The once dull blade now turned a bright orange, reflecting the flickering arena torches as they danced, struggling against the next commanding gale. The arena was almost home to him, its familiar structure was designed to be intimidating, and Klash could understand that stereotype – a lot of people died on the sandy floor where he stood.
But now, he was confident.
He stole a brief glance at the monstrous carvings that clung fiercely to the monumental pillars that surrounded the lower section of the arena walls, supporting the large upper stands. The carvings seemed almost alive, Klash was glad that they were not: they were appalling appellations, demonic creatures: sharp needle-like teeth protruded from their misshapen faces as they grimaced, wide-eyed at the centre of the arena. It was made very evident that, right from the start, you were entering a place of death.
Opposite the Emperor’s elaborate, marble laden box stood the grand oak doors. They were thick and robust, the only entrance into the bloody pit – they were also the only way out. Klash was one of very few people who had passed back down the pitch-black tunnels. A survivor.
The doors, too, bore several menacing emblems and carvings depicting the evil actions of several of the dark gods now worshipped by the Zarians. The most dominant and horrifying symbol was that of a hideous snake wrapping itself slowly around each of the colossal doors. The snake itself was made of pure gold; its eyes were valuable gems and glinted out menacingly in the torchlight as its body tried to squeeze shut the gates.
The idol was a sinister sight to behold; even Klash avoided it in spite of the fact that he could feel it behind him, almost hissing his name. It is widely believed that a gladiator who gazes into the beasts’ eyes when in the arena shall die that day.
Klash had noticed his brother do just that, it was that distraction that had cost him his life.
The upper and lower sections of the arena separated the rich, noble and honoured people of Zaria from the filthy peasants below: the murderers and rapists thriving on the intrinsic disorder. Whilst the commoners bustled and fought for better views as they stood in the thick mud, the noblemen, advisors to the Emperor, and any important visitors sat above the chaos, watching quietly, gambling on who would be killed first. Closest to the Imperial box sat the soldiers who were not on duty, and the most important of the officers.
At least they were still here, but Klash had to be quick: they marched for Demon’s Gate tomorrow. After that, who knew how far the marauding army would tear into the rest of the world.
They had to be stopped, now.
The time for change had come – long live the Light.
Another bolt of lightning illuminated the highest, furthest away rows of the upper section; a large stone roof that curled upwards near the inside of the arena covered the rows of sloping seats. It was an ingenious design that acted just like the gutters in the street, channelling the rainwater down onto the corners of the drenched arena floor. This made the ground uneven and dangerous – more interesting for the rich and powerful as they sit dry, watching the stumbling gladiators below.
Squinting hard, Klash thought he could see the Emperor, silhouetted against the torchlight, entering his royal box. A bulky guard posted at either side, Gebrius simply watched as the crowd shouted restless and eager demands. Let them wait: Klash knew that by waiting longer, the crowd would enjoy the fight all the more as they would be more worked up.
Klash would give them the best fight they had ever seen. He was ready.
As the rain thrashed around in the wind, Klash relaxed a bit as the Emperor finally stepped forward into the light. His features were not ugly, but neither were they handsome. The man was simply too normal to be an Emperor. His noncommittal, long black hair was tied back neatly into a long braid stretching down to his waist, making his slightly larger than average nose protrude all the more from his pale face. Only slightly taller than most men, Gebrius failed to stand out due to his wiry build.
The man was a fool; birthright was the only reason that this traitor stood before them now, trying to act regally. Tradition had cost the Zarian people everything they had ever had; yet they do not even remember those times. Peace was but a distant memory – one destroyed along with the balance…
Pray Light, let the balance be restored. Let another have the strength to take my place if I fail, thought Klash. He could feel the familiar warmth welling up inside him. He would not fail; the Light One had blessed him. No matter what happened – even if Klash went to hell and back; even if it killed him, and he had to walk Irn as an already dead spirit… He would succeed. He had to, for everyone’s sake.
Extending one bony hand out to the crowd, they finally started to fall silent. The Emperor cursed and drew his hand back suddenly as he extended it too far and into the rain, he grumbled to the rumbling sky as he waited for the disorderly peasants to die down. They were always the last.
Looking around the vast numbers of rich and poor, young and old, the Emperor made the best attempt he could to meet every single pair of waiting eyes. In waiting, he had brought them right to the edge of their benches in anticipation. Any longer and they would explode with frustration. In a well-practiced manner, the Emperor let the words calmly slip of the end of his tongue, speaking in a manner that showed that he was above such nonsense, such senseless violence – Klash could have laughed aloud at such a notion: it had been Gebrius who had created such wide-spread killing in the first place.
“You five are gathered here today, standing in the pouring rain,” the young man began slowly. “You stand before the great people of the Zarian Empire, and you are but peasants. No, you kill in order to make money and that is worse!” The crowd began to shout their hatred for the savages before them, but Klash knew that that would all change very quickly. Soon they would be chanting his name.
The Emperor regained his composure and continued, his hand coming up to quiet the rowdy crowd. “But I, your generous Emperor have given you the chance to walk free from this life of madness, and give you fame and wealth beyond your imagination. Now, you shall fight and redeem yourselves of the sins that you have committed.” The crowd cried in joy at their Emperor’s magnanimous display of mercy, hailing him. Klash noticed some members of the audience glancing down at Klash in between irregular flashes of lightning. They wanted that person to be him; they knew it would be so. Glancing subtly to his left, Klash could faintly make out the faces of two large men in the peasants’ row. They stood a clear head above any of the others, their broad shoulders set with the burden of carrying their extraordinarily large forearms as they rested, folded against their chest, rising and falling rhythmically with their calm breathing. They too were members of the resistance, good friends of Klash’s – neither of the two nodded: they knew what the price for failure was in this dangerous task. Better to stay anonymous where possible on the streets of Zaria. With a slight nod, the two men began moving. It had started.
The Emperor finished his speech, and a deadly silence prevailed. The great Emperor shuffled forward closer to his balcony and rested his silk-draped forearms on the cold marble ledge before him. Careful not to get wet, the Emperor lent forwards as much as he could, making sure that the rain was only falling on the gladiators. His gaze fell on Klash, who met it with ferocity, though he was unsure if the Emperor was even of mind to notice it.
Slowly but surely, through the pounding rain and whistling wind, a man to Klash’s right could be heard. At first it was but one voice, however, as others became aware of the chant they too joined in. Soon the brave man’s effort had swept around the whole of the arena and the chanting gained momentum until it seemed as though everyone in the arena was joining in. Klash, Klash, Klash, they chanted over and over again, Klash could have jumped with joy. It was starting, the people were cheering for Klash almost as loudly as they had for the Emperor. Needing to get them going, Klash took one bold step forward before drawing the famous blade. He thrust it into the air, drowning out both the sharp ring of steel and the crowd’s rhythmic chanting with a pitched battle-cry. A roar sounded from the lower level, the guards struggled to hold the peasants back as they verged on rioting. Scattered amongst the crowd were more hooded figures, not jubilant like the rabble. They watched Klash’s every move, their shrouded eyes not missing a single step. As he had thrust the sword into the air, Klash could discern the almost imperceptible stiffening of their muscles as they recognised the signal. Klash slowly turned his brutal glower on the Emperor, still frozen in position on his balcony. Though, for someone with such a reputation for his temper, he managed to keep remarkably composed. Nevertheless, Klash could see his almost shaking in rage. Making the Emperor lose his temper may give him the edge he would need to triumph.
The Emperor quickly straightened, scowling at the rabble as they punched the icy air around them. Again, he shot his hand into the air, demanding immediate silence. It took what seemed forever for everyone to finally settle down, the guards sheathed their weapons, an array of axes, swords and crossbows – no doubt there had been attempts to stop the violent members of the lower sections of the arena. Klash wondered just how much the people would be willing to fight for freedom from their oppressors when the time came.
When the Emperor finally returned to glaring down at Klash, Klash mustered the cruellest smile he could. He wanted the Emperor to realise what was coming, wanted him to sit there and watch his Empire unravel around him. However, Gebrius reacted in a way that shocked him. As Klash’s expression turned from a malicious smile to a confused frown, the unstable Emperor simply smiled – the man was deranged.
“Listen to them, Gladiator,” he exclaimed sardonically, like a vulture from his little, dry nest. The man leaned forward right into the pouring rain, from what Klash could see, he had a crazed expression of wide-eyed joy on his face. “They love you! They chant your name!” The man was now shouting hysterically. The arena champion was pleased that the Emperor was showing his real side to the people of Zaria, however, his bizarre calm was unnerving. He was aggravated, hysterical – maybe – but not angry.
“I am just a gladiator, Emperor.”
“Oh no, you are so much more…”
Gebrius smiled, his lips curling up in a sickening fashion, the man was hideous, like the carvings encasing the monumental arena. A mouse could have been heard to scurry; so intense was the frightening silence. The Emperor lost a mental battle and changed his tone to one of sympathy. “Yet, you don’t look like a hero, do you, Karden Klash? More like a drowned rat.” The man sniggered to himself, tossing his head to the side in a futile attempt to separate his now drenched fringe from his face and get it out of his eyes.
Klash needed to act: he was losing this battle. Half turning away, Klash looked up at the Emperor before spitting theatrically onto the floor below. Casually, he smiled up; he could see the Emperor’s fists tighten as a bolt of lightning’s illuminating flash lingered in the dark night. “I don’t hear the people of the Zarian Empire chanting your name, Gebrius.”
There was chaos.
In a second, the peasants rioted, cheering his name as the rich and noble stood, shouting their disgust. If you listened hard enough, under the roar of anger and excitement, a sharp continuous ring of steel could be heard faintly: every soldier stood, alertly waiting for their Emperor’s commands. The arena sentries posted about the lower stands all knocked a bolt in the crossbows as those on the lower levels struggled against the revolt.
Everything hung on a knife’s edge, the Emperor needed to act quickly to save his Empire from rapidly crumbling – crumbling from its very heart.
Calm was to be gained through brute force. The soldiers moved in, mixing with those who had been watching the build up to the fight only moments a go. Together, they almost outnumbered the unarmed peasants. Consequently, it was not long before order was… willingly restored. The dead bodies would be left there for the moment to act as a deterrent to others. Fleeting though the violence was, the atmosphere was now sufficiently different to that that it had been only moments before – the aggression was almost palpable. A band of wild thugs roared battle cries, pumping their white-knuckled fists into the bitter night air as they celebrated the death of one of the guards; no one paid any heed unless they too were joining in: the death of a guard on the lower section wasn’t exactly encouraged, but it was hardly noticed and no punishment ever resulted from the vindictive acts.
Slowly but surely, things began returning to normal though the tension was almost unbearable. The Emperor leant out back into the rain after pacing around inside his box for a short moment. He had regained his calm and whatever demeanour he possessed before, but a small part of the damage had already been done. Shakily, a bony finger rose pointing at where Klash stood. “You think you can defy me…” the Emperor spoke through gritted teeth.
Quickly, the Emperor straightened dragging his dripping fringe back over the top of his head. Throwing his arms in the air, Gebrius screwed up his face. “But I do apologise, for I have kept you waiting too long. You will be hungry for blood, yet do not worry – you will soon have your reward.” Klash could only smile at just how true those words had been.
The Emperor strolled back a foot or two to his raised throne and, turning, he announced what everyone had been waiting for: “Let the battle begin!” A mighty roar was thrown out by the crowd, however, it was not long before all of those cheers turned to angry shouts as the other four gladiators turned on Klash, their eyes locked on his. Glancing briefly up at Gebrius, Klash realised now why he had been so unnervingly calm – for the most part – he actually thought that Klash would lose the fight. The Emperor, feigning ignorance, shrugged half-heartedly before slumping down into his cushioned chair.
Vile cries came from the outraged crowd as Klash became completely surrounded. Bringing his blade to his forehead, he began reciting ancient prayers. He prayed for strength and courage, for sight and even luck. Now, he could start to feel the blood pounding in his ears, his breathing slowed and with it, time seemed to follow. Closing his eyes, Klash could sense the first attacker as he stumbled clumsily into combat from his right.
He could feel the power surging through him.
The first man advanced from the right, giving a brave, deep cry that travelled in almost slow motion across Klash’s ears; the bullish man seemed to take forever to reach him as his gleaming axe scythed through every raindrop in its path, accelerating in a downwards arch towards the arena champion’s head. Klash had been watching the man for the past two weeks; he knew his style and had anticipated the attack long before it happened. Eyes still closed, he could hear the brute’s footsteps, for they were heavy; he could hear him exhale sharply as he braced for impact… Klash listened as the man grunted, slamming down the blade with all his might.
A step backwards, the man tumbled past only to be caught hard by the steel sole of Klash’s boot. The heavy boots were as much of a weapon as any if used correctly; the man realised this as the wind could be heard being driven out of him as his ribs popped with sickening cracks. The crowd cheered as the battle commenced, the fallen man already trying to struggle back to his feet as he lay awkwardly, fighting the pain.
Not wanting to be surrounded any longer than was necessary, the battle fell into Klash’s hands as he started to build momentum of his own. Klash met a curved sword swiping in from his left with enough force to knock it out of the assailant’s hands, his shield let out a resounding clang on impact. Then, catching another off guard, Klash spun, the object that had protected him only moments before becoming his new means of attack. Left arm extended, Klash spun anti-clockwise, his shield striking the smallest of the gladiators as he tried to sneak up behind him. He barely reacted fast enough, the stout man struggling to bring his shield to bear. But Klash’s brute strength was still enough to knock him from his feet. Landing heavily, the man cried out – the impact had no doubt broken a wrist or an arm.
As the clashing sound of colliding steel filled the air, ringing out through the arena, the crowd cheered wildly. Most, by now, were on their feet chanting Klash’s name as he spun with remarkable elegance through the other Gladiators. He toyed with them as he had always been taught, never landing a killing blow: he fed the crowd what they needed. Opening a gap, Klash started to dash across the arena floor towards the only gladiator not yet entering the fight. He was the youngest of the four, no more than sixteen in age. But that mattered not to Klash, very little did: this boy was an enemy and would kill Klash as he had killed so many others. Maybe later, he would think back on the waste of young life. But now, Klash had a far more important task he needed to attend to. Letting his anger well up inside him, he let out a blood-curdling battle cry as he sprinted with lethal intend towards his first victim. Klash could see the fear in the little boy’s eyes, in his mind; death would be a very prominent and almost certain thought. In Klash’s mind, the battle was already won. With a muffled grunt, the child hurled a wire net he had been hurriedly preparing. The throw was precise; the net, originally bundled tightly together to cancel out the strong hindering wind, unfolded itself to its full length. Weights attached all along the outside of the net would have rendered Klash immobile should the net have hit. Should it even have come close. The split second that Klash had to react was not wasted, his sword already travelling along its intended course. Precision would be met with equal skill. By force, two halves of the net parted as Klash tore through the thin wire and across the remainder of the gap, his sword having completed its downward arc. Eyes widening, the boy could barely draw his short sword before the full weight of the arena champion slammed into him. Slowly, trying to grip at Klash’s smooth armour, wheezing as he exhaled, the featherweight figure slid off the end of the great sword, it having finally drawn the first blood. Klash’s face showed no emotion as he stared into the panicking eyes before him. They were young, almost innocent, a feature that could only really be described as… cute. Another victim.
The crowd only roared louder than ever, some glaring down, a mixed expression of anger, hate and disbelief. An arena champion was always a heartless monster – they had to be. They were heroes, but only because they provided some escapism in a person’s otherwise inescapable pit of despair – in reality, they were feared and shunned. Everyone on the streets of Zaria was equal, only because each had nothing to live for. But that didn’t stop some being even more discriminated than others… he had still just killed a child.
Klash steadily bought his face up to meet the crowd before him, having to squint as the wind swept rain drove into the side of his head whipping his dripping fringe across his eyes. In three clear-cut movements, Klash turned to the other three gladiators as they limped, wincing towards Klash where they lined up in front of him. They were willing to go again, they had to: there was no way out. Surely now, they knew that they were going to die.