Excerpt for Ablaze In Mirth by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

This page may contain adult content. If you are under age 18, or you arrived by accident, please do not read further.









ABLAZE IN MIRTH

MATTHEW THOMPSON



ABLAZE IN MIRTH

by Matthew Thompson



PUBLISHED BY:

Marooned



ABLAZE IN MIRTH

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 by Matthew Thompson



This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author's work.



This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner.




20.6.2019


I wondered what the doctor thought about as she extracted blood from the likes of me. For centuries my kind have been taking their blood, except not with a hypodermic needle.

My father once said, “We are slaves to their needs, paraffin for their amusement, but we should never be ashamed of who and what we are.” He died at the hands of his master for insolence. At least that’s what I heard. A better motive than my mother’s demise, her body classified as no longer desirable. I had assumed there was more to their deaths, but then I remembered their masters were like the majority of their kind: vindictive, greedy and sadistic beyond redemption.

There had been one exception, the one human who defied all that I despised, who I grew to adore – love.

The doctor reminded me of her when we first met, somewhat afraid. Though the doc wasn’t in any danger, since my wrists and ankles were chained to the chair, a muzzle tightly hugging my face. I felt the hunger every time I caught her scent, especially when she leaned in and punctured my vein. And she knew it.

The blood test was to ensure I was fit enough to enter the annual tournament of Ablaze, the 189th Games. I might have lost a spring in my leap, but I was still in good shape for a century and a half, what humans might consider early thirties.

I had to make the top four of the leaderboard after six entries, then one more bout to unlock my shackles for good. All in all, seven battles between now and a life of freedom – at least a life worth living.

To make the final I had to survive, and Ablaze is the greatest feat of survival in the world. Broadcast for two weeks, the humans cheered and booed and bet on us blood suckers. And they enjoyed it too, watching us burn every year in the Nile Valley during the summer solstice, the sun beating down on us, incinerating us like bugs beneath a magnifying glass. They dubbed the place Mirth, where hundreds of thousands came to watch the Roman gladiators of the twenty-first century. Men, women and children, they all rejoiced as we soiled the dust with our ashes. And all for what?

Enter-fucking-tainment.




23.6.2019


To reach the tournament, I travelled underground on the Monster Train – the humans’ reference to its cargo, not the train itself. Most of my life was spent underground, segregated from humans within towns and cities, built by my kind to live and work. The majority are slaves now. I hadn’t seen the surface for decades, though I had heard that their buildings reached the sky.

During the train ride my mind turned to Sara, my wife, who was never far from my thoughts. As was Jade, our one-year-old daughter. Like millions of my kind, Jade was sentenced to a life of enslavement. Almost a year had passed since I had last seen her and my wife. A whole year. It felt more like a century – almost longer than I had known Sara. I missed our conversations before our separation, especially about our future. And I missed her sly smile – her laugh. The only item I have to remind me of them is a lock of Jade’s hair. Where I go, it goes.

I heard guards talking about competitive kills in the Ablaze complex before this year’s games had even begun. I told myself to be vigilant at all times, since staying alive underground was a challenge all unto itself, never mind the surface. But that’s how they played here. It made for entertaining commentary.

When the Monster Train arrived, I followed the signs to the check-in desk, where a man sat behind a thick pane of glass.

“Name?” he asked.

“Matias Carlos Bassi.”

He marked a sheet of paper, pointing to my Ablaze alias: Phantom. “This is you,” he said. A key card was placed into a safety compartment, followed by a wrist device. I took both. “You got a budget of 10G, so spend it wisely. Your Ablaze name is for you and you only. And you must never discuss which arena you’re entering. It reduces target killing. Understand?”

“I do,” I said, thinking the term ‘reduces’ spoke volumes.

He stamped a certificate and added, “Keep the key card and scheduler with you at all times.”

“Does that count in the arenas?”

He stared blankly at me and said, “At all times.”

I entered a series of dimly flame-lit sandstone passageways. It felt like I was heading to my public execution, the mass of voices becoming louder with each step.

The statue of Emperor Pretorius, standing twice my height, was seen on the way. Betrayed by our own kind, he lost his human lover during a family feud. She was hung, drawn and quartered, and he was made to watch, or so the legendary tale goes. He sought revenge by feeding from the Sun Chalice, the blood of a mutant girl, immune to the sun. Her DNA allowed Pretorius into the light, or, as they touted it, become a god.

He started the human revolution against his blood brothers and sisters by luring hundreds of thousands into a cavern, promising a feast. They got nothing but deathlight reflected down there, becoming the first Ablaze arena – a fucking tourist attraction now.

Our annihilation continued for decades, reducing our numbers to manageable, all conducted by Pretorius and his followers. Many continue the killing, often referred to as human crusaders. And if I were to make the final arena, to have a chance to claim my freedom, I would meet the man himself. If I could end any life in this world, it would be his.

At the entrance, I read the inscription above a Roman arch:



THOSE WHO ENTER MAY BURN IN GLORY



I had my doubts about the glory.

The first view of the complex was a bold statement of indulgence, bustling with my fellow kind – the competition. Stone pillars featured throughout, alongside statues of past victors. A series of steps led me down to the busy central hall, where a giant screen displayed the leaderboard for Ablaze.

Blood bars, chapels, casinos and brothels, the complex contained many attractions, all overlooked by armed guards on suspended footbridges. The smell of blood mixed with the sweat of four hundred-plus patrons, combated by the beat of air-conditioning fans above.

As I navigated between them, making no eye contact, I noted the double-doors of the entrance labelled: ARENAS I-VII – the doors which would lead to my death or glory. I admit instantly dreading going through them, but I couldn’t deny their magnetism, either.

On the second floor, within a narrow passage lined with numbered doors, I located my cell: 144. Here I met my cellmate, Vincent, a long-haired Hungarian of medium height, athletically built. The guy was younger than me, at least sixty years my junior. He looked nervous as hell, rolling a coin between his fingers. I could practically taste his fear.

We didn’t talk much. Figured it was for the best, considering we could be hunting each other down soon. I later heard him muttering in his native voice, and I thought to myself, he ain’t gonna last long. And if death was his fate, then that was one less contender to deal with.




24.6.2019


The time to set foot on Earth’s surface was less than a day away. I resorted to re-reading the rules: enter the arena, collect as many credits as possible, and leave before the timer ran out. Each arena featured safe, shaded zones, and open, exposed-to-the-sun zones. Then there was the third offering, an Activation Zone, where shade becomes deathlight, made possible by opening shutters, trapdoors and rotating mirrors. The result: cremation for the exposed and credits for the instigator. Simple.

Only one credit was needed to re-activate the elevator and get out alive – not a tactic to herald a champion. Credit Activations were scattered throughout each arena, some acting as bait, set within Activation Zones. Others required access, such as solving a puzzle, or for two competitors to simultaneously operate the opening of its entrance. But I knew I could never trust another, or turn my back on anyone. Not when a kill awarded two credits.

I was informed on my scheduler to enter Arena II, tomorrow at noon. But first I had training to attend. Here I got to test out the UV firearm, capable of emitting a high bolt of ultraviolet light. Though in the training arena, like the fake sun, the UV was replaced with a 100watt lightbulb. I hooked the strap around my neck, feeling its weight: three, maybe four kilos. A torso vest featured shallow domes on the front and back, which stored UV when hit. Once fully charged, there was no escaping its release. The helmet was placed on last, covering most of my face, to help keep my identity unknown.

I managed to stay out of trouble – for a few minutes. But the moment the shutter opened above me, and that bright light beamed down, I froze, my heart racing, and I feared the games may not end well. Determined not to die again, I returned for another bout, keeping out of the light, taking two Credit Activations. I managed to score a kill, too – the fake kind. And I got out with half a minute to spare before the timer reached zero, triggering the rotation of the mirrors, ensuring theoretical death for those who remained.

After less than twenty minutes in the training arena, was I ready for the real thing? I was ready as I could be.




25.6.2019


My time to rise to the surface had arrived. No more fakery, Ablaze was about to get real. As I walked through those double doors, wondering if I’d ever return, I tried to distract my mind by reading inspirational quotes carved along the dimly-lit passageway:

Use fear to be wise, not afraid.

Instinct is your only ally.

In the pre-ascension foyer, a guard, with a stare of disgust, told me to get equipped and fitted out.

Within minutes I was in the elevator, and rising. I heard the names of my three opponents as temperature rose, the balmy air trapped in my throat, getting thicker and warmer by the second. The crowd was distant and chanting. Louder. Louder.

I kissed Jade’s lock of hair, sending her and Sara an apology should I never make it out. I then told myself to be savage, survive at all costs, and to be hungry for every credit. Kill or be killed. No room for mercy.

I counted down, the doors opened, and I took a deep breath before stepping out into the arena, surrounded by depictions of gods, goddesses and pharaohs. I took each sandstone corridor like it was my last, fuelled with adrenaline.

And it didn’t take long until I spotted my first target ahead of me, beyond a doorway. The crowd cheered at both sides of a shaded path, fifty-feet wide, the entrance of a tunnel twenty yards away. I waited in cover, watching him edge closer towards the threshold, the one containing a Credit Activation, the one sheltered by roof shutters, the one available for opening via the lever I held in my hand.

He went for it. And so did I.

I’ll never forget his bellowing cry and the breeze that carried the smell of charred flesh, along with the crowd’s chorus of: ‘Burn, burn, burn’. They yelled and cheered from their lofty terraces and grandstands, some fist-pumping the air, others waving their Ablaze flag or nationality. I saw myself live on the big screen, shortly followed by a boy in the crowd, no more than twelve, smiling, along with his male guardian. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. I suppose I was glad for one less opponent to pull a lever on myself.

But what was for sure: I didn’t wait around. I continued through flame-lit tunnels, passing obelisk columns and hieroglyphics, shortly obtaining a Credit Activation within a room of overhead shutters. And before long, I was locked inside by a competitor. A shutter cracked open a second too late, almost bathing me in deathlight. Another opened, feet away. The third wasn’t close, and I got out when the door was raised.

Soon after I made another kill, this time with my UV firearm, charging his rear dome for a full blast. His cry echoed loud, proceeded by an eruption of cheers.

I checked the time: ninety-four seconds remaining, and I figured that was enough for my first entry in Ablaze. I made for the elevator while I still could, and entered it, relieved.

One competitor wasn’t so lucky, the guard informed me. He said that the leech had dropped to his knees, arms spread eagle, inviting his end, and screamed like the parasite that he is – was. I knew what the guard was doing. It didn’t work on me.

Later that evening, while Vincent lay on his bed whispering in his native tongue, I considered my time in the arena – the sense of death around every corner, second guessing every decision. Then there was the greed, knowing when enough was enough. The crowd certainly adored a risk taker. They cheered and chanted for the brave and merciless. And for the first time in a long time, I was euphoric. I had never felt so alive, to have a chance to go again and potentially win freedom for myself and my family.

Past victors said that they learned to respect the arenas and all those who entered. I was beginning to see why.




27.6.2019


I received a letter from Sara, surprised it ever arrived. She was casual in her writing, witty as ever, despite our circumstances. She wrote that Jade had uttered ‘bloo’ – also known as ‘blood’. But I read between the lines, that she was afraid I may never get a chance to hear her speak for myself. Her masters were saints, she wrote on, for the one extra hour break from her cleaning duties per week. Sara-casm, it had been too long since I last heard it. She and Jade were also able to bathe alone now, chained and muzzled, of course.

I always feared for her life, and she had every right to fear for mine, demonstrated to great effect during my second entry, this time Arena IV, its design inspired by ancient Athens. After an opponent rotated a mirror, my trailing hand got caught in those unforgiving rays, taking off half my index finger.

It burned like a fucker.

Not long after, I had a close encounter with a competitor while hunting the same Credit Activation. We fought hand and fist over it, directly beneath the shutters in an Activation Zone. Once we had slammed each other into the wall and rolled around in the dirt, the guy cried out in agony – a scattering of ash and glowing embers in the shape of his legs. I dragged his upper half to the edge as he pleaded for death, his smouldering flesh choking me. I almost threw-up. But I managed to compose myself and answered his prayer, taking the credits.

The crowd’s voice was loud and clear during the whole encounter. It seemed wrong, when someone was dying in pain. But I had to remind myself that sympathy was a dangerous distraction here – kill or be killed. Nothing else mattered.

Minutes later, I heard my name being shouted out, then: ‘Burn the bastards!’ and ‘Send them to Hell!’. Some seemed so enraged that I assumed they had personal vendettas, perhaps on behalf of ancestors who had succumbed to our way of living, or who were dead.

I managed to avoid the others, taking another Credit Activation after using rotatable wooden blocks to complete a quotation of Emperor Pretorius. After that I escaped – gladly.

When I left the elevator, the guard counted his fingers while smirking at me. I refrained from retaliation, refusing to give him the pleasure. My injury was odd, though. After all these years I had managed to not lose any body part to those rays, and now here I was, second time in, missing half a digit. Plus the burn was consuming my thoughts. All I could think about was where I could obtain painkillers. I had heard they were smuggled in.

Feeling exhausted, I returned to my cell. Vincent, who was surprisingly still alive, rolled that coin in his trembling hand.

“That mean anything to you?” I asked.

He continued to stare at it. “Yes. It belonged to my father. He gave it to me on my fifth birthday, before they took him away. See, I was manipulated by a gang of human crusaders. Let them into our hideaway before dawn, thinking they were one of us, needing shelter. Since then I’ve never trusted anybody. And I don’t intend to start. No offence.”

“Don’t blame you. Especially here.”

“Were you born one of us, or turned?” he asked.

“Born. You?”

“Born. Abandoned. I’ve never known my biological parents.”

“Sorry to hear that.” And I was, genuinely.

“Would you like some painkillers for your finger?”

I wasn’t expecting such generosity. “Sure.”

He gave them to me, and I thanked him. He then turned over to face the wall and fell asleep.

I read Sara’s letter multiple times that night. And like a reward I dreamed she and I were together in a slither of shadow, preventing each other from falling into the light. Our voices were whispers, her breath tickled my neck. Her perfume was sweet.

But I woke in the dead of night, finding reality hard to accept, so I willed myself to sleep, in hope of returning to her embrace.




28.6.2019


The central hall was the only place I knew where a chapel neighboured a brothel. I assumed those who entered the Lord’s house were there to confess. After all, nobody down here hadn’t sinned. Personally, I preferred to keep my past on mute.

Phantom was lit up on the leaderboard, residing in fifteenth place. The top spot was taken by a competitor named Slayer, ahead of me by nine credits, followed by Fang, seven credits.

I wasn’t scheduled to enter an arena today, so I chose a drink at a bar. Roxy’s was the most popular drinking hole. I ordered a pint of Vintage Virgin, a matured O Negative, warmed to thirty-eight degrees Celsius. Perfect temperature. But it was never the same as feeding from a living, breathing body. Those glorious days were long gone, so I took what I could get.

Whether the popularity of Roxy’s was due to the paltry competition, or more to do with the entertainment, was hard to say. But the dancers – the Sizzle Sisters – likely had a lot to do with it. The semi-naked blonde slid upside down on a pole, while the brunette poured blood down her legs. It flowed over her crotch and teardrop breasts, running in rivulets down her neck and face. She licked her lips when the flow reached them.

I caught myself staring at the brothel entrance and its flashing neon girls. When my expiry date was potentially every day, I couldn’t deny the lure of warm, smooth flesh. To combat this I thought of Sara, and I looked away every time.

It was during the show that I got a sixth sense that someone was watching me, and I was right. Caught, the woman by the front entrance lost eye contact and made her exit. So I followed her, and when she noticed, she ran. The chase lasted mere minutes before I lost her in the crowd. I had no clue who she was, why she was watching me and why she fled. She might have been a watcher for an assassin, or a killer herself. Maybe she knew my name. Felt threatened by my potential to win.

As I stood beside the fountain named Ablaze of Fortune, depicting a contender burning alive, another pair of eyes were on me. Though the man didn’t look away. He watched me from above, on a suspended footbridge, no doubt waiting for an opportunity to unleash a shot of UV. Nobody misbehaved in full view, so their hostile presence clearly worked. The guard seemed to enjoy taunting me, too, blowing me kisses. He proceeded to inform me what he would like to do to me, which entailed extracting my teeth so I could suck his hard dick.

I did experience a sense of despair then; my teeth hadn’t seen flesh for almost a century. I sure missed it. It’s a part of who I am, how I was born to live and survive. Killing to stay alive, did that make me a monster?




29.6.2019


I heard there was a poisoning in the night. The victim was named Blade, ranked ninth. I wasn’t sorry for her. She was top ten calibre, therefore a threat to me and my family’s freedom. I questioned my coldness, but this was Ablaze, remember?

And each day was potentially my last. It certainly came close to being in the Industrial Age of Arena VI. Steel shutters covered the entire room of an Activation Zone. Someone knew I was in there, having locked me inside. I could practically feel his or her excitement as I edged closer towards the threshold of the Credit Activation – the bait.

My toes were inches from cremation after the first shutter opened. The second nearly took off my trailing hand. The third was nowhere close, but the fourth singed my elbow. Thankfully the last opportunity covered an alternative exit. So I took the credit, the doors unlocked, and I got out.

Access to my second Credit Activation was restricted by a riddle, during which I heard a distant death cry amid the sound of rotating cogs and chains. After two failed attempts to solve the puzzle of aligning the correct dates to past crowned emperors, I finally got what I wanted, and pushed on for another.

The command station for the Activation Zone that previously had me trapped was free and alerting a presence. The bleeps told me that someone was inside, no doubt hunting for the reset credit. I locked them in to the crowd’s approval. Five shutters out of fifteen were at my disposal, all guess work. No hit on the first. No hit on the second. Not a smouldering on the third. I sensed disheartenment for the observers, until I chose the farthest left corner, causing flames and smoke and ash to rise, followed by a rapacious cheer and the chanting of my name.

PHANTOM! PHANTOM! PHANTOM!”

I was winning the battle – winning their affections. I wanted to hate them, every single one, but I couldn’t. Not there and then.

Back in the cell, I realised I had already become numb to the killing. I asked Vincent how he coped. He said, “They’re already dead to me. And maybe I am, too.”

“What do you mean?”

“I didn’t come here to win. I came here to avoid my master. Maybe my execution.”

“Execution? How did you piss him off?”

He briefly smiled, spinning his coin between his finger and thumb. “Her. I was caught looking at her teenager daughter. She’s beautiful, in so many ways. And she’s curious about me. She told me.”

“You think about being with her?”

“I do. Every day.”

“Turning her?”

He looked uncertain. “If that’s what she wants.”

“And you think it could happen?”

“Maybe. Like I said, she’s not only cute, she’s curious.”

My initial gut feeling of his fate hadn’t changed. I felt sorry for him, in a way. And in doing so I had to remind myself that he was a competitor, therefore undeserving of my sympathy.

I had to keep myself focussed on the importance of being victor, to finally be free from my own master, who was incapable of sympathising with the likes of me. He liked to beat me. Fuck me. Share me. I carried the mental and physical scars like a badge, a lesson to myself and to others. And if I won my freedom, had the chance to take revenge, I would enjoy nothing better than to rip my master’s throat out with my bare teeth. I often imagined doing so. It helped me cope. Did that make me a monster?




1.7.2019


They say practice makes perfect. I don’t think that counted in the arenas, except I did find myself more at ease as I charged through the corridors of barrel vaults within the Romanesque setting of Arena III, hungrier than ever for a kill.

And the deaths transpired to the drums of tabors. Maybe I got lucky, or maybe they got unlucky. Either way, I made a double kill, my choice of shutters twice perfect. It’s a shame there wasn’t a greater prize for such a feat, but I was content with the credits and the crowd’s approval, chanting my name once again, louder this time, becoming a regular voice now. I had grown to appreciate it – to expect it.

With that double, and the previous kill, it meant I was the sole survivor, making for a fearless trek – for a short while. See, the makers of Ablaze don’t tolerate carefree battles. Insert the human opponent, armed with UV to hunt me down. I did my best to avoid him, since my firearm and the Activation Zones were useless.

In pursuit of my freedom, I was caught unawares and fell through a trapdoor to land on a wooden conveyer belt. Chains and cogs drove me towards light at the end of the tunnel. I poured all my energy into it, on my hands and knees, going against the flow of direction. I figured it was on a timer, that it was possible to escape. And I was right. Just. The light diminished before I was taken over the edge, thankfully with nothing more than a few grazes and dust in my throat.

I didn’t hang around for another close encounter. I made my way to the elevator, only to find him heading towards me. I quickly took a turn and waited behind a pillar, listening to his footfalls, questioning if he had seen or heard me. He hadn’t, it turned out. After making sure he was gone, I bolted for the elevator with half a minute to spare.

Eighteen credits up made me fifth, equal to the competitor named Sorcerer. Leading in first was Fang at twenty-eight, three ahead of Slayer. Clearly they both had adapted well to the ways of Ablaze. Whoever they were, they were here to win.

The scent of death was pungent that night. The ash lingered on my skin and under my nails. I considered the odour a sign of victory, and to smell it was better than to not.

Vincent continued to mutter in his own dialect, staring at the ceiling. I asked him, “What’s that you’re saying?”

“Protect me, my Lord.”

“Are you afraid of death?”

“No. God had a place for me. But I’m afraid to burn alive.” He closed his eyes. “I’m also afraid of merely existing in this world, never to know what it truly feels like to live a life.”

“Yeah, I can understand that.”

“Matias, can I ask you a question, and can I have the truth?”

“Go on.”

“Would you pardon me, in the arena, if we ever meet there?”

“I would,” I said, unsure if I was lying.

“Thank you. It means a lot.”

That night, I was too restless to sleep, which proved beneficial, as I was awake when something was slipped beneath the door. I read it.



PHANTOM, YOU’VE BEEN TARGETED.

IF YOU WANT YOUR ASSASSIN’S NAME AND CELL NUMBER, MEET ME AT ROXY’S BAR - WED, AUGUST 2 - 3PM



I wasn’t surprised to be targeted, but I was surprised to be warned. If true, I wondered why they wanted to help me.




2.7.2019


I left the cell to make my appointment at the bar. While I waited to order, one of the patrons caught my eye. I thought I had seen the black man before, once in the arena, recalling that chin scar and those stern eyes. Our meeting back then was brief, and probably for the best.

He caught me looking. “Got a problem?”

“No. Only I think I know your Ablaze name.”

The man who could be Slayer downed the rest of his pint. “And?” he said, staring at me.

“And nothing. Although, have you been targeted down here?”

“We’re all targets down here.”

“Does that bother you?”

“I’m prepared.”

“How so?”

“I wouldn’t be prepared if I told you that.”

Our conversation ended there.

Not long after, a short-haired woman seated herself on my opposite side. She was young-looking, maybe what a human would consider early thirties, but she carried the wise eyes of a century’s worth of experience. A nose ring shone in her left nostril, and I was reminded of the human girl I once loved.

She leaned towards me and said, “You read my note?”

“I did. How do you know about my assassin?”

“Another source, but don’t ask who, I won’t tell you.”

“All right. But why inform me at all?”

The woman hesitated. “If I’m targeted, and you know about it, maybe you’ll offer me the same.” She looked around. “Let’s go somewhere more private.”

I followed her down into a base level corridor, dimly lit and devoid of bodies.

“Your attacker will strike later today,” she said.

“Will they now? Who, and where can I find them?”

The woman smiled. “Right here.”

She brought out a firearm from beneath her cloak. I prepared to go for the gun, but was interrupted by a fired shot. Not hers, another. She fell to the floor, throat afire, while a figure stepped out from the shadows, a good ten yards behind her.

The man who could be Slayer, wielding a shortened UV firearm, came towards me, his expression guarded.

“Why stop her?” I asked.

“She was hired. Today for you, maybe tomorrow for me. Plus, ain’t no room for cheaters down here.”

“What about up there?”

“Up there’s a whole other world. Up there you have value – a whole two credits worth.”

I was about to thank him, but he turned around and left, right before the guards came looking. I bolted the opposite way, back up to the central hall, and blended into the crowd.

Later I wondered, if I had the chance, would I kill the man who could be Slayer, just like any other, simply detach myself from his good deed for a couple of credits? Maybe that’s what he wanted, to make me hesitate a second too long in the midst of battle. Either way, I hoped not to face him up there – again. But when it came to death, rather him than me.




3.7.2019


My wannabe assassin turned out to be Python, excluded from the games in thirty-eighth place. It didn’t surprise me.

There was talk of another killing while I headed to the central hall. His name was Razer, already out of the running, which meant it was unlikely to have been a competitive kill.

I was now twelve credits behind Fang. And, after my close encounter with death, I felt hungrier than ever for the top spot, which meant taking more credits.

But before I entered the entrance tunnel, I was approached by a tall man with streaks of greying hair, wearing a sharp suit and a nice gold watch. He told me an Hispanic girl named Shadow was scheduled to enter one of the arenas. He told me if I was in battle with her, I was to ensure she never returned from the surface. When I asked him why, he told me it was personal, something she had taken from him. For that, he would give me a thousand G up-front, enough to buy a sharp suit and a nice gold watch. It seemed a win-win situation, so I agreed to his request.

As I rose to the surface, listening to the announcement of my competitors, it turned out that Shadow, ranked fourteenth, was to join me in Arena IV. The odds of that made me smile.

The Information Age soon surrounding me, illuminated by electrical power. I ran through grey slate-walled corridors, lit by embedded circular lights. I chose not to go down a set of steps, instead I tested my agility in an Activation Zone, a room containing a contraption anchored from ceiling to floor at its centre, each side fitted with operational shutters. Gaps featured in the room’s walls, for shelter, I assumed.

The device rotated, one side opening, shooting out a beam of golden deathlight. It closed. Another opened. It closed. Another opened, I understood/memorized the pattern – at least I thought I did. A beam came directly towards me. I bolted to the nearest gap in the wall, scraping through. But not fast enough. The light burned layers of skin from my forearm. I grimaced through the pain, inhaling my fleshy stench. Fuming with myself, I caught my breath, concentrating, and studied the beams again, counting each one. I went for it, obtaining the credit and got through.

Minutes later, I spotted a woman through a glass door. I followed her, wondering what she had taken from the grey-haired man to warrant her execution. Too curious to know, I shouted, “Shadow, a guy wants you dead! He told me you took something from him!”

She halted, aiming her firearm at me as I peered from around a five-inch-thick steel doorframe. “Was he tall with grey hair?”

“Yes, he was.”

“He’s my target. I’m here to assassinate him.”

“Then why are you here, in the arena?”

“I figured my freedom’s worth more than a bounty.”

Her casual flair was admirable, and she didn’t hang around to chat. She ran away. Why, I wasn’t sure, until I heard her cry out in pain amid the flash of light.

Some minutes after, when obtaining another credit by naming past victors, I saw the time. Maybe the distractions of Shadow had taken my focus. Or maybe I got too greedy. Either way, the timer was knocking on half a minute to zero, and I was lost and disorientated. My heart pounded in my chest as I desperately sought the elevator, unsure which way to go, thinking my time was up, especially when I came to a dead end. It was vital that the next turn was right. Thankfully, it was. I got out with seven seconds to spare. Seven. Never again, I told myself.

To help wind down I headed for the bar and watched the dancers writhing over each other in a shallow pit of blood. They kissed and licked and caressed, their naked bodies glistening in flamed light.

While I drank a Mature B Negative, I spotted Vincent in the crowd, watching the performers along with the drooling masses. I joined him, and he told me they did nothing for him. I was about to question his sexuality, until I remembered his master’s teenage daughter, thinking he liked them much younger, perhaps human.

Back in the cell, later that night, I asked Vincent, “Do you ever feel threatened outside the arenas?”

“Always.”

“And do you consider yourself a potential victor?”

He hesitated. “No. My name is Locus, on nine credits, taken out of the running yesterday.” He smiled. “It doesn’t matter. In fact, I’m glad. But, like I said before, I fear returning home. Not long now.”

Vincent didn’t ask for my name and ranking. I figured he assumed I was still in the hunt. And I was, sitting in third place, three credits behind Slayer, five behind Fang. But Viper was too close for comfort, a credit behind myself, and the one called Cutthroat, in fifth, remained a mere credit from equalling Viper. But being in the top four was all I needed, securing my ticket to Arena VII, days away.

And if I made the final, I would meet the emperor himself. I still didn’t know how I’d react in his presence. A traitor, a man who accepted slavery of his own kind, would be giving his sermon before I enter the arena. Thinking of Sara and Jade’s entrapment made me want to strangle him to death. But I would never ruin my chance for freedom – and the emperor knew this.




5.7.2019


My sixth entry to the surface was within Arena V, a Renaissance setting, by far the most spacious battleground yet. The crowd were in good form, calling my name, urging me on. I felt I had earned their admiration, their cries hinting to where my enemies lay in wait, the roar for a kill vastly different to a roar of tension. Or was it all a game to them, simply a chance to witness one, two, three or all four of us perish for their viewing pleasure?

After five minutes, I spotted two competitors working together by operating levers for accessing a locked room. I waited patiently around the corner, noting a three-foot green snake slither down the corridor. When they entered, I made my move and dispatched the nearest with a UV blast to the back of his neck, the other in her throat. Two kills and two Credit Activations, it didn’t get much better than that.

I soon discovered the ashes of the third, which meant the human had entered. And he came out of nowhere, charging me. I bolted for my exit, the wrong way, it turned out, leading to another dead end. I could hear his footfalls getting closer. Once he passed an arch I took my chances, sinking my teeth deep into his neck – tasting pretty good, too. We collided against the walls, him wailing in pain and desperation, before he fell to the dirt. Motionless. Another turned. Perhaps a future competitor.

The arena was so quiet I could hear the breeze.

When I exited the elevator, catching sight of the leaderboard, I was taken aback. My nearest rival, Viper, had done well for him- or herself, knocking me down to fourth place, leaving two credits between me and fifth. But I was still in the final – just.

Collapsed on the bed in my cell, after everything that had happened, I was afraid of what was to come. The competition in Arena VII would contain the elite, and the prize had never been so tantalisingly close – for all four of us.

What held me together and drove me on was another letter from Sara. She had prayed every day for my survival, and knowing I was alive meant more to her than freedom. She would also wait for me, no matter how long, in this life or the next. All I wanted was to be with her and Jade, to take care of them. Was that asking too much?

Vincent, a calmer soul now that he was free from the games, caught my attention. He brought out his coin, tossed it to me and said, “Good luck, my friend, you’ve earned it. Now bring it back to me.”

I nodded with gratitude. “And if I win, I will seek your freedom.”

“You will?”

“Yes. Or, if not possible, have you change masters. No promises.”

He looked genuinely surprised. “Thank you, Matias.”

One more battle would determine if I would ever see him or anyone else again. Arena VII forbade any competitor to leave unless as the sole survivor. Death or glory. Ashes or freedom. One way or the other, by the end of tomorrow, I would be out of Ablaze.




7.7.2019


The final had arrived. Fang, Slayer, Viper and myself were scheduled to enter Arena VII at noon. Freedom or no freedom, there was no going back now. All or nothing.

In the pre-ascension foyer I was greeted by the man himself, Emperor Pretorius. He stood within three feet of me, showing signs of old age now. This man, this traitor, was the cause of all my pain and suffering. I held back my instinct to choke him to death.

“Will you fight with honour?” he asked.

“I will,” I said.

“Dignity?”

“I will.”

“And will you put on a show the world will never forget?”

“I will.”

Rising in the elevator, wondering if I’d ever return, I kissed her lock of hair, and I whispered my apology to them both.

It came to a halt. The doors opened. And I entered an arena for the last time.

The surroundings were dark and shiny and lit by white holographic lights. The crowd was loud, being the largest capacity yet. I heard them cheering my name. I also heard them chant for another, the one who had once spared my life.

The crowd erupted with excitement. And I was convinced Slayer was about to manipulate the room I inhabited, the one fitted with marble pillars and slender openings within its walls – certainly not large enough to conceal me. The room rose smoothly, and the first slice of deathlight beamed to the opposite pillar. Another ray followed, adjacent to the last, feet away from catching me. I evaded the third by being flat against the floor, and only just, before finally the light vanished and the room came to a smooth halt.

I got out, surprised to be alive.

There was a stairwell to my left. I descended it and paused before the bend, listening to the footsteps from below. A voice taunted me, tuned with a clarity of confidence I hadn’t heard before, and I knew who he was without him saying.

His lies and manipulation came to me all at once, the one who had made me discount him a potential victor. I continued my descent to find him, to make sure of the truth, but Fang, also known as Vincent, was nowhere to be found.

I sought to change that, except I came up against another instead. Slayer, seen at the end of an avant-garde passage – punctuated by arches and holograms of past victors – didn’t hesitate in firing, and neither did I, both shots wide of target. Distracted by another, he disappeared down the nearest stairwell. I chose to wait and hide for the incoming opponent, listening to their footfalls. Close enough, I made myself known by dispatching a heavy dose directly to her frontal dome. She was up in flames and a pile of ash within ten seconds.

Viper was out. Two to go.

My next encounter with Slayer was discovering his charred remains beneath a shutter of an Activation Zone. Fang, the instigator, was now looking to take out the final obstacle between him and his freedom – as was I.

The passage led me down into the belly of the arena, and there he was waiting for me within a darkly lit circular chamber. We stared at each other to the sound of chanting and the stomping of a thousand-plus feet. Vincent was absent now, as though he only ever existed in my mind. Even I, at this point, was unsure of myself.

Behind us, a ray of vertical golden deathlight circled the outer ring. Based on the floor pattern, the circle was set to contract. And it did. Only a dozen or so left. I estimated two minutes.

I stepped towards the centre, where a plinth exhibited an interactive hologram of movable squares, an image to create, I figured, and a means to extinguish the light.

“Was anything true?” I asked.

He smiled. “My master’s daughter is beautiful.”

I nodded, impressed. “Why do it?”

Fang threw down his weapon, followed by his helmet. “I trust no one, remember?”

I played his game, dropping both of mine, and prepared to counter his charging run, which he read, his momentum taking me off balance. I stumbled to land within inches of breaking that circle, my cheek achingly close to charring. I managed to backflip inwards and locked hands with him for a test of strength, which he matched, to my surprise. His body was toned, lean, and he gave as good as he got.

Another plan was called for.

I head-butted him off his feet, grabbed his ankle, spun on my heels and launched him. He was a foot away from igniting. I was all set to finish the job, before I was interrupted by a bright flash and rise in temperature. The circle of light had contracted, leaving my opponent decapitated.

I didn’t waste any time. I sought the holographic imagery, piecing together what I thought was a depiction of a god, when the deathlight contracted. Seconds later, it did again, and again, speeding up. I used both hands to move the imagery, succeeding to match some, failing to match others. Until finally, the face of Pretorius stared back at me.

When the light vanished, within ten feet of ending my victory, I stood still, my mental state and body a reimaging of myself, but at least in a world in which I was set to be free – freer than most of my kind, anyway.

I withdrew Vincent’s coin from my pocket and studied it for a moment, before flipping it back to the corpse. It rolled on the floor and settled in its owner’s ashes. I thanked him – again.




8.7.2019


Winning the 189th Ablaze was surreal. I had killed dozens of my kind to achieve this feat. And was it all worth it? To have won my freedom, and to free those I love, I was never in doubt.

Did that make me a monster?

The train took me away from Ablaze and its participants, but a part of me would always be there, like a ghost in the arena, forever on the run to stay in the hunt. I wanted to be cleansed of it all. Except I feared being consigned to a future of recurring dreams and flashbacks of screams and hollers and burned flesh – and Vincent.

Humans and my kind shared a heinous past, evolving side by side, killing each other day by day. Progress had been made for both species; cultural, political, but segregation was futile. The loss of life on both sides was too great to ever atone and make peace, the notion even frowned upon by many – myself included.

The one human, the only one who had ever mattered to me, came to my thoughts on the train. I recalled her tears and expression of anguish the night I met her. I had often wondered if I shouldn’t have turned that human girl, but Sara always told me that I hadn’t turned her, I had freed her from the neglect and abuse of her parents. And now I was due to free her again, and to give a baby girl a chance to live a life she deserved.

The idea of being with my family, a future I could actually attain, pushed me to tears. The train guard found that amusing. And I believe I know why, making his reaction worse than any verbal abuse, threats and discrimination. His reaction told me everything I knew about him and his kind: that he, travelling on this particular train, was the more fitting passenger.

When I was told, I held Jade’s lock of hair tighter than ever. My beautiful girls, taken from me and the world. Slaughtered and burned by human crusaders, out to make earth blood sucker free. A possibility becoming stronger each day.

I may not be a slave to a master, but I will be incarcerated and monitored like all the other victors. Except everything changed the moment I knew Sara and Jade were gone, that I would never see them again, talk to them or hold them.

My purpose now is to avenge my family, and I will not stop there. The day will come when my kind will rise, not to the surface for their mirth, but to power. And vengeance is only the beginning. I seek to become a god, walk into the deathlight for the first time, immune to the sun’s rays. And I vow to make Pretorius pay.

Then, and only then, will they know a true monster.



AUTHOR

MATTHEW THOMPSON was born in England in 1983 and is the creator of Domino Galaxy, a book series set in an afterworld 3 billion light years away. He has previously worked in the video games industry as a game and level designer.



EDITOR

Katie Barnett



COVER ARTIST

Kit Wai Lai



BETA READERS

J Nicolette Stephens

Alexandria Frater

Lilaia Moreli

Nidhi Upadhyaya



More books by Matthew Thompson

http://dominogalaxy.crevado.com/



Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-28 show above.)