Sarah was afraid. Although, just saying that didn't mean much. She may as well have said "Sarah was breathing", because she was always afraid. Always. She'd been afraid for so long that she no longer remembered what had first caused her to fear. She no longer remembered what it was that she feared the most. Her life, her first life, was mostly a haze of half-remembered pictures and blurred faces to her now, but somehow she could still remember the fear. It had been cold, and hard. It stabbed deep into her heart when she was young and never left, it carved out a space inside and made itself at home. She'd died afraid and been reborn afraid, the Dungeon was just yet another thing for her to fear. This terror was more visceral, hot and red, and she had nearly gone mad with it. She could remember days when she'd barely had a human thought, lost in the snarling, biting, tearing rampage that sparked when she was pushed to the edge by the things that haunted her new life.
It was strange that she'd been reborn as a bear. They were strong creatures, deadly, powerful, capable. All things that were so far from her own existence that she couldn't imagine applying those terms to herself. On the verge of breaking down, tilting on the last crumbling precipice of her sanity, she'd thrown herself on the mercy of the Shapers and they had taken her in and healed her. Fed her, talked to her and with tender care had pieced her near-shattered mind back together. It had taken years before she would talk to them in sentences. More years before she would stop waking up roaring and snarling as she bashed down walls. She didn't trust the Shapers on a whim, they earned that trust over decades.
Which meant it hurt even more when they'd changed. James had seen it long before she had. He was wary of the new faces, the rule changes and shifting atmosphere. He'd tried to warn her, but she'd been too scared to listen. She felt safe here. The ever-bubbling cauldron of fright within her had been reduced to a simmer. Sometimes she was even able to pretend that she wasn't afraid at all. That had all changed when Anthony had arrived. Just an ant, but he'd been everything that she wasn't. So sure, so confident. When she looked into those bizarre, fractured bug eyes of his she'd not sensed the slightest fear in him. The Dungeon held so little fear for him, it was crazy. She'd begun to wonder what it was that made him so different to herself. She was stronger than he was, she thought. Probably by a lot. So why? Why did he thrive where she didn't? What did he have that she lacked?
She didn't have an answer to that question, even now.
The gate rattled before her eyes as it raised and she stepped slowly into the combat arena, her head hanging low and listless. She didn't want to be here. The sand shifted and slid beneath her paws, the glaring eyes of the Shapers seemed to burn into her fur and the charged energy in the air pressed down on her. A whine built in her throat and she couldn't control it until it whimpered out of her muzzle. She could smell the bloodlust from her opponent rise sharply at the sound. It sensed weakness. The creature was a blade beast, a rare creature found in the first strata, usually in areas with a strong concentration of mana. The recent rise in density had caused a spike in such monster spawnings and the Shapers had sprung into action at the prospect of capturing such powerful creatures. With four huge blade arms attached to a powerfully muscled body, covered in spikes and pointy protrusions, the blade beast was a horrific opponent for most creatures. Faster than it looked, durable as all get out and almost inexhaustible, they terrorised most monsters from the first strata.
She didn't want to fight it.
She didn't want to go back to what she was when she fought things like this, didn't want to retreat back into the madness and savagery that protected her from her cowardice. But even that would be better than going back out there. She'd never been to the third strata, but she'd approached its edge, only once. She shivered at the memory. She couldn't go back there. She couldn't stand it.
In her heart she was still confused. Still hurt by what was happening and just unable to understand it. Why was she being made to fight? Why were the monsters fighting at all? Did Anthony and Jim escape? She hadn't been able to see them for days. All such thoughts were pushed rudely aside as the battle commenced. The blade beast stepped forward and she raised her head. Her sheer size and bulk gave the monster pause. It didn't want to approach directly, wary of her flaws and fangs. Instead it began to circle around, huge glittering blades slicing through the air in a display of dominance.
Sarah's heart pounded in her chest and her body trembled as the monster closed in. Her vision swam and she could barely focus as her confusion and desperation paralysed her. She didn't notice the unease ripple through the Shapers watching from the stands, she wasn't cognizant of the impacts shuddering through the stone around her. Nor did she hear the scraping and grinding that seemed to echo through the walls.
She sure as hell did notice when a hole opened up in the centre of the arena and a familiar looking ant head popped out of the ground.
[Stupid SAND! UGH! That'll be in my carapace for days Hey! Found her!]
The ant was suddenly lifted into the air as a huge worm shoved its way through the hole.
[Sarah! Hey! We came back to get you! Are you alright?!]
The words echoed in her mind but she just couldn't process them.
[How many other giant worms do you know?! Don't answer that, I might get jealous. What the heck is that thing!?] He screeched.
The blade beast had stepped back, cautious at the appearance of these new monsters, but now that they turned toward it, the monster prepared to assault them all at once. Sadly, it never got the chance. The sand beneath it's feet began to sink away as a new hole opened up beneath it. It's blade arms scrabbled at the air but to no avail as a host of mandibles reached up to drag it down below sight.
[I wouldn't worry about it,] Anthony said.
The worm turned its blind head towards the unmoving bear once more.
[Come ON, Sarah! We need to get the heck out of here! You aren't still planning on staying are you?]
[No?] She muttered. [Jim, what's happening?]
Only now did she start to notice the chaos erupting around her.
[I just brought the family in for a quick smash n' grab.] Anthony said.
Sarah latched onto one word.
The ant's antennae seemed to wobble with joy.
[Oh, I think you're really going to like 'em!]