The arena was silent. I looked at the six mechanical monstrosities, then up at the crowd. None were cheering. None clapped their hands or stamped their feet. Brulum had overplayed his hand. He lacked his uncle Arak’s finesse. An empire was taken with fist, but held with heart.
A ruler who murdered his people, could never be loved. Arak knew that. The original fables of the great strength and prowess of the Altered—created to work where humans normally could not; the solar fields, the uranium mines and other equally harsh landscapes—turned to tales of barbarism and savage cruelty, when our purpose had been fulfilled. But Arak’s story weavers had proven too effective. The Altered still held some sense of awe and mysticism for the citizenry of Galicia.
We were the pure, the free, the ‘noble savage,’ they themselves often longed to be—but could never be. We bolstered their drowned dreams with the imagined possibilities of courageous action, and dynamic true-hearted purpose.
How could they sit and eat—like fat sedated cows, while their fellow beings were carted off like chattel?
Three lives gone is as many minutes…
I could not say I knew the bull, or the twin-headed warrior from the Outerworld of Aldron, but I did know their suffering. I knew every curse; every sneer, every glance of contempt that they experienced.
We all did.
I looked up at the crowd. They laughed and chatted among themselves, swapping gossip, gesturing greetings, occasionally glancing down as the Emperor’s soldiers removed the ‘debris’ from the arena floor. Had they really no empathy for us. None? I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Soldan. “Ulserra, join us.”
Obbas, my Master of Games hovered to my right, hoping to stay invisible. I could feel the eyes of some of the Council elders on me. All knew the water-bearer had come too close for comfort.
Someone had to pay, and dearly.
I flicked my eyes toward Obbas. He drew near. “Your Imperial Majesty, please forgive me. The Arissian was watched for months, Your Majesty. We could not have known she possessed such power.”
“Within the time —
A few of the Council members furtively glanced my way. I gestured to my Lord Marshall. When he was still a few feet away I spoke, loud enough for the right ears to hear. “Our Master of Games’s sight has weakened somewhat of late. Take out his eyes, and bring them to my personal physician. Perhaps he can remedy what ails them.”
A ripple of fear sparkled around me. My dear late uncle was right; there was no sensation quite as satisfying as placing terror into the hearts of men.
The lion man pulled away from me. “Why? Why are you helping me?
“Because—” I faltered. I looked around me, at the carnage. Two innocents dead, one about to die. The ones they had christened Aries, Scorpion and Taurus. Others knew them as brother, father…friend.
I had to tell the lionman, and the other players who did not know of our plot against the emperor. They had a right to know. “Warrior, there’s something—”
“I don’t form alliances,” the lion snapped. “I play a straight game. Yeah, I know that sounds hard to believe, Water Bearer, but I do, after my own fashion. You want partners, you’d best look elsewhere.”
A cry sounded near us. It was the bull. The crab man stood over him, a bloodied claw raised high, ready to strike. The wound in the bull’s side was wide enough to fit a human head. He lay on his side, his eyes turned upwards to the sky. His face looked – no…
He could not be serene. He was about to die.
The crab man’s claw came down with force. The clack of a shattered skull echoed around the arena.
Blood bubbled up to my throat. I spat it out. It wasn’t blood. It was bile mixed with mucus. I thanked the gods. No internal injury. But the pain – the pain still pumped through my body.
I took a breath and tried to keep the hurt at bay. My heartbeat played in tandem to the crowd’s chants.
Anger began to take over from my pain. I despised this. These people. This bout. This life.
I despised my life. Everything about it.
The cheer from the crowd was deafening. Emeran’s body was curled in upon itself, though his head still faced back into the arena. His eyelids were locked open. I followed the line of his lifeless stare. It was aimed at Maheras, the centaur. His assassin.
The crowd cheered out the centaur’s game title.
Maheras walked off, his back turned away from the crowd. And from me. I called out his name. “Maheras!” But he did not hear me. Or pretended not to. Well, he would hear me.
I closed my eyes, allowed his image to come to me. I would call him, and he would answer. He stopped dead in his tracks. I felt his fear. His fear weakened his aura. I readied myself.
The crab man’s severed claw splashed back down into the water. The bull gave another triumphant roar. I glanced at Soldan, he looked away. We had let the crab live. There was little else we could do – our greater purpose took precedence. I wondered if crabs were able grow their claws back. I’m sure their genetic ancestors could have…
The arena panels curved right up into the seating area. Soldan gestured towards a panel which had a sizeable dent running along the top. “You think you can hang on there? The waters will be drained soon.”
I wasn’t certain, but I nodded a yes. “What props you suppose are next?”
The fish man shrugged. “Well if they stay with the astrology theme, probably Earth, Wind and Fire. Whatever it’s going to be, it wont be straight forward. I have to organise a couple of the others. We need to strike as soon as we can.”
He hoisted me up onto the panel. I lowered my stomach into the panel’s rough crevice, and pushed against the sides with my tail and claws to gain some traction. It didn’t feel too slippery – might just hold until the waters died away. “I thought we were going to wait until we neutralised the straight players?”
Something was amiss. I’d been to enough bouts, and given enough performances to know something wasn’t right. Throw twelve of any kind of creature into a ring together and tell them only one can leave alive, tensions will arise. Palatable tensions. Gut-wrenching tensions.
We, the ‘altered’, were no exception. If anything, having survived years of abuse, our desire to live was that much stronger. But I did not feel that tension here. Not fully.
The Centaur’s floor show made no sense. Did he think the little brat upon his throne would show him mercy if he lost? Not a hope. But it was more than that.
I looked over at the lion man. He was pacing along the edge of the arena, his fist raised, pumping the air as he drummed up cheers from the crowd. Near the centre the bull was performing a similar display. The twin-headed Aldron was close to the front where the emperor sat, flexing his torso, first one side, then the other. The ram was thumping the ground, bucking his head into the air, then thumping the ground again.
But the rest were standing idle. They were…waiting? I couldn’t figure it out. I decided I didn’t care. Maybe they were hiding their fear well. Maybe they were just idiots. I was neither afraid nor enthusiastic about this fight. It was a job. And with a purse this large – my final job.
The lion man bounced ahead of us, his mane dancing behind him. A part of me could not but admire him. To play at life – no complexities, no grey areas, no doubts. Right or wrong, win or lose. He was completely ignorant of our cause, as were five of the others. A part of my envied their ignorance.
My torso reflected off the silver-plated shields of the Galacian sentries who lined the arena walls. I flexed my hind legs and pranced like a young colt as my tail splayed and sliced the air with confidence. I was thankful my years of practice in subterfuge hid my trepidation so well. I glanced over at Soldan – Pisces for this particular bout. His blue green scales flashed in the morning sun. His face was sombre, his movements fluid and composed. I took courage from his strength.
We moved slovenly towards the centre of the arena. The lion man was right about one thing. The roar of the crowd was deafening. A swell of faces full of wild glee, their lust for blood spilled down towards us and washed across the hard dirt beneath our feet. We felt it pool around us, clawing at our ankles, hungry to feed upon our suffering…and our inevitable demise.
When a hundred thousand souls are screaming for your death, begging for your dismemberment, baying for your blood, most folk would feel intimidated. But we weren’t most folk. I glanced around the holding chamber. The flyer had mentioned a zodiac theme this year, and I wondered if they’d thought up that selling point before or after they’d gathered up these freaks.
The two-headed Aldron representing Gemini was obvious enough, likewise the Minotaur for Taurus, and the hoofed and horned Durvan, all the way from the Iliad Nebula, for the ram of Aries. The rest, were a stretch of the imagination. Some of them I knew of from previous bouts, usually off-track planets that mixed arena touts with some bizarro element to amaze and amuse the little ones.
But this was the big time. Twelve thousand gold pieces to the winner. A grave for the losers – after their bodies were poked, piked and paraded around the Colosseum for a while of course. All good clean fun. For the Galacians at least.
Not my favourite clients, the Galacians. Loud, slobbering and rather unhinged. But they paid well, and on time. Twelve thousand Galacian gold coins. Enough to never have to play again.