written and illustrated by kaleb schad
Anaz of the clan Varkut had killed his first man at the age of eleven and by seventeen had killed, including the one dying at his feet now, another twenty.
He regretted all but four of them.
Seventeen. The man he had killed was nearly twice his age. He watched the blood run down his hacked arm and drip near the man's face. He moved so it wouldn’t splatter him. “I’m sorry,” Anaz said.
The crowd cheered as the Blockers worked their magic and lifted the victorious Anaz up and down the Pit for all to see. From here, their surging and pulsing made them more like the bubbling tar at the bottom of the Pit than like people.
And in their calls he heard the battle cry of his hypocrisy and hatred. In their screams, the battle cry of this life.
“I won. They shouldn’t be talking about it so much,” Anaz mumbled. He sat at the edge of a cot while a dwarven nurse tried to weasel a bandage made for much larger combatants under his slave collar. Anaz was a lean seventeen-year-old Ascenic. He shaved his head, as most Ascenic men did, and being Ascenic meant he was smaller than the average man — or even woman — of Abaleth. Being small had helped him win when he had been forced to fight at age eleven — underestimated and all that. Now it just meant being a small, weird-eyed freak from the mountains who couldn’t get a bandage to save his life.
“The fans,” Anaz said, looking at the dwarf. She was shaped like a doughy barrel, but with a cute face. He’d never rolled in the sand with a dwarf before. “You don’t hear them? All they can talk about is how I barely won.”
When the dwarf pulled the bandage away from his neck it had turned to a sopping pulp. He’d never seen so much of his own blood.
“Airim’s cock.” He gripped the Dwarf’s wrist. “I used to summon my hsing-li to stop avalanches. Remember that? Remember when I used it to stop those blade stones from cutting down half the fucking audience?”
“The Hero of the Pit. Everyone remembers, sir.”
“And now I can’t draw enough hsing-li to stop a little blood.” He held her wrist, staring at the bandage. His hsing-li had felt different these last few months, corrupted, harder to focus, slower to summon. He couldn’t deny it any longer.
“Maybe some Widow’s Weep,” the nurse said.
When she pulled the curtain aside, Anaz caught a glimpse of his master, Hakkana, coming. He was a fat, bald man with a square face. Anaz’s slave collar felt a little tighter seeing him.
“The fuck was that?” Hakkana tore into the clinic. Three curtain rings popped and chimed along the stone floor.
“I won.” Anaz said, maybe more sheepish than he wanted to be.
“You’ve offered some pathetic shows lately. That last guy, Merna-what's-his-fucking-name—"
"That slock Mernalick damn near took your head off. And now tonight…”
The nurse paused at the curtain before easing past Hakkana. She unstoppered a jar and scooped out a glop of clear jelly that smelled like mint.
“My boy,” Hakkana said, “For six years I’ve watched you cut up everyone in that arena the way I cut up a side of lamb — damn quick. Now in six months, two have put their marks on you before dying. Pull it together.”
After a moment, Anaz said, “I’ll need new armor. I won’t enter the Pit looking like some khatras beggar.”
Hakkana turned to leave. “Have I ever let you look like a beggar? And I assume you’ll want a bath drawn before you return?”
The nurse stopped tying a bandage and stared at Anaz. He could see the disbelief at the word “bath,” at what it meant in terms of wealth, in terms of water. Her envy made Anaz's wounds hurt a little less.
"Never in my entire life, nor any dream I have ever had waking or sleeping, did I think I would see so much water," the whore whispered. They stood before a stone pool large enough to fit two and filled flush with clear water.
The whore was human, but had blue almond shaped eyes that were angled just a hint, almost like his own Ascenic eyes. They gave her an exotic look that probably helped her in her trade. Anaz could see three different scars around her neck and she walked with a slight limp in her right foot.
Her mouth slackened as she looked at his bath. This was Anaz’s favorite part. Their awe. He knew he shouldn't take pleasure in it. His father would say envy isn’t a part of the hsing-li, but his father had never been this rich.
"Can I taste it?”
"It's not for drinking," Anaz laughed. “It’s for bathing.”
“You put a lifetime’s earnin’s in a bowl and the best you can think to do with it is sit in it?”
She looked around his chambers. Anaz watched as she catalogued his room: the far end open to the city seven stories below, the unopened bags of clothing from Narek, a flowered rug sewn by a slave from some northern country called Cormyrn. Anaz had no more idea than this woman where that country was, but everyone wanted the man’s rugs and that meant Anaz had to have one. The statue of himself. It was carved from a blue iridescent crystal called alaquise. He was in his battle armor and hunched forward with his sword drawn.
“You make this much fighting in the Pit? And your master lets you keep it?”
She knelt at the edge of the pool and lowered her face to smell the water.
Anaz began struggling to summon his hsing-li. Drawing the energy into him was like pulling at a boulder with a greased rope.
“I had twin baby sisters who wilted when they were two. Mom couldn’t earn us enough water. And now you want me to sit in it.”
Anaz flicked his fingers and the mirror surface of the pool warped, then burped a splash across the girl’s face. She screamed, scrambling back. Anaz laughed and Palina’s hands floated down from shielding her face.
“That’s how you win,” she said. “Your magic.” She stood and wiped at her face and straightened her hair.
“It’s not magic. It’s called hsing-li. What's your name?"
"Palina, I assure you, there's more where this came from." Anaz dropped his cloak. “You’ve never felt anything like this. The world stops pulling at you.” He loosened his jerkin over the bandages on his shoulder, his ribs, his back. Free of his shirt, he worked on the bandages themselves.
"I heard you didn't do great today," Palina whispered. "Now I see what not doing great does to a body."
"You heard that?"
"Sure. Everyone talking ‘bout you getting cut on pretty bad. That it looked like you were going to lose."
"Did they tell you I won?"
"You're standing here, hon."
"Because I won."
Like the whore she was, skilled in recognizing a man's anger and a man's pleasure, Anaz watched Palina become submissive, the way she crossed her hands in front of her and dropped her eyes. Her hips rocked as she came to him. "How about I rub the win out of those sore muscles? Then maybe I can rub something else?"
He caught her hand as she reached for him. “Make sure you tell them I won.”
“I’m changing a rule this season.” Thantalis, the mage-lord of Abaleth, settled in a couch in Hakkana’s sitting room. He clinked his ringed hand against a glass bowl filled with flaming torchmoths.
Anaz knelt by his master. He was drunk and irritated at being pulled from his drinking by this man and his two stupid guards. He noticed the guard closest to him had broken the thumb on his sword-hand at some point. Anaz pocketed this detail. It would make the soldier’s grip on his sword weaker.
“More like enforcing a rule, I guess,” Thantalis said. He was old for a human and his sorcery had turned his eyes gold. Anaz didn’t know much about Abaleth’s history, only that Thantalis had killed the previous mage-lord and that Hakkana had been on the wrong end of the sword when it was all finished. Something about Thantalis killing Hakkana’s family, but sparing the fat man.
“There’s an old law that just never came up before that says, should a slave slay as many opponents in the Pit as The Genitor did in single combat, he should be made free and given life rights.”
Free. Anaz wasn’t sure his drunk mind had translated the word right. He had refused to learn the concept in their language.
“Nineteen,” Hakkana said.
Counting his victory yesterday, Anaz had killed seventeen in the Pit.
The magistrate lifted the lid from the glass bowl. The torchmoths flitted up, stumbling into the open air — motes of flame hovering and bouncing into each other, unsure about this wider world, purposeless. Lost. Anaz could smell the smoke coming off of them.
“It’s time for a change.”
“You can’t do this.”
“I run this city, but you know that. You told me I can’t do something once before.” Thantalis stared at Hakkana. “You were wrong then, too.”
Anaz turned his head just enough to see Hakkana and as he did his slave collar pinched the skin on his neck. He had worn the thing for six years and now this old man was talking about taking it off.
“He’s everything I have.”
“I know.” The magistrate pressed on his knees as he stood, smoothed the front of his kurta. “You’ve always been a surprise, Hakkana. I’ve watched you rebuild from nothing before. Even getting this boy away from his clan in the first place. With everyone running up into those hills trying to get their own little Anaz, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that Ascenics don’t let go of their children without a fight. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll find a new way to surprise me.”
A torchmoth drifted in front of him. Its glow lit the underside of Thantalis’s face and as he looked at Anaz his eyes hollowed into inky pools with gold centers.
“What do you think, boy?”
With fatal precision, the magistrate crushed the moth between his thumb and forefinger. Anaz heard it crunch, the sizzle of the magistrate’s fingers. Smelled the burned skin.
“Ready to earn your freedom?”
Hakkana leaned back in his chair and looked at Anaz. Thantalis had left and Anaz didn’t know how long they had sat there in silence. The torchmoths tumbled through the room stringing a smoky spider’s web.
“You wouldn’t leave me would you, Anaz?”
No slave collar. No Abaleth. Freedom.
“As a free man, you could still fight in the Pit.” That’s how Hakkana works, thought Anaz. Already adjusting. Planning.
“You could still live the life we’ve earned. You wouldn’t leave me would you?”
Freedom was a grey word for Anaz. Over the next couple of weeks, he poked at it, tried to wrap his tongue around it.
If Anaz was honest, he wasn’t confident he could win two more fights. He had never lost a fight in the Pit. These people weren’t born into war the way an Ascenic was, but something was wrong with his hsing-li. Without that, he truly was a child.
Freedom would mean he could return to his people. He could go home. Another word that wasn’t his. He had a master, his chambers, the Pit. Those were the places he inhabited, but they weren’t a home. They were places rooted in death — paid for with murder and applause.
Would his people even accept him? He could never tell them what he had done. Been forced to do? No. Yes at first, but not now. They would know. They would see it in him.
Freedom would mean losing this life, the water, the food and clothing. The fame. He would never again hear his name echoing through the Pit. Without that, who was he? Who was he if he wasn’t the Hero of the Pit?
But freedom would mean never again ending a life. “Never again ending a life,” he would say aloud. And the sound of his own voice making that promise crumbled all other considerations.
The knot of uncertainty cinched tighter the more he picked at it. He tried quieting his mind by meditating, summoning his hsing-li, something he hadn’t done outside of the Pit in months, but that was useless. It wouldn’t open to him, or if it did, it was corrupted with small black clots, like oily tumors, tumbling through the colored streams of energy.
He took his mother’s pendant from its hiding place beneath his bed and tried meditating with that. He ran his thumbs across the circular pendant. It was carved with a winged serpent chasing a horned dog, each trying to bite the tail of the other. She had given it to him the morning she died and he was taken, as a good luck charm for their hunt and he had managed to keep it hidden through everything that followed.
It didn’t help.
Anaz took long walks. He weaved through the merchant district, admiring the painted signs above their shops, buying something from each — a crimson sherwani here, a bracelet carved from onyx there, a gift for Palina, a painting of a hunter standing over a slain sand dragon. That helped a little. Helped him forget, at least.
Anaz lay between Palina and her friend, Mei. They had found a tree in his master’s sorcery garden to hide under, its leaves and boughs formed of shimmering, colored light as if the air above a smith’s furnace had been sculpted into this.
Palina poured her glass of flan wine over Anaz’s bare stomach.
“Don’t.” Mei laughed. “Don’t waste it.”
“There’s more where that came from. Right, Anaz?” Palina leaned down and licked, her tongue sliding across his still healing scars.
“Your master comes,” Mei said. She sat up and bowed her head.
Anaz propped himself on an elbow and tried to focus. “Now that is a three legged camel lookin’ for a drink if I ever saw one,” Anaz said, perhaps louder than he had meant. Palina laughed and covered her mouth.
“This is training?”
“Master, let me introduce—“
“Gonna’ fuck your next opponent to death?”
Anaz tried to stand, but the ground hiccuped and he dropped onto his back laughing.
“Know what your problem is,” Hakkana said. “When you came to me, if you weren’t in the training hall you were in your room sitting and staring at the wall like some head-smacked idiot. Hours on end. I thought maybe you were touched. But you were winning, so I didn’t give a shit. Now you drink and screw until you’re blind, then do it all again the next day.”
Anaz sat up.
“Lazinal says he hasn’t seen you in the hall swinging a sword in two months. Too busy swingin’ your dick apparently.”
“Lazinal should mind his own business.”
Hakkana dropped to his knees and straddled Anaz with all the grace of a landslide. Palina crawled out of the way. Hakkana grabbed Anaz’s slave collar, his fingernails clawing into Anaz’s neck and jerked his head up. “Lazinal’s business is to mind my fighters, you slant-eyed fuck. When you were winning, I didn’t mind if you wanted to tip a few wineskins. But when you start losing—“
“I’ve never lost.”
“When you start losing your style, start getting cut on by slocks that never should have touched you, then I start getting worried. I hate worrying.”
Hakkana stood and looked at the upset pitcher of wine. A dark stain spread across the blanket. Wine that could never be recovered and put back how it was. Wasted.
“Figure it out, Anaz. I hate worrying.”
Hakkana had woken Anaz the next morning and apologized. It was the first apology he’d ever received from the man. He took Anaz firesnake hunting that day. He talked about additions he might make to his tower next year, about how he might put Anaz on the other side of it with a view of the Salt Boil Sea. They both knew that at this time next year Anaz would either be dead or a free man.
Over the next three weeks, Hakkana gave Anaz gifts, jewelry and extra flan wine. He made plans. He sold visions of a future together, despite Anaz’s silence. Did Hakkana hear that silence? Could he see that what had bent the will of an eleven year old boy would not work on a seventeen year old man?
Anaz would later wonder: was that why Hakkana bought the girl?
Six weeks before his first fight of the season, Hakkana threw Anaz a banquet. Anaz could hear the Jegog ensemble from outside the dining hall, the wooden marimbas clucking and ringing. Inside, nasa dancers performed. The table had been set for eight guests and the room was lined with goblets the size of a child and filled with three lifetime’s worth of water.
Anaz’s trainer, Lazinal, and his wife were there. They were talking to Narek, the seamster, Hakkana’s business partner, Galdna, and his latest woman.
“Master Narek,” Anaz said, “I met our magistrate a couple months back and he had the most amazing kurta on.”
“Black and silver?”
“Your work,” Anaz said.
“He harvests his own silk from a hive of Orphan Makers three leagues out of the city walls,” Narek said.
The woman hanging on Galdna said, “I didn’t know he was going to be here.” She wasn’t much older than Anaz and might have been pretty, but her pinched brow and pinhole eyes made her look like a desiccated bird. Once his eyes traced down from her face, though, things improved.
“He’s the guest of honor, dear,” Galdna said.
“But I didn’t know he’d actually be here. Eating with us?”
“Anaz, this is Saren,” Galdna said, then, with something like gravity in his voice, “Thantalis’s niece.”
Anaz bowed to her. Only two more fights and he’d never have to see these people again. Seven months.
“He didn’t always,” Lazinal said. “Once he started winning, I guess Hakkana thought people would like to see him up close.”
“I just mean, a slave,” Saren said. “With a collar?”
Lazinal’s wife, Ulana, stepped in front of Anaz and picked a loose hair from his chest. She tugged the lapel up to hide his slave collar. “I enjoy him here. Keeps the mood light. Remember how you’d laugh at the oddest things? It was charming.”
“He’s so young,” Saren said, then turned to Galdna. “Just know that no slave will be eating at our table, Gal.”
“I won’t,” Anaz said.
“Be a slave much longer?” Galdna asked.
“If he survives,” Lazinal said.
“The Pit? Or Hakkana?”
“Indeed, it was excitingly close last time,” Ulana said. “How are you healing?”
“I can count on a snake’s legs how many days he’s trained since,” Lazinal said.
“What I want to know,” Galdna said, “is how did Hakkana take the announcement?”
“Fine,” Anaz said.
“I’m healing fine,” Anaz said.
“Hakkana’s offered the boy a chance to stay on if he wins his freedom,” Lazinal said. “Let’s just say my drips are on the other guy.”
Anaz didn’t know what to do. He could feel heat in his neck and cheeks and he wanted to leave, but thought that might be worse than enduring this. He knew these people traded blows with words, subtle and stinging, that dinner parties were their own kind of Pit, but he had never learned this way of battle. He’d never been to a party like this until maybe three years ago and even then, he had never tried to speak with anyone. Just sat in awe of all the food and water and wine.
Two fights. Seven months.
“I like you, Anaz. I hope you remember that. Of the dozens of fighters Hakkana and I have together,” Galdna said, “you are the only one he insists on owning separate from our business. He’s always had a special interest in you.” Galdna sipped his drink, a bead of red flan pooled in the corner of his mouth. “I think it’ll be hard for him to let you go.”
Stone bowls of rice, flathead fish and spiced thorn nuts. Anaz watched as the guests heaped their plates full. When he first ate at these banquets, he couldn’t believe so much food could be served for so few. The water alone! Nobody in all of Anathest, except the wealthiest pramguan, could eat like this. No Ascenic would. He didn’t remember much of his people’s ways and what the hsing-li teaches, but he knew gorging himself was anathema to it. These people ate well past being satisfied, until they felt ready to burst. They said things like that. With pride. Like a compliment. I’ve eaten so much I feel I might burst.
The nasa dancers continued to perform throughout the meal. They were working their way through the chronicles of Humay, a land conquered by the demon prince Maudor. Anaz enjoyed watching nasa dancers and thought his master had probably scheduled them tonight for that reason. They were just beginning the story of Queen Kamini. The story went that she had made a deal with Maudor to save her sick son. Every three days, to keep him alive, she had to sacrifice one of her citizens and, after years of this, Maudor one day raised the sacrificed dead and destroyed her and her kingdom.
As the meal ended and plates were cleared, Hakkana stood and raised his glass. “A toast,” he said, “to the Hero of the Pit, Anaz of the Ascenics.”
Hakkana lifted his cup and stared at Anaz. Anaz held Hakkana’s gaze for as long as he dared, then looked at the nasa dancers and reminded himself that no matter what the man said in the next couple minutes, what the man did, the slave collar would be unclasped in seven months.
“Life,” Hakkana said. “It never stays settled and you don’t get to the final sleep without a few kicks in the nuts. Everyone knows Thantalis and I have a history. I don’t like to talk about it, but frankly, and pardon me, Lady Saren, I hate that fucking man. He took everything that mattered to me. My water mining business. My wife and daughter. My son.”
The nasa dancers had begun wrapping the queen in ribbons, her pneumatic shape shifting like liquid, her left wrist caught, symbolizing the first of the souls she had sacrificed.
“But he gave me something, too. A lesson you only learn once and that I’ll teach him someday. When you have something you care about, you fight for it. It wasn’t until I bought my little Ascenic killer, that I started to get back something of my old life. People thought I’d lost it, didn’t they Galdna? What a waste of drips, you said.”
“Not too late to sell a share of him.”
The nasa dancer had both hands wrapped now. Several strands spiraled out from her struggling body.
“I don’t know what you plan to do with your freedom Anaz. I think we’ve built something special here and I hope you consider staying.”
Built something? Anaz stopped himself from screaming that the only thing he had ever been allowed to do was destroy. He took a drink of his wine and turned back to the dancers. At least the wine was starting to soften the edges.
“Either way, I’ll be a gorum’s cock if I’m going to let Thantalis take everything from me again. I’m the only trainer to ever get an Ascenic to fight in the Pit. Starting today, make that two.”
Now Hakkana had Anaz’s attention.
“They don’t bring their children down to hunt since Anaz,” Lazinal said.
Hakkana waved at someone behind them, then asked Saren, “When a firesnake goes in its hole, what do you do?”
“Send a man in to die chasing it out?”
Anaz felt a boil of fear in his belly.
The nasa dancer was bound now, her leaps arrested and weak. The Jegog drumming slowed.
“Try thirty-three men.”
“Hakkana, for the love of Airim,” Galdna said.
“Meet Reyn of the Shankara clan.”
Anaz turned to see a young Ascenic girl his age being led across the room. Later that night, when he would think back on this evening, one image would play through his mind again and again: the girl’s Ascenic walk. It was motion with more honesty in it than anything he had seen in the last six years. He knew nobody else could see it, would never be able to see it. To them she was simply walking. One foot in front of the other. But to Anaz she was Simply Walking. It was one foot placed in exactly the right spot in front of the other. Not too far forward or too close, unbalanced, nor exposed. It was movement filled with harmony. Guided by the hsing-li.
“She’s beautiful,” Ulana said.
She was, and not just because she was Ascenic. Her brown hair was pulled back behind a head scarf, strands framing her lucid brown eyes and they had put her in an open-backed dress revealing a tableau of tribal tattoos scrawling up her spine. She sat next to Anaz.
“For the next seven months, Anaz, you will train her for the Pit.”
Anaz knew he was staring, but couldn’t help himself. An Ascenic girl. Here. Next to him. In his home. She had torn small slits in the sides of her dress to allow her legs to move and he noticed the chaffed skin on her neck under the slave collar.
Six years he had gone without seeing another person from his stolen world. Six gauzy years of being alone. Even her smell! The clean air of the mountains, where the Salt Boil Sea’s stench didn’t reach and where the black tar of the Pit and the filth of the poor and the dead couldn’t corrupt. By the gods, she was beautiful.
Reyn turned to Anaz, smiled, two dimples punctuating her cheeks and said, “You should breathe.” It was in Asceni. It took him a heartbeat to realize he had heard the words in his birth tongue.
“Worth every man, Galdna,” Hakkana said. “When you have something you want, you fight for it.”
The queen nasa dancer, mummified in sacrificed souls, dozens of strands pulling her to the ground, struggled one final time, yielded. Collapsed.
© 2017 Kaleb Schad
All rights reserved.
written and illustrated by kaleb schad
written and illustrated by kaleb schad
written and illustrated by kaleb schad
written and illustrated by kaleb schad