Ivory Souls

Do you trust me?

Even a few days ago, I’d have sneered at the red-haired alien’s question.

Of course, that was before my fellow guardsmen tried to cut my throat.

I don’t remember the ambush. All I know is that one moment, I was on patrol with the rest of the thirteenth company; the next, I was waking up in a dungeon, wrists chained, ears still ringing from the blast.

From Sergeant Caius’ voice alone, you’d have thought him calm, as the aliens lined us up to enter the arena. ‘Whatever’s out there, we’ll have a better chance if we work together. Stay close, trust each other. We’ll get through this.’

We wanted to believe it.

I heard the arena long before seeing the dark sands, though I didn’t realise it. I thought it was the sound of machinery; steam rushing from leaking pipes. By the time I reached the end of the tunnel, it was almost deafening – a constant, furious hiss, its weight combining with the sweat on my skin so that I almost felt I was drowning.

When I finally stepped onto the sand, the impression was complete as I gazed up and lost my breath.

Knives. Jagged knives, circling ever upwards. Every razor-sharp ring of the arena swelled larger than the last, spiralling daggers rising toward the light of a sickly-pale star. Rising around it, perhaps, rings of jade and silver like the coils of an enormous serpent, choking everything within its grasp. And the noise…

Even in the eye of the barbed storm, it took me a few moments to realise it was laughter. A constant hiss of cruel amusement, sadistic vipers toying with their prey.

‘Choose your partner!’

A bored voice from one of the jade-clad creatures moving through the arena, calling out in one language after another. ‘Choose your partner! You will work together in pairs!’

I touched my still-burning head, sweat flying as I shook it to try and clear the concussion. Around me, the thirteenth drifted apart with suspicious eyes as comrades instantly became former comrades. We weren’t the only ones in there, I realised – among the markings of other regiments, I could see skitarii, T’au, even aeldari…

I turned desperately toward the sergeant – only to see the corporal already at his side. Tears welled in my eyes as I slumped. Wounded as I was, surely I’d be nobody’s choice…

A hand.

I followed the alabaster flesh of the extended hand upward to the face of an alien woman, her obsidian eyes unreadable beneath an undercut of dark red hair.

‘Do you trust me?’

Looking around the dregs still standing alone, I doubted I had much choice.

I’d barely taken the offered hand when the bell rang – a cheery, metallic chime wholly at odds with the crowd’s roar as something slammed me back to the ground. Within an instant, Sergeant Caius was above me, clawing at my face, eyes, and throat…

Her foot snapped his head backwards, sending him tumbling away. Dark sand trailed away from my body as I rolled onto him, seizing his neck in desperation. I could see the horror in his eyes, the hatred as he drove punch after punch into my stomach without leverage. His eyes swelled; his lips darkened; the blows became feebler, and finally, his arms slipped away altogether.

I kept strangling.

I had to be sure.

Her hand again, picking me up. This time, when I took it, I rose to a pair of T’au – then another pair of guardsmen – then another…

In truth, I don’t remember much of the fighting. For three days, we fought bouts side by side until we were the sole survivors. Whenever I fell, she’d rush to my side; when she finally took a knife to the gut, I drove mine through her attacker’s throat, and took gash after gash on my arms to keep his partner at bay.

She’s looking worse for wear, I realise, as we’re led into the arena for the final time. Unable to conceal the pain of the wound, she clutches weakly. I rest a hand on her shoulder, reassured as she smiles and wearily places her fingers atop my own.

‘We’re nearly there.’

She nods. ‘I’ll try to save one for you.’

The moment brings a soft, shared laugh. As the jade-armoured figure approaches, I realise this might be my last chance to ask.

‘You could have picked anyone. I was injured. Why me?’

She stares for a moment, dark eyes squinting – before softening. ‘Because I knew I could trust you.’

‘Alright, lovebirds.’ The arena-master can’t hide the mirth in his voice. ‘You might want to kiss and take a step apart, because your final enemies are each other.’ He casts two blades into the sand, hissed amusement spreading throughout the stands as I stare at my partner in horror.

She gazes bleakly at me, continuing to clutch her side. Her strength is fading; the knife wavering in her hand. It would be so easy to strike her down – yet after three days of trusting her with my life, I hesitate.

She sees my expression, and slowly lowers the blade. ‘…do you trust me?’

This time, I don’t hesitate. ‘Yes.’

‘Then come here. I have an idea.’

She stumbles, barely able to stand, and I drop my knife in order to catch her as she slumps into my arms.

What’s the plan?

The words don’t reach my mouth.

Instead, I pull back from her cheek to see my blood there.

I gaze down to see the handle of the dagger in my chest, knowing without pain that the blade is in my heart. Already, the arena is dimming, fading, as though a dimming spotlight were focused on us.


This time, she catches me, brushing a hand across my cheek.

Is that genuine regret in her eyes…?

‘Because I knew I could trust you.’

Her lips cover mine as she drinks my last breath, and I fall back into the darkness.

About the Author

Serafina thinks she is not really interesting enough to warrant a bio (we at Cold Open Stories would like to beg to differ).