The air carried a heaviness he’d not felt before. His hands were shaking. The day had finally come. Vahti stood before the gate with Aurelus positioned to his right. The older guardsman’s face was full of remorse.
“Vahti, I wish there had been more time,” he said softly. “I pray your Creator grants you peace,” he added, placing his hand on Vahti’s shoulder.
Vahti swallowed hard. “My time is not yet done.”
Aurelus half smiled, then nodded. “No, it is not.”
He reached for the lever and pulled, releasing the counterweights. Vahti watched them swap places, the sound of the gate grinding open adding to the ominous air filling his lungs.
Upon fully opening and after stepping through, the cheers of the crowd assaulted Vahti’s ears. Arturo stood on the dais where he regularly addressed the crowd with his arms wide. He wore the expression of a true showman.
The toga he wore was blood red, with gold embroidery along its edges. The blue tunic underneath showed through around his collar. It looked quite expensive and ceremonial in design. Atop his head, he wore a golden crown woven into the shape of laurel vines about his head and beside him, Garen stood beside him.
The old Inquisitor’s expression reminded Vahti of a hawk, heavy crossbow ready. Whenever Xanthir was released, he was always on standby. No one knew what concoction he tipped his bolts with, but rumor was it could kill a hundred men easily with one drop.
“Friends, Absonians, Countrymen, harken my words!” Arturo shouted. The crowd grew silent. “Today, we have one who stands before us in high renown. The undefeated Iron Fist, as you have dubbed him. He has drawn Her name in the Lottery and as such, we are honor bound to heed fate’s decree.”
“Today, Vahti Laidan, will face the Terror of the Colosseum. The Beast of Flame. The Queen of Slaughter, Xanthir!” The crowd exploded in ravenous frenzy.
Vahti squinted, eyeing the Arena Master. Even from so far away, he could still read Arturo’s. The man seemed almost relieved.
The ground shook, and Arturo retreated up the steep stairway leading to his booth. Garen followed, occasionally casting a glance at the arena floor in front of the dais. Vahti noted another man seated in the booth with them. His posture and mannerism marked him as someone of importance. He wore a polished breastplate, and Arturo seemed to answer to the man’s beck and call.
Below them, the Colosseum floor slid open, the sand on top falling into the opening as it widened. Fire belched from the pit, followed by an earth shattering roar. The sound of heavy chains carried from the inside and once opened, Vahti could hear the counterweights from the lift inside slowly move into position.
The crowd was eerily silent. It had been a long time since Xanthir was loosed from her cage in the bestiary below. The great towers, where the blacksteel chains binding her were mounted, were the first to peek from the opening.
Vahti swallowed hard at the size of the links. They slid back and forth through the eyeholes at the tower’s peaks and were connected to giant spools behind them that would retract whenever the tension on the chains loosened. But one Xanthir’s body crept up from the opening, the young monk felt his insides churn. She was far larger than he imagined.
From snout to tail she was seventy feet in length with scales the color of crimson that faded to brackish tones at their edges. At her back instead of wings were large nubs. Vahti cringed at the sight of them.
They clipped her… The cruelty of Absion hit home as he drank in the dragon's imposing visage. Spines adorned her back, like a mane, extending in a line down her back to the bony tail, covered in spines, she sported as a weapon.
Even standing at the opposite end of the arena floor, Vahti could feel himself overcome with primal fear. Xanthir was the epitome of an apex predator and he an ant in her presence. As if reading his thoughts, she belched out a gout of flame in his direction. The heat it created intensified the heaviness in the air. When the dragon finished, she smirked, her yellow eyes gleaming with intelligence.
Fighting his fear, Vahti strode forward, his hands shaking. Xanthir craned her neck low to the ground, nostrils flaring. He felt a presence enter his mind and stiffened. The overwhelming malice he sensed was unlike anything he could describe. There was a depth to it that would make the Perideth Sea seem shallow by comparison.
He eyed the shackles binding her front legs. Xanthir seemed to notice, giving him a toothy smile in response. So they send a mouse to fight me? Child… are you that eager to die? A pause followed. No, your will to live is strong, she added. You fight for someone you love…
The pain was subtle, like a hot needle piercing his temples. Vahti took a breath and pushed back, shoving her will aside.
A Denovic Monk… curious. Even from my prison, I have heard of your mental prowess. She rose and stalked closer, heavy blacksteel chains thudding through the eyeholes of the towers.
The din of the crowd vanished and for a moment Vahti wasn’t sure if it was fear or something else the has suddenly silenced them. Xanthir towered over him and all he could do was fall to his knees and bow his head.
There would be no fight, only a massacre. He thought back, replaying every vow he had broken and ever step made on the path that had led him here. In one moment all became clear. Every action was pure selfishness.
Arridus had once said: The path into darkness is often paved with good intentions.
Xanthir laughed. Surrender? Oh, this is amusing. The smell of sulfur on her breath choked him alongside the rot woven within it. This pain I sense. This conflict. It is absolutely delicious. No boy, I won’t kill you after. The cruelest thing I could do is allow to live. Suffer with your regrets for the rest of your minuscule life. That is my gift to you.
Suffer behind the safety of the wall you have erected in your heart. Hide your pain from others until it destroys you. Until your little brother no longer recognizes who you are.
She shrank back, her chains retracting through the eye holes and around the spool, curled into a ball and tilted her head, eyes locked on Vahti. Vahti stood, stepping closer. The silence he experienced in the moment vanished. The crowd had devolved into hushed murmurs.
The air was electric, like the buzz before a mighty storm. He felt his heart racing, thudding in his ears. Xanthir narrowed her eyes, smoke flowing from her nostrils.
Are you so foolish? She asked. With a single spell, I could flay the skin from your bones, Turn you into ash, or enslave you. I could make you bleed out in a dozen places and not even bat an eye at your demise.
“I, in my arrogance, stepped onto this foolish path,” Vahti replied. “I have broken vow after vow, reluctantly justifying my actions at every turn. I told myself ‘it was for family’, but in my pride I thought myself strong enough to overcome the odds.”
And now, little mouse, what do you intend to do?
She laughed, though the rumbling from her gullet sounded like anything but laughter. Vahti blinked, feeling something stab him from behind. He looked down to see one of the spines from the dragon’s tail piercing his shoulder. The movement was so subtle; he hadn’t noticed Xanthir position her tail behind him to launch the barb.
Entertain me more, little mouse. The dragon chanted; the power of her words thickened the air and making hard to breathe. The barb twisted itself, molding into flesh and bone. Vahti screamed, falling to his knees. When the spell was complete, the wound healed, leaving only a scar where the barb had pierced him.
All you see, all you hear, will be mine to know. Let me witness your story from my cage. Now, goodbye, little mouse.
She lifted her head, turning it toward Arturo’s booth. “I yield, Arturo,” she shouted. “He has answered my riddle and will live.”
The crowd went silent and now that he was closer, Vahti could see that the Arena Master was in shock. Not only he, but Garen and the man sitting with them. The man stood, leaving the booth and descending the stairs, stepped out onto the dais.
Vahti fought to keep his composure upon seeing the filigree on the man’s breastplate. It’s the Emperor…
Emperor Claudius Hazron eyed the young monk with an iron stare. He then shifted his gaze to Xanthir and sneered. “Lower her!” he commanded.
The counterweights ground against the spools, and Xanthir stood. Farewell little mouse, try not to bore me.
“Fellow Absonians, we have witnessed a significant event. The monster who has slain so many of our kinsmen, has been subdued by this young man. You saw her fear with your eyes, did you not?” The silence of the crowd became an uproar of cheers and Claudius paused, letting them exhaust themselves before continuing. “On this day, I shall grant a boon to this young monk and it will be law. Anyone who contests my will find themselves a contender in this pit.”
The emperor turned, his stance sure, like one who had known combat, and jumped inside the arena. The opening leaving to Xanthir’s cage had only just sealed itself shut. He strode toward Vahti, carrying an air of confidence with him.
“So, name your price and it will be done,” he said, extending his forearm and clasping it to Vahti’s. Vahti thought of Cairn, but Aurelus’ words left lingering doubt. Part of him felt Shaboh would find a way to hinder Claudius’ gift. “Well, boy. Speak,” he commanded.
“I want freedom for Gmork. The one you call the Butcher of Men.”
The emperor’s grip became like steel against his forearm. His eyes narrowing. “Interesting, have you callously abandoned your brother? The one you fight for so diligently?”
“No, sire. I simple have better grasp of the path I am on and who my enemy truly is.”
Claudius smirked. “I like you. Your request is granted. But should he fight and harm an innocent, then you both will belong to me.”
“You have my word, he will only fight here.” Vahti replied.
The emporer leaned in closer. “Live well, young monk." he whispered. "I will be watching from the stands.”