“Hands in the air! Back against the wall!”
Leo Ashworth looked up from sweeping the floor to see Loki Severson pointing a huge rifle at him.
Does he even know how to shoot that thing? Leo wondered. Loki was waving the gun around wildly, with a half-crazed look in his eyes, his finger nowhere near the trigger. But even though Loki was behaving bizarrely, Leo knew better than to think Loki didn’t know how to use the gun. He’s noble born. He’ll have been trained in all the fine “gentlemanly” arts. Like how to shoot a rifle.
With a weary sigh, Leo leaned the broom against the wall, using slow, careful movements so as not to alarm Loki. It didn’t matter how well Leo was cooperating. If Loki suspected for even a split-second that Leo might turn on him, Loki would shoot first and ask questions later. That’s the way most of the Gilt Hollow nobles acted.
“Don’t try any funny business!” Loki yelled. Leo detected a slight shake in the man’s voice, a marked change from the usual confident swagger with which he spoke.
He’s scared. And why wouldn’t he be?
Gilt Hollow had, to put it mildly, fallen into chaos. A few days ago, at a large Shifter Games event, a secret poison had killed off most of the Gilt Hollow soldiers and guards. Gilt Hollow had been devastated, and had attacked the nearby shifter town of Bear Hollow in a fit of rage. The only problem was that, without soldiers, Gilt Hollow’s raid hadn’t gone so well. For the first time ever, the Bear Hollow shifters had beaten back an attack by Gilt Hollow. The event had been historical: Gilt Hollow was populated with full humans who had done everything they could to oppress shifters for hundreds of years. But now, the shifters had stood up and said enough was enough.
Leo, a bear shifter forced for decades to live in Gilt Hollow, had expected backlash. He had known it was only a matter of time before an angry Gilt Hollow noble came around waving a gun in his face. He was only surprised it hadn’t happened sooner.
Leo had contemplated trying to escape from Gilt Hollow in the midst of all the chaos. He might have been able to pull it off, and the idea of finally being a free man again was almost too tempting to resist. But he had stayed, as had most of the other shifters, because the Bear Hollow shifters needed shifters they could trust inside of Gilt Hollow. Leo was sacrificing his freedom in the short term in hopes that he could help fight the Gilt Hollow oppression from within, and help achieve permanent freedom.
He just hoped he wasn’t going to get killed in the process.
“Move!” Loki said. “Now.” Loki pushed against Leo’s side with the rifle’s muzzle, and Leo started walking without hesitation. He had to trust that Loki was too chicken to actually shoot him, and stay as calm as possible. The shifter resistance was depending on him.
Loki forced Leo to walk out of the Seversons’ giant house and down the path that led to the Arena. The Arena was where the Shifter Games took place. The Gilt Hollow nobles had for decades forced shifters to fight in a ring against wild animals, all for the entertainment of the Gilt Hollow citizens. But now, the Games were unlikely to continue. Gilt Hollow had lost control of most of the shifters, and the tragedy of so many soldiers dying at the last Games event had put a permanent cloud over the Arena.
So why was Loki forcing Leo to walk to the Arena?
Leo stayed alert as he followed the path. He’d walked this path hundreds of times in his two decades as a guard. Unlike most of the shifters in Gilt Hollow, Leo wasn’t here as one of the shifter competitors in the Shifter Games. He had worked as a guard for the Severson noble house, which had given him inside knowledge of how the noble houses worked. That knowledge might be valuable as the shifter revolution ramped up over the next few weeks.
Or it might not matter. Perhaps the Gilt Hollow nobles would kill off all the shifters in Gilt Hollow out of anger. Leo had made peace with this possibility. Better to die fighting the Gilt Hollow regime than to spend the entire rest of his life acting as their slave.
“Move it!” Loki snarled again, even though Leo had been moving at a steady pace. Leo made no response, other than to walk a bit faster. They were walking into the Arena now, and Loki started directing Leo down the hallways with sharply spoken directions.
“Left here. Right at the next hallway. Left again.”
Leo hadn’t spent much time in this part of the Arena, but it still didn’t take long for him to figure out where Loki was taking him.
The wild animal cages! Is he going to make me fight with one of the animals back here by the cages?
But it turned out that wasn’t what Loki had in mind. When Leo stepped into the room where the cages were located, he saw that all of the wild animals were gone. All of the bears, wolves, lions, and other full animals that the shifters had been forced to fight during the Shifter Games used to be kept back here in long rows of cages. But now, the animals had disappeared and the cages were full of shifters instead. All along the perimeter of the cages, Gilt Hollow men stood guard, holding huge guns at the ready.
“What the hell?” Leo said aloud before he could stop himself. Loki only laughed as Leo stood there taking it all in. Otto and Kate, the leaders of the Gilt Hollow shifter resistance, were in the cages nearest to Leo, but the other cages were filled as well. Leo knew almost all of these shifters by name, and they all looked back at him with sad eyes.
“This is what happens when you shifters try to take over,” Loki said with a sneer. “We have to remind you that you’re nothing more than animals. Get in that empty cage to your left.”
Anger rose in Leo like an erupting volcano, and for half a heartbeat he considered turning around and throwing a huge punch in Loki’s face. He could probably overpower Loki and kill him before Loki even had time to react, but then the other Gilt Hollow men would shoot him down. In the end, Leo would give his life for no real gain. Even though Loki was a nobleman’s son, killing Loki wasn’t likely to do much good for the shifters. If Leo wanted to sacrifice his life, he was sure he’d have plenty of chances to do it over the next few weeks—chances where he could do more damage to Gilt Hollow then taking out one measly noble.
And so Leo stuffed down his anger and stepped into the cage without a word. Loki let out a long, evil laugh, and waved his gun around some more. Leo was surprised he hadn’t accidentally shot anyone at this point, with the way he was handling that gun.
“You fools thought you could bring down Gilt Hollow, but you were wrong! Look at all of you now, caged up like the animals you are. Pathetic. You’re lucky Emperor Eastmore has forbidden me from killing any of you yet. Otherwise I’d end all of you right now. What a waste of space. Have fun rotting in those cages.”
And with that, Loki turned and sauntered out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Leo stared at the door for a few moments, trying to process everything that had just happened. One moment he’d been sweeping the floor in the Seversons’ estate. The next, he’d been marching along at gunpoint. Now, he was trapped in a cage, surrounded by Gilt Hollow men who, the Emperor’s orders notwithstanding, he was sure would shoot him if he managed to escape this cage.
I’m in a cage. Just like an animal. But I’m not an animal. I have a shifter side, yes, but I’m still human!
Leo knew none of the Gilt Hollow citizens saw him that way. To them, he was a monster to be feared and caged. They would never see him as their equal. Leo clenched his fists and flexed his biceps. His strength had been exploited by the Seversons who had forced him to be a guard. He’d kept his head low and done what they’d asked all these years, because they would have harmed his parents and brother back in Bear Hollow if he’d rebelled. But now, all of the shifters were rebelling. And they would not stop rebelling until they were free.
“Are you alright?” Otto spoke from the next cage over, his voice a low whisper. Leo turned to look at him, realizing for the first time that he was in the cage right next to his close friend. Thank goodness for that, at least. Otto would be just as eager as Leo to plan out an escape.
“I’m fine. Just pissed. Do you have any idea what they’re planning to do with us?”
Otto shrugged. “Not exactly. But I’ve heard some of the guards talking about the nobles using us for blackmail somehow. My guess is that they think they can scare everyone in Bear Hollow back into submission by threatening to kill us if everyone doesn’t fall in line.”
Leo snorted. “That will never work. Everyone in Bear Hollow knows that we would rather die than let Gilt Hollow win this war.”
Otto looked a little less sure. “I hope you’re right. But I worry that there are still too many people in Bear Hollow who don’t think any shifters losing their lives is worth it.”
“Hey!” one of the guards yelled, breaking into their conversation. “Keep it down over there. No talking amongst yourselves.”
Otto rolled his eyes, and lowered his voice so much that his whisper was barely audible even to Leo, who had super-good hearing thanks to his bear genes. “That guy is the worst of all of them. I guess being promoted to guard went to his head, and he thinks he’s as powerful as the Emperor now.”
Leo looked over at the guard, who was pacing back and forth down the long room of cages. Since nearly all of the guards and soldiers had been poisoned at the Shifter Games a few days ago, these guards were all new to the job. Leo doubted they had much experience with guns or fighting, but they seemed to handle the “swagger” part of the job quite well.
“Let him boast,” Leo whispered. “We’ll have the last laugh in the end. I’m sure of it.”
But despite Leo’s brave words, the last thing he felt like doing right now was laughing. He lay down on the hard floor of his cage and struggled to keep the despair and loneliness from washing over him. Would this be how his life ended? As a prisoner in a Gilt Hollow cage?
Leo hoped not. He’d spent far too much of his life as a slave to these bastards. He was ready to be free. To live his own life the way he saw fit. Perhaps even to love.
He refused to let go of the hope that all of that was still possible. One thing he knew for certain: he was going to have all of those things or die trying.