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God and Mind - Volume III - Freedom
By Dark

Presented by: Xenogears: God and Mind

Chapter 29
Brave Battlers

     Pain! Clear and unequivocal pain, roaring and flaming like the many gouts of fire that had so recently thrust their way from his crippled gear.  Fei opened his eyes quickly, as if by letting the light in to his tortured mind he could sooth the roaring and tearing agony gnashing at his body.  
     He groaned, a low wounded sound.  Then suddenly something swam into vision, a yellowish blur with two black holes and a black fringe, and the glint of light on glass.  Behind it was hard luminous whiteness and a sharp cool antiseptic smell.  A voice spoke --- but Fei's pain fogged fatigued mind was too tired to try and place it.  
     "Fei? --- Are you alright? --- can you hear me?"
     Then like a light going out Fei's mind sank back into the dark haunted world of dreams, as in the medical bay Citan watched his pupil's wounded body twitch and moan in the throws of some black, fear saturated nightmare.  

*  *  *  *  *  

     Far below the medical bay, the sewer was dark, a soft, wet smelly blackness, it's brick walls dripping with condensation and it's sometimes deep waters green and rotten.  Here and there a rickety wooden bridge crossed the main stagnant stream, their timbers wet with moss and filth.  Down here though, as every Kislevian Prisoner knew, in these fowl bee-hive tunnels of filth and stink were the riotous, mutated creatures whose corpses could bring a brief bundle of Galrays to enrich a dull gray life.  So often these passages were filled with battler striding confidently through the muck, hands on crude weapons or readying ether spells, searching for the misshapen monsters --- even as the monsters scavenged for food --- human or otherwise.  

Heinric pulled up his studded leather gloves and shrugged his shoulders, making the chain-mail shoulder guard tinkle like the small drip drip of water that surrounded them.  
     "The kid's still alive ---" Leonardo glowered ahead into the gloom and stamped his booted feet on the slick bricks of the floor.  
     "Then that's your damn fault ya' fool --- ya' didn't fix that Gear properly."   The blue clad battler leaned forward, his face intent beneath its headband.  
     "I damn well did --- it's that Gear of his --- it's something else Leo."   Leonardo glowered even more, the slight light of the torches the two men carried casting his hard face into shadow and giving him a distinctly villainous look.  
     "Well if you'd done it properly maybe the Champ wouldn't 'ave got us down here beastie huntin' --- he don't like goof ups, 'specially when he didn't order 'em."   Heinric nodded in sympathy, Rico's ire was well known and feared in D Block.  
     "This is a special beastie ---" He said in a brighter tone than he felt.  "--- Got rid of two C Rankers tonight --- well something got 'em."  
     Leonardo gave a grunt of acknowledgement and continued gloomily on.  
     At the end of the watery passage they were in there was a fork, one maw opening hungrily to their left, slime dripping from its rough lintel, and a shaky bridge leading across the sluggish scummy stream to the right to where another passage gaped blackly, the light unable to penetrate it's shadowy jaws.  
     "Look man --- maybe we'd find this baby quicker if we split" Leonardo nodded curtly.  "--- okay, but I got a bad feelin' --- "
     "--- ya always getting' bad feelin's Leo, --- quit spookin' me.  You go down there and I'll take the bridge."   Henric jerked his head to indicate the tunnel and without any more complaints Leonardo slouched off into the slimy darkness, Heniric's light dwindling behind him.  He thought glumly of his still not quite healed arm and how much good punching out some dub critter down here would do it.  But the Champ had ordered so he had to obey, that was the way things were --- and he needed to get back in Rico's good books after the disastrous failure of his own sabotage plot --- the Champ hadn't liked that at all.  
     Suddenly, the watery silence was unmistakably, horribly shattered.  Heinric's thin agonized scream tore hollowly around the brick passages, a wrenching, ripping noise of uttermost pain.  
     Leonardo turned, Heinric was his pal, he had to help him.  Recklessly, he charged down the passage, careless of what might be waiting in the dark, flashlight bobbing sending random flickers across the brick, his feet scuffing up a fowl spray of droplets to settle on his leathers like fungal spores.  Then he reached the tunnel entrance.  Across the bridge was a sight that made even his hardened battler's blood run cold.  
     Heinric's body, torn beyond recognition, a mist of angry blood making his blue overalls dark and sodden as if he had been bathing in crimson mud.  One arm was almost completely severed, and the battler's face was nothing but a gory mask of flowing wounds.  Worst of all, from the little whimpers and gasps that he was making Leonardo knew that his friend was still alive.  He walked forward warily, mind reeling but steps unsure, what could have done this to Heinric --- what --- Then with horrible swiftness something dark rose from the water, Leonardo had a brief impression of something small and viciously fanged, then with murderous speed he was seized --- and the last few minutes of his life were nothing but a blur of teeth, blood and dark, fowl water.  

*  *  *  *  *  

     Once more Fei woke with pain as his companion.  But this was no slow slide from sleep into dim consciousness, no reconnection of nerve upon nerve to form the aggregate of senses, Fei was catapulted out of sleep and into a pain filled haze without warning --- and as often happens when a sleeper awakes with a sudden jolt, his mind held an abrupt dark amorphous mass of confused fear.  
     Most of the pain he found seemed to be in his head, so he raised one tentative hand to his temple, feeling the smooth coolness of sheets brush against his wrist.  His body was free of pain but his head felt almost ready to burst, like a balloon stretched tight with too much air.  He opened his eyes and with one quick glance saw the familiar medical bay with it's neat clinical order, the small stove, sterilizing apparatus, racks of medical supplies --- and bright, too bright lights.  He squeezed both eyes shut and uttered a small groan, trying to force his tortured mind away from the immediate sensation.  
     After a minute --- or maybe an hour, there were footsteps clacking on wooden floorboards in dull regular thuds.  Then a voice --- familiar abstracted and sounding just a little hoarse in its attempt at cheerfulness.  "Are you conscious Fei?"
     Fei groaned again --- why wouldn't Citan leave him alone?
     "Head ache --- not surprising after the concussion --- and also the etheric and pharmacological treatments I had to perform --- but it was necessary."  
     Fei's mind fealt sluggish and slow as an Aveh sand worm.  What was his friend talking about --- why couldn't Citan talk normally for a change.  "Con---cush---sion?" Fei could almost see the Solarian doctor's frantic expansive hand movements as he attempted to explain; though the young man kept his eyes prudently closed, Citan would be waving his green clad arms about like some ungainly windmill powered by hot air.  
     "Concussion --- minor impact on the upper cranium --- mild formation of humeral protective swelling and bruising causing slight increase of pressure in the maningi fibers --- you got knocked out.  Don't you remember?"
     Fei forced his slow moving mental faculties backwards.  For one heart stopping moment he was brought back to Lahan and the black wall of amnesiac stones that fenced his ego away from his past life --- even as he was always barred from returning to Lahan village.  Then with sudden relief he began to remember, memory after memory trickling back, the battle with Leonardo, his hands firm on the gear grips, then the slowly escalating howl of Weltall's engines and that hard pinnacle of rising heat and then --- nothing."  There was an explosion!" Fei gasped and tried to sit up, but like a quick and violent blow from some invisible opponent he was forced back down with the word explosion ballooning across his mind dragging with it the associated image of mushrooming fire and destruction.  
     "Yes --- it appears that Weltall's coolant fans malfunctioned so the engine over-heated, causing a spark to hit the main fuel reserves and so initiate combustion on a large scale.  Any other Gear would have been completely obliterated --- and the pilot with it, but Weltall's armor and the lining of much of it's internal systems withstood the most part of the force of the explosion and it merely burned out some non essential circuits and some of the joints between the armor plates.  You were hit by the shock wave and you concussed yourself through contact with the cockpit roof"
     Fei found it almost impossible to take in this technical description, but like a drowning man grasping at straws he clenched on to the essential facts that through some miracle of Weltall's design, he had survived with nothing but a minor head ache."  What now Doc?" Fei asked, turning over on one side, his tousled dark hair forming a washing rippling flood on the pillow.  
     "That's your decision --- if you still wish to continue battling, Weltall will be ready in a day or two --- and the effects of a concussion such as yours can be overcome in a similarly short time --- given etheric help."  
     Fei turned over and opened his eyes to look into his friend's face.  Citan looked haggard and pale beneath his tan, and his hair was coming out of it's habitual ponytail.  His Kislevian medical uniform too, was mildly creased and looked almost as if he hadn't changed for hours.   "I've got to go on Doc ---" Fei stopped, an explosion.  Abruptly the inanimate dark fear of a bad dream returned like a sudden amorphous black crow, hovering ominously on his mental horizon.  
     "Are you alright Fei?" Citan's voice was instantly concerned, he stood and moved quickly to the side of the bed leaning over with the troubled paternal expression of a concerned healer.  
     "I'm fine --- I just had a bad dream --- that's all" Citan's expression did not change, his dark almond shaped eyes were clouded as a starless night and the lines of his experienced face deepened.  
     "It was just a dream Doc --- I've got to go on battling and win."   Fei's voice was more masterful than he felt.  
     Despite the confidence of his words, his old friend seemed no less troubled.  "I've got a bad feeling ---" Then abruptly, he shook himself, waving one hand before his face as if to dispel some chill damp mist of depression.  "Anyway if you're set on continuing --- then I recommend you try to rest --- Weltall won't be ready for several hours anyway."  
     "Okay, Doc, but then I've really got to get on with battling--- I have to get back to Nisan --- and I really hate this collar."   Fei twisted the heavy ugly piece of metal that encircled his throat and winced, the skin beneath it was becoming even more sore and rubbed away.  "I could proscribe some ointment for that?"
     "How would I put it on without taking the collar off Doc?" Fei asked acidly --- the drilling pain in his head making him feel surly.  
     Citan shrugged and moved across the room to lower himself into the metal chair with the same tired ease as if it had been a padded sofa.  
     "I'll try and rest."   Fei promised contritely --- regretting his sudden outburst.  
     "Good --- I suppose there is no other way out of this apart from battling --- but you must be careful.  In future I suggest that I oversee any repairs done to Weltall personally --- I am not convinced of the skill of the Kislevian Gear mechanics if they allowed an accident like this to occur."  
     Fei paused, looking at Citan's crumpled uniform and dark-ringed eyes.  "Are you sure doc?"
     "Of course ---" His friend nodded brusquely, then pushed up his spectacles as the violence of his motion threatened to send them tinkling down to the floor.  "I have already begun re-welding and soldering many of the most crucial circuits, --- the machine shop here is remarkably well stocked."  
     Fei lay back, and stared at the ceiling, trying to suppress his throbbing head as waves of gratitude washed over him like warm drifts of sweet summer scented air.  "Thanks doc --- I don't know why --- you’re doing this --- for me."  
     Then slowly he drifted into sweet sleep, his mind wandering through the word play and warm miasma that come before oblivion, machine shop --- shop --- machy mash --- as if unlearning speech, the words chased each other across Fei's mind, each more formless than the last as he sank down into disconnected comfortable darkness.  
     But before he totally lost touch with the world around him, Fei could have been sure he heard words spoken in a husky warm abstracted voice: "Because you are needed"  
     Some time later Fei opened his eyes.  The thick throbbing in his head had faded to almost nothing, but as he raised himself to look around the empty medical bay his body felt gluey, sluggish and unresponsive.  Without thinking he slipped out of bed and padded through the dormitory to the wash room where a brazing jet of scoldingly hot water from the shower --- the best alternative given that it's only other setting seemed to be ice cold, did much to dispel the lingering mugginess of his concussion.  Then he pulled on the clean dark red roughness of the overalls he had worn previously, and walked disconsolately down the echoing corridors and out into the dull misty light --- making for the prison canteen.  
     Nothing seemed to have changed; the sky was still the monotonous, leaden grey, the dull blocky architecture of Nortune the same depressing array of soggy grim concrete boxes.  He saw the same mix of swaggering battlers in their bizarrely adorned leathers, striding confidently about the inner court, crude weapons held in hand or belt, sharp haughty eyes straying over the dirty ragged groups who lurked fearfully in corners, avoiding the gaze of the strutting gangs.  
     The canteen was just as Fei remembered it, bare white walls, stark wooden tables, prisoners eating quickly and furtively, always with an eye out for those stronger than themselves.  Perhaps due to his own preoccupation on his first visit here, Fei had not noticed the silence in the room, the constant irregular clatter of cutlery the only sound apart from the occasional creak of leathers or flap of coarse cloth, overlaying the watery sizzling from behind the counter.  There was no sign of the warm gregarious mixture of conversations that normally accompanied meals, and each person ate alone, locked in a single invisible cell of fear, his or her eyes firmly down, shoulder protectively hunched over the bowls of food.  
     Fei silently accepted the thin bowl of porridge from the dough eyed man in black overalls behind the counter and sat down at an empty table.  After he'd finished, he went outside again, into the dim gloom of the Kislevian day.  All seemed apathetic, sullen and full of fear, and nowhere could Fei find anyone willing to even glance at him.  But more to pass the time than in any hope of finding a companion he stalked disconsolately about the compound, moisture slowly distilling on his overalls and beading his loose dark hair with small shining adornments.  A wind smelling of cold and chemicals shimmied chillingly about the yard, the continual throb and roar of the ever churning factories of Nortune providing a sullen music for this place of poverty.  
     But Fei felt nothing of the utter black despair that had threatened to swamp him last time he had walked these grim courts, he knew there was a way out --- true a way of violence and fire, a way that had already threatened his life --- however accidentally.  But even as he thought of the danger, a mocking mirage of Nisan blossomed in his mind, contrasting blatantly with the grey desolation around him like a verdant spreading oak, compared to a dead metal pillar.  True he had barely spent a week in the small Aveh county, and true in all probability Fei's friend, the young prince Fatima was --- but no! Fei shook his head with a violence that made several raggedly dressed women clustered about the entrance to the bar turn and stare at him with the nervous curiosity of frightened dear.  Bart must be alive --- he must!
     As his starvation for companionship started to overwhelm him, and he thought of going in search of Citan despite his attempt to keep his friendship with the doctor secret, Fei's apathetic reflection was violently interrupted.  
     "Told ya before --- 10 G per day, got it! --- well here's somethin' to jog ya memory."   A girl's voice, hard and strident, coming from behind a row of shanty like brick barracks.  
     Fei stood aghast, his face tightening into shock, sensitive brown eyes filled with sudden horror, what was happening! Like a frightened rabbit he cast a terrified glance about the prisoners walking near him, all avoided his gaze, the battlers in their barbaric leathers strutting away heads held high, and the ragged crowds shrinking more obviously into the angular shades of the heavy brick buildings.  
     The girl's voice was followed by a moment of silence --- and then there came the unmistakable meaty thud of a blow and a short hoarse gasping cry.  Without stopping to think, Fei dashed along the row of barracks, ignoring the prisoners that scattered away from him like pool balls hit by a good break.  Feet skidding on the wet concrete he half ran, half slid around the corner, into the small dark slot of a dead-ended alley behind the row of buildings.  
     At the far end he saw a hard faced girl in dark purple leathers, gleaming with sequins and studs, raise a clenched fist over the body of a middle aged man in threadbare brown jacket and trousers.  
     "Er --- Hey!" Fei skidded to a halt feeling slightly foolish --- but he couldn't just ignore something like this --- he remembered Sigurd's words in the Pirate base back in the deserts of Aveh about fighting on the right side --- well that's what this was wasn't it?
     "What --- you want?" The girl growled, turning on her heal to face Fei, her stony black Kislevian eyes beneath a dirty crop of dark crew-cut hair regarding him disdainfully.  
     "What --- are you doing?" Fei's voice was hesitant, almost apologetic, but despite his impulse not to interfere he knew it was the right thing to do --- the thing Bart, and that lost woodland angel Elly would want him to do.  
     "Jus' getting my fee - ten G a day for protection --- nota lot --- but this guy don't believe in payin' debts."  
     "That's ---" Fei stared around the alley, the word extortion seemed to have temporarily fled his vocabulary.  "Wrong."   He finished lamely.  
     The girl shrugged, sequins in her plum coloured leathers glittering expensively in the shoddy light, the gesture was full of a terrible, world weary callousness that sent a chill through Fei, her expression said plainer than words that the only lore she obeyed was that of the jungle.  "Who the hell a' you anyway?"
     "My name's Fei Fong Wong ---" Fei answered unsteadily, thinking that acting the hero was perilously close to acting the fool.  But at his words the girl's face went white, and with out another word she dashed forward and fled from the alley, her footsteps echoing away to merge with the throbbing thrum of the factories.  
     "Don't expect any payment --- we're flat broke" Fei turned to see another girl hurrying into the alley, but by the thread bare skirt and blouse she wore he knew her for a low grade prisoner.  Ignoring him she walked to the middle aged man's side and helped him to his feet, her long light brown hair falling on the shoulder of his coarsely woven jacket.  
     "Why would I want paying? I just ---" Fei's liquid eyes filled with puzzlement, he wiped one hand through his thick hair, sending rivulets of condensation raining down the back of his overalls.  
     "Protection money ---" She snapped tonelessly.  
     Fei felt wearily puzzled, an expression of tired innocence mixed with frustration crossed his face making him appear somehow very young and vulnerable despite his obvious strength.  
     "--- Ya stopped Elsa messin' up my dad, I'm suppos'ta pay ya --- that's how it works."   The girl spoke as if to an idiot, her arm still absently supporting her father, her washed out brown eyes full of the same chilling callousness that had radiated from the barbaric bullying battler in purple.  
     "I don't want paying.   I just thought ---" Fei's voice trailed off as the girl steered her father towards and past him, her face forward into the bitter mist of the prison.  
     As she passed, she glanced over one shoulder, her face still full of the proud self-sufficient hopelessness.  "So one of you is human after all."  
     Fei stared after the girl, unsure whether to follow and explain, but before he could move a familiar weasely voice drifted to him through the murky air.  "Bro! --- hay bro!"
     The little demi-human scuttled around the corner of the alley, tiny twitching nose pointed forward as if to cleave a path through the Nortune smog.  "The doc sent me --- wants ya back in the bay right now."  
     Fei nodded and loped patiently behind the trotting figure of Hammer back to the empty dormitory to where Citan was busying himself in the medical bay with a pan on the stove.  All traces of tiredness or disorder had gone, and Fei's tutor looked his normal calm distracted self, absently swarved in a black short-sleeved shirt open at the neck, and smooth serviceable corduroy trousers.  
     "Aah, Fei ---" Citan prodded at the steaming concoction in the pan with a wooden spoon his lips parsed critically.  "Yui always made this appear so easy --- but I cannot stop it from coagulating."  
     "Why don't I just eat in the Canteen?" Fei asked, as a drift of burnt smelling air wafted slowly across the room.  
     "I am not convinced of the nutritional value of the food there."  
     "That's sure true ---" Hammer added.  The little demi-human was curled cat-like on the spindly metal chair, resting his long chin on one velvety paw.  "The black market food racket's the third biggest in D-block."  
     "What are the other two?" Fei asked idly, leaning against one wall, his eyes fixed on Citan who was clawing at the inside of the pan with the spoon, his face locked in a grimace of concentration as if he were carrying out a complex and dangerous surgical procedure.  
     "Women is the second --- but I don't go in for that sorta thing --- that's Suzarn's bit."  
     Embarrassment rolled over Fei like a warm sweet wave; he lowered his eyes towards the floor as blood rushed to his face making it glow like the setting sun.  
     "Interested, Fei?" Citan asked pleasantly, grinning nastily at the spluttering young man from out of the sheet of steam rising from the pan.  "--- Good healthy exercise ---"
     "Er --- er --- What's the biggest racket?" Fei asked hurriedly.  
     "Weapons! A revolver can fetch 1000 G, and as for rifles ---" Hammer sighed nostalgically.  "Ever thoughta takin' up fire arms, bro?"
     Fei grinned with relief at the change of topic.  "Sorry."  
     Hammer groaned theatrically.  
     "On the subject of weapons --- Weltall is ready."  
     "What?" Fei's eyes widened as he remembered the mounting scream of Weltall's engines, the heat meter bleeding red.  "I know your good Doc, but the explosion! ---"
     "I am not as felicitous as all that Fei, it is Weltall's designer to whom gratitude is in order."   Citan whipped the pan off the glowing ring on the stove and started rummaging around on the nearby shelves for plates and cutlery, his ponytail swinging back and forth with the violence of his movements.  "--- The inside of that Gear! ---" The doctor whistled admiringly through his teeth, as one deft hand seized a ladle from a hook on the wall and began doling portions of the stew onto the plates in great mouth-watering gloops.   "Impregnable!"
     Fei cast his mind back to the ranker dragon, remembering the snap of the breaking coil, and then the long oil smelling Gear bay in the ethos church in Dazil.  "--- But what about the parts you had to replace in Dazil --- Weltall can't be as strong as all that."  
     "Parts, is the operative word Fei.  I suspect that coil I removed was faulty to begin with, but a damaged component doesn't mean the whole system is delicate.  Now the coil is replaced, Weltall's interior design is one of the strongest I have seen."  
     "Well that's good if ya go now ya can catch the evening line up."   Fei spun to face the skeletal metal chair where Hammer was still curled relaxed, beady eyes running over Fei from beneath their protective spectacles.  "Didn't ya know? The fights happen when the battler's get there, there's no set time of day."  
     "Well then Fei, you can go to the arena momentarily."  
     Fei's body gave an unexpected shudder, which had nothing to do with it's anticipation of the scolding stew Citan had dolluped onto a plate.  "Do you think ---"
     Citan handed him the brimming plate of stew and a knife and fork, his eyes gentle.  "I have complete confidence in both you and your Gear, remember that the battlers here have had no direct combat experience --- you would have won the last fight if it weren't for the malfunction, you will win this fight with ease."  
     And to Fei's surprise, so it proved.  

     He walked with more confidence than he felt into the utilitarian grey reception with the two bored looking receptionists sitting behind their paper covered desk daubing some luridly coloured paint onto their long shiny nails --- the harsh revealing light making it appear that their fingers were tipped with long blood stained claws.  
     "You F.F.  Wong?" One of the girls asked, putting down the bottle of nail varnish and staring hostilely at Fei with angular grey eyes beneath their inexpertly plucked black brows.  
     "You qualified for the second round."  
     Fei took a step back, hands playing with the belt of his overalls.  "But my gear --"
     With a sharp predatory motion, the girl plucked a sheet of paper from the chaotic mounds on the desk and read from it in a bored flat monotone.   "Due to mechanical trouble first round pilots L, Sniper and H.  Clive have withdrawer from the tournament, pilots F.F.  Wong and C Marrin qualify by default and will face each other in the first second round match.  Signed D.G.  Maxen, assistant battling coordinator."  
     "Go wait over there and we'll call you."  
     Fei didn't know whether to feel pleased or apprehensive, on the one hand he didn't have to fight a first round match again, but on the other hand ---
     "You're Fei Wong aren't you --- the A-rank prisoner who almost beat the Champ?"
     Fei turned into the box-like waiting area Citan hovering behind him like some protective ghost to see a leather clad girl rising to meet him.  She was a head shorter than he was with crew-cut platinum blond hair strangely framing a pale oval face.  
     "--- I'm Catrina Marrin --- I think I'm fighting you."  
     "Yes."   Fei said inadequately.  Like Fei himself, the girl had large liquid eyes - a slightly lighter brown than his but no less wide and sparkling.  With a slight winningly nervous smile on her lips she fixed her eyes directly on Fei's as if sitting down the barrel of a gun.  
     "I'm sorry."   Fei found himself saying his face flushing slightly, as he seemed to drown in the pools of soft liquid warmth.  
     "What for --- one of us'll win --- probably you."   The girl gave a self-deprecating little shrug and smoothed down her unadorned green leathers.  "I'm a first time pilot --- never done this before ---" Her glance lingered on Fei's unconsciously relaxed posture, lingering on his slim strong hands with their square capable fingers.  "They're saying that you’re from Gebler in Aveh."  
     "I'm not ---" Fei said instinctively, remembering the rumours he had heard flying from man to man like contagious germs in the D-block bar.  "We were fighting against Gebler."  
     The girl's eyes widened.  "You fought against Gebler? My brother's in the army and he says they're unstoppable."  
     Fei sat down on one of the scarcely padded seats, and his opponent sat opposite him, her small pale hands gripping her knees nervously.  Citan remained standing like some quiet guardian shadow in his new black outfit.  
     "My brother said that his unit met this Gebler company commanded by some girl in a white gear --- he said she was unbelievable, barely escaped alive."  
     "A girl in a white gear?" Fei leaned forward, face intent, eyes burning as he remembered that swiftly moving white machine, graceful as a temple dancer on the whispering desert sand.  "Was she ---"
     But his words were cut off by an ascending scale of tones followed by the bored voice of one of the receptionists.  "Will pilots F.F.  Wong And C.  Marrin go to the gear docks and prepare for battle."  
     Fei stood, not wanting to look at the girl he would be fighting, the girl he felt sure might have been a friend.  But she flicked past him, a sprightly elf with shining hair, spring bright in the dun greyness of the corridor.  "Good luck."   She spat over one shoulder, and then disappeared into the double doors that lead to the gear bay in a frisk of colour.  
     As Fei moved his great purple monster of a gear out into the simulated reality of the arena a mingled tide of conflicting emotions washed over him in waves.  How could he fight this girl --- especially if she was as inexperienced as she said, could he risk --- but then he remembered the clean arid scent of the desert night in his nostrils and the golden headed prince looking steadily into his face.  He could always incapacitate her without hurting her --- he had the power.  "I don't want that kind of ---" But he had to win.   "I promise."   He raised his eyes from Weltall's glowing control board and looked across at the slim white and blue Gear facing him, spiking upwards like a needle of icy radiance into the dirty evening air.   
     The arena seemed different, darker, less real --- alien.  The glair of the huge floodlights mounted high on the surrounding walls spilt like liquid diamond onto the pools of water, and conjured mighty Gear shadows across the emerald turf.  Despite the hundreds of eyes that Fei knew, would be fixed on him --- he felt peculiarly alone, like the last human alive, standing in the aqueous light beneath the noncommittal sky.  
     Without warning, the girl attacked, charging recklessly forward, ether shots boiling and blazing like a spout of water, wild and unaimed.  Fei dodged neatly aside, feeling mild relief --- the girl was right, she was inexperienced.  
     Fei jetted sideways as the fountain of ether blasts whistled through the night towards him.  The girl's Gear spiralled forwards, bringing up one fist in a clumsy charging punch, jets flaring violently red in the haunted gloom.  Fei moved almost casually, bringing Weltall up alongside her.  She tried to spin and face him, but overcompensated, orange gas billowed from her thrusters sending the white Gear flying into the air.  Fei rose with her, like a hawk stalking a sparrow.  With casual speed he reached forward one midnight hand, neatly shattering the spouting jets.  Fuel burst from around the giant metal fist, and the girl's Gear, engines howling demonically, crashed downwards onto the turf.  Dropping with her, Fei hammered forward once more, this time aiming for the main fuel lead.  He felt the slight catch as his arm and Weltalls plunged into Catrina Marrin's Gear's innards, then there was the wrench and splash of the exploding pipe, and the girl's Gear lay on the turf at Weltall's feet, fuel pumping steadily from it's wounds, still and dead.  
     The radio crackled."  Fei Fong Wong Wins, since you have sustained no damage we will commence the second of your matches immediately after we remove the looser."   Fei bent Weltall into the landing position, and waited, body tense, mind alert, eyes peering into the floodlit darkness outside, knowing that the next match would by no means be as easily ended as the last.  
     And he was right, his next opponent was a white gear trimmed in blood red who's pilot --- a sullen faced man in beige, propelled it about the arena in a number of lightning fast jumps and jets, sniping at Fei with etheric shots from cover, then running to a new hiding place as soon as Weltall got close.  
     But Sigurd had told Fei the best way to deal with a defensive opponent.  "People only defend constantly because they can't attack, and people only attack constantly because they can't defend."  

     Fei remembered that field in Nisan, the Aveh sun beating down on his head and browning the skin of his arms as he stood with Bart and Sigurd beneath the towering Gears, the sleepy smell of cut grass and flowers tempting his nostrils with the power of summer, with the gentle lapping of the Nisan river and the winging calls of oasis birds providing Sigurd's blunt words with a natural accompaniment.  "So attack the attacker and force him to defend, and force the defender to attack you."  
     "How?" Bart had asked his white-haired tutor.  
     Sigurd's eye gleamed, a sardonic sapphire.  "By using something you ain't got Bart --- patience."  

     So Fei backed away into a corner, dodging the etheric blasts which were levelled at him, and forced the cautious opponent to come reluctantly into the dark arena like a white ghost retreating from exorcism.  A minute later the fight was over, the white Gear's armour was scared and blackened by Fei's ether shots, and one arm was crushed by a crippling drop kick from Weltall's massive metal foot.  
     "A most satisfactory pair of fights."   Citan greeted Fei, as the young man powered down his Gear in the docks and climbed out.  
     "Well at least I was beaten by the best."   Fei turned to see the platinum blonde girl standing beside Citan hands on her hips, a smile playing across her round young face.  
     "Well I --- won."   Fei said, his tanned face slowly breaking into a smile of dawning triumph, as if gradually illuminated from with in by dripping sunshine.  
     He stared around the Gear bay with its oil stained floor and drifts of machine parts.  
     "Your fantastic."   Catrina enthused.  
     Fei felt a flush suffuse his face, the tanned skin now literally glowing --- he had always been uncomfortable with praise, especially when it was delivered by pleasant faced girls with glittering, wide, moon-like eyes.  "--- I can see why you gave the Champ trouble --- I wouldn't be surprised if you got right through to the last round."  
     Fei grinned at her, openly, feeling warmth and well-being swell through his body like one of Citan's etheric medicines.  "Maybe --- with luck."  

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~ End of Chapter 29 ~

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