Chapter 7

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It's dark out now. I don't know exactly how much time has passed. Hours for sure. The warriors have long gone to bed. Me and the other recruits are in the training area, pacing in a circle with each of us gripping ropes attached to small boulders.

Though it's cooler out now that the sun has dropped, sweat drips off my bowed head.

Each boulder can't weigh more than ten pounds, but with the hours that have passed, the continuous pacing, and the rough rope wrapped around our hands and wrists, it feels more like a hundred pounds.

In front of me Felicia crumbles to her knees. I clench my jaw so I won't yell at her. That's the fourth time she's done it. If I can do this, so can she.

"Get up," Alexior demands. "Every time you fall, the others suffer. That's one more hour everyone will pace."

I close my eyes. I knew that was coming.

Alexior hauls Felicia up by her arm. "I can do nothing with you as long as you're showing such weakness. In the fights you will be a team. You have to have each other's back. Right now no one can depend on you. You're making that clear."

The first couple of chastisements, I wanted to defend her. Now I want to kick her myself. Another hour. Jesus.

Grunting and moaning, Felicia stumbles forward and rejoins our pacing circle. I shoot her a death glare that I hope she really gets. She must because the next hour goes by, and she manages to stay upright.

"Halt," Alexior speaks into the night. "Sit." We all fall over instead. He walks around and unstraps the ropes from our wrists. "You may sleep right here in the dirt."

I don't think twice about arguing. I curl up in a ball and close my eyes. A million to get my sister back and earn our freedom. Will they really let us go? It's the last thought that goes through my brain before I am gone.

~*~

A splash of water wakes me, and I jerk upright. Sera stands over me, laughing, the sun beaming down behind her. I hate her.

"Valoria," Alexior calls. "Someone's here to see you. Come with me."

I drag my weary body up and am immediately aware of my blistered hands. I try to flex them and wince. I don't bother looking at them. I don't need the visual reminder of the pain. I can only imagine the bruising and burns from the ropes.

As I drudge across the training area and under the overhang where the warriors sit eating, I gaze longingly at the fruit and bread and cheese on their plates. Hungry acid burns through my stomach like its eating my lining from the inside out.

I step through the archway where Alexior waits and he opens an iron gate. I glance into the tiny holding cell and to the shackles attached to the wall and immediately back away.

"Don't worry," he tells me. "I'll release you as soon as she's done speaking to you."

I hesitate. "She?"

He doesn't answer and instead nods me inside. He shackles my ankles and wrists to the wall. Instinctually, I give my chains a tug and discover I can only come out about a foot.

He stands on the other side of the cell, and we both fall silent. I glance around at the murky stone interior, at another door on the other side, and at a dark stain in one corner. As the moments pass, I get more and more anxious. What are we waiting for?

Alexior rotates his neck ever so slightly, like it's tense, and I wonder if he wishes he could reach up and rub it. Somehow I don't see him doing such a natural act.

The door on the other side of the cell opens. My muscles tense in expectation.

The red-haired woman from the marketplace steps in. Today she has her bright hair down in long curls and wears a gold gown instead of the silver one. Her makeup is immaculate and she smells like a peculiar mixture of pot and jasmine.

It only serves to remind me I was up sweating through the night and my mouth is dry and dirty.

She stands a careful distance in front of me, like she knows the exact reach of my restraints.

Casually, she takes in my choppy black hair, my filthy tunic from sleeping in the dirt, and my equally filthy skin. Her lip curls, like I stink so powerfully she can barely stand being in here with me.

Her disgust washes over me and makes me angry. How dare she be offended by me! I hike my chin and proudly return her stare.

"My name is Bareket, and I am the richest person in Saligia."

I want to give into my tendency toward sarcasm and snide, How good for you, but I refrain.

"You are the very first person who has ever defied me in the marketplace." Her red brows climb up her forehead. "That displeases me."

Well, what does she want to do about it? Beat me? Is that why I'm shackled?

"I understand from your Dominus that you wanted to come to this ludus because of your sister."

A lump slowly begins to thicken in my throat.

She tilts her head. "Is this true?"

"Yes," I whisper.

"Then you'll be disappointed to know that you didn't come with me. Because I bought your sister the day before I was going to buy you."

The lump in my throat tightens to near pain, but I manage to ask, "Is she okay?"

Bareket's red brows drift back down and then she half smiles. "I wouldn't know. You see, there were a couple of men who took a liking to her. They had quite the time with her."

My chest constricts. No...

"Indeed they enjoyed her so much," her voice lowers to coldness, "they offered a fair price to take her with them."

I yank at my shackles. "NO!"

Bareket laughs. "If only you would've come with me instead of defy me."

"NO!" I jerk against my chains as hot tears burn trails down my cheeks. "Where did they take her?" I scream.

Bareket backs away. "I wouldn't know." She opens her hand and tosses my sister's bracelet toward me, and it lands at my feet. "That's all she left behind. You can have it." With that she walks out.

I scream and wildly pull at my restraints. Scorching terror surges through me, blistering my veins. "Unlock me," I sob to Alexior. "Unlock me."

Anguish buckles every muscle inward, gutting me of any last hope. I sag against the chains, crying, the clanking metal the only thing holding me up. I peer at Alexior through blurry eyes.

He doesn't react to my grief and instead crosses the cell to where I sag. He leans in close and unlocks my now bloody wrists.

"I hate you," I tell him. "I hate all of you."

He releases my ankles next. "Use the pain to take you to the next level. That's what will turn you into a warrior. Hate will keep you alive. It will make you a champion."

"I don't care if I'm alive anymore," I speak so quietly I barely hear my own self.

"Yes you do. Bareket didn't say your sister's dead. You stay alive for her."

Crawling forward, I grab Lena's bracelet. I gave it to her for her tenth birthday. I run my finger over the alternating leather and silver and turn it inside out to read the inscription. Sisters forever and ever.

Through my tears, I stare down at the fuzzy words. Alexior is right. Bareket didn't say Lena is dead. "Dominus will still find her, right?"

Alexior nods. "If he said he would, he will."

I fasten her bracelet around my wrist and cradle it to my chest. For you, Lena. I will stay alive for you.

Chapter 8 next week!


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