Friday September 12th 2014

Showered and dressed in a school uniform, he looked as nice as a street kid could. He had a party to get to, one he wasn wanted at.

Coming around the corner, he sighted Dan and Greg talking to a Second Year. Dan stood close to the girl, looking down on her with a satisfied smile. Eclipsed by his shadow, the darkness of his form stripped the light from her. Craning her head back, she stared at the boy with slumped shoulders. Greg hung back from the pair, watching with calculating eyes.

”… weve been patient. Last week, I told you to get me the money. ” The girl was locked with Dan, unable to pull her eyes off him. A rat caught in the eyes of a cat.

”Ill have it soon. Next week, I promise. ” Clutching her bag to her chest, she couldn be more than a hairs breadth over five feet.

”You said that last week, ” Greg said.

Pushing against her until their bodies were flush, Dan looked down, tracing her cleavage with a leer. ”Maybe we could work a deal. ”

”No, ” Greg said as the girl paled, shrinking into herself with a sick look. ”We don do that. But I need something to show me you
e good for it. ”

Eyes wet with unshed tears, she was a thread from breaking. ”I don have anything … I called my dad, and he said hell send me money soon. As soon as I get it, Ill pay. ”

”Thats not good enough. Look at it from my position. I gave you the goods under good faith because youve always been reliable. You used what I gave you, so you can give it back. Now you
e telling me Ill get the money … someday. Why should I believe you? ” Greg waited as silent tears slid down the girls face.

”I don have anything, ” she whispered.

”Thats not true. I hear you
e good in class, and I have a few students who need your help, ” Greg said.

Straightening, she grabbed for the bait. ”Sure. Thatd be great. I can tutor them anytime. Id be glad to do it. ”

”You don understand. Im talking a little more hands-on, ” Greg said. ”I want you to do their work for them. ”

She slumped back, lower lip trembling. ”I can do that. If I got caught … ”

Cesare cleared his throat, Dan backed away from the girl at the sound. Greg turned smoothly, a false smile lighting his face. With a grateful look at Cesare, the girl scurried back from the boys.

”Hello, Cesare. We were just talking to our friend, ” Greg said as he distanced himself from the girl with a few steps. Drug dealers know theres no profit in fighting. Any heat that comes down would burn them worse.

Dan wasn so smart. But he was the muscle, and all muscle had to know was who to hit. His lip pulled up in a sneer as he gave Cesare a long look. ”Get lost, shit stain. Or do you want to start that dance now? ”

e not my type, dinky dick, ” Cesare said.

”You **ing shit ball … ” Greg gripped Dans shoulder, stopping him in mid-step.

Gregs eyes moved over the hallway. No way did this look good. If Dan got into a fight with Cesare, questions would be asked. And none of the answers were things Greg wanted exposed.

Pulling Dan with him, Greg broke away with only a brief parting shot at the girl. ”Well discuss this later. ” The girl took one look at the departing boys before bolting down the hall.

The ball to celebrate the Russia teams arrival was open to everyone. But only the privileged with invitations had the balls to go to a party at the Cathedralis Luminis. The event was reserved for the connected and rich, the golden ones birthed in platinum wombs. The luminaries of Primrose would be in attendance, alumni older than its move to the continent, shadow powers who traded in global influence and financial abominations of gluttonous influence. Networking wedded to domination, the buying of flesh and soul birthed in school pride mingled in a war no less deadly than the bloody offerings of the Sanguine Nativitate.

But it was still a school function, and that meant Miss Raven would be there. All it took was the memory of the thousands of times hed been forgotten and alone for Cesare to decide to go.

Towering at over fifteen feet, the double doors stood open. Black wood polished into obsidian slabs shone glass smooth, a mirror over an implacable ocean of darkness. Whirls of silver filigree crawled down from the top, flowing down and framing the glossy void. Shapes birthed themselves in that silver at the edge of sight, twisting mysteries of lines and curves, teasing the eye with abominations of truth.

White marble tiles marched across the floor, reflecting the deviants daring its untainted skin. Thick veins of silver and gold threaded the stone, flowing in unbroken wealth from corner to corner. A row of etched crystal doors stood open along the far wall, letting out into a garden of fey beauty, its midnight glory seen through panes of razored stone.

Quartz columns stretched to the ceiling, standing as silent sentinels around the circular room. Sculpted into monsters, they watched the fleshy ants with the silent disdain of stone thats stood for centuries. Glowing incandescent with stolen light, spears of mangled brilliance punished the infidels who met their searing glory. Sharp cuts in the crystal carved any stray beams of light that dared their touch. Scalpels of malice, the horrors of stone butchered the pure light into a dazzling display of scintillating rainbows, painting the room and the people in shades of green, blue, and red.

Great crystal chandeliers hung from the domed ceiling, refracting the light into dancing beams through the air. Gold warped into twisted runes and hateful truths of madness framed the fresco that stretched across the dome. A hill stood in the center of the scene its ragged trees stripped of leaves, dissected branches reaching forlornly into the sky. A mass of humans huddled around the meager shelter, clutching babies and children to their breasts, fear and horror etched into their faces. Angels clad in flowing white robes and flaming wings flew above them with swords of golden light. Armored in ivory and gold with heavy blades of silver glowing with sigils, a final group of muscled angels formed a shield wall along the crest of the hill as a last defense of empyrean flesh.

A sea of monsters washed against the bulwark of angelic power and holy meat. They were endless, not just in number but in form. Unlike humans who hid their grotesque truths under their skin, the Umbrae Lunae wore their strange for the world to see. Great bear-like things the size of SUVs lumbered through the mass. Standing at over six feet, wolves with short stubbed noses threaded their way through the army in packs of twenty or more. Cat shapes warped by insanity stalked with deadly, beautiful grace in the ranks of the unhallowed. The spawn of elder gods birthed in wombs of madness, slithered, slumped, or oozed their way through the army of freaks and grotesques.

Immense things over twenty feet tall strode through the mass. Human in shape and form, lightning crackled and crawled over their skin, their white hair lit by spiteful light. Clad in loincloths, they carried swords forged of bronze. Another giant stormed through the crowd with heat waves rising from its body, a molten red spear laying bare on its shoulder.

Flying creatures darkened the skies with their wings. Riding high thermals, dragons glittered like polished gems. Ruby reds, deep sapphires, lush greens, the smallest of them barely broke two hundred feet. The largest was an inky black void in the sky, dwarfing everything around it into insignificance, its casual dominance of the heavens unchallenged. Jockeying for position below them were lesser horrors. Hag faced harpies flew on dirty wings, casting shit and scum with every flap. Bat winged beings glistened with slime, only masses of tentacles below their chests. Dark, predatory birds with quills in place of feathers darted through the abominations of the sky.

A lone woman stood in front of the army of horror, black hair trailing down to her knees. With her back to the viewer, only her matte black skin could be seen. She devoured the light around her. The closer you were, the deeper the shadows … a sphere of null space. No one, not even the largest monster or the most grotesque creature, violated that boundary.

From a distant rise in the background, another group watched. No pattern united them, each unique in their own way. Even in the army you could find races that bred true. These things were singular terrors grown from madness. Standing in front with easy authority was a scaled thing. Its nude body small, at four feet, delicate and perfect. Sleek as a snake, thousands of black scales flashed iridescent as light played across them. Possessing an angular face wedded to a gleaming bald head, it was streamlined murder. As many of the group that watched the battle, even more had their eyes on the snake that led them.

Cesare wrenched his eyes off the ceiling and back to the celebration. Students, faculty, and guests mingled in a sea of color. The women were dressed in formal gowns spanning centuries. Victorian dresses with exaggerated hoop skirts, corsets, and sumptuous fabrics of velvet and silk stood next to young women in simple black dresses. The men were as eclectic in three-piece suits with shining silk or embroidered vests, trim jackets hugging thin, powerful builds. Stitched together as one, they shared the meticulous grooming of the powerful.

Cesare kept to the walls, the brilliant columns of monsters hiding his presence. He was the only one wearing a school uniform. While it wasn formal wear, it was all he had. The students that noticed him promised retribution with fury tainted eyes. They wouldn cause a scene in the halls of power, but later in the quiet corridors of the school theyd teach him his place. The guests gave him questioning looks, wondering how a rat had scurried into their temple of influence. Both groups left him alone—one in disgust and the other in weaponized apathy.

A boy held court in the center of a group of students and adults. His shaven black head shone in the rainbow light, setting his green eyes on fire. Dressed in a black suit with a vest of soft velvet embroidered in crimson silk, he was a striking figure in this room of radiant light. The group went quiet at his words, his every whisper holding them silent. Practiced gestures of hand and smile enthralled the weak flocking to his poisoned well. He radiated a calm surety of purpose, an ironclad confidence in his own standing and power. It was a heady combination, a whirlpool of control spiraling out from him, ensnaring the weak or greedy.

Blaez and Anastasia were an island unto themselves, surrounded by their slaves. Only two of the harem stood attendance on their dark mistress. Splints don make for nice formal wear. But those two shined in this sea of diseased privilege, looking born into it dressed in tailored, two-piece suits.

Blaezs pack stood around him, a fist of fighters of flesh and temper dropped into a war of money and words. Their off-the-rack suits stood out in this place of designer fabrics and exquisitely tailored works of art. Restless movements, hands smoothing suits, eyes darting to the doors, they looked like what they were, wolves dropped into an ocean with sharks.

Blaez stood with an ease that was just one more reason for Cesare to hate him. Short, spiked hair highlighted a face too manly to be beautiful but just right for handsome. His suit hugged his form, showing off a fighters muscular build. Slender and strong, he was the image of a warrior comfortable with his prowess as a killer or matching words with the powerful.

Cesare couldn keep his eyes off her any longer. A modern dress of shining blue, conservatively cut. Covering her from neck to foot, the dress didn hug her curves. No, it only suggested the softness underneath. Pale shoulders bare, Anastasia hid her hard muscles under porcelain, velvet skin. Only in movement was her power shown, a fighters grace shown in balance and intention. Tendrils of hair moved across her shoulders, flickers of flame against snow born skin. She had a charm that pulled others in and made them feel wanted. Manipulation born from darkness, she enslaved with a look and owned with a word.

”Pretty, if you
e into that. ” The words broke Cesare from his trance. How long hed stood there watching Anastasia was a question he never wanted answered.

The boy was a little taller than Cesare at just under five-seven, black, with a shaved head that gleamed in the light. He filled out his red uniform with a stocky solidness you usually only see in farmers. Holding a plate piled with meats and cheeses, he looked more like he was at a barbecue than a reception for the rich and obscene.

The boy held out his hand with a smile. ”Akachi of the Pozhiray Tma. ”

Taking the hand, Cesare gripped it tight enough to be friendly without turning it into a fight. ”Cesare Nietzsche. ” Akachis eyebrow rose at the name.

Lifting a rib from his plate, Akachi bit off a strip of flesh with relish. ”I see you also lack formal wear. ”

Cesare nodded as he ran his hand over the crystal statue of a scaled thing with four arms. Even with a cautious touch, the razor-sharp edges cut across his callouses. ”I came to look in on a friend. ”

Akachi nodded at Anastasia and Blaez. ”Lady or the Tramp? ”

Snorting with laughter, Cesare smiled at the guys joke. ”Neither. How about you? ”

”Where I come from, crazy **ers keep hyenas as pets. They don do it because they
e loyal. No, they leash them because hyenas are **ing psychotic, scary mother**ers. Thats why Im here, ” Akachi said with the simple surety of a painful truth long since branded into bone.

Smiling, Cesares eyes skipped over people as he looked for Miss Raven. ”So, you
e a scary psychotic mother**er? ”

Akachi winked. ”Thats the good part. I don have to be a scary mother**er … they just have to think I am. ” They both laughed. ”Most of us are ornaments. We smile pretty and do what we
e told, hopefully some day we get a contract and money. ” His smile faded. ”Maybe its more like a dog fight. We kill and kill and hope someday we get free. ”

Shaking the mood off, Akachi continued. ”You don often see three Imperiums in one setting and The Order of the Dragon as well. ”

”What do you mean? ” Cesare asked.

Akachi didn take his eyes off the crowd. ”Newbie? Since the beginning, thereve always been clans claiming land and resources. Mostly it was one race against everyone else, but a few leaders were more than their race could contain. These few drew others to them, no matter their flesh. These clans devoured the weaker ones, taking their people and lands as their own. The strongest became Imperiums. Spanning every continent, the empires carve the world up between them while the rest of us try to stay out of the fight. Sceptrums control small local realms, cities, states, or land too large for a single clan. ”

Akachi pointed at the black man Cesare had noticed earlier. ”Abraxas Blackscale of the Dragon Confederacy, see the lapel pin? ” It was a small purple pin with a lone black mountain. ”The Lady is, of course, Andhērē Rōṣa. ” Cesare noticed Anastasia wore a pin on her shoulder, a jagged black flame sharpened to a razors edge. ”And of course, my teachers from the Pozhiray Tma. ” He nodded at a group keeping tight to each other, all of them distinguished with a deaths head lapel pin on a field of black.

”Isn that what you called yourself? ” Cesare asked.

A wry grin spread across Akachis face. ”In Russia, its the name of the school, Imperium, and of the elite fighting force like your Thagirion. The Deathless brands his land and slaves with his name. ” A brief smile of satisfaction flashed across his face as he drank his champagne. ”Any fighter that wants into the Sanguinem Nativitate has to get onto a schools team. The schools compete for the best killers, offering scholarships, perks, everything a young idiot might need. Thats how I got in. ”

Cesare looked out at the party with fresh eyes. Abraxas was a node of power, pulling others into his wake, a black hole that no one left. It was more than just the lapel pin, or even his undeniable good looks. Abraxas was powerful in the way of a true leader. He radiated a strength of purpose that overcame those around him, the surety of his words destroying the beliefs they had held before, remaking them in his image.

Anastasia was a predator of a different order, even if they hunted the same meat. Her dark sexuality flowed from her, tendrils of wanton desire enticing others into her sphere. Once there, her words kept them under her control. She was more than lust given form. Calculating, smart, practiced and quick-witted, this was her hunting ground. Here, she ruled with bloody claws.

Alexandra was surrounded by her sycophants that posed as friends. Preening and laughing, her group was giddy with stolen status. Alexandras shadow granted them access, her savage glory both protection and key. They were parasites beneath the notice of the nightmares gliding with practiced grace in this killing field. While people were pulled in by Abraxas and Anastasia, they skirted the dead space around Alexandra. A rabid thing avoided; her madness laced aura all the warning they needed.

”Those three have power, real power. The power to make wishes come true or nightmares real. Anastasia and Abraxas have the influence to get a fighter a contract with a top team or bury them. Dream makers, at least thats how everyone sees them. Money, jobs, women, men, anything you want, they can make happen. All it costs is your soul. ”

”Why aren you out there kissing ass like the others? ” Cesare asked.

Laughing, Akachi ripped another bit off his ribs, sauce coating his fingers. ”Im a good fighter, that doesn mean thats the life I want. Professional killers have a short shelf life. If they make it out the other side all they
e good for is teaching kids how to die. Gotta be more to life than that. ”

Miss Raven was hidden by a crystal monster, her darkness seared by its cancerous light. She was wearing a shimmering red dress, cascades of crimson fabric flowing over her wide hips. An emerald corset with laces of matte black velvet showcased a wasp waist and full breasts. Shoulders and arms left bare showed shockingly corpse pale skin with delicate traceries of blue veins. Her face was pale with shimmering red eye shadow and hearts-blood red lips. Strands of emerald ribbon wove through her mane of sable hair.

Moving before thought formed, hed only taken a few steps before looking back at Akachi with every intention of telling him goodbye. Caught in an unprotected moment, the other boys face flashed with disappointment, raw abandonment in his eyes. ”You coming? ” Cesare said instead. Hed seen that look up close and personal too many times … from every mirror hed ever looked into.

Akachi brightened in an instant, quick stepping to catch up. ”Sure. ”

Moving through the crowd was easy. The students that knew Cesare shied aside, pulling gowns out of the way as if hed smear them in shit by simple touch. A few glanced askance at Akachi, but no one stopped them. Miss Raven noticed them before theyd closed half the distance, smiling in pleasure before mastering herself.

”Nice party. ” The comment brought a twinkle to her eyes, lips twitching in a quickly suppressed smile.

”Yes, well, I didn think Id find you here. Whos your friend? ” Elizabeth asked, turning to the crimson clad student with a polite smile.

Wiping his hands on his pants, the boy left long stains of barbecue sauce and bits of half eaten flesh behind. ”Akachi of the Pozhiray Tma, ” he said, holding out his hand.

Miss Raven accepted the slimy hand without a second glance. ”Miss Raven, Im a teacher here. What year are you? ”

Gulping down the last of his champagne, Akachi grinned. ”First Year. ”

Eyebrows raised in astonishment; her eyes swept over the boy. ”You must be good to get onto a team as a First Year. ”

Akachi looked over the crowd, swiping another glass of drink from a passing server. ”Not good enough. I wanted Primrose, but I got turned down for the scholarship. Had to take what I could get. ”

”Whats it like? ” Seeing Akachis look, Cesare clarified, ”The other school. ”

”Cold, ” Akachi said with wry deliberateness. ”Its in **ing Siberia. Out on the tundra there is only one way in, by plane. Physical training first thing in the morning, in the dark with snow on the ground. Classes are in rooms that used to house hordes of prisoners when it was a gulag. Their stink stains the air, memories of diseased hungers fed tainting the ether, torture as pleasure and thousands starved slow for fun is woven into the places soul. Still, you take what you can get, and they offered. All I have to do is spill blood when they snap their fingers, and they don care if its mine or someone elses. ”

Miss Raven moved smoothly into the grim silence, questioning Akachi on his scholarship and schoolwork. As the two talked, it was obvious Akachi was a lot smarter than Cesare. Enthralled with things beyond his spotty education, they lost him in minutes.

In any other place, it would have felt like a kick in the gut. Nothing hurts more than coming in second with a friend, especially when its a girl you like. But it wasn that familiar cruelty. For one, Akachi didn seem to be into Miss Raven like that. He was just happy to talk about something other than blood and guts, a conversation that didn involve how best to butcher a man.

Miss Raven moved closer to Cesare, so they faced Akachi together. It wasn three people talking; it was Cesare and Miss Raven talking to Akachi. A distinction Cesare reveled in. Miss Raven worked to include him, even if he had no place in the conversation.

”What about you, Cesare? ” Cesare looked at Akachi in question, having lost the plot long minutes before. ”What do you think of school? Primrose is the equal of any Ivy League school, its pedigree is prized as a way into the best colleges. ”

Miss Raven watched Cesare carefully, ready to step in and save him from humiliating himself. With a shrug, Cesare decided on the truth. ”Well, challenging is one word for it. Id say impossible is closer to the mark. Schools just started and I feel like Im losing ground day by day. Truthfully, I don expect to make it through the year. But Im going to try. ”

Akachis eyes darkened in sadness. ”Im sorry, I didn know. ”

Watching the crowd, they fell into easy conversation. By unspoken agreement, academics weren brought up again. Shortly, the students started filtering out. Alexandra and her entourage were the first to leave, the mass of monsters moving aside for the lethal vampire, fear pushing them to duck their eyes. The Pozhiray Tma teachers gathered their students with quiet words and threatening eyes. Akachi gave a regretful goodbye before cutting his way through the mass to his teacher.

”I should make my way out as well, ” Cesare said, setting his flute of water onto a convenient table.

”Thanks, ” Elizabeth said with a gesture at the gathering. ”For everything. I don remember when I had a good time at one of these things. With all the eyes … well, even my friends tend to stay away. Afraid my status might rub off on them. ” Heat ran across her cheeks, turning them pink.

”My pleasure, ” Cesare said as he walked away.

Long ago, Cesare had learned the pain of isolation wasn just that no one was there for you, but that you couldn be there for anyone else. Hed learned his usefulness was the depth of his worth. If he did enough, gave enough, bled enough, maybe theyd keep him around. The way a cat shows up with a dead rat … just a way to prove its worth keeping for another day.

Leaving the school under the huge arches of the front doors, his eyes fell on Anastasia smiling up at him from the bottom of the steps. She had her black jacket on over the shimmering blue dress. Pulled tight by the wind, the dress framed her large breasts and rounded hips. Crimson hair moved lazily under the caress of an eldritch wind, a shock of color against her white skin.

In place of the harem was the girl hed saved. Cesare folded his jacket and laid it on the stone bannister along with his dress shirt. ”An audience? ” He was fishing, and from the smirk that blossomed on her lips, Anastasia knew it.

”She says you cornered her in the hall earlier. ” Anastasia gave the girl a look. ”You got anything to say? ”

With a careful sweep of the trees, he spotted Dan out on campus, casually sitting at a bench. The flash of his white teeth was the only confirmation Cesare needed. The girl had found another way to pay the asshole back after all — turning on Cesare and getting him a beating.

He had a choice, make this public and get them all thrown into the mix or take the beating. Cesare had enough on Greg and Dan to have them expelled. But the girl would join them in the shit storm. She was taking drugs, and shed be the first to break under interrogation. Was it worth it? Over what, another beating? This one with Dan gloating at his pain? Besides, he had plans, and hed only get to use the cards he had on the drug dealer and his thug once.

Even then the words were on the tip of his tongue, enough to burn the girl to ashes and tear Greg and Dan apart. It was Tamlin that stopped him. The truth hed given Cesare. The only way to be a fighter was to fight. Anastasia was doing this for herself, but he could twist it to his purpose. She was strong, better than him by years, and the hardest hammers shaped the strongest steels. He needed this and lessons paid in flesh stayed with you.

”No harem? ” Cesare asked.

Something flickered through her eyes at his lack of denial. ”Not today. Still recovering from your success. And I wanted to give you my personal touch. ” A shiver ran down his back. She didn mean it how hed heard it, but a man could dream.

They didn need words, not when Cesare dropped into his stance. Shed never joined the harem when they came at him, preferring to stand back and watch. The only time shed come at him was when her boy toys were holding him. But he didn think she wasn skilled, not after feeling how hard she hit.

She moved in quick, ducking under his jab and stepping into the pocket. A snapping fist on the chin sent him stumbling back. The right cross smashed against his face, shutting out the lights for a brief second. He woke up between seconds, legs wobbly, world swaying under his feet. His knees buckled, putting him on his ass.

Anastasia stood over him with a hip cocked to the side and a smirk playing across her lips. ”Come on, thats all you got? ”

He pushed down the thought that he was getting up too soon because he didn want her thinking he was weak. Cesare tracked her as she came for him.

Her hip swayed out, kick unfurling, catching him in the chest. Pain sparked up his body, tearing a grunt from his lips. He kept his feet only through quick stepping back and sheer stubbornness, hands coming up as she threw a high kick. The kick broke through his defense, tissue trying to hold back a cannon ball. He didn feel the pain; the impact rocketing him into darkness.

He awoke sprawled on the ground, blood slipping out of his mouth. He had to stop doing this. Feeling himself out, he tallied up the pain: Chest? Check. Face? Check. Back? Check. He couldn really tell which pains were old and which were new. And didn that say everything about his life?

Rolling his head, his eyes widened when he saw Anastasia patiently sitting on the stone stairs, smiling at him. She patted the step next to her in invitation. ”When you get done with your nap, you can join me. ”

Giving a grunt of pain, he spat out a foul mix of blood and saliva, the copper tang thick on his tongue. Cesare staggered to the seat, collapsing onto the stone step.

”You going to help her this weekend? ” She knew the answer but had to ask.

”You know it, princess. ” His smirk opened the split on his lip, letting out a hot line of blood that dripped off his chin.

She smacked him on the back of the head, the power behind it throwing him forward. ”Don call me that, vagrant, ” Anastasia snarled in anger.

It was one too many blows to the head. Laying his head between his knees, Cesare took deep breaths, hoping the world would stop with the ups and downs. His dinner came out in a bile filled stream. Shame curdled his stomach further, gods how pathetic. Puking your guts out in front of …

In many ways, she was what hed always dreamed of being. Rich, powerful, and beautiful, she had life by the short and curlies. She could be anything she wanted, while Cesares potential futures were counted on one hand. It was the difference between the strong and the failures.

Cesare kept his eyes off her as the smell of bile saturated the air. ”You going to the Sanguinem Nativitate? ” Anastasia asked.

”Yeah, got a date with Miss Raven. ” Anastasia snickered at the boast.

”A date? ” Raw disbelief colored her voice.

”Well, kinda. She didn say no, ” Cesare said.

”But she didn say yes, ” Anastasia countered.

Grimacing, he kept his eyes on the campus ”Ill take what I can get. ”

Anastasia spoke softly. ”Don we all. ” Something in her voice had him looking her over carefully. There was something she wanted to share, something shed come to talk about. No one trusted. Instead of baring our souls we trade secrets, little keys to the secret doors of our soul. It wasn trust, it was commerce, but its all we had.

Offering her that piece was hard, but having nothing made it easy to risk everything. ”I know its not a date. I know she doesn feel that way. But its still more than Ive had before. ”

Anastasia quietly watched the night with him. ”Ill be fighting tomorrow. Ive trained for years, learning to use my powers and testing myself. But now … now everyone will be watching, counting on me to win. My team, my school, even my mother. If tomorrow goes wrong … I won be Anastasia the prodigy. Ill be Anastasia, the one that got into the Thagirion on her back. If I fail tomorrow, Ill never get another chance to prove Im more than tits and ass. ”

He didn understand, but she wasn asking him to. What she wanted was something he could offer. ”I don care if you win or lose. It won change how I feel about you. ”

”Yeah, the bitch that mangles you on the regular. ” Anastasia looked down as tension drew her shoulders tight.

”Thats not how I see you. ” This was getting deep, and when you got deep with people, you drowned. ”We
e on different sides. You
e doing what you thinks right, and Im doing what I thinks right. I respect that. ” Cesare idly ran his tongue across his split lip. ”You
e also the woman that protected me. ”

”It was my job to protect you, ” Anastasia whispered into the dark.

”Just like its your job to pound me into the dirt, ” Cesare said. ”None of the others looked at it that way, only you. ” Silence fell as they traced thoughts too painful to think in the light of day.

As she got up, his hand tentatively touched hers. When was the last time hed touched a person without anger? ”Youll do fine. You
e stronger than you know, and I believe in you. ”

A smile broke through the misery on her face, transforming it into something lethal in its beauty. ”Thanks, ” Anastasia said. Cesare watched as she walked away, black Thagirion coat blowing in the breeze.

Greg was reading when he came into the room. Cesare laid on the bed with his hands behind his head. A brief wish that he was alone so he could take off his shirt danced through him. ”Whos matched against Anastasia tomorrow? ”

Gregs book conveniently hid his face. ”How would I know? Its kept secret until the match starts. ”

”Listen up, asshole. You **ing owe me for that stunt Dan pulled. I could have had you both hauled in and gutted your operation. Im calling in my marker. The betting has to be crazy for these fights and the only way to secure odds is if you know the match ups. No way people let that kind of money slide. ”

Greg looked over at Cesare with a glint in his eye. ”I didn know about that shit until it was over. But you
e right, I owe you. The bookies let a select few of us know in return for a cut of the profits. Anastasias matched up against Arseny the Drekavac, ” he said with heavy emphasis.

”Lets pretend I don know what you
e talking about. Hows that look for her? ” Greg laughed as he turned off his light and leaned back on his pillow.

”Anastasias like artillery, powerful but not a claw fighter. Shes got the training but against someone who specializes in that kind of fighting, shes toast. Arsenys a specialist, wicked fast with claws that cut steel. If he gets close, shes dead … maybe, literally. Anastasias a Harab Serapel so shes got the Ebon Flame but shes food if she can keep him off her. ” Greg gave a long yawn before he continued, ”I don think shell even land a blow. Sad too, shes a nice piece of ass to look at. ” It was said the same way youd comment on a cut of steak. Sad that you couldn sample it before someone ate it.

”Whats the Ebon Flame? ” Cesare asked absentmindedly.

”Tricky shit, that. Its what got her into the Thagirion. Ive seen people shoot fire, ice, even acid. Still, the Ebon Flames unique. It can be fire, ice, acid or lightning, but only the Harab Serapel can use it. Even if she gets out alive and isn crippled by the bastard, she won keep her Thagirion title. They don tolerate losers. The dishonor could get her pulled from school. ” Greg watched him out of the corner of his eye. ”Why the interest? ”

Discarding Gregs question, Cesare pushed on, ”What are the rules? What can she bring with her? ”

”Gladiators are prescribed, what kind of armor we can use and what weapons we can fight with. Elites are an anything goes kind of thing … AK-47s, grenade launchers, swords, just about anything you want to bring. ” Gregs voice lost all of its levity. ”Its about status, the agreements that bind them are maiming things if crossed. They are the new rulers of midnight, the scions of legends and myths. The nightmares of monsters, the powers that keep the races in check. How they fight and kill marks them as gods or meat. If they brought a gun to a fight … ” Greg shook his head at the image. ”Itd be enough for a clan to send a Venator. ”

”What about if they made the stuff themselves? ” Cesare asked, staring at the ceiling.

Greg mulled it over. ”That might work. It shows you
e not just flashy moves. I think as long as it was homemade, you wouldn lose respect. You might even impress. ”

The devil was in the details. For a plan like this, the details would have to be weighed. Settling in for a long night, Cesare started asking questions.

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