“Those who trade in power without conscience or compassion, who argue that because they can do something it is naive to suggest that it matters whether or not they should be able to do it, they are often the first to cry foul when someone reminds them that kindness is not weakness but rather a choice, one which their actions have placed them beyond the reach of.”– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame
I think there was a moment of silence. I don’t know. My head went a little funny after Kelthas died.
He was the armor bearer.
He was the one I wasn’t supposed to need to worry about.
I hadn’t known him for more than…than what? Two minutes? Two hours? How long had we been taking this stupid exam?
He was supposed to be fine.
He was supposed to pass without a problem.
He was a shoe in for a spot with one of the Houses. One of the big houses. His power was great. Everyone wanted someone whose magic was literally ‘be indestructible’.
Except he wasn’t.
But he should have been.
Yarrin said he should have been.
No one was supposed to be able to break Tantarian Mail like that.
The black quadrant of the ring filled my mind.
It was a lie.
It was supposed to be safety.
It was supposed to be the end of the Trial.
I think laughed.
I think the people around me moved away.
He’d given up his dream.
He’d done what they wanted.
I remember thinking that and I remember the world sort of dissolving.
Everything was solid. Everything stayed where it was. Nothing changed.
Nothing except me.
“This trial is done,” the proctor said and people were carrying Kelthas away.
Kelthas was already gone.
They were carrying away the meat and bones and fluids he’d left behind.
The ones he’d spent a whole life building.
They weren’t him, he was something so much more than that, but they were still important. They were how we had known him.
“The trial is done,” the proctor said and I focused solely on him. Was he repeating himself because the crowd was yelling? Was everyone silent still? I don’t remember and I’m not sure I knew at the time either.
“For the next trial we call…”
They were not getting to choose anymore.
I leapt from my seat. The other applicants had waited for the transport disk to carry them over. I…waiting wasn’t an option.
“Me. I’m next.” I wasn’t asking or suggesting. I was giving the proctor a chance to leave.
“You were not called,” he said, searching the papers he was carrying. “Return to your seat.”
I didn’t reply to that.
I wanted him to try to make me. I wanted him to lay one finger on me. I wanted him to order the other proctors to carry me away. I wanted him to give me an excuse. Any excuse.
“No, let her stay,” the Imperial Cadet said. “She’s clearly another mongrel that needs to be put down.”
“You are not scheduled to fight this one,” the proctor said.
“Then change the schedule. This one didn’t learn from the last example, so she gets to be the next one.”
It wasn’t happiness. Happiness doesn’t shrink your vision down. It doesn’t make the world seem oh so distant. It doesn’t hunger for hot blood to wash over lips and a death rattle to ring in ears.
The proctor vanished.
Or he walked off from the platform.
I don’t know. I didn’t care.
I wasn’t waiting for the whistle to begin either.
I wanted the Imperial Cadet to be ready.
He needed to know exactly what was happening to him.
Surprise. Panic. Despair. Begging. Those were all for later. He needed to think he was ready for what was to come.
A whistle blew anyways. Somewhere far away. Beyond the mountains, across the oceans, outside the circle of my world where it didn’t matter.
I sank into a crouch. I might have been breathing, but I probably wasn’t. I was waiting. I needed to see the look in his eyes. The one that said he was sure he was going to win.
“Paralyzed with fear are you?” he said and his expression shifted, but not to the right one “Here, let me make it easy for you.”
He put his blade down, thrusting it tip first into the platform and stepping forward so that it was out of easy reach. He threw his arms wide, inviting a strike.
I kept watching him. He wasn’t there yet.
After a moment of standing there with his arms out, irritation crossed his face. He looked like an idiot. That was a small delight but not the one I was looking for.
“I see, you’re just wasting time, hoping to win by running the clock out. Well we can’t have that.” He turned and picked up his sword again.
It was the perfect moment to strike.
I didn’t want the perfect moment though.
He needed to understand that what was coming wasn’t cunning or trickery. He needed to understand that he wasn’t the predator he thought he was.
With his sword in hand, he turned back and began stalking towards me.
He expected me to dodge, or flee, or maybe even dash in with a lightning quick attack.
Instead I finally let myself look up and match his gaze.
“You should run,” I said. “If you run now, you might get away.”
I all but whispered the words, but I knew the sound amplifying magics on the platform would carry them to his ears.
“I will never run from a mongrel…”
I came out of my crouch and began walking directly at him.
I think that was when he sensed the danger he was in because he shut up mid-sentence and brought his sword into a defensive posture.
“Now this is more…” he started to say but I punched him before he could finish.
I don’t have Idrina’s speed. I didn’t need her speed though. What I needed was enough force to put a fist sized dent an inch deep into the armor he was wearing.
That knocked him back to the center of the platform and I kept walking towards him at the same measured pace I had been.
“That’s enough of this,” he said and his sword did the same strange thing it had done when he fought Kelthas. This time it wasn’t alone though. The dent in his armor vanished as it seemed to reassemble itself from tiny pieces and reform into a subtly different configuration.
He didn’t waste time with banter after that.
With a long arcing leap he brought his blade down in a brilliant, blazing path at me.
Apparently he assumed I would sit there awestruck and watch it happen.
I did not.
Stepping into his jump, I let him pass over me so that I could grab his ankle.
He did not land well.
I lifted him up by the ankle and swung him in another arc making sure he did not land well again. It was a balm to my soul to hear bones breaking. I might have been content to continue on with that until the armor I was gripping was nothing more than a well mixed bag of stew but the Imperial Cadet had other ideas.
He hadn’t lost his grip on his sword despite my treatment of him and since I was focused on reducing him to a chunky beef stock, I wasn’t paying much attention to what he was doing.
So of course he stabbed me.
Normally being stabbed in the arm will damage muscle tissue and may break a bone. It wasn’t something I was familiar with from experience but I knew the structure and composition of my arms pretty well. They got used a lot so I’d take extra care with them. Enough that I knew a single stabbing strike was not supposed to sever my right arm about two inches above the elbow.
I had nerves to scream at me about the pain, but I wasn’t available for those sorts of messages at the moment which meant all I felt was annoyance.
The Imperial Cadet was able to get away while I picked up my fallen arm and reattached it. As I knit the two parts back together the Cadet got to his feet and I frowned. Cutting off my arm wasn’t completely out of bounds. Bodies are pretty squishy, but he’d cut through the nice new armor Doxle had given me too.
It was silly to complain about that given that he’d managed to cut through Tantarian Mail but I wasn’t in a particularly rational mood at that moment.
“Ah. A form shifter,” the Imperial Cadet said. “Probably thought that was going to save you.”
I hadn’t. What I could do with my body was helpful, but I hadn’t put any thought into how I was going to survive. That wasn’t what this was about.
His armor and blade reconfigured themselves again, and it smelled terrible.
Most of what I could smell was blood. My own, his, Kelthas’, so I wasn’t really parsing what I was experiencing well but something about his magic sent a shiver crawling over my skin.
The next time he struck, he stabbed me through the heart.
Which also took out my left lung.
Which was really annoying!
I had just rebuilt both of those!
His strike was a good one. Swift. Clean. No hesitation. I probably couldn’t have dodged it even if I’d cared to try. It did have one problem however. It left his right hand within arm’s reach of me.
So I tore it off.
He was less than happy about that.
Which was delightful.
I wanted to get up and follow him as he stumbled back, clutching the torn stump and howling in disbelief but the sword in my chest was a problem.
It shouldn’t have been
I like having a heart and lungs but I don’t need them exactly.
The sword was doing something else though.
It was messing up my magic on a level I wasn’t used to.
I couldn’t tell what it felt like either. Usually magic has a smell to it and a texture if I’m touching it. This was embedded in me and it felt like nothing at all, while outside, my tactile experience of the world was wobbling and bending like an image would in a twisted mirror.
That made no sense at all to me either.
With my newly reattached right hand, I yanked the sword out of my chest and dropped it just as quickly. I hadn’t meant to but whatever weird effect it was generating my only-sort-of-functional right arm did not appreciate.
“You die for that,” the Imperial Cadet growled. “You die now.”
He extended his remaining hand and the sword flew back into it.
Because, sure, why not.
This time he came in with a crossbody slash, burying the sword through my collar bone and diagonally into my spine. It was less pleasant than I’m making it sound.
I’d had enough of him at that point though and so when I grabbed his arm in both my hands I not only stopped the blade from going any further, I shattered his elbow by reversing the direction it bent in.
“That’s…not possible. You…you can’t be doing that,” he said after screaming in a reasonably satisfying manner. We’d finally reached the begging phase.
To an extent he was right though. His sword was really messing me up. The horrifically fatal wound aside, whatever weird magic it was generating was shutting down my access to bits of my magic I actually needed.
And it was the sword doing it.
I couldn’t tell much about its magic, but that part was clear.
So I broke it.
And his armor went with it.
Even in the state I was in, that struck me as interesting.
Not interesting enough to spend any more time playing with him though. He was shaking and had lost the ability to form coherent sentences.
We were done.
Raising my hand, I let my no longer impeded magic flood through it and grow my fingers in a beautiful set of talons.
Right before I could strike though, I froze.
Which wasn’t my idea.
“Mercy now will spare you from a rich harvest of troubles later,” Doxle said. He wasn’t anywhere close to me but I heard his voice like a gentle whisper from just behind me.
The scent of ashes and lightning wrapped around me like a comforting blanket.
It was almost a sweet moment.
But then I smelled oil and brass and another spell began to strangle me.
This one wasn’t Doxle’s but I recognized it anyways.
It was the same effect the mana suppression cuffs had held.
Looking down I saw seething hatred in the Imperial Cadet’s eyes.
“No magic to save you now,” he said, completing the last gesture of the power dampening spell.
He’d jammed the stump on his right arm into the pile of his fallen armor and it had reformed into an apparently working gauntlet.
And he’d cast a spell on me with it.
And I was paralyzed by my Advisor.
“Forget I said anything. Do as you will,” Doxle said and the paralysis faded.
Before the Cadet could say or do anything else, I slammed my taloned hand into his chest.
And wrapped my hand around his heart.
He was gurgling in that moment but still alive so I shared one final piece of wisdom with him.
“You should have learned what surrender meant.”