“You know, I really didn’t think much about escaping until they put this fucking collar on my neck,” Victor said, trying to squeeze a finger between his skin and the thick metal band; he had an itch developing that was fast becoming a new source of rage Energy for him.
“Why didn’t you ask for the tag?” Belsa sat up from where Victor had tossed her, trying to teach her to manage her momentum better.
“I dunno. Something about it reminded me of how ranchers brand their cows and shit.” Again, he rubbed at the collar. “Of course, this isn’t much better. Collars are for dogs, not people, you know?”
“Oh, I agree. You think they’ll put one on me?”
“When you get to rank two, or are a tough rank one like me,” Victor jammed a thumb into his chest and flexed his other arm, hamming it up. She laughed, in a much better mood today than she’d been the night before. He supposed that was a direct result of him not being an asshole today. Victor felt like this revelation should be written somewhere: people tended to react to you similarly to how you treat them.
“You joke, but I guess it shows they’re afraid of you. Or afraid of what you might do, at least.”
“Yeah, of course, I didn’t realize it in time.” He flicked the metal collar again.
“What about your clothes? Did Boss give those to you?”
“No, and you can call him Yund when it’s just you and me. It bugs me that he makes us call him Boss.” Victor rubbed the sleeve of his black shirt between his fingers, marveling at the garment for at least the tenth time that day. When he’d woken, he’d been stunned to see that all the little rips had mended, and the blood that had matted the fabric was gone entirely. “Nah, the Lady at the house we fought at gave ‘em to me. I guess her servant did, actually. Seemed like a decent guy.”
“Well, that shirt isn’t as nice as my vest, but it looks better than those bloody rags you had on before.” She gestured to her beaded vest proudly while she spoke, and Victor got the feeling she was fishing for a compliment.
“Yeah, that vest is nice. Did you, uh, sew those designs on it?”
“Yes, I did the beadwork. An Artisan in my clan made these beads - they’re all polished stones and shells.”
“Yeah, they’re, um, they’re real nice.”
“Victor! Kid! Come over here!” Yund had poked his head out of his office door, saving Victor from an awkward conversation about fashion.
“Keep working on your falls,” he said as he jogged away, past a few other sparring fighters, and up to Yund’s door. “Yeah?”
“You ain’t going to Pit Night tonight.”
“Another private fight. I’m going to have Urt take you. You’ll have to leave soon because the fight’s outside the city again.”
“Oh, c’mon, Boss. Do I have to be a ‘justice’ again?”
“Nah, but it’s related - one of the guests liked what they saw and wanted to enter you in a private tournament.” Yund looked down, and to the side, kind of shiftily, and Victor knew he wasn’t telling him everything.
“Anything else I should know?”
“No, kid. Well, actually, yes - don’t mess around or get any ideas - Urt’s going to have control of that collar, and he’s a lot less patient than I am!” He slammed the door in Victor’s face after he finished speaking, and Victor turned back to the exercise hall. Yund was definitely acting shifty, but he was a shifty guy in a dirty business. Was it anything unusual? Unfortunately, there wasn’t any way for Victor to know. Maybe Urt would let something slip on the way to the fight. Victor wandered back over to Belsa, and she seemed to pick up on his mood right away.
“What’s wrong?” Her green eyes crinkled in her round face, a look crossing her face that Victor couldn’t place - was she scared? He supposed it would be scary for her; she didn’t know anyone else in the Wagon Wheel. If things were bad for Victor, her little bit of stability could disappear.
“Oh, Yund just told me I have to go to another private fight. No Fight Night at the Rusty Nail for me.”
“So I’ll have to go alone?” she asked, her voice soft and her eyes unfocusing, staring into space.
“No, you won’t be alone! Everyone here is going, except Urt and me, I guess. Ponda will be there, and he won’t let anyone mess with you. Well, outside your fight at least.” He reached out and held out a fist to her. After a moment, she scrunched up her knuckles and knocked them against his. “That’s the spirit. You’re going to do fine - Yund will put you with someone you can beat; I’m sure of it.”
They sparred for a while with spears, then did an exercise circuit, and then Ponda was screaming at everyone to get back to their cages. It was time for the next round of prisoners to come out for exercise. They’d barely gotten back in their cage, Ponda slamming it shut and stomping out when Urt came in, slamming the door open against the wall. Victor briefly congratulated the guy who’d built that door - it saw a hell of a lot of abuse. He stomped up to Victor’s cage, hawked a huge loogie, spit it into the hay, and said, “Looks like you got a special night ahead, boy.”
“Not my choice.” Victor shrugged and walked over to the cage door. Urt fumbled with the lock, and Victor looked over to Belsa. “Hey, good luck tonight. You’ll do fine. We’ll swap stories tomorrow, alright?”
“Right. Good luck, Victor.” She nodded her head, mouth held in a straight line, and her eyes did not betray any emotion. Victor had to admire her guts. He’d at least had Yrella and Vullu at his first Fight Night. Urt pulled the cage open and gestured for Victor to follow. He held up a little silver rod as they walked.
“With this, I can make that collar so hot it melts through your neck. Don’t cock about, got it?”
“Yeah. Fuck, man. Have I ever caused you trouble?”
“Just keep it in mind.” Urt walked to the door, slamming it open again, then motioning Victor through. They strode through the big exercise hall. Ponda had a group of the newer fighters assembled near the far wall and was yelling at them about some rule or another they’d broken. Yund’s door was closed, and no one looked at them or said anything as they walked through the big doors and out into the street. A coach much like the one Victor had ridden in with Yund was already waiting, and they clambered up into it.
The coach's interior was in much better repair than the other one. Victor saw that right away - there wasn’t any mud on the black lacquered floor, the red seat cushions weren’t threadbare, and it didn’t smell of anything in particular. “Not too bad,” he said to Urt, partially trying to make conversation and partially trying to irritate the recalcitrant manager. Victor laughed at himself, thinking of Urt as a manager. Sure, he “managed” the fighters, but he was more like a prison guard than a coach or anything.
“Huh. Yeah, I didn’t hire it. The guy paying for you to fight did.” That was interesting. Victor looked around more closely, but he didn’t see any identifying marks on the coach's interior.
“Do you think it’s his coach? Or did he hire it and send it to us?”
“How the shit would I know? Quiet now, and let me snooze.” Urt leaned back, closed his eyes, and crossed his arms on his chest, the rod that controlled Victor’s collar clutched firmly in his left fist. Victor briefly entertained the idea of trying to grab the rod and jump out the coach's door. He reached out and tried the latch, not really surprised when he couldn’t move it. He was locked in here. These guys seemed dumb and lazy, but they weren’t new at the whole kidnapping and enslaving part of their lives. He pulled the curtain aside to at least get a view of the journey through town, but the glass was black. He couldn’t see anything outside. The light coming from the little glowing orb in the coach’s ceiling looked so much like daylight that Victor hadn’t realized at first that the windows were covered.
“Great. Guess it’s going to be a boring ride.” He looked at his status page and decided to allocate his seven free points. He’d debated it for a while, not sure what was the smart move, but he figured he’d been winning fights by being able to finish people quickly while he was Berserk. Since that seemed to be a winning strategy, he decided to put three into strength, two into agility, and two into dexterity. He figured that would be a good distribution to follow for a while. His class levels gave him plenty of will and vitality; he just thought he should keep his other physical stats improving with the free points. He stared around the coach’s interior, stared at Urt, and wondered which of his rings and belts were the mysterious “dimensional containers” that all the non-enslaved people in this world seemed to have.
A dark thought crossed his mind; could he strike Urt hard enough to knock him unconscious or kill him before he could activate the collar? He was just laying there, helpless. What if he channeled his rage and really let him have it, right in the head or neck? Victor ran through it in his head over and over. What would happen if he killed him? He could take the rod, hopefully, get this collar off, and then try to break out of the coach? Should he sit in the coach and wait for the driver to open it? Then he could make a run for it. What if he failed to knock Urt out? The guy was an ex-fighter and supposedly pretty high level. If he didn’t incapacitate him, he’d be in trouble for sure. What if he couldn’t get out of the coach or if they had guards waiting? What if the driver was some kind of powerful Energy user?
Victor shook his head, sitting back in his seat and closing his eyes. “Chicken shit,” he said, lightly banging his knuckles into his forehead.
“Quiet!” Urt grumbled, snorting and swallowing a mouthful of phlegm.
“That’s fucking gross, bro.” Urt didn’t respond, and Victor decided to pass the time with some cultivation. He’d run through his entire drill four times when the coach’s rattling, swaying travel slowed, and the sound of the wheels transitioned from softly grinding dirt roads to clattering, grinding cobbles again. After a few moments of this, they came to a stop, and Urt sat up as though he’d never closed his eyes.
“Alright, look tough.” Urt scooted up in his seat, facing the door, and when someone rapped on the dark glass, Urt knocked back in a similar pattern.
“You guys have a secret knock?” Urt didn’t answer, just shrugged. The door opened, and the coachman held it while Urt scrambled out. Victor followed, stepping onto rounded cobbles into the cold night air. He looked around, noting the dark shadows of thick tree canopies on either side of the cobbled path. A stone wall and gate were nearby on this side of the lane, and Urt motioned for Victor to follow him to it. The coachman didn’t say anything, but Victor heard him close the door, and, as they stepped through the shadowed gateway, he heard it clatter a short way down the lane and then stop. The path they walked along was bedded in small, round stones and roughly ten feet wide. On either side of it, tall, looming trees made the night feel exceptionally deep and heavy. As they walked, Victor’s and Urt’s feet crunching in the gravel filled the air, nearly drowning out the chirping and droning of all the nighttime insects lurking in the thick foliage. They walked for about five minutes, every now and then passing lamp posts that shed yellow islands of light in the darkness. When they followed a final curve in the path and a stone wall with a black, iron door mounted in it came into view, Victor felt a little surge of relief - he’d been a bit unnerved walking through the dark forest, regardless of the well-maintained path and the intermittent lamps.
Two Ardeni men stood outside the door; both wore black and blue uniforms, had swords on their belts, and sported shiny metal helmets. As Urt approached, Victor in tow, one of them stepped forward. “From the Wagon Wheel?”
“Aye,” Urt said.
“You have the contract and the control rod?”
“Aye,” Urt pulled a rolled-up parchment out of “somewhere” and handed it and the control rod for Victor’s collar to the uniformed servant or guard. He turned to look at Victor, then shrugged. “Sorry, kid.”
“Here’s for your boss.” The guard handed Urt a heavy-looking sack about the size of a bag of sugar.
“The fuck is going on, Urt?” Victor looked at Urt with wide eyes, but he refused to make eye contact.
“Shut up and move with us.” The guard turned and opened the metal door with a grinding squeal, signaling seldom used hinges. Urt, for his part, turned and walked up the gravel path, his feet crunching loudly at first and then fading as the night swallowed him. “I said let’s go. I don’t want to have to use this.” He waved the rod in front of Victor. Victor looked from one stony-faced guard to the other and followed through the doorway. They were in a narrow, low-ceilinged stone hallway. Victor had to stoop to walk along behind the first Ardeni, and the other took up position behind him. Yellow light globes appeared in the tunnel every twenty feet or so, just bright enough to keep the space dimly lit. Victor didn’t note any doors in the tunnel, and he could feel that they were slowly moving down a slope.
“Can you guys tell me what the fuck is going on? Am I here to fight in a tournament?” The guard in front of him laughed, a short, mocking sound.
“That what your owner said? Sure, that’s what it is. We’re taking you down here to a ‘tournament.’” He snickered again, and the guard behind Victor snorted also. Victor knew he wouldn’t get any answers from these assholes, so he just readied himself, figuring he’d have answers soon enough. They finally came to a T in the tunnel, and the guards led Victor to the left. After a while, they arrived at another heavy, iron door. The guard put a big metal key into the door, grunted as he twisted it, broke away some rust, and then pulled the door open, hinges squealing.
They walked into a round room with a convex stone ceiling and mortared stone walls. In the center of the room, a lone table sat on a sturdy metal frame. The first guard touched something on the wall, and cool white-blue light filled the air, almost like it was being exuded from the stone ceiling. He walked to the table and turned some sort of crank, and it rotated up ninety degrees. The rear guard gave Victor a shove, propelling him toward the table. “Stand with your back against the table,” he said gruffly.
“The fuck is this?” Victor began to panic and started to reach for his Core.
“Don’t even think about it, shit head. I’ll melt your head right off.” Suddenly the collar around Victor’s neck grew warm, then uncomfortably hot, and he reached up in a panic, trying to squeeze his fingers in between it and his tender throat. “Just do what I said, and I’ll cool it off.” Victor complied, walking up to the table. As soon as he was standing with his back touching the metal surface, the collar started to cool, and the guards each pulled one of Victor’s hands down to the table, clasping something around his wrists. Then the guards backed away, and the first one stepped around to crank the little wheel again. Victor rotated backward ninety degrees so that he was now lying facing the round dome of the ceiling. “Alright. I’ll watch him. Go let Lord ap’Horrin know he’s here.”
Victor's mind raced as the other guard walked away, pulling open and then closing the squealing metal door. He’d heard that name before - ap’Horrin. He couldn’t place it, though. It might have been a name he heard at one of the fight nights or someone that Vullu or Yrella had mentioned. He couldn’t figure it out. He knew one thing, though: Yund had fucked him over. Yund, Ponda, Urt - they’d all known this was going down. Ponda hadn’t looked at him when he was leaving. Urt had said, “Sorry, kid.” Obviously, Yund knew - he’d been paid a fat sack of whatever passed for money in this world. What were these assholes planning for him? He couldn't think of any sort of good scenario where someone is strapped to a metal table deep underground. Sure, maybe they were going to do some cosmetic modifications - give him a tattoo and some fangs. He snorted a short laugh.
“Good that you can have a sense of humor. I’ll be honest with you; I hope the Lord’s quick with you cause I don’t have the same kind of stomach he does.” Victor had almost forgotten the other guard was still in the room.
“Dude, can’t you tell me what the fuck is going on?”
“Shouldn’t be that hard to figure out. How many lord’s kids have you killed?”
“What the fuck? I only fight in pits, dude, and I sure as hell don’t get to pick my opponents.”
“True, it’s not really a fair deal for you, but Lord ap’Horrin has to save face somehow, and he can’t very well kill Lady ap’Brellin, can he? Now shut up; I’m not supposed to talk to you.” Lady ap’Brellin, the Lady that hired him to be a “Justice?” Images of the garden party and the newly constructed pit filled Victor’s mind. The man thrown in the pit with him had been a noble, the “criminal” he’d killed because the courts wouldn’t do what the Lady wanted.
“Oh, God.” Victor strained against his restraints, but they were immovable. He knew if he tried to use his Energy abilities, the guard would use the collar, but he couldn’t help the panic rising in his chest. What was this fucking guy going to do to him?