This is a mean story. It involves slavery, torture, cage fighting to the death, murder, and some other violence. And then some violence, just for good measure. Also violence. And kidnapping.
I also stole some twins’ names from Heinlein. These are not Heinlein’s twins.
The fighters were screaming.
It happened just before the fight every day. They lit up the bottom of the cages, all of them, with electrical shocks and overheating, small pain Workings and then bigger ones, until they were all climbing up the bars, doing anything they could to get out.
And then they would open two cages and the fighters would come rushing out, just glad to be away from the pain.
There was, of course, no end to the pain. They were wearing hawthorn collars; they couldn’t use magic. But if they didn’t use anything else they had, everything else they had, against their opponent – well, assuming that their opponent didn’t just kill them, they would be put back into the cage of pain until the next fight.
They screamed. They yelled, no matter how strong they were. And then, no matter how much they wanted to take a step back, they fought, and if the audience screamed for it, they killed.
He had been in the cages for almost a year. The board showed his kills, in case he lost count. He didn’t try not to scream anymore. He didn’t try not to fight. He tried to make the fights last, make it look good, because then the crowd was less likely to scream for the enemy’s death.
He was fighting a new guy now, someone with some sort of simian Change and a tail he used as another limb. The man was not holding back, and he didn’t have to do anything to make it look interesting. He didn’t have a tail. He didn’t even have bone spikes or anything else helpful. He just had muscle, and a strong urge not to die.
He took a bite to the arm that was way too sharp for a simian Change and did his best to break the guy’s jaw. It was a nasty injury, but their healer would patch them up. She didn’t have any more choice about it than any of them did. If they lived, she made sure they could fight again.
The crowd was screaming. The echos were starting to ring in his ears. He thought his vision was going blurry, or possibly red.
He punched the man in the gut, sending him across the cage.
He slipped on something slick and fell, landing hard, realizing as his hand hit the slickness that it was blood, his own blood.
Was this the one that was going to end him? Was this…?
The simian grabbed him and threw him against the cage. Hands reached around, held him. They weren’t supposed to do that, but it wasn’t the first time it had happened. He leaned into the hands, got his weight up onto his back, ignoring a scream of pain from his abused spine, and kicked the damn ape-Change across the cage.
Someone was pulling on his collar. He grunted and struggled against the hands in earnest. The hawthorn was digging into his neck. He was going to pass out if he wasn’t careful.
Passing out wasn’t a good show. He didn’t want to die this way.
“Hold still, damn it.” Someone on the other side of the cage had grabbed the simian by the tail and was pulling him, too, against the bars. Someone – he recognized a streak of white in the black-brown hair. “Laz?” he grunted.
“Lor. Hold still, damn your eyes. There. Now go make it look good.”
He and the simian were dropped to the ground at the same time. He could feel the air on his neck, the collar that had been holding him back for months, years, gone.
He couldn’t use his magic yet. He might never used it again.
But he was free.
But he was free.
He roared and attacked with everything he had.
Next to him, the simian did the same. They grabbed at the bars of the cage and they pulled. They clawed and they scrabbled while the fighters in their cages screamed and panted and begged, while the man holding the buttons watched with cold eyes.
He saw the moment Laz and Lor attacked the man, the way his cold glee went to amusement and then, a heartbeat later, to panic. You couldn’t beat Laz and Lor, not together. The best you could manage was to go with the flow.
He saw when they dropped him in the cage where the simian had been. He saw Lor’s sidekick, a skinny boy with no given name, fiddling with the controls.
He saw the man who had tortured him begin to scream.
That was when the bars finally gave way, and he and the simian were loose on what was left of the crowd.
Behind him, he heard a roar. He didn’t care. They could be letting The Lion out of its cage, and he wouldn’t care, even if that thing was coming for his throat. He was looking at the one who liked to bet against him, the one who always screamed the loudest for death, the one who had made him kill one of his friends.
The simian was being far less picky. He was tearing through the crowd with no concern, as far as he could see, for who he hit or who he missed. Until he landed on a woman near the back.
He looked away. The man could have his own revenge. It didn’t need witnesses.
He found his target. He wasn’t even trying to run away; he was watching the carnage. He was, from the sound, a little startled when the fighter lifted him up and pinned him against the cage.
The outside of the cage; there was something funny about that.
Laz was calling for him. Lor was calling for him.
He didn’t want to hear them, not yet. He bit the man’s throat, hard, hard enough that the monster could feel all of his teeth, could feel the strength in his jaw.
He waited, while Laz and Lor called for him, while the unnamed minion called, while even the simian called for him, until the man whimpered, until he voided himself.
He threw his old nemesis against the far side of the cage and stomped towards his friends.
“You ready to go?” One of the twins patted him on the shoulder. He managed not to take her hand off.
“Only if we’re all going.”
“They can all leave. Nobody’s left to stop them. But we’ve got to go now, or we might all end up back in cages.”
“Right. Leaving.” He backhanded someone who got too close and grabbed one of the regular’s pretty-boy slaves, throwing the boy over his shoulder. “We’re taking this one.”
“…Why? No, tell me later. Who else are we taking?”
“The simian. The Lion, if he stops killing people and gets over here. LION. NOW. The tree. That should be more than enough. Hey, Tree. Not a good place to put down roots.”
The Lion ignored them. It was probably for the best. The tree and the simian followed them out to the waiting van.
“What took you so long?” He was so grateful he thought he might do something stupid, like cry, or try to hug them while carrying a pretty-boy slave. So instead he was gruff.
The twins just laughed at him. “Get in, big brother. Let’s go home.”