Trey stared wide eyed at the chamber they had been corralled into after Liam’s escape. It was at the very heart of the sand fortress and was easily big enough to contain every Flesh Eroder on the ship. Just like the stadium in Onlasar, it was a huge ring of tiered watch stands leading to a central ground that could be seen by all. Every inch of it was made of wood while crude lanterns offered a weak light that set the room into constant gloom. Sand coated the central area, dark stains in the golden grains hinting at the arena’s main purpose.
Hundreds of men and women stood along the tiers, baying for blood. The stands were nowhere near to capacity so Trey guessed that many tribesmen were required for the running of the sand fortress and the search for Liam.
Trey and the others were being held in cells that were connected to the main stage of the Bloodground. Several warriors flanked the group but Trey’s sole attention was on Mellow. He stood before them, separating the teens from the blood soaked sand.
The man leant casually against the bars that contained them, but his eyes sparkled with malice and a faint, taunting grin never left his lips.
“Death offers very little for all parties involved,” the man had begun. “I could slit your throats and watch you bleed out, but that doesn’t improve me, and nor does it improve you. Life is the battle with death. If there is no battle, what merit has the death and in turn the life? No. Instead I will break you, reduce you to your core to see what it is made of, to watch if you will shatter or rebuild. Shall I tell you the best part? I’ll enjoy every second of it.”
“And I’ll enjoy punching you so hard that you cough out your own intestines,” commented Zak dryly. Mellow ignored him.
The Flesh Eroder’s leader began to walk around them, assessing them like cattle. “What do we have though? Two boys with strong morals who believe that there is always a better path. A young man who strives to be the best and can accept nothing less, and a proud princess who wants nothing more than to run from her problems. I think that I have just the solutions.”
Mellow leaned toward one of the warriors and spoke something in his ear that was too quiet for Trey to hear. The warrior nodded and left them at a jog. Mellow now stood between Trey and Billy, placing a wrapped hand upon both boys’ shoulders.
“You two men of honour shall be first to break.” As he spoke, their bonds were cut and the iron bars lowered to allow access to the Bloodground. Mellow walked them forward to the roar of the crowd. Once they stood in the centre of the sand, two more Flesh Eroders appeared at their side, the teens’ weapons held in their hands.
“Take your weapons,” ordered Mellow. Trey and Billy complied, taking their blades from the men. Mellow continued as the men turned to leave the arena. “The rules are simple. Kill those that seek to kill you, or die. Four opponents, four deaths in return for your two lives.”
Trey clutched his sword nervously. Mellow left them without another word. The crowd still howled and jeered, drowning out all other sound, the enclosed area amplified the noise to near unbearable levels. Billy had an arrow nocked in his bow and was swinging it between the different entrances to the combat zone.
“Four men. Two each. We might just manage this if they fight fair,” Billy said as calmly as he could. Despite his words he didn’t sound confident in their chances.
Trey frowned. “Why did he put such an emphasis on breaking us? In a fight we either live or die. Unless he means to cripple us it makes no sense.”
“It’s all mind games,” grunted Billy. “We just need to focus and stay calm.”
There was a sharp sound from behind them causing both boys to whip around. One set of iron bars dropped and figures loomed in the darkness beyond. Billy was about to loose an arrow when the figures rushed into the light with near feral battle-cries. Long hair swayed with every movement and small hands held wicked daggers or short swords.
Billy lowered the bow. “Women,” he breathed, almost blankly.
Trey was equally stunned but managed to keep a loose grip on his broadsword. The crowd cheered louder than ever now but the noise seemed to fall flat in his ears. This was what Mellow had meant. Trey cursed and looked for a way out but couldn’t see any.
The first woman, a twenty something year old with blonde hair, pounced at Billy who was still in a daze. Trey shoved him out of the way and deflected the sword thrust with his own blade. The other women circled around them, covering each flank like wolves stalking bear cubs.
Billy staggered back to his feet, drawing his rapier as he did. The women chose that moment to strike, flashing steel darting in every direction at once. Both teens blocked what they could but without aiming to injure they achieved little. Cuts began to crisscross their skin as blood splashed onto the sand again and again like the start of a spring rain.
“We can’t keep this up forever!” Trey managed to shout between hisses of pain. His sword was not designed to defend against several faster weapons. Its purpose was heavy killing strokes.
“I won’t kill them!” Billy growled under his breath. He was having a better time of defending himself but he was tiring faster than the relentless attacks of the female Flesh Eroders. “I won’t,” he kept repeating beneath his breath.
Never pick on the girls, Billy, came his mother’s voice. You’re bigger than them for a reason. It’s your job to look after them, protect them. You’re a good boy and you’ll grow to be a good man. Look after us girls and you’ll be glad afterwards, mark my words.
A knife slid between the joints in Trey’s armour, piercing his skin and muscle. He screamed out in pain. Blood flowed freely from the wound. Another used his distraction and sliced across his face. He could feel himself weakening with every second. He heard a harsh thud beside him and turned to see Billy clutching his ribs and a woman with a hammer readying a second swing. Trey knocked the hammer women away with the flat of his blade and received a slash across the back of his calf for his efforts.
“I don’t want to die,” Billy wheezed through pained breaths. “Not now. Not like this.”
Distant memories began to race through Trey’s head, the images of his past somehow forming a barrier between him and the pain. A tiredness that carried with it a comforting warmth washed over his body. Consciousness began to fade. His mother’s face rose from the darkness, smiling and loving, only to be replaced by the struggling, defeated Sarah as she was dragged away from him by the Forukks.
Trey took a staggered step forward, his shoulders slumped and his head hung. “If I give up then that means I have given up on her, on everyone. I…Will…Save her!”
He swung his sword with the strength that he had feared he had lost. The steel tore into flesh and sprayed blood across the sand in a wide arc. The woman he had hit crumpled to the floor and shook violently for several seconds before becoming still forever. Billy stared at him in a lost bewilderment and the remaining women took a few steps back, now eying Trey cautiously.
“B-but we are the good guys. Killing women is never the answer. There has to be another way.”
“There is no other way,” Trey began coldly. “If you want to save your family you have to kill them. If not, your family dies with you. I will make any sacrifice to protect Mum. Never forget that!” he ended, sprinting at the Flesh Eroders. They too burst into action.
Red eyed, Trey cut into whoever came within his sight. One jumped at Billy with a mallet. He closed his eyes and threw a knife, the woman’s body crashing down at his feet. His rapier flashed brutally, glassy eyes watching in deadened horror at his actions.
Then as fast as it had started, bodies stopped jumping at their blades. three of the four women lay dead in the sand while the final one writhed, clutching at her gut. Trey’s blood soaked blade was the only thing keeping him standing. He dropped to his knees, throwing up until nothing else remained in his stomach. Billy threw his weapons to the ground, disgusted by the sight of them. Silent tears streamed down his face.
Mellow appeared through one of the gateways, surveying the carnage with a smile. “You have done well. Your task is not finished yet though.”
“We won!” Trey screamed. He doubled over again and started to dry retch. Billy did not move. He stared into the distance as though in a dream.
“My deal was four lives in exchange for your existence. Only three have been taken,” Mellow explained, pointing at the injured woman.
Trey followed his finger and shook his head. “No. Sprites be damned. I won’t do it. Never again.”
The woman reached out her hand toward Trey. It was glossy with her own blood. She coughed then began to spasm. The next second, she too had joined the dead.
Mellow shrugged. “Oh well. That is four lives. You two can live.” He whistled and men emerged onto the sand to collect the bodies. A grate in the floor was opened and the women’s corpses were unceremoniously dumped within it.
“I hope you boys don’t mind being locked away until the other challenges are complete,” Mellow said almost pleasantly. He motioned to his men who grabbed Trey and Billy. They too were carried over to the grate and were dropped into the hole. The bars slammed shut above them. “I want you to truly soak in your sin,” Mellow laughed on his way back to Zak and Dawn.
“You’re sick!” Dawn almost sobbed. “Does life mean nothing to you?”
“Not really. Life is easy enough to replicate,” the chief said with a mocking grin.
Zak snorted. “You better have something better than a few women to throw at me.”
“Of course.” Mellow’s grin widened and his eyes glistened. “You get to fight me.”
Zak’s eyes lit up. He willingly walked to the centre of the Bloodground and almost whooped when he was handed his axe and katana back. Mellow stood opposite him completely unarmed. If the assemblage of Flesh Eroders had been wild before, now they were in a frenzy. They screamed and yelled at the top of their voices, feet stomping and arms a blur of movement.
There was a crash and the ship lurched. The ground shook for a few seconds then returned to its former equilibrium. The tribesmen had stopped cheering but when Mellow showed no reaction they resumed with refreshed vigour.
“It seems that your friend is causing us some trouble,” stated the chief blandly.
“It’s what we do best,” Zak boasted. “Now you better grab a weapon. I won’t falter just because you’re unarmed,” Zak said angrily. Despite this, his eyes searched every inch of the man, taking in every strength and weakness that he might possess.
Mellow laughed in his face. “Don’t worry. I don’t need any.”
Zak snapped. He leapt at Mellow and released a flurry of axe blows that would have matched the speed of any fencer. Every swing failed to hit its target though. Mellow swayed and ducked almost lazily, flowing around the attacks like they were coming at him in slow motion. The axe flashed down in a vertical cut and Mellow grabbed the blade with his hand. With a quick movement of his wrist he pushed at the blade and made the tip of the handle smash into Zak’s face.
Mellow released the axe but there was no trace of blood on his skin. Zak swung the axe again but Mellow did not even attempt to dodge this time. He blocked it with his arm and the blade struck and slid off as though it had hit metal. Mellow stepped closer and kneed Zak in the gut before punching him across the arena.
“Damn!” Zak managed to spit. He forced himself into a kneeling position but could not get his legs to support the rest of his body. “Think damn it! How can he be this strong?”
Mellow came into his view, followed shortly by a kick to the ribs so powerful that Zak smashed into the wall of the tiered stands. His axe lay in the sand where he had been kicked. With a grunt he struggled up, using the wall for support, then drew his twin katana. Previous pain forgotten, he dashed at the man, his blades like lightning strikes in his hands. Mellow blocked each with a deft movement of his hand.
“My turn,” the chief said. In an instant he switched to the offensive.
Like a pro boxer, Mellow pummelled Zak with precision punches that shook the teen to his core with every impact. For every attack that Zak managed to defend against, another two passed through.
A hand grabbed at Zak’s throat with a vice like grip and lifted him from the ground. With his free hand, Mellow laid into Zak as though he was a punching bag. Another explosion shook the sand fortress but Mellow did not miss a single beat even as half of the crowd toppled. When Zak stopped struggling, Mellow threw him at the ground with enough force to make him bounce a foot back into the air.
“Do you now realise just how weak you are? Thrown around like a rag-doll by an unarmed man. You are pathetic.”
Zak twitched but could manage nothing more. Mellow gave him a sharp parting kick to the ribs then turned his back on the boy. He clicked his fingers and Dawn was led out to him. She was giving her best attempt at stately serenity but that calm did not reflect within her eyes. They darted between Zak’s unmoving body and the grate where Billy and Trey were being kept.