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|Jude wakes to find himself imprisoned in Cyarus near the desert of Lirshon. Much bloodshed! ^^ Songs: Cake: Arco Arena. Muse: Stockholm Syndrome. Whee. 'Sret' is a swearword, like 'damn', which I made up so Jude could swear without upsetting mods...||
For what felt like an eternity, Jude could only see darkness, swirling sickeningly before his eyes. Then there was light, faint and distant, but bright enough to hurt. Slowly, his eyes adjusted, but the pain returned with it. The stiff ache of bruised muscles penetrated to his bones and a steady hammer stroke of pain throbbed behind his eyes. He tried to lift his head, to stretch his neck, but his body did not respond. Stretched out on a cold, stone floor, he shut his eyes against the weak light.
Sret, so tired…
The big room held no furniture but a single chair, pushed into a corner. Smooth wooden planking covered the stone floor, but the walls were whitewashed. The chamber opened out into a garden planted with tall trees on the right, and the row of narrow windows on the left looked out over an empty yard. Late afternoon sunlight, its golden shafts filled with swirling dust motes, poured into the room from the garden, filling the room with light.
Two boys stood in the centre of the room, both of them bearing wooden practice swords. They eyed each other warily, circling round, looking for an opening in the other’s defences. One boy was very tall and thin, with pale skin and shoulder-length blonde hair, but despite his delicate appearance, his hands were steady on his weapon as he readied himself to attack.
His opponent was of a more average height, although he was still tall for age. The startling blue of his eyes was as strange as the colour of his hair, which was silvery-blue, like new-forged steel, reaching to the back of his knees. Although he was in reality a slender, wiry young man, when contrasted with his companion, he seemed almost thickset. Both boys wore rough woollen tunics and baggy trousers held up by a piece of rope. The blonde had bound a strip of cloth around his head to hold the hair back out of his eyes.
Suddenly, he leapt forward as his sword flickered like a snake’s tongue, his blonde hair catching the light and his eyes narrowed in concentration. His opponent switched his stance, lowering himself until his hair swept the floor, calmly waiting for his chance. It came as the thin boy overreached himself, thrust just a little too far out. He stumbled, a barely noticeable fault, but the other young man saw and made use of it. Both hands caught the blonde’s sword, wrenching hard to the side. Its unlucky owner staggered, and never saw the sweep coming from below until his feet were taken out from beneath him; he landed hard, grunting as the breath was knocked out of him, and the triumphant winner promptly sat on him.
“See? Dumped you again, like I always do.” The blue-eyed victor patted the blonde amiably on the head. This provoked a muffled growl.
“I’m gonna get you, Jude. Someday I’m gonna be the one sitting on your head.”
Pushing back his long, silver hair, Jude laughed and stood up quickly, dancing away from the blonde’s violent ankle snatches. The defeated, lying on his stomach, gave up and rolled over onto his back, basking in the sun like a cat.
Jude sat down beside him, pulling his knees up to his chest and resting his head on them. They were facing the garden, planted with various trees and shrubs and surrounded by a high wall; the sun was low, a ball of molten gold sinking slowly behind the distant snow-capped mountains. The sun shone directly into the two boys’ faces, but they didn’t seem to notice. The blonde’s dark grey eyes were disquieting to those seeing them for the first time. At first, it seemed that they had no pupils at all; on closer inspection, one could see that the pupils were just very small, almost invisible. This, however, did not affect his sight at all. In fact, he had the eyes of a hawk in the day and those of a wolf in the night; when it grew dark, his pupils dilated, stretching thin and then widening like a cat’s.
Jude stretched his arms into the air, fingers linked. He curved his body back and flipped backwards casually, landing lightly on his feet. His companion scowled.
“Show-off,” he snorted. All the same, he lifted his legs off the ground and above his head, his hands behind his head, and leapt to his feet smoothly; laughing, he grinned at his friend, who closed his eyes indifferently and stalked off with his nose in the air.
They had been practicing since noon, as they did every day, and the showing off at the end of the day was ritual; the two were actually very close friends. The blonde had a mischievous grin on his face as he watched Jude walk over to the door in the far side of the room; Jude was going to sneak out again that night, and his friend was convinced that there was a girl involved.
“If you try and follow me…” he left the threat hanging.
“What can you do to me that you haven’t tried already?” inquired the blonde lazily.
“If you really want to know, just tag along. I’ve thought of something new.”
“Huh. There is a girl, isn’t there, Jude? Deny it!”
“Alright. There isn’t.”
“Drop it, Circ, I’m not telling you! Get it through your thick skull!”
Jude glared over his shoulder at his laughing friend, irritated.
Circ. A normal teenager, someone Jude had known — had thought he’d known — for many years. White skin that wouldn’t tan, strange grey eyes that looked like still pools of water reflecting a stormy sky; long, ash-blonde hair that hung past his shoulders and fine, delicate features, almost like a girl’s. Slender arms and legs that were more powerful than any muscle-bound warrior’s; Circ was so thin that whatever clothing he wore hung in folds, like a sack. Perhaps he was not all that normal.
But Jude had loved Circ as though they were brothers; either boy would have gladly sacrificed his life for the other.
The scene began to fade.
Jude tried to hold on to the image, but it was like trying to cup water in his hands. It slipped out of his grasp, seeping away into nothingness.
He opened his eyes. The light that shone into the room through a small window some way above his head was still in his eyes, but he didn’t even blink. Apparently, the spell the Sret-damned werewoman and her friends had used on him had worn off somewhat.
With care, he stretched his neck and back while he still lay on the cold floor. Then he sat up cautiously; his head ached, but otherwise he could move freely once more. When the pounding in his head eased, he got to his feet and looked around.
He was in a small cell, empty except for a chair by the window. The dream was still vivid in his mind and he frowned. There was a pitcher of water beside the chair and a neatly folded blue cloak was lying next to it. The walls and floor were of undressed stone and there didn’t seem to be a door anywhere.
After examining the water, Jude decided that it was safe to drink; he was suddenly thirsty. When he had quenched his thirst, he upended the jug over his head. The cold liquid felt clean and pleasant on his skin.
So what happens now? Jude wondered, drying his face on his shirt. The window was far too small to escape by; it was more of an arrow-slit. One glance told him that the very walls were spelled; even Lythrà couldn’t help him here. He crouched by the folded blue cloak and scanned the cloth for any sign of magic. It had not been spelled, however, so he picked it up and let it unfold to its full length.
It was a fine cloak, embroidered with gold thread picturing strange creatures and symbols. It was skilfully woven and he could see that it would fit him perfectly. He dried his hair with it and then hung it back over the chair. If it was meant as some kind of conciliatory gift, the werewolves could keep it.
His body was still stiff from lying flat on his back after his capture. How long had it been since then? Where was here? Why had he been brought to wherever this was? The questions circled endlessly, unanswered.
He took off his own cloak, which had been kindly wrapped around him for warmth. Pulling off his shirt, he permitted himself several vehement curses. I have no time for this!
As he dropped the sweat-stained cloth onto the chair, he noticed that, not surprisingly, all of his knives and other weapons had been taken from him.
Closing his eyes, he became calm, making his mind blank of thought. Slowly, his senses sharpened, until he could feel everything around him as though it were a part of himself. His own heartbeat was loud in his ears, steady and rhythmic.
Then his eyes snapped open and he flew forward, his whole body moving as one. He spun swiftly and kicked the wall with incredible force. The spell light gleamed from the stone softly, unperturbed, as the blow was turned aside. The warding made the stone slippery and untouchable. There would be no breaking out of this cell. Someone, probably that woman, had made it completely escape-proof.
Forced to confine his training to the cramped space that was all the little cell had to offer, Jude still enjoyed the intensity of training and the warmth that filled his body. The movements were like a lethal dance; every move could kill a man. His braid lashed through the air behind him as he moved, like a silver tail. It twisted and coiled like a snake, hanging slack one moment and then pulling taut like a living thing.
Finally he stopped, soaked with sweat, and crouched down, closing his eyes and breathing raggedly. Soon, his heartbeat slowed and he lay back on the cool stone and stared at the network of tiny cracks on the blank ceiling. The sunlight warmed his skin and he remembered his dream, or rather memory; Circ, lying in the sun, his pale hair shining, his even paler skin obstinately refusing to darken. Jude’s closest friend throughout his childhood, the one who always put up with him, so close that Jude could tell him almost anything. Circ had understood Jude better than anyone else ever had.
Fool. Thinking about things that are past. Circ is no longer who he was then.
Jude held his right hand before his face and watched the inevitable blue flame dance upside-down on his palm. Narrowing his eyes, he made it thin to a sliver and vanish.
Suddenly, he heard the sound of stone grating against stone. A section of the wall swung back and he was on his feet in a heartbeat.
Bright sunlight shone through the doorway, outlining a woman’s slender form. Jude recognized her long, white hair and orange eyes.
“Do not be afraid. I won’t spell you again,” she said softly. Her voice sounded odd, and Jude realised that it reminded him of a cat’s rasping purr.
He laughed quietly.
“Do you think I trust you, woman?” he asked her, closing his eyes and sending out the tendrils of his other four senses to feel her movements. She had used a vision spell last time, and although closing his eyes wouldn’t have helped against all three of them, he stood a chance against her alone.
“I understand that…”
“What do you want?”
He heard the woman sigh. Her hair trailed the ground behind her as she moved forward. Jude stepped back quickly, but before he could say a word, he felt her hands touch his face and his whole body froze, completely immobilized.
How did she move so fast? Sret, I couldn’t sense her at all! Jude thought as he fought against the invisible bonds that bound him.
“Open your eyes,” the woman told him, amusement touching her voice.
Jude swore as his eyes snapped open involuntarily.
The woman was at least a head shorter than him and she was looking up at him, her weird orange eyes laughing silently. She was dressed in a long, silken robe that was embroidered with brightly coloured flowers. She looked uncomfortable in it, as though she was unused to wearing clothes. Her hands were soft and cool and her fingernails were all about an inch long.
“Listen,” she said, touching his bare chest lightly with one finger.
Her orange eyes widened in surprise, and then she grinned.
“You are not afraid, are you?” she asked, tilting her head to one side, “I could kill you where you stand, but you are not afraid.”
Ignoring her, Jude reached for the flame in his mind, trying to burn away the ice that made movement impossible. However, he found nothing; not the fire, not Lythrà, nothing.
“You are very brave,” she said, tracing patterns on his skin with a fingernail, “You have no weapons and you’re completely powerless; and yet I can scent no fear, only anger.”
“Release me.” Jude’s voice was dangerously soft.
The woman frowned thoughtfully as though she had not heard.
“I would like to learn more about you, stranger,” she told him.
“I have no desire to speak with you,” Jude replied evenly. He held her gaze until she lowered her eyes. She opened her mouth as if to speak and then shut it again.
And then she laughed, a clear, silvery peal of genuine delight, and stroked his cheek tenderly.
“You are very good,” she told him, “at distracting people, that is.”
Jude’s mouth tightened angrily.
The woman’s mood changed suddenly, like a purring cat that changes her mind for no reason and suddenly stalks away. She took her hand from his face and folded her arms, hugging her own shoulders and watching him with a calculating expression. As she examined him, sweat began to trickle down her face; he was fighting her binding spell with everything he had.
Finally, she seemed to come to a decision.
“I’m still unsure as to why I had to bring you here,” she commented, “Perhaps you know?”
“Where is here?” Jude answered, straining against her magic. Just another moment, a few seconds, that was all he needed…
“Here is Cyarus, the Middle City.”
Cyarus. He knew little about the city, situated at is was on the border of Lirshon; it carried on trade with the north and the south, one of the fragile links between Belshamon, or the Southlands, and the Northlands.
“How long?” Jude asked, rapidly calculating.
“Nigh on two weeks. You were not a cooperative captive. We had to respell and drug you several times.”
Sweat was pouring freely from her now, staining her dress.
“Why did you bring me here?” He managed. The mental battle of magic against were-power intensified. She was losing ground.
Struggling in silence, the werewolf didn’t speak until she had regained a breathing space.
“Actually,” she panted, “I have no idea…”
The balance was wavering, falling in his favour. Suddenly her thoughts became his own as he forced his way into her mind.
Maybe, he heard, and then a confused jumble of words drowned out the voice. It returned abruptly. Don't...
With a sudden surge of strength, he tore the spell away like a cobweb, bursting free of her hold with enough power to physically throw her down. As she fell, he leapt over her, darting out of the door into a narrow passage.
Well, that was... odd. The thought was only there for a moment, and then it was gone.
The light streamed into the passage from an opening at the far end. It was the only way out; a great, ironbound door blocked the far wall completely. Jude heard the woman stir in the cell behind him, and he ran towards the blinding light and hurled himself at it.
He landed rolling on coarse sand that made his feet skid. Narrowing his eyes against the hot, bright sunlight, he looked up as he heard a roar.
Stretching away from him and shimmering in the heat was a large, cleared area of sand, something like an arena. High stone walls surrounded the area, sheer and smooth as glass. Beyond the walls rose tiers of stone stands, level upon level, about as high again as the walls, and above even the stands, a great mountain reared almost vertically, topped by a shining palace with a spire of gold; the clear sharpness of the air suggested to Jude that the arena had been built some way above the stifling heat of the plains.
The stands were packed with people; there must have been thousands of them staring down at him. He saw a heavy wooden door at the far end of the arena and sprang to his feet. And then he realised that the crowd wasn’t screaming at him — they hadn’t even seen him, standing in the shadow of the wall, because their attention was focused on a group of men who stood in the centre of the arena, thirteen altogether. None of them was armed, although every man looked strong and fit. To Jude’s surprise, there appeared to be several women in the group as well, with their hair cut short like a man’s.
The group stood in a circle facing inward, and all their eyes were closed. They were dressed in leather, but not a great deal of it; barefoot, they had a confident, easy air about them. Rising to an almost unbearable pitch, the crowd screamed, the sound feverish and uncontrolled. Abruptly, the sound was cut off and the people leaned forward as one, craning their necks eagerly to get a better look at the scene.
The group stood in Jude’s path, between him and the door, but as he began to move towards them warily, they raised their hands to the sky with a wordless cry. Then they began to sway, moving back and forth in unison like a human wave. Almost a dance, the twisting, writhing movements distorted the vision until someone in the stands began to beat a drum. Faster and faster the dancers moved as the rhythmic beat sped up, bending and contorting their bodies into strange positions.
Another drum began to beat, and another, until as many as a dozen were pounding out the hollow, echoing rhythm from different points in the stands. Within moments, the dancers’ movements grew frenzied as they linked arms and became like one body, a hideous creature spasming in its death throes.
The drums rose to a furious crescendo and stopped, leaving a breathless silence that lay heavy on the air. Swaying inward and then blossoming outward like a flower, the ring of dancers arched their backs and shouted at the sky with one voice.
“Glory to Isis-Anyn! May she bless us in our worship!”
The crowd echoed the words like a rumble of thunder.
And the distant gates opened, the silent, expectant crowd staring intently, gaping; to Jude’s ears came the sound of snarling, vicious and raw with bloodlust. With a resounding crash, the gates opened fully, slamming against the stone walls.
There was one long howl, a chilling, wild note that sent the crowd crazy. Accompanied by the screams of the mob, dark shadows appeared, creeping out of the gloom within the gates, moving patches of darkness slinking towards the light. Jude could make out glowing eyes, burning like coals in the blackness.
Turning, looking for a way out, he saw the woman standing at the entrance to the passage that he’d escaped his cell by. She leaned against the stone, still breathing heavily, and shaded her eyes, watching him... the echoes of her thoughts still sounded in his mind, and he felt her anger, a burning wrath against something or someone, not him perhaps but another, a betrayer... but then she turned and limped back into the tunnel, and a heavy iron portcullis fell into place from above, the rattle of chains banishing his last hopes of escape.
Confused, Jude turned back just in time to see the creatures pad out onto the sand.
There were more than forty of them, their eyes yellow and staring, glazed with hunger. Their ribs were slatted; the animals had been fed just enough to keep them alive and bloodthirsty. Some were wolves, much like his captors’ animal forms, while others looked like mountain cats, only three times as big with razor-sharp incisors that were more than six inches long. However, the remaining creatures weren’t so easily identifiable. Several seemed to be random assemblies of various animals, merging in ways that hurt the eyes. One creature was a mass of spikes, like a huge porcupine, with a tail that stretched behind it for twice its body length. It had what appeared to be a lizard’s head, and the scales on its neck fused unpleasantly with the fur beneath its spikes.
The hair stood up on the back of Jude’s neck. What is it with all these weird monsters...? It can’t all be Circ’s doing, surely. He smiled without any humour at all. Why did he have a sneaking suspicion that Circ, who had always seemed to be fascinated with outlandish creatures, was behind this in some way?
Jude felt the heat at his fingertips and was not surprised to see the azure flame licking up his arms.
At that moment, the entire group of dancers noticed him as one, although they did not seem surprised to see him. Strangely enough, one man turned to speak to speak to him rather than the whole group at once. “Your place is not here,” he said tonelessly.<p> “I am the least of your worries at the moment,” Jude remarked lightly, indicating the rapidly advancing horde of beasts.<p> The man did not seem to have heard.<p> “All who interfere must die. This is a sacred duty and a consecrated area. The unclean will perish.” His voice was a flat monotone as though he were reciting the words from memory.<p> “What?” Jude blankly replied.<p> “There is no turning back now,” the man intoned, “Will you take the hand of Isis?”<p> <i>Isis-Anyn</i>, Jude remembered, with a sinking feeling, <i>bloodthirsty goddess of war. Probably not a good idea to “take her hand”</i>.<p> “I've heard of your goddess,” Jude said slowly, “But I really had no intention of...”<p> “Courage!” the man cried, “The heavenly gates are near!”<p> Jude shut his eyes wearily and swore under his breath. Things were beginning to look grim, but he tried again: “Look, this is a mistake...”<p> At his words, the dancer's face went as hard as stone.<p> “<i>There is no turning back</i>. If you attempt to leave the arena, you will be destroyed. This is a consecrated area.”<p> Not altogether surprised, Jude stood his ground, watching the other dancers ready themselves for action. There was no way he could take on all of them. Angry, disorientated and with the air of a man who really has nothing to lose, he growled, “Sret damn your bloody consecrated area. And need I tell you exactly where your whore of a goddess can stick her <i>k'shakkor</i> hand?” <p> The man's face went rigid with shock, but he soon recovered his composure. Anger suffusing all his movements, he turned to his companions. <p> “Praise be to Isis-Anyn! May she accept these offerings—” his gesture took in both the creatures and Jude “—from her humble, unworthy servants!”<p> His voice was strong and it echoed back from the walls a hundred fold.<p> Listening to the crowd repeat the words and feeling a thousand eyes on him, Jude wondered what the hell he'd just gotten himself into.<p> A moment later, he felt the faint pressure of a binding spell as it swept the arena floor and the fire at his fingertips went out. <p> The beasts were coming.<p> A huge, blue-black wolf headed the strange pack of creatures as they spread out across the sand, a menacing growl rumbling in its throat as its claws slid out. With its bulging eyes set to the sides of its head, the wolf swayed from side to side as it walked, staring with first one ink-black pupil and then the other. It looked like a dead thing, but it moved like oil flowing along the surface of the ground. <p> <i>Snuff...</i><p> Its nostrils flared red as it caught sight of its prey out of a rolling eyeball: a young female dancer, already dropping into a stance, her muscles trembling with the strain of keeping still and focused.<p> With a powerful thrust of its hind legs that sprayed sand into the air, the wolf sprang forward silently, suddenly, its maw gaping wide.<p> Instinctive and blurred, the woman's move was almost simultaneous – she spun out of the wolf’s path, barely in time, and as it grazed past, she struck its neck with the flat of her hand in a motion so quick and sharp that Jude nearly missed it. The wolf staggered, half-collapsing, before it regained its feet and heaved itself upright. Foam dripped from its jaws, but its black eyes were glazed and its neck twisted at an unnatural angle.<p> At first, the woman seemed uncertain of herself, but there was anger in her swift, violent attack as she darted back towards the panting wolf. It lifted its head and made as if to slash at her body with a paw, but its movements were sluggish and feeble. Slamming a kick into its ribs, she sent the beast flying, and, although it seemed unnecessary, she followed this attack with a bone-crushing series of blows that made the audience scream, a bloodthirsty, many-souled beast crouching over a kill.<p> The whole thing took less than thirty seconds, but the rest of the group were already under attack by the other creatures. Swiftly, the circle broke as the fighters spread out, some assaulted by two or three creatures at once.<p> Jude watched the fighters closely as he circled the open, sunlit area, picking out the weakest and strongest of the thirteen. That one favoured open-handed strikes, the girl liked fancy kicks, a wiry, black-skinned man was an excellent grappler — all of them were well trained and strong, but Jude knew how to exploit even the slightest weaknesses in an opponent — if, that is, it became necessary. The great wooden doors were closing slowly as he turned and sprinted toward them.<p> Then, with a weird, bubbling hiss, the spiny lizard thing noticed him and began to gallop heavily in his direction, blocking his escape route. As it came, it picked up momentum, its neck stretched out and its spines lying flat. It looked almost comical, in a lethal kind of way.<p> Then its thick lips curled back in a snarl that exposed wetly glistening teeth and it lost every semblance of humour. Jude stopped and waited patiently as it thundered towards him.<p> Its eyes on a level with Jude’s own, it lunged, but its jaws snapped shut on thin air. Jude moved so fast that his movements seemed blurred, his braid lashing behind him like quicksilver. With one hand, he jabbed his fingers into the lizard’s bulbous eyes with enough force to penetrate into its brain. Pulling his bloodstained fingers out of its ruined eyes, Jude spun lazily on one foot and slammed the other into the side of the lizard’s scaly snout. <p> Instantly, its skull shattered and its head crumpled inwards like a paper bag. The great momentum that its charge had built up carried the corpse almost to the opposite wall of the arena, where it collapsed, a lifeless shell. There was a thunderous crash as the gates swung shut, and an echoing boom as they were barred from the inside, leaving Jude no other way out. Calmly, he cleaned his dripping fingers in the sand and watched for the next attack, resigning himself to the fight. <p> Glancing up, he realised that the crowd had gone quiet. Every eye was on him.<p> Maybe they’d expected him to die. He snorted; the lizard had been an oversized joining of creatures that were never meant to be welded together, leaving it ridiculously clumsy and practically covered in weak spots. Any half-decent warrior could have taken it down. However, he had no time for the crowd; three snarling cats were stalking in his direction, their impossibly long, yellowish incisors glinting in the glaring sunlight.<p> With feline grace, all three cats leapt for his throat, claws extended. Deciding on the spur of the moment to show off a little, Jude arched his body backward, placing the palms of his hands flat against the ground to support his weight. Lifting his lower body off the ground, Jude used both feet to smash the skull of the closest cat. He turned the kick into a back flip and neatly dodged the other two creatures as they came down, spitting and clawing at the air.<p> Jude darted between the creatures before they’d even recovered their balance. He brought the heel of his hand down on one cat’s neck with a sharp snap of splintering vertebrae. A swift kick delivered in an off-hand manner sent the dead cat’s corpse flying. A blurred motion of his hand put an end to the other cat; the movement was too fast to be distinct, but when he withdrew his hand, it was drenched with blood. Jude looked up from the corpse of the last cat, sprawled at his feet with a trickle of blood slowly oozing from the corner of its mouth. The crowd was screaming again, but Jude cut off the sound and paid it no heed. Knowing now that there was no escape from the arena, he was starting to enjoy himself.<p> The sun beat down bright and hard on his bare skin as its golden eye drifted overhead. Searing heat made the blue sky white, a glaring ceiling that dazzled the eyes, as sand sprayed into the air with every kill and blood clotted in the dust. Men and women fought, and killed, and died, and there was nothing but the present, no time but the moment each living, breathing person used to stop the breath and the life in one another.<p> Scanning the arena, Jude was surprised to see that six of the other fighters were down; one lay groaning at the foot of the wall near Jude, but the other five were still, their bodies twisted and torn as the thirsty sand drank their blood.<p> Several of the creatures were fighting each other in groups of two or three, but the human fighters intervened, as though there was no glory in letting the beasts kill one another.<p> <i>Glory</i>, Jude thought as he dodged the spade-like claws of a huge, black bear, <i>What a bloody pointless ceremony</i>. Hearing an animal roar in agony, he saw a dancer, his legs locked around the bear's neck, using his favoured open-handed strikes to hit the beast's pressure points. As it sank to the ground, the man leapt off its back and nodded to Jude as one warrior to another. <p> Moving out of the thickest fighting, Jude watched as another two wolves died at the hands of the black-skinned grappler; the girl who had disposed of the first wolf so neatly was one of the five huddled, shapeless forms scattered around the arena. <p><p> As he rubbed the back of his sunburned neck, Jude felt a prickling sensation in the small of his back. Looking away from the mangled corpse of a yellow wolf, it was with a certain sense of inevitability that he beheld the black grappler, standing alone mere yards away from him. Silently, the black man turned to face Jude, the corner of his mouth twitching in an unconscious snarl. The man had shaved his head, but then Jude recognised those long, sharp fingernails; they belonged to the werewolf who had been at the pool. This bloodthirsty goddess' influence stretched far, even to the godless depths of the Werehome.<p> There was no warning; all of a sudden, the grappler rushed forward like an arrow from a bow, his neck stretched out and his eyes locking with Jude’s. Built like a bull, the man employed a bull’s tactics. Bellowing, he flung himself across the last couple of meters, his arms widespread as though he intended to crush Jude’s ribs.<p> Jude twisted to the side to allow the charge to go past, but his exhausted body was a fraction too slow; a fist like a boulder smashed into the side of his head, sending him to his knees on the hot sand.<p> Fiery pain pounded at his skull and a glowing red haze obscured his vision. Wet, sticky blood dripped into his eyes and down his face; he could taste it on his lips. <p> Looking up, Jude was glad of the grappler's shadow that blocked the glaring sunlight, although the black man's upper lip still lifted like a wolf’s, exposing white, sharp teeth. <p> “You have overreached yourself. Today, you will meet your death at my hand!” The black man’s voice rose, his dark eyes hooded, mocking.<p> Jude did not reply. The black grappler snorted. <p> “You curse Isis-Anyn with your every breath!” He barked, suddenly angry. “How dare you dishonour Her name? I am her servant, and I rid the earth of you for Her sake.”<p> Glad for the time the werewolf had given him to catch his breath, Jude was barely even listening to the man's words as he fought down the nausea brought on by the blow he had received.<p> Looking up to the crowd, Jude’s opponent shouted, “May Isis-Anyn accept this offering, as meagre and pitiful as it is. Glory to Isis-Anyn!”<p> Like the sound of a slow avalanche, the crowd repeated the last sentence — “<i>Glory to Isis-Anyn</i>” — as though they were intoning Jude’s funeral rites. <p> With the slow, slinking pace of a wolf, the man began to circle Jude, a growl starting in his throat and his upper lip pulled up completely to display his teeth. He looked barely human.<p> Desperately fighting back the pain and nausea, Jude lengthened his stance, trying to shake off a sudden dizziness, and shut his eyes. As the werewolf paused in his circling, puzzled, Jude dragged his scattered thoughts together and focused them until his mind went blank; his senses began to sharpen, and then he heard the faint stirring of the sand beneath his feet. A moment later, the heat became a searing force that burnt like fire; the agony of clarity made the touch of the slight breeze a knife-edge. Every drop of sweat — and blood — he felt distinctly, and he could smell the sharp scent of his own body and the musky, animal scent of his opponent. <p> Feeling a change in the balance, a sudden surge of <i>hate</i>, Jude’s eyes sprang open. Everything was slow, the instant stretched out for eternity, as though the grappler was fighting his way through treacle. A spray of sand rose at the man’s heel as his back foot twisted. Every muscle in his body coiled for the spring, the man leaned forward slightly, hips turning sluggishly, twisting tighter and tighter. <p> That triumphant smile still playing about his lips, the bull-like grappler surged forward, every inch of him bent on destruction. <p> With a complete absence of thought, Jude's body was able to move a split second faster than the other man could; there was no sizing up, no coming to a decision. Slipping under the grappler's guard with barely a hair's breadth to spare, Jude slammed both fists simultaneously into his opponent's stomach.<p> The cold emptiness faded swiftly. Jude stood on the baking sand, arms hanging loosely at his sides; he blinked to dispel the purple after-images that hung before his eyes. A breathless silence filled the air, louder than screams or shouts. Not even the beasts seemed to make a sound.<p> There was a nasty thud as the hulking grappler collided with the wall, an abrupt culmination to his flight through the air following Jude’s sledgehammer blow. He slid down the wall and fell facedown onto the sand like a sack of meal. <p> An uneasy murmuring filled the stands, a hornets’ nest of buzzing, as Jude wiped the blood out of his eyes. Shaking bright red droplets off his fingers, Jude turned; they stood in a rough semicircle around him, six tall men and women, tough as old leather, with cold anger openly displayed on every face. Only two mangy wolves and a furiously spitting cat remained of the original forty-odd creatures. <p> Trying to keep them all in sight, Jude almost missed the beginnings of the first attack. A blond woman wearing a thick silver collar around her neck hissed sharply between her teeth before she took a quick step back and flipped forward, once, twice, faster than a running man. Jude stared blankly at her for a second before his training took over.<p> A foot placed exactly so, an arm neatly slipping into the hollow above her collarbone; with a complicated flurry of arms and legs, the blond lost her rhythm completely and missed her footing, landing flat on her back on the ground with a nasty thud. Her collarbone was broken, her shoulder was out of joint and she was unconscious; she was no longer a danger. However, she had managed to rake her long fingernails down the other side of his face and blood was dripping into his eyes again. <p> Hearing a quiet movement behind him, Jude twisted to face the new threat — but he was too slow. He caught a glimpse of short black hair and brown eyes that were as cold as ice, just before the man drove his hand into Jude’s stomach. An open-handed strike, Jude thought in a strangely calm part of his mind. The metallic taste of blood filled his mouth and he staggered, gasping for breath. <p> Pain. Another blow, this time to his lower back, another to the back of his neck, another… They surrounded him, all the remaining five, all raining blows down on him mercilessly, mechanically, every attack perfect in every detail.<p> Jude was suddenly furious, angry with his own helplessness. Drawing on his anger for strength, he shoved the pain away as far as he was able. A fist came at his face and he caught the wrist behind it, his grip tightening until he heard a snap and a cry of pain. He leaned back, supporting himself on the man’s arm, and kicked, his leg straight and as hard as iron, connecting solidly with his assailant’s ribs. But even as he did that, the others redoubled their attacks and the red mist came down before his eyes like a thick curtain. The pain returned as he lost concentration and he could hear himself screaming, as though the sounds came from somebody else's tortued throat.<p> He flailed wildly as he fell to his knees, his fists slamming home again and again but never stopping the pain. Blackness edged his vision and although he tried to hold on to consciousness, the darkness spread like ink, cutting off the light as it settled like a thick black shroud.<p>
|Jude Chapter 11||Jude Ch. 2|
|Jude Ch. 10||Jude Ch. 5|
|Jude Ch. 9|