The stone hallway was dark, the air heavy with the smell of aged sweat and the metallic staleness of drying blood. The battles for the day had already begun, the line that had reached the streets of eager participants slowly moving into the belly of the Coliseum. Every hour the line seemed to move slightly faster, as the young and old eventual changed their minds as the day wore on and those that had already fought did not return for praise. As early afternoon neared, those that remained were the serious combatants that had weighed their options and settled on the Coliseum as their best hope for attaining their desires.
Aeron was one of the youngest that remained, his nerve unwavering no matter what anyone said to him. All morning as the line thinned of those whose cowardice took over, those that walked from the front of the line took the walk of shame back to where it ended, spoke the reasons they were walking away. More than one had physically stopped their decent from the battle ground to speak to Aeron and attempted to use his youth as reason for him to leave. He refused to listen and either politely declined their advice or told them he was there for his family. If he won he would become famous and elevate his family. If he failed than there would be one less mouth to feed and one less child for his parents to care for. Not a single person could counter his motives once they heard his reasons, because they understood and knew that he was being selfless in his actions.
The darkness of the tunnel abated, Aeron could see the daylight that shone on to the arena. The metallic smell strengthened and the sound of clashing weapons became audible, frightening off a few more souls around him. He could now see the iron gates that separated the living and the dying, the mortals and the gods that tested them. The cheering of the crowd made the loose pebbles on the ground shake as their voices ebbed and flowed with the clashing of metal. A long cheer suddenly came from the crowd that held for minutes; blood had been drawn or someone had fallen. Negativity and jeers grew in them now while the cheering continued to resonate between the Coliseum stone. Another mortal had fallen and the line moved a couple feet forward.
A guard who controlled the flow of challengers came forward and pointed to Aeron and the two men in from of him to walk with him to one side. Pointing again to a trove of weapons, he motioned for them to take their choice of any item present and prepare for their individual matches. The two men in front of Aeron were older then himself and lingered among the weapons, picking some up to test their weight or the straightness of a blade that seemed to have never been used. Perhaps in their older age, they believed they held more knowledge than the younger Aeron who has spied an older blade whose leather grip was slightly worn. It was an old sword but has been well looked after for the blade was polished enough one could make out strange etchings down the center of the steel onto the leather.
Aeron gripped the leather gingerly and placed the palm of his left hand flat against the unusually cool blade, admiring the workmanship, viewing the weapon like a piece of artwork.
“You’re better off with a newer blade there youngin.’ They don’t make weapons like that anymore for a reason,” one of the men suggested to him, while the other nodded in agreement.
Taking a moment to consider their advice, Aeron countered, “and yet, the same time and effort that was put into the creation of this sword was the same process as the weapons our opponents use to achieve victory on a daily basis. Perhaps you would give the same advice on those older weapons as well?”
The men huffed, having been scolded by a youth but refrained from answering him; there were more pressing matters that required their focus. Aeron’s vision had become focused on the elder blade and attempted to make sense of the etchings. Even if they had spoken, he would not have heard them, let alone acknowledge them with an additional response. What finally drew him from his thoughts was the crowd roaring with another fallen mortal. The two men had disappeared, having already entered the arena and, by the sound of it, had gone out on their backs. The lingering guard opened the gate and motioned for Aeron to enter.
Standing at the end of the tunneled hallway looking out at the dirt arena, Aeron saw the columns of massive stones that held the stands of thousands of people. The grandeur almost seemed laughable and probably would have if it were not for the drying blood that was splattered and pooling in every corner in sight. Aeron took a breath, gripped the hilt of his sword and finished his decent to the middle of the arena. The crowds roar was deafening, their cries for more blood and death almost deranged in a passion for victors and losers. In the center of it all stood Tracede and his Spring Trident, both still untarnished by the previous combatants. In the confusion of sound, smell, and grandeur, Aeron wondered if the Champion had the opportunity to cleanse himself or if he was truly that strong that no previous opponent had even come close to reaching him, let alone injuring him.
Tracede seemed intrigued by Aeron, it was often that younger men came to stand before him but none that stood so calmly while remaining confident, and not with the youthful air of cockiness. If one were close enough, they may have been able to see that Tracede was impressed, if only slightly, by the young man’s presence. “Your name,” he asked.
Aeron was momentarily surprised that that Champion addressed him directly and wanted to know his name. Was this common for the Champions to ask the names of their impending victims? “Aeron of the Floating Isle. I was born here and have lived here with my family my entire life. I am here for them, not myself, I want something better for them and my hope is that by being here and contending in the Coliseum, those wishes can become a reality.”
Tracede smiled, an expression that seemed completely contrary to their situation and especially considering the number of lives he had already taken that day alone. “Certainly one of the more honourable pursuits a combatant could have. I hope, for your safe and your family’s, you put up a good fight. Be memorable, if not victorious.” He gripped his Trident and moved fluidly into a battle stance, “whenever you’re ready Aeron.”
A strange sort of confidence grew in Aeron from his exchange with the Champion. He had not told his reasons for pity or favouritism but to earn his respect and receive the battle he hoped for, and not a simple exchange of blows and blood between a seasoned Champion and a self-motivated mortal seeking fame. Aeron raised his on sword with both hands and prepared to come at his opponent. Prepared for whatever may come next, Aeron lunged at Tracede, connecting metal on metal, beginning the first of four battles for his life and future.