The story so far…
Captain Tom Cain and the crew of the airship Hecate transported a gang of thieves and their ill gotten gains to Aethiopica on Atlantis while being pursued by the mysterious military airship, Actaeon. Tom, Agatha and Shorty were to escort the thieves to their buyer, and collect payment for Hecate’s service, but the thieves gave them the slip in a maze of alleys. When we left our trio they’d just been spotted by a group of soldiers from the military airship.
But we’re not going back to the crew of Hecate just yet. We turn our gaze to the east, the coliseum of Bensalem, capital of Atlantis, where a young man named Dog is badly injured after defeating a giant of a man, but he still has two of the coliseum’s finest to defeat if he wants to live.
Prologue Part 2
Dog circled Kaz, neither swordsman stepping within range of the other. The sun beat down across his shoulders.
Every whisper of feet on sand came clear to Dog’s ears. The audience had fallen into a dead hush. He could feel thousands of eyes prickling into his skin, behind each pair the same thought, could this young upstart actually win?
Dog made a quick lunge forward and stepped back, and felt something tear inside his chest. The pain was nearly unbearable, even with the dampening techniques Quan Fa had taught him. Kaz didn’t even flinch. He held his sword in front of him, tip downward and circled Dog with purposeful steps.
“Hai!” Kaz lunged forward and lashed out with his sword. Dog darted back and the tip missed his skin by a hair.
Breath came hard, just circling with Kaz was making Dog wheeze for air. No matter how deeply he tried to inhale, there just didn’t seem like enough. His whole chest was a mass of bruises, and he was pretty certain many of his ribs were broken. Every step, every breath was agony, but he did his best to tune it out.
“Hai!” Kaz lunged again. This time Dog was a little slow. The tip of the blade scratched his chest and stomach, leaving a shallow cut, beading crimson behind.
Every gasp seemed to give Dog less air than the last. He staggered around like a drunk, coughing up more blood. The tip of his sword dropped, and then dragged in the sand, as Dog lost the strength to hold it aloft and circle with Kaz at the same time.
Kaz frowned. Probably reluctant to kill such a weakened foe. Kaz was not an animal, he would never be an animal, not like Dog. Kaz steeled himself, his muscles tensed. He was going to make one more lunge and Dog couldn’t dodge, he could barely stand upright.
Dog’s mind drifted for a moment. Back to his first day with Quan Fa as his trainer. He’d been taking a beating from Quan Fa’s wooden sword. Somehow, no matter what he’d tried Quan Fa had anticipated. Dog had grown frustrated, and he’d thrown his sword at his trainer. Quan Fa had simply stepped aside as the wooden blade spun harmlessly past, then he’d proceeded to thrash Dog to the brink of death. Even though he’d been barely conscious, Dog always remembered his master’s words.
As he’d lain there, beaten and broken, Quan Fa had bent down and said, “Dog, you never throw your sword. One time in a thousand, you may get lucky, the rest of the time you are leaving yourself defenceless. Never throw your sword.”
Kaz stood there, frozen. The crowd urged him on, roaring for Dog’s blood. Kaz took a step forward for his final attack, and Dog threw his sword.
Dog never knew why Kaz didn’t simply sidestep the clumsily thrown blade. Perhaps he’d been distracted, or maybe he’d just wanted to die. In any case, the weapon spun through the air toward him. It seemed to take forever, hanging there, frozen in time. Kaz raised his sword high over his head, and Dog’s blade spun on.
“Hai!” Kaz shouted, and began to draw his blade downward just as the tip of Dog’s sword entered his chest. Kaz’s face twisted into a brief smile, then he collapsed.
Dog lay beside Kaz, gasping for air. He couldn’t remember falling. One moment he was standing, the next he was not. His vision swam with black dots. He felt the toe of a boot prodding him. “You’re not done yet.” Zeuxidamus stood over him, haloed by the sun.
Everything was a blur. Dog blinked to try and clear his vision.
Zeuxidamus was just a dark smudge walking circles around him, orating aloud for the audience’s benefit. “Emperor Ellil brought me out of retirement so I could kill you.”
Dog fought his way to his hands and knees, reached out for his sword and pulled it free from Kaz’s corpse. A coughing fit overcame him and he collapsed back to the ground.
“You’ve killed the first two, but you won’t kill me…. I am the only gladiator ever to go undefeated over five-hundred matches.” He turned to face the Emperor’s viewing box. “I killed for you! Hundreds of men, for your entertainment! And you promised me a quiet retirement, you said no more killing! Now I know what your word is worth.” Zeuxidamus spat on the sand of the coliseum. The crowd gasped.
“All of you! You’re fat and lazy! Slaves do the work, slaves entertain you, die for your pleasure!” Zeuxidamus backed several paces away, and lowered his trident toward Dog’s chest.
Dog tried to rise to his feet, but there wasn’t any air. He stumbled and fell hard on the ground, tried to rise again, but there was nothing left.
“The Emperor wants you dead Dog!” Zeuxidamus charged across the sand. “But as far as I’m concerned, he can get off his fat ass and come do it himself!” Zeuxidamus reversed the trident. He ran toward Dog with the three tines pointing straight toward his own chest. At the last moment, he lowered the butt of the weapon to the ground. It caught and held. Zeuxidamus continued his suicide charge, impaling himself on his own trident.
Dog collapsed into darkness. He could hear the sand blowing across the coliseum with a slight breeze. Everyone in the audience was holding their breath in shock. Footsteps approached, then rough hands rolled him onto a stretcher.
“He’s still alive.”
“Get him to the ambulance then.”
“Emperor wants him dead.”
“Rules say we do what we can for the live ones. If Emperor Ellil wants him dead, he’ll have to try again.”
There was a jolt of pain across his chest as the men lifted the stretcher and Dog blacked out.
“Collapsed lung! Get me a chest tube.”
Dog was staring at a ceiling in a brightly lit room. People bustled around him, but everything seemed fuzzy, unreal.
“Chest tube, doctor.”
Something stabbed deep into Dog’s ribcage and he felt the pressure in his chest subside.
“He’s coming around.”
“Give him another shot of morphine.”
Dog strained to sit up. Something was happening to him… his thinking was fuzzy, he’d been hurt in the arena.
“Get it in him now, before he pulls this tube out!”
A light prick in the shoulder. Warmth spread through Dog’s body, he relaxed and slipped back into darkness.
>toc< >toc< >toc< Repetitive sound, a little like wooden swords clashing, but more regular. It was approaching Dog’s bed. He opened his eyes. Curtains hung round him, and there was a low murmur of several quiet conversations at once.
The noise stopped, and his curtain was pulled aside by a grey-haired nurse. Dog tried to think back. Memories came slowly, bouncing through his mind in random order, reassembling into the full picture one piece at a time.
“I see you’re awake again. Feeling better dear?”
Dog tried to sit up, but his arms were pinned down. He looked at his wrists and found they were bound to the rails of his bed by steel manacles. “How long have I been here?”
“Oh, bless your heart. You ask me that every day.” The nurse walked to the foot of Dog’s bed and pulled up a clipboard. “Almost a month now. You’ll be back in the arena in no time.”
Back in the arena…. After last time the Emperor would be livid. Dog grinned as he remembered some of the things Zeuxidamus said before he died. More than livid. Ellil would be in a frothing rage. He’d probably throw Dog into the arena naked and hobbled with his wrists chained behind his back next time.
“Thank you for fixing me up.”
“Dear me, it’s the least we can do.”
“I am sorry that all of your hard work will be undone as soon as I get back.”
The nurse patted Dog’s hand. “Now now, don’t you worry about that love. Time for your medicine.” Before Dog could object she’d stabbed him in the shoulder with a hypodermic needle. She pressed the plunger home.
Warmth and tiredness spread through Dog’s bones.
The nurse slid a tray of food over his bed. “Now, you eat quick dearie, before those meds knock you out.”
Dog was already starting to feel woozy. He looked at the food. “What did you give me?” When he looked back up the nurse was gone, and the curtain swung gently.
“Wake up Dog!” A splash of something cold hit his face.
Motion. Bouncing around on rough streets. Dog opened his eyes. He was in the back of an ambulance, transport back to the arena no doubt.
Quan Fa was there. He shook Dog by the shoulders. “Wake up!”
“I am awake.”
“Ahh, good. You have to hurry.”
“Next stop, corner of Peta and Kibrat Street. You get out there. Make sure no one sees you. Make way to Kanpa boulevard and turn right. Go until you see the green lantern in a window. Knock on the window and wait.”
“Master I do not understand.”
“You will, in time.”
Dog was surprised to find he could sit up. All of his restraints were gone. “Where do I go after that?”
“They will tell you, better if I do not know.”
“What will I do? I have no trade.”
“Just escape, leave Atlantis. When you have experienced life outside, you will see what is rotten inside. When you know right from wrong, do what you can to help fix this place.”
“Me? I would not know where to start.”
Quan Fa nodded. “Reading a thousand books will not teach as much as travelling a thousand miles.”
“What does that mean? Master, I have no time for your riddles.”
The brakes squealed and the ambulance began to slow.
“This is it Dog, when it stops, you must go. You will understand what you need when you need it.”
Dog frowned, but he knew from experience that pressing Quan Fa would lead nowhere. “They will kill you if they find out you helped me.”
“Then so be it. I have lived long, but you have the chance to live well.” Quan Fa opened the rear door of the ambulance and shoved Dog into the night. “Peace be with you.” He closed the doors, and the ambulance drove away in a cloud of diesel exhaust.
Dog was left standing on a wide boulevard, lined with buildings, columns, and open terraces all made of white marble that glowed in the moonlight. Rows of trees and hedges lined the sides of the road. In the distance he could hear music and laughter.
The warm night air was sweet with the scent of lush gardens. He stood for a while, breathing the strange new smells in, staring about him in wonderment, frozen to the spot in bemusement. Just like that he was a free man, his destiny in his own hands for the first time in his life.
For the first half-hour his walk was peaceful, but Dog’s mind would not stay quiet. The brisk air, and the exercise cleared up the muzziness he’d felt from the drugs. He wondered if Quan Fa would be okay, why Zeuxidamus had given his life like that, what life outside Atlantis would be like, or for that matter, what he would do when he got there. All he’d ever been good at was fighting. It was all he remembered.
A motorcar approached at high speed, and Dog stepped back into the hedge he was walking beside. He was wearing only a pair of short, undyed breeches and his dark skin helped him blend in with the night.
The vehicle shone a searchlight at the side of the road, but it sped past too quickly for the passengers to see Dog.
A few minutes later, another automobile cruised past. This one was moving more slowly. Dog got some deep scratches worming his way back into the hedge.
Over the next hour, dozens of vehicles crisscrossed his path. In the distance, Dog even saw a couple of airships, their giant spotlights lancing through the night, scanning the streets. In the distance he could hear men shouting and dogs baying.
It took another hour of worming his way from hedge to hedge and darting across open streets for him make it the last five blocks. The green lamp was barely more than a flicker. If he hadn’t been looking for it he’d never have noticed.
When he knocked on the window, he was greeted by a grizzled old slave. “We’ve been expecting you.”
Dog moved from house to house over the next weeks. Walking from one to the next during the night. Always he was greeted by a slave and guided to a cellar, a barn, a hayrick. They fed him, clothed him, told him of their lives when they had a moment to spare, and let him know where to find the next stop on the path.
At last in a villa near the mountains, the slave who was caring for him, a middle-aged woman, said, “This is the end of the road.” She pointed at a row of mountains in the distance. “Through that pass and you’re out of the Inner Precincts. I’ve been told you can see Aetheopica from the other side. Go there, and find passage away from Atlantis.”
She gave him cheese and a blanket, and after two nights of sleeping rough, Dog found himself lost among throngs of people in the big city. He’d have felt comfort there, anonymous among so many others of different colours and sizes, except that his face was plastered onto every wall, in every alley. There were words below his picture. When he first arrived he asked a stranger what they meant.
The man told him, “Wanted, dead or alive.” He turned to look Dog in the face, went white and backed away slowly. After a few paces, the man turned and ran, screaming for the constables.
After that Dog kept to the back alleys, hiding his face, and ducking out of sight every time another person approached.
So, when he heard a large number of people running toward him at high speed, it was only natural for him to duck into the nearest alley, and hide himself behind the pile of garbage bins he found there.
“In here!” someone called.
He heard three sets of footsteps run past him and stop, then a larger group ground to a stop directly in front of his hiding spot.
A commanding voice cried out, “Raise your hands so we can see them, and come out of there peacefully. We have you surrounded. There is no possible escape.”