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The Gladiator's Curse
The knife gleams in my hand, shimmering in midday sun, it’s blazing with light as sharp as the blade itself. I twirl it artfully in my fingers as I circle my opposition. He’s young and of average height, like myself, but everything else is the exact opposite- blond hair where mine is dark, blue eyes in place of hazel, his white tunic and bronze weapons contradicting my mix of black and crimson. It’s the kind of symbolism that enthralls crowds, enough to convince them that this spectacle is more than a bloody resurrection of a tradition rightfully burned with ancient Rome thousands of years ago.
The prismic glass floor below is still glowing a steady red color, signaling that we can’t begin, a tedious ritual meant to heighten the tension. The crowd certainly falls for it, though. All along the packed metal bleachers surrounding the combat floor, the onlookers watch with bated breath, the balconies lined with aristocrats leaning forward in anticipation. The arena itself is like many other I’ve fought in; the perfect fifty-by-fifty square space, the luminous floor, and the eight feet of separation between us and the lowest level of the stands are exactly as they should be. The only nuance is the lack of a roof. In a moment of distraction I glance up at the azure sky, thinking that, perhaps, this boy will relish the privilege of watching the clouds drift by as his life fades.
My eyes run along the several emerald and gold banners draped from the private boxes, the imperial crest- the head of a roaring lion- emblazoned on each. When I lower them, I see my opponent smile curtly. I wonder if he, too, has been fighting his whole life, whether or not the rush of stealing another man’s strength drew him in or he was molded from birth. Judging by the way he tauntingly flourishes his javelin, though, he has significant experience in the arena. I look him over, taking account of his narrow frame, the way he balances his weight, trying to exploit what underlying weaknesses could cripple him. If he is as adept at combat as he is at vaunting to a crowd, he’ll make a formidable opponent.
A loud chime echoes through the ring, accompanied by the transition of the floor from red to blue. “Welcome, all spectators,” booms an announcer’s voice, “we’re honored to have you attend today’s match between these two powerful fighters. In the white robes, wielding a longspear, is the warrior Vitalis, the son of an eastern ruler captured during the invasion of his homeland. His opponent, Interitus, was raised by French pirates and found washed ashore on the coast of Sicily, having been employed as a gladiator ever since. Watch, as the passionate prince clashes with the pitiless privateer, paying for their crimes in the ultimate test of will, wit, and dominance!”
I roll my eyes and grunt with disgust. Over the years, I’ve fought under innumerable aliases, from foreign soldiers to debtors, but never have I assumed the mantle of a pirate. The crowd, to my amazement, believes it. Still, the creativity is disappointing. I thought for once they would break the common theme of making the participants enemies of state, but it does encompass the empire’s ideals: if you oppose them, you’d likely end up here.
In fact, I was raised in the arena, both my parents being gladiators, having me despite knowing what would await their child. Years of grueling training, the only parents I knew being my mentors, my only education being lessons on how to kill in a variety of ways. In the first ten years of my life I’d slain countless effigies and dolls. The real thing was different. If you ever have the opportunity to speak to a gladiator on his exit from the ring, just ask, “what is it like?”, and they’ll know what you’re referring to. While it’s a feeling that words cannot describe, the look of desire you elicit in their eyes should be sufficient; it’s the reflection of a hunger that binds the soul, killing every scrap of humanity while at the same time making you feel alive.
I remember my first time taking a man’s life clearly. The training facility I was stationed in at the time was in the center of the capital, with quaint, modest cells for the trainees, furnished with a single bed and table. It was morning, and I just finished eating the simple meal that had been awaited me for breakfast. My diet, to my understanding, was fastidiously constructed by scientists to be conducive of growth. It makes sense now, how they engineered us; they could pitt opponents of different statures against each other to prevent matchups from becoming stagnant.
One of my instructors unlatched the door and beckoned me to follow him to the training floor. This I did without question, but was apprehensive in my obedience. Rarely were we summoned from our cells at unscheduled hours, and I noted that it was much earlier than my daily session was slated to to begin. I was supposed to learn how to properly sever an opponent’s spine with a dagger; Instead, they introduced me to something life changing.
After winding our way through the sinuating passages leading to the combat floor, I stepped through the massive, double doored entrance, expecting my teacher to follow. When I looked back, however, I only saw them shut behind me. Immediately, I assumed a fighting stance, thinking it was a test, that some foreign animal was going to be released at the opposite end, the floor a replica of where I stand now. Yet, when the opposite gate was lifted, all that staggered through was a man- a scarred, weathered man- who barely made it to the center before collapsing to his knees.
Just then, an anonymous voice called over the loudspeaker, with a simple command: “kill him.” I froze. I had been instructed in the ways of how to kill numerous living things, but never had I employed these tactics against a living, breathing, human being. Yet, I was numb to it. I had been raised to do one thing, to kill in battle, and if I felt anything it was indignance that I wouldn’t be given a challenge. In a huff, I strode over to the decrepit man, who offered no resistance when I knelt down, grabbed him by his neck, and twisted it sharply to the right. It snapped, giving him the time for one final gasp of air, and I thought that was it.
First, the images came- memories, knowledge, everything he’d seen and everywhere he’d been, flooding my brain in a torrent of enlightenment. He was a captive, I ascertained, introduced to the arena after his country surrendered to the Imperial Military. It was also the first I’d seen glimpses of the outside world, what life was like for the people I was meant to entertain. I saw the conquering army that had swept across the world, throwing all those they spared into the ring to die for their amusement. It was when I truly learned what I was: a machine, engineered to exact vengeance against the Empire’s enemies.
After that came his strength. Pure power and what little energy this man had left was injected into the fibers of my body, reinforcing them, reshaping them to be stronger than before. After what I’d seen, part of me wanted to stop, but the euphoria was unlike anything I’d felt before. During the moments I was siphoning his vitality I felt unstoppable, and I was prepared to do anything to sustain that sensation. And as soon as it started it was gone, leaving me hollow, despite all that knowledge the man had bequeathed me in his dying breaths.
See, the empire gets their gladiators by a number of means: conscription, criminal sentences, or birth. Without anything to motivate them, though, nothing would prevent them from rebelling. At least those who knew the true nature of the world beyond the walls would be discontent with this life, and would even kill themselves to escape it. But with that allure of taking another person’s being, their power, you offer them a drug that tethers them to eternal servitude. Even those like me, who are complacent with their destiny beforehand, need it to stay alive. The need for the euphoria consumes you to the point of numbness; and only victory can assuage the pain.
I think about it now, too, as the floor holds steady at orange, ready to turn to white. As I look at my opponent, the prospect of not taking his strength is more frightening than the serrated edge of his javelin. I flex my hands around the knife, focusing on where to strike, already plotting how I’ll deliver the killing blow, licking my lips. Maybe I am a monster, or a machine, but morals are nothing to gladiators. Both my life and his have but a single purpose: to kill, to take, and to grow.
With a ring the floor changes to white, and my opponent lunges himself at me, thrusting the spear in front of him, eliciting a chorus of cheers the rocks the arena. I quickly step aside and let his momentum carry him past. He whirls, again, and I placidly take a few steps back in preparation. He charges with ferocity, spinning and swiping the blade so it passes inches from my tunic. Then he does so again, swinging downward, only to miss as I evade with a single step.
This boy must be new to the sport, for he hasn’t mastered the crucial skill of self-control. Any competent fighter can remind himself that winning is necessary to get what you came for. He rears up again, jabbing the spear forward at my stomach. Instead I simply sidestep and grab the cold metal pole far below the blade, then twist, hurling him and it several feet. He hits the ground with a groan, clambering to his hands and knees, searching blindly for the spear until his hands finds it.
I could kill him now, if I want, but the risk is great- striking an enemy while he’s down can be dangerous if done incorrectly. Certain opponent master lethal ground based counter techniques. Judging by this boy’s frame, I would guess not, but you can never be too cautious with an advantage. Instead, I circle him, having not once raised my blade, and take notice of his heavy breathing, the beads of sweat on his forehead. Meanwhile, I haven’t taken ten steps.
My opponent jumps to his feet, and the onlookers cry out in support of him. He slams the butt of his spear into the ground to reestablish his slippery hold on it, then crouches down with it pointed outward. It’s a very basic, easily identifiable defensive stance, and has many weaknesses, but letting him catch recoordinate himself would forfeit my advantage. Now is the time to strike.
I advance with two bounding strides, stepping just slightly closer to his non-dominant hand. As predicted the boy reacts by swinging the spear towards my head, which I evade with a quick duck. His weight carries him forward, breaking his stance. He’s open now, vulnerable to the proper sequence of blows. I deliver the first: a sweeping kick that takes his legs from beneath him so he falls on his back.
Before he can even land, I account for the spear, which I’d hoped he would drop. It’s no matter for me- I simply take the knife and plunge it into his wrist, making him scream in agony and release the weapon, his hand limp and lifeless. I retract the knife, stained in the blood that now pools on the glass underfoot. With pleading eyes he looks up at me, fully aware that he’s finished, but not yet resigned to death. Pity does not affect someone like me, though. An initiate, perhaps, a virgin fighter not yet exposed to the rush of killing. but not me.
In the ritualistic fashion we are encouraged to follow, I grab the boy by the collar and bring him to his knees, stepping on both of his ankles to ensure he doesn’t move. He sobs, quietly, and nurses his wounds while the crowd derisively mocks him. His behavior, apparently, is dishonorable. Then, standing behind him, I wrap my arm around his neck and tear his armor off piece by piece, tossing each theatrically aside. First the shoulder pads, then his shin-guards, followed last by the leather gauntlets on his forearms.
Finally, I do as I’ve been told, holding the knife to his throat and awaiting instruction. It wasn’t until now that I noticed the volume of the crowd, the lower seats on their feet, screaming, the aristocrats in the higher boxes laughing at the victim. “Spectators!” booms the announcer, “now it is your turn to decide! Did this boy fight with honor, deserving of another chance at glory, or should he perish now? Raise your voices, and choose!”
I almost roll my eyes sardonically, but forbear myself knowing that it would ruin the authenticity of the ordeal. Any good pirate would appear triumphant and proud. In a show of good faith, hoping for some generosity from the aristocrats who make the final vote; if you hadn‘t realized, the lower paying seats don’t actually get a say.
Something changes then, as I look up in the crowd. Maybe it’s something that I see, something about how free those people are, not addicted to blood like a vampire. Envy, I believe the emotion is called, but those thoughts are alien to me. The surge of it makes me nauseous, but as hard as I try to dismiss the thought, it persists.
“Kill him! Cut his throat!” Yells the delusional crowd. My instincts agree.
In an instant it’s like the veil over me has evaporated. Remorse, another emotion I was incapable of, floods my chest as the images of my fallen enemies comes to mind. How many had I killed, exactly? For the first time in my life, that crowd of crazed onlookers takes my thoughts away from the euphoria; it makes me wonder what more there is to the world. My heart pounds, my legs tremble, a schism forming inside me. Half of me wants to slay his boy, reach that sensation one more time, fearing I would die without it. The other protests, whispering of life, mercy and all these peculiar concepts, my body experiencing the effects of this internal siege.
“Spare him, drop the knife and run,” a voice whispers in my head, “learn what life truly is.”
I stand there, the knife still at his throat, completely unaware of the judges’ verdict. All I can focus on is the battle in my mind, life and death, compassion and indifference, Vitalus and Interitus grappling for dominance. The word echoes again, either from afar or from within,