The Crucible

Azra's oldest and bloodiest sport.

Two enter The Crucible, one leaves... usually.

The rules of the game were simple but nearly impossible to master.

Two opponents sit three yards apart. In their hand a small dagger; dug into the earth in front of them is a longer, steel sword. You cannot kill an opponent with the dagger, so long as they remain seated. You can kill them with the sword, though, even if they do not move. Going for the sword means you stand, and are vulnerable. Your opponent can strike a knife blow, often thrown, and kill you. The game only ends when one challenger fells the other. It is a bloodsport without mercy. While sat, you are given no food; no water. You cannot take a break, you cannot sleep, you cannot take your eye off your opponent. A slip, a mistake, a yawn too long, and your rival can grab the sword and slay you. But, you must be cautious. Winners have been known to feign a tired eye, or a lingering blink. Seemingly unprepared, but in fact ready for the kill.

It’s a game of wits, a game of risk and a game of luck.

Having an off day is something we all do experience; maybe we’re feeling unwell or are just not ourselves. But an off day in the Crucible of Steel will likely be your last. And most matches last that, a day. Some can go on much longer though, until fatigue or dehydration wins out. In a recent match, lasting just shy of four days, one of the challengers fell asleep, unable to keep his heavy eyelids open any longer. Perhaps he welcomed eternal rest after the torment of The Crucible. But, when his rival stood to grasp the hilt of the blade, his weakness caught his knees, his dry mouth burned fiercely, and he fainted. The thud he made hitting the floor woke his opponent, long enough for him to inch his way over to the sword and bury it deep within his opponent’s neck.

The Crucible of Steel turns everyone weak, even those thought strongest of all. No mental fortitude, no years of training, can prepare you for days of no sleep or water, whilst another sits just out of reach, willing your imminent demise. Many fear exactly that, looking weak in front of the crowds. So, instead, they elect for quicker matches; but this rarely ends well. A mighty man, towering above his small, spindly assailant, muscles barely contained within his required garment of a black sleeveless top, will fall just as easily as their match when a blade is driven through their breastbone. Often, it pays to leave your ego beyond The Crucible. While for some, confidence has been enough to intimidate their opponents and led to an easy victory, more often than not, it proves folly. As is the nature of the game, very few live long enough to become a legend of the sport, yet those few that do honour patience and a level head above anything else.

The people who set the matches like to put these victors against each other when possible. They like to see how winners work against other winners. Some rivals chat, some stare blankly at each other or avoid gazes. Others try to talk to a stone faced figure. Even the best bookmakers have trouble predicting match results. Friendly-souls have severed many heads. Quiet, stoic and threatening types have both taken home streaks of victories and just as often been dispatched within 20 minutes.

Not that the spectators complain of quick matches though. Off all the sports we watch and endure, The Crucible of Steel is perhaps both the dullest and the most exciting. There is nothing like the tension of two combatants, locked in a fight to the death, watching each other intently, waiting to strike. But there is also nothing so dull as sitting on a wooden podium for days, waiting for one single masterstroke. It is thought a match will usually last an hour or two, or a day or more if it goes beyond that. Many spectators will watch the early moments, then leave to go about their normal lives, returning every now and then to check in. Only those placing large wagers will stay for the entirety of the fight; them, and the families of those fighting. They are always sat behind their loved ones. They weren’t allowed to be within easy viewing; it thought it gives the contestant an advantage in morale.

It was quite rare for families to be in The Crucible of Steel though, mainly because combatants didn’t usually have loved ones to witness their triumph or execution. Most were convicts or prisoners, given an opportunity at freedom if victorious. Depending on the crime, you may have to win more than one fight, though. Cossar the murderer was famously tasked with seventeen wins, one for every woman he killed. He lost fight two… Others enter for the glory of their house and home, a right of passage for warriors, although this practice is dying out. Too many good fighters training their whole lives to die for nothing. Some combatants play for money. It pays well to win, and if poverty is your only fortune, The Crucible could feed you for a few months, even years if you defeat a champion. Then there are those very few, unhinged humans, offering themselves purely for the thrill; the risk.

One such fight, between two combatants who fought each other for no more than sheer joy, is touted as the longest on record. They entered on a cool morning, paraded before the hundreds of spectators, before taking up position in their small, open-air colosseum. Because they weren’t poor, they’d both eaten well before the match, and favourable weather, including some nourishing rain, allowed them to carry on their tense duel for days on end. Five days after entering, they were both still sat there. Bleary-eyed, swaying slightly off centre, rubbing their lower backs in pain, but very much alive. True fans of the sport had been camped out ever since they overtook the previous record. Waiting for that killing blow. Tensions started to rise mid-afternoon of the sixth day. Things were looking bleak for the two men. Both had sobbed and cursed their decision. The mental decay of no sleep, combined with the reality of the situation — that one would die, yet neither had to — had finally sunk in. A light breeze licked the air, and suddenly one of the men’s noses began to twitch. The prevailing wind had caught him and he was struggling to suppress a sneeze. People drew in closer as he scrunched up his nose, bit his lip and tried desperately not to let it out. But he could hold it no longer, he closed his eyes, let out a mighty sneeze and before he could open them again, had a 30-inch blade struck through his stomach. It was hard to have sympathy for a man who had thrown his life away for the sheer experience of The Crucible, but he was still given a champions burial for his heroic efforts in the arena. The victor collapsed upon exiting the match and died, presumably of exhaustion.

He was buried facing his opponent, so they could continue their epic match for eternity.

Considering the fact one of the duelists had been victorious, it seemed odd to leave them battling for the rest of time. Yet, it is the poetry and supposed romance of this event that really draws people in. A prisoner gaining his freedom, the widow making her living. People loved an underdog story, they also loved a champion. It was as much an act of wonder as it was a ritualistic way of controlling the population. Prior to their match, the combatants hold rallies before crowds, describing their life and talking about why they were entering. Some spoke with fear, some spoke with desperation, others with pride, excitement or hope. It was very theatrical, especially when a performer decided to get involved. A leading lady of a local troupe had been caught stealing jewels from drunk patrons stumbling home after a show. She’d opted for the fight, to allow her to get back to the stage and continue to do the work she loved, as she emphatically put it. She created quite a stir with her flair for drama in the run-up to her ‘big show’. She died rather dramatically, too. Taking to the sword with a characteristically wide and over-acted swing, she caught a knife to the throat and bled out slowly, whimpering. It was something of a relief. The streets were quieter for it all being over.

She’d tried to get through the event using her theatrical skills. Acting as though she was already victorious. It didn’t work. Champions over the years have told others of how they managed the situation mentally. Some try to blank out the experience, thinking of nothing, instead just watching for movement or weakness. Then there are those that try and build their bodies into a state of heightened fear. Pumping the adrenaline, they can keep alert and move fast. Others said the terror would ruin them. Instead, they try to disconnect themselves from the experience, acting as though they aren’t actually involved in it at all. Running stories through their minds. One even spoke of how they would describe The Crucible of Steel in great detail in their own head, recounting its history, its structure and how the game is played, as if playing the part of a guide to a foreigner. Telling them about how it all plays out.

Anything to make them feel as if they weren’t actually sat there, waiting to die.

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