Demons of The Arena
It was a horrible tradition, strictly banned by the Galactic community. The penalty for the organization of such an event varied between life imprisonment to execution by the perpetrator’s very own crime, and any race allowing such abominations to exist invited the wrath of dozens of spacefaring species. None of this stopped the Kessen.
Big, ugly, and incredibly capable warriors, the Kessen are among the Galaxy’s most dangerous races, and they know it. Their sphere of influence is relatively small, but within, they rule absolute. Despite being both one of the oldest spacefaring races and smart enough to have invented three of the Ten Most Deadly Weapons Ever Created, the Kessen also have an incredibly brutal society. They have slaves, chemical weaponry, blood rites and more. Worst of all is a thing so horrible that very few of the stories about it even need to exaggerate. It is known as the Grahk’hai, the only gladiatorial system to go unopposed by the FAS. Travelers are advised to avoid the Kessen Sphere at all costs.
For best results, program navigation computers to divert all routes around the region, as rumors of Kessen FTL-blockers cannot be dismissed at this time.
-Standard Galactic Codex, “The Kessen”, updated on: Archon Time Scale 567,936; Federation of Allied Systems 5,931; Earth Date 3,419
Hailing from the early days of Kessen society, the Grahk’hai has changed very little over the millennia. In ancient times, such arenas used volunteers, criminals, or prisoners of one of the many wars. As they came into contact with other cultures, the Kessen captured enough of them to create breeding populations of slaves, who soon began to populate the Grahk’hai arenas. These slaves are separated into two categories. The Combatants are essentially cannon fodder, given minimal training and equipment, then sent into the arena to die. Their entertainment value is in their futile struggle and gory deaths. Champions are those who have potential to do well. They are put through a year of hard but effective training and given much more formidable weapons and armor. The Champions are expected to do well, revel in the slaughter of their foes one battle at a time until, at last, they face an enemy that overwhelms them. In this way, a Kessen might still choose to find glory in the Arena. They are only treated differently in that they can choose to stop participating whenever they will, even in the middle of battle if they can bear such dishonor. The Arena is also used to punish criminals, but rarely. It takes a particular type of crime to lose such honor but still deserve the chance to redeem it.
Traditionally, the participants fought wild animals. As the Kessen’s dominance of their environment grew, however, one particular creature came to dominate the arena as it had previously ruled its natural habitat. The Khek, ancestral nemesis of the Kessen. Its name in their language means Death, but most other races use the human moniker, the Dread Scorpions, commonly shortened to The Dreads.
Khek are outwardly similar to Earth scorpions, albeit vastly oversized at about four meters long and several tons in weight. They have six limbs, the first two serving as functional, clawed arms, as well as a tail with a jagged, poison-spewing spike at the end. A Dread’s entire body is covered in thick armor, scaled on the main body but as a solid shell over the limbs. Since becoming (vaguely) domesticated, the Dreads have been made nearly as much a focus of the Grahk’hai as the actual participants.
-Standard Galactic Codex, “Grahk’hai Arenas”, updated on: Archon Time Scale 567,931; Federation of Allied Systems 5,926; Earth Date 3414
Step 1: Round Up
In hindsight, it really wasn’t a good idea. It hadn’t been a very good idea in foresight either, for that matter, but it was only looking back that James realized how phenomenally stupid he’d been to risk a trip through Kessen space just because he was running late. He shouldn’t have cared that he would lose his job if he didn’t get the shipment through in time when the alternative was risking his life. It was too late to dwell on it, though. The rumors had been true. The Kessen had Disruptor Ships, and James Edwin had been caught in one of their nets. They’d also gotten his shitty, company-issued ship and its mediocre cargo of energy drinks. The drinks were incompatible with their physiology, but the Kessen didn’t care about that anyway.
No, what they were interested in was new meat for the Grahk’hai Arena. It didn’t matter that James was a physically inept cargo jockey. He would fight and die just the same, or else be ‘lucky’ enough to qualify for breeding stock. The title made it sound like it wasn’t too bad, but the position involved far more pumps and syringes than it did sex and women, as he knew full well; it payed for ship pilots to learn about species near their routes. As Kessen warriors began cutting through the cabin airlock, James prayed to any god that would listen for a merciful end. He quickly removed his jacket and pack, emptied his pockets, then kicked everything away from himself and stood in the most open section of floor that the relatively small cockpit had.
The trio of Kessen entered to see James Edwin standing absolutely still with his arms outstretched in a clear, open gesture of surrender. Not even this could motivate the race that so openly flouted galactic law to treat him decently, however. The beasts that looked like the demons of hell brutally shoved his arms together behind his back and bound them tightly, though carefully, together. The Warriors wouldn’t dare cripple a possible Grahk’hai Champion, no matter how low that possibility was. They showed no hesitation in pushing his body right up to its limits however. The middle one, who had a different pattern on his grey-black uniform, casually kicked James between the legs. As he fell to the floor, curling instinctively into a fetal position, the same Warrior, who seemed to have some minor command position, snapped a shock collar attached to a leash around his neck. He alternated using this collar and kicking James in the ribs. It seemed that these were not nearly as high a priority as the arms or crotch, however, as he felt several breaking from the assault.
Getting the impression that they wanted him to stand, the human did so and two of the Kessen roughly dragged him through a boarding tube into their ship. The other stayed behind, presumably to pilot his own cargo trawler to a scrapyard or something like one. The interior of a Kessen ship was mostly dark gray metal, lit poorly by crimson strips in the ceiling. The demonic race had excellent night vision, so it bothered them a great deal less than it did James. He was dragged along to what seemed to be a medical bay. Thinly padded slabs extended from the walls, most of which had buckled straps attached. James didn’t know if this was a room meant only for slaves or if Kessen medicine was really so bad that patients needed to be restrained, but he didn’t particularly care. Unlike the rest of the ship, it had powerful and untinted light strips, which allowed him to see that the creature manning a computer station near the back of the room was wearing white.
“We brought in another one,” The ranking Kessen said in a deep, grating voice, using Common almost certainly just to scare him, “Lightly abused.” He removed the human’s bindings but held his leash more firmly.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” The apparent doctor’s voice was higher and more smooth, “It’s a shame that we only got a cargo vessel. I like it when there’s some variety in the Arena.” It (for James couldn’t tell if the voice difference meant that it was female or not) was also a relatively weak Kessen, and was gentle enough when it shoved James onto one of the slabs and held him there. The grunt secured the straps and then left, but the more ranking one remained. The doctor ran its hands over James’ entire body, completely ignoring the man’s discomfort. The talons on its fingers were smoothed, and it had surprisingly sleek palm scanners linked to a screen that was visible from the human’s position.
“You broke half its ribs,” The doctor said disapprovingly, “I’ll have to fix that. Excellent job with the genitalia, though. Very nice bruises, but nothing bad enough that I need to waste any medicine.” Great, so it was only worried about the supplies. The doctor pressed a few buttons on the wall, causing a small vertical cylinder with syringes mounted on it to slide out. The doctor picked up one filled with a green liquid then ripped James’ somewhat grease-stained shirt unceremoniously off of his body. It carefully positioned the syringe in the center of his hurting ribs, then pressed it into the human’s flesh and injected the liquid.
It burned like fire through his bones, and if James didn’t know that they hadn’t taken his bloodworks yet, he would’ve suspected it of being explicitly harmful. The pain spread throughout the rib cage, seeping into each individual bone like acid eating through the flesh. He screamed at the top of his lungs without an ounce of shame. After a few seconds, the pain dulled into a bruised throbbing, which was, admittedly, less than he’d been feeling before the injection.
The doctor then swapped the now-empty syringe with a clean one from the cylinder. It found a vein on his inner arm and withdrew a full half pint of murky red liquid. It was far more than any blood test could possibly require, but he’d come to expect such behavior by then. The doctor transferred the blood into a small, marked port on the wall and in a few seconds, a myriad of information about him came up on the screen. It was all in Kessen runes, but the reptiles still talked about it in Common. Maybe they actually preferred the language.
“Breeder genes aren’t too special,” James was relieved by the officer's comment. There didn’t seem to be that much text on the screen, so he supposed that the beast must be more intelligent than appearances indicated..
“Yes, but he is the first New Blood in awhile,” The doctor pointed out. That could be bad.
“Good point. New genes are more valuable. You should run the physicals,” The officer advised. It was definitely not good.
“If he tests well, we could get some use there yet,” the doctor concurred. Hopefully, James thought, he would test terribly.
“Besides, I want to see this one squirm,” the officer chuckled. So the tests themselves were about to make him miserable. Great.
“Ahh, but look here,” The doctor said, pointing to another statistic, “That’s Champion material of a very rare and valuable form.”
“On this guy?” The officer was clearly sceptical, “Well, we’ll have to run those, too, for all the likelihood of it. Shame we can’t put him in the Stables and the Grahk’hai.” James didn’t think it was a shame at all. He felt rather relieved by that, actually.
“Not necessarily,” The doctor replied, “As it happens, some of my colleagues and I have been working on quite the . . . interesting device ” They shared a dark laugh.
“And how do you feel about this?” The officer asked, suddenly rounding on James, “I’m curious.”
“I-I’d rather just be a combatant,” James stuttered with total honesty.
“No glory?” The Kessen snorted in clear disdain, “Pathetic.”
“Or perhaps just smart, eh?” The doctor suggested, “It’s where you’ll be, like as not. Time to find out.” It then proceeded to run a full battery of tests on him, many of which the human didn’t recognize but most of which were exceedingly unpleasant. He was given a very mild sedative that just barely took the edge off of the more painful procedures, no more than it was supposed to, no doubt; they liked seeing him in pain. When the tests were done and data compiled, a summary was once more put up on screen.
“There’s no way,” The officer stated flatly, examining the glyphs.
“Do you doubt my expertise?” The doctor challenged, a real edge beneath . . . it’s calm exterior..
“No, no. ‘Course not,” the officer assuaged, “Just hard to believe.”
“Fortunately, your . . . what was the phrase? Thick skull does not change the reality of the situation,” the medical expert sneered, “Well, go on! Call it in, you buffoon!”
“Yeah, yeah,” The other Kessen grumbled before tapping a sigil on his chest, clearly some sort of comms device, “Captain, set a course for Zeddick. We’ve got a Champion to train!”
“Shit!” James swore compulsively. Three grating laughs came back in return, one made even more rough by the unseen speaker it was projecting from.
Step 2: Resurrection
Twelve Months Later
Training had been more brutal than his darkest imaginings. James had been broken time and time again, barely given time for the wounds to scab in between. More than his body had been reshaped. It was subtle, hidden, but James soon began to notice its effects in the other three men he’d been training with. Two were slaves, the last an unlucky outsider like himself, but only he had noticed it changing them. By the end, the others craved the Arena, despised the Khek with all their minds. James had not wholly escaped this. He, too, lusted for battle, but he controlled this urge while it controlled the others. James didn’t hate the Dreads very much, either. They were primal, deadly killers, but no more than any other Apex Predator, and he could not fault them for a role that Nature had intended them to play. Perhaps this would change upon his first battle with the creatures. As it turned out, the man was about to experience just that.
“Ahteniik!” A gruff voice called from the end of the cell corridor in which James spent much of the day. This was the name they’d chosen for him. It meant “Mind Fighter” and “Assassin”. The title was one of grudging respect for those who fought with their heads and used every advantage they could get in battle. As a Champion, James needed to know himself as the crowd would know him.
“You’re up,” The guard said as he got to James’ cell, “Don’t try anything. You’re no Champion yet.” Of course he wasn’t going to try anything. Did the guard even know its own language? Through stupidity or protocol didn’t much matter, though. The guard pressed a button on its wrist, causing the simple shirt and pants James wore to lock up, severely inhibiting his movements, then opened the door and positioned the human’s arm behind his back. The guard then unlocked only his legs and shoved James through the corridors. Ahteniik was strong, but the Kessen was stronger still, especially wearing its mechanized armor. Finally, the tan stone of the dry underground halls terminated in a dark metal wall. The guard opened a thick door and shoved James through, only fully unlocking his clothing after it closed and locked the door.
This was the Haven, a small room just before the Arena itself that held select weapons chosen for individual battles. The weapons wouldn’t go active until the fighting began, but the room was well-armoured so that even if a Champion did manage to activate one early, they’d only be hurting themselves. James looked around to see what he’d been given. Light but very flexible and high quality armor. It had minimal energy-based shielding, but any more would interfere with James’ battle performance. All in all, nothing was more suitable for the human to wear. The weapons, though . . . They were on a whole new level. Xyree Enhancer Gauntlets, the very bleeding edge of combat technology.
“They’re planning something big for me. That’s for sure,” James muttered to himself as he donned the gear and found the part of his mind that was cunning and deadly, a true warrior. Somewhere, a harsh klaxon sounded. The opposite wall of the chamber slid down and the floor started moving forward. Finally, it was time for Ahteniik to be truly forged in the bloody flames of battle. James Edwin entered the Grahk’hai Arena.
Sure enough, a full three Dread Scorpions awaited him in the circle. Even for most Champions, facing such a trio without prior experience would mean certain death. Ahteniik had not been forged because he was normal, or even because of some physical skill like the rest. There was only one thing that made the skinny little cargo pilot worthy of being trained into a Warrior stronger than a special forces veteran, something he hadn’t even known about himself beforehand. James Edwin was one of the first few sapients in the entire galaxy found to be capable of using Psychic abilities. Ahteniik focused, enforced dominion on the universe, then threw his hand forward in an instinctive gesture.
The first Dread foolish enough to charge was blasted a full twenty meters into the opposite wall. The arena was rocked by vibrations, though whether from the impact itself or the sheer power of the crowd’s reaction it was impossible to say. A good start, to say the least, but the huge scorpion-like creature was not so easily defeated. It quickly shook the impact off and jumped back up.
The trio of predators were more wary now. They spread out, circling Ahteniik as they spat their acid from afar. The stone was uncorroded by it, else the arena would’ve fallen long ago, but his suit was merely resistant to the potent liquid and James realized that he would need to break this formation if he was to win before the pools reached his feet.
Ahteniik swept out his hands, palms flat and parallel to the ground. The Gauntlets condensed and refined the accompanying raw bursts of Psychic energy, causing ethereal but razor sharp crescents to blaze towards the scorpions. With these projectiles, he corralled the beasts back into a group, then focused his mind on a new application, though he didn’t know if the Gauntlets would even channel such an abstract use of power.
Ahteniik did nothing to the air itself, but influenced the very minds around him as an wave of Willpower so pure and intense it was almost tangible pulsed from his body to hammered the warrior’s foes. For just a moment, his mind linked with those of the Khek. The touch unnerved him, for though the minds were alien, James thought he felt something . . . resonate through the brief connection. The mental attack did its job and Ahteniik quickly dispatched his stunned enemies, but the phantom resonance continued to unnerve him.
James felt the shadow of a thought, one single, strange word come unbidden to his mind; Lhaorin. Almost certainly a Kessen word. It must’ve one he’d overheard the guards use at some point, but it continued to haunt his mind in and out of his Grahk’hai battles. As the months dragged on, more words joined the echoes of the first. Resh, vhey, Dhe’kun’tiir, and more. He longed to discover their meaning, but as a Champion, he was meant to know only three words. The Kessen were His Masters, the Khek were His Enemy and Ahteniik was Himself. Only the Kessen themselves knew much more than that.
Step 3: Revelation
James knew that he was beyond having his death arranged. As the first psychic in the Arena, first his Glory would be milked for all it was worth, and then, when the crowd finally tired of Ahteniik, the Kessen would do the same to his body. James had resigned himself to this, but he knew in the core of his being that he needed to learn the words’ meaning before that happened. After his first battle, Ahteniik was moved to the Eternal Champions’ quarters. Eternals were those who were mostly immune to Grahk’hai Executions, and their standard of living was actually pretty good. There were Kessen here, but they were all careers, as unapproachable as the guards themselves, but finally, twenty-seven months after he was captured, James’ chance arrived.
The chance took the form of a male Kessen by name of Kii’reh, one of the few prisoners sent to the Arena. Kii’reh was unusual looking, with hide the color of ash, and his crime had been Treason. Prior to his sentencing, he’d been important enough in Zeddick politics to merit such an ‘honor’ as working off his debt to society in the Grahk’hai. Restrictions were looser in the Eternal Champions’ rooms, the guards lazier and cameras far less numerous, and Kii’reh was as interested in a Psychic Warrior as James was about a Treasonous Kessen. As it turned out, Kii’reh’s treason reflected a vastly less evil individual than the majority of his race, and the lack of cameras in their quarters allowed them to strike up an awkward sort of friendship. The Kessen agreed to teach James his language when the man asked, though the latter did not feel it time yet to reveal the Mysterious Words, so progress was slower than it could have been. Ahteniik was more than proficient in Kessen’teh, as the language was called, before he learned their final meaning, several months after Kii’reh’s arrival.
- - -
“Here’s a word we don’t use very often,” a deep but smooth voice rumbled, its owner sketching out runes with a small piece of charcoal-like material, “Lhaorin. It means Brotherhood, but also Alliance. Two disparate groups must come together and become like brothers. Then, there is Lhaorin. It is rare, but powerful.” James eyes went very, very wide as connections snapped into place.
“Kii’reh,” He said urgently, placing his hand on the larger being’s shoulder, “This’ll piss you off, but I hope you understand my reasons. You’ve seen my signature move, the Psychic Scream? Well, it’s not quite . . . as advertised.”
“How so?” The Kessen asked cautiously. He knew something of his friend’s abilities, of course; as a scholar, it was a great fascination to him, and the kessen had asked many questions of his own, but this . . . this was odd.
“I don’t just blast my will out in the enemy’s general direction,” James explained, “Well, yes I do, but in the process, I end up linking my mind to theirs. It’s only for an instant, but the Dreads, they don’t think the way they should. My connection with them is different than it is with the other beasts, even accounting for them being a separate species, and from the very beginning of doing it, words have begun floating around in my head. The words are Kessen’teh.” It was Kii’reh’s turn to be astonished. He processed this revelation for several moments.
“I think I see,” the grey demon replied eventually, “But why tell me now? Why is Lhaorin so significant?”
“It was the first,” James said quite simply, “And it echoes the loudest, and only now, now . . . I understand what it means. Not just Lhaorin, everything!” He was almost in hysterics by this point, but somehow kept his voice in check, “It’s the Khek. Of course it’s the Khek! For most of your history they were kicking your asses, because they’re not beasts! They’ve been sapient the entire fucking time! They are all Tenniik! Psychic, every last one, just like me. That’s where the words come from. The entire race is sending me a message, but I’m killing ‘em too damned fast to listen.”
“That is . . . amazing,” Kii’reh said thoughtfully, “and I believe you, but my people, if they even understand . . . They won’t care.”
“They won’t need to,” James replied confidently, “That one word was they key to everything. I know the Khek’s message now . . . “
“You’re being frustratingly dramatic,” Kii’reh growled, “Tell me already.”
“Lhaorin tu Dhe’kun’tiir,” A feral grin spread across the human’s face.
“Alliance and Grand Rebellion,” A reptilian predator’s smile joined it.
“In the Grahk’hai, I shall be as cruel as I am deadly, toying with my prey,” Ahteniik explained his newborn plan, “And all the while, conspiring with it. My telepathy is power they don’t expect and cannot match. Mens’ hearts are mine to read, and we do have allies here. With their help, and the Kheks’, we have a real chance to win.”
“I agree,” the gray-skinned Demon replied.
“Down with the Grahk’hai?” Ahteniik confirmed.
“May its ruins lie forgotten,” Moderate he may have been, but Kii’reh was Kessen still, and war was in their very blood, “But Our fire is lit.”
“And May it burn wide and forever,” It was a sacred Kessen oath, once translated into Common then spread across the stars. It had only one meaning in all the galaxy, “Do Not Forget that on This Day our Cause is Begun and we shall Fight and Bleed to see its End.”
Stage Four: Rebellion
Once upon a time, a man named James Edwin resented himself for taking a shortcut through Kessen space. Years later, Ahteniik looked back on himself and shook his head, smiling faintly. The plans were made, the time was right. One final battle remained, before the war.
The Grahk’hai itself would be the instrument of its own undoing. Through a mix of trickery, persuasion, and subtle influence, Ahteniik and his conspirators had arranged a fight in the Grand Arena. This massive battle would involve dozens of Eternals, Champions, and Combatants, including all Lhaorin members as well as the largest grouping of Khek seen in centuries. Only Kii’reh would be absent from the field, though not the rebellion. The gray demon had served his time and was actually pivotal to their plan. He’d maneuvered himself into being the Grand Master of all Grahk’hai events, and was half the reason such a huge gathering had been allowed. Another large part was played by the Khek, who’d gradually been less ferocious in the arena, as had the conspirators. The normal battles just weren’t as entertaining any more, which gave Kii’reh all the leverage he needed.
Now, all that was left was to arm up and go to face his destiny in battle. This time, Ahteniik had to bring out James once again, in preparation for the rebellion. The mindset of Ahteniik was a better warrior and tactician, but only as James could he use his abilities to their fullest, for only as James did he truly feel alive, and for something that had become as essential to him as breathing, that mattered. There was a sword in the Haven with his usual equipment and the man used it first on his greasy black hair, cutting it short as a sort of spiritual preparation for the battle that was to begin. The klaxon sounded and everyone stepped out onto the field, but nobody, neither man nor beast apparent, moved. They all stood where they were, waiting and, James realized with a start, every last one looking to him. He could think of only one thing to say in response.
“Lhaorin tu Dhe’kun’tiir!!” He shouted with every last ounce of his heart and mind and soul. Its raw psychic force echoed through the cosmos, and the Dread Rebellion began. The Lhaorin forces fought their way through the greatest Arena, then the greatest city of the Kessen Homeworld itself, Zeddick. They fought like the Demons that had trained them, hijacked an entire, massive Dreadnought, and bombed the very Capital from orbit. Kii’reh died during the fight, overwhelmed by soldiers as he attempted to join the others, but Ahteniik escaped with most of the Khek and many arena Combatants and Champions. After the initial battle, several of the Kessen Species’ many enemies allied with them in their purpose. So supported and with the Dreadnought at his command, James Edwin, formerly an unassuming cargo hauler pilot, changed the very meaning of his title Ahteniik. It became, not “Mind Fighter” but “Psychic Warrior,” a title that only he could bear. The Ahteniik became a figure of Galactic Legend, then vanished.
The Kessen had been crippled, the Grahk’hai was no more, and his oath had been fulfilled, but Ahteniik was not his true self, and that mindset’s task was fulfilled. The Psychic Warrior took some of his well-earned money, bought a cargo ship, and went right back to being James Edwin, laid-back stuff hauler. He went freelance this time but soon picked up a new reputation, and for the next thirty years, the mere presence of the cargo ship Gray Demon was enough to deter all but the most stupid pirates. After all, very few ships were armed with Dreadnought-grade weaponry and crewed by a pilot who could read minds across even the void of space itself.