Age of Worms
The former Slave Gladiator Ushak
The cold iron bars of his cage are Urshak's first memories. They felt cold in the palms of his hands on a hot midsummer afternoon, and they felt cold against his spine as he laid down to rest every night. They felt cold against his tongue as he licked the dew from them, and they felt cold during the horrid winter mornings when he tore his skin from them when he fell asleep too near the side of his cage. They felt cold against the back of his head and shoulders when he slumped into them after his latest battle with random creatures for his captors' entertainment, and they felt cold against his brow after collapsing into them when the lizardfolk would beat him. The cold bars were his comfort and his curse, his tender mother and his cruel father, his torturous hell and his home.
Urshak was a captive of a lizardfolk clan in the steaming jungles in the lands southeast of the Free City. By comparison, his life in captivity was better than most. Instead of toiling in the fields or mines working him to death through physical labor, Urshak lived the life of a gladiator. His lizardfolk captors observed his strength (and lack of restraint) early in Urshak's captivity. They knew giving him a sharp object like a hoe or mining pick and letting him loose was a bad idea. Instead, they dumped him from his cage during festivals and holidays onto the floor of an arena. They gave him a moment to choose one of the many simple weapons strewn about the arena floor before dumping in his opponent. Usually, this consisted of a boar, maybe a leopard, a giant snake, or a badger or two. For the first few months, the battles ended fairly quickly with the arena master slaying the beast with a crossbow bolt to the head and lifting the bloodied, unconscious half-orc child from the dirt. As the months went on, there were fewer and fewer crossbow bolts and less and less half-orcen blood. When other children were learning about their history and ancestors, battle tactics, and stick fighting, Urshak was learning how to kill and stay alive. Other children knew how to write their names. He knew to step aside during a boar's charge and attempt to break its legs before coming anywhere near its sharp tusks. Other children could recite the heroic deeds of their ancestors. He knew to swing a chain straight down instead of sideways to strike a lunging snake.
For years, this was the life Urshak knew. There was nothing beyond the tree line surrounding the lizardfolk encampment. There was his cage and the arena floor. He was an aberration. He didn't look like his lizardfolk captors with their skinny limbs and tails. His fingers and toes didn't end in claws. He had gray skin instead of scales. He was the only one of his kind. Perhaps he was destined to forever be the plaything of his captors.
The day the outside world came to Urshak is a day he will never forget. He awoke one morning during one of the last moons of summer to the chattering screeches of his captors. They were jumping about, clearly excited. A war party had ridden out the night before, for what Urshak didn't exactly know. They returned with a single sack. Urshak didn't know what was inside, but he saw that it was still moving. As the war party dragging the sack traveled out of view from his cage, Urshak saw six lizardfolk approaching. This usually meant an arena match, and today was no different. They carried his cage through the encampment around tents and smoldering campfires from the night before. They eventually arrived at the arena and brought the cage to the top of the arena wall. Urshak could see there were many more lizardfolk in the arena that day. As the months had worn on, fewer and fewer lizardfolk came to watch Urshak kill the usual creatures. Today was much different. The arena was alive with screeching lizardfolk waving their weapons in the air. Just before they dumped him off the arena wall from his cage, Urshak noticed something else was different. There was a creature already on the arena floor. Its features were more like his, albeit smaller and more slender. Its fingers didn't end in claws, and it had short brown hair that went all the way around its chin. It was already wielding a wooden club in one of its clawless hands. Throughout Urshak's many arena encounters, he learned not to hesitate. The second he landed in the dirt, he grabbed a fist-sized stone and charged his opponent. He brought the stone down hard and fast, much faster than his opponent had expected. The stone slammed down hard upon its left shoulder…as the club slammed down hard upon the back of Urshak's head. He fell face first into the dirt. The ringing in his ears was deafening. He didn't even hear himself hit the ground. His limbs felt as though they had all tripled in weight. He slowly rolled over, half expecting, half hoping there to see the arena master's crossbow bolt through his opponent's head. He instead saw his opponent on its knees clutching its left shoulder in pain. Now was his chance! Urshak began to search for a new weapon with which to finish off his adversary. Instead, he saw chaos erupting around the arena. Other creatures with the same shape as his adversary were storming in. They wore shiny metal pieces strapped to their bodies and carried blades and hammers that glinted in the sun. Urshak assumed they were somehow related to his opponent.
All this was too much for the injured Urshak to take. He fell to his forearms and knees weeping, forehead flat against the dirt. Tears streamed down his dusty face onto the arena floor. The blood that had been flowing from the club wound on the back of his head started to work its way down his chin and into his mouth. It was all going to end, the arena matches, the nights in the cage, and the cold iron bars in his hands. It was all going to end. Urshak fell flat on his stomach.
Urshak was about to give in to the darkness of unconscious sleep when a wave of heat passed up through his veins from his feat to his head, coming to a stop in his eyes. The pain had vanished, and the heaviness in his limbs fell away to a renewed strength. His right elbow shot into the air, and his right palm came down hard against the dirt. His left knee came up and placed his left foot against the ground. Urshak was bewildered. These movements weren't his! What was happening? As he lifted himself from the ground, he spotted and picked up the stone he had used for the initial strike. He came back around to his opponent. It was still on its knee facing away from him clutching its shoulder in agony. His right hand raised the stone high into the air. Up to this point, it seemed like something was controlling him. He was pretty sure that he hadn’t forced himself to his feet and didn’t raise the stone, yet there he stood behind his opponent. He looked around the arena. Some of the newcomers were racing towards him, making gestures that Urshak thought meant they wanted him to stop what he was doing. An intense hatred arose inside Urshak. For the first time in his life, he was free to choose what he wanted to do, and be damned if these strangers were going to control him like the lizardfolk did. He brought the stone down on his opponent's head with the fury and rage that had been building up in him his entire life. All the beatings, all the arena matches, all the lonely days spent in his cage were put into this strike. His opponents head crushed under the force of the strike, and its body fell forward…
Urshak's torso shot straight up from his bed. Urshak had relived this event many times in his dreams, but never like this. Usually, he awoke weeping immediately before collapsing to the arena floor. Tonight there was more. Tonight, there was a wave of heat and rage. He killed his opponent and awoke with his fist still clenched. He could still feel the burning sensation in his eyes, but only very slightly. He laid his torso back down slowly into his bed and looked around the room. None of his garrison bunkmates had woken up yet. Urshak stared at the ceiling and went over the dream in his head again and again. Instead of the normal feelings of sadness and frustration, Urshak felt pleased. His entire life, he'd been in service. He was the plaything of the lizardfolk, and now he serves the garrison. Killing his opponent in his dream was the first thing he'd ever done of his own volition. He did it because he wanted to do it, and it felt good. Urshak had asked his superiors about these dreams in the past, and he had learned the events were true. They always asked if he remembered anything else though, and Urshak never did. Did this really happen? Did they know about it all along and not tell him?
Urshak closed his eyes and tried unsuccessfully to get back to sleep. Today he was being sent on his first solo assignment, and he needed his rest. Lieutenant Dobrun Trent had heard about an excursion being planned for some tomb near the city, and Urshak was to provide the muscle.