Invictus rose at 0500 like he did every morning. He quietly left his bed. His feet felt good on the cold steel floor of his room. He made his way to the bathroom in the pitch black, flipped the light on and squinted at the sudden affront to his eyes. He quickly put his long, shoulder length hair up into a loose bun, ran some oil through his thick close-cropped beard, applied deodorant, and then left his room grabbing his axe on the way out. Invictus made his way quickly through the metal complex that was the royal palace. The palace was laid out in a pentagon, with his and the Empress’s rooms being in the center of the complex. It took Invictus nearly 10 minutes to walk from his room to the large metal sliding door that led outside to the massive training yard. It could hold the entirety of his army. The cool morning air ruffled the hair on Invictus’s chest, and he could feel the sweatpants he had slept in blow around in the wind. He made his way to the slightly raised dirt platform at the head of the field and stepped on top of it. Bringing his axe around he quickly began running through motions he had long since committed to memory.
Empress Mania found herself standing on a balcony looking over the training field. It was 30 feet off the ground, directly behind Invictus’s platform. Her entire army stood at attention before her co-ruler, Praetor Invictus. He stood on his dirt platform. The head of his greataxe rested on the ground at his feet and he had both hands on the top of the handle, stopping just below his chin. She took a second to admire the weapon. It was all black and polished to a shine. The axe head was double-sided, and the steel was black as sin, except when he activated it, then the sharp edges of the blade would turn bright red like a laser. The handle was made of solid steel, and despite not being able to see from her distance, she knew the handle was textured with miniature spikes, like a weight lifting barbel. She wondered how he stood to practice with it for so many hours a day.
The entire army attended training twice a day. Once from 0600 to 1000, then from 1600 to 2000, but she knew that Invictus has been on the field practicing alone since 0500. Invictus called the army officially to attention as the hour came and if possible, the army stood up straighter. The entire army had been assembled and ready by five minutes until six, just like Invictus had trained them. Invictus called out the drills and forms for warm up as his army preformed them. Mania looked out over the army, organized by weapons. She could see all the Swordsman in a group, practicing sword forms, and the spearmen all together, doing spear forms.
Invictus called the army to a halt. Then gave them the same command he gave them every morning. They were to practice alone, by themselves, just as he had done an hour earlier. Invictus had once told her that this was the best possible way a warrior could start his day. It centered his mind and fighting spirit, and helped him maintain his tenacity and power throughout the rest of the day. Mania watched as the army spread out and began to practice. No one spoke to one another, every single warrior focused solely on their weapon, themselves, and getting their minds ready. Invictus buried his axe in the ground, and proceeded to step off his platform and walk among his practicing army.
Mania didn’t come to every practice session to watch, but when she did, this was her favorite part. Invictus walked through the army, assisting soldiers with strikes and forms, and offering general advice to his soldiers that needed it. Mania watched as he spoke to each man or woman as his equal. He didn’t scream, or belittle them for wrong moves or sloppy form, he worked to correct them. She could see the love and adoration that his soldiers held for their Praetor. It made her smile. She knew that she held one of the single most powerful armies in the Milky Way, and this is when she could see it the most.
She watched curiously as a soldier, a female she didn’t recognize, held out one of her two short swords hilt first to Invictus as he passed. Invictus paused and studied the sword for only a moment before taking it, and sliding the leather edge guard onto it. The woman slid an edge guard on to her second blade and took a fighting stance.
Mania frowned. No one had ever stopped the Praetor in his rounds and asked him to spar. She felt a small swell of pride when none of the soldiers around them stopped their practice at the sudden and unorthodox challenge. Mania could make out the very slight frown on Invictus’ face. Only through years of knowing him was she able to read his lips to see what he was saying.
“What is your rank warrior?” Invictus asked quietly.
“Munifex” The woman replied, straight-backed. Invictus mused to himself for a moment.
“Why do you offer me this blade?” He asked looking her in the eye. The woman stood even straighter and replied carefully.
“You told us Sir, that to be the best you have to train with the best. That great warriors come in twos, normally as training partners.” Invictus’s face gave away to a smile.
“Damn straight I did.” He replied. He moved, not waiting for the woman to make the first move. He held back, staying one step ahead of the woman the entire time, but never flat-out defeating her. She was quick and agile, but her strikes lacked fury.
Invictus sparred with the woman until the end of the hour that he had appointed his army to practice. His bare torso was slicked with sweat and he could see the woman’s hair damp to the ends. Once the hour was up, Invictus demeanor changed. He gripped the soft leather hilt of the sword, and moved violently forward, smacking aside the woman’s attack. She took a step back in shock at the sudden ferocity, and within three more powerful strikes, Invictus disarmed her.
“You did well.” He told her as he handed her sword back to her. “Have you been attending the optional weekend training sessions?” The woman nodded. “Good.” Invictus glanced down at her swords. “Take the leather wrappings off the hilt. Your hands will bleed for the first month or two, but it’s worth it.” Invictus turned and jogged back to his platform, as he was running he noticed Mania looking down at the army from her perch. Her eyes were on the field, but her head was tilted towards one of her advisors, listening intently. He watched her turn and ask a question. He could barely read her lips from this distance. He caught two words. “The Pakshakur.” Invictus frowned as he jogged. He wondered if the leader of the alien planet was here, and if he had stopped by to visit.
He reached his platform as Mania turned to head back into the palace. “Training first, potential visitors second.” He decided as he turned back to his army and began the next part of the training session for the day.
Invictus released his troops for the session, warning them to be prepared for three verses one training in the evening session. Then he quickly turned on his heels and made his way back into the palace. He was covered in sweat and dirt from the training and decided now would be a good time to go grab a shower. He wasn’t at all surprised when he entered his room and found Mania sitting quietly on his bed expecting him. The lights already on, Invictus made his way to his dresser and pulled a pair of black slacks and underwear from it.
“Is The Pakshakur here?” He asked the Empress. He glanced back at Mania, who shrugged nonchalantly.
“He left a little while ago. It was as short visit.” She replied. Before Invictus could ask another question Mania continued. “What was going on during training today?” She asked, casually glancing over at him. Invictus glanced back unabashed. He made his way back into his bathroom, not bothering to close the door.
Mania sat with her back to the door, waiting patiently. She heard the shower turn on, and then the sound of him stepping under the water.
“It was just a Munifex who wanted to hone her ability.” He replied “I have told them before that greatness comes in twos. She merely wanted to measure her abilities.” Mania shifted slightly and tossed her hair back.
“Do you think it’s a very good idea be sparring with a Munifex a month before your Day?” She asked lightly. She heard Invictus’s laugh from the shower.
“Make it sounds like I’m going to my death why don’t you?” He chuckled. Mania heard the water cut off. “It’s just another battle. No different from the others.” He said through the door. Mania sighed and turned on the bed to sit cross-legged facing the bathroom door.
“A battle in which you fight with your bare hands against the second strongest warrior in the Empire. Don’t be so lax.” She said. Invictus appeared in the doorway, now clean and clad in his black slacks. His hair hanging down to his shoulders.
“I like that you admit that he’s only the second strongest.” Invictus grinned. Mania huffed and glared.
“You don’t even know who it is yet!” she said. “Have you even been keeping up with the fights through this last segment of the tournament?” Mania glared at him, throwing her hair back out of her face. Invictus’s eyes darkened for a moment.
“Don’t insinuate me to be a fool. I’ve watched every fight for the last two months and I’ve watched closely enough to know that Ragnok will lose to Sheeshen tomorrow night.” Invictus growled.
“How can you know that?” Mania asked abruptly. “Ragnok is nearly seven feet tall and weighs over 400 pounds. Sheeshen can hardly stand at six and a half feet and can’t weigh 300.” Invictus smiled as he crossed the room to a scale in the corner. He stepped up on it, looking at the glass screen mounted at eye level on the wall.
“You forget, I’m only six-foot three, 245 pounds and I have never been defeated.” He said, still smiling. Mania jumped off the bed and walked over to peer past him at the screen.
“Your also seven percent body fat.” She stated flatly. “Ragnok is most definitely not that lean, but he weighs almost twice what you do.” She turned back to Invictus’s dresser and threw him a black muscle shirt. “Sheeshen can’t be far off from that.” She stated in a factual tone. Invictus slipped his shirt on and stepped off the scale.
“Sheeshen will win the bout. Before the final round.” He said confidently. Then he glanced down at the shirt he had put on. “Are we going somewhere?” He asked as his brow furrowed. “This isn’t exactly formal attire.”
Mania smirked. “Did you forget that we have paperwork to do today?”
Invictus groaned and swore violently. Then walked over to his desk and grabbed a rectangular slim piece of metal that functioned as his personal mainframe. He pressed down on the fingerprint scanner, then watch as half a dozen screens appeared in midair in front of him. He moved a couple of screens around with his hands.
Invictus gave a satisfied snort. “Okay. Good, I did finish my half last night.” Mania frowned quizzically.
“You couldn’t remember?” she asked.
“I was really drunk.”
“You were doing imperial paperwork DRUNK?” she hissed as they exited the room.
During the evening training session, Invictus prediction came true. Sheeshen defeated Ragnok in the third of five rounds. After the evening training session, Invictus went back to the quarters in the middle of the palace that held his room, mania’s room, a shared kitchen and lounge room. Their rooms were separate, and large enough to double as private offices. There was a hidden hallway located behind the kitchen that connected Invictus and Mania’s rooms. Invictus had demanded an easy way for them to get to one another in the event of an emergency.
Mania might have been the Empress, and in charge of everything economic and political, but Invictus’s position as Praetor, despite them both being considered rulers, gave him power over all things Military, National defense, and combat. He has fought with Mania for days over the guard corps, and how many she guards she would have at a time. She still wouldn’t allow them in their inner chambers. So Invictus, technically being head guard, had demanded the hallway.
After showering again, Invictus slipped on a pair of sweatpants, then walked down the hallway, knocked once on Mania’s door, then opened it. She was sitting at her desk, her mainframe screens floating in front of her. She glanced over when he entered.
“I told you Sheeshen would win.” He chuckled. Mania rolled her eyes without looking away from the screens.
“He looked really good.” She murmured. “Have you watched the fight yet?” She asked looking over at him. Invictus slipped inside the room and closed the door, so that now it only looked like a closet or bathroom door.
“No, I wanted to find out where you were at before I sat down to watch it.” Mania glared at him.
“I can take care of myself.” She said, abruptly looking back at her computer screen. Invictus rolled his eyes and chuckled.
“Did you practice today?” He asked. Mania nodded. “Let me see your blades.” Mania pulled two katana from her sheathes resting at her hips and tossed them to him. He caught them both deftly. He looked them over quietly, then crossed the room to sit on Mania’s bed. He took a small set of tools out of his pocket and started to quietly adjust the circuits in the handle of the blade.
“Where’s your shirt?” Mania asked frowning. Invictus looked up in mild surprise.
“Must have forgotten to put one on.” He said dully. He went back to tinkering with the swords. “Does it bother you that I’m sitting on your bed shirtless?” He smirked. Mania shot him a look full of venom.
“It bothers me that you’re tinkering with my swords.” She shot back. A small red spark jumped from the handle. Invictus looked up to see Mania glaring vehemently him.
“You didn’t tell me one of your swords was flickering.” He said evenly, not looking away. He began putting the leather wrapping back around the handle. Mania glowered at him even harder.
“You’ve been busy.” She paused for a moment then asked in a slightly more hopeful tone “did you fix it?”
“Damn straight I did” He replied. His job done, Invictus returned her swords and made his way back to his room. He sat down fluidly at his desk and opened a screen from his mainframe. He started the recording and watched intensely. Sheeshen did look fairly strong. Invictus sat, watching the fight for hours, analyzing everything he could, because in a month, he would be fighting this man for the title of Praetor.
A month passed in a blur of weight training and imperial paperwork, between the twice a day army training sessions. Paperwork and news was always heavy this time of year. People and aliens came from all around to watch the fight that would determine who would be the next Praetor of Earth.
Invictus slipped from his bed at 0500 the morning of the fight. He felt the thrill of anticipation swirling in his stomach. He grabbed his axe, and without further ado, began his morning ritual of practicing his craft. Once he was done, He slipped on a pair of pants and went out his main door to the kitchen area. Mania was already laying on the couch in the adjoined lounge area. The large TV in front of the couch was on the nationally broadcasted pre-fight show already on air. Invictus slipped over to the kitchen and began pulling food from the fridge to cook.
“Have you eaten?” He asked Mania. The woman just shook her head still staring at the screen. Invictus pulled a few more things from the fridge without speaking.
“Are you nervous?” she asked stone-faced. Invictus began cooking as he shook his head.
“Don’t you ask me that every year?” He asked chuckling. Mania looked irritated.
“Forgive me if I worry about whom my next possible co ruler might be.” She growled. Invictus chuckled and continued to cook, seemingly at ease. They stayed in silence until Invictus set a plate full of chicken and scrambled eggs on the counter, then brought over a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, and Mac and Cheese over to Mania. She looked at the plate as he set it on the coffee table in front of her. She sat up and huffed.
“I could have fixed myself something if I was hungry!” she said hotly.
“Shut up and eat.” Invictus called back as he returned to his plate on the counter and started eating his chicken breast. He heard Mania grumbling a few of her favorite swear words at him as she picked up the fork off her plate and began to eat. Invictus ate standing up, then exited the room, heading back to his room to gather his fighting gear.
Invictus weighed in at 246 pounds and 6’3” tall. It was the standard affair, the crowed got to watch and applause as the contestants were weighed in. Mania had been fairly accurate. Sheeshen weighed in at 295 pounds and 6’6” tall. Within minutes Invictus found himself stepping into an octagon with a steel cage around it. Both men were clad in nothing but lightweight shorts and half finger padded gloves.
Invictus had read that at some point in the past, this was considered a sport, and he had done his best to emulate the rules when he established the tournament as the way the next Praetor would be chosen. Sheeshen stood across from him, his skin was tan, and he had more body hair than even Invictus. His beard bushier and longer.
“You look like a good opponent.” Invictus called across the ring. Sheeshen stared down into Invictus’s eyes without speaking. “Alright fuck you too then.” Invictus mumbled, all trace of a friendly ruler gone, replaced with the cold fury that was synonymous with what his solider called his “Praetor Mode”.
The man between them, a referee they use to be called, thought Invictus waived for them to start and Invictus moved forward violently. Sheeshen seemed to expect this and swung a high kick for the side of Invictus’s head. Invictus made a snap decision. Instead of blocking or moving away, he continued his charge forward and leaned his head into the kick.
There was a resounding smack of Sheeshen’s foot hitting Invictus’s head and the sound of the crown screaming at Invictus purposely taking the shot. Sheeshen’s draw dropped for a split second as Invictus continued to move even after the blow, and smashed his right fist into Sheeshen’s jaw. Sheeshen back pedaled for a moment before resuming his fighting stance. Invictus didn’t relent, he pressed his opponent and rained two shots into Sheeshen’s body with his left hand before he could get it covered with a guard. Invictus’s right hand dealt a glancing blow to Sheeshen’s head as Sheeshen’s left fist came up in a strong uppercut that connected on Invictus’s jaw.
Invictus took a single step back and spit blood into the arena floor before turning back and attempting a couple of more strikes at Sheeshen. Sheeshen dropped backwards, trying to use his longer arms to his advantage. Invictus took two more jabs to the chin as he closed the distance and landed a left hook on Sheeshen.
He heard a bell ring and both men stepped back. The first round was over. The first of many Invictus thought. Normal fights only had five rounds, but the fight for Praetor had an unlimited amount. The only way to win was for one man to be knocked out, give up, or be unable to fight.
Invictus looked up at the section of the stands where Mania sat. She was in a private box like at old football games. Four guards flanked her, two on each side. He couldn’t read her expression from the distance, but he could see that she was slightly pale. He turned back to the fight at hand as the middle man asked them both in turn if they would like to continue, after a yes from both men, the bell rang again.
Invictus lunged for Sheeshen’s legs, looking to take him to the ground. He glimpsed the surprise on Sheeshen’s face. Invictus never opened a round with a takedown. More out of luck than skill, Sheeshen flinched and brought his knee up in a hard swing, kneeing Invictus in the temple on his way down.
The roar of the crowd that followed was barely audible to Invictus. He could feel blood pouring down his face as he staggered sideways on his hands and knees. He attempted to scramble away from his failed takedown attempt as Sheeshen dove for a takedown of his own. Invictus turned and both men wound up chest to chest as they stood up, grappling for control of the other.
Sheeshen got his arms under Invictus armpits and locked his hands behind his back, squeezing as hard as he could. Invictus smiled, blood pouring down his face. Sheeshen gave the smallest shove, and Invictus wrapped his arms around Sheeshen’s. He brought his fist up to his chin and exploded from his hips. Invictus arched his back and Sheeshen went head over heels as Invictus threw him backwards over his head and landed on top of him.
The crowd was deafening. Invictus could feel the cheers vibrating the stadium and as he did his best to work into a better position on the slightly stunned Sheeshen. Eventually Invictus worked his way over and climbed atop Sheeshen, his head still being pulled down by Sheeshen. Invictus reached up and brought a heavy hammer fist down in Sheeshen’s nose. He felt blood spurt as the nose broke. A rocked Sheeshen let go of Invictus head. Invictus sat up with murder in his eyes and dropped a second more powerful hammer fist onto Sheeshen. The large man covered his face, attempting to regain his composure.
The bell rung. Invictus stood up off Sheeshen, and after a moment of consideration, pulled him up to his feet too. The second round had ended. Invictus was pretty sure he had a concussion, and he had to give the man props for that. Sheeshen grunted, and both men returned to their corners.
Invictus resisted the urge to shake his head. He knew it wouldn’t help the cobwebs. He stood in his corner and felt a towel press to his head. A doctor or someone was wiping the blood off his face. It was splattered across half the arena floor, and covered his chest.
“All right.” He thought “This has to stop.” He cracked his knuckles and bounced around as the middle man signaled for them to start again. “No more dicking around.” He thought.
When the middle man gave the signal to start, Invictus moved like lighting. He went straight for a hard right punch. The punch was nearly twice as fast as his previous punches and caught Sheeshen hard in the jaw. He staggered backwards and caught another hard outside shot from Invictus’s left hand. Still staggering backwards, Sheeshen gave a hard forward push kick as Invictus closed the distance. The bottom of Sheeshen’s foot slammed into Invictus’s mouth, snapping his head backwards. Invictus stepped backwards, he could feel two of his bottom teeth sticking through his bottom lip.
“You son of a bitch.” He snarled inwardly. He lunged forward and grabbed Sheeshen violently by the head. Invictus reared his head back and slammed his forehead against Sheeshen’s. Sheeshen attempted to retreat, but Invictus kept a vice-like grip on his head and moved with him. He slammed his forehead into Sheeshen’s again, and felt the man’s knees buckle slightly.
This time Invictus pushed Sheeshen’s head out to arm’s length while rearing his head back. Then he pulled Sheeshen’s head back towards him violently as he slammed his forehead into his again. Sheeshen went limp. Invictus released Sheeshen’s head and he dropped to the arena floor.
Doctors swarmed immediately. They were all over Sheeshen, checking to see if he was still alive. Three of them crowded Invictus. He pushed them aside and walked back to the middle of the ring. Blood poured from his head and mouth, running all over him. He raised his hands in the air as the crowd roared, ignoring the mental fog that threatened to overcome him.
“Damn right it’s my empire.”