Klash started whirling his sword quickly from hand to hand in a fine display of skill. He was putting on a show for the crowd, to win them back. Klash had planned to make the controversial kill first to give the crowd some time to recover; he didn’t even look up at the Emperor to his right: but he could imagine his somewhat angered demeanour fairly easily. Klash hoped that Gebrius was enjoying this as much as he was. Now, he just needed a quick finish to show his strength, to show he was able to easily defeat the Emperor. The three men hesitated, retreating varying numbers of steps as he advanced, flashes of orange glancing off the blade as it danced, scything through the rain, gathering momentum. They tried to land a blow on the champion but drew back as Klash spun the sword their way, none could find an opening. Klash needed but one.
A gladiator lunged, going for Klash’s head with a powerful thrust. His impatience would cost him dearly: the arena champion ducked, bringing the swirling blade slashing across his stomach. Klash ran past the wounded man as he doubled over, pain searing through him; tearing his mind apart as he struggled to contemplate the gravity of the situation. Then the man jolted, a stunned expression on his face as blood splattered from his back in a sickening fashion. He toppled forward, lifeless and numb onto the brown slush below, the slash to his back more than finishing him off. But before the body had even hit the floor, Klash spun to meet the next assailant who, expecting to catch the experienced fighter off-guard, brought his weapon arching round in a vicious horizontal swipe. A cool step backwards saw the whistling blade whip past, the force of the attack enough to throw the attacker off balance just long enough for Klash to step in and, with a mighty downwards swipe with Hya’resha, imbed the ancient sword in the man’s skull. Crumpling from the blow, the man made no sound as he collapsed, his soul already parted from his body; torn away before its intended time in a moment of merciless brutality… such was life in the Zarian Empire. But this time, this man’s life would not be wasted; his death would serve a far, far greater cause. He would help achieve his people’s freedom – whether he cared or not.
Legs shaking, a small whimper escaped the last gladiator’s lips as he stood, drenched to the bone in the pouring rain. A sharp flash of lightning helped illuminate the raw terror in his eyes. For perhaps the first time in his life, this man knew his time was up. Too long had he been killing peasants, know he faced a real enemy. An enemy with experience, one that would not hesitate, one that would not make a mistake, and more importantly than all – even though the remaining survivor was not aware of it – Klash was driven by a cause he deemed more important than any: a righteous cause that meant so much to him that killing was simply not an issue: one man’s life for the betterment of many, a sacrifice to aid the hundreds of thousands that currently slept on the streets, not knowing if they would wake every time they closed their eyes.
One man’s life for balance.
Shoddy mace in one hand, curved sword in the other, the man finally launched his last desperate attack. Leading with his shield, Klash struck the man’s wrist hard enough to send the curved sword flipping through the air. Its former owner traced its flight for a tiny moment before the gladiator winced into a final thrust with his mace. Quicker than the wind, Klash brought his sword down with enough force to separate the now screaming man’s hand at the wrist. It was a scream cut short, the echo resounding momentarily around the arena as the crowd fell silent. It was over already. Only the howling wind and the lashing rain could be heard as Klash towered over the whimpering man. He winced in fear and unimaginable agony as Klash brought his sword down one last time. There was a cruel thump and a spray of blood.
Enraged eyes glared hard as the evil demon cheated death again. Gebrius slammed his fist hard onto the solid marble, trying his best to ignore the throbbing pain that fought to rise up and consume his anger. Smugly but slowly, the arena champion brought his calm and calculating demeanour to meet the Emperor’s glower. Oblivious to the driving rain being swept relentlessly into the royal balcony, the most powerful man in the whole of the Zarian Empire merely watched, right eye twitching in mad rage as a gladiator whipped the crowd into a frenzy. But the fool had no idea what was coming his way; the idea caused the demented man to chortle quietly to himself.
The crowd gradually quietened until they finally fell silent with eager yet unsure anticipation of what was to come. Never before had anyone challenged their Emperor in such a direct fashion. No one knew how he would react, no one could even guess at what was about to happen. Gebrius couldn’t wait to see their horrified faces as the terror floods their faces. No one in the whole of Irn would be prepared for such a grand display of evil, their name was but a legend – they were the nightmares that plagued little children’s dreams. Oh yes, even Karden Klash would not be able to fight this force, no one could. The ruler of an empire giggled like a child in eager expectation.
The time had come.
Throwing his head back, the Emperor finally released the feeling that had been welling up inside, it was a strange feeling that he had never encountered before. But, it felt good. As the arena champion finished the last man off, the strange cackling filled the whole arena. The Emperor let the feeling overwhelm him until he roared with laughter. He laughed loudly until the bizarre sensation left him breathless and with a strange stabbing pain in his stomach. Exhaling deeply, Gebrius slumped forward onto the cold marble. He no longer cared for the chill, nor did he care about the rain or the storm clouds letting loose their divine wrath. His unexpected outburst had had the desired effect: the slayer of hundreds, experienced warrior, and hero to the people of the Zarian Empire retreated a step or two in mute shock. Taking a glance to either side in order to appraise the amazed expressions on every one of his subjects, the Emperor smiled with joy.
Now, the plan would unfold. He had everyone’s attention. Now he would show them who opposed his just how foolish they were. He was in charge now, and no gladiator could stop him!
“You think that that petty display will stop me? Do you really think that you can overthrow an empire by flexing your muscles, Gladiator?”
Speaking through gritted teeth, the Emperor watched as the taken aback peasant tried to recompose himself and keep his calm. “And do you think that your people will just sit back and welcome your tyranny with open arms, merely watch as you ravage their old ways of life and drag them into a world of violence and hate?”
“What do you know of ways of peace? You are a man who kills to make a living!”
“But not this time, now I fight to free an oppressed people.”
The way that the arena champion spoke, his carefully chosen and clearly spoken words cut through the Emperor’s very soul. They made him want to kill everyone who even considered such blasphemy. Suddenly, the Emperor lost his calm. He screamed maniacally, his plan would unfold now regardless of if it were as he had imagined it or not!
“You are a fool, Klash! You cannot stop me – no one can! I am your god!
“You will get what you deserve; I will grant you your prize: you will serve the Zarian Empire!”
Karden Klash turned slowly but purposefully, casting down his armour before driving his sword – a sword used by murderers like himself ever since the good king died – into the ground. It was time to end such madness. As he went to walk away, Klash turned and looked back over his left shoulder. “I will never serve you, nor will I ever serve the Zarian Empire whilst it is ruled by an ignorant madman.” Shouting back the words caused many to gasp in shock. A hum of hushed conversation broke out around the arena, people of varying opinions muttered their excitement, anger, concern or unrivalled joy at the day’s events.
But the Emperor’s next words changed everything. Silence descended around the dead still arena, some members of the crowd fainting as women screamed. Others merely cried as the horror of his words tore through them.
“No…” Klash whispered to himself, the terror setting in and seizing his reasoning. He fell to his knees, an overwhelming sense of doom ripping through him as he grasped the situation and its connotations.
“Oh yes, Karden Klash! You are far too great a warrior to be a mere soldier. You will serve the Empire; you will learn to love me as I love my people. Remember Klash: you are only a man in a land full of men; today, you may have altered your fate, but what right do you have to alter another’s? In time, even you will praise the Dark One.”
The Emperor’s words passed over the weeping gladiator as he accepted what was to be his future. The Emperor’s words had no meaning, no meagre sentence could change how he felt now – there was no use, no one would save him. He would be forgotten to all those that knew him; shunned by all that saw him.
Slowly, the twisted depictions of the dark gods sprung into action as the relatively welcoming gates started creaking open, Klash knowing full well what lurked behind them. Insanity creeping in, Klash began thumping the floor whilst shaking his head and crying uncontrollably. The crowd started trying to leave, riots breaking out as men and women both rich and poor, simple and well educated, made for the exits with all the haste they could muster. Laughing at the terror he had inspired, the Emperor ordered his soldiers to set about sealing the exits, killing everyone who dared try and escape.
The risky move was a display of his power, of the Emperor’s contempt towards those foolish enough to oppose him. It had had more than the desired effect.
The faint sounds of people being killed, their unbridle fear causing them to scream hysterically… it was all a mixed blur to Klash as his thoughts were scrambled. Memories of his life flashed before his eyes, he tried to burn a few to his mind, save them – try and keep them in order to prevent him from going insane. But what hope can be found in a situation from which there is no escape?
More screams tore through the dismal night as the monumental gates boomed against the thick, stone walls. They could open no further, Klash could start to hear the rhythmic marching; the scraping of metal as the chains slid along their armour as they moved.
People fainted, people tried to fight past the horrified guards as they fought off the panicking rabble of terrified people trying to flee the madness. Guards killed innocent people as their own tears rolled down their ashen faces. They wanted to run just as much, but now, who would displease the Emperor?
Klash could hear them draw inevitably nearer. He could feel their inhuman, ageless eyes burning into the top of his head. He could almost see their distorted and grotesque figures: the bloodied, loosely hanging flesh.
They were getting closer, closer by the second. The ground could almost be felt to shake – or was it just Klash losing his mind? In one last display of honour, Klash stood wearily. He shivered but he was not cold. He clenched his fists but he was not angry. Yet he cried, whimpering like a little child because he was scared. No one would not be scared; no one would look at their hideous disfigured faces. But Klash did, he finally looked up into the first beast’s solemn stare as it slowly drew a bloodstained sword. Klash held the thing’s haunting gaze, looked deep into what should have been its soul. But he could not find one. The abomination should be dead from the torment and torture it had received, but somehow it lived – a killer bred to stalk the whole of Irn for eternity until it died in combat. Klash watched, unflinching as the monster swung it’s gruesomely curved blade so that the flat of the frequently used weapon struck Klash’s head. It snapped his head to the right, such a casual swipe carrying so much force. They were not human, their strength beyond that of any man… Klash would soon unlock the secrets to their power.
Pain seared through Klash, pounding in his head, threatening to tear him apart as he fought desperately to maintain consciousness… but it was no use. He was briefly aware of his head thumping the sandy floor below as he was knocked off his feet.
Surrounded by an arena of screaming people, Klash had never felt so alone. He had never felt so cold; a situation had never seemed so helpless in his eyes. But it was over now: he had lost.
They were not even human, they knew no emotion – no fear. They were the ultimate warriors, demons draped in chains; controlled by a madman. They were tortured to the brink of death, dark rituals consuming every fibre of their being until they forgot who they once were. They never stopped, never faltered. They were as unrelenting as they were cunning, as brutal as they were intelligent.
They were the Elite and, now, Karden Klash was their newest recruit.
The Emperor smiled and turned to walk away, but a panting messenger broke through the guards before the royal balcony. Gebrius calmed the guards who hesitantly sheaved their weapons; unsure of the filthy man dressed like a peasant as he stumbled unchallenged into the Emperor’s presence.
“Well? What have you found, boy?”
“The Karan child has been born, Emperor,” The man managed to whisper before collapsing in a panting heap at the Emperor’s feet.
“Good,” Gebrius smiled wickedly as he turned to speak with the other two guards. “The messenger knows too much, kill him.” He started to walk off but had a sudden idea, turning back the ruler of the Zarian Empire added to his orders: “Oh, and kill everyone in the arena. They have all been found guilty of treason, blasphemy and conspiring against their emperor.”
Even though the two guards were clearly shocked by the order, they did not object – that was why he trusted them: they were truly loyal servants of the Zarian people. Besides, Gebrius needed the full support of his people; he needed a strong economy to back the campaign against all the other heathens. Gebrius sighed heavily: it was tough ruling, and the non-believers made him weary. Now, he just wanted to sleep.
But, before he went, there was one more task to which he had to attend. Standing off in the shadow to his right, the man he sought waited, an uncharacteristic strained look stuck on his face.
“What’s the matter with you, wizard?”
“N-nothing… I just-”
“Enough, I have a task for you of great importance.”
The wizard paused, hesitating; a hand floating in the air at chest height. Whatever was going through the man’s head, the Emperor had little time for it. Now, everything was being set in motion… the wizard would just have to keep his strange thoughts to himself. He often had visions, or bizarre outbursts – though, as unnerving as it was, he trusted the fool.
“Will you snap out of it!”
“Sorry. S-sorry, my Emperor – forgive me.”
“Of course. But we have things to do now – great things. Come, Phaidros.”