When the lunch bell sounded, Casimir made for the market-place style cafeteria. Once he piled his tray with a turkey sandwich, macaroni and cheese, and a brownie, he searched the rows of tables for Leo until he found him sitting in the farthest row with Izekiel and Nicolette.
Noise filled the cafeteria as students around them talked and socialized, so Casimir had to lean in to hear his peers clearly, but the conversation turned to small talk, and his attention settled on his food anyway. He was biting into his dessert, when Ryker plopped into the seat next to him.
"Where are your fangirls?" Leo asked sarcastically.
"They haven't found me yet," Ryker grinned, before turning to Casimir. "So how do you like the academy?"
"It's great," Casimir answered automatically, but Ryker's tone made him look up warily. "But you didn't come here just to check up on me."
"Well, since I helped bring you here, I ought to make sure you're doing all right," Ryker said quickly. Casimir raised an eyebrow, and he sighed. "Yeah, you're right. Just wanted to give you a heads up on some bad news. You aren't exactly Remigus and Mairah's favorite right now."
"And I care because...?"
"They're the top two," Leo frowned. "You should want them to like you."
"I've made a lot of people not like me before," Casimir continued disinterestedly between bites of brownie. "It's nothing I can't handle."
"None of those people were like Mairah and Remigus, though, take my word for it," Leo pointed out, "Don't get me wrong. They're not bullies, but the highest ranks have a lot of influence over their classmates, like their assignments and specific training exercises."
"That sounds annoying," Casimir grumbled, "What did I even do wrong, anyway?"
"I think Raelynn was right yesterday," Leo speculated. "You beat Mairah the wrong way."
"Yeah, it looked like you were trying to humiliate her," Ryker explained, "Instead of delivering a final blow, you just pushed her. Remigus thinks you cheated somehow. And this morning when you challenged Nicolette. It just made you look worse."
"For what it's worth, I thought that was fun," Nicolette giggled. Casimir only grunted and continued eating.
"Just thought I'd let you know." Ryker shrugged. With that, he left, and Casimir returned to his double chocolate brownie, which he found much more interesting than other people's petty opinions. In Silas, chocolate was a luxury, since it was so expensive to import.
As Izekiel, Leo, and Nicolette went back to their chitchat, Casimir took a good look around the room. Most of the other students were humans who dressed like they came from upper class families with a privileged lifestyle, but the Bestiarius Academy was a private school, so it was to be expected.
Even after only a day of mingling with other venators, Casimir could see their distinctions from normal humans: a gait with confident strides, the solemnity to which they regarded their place at the school, shoulders back and head up, and the haunted aura that clung to them after unimaginable experiences and horrors. The last trait had stood out among only a few of his classmates, but it was the clearest indicator. Most of them masked it with an optimistic demeanor, like Leo, but Casimir could also sense a darker past from Nicolette and Izekiel as well. Even Ryker let his cool countenance slip for a few fleeting seconds, revealing a flicker of acrimony. Casimir imagined that he was the same himself, but then again, he was incredibly good at hiding secrets.
His gaze slid over the other tables, until it settled on one in the back corner, with only a single girl sitting alone. Her gray hoodie, black scarf, gloves, and jeans covered her fair skin except for on her face, which was concealed by her black hair like a curtain. She stared down at her food while she ate in solitude, shoulders tucked in, making her look as small as possible. As if she could feel his gaze, she looked up and met his eyes. A shiver of disquietude scuttled through him. Her irises were a dark shade of purple, almost black from where Casimir sat. He glanced away immediately, while her gaze lingered a moment, before she stared at her food again.
"Who is that?" Casimir asked, gesturing to the girl's table with a nod of his head.
"Oh, her." Leo's expression darkened. "That's Aisha Masserton."
"Some people call her Aisha Massacre," Nicolette added with a shudder. It was the first time Casimir had heard her say something negative about another student. "Stay away from her."
"Why? What's wrong with her?" Casimir could hardly contain his curiosity.
"She's a venator, but she's not like the rest of us," Leo began, scratching his head uncomfortably, "Her soul skill is incredibly powerful, more than anyone else here, and she definitely would rank in the top five, but..."
"She can't be trusted," Nicolette finished bitterly. "She transferred here two years ago from another venator academy in the east. Rumor has it that they kicked her out for attacking another venator and trying to kill him. Usually, that would be enough to be sentenced to death, but for some reason our headmaster took her in. I have no idea why."
"She can suck out your soul with one touch," Izekiel whispered, as if he was afraid Aisha would hear him from where he sat.
"Wait, like rogus do?" Casimir asked, shocked. That was terrifying, even more so than being murdered. No wonder they didn't like her; she reminded them of the monsters they were sworn to destroy.
Leo nodded. "Exactly like rogus do. All she has to do is lay a finger on you, and she can consume your life energy just like that. She takes other people's energy to enhance her own."
"It isn't natural." Nicolette shook her head in disgust. "No one should be able to do that. She could kill any of us while our backs are turned."
"Okay, but it's not like she chose that power," Casimir pointed out matter-of-factly, "Do you guys even know her?"
"We don't have to," Nicolette insisted, "She tried to kill somebody. That's all I need to know."
"How do you know this, anyway?"
"Remigus told us. He read her file," Izekiel said like it was no big deal.
"He read her file? He can read all our files?" The lack of privacy at the academy was appalling. At least at Silas he could keep to himself without anybody nosing their way into his business.
"The higher the rank, the more information you can access," Leo shrugged. "Since Remigus is number one he can read a lot about the rest of us, so he knows who works best with who for assignments."
"I still don't like it," Casimir grumbled.
When Casimir's last class, physics, ended, he was almost disappointed. Not that he found physics to be all that exciting, but his day's worth of distraction was gone. Without a lesson to keep his mind occupied, thoughts of his father's betrayal crept slowly into his attention. Possibly for the first time in his life, Casimir wanted to do his homework right away, at least from his venator studies, which was much more interesting and applicable than the homework he used to get.
First, he was going to need the textbooks Mr. Altovar told him to pick up from the school library. These books weren't going to be found on the general shelves, his instructor had informed him, so he would have to show the librarian his special library card that proved he was part of the venator program and had access to such level of information.
The Bestiarius Academy's library was first class compared to the musty one in Silas. With rows of bookshelves spanning its floor, the building was topped with a dome that was decorated with paintings of angels and cherubs blowing golden trumpets. From the center of the dome, a large scarlet tapestry hung above his head, bearing the school's insignia, the golden eagle equipped with a sword.
At first Casimir thought the librarian's desk was vacant, until he saw a girl bending down behind it to collect a few papers that had fallen. As she straightened up, Casimir rummaged through his backpack and pulled out his card, saying, "I'm going to need a few textbooks for my, ah, special class..." He trailed off when the girl looked up and met his eyes.
"Oh. It's you again," she muttered, irritated.
Casimir couldn't hold back his faint smile. "Well, if it isn't Miss Average. I didn't know you were the librarian, too."
"I'm not the librarian," Raelynn huffed, "I just help out here from time to time. And my last name's Souza, if you don't mind. "
"Well, since you're filling in, I need the books for Altovar's class."
"Fine." She sighed, opening the desk drawer and grabbing a ring of various keys. "Follow me."
Raelynn led him through the shelves until they reached the back wall, where there was a locked white door that blended with the color of the wall. After unlocking it, she gestured for him to wait outside while she closed the door behind her. A few moments later, she returned with three textbooks and dumped them into his arms, and the two headed back to the front desk for check out. While she scanned his card and opened his account in the computer system, Casimir flipped through the pages of the book that happened to be on top. It was about corrupted souls and how they became black souls on the path to becoming a rogus. He frowned. The book itself must have been written for advanced students, because he didn't understand half of it.
"We're supposed to know what all of this means?" he muttered to himself.
Raelynn gave him a funny look as she handed him his card. "Of course, that's only chapter one. That part isn't even that hard. You know, all this stuff is going to be on the final exam at the end of the term. And you have to pass it to stay in the venator program."
"And if I fail?" Written tests that required extensive mental ability were definitely not his forte.
"It depends. But if you fail, there's no way they'll let you stay in the top ten." She shrugged, scanning the books. "And you won't get many assignments, if any."
Raelynn smiled triumphantly at his sarcasm. "And I was right, wasn't I? Remigus and Mairah aren't very happy with you."
"How would you know?" Even though she was right, Casimir wasn't going to be quick to admit it.
"One of my good friends is also top ten, and he heard it straight from Remigus's mouth," she explained.
"Enjoying yourself?" Casimir raised an eyebrow with another faint smile.
Her smile faded. "What do you mean?"
"You think you're smarter than me, and you love that."
"Well, I was right. And you couldn't even understand chapter one of that book," she snapped.
"Being book smart is one thing, but being able to outsmart a rogus is what keeps you alive," Casimir answered coolly.
She narrowed her eyes. "How many have you actually slain?"
"I don't keep track anymore. I've been facing rogus since I was ten." Technically he wasn't bragging if it was the truth, right?
"I don't believe you." Raelynn folded her arms over her chest with a frown.
"If you don't think I'm that good, then how did I make it to the top ten on my first day, while you've been trying so hard all this time?"
"You won't be there for very long," she retorted angrily, "You'll just flunk out when you take the exam."
The two glared at each other for a long moment, knowing they both had hit below the belt. Casimir had the physical skills and techniques to reach the top ten, but he was so behind in venator studies, having grown up with a regular education while the other venators had been studying for years. Raelynn was just the opposite, possessing a keen understanding of the material, but lacking the dueling aspect of rogus hunting.
Suddenly, Raelynn perked up, her irritation leaving her instantly. "This could work..." she started tentatively, but as she spoke her words gained confidence, "You need a tutor, obviously, and I need a combat trainer. We could make a deal."
"I don't really like deals." Casimir almost wanted to laugh at the understatement.
"You need me, and as much as I hate to say it, I need you, too, so we have to work together if we want to get where we want to be," Raelynn insisted.
Casimir hesitated, but then thought about his master's orders. He had to secure a good spot in the school's ranks if he was to fulfill her wishes, and to leave those wishes unfulfilled was definitely not in his or Ulrich's best interest. "Fine. I'll teach you how to fight if you can get me to pass this exam."
"Perfect," she agreed, nodding, "One training lesson for every tutoring lesson." Raelynn held out her hand to make the deal official, and Casimir knew she wouldn't let him break it once he promised.
He shook her hand. "Deal."
When Casimir finally returned to his dorm, Ulrich was jotting down notes from a textbook. Casimir smirked while his back was turned. His brother knew so little, but that's how it was supposed to be, and Casimir intended to keep it that way. By the time midnight passed and one o'clock rolled around, Ulrich had fallen fast asleep, but Casimir lay awake, plagued by thoughts of his parents. While he had learned more about his father's background, the ultimate question hadn't changed. Why did they give up on their sons? Didn't they love them enough to stay?
Casimir rubbed his temples until his mind started to relax, but before his eyelids became heavy, a familiar stinging pain shot through his body, its epicenter at the Ouroboros Mark on his back. Dread crept into his soul. That was the last thing he needed. When the stinging began to turn into a burn, he sighed and sat up. The Ouroboros Mark only burned that intensely when Illedris had something important to say, and he couldn't ignore it.
Her wish was his command, after all.