Chapter 61: The Gladiator King

The crowd roared. Their cheers echoing from the walls and ceiling of the massive cavern. Wet patches of blood soaked the arena floor. Dismembered creatures lay dead all around him. Heads of strange beasts decorated the walls separating the arena from the Shiliskin spectators.

Illsalin had spent his entire life in arenas like this one across the Shiliskin city-states. He grew up with a blade in one hand and his enemy's throat in the other. He had faced orcs, werewolves, shelled horrors, giant basilisks, and even other Shiliskin. He had always been victorious. His father had taught him well.

His father was dead.

The thought hit Illsalin like a hammer. He stood in the center of the arena, the crowd beating the stone under their feet. He looked to the sword in his hand, a dull shapeless blade meant more for show than for violence. Disgusted, he threw the blade to the side and sat down on the sandy ground. The crowd's displeasure rippled around him.

Steel ground against stone as the opposite gates came up. Three orcs, huge and scarred, approached. The largest of them stood in front of the sitting Shiliskin. He grunted and pushed Illsalin with his leather boot. Illsalin did not move. He sat, looking at his hands and hoping to die quickly and end his sorrow.

"Stand. Fight." The huge orc sneered through the steel bars on the face of his helmet. He kicked Illsalin again. Illsalin didn't care.

"Kill me, you son of a whore. I am not moving." The two other orcs looked to the larger one. The large one, not understanding Illsalin's insult, furrowed his brow until one of the others explained the word. The orc grinned.

"Better son of whore than son of coward." Illsalin's eyes narrowed and the orc saw the nerve he hit. "He scream when he die."

Illsalin kept his eyes on the orc. His blood burned. He saw his father's body, torn apart in this same arena a day earlier. Sadness washed over with anger. He still wished to die, but maybe he would take someone with him. He closed his eyes and let out a breath. He relaxed and let his anger flow out of him until there was nothing left but an empty clear mind. He felt the orc coming in with another kick.

Illsalin grabbed the orc's foot with both hands as it came in. He spun and kicked the orc's other knee, hearing the snap of tendon and bone as the leg bent backward. The orc fell back screaming. Illsalin rolled forward over the orc, pulling up the orc's heavy single-edged sword and round shield as he landed on his feet. He swung the sword into a reverse grip, the blade's edge resting along his forarm.

The shock of the two remaining orcs passed. They circled around Illsalin, bending low and carefully placing their steps. One, a scarred brute wearing a leather helm that showed only his snaggletooth sneer, swung a small warhammer and a round shield. The other, wearing a steel finned helm of the Shiliskin style, held a long barbed spear.

Illsalin charged the one with the hammer. Their shields smashed together and the orc quickly swung his hammer down towards Illsalin. Illsalin dropped to one knee and raised the shield over his head as the hammer came down. He reached through the orc's legs with the wide sword and sliced the tendon of the orc's right leg. The orc doubled over in pain. As he fell back, Illsalin stabbed the sharp tip of the sword into the orc's chest. A volcano of blood burst into the air, spraying Illsalin in a red mist. The crowd exploded in cheer.

Illsalin turned and faced the last of the three orcs. He saw the fright and anger in the orc's eyes but Illsalin himself felt only the adrenaline of combat and razor sharp instinct. The orc shifted his weight from left to right, his spear held low on his hip.

The orc lunged, expecting Illsalin to block the attack with his shield. As he stabbed the spear forward, the orc drew a long curved dagger from his belt. Illsalin did not block with his shield, however, instead parrying the spear with his sword and punching out with the edge of the shield. The shield edge caught the orc between the eyes and the crack of the orc's skull echoed off of the walls louder than the screams of glee from the crowd. The orc stumbled on soft legs, his skull split open horizontally and blood pouring down his shattered face before he fell quivering to the ground.

Illsalin dropped the bloody shield and sword, picking up the second orc's warhammer and third orc's dagger from the bloody sand. Behind him, the grate of steel screamed again and Illsalin turned to face a new foe.

The ogre stood nearly twelve feet high, dressed in thick hide and carrying a spiked morningstar in its right hand. Scars swept across his face, leading to an empty eye socket and crossing over his scalp in a dozen places.

Illsalin reversed the grip on his dagger and swayed from foot to foot, concentrating on every movement the ogre made. The ogre's one good eye gleamed with battlefury.

The ogre swept in high with the morning star. Illsalin side-stepped and the spikes grazed his bare chest. The ogre reversed and swung in again. Illsalin parried with his warhammer, tangling the head of the ogre's morning star. Illsalin swept the dagger twice across the ogre's belly, feeling the blade cut through the hide armor and into the skin underneath. Warm blood rushed over Illsalin's hand. The ogre roared.

Illsalin swung his hammer in a half circle, freeing it from the ogre's morning star and pushing the massive ogre off balance. Illsain spun and smashed the hammer against the ogre's elbow. Splintered bone ripped through the skin of the ogre's broken arm. The ogre looked at Illsalin in shock, one twisted arm hanging at his side. The ogre swung the morning star again and Illsalin parried with the hammer. Illsalin spun and stabbed the ogre from behind, deep into the beast's liver. Illsalin spun again and stabbed into the ogre's lower back. The ogre went rigid. He pulled the blade free and stabbed twice more. Illsalin stepped back and watched as the ogre fell dead to the sandy ground.

Illsalin dropped to his knees, his breathing heavy in his lungs. He looked at the bloody ground and then closed his black eyes. All around him the crowd continued to cheer. He raised his head and saw their pride and their excitement in his honor. He saw their faces as though he saw them for the first time. He saw something he had never seen before within them. If he chose to lead, they would follow him. Illsalin raised his bloody dagger into the air and the crowd erupted again into a roar. He had a new purpose for his life. He knew that soon these people would be his.