Sunday 13 March 2011

Tales of the Dreamscape - Gladiator

I've been working on a series of stories set in my own world for some time now, and this was the first I wrote. Enjoy!

Tales of the Dreamscape - Gladiator

    Even before blood had been spilt the ground was stained red. With every passing moment, the crowd grew in number, the sound of shouts and laughter, the sound of shrieks and howls, was everywhere. From all corners they had come to see the fight - from the Bridge of Rage to the Blissful Fields, from the Gates of Hate to the Tranquil Mountains - the Grand Stadium swelled to hold them all. The air was something tangible, heavy with expectation, laden with possibility; the taste of blood and sand, ash and incense, all of it was electrifying. Layers of self-doubt, the clothes of inhibition, fell from the growing crowd.
The moment had almost arrived.

    Weaving their way through the throng came the Priests of the Unreal Gods. Spaces opened up to let the holy men pass, their near-white robes shimmering in the light of the ever-setting sun. The breastplates they wore were fashioned of purest gold, worked into lions rampant and griffons soaring, twisted oak trees and bloated frogs. Inlaid diamonds and sapphires caught the sun’s rays, refracted the light onto the people - all the colours known to Man and more.
    At a signal only they observed, the priests ceased their advance and turned to face the people. The incantations began in that moment, though what words were said, there were none who could say, not even the priests themselves.
    Above it all sat the Duke of Dreams, the royal box floating high above the crowd - but not too high, for the Duke of Dreams enjoyed the games as much as anyone. It was often said that in his youth he had fought in the games under an assumed identity, dressed all in black. True or not, the Duke of Dreams never denied a rumour, for whispered stories are the very stuff of dreams.
    His box was darkened, so as to better see the coming spectacle, but the Duke of Dreams was clearly visible. His pale, quiet visage seemed to calm the crowds whenever they looked upon him, but to those who knew him, a flame of anticipation could be seen burning in his eyes. This would be a fight to remember, the final bout of the competition.
    Beside the Duke sat his consort, a beautiful creature who kept no name. Her eyes were pools of midnight and showed no emotion at all. Not even her mother, the Countess of Dusk, who of all people knew her best, was ever able to tell what she was thinking. She only rarely watched the games but today she sat beside her husband, motionless and silent, the young princeling on her knee.
    The priests ceased their chanting, and an expectant silence spread through the stands - the air was still.
The Hierophant stepped into the arena. Head held high, he looked neither right nor left as he strode into the centre. He stood in the central point, marked in dried blood, and only then did he survey the crowds, his head turning in every direction, green eyes penetrating to the soul. All who met his gaze felt a shiver, a touch of the Unreal.
    In one hand he held the staff of ceremony - a long pole, carved from a single bone, topped with snake feathers and human skin. It was his mark of office; the symbol of the fights, and the Hierophant took no small pleasure in showing it off, twirling it in the sunlight. In the other hand he carried a huge gong, heavy and unwieldy. The day he could no longer lift the gong would be the day he ceased to serve as Hierophant, and though that day was still a long way off, it was never far from his mind. He held the gong triumphantly, lifting it above his head.
    Not a sound was heard throughout the Grand Stadium. Watching for the long awaited signal, no man was able to look away. The Hierophant raised the staff and paused once more. This was his moment, everything rested on him. Then he brought the staff crashing into the gong, and its deep voice sang across the crowds, shaking the very stones of the arena.
    The people erupted, screaming and cheering, waving banners and swords in the air. At each side of the vast, sand-covered fighting pit, an iron grate rose ponderously into the air, creaking like an old man’s bones. With a thud the gates reached their zenith and the fighters stepped forth, prepared for battle.
    Out of the east gate strode the mighty Stone, a veteran gladiator of many fights. With every step he took, the very ground seemed to tremble. He was clad head to toe in steel plate, blackened and glazed to an oily, mirrored finish. Each plate was thick and sturdy, and between them was tightly woven chain-mail, glistening ever so slightly.
    His face was hidden from view by a huge visored helmet, plain and unadorned. A grille gave him good visibility but his armour still restricted his movements. Nevertheless, Stone was an imposing sight as he stepped into the arena, dust swirling around his ankles.
    Stone raised his huge mace and shield high into the air - both were unremarkably brutal, without device or decoration - and as he raised his arms, the crowd bayed for blood. He was the favourite to win the fight, as he had won the last three championships. Not since the Horned Leopard had there been a fighter like Stone, and he knew it.
    Then the west gate revealed his opponent, the newcomer and rank outsider, the Shadow of Dawn. He stepped out into the arena, almost naked, his body layered in a thin sheen of sweat. What covered his skin was not from a sense of modesty - a thing frowned upon by the Duke of Dreams but served to decorate his body, and seemed to be functional only as an afterthought. The Shadow’s arms were wrapped in blue leather bracers that stretched up to his elbows, embroidered in gold thread. Rows of thin steel teeth jutting out from the leather that were almost invisible at first glance, were the Shadow’s only concession of style to combat.
    The Shadow of Dawn did not walk so much as dance into the arena, sinuous motions, effortlessly fluid. His mouth hung open, tasting the stench of exhilaration, before twisting into a sneer, and a howl of anticipation. No one had imagined that he could reach the finals in his first competition, but the Shadow of Dawn was skilled with dream-weaving, and had defeated a dozen warriors to reach this fight.
    Realising he was no longer the centre of attention, the Hierophant struck his staff against the ground three times, and an uneasy hush settled.
    “We fight this day in the name of Gods Unreal and Unknown,” intoned the priest, “and in the hope of deliverance from suffering.”
    Stone banged his mace against his shield, the Shadow of Dawn smiled broadly before they both turned to the royal box and bowed. The Duke of Dreams gave a tiny nod, and they turned back to face each other.
    “Now,” called the Hierophant, “fight!”
    He struck the gong for the last time, and even before the deafening sound had begun to fade, the Hierophant had fled the field, and the crowd was screaming – crying out for blood. Stone raised his mace in salute but the Shadow just laughed, a loud, manic laugh, and leapt forward. The last fight had begun.
    Both men began cautiously, circling each other, sensing the other’s strengths and weaknesses. They had never fought before and never would again.
    Then Stone made a move. Darting forward faster than would have seemed possible for a man in such hulking armour, he swung at the Shadow. A heavy blow that would have crushed bones had it connected, but the Shadow seemed prepared, ducked beneath the swing, and stepped away before Stone could muster a back-swing. There was never less than a small smile on the Shadow’s face, as if he was amused by everything, but now he was positively enjoying himself.
    Stone swung his mace high and low, driving his adversary ever backwards towards the edge of the arena. Not a single blow struck, as the Shadow danced away. Those who had never seen him fight before began to wonder how he could hope to win when he did not carry so much as a dagger but those who had seen his victory in the Hollow knew what was coming.
    The black mace swung down, and for a moment Stone’s right side was open. The Shadow of Dawn leapt high over the attack and moved to punch his foe. As his fist drove forward, it seemed to shimmer and change, becoming a sharp spike of metal. But Stone’s armour turned the blade, and his black shield connected sharply with the Shadow’s head, knocking him to the floor. A veteran of a hundred fights, Stone would not be defeated so easily. He span around, whirling the heavy mace at his adversary, lying on the floor, but hit only sand as the Shadow rolled and leapt back onto his feet.
    They circled each other again, a new found respect showing on the Shadow’s smiling face. The blade had vanished and now blue spikes were growing from his elbows, curved and cruel, bestial claws sprung from the back of his hands. Stone revealed no emotion beneath his black helmet. This was nothing he had not seen before and overcome.
    Then they were together, the Shadow of Dawn a whirl of teeth and claws as he tore at the black armour of Stone. They fell to the earth as one, grappling and struggling, kicking up a cloud of sand around them. The Shadow grave a cry of victory, as he tore Stone’s visor from its place and brandished it for all to see, but his cry was short-lived, as Stone’s solid punch knocked him flying.
    Three red scratches marred his dark skin, as Stone spat blood and charged, swiping at his fallen opponent. The Shadow rolled and writhed on the ground but couldn’t seem to escape the falling blows of the mace and get to his feet. Stone was winning but his impassive face betrayed no emotion. The Shadow was pinned against the edge of the arena. The time had come to finish the job.
    With a strength that would have smashed a tree, Stone swung at the Shadow’s head, only his head was no longer there - the blow struck his shoulder, mangling flesh and bone. The crowd whooped at the sight of blood and crowded nearer as Stone turned to seek his prey.
    The Shadow of Dawn was waiting. As Stone watched, muscles and bones knitted themselves back together, a flow of red tissue and white shards. The Shadow flexed his newly restored arm and snarled. He barely looked human anymore - the smiling face had become elongated and savagely canine and he hunched on all fours, ready to pounce. Only his bracers were constant, pale blue against his dust stained skin.
    Before Stone could prepare, the Shadow was bounding towards him. He leapt at Stone’s throat and ground the metal in his teeth, biting and clenching, trying to suck the life from his foe. Stone dropped shield and mace, grabbing at the Shadow’s jaw with one hand and his body with the other. Suddenly, Stone was free of the Shadow’s grip. He held his adversary above his head, like a grim statue, before flinging him to the ground.
    With baited breath, the crowd watched for the killing blow, but it didn’t come. The gorget around his neck was choking him, crushed by the Shadow, and Stone had to remove it or risk blacking out. He removed the clasp and flung it away but not before the Shadow was back on his feet, preparing a fresh assault. Stone picked up his mace and shield, watching, waiting.
    As Stone moved in to attack again, the Shadow of Dawn grinned. Huge wings burst from his back, an explosion of rainbow feathers. With a single sweep, the Shadow was flying above the sand, just out of Stone’s prodigious reach. If Stone was surprised by this manoeuvre he gave no sign of it. He merely grunted and readied his weapon for the next assault.
    When it came, the Shadow seemed to fall out of the sky, claws flashing back and forth from several extra limbs. Many attacks Stone blocked with his mace, others were turned aside by shield or armour, but the Shadow was concentrating his attacks on his opponent’s exposed neck and face, and came close to tearing Stone’s windpipe more than once. Stone himself seemed to be wearying, as the weight of the black armour overcame even his enormous strength.
    A swipe at his neck, and Stone’s parry was almost too slow to knock it aside in time. Soon the Shadow would triumph and be crowned champion. But he was unprepared when Stone’s mace, moving faster than it had any right to, tore through his wing. Blood and feathers mixed with the grey dust as the Shadow screamed in pain, no longer smiling. Stone hefted his weapon, and dealt a crushing blow to the Shadow’s head.
    But his mace passed straight through his opponent. All substance seemed to leech away from the Shadow, all solidity gone.
    The crowd gasped in amazement - such skill in dream-weaving.
    “Impossible,” muttered Stone, abandoning his mace where it had stuck in the ground.
    “Nothing is impossible,” answered the Shadow, his body now as vapour, his words sounding like the wind.
    And with that, the Shadow drifted towards his opponent, slowly but inexorably. Stone stepped back and back, waving his shield and gauntleted arms to fend off the Shadow - nothing slowed his advance.
    “No,” Stone shouted.
    “Yes,” was the Shadow’s whispered response, and he rushed into Stone’s open mouth, vanishing entirely into his body.
    Stone looked around. A puzzled look formed on his face, the first sign of emotion. Then a small ripple began at the edges of his mouth and spread down his neck. A deep crack ripped down the side of his armour. He staggered backwards for a moment, and exploded in a shower of flesh.
    In the middle of the arena, untouched by the gore that surrounded him that was already staining the sand red, stood the reborn Shadow of Dawn, grinning from ear to ear, his arms triumphantly held above his head.
    The crowd went wild.

    And somewhere, in the depths of London, below streets and trains and sewers, a small pale man awoke, shivering and trembling. Eyes wide, he looked right and left for light, a sense of place. Where was he? Worn blankets covered him but felt sticky and unwashed. Everything stank of urine and cold sweat. He scrabbled in the rags, hunting for a packet of pills amongst the refuse. Eventually he found them. Desperately, he fumbled with the lid and opened it. Not many left now. Soon he would need to find a dealer. But not yet. Now it was time to sleep again.
    Hand trembling, he placed the tiny pill in his mouth, and forced himself to swallow. He was so weak, so tired, but beyond sleep he would find strength again.
    “This pain isn’t real,” he muttered under his breath.
    He sank down and closed his eyes, waiting for dreams to seize him - to stand once more on the Blissful Fields and feel the wind on his face, to stand before the Duke of Dreams again, to be reborn as Stone.