“If you’ve ever wondered at the Empire’s callousness in the face of the various institutional cruelties enshrined in so many of its functions, it is important to remember that each horrible practice is not an intrinsic part of our reality. They are, one and all, choices. Choices which were made before you were born, choices which are still being made today, and choices which will persist on and on until and unless someone chooses otherwise.”– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame
I’d been right that Kelthas could summon armor, but that had been easy to guess. What I’d missed was that the armor his magic called to him was Tantarian Battle Scourger Mail.
“Glad he blew up the flag,” the soldier I had in a headlock said.
“Couldn’t have blown us up with his girlfriend here with us,” a soldier I’d lightly stabbed said.
“You’ve never seen these Elites really fight have you?” a third soldier said. “Surprised he didn’t blow us all up on principal.
Which was not the most encouraging thing to hear at that moment.
“We done?” I asked, not letting the soldier I had grappled move just yet.
“Yeah, you’re good kid. Congrats on passing this round,” their sergeant said.
That dropped the odds they were going to keep attacking me enough that I let go of the guy I was holding and handed the weapons back to the soldiers I’d taken them from. The few that I’d injured shuffled off the field and were replaced with fresh bodies as I walked back to the stands and rejoined the rest of my small team.
By the time I got there another match was already underway and the crowd’s attention was focused on that. Kelthas had reverted to his unarmored form, and was following the once-again-visible Mellina and Yarrin.
“That seemed easy,” I said after we sat down.
“It wouldn’t have been if they kept shooting at us,” Kelthas said. “I need a good amount of time to charge up that attack, and my armor only protects me.”
“Our skills aligned well for the task,” Mellina said. “Even with orders to eliminate Yarrin, they weren’t setup with the engagement or the tools needed to deal with us.”
“You can see what happens when they are,” Yarrin said gesturing our attention back to the arena.
The team who followed us had tried to replicate my maneuver. Like me they’d avoided a fair portion of the initial gunfire. Also like me they hadn’t avoided it all. That was where the similarities ended. Of the three, two were down and trying to crawl to cover while the third was struggling forward and his hands and knees, building up a swirl of fire in his hands.
One of the soldiers hopped easily out of their trench and booted the poor fool in the head. The fire sputtered out and the applicant dropped to the ground like a dishrag.
It was an ignominious end to their trial, but given that the soldiers could have simply shot them again there was as least a spark of mercy present.
“Will you be in danger in the second trial too?” I asked Yarrin, the rest of the trial candidates holding no interest for me.
“The second trial should be more fair,” he said. “The Reaving Beasts they call are fairly random and not exactly interested in bribes.”
“Couldn’t they sic bigger ones on you though?” I asked.
“Yeah, but they can only make the rifts so large or they run the risk of something really dangerous coming through,” Yarrin said.
“Wait, they summon the Reaving Beasts here?” I asked. From what I knew, that wasn’t possible, but from the certainty in Yarrin’s eyes I was pretty sure that what I knew was fundamentally wrong.
“Well, yes. Where did you think they got the monsters from?” Yarrin asked.
“I thought this is what they usually did with the Beasts they captured when they were cleaning up the Reaving Storms,” I said.
“They don’t capture the monster that are brought over by Reaving Storms,” Mellina said. “They kill those.”
“Not all the time,” Kelthas said. “There’s a circus that comes through my town every summer with all kinds of Reaving Beasts in cages.”
“Those aren’t real Reaving Beasts,” Mellina said. “Those are creatures from outside the Empire or regular creatures with things glued onto them. Real Reaving Beasts are too dangerous to keep around. They’re closer to living spells than natural creatures and they breed Reaving Storms just by existing if they’re kept around too long.”
She was wrong but not about what people familiar with Reaving Beasts probably understood or expected to be true.
“I thought magic that broke the Soul Kindled Wards was forbidden?” I said, glancing between Mellina and Yarrin since they seemed to know more about what was coming than Kelthas or I.
“There’s forbidden and then there’s Forbidden,” Yarrin said. “If we pass these trials we’ll probably learn more than a few ‘forbidden’ spells.”
“That makes sense,” Kelthas said.”We’d need to understand the spells that can cause problems if we’re supposed to stop the people who are casting them.”
Mellina and Yarrin shared a glance. That was absolutely not the reason we would be learning forbidden spells. Kelthas didn’t seem ready to process that though so I stayed silent.
That might have been one of the times when silence was a mistake.
The remainder of the first round continued but I missed most of the other matches, being absorbed in thoughts of what the Great Houses willingly invoking Reaving Storms might mean. I didn’t like where any of those thoughts led me, but I couldn’t ignore them either.
My attention was pulled away from the dark tides swirling inside me by someone I should have been paying more attention for.
Idrina Ironbriar and her brother were in one of the last groups to be put through the first Trial. The two people they were with strolled onto the field, laughing like it was a drunken outing rather than a deadly contest. Idrina’s brother on the other hand walked calmly, taking it seriously but without any hint of nerves slowing the flow of his gait.
As for Idrina? There was no mirth in her. She marched out to their assigned spot, unafraid and unexcited. I looked for any sign that she might be concerned about the Trial but all I saw in her was poise and focus.
I glanced over at the Imperial Regulars. ‘Random chance’ had put them between the applicants and the flag, which was surprising. Ironbriar was definitely powerful enough to buy an easy placement for Idrina and the others.
The question was would she have let them? I couldn’t claim to know her at all, but I still knew the answer was ‘no’.
The whistle sounded and the match was done before its echo faded.
The rest of the applicants didn’t seem to be paying much attention to the matches but what I’d witnessed left a cold pit where my stomach had previously been.
“She was holding back,” I said to no one. Or maybe to my past self? It didn’t matter, I couldn’t speak across time, and it changed neither the outcome of the battle I’d had with her or the trial she’d just completed.
She hadn’t called a spear this time.
She’d called six of them.
In the blink of an eye she’d lunged past the Regulars, reached the flag, sliced through its pole, and slashed it to pieces with a barrage of spears leaving the remnants of it fluttering in the wind.
She hadn’t been that fast when we fought.
And she hadn’t summoned such an overwhelming offense either.
And from how she was leaving the field, I was convinced that she’d been holding back for the Trial too.
Our next fight was not going to be fun.
“She’s an unusual one,” Mellina said, curiosity flickering in her eyes. “The Ironbriar’s aren’t known for fighting their own battles anymore.”
“She seemed quite ready for this battle,” Kelthas said.
“I wonder if that was why the two others with her were so unconcerned?” I asked, not expecting an answer.
“Probably. It’s a common complaint about this test,” Yarrin said. “Some people get through just because they have a strong team.”
“And other fail because their team is weak,” Mellina said. “We’ve seen both today.”
“They’ll start correcting for that with the next test, right?” Kelthas said.
“Yeah, we’ll be split into pairs for that one,” Yarrin said.
“What will the objectives be? Beyond survival I mean,” I asked.
“They change things up from year to year, but the general theme is banishing the monsters,” Mellina said.
“And if we haven’t been taught how to do that yet?” I asked, trying to decide if I needed to murder Doxle for sending me into this without giving me a clue how to pass it.
“Oh they always have banishing spells setup in the arena before you go in,” Kelthas said. “And they’ll tell you how to work them. You just need to manage it without the monster eating you.”
“People sometimes try to kill the monster too,” Mellina said. “Occasionally it even works.”
“Will they let us pick our partners?” I asked, trying to decide if I should be the one to go with Yarrin, or if one of the others would be a better fit for him.
“Officially no,” Yarrin said.
“Which means the weak and wealthy candidates will be paired with people who are strong enough to win the trial all on their own,” Mellina said.
“How does that help them?” Kelthas asked. “If they can’t handle this trial, won’t they just wash out in the third round instead of the first or second?”
Mellina didn’t laugh in his face, but the smile she wore bore a similar intent.
“They’re not taking these trials,” Yarrin said. “Not really. They’ll go through them all but they’re here for the prestige and the authority that comes with the position. They’re allowed through with only the pretense of being tested because it’s their money that funds Academy.”
“Or because their parents are friends with someone on the Academy’s board,” Mellina said. “Most things like this aren’t a case of direct bribery. If it was, common people could save up and manage it too.”
“But they’d be a liability to whatever force they were assigned to?” Kelthas asked, the idea of gross incompetence being common place among the elites of the world apparently too painful of a concept for him to swallow.
The first round of the Trials ended and the next began without any great fanfare. If your team passed the trial you were still in the arena. If not, you were limping away, in the infirmary, or being prepared for burial.
To be fair though, the dead numbered far fewer than I’d expected among the number of failures. The Regulars had to have been taking some care with their attacks to leave as many alive as they did, though even careful shots were sometimes fatal, no matter then intention behind them.
The second round of Trials began with one of the proctors venturing into the center of the arena and casting a spell. It took him almost ten minutes to complete it and he spent the entire time reciting verses from a language native to some other world. He drew sigils in the dirt as well but his words erased them over and over again.
I could feel the power of the spell building and I could smell the hundred different scents it evoked. The proctor wasn’t casting the spell alone. He was merely acting as its focal point.
When the crafting was finally completed a dark cloud bubbled up from where the caster was standing. It rose until it filled the area to a depth of at least ten feet and from the scents I was picking up from it carried the magics from a dozen different realms.
Then I smelled the worst odor I’d ever encountered.
The first one I’d ever smelled in this world.
I fought back a wretch, and willed myself to see through the fog, trying to find the rift that I knew was open. But eyes don’t work like that.
Or at least mine didn’t.
“They’re hiding the activation points for the banishing spells,” Yarrin said. “I can help with this one.”
“How?” Kelthas asked.
“I can see where they all are,” Yarrin said.
“You should go with Kelthas if you can,” Mellina said. “Tantarian Mail dulls the senses, doesn’t it?”
“A little bit,” Kelthas said. “Will you two be okay?”
“Depends on what they summon for us,” I said. I could have tried to be reassuring, but we all would have known it was a lie.