By Laura Marden
Three figures entered the command tent, bringing a gust of sandy wind with them; two guards escorting a prisoner whose arms were bound behind her back. General Kald’las looked up as his aide-de-camp dropped the thick power cable he had been winding around his forearm and hurried to secure the entrance against the dust storm that whipped the air up outside and blew little eddies of grit across the floor.
The tent was still in the process of being properly set up. Crates sat open in various stages of unpacking, and the overhead lights were dark, waiting for the storm to end so that the engineers could finish setting up the generators. Battery-powered lamps sat scattered around the chamber, casting eclipsing shadows on the surrounding surfaces.
As the guards approached the war table at the back of the room, they dropped their masks and raised their goggles to expose their faces. The prisoner looked up. The general saw that her unshielded face was raw from the wind, and her eyes watered to expel the fine sand that had found its way past her lashes. The pain only enhanced the hatred in her face.
He stepped away from the darkened holographic display table, which waited uselessly until power reached his tent or he decided to use the backup battery packs. He wasn’t tall, but his posture made him seem larger. His silver hair and beard were close-cut and he wore his brown Atreshan uniform buttoned to the collar despite the stifling tent air. Stopping a few paces away from the prisoner, he looked her up and down, fingering the hilt of the silver dagger hanging from his belt.
The loose-fitting clothes she wore belied her powerful frame. Like the rest of the Hursall people, her skin was a warm tawny color, a little darker than the desert sand, and she had dark, braided hair and green eyes. He smirked when he saw the bruised skin on her jaw and the blood on her cheek clotted with dirt.
“You’re lucky to be alive,” he said.
She didn’t respond. The general scoffed and waved impatiently at the aide-de-camp.
“Tell Colonel Ra’ata I need his translation skills.”
“Right away, sir.” The assistant disappeared deeper into the tent. Kald’las stepped back and dropped into a camp chair. The table beside him held a bowl of fruit and he plucked one, peeling back the dimpled purple skin to reveal the black flesh inside.
“Tell me again how it happened.”
The senior guard answered, “Sir, Company Sergeant Arinlan was overseeing the transport of workers onto the shuttles back to Pedarth when this woman attacked him. She took the carbine right out of his hands and killed him with it.”
“Excuse me, sir?”
He spoke around the fruit in his mouth: “Company Sergeant Arinlan. He didn’t do anything to provoke this attack from one of the natives under his supervision?”
The guard faltered, “No, sir. It was a routine transport.”
The general paused to swallow. “Then what did you see?”
The other guard spoke up, his voice reedy with nervousness. “One of the sergeants rushed to detain her, but he fell down shouting that there was something wrong with his eyes. By the time the rest of us got there, he was back up on his feet and real shook up. This Hursallian just dropped the carbine and surrendered.”
General Kald’las nodded; their version of the story matched the report. “Where is this other sergeant now? Why isn’t he here to give me the details?”
The first guard said, “He’s in the infirmary, sir. The medical detachment lieutenant is still trying to find out what happened to him.”
Just then, another officer entered the war room. Colonel Ra’ata was a squat man, middle aged with a scholarly demeanor. He kept his distance, standing with the war table between himself and the prisoner. General Kald’las stood, dropping his half-eaten food onto a side table and wiping the juice from his fingers with a cloth.
“Good, you’re here,” he addressed the colonel. “Tell this prisoner that I have a proposal that would serve both our interests.”
Colonel Ra’ata cast him a confused look, but he cleared his throat and relayed the general’s message. The prisoner’s expression softened as she heard her mother tongue, but when she answered, her voice remained unflinching.
“She asks what you know about the interests of a simple traveling healer.”
General Kald’las threw his head back and let out a laugh. Then he pointed at the guards. “Show me her right arm.”
The guard on her right grasped the prisoner’s arm and started to tug at her sleeve. The prisoner tried to break free, but the other guard threw his arm around her neck and locked it tight. They twisted her arm until the tattoo above her wrist was visible in the dim light.
“I suspected as much,” said the general. “Hardly a simple healer, colonel. She’s a qavvi; a mercenary. An outcast.”
The guards released their hold on the prisoner, the one narrowly dodging a head butt to his forehead as he let his arm drop from her neck. She collected herself quickly, but the general thought she looked rattled. “Tell her that I’m looking for a champion for the dueling ring. My last fighter got himself killed and I need a replacement immediately.”
The prisoner listened to Colonel Ra’ata as he relayed the general’s words. She clenched her jaw and thought about his proposition for a few moments. When she spoke, her tone implied that she was asking a question.
“She wants to know: If she fights for you, will you grant her freedom?”
General Kald’las’ tone was hard. “If by freedom she means that she will remain in my service and I won’t have her executed for killing one of my soldiers, then yes.”
There was another exchange of words between Ra’ata and the prisoner. As the colonel translated her words, she looked the general straight in the eyes, a sardonic expression playing at the corners of her mouth.
“She agrees. Though, she says—” Colonel Ra’ata searched for the right words. “—Well, it’s idiomatic. As best I can translate it, it means ‘a king can never make a fair treaty with his subject.’”
The general clapped his hands together and beamed. “We have an understanding then.” He directed his attention at the guards. “Take her to the master-at-arms and give him my orders to see that she eats well and keeps up her strength.”
The guards pulled the prisoner away. She went with them without protest, only wincing when they forced her back out into the sandstorm. The general watched them go, settling back into his camp chair and picking up his fruit again. Colonel Ra’ata shuffled his feet, hands clasped behind his back.
“Forgive my ignorance, sir, but what is so special about this woman? We’ve been halfway across this planet and you haven’t shown any interest in finding a champion from Meaubos. In fact, I’ve often heard you speak to the contrary. The people on this world are farmers, not fighters.”
The general considered his words. “You’re right. Most of them are peasants who show no proclivity towards violence, but the qavvi are different. They’re not just warriors: They’re witches.”
Colonel Ra’ata sniffed. “Superstitious herbalists who aren’t even accepted by their own kind, nothing more.”
“I’ll take any advantage over General Ayzarah and that beast of a vraxus he has for a champion.”
“Isn’t he arriving tomorrow?”
“Yes.” The general’s eyes narrowed. “He made a fool of me the last time we battled back home on Pedarth. I want to see that smug look knocked right off his face.”
The guards took Bril from the command tent to the brig, following a path bordered by ground lights so they could navigate in the storm. She stumbled blindly through the flying grit, relying on the hands of the guards, clenched around her arms, to guide her. Every time she tripped and fell into one of them, they cursed and shoved her roughly.
A loud string of complaints from the master-at-arms met their entrance into the tent. He shouted until one of her guards released his hold and hurriedly tied down the flapping canvas at the entryway. Bril examined the tent’s interior. There was a pair of collapsible cages without beds or stools, just a toilet in one corner. The prison was empty. The Atreshan foes hadn’t been in-country long enough for any of their soldiers to break their own military laws.
Hatred burned inside of her when she thought of the Hursallians held prisoner in the labor camps already assembled beyond the outskirts of the base. She may have killed one man, but dozens of civilians had died so far in this particular offensive. Empty cages for the aggressors and her people huddled behind stockades, penned up like livestock, waiting for their conquerors to decide their fates.
The gaoler spoke to the guards again, jabbing his finger at her. Bril didn’t know what he was saying, but she recognized a few words that she had often heard these Atreshans direct at her people: Hur bitch.
The senior guard shunted Bril into the nearest cage. He closed the gate and tugged at Bril’s shoulder until she was standing with her back against the bars. None too gently, the guard released the restraints on her wrists. Once freed, Bril stepped to the center of the cage and rolled the stiffness out of her shoulders.
She rubbed her sore wrists, her hand pausing over her tattoo. It had been thoughtless to blind that soldier. It was a reflex; she had lost her temper. All it had done was paint an even bigger target on her back. On the other hand, Bril felt no remorse about killing the first soldier. She had recognized him from the first wave of the invasion where she had watched him murder helpless members of her clan as they’d tried to flee.
Her captors exchanged more words. Even though she couldn’t understand, Bril eavesdropped on their tone, silently wiping the sand from her face with the inside of her sleeve. The guards motioned nervously towards her, their voices raised. The master-at-arms didn’t appear impressed by their story. He didn’t even give her a glance as he punched the code into the number pad on the cage door. She flinched when the lock snapped into place with a loud click.
Relieved of their duty, the guards retreated from the tent. The gaoler rummaged around in one of the crates he had been unpacking and brought out a packet of rations. Tearing open the pouch with his teeth, he dumped the contents onto a tray and returned to the cage. He dropped the tray onto the floor, and nudged it through the narrow flap with his foot.
Bril waited until he turned his back before approaching the tray. The rations were designed for the brig; blunted utensils, no tin cans with sharp edges. She picked up a carton and peeled back a wax coated strip of cardboard to reveal the cold contents of the meal inside. Bril wrinkled her nose and sighed.
She called out to the gaoler. “Can I get some water?”
He ignored her. Straightening, she smacked her palms against the bars, making the whole structure reverberate. “Hey!”
Finally, he spun around and shouted something unintelligible back. Bril made a drinking motion with her hand. The gaoler grasped her meaning and grunted. Bril leaned against the cage and watched him while he took his time meeting her request. Lifting a piece of equipment from the box, he brushed the packing straw off of it and carried it over to a table across the room. Once he had deposited it, he returned to a desk situated near the cages and picked up a canteen.
Unscrewing the lid, he passed it through the vertical bars, spilling a little water on his hand as the canteen knocked against the metal frame. Just as she reached to take it from him, he dropped it on the floor. The canteen fell with a clatter, the liquid inside gushing out onto the floor. Bril dropped to her knees to pick it up before all the water was wasted.
With a sneer on his lips, the gaoler went back to his crates. Bril glared after him, cheeks flushed in indignance, eyes bright with rage. Softly, she took a breath and let a few words leave her lips. “Ylosha’gal ge hamirsabh.”
The gaoler, hearing her, stopped in his tracks. He must not have liked the idea of her talking back to him because he twisted around to return to the prison cell. He only made it a few steps before he faltered. His eyes widened, and the anger darkening his brow turned to fear. Clutching at his wrist, he stared in horror at the hand where the water had splashed him. He dropped to his knees, screaming in agony. His hand appeared unchanged, but he was sobbing, tears running down his cheeks in rivulets.
Bril took the canteen and the tray of rations and walked over to the far end of the cage. Calmly, she sat on the ground and began to eat. The shrieks of her warden drowned out the howling winds still beating at the sides of the tent. Raising a forkful of food to her lips, she allowed a self-satisfied expression to spread slowly across her features.
The next day, General Kald’las and his aides emerged from the command tent. The sandstorm the night before had scrubbed the landscape clean and the early morning air was cool; a welcome respite from the sweltering desert heat that was common in this region of Meaubos.
The general couldn’t help but admit that this world fascinated him. On every other planet he’d come across, the deserts were merciless, empty places. Cities were few and far between and the people were brutal raiders, constantly warring for that most vital resource: water.
But the deserts of Meaubos were unique. High temperatures and relentless winds pulverized the surface, but underground was a different story. Deep underground, vast networks of natural caves housed massive aquifers that transported and filtered water hundreds of miles from the nearest seacoast.
The people of this region had adapted beautifully, creating pockets of agriculture at the mouths of caverns that pitted the terrain. With just enough daylight from the pitiless desert sun and an abundance of fresh water, they found a way to carve out a peaceful existence for their families. Kald’las watched teams of local inhabitants working to clear piles of sand away from the Atreshan tents while his company sergeants oversaw their progress.
“Lieutenant Thadraesa,” he said to his aide-de-camp, “Have Colonel Rhys’ian set up a meeting between himself and the chief engineer. I want to see about building barriers around this camp so we don’t have to burrow our way out like far’ats every time there’s a sandstorm.”
The general broke away from his observations and turned towards the heart of the camp. He was impatient to see how his champion had fared during the night, and it was almost the time that he and Colonel Ra’ata had agreed to meet at the brig.
As he strode past the work teams, absently returning the salutes of his soldiers, he gloated at his good luck finding a qavvi. According to all his research, they were rare and kept to themselves.
He replayed his knowledge in his mind: The qavvi tended to reveal their magical tendencies when they were children, although some remained unaware of their gifts until adulthood. Untrained, their powers could wreak havoc in the close living quarters of the caves, so the clannish leaders would take the children from their families and send them to live with the shamans. Those nomadic mystics were the only ones who possessed the knowledge of how to teach a qavvi to hone their powers.
It wasn’t an easy life. As he understood it, the shamans were not unkind, but they were inattentive, spending most of their time discovering prophecies through the use of ancient herbs. Their caravans traveled from one cave community to another, asking for food and water in exchange for fortune-telling, blessings, and traditional ceremonies. They stayed on the outskirts, never entering the cool interiors of the caves, never invited around the family fires.
The qavvi weren’t shamans, though. Once they had learned everything the shamans had to teach them, they set out on their own. The only signs they retained were the single tattooed marks on their arms. He had read that this was a way of signifying who their master had been. Most were too young to remember where they came from, so they had to find what work they could. He had heard of many traveling north to the coasts, where they were hired by merchants or pirates, depending on whichever group recruited them first.
Skilled fighters, merciless ones, warlocks; exactly what Kald’las was searching for in his new champion. He allowed a smug grin to come across his habitually stern features. General Ayzarah wouldn’t get the upper hand this time—even if he did have that vraxus. Four arms or not, there was no rival that could defend itself against magic.
As he turned a corner, he noticed a group of soldiers gathered outside of the tent where the qavvi was being held. They were nervously milling about, casting anxious looks towards the brig. Colonel Ra’ata was already there, speaking with one of them. When the first soldier recognized the general, he called the rest of the enlisted members to attention.
“What’s going on here?”
“Sir,” the nearest soldier addressed him. “There was an incident last night.”
General Kald’las frowned, a knot forming in his stomach. He should have known better than to think that his men wouldn’t have taken revenge against the Hursallian who had killed one of their own. He prayed to the ancestors that she wasn’t dead, or else his grand plans would be ruined.
“What happened to the prisoner?”
The soldier shook his head. “Nothing, sir. It’s the master-at-arms; Sergeant Pama. He’s in the infirmary.”
Another soldier spoke up, a troop sergeant with thinning brown hair. “We’re not entirely sure, sir. We heard him screaming last night once the storm died down. When we went inside, he was holding his hand saying that she’d melted it off or some such, but his hand looked fine. Not a mark on it.”
Kald’las’ chest tightened with excitement and he felt his breath coming faster. The qavvi was already living up to his hopes. Colonel Ra’ata approached him, the skin between his brow furrowed.
“General, I don’t know how wise it would be for you to speak with the prisoner right now as we planned. It might be better if we waited for more information.”
“Nonsense.” Kald’las pushed past his officer. “Colonel, accompany me.”
A single lighting unit lit the tent hanging from the ceiling. It took a moment for General Kald’las’ eyes to adjust from the glare of the sun outside. He blinked a few times and then he saw the form of the qavvi materialize at the back of the cage.
The guards had shackled Bril’s arms to the bars of the cell. Her shoulders and neck both ached but she straightened when she saw the general enter the tent. The small man who spoke a little Hursallian followed behind him. Bril thought he seemed nervous. As he should be.
The general walked right up to the cage, examining her like a wild bayma that he would like nothing better than to domesticate. The restraints on her wrists clicked against the metal cage as she shifted. She didn’t like this man. His mannerisms were too familiar, and he didn’t seem to fear her at all. Bril met his eyes with a level gaze; others had made the same mistake.
The two exchanged words and then the small man turned to her. His voice was clear, but she still noticed the way he fidgeted with the lapel of his uniform jacket.
“You have caused the general a great deal of trouble.”
It was all Bril could do to keep from rolling her eyes. His words were halting and his accent atrocious. She had yet to meet one of these Atreshans who made more than a pathetic effort to learn her people’s tongue. They were only concerned with orders; do this, don’t do that, obey me. The man continued his speech.
“But he can overlook your crimes if you only answer his questions.”
Bril sneered. “Go ahead. I’m curious to know what these questions are.”
As the small man relayed her words, the general called something out through the open tent flap. A moment later, one of the soldiers entered. He stood at attention in front of his superior but his eyes kept flicking her way as though he thought she might break free of her restraints and lunge at him. After a few words, the soldier approached the cage and entered the code to unlock the door. His fingers shook, and he had to enter it twice. As soon as the general dismissed him, he scurried from the tent like an insect.
The general stepped through the open cell door. His companion stayed outside. Bril could see sweat beading up on his forehead, even though it wasn’t hot enough in the tent yet to warrant it. The general kept an arm’s length from her and paced across the metal-slatted floor as he chose how to phrase his questions.
“What is your name?” repeated the small man.
“I won’t hear my name come from the lips of the aggressors.”
The general shrugged when he understood her. Bril was disappointed that she hadn’t upset him yet.
“You are qavvi though, yes?”
It was no use hiding that fact. They clearly knew more than she expected about her nature. Besides, powerful people always wanted to exploit her abilities. The general was no different from her previous employer, or the employer before that . . .
“What are your powers?”
Bril’s face burned. What a childish and ignorant question to ask. She knew she was being hot-headed, but she had reached the end of her patience with these two. If they wanted to know her powers so badly, they would find out firsthand, and they would fear her. Her lips parted.
“Wastabd raie tnavais.”
The small man swayed where he stood. He didn’t make a sound, but his mouth flew open and he bent double, fumbling instinctively for his throat. The general had his back turned and it took a moment before he noticed his companion’s distress. When he saw him, he wavered. He took a step towards the other officer and then whirled back towards Bril.
In a fluid motion, he crossed the cage and drew the dagger from his belt. He grasped her by the collar and held the point of his blade to her neck. She felt the razor edge bite into her flesh, felt the hot drop of blood it drew. He shouted something at her in his foreign tongue but she didn’t need a translator to understand. There was terror behind his eyes. She had made her point.
“Aistmiri raie tnavais.”
They both heard the wheezing gasp as the other man regained control of his lungs. The general dropped his blade and rushed out of the cage. He took the shorter man under the arm and helped him up from the floor. His lips were still blue as the general guided him away from the cage.
The general paused at the exit and called for his men again. Two of them rushed to answer his voice. He gave them an order and they both approached her cell. They entered and the one on the right-hand side seized her by the chin and the hair, forcing her head back. His comrade pulled a handkerchief from her own pocket and shoved it roughly between Bril’s teeth, tying it snugly in place behind her head.
As they left, locking the cell door behind them, Bril caught the general’s gaze once more. His eyes were wide, his mouth agape, and he fled from the tent along with his subordinates. She was enraged but sated. Now he knew who he was dealing with.
The sun hovered above the horizon, ready to set, but the evening air still rippled with heat waves. General Kald’las had long since retreated to his generator-cooled tent to sift through a small mountain of paperwork, the bottom of which he never could seem to find. He fought to focus on his work, his mind distracted with thoughts of the qavvi. Even now, a gratified smile stretched his lips across his teeth; she was perfect.
After leaving the tent, the general had passed Colonel Ra’ata off to the soldiers waiting outside. He told them to take the officer to the infirmary, with orders to let him know the moment Ra’ata recovered. General Kald’las sighed. It had been a close call and he wondered if could ever convince Ra’ata to approach the prisoner again.
He had just finished penning a response to a senator who had taken a special interest in the colonization project on Meaubos, when his aide-de-camp entered. Another officer followed close on his heels.
“General Ayzarah to see you, sir.”
Kald’las stood, stepping around his desk to clasp his contemporary’s hand. He forced an affable smile. “General, good to see you again. I trust your journey was uneventful.”
Ayzarah released Kald’las’ hand and lowered his bulky frame into the nearest chair, sinking wearily against the arm rests. “Uneventful and uncomfortable. Those dusters are in complete disrepair. I requisitioned a new fleet of them eight months ago and they still haven’t arrived from Pedarth.”
Kald’las had to stifle a chuckle at the thought of the general rattling around the desert in the ancient armored tracks the Atreshans used for surface transport. “I heard that the Likkas are attacking our shipping routes again.”
Ayzarah swatted away Kald’las’ reply. “Goral’s ass,” he swore. “The Likkas are nothing but peasant rock-hoppers. Our caravan patrols can deal with them easily enough. If you ask me, it’s the president’s new wife. She’s been whispering in his ear since their betrothal, always against our expansions.”
General Kald’las shrugged. “She’s an off-planet bride. What can you expect?”
“An absurd political marriage, if you ask me,” muttered Ayzarah. “One that will do more harm than good.”
Kald’las was growing weary of the idle gossip. He only had one subject on his mind and he felt chafed at the niceties he had to observe before broaching the topic that really occupied his thoughts. Surely, they had exchanged enough words by now. General Kald’las fiddled with a slender metal pen.
“Well,” he said, “ancient dusters or not, you’re here now. You’ll have a few days to rest. I’ve no doubt we’ll find some entertainment for you.”
Ayzarah broke out in a loud guffaw. “A combat of champions would have been a good diversion, but last I heard, you still hadn’t found a replacement after my vraxus tore your il’a in half.”
Kald’las waited for his companion to finish laughing at his expense. He kept his expression collected but he could feel the heat prickling at the back of his neck. When Ayzarah seemed to be over the worst of his laughing fit, Kald’las spoke again. “As a matter of fact, I just acquired a new champion.”
Ayzarah began to laugh again, his jowls rippling with the exertion. He gave Kald’las a look of false pity. “My friend, are you eager to lose another fighter so soon?”
“Maybe,” said Kald’las. “There’s only one way to find out.”
“When?” asked Ayzarah, wiping tears from his eyes on the backs of his sleeves.
“Tomorrow morning. Before the heat of the day gets too much to bear.”
Kald’las wondered how the qavvi would do it. He imagined her paralyzing the beast, taking away its ability to fight back as she ran a dagger through its eye socket. Or she might trick it, filling its head with a hundred ringing bells. Driven mad, it would bash its own head in to stop the sound.
Ayzarah had already started talking about a different subject but Kald’las barely paid attention. All he wanted to hear was the other general’s dismayed bellows echoing out over the arena. Kald’las pictured the arrogance falling away from Ayzarah’s face. His vraxus would finally be defeated and Kald’las would have the upper hand again.
After Bril had attacked the Atreshan officer, no one dared to enter the tent. They had eventually returned and released her from the manacles, and she spent a restless night alone in her prison, every muscle aching and stiff from being restrained for so long. It was just before dawn when they came for her.
Four soldiers entered the cell. Bril had no idea what they wanted, but she suspected the general wanted to talk at her some more. One of the guards aimed his weapon at her while the other three approached slowly. Bril bit back a smirk when she saw that they all had cloth stuffed in their ears.
They handcuffed and gagged her again, then shuttled her out into the black morning. The air was cold, stinging the inside of her nostrils and raising bumps on her skin. Most of the stars had already disappeared during the night, but the nearby planet of Rafik, suspended above the horizon where the sun would rise, remained a dazzling, red pinpoint of light.
The guards forced Bril around a corner and she lost sight of the heavenly spectacle. She didn’t recognize where they were taking her. She turned her head to try and find some hint towards their destination, but nothing looked familiar. It was all shadows, with the outlines of soldiers hovering at the edges of her path. They were all watching her.
When they had gone a dozen meters further, her guards stopped in front of a large tent. The foremost soldier held the flap aside and she ducked her head to enter. Inside waited several more guards positioned around the room, all with weapons at the ready, eyeing her with a mixture of fear and animosity.
Bril looked around at the rows of neatly arranged weaponry, the tables stacked with armor and helmets. A tall, burly man looked up as she came in. The guards pushed her towards him, stopping beside the table where he stood. They released her wrist restraints, but remained close by.
Wordlessly, the man reached for her left hand and strapped a bracer to her forearm. He repeated the same on her right arm, then he knelt to fasten a pair of greaves to her shins. While he was busy, Bril examined the armor. The material was a foreign metallic substance, light and strong. The plating was a burnished bronze color without any ornamentation. She grimaced; it was the equipment of an Atreshan infantry soldier.
The armorer completed the fitting with a breastplate and back piece, finally handing her a helmet. She turned the heavy metal bowl over in her hands. This ceremony felt significant. Bril knew that she would have to fight as the general’s champion, but this was sooner than she had anticipated.
She reached up to pull the gag out of her mouth. Everyone flinched, the clicks of their weapons filled the tent, and two of the guards lunged forward. They pinned her arms to her sides and she did her best to retain her grip on her helmet as they dragged her away from the tables and back out into the morning air.
There were more soldiers gathered outside now: A crowd was forming. They split down the center as she approached, making a path. When she saw their numbers, their hostile faces emerging from the darkness, Bril shuddered.
The soldiers extinguished the spotlights illuminating the arena as the first sliver of sunlight cut blinding ribbons of light across the dueling ground. Kald’las sat at the far end. The barriers delineating the battlefield had been set up late during the previous night. It was a hastily-done job, but it would serve its purpose. Beside him, General Ayzarah joked with the other senior officers. He was so confident, already considering this match to be his next victory. Kald’las clenched his jaw, impatient to see his companion knocked down a few notches.
On the other end of the field, he saw the group of soldiers parting. His champion emerged from among them. As she passed, his troops’ hatred was plain to see. No one dared to lay a hand on her, but they booed in her face. Normally, they applauded and cheered, but not this time; there would be no support for someone who had killed one of their own. He noticed that the qavvi paid them no attention.
Kald’las took in the sight of her. She was intimidating, wearing the light armor as he had requested. Her muscular arms bared to the cool breeze coming off of the desert. At the edge of the barrier, she twisted free from the guards flanking her sides. They moved to take hold of her again but then hesitated. The qavvi made no attempt to run. Her eyes locked on the arena and she vaulted over the wall, tearing the cloth from her mouth as she landed.
He watched her as she noticed the weapons that the armorer had laid out for her. She crossed the sand to inspect them. There were none of the Atreshan carbines there, only melee weapons. After making her choice, she turned back to the center of the ring armed with a shield and spear. Turning towards the crowd, she found Kald’las’ gaze and pointed the spear, like a menacing finger, at his heart.
“Your champion is a Hursallian?”
Kald’las pulled his gaze away from the ring and inclined his head towards Ayzarah, delighted by the look of surprise on the general’s face. “In a sense, yes.”
Ayzarah shifted uneasily in his seat. “Do you think it wise to allow a champion to fight in their own homeland?”
“What do you mean?”
“In my experience, it isn’t advisable to choose a champion from the local population. It doesn’t serve our interests to give the people either a hero or a martyr.”
Kald’las didn’t like the lecturing tone creeping into the other’s voice. He wanted to tell Ayzarah that he needn’t worry about this qavvi. The Hursallians had already forgotten she was one of their own; they didn’t care whether she lived or died. But he bit his tongue.
The crowd started to part again. Even when it was still far back, Kald’las could see the vraxus approaching. It stood tall, the Atreshans’ heads not even reaching its shoulders, and its pale gray skin made it look like a boulder grinding its way towards the arena.
Kald’las’ gaze broke away from the creature and turned to his qavvi. She stood with her back to him so he couldn’t see her face. She squared off with her adversary. Suddenly, she seemed very small in Kald’las’ eyes. However, he knew that was just an illusion. The qavvi’s size didn’t make one bit of difference: All that mattered was the strength in her voice.
Bril swallowed back bile when she saw her opponent. She had expected to have to fight one of the Atreshans, not this towering creature. She was glad that she had chosen the spear as a weapon so she could keep her distance while fighting. Bril didn’t know if it came from the Atreshan planet or another one of their conquered worlds, but there was nothing like it on Meaubos.
It had four arms sprouting from its shoulders, the top two curved from overhead while the lower limbs turned upwards, like some sort of mandibles. Its face was humanoid, with a pair of black eyes, a large nose and mouth. However, even from where she was standing, she could see the tusks and heavy, crushing jaw.
She tightened her grip on her shield and flipped the spear around so the shaft lay along her forearm, the counterweight at the end resting just behind her elbow, like an extension of her own body. Bril widened her stance, shifting her weight to her toes and crouching slightly.
Her instincts served her well, as there was no official beginning to the combat. The fight started the moment the beast clambered over the barrier. It brandished its weapons, a short sword in every hand, and barreled towards her. Bril stood her ground, waiting until the last second before she threw herself to the left, rolling over her shield and slashing backwards with her spear. She felt the blade make contact with her enemy’s leg and heard it cry out in surprise. It hadn’t been a serious cut, but Bril was pleased to have drawn first blood.
There was little time to think, however. The creature swung its torso around, slashing with two of its swords. Bril sprinted out of reach and got around to its back. She dashed in and stabbed, managing to sink the tip of her spear into its ribs, but it wasn’t deep. Before she could step in to drive the spearhead home, her adversary spun around with unpredicted agility.
She reacted quickly, drawing back her spear and bringing her shield across her body in time to block the strike. The force from the blow knocked her backwards, and she fell to one knee in the sand. Rising swiftly, she put some distance between her and her enemy. Bril stayed light on her feet, parrying its attacks, and trying to gauge the best weakness to exploit.
Bril kept this up for another minute, but she was growing tired. Her captivity had taken a toll on her strength and she could tell that she wasn’t at her best. She would have liked to have dispatched the beast without using her magic, if only to deny the general the show he wanted, but the time to stop toying with the creature had come. She didn’t owe it to these occupiers to stretch out the fight for entertainment’s sake, and she wouldn’t die this day on account of her ego.
Her words were inaudible over the roar of the crowd around her, but it wouldn’t matter. She had uttered her spell. Bril stopped her evasive footwork in anticipation.
The beast faltered in its advance. Its arms moved sluggishly as though swimming through deep water. Bril drew her spear arm back, but in the moment before she lunged, everything felt wrong. Her adversary blinked in confusion and waggled its head as though it were recovering from bumping into something. Then it shook itself loose and was free from the magic.
Bril realized her mistake too late. She left herself exposed. Her foe swung its swords and sent her flying. She landed on her back, seeing stars as her head snapped painfully backwards into the ground. The blades made the hardest impact on her shield, but one of the flashing swords darted past her defenses, slamming into her side. Bril was stunned, the wind knocked out of her. She rolled sluggishly to her feet, gasping for air. Her adversary was waiting for her, staring her down from just a few meters away.
Kald’las jumped up from his chair. He had seen her lips move, knew that she had uttered the spell that should have killed the vraxus. It didn’t make sense. He hadn’t considered that certain creatures might be immune to the qavvi’s powers. After all, she had bewitched his own soldiers.
The qavvi struggled to get back on her feet. She was hurt. Kald’las could see the gash in her armor from the edge of the vraxus’ sword. He speculated that she might have a broken rib after a blow like that. Without her magic, Kald’las didn’t know how she would make it an even playing field. Ayzarah was screaming encouragement to his champion, oblivious to what had just transpired.
Only Kald’las realized his advantage was gone. He watched in dismay as the vraxus landed strike after strike against his champion. Her shield arm took the brunt of the force. She tried to fight back, to get her spear tip in under her adversary’s swinging arms, but she was too badly hurt. Kald’las could see bright red blood seeping out from underneath her cuirass, standing out in stark contrast to her light-colored clothing.
He sank back into his seat, ignoring everything around him. What a disappointment. He watched miserably as the vraxus beat the qavvi back another few paces. Her arm was growing tired, and each time she raised her shield, it was a fraction of a second slower than the time before. It would be over soon and Kald’las would have to endure Ayzarah’s insufferable mockery even longer now.
The crowd of soldiers roared with triumph as the vraxus’ sword finally found its target. It thrust the blade between the place where the qavvi’s breastplate and back piece met, deep into her side. Blood spilled out onto the sand as the vraxus jerked his weapon free, and Kald’las dropped his face into his hands.
He looked up just in time to see the vraxus preparing to land its death blow. The beast stepped back to create some space between itself and its victim, then it sprang forward, extending all four arms out to its sides. Kald’las saw the qavvi fumbling for her spear. Her fingers found the haft. She was lying prone, but she managed to swing it up in front of her. She planted the butt in the sand at her side.
It was too late for the vraxus to change course. It fell on the spear, the blade piercing through its chest cavity right to his heart. Its sword slammed into the ground inches from the qavvi’s face, and it lay there. The spear had ruptured its heart and it was finally dead.
This time it was Ayzarah who clambered from his chair. Kald’las was shocked, overjoyed; he didn’t know how to react. The qavvi had actually won, in spite of everything. The shaken look on Ayzarah’s face was just as delicious as he had hoped it would be.
With the last of her strength, Bril tipped her adversary’s corpse off to the side, and tried to rise. The wound in her side was excruciating and her shield arm was dislocated. She felt weak and she had difficulty drawing breath. She only managed to push herself up into a sitting position and she paused there, watching the blood pooling in the sand beside her. The edges of her vision began to blur.
Bril looked up and saw the general. He was beaming, a self-congratulating smile plastered across his face. The general saw her too, but he only gave her a brief glance before he returned to accepting the applause of the officers around him.
Bril seethed silently: It was humiliating. She hadn’t even wanted to be his champion and now she was going to die for his stupid pride. She didn’t want his approval, but to be passed over like an animal that had no more use was too much for her to tolerate. Bril knew the words though she had never spoken them before. Bowing her head, she intoned them quietly into her chest.
The pain was suddenly gone, as though she had flipped a switch. Rising to her feet, she went to the creature and rolled it over onto its back. She felt the gush of fresh blood that poured from her side with the exertion, but it didn’t hurt. In a single tug, she ripped the spear free of the body and turned towards the group of officers.
She tossed the weapon into the air, caught it, and held it up by her ear. Just that effort had cost her and she felt her magic beginning to waver. Acting quickly, Bril ran a few steps across the dueling field and pulled her arm back. As soon as she had built up enough momentum, she aimed the spear and threw it.
It sailed through the air in a spiraling arc. The soldiers behind the barriers had shouted in surprise the moment she took off running, but the officers only now took notice of her: They were too late. They could do nothing as the spear buried itself just below their commanding officer’s collarbone.
The general’s eyes rolled back into his skull as he choked and coughed on his own blood, splattering crimson droplets over the officer seated next to him. The Atreshans swarmed to their fallen general like insects; dozens of hands clutched at the spear in his chest, cradled his head, and braced under his torso for support. They screamed commands at each other but not one of them listened amidst the chaos. Haphazardly, they bore the general’s lifeless body to the ground.
Bril watched; it served them right for treating her like unwanted sand in their shoes. From the corner of her eye, she saw the few fast-acting guards jumping over the barrier and running towards her, golden-red sunlight glinted off their weapons. She still had one more word to speak and she said it now. She went limp and everything was black. Her body tumbled backwards, but she never felt it hit the ground.
About the Author:
Laura Marden lives in Georgia with her husband, son, and their two dogs, and she finds that the best time to write is when they’re all asleep. In addition to writing sci-fi and speculative fiction, she enjoys hiking, crafting, and traveling. Her flash fiction has appeared in The Chamber Magazine.