“I think you’ll like this next one. It was made by some elven girl in the khatras of all places,” Anaz said. It was the morning after the banquet and Hakkana had ordered Anaz to show Reyn around the estates. Help her feel at home, he had said. Anaz knew he meant, make sure she knows where the bars on her cage are.
Either way, he was shocked how hearing her name had eased his headache that morning.
He had started in the sorcery garden. They stood before a ten foot spout of sand pouring down, pooling, then reversing itself up into the air and collecting there. Back and forth.
“What do you think,” Anaz said.
“It’s beautiful movement created by ugly and rigid magic,” she said, walking away.
As they moved on, he kept looking at her from the corner of his eye, hoping she didn’t notice. “You pulled your hair into a Lenla braid,” he said.
“It was my mother’s favorite.”
“You should take it out. You have a nice neck, but it shows your collar. That’s something you’ll want to remember. If people aren’t reminded you’re a slave, you can usually get more out of them.”
They came to four spiked stones floating like flirting planets, shyly approaching to steal kisses, bobbing away unfulfilled.
“This is the only one of its kind,” Anaz said. “I’m going to tell you this because it will be easier for you if you understand Hakkana. I wish someone had warned me. The artist who crafted these needed his hands for the incantation, but when he was finished casting, Hakkana cut off his left hand.” Anaz watched for a reaction, but none showed.
“Because he wanted to be sure nobody else had what he has,” Reyn said.
“Then you understand him.”
“Yes. He is weak.”
“Weak?” Anaz didn’t think he had ever been so naive, even at eleven. “When we reach the center of the garden, I will show you his second greatest possession. Then you will see.”
Anaz asked Reyn how she had been captured, the words no sooner out of his mouth than that he wanted them back. She said she and her brother Jin were with the women of their tribe following the Spring Twinkler’s migration when they were attacked. He could hear the sadness in her voice as she spoke about her gifted brother, Jin. They were silent a long time when Reyn said, “We are ever tossed by the fates, aren’t we Anaz of Varkut? They are wondrous, wicked women.”
They continued on, Anaz saying, he would help Reyn, that it wasn’t so bad if you learned the rules and did as told. He told her they had nothing to fear, that these people weren’t born in the dangerous mountains like the Ascenics were, that they had no inkling of the hsing-li.
When the path turned and they faced the thing in the center of the garden, Anaz saw Reyn’s hand twitch, the smallest gesture, as if flicking a fly. Her face remained impassive, but he knew she had been startled, had been about to reach for a weapon that was not there.
A sandfury as tall as ten grown men and made of floating rock hung suspended on a dais in the center of the garden. It was an elemental, an unhappy marriage of wind and earth and it was captured. The stones should have been whipping in a blur. These floated frozen in space, a gentle sway in their arrested orbit.
“Now you see,” Anaz said. How many stories did their people have of these monsters? How many lives had been lost destroying them in the mountains?
Reyn stopped at exactly the right distance that, were the creature free, it wouldn’t be able to strike her. Her awareness! How he had missed all of this.
“Why do you not destroy it?”
“Kill it,” Anaz said. “Don’t you understand what it took to capture it? The power? The cost?”
“It’s unnatural. It hates all of creation, including itself. It would be a mercy.” After a moment she said, “This is his second greatest possession? What is his first?”
Anaz grinned. “You’re looking at it.”
Reyn examined the base of the creature, where the sorcerer’s stones that held the sandfury rested. “Jin would have hated the magic in this place.”
Anaz looked at her, unsure what she meant.
“You can’t feel it?” She stepped towards him and he could sense she had drawn the hsing-li into her, but when he tried he only found the black corruption in his way. Anaz felt as if her eyes glared like the sun, his every shameful thought and deed left without a patch of shade to hide in.
“Your hsing-li,” she said. “What have you done to yourself?”
Was that pity in her eyes? “You don’t know. All that old stuff, whatever you’ve been taught, none of that matters here,” Anaz said. “He doesn’t care.”
Nightclaws swooped in the air above them, sniping insects from the air, their calls echoing in the silence between them.
“Perhaps,” she said finally. “But I can sense that you still do. I will help you, Anaz of Varkut.” She walked away from the sandfury, her hands clasped behind her back, her chin raised.
Anaz looked up at the sandfury’s face. And in its hollow eyes he saw the cost of rigid reality. The cost of standing against Hakkana. And in its paused hatred he saw the futility of fighting the fates. Those wondrous, wicked women.
Anaz saw little of the actual, physical Reyn over the next week. His head was another story. He tried not to see her. He told himself he was being foolish, she was just a girl. Yet there he was, hanging over his patio railing to see if light came from her room. He would press an ear to her door, desperate to hear her voice, dreading being discovered. He crafted excuses just in case, that he was delivering a message or maybe that he had heard shouting and came to see if she was ok. That was his favorite. He dreamed of her being attacked and he running to her rescue, killing the attacker, her crying in his arms. Grateful kisses. Anaz, the Hero of the Pit. The Hero of Reyn.
“Please,” Anaz said in Asceni.
They were in Hakkana’s training hall, on a floating platform eleven feet across, much like the ones in the Pit. Opposite him and Reyn was a tall weapons rack and standing next to that were Hakkana, Lazinal and Flick. Fucking Flick. He was a multok. Huge. Half again as tall as Anaz and covered in grey skin with calcified ridges and spikes. It had cost Hakkana double to get a slave collar to fit the brute.
“I won’t,” Reyn said. “And when he asks you, you shouldn’t either.”
“He isn’t asking.”
“It isn’t the way of the hsing-li to fight without cause.”
“What’s the hold-up,” Hakkana shouted. “Let’s see what I bought.”
“He lives to fight, Reyn. So do you now. Know how he got his name? First time in the pit, he had beaten the other guy senseless, playing with him the whole time, and when the guy was barely able to stand, he flicked him in the face and knocked him into the boiling tar. Please, Reyn. You don’t understand.”
Reyn touched her fingers to Anaz’s lips. “So much fear. It’ll be okay.”
“Well?” Hakkana had taken a step forward.
Reyn turned to him and smiled and said in the common tongue, “Thank you, but no.”
Just like that. Without fear or self awareness. Anaz’s legs turned rubbery.
Hakkana nodded. “Anaz was the same way. Well. Let’s get on with it, then.”
He touched a bracelet on his left wrist and Anaz knew Reyn’s collar was being activated. The slave collar was Abaleth’s iron insignia. Invented seven generations ago by a group of sorcerers, each could be imbued with a unique form of punishment, activated by a linked bracelet. Hakkana had his enchanted to feel as if tens of thousands of beetles were devouring the slave from the inside out. Reyn cocked her head as the sensations started. Tried to loosen it.
“I used to have a daughter, you know,” Hakkana said. “A son and a daughter. She was beautiful like you. Though, she was only four when she was killed so I never got to see her become a woman.”
Anaz felt Reyn draw her hsing-li, trying to shield her mind. He rolled up on the balls of his feet, opening and closing his hands.
“She was younger than my son. She had watched me raise Adalen and maybe thought that I would be gentler with her because she was a girl.”
Reyn’s face crumpled and she collapsed. Anaz wanted to pick her up, carry her out of there, to slice off Hakkana’s arm with that bracelet. He knew his own collar would kill him before he could.
“You see, my philosophy towards children is this,” Hakkana crouched and grabbed a fistful of Reyn’s hair. “Punish them until they have no breath with which to complain.”
And then her face smoothed, her back stopped arching, her shoulders relaxed. She said, “The body — feels — pain.” Small gasps between each word. Anaz recognized the line. It came from the Ascenic Canon: When the body is hurt, the body feels pain. When the body is healed, the body feels healthy. That is all there is to do. Anaz was happy to be able to remember the words, though he hadn’t thought about the Canon in a long time.
“I have no reason to hurt this man,” Reyn whispered. Anaz could see Hakkana trying to decide how much pain Reyn was in, maybe wondering if his collar’s enchantment was strong enough.
Flick laughed, walked to Reyn and dug a hand inside of her sari. He crushed her left breast. “Make you hate me, if easier. Or maybe you like?”
Anaz drew his sword and started toward Flick, but Hakkana held up a hand. “Enough,” he shouted. He released Reyn.
She took several breaths, then stood and fixed her sari. “Very well,” she said. She walked to the weapons rack and drew out a training sword made out of long wooden strands tied into a shaft.
“His blade is metal,” Anaz said. A weird mixture of relief and dread stewed within him.
“I do not wish to kill him,” she said in Asceni.
“She can’t use that,” Lazinal called. “His blade is metal.”
Anaz waved Lazinal off.
“I don’t know, Hakkana,” Lazinal said. “She’s just a girl. Look at her.”
“Anaz was eleven,” Hakkana said, then to Flick, “But don’t kill her. She was expensive.”
“And don’t get hurt,” Lazinal said to Flick. “Your fight is less than two weeks out.”
Flick laughed again. A creature so ugly would have that kind of laugh, Anaz thought.
Reyn and Flick faced each other. Her smile had returned, as if she were having a pleasant conversation with the multok.
“I try not to hurt your girlfriend, Anaz, but I be strong now and she so soft. Squishy.” He squeezed the air with his free hand. Anaz could feel his face burning at the word “girlfriend.” “Maybe later, I show you my other strong part, eh little girl?”
The fight was short. Flick came in swinging like he was chopping at trees. Reyn floated around him, blocking his blade a breath’s distance from her. She didn’t challenge his strength with strength. Rather, she absorbed his heaving swings, redirected them with a clap of her sword, then struck. The wooden cracks of her sword against him sounded like a falling tree. Her smile stayed, not vicious, not happy, just content.
“Stop,” Lazinal screamed.
Flick collapsed, his face a ruin of blood and splinters. He coughed. A viscous strand of blood dangled where two of his front teeth had been.
Reyn kicked Flick’s blade away. Several strands of her sword had broken, creating gaps in the shaft.
Flick held his hand up. “Thop.”
“Softness.” Reyn towered over him. “Softness always defeats strength.” She slipped Flick’s fingers into one of the broken openings in her sword. It was the hand he had used to grab her. “Sand is soft. Sand slips through the fingers of he who tries to clutch it. It does not hesitate before it flows away.” She twisted the sword. Flick roared as his fingers snapped backwards. “Yet sand will surround you. Smother you.”
She dropped her sword and looked at Hakkana. Damn, if those dimples weren’t perfect. She turned her gaze to Anaz and while holding his eyes said, “You have collared this body, Master Hakkana. You cannot collar this soul.”
“Get her the fuck out of here,” Hakkana whispered.
It wasn’t until they had crossed the bridge that Anaz realized Reyn hadn’t bothered using her hsing-li against Flick. He could never be the Hero of Reyn. Reyn didn’t need a hero.
He finished sword form seven, panting. He held the same kind of wooden training sword Reyn had used against Flick. How had she moved so fast? Had he ever been that fast? No. It wasn’t her speed, it was her anticipation of Flick, her movement around him as if he were a part of her. She had understood Flick and her understanding of him, at his core, gave her control of him in the fight. Anaz tried to draw in his hsing-li but, as always lately, it came under protest in a trickle. There had to be a way to get it back. Something fast. His next fight was approaching.
How did she do it?
He started sword form eight.
Hakkana told Anaz to “teach her to enjoy herself here. Or I will.”
Anaz took Reyn into Abaleth, touring the five parishes. He told her, these were the houses he would own, if he were allowed. Kingly, three story stone structures, pressed against each other like too large breasts in a too small dress. Slaves beat colorful rugs and linens on porches. Neighbors stretched across balcony railings, whispered gossip bridging and undercutting lives.
He told Reyn about his fights, like the time he earned the name Hero of the Pit or that time he faced a four armed nistna who could create illusions of himself. “Wait ‘till you have sixteen arms swinging scimitars at your head and you not knowing which one’s gonna’ give you a haircut.”
She wouldn’t look at him while he spoke, but only said, “And did you kill him, too?”
“By the gods, woman. It’s you or them.”
“You act like there’s a choice in this, Reyn. There’s not. Not in this.”
They walked in silence for three blocks. After a while he thought he would try telling her about the drips you could earn, how she would be able to buy anything she wanted, never hungry, never thirsty. Gods the water. He told her about taking a bath, that sometimes he would fill a pool, strip naked and float. She looked at him, then, disgust draped across her face. She asked what he did with the water when he was done.
“What difference does it make?
City urchins had begun following Anaz, begging. Those who were low-born or those not afraid of being defiled by a slave touched Anaz’s sword arm. He didn’t mind that, but the kids pulling on his clothing grated. Did they wash their hands in their own shit?
He bought Reyn a sweet cake and gave it to her, saying, “I’m sorry. I know it’s not easy for you. I remember. I can help you, if you let me. And maybe you can help me. It’s just that the Pit is a hard place. At least we can enjoy ourselves when not in it.”
She took the sweet cake, said thank-you, then turned and split it into pieces, handing one to each of the children following them. She hadn’t even tasted it.
“Pleasure,” she said. “That sweet cake was sticky with sweetened sap. Water is tasteless. Yet in which of the two do you think those wilting children would find more pleasure?”
Anaz started to speak, but stopped himself, the aborted words clinging to his teeth like phlegm and as savory. He needed Reyn to help him get back his hsing-li. Whatever he had been about to say wouldn’t have helped his cause. Instead he said, “I need a drink. So do you. Follow me.”
The sun was setting as they crossed Abaleth, weaving their way back through the stone houses, scattered sunlight slicing across them. Eventually the streets began to narrow and the houses became smaller, with more cracks in them and more people sitting outside. Colored lanterns cast garish light across all kinds of races and skin and the clothes on the women went from full saris to half dresses or simple cloths wrapped around their bodies revealing as much as they covered.
“Okay, look,” Anaz said, “I wasn’t going to bring you here yet, but why not?”
They entered a small sitting room with couches and stone tables. The room was dark, with no windows and a handful of sputtering torches and it smelled like scented oil. Guests reclined with bowls of nuts and flan wine. Anaz saw Palina draped across a large elven man in a dark kurta. She looked up at Anaz.
Sana, the mother of the house, a thin elven woman with blue tattoos pecked around her eyes, saw Anaz enter and removed three people from his favorite corner. “Glad to see you, Hero,” she said. She set cups of flan in front of him and Reyn.
After Sana left, Reyn said, “What is this place?”
“A comfort house.”
“Comfort?” Reyn asked.
Palina walked across the room and stood in front of their table, her face painted with makeup and expectancy.
“I was starting to wonder.” She sat next to Anaz, sliding in until her hip pressed against his.
“Palina, this is Reyn.”
“New?” Palina asked.
Anaz sidled some space between him and Palina and said, “Two weeks or so. Hakkana wants me to show her around, show her the prizes of Abaleth.”
“Do you live here?” Reyn asked.
Palina gave a clay smile and said, “She’s cute. Kind of looks like you.”
“Oh my.” Palina reached across Anaz and touched Reyn’s chin, turning it one way, then the other. “Show her the prizes. The three of us? I don’t normally do that, but maybe for you, Hero. I’ve missed you.” When she sat back, her hip was touching Anaz again.
“Just here for the wine.”
“Just the wine.”
“Ah,” Reyn said, “comfort. I understand now. And you are one who gives this comfort.”
“I like to think I get as much as I give.”
Anaz finished his wine and looked into his cup. He was seeing this was a mistake. “You aren’t going to drink yours, are you, Reyn?” He slid her cup over to him. Finish this and get out of here.
“And do you comfort Anaz?”
Anaz tried to move away from Palina, but realized he couldn’t without pressing up against Reyn, a vice of soft hips and warm women. So why did he feel pulled between them?
“Oh yes,” Palina said. “Yes, I comfort the hell out of him. Three, four, five times a night. Or I used to. Until a couple weeks ago.” This last she said while looking at Anaz.
“And when you’re done, you come back here? With drips?”
“Oh honey, it’s okay. I think I see where you’re going. Every day people come wanting me. It’s nice to be wanted.”
“Listen,” Anaz said. He set down Reyn’s empty cup. The scented oil was making it hard to breathe. “Maybe we shouldn’t have come.”
“Do they come wanting you? Or what you sell?”
Palina reached across Anaz and stroked Reyn’s hair. Anaz couldn’t help but notice her blouse sagging as she stretched, those two veined sacks swinging. They were bruised from some man’s grip. He looked away.
Palina jingled the hooks on Reyn’s collar. “If you have to wear one of these, hon, at least you can try and find a little happiness where you can.”
“I think perhaps you don’t understand the value of what you place on the scales for trade,” she said.
“We’re trying to help you,” Anaz said. “There are things you’ll need to learn to be happy here. And you can be, Reyn. You can be happy as a Pit fighter.”
Reyn slid out from the couch and stood, “Learn to kill for water I can float in?”
Anaz let out a breath and slid to the end of the couch waiting for Reyn to make room so he could stand. “You have a lot to learn,” he said.
“Maybe so. But you have a lot to remember, ‘Hero.’ Things like, nothing outside of yourself can bring you happiness.”
Anaz stumbled back parrying, a desperate cymbal of steel on steel. He wouldn’t reveal his desperation, but he knew she could tell, could always tell.
He felt her hsing-li dragging on his arms like sludge, felt the furnace in his muscles as he fought against it. He tried to channel his own hsing-li to defend, but couldn’t clear his mind and instead saw those poisonous black clumps within it.
He prayed nobody was watching. He stole a glance at the door to the training hall.
“Here,” Reyn said. Her dulled blade stabbed into his ribs, a bruising tickle zipping up his side. “I am your opponent. And I am here. Not there.”
Anaz threw his sword to the ground. Three weeks of this shit. Six years in the Pit and he never once lost. Now in three weeks this girl had bested him nine out of nine times.
“Why are you angry? We sparred. You lost. That is all.”
“I don’t lose. Never. Except to you.”
“But you cannot beat me. You have ruined your hsing-li. There was no question. Why be angry over that which you had no control? That is like being angry at the moon for being in the night sky.”
No, he couldn’t beat her. She was a true Ascenic and he was…he didn’t know what he was. He’d thought he was Ascenic, but he saw now how little he had learned or maybe how much he’d forgotten.
“I’m supposed to be training you.”
“Focus on what you can control,” Reyn said. “Be angry when you fail at that.”
As the thumping in his ears dimmed and his punchy breathing eased into long pulls, he looked at his training sword polished and barely used. “You’ve said that twice.”
“That I’ve ruined my hsing-li.”
“I haven’t done anything. Only what I have to.”
“If that were true, you wouldn’t be losing.”
Anaz looked at Reyn, at that soft face of judgement and forgiveness, then at his feet. “Can you fix it? Me?”
Anaz nodded. He had known the answer. He shouldn’t have asked. He heard her walk toward him. She tapped his bare chest, her fingertips shining with his sweat. “But you can.”
Anaz looked up. “In time?”
Reyn shrugged. “It takes no time.”
“That’s great,” Anaz smiled. “Oh, Reyn, that’s great. That’s just what I needed to hear.” He hugged her, his sweat leaving a dark stain on her shirt.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay. It used to be so easy, so I figure you show me a couple tricks and I’ll be back to my old self in time for the next two fights. Then the Genitor’s Peace, then who knows? What’s first?”
“Only one step.”
He figured it would be simple enough. He could do one step.
“Kill the Hero of the Pit.”
“Wait,” Anaz said. He had understood the words, but he was certain that was all the further his understanding went. “You do know I’m the Hero of the Pit? Oh, hey, did you think they were talking about someone else this whole time?”
“You are Anaz.”
“Yeah. Anaz, the Hero of the Pit. The Ascenic boy who saved three decks of fans from a lava avalanche. Who’s won an historic seventeen fights in the Pit. Me. Anaz.”
“And you want me to kill me?”
“But you said —“
Reyn didn’t seem like she would corner him with words the way the pramguan at the dinner parties did.
“What is this?”
“Have you ever followed the Spring Twinklers?”
“What? I don’t know. Once, I think. I remember they were hard to find.”
“Only by being still, making no sound, thinking no thoughts that might distract you, only then do we find them. And so it is we find hsing-li.”
“So I just have to be quiet?”
Reyn pressed her palm against Anaz’s chest, her fingers splayed, a blazing hand burning something away inside Anaz that he wasn’t sure he wanted burned away.
“Yes. But you are so filled with noise, I fear it is only by letting the Hero of the Pit die that you will find the silence you need.”
He didn’t make a sound, holding his breath for long pinching pauses. Just move, he told the rock. He was in the sorcery garden, a dim corner where he knew he could be alone. He had done everything he could remember to do, kneel, close his eyes, slow his breathing, feel the threads of hsing-li weaving between all things. It was this last that he couldn’t do. Right now he’d be grateful to even see the corruption within the energy instead of this awful, angry silence.
Three days to go. He massaged his neck and felt the fresh scars from his last fight. He still couldn’t turn his head without his left arm going numb. He couldn’t do it in time and Reyn was willing to let him die. He’d be damned if he’d allow that. Not when he was this close.
“You sure about this? First I hear of the great Anaz winning on the sly.”
“Just insurance,” Anaz said.
He opened his pouch and poured out the drips, the clack of wooden coins on the stone table. Across the room Palina stood lookout. Anaz had never seen Sana’s place empty before. It felt the right kind of wrongness for what was happening.
“You’re certain it’s Vlaknak,” Anaz said.
“Saw them extending the perch at the top gate. You know how Dragonkin feet are,” the man said. He was a gnome, a child’s height, but with gray eyebrows and thin veins tearing across his nose like a battlefield. He was sitting on two pillows. He had to climb on the table to gather in the coins, then slid a small glass vial filled with a silver liquid to Anaz.
“Damn,” Anaz said.
“Yeah, he’s good. I mean, not as good as you, obviously, but seven straight wins isn’t nothing.”
“And nickellock works on Dragonkin?”
“It’ll slow him down sure. I seen you moving slower last couple dips in the Pit, yourself.”
“Money’s better if you keep it exciting for the fans.”
“Painful price for excitement.”
Anaz twisted the stopper in the vial and watched the silver gel swish like thick tears in a bottle. “You have no idea.”
“Decide yet? On what’ll you do, I mean.” Hakkana refilled Anaz’s wine.
Anaz shook his head.
“Huh. Maybe it’s not so clear as I think it is. Alright. Well, you got time. Not much, but you got time. What about the girl?”
“She won’t fight anyone but me.”
“But you’ve spent time with her? Made clear how things stand? She’ll be here a long time after you. She’ll need help to live.”
“Her beliefs are strong.” And as Anaz said those words, something solid tumbled into place in his mind, like a shaped stone falling into a matching slot. No. Not just in his mind. That was too small a part of the whole.
Anaz looked at his wineglass, put it to his lips, stopped, looked at it again and set it down.
“Where are you going,” Hakkana said.
From up here, twelve stories above all of Abaleth, they could see the Salt Boil Sea, the city, the black maw of the Pit burrowed in its center, gatehouses like teeth. The sun’s final thoughts smeared the sea pink. It was an evening for final thoughts.
“I don’t want to fight tomorrow.” Anaz said.
“Then don’t,” Reyn said.
“Tell me about life at home.”
“What is there to tell? When the sun comes up, we are warm. When the rain falls, we are wet. All happens and we act, according to the hsing-li.”
“My father used to talk like that. I liked it. I thought I understood, but I don’t know.”
“You do. Forgetting is different than never knowing.”
A nightclaw swooped in front of them, its sharp wings pointed toward them, then away.
“I was eleven when I was taken. We were hunting, my first time, with my parents and two others from our tribe. We were lower in the mountains than normal and a water mining crew was higher. Five of us and thirty-nine of them. I killed four before getting clubbed in the head. When I woke, my father was lying next to me. Those eyes. I think he’d been standing over me when he died. Five miners left the mountains.”
The slate roof cooled, giving up the sun’s ghost.
“They’d kill me.”
“The water miners?”
“Thantalis. If I didn’t fight.”
“I’m so close, Reyn. Gods, why won’t you help me?”
“I won’t lose. Six years, seventeen times thrown in that abattoir and now I just have to do it two more times and I’m free.”
“You could be free now.”
“See? That’s what I mean. Riddles aren’t fucking help, Reyn. I need help like this.” He hadn’t planned to show her the nickellock, but then the silver vial was in his hand shining like a palmed confession.
“Poison,” Reyn said. “You remember nothing, if this is the path you choose. This is not of the hsing-li.”
“What choice do I have left? You won’t help me.”
“This is the choice,” Reyn said. “Deception with lives in the balance. These are the choices that sever you from yourself.”
Anaz closed his hand around the vial, hiding it on his lap. The sun was buried now, a purple pall falling over the city pricked by torches.
“I remember their names,” he said. “All seventeen. Twenty-one if I count the water miners. I never learned their names, though.”
“We should regret any life that must be ended. And then we should let them go.”
“I can’t. They deserve that much.”
“You cling so tight, Anaz of Varkut.” Reyn wrapped her hand around his closed fist. “You are closer than you think. One day, maybe tomorrow, I hope you can open your grip. Let go.”
He had backed as far away from the shields at the end of the tunnel as he could and poured the nickellock onto the blade. It clung to the edge like a silver sin.
The crowd began chanting his name. He was in the middle ring and across the Pit he could see the magistrate in his pavilion. Three boxes down, Hakkana and Reyn. She had her hair in a Lenla braid again. He looked at his show armor, gaudy scrollwork and his name bejeweled into the Kheran ivory of his pauldron. He wished he could take it off before she saw it.
The crier was calling out the fight. Anaz versus Vlaknak. Seventeen wins and only two away from his freedom versus seven wins and a chance at history. Two lives reduced to the number of lives they’d taken. Vlaknak was a Dragonkin, not a full-on four legged dragon, like they had in the mountains, but a two-legged creature with wings and a razor tail. They would only eat meat that was still alive, their mealtimes full of bloody screams.
So be it. Anaz slowed his breathing, cleared his mind and began summoning his hsing-li.
The shield on the gate vanished and he leaped to the first stone platform.
The Pit was sixteen levels of elemental magic and traps. Stone islands floated throughout it, some stationary, some orbiting the perimeter with ropes and wind whip catapults for fighters to get from platform to platform. One hundred fifty feet below Anaz was a reeking pool of tar, one hundred fifty feet above, open air. Normally, Anaz’s hsing-li melded him with the elemental magic in the Pit, allowing him to influence it. He looked at where the colored streams of energy should have been in his arms and saw the black clumps. He felt blind.
And then the Dragonkin was on him, the shadow of its wings Anaz’s warning. His blade chimed against Vlaknak’s spearhead and sparks flashed.
Anaz ran for a ladder and not three steps in a wind whip cartwheeled him through the air towards the platform above. So this was how it felt for normal fighters. How he must look, ass over heels like this, blind without his hsing-li. He landed and felt something snap in his shoulder.
Below, Vlaknak screamed, then spewed a stream of acid. Anaz rolled from the edge, shocking pain in his neck and chest. The acid splashed over the edge. It melted into Anaz’s face. The crowd cried out.
Anaz lurched to his feet. He knew the Dragonkin would fly up in a second, but would keep his distance until he saw what kind of fight was left in Anaz. Not much. They couldn’t fly very well. It would need to drop on him within four heartbeats.
As Vlaknak rose past the edge, Anaz reached out with a desperate slash and felt the blade catch Vlaknak’s foot. The Dragonkin hissed and flapped away. Anaz whooped. Let the nickellock do its work.
His sword-hand went numb, so he switched the blade to his off-hand.
Vlaknak folded his wings back, a paper crumpling sound, and dropped. A judgement.
Anaz couldn’t get his left hand to move fast enough. The sword caught the spear inches from his throat, slapping it into his left shoulder and driving him down, pinning him to the rock. He screamed. He slashed at the Dragonkin’s legs and it jumped back laughing, its tail coiling in the air.
“Remember who it is that destroys the Hero of the Pit,” it screamed. “Vlaknak. Vlaknak!”
Why wasn’t the nickellock slowing him down? That fucking gnome. Anaz looked at the spear standing out of his arm, a flag of ownership. So this was how he would die. He could see Reyn above him, leaning over the railing. She gave a sad smile and nodded and he thought he could see her mouth his name. Anaz. He remembered his mother dying with his name on her lips, peaceful, accepting. The freedom of knowing it was okay and letting go. Let go. Anaz smiled. It was okay. This was okay. As the hsing-li willed it.
Vlaknak took a step towards him and sliced his bladed tail up Anaz’s chest, opening his armor and skin. Anaz didn’t scream.
He could hear the crowd crying, chanting his name, their combined voices sounding like “Ah nose.” Anaz chuckled. “Ah nose,” he said, his lips sticky with blood. “Ah, nose, where have you been?” He began laughing, merciless pain burning the mirth. That was the right use of his name — a use he had forgotten for so many years now — a good laugh.
Vlaknak slashed with his tail. Again and again. Cuts opened on Anaz’s legs, his chest, his cheek and he felt pain and warm liquid spill out of him. Yet, he felt this was happening to a “self” that no longer existed. The body feels pain, he thought.
And then he felt his hsing-li. Everywhere around him, he became aware of life and the woven connections between all. He became aware of the flow of elemental magic surrounding him, in this arena, in this rock.
There. Under Vlaknak’s left foot. A sand trap. It had been there all along waiting for the right moment to open.
As Vlaknak stepped forward, his tail slashing one last time, Anaz rapped his knuckles on the earthen platform and channeled his hsing-li into the trap. It spiraled open, swallowing Vlaknak’s leg up to his knee. The sudden shift sent his tail just high enough to skim over Anaz’s face and shear through the spear pinning his arm. And in one motion, Anaz lifted himself off the broken shaft, a slurping sound as it came free, rolled up on a knee and slipped his sword into Vlaknak’s throat. The Dragonkin burped blood, then fell, its wings blanketing him.
The crowd roared.
Anaz’s vision blurred, but before he lost it altogether, he saw Reyn looking down at him, serious, but kind of smiling. He liked her hair. He hoped he remembered to tell her that if he woke.
© 2017 Kaleb Schad
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