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 to pick up exactly where we left off. We turn our gaze to the east, and the Great Coliseum of Bensalem, capital of Atlantis, where a young man named Dog is about to fight for his life.
“Dog, you must concentrate!” Quan Fa slapped Dog across the thigh with a stick. It stung for a moment, but Dog blocked it out and concentrated on his breathing. “You should not have killed him. “You should not have killed him. You must take care not to hurt the Emperor’s favourites.”
The pre-match training room beneath the coliseum reeked of sweat and fear. Electric lights cast their glow across rows of wooden benches and equipment racks. Currently only Dog’s equipment hung from the racks, and the large room was empty except for him and Quan Fa.
“He was too good for me to manage a disabling attack.” Dog winced in preparation for the coming blow; Quan Fa hated excuses. It never came.
“Then I have failed you. Emperor Ellil will see you face a harder task today. You must kill without hesitation if you are to survive.”
“Do you wish to survive?”
Dog meditated on the thought for a while. “Yes Master.”
“Then let loose your inner animal.”
Dog hesitated. Years of training kept his inner animal at bay. When Dog had arrived on a slave ship from Africa he had been full of anger and hate. He’d snapped and bit at his Atlantean masters until they gave up trying to train him and shipped him off to fight in the pits.
The first time had been five years prior; he’d been twelve at the time. They threw him and a large mongrel dog, both half-starved, into a pit with a bowl of meat between them and not a weapon in sight. The mutt had gone for the bowl. His mistake; Dog had gone for the throat. He remembered the fierce thrill of sinking his teeth in, feeling the animal’s life blood rush across his lips.
After he’d survived his first dozen matches on pure rage, they’d handed him over to his Master. Quan Fa had taught him calm his mind, fight without anger, and kill only when necessary.
These thoughts trickled through Dog’s mind, his fear at returning to that animalistic state was so strong he could taste it, but even more than that, he wanted to live. “Yes Master.”
Heat shimmered off the sand of the Coliseum as Dog tried to find his inner animal. The sun beat down on his bits of armour and dark skin, leaving him hot and sweaty before the contest even began. They left him there, alone, for a long time. No doubt the Emperor wanted to prey on his nerves. Dog tried to build anger around that thought.
The glassy eyes of a dozen cameras trained on him. They would like to re-play his death in theatre newsreels for weeks. Dog wasn’t prepared to give them that satisfaction.
The crowd of Aesir started to boo and yell obscenities at him.
Dog spun slowly in place, staring at his tormentors. “If anyone among you is bored you can come down here and fight me yourself!”
They laughed at him. That sparked his anger. Not enough for a killing rage, but it got him going.
Three gates in the outer wall of the Coliseum opened at once, and three gladiators emerged. A hush swept through the crowd. That was when Dog realized the full extent of the Emperor’s displeasure. This is what killing his favourite brought. Three of the arena’s finest.
Kaz, an import from Japan, from all accounts a mighty soldier who had dishonoured his lord and, if rumour could be believed, had actually volunteered to serve as a gladiator. With his bamboo armour and wickedly fast sword-strikes he would be a challenge to handle all on his own.
Alyparsian the Tatar giant, who carried a metal-banded club the size of a tree trunk. Nine feet tall if he was an inch, and twice as broad across the shoulder as a normal man. Dog had been on his side for a team match several times, but he’d been nearly useless; Aly was a team all to himself.
Finally, Zeuxidamus the Greek, who had been retired from the Coliseum for several years. Dog had never seen him fight, but his exploits were legendary among gladiators. He carried the traditional trident and net, and had two short throwing spears slung across his back.
Any one of them would take everything Dog had.
The three men approached him as Dog spun slowly in place. At twenty yards they stopped.
“Dog, they want you dead.” Zeuxidamus spoke first. His Spartan helmet lent his voice a metallic quality.
“I kill you Dog…. Sorry.” Alyparsian slapped his club down into the palm of his left hand with a crack like thunder. He didn’t look very sorry.
Kaz said nothing, but bowed and drew his sword.
Dog flipped his dog-faced helm down on his head, checked the straps on his small, round shield and drew his gladius. “Come on then. Get it over with!”
Zeuxidamus shook his trident over his head and spoke as much to the audience as Dog. “There is no honour in this. I will not fight you three-on-one. If you defeat the other two, then I fight.” He planted the butt of his trident in the ground and leaned on it. The crowd booed.
Kaz bowed low to Zeuxidamus, knelt in the sand and lay his sword on the ground before him. The boos grew louder, some threw food at the gladiators, the gravest of insults, but it never came close to the four figures in the middle of the arena.
“Me first!” Alyparsian raised his club and shook it. The crowd roared in approval as Aly charged forward.
Dog circled to Alyparsians’s left, forcing the giant to slow his charge or go stumbling past his quarry, and keeping the massive club as far away as possible.
Between those long arms and the seven-foot shaft of the club, Aly’s reach was over ten feet, giving him easily six feet of advantage on Dog. The giant knew it too. He walked slowly toward Dog, club at the ready.
Dog took a quick step forward, then dodged back to test Aly’s reaction, but the giant refused the bait, marching steadily forward, pushing Dog toward the arena wall.
As Dog neared the outer wall, the food thrown by the spectators started to make footing difficult. He stepped on a piece of fruit and stumbled. Alyparsian leapt forward and swung his club flat and low to the ground.
Dog tumbled backward to avoid the worst of the blow, bracing his shield. The massive metal-sheathed end of the club crunched into Dog’s shield like a cannonball. The shield shattered under the impact. Dog rolled with the blow and landed on his stomach. His left arm was completely numb below the elbow from the force of the blow.
The crowd cheered and whistled.
The whistle of the club descending gave Dog just enough warning to roll aside. Sand leapt into the air, leaving a crater where Dog had lain a moment before.
The crowd moaned, disappointed to miss the spectacle of a man crushed flat.
Dog got to his feet and looked down at his damaged arm. The brass Dog-emblem on his round shield had been crushed flat, and the remainder of the shield hung in tatters from leather straps. His arm was laced with cuts and broken shards of wood, but the bones appeared unbroken.
Dog took a dozen quick steps backwards and worked his sword inside the leather straps of his shield. He twisted, pushed the blade deeper and they parted with a snap. The remains of his shield dropped to the sand. Released from the tension, feeling came back into his arm, excruciating pain, like it had been run over by a chariot.
No time for pain. Dog threw up mental blocks hastily to stem the sensation as Alyparsian closed on him.
The crowd booed as Dog retreated again. Those nearest began to pelt him with food and rocks.
A rock connected with the side of Dog’s head, exactly what he’d been waiting for. He faked a stumble and when Aly reacted with another low sweeping blow of his club, Dog darted forward and dove over the shaft of the club. He rolled in the sand and slashed at the giant’s legs.
Alyparsian shifted his momentum and tried for a backhanded swing, but Dog spun in behind him. Dog made an overhand slash for the giant’s back, but Aly dropped the heavy weapon and spun in time to deflect Dog’s sword on his forearm bracer.
The blow turned aside, Dog’s sword sliced through empty air, throwing him off balance.
Aly staggered around, blood seeping from a long gash along his thigh.
Dog flexed his left arm. Feeling beyond mere pain was returning. Blood ran down over his hand from the cuts and a splinter of wood the size of a fountain-pen was imbedded deeply between the bones of his forearm.
Alyparsian spread his arms and paced toward Dog. “You fight well Dog. Now come to me and die.”
Dog backed away. Aly’s eyes darted to the ground and Dog realized his mistake. The giant leapt forward to retrieve his club and Dog charged, sword raised over his head.
At the last second, Alyparsian abandoned his club and rose to face Dog bare-handed. Dog swung a vicious horizontal slice toward Aly’s shoulder, but the giant ducked and sprang forward, wrapping his arms around Dog’s chest.
The sword was knocked from Dog’s grasp by the impact, it fell to the dirt. Alyparsian roared and lifted Dog off the ground, squeezing tighter. Dog pounded the giant’s face with his fists, but he had no leverage, and Aly shrugged the blows off.
Aly looked to the audience and roared again. Then he began to bear down.
Dog could feel his bones grind together. He couldn’t draw breath. Black dots flickered from the edge of his vision. There was a groan and a crackle as his ribcage began to give way.
With the last of his energy, Dog reached for the pen-sized splinter of wood embedded in his arm. He jerked it free and stabbed deep into Alyparsian’s eye.
The roar turned to a howl. Aly reflexively dropped Dog, and with the last of his strength, Dog lashed out, punching the splinter deep into Alyparsian’s brain.
Aly looked surprised. He quivered for a moment, still standing. His last breath escaped in a sigh. Then the giant collapsed on the spot like a rag doll.
Dog collapsed too. His insides hurt. He coughed and tasted blood. Dimly he was aware of a shadow blotting out the sun.
He blinked and tipped his head back for a look. It was Kaz, standing over him, sword at the ready. Dog retched and spat blood and bile onto the sand. He clawed his way to his knees, then staggered to his feet. The world swam sideways through his vision, and he landed on the ground again.
Kaz stood over him. “When you are ready.”
Dog laughed, but it turned into a coughing fit, spraying more blood on the ground. He closed his eyes and tried to focus. He could hear the crunch of sand under Kaz’s feet. The Japanese warrior walked away, then returned.
The crowd was eerily silent. Dog opened his eyes again. Kaz stood a few feet away, holding Dog’s sword toward him, hilt first.
Dog took another breath. The air burned like he was inhaling fire. Something in the left side of his chest was badly broken, he could feel the broken ends of his ribcage gnawing away at his insides with every breath. Dog grimaced, and spat another gob of blood onto the ground. He grasped the sword and rose to his feet. The world didn’t spin too badly. He stumbled, but managed to remain erect. “You’ll regret that if I win.”
It was meant as a joke, but Kaz didn’t smile, instead he bowed low before Dog. “Then it is my honour to die before you.”
A bored murmur passed through the crowd.
Kaz bowed again. “They grow restless. I apologize for the inconvenience, but I think we must begin soon.”
“Fine,” Dog straightened up, “get this over with.” He raised his sword over his head and the crowd roared in response.