Nahata: Taming Beasts
Sweat coated her chest and back, drenching her hair as her eyes flew open. The smell was suffocating her. Hot bile thickened inside of her throat as she lurched out of bed and staggered to her feet. Her vision just barely caught sight of the shadow as it lunged forward and electricity sparked across her skin.
Nahata threw up her hands as the bolts of lightning hit her palms. The energy wasn’t as painful as she had feared. But then she saw the violet hues of magic wrapping itself across her hands and arms, enveloping her almost tenderly. It was her own magic waking up to protect her.
Nahata sucked down a quick breath as she tried to step backwards and avoid the electricity as well as her own magic. But the room was small and the bed hit the back of her knees. She fell down onto the soft mattress just as the masked figure grabbed hold of both of her wrists. She didn’t know how to tame her own magic but she knew how to physically beat the shit out of someone.
Nahata pulled in her knees then planted both of her feet into her assailant’s chest. She twisted her wrists easily out of the figure’s grasp then, while shouting as loudly as possible, kicked them into the far wall. She couldn’t stop shouting. She rolled up onto her feet all the while screaming. The louder she screamed the more her throat burned and by the time she marched over to the attacker, her muscles coiled tightly around her bones. She snatched hold of the person’s mask, ripping it off of their face, and threw back her fist. But she saw their eyes, young and wide and stupid. She hesitated, fist trembling as she repressed her anger.
Nahata spoke through clenched teeth, “Who sent you? Someone had to have sent you here!”
Their lips parted and perhaps they tried to speak but the words were breathy and muffled. Nahata couldn’t make out anything the youth was saying. She hauled them up onto their feet and over to the bedroom door. Their words became louder and quicker but Nahata couldn’t possibly have understood. And she reasoned, nothing she said would have been understood either.
She shoved them out into the hall and growled, “Next time, you’re dead.”
Nahata stepped backwards into her room and watched the door slide shut. She took down sharp, shaky breaths. Her body was shaking and the magic that had coated her skin earlier was still there. She paced to the other side of the room, furiously shaking her hands in hopes the energy would be thrown away.
The doors opened and Nahata spun around, ready for another attack but Merletta waltzed in. “Awake already? Good. You can get breakfast and start your training.” Her eyes swept over Nahata, scowling at the magic that was seeping into the room. “That’s inappropriate. You need to get rid of all that immediately,” she sassed with a wagging finger. “Get rid of it and head to the cantina for food.”
Nahata’s lips thinned as Merletta left the room. She snatched up the closest object and threw it. The chair slammed hard into the wall but it remained unbroken.
Someone had tried to kill her. A part of her wondered if it had been Merletta. But last night the old crow had been delighted to have her as an initiate. It was someone else. Someone who didn’t like a slave becoming Dev.
She pressed her palms down onto the desk in the corner and took in a slow breath. Whoever it was, she would find them. That is, if they dared to send someone else. It might have been a warning. Gangs in the workcamps did similar little warnings. It was always the same reason; “Don’t oppose us. Don’t get in our way.” Nahata usually ignored the gangs and the meager politics. None of it mattered anyway. Her only focus then and now was staying alive.
She sighed as the magic softened and slipped away. It wasn’t gone. She could still feel it moving under her skin. It took everything in her not to scratch the flesh from her bones to dig it all out. If she thought it would get rid of it all, she might have tried.
She shoved away from the desk and sucked a long breath through her teeth. Breakfast. For now, she would get food and worry about her assassin later.
Nahata trudged down the hallway towards the cantina, the mixed and unfamiliar smells were a little off putting. She didn’t know what food was being cooked but she was certain no slave had ever tasted it.
For a short time she watched the Dev move about the spacious room. She watched them order food by pressing a series of buttons along the wall. They used their card, perhaps the same card she had received yesterday. The guard had mentioned something about using it.
She pulled the thin plastic from her jacket and approached the machines. Just as the person before her had done, she pressed the card onto the wall until the light flashed. She did her best to hide her fear and surprise because anyone who caught a whiff of it might sense weakness.
She memorized the buttons that the person in front of her pressed, copying the exact same movements all the way up until the end of the assembly line where her food was delivered.
Nahata took the tray with confidence then sashayed between the tables without bothering to glance at the other Dev. Her heart was pounding inside of her chest. But she kept her head high even as she sat down with a straight back and picked up her utensil.
She scooped the first bite onto her spoon.
“New around here,” his voice stiffened her grip on the fork. He straddled the bench beside her. She felt the heat of his companions at her back, two of them leering over her shoulder. “Must be. I don’t think I’ve ever seen your face.”
Her lips curled into a cheeky smile, lips parting to speak but then she knew her words would have been wasted. Dealing with the assassin after waking up left her with little patience to deal with moronic bravado.
She knew she didn’t look like a Dev but she thought they would have a little more tact. In the middle of a cantina in front of everyone? Where was the creativity?
The moment he reached out to grab something from her tray, her fist struck forward and connected bluntly into the soft cartilage of his throat. He was caught off guard. So stunned that her other fist cracked into his nose while his equally shocked friends hadn’t stopped her. It wasn’t until he was gasping for air that they made an attempt to grab her.
Nahata spun around and met them at eye level, their masks revealing only their eyes. Their gaze was frozen. Young and frightened as well. But she supposed training facilities always started young. She grabbed the bread from her tray and ripped a piece with her teeth. Nahata nudged her head towards their gasping friend while chewing the oddly sweet bread.
They carefully inched around her and hauled their friend onto his feet. One of them lingered though, his voice softly urging her, “You don’t know what you’ve done.”
She swallowed her food and leaned closer, “I think it’s pretty obvious I punched someone. Twice.”
He stared a moment longer before pulling his coughing friend away.
She watched them move through the cantina, its other patrons barely giving them a glance. Nahata sat down to her meal and gripped the fork again. A second time in one morning she was challenged. She wondered how the Dev ever got anything done with all the postering and drama.
She leaned closer to her meal and shoveled the food into her mouth. All of it was overly sweetened. But the more she ate, the hungrier she grew. Her mouth was watering and she swore she could eat another tray full. Once she finished gobbling down every crumb, she gulped down the water which also seemed to have some sort of added flavor.
Despite how disgusting the Dev were, their food was quite the contrary.
Nahata slid her mask into place and rose to her feet. She would have to somehow track down Merletta and start whatever training the old crow was itching to begin. She figured it would be better to search her office first then work through the rest of the building to the training room.
“You there! Mutt!” He stomped down the walkway towards her table. He wore a great deal of layers, gold and silver stitched along the seams of his attire.
Behind him the young man from earlier was following confidently at his heels. He looked a lot more comfortable with his master to protect him.
“What clan are you with?” He kept walking towards her and he half expected her to back away. When she didn’t, he nearly ran into her, his mask centimeters from her face. “Wolf? A Wolf can’t be so stupid as to attack a Lion.”
Nahata raised her chin, stating the word haughtily, almost jokingly, “Nahata.”
His shoulder rose, chest swelling as he sucked down a breath. He lowered his voice, growling out the words, “A lowly coyote dares to attack my apprentice? What an arrogant piece of shit you are. You don’t even have a clan here to protect you, mongrel.”
She reached up and pinched the bridge of her nose. “You don’t say...”
He reached out and snatched hold of her jacket’s collar. But before he could say or do anything further, the air crackled with magic.
Nahata swallowed down the nausea that tightened in her throat. Her gaze leered down at his frozen hand and stiff arm. His entire form was trembling but he couldn’t move at all. Nahata caught sight of Merletta as she sauntered gingerly towards them.
“Now, now, I do believe you are damaging my most valuable asset.” Merletta’s feathered cape fluttered as she spun on her heel and draped her arm over Nahata’s shoulder. “She might not have a clan but she does have a very impatient mentor waiting for her. And if by chance, little kitten, you are the reason she is late. Well, there must be amends, mustn’t there?”
His voice was low, almost inaudible, “Be careful, Crow. You won’t always have your title to protect you.”
“That sounds like treason. Doesn’t it, initiate?” Merletta rolled her eyes over to Nahata, winking one of them a little too joyfully. “Shall we write a report for the emperor? His Excellency would like to know there is dissent in such a prime and naive place as a training facility.”
The Lion’s jaw clenched. Even beneath his mask, Nahata could see it. “Have it your way. We will dismiss the actions of both our people.”
Merletta’s arm slipped off of Nahata’s shoulder as she stepped closer to the man. Her hand reached up and gripped his mask, her voice hissing into his ear. Nahata couldn’t make out the words but it was clear as he flinched that Merletta had chosen the perfect words to unsettle the man. The magic dissolved away just as the Lion bowed ever so slightly.
Without another word he spun away and snapped his fingers at the waiting youth. Once they were out of view and the cantina’s attention averted, Merletta looked at Nahata.
Nahata shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly. “The Dev are certainly never boring.”
“You’re lucky. Now that I think about it maybe your work camp overseers sent you to me specifically to keep you alive.” She pulled her mask up over her head and ran fingers along her brow. “What a headache.” She put the mask back on and walked towards the door. “Let’s go. We’re already late and you clearly need all the help you can get.”
“I think I’m doing fine so far.”
Merletta grabbed her arm and at first Nahata tried to pull away. But then their arms linked and Merletta’s voice was quieter, “Listen, pup, you’ve no idea. You’ve been strangely protected thus far but Dev kill for survival. It isn’t just an emperor that demands it. It is our own nature that demands it. Only Gods can kill a God.” Her hand tenderly patted Nahata’s. “The more souls we kill, the more power we collect, the stronger we become. And you... you’re a field waiting to be harvested.”
Nahata’s lips tugged downwards in a grimace. “Yeah, thanks for that.”
“Recruits are few because very few live past their training. Accidents happen, as it were.” She chuckled softly, almost fondly about it. “The cantina? That was a show of power. Had I not intervened, that lion would have had the right to challenge you to battle. Should you die in that battle... well, it’s only fair that he takes what is his.”
Nahata clenched her jaw. “So...”
Merletta hummed in agreement. “For now, if someone challenges you, kill them. And when you kill them, you know what to do.”
She stopped suddenly and threw her hands up in a dramatic shrug because it was the only clear way to communicate with her. “No. No, I don’t.”
“Their magic belongs to you, pup. Take it for your own.” Merletta unlinked their arms and marched ahead. “You can fight or you can die. Now, let’s see if you can wield your Devian gifts.”
“That didn’t explain much.”
Her feet shuffled forward but she couldn’t stop thinking about it. Of course, it was fair to defend herself and if killing someone meant her own survival then she would do it. This, however, felt different. This was some sort of sick game the Dev were playing to weed out the weak. It seemed like such a waste of life and yet it all seemed very Devian. She was never good at playing games, though. Perhaps she would have to find alternate rules to the game they created.
Nahata followed her through the large complex to an empty arena. The floor was nothing but dirt. The walls were mostly open archways. The ceiling above was nearly all but absent. A large opening in the arched stone allowed the sun to burn over them and every now and then a gust of wind made its way inside. There were seats along the upper floor that she assumed bystanders could watch and enjoy the fights.
Merletta unclipped her cape and tossed it over the banister along the outer rim of the arena. “Coyotes were known for their desert clans.” She strolled casually along the dirt, kicking it up as her boots scuffed the ground. “The Dev are gods. While humans and elves have their magical limitations, we do not. We can harness true, pure, raw magic. That is how we are different.”
“Then why haven’t the Dev taken over?” Nahata trudged reluctantly behind her. She watched the older woman carefully. There was something about her that always seemed so skeptical.
“To take on your true form, you must draw upon that ancestral energy upon the blood of gods.”
“What nonsense,” she muttered.
“Pay attention. You’ll be fighting for life and death.” She stopped suddenly and looked out over the arena. “Here you will face opponents and it is paramount that you kill them.” Her feet spun until she was facing Nahata, the same giddy smile as earlier. “Go on then. Attack me.”
A laugh rolled from Nahata’s throat. She settled her hands down onto her hips. “I’d love to.”
The thought of killing Merletta was a tempting one. If she even knew where to begin. Her “magic” so far hadn’t been created by her own volition. It had created itself, summoned itself, when it decided its own necessity. She’d spent her whole life with it dormant inside of her. To suddenly take command over it was a joke.
Merletta hummed sweetly then sashayed towards a tower that stood among the stands. “Follow me, initiate. I have a curious idea that needs satiating.”
They climbed six flights of stairs before reaching the top. Nahata took in the lavish chairs posted on the top floor for the more special bystanders. She imagined such rich Dev took joy in watching others fight for power.
“Over here.” She flicked her fingers and grinned like a fine tooth cat. “If you can not tame your abilities, and I do desire to see them at their grandest, there is little we can do.”
“I’m going to regret this,” Nahata mumbled under her breath. But she moved to stand beside her trainer and look down at the dusty arena below.
“Your gauntlet,” Merletta teased. “You won’t need it for this.”
Nahata handed over the simple piece of armor reluctantly. “What are you planning, crone?”
Just as Nahata was turning her head to look at Merletta, the old crow was shoving her over the edge. Nahata fell forward and a scream leapt out of her mouth. It happened in such a frenzy she almost couldn’t process it. As she fell downwards through the air, her body spinning around to look up at Merletta’s curious gaze, magic oozed out of her skin then trailed in violet swirling wisps behind her.
Nahata reached out to grab hold of something but her hand was peeling back, skin blooming, and inside the grotesque flower was a paw with dark glistening claws. Her body spun again until she was facing the incoming ground. And just as she was about to smack into the hard earth, the beast that had been writhing around inside of her, broke free in an explosion of lightning and plumes of sand. Her paws slammed into the arena floor, legs bending under the weight of her new body.
Merletta laughed a high-pitch, hysterical sound of delight.
Nahata staggered on four legs and threw her attention back to her trainer at the top of the tower. “I could have died,” she yelled, the words muffled by strange beastly sounds from her own throat. But just as quickly as the magic bloomed around her to protect her, it was slinking back under her skin.
In another fit of cackling, Merletta leapt from the tower’s top floor. Magic filled the air like humidity before a rainstorm. Nahata swallowed down the hot bile that hit the back of her throat and nose. She couldn’t let the scent upset her stomach. Not now.
The old crow held out her hands, gold energy flourishing. With each twist of her wrist, the light brightened and the gold spilled around her. A shape began to form, golden wings darkening into black. The head of a crow, a true crow, replaced her gaudy mask. Gold and black feathers rolled out from the top of her crown and down her back in waves until Merletta was completely replaced by the enlarging beast.
Nahata squeezed her trembling hands. If her magic picked a terrible time to take a vacation, it was now. She wanted to draw upon the magic again. She tried to remember how it had felt before when it tried to defend her; from the fall, the assassin, when she was dying back at the work camp.
It gave out a horrid high pitched scream that pierced Nahata’s ears. Merletta was an unearthly sized crow and yet it was more than a bird. It had four legs and a slender torso. It was massive enough to nearly reach the open ceiling of the arena as it landed skillfully to the arena floor.
“So, that’s why that roof’s open,” Nahata mused.
It stepped forward, one of his massive claws slamming into the earth near Nahata, rattling her knees out from under her. Nahata fell backwards and as soon as she hit the ground, the wind was thrown out of her lungs. Another claw stepped towards Nahata and before it could stomp down on top of her, she rolled sideways to dodge it. She sucked down a desperate breath of air filled with dirt and dust.
The beast’s head lowered down, beak opening wide to reveal a fine row of teeth. It drew down a long breath which somehow fed a growing flame in its throat. Golden fires sparked inside of its mouth.
Nahata only just realized what was happening when she threw up her hands in reflex. Her hands began to burn as her own magic swelled into life, violet mist surrounding her protectively. The crow breathed out a fire-laced breath that twisted wildly around Nahata’s form. The fires grew into a maelstrom of violet and gold winds that entangled the earth into a sandstorm.
Thunderous growls and roars filled the air and she couldn’t determine which was the storm and which was the beast. She could only keep throwing her fear into the spell, widening it until she was certain the old crow couldn’t reach her. But through the sandstorm she could see its darkening shadow. It was as tall as four men, towering closer with its golden flames.
Nahata wavered, her arms weakening and her hands losing their strength. The crow would reach her easily unless she made a run for it. It was impossible to challenge such a creature. She wouldn’t be able to use physical strength like she had done that morning. She would be forced to fight purely through magic alone.
How was this training? What was Merletta trying to prove?
Nahata dropped her hands. The raging storm began to soften, winds turning to dust, and her vision could see the creature more clearly. Its massive legs were at least as wide as the columns in the training facility’s foyer. She was certain its hand was large enough to wrap around her body two or three times. But beyond the black feathers and golden sparks, Merletta’s meek form was buried somewhere inside. She could just make out what looked like a human figure.
She drew her hands in front of her chest, allowing the energy of magic to pool between her palms. Her attention was locked on the beast, building the power as the creature lumbered closer. Then, just when the pressure between her palms was uncontainable, she drew her hands back and threw the energy across the arena towards Merletta’s hidden form.
The beast was too large and too slow to block the attack. Amethyst lightning engulfed Merletta, severing her from the beast’s strength. The crow let out a bellow that shook the arena walls. It staggered, head swerving downwards as it endured the sudden burst of energy. The creature began to peel away, dispersing from black feathers to gold specks.
Merletta gently descended to the ground with a wide grin.
Nahata took down a few steadying breaths but her hands were still trembling.
“Clever.” The crow sauntered across the arena towards her pupil. “It takes the others quite a few times to realize what to do.”
She lowered her chin, glowering up at the woman with a hard stare.
Merletta let out a sharp laugh. “No need to be cross with me, initiate. I wouldn’t have hurt you. Not irreparably anyway.”
The nausea swimming around in her stomach became too much. She bowed over just before the heat shot up the back of her throat. Bile spewed from mouth, sour and acidic. Her face crumpled in disgust as she spat until her mouth was somewhat clean.
She never knew why magic made her so queasy. It had always just been that way. But now with it coursing inside of her, she had to find a way to overcome it.
Merletta quickly snapped hold of Nahata’s arm and pulled her up onto her feet. They moved towards the arena’s edge towards the entrance. “Since you finished so quickly, I’m going to leave you here for the day.”
Nahata’s brows fell flat. “I learned absolutely nothing from this.”
“Don’t sound so angry.” She grabbed her cloak from the banister. “Tomorrow you face an opponent less skilled than me and someone you’ll be glad to pummel.” She spun around while fitting her attire back into place. “Do be clever about taking his life. It’s better to kill your enemies so they can’t come back.”
Nahata folded her arms tightly.
“The arena’s yours for the day. Summon your magic at least until you stop gagging.”
Nahata pursed her lips as she watched the other woman leave. But Merletta wasn’t entirely wrong. There was a lot for her to learn and controlling her gag reflex was definitely one of them. Summoning her magic when she needed it the most was priority. If she had to fight someone tomorrow, she needed to do better in the ring.
And wherever else they might attack her.
First, she needed water to clean her mouth.