Set Fire to the Gods – Sara Raasch, Kristen Simmons

SWEAT DRIPPED INTO Madoc’s eyes, soaking the frayed neck of his grime-streaked tunic and burning an open wound on his jaw. Blinking back the sting, he swiped an impatient hand across his forehead and lowered his stance. The thick, corded muscles of his thighs flexed as he rocked forward, preparing for his opponent’s next strike. Though his arms trembled with fatigue, his hands lifted, loose and ready. The night air reeked of wet earth, dead fish, and blood—the perfume of South Gate, the seediest fishing port in Crixion, Deimos’s capital city. Madoc had broken a sandal early in the fight, and the toes of his right foot dug into the cool soil of the old boatyard, the location of tonight’s match. Above the rush in his ears, Madoc could hear the taunts of the crowd that had gathered, hungry for his opponent’s victory. Fentus had been training to be a gladiator in Xiphos, on the eastern seaboard of Deimos, when he’d been kicked out of his sponsor’s facility. Word was he lacked the discipline to control his Earth Divine gifts and had killed his sparring partner in practice. On the streets they called that murder, but for one of the Father God’s blessed fighters, it had been ruled an unfortunate accident. Fentus had knocked down three challengers already tonight. Elias had said the odds were now ten to one in Fentus’s favor, and anyone who dared go up against him was a fool. But if that fool could win, he’d carry home a purse so heavy he’d be a king. Which was precisely why Madoc had taken the fight. A large part of him regretted that now.

The match had gone on too long—Fentus’s strikes had been unrelenting. He had battered Madoc with waves of dirt that now coated his olive skin and dark hair. He’d knocked Madoc down with hunks of rope and sharp, rusty fish hooks, debris he’d picked up from the swirling earth. Over and over Madoc had fallen, only to rise again to take another blast of gravel from his attacker’s spindly fingers. If Madoc could get close enough, he could beat him. But to do that he had to stay upright. “Take the fall, pigstock!” A male voice rose above the others, eliciting an eruption of laughter. Madoc brushed off the insult, a common reminder that even though the Undivine made up half the world’s population, those without power were no more useful than cows, sheep, or pigs. “Give me strength,” he muttered to the Father God, his stare alternating between his attacker’s broad forehead and his hands, which were now resting at his sides. A familiar rush filled Madoc’s veins, cool against the oppressive heat of the night.

Almost, a voice whispered in his mind. Almost. Fentus smiled, half his teeth black holes in his mouth, but even from twenty paces away, Madoc could see the sheen of sweat on the other man’s brow and the sag in his shoulders. Still, it was something else, something deeper, that stirred Madoc’s unusual sixth sense. He could feel the fatigue as if it came from his own muscles—a dip in energy, like some might feel the coming rain—a subtle change no one else could perceive. The ore was growing heavy in Fentus’s blood. Those with geoeia could pull only so much strength from the earth. Too far past the threshold, and the power turned to poison, making the mightiest fighters as slow and clumsy as any Undivine. Most knew their limit and did not push past it. Others, like Fentus, were too proud or stupid to quit.

This was precisely what Madoc had been waiting for. A quick glance to his left revealed a skinny stonemason on the edge of the crowd, his tunic stained with telltale splashes of gray mortar. “Pigstock!” the stonemason called again, his grin, familiar to only Madoc, as wide as a sickle moon. He raised his fist, encouraging those closest to join the chant of Fen-tus! Fen-tus! Fen-tus! The people called for the bookmaker, the gold coins in their outstretched hands glinting off the tall torches surrounding the boatyard. Madoc tapped his left fist on his thigh twice. To the crowd, it would look like a nervous tic. But the stonemason’s dark hair fell over one eye as he dipped his head. “Submit, boy,” called Fentus, though at eighteen Madoc couldn’t have been more than five years younger than him. “Or I’ll bury you in a grave so deep not even your mother will know where to start digging.” The crowd roared.

“That’s not very nice,” Madoc answered, tapping his thigh faster. Fentus grinned and, with a snarl, swung his thin arm toward the ground. Before he could touch the earth, Madoc dropped to one knee, digging his right hand into the tossed soil. The quake began instantly, cutting Fentus’s battle cry short. Madoc gritted his teeth as the ground dipped beneath his palm and rose up like a wave before him. The flying gravel was thin, not nearly as dense as Fentus’s efforts had been. Still, it surprised Madoc’s opponent. When the blast hit Fentus in the chest, it knocked him back three full steps. Madoc lunged up, sprinting through the cloud of dust toward the other man. He might not have been trained in Xiphos, or have mastered the skills of arena fighting, but he’d been lifting rocks at the quarry since he was a child, and his back and shoulders could carry a weight twice his own.

Three more steps and Madoc had closed the space between them. Fentus’s eyes, red from the dust, went wide just before Madoc arched back his elbow and punched him in the jaw. Fentus fell like a rock, flat on his back, and did not rise. Frenzied excitement squeezed Madoc’s chest. The crowd was quiet—no more calls of pigstock sounding out in the night. They’d finally seen his true intent, his strategy played out: wait until the other man tired, then attack. If only they’d known that sensing Fentus’s weakness was all Madoc’s powers entailed. Ten-to-one odds. They should be higher now; no one would doubt Fentus’s victory after all the falls Madoc had taken. A shout built inside him.

Petros’s hired thugs were falling, one by one. The senate’s corrupt master of taxation set up these matches knowing he’d win—the entry and attendance fees, the heavy bets, all of them went into a pot that he kept unless a challenger could take down his fighter. It was just another way Petros sucked the poor dry. But Geoxus had smiled on Madoc, and tonight Petros would leave empty-handed. “Cheat!” shouted a man to Madoc’s left. The bookmaker. One of Petros’s many employees. “No one beats Fentus! He must be a cheat!” Madoc’s eyes narrowed on a blue toga surrounded by centurions in silver and black armor. Centurions policed the city, enforcing the senate’s rules with an iron fist. Of course Petros would have them standing by.

A few others around the bookmaker took up the call. “Great.” Madoc held up his hands in surrender. He tried a smile, which drew even louder cheers from the crowd. He wasn’t the only one who wanted to see Petros’s fighter defeated. “Arrest him!” shouted the bookmaker. Madoc bit back a curse. It was a shame Cassia, Elias’s sister, couldn’t be here. Her life’s goal was to be a centurion, and she’d make a good one. She’d been telling on him since he was seven.

As three centurions moved into the ring, drawing rocks from the ground with their geoeia to hover above their ready hands, Madoc gave a weak laugh. He took a step back, then another. A quick glance over his shoulder revealed two more centurions coming up from behind. “It was a fair fight,” he tried. “You all saw it.” The centurions continued their steady approach, wariness curling their spines. They had Geoxus’s blessing to use lethal force, but Madoc made them nervous. Any fighter who could take down Fentus was to be approached with caution. “Leave him alone!” shouted a woman from the edge. A rock slapped against the nearest solder’s breastplate with a ping.

“You want to arrest someone, arrest that crook Petros!” The soldier spun toward the edge of the crowd, but the woman was nowhere to be seen. From the opposite side came another rock, then another. Soon shouts were rising into the night. Some came to Madoc’s defense, others to Fentus’s. Guilt panged through Madoc. Half these people were counting on tonight’s winnings to feed their families or cover their debts. The bookmaker’s shrill call for order was brushed aside as a fight broke out to Madoc’s left. That was his cue to run. He sprinted into the crowd, gravel flying behind him. More fights broke out, shouts ringing into the night, as Madoc bounced off bodies blocking his way.

“There he is!” “Get him!” “Run!” called a man nearby as a flash of silver and black whipped behind them. Soon, people were shoving in all different directions, and the shouts turned to screams as the crowd stampeded back to the safety of the buildings. Madoc charged on, keeping his head low and his shoulders slumped to hide the fact that he was taller than most full-grown men. The urge to turn back pulled at every step. He’d weathered half a night’s beating for that purse. He didn’t want to leave without it. “Bull!” Madoc flinched at the sound of the name he used in fights. He ignored it, pressing on, but a fist grabbed the back of his tunic and dragged him beneath a stairway. Madoc spun, braced to fight, but as soon as they were hidden by shadows the other man immediately released his hold. Madoc assessed him in a single breath.

He’d seen that scarred jaw and silver-streaked hair somewhere before. “Lucius wants to talk to you.” Realization struck Madoc like a fist to the gut. This man was a trainer for Lucius Pompino, one of the premier gladiator sponsors in Deimos. Lucius was an esteemed member of the senate—and a grandson of Geoxus himself. Elias and Madoc had watched people like him in the parades before a war. Sponsors would ride in elaborate chariots, wearing the finest clothing, tossing gems—worthless to the Divine, who could pull them from the earth with a flick of the wrist. Even more worthless to the Undivine, who couldn’t even sell the stones for a loaf of bread. There was little value to a rock that even a Divine child could make. “Stop gaping like a fish,” Lucius’s trainer said.

“You know the man I speak of?” Madoc closed his mouth. “Yes. Dominus.” He added the title of respect, though it pained him to do so. The Divine in this city cared little for anyone who didn’t have the Father God’s gifts. Not even Petros bothered to attend the fights he ran in South Gate. The upper class normally didn’t dirty their hands in the Undivine districts. The trainer pulled his hood over his head. “Good. Then you know where to go.

” The villa on Headless Hill, a plateau in Crixion’s wealthy Glykeria District, so named by those who looked up at it. Everyone knew where Lucius lived and trained his fighters. You could see the stone walls and the glimmer of his turquoise-studded insignia all the way from the quarries. Though Madoc wanted no part of the risks involved in fighting real gladiators, he couldn’t help the smirk pulling at his lips. Lucius’s top trainer had been at this fight. The man thought he was good enough to see the biggest sponsor in the city, to fight on his god’s behalf in official arena matches against their enemies during wars. At Headless Hill, he’d be given all the food he could eat, and go to parties that went late into the night, with wine and games and girls. While others like him—pigstock—continued to suffer. His grin faded. “Thanks for the offer, but Lucius will have to find someone else.

” The words were as dry as dust in Madoc’s throat. The trainer’s mouth twisted with impatience, but before he could berate Madoc for declining this rare opportunity, a shrill whistle filled the night. Madoc blinked, and the trainer was gone. Panic raced through his blood. Outside the stairway, more silver and black glinted from the edge of the crowd—centurions flooding the streets to stop the riot. If Madoc waited around much longer, he was going to find himself locked up in a legion cell. His feet hit the stone, one sandal clapping against the street while the other bare, callused foot absorbed every bump and rock. From the front of the alley came a shout of surprise, and Madoc lifted his eyes to find a centurion on horseback blocking the path. The crowd before him shifted, turning back the way they’d come. Spinning, Madoc tried to go with them, but soldiers pressed from the other side.

The hard, metallic clang of their gladius knives against their shields streaked a warning through him moments before the ground quaked, then lifted to block the nearest escape. Fear raced down Madoc’s spine. The centurions were using geoeia to corral the crowd. Cutting sideways, Madoc dived beneath the damaged wheel of a broken cart shoved against the side of a stone building to the right. Tucking his broad frame against the splintering wood of the axle, he watched the other runners disperse, escaping or caught by the legion. Soon, Madoc could hear the clap of hooves against the street. A centurion on horseback was coming closer. Even in the low light, it was impossible that Madoc would remain undetected. His right shoulder stuck out from the back of the cart and his legs were too long to tuck beneath him. The darkness was his only ally.

Keep going, he willed the soldier. Keep going. He knew of people the legion had taken. They never returned. If he was caught, and the centurions learned he had been one of the fighters, what would they do? He knew, better than most, that prisoners were often shoved into training arenas as fodder for real gladiators. Instead of being sponsored by Lucius, he’d be ground to dust by the fighters Lucius chose. Keep going. Madoc willed it so hard his vision wavered. The soldier passed, his black and silver regalia muted by the starlit sky. A hard exhale raked Madoc’s throat.

He waited until the horse and rider were out of earshot and the centurions no longer beat a warning against their shields. Until the street went quiet. An alley across the road caught his eye, and he slipped out from beneath the cart and sprinted toward it. As he ran, his feet sloshed through puddles of stagnant water and the waste of emptied chamber pots from the apartments above. Keeping to the twisting alleys, he carved a path through South Gate toward the Temple of Geoxus, where he was supposed to meet Elias. As in the other four Undivine districts, the houses and shops here weren’t soaring visions of marble, gleaming with gold leafing and wrapped in gems. Simple brown brick apartments lined the streets. Beggars slept on corners. Even this late at night, children dug through rotting garbage for bits of food to calm their twisting bellies. They had Petros and his impossible taxes to blame.

It didn’t matter that being born with the gods’ power was a chance of fate—that geoeia was often, but not necessarily, inherited from one or both parents. When the Divine held the power, the Undivine paid the price. A chill crawling down his spine, Madoc took the final turn out of South Gate and into Market Square, an area where Divine and Undivine mingled. An open-air temple protecting the giant bronze statue of their Father God towered high above the empty street. In a few hours, vendors would fill the square, selling clay gladiator dolls and silver and black banners alongside food and textiles, but for now it was still, lit only by the beaten copper streetlamps. Madoc’s remaining sandal caught a raised stone on the street and tore the leather strap. With a curse, he took it off and tucked it into the back of his belt. Now he didn’t even have the coin to replace it. Maybe he could sweet-talk Cassia into fixing it tomorrow. She would, after she smacked him upside the head with it.

She had informed Madoc and Elias on more than one occasion that she did not have the time or patience to coddle giant babies. With a resigned sigh, he headed for the corner where an olive seller sold his wares during the day. Elias always chose this place to meet because he liked the look of the merchant’s daughter. “Took you long enough.” Madoc turned to find the scrawniest stonemason ever to live jogging across the street. As he approached, a grin dimpled his right cheek, half hidden by his shaggy black hair. Relief broadened the smile on Madoc’s lips, masking the fear that prickled beneath his breastbone. Now that he was with Elias, Madoc realized just how close they’d been to getting pulled apart. “I had a few stops on the way back,” Madoc said. “Had to get a drink.

Picked up some pickled bull testicles from the South Gate market for Seneca.” At the mention of their eccentric old neighbor, Elias snickered. “Courting gifts won’t help. She’s not interested, you sorry pigstock.” Madoc chuckled, used to the good-humored insult from his friend’s smart mouth. Elias knew that Madoc’s strange intuitions were far from ordinary, but he enjoyed reminding Madoc who had the real power. “Did you enjoy yourself tonight? I gave the signal ten times before you decided to step in.” Elias frowned. “What was it again?” Madoc gave an exaggerated tap of his left hand against his thigh. “Oh, right.

” Elias laughed, and Madoc shoved him to the side. “It’s okay. The Great Quarry Bull can take a hit or two.” Madoc groaned at the name Elias had chosen so that no one would be able to trace Madoc back to their home. It was true that he tended to heal quickly, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t felt each grain of sand flung in Fentus’s assault. Only a true Earth Divine could use geoeia to harden their skin like a rock. They turned toward the river and the stonemasons’ quarter. Madoc had lived there with Elias Metaxa and his family since Elias’s sister Cassia had found him begging on the temple steps eleven years ago. Though Elias and Cassia were Divine, their mother, Ilena, and her other children were not, and when her Divine husband had died, leaving them with unsurmountable debt, they’d been forced to move into the slums with the Undivine. “It was quite a show, wasn’t it?” Elias’s voice had quieted but was still pitched with delight.

“Did you see how far I sent that dust wave? I’ll bet I’m the only one in the city aside from Geoxus himself who can throw geoeia like that.” He grinned, but his sandals scuffed the ground with each heavy step. It appeared their opponent wasn’t the only one who’d pushed his limits at the fight. Madoc gave a snort. Elias might have put on a show tonight, but it was Madoc who had sensed Fentus’s weakness. Most of the time Madoc tried to ignore the constant battery of emotions people generally thought they were hiding beneath the surface, but at times like this it came in handy. He was learning to use empathy to his advantage. Where Elias was getting stronger, Madoc was getting smarter. For months they’d practiced their routine, failing in the first three fights before finally finding their rhythm and securing a sloppy win. Madoc, looking the part of a fighter and trueborn Earth Divine, faced the opponents while Elias, who’d sworn to his mother never to enter a fight, stood on the sidelines, throwing his geoeia from a distance.

Making it seem like Madoc was the one doing it weakened the strength of Elias’s blows, but what the attack lacked in power, Madoc himself made up for in brute force. No one had any idea that he didn’t have geoeia, and due to the severe punishments imposed on cheaters, no one suspected their lie. Not even Lucius’s trainer had seen the truth. Madoc’s mouth opened, his conversation with the trainer ready to spill out, but he stopped himself. He was bound by the same promise as Elias—they’d both sworn they wouldn’t fight in the high-stakes matches Petros hosted around the city each week—and telling him about Lucius would only lead to trouble. Elias was distracted by shiny things, and a chance to earn real coin, like the payouts the gladiators made when they fought for Geoxus, would have them facing foreign competitors twice as formidable as Fentus, or leave them in a cell pondering their fates. Anger sliced through Madoc’s disappointment as his mind returned to the boatyard. They’d beaten Fentus and walked away with nothing. “We had him,” Madoc muttered. “That much coin could have gotten us through the rest of the month.

” The half they would’ve given to the temple could have kept a kid off the street, or paid for new cots in the sanctuary, or kept someone out of Petros’s greedy grip. “Oh.” Elias removed the swollen leather purse tucked inside his belt and slapped it against Madoc’s chest. “Did I forget to mention I snatched this from the bookmaker while he was carrying on about you being a cheat?” Madoc grabbed the satchel, the thrill of his victory slamming back through him as he pulled open the strings and looked inside. Gold glinted back at him, dimly lit by the moon above. Geoxus had blessed them after all. “You could have started with this,” Madoc said, clutching the purse. “I could have,” Elias agreed. “But it wouldn’t have been nearly as dramatic.” They veered to the opposite side of the street, up the broad stone steps of the temple where a dozen homeless Undivine slept, moaning softly in hunger or pain.

As Madoc drew closer to the gates of the sanctuary, he felt as if a hand were closing around his throat. It didn’t matter how many years had passed since he’d first come here, he would never forget that thin, desperate hope that had pushed him to reach his skinny arm into the offering box, praying for a coin to steal so that he could buy something to eat. Thirteen years later that same slot remained in the weathered wood of the door, beneath the line of gemstones people touched for luck or prayer. His large hand wouldn’t fit through now, but the coins did. They fell to the bottom of the box with a quiet jingle. He would never be that boy again. As long as he could fight, he would fill these coffers, returning what he could of the money that Petros stole from the people. The Divine might turn away pigstock like him, but the temple never would. “There goes my new chariot,” Elias whined. “I hope you’re happy.

” Madoc grinned. “I’m sure your mother wouldn’t be at all suspicious if we came home in a chariot.” They couldn’t even afford a carriage ride across town. After their first win, Elias had brought a fat duck home for dinner, and Ilena had accused him of gambling and made him give the bird to Seneca to teach him a lesson. Elias scowled. Ilena wasn’t their only concern. Half the take usually went to the family to pay the bills and keep Petros and his dogs at bay, but if word got out that they’d bought new clothes, or spent more than they could pull at the quarry, Petros would hear of it and have them arrested for hiding taxable income. “Does killing my dreams make you happy?” Elias asked, his glare scalding. Madoc laughed all the way down the steps, but the truth needled deep beneath his skin. Tonight’s winnings were a bandage over a gaping wound.

The Undivine would suffer as long as they were powerless, and they were powerless because they would never be afforded the same jobs, homes, and schools that those with geoeia had. In Deimos, if you were born pigstock, you died pigstock, and one man made sure you remembered your place. Madoc would not be truly happy until Petros had lost everything

.

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