The First Trial of Solanus

by Tim Gibson

          It started out in life as the crater where a Messenger of the Firmament fell from the heavens and struck Imtrund, blasting a big hole in the ground. The young man – handsome, tall, relaxed of demeanor and with magnificent eagle wings sprouting from his back – brushed himself off and delivered his message to a young woman of the forest. On the cusp of womanhood she had to decide between worship of Obeliskos, the god of law, or Skandakor, the reptile god of atrocities.

          The Messenger urged her to do the right thing and flew back to the Firmament where a minor war was brewing among the gods. Obeliskos promised her knowledge. The reptile god promised her power. The young woman, sadly, chose Skandakor. She found out the hard way that one could pray their way into an evil religion but they had to fight their way out. In a way it worked out – when she was older she repented and built a temple to Obeliskos, strengthening the god of law during some very tense times and using the power she had gained from Skandakor to do good in the world.

          That was just history. Decades later, as the War of the Firmament brewed and every city-state girded for war, some enterprising bandits decided that the life of the highwayman was profitless and too dangerous. Even other highwaymen attacked them on sight, which seemed like fratricide. One of them stumbled onto the old crater and had an idea – make a gladiator arena. As ideas go it had merit.

          Pressing some locals into service – whether they liked it or not – the highwaymen lined the sides of the crater with blocks to form seats. They got the idea from terraced hillsides they had seen outside Ashilo. They flattened the center and installed a dozen marble columns in a grid pattern.

          “Won’t it block the view of the spectators?” asked one of the more gruesome thief/entrepreneurs.

          “No,” snarled the guard/village idiot. “We are going to be the first arena to have archers. The other people need something to hide behind.”

          When the arena was complete they spread the word. The younger brigands traveled to nearby cities and posted advertisements in the inns describing the gold to be won in the new arena. The one female brigand, whom no one in the group touched, spread the word that she would sleep with any gladiator that won a battle.  Her name was Svetlanakos. Beautiful, slender, friendly and with a body to die for, she told the truth. She was a succubus – a daughter of the demon lord Ixo – and anyone she slept with was in a state of sadness for a few days after. Coincidentally she appeared well-fed and content.

          Imtrund was a planet with a rich history. As the planet cooled, millions of years ago, life force from the planet turned into gods. The laws of physics were different on every planet and on Imtrund magic was a force to be reckoned with. Yet everything was maintained in balance. The power of the good gods would always be the same as that of the evil gods. That there was only one good god just meant that Obeliskos had to hustle more.

          Everyone knew that war was coming. All one had to do was build a temple and the god would appear, making promises and extracting concessions. Naturally bargains made with the evil gods rarely turned out well. Cities built walls around themselves and maintained armies. Mages trained in secret lest they be coerced into serving some prince or baron before they were ready. A few Thermomages terrorized the land, claiming to seek their manifest destiny, whatever that meant, until they bumped into each other and Imtrund had 2 fewer fire mages to deal with.

          The Ashilo Arena – so named because it was just west of the city of Ashilo – attracted a lot of young men seeking to escape poverty. There were very few options on Imtrund. Learn a trade and suffer for several years of study, become a fisherman and eventually become food for some giant fish, or farm the land, hoping no king, monster or princess came by and took everything while muttering about taxes.

          The arena only had 1 rule. A gladiator had to give up his freedom for a year, spending his evenings locked up so that he could not flee if things got rough. Essentially a slave, he or she would fight for their lives and regain their freedom plus 10 gold pieces after a year of bloodshed. That was about the amount of money a farmer made in 5 years of hard work, and being a farmer had its own dangers. Humanity was a minor race on Imtrund and being out in the field all day could get one killed. Farmers may have seen a field of carrots but sinraptors saw a field of humans.

          The other reason so many young men wanted to sell themselves into a year of indentured combat was the succubus Svetlanakos. In an Ashilo tavern she openly promised a night of love each time a gladiator won a fight. She meant it too. Slim, beautiful and with a body that swayed when she walked, no one – not even the other brigands – knew what she was. Sadly, the gladiators learned the hard way to resist her advances or face a few days of weakness and inexplicable sadness.

          In the far north, a minotaur from the Forest of Grief learned to hunt with a spear under his parent’s careful tutelage. Solanus was a muscular young minotaur with a heavy set of horns on his head and 2 strong arms from the rocks his parents made him move while growing up. During childhood in the Forest of Grief, half his day was carrying rocks and half was reading books. He knew the insects, flowers and animals of Imtrund and could debate philosophy, history and military strategy. His parents knew there was no future for him in the forest. The race of man was reproducing faster than the minotaurs and the 2 races didn’t always get along.

          One race had a bull’s head on a human body and the other, while more physically attractive, loved gold and power and had little respect for nature, trees and the peaceful happiness of a life spent in the forest. Race relations were not helped when it was discovered that the 2 races could interbreed. When human women started giving birth to minotaur children – the offspring of a human and a minotaur was always a minotaur – hunting parties of humans from the city of Xonda entered the woods and killed any lone minotaurs they found.

          Solanus’s father was killed by one such hunting party. Gathering up his spear, Solanus pushed past his anxious mother and went out in search of the human city, intent on revenge. One look at the size of the human city – stone walls, towers, keeps, archer parapets and armored knights – and he turned around and went home, telling his mother he changed his mind and maybe wanted to be a writer.

          That was when word reached the Forest of Grief, via an Ashilo caravan, of an arena where anyone could enter and win fame and coin. Telling himself that he was going to get rich to support his mother he bade her goodbye and hired on with the caravan, secretly hoping to win fame and glory. The deal was that if he protected the caravan back to Ashilo they would give him 7 gold coins, a ridiculously large sum for a minotaur raised in the woods.

          The caravan was attacked by sinraptors as they wound their way south. Essentially lizards that walked on muscular hind legs, their arms were big enough to wield swords. Unlike lizardmen who walked upright like a man, sinraptors walked horizontally like a prehistoric lizard, their tails balancing their centers of gravity as they hunted in packs.

          The caravan had archers but their arrows glanced off the sinraptor’s emerald scales. It was up to Solanus to slay them, driving his wood spear deep into their bodies, kicking others away as they tried to pile on him. Each was the size of a man, strong and hungry for meat. That was their weakness – they weren’t the smartest of creatures and would stop in the middle of a battle to eat fresh carcasses.

          The pack of wild raptors were winning until they took down 2 archers. While the pack stopped to tear apart the fallen men Solanus picked up one of their swords and slew each one, mostly with elegant decapitations. He had a gift for sword-fighting he had not known about.

          The caravan owners gushed over how wonderful he was and the march south resumed. A week later a lone woman stood in front of them, clad only in pink velvet robes, halting the entire caravan with her slender body and an ear-to-ear smile. Solanus knew a mage when he saw one. In a way it was everyone’s fear – a lone mage making a power play. How to defeat such a foe?

          “This is my forest,” said the young woman. “Kindly leave the gifts on the ground and continue on your way.” She raised her hand and a fire elemental sprang into being. Like a sheet of living flame the beast – an ancient spirit only temporarily given a body of fire by the magician – slid forward, igniting the grass and pushing the front guards back. The archers fired arrows into it, the shafts turning to charcoal as they entered its body.

          Why attack the fire elemental? Solanus knew how Elemental mages worked from his long years of reading. They located one of Imrund’s spirits, gave it a body and put it to work. Even if the humans doused the fire elemental with water the mage would only summon another.

          Solanus turned and fled into the forest, circling around with every ounce of speed his muscular legs could provide. He jumped over roots, ducked under tree branches and ran through a nest of forest vipers, their snapping mouths missing him by inches.

          Moving in behind the mage he advanced as quietly as possible but he stepped on a branch and she turned, her hands already summoning a second fire elemental in front of him. He took one step to the right and threw his sword, the hurtling blade twisting end over end. It impaled her and the 2 fire elementals lost interest in killing, wandering off to explore the world and set things on fire until they returned to their incorporeal form. As he retrieved his sword from her corpse the caravan leaders gushed over his courage.

          The travel through the grasslands between Xonda and Indo was uneventful, with lots of walking and a few battles with some prehistoric reptiles that smelled the humans and wanted to eat them. Solanus circled around them, keeping the dangerous end away from him and sliced at the tendons of their rear legs. It was the way his father had taught him to kill bears and large forest creatures. It was called the Forest of Grief, not the Forest of Stuffed Animals.

          When the reptiles staggered from Solanus’s tender ministrations the archers stood back and put arrows into their necks. Everyone had steak the rest of the trip – the caravan leaders anticipating a fortune for the food in Ashilo – and again they complimented the minotaur on his skills. He was pleased and his ego grew. In his mind there was now no question that he would survive a year in the arena and win his 10 gold pieces. He would build his mother a small castle in the middle of the Forest of Grief and even if he adventured across Imtrund she could defend her home without him.

          They reached the city of Indo in one piece. A beautiful city with amazing architecture, they lingered only long enough to sell some reptile steak and buy smithing tools. Ashilo controlled 2 copper mines and was buying up tools as fast as they could.

          From Indo they could not march south to Dodrost despite it being a straight line south to the next city. The way was the most important trade route on Imtrund and for weeks an Aquamage had been battling it out with a small green dragon to see who would control it. Knights from Xonda had ridden south to set the matter straight and had gotten killed minutes into their first battle. Solanus’s caravan went east and entered the Desert of Isolation, swinging southeast through broken rock, cacti, rolling dunes and serpent-infested sands. It was there that Solanus shone.

          A metallic blue dragon – a very small one, about the size of a large horse – flew overhead, circling and staring with a menacing reptilian gaze. Solanus stared back, his hand on his sword, gazing in pleasure at his first dragon. Even if he died today it would be with a smile on his face, so wonderful were the sights he had seen with the caravan. It was the first time he had ever left his forest.

          Metallic dragons were lonely, solitary creatures, each thinking they owned the entire desert in which they lived and wanting only to ride the thermals and snack on desert fauna once a day. When it landed the archers fitted arrows to bows and waited for a signal from their officer. Since he was being paid – and with his sense of honor overriding his sense of self-preservation – Solanus walked forward to see what the dragon wanted. He had no authority to negotiate and only planned on being a go-between for his employers.

          “You trespass in my desert,” snarled the dragon, opening its long crocodilian snout to display rows of serrated, triangular teeth. “So you work for me now. Are we going to have to establish which of us is the dominant entity here?”

          Imtrund had a rich history of art, literature, music and sculptures. Rhinorns made works of art out of dung. Dragons assembled art galleries in caves and brought people in to see it, let them marvel, then killed them. Rat catchers in Ashilo often wrote novels at night, producing them by hand – since there was no other way on Imtrund to make books – and selling them. Even the lowliest peasant in the mud could speak eloquently, so rich was literature across the planet’s continent.

          “We have steak,” replied Solanus. “It is all yours. Gorge yourself sir, then put us to work. I know you will be a kind master.” Solanus offered the prehistoric reptile steak to the dragon – all of it.

          At first the dragon glanced between his food and the minotaur, quite obviously suspicious. After a while the dragon focused on his meal, chewing noisily, happy to have something other than desert rats and Sand Grylds whose tentacles were nutritious but rubbery.      

          When the dragon was distracted Solanus stepped forward, drew his sword, raised it and cut downwards in the span of about one and a half seconds. The cut severed the dragon’s neck. Refinement of Dragon Bone was known as an elixir of immortality on Imtrund and the caravan leaders praised Solanus’s quick thinking and swift arm. Silently he wondered if he was going to get some of the dragon bone or at least some gold. While only a mage or Alchemist knew how to make it, drinking it was like a fountain of youth.

          Everyone pitched in to strip the skeleton of flesh and the bones were wrapped up and placed in a secure wagon. The rest of the trip through the Desert of Isolation was skirmishes with lizardmen, some human brigands who really didn’t know how to fight and a fireball attack by a Sand Gryld mage. Solanus grabbed a shield from one of the more cowardly human guards and blocked the fireballs, liquid flames splashing his arms and face while the archers laid down a pattern of arrows, one volley after another. The Sand Gryld ran away on its tentacles, screaming like a woman.

          Again the caravan leaders praised his work. One of the female archers was a witch and healed up Solanus. She could do nothing about his scars and he only smiled at her. “They will remind me of this fine journey.”

          Emerging from the desert they could go west across the grasslands, southwest through the Lithic Plains or south through the Turquoise Forest and stop at Ghyst. The caravan leaders debated it openly, letting anyone speak. The grasslands offered the fastest travel yet they would be visible for miles, a tempting target for brigands, Ka’Vodga and any local princes who decided to tax a passing caravan at sword-point. The Lithic Plains offered the slowest travel and might break the wagon wheels but there were no monsters there since there was no plant or animal life to eat. The Turquoise Forest had trails through it and hence offered a moderate pace for the caravan but was rife with sinraptors. Eventually they asked Solanus’s opinion.

          “Normally I would not consider my needs,” he said. “But if we move through the Turquoise Forest I can challenge some sinraptors to combat, now that I have such a sharp sword. As a young bull they hunted my family in the Forest of Grief.”

          Because he could not read human body language yet Solanus did not understand the meaning behind their sly smiles. They traveled south through the Turquoise Forest, Solanus roaming around the caravan, flushing out sinraptors and killing them, giving them to the caravan masters without any thought of negotiating more gold. At night tiny butterfly-winged people came out to buzz around them, pretending to give them blessings and actually stealing a few coins here and there from the sleepers.

          When they were a day away from breaking out of the forest the caravan leaders broke camp, for the first time not showing haste. “Did you want to go out and kill some sinraptors, Solanus?” they asked.

          “I do,” he said.

          “Then by all means go,” they smiled. “Take the whole day if you wish.”

          In the Forest of Grief he had had only wood weapons – the minotaurs were a poor people and bereft of coins that could be traded for good human steel. Now he had a chance to go out and test a steel blade against his ancestral enemy. He spent the day hunting them, dragging back the fattest one to give to the caravan leader. They seemed disappointed when he returned with the sinraptor over his shoulder. Later he would realized they had given him the day off in hopes that he would be killed by the sinraptors.

          A week’s march brought them to Ghyst, a beautiful shoreline city largely innocent of the intrigue, combat, politics, murder and plots-within-plots of the larger cities. The caravan did some business in Ghyst and then it was off, back to Ashilo. There the guards, archers and the lone minotaur lined up to be paid.

          The caravan masters addressed Solanus.

          “Well, we lost an archer from the first sinraptor attack, while you were a guard. So you’re down to 6 gold pieces. You ran away when the Elemental Mage attacked, before finding your courage and coming back. So you’re down to 5 gold pieces. You gave our reptile steak to the blue dragon without asking so you’re down to 4 gold pieces. You ruined a shield blocking a fireball from the Sand Gryld, so now you’re down to 3 gold pieces. In the Turquoise Forest the caravan halted for a day so you could hunt sinraptors, so now you’re down to 2 gold pieces. Subtract another coin for minotaur insolence and your pay is 1 gold coin. Take it and go.”

          Putting his hand on his sword only made the archers – all 30 of them – fit an arrow to their strings. He accepted his coin and turned west. Soon he would be a gladiator and would not need the deceptive humans to make his mark in the world.

          He came to the Ashilo Arena. It was lovely. A crater, easily 200 feet wide, had been converted to an amphitheater by installing terraced seating all around it. The bottom was reasonably flat and held about 20 marble pillars, each one fat and tall. A low wall had been built around the crater so no one could sneak in. A few buildings rested a stone’s throw away, bars over the windows. Solanus walked up to the entrance and spoke to the guards, rolling his single gold coin between his fingers in nervousness. His dealings with humans had never gone well.

          The brigands jointly owned the arena, administering it together and only occasionally fighting. They had whittled their number down from 98 to 47, just through arguments and the normal disagreements when a family runs a business together. One of the brigands, the entrepreneur/town simpleton of the group, smiled warmly. “My good minotaur, I will take you. You give up your freedom for one year, fighting occasionally. You keep your possessions, including the sword at your side. If you are still alive after 1 year you get 10 gold pieces and your freedom. As a gladiator you will be able to work anywhere, training the King’s men in Xonda, working as a bodyguard for a mage, etc. You could even start your own gladiator arena. The cost is 1 gold coin.”

          Where else could a minotaur, raised in the forest and forced to sleep in a hollow tree trunk whenever a dragon walked nearby, turn 1 gold coin into 10? He turned his last coin over and stood still while they clapped him in irons. A minute later 2 grimy, weak, scraggly men showed up, emaciated and sick-looking, wanting to become gladiators. “Is there a fee?” they asked.

          “No,” said the brigand as he clapped them in irons, “just die like men when the minotaur rips your lungs out.”

          Solanus’s first fight was that evening – just enough time for the brigands to advertise in Ashilo and get a group of citizens to show up, each paying a copper coin for permission to sit in the arena. True to their word they left him with his sword, taken in the Forest of Grief from a sinraptor he killed with a spear his own mother had carved him. No one would take his sword from him and they didn’t try.

          His opponents were the 2 weak, scraggly men who had joined for free. By now Solanus understood men – and finances – and figured the brigands didn’t want to feed 2 men who were never going to win anyway. Life and death were a natural cycle in the Forest of Grief where death was always a moment away. Minotaurs didn’t see killing as wrong – they were a peaceful race of hunters but one had to kill in order to eat. The trick was not to waste any of the animal one killed.

          Drawing his sword and advancing, he flicked away their blades, easily deflecting their attacks. He was strong enough that his good, solid ancient sword felt light in his hand, while the 2 sickly men could not muster a good swing if their lives had depended on it. Not wanting to take away their lives too soon he blocked for a while, giving them a bit more of life before he sent them to the Forest of the Dead.

          One of them grabbed a handful of sand and threw it in Solanus’s face, the minotaur turning his head and easily avoiding it. He killed that man first, feeling bad but honoring the traditions of his people which was to never shirk from battle. The second man swung furiously, hacking away with the sword like it was an axe. Solanus let him tire himself out.

          “Be still, good human,” said the minotaur. “Turn your back to me, close your eyes and let your last thoughts be of loved ones or the endless blue sky.”

          “You are a kind beast, great minotaur,” said the human. He turned his back, his sword tip dipping toward the ground. Solanus waited a few seconds then stepped forward. The skinny human spun and swung one last strike, a look of fear in his wild eyes. Solanus put him down as painlessly as one could with a thrust through the heart.

          Occasional fight? Perhaps the brigands didn’t know what the word occasional meant. An hour later Solanus fought an ice elemental. The brigands hired an Ashilo mage – a beautiful young woman with a wild laugh and thick blond hair – to summon it in the arena. It was a hard fight, Solanus chipping away at it, breaking pieces off until finally, his hands freezing and his sword cold as ice, the elemental broke apart and a voluptuous female spirit whisked upwards from the shards to disappear in the air.

          They gave him an hour’s rest, an apple and a glass of cold beer and then he was back in the arena. A cage was dragged in by slaves and placed on the sandy floor. By now half the seats were filled with raving and laughing spectators. A slave gingerly stuck a key in the lock, turned it and swung the cage door open. He turned to run but was not fast enough – a giant spider jumped from the cage and sank its fangs into his body. In less than a minute the desiccated human was wrapped in webbing and pushed aside.

          Every instinct told Solanus to target the legs. Impaling the great belly of the spider would just get him killed by those gnashing fangs. His plan was to remove its legs and then dispatch it, letting it hunt for eternity in the Forest of the Dead. The fangs dripped green poison and the bizarre ocular eyes stared right at him with an unmistakable intelligence. Solanus’s sword fell from his grasp. The sound of his now-beloved blade hitting the sand woke him up. There were small spiders in the Forest of Grief that hypnotized their prey and he had felt this before while facing them down, the rest of the forest animals watching to see who would be victorious. There was no time to retrieve his sword. The spider leaped at him, its 8 legs scuttling, its eyes boring into his soul.

          Solanus dove to the side and retreated behind a pillar. Every time he moved out from behind it the spider sent a stream of webbing at him, occasionally shrieking in some arachnid tongue. Moving from pillar to pillar – the bloodthirsty humans roaring in pleasure – he neared his sword.

          It was just a few feet away. Thick, sticky webs clung between most of the pillars and he was rapidly running out of space yet he had to retrieve his blade. Solalnus broke into a run, dove – webbing streaming through the space he had occupied seconds earlier – grabbed his sword and rolled to his feet. The spider leaped at him and he moved to the side, slicing off one of its legs.

          He ducked behind a pillar and the spider shot webbing again, spraying the space beside him. The arachnid traveled through its own webbing without getting stuck, something he could not do, giving it an advantage. By staying in one of the last clear spots he sliced off another of its legs as it advanced.

          What he wanted to do was to climb onto one of the columns and jump down, impaling the beast on his blade. He could not, however, on account of the sticky webbing on the columns and because he had no way of getting to the top without assistance. Instead he waited, sword held high, knowing he would get just a split second to deliver the blow.

          The spider staggered toward him, fangs gnashing together, and tried to bite him. Again he dodged to the side and took off another leg. The spider collapsed and he slew it with a downward thrust into its head.

          Solanus was clapped in irons – brigand archer watching warily, lest the minotaur try to escape – and brought back to the prison building that was to be his home for a year. As reward he received a platter of spiced meats, cheese, crushed lobster with herbs, a dish of tiny, live octopi, a raw carnosaur egg and a bottle of red wine.

          “For the gladiator,” said the guard as he departed and locked the door.

          Solanus had never been so happy in his life.