PHOENIX FIRE by Michelle Miles
Elena lived to kill and killed to live.
Such was the way for the lowest of the low. A slave to slaves. Her pathetic excuse for a life teetered on the edge of her blade every time she swung it. This time, it made contact with the minotaur’s skull in a crushing blow. She could hear the snap of bones as she sliced through skin and fur hair.
She watched the creature fall to the sand, bleeding it red as it gasped its final breath. After years of fighting, she’d gotten used to the sight. It no longer made her stomach queasy like it once did. Nor were her nerves shredded on the edge of shattered glass. This was her life. She’d long ago accepted it and stopped fantasizing about freedom.
Her victory was short lived as another attacker engaged her. This one was barely a Youngling, a female centaur. Much too young and frail to fight in the arena. But then again, the Emperor was known for being twisted. Pitting the Youngling against Elena, Phoenix of the Grand Arena and Hixyl’s best gladiatrix, was a sure death warrant.
The screench of metal against metal as swords crossed. The cloying stench of blood in the air. The roar of the crowd. All familiar. All part of her daily existence.
Clink. Clink. Clang!
Her sword clashed hard against that of the girl, who seemed to have surprising force. The steel reverberated up Elena’s arm, jarred her bones, shuddered her soul. She clenched her jaw, her back teeth throbbing. Shrugging off the pain, she dogged the scrawny centaur as it? reared up on hind legs and tried to kick with front hooves. She carried a round shield like Elena’s, a short sword her weapon of choice.
Behind her, another battle raged. Men pitted against men. Centaur against centaur. Elena tried to concentrate on her own skirmish instead of the scuffles around her. Thankfully the slit in her steel faceplate blocked her peripheral vision, forcing her to focus all her attention on her own fight.
Sweat plastered her long brown hair against her skull under her helm and dampened her brow. She could feel it, too, rolling down her spine. Her armor wasn’t much more protective than the girl’s, though she was lucky she was allowed to wear leather greaves, bracers, anda leather and steel tunic with shoulder plates. Perhaps that gave her an unfair advantage, but then that was how the Emperor worked.
Elena gripped the round shield in her other sweaty hand. Her fingers cramped from holding it so tight. But she dare not release it, for she knew her fate if she did, even though she was fairly certain the girl wouldn’t know how to kill her if she tried.
Her attacker lacked skills, but made up for it with agility. She charged, thrusting her sword towards Elena with an ear-splitting war cry.
Her opponent stabbed the short sword toward her again. As Elena raised her shield, the sword bounced off it with a thump, back towards the skinny yet muscular Youngling. The impact caused her to lose her footing. Her back legs crumpled, her arms flailed, and she exposed her ribs and chest.
Elena lunged, plunging her sword between ribs, right into the heart. The crowd cheered as the Youngling fell back and Elena reclaimed her sword, now dripping with blood.
The female centaur’s death had been a silent one, but her face had said it all.
It was the faces Elena remembered. Always the eyes widening with surprise. The brow creasing from several lines to none before the light diminished. The tense muscles releasing as life ebbed.
After participating in the Games for years, Elena could no longer smell the familiar reek of blood and death and rot. She could no longer hear the death noises of men and beasts slaughtering each other. The screams of defiance. The splish of blood against sword. Being inside the arena was like home—and hell.
“Elena, look out!”
Heart pounding, she whirled in time to block the sword. Holding it two-handed, her muscles contracted to ward off the attack. Fatigue had slowed her reaction, turning her limbs into sweat-soaked noodles. The seedy-looking fellow grinned, showing off decaying yellow stumps of teeth.
Their swords clashed and he threw all his weight behind his, pushing her backward. Energy failing, she stumbled, giving him enough opportunity for his stumpy fingers to latch onto her throat and squeeze.
Marcus—the Serpent—had given her the warning and now came to her aid. He stabbed the man in the back of the neck, severing his spine. The man dropped like a lump in the dirt to the boisterous cheers of the crowd. Her chest heaving, she gave a nod of thanks to her fellow fighter.
They were the only two left standing. Elena didn’t want to see who had been lost to death today and who had been merely wounded. Instead, she turned toward the stands, waiting as the Emperor rose from his cushion. He stood at the railing for all to see as he stuck out his arm, his hand fisted. When he gave both standing gladiators a thumbs-up, the crowd cheered louder. Some threw roses and streamers to show their appreciation and adoration to the gladiators.
Accolades for slaughter.