The morning comes. I watch the stars disappear as the sun starts to rise into the sky. I better head home now. The Elders will be at our door soon to take one of us off to the training grounds. I don't want to go back, but if I'm chosen and I don't show up, the consequences could be severe.
I have to step up and do what Cole can't.
Climbing through my window, I try my hardest not to make a sound and wake everyone up. When I turn away from my window I nearly jump out of my skin. Cole is sitting on my bed.
"Christ, Cole what are you doing in my room?"
"I wanted to talk to you, but you weren't home. I decided to wait for you."
"Get out." I hiss.
Turns out I still have animosity towards him. No matter how hard I try to forgive what he's done, some things are not forgivable.
"Please, Ash. I want to apologize."
"It's too late for apologies, Cole. You threw me into the fire to save your own hide. That's nothing but pure cowardice!"
"Ashley, I'm sor--"
"Cole, Ashley! Can you two come downstairs, please?" Our mom calls.
The Elders are already here. In the back of my mind, I know they're here to take me away. We make our way to the living area, where our mother and Elder Greyson and Elder Allan stand waiting for us.
"Ashley, Cole, Mrs. Reed, we have made our final decision on who will fight. Ashley will be the one to fight for our honor," Elder Greyson says.
The look in mother's face is almost heart shattering. Her eyes are wide, and full of tears. She turns to me, catching me in a tight embrace. She kisses my cheeks and neck, repeating "I love you" into my ear. It's hard to keep my composure, but I fight the urge to break down and cry. I need to stay strong, for everyone's sake.
"I love you too." I hate the way my voice cracks.
"I'm sorry," Cole whispers.
I can only manage a nod. If I open my mouth, I will break out in tears.
"We better get going. We want to get to the Training Grounds by dinner," Greyson says.
I give my mother one last hug before me leave. I won't see her again until the day before the fight. That's when all of the families of the different races come and see us before we all compete.
The hot sun cools by the time we reach the Training Grounds. The sky is painted orange behind the large black dome-shaped building. The Elders walk ahead of me. My feet feel heavy, and I'm unable to lift them.
Elder Greyson notices I haven't moved.
"Is that even a question? Of course I'm scared."
Greyson lets out a small chuckle, lightly pushing on my back. My feet stumble, and I can walk again.
"You'll do great," he says.
I shake my head. "I don't even stand a chance."
"That's not what your brother thinks."
"Cole is an idiot. He doesn't know anything about me."
"So you're saying we made the wrong choice?"
It's a rhetorical question, of course. The Elders are never wrong.
"Don't worry, we'll get you ready for anything you'll face."
Inside, the dome seems much larger than the outside. No light shines through. The only light source is from the florescent light cut into the ceiling. We walk down a long and narrow hallway. It opens up into a giant ring padded with dirt floors.
We take the right, staying on the black tile path path all the way to the other side of the ring. Just before another hallway appears from the right, we stop at a door. Elder Allan moves to the front, and unlocks the door.
We enter a small, but luxurious room. Two rooms branch off from the main room. The main room is the living area, with a kitchen off to the side.
The sofa in the the center is a biscotti color, and there are no stains or lumps in the cushions. The table in front of it is long, and made of black glass. We don't have a table in front of our torn up couch back at home. A basket of fruits sit on the counter in the kitchen.
"We are having dinner shortly with all of the other competitors and Elders."
Elder Allan must have seen me eye the juicy looking mango in the basket.
I've never seen anything this fancy before. The kitchen counters are made of marble and wood. The most we have back at home are counters made completely from the stone in the temple.
The room of to the right is the bedroom. There are two beds on either side of the wall. There are no lumps on the beds, and the springs don't creak inside. This room is what most Primeapians can only dream of.
I decide to get washed up before dinner. The journey made me sweaty, and I'd rather not meet people smelling rancid. The bathroom is completely white, and smells clean. The shower has two knobs, one for hot water and one for cold water. I draw the bath water, and undress.
As the water fills up in the tub, I study myself in the mirror. From my face down to my scrawny arms, I know I'm not strong enough to fight. Depending on how strong everyone else is, I won't last a few hours into the fight.
Who am I kidding? They aren't like me. Their Elders chose them because they're tough, and capable of fighting. My Elders chose me on a whim.
The water finishes filling the tub, and I step in. It's a little warmer than I'd like it to be, but I don't mind. I need to start getting used to things I'm uncomfortable with.
I didn't pack any clothes for the training, and the Elders didn't give me time to gather my things before we left. The only thing I have to wear to dinner is what I have on already; my white tank top, brown over jacket, and dark pants. Hopefully, this isn't a formal dinner.
Going down the hall next to our room and down the stairs, I can feel the palms of my hands tingle. I rub them to make them stop, but the feeling only moves up to the tips of my fingers. Out of habit, I start to chew on my nails.
I wonder how the people I'm going to meet are going to see me. Will they see as if I'm a walking target?
"Everyone is supposed to leave the hostilities on the battlefield. So have fun tonight," Elder Allan says.
It will be hard to be friendly to all of the other races, especially if you know they intend to kill you. In just a few days everyone will have targets on their backs. I don't think I can be nice to murderers.
"Tonight, we meet the other contestants. Tomorrow we start training," Elder Greyson says.
The dinning room is a large room. A long dinning table sits on the center, and paintings of previous winners of the Pride Land line the wall. Everyone is already seated, waiting for us.
It's easy to tell some of the races a part. Some have subtle physical features tell what race their from. People from the Felineous race have yellow eyes, much like that wild cats that inhabit their region. The Canius people's faces are thicker, and their noses are slightly larger, and more prominent than the others. The other races are harder to tell the difference.
"Now that we are all here, it's time to eat," The Felineous Elder says.
Food is neatly prepared and set out all around the table. A wide variety of fruits, meats, and vegetables sit before us. I speedily filled my plate with food, still starving.
The room is quiet, except for the sounds of chewing, and the clanking of silverware on plates.
"Why don't we take this time to get to know one another?" Elder Allan says.
No one is quick to speak up, all too busy stuffing our faces. I make the mistake of looking in his direction.
"Why don't you go first?" He says with an innocent smile on his face.
I feel my cheeks flush. I swallow the food in my mouth and clear my throat.
"Uh, well my name is Ashley, but people usually call me Ash. I'm from the Primeapian race."
I see a boy whisper something to someone sitting next to him. They start laughing quietly. I can't help but think it's about me.
"Excuse me?" I say.
They look my way, and their smiles dim. They stare me down, as if they didn't understand what I just said.
"Who are you guys? What did you just say over there?"
"Th'names Nero. You can address me as Nero. I'm from the Reptilian race."
His hair is black, and long, almost touching his shoulders. His dark eyes feel like they're staring deeper than just my skin. I shudder, and force myself to look away.
The boy next to him moves his disheveled brown hair out of his eyes. They are round, and grey, starring at me like I am beneath him.
"And if you must know, I am Caius. The bravest, and most renowned fighter in the Avian race."
"It's nice to meet you two. Now, what was it that you guys were laughing about? I'm sure we'd all like to know," I say.
Nero gives Caius a slight curt smile, then looks back at me.
"Me an' Caius over here was just wonderin' if you sniff your finger and fling your shit just like those baboons that live with you?"
I could feel all eyes on me. Heat crawls up my neck and spreads across my face. The chuckling and snickers of the others sounds louder than it really is. I keep my head down, and keep my gaze on my plate as I finish my food. I shove food in my mouth, to stop myself from crying.
As soon as dinner is over, I hurry out of the room.
"Hey, wait." It sounds like a girl's voice.
It's the girl from the Felineous race.
"Those guys were really mean. I'm sorry. My name's Raye."
She sticks her hand out for me to take. Her smile is warm and friendly. Two small and sharp teeth poke out from her upper lip.
"I know we're supposed to be enemies and stuff, but I think we don't have to be right now. The fight isn't for six days. We should at least be nice to each other for now."
I smile back at her, and take her hand. It's nice to know someone isn't out for my neck yet.
Elder Greyson volunteers to sleep on the couch tonight while Elder Allan and I take the beds. It's a good thing Elder Francis decided to stay behind at the temple, there wouldn't be any room otherwise.
As comfortable as this bed is, and exhausted I am, I can't seem to fall asleep. Tomorrow is the first day of training. Everyone will be able to see how weak my fighting skills are.
Tomorrow I will make the target that hangs on my back.