The walls shook with the cheers of the audience, and I knew one of the fighters had made a good hit. Judging by the way everyone suddenly became quiet, I guessed the match was a few seconds away from ending, depending on whether or not the losing man was able to rise up from the mats.
In the short amount of time I had left to prepare, I began counting my breaths to center my mind. One breath in, one breath out. Focusing solely on the steady beat of my heart and the slow rhythm of my breathing, I began to shut out all distractions. Once centered, I slowly expanded my concentration to each of the senses, beginning with sight.
Opening my eyes, I took in my surroundings, honing my eyes on every little detail, and blocking out the rest of the world around me. I studied each crack stretching from the floor, up the gray, dank concrete walls, and finally touching the ceiling, which was covered in cobwebs and had probably not seen a fresh coat of paint since the day it was built. I noticed the singular picture on the wall that portrayed a man and his opponent, faced off, sword in hand. I watched as dust rained down and the picture shook from the impact of a thousand stomping feet and clapping hands. I saw the thin thread of light at the bottom of the steel door, with the rays reaching out like hands through the darkness of the practice room.
Then, I opened my ears, hearing the rumble of the crowd and the boom of the announcer, followed by the sound of a gong, signaling the end of a match. My time was coming soon, but still, I focused solely on the sounds around me. I heard the beat of my own heart, drumming steadily in my chest, and if I focused hard enough, I could hear the beating of the fighters’ hearts as they entered the arena for the next round. I honed in on every whoosh of air as I breathed, staying perfectly still and relaxed with my body. Not a muscle moved, allowing me to pick up every sound surrounding me until eventually, I moved on.
Breathing in through my mouth, I tasted the saltiness of the layers of sweat coating the mats, and the faint metallic taste of the blood spilled every training session, mostly masked by the chemical of the disinfectant used to clean it up afterward. I tasted the dirt in the air, swallowing in an attempt to bring moisture to my lips before moving on.
I closed my mouth to breathe in through my nose, taking in the multitude of scents surrounding me. I was overwhelmed by the scent of sweat contrasting with the harsh cleaning chemicals, but pushed it out of my mind, focusing instead on the buried smells that were harder to sense. I smelled the mold growing in one corner of the room close to the ceiling, followed by the faint scent of burning from the last session when Knox had worked with me on controlling and fighting with flames, a very effective tool to use on the local shifter population. I bet the smell would last for weeks before it was masked by the smell of the blood from the hand to hand combat sessions.
Finally, I focused on touch. I opened my mind, feeling my sturdy combat shoes planted firmly on the ground, and the air brushing across my arms as it moved around the room. I felt the way my long pants and tight shirt clung to my body, the stretch of the fabric allowing for full freedom of movement. Moving my hands across my body, I felt the heat of my runes light up as I passed over them, the magic calling to me, feeding strength into my limbs and urging me to call it forth from the depths. It wasn’t time for that, however, as I knew I could only use it discretely or else risk being discovered. The heat cooled as my hands moved on, eventually crossing over every rune to awaken the magic, just in case I may need it later.
In my focus, I picked up on things normal humans wouldn’t be able to sense. This was my secret. It was what made me feared. What made me deadly.
I slowly began limbering my muscles, beginning with simple warmups, slowly getting faster and adding more complicated moves, focusing on the precision and control of every movement until my muscles became limber and a small sweat began forming on my brow.
With one more sound of the gong, I knew the fight before mine was finally coming to an end, and it was my turn in the ring next. The walls shook once more with the rumble of the crowd as I made my way through the tunnel to the arena floor, waiting just inside the shadows until my name was called. I peeked out as Knox took the stage, preparing to recite his normal introduction for the final fight, and getting the crowd amped up one last time.
Being the final fight was no joke. It was the fight that sold the most tickets, inevitably making it the most interesting, and gaining the most profits for the ring owners. In Knox’s arena, it also meant the highest paying fight for the ones involved. If you were selected for the final fight, you could expect a decent paycheck, especially if you won. Personally, I had worked countless hours to earn my position in the final fight, practicing almost constantly until I was the best fighter this arena had ever seen.
I didn’t do it for the money, though, although it was nice to be able to ensure my sister and I had a slight cushion if things suddenly went south one day. But no, the main reason I trained so hard was because it was the least I could do for Knox after he gave me and my sister a home three years ago when we had nowhere else to go.
I remember the night like it was yesterday. My sister and I had been on the road for almost a year at the time, barely surviving on scraps we found in the trash and whatever small items we could snag from the local shops. Beginning to get desperate, I decided to try and sneak into the local bakery one night to get me and Eleanor our first actual meal since we had fled from our father nearly a year ago. I managed to get in unnoticed, but on my way out, a local shifter gang caught sight of my food, deciding to try and steal it from me. Trapped in the alleyway, I had two choices. Give up my food, or stand and fight. Normally I would avoid the fight, but Eleanor had recently become ill, and she desperately needed the food, so I took the second option.
The moment they saw me ready to fight, two of the four men shifted, barreling towards me at full speed. Two wolves, I would have been able to handle, but a wolf and a bear was a completely different story. Still, I fought with all I had, instantly sweeping my right hand over one of the runes on my shoulder to call my sword. As it flashed into existence, I saw the two beasts widen their eyes, but we all knew I was still no match for them, especially not with their two buddies for backup. I fought with all I had, managing to take down the three wolf shifters before the final bear shifter swiped out with his massive paw, raking the sharp claws across my chest and down my arms. Being already covered in gashes from the others, I was unable to hold my weight up, and I collapsed, bracing myself for the final blow that would end my life.
But the blow never came, and as I finally gathered the strength to look up, I saw a middle-aged man standing over the bloodied body of the bear shifter, looking straight into my eyes. The last thing I remember before the world went black was him walking over and taking me into his arms, urging me not to give up yet.
Soon after I woke up, I learned that the man’s name was Knox, and in exchange for giving me and my sister a place to stay, he would train me to fight in his arena, marking the beginning of the latest chapter of our life. Three years later, here I am, still fighting for Knox, who has quickly become like an uncle to me and Eleanor both.
I was jerked out of my thoughts as Knox’s loud voice boomed over the stadium, introducing me as the final fighter. With that as my signal, I entered into the light, crossing into my corner of the arena to look over my opponent and complete my final preparations for the fight.
Looking across the arena, I laid eyes on the man I was up against for the night. He must have been a bear shifter or something of the like because he was easily a foot taller than me with twice as much muscle, and the smirk he was giving me was one I was very familiar with. It was the one that all fighters wore when they saw me. My shorter stature and thin frame made them immediately pin me as an easy target. Well, there was also one other reason for their inaccurate assessment. That being, I was a girl.
Being the only female fighter in Knox’s ring had its challenges, but it also came with a few advantages, as most opponents instantly underestimated me, making careless mistakes that I could easily exploit. However, it also caused Knox to go twice as hard on me in training, claiming I needed to be prepared for anything that came my way. I had come a long way in my fighting skills these past three years, but I was still not invincible. But I knew that, and it only pushed me to be even better, because I didn’t just have myself to look after, but Eleanor as well.
Soon after I was done looking over my opponent, the bell rang, beginning the fight. Immediately, the man rushed straight towards me from the other end of the ring. What an idiot. In the short time it took him to near me, I concluded he was a very straight-forward fighter that was used to being on the offensive. He used his strength and size to his advantage, but either failed to see the downsides of this method or refused to acknowledge it: he had less agility, and would quickly wear himself out, something I definitely planned to use to my advantage.
As soon as he got close, I ducked down to roll out of the way, swinging my leg out afterward to take his feet out from under him. His momentum sent him sprawling, and as he got back up to his feet, I saw the rage on his face.
“Not bad for a girl, huh?” I teased, making him cry out in rage and run at me again. Normally, I would assume he was just stupid for doing the same move twice, but then again, he had made it to the final round too, so there was no way he was that dumb. The better guess was that he anticipated me making the same move as well, and was prepared to knock me out as I did so. But I wasn’t that stupid either. Instead, I squatted down, letting my hands pass over the runes on my thighs, giving me an extra boost before I jumped up to meet him head-on. The man’s eyes got so wide they nearly popped out of his head as I used my smaller body size to enable me to bring my legs up underneath me in mid-air, kicking them out to hit him square in the shoulders. My momentum sent me backward and I rolled to get back on my feet. Before he was able to get all the way back up, another well-placed kick to the kidneys sent him sprawling back down.
Now he was really mad. Jumping up, he swung his fist around to meet my face. Bad move. I grabbed his arm, using the momentum and a little extra boost from the rune on my shoulder to flip him over and send him flying onto his back. If that didn’t knock him out nothing would.
Sure enough, it did the trick, and the sound of the gong announced the end of the fight. The crowds went wild as Knox climbed into the stadium to formally announce me the winner, his face practically glowing with pride. No matter how many fights I won, he always had that same proud look, and that, more than anything was why I fought every match. As soon as he was done announcing the official results, I headed off stage to the practice room I warmed up in.
Panting hard, I took a minute to let the adrenaline fade from my system and focused on my breathing to slow my heart rate down. As my muscles became a little less tired, I began doing some basic stretches to ensure I wasn’t too sore tomorrow. I always got a day off training after winning a fight, but I’d have to be ready to go after that. Knox didn’t take it easy on me by any means.
I didn’t blame him, though. Living in Euphom was tough, especially for a girl. Gang violence was huge, and rapes and beatings were a common occurrence. Basically, if you didn’t know how to defend yourself you were as good as dead, especially if you were a female. Girls often didn’t leave the house without a man’s protection if they couldn’t fight, and those that did often didn’t make it very long.
Shifters were the worst about it, blaming their barbaric behavior on their animal half, saying that it takes over their mind and rules their actions. They would make gangs and packs, relying on numbers and brute strength to take what they wanted and obliterate anyone that went against them. If you weren’t prepared, they could be deadly.
Mages were a little better, but you had to be really careful not to get on their bad side. They were known to have a temper, and a mage always held a grudge. You never knew when they were gonna get their payback, and they always had sneaky ways of doing it. Everyone knew magic was not to be messed with lightly.
Eleanor and I were lucky to have survived as long as we did. Our only defense at the time was staying hidden, and for the most part, it did the trick, especially with Elle’s cool cloaking trick and her insane ability to sneak into places.
I was broken out of my thoughts when Knox made his way in a few minutes later, passing me some water to let me have a couple of sips. “Good fight tonight, Adelaide. You really got the crowd worked up this time. They loved it! He didn’t even get a single hit in!” He praised, giving me a hug to congratulate me.
“Thanks, Knox,” I replied, “but you’re kinda squeezing my air supply off.” I winced, and he pulled back instantly.
“Sorry! Didn’t mean to hurt you!” He said quickly. As he looked up, I noticed the tears in his eyes, and a wall of dread slammed into me. Knox never cried. I’d been with him three years now and not once had I seen that man shed a tear.
“Knox? Are you crying?” I asked worriedly, praying he had some excuse. Maybe he had gotten some dust in his eyes or something. He couldn’t be tearing up, right?
“Oh, that? I’m just so happy to see how far you’ve come. It seems like only yesterday I was carrying you in my arms after that attack, and I have worried for you every day since then.”
“Hey, it’s okay I’m fine now. You saved me and Eleanor both. And I can defend us now. Even Eleanor knows self-defense. What’s this all about?” I asked, worrying what was wrong. I instantly began scanning my surroundings for threats, quickly picking up on the pitter-patter of footsteps, ending with the crashing open of the door. I turned around, reaching my arms out just in time to catch Eleanor as she flung herself into my arms for a hug.
“You were amazing out there! That was so cool! He was like ‘AGHHHH’ and you were like ‘swoosh swoosh, bang bang’ and then he was out! And you won!” She squealed as she pulled back from her hug. Eleanor had to be the most enthusiastic person I had ever met. She was 18 years old, and there was not a single moment I had ever seen her not have a smile on her face. And I loved her for it. She was my world, and I had promised myself I would do whatever it took to keep that smile there forever.
“All in a day’s work, Elle,” I replied, grabbing her blonde side braid and tugging it a little, causing her to stick her tongue out in response.
“Meanie! Do you even know how long it took to get my hair this perfect?” She asked with feigned exasperation.
“Oh, I don’t know, about thirty seconds!” I mocked, smirking at her and sneaking a peek at Knox out of the corner of my eye. Even with Elle here, I couldn’t get his tears out of my head, and the feeling of dread was only growing. But where I expected there to be lingering sadness in his eyes, I saw only love and happiness as he watched Elle and I banter.
“Alright, I better get going, girls. I don’t think we have anything to eat, so you might as well grab a quick bite on your way out. Will y’all be alright walking home alone?” Knox asked, effectively ending the teasing between me and my sister.
“We’ll be fine Knox! We walk home every day,” Elle said, exasperated at his overprotectiveness. I, however, understood where he was coming from.
“I know that, Elle,” Knox sighed, walking over to give her a hug. “I just worry.”
“We’ll be fine, Knox,” I replied, reaching in to join the hug, taking comfort in the makeshift family we had become. As Knox came out of the hug, he reached up to cup my face, looking me straight in the eyes.
“Remember what I taught you, Adelaide Hursten. And remember you are always stronger than you believe, and smarter than you think. I love you girls more than you will ever know, and that will never change. Trust your gut, girls. It won’t lead you astray.” I was taken aback by the solemn look in his eyes, and could barely form words to reply.
“Alright, Knox. We’ll see you at home,” I said, refusing to see this as a goodbye, no matter how much my gut told me it may be. There was no way I was going to let anything rip apart this family I had found. With those words, I gripped Eleanor’s hand, and we walked out of the building towards home.
About five minutes later, we decided to stop at the local burger joint, sitting down for a quick bite that gave us a chance to chat a little. Well, for Elle to chat, at least. I hardly got a word in between her stories of all the hot boys she saw when she was at the market today, but I was okay with that. If anyone could lighten my mood, it was Elle, and before long I had forgotten all about the foreboding feeling I had when we said goodbye to Knox.
Leaving a few coins on the table for the food, we headed the rest of the way home, chatting and laughing the entire way. As soon as we rounded the corner, however, everything changed as I witnessed the entire life I had built for me and my sister come crashing to the ground.