Set Fire to the Gods - Sara Raasch
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,