Though finding the champion gladiator was not nearly as easy as I’d thought, mostly because I didn’t have much of a description to go on. What little Bodhi had told me—big, strong, tough, scary, intense—amounted to no more than a generic stream of words that could be easily applied to any one of the ghosts that haunted the place.

At first glance, they all looked the same. A bunch of overly muscled, filthy, dirty, greasy-haired men who’d been sliced apart and sewn back together so many times their skin resembled a cheap leather purse. Each of them bearing a pair of hands that were so big and meaty and brutal looking, they could easily kill with a flick of a wrist.

It was like a never-ending parade of warriors, one fearless fighter after another. And just when I’d started to separate them as individuals, one would shift, I’d quickly lose track, and they’d all blur together again.

I guess I’d been so focused on dealing with Theocoles that it never occurred to me there’d be so many other lost souls lingering in the ludus as well. Though I should’ve known since most ancient sites that played host to horrendous acts of violence and repression were known to be haunted by angry spirits demanding justice before they’d move on.

I slunk around the place, at first keeping close to the walls, doing my best to stay inconspicuous, stay out of the way, assuring myself that if I could just steer clear of the jabbing elbows and swinging fists, it would all be okay. Making my way down the corridor, I poked my head into a series of small, narrow rooms I guessed to be the gladiators’ bedrooms. Though unlike my own recently redecorated room back in the Here & Now, which consisted of every modern comfort and convenience I could dream of (and I mean that literally since I manifested everything in it)—these were pretty much the opposite—pretty much the definition of bleak. Consisting of dirt floors, severe wooden bed frames that were shoved against either wall, and, well, not much else. Though, not surprisingly, the rooms were all empty.

That’s the thing with ghosts—they don’t really sleep, and they pretty much always refuse to rest. They’re way too caught up in reliving their pasts to make time for any sort of leisure activity like that, and these ghosts were no different. Prowling the halls, yelling and screaming—it seemed like the more I looked, the more their numbers grew, leaving me to wonder if I’d ever locate Theocoles among the restless swarm.

Knowing I had to start somewhere, I began tugging on tunics and poking at elbows, each time asking the exact same question: Do you know where I can find Theocoles, the one they call the Pillar of Doom?

And each time getting the exact same reply: a blank-eyed stare, which only confirmed what I already knew—I was pretty much invisible as far as they were concerned.

I turned a corner, made my way down a series of short corridors, and had just began trudging down another when I froze in my tracks. Gasping in horror when I found myself standing in the doorway of a room so grisly I had to clamp a hand over my mouth just to keep from screaming.

I peered into the dark, my eyes moving from the rough, bloodstained walls to the heap of severely wounded gladiators who lay on old, splintered planks. Their bodies thrashing against the thick, iron shackles that imprisoned their ankles and wrists—moaning and grumbling and howling in pain—a chorus of agony so awful, I couldn’t help but shiver in fear.

It was a torture chamber—an ancient house of horrors—of that I was sure. Though it wasn’t long before my eyes adjusted and I saw I’d misread the whole thing—it wasn’t that at all.

It was a hospital, an infirmary, an ancient sanatorium run by a tiny, dark man I guessed to be the doctor, or medic, or whatever they called them back in the day. And I couldn’t help but cringe as I watched him tend to the gladiator’s wounds with a bizarre array of pastes and salves and other grotesque concoctions that smelled even worse than the infections that oozed out of them.

Still, even though he did his best to heal them, to my eyes it remained a scene lifted straight from a horror movie—a scene I was desperate to flee. Bolting as fast as I could, I tackled the stairs two at a time, pushing my legs beyond all reasonable limits, wishing there was a way to outrun the shocking images that blazed in my mind.

Finally reaching the landing, I paused against a sturdy stone column that fronted an open, shade-covered room that, judging by the number of gladiators sitting on long wooden benches, hunched over shallow wooden bowls, greedily slurping some kind of horrible, lumpy, gray porridge, I guessed it to be a cafeteria. And while unlike the hospital, there was no blood and gore, it was still pretty gruesome in its own way, leaving me to wonder, yet again, at the logic of some of these ghosts. I couldn’t even begin to fathom why anyone would ever willingly choose to stay in such a gawd-awful place.

Spying the practice arena just a few feet beyond, I made my way toward it. My hand pressed to my forehead, shielding myself from the sudden rush of heat and glare, I took a good look around, noting how just like the barracks, the hospital, and the cafeteria before it, it was also crowded with spooks.

Their long, wooden practice swords sliced through the air, as their round wooden shields jabbed and punched at some unknown opponent before them. My eyes darting furiously, searching for Theocoles among them, figuring if he was to be found anywhere in this ludus it would be here. As the undefeated champion, it just seemed to make sense.

Problem was, I was so clueless as to how it all worked, it was impossible to tell who was the best one among them—the one good enough to be champion—the one worthy of being called the Pillar of Doom—when they all looked so determined, so fearless, so eager to destroy whatever unlucky opponent stood in their way. All of them sharing that same ruthless eagerness to kill, to slaughter, to shred and destroy—burning like a flame in their eyes.

I was just about to give up, just about to head over to the Colosseum and try my luck there, when I saw something so unexpected, I f

orced myself to blink a few times to make sure it wasn’t a mirage of some sort—make sure I hadn’t somehow dreamed it all up.

It was a girl.

A beautiful dark-haired girl standing on a balcony that overlooked the arena.

The only other girl in the place besides me.

Though unlike me, she was dressed in a way that was far more appropriate to the time. While I was in jeans, a (super-cute) tee, and my favorite ballet flats, she wore a gorgeous silk gown that draped and swirled and trailed over the ground.

I studied her closely, taking in her smooth olive skin, her sweep of long, glossy, dark hair—the front of which was fastened at the crown by a shiny jeweled clasp, while the rest was left to tumble over her shoulders and down to her waist in a riot of waves.

Running a hand down the front of her elaborate red gown, she focused hard on the gladiators below. Her long, slim fingers picking at the embroidered gold sash at her waist, looking so elegant, so beautiful, so graceful and refined, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what she might be doing in such a sad, filthy place.

Or at least that’s what I thought until I looked a little closer and noticed how she focused on one gladiator in particular. The intensity of her gaze telling me he was someone special, not just to her, but to the arena in general.

I followed the length of her flashing brown gaze, my eyes lighting on a gladiator who rose above all the rest. He was taller, stronger, his movements both brutal and graceful.

He was a savage fighter. There was no doubt in my mind. But unlike the others who grunted, and punched, and kicked up great clouds of dust, this gladiator was different.

This one had the poise, and presence, and arrogance that could only belong to a champion.

And I knew in that instant, I’d just found Theocoles.

Tags: Alyson Noel Riley Bloom Fantasy