Helton City, The Crucible, Summer of the Red Moon.
"Nait my good friend," a bald man excitedly welcomed his guest.
"Theodore," Nait smiled. The dimples in his cheeks were deep. He looked like a child innocently smiling at his friend. "Thank you for receiving us. I'd like to introduce you to my friend."
The man moved aside, revealing another, wearing a long red robe behind him. He had a brown goatee. His brown hair was perfectly pomaded backwards. He smelled of Narcissus and wore black eyeliner. "Your Excellency," Theo knelt in reverence.
"Rise," the man spoke. "It's quite an establishment you've got here."
They were standing near a rail that overlooked the arena. The red robed man looked around. Comfortable looking armchairs were aligned in an orderly fashion around the arena. Each row was perfectly placed below the one above it. No one could obstruct the other's visual field.
The arena was large enough to host Monster versus Monster fights. "Theodore provides bodies for our organization," Nait addressed the senator from the Empire. Nait had short black hair but no beard, just a thin, long mustache. He had a dark gray complexion and unusually large eyes. Coupled with his small round face, the man named Nait looked like an adorable baby seal. "He's behind many of our great successes."
"I am pleased to hear it," the senator said as he walked around the comfortable seats, inspecting them. "You are a fortunate man, Theodore Avalange. We have an offer which should cover every favor you owe us."
"Your Excellency," Theo bowed. "You honor us with your words. We merely provided whatever meager help we could."
"Nevertheless," the spy replied. "Chancellor Amaud sent us some Photons to watch the Contest. I would be interested to see if the team we sent to Ulmir's Domain would come out victorious." The spy turned to look at the owner of the Crucible.
"What do you think? Bloody Hound? Can we watch the fights in your arena?"
"Your Excellency," Theodore looked bewildered. "This place is secret you see? A large convoy coming this way would surely attract some attention."
"I shan't be present to watch the Contest here. The Emperor has arranged for that in his castle," the senator interjected. "Invitations will be sent to some individuals, powerful ones. They will be instructed to make their way here as discreetly as possible. I'm sure you'll find this venture quite lucrative. My own men will ensure that. So tell me Mr Theodore, are you willing to work for me?"
Helton City, The Crucible, Spring of the Blond Moon. Several years ago.
I sat by the small canal, washing my dirty feet. The bath was reserved to those with lieutenant privilege. The captains could have their own private rooms. The general had access to a woman every week. He was everyone's target. I didn't have any. I didn't even have a plan to get out of this dump.
It wasn't the best place to live. But I didn't have the energy to even think of getting out. I was provided one meal per day. I'd be training for most of the day, or fighting in the pits. At the end of the day, my body would drag me to the bed I shared with twenty other Lieutenants. Eli was one of them. Despite his light weight, he was an able fighter.
We sat together in the bath, rubbing the dead skin off.
"You heard the stories they say about Kerlov?" Eli whispered to me. His hair was much shorter now, his beard shaven. He had even put on some muscles. Lieutenant rank suited him.
"General Kerlov?" I asked. "I heard he escaped."
"He didn't," Eli whispered. "Keep your voice down will you?"
"Why? there's nobody here," I retorted.
"The walls have ears stupid." He leaned closer to me then whispered once more. "I heard the Hound caught him. They've put him in a cell in the frozen floor."
"There's no frozen floor and I don't care whether Kerlov escaped or not." I was tired of this topic. It's been two weeks that Eli was trying to convince me. "I have no intention of escaping."
"Why?" he asked. "Don't you have a family? Someone you care about? Everyone has someone, or something to return to."
"Not me," I answered. "I don't care if I lived or died."
"Then why do you fight? Huh? You've won twenty consecutive fights, enough to earn you a lieutenant rank. Why didn't you just make a mistake and died?"
"It's complicated," I replied. I knew it was a typical answer to give, but it really was complicated.
"I'll tell you what it is Stalwart," Eli was no longer whispering. "You were wronged, real bad. And now you think that your salvation is death. But you're wrong. You don't want to die. Your body fights despite your indifference."
"You talk quite eloquently for a prisoner," I said, trying to change the subject.
"Not everyone here was caught as a criminal. Some people are sent here to die," he replied. "I assume you know that already."
"I don't know what you're talking about." I replied, fixing the floor with my eyes as I scrubbed my left leg.
"I did my homework on you Stalwart." Eli pulled me by the shoulder. He had that look on his face that spelled trouble. "You've been sent here by the Church. What did you to them Stalwart?"
"I don't know what you're talking about. I was captured in the sewers leading to the Rats' headquarters. Me and the rest of my crew were either sent here or killed in action." I went back to my scrubbing.
"Not even the Hound knows why you were sent here," Eli went on. He was clearly bent on discussing the subject. "I got this from one of his guards."
"How'd you get one of those heartless bastards to talk?" I asked. I didn't believe a word he said, but I was intrigued. How did he find out about the Church?
"Stalwart, look at me."
"When you look at me, what kind of man do you take me for?"
"At first I thought you were some petty thief, at death's door."
Eli chuckled. "What do you think of me now?"
"You're a good fighter," I frankly said. "I must admit, I was surprised by your skills with daggers."
"I was a merchant. Some people didn't want me in the picture. I knew too much." Eli turned to his stone scrub, picked it up and started rubbing his left arm vigorously. "They staged a murder and got me pinned as the murderer. Instead of sending me to the gallows, they sent me here."
"Easy on the scrubbing," I warned. "You might peel the dead and live skin away."
"I don't intend to die a miserable and slow death Stalwart. I need to get away from here, no matter the cost."
"If you intend to recruit me to your cause, then forget it." I wasn't going to bend. I had no intention of escaping.
"Perhaps not today Stalwart, but I'll definitely get you to join my cause." Eli finished scrubbing his upper body then turned with his back to me. "Mind scrubbing my back?"
The conversation returned to talks about our upcoming fights. I was relieved he decided to give up, albeit temporarily. I was tired from training. I had no energy to argue any further. I liked the bath after dinner since nobody came to it. But Eli had followed me one day and started sharing the spacious place with me.
"If you win tomorrow, you'll have access to the Crucible," Eli said.
"Same goes for you," I answered as I finished scrubbing his back.
"We'll end up being enemies then."
"Yes," I answered, handing him my scrubbing stone then turned my back to him.
"I don't want to kill you Stalwart," he said.
"I don't think you can. You're a skilled fighter, but I'm better."
"Would you kill me then?"
"I don't want to think about it."
Eli handed me the stone back after he'd finished the scrubbing. He took a wooden bucket, filled with hot water, then poured its content on his head. His naked body revealed deep scars on his back.
"I'll think of escaping if you tell me about those scars," I heard myself say.
Damn my disobedient tongue! I didn't mean to ask him that. Perhaps I meant it, but I never wanted the words to come out. Eli turned towards me, a large smile on his face.
"The men that staged my murder tortured me for the knowledge I hold." He sat on a built-in stone chair and held the bucket by the aqueduct. Hot water filled it as he sat there, brooding.
"Did you give them what they wanted?" I asked. It was too late. There was no harm in getting additional info.
"I told them some, but kept most to me." The bucket was full. He poured the scalding hot water on his head once more. "They whipped me, for days. They had my toenails pulled off with a pincer. They broke some of my teeth and kept me famished. But when I had the chance to get back from the dead, I didn't hesitate friend."
I looked at the naked man in front of me, hot water dripping down from his body. "What will you do once you get out?" I asked.
"Do you know which moon we're in?" he answered my question with another. I hated when people did that.
"Blond Moon," I answered. "What does it have to do with anything?"
"The next one will be the eighty second moon Stalwart. You know what that means."
"I know a rumor when I hear one." This conversation was turning towards superstition. I didn't like superstition.
"It's no rumor Stalwart. That guard told me the Church sent you here. Then you must know what they're capable of."
"I have an idea yeah. I never want to speak of it." Words I didn't believe in left my mouth.
"I know you've suffered Stalwart," Eli sat next to me. "Go to sleep now. Think about it. I don't want to fight you. And I know you don't want that either. We can escape Stalwart. We can start a new life, or get revenge if we want to. I know a way out. Just think about it. You promised."
"Alright," I blurted out. "Alright, I'll think about it. Now would you stop bringing that subject up?"
"For today," he said. "Tomorrow we have a tough fight." He stood up, found his towel then wrapped himself with it. "Think, don't let your fear take control."
I finished taking my bath shortly afterwards. Outside, the guards found me and escorted me to the cell I shared with the other Lieutenants. Everyone was already asleep. I lay in my bed, Eli's words still echoed in my mind.
'Don't let your fear take control.'
What does he know about fear? He was only tortured for some information. Perhaps they hurt his family to make him talk too. But that was nothing compared to what I've experienced. Thinking about it made me shiver. I felt cold sweat on my forehead. My legs were shaking. I didn't even try to calm them.
The Church of Dhobor didn't play around. They never make threats or torture anybody. They punish and they do it brutally. That night, I didn't get any sleep. I was afraid of closing my eyes and dreaming of that horrible day.
Damn you Eli. I don't want to think. I don't want to remember. I want to fight until my muscles are sore. I want to get it all out, that anger, that helplessness. I only sleep when my body's drained. You've gone and reminded me of the very thing I tried hard to burry. You've gone and made me think. I really didn't need a sleepless night before my decisive fight.
Morning arrived quicker than I imagined. My body mechanically left the bed and led me to the canteen where all fighters ate. The Bloody Hound allowed fighters to have two meals before their fight. He needed us with enough energy to entertain his guests.
Besides, if someone's needed after the fight, they'd better have the strength to carry out the assignment. So far, I've been sent to two women who required the assistance of the stick between my legs. I did what was needed of me. I was pathetic I know. I tell myself the same every morning. Today was no exception.
I was hoping to have my meal in peace when Eli found his way next to me. "You look horrible," he said as he got comfortable on the wooden bench.
"I don't wanna talk about it. Can you let me eat in peace today? Please?"
"I just came by to wish you luck in the fight. I'll leave you be." The man moved a bit further from me then got back to his bowl. He religiously devoured the food while I stared at mine, unable to put anything in my mouth.
"I don't need luck," I replied. I picked up a spoon and forced myself to eat. "Luck doesn't seem to work in my favor."
"I don't know about that," Eli retorted. His mouth was stuffed. Bits and pieces flew in the air then landed on the table in front of him as he spoke. "You're still alive, aren't you?"
"Not thanks to luck," I said. My heart was beating fast. I was angry. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep or the frustration I accumulated overnight thinking about the Empire. "But because of a curse. I'm to stay forever in this hell, unable to live or die, always suffering."
Eli looked at me with pity in his eyes. "Use that anger in your fight Stalwart. We'll talk later." He got up then headed out, mostly to the armory. He had to get ready for the fight. I did too. I quickly finished my meal then left. My sword needed sharpening. I didn't know if my armor had been mended or not.
Lieutenants had the right to choose a set of light armor of their choosing. I went for boiled leather. It's sturdy and it doesn't hinder my movements.
"Morning Stalwart," the smith, Jory, said. He was a jolly fellow. He was bald and had a long brown beard. He knew everyone by name, from Lieutenants to the Major General. "Your armor's been mended. Will you be needing anything else today?"
"My sword needs sharpening," I replied.
"I've already taken care of that boy," He told me. "You have a tough fight today." He looked at me with those caring eyes of his. He's always given me extra attention. I always wondered why. "Captain Hawk knows how to handle his axes," he said as he fumbled in the drawers beneath his counter.
He drew a folded set of leather armor then handed it to me. "I've made that thing you asked me for," he added with a smile. "Wait here. I'll fetch it with your sword." He left me by the counter and disappeared behind the door that led to his workshop.
"If I didn't know any better," Eli snuck in behind me. He had a habit of showing up uninvited. "I'd say Jory's quite fond of you."
"What's it to you?" I asked.
"Nothing," he replied. "Beware of the kind man, that's all I came here to say."
"Are you jealous because he lets his minions deal with you but addresses me in person?" I asked. My anger and lack of sleep didn't allow me to keep my thoughts to myself.
"I'm worried," Eli said with pain in his eyes. "You think you know this world, but you refuse to open your eyes to it. Beware of people who're nice to a fault."
"Funny you should say that." I looked him in the eyes. I knew he sensed spite in my words and in my eyes. "You fall in the same category."
Eli sighed, looked at me one more time then left the armory. He was holding his daggers under his armpit. "You're waging war against yourself Stalwart," I heard him say as he left the place.
Jory came back with my sword and some bones in his hand. "I've attached them together using fine steel threads," he told me as he handed the sword and bones. "I respect your devotion Stalwart. The master doesn't allow Lieutenants to have iron and steel armor, but there's nothing about bones."
"Thank you Jory," I said then took my bone spaulders in my hands.
"Attach one end around your armpits and the other around your wrists. They'll hold."
After thanking the kind smith, I took the new equipment then left the armory. I had to reach the fighter's lounge. We waited for our turn to enter the slaughtering grounds. The pits were the place where fighters holding Captain rank or below fought. Once one is promoted to Major, they can fight in the Crucible, the tournament of the elite. Win a thousand consecutive battles and the Bloddy Hound will grant you freedom.
I sat there for hours. Fatigue started taking its toll. My eyes started getting heavy but I was woken by the crowd's screams outside. I was twelfth to go. Ten battles had already taken place. Eli was next, and I was to fight after that.
"You look terrible," he said as he passed by, heading for the door to the arena. "Make sure you finish your fight quickly. I'm afraid you won't make it otherwise."
"Worry about yourself," were the last words I shot at him before the door closed behind him.
Eli won that fight. He was going to be promoted as Captain. He'll have the right to fight the preliminaries to the Crucible.
"Stalwart, you're next!" a guard shouted.
I got up, dragged my heavy feet towards the arena. Bones rattled beside me as I walked. I clenched my sword then got outside, to the bright lights and loud screams. Some of them shouted my name. Others urged the captain to make me suffer. I guess I helped many people lose a fortune here.
"Next Fight," an announcer sitting near the fighting pit announced. "Lieutenant Stalwart against Captain Hawk. May the best fighter win!" Drums were beaten, announcing the start.
Captain Hawk was clad in iron armor. He held a weapon I've never fought against, a sickle with a chain attached to it. The end of the chain had a spiked ball, much like the ones found in Morningstars. One well-placed hit and my bones will shatter. I've seen him break rocks with it in training.
The captain circled around me. His chain was already rotating in the air. I couldn't allow him to control the fight's pace. I made the first step but was forced to jump to the side. The chain missed my right shoulder by an inch. The man in iron armor smiled at me. His bronze skin glowed under the blinding lights that illuminated the arena.
He jumped forward and directed his chain towards my head. I miraculously dodged to the right but the spikes hit my spaulders, shattering its bones. I flinched as the spikes tore the leather and grazed my skin. But I had to endure. I jumped forward and swung my sword at the captain's exposed throat.
He wore iron armor but no helmet.
It was stupid.
I didn't know where the sickle appeared from. I was so focused on slicing his neck that I forgot about the weapon in his hand. The sickle caught my weapon and deflected it away. My body fell forward. I had lost my balance. I could taste blood mixed with dirt as my face made contact with the ground.
I turned around just in time to see the spiky ball heading toward my face. The world became dark. I heard the audience gasp then someone shout. I couldn't hear what they were saying. I passed out with the memory of the sickle chain aiming for my head.
When I came to, I was lying on a feather bed. The right half of my face was heavily bandaged. When I realized I could open my right eye, I tried to inspect it with my hand. "Don't move, you're heavily injured," a familiar voice spoke behind me.
"Where am I? How am I still alive?" I asked.
"I had to call in some extra favors. You lived to fight another day Stalwart."
"Jory?" I finally recognized the voice. "You shouldn't have."
"On the contrary, it's a pleasure having you around Stalwart."
"The pleasure's mine," I retorted. "I never thought I could have a friend in this dark place."
"I don't know about that." Jory stood to my left. I could finally see him. He was completely naked.
"What the-" I asked.
Deep down, I knew what the smith meant. I just kept pushing the thought away. I hated it when Eli was right. I was lying down on a feather bed. I was naked, my arms and legs were bound.
"I called in some favors to save you Stalwart," he answered. "You're going to repay my kindness in kind."
Naked Jory put a cloth around my mouth and tied it tight. "I'm coming boy, whether you're ready for it or not."
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