Firebrand Series, Book 2
Pain rippled through every inch of Nasir’s body.
Muscles in his arms and legs quivering, he pushed up on his hands. Gravel and sand embedded in his palms, stabbed into his knees covered by the threadbare pants. Through bloody and sweat-drenched hair, he looked toward the Shaitan across the arena. The djinni’s chest rose and fell with his heavy breaths, and dirt and blood coated his skin from the fight, but he didn’t even seem fazed as he lifted his axe, ready to hurl the killing blow.
Roars from the crowd dragged Nasir’s attention. His gaze shifted to the stands, to the Ghuls—one of the six main tribes that made up the race of djinn—waving their fists, chanting “Kill! Kill! Kill!” as if he were nothing more than an animal.
He ground his teeth, pushed up on one knee. Refused to groan at the blinding pain in his shoulder. He wouldn’t go down like this. Not on all fours in the fighting pits of Jahannam, as entertainment for the most base and depraved djinn tribe. He wasn’t afraid to die, but he wouldn’t do it as a coward. And if he was going out, he planned to take the Shaitan out along with him.
Fire cut across his ribs. His muscles ached as he found his feet. He swayed but somehow managed to steady himself. Blood dripped from the gash in his side, ran down his torso to dampen his waistband. His vision blurred.
He tried to focus on the djinni ahead. Hair he guessed had once been blond but now looked as dirty as the sand beneath them hung to his shoulders. Sweat dripped down his angular and scarred face. As a slave, the Shaitan’s powers were bound, just as Nasir’s were, but the bastard didn’t seem to mind. He had size and brute strength on his side. And the shit-eating grin curling his split lip said he knew Nasir was fading fast.
“Kill! Kill! Kill!”
The roars grew louder. The Shaitan growled and charged. Nasir gathered what was left of his energy and ducked beneath the swinging axe, thrust out his sword, and caught the Shaitan across the back.
Blood spurted, spraying across Nasir’s face and chest. The Shaitan arched and howled. Nasir’s adrenaline surged, empowering him with a fresh source of strength. He whipped around before the djinni could strike again and stabbed his sword into the Shaitan’s back.
The bastard’s eyes flew wide. The axe fell from his hand as he dropped to his knees. Blood gushed beneath his body, staining the sand of the arena. Breathing heavily, Nasir yanked his blade from the Shaitan’s back and beheaded him in one clean move.
The djinni’s head hit the ground with a thud, followed by his hulking body. Gasps echoed through the arena, then the chants fell silent.
Nasir’s chest rose and fell in an uneven rhythm as he looked up into the stands. Disgust rolled through him. They were savages. Every single one of them. Ghuls held no allegiance to any other race. They didn’t care if the winner of this battle was Marid or Shaitan. All they wanted was to be entertained by a gruesome death. But now that he’d given them that, they didn’t utter a sound?
Fuck them. Fuck them all. Their thirst for blood and death had shaped him into the brutal sahad he’d become. Though it sickened a place deep inside him, he knew he’d go on giving them exactly what they wanted. But not for glory or fame or even the miniscule hope that one day he could win his freedom. No, he’d kill again and again because staying alive was the greatest act of rebellion he could thrust upon those who had imprisoned him in this hell.
His arms shot to the open sky, and he roared.
The crowd exploded in excitement, their earlier apprehension forgotten. Females jumped up and down, clapping, waving vibrantly-colored scarves in his direction. Males cheered at the bloodbath at his feet.
Adrenaline pumped through Nasir’s veins. He turned a slow circle, clenched his empty hand into a fist, stabbed his sword higher into the air as he drank in their ovations. He was a Marid warrior, son of the great king, and he’d decimated every single thing those barbarian Ghuls had thrown at him.
“This is not who you are.”
The voice hit him out of nowhere. Soft. Feminine. Sweet. So familiar it stole his breath.
He dropped his arms to his sides. Turned to glance behind him. But he was alone on the sand. With cheers ringing in his ears, he looked up into the stands, his gaze skipping from one exuberant face to the next, searching for her. But all he saw were hundreds of Ghuls, eyes and hair and the clothing of his enemy blending together in a wash of color until he couldn’t focus on a single one. Until the arena spun around him.
Something in his chest cinched down tight, followed by the memory of Talah’s face. Her smile. Her gentle spirit. The way she’d brushed her hand against his jaw and looked at him with tenderness that last day, when he’d left her to fight his father’s war.
When he’d left her to die.
“This is not who you are, Nasir.”
She would not support this. She wouldn’t be awed by his victory. Though she’d hated what the Ghuls were doing—pillaging the Wastelands and threatening their kingdom—she’d despised death more.
The adrenaline waned, leaving him empty and cold. Leaving him feeling as dead as the Shaitan on the sand at his feet.
His gaze drifted to the mutilated body, and for the first time since he’d been imprisoned—for the first time since he’d lost Talah, really—he didn’t recognize himself. All he saw was the monster he’d become.
* * * * *
Kavin pulled back on the hand gripping her upper arm. “There has to be someone else.”
Zayd turned to face her, stopping in the dank hallway of the dungeon beneath the arena. His features were tight, his short, dark hair only slightly mussed from the dank air that had blown through it in the corridor. Cries of agony echoed through the walls around them, making Kavin’s stomach churn at the torture she could only imagine. The scent of rotting flesh was ever present, but Zayd didn’t seem to notice. He was as focused as she’d ever seen him, and his fingers pressing tightly into her bare skin were a stark reminder that he was in control, not her. “I choose who, female, not you.”
Kavin swallowed hard as she looked up at the Ghul who was, technically, her master. He was born of the aristocracy and could have chosen any female as his latest mistress, but he’d picked her. The fact her family had offered her up without protest still burned in the pit of her stomach. “I…I just think there must be one of better breeding. The Marid is an animal. He—”
Zayd stepped close, tightening his grip around her arm until pain shot up from the spot, cutting off her words midsentence. “Which is exactly why he must be the one. To appreciate all that I have to offer, you must first experience the dreck at the bottom of society.”
Horror washed through Kavin. He really was going to hand her over to that…that thing. “But he could kill me!”
Something dark sparked in Zayd’s eyes, as if he enjoyed the thought of that thing touching her. “He won’t. The Marid has a strong will to live. And he knows if he brings death to you, he’ll be executed. This is the test of all jarriah, my dear. This is your test.”
Bile rose in Kavin’s throat. Jarriah was just another word for concubine. A female sex slave. One of many Zayd kept within his walls.
This is not my life.
The words revolved in her head as he pulled her down the dingy corridor. Her peach gown, the one she’d worn to the arena today in the hopes of pleasing him, was now dirty and wet all along the hem from the water that seeped through cracks in the stones. How had this happened? How had she come to be in this wretched place?
After the initial shock of her family releasing her to Zayd, part of her had been excited. It was customary for highborn males to pick and take the females they wanted. The fact he’d chosen her? A commoner? It was practically unheard of. She’d been blinded by his status and wealth and handsome good looks. Had dreamt of marriage, even knowing most Ghul males took multiple wives. But that had been okay with her, so long as he was kind. And if one day he grew to love her…then nothing else would matter.
But that was before he brought her to his harem and she realized he didn’t want her for his wife. There would be no love between them now, no home or family or future. He looked upon her as nothing more than the slaves who battled to the death in the pit of the arena. As entertainment to meet his depraved needs. And he was now handing her over to the worst of those slaves as a test. To be broken in by a monster, so that when she went back to him, he would look like a shining knight.
He tugged her to a stop in front of a heavy steel door. Two guards stood outside, looked from him to Kavin and back again. The one on the right tightened his grip around the spear he held braced against the floor and said, “The sahad has been chained, my lord, per your instructions, but not prepared.”
“This will not take long,” Zayd answered. “My jarriah is not here for a sample but to simply meet the mighty champion and congratulate him on his latest victory.” A wicked grin curled Zayd’s lips. “Sampling will come later.”
A sickening chuckle echoed from both guards, and Kavin’s skin crawled as they both leered in her direction. She brushed her hair over her shoulder and tried not to let her fear show.
The guards stepped aside. The one on the left unlocked the door and pushed it open. “Scream if you need us.”
Kavin’s pulse raced as Zayd pulled her into the cell behind him. She felt the guard’s licentious gazes follow as she stepped past them but was more concerned with the monster that lurked in the dark. Zayd’s footsteps echoed across the stone floor, his fingers pressing deeply into her arm as he jerked her along. A chill slid down her spine, and as her eyes tried to adjust to the darkness, she squinted, unable to see anything but Zayd.
For the first time since they’d left the arena, Zayd released his hold on her arm. Silence echoed through the dark chamber, ratcheting Kavin’s anxiety up all over again. Then the heavy cell door clanged shut, causing her to jump and take a step closer to her master.
“Light!” Zayd called.
A scraping sound echoed, then a shaft of light speared into the room from a rectangular hole in the door, illuminating the space enough so she could look around.
There were no windows. Nothing hanging on the walls. Just a single, unmade bed that looked stained with blood and sweat, and a small, wooden table, holding an unlit, dripping candle.
It was a hole. Worse than that, it was a dungeon where hopes and dreams were ground into dust.
“Rise, Marid,” Zayd barked.
Kavin’s heart pounded against her ribs. She stepped behind Zayd as she looked around wildly for the monster she sensed lurking in the shadows. Silence echoed through the darkness like a vast cavern of nothingness, and just when she was sure there was no one there, metal clanged, and a shuffling sounded to her left.
Kavin whipped that way, her eyes wide, her muscles tight and ready to flee. She tried to move farther behind Zayd, but he blocked her, pushing her forward instead. She stumbled. Reached out for Zayd at her back. But he moved out of her reach.
“Come into the light, Marid, so that my jarriah may get a good look at what waits for her.”
Kavin froze. She didn’t know where he was. How close. What he would do to her. She didn’t know anything except terror for the male hidden before her and bitter hatred for the one at her back.
The shuffling echoed again, followed by the clink of chains. And then his big body moved into the light directly in front of her.
Kavin sucked in a breath. Eased back a step until she hit Zayd. He grunted his disgust and moved away once more, making it more than clear she wasn’t finding any safety with him.
But Kavin didn’t try to move again. Fear kept her feet firmly locked in place. The Marid was bigger than he’d seemed in the arena. Still covered in grime, there was a scent about him—sweat, blood, death—one that rolled through her stomach until the desire to gag overwhelmed her.
She held it back, knowing doing so would only enrage him—and her master—and stared at the hulking beast mere feet away.
Chains were cuffed to his wrists. Chains Kavin hoped were locked tight to a wall or bar or something strong enough to restrain him. Dark, stringy hair brushed his bare shoulders. His arms were massive, his naked chest and stomach so hard it looked as if he were carved from stone; his thighs like tree trunks. He wore nothing but filthy, thin black pants that were frayed at the hem, and an opal. A fire opal, strung from a chain around his neck, the stone resting at the hollow of his throat.
It was the fire opal that drew her attention, reflecting an orange-red glow into the room, like flames from a blazing inferno. She’d seen it in the arena. It was all the talk amongst the females who followed the fights. Why did he wear it? Where had it come from? And why had his master not yet removed it?
Questions swirled in her mind as she looked from the opal to the wounds on his flesh, still oozing with blood. Then, finally, to his face. A square jaw covered in dark stubble, lips set in a hard line, a nose slightly crooked as if it had been broken more than once. With the jagged red scar across his right cheek and the bruises marring his forehead, he looked hulking, feral, menacing. And his eyes… His eyes were dead pools of obsidian staring straight at her.
She stumbled backward, hit Zayd’s chest. But instead of shoving her forward as he’d done before, both of his hands closed around her upper arms, steadying her against him.
“My jarriah does not like what she sees?” A smile wound through Zayd’s words. “That pleases me. Greatly.”
This is not my life. This is not my life! Tremors raced down her spine.
Zayd pushed her forward, this time moving with her. Her shoes scuffed along the floor as he forced her closer to the monster. “Take a good, long look, jarriah. See and smell what will soon be touching you.”
Tears burned Kavin’s eyes. A sob caught in her throat. Though she leaned hard against Zayd, she knew not to fight him or turn her head away. Knew if she did, he’d only lengthen the time she’d be sent to this hell with the monster.
The scent of death wafted in the air around her. That and the bitter bite of blood and sweat. She kept her focus on the opal, tried to breathe through her mouth and not her nose so she wouldn’t get sick, but knew Zayd was waiting. He wanted to feel her fear. Wanted to make her writhe because he was a sick son of a bitch who got off on that kind of thing. Her skin grew tighter, her legs weaker as she fought from giving him what he wanted. But he wasn’t letting go. And knowing it was the only way he’d release her, she finally chanced a look up.
The monster’s gaze was fixed on the wall over her shoulder, not on her. But this close, she could feel the heat rolling off him in waves, see the muscles flex beneath his skin with coiled restraint. He wanted to hurt her. She saw it in the way his jaw clenched, in the way his hands curled into fists at his sides. He hated her simply because she was Ghul and he was Marid. Because her race had enslaved him here in these pits. Before she could stop it, the way he’d beheaded the Shaitan in the arena flashed in her mind. How he’d so easily decapitated the djinni with such violent ferocity.
He wouldn’t kill her? How could he not? His sheer size, his obvious strength, and his bitter hatred made her impending death so obvious it shook her to her core.
She turned her head away, slammed her eyes shut. Tried to curl into Zayd at her back.
This is not my life!
A menacing chuckle echoed through Zayd’s chest. Then his hands softened at her arms, and he took a step back, tugging her gently with him until, finally, there was space between her and the monster. “Guard!”
Metal clanked metal, followed by a whoosh of air spilling into the room as the door opened. A burst of light rushed into the dark space, blinding Kavin. But all she could focus on was the blessed air and the fact she was safe.
Zayd gripped her hand and pulled her toward the light. Relief spiraled through her veins. To the guard, he said, “Contact me when the slave has been prepared.”
And just that fast, with one simple sentence, the relief she’d felt fled like a thief in the night. Until all that was left was a rolling sickness in her belly over what horror she’d find waiting when her master forced her to return.