Trumpets blasted a shrill anthem on the other side of the heavy door, reinforced with tarnished iron strips down the sides and middle. Ralk stood alone in the holding pen as he waited, clinging to his dull steel sword, lightly powdered in flecks of rust.
He thought about grabbing a shield from the rack, but it would slow him too much. However, the small steel buckler he held by the handle with his fist was enough to parry, though admittedly he wasn’t as skilled with one. If he felt too uncomfortable, he’d drop it and rely on dodging alone.
No human leather armor fit him, and it was all the fighters were allowed to wear. Going into battle wearing nothing but a loincloth was familiar, so it didn’t bother him.
He smiled as he thought of Adorin and Vicco. The ne’ak was small and unconventional, but it was his. He belonged to them now, and they belonged to him. Thinking about that sent a rush of vigor through every muscle. It didn’t matter what he would face, it would fall. There was no other option.
The trumpets died as a muffled voice called from behind the door. He held his ear against it and listened.
“Fine ladies and handsome gents of Nau.” That was Lord Yanth’s voice. “Tonight’s battle, as you all expected, is rather different. A question burns in my mind: what separates man from beast?” He paused for a moment as the audience murmured.
“A beast is raw power—its body a living weapon, but it fights on instinct alone, pathetic and stupid. What man lacks in power, he more than makes up for in cunning. It is why we rule the world and beasts bend to our will.”
Ralk grit his teeth, squeezing the hilt of his weapon.
“But, what if the gods combined the savagery and strength of a beast with the most basic of human intelligence? Could a man hope to survive one in combat? A G’yel…” The intensity of the roaring and stomping rattled the door enough that Ralk had to step away.
“Most have never seen a G’yel, but they have been a constant threat to Alacotl, Y’eshnov, and Lokaui. Our beast tonight hails from Alacotl. Like many of his kind, he’s slaughtered entire villages and has even eaten his share of children.”
Ralk’s ears fell to the sides of his head as his brows furrowed.
“Maybe he’ll try to eat this child.”
“No…” Ralk thought to himself.
There was a collective gasp and anxious chattering as he held his ear to the door again. Thousands of people fell silent in an instant as a high-pitched cry came from the pit.
“A poor peasant boy, son of a dead whore, doomed to a life of poverty and stigma. How terrible. And now, a G’yel threatens to eat him. But our champions will save him.” Sounds of chains being pulled by wenches broke the silence. The audience erupted in fits of cheering.
After several minutes, the cheers died. “So much rests on their victory tonight,” Yanth continued. “They will win riches, the child will be spared a terrible fate, and the monster will be vanquished.”
The door Ralk leaned against began to rise, staggering him for a moment before he fell into a natural defensive stance. As the lit arena came into focus, he moved forward. He tried to keep a steadfast appearance, but as he entered, everything collapsed inside of him.
A young blonde-haired boy, barely older than a toddler, stood in a metal cage wearing tattered, dirt-stained clothing. His pale, malnourished face was red, stained with tears as he screamed, likely not understanding what was happening. All he saw was a monster coming from the door to eat him.
“I cannot… this is too much.”
Ralk continued inching forward as the audience was a mixture of gasps, shrieks, and jeering. He swallowed the bile creeping into his throat as he looked forward to see two of the men from earlier, and the other one looked familiar as well as he remembered the duel from inside the undercroft.
He was Vicco’s build wearing thick studded armor, a leather helm covering his head. The man brandished a two-handed sword, which glimmered in the torchlight as he held the broad side against his brawny shoulder.
The two other men wore similar leather armor. Tyr, the stocky shorter man, wielded a two-handed axe, and Kyell, the taller man, held a longsword and buckler.
None of the men showed any fear as Ralk’s confidence faded. It was as though everything in the coliseum drained him. The screaming child, the jeering crowd, the three men with deadly weapons trained on him—it all culminated into something he’d never felt before a battle started: fear.
“Ralk!” That was Adorin’s voice, pulling the G’yel’s attention from everything else. He glanced over to see him and Vicco standing at the edge looking down at him. The larger man leaned against the top of the pit wall, his arms crossed, and a stern glare as he nodded. Adorin tried to show his support by cheering for Ralk, but there was too much worry written on his face that he tried to hide.
The G’yel smiled and looked back at his opponents. Every noise faded away as he took up a battle stance and cleared his mind of all distractions.
The horn blasted, and the men ran at him, weapons poised to strike.
It was time.
Ralk dashed forward, easily dodging the slower weapons while deflecting the one-handed sword with his own buckler. His left ear shifted toward the whoosh of the greatsword as it slashed, and he flipped forward between Tyr and Kyell, landing on his foot paws before turning to dash forward again.
His speed caught the men off-guard and appeared to be confidence quickly devolved into panic. Tyr split formation, leaving the safety of the trio. The other two cursed. At that moment, Ralk knew they were going to lose.
One must stay composed and calm in battle, but these men were not seasoned soldiers. They were fighters for entertainment, unaccustomed to battles with G’yel or warriors with years of training. Yanth knew this. They were unprepared, sent to the slaughter.
Ralk dashed forward again, the blade of his sword slashing the stocky man’s gut, slicing through his armor. He stubbornly held back, not letting the weapon go deeper.
“No,” Ralk thought. “I have to kill him.”
Tyr’s hopeful face and words flashed through his mind, making Ralk double back, not seeing the sword coming at him from behind.
One must stay composed…
A sharp pain skewered him for a split second before survival instinct kicked in. He wasn’t sure how far the sword had gone into him, but he could pull away before leaning back to evade the broad but careful sideways swing of the greatsword.
Warmth ran from the right side of his lower back, but there was no pain as adrenaline surged. He spun toward Kyell, his sword nearly invisible as it whipped through the air, slashing the man’s neck from side-to-side. It was so fast and clean that Ralk thought he missed, but there was just enough pull on the blade. He had no time for remorse as a battle axe swung up from the ground, nearly slicing off his left arm.
The human he struck held his neck as blood gushed from between his fingers. He fell to his knees. Ralk glimpsed his eyes as they glossed over, still in shock that it was over. He had never once felt remorse for killing a human, but something in him shattered as the tall man collapsed forward onto the ground, his blood turning the pit’s sand to a cakey mud as it drained from him.
The men were distracted for a moment, and Ralk charged, his sword trained on Tyr. The larger man caught him in time, deflecting the weapon with his own before slamming the oversized sword’s hilt into Ralk’s face. He staggered backward. This was a tactic Vicco used in their first duel.
The men let out shaky battle cries as they charged. The axe came at him first, swinging much faster than before. He dodged—just barely, but his ears turned toward the sound of steel cutting through air.
He caught a glimmer out of the corner of his eye, and he raised his left fist, which still clutched the handle of a small shiny buckler. The sword smashed into it with all the force the wielder could muster. It was a crushing pain as the metal bent inward, breaking Ralk’s hand. He let the small shield fall to the ground as he regained his composure.
The G’yel leapt backward, his limb hanging at his side as he tried to keep the broken hand still. Every move sent shock waves through him, but the adrenaline shut every pain receptor down.
With incredible speed, he dashed toward the pit walls and leaped, his paws finding brief purchase with his momentum. He took a few deft steps along the vertical incline before pushing off and landing on top of the cage that contained the human child. He had only a second to act, or he’d lose his chance as the men recovered and charged forward.
Adorin’s face flashed in Ralk’s mind as he leapt toward the man with the greatsword, feigning a direct attack. G’yel were agile, able to reposition their bodies mid-air to land in places they intended, despite where they were falling.
While airborne, he saw the sword’s blade swing upward as predicted. Shifting his weight, he spun to the side, barely missing the edge. In less than a second, his sword found its mark, sheathing itself into Tyr’s left eye socket as Ralk landed on top of him. The man convulsed as the blade exited the base of his skull with a sickening pop. Ralk released the hilt and dodged backward as the greatsword swung at him again.
With a broken left hand and no weapon in his right, he now had to rely on something G’yel rarely used in battle. Despite being disarmed, the fight wasn’t fair as he watched the last man dash toward him, screaming in rage and anguish. Without the distraction of the other men, his weapon was too slow to land. Even with his injuries, dodging an attack like that was effortless.
Ralk lamented as he thought of the men. They were all they had, relying on one another to survive just one more fight—a ne’ak. A tear trailed down his face as the man turned and charged again in a final desperate attack. The sword grazed his shoulder as he shifted at the last moment before reaching his right hand up toward the man’s neck.
Using the man’s forward momentum against him, he kept his claws still as they sliced into soft flesh, cutting deep into the jugular. The man slowed to a stop as he brushed past the G’yel before dropping his weapon to the ground. As he collapsed, Ralk dashed forward, catching the man before gently lowering him.
He watched the fear fade from the human as his life gushed from the open wound on his neck.
“I am sorry,” Ralk whispered, his tears falling to the man’s face. “You will be free now. You fought well.”
The human choked once, his eyes no longer staring at anything as they froze. Time stopped. There was a shift in weight as the body went limp, the smell of release catching Ralk’s nose. He lay the man on the ground before standing to glare at the cheering crowd.
They were cheering… for this. There was a time he would have smiled after killing, but everything changed now.
Pain hit him as the rush of battle faded. First from his back, then his broken hand, before finally throbbing from the cut on his arm.
Every emotion swirled in him like the billowing steam from the wastelands. He turned to look at Adorin. The man’s eyes were wide and wet as he rubbed them. It must have been horrible to watch, especially for someone so soft-hearted. When this was over, all he wanted to do was embrace him, to hold him close for as long as he could.
He noticed Vicco was no longer there. Ralk remembered when the man led him through the halls of the coliseum his first day. He mentioned how much he hated spectating. Perhaps as tough as the man was, watching this may have been too much for him.
“The G’yel has defeated our brave heroes,” Yanth shouted from above, standing on a balcony overlooking the pit. He held a hand up and the audience went quiet. Two mail-armored guards standing on top of the pit wall pulled a rope that was attached to the boy’s cage. It opened, and the child shrieked before huddling in the corner. “They couldn’t save the poor child, but a G’yel has to eat.”
“How utterly disgusting.” Ralk limped to the cage before stepping inside. He watched as people in the audience leaned forward in horror and sickening anticipation. Limping slowly, his eyes never left the child as he continued his fits of terror, shielding his eyes and face from the beast in front of him.
The audience would not get what they wanted. They would not get a beast devouring a young child. He took pleasure in knowing how disappointed Yanth would be.
Ralk leaned forward and put his right hand on the child’s head. He wrapped that arm around the boy, lifting him against his broad chest. The arm above his injured hand supported the child’s legs as he tried not to move the injury too much. It hurt, but he wanted to do this.
The boy stopped crying as Ralk looked at him while walking back out into the pit. The only sounds were those of night insects as not a soul spoke or moved. Every eye in that place watched what he would do.
“It is okay,” he whispered, making sure not to move his mouth too much. “Do not fear me.”
The boy relaxed in his arms as Ralk leaned in and licked him on the cheek. His face tasted salty, slightly dirty from neglect. What a terrible place to be born. He couldn’t help but see himself at that age in that human child.
The G’yel leaned against the wall and slid downward with the boy still in his arms. He rocked side-to-side and looked up at Adorin before giving him a grin and a nod.
The man smiled and nodded back before the unexpected happened. The arena thundered with cheers and applause louder than he had heard yet. Ralk glanced at Yanth, who stood dumbfounded as he looked around. Humans jumped from their seats and began throwing things into the pit. Were those flowers?
A bright peach-colored tangie blossom fell from the stands onto the G’yel’s head. He grabbed it before handing it to the child. The people… loved it. This wasn’t supposed to be the result. He wanted to take revenge on the audience by showing what they hated: kindness. If every human there demanded death and suffering, then why were they cheering?
Yanth held his hand up, and the roars gradually died.
“The—the G’yel has spared the boy’s life,” he said, stammering a bit breathless through his words. “What… unexpected benevolence from the creature.” He frowned and sat down on his red and gold cushioned chair. The audience cheered again.
It seemed the only one disappointed was the one he hated the most. Ralk’s vision blurred as the pain from his back got worse. He glanced down to see blood trickle along the sand before being absorbed. The injury may have been much worse than he thought.
He caught sight of someone jumping down into the pit before his vision faded. He slumped forward over the child in his arms. Childhood was supposed to be a time for learning and growing, but he knew the orphaned child’s fate. Not everyone could be as lucky as he was…
Pangs of hunger tore at the G’yel pup’s stomach as he limped through the gnarled, leafless trees. Parasites infested his mangy skin, which he scratched at often, tearing open old wounds while making fresh ones. His right foot sent throbs of agony up his leg with every step on the icy ground. His paw pads were bleeding from when he lost his footing and slid down a gravelly slope while trying to hunt.
How far had that injured foot taken him from Krol? No ne’ak would let him in, and the females showed even less sympathy toward the pathetic young male. Ralk understood what would happen, even at such a young age. He could try to hold on for a while longer, but for what purpose? Without a family, there was very little chance he’d survive the coming long night.
“A few more steps… just a few more.”
If he could make it to the edge of the island, he wouldn’t die in the open—his bones exposed for all to see. That would have been the most disgraceful death.
The brown grass and dead leaves crunched under him as another blast of demonic wind slashed across every open, pus-crusted sore. He was so cold that his body was almost numb to it all.
Ralk limped by another tree, its trunk fat and knotted. A once bright purple canopy now lay strewn about in dazzling pinks and teals, soon to be covered in ice. There was a slight incline as he neared the edge, making it invisible from where he stood, but the faint reddish-orange glow from the wastelands far below meant he was close.
He passed the last tree, and the grass disappeared as he dragged his heavy body across the scarred black ground, one shaky foot after another.
“A few more steps…”
His breath quickened as his legs shook before buckling. The ground came at him fast, his chin striking the cold, stony surface. He tried. He was so close. A trembling breath left his partially open mouth as a long tongue hung from the side. Perhaps the next life would be kinder to him.
A warm tone beckoned him from the darkness. It was human, the voice soft and higher in pitch. It was strange to hear. G’yel voices were all the same, regardless of gender, though younger ones like himself had squeakier voices.
He squinted his eyes enough to make out a blurry façade. It was an elder human female. He had seen them before. This one had silver wisps of hair that fluttered wildly in the strong wind before draping down the sides of her chest. She wore a thick, layered cloth robe, light brown and frayed along the cuffs.
“Let me die,” he groaned, even though he knew she wouldn’t understand his rough, guttural language.
“Nonsense,” she replied, taking the young G’yel by surprise. He opened his eyes wider, and she sharpened into focus. He knew her—not personally, but he had heard stories of the witch of the woods. She was a friend to G’yel and nature alike, and had even won favor with the elder females.
“Ly-di-aaa.” Ralk struggled to get her name out as it became harder to speak.
She placed a knobby finger over her lips. “Shh. Don’t speak child.” The witch held a large rattan basket full of items he couldn’t see.
Ralk obeyed before closing his eyes again. What was she going to do? Would she heal him? He was too weak to protest.
“It is good I saw you. A few more hours and you would have been beyond saving, but I can work with this.”
He felt a wetness cover a wound on his chest before traveling downward toward another. The pain faded as she gently massaged the medicine into the sores. His eyes snapped open as he watched her skillful hands.
She was gentle as she went lower before wiping his paws with a rag stained yellow with whatever healing liquid was on it. She scooped out a green, sappy mixture from a clay bowl onto her finger before applying it to the torn paw pads.
Ralk was still a pup, and they hadn’t yet callused. That happened after a few more years. Pups didn’t walk that long on their feet. Food was easy to come by in larger groups, and game was easier to hunt. There was never a need to walk very far at his age with a good ne’ak.
The young G’yel watched with curiosity as she bound the foot in a long, narrow cloth before tying it off at the end. After Lydia finished, she rubbed her hands with a liquid that stung his nostrils, and he snorted uncontrollably.
“I am sorry. It is important to disinfect you and my hands so that you can heal.” She smiled before wiping her hands on her robe. “I have something for you.”
The vapors evaporated to nothing, and as she reached into her basket, a familiar sweet scent replaced the odor.
“Kolkaab…” Ralk grunted, salivating. He hadn’t eaten in over two weeks, and while it wasn’t meat, it was still energy. Lydia unwrapped the loaf of sweet bread and handed it to the starving G’yel.
His maw opened wide as he took a bite that was too big for him. He didn’t care as he barely chewed before swallowing. There was no time to savor the taste. Ralk’s body craved anything.
He paused as a strange surge pulsed through him. His body felt… lighter.
“What is this?” he asked in a squeaky voice that had a natural growl to it.
“Kolkaab,” Lydia replied. Ralk’s eyes widened as her hands emanated a deep green light. Some of the glow seeped out toward him in a thin, swirling ribbon before she closed her palms. “With a little something special.”
“The stories are true.” Ralk smiled in amazement as he looked into her tired eyes. She stood from the ground before grabbing onto his small, furry hand which bore tiny white claws.
“Come,” she said in a delicate, almost melodic tone. “It is a beautiful evening, but Tule is upon us. You will stay by my hearth tonight. I will have words with your elders come morning.”
“They will kill me. Please do not tell them,” the G’yel pup pleaded. “Please…”
“Ralk?” came a familiar voice from above him. The edge of the island faded as his eyes cracked open.
“Is he going to be okay?” That was Vicco. It was hard to move as weak as he was, but he could make out the ceiling of his pen before his eyes fell on Adorin’s smiling face.
“He will be fine,” the man said, leaning in to kiss him. He couldn’t find the strength to kiss back, but he could move the muscles in his maw enough to form a slight smile. “He lost a lot of blood.”
“That—” the G’yel whispered, trying to move his mouth. The words he spoke came out faint and slurred. “That was terrible. I do not…” He took a shallow breath as a tear trailed a short way before being absorbed by his fur. “Want to do that again.” He breathed out as his eyes closed. “What is wrong with me?”
“You are weak from blood loss. It is normal for these kinds of injuries,” Adorin said.
“That is…” He took in another labored breath. “Not what I mean. I am turning… too soft.”
The doors to the menagerie slammed open, and multiple sets of boots sounded as a cane frantically tapped along the ground.
“How is the G’yel?” Yanth shouted as he made his way toward the pen.
“Fine,” Adorin said sharply, a bit of disgust in his voice. Vicco quickly chimed in over him.
“He’s recovering quite well my lord.” The man bowed courteously before glaring at Adorin.
“Good.” The older man gazed down at Ralk for a moment and shook his head. “What have you done to the beast, boy?”
“What?” Adorin asked, surprised by the question and the sudden sternness in the man’s tone.
“He’s supposed to be a vicious creature,” Yanth muttered, his stare narrowing on the younger man. “The crowd tires quickly of heroes. But having a monster to hate would keep everything fresh. What did you do to it?”
“I did nothing,” Adorin snapped before catching himself. He bowed his head and continued in a softer tone. “The audience loved him. I do not understand the problem.”
“Do you not understand Rashian?” the lord asked, his hand clutching the cane so tight his knuckles paled. “They loved it tonight because it was unexpected. Next week? Next month? They will tire of this. Imagine the outrage, the disgust—the horror of watching a G’yel devour a child. The entire city would want to see it dead. Each week greater numbers will come, hoping someone can vanquish him.”
Ralk’s stomach turned as he listened to the man.
“Do you remember what I told you? You were so concerned with the beast’s future. Well, it may not have much of one if it doesn’t perform the way it should.” He paused, leaning his head forward as his brows raised. “Understand that?”
“Yes, Lord Yanth,” Adorin said, barely able to speak.
The lord turned to Vicco. “I thought you were training the G’yel to be savage. Torture the beast if you have to. I want it mean enough to kill whoever I put in that cage. Understood?”
The captain’s eyes went wide as the color faded from his face. “Sir, I—”
“Yes captain?” Yanth interrupted, his glare intensifying.
Vicco took in a deep breath. “Nothing, sir.”
“Good.” He nodded, his usual cheerful demeanor returning. “Very good.” The lord turned, waving to his personal guard as he limped across the courtyard. Ralk watched as the man left his line of sight. The menagerie doors opened for a few seconds before coming to a firm rest against the frame with a loud slam.
“Damn. It. All.” Vicco’s words shook through his clenched teeth.
“I cannot…” Ralk whispered, shaking his head.
“You do not need to.” Adorin leaned in and hugged the G’yel. “Do not do that, no matter what.”
“If he doesn’t,” Vicco said, his tone rising with panic. “Then we’re dead as well.”
Ralk tensed as the man swallowed his fear. There was truth in his words. If he didn’t kill, he would lose his ne’ak.
Would a child’s life be a fair trade for theirs?
“This will destroy me.”