The crowd in the stadium was cheering so loudly that John could barely hear the Master of Ceremonies as he started to announce which one of the five candidates on the dais would be selected. John glanced nervously at the other candidates. All of them wore gladiatorial colors, and all had faced injury and death in combat with equanimity, but the fear of not being chosen for this ultimate honor had brought all of them to limit of their nerve. It didn’t help that the MC was milking the moment for all the excitement he could extract from the crowd.
“… and each of these candidates represents the finest competitors our nation has produced. Each of them is a hero, blooded in the arena but only one of these paragons can be our highest champion, so it is with the greatest pride and honor that I now introduce to you the champion chosen by our glorious Council of Lords, the citizen who will carry the honor of our ancient traditions to a righteous victory over our traditional enemy, the new Grand Champion of the Nation … John ‘Barefoot’ de Bradford, Senior Gladiator!”
The other candidates all took a moment to silently wish death and destruction (or at least immediate disqualification) on John, then crowded around him to offer congratulations. John gave a terrific yell, put a maniacal grin on his face, and did a quick, impromptu dance before the MC could grab him to shake his hand.
The 7th Lancer Brigade (“Demon Clowns”) were assembled in formation in front of the reviewing stand, from which their commanding officer, General Jean-Luc Surgelés was addressing them. After the usual Orders of the Day the general began one more announcement.
“The selection of the All-Forces Single-Combat Champion to represent our nation against our great adversary has been made. Nearly ten thousand of our fellows under arms were considered for this highest military mission, and I’m proud to say that five of the final 30 candidates came from this brigade. But there was one of those five who outclassed all the others, and I’m delighted to call him up here to receive his orders for detached duty in training and preparation for the mission of his career. Lieutenant Wil “Crusher” Wiezen, please report to the reviewing stand.”
As Will marched to the stand the general led the entire brigade in a cheer, and announced that in honor of Wil’s selection the brigade would be given the rest of the day off as soon as the assembly was over. His face didn’t change expression at all, but he grinned inside as he realized he was going to get very drunk tonight without paying for a single drink.
“You understand, when you exit the portal into the combat area, you’ll be changed. We’re not sure exactly how; the instructions we get from beyond the gate are a little vague, but you should still have two arms, two legs, and a head, and you’ll be armed with familiar weapons and armor,” the training instructor said.
“I’ve got it,” John said, with some irritation, “Tell me something new.”
“All right, how about this secret: no one of our combatants has ever returned through the portal. We don’t know if they’ve all been killed, or what happened to them; some years we get word back that our warrior won, and some years we’re told theirs did, but no one comes back.”
John was upset by this news, but didn’t have any time to think about it or ask questions.
“It’s time,” said the instructor, and threw upon the iron door that covered the portal. John squinted against the glare of the rainbow colors that filled the 4 meter circle of the portal, hesitated for a moment to ready himself, and stepped in. There was a sensation of resistance to his movements for a second, as if the portal was filled with glue, and then he was through.
Opening his eyes wide he saw he was in the open, in a dimly lit landscape of rocks and small hills. In the middle distance were what looked like streams of hot magma flowing from molten lakes through rock berms and tall calderas. The air was full of smoke and sparks from the lava, and the stench of sulfur, and he coughed as the dry, hot air sucked the moisture from his mouth and throat.
Looking down, he froze for a moment when he discovered that his skin was now green. When he started to move his left hand to touch green skin on his right thigh he realized that both hands were encumbered; the left with a short-handled polearm with an axe blade at the end, and the right with an oblong shield. He was partially armored, with no protection except heavy boots for his legs and none for his lower arms.
“Oh, great,” he thought to himself as he peered through the smoke for a shape or movement that would announce his opponent, “I’m an Orc, and I get to fight in Hell.”
Wil stopped to examine himself as soon as he passed through the portal. He didn’t appear to have changed much physically, though he was sure that he hadn’t had a two-day beard before. In place of his battledress uniform, he was wearing dark purple shorts and a tee shirt with red sleeves and a large caricature of the Demon Clowns unit patch. He had no shoes, no helmet, and no armor. On the ground next to him was a long spear or short land with a narrow V-shaped blade on a metal shaft.
“How are you getting on?” said a voice behind him. He spun around and dropped to a crouch, grabbing the shaft of the spear.
“Surely you’ve seen a cat before,” said the voice, which was coming out of the mouth of a very large cat standing not 3 meters away and smiling at him.
“I didn’t know that cats could grin,” said WIl, “Let alone that they could be 2 meters long, have the hind legs of a horse, the wings of an eagle, and unicorn horns in the center of their foreheads.”
“You don’t get out much, do you?” asked the cat. It was clearly a rhetorical question, for the cat didn’t wait for an answer, but continued, “I’m your mount for this little contest of yours. You have had cavalry experience, I hope.”
Wil was taken aback by the question, and then somewhat insulted. “I’m a Senior Lieutenant of Cavalry, I’ll have you know, and I’ve had continual ratings of “Exceeds Expectations” on all my reviews since I was commissioned and I commanded a squad of heavy cavalry in the Battle of the Hump.”
“Good. If you can hold onto a rope, you might actually survive this. Climb on.” The cat turned so that WIl could see a narrow rein on the cat’s back just behind its head. The rein was attached to a harness around the cat’s neck and shoulders. There was no saddle or stirrups, and no bit or bridle either.
“How do I steer?” asked Wil.
“Just tell me what you need, and I’ll do it. Be sure to clamp your legs tight around me; if you ask for an Immelman turn I’ll give you one, and if you’re not holding on tight you’re sure to fall off. I’m not going to try and catch you.”
“My enemy will have the same problems, won’t he?” Wil asked when he’d settled down and found a comfortable position for the spear.
“Oh no,” said the cat, “He won’t have any problem with steering. He doesn’t get a mount, so he’ll be running around on the ground like a mouse for the catching. Of course, he’s got armor. Hope you don’t have a problem with heights.”
With that, the cat ran towards a drop off a short distance away. Will found himself rocking back and forth because the cat’s equine hind legs were a little longer than the feline paws on his front legs. But that ended quickly as the cat reached the drop and jumped off, spreading its wings and soaring up into the red gloom. Wil gulped but managed to hold his last meal down as the cat climbed above the nearest caldera and started down on its other side. His left hand clamped around on the spear shaft in a convulsive grip; he could feel the checking on the handle dig into his palm.
“Hang on tight, now,” the cat called back to him, “Your prey is right down there.”
A bright white light suddenly shone down on John, momentarily blinding him. He threw his hand up to shield his eyes and scanned the land around him outside the cone of the light. He thought he saw gleams of reflected white light not far off, as of reflections from the eyes of a crowd of spectators, but as he squinted to examine them closer he heard the sound of something moving through the air behind him. He threw himself to the ground and rolled over his axe, bringing it up to block any attack. The light moved with him, making everything more than a few meters away look black, but illuminating him. Looking up he saw another light following the source of the sound.
The sound was caused by the flight of the winged cat, with Wil mounted on its back. The cat flew away from John to a height of about 50 meters, then turned and dove towards him.
John stood up and raised his axe high with the edge facing the cat. He readied his shield to block Wil’s spear. Wil gave a yell as his spear slid off the shield.
The cat dodged John’s axe blow and turned to kick John in the chest with a hind hoof. The blow knocked John down and drove the breath out of his lungs. As he fell, his head hit a rock, and he lost consciousness.
Wil looked back at John’s body and gave another yell, telling the cat, “Land and let’s finish him!” The cat turned and dove again; at the last moment before crashing into John it turned up into a stall and landed in front of him. The maneuver caught Will by surprise; he fell off the cat’s back and landed in the dust face up, stunned.
The cat turned to Wil and grinned at him, showing the length of its fangs. Then it raised one paw over Wil’s face and extended a thumb from the inside edge. Reaching back towards its belly with the paw it opened a pack attached to its harness and removed a roll of gray tape and a small waterproof bag.
“Don’t move,” said the cat. “I can gore you with my horn before you can get to your feet.” Wil lay silently, watching for an opening to make an escape. The cat taped Wil’s feet together, then took some strips of smoked meat from the bag and taped them to Wil’s sides.
“The tape on your feet is temporary,” the cat said over its shoulder as it walked over to John. “I’ll take it off in a bit, to give you a running chance to get away. But I want to have some fun first.”
As the cat started to tape John in the same way, his eyes opened and he looked up at the cat uncertainly.
“What’s going on?” John asked.
“Surely,” the cat replied, “you’ve heard that cats like to play with their food before they eat it?” Then it raised it’s head and shouted, “I CAN HAZ BACON-PERSON!”