Shey grunted as she was thrown to the sandy floor. She immediately leaped to her feet and spun around, baring her fangs as the gate slammed shut behind her. The guard that escorted her into the fighter’s living quarters smiled, revealing several missing teeth. She snarled, but the guard only laughed as he hobbled away.
After several moments, Shey finally turned to look at the large room behind her. There were dozens of men and women in here, and those closest to the gate were staring hungrily at Shey. She ignored them, gazing into the area beyond. There were dozens of different types of weapons in here, each one sharp and deadly. There were several racks of them on one wall, while the other held a wide assortment of bits and pieces of armor.
Between the two walls was a sandpit, which currently held two pit fighters training together while a crowd surrounded them, jeering and yelling. Beyond the walls were halls, with cells lined up along the walls. Shey shivered, then proceeded to find a corner to hide in.
After some time of watching the other fighters, a young woman around Shey’s age approached her. Shey watched her from the corner of her eye, while focusing some of her attention on the pit before her. The woman, like Shey, hand long, thick black hair. Where Shey’s locks were curly, however, the woman’s hair was straight. She had an olive complexion, and her dark eyes were almond shaped.
She must be from the other side of the world, Shey thought. Few ships had been built to withstand the harsh, wild waters that stretched west beyond the land of Screndon, and those who made the perilous journey were trapped at sea for months on end.
The woman leaned against the wall beside Shey, folding her arms across her chest. She nodded to Shey and said, “I’m Tora. You must be the Ranger.”
Shey nodded. Tora laughed and said, “Trust me, I’m not here to kill you. If I wanted you dead, you wouldn’t have taken one step farther into this hell hole.”
Shey narrowed her eyes. “Forgive me,” she said. “But you must understand why I would be suspicious.”
Tora smiled, revealing a set of sharp, pointed fangs. Shey blinked in surprise. Is she Ferren? She thought. Tora didn’t seem to notice the Ranger’s momentary confusion as she murmured, “Then you’re smart.” She smiled. “Don’t worry,” she said. “You might not know you can trust me now, but I know you can. And for now, I suppose that’s all that matters.”
Shey scoffed. Not likely, she grumbled to herself. Out loud, she asked, “What is this? Why do we have free access to weapons? Why is no one locked up in their cells?”
Tora laughed. She ducked her head and kicked at the sand, but there was no humor to any of her gestures. Anger and menace rolled off her in waves as she said, “How else would the pit masters expect us to keep up our strength in battle? If we don’t train and condition ourselves, then we die very quickly in the pit. And that’s poor entertainment for the people.”
Shey frowned. “But what’s stopping them from fighting back?”
The pit fighter laughed again. “Look up,” she said. Shey looked up. High above her were balconies overlooking the cells and training pit. Spaced out evenly among the balconies were black-armored guards, each of them armed with curved, deadly scimitars and huge, powerful longbows. Shey’s arms and shoulders twitched at the sight of the deadly long-range weapons. She missed her bow. She felt naked without her ekrets, but she felt stripped and bare without her bow. She had spent many months forging it from the wingbone of a dragon, and many months more etching elven runes and symbols into the limbs. It was a part of her, and the bastard Rashid had stripped her of her most powerful weapon.
“Every fighter here has some sort of magical ability,” Tora said. “The guards have the power to block our senses, and our magic. They’re called Obstructors. It’s because of them that no one’s ever been able to escape. They allow us to train, but nothing else. No long-range weapons are allowed in the pits, period. That’s the one thing they can’t block.” She smirked and looked over at Shey. “Especially if they have an Azkadian Ranger in their midst.”
Shey scoffed again, but she smiled.
As the morning wore on, Shey and Tora watched the fighters train together. Shey also glanced around at the different fighters that lounged around lazily on the outer walls of the cell barracks. She observed everyone in sight, her heart racing as she searched for any signs of weakness from anybody. They were few and far between.
Tora explained to Shey how the systems worked. She gestured to the barracks and said, “This is one set of barracks in the entire arena. The other is on the other side of the block. We all belong to the king, and so none of us will ever face each other in the pits.”
Shey nodded. “How often do we fight?” she asked.
Tora cocked her head to the side, considering. Finally she said, “Fighting season is in the summer season, when there’s not much to do and the noblemen and ladies are bored. During fighting season is when we have fights six days a week, and one rest day. During the colder seasons, we only fight on the weekends.”
Shey nodded again. “If we don’t fight each other, then who do we fight?”
Tora shrugged. “Fighters from other houses,” she said. “Pit masters come from all over the kingdom, bringing their best fighters to face off against us.”
“But what if there’s no one to fight?” Shey asked. “What if we need to fight one another in order to have fights?”
Seeming exhausted all of a sudden, Tora’s shoulders slumped as she said, “There’s always someone.” Her eyes glazed over as she stared off into space. “There’s always someone to fight. It’s a never ending hell.”
Her chest constricted as panic threatened to take over. Shey opened her mouth to ask more questions, but was silenced when the gate to the barracks slammed open. The guard that brought Shey in before stepped inside of the barracks, flanked by two others. All of the pit fighters ceased in their activities, watching the guard with intense expressions. Some of them looked like they’d be ill, or they were terrified. Most of them, however, had an excited gleam in their eyes. Shey shivered as she realized these slaves loved to be sent to the pit.
“Listen up!” the guard yelled in the common tongue. He glared at the crowd before him for a moment before saying, “The fighters for tonight are: Tora, J’Haim, Yorud, and Rheem. Shey de Luna!” He sneered at her and growled, “You will be starting the fights, new blood. Now, grab your weapons and get going!”
Tora sighed as she pushed off from the wall, striding to the weapons wall with her head held high. Shey followed, hoping to find a weapon to suit her. She froze in her tracks when the guard yelled, “Ranger! No weapons for you!”
Her eyes widened. “Why not?” She asked Tora, following her and the other three fighters that had been called.
Tora waited until the gate to the barracks slammed shut behind her before saying, “New bloods, like yourself, are forced to fight without a weapon for their first fight.”
“But why?” Shey pressed.
Tora met her gaze and said, “Because your first fight is for your weapon. The first fighter to the weapon and kills the other wins.”
For a moment, Shey couldn’t breathe. Every time she thought she had seen the extent of the brutality of Yidda, she was surprised at some new revelation.
Lyssa, Shey thought mournfully. I miss you.
They were led down a long, curving hallway, the walls lined with the occasional guard or torch. As they came closer to the center of the arena, Shey could hear the roars and cheers of a ravenous, bloodthirsty crowd. Her heart rate picked up, and her gums ached as her canines attempted to break through.
A door was opened, and they were shoved into a small, cramped room. Shey grunted as she hit the ground on her hands and knees, and the heavy door slammed shut. She pushed herself to her feet, staring ahead of her. She stepped forward, wrapping her hands around the metal of the barred gate before her. She couldn’t see much, just a huge, sandy pit surrounded on all sides by rows and rows of screaming and cheering Yiddans. The rows extended higher and higher, reaching for the clear, desert skies above.
“You’re first, new blood,” one of the fighters growled at her. He was bald, with a long, brown beard. He was covered in tattoos and muscle, and he sported two double-bladed axes.
Shey looked to Tora, and she nodded. “Just step out,” she said. Then she smiled. “See you on the other side, Ranger.”
Shey stared at the other woman for a moment longer, then she faced the arena again. At the other end, she saw another barred gate like hers swing open, and a young man around her age stepped out. She took a deep breath, untied her cloak, and let it drop to the sandy floor. She rolled her shoulders, took one more breath, then opened the gate and stepped out.
Bright sunlight assaulted her eyes, causing her to squeeze them shut. She blinked several times, allowing her eyes to adjust to the bright light. The crowd roared, urging Shey and her opponent to fight. She glanced at him from across the arena, noting the fearful expression on his face. He searched frantically for any chance of escape, and that’s when Shey noticed the bright flash of silver in the middle of the arena.
Her ekrets were laid out neatly in the middle of the arena, the blades half drawn from their sheaths. One handle was facing her, while the other faced her opponent. She met the young man’s gaze, and she knew that he had seen the weapons as well. A second passed between them while the crowd roared for the fight to start, for blood to flow.
Shey lunged forward.
The crowd cheered. Now the fight would begin! Shey raced for her blades, gritting her teeth. Her breathing came in short, ragged gasps and her head swam. Her gums and jaw ached, her inner beast begging for freedom. She ignored it, shoving it back into its cage.
Shey cried out as the earth moved beneath her. Sand fell away as the earth was torn into pieces, revealing cold, dark caverns below. Struggling to keep her footing, Shey glanced over at her opponent. He had stomped his feet into the earth, his hands raised to command the sands.
Earth magic, Shey thought. She snarled, then cast her senses out, searching for any water she could find. She sensed a barrel of water nearby, behind one of the barred doors lined along the walls of the arena. Shey jumped from the roiling earth, rolling on the ground before pushing herself to her feet. She spread her arms, summoning the water. It obeyed her command, breaking free from the barrel.
She froze the water and shot a volley of ice spikes at her opponent, forcing him to use the earth to shield his body. He allowed the earth to fall, then he began throwing chunks of earth at her. Shey dodged each projectile as it was thrown towards her, calling the water back to her as she passed. As she neared the man, she thrust her hands forward, sending the water at him. It consumed him, throwing him into a swirling vortex before the heat of the desert evaporated the water.
The man collapsed to the ground, gasping and spluttering. Shey lunged forward, wrapping her fingers around the hilt of the ekret facing her. She drew it, then reached for her second blade.
Shey cried out as she was brought to the ground, her foot and ankle swallowed by the earth. She glanced at her foot, then back to her enemy. He had drawn her other blade, and she raised her own weapon in time to block his downward strike. She circled her ekret, redirecting his strike and sending him stumbling away. Shey grunted, pulling her foot free of the earth. She scrambled to her feet, then descended upon the other fighter.
He defended himself with seconds to spare, and they began dueling back and forth. Shey struck at him and he blocked, throwing a kick at her knees. She danced away, then blitzed him as he lost his footing. He struck at her blindly, and she saw her opportunity. She trapped his hand, disarmed her weapon from him, then spun around to sweep his legs out from underneath him.
He grunted as Shey rose up once again, pointing the tips of her blades at him as he pushed himself to his knees. She aimed one at his heart, the other at his stomach. They both gasped for breath, glaring at one another.
“Do it,” he growled. “Or they will.”
She narrowed her eyes and glanced over her shoulder. Sure enough, on a podium high above the spectators, Shey could see a line of Obstructors aiming their bows at them. She grit her teeth and growled, her fangs poking through her gums. She glanced back at the man again, searching his face.
He’s just a boy, Shey realized. Because of his height and broad shoulders, he appeared to be in his early twenties. But Shey could clearly see now that he couldn’t be more than seventeen.
“Do it!” he snapped. “Kill me.” He swallowed, throat working furiously as fear mixed in with the anger and defiance on his face. “Please,” he begged. “Please, kill me. I’ve been fighting for so long…”
A soft, hot desert breeze played with the end of Shey’s braid, the loose layers tickling her cheeks. Distantly, she could hear the crowd screaming at her to end him. She heard several boos, and her inner beast snarled in response. She sighed and closed her eyes, sending a silent prayer to any god that would listen.
Please, she begged. Don’t damn me to any of the hells for what I’m about to do. I only want to see my loved ones again.
“I hope you find peace,” she whispered to the boy. She lowered her weapons and bowed her head. Then, releasing a horrible shriek, she crossed her blades over his throat, and sliced him open.
The boy’s eyes widened and he gripped his throat with both hands. Blood spilled down both corners of his mouth, down his neck, and over his hands. After gasping and gurgling for several seconds, he toppled over and was still. Blood flowed out around him, darkening the hot sand around him.
The crowd, momentarily silent, roared in approval. The people stood and stomped their feet, cheering and whooping. Shey glared at them for a moment, then she stepped to her sheaths abandoned in the middle of the arena. She grabbed them, sheathed her ekrets, and slung her weapons over her shoulders. As she pulled the straps into an X across her chest, she noticed the boy’s blood streaked across her knuckles.
Feeling eyes on her, Shey let her gaze travel along the roaring crowd until she saw him. Rashid. She snarled, her fangs bared. Her senses were heightened, and she could hear everything. Rashid smiled and held up a coin purse. He jiggled it, allowing her to hear the heavy coins clinking from within.
Rage overwhelmed her, and for the first time in her life, she wanted to give in to the wild beast, to rip and tear through the crowd. But to do so in Yin Ha Dan would be suicide. So, she turned and strode away, keeping her head held high.
Borryn help you, she thought. I will be free of this place, and I will find you. And once I do, I am going to rip your throat out with my teeth. Borryn help you…
Tora frowned and looked over at Shey. “Um… your cell?” she answered.
Shey shook her head. “No,” she said. She gestured to the walls. “This.”
“Oh…” Tora dropped her gaze to the sandy floor. She created a swirling design with the toe of her boot before saying, “Those are the names of every fighter that’s bunked in this cell.”
Shey stepped into her cell, eyes wide. The walls were covered with carvings of names in all types of languages. She saw Yiddan, Rhenosi, Azkadian, Eranosi, Interian… There had to be hundreds of names.
“Yin Ha Dan is the oldest fighting pit in the kingdom,” Tora said. “It’s at least five thousand years old. Every pit fighter at one point in their lives fear that they won’t be leaving anything behind, so it’s an unspoken tradition for us to carve our names into the walls. That way, at least our names are left in the world.”
Shey gently traced a few of the names with her fingers, staring at them sadly. She glanced around the cell, noting the small cot in the corner, a waste bucket in the other corner. There was a small, barred window above her cot, and through the bars she could see the clear night sky.
She turned to face Tora, tossing her cloak onto the cot. She met the other woman’s gaze and said, “I’m not staying here. I will break out.”
Tora laughed. “How?” she said. “How do you plan on breaking out of here?”
Shey shrugged. “I don’t know yet,” she said. “But I know I will. My friends are coming for me.”
Tora threw her head back and roared in laughter. Once she had calmed down, she wiped a tear from her eye and said, “I’m sorry, but how are you so sure that they’ll make it? Yin Ha Dan is hundreds of leagues from the ocean, and there’s all sorts of dangers in the desert. Never mind the sandstorms, scorpions, and snakes, but there are also bandits and bounty hunters. Yidda is a wild land, with barbaric people and creatures.” She stepped close to Shey, standing a few inches taller than her. Tora looked down at Shey and said, “How can you believe that they will make it?”
“Because I have to,” Shey snarled. “I have no choice but to believe it. Otherwise, I may not have the strength to survive this hell.”
Tora gave her a soft, sad smile. “I admire your optimism,” she said, stepping back. “But it’s useless. We were all hopeful once. Believe me, I’ve attempted to escape many times in the years I’ve been a prisoner. And each time I was thrown into solitary as punishment, I lost more hope. I lost faith.” A dead expression entered her eyes as she whispered, “There’s only one escape, and that’s death. Whether it’s by your hand, or your opponent in the arena.”
Shey shook her head. “That’s not true,” she insisted. “There’s at least one person who escaped.”
Tora laughed. “Yeah, I knew him,” she said. “His name was Gavin. I’m sure that the Sand Cobras have finished him.”
Shey shook her head again, persistent. “No,” she growled. “He’s still alive! He’s one of my best friends.”
Tora frowned, her dark brows pulling close together. “What? You’re sure?”
“Yes!” Shey exclaimed. “He’s a Ranger, like me. His mentor was the man who broke him out of here, and he took Gavin to Azkadia, to train as a Ranger.”
Tora blinked, her eyes wide. Then she sighed, shook her head, and reached into a pocket. She withdrew a key and tossed it to Shey. As she caught it in her hand, Tora said, “The barracks are always locked, but the cells don’t need to be. However, I’d suggest locking yourself in for a while. You’re young, and beautiful. And you still have fight in you. Some of the men in here like that.”
As the meaning behind Tora’s words sunk in, Shey shivered. “What about you?” she asked.
When she smiled, Shey felt a sliver of fear as Tora said, “They’ve learned long ago that I’m not so… willing to play. Good night, Shey de Luna. Sleep well. You have another fight tomorrow.”
Tora turned and stepped out of the cell, closing the barred door behind her. After standing there for a moment, dumbstruck, Shey hurried to the door, turned the key, and stepped away. Better safe than sorry, she thought.
Keeping her attention on the door, Shey backed up until the back of her knees made contact with the cot. She lowered herself onto the rough bedding, her hands trembling. She looked up at the window, scrutinizing the distance between the bars. She sighed in disappointment. She may be small, but she wasn’t small enough to squeeze between the bars.
Her gaze traveled down the wall, taking in more of the names, until her blood ran cold and she froze. She leaned in closer to the wall, staring at the name before her. It was written in Azkadian, and she’d know that handwriting anywhere. She stroked her fingers over Gavin’s name, her heart racing.
I’m in his old cell, she thought. She knew he had been through hell and back when he was fighting for the pit masters. She knew his entire life story. She just never thought she’d be living it.
Before she could stop them, the tears were streaking down her face. She slid from the edge of the cot, her back pressing against the harsh metal. She leaned against the wall and drew her knees to her chest. She wrapped her arms around her legs, burying her face in her kneecaps. Sobs shook her body, and without Lyssa’s presence there, she felt truly alone.
You’re never alone, Borryn whispered to her. She felt his cold presence brush up against her, sending chills to her bones. I’ll always be here for you.