25 August 2011

Carnivale Mechaniste

Chapter 8: Hardened (The Brutalian Contests)

Carth was a lush, mountainous place, full of jungles and rainforests and old-growth forests, pine-carpeted hills and twinkling lakes in long valleys. The Dreadnaught burst out from the stormhole, as Farrago called it, above a white-capped mountain peak. The screws thumped slowly and stopped, the deck-crews scrambled up nets and rope-ladders to unfurl the many sails, hauling on long thick ropes to chants of “heave! heave! heave!” and several hands even tossed ropes over the sides, tied them about their wastes and fastened them to rings on belts and swung out over the side to extend booms from the sides of the ship and unfurled sails from them to snap in the stiff, constant, billowing wind. Another three men turned with great effort a crank in the sidewall of the ship, letting loose a loud grinding noise. “They're lowering the keel,” Farrago explained. When the keel was lowered and all the sails let down and tightened, the Dreadnaught began to pick up speed quickly till she hurtled through the air and pierced thick puffs of off-white clouds and sped over the landscape at a breakneck pace that even the four giant screws and chugging engine could never hope to equal, so strong were the wind currents. Against his own will, Jax found himself thrilling at the speed and the feel of the wind in his face, wishing he were up in the rigging with his toes tangled in the rough hemp ropes, watching the living map unfold before him. Instead, he was collared and waiting to be sold.

The city of Carth was breathtaking. Nestled in the crease between the two tallest, fattest mountains Jax had ever seen, it was a sprawling, layered apron of buildings, shacks, huts, palaces, inns, barns and stables, rows of interconnected apartments and shops, all dissected and cris-crossed by lanes and boulevards and alleys and looping rabbit-trails. Carth wrapped high up and completely around the bases of both mountains, spilled down both sides of the pass between to sprawl out in a wide alluvial delta of cityscape. No two building were exactly the same, no two roads were the same, and everything was grand and massive and ornate scale. The Dreadnaught tacked and banked to circle around the westernmost peak towards a long dock stretched out from the mountainside, supported by thick stone arches. A mile from the dock, the deckhands scurried back up the rigging to reef the sails, scrambled over the side to furl the side-sails and lower the booms, engaged the engines and set the screws to full reverse so the ship slowed and stopped exactly level with the dock. Shorehands threw ropes to tie it down, and Jax felt the deck rocking gently in a low rough breeze, exactly as a water-going craft would.

The captives were herded by spear-wielding Corsairs in a double file off the ship and down the gangway, across the dock and through the city. A million voices echoed off of high stone walls in a cacophony of noise, accompanied by braying donkeys and whinnying, nickering horses. Jax nearly wrenched his neck all the way around trying to take in the endless vistas of this city, where one could from every street see the twin peaks of the mountains towering thousands upon thousands of feet in the air, and each building seemed to be trying to reach it, each building a spire, a tower, a crenelated castle; even the meanest, rudest huts seemed to reach with withered hands for the tooth-spikes of the ivory peaks above them. The prisoners were led through the teeming city to an open square at the terminus of four boulevards; the square was filled with row after row of stalls selling every good imaginable, and along one wall a low stage was built, with a three-sided wood-fenced pen nearby, a high stucco wall forming the fourth side. A milling crowd filled an open area in front of the stage; the Corsairs led Jax and the other captives to the pen, swung open a gate and ushered them in. Once the gate was closed, a dozen of the black-armored pirates formed a semi-circle around the pen, which was unlocked, and the prisoners unbound. After a few minutes of silent waiting, a small, sweating, pot-bellied man wearing a dirty gray sleeveless robe took the stage and made a beckoning motion at the pen. One Corsair opened the gate and went in, shoving out six captives in turn, closed the gate and used his spear to herd the first six onto the stage, arranging them in a line along the front. The man on the stage struck up an auctioneer's fast-talking patter, standing behind the the first slave in line, a tall, thin, middle-aged woman with graying black hair. The auctioneer cut open her ragged muslin dress with a dull knife and cast aside the garment to leave the woman standing naked before the crowd, cupped and lifted her slightly-sagging but full mother's breasts, turned her around to display her backside, pinched the flesh of her middle and pried open her mouth to show yellowing but straight white teeth. Through it all the woman stood stoic and unmoving, unresisting and resigned, but Jax noticed a tremble at the corners of her mouth, watched a single tear trickle down to leave a clean trail on her tan, dusty skin. Jax's heart contracted for her, and for himself, knowing he would soon endure the same treatment. A blond, bearded, pale-skinned man near the front of the crowd lifted a hand and the bidding began between himself and stocky, swarthy turbaned man in the back; the woman sold for three hundred riim, and was led away by the turbaned man, who doffed his robe and tossed it over the woman's shoulders, but not before Jax caught a lecherous leer and a tongue tip licking dry lips.

The blond man seemed miffed at being outbid, for he bought the next two, a older, patrician-faced man and a teenaged girl wearing rags and an expression of sullen hatred. Jax couldn't watch any more of the proceedings after that. The thought of being handled and displayed and sold like a piece of meat or an old car...it set some banked fire inside him to raging, and that, he knew, would only get him killed. Survival was the order of the day, he told himself, shut it all away inside, don't think, don't feel, don't resist, just go along and survive. Get revenge later, escape at the first opportunity. Jax closed his eyes and breathed deeply, brought up an image of Thyra's face and focused on it, held it, meditated on it, consoled himself with her voice, with the memory of her touch, her skin against his, of making love till sunrise...

He was brought back to reality by a spear-point jabbing his ribs and a gruff, harsh, rude voice saying, “Get on, boy, get on. Move.” Jax steeled himself, opened his eyes and shuffled one foot in front of the other. He refused to look around, refused to meet eyes, to see people. He stared up at the sky and watched shreds of white scamping and twisting across the endless azure sky, watched a sparrow wheel and tilt on a wing, soaring on warm currents. His vision telescoped and he found himself pulling on the well of magic within...and fell to his knees gasping and grunting against the needles of fire in his skin. A rough hand jerked him to his feet. “Playin' sick won't save you, boy. Get you up and take your fate.”

“Its...not...sick,” he wheezed, “its...collar...'phage...”

A hand touched the collar, lifted the thin wire. “You're a shifter?”

“Yes,” he might as well admit it, he decided. Things couldn't get much worse...right? He was last in line, last to be auctioned off. The pen was empty and the crowds were sparse and dispersing as the sun set. The only man left near the stage was tall, thick, scarred, dark-skinned, and wore a short, straight sword hanging from each side of his waist.

“There's no one to barter against,” the man said in a loud voice, cutting in over the auctioneer's patter, “I'll pay half a thousand riim for the lad, take it or leave it.” The auctioneer nodded, caught the leather sack of coins tossed at him easily. Jax was nudged off the stage, dropping heavily to the dust.

“Come with me,” the scarred man said. Jax sighed deeply and followed the man. “My name is Luravian. You are?”

“Jackson Magnus. I am called Jax.”

“Well, Jax, do you know what I have bought you for? No? I thought not. I am a laniska, I train slaves into warriors to compete in The Brutalian Contests. It is an honor and a curse to be chosen for the Contests. Thousands upon thousands will come to watch the Contests, and if you survive and reach the rank of Brutus, you will have all the honor, wealth, and freedom one could imagine. But first, you must be broken down, molded, and built back up. Have you any prior combat experience?”

“Yes, a bit,” Jax answered. Luravian nodded and plodded on silence. This sounded awfully like the gladiator games of ancient Rome, he thought. Survive, he told himself. If it came down to kill or be killed...there wasn't much choice there.

Luravian led him through wide, thronging streets and down into the lowest city-center shadowed by the bulk of the twin peaks and back up steep, winding, switchback roads to the opposite side of Carth. Around and up they went, skirting the waist of the mountain to the farthest side; the road terminated at a building with high walls, guard towers, arrow-slits and a metal-banded gate. “This is the ludis,” Luravian announced as he pounded on the closed gate. “This is your home and your prison, and this is where you will be buried, should you fall in the Contests. Know this, before we enter: my word is law, and by it you will live and die, be punished and rewarded. My word, and no one else's, not even the emperor himself.”

A low door set to the side of the gate groaned and squealed on protesting hinges, admitting Jax and Luravian. Within was a wide packed-dirt courtyard surrounded by walls, on which watchful guards with longbows stood; the courtyard was filled with pairs of men in knee-length leather kilt-type garments, bare from the waist up. Each man had a wooden sword and a diamond-shaped shield, or two swords, and each pair traded blows, blocking and parrying, dodging, rolling, jumping, shouting and swearing, bleeding and hobbling and cradling bruised limbs. When the door opened, the mock-combat stopped and all eyes turned to Luravian and Jax. Every man lifted his sword and held it horizontally before him, bowing over it. Luravian returned the bow, a shallow dip of acknowledgment.

“This is our newest member, Jax. Give him a Brutan's welcome.” In unison, the group of men gave a single harsh yell, accompanied by a stamped foot. Unsure of how to answer, Jax settled for a nod. Luravian pushed him forward into the courtyard, lifted both hands aloft. Two wooden swords were thrown to him, and Luravian passed one to Jax, keeping the other for himself. There was no warning, just a flicker of wood as Luravian slashed at Jax's head. Jax reacted instinctively, shuffling backwards and blocking, lunging forward with a return blow. Luravian riposted lazily, smiled a laconic smile and attacked again, faster than thought. Jax realized, as he defended desperately, that Luravian was a master swordsman, far beyond even the skill of Harman Luca, who had trained Jax. The laniska was merely testing Jax, putting him through paces to determine his skill level. Jax was sweating and bruised in a dozen paces, out of breath and jelly-kneed when Luravian finally stepped back and planted the tip of his practice sword in the dirt.

“Not bad,” he said with a lopsided grin of approval. “You've had training. Whoever trained was self-taught, I suspect, but not without skill. Attend to the lessons and you might survive, if you have luck. Nil will show you your cell and outfit you.”

Nil was moon-faced man of medium height, with a patch over one eye, thick, hairy arms and a round belly. Nil set off without a word, leading Jax through a doorless opening into a low-ceilinged hallway, cool and dark after the bright glaring sun and heat of the city. Jax's cell was an eight-by-eight chamber, containing only a blanket roll on the floor and a bucket. There were four rings attached to the walls, with manacles and chains hanging from them, two high up in the wall, and two lower down on the opposite wall. Jax flashed back to the vision in Madame Hassan's tent, and understood the arrangement: the prisoner (Jax) lying down on the bedroll, arms chained to hang just above his head, feet chained to the opposing wall. He would have just enough slack in the chains to lay down fully, with his arms painfully extended above his head, or sit up slightly, with his feet stretched out. It was a specifically-designed arrangement, something told him, with one purpose in mind. He shuddered and pushed those thoughts out of his head. This moment is all there is, he told himself, there is no yesterday, there is no six months ago, there is no tomorrow or six months from now, there is only this very instant. The Jackson Magnus who went to Jane Addams Junior High School and read Nightjohn and played Call of Duty and had no shape-shifting powers, and wasn't a slave in an alien realm...that Jackson Magnus was dead. As was the Jax who could fly through the air on a hawk's wings, or slither in the grass on a snake belly, who could heal himself with a simple spell and magically solder and mold metal and float a candle above his head. There was one former-self, he decided, who wasn't entirely dead: the Jax who loved Thyra Aricsdottir, who had floated with her above the soft green Pleurian grass and who had writhed with pleasure with her in the gentle silver light of a full moon and strange constellations...that Jax wasn't dead. Nearly so, perhaps, injured and ragged and weak, perhaps, but not dead. Not while life and thought and desire pulsed within him. That part was the true Jackson Magnus, and that part would fight with primal, feral, rabid ferocity to survive, and would do anything to stay alive, anything at all...

Until the ludis, there had never been pain, or thirst or hunger, or anger. Until he began training under Luravian, he'd been soft and weak and helpless and naïve. Luravian was careful, cunning, and merciless. He saw when a man was at the edge, knew how to drive him to the very limits of endurance and sanity, and then bring him back. Just when Jax couldn't take another lash of the whip across his shoulders, couldn't take another knock to the ribs with a training sword, just when Jax thought he would explode in pain and blind rage, Luravian would send him off for a break, give him a cup of thin, sour wine. Then, all too soon, Jax would be prodded back out into the courtyard with a sword in each hand and would be trading blows, blocking and parrying and getting hit when he was too slow. His ribs, by the end of the first week, were black and blue from hip to shoulder, his hands swollen and stiff, every muscle screaming and shredded. The brutans, as they were called, weren't allowed to collapse into bed until well past midnight, sparring by torchlight, and then they were roused from bed by whip-tip and spear-point at the break of dawn, fed a thin oatmeal-like substance that Jax thought might be called gruel, with crusts of bread and hunks of rainbow-sheened meat. They were given their swords and put through the paces all over again. Luravian was everywhere, watching everyone simultaneously, it seemed. He would rush across the ludis with a roar of anger at a clumsy parry, would rip the sword from the brutan's hand and show him the correct way, watch him until he got it right, box his ears if he got it wrong.

“I make more money off you greasy louts if you stay alive,” Luravian would tell them, cracking his twelve-foot whip as punctuation, “so pay attention! The things I show you will keep you alive, but only if you do it right!” Weeks passed this way, one day blurring into the next. The bruises never went away, replaced always by new ones, but Jax stopped feeling the twinge and ache of them, at some point. His muscles stopped screaming at him every night, and the blocks and ripostes and lunges and cross-block-thrust maneuvers came instinctively, automatically. He was too exhausted to think of anything but swordwork. If he dreamed, it was of a block he should've made, a missed lunge, an opening he could've pressed harder. He wasn't Jax anymore, he was Brutan Magnus, and he slept in ankle-chains.

Several months passed—if time passed in any familiar sense, here—without change in routine. Then, one day, Luravian called a halt mid-day, and singled out two brutans, Jax and another, a man head-and-shoulders taller than Jax, broad of frame, thick muscles and a scarred, grimacing face. His name was Ibnis, and he never smiled, never laughed, rarely spoke except in monosyllable answers to direct questions. Ibnis fought with a sword and a shield, and was feared by the others for his swift, brutal blows, always delivered at full force. Most others pulled back, just a little, and avoided striking tender areas. Not Ibnis.

“Form a circle,” Luravian ordered. “Now we begin single combat. This isn't a sparring match, this isn't a game. No holding back, no mercy. If you crack your opponent's skull open, so be it. He should've blocked. The winner of this match will be rewarded with a day off, and a night spent enjoying the pleasures of Madam Vura's establishment.” There were catcalls and whistles at this announcement. Jax didn't know for sure what Madam Vura's establishment was, but he could guess, if Ibnis' leering expression said anything. Jax struggled to suppress the fear that rose in his throat. He'd been paired with Ibnis, once, and he'd left the session more bruised and aching than ever before or since. This was going to hurt.

Ibnis shuffled in a slow, wary circle, shield held up in front of his face so only his hard brown eyes showed. Jax let Ibnis circle around him, pivoting on a heel, weight distributed and ready to move in any direction. There was no warning, no chance to get set or dodge when Ibnis shield-charged. The shield was wood with cured leather stretched over it, secured with an iron boss in the center, and when it crashed into Jax, it sent him flying backwards, the breath knocked out of him. He hit the dirt on his back, slid a few feet, rolling with the momentum onto his feet. Ibnis had followed him, sword arcing to where Jax would rise to his feet. The timing was impeccable, and Jax couldn't help admiring the move, even as he deflected the blow. The wooden swords connected with a such hard crash that Jax's arm shivered and buzzed for several seconds afterwards. Jax found himself dodging and blocking desperately, shuffling, twisting, parrying just a split-second behind. Before two minutes had passed, he'd taken a dozen body blows and hadn't managed one in return, and his strength was quickly flagging. Worse, Ibnis could tell Jax was losing strength, and pressed him even harder, a slight grin tipping his lips. Ibnis wasn't even winded yet, and Jax was heaving, sweating, aching. This wasn't working, he told himself. He had to switch it up somehow. He knew he could never hope to match Ibnis for strength or endurance, so he had to find another way to best him. Ibnis bashed at Jax with his shield yet again, and followed it with a clumsy overhand chop, and that provided Jax with the opening he needed. His left-hand sword blocked the strike, while the right jabbed upwards simultaneously, plunging into Ibnis' belly, doubling him over. Jax pivoted around and stepped backwards, away from the stumbling brutan.

“Finish it!” Luravian ordered. Jax hesitated for a split-second. The man was beaten, wasn't he? Luravian's whip cracked near Jax's ear, and that was all the warning he needed. Both swords lifted, struck down on skull and spine. Jax didn't hold anything back, struck with all his force, made himself watch as Ibnis collapsed to the ground, limp and bleeding. Luravian strode over, rolled Ibnis onto his back with a boot, put two fingers to Ibnis' thick neck.

“Well, he's alive,” Luravian said with a grin. “But he'll have a splitting headache for several days, if he ever wakes up. Good work, Magnus. You fought smart. Boran, take him to Madam Vura.” Boran, a burly guard with a plug of chewing tobacco in his cheek, beckoned with his spear. Jax tossed the wooden swords in the bucket and followed.

Madam Vura was slim, red-haired woman of middle years with a low, sultry voice. She kept an inn a few blocks from the ludis, a two-story building with few windows and long bar in the main room. She welcomed Boran and Jax with a smile and a knowing glance. “Well well, Boran, what do you bring me today?”

“A new recruit, Vura. Fresh from the ships. Just won his first combat.” Boran was staring at a girl on the balcony above Madam Vura, a lithe, buxom girl with brown hair and plain features. She met Boran's gaze evenly, smiled a come-hither smile, leaned over the railing till she was nearly spilling out of her bodice. Boran pushed Jax towards Vura without taking his eyes off of the girl, leaving a thick gold coin on the counter as he ascended the stairs and vanished into a room with the girl. Vura chuckled as she dropped the coin into a pocket, took Jax by the hand and led him up the stairs and into a small room scarcely bigger than his own cell in the ludis. There was a low cot, a battered trunk half-open, a small table with a basin of water, a cloth, and a carafe of wine. Sitting on the bed was woman a few years older than Jax. Auburn hair hung in lank curls around a thin, attractive face with bright blue eyes swimming with resignation and lassitude. Jax saw his own emotions writ in the woman's face, in the way she lay back on the bed in a forced pose that was meant to be seductive. She wore thin, drab green linen shift that barely covered her body. Vura closed the door behind Jax, saying, “Be gentle with this one, Elana, he's new.”

Jax put his back against the door, feeling his heart pound and his face flush. He'd rather face Ibnis again, than this. Elana seemed to sense his trepidation. She sat up, brushed her hair out of her face, smiled a sympathetic, knowing smile. “First time, brutan?”

“Well..it's my first time with a...a...”

“A prostitute? Don't worry, brutan, I'll take good care of you. I'll be just like your girl back home, you won't know any difference, I promise you. Just sit down, here, next to me, and pretend it's all a dream.” She put her lips to his throat, and where her lips touched him, his skin seemed to burn and tingle. Her hands loosened the belt of his kilt and wandered down further, making him squirm away.

“Maybe you're new enough to not understand,” she said, pausing in what she was doing to look up at him. “There ain't much choice here for either of us. I won't get paid, an' if I don't get paid, I don't eat, and then I can't work well, and Madam Vura'll be displeased with me, and then she'll complain to Brutus Luravian, and that'll come down on you.”

“Couldn't you just say we did?”

“Surely you ain't that skittish? I'm not all ugly, you know, and I can do things to you...”

“You're not ugly at all, I just...there's a girl...”

“Oh, brutan, there's always a girl. But you will die soon, I think, and she will never know. And besides, Madam Vura...she will know. She always knows. A girl here tried that once, with a brutan who preferred boys to women, and Vura, she knew. And the girl, she was beaten and cast out, and the brutan, he was fed to the raveners the next day. So I think that you should just close your pretty blue eyes and pretend it's a dream and let me do all the work.” Elana pushed him down, touched her lips to his chest in something that was not quite a kiss, and then she did something else to Jax that made him squirm and gasp...

He closed his eyes, and pretended it was dream.

When Boran came and returned him to the ludis, Jax sat in his cell, feeling as if he had a layer of dirt on his skin that couldn't be washed away, feeling treacherous and traitorous and ugly inside. The next day, he was paired in single combat again, and this time, Jax fought with savagery that startled him. His opponent was left bleeding and unconscious and broken in half a dozen places, but the dirt remained, and Boran took him back to Madam Vura's inn, to Elana, and this time, it was easier to pretend it was dream. The feeling of filth remained, and became a crust, a hardening within.

Then, long after Jax had stopped keeping track of days and weeks and months, Luravian announced that the Contests were to begin the next day, and Jax would be part of the first group to enter the ring. “Survival is the only rule, brutans,” Luravian told them, as they stood in a long, low tunnel, sharp steel swords in their hands, sweat in their eyes and nerves afire, knees a-tremble. “Survive, at all costs, and you might win your freedom, someday, as I did.”

A horn sounded, a long trumpeting blast, and the gate in front of them ground open. Jax and the six other brutans entered the ring into blinding sunlight and the deafening roar of screaming crowds. Jax felt his gorge rise, felt his fingers tighten to white on the hilts of his swords, felt a trickle of sweat tickle down his spine. He had metal-studded leather vambraces on his forearms, matching greaves on his legs over knee-high boots, and a cuirass over his chest. His swords were straight, two-edged short-swords, about three feet long, with a small cross-guard and a spiked pommel. They were battered and dented, much-used, but polished to a gleam and razor-sharp, well-weighted. They sat easy and comfortable in his hands, and despite the pounding fear in his gut, he swung them in circles at his sides, took deep breaths to push down the fear. The ring was huge, with high walls keeping contestants away from the paying crowds. The sand was raked in intricate lines, the sun high over head and bright and hot. Facing Jax and his ludis-mates were seven others, nearly identical, but their cuirasses had daubs of bright red paint on them front and back for differentiation.

The trumpet sounded again, and a man in long bright white robes stood up on a balcony. He held a golden staff in his hands, what Jax supposed was a scepter, and had a circlet on his head, making him the king or emperor, or whatever. Jax didn't care who he was, he had no thoughts at all, except visions of parries and lunges, possible combinations. He hoped, in some distant part of his mind, that it would be over quickly, whatever the outcome. The emperor (Jax remembered Farrago talking about an emperor) lifted his staff above his head, and the brutans next to Jax tensed, crouched, readied themselves like runners at the blocks waiting for the gun; the golden staff dropped and they were running, Jax with them, charging with roars and with grim silence. There was a clash of bodies, leather, metal, and bone, grunts and curses. Jax found himself slashing at a skeletal apparition in ill-fitting armor, swinging a clumsy, weak stroke. Sparks flew and his arm shivered, his off-hand sword plunged of its own accord into the small gap between cuirass and kilt, eliciting a whimper and a sigh, a glut of blood from slack lips. Jax jerked his blade free, swiveled to block a slow side-arm chop, struck in return, drawing blood from a bicep and leaving his opponent off-balance. It was too easy. That one fell too, slumping heavily to the dust with a gash where his throat used to be. His comrades weren't faring as well, he discovered. Three were down and unmoving, two were losing their battles; only one seemed able to keep his blood on the inside.

It was all a blur, just a whirl of silver blades and jarring clashes and scattered splatters, slow sighs of disbelief, low grunts of blood-letting. He was moving in a daze, unthinking, unfeeling, almost unaware of anything but sword hilts in his hands and the roar of crowds. Then, suddenly, it was him and one other, facing three red-splotched brutans. Jax's brother-in-arms sidled over, put his back to Jax with a nod and slight smile. What was there to smile about, Jax wondered? They were about to die. These three remaining, they were unstoppable. They worked in harmony and silence, in a rhythm of synchronicity. They approached slowly, evenly-spaced, expressionless, inscrutable. The crowd was silent, expectant, and only the crunch of boot-heels on sand filled the quiet. There was a frozen, then, moment, a tense tableau, followed by a darting steps and a quick gleam of sword blades in the bright sun. The crash was deafening, and the crowd roared to life again and added to the din; Jax kept his back to his fellow brutan, refused to be separated, and together, they fended off a dozen attacks, warded clever feints and obvious lunges. The battle was endless, the sun hot and blinding. Sweat made sword-hilts slippery, exhaustion made steps slower, and everyone was bleeding. Someone's fingers slipped, just slightly, a tip drooped and Jax thrust his blade home, found himself blocking with the other blade, drawn away from his mate, and now it was one-on-one again, and Jax was shuffling backwards and spinning a vain defense as his quick, skilled opponent came on and came on, thrust and lunged and feinted until Jax wasn't sure if he was coming or going. The fateful moment came, as such things do, in a slow-motion vignette: he felt his ankle twist and his foot roll as he stepped on an out-flung limb, he fell to one knee, the other underneath him and throbbing fiercely, but there was no time to feel it because there was a sword point coming at his chest and he knew the leather wouldn't stop the thrust and his blades were down and there just wasn't enough time...

He let himself fall backward, ignoring the protest of his ankle, felt a hot ribbon of pain slice into his shoulder and there was a huge suffocating weight on top of him and warm gush of wetness all over him and the crowd was screaming maniacally as he strained with all his strength to shove the dead weight off him. It seemed he'd gotten his point up in time. He struggled to his feet laboriously, and now his shoulder was on fire, as were countless other places all over him. He was bleeding, he covered in blood, some his, some others', and there was no way to know the difference. The other brutan from his ludis was on his feet as well, holding a red-covered arm. They hobbled to stand next to each other, facing the emperor, who smiled a faint, evil smile, looked around him at the crowd, which was still cheering and screaming in blood-lust. The emperor, a fat, jowly middle-aged man, red and sweating and porcine, lifted his scepter, pointed from Jax to the other survivor, lowered his scepter slowly, freighted with awful meaning. The two men exchanged stares, knowing full well what the emperor meant. Something within Jax rebelled. This was too much, too much. He'd bled with this man, fought with him, and even though he didn't know his name, he felt a bond of kinship formed in blood and strife. Jax held his swords out in front of him, dropped them to the sand.

The crowd fell silent, stunned. Silence held, a hush profound and tense, until the emperor gestured and a dozen Corsairs trooped out of a door with long-bladed spears. Jax took up his swords once again, nodded at his ludis-mate, and stepped forward towards the Corsairs. Before anyone could strike a blow, however, Luravian's voice called out a countermanding order, and the emperor nodded in acquiescence, eliciting disappointed booing from the crowd.

Luravian was silent all the way back to the ludis. He accompanied Jax, alone, to his cell. “That was stupid, boy,” he eventually said.

“Maybe so. But I'd rather die having spilled Corsair blood than...that.”

“Would he have done the same, do you think? Jurin would have turned on you in a second, if it meant his own survival.”

“I don't care what Jurin would have done.”

“Well, I can see that. I must say, I think highly of your sense of honor, but not much of your sense of survival. That being said, that was one of the best Contests Carth has seen in generations. The crowd loved you. I personally made a fortune on you. You've got three more brutan matches, and then you rank up.”

“How do the Contests work?”

“Simple enough. You start as a brutan, and that's three group matches like you had today. Survive all of those, and you take the rank of brutor. Survive three matches one-on-one, against other brutors, and you become a brutus. A brutus fights alone, against whatever comes into the ring. It could be a past champion, one-on-one, or it could be against a dozen fresh brutans, green and raw, or it could be against raveners, or an arranged mock-battle. Four times you must fight alone, and if you live through them, then you are free. I am one such. The title Brutus garners respect, even if you may never be welcome in the courts of the nobles. You will find a Brutus wearing the armor of a captain aboard a Dreadnaught, commanding the city guards, or running a ludis, like me...if you can make it that far.” With that, Luravian left, and a guard entered, wielding the key to the shackles. Something undefinable in the guard's expression made Jax uneasy. So far, he head never had his hands chained, which had led him to hope that perhaps his vision had been wrong, or inaccurate. There had been differences, so far. But now, he wasn't so sure. The guard closed the manacles, first around his feet, then his hands. Jax was left with just barely enough room to shift positions, but not enough slack to be entirely at ease. However he moved, he was left extended in a painful position. The guard sauntered out of the cell and closed the door behind him, leaving Jax still bleeding freely from a dozen wounds, covered in drying, caked, and itchy blood, exhausted, and hungry, and now it looked as if things were about to get worse.

After what might have been an hour Jax heard footsteps in the hall, a key in the lock of the cell door. The hinges squealed as the heavy iron-bound door was opened, revealing a different guard. This one was not from the ludis. His armor was clean and polished, expensive-looking, as were his weapons; in fact, his entire demeanor spoke of upper-class bodyguard, rather than battle-hardened warrior, as was the case with the ludis guards. This man was haughty, arrogant and swaggering. Jax wished he were unchained so he could rearrange the bastard's face with his bare hands...the viciousness of the thought startled Jax. The bodyguard stepped aside with an extravagant flourish: three small, hooded figures entered single-file and stood over Jax. He could feel their gazes raking over him, filling him with a sense of revulsion. He knew what was coming, and he could do nothing to prevent it. He tried to curl in on himself, but his chains brought him up short. The guard chuckled, a low, lecherous, evil laugh.

“I'll be within shouting distance, m'ladies. Should this lout cause you trouble, call for me...I'll soften him up for you,” he said, turning on a heel with crisp precision. His boot-heels clicked loudly on the stone flags, and the hallway echoed with a low, tuneless whistle that receded to a barely-audible distance.

One of the figures stepped forward, dug a pale, manicured hand into a pocket of the forest-green robe and produced a small glass phial. “Drink this,” came the order, in a high, musical, imperious voice. “If you resist, I will call for Herick, and that would be...unpleasant for you. This need not be difficult, brutan. If you cooperate, I think you might find it to be even...enjoyable.” The figure lifted her hands and pulled back the hood. Long, curled auburn hair framed sharp and avian features, her brown eyes were aristocratic, hard and haughty as they took in Jax's recumbent, chained figure with palpable desire. She turned her head and addressed the other two figures. “Ladies, your hoods. We mustn't be rude, you know.” The other two lowered their hoods as well, revealing two more pairs of eyes that examined Jax possessively. The first woman knelt down next to Jax, pulled the cork from the phial and held it to his lips. Jax pushed down his emotions, concentrated on turning himself to stone, unfeeling, unchanging; he swallowed the bright yellow fluid. It was pungent, tasting like some exotic fruit. As soon as it settled in his stomach, Jax felt it take effect. Lack of desire was no longer an obstacle, it seemed.

“Good,” the woman said, a cold smile on her face. “It is essence of the Swellroot flower, in case you were wondering. I'm sure you can feel its purpose.” She unbuckled his kilt and slid a hand downwards.

“Ah, yes,” she said, her voice low and sultry now, “you are quite ready, I think.” With her free hand she unbuttoned the heavy silver buttons holding her robe closed, and when the last of the buttons was free, she shrugged her shoulders and writhed her torso so that the soft, fine wool fabric slid off of her and to the floor. Beneath it, she was bare. The other two women followed suit, shedding their robes as well. One knelt on the other side of Jax from the first woman, while the third sat astride him, bold and eager, put her small, slim hands on his chest. The other two bent over him, removed his armor, brushed his matted hair out of his face, put their lips to his skin, licked the blood away with moans that made his gorge rise in disgust.

Jax closed his eyes, held himself absolutely still, muscled tensed and rigid. They were insatiable, it seemed. In his head, Jax pictured himself as a bird, once again, soaring aloft in warm currents of air, diving and drifting beneath the bright sun. It was a paltry escape, but it was better than what was happening to him, here and now. He felt the collar send a warning burst of pain through him when the fantasy of flight turned into an unintentional pull on the magic of shape-shifting. He hadn't tried to shift since the day he was sold, on the stage, that first day in Carth. He'd almost forgotten that he could. But now, with these vile creatures disguised as beautiful women writhing atop him, violating him, eagerly and greedily devouring him, he tried once more, just to feel a physical pain. The electric heat washed over him, and the pain of it was a relief, an ecstasy of agony, a throbbing horror of sun-heat in his veins. The woman atop him—he'd long since lost track of which one of the three it was—shrieked loudly, a sound of pleasure turned to surprised pain. She flopped over and off of him, weeping bitterly and cursing in choked sobs. Jax felt a rush of grim satisfaction, realizing that she had felt the effects of the phase-phage collar. He laughed aloud as the hurt woman slapped him with all her strength, clawed her nails into his flesh.

The guard stomped into the cell. “What did he do?” He demanded.

“I...I don't know...” the woman said with a hiccup. “It was like I'd been stung by a whole hive of wasps, or...or...or had burned by a flame, but...inside.” The guard just grunted a curse, cracked Jax across the face with the butt of his spear.

“Do you wish to return to the palace, m'ladies?”

The women exchanged glances. “I'll go out in the hall with Herick,” this was the girl who'd gotten stung by the collar. The other two seemed inclined to stay.

One of them glanced up at Herick, held her hand out to him. “Give me a knife,” she ordered. Herick drew a short dagger from his boot and handed it to her. “Very good. Now leave us.” She put the blade to Jax's throat, dug the point in just deep enough to draw blood.

“Hear me, slave. I don't know what you did to Neera, but if you do it again, I'll kill you and pay the fine to Luravian.” She looked at the other woman and nodded.

Well, he'd gotten rid of one, at least. He considered trying to phase again, just to spite them, but one glance at the woman with the knife disabused him of that notion. Her eyes told him, very clearly, that she would drive the knife into him with as little compunction as she would step on a bug.

They took their time, those two. They fed him another phial of the yellow Swellroot essence. By the time they had had their fill, every muscle was on fire, and he couldn't form a coherent thought. Maybe he would be able to file this away as just a nightmare, he thought as he faded into unconsciousness. Something told him that it wouldn't be that easy.

It wasn't.

* * *

He retreated within himself, after that. Emotions were a weakness, a soft chink in the exoskeleton of self-loathing, in the carapace of hatred for the world around him. He stored up the softness deep within, built it up in a pile in his soul, let it fester and sour and grow rotten. Then, when the day of Contest came, he gave it vent, performed a dark alchemy upon the self-pity, the loneliness, the thoughts of suicide, the longing for a home and comfort, for escape, turned it into blood-lust, into merciless fury, into a mastery of the ring. The crowd reveled in his unstoppable brutality, they screamed and threw coins, the women threw themselves at him by the dozen, by the score. Once a limp-wristed delicate-looking male courtier came, but Jax struggled so violently, biting, kicking, cursing, thrashing and spitting that the courtier left ashen-faced and horrified. The guard pummeled him into a pulp with his spear, then, but Jax welcomed it. He took the pain and devoured it greedily, sucked at the agony for strength like it was the pap of some evil goddess.

He didn't recognize himself. He wasn't Jax, any longer. He was Brutor Magnus. The battles were the only clear memories he had, all that he allowed himself to remember. The rest was a blur of horror and nightmares, endless lines of women coming to having their time with the god of the Brutalian ring. By the time he attained the rank of Brutus, Luravian had made a dozen fortunes off of him, came to see him and shower him with bags of useless gold, with the most luscious of women, with wine and narcotics and his pick of custom-made weapons; he came with everything but freedom. He fought with the weapons of a Corsair, strangely: the curved single-edge saber, the tomahawk with a wide blade on one side and long hook on the other. The saber and the handaxe fit him perfectly, fit his hacking, aggressive style hand-in-glove. He lived for the moment when the black-and-rust gate scraped open and he strode swaggering and weapons held aloft into the circle of sunlight. The ecstatic, madding crowd screamed his name, and he devoured their worship and used his alchemy upon that as well, sent it pulsing into his sword-arm, turned it into the red haze that curtained his vision. He had long-since entered a realm of insanity, he knew, but he didn't care. Nothing mattered. There was no freedom, no escape, not from the ludis, not from the ring, not from the noblewomen and their phials of Swellroot...not from himself.

Then came the day of his last match, the final battle before he won his freedom. He sharpened his blades until the very air seemed to split away from the razor edges, he kept a tight clamp on the idea of freedom and thoughts of what he would do with it. The crowd had swollen until people were standing cheek-by-jowl, and the din of their blood-maddened screaming was deafening. He stepped out into the ring, stood in the center and pivoted in a circle, looking at the ubiquitous crowd, the sun-brown faces, mouths wide and hand clapping, ululating and shrieking. He felt no fear, but then, he didn't feel anything at all.

The grate on the opposite wall juddered open and a file of Corsairs trooped out. Jax tried to count them, but lost track at twenty. At first, he thought perhaps they were part of a ceremony of some sort, but then the grate closed behind them and they swept around into a semi-circle formation around him, and he knew that these Corsairs were his final challenge. Each one of them had yellow-painted pouldrons on their shoulders, and that, Jax had learned, signified that they were members of an elite unit. Now he felt a twinge of fear stir in his gut; the calcareous, carefully-constructed shell of emotionless bravado softened and shook, just a little. Deep inside, where his true self hid, he didn't want to die. He wanted to fly again, on bird's wings, he wanted to stalk through the grass on cat feet or snake belly, he wanted to hold Thyra again...

That way lay dangerous thoughts. Jax swung his sword savagely, stretching and readying himself. He crouched low, set his teeth, breathed slowly, took shuffling, sliding steps into the arc of his enemies. He saw a flash of white teeth through a mask, saw that these Corsairs were eager for the fight. His death-grip on the sword-hilts loosened slightly, the hard ball of fear in his throat warmed and metamorphosed into a pulsing rush of fury that lent him strength. The heat of the sun slipped off of him, and his flesh turned cool and pimples raised on his flesh. A bird passed over head and its shadow seemed to cross over him slowly, too slowly. Was this magic, then? He felt no tug of used energy in his gut...perhaps it was adrenaline...?

A heel crunched in the sand, a blade whistled thinly in the air, the screams of the crowd sounded low and hollow and distant; Jax pivoted, leaned back, met the descending axe with his own, threw it out and away and charged forward with a shoulder to the armor-hard chest and felt his foe stumble, and that was all he needed. A half-step back, a foot to the gut, an axe-blow to the exposed pale neck and one was down; the second was stepping over the fallen first and swinging both arms inward and Jax blocked, kicked downward with a savage heel onto a knee-joint, crashed sword-pommel to face-mask, reversed and thrust the blade to its hilt through the throat, loosing a flood of blood onto the sand, onto his own feet, and the warm tang of blood in his nostrils was like fire on dry tinder, was like an infection in his brain. He saw nothing then, felt nothing, was no one at all but spinning sword-edge and sullen hatred and axe-blade biting into bone.

The third and fourth came simultaneously, left and right, high and low, fake and feint, thrust and slash. Jax ducked between them, swiped at the space between greaves and boots, engaged swords with another, crushed axe to mask, was rewarded by stumbles and blood oozing from eye and mouth holes. The shadow of the bird was still passing overhead, floating slowly in lazy circles and figure-eights...a blade caught Jax on the arm and creased his cheek, another his thigh, and now he was backing and defending desperately against four at once, unable to breathe for the speed of the melee, and the crowd, the awful roaring crowd loved it, loved it so, slurped up the sight of the blood and the gore and the death and the agonies of death-throes, and Jax hated them most of all, hated the rictuses of morbid glee like orgasms of corrupted vampiric sensuality. The sweating masses licked at the scenes of misery like the painted, scented, heaving-breasted noblewomen paid heaps of gleaming coin to lave the blood from his bare, crawling skin and writhe sloppily atop him, disregarding the horror in his eyes, the vomit at his teeth. Jax would gladly ascend the wall and carve into them, slay them all before he would cross swords with his fellow combat-slaves.

He tripped over a body, felt warm stickiness on his face and salty cooling blood in his mouth as he rolled off and impaled a rushing Corsair on his upheld sword, saw three charging at him and scrambled to his feet, knew he wasn't set to defend against them all, for two more were behind them. Jax ran full-tilt at the wall, slid the sword between belt and armor, turned his axe in his hand so the long curving hook on the end opposite the blade was facing forward, leapt up with all the power he could summon and caught at the lip of the wall with the hook of the axe and pulled himself up, clambered to his feet on the thin high parapet. A guard rushed at him, but Jax caught the spear and yanked it free, planted the hook in the guard's throat and toppled him over the edge. He had the spear now, but there were too many guards coming at him through the wild crowds, so he ran along the edge around the ring, leapt down and hung the axe from his belt. The spear was twelve feet long, with a leaf-shaped head. It was wonderfully balanced weapon, and Jax used it to devastating effect, goring a Corsair through the armor, withdrawing and spinning it around to sweep another from his feet, reversing once more and pinning him to the sand through his gut. There were only two left, and they spread apart to come at Jax from opposite sides; the spear was buried in the sand, so Jax took up his sword and axe once more, trying to keep both enemies in sight at once.

They charged him at the same time. Jax dodged and ducked and blocked, but still took a glancing axe-blade to the armor on his chest, knocking him back and cracking a rib, spiking each breath with lances of pain, bringing up a pink froth that he spat out with a curse. A saber sliced across his knee, stumbling him, and now he was on his back suddenly and gasping, his sword gone and buried to the hilt under an arm, and the last one was atop him on his chest forcing an axe to Jax's throat with inexorable slowness. Jax tried a desperate gambit: he swung his legs up and wrapped his bleeding aching knee around the Corsair's throat, jerked downward. The warrior was thrown to the sand and Jax flung himself forward, chopping down with clumsy force.

The crowd was silent momentarily, then burst out into new screams of joy at the display. Jax struggled to his feet, eyes on the emperor. Jax expected to see him rise to his feet, raise his scepter in some kind of ceremonial gesture. The emperor, however, smiled laconically, flicked a lazy finger, slurped at wine from a heavy jeweled gold goblet. A grinding of gears and scraping of metal on stone: a section of the floor rose up, revealing a massive cage that contained a hissing, clicking, spitting, screeching creature from a demon's nightmare. The cage was opened and the thing inside darted out towards Jax with horrifying speed. It looked to Jax like a cross between a centipede and a cobra, but as large as a pony; a dozen skritching jagged legs on each side of a long serpentine body, a torso that rose up wide-hooded and tall with a fanged mouth and cold staring eyes. Jax heard gasps from the crowd, and a woman's voice shrieked “it's a ravener! A ravener!” And Jax knew death was dear, then. The fangs dripped venom as the ravener skittered towards Jax, torso extended to strike. Jax threw himself to the side, but not fast enough to avoid the stepping, piercing spike-like feet stabbing him. He slashed wildly, blindly with a sword, hacked with his axe upwards at the long body. The blood that spilled was bright orange and burned and sizzled where it spattered on him. Three legs thumped to the ground, but the ravener wasn't slowed at all, only spun on its axis and darted its arrow-shaped head at him, missing with its fangs but catching his sword arm in its mouth, crushing and shaking, throwing him to the side. Men with swords Jax could face with impunity, but this thing, this frightful beast from another world was alien and unpredictable and too swift for thought. It struck at him again and Jax let it strike, waited, waited...used a technique borne of last-chances that had worked in the past: he fell backwards at the last second and buried the hook of his axe in the ravener's underbelly and was dragged a dozen feet across the sand, orange blood draining out. The creature skidded to a stop and spun and bucked, trying to get at Jax, and in the fraction of a second between hops and spins, he let go of the axe and transferred his sword to his unbroken hand, stabbed it upwards, one, twice, and again, closed his eyes and mouth and rolled away as the creature writhed and wriggled and bled burning blood on him. He buried his face in the sand, trying to get the blood off of him, spat and screamed as it ate into his skin.

The crowd was mad, now, utterly mad, as Jax staggered to his feet, wiping at his face, coughing, vomiting, and collapsed against the wall. He cracked open one eye, painfully, and watched as the emperor lifted his scepter above his head with both hands, lowered it to waist height and bowed shallowly over it. Luravian emerged from a low door and put an arm around Jax, dabbing at his face with a cloth, chattering:

“Gods, gods...you did it, Magnus, you did it. You made it. You're free, free indeed, and I've already received a dozen offers to employ you. The Corsairs want you bad, they do, they'll put you in the landing troops with possibilities of advancement.”

“This blood, it stings...” Jax had trouble breathing, and his face burned.

“Ah yes, ravener blood'll do that to a man. You'll have scars for life, and your hair'll be white where the blood touched it, but you'll be fine, in time.”

Through slitted eyes and caked blood Jax saw the world around him shift and waver, and then fade to blackness. Free, he thought as consciousness fled, but still the collar sat cold around his neck. He felt the pendant on his chest, too, strangely. It seemed to come and go, somehow. He forgot he wore it, rarely thought of it, but now, it seemed to glow dully and briefly, then faded as he sunk into unwilling sleep.

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