Luna sat on the roof of the carriage, chewing her fingernails. The lush forests surrounding Illysaeas impressed her at first, yet now, after a week of seeing nothing but trees, she would exchange them for any other scenery. The chirping of birds, the fresh scent of the woods and the fall breeze had all blended into boredom.
She had long repaired her brigandine, washed the dried blood off herself and rearranged her chocolate brown hair to appear civilized, so now she had nothing to do. Thus, her ever-regenerating fingernails became her last source of entertainment.
The forests ended abruptly. Beyond a hundred feet of open grass, the tall walls of Illysaeas stood against the azure sky. Covered by limestone plaster, they bore no signs of battle or erosion.
Being the first real city Luna had visited, the buzzing streets of Illysaeas, its high wooden houses and smoldering workshops dissipated her boredom. They headed straight to the center where the central square was the size of a small village. Hundreds of people weaved among the stalls, shops, and statues, swarming toward the tall, round building made of polished marble. She gawked in awe at the Grand Arena that stood at the square’s head.
Their convoy stopped by the side entrance, covered by a score of guards. Prince Stallington stepped out of the carriage and turned to her, looking pleased. “Welcome to Illysaeas. Since today’s match is soon to begin, I shall have my men escort you to your seat and instruct my attaché to see to your accommodations after the competition ends.”
Luna arched an eyebrow. “Is your champion fighting?”
“Of course.” Stallington walked away.
She followed the designated guard to her place, imagining the mansion in which the prince’s champion lives. The apparent wealth of the prince promised a home with a large garden and a pool, which brought a smile to Luna’s face. Sure, she had to prepare for the tournament, but it wasn’t like relaxing by the pool wouldn’t have been a part of the preparations.
From the inside, the arena appeared larger than from the outside. Endless tribunes brimming with wooden benches encircled the grass-covered ring that lay at the bottom. Luna sat upon her bench, a first-row seat less than two dozen feet from the prince’s throne.
The swarm of people flowing into the arena did not subside until the tribunes were filled to the brink.
Saliva burst into her mouth, making her lick her lips while her eyes darted around. So much food, so many smells… all so close. Luna reached into her pocket, pulled out a purple mold of a toxin and swallowed it. This should keep me calm for now, but I will need to restock before the next event.
As Prince Stallington sat upon his throne, the announcer waved his hand to silence the crowd. “Today’s match will be a spectacle to behold. Lured in by the infinite riches generously offered by none other than Prince Stallington himself, a team of representatives of the famous mercenary band named Golden Claws shall grace our arena with their debuting presence.
“And from our home comes the worthiest warrior of them all. Coming in with the standing record of three thousand, eight hundred and forty-three wins, zero draws and zero losses, please welcome our champion, the Child of God, Raven!”
The crowd erupted into chants, “Raven! Raven! Raven!” Noblemen, merchants, soldiers, the unwashed masses. Everyone chanted as if in prayer.
Luna stared at him, her mouth gaping. Three thousand eight hundred wins? How long has he been doing this? In retrospect, I should have asked more questions.
A hole at the side of the arena opened, and a man slid out onto the well-trimmed grass. His hair was midnight black while his heavy chain mail, a shield and an arming sword were painted alabaster white.
Luna sighed. While his tallness met her standards, he looked too ordinary to impress her, sending her expectations crashing to the pit of disappointment.
Raven stared at the heavens with his arms slacked by his sides. She followed his gaze. Blue sky, nothing exciting. He doesn’t get to see outside too often, does he? She turned her eyes back to him and focused, realizing the heavy irons around his neck, ankles, and wrists were shackles. He was a slave. One with a good record, but a slave none the less. The image of a large mansion with a pool disappeared, leaving behind nothing Luna liked. I should have asked a lot more questions!
The gate at the side of the arena sprung open, making a path for six men and a giant beast. A panther of a size of a cow and its escorts wore matching armor, typical of mercenaries. Raven ignored them, staring at the sky. Beneath the thunderous cheers, the men and the panther spread into a semi-circular formation and advanced on Raven. The crowd fell silent.
Luna started tapping fingers on the wooden bench. He’s either strong or a total moron. Or both.
Raven lowered his gaze toward the man in the middle of the formation. “Why did you come here?”
A man from the side replied. “Your head’s worth a hundred thousand gold.”
Hundred thousand? I’m getting paid five golden coins a day. I should have asked Stallington for a way higher wage! Luna glared around, seeking for something to break or at least a rotten apple to throw. She found nothing.
Raven shrugged. “Others have died for less.” He drew his blade, stepped to the middle of their formation and slashed at the beast. The panther leapt away from the blow. Raven sprinted into the opening. The mercenaries stabbed their spears at him, but the hastened strikes bounced off Raven’s armor.
The men turned and attempted to remake their formation. Raven advanced to the closest man, swinging down with his blade. As the man raised his spear to parry, Raven shifted his weight and rammed the edge of his shield into the man’s throat. The mercenary collapsed, his spine broken.
Out of the five remaining men, four dropped their spears to draw their swords. One charged at Raven while the others moved to surround him. Raven weaved from the slashing blade and stabbed the man above the knee. The mercenary groaned and wobbled. Raven stepped in to run his sword through the man’s throat.
The mercenaries surrounded Raven. The three men with swords each attacked from a different angle. Raven parried the blows of the man in front of him and to his right. The man to his left grabbed Raven’s shield. He stabbed the mercenary ahead of him through the visor of his helmet, but the man by his right gripped his arm.
The massive beast leapt at Raven’s back. In a move so fast it was but a blur, Raven spun on his foot and slammed his shield into the head of the jumping panther. A loud thud echoed through the air and the beast’s skull splattered like an apple hit by a hammer, unleashing an explosion of blood and brains. The men holding Raven flew to the sides as if they were rag dolls thrown by a storm.
The crowd roared out in a chant, filling the arena with Raven’s name. Luna shifted on her seat. He was killing the mercenaries so effortlessly he must have been using plenty of aether, but she noticed no hint of it. No matter how much she thought about it, she had to conclude he was either ridiculously lucky or excellent at hiding his powers.
The rest of the match was but a formality of Raven slaughtering the remaining mercenaries. The crowd added thundering applause to its chant, so deafening it made Luna’s ears ring. Prince Stallington rose from his throne. The people fell silent.
The prince walked to the edge of the arena and peered down at Raven. “That took forever. Don’t tell me you are getting rusty.”
Raven dropped his shield and dashed across the bloodied grass to grab the spear of a mercenary.
Stallington’s face twisted into a vicious smile. “At least you haven’t lost your brain.”
Raven threw the spear, fast and strong. With a booming echo, it split the air. A flash of blue light ended its flight, shattering it an inch away from the prince’s chest.
The crowd exploded into cheers, and Raven collapsed to the ground, unconscious.
Luna narrowed her eyes, reasoning his sudden fall must have resulted from a poison they had given him before the match.
The beast within her stirred. ‘There’s one thing I can’t wrap my mind around.’
Me too… skulls don’t splatter. They cave in until you reach the base of the neck. I thought he was using standard strengthening aether, like everyone else, but that was something different.
Luna remained in her seat, waiting for Stallington to leave. When he turned to do so, she prowled at his heels. The prince’s guards were negligent, allowing her to stalk him with ease.
He walked to a stone room deep within the bowels of the arena complex. Inside, Raven lay wrapped in chains. She crept behind the corner so she could listen to every word they spoke.
Stallington’s voice was cold and sharp. “We need to talk.”
Raven’s chains rung as he sat up against the wall. “Jonathan.”
“I am organizing a cross-arena tournament, and I expect you to win it. Questions?”
Raven laughed. “Why are you telling me about it?”
“The tournament is set to have five rounds, each in a different city, only one of them being our home. I want your word you will not sabotage me and go through the competition until the end.”
“What’s in it for me?”
“I will have you transferred from my arena to my armed forces.”
Raven scoffed. “Not interested.”
Stallington smiled. “Why not?”
“See no improvement in being dragged in chains between battlefields. Though I would enjoy a cell with windows.”
The prince clicked his tongue. “Who’s talking about chains? The shackles are more than sufficient to keep you in check. And don’t tell me you haven’t ever wondered what it would be like to stand in the rain?”
“Will you pour poison into me before every match?”
“Not if you promise me you will win the tournament.”
After a moment of a short silence, Raven said, “alright, Jonathan, I will give you your victory.”
Luna abandoned her hiding spot, walked back to the tribunes and prepared herself to accidentally meet the prince. She intercepted Prince Stallington a few steps before he left the arena complex. She greeted him with a bow, wondering how many of these fake bows had he seen during his career. “I would like to see my teammate, your highness.”
He pulled a ring of keys from within his robes. “Of course. Give them to my attaché once you sate your curiosity.”
Luna narrowed her eyes. “You are awfully carefree with this.”
Stallington laughed. “I am old, and I have been doing this for my entire life. I know neither you nor Raven will cause any trouble.”
“Raven hasn’t attempted an escape in over a decade, and you want something from me, something you cannot obtain by a betrayal.” He motioned toward a corridor. “Head this way and follow the trail of furniture. You will recognize his cell the moment your eyes rest upon it.”
Luna watched the prince leave before she headed into the hallway. As she advanced through the arena complex, the air turned progressively fouler, stale, filled with the stench of blood and piss, which did not bring happiness to Luna’s nose. Even less happiness brought her the realization that demanding a room next to Stallington’s champion was an elegant way to imprison herself.
The beast within her scoffed. ‘A few weeks ago, you were a fan of being caged.’
I have changed my mind.
‘And there goes the penitence. It’s not like moving between cities changes anything about what you did.’
That town is in a different region, so the bounty put on my head there doesn’t apply here. Yes, I still have to eat, but if I can devour people nobody would miss, I might make myself a life here.
‘You wish.’ The beast laughed. ‘Just admit it. You are a human-eating monster, so cities will never be a home for you.’
She closed her mind, pushing the beast away while doing her best to banish what he said from her thoughts.
Lit only by the occasional oil lamp, the dark hallways were grim. The dirt ground was a contrast to the carved stone floors above. Following the marks of dragged furniture, Luna descended deep below the arena, walking past a score of empty cells.
Minutes later, she found herself standing in front of a massive steel door while the track led to a cell by her right. She peeked in to confirm it was indeed her new home. Stallington’s men did what they could to make the place appear civilized, yet despite the pretty paintings, oaken bed, stylish wardrobes, barrels of water and an oaken table surrounded by chairs, it was still a windowless room deep within a dungeon.
Luna unlocked the steel gate leading to Raven’s cell and headed into the corridor beyond, opening three sets of bars, passing a wooden stool and a pair of racks holding books about military tactics standing by the final bars.
She pried the last lock open and entered. The room was stone and barren, save for its inhabitant. At its far end, Raven sat leaning against the wall. Thick chains connected his heavy shackles to steel rings embedded into the stone. He was naked aside from a loincloth, allowing her a perfect view of his sculpted body. She bit her lip.
While his hair was long and greasy, his face was akin to a work of art. To call him handsome would have been an insult.
Raven arched an eyebrow toward the gaping Luna. “Something wrong with my face?”
The beast used her lapse in focus and took over. Controlled by the spirit, Luna shook her head as her cheeks flared up. “Damn, you are ugly! And you stink! Ever heard of soap? S.O.A.P. Soap!”
He stared at her, lost for words, his face catching red.
Luna screamed in her mind, trying to regain control of her body. The beast did not let go and instead forced her to pierce Raven with a glare. “What are you staring at? Creep!” By the beast’s command, she spun around and slammed the bars shut behind her.
With a victorious smile, the beast made Luna return to her cell, closing everything she passed through on the way. As she returned to her room, Luna pushed against the beast. The spirit refused to let go, grappling with her for control. She slammed her head into the wall.
Thrash after thrash, the stone cracked. The pain built within her skull, allowing her to start regaining control. Blood poured down from her forehead and the wall, mixing with the rubble piling on the ground. As the ache subsided, replaced by numbness, she finally conquered her own body. Are you insane? What was that about?
The beast huffed. ‘I needed to set some boundaries.’
Like what? That you are the alpha wolf and he is to listen to you?
‘See? You are learning.’
Luna roared in frustration, wishing her spirit was a girl. As she washed the blood off her face, she heard approaching steps. A slender man carrying a vase filled with lavender entered her cell. He bowed when he saw her. “Please accept my apologies for disturbing you. I have brought the final touch to the room, which I pray you find to your liking.”
Within her mind, Luna thanked him for not commenting about how much of a mess she must have looked like. She took the vase from his hands and gave him the keys to Raven’s cell. He bowed and left.
She sniffed the flowers. The scent of lavender calmed down her soul. This fragrance is good.
Luna spent an hour examining the entire arena complex. She was surprised by how boring the place was. Most cells lay empty, and the only door that caught her eye had Healer’s Quarters etched upon them. Those, the armory and the kitchens were the only areas where she met any people. Why can’t I shake the feeling that the entire purpose of this place is to house Raven?
‘Whatever. The healer’s quarters sounds like a place full of delicious food though.’
Shut up, Wolfie!
The beast sneered. ‘Why do you keep calling me by the childish moniker instead of my real name?’
Because I want to. Luna forced the raging beast out of her mind and left the arena complex. The city still buzzed with life as the chatter of the last match echoed from every corner.
She pulled her pouch from beneath her tunic to check its contents, marking in her mind the need to hunt for food, to find an alchemist’s store and to steal toxins to keep herself calm in larger crowds. She advanced into the town, paying attention to the buildings. The decorated houses embellished with ornaments turned into smaller, undecorated ones. Luna flowed through the crowded streets, and an hour later, she found a district so desolate she was sure this was the right place to search for food.
The long-broken and decaying shacks of the slums stood full of people. She roamed them, sniffing. Through the ever-present scents of sweat and misery, she caught the scent of Cattria, the most popular relaxation toxin. The trail of its smell led her to a small house with sealed windows.
Since the lock was a mere shadow of what it should have been, she entered, sliding inside akin to a ghost. Within the circular ruin of a building lay four humans, all crumbled on the ground. Two were twitching with their eyes ticking while the other pair was entangled in each other’s arms, motionless. She closed the door, trying to rationalize to herself that this was the best way to handle the hunger. Out of all the people in the city, these seemed like they would not be missed. Her mouth stretched from ear to ear, filling with vicious fangs. By a swift glance, she confirmed they possessed enough toxins for her need to calm herself down in large crowds.
The stinging feeling of guilt burst through her insides. She wished she knew a better way, one where she didn’t have to do this. Luna wondered if she could have been someone else, anyone other than herself. She couldn’t. As a tear slid down her cheek, she reopened her eyes and allowed the beast to take over the control of her body.
Luna washed the blood off her face, staring at the barren room. I’m sorry. She ducked, turned the tip of her index finger into a claw, and scratched a symbol of the sun onto the ground. May you find peace.
She stepped out of the now-empty house with her pockets full of toxins while wearing a frown. Why am I like this? No answer presented itself. As she walked through the city, her eye caught an irregularity on the wall. Luna spun to take a closer look. While it was barely visible at first, the limestone plaster was different. She couldn’t put the finger on what disturbed her, but she knew something was wrong. She approached, studying it more carefully, realizing the there was a twenty-feet wide section that appeared worse than the rest.
As if the architect who designed this part of the fortifications was an incompetent fool next to the one who did all else. She narrowed her eyes. By the base lay a dust-covered plaque, which read In the memory of the men and women who fell to the Forsaken Prince.
She remembered her father telling her the story of the Forsaken Prince, who conquered Illysaeas by digging a hole beneath the wall, stuffing it with barrels of black powder and exploding a part of the fortification. As she gazed at the plaque, it suddenly looked a lot less like a fairy tale.
She rose and headed back to the main square, thinking the black powder could be useful in the arena. Plus, she still needed something to make the dungeons smell tolerable.
She soon stood before a shop with Alchemy Mart etched upon its sign. The store was clean, guarded by two armed men standing by the entrance and filled with jars, vials and hundreds of fragrances. Luna tried to sniff her path to the lavender essence she craved, but the blend of scents turned her efforts futile.
An older man approached her. “Can I help you, milady?”
A short discussion got her to order what she wanted.
“One moment, please.” With surprising agility, the old man rushed through his shop to collect what she asked for from the supply room. Luna abused the free minute to roam through the store, unable to shake the feeling of unease. In tales of the past, alchemists were crazy men who made poisons and explosives. Yet now, she stood in a boutique full of perfumes, fragrances for anything and everything, lotions for one’s hair and skin, and colors to paint whatever she would want to any color. She found nothing dangerous, nothing that could be used for combat, nothing exciting. I guess reality differs from James’ stories.
The alchemist returned to her with a neatly packed box containing four jars of lavender essence.
Luna threw him a smile. “I have heard legends of how alchemists create the black powder, which can make entire castles explode. I would like some of that.”
The old man chuckled. “That is long forbidden, young lady. Alchemists of ages past almost destroyed us all with the black powder. Ever since The Upheaval, all the mines for its ingredients have been closed, and any attempts to re-create its formulae are punishable by death.”
“Punishable by whom?”
“The city lords and the holy orders.” The man smiled. “The one thing that is common through all the laws of different regions is that black powder is illegal.”
She guessed the books her father used to teach her how to read were older than she had thought. They apparently looked ancient for a reason. “The Upheaval happened over a hundred and fifty years ago, so that sounds a little harsh.”
“Well, the legend has it that the demons entered this world only thanks to a fool who threw a barrel of black powder into a portal. From then onward, both portals and the powder have been forbidden.”
And no kingdom has been formed since the fall of the Old Kingdom. Luna took the box, handed over the coin and found a blacksmith. He wore a puzzled face when she asked him for thin steel rods, but he sold them to her in the end. With her shopping done, she approached the city fountain and tossed in all silver coins she had left as change. After making sure her pouch contained only gold and copper, she returned to the arena.
She traveled down through the complex, covering her nose with a torn piece of cloth. Once she arrived at her room, she splashed the lavender essence all over the stone walls, washed in a barrel and slid into the bed.
Yet sleep did not come. What’s wrong with me? So, it’s my first night in a big city, and I’m fifty feet under the ground, with only one person nearby. There’s no reason for me to be unable to rest.
The beast laughed into her mind. ‘Admit it.’
‘You realized James might not know where you are for the first time in your life. It is natural for you to be scared.’
‘Why don’t you move to his room? That would solve it.’
Luna’s cheeks flushed. There’s no way I can do that. It would be too awkward, embarrassing and—
‘Whatever.’ The beast used the moment of weakness and forced itself into Luna’s body, taking over. He made her burst from the bed, dress, and waltz to the door of Raven’s cell. They were locked. With a smirk on her face, she bent the thin steel rods she bought from the blacksmith, turning them into lock picks. With ease, Luna opened every door leading to his room.
Raven was standing in his chains, soap smeared over most of his body, and was trying to wash it off using a small barrel of water, one too tiny to offer any chance to succeed.
The beast burst into laughter through her. Raven stared at her, mouth gaping.
The beast spun around, leaving the room while slamming the door shut. When she returned to her room, Luna used the moment to regain control of herself. Her mood sank. She felt like she was the worst being to have ever walked this world. He was trying to be nice, and she couldn’t even stop the beast from mocking him through her. Wait, how did he get soap?
Curiosity took her over and made her re-check her supplies. While nothing seemed out of order at first, a closer look revealed dozens of marks of an animal’s feet and tracks of missing bars of soap. Did a rat steal my soap to bring it to him? How did it succeed?
She tracked the tiny prints the rat’s paws left behind, finding a small crack in the wall. Aww! That’s so sweet! I might not even kill it.
‘I wasn’t finished.’ The beast pushed her out of her body, gaining control. Luna sighed into her mind, unable to do anything. Through her, the beast tore off a piece of cloth from the table and wrapped her nose before grabbing two jars of the lavender essence and walking back to Raven’s place. He was sitting down by the end of the room, still embarrassed and confused.
The beast made Luna throw him a glare. “Keep your mouth shut and don’t move!” She poured the contents of the jars over the entire cell, especially around the hole that served as a toilet.
Still controlled by the beast, she walked back to her room, leaving the door open. She pushed her bed into his cell, followed by the table, wardrobes, chairs, water barrels, paintings, and flowers. Once done, the beast ripped one closet apart and used its pieces to build a provisory barrier in the middle of the room.
When done, she threw Raven a curious stare. He had not moved an inch and did not say a single word. Yet his eyes were fixed upon her, his gaze inquisitive.
I’m so sorry. Luna wanted to fall through the ground, but all she could do was to watch the beast having fun through her body. She drew her short sword and traced a set of lines onto the floor. “Everything beyond this line is my part of the room. Neither you nor the little thief will cross it. Nod if you understand!”
He nodded. A rat slipped out of his hair onto his shoulder and squeaked in agreement.
The beast made Luna sigh. “Now I’m going to change and sleep. You won’t move, won’t talk, won’t peek. If you need to shit or piss, you will hold it until I wake up! Understand?”
Luna changed and slipped into her bed. “My name is Luna, and I’m your new teammate!”
“Raven. The rat’s Nibbles.”
Luna shook her head. “We start training tomorrow, good night.”
‘There. Problem solved.’ The beast left her body. Luna’s face turned to the color of an old tomato as she dug into the duvets. Too embarrassed to speak or move, she soon fell asleep.
Link to Chapter 3.
You can buy the book here.