FORTY: THE ARENA
AFTER I LEFT THE dog—maybe I’ll call her Trinity—the corridor I’d been following began to slope downward in a gradual way. I hadn’t noticed it at first. I’d run out of chemical lights and had been trying to map the path in my mind, something I have to admit that I was failing at. But eventually the slope became sharper and it was more difficult at that point not to notice.
The corridor then opened up into a dark room, so dark that I couldn’t tell the size. I could see, however, about fifty yards in, surrounded by a halo of light, what appeared to be a slab of stone with someone lying atop it.
Everything surrounding that one circle of light was complete blackness. I pulled my flashlight from the backpack and switched it on. The beam of light was unable to penetrate the darkness. That made me more than a little uneasy about stepping into the room. But the spell was pulling me forward, so with both pistols in hand I took a deep breath, and plunged in.
Nothing attacked me. No goblins, ogres, or giant slugs. Nary a cyclops to be seen. Just the circle of light ahead. As I drew closer I could see that the figure on the stone slab wasn’t merely laying atop it. They were tied to it.
I stepped closer and found that it was Maggie Keaton, bound spread eagle atop a stone altar that had been stained dark with the blood of countless sacrifices. They’d left her clothes on her, but the rips and bloodstains told me that she’d not made it easy for them. Good for her.
I holstered the pistols and pulled a switchblade from a coat pocket. I popped the blade and sawed at the ropes. There were four of them. One for each appendage. They went from ankle and wrist to four thick rings that had been set in the stone around the four corners of the altar. The rings were dark and old. These guys had been at this for a while.
Maggie woke as I worked. Her eyes widened with panic and she tried to pull back, away from me. She’d been tormented, possibly tortured. I may have to burn this place to the ground.
“Don’t worry, Maggie,” I said as she watched me work, her eyes showing the terror she’d been made to endure. “The name’s Norman Oklahoma. Anthony sent me to fetch you; he was getting mighty worried about your wellbeing.”
“Anthony?” she said. “They told me he was dead. That they k—” Her voice broke. “They told me that they had killed him.”
“He ain’t dead,” I said as the rope on her right wrist broke free. “But he may well wish he was if we can’t get you home to him in one piece.”
She started to cry.
“Is he really alive?” She said between sobs. “Promise me he’s really alive.”
“He’s alive,” I said. “I promise.”
She seemed to gain a bit of strength from hearing that.
“You know who it was that took you? What they want?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Nothing.”
Then she paused and collected herself. There was a strength in this girl that I respected at once. As long as I did my job, she’d get out of this just fine.
Her voice was steadier as she continued.
“Most of them don’t talk. Or at least not to me. Only one talked to me, I think he’s in charge. He kept his hood down so I couldn’t see his face. He’s the one who told me that Anthony was dead.”
“Well, he ain’t,” I said. “So don’t go thinking on it.”
The rope on her left wrist snapped free and I went to work on her left ankle.
“So,” I said, as casually as I could. “I’m told you work at the Happy Hamburger. They sure do make some good burgers.”
“I guess,” she said.
“You tend to get sick of them after a while. You know, when you’re around them all the time.”
“You like working there?” I asked. I wanted to keep her mind focused, keep her head about her.
“It’s a job,” she said.
The rope on her left ankle broke and I went around the altar to work on the last. She was, by this time, sitting up and looking around.
“Where are we?” She asked.
“Somewhere we don’t want to be,” I said, setting to work on her last rope. “Beyond that, I’m not really sure.”
“It’s dark,” she said.
“It is at that.” Then I tried to change the subject. “If the Happy Hamburger is just a job, then what else does Maggie Keaton want to do?”
“I’m in school,” she said.
“Oh yeah?” I said as the final rope broke free. “School, huh? What are you studying?”
“Law,” she said, sliding off the altar. “I’m studying Law.”
She was a bit unsteady on her feet.
“You must be one of them big brains then,” I said.
She smiled and looked me over for the first time.
“Are you real?” she asked.
“I’m very real, girl,” I said. “And I’ll have you out of here in no time.”
“Why do you dress like that?”
I sighed. “I happen to like the way I dress,” I said.
“Oh yeah,” A voice said from behind. “You are the very peak of fashion, Norman Oklahoma.”
I spun, both pistols in hand. I’d been able to clear leather and thumb back both hammers before the speaker had finished their sentence.
He eased out from the dark like stepping out from under a waterfall. He wore a set of long sleeved robes, hooded and blood red that were belted at the waist by a length of rope. Two other men stood to either side of him; both dressed the same, only in brown.
I put myself between Maggie and the three monks.
“You must be the Brotherhood,” I said. “It just the three of you?” I asked, gesturing at the three men with one of my pistols. “I gotta say son, your religion ain’t got the reach like it used to.”
“The Brotherhood is doing just fine,” the man said, smiling. “And tonight will prove that. You will be a part of that, Norman. May I call you Norman?”
I popped off a quick shot. It should have taken him in the forehead. Instead the slug slammed into some sort of invisible wall about an inch from the man and then turned into powder.
“Come now, Norman,” the man said. “Is that the way for a guest to act. After all the trouble I went to invite you here.”
“Invite?” I said, replacing my spent shell. “You wanted me here?”
Maggie stood behind me, a hand on my shoulder. I could feel her trembling.
“Of course, Norman,” the man said. “Why, you are the star of the show.”
“That’s funny,” I said. “On my end, it feels like you’ve been doing everything you can to keep me away. I mean, I can assume you’re the fella who set those goblins on me and my friends.”
“Keep you away? Why, Norman. I’ve been doing everything but. I’ve studied you, see. I know what makes you tick. What motivates you. Yes, that was me in the smoke in your friend’s pathetic excuse for a laboratory. See, I knew that the more obstacles I put in your way, the more it would drive you forward.”
“You accomplished that just by taking the girl, idiot. You put other lives in danger trying to get me to a place I was already going. All you’ve managed to do with all this is give me more of a reason to end your life.”
I tried to pop off another shot, but like before, the bullet dissolved into powder and blew away.
The man laughed. A sickly green glow oozed out from under his hood. Suddenly I found my arms moving on their own. Before I could stop them, they had holstered both pistols. My arms then hung at my sides and try as I might, I couldn’t move them. In fact, I couldn’t move my legs either. I was stuck.
“It matters not how you arrived, Norman, or why. All that matters is that you are here.”
He threw his hands up and like a clap of thunder the lights came on and a cacophony of sound slammed into me. We stood in the center of an ancient, indoor arena. The stands were filled to capacity with thousands of cheering monks. I almost expected to see chariots, gladiators, and Christians being fed to lions.
“Welcome, Brothers of Minos!” The man pulled his hood back to reveal a bald head covered in glowing rune tattoos. His voice echoed out as if from a state of the art P.A. system.
“I, Cleon, High Priest of the Brotherhood and Voice of the Bull God come to you with tidings of joy as we begin this time of ritual!”
The crowd quieted.
“We come together tonight to ask Mighty Asterion for his blessings upon the coming year. To honor him with sacrifice so that he may bestow upon us the power to topple our enemies.”
“THE BROTHERHOOD OR NONE,” the crowd said in one voice.
“Oh boy,” I said.
“What’s happening?” Maggie asked. She’d moved to stand beside me.
“Nothing but a great big bunch of crazy,” I said.
“Only I, the High Priest, knows the heart of the Bull God. Asterion is no longer satisfied with mere sacrifice. Asterion has too long hidden away from the world of men. He longs for the time of war. He yearns for the days of battle and blood.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. I had a bad feeling that I knew where this was heading.
“Look,” I said to Maggie. “I think things are about to get really bad really quick. When they come for you, resist. Fight them as much as you can. They aren’t going to hurt you, not until the proper time anyway.”
“What about you?” Maggie said. “What’s going to happen?”
“The Great Asterion yearns for the call of battle, to wash in the blood of his enemies,” Cleon called out. “And for that I bring you his opponent, Norman Oklahoma!”
The crowd booed. It didn’t make me feel very well.
“If Norman Oklahoma can defeat the Might Asterion,” Cleon paused while the monks laughed. “Yes, yes,” he said, laughing as well. “As ridiculous as it sounds, if Norman Oklahoma can best Mighty Asterion, he is free to leave unharmed with the sacrifice.”
“Norman Oklahoma,” Cleon said, turning to me. “You are being shown a great honor. Kneel before the Bull God!”
I fell to me knees. I didn’t want to, but I was no longer in control. The roar of the crowed pounded at my ears as a figure emerged from an archway under the stands.
It was seven feet tall, at least, with wide, broad shoulders. It was all muscle too, like a comic book exaggeration of a body builder. It dressed in simple sandals that laced up to the knees, a leather kilt studded with metal plates, and a belt that crisscrossed its massive chest. The thing’s skin was a dark red like leather.
But what made it truly stand out from the crowd was what was perched atop its shoulders. The creature had the body of a man, but the head of a bull.
“What is that?” Maggie asked.
“That,” I told her. “Is Mike.”
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