The drums were starting again: rhythmic, steady, and as unstoppable as the tide. Each beat pounding in his very essence, calling for him to move in time with it, quickening the beating of his twin hearts to match their cadence. The drums meant it was time to dance once more, and no one had ever bested him in the dance.
He stepped out of the dark alcove and into the light. Dozens of pyres were burning on the tops of the circular walls around him. The arena was his domain. A vast, open area of sand and bleached bone surrounded by thousands upon thousands of seats starting nearly a dozen meters above the ground, sitting atop a black wall of polished onyx. The sand that covered the ground was so steeped in dried blood that the grains were permanently colored dark red. It shifted beneath his substantial weight as his feet hastened to match the pace of the drums. As the massive figure appeared before the crowd, the cheers started. The cheers were almost deafening to hear, but could not drown out the underlying bass being tattooed in the background. After having heard them for so long, the drums were in his soul.
A cool droplet of sweat formed at the base of his neck and rolled down his spine. The warm air carried a soft breeze that caused the flames to dance, the way his soul longed for his body to do. He paused briefly, reflecting on all that once was and all that might become when the dance started. Bare-chested, he let the breeze flow over his deep-bronze skin like a gentle river. All the while, his muscles tensed and relaxed in anticipation.
The onlookers meant nothing to him. He had long ago learned that they were but a needless distraction from the pounding of the drums. He could afford to ignore them until after the dance. They would not try him here, for that would mar their pleasure in the night’s entertainment. He knelt down, placing his weapons to his sides and running his fingers through the warm sand; allowing the grains to run through his fingers; slowing his breath into a slow and steady rhythm. He rose once more.
The figure adjusted his grip on the hammer he carried slightly, its handle worn smooth where he had held it so many times before. Grooves had formed in it that fit his fingers better than any glove. In his other hand was a weapon less familiar, but just as deadly. In it he hefted a wickedly barbed, double-bladed weapon lightly, testing the balance one last time. Its twin, curved, dagger-like blades jutting forward from his closed fist would help him to dance well.
Armored only on one shoulder and his legs with a dark-green, form-fitting mesh, nothing would hinder him in his movements this night. His hair had been shaven clean from his head, accentuating the branding scars running around the back of his neck in the shape of writhing flames. Additional scars included another brand on his chest and numerous marks, from the kiss of a blade when he had not danced as well as he should have. Underneath them were the fine lines of surgical scars that had never disappeared.
Everything went silent, as a lone, dark figure rose from his elegantly crafted, black throne on a raised dais. The dark one lifted a gloved hand with fingers extended. Looking directly down at the large figure and smiling wickedly, he clutched his hand into a fist and drew it back towards himself.
Now the dance could truly begin.
Doors opened in several other alcoves along the wall of the sandy arena. The drums began again in that steady, unwavering pace. They never grew in intensity, but they never paused, never faltered, and never ceased until the dance had ended. Through the doors, three slender forms emerged, cloaked in shadows so deep that not even the massive pyres could penetrate them.
Mandrakes. He knew they were trying to test him to his limits, but how someone had convinced three Mandrakes to show themselves in the arena at once showed just how much someone wanted him dead. No matter. The drums were all that mattered. They were his sanity in this place of chaos.
The three shadows converged on the gladiator from different sides, planning to encircle him and bleed him to death slowly. They would find him a more difficult foe than they had planned. Sliding to the right in time with the drums, the gladiator swung his hammer at the head of one foe, immediately followed by two quick jabs of the bladed weapon. None of the blows hit the creature, but they forced it to back up slightly to avoid injury.
Throwing it off of its balance was the gladiator’s intent, and his foot lashed out with surprising quickness for one so large, catching it in the midriff. The toe of his armored boot caught flesh and jerked the mandrake off its feet. Its body twirled several times before coming to land crouched on one knee, supporting itself with one hand. The force of its landing gouged grooves in the soft red sand. Cheers and jeers washed over him as the crowd shouted down on the combatants, all ignored by the warrior as he let the drums move his body.
The shadows that had been swirling around the mandrake fled on impact with the ground and the gladiator could see it clearly for the first time. What had once been an attractive slender body was now twisted and warped. Self-inflicted scars and strips of metal contorting the skin out of place now hideously misshaped face. A serrated blade set with chemical vials at its base had replaced one hand. Any one of those chemicals, once released onto the blade, could cause immeasurable pain or paralysis, possibly even instantaneous death.
The gladiator took this in with the slightest of glances, for the other two shadows were advancing quickly. He turned to meet one head on, while whirling the blades in his off hand to ward off the other attacker. He did not waste time with feints on this next foe, knowing they would not work more than once. Instead he sent a sweeping blow straight for where the upper thigh should be on the one mandrake, and then followed through the swing to strike at the other.
The first mandrake tried to duck the blow, but was caught in the shoulder and sent sprawling, its shoulder blade shattered. The second managed to dodge to the side and strike out at the gladiator. Instead of dodging, as it had expected of him, the massive figure moved inside the blow and sliced the creature across the inside of its bicep. Each strike, each step, even his breathing was timed precisely with the beat of the drums. Blood spurted from the gash opened in the mandrake’s arm, but instead of pain the thing showed almost ecstasy as it stepped back and licked at the trail of blood flowing down his arm.
The mandrake that had initially been knocked back was now advancing forward again. Mere heartbeats had occurred since the start of the fight. With reflexes to quick for the eye to follow, the four fighters continued their dance. The smaller frames of the mandrakes darted in quickly time and again, trying to find an opening in the defenses of the steady, but fluid motion of hammer and dagger. Soon, there were thin tendrils of blood flowing from all four opponents.
Back and forth the giant moved from one opponent to the next, striking and blocking without seeming to look directly at anything, all in time with the drums. Even the crowd, ravenous for the sight of blood, had to respect his skill. Not since the Dark Father himself had graced the arena with bloodbath after bloodbath had they seen such a display of dexterity and violence.
Suddenly, one of the smaller figures was struck full on in the chest by the shimmering power field around the head of the hammer. Ribs collapsing with an audible crack that could be heard throughout the arena, the mandrake’s limp body flew back several meters to lay still. Without pause, the three remaining figures continued their struggle. Sparks lancing out like miniature stars when blade struck blade, droplets of blood arcing out like drops of water when blade met with skin.
The second mandrake went down more slowly, a dark line forming across its throat as it collapsed to its knees. The already crushed shoulder blade caused it to look as though it were leaning at a grotesque angle. The body swayed slightly, the head leaning back further than should have been possible. The head dropped backwards, the neck more than half severed from the shoulders, pulling the body over onto the sand in an expanding pool of blood that was absorbed by sand already dull from countless fights before this.
The final creature hissed vehemently and lunged in a desperate attempt to slash at the gladiator’s torso. Easily deflecting the blow with the double bladed dagger, a faint hint of a smile formed on the warrior’s lips. He brought his hammer around to connect with the mandrake’s arm. The force of the blow sheared the arm off at just above the elbow, the power field sizzling as blood from the stump connected with it.
The gladiator spread his arms wide as the mandrake stared in shock at its nonexistent hand, then brought them both together quickly on a beat of the drums, decapitating the body with one hand and then knocking it across the arena with the other.
Silence once more filled the arena as the battle ended. The drums ceased and the crowd looked on in breathless amazement. The dark one rose once more from his throne and looked down upon the gladiator. The gladiator stared back, brilliant emerald eyes flashing in the firelight.
“Victory is yours, Dragon’s Tooth… This day.” The dark one’s voice came out in a lilting accent that was at the same time musical and malicious.
“It’s Salamander,” replied the gladiator solemnly, before turning and walking back into the alcove from which he had entered. The stadium erupted in noise so great, it shook the walls of the city. All ignored by the Salamander. Another battle won; another dance complete. He would feel empty until the drums sang to him again, calling him to the dance.