They all watched as the one called Yellowjaws was taken to the edge of the arena. He limped from a vicious gash along his lower left leg that still seemed to be seeping blood. His long fur was matted with blood, dust, and his own thick spittle. He stopped and turned to them. He had been neither loved nor reviled. In that moment, he was—by most—envied. For as they watched, the fur fell away from his form, leaving behind pale brown skin that would certainly darken to a natural bark brown under the sun. His snout, along with the double rows of jagged yellow-orange teeth by which he was named, began to shrink. His whole head shrunk somewhat. His face and head were bare, but in time, something would grow there. Not fur, but hair.
Yellowjaws was a man again.
Even his wound was healed as if it belonged to the creature he had been and not the man he now was. He was given his last gift, a bag full of coin, and his last warning about speaking of his life in the Arena. Though he was now free, the mark of the Arena was and would always be upon him. If he uttered a word of it to anyone, even whispered in confidence to a temple mother, even mumbled unconsciously in the throes of a nightmare overheard by a lover, if he dared speak of the Arena, the curse would fall upon his head again. He would transform back to Yellowjaws for good. There would be no regaining his manhood.
The man who was once Yellowjaws looked at the ones who had been his fellow gladiators, who were still stuck in their part-beast forms. He did not wave or bow. His eyes looked different now. They were even a different color. But the expression in them was the same as it had been before his transformation. Weary. Just weary. He took a breath, turned away from them, and walked over the threshold of the invisible boundary that spectators crossed without a care, but that gladiators both feared and longed for.
Most of the other gladiators dispersed and returned to their barracks or to the training ground. They were required to watch the transformation and departure. After that, they were allowed to continue watching for as long as they wished before the evening meal. They were also allowed to sleep or eat some extra food, a rare privilege. Then they would return to their strict regimens of training, fighting, eating, and sleeping. But most of the others had seen the sight before.
Great-horn was one who kept watching. He climbed to the top of the empty arena walls, where he would otherwise not be allowed. He watched the man walk along the path. The man was a victor. He had been granted his freedom from the beast-curse and the Arena because he had earned it. He had earned it by killing thirteen of his fellow gladiators.
“Do you remember being human?”
Startled, Great-horn turned to the sound of the voice. It was the one called Redscale. Great-horn knew the lizard-man’s given name, his human name. They had come from the same village, fallen into the same trap. Yet they never uttered their true names in the Arena. When they first arrived, they were advised not to. Redscale had thought it was some sort of superstition.
“There is little hope here, Great-horn. Just look at that.” Redscale pointed down to the great gateways that led into the fighting theater. Beside each gate were relief sculptures of kneeling guards bearing pikes. But above each one was the sculpture of a bulbous-eyed head that Great-horn had first thought was a depiction of one of the insect gods.
“He believes in the gray god,” Redscale said, speaking of the nameless arena-lord, who had taken them and brought them to the arena more half a year past. “You know what that means.”
Great-horn sighed and turned again to the road that wound through the forest. The man who was once called Yellowjaws was still there. No one had taken his reward from him. Perhaps he would be taken back, after the evening meal, after the gladiators were all sleeping, after he was out of sight of the Arena. Perhaps the arena-lord’s minions were following even now. Perhaps it was all a ruse to make the gladiators hope for release and return.
Or perhaps the reward was real.
Surely, there was no need for the arena-lord to recapture freed fighters. Not when he had traps set all over the vast continent of Great Persidasia. Traps like the one that Great-horn, Redscale, and one other man with them set off. It was a magical trap. It had knocked them out of their senses and by the time they woke, they were already in the Arena. By the time they woke, they were already not themselves. Great-horn remembered feeling something strange upon his skin. He rubbed and rubbed, trying to remove whatever it was. When he turned his head, he felt a great burden and an ache upon his skull.
Someone told him to close his eyes and listen first, for the sights he was to see would overwhelm and frighten him. But if he prepared for them, he might not spend his first hours screaming as some others did. Sure enough, Great-horn heard screaming, though it was not the screaming of people, but of beasts.
He didn’t heed the voice that spoke. He blinked his eyes and tried to rise. He saw the fur on his arms and on his half-bare legs. He saw something before his face, on his face. It was his snout.
He had not screamed, for before he could, he heard a familiar voice, coming from the form of a strange lizard or a small dragon with red scales. The creature was not completely beastly but formed like a man, standing upright on two legs, possessing hands that could grip. It was one of the men who had gone with him to save the child who’d gotten lost in the caves outside the village.
The red-scaled beast-man raised a hand. “Don’t speak my name. Or yours. They do not know where we have come from.”
Of course, Great-horn had heard tales and rumors of the Arena of Great Persidasia. The Arena was famous for its parade of strange mythic creatures doing battle with each other. All the warriors, as the arena-lord called them, were willing participants in the “games” that were played.
Hundreds of years ago, there were arenas where real battles took place. But the practice had been outlawed, like so many other barbaric customs. When the arena-lord rebuilt the long-abandoned arena, he promised extraordinary things. He promised that no man would be harmed. And to all appearances, he had kept that promise, because none of the gladiators appeared to be human men. They were said to be primitive beast-men from another continent, who came by their own will to battle in the Arena of Great Persidasia.
Great-horn had never listened too closely to the rumors. The Arena was far, far from his village. He had no need to heed the talk of its doings.
The enchantment that had trapped them transported them to the Arena, and as they appeared in the Arena, were transformed from men into beast-men. That was the truth if those who were there before Great-horn and Redscale could be believed. Redscale once wondered if the arena-lord controlled what the men would be transformed into, but no one seemed to know. It did not seem as important as striving to transform back.
The other man from their village stayed away from Great-horn and Redscale, though he sometimes looked with longing and envy at the two. He did not want the arena-lord to somehow find out where they had all come from, and to hold hostage their families or friends.
That was the one advantage the gladiators had, the one weakness of the traps. The men appeared in the Arena, transforming or transformed, so their human faces were unknown. The traps had to remain hidden and so the path of one who fell through a trap into the Arena could not be followed back to that trap. No one would know where a man came from or who he was unless the man revealed those secrets.
It was the other gladiators who gave them their names. Something that would be easy to remember. That’s why most of the gladiators had names that derived from their appearance.
And it was the other gladiators, the ones who had been in the Arena for a long while, some of them for many years, who told them about the bounds of the Arena.
There were no guards or locked gateways to keep the gladiators from leaving. What kept them from leaving was the same thing that kept them fighting. It was rare to see someone achieve the victory that led to freedom. There were rumors that the whole event had been arranged. That Yellowjaws had won his last few fights easily, against gladiators who were no match for him. He had met his quota of thirteen deaths. He had been granted his reward.
But in the first few nights after he arrived, Great-horn had seen for himself what happened to a gladiator who passed the threshold, the invisible boundary, without having met the conditions of victory set by the arena-lord.
His name had been Morrel. He had no fur. He was half-pig. He was no fighter. He would always shrink from the sight of the guard who set the fight schedules. And some of those gladiators who had taken kindly to him and pitied him even stood in front of him to hide him.
But there was no hiding from the fights.
One day, Morrel was matched with a gladiator who possessed the hooded head and deadly fangs of a cobra. Great-horn had not seen the match. He was in training, but he would not have watched it anyway. He would not have wanted to see the gentle Morrel slaughtered. When he heard the reactions of the crowd above the training pits where he practiced, he could not fathom what had happened.
It was only later, when Morrel returned alive, and his opponent returned as still as stone, that Great-horn learned the pig-man had won. The cobra-man had tried to avoid striking Morrel. That had been as clear to the spectators as it was to the watching gladiators.
Morrel, however, fought for his life. He swung his mace with all his strength. And the cobra-man dodged and ducked. But one time, he ducked too late and the mace connected. The mace tore and smashed and shattered. The cobra-man was no more. And Morrel was one kill closer to victory.
But it seemed the cost of victory was too high for the pig-man. He walked out to the Arena boundary, late at night, when no one was watching. No one but Great-horn, who could not sleep that night.
Morrel discarded his tunic and all his leather wrappings. He dropped to all four limbs and crawled across the boundary line. As he did, he began to transform. His limbs grew shorter and shorter. His hands and feet condensed, the digits curling in and fusing into hooves. His middle shortened and became more barrel-shaped. Before Great-horn’s very eyes, the gladiator who was once known as Morrel transformed completely into a pig.
Leaving the bounds of the Arena was not the only way a gladiator could transform. He would also transform if he lost a fight. For every fight lost but survived, a gladiator would transform more and more into a beast. For every fight won, there was no change. To preserve their humanity, the gladiators had to win. To restore it, they had to kill. And yet, after so much killing, even if their human forms were restored, their humanity was, in truth, still lost.
Great-horn considered this as he marched out into the Arena late the next morning after Yellowjaws had gone. The crowd all around him, the crowd of people who were ignorant to the true workings of the Arena. They were told many things. That the fighters were willing. That it was all an enchantment.
“The Arena is meant to be a diversion,” Great-horn had argued in those first days. “So long as they are entertained, I can refrain from really fighting.”
Redscale had sighed. “They can go see plays elsewhere. They wouldn’t come here unless they wanted blood. Real blood. Anyway, so long as they believe we fight willingly, they have no reason to protest.”
“They hide their heads from the ugly truth.”
“Why would they face the ugly truths of the Arena if their own lives are filled with ugly truths—the fear of not being able to feed their families, the dread of growing ill, of dying?” Redscale had peered at him then. “What did you think of the Arena when you were safely far away from it?”
Great-horn thought of the challenge posed by Redscale’s question of several months past as he hefted the short stake that was his weapon of choice in one hand. For the other, he’d been given a claw-dagger.
“You could have killed him. No need to wait for the thirteenth day.”
The one named Talltooth had spoken the words through the two great teeth that rose from the sides of his mouth. Great-horn had not known what manner of beast it was that the man had transformed into, with his protruding teeth, baby-bald head, and near-invisible ears. Some of those who lived by rivers in warm climes had told him that Talltooth was transformed into some kind of beast that was like a stout and hefty horse that could walk along a river-bed underwater.
Great-horn had just returned to the barracks, accompanied by Redscale. The day Talltooth spoke of was called the pugnamortem, the battle to the death. It happened every thirteen days. No gladiator could spare the life of another, unless it was the will of the spectators. Nor could there be a draw. The victor remained as he was, but earned one step toward becoming human again. The defeated, if he was still alive, would suffer another transformation, one that brought him closer to beast than to man.
Great-horn would be chosen for such a battle soon. He could not feign attack and avoid his opponent’s blows as he had done in the battle he just fought, the one that ended in a draw.
To Great-horn his curse-changed body was nothing to fear. He imagined that his daughter would delight in having a father whose arms are covered in fur, whose head boasted a pair of antlers. But she would not delight in what her father must do to survive and return to her. What Great-horn feared was that they had lost each other already, the moment he stepped in that trap, he was fated to die in one way or another, body or soul. He would try to remain her father for as long as he could. He would not let his heart and soul be changed into a beast.
When Great-horn first was seen to avoid his opponent, ducking, dodging, rolling, and bounding around the Arena instead of fighting, he was marked a coward. Only Redscale knew why he loathed to strike. He did not speak of it, but those who observed understood. Talltooth was one who understood. He was not kind, but he was thoughtful, and he seemed to be fair and just.
“It is dangerous for you to avoid killing,” Talltooth said. “If you have someone to return to, they will never see you again if you let yourself be killed, or if the arena-lord puts you to death after the audience tires of you.”
Great-horn said nothing. It was for his daughter that he did not strike. But even were it not for her, he did not think he would be able to do it. To take a life. But she gave him resolve. And he was afraid and needed resolve as much as he needed courage.
“I’ve been here long enough to see two others do what you are attempting to do,” Talltooth said. “Both failed. Both are now dead.”
“What happened?” Redscale asked.
“One of them feigned arrogance, though he was not an arrogant man. He was strong and found he could have defeated any who were pitted against him. He was quicker too so he avoided blows as you do. He too had heard the stories. And he knew the arena-lord would not allow it to go on. He could not let the arena-lord know he cared for his fellow fighters, lest they be threatened if he displeased the arena-lord. So this gladiator pretended to humiliate his opponent by not killing him.
“The spectators hated him,” Talltooth continued, “but they loved to jeer him, and to cast their mercy on his opponent. All was as well as it could be, until one day, when he overstepped. The arena-lord was present. It was a surprise, for he rarely comes to the Arena.
“The arena-lord tolerated some liberties taken by the gladiators, including mercy to each other and defiance to the audience. After all, not all who passed through the traps survived the transformation. Once those who did were trained, the cost of dispatching them for minor indiscretions was too great. Still, his tolerance only strained so far.
“The gladiator challenged the arena-lord to come down and fight him. The arena-lord accepted. That night, the gladiator was forced to cross the boundary line. The next day, the people were told that the man left of his own accord, fearful of his rash and reckless words, fearful of fighting the arena-lord.”
Redscale and Great-horn exchanged a glance.
“The other one was not so strong or quick as you are. But he tried to do what you are doing. Somehow, time after time, he survived. One day, he set down his weapons and sat in the middle of the Arena. Some claim to have known he would do it. That he told them he wanted to see if the crowd would ask his opponent to spare his life. The crowd gave no signal. And his opponent killed him.”
“Why did the crowd give no signal?” Great-horn asked.
“Perhaps they were still sleepy from overeating at a feast day,” Redscale said. “I’ve heard the will of the people may change according to their moods, and their moods might change according to how ripe the fruits were at market that day, or if the dreaded time of the tax-collector visit was nigh.”
Talltooth nodded somberly. There were other tales, he said, from before his time.
“Most men don’t want to fight or be at each other’s throats,” Great-horn said. “They just want to live their lives.”
“Then I suggest you cross the Arena bounds,” Talltooth said.
Great-horn lowered his head. He had considered it.
Talltooth rubbed his chin. “You might keep enough of your sense to make it home. I saw a bird-man cross the boundary once and turn into a raven. The raven came back. Some believed it was the man. Others said it was just another raven.”
“What do you believe?” Redscale asked.
“I believe it is better to be alive…and unbroken. For some it is too late.” He looked at Redscale, who had already killed one of his opponents. “For others, it is not.”
It was the day of the pugnamortem. The battle to the death. Great-horn was one of the gladiators chosen to fight. His only hope for assuring that neither he nor his opponent would die was to sway the spectators toward their better natures. Sway them to raise their palms to the air in the gesture of mercy, of life.
Walking through the gates into the fighting grounds, Great-horn’s stomach lurched when he saw who his opponent was.
Striding toward him from the opposite gate was Talltooth. He bore a thick bludgeon in one hand. His other needed no weapon, for it could serve as one all on its own. Talltooth had lost his hand in one of his first battles, and replaced it with a hook, as big as one of Great-horn’s horns.
Great-horn hefted his short stake and his shield. The two opponents met in the middle of the fighting grounds.
“I will not hold back,” Talltooth said, as they were presented to the teeming crowd of spectators above.
Great-horn nodded his understanding. He readied himself. All his muscles wanted to pull taut or to shake and shiver. But he took a deep breath and relaxed them. Talltooth was stronger, but he was quicker. And he was younger. He would endure. He had to.
The crowd was chanting something, a word that sounded like a name. But it was not the name of either opponent. They struck their fists in the air to the rhythm of the name.
They said it again and again.
Great-horn frowned in confusion. He looked at Talltooth. His opponent merely raised one corner of his mouth, revealing more of his long sharp tooth, and he nodded. Great-horn did not know if that meant his opponent knew the meaning of the name, or if Talltooth even heard the crowd at all. He seemed singularly focused on Great-horn.
The sign to begin battle was given.
Great-horn immediately begin to do as he had done in his other bouts. To bound away, to duck, to dodge. To let the blows bounce off his shield. To keep his horns away from his fellow fighter.
But Talltooth pressed. He bore down with his bludgeon, until the shield cracked and Great-horn, fearing it would shatter, rolled away. Talltooth swiped and jabbed with his hooked hand. With one desperate leap, he managed to scrape the hook along Great-horn’s thigh. The wound was shallow, but it began to sting and burn as it was struck by the dust of the grounds.
Great-horn realized he had to act quickly. He began to run toward Talltooth. He held his shield before him, peeking over its edge. He braced his arm. He would surely wound it, break it perhaps. Talltooth began to respond, but he seemed to move so slowly. His hooked hand arced backward. It would not move forward again in time to stop Great-horn.
Talltooth would be injured. Badly, perhaps. But it would be better than him dying. Great-horn was there in a single breath. His shield struck Talltooth’s chest. Great-horn stopped as quickly as he could. But his opponent kept moving, flying backwards. With a terrible thud, Talltooth landed on his back.
Great-horn approached with caution. When Talltooth’s breastplate rose slowly with a troubled but certain breath, a cheer rose from around the Arena. With that cheer rose Great-horn’s heart. Talltooth was alive. And the crowd was glad for it. The sooner they decided, the sooner Talltooth could be taken to the healers.
Great-horn knew what he must do now. He would stand above his defeated opponent and raise his palms to the sky to let those watching know what he wished. Then they would respond with what they wished. Even the arena-lord—if he were present—would not defy the people if they wished to spare Talltooth.
Great-horn turned to the sound of the voice. It was Talltooth, still lying on the ground. It was then that he understood. The crowd was chanting the name again and again. They weren’t chanting “Great-horn,” the name he was given by the gladiators. The crowd was chanting the name they had chosen for him. A name that was taken from their proud realm, Great Persidasia.
Great-horn was even more confident that the people would spare Talltooth. He knelt to set down his stake and shield, but as he did, a sickening scream pierced the sound of cheering. Great-horn looked up and a dark, flapping form was bearing down from above. With another gut-clenching cry, the thing landed just beyond the still-lying form of Talltooth.
The breath left Great-horn’s lungs. His heart turned to ice. His eyes grew wide and the overwhelming terror that only a child could feel swept over him as he gazed at a living nightmare. A creature from the tales used to frighten children from wandering in the woods or approaching the edges of cliffs. Unlike so many monsters that haunted the dreams of children, this one was real.
It was a gray-spawn.
The size of three bulls, its jagged scales gray, its lidless eyes gray, its triple-horns gray, its clawed and spiked wings gray, the creature was already fearsome. But then it moved, in strange jerking fashion. In his beast-form, Great-horn’s eyes were keen, but even he could not quite track the movements of the creature, though it was many times bigger than him.
The crowd was once again hushed. There was a stray cry of horror.
Great-horn could not understand how such a creature could be let into the Arena with all of those spectators still there. Surely, the arena-lord did not believe he could control the things.
The gray-spawn could smell blood. They could smell death. And they reveled in both. Great-horn stood as still as he could, hoping his leg was not still bleeding.
The gray-spawn glanced at Great-horn, then set its gray gaze onto the form that was lying helplessly on the grounds. It moved, its perverse head darting to and fro, tilting, its claws dragging through the ground. It moved toward Talltooth. Its mouth was opening, a mouth filled with rows upon rows of razor-sharp teeth dripping with red-tinged spittle.
Something within Great-horn broke free.
Great-horn—the one called Persidain—leapt into the air, arced over his opponent, and struck the gray-spawn with his shield, forcing it away from Talltooth.
A hesitant applause began, and soon rolled into a roar of approval and cheer.
Great-horn bounded away from the creature and turned to check on Talltooth, but his opponent was already up, and swiping at him.
Startled Great-horn lost his grip on his stake. With both hands, he gripped his shield and raised it above him to defend from Talltooth’s second blow. And his third. There was no fourth blow. A hook appeared beneath his shield and though he gripped it as tightly as he could, the hook tore the shield from his hands. The shadow of a bludgeon loomed above him.
When next Great-horn came to his senses, he was lying on the ground.
Talltooth had knocked him down.
There was no time to move away. Great-horn held his arms up in front of him as his opponent raised a new weapon above him, a spear. Talltooth peered down at him.
In one beat of his heart, Great-horn realized that the crowd was hushed. Their breaths were held, their eyes unblinking, their mouths agape. For they would soon see the final fate of their favored fighter.
The spear left Talltooth’s hand.
It sailed over Great-horn with such speed and force that he felt the tug upon his fur.
Again, the crowd burst into a chaos of sound and movement. To Great-horn they appeared to be a raucous centipede wrapped around the Arena waving its many feet in every direction.
Great-horn gasped. A hand reached down to him. His opponent’s hand.
Great-horn grasped it and rose to his feet. He turned to see where the spear had flown. There on the grounds of the Great Arena, lay the hulking form of a dying gray-spawn.
It was silent enough in the arena for Great-horn to hear the labored breaths of his once-opponent and his own shallow and frantic breaths.
The sky grew dark again. Great-horn and Talltooth glanced up. There were three gray forms swirling in the air, screaming for their blood. They were each three times the size of the one Talltooth had just killed.
Great-horn and Talltooth wasted no time. They readied their weapons and stood back-to-back. And suddenly, there was someone else there.
“Don’t fear to use those horns now, brother,” said the familiar voice of Redscale.
Great-horn wanted to look upon his friend, but he had to keep his eye on the enemy. He gave thanks for the glimpse of the mace he caught at the corners of his sight. Redscale’s weapon of choice.
“You’re all fools,” another voice said. And Great-horn recognized that one too. It was Side-eyes, one of the men who’d been turned into some kind of sea-beast. A strange creature whose eyes were set within stalks that protruded from the sides of its head.
“Don’t you mean we are all fools,” yet another voice said, the one called Spear-chin. “You’re here with us, after all.”
There was no penalty for a fighter to come to another’s aid during a battle to the death. But neither was there a reward. It was unfathomable that any should have come onto a field that was soon to be overrun with monsters. Great-horn feared for himself and the others. But as his heart hammered, it also soared. Never would he have believed that he would be so happy to meet death at the claws of a gray-spawn.
Five gladiators against three giant gray-spawn was still poor odds. Even as fearsome and loathsome as they were, Great-horn did not wish to kill the gray-spawn. He stabbed with his stake and with his horns. He tried to aim for the creatures’ eyes. But he knew he could not hold back for long when his fellow gladiators might die because of his mercy.
“There!” someone cried as the five circled, keeping their backs to each other, remaining unbroken as the gray-spawn swiped at them and toyed with them.
Great-horn saw. There were ropes and nets being tossed into the arena. The spectators were keeping up their chanting cheer of “Persidain! Persidain!”
“We don’t really mean to capture them, do we?” Redscale asked.
“We’d never get past them.”
Side-eyes was right. All five could not get past the circling gray-spawn. But Great-horn might. He was quicker. He would gamble that he might be quicker than a gray-spawn.
He bounded away from the circle of fighters. They would close the gap he left, but he did not look back. He aimed for a spot near one of the gates, under the menacing face of the gray god. There was a giant net. One of the gray-spawn turned to follow. It was quick, frighteningly quick.
But Great-horn was quicker. And Great-horn was luckier.
By instinct, he grabbed the net and swept it out from himself, catching the gray-spawn within it. He braced himself for a struggle, and was shocked when the beast stiffened and fell.
It was then that he noticed the slippery feel of the ropes that made the net. It was oil. Oil that was fragrant of herbs and flowers. Temple-blessed oil.
He raised his head to look up at the spectators. Many gazed down at him.
“Persidain!” they cried and beamed at him.
But the eyes of others were on the center of the arena where Great-horn’s friends still battled two more gray-spawn.
The fighters had gotten split up. Two were fighting one gray-spawn and two the other. Great-horn leapt around the arena seeking another net. He found a bundle of rope that was also redolent of temple-blessed oil. He leapt onto the back of the gray-spawn that was fighting Talltooth and Side-eyes. Talltooth’s strength was waning from the blow that Great-horn had given him. Side-eyes had managed to do with his double-sided trident what Great-horn had failed to do, and had blinded one of the gray-spawn’s eyes.
The gray-spawn swiped at Side-eyes, knocking him to the ground in a spray of blood. Great-horn tied one end of the rope to one of the gray-spawn’s horns. The gray-spawn screamed and bucked. But this rope had been soaked in too much oil. It slipped from Great-horn’s grasp, and he fell from the creature’s back. As he rolled away, he caught sight of the other battle. The other gray-spawn had Spear-chin clamped within its teeth. The fighter, his face constricted in pain, used his daggers to jab the creature’s face. Redscale swiped with his mace, battering the creature’s head, trying to force it to release Spear-chin.
Great-horn turned away. He grasped the rope that was still tied to the gray-spawn he was fighting. It raised one of its clawed and spiked wings over Side-eyes. Great-horn pulled the rope with all his strength and the creature stopped and screamed. Talltooth was suddenly at his side, gripping the rope with his free hand, as his hooked hand held up a gift. A net.
Great-horn grabbed the net. It was heavier than the first. Or he was growing weaker and wearier. He ducked and dodged. He rammed the creature’s face with his horns. Then climbed atop it again, trying to balance as it jerked and bucked, heaving the net. He dragged the net across the creature’s back and one of its wings, and it stopped struggling. It screamed and its free wing beat frantically. Talltooth threw the rope toward Great-horn, who caught it and wrapped it around the free wing.
The gray-spawn stiffened and fell to the ground still.
Exhausted, Great-horn jumped off the creature’s back and scanned the arena for more nets, but found he did not need one.
Redscale held a wounded and bleeding Spear-chin up as they both stood between the severed head of the gray-spawn and its body, still oozing from its neck with blasphemous pulses of gray ichor.
The crowd was on its feet. And now as they chanted the name “Persidain,” their eyes gazed upon all five gladiators.
There was no ceremony of raised hands. The five fighters raced from the fighting grounds before any more surprises landed on their heads. All of them bore terrible wounds. But Talltooth and Spear-chin were in the direst need of healers.
There was no victory stroll along the arena. As the five rested, as their wounds were tended and bound, the arena was emptied.
But Great-horn felt victorious.
“Wake up, Persidain.”
Great-horn woke to the rough whisper of Redscale’s words. The arena guards were there, waking all the gladiators in that section of the barracks.
Every muscle aching, Great-horn looked upon his fellows. Only hours before, their faces had been jolly, filled with cheer and awe at the great battle that the five—already legendary—fighters had fought. Now their faces were confused, somber, even defeated.
Side-eyes, Talltooth, and Spear-chin were brought out.
Talltooth and Side-eyes could walk on their own. But Spear-chin lay on a stretcher of cloth, still alive but still sleeping. The arena guards ordered all the fighters to gather at the boundary of the Arena.
For a brief moment, Great-horn had hope. For a brief moment, he believed that he and his four friends would be granted their reward. They would be transformed back into men.
That moment passed when the guards pulled out their daggers and held them to the throats of several fighters. The guards ordered Great-horn, Redscale, Talltooth, Side-eyes, and Spear-chin to cross over the bounds of the Arena. Spear-chin, who had been carried by two guards, was lain at the feet of the others.
If they did not cross the boundary, the guards would start slitting the throats of the other fighters until they did. And Great-horn noted that not all the fighters were present. He noted that guards stood at the gates that lead to the barracks, where the rest of the gladiators were no doubt still sleeping. And even if they weren’t, they were locked away.
“Well then,” Redscale said. “Let us go to our reward, brothers.”
Great-horn picked up Spear-chin and hefted him carefully over his shoulder. He glared at the guards. “Where is your lord? Why doesn’t he come to see us off?”
He expected no answer. And received none.
One of the gladiator’s cried out as the knife at his throat drew blood.
Talltooth then stepped across the boundary, but he did not drop to his knees in expectation of his transformation into a beast.
Side-eyes followed, and he too stood on two legs as he watched the guards and his fellow fighters.
Redscale and Great-horn backed across the boundary. Great-horn knew he should have set Spear-chin down. They all would be senseless beasts soon enough.
Great-horn took a few breaths. On the other side of the bounds, he had glared defiantly at the guards. Now he gazed into the eyes of his fellow fighters. He locked eyes with each and gave a slight nod.
The five did not transform. And after a moment of puzzlement, the head of the guards ordered them to walk farther away, for they had not yet crossed.
But Great-horn could see that they had. It was the very same spot where he had seen a man cross and turn into a wild pig. The five moved farther and farther away. And still, they did not transform.
The head of the guard now asked them to stop.
Because all could see that the five were far outside the Arena bounds now. And they had not transformed.
The other guards did not know what to do. Some began to lower their daggers, and as they did, one of the fighters dashed toward the five. No one stopped him. He crossed the bounds of the Arena and fell at Great-horn’s feet.
And he began to transform. He had been a rat-beast. His entire form shrunk, vanishing beneath his sleep tunic.
The head of the guard came to his senses. He ordered his men to give chase.
“Run!” Redscale cried.
Side-eyes and Talltooth plunged into the forest.
The guards had not expected this. There were no archers among them.
Great-horn leapt away, and Redscale dropped to all four limbs and scurried with astonishing speed.
Great-horn heard a loud cawing from above. He glanced up as a branch snapped against his shoulder, splitting open a wound. There was a great raven flying above him. The pursuing guards were all around him. He would surely be caught, as would his friends. He was far from home. He did not know these woods.
He followed the raven.
Great-horn reached the cavern first. He lay Spear-chin down beside a fire that was burning yet producing no smoke, and whose light did not escape the cavern mouth.
He wanted to leave the cavern and search for the rest of his friends, but something about the way the raven cawed as it flew away told him to stay and watch over Spear-chin.
Redscale found his way to the cavern next. Then Side-eyes. It was morning before Talltooth trudged into the cavern. The others had thought him lost by then.
They waited for the raven to return, wondering if it was the raven from the tale that Talltooth told. The bird-man whose body transformed completely into a bird, but whose senses as a man remained.
But the raven did not return that day. The fire burned out. They could not re-light it and because of that believed it was enchanted.
Great-horn and Redscale ventured out and saw that the guards were still searching. They managed to catch some fish and gather water from a nearby stream. With no enchanted fire to cook with and not daring to make a natural fire, they ate their meal raw and in silence.
But once their bellies were full and they were somewhat rested, and once they saw that the green color that was natural to Spear-chin’s face was returning, they pondered all that had come to pass.
“Why?” Side-eyes said. “Because we killed their precious gray-spawn?”
“Why didn’t we transform?” Redscale added. “Have we survived by chance or by purpose?”
Talltooth pressed a hand to his chest and took a careful breath. “Neither, I’ll wager there is some detail about the curse upon us that even the arena-lord doesn’t know about. Something that is different about us perhaps. Or something different about what we have done.”
“The people,” Great-horn said. “Didn’t you see the people?”
“I was too busy trying to stay alive,” Side-eyes said.
Great-horn continued. “The very thing that was meant to keep the people’s attention diverted—the battles in the Arena—became the thing that focused that attention.”
“On us. Then I suppose the arena-lord is jealous.”
Redscale shook his head.
Great-horn sat up straighter. “No, not on us. On our deeds. On our mercy. Our solidarity.”
“Well, let’s admit we gave them quite a show as well.”
Redscale narrowed his eyes. “Maybe the arena-lord thinks the people will turn against Persidain if they believe he left, and it would make it all the harder for another such…champion to take his place.”
Great-horn frowned at the use of the people’s name for him. A name that in truth, they seemed to have extended to all five fighters. “The people helped us in the Arena,” he said. “Maybe they will help us outside of it.”
“Some of them. But which ones?”
“Maybe that raven can lead us to them.”
“The raven. The people. The arena-lord, and his curses.” Talltooth frowned and rubbed his chin. “So many mysteries.”
“Add to that list the mystery of why these three came to our aid,” Great-horn said smiling as he glanced at Redscale, Side-eyes, and Spear-chin.
Redscale cleared his reptilian throat.
“I fear we are locked in these forms,” Side-eyes said. “So let us do some good with them. Let us find the arena-lord and make him change us back to men. And not just us.”
“Why not kill him?” Redscale argued, half mockingly. “Perhaps that will break all his spells. We will all transform back. Perhaps we will even be transported back to our homes.” He glanced at the still-sleeping Spear-chin. “And all our wounds would be healed.”
Great-horn sighed. “Our aim is to be shaped like men again, so we can return to those who now long for us, and who we hold dearest. Until then, we must preserve the humanity that lies beneath our beastly forms. And we can do so by aiding others. The people in the Arena saved our lives. We must now save them. My fellow gladiators sacrificed themselves to save me. I must now save them.”
“That’s easy for the people’s Persidain to say,” Side-eyes said. “I am a humble man-beast.”
“You heard the chanting,” Great-horn said. “We are all Persidain now.”
“Perhaps we can start there,” Talltooth said. “With something simple. Our true names.”
In that cavern on a bright cloudless day, the five fighters did what they would never do under the shadow of the Arena.
They shared their true names. And they joined together as one under the name the people had chosen for their true champion.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Persidain” by Sanjay Patel.