Featuring Useless, Anax of Rhodes, Hautis and Neophage as the best players of March-April.
BabyWolf and his teammates crossed a long corridor dotted with cells similar to theirs until they reached a large circular room. The snaking trenches that channelled the lava through the floor merged there before passing under a large metal gate that led into the Coliseum. The sound was deafening, as if thousands of souls screamed with fury and frenzy at the spectacle of blood.
As they went through the gates, the light from the fires blinded them, accustomed as they were to the gloom that reigned in the dungeons. When their vision acclimated, it almost left them speechless; An immense space, as if a natural creek had room for an entire city. The sight could not determine where the cavern finished. Four large rock pillars held up the entrance to the dungeons. In the center stood a circular amphitheater with steps full of those huge Khärn, who cheered the fighting as if there was nothing more important in this world. In the center of the Coliseum, a lava river surrounded an enormous circular pit. Once you entered that circle, there was no escape except to fight for your life.
No one seemed to notice them. Borj acted as master of ceremonies and explained briefly what the «blüt» consisted of. BabyWolf wondered to himself what happened to his previous Tamvaasa companions, but did not try to stop Borj’s explanation. Not that he could understand his language anyway.
“The rules are actually quite simple,”—said Borj with an amused expression, “the Khärn are not friends of subtleties. We enter the pit, we fight with the opposing team and, if we are lucky, we will survive to die another day.”
“What are those levers for?” Asked Lo-Rei.
“My dear, you're about to find out.”
Two groups of fighters entered the Coliseum at that moment, a time celebrated with great euphoria by the Khärn who filled the stands. There was not a single free space in the room, and even several of those creatures had climbed the great pillars and howled with joy as they held up ropes and chains. They were too far away to see the fighters in detail, but they were surprised by the composition of one of the teams; All three were warriors of Tamvaasa. The opposing team consisted of a Khärn, a Celea and a Shinse warrior. The two groups waited at each end of the circle for the battle to begin.
A great horn blew, rumbling throughout the room, and the six fighters began moving. The three Folkin remained on guard, avoiding at all times the circular metallic pit, through which the light of the lava flickered and glowed. The mixed team, however, headed for the center with speed. That was the moment that one of the Tamvaasa chose to hit one of those levers with his axe, causing a metallic chain link click in the center of the Coliseum. The shouts of the Khärn gained intensity, but they could not rise above the metallic clash that caused the platform to collapse into the lava. It would have dragged the warriors down with it, but it was not the first time they had fought there. With a quick movement the Celea leapt forward as the Khärn called out a Sign, rising angrily and landing his club in the heart of the enemy team. At that moment the Shinse appeared from behind as if it had sprung from the vapors emitted by the lava, firing her poisoned kunais.
“The Khärn is called Steevious, or something like that. Jes-Ter is the name of the shizu. They usually team up, I've faced them before” -as if moved by a reflex act, Borj stroked a deep scar on his right shoulder. All those who survived several battles at the Coliseum had dozens of them. “I do not know who the Celeani is.”
The three Folkin tried to hold together and invoked the Song of the Vilkai, a powerful Sign that allowed them to heal from their wounds. At that moment the mysterious warrior of Celea thrust them from the side, carrying his spear wrapped in flames. One of the Tamvaasa fell victim to his spear. Another one received a heavy blow from Steevious's mace and the last dropped his axe and begged for mercy when he saw Jes-Ter's wakat a short distance from his neck. The Khärn stopped the fight, not too satisfied.
“I do not think they will grant it” murmured Borj, nodding toward Lo-Rei. “If they do not see too much blood, you are returned to the cell and will never be seen again. Perhaps that is why the Khärn have enough food to bet on the fighting.”
Lo-Rei looked with a sneer at the Tamvaasa. Even BabyWolf seemed to understand the joke. Many innocents ended up in the Khilma jails, and there were many who presented themselves as gladiators at the Coliseum in the hope of being able to rescue their family members. It was not an issue the fighters joked about.
Back in the pit, some slaves collected the two corpses while a gigantic Khärn handed their reward to the winners without too much ceremony. The khärn enjoyed the blood, not the awards. The celeani removed the metallic helmet that covered his face, revealing a tanned complexion, although a pale color for what was usual in a Celea.
“Anax” said BabyWolf, almost with a murmur staring at his compatriot. His expression was extremely serious, his eyes could cut a knife.
“Do you know him?“Borj asked, surprised.
BabyWolf looked at Borj, nodding once. The Tamvaasa studied the distance for the Celeani who collected his sack with the food he obtained as a prize for winning each combat. No one noticed Lo-Rei's nervous reaction to hearing that name.
Anax was the name of the Celeani she had come to kill.
At the other end of the Coliseum, Aura went down to the arena followed by Starox and that huge Khärn they called Ruthless. At last it was their turn to fight. From one of the corridors were descending members of the rival team. Curiously, their formation was identical; A Khärn everybody called Useless - though probably not to his face - a Shinse that everyone knew as Neo and a warrior from the Mooji clans, clad in an armor of the Goodkill clan. Hautis was his name and Aura lamented that she had to kill one of her own.
The battle began quickly, and the young Tamvaasa soon realized that her companions knew what was being done. Starox invoked a Sign of Invisibility and disappeared from sight, but Aura could sense his presence as she walked away in the direction of the enemy team. Ruthless, as she had supposed, rushed toward them across the metal platform. "What a teamwork…" Aura thought as she sighed, spinning her two axes. It would be up to her to save their asses from the rear thanks to the Northern Gifts.
Their initial push was quickly countered by veterans Hautis, Neo and Useless. It was clear that this was not their first team match; Aura, Starox and Ruthless were paying dearly for their decision to go on their own. The veterans covered the back of their companions, no daring to attack at the same time. They took turns, launching quick attacks and returning to their initial position before their guard was exposed. Aura and her companions did not know how to penetrate that defense. At one point, the three executed their Signs at once, like a choreography. Useless hit the floor of the Coliseum with his club, stunting them all. Hautis circled Starox with an ice wall and Neo hit her compatriot with the Go-Na Path. This demonstration of efficacy was welcomed by the public, who shouted enthusiastically.
Aura did not quite understand how they were still alive; she had been completely exposed to Useless's attack, but he had been content to hit him in the face with the handle of his club, making the audience roar again. That gigantic khärn had the sympathy of the public; he was as big and muscular as all of his race, but surprisingly agile and cunning. He did not react to the girl's feints and read Aura's movements with his eyes, looking for the best moment to attack. The young woman had not heard of Useless in the Great North, but in Khilma he was well known ... and respected. He had led his tribe years before, in the first incursions of the Khärn, before the Cataclysm, but what he saw there did not seem to interest him too much: he preferred the blood and lava that breathed in the Coliseum, and never went out again.
The Khärn who witnessed that fight were quite happy with Useless’ decision…The giant’s next maneuver brought his huge mace down upon Ruthless's shoulder. Hautis prepared a new sign to cover the back of his partner, but Aura was, this time, faster. The young woman jumped to the side, exposing herself too much to the river of lava that surrounded the pit but discovering a hole in Useless’ defence. One of her axes hit the giant's forearm, spurting blood. The Khärn turned, his face in an infernal grimace. Aura froze, watching as the creature roared, her axe still oozing drops of dark blood. “What the hell do you think you're doing?” Said Hautis in the northern language, standing between them, with his axes raised as a guard. “The audience wants blood, but if you infuriate Useless, you're not going to get out of here alive.”
“Alive?” Exclaimed Aura, almost indignantly. “This is a fight to the death!”
Useless looked at Hautis and Neo nervously, not yet deciding whether to jump over the Tamvaasa to attack Aura. The muscles in his neck tightened with each breath, and his face, usually greyish, was red with anger. The young woman was hardly surprised that the rock dome began to fall apart when the Khärn roared, his head pointing at the cavernous roof. Large pieces of stone fell on the Coliseum and the stands, causing lava to splash into the stands. This seemed to disconcert the whole crowd, as some of the attendants began to flee screaming; Others preferred to continued to watch the combat, since Useless, completely out of his mind, decided to charge against Aura jumping over his own teammate. The Folkin flew several meters from the power of blow after gigantic blow, landing a few feet from the open pit in the center of the arena. She did not have much time to congratulate herself on her luck, as Useless jumped with enormous force through the air the distance that separated them. If Aura's reflexes had not allowed her to dodge in time, her head would be one of the many bloodstains on the floor of the Coliseum. That did not seem to stop Useless, however. He continued to strike with the great obsidian sword he was holding. Aura dodged them as she could while wondering how the Khärn could handle such a roughly carved piece of rock so quickly. The Khärn who remained in the stands howled with anticipation, but the rocks that fell into the enclosure were getting bigger.
“What the hell is going on?” Starox asked. The other four warriors had stopped fighting each other, astonished by the collapse of the cave's roof on the first place, and by the battle between Aura and Useless afterwards.
“The volcano must have erupted,” Neo muttered, brushing her blond hair from her eyes. “The mountain had never shook so violently.”
Ruthless, without a word, turned back toward the dungeons. Surely no one would be left to give them meat as a prize for combat, so he had lost interest in the fight. Hautis and Neo tried to separate Useless from the Tamvaasa with great determination, but little success. Starox also decided to lend a hand.
“What do we do now?” Asked the thin Shinse. “We could take advantage of the confusion to escape. Do you know the exit?”
“Escape?” Hautis laughed, trying with all his strength to hold on to Useless, who was still blowing the huge obsidian sword without losing sight of Aura. “Why the hell would you want to do that?”
“Are you not prisoners?” Aura asked as he rose from the floor, looking at Hautis with a puzzled look, and still a bit frightened by Useless, though the Khärn seemed calmer now, glancing suspiciously at the ceiling of the vault.
“Absolutely not. We are volunteers. Believe me, things out there are no better than they are in here.”
“He is right,” said Neo, “nothing is left alive, neither east nor west of the mountains.”
“And what about our people in the moors?” Starox asked anxiously. “Thousands of Shinse were heading for the Aren Valley, seeking to cross the mountains through the South Pass. It is said that the ruins of the Zem, our ancestors, are still standing, and that the Gokhan had founded a new city at the foot of a great lake.”
Neo shook her head, looking down at her compatriot, who bowed his head. If the Shinse had managed to cross the mountains and be safe from the Cataclysm, she did not know. Aura, however, did not give up.
“I do not care. Nothing can be worse than this suffocating environment. Let's get out of here and go west, I’m sure we can find something.”
“The ruins of the Zem must not be far south.” Starox said. “The Sikhan told me that there is still clean water running, and many of the Shinse have found shelter there. I do not know about you, but I'm not willing to drink lava and eat rotten meat while I play hide and seek for the rest of my days.”
Hautis and Neo looked at each other. Maybe it was an option, and it had been a long time since they had one in front of their noses. They were used to the rumors, but not to the hope that these new arrivals showed. Would they continue their harsh life as gladiators at the service of the Khärn, or would they seek a new future on the other side of the mountains, in the ruins of Skara's oldest civilization?