"Marked" Chapter - 1i

A mere man tries to defy an Emperor - one crazed with his own power. But can one man achieve so much with so little? With all the odds stacked against him, Karden Klash attempts to dethrone the cause of all the despair and madness in Zaria.

 

The driving rain lashed ferociously against Karden Klash, buffeting him so hard that he had to lean, squinting into the howling wind. Dimly lit by torches that encircled the arena’s drenched and sandy floor, Klash, through flashes of lightning, was only briefly able to steal glances at his meagre, impatiently waiting enemies. A deep roll of thunder eagerly trailed each flash.

He had no idea what time of day it was; the constant darkness was wearing him down, suffocating him as he fought for freedom from the dark tendrils vying to tie him, and the rest of the mortal world, down. He needed to see the Light again… he feared he was going insane.

The years of fighting leading up to this moment had not been too unkind to him, though his face bore more than a fair share of jagged scars. He had grown to enjoy the violent games; the rush of adrenaline that could only be realised after one had killed a man. In spite of his battle-hardened appearance, there was a rugged handsomeness that came with his dominating presence. Even though the powerfully built gladiator was only that – a gladiator – he hosted a powerful air of authority; when he spoke, people jumped to do his bidding. It was this that made him so deadly, so dangerous.

He was their only hope; the time to use that authority had almost come. The time for change was here.

The arena had become Klash’s life, with growing fame came an ever-growing wage. Confining himself to his father’s blacksmiths, Klash had laboriously worked throughout the long and humid nights by the sweltering furnaces, laced with a thick layer of coal dust. Investing all the money he had won through spilling the blood of others, Klash shaped the finest armour: intricate in design, yet sturdy and trustworthy too.

So rarely was Klash actually struck whilst in combat, that his armour had become more of a means for recognition on the streets than for actual protection. Though he was but a mere slave by definition, he was still a hero… but this had not always been the case.

The Zarian people had never had a violent past; their culture was that of any other farming town: with a closely-knit society everyone got by on what products could be sold at the time. Once peaceful and honest, the Zarians had nothing to do with any of their large neighbouring cities. They were dirty and vile places to live, with all kinds of filth walking around in the alleys and flowing in the gutters. In these places, the sun never truly rose.

Not wanting to start any conflicts, the welfare of the people of little, defenceless Zaria was controlled by the inconsistent taxes placed on trade. Yet, no one complained; how could they? The Zarian army didn’t even exist at the time.

Old and nearing the end of his days, the aged and heavily wrinkled King pondered oftentimes upon his golden throne, his love for his suppressed people causing him much anguish and heartache. But in spite of his status, he was as much of a bystander as any of the other Zarians. From the poorest slave to the King himself, all simply waited for the day that they could be free to trade as equals, the day when they could truly live their lives.

But that day never came.

As the years drew slowly on, the almost incomprehensible and babbling King fell badly ill. Local doctors said he had no chance, the disease was not one for which they had an easily accessible cure. In order to buy the cure, they would have to travel to Kallas, both too far and too expensive, thus surely sealing the kindly King’s fate. But with one last attempt a party of six including nobles, diplomats and experienced doctors were sent with all of the remaining gold and silver from the ever-dwindling palace treasury.

Somehow they never came back, the King passed away exactly a year a go to this day.

It was after that that things began to really change.

The King’s only son, Gebrius claimed what was rightfully his. After being so sure of retrieving a cure, the people grieved at the sudden loss, inevitable as it was anyway with the King’s age. Without any gold left in the empty treasury, King Gebrius set about changing the very culture of the ancient but tranquil land of Zaria. First he called Zaria and the rolling, lush green farmlands that encased it the ‘Zarian Empire’; he became Emperor Gebrius and the Zarian army was formed to ‘protect’ the lands from jealous invaders and though some saw through his subtle and well-constructed plans for conquest, they were silenced – disappearing from their homes in the night. The rest either saw a new beginning; one where people were proud and wealthy and unafraid, or they were simply too scared to speak out against the tyranny. He cleverly fed the people lies where possible, letting them grow into a seeming reality; tricking the people his father had loved so dearly down a path from which they could not return.

Slowly, he preached the heretical notion of the Dark One.

So, the wiry young Emperor restored the people’s lost faith, rekindled their hope and gave them a new cause in life. Those able-bodied people whose businesses had collapsed became soldiers; that rabble soon becoming a well-disciplined army. An arena was built as they ravaged the larger neighbouring lands that, lulled into a false sense of security over the years, stood no chance.

No help was rallied. The enemies of the Zarian Empire were all crushed for their ‘sins’.

No longer a peaceful nation, the Zarian Empire became savage; the streets became just as dangerous as the daunting grey cities had seemed but a year a go. Now, Zaria itself had grown tenfold in size, its dull grey mass stretching further than the eye could see. The farms folk had now grown accustomed to the winding, dark alleyways; the inexperienced Emperor, unable to cope with the rapid expansion, was forced to station some of his new soldiers wherever there was space on the rough streets. Crime and violence was rife, people lay bleeding in the streets as people paced quickly by as if trying to block out the horrors surrounding them, choking them and their freedom. But they couldn’t – they had grown accustomed to death.

And every scream only hungered Him.

The Emperor let the anger and hate sweep across the streets, not caring about life as he nonchalantly gazed out from his grand palace. It had been relocated; the ancient and sacred palace in which the royal family had lived for generations had been torn down without a moment’s hesitation, its smooth marble used in the making of the demonic and grotesque arena. Those unlucky enough to live close enough slept sleepless nights, for the air they breathed carried pitched screams, bloodcurdling mortal cries cut short by death.

The Zarian Empire had given birth to a mob. They were savage and aggressive, forsaking human life for their own blood-fuelled lawless lives.

And here Klash stood, one of the many nightmare children born into this new world of hate. He lived for the kill, lusted after more blood, yet he was no different from the others. His mother was murdered when Klash was only small, like many others she bled to death on the cold, filthy streets. Klash’s father found her broken body days later… He would mope around, a broken man himself, for the rest of his miserable days. With their father a mess, Klash and his elder brother continued the running of their father’s blacksmiths. Between them, they failed to support themselves, running the admirable little business into the ground.

But… that one glorious day, those men had come. They had rescued both him and his brother. Before meeting and working for them, Klash had never even imagined that there could be those that were compassionate about life; those who sought nothing other than peace. Before meeting those men, he had never imagined that he could feel so safe… so sheltered under the blissful, warm light of belief.

Now he worked against the very thing that threatened to extinguish that light.

After meeting the strange men, Klash and his brother fought as gladiators and within a month had made a small sum of money… and a name for themselves. However, Klash was constantly following in his elder brother’s shadow. When he became arena champion, Klash saw his brother change, the fame driving him insane with power. He claimed that money was no longer a problem; Klash watched as his brother stole for them what they needed to survive against their weakening father’s will. Everywhere the two of them went, Klash waited as crowds of envious people surrounded them, staring in awe at the famous, incredibly designed sword. His brother told Klash that the battle-worn blade was called Hya’resha, meaning ‘loyal sentinel’ in an ancient and long forgotten tongue. Legends say that it has seen a thousand battles, every nick along the volcano-forged blade telling an epic story.

But this was not part of the plan. His brother had gone too far, and he was jeopardising the whole operation. After all that the Light had shown him… how could he betray it? He was left with only one option: he had to take control.

When the twisted Emperor discovered that the two were related, he ordered them to fight each other. Klash had watched his brother change into a criminal: heartless and cruel. He knew his brother’s technique, his strengths, but also his weaknesses.

But the months had passed without recognition since then, and – even in the arena – Klash had never felt so alone.

Standing tall, he looked down at the mighty, perfectly balanced weapon. Now he too had changed, being the arena champion did not make him a pitiless tyrant, more someone who valued the frequently squandered human life with an understanding far deeper than any of the witless heathens of this land..

But soon, things would be different.

The Emperor Gebrius had ordered a full week of violent games, staged famous battles and even fights against exotic and rare animals from the east, as a celebration of his father’s ‘unfortunate’ death. Now, after several battles, Klash stood, calm and ready, facing the relentless, biting wind.

Tonight was the night they took control.

The throne would be returned to the people this day.

“Give me strength. Let me be washed in your cleansing light, oh Light One. Give me the power to wash these lands clean of this filthy darkness.”

The resistance was about to strike out against the tyranny: the Emperor either failed to comprehend or simply failed to admit that he had taken them from being a peaceful and joyful nation that struggled every now and again, to a violent and sick nation of murdering savages. The people would not stand for this; there would finally be justice. Klash just needed the mob on his side, for it was them who truly controlled the Zarian Empire. The resistance had men in every high standing position in society; even the mighty wizard – his flawless belief so strong that light practically emanated from his skin – stood anonymously next to the Emperor himself.

Nothing could go wrong now; when the time came, Gebrius would be banished from this world. His failure would send him to the afterworld for eternity.

 

The End

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