It was almost hard to remember life before everything had become a total mess. Yet those precious memories from before were the things Devon clung to the most. Memories of comfort and community. There was little enough of each in his current life.
His accommodations were ever so slightly better than they had been in the Irvin arena. The bed was nearly tolerable, the floors were cleaned almost monthly, and the food was more abundant. The danger was more variable.
In the Irvin arena he had to fight for his life primarily against wild beasts. Sometimes they were starved, the effects of which varied by the animal. If they were too starved they were easier to fight, which suited Devon just fine. He didn’t mind killing an easy opponent. He would even do his best to make it look somewhat difficult. He didn’t care about the crowd but when his life was in control of someone else, he had to adapt. There had also been a few fights against humans there. Not all of them were to the death- slaves cost money after all.
After he’d been casually given an admittedly poor cultivation technique, he quickly grew stronger. A cultivator’s body was much stronger than anyone else, and the versatility and power of energy couldn’t be overcome by simply having a stronger build. He ended up against stronger opponents but he himself grew quickly enough to defend himself. Enough that the Irvin arena was running out of opponents for him- and the guards were barely higher cultivation than himself.
Then he had been bought by the Potenza family- or more specifically by a daughter of the family, Tonina. His grandfather Anton had found him and planned to purchase his freedom, but she arrived before the deal was finished and used her family’s influence to coerce him into a duel- and when she lost that one, a second duel at a time most convenient to her advancing cultivation.
After that he had been thrown into an endless series of matches against other cultivators and magical beasts. He had to grow stronger to survive, and so he did. Somehow he came through it, and a few weeks later things calmed down. He’d thought he would be pushed until he died, but it seemed to not be the case. Perhaps they had plans for when he grew in cultivation.
Just because they were going to send him against greater opponents as he grew didn’t mean he could stop. They would do it anyway- and Devon preferred to live. He had little in the way of discussions with others about cultivation since talking with rivals wasn’t good for his own safety. He knew he had pushed himself from mid to late Body Tempering, but not to the peak according to the cultivation method he had available. He wasn’t sure if it was a mismatch between himself and the technique or if something was simply wrong with it, but he couldn’t manage any more advancement.
Even so, he survived. He was fortunate to find himself matched against beasts he could kill or kept out of death matches entirely. He thought perhaps he might survive until he could grow strong enough to escape, or until his grandfather returned.
Those hopes had been shattered when his next match was announced. There was a giant man named Moreno, more than a head taller than any of the other men and coated in rippling muscle. His build was secondary to his cultivation at the peak of Body Tempering. More than that, even. The rumors weren’t entirely clear on whether he had a foot into Spirit Building or had fully stepped into it. Devon’s only time seeing the man he hadn’t felt like he’d completed a full level of whatever cultivation technique he used, but that could have changed in the last few weeks.
Regardless, it didn’t matter. Moreno had more than just higher cultivation than Devon. Moreno wasn’t a slave, or at least not fully treated like one. He was the man chosen to end most every arena combatant’s streaks- permanently. Devon didn’t know what sort of bets were involved, but anyone involved would be foolish to bet against him. The matches weren’t fair. He was always equipped with better gear- high quality and enchanted. Even if his opponent was more skilled or nearly as strong, even a lucky hit by them wouldn’t be enough to change the tide of battle.
Devon had found out about the match only three days before, directly from the lips of Tonina. The evil grin on her face told him that he was going to die just as much as her words did. If he’d had a weapon nearby he would have tried to stab it through her heart, despite her presence in early Spirit Building meaning he had no hope to kill her.
So he was going to die. Three days wasn’t sufficient for any sort of breakthrough. The only solace he had was on the training field. Moreno had his own place to train secretly, with outside opponents. He was still able to watch the others train to inspect their weaknesses. It was clear he hadn’t been informed of the match any sooner than Devon- he hadn’t been watching him fight at all. In fact, he was out of town.
One of the other men used the same sort of weapon- if it could be called that instead of a torture device. A chain with spikes along its length designed to cause maximum pain. Devon had convinced him to help train- since Devon would be dying in a few days regardless any secrets couldn’t be used against him later.
His goal was still technically to win and kill Moreno, but Devon didn’t think it would happen. He had no control over the shadow of death looming over him, but if he was going to die he was at least going to go down swinging. That might be exactly what the arena wanted, but he never had a choice in the matter. If possible, he wanted to take out an eye or at least chop off a finger. Something lasting to remind the world he had been alive.
He held his head high as he walked towards the arena floor, only to be thrown for a loop one last time. He wasn’t assigned his typical weapon, but instead a fencing sword and small bucklers. Someone didn’t even care if he was entertaining as he died.
The walls of Khonard loomed before the small group. Some of the less fit members were falling behind, unable to keep up with the pace Anton set. Kohar was able to keep up with the pace, but she gave a side-eye to Anton. “Why are you pushing so hard? We’re here, are we not?”
“We are,” Anton acknowledged. “But I have a feeling… last time I came here, if I had arrived just minutes earlier, maybe a quarter of an hour, things would have been different. I just feel that-” his eyes caught a figure in the distance. He turned to the few former villagers of Dungannon he’d been able to gather on their route to Khonard. “All of you have your papers, your pouches?” They nodded. “The inn is two blocks that way, big sign. We’ll meet you there later. Go ahead and get rooms, and a meal. Kohar, with me.”
Sprinting through the streets of a city was considered rude, but Anton didn’t care. Half a minute later he stood in front of Elder Varela of the Grasping Willows. “No time for formalities, I’m afraid.” Elder Varela’s long white beard fluttered as he turned his head. “Kohar, I presume. If you could find Elder Rocha in the government district and tell her Anton is present, we will be heading to the Potenza arena immediately.”
“That urgent?” Kohar glanced at Anton, then back to Elder Varela, “I will return with as much haste as I can manage.”
Kohar split off from the others, and Elder Varela began to explain as they were on their way, weaving through the people on the street. “You were right about the Potenza family taking things poorly- or rather a certain foolish girl. My contact was able to convince them to restrict the sorts of combats Devon ended up in, but the elder members of the Potenza family are out of the city for the next few days. I did not know that until Tonina refused to release Devon, even when I showed her the copy of the document. It seems we accidentally provoked her into quick action. That was three days ago, and Devon was scheduled for a deathmatch immediately. One that is about to start at any moment.”
“I can go faster,” Anton declared. Trusting that Elder Varela’s advantage in cultivation would be sufficient for him to do the same, he rushed through the streets. His eyes picked out the way people were moving and where they would be when he arrived. He avoided their movements before they even knew he was there, and when someone noticed him and made uncoordinated movements that would have resulted in a collision he was prepared for that too. Was there a slight flow of energy along his path, guiding him, or was that his imagination? He couldn’t be sure, and simply relied on his Insight to avoid people.
As they approached the arena, Anton was able to sense many sources of energy. Guards with cultivations around the peak of Body Tempering. Further in he sensed at least a handful of those in Spirit Building. Some might simply belong to those watching the match, but Anton sensed Tonina and the guardian she’d previously had with her as well. Then he sensed Devon, combating someone unknown.
Anton unfurled a document as he stopped in front of two guards who had spears drawn to block the entrance. “You are illegally holding a man and will release him at once.”
“Bring that up with the Potenzas,” said one of the guards.
“I know Tonina is inside, bring me to her now.”
“Can’t. Match is happening.”
The guard seemed awfully confident Anton wouldn’t do anything to him, despite him being weaker. Even as his eyes drilled into the man, he stood firm. “That match involves a man illegally taken as a slave. Take me to him.” The men continued to block the entrance. “Do you intend to ignore the rule of law?”
“Like I said,” the guard stood firm. “Take it up with the Potenzas.”
Anton turned to Elder Varela. There was just a simple nod. Then there was a blur of motion. On the left, the shocked head of a man landed sideways on the ground, shortly followed by his head. On the right there was a snap as the man’s neck was twisted completely around by Elder Varela’s seemingly innocuous long hair and beard- before they latched onto him like giant hands.
With a powerful flick of his handaxe Anton cleaned the blood off, before returning it to hang at his side and drawing his bow. “Should we announce ourselves more clearly?” Anton asked.
“They’ll be able to put up an organized defense. Dangerous. But it will help justify our actions and might help your grandson.” Elder Varela’s hair and beard wriggled around in the air in front of him and to the sides. “I’ll support whatever choice you make.”