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Victor felt like the lord that the guard had gone to fetch would arrive any moment, so he lay there tensely, his mind providing detailed fantasies about what kind of hell was waiting for him. He lay like that for a long time, tense, sweating, even twitching with nerves. When long minutes went by, then hours, he thrashed about, trying to get even a tiny amount of wiggle-room in his wrists so that he could turn or look behind him. His restraints wouldn’t budge, though, and though he tried, he couldn’t get his head turned far enough to see the guard that was presumably still sitting or standing behind him. He tried to engage the guard in conversation a few times, but after a few grunts of “Quiet!” or “Just wait,” he gave up.

After a while, he tried to find some solace in dozing off. He closed his eyes and tried to focus on things that made him happy, or at least places that made him happy. He imagined walking around the big wash where he and his buddies had built a fort every summer. He remembered how it smelled out there during monsoon season, how the water would flow for a few hours after each storm, and then he and his friends would go out and find tadpoles in the big puddles left behind. Where did those toads go during the rest of the year? His friend, James, had said they hibernate, but Victor couldn’t picture toads sleeping underground for most of the year, just coming out during a month or two when the rains really pounded the desert. He supposed anything was possible, though.

“Creosote,” he mumbled. “That’s what smelled so good around the washes during the rains.” He lifted his head off the table and brought it down with a thud. He did it again, harder, with a louder thud.

“Cut that shit out.” The guard didn’t sound happy. Maybe he was as bored as Victor.

“Oh, you’re still there? Fuck you, pendejo.” Victor closed his eyes and let himself drift again. Memories and dreams blurred together for a while, and then he really did sleep, deep, sinking into the earth sleep, with no dreams to bother him. Then he felt a gentle hand on his cheek, caressing it lightly, and he opened his eyes to the cool, sterile light of the domed stone ceiling. He blinked a few times and saw that an Ardeni man with a neatly trimmed black beard was standing next to him, his hand resting on Victor’s cheek.

“Ahh, there he is. There’s our young Justice.” He patted Victor’s cheek twice more, then pulled his hand away. He didn’t have a smile on his face, but his voice didn’t sound particularly angry or cruel. Victor saw that he had dark eyes like the guy he’d fought in the pit. Another Ardeni without bright hair and eyes? He wanted to ask about it but knew he had to play this smart, so he kept his mouth shut. “Well, have anything to say for yourself?”

“Um, are you the father of the man I had to fight, um, at that Lady’s house?”

“Oh, just an innocent victim of circumstance, hmm?” The man’s brow furrowed, and a glint of cruelty interred his eyes.

“You can say what you want, man, but I didn't fucking choose to be there, or even in this goddamned world!”

“Is that right? So, some stranger, some victim, just a tier-one nobody, managed to kill my tier-two son in a pit fight?”

“Actually, yes. I didn’t even want to fight there. I had no idea who your son was.”

“What do you say to that, Drelk?” He looked past Victor toward the part of the room behind his head.

“Well, I told you about his savagery. I don’t think I need to say more. I can’t imagine anyone unwillingly doing what this beast did to your son, to your son’s corpse.”

“And that,” a hard glint entered the lord’s eyes, and his voice became icy, “is why you must be gentled and put somewhere away from society, Victor. Did I say that right? Your name? It’s a new one to me, but I saw it on the contract I purchased.”

“The fuck do you mean, gentled? Dude, just let me go, and I won’t bother you or your society.” Victor strained against his bindings again, but he made no headway.

“Victor, I’m going to watch what my friend Tkelvic does to you, and I’m going to enjoy it. It’s the least I can do for myself as consolation for the loss of a child, however misbehaved he was. When Tkelvic is done with you, I will sell your contract to a place often equated to hell. Do they have a concept of hell where you come from? A place for terrible souls to go after life? Don’t bother answering me, Victor. I’m not interested, really.” He stepped back from Victor and looked around. “Drelk, you may go. Hols, please get Tkelvic; he’s in the next oubliette.”

Victor lay there, paralyzed by panic. He heard people moving around and then the scraping of chains on stone, accompanied by the click-clack sound of something big moving around on stilts or wooden shoes or something. He stared at the ceiling, trying to will himself out of his predicament, but then a long, dark shadow fell over him, and he looked up in the face of horror. A man loomed over him, but not a man like any he’d ever seen. This man was naked and had gray skin and a long angular face with huge black saucers for eyes. His mouth and jaw reminded him of an insect's mandibles. The freakiest part of him, though, was that he didn't have arms. No, he had long, thick spider legs coming out of his shoulders and back, allowing him to loom over Victor’s table. Victor opened his mouth to scream, and that's when he saw the tentacles. The man had a nest of tentacles at the base of his abdomen, and two of them shot forward and wrapped around Victor’s face, clamping his mouth shut.

“No noise, meat,” the gray man-spider said in a grinding, discordant voice that registered deep in Victor’s gut. Victor strained against the tentacles but couldn’t move his head at all. He darted his eyes around, trying to find some sort of solution, some hint of hope. That’s when he noticed the collar and chains on the creature. So, he was enslaved, too?

“Do not kill him, Tkelvic!” the lord’s voice came from behind Victor. “I want him to feel what you do to him, and I want him to live with it.”

“Yes, Lord,” the horrifying creature said in that deep grinding voice. “I feel his Core. He’s a spirit wielder. I’ve never broken a Spirit Core.”

“I don’t care what his Core looks like or if he’s got twenty affinities. Shatter it!” Hearing those words, Victor felt real panic enter his mind, and he thrashed against his restraints, thrashed against the tentacles holding his head. He arched his back, reached into his Core, and pushed his Energy into his pathways, trying to activate Berserk. He didn’t care about the collar anymore; he had to do something. Just as the Energy left his Core, he felt it dragged along his pathways and into the restraints at his wrists. His body’s weak thrashing couldn’t dislodge the tentacles and didn’t affect the bonds. “The restraints flashed; he’s trying something!”

“He cannot break free. I must concentrate,” the looming, gray man-spider said as if to dismiss a child's worries. Victor’s head was being held so that he could only stare at the ceiling, but he felt more of the tentacles start to wrap around his abdomen, squeezing him uncomfortably tight. Suddenly he felt a heavy pressure, right above his navel. Then it was like something was digging into his flesh, driving into his stomach, pulling apart his abdominal muscles and slipping between them. He screamed as he’d never screamed before. The pain was horrifying, but his inability to move and the invasive way the creature was probing into his body magnified his pain and discomfort. He kicked and thrashed, but the creature’s weight and death grip with its tentacles kept his torso still.

The pain in his stomach grew as a hot buildup of some sort of foreign Energy began to throb right where his Core was. Victor stopped trying to see anything with his eyes, closed them, and turned his vision inward, trying to see what was happening to his Core. There it was, dim, low on Energy, but still whole, a red sun drifting in a vast void. Then Victor saw what the alien creature was doing: a bright spot of Energy was taking shape near his Core, slowly growing, pulsing with a sickly green radiance. He weakly thrashed with his body, but he knew he was on his last dregs of consciousness. He watched helplessly as the foreign Energy grew to eclipse his Core, and then with a white-hot, searing, acidic burn, it flashed into his Core and tore it apart. Victor screamed like someone was peeling the flesh from his bones and then sank into the endless void, drifting without a coherent thought.

An eternity later, Victor opened his eyes to gray daylight. He was lying in some straw on a wooden floor. The floor bumped and jostled, and, as he blearily rubbed at the crust binding his eyelashes, he foggily surmised he might be in a wagon. His right hand felt heavy, and he looked at it, noticing the metal cuff and chain hanging off it. “Fuck,” he groaned, trying to push himself to a sitting position. He felt so weak like his arms could barely manage the motion.

“Oh, you’re alive after all,” a dry, wispy voice said from behind him. He managed to scoot to a sitting position and looked toward the voice. An old, gray-haired Ardeni man was chained to the floor a few feet away from him. A few other hunched individuals shared a similar fate further into the wagon.

“Damn, dude, where the fuck are we?” His voice was scratchy, his throat sore and raw.

“In a wagon! Hah!” The old guy grinned, showing an alarming lack of teeth. Victor felt like shit. He felt worse than he had since coming to this world, worse than that time he’d had the flu and couldn’t eat for five days.

“I get it. A wagon. Where’s it going? Who chained us in here?” Victor tried to gather some spit and swallow it to make his throat a little less scratchy. His mouth was like the inside of a cotton ball, though, and he could barely dampen his tongue.

“We’re bound for Greatbone Mine. I imagine the Greatbone Mining Consortium put us in the wagon - that’s who bought us at auction.” How the fuck had Victor missed an entire auction? He tried to remember the last thing that he’d done. There’d been some practice with Belsa, then the private fight.

“Oh, fuck.” All the memories came to him - the metal table, the huge insect man, his Core. His Core! Victor looked inward, and there, where the bright, blazing sun of his Core used to pulse, he saw scattered bits of Energy, some yellow, some faintly flickering red, but none of it responded to him; it just floated listlessly in the void. “What did that fucker do to me?” He called up his status page:

Status

Name:

Victor Sandoval

Race:

Human - Base 4

Class:

Spirit Champion

Level:

11

Core:

Spirit Class - Base 5 (fractured)

Energy Affinity:

3.1, Rage 9.1

Energy:

5/5

Strength:

28

Vitality:

27

Dexterity:

19

Agility:

19

Intelligence:

10

Will:

17

Points Available:

0

Titles & Feats:

Skills:

  • System Language Integration - Not Upgradeable
  • Unarmed Combat - Basic
  • Knife Combat - Basic
  • Axe Mastery - Basic
  • Spear Mastery - Basic
  • Bludgeon Mastery - Basic
  • Grappling - Improved
  • Spirit Core Cultivation Drill - Basic
  • Berserk - Basic
  • Sovereign Will - Basic
  • Channel Spirit - Basic

His Core now said it was “fractured” and he had a maximum of five Energy. In other words, he couldn’t do shit. He reached up to scratch his neck and noticed the collar was gone. “I guess they don’t need to collar a guy with a fractured Core.” He couldn’t even activate Berserk or Channel Spirit. He supposed he might be able to use his Sovereign Will skill, but he couldn’t be sure until he tried. A wave of nausea rose from his stomach, and he bent over, shivering for a few minutes. When the discomfort faded, he attempted to straighten up, but a sharp pain from his stomach stopped him. He lifted his shirt and shivered at the sight. He had an eight-inch cut, crudely stitched and scabbed with puffy red flesh running laterally along the center of his abdomen. Thin, jagged black lines ran off into his tanned flesh from the incision.

“That looks infected, friend,” the strange old man said.

“Yeah, it sure does, man.” Victor leaned back, groaning and shaking, a sheen of sweat coating his face and forehead.

“When we stop, tell the wagonmaster. He won’t want you dead before delivery.” The older man sniffed and started picking at something on one of his bare feet. Victor looked down at his own feet and saw that his new boots and socks were gone. He still had on his black pants and shirt, though. If he could just activate his Berserk, it might heal his stomach, and he might be able to break the chain. He knew it wouldn’t work - he was seventy Energy shy of the minimum to activate it, but he wanted to try. He concentrated on the ability and tried to activate it as he’d always done. He felt a little flutter in his gut, but nothing happened. He didn’t feel it fail or pain or anything; it just didn’t work. He leaned his head back against the bumping wagon and closed his eyes.

“I’m fucked, man.” While he waited for something in his world to change, Victor thought about the people he’d met in this world. He thought about Yrella and savored the deep knot of discomfort that formed somewhere around his heart. It was nice to have a good, clean moment of sadness, a memory untainted by his current predicament. He tried to imagine what Yrella would say to him right now. It would probably be something about keeping his head up, staying ready for anything. Did he have that kind of fight left in him? What did it mean that his Core was fractured? Would he ever be able to gain power again? Would he be a broken person in this world? He supposed it made trying to get home an easier choice; if his Core was shot, there wasn’t much point in not trying to get back to Earth. That thought surprised him a little - he hadn’t consciously admitted that he’d been thinking about staying in this world, but there it was. He’d been gaining a lot of new abilities and a feeling of power that he’d never replicate back on Earth. He supposed that he’d kind of hoped to break free of the pit fighting and then see what he could figure out. He laughed bitterly. “You’re a fucking idiot. You can’t do shit; how are you going to get home or anything?”

“Hey, don’t get too down - just because someone bought your contract doesn’t mean they don’t have to follow it. How long was your contract for?” The old man nudged him with his bare, calloused foot.

“Somewhere between four and five years, I guess. You really think they’ll let us go after our time’s up?”

“It’s the law! We’re in the Ridonne Empire now - no slavery is allowed, only indentured service.” The old man had a manic tone to his voice, and it set Victor a little on edge.

“Dude, I hate to break it to you, but it ain’t much different. We’re going to some mine? You think they keep good records of their miners and their service terms? Is there some sort of government inspection to keep them honest?”

“Haha! Smart questions, young man! I’ve been indentured eleven times in my life. Guess what that means? I’ve been set free ten times! Have some optimism! It’s important for surviving times like this. My name’s Pel, by the way. What can I call you?” Whether he wanted to admit it or not, the old man had managed to ignite a tiny spark of hope in Victor’s heart. He might be down, but maybe it wasn’t forever. Five years was a long time, but he had a long life to live if what he’d heard about racial improvements were true.

“I’m Victor.” He closed his eyes again, and he didn’t try to think about anything this time. However, some images still came into his dozing mind: Belsa smiling as he showed her how to do an armbar, the healer at the Rusty Nail when they’d flirted while she fixed his shoulder, Vullu laughing at Victor when Yrella snatched his flatbread off his plate. He smiled but couldn't help the little pools of tears that started to fill the corners of his eyes.

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PlumParrot

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Comments(44)
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kemizle ago

I liked the fact that the mc was trying to get a solid base for all his stats before leaning more heavily into will but it looks like he's going to have to go hard on will to even have a chance on survival now

Dude ago

Jesus fuck, not the crippled mortal arc AGAIN. Wherever there's cultivation in a novel the trope will inevitably rear it's ugly head.

9two436 ago

Thanks for the new source of SuSTenANce I mean words. I really love this book so far! Keep up the good work SlaVE *ahem* author. (more intriguing copy paste for more comments. Also the above is true...)

Anzuu ago

So is the fighting ring arc over now, will there be any mention of Belsa in future arcs or is all of it going to be left behind?

    PlumParrot ago

    I have a lot planned for Victor. I hate to spoil stuff, but I'll just say that I'm as interested in those left-behind side characters as the rest of you, probably more.

Galaxy876 ago

Honestly thought they were going to remove his balls, although they technically did remove one

pato ago

ight, next time make multiple cores so you can afford to lose one 🙂
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