In the gladiator’s arena of blood and death, magic cuts deeper than steel.
★★★★★ “Wow” just “Wow”! My heart is still pounding from the intense fast paced action! … The author has brought something new and exciting and seriously addictive to us readers. I feel the story is unique and rich in imagination. A gripping must read. ”
★★★★★ “It is fast paced and exciting. For a female writer she’s a no holds bar type of girl. If your looking for romance you won’t find it here but you will find deceit, blood, swearing, sweat, tears, turmoil, gore, magic, death and a bit of comrade. ahh the life of a gladiator.”
The Beast of Vendragon
Screams and cheers beyond the musty stone walls echoed in the dimly lit corridor. Killien shifted his shoulders, mentally preparing himself for whatever man or beast Prince Burne had procured for the last match. Blood from the earlier fights speckled his arms, face, and his armor—vambraces, a lone pauldron, and a spiked great helm that covered his face. The few slashes across his bare chest hardly itched, but the sword wound in his back throbbed despite the icy numbness of adrenaline coursing through his blood.
Four heavily armed guards stood at his sides. Ulric, the lead guard, held Killien’s shield and bladed spear. Still, the guards remained vigilant.
The iron collar that negated Killien’s magic had been removed, and in its place he wore a bone necklace the prince used to further brand the twenty-year-old gladiator’s title of Killer. Rumors had spread that Killien had crafted the necklace in the darkness of his cell, carving the adornments from the bones of the decomposing corpses stacked along the wall.
Outside the darkened tunnel, Prince Burne was addressing the crowds that filled the arena, his words already beginning to slur from the drink.
Cheers rose up and the crowd began to chant the accursed epithet the prince had given him. Killer! Killer! Killer!
The title was a dagger every time Killien heard it, and it wounded him in a way only the prince and he fully understood. A taunt about his past, and the crime he’d committed that had sent him spiraling down a dark path lined with corpses.
A low growl rumbled in his throat as he shifted his gaze to the four armed guards. Ramy, a young guard with long dark hair, held Killien’s iron collar, ready to snap it on him at the first sign of trouble. As vicious as Killien was in the arena, he’d never given the guards a reason to believe he’d turn on them. One threat to his family was all it had taken to blow the winds from his sails and force him to swallow the cutting anger that churned deep within him.
“Last fight,” Ulric said, flashing a menacing grin as he handed Killien the bloodied shield and bladed spear. Thick stubble covered the guard’s chin, and in the confines of the dank tunnel, his rancid body odor was almost suffocating, a stench so noxious that it clung to his barrel-chest like a swarm of locusts.
Killien nodded as he took the weapons. He’d barely had enough time to catch his breath during the short intermission to allow the prince’s servants to refill wine and bring out more platters of food for his esteemed guests. All he’d been given was a small, cracked cup of water to prepare him for the final event.
The crowd roared in anticipation for what Killien could only assume would be the worst round yet.
Images of the men or beasts that hid behind the opposite gate filled his mind, but as quickly as they came, he shut them down. It didn’t do to dwell on what kind of surprise Burne held in store. Killien would find out soon enough. Wordlessly, he followed the burly guard down the stone corridor, gritting his teeth against the growing chants that echoed off the stone.
Ulric pushed open the iron gate. Killien stepped out into the light. A wave of heat washed over him, and he blinked away the harsh rays of the afternoon sun to await his introduction.
Blaring horns reverberated off the stone arches that encircled the columns of the colossal amphitheater. “Citizens of Vamort!” Prince Burne called out, his flabby jowls flapping beside his ridiculously twisted moustache. He was almost as fat as he was tall, and red-faced from wine, but his deep voice commanded the riotous crowd to silence. Killien glanced to his right toward the balcony of the royal box three stories up and noted the absence of the prince’s twin brother, King Rolden, who routinely avoided such spectacles. “And those who have traveled all across Vendragon to be here on this glorious day. In the name of my forefathers, I present to you the grand finale of today’s games! Behold, Killer, the Beast of Vendragon!”
Thousands of men, women, and children jumped to their feet, cheering and shaking their fists, entertained by the blood of slaves and the violent deaths of criminals—or often innocent men. Deep-seated anger churned in the pit of Killien’s stomach and fueled the animalistic role he was forced to play. He swept his gaze over the crowd as a growl tore from his throat.
The crowd answered his growl with a deafening roar. He bared his teeth in a feral snarl.
What he wouldn’t give to rip out the prince’s entrails.
He walked the crimson-stained sands around the circular ring and looked past the twenty-foot stone walls that surrounded him and raised his bloody hands to crowd. They responded with thundering cheers and fists pumping in the air.
The roars quieted to a hush as Burne raised his goblet to the cheering spectators. “Who dares to challenge my undefeated champion?”
All eyes fixed on the wrought-iron gate opposite from the one Killien had emerged from.
The gate screeched open and seven spindly goblins burst from the tunnels shrieking and shaking their fists. Ripples of sagging green skin hung from their squat faces and rotund bellies. A few wore a patchwork of armor, daggers, short swords, and held crude serrated weapons of their own making, while others were garbed in little more than loincloths.
Laughter rippled through the stands, and a few spectators hurled insults at the little sprites. Just about every noble in Arcanthia had at least a handful of goblin slaves on staff—both for the prestige and for what they could design. It was this very quality that made them dangerous, yet the nobles were too busy parading and competing with the other nobles’ inventions that they failed to think of what else the crafty little bastards were planning.
Killien snorted. This was it? This was the main event?
Being pitted against seven tiny goblins, whose bones he could break with the heel of his boot, was laughable. Such a match was a fit opener for one of the newly sworn gladiators, not for a grand finale against the champion of the realm.
There had to be a challenge he was not seeing—a new weapon perhaps. Killien’s gaze swept the various blades the goblins bore, looking for something he may have missed. One of them had to be wielding a weapon worth showcasing.
Goblin-made weapons were heavily sought after. No two were alike, and each blade contained foul and extraordinarily lethal trickery.
Prince Burne sipped his wine, then continued. “These seven goblins have requested a chance to win their freedom—a gift rarely bestowed after what happened in the Goblin Wars. However, I am humbled by their courage and determination to prove their worth. I stand before you and give you my word that if these seven brave goblin slaves manage to best Killer, I will grant them their freedom!” Burne’s grin broadened, and a hint of madness gleamed in his glassy eyes. “If they fail, their blood will paint the sands and their corpses dragged to Killer’s cell so he may feast upon their flesh!”
The chant rose up again. “Killer! Killer! Killer!” The grating title inflamed the raw magic swirling in him.
Burne grinned widely. “Begin!”
The goblins charged Killien and the crowd screamed and cheered.
The seven goblins formed a circle around Killien, shrieking and spitting curses at him. One of the armored ones with colored feathers in his mangy hair lunged at him from the right.
Killien braced his shield with his shoulder and slammed the imp backwards sprawling onto the dirt.
Two goblins attacked from his left. Killien swung his shield around and smashed the grimy-faced one in the side of the head with a sickening crack. The second attacker, a scarred creature in a loincloth, took a swipe at Killien’s arm with his serrated dagger. Killien spun out of the way, and drove his boot into the goblin’s chest with a back kick. The goblin screeched and Killien stifled the sound with a spear lunge into its eye. Blood spurted from the eye socket and the imp crumbled to the dirt to the deafening roar of the crowd.
Goblins mad with rage and fear shrieked and cursed when the speared goblin slumped to the ground. The armored imp with the feathers in his hair rose to his feet and stumbled a few steps before adding a mournful cry to the piercing chorus.
The five goblins circled him warily. They were fighting for their freedom just as much as Killien was.
Killien caught the eye of Prince Burne and saw his finger trace a line across his many chins. He could almost hear the prince’s dark voice. The crowds scream for blood. You will not leave them wanting.
Killien ducked low and swept his foot under the nearest goblin. As the creature lost its footing, he carved an arc across the goblin’s bulging belly. Bloody entrails dropped to the ground like glistening coils of rope, sending the other goblins into a rage.
Their bloodshot eyes narrowed as they charged.
Good! Let’s get this over with! Killien snarled, then spun, his shield clipping a goblin off the side of his head. He swung his arm downward, the bladed spear slicing a line across the sagging folds of another goblin’s back. With the spear held out to his side, he rolled across the bloody dirt to give himself more room and crouched into a defensive posture. Two goblins launched an attack at his crouched form.
Magical energies surging with adrenaline pressed in on him, begging to be unleashed. He released a breath and suppressed the flood, knowing all too well what would happen to his parents and his younger brother and sister if he openly used magic in the arena. A few subtle spells to reinforce his spear thrusts was one thing, but all hell would break loose if the nobility discovered Prince Burne was using a mage in the arena and cheating them out of their money.
A shrill cry tore his attention to the right. The goblin, whose eye was already purpling from where Killien had clipped the shield against the creature’s face, thrust his short sword toward Killien’s exposed midsection.
Killien kicked the goblin in the gut, its sword went flying, and it hurtled backward onto the dirt again. Exhaling, Killien whirled to face the new threat coming from his other side. One second a bearded goblin was soaring in the air, curved daggers poised to strike—and the next he was impaled on the head of Killien’s spear, its blade opening a gaping hole in his throat and spraying warm blood on Killien’s chest and thighs.
The two remaining goblins attacked with renewed vigor.
In the midst of the chaos, Killien barely heard Prince Burne’s shout, “Release the beasts!”
The screeching of metal filled in the arena. The goblins pulled back, their eyes wide with horror.
“He tricked us!” the one with the black eye shrieked.
Two half-starved, half-mad white tigers appeared out of the shadows of the tunnel, tethered to long, heavy chains, their teeth bared. Scattered patches of missing fur and red, swollen tissue oozing with pus marked their once sleek coats. One already had an ear torn off. The other had a scar across its snout that could have only come from an axe.
Killien’s mouth went dry. Each cat must have weighed over six hundred pounds. The guards could barely hold on to the chains that bound them. What was the prince trying to pull? There was no way Killien could fight them all … and without magic. Was he being punished, or had Burne tired of taunting and tormenting his play toy?
Killien exchanged glances with the wide-eyed goblins.
The sand had darkened beneath the trembling knees of the armored imp. “They’re going to kill us all!”
“He’s trying to get rid of us, that slimy bastard!” Black Eye hissed, shooting glances up at the stands, where the prince sat comfortably in his cushioned seat, grinning at the havoc below.
“Not if we fight together,” Killien said.
The armored goblin’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Be silent! You lie as well as your master!”
“None of us can fight them alone,” Killien said. Was Burne too stupid to see that? Were the gladiator battles not collecting as much coin as they used to? He shook his mind of the thought.
“What are you suggesting?” Black Eye sneered.
Killien bent and picked up one of the dead goblins’ swords from the bloody dirt. “We do the one thing he doesn’t expect. We work together.”
“Ha! You’ll stab us in the back the first chance you get,” Black Eye spat.
Killien rolled his eyes. “You’re only saying that because that’s what you would do. Now shut up, stop pissing your damned selves, and listen. We call a truce.”
The white tigers twisted their heads and snarled. Saliva dripped from their powerful jaws. Even from this distance, Killien could see the muscles shifting beneath their battered, bedraggled coats as they fought against the chains that bound them.
Prince Burne raised his arms and prepared to address the crowd. “Ladies! Gentlemen! Esteemed guests! And all you others that came to drink wine at my expense.” Light-hearted laughter trickled through the many-tiered crowd in the grandstands. “It is my great honor to bring these magnificent creatures to you—white Acidian tigers from the elven lands. Powerful, ferocious beasts to match against Killer! I had to search all across the realms to find these magnificent creatures, only the best for—”
A loud, metallic crack interrupted the prince’s speech. Both chains securing the white tigers had snapped. An audible gasp rippled through the crowd. The felines’ yellow eyes, filled with manic hunger, fixed on Killien and the goblins. The cats sprang forward, the tarnished chains dragging in the blood-encrusted sand behind them, rolling up clouds of dust.
“Truce! Truce!” Black Eye shrieked.
The one-eared tiger chased after the spindly goblins, who had scattered and sprinted to the other end of the arena. The second tiger with the scarred snout, bounded for Killien.
He frowned. So much for fighting together.
Killien reinforced his shield with magic and braced himself for the impact. The cat slammed against the spelled shield and the momentum bowled him over. Sand flew in his eyes, but he rolled to his feet, spear poised to strike, and blinked away the tears.
The piercing cries of thousands of men and women in the stands made his ears ring. He thrust his spear at the scarred cat, but it leapt out of the way, and he merely sliced the steaming air between them. While the armored imp screamed from the other end of the arena, Black Eye darted in and under the tiger’s legs, poking and slashing with his dagger and squealing like a pig at a trough. The cat leapt away, slashing at him with its massive claws.
Black Eye screamed and skirted out of the way. Killien spun and swung his spear as the tiger pounced, grazing the beast’s side before the cat landed several feet away and whirled around. A snarl rumbled from the white tiger’s throat, its head low and its ears pulled back.
The cat bounded for Killien. The monstrous blurred form of the one-eared tiger vaulting over him blocked his view of the scarred tiger, and he dove out of the way. The beast skidded in the dirt behind him, sending up clouds of dust.
The two goblins grabbed the heavy chain still attached to the scarred tiger’s muscular neck, but the beast whirled, hurling Black Eye into the air. The armored goblin clung to the chain. His bulging eyes grew impossibly wide as the cat leapt at him. The goblin hissed a string of curses, but the beast’s powerful jaws clamped down on him. Bone crunched and blue-black blood stained the feline’s fur. Then, the starved, tortured cat dragged the corpse aside and ravenously began to feed on the armored imp.
Side by side, Killien fought alongside Black Eye.
The one-eared tiger bounded at them. Killien thrust his spear at the cat’s throat. A crackle of blue energy, barely perceptible, sparked and faded as the blade punctured the beast’s hide. The cat crumbled to the dirt, howling and spitting.
The crowd roared.
Sweat poured down Killien’s brow; his labored breaths echoed in his ears. A pool of blood spread under the wounded cat. It twitched and lolled its tongue. Black Eye leapt on the felled creature and plunged his short sword into its ribcage with a triumphant roar.
When he withdrew his weapon, blood poured from the blade. He hooted and jumped up and down excitedly. “Killed the beast! Did you see that? Stole its last breath!” Black Eye kicked the carcass. “That’s what you get for killing my friend, you stupid, vile beast!” He turned his gaze to the balcony, where the prince lounged his swollen feet upon his living stool. “Next I’ll sever Fatty’s fingers and shove them down his throat!”
Following his cries, the beast looked up, its maw dripping with blood and strips of flesh. Killien’s grip tightened on the shaft of his spear as the tiger growled low and long.
Black Eye jumped back and dropped his sword on the sand. “I lied! I lied! Oh, please don’t kill me. Goblin flesh is stringy.”
“Let’s finish off this one first, shall we?” Killien said, stepping between goblin and beast. He sneered up at the prince half in his cups.
With a piercing roar, the scarred tiger leapt from the gory remains of the goblin it had been eating and onto Killien’s spell-charged shield, knocking him onto his back with a bone-jarring thud. His breath whooshed out of him and stars dotted his vision. The reinforced shield was the only thing that prevented the massive cat from crushing him. Goblin blood dripped onto his face, and the beast’s acrid breath stung his nostrils. Killien grunted, his muscles straining as he tried to heave the cat off, while dodging the razor-sharp claws that swiped at him. Pushing more magic into his shield, he gave one final push and thrust off the cat.
He rolled across the bloody sand, away from the tiger, and turned to face it, panting and weak.
To his surprise, Black Eye jumped in front of him, and plunged his sword into the side of the beast’s jaw. The tiger’s fangs grazed Killien’s arm, tearing a piece of flesh from it, but the force of the goblin’s thrust drove the beast’s head a hair’s breadth aside.
The shaft of Killien’s spear was slick with blood. He gritted his teeth against the fiery pain of a dozen lacerations and nodded his thanks to the goblin.
Black Eye glared at him. “Stop your blubbering. Thank me by keeping me alive.”
Killien smiled at the little imp. He clambered from the dirt into a low crouch and held his bloody spear pointed at the tiger’s sharp fangs. They circled. Killien gripped his spear in both hands and whispered a spell to strengthen it. He stared into the cat’s eyes, wondering if it would make the first move.
The beast leapt and clutched Killien’s spear in its bloody teeth. Killien hoisted the spear over his head and flung the cat behind him. It landed on its back in the dirt. He turned to see it twist and jump back onto all fours.
Killien felt his energy draining. Sweat streamed down his brow. He had already fought three times this afternoon. His legs trembled. He panted and sweated and bent over to rest the spear across his thighs.
Man, beast, and goblin circled each other. This time, Killien made the first move. He thrust his spear at the cat’s eye, but it leapt away. He stepped forward and thrust again, but the beast twisted its head to the side and the spear blade barely grazed its ear. It growled, scratched the sand with its claws, and crouched into strike position. Killien crouched low, too, readying himself for the attack. The beast sprung at him. Killien drove the spear blade upward deep into the cat’s abdomen, let the spear go, and dove out of the way. The cat landed on its side, the spear shaft still protruding from a gushing wound in its midsection.
Killien scrambled to his feet and ran to the prone beast. He grabbed the spear shaft and ripped the blade across the cat’s guts. Its slick, bloody entrails spilled out onto the sand.
Black Eye pointed at Prince Burne. “Take that, you lying sack of dung!” The rest of the goblin’s insults were drowned out by the roar of the crowd.
The crowd stood shoulder-to-shoulder chanting, “Killer! Killer! Killer!”
Killien stared up at Burne. A cruel smile lifted the prince’s plump drink-reddened cheeks. He pointed at Black Eye still jumping for joy, and traced a line across his throat.
Killien’s heart fell.
A few spectators must have noticed the silent exchange; another chant rose up. “Kill! Kill! Kill!”
Black Eye stopped jumping and cussing, and turned his wide, bloodshot eyes to Killien. “We had a deal! We had a deal!”
Killien tried to gauge Burne’s expression. The prince had his arms folded across his protruding belly and was waiting expectantly.
He’s the reason I still have my arm, Killien wanted to shout up at the drunken fool of a prince. He’s the reason my fights will continue to feed your belly.
Tears streamed down the goblin’s swollen cheek. “No! No, you can’t! You said we’d work together!”
Killien glanced toward the gate where the other gladiators pressed up against the iron bars, staring at him with open hatred in their eyes. He tightened the grip on the shaft of his spear and tried to block out all emotion. “I am sorry,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. He could not meet the snivelling goblin’s gaze.
“No! No! No!” Black Eye turned to the balcony, tears streaming down his cheeks, and he shook his fist. “Don’t make him do this, you fat son of a—”
Killien thrust his spear blade into the crying goblin’s chest.
Red tinged Killien’s vision. His breath echoed in his ears. All he could think of was murdering the prince. His blood-speckled hands balled into fists as the gate opened. Ulric and three other armored guards barred his way.
“Drop your weapon,” Ulric ordered.
Killien was barely aware of the gate closing behind him. The humid air clung to him, pressing in on him. He was trapped, no better than an animal. His well of elemental energy was on fire, and exhausted as he was from the fight, he was in no mood to face the guards.
“I said, drop your weapon.”
Killien looked at the armed guard, his eyes barely focused.
“Look out, boys,” Ulric warned, his lightning stick poised to strike. “He’s full of piss and fire right now.” Rickshaw, a guard at least twenty years Killien’s senior, fell in beside Ulric, sword raised. “Shnak,” Ulric snapped, “get the collar on him before he does something stupid.”
The goblin stood by idly, his wide eyes bulged from his scrunched face as if the iron collar around his neck was fastened too tight. He had spindly arms and legs, but a large belly that rippled with folds.
“Drop … your … weapon,” Ulric said slowly.
Killien felt the walls closing in around him. He had to get out. He shifted his gaze to the four heavily armed guards that had taunted and beaten him. Guards who served the cruel prince that had enslaved him.
Kill them. Kill them all, a dark voice in Killien’s mind whispered.
“Don’t even—” Ulric’s words were cut short as Killien hurled a ball of flame at the barrel-chested guard. Ulric dodged and rolled and the fire snuffed on the stone behind him. “Put him down! Put him down!” the guard shouted.
Ramy, the younger guard with the ponytail, came at Killien from the side and his rough hands grabbed for the Killien’s wrists. Killien drove his elbow into the guard’s nose and heard a distinctive snap of bone. Rickshaw slammed his cudgel into Killien’s side. Killien snarled and used his shield to shove the middle-aged guard against the wall.
The four guards came at him in a mass of flailing arms, cudgels, and lightning sticks.
A cudgel struck Killien’s blood-crusted arm where the tiger had raked its teeth. He slammed his fist into Ulric’s jaw. His knuckles throbbed in pain, but the blood and teeth he knocked from the guard’s mouth made everything worth it.
A lightning stick struck his side, and an electric current seized his muscles. His vision blurred, and nausea roiled in his stomach at the explosion of pain, but he fought through it even as fists and cudgels continued to rain down on him.
Another jolt of electric energy struck him in the middle of his back. His mouth opened in a silent scream at the searing pain radiating through him. His back arched, and he dropped to the ground.
Killien panted heavily, his vision fading in and out as his face pressed against the gritty stone, his fingers twitching.
Ulric stood over him, lightning stick in hand. Blood dripped from the corner of his mouth. He stumbled a step and spat. “Do you really want to do this?” He wiped the blood from his mouth with his gauntleted fist. “You know what the prince will do to your mother. You’re bloody lucky it hasn’t happened already!” The lightning stick was shaking in his hand as he fought to catch his breath. “So, I want you to ask yourself, is … it … worth it?”
The pain began to recede and Killien closed his eyes.
“I didn’t think so.”
The fires burning in his well of energy snuffed out. He had to remain strong for his family … endure a little more before he could return to them. No one would hurt them.
The goblin slave attached the iron collar to Killien’s neck, and immediately Killien’s well of energy went dark, his magic out of reach.
Ramy, the younger guard whose nose Killien had broken, stepped forward, eyes blazing. Trails of blood ran down his chin and onto his armor. He pointed an accusatory finger at Killien. “You’re going to regret that.”
The last thing Killien saw was the cudgel coming down on him. Then the corridor went dark.