Page 2

Author: Pepper Winters


I forced a small laugh, but she was right. In so many ways.


The empty corridor went on for ages, past huge swathes of material and massive nonsensical artwork of blizzards and forests, of darkness and wolves, of a violent world. Sculptures made of bronze and iron guided us like sentinels. A mix of modern art and intricate lifelike animals. All large, imposing, and entirely too real.


The atmosphere in this place set my instincts on high alert, searching for danger.


Grunting and panting came from behind a large door as we passed.


Clue cocked an eyebrow, staring at the door as if she had x-ray vision. “I wonder what goes on in the private zones. More fighting, or do you think the victor steals a woman from the crowd and makes mad passionate love to her?” Her voice turned dreamy. “He’d be hot and sweaty and slippery with blood, but his kiss would make the girl forget. She’d let herself be consumed by the man who proved he was strong enough to protect her.”


I shook my head, smiling indulgently at my dreamer-best-friend. Clue had been the result of an illicit affair between a Chinese diplomat and a Thai prostitute. Born out of wedlock, she’d been thrown away like rubbish when she was just two weeks old.


We met three years ago when I saved her from being raped and mutilated in a rural Sydney suburb.


Clue batted her eyelashes, blowing me a kiss. “You can’t tell me you don’t want to be ravished by someone who just fought a battle to win you? I know you don’t have physical needs like the rest of us, but that has to turn you on.”


This time I laughed with my heart and not just out of requirement. “I have needs, you know. I just have more pressing responsibilities than chasing a man who isn’t interested in a mother with baggage.” I refused to dwell on urges that woke me up in the dead of night. Craving a release, begging for another’s body—too bad I never found anyone I wanted—not even Clara’s father.


“But think of it, Zelly. Muscles, gruffness, barely restrained violence—a man who kisses with possession and gentleness.” She fanned herself dramatically. “I’m turning myself on just thinking about it.”


I rolled my eyes. “You’re way too much of a romantic for these times. You should’ve been born six hundred years ago if you want men who kill and women who swoon.”


She grinned, showing perfect pearly teeth. “I was born six hundred years ago. That’s why I hanker after it so much. Men these days who work in offices and eat pies for lunch need to get in touch with their sword-wielding forefathers.”


“You’re getting worse.” I smiled. Clue had two fascinations in life: men and past lives. She swore she’d lived countless times before, and as much as I liked to joke and pluck holes in her tales, I couldn’t ignore the fact that she knew things. Things she shouldn’t know for a discarded child with no education.


“You’re an old soul too, Zel. I can tell. I haven’t figured out where you’re from, but I will.”


I didn’t have the heart to tell her she was wrong. I acted old beyond my years, because I’d had enough bad fortune to last me forever. If I had lived before, I must’ve been a witch or a murdering psychopath to warrant the trials I’d endured.


I squeezed her hand as we turned left at the end of the corridor and promptly slammed to a halt.


“Holy mother of God, where have you brought me?”


Dropping her fingers, I moved forward, almost in a trance.


The double doors had been crafted from metal. One side depicted a fairy-tale: a young man faced away from the viewer, standing surrounded by piles of coins, sunshine, and young children. Fantastical turrets of a castle rested in the distance.


My heart hurt as I looked at the next door. If the first had been heaven, this one would definitely be hell.


The young man now faced the viewer, but his features were blank. No nose or eyes or mouth, just a smooth blank oval. Behind him wolves fought while lightning and storm clouds brewed. But what killed me was the children who’d been laughing in the other portrait were now in pieces, scattered on the ground in melting snow.


“Whoa, that’s a bit morbid,” Clue said, reaching out to touch a severed leg.


I snatched her hand back and pressed the other door to open it. I wanted away from the scene; it came too close to home.


Don’t think of your troubles. Tonight, pretend to forget.


Troubles.


I could never forget about them. They were a noose around my neck; a guillotine waiting to fall. But I was done moping, so it didn’t matter.


The instant the door cracked open, noise assaulted us. A potent mixture of fists hitting flesh, grunts of pain, lilts of feminine laughter, shouts of encouragement, and the smooth beats of music.


We entered a cavernous dark room—either a converted ballroom or a specially designed arena. It welcomed us with thick black velvet covering four story high walls. Lining the perimeter, a grandstand held black couches, La-Z-boys, and luxury daybeds. Each one had its own podium with side table and a small lamp, looking like fireflies in the dark.


“Oh my,” Clue murmured, focusing on the main event.


Every apparatus of fighting existed: a Mixed Marital Arts cage, a boxing ring, a Muay Thai ring, mats for close combat, and bare floor for other barbaric blood sports. Each space was crowded with men either bloodied from a fight or bouncing on their feet ready to meet a new opponent. I’d never seen such a display of masculinity—raw and unbridled.


Sweaty towels hung off chairs and modesty was non-existent as men changed from torn work-out gear into loose fitting cool down attire. Water stations and medic booths rested between each arena.


My breathing came faster, dragging in scents of disinfectant, beer, and the clean smell of hard work. I couldn’t focus on just one thing. A fight had begun with a bombardment of fists and scary determination in the Muay Thai ring, while another fight in the MMA cage had just finished—the victor pranced around his unconscious foe waving his blood-smeared fists in the air.


Everywhere I looked men grinned, audience members encouraged, and people throbbed with vitality. My body sucked up every ounce of liveliness, storing it.


What the hellis this place?


A huge banner hung from the ceiling directly above all five fighting rings.


Fight with honour, fight with discipline, fight with vengeance.


Goosebumps rose on my arms. The words were poignant, holding a promise of more than just violence—a whole new world I didn’t know existed. Despite myself, I wanted to find out more. Clue was right—seeing a man fight awoke something deeper, darker, less tame inside me. We may be refined and socially acceptable on the outside, but at heart we were still animals. All my life, I’d fought my own battles, but now I wondered what it would’ve been like to have someone fight beside me.


“I think I died and went to man heaven,” Clue whispered, her almond eyes the widest I’d ever seen. Her cheeks flushed with colour as a man in the boxing ring took a hit to the jaw by a fighter glistening with sweat and crimson.


Every man held an edge of eager pleasure—even those black and bruised joked and watched comrades get beaten while sipping on icy bottles of water.


The atmosphere in the room wasn’t feral or violent like I expected. It had an old-world class about it. An exclusivity. A richness. An unwritten code that said they’d try to win, but would never kill. I found the restraint reassuring but weirdly annoying at the same time.


There were so many fighters I had no idea how Clue would find the man she’d come to see.


The music changed tracks from sultry to pulsing. Not so loud to distract the fighters, but it added yet another element to this strange, illegal club.


Arms suddenly slinked around Clue, dislodging her from my side. I blinked as a tall man with cropped black hair and ebony skin gathered her close. His arms were cut and defined, wrapping around her with propriety but also tenderness. “You remembered the address and password. I’m impressed.” He nuzzled her throat, sending Clue into a flurry of lusty giggles.


My heart fluttered for her. I loved seeing her smile. I didn’t think I’d seen her so infatuated before. Ever since I took her home that fateful night and put her broken pieces back together, I’d been afraid she wouldn’t ever trust a man enough to let him get close. Hence why she called herself Clue. She wanted to be a mystery that no man could solve.


My eyes flickered between the two; my heart thudded sensing the spark, the need between them. If lust could be seen they’d be wrapped up in a cloud of erotic colour.


Where Clue was an Asian beauty, this man was an African Adonis. If they ever made it to procreation, their children would be spectacular.


The thought of children sent mine reeling back to Clara. Her pretty, eight-year-old face filled my mind. Her long hair, so similar to my own, and her dark brown eyes made my heart weep knowing our time together was running out.


She looked nothing like her father which I thanked the universe for every day. She was mine. All mine.


Not for much longer.


The memory shattered and a rush of vertigo grabbed me. After weeks of barely any sleep, constant stress, and a body humming with a mixture of anger and tears, I suffered a momentary lapse of motor control; I stumbled.


Clue’s man grabbed my forearm, steadying me with a strong grip. His touch was warm and comforting—brotherly compared to the obvious spark between him and Clue. “You okay?”


Clue untangled herself from his embrace to support my other side. I thought I’d turned a corner walking in here. I wanted to fight. Not wallow.


Standing tall, I smiled and waved a hand. “I’m such a floozy. I shouldn’t have skipped lunch today, that’s all.” I couldn’t ruin Clue’s fun. I had no right. Not after everything. “Thanks, though.”


Taking a step back from them, I forced animation into my voice. “So, you’re Corkscrew? Clue has told me a lot about you.” She’s told me nothing about you.


He looked me up and down making sure I could stand unassisted before he laughed. “That’s my fighting name, but yes. Tonight, I’m Corkscrew.” His black eyes twinkled as he leaned closer. “My real name is Ben. Clue’s told me a lot about you, too. It’s a pleasure.”


The unassuming kindness of his deep voice and the normalcy of his name helped settle me; I grinned. “I like that. Two identities.”


Just like me.


Up until recently, I’d had two personas. I’d spun tales and weaved stories as effortlessly as if it were the truth. I wrote my own story with a magical pen called lies.


And it worked.


I survived.


Clue asked, “What’s this club called? I couldn’t see any name on the building.” Her eyes danced around the dark space, drinking in the blows and parries of half-naked men.


My interest spiked and my damn heart flurried. I didn’t like to admit it, but the virile energy of this place called to something deep inside. It made me want to embrace my inner fighter—to become someone dangerous. It gave me equal measures of unhappiness and hope.


I hated the wealth dripping from every statue, but at the same time, I never wanted to leave. I wanted to steal all the positive energy and strength that existed and bottle it— create an elixir to cure Clara.


Ben smiled, his skin looking like polished jet. “This is the best place on earth.” Spanning his arms, taking in the club as if it was his own, he said, “Welcome to Obsidian.”


Chapter 2


I never asked for the hand life dealt me. I never wanted to be a ghost or a buried soul from society. But I learned from a very early age that choice was an illusion and freedom was a farce.


I no longer cared about that bullshit.


My past was my past, it sculpted me. My actions and wrong doings were my penance. My future and aspirations my vengeance.


I surveyed my empire, taking in the multiple fights, and the men and women seated in their plush spectator seats. If I allowed myself to feel, I would indulge in a little pride. I created this. From nothing.

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