The stone walls reverberate with the thrum of the crowd just above the gate tunnel he stands in.
They are already in a frenzy with anticipation, the first eleven combatants having been introduced. Up ahead the twelfth and final contestant argues with the tournament organizers, but Artinaz cannot hear what is being said over the roar in the arena. He looks up from his mop, (he always had to come down here to mop up after the participants entered, in case any fluids got left behind on the brick) and steals a glance.
The tall, willowy Spaesalnean gestures with his top arms while his lower arms sit perched on his hips with indignation. The officials in their flowing robes and chest sashes point at their scrolls and tablets, make reference to the thundering walls around them, wave their hands at the closed gate door. None of it seems to make any difference. The Spaesalnean is having none of it. When one of the officials gestures to the nearest arena guard, who dutifully steps next to the official, the tall being cocks an eyebrow. His arms lash out, the suddenness of the move making Artinaz and the officials alike jump in surprise. The bottom hands pin the gate guards’ arms to his torso, while the top left arm seizes control of the guard’s spear. The Spaesalnean draws one of the broad daggers he wears strapped to his leather jerkin and plunges it into the guard’s neck in violent, driving blows that come down in quick succession, one after another. The guard convulses from the piercings, his larynx severed so fast that all he can emit is a faint squeak mixed with the gurgle of his own blood. The four armed attacker keeps up his relentless mutilation even as the man oscillates into death and goes slack. The stabbings send blood spatters onto the walls, the floors, and the officials who recoil in utter disgust and horror. The Spaesalnean continues his butchery as the body slides down to the brick pavers. There he finishes it off with a few more stabs, his pace finally slowing. In grand spectacle the willowy being stands, wiping blood from his face with the back of a hand while returning his broad dagger to its sheath.
With a glare at the officials the Spaesalnean turns back down the hall. Artinaz lowers his gaze, not being entitled to look up in the first place. The remaining guards, having instinctively stepped in when their compatriot was seized, now back as far against the walls as they possibly can. The being snorts his contempt as he strides past them, leaving the officials to call after him half-heartedly before turning on one another in argument. Artinaz steps into the Spaesalnean’s wake, hurriedly bringing his mop to bear on the bloody trail of footprints, lest he incur the wrath of the officials. As he works his mop he hears the panic in their voices. They turn on one another, pointing blame, jostling for leverage to avoid having their heads put on spikes. The crowd is already restless. There has been too much of a delay between the last combatant being introduced and the Spaesalnean refusing to enter the arena. The officials are out of time, and they are squirming because of it. Artinaz looks up gently from his mop, giving Shelbiene the slightest of smirks. Dark in hair and fair in face, she smirks back before swiping a length of hair hanging in front of her eyes behind her ear, and then returns to her repairs on an equipment rack. It feels good to see the tables turned on the officials for a change.
“Him! There! Grab that boy!” Artinaz looks up to see two of the previously cowered guards standing over him. They roughly seize him and drag him toward the officials at the gate. “Quick, you there. Put him in this fellow’s gear!”
The third guard does as he is ordered, stepping over the body of his friend to disrobe him of his leather breastplate and helmet. As he does so the other officials chime in. “We can’t put him out there, he’s just a boy!”
“Right, he’s what? Fourteen at the most? The Khan will see right through this.”
“Please,” Artinaz says as he is roughly being dressed by the guards. The official who was just denouncing the idea of putting him into the arena swiftly backhands him across the face. The one who ordered him seized speaks up again.
“What other choice do we have? The Khan ordered twelve and we must deliver twelve, and unless either of you are willing to go out there in his place…”
“He’s dressed as a common guard! The crowd will never buy it!”
“Who cares? He is the last one. The Khan will give the order for the tournament to begin as soon as he steps out there. Don’t you hear them? They’re starving for blood! We announce the Spaesalnean and shove him out the door. He’ll be killed before the confusion can wear off. It’s not like the Khan will be able to see him well anyway. He’s at the complete opposite end of the colosseum.”
The other two look at each other and then back at the first. “I don’t know about this,” one of them says reluctantly.
“It’s done. We have no other options, and we’re out of time. Make the announcement.”
Artinaz twists his head back, his face full of fear, and captures a glance of Shelbiene standing in the hall, hands clasped before her with watery eyes. His vision is obscured as the ill fitting helmet is clapped onto his head. His arms still held by two of the guards, they force the shaft of the slain guardsman’s spear into his palm. Somewhere off in the distance he hears the muttered announcement of the last combatant, and then the gate door is flung open, and he is shoved out hard into the arena. His feet kick up sand as he stumbles and trips over the butt end of the spear shaft. With his arms now free, Artinaz pushes the helmet back so that he can see a bit better. The equipment is too big for him, so he has to hold the facemask in order to look out the eye slits.
The crowd, a teeming conglomerate indicative of the multitude of races and species participating in today’s tournament, universally erupts with laughter at the sight of him. Artinaz looks everywhere and nowhere all at once. A high wall with the Khan’s red banners, draped at even intervals, spreads out before him in a wide semi circle. The incited masses are arranged row upon row above it, as far back into the shadows of the amphitheater as he can see. On the actual arena floor, twelve massive stone columns form an interior circle, their heights reaching up to the cavern ceiling above. Behind him, at the edge of battleground, is a colonnade that he knows marks the edge of the cliffside. Going beyond them means dropping off the precipice. Artinaz can hear the golden waters of the sea below slapping against the rocks again and again, and see the red clouds streaking across the darker red sky. The light reflected off the water mixes with that in the air above, casting fiery shadows through the stones that appear to bathe the arena in flame.
Each of the columns in the inner circle has weapons buried and embedded in the stone, somehow placed there ages ago, before the empire was even formed. The stories said one of them was enchanted, and that the one who could draw it forth from the column it was in was destined to challenge the Khan and bring about his downfall. Artinaz had worked in the arena long enough to know that was horseshit. These supposed contests, for an even more supposed right to attempt to draw a weapon forth, was nothing but the thinnest of justifications for what was an excuse to sate the Khan’s bloodlust. The ruler loved to watch combat, and moreso loved to watch the resultant deaths. The contestants knew it. Even when one was victorious all they did was walk over and merely touch one of the weapons stuck in the rock, a symbolic tradition at this point. They were there for the fortune and prestige that came with victory. Why would they ever be interested in fulfilling an act that would mean open revolt against the throne? It would be suicide.
Shaking with fear, realizing he is about to die, he forces himself to look back into the contest area. Standing next to each column is one of the combatants. On his right is a Folstig, the form of man towering to almost twenty feet high, and nearly as broad as the column he stands against. His dirty blonde mane drapes over his shimmering white, gladiatorial armor, his tree trunk arms and legs thick with muscle upon muscle. The Folstig’s face is one of pure concentration, the broad, blunt nose heaving in and pushing out huge gulps of air in a controlled rhythm. A buckler shield is strapped to the back of his massive left paw, while he holds a gleaming white lance in his right, the point dug into the sand as he, like the rest, await the horn to commence.
To his left is a being he’s never seen or heard of and therefore, has no idea what it is called. Essentially, it is a gigantic snout set into the barest semblance of a torso perched atop four tiny legs. Crooked arms arc out from the top of the torso and curve down in front of the nose, a broad blade falchion clutched in each. Gills work on the small patch of skin that rings the snout, while the massive nostrils slowly expand and contract, pulling in massive gulps of air. A tiny mouth on the bridge of the nose, lined with pointed teeth, salivates and drips gobs of the fluid down onto the wart covered snout. Sets of seven eyes lined vertically sit to either side of the nose, descending in size from the top down. The lids close and open in quick succession, creating a fluttering effect that almost feels hypnotic. As Artinaz stares at it the creature’s legs pump into the sand with eager anticipation. Artinaz shudders himself awake and tears his terrified gaze away.
It falls on a vision, a picture of serenity and beauty wrapped in one magnificent being. Toes pointing downward, she hovers a foot off the ground, bobbing up and down gracefully. Her translucent garments seem to shift and move on their own as they continually wrap around her body in perpetual motion. The only parts of the robes that appear solid are sharpened blades, dangling at the bottom of the overlapping, mystical fabric. She sparkles and shimmers. Her hands are pictures of pale cream wrapped around an elongated onyx staff, the stark contrast apparent even from across the colonnade circle. The sharpened point of the staff sits embedded in the sand, while atop the weapon is of all things, a small harp, the outer curved edge sharpened as an axeblade. A face of pure calm and grace, her tiny mouth smiles at him while her large eyes blink twice. Strips of her hair hang down from the corners of her scalp while the rest is tucked behind her sound canal, the tubular piece of flesh wrapping around the back of her head, connected from ear to ear. She is a Frey, a goddess of love of and war, of combat and healing, of life and death. Artinaz had only ever heard of the angels from afar, and barely even believed they existed. Afterall, isn’t it just like slaves to invent creatures of purity that will somehow come and free them from their bonds? How could he or any of his fellows in bondage know for sure what was real and what was the indulgence of a fantasy that saw them once again in green pastures? The only facts they brought with them to this place was that which they were exposed to before their fetters were clamped on. The Frey closes her eyes and nods to him ever so slowly. The gesture gives him an unexpected feeling of reassurance, despite what is about to happen.
And then it does happen. A horn blares. Those in the crowd not already standing leap to their feet, the ensuing scream a reflection of the action. The gladiators tear into one another.
The Snout comes barrelling at him, falchions twirling in the air over the gigantic running nose, the creature hooting in a strange tongue while spittle flies from it’s mouth. Artinaz turns to run away but finds the massive Folstig thundering at him from the other direction. He freezes, covering himself and shivering. Just when the Snout is about to chop him from behind the Folstig lowers his lance and spears it forward, the point skewering the oversized nose. Green gobs fall from the nostrils as the being drops it’s weapons and paws at the lance, trying to remove itself from the impalement. The Folstig drives the lance upward and pins the Snout against the column it was just standing next to. As it wiggles and thrashes, the Folstig winds up with his left and delivers a shattering punch, bellowing in exertion. The buckler on the back of his hand crushes the Snout against the rock, completely flattening it and raining a spray of blood and mucus that drenches the Folstig, who moments ago was pristine in his white battle dress. Extricating his lance from the dripping pulp that was moments ago a living, breathing nose, the Folstig turns and searches the arena. His eyes come to rest on Artinaz, who continues to stand frozen, and takes two steps forward.
From the adjacent column a shadow scrambles up the rock and then leaps at the Folstig from behind. As the attacker comes into the light Artinaz sees it’s rippling fur and pulsating muscle. The Terch lands on the Folstig’s shoulder and begins tearing away at the armor, in an instant sheering through leather, metal, tissue and flesh. The Folstig booms with pain and spins about wildly to throw the beast off of him, all the while the having his shoulder ripped and torn apart. Finally driving his lance into the ground, the Folstig swings his mighty paw at his own shoulder, the way Artinaz would swat at a fly. The Terch flips off of the larger being before the hit can land, and drops into a ready crouch before it’s adversary.
Even in the condensed posture, the Terch stands nearly nine feet tall. The monster resembles the wolves of the north, but with stunted facial features. Wearing a chainmail vest and specially made skull cap that allows its ears to stick through the top, the being carries no weapons into battle. Instead, it attacks with a pair of smaller wolf heads where its claws should be. Skinless, the hand heads looked as though a wolf had been badly burned of all its fur, and then covered in a thick tar. The heads have teeth of razor sharp bone that are said to be able to cut through any material known to man. Having righted itself, the Terch leaps forward again in another attack as the Folstig rips his lance free of the sand. The two clash, and Artinaz turns and runs again.
He doesn’t get far. A lizard like creature comes bouncing towards him on a tail curled underneath it, swinging a flail back and forth. Artinaz skids to a stop but his momentum carries him into the arch of the weapon. All he can do is throw the guard’s shield up and pray. In quick succession the lizard smacks the shield in one direction, and then counter swings, the heads of it’s flail smashing the interior of the shield back the other way, shattering the implement in the process and feeling like it nearly breaks his arm. The hit sends him stumbling off to the left, where he loses his balance and lands in a cloud of dust, his helmet tumbling away in the process. Rolling over he sees the lizard coming at him, only to have the onyx staff suddenly appear, stabbing at the hopping reptile and driving it backwards.
The Frey glides into his vision and hovering over him, stabs again at the reptile driving it even further back. Hissing in frustration, the lizard creature guards itself, wary of the goddess. All at once it leaps forward, perhaps trying to catch the Frey off guard, or overwhelm her with momentum. In an action that seems to denote the slightest bit of movement, she slips to her right while strumming her harp once. A glittering cloud flies into the air from the instrument, which the lizard’s leap carries it through. Landing awkwardly on the other side of the cloud, the lizard writhes in agony as it drops the flail and presses its hands to it’s eyes. Spinning gracefully, the Frey appears as if she is performing a move in a waltz on some far off dancefloor, rather than fighting to the death in an arena. The bottom of her gown surges up with the spin, and as she comes around, the daggers level off parallel to the ground. The first of them cuts clean through muscle, the second chips at the spine, the third splits the snake in half. Squirming as it bleeds out, the Frey floats over and finishes her prey with a single chop of her harp axe. The crowd erupts in cheers at another kill.
As she turns again, she hovers back towards Artinaz, her face a picture of serenity despite the blood spatter covering it and the front of her garments. She stops just over him, and he calms at her benevolent, peaceful smile. That’s when her eyes flash a pale purple and her face contorts, the spiked shaft stabbing down at his chest. He is just able to roll away before it pierces the ground, and then scramble to his feet to run as the spike nips at his heels. The tattered remains of his shield drops away as he is forced again towards another column. Seeing another fight beyond that he does not want to cross, Artinaz rounds, trying to find the best direction to go. Yet the Frey is upon him, her face calm again. She anticipates his jolts, quickly moving from side to side to cut off any possible escape. Backed against the stone column, he knows it’s only a matter of moments to his death.
The Frey’s chest explodes with blood, a serrated bone blade piercing out from between her breasts. With violent surges she is thrashed about left and right, the goddess screaming in horrific pain as the bone blade scrapes and tears at her further, blood spewing from her mouth with each piercing cry. It isn’t long before a massive claw comes into view, smashing her in the back of the skull, crushing it and extinguishing her life. Her body is thrust down into the dirt, a crab like Calderon flipping her over and ripping open the front of her robe. The six pointed legs of the creature carry it over her still pulsating body. The crowd watches in utter disgust as the Calderon grabs her right breast in it’s claw and begins to rip and tear at the flesh. Finally severing it from the Frey, the crab shoves it into one of its mouths on the side of it’s head, smacking and chomping with delight, oblivious to the combat still raging all around it.
The crowd berates and jeers the Calderon for this apparent distasteful aberration of protocol, however small that may be in a fight to the death tournament. Artinaz had heard stories of this before as well. Supposedly the Frey and the Calderon have always been mortal enemies, fighting wars against one another for centuries. The crabs could not resist the taste and enjoyment of the Frey’s flesh, and therefore saw the heavenly creatures as their natural prey. It was said that the lust was so overwhelming for them that the Calderons could not resist, and only sheer pulverization of their numbers had stayed their invasions of Frey lands over the years.
Artinaz believes the stories now that he sees it in action. No sooner has the beast finished slobbering down the Frey’s other breast does it lower its body down on top of the woman. The Calderon moves and shifts until it finds the position it wants to be in, and then starts churning up and down on it’s pointed legs. The crowd erupts in new revulsion, many making the sign of death with their hands, spitting, and cursing. Groups in the stands begin to scrap with one another, those in support of versus those disgusted by the action. Artinaz takes heed of the reaction and looks back at the crab, seeing it’s eyes on the side of its wide head rolling in ecstasy. The realization dawns on him that the monster is raping the Frey’s corpse.
Anger boils up within him. Somehow it is lost that the Frey was just moments earlier trying to kill him, and that the Calderon actually saved his life. A distant, convoluted justification comes to pass, that the Frey was only fighting in the spirit of the tournament, trying to eliminate what was, in reality, an opponent on the field. But this. This was something so much more. Something far worse. Something despicable and against his integrity, such as a slave could have. That was something they could never take from him. Anger turns to rage, and Artinaz feels his grip tightening on the shaft of the spear.
The spear. He is still clutching the guard’s weapon in his hand. As he looks from the implement back to the Calderon, a detachment falls over him, a sudden calm and focus that he has never felt before. So potent is it that he barely even recognizes that it is happening. All that he can see is the crab. No, no longer a crab, merely a target. The crowd’s noise fades to a distant hum. His fear subsides, his pulse regulates, his breathing slows. Artinaz changes his grip and hefts the spear to shoulder height, so that it sits parallel to the ground. He had seen the guards practice this. Every time he walked past the main courtyard they were there, working on their skills. Artinaz times the pistoning motion of the creature. In quick succession he takes two side straddle steps, makes a short hop, and then plants his left foot firmly in the sand. At the same time he levels his left arm, fingers outstretched and pointing at the Calderon, twists his torso and heaves the spear, his right leg kicking up with the motion to add extra velocity to the weapon.
The spear flies as if on a rope, lodging into the left eye of the crab with a loud squish, white liquid popping out from the wound. The crowd recoils in shock, a ripple of astonishment resounding throughout the amphitheater. The Calderon whips around, the shaft of the spear making twists and turns in the air. Artinaz sprints forward, arms and legs pumping. When he is near he launches himself, vaulting feet first over the top of the creature. As he sails by Artinaz snatches the spear shaft in both hands, pulling with all his might. The momentum of his leap combined with the strength of his arms heaves the beast backwards, the Calderon tipping over until it collapses onto its back. As the crowd laughs and cheers in reaction Artinaz searches around frantically, his eyes finally coming to rest on the Frey’s discarded harp axe. He rushes to it, scooping it up in a cloud of dusty sand and runs back over to where the crab thrashes desperately to get up. With relentless fury he brings the axe high over his head and slams it down into the creature’s carapace, over and over again. Each blow cracks further into the shell, until thick green blood begins flying out in spouts. Even after the Calderon goes into its death rattle Artinaz keeps hacking until it seems like the being’s entire supply of blood has mixed into the sand around it in a massive, muddy puddle. Only when the spurts stop does he break out of his rage and stop delivering the blows to the Calderon’s corpse.
The audience erupts in cheers and laughter at the surprising victory. Artinaz looks around, astonished himself now that the strange focus has dissipated. A booming cry of pain rings out behind him. The boy whirls around, hoisting the harp axe, the blood of the Calderon coursing down the haft and covering his hands. The Folstig stumbles and circles about, his hands clasped up near his neck. As he turns towards Artinaz the slave can see the Terch latched onto the giant’s throat, both with it’s jaws and it’s mandible hands. In a desperate pull the Folstig tears the smaller creature away, but in doing so rips open his own neck. A waterfall of blood immediately begins cascading down, yet before he succumbs, the Folstig heaves the Terch across the arena with a mighty throw. The werewolf sails like a comet over the floor, finally slamming into a stone column so hard that it shakes dust loose from the joints of the pillar. Beyond the multitude of surely shattered bones, the Terch sits impaled on the instruments embedded in the column, the blades, spikes, and edges jutting out of its body in nearly half a dozen places. Like the cascading flow it caused to its adversary, the Terch too bleeds out in a river that washes down the stone structure. The Folstig takes another wobbly step, collapses to his knees, and then falls flat, face first into the sand with a thunder that shakes the ground beneath Artinaz’s feet.
Panic settles back in. He twists to his right, to the end of the arena where the Khan and his retinue sit in their private section. The sounds of other engagements ring out there, so he twists back, beginning to run towards the competitor’s gate, thinking that maybe he can get let back in or if he has to, chop open the door and force his way in. He doesn’t get more than a few steps when something in the corner of his eye catches his attention. Spinning once again, Artinaz watches as a new foe greedily stalks forward.
The…thing walks upright on two muscled, vein covered legs, which end in large feet made up of four petals. It wears a hardened leather breastplate, complete with a round, steel boss in the center held there with chains and straps. Large slits run down the sides of the armor and expand towards the creatures back, making room for the dozen tentacles that wave continuously out from the spaces. A large non-descript sack of pale, bluish skin protrudes from the neck opening of the armor. Every few seconds a horizontal split appears across the sack, and the top two thirds separate and fold back. A bulbous head on the thinnest of necks emerges, it’s vertical eyes encompassing nearly the entire face. The head searches and the eyes blink, and then it shrinks back down into the sack, the cover coming back over and reforming. This process continues as it gets closer to Artinaz, each time the slit remaining open just a little more.
The boy looks at the haft in his hands and at the approaching opponent. He realizes now they won’t let him back in, and he is certain he won’t be able to chop through the door before this creature is upon him. Looking up Artinaz knows he cannot hope to defeat this being. Despite the fact that it is probably a seasoned fighter and killer, it is armed to the teeth, two buckers held in tentacles out in front of it’s body. Other tentacles hold a sickle, a warhammer, and a mace. Towards the front just behind the shields are tentacles holding a hand axe, a short sword, and a pair of sais. Near the back of it’s body are tentacles holding a javelin high up on it’s left side, and a fencing rapier high on it’s right. As if that wasn’t enough, just for good measure, the final appendage sits wrapped around a wooden club with long nails driven through it.
Artinaz can’t fight that. He can’t fight at all. All he managed to do was hack apart a crab with the implement in his hands. He didn’t use any skill. He doesn’t have any skill. That was pure luck and he knows it. Yet he also knows that he can’t run through the arena, he will only encounter something else that will kill him, and he can’t run out of it. His last, best, and only hope for survival is to meet the challenger, but the harp axe won’t work. Maybe if he knew how to use it’s enchantment, that could tip the odds, but what knowledge of magic does a slave have? None. And without knowledge or skill to wield the weapon properly, he is as good as dead from any one of the squid’s armaments. Hell, he would probably even get killed by the bucklers.
The bucklers. That is what he needs, protection against the multitude of weapons. The squid almost upon him, he searches about quickly. The crowd is chanting for his death. He spins and whips the harp axe around, letting go as he comes out of his circle. The weapon flips round and round horizontally. The squid squats down behind the bucklers and then deflects the weapon harmlessly up into the air over it’s head, the axe coming down harp first into the sand. Yet in the instant that the weapon was released Artinaz was sprinting to the nearby corpse of the Folstig. Reaching the giant, he works feverishly to free the buckler strapped to the back of it’s left hand. The squid creature pops it’s inner head out again to reacquire him, and upon seeing what he is doing, begins charging for Artinaz. The boy manages to slide the buckler out, and while it only covered the back of the giant’s hand, it covers practically his entire body. Twisting his left arm into the strapping and gripping more with his right hand, he turns just in time to be blasted with at least four weapons, but the shield does it’s work and accepts the punishment. The force of the blows sends him careening over the back of the fallen Folstig, but he somehow manages roll and end up on his feet on the other side.
The space buys him time. Protection was acquired, but he couldn’t survive for long with just that. He searches again, this time his eyes landing on one of the discarded falchions from the Snout. Artinaz sprints, stoops, and scoops the weapon. He rounds back again just in time to meet the onslaught of the squid, and what an onslaught it is. With huge, winding, and sailing shots the tentacles slam into the shield endlessly, each one needing time to gain momentum but with such a proliferation of weaponry there is no pause between, or an end to, the attacks. Artinaz holds onto the shield with all his might, ducking his head under the top of the rim while the bottom extends just below his knee. Blow after blow rattles the metal and sends the vibrations through his bones. He gives ground with each hit, his heart thumping in his chest, his mind racing to try and decide what he could do next. The squid, realizing it isn’t getting through the shield, starts to angle it’s attacks around it. The blades and edges begin to catch him, a deep cut in his left tricep, two slashes across his right thigh and calf, another slash across his left thigh. The javelin makes an attempt over the top and he just does manage to duck a little further, the spearpoint carving a channel in his scalp that runs blood in a thick line down his forehead and nose. The blunter weapons like the mace and warhammer continue to pound on the shield. They twist and turn in the sand, so much so that Artinaz cannot tell where in the arena they are.
The sickle comes over the top of the shield and hooks onto it, narrowly missing his face as it does so. Artinaz immediately feels the creature pulling on the buckler. He gives into the pull a little, and then suddenly rips the shield back, the motion elongating the squid’s tentacle. Artinaz loops the falchion over his head and the rim of the shield and cuts upward. The pressure on the buckler goes slack as the razor edge of his blade slices through the appendage. The severed section of the tentacle bounces harmlessly off his shoulder, spewing brown, syrup-like blood as it falls to the ground still wrapped around the sickle. The squid rears back and emits a cry of anguished pain, a deep warbling sound. Artinaz peers around the side of his shield. The creature, in shocked reaction, lashes out with two tentacles on its right side, the buckler and the warhammer. The boy steps into the attack, accepting the hits on his oversized shield while turning into his opponent. He swings down with the falchion and again cuts the tentacles loose, this time taking much more length with them. No sooner has Artinaz lopped these off does he pivot back, swiping and deflecting away another two attacks with his blade and accepting a third on his shield.
The squid bounces back to regroup. Artinaz too steps away, astonished at what he just did, not understanding in slightest where it, or his other actions to this point, have come from. He hefts the large shield, its weight starting to become considerable. His own face stares back at him. For the first time since picking it up he notices the mirror polish on the underbelly of the protective instrument. Panting, sweating, blood staining his head, he wonders for a moment if it truly is his own face in the reflection, or is it someone else entirely. Someone he never even knew existed.
The crowd is in an uproar over their engagement. Repeated chants in small groups around the arena yell out, “Slave! Slave! Slave!” The squid creature notices them and becomes enraged. It begins wildly swinging all of it’s tentacles about, spewing gooey blood like hoses in the process. Artinaz senses a furious offensive ready to commence. He bares down, holding the shield tight, but the cuts, bruises, and exhaustion are taking their toll. That, and he doesn’t know how much longer his luck will hold out. Peering around the edge again, the two circle each other once more, until something catches his eye. Artinaz is moving before he even realizes it, charging headlong at the squid, closing the distance between them with incredible speed. The crowd cheers even louder at the unexpected maneuver, and the raucous cries actually help to spur him on. The squid reels in surprise at the move but recovers quickly, sending out attacks to stem his charge. He meets them head on, brushing them aside as he did in the previous exchange. Artinaz smashes the shield into the metal boss on the monster’s chest and keeps running, churning his legs in the loose sand, pushing all of the squid’s considerable weight backward. He knows he has hit the mark when another warble of pain erupts from his adversary, followed immediately by a scraping on his shield. Artinaz finally loses his feet but rolls to the side once he hits the ground. Looking up, he can see the onyx haft of the harp axe lancing through the squid’s shoulder, the spike on the bottom pointing to the arena ceiling, glistening with blood and sticking out nearly two feet.
He gets up and approaches cautiously, as the creature still actively flails at him, but with it pinned on the haft Artinaz is able to use movement to his advantage. It only takes a few moments before he manages to sever the tentacle with the javelin, and then the one with the rapier after that, reducing his adversaries range. Still trying to kill him before it bleeds out, the squid makes a last ditch attempt to disarm his falchion with the sais, knock away his shield with the axe and chop at him with the short sword. Artinaz blocks the sais as they come, deflects the axe with his blade, and then steps into the arch of the short sword, cutting with his own counter attack that comes from across his body. The move slices back the head-covering sack so that it flaps down the squid’s back. The wide eyes stare at him. Artinaz winds up and brings his falchion from right to left in a huge swipe. The metal chops through the twig thin neck, the bulbous head lifting into the air before tumbling to the ground and rolling away. The tentacles go still.
He shakes his head clear as another eruption comes from the crowd at the kill, the noise somehow amplifying as soon as the squid dies, so much so that he almost has to cover his ears. Exhausted, gasping for air, Artinaz steps back and sinks to his knees while the cheers closer to his end of the colosseum continue. His stomach sinks when he hears the sounds of another fight, and the crowd reacting to it, off to his right closer to the Khan’s seating. He twists his head that way, but the duel is blocked from his sight by one of the columns. There is a flash of red, much brighter than the clouds outside, and a scream of agony. As Artinaz watches a charred, flaming corpse comes flying into view, trailing grey smoke through the air. It lands in a crumpled head as the audience cheers the death. While the figure continues to smolder and burn, the perpetrator steps from beyond the column, walking slowly, his weapon slung over his shoulder. He stands over the body and stares at it. A cackle comes from him, but it is not his own. Perhaps it is the crowd nearer to him that makes him turn, or it is the sense of Atinaz’s stare, but whatever the cause, he rotates and faces the slave.
All is forgotten in an instant. It matters not what he managed to do earlier, the fear and panic rushes back like floodwaters breaking a levy. The combatant stands thirteen, maybe even fifteen feet tall, decked in dull, dark grey armor covering his legs, arms, and hands. His breastplate has been lacquered black, but Artinaz can see the dark grey color underneath in the few places he has been scraped today. Great lengths of chains criss cross and wrap around his torso. On both shoulder pauldrons sits a spike, a miniature head speared on each, their skin yellowed and withering and pulled tight against their small skulls. The heads move independently, searching around arena at first, but when they acquire him, the one of the left begins salivating, while the one on the right cackles the same laugh Artinaz heard previously. The imposing figure’s own face is long and weathered, the skin pale and rumpled given his race’s bone structure. His mouth sits sewn shut with a fine chain, done so with a cruel and unskilled application, a symbol of his obedience to his ruler.
He is a Davul’akanae’neeweesa.
Devil of the Khan.
At one time the Davulskahn were known as something else entirely, and openly opposed the rule of the Khan. They even defeated his armies in several battles when he tried to conquer their lands. After the loss of so many the Khan somehow convinced them to join his side, becoming his personal Dreadnaughts, and this turned the tide against the others who opposed him, most notably the Folstig. Truly, the Davul’akanae’neeweesa are the closest in physical size and stature to the giants, but it is their cunning, lethality, and ultimately their brutal, remorseless existence that allows them to overcome the larger beings. The audiences always loved when a fight between a Davulskahn and a Folstig determined a tournament, as they tended to be the most competitive and blood soaked engagements.
The crowd today would not get that luxury. As the Dreadnaught starts forward at a slow clip the attendees lose their collective minds with excitement. Artinaz can see bets furiously being exchanged, most more than likely looking to make some quick money off of his now certain death. Perhaps a few float a couple of coins in his favor, on the off chance he wins and they can make a small fortune. Perhaps. The laughs ring out more and more the closer the Devil gets. Everyone clambers over one another, stretching to get the best view of what will surely be a gruesome, yet entertaining, death. Artinaz stands slowly. The Dreadnaught lowers his weapon off of his shoulder, the femur bone from a Karalax, three quarters the size of it’s owner. The round femoral head that inserts into the animal’s hip cavity is layered with metal spikes, many of which still drip blood from earlier in the tourney.
Artinaz walks forward, shaking uncontrollably with fear, yet at the same time his grip tightens on the falchion. The Devil stops in front of him, his back to the Khan. They stand in the center of the arena, the slave looking up at the warrior. The Dreadnaught swings his bone club upward from the ground, Artinaz just managing to duck under it. The two heads spout gibberish at him, the one on the right still cackling, while the Devil swings again and again, massive looping attacks that Artinaz is sure will crush him should they connect. Artinaz yet again, inexplicably, darts and dodges the attacks and counter attacks. He rushes underneath one. As the Dreadnaught twists, raising his femur club high above his head, Artinaz quickly reverses his field. He sprints past his opponent’s right leg and slashes with all he has in him. The edge saws through the meeting of two sections of armor just above the knee and cuts deep. The Devil shudders with pain and stops his attack, limping away. He inspects the wound, his gauntlet coming away slick with blood. As the savage creature turns back, despite not being able to voice it, Artinaz can clearly see the rage and fury in his face.
The Dreadnaught strides forward trailing blood droplets into the sand behind him. Artinaz sits in a crouch, shield and blade at the ready, eyes darting in anticipation of the next attack. The Devil is upon him, heaving the bone club up in his right hand for a devastating strike. Right before the weapon comes down, the eyes on the spiked heads suddenly flash red, the mouths simultaneously dropping open. Bright red beams of power shoot forth. Artinaz ducks behind the shield as the beams hit both it and his falchion. A moment later the buckler slams backwards and he is careening through the air from the force of the bone club’s strike.
He hits the floor, bouncing, skidding, and tumbling over himself again and again, a massive cloud of sand kicking up in his wake. Coming to stop flat on his stomach, Artinaz heaves for air, his wind having been knocked out of him. This proves counterproductive, given the deep burning he feels in his lungs. As tries to breath he pulls in sand from the cloud settling upon him as well, which sparks a convulsive fit of coughing. The boy crawls a bit before flopping down completely on his face. Every part of him hurts, he is certain something, somewhere is either broken, bleeding, or both. Artinaz’s whole body aches with pain, and the skin on his right hand and forearm is charred, cracked, and blistered from a severe burn. His head swims as he tries to clear the stars out from in front of his eyes. Distantly the crowd is chanting. Slowly Artinaz rolls his head to one side, seeing the footfalls of the Dreadnaught approaching. He switches his head to the other direction, sees his buckler blackened and smoldering not far off. Artinaz reaches out with one hand, grabs a palmful of sand, and pulls himself towards it. His other hand comes over the top and pulls. He feels his legs again and pushes off on the arena floor. He inches closer and closer, but also hears the clatter of the Devils’ chains falling against his armor the nearer he gets.
Artinaz reaches the shield, gripping the edges and pulling himself up onto the charred, convex surface. The heat is still potent enough to singe clothing and sear skin, yet he is able to ignore both. The footfalls stop behind him. As Artinaz looks over his right shoulder, the focus returns. Time slows yet again. He watches as the chains across the Dreadnaught’s chest slowly fall back into place against the metal of the armor. Looking further up, he watches as the bone club slowly raises above the Devil’s head. The eyes begin to glow towards their flash. In this moment, Artinaz rolls over.
The beams streak down at him but hit the mirror shine of the shield’s underbelly instead, instantly reflecting back at the Dreadnaught. The skull on his right pauldron gets blasted off of the armor, disintegrated by it’s own power. The beam reflected back at the left skull cuts through the Devil’s armor just beneath the pauldron and burns a gaping, cauterized canyon up to his neck. At the same time, the reflected flash of the beams blinds the imposing warrior. He claps his right gauntlet over his eyes and stumbles backward, his left arm hanging by a thread as smoke rises from the burnt flesh in the wound. The skull begins screaming maniacally. The crowd gasps in surprise and quiets with shock.
Artinaz knows this is it, his one chance to upset the expectation. He grabs the bone club but it is incredibly heavy. Dropping it at once, the boy searches around for a weapon, any weapon. There, many feet away, lies his falchion, the blade still glowing red from the energy beam. He stumbles as he runs, falling the last few feet to land right in front of it. Artinaz grabs the charred grip but a new sensation of pain rips into his hand from the heat. He buries it in the sand to get it to subside, and then quickly scoops handful after handful on top of the grip to dull the temperature. Still warm, he ignores the pain this time and snatches the weapon up. Artinaz sprints for the Devil. The blinded man rotates towards him. The boy leaps through the air and chops down. The heated blade slips into the canyon and courses through the remaining layers of bone, muscle, and metal. The Dreadnaught’s left arm is severed at the shoulder and drops to the ground. The warrior straightens up in pain, arching it’s back and turning it’s head to the ceiling in a soundless cry. Artinaz pulls his blade back and steps into his thrust, driving the tip of the falchion through the breastplate and into the Devil’s stomach. He pushes with both hands and all his might, burying the weapon up to the hilt in his enemy. Letting go, he steps back once, twice, and inclines his head to look at the man. The crowd, in a roar earlier, now sits still with anticipation.
The armor clad hand of the Dreadnaught’s right arm shoots forward, snatching him around his neck. The crowd cheers as Artinaz desperately tries to free himself from the iron grip. The Devil looks down at him and forces his face up. Despite the chain holding it shut, Artinaz can see the corners of the man’s mouth turned upward in a twisted grimace, The Dreadnaught hoists him up and taking a few steps with his long stride, slams him against the nearest stone column. A strangled cry escapes him as the tip of some implement skewers his left foot. There Artinaz sits, his neck constricting, his air leaving him, his eyes bulging in the dwindling moments of his life. Giving up on pulling against the Devil’s grip, he flails and kicks about in panic, freeing his impaled foot while his hands and arms get cut and stuck on the instruments around him. His right hand lands on the hilt of a sword and Artinaz grasps it tightly.
A cooling sensation comes from the hilt, immediately soothing the burns and radiating heat. Before both their eyes the hilt liquefies and coats his hand in a reflective silver. The coating travels quickly up Artinaz’s arm. The Dreadnaught watches with growing dismay as it goes over the slave’s shoulder, up his neck, and covers his head. Then the liquid drains into the boy’s eyes, filling them up, and then they flash. The Devil tries to squeeze, to snap the whelp’s neck, but to no avail. The silver liquid pours out in reverse, but much faster this time. When it reaches his hand, it immediately forms into a glimmering bastard sword. The Dreadnaught looks back from the sword to stare Artinaz in the eye. The boy smiles at the man before he swings the blade, cutting himself loose by lopping off the Devil’s other arm at the elbow.
The warrior stumbles backward, tossing his armless torso back and forth in agony. Artinaz lands softly and rushes forward, feeling rejuvenated, and immediately presses his attack. He closes in and cuts with a double handed slash across the Devil’s upper thigh. Spinning, he pulls his sword back, but when he lances it forward, the sword liquefies and reforms into a spear, hitting the Dreadnaught in the right shoulder. The spearhead cuts through the armor and stabs a new wound into the man, who reels back from the hit. Pulling back the spear, the weapon liquefies yet again. He brings his right hand back behind him and when he throws it forward, the spear has turned into a whip. It wraps around the Devil’s legs three times. Artinaz pulls with both hands and the man’s feet go out from under him. The Dreadnaught lands with a massive crash as Artinaz unravels the whip and reforms it yet again. The Devil scrambles up to his knees as the boy runs forward. The man looks up just in time to see Artinaz leap forward, bastard sword outstretched, before he brings it around and cuts the top of the Dreadnaught’s head clean off. Blood and brains racing over his pale skin, the fabled warrior falls forward, spilling the remaining contents of his skull into the sand.
Artinaz lands facing the Khan’s section, chest rising and falling in deep, controlled breaths. His eyes stay locked on the ruler, his sword out to his side, a deep smile across his face. Slowly, very, very slowly his focus dissipates, and Artinaz becomes aware of his surroundings. The crowd remains in stunned silence, everyone on their feet, no one knowing what to do. Somewhere far in the stands, where the peasantry sits, someone yells out.
“Rubilacxe! It’s Rubilacxe the Foretold!”
It builds slowly from that same section, the peasantry stamping their feet in synchronization with the three part chant. Repeatedly they call out, “Ru-bi-lacxe! Ru-bi-lacxe! Ru-bi-lacxe!”
Now cheers and applause mix in as the chant spreads. Everyone in the stadium, no matter their race or affiliation, no matter the fact that they were just rooting for his death, now scream for his divinity. A rival chant of “Fore-told! Fore-told! Fore-told!” begins and spreads in another part of the audience. It quickly grasps the voices of all the spectators in the arena, and the entire colosseum reverberates with the syncopated rhythm of the crowd. Artinaz looks down at his right hand, wrapped around the hilt of Rubilacxe, the legend come to life.
In his hand.
And then just as suddenly as it was there, the sword liquefies and drops from him to the floor, leaving his skin perfectly healed in the process. It forms a modest puddle next to his foot which quickly drains into the the sand, and then it is gone. Artinaz looks up, connections forming in his mind, the mind of a boy, not the improbably victorious gladiator he just was moments ago. Wide eyed he stares at the royal section. The Khan places his hands on the top of the stone wall and pushes himself up from his throne to full height, headdress and robes glittering in the light. The crowd sees this and immediately quiets, the last few iterations of “Foretold” dying on the wind. The colosseum sits in silence.
The Khan looks down from his seat of power.
Artinaz stares up from the arena floor.