Author’s Note: A bit of science fiction, which allows for a mix of familiar and alien elements that help build a wide world in just a few pages. I think the shifting perspectives add drama and, ultimately, greater weight to the more meaningful shift at the end.
The suns blazed harshly overhead, singeing the city below. The chaos, the madness of the universe itself seemed to bear down upon the land through those malignant eyes of the sky. The air was dead, devoid of motion and silent except for the muted excitement of throngs of city-dwellers that on any other day of the brutal drought season would have sought shelter in the relative cool of their low grit-mortar dome houses until much later in the evening.
But today was a very special day, so the populace turned out in force, each hoping for anything that might bring some measure of relief from the inferno through which they walked with slow, measured steps. They prayed for even the slightest wisp of a cloud, the least suggestion of a benevolent cataract to steal from the violent pupils above some of their primal lucidity. They hoped and prayed and knew that they did so in vain, that there would be no relief, no reprieve from the judgment of the suns for months to come. The dry season was upon them, and it was as unforgiving as its countless predecessors before it. Chakna, the time of rain and relief, growth, and harvest, seemed a distant and impossible dream.
Still, the city-dwellers flowed slowly northward through the streets, negotiating the strength-sapping heat with the practiced conservation of generations, each intent on securing their place in the arena for the rare privilege of witnessing a dry season duel — the first duel since the Fargonian POWs had been dispatched near the end of last Chakna. But for all the intrigue inherent in the rarity of the event itself, this one promised extra excitement. The challenger was a stranger, a creature — for though he was rumored to share many physical characteristics with the city-dwellers, it was said he could hardly be called a man — of unknown blood and garb who had had the foolish audacity to cause insult to the Lord of the Land to her very face while she toured the nearby Outlands. For that crime the stranger was sentenced to an immediate duel against the greatest of the land’s arena warriors, and against the even more merciless midday heat.
So the tide of spectator hopefuls swelled out of the city proper and lapped at the crude iron gates of the sand-weathered arena, finally breaking against the bellowed commands of the guardsman as they directed the rabble either into or away from the arena with a process of selection no more complex or defined than the whims of their power to choose. Those who were signaled in bowed their respects and shuffled away as quickly as possible, lest their patron of the moment change his mind. Those who were turned away departed no less quickly for fear of incurring the wrath of their denier, and, in most cases, to try their fortunes with another guard at one of the other two commoners’ gates.
For the more fortunate members of the higher castes who would occupy the two decks above the commoners’ pit, ingress was far simpler. They simply walked up to and through Northgate after presenting the small, engraved credential token of their family, guild, or trade and were directed to the appropriate level — tradesmen, local government. and other mid-society representatives to the narrow mid-deck and royals, elites, and holies to the wide, steeply inclined top deck with its sheltering skin-work canopy and free-flowing beverages served by the unranked soldiers of the Lord’s Guard itself.
When finally the torrent of bodies threatened to overflow the commoners’ pit, the guardsman set to turning away the remainder of the tide, shouting and shoving and swinging closed the arena gates with a raking screech of their grit-encrusted hinges.
Marcobi Dex, a metalsmith apprentice just past his tenth Chakna, listened intently to the faraway sound of the guardsmen’s voices and smiled. Many were the times when he’d been on the receiving end of those commands and shoves and kicks in vain attempts to gain admittance to arena duels. Hearing those cold, gruff voices now from the miraculous safety of the mid-deck, of all places, Marcobi felt an overwhelming sense of joy.
His father, the favorite laborman of a wealthy sand-trader, had been given the rare treat of attending the duel in his employer’s stead when business had called him into the mines of the Outlands the day before. So, swathed as appropriately as their humble existence and the ingenuity of his wife’s nimble fingers made possible, he’d set out with his son earlier in the day to take his humble place among the mid-deck regulars. The credential token his employer had given him allowed only for a single admission, so they’d approached the Northgate guardsman with apprehension and remembered abuses at the hands of other gate guards, but they had received nothing but deference and accommodation in spite of Marcobi’s lack of an invitation.
Standing against the mid-deck railing of the front row slot earned by the wealth of his father’s employer, Marcobi looked up into his father’s leathery face and smiled. His father tousled the tangled mane of Marcobi’s hair affectionately and futilely wiped his dusty, sweat-streaked face. Then all else was forgotten and the attention and silence of the arena crowd was commanded by the deep, vibrating voice of the Lord’s Barker as he announced the commencement of the event.
The Lord of the Land stepped up to the railing of the considerable portion of the top-deck set aside for her and her retinue to deliver the customary commencement address. In its power and projection her voice seemed out of synch with her otherwise delicate form, carrying almost as clearly and far more beautifully than her Barker’s. Though it felt longer to the sweltering crowd, the Lord’s commencement speech was short, in deference to the heat. Her words, though, were bitter and sharp, thick with contempt for the foolish stranger. She concluded with a declaration that was both promise to the crowd and imperative to her favorite champion — that she would be avenged with the blood of the vile stranger for the insult paid her.
As the Lord of the Land concluded her speech, each member of the crowd who was of age voiced their approval and enthusiasm with a drumming of their unity staff. These essential tools, used to audiblize the emotions of the crowd when the heat literally made verbal praise or physical demonstration dangerous, were made from the hollow stalks of the Tira reed. Tira seeds, which could lie dormant for years waiting for a sufficient abundance of rain, grew tremendously fast during the wettest Chaknas. Knee-high forests sprung up overnight and reached a grown man’s waist in two days, at which time they threw seed and died. If allowed to seed, the reeds wilted into nothingness almost as quickly as they exploded upward from the soil. But if the stalks were harvested and properly dried before going to seed, they yielded sturdy, ceramic-like tubes, wide at the base and narrow at the top, that were as light as they were strong.
Once dried, family elders trimmed down and etched the stalks with symbolic representations of their world — births, deaths, accomplishments, discoveries, and news that were deemed worthy of commemoration. As such, the unity staffs that were crafted from the Tira reed stalks were cherished not only as lifelong possessions and ceremonial tools, but as heirlooms that literally told the tale of the families to which they belonged.
Whatever the decorations, though, the elders always made sure the stalk was properly tuned. If trimmed and notched just right, the stalk would sound distinctive notes when either end was struck against a hard surface. Only after a stalk was given voice through proper tuning did it become a unity staff, the physical embodiment of the diametric forces of the world — good and evil, wet and dry, night and day. The narrower end that had been the top of the Tira reed sounded light and high and was called the Stymus, after the mythical Prince of Light, in emulation of whom all were expected by custom and law to live. The wider end of the staff, that which had been the Tira reed base, sounded solemn and low and was called Lar, after the Dark Sister who betrayed the Prince of Light and brought death to the world.
It was a proud day, a day of passage, when a youngling was deemed worthy of the honor of being presented with a unity staff of their own.
As the Lord of the Land concluded her scathing speech, the crowd voiced its approval with an eruption of enthusiastic Stymus-beats.
Marcobi, not yet in possession of his own unity staff, simply took in the scene. From the moment he’d entered the arena he’d soaked up every motion and sound and sight of this glorious day. While others had inwardly dreaded even the abbreviated commencement speech, Marcobi had drunk in every word, every nuance of voice and movement of the Lord of the Land, as she spoke. As the chorus of Stymus-beats rose to crescendo and then died quickly away, he strained his ears to hear each individual beat, and to burn them into his memory forever. From the touch of his father’s powerful hand as it rested lightly on his shoulder to the ultimate deathblow yet to come, this was a day never to be forgotten, an enthusiastic first stride down the road to manhood. No more would he have to sit quietly while others talked of the great duels of the past, present, and future — in a moment he would become a member of that illustrious brotherhood of spectators. Even the rage of the suns above failed to stifle his excitement.
When the final beats of applause echoed away, the bellowing voice of the Barker introduced the warriors over the boom and screech of the opening of the holding-gates on either end of the arena.
The Champion, stepping into the light of the suns and taking his place in his Sprint Circle, was introduced to a thunder of patriotic Stymus-beats. When the thunder rolled away, the Champion pounded out his personal unity-beat with a loud, resonant clapping of his massive hands, the beat rippling through his muscles. The crowd took up the Champion’s beat for the customary three-cycle salute with the practiced precision of long familiarity. The Champion’s anthemic ting-ting-boom sounded from ten thousand staffs united into a single perfect voice.
Then the Barker spat contemptuous reference to the Stranger, which had not the honor to reveal its name, only to be drowned out by a cacophony of Lar-beats as the Stranger was escorted to its own Sprint Circle. The Stranger, though, took no notice. After a fleeting moment of apparent discomfort at being pushed from the cave-like darkness of the holding area into the white blaze of the day, the Stranger had scanned the arena and locked its eyes upon its adversary on the far side. After surveying the scene and pinpointing its executioner, its stance had seemed to relax, though its gaze never wavered.
The Stranger was strange indeed in its scaly-looking blue-tinged skin, its considerable musculature obscenely displayed by the mockery it had made of the arena-cloth that was the warrior’s only garb. Rather than covering the areas it was meant to, which it could have been made to do even on the squat cylinder of the Stranger’s misshapen body, the arena-cloth was indecently cinched around its broad torso and shoulder, a fact that redoubled the crowd’s arrhythmic assault of Lar-beats.
When the din died away, the Barker assigned the Stranger the double Lar-beat reserved only for the most loathsome of competitors and the arena rang like a fear-stricken heart with the three-cycle salute of the ominous sounding ba-boom.
Yet the Stranger was oblivious to the noise of the crowd, oblivious to the Barker and, to the shock of all, oblivious to the sounding of the Sprint Drum. With a gasp and a low tittering whisper of softly tapped unity staffs, the crowd watched in disbelief as the Champion, according to rules that must have been made clear even to the mute Stranger, sprinted with all the speed his great muscles would afford him out to the Arms Circle at the center of the arena, while the stranger made no effort at all to do so itself. In a moment, the Champion had chosen his favorite weapon from the arsenal in the Arms Circle and had positioned himself, winded, sweat rolling in torrents over his undulant body, between the Stranger and the only tools it had to postpone its inevitable demise.
The crowd screamed its disapproval in a dizzying barrage of Lar-beats, yet the Stranger was unfazed, foolishly standing guard in its Sprint Circle, its eyes still locked on the Champion.
For a moment or two the Champion returned the eerie gaze of the Stranger, catching his breath and trying to understand why it still stood in its Sprint Circle, why it hadn’t even tried to make a respectable accounting of itself before it died. Truly, this was a beast without honor. He glanced up at the Lord of the Land, unsure of how to proceed against an enemy that clearly intended no resistance, concerned with preserving his own honor in a battle against a defenseless foe. The Lord of the Land, livid to judge by her animated gestures, signaled him to proceed without delay.
At the sounding of the Sprint Drum, Marcobi’s heart had leapt. His initiation had begun at last, and he stretched as far over the mid-deck railing, taking in as much of the scene all around him, as his father’s restraining hand would allow. He watched the Champion explode out of his Sprint Circle, head down, body bent forward, legs churning madly beneath him like an Outland dust-shark streaking lethally after its prey. It was exhilarating. Marcobi glanced across the arena to watch the Stranger’s dash, anticipating the customary clash and struggle for arms that was the heart of so many spectators’ stories of duels gone by, but was shocked to see it still standing in its Sprint Circle. All at once his exhilaration was engulfed by the grim disappointment of understanding. The Stranger would not fight. It made no effort to arm itself. It would die in mere moments, helpless against the fury of the Champion’s blade, and Marcobi’s status as spectator would be all but meaningless. His tale of this duel would not be worth telling next to even the most paltry accounts of true combat and honor. His heart, so alive and enthralled a moment before, dropped in his chest, blackening with disappointment and rage at the cowardly blue Stranger below.
By the time the Champion had grasped the familiar hand holds of the four foot pugil-blade that was his trademark weapon, the crowd, too, had realized what was unfolding before them. The air danced with the fury of Lar.
Then, after a brief glance at the Lord of the Land, the Champion began advancing slowly toward the Stranger, regaining his wind with each deliberate step. And with each step, the frenetic voice of the crowd’s anger softened and changed, until it chanted ting-ting-boom all as one and pushed the Champion toward a vengeance of his own.
And still the fool didn’t move. Through the pounding of the Lar-beats and now the throbbing of its enemy’s chant, it just stood, eyeing him with no apparent emotion. The Champion’s very flesh vibrated to the rhythm of his unity-beat as it energizing his dripping body, awakening the lust for blood he’d felt so often before as he walked the arena sands. But this time he felt something new. This beast that gave only insult and mockery, that seemed intent upon kicking dust upon every custom of their great land, had somehow become much more to him in its inaction than the mere object to be conquered that scores of worthier and more honorable opponents before it had been. This beast had incurred his own personal hatred in its refusal to fight. He only hoped that it would bolt out of instinct, if nothing else, before he ended its miserable life. It would be so much more satisfying to take the creature by force, even if its resistance sprung only from a lowly desperation to save its hide.
By the time he was upon the Stranger, his blood boiled in his veins even as it danced to the resonating chant of the crowd.
Marcobi gazed at the Stranger in disbelief. The Champion was closing in on it, but it still didn’t move. It was unfathomable and infuriating, but fascinating, too. To just stand and watch death closing in, and in so terrifying a form as the Champion and his blood-hungry blade, was something Marcobi knew he would never be able to do. Had he not reached the Arms Circle and chosen a weapon, though he would at least have tried to do so, he would have run screaming away from so menacing and single-minded a force. He would scale the walls, plead with the crowd for help, beg the Lord of the Land for mercy and life — anything but simply stand and await the deathblow.
Marcobi wondered if perhaps the Stranger was a priest. He’d seen priests in the capital once, priests who sat in prayer with the same sort of indifference to the world around them as the Stranger. They sat entranced, eyes focused somewhere else. Passersby ignored them for the most part, as if they were just another statue or monument to be forgotten. But some brought bits of letter-hide, scrawled with wishes or requests or questions to be answered, and laid them beside the priests. Others left flowers or gifts of food or coin. Others sat beside the priests, pouring out their hearts and dreams and fears, emboldened by the silence they received in return. Brave children, too young or foolish to fear the priests’ power, would jump and screech at them suddenly from the passing crowd, only to be disappointed by the holy men’s lack of acknowledgement, and pained by the swift judgment of their more pious parents.
Marcobi had been younger by two Chaknas then, but had regarded the priests with a curious awe, wondering what it was they saw out beyond the horizon, what secret thoughts and knowledge lay behind their far-focused eyes.
Looking down at the Stranger now, as the Champion closed the last few feet between them and raised the pugil-blade to strike, Marcobi wondered much the same thing about it.
He’d cut the distance between them to a few steps and still the beast stared at him fixedly, great tears now pouring from its unblinking bulbous eyes and rolling down its deformed face. Obviously it felt something — whether it be fear, shame, or hopelessness he couldn’t tell, though it had legitimate claim to any of them — but still it did nothing to avert its doom.
He quickened his final few steps, raising the pugil-blade and moving to position his feet to maximize the power of the deathblow. Whatever emotions moved the beast to weep so, he intended nothing less than to end its pathetic life by separating those tear-filled eyes and cleaving it in two.
In a single fluid and well-practiced motion he shifted both hands to the lower grip of the pugil-blade and swung downward with unimaginable force, the upper edge of the blade fairly whistling its rage as it cut the air, then grunting its disapproval as it ground violently into the grainy sand of the arena floor. His massive frame rocked with the impact, uncushioned by the softer resistance he’d expected to feel as the blade bisected the beast.
Somehow, though he’d precisely aimed his blow at the softly pulsating patch of flesh between the beast’s eyes, it just wasn’t there anymore when the blade arrived to claim its victim.
Marcobi had merged with the crowd. He pounded out the Champion’s unity-beat on the railing before him with his fist. He leaned forward with them when the Champion swung his blade, craning to see the deathblow. And he gasped in astonishment when the Stranger leapt lightly to the side, seemingly without moving a muscle, and watched the Champion’s pugil-blade blast into the ground. Then, as the shock rippled through the crowd, quieting its chant, Marcobi watched the Stranger hop effortlessly into the air, plant its left foot on the back of the grounded pugil-blade just below the Champion’s hands, snap its body around like a dust-funnel and kick the Champion squarely on the side of his face with its disproportionately large, three-toed foot. The power of its muscles, the whip-speed of its spin and the split second of vulnerability of the disoriented Champion combined to send him sprawling headlong into the sand. A mist of spittle, sweat and blood exploded off his tumbling body, only to be snatched at and devoured by the competing thirsts of the air and the arena sand.
The Champion had been made to bleed! It had only been there for an instant but Marcobi was sure. There had been a flash of blood, the Champion’s blood, mingled with the sweat. The Stranger had done without a weapon what hadn’t been done by honorable opponents for countless duels. It had drawn the Champion’s blood!
He hadn’t seen it hop aside, and he’d barely had time to realize it had jumped again, this time onto the back of the pugil-blade, before he felt an explosion in his head that made the jolt of driving his blade full force into the ground seem like a playful tap.
When he managed to lift his head a moment later and to open his right eye, the only one he could, blood from his mouth and face was cascading down upon the ground in a vain attempt to quench the sand beneath him. He lay on the arena floor, its scalding heat denying him the unconsciousness that he realized, as he stumbled uncertainly to his feet, would otherwise have come.
Reaching up with a shaky hand he felt the side of his face, then his chin and chest. The blood was tacky, drying already.
Looking down at where he’d lain, he watched the damp impression of his sweat shadow break apart and disappear like smoke.
The Champion stood on wobbly feet and reached up to the drying blood that caked upon his face and chest. He looked down in obvious disbelief at where he’d lain, then down his own body, crusted now in sweat-dampened sand. Marcobi knew the Champion had fought hundreds of duels and had been wounded and knocked down many times, though mostly in his early years. He had become a hero, a living legend, for the indomitable, virtually unwoundable warrior he had matured into. It had been a long time since he’d seen his own blood or felt the ground against his mighty body. Now he stood, dazed, apparently contemplating the confusing turn of events right along with the crowd.
Meanwhile the Stranger stood where it had landed, eyeing the Champion’s unsteady form intently. Once again it was motionless.
The crowd, silent in the moments of its Champion’s fall, stirred from its awe-stricken lull and began to titter in a changed voice. An arena crowd always had its hero, always knew which side to root for, but it was also honest in its appraisal of what played out on the sand before it, its individual members greatly freed by the relative anonymity of the crowd. So the rising voice of the spectators was different now, a rhythmless discord of intermingled encouragement for the Champion and praise for the unorthodox success of the Stranger.
It was the changing voice of the crowd that brought him completely back to his senses. Slowly, the ignominious unity-beat assigned to the beast was overpowering his own. The crowd was praising it for one lucky blow! Once again rage bubbled up inside him. He turned suddenly toward the beast realizing it had been standing behind him as he gathered his wits, and winced in pain. His head throbbed; pain-stars burst before his eyes.
The beast stood motionless, practically on top of his pugil-blade. It obviously had no intention of using the weapon, but he was sure it wouldn’t just allow him to walk over and reclaim the blade for himself.
He turned again toward the Arms Circle, reclaiming strength and balance with each careful step. He wanted another blade, anything sharp and sure. Anything with which he could cut out the great leaking eyes that he felt boring into his back.
He would take out those eyes and make a meal of them for the traitorous Lar-beats with which the crowd now pummeled him!
Marcobi watched the Champion regain his composure as he walked slowly over to the Arms Circle and pulled a mid-sword out of the ground. He spun it expertly in his hand, making a show of his abilities and hushing the crowd’s chant of the Stranger’s beat. In a moment more the Champion’s unity-beat once again took hold, overwhelming the praise for the Stranger.
He turned back toward the beast, brandishing the mid-sword in a masterful display that had come of years of training as an honorary member of the Lord’s Guard. And still the beast didn’t move. But now, at least, he knew it would when it had to, and would attack, like a coward, only when he was vulnerable. In his expert hands, though, the mid-sword’s double-edged blade wouldn’t allow for vulnerability.
It was the beast’s turn to bleed.
With surging confidence and the reassurance of the crowd’s now resounding support, he approached it with quickening steps, the sweat of his body profuse enough to streak the sand that covered it into mud as he charged, the pounding pain in his head all but forgotten.
Again he moved to plant his feet for the most crushing attack. A warrior, he knew, had tendencies that could be exploited. If this beast liked to move left out of harm’s way, then he would attack low to that side and make it pay. He planted, and with a feint of a downward slash, he suddenly reversed himself, spinning his own great body and whipping his sword around and up from his lower right.
Again, the beast wasn’t there. It had leaned hard over to its own right, avoiding the slashing blade. It coiled to strike, but not before he brought the sword back upon it from the other direction, slicing flat and low.
The beast ducked into a grotesque squatting position, its arms thrust outward, its body parallel to the sand only a few hand-widths above it.
The force of his second slash carried his weapon and his hands too far outward, leaving his body undefended. Before he could even contemplate the consequences of that fact, the beast’s foot was again on his face, this time snapping his head violently back with a kick from below. In the next instant the beast seemed to be floating in the air before him, spinning crazily, impossibly.
Then he knew no more.
The Champion charged and again Marcobi leaned forward with the crowd, pounding the Champion’s unity-beat on the rail. The Champion moved as if to slash the Stranger from above, then somehow reversed himself into a cyclonic backspin that brought his sword up at the Stranger from the other side. The crowd redoubled the intensity and volume of its chant in admiration of such a masterful maneuver. In that brief moment, the duel ended in the minds of most everyone there. No warrior could hope to avoid falling to such a cunning move.
Yet the Stranger didn’t fall. It leaned over to the side, ducking out of the way of the sword, then, repositioning its feet into a wider stance, fell almost flat to the ground as the Champion swept the sword around for another pass.
Then the Champion was suddenly wide open to attack, and attack the Stranger did. Springing up from its flat-bodied squat, it flipped over backward, smashing the Champion’s jaw from below with its outstretched foot. As the Champion’s head snapped and he staggered a step or two backward from the force of the blow, the Stranger finished its flip, lightly touched the ground, then launched itself upward again. It spun its body completely around in mid-air and, with a long claw that had appeared suddenly at the tip of the backward pointing toe of its left foot, slashed the Champion’s throat where he stood.
The Stranger landed facing the falling body of its foe. Blood poured from the Champion’s great gaping wound, the dry sand lapping it up in a futile attempt to keep ahead of the flow.
The crowd fell utterly silent, horror and disbelief etched indelibly on the faces of its ten thousand constituents. The silence was broken by a mournful, raging screech that was somehow given life by the Lord of the Land. Then chaos broke out.
The air erupted with the angry voice of Lar. Guards appeared suddenly and began pushing people, commoners and elites alike, out of the arena People shouted and cursed and threw things in vain attempts to punish the Stranger. But the Stranger just stood where it had landed, looking around, finally acknowledging the existence of the crowd that now raged against it in spite of the heat-shimmered air that enveloped them all. It looked around, scanning the crowd, surveying the mad scene it had made, and for an instant, the Stranger’s large, wet eyes locked onto Marcobi’s own, which were wide with astonishment, as he stared down upon it.