Chapter 12: Tulta


O’lua chuffed as Adorin gently brushed her fur. She leaned to the side before plopping to the floor, exposing her belly. He turned toward Ralk, who watched in awe as the Alacian worked.

“Okay, she is docile,” Adorin said, giving the G’yel a nod.

“I have never seen one do this before.” There wasn’t a lot that scared Ralk, but yowlerbacks were the exception. His people both revered and feared them. Though the beasts were responsible for killing many G’yels that ventured too close, their society considered hunting the animals a transgression worthy of death. They believed the beasts harbored the souls of future G’yel who would be reincarnated as fierce warriors.

“Really? Every one that I have known demands I rub their undersides. They will not leave me alone until I do.”

Ralk chuckled nervously as he opened the pen door and tiptoed inside. Adorin could hear his breath heavy and shaky the closer he got to the giant beast.

“I will stay near her head. If she decides that she does not like you, I will calm her and give you time to get away.”

The G’yel nodded as he knelt next to O’lua.

“This is exciting,” he whispered, extending his clawed hand toward her exposed abdomen. “None of my people have ever touched one before. I have always wanted to.”

“She is very sweet, but also understandably suspicious. She does not seem to mind at the moment though.” Adorin gently stroked above her collarbone, causing her to stretch and chuff louder. He looked over at Ralk who was now rubbing her with two hands. The G’yel had the widest grin as his tail rose and wagged.

“I believe she enjoys the attention,” Ralk said, keeping his voice as soft as he could. After he said it, the beast stopped purring and looked over at the G’yel. Ralk froze and sniffed the air. “She does not smell angry, but I think I may have done something to displease her.”

O’lua leaned up before rolling the rest of her massive body to a stand. Ralk stumbled backward and Adorin stood, remaining close to her jaws.

“She does not appear displeased. I have known many of her kind in my life, and I know when they are angry or hungry. I made sure she ate plenty. It is more curiosity than anything.” The Alacian continued to stroke her, and she purred, inching toward Ralk.

“I—I do not know what to do,” he said, still lying on his back, too afraid to move.

“We will have to trust O’lua, but I have an idea that will help.” Adorin extended his hand and grabbed Ralk’s before pulling him upright. “Stay seated,” he whispered, before pushing the G’yels legs apart and sitting in between them. He leaned against Ralk’s chest. “If she sees us so close, she will associate you with me.”

Ralk nodded before slowly wrapping his arms around Adorin. The beast’s maw was mere fingers from Ralk’s face as she regarded him with a bit of indifference at first. She took in a few sniffs.

“She may smell my T’kirr. I cannot help it with you sitting like this.”

Adorin laughed as he reached for the yowlerback’s muzzle. “It is okay, O’lua. He is my family, just as you are.” She resumed her thunderous purrs, before lying next to them, her giant head now resting in Adorin’s lap.

“What a feeling,” Ralk whispered as he scratched behind her ears. “I will keep this memory. I wish we could return to Alacotl with her. She does not belong in this terrible place, and neither do we.”

Adorin tried to smile, though it was hard as the tears welled in his eyes. “I have… some hope,” he whispered. “I only wish we hadn’t ended up here.”

Ralk leaned in and kissed the top of Adorin’s head. “If things had turned out differently, we would both probably be dead. What if you were in your village that night? No one would have healed my wound and I would have died too. We would not be here together like this, making these memories.”

Adorin turned to look up at the G’yel. “Why were we spared? And why were we reunited after all these years just to rot away in this place? I have a little hope that something will happen, but I do not know if it will be a miracle or more cruel tricks played upon us by the gods.”

“You know I do not believe in those, but I do believe that Lydia’s soul lingers in the beyond as she guides us, just as she did when she was alive. It may be something she wishes to do before rejoining the cycle of rebirth.”

“I like that belief better,” Adorin said. “I want to believe in peace when we die, not divine punishment.”

Both Ralk and Adorin jolted when the doors to menagerie opened. At first he thought it was Vicco, but those were the boot steps of multiple soldiers and a cane.

With O’lua so close, they weren’t able to move from that position fast enough without panicking the beast. That would be a disaster. O’lua was asleep with her head in his lap, and Ralk tensed behind him.

Adorin turned to see Lord Yanth with three guards. The older man appeared dumbfounded by what he saw.

“Marvelous,” he shouted, clapping his hands together. “I am impressed. When I gave you the task of caretaker, I didn’t expect you to be so thorough. Two dangerous beasts so docile around you. How do you do that?”

That wasn’t the reaction he expected, especially while in such a… suggestive position against Ralk. The man had a bit of a child-like naivety despite being so powerful.

“I have always had a way with animals, my lord. If you treat them with respect, they give it back.” There was a sharpness to his words, but thankfully the nuance was lost.  

“Well, hopefully you haven’t made him too soft.” The man reached through the bars and gave the G’yel a rough rub on the head. His ears fell flat, and Adorin could feel him growl. “It would be disappointing to see him fall after only one round.”

“I assure you he is ready to fight.”

“Good,” Yanth said as he turned away. “Have him readied in ten minutes.”

“Sir, I thought the event was this evening.” Adorin shuffled, disturbing O’lua for a moment before she rested her head again.

The lord turned and nodded. “Yes, but all contenders must go through a regimen first to ready themselves for battle, and the G’yel is no exception.”

“Will I be able to go with him?” Adorin asked, concern rising in his tone.

Yanth smiled. “I appreciate your work ethic, but that will not be necessary. You can tend to the beast after the event.”

“Will I have medicine available if he is injured? I have not had access to the proper reagents since my… reassignment.” There was slight resentment in his tone.

“Of course. He’s my star, after all. I will see to it that you have what you need.”

Adorin nodded in relief. “Thank you, Lord Yanth.”

The man waved the guards off as he followed, limping from behind.


A pungent smell lingered in the air of the holding pens. Ralk examined the stone room as desperate men gawked at him. The guards led him to a vast area under the stadium, taking a different path often closed off during the days he trained in the pit.

Men sparred in different areas, and more seasoned fighters stretched and practiced their stances in open cells that divided the large crypt-like room. Hundreds of lit torches hung high on the sandstone walls and lanterns hung from archways above, their light dancing on glistening, sweat-covered bodies and steel swords.

At the center of the room was a large, rectangular pool of steaming water. Several naked men soaked in it while others dried themselves before donning the traditional garb of the gladiator.

Ralk, as usual, was separated from the rest of the fighters, waiting in the only locked cell while the humans roamed free. He didn’t mind it much. Many of the humans were similar to the slaves he worked alongside for years. Some were large and exceptionally stupid, while others were more cunning.

Survival often depended more on wits than brawn. The ones he concerned himself with were the actual warriors. They were big and cunning, many of them skilled with spears or longer, heavier weapons that could reach an enemy before they could get close.

Vicco was one such warrior, and he was lucky to have gotten to face the man while he used a greatsword. Sparring with one so skilled put him at an even greater advantage. As far as these men knew, Ralk was a dumb animal, unable to strategize. He could play into that assumption, attacking head-on at first as many of them would expect before doing something… unexpected.

He enjoyed sitting alone, watching the other fighters while smelling their fear. Ralk had devised many tactics for different scenarios. He looked forward to putting those into action, all the while thinking of his new family. The G’yel couldn’t help but smile as he thought about them.

“Look at it,” one of the men said quietly to another as they stared at the G’yel through the bars of his cell. He was a tall, lanky man in his early twenties with dark brown hair and lightly bronzed skin. He wore only a loincloth and his chest bore many different scars and puncture wounds. He may have been smaller, but the man had seen his share of fights and survived them all. “Ain’t never seen one of them up close before.”

“Aye,” the other fighter replied. He was much larger in girth, his muscles giving him a stockier appearance, but he was shorter than the other man. He had black hair, and a trimmed beard that covered the side of his face and chin. He was about the same age, and his skin was the color of sand, bearing similar scars and pocks from past battles. “Between us and Gavin, we should be able to take him down.”

“This is it. The last one. We’ll be free men after all these years.” He turned to the thicker man. “All we have to do is survive this fight, Tyr.”

“What are you thinkin’ of doin’ with yer money, Kyell?”

“Whores. So many whores. I wanna be drownin’ in tits for a while. I got years to make up for.” The man laughed and looked over at Tyr. “What about you?”

“I’m thinkin’ more long-term. Wanna find a nice woman and start a family.”

Hearing their conversation was a punch in the gut. Why did they have to speak of these things? Freedom, family, hope—all the things he and Adorin so desperately wanted as well.

“You always were the sentimental one,” Kyell laughed. “You kept me alive all these years. Yer gonna be a good father one day.”

Ralk lunged from the corner of the pen toward the men, startling them as they jumped away. He roared, snapping his jaws. The rest of the room went silent, turning to eye him.

“Gods,” Kyell shouted before breaking into nervous laughter. “He’s eager, isn’t he?” The two eyed the G’yel before turning toward the practice pit, talking just out of earshot. The undercroft hummed again with conversation, though a little quieter than before.

He couldn’t listen to that anymore. He couldn’t think of these men as people. They were prey—the same as the ones who killed his ne’ak. Humans were vile, and they had to die.

Ralk squeezed his fists tight, trying to forget what he heard moments ago, but the more he tried, the louder their voices were. He wanted to be a father, and they were both so close to freedom, yet they were going to die by his hand, regardless.

They had to die. It was the only way he could be with Adorin. He wanted to see the smiling faces of his ne’ak again. He wanted to feel that comradery, that completeness. Ralk couldn’t let any other feelings sabotage him.

“No, please,” a man begged, snapping Ralk out of his thoughts. He looked over to see a scrawny, blonde-haired boy being pushed forward by a guard in full mail. His wrists were bound together by rope, and terror crossed his face upon seeing Ralk.

The boy couldn’t have been older than sixteen. He had clear, white skin and pale green eyes, a bit of fuzz growing in patches along his otherwise smooth face. He was about Adorin’s build, but shorter.

The guard, whose face was obscured by a steel helm, unlocked the cell, pulling the door ajar.

“Have mercy,” he begged. The other men gathered, watching as the guard pushed the boy into the cell with Ralk.

“He’s gotta eat,” the guard grunted before slamming the cell door against the metal frame with a loud echoing clank. “You knew the punishment, boy.”

“What did he do to warrant such brutality?” Ralk thought as the guard laughed and turned away. The men stared wide-eyed at the pen, expecting to see the boy ripped apart and eaten. What ignorance. As if G’yel would ever eat something so unappetizing.

The boy turned to face Ralk before cowering in a corner of the cell. He sat with his knees to his chest and arms close as tears ran from his trembling face. He couldn’t help but see Adorin in the boy’s eyes. Why was life so cruel? G’yel or human, it didn’t matter. Both societies were terrible.

What would it be like to live in a place of sensible laws, freedom, and peace—a place where families were safe, and children could grow into adults without being sentenced to die or sent off to fight wars?

Ralk stood and slowly padded toward the young man, who screamed. The men dispersed, unable to watch what they thought would happen. The G’yel knelt next to the boy and leaned in close. He rested a hand on his shoulder, causing the teenager to flinch.

“You are safe,” Ralk whispered. The boy looked over at the G’yel, his eyes so wide that Ralk could see into him. “Shh, do not tell anyone that I can speak.”

He nodded, swallowing the fear in his throat. Ralk could still smell the stench of terror, but it weakened as the G’yel continued.

“What is your name, boy?”

“Shamele,” he said, still regarding the G’yel with suspicion.

“I am Ralk.” He sat on the ground with his back facing whoever may have been watching. “Why are you here?”

“I—” he whispered before looking down at the floor. “It is too shameful to say.”

“You know my secret, so tell me yours.”

“I was with a lord’s son,” he said. His voice was hoarse. “It was illegal to be with him that way. His father caught us, and I was the one sentenced to die since I am of low birth.”

Ralk let out a drawn-out hiss of air through his nose as he looked away. Hearing about this was one thing, but seeing someone so young sent to his death for such a pointless reason infuriated him.

“Be strong,” he whispered, untying the rope around Shamele’s wrists. Ralk patted him on the head before standing. Nausea hit him as he walked over to the bench to sit back down, watching as curious men gathered around again to look from a distance.

Though he wouldn’t kill the boy, he knew someone else would. There was no way to save him from that fate, but he wanted to comfort him. Ralk hoped his death would be clean and quick, this way he could leave this horrible life behind and be reborn into something better.

He believed those that died young and innocent would be blessed in the next life. Ralk had to stay composed. Too much had taken his mind from battle. This was not the time to feel. If anything, the boy strengthened his resolve. Such a wasted life. With the right guidance, children could grow into people who change the world. G’yel or human, it didn’t matter. Lydia taught him that.

The atmosphere was somber as the men whispered amongst themselves. They seemed shocked that the boy still lived.

“Did he… untie the lad?” one man said in amazement, loud enough for Ralk to hear. The men clustered together near the pen. He was afraid this would happen, but he shook it off, letting himself go blank.

He had to prepare for what was to come.


The captain stood, arms crossed, as he stared at himself in the mirror. The room was small and rather plain, despite more elaborate furniture and decorations adorning the other rooms of his home. The four walls had no pictures, only a dark brown stone façade.

There was a larger framed bed behind him against the far wall of the room. Its mattress was plush but firm and lined with silvery-blue satin sheets. On the other end was a heavy onyxinth wardrobe with his common clothing and uniforms neatly pressed and hung within.

And before him was the only thing he gave the most attention to—his mirror. It wasn’t out of vanity, though he knew he was handsome. It was out of spite because his good looks mattered little. He’d often stare at himself and think about the day’s events, though lately other thoughts had been pulling at him.

This was the first day in weeks where he wasn’t on duty, and he was thankful for that. He wanted to be there for Adorin during this time, and he’d also need to visit Ralk in the coliseum’s undercroft.

The G’yel was growing on him. He hadn’t noticed it before, but there was a bond that forced itself between them at some point. It had nothing to do with that moment of passion they shared, but it did happen the first day they dueled. When Ralk defeated him, he bowed and reached his hand to lift him off the ground. As frustrating as it was to lose, it was… exhilarating facing him in combat.

“This is what ne’ak does. Where one falls, another lifts him up, making him stronger than before.”

Ralk changed Vicco’s perception of the G’yel. He thought he hated him when he caught Adorin in his arms. Ralk forced his way into the Alacian’s heart before he could even get a foothold.

The G’yel could have easily taken that rivalry further, but instead, he reached for Vicco in his own violent and infuriating way. He allowed himself to be a target dummy for the man’s rage while keeping impressive control over his own. How could he not respect someone like that?

He pulled away from the mirror and turned toward the door before stepping into the small, dark corridor. After a short stroll on marble past the pastel watercolor paintings that hung in his tiny foyer, he was outside.

Despite the cooler weather yesterday, it was a typical Tule summer day. Hot and muggy, the air so moist one could almost drown by simply breathing. He swatted away buzzing insects drawn to his sweat as he followed the tawny brick road that led to a wide, sloping gap in the cliff face, making for an easy descent into town.

As he passed the merchants and street venders, one sign caught his attention. ‘A taste of Alacotl.’ It was a small brick building with a sloping onyxinth roof and an empty food cart outside. Usually there would be someone manning it, giving out samples or selling meals.

Tantalizingly spicy smoke poured from the rear vent of the building, so he knew it was open. He’d passed this place many times, but it never caught his attention. However, as he thought of Adorin’s handsome face, he left the path and stepped into the restaurant.

The inside was typical of most eating establishments in town. Polished oak tables sat along the perimeter, and a giant unlit stone hearth dominated the back wall. Orange lanterns hung from the ceiling, their square shape giving the inside a feel of the ancient city of Tocataui. He’d never been there, but he’d seen paintings.

“Captain,” a plump pale woman with light brown hair called out from behind an oak counter. She was a bit older, likely in her early forties. She wore a flour-stained blue apron over a simple black dress. “What brings you by?”

“I am interested in buying something special,” he said, tossing the woman one of his debonair half-smiles.

“Of course.” She returned the smile with her own. “What are you interested in? Something sweet, savory, spicy?”

He paused, thinking about what Adorin normally ate. He’d often seen the man nibbling leftover pastries throughout the day.

“How about sweet?” Vicco asked. The woman’s face brightened as she walked toward the entryway to the kitchen.

“Sorry, I’m a married woman,” she joked, her cheeks turning a light rose before walking into the back. “But I do have something that just came out of the oven.”


“No,” a tall, blond-haired guard muttered with a glare as he studied Adorin’s face. The Alacian had not seen this man on duty before, but he stood with an imposing posture in front of the door leading into the undercroft.

“Please, I am a healer. I need to check on one of my patients.”

“No one is injured here,” he said, eying the man through a squint. “And where are your supplies?”

“I uh—” Adorin stumbled through his words, not thinking that far ahead. “There is no need for medicine. It is just a checkup.”

“Don’t make me repeat myself,” the guard grunted, crossing his arms. Adorin wanted to beg, offer the man anything to let him in, but it probably wouldn’t work with this brute. He had to see Ralk. It could be the last time he ever did.

“Adorin,” A familiar voice called out from behind. The man rolled his eyes upward in relief as he turned to see Vicco walking toward him with a palm frond satchel. “I was looking for you in the menagerie. What are you doing down here?”

“Captain, this man claims he’s a healer and that he needs to see one of his patients,” the guard said with a rigid salute.

“At ease. He’s with me,” Vicco said, staring at Adorin while shaking his head. That was a look that said ‘you know better,’ but he didn’t care. The guard stepped off to the side, allowing both to pass. The man’s suspicious eyes never left the Alacian as he crossed the threshold. The door sealed shut behind them.

“Thank you.” Adorin grabbed Vicco by the arm. “I know what you are going to say, but I had to try.”

“I was going to bring you here,” the larger man said as he continued walking ahead of Adorin. “I wanted to see him too.”

“How much longer until he fights?” The sounds of real swords striking against one another caught the Alacian’s ear as he looked over to see two men sparring in one of the pits, surrounded by a cheering audience.

“How could they risk injury like this before a fight?” Adorin thought, as he turned away.

“About an hour,” Vicco said, pointing to a far cell. Ralk was sitting on a wooden bench alone, head down. What was he doing? He’d seen the G’yel concentrate before, but this looked different. Was all of the boasting and confidence theater to ease Adorin’s mind?

They both stepped up to the pen, but a familiar metallic scent caught Adorin’s nose. He looked at the ground in the corner next to the G’yel to see a puddle of crimson and a trail leading out through the doors.

“Ralk?” Adorin said, but the G’yel didn’t move. Had he not heard? Vicco unlocked the door and both of them stepped inside. The younger man placed a hand on Ralk’s shoulder, causing him to flinch as he looked up. “Ralk, are you okay?”

A wide smile crossed his lips and his eyes brightened. “Adorin,” he looked up at the captain. “Vicco. You both came.”

“Of course,” Adorin said, kneeling next to the G’yel. Ralk looked past the two at the men huddled around the far pit watching the duel.

“Are you able to take me to a place more private?” Ralk whispered, looking back at the two.

“I almost forgot.” Vicco picked through the keys on the large iron ring he held. “There are private cells toward the back.” He opened the door and waved the others through.

They kept to the far wall, not speaking as more swords clashed and echoed from the other side of the enormous room. There were ten wooden doors with small barred slits toward the top lining the back wall of the undercroft. Vicco slid the key into the lock of the center door and opened it, allowing Adorin and Ralk to file in.

There wasn’t much light in the room, but there was enough coming through the rectangular hole in the door that they could still see one another.

“I’ve got my eye on you.” Vicco stared at Ralk. “The last time we entered a room like this, you traumatized me,” he said with a laugh as he secured the key ring on a buttoned leather loop on the side of his pants.

The G’yel laughed in his usual loud, whooping howls, but held his mouth to quiet himself.

Adorin didn’t laugh. He hadn’t even heard what Vicco said as he thought about Ralk sitting on the bench looking devastated. And what was that blood?

“Are you okay?” Adorin asked once more as his arms wrapped around the G’yel, pulling him into a hug.

Ralk returned the embrace. “Of course I am,” he said proudly. “I am just… readying myself for the fight.” He pulled back and gave the man a reassuring smile. “It will be fun.” The last part came out in a bit of a choke that Adorin picked up on right away. He didn’t want to press the G’yel further.

“I brought you both something,” Vicco said, reaching into the satchel. He pulled out something that smelled familiar, wrapped tight in broad banana leaves. He handed it to Adorin and pulled out another for Ralk. “I know you normally eat meat, but since you’re both from Alacotl, I thought perhaps this would be familiar.”

Both of them unwrapped the leaves, revealing the golden flaky crust of honey bread. It was shaped differently than he was used to, but the warm, spicy smell sent him spiraling into nostalgia.

He didn’t realize he was tearing up until he felt something wet drip on the top of his hand. Those weren’t his tears, though. He looked up to see Ralk’s blue eyes shimmer as he looked at the captain.

“Well, I didn’t think it was that bad,” Vicco joked, trying to lighten the mood. He probably hadn’t expected the two to get so emotional, but this gift came with many memories attached to it. Memories of home, of childhood, of warmth… and Lydia. They were memories that both Adorin and Ralk shared, and Vicco unintentionally brought them back.

Both the G’yel and the Alacian each put one arm around the man while clinging to their precious gifts.

“Thank you,” Ralk whispered, his voice quivering as he bent over to lay his head on the man’s shoulder. “You have no idea…” He could no longer speak as he pulled away and sat cross-legged on the ground.

Adorin kissed the man on the cheek. “This is the most wonderful gift you could have given either of us.”

“It is just bread, guys,” Vicco said with a satisfied grin.

The Alacian gave the captain another hug before sitting on the floor next to Ralk. “It may as well be priceless jewelry.”

Vicco joined them on the floor, all three of them sitting in a triangle.

“Let us see if it tastes as we remember,” Ralk said as he pulled a large chunk from the loaf and took a bite. “Mmm,” he moaned out as he chewed, slower than he normally did. “This is very close.”

Adorin took a piece into his mouth. The bread was slightly stickier than what he was used to, and a lot sweeter. There was also something missing. The spices were perfectly measured, none overpowering the taste. But…

“Lady’s shade,” Ralk and Adorin said at the same time.

“Did she make it with you too?” the younger man asked, glancing at Ralk.

He nodded. “A few times. I would gather the flowers and she would make me bread. It was such a wonderful memory. I looked forward to bringing her those flowers, not just for the bread, but to have someone to spend time with.”

“Was this after you lost—” Adorin paused as Ralk nodded.

Vicco stared blankly at both of them, not understanding the conversation. Ralk glanced at the man, and grinned again.

“After my victory tonight, we should all talk more. You are ne’ak now, and we should know each other’s pasts.” He held the bread up in front of Vicco. “Take some, eat with us.”

Adorin also ripped off a hunk of bread and handed it to the man.

“I normally don’t care much for sweet things, but I’ll make an exception here.” He took Adorin’s piece and pulled a small chunk from Ralk’s loaf before shoving both in his mouth. His cheeks puffed out hilariously as he chewed. 

Ralk laughed again, causing Adorin to start up as well. Vicco struggled to chew the bread while trying not to choke.

“You did not need to stuff all of it in,” Adorin said, wiping his eye. “You should savor it… foolish man.”

Vicco mumbled something incoherent before swallowing a few times to get it all down.

“That was… really sweet.” The captain smacked his lips twice before grimacing.

“It is usually not made that sweet in Alacotl,” Adorin said. “It still has the spices, so I will give this gift a mid-grade score. But it passes gloriously in thought.”

The commotion outside the door died down as metal boots clanked against the stone floor.

“Twenty minutes,” a male voice called out to the men. “Choose your weapons wisely, and make yourself ready to meet the gods.” There was dead silence. “Where is the G’yel?”

Vicco stood and opened the door before stepping out into the room. “Relax, he is in here.” He pulled Adorin out and Ralk followed. “One final checkup from the healer.”

The man nodded and saluted before the men filed out of the room.

“I hate this,” Adorin whispered, looking over at Ralk who was gleefully picking through the one-handed weapons on the rack.

“Have faith in him,” Vicco said softly. “He’ll be okay.”

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