"This one. He's huge. I think he might stand a fighting chance against the beast." Against the din of the bloated guard's surroundings, his words had to be shouted to be heard.
"Just make sure to put him in a challenging round first. Can't have him going against the beast until he's shown his mettle. It'll drive the bets higher, you'll see."
"Good point, Yorum." A hard punch knocked Tarn to his knees. "You hear that, slave? You want out of this stinkin' place, win your bouts."
Inside a fire lit cavern that made the primitive jungles of Mardu look tame, hundreds of grimy and vermin-laced men pressed against one another, hoping for a better look at the latest offerings in pugilistic entertainment. A half dozen vidscreens hovered in the air over the crowd in random spots, allowing a view of the battles ongoing in the three caged rings in the centre of the cavern, but they didn't showcase the newest group of slaves bound in chains, being led towards the night's entertainment.
Tarn rose unsteadily to his feet. Blood dripped into his left eye and his ribs hurt. The pain they'd inflicted surprised him, mostly because it took a lot to hurt an Ebrellion. His race primarily existed outside the Vrail System, away from these human slavers and their barbaric practices. Not that his kind could brag about being so much nobler, but Ebrellions didn't stand for slavery. Enemies met certain death. Those who wouldn't work to earn their keep suffered harsh imprisonment in hopes of reforming them into worthwhile citizens.
His own presence in the Vrail System on planet Mardu kept the peace between rebellious Ebrellions hunting for mates and the few System lawmakers who knew his kind still existed.
Hence his arrival in this godforsaken world. A favour for his newly found relation, his nephew Drekk. Drekk had other pressing business on planet Mardu, where he and his mate worked for lawmen--peacemakers who had no jurisdiction this far into the Outer Rim. The lawless area on the edge of the Vrail System invited chaos and depravity. Tarn glanced around him and imagined this was just a taste of what was to come.
Drekk, you owe me big for this
"In you go," one of the slave handlers shoved him into the caged cell and slammed the barred door shut behind him.
The raised platform consisted of a door on each end, metal bars along the walls and ceiling, and a machenite floor, no doubt courtesy of stolen Eyran technology. Machenite had a firmness at odds with its ability to give, which made it the perfect flooring for the fighting realms.
Leave it to the slavers to have an eye for detail.
Tarn wiped his own eyes clear of blood, stood up straight, and stared at the giant male they expected him to battle. A Ragga? Though this man hailed from a planet where the strongest men in the System were found, the brutish slave would fall too easily and too quickly should Tarn fight at full strength. With a sigh, he prepared to engage.
Something to break the doldrums of his recent time on Mardu, at least. With the Ebrellion skirmishes almost nil, Tarn had grown tired of tending that ragged bar in Four Walls. But after a few days in slaver hands, he wasn't sure this type of excitement was all that much better.
The slave before him screamed out a challenge and rushed him. The fool didn't even take the time to study his opponent, to measure him for weaknesses or vulnerabilities. Pathetic.
Tarn allowed him one punch. He even pretended to lose his breath from the blow to his stomach. Before the Ragga could hammer him again, he retaliated. A swift punch to the man's face and a knee to his groin took him to the floor.
The scent of body odour, blood, and stale ale assaulted him all at once, and Tarn shook his head to break free of his need to shift into a more defensive form. No shapeshifting and no teleporting, not until he did what he'd been sent here to do.
The Ragga he'd laid out groaned and rose on wobbly legs to his feet. "You drun. I'm going to kill you for that." He made a fist and uttered another horrifying battle cry.
Chants of Loen, Loen filled the area around the metal cage.
"Don't tell me you're the current champion?" Tarn sneered, disappointed he wouldn't receive a decent fight. Stars, it had been a year since he'd engaged anyone worthy of respect, and those had been rogue Ebrellions. "You fight like a half blind Melan." The popular insult had its intended effect.
The Ragga dove at him.
Tarn let him make contact, and they rolled to the ground amidst cheering and shouting from the crowd. Loen landed a few more blows before Tarn had had enough. He caught the male with an elbow to his back. A sharp snap sounded very loud to Tarn's enhanced hearing.
Loen groaned and lay still, breathing heavily against the pain filling his aura with enough brilliance to blind an Ebrellion.
Tarn glanced away and into the eyes of Yorum through the cage bars.
"Not bad for a first fight. Now try that one." Yorum grinned through brown, broken teeth and nodded to a spot behind Tarn.
Rolling onto his belly and regaining his feet, Tarn met the next slave. A Zeiren, by the look of him. Tall and lean, with angular features and a decent fighting stance.
Tarn gave this fight twice as much time as the last one before defeating his opponent. When finished, he glanced at Yorum again.
"Not bad." The guard appeared pleased. "I like you, Tarn. I think we're going to be real good friends."
Not in this lifetime. "When do I get a rest and some food?" His metabolism felt off. His ribs remained cracked, his flesh bruised, and his blood continued to flow, now not only from a cut on his forehead, but from his mouth and knuckles as well. Not good. If his wounds continued unabated, he'd be unable to stop his transformation into a stronger, more sustainable form.
And blow his cover all to hell.
"One more bout and then a small test. To see what he thinks of you."
"What who thinks of me?"
Yorum didn't answer. Guards dragged the unconscious slave from the fight and gave him another. This one carried a knife.
Irritated at having to prove himself, Tarn didn't hold back. He punched the male full in the face, disarmed him, and stabbed him with his own weapon. To his disappointment, the male didn't rise again, and the guards quickly threatened Tarn with laser fire if he didn't turn the knife over immediately. So much for using it on Yorum.
"Very nice." Yorum grinned and entered the fighting ring. "Don't worry, you're done for the night. We just need to let him have a look at you."
"As if I have a choice in the matter," Tarn muttered.
Yorum guffawed. "That's the spirit." He motioned to the guards outside the ring and yelled, "Bring in the beast."
The room grew silent except for heavy footsteps drawing nearer. Everyone stilled, waiting for this man they called 'the beast.' A strange anticipation lit Tarn from the inside out, and he welcomed this new foe for at least taking his mind from the disturbance in his shei--his life's energy.
A huge male stepped up to the caged door, opened it, and walked through. Tarn stared in astonishment. He'd been around most every race one could find in the System. From the warring Melans to the political Jaronans to the pleasurable Nebites. Mardu, Ragga, Zeiren, he'd seen them all.
But this male didn't fit in any category Tarn could identify. Unless...
The beast stood a head taller than Tarn, making him the largest male Tarn had ever seen in this star system. Strength gleamed in the abundance of muscle all over the man's sparsely clad frame. Golden skin shimmered in a distracting rhythm. The brief loincloth he wore did little to distract from the large bulge underneath, one that seemed to stir as the male studied Tarn. His age seemed indeterminate. Certainly the beast looked like a male in the prime of his life. Other than the rakhide loincloth and wealth of gleaming silver hair on his head, only a slim black band around his neck touched his hardy frame.
Dark red eyes flashed with fire around pupils of gold, no whites to be seen. Like the fabled demons in Four Walls, Tarn thought distantly. The only creatures he'd seen with such inhuman eyes were known as Creations--a species hunted down and exterminated with prejudice when discovered. Hell, his nephew Drekk had been Created, as had Drekk's mate--Ryen, a formidable fighter in his own right. Most Creations turned out to be crazed killers with a need for destruction. Only those with discipline and integrity resisted that call to needlessly destroy.
Which begged the question: what category did this Creation belong in?
The warrior in Tarn went on full alert, especially when the beast changed his stance, moving from careful to guarded.
Taking a chance, Tarn blinked, allowing his inner lids to shield his eyes while he surveyed his new opponent with Ebrellion sight. Tarn noted the torn strands of alien shei along the beast's body. Tendrils of pain caught and held around bands of hunger and need. Loneliness covered him like a blanket, matched only by the sheer rage that turned the male's eyes a brighter red.
Tarn blinked and erased evidence of his alien nature, but not fast enough. The beast took a step forward and growled in a low, threatening tone. His skin flushed and darkened, and called to Tarn like a beacon in the shadows of the cavern; his animosity stirred Tarn's fighting spirit.
The beast stopped several arm's lengths away, but his scent drifted over Tarn like a heady perfume, an addicting essence that Tarn drew into his lungs. It pushed everything else away.
After a nod, the beast grunted, turned and left, displaying a tight ass and thick legs that could crush a man to death.
But it was thoughts of what the beast could do with that huge bulge beneath his loincloth that obsessed Tarn as Yorum led him from the platform and into his cell for the night.