Updated: Mar 28, 2021
Cassius smiled in response to the thunderous roar of the spectators above him. Their shouts reverberating through the coliseum’s masonry, giving him chills. He gazed at each of the gladiators in their cells, noting the apprehension written on their faces as they awaited their fate. They were newcomers, all of them, taken from prisons throughout northern Absion.
Gladiatorial combat was a pastime among the nation’s citizens. It reminded them of the strong fighting heritage that shaped the nation since ancient days. Absion was a nation of warriors, law and order. It had withstood in one form or another, all that time offered for three thousand years.
As Cassius’ eyes fell on the last cell, another chill caressed his spine. This time it was fear, not excitement he felt. The creature chained within the cell was far from human and showed no fear. It was a good foot taller than him, with rough dull brown scales. A set of ridges, starting at its brow, wove their way down its back, stopping at the tip of its long tail. They were like the ridges he had seen on the backs of a swamp crocs the handlers could sell to the beast masters of the colosseum.
It was hard not to be curious about the thing; he’d heard stories as a child. Compared to the stories, this sauratian seemed less frightening than what his mother had made them out to be. Cassius shrugged, turning his attention back to the newcomers.
“You shouldn’t do that to them.”
Cassius turned around. “Do what Joran?” he asked.
“Smile at them, so. It’s cruel,” Joran said. “I’ve been watching you for months now and whenever you inspect the cages, you always have that same smile on your face.”
“They’re meat for the block,” Cassius said, banging his gauntlet on the nearest cage, causing one newcomer to shy away in response. He looked at the reed thin young man, noticing the thieves brand on his forearm. “You won’t last long,” he laughed.
“That’s enough!” Joran snapped, Cassius giving him an irritated look.
“You’re soft, you know that?” Cassius said. “All the ones we have locked up here are criminals and deserve to be treated as such.”
“Even that one?” Joran asked.
“It’s here, isn’t it?” Cassius turned back at the sauratian. It had a leather strap wrapped around its snout and the creature’s claws covered with metal gauntlets. Its wrists were bound tight bound, its tail shackled to the stone floor. “What’s it here for, anyway?”
Joran looked through the bars at it, “Not sure, the Inquisitor was brief and honestly do you want to go poking around in Inquisition business?”
Cassius shuddered. “No, best not to ask questions,” he said.
A thunderous roar resonated above them and even through the thick stone; they could hear the heavy footfalls of something massive moving about.
“They let her loose,” Cassius said, his voice filled with both fear and awe. “Must be a demanding crowd, maybe she will behave this time.”
“She, who?” Joran asked nervously. Cassius glanced at the young centurion, and Joran shuddered. His senior was wearing the same smile as when he had inspected the cells.
“That’s right you haven’t been here long enough to know about Her,” he said, grabbing a chair and handing it to him. “Sit.”
Joran complied and sat down. Cassius grabbed a chair for himself. He seemed all too eager to tell his story.
“Firespite is a nasty beastie; she was a young red that thought she could claim the hills to north as hers. Problem was, she didn’t count on the Inquisition responding as quickly as they did once word got out.”
“How long ago was that?” Joran asked.
“Four hundred years ago, maybe longer than that, but point is she has never forgiven the Inquisition for imprisoning her.” Joran jumped when the roof above them trembled, dust falling from the seams in the masonry.
Cassius laughed. “Something the matter, boy?”
Joran bit his lip, fighting to hide his disgust. The Inquisitors were cold, like iron. Their punishments equally unyielding. He looked over the cells, catching sight of the sauratian. Its eyes were open in response to the fighting overhead. He felt it unsettling to look at them with the slits of its pupils divided by the deep gray coloring in them.
“You have kind eyes,” he heard in his mind. “I will remember them.”
Joran fell out of his chair and Cassius laughed.
“Don’t worry boy, they have her well under control when they let her run loose,” he said. “She can’t even fly anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Inquisitors cut her wings off.”
Joran’s mouth fell open. Hard as iron.
After a few moments the rumbling died down, followed by the faint sound of cheering and then silence. “Looks like it’s over,” Cassius said. “So whose next I wonder, or maybe it’s you, Scales?”
The sauratian didn’t even turn to look at him. Instead, it closed its eyes.
“Bet it doesn’t even speak our tongue,” he said as the loud groan of metal on metal came from the barred door further up the hall. Cassius resumed his place at attention by the doorway with Joran joining him on the opposite side.
The stable master stepped into the large room, accompanied by a dozen soldiers. He wasn’t very tall, probably in his forties. He also never seemed to feel the need to wear armor of any kind. Cassius felt it rather reckless considering individuals most of the guards here had to deal with.
“It seems we have a rarity in our stables today,” he said, turning to Cassius.
“Yes, milord, we do. The Inquisition brought him here this morning.” Cassius saw the concern written on the arena master’s face as he studied the sauratian.
“Did they say why?” he asked.
“Open it, the crowd seems in the mood for rarity, and after Firespite’s performance, the usual just won’t do.”
Joran took the key ring from his belt and unlocked the cell. He then began working to loosen the shackles holding the sauratian in place. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, trying to keep the others from hearing. Strangely, the look in its eyes almost seemed to echo a sense of forgiveness.
The stable master’s soldiers were quick to take its chains and began leading the sauratian down the hall.
“Well, I hope it fares better than the other newcomers,” the stable master said. “I would be a genuine disappointment otherwise.”
“Let’s only hope,” Cassius said, though doubtful that it would last very long.
Eleesa found the commotion of the arena exciting, though the brutality of the criminal’s fighting below was disturbing. Either way, it was something to do, and it made for an excellent place to hide after this morning’s incident.
The stola and palla she wore helped her blend in among the rest of the Absonians seated in the arena, but in her rush she hadn’t had time to change out of her own clothes before throwing them on. With the summer heat beating down on her, she felt stifled.
Eleesa glanced down at her left arm, wincing at how much of a mess it was. The joints would need oiling, and some gears needed replacing. The firestone gem set into the back of the gauntlet was chipped and the surrounding wiring in awful shape. Most of the casing keeping it all together was still intact. It could have been worse though, she could have lost the rest of her arm entirely.
Silently, she whispered a small bit of thanks to the Maker that it hadn’t happened, and pulled her pack off her back, searching for her hexi-tool. Her search was short lived as a loud, earth-shattering roar stole her attention.
Eleesa stared at the dragon, awed and terrified by its size. Its scales were crimson, so much so they seemed to glow as if radiating some malign rage burning from within. A crown of horns adorned its head with a larger pair curving forward in a fashion similar to what she had seen on a bull.
There was a large black collar on the dragon’s neck with a set of thick heavy chains attached to it and the arena floor. Eleesa recognized the metal, it was blacksteel, and so strong that not even the dragon could break it.
“I pity the poor wretch that has to face her,” the old man sitting next to her cackled.
“Excuse me sir, what do you mean?” she asked.
The old man looked at her and smiled. “You’re Charnoan,” he laughed. “Your accent gives you away.”
Eleesa frowned at him. “So? What does that have to do with my question?”
He laughed again. “Oh nothing, just as long as you aren’t one of them Builders or whatever you people call them. Might as well be a goblin.”
Eleesa was half tempted to reveal her arm to him, but she knew the stigma that went with her profession. “You still haven’t answered my question, old man.”
“Ah, fine then!” he said. “That wingless beauty is Firespite; she’s the chief attraction of the arena. The menagerie of creatures kept below is a pittance compared to her.”
“Wingless?” Eleesa took another look at the dragon, her heart nearly stopping as she saw the mangled nubs where Firespite’s wings had once been.
“What’s the matter, girl? It’s just a dragon; she got herself locked up for killing innocent people,” he said. “Serves her right.”
She wanted to backhand him, but didn’t. Instead, she could only watch the gates opposite the dragon open and a dozen gladiators step out to meet their doom.
The gladiators took up their tower shields, raising them up and forming a wall. Firespite glared hatefully at them, nostrils flaring. Wisps of smoke wafted from them. She could easily incinerate the lot of them with a single breath.
Firespite made a series of hard, guttural sounds at them, and though the crowd mistook it as one of her growls, Eleesa understood it clearly.
The dragon tongue was something that many of Charnoans learned at an early age. Thunder drakes were a common threat in her homeland, and a few of the more intelligent breeds spoke enough of the language that it warranted learning.
“They send more ants,” Firespite sneered.
The contempt in the dragon’s voice sent gave Eleesa chills. She gripped the stone bench of her section, steadying herself after realizing she was trembling. Her mouth fell open as the dragon careened her head and bit into her own arm. Blood flowed freely from the wound, and Firespite began chanting.
Eleesa’s arm grew warm, then hot, as the firestone gem set in the back of her prosthetic was reacting to the draconic magic. She knew the gems were sensitive to magic, capable of storing arcane energy. Even so, the gem powering her arm had never reacted in such a way before. Jeers echoed from the crowd as the dragon’s eyes began glowing.
The old man sitting beside her glanced down at the soft red glow showing through her palla, slack-jawed as he realized what she was.
“You are one of them!” he shouted, pulling the sleeve of the palla, and revealing her metal-plated arm. His shout fell on deaf ears as the uproar of the crowd drowned him out.
Eleesa cursed, Absonians weren’t fond of magic, but they were less tolerant of Builders, especially ones from her home country.
“Be quiet!” she said, backhanding the old man, knocking him out. Eleesa quickly grabbed him, pouring the flask of posca between them over his head. She wrinkled her nose at its bittersweet smell.
Eleesa looked up just in time to see the shield wall explode. Gouts of flame erupted from underneath the gladiators, roasting each man alive. Firespite suddenly surged forward, violently lashing out at the survivors, clawing and tearing them apart with her sharp talons.
But it didn’t end there. The charred remains of the gladiators slowly started cobbling themselves together and stood up, eyes burning like coals stoking in a fire.
“Kill them.” The creatures let loose an ear-piercing shriek, the crowd falling to their knees screaming in pain. Eleesa dropped her hexi-tool and fell onto the stone flooring of the stands, hands covering her ears as best she could.
Firespite roared and tugged at her chains, the anchors mounted into the arena floor vibrating under the strain, but held. The red roared, belching out jets of flame from her maw in frustration.
Through the haze of the searing pain in her skull, Eleesa could see the undead creatures advancing at a rapid pace toward her section. She stumbled to her feet, nearly tripping over the old man as she drew a small metal sphere from her pack.
She was about to depress the pressure switch, silently hoping she hadn’t crafted another dud, when centurions surged from the gates below her to meet the creatures. The undead sped toward them, moving with serpentine grace, clawing, slashing, and biting at them in a frenzy.
The centurions pressed to mount a proper response. The unnatural speed of their attackers forced them to fight defensively. Their great shields were all that held the undead at bay while stabbed and cut at them between the gaps wherever they could. The undead never slowed, however, taking each strike with no sign of stopping.
Eleesa scanned the crowd, curling her lip in disgust. Their fear had melted away and instead had become utter elation as the harrowing battle unfolding before them. Loud cheers echoed around her, pride radiating in the eyes of each Absonian in the stands as if a story from their own history books was taking place before them.
“Absonians,” she muttered under her breath, not that anyone would have heard her had she said it any louder. She looked up at the dragon, still struggling against its blacksteel bonds. The massive chains glowed bright red, the dragon seeming to whisper something at them.
The artificer’s eyes went wide. “No…” she said.
From the comfort of the box above, Saetrim comfortably observed the scene. Most of the city officials and wealthy nobles had fled in fear that Firespite would indeed break free, but as Arena Master, it was his responsibility to see that she didn’t.
The crowd was especially lively, and that was good, but dragon’s display of its new abilities concerned him. He disliked having her here. Dragons were not creatures so creatures so easily controlled, nor were they something to be kept in captivity. Their abilities are far too unstable to predict. Secretly, the Arena Master secretly feared that one day he would wake up to hear that she had learned how to shapeshift and had escaped.
Alas, however, this was his duty, just as his ancestors before him and the dragon filled that stands, bringing with it honor and good coin to the arena. There was nothing he could do but follow the orders dictated to him by the nation’s leaders.
“Try as you might,” he said. Firespite continued to fight against her bonds, using her abilities to super heat the blacksteel. Saetrim found it hard to hide his smile as he looked at the terrified expressions of the patrons seated closest to her.
“Would you, please, do something about that nuisance?” he asked.
Garron stepped up toward the rail; like a shadow, the Inquisitor had been patiently waiting just a few paces behind for the order to be given. He drew his crossbow, taking the quarrel he had soaked overnight in sloth root and loaded into the channel.
The Inquisitor took aim and fired; the quarrel finding its mark deep in the dragon’s right shoulder. Firespite whipped her head in the box's direction, took a step and stumbled groggily onto the ground. The dragon lay there a few moments before the full effects of the drug took over and finally knocked her out.
Garron cast a glance at the chains. Firespite had amazingly twisted and warped them. It wasn’t an easy feat; blacksteel wasn’t just any metal. “We should replace those chains or at least have them reforged.”
Saetrim shook his head and sighed. “Sometimes that dragon costs me more than she makes me.”
Eleesa quickly stuffed the boomer into her pack once she saw caught site of the man dressed in the pale white robes of the Inquisition at the box. The last thing she needed was getting noticed by them.
The undead creatures Firespite created quickly came disorganized once the dragon was out. She must have been controlling them. “Dragons,” she spat. Her people had no love for them. It would have been kinder to kill the beast; not put it on display like some tame pet. “Foolish,” Eleesa frowned.
The centurions made quick work of the undead once the dragon had gone down, beheading them with ease. They quickly turned and saluted the box and then the crowd.
The crowd cheered, pride still radiating in their eyes and as they honored their ‘champions’. They silenced their cheers when the arena master stepped into view from his box; hands raised high.
“Fellow Absonians,” he shouted. “Today we have a special event, and seeing as we are fond of rarity in this coliseum, we have a rare treat indeed.”
“Today, we have a sauratian, hailing from the marshes of the Sinkra Alliance to the east. A beast so fearsome, that I urge you mothers to hold your children close, lest he attempt to eat them.”
The southern gates of the arena ground open. Their high pitched groaning made Eleesa cringe as she saw seven guards leading a creature bound in chains with gauntlet-like cuffs covering its hands. They had strapped its reptilian snout shut and shackled its tail to a ring connected to the other chains on its back.
The creature was far from fearsome in Eleesa’s opinion, but from the looks she saw on the faces of the Absonians around her, the arena master’s announcement had the desired effect. Words like ‘hideous’, ‘revolting’ and ‘monster’ echoed around her.
The centurions shifted nervously as the massive iron gate before them slowly rose. Uxalen smelled their fear. They were right to be afraid. The dragon had used blood magic, a forbidden art among many circles of necromancy.
They were most likely too inept to understand the dangers the dragon posed. Firespite needed to be put down. He curled his lip, teeth flashing. One guard tugged on his chains fearfully.
The thought of slaying a dragon wasn’t appealing. If he were honest, it even grieved him. She wouldn’t have the chance to defend herself. Still, her desperation and rage drove her to this. There was no other choice. The risk was too great otherwise.
Uxalen narrowed his eyes at dragon as she lay asleep at the other end of the coliseum. He pitied her, though he pitied the Absonians more. The sound of grinding metal and gears caught his attention, the stone flooring around Firespite depressed, slowly lowering into the coliseum floor. Another stone slab closed over the opening once the dragon disappeared from sight.
One of the guards dropped a shield and battle axe on the ground beside him. “These are for you, beast,” he said.
Uxalen stared at him, gazing into his eyes, and he stepped back.
“Hear me my honored patrons!”
Uxalen looked up at the human speaking in the box high above him. “Today, this creature, this sauratian, will face a deadly opponent indeed!”
Cheers rang out around the coliseum as the human above him raised his hands for the spectators to quiet themselves. Uxalen noted the nervous looks of the guards as they worked to undo his bonds.
Absonian courage, he thought. Such empty bravado. With an audible click, as the mechanisms released, his bonds fell off, and they quickly collected them, moving to the safety of the gate behind him. The gate slowly fell shut as the one to his left lifted open.
“From the deadly wilds of the Shadow Wood, comes a rare creature! A creature equally vicious and brutal as the one you already see before you!”
Cheers erupted all around Uxalen as a pair of feral glowing eyes appeared from within the darkness of the gate. The creature stepped out; it was large, about the size of a bramin. It looked like a massive saber cat, but with long quills covering its back. Uxalen could tell it didn’t like the bright light of the sun, but from the look of its ribs, hunger won over discomfort.
It roared, the crowd matching it with their own elated cheers, and the saberquill slowly stalked forward. Uxalen quickly grabbed the battle axe and shield and took his stance. The saberquill stopped in response. For a moment, its eye gleamed with intelligence. The scares on its pelt, showing its experience.
You poor creature. I will grant you mercy.
Eleesa sat frozen, while the saberquill resumed its slow advance toward the sauratian. Everything about the creature fascinating, even more fascinating than one of the Shadow Wood’s rarest and deadliest predators attempting to eat it.
There was a way in how it held itself, and though the shield and axe didn’t appear to suit it, the artificer saw a confidence in the creature’s eyes. The fight was over before it started. She found the thought strange, but she was as sure of it as the cold, metal gauntlet grafted into the flesh on her arm.
“There you are!” someone shouted, grabbing her by the shoulder. Eleesa was forcefully turned about to see the merchant she had run from earlier that morning. “You owe me five crowns!”
“Sir, I assure you, you have me mistaken for someone else,” she said.
“No, you made the mistake of stealing from me!” he shouted. The two men on either side of him came at her, grabbing Eleesa by each arm. The other spectators around her quickly took notice.
“I will show you what we do to thieves in Absion!” the merchant roared.
Eleesa knew she had to think quickly and struggling against the men holding her she reared her head back, hitting one of them squarely in the face. The man stumbled and fell back, rolling onto the spectators behind them. Eleesa fell forward, wincing and regretting her decision. Her head felt as if she had slammed it into a mason block.
The other man hauled her close, and she turned, thrusting her knee out catching him in the groin. He let out a string of curses, some even making her blush, as he fell to his knees. The merchant then pulled a knife as a pair of centurions called out to them from higher in the stands.
Eleesa quickly reached for her pack and ran. “Thief! Thief!” she heard the merchant call out and now, even some of the spectators were reaching out to stop her. She wove her way around them as best she could until reaching the edge of the divider wall that separated the spectators from the coliseum floor far below.
She turned to see the merchant, followed by a dozen centurions rushing through the crowd toward her. Eleesa looked over the wall and then at them.
“Sometimes I hate my life,” she groaned and jumped.