“Blaze, Blaze, Blaze,” the crowd chanted.
My heart thumped hard against my chest in anticipation, but any fear I once had disappeared the moment I stepped in the arena. This was what I was good at, what I was made for. Maybe not intentionally, but if I had been given a gift—an advantage—who was I not to use it?
The arena silenced as the Maestro stepped forward. He tapped once on his mic before speaking. “Ladies and Gentlemen, my fellow humans and esteemed Carbons. I welcome you all on this monumental occasion as we watch our Champion, Blaze, take on The Beast.”
The crowd went wild, cheers and boos and screams surrounding me, but my focus narrowed on The Beast. An apt nickname, if it weren’t so obvious. She looked more like a beast than a woman—that was clear enough—but I would expect nothing less from these vagabonds who came here every weekend to bet on the fights.
A few hours ago when I’d entered this place, I wasn’t thinking about my opponent or how large the payout might be tonight. The only thought running through my mind was simple—don’t lose. It was the same thought I had each time I entered the ring. And it was the fear of failure that had made me their champion.
This was the world I lived in, where a seventeen-year-old girl prepared to fight. For sport, not war or conflict. For fun.
I squeezed and flexed my hands, zoning in on my opponent. The black tape covering my knuckles and wrist trailed up my forearm until it covered the crisp, black marks stained across my pale skin just below my elbow. My first identifiers.
The black mask across my eyes was secured at the back of my head under the tightly braided hair falling down the middle of my back. The mask hid my second identifier from view—my eyes. Two narrow slits were all I needed to assess my opponent, to pick out potential strengths and weaknesses.
The Beast stood across the cage, rotating her wrists and cracking her neck, as she sneered down on me. She was nearly a foot taller and probably double my weight—all muscle—but I wasn’t worried. They didn’t pay me to worry. They paid me to win.
My eyes closed, and the Maestro’s voice faded. The roaring beat of the music washed out as my focus centered on my breaths—deep, slow, intentional. A calm swept through me.
“Blaze, Blaze, Blaze,” the crowd continued, referring to another of my identifiers, the one I let them see. They hadn’t given me the name for a fire burning inside me, or because I could create flames with the flick of my wrist like some Carbons once could.
No, I was human.
Rolling my shoulders, I flipped my hair over my back. The name they gave me came from the red-orange locks flowing behind me like a whip of fire. It was the only thing I would let them see, the only part of me known to them. Because if I revealed any more of myself, they would tear me apart.
The Underground was nearly full tonight, and people still filtered in, pushing against each other to get a better view of the cage. A large crowd meant a large payout, so I welcomed the attention. These people had come to watch their champion defeat the giant. I was their champion, so I acted like one. The corner of my lips curved into a low, wicked smile, and they ate it up. Screams and cheers filled the room. Music pounded with a heavy beat fuelling the crowd even more. It fuelled me.
The crowd moved in closer, pressing up against the caged walls meant to keep us in, but soon I would be leaving victorious. The only options were to win or die trying. Failure was not an option.
I scanned the crowd. Humans, mostly workers who probably couldn’t afford to throw away money on this useless sport, made up the bulk of the mob. Some Carbons had come out tonight, too. They were elite, human-like machines who had been integrated into society after the war nearly a hundred and fifty years ago. We were meant to respect them, accept them, but I saw them for what they really were. Terrifying, spoiled, near immortal creatures who could wipe our species off this planet in the blink of an eye if they felt like it.
“Let the games begin,” the Maestro shouted over the screams of the crowd.
A bell rang, and I pushed off the cage and stepped forward to face my opponent, a cocky swagger in my stance as I waited for her to make the first move.
The Beast wasted no time, dropping her shoulder and aiming full speed for me, but I danced out of the way. She was enormous. Her reach probably doubled my own, which meant I was better off using my quickness to avoid getting too close. She crashed hard into the cage. The crowd roared and banged on the metal she leaned against.
I kept my feet light, taking a few steps back. The Beast pushed off the cage. Closing the space between us lightning fast, she swung a heavy fist toward my face. I dropped in time for it to soar past me, getting two quick punches to her side before skipping back out of reach.
Alcohol and overused cologne filled my nostrils. Blood from earlier fights covered the soles of my bare feet. These people had come for a show; I would give them one.
I tested a kick to her leg, but the Beast only cracked a toothy grin, closing in on me quicker than I anticipated. Her shoulder slammed into my chest, and I was thrown against the cage wall. My breath caught in my lungs, and a slight ringing filled my ears.
My body’s instincts did the work while I focused on getting my air back. My knee drove hard into her midsection, causing her to pull away enough for me to aim another knee to her chin.
Her head whipped back, and blood sprayed from her mouth. She collapsed hard to the ground, and I made my move to pounce on her. She was back on her feet before I could react. The Beast wasn’t just strong or quick…she was smart.
I took a deep breath while we circled again, taking our time assessing each other. The lion and the mouse. David and Goliath. I knew how the stories ended.
Out of the corner of my eye, something caught my attention. Brief and insignificant, but costly. A set of fiery red eyes stared back at me from the crowd across the arena only for a second before I blinked, and they were gone. In that moment, I made my first mistake. The Beast was already spinning toward me before I registered what was happening. Her tree trunk of a leg flew smoothly through the air, and I wasn’t quick enough to avoid the blow smashing into my side.
Pain erupted through me, ribs cracked under the force, and my body crumpled to the ground. Hugging myself in tight, the Beast kicked at my back and my side repeatedly.
I tried to collect myself, to remind myself to breathe, to respond. Why was I here? What was I doing this for? Who was I doing this for? That question alone focused me, and I managed to roll out of the way before a heavy foot stomped down where I had just been. The Beast had a heavy advantage while I was still on the floor, so I rolled onto my back and kicked my feet up toward her. She swatted them away and flashed another toothy grin, crimson with blood. This time when she took another step forward, I aimed both feet at her knee. It buckled backwards, and she crumpled with a scream. An audible gasp sounded from the crowd.
I scrambled to my feet, lunging behind her. She was on one knee, unable to stand on the other, and I quickly went for her exposed neck. I slid my hand under her jaw and wrapped my arm around her throat. The Beast threw elbows back into my broken ribs, and my grip loosened for a moment, but the fighting rage kept me going. She pulled so hard at my arm wrapping around her neck that I couldn’t secure it tight enough to end it. If I could get my other hand clasped on to my arm, I’d be able to cinch the small gap closed.
With a speedy move, I had one leg wrapped around her waist, pulling her in closer and closing the gap around her neck even more. Her fist connected with the side of my head as she aimed blindly behind her, but I continued to dig in tighter, grimacing with effort until my hand reached my opposite arm and locked into place. The noose tightened.
She panicked, clawing at my arm, swinging at my face, but I held tight. I didn’t let go until her body went limp under my own, and I knew she was out.
The crowd responded even louder than before. Over their screams, I heard, “and still champion…” That was when I allowed myself to smile. To enjoy the moment. I’d won, maybe not the prettiest fight, but I’d won.
Night was in full swing by the time I left the arena. I waited until the crowd was gone to slip out the back, my identity cautiously shielded from them. They liked it that way. It was more exciting not knowing who the “masked girl who ruined everyone she faced” was.
Out on the streets, I was nobody. The hood of my black jacket covered most of my face, and only the ends of my red hair slid over my shoulder. They would never expect someone like me to be a fighter, to be their champion. I weaved through the crowded streets unnoticed.
Outside of the identity I’d created for myself in the arena, this was my reality. In this world, I was seen as different. I was looked down upon even more so than the Carbons were, though they had integrated themselves into society so seamlessly it took a keen eye to pick them out. I could, though. I noticed their quick eyes watching the shadows. I noticed because I did the same.
I wasn’t a Carbon, and thank the stars for that. But they were still a part of me, and that was something I couldn’t hide; something I deeply hated about myself. I was a genetic kid, a Marked kid. I wasn’t born: I was made. Formed in a lab using the DNA of a Carbon and a human.
The crowd was growing by the time I reached the main streets of Cytos. I weaved my way through, careful to go unnoticed, until I reached a quiet alley and slipped out of view.
The city was a host of lights and colors. Tall glass buildings filled the streets as far as the eye could see. Each one was branded with neon signs, lighting up the boulevards with such a staggering glow it would bring on a headache if you looked too long. The sun was long gone, but the heat still radiated from the pavement during the unusually hot summer.
Rancid garbage overwhelmed my senses, and I lifted the collar of my jacket to mask the stench while I made my way through the alley. My arms were wrapped tight around my body, hugging the broken ribs at my side burning painfully with every breath I took.
Within the quiet of the narrow alley, it didn’t take me long to notice something was off. A tingling on the back of my neck was like a warning flare. It was like a sixth sense, and I’d become keenly aware of its meaning—someone followed me.
Footsteps sounded almost silently behind me, so I quickened my pace. I was a skilled fighter, but if anyone knew or saw what I was, they’d bring an entire pack to take me down just to teach me a lesson about my place in their world. That alone set my pulse racing far greater than any Beast I’d faced.
Everything about us was created to be perfect. Flawless skin, silken hair, and eyes that pierced through you like an arrow—inhuman eyes. One look at mine and they’d know what I was. Another marker genetic kids wore in plain sight. My eyes were green, like the forest in the middle of summer, even brighter against my pale skin and striking red-orange hair. If that wasn’t enough, the marks on my forearm spelled it out plain as day.
I crossed through another busy street. SPACs—Single Person Aircrafts—buzzed overhead as the nightlife of Cytos came into view. The ground beneath me pulsed with the magnetic energy used to fly the SPACs. A subtle hum surrounded me.
It wasn’t hard to get lost in the crowd, even with the flashing lights and the Linked visions dancing across tall glass buildings. With my black hood, I was nearly invisible.
I lifted my eyes under my hood only enough to allow my gaze to fall on the holographic Linked images moving through the sky. This was my favorite part of Cytos; images we didn’t see back at the DEZ. But as I paused, a strong hand gripped my arm, pulling me towards the alley.
I winced at the pressure, and the pull jarred my ribs. My side erupted in pain. I turned to see who was yanking me through the crowd and found the same fire-red eyes from the arena staring me down. Only from this close, they were more auburn than red, little flecks of orange mingled with the reddish brown like a flame dancing through them.
“Are you trying to get yourself killed for a second time today, Sienna?” Theo asked through clenched teeth, pushing me roughly towards the alley across the busy road.
He glanced behind us, making sure no one had seen before he marched toward me. His hand pressed against my back as he forced me to keep moving.
“Were you even watching the fight?” I glared over my shoulder at him, having to tilt my chin up as he towered over me. “I won, in case you missed the ending.”
Theo let out a huff. “Is it really winning when you can hardly breathe as you walk?” His thumb poked against my broken ribs, and I sucked in a breath.
“A win is a win.” I fought back, twisting away from his grip, so his arm fell limp at his side, but he kept pace with me. “And that wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t distracted me mid-fight.”
Theo smirked. “My presence was a distraction to the great Blaze, Champion of all men?”
I rolled my eyes. “You shouldn’t have been there. Why were you following me?”
“It’s not like it was hard. You were so distracted by all the shiny lights you didn’t even notice me,” Theo countered, stepping up beside me.
The top of my head only reached his chin, but I kept my stance tall and strong. He wouldn’t see me wincing or in pain. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. Even though he was one of my best friends, I didn’t desire to be seen as weak in front of anyone.
He narrowed his eyes, and the small flecks of red danced in the light filtering into the alley from the skies above. Jet-black hair spilled above his brow, hidden under a hood like mine.
“I knew you were following me the whole time,” I countered. “You’re not as stealthy as you think you are. You shouldn’t have chanced going into that arena. You shouldn’t have followed me in the first place, but especially not there.”
“And miss the amazing Blaze in action?” Theo’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “I had to see where you were sneaking off to every weekend. What you were willing to risk everything for.”
He wasn’t wrong. It was a huge risk coming out here like I did. But this wasn’t about me, and I would willingly take that chance every weekend if I had to until I had enough money.
“Does Vic know?” Theo asked.
My heart jumped to my throat for a minute. “No. And you’re not going to tell her. If she knew…”
Theo nodded. “I won’t say anything.”
Victoria, my best friend, would never allow me to leave again if she knew what I was doing. Even if she was the reason I was out here. The reason I was willing to risk everything.
“It’s not safe out here for us, Sienna. They don’t look kindly on the Marked Kids, and you know that,” Theo chided.
“Why do you think I’m out here in the first place?” I argued back.
When the time came for us to leave the DEZ, I wanted to make sure we were prepared. Life was already going to be tough for two Marked kids, so having a little extra money would make it slightly more bearable. What I told Vic I was doing wasn’t entirely a lie. She knew I was out here getting us set up, working on a way to ensure we were both taken care of outside of the meager allowance we’d be given upon graduation. I was careful never to reveal how I was doing that, and she was smart enough not to ask.
“A good motive doesn’t make this any less stupid,” Theo said. “And getting yourself killed isn’t going to help anyone.”
“You’re being a little dramatic,” I drawled. He shook his head, annoyed.
I had always protected Vic, and coming out here was my way of doing just that, even if it was a stupid idea.
“So how do you plan on hiding broken ribs from Vic and the others?” Theo asked. His gaze lingered on my side with a hint of concern and worry.
Over the past five years, I’d grown used to this unusual friendship—if that’s all it was. But the way he had looked at me tonight, in the arena, brought up something I didn’t want to face, not now. I shoved it back down and glanced away.
The alley crossed another street up ahead, revealing more skyscrapers to the left. We were farther from the downtown core, so the lights were less blinding and the crowd sparse. I turned right and Theo paused, scrunching his brow. “Lost?” he asked, nodding to the direction we should have been heading.
“You asked how I was going to hide these broken ribs,” I said over my shoulder. “Well, my answer is this way.”
Theo was silent for a moment as he seemed to consider his options: following me or heading back before we were both found outside of our quads. Curiosity won out, or maybe it was a need to make sure I was safe. Either way, his footsteps sounded behind my own a bit quicker this time.
When he reached my side, he glanced over at me with one brow cocked. “Where exactly are we going?”
I gave him a devilish smile, as I said, “To the healer’s house, of course.”