As if Casimir hadn't missed out on enough sleep already that night, his dreams were plagued with an inextricable yet familiar terror gnawing at his heart.
The dark night clung to his skin like a cloak, attempting to conceal him from his pursuer. His breaths were quick and shallow, and his legs were beginning to lose feeling, but he barely noticed. His panic dominated his thoughts, compelling him to keep running, for nothing but certain death was at his heels.
He couldn't see past arm's length, but he wasn't alone. Someone gripped his wrist tightly, leading him through the woods, weaving around trees that seem to rise up from the dirt instantaneously. She clearly had better vision than he did, and since he was so confused and frightened, he had no choice but to trust her. While she held one of his arms, his other hand grasped his younger brother's smaller hand. When Casimir glanced over his shoulder, he saw little Ulrich, barely old enough to understand that their lives were in danger. From what, not even Casimir knew.
They continued running, following the tall, mysterious woman with the chilly wind biting at the tips of their ears, until Ulrich stumbled over a root and planted his chin into the dirt and leaves, taking Casimir down with him. The woman stopped and rushed to help them, frantically pulling Casimir back onto his feet and lifting Ulrich into her arms to carry him over her shoulder. Taking Casimir's wrist again, she whispered urgently, "Hurry, child! Lest he kill the both of you!"
To prove her point, they could hear trees groaning, snapping, and crashing to the ground not too far away, and gaining on them. The woman started moving faster. Casimir tried to keep up, but his legs were too short for her strides. The destructive, crunching sounds were growing louder, but Casimir's small body was at its limit. Realizing this, the woman picked up Casimir, too, and carried him over her other shoulder, but her pace was slowed by the extra weight. With fear ringing in his ears, Casimir knew she was not fast enough to escape. Ulrich was crying now, probably comprehending somewhere in the back of his brain that their pursuer was going to catch them.
In a matter of moments, another pair of footsteps, heavy and quick, appeared behind them just outside Casimir's line of vision, using the night's cloak better than they were. Finally, he could make out a figure chasing after them, drawing closer with each stride, until Casimir could see the outline of a clawed hand reaching out to snatch him from the woman's arms.
The talon-like fingers were close enough to wrap around Casimir's throat. An intense wave of terror split Casimir's mind in two, and Ulrich let out an awful wail. Before the monster could seize him, a tree trunk shot up from the ground between them, growing from a sapling into a full-grown pine tree in seconds. The figure slammed into the tree, then disappeared into the darkness as the woman kept running. The terror constricting Casimir's head relaxed slowly, until he knew in his heart they had gotten away.
The three of them could still hear his angry, roaring voice resounding through the woods, crying, "You cannot escape me! This is my curse on the Warlin family! I will scour the world until I kill them! I won't stop until their souls are mine!"
Casimir hit his head on the wooden bed frame as he fell off his mattress. With a jolt, he scrambled to his feet, the light rushing to his moist palm and forming a curved dagger. His chest was heaving and sweat dampened his hair, but when he glanced around his room, he found that he was alone. Wiping his forehead, Casimir let his dagger dissolve and laid back on his bed, waiting for his heart to calm down and wondering how a nightmare could feel so much like memory. Casimir hadn't experienced nightmares of this caliber in years, but he couldn't decide what had triggered one again. The only recent change was his enrollment into the academy. Eventually, after convincing himself it was just his nerves for tomorrow's big move, he closed his eyes and willed himself to sleep.
The hours spent on the train the next morning were filled with mindless small talk and insignificant details about the school that Casimir didn't care for, but Leo's description of the campus amazed Ulrich. Casimir would rather talk about the academy's combat training than its library, but with Ulrich next to him, he had to steer clear of venator subjects.
The sun was set by the time the four exited the steamroller in the Terapine City station. With their luggage by their side, they continued down the block, Leo at the head of the group, careening through the masses of people bustling about in a hurry.
"All right," Leo said over the noise of the city, "Now we just have to get to the subway station before it leaves without us...in ten minutes." It was barely enough time for the four of them to weave their way down another two blocks of the city and find the entrance to the underground station. To Casimir's surprise, they had to duck into an alley to reach the stairs leading into the station. They arrived with one minute to spare, but the place was empty. Not another passenger in sight. "You sure we didn't miss it?" Casimir frowned.
"No, we're just the only ones going to the Bestiarius Academy today," Leo waved off just as the subway train rolled in.
"The academy has its own subway?" Ulrich blinked in disbelief.
"In this city and a couple of others," Ryker said casually. "Going underground and straight to the academy saves us so much time."
Leo dropped his voice so only Casimir could hear, "We have our own subway for maximum security and efficiency. We don't want any rogus traveling inside, and if there's an emergency in another city, we can send venators right away."
When the doors slid open and the four stepped inside, the cabin was empty. They each took a seat as the subway lurched forward along the tracks and picked up speed. Finally, after an hour, Ulrich began to doze off, and once he was sure he was fast asleep, Ryker reached into his pocket and pulled out a thin, sleek digital tablet the size of his hand and entered a six-number code once the screen lit up.
"What is that?" Casimir asked, intrigued by the screen's response to his touch. Not many teenagers in Silas even carried a mobile phone, much less a personal, miniature computer.
"It's our student guide," Leo answered, withdrawing his own tablet from under his coat. "Every venator gets one after they pass the test. It's how we keep track of our assignments and stats. You can access files about past venators and rogus others have encountered. The higher rank you are, the more restricted information you can access."
"Everyone in the venator program is ranked based on combat skill, exam scores, and successful assignments," Ryker explained. With a presumptuous grin, he maneuvered around the widgets on the home screen of his device, until a list of names paired with numbers popped up. He added, "I'm rank five."
Sure enough, his name was the fifth one down and Leo's was the seventh out of about sixty students. "You can move up by challenging anyone ahead of you to a supervised duel. Everyone wants to be in the top ten," Leo said, "But those spots are pretty locked-in."
Ryker nodded. "Yeah, all of us in the top ten have held the same rank for over a year now."
"Wow," was all Casimir said, but silently, he told himself that those ranks were about to change.
The subway train really did lead straight into the heart of the Bestiarius Academy, and Casimir soon learned it was the only convenient way to enter the campus. The entire school was built in the center of a small valley, surrounded by woods on all sides, so the only other way to reach it was the road that snaked through the trees for a good three hours by car from Farrione, the nearest city. Of course, Casimir knew why this academy had to be located farther from other communities, since training venator students required many acres of hidden grounds.
The view was breathtaking. Rolling green hills rose up in the distance, the trees were lush and verdant, and the air had never been more fresh and clean. That was just the background of the academy. The buildings were grand and regal with cobblestone pathways interwoven between them, connecting the whole school together as if it were one big, lively system. Leo told them that the design of the academy's campus was inspired by baroque architecture, prominent in extravagant, pillared entrances to each individual building.
Yet, there was something else that made the place even more welcoming. It was early evening, so school was out for the day, and students ambled along the paved walkways and through the rose gardens that decorated the campus. Casimir wondered how many of his peers passing by were secretly like him, disguised among the humans.
"Ryker, why don't you take their luggage and bring it to their dorm? If you hurry you can still make it to the gym in time to watch..." Leo trailed off. That was enough to persuade Ryker, and he easily carried their suitcases away, disappearing around one of the nearby buildings. In time to watch what? Casimir didn't know, but he had a feeling he was going to find out.
Leo led Ulrich and Casimir into the main office. Above the ten-foot-tall double door entrance was a stone bird embellished with gold paint accents. Casimir realized it was an eagle with its wings fanned, as if they were about to beat down and take flight. The eagle held a sword in its talons just like the insignia on Leo's coat. Inside, couches and coffee tables were laid out in the spacious lobby, though Casimir didn't know that schools had lobbies. But schools usually didn't own subway systems, either. Or taught students to fight monsters, for that matter.
After Leo spoke with the secretary for a few minutes, he returned with two pieces of paper in his hands. He handed one to Ulrich.
"That's your schedule," Leo said. Then he turned to Casimir, but withheld the second piece of paper. "You still need to take your placement test."
"Placement test?" Ulrich repeated.
"Casimir's scholarship isn't academic like yours, so he needs to take a short test first," Leo answered as another student floated into the lobby through the main doors of the office and took her place at his side. She smiled politely at Casimir and Ulrich. Her wavy, caramel-colored hair cascaded past her shoulders, catching the glow of the chandelier.
"I'm to show someone around?" The girl looked at Leo inquiringly.
"Kiera, this is Ulrich," Leo introduced. "Once you've shown him his classes, come straight to the gym. You can give Ulrich a real tour tomorrow."
"Sure thing." Kiera nodded, then turned to Ulrich , "You're going to feel right at home here, I promise." Her voice was musical and soothing, yet casual. Casimir noticed her warm smile and soft eyes were constant, as if she was always relaxed and calm, even when her pitch said otherwise. Her clothes gave him the same impression; she wore cool pastels and dressed more modestly than most girls her age. When Kiera led Ulrich out of the lobby, Casimir almost wished he could go on the tour just to hear her talk.
"Now we can go ahead with your test," Leo told Casimir as he led him outside and along one of the cobblestone pathways. He had chosen a particular walkway that snaked through the campus, careening in and out of buildings, until they had reached an area of the campus that had only a few students lingering outside classrooms, significantly less occupied.
"Where are we going?" Casimir asked, noting the subtle shift in scenery. He guessed they were near the back of the school, farthest from the academy's main office, because this section was much less populated. Maybe it was just his imagination, but the shade of the surrounding buildings appeared to be darker, and more enigmatic. Even the cobblestones he walked on had changed from an effervescent beige color to a grayish brown one.
"The Venator's Gymnasium," he replied casually, pointing up ahead where one building stood out from the rest. It was noticeably larger than any of the others that comprised the school, and framing its double door entrance were two esteemed statues. One was a man, with muscular stone arms in a gladiator uniform, wielding a stone sword, while the other was a woman with lean features, carved wearing a similar outfit and brandishing a spear.
"So what's this placement test?"
"Didn't I tell you? You have to duel somebody." As he spoke, Leo lightly tapped one of the metal rings that served as a door knob. Then he took a step back, and the doors, which just creaked at first, began to swing open by themselves, revealing a room the size of a football field. There was no basketball court, only a large white ring, about thirty yards across, drawn on the ground with chalk. Against the walls were tall, stone bleachers, and Casimir was surprised that they were occupied. There were maybe sixty students already seated, chattering away as if they were waiting for a show to start. Casimir spotted Ryker sitting in one of the middle rows, talking to a friend.
"What's going on?" Casimir asked, perplexed.
"Whenever there's a new venator, we all come," Leo explained, "Because you might be fighting any one of us, but we also get a kick out of watching the new kid get beat up."
A man sitting in the front row caught sight of them and stood. He was tall, with broad shoulders, dark skin and jet-black hair that was so short it was barely there at all. Judging from his expression and his stride, Casimir could tell the man held authority, almost like a military commander.
"Casimir, this is our combat teacher, Mr. Diallo," Leo introduced.
"Thanks, Leo, I'll take it from here," Mr. Diallo chuckled, as if he had heard an amusing joke. He turned to Casimir. " Try not to get to get too many broken bones."
Casimir frowned slightly. Obviously, this man did not think much of him yet, but he was going to change that with a victory. Mr. Diallo scanned the crowd in the bleachers, looking for someone in particular. "Hmm...Remigus? Nah, I don't want to kill you on the first day...Izekiel, maybe? Let's see here...oh, here we go! Mairah, it's your turn to give the test!"
"Sir?" Leo's mouth fell open slightly. "That's a bit harsh, isn't it? Mairah is-"
"Number two, I know," Mr. Diallo said as he steered Leo toward the bleachers by his shoulders. "Trust me, it'll be more fun this way! Come on down, Mairah!"
A girl with tanned skin and sleek, black hair pulled into a bun stood up in the third row and sighed. Murmurs and snickers rippled through the crowd. As the girl made her way down the bleachers, one boy somewhere amongst the spectators called out, "Give us a good show, Mairah!"
"Yeah! Make him dance!" whooped another.
"Perfect," Mr. Diallo said to Casimir, "Time to start. If you'll just step inside..."
As Casimir made his way to the center of the chalked ring, Mairah followed a few paces behind him. They stopped at the center, facing each other with roughly five yards separating them. Number two? Casimir wasn't sure what to think. Mairah outranked both Leo and Ryker, and those two seemed to be advanced fighters as well. She had a petite figure, but that also meant she was going to be nimble and quick. Her almond-shaped eyes were unreadable.
Mr. Diallo had returned to the bleachers, and he called out, his voice booming throughout the room, "All right, here are today's rules. Your task is to defeat your opponent, and you are considered defeated if both your feet are outside the circle, or you can no longer stand. No killing or serious maiming, but you can draw blood. You can use any skills or abilities your soul allows you to do, if it doesn't immediately kill your opponent. Don't want any more deaths in this gym, do we? At the sound of the bell, you may begin."
Both Mairah and Casimir shifted into fighting stances. Her weight was on her back foot, her knee bent slightly and her front heel lifted. With her back straight, she placed her right hand close to her midsection and raised her left to defend her face, with both palms open. Casimir could tell from her steady posture and her hand positions that she was well-trained in martial arts. He, on the other hand, kept both feet shoulder width apart, fists by both cheeks, and elbows tucked in toward his chest.
"Only the best venators can join our ranks," said Mairah, her voice unwavering and stern.
"Then I'll fit right in." Casimir flashed a toothy grin, gray eyes alight with excitement.
"I'm not going to go easy on you just because you're new," she warned, "But good luck."
"I wouldn't want you to." He smirked. "And you, too."
There was a tense moment of silence, and then: Rrring!