Two guards appeared at my side; taking hold of my arms they lead me out of the arena, passages passed in a blur until I was lead to a small room. There were no cell bars this time and I was made to press my hand against a panel set in the wall beside an opening where a door would have been, a tiny jolt of electricity brushed my palm and a neon blue opaque screen hummed into activation behind me as I stepped into the room. Such technology did not come cheap, I’d only ever seen it in unity buildings before.
The room itself was furnished as basically as the cell had been save for the addition of a narrow bed which I lay down on hugging my knees close to my body. I was alone finally with nothing but my conscience to keep me company. I lifted the fork out of my boot and making a small hole in the mattress hid it there. I could think only of Felix, my mind replaying over and over his expression as I stabbed him. I was still covered in his blood, the faint metallic taint hung in the air. I’d made my choice the moment I had taken the fork from the sand. I chose life, but at what cost? What would happen to me now? I couldn’t think clearly I was so afraid. A number of muddled thoughts ran through my mind, suicide, escape, revenge... but what could I do when I hardly knew the extent of my situation?
A drop of water fell from the ceiling onto my shoulder, it must be raining up top. I didn’t challenge the assumption that I was underground, the air was damp and stale and anyway it seemed fitting. The drop fell again, and began a slow steady patter. I started to count the drops allowing the sound and sensation of the water to distract me from my thoughts, ten...twenty...thirty... I suddenly heard muffled voices outside, the hum of the door lapsed into silence. I stood up ready for whatever was coming.
Two men entered the room, followed by a small train of guards. An air of authority radiated outwards from the taller of the two men. He looked as if he was very comfortable with giving orders and having them instantaneously obeyed. Glancing over me as though he was evaluating an auction piece, he spoke to his companion as if I couldn’t hear.
“She doesn’t look like much Caspia. If I hadn’t just watched her butcher Felix, cold as ice...Fascinating, fascinating.” His tone was so cheerful I shivered involuntarily.
“Saier, you know I have an eye for these things, she may look small but she’s wiry, and has clearly had training, look at the way she holds herself.” I shifted slightly on my feet wondering what he was seeing.
“True, your judgement has not been wrong before, that is what I pay you for.” He seem to consider me for a moment before reaching a decision. “Put her in the next Baleic round with Drin and we’ll see if she survives that.” Caspia nodded in compliance as Saier left the room as abruptly has he had entered it. Caspia caught the eye of the guard standing outside and the door flickered back on. He turned on me then.
“What’s your name?” when I didn’t answer a twitch of annoyance flickered across his face. He was handsome by most standards, a slight sharpness in his features, slim with tanned skin similar to my own. The coldness in his eyes and the slight turn of his lip as though he was constantly disgusted with the world around him, undid the effect.
“I asked you a question girl, you will answer me!” I had to stop myself from clenching my hands into fists.
“Varu, my name is Varu.” I spat the words at him. He suddenly seemed amused,
“You have a fiery spirit I see.” He moved so fast I hardly registered what was happening until his hand was against my throat. He pushed me back hitting my head against the wall. Leaning in close to me he whispered in my ear. “No, you won’t die easily will you?” his voice was cold silk. Black spots danced before my eyes, I was already weak and dizzy from fatigue and hunger but I fought against his hold. His thumb pushed down harder until I could hardly breathe. “Now there’s no point in struggling, you only hurt yourself.” I could feel his breath on my neck as he spoke. I landed a more solid kick and he grunted in pain, smashing my head against the wall a second time. I nearly passed out, his grip on me was the only reason I stayed upright. He slid a hand under my shirt running it over my skin, “A body like steel. Who taught you to fight huh?” I tried to scream but the sound came out muffled and pathetic. His hand moved over my leg tracing up my thigh.
“Caspia! Get away from her.” I hadn’t noticed the door opening. The pressure my throat was released slightly and I drew in a ragged breath.
A tall man stood in the doorway, his pale hair was tied at the nape of his neck and he was carried what looked like a doctors case, his bearing was very different from everyone I’d encountered here so far, the callous air was missing.
“And since when do you assume to have authority over me Sife?” Caspia drawled in a mocking tone.
“Since Saier assigned me as her physician, I therefore have complete authority in any situation concerning her health; if you have an issue with that I suggest you take it up with him yourself!” Caspia let go reluctantly and I sank to the floor. He spat on the ground at Sife’s feet and stalked out. “And Capia, not all the guards are your lapdogs. If I hear you so much thought about touching her again I won’t hesitate in taking severe measures against you.” Caspia had murder in his eyes but he seemed to realise he had lost this particular fight, not saying another word as he left. The Doctor exhaled as the door flickered on again.
“Are you alright?” He asked couching beside me and opening his leather case. He put on a pair of white gloves and began to examine the cut on my neck. “Don’t worry its shallow wound, it hardly broke the skin. What was it a sword?” Taking a clear bottle from the case and a piece of gauze he began to clean the injury. I inhaled sharply as the liquid touched my skin. “This might sting a little.” He worked quickly and dressed the wound when he was finished. “Any other injuries?” he checked over my arms and hands,
“No, it’s not my blood.” He met my eye for the first time and dropped his gaze quickly.
“I heard you did well in the arena today.” I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.
“I did well? I murdered a man and you think I did well!” I shoved him roughly away from me. He seemed a taken back and was quite for a moment.
“I apologise, you must think I’m heartless. It is only that I have been in this place for so long, I suppose I have become desensitised to it all. Most of my patients consider it a victory if they live.”
“Are you done? I’d like to be left alone now.” He simply nodded; his calm reactions infuriated me all the more, but I suddenly felt like a petulant child for pushing him.
“As you wish, I will have some food brought to you shortly, make sure you eat and afterward take this.” He handed me a small clear pill a drop of blue suspended at its center. “It will help with the pain and speed up your healing. It will also make you sleep. I will return to check on you in an hour or so and I will know whether you have taken it or not, alright?” He packed away his supplies and stood up, scanning a card over the panel by the door. It glowed for a moment. “No one else can enter this room now, so please do not let concern for you safety stop you from sleeping.” As soon as the door closed behind him the scowl crumbled from my face. I began to shake and now that I was alone, I allowed myself the luxury of falling apart. Dark thoughts were consumed by darker thoughts, I allowed them to take me completely, until I felt as though happiness was only something I had once imagined.
It was some time before I collected myself, but I did. I stood up and walked to the edge of the bed and sat down on it. I’m going to die here...I never thought that this was how it would happen I don’t know why I expected it to be different. I pushed the thought away this time, it wasn’t going to help anything. Hope has a stubborn habit of clinging on somewhere deep in your gut and whispering of its false possibilities. I let notions of bloodying that piece of slime Caspia entertain me, I’d beat the sneer right off his face next chance I got.
A section at the base of the door opened briefly and someone pushed water and a plate of food through. Soft bread and meat, better than I’d seen in weeks of constantly being on the move. I felt better with my stomach full and I debated for a moment whether or not to take the medicine Sife had given me. I wondered what he would do if I didn’t, he didn’t seem like the type to force me but you’d never know. I shrugged and knocked it back with a gulp of water. Curling up on the bed again, not bothering with the linen I waited for the drug to take effect. It wasn’t long before a blissful numb spread through my body. It felt like there was a layer of cotton wool or clouds floating under my skin. The clouds drifted softly over my mind before I blacked out.
When I woke again Sife was standing over me and small frown creased between his brows. He gestured for me to take it easy as I startled.
“Calm yourself I am not here to hurt you.” I was surprised that I felt alert and like I’d slept a full night through. Sitting up slowly I swung my legs over the side of the bed, inhaling sharply from a suddenly pain at the back of my head. My hand instinctively went the source, there was no blood it just felt a little bruised.
“You didn’t tell me you took a hit to the head.” He checked over me carefully.
“Well doc, do you reckon I’ll live to fight another day?”
“Any dizziness? Nausea?”
“No, just a slight headache.”
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
“Three.” I wondered if he acted as detached with all his patients, he completely avoided making any eye contact.
“You should be fine, a mild concussion At most, I will wake you every few hours to be sure.” He handed me another clear pill. “It’s a very mild dose.” He tried to reassure me.
“What is this anyway?”
“Specifically purpose made, it doesn’t even have a street name, the lab rats call it RHW 287. I think it stands for rest, heal, wake, they’ve been fine tuning it for years now. It’s quite clever really, it works by tricking the brain into flooding the body with a little of everything it needs. The right mix of chemicals to speed up the healing process. Basically it taps into resources that your body already has and uses them more efficiently. Obviously it’s a little more complex than that, it’s more like a series of triggers which slow down some processes and speed up others... ” he caught himself and stopped suddenly, It was the most talkative I’m heard him so far,
“How long have you been in this place?” I decided to see if I could get him talking and learn some more of my situation, any information I could get could be of use.
“Why? What does that matter to you?” his defences were suddenly raised,
“It doesn’t really. It’s just you seem young for a doctor and not the field medic type.” He stood up bristling.
“Do you actually think I signed up for this?” He gave a short bitter laugh, “I’m just as much a prisoner here as you are.” I was startled to see him actually react on an emotional level, but his anger dissipated as fast as it had appeared, the calm controlled demeanour taking precedence again. “I apologise...I did not intend to..” He sighed and handing me another dose of RHW before leaving the small frown creasing his brow again. What the hell was wrong with him? He had seemed to relax his doctor’s masquerade for a moment and then one vaguely personal question and he’s reacting like he’s the one who’s going to be cut to little pieces on the sand. I sighed and took the medicine, waiting for the world to disappear.
Sife came and went over the hours, hiding safely behind his doctor’s mask. He never met my eye and his questions where short and brisk,
“How many fingers I’m I holding up? What year is it? What is the colour of Valeaden’s moon?” I answered in equally minimal reactions.
“Four. 7013. Blue.” If he wanted to play the unemotional game I wasn’t going to call him on it, despite regretting the fact that my only other human contact consisted solely of people who were trying to kill me.
Sife startling me by shaking me awake more violently than before, a look of panic in his eyes,
“Take this quickly”
“What? What’s happening?” I stared at the round green pill he was holding out.
“There’s not really time to explain just trust me.”
“Why should I?” He looked at me wide eyed.
“Gods damn Kari don’t be so stubborn!”
“Kari?” I was getting angry now, “My name is Varu, exactly what the hell do you...”
At that moment a pair of guards appeared in the doorway.
“Eh Sife we need to move her now.” a deep voice called through the door.
“Ya, ya, okay.” He threw a last pleading glance at me, but I refused to take the green pill without an explanation, he hid it away before letting the guards into the room. For a moment I considered resisting then I remembered the collar. My heart began beating rapidly in dread of what was ahead of me. I was lead to a cell similar to the one I been held in with Felix and then left alone. I paced, waiting for what seemed like hours before I was handed the black bag which would decide what weapon I would fight with, I unfolded the paper trembling a little, claws... Close range... okay okay my mind raced I could do this. I suddenly heard a hushed voice.
“Varu?” It was Sife, his back was to the wall at the edge of the cell. I could just make out a tress of sandy hair.
“What? What the fuck do you want Sife!” I couldn’t see his face to gauge his reaction.
“I...the pill was ment to help you. Increase your reaction time, stop you from feeling pain.” When I didn’t respond he continued talking.
“You’ll be in a Baleic round, with five others, they’ll make you fight with a team against something...something they bred in the labs. If you kill it, then one of you will turn on the rest, whoever it is will choose their moment carefully so don’t trust anyone. If you get chosen to turn, take out the strongest first while you have the element of surprise and you might have some chance.”
“Why do you care if I live or die huh? You don’t even know me. Just go away.” There was no answer. I guess he got the message. If I was being honest with myself what he had told me filled me with terror. I tried to breathe slowly.
I didn’t have to wait long as the bars of the cell were slid back and a man in dark expensive clothing strode in followed by three guards. A massive scar running across one side of his face was the most prominent aspect of his features followed closely by his steady, cold, grey eyes. I tried to calm myself but I was shaking at my very core.
“Varu?” I nodded in response, not trusting the steadiness of my voice.
“I going to tell you how this round is to be play out.” His voice was intimidating, deep and booming. I had to fight the urge retreat from him. “This fight is known as a Baleic round. You will be fighting in a group against a stronger opponent. The selection is random. You are the chosen turner. This means if your team succeeds in taking down the first opponent you will have thirty seconds to expose yourself as turner and attempt to kill the others.”
“What happens if I don’t try to kill the others?” He looked surprised at the question,
“Then the collars will be triggered and you will all die.” So my options were death or death.
“You used to fight?” I gestured to his scar,
“I used to win, if that’s what you’re asking.” He smiled coldly. “Fight well Varu, If you live I’m sure we’ll meet again.” I was lead away from the cell by the guards and given my weapons. They were more or less what I expected, three claw like straight blades of metal on each gantlet. They tied over the palm and secured at the wrist with leather ties. I swiped at the air at few times to gauge my range, the guards shuffled nervously around me.
“Save it for the ring kid.” I was going to punch the next person who called me kid or girl. As I was lead to the Arena, I let a piece of myself go with each step, and every exhalation, forcing myself to forget anything I remembered from the outside world. This was my reality now until I stopped breathing, emotion was pointless, I was steel, as unfeeling as the metal blades by my side, I was just a weapon, just a shell. I took all my anger and let it consume me, making me stronger. I could feel Icy adrenaline crawling through my veins. By the time I reached the gate I was someone else. This time I didn’t need to be pushed out into the arena as the gate lifted I walked steadily across the sand to the centre where the other fighters gathered. Without looking at their faces I accessed their array of weapons; dagger, hammer, gladius, crossbow, that could prove to be a serious problem, and lastly a javelin. A tall blond woman spoke up from the centre of the group, her voice was powerful and steady.
“Alright listen to me people, we either fight together or die together. Are you with me!” There was a roar of agreement from or little troop. We inched into a tighter circle waiting for the gate on the other side to open. I refused to let myself imagine what it would be, I could deal with whatever it is when I’m able to see it. The gate lifted painfully slowly, but the creature was upon us before I could think.
It was about twice my size with completely hairless sickly grey skin, pierced though with bone like spikes along its spine and limbs. It was roughly humanoid if you discounted the face with resembled a hybrid between a hound and reptile. Its eyes were black pits rimed with yellow. The wrongness of its existence made my skin crawl. The thing was built for killing and the closest one of us to it was ripped apart. I caught a glance of rows of pointed teeth set in its blood stained maw as it fed.
There were cries from the crowd and from the other fighters. Someone screamed instructions at us. I couldn’t hear above the chaos. A lucky bolt from the crossbow struck the creature in the eye half blinding it. I ran at it from the side using my weapons to my advantage I jumped onto its back, avoiding the spikes and stabbed at its remaining eye. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion until the ground came rushing up to meet me as the blinded creature threw me off. An unearthly sound escaped its jaws. I didn’t need to speak monster to know it was angry. I rolled on impact and was back on my feet in an instant only to be knocked off them again by a powerful blow from the enraged creature. Apparently it could still smell where I was. The breath was knocked out of me and I lay crumpled for a moment unable to move. The others attacked as one diverting its attention from me. The blond woman gripped my hand and pulled me to my feet.
“That was well done.” She shot me a quick smile, the hammer in her grip was stained purple with fresh blood. “Come on quick! move with me.” I was cold metal, just a weapon, no room for anything else. I watched the others carefully gauging their strength, noting how comfortable they were with their weapons. The first to die had dropped the Javelin, I ran to it tucking my foot beneath it and kicked in up into my hand hurling it at the beast in one fluid motion. Takaro would have been proud of me. It struck the creature low on the neck but only seemed to slow it for a moment. The man wielding the gladius was the next to fall. The beast tore out his throat before he could land his blow. The one with the dagger started screaming. I could barely hear above the rushing blood in my ears but every detail of his expression burned itself into my memory. I looked from the body to him and realised they must have been brothers. The blond woman was holding him back as he tried to run at the creature, the crossbow was drawing the beast’s attention away.
“He’s dead Tealo, he’s dead, you can’t save him by getting yourself killed!” I watched as her words sunk in, the blind rage cleared from his eyes as his expression broke.
The creature was bristled with several arrows and a bleeding from a few wounds but it looked like it would take a lot more to bring it down. Dagger, hammer, and crossbow three left. We worked together without the need to speak, attacking from different directions as one, until Hammer took an opening and leapt in with a blunt force hit to the creature’s temple, it crumpled and fell with a crash raising a small storm of sand.
I had thirty seconds before all the collars were triggered. I only needed one. Dagger was beside and I crouched stabbing my claws into his stomach and pulled sharply upwards. He’d been dead before I attacked anyway, I saw it in his eyes.
A bolt took me in the shoulder and I tasted sand. The pain screamed through my body...I fought to stay conscious, breathing in the pain, using it to get back on my feet. The blond woman rushed towards me, hatred alight in hers eyes. I barely dodged the hammer as it swung towards my face. Her anger was clouding her judgement, her movements were reckless. As she swung again I stepped into the blow unable to bite back a scream at the blunt pain. Her eyes widened in shock as I pulled the metal claws from her chest. She was dead before she even fully registered the pain. A bolt whistled past biting into the sand behind me, another so close I heard it whistle past my ear. The next sunk into the body of the blond woman, a temporary shield. Crossbow was panicking. He was the last. He trembled as he took aim again, another miss, and now there were only two bolts left. My shield discarded I closed in towards him, slowly, circling. The bolt struck my arm, I stumbled only for a moment, closing in the distance steadily. Last arrow, he wouldn’t want to miss now. The pressure was tangible, and he broke under it, the last bolt straying off to my left. I closed the distance between us quickly and we struggled for a moment until I wrestled the crossbow out of his hands, smashing it down on his face. He didn’t put up much of a fight after that and I slit his throat with the claws. It was easier when you didn’t look them in the eye, when you didn’t have to see yourself reflected.
I don’t remember how I got back to the cell, there is a black empty void in my recollection. Why can’t I forget all of the rest? Sife is here. I don’t remember when he appeared, there’s a new expression on his face, one I haven’t seen before, I think its fear, I must have looked a state with arrows protruding at alien angles from my body. He’s saying something but I can’t make sense of it. I have to keep my body moving, rocking slightly forward, then back, there is a strange desperate comfort in it. If I stop I’m afraid something terrible will happen. My lips are moving too, babbling something that’s not true but it somehow seems important. Sife is reaching out trying to calm me. I can’t stop screaming, he can’t touch me, if he does then I’ll be real. There’s a needle pushing into my arm, I struggle but the world shifts, blacks out and disappears into nothing.