Chapter 36: The Time of AncestorsNovember 1, 2019
The tunnel was cool. Standing behind the gate that opened onto the arena, Gnash could hear the crowd above him. They weren’t cheering, but the buzz of so many voices felt like an oncoming storm. He knelt down to pick up a small handful of dirt, and slowly rubbed it into his palms.
Gnash looked back. His patron, a retired champion of the Xultan arena, walked down the passage toward him, leaning on a giant-sized cane. Merizo’s gem tattoos shone in the faint light, and the giant nodded at Gnash’s hands. The warrior shook his head. “Old desert exile trick. Helps you keep grip on your weapons.”
“Ah,” the giant nodded. Robes rustling, he stepped up beside Gnash to look out through the heavy iron bars. Above them, the crowd began a muffled chant.
“Think the Listener will be in the audience?” Gnash asked.
“Damn it,” Gnash cursed, slamming a hand on the metal bars. “I had nothing in the Amaran. Joined an expedition just to get a full canteen, and ended up here.” He pointed out at the arena. “After seven months out there I’ve earned my damn gems.”
Merizo’s response was drowned out by the groan of the gate. It rattled as it rose, letting red sunlight pour into the dusty tunnel. It was time.
Tightening his grip on the polished shield, Gnash stepped into the arena.
Gnash’s right side felt like one massive bruise as he crouched behind a small stone outcrop. The fight had been a free-for-all. He had dispatched one competitor—losing a sword in the process—while another fighter had dealt with the other two.
“Little Gnash, still no gems on your arms?” His surviving opponent taunted, holding a huge pair of axes over his head. Sunlight caught the topaz that studded his arms and scarred torso.
Ramba! Ramba! The crowd calling out his name drowned out any cheers for Gnash.
He stood, risking a peek just as Ramba drew back an enormous arm. Gnash dodged to the side as an axe pulverized the rock he had been hiding behind. Rolling to his feet, Gnash angled his shield towards his attacker. The shield’s surface gleamed, reflecting Sol’s light at Ramba’s grinning face. The giant cried out, covering his eyes as the crowd laughed.
So far so good… Gnash thought, raising a hand to wave. As he did, his gaze caught a shape high overhead. Below it, among the mass of spectators, he saw three figures with their heads craned upwards. Each one bore a dark bone mask. Oh no…
Ramba was laughing as Gnash turned and shouted a warning: “Dragon!”
He was halfway to the giant when it struck. A torrent of shadow-tinged flame covered Ramba, and the gladiator began to scream, first in shock, then in pain. His cries were echoed by the crowd as the dragon landed. The floor shook, and Gnash whirled back around to see the few paladins in the stands draw their weapons. As they did, the air around them condensed into a dark, writhing mist, and the robed figures continued their chant.
The dragon roared again, raking at the dirt with cracked claws. It had dead, grey scales, and its wings and mouth pulsed with an angry light. If it gets to the crowd, this will be a bloodbath, Gnash thought
“Easy, easy,” he murmured, holding an open hand out towards the wyrm, using a tone he reserved for desert beasts. Moving slowly, Gnash inched closer to the dragon.
As he did, he began to hear faint whispers writhing around the beast, which roared and attacked. Gnash caught the first swipe of its claws with his shield, and parried the second with his remaining sword. Stepping inside its reach, Gnash gouged his blade into the beast’s rotting hide. The dragon backed away, vomiting flame, but Gnash stayed with it, ducking another swipe that shattered the earth beside him.
I need to put this thing down, he thought as the dragon reared, its maw opening wide. Now! Gnash rolled to one side as the dragon’s fangs clipped his shield, the impact making his arm go numb. Gnash dropped the shield as he swung his other arm around in a wide arc and buried his blade in the wyrm’s neck. The beast screamed, and the whispers around it intensified. Gritting his teeth, Gnash put all of his weight behind his sword arm and finished the job.
The dragon’s head landed on the blood-soaked sand of the arena.
Gnash looked up. In the stands, two cultists lay dead, the body of a paladin slumped next to them, dark marks around her neck. The surviving cultist lay bound at the foot of an armored Xultan inquisitor. Around them, the crowd was chanting something new.
Gnash! Gnash! Gnash!
Gnash grinned, and slowly raised his blood-covered sword in the air.
Gnash! Gnash! Gnash!
“Grodov be thanked, are you injured?” Merizo asked as the gladiator limped back into the tunnel.
Gnash winced. His left arm was no longer numb, though he wished it was. “What was that?” he asked, voice rough with exhaustion.
“A dragon attack,” Merizo replied. “Sol’s flame given form to spite the Ancestors. You must have seen one before now. Though,” he scowled, “they have been getting more and more frequen—”
“No,” Gnash interrupted. “I saw it up close. Looked into that thing’s eyes. It hated me. Hated us. He frowned, and wiped the sweat, grit, and blood from his brow. “Why?”
“The Listeners tell us that they are dead, corrupt things,” Merizo said quietly.
“It sure felt alive out there,” Gnash snapped.
“Leave the hunt to the Listeners and their soldiers,” Merizo said, guiding the warrior down the tunnel. “You must rest, heal.”
“I’ve been through worse,” Gnash said, shaking off the giant’s hand. “Maybe you should question why these things are killing your people.”
“Damn the Listeners,” Gnash shouted. “Out on the sands, you can only count on yourself. Magic and prayers won’t stop dragon claws.” Turning, he began to walk slowly away. He was nearly to the exit when Merizo spoke.
The gladiator halted. Behind him, the giant’s voice was guarded. “Kodosh sees all. In times like these… be careful what you say. But,” Merizo exhaled, running a hand over the gems on his arm. “I may know someone who can help.”
“If you wish to understand Xulta and its history, seek the Tale Keeper. She can tell you more of the dragons. Though her temple is buried deep in the jungle.”
Gnash grinned, and turned to face his friend.
“I’ll do it.”
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