The Phoenix Project
Chapter One - Present day
Cold, dark terror trickled through Raven Kennedy’s veins, freezing him on the spot. There was a thunderous drumbeat echoing around his skull and it took him a while to realise it was the relentless, agitated pounding of his own heart.
As he became more nervous, more afraid of his looming fate, his breath came quickly, sticking in his throat and choking him. A cough threatened to burst forth from his lips, but he held it in, afraid it would bring with it the contents of his stomach—the bland, tasteless meal he had been given in his cell.
It was the worst possible time to feel weak, but Raven felt like he could hardly lift his arms, his exhaustion was so great. He hadn’t slept a wink last night. How could he with today hovering over him?
The time for his first fight had come around quickly. He’d hardly been given time to think about it at all. Raven looked down at his hands and was not surprised to see they were shaking.
His opponent’s name was Wilson. Raven knew nothing else about him. He’d never spoken to him, had never even met him. Had they passed one another in the dining hall and never even looked up? If he had spoken to him would that make what he was about to do any easier?
He heard heavy footsteps in the corridor and his heart jumped into his throat. They were coming for him. His eyes remained fixed on his shaking hands as the mechanical doors to his prison cell buzzed and swung open.
“Let’s go.” The order was sharp and direct.
Raven stood to face the guards, crazy thoughts flashing through his mind. He could attack both guards, knock them out and escape. But then what would he do? There were guards everywhere, security gates, locked doors. It was impossible to escape. He felt a surge of panic flood his mind. His chest felt tight and he sucked in irregular breaths. He steadied himself, took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
“Come on. Let’s go,” one of the guards commanded again.
He ignored them. He had to calm himself down before he got in the ring or he’d be dead within seconds. Keep yourself together. He breathed out and with it, he felt some of his panic dissolve. When he opened his eyes, he was ready to go.
He was marched towards the arena, but instead of entering through the main doors, where the other prisoners were herded like cattle to watch the fights, he was led through a side door leading to a changing room. They sat him down, told him to get ready and left him alone with his fear.
Anxieties swirled in his head. Was this it? Was this moment when he would die? How could he bring himself to kill another, just so that he could live? What made his life more valuable than Wilson’s?
He waited. It seemed like hours before the commentator’s brash voice echoed around the theatre.
“Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, we have quite a treat! He won two spectacular fights in a row. Can tonight be his third? Please welcome the undefeated Wilson!” Deafening whoops and cheers echoed around the arena.
“And facing him tonight”—Raven’s heart leapt—“in his Salverford debut, fighting for his honour, his dignity and his life, it’s Raven!”
Raven knew he had no choice but to go into the ring. He had been in the amphitheatre many times before. Like the other prisoners, he had been dragged there and forced to watch every time two inmates battered each other to death. But this was different. When he stepped out on the walkway, he saw Salverford in a completely different light. Bloodthirsty crowds, calling for his death, TV cameras pointing into his face as millions of people around the world watched and waited to see his gruesome fate.
He reluctantly made his way along the raised pathway, between the crowds of prisoners, and shakily made his way to the ring. As he passed, he looked down at the upturned faces of his fellow prisoners watching him. They were shouting, cheering, singing, dancing. From high up they looked small, insignificant. Yet somehow they were the most frightening thing he’d ever seen. Tiny creatures waiting to devour him. He shuddered as he walked through and kept his eyes on his destination—the ring where he would either be killed in cold blood, or stain his own hands with the blood of another.
As he approached and ducked through the ropes, he cast his eyes over his opponent. Wilson was taller than he was, with broad shoulders and the beginnings of a substantial gut. His light blue eyes may once have been gentle, but now they shone with a fierce determination to stay alive, at all costs. His large, coarse hands were already curled into fists and Raven could see his chest heaving up and down; in anticipation, excitement, fear—Raven couldn’t tell.
Wilson cut an imposing figure, and Raven’s terror stepped up a notch, threatening to overtake his mind and cloud all rational thought. Raven took a few deep breaths and forced himself to be calm. He ran another appraising eye over his opponent and tried to see the positives. Sure, Wilson was taller, but Raven was slim, athletic and fast. He could use that to his advantage, and maybe he could kill Wilson after all.
As soon as that positivity boosted his morale, Raven’s conscience kicked in to drag him back down again. He thought about who Wilson was as a person. What were his hobbies? Had he ever been in love? What was his crime? Maybe he was innocent. But if he wasn’t, if he was a murderer or a rapist, would that really make this any easier?
The bell rang, Raven’s stomach lurched, and Wilson was upon him in an instant, throwing his body weight at Raven like a moving wall of flesh. Raven staggered under the man’s weight and frantically wondered where to hit him. He threw a wild, but powerful punch at Wilson’s neck and knocked him to the floor.
Wilson scrambled to his feet and rushed at Raven again. He slammed his fist hard into Raven’s chest and the wind was knocked out of him. But as he was choking to get the air back into his lungs, Raven was surprised at how little it had hurt. It had taken his breath away because of the location of the blow, not the power behind it.
Raven saw panic in Wilson’s eyes and felt a boost of confidence. I can win this. He pulled his fist back and, using as much strength as he could muster, slammed it into Wilson’s jaw. The blow knocked Wilson off his feet and slung him to the floor, blinking the blur from his eyes. Raven stepped forward to kick Wilson whilst he was down, but something inside made him hesitate.
Wilson glared at him, anger flashing across his face as he leapt to his feet. He threw himself at Raven, fury raging in his eyes. He threw a fist and hit Raven hard in the face. Raven’s lip burst under the impact, and shockwaves of pain shot across his face.
A small trickle of blood ran into his mouth and Raven wiped it away on the back of his hand, but the next punch came before he had time to refocus himself.
Raven tried to block it, but he wasn’t quick enough and it slammed into his cheekbone. This one hurt a lot more. He staggered backwards with the agony, wincing as his nerves screamed, but he kept on his feet, knowing that falling to the floor could mean death.
Wilson had regained some of his confidence and there was a cocky smirk etched across his face. The crowd was wild, cheering and shouting for Wilson to win. The constant wall of noise ate away at Raven as he tried to ignore their thirst for his death. Raven was unknown. This was his first fight and nobody cheered for him.
Wilson tried a kick next, a sharp and precise strike aimed at Raven’s knee. Raven saw it coming too late. He couldn’t avoid it in time but pulled his leg up so the kick connected sharply with his calf instead of his knee. The impact was painful, and Raven knew that if he survived this he’d have a nasty bruise there, but he had saved his knee from being shattered at least.
Wilson’s eyes flashed with rage when his kick missed and Raven saw his body tense as his anger reached dangerous heights. Wilson kicked again, higher this time, and his heel slammed brutally into Raven’s stomach.
Raven doubled over in pain, choking and spluttering, the breath knocked from him. Wilson saw his opportunity and, whilst Raven was bent over, he curled his hand into a fist and punched him hard across the back of the head. Raven was knocked to the floor, his head and stomach throbbing with pain.
The next kick caught him in his ribs, and he felt a sickening crack as a lightning flash of agony shot through his body. One of his ribs had broken and it felt like a red hot knife had been thrust into his side.
Wilson wasted no time and stamped down hard on Raven’s leg. Raven screamed with the agony. It felt as if his shin would explode. Every nerve sent shockwaves of stomach-clenching pain through his body. Get up, get up and fight. Raven staggered to his feet, holding his tender rib with his left hand. Raven limped towards Wilson, his bruised shin aching with every step.
Wilson was overconfident now, grinning at the crowd and already counting his victory. Raven saw the pride in his eyes and in the way his body relaxed, unprepared for another attack. Raven took advantage and when he limped up to him, Wilson didn’t have his defences ready.
Raven drew his fist back and hit Wilson full force in the face. He felt Wilson’s nose crack with the impact, and was immediately struck by revulsion. He fought back the horror that surged in his stomach and threatened to empty the contents of his stomach right here in the ring.
Wilson’s face screwed up in pain and he held his bloody nose.
Raven prepared to strike Wilson again, but as he did, he saw a flash of fear in Wilson’s brown eyes. Raven’s fist hovered in mid-air as he looked into the eyes of his opponent; eyes that shifted subtly to spheres of smoky grey. Raven blinked. It couldn’t be…Just a trick of the light. Wilson’s short brown hair seemed to extend and blow around his face to frame delicate feminine features. The mouth, nose, lips of her.
Raven dropped his hands to his sides and staggered backwards. The crowd erupted into loud heckling and he was met by furious, impatient glares. Raven knew this had to end soon. They couldn’t keep on like this forever, it would only prolong the inevitable. One of them would walk out and one would leave in a body bag. Which was which depended on Raven pulling himself together.
He gritted his teeth and launched himself into the fight, straining to ignore his injuries, punching and kicking Wilson any place he could. The larger man was overpowered and fell to the floor. Wilson lay curled up in ball, as kick after kick rained down on him, and Raven forced himself to ignore the voice from his past that screamed in pain and begged him to stop.
Waves of agony flooded through Raven, his rib throbbing every time he moved. It was too much for him to bear, but he couldn’t stop now. If he gave Wilson a second’s leeway, it could turn the course of the fight again. So he continued kicking, as hard as he could, frantically praying that Wilson would die soon.
The strain was too great for Raven’s injured body and he finally gave in, stepping back to catch his breath and give his aching rib a rest.
Wilson staggered to his feet, battered and bleeding. From the corner of his eye, Raven caught a flash of metal as a member of the audience threw something to Wilson. Raven barely had time to register it as a knife before Wilson was upon him like an animal, wielding the deadly weapon with renewed aggression. The crowd roared with delight.
Wilson jabbed the knife at Raven sporadically, with a manic glint in his eye. Ignoring the agony from his shattered rib, Raven dodged and ducked, his mind working furiously, trying to get the knife from Wilson.
The blade glinted dangerously through the air. Raven tried to dodge, but he wasn’t quick enough and the knife caught the top of his arm, slicing through his shirt and into the flesh beneath. Raven clenched his jaw in pain as the blood soaked his clothes. Wilson paused for a moment, a huge grin on his face.
This was it. Wilson was sure he would win now and premature arrogance danced in his eyes. Raven saw his chance and kicked hard and high. His foot caught the hand holding the knife and it was flung to the far side of the ring.
Lashing out brutally, Raven kicked Wilson hard in the knee and stumbled frantically to the other side of the ring to fetch the knife.
Raven’s hand closed around the handle and he spun around to face his opponent. Wilson was dragging himself painfully to his feet when he saw the shining weapon in Raven’s hand. His face fell, and the confidence that had been written all over his features was replaced by stone cold horror. All around them, the crowd was delighted, cheering and shouting with excitement.
Raven felt a gut-wrenching despair as he closed in on Wilson. A great lump built up in his throat. All the fight was gone from Wilson now and, resigned to his grisly fate, he dropped to his knees, looking up at Raven with large, wet eyes. He looked so weak all of a sudden, when he had been a powerful enemy throughout the fight, and Raven saw this for what it really was: Not a fair fight, not a sport, but an execution. Raven wanted to throw the knife away, to tell Wilson he would spare him and everything would be okay, but it wasn’t his choice. Behind him, the excited crowd bayed for Wilson’s death, desperate with bloodlust, and beyond them, guards sullenly clutched their guns, waiting to see if Raven would dare disobey. He’d be killed himself if he spared Wilson.
Raven took a deep breath, gathered his courage together and moved towards Wilson. Pushing aside the fear and revulsion in the pit of his stomach, he pulled the knife back.
Wilson’s eyes once more changed into beautiful globes of dark grey, tears falling onto his cheeks. Raven blinked away tears of his own that had begun to blur his vision, and with all his strength, thrust the knife between the man’s ribs and into his chest.
Bile rose in Raven’s stomach and he fought the urge to vomit. He tried desperately to ignore the way the knife grated against ribs as he pushed it deeper and felt it puncture Wilson’s lungs.
Wilson’s eyes widened for a moment, then flickered into oblivion before his body went limp.
Raven stared at the body in despair as he realised it felt the same as the last time he had killed, when all life had drained from smoke-coloured eyes.