The four of them stood watching the figure, black against the night sky, swooping down to meet them. They knew not all of them could survive, not all of them could stay and fight. It soared with enormous bat wings, illuminated by the moons behind, showing thin membrane and thick veins. Gondik Ironspine laughed.
“Was kinda hoping he wouldn’t show,” Belvas Steelheart said.
Ember Eye cursed.
Blade Tongue grinned. “Well, he didn’t want to be left out. Gotta say goodbye now, Gondik. Get going, boy. We’ve got a dance to make.”
Gondik grit his teeth and shook his head. “No,” he stated. “We are in this together. We will stand or fall as one.” But as he said it, he knew it was fallacy. One of them had to make it out of here, and against the half-demon of Bladesport, that was not guaranteed.
“You have the axes, brother. We can’t let them be taken again,” Blade Tongue said. He pulled his baton from his belt and slapped it against his palm. He looked up at the wings of the monster and he sighed. “Kinda beautiful, ain’t he?”
Gondik looked to Steelheart and shook his head. “There has to be another way,” he said. Ember Eye laughed.
“You know there ain’t. One of us has to make it out of here. You have to reach the Redfist. Tell him about home. Tell him about the war. Tell him that-“ he shrugged. “Well shit, you know what to tell him.”
“Let me stand and fight. Together, we might be able to make it.” The men behind them were growing restless.
“We have to go,” Hellfire said. He gripped Gondik by the wrist and looked him in the eye. “The guards of the arena will be coming soon. They will have regrouped by now. We have to make a play for the ships if we’re gonna make it out of here alive.” Gondik wanted to scream at the human, wanted to shove him away and make his stand with his progetten brothers, but he knew he couldn’t.
He looked past Hellfire, to the seventeen men and women that had escaped Darkfess’s Arena, and he knew they had no time. They needed a leader, and his name, his family, his clan, had produced one.
He turned back to the three men he had traveled so far with. The three men he had been chosen with to get out, find help, find the Redfist, and he looked at them all. “Anything you want me to say to the people back home?”
Ember Eye laughed, his eyes wide and staring at the doom headed their way. “Nah, they know our minds. Find the Kings. Bring them home. Save our people.”
Ember Eye pulled his chain and swung the heavy weight at its end. He began whipping it in a circle. The ball hummed as it wailed through the air.
“Get yourself laid as soon as you can, Gondik, and give her ass a slap for me,” Steelheart said.
“Time to go, Ironspine,” Blade Tongue said.
Gondik looked one more time at the swooping death and he cursed. Every ounce of his manhood begged him to stay. All twenty-four years of his life, he refused to run, had been taught from birth never to run. But he looked down at the two relics in his hand. The two axes could not be taken. They had to remain in his family. He cursed himself for ever bringing them. But he was the last Ironspine alive, the last of his proud clan. He knew he had to live.
He took one last look at his brothers staring up at the sky, and he saw them all smiling. Gondik turned and sprinted away. The seventeen gladiators he had led from their cells rushed after him. He had to make the ships, had to make his brother’s death worth something.
As he made for the water, his heart pounded in his ears. He could hear the padding of the bare feet behind him and he grit his teeth, knowing it all rode on him now: the survival of his race, the safety of his home, the safety of his relic, the survival of his culture. When there had been four of them, any that died would be left behind and the other three would carry on. But now they were all dead. All but him. There was no surviving the dread of Darkfess. He pushed on, rounding the corner, to the side street that led a winding path to the port, and came face-to-face with the hordes of the Trader.
The man smiled as the 18 of them rounded the corner. He lifted his hands, holding back his men. “So good of you to escape, before running straight back into my arms. Darkfess will long to punish you all. He will pay good prices to own you again.”
Gondik looked at the man that had so easily captured him and his brothers years before and he cursed. “When we slaughter you and your men, will a new parasite rise up immediately to replace you, or do you think the city will reel for a while first?” Gondik asked. The Trader smiled and lifted his arms wide.
“I have not been defeated in a hundred ye—”
Camril’s baton flew through the air from behind Gondik and collided with the Trader’s mouth, shattering his teeth and tearing his lips. The man choked on his blood and Gondik knew he could not cast. With a bellow of rage, the gladiators of Darkfess’s arena rushed into the breech. They had no time. They were desperate, and they were angry. When the Trader could finally speak again, he used his voice to beg for mercy. But in the heart of Gondik Ironspine, no such thing existed for peddlers of flesh. The men of the slaver scattered and, after a few terrible blood-filled minutes, the road was cleared.
“Ironspine!” Camril yelled. “He is hurt. I can’t manage him.” Gondik looked at Hellfire on the ground and he cursed. The man had been hit in the thigh. It was a terrible wound, but Gondik thought he might survive it. A desperate hand gripped his arm and tugged him away.
“He took a big hit,” a harsh voice said. “You have to carry him away.” Gondik looked down at Kindness and grimaced. The man’s face was mash. Gasping breaths came from him in snorts and gurgles. There was no way the mighty Gladiator could live.
Gondik looked up at the cloaked figure begging him and he shook his head. “Kindness has reached the end of his path. I can’t help him.”
“Gondik!” Camril yelled. Ironspine shook his head.
“I can’t help him. I’m sorry.”
The hooded figure hissed. “You can carry him. You have the strength.”
“He is finished. Come with us, or stay with him. I care not. We are moving,” Gondik said. He rushed to Hellfire’s side and picked the slight man up. He tossed him over his shoulder and patted his ass. “Not gonna be comfortable.” He grunted.
“Nothing ever is,” Hellfire said with a curse.
Gondik broke out in a run and Hellfire groaned with every pace. When they reached the port, they saw shadows, liquid and terrible, flowing across the ground. Gondik cursed. He felt as though he would scream at the horror of the way they moved. Whipping and squirming, the shadows were alive and hungry. He looked to the men and women around him and grimaced. “This will be hell,” he said. He saw the boats bobbing in the harbor and he knew he was right there—right on the edge of freedom—but the Void had yet to be dealt with.
The old man that had refused to attempt the escape with them had talked of the Void. The darkest of the three terrors of Bladesport, the Void was unreckonable, nothing killable, nothing a mortal was capable of fighting. Gondik looked at his relics and he grinned.
“Stay close,” he yelled to the men and women behind him. “Hellfire, hold on.” Gondik felt the pugilist wrap arms around him and he waded in, axes swinging.
The minions of the Void rose up like dripping, melting beasts reaching with terrible limbs, inexplicable to the rational mind. They fought to grip Gondik and drag him to places beyond the realm of anything sane or worldly, but Gondik carried the axes of the Ironspine clan. He wielded the weapons crafted by the hand of Ragoth Redfist himself. When the twin axes known as Icicle and Ash bit into the soupy forms of the minions of the Void, they howled in riotous pain and black blood sprayed in a fount. The blood was cold—ice cold—and seemed to grip the parts of the body it touched. The freezing blood steamed against Hellfire’s flank and he screamed. The blood covered Gondik’s hands and arms and seared in its coldness. But Gondik was of progetten blood. Ice and chill did not affect his kind. He fought on, slicing and chopping into his enemy and yelling out the names of his fathers.
When darkness fell in all around him, only his line could save him. He called out to the men that had carried these axes before him and laid waste to anything that stepped between him and his escape.
The 17 other gladiators followed the path of destruction that Gondik carved. Soon the Void was seeping away, running like snot to all corners, fighting to get away from the terrible Icicle and Ash.
They finally reached the ships and Gondik looked in every direction for the boat Ember Eye had set for them. He saw dark shapes bobbing on the choppy sea and he did not see which he sought.
“Which is it?” he cried. Camril stepped up beside him.
“It’s called the Venture. The captain’s name is Katherine. She is mighty beyond that which you can expect from a pirate.”
“Where in the hells is she?” Gondik yelled. He heard a raucous and terrible scream lift into the air from deep in the city, and knew one of his brothers was dying back there. Darkfess was fighting his way clear. In moments, the half-demon would retake the skies and be on them. Gondik cursed and scanned the docks.
“Spread out,” he yelled. “Find it. We are looking for the Venture. We need to board her now.” A spark of light shined in the distance. Ironspine saw it and his eyes locked on it. It was a lantern. As he watched, it waved back and forth in the night sky. “That’s it!” he shouted. “Head for the light.”
The men and women around him broke out in a run and Gondik led them all. He reached the boat and the plank was laid out for him. He climbed aboard and dropped Hellfire at his feet. The man grunted and Camril dropped to see to him.
A beauty the likes of which Gondik had never seen stepped up before him. Her golden hair hung to her breasts, her white shirt opened, low and revealing. She tapped his chin with a long, thin blade and she grinned at him.
“You are Ember Eye?” she asked.
Gondik looked at the blade and back at the woman that held it. He grit his teeth, as large men and agile-looking women filed in behind her. He looked behind him at the men and women counting on him and he shook his head.
“I am not Ember Eye,” he said. “I am Ironspine. Ember Eye did not make it.” Another terrible scream lifted into the air deep within the city and Gondik knew they had no time. A great cauldron was brought to the deck. Within burned a fire, red hot and vicious. It steamed and hissed. Gondik looked at the brands that sat the cauldron and he sneered.
“We have no time. The Half Demon will be on us in a blink. My brothers will hold him as long as they can but-“
“We will make time or I will oust you from my ship and leave you to your deaths, or your slavery, however you land. Step up to the brand and make your oath. I have all the time in the world.”
Gondik longed to snap her thin-bladed sword and run her through with the shards. He looked behind him and nodded. However his brothers were faring, they had yet to let the bastard go. They still held Darkfess up, still were deep in the belly of Bladesport, holding back the half-demon.
Gondik stepped up to the cauldron and exposed his forearm. A hairy garq, half a foot taller than Gondik, grinned as he took the hot iron to Gondik’s skin. Pain was a delicious thing that Gondik had felt before.
“Welcome to the crew, progetten.”
Gondik sneered and walked to Katherine again. “How long was the pact made for?”
“Three years,” she said. “You will fight for me for three years before your debt is paid.” The stench of burning skin filled the air as the gladiators he had brought this far hissed and grunted and took their mark. Gondik cursed and stared back at the city as another terrible cry lifted out in the darkness.
Ironspine walked to the rail of the ship. He fought back the tears his brothers’ deaths brought to him. He looked out onto the sea, thinking of the Redfist, and hoping two thousand years had not seen the end of the line of kings. Gondik held out hope for his people, but it was a fragile thing.