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from Born to Die by Kat Frost

Chapter 6
I Get My Head Chopped Off

It continued to be hell for several long months. And I only say for several months because after that, things got even worse.

I kept careful track of how many times I died, and I’d died twenty-seven times by the time I was beheaded. Each time I’d just begin to recover from an injury, Leander would decide I was due for another lesson in death, and shortly afterwards I was always due for a lesson on living with pain, and so on. I could never catch a break. When I wasn’t dead, I was usually nursing some wound or other. The worst part of it all, though, was the fact that in a twisted way, Leander was right. I was quickly learning to scarcely miss a beat when I got hurt in a fight, my body was adjusting to exerting itself even when I’d lost a lot of blood, and I was discovering new levels of pain I could endure.

I wanted out, more than anything. “Play the system,” Borri always told me patiently. “You have to do it their way. Rebellion will only get you more trouble and pain. I don’t want to lose you like we lost Gwen.”

“But it worked for Theron,” I argued once. Theron, supposedly the first and mightiest Eternal, had stayed dead for eight years. Rumor had it that when he came back, he went rogue and disappeared. That was two years ago, and they still hadn’t found him – and the doggedness with which the king still hunted him showed me what my fate would be if I ever tried to follow his example.

“Theron is more than likely dead and waiting out his Rebirth,” Borri insisted. “Following in Theron’s footsteps would be even worse than following in Gwen’s. You wouldn’t want to be in his shoes when the king finds him, and believe me, he will. A rogue Eternal is too big a threat. Just wait it out, and I can tell you that you’ll get plenty of time away from here. I’ll still be around, waiting to go on missions with you. Be there or be square.”

So I tried to play the system. But some days, it was real hard. I hadn’t seen the sunlight or smelled real fresh air in months, and my already pale skin was starting to rival a fish’s belly in paleness.

“Sword up, elf. Keep your balance.” We were balancing on a wide-gapped latticework of iron bars, each hole a square wider than I was tall. The ground was about seven feet below; not fatal by any means, but if you fell, the person above would have all the advantages, and it’d be almost impossible to get back up. I’d died not too long ago, and hadn’t as yet been wounded since, so I figured this would be Brutal Mutilation Day.

I had taken one look at the setup and discarded my boots and socks – they wouldn’t protect me, and this fight would need to be barefoot. It’s weird how the little stuff stops bothering you, like splinters in your feet or wood chips in your socks or paper nicks from the last book you had a servant smuggle you.

I rocked lightly back and forth, my feet gripping against the dangerously narrow bars, keeping my sword high and at the ready, still my usual two-handed sword.

I tossed my braid over my shoulder and waited, assessing Leander. He was good – despite everything distasteful about his training methods, I had to admit his balance was perfect on the bars and he didn’t waver or hesitate. He’d probably had hundreds of students to practice on before me, too. I was just another one on the lineup.

I feinted, brought my sword around in an arc, and clanged against his blade. The instant they met I was already disentangling, leaping backwards in faith, walking by instinct more than sight, shuffling sideways along a perpendicular bar. There was no way to flank with this setup; it would take whole seconds to circumvent a person, plenty of time for anyone, but especially someone with Eternal reflexes, to react and prepare.

Leander followed my movements, his feet quick and sure. Last duel I’d nearly beaten him. This time was not looking so promising.

I spun, feinting, blocking, staying on the move, but it was always giving ground. I was stuck on the defensive and couldn’t seem to make headway. Leander was steady and determined, relentless. My foot slipped, and for a second I almost fell, but I regained my balance.

But not my guard. The fraction it had dipped in that moment of scramble had opened just enough for Leander. His sword flashed out of nowhere, I ducked and twisted, that brief momentary horror of knowing it wasn’t going to miss and exactly what it was going to hit. Twenty-seven times, and I still hadn’t gotten over the shock of that moment of knowing you’re going to die. Though I very much knew what that moment felt like, now.

His sword sliced my head right off. They say you keep living for a few seconds after being decapitated, and I can personally attest that this is true, at least for me. I remember seeing my headless body collapse to the ground, my vision askew (I assume due to how my bodiless head lay on the arena floor). I thought I heard Leander reciting poetry: “This is do or die. Come back and try, again to do or die.” But I might have imagined that. Your brain does weird things when it’s dying.

The feeling of being disconnected from my body, powerless and on my face, and of knowing I was a beheaded head, could only have lasted seconds. But it was horror and revulsion and it was just so awful I wanted to scream. I wanted to die and never come back. I wanted to get away from this moment forever. I lay there, dead, not dead, beheaded, a head...

Blackness. Oh the sweet relief of this moment, when you just let go and the world went away!

/ / /

I came to myself on the arena floor. No fuzzy euphoria greeted me, only harsh memory, the sight of my own headless body slamming me in the gut. My stomach wrenched and I vomited into the sawdust, coughing and gagging as I forced myself onto all fours, and vomited again. If my...

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