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Julilee

Blood of the Gladiator

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The constant pounding filled her ears. Julilee lifted her head as the wind rose for a moment, letting it catch the loose strands of pale hair around her face. Beneath her feet, the coarse sand shifted, cut into strange shapes and angles. It was dyed orange and red in the early morning light, and she turned her head to look behind her briefly at the rising sun. The sky, also red and orange and pink, was always a welcome sight, even after having been back aboveground this long.
 
Then she turned her attention back to what lay before her.
 
The pounding was the combination of the screaming, stomping audience and drums. The sands were the floor of the arena and weren't just red from the sunrise, but from dried blood, and were grooved not by the elements but by battles. The sun was rising over the bleachers and the match was about to begin.
 
She drew Mercy. The sword gave away her identity to those who recognized its jagged silhouette, but that turned out to be vanishingly few. So far, she could count them on one hand. Memories were short in war. The white mask that covered the lower half of her face did enough to disguise her identity otherwise, along with the absence of any of the other features that had once marked her identity, such as her once-dark hair, former purple armor, and tabard. Mostly the tabard. That had been the majority of what people had ever seen when they looked at her anyway.
 
To be fair, she was the one who had redesigned it and raised its banner once more.
 
"Juriel! Juriel!"
 
Now she let her image become whatever it may.
 
The gate across the arena opened with slow, menacing clanks that were nearly drowned out as the crowd rose in volume commensurately. Juli stood waiting, the tip of Mercy pointed at the sand. She held it in one hand and nothing in the other. Carrying a shield would only burden her now.
 
The creature that came out was not one of the largest she had faced. The mad brutosaur had been that, and it had cemented her as the preeminent fighter in this arena circuit. But it was one she had never fought before. It slunk out, wary of the noisy crowd and bright, open space, but soon focused on Juli. And then it was followed by another. Two adversaries. The crowd, thrilled by this twist, became all but deafening.
 
The creatures' blue-gray bodies were lined from nose to tail-tip in spikes, and long tusks protruded from their mouths. Their forequarters were heavily muscled for digging, pouncing, and shredding, but their lean bodies were built for speed nonetheless. Lean, but at least twice her size in weight and mass each. Sabertusks. Julilee was given pause as she studied them, knowing that Zandalari druids took on the same form, but in a few moments it became apparent that there was no hint of sentience in these beasts.
 
They circled her warily, moving instinctively as a pack to take down the first edible thing they had seen in days. Juli continued standing still, only turning her head slightly as one circled behind her. When it thought it had the advantage, it pounced. She heard the crunch of sand and moved as it did.
 
She threw herself into a backwards roll that was diagonal to the beast's trajectory. Tucked low to the ground, her relatively small size played to her advantage as she passed underneath the beast. As she rolled, she whipped her blade up and across its belly. There wasn't enough clearance to get the strength behind the thrust to disembowel the thing, but bright red blood spattered over her white, gold, and dark gray armor.
 
The beast shrieked. As it landed and whipped around with shocking speed to lunge for her, paws as massive as her head with claws that long again coming at her face, she was only just pushing herself into a crouch on the sand. There simply wasn't enough time to dodge again.
 
Her empty arm came up to block. It would have done absolutely nothing to save her if not for the Light that blazed into existence around it. The crowd roared in vicious delight as the large beast collided with the shining barrier, its sheer mass pushing her back a dozen meters and leaving a deep furrow in the sand, but she kept her feet under her. After the beast jumped away to seek a new opening, the creature not yet slowed by the shallow gash that bled fresh red onto the sands, she rose unharmed and allowed the shield to dissipate.
 
The other beast, more cautious than its partner, did not yet make a move, only prowling along the side of the clash. The horn on its nose was broken, it was a darker blue-gray, and it was slightly smaller, though not by much. As Juli watched them stalk her, she wondered what had brought them to the attention of the arena organizers. Had they preyed on townspeople? Ravaged local livestock? Or had it just been the appeal of a matched pair?
 
"Juriel! Juriel!"
 
The crowd was insistent. It wanted blood, hers or the beasts', it didn't care. She had learned it thrilled to either, though this had not really come as a surprise. As much as they had loved her rise to underground fame, it would love her downfall just as much. She had seen the betting odds and knew many had no qualms about betting on the latter every match, if not more and more eagerly with every victory.
 
She made good money off those bets.
 
The sabertusks were too fast for her to try to take the offensive. Unlike the brutosaur, they could turn on a dime and rend with those deadly claws as fast as she could blink. If she gave them the slightest opening, they would seize it, and her by the throat. She would have to wait for them to come to her to try to find an opening, and the crowd communicated its disapproval of her patience as she continued to let the beasts circle her, though this time she slowly turned to keep them in sight as much as possible. 
 
Trying to urge action, the drum players increased the tempo. It was effective on everyone but those battling in the arena. The crowd grew more frenzied; someone threw a rock that landed with a thud in the sand not far from Juli. From somewhere, she could hear Tetsujin hollering directions at her. She didn't take her eyes off the beasts, nor they theirs off her.
 
The two beasts started to circle closer. She knew the moment they decided to attack. This time, the sabertusks moved together.
 
 
 
Edited by Julilee
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"They're animals! Scare them!" Tetsujin tried to yell at her. He'd learned a long time ago that she ignored most of his directions, but that didn't stop him from trying. Lately, she couldn't even hear him over the crowd - or at least that was her excuse. "Hit that belly spot again, it's already bleeding! Don't give it time to heal! Smash it in the head or something!"

He could barely hear himself yelling over the sound of the crowd. When the drums got faster, Tetsujin turned his deafened shouting at them in frustration. "SHUT UP!"

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Julilee dropped into a crouch, thrusting her empty hand toward the larger beast. The force of her will focused the Light into a stunning cascade that fell onto the creature, knocked it off course, and stunned it for valuable seconds. At the same time, her sword came up in a thrust at the smaller beast as it pounced from her other side. It twisted to avoid the blade and Juli tried to lunge in the complementary direction, but one of its paws still struck the back of her shoulder, and she was knocked to the sand.
 
She immediately rolled onto her back, bringing Mercy in between her and her foe, but the animal did not truly respect the blade, perceiving it as an impediment more than anything, and pounced heedlessly. Catching its claws with the sword earned a reprieve barely in name as the thing's sheer weight pinned the weapon across her body, only held away by the width of the blade. The outer edge of Mercy digging into her armor was the least of her concerns as the sabertusk bent down, fangs snapping toward her neck, while leaning further onto its front paws, ready to start ripping and shredding.
 
Death stared her in the face, but she had seen worse. 
 
Jagged golden lines burst into illumination down Mercy's hilt, crossguard, and blade, and in one motion Julilee heaved the large beast off her in a feat of strength beyond what even her well-developed athletic abilities could do alone. The beast hissed in pain and the smell of burning filled the air as it backed away, while she rose to her feet again, gripping Mercy with both hands. Light wreathed her weapon and forearms. The crowd was cheering loudly now. While the larger beast had recovered, it similarly backed away with newfound respect for its prey. The two seemed to visibly reconsider.
 
"Shoo," she said to them.
 
"Ya gotta kill 'em, Juli!" Tetsujin yelled down from the bleachers nearest to her. Though he couldn't have heard her, and she hadn't gestured at all, he knew her well enough to know what would make her hesitate. Despite her presence in the arena, she barely had the stomach to participate in any of this to begin with, much less when the beasts didn't even want to fight. At least, when she thought about it, which she couldn't help but do as the beasts stared at her uncertainly.
 
Then the trappings of an ethical quandary were, at least ostensibly, shattered as more rocks began to fall. This time they were aimed at the sabertusks, and a few hit. The smaller one snarled up at the audience and turned to look at Juli again. Its rising aggression chose the only target available, and it lunged across the sands for her again, the larger one right behind.
 
This time she didn't try to dodge; she lunged forward instead, Mercy leaving trailing ribbons of Light as she swung it, two-handed, down at the oncoming beast. It ducked its head as they met so she only scored across its back, but its true strategy quickly became apparent as it tossed its head in the next moment, scooping her up with its tusks and sending her flying. The crowds shrieked.
 
The second beast was there to catch her. It leapt and its jaws closed around her arm, nearly dislocating her shoulder as she landed heavily. But it wasn't her main sword arm, her sword was free, and its neck was exposed. Pulling against its grip to keep it occupied, she brought Mercy across and opened its throat with one clean slice. A river of red joined the spatters on her armor. The thing gurgled, jerked away, and fell.
 
Pain raked down her legs. The smaller beast had pounced her again and its wicked claws, finally put to full use, pierced the metal of her armor like a tin can. Juli gritted her teeth and tried to kick at it unsuccessfully. It seized her leg in its mouth and started dragging her. Juli swung Mercy but it flinched away without relinquishing its grip, and placed a giant paw on her side, ready to try to tear her apart by brute force. It probably had the strength to do so.
 
She didn't want to use any more Light, but she had to. She closed her eyes.
 
A brilliant flash directly beside its head blinded and disconcerted the beast, making it drop her leg and flinch away. Juli opened her eyes and swung Mercy to cut deeply into its front leg. With a snarl it snapped at the blade and achieved a grip on it that almost took it out of Juli's hands, but not quite. Instead she let the beast's strength pull her toward it and help her plant an armored boot in its jaw. There was an audible crack as a tooth snapped, and she jerked Mercy free, then thrust its point into the beast's chest as it reared. She must have found its heart as it collapsed on her immediately.
 
"Juriel! Juriel!"
 
It took some effort to shove the beast's heavy body off and rise to her feet, bleeding, but she did. She closed her eyes again as she listened to the crowd's chanting. She wanted it to feel exciting, glorious, or even at least satisfying to have triumphed once more and be standing under the weight of the crowd's adulation, but instead, it didn't feel like anything. All she could feel was that the reservoir of Light inside of her was lower than before.
 
Tetsujin jumped down to the sounds next to her. She knew it was him without looking. "Good job, Juli," her manager said. He chuckled. "Hope ya ain't too mad at me for the surprise, but I knew ya could handle it."
 
"Yeah," she said, after a moment, opening her eyes again. Her gaze fell on the two downed beasts. Arena organizers were coming to drag the bodies away. "I can handle anything."
 
She turned to walk away, back toward the backstage area. "Hey!" Tetsujin called after her. "Don't sound so happy about it!"
 
"I'm going to go meditate," she replied without turning. "Make sure no one bothers me, please."
 
"Ya and yer meditation," he said without bitterness. She could barely hear him over the crowd as she walked away. "Should celebrate more, what's the point if ya don't enjoy it!"
 
Wasn't that the question. He would be enjoying his portion of the proceeds from today's fight quite thoroughly later tonight. Juli looked down at her red-streaked armor and weapon. If she'd still worn a tabard, it would have been soaked and shredded. With nothing to fight for now, she found herself fighting anyway.
 
"Because I'll never give up," she said, her voice not nearly loud enough to carry back to him over the crowd. He didn't seem to be expecting a response and didn't miss one, busying himself talking to the arena organizers.
 
She left the roaring arena and went to be alone.
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