“Clanless! Clanless! Clanless!”
The crowd chanted his title as the warrior held his blade aloft, coated in the precious blood of his opponent. He could spare only a few seconds for their adulation. The kill strike had been a chest wound. He had only moments to gather his portion.
“Blood is life. Blood is precious. Blood is power,” the warrior quoted to himself. He knelt beside the dead body. Corlis of clan Dendsu. Clanless couldn’t imagine what had possessed Corlis to challenge him, but he vowed to remember him, though it seemed little comfort for the dead. Corlis. The second-to-last step to freedom.
Clanless snatched the Siphon from the back of his belt. A quick glance showed the attendants already on their way across the sand, pressed to hurry by the priest accompanying them. Clanless took the punch tube and jammed it into the dead man’s heart. Blood shot up through the tube and the attached hose, flowing into the bladder. Heart-blood: the most valuable of involuntary blood donations.
“Come on, come on,” he muttered. The attendants’ feet approached in his peripheral vision, their sandals slapping against the arena sand in their rush.
“Enough, Clanless. You have your share. Step away.” The voice of the blood-priest, slightly out of breath, grated on his ears.
Clanless pulled the Siphon free at an angle, making sure he obtained every drop possible. He sealed the punch tube and re-attached the Siphon to his belt. After picking up his blade, he stood and gave the blood-priest a curt bow. In return, he received a hostile glare. Clanless tightened his grip on the blade’s handle. It would be so simple. One quick thrust, and he’d never have to hear that voice again.
But one quick thrust would doom him forever. So close. So very close. He could wait. Maybe.
“Clanless!” the crowd roared again. Having siphoned his portion, he turned in a circle for them, holding both arms aloft. Let them cheer while they could. They would only see him fight one more time. The final step to his freedom.
He paused in his turn, facing the royal box. In a slow and practiced move, he took blood from his blade and drew a line across his forehead, paying homage to the Hawk King. Such a waste of the precious liquid, but he followed the expected protocol and bowed.
To his surprise, the Hawk King stood and approached the railing. He raised his hand, and the crowd noise dwindled.
“Well done, Clanless!” His mighty voice, enhanced by blood-magic, boomed across the arena. “You fight as you always have, like a man possessed by the goddess herself!” The king gestured upward to the moon in her constant position.
The crowd cheered their approval of his words. Clanless lowered his head again in deference.
“We recognize you as the greatest of all our arena fighters! Perhaps the greatest of all time!” The Hawk King paused, smiling that arched smile Clanless had grown to despise over the past two years. “Though, of course, we still disapprove of your… less-than-honorable weapon choices.”
Hoots and hollers came from the crowd. Most of them didn’t care. His moonblade gave more of a show than most of the others who fought here.
The king waved to the crowd. “Tomorrow, High Winter begins. The sun surrenders fully to the goddess. But it is also the thirtieth such winter, which means the chaos moon will appear in the sky.”
The crowd made their disapproval known. Those who’d been alive thirty years ago knew the horrible weather soon to come. Those younger, like Clanless, had heard the stories.
“And so we celebrate one last time, before the weather drives us all into hiding. Tomorrow’s festival will be the greatest of this generation!”
Louder cheers shook the arena. Everyone knew this, of course, but they were already excited. Hearing from the Hawk King himself, after witnessing the epic arena fights, spurred them almost to a frenzy.
“Clanless!” The Hawk King’s fierce gaze bored into him. “Will you be my champion tomorrow for one last battle?”
He’d expected something like this, though he hadn’t been sure whether the Hawk King would announce it to the crowd. The ruler understood the significance of the next fight. After all, this was the immortal Hawk King, beloved of the moon goddess, and he held the one thing that mattered to Clanless right now: his bloodbond. Of course he would know. Even so, why bother telling the crowd? What would that accomplish?
“Clanless? Do you keep your king in suspense?”
The crowd laughed, and Clanless realized he’d stood silent for longer than he’d intended.
“It would be my honor and privilege to fight on your behalf, great king!” he shouted. His voice wouldn’t carry anywhere near as well as the king’s, but the crowd got the message. They roared their approval.
The Hawk King raised his hand again and waited for the noise to subside. “My people, tomorrow night, as the chaos moon appears, you will see our champion, the clanless one, strike a mighty blow for all of us!” He stretched both hands wide, his white cape spreading with them. “For tomorrow, our champion will fight and defeat the greatest enemy of us all: the so-called Hero of Dolkot… Daviland!”
The crowd exploded, going far beyond their previous frenzy. People jumped in the air, threw clothes into the arena, and climbed onto the railings. Clanless watched at least two fall into the sand below. If they didn’t survive the fall, the blood-priests would claim them. Involuntary though their blood might be, it was still blood.
Clanless stood in the midst of the cacophony, unsure of his feelings. He knew the name, of course. The rebel. The hero of the people. He’d made quite a name for himself in his opposition to the Hawk King’s rule. Word of his capture had reached the arena fighters the night before. Everyone expected him to be executed, but the Hawk King, true to form, wanted more drama. And what higher drama could there be than for the greatest arena champion of all time to fight this rebel in the capital arena?
Clanless needed only one victory to purchase his freedom, after all these years. And this hero, regardless of his deeds, was no warrior of the arena. The fight should not be difficult. Still, it felt… wrong. Clanless wanted out, but to end his career with what amounted to a showy execution… what a waste.
The Hawk King waved to dismiss him and turned away. Clanless bowed one last time, then hurried to the exit. Hagh met him there. Clanless handed him the blade while he toweled the sweat from his body. He nodded to the waiting healer, unneeded this time. With Hagh at his side, he moved on to the waiting room.
“It augers ill,” Hagh said, followed by a deep, hacking cough that went on longer than it had any business doing.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Clanless demanded, once he’d finished with the towel.
“This fight. The chaos moon. Daviland.” He shook his head. “It’s not good. Not good at all.”
“It’s a glorified execution,” Clanless shot back. “A waste of my skill. But it’s still my last fight. I buy my freedom with his blood.”
The blood-priest’s voice broke into the conversation. “The tithe, Clanless. I’ve come to collect.”
“I’m not even dressed yet, priest! You couldn’t wait five minutes?”
The priest lowered his head, but his narrow face held its usual sneer. “You know the way of things.”
“Gotta stop leaving that door open,” Hagh muttered.
Clanless sighed. He picked up the Siphon and tossed it to the priest. “Take your tithe. Bad enough you won’t let me fill the thing. And then you take more.”
“It is the way of things,” the priest repeated. He held up the Siphon, murmured a few words over it, then poured a portion into a crystal vial. As always, Clanless fought the urge to ignite the stolen blood. Such an easy thing to do, but the priest would know. When they discovered the blood to be tainted, they’d know exactly who had done it.
With another lowered head, the priest returned the Siphon and glided away. Now that he’d gone, Clanless’s stress and frustration faded.
Hagh coughed. “I am telling you, Clanless. I’ve heard of this hero. You shouldn’t fight him.”
Clanless wrapped a robe around his body and collapsed into a chair. “Why, Hagh? Why would I avoid an easy kill?”
Hagh shook his head. “It won’t be so easy. They say…” He looked around, then leaned closer. “They say he’s… the chosen one.”