With Dogo no longer escorting him, Styx found himself being dragged by black-leather-armored men on either side of him. It was the first time Styx had ever been inside the palace, and he knew that it was also likely to be his last. He was being taken to the gladiator pit, one of the most notorious sites in all of The Shade. Escape was no longer an option; no one escaped the pit, though he had heard that on occasion someone was let go if he fared well enough for long enough. Fighters who always won tended to bore the crowd, and eventually earned their freedom by fighting too well.
Styx knew that he had little chance of that. He had never been much of a fighter, preferring to avoid conflict instead. He could hold his own against a common thug if it came to it, but that was always his last resort. Being quick and quick-witted were what he considered to be his only real assets, and he was wounded now as well. They reached another set of large iron doors being guarded by a particularly large Elrok. The Elrok bared its teeth in a sinister smile as it glared at Styx before opening the door and then laughed as Styx was led through, sending shivers down his spine.
Iron bars became the norm as the walls were lined with cages of varying sizes, though all were large enough to hold a man. The scent of livestock filled his nostrils as he surveyed the cages. Most contained beasts he recognized from stories, like lions from the nearby plains, though a few held things that he had never seen before. Large felines and canines, a particularly ferocious lizard; none were things he ever wanted to cross paths with. Styx was forced toward the far side of the room where a smaller door in the wall was guarded by a man in dark metal armor resembling the chiton of a beetle.
The 'beetle' guard leaned against the door, tapping it occasionally with his massive black sword, held unsheathed in his hands. His sadistic grin caused Styx to shudder as they approached. "Fresh blood, eh? I'm sure he'll fit right in," the 'beetle' guard said with a laugh as he moved to unbar the door. "All right, fighters," he called through the door, "I'm only going to warn ya once, anyone who rushes the door, dies. I've got a new friend for ya."
The door swung outward and Styx was shoved hard enough to fall to the cold stone floor on the other side. With his hands still bound behind his back he was unable to catch himself and he ended up with a mouthful of dirt and grime. He came up sputtering to clear his mouth of the sickening taste and raised his head to survey the room. Where he had expected darkness to greet him he encountered light instead. Lamps lit the walls of the room at regular intervals, and were bright enough to bathe both the room and the people within it in a somber orange glow. The room smelled of sweat and feces. In the corner of the room stood a latrine with a narrow ventilation shaft above it, identifying the source of the latter scent.
There were upwards of fifty people in the room by his first estimation, and each one seemed to be sizing him up. They were quiet; watching him as a group, as if in a ritual greeting to someone being flung into the cell. These would be his fellow gladiators, the people who he might face in the ring if he didn't get paired against a beast instead. He didn't expect any help from any of them in getting out of there. Much to his surprise, almost as soon as the 'beetle' guard slammed the door shut behind him, Styx was being helped to his feet and the bonds around his wrists were being removed.
He cautiously eyed the two who had come to help him, a man and a woman. Not just any man, Styx thought as he took a longer look. The man was a Fedain. Though physically similar to humans, there were a few noticeable differences, if perceived in normal light, that were even more apparent in near darkness. His skin sparkled as if it contained flecks of diamond dust, and his pale eyes seemed to radiate light as well, adding an extra sheen to his long platinum hair as it caught the glow in front of his face. His ears were slightly pointed as well, though not nearly as sharp as those of the wild Gor tribes, of which Styx had only ever met one. The Fedain were not much more common than the Gor in Pentalus and even rarer in The Shade. They had a predisposition toward medicine and healing and were rarely on the wrong side of the law.
The woman seemed plain and was certainly human. Human women were also less common in The Shade, though far from unheard of. The most recent census indicated that men outnumbered women five to one in the depths. She had dark hair that was pulled back into an intricate braid. She almost appeared regal, if he could ignore the dirt that covered her face and arms, and the tattered clothes she wore. She bore the Shadesight tattoo beside her left eye which marked her as a Shade, a tattoo which Styx now realized had been missing from the Fedain's face. He looked back to the Fedain and found him smiling encouragingly, whereas the woman's face had been unreadable, and as soon as Styx's bonds were loosened she returned to stand with the crowd.
Another man stepped forward, and judging by his posture and the look in his eyes, Styx knew this was the leader of this group of ragtag fighters. He was large and muscular, and he walked with a grace that promised he was also swift in combat. He was not a man that Styx would ever dream of crossing and he paid careful attention as the leader spoke, wanting to glean any information he could on how to stay on his good side. "Welcome, kid," the leader said in a gruff voice, "The name's Kutos, originally from Pentalus, but more recently of the Black Docks. We need to cover some rules before you get settled, all right?"
Styx nodded firmly, meeting Kutos' eyes. It was partially to make sure the man knew that he was listening but also to avoid showing fear. Brutes like Kutos thrived on fear. That was the last thing Styx wanted to show him, especially if the man had worked at the Black Docks. The Black Docks was a notorious thieves' guild that made its home at the shore of the lake at the bottom of the Lower Shade. Strange and evil things lived in those waters.
"Number one: you need anything, you come and see me. That includes getting help from Grim," Kutos explained, gesturing toward the Fedain who was currently examining Styx's hand. The bleeding from the knife wound had stopped, but it was still quite painful. The pain dulled as Grim began to gently rub the cut between his soft fingers and within seconds it was little more than a thin red line. It was the first time that Styx had experienced being healed by a Fedain, and he looked at Grim with wide eyes before Kutos cleared his throat loudly to reclaim his attention.
"Number two," Kutos began again, glaring at Styx. "Your age is irrelevant. You have done something to incur the wrath of Salidar and that has brought you here. We don't protect the younger ones just because of their age. Salidar wouldn't put you in the pit if he didn't think you'd put on a good show, so we know that you're capable. Don't fall behind or you will die."
Styx took a deep breath to calm his pounding heart. He didn't like how this was going, but at least he wasn't being told that his body would be used for their pleasure. He had always feared that would be his fate if he were ever imprisoned.
Kutos wasn't finished, and this last rule caught Styx off guard. "When we have team matches we fight as a team. No one wants to die down here and it's better if we work together. Any blows you take in the ring to gain an advantage over your fellow fighters will be returned to you tenfold when we get back here. If you kill another fighter when he is not your opponent then we promise that your death will take much longer. We work together, understood?"
Styx nodded emphatically. He wanted to survive, and there was little chance of that if he angered his fellow prisoners. Kutos accepted his nod with one of his own, but before he turned away he added, "No one wants to die down here, and everyone deserves a chance to become good enough to fight their way out."
As Kutos rejoined the others the crowd dispersed and ignored Styx, except for Grim who was still checking him over for wounds. "Thank you," Styx said to Grim, raising his injured hand.
"It's my job," Grim explained with a shrug before lightly touching Styx's thigh where he had been grazed by Dogo's knife. "We all have a role to play in this life; mine is to mend things that are broken."
"I've not met many Fedain before and I've never been healed by one," Styx admitted. "How does it work?"
Grim smiled patiently as he answered, "We have a natural connection to living things. All life is composed of smaller building blocks and given enough encouragement they will listen to someone who speaks their language. I simply asked your blood to stay inside you and asked your skin to close the wound."
"That's amazing!" Styx exclaimed, for which he received a couple looks in his direction from some of the other fighters. He covered his mouth and lowered his voice as he went on, "I have to say that I'm surprised to see a Fedain here. I wouldn't expect you to have made an enemy of Salidar."
"I didn't. I crossed Fasha. Salidar's assassin is a far more dangerous man than Salidar himself," Grim explained solemnly. He smirked and then chuckled dryly as he added, "Imagine how annoyed an assassin can be when you heal his dying victim."
"It seems it is easier to incur Salidar's wrath than I had originally thought," Styx muttered and received a wry smile in response. The smile became a laugh as Styx asked, "So I take it you aren't much of a fighter then? How have you survived?"
"By being the best healer imaginable," Grim replied pleasantly. "I'm too useful and Kutos won't let me die. They protect me when we go out there, to fight whatever it is we have to fight, and I repay them with my abilities."
"So that 'working as a team' thing wasn't just a ploy to make me vulnerable?" Styx asked, searching the room with his eyes to make sure Kutos wasn't in earshot.
"No, that's really how it works," Grim confirmed. His eyes turned dark and his earlier smirk returned as he added, "except in the one on one matches."
"One on one . . ." Styx mused over the thought. He didn't like the sound of that at all. He assumed he'd be able to fade into the background of a larger fight, but if he was forced to kill someone it would be a completely different story. He looked around the room, hoping that he wouldn't have to face any of the other gladiators any time soon as he clarified, "You mean we have to fight each other?"
"Sometimes, when the crowd calls for such a thing," Grim explained with a shrug. "Salidar normally doesn't allow it, but he does what he has to in order to keep his subjects happy. The duties of a king . . ." Grim trailed off with a sigh. Grim looked back up and met his eyes, and Styx saw nothing but contempt for that philosophy. Styx couldn't agree more.
"Have you ever been in a match like that?" Styx asked and Grim's eyes darkened at the question. He considered Grim's earlier explanation about surviving by being the healer and his eyes widened as he asked, "How did you survive?"
The sorrow in Grim's eyes was strong enough that Styx could feel it boring into him through Grim's gaze. "The powers of healing can work in reverse," he stated as his only explanation. Styx's expression turned from one of curiosity to one of horror. After Grim's earlier explanation of the healing process he could imagine Grim calling on his blood to leave his veins and for his skin to break apart. Few deaths would be more brutal than what he imagined Grim could do with such a power. Grim looked at Styx with tired eyes and sighed before saying, "Listen, kid . . ."
"Styx," Styx interrupted, his horror subsiding enough for him to extend his hand toward Grim. He grinned at Grim, hoping that he hadn't driven the Fedain away from becoming a potential ally.
"Styx. Why don't you get some rest, okay?" Grim suggested as he ignored the offered hand, choosing instead to pat him gently on the leather armor covering his shoulder. "I don't know when you're going to have to fight but it will be soon. Every time a new body gets thrown down here Salidar is eager to test them out and see how they do. Most likely it will be in a few hours. You're going to need all the stamina you can get."
"Thanks, Grim," Styx replied. He forced a smile to his face though his pulse was racing at the prospect of having to fight so soon.
"It's my job, Styx," Grim replied, reaffirming his earlier statement. He smiled in a way that didn't touch his eyes as he offered, "You come see me if you need anything, regardless of what Kutos says. He's just trying to make sure you know who the boss is down here."
"I got it," Styx replied with a nod. "I suppose I'll see you around?"
"It's a small room for fifty-two people to share," Grim replied with a laugh, "We're going to be old friends by the time either of us gets out. Unless death takes us." Grim bowed his head slightly in farewell and walked back into the crowd. Thanks to Grim's calm demeanor Styx had started to feel better about his situation, but as soon as Grim disappeared behind a couple of the other fighters Styx felt his anxiety begin to return.
As anxiety set in, his thoughts became filled with questions about the future. Would he even survive long enough to escape as Dogo had suggested he try? Or would he succumb to the battles ahead before he even got the chance? He eyed the other fighters with suspicion, wondering if they were secretly plotting against him. There was a low murmur through the room as the other fighters talked amongst themselves, and their occasional glances at him could have been nothing more than curiosity, but he felt their eyes each time. He had never felt more vulnerable. Spying an open spot along the wall, he hurried toward it while trying to conceal his anxiety from those who could see him. As soon as he was at the wall he leaned his back up against the cold stone and took several deep breaths to calm himself.
Even though the others continued to ignore him, it took a great deal of time for him to get his pounding heart under control. Eventually he sunk to the floor and withdrew into himself. Closing his eyes to his surroundings, he tried to push it all away and pretend that it didn't exist; that he was anywhere but where he was.
The pretense eventually allowed him to find rest, and he drifted off to sleep. Nightmares plagued him; dark dreams of being trapped and unable to move. Though the exact details escaped him they were all alike in playing on his fear. As the crushing despair of his entrapment grew too much, he awoke with a start only to find Kutos staring down at him. The large fighter's expression was nearly unreadable though Styx detected a hint of compassion in his eyes.
Their eyes remained locked for a moment until Kutos gave a slight nod of understanding and then turned to address the rest of the room. "All right, the new kid's battle is up. It's a three on one, favoring the gladiators. I'll be going as well as Hurr. Meet at the gate in one minute." Kutos walked off without giving Styx a second glance.
Styx rose to his feet, his muscles sore from sleeping against the hard wall. He stretched and then looked for where Kutos had gone. He didn't see the large man, but the rest of the fighters were gathering at the opposite side of the room from the door he had been thrown through. Styx cautiously made his way across the room to join them.
In the middle of the far wall was a portcullis and guards waiting on the other side to open it. All but one of the guards was dressed in the dyed black leathers that marked Salidar's men. The other was the 'beetle' warrior from the other door. His large sword once again in hand he eyed the gathered gladiators with contempt and proclaimed, "Only the three fighters destined to die remain where you are. The rest of you, move back! We will not open the gate while you remain so close." With a sadistic gleam in his eyes the 'beetle' guard promised, "Waste our time, and one of you dies."
"If he was just going to say that why did we all gather at the gate in the first place?" Styx grumbled under his breath, expecting his words to be masked by the commotion of the fighters moving backward.
Kutos stepped up next to him and answered, "Shows of strength are how we survive down here. By showing a united front at the gate old Jakkel there knows that we are not intimidated." He looked down at Styx and the corner of his mouth quirked up in a half-smile as he added, "You've got a lot of spunk kid I'll give you that, but spunk alone doesn't keep you alive. I'm trying to help you, help everyone actually, and this is the only way I know how."
"Thank you, I suppose. I would be scared to death right now if I were facing this alone," Styx admitted, causing Kutos' smile to lose its edge.
"When I was first thrown in here I was about your age. It was a mess down here. Everyone fought for themselves, and they didn't know how to work together," Kutos explained. His face was grim, though he showed a fond smile the next moment as he went on, "Then another prisoner came. His name was Dogo. He united us, forced us to work together by being stronger than everyone else. He used fear at first, but that fear turned to respect as we all came on board. He made us all fighters. I suppose you could thank him for how it works down here now. I intend to win my freedom, but I also intend to help others do the same. That's the legacy Dogo left us."
"Dogo was a gladiator?" Styx asked, but was cut short of an answer by the portcullis sliding open and the 'beetle' guard, Jakkel, beckoning them forward.
"All right you three, come on," Jakkel commanded with a sneer. Regarding Styx with a sadistic gleam in his eye he added, "Ah, the little youngster. I hope for your sake that your first fight isn't your last. I'd hate to see ya die so quickly."
Jakkel's expression left little doubt in Styx's mind that it wouldn't matter when he died, Jakkel would still enjoy it. He shuddered at the thought as the portcullis slammed shut after the trio had stepped through. He was sealed off from the closest thing to a safe haven that he had and was about to face something he knew would be horrific.
They passed by Jakkel and came to another portcullis a short time later, this one guarded by four more men. As they approached, one of the men called for the grate to be opened. Styx was glad to find this section filled with armor and weaponry of varying types. He wasn't going to be forced to face his doom unarmed.
Kutos gestured toward the racks of equipment and said, "Get some gear if you want some, and a weapon or two. You only have a few minutes to gear up. You're light and fast, so I recommend the armor you're already wearing, but as for weapons . . ." Kutos trailed off as he scanned the racks. He shrugged as he picked up a broadsword and said, "You don't want to weigh yourself down too much, but I still suggest a buckler at least, and a sword over a dagger. A bit of protection and a bit of reach will often go a long way in helping you win."
Styx turned away and scanned the room. Since he was still wearing his leather armor which had proven to be more than suitable protection for him in the past, he focused on finding the right weapon. There was an assortment of knives and daggers which he knew could be of use to him, as well as several light blades. He settled on a rapier and two large throwing daggers, and lastly picked up a small leather buckler. As he finished strapping the buckler to his arm, he could hear the sound of a crowd cheering beyond a set of large iron doors, calling them to battle. He made a small inspection of his armor to make sure that the leather membrane he used for gliding was still intact before stepping up beside Kutos and nodding that he was ready.
Jakkel grinned as he gestured toward the doors with his sword. "This way, fighters. Prepare to die," he said with a malicious chuckle. As if his words were the cue the doors opened wide and the whole chamber was bathed in light. When Styx's eyes adjusted, he saw the arena before him; a circular chamber with stone walls stretching twenty feet high, and a large metal net attached to a frame serving as the ceiling. The crowd sat above the walls, peering through the netting and hungry for the show of bloodshed. There was a distinct stench of death, though it was old and starting to fade, and Styx realized it must have been some time since there had been a fight.
With trepidation in every step Styx walked out into the arena alongside his two companions. Kutos had strapped on a breastplate and was carrying a large, round metal shield in one hand, and the broadsword in the other. The other man, whom Styx assumed was the aforementioned Hurr, had on a matching breastplate but instead of a sword was wielding a long spear held with both hands. Each of them bore the same expression of determination, and Styx took a deep breath and tried to get his feelings to match their expressions. His heart began to pound faster as his attempt failed.
The iron doors slammed shut behind them and the eager crowd roared again in anticipation. Their roar was met by a much more terrifying one that seemed to come from behind the arena wall directly across from the gladiators. A section of wall slid open revealing the terrible source of the roar. It was larger than any living thing he had ever seen, even bigger than the Elroks guarding the bridge outside. It must have stood four heads taller than he was, and was at least four times as thick, if not thicker. Wicked claws extended from the back of both of its forearms, and the bull-like horns looked sharp while still being as thick as his leg. The most stunning feature of all, and the one that made Styx cower in fear, was the creature's eyes, of which he had two pairs, giving him an almost alien appearance that caused his breath to catch in his chest.
Styx took a moment to glance at his companions and what he saw made his heart fall. Their looks of determination had been replaced by ones of absolute terror. They knew what Styx felt; they were doomed. The beast roared again as if in challenge, and then lowered its head and charged. Styx closed his eyes and prayed to whatever gods would hear him that his death would be swift.