The crowd roared in approval as Shey kicked the Rhenosi warrior away from her. He stumbled, falling to one knee and dropping his sword. Shey advanced towards him, holding her ekrets loosely at her side. Her head swam, her gums ached, and she could feel Borryn pushing against the barriers of her mind, trying to lend her his strength and power.
Stop it, she snarled, pushing the thought through the cracks in her walls.
Let… me… help, Borryn grunted.
She snarled again, baring her fangs. The Rhenosi scrambled back in fear, his eyes wide and terrified. She stepped forward, shoving away all emotion, even if she felt like falling apart.
“Please,” the Rhenosi begged. “Please, no… don’t…”
She shifted her position on the blades, then swung down towards him with both ekrets. He rolled out of the way, barely avoiding her killing blow. She growled in frustration, turning to follow his movements. He dive rolled towards his sword, grabbed it, then came up on one knee. He raised his sword just in time to block Shey’s next strike as she brought both blades down on him again.
She moved one blade away, swinging at his midsection. He jumped back, avoiding her strike again. She snarled in frustration, hating that he continued to barely avoid death.
The Rhenosi scrambled to his feet, holding his sword out in front of him. “You don’t have to do this,” he pled. “We don’t have to do this.”
Shey paused. “Of course we do,” she said. “Or else they’re going to kill us both.”
The crowd was roaring for them to fight, screaming for blood. Shey’s blood boiled, her head throbbed, and her teeth ached. Her fangs had pushed through all the way now, tickling her bottom lip. The Rhenosi turned his head around, watching the crowd with a sad expression. He sighed and looked at Shey, resolve settling into the features of his face. “Very well, then,” he said. “May the best warrior win.”
It was too easy. He roared a battle cry and charged, holding his sword above his head. Shey crossed her blades over her chest and shifted to the left, dodging him. As he raced past she let one blade whip out, cutting at the tendons between his heel and calf. The Rhenosi screamed in agony and stumbled, blood pouring out of his wound. He kept his weight on one leg, unable to put any on the other. When he raised his sword and turned to defend himself, Shey had already stabbed both ekrets into his back.
The crowd roared in approval, screaming in harsh Yiddish as they basked in the bloody death. Shey pulled her blades out of the body, watching as it crumpled to the ground. She flicked her weapons, getting rid of some blood. She sheathed her ekrets, turned, and strode from the arena, keeping all emotion stripped from her face.
“How are you feeling?”
Shey peeled her eyes open, looking at Tora through bleary eyes. The pit fighter stood in the doorway to Shey’s cell, leaning against the door jamb with her arms crossed over her chest. There was noise and chaos behind her, the fighters scrambling over each other towards the main entrance. Shey groaned and pushed herself into a sitting position on her cot, rubbing gently at her throbbing temples.
“Like I’ve just been swallowed, chewed up, and spit out by a dragon,” she grumbled. She pushed herself to her feet, stumbling slightly.
Tora frowned. “You look like hell,” she mused.
Shey glared at her. Tora only shrugged and jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “Food’s here,” she said. “Let’s go get something before all of the good stuff is taken.”
Shey nodded and followed Tora as she left the cell. She blinked against the bright sunlight shining down on them from above. Tiny dust and sand motes floated around in the air, tickling her nose as she followed behind Tora.
As they approached nearby fighters spotted Shey and Tora. Three of them turned and folded huge arms across their chests, staring down at the two women. The one in the center, the tattooed, bearded fighter named J’Haim, sneered at them. “What do you little ladies want?”
“Let us pass,” Tora growled.
He laughed. “You know the rules,” he said. “First come, first bite. You have to wait your turn.”
Shey snarled, allowing her fangs to grow and sharpen. She bared them at J’Haim, and fear flickered across his face when he saw her pupils narrow into slits and her eyes started to glow.
“You heard her,” Shey snarled. “Let us pass.”
J’Haim gulped and nodded, gesturing for his followers to step aside. Shey and Tora stepped between them, heads held high. Tora was smiling victoriously, but Shey scowled. In the pits, she discovered that every day was a constant fight for life. She may not be put up against other fighters from her arena, but they still battled constantly when they weren’t in front of the crowd. Shey constantly fought for food, water, clothing, and any other small comfort she could find. Sometimes, the men would fight over the prettiest girl in the barracks.
The morning after Shey’s first fight, one of the fighters from the night before, Yorud, tried to claim her. When Shey stepped out of her cell, he was waiting for her. He had grabbed her arms and pushed her against one of the walls out of the guard’s line of sight. He began tearing at her clothes, and it was only her training that saved her from him. She had driven her knee up into his groin, then swiftly again into his gut. She twisted her hips and stepped into a stance, driving her elbow into his chest. Several cracks filled the air as she broke a few ribs, and he had to be taken to the infirmary.
When the guards returned, they came for Shey. They had grabbed her, using their Obstruction magic to block her senses as they dragged her over to the center of the training pit. Fighters gathered around the edges, watching as a guard brought a tall, thick pillar to the center. Another brought a stand, and it wasn’t until she was being strapped down that Shey realized she was attached to a whipping post.
She was given twenty lashes, five for each rib broken. When they finished with her, they unshackled her and let her collapse to the sand. She dimly remembered one of the guards speaking to the other fighters, reminding them that violence with one another wasn’t tolerated.
Shey was forced to fight again that night, and as she lay bleeding and shivering in her cell, Tora came in to tend to her wounds and give her new clothes. Gone was Shey’s Ranger uniform, the clothes that had told others of her status for nearly a decade. All she had left was her training and her ekrets.
The two women made their way to the front of the crowd, Shey snarling at every fighter that threatened them. When they finally received their plates of food, Shey and Tora made their way back to Shey’s cell. They each sat on opposite corners of Shey’s cot, silently picking at their food.
A soft knock on the brick wall brought their attention to the doorway. One of the fighters, a skinny, wiry man named Rheem, was standing at the entrance to her cell. He looked over his shoulder and scuffled inside, holding his arms around his torso. His black, greasy hair was disheveled, and he looked like he had bathed in a sewer. Shey wrinkled her nose as he approached. He smelled like one, too!
“What are you doing here?” Shey demanded, eyeing him warily. Rheem made a strange laughing, chittering sound as he crouched beside her, looking up at her with wide eyes.
“I got a new stash,” he chattered, chuckling and glancing over his shoulder again. When he looked back at Shey he said, “The guards won’t like that I smuggled this in, but the profits are going to be worth it!”
“Get out of here, Rheem,” Tora snapped. Rheem hissed at her and turned back to Shey, smiling and still chittering.
“I know you don’t sleep well,” he said. “But I can help you with that! I smuggled in some dream root, stuff that only rajhe’s use.”
Tora lurched to her feet, a fire blazing in her eyes. “I said get out of here,” she snapped. She grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, dragged him to the doorway, and tossed him out.
Rheem scrambled to his feet and snarled at her again. He peered past her to Shey, eyes wide and hopeful. “If you want any,” he chattered, “then let me know! I’ll make it worth your while.”
Tora stepped towards him and he scurried away, chittering and laughing. Tora sighed and shook her head, returning to join Shey on the cot.
“What was that about?” Shey asked. “What’s dream root?”
“A drug,” Tora grumbled, picking at her food again. “Rajhes use small doses to help ease pain in their patients, but too much will cause a high. When you sleep with dream root in your system, you don’t have dreams at all, and if there are any spirits plaguing you, it chases them away. It’s extremely addictive, and it kills you slowly.”
Shey nodded. “Note to self: stay away from dream root. Got it.” She turned back to her food, her head spinning. She never liked drugs, not even painkillers that healers had told her to use whenever she was injured. She never drank alcohol, for fear of losing control and finding herself in a situation she couldn’t escape. And yet, this dream root sounded intriguing, if only for the possibility of chasing Borryn away.
Shey didn’t fight again that weekend, for which she was grateful. However, she learned from Tora that the fighting season would begin the following week, and Shey would be the first fighter. She trained with Tora whenever possible, learning about the many different types of fighters she may encounter while in the arena. When she slept at night, Borryn continued to whisper to her, begging her to let him in, to teach her. She continued pushing him away, but every night became more of a struggle.
When the first night of the fighting season came, Shey readied herself, with Tora’s help. They dressed and helped each other put their armor on in Shey’s cell, and Tora tied the Ranger’s hair back in a tight, neat braid. Shey moved methodically, her mind far away as she got ready.
Soon enough, guards arrived to gather the fighters for the night. Shey and Tora walked side-by-side, lending each other strength. Not for the first time, Shey was grateful for the warrior. It had taken her weeks to learn to trust the woman, but Tora was patient.
“Good luck,” Tora whispered as Shey walked past her to the gate leading into the arena. Shey grinned and nodded in response, then she stepped through.
The crowd roared, chanting as Shey entered the arena. They clapped and cheered, stomping their feet against the stands as they chanted, “Ranger! Ranger! Ranger!” She reached behind her and drew her ekrets, twirling them once. The crowd roared in approval.
The gate at the other end opened, and a man stepped through. The two fighters made their way towards each other, planning to meet in the center. Shey frowned as they came closer, noting the man’s long, dark hair and lightly tanned skin. He had tattoos on his face, neck, and arms, and as they came closer she realized they were Interian symbols. Her heart froze and her breathing ceased. He was an Interian.
He noticed her ears as they came closer and he asked her something in Ferren. She shook her head, indicating that she didn’t know the language. He sighed in frustration then spoke in Interian, a language she had not heard in sixteen years.
“Are you Ferren?” he asked.
Shey nodded. “And Interian,” she answered.
“We don’t have to fight each other,” he said. “We can refuse.”
Shey shook her head and gestured to the roaring crowd, their volume rivaling that of a storm on the sea. “They will kill us both,” she insisted.
He frowned. “Pack before Blood,” he said, speaking in a strong, confident voice.
Her heart broke at the words. Pack before Blood was the Interian mantra, a phrase full of many different meanings. It was two soldiers fighting side by side, protecting one another as if they were brothers. It was a village coming together to give aid to a poor, traveling homeless man on the verge of death. It was the king and queen offering shelter to refugees, people that nobody knew, yet still loved because they were a pack.
It should have been two Interians choosing to stand, and die, together in the heat of hell in a Yiddan fighting pit. It should have been the two of them choosing to die together instead of spill one another’s blood. But Shey couldn’t do that. She was terrified of what might happen.
She shook her head. “I can’t,” she whispered.
He narrowed his eyes and glared at her. “Then you’ve forsaken your right to be Interian,” he snarled. He drew the two short, curved swords strapped to his belt and attacked. Shey cried out in surprise, rolling to side to avoid his killing blow.
The crowd thundered in approval, changing and screaming for blood. Shey kicked a leg out, sand spraying everywhere as she knocked the legs of the Interian out from under him. He grunted as he hit the ground, raising one sword to block Shey’s attack and throwing the other out to stab at her. She twisted out of the way, hissing as the sharp blade sliced against the skin of her waist. She dropped one ekret to slice at his arm, but he dropped it and rolled out of the way.
They both jumped to their feet, weapons pointing towards each other. They began to circle one another, eyes narrowed. His pupils were icy blue, not as pale as Shey’s, but still brilliant. She hated that they had to kill each other.
Shey twisted and turned, stepping in the other direction. He quickly kept pace, stumbling only slightly. She moved to change direction again, and when he turned with her she charged straight at him, her blades slicing at him in a series of complicated combinations. He tried to keep up with her, blocking each of her attacks. She flicked her wrist on one attack, changing the direction of her strike at the last second. Her ekret slashed his forearm open, and he cried out in pain and dropped his sword.
His eyes widened in fear and he tried kicked Shey away, but she raised a knee and blocked him. He stumbled backwards and she blitzed forward, stabbing her forward blade into his chest. He looked down at the blade, then at her. Blood trickled out of the corner of his mouth, and Shey sobbed as she whispered, “I’m sorry.”
He fell back, his heavy body thudding against the sand. Ignoring the cheers of the crowd, Shey turned and hurried away, sheathing her ekrets. When she was in the preparation room and out of the crowd’s sight, she fell to her hands and knees and became violently ill.
After a guard brought her back to the barracks, Shey searched for Rheem. Tora was fighting right now, and she knew that if she didn’t find the little weasel now, then she’d never get another chance.
Rheem was crouched in a corner next to a fighter who was drinking. As Shey approached, however, the fighter scrambled away in fear. Rheem glanced up, met Shey’s gaze and lurched to his feet, scowling.
“You chased away one of my best customers!” he exclaimed.
“Shut up,” Shey growled. She looked over her shoulder, ensuring that Tora wasn’t there. The woman was fast in the arena, and Shey needed to hurry. She met Rheem’s gaze and said, “What do you want for some of that dream root?”
He blinked at her, surprised. Then he smiled slowly, and Shey’s gut twisted. What have I gotten myself into? She thought.