Against All Odds
The sound is dulled in the Combs, but Mirtsanya can hear the cries of a thousand voices, feel the stomping of feet reverberating down through sand, steel and stone.
Before her is a device, a glittering mass of metal angles with an empty, yawning middle. In time a portal will fill its jagged mouth and drop her into the centre of the Pits. But for now it rests, and Mirstanya waits. The room is hexagonal, sandy floored, with an open archway behind her that leads into the connecting halls. One would imagine there would be a door, a lock on one’s fate, but to come this far is to know running is death guaranteed, while the portal at least offers a being a chance.
Mirtsanya does not know how long she waits, as timepieces are not allowed in the Combs. The Nobilissimus says it is not a glaiveslave’s place to worry about the passage of time. Though she would never tell him so, she disagrees. Seconds matter to glaiveslaves, matter more than they do to most. What is five seconds to a freebeing? Nothing compared to five seconds in the Pits. That is why they pay and why they wager. Those seconds suddenly matter, are worth too much to observe silently on a timepiece.
She takes a deep breath. The acrid-sweet smell of scarlet pigment is thick around her face. The browns and pinks of her body have been dyed and painted away. A being of red, orange and gold stands where she once found herself. Fire instead of flesh. In time they will shout the name the Nobilissimus has bestowed her, the name that clings to her skin like a thin layer of synth, like a too-warm lover. Vesuvenia the Lash. She has survived every creature the Pits has flung at her, every weapon, claw and esotery. Mirtsanya bears the scars, and Vesuvenia hides them under plates of gilded synthsteel. Jaekisran once said the audience would cheer for an empty outfit if it was pretty enough. She had thought it funny, at the time. Now she understood why he had not laughed.
Cheers from above. Behind her, the soft hiss of fabric on sand. She glances over her shoulder and sees a wisp of the Thaumaturge’s saffron robes disappear around a corner. She wonders why they are wandering the underhalls, wonders if they are making their way to a victor or if they have been dismissed after a defeat. The memory they provoke is intrusive, but with the portal a picture of stillness, she chooses to let remembering wash over her, like seawater on sunburn.
Her last Nameless match had been against bladehounds. Clever creatures that are nearly invisible head-on, being thinner than the finest edge and twice as sharp. Success had left her with cuts all over her body, the kind that sag and glisten with the fatty yellow of underskin. She had lost consciousness somewhere between the end of the match and the washing ritual. When she woke the Thaumaturge was speaking words in a whistling language, leaning over a tank of murky water. A small creature writhed inside and whistled back. They plunged their hand into the water and tentacles wrapped around it as fast as shadow. Not wanting to be caught watching, she tried to move her head, but found her body unresponsive. At the edge of her vision she could see her injuries were still untreated, blood coagulating in the crook of her elbow. Sour panic rose in her throat and she scrunched her lids shut. They shot open when the Thaumaturge touched her sliced skin with something cold and gelatinous. Her sense of pain was dulled but not numb. Too far from numb. Whatever the Thaumatuge was kneeding across her, she could feel it tugging against her open flesh. Her protests were unheard, dead on her frozen tongue. The mnemonic mash of fear and fleeting consciousness left her with shards of remembrance. Tiny, sharp pieces. Floral scent diffusing in the air. A multichromatic liquid dribbling down the table past her nose. The harmonic overtone thrum of the Thaumaturge’s singing voice. Her wounds had healed so clean she cannot tell where they were. At least not by sight. But if she runs her fingers over her skin, she can smell spring flowers below her navel, and hear a minor chord above her right elbow.
The crowd picks up again, chanting this time. Probably a close call, possibly a victory. She tries to remember who was slated to fight before her. While she recalls the warmth of a body alongside her during the adornment, the rest is a blur of hands and noise. She knows she will recall later, so long as she survives. In spite of a growing collection of scars and laurels, when she stands before the portal her mind is always the same, an autumn leaf trembling on the branch. A part of her wonders if it would be easier to be topside before her match. When he was her tutor, Jaekisran was required to watch topside, standing to the left of the Nobilissimus. But now, he is deep in the Combs, hidden away and unable to hear all but the most raucous of crowds. At least if he can hear them he will know she has survived. Vesuvenia is new, fresh, an underhound. When a veteran like Jaekisran is in the Pits, a noble death is cheered at least as much a win. Her eyes flick to the portal. It is still dark, the soft blue-green nanotorches the only source of light. She bounces on the balls of her feet, wondering if it would be worse to be able to count down the seconds. There is a moment when she walks through the portal where she feels as free as when she was eleven years old. What is behind the portal is intent on killing her, but a hundred times she would chose to step through rather than suffer the hunched, hugging agony of listening to Jaekisran’s crowd rumble through the Combs.
Glaiveslaves always return to the Combs. In victory they return wet and warm, scrubbed of blood and colours. In defeat they return in pieces, fed to the luminescent waters that feed the crimson Sangrooms. The fungus is brined after harvest, and the fleshy, slimy-crunchy tranches are a staple protein in a glaiveslave’s diet. Mirtsanya could not force herself to eat when she first made the connection. On her second day of fasting Jaekisran told her of Thiir, who had refused to eat in protest of the living quarters he had been assigned. A glaiveslave through debt, he was unaccustomed to the frugal nature of the Combs. On discovery of his resistance, he had been killed immediately, fed to the pools before his body withered, while he was still robust and most nutritious. Mirtsanya ate at the next meal. Though she expected it would turn her stomach, eating never did. But the glass jars clinking as they make their way topside, sangrooms sloshing inside, labels praising A Taste of the Amphitheatrum? Those are another matter.
Violet sparks scamper up the device that holds the portal shut, gears whir and the air hums like a distant swarm of wasps. Her body floods, sweat and the too-thick saliva that comes before vomit. She puts a hand to her jaw, feels the last place Jaekisran touched her. Before her first fights he had repeated advice, requested one last demonstration of a technique still new to her muscle memory. These routines had tapered off with her progress, and disappeared completely the first time she stood over him, her inert weapon poised over his neck. But one ritual remained. Before every fight, his hand on her jaw, his voice in her ear-
The portal opens, a spreading tear of rippling violet light, the noise of so many voices, the shriek of an unseen creature loud enough to feel like knives in her ears, water in her lungs.
As she steps to the portal she whispers the three words whispered to her, the three words every glaiveslave repeats. A ward against harm, a rallying mantra, a sigh of relief.
Against all odds.
This vignette expands on a character in the Numenera game that I am running for a couple of friends- which is why I have included the short disclaimer below. If you want to know more about Numenera, take a looksie over at the website. I *highly* encourage you to take a look, especially if you enjoy or are interested in tabletop roleplaying games.
Hope you enjoyed the vignette!