Chapter 23

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James opened his eyes.

His head throbbed painfully as it had been doing rather often recently. His condition was not significantly improved by the fact that he appeared to be in a dark brick room, laying in a pile of straw.

James was not terribly surprised; he rarely was. He only felt the calming warmth of acceptance. His headache even subsided slightly. He lay in the straw for a few minutes and stared at the dust trickling from the wood planks of the ceiling.

He noticed with some interest that the sun was shining at noon, a celestial position it never took in the habitable parts of Gaea. The sky took on a much fuller, healthier blue color as well, and James realized with joy, the gravitational shackles of the planet had dissolved. His day continued to get better.

Encouraged to get up by his own lightness, James rolled off the pile of straw and stretched in the beauteous warmth of the sun. He was unfortunately confined, for the time being, in a small room composed mostly of limestone brick, with a tiny window striped with iron bars, and a wooden door, locked. It struck James that this sort of architecture was exceedingly rare, and he was momentarily confused. He then decided that he honestly didn't care and returned to cheerful contentedness.

A short time later, the door opened and revealed a huge, muscular man. His face, mangled and sun-bronzed, was unlike any James had ever seen. The eyes were wide, as if the man was permanently surprised, and his features skewed, imperfect. Despite his heavy musculature, the man was short, coming up only to James's shoulder.

"You," grunted the man, pointing at James. "Come with me."

James followed. His good mood was beginning to erode as he walked. The place was beginning to appear more and more like a prison. The corridor was flanked by doors identical to his own, each with its own barred window set beside it. A few of the cells held mean-looking men, equally bulky as the man he now followed. They glared through their windows at the passersby, sometimes sagging under terrifying wounds.

By the time he reached end of the corridor, James's happiness had boiled away. he found himself in a large room, made of the same limestone block. A large portcullis was set in the far wall, and the full brilliance of daylight shined through it. The short man turned to him and spoke.

"Your fight begins in half an hour. I would suggest you prepare yourself well. I hear Flamma is due to fight today."

"Excuse me?"

The man stared back at James with growing contempt. "Just put on your armor, pretty boy."

James looked at the pile of leather rags at his feet and began to strap them onto his body. He found it surprisingly intuitive where each vaguely oblong piece was meant to go, and he was ready in a remarkably short time. The man then gave him a bronze trident seven feet long, one that he had no business carrying. He hefted it with surprising ease. He was then given a net with stone weights attached to each corner.

"Are you ready to fight, Barbarus?"

"I... don't know," responded James, now completely out of his element.

"Then move," grunted the man, pushing him toward the portcullis. It was only now that James realized that the metal spires were grinding upward.

The sun was blindingly bright, and the sound that accompanied it was deafening. The roar of nearly a hundred thousand shouting voices was not one James was especially keen on hearing so soon after waking up. Even so, he marched forward, feeling the gravel beneath his sandals. Once he had reached the center of the arena, he raised his trident into the air. It felt like the right thing to do.

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