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Blood Price

Novella 1 of Arena of Skulls

By Ben Blackwell

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Chapter 1
Modern times, USA, fictional city of Darkhaven

I ducked beneath his arcing blade and lunged forward, slicing my dagger along his thigh. Cheering erupted in the crowd around us. First blood. With a slight grin on my face, I retreated two steps.
My opponent ran his hand across the cut, then snarled at me. “You’re dead, bitch.”
The grin on my face grew into a smirk. Anger only leads to carelessness, so all I had to do now was look for an opening, then strike fast. And while he certainly wanted to kill me for humiliating him by drawing first blood, he couldn’t. It was just a duel, not a deathmatch. And in the Arena of Skulls, breaking the rules was punished by death.
His eyes fixated on mine, his head lowering as he charged at me. Then his gaze wandered downward, and I raised my sword in anticipation. A moment later, he thrust his blade at my heart. My own blade was already there, knocking his away. But unlike him, I had a second blade at my disposal. While his sword was still at his side, I used the momentum from the block to lunge forward. My second sword bit deep into his shoulder. Immediately, I retreated, observing his movements.
He grunted with pain, but went for another blow without hesitation. He was a head taller than me, and almost twice my weight. So was his sword. While mine were short swords, sharp and perfectly balanced, his was a heavy bastard sword that, when wielded with both hands, I wouldn’t dare to block. And he knew it.
He gripped the handle with both hands, his eyes full of hatred, and kept swinging. With surprising skill, the cool steel cut through the air. Its tip often missed me by merely an inch as I dodged and retreated.
“Stand and fight like a man, bitch!” my opponent shouted at me between strikes. Anger was boiling up in his eyes, his movements becoming more and more aggressive. I almost had him where I wanted him.
I dodged another attack, then another. Like a ballerina, I spun back on one foot, dancing away from him while he kept swinging. Around us, the crowd was cheering again.
I was toying with him, and they knew it. So did he. With a grin on my face, I watched as the last bit of control and slipped away. With a war cry, he stormed forward, holding his sword horizontally, aimed at my heart.
I could run, but that would lose me the favor of the crowd. No, now it was time to end the game and show my dominance. They wanted blood, and I needed to win.
I fixated my eyes on his as I bent my knees, taking a solid combat stance. I raised my blades, welcoming him into my deadly embrace. Adrenaline was pumping through my veins. The whole world seems to slow down.
Two more steps, and his sword would pierce my body.
I adjusted my fingers on my swords, gripping them tightly. His posture was unstable, his center of weight far ahead of his feet. His defense nonexistent.
One step.
I breathed in and let the fire in me surge through my veins. Then I breathed out. As I released my magic, I dashed forward, ducking under his blade, then appearing behind him.
If it had been a deathmatch, his head would’ve just toppled to the ground. But it was not. Instead, I let the tip of my sword kiss his back, all the way from his waist up to his shoulder.
That’s what you got for wearing a tank top to a knife fight.
But I wasn’t done. The crowd wanted more. As he stumbled forward, confused by my sudden disappearance, I followed up with a Spartan kick in the back.
Off balance and unprepared, he couldn’t stop the inevitable. Toppled like a massive tree, he fell. I was already standing next to him when his face hit the ground. Before he could roll back to his feet, I planted my heavy boot between his shoulder blades, pressing down.
“Maybe if you fought more like a girl, you wouldn’t be eating dirt right now,” I mocked, loud enough for the crowd to hear.
It was a thin line to walk, as I had learned. They loved a powerful woman, cheered you on when you kicked a man’s ass. But whatever you said, you couldn’t mock their manliness, only your opponent’s. An offended crowd was a tough crowd. And gladiators who weren’t loved by their audience didn’t make long in this arena.
But right now, they loved me. Only thirty-ish people had come in today, less than usually. But like always, there were cameras, broadcasting the fights for the rest of the members who couldn’t make it or couldn’t afford live tickets.
With my chin raised, I let my gaze wander over the crowd, soaking up their approval. There was only one face that my eyes stopped at. Wright. My Pitlord. The man who owned me. As long as I won fights for him and made him money, it was all good.
But right now, it didn’t look “all good”. He frowned at the host, but then nodded with pursed lips.
This can’t be good.
“Aaaand another one bites the dust against the infamous, the beautiful, the deadlyyy Vipeeeer,” the host announced, his cheerful voice booming through the dark stone hall we were in, deep underground. “But, ladies and gentlemen! You want more, and you shall have it. Today, I shall grant your wish. She has won the first round, showed the Bulldozer her fangs. But will she win round two?”
Crap. Like most fights, this was supposed to be a single round. A simple duel. Bloody, but without serious injuries. Second rounds never went that well.
“But wait!” The host gasped into the microphone as the crowd went wild. He waited for a second, until the cheering quieted down before he continued. “Can you feel it? His hatred, his humiliation. Her confidence and grace. Such a charged fight can only end one way…” He stepped back from microphone when his voice trailed off, raising his arms to the side, spreading them out like an eagle as he prodded the crowd.
Obediently, they cheered louder and louder, their shouting echoing through the hall.
Death-match! Death-match! Death-match! Death-match!
Chills creeped down my spine. This was not what I had signed up for. Then again, I never had a choice in the first place. I took my boot off the bulldozer’s back and walked six steps away, as the rules dictated.
Goosebumps spread over my arms as I looked into his eyes. This was exactly what he wanted. To kill me or die trying. It was personal now. Personal fights were always the worst, but the most interesting for the watchers.
I should’ve seen it coming, should have expected it. Avoided it. Steered the fight away from it. But now it was too late. I could take him, sure. If he didn’t have any hidden talents as well, that is.
“FIGHT!”
The announcer’s voice boomed through the air once again, and the crowd quieted down. Was it the last time I would hear it?

***

Unlike before, the Bulldozer didn’t immediately charge at me. With his sword resting on his shoulder, he meandered around. Slowly, he circled me, scanning me from top to bottom, looking down at me. He was taking back control.
All sounds had died down, the people around the arena watched silently. A chapter from a book came to mind while the fight was almost on pause.
In a good story, the hero doesn’t just win. Before he does, he needs to face his greatest challenge, and then come out victorious despite it.
Other people called me crazy for reading all kinds of stuff. Mastering not only the art of fighting, but making it a show. Controlling the narrative. Playing not only the opponent, but the crowd as well.
But other people didn’t live as long as I did. I was thrown into my first fight the day after I turned eighteen and had been fighting ever since. Two years of battle and bloodshed. That’s more than most people most gladiators in this arena ever reached.
But if I didn’t get my thoughts back under control and into the game, my career and life would end today.
My confident posture had cracks, my arms were lowered just a little. My smirk had turned into an empty smile. I was radiating uncertainty to anyone who knew how to listen.
And, consciously or not, my enemy picked up on it. Good.
Controlled and carefully, he stalked closer, his pose stable and balanced. He held his sword in both hands again, his left shoulder leading ahead.
I raised my swords, readying myself for his first attack. He didn’t keep me waiting for long.
His sword arced hesitantly toward me. He was testing me. I leaned back, evading his blade with ease. Playfully, I thrust my sword at him, aiming for his belly. This time, he dodged, too.
Our back-and-forth continued for a few more strikes, each more serious than the last. The crowd held its breath, watching with anticipation.
Again, he swung his blade at me, in an attempt to slice across my waist, just below my leather jacket, where only a pair of sturdy jeans protected me. I bent backward, dodging with ease. It was too late when I realized the faint.
His left hand released the sword as it passed my by me. His lips curled into a grin as his hand, now curled up into a fist, crashed against into my nose.
He didn’t even go after me as I stumbled back. He only laughed, letting his sword hang at his side as he looked down at me. “Really? You didn’t see that one coming?”
That I actually didn’t, and that his holding back was the only thing that prevented him from following up, got anger and disappointment surging through me. I had to do better, or I would leave this fight in a body bag.
I scanned his posture again as I prepared to launch a counterattack. Still confident, his movements were careful and deliberate. No shaking, no hesitation. He was in full control. I had to change that if I wanted to win. And I had to do it fast.
Quickly, I calculated his probable responses to a thrust. Satisfied with my findings, I then stalked forward, our eyes locked on each other. I feigned a swing at him with my right sword, then lunged forward to plunge my left sword into his chest.
As expected, he reacted quickly. He was not an amateur. He had probably been brawling for years. But he certainly never learned to play chess.
He saw through my feint and almost ignored the first strike, then knocked my thrusting blade away with his sword. He thought a step ahead, but I was another step further.
This was the third scenario, in which I, without stopping, continued forward. My right blade was hanging at my side after the previous attack, my left sword on my other side. Up front, I was defenseless and open.
But, as one of my mentors wrote, you had to use your head to stay alive in a fight. I was sure he meant something different, but as I jumped up and smashed my forehead against his nose, I certainly agreed.
The Bulldozer was surprised by my attack, his confidence as broken as his nose. His sword arm was still at his side as he stumbled back. But I didn’t let him back off. I stuck to him like we were dancing, made it impossible for him to use his long and heavy weapon.
I felt like a duck, waddling after him, my face just inches from his. The confusion in his eyes intensified as he tried to get away but couldn’t. He doubled his efforts, but I had the advantage. No matter how fast he hobbled backward, I was faster.
I was back in control. And misdirecting him. Because this was not about speed.
I took a big step closer, put my other boot behind his foot and stretched my head forward simultaneously. “Boo!”
He jerked back in surprise, his pent-up confusion and rising panic exploding at my unexpected and inexplicable behavior.
But while he was focused on me and getting away, he hadn’t noticed my foot. Before he knew what was happening, he was already crashing down, his head hitting the stone floor a second later.
The crowd had held its breath at our weird chase, but now erupted into laughter and cheering once again.
I stood at the bulldozer’s feet as he shook his head, still dazed from hitting the ground hard. I could dash forward and end it now. One clean cut was all it would take. It was over, one way or the other.
But I had to think ahead. How I would end it. What it would say about me. What it would make future opponents think about me.
I needed them to be afraid. As a girl, I couldn’t let my fights be a test of strength. Not against guys like that. I had to make it about cunning, speed. Mind games. Those battles I won.
The Bulldozer got back to his feet, using his sword as support. Dumb mistake.
Heat surged through my body for just a moment, followed by a wave of tingles as I dashed forward with inhuman speed. A kick later, and the sword was clattering to the ground across the arena. He tumbled without it, off-balance.
Before he could catch himself, I crashed my fist into his face. “Really,? You didn’t see that one coming?” I jeered at him, then dropped my swords to the ground. “Let’s play, then.”
He grunted, opening his mouth for a response, but I didn’t let him. With a flurry of blows against his stomach, chest, and face, I wore him down within seconds. He tried blocking my attacks, but I didn’t need my magic to be faster than him.
Then, for the finisher. With a stunt I had copied from action movies, I jumped up at him, swung around his body like I was dancing on a pole, until I ended up on top of him, his head between my thighs. I twisted around one last time, breaking his neck, then gracefully flipped back to the ground.
I turned around and curtsied to the raging crowd as his body hit the ground behind me with a heavy thump.
“Aaaand the Viper wins again!” The host announced, his voice booming with excitement. I plucked a strand of hair from my face and put it behind my ear as I let my gaze wander across the crowd. Slowly, I turned, taking in their cheers, then curtsied once more on the other side.
With a lingering grin, I went to pick up my swords, then meander over to the entrance. The arena was just the circle of magical pillars, the force field between them invisible, but painful to the touch. It gave the people around it a clear view on the fighters and bloodshed, but prevented anyone inside from fleeing or attacking the crowd. Since almost all of us weren’t here willingly, it was an important protective measure.
But I had learned to stop resisting a long time ago. If you couldn’t get out of this life, go all in and make the most of it. Behind the entrance, marked by two distinct pillars, Wright was waiting. He had his arms crossed, but had a smirk on his face as he nodded. “I knew you could do it. You made me some good money today, Viv.”
I put on a smile as I held back a comment about my name. Only friends got to call me Viv, and he certainly wasn’t one.
I bowed my head in gratitude and obedience as I put my swords on the ground in front of the force field. Once deactivated, I stepped through. The two guards on the other side immediately cuffed my hands and took my weapons, then led me through the path away from the arena.
There were two entrances, one on each side, one blue and one in red. Through each entrance, one fighter would enter, escorted in and later out by guards. That path was inaccessible to the crowd, for everyone except the fighter’s Pitlord, their owner.
It was like a zoo. Everyone wanted to see the lions up close, but nobody wanted to be in danger. The crowd liked us, as dangerous and brutal as possible, vicious fights and impressive victories. But the violence had to stay in the ring. So once outside, I was strutting away, smiling at the people around me, waving and modestly blinking when I was praised.
Then, one of the guards put a black linen bag over my head and escorted me into a small van and cuffed me to my seat. There was another guard who took over from here, this one on Wright’s payroll. The others belonged to the host and stayed at the ring.
The guard in the car didn’t say a word, not when the van started driving, and not until it stopped fifteen minutes later or so. “We’re here.”
Obediently, I waited until I was uncuffed from the car, then led into a familiar building. The barracks. I recognized it from the smell, from the way the cool air felt against my skin, from the shadows that descended on me. Home.
Wright had called it the ‘barracks’, a place where his fighters lived and trained. There was about a dozen of us, all but two living here. The other two had earned the right to live on their own. I had, too, almost a year ago. But I prefer it here, I had said, and I knew it had pleased Wright. Also, my two best friends still lived here.
“Viv, you’re back!” Amy greeted me as the guard pulled the linen bag from my head and removed the cuffs from my hands.
“Yup. Always,” I responded with a smile.
“Did he really turn into a deathmatch? We only saw parts of the fight from here, but it sounded brutal!” She whispered fearfully.
Amy was a good kid, only recently turned eighteen herself. She didn’t have the fierceness in her that I had, not the same brutality. I knew she wouldn’t make it far, but I was doing my best to keep her alive.
“The guy was a jerk,” I replied with a shrug. “The Bulldozer, not Wright, I mean,” I quickly added, just to be safe. “Did you hear anything from Olaf?”
Amy shook her head and looked down to the ground. “No, I don’t think we will. After he escaped, it would be stupid to contact us. Or else Wright might find him.”
“If he escaped. He said he found his tracking chip, and knew a doctor who would remove it, no questions asked. And that he had a witch who could block Wright’s tracking spell. But I don’t know…” I let my voice trail off. In the three years that I was here, no one had ever escaped Wright.
“No, I believe him. He escaped. He found the girl he wanted to ask out and they are now happily together,” Amy insisted.
I smiled, not just at her not foolishness, but at her optimism. It might be her finest trait, always willing to see make the best of any situation, see the best in people. Sadly, in this world, it would get her killed.
“Oh, and Delzea kick my ass today with a staff. Can you show me some moves against a staff? Pretty please?”
I laughed and put my arm around her shoulders. I was tired and beat, but Amy was like a little sister to me. I could hold off sleep for a little while longer.

***

The next morning, I was enjoying the early sun outside the building in the garden. It tickled my skin while a soft breeze played with my hair. We were not supposed to fight outside, stay indoors for most activities. But I liked to do some yoga in the morning, keep myself flexible and fit.
Most of our days were spent fighting and working. That hour in the morning was a necessary balance. It was peaceful. Harmonic. Just me and the sun, slowly going from one position into the next.
While the others were eating breakfast, or some still sleeping, I liked to have this time for myself. Afterward, I would get breakfast and eat it outside, too. Together with a good book, I dedicated my mornings to working on honing my mental skills. I wanted my mind to be as clear and sharp as my blades, because losing control meant losing the fight.
“Hey, Vivienne. Wright is here,” a voice interrupted me. Slowly, I moved out of my position and stood up, turning around.
I bit back my sharp comment as I saw the frown on Eric’s face. Something was wrong. I hated to be disturbed during my morning routine, but he knew that. Whatever was going on was urgent.
I followed him back inside the building, curious and worried about Wright’s appearance. He usually dropped by in the afternoon or evening to cheer us up for upcoming fights. Sometimes, we would watch other gladiators in the arena, and he would comment on their mistakes. Dropping by in the morning was highly unusual.
Inside, he was standing, backed by two guards, the fighters gathered in a half-circle in front of him. I joined them, finding my place next to Amy. “What’s going on?” I whispered.
“We don’t know,” she whispered back. “Some announcement.”
I scanned Wright while I was waiting for him to speak. He stood straight, confident. There was no worry in his posture, but seriousness in his eyes. Behind him was a brown linen bag, and two armed guards were standing left and right of him. A shiver ran down my spine as I figured it out.
“How are you all, my dear warriors? Was the breakfast good?” Wright eventually broke the silence.
We collectively murmured in agreement, knowing that he didn’t actually want us to respond.
“Good, good.” He nodded as he crossed his arms and let his gaze wander over our faces. “Delzea, do you remember your last opponent? The scars he had on his back?”
I glanced over at her as she nodded. She was older than me by only a few years, but she was already bitter and cold, numbed from years of fighting. Wright bought her from another Pitlord a year ago, and from what I’ve heard, she grew up in street gangs before that.
“Well, those scars weren’t from the arena. He had been whipped for losing a fight. Whipped until his back was bloody, until his skin had peeled off.” Wright made a long pause for dramatic effect, letting his story sink in. “And what do I do? I make sure you get enough food, order desserts regularly. I even have cakes baked when one of you has an anniversary or hits a milestone. I provide you with weapons, a home, plenty of opportunity for training. Isn’t that right?”
More murmuring, but hesitant. He was proving a point. Even the new fighters realized something was wrong. They didn’t have to wonder for long.
“And despite that, some of you think about running away. After everything I’m doing for you. Maybe this will serve as a reminder that you should be lucky to be in my roaster, not in someone else’s, and that if you ever try to run away, I will find you and I will kill you,” he stated as he picked up the bag and turned it upside down.
A gasp rolled through our ranks as Olaf’s head toppled out of the bag and over to the ground. Next to me, Amy put her hand on her mouth to suppress a shocked yelp. Her hopes had just been shattered.
I gently stroked her back in support and felt her chest tremble, her breath shaking. I knew she would cry again tonight. But maybe it would help her toughen up, so she would have a chance to survive in this world for a little longer.
“Think long and hard about your life,” Wright continued. “On one side awaits you a comfortable life and glory in the arena, on the other only death. Choose wisely. Oh, and clean this mess up,” he added with disdain, gesturing at Olaf’s head on the ground.
This time, the murmuring was but a faint whisper. Fear and a feeling of finality had settled upon us. The crowd dispersed, some going back to breakfast, some to the rooms, some were heading to the janitors closet to clean up.
“Oh, and Viv?” Wright spoke up again, my comrades all stopping to look at me. “I know you just had a fight yesterday, but since Olaf was supposed to fight today, you will have to jump in. You have the best chances in this one.”
My jaw clenched for a moment, then I nodded dutifully. I had read enough books about leadership to know what he was doing. First, he had to show us what would happen to us if we ran. Then he showed us what we would inflict upon our friends and comrades. That if one of us fled, everyone had to bear the burden, put up with extra fights. Fights that could be our last.
“You better rest, though. And sharpen your blades. It’s a free-for-all, three opponents.”
I suppressed a curse. Those fights were brutal. There was no rule against three fighters teaming up on one. In the end, there had to be one last fighter standing, but what happened before that was up to us.
I could get out of normal fights unscathed if it did well, but even the winner of a free for all would be beat up and bruised by the end. And the losers? Well, they usually ended up with broken bones, some never returning to the ring at all.
“I will,” I responded solemnly as Wright kept looking at me expectantly. This wasn’t up for debate. Nothing was with him. I had learned that, too.
“Good. Because after they’ve seen you fight yesterday, they turned it into a deathmatch. They want blood. And I’ve got a lot of money riding on you, so you better win this thing.” With that, he turned around and left, his guards following him without a word.
I saw pity in the eyes of my fellow fighters. They couldn’t hold my gaze, quickly going back to whatever they were doing before.
They didn’t say it, but they didn’t have to. They expected today’s dinner to be my last.
I couldn’t hold it against them. They weren’t wrong.
My chances of making it out alive were slim.

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About Ben Blackwell

Ben Blackwell loves bringing characters to life, and giving them an equal mix of magic and problems. They become heroes not because of the powers they have, but because of how they rise above their own struggles to face a challenge greater than themselves. Also, romance. Because what would life be without love? He writes Urban Fantasy with kick-ass heroines, deadly vampires, quirky witches and other powerful magical creatures.

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