In the hundred and thirty-first year of the Byzarian Empire’s reign over all Terevia, Emperor Virgilus Oroacer introduced a new way to show just how much power he had over those he ruled and just how undefeatable his warriors were. The Justice Battles pitted those criminals who had been sentenced to death against the finest warriors in the elite Emperor’s Legion of the Byzarian army in brutal, bloody duels with only one possible outcome. Lesser criminals also had their chance to fight in less fatal battles, and should they acquit themselves well, they would be offered a pardon and a place in the army in return for swearing absolute allegiance to the emperor. The Justice Battles quickly gained popularity with the general public, who viewed them as excellent entertainment. As time went on, the Justice Battles became less and less just and more and more brutal. The rules against killing in the lesser battles were forgotten, as was the custom of pardoning those minor criminals who fought skillfully. A new class of soldiers, the Vengeance Legion was established simply for the purpose of fighting in the Justice Battles, and before long, these glorified executioners began to receive more fame than the soldiers who protected Byzaria. By the time Gratius Thales succeeded Virgilus as emperor, the Justice Battles had become the bloodiest and most popular form of entertainment in the Byzarian empire, though those who thought far into them would likely wonder how just they truly were. Any criminal and any person judged to be a rebel to the empire could and most likely would end up facing the swords of the Vengeance Legion. Some brave citizens, especially those who followed the One God rather than Byzaria’s six deities, saw the perversion and lifted their voices to speak against it. These people were all too often branded as rebels and killed in the very events they decried. And so the bloodshed continued until one fateful summer day.
“Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!” The cries of a thousand dusty throats rolled through the arena and echoed off the walls. Justus, one of the many Justice Legionnaires, stood in the center of it all, his sword held ready to kill his latest conquest. He held up a hand, silencing the crowd’s cries, and looked down at the man lying at his feet. He’d fought many men in his career: men so terrified they could hardly hold their blades, men who raved and cursed and fought like berserkers, and men of nearly every attitude in between. Never, however, had he faced one who acted as calmly as this foe. The man had defended himself surprisingly well, but he’d never attacked. He’d just blocked, blocked, blocked until Justus sent the man’s sword spinning from his hands, kicked his legs out from under him, and planted a foot on his chest to hold him down. Even then, however, he hadn’t lost his composure. He stared back at Justus calmly, without any last, begging pleas for mercy or curses upon Justus, Emperor Gratius, or anyone else. He didn’t even struggle or put up a futile fight to try to get back up and regain his weapon.
Justus gripped his sword hilt tighter but didn’t bring it down. In a voice too low for those in the stands to hear, he asked, “What’s your name, man?”
The man’s eyes widened slightly in surprise, but he answered in an equally low voice, “Hykinos.”
“Hmm.” Justus had never heard of this man among the criminals or the major rebels, though he seemed vaguely familiar somehow. “And what’s your crime, Hykinos?”
“Speaking truth,” the man replied, evenly. “Declaiming how perverted our culture has become and declaring the redemption of the One God.”
“Ah.” A rebel, then, though the calmest rebel I’ve ever faced. Not that Justus had faced many rebels; other Justice Legionnaires were usually chosen to fight them. “How many men have you injured in your so-called truth-speaking, Hykinos? How many officials’ homes have you attempted to destroy to make your point?”
“None,” Hykinos replied. “I follow the One God, and His way does not involve violent protests. He commands me to speak truth and do good to others, and so that is what I do my best to do.”
Now Justus knew where he’d seen this man. He was one of the men who went about collecting food and clothes for the city beggars and offering to pray for people. Justus recalled one time in particular when he’d noticed Hykinos give his own cloak to a ragged beggar shivering on a street corner. He wondered, as he had then, what would prompt the man to do such a thing, and if it was that same influence that allowed the man to face death so calmly. Was it the One God they claimed to follow? Or was it something else? Either way, did this man really deserve death?
“Justus!” Emperor Gratius’s voice rang out from his private box, cutting short Justus’s thoughts. “Get on with it! Kill him!”
Justus nodded. “Yes, Emperor.” He raised his sword higher, ready to bring it crashing down on Hykinos’s neck. However, he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. Killing a murderer, a violent rebel, or another who endangered others was one thing. They deserved death. But this man did good. Justus had seen it himself.
The crowd’s chant of “kill him!” began anew. Justus looked up and surveyed the crowd. What if he’s onto something? What’s good or just about killing a man who hurts nobody, who helps those who cannot possibly have done anything for him, whose only crime is speaking his mind? Are we really as great as we think we are when we view the death of one who does not deserve it as nothing more than entertainment?
“Justus!” the emperor called out once more. “I said get on with it!”
Justus took a deep breath. He knew what he had to do now. He shifted his grip on his sword so he’d be using the point rather than the edge. Then he drove the sword down-
Into the sand by the man’s neck. Silence fell like a boulder over the arena. Justus looked up at the crowd. “No.” His eyes traveled to the emperor. “No. I will not kill this man. He has done nothing to deserve death.”
Emperor Gratius rose to his feet. “He has defied his emperor and the ways of our empire. I have judged him and ordered him dead. That should be enough for you, Justus. So kill him!”
“I said no.” Justus’s heart pounded, but he would not back down. “I cannot and will not kill this man.”
“Then your own life is forfeit.” The emperor at him. “Guards! Seize and kill them both!”
Justus didn’t wait to see if the guards were obeying. Sheathing his sword, he bent and pulled Hykinos to his feet. “Come on. “ He started running towards one of the archways leading out of the arena and heard the other man following. “We’ll have to move fast if we want to make it out of here.”
“Indeed.” Hykinos drew level with Justus. “I’m glad you made the right choice, Justus.”
Justus didn’t stop running or even glance at the man, but a slight smile crept over his face. “So am I.”