The brothers stood shoulder to shoulder in the crumbling mouth of a dark gangway, frozen in apprehension as a heavy wooden portcullis gate rumbled upwards in front of them, flooding the fetid gloom with the stark light of day. It's ancient ratchet clanked and ground painfully as the huge mechanism turned with mournful slowness.
It wasn't until all the noise and hurly-burly of that days' events had begun that they had realised the complex in which they were incarcerated was built under the arena, and the muffled thrum of an excited crowd had been growing all day, building like the drums of an approaching army until it was a raucous din that filled the underground chambers, bringing with it the foreboding promise of death and savage destruction.
As the portcullis laboured higher, the white noise of the crowd erupted into to a roar that whipped and reverberated around the tunnel like a wild animal.
Already three fights had taken place, four of the six protagonists had walked back into the school, bloodied, battered but otherwise relatively unharmed.
Glancing at each other, they bumped fists, exchanging unspoken support; and taking a deep breath, they both stepped hesitantly into the blinding madness.
They stood, wide-eyed and mesmerised by the shimmering motion of the crowd; a shifting kaleidoscope of faces staring down on them in their thousands; baying, calling, expecting blood. Demanding it.
They had both been assigned the role of 'Thracian' gladiators according to Eric, their resident expert. The Thracian, apparently, was a skilled and aggressive close quarter fighter who was highly regarded and provided good, violent entertainment but, Dean reflected sourly, who still dressed like a complete pussy.
Each of them carried a short curved sword, and a heavy round wooden shield, undecorated and not much bigger than a dinner plate. A short leather kilt wrapped over an uncomfortably insubstantial and breezy linen loincloth formed the main part of their outfit. It was secured around their waists by a thick studded leather belt.
A heavy, iron-studded leather arm-guard covered their right arms, held securely in place by a stiff gauntlet at one end and a narrow leather harness strapped tightly around their chests at the other.
Their lower legs were securely protected by heavy leather greaves which covered them from the insteps of their sandalled feet to the tops of their knees. In fact the only discernable difference in their outfits was a dirty linen band that encircled Sam's head, pulling his hair out of his face, whereas Dean's head was bare.
Dean didn't know whether to be scared, angry or embarrassed. It was one thing dying; another thing to die horribly and violently; another thing entirely to do it in front of thousands of people. But to do it half-naked and dressed (barely) like a complete dick was just the icing on the cake as far as Dean was concerned.
And anyway, what kind of halfwit dreams up a warrior's outfit that covers your legs and one freakin' arm but leaves your heart and guts exposed to whatever your enemy wants to throw at them?
And people reckoned the romans were clever? Freakin' asshats more like.
The final indignity as far as Dean was concerned was the fact that they had been saddled with the names 'Praegrandicus' and 'Ferox'. Their invaluable font of all knowledge, Eric, had explained that this meant 'the really big one' and 'the fierce one.' Knowing he was the fierce one didn't help Dean's cringing ego one tiny little bit.
Sam on the other hand was totally focussed. Dean recognised that set of his jaw; he didn't care at all that he was standing in front of ten thousand murderous savages looking like Conan the Douchebag. He didn't care that he had been saddled with a stupid name that sounded like an embarrassing medical condition. He was focussed on not just surviving but on impressing. What's more, he would expect nothing less from Dean. As far as Sam was concerned, this was their first public airing and would be the first move in their crusade to earning the right to take part in the ultimate fight; their ticket home.
Dean huffed out a long breath, trying not to look at the scattered bloodstains which dappled the Arena's amber sand. He'd be lying if he said there was a single aspect of this whole goddamn farce that he was happy about, but right now, he'd be satisfied with surviving.
It was at that moment that the brothers caught first sight of their two opponents who had entered the Arena from the other end.
Both were dressed in a similar fashion to the brothers, but carried large rectangular shields, almost as long as they were tall, and wore wide brimmed helmets that completely hid their faces. Both were heavy set, fleshy men; not quite as tall as the Winchesters.
"Heck dude", Dean muttered without taking his eyes off the plump duo; "we can take these two; just throw a freakin' pie in between them and watch them fight to the death over it."
"Eric said the Romans like their gladiators fat," Sam responded quietly; "the extra fat layer provides extra padding that protects the vital organs from flesh wounds."
Dean looked down at the lean, tapering lines of his torso; he was liking this idea less and less.
His reflections were abruptly halted when one of the two hefty figures charged toward him, lashing out with a tinny roar from inside the metal helm. Dean stumbled backward, swiftly raising his shield to block the blow and let out a grunted oath as his shoulder jarred painfully under the force.
Sam took his cue from the attack by leaping forward thrusting his sword at the other figure, distracting him and drawing him away from Dean. He struck out with the edge of his shield, striking his opponent in the stomach with force enough to send him reeling backwards, doubled over with a breathless roar.
Dean swiftly regained his footing, and sprang forward to strike upward with his sword. Blocked by his adversary, he brought the shield round, striking a heavy blow to the side of the man's head, knocking his dented helmet off with an with a resounding clang.
Sword flailing wildly, Dean lunged toward the dazed man who had stumbled sideways, spitting blood and teeth into the sand, and threw his full weight into knocking him to the ground, but not before the corpulent figure had swung his massive shield back to slam heavily into Dean's side, knocking him flat on his back and sending him skittering across the ground. He gasped breathlessly, wincing as he felt the rough sand tearing into his bare back, and raised his shield just in time to prevent his adversary's sword crashing down on his head.
Across the Arena, Sam's sword was laying relentlessly into the shield of the cowering figure in front of him. The man's longer sword had carved a vicious gash into Sam's thigh, but in his determined rage, he barely felt it. A rain of sweat flew around his face, driven by his whipping hair, but still he fought hard and relentless, his sword nothing more than a wheeling arc of silver swinging back and forth, carving his unfortunate opponent's shield into splinters. The crowd were on their feet, roaring with glee at the sheer brutality of the onslaught.
Dean panted harshly as his abused lungs fought to take in air, his chest heaving as he lay on his back, watching the blurred bulk of his opponent looming over him, silhouetted against the brilliant sunlight. His eyes widened as he suddenly saw a flash of metal arcking down toward him. twisting sideways, he managed to avoid the worst of the blow, but let out a hiss of pain as the edge of sword glanced against his side, opening a long, narrow wound.
His opponent raised his sword again, and Dean watched intently as the man's bloody lips curled into a wide smirk; anticipating a killer blow. He pulled in a sharp breath, ignoring the sting of the wound and the blood trickling down his side, staining the sand beneath him as he waited for his moment … three … two … one ...
Thrusting up a leg with vicious force, he kicked the man clean in the ass, sending him somersaulting forward over Dean's horizontal body.
As the man's bulk tumbled heavily over him, he flipped nimbly over onto his hands and knees, lunging forward and planting a knee forcefully into the plump gut, momentarily paralysing his opponent. He grabbed the stunned man's sword hand, furiously slamming it against the ground to dislodge the weapon and brought his own sword to bear against the beaten man's chest; "bad luck, lardass;" he growled.
Sam stooped over his own defeated opponent, blade pointed threateningly at the helpless man's throat and soaked up the roaring din of approval that shook the curved walls of the arena.
The emperor stood, gesturing serenely over the dissonant bedlam to his two new stars, a thin-lipped sneer of delight splitting his face in two.
The brothers listened numbly as the excited crowd chanted their names. They glanced at each other, gasping for breath, bleeding and shaking, not only from their exertions, but also from the rising panic in their hearts. They knew their performance today had brought them a step closer to the fateful duel that would decide their future.
The knowledge gave them no comfort.