The crisp, chill wind sliced all too easily through the thick foliage, so that no manner of cloth, not even warm, tightly-woven wool homespun, could hope to shield a man from its wrath. The dozen men huddled amongst the low scrub of the northern Ganelon Woods hardly noticed the chill. Each focused adamantly on the task at hand, for each knew a moment's lapse could and would cost him his life.

A single man stirred, shifting away from his hiding place to peer out at the silent little cottage nestled deep into the unconquered woodlands, just as he had done every moment or so since nightfall. This time, though, he seemed satisfied with what he saw; he gave a brief signal, and the others swept forward, silent as the night around them.

It was over in an instant—the door gave easily, the cottage filled with men, there came a short scuffle, a series of muted shouts, and then silence reigned.

The leader started forward, the moonlight flashing through the vibrant green of his steely eyes and the sharp angles of his chiseled features. He grinned savagely.

A second man met him at the door, bowing profusely as he attempted to staunch the bleeding from a deep gash in his side. He looked pale and wavered as he straightened up. "Seven dead, my lord. And there's more." The leader waited patiently for his man to continue. "He did not kill them all."

"No?" A spark of interest ignited within the emerald depths. "There was another?"

"Is, my lord. A child."

The leader brushed past his subordinate and into the cottage, stepping callously over and around the still-bleeding bodies littering the packed dirt of the floor. He crossed to the opening of a small back room.

Four men held a wildly struggling child pinned to the floor beneath them. Blood matted the short hair to the little skull, turning it into a murky mass of red and brown and masking its true color. The eyes, their color, if not the fire within, masked by the cloak of night, seemed far too old for the five or six year old body they inhabited, full as they were of anguish and bitter, impotent rage.

The leader gestured for his men to withdraw, and they scattered gratefully, several nursing scratches and bite marks and one sporting a gloriously blackened eye. The youngster rolled instantly into a low, defensible crouch more reminiscent of a feral beast than anything else.

A wide, savage grin split the leader's face as he glowered. "So, whelp. You are the last of your kind."

The child snarled, and the leader laughed humorlessly. He drew the sword at his side. "With your death, the world will at last be free of the filth of your parasitic people. And I will be a hero."

"My kind will never die," the child growled, and its harsh voice no more portrayed its gender than did its slight frame or worn, neutral clothing.

The leader grinned mirthlessly, but the expression wilted to a grimace as he raised his sword to deliver the fatal blow.

The child struck like a snake, twisting about in the close confines of the tiny room and snatching the sword from a man's sheathe before he could hope to react. Then the child sprang forward, ducking easily beneath the leader's swing to launch an assault of its own. The leader felt the deadly steel pierce his flesh at the hip and skitter upward. For a single, breathtaking instant, he understood perfectly that an extra hairsbreadth of height, an angle but half a degree higher, might have sent the blade up under his ribs and through a vital organ or two. As it was, the sword tip tore through skin and muscle tissue and scraped against bone, leaving a trail of scarlet from hip to shoulder. He caught the child around the waist and flung it back, slashing viciously with his own sword. A second blossom of blood marked a line far too similar as the child fell back and smacked its head against the rough wood of the cottage wall. The stolen sword slipped to the ground, its clatter the only sound in the ensuing silence.

One of the men stooped to retrieve the weapon. Another breathed the question on everyone's mind. "Shall I…dispatch him for you, my lord?"

"No!" That merciless grin split the leader's face as his own blood pooled at his feet. "No, this whelp is a priceless specimen, the last of a dead race. This child belongs in a circus…or better, a pit!" His manic laughter seemed to intimidate the very moon, for it ducked behind a screen of cloud just then.

Chapter One

Max was no stranger to the pits, but he had rarely found himself on this side of them. He usually looked down on the combatants, not up at the spectators as he did now.

The slight, gangly man pulled his attention back to the present, sweeping a wave of soft, silky brown hair from his eyes. The heavy gladiator's sword felt awkward and unwieldy in a hand more accustomed to slim daggers and easily concealed knives. The man who faced Max from across the sandy arena did not seem to find the cumbersome weapon at all uncomfortable. He was not much larger than Max, but he undoubtedly had years of experience under his belt, and his lithe body looked packed to bursting with solid muscle. Max very much doubted he would stand a chance against this man in a fair fight.

Luckily, he did not plan on facing him.

Max and the gladiator faced off, each watching the other, waiting, watching, neither wishing to make the first move. A guard shifted against the wall, and both combatants tensed visibly. Max began to circle warily. If someone did not act soon, things might get nasty.

All at once, Max leapt into action, flying across the arena. As he had expected, his opponent reacted fast as lightning. Max pulled his stroke and dove to the side, spinning clear of the confrontation. He noted the brief flare of…something before his foe's face fell into the stone mask of a warrior. Whirling about, Max swept the tip of his sword across the ground, stirring up a heavy cloud of dust, and found himself slicing toward the gladiator's unprotected back. The man's sword appeared as though from thin air—he had flipped it to an underhand grip to parry. The gladiator twisted his wrist, giving Max the chance to flick up even more dust as his sword tip plummeted. Max moved with the motion, tucking and rolling as the gladiator launched his first offensive. Max raised even more dust, though the spectators in the stands booed and jeered in open disappointment. The gladiator's sword whistled past his ear, and Max flipped to his feet, tangling their weapons and drawing far closer than sense demanded. After all, his opponent clearly held the upper hand in a contest of strength. But the proximity offered a chance to end the fight, a thing Max sorely wished to do.

Max caught the man's eye and jerked his head toward the gaping entrance to the pit. "Follow my lead," the little man hissed.

That same mysterious look flashed across the man's face. It might have been anything from surprise to bloodlust and back again.

The pair sprang apart as the dust began to settle, and Max knew that the cloud had served its purpose in masking their brief exchange. He darted in again, pulling up, as before, just short of making contact. His opponent watched him closely now—not his hands, as most fighters did, but his face. Convinced he had the man's attention at last, Max made one last, half-hearted jab before he broke and fled.

An explosion of boos and catcalls greeted his antics, and the string of a crossbow twanged nearby. Max swerved, narrowly avoiding the bolt, and continued on. A second string twanged, far too close, and Max had not time to dodge. I took this chance, but if I was wrong, I'll die here today. And yet Max hated being wrong.

Thankfully, today was not his day to go. The gladiator's sword flashed before Max's eyes, then disappeared. There came a clatter as Max realized the man raced abreast of him—the bolt struck the sand as the pair hurtled through the plain, square opening.

The two men did not stop there. Max tapped the gladiator's shoulder and veered off down a corridor even as the guards spilled out of the pit, close on their heels. Crossbow bolts bounced harmlessly off the stone walls. The gladiator matched Max easily step for step as they wound their way through a maze of corridors meant to confuse and disorient them; the many turns only served to protect them from the guards' vengeful wrath, for Max knew these halls too well to fall prey to their guile.

The gladiator seemed less confident. "Where are we going?"

Max shied away from him and took the next turn a bit too quickly. His feet tangled up in each other, and he dove into the fall, tucking his head and rolling gracefully to his feet, hardly breaking stride. The gladiator sprinted to catch up, but something about him had changed. He caught Max's elbow and spun the little man about, slamming him against the smooth stone wall. The breath whooshed from Max's lungs, and he lifted his sword to defend himself, but the gladiator hooked the hilt from his grip. The weapon spun across the floor and struck sparks against the opposite wall of the wide passageway.

"Talk to me, little man, and talk fast, now."

Max struggled to suck in sufficient air to appease him. "We're going…out…"

"Through here? This way leads back to the cages where we're kept!"

"Yes…I know…"

"What treachery is this?!"

Max winced as the gladiator pressed the arm he held to his throat a little bit harder. "One…of the cages…there's a hole…leads out…" His vision began to blur.

"How do you know?" the other man growled menacingly.

"I…made it…years ago…"

The man let him go abruptly, and Max slid to the floor, gasping and choking. "Then you're no newcomer here?"

"I was here," Max stopped and fell into a spasm of coughing before he was able to continue. "I was here…years ago. I used to…to steal the keys and sneak out, looking for an exit…Never found one, so I made one. We can take it…it was never discovered."

"What were you sent here for, little man?"

What a stupid thing to ask! They had to get moving, right now, and the dumb gladiator was asking about things that made no difference whatsoever to their escape! Still, Max had little choice but to humor him. "This time? Theft. Last time? It was a very long time ago, and I was much younger." He staggered to his feet. "What about you?" he asked politely, in the hopes of maintaining civility between them.

"I don't remember. I think I was born here."

Max shuddered at the thought of a man born and raised to no purpose other than killing people for the amusement of others, but there was little time to dwell on the issue. "Come on, we're got to hurry. They'll have sent up an alarm, and the whole compound will be under lockdown soon."

The gladiator nodded once, and they set, Max leading the way until they did, indeed, come across a hall lined on both sides by cages made entirely of strong iron bars.

At this point, instinct kicked in, for Max had traveled these paths more often in complete darkness than in any sort of light. Of course, that had been many, many years ago, but…Well, he had a very good memory.

They reached the cage in question without mishap, and both men skittered to a halt. Max felt his heart skip ahead. The cage was occupied. And locked.

The wretched figure within the cage shifted slightly. It looked like a woman, or else a very scrawny man. Then the person looked up, and the delicate nose and soft curves proved her femininity. Thinking quickly, Max lifted a finger to his lips.

"Hush! Listen carefully, we're here to bust you out." The gladiator at his side stiffened, but Max plowed ahead. "I need you to do exactly as I say, all right?" The woman fixed him with a stoic glare, and Max took the lack of response as an affirmative one. "Okay, I need you to get up and move your cot away from the corner there." The woman did so, though she moved ponderously slow. "Right. Now, right in the middle of the place where it used to be, you'll find that three of the bars have sections that break away…yeah, like that."

The sounds of approaching footsteps touched Max's ears. They did not have much time.

"Lift them out, and you'll be able to brush off the dirt and stuff beneath and you'll find a heavy hide…There you go!"

"Time's up, little man," the male gladiator hissed, pulling Max back, toward the nearest corner and out of sight.

"Now go, quickly, but pull the cot back into place!" Max whispered over his shoulder. Then he ducked around the corner, and not a moment too soon.

"…can't believe it happened, sir. The Captain's all up in arms about it."

"I can't believe he's making us do a head check. I've not been so deep into these tunnels in ages."

The voices came closer, then died down. The footsteps that accompanied them paused, then rushed ahead before stopping abruptly.

"Is this the right cell?"

"Yes, sir." Someone shuffled a sheaf of papers about. "There's even a feeding recorded for this morning."

"But there's no one in there."

"Sometimes they hide, sir. Here, allow me…"

A key scraped into an old, rusty lock, and then…click. Freedom.

Max and his gladiator friend burst from hiding and fell upon the two guards, who didn't stand a chance. Max snatched up the key ring and slid it across the floor and into the nearest cage and the gladiator moved aside the cot and…got stuck in the too-small hole that dropped into the sewage system beneath the compound.

"I was a lot smaller when I made good my first escape," Max offered helpfully as he rushed to the man's aid. "Give me your hands."

The man shot him a scathing glare, but there was not much he could do other than what Max commanded. Max took his hands and lifted them straight up, then placed a heavy boot on the man's shoulder and shoved. He slipped through the hole with a cry of dismay. Max started to lowered himself down to join the man, but the soft click of a second lock gave him pause. The cage into which he had thrown the keys must have been occupied. Things were about to get very, very interesting down here. Max wedged himself tight into against the edges of the hole and pulled the cot over his head, then rolled each of the three lengths of iron back in place and finally slipped the thick hide beneath them, adjusting it as best he could in the short time that he had. Then he dropped down to the slime-covered stones beneath.

"Where are we?" asked the gladiator, his voice very close.

Max reached out and touched his shoulder to find him in the complete darkness. "We're in the sewers beneath the compound. You know those waste holes built into the floor of each cage? This is where they lead. There's thick stone around the holes so that you can't widened them, but the rest of the floor has no such precautions built in. Hear that water? It's to our right. The waste from the holes falls into it and is carried far out of Ravenwood."

"Then we will come out far away from here?"

"Only as far as we wish," Max assured the larger man. "We can emerge back out at any of a hundred places within the city."

"I think…that I would like to leave this place."

"Me, too," Max agreed. "Let's go." He turned away, careful to keep in contact with his companion, and knelt to dip a single finger into the water that flowed through the center of the tunnel. "We've got to follow the flow to get out. It's this way." They had only gone a short distance, however, when Max ran right into something warm and solid.

"Ouch. Hey!" A small, but rough, hand passed over Max's face. "You're that guy who sent me down here!"

Oh, yeah. It was the other gladiator, the woman. "Yeah, that's me. Sorry about that, but I needed to guard to open your door so we could get out."

"How did you know that hole was there?"

"I made it, years ago."

"Really? And it's been there as long as I have?"

"I guess so, yeah."

There came a sound of flesh striking flesh, and Max got the distinct impression that the woman had just smacked herself. "Stupid, stupid, stupid! And I thought I'd checked everywhere in there!"

"Yeah, well, I did try to hide it. I couldn't have the guards finding out about it. So you were pretty knew to the pits, huh?"

A rustle of cloth indicated some movement Max could not see; perhaps she shook her head? "Nah, I'm a lifer for as long as I can remember."

Another pit baby? What was with the world these days? Had they run out of criminals and started breeding gladiators? "Whatever. Come on, you can come with us. We're getting out of here."