“Welcome to my regime,” was the first thing he said to me; the man who claimed to own me. Claimed me as his slave. “You will fight to live, or you will die,” was the next thing he told me.
“Where am I?” I asked. Although I assumed he wouldn’t tell me. A bit of a stupid question.
The regime leader, who towered over me as I gazed at him while on my knees, hands bound behind my back by thick, scratching rope, smiled. He smiled with his eyes, anyway. Most of his face was covered with a white handkerchief. Blood was speckled across it, although I assumed it wasn’t his, but the blood of some poor victim whose throat he slashed.
“Such things shouldn’t worry a young man,” he answered softly. He slid a large hunting knife from a sheath in his belt and pressed the tip just below my temple. With a flick of his wrist the blade slid down my cheek, releasing a slow drip of blood that ran down and dripped off my chin. The regime leader did the same to my other cheek and then put his boot on my chest. “Good luck.” He shoved me backward and I smashed my head on the ground. The sky spun above me, and another man approached, raised an AK47 into the air over my face, and everything went dark.
I awoke what I assumed was hours later, chained to a massive tree. Its giant roots rose out of the ground, and then pierced down into the earth. I guessed the trunk was about fifteen feet in diameter, and loomed above me like a cathedral tower. The chain was attached to both of my ankles, and the other end to a large iron ring wrapped around a large root. I was surprised they would keep me in an open area chained to a tree. My mind churned to figure out ideas to cut through the root and get my freedom.
“Glad to see you’re finally up,” a voice said. I turned around to see a man, probably in his mid-thirties, sitting against the tree. “I know what you’re thinking. I thought the same thing. ‘So they have me chained to a tree. There are worse things to try and escape from.’ Don’t try it, kid. They have more guards around here than you can count. There is no escape.”
“Who are you?” I asked. I squinted to see him better as the sun descended, casting a shadow across the ground.
“Doesn’t matter. I’m fighting next. I’m too old to fight.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Long enough. It’s my time. And soon enough it will be yours.”
I sat down and leaned against the tree. “I wouldn’t mind so much if someone would tell me where I am. And how I got here.”
“Where are you from?” the man asked.
“Does it matter?”
“No. They like bringing you in when you’re young. Eighteen or nineteen. They’ve got a lot of fight in them at that age. Concerned about how they have their whole lives ahead of them and what not.”
“I don’t see how I’d be a good candidate for fighting. I’m not very big.”
“You’re big enough. I don’t know how, but when you were in the beginning stages of waking up just now you were thrashing pretty good. I thought for a second you might rip that ring right through that root. Not that it would do you much good. You get off that chain without permission, you die.”
I looked at the root I was chained to. “What’s the fighting like?” I asked.
The man hesitated. I heard him take a deep breath and exhale slowly. “Hell.”
A masked man with an assault rifle and a flashlight approached. He glared at the man, and then looked at me. “Here,” he grunted. He tossed a cigarette at me, and another at the man.
“I don’t smoke,” I said.
“You’d better start,” the armed man said irritably. He lit a match and held it in front of my face. With a trembling hand I put the cigarette in my mouth and took a deep drag. As the smoke entered my lungs I erupted in gagging, choking coughs. The armed man roared with laughter, lit the other slave’s cigarette, and walked away.
“Why do they make us smoke?” I asked.
The man took a long drag from his cigarette. “Calms the nerves,” he answered. Smoke poured from his mouth with each word he spoke.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“I thought it didn’t matter?” the man replied.
“Well can I at least know you’re name?”
“Well, Marcus, you inquisitive fellow, allow me to be the first to welcome you to Hell. God isn’t coming to save you.”
“I didn’t expect he would,” I replied.
“Not the religious type, eh?”
“Religion was created to bring society into dullness and give them a sense of false-security. To blind them from the truth and make them conform to the ways that keep the higher ups in power. When modern medicine cures someone, the people believe their prayers healed their loved one. People are expected to fear God, when God shows no proof of existence. Evolution shows existence. Science shows existence. Where is this God?”
The man chuckled. “Believe me, boy; the second you walk into that arena, God will be staring you in the face.”
I took a small puff of the cigarette, this time choking less. But it still burned my lungs.
“What kind of fighting is it?” I asked.
“Whatever you find, you can use. There are no rules. But the better show you put on, the more they like you around here.”
“That guard didn’t seem to like you very much. Do you put on bad shows?”
“I kill ‘em quick,” Louis replied. “Not much blood.”
“So, we’re gladiators?”
“You could look at it that way, I guess. Kind of makes this situation seem a little less shitty, doesn’t it? Modern-day gladiators. Fighting bloody battles to please those in power. Sounds a bit like your definition of religion, doesn’t it?”
“Too much so, I would say. I have to say, you don’t seem like the killing type.”
“Not many do. Aside from your stereotypical criminals. I never killed until I was brought here.”
“I really don’t want to kill anybody,” I said.
“You’ll get over that quickly. It’s kill or be killed. Once that sinks in, you become someone completely different.”
I finished my cigarette and flung it away. The cherry-red ember glowed for a moment, and slowly dimmed until it blended in with the surrounding darkness.
“When do you go to fight?” I asked.
“As soon as they come get me. Could be in ten minutes. Could be tomorrow afternoon.”
“Could be right now,” another voice said. The guard who brought them the cigarettes approached. He unlocked the shackles attached to Louis’s ankles, and then unshackled me.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“You’re going to fight Louis,” the guard snapped. “Let’s hope you’re stronger than you are smart.”
Louis laughed. “I didn’t have the heart to tell him.”
The guard grabbed Louis’s shoulder and shoved him forward down a dirt path. He then grabbed me by the back of the neck and shoved me forward to follow Louis.
And to think, I was starting to like him; and now I had to try and kill him.