Naked but unafraid, Xandr must prove mankind’s worthiness against the Septheran champion.
Sunlight reflected off the Septheran’s body, tinting him violet, but where the sun did not touch directly, his scales were as black and shiny as volcanic glass. Like his brother, the Pharaoh, the creature named Purple Death Adder possessed the cobra-like membrane connecting the top of his head to his shoulders. With his approach, his awfulness became more intimidating. He was much taller than any human, with sinewy arms that reached to his knees and talons that snatched at the air, and in each hand was a long dagger in the shape of a crescent moon. Tellhus charged with a lame leg and a desperate cry, his khopesh thrust at its gut, but the prince of serpents did not stir. Whether staring down his attacker or sleeping, the creature’s eyes showed no sign. But as the sun moved across his pointed face, his pinpoint eyes flickered from black to white and his head pivoted like a predator before a kill. In the instant of impact, the Adder became a torrent of motion, slashing at Tellhus’ sword arm. Blood gushed from the limb, cleanly cut from the elbow, but Tellhus simply stared where that part of him had been, the pain having yet to reach his senses. Retracting the scarlet blade, the Septheran crawled, lizard like, along the man’s body, biting deep into the shoulder. As the venom took hold, he became rigid, and even from a distance Xandr could see the discoloration—the subtle purple tint in the veins beneath the skin. Tellhus fell, shriveled to the bone, like a preserved corpse dead a dozen or more years.
A wretched sound circled the arena, filling the ears with dread, hisses and snare drums and human cheer. It wasn’t a battle they had been anticipating, but a slaughter. And they approved, Xandr realized with disgust. Even the human slaves accompanying their masters were too cowed, too complacent in their misery, to think otherwise.
As the spectators grew silent again, Purple Death Adder turned his attention to the three remaining humans. At this, Soog keeled over, his vomit pooling between his knees.
“Up!” Xandr commanded him. “Do not show them any weakness!”
“But we are weak!” Soog admitted. “Haven’t you figured that out yet? Tellhus is dead! Dead! And we’ll soon be with him!”
“We’ll all be dead someday,” Xandr replied softly, “but few men die with purpose.”
“Few men die with purpose!” Eldin repeated excitedly. “It’s a popular saying of yours, you know.” Xandr gave him an annoyed look, but he went on. “Come to think of it, I must live through this day, either me or Soog, or who else will have recorded it? You don’t happen to be a bard or historian, Soog?”
“No . . .” Soog replied timidly, “but I could start.”
“You’re mistaken,” Xandr said to him. “I learned the saying from my mentor.”
“Precisely,” Eldin agreed, “but it was passed down from you, from the Batal, which means—by the gods!—you were meant to embody your ancestor!”
Ever so gradually, the Septheran prince was making his way toward them, to prolong the kill for the crowds, and to torment his victims with impending death. In his periphery, Xandr could see Eldin retreat behind him. “If you’re so certain about all this, why do you tremble?”
“I —um—am only human,” he admitted, “and my calculations may be off!”
“The two of you stay here,” Xandr said finally, taking the least beaten sword from the ground and the small ax from Soog’s bumbling fingers.
Compared to the weight of his two-hander, carrying the khopesh was like going into battle empty-handed. The sickle-like blade twirled in Xandr’s palm as he rummaged through his memory for the techniques his mentor taught him for small swords. It was too dull to chop, that much he knew, but the Septheran’s armor-like hide made that a moot point. Any sword could do the deed if one were to simply push. The ax was a distraction, so he tossed it, marking the divide between him and the prince.
Purple Death Adder’s crescent blades silvered in the noonday sun. His neck stretched, accordion like, making him a head taller. His eyes rolled over Xandr’s body, studying his build, his demeanor. Caution showed in the snake man’s coiled posture.
You do not fear me.
The voice was thick and venomous, rattling his brain, but Xandr resisted the instinct to step away from it. “No.”
Even while standing, the prince was all motion, every limb writhing, its head bobbing, its tail curling and snapping and recoiling. Why not? he asked simply.
“Because my loved ones have already gone to the Taker,” Xandr answered, “and you cannot harm them.”
Do you not value your own life?
“I do,” he said, digging his fingers into the khopesh’ rusty hilt. “But I value the lives of others more.”
That is folly, the snake man communicated telepathically, his head agitated from side to side. Compassion is for the weak! All the while, the chatter from the wall intensified, the masses having never witnessed such an exchange between a man and a Septheran.
“You cannot understand because you are coldblooded,” Xandr said, his heart quickening, watching for any sign of attack, though the snake man’s posture and constant motion was utterly alien, mesmerizing. “Your cruelty is your weakness. No species can thrive on the suffering of another. The day will come when humankind shall triumph over you.”
That day is not today!
Xandr’s head screamed, the voice in it shaking him to his knees, as the prince’s scales quivered, his mouth gaping wide enough to swallow a man whole, his fangs milky white, dripping with ichor. Anticipating the attack, Xandr bent at the ankle, but he was already too late, the moon blades crossing his throat, grazing the stubble of his chin. He had never seen anything, beast or man, move so swiftly. In retreating, Xandr made a slashing shield with the dull edge of his sword, but the tail came out of nowhere, cutting his brow like a whip. The snake man was less limited by tendons, moving more fluidly than any man could, attacking from the side as readily as from the front. Xandr was outmatched and he knew it. Without thinking, his hand went to his breast, clutching his heart as if it might jump out, but the familiar scar crossing his torso was not there, and he remembered that he was not himself. He was Batal, and somehow . . . somehow the Batal had managed to make history. If he were to die at the hands of this monster, before so many witnesses, what difference could he make?
I must not lose. I must move faster.
But the Septheran was everywhere at once. Silver clashed with dull iron, pelting him with rust. Attacks came so suddenly and in such succession that Xandr could not hope to use his khopesh but to defend, and he realized with some horror that he was fighting only to survive. The tail, though it could not kill him, flayed his skin to ribbons, cut slices from his body piece-by-piece. The mouth lunged, flashing fangs, but they came too quickly for Xandr to contemplate—only some primal terror distanced him from their venom.
The crescent moons crossed again, the black-purple maw snapping between flashes of silver. As the first blade whizzed past his nose, the rusted sickle caught against the second. But Xandr’s weapon was wearing thin, each deflected blow adding a notch to the blade.
As hopeless as things seemed to him, he knew that from the walls above, the spectators could see the defiance, courage, and strength of a human slave, a sight never before witnessed in that arena. To Xandr, their faces were stony abstracts, too distant to distinguish, yet he could see the turmoil on their brows, in the sunken ridges of their eyes. Despite their masters’ angry lashing tongues, one-by-one, from the lowest to the highest tier, slaves began to rise from their seats.
The onslaught was unrelenting. And the day was sweltering hot, sapping the fight from him. Blinking the sweat from his eyes, he did not see the blade until it was too late, until he felt it tear across his liver. He watched his blood speckle the orange rock, the curved edge turn red as if dipped in paint. The arena was spinning, Eldin and Soog and Tellhus, and shadowy faces far and wide dashed with hopelessness, all spinning. Without any sense of falling, he was on the ground—there was no pain, only cold and numbness.
Where is my sword?
It was gone. Knocked somewhere out of his hand. He tried to regain control of his feet but they would not obey. He’d done all he could do.
The roar of thousands hushed to a whisper, and Xandr wondered why Purple Death Adder had not yet killed him. His only desire, his only regret in that instant, was that he would not see Thelana again. It was a selfish impulse and he knew it.
Out of the orange haze, a female shape was walking toward him, her hair like the tributaries in the valleys of Ilmarinen, and at first it was Thelana, but somehow she was more, was Alashiya also, for he remembered that the Goddess was in him, and all things of Aenya, and her skin glowed gold like the sun, became the sun.
You are not alone. Xandr. Her voice was a song, a mother’s coo.
When Alashiya reached down to him, and her hand was clasped in his, he was no longer in a place of darkness. Xandr stood to face Purple Death Adder again, sword at his side. The Septheran took a step back. The human spectators began shouting with fervor. Looking around him, at every hopeful face, he understood what he had to do. The fight was not his to win—it was theirs, and the Batal would not fail them.
“You wish to cow them?” Xandr cried, waving his sword over the masses, “then show them what they most fear . . . Bite me! I welcome the purple death!”
The prince was quick to the bait, leaving his moon blades in the dust. You do not know for what you ask . . . it is not a good death. It will avail your species nothing!
“Enough!” Xandr screamed, dashing forward. “Show me!”
Purple Death Adder leapt, his pink glossy gums agape. But Xandr drew him in with a delayed counter, the tactic taught to him by his mentor, giving the attacker what he thought he wanted. Rather than bite throat and shoulder, as the Adder intended, Xandr offered up his forearm. The fang cut deep, through to the other side, and as Xandr tore himself free the venom started to fill, coursing through his veins like searing needles. His hand was a bloody pulp. His forearm dangled from the elbow in meaty tatters. But the prince of serpents staggered back, the elongated neck stretched to its breaking point. With frantic strokes, it clawed at its mouth, desperate to remove the sliver of iron from its throat. Xandr moved slowly, weakly, despite his urgency and the short time he had in which to live. With his one remaining hand, he retrieved the ax, bringing it down upon the serpent prince, in a wedge though its slender face and head. Purple Death Adder flailed backward without so much as a hiss, now groping blindly at the ax handle jutting from its face, and hit the ground writhing.
Cheers sounded above panicked hisses. He had defeated the Septheran champion at the cost of his own life, but would it be enough to inspire men’s hearts to revolution? The poison was setting in. Each heartbeat was a dagger twisting in his chest. But they would not be wasted. Raising the ax overhead, wet with blood of the fallen champion, Xandr turned toward the stepped walls, to man and snake man alike. “I am a man . . . and I have beaten you!” Even as he spoke, the venom continued to cripple him, his fingers growing icy, his legs giving way.
“Men of Aenya!” he gasped. “You lose no freedom . . . when you are free to fight!” Those were his last words before he dropped to his knees, toppling forward to join Tellhus.
It would have to do, he decided, confident that the name would live on to inspire hope, to become part of folksongs, to pass through history and be recalled by generations, in cities by the sea, and by the simple people of the Goddess, those untouched by civilization. One name.
What happens next? Find out in Ages of Aenya!