The tanned, lightly muscled fighter was readying himself to tear two more men into strips of meat. Juxxa took a small toy out of his pocket and balanced it on his open palm. It was a solid steel dog with amethyst wheels for feet. He tilted his hand, causing it to roll smoothly back and forth with each tilt. It was a fine piece of craftsmanship, especially for a toy. Minah, Juxxa’s daughter, used to love it. One day, when this is over, she’ll see this again, he thought.
The Colosseum was south of the royal palace. It was the only other structure in Mirek of the same height. Building it had been Sallith’s decree. His royal workers had removed the poorest of the poor from the center of the city and leveled their shanties, leaving a vast circle for the new construction. It took seven years to complete the enormous hollow trunk of obsidian and sandstone that could hold nearly a third of the city's population, but the King’s real reward was the scattering of the wretches and the chance to collect higher taxes. And, of course, it was a brilliant source of entertainment and pride for the people.
Juxxa was standing at one of the thick steel portcullises that opened on to the battle theater. He was from Ozaros, a wild, brutal land far to the south. It had the harshest terrain, the strongest monsters, and it was the birthplace of humans and dragons. None of that had intimidated Sallith enough to leave him alone, however.
Juxxa peered eighty paces across the red sand at an identical portcullis.
“Good people of Mirek!” said the announcer. His voice was amplified by an unnatural force. “Wait no longer!”
The King had banned magic and mages from the city by decree, yet he used them to create and operate a magically protected, domineering arena and entertainment center. All humans seem to share a thirst for blood, even if most of them only experience it vicariously through these death matches, thought Juxxa. Maybe that’s why they don’t question the King about the use of magic here.
“The gruesome champion of our arena, with eighty-nine victories and eighty-nine slain foes, will face death again!” bellowed the announcer.
The portcullis lifted with a thump that sounded like a tree being ripped from the ground. As soon as the gate was high enough to pass under, Juxxa stepped out onto the sand which had been dyed dark-red to conceal the blood.
He raised his long steel halberd, holding it close to the blade and axe combination that formed the head. The axe was wider than his torso, and the spear-end was long enough to be a decent sword. The weapon was heavy, brutal, and had earned him the name Headsplitter. As the fans clapped and whooped for their idol, the hot sand warmed the soles of Juxxa’s boots.
“A victory...” the announcer said. The Colosseum was filled and then some. Even magic couldn’t overpower the roar of the crowd. “A victory here and now will increase his victims by two.”
Juxxa shook his head and smiled. The Council has finally resorted to unfair matches. Unfair is a relative term I suppose.
The portcullis opposite the one Juxxa emerged from the ground with the same thump. Two figures walked side by side under the raised gate. They were wearing the heaviest armor they could ask for and their long thin swords—with needle-like points and hand guards—were identical.
Juxxa wasn’t expecting such short opponents. They reminded him of children. He and the two men began walking toward the center of the sand.
“Today’s opponents are the arsonists of Street Fifteen!” said the announcer.
The tales of that tragic fire were haunting. Juxxa knew the real perpetrators were likely still roaming free.
“A victory here will completely erase their sentences of life in Calceria! Will they be the first to succeed against our champion?”
The audience let out something like a wave of laughter and a wave of anger crashing into each other.
“Good luck, gentlemen! Now, my King, we await your signal.”
The King spoke, though no one was looking at him. “Begin!” His voice was louder and more encompassing than the announcer’s.
One of the little men seemed more confident than the other. He charged at Juxxa with a less than convincing battle cry.
Juxxa stepped forward and thrust his halberd straight at his opponent’s breastplate. The blade pierced the rounded armor easily and impaled the arsonist. Juxxa grabbed the hulking steel pole with both hands and held the little man up. With a light thrust Juxxa tossed the small man off the end of the spear. His fingers scraped at the red sand as he died.
The crowd booed and stomped their feet in disappointment.
Juxxa walked over to the other man who was on his knees. The bloodthirsty mob began howling, hoping at least for a split head. Juxxa raised his weapon and looked down at the man.
“Don’t kill me immediately!” the man squealed. “There’s something you must know!”
Juxxa aimed for the leather ties between the armor’s shoulder plate and breastplate. He cleaved the man’s right arm straight through. The man shrieked, but his massive blood loss soon tired him and he fell forward.
Juxxa knelt and lifted the man by the hair. “What do you have to tell me?” As Juxxa studied his opponent’s face he realized he wasn’t human. He was an elf, a non-magical being just as mistrusted and unwelcome in Mirek as mages. A quick glance at the other one confirmed it. Their angular ears had been cruelly burned or otherwise disfigured to make them look more curved, more human. It was either torture, a practical alteration, or both. “You’re elves.”
“We aren’t the arsonists,” gurgled the one-armed elf.
“I figured as much.”
“Take it,” the elf whispered, slapping his pocket with his remaining hand.
Juxxa took a short tube from the dying elf’s pocket and tucked it in his boot. He was far enough away from the seats that it was unlikely anyone had noticed.
“You’re incredibly strong, even for an Ozarian,” said the elf. “There may be hope for us yet.”
“Hope for us?”
The elf laid his head down, smiled, and closed his eyes.
Juxxa stood up. He lifted the halberd over his head and let it fall. It nearly chopped the poor soul in half with a slamming, wet noise that reverberated through the arena.
The audience’s desire for justice was partly satisfied and they let out a lackluster cheer.
“And with that,” the announcer said, “Headsplitter . . . the Colosseum champion and silent beast of Ozaros . . . has won his ninetieth match and slain his ninetieth and ninety-first opponents!”
Juxxa walked toward the portcullis that had been opened to remove the dead elves. He stepped into the shade and out of sight. His usual ritual after a kill was to bathe in the warrior’s pool, but instead went to his resting space and sat down in a corner.
Despite the remnants of the excited crowd pounding the floors like rain, he could think in the magically cooled halls underneath the podium seating. He removed the tube from his boot. Why did I get this? I’m sure it was just handed off to me as a last resort. Juxxa unrolled the scroll. It was a message in Elven. Was I supposed to know that the fighters were elves, or does Sallith take me for an imbecile? Likely the latter. Sallith could have elves executed in secret. Why disfigure them, present them as humans, and have them publicly slain in the Colosseum?
The one thing Juxxa could be fairly certain of was that there were elves in Mirek. Sallith hated the pitifully weak elves, but he would never admit that they were infiltrating his city. It would make the King look weak, at least in his own eyes.
There were no elves in Ozaros, but Juxxa knew a very small bit of Elven from reading different works here in the north where Elven influence was more prominent. He studied the small pointy diagonal letters more closely, slowly running a chapped finger under each line. He recognized two words that were repeated a number of times. He sounded them out phonetically. Cal-dia? No. Cla-aldia. Or Claudia? And the other word, maybe a last name... Nierra. The name sounded human. He had no idea who it belonged to, but it was a start.
He figured the elves in Mirek were probably radicals, spurred by Sallith into a violent plan to kill him, overtake the city, or both. Juxxa had no love for Sallith or the city. He saw this as an opportunity. Perhaps this Claudia Nierra is an elf in disguise, or a sympathizer. Maybe we can work together.