The door burst open against the side of the wall with a crash that woke all the prisoners in the cell. Twenty-two pairs of eyes opened wide with the shock of being torn from sleep. Anna and Jarred, who had been sleeping close to the entrance, pressed themselves as deep into the corner as they could. Six Grey Guards stormed the cell, carrying torches that cast flickering shadows across the stone walls. The loud clinking of metal-upon-metal filled the room, as the prisoners clambered back as far as their chains would allow them. Many shielded their eyes with filthy hands, unaccustomed to the torchlight.
"Time to wake up, scum," the Grey Guard's voice boomed violently across the cramped cage. "The master has called for a game. Who wants to play?"
A wail of terror came from someone in the back of the cell.
"Aha!" A second Guard turned towards the scream. "That sounds like a willing player to me!"
He stomped past where Anna and Jarred were crouched on the rotting straw. Anna knew enough to keep her mouth shut, but could not conceal the look of loathing on her face.
"Wait!" Another Grey Guard called to his comrade. "How about we take one of these instead?"
A wave of nausea shuddered through Anna's body, as the Guard in question pointed a dirty-gloved finger in her face. She could not help but cringe away.
"You did not see the look it gave you, Tack 1," the Grey Guard continued.
Tack 1 walked back towards Anna and Jarred. "Oh, they look nice. Which one?"
The Guard gazed hungrily upon their faces. Anna could hear her heart pounding in her chest. She stretched her hand across the slimy straw bedding in a fit of terror, reaching blindly until she felt Jarred's frigid fingers clasp her own.
Choose me, she silently dared, as she squeezed her husband's hand. Please, spare Jarred and take me.
The thought washed away in a wave of shame. Only the lucky ones died in the Shadowlands.
"Let me fight," Jarred pleaded, clearly he had not considered the consequences. "Let her live."
"Alright, Tack 3," Tack 1 grinned. "Take the woman."
Anna felt bile rise up in her throat. No. No, no, no. She had been mistaken, yes, it was much better to live.
"J-Jarred," she stuttered involuntarily as Tack 3 lunged forward and grabbed her by the wrists, pulling her violently to her feet. Weak as the Shadowlands had made her, seven years in the Forests had left her body trained to fend off any attack. Anna yanked one arm down, shaking it free. She curled her hand into a fist and aimed to punch him in the face. Tack 3 caught her just a moment before she would have hit her mark, and his meaty fingers squeezed her wrist until she cried out.
"No!" Jarred shouted hoarsely. He lunged forward at Anna's Guard, but was held back by the heavy chains on his ankles.
"Can we bring him, too?" Tack 3 asked, annoyed by the blow he had nearly taken. "I want to see them torn to pieces."
"Just the one tonight," Tack 1 told him firmly. "They will all have their turns."
Tack 3 roughly removed the chains on her ankles and bound her wrists, instead. Anna could not contain herself any longer.
"Jarred!" She screamed, reaching desperately to her husband with shackled wrists. She struggled uselessly to break away from her captor. "Jarred! No, please, no, please, no please!"
"I love you, Anna," he called as she was dragged away. His face was wild with panic. "I love you!"
The remaining prisoners shrank back as the Guards shoved Anna towards the door and pushed her down the corridor. She looked back as the cell door shut with a terrible finality. She was shaking. First her daughter, now her husband; she would never see them again. She could still hear the faint sound of Jarred's hoarse cries.
The tunnels were damp, and freezing water soaked her feet through her wrecked boots. Anna stayed silent, fearing that she would scream. She took a forced step forward and her shredded boot skidded across the slippery floor. She yelped as she slipped, and was wrenched back to her feet by a Guard. Laboured breathing came from somewhere in the tunnel. It took only another moment before she finally realized it was her own.
The Guards halted beside a small room at the end of a passageway, and Anna was pushed inside. One Guard closed the door, while another undid Anna's chains and threw her to the ground, where she collided painfully with the hard floor. A change of clothes was tossed on top of her. She could hear a horrible buzzing sound leeching through from somewhere on the other side of the walls.
"What is this?" She gasped as she rolled over.
"Your armour," Tack 1 snarled. "Hurry up and put it on."
Anna took a deep breath and mustered all her courage.
"I would like some privacy, if I am to change my clothes," she said.
"Do you think we care about modesty?" Tack 3 said. "You will put it on. Now."
"And if I do not comply?"
A Guard grinned. "We can send your husband to play in the Arena, too."
Anna took another deep breath, and stripped off the clothes she had worn for ten long months, since she had been taken from the Forests of Silence. The Grey Guards were not interested in her exposed body, but she did her best to cover herself with her hands and arms as she dressed.
Armour. The shirt and leggings made from ancient leather would not protect her. They were ill-fitting, stained and falling apart. They stunk of all sorts of fluids that Anna did not want to think about.
"Are you done?" Tack 1 asked. "Good. Now, move."
Large hands spun her around and shoved her in front of an exit she had not seen. A Guard handed her a short sword.
"What do expect me to do with this?" She nearly laughed at the absurdity of it all.
"Put up a fight," he glared. "Put on a show."
She pressed the palm of her hand into the blade. It was duller than a butter knife, and be useless in a fight. A Guard swung the door open, and the buzzing sound exploded around her.
No, Anna wanted to plead again. No, I am not ready.
Large hands shoved her through the exit, and the door locked behind her. Anna spun around and pressed her hands desperately against the frame, but there was no handle, and it was locked from the other side. She took a shuddering breath and forced herself to turn around.
Torches dotted the massive hall, illuminating the otherwise dark cavern. It seemed impossibly large compared to the overcrowded cage where had spent her nights for nearly a year. Gooseflesh erupted on her bare arms. Anna swung around to survey the Arena. There was only one other entranceway, and when it was opened, she wanted to be as far away as possible. Everyone knew what it held. She looked up. A stone wall circled it, and above that, thousands of beings—human, Grey Guards, creatures—called for her death The ring that she occupied was surrounded by people— the buzzing she had heard had been their muffled jeers. Now that she was in their midst, she could hear every taunt, every curse, every threat. Her death would be for their pleasure.
Staring up at the mob, Anna wondered if perhaps she had a choice. Could she choose her death on her own terms? Rather than fight, should she just lie down and wait for death?
No. She could not. She saw Jasmine's laughing face, Jarred's sweet, dark eyes. She remembered Endon's fears, and the bond of trust that had passed between her and Sharn.
"I will fight," Anna said softly. "I will die knowing that I have fought you, Shadowlord."
The door's hinges began to groan. Anna could hear the monster thrashing its weight against the barrier, too impatient to taste blood to wait for its release.
"Because of me, our true king and queen are safe," she whispered "I have fought you."
The door was halfway open. Anna took as step back as the Vraal pushed its massive head through. Its teeth were longer than her forearms. She tightened her grip on the handle of the useless blade.
"We raised our daughter for seven years in your Forests. I have fought you."
The Vraal clawed its way out of the door, letting out a roar that was matched by the crowd.
Anna turned her head and thought once more of Jasmine; her clever and brave daughter, who was, no doubt, long dead. She would hold her again soon.
The Vraal clawed at the ground and ran at her. By instinct, Anna raised the blade as the creature came crashing down upon her. She was knocked the ground by one of its sword-like claws, and she screamed as blood poured down from her arm. The pain was nearly blinding, but through it, Anna saw the Vraal retreat and circle back for another round. She pulled herself to her knees, but found that she could not move her arm. Do not look, do not look.The crowd spun around her in a faceless blur. She knew, hazily, that she must be in shock.
Blood splattered the sandy floor, but she managed to retrieve the blade with her left hand. She rose to her feet.
"I have fought you," she spat through gritted teeth, as the Vraal charged again.
It did not toy with her any longer. One moment it had been on the other side of the Arena, and the next it had slammed Anna to the ground. Her head made a terrible noise as it smacked against the ground, and the Vraal's claws pierced her flesh through the armour.
The Vraal leaned forward with a guttural growl, until its jaws nearly brushed her nose. Anna could bear it no longer. She squeezed her eyes shut as the Vraal coated her face in its hot, reeking breath. Perhaps she screamed, but she could no longer tell. Pushing it all away, Anna forced herself to think of Jarred and Jasmine and Grandfather and Mother and Father and Jarred and Jasmine and Grandfather and Mother and Father and Jarred and Jasmine and Grandfather and Mother and Father and Jarred and Jasmine and—
This is a rewrite of a piece called 'The Arena' that I published six or seven years ago. God, I still love Anna. Thanks for reading!