The chisel tapped into rough skin, opening it with light efficiency. The design was simple, links of a chain no bigger than a man’s thumb. The chains ran from one wrist past the bicep and halfway across the back. In the center of his spine was a ring with spiked four spiked points. The ring would unite the ties, signifying his rise from the initiate ranks.
Killian Ray would be here for a while. The day had brought him four kills and a victory. Five links, all of them provided by the warhammer that glinted next to the fireplace. Splotches of black liquid stained the metal. He would clean it when the ink work was done.
A cloaked man held the chisel and ink. The chains were visible on both of his hands, and under the robe it would link to a center hub like Kilian’s.
Each tap gouged a small wound into him, but Kilian didn’t wince. He stared into the fire, feeling the rage of a short hour ago begin to leave him.
“Truly you are blessed, Kilian,” the acolyte said. “No more thieves and scavvers for you. Now you may only count kills in the Master’s war, or fight others of your rank in the arena. Now we get to see your true self emerge before the Chaos Lord.”
Kilian spit and said, “I’m not here for any god. I’m here for a king.”
The acolyte cackled. “You and every other initiate that walks through here. The Chaos Lord demands his champion to plant injustice and hatred in men. It tips the scales in favor of chaos. The heaviest burden of his crown is knowing that he will create his own destruction. He earns his end.”
Under a blue sky devoid of clouds they came.
The buzzing sound of dirt bikes whined on the horizon like mosquitos. They charged, broad swords drawn. The swords themselves were of poor quality. Rebar handles welded to scrap metal sharpened into blades.
Behind them cavalry charged. Their horses clopped along the ruined roads of a past civilization. They shouted and writhed on the backs of their horses, foaming at the mouth like the mounts they rode. The war party was primed and ready to earn their links. Their leader, an ambitious young warlord named Raddimus, shouted orders and charged with them.
Killian’s father watched through the window and lowered his head for a moment. His contemplation ended when his wife brought him his hammer. She nodded at him, then kissed him hard.
“Take the boys. Don’t turn back,” he said. “Killian, protect them as best you can.”
The man walked into the street, meeting his fellow warriors. They were few. Only a dozen left after the near constant raids of the summer. In salvaged helmets and hard won weapons, they spread into ruined alleys.
Killian ran out of the house wielding a beat up sword. His mother and the other children went out the back door and ran into the ruins.
The sounds of battle broke out, the clashing of swords and the death cries of many.
He could hear the sound of horses behind him, but was too afraid to look. They grew ever closer, and at the last moment he turned and brandished the sword. Weighted nets dragged him and his family down.
The warlord watched as his henchmen brought out shackles and chain.
The arena quaked. It had moved beyond singular minds and turned into something more. The crowd was a seething organism and could only be sated with blood. Men and women covered themselves in ash, wearing only small garments to cover their gender. Young men and women took the chance to preen for each other, showing their scars and links. Many women had more than an arm length of chain. Once they became true initiates they could be deemed worthy to make children for the Chaos Lord. This generally meant the slaughter of at least 20 men or women. After that, each child would be worth ten links. The number of women in the acolyte ranks far outnumbered men, as their blood ran cheaper.
Kilian tied his long red hair back and stared at the crowd. At least 3,000 of them came to worship at the Chaos Lord’s altar. The bottom of the arena’s ring was entirely packed with humans, and the stadiums upper deck could no longer be trusted. Grey children chanced the wreckage and sat in the upper decks. The pitch changed entirely a moment later when King Raddimus walked out from behind crimson red curtains and was seated in his throne.
The king was massive. He sat in dark black armor, a two-handed great sword was on his lap. The great executioner’s blade was not something many could wield in combat, but the king carried it with unnatural grace. His face was scarred but it somehow did not detract from his rugged smile and enthusiasm.
The field was enormously over-sized for one-on-one combat, so inner circles were made. 10 meters were added for every pair of fighters up to three levels. After that, dozens could be shoved into the circles and all were considered fair game. Most links were earned in raids, but on the solstice the arena brought a great bloodletting.
The fighters were kept from leaving by a group of armed men with pikes. After the fighters were allowed in, the long spears closed. Careful work could let a fighter exploit this, but the gladiators couldn’t be fooled.
Kilian’s bout was a free for all. They were allowed into the circle and Kilian stared each of them down. These were seasoned fighters, not the villager mush he had been fighting. He felt adrenaline pump into his system. Across the ring, a tall woman with a spear stood. The chains on her body suggested she was almost ready for her second ascension. The other fighters clued in on this and each seemed ready to charge her.
A young man carrying a dull mace stood closest to Killian. He was staring at the woman too, and like that Kilian knew who his first kill would be.
The king stood, and with a wave of his hand the crowd noise settled down. They all patted their bare thighs, making a slapping applause. When the king dropped his hands, they all shouted “FIGHT!”
The woman with the spear threw it at her closest opponent, who took it to the belly. She sprinted across the ring and pulled it out, then stabbed the man in the throat as he tried in vain to swing with his dying breaths.
The other two were moving toward her and Kilian walked calmly. The man with the mace over-committed to his swing on the woman and was sent off balance. Kilian slammed his hammer into the top of his skull.
The sweet feeling between a glancing blow and a true connection was so beautiful to Kilian. He felt the rush through his nerves, hitting every joint and muscle as their fluid motion was broken. Hands, elbows, shoulder, back, all the way into his hips and knees he felt the strike. The man crumbled.
“One link.” Killian said. He turned to the melee happening next to him. Spear versus sword. The woman used her range, slicing small cuts and jabs to the body. The man grabbed her spear and charged forward. She immediately fell to her back and in his pursuit he was launched into no-man’s land. He was skewered by the armed guards, who then reset their inward phalanx as though nothing happened.
Under other circumstances, Kilian would have asked her kindly to come to bed with him. Women who knew the taste of brutal murder were always more fun.
Instead, he charged ahead, slamming the spear up with his warhammer, then brought it back around into her ribs. She fell to the ground, wind knocked out of her, ribs broken. Kilian then took the spear, walked to the center of the ring and planted it.
The crowd cheered and booed. Disarming was one way to win, and too much of it could get a gladiator into their doghouse. He didn’t care. She was defeated. Two links for downed opponents. One for victory. Three links closer to the king.
In the firelight, he sat with the woman he let live. She was sick from the medicine that they pumped into her, but not so much that she wouldn’t share the night with Killian. By morning the links they had both earned had scabbed over.
A fiery dawn rose from the eastern sky and the concrete of the old arena glowed orange. The stands were empty except for the crows waiting for the afternoon’s harvest. They fought and cawed over the last remnants of scraps in the stands.
The luxury boxes of the old college arena creaked and moaned, their integrity slipping a little more each day. No single pane of glass remained unbroken. The rest of the arena was a beige concrete settled into the hills around the stadium. Where many buildings had fallen into complete disrepair over the years, the arena stood against time. Its defiance was starting to show as cracks formed in the foundations.
Killian stood much the same. His body scarred. Raised tissue from lash and blade covered his body. The chains on his flesh having grown further and further. The links moving slowly up his spine and around his neck. His throat was bare, but with a few more kills he could take the Chaos Lord’s blessing and be complete.
When the tattoo was finished, he could call the tyrant king from his throne. He could take the crown from the still bleeding corpse of Raddimus and don the crown himself. He would then destroy it and break the cycle.
He wondered for a moment if that was why he was still there. No doubt he could have found a means to escape. He was no longer a skinny prisoner in a subpar barracks. He was a savage cavalryman of the Chaos Lord. He had the women, the drugs, and all else that was rightfully his.
Could he give that up for the wasteland? Could he go south and incur the heated scorn of the Chaos Lord’s burned cities? The only beings out there were mutants barely scraping by.
He looked at the chains that ran over the back of his hand, around his body. He had nothing else to give. He’d earned every link with a shattered life, and each hammer blow put him further into the bondage of chaos.
He hefted the hammer, which glinted anew from the work of a smith. He started to swing and felt himself loosen up for the day’s work.
Under a terrible blue sky of another solstice, Killian raised his hammer. The chain links on his neck still bled from freshly ripped scabs.
“By right of Chaos, I call Raddimus, the Tyrant King, from his throne.”
The king rose, the iron crown covering locks of silver hair. He smiled broadly. His body ached for the challenge, for a chance to prove his ascended nature to his people again. He spoke, voice deep and vicious, “I, King Raddumus, Chaos Lord’s chosen, am bound by honor and blood to fight this challenger of chosen worth!”
The dead silence of the arena was shattered by the whooping and cheering of the crowd. Thousands more had gathered than Killian had ever seen. It had been years since a champion had slaughtered enough to challenge the king.
Killian stripped the leather armor and tossed it to the ground. The links covered his body, his arms and legs. On his wrists and ankles there were tattooed slave’s irons, symbols of his devotion to the Chaos Lord.
The large king strode towards Killian, black armor seeming to swallow the light. The few places where his skin shown were completely covered in chains. The links grew smaller as they rounded his face and made intricate patterns around his mouth and eyes.
The two men stood across from each other. Killian bowed, as did the king. They locked eyes, staring without flinching, and neither wanting to be the first to break the stare.
“Today you die, my king,” Killian said in a low voice. “You brought me here. Your end is bought from the blood of my father, my family, and my friends.”
Raddimus nodded. “Such is the will of our Lord. Should I fall, the trail of dead kin you have made to get here will come for you.”
“So be it,” Killian said.
They stood mere feet from each other, as close as Killian had been since the day his quest started. The circle closed and the spears surrounded them. Banners all across the arena stilled and the dust stopped swirling. The people roared but neither of them heard it. The cold fire of vengeance boiled inside Killian. Every heartbeat pulsed hot blood through his temples and hands.
The king raised his enormous sword. Killian stood only to the middle chest of the armored giant. He raised his hammer, holding it with both hands. He turned the solid end of the hammer around so that he would lead with the spike on the opposite side.
From somewhere deep in the giant’s chest, a roar pierced through the arena’s din. He swung the sword down and Killian rolled. The impact shook the ground, and Killian charged. He brought the hammer down but was swatted away. The king swung again, and Killian hit the dirt, his speed being his only protection. A wave of wind from the blade washed over his body.
Killian scrambled and swung the hammer into the king’s belly, driving the spike through his chest plate. He yanked it out quickly and it made a suction noise, along with a spurt of dark blood. He heard the king grunt, and was smashed by a gauntleted backhand. Blood ran from Killian’s forehead. Both Killian and the king backed up, bringing their weapons to the ready.
Dust was lifted with each step as the duel wore on. Counters and hard strikes, bashes and shouts. All the while the ash covered crowd roared in awe of the Chaos Lord’s glory before them.
Every second that passed saw the king slow. Blood trickled down his legs and stained the sand. Killian stood before him, face in a mask of red blood, blue eyes staring through. The nearly naked savage charged. The king thrust the sword at the bloody man and felt it ripped from his hands as the hammer struck it full force.
The last thing he saw was Killian jumping through the air and the spike as it split the crown and entered the king’s skull.
The crack blasted through the noise of the arena, and was met with the stunned silence of thousands. They had witnessed a great usurping. It was as though the air were sucked from the world.
It only lasted a moment. As the spears around the ring were raised, so were the voices of all. They charged into the arena, stampeding toward their new king.
Killian wrenched the warhammer from the skull and held it up as the king fell. He leaned down and grabbed the broken crown. Relief washed over his body, but his mind was lost in conflict.
He could don the crown or permanently break it. He could snap the chains of chaos, destroy the cycle and watch the Chaos Lord’s cult fall into disarray. They would eat themselves from the inside trying to determine a new king. Men he had fought with, brothers who he had bled for, would tear each other to ribbons.
Or he could lead them. He could head the spear of an immeasurable army. He looked at his chains, each link a broken life, a life he had taken in his quest to get here. The chains were part of him, and they always would be. Each stood for an action never to be undone. Each a part of his conquest and each link another piece of his bondage to the Chaos Lord.
He thought the choice would be easy, but his hatred and vigor had forged him into something else.
The crowd descended on him, raising him up and they carried him, shouting. The chant of “King Killian!” echoed through the arena. Under the pale blue sky, Killian placed the crown on his head.
At the foot of the fallen king, a young boy knelt over his father and wept. He grabbed his father’s sword and began dragging it out of the arena.
Killian sat on the metal throne overlooking the arena. Soldiers he had fought with, slaves he had captured, and the desperate souls looking to please the Chaos Lord shed their blood in the arena before him.
The mended crown lay heavy on his perfectly shaved head. New chain tattoos ran along his body and face. They no longer ran just up his limbs and around his neck but braided over each other, covering his pale skin. He had his wife, his sons and harem, but his bloodlust was never sated. The cold will of the Chaos Lord ran through the chains and into his heart and soul. Steel could be snapped and broken, but the ink that covered his skin never could.
In the ring, a tall young man wielded an executioner’s sword.
Killian watched as he earned his links.
Tony Southcotte: Tony hails from the Rocky Mountains somewhere around the state of Colorado. Possibly raised by grizzly bears, this gritty denizen of the arena now spends most of his time grappling with Java updates and dysfunctional RAM. With not much fiction under his belt, it might seem tempting to bet against Mister Southcotte, but an impressive knowledge of everything from PVC pipe to psychedelic drugs makes Tony a storehouse of fiction waiting to hit the paper. Plus, you know, there’s the possibility of him ripping you apart like a grizzly bear.
- Lifetime 7 – 6
- 2015 Season 3 – 4
- 2014 Season 4 – 2
Secret Move: Paper Dragon