Honor. Victory. Freedom. The Gladiator glanced sidelong at the slaves cowering before the gates of the Arena. Slaves did not know, could not understand - this is where they could find glory, rise above their predicament. Their destinies were within reach; all they had to do was take it. But they were cowards.
The crowds did not understand. This was only a game to them and their naivete was apparent in their bloodlust. They thought themselves players in their own right, but if so, the stakes were pitifully low. A few coins, perhaps. For him, though, this was Life and Death. He had danced this deadly dance time and time again. With one final win, he would once again be a free man again.
The Gladiator understood. He craved the Arena; hungered for the crowd as they roared his name; hungered for the sweet taste of honor and victory and freedom.
One last battle. He had walked through the halls of Pluto, stared Death Himself in the face, and was permitted to pass through back into the lands of the living almost more times than he could count. But this was it. One last time.
He could do it, no - he would do it again.
The Gladiator ran calm hands over his armour, a craftsman performing a final check of his tools before starting to work. He could smell piss and shit; the familiar stench of fear emanating from the other slaves and convicts. These slaves had no training, no discipline, no bravery. There was no shred of honor. Just desperation. There were no warriors among them, no one willing to risk it all.
Honor. Victory. Freedom. His mantra echoed in his mind and he wrapped it around himself like another layer of armour against the inevitable onslaught of battle. His eyes fell again on the slaves and convicts before him and he knew, with a certainty, that he would kill them all should the need arise. “Die with honor,” he told them in a moment of pity as the gates opened.
The slaves spilled out onto the red sand of the Arena. There was a mad dash for the weapons piled in the center, the four main gates spewing convicts, slaves, and gladiators alike onto the sands. There were more here than the Gladiator had ever seen in the Arena. The roar of the crowd was like another creature among them, alive and thirsting for blood and death.
The Gladiator managed to grab both a gladius and a pugio, briefly wishing for a shield in lieu of the small knife. Wishes were no victories, however. Without sparing another thought for his tools, he spun and buried the gladius into the chest of the slave beside him. He did not stop to remove the blade, leaving that spent sword for another.
The Gladiator’s world narrowed. Block. Stab. Slice. Dodge. Repeat. Adapt. His moves were fluid and graceful, a testament to his discipline and skill, to the years of dedication to his craft. The Gladiator was like his sword: a honed tool, to be wielded as others saw fit. Everything that had not been necessary to the Games had been systematically stripped away, leaving him a husk of his former self, driven by three things and three things only: honor, victory, freedom. They could not take his honor. He always achieved victory. He would regain his freedom.
The Gladiator was dimly aware of the announcement that the last man alive would be the winner. He was already a whirlwind of knife and sword by then, leaving dead and dying in his wake. With a flick of his blade, he slit the throat of another slave before disemboweling a convict.
He lunged at another man, one he knew well; he was no mere slave like the others he had slain that day, but the Gaul from the North. He fought alongside and against the Gladiator many times. This hairy giant of a man, nearly akin to the bears that roamed the forests of the Gaul’s homeland, was a man of great skill.
They circled slowly, crouched low, an island to themselves amidst the pandemonium. They traded careful blows and blocks, neither able to gain the upper hand. The two warriors crashed together in a sudden flurry, a dance as deadly as it was beautiful. They moved as smooth as stream stones, rolling, sliding around each other, both unbreakable, both with edges worn away by countless battles they had endured. Though they fought, they moved as one, attacks flowing seamlessly together.
They pulled back, catching their breath, fatigue beginning to show in the trivial mistakes they both made. The Gladiator bled from several small cuts and nicks but so too did the Gaul. Despite their injuries, the Gladiator nodded once to the Gaul the hint of a smile touching his face, mutual respect and honor giving them a certain satisfaction of a fight well fought. It was moments like this that the Gladiator lived for in the Arena. A true test of skill, of endurance.
Suddenly, the Gaul shouted a warning to the Gladiator and the Gladiator turned to bury his pugio into the side of a convict who thought to sneak up on the two warriors. He spun back and thrust his sword into the gut of another slave trying to do the same to the Gaul.
He would stand victorious, and he would taste freedom. But he would fight with honor. No man would stand in his way.
The horns blasted again, announcing the presence of more challengers and the animal portcullises lifted open and Beasts raged into the Arena, one from each great gate. Silently, the Gladiator and the Gaul stepped together to face the newer threat, back to back, as they had done so many times before. They were surrounded.
The Beasts were great fat creatures, like nothing the Gladiator had ever seen, four of them painted in gaudy colors. They were nearly akin in bulk to the great Elephants from across the Mediterranean, though they lacked both tusks and trunks. The creatures bellowed and charged the center of the Arena, the ground shuddering beneath them. The Gladiator and the Gaul rolled apart to dodge the first attack. The Gladiator stabbed a slave in the side before making a mad sprint to the edge of the Arena, wanting to put as much distance between himself and the great Beasts as possible - to survive, to learn and observe, to get his back to a wall.
Honor. Victory. Freedom.
Air burned in his lungs, a stark reminder of the tenuous nature of life. He turned back to the arena just as the Red Beast bellowed at the Gaul. The man screamed back his challenge, brandishing his blade. The Gladiator shouted a warning but it was lost in the roar of the crowd. The Yellow Beast brought its jaws down on the Gaul from behind before the man knew what was happening to him. The look of shock on the Gaul’s face witnessed would haunt the Gladiator for the rest of his life.
The Blue Beast tore two slaves in half with a single swing of its head, bellowing with rage. A Nubian screamed for mercy from Ammit the Devourer before being trampled by the Green Beast. The crowds cheered for the Beasts, livened by their bloodlust and sheer awful power.
Gladiators, convicts, and slaves alike were scattering, panicking, their weapons forgotten. The Gladiator watched all of this from the relatively safe edge of the Arena. That is until the Green Beast swung its great ugly head towards him. They stared each other down until the Beast let out an enraged bellow and charged. The Gladiator rolled aside at the last minute. He heard the great crashing rumble of the Beast connecting with the walls of the Arena amid the screams of fear and excitement from the onlookers above.
The Beasts, though massive, were slow to turn, something the Gladiator was sure to note in the back of his mind.
Slow or not, the Beasts tore through the ranks of men with ravenous hunger, rending limbs from bodies, tossing aside men like dolls. The Gladiator was sure he had never seen something so terrifying.
They weren’t meant to win, he realized, looking over the field. They were never meant to win. They were meant to be slaughtered.
The Green Beast recovered itself from the rubble of the wall and charged at the Gladiator again, gnashing its teeth as it roared a challenge. The Gladiator was driven towards the center of the Arena, stumbling backwards, to the insatiable hunger of the other Beasts. Holding his gladius and pugio out, spinning slowly, he tried to keep all four Beasts in his field of sight. Of all the many men who began the contest, only the Gladiator remained. But the Game, this contest of Life and Death, went on.
The Yellow Beast bore down on the Gladiator, the last living man, the victor. In a frantic attempt at survival, he rolled and dodged the great snapping jaws of the Beast and plunged his pugio into its neck only to have it ripped from his hand as the Beast thundered past. Pain lanced up his arm and he gritted his teeth to keep from crying out. He swung the gladius to ward off a charge from the Green Beast. His blade bounced off its hide. Off balance and desperate, he swung again and was half crushed by glancing blows from the Blue Beast and the Red Beast as they turned on each other. He was knocked aside like a child’s toy discarded during a tantrum. Stunned and broken, the Gladiator tried to stand. He could no longer hear the roar of the crowd, the pounding of blood in his ears was too great, but he raised his head high.
His sword slid from his numb fingers as he stumbled to his knees again and the world fell away from him. The Gladiator drew a shuddering breath, the air rasping in and out of his lungs, the only sound he could hear; the hot sand rough beneath his feet and the sun beating down on his neck, the only things he could feel. The numbness spread. Somewhere, he found the strength to raise his head one last time. He turned and greeted Pluto as an old friend, accepting the great gaping maw of the Green Beast as it closed upon him.
There was silence, as the crowd looked down on the red arena, tallying the death toll for each of the great beasts. But then a little voice piped up, “I don't think that's what Hungry Hungry Hippos is about, Uncle Max.”