The plan was horrifyingly flimsy. He might be unable to slip away from Syreet, or be spotted trying. If he failed to pilfer what he needed from the Urst, he could either be caught, or forced to flee without even a knife to defend himself. Finally, even if he succeeded in his escape, Sparr had no idea what trials the rest of his journey would bring. Ten days on foot in a wild, unforgiving land was far from a welcoming prospect. Reclaiming his possessions would help, but Sparr faced at best a dangerous and long road. He groaned in frustration.

“Give your problem to Omm.” This remark came from Stef. The blond-maned gladiator’s arms had been wrapped in bandages after the previous day’s fight. He had been idly marking them with a blue chalk, but now addressed Sparr.

“What?” Happy for the distraction, Sparr joined him at a table.

“You are troubled,” Stef said. “Omm will take your problem.” Omm was the name of the god the Origin worshipped.

“Okay, how does that work? How do I give him my problem?”

“Turn the wheel,” Stef said. He bowed slightly, as if conveying some unassailable truth. “Make a sacrifice.”

“The wheel is at the temple?”

Stef looked at him blankly. “Of course.”

“And a sacrifice is tokens?”

“Yes, or flesh.”

“What?” Sparr thought perhaps he had misheard.

“Flesh,” repeated Stef. “Sons and daughters.”

“So… if I don’t have tokens I can give them a child?” Nausea rose in his throat.

“Yes,” Stef said.

Something occurred to Sparr. Stef was a handsome man, even with the tracing of scars he carried. “You were in the temple.”

“Was,” Stef said. “Said I could go last year.”

“How old were you when your family sacrificed you?”


It was a story as old as humankind itself. The Origin offered advantages for the wealthy. Sparr had yet to witness their ceremonies, but based on the parade of beautiful young men and women who had escorted Liette the first day, Sparr guessed that sexual favors were on offer for the wealthiest donors. Poorer families who sought blessings had to ‘sacrifice’ their adult children. Incredibly, despite having been himself abused and discarded, Stef seemed to bear the church no malice.

Sparr excused himself.


The night before the fights, Sparr dreamed of Earth. In it, he walked down a familiar but unnamed street. Shops welcomed him, but each as he approached turned rotten, their wares transforming to squirming, deformed creatures. Acquaintances as he greeted them became fiends, tearing out his flesh without pain. All was hollow and lonely.

The gladiator pit, in contrast, was becoming familiar. Wine merchants sent their boys out into the crowd, returning quickly with handfuls of tokens and empty cups. Fighters familiar and new stretched and eyed each other, or sparred with comrades. Auburn and Blonde weren’t present. Apparently they were part of a caravan that took their act to a different town each week. In their place, as an opener, an elderly man goaded a pair of odd, upright fowl into combat. Their wings affixed with tiny blades, the unfortunate birds flapped and squawked, crashing together until one dripped blood. Sparr had enjoyed the choreographed battle between the two women considerably more.

The Governor and Liette presided over the crowd with cautious smiles. To Sparr’s surprise, Kess was seated at Liette’s side. The Olm woman was almost unrecognizable at first. She was dressed in one of the revealing blue robes of the Origin. The single, long braid she had worn when Sparr first had seen her had been undone. Her lustrous, dark hair now spilled down her back, gathered together in spots with glittering clasps. A touch of blush highlighted her cheekbones and flawless, dusky skin. Kess noticed him, apparently as surprised as he was. She tore her eyes away before Liette took note.

There was a rhythm to the matches. Less skilled or untested combatants were called out early for ‘down’ matches. In these contests the winner had merely to knock his or her opponent to the ground, although in practice most took numerous, painful blows in the process.

Next, and forming the bulk of the program, were the blood matches. As before, Syreet fought her match to the thunderous applause of the crowd. The Amazon, armed with a long knife, twirled and leapt about her opponent, an incredibly muscular fighter who wielded a long club. The woman swung massively powerful blows which, if they had connected, would have broken bones. She never stood a chance against Syreet’s whirlwind attack. By the time the judge called the match, she was dripping blood from a score of cuts.

When done, Syreet once again helped Sparr apply his tiger stripes. The crowd, aroused and energized from her match, called out her name alongside Sparr’s nickname of Animal. As she finished, Syreet pressed herself close against him. She whispered in his ear.

“Tonight, I will conquer your cock.” The woman seemed to enjoy sending Sparr into battle with an erection.

What happened next softened him immediately.

The judge unfurled a banner with a garishly painted red X at its center, the symbol for a death match. Sparr startled, then looked up. The Governor was smiling at him through narrow, predatory eyes. Kess looked horrified.

Sparr steeled himself. Blood battles were dangerous enough. An opponent might deliver a death blow either by accident, as had transpired with Jinn, or by design. Even a non-lethal blow could still leave one seriously injured. Sparr comforted himself with the grim thought that at least he wouldn’t leave the pit a cripple.

A guard handed Sparr a sword, a long blade more suitable for a skilled hand than for hacking. He hefted it, admiring the blade’s responsiveness and balance. The roar of the crowd swelled around him, their blood lust called up for the death match. He stepped into the pit.

Efreem and Sparr spotted each other at the same moment. The Olm man, the first person on Kaybe to give him a kind look, stared in confused dismay from across the pit. Stripped to the waist, he carried the twin of Sparr’s blade. His brown skin was oiled and gleaming.

A frantic buzz of excitement, accompanied by an equally enthusiastic round of betting, swept through the crowd. Sparr glared at the Governor. The man sat stiffly, smirking almost imperceptibly toward the combatants. He must, Sparr thought, have planned this match from the first moment he had bought the two at the slave auction. He even placed a bet, although for which fighter Sparr had no idea. Guards closed off the pit. The fight was underway.

Sparr’s gut was knotted, his mind racing. If it had been a blood match, either he or Efreem could have taken a cut to end the thing. The Governor was either too clever for that, or too cruel. He and Efreem would need to work together somehow. Sparr advanced.

Efreem advanced as well, looking about him and over his shoulder desperately. No fewer than eight guards were stationed around the pit. Exactly how the two might work together, even if they could speak, remained unclear. Neither could they hesitate long, either. Already, one of the handlers near Efreem’s red banner was shouting him forward.

Sparr struck, an awkward attempt at a blow that he hoped Efreem would recognize as a ploy. The Olm swatted the blow away easily, and riposted. Sparr’s ploy seemed not to have worked. The two crouched and circled, the encounter veering closer to authentic combat than Sparr was comfortable with. Efreem lunged, a tentative but skilled strike that forced Sparr back. No sooner had he readied his stance than Efreem attacked again.

The auctioneer, when selling the two, had used the term ‘blade’ in his description of their merits. Sparr’s theory that the term solely had been applied to Efreem appeared to be correct. The man was skilled and swift. Nor were Sparr’s attempts to engage him in conversation successful. The best he could do was survive while he thought up another plan.

“Efreem,” Sparr hissed, trying to get his attention without giving away his intent. “Listen, I-“

The Olm lunged, feinted at a slash, then lunged again. Blood welled up from a cut on Sparr’s left arm, the consequence of too open a stance. He needed to think like a fencer, not a brawler.

Another roar of excitement shot through the crowd. The sight of blood fueled a new round of betting and drinking. Why couldn’t he have been sold to a wine merchant? Efreem attacked again.

With a tighter stance and a focus on defense, Sparr could hold his own. He had the advantage of reach, which kept his opponent at least partially on guard. Efreem had excellent reflexes and seemed to be well practiced, but Sparr was stronger, and had the advantage of three weeks of training and competition. And, if he wasn’t mistaken, Efreem seemed to be tiring. It might be a ploy, but Sparr owed it to the man to try.

Still dripping blood, Sparr adjusted his stance to expose his center. Obligingly, Efreem lunged. Sparr, waiting a fraction of a second longer than was prudent, finally leaned back. Sparr dropped his sword to tackle Efreem from behind. The man was slick with oil, but Sparr clung to him fleetingly.

“Efreem, listen. We don’t have to do this. Together, we can-“

“No!” Efreem turned his head to Sparr. His eyes were wide, crazed. Sparr could see no trace of the quiet, kind man who had befriended him. “No!” Efreem twisted free, stumbled forward several paces, and turned to face Sparr. The latter barely had enough time to pick up his blade and defend himself.

Efreem was drugged. Sparr had seen it written clearly in the man’s eyes, in his wild, unreasoning response. Someone who wanted the fight to take place without complications had seen that at least one of the fighters would press the attack. There would be no reasoning with the man.

What Sparr had mistaken for fatigue must be a side effect of the drug. Efreem’s swordsmanship had already deteriorated noticeably since the start of the match. Muscle memory kept his moves true, but his attacks came sluggishly. With no way to cooperate with the man, Sparr could see only one option. The next time Efreem stumbled forward, Sparr parried, then swung.

The flat of Sparr’s blade struck the side of Efreem’s skull. At the very end of the stroke, Sparr turned the blade enough to slice the edge of Efreem’s ear and leave a bloody gash on the back of his head. Efreem dropped.

The horn sounded.

The crowd broke into applause. Cries of Animal, Animal joined the more routine cheering and clapping. Nervously, Sparr performed the expected victory lap, the bloody sword held high. From the rail, Syreet grinned at him. The Governor’s expression was unreadable. Sparr couldn’t bear to look at Kess. He wished only to exit the pit.

He almost made it. Just before reaching the gladiator pen, Sparr was stopped by a sharp cry from the judge. Two of Efreem’s handlers were crouched over his body.

“Wait” the judge commanded.

Slumping with dread, Sparr watched as the men confirmed what he already knew to be true.

“Alive,” one of the men said. His look shifted between Sparr and the judge.

The bet takers stopped, mid-transaction. A few gamblers who had already collected began to scamper away, while others raised a chorus of indignant protests. The Governor launched himself upright, fuming. His eyes sought out Sparr.

“This is a trick,” he said. “This one dies!”

Sparr froze. He had counted on leaving the pit before the discovery was made.

“No, no,” shrieked one of the bet takers. “The horn has sounded! I have already paid!”

The Governor looked incredulously at the bet taker. Beside him, Kess spoke with urgency in Liette’s ear.

“He dies,” growled the Governor. “In a death match, one must die.”

“You cannot,” protested the other bet taker. “If you undo the result, I’ll be ruined!”

The Governor was apoplectic. “Finish him, then! Confirm the result!” He wanted Sparr to kill the unconscious Efreem.

Sparr took a step forward, torn. He had done everything possible to save Efreem’s life. He could either give the man a swift death, or himself be killed. His mission would die with him. It was an impossible choice.


Liette rose. The priestess stood half a foot shorter than the Governor, but her imperious bearing drew the crowd’s complete attention. Kess stood with her, continuing to whisper in Liette’s ear. At one point Liette snapped her head toward Kess as if she had said something preposterous. Kess simply nodded. Liette turned back to face the crowd.

“Two men fought a death match.” She walked forward to where all could see her. “This man,” she said, pointing toward Sparr, “has prevailed under an open sky. No one can take this from him!”

“Yes, yes!” One of the bet takers called out in approval.

“The other,” Liette said, “is merely empty.” She turned her gaze to where Efreem lay, unconscious and bleeding. “The Origin will take them both as a sacrifice. We shall make them whole.”

The Governor, purple with rage, seemed about to break in. Liette silenced him with a gesture.

“But,” the priestess said, “as we ask all of you to sacrifice, so do we ask ourselves.” She extended her hand and, into the Governor’s palm, pressed a few tokens. No doubt, thought Sparr, she had paid him the same measly sum that he had paid the Urst for him and Efreem just three weeks prior.

Liette, Kess in tow, turned to depart. Calling back over her shoulder, she said “Bring them. Bring them both.”

“They belong to the Origin now.”

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