by Amanda Cast
In the center of the preparation chambers there was pool of water for bathing. It was cool and the feel of it on Pandora’s skin refreshed her. She wore the light gray robes provided for the combatants while they rested and bathed. The fabric was like nothing she had ever seen before. The fibers that crafted the thread were fine and smooth unlike anything Pandora had ever seen on the surface. The water from the pool slid off of it or collected in perfect little droplets as it did on an oiled surface.
Serene washed her hair and face from the side. She made it look graceful and easy as she sat on the edge. She was on her hip with her legs folded at her side. The robe complimented her slender form and crafted an angelic portrait of the fiery half-elf.
“I was told to come and help you pick out your armor and weapons since you own none,” a woman’s voice said from a shadowed portal.
Pandora and Serene both turned their heads to see who was speaking. What stepped out of the shadows was startling, to say the least. At first she was reflecting eyes of yellow and red. Then she was white fangs and a flat nose and furry face. She resembled a cat and a human mixed together. She had a long tail that swished behind her and long limbs and long fingers. Instead of two breasts like a human, though, she had six nipples running down her belly. They were flat and unused.
“Have you never seen an experiment of these barbarians before?” she asked with a sly purr at the end.
“I am a creation of theirs. I cannot earn my freedom. I am Kit, the only of my kind and you are Speakers of the Surface world.”
Kit slipped in and out of the shadows cast by the dim lamplight. Her fur was a deep charcoal gray, but it was not enough to make her simply meld. “What weapons would you use?”
“I would like a knife,” Serene said. “Something small and well balanced.”
“And you?” Kit asked Pandora. Her feline face turned to the tall girl and the slit pupils gleamed red.
“I don’t use weapons,” Pandora said and looked away. She dipped her fingers into the pool. “When can I get back into my clothes? I want to get this over with.”
“You are in a rush to die?” the feline said. “You should enjoy the last tranquility you will ever know.”
“We will not die,” Serene said and twisted her hair so that the water fell into a drain.
“Then you will kill the other?” the woman asked. She was leaning against a pillar. “You are bold and brave, but you are only children. You cannot hope to defeat anyone that resides here. Now, what will you wear? What is your preferred armor?”
“We don’t wear armor either,” Serene said.
“Ah, you really are going to die,” Kit said and pulled at her whiskers. “You cannot fight without armor.”
“Why not? Kids do it in the school yard all the time,” Serene said. “When I went to school I saw it all the time.”
“It was not life or death, I’m sure,” Kit told her and the tip of her tail flicked just like the hatchlings did. “You are both dead. You might as well get dressed.”
“How did you learn…”
“How to speak like you?” Kit asked. “I have lived here my whole life. You would be amazed what sorts come here and there have been plenty of humans kidnapped from your surface world and sold for whatever price. All must have someone who can translate what is needed for them.”
“So you learned?” Pandora asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Now get dressed.”
“Where are our clothes?” Serene asked.
“You’re not wearing a dress into the Arena,” Kit said. “The clothes you will be permitted to wear are in those boxes. I don’t know if they’ll fit, but they’re there.”
Serene scowled, but she walked over to the boxes anyway. She opened it and peered inside. Her lips curled and the tips of her ears turned red. “They’re rags.”
“Well, you’re supposed to wear armor. The rags are supposed to protect your skin from it.”
“How are we supposed to put them on?” she asked and pulled out the dingy cloth. It was made of cotton. “I guess they trade for cotton, too.”
“They trade for many things,” she said. “I will help you.”
The sand squished under Pandora’s feet as she entered the Arena with Serene. She was wearing something to protect her feet from the friction of the sand, but it was more like a leather wrapping than a shoe. It slid over her feet and was uncomfortable, but she knew that once the fighting started she would not notice it.
For the passed two hours Pandora was both anticipating and dreading the battle to come. Now she felt as though the rags covering the more private areas of her body was enough to make her want to die of shame. Her face was flushed with embarrassment when she was greeted with silence from the onlookers. There were many onlookers.
“No one seems excited,” Serene said and picked at the rags that covered her chest. Her ears were red and her cheeks were flushed. “This is humiliating. I wish we’d worn armor. It would cover more.”
“Barely,” Pandora said. She had actually looked at the armor after what she found out what the rags looked like on her. It was far worse or far too big. “I wouldn’t be able to move in the armor that could actually cover something.”
“I don’t need to move,” Serene said and tried to cover her belly with her hands. It didn’t work.
“At least their not perverts,” Pandora offered.
“I think they’re shocked that we’re not wearing armor,” Serene said. “Or um… they’re doing whatever it is boys do…”
“That’s sick,” Pandora said and scanned the crowd. She found Greg and the Hatchlings on a balcony overlooking the area. The hatchlings had their heads poking out between the stone rails.
“Oh this is too much,” Serene said and turned to get out of the sight of everyone, but the gate had swung shut behind them. “Damn it.”
“Don’t talk like that. The hatchlings might hear you,” Pandora said and stared down at her fingers.
“We’re about to kill someone and all you ca think about is protecting the hatchling’s sensibilities?” Serene asked.
The Lady of Varanar stood at the rails with her long dyed hair up in a series of braids and knots. Her face was a blur in the distance except for that her lips stuck out on her face. They were painted white. “It is time to meet your challengers,” she told them. It was not stressed or loud but it reached Pandora’s ears none the less.
The gate to across from them opened and Kit slinked through, but she was not alone. Three others were also crosses of beasts and humans. Their eyes were slits on their heads and they had snouts rather than the flat face of Kit. Chains with barbs of lead dangled from their hands that were tipped off with black nails.
“They look like… dogs and lizards,” Serene said. “I think we were better off with the mages.”
Pandora took a step back. “I think you might be right.”
“I have an idea,” Serene said. “Turn to stone.”
“You don’t just turn to stone,” Pandora hissed. “It isn’t that simple.”
“Yes it is.”
“Take the runt first. She’s the mage,” Kit said and the other three fanned out behind her.
The wheels were turning in Pandora’s head as they moved and then there was a click in the gears. Her eyes snapped wide open and her fists clenched and then her fingers flew part into a wide spread. The claws began to form and she could feel her skin changing. No one would touch her cousin.
Fire rose up between Pandora and the deformed experiments of the underdark elves. One of the dog men caught fire and howled and yelped out in pain. The others did not notice or at least pretended that the incident did not happen.
Kit hissed angrily and flew Pandora. She wielded a knife. Pandora crouched and waited until she was almost on top of her before falling back and throwing Kit to the side with her own momentum. Pandora scrambled to her feet and hurried to get closer to her cousin. “Burn them,” she said.
“Mother!” Rubio cried out desperately from the balcony and received a kick in the side from the woman threatening to take him from his mothers.
Pandora looked to her side and saw the jagged knife of Kit plummeting down at her. She did not try and bat it away. She would have to trust in the stone skin to make the blade skirt off of her. Her claws gleamed wickedly in Arena’s light. It was yellow and bright.
All the better to see the carnage with.
Kit was wearing armor on her belly and she had a kidney belt, but there was a space under her armpits that armor could not go. Pandora found that spot with the tips of her fingers and dug in. “How are the hounds without their brain?” she asked as the blade scraped over her skin. She could feel it and it hurt, but there was no way for her to know the damage.
Kit stared at her and then tried to jerk away, but Pandora’s claws were stuck. She tried to dislodge them, and Kit let out a cry of pain. Oh crap, oh crap, Pandora thought over and over again. Something hard and cold ripped across her shoulder and it was her turn to cry out.
“Mother! Momma!” the hatchlings cried out and pressed against the stone.
One of the hounds stood over her and lashed out at her again. This time it went around her neck and he jerked it back. Even the magic did not protect her entirely from the bite of the metal into her skin. It cracked and blood dropped onto the sand at her feet. Kit’s corpse slumped to the ground and her blood was everywhere. She still could not get her hand free.
Oh crap, she thought again and turned her head to make sure that Serene was all right. She had a shield around her. They were too close for spells. “We are!” Pandora yelled and hoped that her cousin would understand.
Her breath was stuck in her throat and her lugs burned. Black dots floated and drifted in her eyes. She thought of Emerald and dug the claws of her free hand into her attacker’s thighs. He grunted and tried to kick her off and jerked his chains upward. Emerald, she thought dimly and then the chain was lax and Pandora’s fingers were wrenched free of the hounds leg.
Pandora pulled at the chain and took a deep, gasping breath that made her lungs feel as though they would burst. She then managed to get her fingers loose. Kit’s body really was dead weight.
“Serene,” she whispered as the hound man fell into a heap of fur. Acid was eating out of his skin. Pandora wrenched at the chain as hard as she could and it snapped loose as gold chains always did in the stories of bards. She tossed it to the side. The blood stopped flowing from her skin.
Serene’s shield spell burst out and the remaining two combatants flew back. “Are you all right?” Serene asked. “You’re covered in blood!”
“Not all of it is mine,” Pandora said and lifted up her hands. She looked down and saw that the rags she had covering her chest were decorated with trains of blood. Then she realized just how wet and sticky it felt. The blood felt cold against her skin though.
“I don’t see anything wrong with you.”
Pandora shrugged. “I think we have company. Freeze the in place?”
Serene nodded and a sudden heat enveloped them. Sweat beaded over on Pandora’s brow. She watched as the air outside of their hot little globe crystallized into ice and drifted down to the sand. The hound men hesitated. The entire arena was snowing and Pandora thought she was going to die of dehydration.
The houndmen started to shiver and then they collapsed onto the cold sand. Their eyes were desperate as they looked at Pandora for help, but Pandora would not help them. She could not. They froze in place and then the heat whooshed out into the rest of the arena. The rustling of cloth and hair filled the room as everything was lifted up by the magical breeze.
“Wow,” Serene said.
“That was awesome,” Pandora agreed.
“We could freeze the bitch,” Serene said.
“How much did that take out of you?” Pandora asked.
“I’ve never felt stronger. You?”
“Same. Don’t say that word.”
“Pandora, seriously, you’re going to try my patience with your obsession…”
The iron gate swung open again and three underdark elves entered the area. They had their weapons drawn.
“Finally,” Serene said. “Can we go get dressed now? This outfit is humiliating.”
Pandora touched her cousin’s shoulder. “I don’t think they’re here to escort us back into the preparation room.”
Serene blinked and looked back at her cousin. “Oh, you can’t be serious,” she said and then looked back at the three elves that were waiting for the Matriarch’s go-ahead.