Meah sits up gasping. Her eyes search the cell. When she looks down at her body she discovers that she isn’t crushed. She also discovers the earth isn’t shaking. Wiping the sweat from her forehead, Meah sighs.
Daniil’s and Kylii’s snoring echoes in the cell. She looks at them, a small smile forming on her lips. They’ve moved to the same bed and remind Meah of young children sleeping close together to share warmth. She laughs softly to herself, feeling her first sense of calm since arriving at the Arena.
The back of the cell where Ime was sitting the night before is empty. She turns to see him standing at the bars of the cell. His expression is blank. But his eyes are attentive as they survey the other cells with intensity and continue down the hall.
Meah stands up from the bed and takes a few hesitant steps towards him. Wondering if he slept at all during the night, she takes a deep breath and starts to speak. “Thank—”
“It’s time,” he says, startling Meah.
Bells ring loudly, cutting short the silence of the holding cells. Daniil and Kylii wake and quickly jump to their feet when they realize they were sleeping in the same bed.
Arena workers file down the hall, open all the cells containing fresh flesh, and order the slaves out. Ime is the first out. Meah follows with Daniil and Kylii close behind. The workers herd the slaves down the hall where Seera waits for them with her hands on her hips. Her hair is pulled back tight against her head and her whip is tied to her belt.
She looks at each prisoner. “Time to wake up and face the Arena. Our first event is for the fresh flesh, a kind of welcoming to our family. I hope you all made peace with your gods. Today, many of you are going to meet them. But don’t worry you won’t be completely alone. This fight is open to volunteers and some of our regulars will be joining you.” She looks at Ime and the brothers. “But don’t expect them to save you. Once you enter the Arena you are on your own.”
Seera’s eyes land on Meah standing next to Ime and she smiles. Meah feels her legs start shaking. She feels a hand on her back and looks up, expecting to see Daniil or Kylii. She is surprised to see it is Ime’s hand on her back. He keeps his attention on Seera to avoid her notice.
“Let’s get you ready. We provide you weapons and armor. Everything else is up to you. Move!” Seera unhooks the whip from her belt and cracks it.
The workers usher the slaves down the hall and up to the armory. Weapons and armor are lined up along the walls of a room with long benches. The slaves rush to gather armor and weapons. Ime moves away from Meah and she is left with Kylii and Daniil.
Daniil leans close to her. “Don’t worry about what Seera said. She likes scaring as many as she can. Most of us ‘regulars’ would rather help the fresh flesh. The more there are of us the better chance we have to survive longer in the arena.”
Kylii nods. “Though there are a few who would rather use the fresh flesh as shields or distractions. Stay close to us. We’ll protect you.”
“Why?” Meah asks.
“We told you. Us Rare Kinds have to stick together. There aren’t many of us because we are the main targets. The people come to see us fight. They come to see us die,” Daniil says bringing Meah to a wall of armor.
The brothers give her a breastplate, shoulder guards, and two daggers. She places the blades carefully on her belt and sighs. She rolls her shoulders. The armor is lighter than other pieces, but she is unfamiliar with the feeling of wearing it. She sits on one of the long benches and stares at the ground.
Kylii and Daniil put light armor on their shoulders, arms, and legs and grab throwing knives. They sit on either side of her and she looks at the minimal armor they’re wearing. “Aren’t you going to put on more armor?”
“Having too much armor only slows the body down,” Daniil says.
Kylii motions to the other slaves with his head. “The Arena isn’t about strength, but outsmarting your opponents. First mistake most of the new ones make is to load up on armor and weapons.”
Daniil nods. “They’ll be the first targets, because they won’t be able to escape and armor can only protect against so much.”
Meah spies Ime sitting on the end of the opposite bench alone. He hasn’t grabbed any armor or weapons and sits with his arms crossed, waiting.
“Isn’t he going to put anything on?” she asks.
Kylii laughs and shakes his head. “Not Ime. There hasn’t been a fighter yet to even come close to killing him.”
“His magic is the only protection he needs,” Daniil says.
Seera cracks her whip to grab everyone’s attention. “Enough. Time to head for the Arena. The people are already chanting for you.”
The slaves stand, line up in rows, and follow Seera through the catacombs. Large animals roar as they climb the next set of stairs. Meah looks to her left into cages full of exotic animals. Animals for the day’s games are already in movable cages that are slowly moved into position. The beasts swipe at any passer-by who moves too close to the cages.
Chills run up her spine as images of the large animals attacking her in the arena fill her mind. She rubs her arms nervously to disguise the fact that her whole body is shaking. Other slaves shake with fear around her. Sobs are suppressed for fear of triggering a beating.
The group is taken into a long, rising tunnel. Cheers from thousands of people echo down the tunnel as the group turns a corner to find a large gate blocking the way into the Arena.
Seera turns to them. “You will enter as a group. Those you will be fighting will be on the other side. Before the fighting begins both groups will face the King’s private box. Once he has entered and given the signal, the fighting will begin and will continue until the bell rings declaring the winners.”
Drums begin playing as the gate slowly rises. The slaves watch the gate with anxious eyes. When the gate comes to a stop, the Arena workers yell at the slaves to move. Seera watches with an excited smile on her face as the group leaves the tunnel. Her eyes almost glow as Meah passes her.
Meah winces as they emerge from the dark tunnel into the bright sun. Once her eyes adjust, she looks up and her mouth gapes open at the size of the Arena. She couldn’t get the full effect from the tunnel when she watched Ime fight the day before. Now that she is out in the open she is amazed at the difference of standing on the Arena floor.
The towering walls of the Arena reach high into the sky making the slaves feel like small insects compared to those sitting above them. Thousands of people fill the seats of the Arena, cheering for the fresh flesh—and their blood.
The slaves forget their formation and mob together. Daniil and Kylii stay close to Meah and Ime moves to stand next to her. He meets the brothers’ eyes and they move closer, forming a shield around her.
Across the arena the second group enters. They are large men covered in spiked armor and carrying large weapons. Several are stained with dried blood and the edges are sharp. They are different than the men who fought the day before. Their armor doesn’t match and their weapons look like different hands made them.
“Who are they? More Arena slaves?” Meah asks.
“Nah. Those are men who volunteer to fight. They receive no payment, but even so they train their entire lives to fight in the Arena,” Kylii says.
Daniil nods his head. “For some it is a great honor to fight in the Arena. It’s a chance to fight before the Blood King and receive favor.”
“But most of the time it’s just a way to be killed.”
The drums stop and the crowds become quiet. The sudden silence is deafening. Everyone turns to an empty seating box. A single cushioned chair stands in the box in front of red curtains. On the curtain is a single symbol.
Meah’s breath catches in her throat and her body shakes uncontrollably. Images from the dreams she’s had for years flash through her mind. She remembers the shadow with the symbol on the curtain over its head. She remembers the symbol dripping with blood.
A lone drum bangs once and Meah screams. The slaves turn to her, but she looks to the ground. Ime gazes at her with confusion in his eyes. Daniil and Kylii lean close to ask her if she’s all right. She covers her mouth, refusing to answer, and the drum sounds again.
Men in heavy, blood red armor appear through the curtain and fill the sides of the box. A man with a black sash around his waist moves through the curtain carrying his helmet under his arm. He stands behind and to the right of the chair and signals to two others who grab the curtain and hold it open.
Meah raises her eyes as the Blood King appears. He moves to the front of the box and raises his hand as the crowd cheers. His hair is the color of coal and rests against his ears. One eye is reddish brown and the other is icy blue.
The blood drains from Meah’s face and her body shakes with terror. She looks around for an escape. She has to get away before this man kills her. She knows he will kill her if he sees her. She sees the gates are still open as workers for the Arena check spikes and extra weapons around the wall. She tries to run for the opening, but a hand grabs her before she can move too far. Terror shoots through her and her legs give out. She feels strong arms pull her close to a rock-hard chest. She looks up into Ime’s angry face.
“Don’t draw his attention. Rare kinds are his favorite to kill. If he finds out you can heal those close to death he’ll set his sights on you for death.”
Tears fill her eyes and she struggles to hold back her terrified sobs, but she slowly turns her eyes towards the Blood King. He has lowered his hand and is scanning both groups. His strange eyes hesitate on Ime before moving to Meah. She remembers feeling eyes on her after Ime’s match the day before. Now she realizes those eyes belonged to the Blood King.
The Blood King’s smile changes to a vulpine grin.
Ime tightens his hold on her and curses before saying, “He knows.”