The roar of the crowd had become nothing more than a dull buzz against the chaos raging within his heart and mind. Vahti took a breath, trying to calm himself, but found no peace.
The gladiator before him stood staggered, his arms hanging limply at his side. Blood ran down his battered face, his spatha and shield laying at his feet. The din became more audible as the crowd chanted: Kill, Kill, Kill, repeatedly.
The man’s legs were shaking as he fought to remain standing. His pride as an Absonian refused to let him fall. He, like the others before him, had all been the same. They wanted to die on their feet.
Do no harm, Vahti. Life is sacred.
Since entering the Lottery, Arridus’ words had become like a specter skulking in the shadows. “The Crowd has spoken,” Arturo shouted over them. “The Law of the Colosseum is final. Two enter. One leaves.”
His words rang with an ominous tone. Refusal meant slavery and an end to helping Cairn aid. “Forgive me,” Vahti whispered, focusing his energy into a single strike against the gladiator’s sternum.
He felt it pop as the energy he gathered traveled through his fist, through the man’s chest and into his heart. The gladiator was dead before he even hit the ground, his eyes hollow and devoid of life. Vahti fought back the bile rising in his throat as the crowd exploded in delight.
Arturo seemed especially pleased. As he held his arms up in a grand gesture toward the spectators. “Our Champion!” he shouted. “Just wait, my friends, soon we will see if our undefeated Iron Fist can stand against the might of Xanthir!”
The crowd cheered yet again, and Vahti curled his lip as he made his way to the gate. The centurion station there opened it, allowing him to enter. “Undefeated,” he commented. “Enjoy it while you can, boy.”
Vahti glanced at him. Save for his tone, the Centurion’s bronze features gave no hint of emotion. He must have bet on the other guy, Vahti thought.
Vahti continued through the labyrinth of tunnels, his thoughts frozen on the empty expression of the man he had just killed. “How many vows must I break before this madness ends?” he whispered.
“I warned you.”
Vahti lifted his head. Aurelus stood at the end of the tunnel. “You did. I never should have entered the Lottery.”
“Your ambition led you here,” he replied. The guardsman narrowed his eyes, as if assessing Vahti. “Would you still fight Gmork?”
“Would I have a choice?”
“No, but you lack the resolve you had months ago,” Aurelus replied. “Arturo, however, never forgets a wager. You said you would fight The Butcher and sooner or later, he will call you out.”
“Xanthir,” he scoffed. “You really think you can beat that mad dragon?”
“I have no choice. All of this is for my brother.”
The guardsman’s eyes softened. His lower lip drawn taut in a pained expression. “Vahti, no amount of money will save him from the Arcanum.”
Vahti tensed. “What do you mean?”
“I have friends in the military, one in particular is a Magum. She has taken an interest in your fights and inquired of you. When I told her your story, she was more intrigued.”
“Magum… That means she’s pretty high up, doesn’t it?”
“You have no idea,” Aurelus replied. “Even with her authority, she can only inquire so much about the Arcanum. It’s part of the balances to keep the school from overt military influence.”
“She pulled on a few threads.”
Aurelus winced. “I’m only telling you this as a friend, Vahti, but your brother’s gifts have ensured the Arcanum will never let him go.”
It was hard to imagine, let alone believe. “Aurelus, they can’t do that… Can they?”
The soldier grimaced. “If what I heard was true, they will try. Your brother is powerful and the more powerful the magic user, the tighter the grip that is kept on them. No matter how much money you send to them, he will become a weapon they can use until his service ends.”
The roar of the crowd echoed through the tunnels. Vahti leaned against the wall, his legs growing weak. What have been doing all this time?
“Vahti, if you survive Xanthir tomorrow. We will talk again.”
Aurelus turned away and headed up the passageway toward The Boards. Vahti pressed his fist into the wall, his heart aching. Little brother, what have I gotten us into?
“You know, when you first contacted me, I was suspicious.”
“Of course, you’d be a fool not to be, Shaboh.”
Shaboh eyed the small familiar perched on the back of the chair in front of his desk. The raven’s eyes gleamed with and intelligence it should not have. It was hard not to shake the feeling the creature was more than it appeared.
“Still, your interest in this boy is peculiar.”
The raven tilted his head, as if its master were amused. “Do my interests really matter if you accomplish what you have sought for so long?”
Shaboh shrugged, “I suppose not. Though you can’t blame a Shaylin for being curious.”
“Curiosity only goes so far, Sorceire… Remember that.”
Shaboh tensed as an eerie chill settled over his office. “How long shall I wait?”
“I will let you know,” the familiar replied. “Time is such a bothersome thing.”
“Indeed,” Shaboh agreed. “But it is the one constant.” Looking at the raven as the words left his lips. The familiar’s black eyes gave him a sense of amusement.
“I suppose it is,” the familiar replied.
“Just remember your promise, wizard. Your proxy makes me suspicious enough.”
The raven cawed, as if laughing. “If one thing is true about me, Shaboh, it is this. When I give my word. I keep it.”
The raven then spread its wings and its body became a dark mist, before dissipating into nothing. Shaboh leaned back in his chair, eying the small locket on the table. He softly touched it, caressing the olive leaves crafted across its golden surface.
“Don’t worry, boys, your father is coming. We will leave this wretched country soon enough and set foot in the homeland of our people.”