“This is nice,” Jason said.
“Certainly better than meditating in a dirty back-lot,” Farrah said.
The Island was divided in various districts, all connected by the subterranean, submarine transit line. The locals called it the loop line, or the loop, but Jason thought it deserved something more impressive. His thinking had gone as far as naming it the sub-sub way when he realised the loop wasn’t so bad a moniker.
Farrah and Jason had taken the loop to the park district, which as the name suggested, was dominated by parkland. It was like someone had curated the delta, with paths and gardens winding around ponds and streams. Palm trees and vibrant tropical flowers punctuated open spaces of lush grass, while pathways vanished into shady areas of dense bushes.
Almost everywhere in the park district was open to anyone on the Island. The only private space was the walled-off residence of the city’s ruler, the Duke of Greenstone. Jason and Farrah picked out a pleasant spot for their afternoon training. Farrah had suggested a more tranquil environment for meditation than Jory’s back yard.
“I still need to go in to the clinic, though,” Jason said. “I promised I’d come in again this afternoon.”
“You realise that once you’re an adventurer you won’t have as much time for that,” Farrah said.
“I know,” Jason acknowledged, “but I’d like to make time, where I can. The idea is to help people, right? Killing some monster can do that, but so can turning a room full of sick people into a room full of healthy ones.”
“You know,” Farrah said, “Maybe there are some things worth holding onto in those values of yours.”
“Good to hear,” Jason said. “Does this mean you’re going to stop trying to make me kill people?”
“We’re not trying to make you kill people,” Farrah said. “We just want to prepare you for the inevitable. You make it sound like we’re drugging random strangers, stashing them in a hidden location, handing you a large axe and locking you up with them, promising not to let you out until one of you is dead.”
“That was weirdly specific and detailed.”
“Shut up and meditate.”
Underneath the Old City fight pits in the ancient Fortress were a series of hallways and chambers. Fighters and other interested parties used them to prepare for upcoming fights. This included a large number of enforcers to make sure the enthusiasm of would-be participants didn’t suddenly wane before their match.
One such chamber contained two women, one of whom was getting ready to fight. Instead of loose, cool clothes, she wore a form-fitting outfit that mixed protective treated leather with tough, but flexible fabric. She had one foot up on a stone bench as she wrapped a cloth around her knuckles.
Her skin was chocolate, her hair shining silver. Her sharp eyes reflected the colour of her hair exactly, the matching metallics a giveaway trait of the celestine race. Normally shoulder length, her shimmering hair was tied back in a simple and practical ponytail.
“Do you want me to knot it?” the other woman asked, glancing at the hair.
The fighter shook her head, saying nothing. Her gaze was locked on the wall in front of her as she put herself in the headspace to fight. Her companion looked on with disapproval. She was a human, with short, scraggly hair and cute features. Her mouth pouted as she glanced at the door.
“I can’t believe she’s making you do this,” she said.
“Lindy,” the fighter said, her voice firm. “We knew we wouldn’t like it going in. But without her protection, we’d be in a worse situation than this.”
“But putting you back in the pits?” Belinda complained. “Soph, you already earned your way out of this place.”
“Under Silva’s father,” Sophie said. “Now that he’s gone, the most important thing is staying out of Silva’s hands. This is the price we pay for that.”
“Except that you’re doing all the paying,” Belinda said.
“Ventress doesn’t care about the fighting,” Sophie said. “She just cares about provoking Silva by showing me off. Once that’s done, she has no reason to keep us here.”
“Will Silva even know?” Belinda asked. “You still only have the one essence. Does anyone pay attention to these low-card fights?”
“He’ll know,” Sophie said. “Sooner, rather than later.”
The door to the chamber was pushed open by a huge leonid. Coming in behind him was a woman with dark, cascading hair and a walk so sultry she was almost swerving. Clarissa Ventress only looked a few years older than the two women she was walking in on, but command clung to her as tightly as her satin dress.
“Are we just about ready, ladies?” Ventress asked. Belinda opened her mouth to respond, but was silenced by a gesture from Sophie.
“Good,” Ventress said. “I’ve arranged a match up that Silva should hear all about. Put on a good show and we might only need the one.”
“What’s the match up?” Sophie asked.
Ventress had the smile of a snake who just found a nest full of eggs.
“Fire Fist,” she said.
“Are you kidding?” Belinda burst out.
“It’s fine,” Sophie said, voice flat and calm.
“Do you know what he does to people?” Belinda asked, wheeling on her friend.
“I know,” Sophie said.
“He does have a reputation,” Ventress said. “That works in our favour. And this is fun; it turns out he always wanted to fight you. You got out of the pits right when he was getting started, and apparently he views it as a missed opportunity. Seeing how enthusiastic he was, I just had to go and arrange a cage match.”
Sophie put a hand on Belinda’s shoulder to stop her from erupting again.
“You want a show?” Sophie asked. “You’ll get one.”
Ventress gave another serpentine smile.
“Precisely what I wanted to hear. Belinda, dear, why don’t you come and watch from my viewing box?”
“Go with her,” Sophie said. “I need to get my head in the right space.”
“I’ll be fine,” Sophie said with grim determination. “You just watch.”
Lucian arrived at his viewing room with a contented sigh. Trailing behind him was Cassowary Finn, the son of Lucian’s deputy, Pochard. Cassowary spent much of his days working as a go-between for the two men, a key role in allowing Lucian to work out of the Fortress. Some tasks could only be done in person, however, which forced Lucian from his preferred habitat.
“I’m glad that’s over with,” Lucian said. “Maybe there’ll be a good fight on.”
“I did see them bringing out the cage,” Cassowary said. Always lurking near his father and Lucian, Cassowary was picking up on their taste for vicarious violence.
“Might be something interesting,” Lucian said. “Put it up on the window.”
Each private viewing room was fronted with a solid sheet of glass, enchanted to project images from the various fighting pits. It could show several at once, or focus on one, all controlled by touching runes set into the wall. Cassowary did so, bringing up the image of Fortress personnel bolting together the walls of a large metal cage.
“Any idea what this is about?” Lucian asked. One of Cassowary’s tasks was to keep abreast of fights that might interest Lucian.
“If they’re bringing out the cage at this time of day,” Cassowary said, “it’s probably Fire Fist.”
“Fire Fist?” Lucian asked.
Lucian rarely paid attention to the early fights, relying on Cassowary to dig out any worthwhile nuggets.
“I think you’ll like him,” Cassowary said. “He usually fights in escape the cage matches, which don’t end until one fighter leaves the cage. Fire Fist likes to toy with his opponents before he leaves.”
“Sounds fun,” Lucian said. “Why haven’t I heard of him before?”
“He doesn’t appear very often,” Cassowary said. “As you might imagine, they have trouble finding people willing to go up against him. They tried forcing people for a while, but that didn’t make for interesting fights.”
“So, this should be a good one,” Lucian said.
The fighting pits were, as the name suggested, a series of shallow pits in a wide area surrounded by tiered seating. Because the pits were shallow for people to see in, there would occasionally be casualties in the audience. It could be from an essence ability gone astray, or the crowd pleasing spectacle of a competitor trying to escape through the audience. The organisers had taken no steps to redress the issues in the many years the pits had been operating.
Lucian looked on as an announcer walked into view with a voice-projecting stone in hand. The viewing window picked up sound as well as vision, and those in the viewing rooms could hear the fights better than audience members at the edge of the pit.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer proclaimed. “Today we have a very special match. As you may have very well surmised from the cage behind me, we will have the pleasure of welcoming a favourite back to the arena. Please join me in welcoming the savage, all-consuming Fire Fist!”
There were stairwells leading down to the chambers below, placed to allow fighters to emerge and parade before the audience on the way to their chosen fighting stage. Fire Fist was tall and lithe, with red and yellow streaks of hair that was either dyed or the result of some essence power. He wore only a pair of red silk pants with a yellow flame motif, his muscled chest bare. His hands, held leisurely at his side, were wreathed in flames that danced up his arms as he strutted through the open door of the cage.
“Fire Fist, ladies and gentlemen!”
Fire Fist held up an arm to acknowledge the crowd, which was large for the time of day. Word of the match-up had clearly gotten around. The announcer waited for the audience to quiet down before his next introduction.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer said. “For those true aficionados among you, there is a yet greater treat in store. Years ago, this arena was graced with the sweet flights of a beautiful bird. Sadly, she winged away from us, but today, ladies and gentlemen, she has returned. I give you the grace and beauty of… THE NIGHTINGALE!”
A dark beauty with silver hair marched up and out of the stairwell, without so much as a glance at the crowd. She stopped by the announcer, looking up and over the crowd to glare at one of the viewing rooms before heading into the cage.
In his own viewing room, Lucian stood up so fast he knocked over his chair. He walked around his desk and down to the window where he stroked his fingers over her face.
“Who is she?” he asked.
“I’m not sure, Mr. Lamprey. “I’ll find out.”
“See that you do.”