A ritual that involves a real life game of Hungry-Hungry-Hippos.
|Word Count: 2000
Sable had never felt panic like this before. Her hands were bound together at her front, and she was locked in a queue of people with fencing surrounding them. Before her, the old gypsy woman was bobbing from side to side and saying a prayer in the old language. They had been together since the first prisoner roundup, almost a year ago now. They’d traveled across the planet in cages and handcuffs, and although they didn’t speak much of the same language, they’d come to depend on each other. Now they were at the end, and all of the stories and rumors about why they’d been captured and what was going to happen to them didn’t matter anymore. They were in line to meet whatever fate lay ahead.
Through the fencing to her sides, Sable could see performers in costumes, crew members moving around lighting and audio equipment, comedy acts and costumed performers were bustling about, moving in the frantic manner of a massive production. It seemed to be the backstage part of a huge amphitheater, which meant that this was The Solstice. From what she’d been able to gather while imprisoned and on her way here, The Solstice was a grand feast to celebrate the Amani conquest of the world. She was a member of a conquered people, and had been captured as tribute to this event. What that entailed, she still did not know, but the evidence of what was coming was terrifying.
Mixed with the bustle of production was the the cleanup act for whatever was happening ahead of her, beyond the doorway at the end of the line. Everytime a group of performers went out to entertain the crowd between rounds, another crew dressed in white rubber bibs would enter the stage, and return, smeared in red, pushing loads of body parts and viscera in wheelbarrows and carts past the line of waiting tributes. The air was an awful miasma of blood, entrails, and fear.
The line moved in intervals. Sometimes they would move ten or even twenty feet, sometimes, just a few, but as they got closer to the doorway, they could hear the announcer from the other side more clearly. His high pitched nasally voice cut through the crowd and ground against Sables eardrums. She felt like her head was going to explode.
“Look at him go!” the announcer cried, causing the PA to crack and echo through the chamber. “Ripper X is at 4 and might just get to 5 before time expires. Look at the size of this monster! His opponent, Carbonara, won’t be able to catch up.” A deep blood curdling human scream pierced through the roar of the crowd, and then turned silent. “There’s another half for Ripper! He’s torn away a clean half, but it looks like time will expire before he can finish it off.” The crowd settled a bit, and another act went up to enter them.
When the cleaners emerged this time, they were pushing a cart holding a half torso, torn cleanly from the waist. It was a young man, from one of the southern territories, based on the clothes he wore. His eyes were bulging in terror, frozen forever in death, his guts pouring out onto the flatbed of the cart. When the man standing behind Sable saw this, he began to panic. He threw himself against the fence, screaming, knocking Sable with his shoulder as he bucked, trying to escape. She stumbled forward into the gypsy woman, and nearly took her out.
“WHAT’S THIS?!” One of the Anami soldiers appeared and drew his shock baton. “Knock that off!”
The man continued to panic and climb at the fencing, but the guard came over and jabbed him through the fence in the ribs with his baton. He fell limp to the ground. The guard spat at him and faded into the background again.
The man on the ground was completely still. Ahead of her, the line was shuffling forward again. She looked at the man standing on the other side of the fallen man, he gestured for her to move with the line. She knelt to the ground and touched the man’s face. His eyes were open, and he was breathing lightly, completely stunned but still conscious. She grabbed his arm around her shoulder and motioned for the other man to help her. They hoisted him to his feet. “WHAT’S THE HOLDUP?!” The same soldier came back and glared at the three of them through the gate. “Move it along.”
They shouldered the man forward, and propped him up against the fence. She didn’t realize it but she was now next in line. The gypsy woman turned and made eye contact with Sable, a look of deep pain and acceptance. As the door closed behind her, Sable looked beyond to try to make out what was behind the door. They were being led into a small dark chamber. She couldn’t make out many details, except that the floor was completely covered with blood. Then the door sealed, and she could hear the floor on the other side rising.
“Place your final bets folks, we’re about to begin.” The crowd roared. ““Here’s our next batch of tributes. This group doesn’t look very strong, though that fella in the blue coat survived the last three rounds, let’s see if he can get lucky again!”
“Here come our competitors!” The crowd exploded with excitement. “They’re not the biggest competitors we’ve seen today. Tigerlily weighs in at just over four tons, and Sebastian weighs in at five and a half tons. Maybe we’ll get five or six points total out of this group. Put two minutes on the clock.”
The crowd fell silent. “And they’re off!”
Sable couldn’t follow the narration. She didn’t want to believe it, but the stories she’d heard must be true. They’d been locked up briefly with an old man who told them a story too terrible to believe. A man eating monster, he said. The Anami feed their enemies to these beasts, and then slaughter the animals for a Solstice feast, absorbing their conquered foes completely. But could this be the same thing? It seemed like this was a competition. They’d somehow made a game of it. Two monsters competing to see who could eat the most people? She cringed, knowing that soon, that door would open and she would have to face what was on the other side.
“Tigerlily, small but strong, takes 3 1/2 points. Watch out for this one, she’s gonna be a real powerhouse as she grows. Sebastian only able to take down 1, that’s been his output for the last three matches he’s been in. Sadly this will probably be the last we see of him, off to the abatoir, folks. We’ll be enjoying him soon enough!” The crowd laughed.
“A huge match coming up, so, put your bets in now. Two mammoths, Hypnoticus vs Pettigrew! 10 tons each!” A massive roar poured out of the crowd. Sable heard the platform lowering behind the door. A guard moved in and unlatched it and opened the door. The cleaners went in, and then he ushered Sable and a few people behind her into the chamber.
It was not a very large room, only about 10 square meters. There were already about ten other people inside, plus the five cleaners who were going around collecting body parts and scooping up viscera. The people who were already there all looked completely petrified. She saw the man in the blue coat the announcer had been talking about. He’d apparently survived whatever was about to happen multiple times, so she made a point to watch him. She could not find the old woman in the crowd, but saw her scarf in a pile of organs being carted out by the cleaners.
The next several minutes passed by in an eternity. Sable could taste the fear surrounding her. The eight new entrants were all stumbling around the outside of the room, while those who had already experienced it were all clumped in the middle. Then the ground moved, and involuntary chatter and clamoring boiled up out of the group.
The ceiling opened and the platform rose to be level with the arena floor. Surrounding them were rows and rows of cheering fans rising in each direction. On the surface, they could barely hear the announcer through the thick sound of excitement. Sable looked around her and tried to gather her bearings. To the left and the right of the group were two archways, and the crowd roared as massive animals appeared in each of them. They were the size of a small building, with giant round heads and mouths bound by muzzles and chains held by a group of trainers. The body was a giant barrel, with skin the texture of cracked grey mud, and thick tree trunk legs that looked short and stubby in relation to the rest of the creature, though each was easily five meters high.
The trainers moved back towards the gateway, and then with the sound of a loud horn, they dropped the muzzles and the beasts trampled outward. The only difference between the two animals was one was slightly taller. The group immediately scattered, but the giant beasts were more agile than they appeared. The shorter of the two found the man who’d been hit by the shock baton first. He was still stunned, and stood there as the beast opened its giant mouth and flung him into the air, choking him down in one complete action. The crowd exploded with that, but the other beast was not to be upstaged. It charged towards a group of three, and managed to bite the arm of a young man clean off. When he collapsed to the ground, the monster came and gulped down the rest.
Sable found the man in the blue jacket, who had run to the far corner of the arena. He saw her and made a gesture to get away, but she did not listen. He grabbed her and began to wrestle, but froze, as he looked behind her. She turned and saw that the taller of the monsters was now approaching them. The man held her in place, and she realized he was going to try to offer her to the monster to save himself. A dirty trick, but something he’d obviously used to survive before. She fought back, but could here the beast bounding up behind her. Just as it was about to pounce, she managed to turn the grapple around and spin to face the animal.
It opened its massive jaws, revealing its blood stained tongue and thick tusks with dangling viscera hanging from the ends. It dropped down and completely engulfed the man in its mouth, chomping a few times before swallowing and turning its gaze back at Sable. Just then, a buzzer sounded, and the beast froze in place, as it was being shocked by a collar around its neck. A group of handlers came and retrieved the beast and walked it back to the archway.
“A noble performance from both our beasts! A tie! Six points each! The man in blue goes down, but a new competitor perhaps arises in this young woman! Place your bets for the next match, folks! We are going alllllll night!”
Sable tuned everything else out. She was in complete shock, but she survived. She jumped as someone grabbed her arm and led her back towards the platform. Before she realized what was happening, she was being lowered back down with a much smaller group of people than she’d gone up with.
The door opened, and in came the cleaners and a new group of tributes. She scanned the crowd, looking for someone she might be able to take in a fight. Someone she might be able to throw at the beast if she needed to. Someone she could use to survive another round.