Fiction Friday: A Stretch Goal Odyssey

Welcome to the latest Fiction Friday, the CTG blog feature where we contribute a new piece of lore to the universe of one of our games. This month, we have something a little different for you: A silly little story we serialized at the end of Hoplomachus: Victorum Kickstarter campaign updates. Each day, our writer, Ryan Howard, would write a new segment of an ongoing story featuring one of the Victorum gladiators, Krakenlance. The catch, however, was that he had to figure out a way to tie in every stretch goal backers hit the previous day into the new segment. The result was a goofy mini-epic, which we’re sharing in its entirety below, featuring mild edits and including bolded words and phrases that correspond to the stretch goals. Thanks to everyone who made the Hoplo campaign a smashing success!

2021: A Stretch Goal Odyssey

“Bring it home!” Krakenlance bellowed as he cracked his tentacle whip at a nearby Lamosian warrior. Behind him, a meteor fighter and a veles scrambled down the tiers of the Lamosian arena, passing a tattered flag between them as a bedraggled nacom gave chase. The meteor fighter ended up with the flag and dove into the entrance on Krakenlance’s side of the arena as the hometown crowd roared its disapproval.

The boos were naught but fuel for Krakenlance’s passion. The Battle of Many Nations had been won.

After the match, Krakenlance went to each of his gladiators and congratulated them individually, offering a hearty pat on the back or a personalized compliment for a moment of prowess. As he bandaged his wounds, he was approached by one of his most trusted warriors, a psychopomp named Carmen. She cocked her avian head to the side, scanning her eyes over Krakenlance’s latest cuts and contusions as she hefted two marble cubes his way.

“New training weights from your admirers,” she said. “Not sure what these markings are on them, but they weigh the same regardless, I imagine.”

Krakenlance held up one of the cubes, admiring its premium handiwork.

“You were right about that Lamosian bolas hunter, by the way,” Carmen continued. “He just approached me and asked if he could join our party. I told him we’d been expecting him, but that he’d need to pull stakes right away if he wanted to come.”

“In a rush, eh, Carmen?” Krakenlance asked with a smile.

His friend scowled at him.

“It would do us well to put this place at our backs soon,” she said. “We’ve already embarrassed their gladiators in the Challenge of the Ensared, and after today’s match, I’d wager we’re none too popular around Lamos.”

“Carmen, you worry too much,” Krakenlance said, rising from his task and leaning against the wall of the intricately carved stone chamber. “They all know how these games work. Everyone’s out to fight the scions. It’s not personal!”

“Even so, I’d prefer we leave before things have a chance to take a turn,” Carmen replied. “Maybe we could return to Atlantis. You already received a warm welcome in that arena, despite your reputation among your countrymen. You’ve already got what you came for, anyway. Your training has improved your performance — I think I’d even call your biceps noticeably thicker than they were prior! — and you have fresh gladiators for your quest. It’s time to move on, and to finally pick which of Pluto’s scions you hope to defeat first.”

“On that, at least, I have your answer!” Krakenlance exclaimed, his eyes glinting with excitement. He handed Carmen a freshly-rolled parchment, which she undid to see a rough sketch of a hirsute man with what looked like two venomous snakes emerging from his shoulder blades.

“Who is this foul visage?” she asked.

“He’s new — or, well, he’s old, but he’s been newly appointed as Pluto’s sixth scion,” Krakenlance said. “I heard about him from a Parthian merchant. Their people know him as Zahhak, an ancient, deceitful king who ascended the throne by way of patricide. He was cursed by a trickster, who placed two bloodthirsty snakes upon his shoulders. Each day, he must sate them with two living sacrifices, else they turn on him. I aim to make certain no more good men and women fall to his fangs.”

Carmen emitted a low whistle that sounded like a hoot. “Well, you’ll certainly make a name for yourself. Most of the other scion challengers are attempting to fell more established scions, like the hydra or Kalliope.”

“This one is all mine,” Krakenlance said, taking the parchment back from Carmen. “And I think you’re right, my friend. It’s time for us to find a new adventure.”

Krakenlance turned to rouse his fighters, but before he could, a timid old Lamosian man scuttled over to him.

“Noble warrior,” he said, “our champion, Sea Strider, has returned from abroad, and he demands satisfaction before you depart. He said you must give him a chance to make Lamos proud.”

Carmen shot Krakenlance a sideways glance. “Must we?” she murmured. “Your gladiators need rest.”

Krakenlance thought for a moment before giving his head a firm shake. “What kind of scion-killer would I be if I backed down from another mortal?” he asked.

Turning back to the old man, he lowered his head in respect.

“Sir, tell Sea Strider that we will duel against him shortly,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” the man replied. His eyes darted right and left for a moment before he added, in a conspiratorial tone. “Do be careful. Sea Strider has… well, he has some creatures with him.”

The old man had, if anything, understated the situation. When Krakenlance and his fighters returned to the arena, sore and grumpy, they were confronted by the sight of the Lamosian champion, bare-chested and shifting energetically on the balls of his feet. The sprightly demeanor of Sea Strider was scarcely noticed by most of the fighters, however, as they were more concerned with the beasts that flanked their foe.

To his right was a great beast that looked like a massive, winged tiger, its fangs dripping saliva as it eyed its potential meals. To his left was an ethereal bearded man, who absentmindedly crafted fireballs on the tips of his fingers. A few Lamosians brought up the rear.

“A qiongqi and a djinn,” Carmen whispered out of the side of her mouth. “Sea Strider must have been to some exotic locales to dig up companions like these.”

She looked back at the rest of Krakenlance’s force.

“This is going to be a tough one,” she said.

“Tough or not, it’s a trial I must face if I’m to reach Zahhak,” Krakenlance said. He raised his double-blade over his head and shouted back to his warriors. “Once more into the breach, my brethren! Let’s show Lamos what we’re made of!”

The gladiators rushed forward, their screams intermingling with the thuds and clanks of weapon on weapon. Krakenlance’s whip cracked again, and a Lamosian holcan cried out in agony as the whip’s well-honed spikes embedded themselves in his shoulder. To his left, Krakenlance looked on in fright as the qiongqi bore down on Carmen. She readied her wings for flight, but Krakenlance knew her reaction was too late. The beast prepared to pounce —

— And a new challenger bounded down in front of it, wielding a dual-pointed weapon the likes of which Krakenlance had not seen before. In the center of the weapon was a small shield, which the brown-skinned woman in a flowing mesh of cloth and armor used to bat away an attack from one of the qiongqi’s claws. Then, she quickly turned the weapon and grasped it with both hands, plunging one of the points — which looked to Krakenlance like nothing so much as the metallic horns of some sort of animal — directly into the beast’s maw. As the qiongqi crumpled to the ground, the woman yanked the tip of the weapon out of its mouth and leapt to attack a new challenger.

Though none of Krakenlance’s warriors recognized the new gladiator, her presence seemed to inject them with a renewed vigor. They pressed the attack, gaining the middle ground of the arena and raining down blows on their enemies from above. Krakenlance noted with satisfaction that Carmen, determined not to waste her renewed chance at life, was among the group’s most energetic, firing shot after shot from a bow she’d just restrung before the battle began. One of her arrows struck a talisman worn around the djinn’s neck, causing the creature to hastily exit the material plane in a puff of pink smoke.

Eventually, Sea Strider yielded, though he reserved an especially dirty look for the new fighter who joined Krakenlance’s side. After the battle, Krakenlance approached her as she was applying a stinging salve to a deep gash in her shoulder.

“Are you hurt badly?” he asked by way of introduction.

The woman looked back at him with sharp, lively eyes.

“I’ll be fine, Krakenlance,” she said.

“You know my name, but I’m afraid I don’t have the pleasure,” he said. “We appreciated your hand in the fighting back there.”

She smirked. “Glad you approve,” she said. “My name is Ruhani, of Tamilakam. I have been following you since your stay at The Threshold, where your warriors won The Pummelling. My companion, Immensus, and I would like to join your camp. We believe you are the best hero equipped to face down Pluto’s scions, including the newest threat.”

“Zahhak, you mean,” Krakenlance replied. “My eye is already set on him.”

“No, not Zahhak,” Ruhani replied in a low voice. “Before his sojourn with me, my companion was a servant of the pantheon. He’s heard tell of a seventh, ultimate champion, one with power greater than all the other scions. It is that hidden threat the world must face once all the scions are defeated, and I believe you are most fit to accomplish that task. That is why we mean to join you.”

“What can you tell me about this new champion?” Krakenlance asked.

“Immensus says that beyond the extraordinary powers of the new, hidden scion, it is also able to bestow potent magic upon the other scions, allowing them to cast curses on the less prepared heroes who seek to slay them,” Ruhani explained. “You would do well to stay on your guard, and you’d do even better if we were by your side.”

“We’re happy to have such noble warriors with us,” Krakenlance said, extending his hand in friendship.

In a few weeks’ time, the party was trekking across the deserts of the Parthian Empire, aiming for the capital city of Ctesiphon to challenge the local gladiators there. Ruhani and Krakenlance were walking together, discussing strategy, when Krakenlance saw her wince and touch her shoulder.

“Your injury still lingers,” he observed.

She smiled at him. “I suffer for my craft. Don’t you do the same? Don’t worry, I will be ready the next time I am called upon.”

There was a lull in the conversation for a moment, broken only by the muffled, grainy footfalls of the group on the sands below their feet.

“What about you?” Ruhani asked. “I wouldn’t think an Atlantean would do too well in the sun.”

“We spend a lot more time on the surface than many humans think,” Krakenlance said. “Me more than most. I’m not often welcome in Atlantis, as my exploits have caused me to believe in the importance of opening up exchanges with our land-dwelling neighbors. There are plenty of powerful Atlanteans who do not like that.”

Their exchange was cut short by a low rumble that quickly increased in volume over the next several seconds.

“Ready your arms!” Carmen called out.

The origin of the sound was upon them all once, thundering up to the group in a whirlwind of sand and dust. Squinting through the particulate, Krakenlance thought he could make out a man’s face, but then the creature bared its teeth to show a mouthful of fangs and he knew the nature of his foe.

“Manticore!” he shouted. “It’s one of Pluto’s! To your beast positions!”

As his fighters scrambled through the sand to surround the creature, the dust settled enough for everyone to see the beast’s true nature. Its head was surrounded by a shaggy mane, and its body unmistakably bore the thick, muscular contours of a lion. Instead of a lion’s tail, however, the manticore possessed a scorpion-like stinger, which it used at that moment to skewer a provocator on Krakenlance’s left.

“Ruhani, we need Immensus now!” he ordered.

“Right!” she yelled, rushing back toward the camp’s supply train. 

The manticore rushed forward at Krakenlance, who rolled left as Carmen dodged right, firing an errant shot from her bow. Springing up, Krakenlance cracked his whip at the manticore’s ear, causing the beast to roar and pivot away, lining its body up for a rain of arrows from a trio of nearby archers. A few arrows lodged in the manticore’s hide. Its angry cry pealed through the desert, but its injury did not appear to slow its wrath, as it pounced on one of the archers and bit into his head, its tail lashing to and fro to fend off attackers from the rear.

Krakenlance was about to shout another battle order when he heard a new set of thudding footsteps. Turning, he spotted Immensus, a lumbering sculpt of clay-like flesh, striding toward the manticore. Hearing the sound of the seven-arms-high warrior behind it, the manticore whirled to face the nephilim, its tail broadsiding another archer and knocking him to the ground.

The beast struck at Immensus with a vigorous swipe of its front claw. A chunk of Immensus’s flesh sloughed off in the blow, but it didn’t appear to faze the nephilim, who reached down and grabbed at the manticore’s paws while the beast attempted to snap at its enemy’s torso.

Ruhani rushed to Krakenlance’s side. “He can hold the monster off for a while, but not forever,” she said.

“We need to figure out how to take this creature down quickly,” Krakenlance confirmed. “I have no doubt we’ll eventually be able to fell it, but the cost will be too great, given what’s coming in Ctesiphon.”

The manticore roared again and attempted to wrench its paws out of Immensus’s adhesive grip. Its efforts were not entirely successful, but the change in weight distribution was enough to cause the warrior to stumble back, putting the manticore on top of him. The manticore roared in triumph, opening its maw wide as it prepared to carve out a meaty chunk of its challenger. Krakenlance readied his whip, but as he did, he saw a blur whiz past him toward the fight, all rapid footsteps and flowing black robes.

As the manticore buried its face in Immensus’s flesh, the blur came to a stop to reveal the form of a slight woman, dressed all in black. Her hand jutted out, revealing that she’d tossed several cubed stones toward the monster’s mouth. As the manticore chomped down, it did bite off a large piece of Immensus’s torso, but Krakenlance heard a sickening crunch sound as well. The manticore threw back its head, howling in pain as a few teeth fragments shook free from its mouth — and the mysterious woman leapt forward, burying a gladius in the monster’s neck.

After the creature had been pulled off of Immensus and Krakenlance was satisfied that Ruhani was tending to the nephilim’s wounds, he turned back to the beast-slayer.

“Well met, stranger,” he said. “It seems our party has benefitted lately from the unexpected aid of unknown travelers. Tell me: Who are you, and what is your business in the desert?”

The woman stared back at him for a moment before responding.

“I am Mert, of Egypt,” she said. “I am deadly with the sword. This will help you on your journey. That is all you need know.”

Krakenlance eyed her with an appraising gaze. “Hmm,” he mused. “Well, you’re welcome to come along with us to Ctesiphon and we’ll see what becomes of you after that.”

Upon reaching Ctesiphon, Krakenlance realized he was glad for Mert’s assistance. Though the camp’s first battle in the Parthian arena did feature Parthian gladiators, most of them kept to the edges of the arena’s chariot track, seemingly out of revulsion toward one of their allies: a pustule-filled, slobbering monstrosity called the Ahalpuh, which local champion The Parthian had obtained on a recent journey to Lamos. 

Though most of the Ahalpuh’s “allies” went out of their way to keep clear of the creature, there was one warrior for the Parthians who was not afraid to venture near.

Krakenlance sighed and busied himself directing his other fighters. Ruhani sidled up to Carmen as the psychopomp eyed the bald, brown-skinned man pacing near the Ahalpuh, almost bragging that he had no fear of it.

“Krakenlance knows this man?” she asked.

“Indeed,” Carmen replied. “His name is Zeno. He’s from the Gargarean tribe, a group of men who are the frequent rivals of the Amazons. He joined Krakenlance early on, but after their early success together during The Endless Climb in Rome, Zeno tried to take control of the camp.”

She shook her head.

“Krakenlance defeated him, and he set out on his own,” she said. “It is a shame. They could have been even more powerful together. Instead, he stalks the arenas in the hopes that one of their heroes will fall and that he can claim their crown. He is the mightiest man of the Gargarei, but his tribe cannot match the Amazons in sheer power. He seems destined to be a warrior without a home.”

“There can be an honor in that, as well,” Ruhani remarked.

Carmen tilted her head in deference. Krakenlance finished conferring with his warriors and returned to the front of the group.

“We are ready to face your challenge, Zeno!” he called out. “May the best warriors win, and in so doing, slay the creatures that have been arrayed against us!”

“Indeed, old friend,” Zeno called back. He reached into a pouch on his belt, removing a weighty brass coin as he spoke. “But we still have one more challenger who means to join us.”

The Gargarean rubbed his thumb on the face of the coin and threw it into the dirt. The coin shone in the sun for a moment before beginning to emit an almost transparent mist. As the mist grew in size, it also became more opaque — until, standing before the group, was a gigantic, angry cyclops, saliva oozing from its mouth as it snorted and puffed in an angry search for the one who’d brought it there.

“Very good,” Krakenlance said. “But I brought my own gambit, as well.”

With a whoop, a sinewy, almost gangly man rushed forward from Krakenlance’s warriors. Arms akimbo, he galloped toward Zeno, slashing with an unpointed sword. Zeno was barely able to raise his axes in time to ward off a fatal blow.

“Zeno, meet Calgacus, mighty warrior of the Caledonians,” Krakenlance called out. “We’ve been exchanging letters, and he’s just made it to Ctesiphon to join us.”

Fast start,” Zeno said, through gritted teeth. “Parthians, attack!”

The battle was joined. Sword met sword and shield parried spear. As Krakenlance thrust his double-blade into an oncoming spahbed, he realized his camp’s fortunes needed a good turn. A Parthian sagittarius rode horseback around the arena, firing arrows into the Atlantean’s forces with scant resistance, and any warrior unfortunate enough to venture close to the Ahalpuh (besides Zeno, who seemed to have some sort of supernatural ward against the creature) soon found themselves doubled over in pain as pus-filled boils sprouted on their arms, legs and chests. Something needed to be done.

As he pulled his double-blade free, Krakenlance spotted the approach of the arena charioteer, whose mid-battle rides added a new aspect of danger to each Parthian battle — both for the gladiators and the charioteer. Folding his double blade and attaching it to his belt, Krakenlance approached the expected arc of the chariot and crouched. As the vehicle passed him by, he leapt forward, his feet alighting behind the driver and his hands grasping the edges of the carriage. The charioteer glanced back with a look approaching nonchalance; Krakenlance wasn’t the first gladiator to try this trick, and most who attempted it quickly fell and were dashed to bits by their foes.

But Krakenlance was not most gladiators.

Roaring, he kept his left hand gripped to the chariot while his right went for his tentacle whip. As the charioteer rounded the arena, the vehicle approached the sagittarius, who was riding in the other direction. With a mighty snapping sound, Krakenlance cracked his whip at the enemy rider, catching him full in the chest with the spikes on the end of the weapon. The man tumbled off his horse and dragged behind the chariot until Krakenlance wrenched the whip free.

Whipping his head around, Krakenlance spotted the Ahalpuh, which the charioteer had been studiously avoiding. Coiling the whip and dropping it to the floor of the carriage, Krakenlance unfolded his double-blade, bobbing and weaving to avoid a couple of errant arrows in the process. When the charioteer reached as close as he dared to the Ahalpuh, Krakenlance hurled the blade in the direction of the monster as if it was a spear. His aim was true, and the weapon embedded itself deep into the creature’s mottled back, causing it to erupt in a gurgling keen as it sank to the earth. Smoky, green liquid poured from the wound, causing even Zeno to back away in caution.

Now without his primary weapon, Krakenlance picked up his whip and cracked it toward the ground, allowing the spikes to latch into the dirt and slightly slow the chariot’s pace. Jumping off, he bounded toward Zeno, readying his whip for another strike. 

Krakenlance’s eyes darted around the arena as he ran. He had not expected three challenges so formidable as Zeno, the Ahalpuh, and the cyclops (who was currently attempting to find an opening in Calgacus’s sword-swinging defenses) all in the same battle. Though many of his gladiators still stood, the arena had already claimed multiple fighters on both sides, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to end the battle in time to continue on his journey. He would need to regroup, planning and recruiting, potentially for months, before he could return to arena combat. And by then, it might be too late.

Snarling, he raised his whip to lash out at Zeno, but he felt his wrist being stopped in mid-air by a strange feeling, soft yet firm, and much colder than the air surrounding it. Looking up, nostrils flaring, he loosened his grip when he saw what held him fast: a plume of mist, black and smoky, that emanated off the form of a pale woman who floated in the air above him.

The woman was wreathed in this ethereal smoke, which seemed to originate from her hair, and its tendrils began making their way around the arena — forcing weapons from hands, putting up barriers between opponents, and hovering along the ground, spooking the horses pulling the chariot and causing the charioteer to fall off the back. The arena had gone silent; the spectators only slightly less so.

The woman set down softly, nodding at Zeno and Krakenlance before turning to face the crowd. The voice that emerged from her was surprisingly loud and dripping with malice.

“I am Nox, goddess of the night!” she called out. “Your fighting may cease. Pluto has found his match, and soon, your realm and his will recognize me as the underworld’s new ruler!”

Epilogue

In an inky black chamber of a hot, sordid dimension, a gaunt being in the shape of a man viewed the goddess’s speech with an icy stare. As her speech continued, the man clapped his hands, causing the vision of the mortal plane to dissipate.

“Nox… changes things,” he mused aloud, more to himself that to the groveling, slime covered beings that nodded at him from the room’s corners, ready to cater to his every need. “These ‘heroes’ have already proven themselves more resilient than I’d imagined, and this new insubordination shows that too many on earth and below doubt my strength.”

Stretching his arm, the man shot out a cancerous brown bolt of energy, which struck a nearby wall. In the smoking remains of the blast, an image appeared, blurry at first, then slowly crystallizing into the image of a smoldering mountain, with rivulets of magma flowing down its sides.

“The time has come,” the man said, stepping toward the portal. “I must take to the arena myself.”

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