Colin leaned against the dugout wall and watched anxiously as Stebbins stepped up to the plate and readied his bat. Stebbins, who had made a fortune in life bundling worthless loans into attractive mortgage-backed securities, was muscle-bound enough to deliver a wicked hit, but the art of connecting bat to ball had thus far eluded him. If he screwed up, Coach Dagon would be angrier than usual with the next few batters, of whom Colin was one.
Dagon flapped his red wings and spit into the dirt. “Elbow up, Stebbins! How many times do I have to tell you, you piece of damned soul scrap! Square to the plate, not the pitcher! You’re at home plate, not on the line of scrimmage, you criminal ass!”
Stebbins corrected his stance. The pitcher wound up and threw a fast ball, straight down the middle. Stebbins swung hard, but too early. The ball — actually a former dictator of a small island nation — smacked into the catcher’s glove and yelped.
“Strike one! You’re swinging too soon, moron! Watch the ball!” Dagon’s blood-red barbed tail snaked out and whipped Stebbins across the back of his naked legs.
Stebbins whiffed the next two pitches as well. “Hopeless! You’re hopeless!” Dagon raged. He grabbed Stebbins by the neck, flew him high to one of the giant torches that illuminated the arena during real competitions, and hung him there by the back of his loincloth. “Anybody else want to give me a sorry performance like that today?” the demon shouted. The assembled gladiators-in-training replied with a chorus of shaking heads and mumbled “no sirs.”
“All right, then. That’s enough baseball! Time for combat practice. Go fetch your equipment. Run! Last one back runs laps for a year!”
The students stampeded for the locker room, all except for Colin, who paused, looking up at Stebbins, who was swaying gently to and fro in a Hellish breeze.
“Master Dagon, Stebbins won’t be able to practice combat if he’s hanging up there.”
The demon fluttered over and came toe to toe with Colin. “Very observant, deadie. Don’t think because you’ve got a little talent in the sword department you can afford to be a smartass.”
Colin lowered his head. “Oh, no, Master Dagon. It’s just that he’s one of the best at combat and if you want Satan’s Sadists to win against Beelzebub’s Bastards…”
Smoke poured from Dagon’s pointed ears. “We’ll beat those Bastards with or without Stebbins! We’ve got the greatest team in Hell, with the best coach and don’t you forget it! Now go get your equipment before I decide to disembowel you this very instant!”
Colin sprinted away, knowing Dagon might well make good his threat. As he got to the tunnel leading to the locker rooms, he looked back and saw the coach flying upward toward the spot where Stebbins was hanging.
Stebbins came running in seconds after Colin arrived in the locker room. The big man was breathing hard, but otherwise seemed none the worse for the wear.
“I don’t know what you said to him, but thanks, Colin,” Stebbins said. “I thought I was going to be hanging up there forever.”
Colin cinched his sword belt and grinned. “I just told him we couldn’t beat the Bastards without one of our best fighters. I guess he agreed.”
“Isn’t that helping?”
“Nah, it’s ingratiating yourself to the coach. Totally self-serving.”
“Yeah, right. You ready? I don’t want to be running laps for a year.”
They ran through the tunnel into the arena, leaving some of the slower souls to worry about who would run 365 days of laps.
Though he hated to admit it, even to himself — especially to himself — Colin loved the arena, even though he had never fought a real battle in it. It was an enormous oval of sand, surrounded on all sides by a high wall perforated by various cavities. Some led to locker-room tunnels, others were reserved for the release of beasts and other opponents into the fighting space. From the top of the walls rose row upon row of stadium seats. Fastened to the top rim of the stadium was a ring of giant torches, each carved into the likeness of a different demon, with the fire bowl in the top of the skull. Standing in the middle of the playing field, looking up into the stands, Colin had a hint of the feeling that had come to him for the first time when he had fought Ragtagalog and that came to him now in combat practice.
Dagon’s whistle jarred him out of his reverie. “All right! Give me Colin, Stebbins, Episki and Fights-Like-a-Girl. To arena center. Now!”
The four souls obeyed on the double. Each of them had a leather-and-iron shield and a short sword. Other weapons were scattered around the arena for them to get to, if they could. They lined up in a rank and stood at attention. Dagon pointed to a spot about ten feet away and to the left of the group.
“Colin, over there.”
Colin jogged over to the indicated spot. He knew better than to argue.
“It’s time you kids started practicing something close to the real thing. Today, no fake cuts, no scoring for touches, no Dagon telling you you’re wounded, sit out. No. Today, it’s real cuts, real ichor, real limbs coming off, real heads bashed in.”
Fights-Like-a-Girl raised his hand. “Won’t that leave us in pretty poor shape for more practice or… anything?”
“You’ll heal well enough. Now then… it’s the three of you against Colin.”
“What?” said all for gladiator trainees at once.
“You heard me! Real combat starts soon and you need to be ready. Start on one whistle, stop on two. Ready…”
Dagon’s whistle split the air. Colin crouched into a defensive stance, sideways to the other fighters, shield raised in front of his body, short sword just behind it, ready to lash out at the least opportunity. The other three trainees circled him. Colin felt the battle fever creeping into his blood like wine. He grinned and faced Stebbins.
Stebbins rattled his shield. “Come on then!”
Colin raised his sword, shouted, and at the last instant spun and ran at Episki. Episki began to pivot sideways but Colin detected the move almost before it was begun. As Episki’s sword slashed sideways toward the spot where he expected Colin’s guts to be as he ran past, Colin vaulted into the air, twisted and landed so that he was facing Episki’s back. He swung his sword at the other trainee’s temple. The blade sliced neatly through the top of Episki’s skull. Episki dropped to the sand like a bag of nails.
The fighting stopped. All the trainees stared agape at their fellow student, lying quite still on the ground.
Dagon blew his whistle twice. “Time out!
“What happened to the magic for blunting the weapons?” Colin asked. He was shaking. “It’s just practice. Yesterday that would have only knocked him over and you’d yell ‘touch’ and call him out. What’s the deal?”
“Surprise!” said Dagon. “You’ve graduated from the kiddie-cars to driver’s ed. Real combat’s just around the corner. Plenty of bets on the line. You need to be ready.”
“But Episki…” said Fights-Like-a-Girl.
“He’ll heal! Here, watch!”
They looked. The crown of Episki’s skull was somehow dragging itself across the sand towards the rest of him. They watched as it reached its goal, shot out gelatinous tendrils that attached to the whole part of the skull and used those to pull itself back into place. Episki’s body jerked a few times and then he sat up on one elbow.
“Did I get him? Boy, my head hurts.”
“Gladiators are too rare to waste,” Dagon said. “So they get a little extra repair capability. Lose too many times, though, and it wears off. After that happens, annihilation.”
“What?” asked Fights-Like-a-Girl.
“Annihilation. Erasure from existence. No atoms. No ether. No quarks. No mind. Absolute zilch.”
“Swell,” Colin muttered.
“Spare me the editorials! Now, fight!”
They fought for the rest of the day without a break, always Colin alone or with a partner against the others. He leapt, spun, slashed, kicked, punched, bit and twisted, the battle fever burning hotter and hotter as he worked until he thought he might burst into flame. Blade edges wouldn’t cut him and he hardly felt thumps from fists, feet or weapons. When Dagon finally blew his whistle, the other three trainees were lying on the sand, healing from grievous wounds. Colin threw his sword and shield down and sat heavily on the ground.
Dagon prodded him with an eagle-clawed foot. “You love it, don’t you?”
Colin shook his head emphatically. “No. Absolutely not. If Hell didn’t make me do it, I wouldn’t.”
The demon smiled and spit a sizzling gob into the dust. “Say what you will. I have been around a very, very long time. I can tell.”
“Well, you’re slipping, Master Dagon. That’s all I can say. Begging your pardon.”
“Pardon granted, deadie. Now off to clean up and then to food and rest with you. Go.”
Colin dragged himself off and limped down the tunnel toward the locker room. The battle fever was rapidly leaving his system, leaving him feeling nauseous and weak. More than that, he was disgusted with himself.
Oh, God, he thought. What’s happening to me? I think he’s right. I think I love it. I think I really do.