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.
Captain Dunstan heard the footsteps approaching his cell. He eased himself off his prison cot and rubbed his forehead. A prison guard stopped outside and opened the cell door. A priest entered, followed by a tall man in black robes who carried a thick scroll in his hands. Captain Dunstan almost laughed, but decided he hadn’t the energy to do so. “My sins?” he asked, nodding towards the scroll. “You sure it’s thick enough?”
The tall man didn’t answer. The priest held out his hand towards the captain. A bracelet of prayer beads dangled from the priest’s fingers. Dunstan shook his head.
The priest spoke softly. “Take them my son. They shall be a comfort to you.”
Dunstan glanced at the priest’s face, then down at the beads. There was little point in offending a man of the cloth. He gave a shrug and took the beads. “Thank you,” he murmured.
The priest nodded, made a Sign of the Hand. “Use each bead, for each question,” he said. He gave a curt bow and exited the cell. Dunstan watched him leave. What questions? And where were his last rites? Was he to die without a blessing?
“Are you ready, prisoner?” The tall man asked, unfurling the scroll.