The metal doors banged open and Leta was dragged through them by her arms, her hands bound together in front of her. Piercing light filled her eyes, and she immediately squinted, wincing as her vision was filled with the white overhead lights. And then noise filled her ears.
It was a stark contrast to the silent cells she’d left behind. Now, the arena before her was positively explosive with applause and singing. Laid at her feet, the oval combat ring took up nearly the entire dirty basement. Outside its rusted metal barriers was a sea of rowdy people, ready to throw credits down on their chosen winner.
Traze’s voice reached her ears. He was turning around in the middle of the ring, his arms spread wide in introduction, grinning broadly. His voice boomed over the arena like a circus ringleader, and it took Leta a moment to realize who he was talking about: her.
“ … first up, to get us started! … Ready to fight for her life, the woman responsible for the death of my dear, dear friend … “
The crowd roared, a tidal wave of excitement. Leta felt the opposite: an utter sinking in her chest, a draining of hope. The smell of dirt filled her nostrils, but otherwise it was difficult to breathe as she was pushed toward the entrance of the ring. Fiearius was somewhere behind her, but he was an audience member to this fight, lost and useless to her now.
A strange icy numbness crept up her limbs. Someone was unwinding the ropes from her wrists, but she hardly noticed as she stood blankly on the brink of the ring. Blood pounded in her ears, and the waving crowd seemed to be in technicolor. Or maybe slow motion. Or maybe she was about to faint. But no, she couldn’t let that happen. She had to fight.
She was going to fucking fight.
In the cell, Fiearius had provided a (rather weak, she thought) lesson in tactics. After insisting she was going to knee her opponent in the crotch and be done with it, he’d told her to stay close but dodge his swings, to wear him down. And then, when he was tired, to run at him with all her force and mass and strength. The magic of physics, he’d called it cheerfully, which made Leta quite certain he’d never studied physics before. But if she was going to die in this ring, she was going to fight the whole way down. For the first time, then, she looked across the ring to the man she was supposed to kill.
The man had to be a head taller than Leta. He had a broad gnarled face, thick neck and long tattooed arms, which he rested casually over the edge of the railing as he grinned coldly at her.
He looked sturdier than a brick building.
Watching him made her vision tunnel. Numbly, she felt a prodding at her back and she took a step down into the ring as her opponent did the same thing, though much more eagerly. What was it Fiearius had said again?
Maybe it was physics, or maybe it was mere instinct, or maybe it was her stupid level of bravery, that had made Leta — after standing there, frozen — suddenly, like a whip, curve herself away in a flash when the man advanced at her across the ring and took his first grab for her clothing.
With surprisingly agility, her feet stepped over one another quickly as he reached for her hands, which Leta wrenched away sharply. His forearm came to pin her against the wall for a terrifying few seconds, but with a decisive slide downward, she was out of his grip and stepping away, much to his chagrin.
The man growled and spit in frustration — he wanted this over quickly. But she was quick, slippery, elusive. She pulled him around the ring, ducking out of his grip, as the crowd yelled in excitement then groaned in disappointment.
This wasn’t the show they wanted. They wanted —
Before she could move, before she could think, the man seized a fistful of Leta’s hair and threw her on her back into the dirt. The breath knocked out of her chest as her shoulders collided against the cold ground.
Releasing a short, mangled cry of pain, Leta felt the weight of the man’s hand crush onto her throat. Grimacing, she raised her eyes to stare at the attacker as her hands came reflexively to rip away his hand. Oxygen tightened painfully in her lungs, her head began to swim, her vision plunging with darkness, though she forced herself back into this fight.
Thinking as fast as her mind allowed, Leta flung her hand to the side, her wrist groping against the ground until her fingers slid discreetly to the side, trying to find something — anything — on the ground.
Suddenly running her fingers over a sharp, triangular ridge of stone, Leta’s grip strengthened as she glared up at the brute now with a newfound sense of malice.
Seizing the moment, Leta’s fingers clamped around the rock as she thrust her hand forward into the man’s abdomen, ripping through skin with all her might. Blood spewed forth as the man howled and fell backward. Leta quickly rolled to her side, reflexively leaping to her feet.
Which wasn’t supposed to happen, apparently.
The crowd roared and then groaned in utter disdain for what had just happened: Leta felt the jeers pressing on her, but she ignored them in favor of giving the man a wide berth, stepping away toward the edge of the ring to catch her breath.
Which turned out to be a mistake.
The moment she stepped backwards to the edge of the ring, half a dozen hands suddenly closed on her arms, neck, hair and shoulders, clawing her, pulling her against the wall of the ring: they were holding her down.
Despite the hold on her throat, she managed to yell out, “Hey — !” as her limbs flailed in protest. But, of course, Leta thought dimly: this was a crowd full of criminals and cheaters. They had all betted against her. Her screams were in vain as the man recovered, holding his bleeding side with one hand.
Raised in his other hand was a knife.
Knives? Knives? They were allowed to have knives? thought Leta wildly, her panic ramming her heart against her ribcage as she tried to slide away for the second time.
It was her last thought before the man suddenly arched his arm back and dug the dirty blade straight into her calf. He held it there and then dragged it down her skin, tearing through flesh and fabric.
It felt like fire burst down her leg. A hair-raising scream of pain ripped out of her throat.