Chapter 2

The world as mankind knew it ended more than three centuries ago. Humans once spread to the far corners of the world, their cities and kingdoms occupying almost every mile of the known world. Perhaps fittingly, their vast empire also fell by their own hands.

In Avreil, the so called City of Light, where the greed wizards and sorceresses gathered, a rather sudden outburst of violence occurred. Wizard duels were nothing new, and usually settled far from the city do to the collateral damage such a battle entailed, but this time, what began as a sudden duel in a fit of rage became a war in the streets, setting off a catastrophic explosion of magical energy that according to the histories, destroyed the city, killing the inhabitants one and all and leaving a crater over twenty miles wide and fifty deep in its place.

But in the following years, the real effects of the disaster began to be felt. Plants turning a vicious black color, and animals that ate them died as if from poison, or turning feral, attacking each other and people with wild ferocity. It continued to spread, and nothing could be done to stop it, as the people withdrew from infected areas only to have it follow.

Vast stretches of land were burned to attempt to stop the spread, but those lands became as deserts, nothing able to grow in the place of the blackened plants.

The end of the world was a slow, painful death indeed.

Three centuries later, only four bastions of human life remain. The cities of Calroth and Edurn, in the far north, the fortress city of Lugard on the ocean coast to the far east, and the backdrop of the slave known as Talon's life, the city of Nagrad, on the edge of the desert wasteland near the center of the continent.

Nagrad was entirely self-contained for most of their needs. Farms and grazing lands for animals were all contained safely within the city walls. Massive black granite that shadowed over the lives of nearly six million people, the city sprawling for nearly sixty miles, and divided by inner walls, each constructed when the city needed to expand. Even now, workers were diligently fitting blocks and mining the quarry by the south end of the city to expand further.

On the south side of the city was also the great inland freshwater sea which fed the city with drinking and irrigation water through what were doubtlessly the world's most advanced forms in indoor plumbing ever seen. Below water level, in front of the dam that as also part of the city wall, was the lower quarter where the quarry workers and many peasants lived, and should the dam ever begin to fail, it would be the first part to vanish beneath the water.

The noble quarter, where the richer and higher ranking citizens lived, was located in the center of the city. The palace where the king governed his people was here, as well as the mansions of many rich nobles and merchants. No matter how bad the world outside became, money never ceased to be the center of human society.

But keeping the peasants happy was also a vital piece of maintaining order, which was why the arena had been built many decades ago. A privately owned business that had changed hands numerous times, it provided both a means of entertaining the people, and a means of dealing with criminals and other ne'er do wells, as having them fight and die in the arena on the coin of its current owner was far simpler and cheaper than jailing them.

Given the size of the city, a trip to the arena was a journey of as many as three days there and back for many, but that was worth it for most, as it was the height of entertainment, to see the men willing to fight for their pleasure, and also to see the king sitting in his box, private it may be, but it made the common folk feel good to know he was not above such entertainment himself.

The arena had come into the ownership of the woman Jazeira Debell about twelve years ago. The daughter of a quite wealthy merchant, she had bought it from the previous owner, who had been hemorrhaging money trying to maintain his business, and was glad to be rid of it. She'd used the money intended for her own dowry to make the purchase, and in less than two years had turned the arena's loss into profits by changing policies regarding the slaves, and her own natural talent for showmanship.

The problem had simply been using exclusively slaves as competitors and keeping far too many of them around for that reason. She had quickly abolished the massive twenty man free for all events simply because they were too costly, considering only one man survived, and opened the doors for volunteer competitors to fight for fame and riches. Some of them would walk away rich men, but most would find themselves dead on the arena floor, the victim of a more talented fighter.

And thus also began the grooming of her prize fighters. These men could not simply be skilled warriors, able to kill, but they also had to have a certain charisma to capture the eyes of the audience. The kind of fighters that drew a crowd each time they fought, not because the viewers simply wished to see blood and violence, but because they wanted to see this specific fighter. And to keep such fighters healthy, she could not afford to throw them into battles every day.

Her first success was a Gerald Monteg, who took the name Reaver in the arena. She was careful to keep him healthy, spacing out his fights by several days, and then weeks at a time. It wasn't long before each time he entered the arena, the audience was chanting his name at deafening volume. And as Jazeira hoped, even when his fights were weeks apart, she saw a surge in seat purchases every time he was on the roster. They weren't coming to see fights, they were coming to see Reaver fight. And she actually increased income by spacing his fights even further out, due to those who could not afford to come to the arena regularly, but saving the money they could to come on the days he fought.

Reaver was now arena champion, but he was rapidly approaching forty years old, and Jazeira knew that no matter how much she stacked the odds in his favor, he would lose a fight eventually, so she began looking for replacements, and she found her next prize not in a hero to the people like Reaver, but a villain.

Mankind did not understand the black bloods when they first began to appear. They had no idea what caused the mutation, only that children were born with ash colored skin, burning red eyes, and unnaturally dark blood. These children were feared, because they believed it was the corruption that had overtaken the world entering human kind at last. These children also grew into powerful men and women, stronger than they appeared and faster reflexes than normal. They also never took ill and were seemingly immune to common poisons, and even recovered from injury faster than normal, with scrapes and small cuts vanishing in a matter of hours, and broken limbs mending in under a week.

They were monsters born of men in the eyes of those that were "normal." To prevent the spread of the mutation, any black bloods born were not permitted to ever sire children of their own, and parents of such a creature were similarly forbidden to produce any more. Less than fifty black bloods ever existed in the city of millions, and most would not live to see adulthood, were killed out of fear by others, sometimes even their own parents.

The black blood known as Talon had no other name that he was aware of. He'd been given that name when he made his debut in the arena. Before that, he had been a slave in the mines under the city. He had been born in the mines, and grew up there, surviving off goodwill of other slaves, who perhaps took pity on him. He never knew either of his parents, and had perhaps been left behind when his mother completed the term of her sentence. But as a black blood with no parents or knowledge of the outside, he also had no means to escape the mines, and grew up working the stone and metals with a dull pick.

Perhaps it was the physical advantages black bloods had, but while other slaves grew weaker on the slim diets and too much work, Talon grew strong and healthy. He would often mine enough materials to cover several other miners' quotas as well. He never knew any other life until that fateful day when he was called to the mine entrance by the guards. This was the first time he ever saw sunlight, the harsh rays burning his eyes as he stepped out. It was through the stinging and tears that he also saw Jazeira.

She had walked around him, examining him and poking a finger at the muscle on his body, then turned to the mine foreman and said she'd take him. Coin had changed hands, papers were signed, and Talon was pushed into the back of a carriage, locked inside, and experienced the bumpy ride from the mines to the arena.

He couldn't comprehend what was happening, it was so far outside the world he knew. He panicked, and when they opened the door of the carriage, he'd lunged out, trying to force his way clear. But there were four well-trained guards waiting for him to do just such a thing. He'd been knocked out and dragged to the empty stone cell that would become his home. When he woke, it had been on a cot, by far the softest and most comfortable bed he'd ever been in, and on a small table by the door was a pitcher of clean, cold water, and a bowl of food like nothing he'd ever tasted. It had been a simple meat and vegetable stew, yet it may as well have been the greatest meal in the world as far as he was concerned.

The door had been locked, but not long after he tried it, Jazeira came to see him again. With Damien, her massive bodyguard by her side, she had entered the room, and Damien stayed close enough to protect her if Talon tried anything.

"Do you understand me?" Jazeira had asked, "Do you know how to speak?"

Talon had hesitated. Talking back in the mines had always brought the whip. "I know a little," he said slowly.

In fact, his comprehension of language was very lacking, and as Jazeira tried to explain that he was now her property, and what the arena was, she rather frequently had to back up and rephrase things more simply. But she never raised her voice, she never sounded angry at doing so. She was as patient as she would be with a child.

The main things Talon took from the explanation was that she was the new master, and that he would no longer be mining. Though when she asked how old he was, he merely answered that he did not know. She then left, and returned a few hours later with a doctor, who examined Talon at length, before declaring the boy healthy enough for training, and also gave her his estimate that he was between fourteen and fifteen years old.

The training was twofold. Talon was put through rigorous physical exercises, building his already impressive physical form into a powerful fighter, stacked with rock hard muscle, yet carefully controlled to minimize the increase in bulk, to avoid reducing his mobility and speed. Then came the weapon training, in which Talon was taught to fight with swords, maces, axes, spears, and numerous other tools of violence.

The second aspect of his training was education. As patient as she was, Jazeira disliked having to reduce her own considerable diction just to converse with others, and thus with her own slaves, she hired tutors to educate them, at least as well as they were able to learn. Talon was found to have a hunger for knowledge in this way. What began as simple language lessons branched into reading, history, mathematics, and several other topics which Jazeira approved when she found how voraciously he devoured the teachings.

In less than two years, he was speaking as well as a scholar, and the tutors were no longer of any use to him. Jazeira instead purchased more advanced reading materials and left him to educate himself if he desired any further, which he did.

He was also surprisingly docile for a slave learning to fight. There had been incidents in the training room with other slaves, but Talon quickly learned the punishments for such things were far more harsh than the whip ever was. He quickly learned the boundaries and was the kind to avoid punishments if at all able. Jazeira even found herself able to be alone with him without her bodyguard on hand, and Talon still was perfectly behaved.

When he finally made his arena debut, almost three years after his purchase, he was more than ready. All it had taken was being told to kill the other man before that man killed him. Talon fought frequently at first, almost every day, and then Jazeira began slowing it down, to weekly fights and then to monthly. Talon was instructed to behave as a raving animal, to be dragged from the arena after each match, and as hoped, the people came to hate him. He was a black blood monster that continuously killed the heroes that stepped up to face him, even though said "heroes" were often slaves or criminals with little to no value.

People were coming specifically to see Talon fight, even if it was out of hope he'd lose and be beheaded, but Jazeira was making sure that would not be for a long time indeed. She had allowed small requests he made for something for his cell, in the form of a better bed, more furniture, and plenty of books over the years. He was making her a lot of money, so she could certainly afford to show him kindness every now and then, so long as he remembered who owned him.

This latest request was not one so small, at least in the efforts she'd have to go to for it. Aside from the trouble she'd be in with the legal ramifications if she let him get a girl pregnant, she didn't completely trust the black blood's natural resistance to disease enough to just hire a prostitute. She several times came close to writing it off entirely, it simply couldn't happen, but what stopped her was just the fact Talon had never experienced life other than a slave. She'd effectively watched him grow up, and now he was a man, at least in the physical sense.

In a strange way, he piqued her own maternal instincts, she supposed, as if he was her boy. Jazeira's own husband had died of a rather nasty illness he had picked up in his own time sleazing with women of ill rapport. He'd wasted no time starting that kind of thing when a doctor she had seen had told Jazeira, who had been in her mid-twenties at the time, would never be able to conceive a child, and that was the only explanation she could get after years of trying to do so.

So when her husband died, she had thrown herself into her work at the arena. But now, as she thought on the matter, she couldn't just throw Talon's request aside. One of the means of keeping the slaves content was simply allowing them access to relief in this matter. Women, either slaves themselves or just volunteers, and sometimes the slaves preferred each other. Reaver himself had quite an appetite, sometimes requesting as many as three or four women at a time.

There were still other options available for Talon, she decided, and wrote a request for the arena doctor to provide her with information on any contraceptives available, and whether a black blood may or may not be immune to the effects of.

Even as she did this, though, Talon was growing restless in another way. He had grown weary of the incessant hatred and jeers of the arena crowds, and very soon was about to do something far worse than ever before, and completely change the direction of the plans Jazeira had for him.