Those who make no effort to understand their enemies become enemies themselves.
– Nussian proverb
The arena was clean every time guards forced Ariock into it. They hauled him through the gate with poles and chains, and then they left in hurry, slamming the huge gate shut so hard, it rattled.
He clanked with every step. Heavy armor had replaced his clothes, with gaps that left his thighs and biceps bare. Sometimes the Torth forced him to fight mostly naked. Armor meant that he would face an opponent with sharp teeth or claws.
Ariock paced along the enclosure of interlocked bones, his bare feet whispering through shredded husks, listening for the soft sound that would signal a deadly battle.
He didn’t bother to examine the arena cage. He had tried that many times before. The bars looked like dinosaur bones, and they were far too thick and strong for him to break. He couldn’t squeeze through the gaps. He couldn’t climb over the top, because Torth sat up there, at intervals, ready to torment him with pain seizures if he tried to escape.
Besides. The audience was out there.
Thousands of silent Torth occupied layers of tiers around the arena. They wore jeweled accessories and imperialistic robes, like 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 judge him guilty of being a freak.
They never clapped, never laughed, never said a word, but he knew they judged him unworthy of kindness. They wanted him to look like the monster he was.
Ariock paced and clanked the other way. An ugly, dented, knobby helmet hid his face and muffled his voice. Maybe it was for the best, to be faceless to the audience. His beard had grown in wild and thick. He had no means with which to shave.
The Torth obviously wanted his skull unbroken.
His mind? That was a different matter.
The Torth must feed off fear and misery, partaking in it like a feast. They must know how often Ariock imagined dying in the arena. He might be able to get himself slaughtered before any telepaths could put a stop to it. He imagined ways to kill himself all the time, these days. Except…
You promised, his mother would have said. Don’t abandon me.
In his nightmares, his mother was buried under a heap of bloodied corpses, crying for his help. Ariock knew that he had gotten carried away. In his frenzy to get revenge and kill a lot of Torth, he had accidentally murdered his own mother.
In other nightmares, Thomas was one of the silent onlookers.
The dream version of Thomas had iridescent yellow eyes and regal golden robes. He was just as emotionless as the rest of the audience. Sometimes that dream version of Thomas pointed. Then Ariock would turn around, and see his dead mother. Or the burning wreckage of an airplane where his father was trapped and dying.
Look, the silent dream version of Thomas seemed to insinuate. You’re a failure. You were always a failure.
Ariock tensed at the whispery sound of an opening gate.
He focused on the hooded bulwark on the far side of the arena. That bulwark was about to disgorge a beast.
A creature snorted.
Not one, but two beasts emerged, blinking under the floating spotlights. Ropes of drool slathered from their sharklike snouts. They had backwards legs. Despite their bloated bodies, they could probably leap over Ariock, leveraged like frogs. Their skin was frog-like, too, slimy and mottled green.
This was new. A species he hadn’t seen before, and two instead of one.
Perhaps the spectators thought the jelly monster from yesterday had been boring?
Well, the jelly monster had nearly impaled Ariock on its tusk. He was going to have nightmares about slamming his armored foot into its exposed, wobbly, pulsating brain.
The shark-frogs leaped at Ariock.
He didn’t dare waste a second. He threw himself into a tumbling roll, and the beasts slammed against the cage wall, one after the other, causing massive bones to rattle. Each monster must weigh as much as Ariock in his armor.
And they were enraged. That was typical. Ariock guessed the telepaths must inject their monsters with rage-inducing drugs right before each fight.
He pushed himself to his feet. He hadn’t been strong enough to pop up right away during his first dozen arena battles, especially in heavy armor, but practice made a difference.
So did the huge spikes sticking out of his forearms.
If his mother could see him now—or Vy—they would take one glance and judge him a monster. A spike jagged out of each of his forearms. Those notched spikes made it easy for the guards to capture him after each fight and drag him back to the dungeon. They also aided him in battles.
The telepaths had drilled directly into his bones, without anesthesia, without any explanation, and without his permission. Ariock had screamed until his voice broke. He had fought and failed to break the chains that held him down. For days afterwards, his arms were a mass of bruises around the implanted spikes.
But the wounds had healed. Now his arms had extra weight and weaponry.
The beasts bounded towards Ariock. Now that he’d had a chance to assess their speed and mass, he stood his ground. He stepped aside at the last second and raised his arm whip-fast.
The spike impaled a beast in its soft throat.
The alien animal squealed in agony, ichor bubbling down the spike.
Ariock resisted his instinct to pull his arm free. Instead, he grabbed the beast so that it would not wrench away, and ripped upward in a savage motion, butchering its jaw.
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.
Protected by armor, Ariock ripped the underslung mandible off the dying beast. It broke with a loud snap.
A toothy jaw could work as a weapon. Their mottled skin looked vulnerable.
The second beast pawed the ground. Shredded husks fluttered around its legs. Its beady eyes glinted with rage, but now there was fear as well.
Ariock wished he could show mercy. He wished he dare stop. The last thing he wanted to do was rip an animal’s head off its neck, or stomp on its skull.
But whenever Ariock left an injured beast to curl up and lick its wounds … the telepaths blasted the beast apart from afar, using arm-mounted silent rifles. And then they punished Ariock.
After that, they would send another mad beast into the arena, and he would be forced to face the same dilemma again.
There was no escape from doing what the audience wanted him to do. Ariock had given up on trying to cling to his human dignity. He was a savage animal, the same as the monsters he fought.
The remaining beast roared at Ariock. Runnels of saliva vibrated in its open maw, but it seemed more like a warning than a threat.
Ariock wished he could attack the telepaths instead of innocent beasts.
Armored Torth peered down at him, seated a short climb away. Compared with Ariock, they were puny and fragile. But they anticipated threats with supernatural speed and accuracy. He couldn’t match them.
He could still slaughter a lot of Torth if he ever got past the sentries and into the audience.
He would 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.
Massive jaws snapped at his thigh.
Ariock brought the stolen jawbone down on the beast’s head, and ground down, breaking mottled green skin. He shoved the beast back. Saliva seemed to sizzle on his skin, hot and oozing.
The beast gathered itself for another lunging attack.
Ariock fell onto its neck, forcing it to crash to the ground. He drove a spike into its underbelly. A normal-sized person would never have been able to reach around the beast, but Ariock’s size gave him certain advantages.
The mottled beast screamed in pain. Ariock roared in triumph.
Right now, in this moment, he wasn’t a helpless prisoner. He wasn’t a faceless victim. He was powerful. He was a gigantic force to be reckoned with.
He drove one armored knee into the monster’s snout.
It might have incredibly strong jaws full of razor-sharp teeth, but jaws were sensitive. There was less mass there. Teeth and bones crunched under Ariock. Blood squelched out.
Kill it, Ariock’s imagination urged him, this time in the guise of Thomas. I need you to become a monster. We need you.
He would probably never see a friendly face again.
But what if his mother, or someone else, like Vy, needed to be rescued? They might need him. They might be somewhere, waiting for him to break free.
Ariock stomped on the monster’s head, merciless, until it began to twitch in a death seizure.
After countless arena battles, Ariock had won this fight uninjured. But his sense of victory was fleeting. He saw how the guards looked at him with fear, and that was enough to remember who he was. Not a hero. He was nothing but a colossal butcher.
He stepped off the corpse, sticky with blood and ichor. He left bloody footprints.
You deserve all the shame in the universe, Ariock imagined his mother saying. That is why they brought you here.
He went to the corner and waited for the guards to chain him up.