I watched the second day of Restoration without feeling. Each rank’s winner challenged the winner from the next, and whoever won went on to challenge the next. It was an opportunity to advance from one’s ranking during their own year’s ascension, and a chance—albeit very slim—to wear the Red Robe should they win each subsequent challenge. In the past three Candidacies the most a mage had ever advanced were two ranks—and none of the factions had ever had the winner of second-rank best first.
Four matches in all, nine hours in total, and the final winner was a young man I didn’t recognize named Torrance. He became Jerar’s newest Red Mage, though the title was not to be formally bestowed until the Victors’ Ceremony on the seventh day of the weeklong Candidacy.
Alchemy’s trials were very similar to Restoration. The first day was the display of their castings’ brews. Great fire flasks lobbed into the sky only to come crashing down and burst into an explosion of flame. Heavy gases that clouded the arena in smoke. Prisoners forced to undergo hallucinogens or paralysis in the blink of an eye. A swift display of potions-fortified weapons against the standard steel of the Crown’s Army.
On the second day, each rank’s winner competed against the next by poisoning their opposition’s prisoner, and then scrambling to create the antidote for the one they received.
Two prisoners died before the appropriate cure could be completed.
As soon as the trials were over, I dismissed myself from our box and hurried out to the Montfort training ground to drown my frustration in rage. I needed to rest for my trial the following day, but if I did there was a very real chance the restless frustration would spill over into violence.
I would do something I’d regret—and that something would come at the cost of my family and Darren. Two things I swore never to risk.
The only person who followed me was Paige, and by now she knew my habits like her own. She joined me by sparring in silence.
I was leaving the Montfort training grounds when I spotted Lynn, my older mentor from my first year of the apprenticeship, quietly practicing her blocks, imitating some of the same moves she had taught me during my first few months of the apprenticeship.
It was a blessing in disguise. I was angry at the world, and I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t save the prisoners, I couldn’t stop the king, but right here—right now—I could right the past.
I was about five steps away when she spotted me. Her black bangs swung as she adjusted her stance, almond eyes cold.
“Do you need something, Ryiah?”
I made myself speak. “I’m sorry, Lynn. What I did during our apprenticeship—it wasn’t fair. I knew you had feelings for Ian and I ignored them. I should have apologized before.” I sucked in a breath. “You were a great mentor, and I never should have hurt you like I did.”
She didn’t say anything and after a moment I started to walk away. My conscience was clear.
“You know I actually pitied you.” Her voice rang out behind me, and I turned around. “I kept thinking how hard it must be to have the master pick on you all the time. To care for that prince who so clearly could never return your affections.” She laughed. “This was never about a boy, Ryiah. Ian was charming and handsome, yes, but it was more than that. I was your friend, too, and you didn’t even have the decency to talk to me after it happened. Not once. Maybe I could have understood, but you never gave me a chance.”
I looked down at the ground, shame-faced. “I don’t expect your forgiveness. I just needed to let you know what I did back then was wrong and I’m sorry. I meant what I said. You deserved better.”
Lynn resumed her drill, and I took that to mean the discussion was done, but then she raised her voice, pausing.
“We won’t ever be friends again…but thank you, Ryiah.” She gave a resigned sigh. “I can respect your apology.”
I wasn’t ready for my own Candidacy. Not after what had happened to my twin in Restoration. Not after watching a series of prisoners tortured for the sake of entertainment. It didn’t matter that Combat didn’t need prisoners since the candidates were fighting one another. I had no enthusiasm anymore.
Had I not feared the king’s wrath, I would have withdrawn. But I couldn’t. Lucius had heard Darren and me talk about competing several times over the Crown’s progress to Montfort. While the kingdom might not know I had changed my mind, the king would, and he had made it perfectly clear what my missteps would bring.
You get the moment you were always waiting for, and you don’t want it anymore. Irony, in every sense of the word.
Now every Combat candidate—regardless of rank—was crammed into the tunnels listening to the judge detail what we could expect for our tourneys. There were eighty-one of us in total. Far too many to be at their best potential. I could see some participants that were past their peak, and I memorized those faces in hopes I could use it to my advantage.
“Alliances happen, but make no mistake: the second you trust a friend they’ll betray you on the field. Happens every rank. The melee is a battle to the end. There will only be one winner.” The man’s brow furrowed. “You are encouraged to surrender should a fight grow precarious. Should you fail to speak the ever so sensible word there is a possibility we will be finding a corpse before the healers can treat you. Deaths are most common in Combat because so many candidates find themselves unwilling to surrender when they should. If you are unable to speak you must raise both hands, palms forward, to indicate surrender.”
Some of the candidates began to murmur amongst themselves. Ella gripped my hand tightly, no words necessary. She was—if it were possible— worse off than I. She had already put her name on the Combat roster the first day of the Candidacy. She’d wanted to withdraw after what happened to Alex, but both of us had been too afraid the king would have someone checking the lists.
The tunnels were bright—a long row of torches lined each wall and two gaping holes revealed sunlight at either end of its mouth. Darren, who had been standing next to me for the judge’s speech, retired to the back soundlessly. I saw him pass Ian on his way over, eyes momentarily meeting, but then he just glanced away.
The non-heir had other things on his mind. Like winning. Something I had wanted so desperately, but it was hard to recall now.
I saw other familiar faces. Lynn was here, standing off to the side with another girl I’d never met, and Priscilla and Tyra were closer to the front of the cave, the former refusing to acknowledge Darren’s or my presence.
I adjusted the leather straps of my vest—they pinched against the skin of my arms—and watched as Ian found Loren, Ella’s old mentor during the apprenticeship, and the two sidled up to where we were standing.
I half-expected Ian to comment on what had happened to Alex. My brother was his friend too. But the mage said nothing, just gave us a smile and cocked his head in Darren’s direction. “Your betrothed looks a bit nervous today.”
I forced a nod and Ella cleared her throat.
“Think that makes all of us.”
“I saw Lynn earlier,” Loren added. “She looks good.”
Ian and I cringed—we had both wronged the girl in our past. Ella was the one to speak. “Byron underestimated her. She shouldn’t be fifth-rank. But I suppose it’ll play out well against the others in her melee. Byron only gave Lynn that rank because he hated women.”
“Well then, that’ll make me a winner in fourth.” Ian was met with confusion. “Come on, you three, have a laugh. Byron hated me just as much as Ryiah, which makes me much better than the other fourth-ranks, yes?”
Ella and I tried to make ourselves smile, but it was almost worse.
“Alright, I can see the two of you are too nervous to talk. Loren, how about that wall? There. Away from our favorite princeling?” Ian dragged our Loren away with a chuckle.
“So that was awkward.” Ella glanced at me as soon as the boys were out of hearing distance. “What ever happened in Ferren’s Keep? I thought the two of you were friends.”
I shook my head. “We are but…it’s complicated. I never got to tell you but—”
“FIFTH RANKS. YOU ARE UP. OUT ON THAT FIELD. NOW.”
I watched Priscilla, Lynn, and Tyra hurry out onto the field with ten others of their rank. The audience’s shrieks were deafening. No faction was more anticipated than Combat.
We weren’t allowed to watch the other ranks’ melees, but we could hear them. And we could hear the crowd chanting each winner’s name. Fifth rank went to a young woman named Gwyn, fourth rank to another unknown named Argus, third rank, much to my disappointment, did not go to Ella. It went to a young man, Rowan, who’d been a fifth-year apprentice when Ella and I had been second-years.
Second rank was called and Loren wished me luck. He was one of the twenty first-years still waiting to go. We had nineteen second-years. Darren’s eyes met mine briefly across the way and his lip twitched, a half-smile forming along his mouth.
“No luck?” I whispered as I passed him.
“You don’t need it.”
The first thing I noticed was the sun. When I stepped out into the arena I could feel it beating down my back, blistering against the crystalline glass of sand that crushed beneath my boots. It was midday and the glare was almost directly over the stadium.
I walked the five minutes—the arena was that large—to the stadium’s center with the rest of the second-rank candidates. Everyone was dressed in similar fashion, tight leather vests and loose trousers for movement. Some—like me—wore fitted armguards, or in two cases: shoulder armor. One even wore a full chest plate—something I sincerely believed they were regretting now that they were out in such a humid arena.
As I was studying the other candidates, I realized two things. One: I was the only girl in the lot. Thanks to Byron’s legacy of bias he had never awarded a good rank to any female in his time serving the apprenticeship. I was the only exception—not because I was the only girl worthy, but because it was I who had finally drawn the Black Mage’s attention to Byron’s injustice.
Two was Merrick, Priscilla’s younger cousin. Somehow that insufferable boy had finished his ascension one month before and been awarded my same rank. Considering his lack of skill, I couldn’t put it past the training master to have awarded him the rank on purpose. Byron had known my old mentee would get under my skin.
And he did. “I know we aren’t supposed to make alliances, but the judge can hardly punish us for going after the girl. She’s the weakest. We all know Byron only gave her our rank because she was betrothed to the prince.”
I was mere seconds from ripping his face off. Merrick knew Darren hadn’t proposed until after the ascension. But disputing the truth would get me nowhere.
Still, listening to some of the older men chuckle at the boy’s joke was pushing my patience. I pretended to be oblivious, listening to the herald announce the candidates. His voice rang out in the arena thanks to a mage’s assistance.
“So, Ryiah, how does it feel knowing you are going to lose?” Merrick’s voice broke my meditation, and I saw the blond mage grinning.
“How does it feel knowing Byron only gave you this rank because he knows how much I loathe you?” I spat.
“Ohhhh!” Merrick raised his hands in mock surrender. “The girl got mad. Watch out, everyone. She’s going to get us!”
My hands formed fists in reply.
“CANDIDATES, PLEASE TAKE YOUR PLACES ALONG THE ARENA. NO LESS THAN FIFTY FEET APART. IN TWO MINUTES WE WILL BEGIN THE TEN SECOND COUNTDOWN.”
I began my jog toward the edge of the stadium. I wouldn’t reach it, of course, but there was no point in keeping such close range with the others. Perhaps some of them would battle it out before they reached me. I wasn’t sure if everyone else planned to follow Merrick’s scheme, but I wasn’t about to risk it.
I was still jogging as the countdown began. Putting as much distance between myself and the others as possible. Impatience and a restless rage were pumping through my veins. As the herald declared “ONE” I realized Merrick had done me a favor.
Because now I wanted to win.
I can do this. I made it this far. I can do this. I repeated the mantra over and over in my head as I watched the other candidates start sprinting across the arena, each trying to get a quick layout of the field without actually engaging in battle.
I noticed more than a few of them looking for “the girl.” I knew this because I saw one point to me when the judge was looking the other way.
Well, two could play that game. My eyesight had always been better than most, and I could make out the oldest mages in a small triangle formation at the left side of the arena. They might’ve had too much pride to acknowledge their declining potential, but they were almost certainly lacking in brains to be clustered together for the taking. I couldn’t be the only candidate who had noticed their age.
I wasn’t. I kept one eye on my side of the arena as I watched a pack of five candidates approach the older ones from their front. No point in trying to hide their attack. The arena was a desert. There was nowhere to run.
The older candidates didn’t stand a chance. I watched two call on their magic as the other fled. It was the smartest move that one could make—to win the Candidacy with gray hairs on your head you would have to conserve as much magic as possible.
I didn’t have much opportunity to reflect. At that moment I spotted Merrick and another trailing mage at my left. There was another on my right. I had two choices: let myself get backed into a wall fighting three mages at once, or take my chances and run toward the stadium’s center and pray there wasn’t a collection of candidates awaiting my approach.
I chose the latter.
“You can’t run from us forever!” Merrick’s screech followed me as I tore across the sand.
I ignored him, putting all my effort into the gapping distance between. My lungs burned from inhaling small grains of sand I kicked up along the run. I paid them no heed. Instead, I forced my attention to the casting I would need most: defense.
The globe went up not a moment too soon. Seconds later there was the sharp whistle of metal on wind, and then three subsequent thuds against the back of my shield.
My casting shuddered but held, flickering violet in waves as the candidates’ javelins bounced off its surface. A moment later their weapons were gone; the mages had called off their castings.
I kept the shield up as I jogged toward the center.
The ground quivered beneath my boots. That was the only warning I had.
I dove toward the left, rolling hard on my side and blessing the arena for being sand instead of the marble training floor of the king’s palace.
Two seconds later a fissure broke out—not two feet from where I had come. It spread across the arena’s floor like a wildfire.
I hadn’t been the only target. In seconds there was a web of shallow tunnels. I could hear muffled shouts as unsuspecting candidates got caught unawares. The pits weren’t deep enough for anyone to get stuck, but they were enough to give several others an advantage in the moment.
I stifled a chuckle as I pushed myself up off the ground. That was a casting I could respect. It was hardly the type of magic to win a match, but it was smart. The older mages in Ferren had stressed the importance of conserving magic and that was far more strategic than Merrick’s rapid fire of javelins (which were still hitting my shield as I ran). Idiot. He would run out of his magic far too quickly.
A shout to my right and I veered left to narrowly avoid two candidates who had stumbled into my path as they dueled with a sword in each arm and a shield at their backs.
Someone jumped out at my front and my first instinct was ice. White tendrils of frost tore up his blade and the burly mage was forced to drop his weapon with a whimper. I didn’t bother to stick around and engage—the center was too open.
I sprinted past. A minute later I heard another man’s cry of victory as he claimed the other’s surrender. Then another shout of surprise as that man got caught unawares by another.
I ran around a cluster of three mages engaged in a battle of their own. Each one of them was wearing a globe like my own, but I could already see their shields showing signs of exhaust—the deep magenta had faded to an almost crystalline violet. They would have to call off their magic soon or resort to pain casting, if they had it.
There was a clap like thunder and my casting threw me forward. I stumbled, palms and knees skinning the sand as my casting shuddered and died. I felt a wave of heat rise up at its absence as the sharp, bitter scent of singed hair assaulted my nostrils.
“T-told you c-can’t run!”
I cursed bitterly as I pulled myself to my feet, hardly daring to mourn the loss of my dignity for more than a second. Merrick and his friend were now throwing great balls of fire across the sand, huffing and puffing as they ran.
Fire? In an arena of sand? Overconfident fools. Every time they missed, their castings went out the second they hit the floor. Not to mention the boys’ aim was beyond sloppy. I called up another globe the second I caught my breath and focus, but it was hardly needed.
Still, I was getting tired of the chase. I could run like this all day, but it was clear Merrick wasn’t going to stop. I had figured I would lose him to others but the boy just wouldn’t give up. Even if he was slower and weaker, I had to take him out. Sooner or later someone else would try to engage me in a fight, and I couldn’t have Merrick as a distraction. Already he had caused me to lose focus, twice.
It was time to fight back.
I kept running my random course back and forth down the field until I was sure Merrick and I were far enough from the worst action at the center of the arena. I looked to the stadium wall, panting, and then turned my back to it, facing the highborn pest.
“Let’s do this,” I growled.
The boy stopped running, hand raised for another fireball, great globs of sweat dripping from his brow as he paused. He couldn’t hear me, but something must have shown in my eyes because I saw him take a step back.
This is for the mock battle in Port Langli. I dropped my shield and my magic shot out like a bird of prey, a harsh whirl of shadow and the glimmer of metal in the sun.
For a moment his shield held, and then my sword broke the barrier and embedded itself in Merrick’s side. Another soared across the sand and the mage raised his arms, shouting surrender before my blade had even reached its target.
I dropped the casting before it could finish. Both blades disappeared and the boy collapsed, clutching his wound with a gasp as a red-robed healer raced out from our side of the arena.
I wondered if any of my family had watched me just win my first bout. The audience faces towering the stadium seats looked to be little more than tiny specks of yellow and brown in the hazy afternoon rays.
I cried out in surprise as a sudden, biting pain tore across my thigh. I just barely managed to call upon my shield as a storm of arrows rained down from above. My casting flickered and held while I examined my leg with an angry self-lecture. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why had I let my vanity get the best of me? I should have thrown up my shield the second Merrick surrendered, not preened like some foolish first-year over her first victory.
I gingerly pushed on the shaft, testing the arrow’s depth. Ow, ow, owwww. It had embedded itself deep. And it burned like someone had stuck a white-hot poker into my flesh. Perhaps they had. It wasn’t uncommon for mages to heat arrowheads before firing. It took more magic to cast, but if they hit, the cut was more effective than without.
The searing pain was enough to make me bite down on my lip, hard. I had plenty of practice with years of injury and pain casting but that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt. And the skin around the entry was already starting to swell. There was no way I could pull the head out without making the injury more at risk for infection, or bleeding out in the field which was a worse fate than the first.
Which means you are going to have to fight with the arrow in. It was on my right leg, too.
I looked up and watched as three candidates appeared clutching bows—for the moment, not shooting. They didn’t need to just yet. I already knew what they were going to do, what I would have done if I were the hunter instead of the prey.
They were going to corner me against the wall. Shooting a quick glance to my left I saw two more approaching. Five on one. The odds were not in my favor.
I tested my weight on my leg and cringed. There was no way I could run fast enough to cut across the right in time. Not limping and hobbling like an old woman.
The leg was not the worst place to get shot, but it sure would have been nice if they hit my arm instead. An arm didn’t stop me from running.
Well, I had been saving my magic for a reason. Running away for the first fifteen minutes had kept me from expelling as much magic as the others. I hoped the ones cornering me had used a lot.
“All to her barrier!” one of the men shouted. “Break it!!!”
I dug my heels in and held as the five mages threw out a large gust of fire. The crackle and burn of flames against my shield while it slowly faded lighter and lighter. I would not be able to hold on forever. I could already feel the raging heat warming my flesh.
I couldn’t get cooked alive, but fortunately for me the others’ fighting had weakened their stamina quite a bit. A minute before my shield shattered their casting receded.
I did a quick intake of my surroundings, preparing for the next attack. My opponents were on their last bit of magic and whatever casting they chose next would be intended to end our little standoff. I could see the two to the left had chosen a sickle sword and a mace. They were farther away than the others. I still had time before they drew close enough to attack—and I could tell they were wary to approach with the three at my front lest they become additional victims to the others’ tally.
The three at my front were the true competition. If the four of us were lined up I wouldn’t even reach the shortest man’s shoulder. Not to mention the sheer bulk on the center mage—he was at least the size of my brothers. His arms were as thick as my legs. I prayed to the gods my magic held out long enough so I wouldn’t have to find out how hard he hit.
Frankly, I prayed to the gods I made it out of this corner with any magic at all. It was all I could hope that they ran out of magic first.
From the discreet glances they were shooting one another I could tell they were reluctant to cast more magic as well. Probably because they knew they still had to fight one another after they finished with me. The man at the end took a step forward, and then they traded another set of cautionary glances.
Then they charged.
I sucked air in through my teeth.
Every casting that crossed my mind would only reach two opponents at a time, but as a slight breeze drifted across the arena my dilemma was solved.
A bit of dirt rose in the air, and my hand shot out in front of my face. I closed my eyes and called on my magic to join. Not only was sand an actual component to the arena—meaning it would cost me less magic to use—it was everywhere.
Then I pressed down on the arrow’s shaft at my leg.
Sharp needles of agony exploded across my thigh. Pain and magic tore at my will, two savage beasts clawing and grasping for control. It felt like a thousand knives gutting my mind at once.
I took a deep, rattling breath and shoved them back, slamming my vision into the ravaging chaos with everything I had. My hands were shaking and sweat was stinging my eyes but I held on, bending the torment to my will. The darkness shuddered just once, and then suddenly all was quiet, an eerie sense of calm rushed out as my casting took hold.
A spinning funnel rose up from the ground. A plague of golden debris and wind, faster and faster, higher and higher, until it was a storm of its own.
I held my ground, heels digging into the earth, a couple strands of hair escaping their hold, and I watched my tempest give chase.
“She still has magic!”
“Get out of her range, Kai!”
The others froze. No one wanted to get caught in a sandstorm that would blind them to their allies’ attacks. The two at my left started to flee, but the three at the front threw up a defensive sphere.
With the twist of my wrist the particles slammed together and melded with ice, my casting as solid as rock. Then I lobbed it at them. With every bit of concentration I had, I threw my granite wall, and then watched as their casting shattered like glass. The impact so great it sent the three sprawling backward into the dirt.
Run-limping forward, I set my projection to break.
A raincloud of sand rushed down on their heads, giant swells of dirt blinding while I cut our distance in half. Coughing and sputtering, they tried in vain to stand and draw up a new casting in time—but their magic was weak and they had more than one enemy to contend. By the time the haze had cleared three hovering blades were pointed at their throats.
I paused, one hand outstretched, as I locked eyes on my three victims. The metal quivered but held.
Slowly, white hot anger burning in the cores of their eyes, one, two, three sets of arms rose in surrender, palms forward. They didn’t bother to speak the words.
I shot a quick glimpse to my left and saw the two remaining mages engaged in a bout of their own.
Now was my chance at escape.
I started toward the right, skirting the edge of the stadium. A moment later a gut-wrenching cry rang out behind me. When I peeked back the taller of the two was on the ground, blood pouring from his side as he whimpered the words for surrender. The other didn’t bother to bask in his victory, like me he was already limping away, sporting a burn that ran up his arm and half his chest.
Two of our six still in play. I wondered how the others had fared in the rest of the arena.
It became my next objective to find out. I was hard-pressed to engage now that I was on my last bit of stamina, and my leg was almost unbearable the more I moved. Pain casting had been a smart decision at the time—I didn’t have enough regular magic left, but now my whole body was throbbing in agony just from the effort to stand. Walking—or limp-running—was even worse.
I took a deep breath and headed toward the center. I needed to get a better idea of how many were left.
Six. After five more minutes of wary approach I counted five left, and me. And all of them seemed to be conserving their magic or hiding. Somewhere in the last fifty minutes of fighting we had gone from nineteen to not even a third of our original total.
Five. That was all that stood between me and becoming the best second rank. Of all.
The sharp whistle of a throwing axe, and I chastised myself for the momentary distraction. I threw up a hand and let my magic loose, a shield not a second too soon before the wedge could embed itself in my flesh. You know better, Ryiah.
One of the mages had drawn closer since the last time I looked. And he still had magic.
The man threw another axe, and I deflected it only to have the ground cave out right underneath my feet.
I struggled to catch my balance but my injured leg roared in protest. It went down and the rest of me followed. My balance was off and the slippery sand sent me flying on my back.
The mage took off at a run, and as I tried to push myself up off the ground he sent another rush of magic that slammed my head against the sand. My vision blurred and every part of me ached as I pushed up onto my elbows just as he closed in, magic casting an iron grip against my throat and another on my limbs.
“Surrender,” he said.
Clearly, the young man had been conserving his castings.
I pretended to mutter the words, squabbling gibberish that wasn’t hard to fake. Not when I was choking.
He drew closer, cautiously. One casted dagger in hand.
A couple steps closer and then his russet eyes hardened. “Surrender, now. Or I put this blade into your ribs. I won’t ask you again. Raise your hands if you can’t speak.”
He released my arms from their invisible chains just far enough to lift. I could feel them vibrating, softly. His magic was waning.
I bit down on my cheek until I tasted blood. My casting sent him careening to the sand a couple feet away. His magic lost its hold, and I shot up and lunged. Pain was just a distant memory as I threw myself at the mage, a knife in hand.
The boy scrambled to rise and call up on a magic of his own when I was seconds away—but nothing came. His whole face was white and pooling sweat by the time my blade was against his throat.
“I…” He coughed up blood, and I realized he was already bleeding heavily from a couple wounds at his sides. He’d had the good sense to bandage them with strips of his tunic and cover up underneath his mail, but now I could see why he had been so desperate to use magic to keep me at bay. “I s-surrender.”
My knife vanished from my fist, and I quickly pulled away, gingerly shifting my leg as I stood. It was then I noticed the arrow was gone. Huh? I ripped off the hems of my breeches and wrapped them around my leg as tight as I could. I had barely made it two feet away before I saw two red-robed healers hurrying over to treat their newest victim.
There was another healer on the other side of the arena, half-carrying a different candidate—the one with the burns who was now bleeding heavily from his head. That explained my arrow’s absence. But it also meant pools of blood were now seeping through my makeshift bandages every moment I stayed in the arena. A good blow is not what usually kills an opponent—it’s a loss of blood. My stomach started to turn and I looked away, breathing deeply through my nose.
Four of us left.
I could see the three others from where I stood. A tall mage with black braids, dark skin, and a limp was farthest away. A bit closer was a stocky man in a full set of chainmail and leg plates, even a helmet. He had to be sweltering about now. The two were eying each other, but so far had made no move to attack.
The closest was a young man one hundred yards away who was bleeding heavily in—well, I wasn’t sure where exactly; he was coated in sand and blood and clutching a wooden shield to his chest—the easiest defense, and also the weakest.
If no one else was going to lead the attacks it was going to have to be me. Time to make it three.
The throwing daggers whizzed through the air faster than my breath.
One caught the bleeding man in the shoulder, the other in the leg. Magic sputtered in front of him—the makings of a blast of fire—but it extinguished before it crossed even half the distance between us. The mage crumbled, and I skirted forward, watching as he tried again only to have the flames flicker and die at the tips of his fingers. He swore at me, raising his palms in surrender.
The other two met my eyes across the stadium as the announcer declared yet another candidate down. They had started to inch closer during my attack. All of us knew victory was bare minutes away.
I waited, gulping heavy drags of air in an effort to prepare. My lips were cracked, and sweat was pouring so hard and so fast that I had to keep wiping it away lest I go blind.
The wound in my leg? It ached worse than any injury I had ever encountered during my apprenticeship, possibly even more than that dagger to the ribs during the battle as a fifth year in Ferren. That had only lasted a couple minutes before I lost consciousness—this had lasted thirty minutes and counting. All my movement had tugged and pulled at the head so that my whole thigh was shiny red and tender at the slightest touch. I was quite sure with my pain casting earlier I had scraped against bone. The pain was even worse because it was only increasing every time I moved.
I thanked the gods my constant pain casting had increased my tolerance to bodily abuse.
When they got close enough to pause, the three of us made up a triangle—an equal distance apart.
My gaze flicked to the limping mage first. His expression was fierce and despite his limp I knew he wasn’t out yet. The second man was still inscrutable and deadly. Now that we were on our last limbs of magic he had the best defense with his armor because it didn’t cost him anything to keep it.
I swallowed. If the armored mage had lasted this long despite his lack of agility then his magic had to be great, his stamina even greater.
My eyes flicked back and forth between the two, my fists ready to cast at the slightest attack. A movement caught my eye and my chin jerked, ever so slightly to catch the limping mage’s wink. He did it one more time, and then I casually returned my stare to the armored mage who was shifting from one foot to the next, no injury that I could see.
I prayed it wasn’t a trick. After all, it made sense. We could waste our magic battling each other, neither keeping enough to challenge the armored mage on our own. Or we could both take him on first, and then let the best mage win.
Please, please don’t let this be a trick.
Magic shot out of my palms at the same moment as the other. The armored mage threw up a sphere not a moment too soon—but cracks crept across, snaking trails of purple across his globe, and then the shield vanished and our castings sent him flying back against the sand.
The man struggled to rise, clunky mail making the stand difficult as twin bolts of ice shot at the two of us. One ball of fire from the black-haired mage deflected one as I sent up a gust of sand to overtake the second.
Back and forth our magic danced. After a couple quick bouts the armored mage dug his blade into his flesh. There was a ricocheting boom that echoed across the arena as the black-haired mage and I collapsed to the ground, spheres up just in time before a hot wall of fire cut across the gap.
I held back another cry as the bandage cut into my thigh, clinging to my casted shield with the last of my regular magic. The moment the wave passed my shield fell, and I pressed down on my wound, sending a set of three war hammers slamming against the armored mage’s chains. The black-haired mage set his magic with a mace, and two of our castings pounded into the armored mage’s flesh.
Chainmail might protect against sharp blades but it did not prevent a blunt but powerful force.
The armored man roared a surrender after his next pain casting barely charged—dying before it even reached the air. His magic had run out, and he wasn’t in a position to outmatch two of us still with magic.
I barely heard the announcer declare his loss. My eyes had flown to the black-haired man and his to me.
And then there were two.
This was it. I was so, so close. Every bit of me was crying out in pain as I pushed myself to stand; I could see he was struggling to do the same.
For a moment neither of us moved. He cocked his head, studying me as I studied him. The mage was definitely older—but not quite thirty if my assessment was correct. He was slimmer than most, and if he had survived this long he had to be my equal in agility and strength. He was down to pain casting just like me—and neither of us was faring well. His skin was clammy and red and he was shaking just to stand. I could see blood seeping through his bandages; blood was streaking down my leg.
That didn’t stop him from casting, and it didn’t stop me.
Our castings collided. His ice melded with my sand, and I snorted as the cluster dropped like a pile of crumbled debris between us. Clearly we had our favorite moves.
He scooted closer and I followed suit. This time neither of us chose a casting until we were barely fifteen feet apart. He knew his limits—well, so did I.
Another flare as this time I cast flying daggers and he arrows. Both of our castings fell as we threw up shields that crumbled the barest second after deflecting one another’s casting.
I couldn’t help but notice he had been digging a finger into his wound as I had pressed down on mine. Pain casting and we were already at our second limits. I bit down on my tongue as I added pressure but a wave of sickness roared up in its place. I bowled over and the other mage seemed to have a similar effect.
Our magic was gone.
I sucked in a deep breath and charged, every bit of me crying out as a fist feigned right and my leg swept at his feet. The man anticipated the move and caught my leg with both hands and pulled—causing me to stumble—before jerking back and throwing his weight forward so that I lost footing and fell to my back.
My hand had shot out and grabbed onto one of his long braids. When I fell the man came crashing down on top of me. The blow momentarily knocked the wind from my lungs and then the two of us were rolling and struggling in the sand.
When he had my hands and legs pinned—he was a bit heavier—I wriggled with all my might. Before the mage could make his hips and chest parallel to mine, my fingernails clawed desperately at the sand. I managed a small wad and shut my eyes and mouth just as I lobbed it at his face. The granules barely reached—my aim was severely hampered by the positioning of my wrist—but just enough took flight to catch in his breath. He started to sputter, and I thrust all my weight to the side, rolling with all my might until it was me on top of him.
I choked on my breath as my arms started to shake violently while he fought my grip. With his weight he had the clear advantage, and my arms were always my weakest strength.
He would win. He would outlast me in this, and then I’d be back on the ground, his victory at hand.
No. This couldn’t be it. Already I was losing hold, my muscles screaming out in pain as the numbing pain in my leg echoed their call and begged me to quit.
I clung to my resolve and fought against every quivering fiber, refusing to let go of the victory so close at hand. The man shifted and squirmed, his eyes alight with a vigor I refused to accept.
My muscles contracted, and he flipped me back to the ground. One hand pinned my defenseless wrists, his other reaching for my throat.
“No.” I whimpered the word, and the man squeezed, hard. I choked as the pressure increased and pain lanced across my lungs. A searing heat was ripping at my chest and my skin was afire, every single bit of me raging as he continued to press. My teeth chattered violently as I gasped for breath.
You came this far, no one ever expected you to win anyway.
The shuddering halted as a sudden, biting pain seemed to claw its way right out of my flesh. A jarring flash and then the abrupt pain—and the pressure on my throat—was gone.
When the dizziness faded I was able to push myself up with both fists and elbows digging into the ground for support. What I saw—it sucked the joy right out of my breath.
The other mage was sprawled out in the sand not five feet away. His limbs flailing up and down, eyelids fluttering and expression blank, as his lips flapped in some meaningless words. There was nothing natural to his bodily tremors.
Then I noticed the red marks on his palm, feathering down his arm like a snake. Master Byron had explained those symptoms before, though I had never seen them in person: lightning.
The heavy vibrations, the pain, the heightened emotions.
I’d been wrong. I’d still had magic.
We weren’t so equal after all.