did, for a while. It was why we were late coming to Council. I left one night, on our way here, after an argument, and he waited for me to return. He knew I'd come back. I always do." It didn't look like that particular quality was something she was proud of. "I don't know why."
He wanted to ask her what it was that she and Mika argued about so much that it would drive her to leave - and then, what compelled her to go back - but he thought that she might not appreciate it. Instead, he asked, "Are you all right? You do not look well."
"Perfectly fine," she said shortly.
"Really?" said Larten skeptically.
"Mm," she said, her lips pressed into a thin line.
"Are you perhaps not in the mood for a battle this evening?"
"No, nothing would please me more than to hit something so hard that I knock back a couple centuries," she snorted.
"Well," Larten said, half of his mouth curling up, "must that something be me?"
Arra almost smiled at him, but instead shook her head. "Not necessarily. Anything would do. You, a rock, it makes no difference to me."
"In all truthfulness," Larten said slowly, and his mind began to drift to what Wester had wondered earlier that evening, "I am not sure that I have a zest to attempt to beat you anymore. I do not know if I can."
"I know the answer to that," she said, and this time she did smile.
He grunted, but he realized that really, her words didn't bother him as much as he'd once thought they did. She was just being Arra. And, of course, she was right...
"Perhaps tonight, instead of a fight, we can declare you the winner and save ourselves the trouble of a battle? Maybe we could get a mug of warm blood and I could help you resolve some of your problems with your mentor. I am good at things like that." Actually, he wasn't - Wester was the one who always bailed him out when he got on Seba's bad side, but he thought he would be all right when it came to helping someone else.
"Doubtful," Arra said. "He's very...persistent." Then her frown soften as she looked at Larten. "Well," she said, shrugging a shoulder, and to Larten's surprise, a bit of a smile appeared on her face, "actually, maybe you could, eventually."
"Well, then," Larten said, hopping down off the bars with a grin and motioning for her to follow him, "what are we waiting for?"
As she tossed her staff to the side leapt down to join him, the squeeze in Larten's chest began to gently fade away.
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