Mia went rigid at the cool touch of steel against her throat.
“Dead,” Vander said, staring at her down the long blade of his sword.
Mia bared her teeth and knocked the weapon away with a hand, “Again.”
Vander backed off a few feet, boredom evident in his unhurried stride, and stopped with his feet planted shoulder width apart. Mia turned the sword in her hand, liking the sound of the blade cutting through the air. She sank into a ready position. Thirty heart stopping seconds later, Mia was on her back, Vander’s sword poised to gut her where she lay.
And so it went.
They’d been at it now for over an hour. A long, brutal hour of pain for Mia and growing frustration for both of them. Mia had yet to land a single hit, never mind win a round. It was a miracle that she was still able to stand, let alone hold her sword after the beating her arms had taken. Vander was to thank for that. Mia wasn’t so prideful as to deny it, even if it did make her skin crawl to admit it. To herself.
His insistence on pushups and sit-ups, planks and other exercises Mia didn’t know the name of—or particularly care to—was paying off. She could feel herself getting stronger. She could see it in the not so obvious ways her body was changing, becoming leaner, more wiry. In the few weeks since they’d started, muscles had begun to form where there had been nothing but skin and bone before. How long, Mia wondered, until she no longer recognized the person in the mirror?
Jake would be impressed. He’d tried often enough to get Mia to go to the gym with him. Pestered her to let him train her. Mia had never gone and maintained that walking everywhere was all the exercise she’d needed.
At the thought of her friend, a pang of homesickness swept over her—just as Vander sprang into action. Mia deflected two powerful strikes with the flat of her blade, gritting her teeth against the bone rattling impact of his weapon on hers. Her arms screamed in protest as she lunged for him with a two handed jab to the ribs. Vander flicked her blade away as if it were no more than an irritating fly, and swung at her head with blinding speed. Mia ducked, just in time as unforgiving steel hummed through the air a hair’s breadth from her skull.
Mia feinted to the right, hoping to throw Vander off before springing to the left. A second too late she realized that he was waiting for her to do just that. The world slowed to a series of freeze frames. Vander’s eyes glinted as Mia fell for his trap—he shifted his weight—turned a shoulder in—twisted so that she went hurdling past—stuck a foot out at an odd angle.
She went sprawling, arms thrown wide and hit the ground with an earth shaking impact. Iron bloomed in her mouth, blood flowing from a deep cut in her lip made by her teeth. Breath tearing out of her, Mia scrambled to raise herself onto her hands and knees, sword clutched in numb fingers. Something sharp jabbed her in the spine, between the shoulder blades and Mia went still.
“Try not to sound so smug.” Mia said, her words a thin wheeze of air as she tossed a dirty look over her shoulder at Vander.
“How about you provide me with a challenge?” Vander said, his voice straining with temper as Mia laboured to get her feet under her.
“How about you shut up?” Mia ground out, her own temper fraying.
She didn’t have time to do more than lift her sword as Vander struck at her. Her weapon went soaring out of her hand a second before a wall of solid muscle and unbridled anger slammed into her. Mia’s neck snapped forward as her body went flying backward.
Mia blinked up at Vander, her head spinning in nauseating circles after smacking it on the ground. Through a fog of pain Mia saw Vander’s lip pull back from his straight teeth as he sneered, “Are you even trying?”
The words were a whisper, “Screw you.”
“What did you say?”
Slowly, Mia lifted her gaze to those eyes, green and cat-like, shining with a deadly light, and accepted the dare. “I said, screw you!”
Pain lanced through every bone in her body, every artery and blood vessel, every nerve, as Mia seized her Power and screamed. A ball of flame roared into life, spearing through the air towards Vander—and hit an invisible barrier. The fireball exploded on impact, wicked tongues of gold and red shooting out from the centre, passing over the shield of shimmering air Vander had cast in front of himself.
When the flames cleared, Mia knew she had made a terrible—terrible—mistake.
There wasn’t so much as a smear of soot on him, not a single lock of golden hair was singed or out of place. Eyes like fiery emeralds burned with ire in a face of granite, all sharp lines and dark shadows. He’d taken a single, unwilling step back, forced to yield beneath the assault of her Power. He now claimed that ground back, his massive body seeming to swell with rage.
Ancient. Powerful. Dangerous.
The words clamoured through her bones, turning the marrow to liquid and then to ice in recognition of the otherworldly creature that stood before her. At once young and old beyond comprehension—the air around Vander hummed with astounding Power. Mia felt it, the pull of that Power, beckoning her toward it like a magnet.
Her stomach turned over.
A horrible gurgling was the only sound Mia made as a band of pressure clamped around her neck. Her eyes went wide, her hands flew to her throat, fingers meeting with her own skin.
Their eyes locked.
“Did you really think that would work a second time?”
Mia kicked her feet out as the invisible grip around her neck tightened and pulled her bodily off the ground. She struggled, eyes bulging, ears roaring with the sound of her frantic heartbeat, clawing desperately at her throat until she felt the warm trickle of blood winding its way down her neck.
A vein stood out across the smooth plane of Vander’s forehead, the only sign of strain in his expression. “Do you see now how outmatched you are?” He asked in a voice full of deadly calm.
Mia couldn’t feel the ground beneath her feet anymore.
“How weak you really are? How powerless?”
Her vision was getting foggy around the edges.
Panic had Mia reaching for her Power, the pain of using it blending with the excruciating ache in her lungs. Her flames glanced harmlessly off Vander’s shield, the same as the bursts of hard air Mia threw at his head from every direction until she could no longer see clearly for lack of air.
Tears poured down her face, over checks and numb lips. “P—p—p—pleaa—”
“I could snap your neck right now and there would be nothing you could do to stop me.” The noose tightened for emphasis, and Mia’s vision flickered.
The chokehold around her neck loosened suddenly, and disappeared. Sweet air flooded Mia’s senses with a single life giving breath and then she was falling. A weak bark of pain tore past Mia’s lips as her knee caps drove into the earth, her full weight behind them. She tumbled forward, one hand wrapped around her throat, where Vander’s Power had been, the other thrown out to brace her fall.
Mia fisted her hand in the long grass and gulped one glorious mouthful of air after the other, gasping and retching, hacking and coughing, every agonizing breath bringing life and feeling back into her body. Even as she concentrated on breathing through the unbearable tightness in her throat, Mia was painfully aware that the clearing had gone utterly still around her. Not even the wind dared to run its fingers through the heavy branches of the trees.
The image of her face swam in and out of focus, reflected back at her in the blade Vander fit beneath her chin. Mia flinched at the cool bite of steel against her skin. She didn’t resist as he tilted the blade, forcing her to look up at him. The sun burning brightly from behind him cast Vander’s face in shadow and set his golden hair ablaze. Mia’s eyes burned at the sight, fresh tears spilling over her cheeks to mingle with those already spent.
Teeth flashed in a cruel mouth, “The next time you try something like this you would do well to be better prepared. I will not be so gentle a second time.”
The blade lingered a second longer, and then it was gone, Vander with it.