IT WAS IN A CAGE THE
FIRST TIME HE SAW IT
Lycon was the greatest of the beast hunters who fed the bloody maw of Rome's Coliseum. He had trapped tigers in India—lions in the hills of Macedon—elephants where the
Mediterranean surges against the foot of the Atlas Mountains.
How was he to know that the beast he hunted this time came from a star whose light had not yet reached Earth?
The beast's ferocity had been obvious from the first. But when it escaped and Lycon followed its track of slaughter from the grimiest tenements of Rome to the heights of Imperial splendor, he realized two things more: the creature wanted his life as badly as he wanted its; and the creature was just as intelligent as he was. Only one of them would survive—and the fate of Earth itself depended on the winner of their savage duel. "[Drake's novels have] superb action scenes and ingenious weapons and menaces...." —Booklist
"Drake is one of the most gifted users of historical and military raw materials at work today" —Chicago Sun-Times
"Wagner is one of the best"
—A Reader's Guide to Fantasy
Cover art by Patrick Turner
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional,
and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
First printing, December 2002
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Printed in the United States of America
Copyright 2002 by David Drake & Karl Edward Wagner
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof
in any form.
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
Typesetting by Brilliant Press
Electronic version by WebWrights
To Gary Hoppenstand and Michel Parry—
And super heroes come to feast
To taste the flesh not yet deceased
And all I know
Is still the beast is feeding—
The Rocky Horror Show
STARTED GREAT BUT ENDED BORING!, February 4, 2003
This was such an interesting tale in the beginning. It was a fantasy-based story that reminded me of the movie Predator but set in the Roman era.
I don't know which author started this novel, but he was by far the better writer because, by the middle half, it started to drag and bore me. I could actually feel the steam of the story run out. What a shame...
Great idea that could have panned out for a much better ending.
Action Thriller for a Fast Read, January 16, 2003
This is a well-written action novel, though its plot is not quite as original as some other readers may think. Like all good action stories, it avoids dragging passages--but there are no time-outs for character development. There are a couple of weaknesses in the book, however. One shortcoming is the climax, where the final confrontation ends rather quickly and ordinarily; and that is surprising, considering that the entire book up to that point hypes the speed and power of the phile.
Another shortcoming concerns a rogue subplot, about how the hero's teenage son is seduced by a tutor and "converted" into a willing homosexual (yeah, sure)--leading to the hero's nasty revenge against the tutor. That subplot, besides being ridiculous, serves no useful purpose to the main plot and is evidently only a gratuituous expression of the authors' personal bias. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
Always a great read, July 20, 2001
I bought this book in high school, but never read it. I found it when I was visiting my parents. Man, did I miss a good book. It's not Shakespear, but A Great light read. This should be destined to be movie. Definately a "guys" book. The hero, Lycor, is well written. The Plot is very original. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
Gladiator meets Predator, December 18, 2000
Think of an animal used for bloodsports in a galactic empire, and have it brought to Imperial Rome. Think of the attention to detail in the movie "Gladiator". ALL of the characters in the book (heroes and villains alike) are very smart, and very competent. This book would make a "Killer" movie. This is one of the best books I've ever owned! I lost mine years ago, and have been looking to get another copy ever since. --This text
refers to the Paperback edition.
Table of Contents
Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty
Chapter Twenty-one Chapter Twenty-two Chapter Twenty-three Chapter Twenty-four Chapter Twenty-five Chapter Twenty-six Chapter Twenty-seven
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the flesh'd soldier, rough and hard of heart.
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell. . . .
William Shakespeare, Henry V
Rain was again trickling from the greyness overhead, and the damp reek of the animals hung on the misty droplets. A hyena wailed miserably, longing for the dry plains it would never see again. Lycon listened without pity. Let it bark its lungs out here in Portus, at the Tiber's mouth, or die later in the amphitheater at Rome. He remembered the Ethiopian girl who had lived three days after a hyena had dragged her down. It would have been far better had the beast not been driven off before it had finished disemboweling her.
"Wish the rain would stop," complained Vonones. The Armenian dealer's plump face was gloomy. "A lot of these are going to die otherwise, and I'll be caught in the middle. In Rome they only pay me for live delivery, but I have to pay you regardless."
"Which is why I'm a hunter and you're a dealer," chided Lycon without overmuch sympathy. "Well, it won't ruin you," he reassured the dealer. "Not at the prices you pay. You can replace the entire lot for a fifth of what they'll bring in Rome."
The tiger whose angry cough had been cutting through the general racket thundered forth a full-throated roar. Lycon and the Armenian heard his heavy body crash against the bars of his cage. Vonones nodded toward the sound. "There's one I can't replace."
"What? The tiger?" Lycon seemed surprised. "I'll grant you he's the biggest I've ever captured, but I brought back two others with him that are near as fine."
"No, not the tiger." Vonones pointed. "I meant the thing he's snarling at. Come on, I'll show you. Maybe you'll know what it is."
Vonones put on his broad felt hat and snugged up his cloak against the drizzle. Lycon followed, not really noticing the rain that beaded his close-cut black hair. He had been a mercenary scout in his youth, before he had sickened of butchering Rome's barbarian enemies and turned instead to hunting animals for her arenas. A score of years in the field had left the beastcatcher as calloused to the weather as to all else.
For the beasts themselves he felt only professional concern, no more. As they passed a wooden cage with a dozen maned baboons, he scowled and halted the dealer. "I'd get
them into a metal cage, if I were you. They'll chew through the lashings of that one, and you'll have hell catching them again."
"Overflow," the Armenian told him vexedly. "Had to put them there. It's all the cages I've got, with your load and then this mixed shipment from Tipasa getting here at the same time. Don't worry. They move tomorrow when we sort things out for the haul to Rome."
Beasts snarled and lunged as the men threaded through the maze of cages. Most of the animals were smeared with filth, their coats worn and dull where they showed through the muck. A leopard pining in a corner of its cage reminded Lycon of a cat he once had force-fed—a magnificent mottled-brown beast that he had purchased half-
starved from a village of gap-toothed savages in the uplands of India. He needed four of his men to pin it down while he rammed chunks of raw flesh down its throat with a stake. That lithe killer was now the Empress' plaything, and her slavegirls fed it tit-bits from silver plates.
"There it is," Vonones announced, pointing to a squat cage of iron. The creature stared back, ignoring the furious efforts of the tiger alongside to slash his paw across the space that separated their cages.
"You've got some sort of wild man!" Lycon blurted with first glance.
"Nonsense!" Vonones snorted. "Look at the tiny scales, those talons! There may be a race somewhere with blue skin, but this thing's no more human than a mandrill is. The Numidians called it a lizard-ape in their tongue—a sauropithecus."
After that first startled impression, Lycon had to agree. The thing seemed far less human than any large ape, which it somewhat resembled. Probably those hairless limbs had made him think it was a man—that and the aura of malign intelligence its stare
conveyed. But the collector had never seen anything like it, not in twenty years of professional hunting along the fringes of the known world.
Lizard-ape, or sauropithecus to render the word into Latin, seemed as good a name as any for the beast. Lycon could not even decide whether it was mammal or reptile, nor even guess its sex. It was scaled and exuded an acrid reptilian scent, but its movements and poise were feline. Ape-like, it walked erect in a forward crouch, and its long forelimbs seemed adapted for gripping and climbing. It would be about man-height if it straightened fully, and Lycon estimated its lean weight close to that of a big leopard. Its face was cat-like, low-browed and triangular of jaw. A wedge-shaped, earless skull thrust forward upon a snaky neck, and it had no more nostrils than a lizard did. Its eyes looked straight forward with human intensity, but were slit-pupiled and showed a swift nictitating membrane.
"This came from the Aures Mountains?" Lycon questioned wonderingly.
"It did. There was a big lot of gazelles and elephants that one of my agents jobbed from the Numidians. This thing came with them, and all I know about it is what Dama wrote me when he sent the shipment: that a band of Numidians saw a hilltop explode and found this animal when they went to see what had happened."
"A hilltop exploded!"
The dealer shrugged. "That's all he wrote."
Lycon studied the cage in silence.
"Why did you weld the cage shut instead of putting a chain and lock on it?"
"That's the way it came," Vonones explained. "I'll have to knock the door loose and put a proper lock on it before sending it off tomorrow, or those idiots at Rome will wreck a good cage trying to smash it open, and never a denarius for the damage. I guess the Numidians just didn't have a lock—I'm a little surprised they even had an iron cage."
Lycon frowned, uncomfortable at the way the beast stared back at him. "It's its eyes," he reflected. "I wish all my crew looked that bright."
"Or mine," Vonones agreed readily. "Oh, I make no doubt it's more cunning than any brute should be, but it's scarcely human. Can you see those claws? They're curled back in its palms now, but—there!"
The lizard-ape made a stretching motion, opening its paws—or were they hands?
Bones stood out—slim, but like the limbs themselves hinting at adamantine hardness. The crystalline claws extended maybe a couple of inches, so sharp that their points seemed to fade into the air. No wild creature should have claws so delicately kept. The beast's lips twitched a needle-toothed grin.
"Fortune!" Lycon muttered, looking away. There was a glint of bloodlust in those eyes, something beyond natural savagery. Lycon remembered a centurion whose eyes had held that look—an unassuming little man who once had killed over a hundred women and children during a raid on a German village.
"What are they going to pit this thing against?" he asked suddenly.
Vonones shrugged. "Can't be sure. The buyer didn't say much except that he didn't like the thing's looks."
"Can you blame him?"
"So? He's supposed to be running a beast show, not a beauty contest. If he wants pretty things, I should bring him gazelles. For the arena, I told him, this thing is perfect—
a real novelty. But the ass says he doesn't like the idea of keeping it around until the show, and I have to cut my price to nothing to get him to take it. Think of it!"
"What's the matter?" Lycon gibed. "Don't tell me that you so dislike its looks that you'll unload it at a sacrifice!"
"Hardly!" the dealer protested, defending his business acumen. "Animals are animals, and business is business. But I've got a hundred other beasts here right now, and they don't like the thing. Look at this tiger. All day, all night he's trying to get at it—even
broke a tooth on the bars! Must be its scent, because all the animals hate it. No, I have to get this thing out of my compound."
Lycon considered the enraged tiger. The huge cat had killed one of his men and maimed another for life before they had him safely caged. But even the tiger's rage at capture paled at the determined fury he showed toward Vonones' strange find.
"Well, I'll leave you to him, then," the beastcatcher said, giving up on the mystery. "I'm crossing over to Ostia to see my old mate, Vulpes. Tomorrow I'll be by to pick up my money, so try to stay out of reach of that thing's claws until then."
"You could have gone on with it," Vulpes told him. "You could have made a fortune in the arena."