Authors: Jordan Magera
P R O L O G U E
The frigid winter winds blow lightly, creating a thin veil of floating snow that fills the air. Large, dark mountains loom oppressively
over the desolate valley. Shadowy trees trace down these mountains, slowly growing in number until they become a dense forest at the base. The forest continues until it abruptly stops, as the landscape morphs into a flat valley. In the center of this valley stands, or rather stoops, a large, crumpled, wooden structure. Half buried in the snowdrifts, the dis-mal ruin lightly creaks in the wind.
A lone traveler stands facing the dreary scene. His footprints show his progress in leaving the structure he is now facing. Even though he is tightly bundled, the wind still makes an effort to freeze the single tear that slowly travels down his cheek. He blinks, trying to keep his eyes from watering, then turns and plods on, never looking back.
The wind picks up speed and the snow begins to fill the footprints until every trace of the traveler vanishes.
C H A P T E R 1
The suiting room was the second worst place to be in the arena. The worst was the stage. The suiting room stunk of sweat that had festered in there for years. Even the flies wisely fled this sulfurous pit. Yet Barst endured it. Sitting on a poorly constructed wooden bench, he rubbed a wet stone along the sword that lay across his lap and tried to forget the fetid air.
His thin jerkin did little to hide his bulging muscles that seemed wasted on such a menial task. Yet Barst would never let another touch his sword, for it was by this sword that he lived or died. Over the years t
he leather on the handle had become worn, and the cross guard had become riddled with nicks. The sword even had a few scratches along the blade, but it still remained as sharp as the day he had first touched it.
He tested the weapon's edge and, satisfied with the results, sheathed his sword and ran a hand through is hair. His short blond hair failed to cover the scars that snaked their way across his head, testimonies to his hard life. Looking up, Barst cast his gaze around the room.
The rest of the team was busy working with their weapons. Josiah, a large dark man from the south, was crouched over his flail, oiling the chain that connected the handle with the deadly ball of steel. Beside him was Josh, a humorlessly minute man that must have been the same weight as Josiah's thigh. Barst smiled as he thought of all the times Josh had brought to shame those who mocked his diminutive size. The two remaining, Blake and Nathan, were twins with identical brown hair and crooked grins. They had grown up fighting together and were a formidable duo.
Their team had been together for months and had yet to lose to anyone. But there was always a first. Today was the summer festive.
A day for squandering all for the sake of instant pleasure. Even human lives. The crowds would not allow mercy to be shown in the arena, and the fighter's knew it. It was a day for slaughter.
Barst shook these thoughts from his head and swung his sword expertly, trying to get his blood flowing. It had become so natural: the lopping of heads, the slicing of bodies, the killing. He remembered when the sight of blood had made him throw up. Not anymore. Even that innocence had been ripped from him in this hell they called life.
Barst. They had even stolen his name and replaced it with a pseudonym. Apparently Jonathan sounded too weak in a battle for life and death, and Barst just seemed to fit. It was fine with Barst. He was no longer Jonathan. Jonathan had died in the valley all those years ago, alone and destitute.
He turned to his team who were also warming up. There was nothing worse than pulling a muscle in a deadly fight. Not that he had anything to lose.
That had always been a popular conundrum for him. If he had nothing to lose, why not just let himself be killed and let another, who still enjoyed life, live? He thought of this daily. He had even convinced himself before that he would let another win, and had walked into the arena fully prepared for his own death. But a dreadful emotion always would always win over, forcing him to kill. The emotion he hated for keeping him in the land of the living. Hope.
The world seemed to believe hope was a good emotion. But Barst knew its dark side. It could make men do terrible acts, or commit heinous crimes. Hope could even drive men to kill.
And it was this hope that had so twisted and malformed “Jonathan” into “Barst.” He had gone from an innocent, and fearful young man to a First-Class-Warrior; also known as an Untouchable. Barst now carried the occupation of an entertainer specialized in killing.
Barst's dark thoughts were interrupted when a servant entered the room. Barst nodded at him and the servant left without a word. Sticking a knife into his belt, Barst nodded at the team, and they began
to head to the door on the opposite side of the room, where a long tunnel greeted them. The sweat stench began to fade away and began to be overcome by an even worse odor. The smell of blood. The team silently walked toward the light on the other side—each fighter submerged in his own thoughts. Everyone knew his duty.
The sun's glare temporarily blinded Barst when he entered the arena, and the crowd's roar almost deafened him. Barst glanced up briefly to take in the high circular wall, broken only by a small gate on the opposing side, which surrounded the arena. Bart's team refused to acknowledge the exuberant crowd and instead looked around at their surroundings. The workers had installed an artificial marsh in the center of the stage that was flanked by large boulders. The marsh water was already tinted red, and the boulders were slick with blood. Blood. Its pungent smell flooded the senses and yet the crowd roared for more.
The team's opposition walked out. Cowering on the other side of the field were ten obviously Third-Class-Warrior, more commonly known as "Fodder.” And that is exactly what they were—slaves who had been bought by the arena to provide inexpensive slaughter for the crowds. These men were the feeding fish of the arena. This practice made sure that warriors like Barst, who were practically celebrities, would not be harmed.
One of the Fodder bested his trepidation as he hefted his trident and spun around for the crowd. Barst shook his head slightly. Nothing about the arena was glorious, and therefore the warriors frowned upon truculent behavior. There was no pride in killing another for the entertainment of spectators. Barst looked around at his team who were also wearing masks of disapproval.
The trumpet sounded from somewhere above, and Barst had no more time to contemplate. Josh scurried up the boulders where his speed would be to his advantage, while the rest of the team slowly began to plow through the marsh. The Fodder, without leadership or organization, just charged into the waist high water in a state of desperation mixed with fear. Barst, quickly realizing their rookie mistake
began to bark orders to his team. Over the months, he had begun to take a leadership role that was founded on respect and trust from his fellow teammates.
His team sprinted out of the water and onto the shore while the Fodder floundered in water that was now up to their chest. With little ceremony, Barst picked up a fist-sized rock he had found on the shore and hurled it at the man with the trident. A bloody mist exploded around the man when Barst scored a direct hit. After a short delay, the Fodder realized their doom and began franticly swimming toward the shore. Bart gritted his teeth in disgust as he reached for another stone. The absolute slaughter that followed seemed to last a decade.
One by one, the Fodder were picked off by rocks, and blood began to turn the water into a dark maroon. Destroyed and mangled bodies floated in the marsh, their eyes looking lifelessly into the sky. The body of the first man Barst had killed slowly floated to the shore, the hand still grasping the trident.
Barst tore his eyes away from the repugnant scene and became aware of the roar of the crowd that was now beginning to dim. The fight had been too fast and too easy. This wouldn’t be the team's last fight of the day. The crowd would want mo
re. The crowd always wanted more.
C H A P T E R 2
A Fine Hunter
Unlike the suiting room, the mess hall actually had a good aroma to it. The food here was delicious and the gladiators provided much demand. It was
lunchtime, and the arena was being renovated. The team had decided to stop in the mess hall for food. A large line had formed behind the serving counter as other fighters had gotten the same idea. Barst was done eating, and now he sat watching Josh slowly pick at his stew. Being First-Class-Warriors had given the team the privilege of a nice table away from the closely packed benches. Not only did their position give them space, but it also gave them a superior air that attracted many stares from the others in the mess hall. Barst ignored these looks and tried to pull his thoughts together.
Just like he had thought, they had been assigned another fight. A trembling pageboy had given them the message not half-an-hour ago. They were to fight in two hours against unknown opponents. To make matters worse, it was the last fight of the celebration, which meant they would provide the finale. No fighter wanted to be the finale.
Barst was yanked to the present when Josh got up to put away his bowl. Barst glanced around at the table and saw the rest were also getting up so he pushed himself away from the table as well. In silent agreement the assembly sauntered over to a large viewing window that looked directly into the arena. Built into the walls that surrounded the stage, these windows provided the fighters with something to watch in-between matches.
"It's strange that one can grow bored while waiting for a fight that might mean his death"
Josiah's revelation formed a small smile on Bart's lips.
"Aye, but it is also strange that one can get bored with life at all."
The team nodded at the comment, which had come from Josh who had just walked up, and leaned himself against the sill of the window.
Barst followed his gaze to where a sandy stage had just been inserted. The renovations must have been completed, and the stage was once more swallowing up human lives. On the stage, a large, burly, and stout man had just impaled his third "Fodder" and was being grossly applauded. Lifting up his arms the big man accepted praise from the crowd and then began vigorously re-stabbing the corpse at his feet. The team simultaneously turned away from this grotesque scene and reclined with their backs resting on the wall. Behind them, Barst could hear the crowd repeatedly chanting "Throun," and he tucked the name away in his memory. After some silence Josh spoke up, "You know the scary thing is he will probably be a crowd favorite."
"Probably?” Barst snorted, “Unless one of you wants to fight the next battle blindfolded, Throun, or whatever his name is, already has a crowd that wants to kiss his bum.”
Some of the team lightly snickered.
Barst continued, “I just don’t understand. What could twist a man to be like that?”
“The Arena,” Josiah rumbled in his deep voice, “and, not to seem rude, but it has twisted all of us as well.”
The team failed to laugh, and Barst pondered the thought.
The only time he could ever remember being happy for taking away something's life was when he was young and lived in the village. His dad, a large, husky man, had just shown him how to use a bow and was teaching him the basics of hunting, when a large deer had stupidly entered the field. Jonathan remembered his dad's face as he motioned for silence, and then pointed at the animal. Jonathan’s hands had been so shaky from excitement that he was lucky he even hit the buck,
not to mention piercing the skull. His face a picture of happiness, Jonathan had looked up to his father, who beamed right back. They had had it for dinner that night, and Jonathan had practically glowed due to the pride of his accomplishment. He could still recall the exact words his father had told his mother when he entered the house with the buck slung over his shoulders.
"Elizabeth, I believe we have one of the finest hunters I have ever seen for a son."
, Barst thought darkly,
and one of the best murderers.