It was well after midnight and far away from the respectable, sleeping residents of Izmatra, that Ziyad stood on the sands of a makeshift arena in an abandoned warehouse. Around him the dregs and the thrillseekers, the insomniacs and the gamblers of the great city were howling for spectacle.
“What honor in this…?” hissed the voice in Ziyad’s head.
Ziyad spun his spear, opening his arms to the crowd. They roared and slapped the sides of the arena.
“It’s a challenge,” said Ziyad, his own voice lost, echoing in his helm. It was an ornate piece of armor, shaped like a serpent’s head. “It’s a competition.”
The voice did not reply, but Ziyad could feel hesitance from it, doubt.
A door opened on the other side of the arena and three big men with long, curved scimitars came out. They were bulky and well armored, with open helms showing grim and ruthless faces. Despite the narrow eye slits of his helm, Ziyad could see his three opponents well -- as though he were looking through the jeweled eyes of his armor instead of with his own human eyes.
“You choose such rissskssss,” said the hissing voice in Ziyad’s head. “Thisss is foolisssssh...”
“You’d be right, if I weren’t so good,” said Ziyad, a smile on his face beneath the helm. He lived for this.
Heedless of the peril Ziyad leapt into the middle of his three foes -- trusting his armor, trusting the fear his costume inspired, and guessing that these three didn’t usually fight together. Sure enough, the big men weren’t ready to trust each other to rush Ziyad together and overwhelm him with their numbers. Instead, two hesitated and only one came forward with a slashing attack.
With a flourish of his robe, Ziyad swept his spear low, spinning to put himself out of reach of the sword. He caught the attacker behind one knee with his longer weapon -- sending the big man sprawling onto the sand. With a sharp reversal, he thwacked the fallen man on the side of his head. One down.
Having done that, Ziyad turned his back on his other foes to play to the crowd. His audience screamed and stamped and cheered.
“Ssssuch… a peacock,” said the voice in the helm, a sneer clear in its tone.
Ziyad ignored it. He’d never had so much fun.
The cadence of the crowd shifted and Ziyad knew it meant that the other two fighters were charging him from behind. He spun in a circle, kicking up sand and sending his spear whistling through the air. He connected hard with one of their hands -- sending the man’s scimitar spinning out of his smashed grip. The disarmed man howled and retreated. Two down.
Ziyad drew himself up and started to stalk towards his last foe.
“Thissss… is not honorable,” said the voice in Ziyad’s head, but it was nearly drowned out by the crowd.
“I can always put you back in your tomb, if you prefer,” said Ziyad.
He spun his spear in a circle, drawing out the moment. The last swordsman was being careful, waiting for Ziyad to come to him. Ziyad didn’t mind. The crowd liked a longer spectacle -- it made them feel like they were getting their money’s worth.
“You could be sssso much more.”
“Yeah? What do you mean?” asked Ziyad.
He felt an odd sort of pressure around his face and saw the reflection of green light on the sands around him. His spear felt lighter in his hand. Ziyad heard the crowd gasp, and he knew his cue. He leapt forward, grazing the swordsman on the arm before being pushed back by the bigger man. He heard a hiss and then a scream from someone in the crowd.
Ziyad twirled his weapon and blocked three swift slices from his foe before landing a hit on the man’s shoulder. Ziyad backed off for a moment, but the man’s knee collapsed out of nowhere. Ziyad looked down and saw two hooded snakes biting the man’s leg.
“Call them off!” screamed the man, slapping and swinging at the snakes with his scimitar. “I surrender!” The crowd was howling. Some people were panicking. The man with the injured hand was backed against the door to the arena.
“Do it!” snapped Ziyad, speaking to the helmet.
The snakes reared back to strike again -- and then dissolved into green light.
The last fighter fell to his knees, ending the bout.
For a moment, the crowd was stunned into silence. And then they roared. Hooting and shouting and cheering for the Serpent.
Ziyad responded -- lifting his hands and turning slowly, acknowledging the adulation. There was an undercurrent of fear there though too -- which Ziyad didn’t like. Quietly, to the helm, he said, “You and I need to talk, don’t we?”
“Jussst pick better battlesss.”
“I like my battles.”
Ziyad felt resentment from the helm, but the voice remained silent.
Two months ago, Ziyad had been in the desert, hired as a guard for the excavation of a ruined temple. He was bored and tired, leaning on his simple spear and waiting for the benefactor of the expedition to declare the temple empty. He’d thought that signing up for this work would be exciting -- but it was turning out to be just like every other job. Hurry up and wait, and he never got to see the good stuff.
At least they would be heading back to Izmatra tonight. Ziyad could go spend some of the money he’d earned. First he’d go to the Oasis for a drink or two and then he’d go to the arena. He loved fighting in the almost-illicit arenas. It wasn’t like fighting as a guard, defending a caravan or a traveler. Ziyad had been in his fair share of fights for his life, and he didn’t enjoy them. He didn’t like pitched battle or killing bandits for merchants. Why should he enjoy risking his life for them and their gold?
The thrill of the arena, however, was different. There he fought for himself. His own glory.
Ziyad realized he’d been daydreaming, and turned his eyes to the other guards. They were staring at him.
“What?” asked Ziyad, still leaning on his spear.
“Aren’t you… aren’t you the Snake?” asked one of his fellow guards for hire, hesitantly.
Ziyad sighed. “The Serpent,” he corrected the man. It was his stage name.
“Oh wow!” the guard looked excited. “You’re good! I saw you a couple months ago - won that match against the Lion Tamer, right? What are you doing out here?”
“Making a living,” said Ziyad. It was all very well to fight in the arena -- but he didn’t want to overdo it. If the crowd got bored of you winning, you could be in even more trouble than a losing streak. Maybe with a more dramatic persona, he could afford to spend more time fighting and less time being a guard.
All the guards straightened up as they heard their boss, Sinan the Prosperous, coming up out of the dig site. Sinan had funded this expedition and he would get most of the profits. He climbed up the ladder, out of the buried temple, with the spritely step of a man who’d made a fortune.
“I believe that’s all,” said one of Sinan’s secretaries, looking over a list -- some sort of inventory of what they’d found in the tomb.
“Good, good,” said Sinan. “This trip was well worth it.” To Ziyad’s surprise Sinan stopped and looked at the guards, four of them, including Ziyad.
“For your bonus, you may look around in the tomb,” he said, like it was the most generous thing he could offer. “There may be a little gold left down there, if you’re quick.”
Ziyad met the other guard’s eyes and they all darted for the ladder -- shoving and pushing to try to get through the narrow entrance.
Ziyad let them -- leaving him last to go down into the tomb. He knew Sinan wouldn’t have left anything of value on purpose. He didn’t think he’d find anything, even if he went first.
However, Ziyad had never been in one of these tombs before.
It was said that once there was a great city - one so vast it was spread across the entire open desert. It was made of palaces and parks and great tombs and temples - the remains of which were now all hidden by the sands.
By Sinan’s reckoning, this was a medium sized temple -- one dedicated to a snake deity, long forgotten. The walls were carved with ornate patterns and the flickering torchlight sent shadows dancing over the carvings, bringing them to life.
As Ziyad walked, he could sense the weight of the sands above him -- and he almost thought he could hear it hissing, shifted by the wind.
He turned, eyes to the ceiling. Is that what he was hearing? The sand? Or was it something else?
Above him was a giant carving of a snake’s face -- cut into the golden sandstone and blackened from the soot of torches. It stared down at him, royal and demanding -- a guardian watching his tomb as it was robbed. Ziyad stepped back, still looking up. As he did, the eyes of the serpent flashed green.
Ziyad froze, but the light was gone. He moved his head carefully from side to side, trying to see that glitter again. Perhaps the eyes were made of gemstones?
The guard looked around for a way to climb up and see. Sinan the Prosperous had said they could have anything left in the tomb. A gem that size -- no matter what it was -- would set up Ziyad for a long time.
He looked around at the pillars -- they were deeply carved with an even pattern. Almost like they were meant to be used as ladders. If he was careful, he could climb up the crumbling stone. Ziyad smiled to himself -- he liked a challenge.
Setting aside his spear and breastplate, Ziyad began to climb. As he’d suspected, It was surprisingly easy -- as though the carving had been meant for climbing. It wasn’t going to be easy to get the eyes though, but he thought -- if he was careful about it -- that he could reach.
Halfway up the pillar, he turned to check the distance -- and almost let go.
From this angle, he could see that the snake with the glittering eyes was a false ceiling. It was about two feet lower than it should have been. If he continued climbing, he’d be able to crawl right into whatever attic space was above this room.
Excited, Ziyad looked around. None of the other guards had returned yet. Quickly, he clambered up the rest of the pillar and pulled himself into the room above the hallway.
It was dark -- the air still and warm, with only the distant torches to light the space. Ziyad placed his feet carefully, wary of a trap or of the floor falling out from under him.
Here the sounds of the desert were closer -- the hissing of sand loud in Ziyad’s ears.
The floor began to glow.
Fine lines of green fire ran out from Ziyad’s feet -- forming the same pattern that was on the other side of the stone. The snake’s eyes came alight, pale green. Ziyad didn’t move, uncertain if he’d stepped into a dream or a nightmare.
Between the snake’s eyes was a plinth, encircled by green fire. Resting on the plinth was an ornate helm in the shape of a snake. The armor looked newly polished, like it hadn’t been hidden in a temple for hundreds of years. Beside the helm, stuck upright in the ground, was a matching spear.
Ziyad couldn’t believe his luck.
He didn’t think, however, that Sinan’s generosity would extend to this find. Ziyad needed to be patient.
Ziyad didn’t go to the Oasis or the arena that night. He left with the other guards and double-backed to the excavation site alone in the early, early morning before dawn. As he had before he climbed the pillar and slithered into the upper chamber. With reverence he collected the helm and staff.
He hadn’t tried either on until he was safely home -- all the windows shut tight so that no one could see his treasures.
Then he’d put the Serpent’s helm on. When he did, he heard the scrap of metal against metal. Thin, flexible pieces of armor slid out of the helmet and bent over Ziyad’s chest. In a moment, Ziyad was partially covered in the most comfortable armor he’d ever worn.
Then, Ziyad heard the voice for the first time.
“Greetingssss...” it said. “What are you? Warrior, scholar, or thief?”
For a moment, Ziyad thought he’d imagined it -- or that he was hallucinating after staying up all night. But then the voice repeated the question.
“Warrior,” Ziyad had answered.
He’d felt a sigh of satisfaction from the voice, rather than heard it.
“That issss good,” hissed the voice. “We’ll go far, you and I.”
Four months after he’d found the helm and two after he’d first discovered its magic in the arena, Ziyad found himself working as a guard for a delegation of Shara’zar nobles. They were meeting with representatives of the Radiant Order - some regiment or other - at an oasis for their yearly conference. It was a beautiful day - the bright sun overhead, glittering on the cool waters of the oasis. Rich rugs in red and white and cream were laid on the ground and covered with white tents that flapped and fluttered in the breeze like birds’ wings. Fruit and wine and small honey cakes were in large supply.
Despite the beauty of the scene, Ziyad was not in a good mood. He did not wish to be working as a guard again. Regrettably, his notoriety in the arena had become too great. He’d received many offers and a few demands that the Serpent join a brotherhood of bandits or work as a bodyguard for a noble or her caravan. The money was good, but Ziyad didn’t want an indefinite contract, and he knew that signing once with these employers could make him stuck with them forever. So he’d taken a basic contract as Ziyad -- no mention of the Serpent.
On top of the work he did not want -- taken to keep him out of truly dangerous work -- Ziyad was watching his countrymen and women lose to the knights of the Radiant Order.
This meeting -- between the Shara’zar and the knights -- was a tradition meant to inspire good relations between the two nations. They came together to feast, talk, renew old vows of truce, and compete in friendly games.
This year, the Radiant Order seemed to be winning everything. It was friendly, of course, these matches between the knightly brothers of the Order and their desert neighbors -- but it didn’t feel friendly when each of the Shara’zar was knocked down by the brawny knights.
A particularly beefy knight was walking around the fighting circle. He carried a two handed great sword. It was a monstrously heavy weapon - one that would break most ordinary swords by virtue of its weight, making it nearly impossible to parry. The knight had already won twice, but now he was shouting taunts to the Shara’zar, looking for another opponent. He was clearly a little drunk -- a dangerous opponent who might not remember that this was meant to be a friendly match.
The Shara’zar looked disapproving and the Radiant Order half-heartedly tried to bring their man in line.
Ziyad gritted his teeth. He wished he was back in the secret arenas of Izmatra. There he’d happily show this knight a thing or two about fighting.
For the first time since Ziyad had found the artifact, he heard it speak without having to put it on: Ssshow them.
“See,” Ziyad heard one of the nearby Radiants say, not bothering to keep his voice down. “We don’t need Sigrid to beat these people.”
Ssshow them! Demanded the helm, from Ziyad’s tent. Together, we’ll sssshow him.
“Why do you approve of this fight? How is this different?” said Ziyad.
His Radiant counterparts looked at him, not sure who he was speaking too. Ziyad started walking away, towards his tent, so he didn’t look out of his mind.
Because this issss honorable… hissed the voice. This is your country, your people.
“I don’t want them to know me,” Ziyad said. “They’ll want me to do what I’m told. They’ll want me to fight their battles.”
We’ll fight the battlessss we choose. Honorable battlesss.
“You’re very stubborn,” said Ziyad, glancing back. Someone was trying to calm the knight down. He shouted that the Shara’zar were cowards for not wanting to fight him. Ziyad kept walking.
Moments later, the fighter took up his strange spear and the cobra hooded helm. Sssso are you, stubborn… said the voice. You do not ssseeee. It is not the shadowssss that give you freedom. Not your arenasssss. Be fearlesssss. Choose a vassst arena.
Ziyad thought of the bandits who’d offered him a job, and the increased desperation and fear in those he faced in the arena. He kept winning, and it meant that no one wanted to face him. He needed a new way forward, and maybe this was a better one. Maybe the helm was right. He put on the magical armor and made his way back out of the tent.
He strode across the camp, the sun glittering off his spear and helmet. Heads turned towards him as he did. Radiants and his Shara’zar companions grew quiet as he made his way towards the circle and the belligerent knight.
A familiar rush filled Ziyad. The attention was the same as in the arena. Better. Noble men and women stared at him in awe, whispering, guessing who he could be.
By the time he reached the circle, everyone was looking at Ziyad -- even the drunken knight looking for a fight. He smiled, though no one could see it. He raised his arms -- and he knew that his helm was glowing with mystic light.
“I accept your challenge!” he called, but when he did his voice was deeper than usual, and there was a subtle hiss that came with it. “But you should get a few friends to fight with you. To keep it fair.”