Albert was always of the opinion that, in the modern day, it was impossible to become a hero.
The thing was, you needed adversity and opportunity to become a hero. You needed a specific antagonist. But the modern world didn't have specific enemy. Sure, you could try to fight against government corruption or prejudice or something… but you couldn't punch any of those things. Albert couldn't vent his more… aggressive impulses by arguing against racial profiling. Not to mention he didn't get much satisfaction from it, since he didn't get to see any results. All that stuff was too long term.
So Albert lived a life that as far as he was concerned meant nothing. He had friends, sure, but he never really grew close to anyone or opened up to them. People just assumed he was a well-rounded person who never complained, and thought of him as a good friend. But Albert didn't really think of them as friends or companions, because, as comic books and television had informed him, real friends help each other fight monsters and villains and other undesirables. They talked to him, they felt his presence and enjoyed it, but the brutal fact was that he simply was not there. The real world held no meaning to him.
He was glad he didn't live there anymore.
He was last in the line of prisoners – or slaves, he wasn't quite sure which. They were walking in the middle of a desert, surrounded by a group of five armed and armored guards. He didn't speak the language of his captors, so his attempts to ask why he was manacled and chained to the other twelve or why he appeared to be wearing clamps around his arms and legs were met with grunts and snarls that barely sounded like a language at all and more like he annoying barks of dogs at night when you are just trying to get rest but they just keep chattering to each other about dog things.
It wasn't only the language of the captors that was unearthly. Their skin was a brownish orange, and they towered over him in muscular forms. They had two sets of eyes, one set in the normal place, the other upon where Albert would expect eyebrows to be. They had enlarged canines, and subtle snouts that made their mouths remind him of those of bears. Albert didn't care much for bears. Not even teddy bears, he had a bad experience with one of those. Most of them were rather hairless (the captors, not teddy bears, although teddy bears are also usually hairless, with various forms of cloth to simulate the fur of a bear), but one of them had locks of coarse black hair hanging from the back of his skull, as if was a balding Rastafarian. Albert had a brief mental image of a middle-aged Rastafarian man doing his taxes while his wife complains from the other room.
Three prisoners ahead of Albert was someone of the same race as the captors, who, unlike them, stood at his full height instead of hunching over, proud and defiant. He, too, had the braids – or were they dreadlocks – that one amongst the guards carried. Albert tried to talk to him once, but received a jab from one of the guard's spears for his attempt. Not knowing his name, Albert decided to call him Khan.
The motley group continued along the sands, making decent progress. After about two hours, one of the prisoners fell to the ground either out of exhaustion or dehydration. Albert became aware of how sore his throat was and of his own thirst as a guard spilled a precious few drops of water into that prisoner's mouth and shoved him to keep him moving, but Albert's attempt to ask for water was only met with another spear jab. Terrible service. Albert gives this restaurant one star. That prisoner got preferential treatment for being a pansy.
Albert chose to nickname that prisoner Thirsty. He was too tired to think of a better name.
Thirsty was shorter than the rest of the prisoners. His neck was set forward, and his snout was long like a crocodile's. He appeared to be covered in a blackish skin, like a salamander's, with red patterns that Albert couldn't tell if were natural or tattooed on. He showed more expression than the others, which was surprising considering his face was much more distinctly inhuman than the other prisoners. As Albert looked closer, he thought he could make out something like gills just behind Thirsty's jawbones. Ouch. Poor amphibian in the desert. Maybe he did need that water more than Albert.
The march continued, and Albert let his eyes fall to the back of the woman in chains in front of him. Next to Khan, she was doing the best out of all the marchers, and Albert could see why. She was extremely muscular, and probably was used to walking this distance. Her skin was a dark gray, but other than that, she seemed mostly human. Other than the nails, which seemed to curve like claws. And the horns, or rather remnants of horns, which appeared to have been sheared off. And the fact that her facial structure seemed a bit odd, and her eyes seemed to glow a red color. Other than that, perfectly human. She was a bit taller than Albert, which Albert chose to assume was natural for her species and he was definitely not short.
"Stop looking at my ass," she said.
Albert was so flustered that he forgot he was somewhere he didn't know, talking to a woman from another species who was way bigger than him, chained to that same woman, and surrounded by guards. He reverted back to his Earth self for a little bit, and stammered out "S-sorry, I was checking about your muscles. I'll stop," and the proceeded to stare at the sand beneath his feet for about two minutes before realizing the woman spoke English.
"You speak my language?" he asked.
"No, I just happen to speak a language that is perfectly identical to yours in only two sentences, this one and 'Stop looking at my ass,'" she flicked her head back as a fly flew near her face. The man in front of her flicked out a tongue and caught it.
"Oh no, that's a shame. I was hoping to ask where we're headed," Albert feigned distress, but as she looked over her shoulder he let his lips curl up a little.
"Did you get heat stroke or something?"
"Oh, thank god you were joking about the language thing. Also, possibly, yes. I'll definitely be seeing my lawyer about this as soon as I am released."
Albert chuckled to himself a little when he saw her lips curl up to reveal her only slightly terrifying set of teeth.
"I could probably use some legal representation," the amusement showed in her voice, too.
"Cool, I'll hook you up with my guy if you help me out in remembering what we're doing here."
"We got captured. We're headed to the coliseums, where we'll most likely have to kill each other for the amusement of the Arctos. I'll definitely get a few laughs out of it," she grimaced as one of the orange men barked at her.
"What'd we do? Are we like… enemies of the state? Bandits? Enemy soldiers?"
"I don't know what you are, but Oisken," she gestured to Thirsty, "The slippery one? He was a smuggler. He and the ship he rented for his smuggling job, the Goldscale, got caught. I was the first mate on that ship."
"What happened to the Captain?" Albert asked.
The gray woman didn't answer, and Albert received another jab from one of the Arctos. He decided she didn't want to talk about it, and kept quite. They must have been walking some time if she was a navy girl. There definitely wasn't water for a significant distance around the marching line. There wasn't any place to sail.
Or that's what Albert thought before he heard the roar of engines above him, and a massive ship, styled like man-o'-wars of the days of sailing, skimmed the clouds above him with its tallest mast. It was a magnificent ship, crafted in a sandy wood that Albert wanted to call sandwood, but hey, he wasn't a carpenter or a tree scientist. An arboriolist? Dendrologist? Whatever. The point was, it was a pretty sandy wood with three great dark masts holding up sky blue sails that seemed to catch the sun. A pair of sails also came from each side like wings.
Immediately afterwards, two smaller schooners flew lower, and Albert's hair was ruffled by the wake of the closer one. Albert looked in awe as they flew to the horizon, where the sun was just beginning to set. He was so distracted, he almost didn't see the massive building they docked at.
It was round, and reminded Albert of those Roman stadiums so much that even if the gray woman hadn't said it before, he would have called it a coliseum. Even though it took half an hour to get there after seeing it, Albert could still hear the cheers and cries coming from the coliseum. Despite knowing he was going to be the entertainment, he couldn't help but get a little excited from the atmosphere. This was a place where, no matter how barbaric the action, people lost their empathy, just for a little while, and saw people smash into each other and rejoiced. Kind of like football, except there were less drunks picking fights with each other and more drunks paying other people to pick fights with each other.
The group passed through an underground tunnel, underneath all the shops, stalls, and docks that surrounded the stadium. The tunnel was filled with guards and other groups of prisoners, and despite the cheers from above, or possibly in conjunction with them, Albert began to feel sick in his gut.
They came to the end of the tunnel, where a massive gate closed off movement forward. Someone of the same race as the gray-skinned woman stepped forward, only he was dressed in fine robes that, although Albert disagreed with the style of it, clearly was very expensive. His horns weren't shaved off like the woman, and parted in either direction and took a right angle at the end, forming a shape similar to the Greek Omega. He was handsome in a worn out way. He had faint scars upon his face. His eyes had deep bags beneath them, and his intensely colored eyes still looked sleepy.
"What do we have for sale today, Tavius?" he said, in a thick accent that Albert thought sounded vaguely Swedish.
The braided Arctos stepped forward. "We have 13 prisoners there, ready for fighting after a rest of nighting, Polis." His enunciation was all wrong, not to mention the grammar flaws.
"Are you selling them individually?" Polis asked, still sounding rather bored.
"Yes, and wishing I am for shows of the more ones that are special, yes."
"Alright, Tavius, I'll buy all of your ordinary fighters for our usual rates. Remove the rest from the group, and we'll talk about them one by one."
Tavius barked to the other of his guard, who unchained certain prisoners and ushered them through the gate. Albert, the gray woman, Oisken, Khan, and two others were left behind. Albert decided to examine the two that were with him, since they were apparently "special."
One of them was far more monstrous than the rest. He seemed to walk naturally like a gorilla, so his manacles were around his neck, and was covered in thick red hair. Any eyes the thing had were concealed by this fur, and only a snarling mouth poked out from the hairy mantle. A long, whip-like tail was bound in another locking mechanism. A smaller set of arms, in addition to the massive trunks up front, were tucked away in something like a strait jacket wrapped around the poor beast. Albert would have thought it an animal if not for the fact it walked in line with the others.
The second was almost as near-human as the gray race, sharing the horns, claws, and brightly colored eyes of what Albert assumed to be a companion race to the gray ones. Indeed, the gray Metians and the red Atlasians are closely related, coming from the same evolutionary line. Like… zebras and donkeys, which are honestly pretty much the same thing other than the stripes. Don't believe it? Look at them side by side. Seriously. I'll wait.
Did you do it? Am I right? Who am I kidding, I know I am.
Where was I? Right, the other man. His skin was a red color, with some hints of copper. His ears were pointed, and each of his hands bore an extra finger. A long, monkey like tail stretch extended from his tailbone, and hair ran down the strip of his spine. In fact, he was all around hairier than everyone. Well, except the gorilla thing, but hey, that was a gorilla thing.
"Come along," Polis gestured his hand over his shoulder as he turned, walking underneath the still opening gate. Albert and the special righters followed, with two guards leading the rest of the prisoners down a second corridor. Albert wondered to himself what happened to the "ordinary fighters." He would never know, but I feel free to tell you.
The pits ran by the Arctos organize their fighters quite meticulously into two groups: the Outstanding and the Generic. If a person is exceptionally good at anything that might be used for combat, they are Outstanding. If they are just generally not exceptional, they are classified as a Generic. The Outstanding are placed in challenges specifically to suit their skills. The Generics either fight each other or wild animals to keep the crowd from getting too bored in between rounds with Outstandings, or sometimes are selected to become living targets for the Outstanding. The crowd loves to see a single Outstanding slaughter a mass of Generics, and the Generics get a chance to be upgraded to Outstanding if they slay the Outstanding.
This rarely happens.
Albert and the others came to a stop in a small pit underneath the coliseum. These were the bidding pits, where wealthy slavers barter for fighters who they deem exceptional. Bars separate the small stadium from the stands, and a gate that closed behind the party locked the group in.
The prisoners were placed in a line, and then made to face to their right, so they were all looking upon Polis and a pair of Arctos who came to meet him.
Polis spoke first.
"Prisoners, here you shall demonstrate any skills you think would make yourself valuable in the arena."
Each of the Arctos repeated after him in clearly different languages, one in the bark of the Arctos, and another in a clicking and grunting that Albert would later learn was the language of the gorilla-like monster that was two people to his left.
"To my left," he gestured, "Is a set of weapons. Feel free to use them and the dummy behind me in your demonstration. First off, the big Arctos in front."
Polis and the other two walked briskly out of the arena and locked the gate behind them. Tavius growled at one of his men, who went to Khan and unlocked his manacles. In a flash, Khan reached forward, grabbed the guard in a headlock, and jerked his neck backwards, letting the body fall limply to the floor. Tavius and the other guard raised their spears to Khan's neck, but he simply stood still.
Khan looked to the watching buyers, and barked out to them. There were applause, and more barking.
The Metian woman leaned into Albert.
"He said his name was Chieftain Co'bui Cultis, and that was his demonstration."
"Effective, apparently. Maybe we can just kill one guard each time and leave," Albert whispered back.
The Chieftain had his chains replaced, and was ushered to one side. Next was Oisken. He rubbed his hands as the manacles came off and looked about for a moment. Then, he quickly dropped to the floor, and disappeared. There were barks, and Tavius pulled out a strange looking device. The only way I can describe it as it is the exact thing you'd expect to be perplexed to find in a book store.
Actually that is an exceptionally poor way to describe it.
Tavius fiddled with a dial, and then silently pointed to a spot on the ground. His guard reached for the area and removed it from the ground. He was now holding a man-sized, lizard shaped piece of the floor. After slapping it, Oisken returned to his natural colors. All of Oisken's race, the Ghestians, have the ability of nigh-invisibility, but it has a logical flaw. With no eyes to reflect light, the Ghestians are blind while invisible. If he wasn't, perhaps he would have seen the point and had time to run away. But he wasn't, so he got caught.
The bids weren't too high this time. Invisibility isn't a showy ability – and thus, tends to be a gamble in the arena.
Next was Mr. Gorilla-man. As soon as he was freed, he started scrambling with surprising agility for something of his size, ascended up the fences, climbing upside-down along the dome.