The arena was clean each time guards forced Ariock into it. They hauled him with poles and chains, and then they left in hurry, slamming the huge gate shut so hard, it rattled.
He supposed the telepaths wanted him to look like the monster he was. He clanked with every step. Shackles encircled his wrists and ankles, and a steel kilt had replaced his clothes. A jagged spike curved out of each of his forearms, heavy enough to add weight to his punches and attacks, sharp enough to impale flesh. But the notched spikes also made it easy for the monstrous guards to capture him after each fight and drag him back to his cage in the dungeon.
Ariock didn’t bother climbing the fence. He had tried that already, and he couldn’t shift the gigantic bones that capped the top, or squeeze through any gaps. He had tried to use his spikes as leverage, to pry apart the bones, but it was useless.
He couldn’t remove the spikes. The telepaths had drilled directly into his bones, without anesthesia, and without permission. They had chained him down without warning and without any explanation. Ariock had screamed until his voice broke. For weeks afterwards, his arms were a mass of blood and bruises around the implanted spikes.
That wasn’t even the worst of what they’d done to him. If his mother could see him in the arena, or Vy, or anyone, they would take one glance and judge him a monster.
Ariock paced along the enclosure of interlocked bones, his bare feet whispering through shredded husks, listening for the soft signal that would start a deadly battle. He no longer feared the audience. Instead, he focused on them as much as possible, peering through gaps between bones that could have belonged to dinosaurs or whales. He looked past the floating spotlights that followed his movements, and studied thousands of faces.
With their jeweled accessories and imperialistic robes, they were reminiscent of royal opera-goers. Even the ones who sat atop the enclosure looked rich, with embroidered red capes draped over their formidable high-tech armor. Iridescent eyes seemed to peer into the depths of his soul. They judged him guilty. They condemned him. They never clapped, never laughed, never said a word, but he guessed that they wanted him to lose a fight.
Or, more accurately, they wanted him to lose his mind.
Ariock paced and clanked the other way. He had no face anymore; just an ugly, dented, knobby metal helmet. His head couldn’t take damage. His mind might as well be a broadcast antenna, beaming misery for the nearest telepaths to enjoy.
Suicide was still an option, maybe. He might be able to gouge himself to death with the huge spikes sticking out of his forearms. Maybe he could provoke the monstrous guards, or get himself slaughtered in the arena, before any telepaths could put a stop to it. He imagined ways to kill himself all the time, these days.
More misery for the audience to savor. Are you really going to abandon me? his mother had asked.
The last time he’d seen her, she wore an awful slave collar around her neck. She might be dead. In his nightmares, she was buried under a heap of bloodied corpses. The depths of his mind whispered that it was not a telepath who had killed her, but Ariock himself, berserk and out of control.
The silent audience had begun to appear in his nightmares, as well. They watched him fail to save his father from burning wreckage. They watched him wander the Dovanack mansion, searching for his mother.
Sometimes, he saw Thomas among the silent watchers, and Thomas had iridescent yellow eyes and regal golden robes, like one of the telepaths. But he was practically a corpse. He looked desperate, as if silently begging Ariock for help. Sometimes Thomas pointed and showed Ariock that he was standing atop that heap of bloody corpses.
Look, the silent Thomas of his nightmares seemed to insinuate. You are even more monstrous than you realize.
Ariock tensed at the sound of a door rolling open. That was the gate in the center of the enclosure, and he knew what it meant. Something monstrous was coming.
A beast snorted. Then another. Ariock turned to face his opponents. They couldn’t see his face, but he could see their bestial eyes and their bloated bodies, because his helmet was invisible from the inside.
Ropes of drool slathered from their sharklike, toothless snouts. They had backwards legs, and could probably leap as high as the bone ceiling. The third monster was a different species. It was stocky and tough-looking, with sawed-off tusks, a bony frill protecting its neck and back, and close-set, manic eyes. A mass of pinkish jelly wobbled in its opened skull. The telepaths had exposed its brain to make it an easier victim, and to make it easier for Ariock to lose his human dignity.
All three beasts looked enraged. They didn’t wear helmets, but Ariock guessed the telepaths used something else to influence their moods. Perhaps a drug.
The mottled green beasts leaped at Ariock, while the mammoth behind them galloped, sweeping its bony frill back and forth. Ariock didn’t dare waste a second. He threw himself aside. and the toad-like oxen slammed into the bone wall, one after the other.
During his first few dozen arena battles, he had resisted the savage urges from the helmet, aiming to escape rather than fight. He had tried to be merciful. His opponents had gouged him with claws or horns, until the telepaths blasted them apart. Then they’d forced a small, weak slave into the arena, and they had commanded Ariock to kill the terrified slave with his bare hands.
He’d guessed what would happen if he refused. Nevertheless, he had refused, and sure enough, telepaths murdered the slave. Then they’d sent another mad beast into the arena. Ariock gave up trying to cling to his humanity at that point. Now he did what they wanted, and fought like an animal.
He sensed a toad-beast lunge, and he raised his arm whip-fast. The spike impaled the beast in its soft throat. It squealed and thrashed in agony, ichor bubbling down the spike. Ariock savagely ripped upward, destroying its jaw.
Massive jaws clamped at his midsection, saliva hot and oozing. Ariock kicked a spindly foreleg, then lunged at the off-balance beast. He managed to grab its underslung jaw, and broke it with a loud snapping sound.
The mottled beast screamed. Ariock yanked hard enough to dislocate its jaw. As the thing screamed in pain, he rammed the beast aside, then drove a spike into its underbelly.
It let out a death screech, and Ariock roared in triumph. Inky blood sprayed in spurts. He bathed in it.
What a hero. The imagined contempt took the form of Vy Hollander. I can see why they chain you up when you’re not fighting.
Ariock held up his bloody hands, wishing he dared to stop. The imaginary voices in his head were right. He deserved death. The telepaths ought to rip him apart with their explosive weapons, the way they destroyed rabid beasts.
The mammoth with the bony frill roared at Ariock, loud enough to make the ground tremble. Runnels of saliva vibrated in its open maw, but it seemed more like a warning than a threat.
Ariock backed towards the fence and clung to the bones, trying to stay from the beast. He would probably never see Thomas or any friendly face again. Why should he keep trying to survive?
The monster pawed the ground. Shredded husks fluttered around it.
Kill it, Ariock’s imagination urged him, this time in the guise of Thomas. Kill it and become a monster. I need you. We need you.
He wished he could attack the telepaths instead of innocent beasts. Telepaths peered down at him through the bone ceiling, small and fragile compared to him. They had a weasel-like way of anticipating threats, but he could still slaughter a lot of them, if he ever got out of the enclosure. He’d snap their spines. Twist their necks.
Let them run, let them scream, let them slip in their own blood, a dark side of his mind whispered.
The monster charged at Ariock.
He grabbed its tusk and jumped onto its bony head, forcing it to crash to the ground, seizing its bony frill so that it couldn’t shake him off. Its exposed mammoth brain was pink and pulsating. He kicked his bare foot into brain jelly. Right now, in this moment, he wasn’t a helpless prisoner. He wasn’t a faceless victim. He was powerful. He was a giant force to be reckoned with. Blood squelched, and the monster began to twitch in a death seizure.
Blood and corpses littered the arena. After what seemed like months of practice in battles, Ariock wasn’t injured or even winded, yet the victory was fleeting. He saw how the guards looked at him in fear, and he remembered who he was. Not a hero. Just a colossal butcher.
He stepped off the corpse, sticky with blood and ichor, leaving bloody footprints.
His violence must all come from the helmet. It seeped into his mind, awake or asleep. If he got rid of the thing, he would be normal.
No, his inner self whispered. It’s not the helmet. The telepaths know that you’re a monster, and you deserve all the shame in the universe. That must be why they’d brought him here.
Ariock went to the corner and waited for them to chain him up.