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First Blood

"I don't want to hurt you!"

That's what I said out loud, anyway. Inside, it was more like, "I don't want to be here!"

Not to brag, but I've always been pretty good at puzzles and games and such. So when that weird old guy at the Inn offered me a chance to play his new game and maybe earn a valuable prize, it sounded good to me. Little did I know that his "game" had life-or-death consequences...

After jumping through a few potentially lethal hoops, I found myself here, in a makeshift arena somewhere in the Ruins, facing a would-be gladiator who styled herself "Grunka the Gorgeous," I kid you not. She was tall, broad, hugely muscled, and grinning like the proverbial cat with a mouthful of yellow feathers as she casually flipped a solid-looking metallic club I wasn't sure I'd've been able to lift, let alone wield.

Which is why when Shane--that weird old guy from the Inn--gave us the signal to begin, I ever so graciously offered Grunka a face-saving way out of fighting. She didn't need to know that it was my own face I was trying to save (not to mention keep relatively intact), any more than she needed to know that, despite the armored suit I wear and the array of weapons at my belt, I've had virtually no actual combat experience. Well, not unless you count nanite injections, which, believe me, don't provide nearly the adrenaline boost that reality does.

Unfortunately, Grunka was apparently as brave as she appeared strong. She laughed cheerfully at my suggestion that I might hurt her, proclaiming, "Only the gods know what will happen." Or something like that. I wasn't really listening; I was too busy focusing on her flexing musculature, her gleaming armor, the numerous patches of dried blood on the ground... I was really beginning to understand that whole "Fight or Flight" business everyone always talks about.

Worse, I realized that I had made a serious error in judgment: I was tired and weakened from playing Shane's stupid game, and I really, really should have had a nice rest before I charged headlong into the Ruins. So not only was I about to go up against a frakking giant, but I was going to have to do it already partially exhausted.

Grunka hefted her weapon and prepared to clobber me. So I did what any self-respecting combatant would do: I shot her, before she could get anywhere near me.

Or tried to, anyway. I at least winged her a bit. She definitely winced. Definitely. I think. Anyway, I took that as a good sign. My feet, on the other hand--which are apparently smarter than I am--tried to take advantage of her momentary hesitation to depart the vicinity as hastily as possible. I swear, it was like I had no control over them: they just started fleeing without consulting my brain in any way.

Well, I didn't get too far before I realized I was never going to be able to outrun Grunka, who had recovered and was lumbering towards me far more quickly than someone her size should have been able to move. That hardly seemed fair. So I shot her again. This time Grunka definitely noticed. I'd guess it was the blood dripping from the new little hole in her right bicep. She lowered her weapon, narrowed her gaze, and then--wonder of wonders!--she fled from me!

Naturally I gave chase and insisted on engaging in some very dramatic hand-to-hand combat... Yeah, right. No, I just stood there and let Grunka reach the edge of the arena, whence she turned around and formally conceded, without a hint of rancor. She probably said, "Well fought, worthy foe!" or something traditionally ceremonial like that. I may even have mumbled some response. But really I was paying absolutely no attention to her. I'd won the game. I had plans now. Big plans.

I was going back to the Inn to introduce Shane's face to the nearest wall.


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