They came at three in the morning. The only warning was a backfiring truck, which at first they all thought was a gun shot. Still, a truck or a gunshot meant they were in trouble.
He was awake in a flash, tugging his boots on as he ran down the hall to his parent's room. His mother was getting the semi-automatic from under the bed, hair tied back and white nightgown billowing in the wind from the open window. It was summer, and the normal sound of crickets and toads was obviously missing. The silence was louder than their ceaseless peeping.
His father came charging up the stairs then, hand gun in both palms, face stricken. How could he have already gone downstairs then come back up again? There was no time to answer that question because his father was talking now, breathless and gasping but getting the words out all the same.
"Get your sister, get your bow and go to the woods. It's the Gladiator hunters," his mother's face turned white like the moon. Her hands began to shake on the gun even as she gripped it tighter and pressed her lips into a thin line.
"Ma, Da-" Father was handing him one of the hand guns and a box of ancient ammunition from before the disasters, and it was questionable whether it would even light let alone shoot straight. He took it anyway. His father put a hand on his shoulder and his mother kissed him, looking into his eyes and clawing his cheeks desperately.
"We love you son." Then she was pushing him away, shoving out the door to her room and down the hall. He stuffed the ammunition in his waist band as he ran to his room again. Slung against the closet door was his longbow, and he slipped it around his neck before shouldering his quiver. There was no time to waste on nostalgia, and in a moment he was in his sister's room.
She was still asleep, curled into a small ball on her cot and mumbling something about kittens. He had promised her one for her birthday in four days, even though they really couldn't afford one. He had yet to get it because he feared the cost if it got sick. If they made it through this, he would get her ten kittens.
"Lili you need to get up now," he whispered and stuffed the gun in his waist band too, scooping her up in his arms. She was too skinny, they all were, but at least she was light. She yawned hugely, giant blue eyes blinking a few times.
"Hi Roy," she said in a sleep muddled voice. "Where are we going?" Lili became more aware as he placed her on her feet and climbed out the bedroom window onto the small hill behind their meager house. He reached through the frame and lifted her out with him. She wore the night gown his mom had made out of an old sheet, and it dwarfed her. Her stuffed cat was clutched in her hand; its single eye stared at him.
"To the forest Lili," he said and cradled her in his arms again as he managed to hand her the ammunition and gun so he could sprint. His feet started smacking the ground, and for the first time he was glad their lawn was covered in moss and not the dry brittle grass others were so proud of. Roy's muscles strained under the extra weight his sister brought him. He wouldn't be able to keep this pace up for long, even having done physical labor his whole life. The little downhill made it easier, and he flew towards the pond at the bottom, dodging between the sparse bushes. After the pond was the forest, and it would be near impossible for the hunters to find them there. The thought just made him run faster, breath coming in gasps. Lili was smart, smart enough to know now was the time to be quiet even as Roy tripped over a branch in the dark and nearly spilled her into pond.
There was a scream of rage and a gunshot blew out the back window in their house. It didn't even register that it had been his window until much later. There was more incomprehensible shouting and then the real fight began. The semi-automatic went off with a blast, and it didn't stop. It was like that all over the village of twenty houses, a market, and a bunker they called school. People were fighting for their children, and their lives. The Hunters would not be merciful.
The moon glittered on the still water of the pond, and the cat tails swayed in the light breeze. Crickets' chippered quieter than usual and the frogs were utterly still. Roy had to stop running; the mud around the pond was treacherous and slippery. He did not want to fall into the water and alert the Hunters to their position, or worse, get stuck. He cast a quick glance back at the house, where the gun shots had suddenly silenced. For a moment he feared the worst, but then voices started up again. With a quick sigh he continued, feet making a careful path across the slick ground.
The forest engulfed them. Pines, taller than the broken remains of the cell phone tower, scrapped the stars with dark needles. Oaks with carpets of early acorns underneath provided easier climbing trees, and Roy headed for one of those. He probably should have headed deeper into the wood, but he wanted to stay close to the house. He wanted to see what happened to their parents.
He placed Lili on the ground carefully, not wanting her to cut her feet and leave blood. If the Hunters had dogs it would be a dead giveaway. Few could afford to keep dogs, since they didn't feed themselves like cats did, but those with money and things to find and/or protect made an exception. It all came down to money, power, fuel and water. If you had one, you most likely had all four. Roy didn't have time to ponder the mysteries of post disaster UPAE, not when Lili had to get up this tree.
She was a better climber than he was, but she was so small he stood her on his shoulders so she could reach the first branch. With her small feet she easily clambered up over the lip and he handed her the gun, the ammunition, and finally her stuffed cat. Not for the first time he thanked the bow designer for allowing for free movement when carried. Roy pulled himself up beside her and she opened her mouth to speak. He put a finger to his lips and shook his head. Not yet.
So they climbed higher, grabbing branches, digging their toes in the bark, passing up the gun, the ammunition, and the cat in stages until finally Roy new if he went any higher the tree's limbs would break. Lili stopped too, but he shook his head.
"No Lili, you need to go as high as you can. I'll wait here,"
"Yes Roy," she said in her willowy voice. Then she was just rustles in the leaves, climbing higher and higher. As long as she didn't go too high, for if she fell she would not survive. He shifted his weight, checking the gun and clicking back the safety. Even after a few moments his leg muscles began to tighten up and he shifted his weight again, trying to ease the mounting pain.
"Roy?" Lili's whispered.
"Yes?" he said back.
"What happened to Mommy and Daddy?" she questioned. Roy closed his eyes and braced himself for the lies he was going to tell.
"Nothing Lili. They're fine. Don't worry about them." She was silent for a while before asking another question he would not be able to answer.
"What is going to happen to us?" her soft voice glittered like falling rain around him. Another lie bubbled up on his lips, but instead he told the truth.
"You will be fine Lili, don't worry." Well a half-truth then. More quiet and then words extremely close to silence.
"What is going to happen to you, Roy?" a stick cracked about fifteen meters away. They were lucky Lili was so soft spoken or their position would have been revealed instantly. Lili was immediately soundless.
"Damn it!" swore a deep voice, which was immediately followed by a hiss obviously meant to shut up. For the first time Roy picked up the snuffling of dogs, he could practically smell the raw flesh on their breath as the black beasts appeared in the undergrowth.
"He was here," said a higher feminine voice. "The dogs smell him. And… they've stopped." Roy placed the gun and ammunition beside him and selected and arrow from his quiver. He would get one shot, and it would have to be a clean kill. The remaining woman would not be able to tell where the shot had come from if he did this right. Roy drew back the wire until it was taught, aimed down him arm with one eye closed, and released the black shafted arrow. With a faint twang it jumped from the draw string like a panther on the hunt. The man made no sound as the arrow pierced his temple and revealed itself on the other side of his skull. He remained standing for a moment before toppling to the leaf litter. It was just like hunting during a solar flare, except these were people. The dogs began baying, but each was silenced with a bolt to the heart. Roy took aim a fourth time, closing one eye and pulling back on the bow string. But before he got a chance to shoot, the woman spoke.
"We all know you're here!" she shouted. "If you don't reveal yourself to one of us, we'll kill your parents, and then set this forest on fire for good measure," her voice purred. "Trust me; I'll be more merciful than the others when they realize you've killed me." The sound of a safety going into the off position assured his choice. They didn't know Lili was here, and wouldn't look for her if he went peacefully. The first tree they set on fire would be this one, and if he had a chance to save her, he had to take it. He could save his parents too; they would be fine without him hunting. He could save all the other children cowering in the forest, the few who had the sense to do so.
"I'm waiting," she said, and he could hear the smile in her voice. Roy checked to make sure the gun would not dislodge, he wanted to leave Lili with some protection. Then, with the ease of many years practice, he switched from the tree he was in to the one beside it before dropping to the ground behind the woman. The pine needles muffled his foot falls to near nothing, but somehow the Hunter discerned them from the ambient noise and whirled to face him. Long white fingers clutched and expensive looking gun, though they were not her most stunning feature. Her hair was like an inferno, so red it seemed to be made of live flames. It exploded out from a rounded face that was twisted with cruelty.
"You made the right choice," she tittered. "Now, drop your bow," he did as he was asked. "And your quiver." It fell to the ground with a clunk, spilling his precious shafts on to the leaves. She lowered her gun and stepped close to him, reaching down to her belt. From there she unhooked what looked like a single, giant metal hand cuff.
The Gladiator Hunter stepped too close for comfort, running the same fingers that had held the gun around his jaw. Her hot breath tickled his ear as she leaned close to him, a laugh in her voice.
"I cannot see you in this blasted dark, but from what I've heard of you…" she trailed off and then quicker than he thought possible she snapped the ring around his neck and jumped away. "You'll make me Jax's favorite." A leather belt attached the collar to her hand, where she twined it once around her wrist and yanked.
Roy stumbled forward, gasping as his breath was cut off for a moment. Fury dropped his gaze; because if he looked at her any longer he'd take the knife strapped to the inside of his arm and gut her.
"Come now boy," she trilled and began dragging him forward. He let her, keeping his face impassive as they trudged up the hill he had run down not thirty minutes before. She talked aimlessly, seemingly not expecting an answer. Roy glared at her back. Maybe if he stared hard enough she would disintegrate.
"So boy, we know you can kill easily, and are good with a bow. All useful skills in the Gladiator fights. I cannot wait to get to the lights so I can do a real evaluation… Jax's going to be thrilled that we caught you. That I caught you, now remember that boy. Me, no one else. I'm glad you killed that Klak. Glory was he stupid," Roy tuned her out as they passed by the side of his house, and a faint halo glowed over the roof. That had to be the lights she had been talking about. He could see right into his room, his rumpled bed and the faded posters that had been glued to the walls since before the disaster. He had not the heart to tear them down. The empty cup that had contained his night ration of water, and the pill bottle he had found one day tossed carelessly on the side of the road sat like vigilant guards on his nightstand. Instead of godly expensive medication the pill bottle now contained pencils and one or two pens once used for homework. Then he was out of view, and the shards of glass that had once been his window disappeared around the corner of the house.
That was the last time he ever saw his room.
Roy blinked in the sudden light clenching his fists to ease the pain in his senses. His once tidy little village was in shambles around him. Garbage cans were over turned, small fires burned everywhere, one house had been reduced to rubble. And the blood. It was everywhere. Sprayed on the inside of windows, dripping from catches in rusted fences, staining the pavement under one of his former neighbors who now lied still. It was on the lips of those who leaned coughing against concrete wall and rushed through the eyes of the Hunters. Giant lights were set on stands and turned the darkest of it into a brilliant crimson. Five trucks with their own stains were parked on the street which had been asphalt before his time but was now black dirt. Two were tractor-trailers.
The children lined up behind the open doors. The girls ranged from ten to eighteen, the boys twelve to twenty. He knew them all, had spoken with them at one time or another, and now they were being herded like cattle to either be sold as slaves of forced to fight for the entertainment of slaughterous crowds. June, one of Lili's friends, stumbled and fell. A man came along and prodded her with a metal pole. From her sharp cry, it had to be electrified. Roy wasn't headed to that trailer. He was forced toward the second one, where the boys were lined up.
Roy was stopped short right in front of his house and he looked at his captor to see why. She was gesturing franticly, making cutting motions across her neck. However, the man with a heavy brow and the mega phone did not seem to see her.
"These two killed three of our men in their desperate bid to save their child. Though we wounded them, we could not seem to kill them in a fire fight. Only threatening to set the forest on fire stopped them. Now, it was all in vain, we got their child, and what a prize he is!" he shouted, gesturing in Roy's direction. The two trussed up figures turned their heads, and Roy was met with the eyes of his mother and father. They sat on the front step, legs and hands tied, gags in their mouths. His mother's eyes widened when she glanced around him and did not see Lili. He shook his head slowly, to show she was not dead. Both his parents visibly relaxed, though they looked at him sadly, on a collar like all the rest of the children. The man continued his murderous rant. "They resisted. And for it, they will become an example for all!" Roy watched in growing horror as his parents were tossed inside his house, the door jammed with the bench that had sat on the front porch. A small round object was placed in the heavy browed man's hand and by now the flaming headed girl was screaming, jumping up and down. Still she was ignored. The pin was pulled, the ball tossed through the window that had once been in the front door. The man turned for the first time, a confused look flittering over his face. "Mary?" he asked. For a moment there was silence.
In the next, his entire world went up in flames.
The few remaining windows blew and heat washed over him as the roof caught from the underside. Ash danced from every cranny, twirling higher into the air. Roy stood there dumbstruck. He had just watched his parents murdered. He felt his eye twitch just the slightest and heat washed across his view of the world, coloring everything like the rosy fingered dawn. Murdered. When it finally sank in, he reacted like a caged lion, bidding at it's one chance of escape.
With a growl he twisted form Mary's grip, the leash dangling down in front of him, barely scraping the ground. His fingers tore through the fabric of his sleeve and then his knife was in his hand. He jumped at Red-head Mary, and she let out a shriek as he slashed at her. He missed piercing all the vital organs but he felt resistance in the blow, and when he pulled the blade away it was stained. Mary crumpled, clutching her stomach and keening. Bloody Mary. Someone grabbed at his shoulder but he slashed back, dislodging whomever it was as they fell away screaming. Two men were coming at him from the front now, and he got into a crouch, preparing to die to avenge his parents.
"Don't kill him! Don't kill him!" the murderer of his parents was shouting as he ran towards the scene. "Look at his face! Look at his face!" The two approaching did, and their eyes lit up. Roy snarled and lunged at them, but the pair had been eating better their entire lives and he stood little chance. Roy cut ones wrist and the others leg, but it barely seemed to faze them. One grabbed his arm as the other made for the leash but he jerked, keeping the scared brute's fingers grasping thin air. Roy was free again, and he made a break for it. In reality there was no chance for fleeing. Four more men joined the circle and one caught his shoulder, twisting his arm behind his back. Roy cried out, and the knife skittered away along with his last hopes, sullied by the black dust and scuffed boots. Another Hunter grabbed his leg and then another, until he was reduced to kicking and scratching as he was lifted form the ground. One man grabbed his choke collar and yanked, but he just fought harder as his breath was stolen too. Letting out an infuriated scream he lashed out. He twisted and writhed; using all the strength he had left in his last try for escape. The hands to loosened for a moment, but held, and it was over.
"Bind him and get Whither over here. We need him assured,"
"Yes Jax," said one of the men not holding him and he ran towards the female truck and out of sight. Mary lies before Roy, gasping. Her mouth opened and closed like the fish he used to catch in the pond, trying desperately to breath in an unfamiliar world. Her unblinking eyes rolled towards another woman who strode into view, hands resting on separate pistols. A set of knives was strapped to her back and each blade was stained slightly pink. She looked Mary up and down, her face not changing from its perfectly neutral mask. There was a blast, and hole appeared in his red head captor's forehead. Her labored breathing stopped. Her eyes, once glinting in near madness, sat like two white marbles in her skull. Unblinking and dead.
"Wither," snapped Jax but the woman barely spared him a glance.
"Mercy kill. She was not going to make it. Besides," her voice was clipped and as harsh as her cheek bones. "I'm here representing Hector. You work for Hector, so you also work for me." Wither turned her shaved head towards Roy, now bound at the hands and feet along with his neck collar. Black eyes glittered in deep sockets and they flickered over his form.
"Hmm," she muttered and stepped closer, running spidery fingers over his cheeks and peeling his lips back to examine his teeth. When she pried the fangs apart, he snapped at her, catching the tip of her finger and filling his mouth with the coppery tang of blood. Instead of swearing like he expected, she smiled as she shook out her hand. "Fights till the last ray of hope is snuffed out." She took his ragged hair between her fingers and rubbed it, making a noise of approval. Roy jerked his head away and she chuckled. "Hold him." The grip on his arms tightened and new hands joined the pack as they gripped his neck. She flicked a knife from its sheathe and sliced his shirt right down the middle. She flicked the fabric aside as if it was of no consequence and ran her fingers over his abdominal muscles.
"Well-muscled, if not a little skinny. That can be easily fixed," her voice was like shattering glass. Then to his utter mollification she slipped her hand below his waist line and groped into his underwear. She grabbed him and made an appreciative noise. She pulled away and Roy dropped his gaze in humiliation.
"He is beautiful," she said. There is no awe in her voice or any sense that she was giving a compliment. She was just stating a fact in her mind. "Fae like. Bring him in; Hector will pay through the nose to get him." With that Wither turned away and strode from his view. Jax smiled crookedly at Roy and patted his cheek.
"You'll make me rich boy, even though it cost me five men and two dogs. It'll all be worth it," and then Jax was gone too. They dragged him by the scruff of his neck to the trailer, and he did not resist. They gagged and blindfolded him, not caring if he could barely breathe, jerking his head from side to side. Then, they shoved him into the boys trailer where he sprawled on the cold corroded floor, a heap of legs and arms. Unable to move into a more comfortable position
"Roy?" said a voice he recognized, but he wouldn't have answered even if he could. His throat was closed with despair and tears streaked down his face as the truck started, rumbling off into the deathless night.
That was the last time he cried, even as he was beaten and sworn at and wounded in battle; he never shed a single tear. Even when Wither looked at him and sneered. Even when Hector himself came to hit him personally for not fighting hard enough, even during his first 'private session' with those who could pay enough to see him near naked and whipped in shackles. Never.
So why, as he sat here on the edge of the piece of furniture that barely qualified for a bed, did he want to curl up into a ball and cry like the child he had not been for two years?
"Boy!" Hector bellowed from somewhere down the hall. He didn't move to get up. Instead when the man's silhouette made an appearance on his floor he simply turned his face towards the creature that owned his body and gotten rich off of it.
"Sir?" he asked, but there was no emotion in his voice. That had left with the third beating.
"Why are you not ready?" his voice was icy as it slithered past his cracked lips. "This is the biggest fight of your career. You've trained two years for this moment."
"Don't tell me you don't want to kill. I know that you can," glittering gold eyes narrowed as he spoke, dark brows slanting in a way that usually meant he was about to be slapped. A hand with a single ring rose to do just that, but the sun saved him. The lights flickered, surged, then with a soft sigh all the power in the western hemisphere disappeared. Distracted, Hector lowered his hand. "Damn it!" he shouted and strode from the room, bellowing for some Klak to go to the front gates and take the money. Roy didn't move, and now that his windowless room was dark, he curled up on his sheets and stared at the wall, though he didn't see the rough gray surface. He was lost in his own mind, not really thinking at all.
Sometime later an age roughened voice came from the door.
"Falcon, you must get up. You need to get ready for your fight, quickly now, Hector is in one of his rages, and you won't be marked to win with a hand print on your face,"
"Yes sir," he said and stood slowly, cracking his back and neck as he went.
"Falcon, I told you not to call me that. You are more master to me than I to you," snarled hands gripped the door frame and Roy turned to face tired eyes. His perpetually marble face softened a little.
"I'm sorry John. I forget sometimes," two blue irises smiled at him.
"Better for you to call me sir than to slip up and call Hector by his name," Roy knew this simple mistake could cause him to have difficulty walking for a week.
"Don't scare me John," he tried to smile with his words, but in the process it cracked and showed his true anxiousness underneath. The old Gladiator gestured and Roy left his room, hopefully not for the last time.
The armory was filled with sweating boys and men, lit only by the faint light that found its way through the 'frosted' windows. In reality they were so caked with hundreds years of dust they could never be clean. Candles burned in each Gladiators personal station, allowing them to see the buckles to strap the armor to their chests. The flames cast boys into demons and bathed everything in blood. This added to the noise of weapons clanging against metal turned the armory into hell. When the solar flares affects wore off during the night, the fluorescent lights would buzz to life, bringing the room back into the reality of the locker room it had been two hundred years ago.
John led him from the main room into an off shoot, the Posterboys' personal dressing room. And there was his poster, taped above his locker. The day he took the photo he had spent near two hours with a makeup and clothing crew. He just sat there and said nothing, did what they told him but showed no personality. He took the photos the same way, but the photographer managed to make him look aloof. Maybe there was a setting for emotion on the lens. The background was plain black, and Dark Falcon was written in sliver letters across the bottom of the page. The women told him he looked like a god in the photo.
He thought he looked dead.
"Come now, we need to hurry, we only have a little while," John had already taken the helmet from the locker, and the embossed silver painted breastplate was next. Roy stripped to his undershorts, and pulled on the light archer's trousers, black as his hair. Spurred silver boots were next, then the oil. He rubbed it into his skin with habitual movements. He raised his arms to allow for John to pull the mail over his head and then stretched them wide so the buckles could be done up correctly.
"How is this troop on fighters?" Roy asked only to fill the silence that was allowing him to think too much. This was his first un-choreographed fight, his first death tournament. He knew it was a full stadium, and originally his fight was to take place at night under the lights. They moved it up because of the flare, and nothing electrical would be working. That meant no guns, no electronic bet makers, no ticket takers, and no ICU if he bled halfway to death on the patchy turf.
"Not as well off as us. Three Posterboys, and around thirty Klaks. They travel by caravan convoy, this means less practice time. You're taking on Tiger. Hector didn't tell you?" John said as he strapped Roy in.
"He was about to when the flare came," He replies, voice slightly muffled as he readjusts his helmet. The silver wings flaring off the black metal had obscured his vision. Finally ready he snaps his scabbard into place and hefts his quiver over his shoulder, grasping his gorgeous bow in one fist. The one good thing of his new life was this bow. It glittered in the candles, painted black. The long bow had amazing strength, and his silver shafted arrows could easily pierce through cheap armor from across the fight zone.
"You know you're not going to be able to use that," John says and points a curled finger at Roy's pride.
"I know," his voice is surprisingly smooth, and he is proud of himself for it. Internally he is quaking. John puts a comforting hand on his shoulder and steers him from the room, guiding him to the launching point. His horse, Kicker, is being held by two nervous looking Klak's, their eyes shifty and feet shuffling in the dust. Kicker was fidgety as well, snorting and stamping his hooves. He must realize the importance of what they were about to do. He took the reins from the two gladiators, one even younger than himself. He pitied the boy, probably taken from his home just like he had been. He wouldn't meet his eyes, few Klak's did. They were the ugly ones, the brutes, the ones the crowds wanted to lose. Few of their fights were real, and they rarely ended in death. Only a Klak had a chance to live to old age. Posterboys on the other hand, were hard to come by, extremely expensive, and their life expectancy was twenty four. He would try and make the best of the eight minutes/years he had left.
The two fled, practically running from Roy and his horse of the night. Kicker wasn't actually black, but he had been painted to match Roy's theme. John handed up his bow and showed his faith in him with a smile that nearly had the Gladiator in tears.
"John, if I don't make it-" Roy was cut off.
"You will make it Falcon. I have faith in you," and Roy believed him. That's why he told him something he had not told anyone here, the only piece of himself that he had managed to keep.
"My name is Roy," his voice was hushed, and he glanced around, making sure no one could have overheard. John was dumbstruck, mouth agape. Roy had gotten beaten many times for not revealing his name, but finally Hector relented and settled on calling him boy when he was in a good mood, and numerous other things when he was in a bad mood. Roy curled his lips up for the man, clicked to Kicker and walked him forward, into the metal cage where he waited to be announced.
The sun was setting, coloring everything in shades of gold and orange. The crowd was roaring, and he could only make out two words in the din.
"Fight! Kill! Fight! Kill!" the chant rippled through the spectators who had paid money for ancient plastic seats so high in the stands they could barely see the fight zone, a white circled painted on top of what had once been turf. His eyes danced to the boxes extremely close to the zone. These were the expensive seats, and these would be the people he would see in his private session later. If he lived.
The women's hair was twisted into elegant knots, hats perched on the side of their heads like tropical birds. Their lips were all painted blood red, and cruel smiles passed between them. The men wore suits and bowling hats, and they did not hide their disdain for one another like the women did, handshakes a little too tight. That was the first time Roy saw him. He sat in the back of the box, hat noticeably missing, gray hair splintered with black. Instead of watching the woman next to him with an extremely low cut dress and eyes of a cat, his own pair rested on Roy. They seemed to be able to make out his position, even though it should have been impossible with the shadows he wore as a cloak. The man fiddled with some machine in his lap, but when he looked up his eyes were where they should be.
The anticipation amongst the bloodthirsty crowd was nearly physical when the announcer shouted,
"LADIES AND GENTLE MEN, I GIVE YOU THE CHALLENEGER FROM THE TROOP OF AJAX, TIGER!" the throng roared like the fighters namesake, their feet pounding thunder into the metal grates. The gate directly opposite Roy was drawn back, and from behind it burst a chestnut horse, eye rolling as it shook its mane, prancing around the ring. On its back sat Tiger, his name obviously coming from the claw like slashes across one cheek, a scar women would pay through the nose to kiss. He wore black and orange striped cloak, a fake fur or some kind. His armor was gold and shining, nothing special. His helmet was rather basic, sign of a poorer troop. He was the classic Posterboy, tanned skin, light brown curled hair, tall and broad through the chest and shoulders. He looked like the old gladiators would have. He let out a war cry, something vulgar about what he was going to do to Roy's corpse. He seemed to be all brawn and no tactics what so ever, but Roy caught the intelligent gleam in his dark brown eyes. He would not underestimate this man.
"AND NOW, THE REIGNING CHAMPION," the announcer was stretching it a little, but you couldn't tell in the intonation of his voice. "FROM THE TROOP OF HECTOR, DARK FALCON!" the crowd screamed as the gates swished open. With a burst of inspiration Roy knocked a silver arrow, drew back on the bow and took aim.
The crest of Tiger's helmet sheared off the base, sending black and orange fibers raining down around the man he was set to kill. The arrow itself skittered away on the ground. Those in the mob shrieked with joy, and the people in the box gasped. Tiger himself seemed to be speechless. Roy then drew from the dark cavern, keeping Kicker pulled back. He jerked his head forward, wanting to show the other horse he meant business. Roy's thighs were sore from squeezing so hard into Kicker's flank to keep the battle horse back, but he had to remain aloof. That was his bid. Showing no emotion was what got him rented, by Hector's idea. He drew even with Tiger, circling, sizing him up. The other Gladiator's eyes roamed over him, and his lip curled upwards into a snarl.
"THIS WILL BE HAND TO HAND, SWORDS ONLY! FIGHTERS DISMOUNT AND TAKE YOUR STANCES," so it wasn't going to be on horseback. John had been right about him not being able to use his bow. He left is slung over the saddle as he handed the reins to a Klak he did not really know. He drew his sword, and it hissed like a poisonous snake from its sheath. Nothing ornate, the decoration would get in the way during a real fight. Tiger did the same.
"READY!" a collective breath was taken in. "BEGIN!" Roy began his dance.
Flipping the sword around in his hand he lunged, a quick strike meant to throw off more than harm. Tiger was set immediately off balance and swerved away. Impressively quick he regained his footing and lunged directly at Roy, slashing downwards. He blocked it easily, metal hitting metal with a clang and then slipping away from the other with a hiss. Tiger came back in for side stab that left his side dangerously exposed. Roy dodged and swept down in a neat arc, slamming the hilt of his sword into Tiger's opposite shoulder. With a snap it dislocated and the warrior let out a scream, scrambling away as he popped it back in, breath coming in wet and heavy gasps. Roy went after him, flicking from side to side with his blade, never going in for a direct hit, just trying to nick the skin or shatter a finger, weakening his opponent in incriminates. Tiger came in for an overhead, both hands gripping the long sword. His chest was wide open, and Roy could have killed him then. Instead he simply cut the buckles that held the gold plated armor to the teenager's chest. It clanged to the ground and the crowd went wild. The socialites in the box clapped appreciatively, a few women fluttering their hands and laughing. Roy was toying with this warrior whose fineness was lacking, and the spectators knew it. When Tiger rapidly attacked in a series of quick jabs that were desperate and such a neat exposure it almost seemed purposeful, it hit Roy so hard he stopped fighting and nearly got impaled. He managed to keep moving so the blade, just missing his eye, glanced off a wing decorating his helmet. Tiger came down in another massive swing. Roy caught the blade and they held, locking together, a battle of strength and will.
"You want to die," Roy whispered and leaned forward, putting all his weight behind the blade. Tiger met his eyes.
"No one wants to die," he replied, spinning away and disengaging. The truth was as plain as the scars on his face.
Roy came up and under, trying to dislodge Tiger's weapon from his grip. That was one thing the Gladiator would not allow. He twirled the blade neatly away, and they locked again, much to the observers' pleasure.
"I can do it quick," he hissed between clenched teeth, holding off the more heavily muscled man. "I can do it painlessly." Tiger's face tightened.
"Really," and he broke hold again, coming at Roy halfheartedly.
"Really," he replied and jerked his foot out, tripping the gladiator and sending him down to one knee, hands catching the dirt while clinging to his blade. Roy then lifted his sword high above his head, shouting to the frenzied crowd.
"You have lost. And I condemn you, Tiger, to execution." His voice rolls like chilled water from his mouth.
The blade comes down with a swish, the air parting in its wake. It finds resistance in the spine, but not enough to slow it down. There was a squelch, a thump, and a cheer so loud his ears rang for a minute afterwards. Roy cringed internally as warm liquid splattered his lower half. He knows what he has to do, not daring to close his eyes even though he wished he could. Grabbing the now separated head by the hair, he holds it aloft, the leftover blood making its way down his arm and too the ground. For the first time he catches the peaceful smile on Tiger's face, and he nearly vomits then and there. Roses so red they are nearly blood rain down around him, but he doesn't take notice. All he can see are those two brown eyes forever staring at the stained patch of turf, the last thing Tiger ever saw.
Hector strides onto the field, arms raised in triumph. The home crowd cheers as he takes the chestnut horse from the contending troops Klak. Roy hands him the head, not wanting to touch it any more. Not that he wanted to touch it in the first place. Hector parades his new trophies around the fight zone as the cheap seats file out. The box seats are ushered down the ramp into the private session room. Impossibly soon, it is just Hector and Roy in the twilight.
"You did well today boy," he says with a grin, slapping him on the back though he is a few inches shorter. Most people are shorter than Roy, though he is not freakishly tall. Something around six two he'd say. "Very well. By glory that crowd sure got their money's worth," he chuckles.
"Thank you sir," he replies mechanically.
A man appears in the box, and he climbs over the edge with grace unprecedented in his suit. He holds out his hand to Hector as he approaches, and the owner of this stadium and residential Gladiator troop shakes it. The blood smears from palm to palm and the head is discarded like trash in the dust.
"Good evening to you sir. My name is Michael and might I say, I must compliment your fine establishment. Rarely have I seen someone deal with a solar black out too efficiently," the man's voice is like as smooth as an egg. It was the man who was staring at Roy earlier.
"Why thank you. It took quite a long time to figure out the betting, but we did," Hector shows just a little too much teeth in his smile. Never one to walk around things, he gets right to the point. "But you did not avoid my chauffeurs and climb over the box to compliment me on my company."
"So quick to judge! Ah, but you have hit the truth with a stone. I am not here to compliment your company. In fact, I am here to buy a piece of it," he points at Roy. "I would like to buy Dark Falcon from you. Money is of no object. Name your price and you have it." This man was taking no chances. He wanted him, and he was making it so easy for Hector to deny his request Roy nearly go to his knees and begged him to just shoot Hector and take him away from this hell. Even if it was too a different hell.
Hector was already shaking his head.
"What if you were to take him to a different Gladiator Company? A different Troop even?" His voice was jagged with danger. It was the man's turn to shake his head.
"No. And waste a beauty like him? I think not," Hectors eyes seemed to catch on fire with greed. Roy's own heart froze up. A man? A man wants him like… oh glory he'd heard of it from the other poster boys but…
"Oh. I see. Still, he is not for sale. Maybe you'll have a chance to rent him after his private showing," Hectors palm splays open, presenting a horizontal target for the man. At first, Roy had no idea what he was doing; just thanking someone Hector was not selling him off. The man with glimmering blue eyes laid down five hundred dollars. Hectors fist closed over the tokens.
"Of course, you could reserve him now." Roy's heart plummeted. His face remained impassive, almost bored.
"Name your price."
"Three thousand." The man pulled out the money like it was nothing more than the plastic chips it was stamped on and handed it to Hector. "You have him for the night." And for the first time in his entire career as a gladiator, Roy saw Hector nervous. He rang his hands like wet cloth when he next spoke. "He had never been with a man before. He might not take it too well," Damn right he would not take it well. He hoped his disgust was not showing on his face as a hand grabbed hold of his chin and jerked it.
"Don't worry," said the blue eyed man. "I like it when they scream."
And he was gone, back to the private session room. Roy just mirrored his expression inside his head. Blank. Utterly featureless. No need to think about what was coming tonight. No need to think about what was coming in a few minutes.
"We need to get you down to the private session room, clean you up a little so we can sell the bloody rags. By glory, we might just have you do this more often." he began walking back towards the entrance cage, and Roy followed. "An offer already, and not even from another Troop! Ah, you're gonna make me richer than I already am!" he rubbed his hands together while he laughed. The darkness engulfed them for a moment, then they were back in the armory, now empty. Hector shoved him into his dressing room, where John was already waiting with stacks of damp towels. The older man's face was grim, but while he stripped and unresponsive Roy down, he whispered,
"Good job, Roy." and the corners of his marble lips lifted in the slightest.
"Come on, come on!" Hector said, tapping his leather shod foot on the floor in staccato rhythm. Tap. Tap Tap Tap. Tap. Ta-tap. Tap. Tap Tap Tap. Tap.
"Sorry sir, just trying to use as many towels as possible." John replies, not bothering to try and clean the dried blood of his archer's trousers.
"Good, good," replies Hector distractedly, fixing a piece of his slicked hair in the mirror. The gel made it a shade lighter, he was vain enough to want as pure a blond as he could get. "Get on with it then."
After his breast plate had been cleaned, John put it back on. Roy barely managed to lift his arms. His mind was gone, he had shut down. It was better that way. It meant he would not feel the pain in the coming minutes. It also meant he would not have to think about those eyes, and that smile on Tiger's head. Or that he would be screaming tonight.
Hector grabbed his arm and dragged him towards the locked door in the corner of the armory. Without fumbling he opened the door and almost as an afterthought handed Roy a mint to chew as they walked up the stairs. He knew better than to ask what it was for. Why would he need fresh breath if he was going to get whipped? So when he screamed the people in the front row wouldn't pass out? Finally he reached the top of the chairs, sweating a little where the metal rubbed up against bare skin. His mail shirt had not been replaced. Wither would need a bare back after she took off the armor. The black shod man opened the small door in the back of the stage and went out on to the wooden platform. Roy stayed behind the curtain, alone in the yellow square from the lamp light.
"Welcome to Dark Falcon's private session. After a wondrous and bloody battle our own champion has come out on top." At this point Roy strode out on to the stage with a smattering of applause. He turned his head toward the noise, but his face remained impassive. No expression. No expression. No expression. "He performed perfectly. This deserves something special, for both you," Two Klaks snapped him into the restraints. There was a giant steel ring, nearly eight feet tall. Two shackles dangled from above, and they held his arms slightly above his head, forcing him to reveal his chest. The Klaks hook a chain to his collar. Hector smiles and cool ice slides down Roy's spine. "And him." That is when his fellow Posterboys strode from the other side of the petit stage, dressed only in loin cloths. A few women giggled behind their palms, and the team winked accordingly. Roy knew what was coming and immediately tensed up, swearing silently to himself. Music meant to drive sex started somewhere and the lights dimmed a little. Roy had taken part in these showings before, but not actively. Him, being the statue of the group, just had to stand in the back and glare at the women, and men, whose gazes rolled over his body like ocean waves. Now, well, he didn't have that choice. Wither smiled at him from the back of the room, looking up from the knife she was cleaning momentarily.
"Enjoy the session." Hector laughed and went to stand in the back, right beside the man with the splintered hair. Roy was confused for a moment. Those eyes held pity, buried deep inside. That made no sense. He was the one who wanted him to scream.
Ex came at him first. His practice coarsened hands took Roy's hair roughly in their grip. Roy had always liked Ex, though he didn't really show it. The man was funny, just two years older than Roy himself. His eyes were apologetic and he managed to get out advice before he began the dance.
"Just go with it, and move as much as possible," and then their lips were pressed together.
To Roy's mollification, it was his first kiss. He'd kissed the women who rented him, he'd had sex before, but no one had ever kissed him. His skin sure, but never his lips. Almost like it was too emotionally real for them, or maybe they wanted something more exciting from the body they had rented for the night. Why couldn't they have sent the women? He thought to himself as fingers unsnapped his armor. Why did it have to be Posterboys? The hands began to knead his shoulders and back, and legs, and chest. They started easy, letting him get used to it, but these people weren't here for easy. Roy had closed his eyes a minute ago, pretending the lips on his own were a beautiful girls. He estimated how to do it the best he could, and he guessed it was going well because Ex was clutching at him and groaning through his chest as their lips came apart and twisted back together again in a vicious battle for dominance. Or maybe that was part of the show; Roy had always pulled himself far away during these sessions. That was about when the fingers touched the inside of his leg, close to his crotch. He jerked in surprise and realized what the restraints were for. Ex left his lips then, and made his way down his throat, pinching the skin with his teeth. Roy tried to muffle the sharp intake of breath as the same process was repeated all over his body. There were faint gasps from the crowd followed by a wave of cool air quickly replaced by… oh Glory he did not want to know what but it felt damn good and he hated himself for thinking so. He simply strained against the chains threw his head back as his eyes rolled up in his head and moaned, much to the satisfaction of the aristocrats. Probably about then was when the riding crop came down for the first time, and he was not expecting it. A prickled cry escaped his lips before he could stop it, and a woman giggled. Roy focused enough to see the crowd for a moment. The women fanned themselves with programs, their faces flushed with excitement. Then men's eyes were glittering with something or another, but there was only one expression Roy cared about. The man in the back, sitting next to Hector. The one who had pre-ordered him. His bright blues eyes were open wide, but his hands clasped each other so tightly Roy feared the bones would snap. His face was bled white and mouth pressed into a thin, blood hued line. Ex's lips came back, but in-between the painful teeth filled lip locks came the words,
"Keep going, keep going, keep going. Come on Falcon. Give it to them and it'll be over." So he did. He writhed beneath the bodies, showing more emotion than he had in the past two years through his reactions. The riding crop kept coming down, but he barely noticed. It'll be over faster. It'll end soon, it has to end soon.
Finally, the new form of torture ceased and he collapsed limp against the cuffs that dug into his wrists. He didn't even notice that he was naked, nor at this point did he care. Bruises were already blooming like poison flowers all over his skin, their stems the welts and their seeds the hickeys up and down his body. His breath came in hot wet gasps, and his hair fell limply across his forehead. Hector was talking but he didn't hear him, all he could hear was his heart in his ears, pumping its mirth. Someone detached him from the torture machine and charged his collar to prepare for rent. Not returned by morning, and he would die by the next one as the collar slowly poisoned his blood stream. First, he would get very sick; slowing whomever was trying to steal him down. Pleasant. His arm was wrapped around a man's shoulder and he was practically dragged from the room and down a flight of stairs. The rising moon was what jerked him from the deepest recesses of his mind.
"Come on now, just a little farther," and it was so much like what Ex had said earlier he turned to the side and vomited all over the pavement. Arms tuck soft cotton around his shoulders and help him to stand again. Roy doesn't even turn to see the man who shows him so much kindness. He knows who he will see. A car door opens, and Roy stands swaying in the frigid night breeze, trying desperately to run back into his mind but unable to climb the slicked slope. "We need to go," two blue eyes glow in the shimmering night. Roy nods and slips in the car, not surprised at the luxury. He collapses to the side, sprawling across the back seats, the leather squeaking at its new occupant. A pillow is slipped under his head and more blankets piled on top of him, but he just stares at the console, eyes rarely blinking, mesmerized by his pain and the images reaping his mind of things he just wants to forget.
He doesn't sleep, he would remember the nightmares, but he must fall into some sort of numb stupor because suddenly he sits up and it's light outside. Confused, he turns to the man behind the drivers wheel.
"Shouldn't I be half dead?" Roy asks coldly, swinging his legs to where they should be in the car. Pain hit him then like a runaway elephant and he groans, sliding down in the seat. Bruises coat his skin like dirty snow. Welts rise up and blood trickles from tiny cuts inflicted by teeth and nails.
"Was that a rhetorical question?" the man says with a smile in his voice. Roy doesn't care to answer even if he wouldn't cry out with the words. "Anyway those collars are just lies and a chunk of metal. Gladiator Companies can't afford technology," it seems almost like he resisted spitting at the term Gladiator Company. Roy however, could care less about that. All he heard was collar.
"You mean it's still on?" he said and jerked upright, pain forgotten.
"As I said, they-"
"Get it off." Roy's tone left no room for negotiation.
"We can't stop yet, we're not far enough away-" the man tried anyway.
"Or I open this door and jump right out of this car," Roy growled, fist gripping the door handle. From the speedometer he saw they were driving well over 100 miles an hour in this extravagant gas car. The only cars he had ever been in were electric, and probably seventy years old. They couldn't hold a penny to this.
It would definitely be messy if he jumped.
"Get. It. Off." And he flung open the door. Wind screamed into the car and the whole thing swerved.
"Alright, Alright!" the man shouts and slams on the breaks, swerving off into the dirt that ran for miles beside the highway. Roy rolled out onto it once the car came to a reasonable stop, filling his lungs with it. He coughed a few times into his hand then flopped back down and lay there, relishing the stinging in his wounds rather than the dull ache that presided through his being. A door slammed on the other side of the car, and then the trunk opened and closed. The splintered haired man appeared above him, hands clutching chain cutters. "This might hurt a little," and the metal claws slip around the symbol of his imprisonment. His entire savior's weight pushes down on the yellow handles, and with a snap, the collar is gone. Roy's fingers wrap around his neck, feeling the skin underneath. Rubbed raw it was most likely an angry red, but he didn't care at this point. A hand extends down from the blue sky and Roy takes it, letting the man haul him to his feet. "You didn't have to threaten to kill yourself, you know," the man says as Roy gets back in the car, the passenger seat this time. Somehow, he was wearing clothes again and he was not going to ask how, knowing he would be as embarrassed as hell.
"Were you going to stop?" Roy replies, looking strangely at the slim black device tossed in his lap. About the size of a notebook, he taps the crystalline screen and nearly drops the thing in surprise. The black screen goes white with simple black text that reads,
Personality of Probable to be Chosen Assessment
The fact that it is an electronic test is not what shocks him. What shocks him is the word Chosen. He hadn't even known the heir was of choosing age yet. That means the man sitting beside him…
"I am a choice seeker, if you haven't figured that out yet. I actually found one of Cleopatra the VI's choices. The masses all take the tests, but sometimes one has to hunt down the truly good ones in authoritatively sparse areas," The man takes his eyes off the road to look at him. "Roy, you are going to be chosen. Out of all my years, I have never met someone so beautiful," This man reminded him of Wither. The way he said beautiful, like it was something that could be measured with a ruler. Like it was a fact, and not an opinion. He wasn't like her in any other way that Roy knew. Yet. "I already took the tests focused on education for you, you missing two years of schooling you probably would not have made the cut. You'll have to take the ones on cleverness; I can't cheat your way through those. The personality ones hold very little sway. As long as you're not suicidal and reasonably charming, you'll be fine," the man kept rambling on about statistics and proportions of his facial features, but Roy was scrambling at a realization. How did this man already know his name? He asked, cutting him off mid-sentence. The Choice seekers eyes grew sad.
"It was in your file at the Company," Roy's world goes red. All those beatings, all those days of torture, for nothing. They had always known. They had just wanted to strip him of everything. "I'm sorry."
"Yeah," is Roy's reply as he slouches down in the seat, tapping the screen to begin. "They will be."