They called up Darius first. I knew his name because they called it out so that everyone could hear it. Everyone fell silent and the man's name echoed against the walls and the frozen tension of the crowd's bated breath. Darius was a pallid, ill-looking man, and he shook all over as the men led him out of the room. Then they called the next man, his challenger, a lean, muscled fighter who for some reason was somewhat reminiscent of a tarantula. Maybe it was his long limbs or copious amount of body hair. I slouched in the corner and finished my bread, which only left me feeling queasier than I did already.
A minute later we heard the noise from above. The crowd in the arena was cheering. Spectators came from all over to watch the fights, from depraved mongrels who bet on the outcomes, to cultured folks who wanted to entertain themselves on occasion with some violent, illegal action.
Fights to the death had long been outlawed in Alarbor, but that hadn't stopped some from continuing such gladiatorial contests on the underground. Most City Patrols didn't venture into the shady regions of the Underurbs, and those that did got paid handy sums in hush money and bribes to keep quiet about outlets such as The Silver Sword Arena. In fact, the Underurb prisons had deals with many of the arenas, where they sold convicts from their overcrowded prisons to be executed in illegal death matches. That was how I had gotten here. Convicted by the government to be put to death by other criminals. How neat, how clean a way it was to dispose of the dangerous and unwanted of the city.
Soon the guards were pulling new contestants from our shrinking assembly. I watched them go. They looked like I felt; sick, and tired, and afraid. Most of them did not look bloodthirsty at the moment, but I knew that when they were dragged out into that arena they would fight viciously to preserve their wretched lives. I thought about my own upcoming fight, which I could almost feel fast approaching like a speeding tram. Would I have the strength and savagery to prevail? Would I have the heart to? Perhaps I thought I deserved death. Perhaps I yearned for it. But I could not let myself die, not just yet. Deep in my heart I knew that I would struggle and ferociously defend my detestable being with all I had, because I had to survive. And because on the inside, I was more savage than the beast in my cell.
Then they called my name.
I stood, feeling a bit giddy. Every eye was on me as I strode toward the door. I felt as though my knees had turned to pudding, and as though my ankles were trailing shackles and weights. The guard at the door shunted me along dank, twisting corridors. I emerged into a low-ceilinged room that had a bulky, metal electrodoor set into one wall. Light streamed from a narrow crack beneath the door as did the sound of cheers, boos and jeers.
"They're almost done out there," grunted the guard, jerking his head in the direction of the door. "You'd best prepare yourself."
I didn't know what I ought to do in the way of preparation, so I watched the guard as he turned to the wall and started rummaging through some plasticrete lockers. From one he produced a long sharp something. It took me a moment before I recognized it as the tip of a lightning rod from where such things were needed on the surface of Alarbor.
"Your weapon," he said, handing it to me. I took it, and after examining it closely, determined that it was quite sharp enough to be lethal. I just hoped that it would be more lethal than the weapon of my opponent.
My heart was now having a frenzied drum session in my chest and my palms were sweating a good deal more than I would have liked, seeing as my life might depend on how tightly I would be able to hold onto the smooth, metal rod in my hand. I took a deep breath and faced the door through which the amount of crowd noise seemed to have doubled. The match was over. Any second now, I would be up.
I heard the booming, magnified voice of a commentator, though the door muffled it enough so as to render it unintelligible. And then the door was grinding open and beyond I was greeted by the roar of the crowd and a blinding glare of lights that shone down from a high ceiling above.
I took a deep breath.
Then I stepped through the door.