The arena sings with energy. A dozen kids thrown in together and told to fight until only one person is left standing. Ranging from thirteen to eighteen these are the best students the school has to offer. Hundreds of people are in the stands watching the students as they scramble about wielding swords and spells. This battle and the people watching it will determine the futures of the students. Very few of the students know this, many assuming it is just another training exercise. Along the sidelines there are medics and teachers with intense looks on their faces.
The battle rages around me. Magic spiraling in the air and clashing in colorful explosions. Flames shooting past my cheek, a sharp sting followed by a radiating warmth. I snap my head and survey the direction the spell had come from, eyes burning like a fire had been lit behind them. No one seems to be paying me any attention but I can feel the press of the magic around me grow closer. I flick my right wrist, the gold and silver bangles that reside there clinking together at the motion. Light expands around me, blocking out everything for a brief moment. When I am able to see again it is through a fuzzy lens with muffled sounds and only a dull throbbing as the barrier ripples whenever a spell is cast. Through the haze of my shield I can see the students who have been knocked out dragged away by medics shrouded by magical cloaks and taken to the holding pens on either side of the arena. One passes close to me, her cat-like eyes sharp. I wave with a sheepish smile as she raises a judgmental eyebrow. Her hood shifts as the ears hidden beneath it twitch. She walks on without comment, though offering no would lead to my disqualification.
A tremor starts up, shaking the ground. My barrier begins to crack. Jagged lines forming along the surface. I scowl, upper lip curling back to reveal sharpened canines. I leap back just as my shield shatters, glass-like shards flying outwards and striking nearby competitors. I skid across the floor of the arena, kicking dust up behind me. There are only three people left after the last round of spells, including the explosion of my shield, and all eyes are on us. My competitors' eyes are on me, confusion bright in them. I can understand why because, to them, another fighter appeared out of thin air. Taking out at least two others as they did so. The ring of magic fades and we are left standing in silence.
Like me, my competitors are dressed in the school uniform; a long sleeved white shirt and brown pants. The classic adventurer's garb. A throwback to those who had founded the school hundreds of years ago. To the left of me is a young blonde haired girl, far closer to thirteen than eighteen. Her cheeks are puffed out and painted pink, her ocean blue eyes narrowed. Clutched in both hands is a bone wand, an arm with the hand still attached. Held within the hand is a large sapphire that is glowing faintly. To my right is a classmate of mine, a seventeen year old boy with short black hair and wide brown eyes. He is holding a short sword in one hand, a shield strapped to his other arm. I can see the hilt of his bastard sword where it peaks up over his head. I tilt my head to the right and feeling the long silver earring on the lobe swinging to hit my jaw. I reach up slowly, watching my competitor's carefully, and rest the first two fingers of my left hand on the gold bar going through top of my ear.
"So," I call out, startling everyone. Up until now, ever since the match was declared, no one had spoken in the arena. I felt all eyes on me, their weight heavier than the magic that had been in the air. I suppress a shudder at the attention. I force a friendly smile onto my face. I keep my left hand on the bar and reach out my right to my competitors.
"How about we put away our weapons and call it tie. That way we all win, yeah?" I offer. My classmate seems to consider my words, relaxing enough that at least his sword arm rests by his side. The girl scowls and stomps her right foot. The sapphire's glow brightens and the ground begins to shake again. My classmate drops his shortsword and throws off his shield, reaching around and grabbing the bastard sword from his back. He slams the weapon into the ground causing rocks to shoot up in a jagged line towards the girl.
"Guess not," I mutter bitterly. I lower my hand. Light tremors radiate from the rod in my ear, echoed by the silver chain below it. A hum of energy. I purse my lips and whistle. The air in the arena begins to stir. I sweep my left arm behind me, bend it, then snap it in front of me, palm facing out. A blast of wind knocks my opponents off their feet. I draw my arm back and up, brushing a finger over the gold bar in my ear. Lightning crackles at my fingertips as I pull my hand away.
When I wake up it is in an unfamiliar bed in a dark room. I sit up, groaning at the throbbing in the back of my head. My bangles are laying on a small table next to me, along with a glass of water. I pick up my bangles first, sliding them over my right wrist and smiling at the familiar resonance of metal against metal even as the sound sends another spike of pain through my skull. I curl my hand around the glass and bring it to my lips, drinking the water greedily. I sigh contentedly and gently place the glass back down. Careful so as to insure it does not make a sound. I look around me, at the other empty beds neatly made up and placed along the walls. Large curtains hang from the ceiling between every bed. The infirmary. I yawn and rub my eyes before laying back down. Rolling onto my side causes another twinge of discomfort but I ignore it in favor of staring out the window on the other side of the room. There is a line of cherry trees outside the window, their flowers illuminated by the light of the moon they are hiding. I curl my hands into my chest and suck in a breath. The world warps around me. The bed beneath me melts away. Everything shifts and changes until I am no longer in the infirmary but my own room. In my own bed. I hear my roommate shift in bed, obviously having sensed the magic.
"Arden?" she calls out. I hum in response, relaxing my arms and allowing them to slump so my hands were brushing the opposite elbows.
"What are you doing here? You're supposed to be in the infirmary," she says, worry heavy in her voice. I make a nonsense noise in the back of my throat and open eyes that I had not known had closed. I hear my roommate get out of bed and move over to mine on nearly silent feet. I see her crouch down so her golden eyes are level with mine. I blink a couple of times, my eyes adjusting. When they open with the last blink I can see as well as any cat in the dark. Without the hood I can see her ears perched above her hairline, beautiful and silvery above a sea of inky black.
"You doing okay?" she asks. I nod slowly, unwinding one hand from the warmth of my blankets and reach out sluggishly bat at my friend's ears.
"You're pretty Kendall," I slur. Sher raises an eyebrow for a second time that day at me. Her eyes narrow and her ears begin to lay back against her head, a sign of irritation.
"And you, my dear, are hopeless," she replies, gently taking my hand in hers and tucking it back under the blankets. She then presses her hand to my forehead and her eyes light up.
"Rest," she orders, her ears snapping forward. I can feel my eyes glow in response before Kendall's magic takes effect.
The next day Kendall leads me through the school's winding corridors to the headmaster's office. The walls are a deep red with dark oaken pillars marking the four directions. Pictures of past headmasters in gold frames line the wall behind the desk. The current headmaster is in front of his desk, leaning against that desk. His eyes are a dark, nearly black, green that seem to pierce through me. I shrink backwards and briefly consider going back to my room. Kendall, as always, knows exactly what I'm thinking and grabs my arm to hold me in place. I shift uneasily in her grip but settle down quickly due to her influence.
"Now that you are here we can begin," the headmaster says. His voice is drum deep and I can feel it move my bones.
"Finally," I hear from the other side of the room, and jump, noticing for the first time the other two people in the room. The final two competitors from the arena. To my left once again is the young girl, her skin perfectly pale. Her deep blue eyes are staring at me, annoyed and judgemental. My eyes flicker to the bone wand strapped to her thigh. To my right is my classmate, bastard sword and shield on his back, shortsword at his side. His arms are crossed over his chest, relaxed. His brown eyes are soft with concern and I give him a tentative smile. He returns it easily and I can feel myself relax again.
"As you may or may not know the battle yesterday was no mere training exercise. It was a test and you three surpassed expectations. And for that you are graduating early," the headmaster begins. The surprise in the room is palpable.
"However there is one more thing you must do," he motions to something on the desk and we crowd in after a few uneasy glances at each other. An old looking map is laid out on the table depicting the country as it was once. Before the wars that split it apart. The headmaster indicates a region in the northern part of the old kingdom, deep into the territory held by the country's biggest threat.
"There is thought to be a tomb here that houses a beloved king. We found documentation that implies a powerful artifact was also laid to rest in this tomb. The King has asked us to send a small scouting group out to verify this. We agreed that students would overlooked, while trained soldiers can be spotted by equally trained eyes. It will be your final act as students at this school. After that you will be allowed to enter into the King's services if you so wish," the headmaster says.
"If we survive," the girl adds. The headmaster turns to her and she looks back steadily. The headmaster bows his head.
"Yes, if you survive," he agrees. I shake my head.
"No thank you," I speak up, breaking from Kendall and backing away.
"Sadly this is not something you can just opt out of," the headmaster refutes. A whimper escapes me. The headmaster's eyes soften minutely. he gives me a sad smile and nods to the woman next to me.
"Kendall will be joining you three to supervise and provide support if and when you need it." My eyes flicker over to her and she bows her head in greeting to the other two as they look at her as if seeing her for the first time.
"I thought you said that trained soldiers would be spotted?" my classmate asks. The headmaster opens his mouth to speak but Kendall is quick to interrupt.
"I am trained as a medic primarily and as an empath secondly. Most will not even notice me and if they do they will assume me to be a slave," she answers. Her voice is colder than I am used to hearing.
"Well if we are going to be working together, as it appears we are forced to do so, I would like to know your names," the girl speaks up. She straightens her shoulders and looks at us as if we were below her. "My name is Marjorie D'Lanet." I blink.
The D'Lanets are an old family dating back to before the Split. Old and powerful, perhaps the richest family in both money and magic. Also keepers of the carefully guarded secret of necromancy, a dangerous school of magic that means death no matter the intentions of the wielder.
"A pleasure, Lady D'Lanet, I am Branson of Ravenwood," my classmate replies with a charming grin and a bow. Marjorie appears startled by his friendly demeanor and looks to the headmaster as if asking for direction. The other man merely smiles back and the young girl returns her attention to Branson with a curtsey. Suddenly all eyes are on me and I can feel my cheeks heat up. I shake my head and black hair falls over my eyes choppy waves. I feel a sharp tug and my hair returns to its more natural form, short and spiky and not at all conducive to hiding. I level a glare at Kendall who stares back at me neutrally.
"Arden," I say quickly. I duck my head. "Just, Arden." I hear a snort from Marjorie feel my blush darken. The headmaster clears his throat.
"Now that introductions are out of the way you can get ready. You are leaving in three days. Prepare anything you may need for spells," he pauses and looks at Marjorie, "but you must pack light. You must be careful not to get noticed. We can not help you once you are over the border." I nod along with the other two until we are dismissed. Kendall stays behind to talk to the headmaster as we leave, Marjorie stomping out ahead of us and disappearing down the hallway. Branson and I watch her go.
"I've always wanted to go on a proper adventure," he says after a few moments of awkwardly standing in front of the headmaster's door. I turn my head to look at him incredulously. He smiles and shrugs.
"Grandfather would always tell us stories of his adventures when we were kids. It gave me ideas," he explains. I remain silent, lifting one shoulder up almost helplessly.
"Well, I'm going to go, tell my family I'll be gone. Probably not the details but. You know what I mean. I'll see you later Arden," he tells me and begins walking away again. I look back to the door once more before I start retracing my steps back to my room.
I sit down on my bed feeling lost. The bangles are heavy on my wrist. My earrings like weights forcing me to the ground. I want to run. To hide. I could do it, if I really wanted to. Kendall would be able to find me, I'm sure. Her empathetic abilities the only way this school has been able to keep me for so long. Dangerous. Unpredictable. I let myself fall backwards and heave a sigh. I want to leave, but not in the way that it has ended up. I twist my right wrist into the sheets of my bed. The faint tick of them knocking together makes me smile. A watery, bitter turning down of my lips. My eyes slip shut as the world gets blocked out. I fall asleep with magically dulled senses. Surrounded by one of the two things that have kept me alive for the past eleven years.