They met on top of the Clock Tower that night. Saxa felt sweat rolling down her collar in the air that was as muggy as Amazonian fog. She wiped moisture off her chrome watch. Tiberius was two and a half minutes late.
“You’re l-l-late,” she said dryly as he ghosted up the tower.
Tiberius stayed silent.
“Ok,” she chattered, “We might as well go in from the East sewage systems. That should get us d-d-down to the Catacomb entrance fastest especially b-because there’ll be no traffic over the streets at this hour and the other W-windsor students have already patrolled that sector…hey! W-w-where are you going?”
Tiberius had leapt off the tower in the opposite direction of where Saxa suggested.
She hurried after him and they raced through the skinny corridors of Old Paris, he wrapped in a thick cape and she with gleaming coat tails flying behind. Both were swathed in leather dark as night. They quickly broke through the city constraints into a mushy meadow where tall grasses tickled Saxa and left yellow seeds on her gold lapels.
Tiberius stopped suddenly and Saxa, who was lost in thought, crashed into him from behind. She groaned when she realized he’d paused at a random patch of grass.
“Tiberius, we’re in the outskirts of the city. N-n-no man’s l-land. The Catacombs are the other way.”
“Shhh,” he raised a gloved finger to his lips and pointed underneath their feet.
It looked like an ordinary statuette -- a small stone bust with a chipped nose. But then she saw it: scratched on the side of the head was a message in High Latin.
Verum oculare öt opscurus immolabis.
They’d hardly touched upon the ancient language in class. The only freshman who could understand it was Morton and even then his translations were shaky at best. Saxa turned to Tiberius, wondering if he knew what it said.
Naturally he did.
“I offer my amulet,” Tiberius stated loudly, dropping a small stone onto the earth. Except, those words weren’t what Saxa heard. A guttural hissing had escaped Tiberius; they were the sounds of High Latin.
At once the statue glowed with a ghastly red light and began to recede into the earth. Next second, it was right out of sight, leaving a large gaping hole exposed.
Saxa peered hesitantly into the dark hole.
“Let’s go,” Tiberius said.
She slid in after him, dragging her hand along the rugged sides to slow her fall. She knew she was descending deeper below the surface than even the city sewer systems, perhaps even deeper than the Catacomb entrances she’d explored with the Salvatore, Kati and Morton.
“Brace yourself,” came Tiberius’s muffled voice.
Saxa heeded the warning and flipped in midair. She thudded onto a hard yet damp floor — on her feet but very clumsily so, tipping over her heels and rolling back with a wet thud. She felt Tiberius’s disapproving glare penetrate the pitch black darkness as he groped for her arm and jerked her to her feet.
The Catacombs were so devoid of light that Saxa couldn’t even see with her Knight vision. For the first time, she was limited to aura-sensing and her other four human senses which weren’t very helpful at the moment. Hastily, she conjured a flame with her dragon fire.
Tiberius illuminated the cavernous tunnel ahead and their shadows on the walls looked monstrous in the firelight. “Come on.”
Saxa started slowly after him.
“Remember,” he said as they walked, “any sign of movement and draw your DæmonWeapon…”
But the tunnel was quiet as the grave, and the first sound Saxa heard was a loud crunch. When she glanced downwards she saw the pale skull of a human, the heel of her combat book stuck into its gaping eye socket.
She launched herself backwards.
Tiberius whirled around. “Quiet Saxa! It’s the Catacombs. What do you expect?!”
She gagged as they set off again through the tunnels, picking their way through the maze of remains that littered the ground.
Every nerve in Saxa’s body was tingling. Especially when she realized the walls were rocky not because they were stone, but because they were embedded with bones and dried guts in some ideographic pattern she couldn’t understand. She desperately wanted the tunnels to end. And then, at last as they crept around yet another bend, she saw a giant door ahead on which a large sword was carved. The hilt was set with four large glittering jewels -- each representing a different race of Knight: red for the Dragon-blood, black for the Vampire-blood, blue for the Werewolf-blood, green for the Wizard-bloods. The jewels seemed to glimmer and swirl in an infinite circle of equilibrium.
“Imperium natus ex aequilibrium. True p-p-power comes from balance.” Recited Saxa proudly from The Book of Dragons. The ideal system and the most powerful being were both one of perfect harmony.
“No.” Tiberius responded bracingly. “Not quite.
She crossed her arms. “Fine then, w-what’s behind the d-d-door?”
He chuckled softly but mirthlessly. Saxa could imagine a small sneer drawing across his face behind the white mask.
“You want to know? You want that power? Well you know our rules. Only a demonstration of power can warrant its return. Fight me and prove yourself,” he chided.
She gulped. Any other time, she would have jumped at the challenge, but Tiberius did have Black Blood. And even if he was just a normal Knight, he was still more technically advanced.
Tiberius noticed her hesitation and dropped his sword belts. “Look, I’ll make it easier. No weapons, no lasting casualties.”
Saxa’s heart pounded. She could stand her own against him -- she’d proved that twice in battle before -- but there was almost no chance she would prevail. The Black Blood was too strong. However, if Tiberius wasn’t bluffing, which he never did, and true power did lie behind those doors, then she had to risk a fight to glimpse it. Then, for once, she’d have an advantage over Kati, Salvatore, Morton and all the other Alphas at Windsor.
Having made a decision, she nodded to Tiberius and unbuckled her swords with shaking fingers. Before they even hit the ground, he had lunged and they slammed into each other in a flurry of gloved fists as hard as steel.
Tiberius moved with impossible speed and strength. He landed every single shot and it gradually became harder to block. At one point, she resulted to only dodging. It was clear he had improved just from the last time they’d met and that made her incredibly nervous. She began to falter, striking too early or misjudging the distance between them. A sharp elbow jab struck her across the brow and she reeled back across the cavern.
Dizzy with pain, Saxa held up her hands weakly to surrender. “I can’t d-d--, I can't d-do this,” she rasped.
She felt Tiberius’s shadow fall over her and she braced herself for the blow, but it never came. Strong fingers wrapped around her aching biceps, pulling her swiftly to her feet. Tiberius stared dead into her eyes. He bent Saxa’s arms into a square fighting stance. “Imperias,” came his quiet, guttural voice.
Saxa’s muscles quaked violently, but she kept her arms up.
Tiberius let go in a flash and tossed a punch. Saxa watched his movements with wide eyes before throwing her arms up against the sharp fist. The force sent her stumbling backwards, a new bruise blooming on her arm. The next strike flew at her faster and harder than the first, but this time, she blocked. His fist connected with her forearms with a bang.
“Imperias,” Tiberius said again, his voice soft but stronger than before.
They sparred for what seemed like hours to Saxa’s screaming muscles. She was finally adapting to the flow of movement when all of a sudden, Tiberius’s foot moved.
Bam. It felt like her entire leg shattered. She collapsed like a broken table, her face making contact with the ground first, the hard floor grinding against her cheek. Her mouth filled with the taste of blood and sweaty stones. Her muscles finally reached the limit and she spasmed and jerked wildly on the ground.
Tiberius watched her wriggle like a fish gasping for air. She was so pathetic that he would have guffawed openly in any other situation. But instead, he turned his back to hide his disappointment. It wasn’t until he turned away that Saxa moved again.
She rose from the ground bone by bone, like a zombie or other form of living dead. Tiberius almost winced at the bloody state of her face. “Imperias.” Saxa said and took a fighting stance in front of him. This time, they both smiled a hard, brutal grin.
“W-w-what d-does that mean -- Imperias?” She asked.
“Imperias was a great Knight from the Books of Lore. He gave battle his soul and every drop of struggle in him. He traveled to the corners of the realm from the Dragons in the East to the tribes of the Old Kingdom to learn the sources and truths of combat. In return, fighting gave him immortal power.”
Her eyes went wide.
“Find the truth Saxa. Imperias found his truth in martial arts. You’ll find yours in the Legend.”
She considered his mention of the Legend suspiciously. She'd learned that the smartest Knights conducted themselves with double motives -- two purposes behind every action whether subconscious or deliberate. That was obvious with the other Alphas, who never said or did anything without calculating personal gain first, and Saxa was beginning to see these second motives in Tiberius too.
She wiped away the blood that was dripping into her mouth. “W-w-what are you thinking Tiberius? It’s not just to l-lecture me about existential ideas like true power. You want to tell me something about the Legend, don’t you?”
Tiberius responded by moving into her face abruptly. There was no wind in the cavern, yet his flaming red curls drifted precariously towards her.
“I believe you to be the Knight, other than myself, who’s most likely to be the Legend. You’re my investment Saxa and if you fall, I’ll lose something significant,” he said coldly.
She winced, frozen and unsure how to respond. Tiberius casually picked his weapons back up from the ground.
“... D-d-do I get to see what’s b-behind the d-d-doors?”
“No?” He retorted as if confused that she’d asked. “You didn’t defeat me.”