In his right hand he gripped a short sword, a spiked buckler in the left.
Fifteen feet above, the crowd peered down. Their faces – human, inhuman and unhuman – tense with expectation.
The ground beneath his feet was saturated with blood. But that was to be expected, the pit had already seen half-a-dozen bouts this morning. Six men dead and it was not yet noon.
No matter, he had fought in worse conditions; in the forests of Germania, for one, watching his comrades die under the spears and axes of the Sicambri, the Tencteri and the Cherusci...
“Keep your mind on the business at hand, Varus,” a voice whispered in his mind. “Leave the past alone, think about the battles yet to come.”
“Do your work, sorcerer,” Varus muttered under his breath. “And let me do mine.”
His words emerged as great grey clouds. Aye, winter in Gehenna was a harsh mistress, and she was still young yet. Wait until she's a crone and she'll strip the skin from you.
Varus hawked and spat upon the red, churned mud.
“Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen,” Hildicas the Sythian bookmaker called in his high sing-song voice. “I'm giving good odds on the Centurion.”
“Optio,” Varus muttered. “I'm an optio, damn you!”
“Good odds? How much?” Barcaradin's voice, he recognised it even over the babble of the crowd.
“Forty to one.”
Not bad, Varus thought, Better than I would have offered.
“It's coming,” the whisper said. “And, by the Seven Gods, I think it's a big bastard.”
“Aren't they always?”
Varus waited, tense but ready, as a big burlap-covered cage was lowered into the pit. The covers were whisked away by hooked poles from above and he could see his opponent for the first time.
“Fuck!” he said.
It had the aspect of an ape – short powerful hind legs, a chest ridged with muscle, long forearms that ended in spade-wide hands tipped with vicious claws. Something of a lizard - bony scales glinted white where they poked through the Beast's dark fur. There was wolf in there, too. And men, of course, or at least what had once been men. A tiny head upon massive shoulders, blood-rimmed eyes that glared with hatred and pain.
A big bastard, all right, but he'd fought – and killed – bigger.
The front of the cage lifted open. And the Beast emerged.
For all its bulk, it moved swiftly, crossing the length of the pit – some thirty paces or more – in less than four heartbeats.
But Varus was prepared for it.
He ducked under the first slash of those razored claws, rolling up to come up on his feet at the Beast's left flank. The short sword – the gladius he had brought into this hellish world – flashed out at the creature's leg.
By rights it should have bitten deeply, severing flesh and tendons, but the keen edge did no more than score a thin red line. The Beast grunted and swiped back at him, the blow catching the edge of his buckler and tearing it from his grasp.
He swore, the foulest oath that he could call to his lips, and retreated, trying to put distance between himself and the Beast.
It followed, hands extended, drool spilling from its tiny, lipless mouth.
“Barcaradin,” Varus said, low in his throat. “What are you waiting for?”
“Not yet,” the sorcerer whispered in reply. “They'll know something is wrong if you win too easily.”
A swipe from those claws raked out at him. He danced back, but a second swipe – Mars, this thing was quick – caught his side.
Good luck and instinct saved him from serious harm, but the claws dug into his flesh, leaving a six-inch furrow in their wake.
The crowd roared, a hundred or more voices sounding as one.
Hot blood streamed down his hip and thigh, steaming in the frigid air.
Varus struck back with a blow that would have taken a man's hand off, a blow that merely nicked the Beast's hide.
“Barcaradin,” he said, his voice controlled and low. “This thing is going to kill me.”
“Have I ever allowed that to happen in the past?”
“There is a first time for everything.”
The Beast sprang forward and Varus threw himself to one side, adding his own blood to the stinking mud as he fell.
But he was on his feet as the Beast turned, flicking filth from his eyes, grinning through a mask of gory muck.
“Do it now, Barcaradin, or by the Gods, my shade will haunt you through your next ten lives.”
“As you wish.”
A single word, whispered so softly that human ears could not hear it, but that passed across his soul as bitter as the wind from Old Mother Gehenna.
And with that word, his pain fell away, the cold fell away. The bloody earth beneath his feet pumped strength into him – the strength of the six that had already died that day.
Their strength - and their fury – channelled by the sorcerer's word.
He would have leapt to the attack there and then – sprang at the Beast and torn its tiny head from its shoulders, pulled open its chest with his bare hands and ate its heart – but no, Barcaradin was right, better not to arouse suspicion. Push the voices down, do not listen to them. Remember who you are, Optio Varus.
He allowed the Beast to draw blood once more – opening a shallow cut along his chest - then he stepped into its embrace, driving his sword deep into its thigh, twisting the blade to shatter bones into a dozen fragments.
To an onlooker it would look like a lucky strike that penetrated between the scales, the last act of a desperate man.
But he had crippled the Beast, slowed it by half at least,
He slammed his weight against the injured limb for good measure and rolled out from under the its shadow.
The Beast lunged again – pain meant nothing, for it had suffered from the very moment it had risen from the Maker's slab – but the shattered leg would not support its weight and it lurched, bending at the waist.
Into the waiting blade of Optio Septimus Varus.
The point of the gladius – good Roman steel – crashed through its skull, searching for, and finding, the tiny brain.
He pulled the blade free and moved back again. The creature did not know it, but it was dead, its movements less than instinctive, clumsy, slow and without power.
Everything after that was farce.
Every cut and parry, every slip and grunt was for the benefit of the crowd. Or rather for the eyes of the bookmakers and moneylenders, if they sensed trickery...
A final attack, a fountain of blood, and the Beast lay dead at his feet.
Varus stood with his head bowed, fighting the wrath within him. His breath came in great gasps of foul air, his legs trembled.
And laughter echoed in his head.
“Now do you trust me?”
“I never doubted you for a moment, Barcaradin. How much did we make?”
“Five hundred in silver.”
“Not bad at all.”
Afterwards, he slept for the better part of two days.
His wounds were superficial – nothing a few stitches and a healing balm couldn't deal with – and, as they said in the Legion, bones heal. But the exorcism to rid him of his six new companions left him exhausted and soul-scarred.
It had taken every ounce of his will and discipline to climb out of the pit as the voices inside him screamed for blood, more blood.
He took his prize money – thirty in gold – from Hildicas the bookmaker, all too aware of how his fingers trembled, the snarl that twisted his lips. But he fought to control them. Fought and won.
“You are a skilled warrior,” Hildicas said. A fat man in vermilion robes, narrow little eyes under a magnificent black brow. “But you are lucky too. Charmed one might say.”
“I bear no charms,” Varus said. He still wore nothing more than the breechclout, and he stank of the pit.
“I am aware of that,” Hildicas said, a note of irritation creeping into his voice, “and I certainly meant no insult.”
“It is a well that you did not.” Kill him, his blood commanded and his hand went to the sword at his waist.
“I might have use for a man such as yourself.”
Hildicas shrugged. “A bodyguard? A trainer for those who would fight in the pit? Anything to save those poor Beasts from your steel.” Hildicas had lost money – not much by his standards, perhaps – but then he was a man from whom every penny was a prisoner.
“No,” Varus said curtly. “I am travelling south. To the City of Sundered Princes.”
“Then you are a fool,” Hildicas said without malice or judgement. “But if you are departing D'reth then you are no concern of mine.” He handed him the purse of gold pieces with no more good grace than a man loses a limb. “When do you leave?”
“In a day or two.”
“Will you fight again before thent?” he cast a glance towards the pit and the slowly dispersing crowd.
“No,” Varus said. “It is not my intention to do so.” Yes, I want to kill and kill and kill again to release the anger and desperation that fills me.
“Good,” Hildicas said, and his tone indicated that their conversation was over. But as Varus turned the bookmaker spoke again. “Is it true what they say about you, Centurion? That you are a man displaced in space and time?”
“All true,” Varus said. “That and any other lie you care to believe.”
When he awoke, Barcaradin was there. The sorcerer sat on a chair in the corner of the room, leafing through a small, leather-bound book, looking at the pages but not really seeing them.
“About time,” he said when he saw Varus stirring. “I thought we might have lost you. That last soul – Sevrin, he called himself – was a stubborn bugger.” He stood and crossed to the bed on which Varus lay. “You still in there, Sevrin?” he reached down and made to slap Varus across the face.
But the blow did not connect, the optio's hand shot up to grip his wrist.
“Sevrin's gone,” Varus said.
“It never hurts to check.”
“It never hurts you.” He swung his legs out of the bed and stood up. Gods, but he was still weak as a kitten. He poured a cup of water and his hand shook as he did so. “And you, are you gone, too?” He ran a hand across his closely cropped scalp.
“Gone,” Gavriel Barcaradin said. “The connection spell has long since worn off.”
“Good, I don't want you in my head.”
“You're looking well, Varus,” Barcaradin said. “Fighting fit, I'd say.” He picked up the book and put it away inside his tunic, the movement only slightly hurried. “Time for us to wish a fond farewell to the fair city of D'reth.” He was half-way to the door as he spoke.
Varus pulled on a shirt and leggings. His sword was in its scabbard, the blade recently polished, keen as a razor, and he strapped it to his waist.
“Nothing we can't avoid if we leave now.”
“What have you done this time?”
The sorcerer turned to him, a hurt expression on his face. “Nothing except look after the welfare of my good friend and travelling companion, Septimus Varus.” But Gavriel Barcaradin, whatever else he was, was no actor.
“How much trouble are we in?”
“Not much, I think. None, I hope.” Barcaradin said. “There was a man at the Pit, Braven Acht, I met him once, years ago, I think he may have recognised me. If he did, odds are he'll have told the moneylender that we used magic to win.”
“And how do you think Hildicas will take that?”
Varus lifted a red cloak from where it lay on the floor and pulled it around his shoulders.
“Then we should waste no more time. I'm strong enough to ride, and if I'm not just lash my hands to the bridle.”
“Well spoken.” The sorcerer grinned, boyish despite his ragged beard and habitually sombre clothing. He was as tall as Varus, but slender where the Roman was sleek and well-muscled, as pale as the Roman was dark.
Outside, the narrow street was quiet, except for the distant tolling of temple bells, the faint shriek of the Sacred Hawks that flew around Shiatan's Tower in the centre of the city.
Hildicas was there, a dozen bravos at his back and a little monkey-faced man by his side.
“Is that the sorcerer?” he said.
“Yes,” the monkey-faced man said. “Sorry about this, Master Barcaradin, But business is business.”
“No apology necessary, Master Acht,” Barcaradin said. “I would have done the same in your place.”
“You owe me five hundred in silver, thirty in gold,” Hildicas said. “More than that, you owe me blood.”
“Ah, yes, but no more than a pint or two at best,” Barcaradin said. His hand crept towards his tunic, to the leather-bound book – the grimoire – hidden there.
“Much more than that, I fear,” Hildicas said. He turned to his bravos. “Take them alive if you can, dead will be just as good.”
“As you wish,” said their leader, a bull of a man in red livery.
The skirmish began with no more preamble than that.
Varus did not waste his breath in idle talk, he drew his sword and stepped to meet them. Barcaradin would need time to weave his magic, time which Varus would have to buy.
The bravos were not skilled swordsmen – the gutter sweepings of D'reth, for the most part – but there were a few who knew the way of the blade. Worse than that, there were twelve of them.
Even if he had been at his full strength, Varus could not have taken twelve men, but he could let the bastards know they'd been in a fight. And if he should never see his homeland again – if he should never see his world again – then that was the Will of the Gods.
He took the first two quickly. They were young men, barely bearded, too eager to please, easy prey for a hungry sword. But even as the second man fell, Varus' strength – what little remained – deserted him. A hilt of a sabre, wielded by the bull in red, crashed against his temple and he fell, stunned. As his vision faded he saw Barcaradin fall, the grimoire knocked from his hand before he could find the passage he sought, a dirty cudgel striking his stomach then, as he doubled in pain, the back of his head.
The sorcerer struck the cobbles beside Varus, the light going rapidly out of his eyes.
But before consciousness left him Varus heard, or thought he heard, the sorcerer whisper a word. An ancient word, pregnant with meaning.
“Remember,” Barcaradin said.
Then darkness claimed them.
Thoughts racing through his head, images that were glimpsed only briefly, like those seen in the lightning of a midnight storm.
A battle in the forest... betrayal... rain and mud and blood and steel.... the faces of barbaric warriors... a weeping Prefect falling on his sword... darkness again... a chamber that stank of mould and rotten meat... the screaming mouth of an idol older than mankind itself... an endless fall through space, through time itself for all he knew... and then... and then....
He had heard the word once before, from the lips of a Levantine merchant.
It meant Hell.
A bucketful of freezing water awoke him. He could smell rancid earth, was lying with one cheek in thick mud, and as he rose, earthen walls towered above him.
The Death Pit, Vulcan's balls, he was back in the Pit!
“Awake at last, Master Centurion.” Hildicas said from above.
Varus lifted his head. Night had fallen, the moon pin lit with stars. Hildicas stood at the far lip of the pit, a torch in one hand.
“You made a mistake when you tried to cheat me,” he said, his tone conversational. “Worse than that, you robbed me of an honest bout.”
“Come down here and I will rectify that oversight.”
Hildicas laughed, a warm throaty chuckle.
“I think not,” he said. “But, I assure you, I will have my bout tonight, Centurion. Perhaps you should thank me for this, for no matter how terrible your death may be, it will have been kinder by far than the ministrations of the Sundered Princes.”
He stepped aside, and, with his bulk removed, Varus could see Barcaradin.
The sorcerer had been tied to a stake, his hands stretched above his head, fingers bound so that he could not move them; his mouth stopped with a dirty strip of cloth. Blood dripped from a cut on his temple, one eye swollen shut, his cheek decorated with a livid purple bruise.
“You die first, then the wizard.” Hildicas said the final word as though it were an oath. “There will be no magical aid this time. Nothing but your own steel.”
He threw the weapon into the pit, it caught the brittle starlight as it fell.
Then the bravos were wheeling a cage forward to totter on the earthen lip. They did not open it, plainly terrified of the contents, but simply tipped it over the edge.
As it struck the ground, the door bounced open...
And a monstrosity emerged.
A snake, he thought at first, a giant snake.
But no, it was not that. True, it moved on its belly, but it did not slither. Rather, it propelled itself forward on the many pairs of arms than ran along its length. It had a woman's face.
She was beautiful, even in her agony, a final jest from the Makers who had crafted this thing from living flesh and dark sorcery. She saw him and smiled, her mouth opening the length and breadth of her skull to reveal venomous fangs, each as long as a dagger.
Worse, she was between him and his sword.
She scuttled towards him, arms pushing easily through the slime, and he ran forwards. When they were no more than a foot apart, he leaped, vaulting across her shoulders, heedless of the fangs that snapped at his heels, the upreaching hands that sought to grab him. Her impetus carried her past and he landed behind her, only a pace or two from where his sword lay in the mud.
With a blade in his hand he felt whole again, though the walls of the pit swam before his vision and the breath caught in his throat.
The Snake-Woman spun around, her tail whipping out at him. Hands raked at his flesh, pummelled him. He slashed back with the gladius and saw fingers fall like petals, a gout of blood as bright as his scarlet cloak. The creature screeched and its head came round, too fast for him to defend against it.
Fangs clamped down upon his sword-arm and he felt bones crack. Without thinking, he jammed his left thumb into the creature's eye. The eye was hazel, flecked with gold – like the eyes of a woman he had known once in Lugdunum.
What was her name?
Arnemetia... or something like that.
He could feel the creature's venom on his arm, seeping into his torn flesh, burning like ice and fire. Pain made it hard to think... harder to remember... no, not Arnemetia, that was not what he needed to remember. It was a word... a word that Barcaradin had whispered. It was... it was...
It was a power.
He spoke it through clenched teeth and it almost tore him in two. He had never known pain like it. A scream was wrenched from his lips as he pulled his mangled arm free from the creature's grips, tearing the fangs from its mouth as he did so. He shifted the sword to his left hand and stuck down at the snake-thing, biting deep into its shoulder.
And there was something in its single, gold-flecked eye. Something more than hatred and pain.
There was fear.
It recoiled from him, scrambling up the hard-packed dirt wall, digging its hands into the earth, heedless of shattered bones, oblivious of all but its need to escape from the terrible thing in the Pit.
Varus laughed, the sound high pitched and half-insane. The Beast was offering itself as a ladder out of the pit. He reached down and grabbed a broken spar from the cage, then vaulted onto the snake's back, sword in his left hand, jagged wood in his ruined right.
But though he could feel the bones grind beneath his skin he felt no pain. Or at least he felt no more pain, the agony in his being burned brighter than a star, so perfect that it energised rather than crushed him.
He clambered up its back, digging his weapons into leathery flesh to assist his ascent, then pulled himself free of the pit.
A wild slash all but decapitated the first bravo who charged him, and he sent the splintered wood – swift and accurate as an arrow – into the throat of another. The rest fled when they saw the killing madness in his eyes.
Varus turned to Hildicas.
The portly bookmaker had not ran with the others, rather he stood beside Barcaradin, a slim dagger in his hand, pulling at the gag that kept the wizard silent.
“What have you done?” he screeched. “What have you done. Stop him, in the name of the Seven Devils, stop him. Speak the words!”
But it was too late. Varus was already by his side.
His sword lifted and fell – once, twice, three times. The vermilion robes turned crimson, then almost black with dark heart's blood and the body of Hildicas tumbled into the Pit.
But it was not enough. There were other lives to be taken, other blood to be spilled. A city to be ravaged if he wished it, a world to be put to the sword...
“Varus,” Barcaradin's voice. “Septimus Varus.”
The sound that Varus made in reply was no more than a howl.
“Forget, Varus. Forget.”
Varus staggered and fell to his knees – agonised ecstasy replaced with honest pain – and he screamed into the uncaring night.
“Cut me free, Varus,” Barcaradin said. “Hurry, damn your lazy hide.”
The Roman rose and lurched forward on unsteady feet, a slash with his sword cut the cords restraining Barcaradin's left hand.
“The word,” he said. “It almost destroyed me.” Then he sank down again, allowing the pain to take him.
“I'm truly sorry, my friend,” Barcaradin said as he freed himself. “It was the only thing I could think of.”
“Bones heal,” the Roman said, then the merciful hands of Orpheus took him.
They rode away from D'reth just before dawn, heading south.
Two bloodied men on stocky ponies. Varus had his sword. Barcaradin his little book. Their purses were as empty as when they had first come to the city but at least they lived.
Bones heal, wounds scar.
And so they rode south.
Towards the City of Sundered Princes, somewhere just beyond the horizon.
© December, 2012 James Lecky
James Lecky is an actor and writer from Derry, N. Ireland. His fiction has appeared both on line and in print in a number of different publications including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Arcane, Jupiter, Sorcerous Signals and Emerald Eye: The Best Irish Imaginative Fiction. His occasional ramblings on various subjects can be found at http://jameslecky.blogspot.co.uk/