Jana flicked stones while she waited. She reached into the bucket of small, flat pebbles, took aim at a spot in the wall, and with a snap of her fingers, flung them against the wall, one by one. Always hitting the same spot. In the space of thirty minutes, she’d knocked a small dent in the wall.
The door opened. Her second entered.
“They’re ready for you,” he said.
Jana didn’t think about what she’d be facing or what was at stake. She’d learned to avoid thinking about those things. They would only distract and confuse her. She grabbed a handful of stones and stuck them in her pocket. She walked down the long hall with her second, who also said nothing.
They entered the arena. In all her training, she’d never attempted to visualize it. And now that she was here, she was glad she hadn’t wasted her time. It was an unremarkable pit of stone and dirt, stained with the blood, stinking of death. The audience gazed down in indifferent silence at this slight woman stepping into their Ring of Trials.
This was her people’s last hope. Or it was where their tombstone would be planted. She pushed aside the thought, rolled a stone between her fingers.
Proclamations were made. She didn’t listen. The ceremony was nothing more than a disguise of civility to be thrown over the brutal madness that was the Ring.
Her second tapped her on the shoulder.
Jana raised her head. Someone had been talking to her.
“Are you the champion of your village?” asked the arena master, a thin figure in red robes.
“And you accept the infallible judgment of this Ring?”
She didn’t, but she didn’t have a choice.
The master and Jana’s second left the arena. Jana stood there alone. The gates were thrown wide and the Wrath of Gods lumbered forth. There were those who said it was a dragon, older than any, with scales so thick as to be invincible and a mind lost to the ravages of time. Others believed it to be the discarded hate of the gods themselves, thrown to the world of mortals as punishment for its sins. And others said it was nothing but death itself.
Nobody survived the Wrath of Gods.
It lumbered forward on stiff legs. Its baleful white eyes studied her with cold rage. Its twisted, tattered wings flapped as if trying to carrying it aloft. It was a horrible thing, but Jana saw it too as pitiable. How long had it been trapped in this pit, feeding off the scraps of lost souls who dared face its challenge in their final moments of desperation?
She was grateful for the pity. It would make this easier.
She rolled the stone between her fingers.
The Wrath of Gods charged.