The mage survived. His name was Hadrian, I found out later. Lightning strikes, as the healers reminded me post-melee, hardly resulted in death if treated. My casting had only hit his palm. As far as injuries could go, it was quite possibly the best one he could get.
We spent the rest of the day being treated with the rest of the candidates in the local infirmary. Extra healers had been hired for the week of the Candidacy, so even though we had eighty-one injured by the time Darren’s party arrived, every one of us were treated by no less than two healers a piece.
I was so tired that evening that I hardly remembered a thing. Except that the prince had also won. Not that I had ever expected anything less.
Before the sun had even finished making an attempt through the hazy morning sky, the final candidates were escorted to the special candidates’ box. A section of seats reserved for the five best ranks and the Three Colored Robes.
A judge met with our group to go over the day’s schedule. Not one of us spoke. We listened as the man instructed us on how to proceed.
Each rank’s winner would challenge the one from the rank above. After the match concluded both candidates would be taken to the infirmary where an anxious staff of healers awaited. The next match would begin as soon as the winning candidate from the previous match was treated.
Most of our day—and the audience’s—would be spent waiting for the matches to start. Now that each round was a duel, the contests took no more than an hour at most; healings, on the other hand, could take several hours—even with several healers working at once—to complete. Each winning candidate had to be at full strength and stamina before entering into their next match.
“No visitors!” The judge barked at a crowd of squabbling highborns that had attempted to push past the guards. No one was allowed to converse with the candidates until after the day’s event was over. Too many bets had been placed and the stakes—though obviously in favor of the prince—were too at risk to have some sneaky spectator try to pay off a contestant, though I doubted it would work—all five of us had spent too much time training to let it come to that.
The fifth and fourth-rank candidates were called away to begin.
The judge came to escort the contestants with a pair of guards. Their expressions were equal terror and excitement. I noted that neither looked more than two years past Darren and me.
The loud rumblings of the audience quieted to a hush. It was as if everyone had taken a collective breath at once. The hazy sky—still unbearably hot—mirrored the abrupt mood, dark and light clouds dancing against the hazy morning sun.
Darren’s gaze flitted to mine, and I swallowed hard.
And so it begins. My stomach coiled, and the little food I’d managed to force down threatened to rise. I pulled my feet onto the bench and rested my forehead on my knees, arms wrapped around my legs.
A hand pulled my clamped fingers apart. I didn’t need to look up to register the sudden weight beside me, or whose thumb was now pressing against my palm. The heavy pounding of his pulse matched my own.
He didn’t say anything, and neither did I. We just watched the stadium. And we waited.
Twenty-five minutes. That was how long it took me to outlast my fifth-rank opponent in the arena.
I didn’t even have to resort to pain casting. Gwyn had been overconfident after winning two matches against the fourth-rank, Argus, and the third-rank, Rowan. She was good. Much more deserving than her fifth-rank status Master Byron had so cruelly proclaimed. She’d advanced two ranks—more than any Combat candidate had ever managed to do in the Candidacy—but she lost to me.
My match the day before had made me more aware of my surroundings. Toward the end of our duel it had started to sprinkle—just a light misting of rain, but one I had embraced in my castings. I’d funneled enough to evoke a quicksand-like patch in the ground, and Gwyn hadn’t noticed it until it was too late.
While she had struggled to free herself, I’d managed to break through her defenses with an onslaught of magic—essentially forcing her hand. She’d surrendered—the both of us bleeding heavily from our injuries in the arena.
I’d endured a broken arm, a burn down the side of my stomach—so intense that the slightest wind had me convinced someone had taken a tray of hot coals and thrust them against my ribs, and a deep wound at the shoulder thanks to a throwing knife I had failed to deflect.
Gwyn’s injuries had been worse.
“Is she fully well?” The judge pushed through my crowd of healers and his sharp eyes bore into my own. “How are those injuries, Mage Ryiah? Have you already tested your magic? Full stamina?”
I nodded. My fingers were trembling, and I thrust them in my lap. There was no point delaying the inevitable. The team of Restoration mages had put me through a complete recovery both physically and magically—all within the course of three hours.
The burly man turned to the healers, and they affirmed I was ready.
“Good. I don’t want anyone saying a prince of the kingdom won because his opponent wasn’t up to potential.” I cringed. Clearly the judge had already placed his bet. “Brenner, tell Godwin to bring His Highness around to the second entrance, I’ll have Rhett escort her to the first. Make sure the announcer knows we are ready.”
With the flap of his long black mage’s robe he was gone. The healers handed me a new set of fighting garments to change into out of my clean shift. When I had finished, I stared out at my reflection in the mirror.
Supple deerskin boots that rose to my knees, skintight breeches of some stretchy material that allowed me the same freedom as my sleeveless top, a fitted leather vest that showed more skin than it hid, and arm guards that tied around my wrists. All candidates were given the same garb for our final day—no armor was allowed in these rounds. The only difference was the men went shirtless: something the women couldn’t quite replicate on the battlefield.
I quickly braided my hair down the side. The plait I’d had the day before at the top of my head had come loose too easily, a down braid would hopefully be much easier to keep.
Gwyn walked up behind me—she was still in her shift and there was still a slight limp to her step. I swallowed, wondering whether she would wish me luck or misfortune after I had robbed her of the second-rank title.
“If it can’t be me, I hope it’s you.”
I whirled around to thank her and her eyes crinkled. “Don’t let the men get all the glory. It’s our time to wear the robe.”
I started to speak but Rhett—who had arrived and noticed I was finished dressing—took my arm and led me away before I had a chance to properly thank the mage.
I had to jog to keep up with the tall guard whose normal gait seemed to be a sprint, and by the time we had reached the primary tunnel blood was soaring through my veins—almost enough to distract me from the crippling anxiety that was beating at my chest.
Up until now I had managed to all but ignore who was waiting for me at the other side of the stadium. But then the announcer bellowed his name.
I could hear the raucous screams and cheers from the spectators like a giant clap of thunder.
“DARREN! DARREN! DARREN!”
The thick clay walls were shaking from the stomp of thousands of feet.
And then it was silent.
“Best of luck, my lady.” The guard walked me to the edge of the tunnel and then looked my way. “My sister was a second-year apprentice during your last year with the prince. She convinced several of her friends to bet on you.”
My tongue stuck to the back of my throat, and it was a great effort to swallow. “And you?”
“The prince. But I do believe you will give him a run for my gold.”
“Thank you, Rhett.”
“Good luck, my lady.”
I strode out into the night.
Hundreds of cheers cut the air as I emerged from a tunnel of darkness to a somber violet sky. Rolling black clouds were speeding across the expanse, and I could barely make out the stands, bright blue mage’s orbs lining the rows against a sea of shadowed faces.
Tiny sapphires of water poured down like glittering tears and made wet sand stick to the bottom of my boots as I ran. Thunder groaned and heaved, stark flashes of light sliced above like a waiting knife. The summer storm that had been brewing all day was here.
By the time I reached the center I was slick with sweat and rain, every inch of me alive.
The prince stood facing me, not fifteen feet away—dark garnet eyes and hair as black as coal. Droplets slid down his bare chest as he regarded me with the crook of a grin.
“It was always you,” he said.
“TEN SECONDS, CANDIDATES! TEN. NINE. EIGHT…”
I gave Darren a shaky smile. “May the best of us win?”
“FIVE. FOUR. THREE…”
“They already have. But, yes…” His eyes danced, a streak of crimson in a shadowy night. “May the best mage win.”
“ONE. AAAAAAND BEGIN!!!”
Twin blasts of power crackled and soared.
A brilliant flare lit up the whole arena as our castings shot out against the night—and then an awful ear-shattering screech as the brute strength of our magic collided. The sheer force of the impact sent the prince and me airborne, soaring back against the sand. Back, far, possibly a hundred and fifty feet between us when we landed.
I hit the ground with the air knocked out of my lungs and my whole back smarting from the unexpected blow. Darren’s magic was more powerful than any I had ever come across. I had never hit his head on—not with the full force of an unrestrained attack. And now that I had, I wasn’t eager to repeat the act again.
Funny, the two of us chose the same casting as the last time we fought.
My palms braced against the sand, and I leapt to my feet, kicking up a spray of dirt as I scrambled back up with a casted pole in the fold of my fist.
I relaxed the muscles in my arm and pushed off, right foot forward, metal edge of the javelin tipped slightly down as I sprinted down the way, counting the number of steps with my breath.
I could see Darren favoring an elbow as he also pushed up from his fall, his whole face a shadow across the gap. He was slower than normal.
The balls of my feet bounced along the stride and I sped up, letting the pole fall back to a full arm’s extension as my right heel touched the ground and my left foot rose and fell, my shoulders aligned with Darren’s direction.
Then I let the casting soar.
The pole whistled across the air, and I stood rigid, my mind focused on keeping its course against the heavy lilt of rain.
The prince ducked and threw up a soldier’s timber shield, catching my javelin as easily as an arrow. The speared point absorbed into the wood and then dissipated as I released my casting with a bolt of power from my left.
He countered my attack with a thick beam of ice—drawn from the falling rain—that shattered and splintered into a thousand tiny shards.
Darren raised his hands to the sky. The clouds twisted and tore and I braced myself for an attack, swallowing down a gasp of shock. A torrential downpour of pellets rained down from above. Hail shot at me like an army of rocks, fist-sized lumps of crystalline ice that blinded me in their assault.
The storm of ice bounced as they hit the sand, hard. A cry fell from my lips as they violently pelted the sphere, the shield vibrating from thousands of tiny bits slamming the globe at once. I couldn’t see out from my casting—the arena looked like a battle of stars. Arrowheads of milky white shooting in every direction, hitting the sand with a spray, hitting my defense with a crack.
I could barely hear. The noise was deafening. With each numbing crash the casting echoed, and it was all I could do to hold my casting as I squinted into the onslaught beyond.
Where is he? The pellets were nasty little things, but they were hardly the attack I would expect. It has to be a distraction.
There. A flash of light across the way. I couldn’t tell what it was, but it didn’t take much to guess: Darren.
I released my casting—not wanting to waste any more magic now that I knew he was far enough away—and then started toward the stadium wall.
My boot caught on a pellet in the sand and I tripped—
The biting sting of metal slicing through flesh caught the top of my right shoulder in a searing cut. The dagger had only narrowly missed my back because I had stumbled forward at just the right moment.
It was a trap. I didn’t have a chance to bandage the wound as I threw up my globe, blood streaming down my vest like little rivulets of red.
Darren was behind me. The light had been a trick.
The hailstones vanished and the rain returned, and I spun around just in time to see Darren charging my shield—a mace and chain in hand.
Then he leapt.
The spiked iron ball battered the barrier, and my heart slammed against my ribs.
He did it again. And again. Violet veins streaked down the surface of my casting and I stood there, holding my breath. The purple was fading with each subsequent attack.
Darren was going to shatter my defense.
I needed to find a way to counter his attack before it did, or the match would be over before it had truly begun.
An offense was a mistake; I was too close, and I would be the one caught off-guard when the barrier lifted. I needed to put some distance between us.
I hadn’t wanted to expel this much magic right off the start. But I should have realized with Darren I didn’t have a choice. They called him the prodigy for a reason and this wasn’t a game.
This was what I had trained for. All those years of pushing myself to the brink. Neglecting friendships for a glimpse of power. This was it.
Holding onto my shield I dug deep into myself. Calling up two powerful castings at once was something I could never have attempted during that first year at the Academy, or even successfully as an apprentice.
Just beyond my shield the ground erupted in a quavering tremor and the earth trembled and heaved. A giant fissure spilled out right under the non-heir’s feet.
Darren’s eyes shot to mine in surprise as he staggered and fell. The mace and chain vanished before it could hit his chest.
Couldn’t do that last year, could I?
I dropped my shield and sent him sprawling back with another raw burst of power. I’d been tempted to use lightning, but the casting was too risky in an arena filled with flying water and sand.
That bought me just enough time to tear up a quick makeshift bandage and tie it around the pit of my arm to the neck to stop the worst of my shoulder’s cut. Then the prince was recovered, sprinting back with a dexterity that bespoke years of our iron-willed masters’ training.
I cast a broadsword in one hand and waited.
His blade met mine with a resounding smack. I sucked in a breath as my shoulder throbbed from the hit.
Back and forth. Up and down. Cuts every which way were met with a parry of his own. I swiped up and to the right, Darren’s blade swung down at my left.
I spun to the side just in time to avoid a slash to my ribs.
The two of us were circling in the sand, studying the other for a break in defense. His pupils were so wide his eyes were almost black—sweat and rain were stinging as my own locked on his.
Darren brought his sword down on mine—
I pulled away and countered with a sharp cut of my own. He danced to the side, the corner of his lip twitching up, dark locks plastered to his face. Thunder rumbled across the expanse and Darren lunged, bringing his weapon down on mine with all of his weight.
I fought to hold my guard. My whole body wavered viciously with the effort to match his pressure, my shoulder screaming against the weight as he bore down on my blade. I needed to do something as I shook, but it was costing all my magic just to hold on with my casting.
Every second it was getting harder and harder and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could—
And then lightning streaked across the sky.
I shoved and his sword gave tilt, the flat end catching just the right angle… Stark rays of light shot across the blade.
Darren fell back, temporarily blinded.
But not before the edge of my sword caught his side.
And then his magic shot out like a snake. It threw me ten feet back, sprawling in the sand. My sword vanished upon impact.
I scrambled to my feet, one hand outstretched, as another bolt shot across the gap. My magic gave chase and for a moment our powers were matched—a brilliant misty blue ray in the shadows of the arena.
Then he started forward, one hand clutching the wound at his side, and my casting started to flare in and out, slowly receding with each step the non-heir took. I could feel raw power pulsating the air, and from the way my limbs were quivering I had only moments to spare before my magic ran out.
I broke off my casting and dove, my left palm slapping against the ground with a sickening crunch. A tearful cry escaped my lips, and I mourned the awkward way I fell, hating myself for not remembering my training in the heat of the moment.
I pushed off with my right hand, white-hot agony eating my shoulder as I rose.
And then screamed as an arrow lodged deep into my boot, its head digging into the side of my foot. My hasty globe rose just in time as another three arrows hit. Darren isn’t holding back. I yanked the shaft out—knowing full well I wouldn’t be able to run with it still in. The next second the arrow and the prince’s crossbow vanished, and an axe appeared in each hand.
His favorite weapon.
I didn’t have time to bandage my foot; Darren was charging forward and in seconds hacking at my globe, his strong shoulders glinting underneath the fading purple defense.
I couldn’t counter those with a sword. And my left hand was broken—my right shoulder all but aching at the slightest effort.
Time for pain casting.
I still had enough regular magic in reserve to produce a dagger in hand and pressed down against my left palm, blood trickling into the sand—the shoulder injury too far back to manage.
My sphere turned to ice and when his blades came crashing down, it shattered. Thousands of tiny razor-sharp shards shot out against the prince’s exposed skin—tearing bloody trails down his arms, his chest, and his face.
Darren’s axes faltered and my casted polearm came down without hesitation. The sickle blade made a terrible screech as it slid against the non-heir’s globe.
I attacked. Again and again, high and low swoops as hard as my shoulder could manage—I could see Darren’s defense losing color with every slash until it broke—
But as I lunged forward my own casting vanished, and I jerked to a stop, tottering. I needed the knife.
But nothing came.
The beauty of pain casting in real battle? A mage kept a knife on him at all times for just that purpose. In the Candidacy? There were no real weapons. We—I—had none.
Across the way I saw Darren’s eyes flare up in understanding. His hand raised to cast—
But nothing came.
Like me, the prince had expelled all his regular magic.
Somehow, I had always known it would come to this.
Unlike me, Darren thought of a solution faster. I had just the barest moment to register his decision before the prince’s fingers dug into the wound at his side.
Three daggers came at me at once.
They were almost here.
“No!” A nervous sweat broke as I clawed at my palm, sandy nails scraping against skin—the sensation of hot blood along the pads of my fingers almost enough to make me retch.
I was not fast enough.
Rain fell on the arena like sleets. Thunder roiled across an angry belly of shadow while stark flashes of yellow illuminated the arena.
I went down with a dagger square to the chest.
My giant burst of magic—it only swayed the last two.
“Ryiah!” Darren staggered forward and then stumbled as the sand roared up and caved beneath his boots. The last of my magic.
Two mages. Only one will win.
I was choking on air. Black, black air that I could no longer see. Everything was a shape.
Hot iron coated my lips, metallic and bitter. I clutched the blade, disbelief and fear taking hold of my thoughts. There was a strange ache building in the back of my throat, my stomach, my lungs. Like someone was pressing my chest against the flames of a fire. I screamed and I clawed, blood spraying from my mouth as I struggled to free myself from the pain.
Salty tears trailed down my frozen cheeks as strange hands fought to hold the fire in place. Raging, wild tremors took control of my limbs. Something was shredding me out from the inside. An anguish took over and every breath was like a thousand hot knives stabbing into me at once.
Hot air pressed against my ear, a familiar voice that begged for me to stay still. I whimpered and cried, nonsensical pleas as the pressure remained and the terrible darkness took over my world.
“You w-will be…” Someone else was breaking, too. Sobbing as the words became splintered and hoarse. The knives, I realized, they were killing him too. We would die together.
“The healers a-are almost here,” he begged.
Pain ripped away at my flesh, and my scream was the last thing I heard.