by Vaughn Heppner
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Vaughn Heppner and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by New Epoch Press.
Lod was about to die and all he could think about was Inanna’s dainty chin. He had loved running his fingers over it. He would smile, and that would make her smile. Her kisses had tasted so sweet. But it was more the idea that this beautiful woman had been his.
The roar of the bloodthirsty crowd shook Lod out of his reverie.
He was in the land of Nod, in the terrible capital of Uruk, the first city of Earth. It was an ancient place, famed for its perversions. He was in the level directly underneath the Stadium of Swords, standing beside a stone pillar. There were hundreds of the irregularly planted pillars, and they made this place a honeycomb of torchlight and shadows. From one of those shadows, gigantic cave bears growled. Nearer, grim braziers cackled with flames, with white-hot irons in the fires. The waiting attendants wore thick gloves, ready to press sizzling brands against reluctant fighters or beasts.
A chill ran through Lod. He turned away from the Games Master as he shifted aside his loincloth. Lod leaned a forearm against the cool pillar. It stank like urine down here and now he knew why. He tried to make water, knowing he’d not have another chance.
“Give him the helmet,” the Games Master said.
Lod readjusted his loincloth and wiped his fingers against his muscled thigh. A handler shoved a helmet toward him. It was of polished steel, with a brass mask of a spitting sabertooth. It had two tiny eyeholes, while green feathers sprouted from the top. Lod wondered how he was supposed to breathe while wearing it.
“Hurry,” the Games Master said, “put it on.”
Raucous laughter rippled from the crowd above. It made the cave bears in their cages squint beady eyes.
The handler thumped the helmet against Lod’s chest.
Lod scowled. He had strange blue eyes and a tigerish build, with ropy muscles and smooth grace.
The Games Master snapped his fingers. “Bring heated irons. Burn this slave into reality.”
Lod had odd white hair for one so young. He was like a starved beast, every limb seemingly coiled with suppressed rage.
The handler chuckled perversely as the attendants with heated irons approached.
To Lod, the chuckle made the handler seem like the Nephilim giant who had chopped a sword into Inanna. Lod’s eyes narrowed. There had been so much blood that day, so much, so much blood spurting out of his bride.
Lod snatched the helmet out of the handler’s hands. It was as heavy as a baby. The leather padding inside was damp and smelled like sweat, like fear. Maybe they had ripped the helm off one of the poor fools who had already gone out there. When a slave died on the sand, they jabbed a hook into his ankle and dragged him below.
Lod slid the helmet over his head. The tiny eyeholes severely restricted his vision. His breath blew back against him and tasted stale.
“Buckle it,” the Games Master said.
“Lock it,” the Games Master said. “I want to hear it click.”
Lod hesitated. Once he locked it, he would have to wait until someone inserted a key before he could remove the helm. Claustrophobia threatened. But those heated irons with their glowing white tips — he obeyed again.
“Check it,” the Games Master said.
The handler grabbed Lod’s helmet and twisted this way and that, twisting Lod’s corded neck each time.
Knuckles rapped against the metal.
“Look at me,” the Games Master said.
Lod’s head felt heavy now. He turned in what seemed like slow motion and aimed the eyeholes at the Games Master.
The man was thin like a fox and wore a scarlet robe. He had sly features and a chin beard.
“If you win,” the Games Master said, “I’ll buy you. I’ll turn you into a champion.”
A bitter sound echoed in Lod’s helmet.
“I’ve watched you,” the Games Master said. “You have strength and a leopard’s quickness. Unfortunately, your opponent is one of the best. But he has a weakness. His left eye is bad. When he gets tired, he will be blind on that side. Make the bout last and you have a chance. Rush in right away and you’re dead.”
“I have strength and speed, remember?”
The Games Master touched his chin-beard like a fox rubbing its face. “Your opponent is a pit slave trained to a razor’s keenness. You’re just an outlaw used to merchants cowering at the sight of your sword. Make the bout last until sweat drips from his face. Then you have a chance. Now go! The crowd is restless.”
Someone shoved Lod from behind. Within the imprisoning helm, he couldn’t see whom, although he knew it must have been the handler.
Lod stumbled up the wooden ramp into warmer air. Light poured through the gap at the top of a wooden partition. The partition led into the stadium. A slave held open the door to Lod’s cage. Another slave stood ready to open the partition into the arena.
In his mind, Lod tried to conjure up Inanna’s chin. He wanted to see her face one last time, to say goodbye. Instead, in his mind’s eye, he saw Eglon’s black orbs, his cunning stare. Eglon had led them. The Nephilim had called them outlaws. They would. Instead, Eglon and the others had been the last soldiers of Elohim. They had risen up from the cowed masses. They had torn off their slave yoke. Lod had been an outsider, a youth fled from Shamgar looking for a home. He’d found one for a few months. He’d urged Eglon and the others to rise up because he knew that it was better to die on your feet than live on your knees.
Lod swallowed a lump in his throat. His brave words had cost him Inanna. He entered the cage.
The first slave slammed the door shut behind him and locked the bolt into place.
Only now would they allow Lod weapons. It was a wise precaution.
Lod slid his left forearm through the leather bands of the shield that leaned against the bars inside the cage. The shield was big and rectangular and had a rim of iron along the edge. He picked up a ridiculously small sword. It was more a knife, although it had heft.
When Eglon had led them, they had fought with sabers, a slashing-style sword. There had been little art to it. They had hidden in the forest until a merchant caravan rumbled near. Then they had charged out screaming. A few wild swings always sent most of the guards running. Eglon and he had killed the toughest ones. Eglon had been skilled and they had trained together many nights.
A trumpet blared outside. Lod twisted in surprise.
Both slaves laughed.
“Bet he faints when Barkos snarls,” the man at the partition said. He hunched his shoulders and dragged open the partition. Blinding light poured in, together with the sounds of the crowd.
Lod’s gut clenched, and to his dismay, he felt a tremor in his arms. He was alone among his enemies. He was the last of a proud band.
In that moment, he saw Inanna — saw her in his imagination. Then a glittering sword shattered the mental image. Blood jetted as it had months ago. Inanna fell, twitched again. A huge Nephilim giant with a forked beard had loomed over her. The Nephilim had held the sword. The Nephilim had sneered and he’d spat on her corpse. The Nephilim had laughed as Lod charged out of the bedroom. Even after all these months, Lod replayed the bitter scene day after day.
Lod lurched toward the bright light, with his hand clenched around the sword. Hate poured into him. He had always felt like this when they attacked the caravans. He gnashed his teeth. His muscles tightened with a sick need to strike, to slash and hew flesh.
“Slave,” the partition attendant whispered.
Lod stared at the thin attendant, and a wild urge to stab through the bars of his cage almost overcame him.
The attendant glanced both ways. Then he pressed his face against the bars. “I’ve heard about your band.” He frowned. “Everyone kicks us slaves. Here, this is for you.”
Lod had to tilt his helmet. The attendant shoved a Jogli knife through the bars hilt-first.
This gesture of kindness, it caused goosebumps to pimple Lod’s arms. This was Elohim’s doing. This was a message. He must be brave because Elohim remembered him even here alone among his enemies. He must fight on his feet. He must refuse any shameful offers to live on his knees.
Lod took the knife and shoved it through the belt on his loincloth.
“Hurry,” the attendant whispered. “Get out there.”
“I thank you,” Lod rumbled. Then he trotted barefoot onto hot sand.
The sun warmed his shoulders and struck the glittering white particles at his feet. The brightness blurred his tunnel-adjusted eyes. Because of the mask, he could not rub them, so he blinked repeatedly. He raised his helmeted head. Despite his watery vision and the tiny eyeholes, he scanned the crowded masses.
The stadium was gargantuan, built from cyclopean marble blocks. A self-styled god, one of the first born of a bene elohim, ruled Uruk. The architecture fed the First Born’s vanity and attempted to make men feel puny. The stadium loomed around Lod so he almost felt like a mouse trotting across a kitchen floor. There were giants in the stands, the Nephilim sons of the First Born. Those were arrogant and lordly, and mostly they wore military attire, leather tunics and bear-furs. Smaller half-Nephilim sat apart from their fathers on higher tiers. The masses of puny humanity sat higher yet. They were the city merchants, the musicians, harlots, actors, moneylenders and servants of the Nephilim.
Lod’s throat tightened. The First Born was attendance today. He sat on a golden throne in the main box. Purple awning protected him from the sun. Dazzling beauties surrounded his throne, gorgeous women wearing silks, paints, jewels and with rouged lips. Muscular slaves fanned them with ostrich feathers.
The First Born looked like a big man with perfectly handsome features. No Nephilim giant could match his superhuman strength. No women could resist his allure. His eyes —
Lod looked away lest the First Born bewitch him.
Lod knew about the bene elohim. They had been from the heavens above. Long ago, they had descended to Earth, taken on a fleshly guise and then taken any woman they desired. The First Born on the throne was the offspring of such a union. His sons, the giants, were heroes, those of great renown. Humanity no longer ruled the world. Too many peoples had become slaves to those with the blood of the fallen from Heaven.
Within his helmet, Lod’s blue eyes blazed. He refused to bow down to the demons. Better to die on your feet than live on your knees. It was a hard creed, but a good one.
He gripped his sword tightly.
“Give me strength, O Elohim,” he whispered. “Let me die today like a man.”
Lod noticed the guards then. They stood in shadowed arches built into the very wall. One motioned with his spear. The guard pointed at the box where the First Born waited.
“You fool!” the guard hissed. “Go to the box. Salute your god.”
A trumpet blared.
Lod jerked his head toward the sound. His vision was so narrowly focused.
The trumpeter stood in the box where the First Born lounged. A man in a yellow robe stepped beside the trumpeter. The man was a herald, a leather-lunged individual.
“There stands the chief of Eglon’s outlaws!” the herald bellowed. He pointed at Lod.
Thousands of boos and catcalls fell upon Lod’s ears. It made him hunch his shoulders.
“He is a grim fighter!” the herald shouted. “He snarls like a wild animal at our god. He spits in the face of plenty, he hisses at rationality. He is a savage. And as a savage, he is only good for slashing his claws for our amusement. Let us see how this wild animal fares against good Barkos. Our gracious and mighty god will allow this beastly thing life as a pit slave. All it must do is kill one more ferocious and deadly than itself.”
A deafening shout washed over Lod. It shook his bones and threatened to shatter his resolve.
As the echoes died, the pit slave before the box lifted his sword toward the First Born. The pit slave was thick, with thick shoulders, thick gut and thick legs. He had a shield like Lod’s, a similar sword and a polished steel helmet with bars instead of a sabertooth mask. The pit slave would have no trouble breathing through those bars.
Barkos the Pit Slave raised his voice. “I kill in your honor, Divine Moloch.”
The First Born raised a languid hand.
Another mass shout pummeled Lod.
Barkos spun around and trotted across the sand. He came as a killer, sure and confident.
Encouraging shouts drifted down from the higher tiers. They named Barkos as their favorite. They sought Lod’s quick demise.
Lod had a moment to wonder what had happened to his hate. He needed it. Barkos was a trained fighter, one of the best.
Lod shifted his stance. He faced Barkos with his shield shoulder. He bent his knees and shuffled toward the thicker slave. He had learned long ago that it was bad for your spirit to wait for someone to attack. You had to attack. The thousands watching him… he felt an odd paralysis as he stared through the small eyeholes. He feared he might lose sight of Barkos, and that would be deadly.
Through the bars of Barkos’s helmet, Lod saw a hard face. The skin crinkled around Barkos’s dark eyes and showed his age. Barkos’s thick mouth had twisted into a sneer. The pit slave moved with confidence.
Lod understood that he gripped his sword much too hard. The muscled cords of his forearms strained because of that grip. Lod bent to one knee and thrust his sword into the sand. He let go of the hilt, shook his hand and flexed his fingers. Then he snatched up the sword, his grip looser than before.
“Bowing ain’t going to save you, slave,” Barkos said in mockery.
Lod shouted, and he leaped. In that moment, he forgot his training. Lod swung his shield out of position and he hammered his short sword hard as he could. The blade rang against Barkos’s shield. The numbing shock to Lod’s fist startled him. The shock climbed to his shoulder. It brought him back to his senses. Lod jumped away. He backpedaled and brought his shield in front of his body where it belonged.
A strange sigh floated down from the crowd.
“By Moloch,” Barkos said. “You move like lightning, slave. It’s a good thing you have no idea how to use your weapon.”
Then Barkos closed. For all his bulk, he was smooth. Barkos used a minimum of motion. He bashed his shield against Lod’s shield. Barkos bashed cunningly, once, twice, thrice. Sometimes Barkos shifted Lod’s shield one way, sometimes Barkos knocked Lod back. After every bash, Barkos’s short sword flickered like a snake’s tongue. The blades rang as Lod parried. Lod felt the vibration in his hand. It made him clutch his sword harder. Lod dodged. He backpedaled. He twisted. He brought his shield back into position. Barkos kept attacking. The veteran pit slave had a hundred tricks and kept Lod continually off-balance. Barkos was relentless, pitiless and perhaps even stronger than Lod. Barkos slammed Lod’s shield and his sword came over the top. The point thrust at Lod’s eyes. Lod jerked his head back. The sword tip clanged against his brass mask. It dented the metal and broke through. It cut Lod’s cheek. He leaped away. Barkos advanced. Bash, cut, bash, thrust, bash, bash, bash. Lod staggered, panted. He could hardly see. The dent had skewed the eyeholes. Lod’s face throbbed with pain.
The roar of the crowd was a dull noise. Yet it beat at Lod’s senses. His breath came in muffled gasps. He needed air. His helmet was a suffocating trap.
Barkos snaked in his sword. Lod’s skin parted as he twisted aside. Hot pain seared his ribs. Blood dripped and quickly soaked Lod’s loincloth.
The maddened, mass shouts from above were like animals baying for Lod’s blood.
Lod roared and slammed his shield against Barkos’s shield. The shock numbed Lod’s shoulder, but it made Barkos stagger backward. Lod should have followed. He should have attacked. Instead, Lod knelt and dropped his sword. He clawed at the helmet’s thick strap. Lod bellowed in rage and with a desperate desire for air. The strap tore. Lod flung off the helmet and shook his white locks. He drank precious air in great heaving gulps.
Lod grabbed the sword and rose against Barkos. They circled. Lod’s blood dripped onto the sand. He bled for the amusement of Nephilim. That angered him.
“We don’t have to be slaves,” Lod said.
Barkos attacked, and tried to hook Lod’s shield with his. Lod’s superior speed saved him at the last moment.
“We can die free,” Lod said. “We can refuse to obey.”
Barkos faked a shield bash. Lod shifted. Barkos used that and came in around the exposed side. Then another cut dripped with blood, this one in Lod’s thigh. He snarled at Barkos’s cunning.
“That will slow you down,” Barkos panted.
It hurt Lod to put weight on that leg.
“The First Born isn’t a god,” Lod said. “We must stand up against them.”
Barkos laughed harshly and blew out drops of sweat. “I’m going to kill you, slave. You can’t talk your way out of that. Now shut your mouth and fight!”
Lod nodded grimly. Then he realized that sweat dripped from Barkos’s face, and he remembered the Games Master’s words. That acted like a tonic, and Lod attacked. He faked a shield bash, copying Barkos’s tactic. The thick pit slave flinched. Lod jumped to Barkos’s blind side — if what the Games Master had told him was true. Lod tried to curl his body around the edge of Barkos’s shield, and he thrust. Barkos groaned. Lod’s short blade sank into the pit slave’s side. Lod wrenched the blade free. Blood gushed out. Lod backpedaled. Barkos’s thick legs buckled. Barkos collapsed onto the sand.
Lod licked his salty lips and looked up at the crowd.
Grim bearded faces stared at him. The giants glowered. By the stars, how Lod hated them. They were merciless warriors, strong as mammoths and filled with evil cunning. One of them could slay hundreds of men. Lod had heard stories about their exploits. They were arrogant, but they were mighty. They also knew foul magic and secrets concerning metals and forging. One of them, maybe one in the stands, had slain Inanna.
Something compelled him – Lod’s hatred of them, his joy at victory, or perhaps living with Inanna’s death for months. Lod strode toward the giants and shook his bloody sword. One of the Nephilim had stolen his love. One of them had taken the joy from his life. Lod defied the giants. He could only die once, and he would do it on his feet, with a blade in his hands. His greatest wish was that he could cut one of them in the process, let the giants know that some men would never cower before them and never accept their infernal reign.
The half-Nephilim higher up on the tiers shouted in outrage at Lod’s display. They lacked their fathers’ bulk, but they were still bigger than normal men. They, too, had the blood of the bene elohim, although less than their fathers’ did.
The humans on the highest tiers, the moneylenders, the harlots, weavers, bakers and metalsmiths began to shout for Barkos’s death. Likely, they had wagered on him. Many might have staked their fortune, and had lost it. They sounded furious.
A trumpet blared.
Lod turned toward the box. Sweat mixed with blood and dripped onto his bare feet. His thigh hurt. His cheek throbbed and his left side felt greasy slick.
The First Born addressed his beauties. Several leaned over the edge of the box to glance at Barkos. As they bent to look at him, they exposed their breasts to Lod, the sweet curvature of their thighs and their sleek bellies. They wore sheer silks, less than enough to stanch Lod’s bloody wounds. They tinkled with gems, with sparkling jewels. Their painted eyes and rouged lips… they were the most beautiful women Lod had ever seen. One of them, with dark hair as Inanna used to have, raked him with a haughty glance. She parted her blood-red lips. She blew Lod a kiss. Then she turned back toward the First Born.
Lod could not hear her words, but he saw that Moloch listened. The First Born nodded, and he turned to the herald, spoke several words. The herald strode to his dais, climbed it and raised his voice.
“The outlaw has won the bout. By the decree of Divine Moloch, he has won his life. First, however, he must dispatch the failed slave.” The herald looked down at Lod. “Kill the pit slave, beast. Seal your victory by hacking off his head and displaying it to our glorious god.”
Numbed by the decree, Lod turned to Barkos. The pit slave had risen up onto one arm. Barkos’s helmet lay beside him. His heavy features were white with pain. Blood poured from between his fingers where he tried to stanch the terrible wound.
“Make it swift,” Barkos said in a hoarse voice.
Lod blinked stinging sweat out of his eyes. Was he supposed to kill Barkos in cold blood? Just stroll up to him and hack off his head? Lod looked up at Moloch. The First Born stared down. Fear prickled Lod’s belly. He turned away from Moloch, away from the watching beauties that surrounded the First Born’s throne. Instead, Lod stared at the giants. By the stars, how he hated them. He was supposed to kill for their amusement. That would be a form of living on his knees. He had no grudge against Barkos. Yes, he’d fought to live. Should he now hack off Barkos’s head to survive?
Even here, on the hot sands of the stadium, life was precious. Lod squeezed his sword hilt. He took a deep breath and looked again at Barkos.
“It’s not so hard.” Barkos lifted his chin. “Cut my throat first. Then hack off my head. If you try to hack my neck first, you’ll make a mess of it and I might scream in pain. Give me that, eh lad? Let me die with dignity.”
“I don’t want to kill you,” Lod said.
A hard grin stretched Barkos’s lips. “It doesn’t matter what you want. We’re just pit slaves.”
Lod asked, “To fight at their whim?”
“They’re the gods.”
“They’re not gods,” Lod said.
“…They’re stronger than us. So they might as well be gods.”
Lod gripped his sword so hard that his knuckles hurt. His sword-arm trembled. He faced Moloch in the box. Lod hesitated. He wanted to live, but not as a slave. Lod’s mouth turned bone-dry. He felt light-headed. He raised his sword arm. Then he snarled and shook his sword at Moloch.
“I’m not your slave! I’m a free man! I serve Elohim!”
Moloch’s terrible eyes glittered.
Lod cried out. The First Born’s gaze seemed to stab into his mind. Lod staggered back, and he threw his sword-arm before his eyes. He heard, too, a loud shout. The shout came from behind. Lod rubbed his sweaty forearm against his eyes. He shook his head to clear it. Then he looked up in the direction of the shout.
A half-Nephilim ran down the stadium steps. He was big, maybe eight feet tall. He wore shimmering cloth and had shaggy blond hair. Like many of his kind, he had a wide face. On his forehead was the tattoo of a bright spearhead. He ran down the steps from his tier, entered the area of the giants. He reached the rail. He put both hands on it and glared down at Lod. Then he faced the box with purple awning.
“Great Moloch!” the half-Nephilim shouted. “I bear a scar because of Eglon.” The half-Nephilim pointed at Lod. “He says he’s a free man. If that is so, I challenge him. I challenge him as a Bloodspiller. A Bloodspiller versus the chief of Eglon’s boastful band.”
Moloch fingered his chin, his features marred with anger. His women backed away from the throne. They had grown quiet and fearful. Moloch’s lips moved as he stared at the herald.
“He is my slave, not a free man!” the herald bellowed. “He is an arrogant slave, a boastful slave and a disobedient one. You are my Bloodspiller. Thus, I command you to take off his head and feed his carcass piece by piece to Barkos the Pit Slave.”
“As you will it!” the half-Nephilim shouted. He vaulted over the rail, to land with a heavy thud on the white stadium sand.
The half-Nephilim grinned savagely. He was taller than Lod and weighed perhaps twice as much. Because of the blood of the bene elohim, the half-Nephilim had an accursed gift, a unique ability that many termed magical.
Lod had heard of a Nephilim who could run without becoming weary, while another had self-healed. He wondered what gift this half-Nephilim possessed. He knew that Nephilim and half-Nephilim were superhumanly strong and proud of their feats. Their names, their renown, were to them sacred things.
A vivid scar ran along the half-Nephilim’s cheek.
“I remember you,” Lod said. “You fell into a trap. We would have stoned you to death…”
A vein along the half-Nephilim’s temple began to throb. With the sound of sliding steel, he drew a heavy sword, a long blade with runes etched upon it. The metal had a dull, gray sheen. It was likely Bolverk-forged. The half-Nephilim raised the sword and swung the blade behind his long hair.
“I will slice the head from your shoulders,” the half-Nephilim chanted. “I will feed your flesh to the dog of a slave.”
Lod stepped back.
The half-Nephilim sneered. “You defied our Fathers, slave. You called out to him whose name we do not speak here. You boasted because you defeated an old slave well past its prime. Now you face one of the masters and your courage wilts.” The half-Nephilim laughed. “A single swing and your head will roll free.”
Lod tightened his grip on the leather band of his shield and kept his eyes fixed on the half-Nephilim.
The half-giant expanded his chest. He took a slow step toward Lod and moved his sword far behind his head. His dark eyes seemed to judge distances to Lod’s neck. When the long sword swung — and it would with deadly speed — the arc would terminate in Lod’s flesh.
“I of the Bloodspillers —”
The half-Nephilim frowned, puzzled. He must have not understood the blur of Lod’s arm. A Jogli knife had flashed between them. The blade had sunk deep into his chest, only halted by the cross-guard.
The huge rune-sword slipped free from nerveless fingers and thumped upon the sand.
A questioning murmur rose from the tiers. Such was Lod’s speed that none had seen him drop his sword and snatch the Jogli throwing knife from his belt.
The half-Nephilim swayed. His eyebrows rose in astonishment as he stared at the hilt protruding from his chest. Blood trickled from the wound and stained his shimmering garment.
In the lower tiers, giants stood in outrage. Several shouted. The beauties shrank from Moloch, while the First Born stared snake-like at Lod.
Lod knelt and picked up his small sword.
The half-Nephilim opened his mouth. “You… you had a knife.”
“Elohim gave it to me,” Lod said.
The half-Nephilim frowned in terrible puzzlement. Then he crashed upon his knees and blinked wildly.
Lod began to stalk nearer. “I remember the day you fell into the pit. You’d slain Tomas and his daughter before that. You had hunted us like animals, but you fell into our trap. We would have stoned you like any wild beast if your companions hadn’t arrived.”
“This cannot be,” the half-Nephilim whispered. “You’re only a man.”
The Bloodspiller with a spearhead tattoo toppled sideways and gasped like a carp thrown onto land. He slid his hand toward the fallen sword.
Lod roared, charged and killed the half-Nephilim with the stab of his blade. With four powerful hacks, Lod severed the neck. Then he grasped the tattooed head by its blond hair and ran at the giants. Blood dripped from the open mouth.
The giants shouted with rage.
Lod twirled the head twice and heaved it into the crowd.
Silence filled the mighty stadium. A man had slain one of the chosen and desecrated the corpse. It was blasphemy against the order of the Nephilim world.
The head hit with a thud and rolled at the feet of several giants.
Lod spotted one with a forked beard. The giant had a long, vile face. Lod recognized the Nephilim. It was his bride’s killer.
“You!” Lod roared. “Nephilim! I challenge you to battle. Let’s see if you fare any better than one of your half-breed sons.”
The fierce cry rang throughout the stunned stadium. It was a gargantuan boast spoken by a pit slave, a mere human, a thing thought by most to be hardly more than an animal.
Fierce elation gripped Lod. Elohim had let him slay a half-Nephilim. Surely, Elohim would deliver the Nephilim slayer of his wife into his hands. The belief intoxicated him.
“Do you fear me, O giant?” Lod shouted. “Do you dare to face a man?”
A trumpet pealed. The herald of Moloch stepped onto the dais. The trumpet had to blast a second and a third time before the now rumbling, glaring giants fell silent.
“Great Mimir the Wise,” the herald shouted across the stadium. “Will you descend onto the sand and butcher this gnat for your god?”
The one named Mimir the Wise stroked his forked beard. He was huge, fifteen-feet tall. He wore a leather corselet studded with iron knobs. He wore breeches and boots, and had lived for many a hundred years. He had shrewd eyes, filled with calculating evil. His renown was great.
“Divine Moloch,” Mimir said. His deep voice was several times louder than the herald’s. “There is a mystery here. The one you’ve named ‘gnat’ brims with the power of him above. How otherwise could he have achieved this infamy? My counsel is to feather his hide with arrows and be done with it.”
Moloch half rose from his throne as his perfect features flushed crimson. He spoke angrily to the herald.
The herald boomed: “We have not asked for your counsel, even though you are accounted wise. We command that you obliterate the gnat. Cut him into many pieces and quit this talk of false sky gods.”
The giants murmured among themselves. Mimir once again tugged at his forked beard. He looked to Moloch.
“Great One,” the giant said, “I beg you to consider this. When was the last time we bickered between ourselves before the beasts? When has an animal slain one of the chosen in your very own stadium? It has never occurred before. That is a sign that —”
Moloch raised his hand, and fire erupted from it. The fire burned blue, enveloped his hand without consuming it. He aimed the blue-fire hand at Mimir.
The giant bowed as greasy drops of fear rolled down his face. None wished to face the fire of Moloch of Flames. Mimir’s gaze then fell upon Lod. The giant’s features tightened with rage, until his eyebrows rose and wonder filled his face.
“You will not bewitch me, pit slave,” Mimir rumbled. He bent down and picked up a vast spear with a great bronze head.
Lod backed away as the giant moved to the rail. Lod had listened to the interchange. They feared him. It made his blue eyes burn with zeal. Elohim aided him. Even the Nephilim recognized it. Yet he had no more tricks left.
Mimir climbed down the wall and lowered himself onto the sand. He was huge, and the reach of that spear…
Lod backed away more. He had his shield, what little worth it would be. And he had a puny sword. He thought about hurling it, but that would be foolish. The sword had the wrong balance to throw and the giant would expect something like that.
Lod snarled to himself. He would have to dart past the spear, get inside the giant’s guard, and hew the Nephilim’s shins. The leather corselet hung low enough to protect Mimir’s thighs, and higher than that Lod couldn’t reach.
Lod raked a sweaty forearm across his lips. He needed water. He needed rest. Blood still oozed from his wounds. His lips twisted into a sneer. He had begged Elohim for a chance to face Inanna’s killer. Now he complained because he’d gotten his desire.
Lod kicked a bare heel at the sand and regarded Mimir. The giant was more than twice his height and could probably handle him as a warrior would a child.
“Do I know you?” Mimir asked.
“We’ve fought before, yes.”
At Inanna’s death, Lod had charged out the bedroom in crazed madness, a knife clutched in his fist. The Nephilim had swatted then with his sword, hit Lod with the flat of it. That had ended the fight because it had dashed Lod senseless. For weeks afterward, Lod had been unable to twist his neck, and there had been ringing in his ears even longer than that.
“It had something to do with a woman,” Mimir said with a frown.
“You slew my bride.”
“You spat on her corpse.”
Remembrance flickered in the giant’s eyes. “I told her to lie down, to surrender. She defied me, called me a demon. Yes, I slew her, the bitch, and her blood jetted onto my new Shinar cloak. She ruined its perfection.” Mimir cocked his head. “But I still don’t fully remember you.”
“I attacked you out of the bedroom where I’d been sick.”
“Did you?” The giant shook his head.
“You hit me with the flat of your sword,” Lod said through gritted teeth.
Mimir’s nostrils flared. “You were a gnat. I swatted and easily defeated you then. But today… there is fire in your heart, O man. And there is something more.”
Mimir gazed skyward, looked for a time to the right and then to the left. He grunted, regarded Lod anew.
Lod breathed deeply, trying to divine a plan, a way to defeat the monstrous giant.
Mimir gripped his spear and warily took several giant steps nearer.
Lod’s stomach knotted. His shield would not give him protection if the spear struck squarely. The razor-sharp, bronze head, backed by Mimir’s incredible weight and strength, would either punch through his shield and skewer him or hurl him viciously hard against the inner stadium wall. Even a glancing blow might obliterate the shield. There would be no shield bashing this fight. He could not stand toe-to-toe with the giant as he had against Barkos.
Lod glanced at his puny sword. He would have to strike with all his strength to drive the blade through the giant’s hardened leather armor. And to do that, he had to be very close.
Mimir shuffled nearer.
Lod backed away. Eglon had once told him to always charge. That backing up stole a man’s spirit. Lod indeed felt his courage drain away.
Maybe Mimir sensed this. The giant grinned. It was an awful thing.
“A warrior should not calculate the odds too carefully,” Mimir said. “Your bellows before… they seemed to show a wild heart. You fought well against the pit slave. You tricked the half-Nephilim, certainly. Still, that was a true cast, done under pressure. Now, however, your courage is exhausted. Now you will soon run howling in terror around the stadium. You will be yet another man who misjudged the true strength of a Nephilim.”
Mimir stopped, straightened and his longish features became wreathed with thought. Once more, his nostrils flared. Then he shook his head and chuckled dryly.
“Do you know, O man, that I almost considered tossing aside my spear? I wanted to encourage you, to see that wild spark one last time. Yet that is foolish. There truly is something more at work here today.” The giant grinned hideously and the calculating eyes became grim.
Lod’s eyes widened then, and with a great effort of will, he kept his gaze fixed on Mimir.
“What?” the giant said. “Hope has entered you. Tell me the reason.”
Lod swallowed in a dry throat. Hope indeed beat in his heart. Elohim aided him again. His bride’s killer had mocked him long enough, had lived on this world far too long.
“Men don’t have to cower to the Nephilim!” Lod shouted. “Men can unite, stand against them and win! We’re more than animals, more than beasts!”
“Do you hope to stir the crowd?” Mimir asked, a line in his forehead indicating puzzlement.
Lod pointed his sword at the giant. Maybe it was a small weapon, but he would use it with all his ability. “I defy you, giant, in the power and name of Elohim!”
Nephilim and half-Nephilim booed and catcalled. Moloch watched grimly.
“This day you will be given into my hands, Mimir the Wise!” Lod took a step toward the giant, and his courage blazed anew.
Mimir watched Lod closely, with the huge spear ready. Thus, the giant didn’t see Barkos heave himself onto his feet. Everyone had forgotten the downed and dying pit slave.
Lod, however, had seen Barkos shift his head toward him. Lod had seen Barkos’s shining eyes and he had understood.
Now Barkos stood swaying behind the giant. Blood covered the pit slave. Blood covered his torso, legs, arms and hands. Yet Barkos clutched his sword, even though his arm trembled violently.
Nephilim and half-Nephilim shouted a warning from the tiers.
Mimir frowned in greater puzzlement, and at the last moment, he seemed to understand. He jerked his head around and kicked out a leg. But it was the wrong leg.
Barkos the Pit Slave drove his sword into Mimir’s calf muscle. The dying slave stabbed deep, twisted the blade and heaved himself hard against Mimir.
The giant bellowed. He toppled, let go of his spear and swatted at Barkos. The pit slave yanked out his sword and slashed at the meaty hand. It was the last thing Barkos ever did. The huge bloody hand connected and hurled Barkos. A broken thing, the pit slave tumbled disjointedly across the sand.
Lod sprinted while all this occurred. He slipped his arm loose from the shield straps. The giant fell back onto the sands. Lod dropped his shield and grabbed his sword with two hands. He stabbed the blade into Mimir’s neck. The giant bolted upright with a roar. Lod scrambled fast as a leopard and clung to Mimir’s neck. Like a child on his father’s back, Lod pulled out the puny sword and ran the edge across the Nephilim’s throat. Then Lod slithered free and dropped as the Nephilim convulsively reached for him.
Blood gushed from the awful wound. The giant tried to speak. Failing, he lifted his gaze to Moloch on his throne. The bloody lips moved again. Mimir struggled to raise an arm. Then he slumped back. His horrible, wet wheezes were heard throughout the hushed stadium.
Guards held Lod by his blood-slicked arms. Others held their spears ready to slay him at the First Born’s command. They stood assembled before Moloch’s box.
Lod looked up, unbowed, with madness in his eyes. He’d beaten Nephilim today. He’d avenged Inanna. He was ready to die. He inhaled, expanded his chest and gave the First Born a slight nod to get it over with already.
With half-lidded eyes, Moloch watched Lod. Whatever fury might have been there before was now lizard-like stoicism. At last, Moloch spoke to the herald. The herald glanced at Moloch in surprise. Moloch stared into the herald’s eyes.
Stumbling, suddenly white with terror, the herald rushed to the dais. He glanced once at Lod and then shouted out to those waiting in the stadium.
“Today Mimir the Wise dared challenge me! Mimir died. He died by the seeming hand of this fierce slave. Appearances can deceive! I rule in Nod. My will is supreme.” The herald took a deep breath and boomed, “I deemed that Mimir the Unwise should die for his arrogance! Because the fierce slave acted as my hand, the slave shall live.”
The giants watched in silence, many brooding. The ordinary humans in the highest tiers nodded and began to murmur to one another.
The herald glanced at Moloch.
The First Born lounged on his throne in apparent boredom.
“I am merciful to those I use,” the herald cried, “even to those too dull to understand from where their help came.” The herald regarded Lod. “Speak, slave, and admit that it was I who aided you.”
Lod glanced at Moloch on his throne. The First Born still appeared disinterested, but Lod knew better. His chest hurt suddenly. He believed he understood. Say that the First Born had aided him instead of Elohim and he could likely become a pit slave and live in relative ease. Refuse to lie… and face the First Born’s wrath.
Lod gathered saliva in his bone-dry mouth, and he spat on the sand.
The First Born’s eyes imperceptibly narrowed. He flicked a finger.
The watching herald nodded, and he faced the crowd. “Because the slave was my tool, he shall live. Because he is an ungrateful beast, he shall toil in the mines of Tartarus. The beast is condemned to a living death. Such is the will of Divine Moloch.”
Lod stumbled as guards shoved him from behind. The First Born was cunning. He tried to quash the idea that Elohim had aided him. And by letting him live, the First Born kept any legends from forming by his unjust death. Would Moloch allow him life in the mines?
Lod glanced a last time at the First Born on his throne. A grim chill swept through him. He understood that Moloch meant to have him murdered in the mines.
Lod stopped, and he fully turned toward the exalted throne. For a moment, he dared stare the First Born in the eye. And he saw something completely unexpected, a hint of fear.
Lod squared his shoulders, threw back his head and marched for the exit. A hint of fear in the First Born’s eyes — it meant to Lod that Elohim was not yet finished with him.
“The Pit Slave” is part of Lost Civilizations, a six-book series: Giants, Leviathan, The Tree of Life, Gog, Behemoth and The Lod Saga.
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