This area of Nanda Parbat was completely unfamiliar to Sara. As she walked behind Nyssa, she couldn't help but silently marvel at the majesty around her. Intricate stained glass depictions, some of which Sara believed to be religiously symbolic, lined the walls, inserting their colorful dominance among the cleansing white of the marble. Their footsteps fell so lightly on the stone, and the halls echoed with a determined resonance.
Two men, wearing red ceremonial robes, bowed their heads to Nyssa and extended their palms upward in a gesture of deference. Nyssa returned the nod and clasped their hands with her own. She closed her eyes and muttered something incoherent under her breath. Sara took in the scene-- you would never see something like this, a symbolic exchange, in Starling City... maybe in the Western world at all. There was an otherworldiness, an air of spirituality in this place, that made her wonder why people weren't like this everywhere.
And then she remembered where she was headed and the reverie broke over her like a crashing wave. These people may have their customs, their beautiful languages and flags... but they murdered others in its name. They sometimes murdered for hire, for sport.
And she was being trained to do exactly that. Sara closed her eyes for a second, searching inside for some kind of moral acknowledgment-- maybe a center. Whatever happens, think of your family. Think of what you'd do if they were here.
The thought was less familiar than some of her more recent dreams. Her only true comfort was the predictable weight of the staff she clutched at her side.
Nyssa turned, glancing over at Sara.
"Ready?" she asked. Sara became nervous. Nyssa's speech was terse... not the best of signs.
"I guess," Sara hoped aloud.
"That's good enough," came Nyssa's validation.
The guards nodded and opened the latch to the door. The wood creaked-- a deep, crackling sound. Sara wondered when the last time this room had been used; it sounded ancient.
Nyssa stepped in first and Sara followed.
After her eyes adjusted to the flickering torchlight, she regained a sense of comfort. They were in a windless tunnel crafted from stone. Nyssa held the torch aloft and still spoke under her breath. Sara caught a few recognizable words-- she had been listening, night after night, to Dawa and Nyssa speaking to each other in Arabic. The language now brought Sara a bit of comfort through its mellifluous tones. Nyssa uttered the soft benedictions and moved swiftly through the tunnel's winding path. It was leading down to a brightly lit area. There was a hum of energy coming from the exit.
As they approached, Sara realized that she heard voices-- they were becoming more audible and energized.
Nyssa stopped and Sara bumped into her absentmindedly. She braced herself by catching Nyssa's wrist. The two women stood completely still for a moment, their skin touching. Nyssa still gazed forward, paying attention to what was to come. Sara breathed deeply and unwrapped her fingers from around Nyssa's wrist.
The moment they stopped touching, Nyssa turned. "Remember your training."
Sara nodded, pursing her lips together.
"More importantly, remember why you train."
Nyssa's dark eyes bored into Sara's.
"Good luck, Ta-er al As-fer..."
For the first time, Sara appreciated hearing those words.
"When this is over, Nyssa, I'd really like for you and Dawa to teach me some Arabic."
Nyssa's face didn't change entirely but, to Sara, the woman's expression seemed completely different. Her eyes softened around the corners and soft wrinkle lines etched their way up the side of her eyes. The expression was pure and deep-- her smile radiant.
"It would be my absolutely pleasure."
Sara barely had time to digest how many people were in the arena. It was, she estimated, at least close to arena size-- this underground cavern. Many of the League members, many of the mothers and children of the assassins who lived in Nanda Parbat, had gathered as spectators for the main event: to watch the nubile acolytes fight for supremacy. It was gladiatorial in nature and Sara felt frightened, stunned.
Nyssa ushered her into the center of the ring space. Sara breathed heavily but tried to keep her face even. It would the ultimate sign of weakness if she wore her fear on her sleeve... that would be unacceptable to this bonded crowd. It would signal disrespect to her opponent, who waited in the half-shadows across the ring.
"Fear is healthy," Nyssa stated while surveying Sara. Did she stink of it? "Channel your fear into strength... if it helps, think not of what your opponent will do to you if you lose, but instead of what my father will do to you should you fail these tests..."
Sara shot Nyssa a look. "Really helpful, you know..." she said.
"It's just long-term strategics," Nyssa scoffed. "You want to survive-- think like a survivor."
Sara remembered her time on the island with Oliver, Shado and Slade. Oliver always had problems adopting the mindset of a survivor. He made careless judgments based on his emotions, based on his values... trying desperately to protect the people he cared about. Slade? He embodied exactly what Nyssa was talking about. He not only survived, but thrived. Yet, he was the opposite extreme-- he trusted no one, to the point of being cynically hardened by human nature.
Sara decided that she would emulate Shado's attitude, to both honor her unintentional sacrifice for Sara and to increase her odds of attaining mental clarity during the fight.
Nyssa wrapped Sara's hands and handed the blonde her staff. They exchanged a gaze, but no words. It was time to focus.
Sara stepped into the ring, letting the roar of the crowds around her fade to an imperceptible din. The woman who stepped into the ring in front of her looked to be about the same age as Sara. She held two sais, one positioned defensively in front of her face and one extended aggressively.
Her opponent had short, mousy brown hair and green eyes. Her face was stony and determined.
Sara could feel her heart beating hard in her chest... breathe. Breathe.
She heard the sound of the gong from what seemed to be far away.
And then it began.