The last couple of weeks in Dragon Cross were especially brutal for Ruby. It stormed insistently, turning the sparse, dry land into a giant mud pit. It was truly a wonder that there was little to no vegetation in the land.
With each passing day, Damian had increased his efforts to turn her into a warrior. Usually that meant training from sun up, to sun down, and falling in line with the Dragon army, who seemingly loathed her and made conditions worse whenever the opportunity presented itself.
The training exercises were ruthless. Days consisted of running until her legs gave out, climbing barriers, fencing in heavy armor,and dodging fists in hand to hand combat. Damian usually called the men off of her before any real damage could be done.
Ruby began to understand why the Dragon's were so calloused. They constantly needed to be on their feet. It was like a never ending dance. They lived in a hit or duck, kind of world. They always looked upon Damian with reverence. They needed someone to lead them, their adrenaline demanded it. Every night they dinned on hearty meals, and drank sickly sweet potion, that gave them an abundance of energy. Ruby refused to drink it at first, but after the first couple days of training she gave in.
On Ruby's last day of training, the Dragons were absent, though not missed. Damian sat at a small table in the sparring room of the citadel, opposite one of his lackeys. Their heads were bent over the table, conspiratorially. “Do I have the day off?” Ruby asked as she approached them.
Damian looked up. “I'm afraid not.” He pointed to the center of the room, which the others referred to simply as the box. It was merely a structured hole. A sinking formation in the floor, that was boxed in by 10 feet high walls. Ruby peered in the dark hole. Inside was blood stained straw. A poor attempt at a protective cushion over the harsh concrete.
“It is time to see how well you've been paying attention.” He said.
The heavy double doors to the citadel were thrown open. Standing in the threshold was a huge amazon of a woman. Ruby sized her up, with a pained expression. The girl was about three times her size. Ruby estimated that she weighed about the same as one of her legs. However, the thing that horrified her the most was the blood thirsty look that the girl regarded her with.
Ruby redirected her gaze to Damian. “Is this really necessary?”
Damian hardly offered her a glance. He was entranced in a game of Mancala. It consumed his focus. Ruby seethed at his lack of concern. She had known they would never be friends, but they were allies now, he at least owed her his attention.
He never looked up as he spoke to her. He continued his game; moving tiny rocks from one slot to another. “Cora just needs to rough you up to make it look as if you've escaped my hold. You are a prisoner as you continue to remind me.” He chuckled. “She'll go easy.”
Cora jumped down into the box. “Come” She beckoned for Ruby.
Ruby's gaze traveled over to Cora once more. Her dark hair was pleated into corn rows. She had the build of a linebacker, and the furious glint of a true dragon lady.
“I'll hit harder if you resist.” Cora warned.
Ruby balled her hands into fists and reluctantly made her way to the box. Cora offered her a hand climbing down. Ruby refused and jumped down without any assistance.
A shadow fell over Ruby, she looked up. Damian stood, poised over them, with a heavy bell in one hand. “When I ring the bell, the fight shall begin, when I ring it again, the fight shall end.”
Ruby rolled her eyes. “Simple and barbaric, I'm not surpr-”
A meaty fist connected with Ruby's Jaw. Her ears rang, before she could register the stinging pain that sent her reeling backwards.
Cora tilted her head. “You look surprised? Did you hear the bell?” she roared in heinous laughter.
Cora threw another punch. This time Ruby ducked. Cora was strong, but sloppy and stumbled forward, so her head was brushing Ruby's thighs. Without hesitation Ruby grabbed a fistful of Cora's hair and brought her knee up hard, until she heard and felt her nose crack.
Damian whopped and cheered, which only angered Ruby more. She pushed Cora off of her, but the Dragon Lady recovered quickly, and with brute force. She seized Ruby's neck, and used the leverage to run her into the wall. Ruby's head slammed against the concrete hard enough to make her teeth rattle. Her vision darkened for a moment. She blinked hard, determined to stay conscious. She spit a mouthful of blood at her attacker, completely abandoning her good sportsmanship.
Cora's fist came flying towards Ruby once more, but met with the concrete as Ruby turned her body just in time. Cora's heavy boot landed hard on Ruby's foot to keep her in place. Ruby scuffed at the poor technique and threw her fist into Cora's chin.
The bell rang. Ruby pushed Cora away. Damian offered them both a hand up. In spite of her pain, Cora bowed at Damian and hurried out of the way.
“Not bad. I think you embarrassed her by showing her up like that.”
Ruby was quiet on the walk back to the castle. She ignored Damian's attempt at small talk, and eventually he left her alone. She watched as his silhouette faded away. He was an abrasive man, that was certain, but it was really starting to dawn on her just how dark and twisted he was. In spite of his pleas of being innocent, he was truly troubled. She didn't doubt that it was Aira's doing.
Alone in her head again, Ruby lingered outside of the citadel. She allowed the rain to wash off the sticky drying blood on her face. The cool water felt good on her jaw, on her entire body. She fell to her knees and reveled in it for a moment. Soon she would be gone from this place.