The next morning, bells ring loudly from another cellblock. Meah opens her eyes. Soft voices from other cells become audible as the bell’s echo fades. She understands most but not all that is said.
“The Blood King just wants the Rare Kind dead. If we take them out, we could be spared.”
“But…said all magic users will die.”
“…just wants the Life Healer dead.”
“Shut up you traitors! …saved your life and here you are planning… You may be slaves now, but you’re still human beings!” a familiar voice silences the two slaves. Meah recognizes it as Rava’s sister, Mava.
“Don’t yell at me! Not all of us are fighters!”
“None of us started as fighters!” Mava replies.
“At least, we aren’t cowards who stab others in the back after they help us!” Rava says, taking her sister’s side.
Meah curls into a ball on the bed. People are fighting because her magic sentenced all other magic users to death.
The crack of Seera’s whip silences the argument. “Save that energy for the Arena, slaves.”
Now at the center of the cellblock, Seera speaks again. “As you all know, today non-magic users, assisted by The Blood King’s men, will fight magic users. But, you won’t be the first show. Such a main event requires several preliminary games to work the crowd up to an appropriate frenzy before you make your entrance to the arena.
“In preparation for this exciting once in a lifetime event, magic users from other cellblocks have been collected, whom you will soon meet. You will be cleaned, fed, and may use this extra time for rest or practice if you so desire. Your cells will be unlocked, but you may not go to the main floor. If you are caught above ground you will be executed on sight. Enjoy your last few hours in this world.”
The Arena workers open the cells and leave.
Meah doesn’t move. Daniil and Kylii walk over.
“You shouldn’t stay in bed. You need to eat before the fight,” Daniil says.
“I can’t face anyone. They blame me,” Meah whispers.
Kylii kneels beside the bed. “They’re scared, but you can’t let that get to you.”
“Kylii and I are going upstairs to train some of the others in fighting. If you feel up to it, I think they’d appreciate seeing you there—supporting them,” Daniil says, placing a hand on Kylii’s shoulder. They rise together and leave.
Meah watches them exit and sees many she healed following. Rava, Mava, and Bern are among them. One boy, no more than fourteen ages old, follows with head hanging low. The boy peeks at Meah before blushing and moving closer to Rava. His was one of the voices she’d heard.
“The brothers are right.” Ime’s voice comes from the floor.
Meah leans over the side of the bed and sees him lying close by.
“People are going to fight for you. You should show respect.”
“But I didn’t ask them to fight for me.”
“You didn’t have to.”
Meah shifts onto her stomach, to avoid having to strain to look at Ime. “We have time now, tell me why you want to help me.”
“Rare Kinds have to stick together.”
“There’s more than that. There have been Rare Kinds you haven’t helped in the past, right?”
Ime is silent for a moment and turns to stare at the ceiling. “You give us hope.”
Meah waits, but he remains silent. “What do you mean?”
“I saw something in the eyes of those with you when they arrived. Fresh Flesh usually arrive with their spirits already broken. But your group had a fire in their eyes that couldn’t be explained—until I saw you. Whatever you did to give them such hope is something the Arena has never seen before.”
Meah remembers the escaped slave who died in the desert. The expression of victory on his face as he passed the carriage. The new strength she helped him find.
She stands, walks to the door of the cell, and takes a deep, calming breath before entering the hall. She feels the eyes of others on her, but head high, turns to look at Ime.
Now sitting, he flashes a rare smile.
“Let’s go watch the training.”
Ime stands, uncoiling ot his full height. “You want me to go with you?”
“I’m not the only one who gives people hope.” Meah holds out her hand.
He walks to her side, but doesn’t take the offered hand. “We walk as equals, then.”
They leave the cellblock and climb the stairs to the training grounds. Daniil and Kylii are in different areas, teaching. Meah and Ime sit on a bench next to slaves waiting for their turn at practice. Looking at the two new arrivals, the slaves’ expressions brighten.
Bern is fighting with Kylii, managing to keep up, until he trips over his feet trying to dodge Kylii’s thrust. Bern falls to the ground and Kylii prepares to deliver the final blow with the wooden sword. Tristan appears at Bern’s side and blocks Kylii’s slice. He pushes him back and helps Bern up.
Daniil is sparring against Rava and Mava. Standing to the side is the teen from earlier, who watches the three fight with a worried expression. The three stop and Daniil calls to the boy.
“What is your name?”
“Well, Cal, get up and get over here.”
Daniil explains the moves to the boy and invites Cal to join in. Cal steps forward slowly and the sisters move away. Daniil smiles as Cal raises his sword and invites him to attack. Daniil easily blocks the thrust and asks him to attack again. This time Daniil disarms the boy, but Cal, in a panic, kicks at Daniil’s legs.
Daniil praises the quick thinking, but warns, “Always keep your eyes on the blades.”
Cal nods and Daniil hands over the sword to begin again.
Meah watches intently as each slave takes a turn. Many improve or learn tricks to escape if necessary. She turns to Ime. “Teach me.”
“I don’t teach.”
“Show me then.”
With a great sigh, he lopes onto the training ground. The groups practicing stop and make room. Ime turns to face Meah, as Daniil and Kylii hand each a wooden sword.
“Attack me.” Ime says, sword raised.
Meah needs both hands to raise the sword, and notices Ime holds his in his left hand.
“I didn’t realize you were left-handed.”
Ime shrugs. “I don’t use weapons often enough for anyone to notice.”
Meah slowly moves to the right and Ime mirrors the movement. Moving closer, she swings the sword. Ime blocks.
Meah tries to hit him from the other side, but Ime blocks again.
Then Ime swings at her left arm. Trying to block, she turns the sword at an odd angle. Ime’s wooden blade knocks the blade from Meah’s hands.
Quickly retrieving the weapon, she adjusts her hold. Ime attacks the right arm this time, but she blocks successfully. When he goes back for her left, Meah adjusts the angle and manages to block, but still feels the wooden blade’s touch.
Adjusting her hold again, she attacks, aiming for Ime’s left leg, but he blocks. Using the force of the hit, she swings the blade up to the right side of his head.
He blocks easily and Meah moves away.
Slicing diagonally from right to left doesn’t prevent Ime from blocking—hard—knocking Meah back a step. She tries going the opposite direction and her eyes widen as she watches Ime block again. But, this time the block doesn’t surprise her.
Feinting the first slice again, she watches carefully and, as Ime moves to block, she thrusts the blade forward and the force of the block sends her blade into the area where his neck and shoulders connect. Ime immediately uses air magic to knock her blade away.
Now his eyes are wide. “How did you do that?”
“I don’t know.”
Handing the sword back to her, he says, “Do it again.”
Meah slices diagonally down and Ime blocks, again. Then Meah sees what she saw before and thrusts the sword forward. The blade goes for Ime’s throat and he must use air magic to blow the wooden sword away.
“When you block I can see that your muscles instinctively pull back towards your body,” Meah says.
Ime practices a blocks and nods. “It’s true, but how did you see that?”
“I can see your muscles tense before they contract.”
“That happens in an instant. Only the most highly trained swordsman could make a move in that amount of time,” Daniil says from the side.
“But they aren’t Life Healers,” Kylii says.
“What does being a Life Healer have to do with it?” Meah asks.
Ime’s admiration is evident in his expression. “You can predict how someone is going to move by minute indications the body gives that your opponent isn’t even aware of. Like my tendency to pull my arms closer to my body when I block.”
Those who were watching make impressed sounds.
“I think that’s enough training,” Ime says. “We should wash up and eat. We only have a couple hours left.”
The slaves return to the cellblocks, clean up, and eat a somber meal. Many fear it will be their last. Shortly after they return to the cells, Arena workers separate magic users from the other slaves.
“They don’t want us to work together, but they’re too late,” Ime says as they sit in their cell.
“What are the Blood King’s best fighters?” Meah asks.
Kylii stretches his arms over his head. “Well, no one likes to talk about them.”
“Probably due to the fact that everyone they have fought against are dead. They’ve only fought once before in the Arena, during an uprising about ten years ago. A group of magic users from the south decided to try and overthrow the Blood King. As punishment the Blood King made them fight a couple of his best fighters,” Daniil says.
Kylii claps his hands together. The sudden sound causes Meah to jump. “Wiped out all of ‘em within five minutes. Ten magic users against two of the Blood King’s strongest and they couldn’t even scratch them.”
Meah looks at Ime. “And you think we have a chance if we unite.”
“Strength isn’t necessarily measured by the size of a muscle or the power of a sword,” Daniil says from Meah’s side.
Kylii moves to occupy her other side. “Sometimes the strongest are those who know they can win even against the worst of odds.” Meah’s mind fills with an image of Jaxon fighting the bandits.
Before Meah can respond, the Arena workers order the slaves from their cells. In the armory, the slaves gather weapons and armor. Those who survived the first fight have learned to choose armor better for mobility. The recent training also affects the selection of weapons. Meah grabs a long knife and hides two smaller knives in her arm cuffs.
Through the length of the long tunnel the magic users are kept on one side of the tunnel and the other slaves on the other. The final sounds of the game before theirs echoes through the tunnel. The roars of beasts mix with human screams.
The crowd cheering above sounds much larger than the day before. The walls shake with yells and stomping feet. The ending bell strikes and the tunnel fills with nervous energy. Workers enter the Arena to clean the ring and clear the animals.
Meah looks down the line of magic users. Magic users from other cellblocks stare at her, some try to disguise hostility while others smile. Tristan, Skara, and Bon stand on the other side of Daniil and Kylii. Cal stands next to them along with an angry-looking man. The man turns to Meah and sneers.
Meah looks across the tunnel at the slaves without magic. Bern, Rava, and Mava smile and nod. Others nearby do the same.
Ime leans close to Meah’s ear. “You have already recruited most of them without even trying. We only need to convince the rest.”
When Ime moves out of line, one of the workers tries to force him back. Ime slams him into the wall with air magic. The limp body lies still at the base of the wall. Other workers move to attack, but Daniil and Kylii step in their way.
“We are being pitted against each other for one man’s enjoyment. A man who demanded this Arena to be built. A man who makes others search the lands for fighters to fill it. A man who destroys our homes without a second thought. Now, this Blood King wants you to fight and die for his amusement, to kill others who threaten him.” Ime pauses to let his words sink in.
“The ones you should be fighting are the ones waiting for us out there. I won’t lie. They are fearsome and terribly hard to defeat. But we can defeat them if we stand together.”
The slaves mumble to one another, some looking away from Ime. “If we fight for the Blood King, then we won’t be killed,” a man says from the end of the non-magic user line.
“You might not be killed today! But what about tomorrow when you go back into the arena and there are no magic users for the fighters to spend most of their energy on?” a magic user asks.
“If you want to survive then we must fight together,” Ime says.
More workers appear to subdue the brothers and Ime. Bern, Rava, Mava, Bon, Skara, and Tristan block their path.
“I will fight for the Life Healer,” Bern shouts.
Meah looks at him and sees a brave man.
“So will we,” Rava says, indicating Mava, who furiously nods her head.
“It’s time the Blood King learns he doesn’t control us. Today we prove we are more than slaves,” Tristan says.
“I believe in Ime and Meah,” Cal yells out. The man standing next to him glares, but the boy continues. “The Blood King wants us to fight each other to control us. I’m tired of being controlled.” He glares back at the man. “I don’t want anyone to control me anymore. I have a choice and I choose to believe in people I trust.” Cal looks at Meah. “People who have proven they care about others no matter who they are.”
The slaves grow more excited by the boy’s words. The workers try to gain control, but the slaves knock them to the ground. Seera cracks her whip at the end of the tunnel. “Stop that! Back in line, all of you!”
The slaves look to Ime. When he moves back against the wall, the slaves do the same. More Arena workers appear to clear the unconscious men from the floor.
“There will be no more of that!” Seera searches the faces of all the slaves. “You will move into the Arena together. Magic users you will move to the normal spot. Non-magic users, you will cross to the opposing side. You will wait for the Blood King’s signal then begin fighting. The goal is simple. Kill the magic users. I’ll be sad to see some of you die, but the King has spoken.” She walks down the line to smile at Ime.
The gate at the end of the tunnel opens as the last of the workers finish cleaning the ring. The roar of the crowd grows, filling the tunnel.
“Fight well and give the audience a good show,” Seera says, yelling over the crowd. The whip cracks and workers yell at the slaves to move.
The slaves run out of the tunnel into the blinding sun. The Arena is completely full. Every seat is taken, hordes of people standing wherever there is room. Even the top level, reserved for the wealthy, is crowded with people. Cheers and stamping feet shake the Arena. It is impossible to hear anyone speak.
The magic users stop at the usual side while the others cross to the combatant side. The additional opponents have not yet entered.
The slaves turn to Klaeon’s private box. Already seated, he surveys the two lines of slaves with a smile then stands and raises his hand. The Arena falls silent and the crowd watches with eager eyes.
“Today, we have already witnessed several great games, but that was only a small taste of what we’ve planned for you today. Magic users, non-magic users…Rare Kinds,” his eyes move to Meah and his smile grows. “You have seen these slaves fight together. Now, watch them fight each other. Though to pit normal slaves against magic users is unfair. Therefore, these slaves will not be fighting alone.”
At a signal from Klaeon, Teron steps forward and shouts an order. The gate on the opposite side of the Arena rises. Strange sounds emerge from the dark tunnel and the slaves turn to look with curious eyes.
The audience begins a chant that starts soft and grows, exponentially.
“Brüdel! Brüdel! Brüdel!”
The chant fills the Arena and drowns out all sound. The slaves stare at the dark tunnel as the strange sounds grow with the chanting.
A high-pitched scream rises from the tunnel and the slaves jump and move back. The audience goes mute when an Arena worker runs from the tunnel. He reaches the center of the arena before a blade attached to a chain explodes from the darkness of the tunnel and pierces his back. When the blade erupts from his chest and blood stains the sand, he stares at the blade in shock and then at the slaves.
Reaching a hand forward, he gasps, “Help…me.”
He is immediately yanked back into the dark tunnel, screaming, but the scream stops abruptly.
Shapes walk out into the light and the crowd cheers. They are monstrous beasts of men. Scars, piercings, and worse deform their bodies and faces. Several are the size of humans, but look more like bizarre animals than men. Others must lean down to squeeze through the tunnel. All carry strange, twisted weapons. Three have terrifying beasts on chains that roar angrily and claw the air.
One of the Brüdel drags the dead Arena worker behind him. The man’s throat is cut and a trail of blood follows the corpse. All behind him step on the body, crushing it, but not slowing their pace.
The non-magic users move away from the men in fear, making a large space. The Brüdel, stop, face Klaeon, and salute until he smiles.
“As I said, the magic-less slaves will not fight alone. I introduce my personal fighters, the Brüdel! Let the fighting begin!” Klaeon commands, sitting. The crowd cheers and applauds in excitement, shaking the Arena.
The Brüdel slam their weapons on the ground. The animals roar loudly and pull against their chains towards the slaves. All but five of the non-magic using slaves run away from the men and join the magic users. The crowd gasps then cheers at the unexpected change. The Brüdel look at the Blood King’s private box, confused.
Klaeon’s smile disappears and he stands. “Slaves! You are to fight each other not together!”
The slaves stare at him without moving and Ime moves forward.
Klaeon’s rage fills his face. Waving his hand, he sits. “Very well! Then no mercy shall be shown to any! Kill them all!”
The Brüdel shriek excitedly and kill the five slaves who stayed behind. Screams and pleas for mercy are unheard by the Brüdel as they rend and smash the slaves to pulp. Once the last slave is killed the Brüdel turn to the rest and run at full speed with weapons raised. The slaves brace themselves.
Several run to meet the men as Ime pulls Meah back. “Stay away from the fighting. We’ll bring the wounded to you, Tristan, Skara, and Bon. If you get into trouble call for me or the twins.”
Meah nods and moves away with the other healers. Ime, Daniil, and Kylii walk towards the large men. Several of the slaves have already engaged in fighting and bodies begin filling the Arena floor.
“So who you thinking of taking, fearless leader?” Daniil asks.
Ime motions his head at the Brüdel dragging the dead Arena Worker. “I’ll start with Chains, there.”
“Do you really think we can win?” Kylii asks.
Ime shrugs and smiles. “Maybe. It’ll be fun finding out.”
Daniil laughs. “You’re a real motivator, Ime.”
“Shut up and fight.”