Chapter 3

Are you not Entertained!?

Several things happened at once:

I ran forward, my large paws taking me around and out of the chalk circle that was the barrier for the first round.

Boris circled the other direction, but a couple of heartbeats after me. The movement created a sort of defensive dance while one of us looked for an opening to strike.

The guarding Hork-Bajir bent over with their lizard-like bodies. They looked like something out of a Tolkien novel with pouches and holsters wrapped around the non-bladed parts of their bodies as they reached down, grasped at something, and pulled hard as one. Then the ground a few feet in front of them opened with the movement of sand and a chorus of shrill screaming.

Around us, the other guards mirrored the motion, their clawed hands digging into the cracked earth effortlessly. The new openings created a rough circle around me and Boris, and a quick glance into one of the holes showed the source of the harsh sound.

Bulbous, yellow bodies the size of manatee except not as cuddly. Six, large sets of lobster-like claws stretched out under oblong sets of crimson eyes. Small centipede legs lined the sides of their bodies, too numerous to count as gaping mouths full of leech-like teeth drooled hungrily up at the dusty sky.

Taxxons. Scores of them.

Scores? Was that the correct grouping for Taxxons? Maybe a scourge? Gaggle? I guess Oxford never weighed in on the grammatical usage of newfound alien species before the world went to hell.

It seemed as if the Yeerks had really liked that scene in Gladiator though.

The gaggle of Taxxons leaped up like excited children on Christmas. Children who would devour you and each other whole without so much as a tablespoon of salt for the prospect of a meal. I felt my stomach get queasy at that thought despite its newly acquired tolerance for devouring whole antelope. I tried to distance myself both physically and mentally from the threat that the Taxxons posed. I focused instead back on my opponent, trying my best to put the new threat aside. Big-ass-bear first, cannibalistic-alien-centipedes-from-a-Burton-fever-dream second.

In the first stroke of luck that I had found since the fight began, Boris was rattled by the Taxxons same as me. Which was nice, considering I had paused long enough for the bear to close the distance and bite my jugular if he had the mind to. The sentiment was short lived though. While we had both wavered at the addition to the ring, Boris had more weight behind his run, meaning that his momentum had kept him from slowing down that much. He saw that I had faltered and turned in, darting across our imaginary merry-go-round-of-dismemberment to cash in on my lack of focus.

I, on the other hand, did not have layers of blubber. I had to pour it on to dodge his charge. I pumped my legs as I had earlier in the fight, but with one difference: I wasn't bogged down with the clumsy human legs. I had limbs designed for the hard, sandy terrain of the ring. In fact, compared to the Savanna, this place was a playground.

I could feel the lion's instincts seeping into my motions, its reflexes becoming my reflexes, its urges becoming my urges. The instinct to fight-to maim an invader on my territory, to survive against an enemy that dared to challenge my strength.

So, instead of bolting out of the way, I leapt up, hurling my body over the charging bear. It was a gamble. I was one of the greatest specimens of a predator on the planet (pre-invasion of course) and behaved as such, but even the "King of the Jungle" had to obey the laws of physics. All of my strength, my instincts meant nothing in the air. While I was jumping I had circumvented all of my leverage and speed. Though bears weren't the quickest in the animal kingdom, Boris had power enough to swat me out of the air if he saw the feint coming. I'd be knocked to the ground (again) and he'd be on me before I'd be able to retaliate, myths about always landing on my feet be damned.

Somehow, whether by luck or surprise, I cleared the palooka, thumping his flank with my paw as I sailed up and over.

The love tap knocked Boris off balance, his front legs shifting with his shoulders in an attempt to keep upright. He lost the battle with Newton though, the momentum that he had been using to his advantage turning on him. He skidded to the ground on his side as I landed. The loose dust coupled with the hard sand that was the ground acted like a roller-skating rink, making him slide. Four-hundred pounds of bear skidded towards the edge of the ring-

-and to the waiting Taxxons.

He fought to get his feet under him as he slid, but he wasn't built for quick movements. The pain of his furred side sliding against the hard ground couldn't have helped either. His limbs scurried over the ground, acting as a sort of hand brake to slow his movement. He knew as well as I that if he were to fall to the Taxxons below he was as good as dead. They would bite his head off, feast on his limbs, tear out his insides and if he was lucky, they would do it in that order.

I landed, my own paws sliding a bit on the ground, but I kept my balance. I didn't dare go running after Boris to finish him off. The danger of the Taxxons was far more pertinent than a large bear, even if said bear wanted to kill me.

Man, did that really put my life into perspective or what?

I stood my ground, waiting to see if Boris could pull himself up. The crowd surged again in anticipation, a wave of jeers and shouts blanketing the stadium.

«Come on Yogi. That the best you got?»

Much to the guffaws and shouts of the crowd, Boris found his footing, coming to a halt not three feet from the mouth of the Taxxon pit instead of plunging to a gruesome end, Lion's lacked the cheek muscles for smiling, but damned if I didn't try. I couldn't help it; I had to admire the hulking palooka. Even considering the potentially fatal circumstances, strength in the face of death and the willingness to live despite it had to be appreciated in this unforgiving world the two of us lived in. And Yeah, I know. He was trying to kill me, but that didn't mean I couldn't appreciate his tenacity, right?

I sent him the impression of a smirk with my thoughts, «Hanna-Barbera? Founded in '57? Over 600 original cartoons?»

Boris got back onto his paws, his black lips pulling back to reveal yellowed teeth. His dark, beady eyes seemed to narrow as he focused on me. His head lowered and came level with his back. I could practically feel the electric tension as he prepared to charge again. The crowd swelled again, more noise than anything, various appendages flailing in excitement. I felt the sullen rage with his reply, «You talk too much, little kitty.»

I lowered my head as well. Not so much to improve my running angle-lions didn't have to worry about that like the tanks that bears were. It was more of a gladiator salute. For all of my remarks and quips, I knew that there was no way both of us were getting out of this fight alive. Either of us was sure it was going to be us. Maybe this time it would be me.

Maybe this time I could rest.

Boris let out a bellow accompanied by spittle and pumps of his massive legs, his body picking up speed like an iron-headed locomotive. I responded in kind and leapt forward, my large paws finding purchase on the hard ground as I sped towards my likely death. My thick mane whipped away from my face and my eyes narrowed, my own muzzle closing in opposition to the slack-jawed fury of the Black bear.

I accelerated faster than my opponent, but he had counted on it. As I began to shift my weight for a forward strike with the daggers in my paws, Boris slowed. It wasn't much, but it was enough of a change that I whiffed the strike and lost my balance. It was my turn to meet the pavement as I violently skidded over the baked rock.

Boris didn't miss a beat. He sidestepped with a quickness that I didn't expect from something so large, and before I could recover he was over me. I-on my back- had to roll awkwardly with my paws lamely in the air as he began to swipe with his own claws. I tried to mirror the previous round, but lions weren't built as boxers. Their arms were lean and long for quick movement, and I watched in horror as obsidian claws hacked white-furred flesh off of my bones.

He was stronger than me and twice my weight. I had no leverage as long as I was on my back, and he knew it. He had me pinned. In the fight of Lion versus Bear, the bear had the advantage.

Just as I had before, I began to wait the larger animal out. It was the only option in front of me. My lion's senses were more attuned to blocking out the pain of his sword-like claws tearing into the flesh of my fore-paws. It wasn't enough. I don't know if I was thought-screaming or if I was roaring. I couldn't separate either from the crowd. It didn't matter if my human brain was more crafty or intelligent than his. He was stronger and that was that.

This was it. This was how my fight ended. I couldn't move from my position and risk exposing my belly and I couldn't hold out any longer than I had already. Boris had won.

Then the barrage of swipes became more of a shower. The tidal-waves of pain dulled a fraction of a hair. Instead of a slash at my skin every heartbeat, it was slowing to every-other heartbeat. I had lost one of my eyes again in the fight, but the other worked well enough for me to see that Boris was breathing heavy. Drool flowed out of his open mouth and over his lolled out tongue. It wasn't enough of a window for me to get out from his reach. He'd still kill me in seconds.

I had nothing left in me. No wisecracks, no movement in my torso, but as I saw the larger animal stagger, I took every once of will I possessed, every spit of defiance I had at the Empire, at the fucking facists that were loving every second of my pain and I pushed it at Boris. I wanted to live dammit, and they weren't going to get me that easy.

I snapped my neck out, by jaws opening to unleash my fangs.

I thought I heard a gasp out of the bear as my muzzle met fur.

I felt warm life-blood flow out of my mouth and down my chin.

I heard a gurgle out of the bear, then his legs gave out.

I let the weight come down on me, grateful to be finished.

Then darkness enveloped me in the reprieve of nothingness.

It felt like my ear-drums burst with the sound of my audience.