Gone. Sold. Put down. The words flapped in his chest like a frantic sparrow. First, Reyn’s room. Three stories down, taking the steps two at a time. He was breathing heavy, but not from the running.
When she wasn’t there, when the slave who was bagging up Reyn’s clothing wouldn’t talk to Anaz, he went for Galdna.
Across the High City at a near sprint, his sword a chaotic drummer against his legs. The sandstorm coated his mouth as he heaved for breath.
Galdna himself answered the door and before Anaz could find the breath to speak, he said, “The businessman in me, after careful thought, decided there might be a better deal to be made.”
Anaz fell against the doorjamb and slumped to the porch.
Back in his room, he closed the door behind him, walked over to the statue of himself and looked into its eyes, those smooth, lifeless orbs. A crack had formed in the left one. A hairline creeping over the pupil. He drew his sword and slashed at the face, flinging a chunk of the nose across the room. He screamed and hacked at the statue, the face, the neck, the chest. He killed it again and again, opened its stone guts and slit its stone throat. And he screamed.
Gone. He lay on his balcony, his arms throbbing, his sword a mangled mess next to him. Sold. How could Galdna and Hakkana do this? How could Anaz lose everything? Again. Put down.
He felt the hollow embrace of loneliness wrapping around him, recognized it. He had always been alone. Since the day he watched his parents die. Was this his fate? Had those wicked goddesses decided that Anaz of the Clan Varkut should live his life without a clan? Anaz of No Clan.
Why had he let Reyn convince him that happiness was possible? She didn’t understand the world. She didn’t know what they could do, would always do, to ruin anything you cared about. He could hear her voice (Was that her voice? What did her voice sound like? Gods, how could he already forget her voice?) saying, “nothing outside yourself can bring you happiness.” But she was wrong. Wasn’t she? What about love? What about this hole left where she had been?
He went to his bed, and pulled out the pouch holding his mother’s pendant. His last link to that life. A life that left him unprepared for cruelty. They had trained him to fight. They had trained him to stay calm and focused, to feel the flow of the world’s power around him and channel it through his hsing-li. But they had never trained him for the one thing he needed most to prepare for — the constance of loss.
Back at the balcony, he poured the pendant into his palm and ran his thumb over the serpent and dog chasing each other and he thought maybe he was the dog and maybe happiness was the serpent. What would he do if he caught it? Happiness would bite back.
He whipped the pendant into the afternoon sky. It tumbled glittering into the void of a vicious city.
Anaz waded through a soup of memories over the next three days. He saw her everywhere, smelled her, felt her. She was in the cries of the nightclaws. She was in the cool stone stairs and the sweaty silence of the training hall.
On the third night he tried to meditate. He was on the roof for no more than twenty minutes, his mind spasming with her. It was pointless. Who was he kidding? Without her, it was all pointless.
He climbed down.
“I knew,” Palina said and smiled and stepped out next to him. She left the door open. Sana had strung new lanterns outside her brothel and the red shades covered the porch in a flickering sanguine glow. Palina rubbed her hand across his belly. He didn’t stop her. “I knew you needed me.”
Palina dropped on Anaz, naked and spent. A dry breeze caressed Anaz and, though it was hot, goose bumps rose under its touch. The sheets were wet with sweat. Part of him had hoped that it wouldn’t work, that his body wouldn’t respond and he wouldn’t be able to consummate his betrayal. But it had and the desire had left in convulsive waves, towing in disgust behind it.
“Oh, hon.” Palina rolled off of him, leaving sweat cooling where her thighs had pinched him. “That was amazing. Wasn’t that amazing? You seemed distracted at first, but you really came around at the end. Get it? ‘Came at the end?’”
He thought he should say something like, thank-you or, yes, amazing. But he couldn’t. He pulled his head away from her hand. What was he doing here? He reached for his pants.
“Your fight’s coming up, isn’t it? Want to know what people are saying about it?” She snaked her hand down his spine, her fingers tracing the crisscrossed scars.
“No,” Anaz said and he arched his back to get her to stop.
“Your last fight. That’s going to be amazing. Amazing Anaz. Amazing lover. Amazing killer. The first slave to win nineteen fights to the death, the Genitor’s Peace. I wonder what you’ll fight. They’re keeping it a mystery, you know. What do you think you’ll have to fight? I bet it’ll be frightening. What’s the most dangerous creature you’ve ever fought?”
Anaz stood and pulled his pants up and looked down at her. There she was in her altogether, her used breasts sloughing down her sides, black moss between her legs. A trap. A test that once engaged cannot be passed.
He looked out the window and watched a scarlet flag yield to the wind, then right itself.
He said, “Myself.”
The guard started shaking his head the moment he saw Anaz. Maybe because he could see Anaz was drunk or maybe because he just didn’t like the boy. Anaz didn’t ask. Two steps from the guard, Anaz made a fist and on the last step from the guard, he destroyed the man’s jaw.
He pushed open the door. Hakkana was sitting at a circular table eating. The smell of seared rock chuck and sand grass stew. A map of Abaleth three times the size of Anaz stretched across the wall behind him, each district painted a different color. Hakkana leaned back in his chair and wiped a thick hand over his mouth, grease from the rock chuck smearing across his chin.
Anaz tried not to stumble as he walked. “Where is she? Who did you sell her to?”
Hakkana grunted. “And I expected something more interesting.”
“I could have bought her rights.”
“And how the fuck would my property pay me for my property?”
“She was everything to me. You’ve taken everything from me. Twice. You won’t live to do it a third time.”
Hakkana stood and kicked his chair clattering across the cobble stones.
“You haven’t lost everything, boy. Not yet.” He came around and rested on the edge of the table in front of Anaz.
“Let me tell you a story about losing everything. Twelve years ago I had a wife and two kids. A son, six, and a daughter, four. Beautiful. And I was fucking rich. The second richest pramguan in Abaleth. But I couldn’t cast. No magic. And in Abaleth, you can’t run the show if you can’t run the magic.”
He grabbed a leg of the rock chuck.
“But I’m a smart guy. I get things done and when it takes breaking eggs, I’m pretty careful about which ones go into the mix. So I felt good about going up against Thantalis and supporting my own guy. Rule by proxy kind of thing.” He punctuated his words by waving the leg in the air and the combination of alcohol and the greasy smell was making Anaz sick.
“Only bad business decision I’ve ever made,” Hakkana said. “Thantalis, now there’s someone who understands the difference between killing a man in punishment and punishing a man so bad he’ll wish he was dead. He comes to my house and he kills my guards one by one as he and his men come up the tower. Pops my guys like they’s pimples on a whore’s ass. My wife and I hear the racket and run into the kids’ room. We huddle in a corner. I’ve put five guards outside the room and I can hear my wife telling the kids it’s going to be okay and to stop crying. But it’s not going to be okay is it, Anaz?”
Hakkana took a bite and small pieces of flesh dribbled off of his lips.
“Thantalis kills the guards, enters with six of his own and he makes me an offer. Kill your children and wife. Swear fealty to me, and I’ll let you live. Don’t and I’ll give you and your family to the Widowers to be raped and tortured and sold into slavery. Now, if Thantalis is anything, he’s a man of his word.”
Hakkana took another bite and chewed and looked through Anaz.
“Do you have any idea what it takes to hold one hand over your child’s crying face and with the other squeeze his neck until he stops breathing? His desperate pulse under your fingers. Your wife wailing while being held by his guards. Your daughter crying with a fear you’ve never heard in her before. Screaming, what is going on? Why is daddy doing this? Why is he hurting Adalen? Do you have any idea?”
Anaz couldn’t stop his eyes from filling with tears. “I love her,” he said. “I’ll find her when I’m free. I’ll keep fighting in the Pit and earn what it takes to buy her. I’ll kill every gladiator you enter. You’ll spend the rest of your life buying and training slaves and I will finish each and every one of them in front of you.”
“You know, I liked you better when you were into wine and whores.” Hakkana stood and walked back around the table. He righted the chair and sat down. “You were a son to me. You were my way back. My revenge.”
“I’ll save her.”
“No.” Each word a grey shard of slate. “No, you won’t.”
They stared at each other for a long time. Blood hummed in Anaz’s ears.
“Do you know,” Hakkana said, “why I started with my son?”
Anaz turned and walked towards the door.
“Because I loved him best.”
There they were again. The black corruption creeping along his hsing-li. It had taken ten minutes to summon it and now the corruption was back. His knees ached from kneeling and he was thirsty for wine and he needed some air that wasn’t this tower. He released his hsing-li.
He carried a calabash of wine with him and it lasted two hours of the walk across town. Everywhere, Anaz saw posters for his fight the next day. The town criers were calling out the fight’s details. A mystery opponent. Something never before seen in the history of the Pit. A conquest for freedom. Sometime in the third hour, his head mummified in alcohol, he found himself outside the khatras district. The road wound around the outskirts and up a hill and as he neared the top he could see a patchwork of tents and huts below, rust colored rectangles scattered this way and that. A man riding a fendlith put his hand on his sword as he passed. Anaz turned into a cemetery. Mounds of stones, memories piled under rock, riddled the hillside.
He recognized the elven woman from a distance. She was kneeling at a small grave and burning an offering. She hadn’t seen him yet. He could leave and she would never know he was there. She wouldn’t want to see him.
And still he approached.
She had found stones striated with some kind of white mineral and had arranged them so the lines curved in a series of circles over the boy. Anaz stopped at her side and he found himself tracing the paths of the stones with his eyes and realized they were arranged in a way that infinitely looped from one to the other.
The elf woman looked up at Anaz, recognized him, looked back at her son’s grave. The sound of the city behind them, the breeze off of the boiling sea, the ache between them.
“It’s not natural,” she said, “for a parent to bury their child.”
“I am sorry. I should have done more. Tried harder.”
“I’ve been lost without him. I wake up and I still think, ‘where will I get water for Calas today?’”
“If I hadn’t come here, hadn’t brought those clothes…”
She lifted her face to the sky, her lips tight, thin creases of effort at containing her grief. “You brought him a moment of joy. This is Abaleth. We are a people who kill. We don’t help. You were Calas’s hero before ever coming here. The mighty gladiator. He spent that night—“ She had to stop for a moment. Anaz thought she had almost said “that last night.”
“He spent that night talking about you and how you could ‘win everyone’ — that’s how he would say beat — you could win everyone and, yet, you were also kind. He called you Just Anaz,” her voice cracked as she said his name. She had said it like “justice.” “I don’t know why he called you that.”
Anaz knelt and bowed, touching his forehead to the grave.
“But I’ve realized something,” she said. “Do you follow Airim or any of the gods?”
Anaz shook his head.
“Well, I do. I blamed them at first. I blamed you and that girl you were with. And I blamed your master. But everyone knows of Hakkana’s cruelty, and so then I thought that it wasn’t really his fault, that the gods had made him that way and he could do nothing but act as his nature made him. And that’s what helped me. That realization that the gods made us. They made us and they get to take us and it is our job simply to be grateful for experiencing life at all. And when it is time, it is our job to let go.”
She closed her eyes and leaned over her burning incense. “And I thought to myself, rather than how sad I was that Calas was gone, I thought, how much worse would life have been if I had never been able to enjoy him in the first place?”
She looked at Anaz. “I’ve not tried to explain that to anyone. It probably makes no sense.”
Anaz thought it did make sense. He thought about filling things up and covering things up and wearing things. Things like privilege and fame. Wine and women and wealth. He thought about holding on to things that were not his to hold on to. Love and lives.
“Tomorrow I fight for my freedom,” he said. “I don’t know what that means.”
The elf woman bowed over the incense again. “Because you haven’t decided what binds you.”
There were voices in the garden. That was what woke Anaz. He looked out his balcony and based on the constellations could tell it was hours from sunrise yet. Then he heard a loud crack, the crumble of stone, urgent shouts.
Anaz rolled off of his bed and pulled on his pants and boots. There came a sound of sorcery and a flare of white light so intense it was as if someone had unhooded the sun in the gardens. Anaz ran to his door and threw it open. Five guards stood outside of it. They hadn’t been there when he went to bed. They told him he was not to leave his room.
He walked to his balcony and realized a Blocker had raised a shield across it. He couldn’t reach the patio.
He kneeled and tried to meditate.
They had put Anaz in the lower tunnel. He had only ever started a battle in this tunnel once before, during his first fight. Was that the point? As he started, so should he end?
They were making some kind of announcement, but he couldn’t hear what it was. That was new, too. The crowd made an “oohing” sound, then applauded. He began summoning his hsing-li. It trickled into him.
He thought about who he might have to fight. Whoever it was, Anaz wouldn’t kill him. He was done dealing in sorrow. This would be his last fight. And maybe it didn’t matter if he survived.
As he neared the end of the tunnel, he saw there were twice as many Blockers today. Their cowled faces revealed no emotion, but he thought he could sense a nervousness from them.
They lifted the shield and Anaz was out of the tunnel.
He jumped to the first platform and the Pit vibrated with the crowd’s cheers, the chants of his name. Where once he would have bowed or acknowledged them in some way, this time he ignored them.
He looked up to see who he was fighting and that’s when he saw her.
She was bound between four floating stones, one cuffing each hand and foot. She had been beaten and Anaz couldn’t tell if she was conscious or not, but she was alive. He could see that from her hsing-li. It was like an inferno. He realized it wasn’t just hers, but that she had been laced with some sort of magic that was amplifying it.
His gaze panned past her and landed on the sandfury. The sandfury. The demigod of chaos itself. It was at the top of the Pit, several hundred feet away. Orbiting earthen platforms kept blocking his view, but it appeared to be bound yet with two sorcerers kneeling at either side of it.
Hakkana is insane, was the first thing Anaz thought. The second was, Reyn’s hsing-li. That’s why they have her wrapped in that magic. Sandfuries loathe creation and the hsing-li is nothing except creation.
Anaz used his own hsing-li to open a wind whip and catapulted himself to the next platform above him. The Blockers raised their shields all along the Pit. The sorcerers released their spell holding the sandfury and the creature whipped to life, becoming a maelstrom of rocks. Its stones tore into the sorcerers, shredding skin and robes and bone, blending them into a gory mist.
The crowd roared, a wave of murderous excitement thundering through the Pit.
The sandfury turned toward Reyn. Alive, now, the ebony coils emanating from the sandfury thrashed.
“Reyn,” Anaz screamed. He threw himself from his platform and caught a rope hanging from the next and began cinching his way up it. He tried to use his hsing-li to enhance his strength, but there wasn’t enough. Up and up he climbed. From one platform to the next.
The sandfury and Anaz reached Reyn simultaneously. She was awake. She smiled at Anaz and said, “I missed you.” Three words that he had never heard before. From anyone. Three words binding Anaz to another person.
He leaped at her and grabbed hold of the orb clasping her left foot. It bobbed under Anaz’s weight.
The sandfury tore apart one of the earthen platforms floating past and slung a boulder at her. Anaz channeled his hsing-li to deflect it. When the black tendrils touched Anaz’s colored energy, it disintegrated and Anaz felt like he’d been kicked in the stomach. The stone spun off toward the stands. It powdered into a thousand pieces against the Blockers’ shields. The crowd laughed and cheered.
“Hold on,” Anaz said. He drew his sword and tried to leverage himself so he could strike the orb. His sword glanced off of it, sparks blinking away. It wouldn’t work. Even if his sword held up, which it wouldn’t, it would take hours to free her.
More stones came at Reyn and it was all Anaz could do to use his hsing-li and sword to block them. The roar of the wind coming off of the elemental was constant. An entropic white noise.
“I can’t channel,” Reyn shouted. “They’re stealing my hsing-li. I can’t help.”
He dropped to the platform beneath her, then leaped on to a passing one that would carry him in front of Reyn. He was breathing heavy. Stone after stone bulleted towards her, the sable strands stretching out from the sandfury. He blocked them and grunted with each touch of the dark energy. The sandfury dissolved the platforms near it, turning them into missiles.
The black streams flipped and tossed like swollen serpents, splintering everything they touched. One flashed out and struck a Blocker, turning him into a glob of red water that fell away into the Pit. The Blocker’s shield dissolved and Anaz heard the crowd quiet as the reality of the sandfury’s danger dawned on them. He knew they couldn’t see the energy, couldn’t see what had happened to the Blocker. To them he had been there one second and the next he was not.
The sandfury circled around Reyn, putting her between it and Anaz. Anaz tried to reposition himself, to find a platform to use, but his options were being turned to shrapnel. Reyn cried as a stone tore through her side. Blood soaked her clothing. Dozens of tiny cuts from debris Anaz hadn’t been able to block were opened and seeping. The hsing-li surrounding her rippled, then reformed itself.
He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t protect her and attack the sandfury. There was no way to get at it without leaving her undefended. The realization fell on him like a suffocating blanket.
“You have to attack it, Anaz,” Reyn shouted. “Leave me. Stop this thing.”
“I won’t,” Anaz said. He jumped to another platform, then from there, leaped back onto Reyn. He pulled himself up and wrapped an arm over her shoulders to support himself while using his other arm to block stones.
Closer now, Reyn was able to whisper into his ear. She rested her head on his shoulder. “It’s okay, Anaz.”
His hand stung as a stone screeched off of his sword.
“Anaz. It’s okay.”
“No.” He was panting heavier now, his hsing-li dimming. “No.”
“Look, Anaz. Look at what it is doing. Look at what it will do.”
Anaz looked up and down the Pit and realized nearly half of the Blockers had been killed by the monster. The top two audience decks had been destroyed under the sandfury’s entropic touch and now lay as rubble crushing the third deck. He could hear the screams of those trapped. In the center ring, across from him, he saw Thantalis screaming at Hakkana and Galdna. They were in the same pavilion. Thantalis must have invited Hakkana, thinking to gloat over his latest victory. Anaz wondered whose victory this was.
“They deserve it.”
“You can stop this, Anaz.”
A stone sliced Anaz’s thigh and his leg buckled. He forced himself back up.
“I won’t let you die.”
“You don’t get to choose that.”
“I won’t let you go.”
“You’re holding on so tight that you are gripping nothing and don’t even realize it.”
As he hung there, his hsing-li being taken apart by the sandfury, his sword chewed to the point that it was nearly as serrated as Flick’s, Anaz knew she was right.
“Let me go, Anaz. Stop holding on to things.”
“You’re all I have.” But something had changed in the way he said it. As if he could have said, “You’re all I had.”
“Anaz,” Reyn said. “Just Anaz.”
She lifted her head off of his shoulder and kissed him. It was full and warm and in it Anaz could taste blood and salt and love. And farewell. And it was okay. She wasn’t his to keep. It was okay.
His hsing-li swelled within him to the point that there was no separation between him and it. He was the hsing-li and the hsing-li was everything and everywhere. And when he broke off the kiss, he could see in Reyn a peace and an understanding she had always told him existed, but that he had never known until now.
And when he looked at the sandfury, he knew what he must do because it was not of the hsing-li. It was not.
He launched himself at the elemental. Black tendrils flipped around Anaz, trying to strike him, buffeting against his hsing-li, but they couldn’t reach him.
Where the elemental was fury and violence, Anaz became calm and peace. Where it raged, he absorbed. It attacked everywhere, so Anaz was nowhere.
As he approached the sandfury, he felt his limbs melt into energy, a spectrum of colors surging through him, twisting around each other, overlapping and becoming white. And when he allowed the black tendrils to strike him, they stuck, like tar. They tried to retreat, stretching long rubbery strands between Anaz and them. They snapped back to him and the colors of his hsing-li seeped into the ink, pooling out from him like water. He could feel the sandfury’s fear. It was discovering the grace of order, the weaving of existence, and it was afraid.
He moved along the tendrils until he was before it, his sword in hand, a creature of creation and light and color. “It’s okay,” he said to the sandfury. It lowered its face to Anaz’s.
“You are trying. And there is no need,” Anaz said.
Outside of them, the sandfury’s maelstrom continued, a stone tornado trapped within the Pit.
“What will be will be. Order becomes chaos when it is ready. And chaos will become order in its own time. Stop trying. I have learned this today. And you will, too.” Anaz channeled his hsing-li into his sword, the blade variegated with its colors. He thought he could see the sandfury nod at him, his stone eyes unfocused. Resigned.
Anaz arched back, his blade held overhead, and sunk it to the hilt between the sandfury’s eyes. His iridescent hsing-li purled into the creature and where it touched the black energy binding the elemental together, it nullified it, so that the creature’s parts fell unbound.
And he felt pieces of himself falling away with the creature. The pieces that he had held up for others to see. The names and titles. The lust, anger and grudges. The pride and showmanship. All of it crumbled away with the sandfury until all that was left was Anaz.
His hsing-li faded and he dropped to a platform several feet below him. The Pit was a raw throat. He took a moment to catch his breath, to let the feeling come back into his feet and legs, then stood and looked at her.
She hung dead between the four floating orbs.
Anaz picked up his sword and leaped from platform to platform, then threw himself to the magistrate’s pavilion. He caught the edge and hauled himself onto the deck.
Hakkana, Galdna and the magistrate were still there. Four Blockers’ bodies lay around them, thrashed by shrapnel.
The magistrate stood and began brushing dust and blood from his robes. Hakkana sat breathing in spurts. Galdna held his head.
“I have earned the Genitor’s Peace.”
“How could I have been such a fool,” Thantalis said. “How could I have believed you anything other than lucky for having caught that thing the first time? Of course your mages wouldn’t be able to do it again.”
Galdna stood up.
Thantalis looked past Anaz at the crumbled Pit. “This will ruin me.”
Anaz stepped forward, raising the tip of his sword. A dwarven guard on the floor tried to rouse himself to protect his liege, but he was missing his leg below the knee and fell.
“I have earned my freedom. The Genitor’s Peace. Release me.”
Thantalis looked from Anaz to Hakkana and said, “Release the boy or I will.”
It took Hakkana a long time to look up at Anaz. “Never,” he said. “He is mine.”
“You cannot keep me,” Anaz said.
Hakkana struggled to his feet. “I saved you,” Hakkana spit. “I pulled you from those fucking mountains and gave you a life worth living. You owe me.”
“Tanly,” Galdna said, using his partner’s first name.
“He has earned it,” Thantalis said.
Anaz stepped forward and dropped his sword. Galdna put his hand up to stop Anaz, but Anaz moved through it, threw open his arms and hugged Hakkana. There. Master and slave. Father and son. The first touch between them.
“You’re right,” Anaz whispered. “You did give me something I could never have received without you. And then you made me let her go.” He stepped back and saw the tears in Hakkana’s eyes and said, “I love you for it. And now you are going to let me go.”
Hakkana’s eyes jerked from Thantalis to Anaz to Galdna to Anaz.
“You’re right,” he said.
He touched the bracelet on his wrist and Anaz felt the burn of the beetles chewing him from the inside within an instant. More powerful than ever before, Anaz collapsed and wailed. Somewhere in the part of Anaz’s brain left to him from the pain he realized this wasn’t just torture. Hakkana meant to kill him. Anaz coughed red specks.
Thantalis sighed and said, “Oh for the love of Airim.” He snapped his fingers. Hakkana’s left hand and wrist with the bracelet collapsed in on itself, crumpled as if a giant had crushed it in his grip. Hakkana fell and clutched his arm, screaming. The pain disappeared from Anaz.
Anaz stood. Behind them, the rubble was pulled away and five guards poured into the pavilion. Thantalis gestured for them to pull Hakkana to his feet.
“Galdna,” he said, “it looks like you’re going to be the sole owner of Hakkana and Galdna Pit Fighters now.”
“I thought that might happen,” Galdna said. “Hakkana hadn’t been much use lately anyway.”
Thantalis reached for Anaz’s collar and rested his hand on it. His gold eyes lit up and Anaz felt the hairline latch pop open. Cool air kissed his naked neck.
“I am nothing,” Thantalis said, “if I am not a man of my word.”
It took him a day to find the stones for her grave. He had rested her next to the elven boy. He thought she would have liked that. He arranged the striated stones in a circular pattern that mirrored the one over Calas’s grave. As you traced them, you could follow the pattern from one into the other. White stones chalking innocence across the soil.
He looked out over the khatras district, Reyn’s wall still shepherding the slurry away, past Hakkana’s tower, to the edge of Abaleth. The sun was red and bloated and copper dust powdered the world. He’d never been outside of the city since coming here. He knew the Ascenics and the Fire Pitch Mountains were out there, but he wouldn’t go to them. They weren’t his people anymore. He had no people. All people were his. He knew a country named Humay lay to the east of Anathest. It was leagues upon leagues away. A trip through a desert that offered nothing except sand and violence, that killed everyone that tried it, or so he’d been told. But he heard they had so much water that the land was green with life. He thought he would like to see that. He thought he would like to lie down and be surrounded by life.
Anaz of no clan had killed his first man at the age of eleven and by seventeen had killed another twenty-two.
He regretted all of them.
© 2017 Kaleb Schad
All rights reserved.