Wednesday September 10th 2014

Painfully stiff with a face disfigured with swelling, Cesare walked into Tamlins room. Sitting cross-legged on the mat, Tamlin gestured for Cesare to join him. ”What happened? ”

Tamlin listened as Cesare went over the ambush. ”Its an excellent tactic for the untrained. Rush a target and pin him under bodies. Once you have him on the ground, hes easy food. ” Grinning wolfishly, he continued, ”But every strategy has a weakness. That many people, that close, turns the fight into a ground game. You can do a lot of damage in a ground game. Well work on your grappling. Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu will be your base. Judos good for creating space. Send a man to the ground and you create a window of seconds to act. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is maiming in act and breath, breaking limbs and locking opponents down. ” Tamlin raised an eyebrow. ”Some pull away when they get a bone to the point of breaking. They lack the ruthlessness to use the art to its full potential. ”

”I don have that problem, ” Cesare said.

”See you don . Im not putting my time into this to have you crippled by a bunch of kids. You
e coming along with your strikes. This is different, youll need to learn by doing. ” With those ominous words, Tamlin flowed to his feet.

Cesare limped down the hallway after his sparring with Tamlin. The only thing he had planned for the day was the library. A soft sigh left his lips at the thought. All he wanted was to sit down and rest with a good book in a quiet place … somewhere that didn have students calling him names or looking for new ways to hurt him.

Hed only been sitting for a half hour when Greg came in with his girl at his side. Looking around, the drug dealer made for Cesare with single-minded intent. Sighing, Cesare laid his pen down in the same motion that the knife slipped into his other hand. Its one thing to get the shit kicked out of you by a girl whos as deadly as she was beautiful. Its another to let every Tom, Dick and Greg hand you your ass.

Wisely, the two sat down at the end of the table. ”We have a demo today. Wanted to know if youd be there? ” Greg asked.

”I hate sports, ” Cesare said. Being small had turned him into a punching bag for every asshole with big muscles and shit for brains. That the biggest students roamed in packs proved life was never meant to be fair.

”Figured. You probably want to be left alone to study in peace. ” At Cesares nod, Greg continued, ”Well, I don have anything that can pry you loose. ” Standing, he stopped thoughtfully as if something had occurred to him. ”Im just sorry for Miss Raven. She has to be there as part of the faculty, but all she ever has is her freaky birds to sit with her. ” Greg grinned at Cesares sigh. It would mean a long night back at the dorm, but hed be there for her.

”Thought that would get you moving. ” Greg shared a look with his girl before turning back to Cesare. ”So, whats with the black and blues? ” The girl leaned forward in anticipation, the chance to get a piece of juicy gossip too much to resist.

It was bound to come out, and Cesare needed to add his own spin on it. ”The Thagirion want me to stop helping Miss Raven. ” He gestured at his swollen face. Bleeding into each other, the shades of yellow, purple and black were a patchwork of pain. ”This is their way of helping me see their point. ”

Gregs smile faded while the girl sat back in shock. It was Greg who spoke, even as the books went into Cesares duffel bag. ”You
e going to keep doing it. ”

”Yep. ” The girl gave a gasp at his quick answer.

Greg shook his head. ”You
e either one of the baddest mother**ers Ive ever met, or the stone cold stupidest. ”

Cesare stepped out of the school and joined the crowd of students. A bubble of space formed around him, enforced through cutting looks and sneering lips. This place was supposed to be different, but it was the same tune hed danced his life to.

A path wound into the trees, black cobblestones scuffed and scarred by hundreds of years. Yelling, laughing, talking and joking, voices violated the dominant silence of the trees shading the stones. A tightness in his soul loosened under the trees shadows as shining emerald greens and the sound of dripping water washed him.

The stadium was made of wood. That was the singular touchstone it had in Cesares life. Thousands of trees grown together, elders and newborn flesh weaved and woven into something beyond its parts.

Walls towered into the sky, leafy branches blooming into a dome that shaded the bleachers inside. Oak as dark as hearts wood, holly white as snow frozen with heavens cold, and willow as gray as the new birthed dead, joined dozens of their kin, their skins as changeable as the earth. Flesh of the goddesses, they dared the world to challenge their ancient glory. Great ones spanning yards grew beside stick thin trees no bigger than his wrist. Black as obsidian bark snuggled with white untainted by stain, wed to each other more deeply than bone to muscle. It was a singular creature, each tree a cell in an organism drowned in fey energies. Born of earths eldritch blood, its beauty was the ancient glory of trees. The first race to claim the world, they holiest of beasts untouched by the corruption of rot. A peace owned by only them filled the air, blessing every fading shadow of flesh that crawled under their leaves.

Students streamed by when he stopped under the arch. Rounded steps flowed up from level to level in an unbroken cascade, banisters bending with liquid grace along the walls. The wood was a rich brown, glowing with towering life. The smooth grain under his hands was unlike anything in the dead world of man. It breathed a vitality that tingled across his fingertips, a thing of unconquered reality beyond the savageness of meat. It was the beating heart of Yggdrasil, the world tree birthed into a reality unworthy of its beauty.

The stairs let out onto the top of a twelve-foot wall. The wood enclosed a field of emerald grass, searing the air with life, its smell a creature blanketing the area. Entrances let into the field, arches of darkness leading into the untold mysteries the avatar guarded. Bleachers reached into the air, filled with students in the dark blue of Primrose.

Having the only box seat, Miss Raven stood out in the way of Emperors. Hated by students and shunned by the faculty, she refused to let them forget her. She chose the best seat, front and center, where everyone could see her.

Miss Ravens eyes tracked him through the bleachers. Students pulled away from his path in disgust, whispered snakes of spite snapping at him at every step. They set bags in empty seats before he got to them in an unspoken message of hate.

Stopping in front of the box seat, his hands ran over the intricate carvings of ravens, trees and vines that flowed over the glowing wood. Grown into the wood, they owned a life separate from the wood they graced. Here, at the nexus of this living wonder, its heartbeat pulsed through the wood under his fingers. Branches woven into a canopy shaded the box and cut off the sight of anyone who sat behind her.

Like everything in the stadium, the seats were grown from the wooden floors. Deaths chosen dotted the box seat. Black blades of midnight grace, they perched on any bit of wood, the backs of seats, arm rests, and the branches shading the box. Hopping onto the rail, they glared with glittering doll eyes as they cawed at him. They gave him the respect of not stopping their play or arguments, instead flapping around him when he pushed through.

Sitting down one seat away from Miss Raven, Cesare watched and waited. ”You won make friends this way, Cesare, ” she said without taking her eyes off the field.

”I don make friends … only enemies. ” The flippant comment didn even get him a smile. ”Thanks for the cream. ”

”It was nothing, ” she said quickly.

Cesare turned to face her. ”It was priceless. On a day when everyone was against me, you helped me. Don say it was nothing when it meant everything to me. ”

”Im sorry. ”

Turning away, he looked out over the field. ”I hate apologies, its why I never give them. Lifes war, in every word and gesture. Each words a solider sent to slaughter or die. You wanted me to stop looking at you and you got it. People say they
e sorry for the pain they cause with words or actions. ” His smile was nothing more than the baring of teeth. ”Thats stupid. War is about killing and pain. Being sorry for the pain you cause is like being sorry for the sky being blue. It just is. Don say you
e sorry for winning. ”

Kids continued to filter into the stadium as they watched. Groups clumped together, borders enforced with words or punches. Little kingdoms ruled by ruthless tyrants whod butchered their way to the top. When Mr. Moreau walked onto the field, Elizabeth raised an eyebrow at Cesare. ”Hes the Lanista of the Ludus Noctis. ” She gave him a conspiratorial smile. ”He likes to be the big man, always has. ”

”Student of yours? ” It was a guess. Mr. Moreau only looked to be in his early twenties.

”Yes, for a year when he first started. The first year they don have a choice who they are assigned. After that they can see if another teacher will take them on. ” Rejected year after year as your students fled your classroom had to be like dying by inches. Miss Raven looked away from his knowing eyes. ”I don need you to save me, Cesare. ”

”Im not here to save you. Im just looking for a safe place to be and offering the same. If you didn want to be here, youd leave. You
e not a victim for me to come riding in on my white horse and carry off into the sunset, but I can be a friend. ” He offered the one thing hed never found, no matter how hard hed tried or how much of his blood hed spilled.

They took the field in a storm of steel, gold, and silver. Sun born darts of light struck off steel scales that spilled from shoulders to wrists. Spears of light pierced the air from elaborate helmets: wide brimmed with a third ridge running back down the center, edges sharpened to a razors smile. The three edges came to a point above the forehead, wide rim shadowing their faces. Full face masks hid their flesh behind creations of metallic beauty.

Held casually in one hand, their circular metal shields were garishly enameled with reds, blues and purples, coats of arms proudly displayed. Leather belts held dangling medallions enameled like the shields, tokens of kids maimed for the pleasure of the strong. Loincloths left oiled legs bare, unmarked skin gleaming under the sun. Armored shins with wicked spikes drew the eye to bare feet.

The crowd surged to their feet, stomping and clapping as the gladiators took the field. ”Never seen the murmillo of the Sanguinem Nativitate? ” Smiling, amusement tickled through Miss Ravens voice.

”No. Never, ” Cesare whispered. The gladiators circled the field, giving him the chance to get a closer look at the three. Despite the common equipment, they were singular creatures of steel born wonder.

A black mask of glossy steel protected the face of a stygian skinned boy. Gaunt and stripped of flesh, the skull face was hard angles and cutting edges. A heavy brow cast the gladiators eyes into shadowed pits. The fighter held his shield high, gladius sheathed ruler straight from hip to knee. The man was death given steel black form

Another gladiator pranced behind the skull faced fighter, far enough back to keep out of his spotlight. His steel mask was brilliantly polished to a mirror sheen. Almost too bright to look at, the metal reflected the hateful eyes of the sun at any who dared face him. Gold trim ran up the cheeks in flickering flames their silver tips of fire outlining his eyes.

Behind them stood the gladiatrix. Her full vest of scales was enameled in gold and polished until they were mirrors of incandescent light. She carried her shield as easily as the men, shoulders bare and oiled, muscles bulging with easy power. Leather strips studded with steel squares ran down to her knees in a warriors kilt. Arrogance cloaked her, a naked love of violence cut into every line of her oiled body. The crowd roared its approval at the flashes of pale thigh she showed with each step. Dangerous and sexy, she reveled in her power.

”The murmillo are Second and Third Year students. The name is their fighting style, and a badge of honor for being the best the school has to offer, ” Elizabeth said as the gladiators grouped in the middle of the arena.

A fey, wild music rose into the air, high and piercing, slicing gleefully through the heart and mind, leaving bloody furrows in its wake. It woke the blood, setting fire to the soul. The musicians spilled out of the arched entryway, swaying and dancing with abandon. Strange dual flutes dipped and swayed as they cavorted across the grass. Clad in leather loincloths, their oiled bodies shone in the sun, faces fixed in expressions of ecstasy. They had the bodies of prepubescent boys, shining skin devoid of hair, slim and nubile, missing the muscle tone of men. Avatars of youth and virility, they called to the crowd with innocent fury.

”The Choir of Bacchus, ” she said while noting his questioning look. ”Bacchus, the god of abandon, and his choir invoke the bakkheia, a blood frenzy. They play for the gladiators, pushing the fighters to the greatest heights of blood lust. ” Unwilling to let a teaching moment go, she continued, ”Spartans used to only teach the basics of reading and writing, but they demanded a full education in music and dance. Fighting has always been a dance with death, and what kind of dance do you have without music? ”

The next group walked out behind the Choir, wickedly barbed tridents shining in the sunlight. Unlike the Murmillo, they stayed together as a group. The silver hooks woven into their black nets twinkled in the cheerful light as they twirled them around. Scaled armor ran up one arm, over the shoulders, and spilled down the other arm, leaving the abdomen open but covering the chest. Other than that, they wore only loincloths. Cesare spotted Dan, his wide smile of bloody anticipation a fitting counterpoint to the barbed weapons.

A boy and girl came out behind them. More gristle than meat, they were thin with small bodies born for quicksilver speed. The male wore only a loincloth with belts of throwing knives crisscrossing his chest, two long knives riding his thighs. The girl flowed in a gliding walk, her tight leather shirt and pleated kilt giving her body lethal freedom. A knife swung at her hip while the hilt of another poked out from above her opposite hip, strapped to her lower back horizontally. Both moved with a simple economy of motion, nothing wasted or overextended. Scars marked their arms and chests, from paper thin silver slices to ropy things of blinding agony, each a silent testament to the brutal world of knife fighting.

Two boys walked out behind them, hands wrapped tight in white bandages like Muay Thai fighters. A hardened crust of broken glass covered their bound hands, rainbow sparks lancing the air and dancing along their hardened bodies. Scars undulated on their oiled bodies, brutal cuts from impacts with glass-covered fists, pits of ropy tissue formed from butchery. Hard eyes looked out at the crowd from scarred faces.

Behind them followed a boy flashing and twirling two falchions, long golden hair flowing out around him. Jumping and spinning in an acrobatic display that would get him killed in a fight he was a gorgeous idiot. Swords twirled in circles within circles, momentum adding power to every strike, a maelstrom of razor edges and violent hunger. Beautiful and arrogant, the crowd loved him.

Forgotten in the boys spectacle of flashing swords, a girl walked onto the field. Armored in hardened muscle, she had shoulders broader than anyones had a right to be. Valleys and mountains flowed down her arms, flesh turned grotesque by hulking muscle. A leather top stretched tight across a chest more man than woman, her breasts sacrificed on the altar of power, burned off through dedicated effort. A leather kilt showed thighs as thick as a mans waist with twice the muscle. Her dark hair was cut military short, offering nothing for an enemy to grab hold of. Two brutal machetes with sweat stained leather grips swung from her hips. She had the solid walk of a killer, speaking of a willingness to wade through lakes of blood to succeed.

Rapt, the crowd waited for the next group. They came out together, at about nine feet, they were furred in shades of brown. Cesare had always thought werewolves would be elegant things of lethal lines wedded to supernatural grace, beauty given murderous form. These freaks were horror shows, caricatures of what they could have been.

Small, spindly calves bent backward, like those of a Velociraptor. The small calves ballooned up into great thighs of bulging ugly muscle, bunching and relaxing in an ungainly falling stalk. They hunched forward on malformed, curved spines, claws tearing trenches into the ground with each stride.

Their torsos were as deformed as their lower bodies, but in the opposite way. Hulking, massive proportions heaved as they panted. Shoulders twisted with muscle, necks disappearing into the bloated mass, ape-like arms hung down to mid-thigh. Claws of yellowed bone split the digits into bleeding sausages of meat.

Their faces were nightmares, mockeries of the beauty of wolves. Jaws gaped open, lips torn from crooked, serrated teeth. Gashes bled down into their mouths, a slurry of blood and saliva spilling from their muzzles. The fur of their chests took on a slick look as it absorbed the viscous witches brew.

”Bestiarius, ” Miss Raven said quietly. ”They only fight in their true forms. Those four are all Third Years. Not as powerful as Blaez, but werewolves are always a favorite. ”

Cesares eyes darted over the brightly shining warriors as they paired up. His heart beat with a fevered need only to cool quickly. This was only a demo, carefully choreographed to simulate a fight, but nothing more than that.

”I was wondering what the Gladiatorial Class was about, ” Cesare said.

”Most take the class and fail, only those talented few who have trained their lives in the arts make it. Its a commitment birthed in years of private tutoring and money sacrificed on the altar of dreams. ”

”Why? ” Cesare asked.

”Same reason humans push their kids into professional sports, ” Miss Raven said with an expectant look.

”Money. ”

Elizabeth smiled. ”Its a path out of poverty. For many of them, its the only way. The Sanguinem Nativitate is like football for the Umbrae Lunae. They used to be taken into teams as soon as they could lift a weapon, most dying before touching eighteen. Times changed, and now they use high school teams to see who has the discipline and talent to fight in the circuit. On the line are big contracts and scholarships, the fulfillment of a dream nurtured for years with blood, the lifting of a family from the edge of starvation to security. This weekend theyll have the first Sanguinem Nativitate between schools. ” Elizabeths eyes briefly met his before darting away.

”Really? Do you have to be here? ” Cesare asked.

”Yes. ” She kept her eyes on the dancing gladiators.

”If you let me off from weeding, Id come with you. Maybe we could make a day of it? ” It was worth a shot, weeding was hell.

A full smile graced her lips. ”Well see. But yes, I can let you off, at least for the event. ”

”Then its a date. ” This time he turned away from her, watching the gladiators intently.

”A date? ” Elizabeth asked.

”You know, as friends. ” Saying it as if it was nothing didn make it so, but if you don fight for what you want, youll never get it.

Elizabeth sighed. ”Cesare, I can be what you want me to be. Im sorry. I don feel that way about you. There are hundreds of girls that can fit that bill, go after one of them. ”

”Ive never had more than whats in my duffel. But I own my heart and mind. I get to decide who I care about, who I want, and what I think. ” Cold, furious anger surged through his veins as he turned to her. ”You
e my teacher, and hopefully, youll be my friend. But I don need you to save me. Been doing fine on that front for years. I don need you to tell me how to run my life either. You can accept that, or we can call this quits. ” She was the one to turn her eyes away first.

Cesares hope had gone early in life, replaced by cold cynicism. Innocence was sold a piece at a time, for a bit of food or a place to sleep. His body was scarred with bad choices and blackened days of sorrow. But he had his spiteful heart and diseased mind, and hed die before he let someone take those from him.

”So how do the other gladiators get here? Are there that many schools like Primrose? ” The question was a blatant attempt to change the subject.

Desperately wanting to get back onto safer ground herself, Elizabeth snatched at the offering with both hands. ”Yes, and no. Primrose is the only one in the United States, but there are schools in other countries. Primrose is the strongest and oldest, so they come to us. Occasionally, we go to them on field trips. ”

On the walk back to Serpens Lacum, his thoughts went back to the homework hed skipped. While it had been fun to see the gladiators and talk with Miss Raven, it had wasted time. It wouldn matter how close he got to her if his grades didn secure him a place here.

It didn matter how close he got to anyone. Didn mean shit if they were his friends or not. Having friends didn pay bills. It wouldn get him a place to live and food to eat. It wouldn carve a future out for him. If he didn graduate, Cesare would never get off the street. Sex, friendship, and feels didn change that truth.

Hours sacrificed to studying for tests and keeping his focus on Miss Raven. Being present for every minute of the class as he submerged himself in lessons. Making sure his notes were neat, clear and on point. That was the only way to butcher a future for himself out of the meat of the world.

”Thought wed meet you here instead, vagrant. ”

Cesare jerked his head up as his heart fell.

Anastasia smirked from the steps of the Serpens Lacum. Her harem smiled at him, sadism lighting their eyes with sickly sweet heat. Behind them on the landing, the boys from the dorm jammed the expanse of stone. Pushing and shoving, standing on banisters, they met his eyes with eager grins. Celebration infected the air, needy hunger twisting faces with wanton arousal.

His bag hit the ground. The harem separated as he made his way to them, entering the trap theyd set. Students laid odds, money changing hands, their serpentine words biting at his self-confidence. They weren betting on if hed win, only how badly hed lose.

The most dangerous thing about fighting isn losing. Its winning, it makes you predictable. Maybe its the pain, or the blood, but winners were chained to past fights. The hooks of what had worked for them sunk too deep for them to pull free. Only losers innovate. When the boys rushed him, Cesare was ready. Four quick steps distanced him from three of them, shrinking the distance to one unlucky bastard.

Reaching out and taking his arm, Cesare used the mans own rush against him. Building the power from his feet, hips multiplied the raw strength, his curved back adding an explosive crack to the throw. The pretty boy hit the ground with a thump that resonated through Cesares bones, his scream cut off in an explosion of air.

Cesares exhilaration only lasted for a second as the three others hit him, taking him down in a heap of flailing limbs. Hands grabbed for him with bruising force. Snatching the nearest hand, uncaring of who it belonged to, Cesare ripped the fingers back with vindictive cruelty. Cesares teeth bared in a snarl of satisfaction at the wet cracks of fingers breaking, the sound riding over the boys screams of pain.

Suddenly there were only two on him. Grabbing an arm, Cesare locked it as the owner frantically struggled to escape. With a wrench, he popped it out of its socket. The squeal of horror was music to battered ears. Suddenly Cesare was free and on his feet, shirt caked with dirt, panting with raw violence, eager to hurt.

Three of the harem were down, one cradling his hand, three fingers twisted and ruined. Another boy was curled into a ball, his shoulder warped into a grotesque parody of good. His first victim gasped and moaned on the ground in the fetal position.

Cesare faced the last one with a vicious smile playing across his lips. These were Cesares odds. He knew the metrosexual asshole wouldn , couldn , deliver the kind of pain needed to put him down. Cesare was going to enjoy making the boy scream and bleed for every second of humiliation theyd forced him through. Flinching back from Cesares smile, the boy looked at his downed friends, feet shuffling with reluctance.

Anastasias laugh froze them in place. ”Thats it. Take our friends to the infirmary, ” she commanded. Relief flooded the boys face as he gave Cesare a wide berth, keeping a wary eye on him while he collected his friends.

The maimed and broken got up with cries of pain, cradling crooked fingers, a dislocated shoulder, and bruised ribs. The crippled leaned on each other as they limped off, more than done with the crazed kid whod laid agony across their bodies with gleeful eyes. It didn make the akatharton any less dangerous. They were just props for Anastasia … like a pair of boots she liked to wear.

”Hey, you going to kick his ass or what? ” The glare Anastasia leveled up the stairs sent the speaker scurrying back into the dorm.

”What I do is my business. ” Malice snapped at the boys, the mass flinching back from her cruel eyes. Breaking as one they deserted the landing, the door slamming shut behind them. As the reverberations of the massive door shivered through the night air, she tucked her coat under her and took a seat on the stair. Giving him a welcoming smile, she patted the spot next to her in invitation.

Taking her up on the offer, Cesare sat down next to her. The cold of the steps crept through his pants, worming icy tendrils into flesh. Still, it wasn every day he got to sit next to a girl like her. Anastasia was something special. It wasn just her figure, although most never got beyond her large breasts, small waist, plump ass and heart stopping face. Hed seen teachers and students stop in mid-step, hooked by her looks, pulled into the dark maelstrom of her charisma.

Looking across campus, Anastasia spoke sadly. ”Shell never be what you want her to be. I see the way you look at her, hanging on her every word. Shes a fantasy, one thats as old as time. Take it from a dream made flesh, it will only ever disappoint. ”

The words came low and soft. ”You think I don see how sad she is or how isolated. I do, but shes an adult. If she wants to leave, she can. You
e trying to be her friend, to make it all better. It won get you what you want. Women aren vending machines you put kindness in and get sex out of. No matter how devoted you are. No matter how much pain you endure. It won change how she sees you. ” She looked at him with knowing eyes. ”You
e a child to her, nothing more. Even if you become friends, it won change how she sees you. Youll just be a child she spends time with. And look at what you
e enduring because of it? I won stop. Ill keep pushing until I break you. ”

Cesare eyed his duct tapped boots, unable to look at the girl next to him. ”So what? You think I don know that? I know no ones going to look at me and see … I know how I look. I know Im just a kid to her. I know that even if Im lucky, shell only ever see me as a puppy following her. I get that. And if the only thing I gets friendship, then Im okay with that. Because itll still be more than Ive ever had. ” Taking a deep breath, he hesitated before continuing, ”This, the beatings, the taunting, all of it. Its just life for me. Maybe this is what you think hell is, but for me, this is just another day. At least I have the hope of getting a friend out of it. ”

”You can make other friends. If you dropped this nonsense, you could make all kinds of friends. Ill even help. By the Darkness, Id do it just to end this **ing assignment, ” Anastasia said.

”I don think much of what you call friends. You think those guys who follow you will stand by you? Sure, theyll beat others for you, but will they bleed for you? ” Anastasia looked away, unwilling to face that truth. ”I don need that. Miss Ravens strong and true. You
e right, I won ever get what I want. But I may get a person I can feel safe with. Can you say that about your friends? ”

Getting to her feet, the skirt framed her athletic ass and long legs. ”No, I can say that. You did good today. Don expect it to last. ”

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