by C. A. Withey
The world can be such a cruel place-especially if you're an anthropomorphic combatant forced to fight and kill in an arena for the entertainment of your bloodthirsty Slaver masters, or one of a dozen furred concubine slaves for an oppressive master. Everley the bullkin gladiator, the felinekin sisters Portia and Fayre, and one silent harekin monk Velius will have to learn to live in the wild, and with each other, if they're to survive the wilderness and escape their enemies outside the walls of Stonetide.
The sky was a pristine blue, marked only by the softest of clouds and the flight of birds. It was a sky inviting anyone to lie upon the grass and stare upon it for hours to enjoy the relaxation of perfect tranquility; a sky where a person’s troubles would dissipate into the atmosphere while seeking out shapes in the gentle puffs floating overhead.
Such a shame it was that smoke marred that perfect skyline and the only birds flying were hungry vultures prime to stuff their gullets with the recently slain. For below that pristine, perfect skyline died a hundred men and women in brutal combat.
Everley charged blindly forward into chaos, hacking and slashing apart anything that moved hoping to quench his raging hatred of the Slavers, whether through bloodletting or a final rest in battle. Everley was among the race of bullkin, a Savage, who carried with him a fierce resentment for all mankind. It was the Slavers who had kept him locked away in their hell forcing him to fight for their amusement. And now, with the invasion of the Charred Fist's army from the south, it was demanded of him to fight yet again, though this time to serve meat shield for the very survival of those who sought to control him.
The irony was maddening—being forced to fight in defense of those who kept him locked up in chains and steel lest they all perish to these dark marauders. Though death would be liberating, Everley would not grant any foe the satisfaction of slaying a brutish, dangerous, lumbering bullkin like he without earning the right.
Down the streets of Stonetide, Everley swung broad his immense axe. Slaver soldiers, whether pale or dark-skinned, had no choice but to bow before the might of a nine foot tall bullkin with rippling arms like tree trunks hefting a fifty pound iron war axe.
Unarmored Slavers shrieked and ran in every direction, usually juggling two or more children in their arms. Slavers covered in mail armor crunched underneath his hooves. Everywhere Everley looked he saw the enemy—some of them invading soldiers, some of them soldiers of Stonetide fighting back, some of them helpless villagers: all of them Slavers. The air was filled with screams of the weak and dying; the men of one faction indistinguishable from the men of the other. Blood ran dark, snaking between cobblestones as it flowed down the road, all of it indistinguishable. In the end, it was just another dead Slaver.
But here, at a junction of two roads, something came upon Everley which was perhaps the only thing worse than a Slaver.
“You hairy bastard! You fight like you have a flower down where your rocks ought to be!”
That was Ghoulbine, a most unpleasant bearkin if ever there was one. A fellow Savage, Ghoulbine was forced to fight in the coliseum for the amusement of the pink-skinned Slavers. But that was where the similarities ended.
A giant ball of gruff, dirty fur with thick arms, a dirty face, and an unpleasant demeanor, Ghoulbine was a formidable force both in appearance and in musk. An oppressive cloud smelling of man and sweat followed him around like a bad omen. In his massive claws he carried jagged cleavers, both painted red and gored beyond cleaning. His massive jaw and sharpened fangs dripped grotesquely with saliva and blood.
To add further to the Savage's appearance and demeanor, he was also fool enough to believe the lies the Slavers were feeding him: should he one day emerge victorious in the coliseum by slaying all his fellow Savages, he would earn his freedom.
“Soon as I mop up all these Slavers, you'll be next, bullkin.”
“You stupid mule! Perhaps if you opened your eyes and shut your disgusting jaw, you might realize that our captors are busy dying at the hands of their own kind. Now is our opportunity to escape!”
“Why escape when I can simply kill all of you and win my freedom back?” replied Ghoulbine's gruff voice as it boomed out over the surrounding chaos.
“Of course,” Everley resigned. “Why would you finally use your brain now and escape when you could continue swallowing the lies of the very men that imprisoned us? They'll never just give you your freedom, you stupid mule!”
“So long as they give me the weapons, I don't care who they tell me to kill,” Ghoulbine raged on. “Whether it be Slavers or Savages or you! Most especially you, I pray!”
“You'd never win an honest battle against me,” Everley countered. They turned the side street together, stalking forward with weapons ready as an entourage of Charred Fist approached.
Everley lifted his massive axe above his head, prepared to swing it down upon the first creature to come within range. He debated bringing it down upon the foul bearkin to his right, but decided he might need the brute's help to survive.
Ghoulbine grunted, a deep noise that seemed to resonate from the very paws he walked upon.
“I have no doubt I could sever your cow's head from its shoulders with these very blades.”
As if to demonstrate, he lifted the curving cleavers up before him and began to twirl them in each hand. The motions caused the recent blood to splatter from the blades onto the two of them. This added to Everley's irritation, but Ghoulbine didn’t notice as his thick fur was already heavily painted in the life blood of his enemy.
“Let us hope that we one day get the opportunity to find out,” Everley replied. To this, the bearkin grunted his satisfaction. In this one thing, they stood in agreement.
Then the enemy was upon them. Steel ground together as bones crunched and blood flew. The Slavers of the Charred Fist waved their weapons above, cutting into the thick fur of the Savages. Fitted helmets with feathered plumes littered the ground. One swing after another, Everley cleaved his opponents hard enough to send chinks of their fragile armor flying. Ghoulbine chopped and swung his dual blades like a man possessed, or more accurately like the crazed beast he was. A dozen frail Slavers wearing tin cans and thrusting pointed sticks of steel were no match for two lumbering Savages towering over them covered in thick hide. Within minutes, scattered remnants of twelve corpses were strewn upon the cobblestones or slammed into brick homes.
Their immediate work finished, the two Savages stood a moment longer, splattered in the blood of their enemies, listening to the cries of the approaching army and the sounds of war. Everley relished standing defiantly in the streets of the Slavers surrounded by their remains, even if those remains were Slavers of a different nation.
“This is why they send us first,” Everley proclaimed suddenly as he listened to voices so far away. “The Slavers hope we'll be slain before they can catch us up. They hope we'll slaughter their entire enemy and politely die in the process.”
“Perhaps,” grunted the bearkin. He took a step forward, searching for signs of movement to accompany the sounds of war. It sounded as if a battle raged on the next street. “More this way.”
Ghoulbine took off at a sprint, the massive weight of his bear-like body shifting back and forth on his muscular frame. His giant paws crushed the men he trod upon.
A moment later he paused, turning back. “Are you not coming?”
He spoke to Everley, who lagged behind; his head turned to face the city behind them. “The Slavers of Stonetide approach. They will soon wash over their enemy, and this city will be returned from chaos. We will be forced to return to the coliseum.”
“And such battles we'll have!” cheered Ghoulbine. “After this little vacation, there is nothing like the glory of defeating my opponents face to face while the crowd cheers for bloodshed. Soon I'll savor the victory of holding your head high for the spectators!”
“Glory?” Everley spat. “How can you say glory when there is naught more but Savage slaves chained together forced to whittle away at each other with sharpened sticks? And don't pretend you do anything for the crowd, or anyone else for that matter. You bask only in mindless violence without giving a rat's arse about who cheers for you!”
“Aye. Primitive. Brutal. The way combat should be.” Ghoulbine turned to face him, holding upright his massive girth. “I'd just as soon rip apart every Slaver in that coliseum, but so long as they demand bloodshed then I am happy to provide.”
“A lapdog for the Slavers, feeding into their sins for mindless slaughter.”
“I am no lapdog!” Ghoulbine raged, furious. “I am no man's lapdog. I kill because I choose to kill. I live because I choose to live. I care not what anyone tells of me to do so long as someone dies by my paw in the process. I would tear your heart from your chest if I so desired!”
“And would you, even if that meant forfeiting your imaginary chance at freedom?”
Ghoulbine stared him down with fire in his eyes and Everley, stubborn as any bull, faced him right back, unrelenting. A long pause followed punctuated only by the sounds of distant battle. Then, eventually, a horn sounded. Ghoulbine turned away.
“Our masters come to finish this battle,” he announced sourly.
“Your masters only,” Everley corrected. “They come to collect their gladiators, but when they arrive they shall find only you.”
“Oh? And where will you go? What will you do? You cannot live beyond these walls—we both know this. The Slavers will hunt you down and kill you!”
“Perhaps they will, but even that would be a boon,” Everley replied. “To die in battle defending my freedom out in the wilds. A warrior's death.”
“Listen to you. Which of us is drunk with imaginings now? Freedom? Impossible. No Savage is free!”
“I believe we are if we choose, and I choose to die on my own terms beyond these walls than live in slavery within.”
“Then off with you, mongrel!” Ghoulbine roared. “Go find your freedom waiting for you in the unforgiving wilderness beyond Stonetide. Go find your freedom for as long as it lasts until the Slavers come and use your carcass for draperies. Or perhaps they'll offer your hide as a gift for their whores to wear in the winter? That's as close as you'll ever get to a woman's ripe flower.”
The bearkin laughed heartily at his own wit. The bullkin meanwhile dismissed him, and walked down a side street. Seeing him actually leave, the bearkin's laughter suddenly died. He called Everley's name, but the bullkin did not respond; he continued marching forward, heading towards the city wall.
Enraged, Ghoulbine took after Everley and grabbed his arm. Only then did the bullkin turn to face him.
“Change your mind about coming with me?” Everley offered.
The bearkin was not amused. “You will not deny me my chance to kill you in the coliseum! If you do this, you'll die out in the wilds and deny me my rightfully earned victory.”
“Your concern for me is moving.”
“I'm serious, bullkin! I will not let you run off to commit suicide and deny me the pleasure of nailing your head upon the wall.”
“I'm afraid the choice is not yours to make. Stop me if you think you can!”
Everley raised his war ax defensively. Squaring off with him, Ghoulbine raised his cleavers. They began to circle, there in the street surrounded by dead Slavers of two nations. They faced each other off, eyes locked, measuring the other up. Then the horn of Stonetide called once more, this time closer. Ghoulbine turned to face it once more and Everley did not hesitate. His axe sank deep into the meat of the bearkin's arm.
Raging and roaring like a wild beast, Ghoulbine staggered backward clutching his torn arm.
“Gods damn you, bullkin! You will die out there, and I shall piss on your rotting carcass. You hear me? You shall die out there!”
Everley heard him well as he ran down the dirt trail between houses. He heard him, but did not turn back. He kept running, hooves pounding heavily onto the dusty dirt of the trail. He cast his weapon aside into an alley, leaving it behind.
By the time he began smashing a hole into the high wooden fence, the Slavers were on his tail. But when they arrived, they found only enormous hoof prints and a pile of smashed logs and splinters. One of their prized coliseum fighters had fled the city.