Blood, sand, and death.
Death was in the air I breathed, in the stench of men soiling themselves in terror, in the shock of red painting the ground. It permeated the dust coming up from the arena in waves of abrasive clouds, making it hard to breathe.
Valcan was an ode to blood and despair, all the way to the planet’s climate, an endless desert where life had to fight for the right to live another day. Misery was the fodder with which my father built his fortune on the backs of gladiators condemned to a life of violence.
I pushed down my revulsion at the sight of the corpses being dragged away to the pit where they disappeared below the ground in a vast network of tunnels and chambers. The arena was a circular stone building sitting fifty thousand bloodthirsty spectators from all around the Galactic Empire. It was my father’s crowning jewel, his legacy as the governor of the planet and the most powerful and richest gladiator owner on Valcan, and even perhaps the entire Empire.
Those unfortunate enough to be sold as gladiators came from the far corners of the Galactic Empire to fight and die here, in the great arena of Villea, the Valcan capital. Tentacles, claws, wings, all were torn and shredded under the cheers of the crowd for the benefit of Arenius Celcum Horacius.
As the last of the previous fight’s corpses finally disappeared, the clamor of the crowd grew to a fevered pitch. A shiver traveled up my spine, covered my skin in goosebumps despite the suffocating heat. Anticipation was a living thing in the air as the Primus, the most awaited fight of the day, approached.
Blood and screams, death and maiming. The crowd had had its fill, but it was a greedy animal, and it was never satisfied. With the Primus, they would get their share of true warrior’s blood. Only this would satisfy their appetite. Only then would the beast be fed for another month, another week, another day.
How I loathe these massacres.
I turned to the short, round man sitting at my right, glad to give my eyes some reprieve from the horrors of the arena, but the sight of my father was no comfort.
“Rager is fighting four of Arlo’s best fighters for the Primus today.” Arenius awarded me with a wide and bright smile. Two small, vigilant brown eyes stared at me, missing nothing of my expression. I knew better than to react and maintained my usual polish as I stared at him. “Two Mandragos and two Agapits. It will be the fight of the year.”
Arenius’ smile widened impossibly until he looked like the snake he was inside. I stared at my father for long seconds, the feeling of horror making the hair on my arms stand up, goosebumps creeping under my skin. Surely he couldn’t be serious?
“Four against one?” I chuckled, but soon sobered. “It’s an unfair fight. You risk killing Rager. He’s the champion of Valcan, the best gladiator you ever had.”
“My dear.” Arenius frowned, his cunning eyes shining with something I didn’t understand. Or something I feared to understand. “Rager is a Muharib warrior. He is the best gladiator this city has ever seen. Perhaps the best on the whole of the eastern quadrant of the Empire.”
Hearing my father singing Rager’s praises didn’t make me feel any better. If anything, it only made me feel sick to my stomach.
“But this is the Primus,” I insisted despite my father’s warning glare. He was getting tired of my questioning. “The crowd will expect a fight to the death. No mercy given.”
“Rager is a living legend, dear daughter. He won over two hundred matches in the last three years. I’ve even heard he used to be a great general in the Muharib wars at the western frontier of the Empire.” Arenius shrugged, a distant look in his eyes as his dark brown gaze returned to the arena he had ordered built over two decades ago, when I was a little girl. “The life of a gladiator is a glorious one, but not a long one.”
He was doing his best not to look concerned by the outcome of the fight, but I saw the telltale signs of excitement, of exhilaration on his face. Horror filled my mind as I stared at the man who called himself my father.
“He made a fortune for you.” I spoke without breathing, forgetting to be careful, to be silent. My father’s mouth twitched, a sure sign I was pushing him in the wrong direction. But I didn’t care. Not this time. “You can’t just send him to his death.”
Arenius’s small brown eyes lost what little warmth they had as he returned his attention to me and the monster he was within shone with all its madness.
“He is mine. I can do what I want with his life.”
The message was clear. Arenius owned Rager just as he owned all his other gladiators. Their lives were just a means to an end, a way for him to become richer, more powerful. On this small planet where the scum of the Galactic Empires came to witness violence and death, he was a king, second only to the Galactic Emperor in status and wealth.
My life was no different. I was Arenius’ daughter, but our relations stopped at the blood we shared. I didn’t even really know the man, having spent most of my life in the care of tutors in a faraway school for noble-born girls. Noble-born and unwanted.
There was no love between us, there never had been. At least, not on Arenius’ part.
“You have no shame.” I spoke the words low to be sure none of the nobles massed in the shaded podium heard. Arenius glared at me, his eyes speaking volumes of retributions to come, but I kept talking. I couldn’t let him kill Rager without saying something, even if it was useless.
“And you are forgetting your place.” Arenius’ voice was cold and sharp. The edge in his tone was dangerous and I knew I had to back down. I was my father’s possession under the law and he had right of life and death over me.
This world was a male’s world and females who wanted to live had better learn to keep their mouths shut.
I shifted in my seat, then glanced at the other nobles of the town massed around us in the shaded balcony. The mayor was there, with his young wife. Much too young wife, I should say. The mayor was older than my father, a man in his late sixties, round of waist and loose of jaw, with pudgy hands grabbing a cup of wine from one side and his young wife’s knee in the other. The poor young thing quivered and looked nauseous, but was too well bred to show more feelings than that.
She wasn’t human. She wasn’t any other species, either. A mixed blood, with soft-looking fur, blonde and silky like a lion’s mane, running around her face and over her exposed shoulders. She looked frail and terrified, and utterly alone.
That could be me. The very thought sent shivers straight to my soul. Never.
I slid another glance at my father. He had already dismissed my presence, speaking with a man to his right that I knew only in passing. A rich businessman dealing in goods from the remotest regions of the Galactic Empire. Exotic animals, rare spices, and other costly goods. But this wasn’t the brunt of this man’s trade. No, this one traded mostly in flesh, people stolen from the far-flung planets where the Galactic Emperor, Marcus Aurus, waged his wars. The constant influx of bodies captured in the never-ending conflict had made slave merchants like my father’s friend fat with profit. It was also a great opportunity for Arenius and his gladiatorial school. The abundant stream of people fit to become gladiators had made him richer than ever.
This and Rager’s never-ending victories, each one more spectacular than the previous one.
Far below the shaded podium of the nobility, the crowd erupted in loud cheers and hoots of delight. I turned away from my father and his cunning friend.
And my eyes landed on God-made flesh.
Rager walked slowly inside the arena, his long limbs moving with agile strength, his head held high, rendering his already impressive height even more striking. In his hands were the twin swords of his kind, shining softly under the harsh light. Soft-looking fur covered his head and down his broad back like a mane, running in a straight line to his tapered waist. His flattened nose and high, broad cheekbones gave his face a distinct feline appearance. Marks marred his skin in a stripe pattern, dark brown over bronze, and two blazing green eyes shone with resolve as he faced the crowd.
He was Muharib, a race whose legendary reputation as warriors rooted back from the time of the first Galactic War, when his ancestors fought to remain free from the Imperial control for longer than any other species. Now that the Hundred Years War was over, there weren’t a lot of them left alive in the Galactic Empire and their rarity added to Rager’s popularity in the arena.
My breath caught in my throat as I stared at the champion of Valcan. Everywhere around the sun-drenched arena, the crowd went wild. Their voices mixed in a glorious, bloodthirsty chaos as their champion made his way to the center of the large circle.
He’s a wonder. My throat was still closed up and my eyes refused to look away. He’s been built by the gods.
And he was almost one of them. As I watched, Rager’s tanned, marked skin shimmered under the hammering sun, his muscular chest a landscape of hard, fight-forged male strength. It made my belly quiver and my thighs squeezed together involuntarily. Since I had first laid eyes on him a few weeks ago as my father had recalled me from the boarding school, Rager’s face and body had invaded my dreams, awakening something inside me that should have stayed buried. In my dreams, Rager always came to me like a predator in the night, his body a weapon in itself. As I watched the unfair match, the dream came back to me, vivid and disturbing.
I wake up in my bed and turn to see the curtains blowing in the wind. I frown. That window should be closed. Then I notice him. Rager stands in the corner, bare-chested, the lower half of his body draped in darkness. The animal markings on his skin wrap around the muscles of his chest and arms, sexier than anything I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t talk, doesn’t move. All he does is stare at me.
My body heats up, wetness spreading between my legs as I sit up. Still, Rager doesn’t move, but a low, feral growl rips from his throat. The sound ripples across my skin, goosebumps lining my limbs, hard and painful. My pussy clenches with an unfamiliar need, my clit pulsing, calling for his touch. I’m not entirely innocent to pleasure. I touched myself more than a few times over the years, but never has it been so powerful.
I shiver violently as Rager watches, unable to move, unable to think. Then the Muharib moves, taking a single step into the diffused light of the half moon. I try to breathe, but air has deserted my lungs. He’s entirely naked, thighs wide and muscular, sculpted and powerful. His cock stands straight, pointing at me. It’s long and large, a drop of pre-cum already glistening at its tip. His balls hang between his legs, big and heavy. My mouth waters at the sight of them. I want to run my tongue over the tight skin, suck that cock until his seed drips down my throat.
Rager is pure male hunger, from the green shine of his eyes to the full, fleshy lips that curve up to expose two long, pointed fangs. Ripples of fear and arousal rise in my flesh as Rager stalks closer, his impossible eyes on me like beacons. I know what he wants from me, what that gorgeous, hard cock wants to do to me.
He will devour me like a ravenous beast, taking what he wants, leaving me panting and used. Fulfilled and sore.
But I always woke up just before Rager touched my skin, wet and panting, my clit pulsing and my body screaming with need. The dream had come last night as well, like always before one of Rager’s fight in the arena. Just the memory of it was enough to set my skin on fire.
How can I be aroused in a situation like this?
With a healthy dose of self-loathing, I forced my eyes away from the sculpted, glorious Muharib warrior about to fight for his life.
Then the doors opened again and four more gladiators stepped on the sand of the arena, to the ever greater screams of the crowd. I could see the tension rippling on their skin. Two were Mandragos, those large reptilian creatures with their poisonous fangs and sets of throwing knives at their belts, long tails snapping angrily on the sand as they stalked closer. A bit farther to their right were the Agapits, monstrous mammalians the size of Earth’s horses, dragging heavy clubs behind them, twin tusks poking out of long, rounded snouts. Belligerent porcine eyes instantly fixed on Rager, standing alone in the center of the arena.
The Mandragos and Agapits moved toward Rager, but their steps were slow, their gazes wide and fleeting. They were afraid to face the legend, afraid that their superior number was only a semblance of advantage in the fight to come. Rager turned to meet them, his wide shoulders rippling with the tension of violence unshed as the shouts of the crowd came to a peak. As the Muharib gladiator took in their sight, his shoulders slumped by just a sliver. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for my stomach to churn with bile and my mouth to fill with a sour taste.
He knows this isn’t a fair fight. This isn’t even a fight he’s designed to win. Then my blood froze over as I understood. This is an execution.
“You didn’t warn him?” I turned to my father who was still focused on his conversation with his businessman friend, barely remembering to keep my voice low enough that nobody else but him heard me. “Rager didn’t know he would be so outnumbered?”
“Ha, my dear daughter!” Arenius turned to me, his small, dark eyes shining with a glee that sent shivers straight to my soul. “Have I ever introduced you to my good friend Rodrigo?”
I watched as my father extended a familiar, warm embrace to his friend’s shoulder then squeezed it with a gut-churning affection. Rodrigo, his face thin like a skull, laid cold blue eyes on me filled with an unmistakable lust.
I knew what that look meant. Knew why my father had called me home after all those years.
In the arena, the gladiators had started. The sound of the fight reached my ears, far, far away in the back of my mind. Screams and shouts, from spectators in the audience and below, on the blood-soaked sands.
I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t think.
“No, I’m afraid I never had the pleasure.” How was my voice so even, when all I wanted was to scream?
“Well, he is simply the richest merchant on the eastern frontier of the Galactic Empire!” Arenius laughed, deep and loud, immediately followed by Rodrigo. “Although he is way too humble to say so himself.”
Yes, humble, I’m sure. As humble as a snake poised to strike.
“Business has been good.” Rodrigo leaned forward toward me. A sickening smell made of heavy perfume and costly oils emanated from the man, and I recoiled inside, but didn’t move. All my life, I had been trained to hide my true feelings and it didn’t fail me, even now. “The eastern frontier is a lucrative market, when one knows it as well as I do.”
A falsely modest smile stretched up Rodrigo’s thin lips, giving him the air of a desiccated corpse.
I shivered, deep in my guts, from that secret place inside of me that had never been tamed, had never lost hope for a better life.
Down in the arena, a scream rose, the pain-filled sound resonating deep inside my chest. My eyes strayed to the sands, where the first Mandrago lay dead in a pool of blood. Amid the fight, Rager moved like a deadly dancer, his twin swords twisting through the air with grace. He might know the fight wasn’t fair, but he wasn’t giving up. In fact, it seemed to make him even deadlier than usual. I watched the Muharib gladiator move with a lethal grace, his sword dancing in the air, drawing wide arcs around his body.
“Yet, with all the riches I have amassed, I am still a poor man at heart,” Rodrigo continued, reclaiming my attention. “For what is a man without a woman to give his life meaning, by way of an heir?”
I snapped my head from Rager’s formidable sight and stared once again at the thin man. My stomach clenched at the hungry look in his eyes, the way his stare glided down my neck to my breast.
As if I’m already his.
My hand went up in an instinctive gesture, covering the necklace resting between my breasts. Rodrigo had no way of knowing I was wearing it, but I still felt like hiding it from him.
“A pain I would see you put behind you forever, dearest friend. And so would my daughter.” Arenius turned his too-bright smile to me, a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. There was a warning there, a warning and a promise of retribution should I disobey. “Serena, what do you say?”
Better death than this.
“Marriage?” The word caught in my throat, bitter and hateful, yet my voice was as meek and compliant as ever. “I never had a thought toward it.”
It was a lie. Marriage had plagued my thoughts ever since I turned into a woman. I had feared I would be married off much sooner, but at twenty-three, it was long overdue.
“So innocent, almost to a fault,” Rodrigo commented, smacking his lips like he could taste me in the air. “Of course, you will be granted your every whim, my dearest. As long as you don’t withdraw from my own desires.”
Rodrigo turned to my father and for the briefest moment, his face lost all warmth and he looked like a dried-up, loveless bag of bones.
“Your daughter is perfect, my dear Arenius.” The words came out terse and harsh, nothing like the honey-covered poison from before. “It seems we will be able to do business after all.”
“As I told you she would be,” Arenius answered, his cold glance fluttering to me for half a second. “Serena is a real delight.”
Rodrigo smiled, his cavernous mouth stretching like a fat worm. All I could do was watch as my life slipped from my grip.
“Let us speak of business, then, and I’ll let Serena take care of your desires.” Arenius laughed crudely and both men turned from me, engaging in a discussion on the mutual benefits of the union for their businesses.
I turned my gaze upon the sand once more, to Rager and his desperate fight, his opponents still outnumbering him three to one. He, too, was about to lose his grip on life. I didn’t want to see this. I couldn’t see Rager fall, just another life sacrificed to my father’s greed. I looked away from the fight and stared in the distance, at the empty desert surrounding Villea. A slow cold wrapped itself around my breasts, penetrating inside my chest and holding onto my heart.
Never. No matter what he says, I won’t do it.
It was surprisingly easy to make the choice. Now all I had to do was figure out how to escape my fate without losing my life.