Fortune, Glory, and Death
Thick moats of dust clotted the air, swirling about Ya’Zi’s head as he collapsed onto his knees in the dirt. Breathing heavily, the suffocating smell of unwashed bodies and iron settled deep into his lungs and he instinctively covered his mouth to keep himself from gagging. His muscles felt like cold metal, stiff and heavy. Echoing laughter rang in his ears along with the lingering gasps of his last opponent. Ya’Zi looked briefly at his shaking hands, the pale purple flesh splattered with the carnage of combat.
“Open the gate,” a voice called from just outside the arena exit.
Looking skyward to regain a sense of balance, Ya’Zi found himself staring into grime-covered lights hanging from a high-vaulted concrete ceiling. The bulky filament bulbs filled the massive underground space with an unnatural glow and his head spun under their brightness. Ya’Zi closed his eyes for a moment, trying to clear away the distractions bombarding his senses, only to find himself being jarred back into the present with the clank-clank-clunk of the wooden gate. Opening his eyes, he expected to see the shadow of an unknown opponent walk through the entry. Instead, the leader of the Iron Dragons, only known to Ya’Zi as Master Leandro, came strolling out of the dark interior.
As he stepped into the unnatural light, Leandro removed a black bowler hat revealing a shaven skull glistening with sweat. The whole of his head where hair would naturally be was covered in dark black ink etched into the shape of a dragon. To Ya’Zi it looked like the beast was crying as sweat beaded and dripped down Leandro’s brow. His master reached up with a starched white sleeve and wiped it away as he walked towards Ya’Zi. His new human master was smiling, and the sight made the elf’s toes curl.
Ya’Zi bowed his head, keeping his eyes fixated on the dark, earthen floor as the muscular Leandro approached.
“Ya’z, Ya’z …” Leandro clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth as he spoke. “That was another spectacular fight.”
Ya’Zi kept his eyes downcast, bobbing his head just enough for Leandro to pick up on the movement. “Yes, Master Leandro.”
“I’ve never seen anyone finish so quickly, especially without a weapon. But . . .” Leandro paused, placing a hand on Ya’Zi’s shoulder, startling him. When the elf looked up, he caught the pale amber eyes of his master staring back at him. “I need to see more pizazz.”
Ya’Zi scrunched up his nose. “This word is unfamiliar.”
“Right, right.” Leandro muttered, stepping back several paces to allow Ya’Zi to rise to his feet. “In the elven world, you might call it katsuryoku, vitality or energy.”
Ya’Zi closed his eyes tightly, trying to blink away the dust and frustration. “I see what you mean, Master Leandro.”
“When I first saw you at the slaver’s pit fighting—what was it— two dozen of the Black Wolves worthless thugs?” He paused and waved his hand, gesturing towards Ya’Zi to remember the day when Leandro had bought him from a rival slave master. Before Ya’Zi could respond, Leandro continued. “I knew then your value. Others of my kind would reject your capabilities because of their hatred for elves. I bought you because I believed you could be an asset. But . . .” Leandro left his words unfinished and Ya’Zi felt himself being scrutinized under the sharp glare of the arena’s harsh lights.
“What must I do, Master?” Ya’Zi asked dispassionately.
“I want you to show me why I should keep you around as a fighter and not just send you on to the air pirates to scrub decks for the rest of your life.” Leandro took a step forward and gripped Ya’Zi on the shoulder. He grimaced with pain, having already taken twelve rounds of exhausting combat. Leandro smiled as he told Ya’Zi. “I want you to give me a show worth watching. Make me believe you are a worthy investment.”
The elf barely managed to swallow passed the lump in his throat. What more can I show him, Ya’Zi thought to himself.
He paused before rising to his feet only to bow reverently before Leandro. “I will give you a spectacle.”
“See that you do,” Leandro smirked in reply.
His master left the arena the way he came and Ya’Zi watched as he disappeared into the darkness. Out of the shadows, another figure moved unobtrusively towards the light just as the reverberating sound of a gong filled the massive underground arena. The gate lowered into place, sealing Ya’Zi and his last opponent inside. The echo of the gong filled the quiet arena signaling the start of his final fight.
Lost in his thoughts, Ya’Zi barely had time to calculate his strategy before a blade whirred by his head. He attempted to maneuver under the attack, but his movements were slower than they had been in his earlier fights. A searing hot pain shot through his long ear as he pressed into the dirt and rolled away. Blood dripped onto his hand as he reached to touch the wound—the tip had been sliced clean off. There wasn’t more than a few seconds for him to mourn the loss before the blade-wielder charged again. Ya’Zi instinctively rolled further away and leapt to his feet, running away from his shouting assailant.
“Come back, you coward,” the swordsman yelled, giving chase.
Heading towards the outer berm on the opposite end of the large arena, Ya’Zi heard the wafting banter and laughter of a handful of spectators in the crowd as he fled from his attacker. He tried to ignore the building animosity and instead focused on finding foot placements along the wall. Huffing and heavy footfalls followed in his wake as the swordsman tried to keep up with the fleet-footed elf.
Voices echoed in chant across the large rectangular fighting pit.
“He isn’t good enough to fight for us!”
“Cut him in two!”
“Kill the elven scum!”
He forced himself to ignore the denigrating cheers of the angry crowd. It was Leandro’s words that replayed in his mind as he sprinted the last few feet, kicking up dust as he barreled towards the wall.
I want you to show me why I should keep you around.
With the momentum of his sprint, Ya’Zi was able to run up several feet of the wooden pylons that made up the outer perimeter of the arena. Time seemed to slow as Ya’Zi flipped up and over his bewildered opponent’s head just as the man reached the berm. The elf landed behind his opponent and the laughter and jeers from the crowd ceased. Ya’Zi grabbed the swordsman in a chokehold and knocked the sword from his hand. Two well-placed kicks to the back of his opponent’s knees forced the large man to the blood-stained arena floor.
The swordsman struggled for air against Ya’Zi’s tightening grip, thrashing violently like a beast caught in a net. But the smaller elven warrior did not relent. He pressed his arm tighter and tighter around the man’s neck until foam began to form at the corners of his mouth and his dark brown eyes bulged in terror. Ya’Zi released the swordsman just before he went limp, letting the man’s body smack into the compacted earthen floor with a thud.
Ya’Zi took a moment to catch his breath, dropping to one knee the room with the room slightly spinning. His opponent was coughing violently for several moments. Then he began to frantically sift through the loose dirt in front of him. Following his struggling rival’s movements, it dawned on Ya’Zi that the man was searching for his fallen weapon. Sucking in a gulp of stale air, the elven warrior bolted to the sword before his opponent could find it.
A horrid gurgling sound came from the man as he watched his sword sail out of reach, pitched into an empty section of the stands.
Laughter returned, reverberating across the indoor arena, and Ya’Zi felt a burning sensation in the pit of his stomach at the sound. For the first time since he had started his test, Ya’Zi felt as if the laughing was no longer at his expense. Pausing momentarily, he drew in a deep breath and wiped the sweat and dirt from his brow; the mess smeared across his purple flesh like war paint.
With style, he told himself.
“Get up,” Ya’Zi called to his downed rival. “Get up and fight, like an elf.”
Struggling against the pain, the large human stood to his feet, swaying like a scarecrow in a storm. Ya’Zi danced in and out of the man’s thrashing grasps, landing blows to his ribs and kidneys, his inner thighs, and finally his throat. The tension was palpable, hanging in the air like a fog over a battlefield. Every punch that connected with his opponent’s beaten body pushed Ya’Zi further and further down a road he had never wanted to walk.
Somewhere in the recesses of the arena seating, there were deep grumbles of complaint as the outcome of the fight became evident. A cry went up and Ya’Zi barely had time to dodge a weapon someone had thrown into the arena. The axe missed his head by mere inches and buried itself deep into the compacted dirt floor.
The swordsman, who had leapt away in the opposite direction of Ya’Zi, locked eyes with the elf. They both ran for the weapon, the swordsman limping and grimacing as he scrambled towards his last hope. Ya’Zi was tired but he easily reached the axe first, positioning himself in front it. As the man charged towards him, the elf used what little stamina he had left to round house kick the man in the face and then the chest. The force of the attack left the man sprawled out in the dirt.
Random laughing hung in the air like the clouds of dust kicked up during the fight, yet Ya’Zi’s face remained impassive. He slowed his breath, his lungs aching from the torturous test of endurance that he had faced in the dusty, cavernous underground battle pit. He took a defiant pose, one foot forward and one fist pulled back, motioning for the swordsman to come for more–if he dared.
It’s not over yet, he told himself.
The man lay dazed for a moment before pulling himself to his feet. Ya’Zi’s kick had broken the swordsman’s nose and blood oozed down the man’s face into the crevices of his dry lips. He wiped away the blood with the back of his hand, smearing it across his dirty skin. At the sight, the man’s eyes narrowed and he growled like a wounded animal. He swayed momentarily before charging at Ya’Zi once more.
Pivoting away from the attack, Ya’Zi easily avoided the man’s awkward grip. The elf ducked under the swordsman’s arm, grabbing him by the elbow and shoulder. Pulling back on the arm, Ya’Zi used his own forward motion to sweep the unsuspecting man’s legs out from underneath him.
As his feet left the ground, the swordsman stumbled forward, trying to regain his footing. His eyes widened in the realization that he wouldn’t be able to stop his own fall. Blood sprayed Ya’Zi, who watched with a silent sense of satisfaction and disgust, as the thirteenth fighter was thrown on the blade of the giant axe still protruding from the ground where a spectator had thrown it.
The man’s legs twitched as the gong echoed thrice, calling a halt to the test.
Gone was the echoing laughter that had pushed him to fight harder, replaced with sporadic rounds of cheering. As the noise died down there were several moments of silence before the clanking chain that lifted the wooden gate alerted Ya’Zi to the arrival of Leandro. His white shirt had been replaced with a deep red one now dressed up with a dark-black vest embroidered with a red and white dragon. As he entered the dusty pit, a grin coated his face and his hands slowly clapped together.
Ya’Zi stiffened and bowed as his master stepped out of the dark.
“Not bad, Ya’z. Not bad at all. Come on,” the man handed an exhausted Ya’Zi a bottle of liquid and then patted the elf on his shoulder.
“Master,” Ya’Zi said with a constricted throat.
“Drink that, it will help with the pain.” Leandro motioned to the bottle of liquor in Ya’Zi’s hand.
Nodding, Ya’Zi gingerly popped off the cork and took a swig. The alcohol tasted bitter and it stung going down, but the elven fighter found his head instantly spinning in a pleasurable way, as if all the anxieties and pain were nothing but a distant memory. It was a brief sensation, the parched feeling in his throat returning with a vengeance along with the heavy feeling in his gut. Only the pain of his cuts and bruises abated.
Leandro motioned for Ya’Zi to keep drinking before he walked off to take care of business. Taking up a position against the wall nearest the wooden gate, Ya’Zi chugged down the liquor in an attempt to satiate his thirst. In between gulps, he watched his master bustle around the arena, ordering workers about as they cleaned up the carnage.
The more Ya’Zi drank, the more his head spun and he tried to keep from staring at any one place too long. Yet, no matter where he looked he found himself drawn to the gore left behind from his test. The lighting of the underground fighting pits made the dark red blood look like pools of tar. Handfuls of workers were trying to clean it up with soapy sponges but no matter how much they scrubbed, the dark stains of death remained. When a sole worker dragged the lifeless body of his final opponent from the arena, Ya’Zi found himself blinking, again and again. For a moment he could have sworn he saw his own dark orange eyes staring back at him, but the hand of Leandro brought him from his hallucinations.
“I knew you had it in you,” Leandro said with a hum of approval in his throat. He patted the elf on his back. Ya’Zi nodded, frowning.
“What does this mean for me, master?” Ya’Zi asked.
Leandro smiled again as he pulled a small cigar from a metal tin and placed it in his lips. He lit it and then motioned for the elf to follow. As they walked to the other end of the arena, Ya’Zi glanced around the outer berm into the empty stands. Now that his test was over, and he had proven himself a worthy investment, the arena laid bare except for a few stragglers left to clean up after Ya’Zi’s mess.
“It means you are one of us, an Iron Dragon.”
“I don’t think the others will accept me.”
Half of Leandro’s lip curled up in a smile as he puffed on the cigar. He spoke with the exhale of smoke. “I’m the boss, Ya’z. If I say you are one of us, then you are, whether the others like it or not.”
Ya’Zi tilted his head to the side and took in a short breath through his nose to try and avoid inhaling the noxious trail of smoke. He said nothing to Leandro, only nodding in acknowledgement of the man’s obvious power over his gang.
“They have no idea of the real worth of the Ki’taari elves,” Leandro continued. “But we are going to show them.”
“Killing isn’t so hard.” As Ya’Zi spoke, he stared off into the distance to one of the points where the dark stains of blood were still visible.
“This isn’t just killing, Ya’z.” Leandro shifted on his feet and scratched the side of his head where the dragon’s claws pierced into his flesh. “Do you know what arena champions do?”
“They murder . . . for sport.”
“No,” Leandro laughed. “They don’t kill, they dominate. They intimidate. They rule.”
Ya’Zi tilted his head and raised an eyebrow. “I am a slave. I rule nothing.”
Leandro sniggered before he lifted his tanned fingers to his lips and whistled loudly. He lifted his hand up in expectation just as an attendant came sprinting into the arena with a silver box tucked under one arm. The smaller man placed the box into Leandro’s expectant hand and then cautiously a white towel to Ya’Zi before disappearing back through the entrance gate.
“You are more than that to me. If you fight for me, win for me, like you did today, I will make sure that you have everything, and I do mean everything, you could ever want— women, money, fame. It is much more than you would get in the elven kingdom, is it not?”
Ya’Zi huffed. “There is not much in this human world I could want, not even those things.”
Leandro paused, rolling the cigar between his fingers before returning to his mouth. “The power you could have here in the arena, Ya’z . . . no one can take that away from you.”
Ya’Zi looked down at the towel before he splashed the green liquor onto it. He cleaned his hands and then he carefully reached up to feel the tip of his ear that had been mangled.
The pain nipped at his insides just as much as Leandro’s words.
Leandro pulled out a sharp metal earring from the silver box and held it in his out-stretched hand. It was a dragon twisted into a hoop and the dark eyes starred eagerly towards Ya’Zi. “You could be the first elven champion in the arena.”
Ya’Zi looked at the jewelry in Leandro’s hand and hesitated. There is no honor in this, Ya’Zi told himself.
He paused and looked at Leandro, his outstretched hand waiting for his decision.
After several long seconds, Ya’Zi snatched the ring from his master’s hand, and then he took one final mouthful of liquor. Sucking in his breath, Ya’Zi jammed the sharp point of the metal through an unpierced ear lobe. Drops of dark, red blood trickled down his neck and Ya’Zi took the towel back from Leandro’s steady hand to wipe the mess away.
Grinning from ear to ear, Leandro clasped Ya’Zi on the back and led him from the arena. As they made their way towards the darkness Leandro leaned in and whispered in his ear.
“Glory, fortune, and death. This is what awaits us, Ya’z.”