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Blood on the Sand

Dust settled on the arena sands. Sken’s claws dug deep into the ground as e sized up eir opponent across the ring. The other dragon was older, taller, broader in the shoulders, but at least Sken knew how to fight bigger dragons. E had to, being small.

This is it, Sken thought, tensing as the other dragon readied to charge. You win this, and you can get out of here.

~

The nestlings crowded together in a heap of tails and wings and legs as Mors loomed over them. Normally they’d be play-fighting—it was all they knew to do, really—but Mors scared them. Mors scared everyone. So they let her talk, and they listened.

Mors was telling them about the colosseum again. It was all she ever really told them about—the games, the rules. The fact that, if you wanted to ever be anyone, you needed to win, and to win, you needed to kill.

“What about outside?” one nestling asked, leaning forward toward Mors. They all knew what was meant by “outside”, even without clarification. Outside the colosseum, beyond those great stone walls that defined their lives.

Mors stretched her neck out and bared her teeth in the nestling’s face. “There is nothing beyond the colosseum,” she spat. “All there is out there is death.”

There’s death in here, too, Sken thought, but dared not say.

~

“You. Dragonet.”

It was an older dragon, an aging adult, red-gray scales marred with the scars of many arena battles. Dark red eyes. Torn wings.

Sken didn’t want to talk to this stranger, but it was wiser to acknowledge an adult than to ignore them. “Yes?” e asked, turning to the elder.

The older dragon beckoned, and Sken became suddenly aware that they were alone in the room. If this dragon wanted to kill Sken, to prevent possible future competition, there was no one around to see.

Sken stepped closer anyway. Now that the dragonets were old enough to fend for themselves, most of the adults ignored them, except maybe to hiss threats at them. This was unusual, and despite being nervous Sken was also growing curious.

“You want to escape, don’t you?” the older dragon asked. “I can see it in your eyes.”

Sken was silent. Who didn’t want to escape? Why did this dragon decide to single em out?

The older dragon chuckled, low. “Look, child, it’s too late for me. Let me help you get out.”

~

Sken’s first opponent was Hazac. They’d been in the same batch of nestlings, but Hazac was quicker and fiercer. He’d grown sleek and sharp while Sken still had scruffy, dull-colored nestling scales.

None of Sken’s training had prepared em for this fight. Eir mentor was large and bulky, and, most importantly, slower than Sken was.

Sken was afraid.

Hazac prowled around em in the arena, scuffing up sand with his claws. He looked almost bored, like he knew he was going to kill Sken in seconds. Like he knew he was getting an easy step on his path to the top.

Sken bared eir teeth at him, and Hazac laughed. “I’m sorry I have to do this,” he said, sounding not sorry in the slightest, “but you understand. This is how it is here.”

He sprang.

~

Some of the nestlings got it into their heads one day that they were going to find a way out of the colosseum. When all the adults had gone to yet another arena fight, Sken and a clawful of others crept out of the nestlings’ room and down the dark, narrow hallway that wound through the bowels of the colosseum.

It was near completely black; the adults hardly bothered to light the deepest corners of the tunnels, especially on fight days. Sken didn’t know where they were going, but an older nestling named Ferren seemed to have some idea of the tunnels’ direction.

They found their way to a corridor that only had archways leading inward; the outer hall of the colosseum, Sken figured. There was still no sign of any way out of the colosseum. Sken was beginning to feel a creeping sensation, like the small band of nestlings was being watched, but e knew e wouldn’t be able to find eir way back alone, and kept following Ferren.

“Here!” said Ferren suddenly, and the rest of the nestlings crowded around where she stood. In the wall was a slight gap, the opening to a tunnel just big enough for a nestling to squeeze through.

One of the smaller nestlings crawled into the tunnel and quickly disappeared into the darkness. Ferren was about to follow him when a shadow fell over them and a low growl rumbled through the air.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

It was Mors.

“We were just exploring,” said Ferren, with a surprising amount of bravery. Usually no one dared talk back to Mors.

“Not anymore you’re not,” Mors spat at her. “Come along, all of you.” She swept them together with her tail and herded them all back to the nestlings’ room.

As they passed through the doorway, Mors asked, “Wait—where’s Ainse?”

“I haven’t seen him. He wasn’t with us,” Sken lied, and Ferren looked at em in surprise.

Mors huffed and said, “Oh well, then.”

None of them ever saw Ainse again.

~

Sken’s new mentor’s name was Raisal. He claimed he’d been around since before the colosseum. He spoke of a world above, a world full of light, a world nothing at all like the one Sken knew. He said he knew the way out of the colosseum, but he wouldn’t tell Sken where it was.

“I’ll tell you when you’re ready,” he said, each time e asked. “It’s dangerous out there.”

“It’s dangerous in here, too,” Sken argued.

“So it is. But can you fight yet?” Raisal asked, and when Sken looked away in defeat he said, “See? You need to be able to defend yourself. Don’t charge headlong into something you know nothing about.”

Sken wanted to argue. Nothing out there could possibly be more dangerous than what was in here. At least out there, there was supposedly space to hide from other dragons—in the colosseum, the others would inevitably find you. Unless you were Ainse, and you ran off into a tunnel the adults couldn’t fit into. But, in the end, Raisal knew the way out. And if Raisal felt Sken was ready to face the outside world, he would tell em where the exit was.

Sken was determined to earn that way out, so e spent every second e could get away with training with Raisal. At eir age, this was easy; e was old enough that the adults left em to eir own devices, but not yet old enough that e was expected to fight in the colosseum battles.

At first Sken did poorly. E’d play-fought with eir fellow nestlings plenty of times, but none of them had known what they were doing either. Raisal was an adult who’d known how to fight since before Sken was alive, and he’d had plenty of battles in the colosseum to keep his skills sharp. For a time, their training bouts consisted of nothing more than Raisal yelling at Sken to be faster while tossing em across the chamber.

The first time e managed to dodge an attack aimed eir way, it surprised the both of them. Raisal barked a startled laugh and said, “Good start, nestling. Let’s see if you can do that again.”

Sken could, it turned out. Raisal taught em how to move under and around eir opponents, and strike quickly and effectively.  He shared his meals with em after successful training bouts, and told em that soon, soon, e would be ready to leave.

And then Sken was called into the arena for eir first match.

~

Raisal was not there to meet Sken when e came out of the ring. Instead, e was greeted by Ensaij, one of the colosseum elders. Ensaij loomed over em, a wall of dark scales nearly filling the tunnel. E looked displeased.

“Where’s Raisal?” Sken asked, and only after e’d spoken did e consider that that might not have been the wisest thing to say.

Ensaij curled eir lip. “It has come to our attention that Raisal has been planting… ideas… in the heads of some of the dragonets. Yourself included, perhaps.” E leaned in close to Sken and hissed, breath hot, “You must forget anything he told you. There is no way out.”

~

Winning several matches meant that Sken was generally ignored by the colosseum elders, and they let em wander wherever e pleased. Sken used this newfound privilege to spy on the elders. After all, if Ensaij felt the need to deny any exit, there must be one… right? And if there was one—there had to be—the elders had to know where it was.

Sken just had to wait for them to slip up and mention it.

E never heard them mention the way out.

But e did hear them mention Raisal.

Raisal, who was still alive.

~

Sken twisted, and Hazac’s teeth scraped over eir shoulder instead of eir throat. It stung, but e’d live. Hazac hissed with frustration as he landed on the ground, already turning to attack again. He leaped and collided with em, and they went rolling onto the sand, claws scraping at each other. Sken landed a blow on Hazac’s ribs; Hazac tore at eir wings in return.

Hazac came out on top, and Sken kicked savagely at his belly until he leaped off of em. Sken rolled to eir feet; e stung fiercely all over, and hot blood pooled in the gaps between eir scales. Hazac didn’t look any better than Sken felt, which was heartening, but he did look furious. Clearly he’d been expecting this match to go much differently.

“You and I both know that I’m the stronger one,” Hazac panted, shaking blood from his scales. “Hold still for a moment. I’ll make it quick.”

Sken laughed. “Right.”

Hazac readied to charge again, and this time Sken met him, teeth bared. They tumbled over each other, and this time Sken came out on top, with the perfect angle to get at Hazac’s throat.

Sken hesitated. E didn’t want to kill Hazac, but then again, it was his life or eirs.

Sken wanted to live. E wanted to escape, to be free in the world Raisal had told em about.

E bit down.

~

Raisal was chained up in a dark back corridor. He didn’t look like he’d been fed in a while; his scales were dull and he’d lost weight, but he brightened somewhat when he saw Sken approaching.

“So you lived, did you?” he asked, and Sken nodded. Raisal lifted a claw to beckon em closer, like he had the first time they’d met. It felt like forever ago. “You deserve to escape,” he croaked as Sken approached. “I should have told you before. I didn’t think they’d find out.”

Sken left Raisal’s corner with every intention of leaving right then and there, but as e turned a corner into one of the more populated areas, Mors stepped out in front of em.

“There you are,” she hissed, displeased. “Your next match is starting right now. Did you intend to forfeit?”

“No,” Sken blurted quickly. A forfeit meant immediate termination. How had e forgotten about the match?

Mors flicked her tongue and said, frostily, “Well, come with me then.”

Sken followed her to the arena, glancing back over eir shoulder at the passageway Raisal had said would lead em to freedom.

Soon, e thought. Soon I can be free.

~

As Sken stepped out onto the sands and walked to the center of the arena to meet eir opponent, e felt a sudden cold certainty well up in eir chest. E would not be making it out alive. This dragon was no ordinary dragon of the colosseum; this was Arval, one of the colosseum elders. Arval had been an elder for far longer than Sken was alive.

The elders wanted em dead.

It must be because of Raisal. They must know that Sken knew how to escape, and they wanted to make sure that that knowledge did not spread.

Sken didn’t intend to cause an uprising. E just wanted to be free of this place. And now e never would be.

I’m sorry, Raisal, Sken thought.

E and Arval paced slowly around each other, scuffing up the bloodstained sand. Sken couldn’t help thinking of everything except eir oncoming death—the fact that the arena reeked of blood and death, the crowd of other colosseum dragons crowded in the stands with bated breath… the slight opening in the doors Arval had come through.

Sken made as if e intended to leap onto Arval’s back, and the older dragon stepped neatly aside, leaving Sken with a clear path across the arena. E bolted towards the door, hoping no one noticed and closed it before e could escape.

Arval snarled and took chase, and Sken pushed emself to run harder, faster. E had to get away.

And then e was through the gap. It was just barely big enough for em to squeeze through, and Arval had to pause behind them to pull the door open, roaring in frustration. Sken didn’t wait. E had to find the hidden exit Raisal had told em about.

As Sken dashed headlong down poorly-lit corridors, e could hear more and more dragons chasing after em. One did not simply run from a match in the colosseum. You fought, and you either lived or you died. You did not escape.

The exit into the outside world was at the end of a corridor that felt infinitely long as Sken ran along it. The pounding of eir pursuers’ feet echoed in the empty space, and e couldn’t tell how close they were getting.

Sken collided with a boulder at the end of the tunnel and scrabbled at it frantically, trying to push it out of the way. Breathing felt like swallowing a mouthful of claws.

Just as Sken was able to roll the boulder away, opening up a dim tunnel that seemed to curve upwards, someone’s talons landed on eir tail.

“Stop,” snarled Mors, her breath hot on Sken’s face. “You have no idea what you’re doing.”

“Let me go!” screamed Sken, ripping eir tail free from Mors’s grasp. Before she could react, e whirled and darted up the tunnel. This dirt was soft, far softer than the hard-packed pathways in the colosseum tunnels. It clearly hadn’t been used in a while, not since the original elders had come down into the colosseum.

Sken scrabbled up the last stretch of tunnel and into… the dark? From Raisal’s stories, e’d been expecting the outside world to be brilliant and blazing with light, but instead it was dim. Several glowing orbs like massive eyes hung in the sky, illuminating a world that stretched on forever. Soft dirt gave beneath eir talons.

Sken almost didn’t hear the sound of another dragon emerging from the tunnel behind em, but the cold voice that rang out definitely caught eir attention.

“Any last words?”

It was Mors. She padded towards em, wings flaring, lips peeled back to expose glistening teeth. “If you’d forgotten about this,” she snarled, “if you’d just quit, you could have been an elder. You had potential, child. And instead you decided to stamp it into dust.”

“I didn’t want to be an elder,” Sken said. “I never wanted to be one of you. No one does. Let me go. I won’t come back.”

“You fool,” hissed Mors. “You poor, poor fool.”

Mors could never let a traitor go free. The elders wouldn’t risk their location being shared with anyone in the outside world.

That was okay. Sken had no strength left to run. All Mors had ever wanted em to do was fight. And now fighting was the only option left to em.

Sken bared eir teeth, spread eir wings, curled eir claws.

“You shouldn’t have followed me.”

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