“Welcome back to Brakket Magical Academy for another night of mystery and imagination. I’m your host, Hank Hanson, and with me is the lovely Zoe Baxter, professor of theory here at Brakket Academy.”
“Thank you, Hank,” Zoe said, trying to keep her smile as natural as possible.
“Now,” he said, “for those of you just joining us, a quick recap of the last event and the purpose of this tournament as a whole.”
As he started speaking, Zoe started tuning him out. Not enough to completely ignore him. She still nodded her head when there was something to nod at or even commented for more elaboration on a few topics he was less familiar with.
He had shown up to several classes over the last two weeks. During the classes, he had always been silent and allowed other students to ask questions. Most of the time, he dutifully took notes. Really, he was probably a better student than half of her actual students.
After class was when the real trouble began. His incessant bombardment of questions was just too much. That wasn’t to say that they were bad questions. Some were quite good. A few even had her needing to do a little research before being able to properly answer.
It was the sheer quantity that grated on her nerves. Since he had started attending classes, Zoe found herself answering questions for up to five hours after school ended. Every single day. A time during which she was generally unable to get other work done. No grading papers. No enigma research. Worst of all, her lesson plans were going to suffer soon if she couldn’t find the time to organize.
After today’s event, Zoe was desperately hoping that he would not be returning for further education. If he was, she would have to set a time limit. A single hour outside school would have to suffice.
On the plus side, he was a lot more confident speaking about thaumaturgical matters. Once the event actually got underway, she might not have to carry ninety percent of the discussion as she had for the last event.
Zoe was still expecting to be the one doing most of the talking, however.
“Last event, neither we nor the contestants knew what the event was going to consist of. I understand that things are different this time around.”
“That is correct,” Zoe said with a nod of her head. “The contestants are currently being informed of what they are to do with roughly an hour before the event starts. They can use the remainder of that hour for whatever preparation they feel they need before the event itself will begin. That could mean brewing potions, collecting enchanted items, or simply practicing with their peers.”
“And they’re not the only ones who know ahead of time.”
Again, Zoe nodded. She reached forwards to the small table. Last time, it held a number of refreshments. Neither she nor Hank had actually consumed any. This time, nothing but a few glasses of water and a large pitcher sat on the table. In terms of food, anyway.
The centerpiece this time around was a large green crystal. Roughly the size of a bowling ball, though oblong and with sharp angled ends. Like a plumb-bob with points on both ends.
“This,” Zoe said, picking up the large crystal, “is crystallized magic.” Although the size of a bowling ball, the crystal was earth essence. As such, it was heavy. Really heavy. Zoe cheated with a little bit of air mage telekinesis to lighten the load. Had she not, lifting it would have taken both hands and a great deal of strain. Something that would be entirely unsightly for live television.
Really, whoever designed the set should have used crystallized air essence. The size would be no less impressive yet she could have balanced the whole thing on her little finger.
“It is fairly easy to make through a simple alchemical process, though they’re never made this big normally. Crystallized essence is essentially distilled magic and is used in various potions. Tonight, however, these are the objectives of the event.”
She hefted the crystal up, putting a little more show in the effort than she was actually feeling.
“This is essence of earth. It is quite heavy. Imagine a bowling ball of the same size and you can imagine the weight fairly accurately. However, it is only one of four essences in use tonight.”
She replaced the crystal on the pedestal and clasped her hands in her lap.
“Water, fire, and air make up the rest. Water is cold. Normally we use smaller crystals and they feel like holding ice cubes. One this size has a very real chance of causing frostbite. Fire is just the opposite. Even smaller ones are handled with gloves. For these larger ones, I urge our contestants to exercise caution while handling them. Crystallized air is the opposite of earth. Despite being the same size, they will be almost buoyant in the surrounding air.”
Hank reached forward and, using two hands, grabbed the earth crystal by either end. He managed to lift it, though the strain was evident on his purpling face.
“You weren’t kidding about that weight,” he said as he set it back down.
“Each of our five teams will be given three crystals, which kind will be selected randomly through a lottery draw. They must protect these crystals while attempting to retrieve the crystals from enemy schools.”
“Like a game of capture the flag.”
“With a little twist. For the first twenty minutes, only one member of each school may leave their starting location. He or she may scout out other schools’ camps and, if the opportunity presents itself, steal one or more of their crystals. Of course, with seven members from each school participating and six stuck at their starting locations, it will likely wind up as one versus six. Not the greatest odds, though if they manage to get far enough away from the camp, the pursuing school will not be able to chase the thief without disqualifying themselves.
“The six who cannot leave camp are generally expected to be constructing defenses. Traps, fortresses, pitfalls, and what have you. It isn’t required, but schools who leave their crystals lying about will likely not have the success that others will enjoy.
“Beyond the first twenty minutes, the number of students a school can field will increase by two every five minutes up until all students are allowed to leave at the thirty minute mark. Then the game begins in earnest. The winner will be determined by which school has collected the most crystals after two hours. Just losing a crystal or two does not put anyone out of the game. Though severe injuries or other incapacitations will result in a student being withdrawn for the remainder of the match for medical purposes.”
Hank rubbed his hands together with a grin. “Sounds exciting. And we’re slated to begin in just under an hour. So stay tuned,” he said, looking right at the camera. “After these messages from our sponsors, we will go through the schools and introduce the contestants.”
He held his grin at the camera for just a moment until the live light turned off.
Zoe sighed, sinking into her chair. That had been a fairly long-winded explanation. And the student introductions would just be longer.
She reached under the table and pulled out a small notebook.
At least I did research on the other schools’ students this time.
— — —
Juliana clapped Irene on the back. “There you go. You got it.”
Allowing herself a small smile, Irene stared at her earthen castle. The highest tower only came up to her knees. However, it spread out at least as wide as Saija’s wingspan.
And wasn’t it a sad thought that she was measuring things in terms of Saija’s body.
But, though it was small, it was sturdy. Kicking it with all her might only knocked off small chunks despite it being constructed from dirt. It was like kicking rock. Actually, it wasn’t just like kicking rock. Her foot stung from having kicked it so hard.
“Now let me tell you a little trick my mom does. I can only do it if I’m concentrating really hard. Not really something I can do in battle yet because I’m not good enough at water magic.”
“And you think I am?”
“No, but you have teammates. Six of them. Unless something seriously went weird, at least one should be a water mage. Or an experienced non-fire mage capable of using water magic.”
“Three of them are demons. I don’t know about the other two, but I’m pretty sure that Saija doesn’t know any thaumaturgy.”
Juliana frowned, but held up a few fingers. “That still leaves three others.”
“I think Henry is a water mage, but he hates everyone else on the team. Including me.”
Narrowing her eyes, Juliana turned and glanced around the room. It didn’t take her long to spot Henry—he was off in a corner all on his own, avoiding everyone’s gaze as he looked through that notebook of his.
“Well, I’ll tell you anyway. If he wants to play as a team, you can get him to help you out.”
As she spoke, Juliana pulled out her wand. Which Irene found strange. Juliana tended to use her rings even during class. In fact, Irene hadn’t even known that she still carried a wand.
Irene must have had a strange look on her face because Juliana shrugged. “I’m not very good at water magic. Wands are easier than rings.”
Juliana swished her wand and gave it a little flick with her wrist. At first nothing happened. Then Irene noticed dark patches spreading across the surface of the rock-like dirt castle. Some patches even began sweating.
“Any earth mage worth their salt will be able to wave their wand and collapse anything you build. You can fight against it, but then it comes down to a battle of willpower. And you have to concentrate. Not really the best thing if you’re being attacked by several people.”
Once the castle was thoroughly soaked, Juliana snapped her wrist again. Small hexagons of ice started spreading over various points on the castle. The hexagons grew, connecting with each other. The entire surface of the castle had iced over after a few seconds.
“But if you or another water mage infuses the building with water and then carefully freezes it, it will hold its shape even while under attack. Not forever, of course. But it should work long enough for you to fight whoever is attacking you.”
Testing the strength, Irene kicked at the walls of the castle again. This time, not even little chunks of dirt fell off the sides.
“The water part has to be done carefully. If you put too much water into it, the whole thing will wash away. Too little and the structure will become brittle. Freeze it too fast and everything will crack and break.”
“Sounds complicated. And not really worth it unless you’ve practiced.”
Irene glanced over Juliana’s shoulder to where Henry sat. He had actually looked up from his book to watch what Juliana had been doing, but made no move to actually come closer. As soon as Irene met his eyes, he shook his head and buried his nose in his notebook.
“And I doubt Henry has practiced much.”
“Probably. There is also a thing you can do with fire magic, but it requires making clay and then firing it like in a kiln. Takes a while. Probably not useful for tonight’s event.”
Irene shrugged. The water thing didn’t sound all that useful either. Still, she got a few tips for both quick constructions and sturdy constructions. Both should help out.
“Fifteen minutes remaining,” a voice said, echoing over the intercom system in the dueling hall. “Contestants should prepare to move to the starting area. Repeat, fifteen minutes remaining for the preparation period.”
“Well, guess that’s my cue,” Juliana said. “Maybe you can get Henry to practice with you for the last few minutes.”
“Yeah,” Irene said as she glanced over Juliana’s shoulder again, voice flat. “Maybe.”
“Everyone else is already at my mom’s house to watch the show on her big-screen.”
“Thanks for staying and giving me tips.”
“No problem,” Juliana said with a wave of her hand as she turned to leave. “Give ’em hell.”
“Oh, we’ll give them Hell alright.” Saija fluttered in from nowhere, landing just to Irene’s side.
It actually made her jump a little.
Juliana just chuckled as she walked off.
Saija offered a casual wave before she spun around and stared at Irene with the intensity of a thousand suns.
“So, I was just talking with Neuro. I wanted to be the first one to go wreak havoc on our enemies’ bases but then he called me a fool! Can you believe that? Anyway, I said I should go because I could fly and cover more ground, scout out the enemy, and return with good information all before the second group can leave. You know what he did?” She put her hands on her hips and stared.
Irene wasn’t sure if she should answer or just wait for her to continue her diatribe.
Waiting turned out to be the right answer.
“He sprouted wings!” Saija’s wings spread out as she shouted. “Big fluffy raven wings. All covered in dark black feathers. It looked really nice—not as nice as my wings, of course—but I didn’t know he could do that. He never grew wings before. And then he was like ‘I’ll be the first one out. Why don’t you be the last one? Be our last-minute reinforcements in the field and protect our base with your mighty prowess until then.’ Which sounds nice but I mean, he just called me a fool. I’m not so sure I–”
“Saija,” Irene said, placing a finger on the demon’s lips. “Calm down. Why don’t you stay with me? If you’re the first one out, we’ll be separated.”
As much as Irene hated to admit it, she was really grateful that Saija had taken a liking to her. As friendly as Saija might be, she was still a demon. And demons were strong. If Irene stuck next to Saija, she would probably be a whole lot safer than if she were on her own.
“Yeah, I thought about that. What am I supposed to do around our base? I can’t build fancy sand castles,” she said, waving a hand at Irene’s castle.
“You can protect the base from anyone who shows up. We might fall under attack early on.” She leaned in close and whispered, “You heard the rumors that Faultline and the Nod Complex were going to team up to ensure we lost this one.”
“Who said that?”
“Eva. She said it at the last meeting.”
“Oh,” she said, shoulders slumped in slight dejection. “It’s probably true then.” After a moment of keeping her shoulders slumped, she suddenly straightened her back. “Oh! It’s probably true then.” A low chuckle escaped from the back of her throat as a shark-toothed grin spread across her face. “That means two people are going to try to surprise attack us early on?”
“Ah, I guess so? They might wait for reinforcements.”
“The first reinforcements would mean six total people could attack us. If we send two people away as soon as we can, it would be six versus four.” She chuckled again and started flapping her wings. “I have to go talk to Sebastian. I’m sure we can come up with a little surprise for them.”
Saija flew off towards the sharply dressed demon.
Which left Irene on her own once again. Juliana really hadn’t needed to take off quite so early. There were fifteen minutes left. Surely she had more tips to impart. But Irene couldn’t complain too much. She had been the one to stop Juliana from heading off with Eva and the others.
Irene glanced over at Henry. He was the only one who was off on his own. Everyone else was talking with each other or obviously practicing something or other. He just read his notebook.
She had half a mind to leave him to it and continue practicing what Juliana had shown her—just because she did it once in a low stress situation did not mean that she would be able to rapidly build a full-sized fortress with all the pressure of the event on her—but maybe Juliana had a point. With ginger steps, she approached.
“What are you reading?” she asked. She had to ask. He didn’t acknowledge her on her way over and even after hovering for a few seconds, he didn’t say anything.
It still took another moment before Henry sighed. “Just information I’ve collected on Nod Complex’s inhuman students.”
Inhuman? Irene wasn’t actually sure if that was racist or not. It was true, but nonhuman seemed a better term to use. Inhuman made it sound like they were inhuman monsters, or something. She probably wouldn’t have questioned it at all had Henry not cared about all the demons around the school, but he obviously didn’t like them.
“I just don’t want to be surprised by strange magics. Apparently they have a sandman, capable of putting people to sleep with a touch. Don’t let yourself get touched.”
“I see.” That did sound worrisome. “Anything else?”
“Nothing especially troublesome,” he admitted with a grudge. “The vampire and the dryad won’t be participating. Thank the heavens for that.”
“Well, in that case, did you want to try practicing magic with me? Juliana was showing me all about how–”
“I was watching.”
Irene flinched back. This was a mistake. She should have just gone with Saija and talked with Sebastian. And wasn’t that a sad thought, that she found herself able to get along better with demons than humans. Obviously Henry wouldn’t like her. He didn’t like demons and she was friends with Saija. Was she friends with Saija? Probably.
Henry snapped his book shut, causing Irene to jump again.
“I suppose we might try it. So long as it is a purely thaumaturgical exercise, I don’t have problems with it.”
“It is,” Irene said quickly. Too quickly. “I use earth magic and you use water. Nothing else.”
“Very well.” He pushed himself off the floor, using the wall to help him get to his feet. “Build up a wall and let’s see if we can get this to work.”
Irene smiled as she pulled out her wand. She could feel the strain in her smile, but it didn’t matter. There were about ten minutes until the start of the event. As soon as it started… well, she would still have to interact with him. But there would be others around as well.
Other demons and people who had bound demons. The kind of people he didn’t like.
Slapping her cheeks, Irene shook her head. It wasn’t like he was going to attack them. Or her. They just needed to practice.
— — —
Juliana hurried through the empty streets of Brakket City. Fifteen minutes before the students had to be ready to start. Probably another fifteen minutes to draw straws for the crystals. Maybe another five to ten for them to get into position.
In other words, plenty of time for her to get home.
She wished she could teleport. Even blinking would be nice, but her mother wouldn’t teach her until she was older. How old seemed to increase with every year. It couldn’t be that difficult or dangerous. Eva had learned how years ago. Sure, she had mentioned almost losing a limb once or twice, but that was hardly a big deal. If Juliana lost a limb, maybe she could petition Arachne for one of hers.
Yeah right. Her father would never agree to that and she highly doubted that her mother would be any more open-minded.
But still, Eva only almost lost limbs. Surely she could do it.
Juliana paused and focused on an empty patch of sidewalk ten feet in front of her. She knew that theory. Books in Brakket Library held the answers to most everything she had ever wanted to look up.
Shaking her head, she decided against actually trying. If she were trying with other people around, at least she would have immediate help if she left her arm behind. Or worse, if she left her clothes behind. Brakket was a fairly dead city, but there had been more cameras around than ever before. She wasn’t Eva. She didn’t walk around naked and think nothing of it. It would be absolutely mortifying if someone recorded her teleporting out of her clothes and posted it all over the internet.
With a sigh, she continued on her way home.
Only to find her sigh catching in her throat. In an instant, Juliana’s armor turned to liquid. Metal encased her whole head and solidified into a hard helmet.
Something landed behind her with a loud clank. Something heavy and metallic. A chill ran up her spine and it wasn’t because of the cold evening air.
Juliana turned slowly.
The hunter stood behind her. The one with bright red hair and an eye patch. The one Eva had attacked on the roof. The one who, by all appearances, had been a complete invalid just a few weeks before. She stood in a suit of rough armor.
Unlike the now deceased armored hunter, this woman’s was raw and bulky. Put together in a rush and without proper fitting. There was no paint and no finish. Just rough steel and rusted iron. She lacked a helmet, though she had some kind of a molded circlet around her forehead that Juliana was sure hadn’t been there the last time they met.
“You will come with me,” the woman said, “or you will die.”
Juliana clenched her teeth together. What to do? Run? Attack? Obviously she wasn’t going anywhere with the woman. There was a crazed look in her eyes. Her wild red hair hung around her face making her look all the more deranged. If she went with the woman, she would probably die anyway.
With a brush of her fingers, Juliana could destroy the woman’s armor. Eva had said that she had three holes in her spine, paralyzing her. The armor must be holding her up, letting her move. One didn’t just cure spinal nerve damage in a handful of weeks. Especially because the original injury had been inflicted early summer. That had been months ago. She would have cured herself before launching their most recent attack.
Right. Destroy armor. Disable woman. She might teleport away as she had before, but at least Juliana would get away. Then she could warn Eva and her mother and anyone else that this hunter was still hunting. She didn’t know why she was the one being hunted, but that hardly mattered now.
Juliana charged forward.
The woman stood still for just one second. As soon as that second passed, her face changed. Her lips split straight across her face, giving her a maniacal crescent moon of a smile. Her single eye widened but the pupil shrunk to a tiny pinprick.
Her armor moved. And the woman with it.
The next thing Juliana knew, she was looking at the twilight sky. Except… she had just been charging at the woman. Wha–
Juliana crashed into the ground, rolling and tumbling twenty feet down the street. Everything ached. The liquid membrane between her skin and her solid armor acted as a minor cushion, but it wasn’t enough.
She couldn’t even get up before something gripped her ankle. Juliana found herself swinging up through the air in a high arc before having her back slammed into the ground.
Delirious laughter echoed down the street, the last thing Juliana heard as she fell into unconsciousness.