He sat in his cell, face immobile. The guards were all afraid of him. Everyone was and they were right to be. He had killed 98 men, of course, it was kill or be killed, but something like that will change a man. He was close to freedom, closer than anyone had been in decades. No one living could remember seeing or hearing of a man reaching the fabled one hundred and he was so close. Thousands around the city bet on him, hundred of thousands in the outer regions laid wagers, betting he would win gave good odds, better he would lose did not. Though he was close, in the history of the games, only three people had ever reached one hundred. Some had reached 99, almost thirty, but they failed in the final battle.
It was thought that the knowledge that they only had one person to go made them cocky. They were not wary of their opponent, almost convinced of a win. That was their downfall.
Though he looked calm and collected, his stomach was a writhing ball, squirming in his belly. He did not eat before the battles. Most did, he couldn’t. He knew he would throw up. In the first few fights it had been an advantage, people thought he was weak, an easy kill. But as he made his way further through the rounds, he stopped. People no longer fell for the ruse. He wanted his freedom, needed it. The beauty of the system, at least, to those in charge, was that thousands of men opted for the fights, most of whom had life sentences anyway. A fight was only held twice a week. It might take thirty years for a fighter to reach one hundred, some would die without ever seeing combat. He had been lucky, or unlucky depending on your view. He was only battling for three years. Every two or three weeks he would be chosen for a fight. The draws were completely random and if you were chosen, you had to fight no matter your condition.
He knew that he would not have won every fight if not for luck. Four of his opponents were renowned, believed that they could reach one hundred. Of those four, when they had to fight, three were sick, horrifically so. They could barely stand. The fights were more akin to execution than battle. The fighters lived in squalid conditions, sickness was rife. The fourth was old, he had been at 89 kills, but then his name stopped being drawn, there was a gap of almost twenty years since his last fight. He had become weak. Complacent. He had fallen easily.
A guard knocked on the door, “oi. You’re up again.” silently he stood and waited for the door to open. The guards did not bother with handcuffs. A riot would be quickly quashed. The prisoners were stored in separate buildings in the same compound. A large, sprawling city, surrounded by high walls and vicious guards. Any building that rioted was burnt to the ground, killing prisoners and guards alike. Anyone left alive was brought out to the arena and made face the lions, including guards. It was a tough job but it paid exceptionally well. The door stopped vibrating, a hum that you got used to after a while, then opened. He stepped through carefully, though it was no longer humming, he might still get a shock. It had happened before. He followed the usual corridors to the hall with a three guard escort.
The hall was large and filthy. The floors were originally gray, but now they were covered in a thick layer of dirt. Prisoners were not allowed wear shoes. They had to go barefoot at all times. He was used to walking barefoot, but there was something in the dirt in the hall that made his skin crawl. Carefully he made his way over to an empty chair, then, once seated, he looked at those around him. The hall wasn’t full yet. Three hundred names were drawn each week, of those three hundred, four were chosen to fight each other. He tried not to smile, there was no one that caused any alarm. He was confident he could defeat any of them. They last few were being brought in. his heart sank. Of the late comers, he knew he would have problems with some. They had obviously kept the strongest fighters till last.
Women weren’t as rare as they used to be, more and more chose the option, few fell in their first fight, most lasted till at least ten. A respectable number. The head guard stepped forward, turning the large drum in front of them all. They could see the small slips of paper tumbling over one another. He stopped, then reached in, groping blindly. He removed a name, then passed it to the guard, the guard laid it on the table in front of him. Three more names were chosen in the same fashion.
Taking the four slips of paper, he entered the numbers into a screen. Four names popped up, a few seconds gap between each one. As each name was called out there was a sigh of relief. Though they had chosen this life, no one relished fighting. His name had come up again. He felt the usual emotions begin to boil up. Fear of who he was going to fight, hope that he would survive, determination that he would win. He forced them to retreat, dampening them down, his face remaining impassive. He was going to fight against Smith. The man was a good fighter. Not the best. But good.
They were herded back to their cells, to contemplate the coming fights. Those who earned a reprieve would relax until their name was called once more.
The yearly raffle was soon, if he could beat Smith, he might be there for it. Though he only had two more fights till freedom, he wanted it to be earned some other way. Every prisoners name was placed into the raffle, regardless of their length of time in the prison. One name was chosen, that person was pardoned. It was the carrot the encouraged so many to risk their lives. They could live forever in their cells with no human contact, food and water delivered through pipes or they could fight and potentially be free.
He was due to fight in only a few hours. He sat in silence and meditated, finding the dull hum of the door soothing. It helped lull him into memories.
He did not intend to end up in prison. It was accidental. His family was starving. Three children, at first they screamed and cried, they were so hungry. Their screams turned to whimpers, their bellies becoming swollen and distended, their arms thin and weak. Eventually they stopped making noise, trying to retain their energy. Any meagre scrap of food that came their way was given to the children. They bought what they could, stole what they couldn’t. Their plight wasn’t unusual. It was happening all over the country, and no one cared. They had tried to beg, but the beatings were not worth the small amount of coins they collected, a pittance which could not even afford them the basics. For a while, things were going ok. Their children began to grow stronger. They lived in a compound, a collection of the starving and homeless, they lived together in their shanty town, sharing food. Disease spread quickly and easily through their small town, but thankfully none of his family became sick. Farm animals were bought, they gave nourishing milk, when they became old, meat which was made into large stews. Though he never ate the remains of the dead like so many others, he nor his family questioned the stews and soups that were made with no loss of animals.
Then the police came.
He had gotten his family out. They did not witness the horrors of that night. Men were beaten, women raped, children trampled as terrified masses tried to flee. Fires broke out. People screaming as they burned alive. Ash clogged their air, making it thick and hard to breath. Animals tethered to the ground screamed as they were killed, some trampled, some burned. There was nothing left. The ground was charred or soaked with blood. The bodies left to rot in the open. A reminder to everyone of what would happen, a deterrent for anyone planning to move back. Walls had been built around the town, to protect them. When the screaming began he brought his family to one of the doors. It had been unlocked. The others hadn’t.
He had no doubt someone had been paid off by the police, giving them access to the town, locking the escapes. He had been lucky. Others weren’t. Bodies were piled against the walls where they tried to escape. Those who reached the doors first were crushed by those trying to get out, surging forward with no where to go. Those who were not crushed were shot or burned. The smell of flesh stayed in the air, stagnant and cloying.
They were back to living on the streets, once more starving, he occasionally got jobs here and there, once offs, but they were not enough. There wasn’t enough to feed them all. They had tried. They really had. Their youngest, Tommy, had been their first child to die. That was their breaking point, they could not allow that to happen to the others. They would not allow it to happen.
They had tried to rob a bank, they were almost successful. A guard tried to stop them, they wrestled for the gun when it went off, killing the guard. Both him and his wife were charged with murder and sentenced to life. He did not know what happened to his other children. He hoped they had been taken in by someone, anyone. It was stupid of them to go together. His wife should have stayed home, looked after the children. He shouldn’t have let her risk herself.
He breathed deeply, the air was clear. He shuddered and returned to the cell, he did not like to dwell on his memories, but made sure to do so before battle. It steeled him for what was to come. Enabled him to face the battle, to kill.
It was time. He was brought out to shower and changed. showering was a luxury that was not permitted to those of the population. Only those who fought were cleaned. It made those outside think the prisoners were treated well. He took his time in the shower. He washed, then just enjoyed the warmth of the water, allowing it to relax his muscles and mind. When he was done, he dried then changed into his clothes. A pair of trousers and a t-shirt. Both were loose enough to allow free movement, but tight enough to help prevent clothing getting snagged.
Once cleaned, they brought him to the waiting cells. He would be left there until the battle. When they were ready they would call him.
While he waited, he thought over which weapon he would choose, he did not think he favoured one over the other, rather, he chose each equally. The only weapons that were forbidden were long range ones. They would both end the fight too quickly and potentially endanger those who came to watch.
They came for him, far too soon, but there was no slowing time’s steady progress. He stood, and walked with them. He would not be dragged out the arena like some, kicking and screaming, begging. He was brought to the weapons rack. He picked up a few, testing their weight before he was told he needed to decide. Carefully, he picked up a sword, liking how it felt. Almost like an extension of his arm. He would not know his opponents weapon until they were face to face in the arena.
He stepped out of the gate to a dull roar as the crowd screamed, most were rooting for him. The sun was bright and high in the sky, the air was still, there was no wind to cool him, no breeze to take the heat from the sun. the arena was circular and small, about thirty feet in diameter, but the seating area extended outwards in each direction, the stadium could seat five thousand, those who could not get tickets could watch from home.
Smith stepped out from the opposite door, the cheers turned to jeers as he stepped forward, squinting in the sun. a loud voice filled the stadium, announcing who was fighting and their odds. He took a deep breath and allowed the noise to wash over him, becoming meaningless. There was nothing to do but wait. He stared at smith, trying to unnerve him.
A loud whistle cut through the noise as a clear shield covered the arena. It helped protect the viewers. Objects could penetrate it, but it was rare. They stepped forward slowly, getting ready to fight.
A hush fell over the crowd and suddenly they were fighting. The crowd roared encouragement, which fell on deaf ears. All they could hear were their hearts beating. The blood pulsing as they clashed together, blades stopping one another. They spun away from one another, before clashing back together, performing a brutal ballet in perfect precision. One might nick the other, but the wounds were quickly made up for, each one returning the favour. He twisted and twirled, waiting for the right moment. His face was dirty, rivulets of sweat cleared paths as they dripped down his body. Blood congealed, creating dark clumps which reopened as he turned in new ways, sending more blood cascading down his body. The fight was long, longer than usual. He was beginning to get tired, his arm sore. He blocked a strike coming towards his face, their blades meeting, the impact resonating up his arm. He didn’t think he would last much longer.
He stayed calm, focused. Then, he saw his miracle. An opening, clumsy and stupid, a mistake that was only made due to fatigue. Ignoring his own muscles screams he darted the sword forward, piercing the chest of smith.
The blade went deep, severing something in smiths arm, it dropped to his side, unable to support its weight. He drew the sword out, twisting as he pulled it free of its fleshy prison. The pain he caused was an unintended side effect, he wanted smiths death to be as quick as possible. He jerked it free, covered in blood and gore. Smith stood for a moment, his sword dangling limply before dropping. He looked confused. A hush fell over the crowd as they watched him fall. smith was gasping for breath, still trying to breath, choking on the blood that had already begun to fill his lungs. Thin flecks burst from his lips in a mist, coating his face.
He fell to the ground.
Kneeling beside the body, he leaned over “I’m sorry.” carefully he brought the sword to smiths neck and dealt the final blow. Smith died quickly, blood pooling around the body, soaking into the ground. The silence was broken, the crowd screamed wildly, cheering and shouting for him. Slowly he stood, then dropped the sword. Turning, he ignored the crowd, the praise from the announcer and stood at the door, waiting until it opened.
There was a flurry of activity now that he was at 99, very few had expected him to win the last fight. He was surprised to find himself hurt that people had thought he would die so easily. His next fight, his final fight, was a week away. The other fights were pushed back. No one could wait, there was a flurry of betting, there were even offers of interviews, which the prison denied on his behalf.
He did not know who he was to fight. They were the rules. With the final fight, no one was allowed know. Not even the guards. They still managed to find out some information though. They told him the fighter was new, no fighting experience. He felt bad for who ever he was going to fight. Everyone was put in a draw to fight the final fight. He was confident he would be able to win. He would be free. Free to put his life back together, free to find his family. Once he won he was set for life. He was given a house and a lifetime supply of food and money for whatever he needed. He could live almost as well as the emperor if he chose. With that amount of money behind him he could easily find his children. He refused to think the worst. He knew they were still alive. They were safe. Someone had taken them in.
The night before he could not sleep, nerves danced through his body, preventing any chance of rest. Finally he managed to get a few fitful hours. He would need the energy. He was so close. One more fight and he was free.
They came for him, as usual. He could barely contain himself. Forcing himself to breathe, he stopped pacing. He showered quickly, then chose his weapon. His heart thudded in his chest as he waited to be released into the area.
He was in the arena before the door was completely open. The crowd was screaming, his hands were clenched, slowly he opened them, letting them relax. He ignored everything, his eyes focused solely on the door, waiting for it to open, waiting for his opponent to step through. The announcer said something, probably his opponents name, the crowd went wild, shouting and howling. The door across started to open, his opponent stepped through. He stopped breathing. He recognised his opponent. His heart quickened, there was no way he could ever win.
His wife stepped from the door, her eyes filled with hate.
The alarm sounded and they moved forward, the crowds yells and catcalls had tapered off before they fell silent. He looked at her helplessly. The mace he was holding became heavier, he couldn’t hold it any longer. It fell to the ground, it’s thud almost deafening.
“it’s your fault.” “I’m sorry.” “shut up. Shut the fuck up and pick up your weapon. I’ll kill you. But I’ll do it properly.” “I can’t.” “pick it up or I will gut you where you stand.” he looked at the mace, then at her. Her entire body vibrated with anger. He saw her fingers clench the hilt of the sword. Beads of sweat stood out on her forehead, beading together. “they’re dead because of you” her words hit him hard. He couldn’t breathe. She was lying. She had to be. He gasped for breath, trying to stem the flow of emotions. She moved forward, sword raised. Stabbing forward quickly, she plunged the sword into his stomach. Looking in her eyes he fell to the ground. He lay there, feeling the blood pour from his wound. Taking the sword, she began to hack at her body, screaming with each blow. In the distance he could hear the crowd screaming. His wife began to cry. Her tears rolling down her face, falling onto his. She saw the life fading from his eyes. Letting loose a heart wrenching scream she struck the final blow, his body convulsing around the sword.
Letting it go, she left it standing upright in his body. Energy spent, she collapsed beside his body, fading out of consciousness. As she looked at his body she thought of their honey moon.
They were so in love then. So happy.