Note: This is like two weeks overdue. Sorry, I was busy. Last weeks chapter will come out Wednesday, and this week on Thursday.
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“Your wine, your excellency,” said the waiter as he passed a golden goblet to a man with silver hair and a set of piercing blue eyes. That man was the Eleventh Executor and also Jeffrey Zorelli’s father.
The Eleventh Executor picked up the goblet and took a sip of the dark red liquid before placing it gently back on the tray. Each movement he made was elegant. Every glance he made was chilling.
“Would you like a sip, boy?” His father asked. Jeffrey wanted to, but chose against it, shaking his head. He knew his father well. Was it a trap? Is he baiting me?
“Come now, you’re becoming a man today, fourteen now and your balls must have dropped. A man must drink.” And at that, Jeffrey did not refuse. He took his father’s goblet and took a sip. The cool, tart fluid flooded his mouth, masking his taste buds for mere moments before the new experience, new sensations, left him. Jeffrey coughed as the liquid immediately began to burn at his throat and mouth.
His father patted him on the back. He’s acting so much different than usual. Jeffrey felt odd, but then again, he had become a man today. Was it strange for a father to be loving on such a day?
Father and son… Jeffrey gazed out of the second-floor balcony in a daze. It was bright outside, the snow drifting from the cloudless sky and into the arena. He watched as a boy and a half-man stood in the middle. They must have fathers or sons themselves.
“Look at them. The dregs of society,” his father began, “They fight and toil just to live. None of them are forced here, mind you. None of them made or even asked to come here. They come freely of their own volition. For opportunity. No, the mere pocket change we can throw at them. Can’t you feel it?”
Jeffrey closed his eyes. He breathed in deeply and let that air expel out into the cold. Soon, an ominous air felt like it was tugging at him, pulling him into darkness. Jeffrey’s eyes snapped open.
The man with the silver hair smiled lightly and rubbed Jeffrey’s hair a bit. “You’ve always been better than your older brother. He was two years older than you before he could sense the inborn aura of other creatures.”
Jeffrey did not know much about his older brother, only what others said about him, that he was very mysterious and eccentric; and also that his brother and father were at odds. Although they were brothers, he could count on his fingers the times he saw his brother in person, much less the times they actually spent time talking to one another.
“Remember this sight. That feeling,’ his father continued. “When you can’t succeed in this world, you have to face danger like that every day. Be lucky you were born in this family, and remain vigilant. Even people of our status can fall in that state. To have even your fellow man,” and his father spread his arms gesturing to the people in lower balconies all around the arena, “laugh at you.”
“Like that half-man?”
“Like that half-man.” But The Eleventh Executor said no more on the subject. No one did.
“Can they see us?” Jeffrey finally asked.
Jeffrey’s father smiled again. He got up from his chair and stood to the very edge of the balcony. There were no rails, and so, with on step, one would fall straight down two stories and into the arena itself.
With one look at that edge, Jeffrey felt a tug of uneasiness fill him, but following what his father would always say, he kept his mouth shut, made a note of it, and buried it down deep. Fear or unease was not something to keep around. It was something to take note of and put it to good use. But at the end of the day, fear was something you had to shoulder deep down. Too keep caged or it would cage you. A necessity; but also a vulnerability.
The Eleventh Executor did not look afraid, so why should he?
The Eleventh stretched his hand out until it began to pass the limits of the balcony floor itself, leading into the open air over the fighting pit of the arena. That was until the air turned turbid around his finger, and the Eleventh looked like he could move no more.
“Do you see now? It’s a space membrane. It’s fluid and colorless until it’s touched, hardening at that point. Only this one is specially designed. As you can see, when it turned turbid, it was of a grey color, not the normal white. That indicates the membrane has been altered. For this purpose, they alter it so that while we can see them, they can only see a shadow of ourselves.”
The Eleventh Executor turned and took his seat again.
“Sad? You said nothing when I called them dregs fighting for pocket change. What’s different now?”
“Now I know they can’t see those who forced them to their fate.”
His father remained silent, but Jeffrey felt he understood his meaning. They were a family close to the line of the Knight of Winters. A family built and fashioned around the sword. It was a shame for someone to not be able to know what killed them in their eyes. And even though these ‘dregs’ came here willingly, it was quite obvious that their suffering in life was due to the machinations and greed from those that lived above them.
Down in the arena pit, Braen stood there in a daze. He felt as if it were all a lie. Why did he have to suffer like this? This was all that girl’s fault. If only she followed him into the woods together like he wanted. No, it wasn’t her fault. It was the group’s fault that dragged him into that mess. He should have died out there, not saved by some noble, leaving him with a single arm as a freak show in the middle of some arena as a sport for some rich, pompous fools.
“Is this why you saved me?” He muttered.
The half-man at the side was staring into the dark cave-like structure that he tricked Braen into opening. He seemed to be in a daze too, muttering under his breath.
It was when Braen muttered something, that he spoke up, “Eh, boy? You say something?”
A look or ridicule and anger seemed to flash across the half-man’s face. It was no wonder. Braen was a cripple. He had no arm. The only thing the man had probably thought Braen was a benefit to him was as a distraction from whatever laid behind that cloaked entrance. But now that he realized nothing was immediately behind it, his face had gone grim. The creature they had to face was deep inside, and that was the most dangerous of kinds.
“Is this why you saved me?” Braen roared. “To live like this?”
His eyes had glazed over, and the sounds seemed to pull away. It was only him and the sky above. No longer that darkness from beyond. Deep inside he knew better. He was trained too. Trained to fight. Trained to hunt. Else, how would he get permission to leave the cities on a group mission? So how could he not know that in front of a predator, drawing attention to yourself as a dangerous thing, in the cave or not? But at that moment, it was if all that were no longer a part of him. As if they no longer mattered in the world.
And he just roared. He roared until his throat felt raw. He roared until the sky seemed to go dark. He roared…
And then he felt his legs leave from under him as he felt the wind leave him. Braen winced as he came back to reality. He rolled over on the ground, winced as he picked himself up. He had been knocked off his feet.
He glared at the half- man in front of him.
It’s your fault. You gave me hope! You let me hope again!
“Father…” Jeffrey looked worriedly at his father.
It was as his father had said. People came to them to fight in the games, so it was another matter entirely if they were forced. Even if it were just an illusion of them coming here willingly, it was fine, but this boy seemed as if he were completely oblivious.
When some of the audience had seen the boy’s strange behavior as if he did not know what from what, and how the half-man had easily tricked him, doubts began to spread. Now with what he was screaming… It’s almost as if we captured him and forced him here.
Jeffrey could see his father’s jaw clenched. His fists were tight. The Eleventh Executor looked over to a balcony up to the far left. They could only see shadows of those behind the screen, but that was all. There was silence.
“He intends to continue. The right choice in this situation. Best if the cripple boy dies; questions will die down. It’s not like he was explicit, but who is that boy? Who let him in?”
The members to the left were the owners of the arena. The Eleventh and the Sixth Executor Families came together on this as a joint venture, but the sixth was the executive on the daily decisions. They owned the majority stock and forty percent of the board while he held twenty.
The Eleventh signaled his steward and whispered in his ear.
Jeffrey saw the steward bow before he left. When he came back after a few minutes, he said, “Our sources say the Sixth Executor changed the list and put him in. Our sources also say it was the Twelfth Executor Family that he came from.”
“The Twelfth?” The Eleventh Executor’s voice sounded hoarse before he went quiet.
Have we been betrayed? Jeffrey wondered. It was well known that the Eleventh and Twelfth Executor Families were like oil and water. Now, the Family they had been in close relations with for nearly a decade was working with their enemy family in secret? Jeffrey felt like things were getting out of hand. He took a deep breath to calm himself. No, I’m just looking at this from a narrowed scope. Father would have the bigger picture. Besides, it’s as father says. No matter how things seem, there is always a way. If you can’t find it, you were just not good enough to.
“Useless! Are you trying to get us killed?” The half-man spoke with gritted teeth. “I am not a stranger to the acts of the arena. If they want someone to fight in it, they will get them to fight no matter what, but even as those that were forced had their blood spilled in this same arena floor, they knew better than to say anything! Else, the only result of this match was death.”
The half-man seemed to sigh before he continued, “boy, I do not know why they put you here. Maybe it was to get me killed by pairing me with someone useless? I’ve won too many matches lately. I bet the betting odds have begun to wane. Or maybe they want to get you killed? Suffer from something you did? I do not know. All I know is, I have a family, and even if I die, it’s alright. But I won’t die as an enemy of the arena, you understand me? I won’t put them through that. Because if I am an enemy, so are they. Now get your head on straight, and let’s finish this!”
The half-man’s voice was not loud, only loud enough for Braen to hear, but he could tell the seething anger behind each word. It almost caught him off guard. The heat he felt, the blind rage at the world and at the half-man in front of him seemed to lose its balance in front of him. Braen was not a stranger to this world. He knew better than to delve in his hatred at every slight against him. No one was trustworthy.
“What’s your name,” Braen couldn’t help but ask.
The half-man stared at Braen for a moment before he shook his head. “I have no name, boy,” and he gripped the sword in his hand tight before venturing into the cave. “We don’t have much time left. We must battle. We must win. Or only death awaits not just us, but our loved ones. … It’s been a long time since I’ve had so much relying on me.”