[ TEN YEARS AGO ]
It had been three years since Mama Mahrya passed away. Ethan was about sixteen now, and had never quite gotten over her loss.
She’d been a light in the plantation’s blackness, and finding his way had become all the more difficult since hers was extinguished.
As time went on, he gave up on the lessons she’d taught him. “Life is like a mirror,” she’d said, but it felt useless trying to bring goodness and kindness with him. He was surrounded by evil. There was no way he’d ever win.
Hatteras had expanded his training in the past few years beyond the bounds of the plantation. He’d bring Ethan along with him to the Underground itself to watch the Cage fights, to learn to observe opponents, read their patterns, predict their actions.
Ethan watched. But he didn’t embrace it like his Master did. The more fights he watched, the more death that spilled out, the less he felt human.
He looked around at all the other people there, the spectators. And he wondered what drew them there, how they could watch, cheer, place bets on the lives of the men dying in front of them. Some of the audience were Enders, but many were Middles, and even Nobles, intent on a night of entertainment.
Hatteras was one of those. He was a Master, but he was also someone who found glee in watching the suffering of others. The Underground was the only place he was ever animated or showed any positive emotion.
For Ethan, it was the opposite.
With each death he watched unfold inside the Cage, he died a little inside himself.
But he trained. He did as he was told. The rigorous combat regimen Hatteras put him through couldn’t break him, that’s what Mama Mahrya had always told him. He was strong enough. He would always be strong enough, she’d said.
But that was getting harder to believe. With her gone, his confidence faltered. Particularly in the Black Room.
The invisible attacks were relentless, and taught their lesson well. No matter how strong he got, no matter how much training he endured, this was always the place he was defenseless. He was weak.
Hatteras never let him forget that. There would always be something he couldn’t see coming, that’s what he learned. He could be good, but never quite good enough.
Then came the day he’d been dreading for years. The sun rose on the day of his first fight, and he watched its red rays spill like blood over the frosty horizon. At the end of the day, he was going to kill someone, or die.
He hadn’t slept. Instead, he’d spent the night walking and just breathing in the sharp black air. His breath whisped ahead of him, drifting away in puffs that vanished like his future into the dark.
At the end of the day, he was going to kill someone, or die. His existence would snuff out like the breath that disappeared ahead of him, a short burst of a cloud that flew into the sky for a moment, nearly free, then faded away to nothingness.
That was his life, he realized, his feet crunching on the frosted grass of the plantation. This was what he’d worked for, what his father had sentenced him to.
His father had sent others into the Cage. Ethan didn’t know how many others. They’d all died, he figured. He’d just be the next in line.
The sky reddened, and he went inside. Escaping wasn’t an option, the plantation was too heavily fortified for that.
“You were made for this,” Hatteras told him as they rode in the transport to their destination. “You were built for this. You were trained for this day.” His black eyes bored into Ethan’s, who stared back, unflinchingly, emotionlessly. “You will not fail me.”
Ethan didn’t blink. No, he would not fail.
At the Underground, Hatteras led him to the back of the arena where the fighters and their Masters prepared. Ethan walked behind him, glancing up at the spectators that were gathering in the stands. The final witnesses of so many lives. Did they see him, walking back there? Did he stand out to any of them, or was he just another body being led to the slaughter, another face to be erased from the page?
He knew the answer to that one. Nobody saw him. And it didn’t matter anyway.
In the back room, light was scarce. It was dark and dismal, and the last place Ethan would see in this world, he thought.
“Shirt,” Hatteras commanded.
Ethan forced himself to obey. Taking it off, his skin revealed evidence of the countless nights he’d spent in the Black Room. Countless reminders of his weakness.
“Yes,” Hatteras crooned, observing his handiwork. “You will be unforgettable. When your opponent sees you, he’ll assume you’re weak, think you’re an easy target. He’ll come at you in overconfidence. And he’ll underestimate just who he’s dealing with.”
He pounded his fist into his other hand, an evil smile twisting up the edges of his mouth. “You will crush him. And all who witness will remember you. You might be the youngest here, but no one will know. No one will need to know. I have trained you more than most of these fighters who are twice your age have ever trained.”
Then he repeated, “You will not fail me.”
Ethan tried to calm the ragged feeling in his chest. The day had actually come.
Another man came around the corner, one of the leaders of the Underground. Hatteras walked over to him, leaving Ethan alone. He watched them mumble under their breath, and knew they were discussing what bets to place on the upcoming fights. Gambling over his life.
He didn’t hear someone else come up behind him. Not until he felt a cloth shoved over his mouth, did he realize he wasn’t alone. A needle jabbed into the side of his neck, and that was all he knew.
When Ethan came to, he had the vague sensation of being jostled. Gently, though. And almost from a distance.
Everything was foggy, indistinct. Whatever drug had been used to sedate him was wearing off, but slowly.
He opened his eyes, giving them time to focus before he tried moving his head. How long had he been out? Where was he? Where was Hatteras? What about the fight?
Across from where Ethan sat now, a crisp, white plastark wall stared back at him. His eyes slowly followed it around, taking in his surroundings. That wall melded seamlessly with the floor, the ceiling, and the other walls, none of which were particularly far away from the corner he was sitting in.
Then the jostling sensation hit him again. He swayed slightly, though nothing had touched him. It was the box itself that was moving. He was the storage trunk of a speeder transport.
That’s when he noticed that ahead of him, the front wall wasn’t solid white. There was a floor-to-roof opening, separated from the cab of the speeder by a plasma divide. Shifting a little to the side, he was able to see the lone driver, only slightly distorted by the swirling plasma.
One driver? Those were odds he could handle. If he had the use of his hands, he’d be able to take him on, probably even beat him.
But he didn’t have his hands. And unless he felt like breaking through plasma twice — from the cuffs and from the divide — he wouldn’t have a chance at putting those odds to the test.
He cleared his throat cautiously, hoping his voice wouldn’t be too hoarse from disuse.
The man in the cab didn’t move for a moment, and Ethan wondered if he’d heard him. But just as he was about to ask again, a reply came.
“You’re awake.” He paused. “I think instead of ‘where are you,’ a better question would be, where aren’t you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re not in the Cage.”
“You’re alive, aren’t you?”
That wasn’t what Ethan had been expecting. “Who the hell are you?”
This time, there was no answer coming.
Ethan slumped back against the wall, the box bouncing a little as the speeder’s repulsors glided over apparently uneven terrain. Hatteras would be furious when he found out he was missing — if he didn’t know already.
Who knew how long he’d been sitting in this speeder, how far away he now was from the Cage.
He looked around. Now he was in a box. A box with no openings other than the plasma in the front wall. He wondered if this would be the new last thing he would ever see.
The least he could do was try to get his hands in front of him, he thought. Bound behind him as they were, they put him at a distinct disadvantage for, well, whatever happened next.
Slowly, he started trying to wriggle his wrists around under him. It was easier said than done. He tried to be as quiet about it as he could, but he winced as he heard the casing clink loudly against the hard floor.
“If you’re trying to get out, I wouldn’t bother,” came the voice from the cab. “The box is high-grade molded plastark. There’s no way out from the inside.” He paused. “Besides, is where you came from something you really want to go back to?”
“Depends,” Ethan replied.
“Where you’re taking me now.”
Ethan leaned back against the cold wall, his hands still behind him. Still no answer. He stared absently through the plasma at the latest stranger to control his fate. He couldn’t see much of him, mostly just the back of his head. Nothing really notable there: Short dark hair, strong jaw, collared black shirt —
He blinked. On the collar, what was that? Leaning forward, being careful not to hit the floor with his cuffs again, he squinted at the tiny thing.
Then he knew exactly what it was, and he went cold.
“You’re military,” he whispered.
Somehow, the man heard him. “Very good.” The approving tone was in his voice again. “I guess next time I should hide my earpiece more carefully when I take it out, huh?”
He reached up and grabbed at the little device hanging by a wire snaking under his collar. Ethan didn’t spend too much time wondering why it wasn’t still in his ear. The realization of what must really be going on was hitting him too hard.
He couldn’t believe it. He knew the Underground was illegal, technically. Not even one fight in, and he was caught?
“Not exactly,” the soldier stopped his thoughts.
“Then why am I here?”
Just then, the speeder pulled to a stop.
The soldier leaned back, glancing over his shoulder for the first time. His eyes were sharp, piercing through the plasma divide. “I have to go take care of some arrangements,” he said, again ignoring Ethan’s question. “I’ll be right back.”
Ethan wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved, apprehensive or terrified. “Yeah,” he said, everything feeling more than a little surreal. “Sure.”
Something in his voice seemed to strike the soldier. He was halfway out of the cab, but he paused, hands braced on either side of the doorframe. Turning around, he faced Ethan head-on through the plasma.
Maybe it was the lingering effects of whatever drugs had been pumped into Ethan’s system, but the face looking back at him now seemed less threatening than he’d anticipated. The guy was young, maybe late-20s. And his expression was … concerned? About what?
When he spoke, his voice wasn’t harsh. Actually, it was almost — gentle.
“Look, kid,” he said, halting, like he was searching for words. “I don’t know how to tell you this. But you’re — you’re not in trouble, okay?”
Ethan grunted. “Right. And these aren’t cuffs.”
“I had to put those on you because I didn’t want you fighting me. Listen. We’ve had eyes in the Underground for a while now, and we’re going to make a move. A major one. Soon.” He paused again. “But ‘soon’ wouldn’t have been in time to save you.”
“So waiting wasn’t really an option.”
“Waiting for what?” Ethan didn’t know where this soldier thought he was going with this, but he didn’t like it. “You’re calling this a rescue mission?”
“Not a mission, no,” the soldier seemed to search for words again. “That earpiece you saw — it was turned off because, as far as my superiors are concerned, I’m still doing recon down there right now.”
“They don’t know you took me.”
“It wasn’t part of the plan. No.”
Wasn’t part of the plan. Ethan wasn’t entirely sure how to take that, but he was more than a little certain he didn’t believe it. There had to be more to it than that, but Ethan could play along.
But his obvious disdain didn’t seem to put off the soldier. “Look, I’ve been watching you. I’ve seen you in the stands during the matches, when that master of yours thinks he’s training you to watch and learn from how the others fight. You — you don’t drink it up like they do. You’re only there because he’s dragged you there.”
“I don’t think you were going to win.”
“You sound so sure of that.”
“I know how to fight.”
“Yeah, I know. But you weren’t going to, were you?”
Ethan balked. “What?”
“I know you can fight. Who knows, you might have even won a round or two if you tried. But you weren’t going to try, were you.”
It was posed as a question, but it sounded like the soldier thought he already knew the answer. And what made Ethan’s throat tighten was — he was right.
Ethan didn’t respond.
“You’re not stupid. There was nothing for you there, so why fight to keep it? It wouldn’t have done you any good.”
Ethan’s mouth was dry. “How did you know?”
For a moment, he didn’t answer. Ethan wondered if he was going to leave him hanging again, but finally, he spoke.
“Your face isn’t hard to read. Besides, anybody with half an eye can see your master has put you through hell.” He indicated Ethan’s scarred chest. “Why give him what he wants when you have the power to take it away? It was the one thing you could control.”
As he said it, something seemed to occur to him. He stared at Ethan, almost as if he was weighing something. Then he deactivated the plasma divide.
Stepping through the cleared barrier, he towered over Ethan, despite having to crouch to fit in the cramped space. Without a word, he took off his jacket. Then his military-issue overshirt. Then his long-sleeved undershirt.
With each layer that came off, Ethan felt more and more nervous. He realized he was shaking, but he wasn’t sure why.
What was coming next? Was this guy going to suddenly reveal he’d been scarred too? Had Hatteras been his master once? Could this day get any more weird?
If it could, it wasn’t going to be for any of those reasons. The man dropped his long sleeved shirt on the floor and put the others back on.
“Turn around,” he instructed.
Ethan just stared at him.
He sighed, and knelt down next to him. Ethan stiffened.
“Relax,” the soldier said gruffly, reaching toward his bound wrists. “You can’t very well put a shirt on with your hands tied together, can you? You need the cover, you stick out like a sore thumb with those marks. Though I guess that was the idea.”
When he stood back up, the cuffs were dangling from his finger. Ethan pulled his arms around in front of him, rubbing freedom back into his wrists. And still staring at the man. He’d just voluntarily unchained him.
“Is fighting me really what you want to do?” the soldier asked, easily guessing Ethan’s thoughts again. “You could. I know you could. But I would win. Look, I’m trying to help you.”
“Sure,” Ethan scoffed, but there was less conviction behind the sarcasm now.
“You wanna go back there?” the soldier gestured toward the open barrier, frustration finally breaking his composure. “Is that really what you want? Then fine. Go ahead. I’m sticking my neck out, here, but maybe I shouldn’t have bothered, if that’s really the life you want so much.”
Ethan swallowed. The barrier was wide open in front of him. The soldier had backed up, giving him an unimpeded path to the world outside.
“It wasn’t exactly the ‘life’ part I was looking forward to,” he mumbled.
The soldier knelt down again and purposefully looked Ethan in the eye. “That was yesterday. That was this morning. An hour ago.” His voice was quiet, but firm. “Now, you have a choice.”
Ethan didn’t want to look back at him, so he stared at the ground instead. “Which is?”
“To do something with your life, other than throw it away.”
“And why would I do that?” Ethan shot back. “Why would I want to? It’s over. I’m done.”
Ethan didn’t answer.
“I didn’t ask for this,” Ethan said stiffly. “I wanted it to be over.”
“I don’t think you really mean that. But that’s not your call to make at this point anyway,” the soldier replied evenly, standing back up. “When I took you out of there, I made that decision for you. But it’s the last one I’m going to make for you. From now on, you’re not a slave anymore, so stop acting like one.”
There was a clanging sound as he dropped the plasma cuffs, the casing rattling to the floor.
Ethan watched them fall.
“What exactly do you want with me,” he asked at last.
The soldier stepped through the barrier into the cab, then looked back over his shoulder.
He turned back toward the cab. “I’m going out to take care of some things. If you want my help, I’m going to have to make arrangements to put you up somewhere. That’s where I’m going now. But I’m leaving the door unlocked. This isn’t a prison, kid. If you really want to leave, I’m not going to stop you.” He didn’t look back as he leaned out the door.
Ethan called after him.
Immediately he regretted it, but it was too late to change his mind. The soldier stopped, waited.
Ethan swallowed. “What’s your name?”
It was a stupid question. What he’d really wanted to say was — was what? Did he even know?
Yeah, he did know. At least, part of him did. He just didn’t want to say it.
Thank you? Was that really what he wanted to say?
Thank you for what? He hadn’t wanted to be saved. He’d wanted the end, and this stranger had ripped that away from him.
But he’d also given him something else in exchange, something that, in time, Ethan just might come to understand.
But at the moment, that was too much for him to process. And all he could pull out of the fog of his mind was the stupidest of questions — “What’s your name?”
But the soldier didn’t seem to think it was stupid. Actually, he broke into a faint grin as he answered.
“Stick around until I get back, and maybe I’ll tell you.”
The quiet that filled the box after he left was deafening. Ethan just sat still for a long time, not sure what to do.
The barrier was open in front of him. The cuffs that had been on his wrists lay on the floor, harmless. There was nothing stopping him from taking off. The world was open to him, just waiting for him to run out into it. He’d never had that chance before.
Except there was something stopping him. The soldier. How could Ethan up and leave now? He almost wanted to wait it out, see where this ended up.
Just ahead of him, the shirt lay crumpled at his feet. Reaching for it, he opened it up and looked at it. It was plain, as far as shirts go. Gray, unembellished, more than a little too big.
The stranger had left it for him. Given it to him.
He pulled it over his head, realizing how glad he was for the feeling of something soft against his skin. He hadn’t really thought about how much of his life he’d spent in the stiff training shirts, under rough blankets, and so often, with nothing but the cold wind or the blistering heat and the sharp sting of the Black Room. In the grand scheme of things, this shirt wasn’t particularly soft, but he wasn’t picky.
He leaned back into the corner, sinking into the folds of the thin fabric. He couldn’t tell if the warmth he felt was actually from the shirt, or something he was imagining.
And he waited.
Suddenly, the door to the cab opened. Involuntarily, he found himself leaning forward, trying to see the soldier as he came in. What would he say when he saw Ethan had in fact stuck around?
Then he realized, a second too late, that it had been far too short a time for the soldier to have actually done whatever he said he was going to do.
A squat, square face leered around the corner of the opening between the cab and the box. A face Ethan didn’t recognize.
“Well well, so you’re the catch he walked away with,” the new stranger smirked.
“Me?” the man shrugged. “I’m the second half of your trip.”
This didn’t sound right. The soldier had said he was coming back. Why hadn’t he?
“Where’s the other guy?” Ethan asked.
“He did his job,” the man replied, looking around inside the box. His gaze fell on the cuffs lying on the floor between him and Ethan. “Though apparently, not all that well. I’m picking up where he left off.”
Before Ethan could react, the man pulled something out from under his coat. Pointing the weapon at Ethan, he fired.
Stun energy crackled through the air and shot into Ethan’s body, slamming him back against the wall. Ethan gasped for breath, but he barely got any. The pain spread, surging and rising, until unconsciousness made him numb. The last thing he saw was that strange face, its harsh grin, and the plasma cuffs being carried toward him.
[ PRESENT DAY ]
“He brought me to Kelmar, the second guy,” Ethan concluded. “That’s pretty much how it went. I’ve been here ever since.”
Kierah had to consciously make sure her jaw wasn’t hanging open. She wasn’t even sure where to start asking questions.
Ethan thought through her summary, then nodded. “Yep. That’s it.”
“Why? Do you know who he was? Do you know who the first guy was? What was the debt for?” It was getting late, and Kierah knew it — and they hadn’t even started figuring out what to do about Rothan being taken away. But she had so many things she wanted to know.
Ethan grinned a little. “Well, where should I start? The debt — I honestly don’t know. I never found out. But the guy who had the debt — I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of him, but he’s a big deal in the military now. Azor.”
“Azor!” Kierah exclaimed. “As in, the general?”
“That’s the one.”
“He’s the one who stole you? And had a debt big enough that you have to serve all this time in here, while he’s out there being a general?”
Ethan shrugged. “He wasn’t always a general. I’m not even sure what he was at the time, undercover ops like the first guy, I guess. Not long after, he got stationed to Kelmar as a guard. He got to keep a real good eye on me those days. Then there were promotions until he became the head of Kelmar. Now general. He’s done pretty well for himself, but he always remembers me. I guess I should feel special. When he came through leading some sort of group not that long ago, he was high up on the scaffolding, and still spotted me. He was looking straight at me.”
Kierah hung her head. “I know. I was part of that group. That was the day I first saw you.”
“Oh, right. Well, yeah, he’s the guy. And as for the first guy, I don’t know who he was. Just a military guy; I never saw him again. I was mad at him at first, for a long time. I blamed him for everything that went wrong once I got here.
“It was his fault I hadn’t ended it all when I had the chance, because now I was too scared. Dying then would have been easy, in the Cage; anything else, I would have had to put effort into, and I wasn’t sure I could do that.
“I kept remembering what he said — that if I stick around, someday I won’t be the only one who’s glad I did. Then I met Terrell. And Jonah. All the boys, every one who’s come through here. Rothan.
Kierah smiled, feeling warm. “For what it’s worth, so am I,” she said quietly.
Her voice was so gentle, Ethan almost didn’t hear what she’d said. She might not have intended for him to hear it. But he did.
He blinked. She was glad he was there. Glad he was there, to take care of the boys? Or glad for another reason?
He returned her smile. It felt good to smile. He hadn’t done it in a while, particularly that day. Then he remembered why he hadn’t, why he couldn’t allow himself to indulge in the idea that maybe, just maybe, Kierah felt —
His smile faded. As soon as it did, his mind went on a rampage, assaulting him with every doubt it could find. He should have done more for Rothan; he should have been more suspicious of Danan; he shouldn’t have said so much to Kierah just now.
He’d said so much. Too much. Terrell was the only other person who knew his whole story, and now Terrell shared that extent of knowledge with one other person in all of Trythia.
Why was it her? Why had he trusted her?
It had been a mistake. He’d been exhausted from the day, and it was only getting later. That’s what it was. He was tired.
But now someone else knew his past. Someone who could use it against him if she chose — he stopped himself.
That wasn’t his biggest concern right now. The biggest problem facing him was, Rothan was gone. And not just gone, but gone with a dangerous man. A danger Ethan understood only too well.
He’d always felt a responsibility toward Rothan, but now, knowing they had the same father — it felt even more urgent.
“My father is his father. He must have changed his last name after Hatteras came for him, or something. That’s why Rothan has a different last name than me.”
Kierah looked like she was as stretched as he was to wrap her head around that. “I still can’t believe that,” she said.
“I can’t believe he’s gone. And I don’t know what to do about it. But I can’t just — leave him out there to whatever kind of life that his … our … father has for him.”
“No,” Kierah agreed. “We can’t just leave him out there. But let me think about it for a little, because I may have a plan.”
“A plan?” Ethan asked. “Like what?”
“Well, as much as I usually hate this, I do live in the palace,” she said. “There’s gotta be some way I can figure something out, maybe use whatever little influence I have there.”
That hadn’t crossed Ethan’s mind at all. Maybe there were some advantages to knowing someone inside palace walls after all.
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[ TWO DECADES AGO ] The front door of the one-room apartment burst open, the flimsy lock no match for the force of the two bodyguards behind it. The crash startled the little boy, who was already buried as far back into the corner as he could get, a gash over one eye the remnants … Continue reading Chapter 21: Secrets of his past
“I think you should do it,” Kierah approached Zera. They were eating together during lunch, and Kierah took another swig of her coffee. She’d been feeling more and more sluggish lately, and was hoping the caffeine would kick in before anyone noticed. “But what do I do, again?” Zera asked, looking properly befuddled. “You think … Continue reading Chapter 23: “Do you think she cares for him? My Ender, for your slave.”