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By Geordie Bailey All Rights Reserved ©

Action / Fantasy

Chapter 1- The Fool

The main principle of magic is drawing upon power that dwells within the body using ancient techniques. It is frowned upon to attempt new variations of these ancient techniques. It is expressly forbidden to combine magic with the abominable techniques of Technography. -'The Most Solemn Laws of Magic'- Volume II, Chapter III

Igna was, by her very nature, an aberration. Plenty of people don't fit into their workplace environment. There are those who hum as they work, and there are those who drive their colleagues to the point of crippling insanity by hogging the work supplies. These practically people might stand out from the common person with their anti-social behaviour, but even these people could not achieve the same levels of stress and disgust that Igna triggered in her colleagues simply by existing. Igna did not hum whilst she worked, she did not hog the work equipment, she didn't even ask her colleagues to sign petitions. Her list of crimes was brief, but innocuously innocent. Her origin lay in a place far far to the south of Arcania, across the sea on a whole separate continent. She was no natural prodigy at the art of magic. She was not chosen by her master for possessing noble blood. In fact she seemed to possess one exceptional quality, that would be her dogged determination to not be expelled from Crowfang Keep.

Midday light wafted through the high grand windows, cascading into the ancient stone hall and bathing it in bright daylight. The walls of the ancient hall were marked with complex patterns and sigils that had been carved centuries ago, each one must have, at one point, had a meant something to someone. However now so many of the marks had faded completely, till the message the ancient mages and druids who’d built them was lost to time.The decorations that demanded the most attention were the five larger than life bronze statues. Each standing eight foot tall, they towered over anyone who gazed upon them. Their faces were set in imposing scowls or looks of deep consideration. The statues were dressed in their finest robes of stone, their necks were hung with countless necklaces and strings of beads, and their fingers were so covered in rings it seemed impossible they could’ve closed a fist.

Igna was not impressed. She could never understand how anyone could worship the long dead Archmages, even if hundreds of years ago they had been the leaders of the Crowfang Keep. The last and newest in the line of statues was the freshest, boldest and most extravagant of all: the statute of Hardy Crowfang. His statue was several inches taller than the previous Archmages and his waist was several inches narrower. It was almost as if the man himself had dictated that he wanted his statue to be far more flattering than the previous Archmages. And as a matter of fact he had.

"Igna come watch the match!" Rang out a strong female voice. Igna slowly looked over her shoulder, and saw Hibernia waiting with an expectant gait for Igna to follow after her. Igna strutted over to Hibernia, moving with the kind of vigour she always exuded. Hibernia was standing with her back against the balcony, her arms folded sternly across her chest.

"Is it time for Liam’s match already?" Igna asked her, she stepped up to the balcony and leant over, looking down on the hall below. The arena hall was typically empty, only used a couple of times a year for this exact event: The Adept Exams. Below them the mess left by the previous match was being cleared up. Igna could tell which of the last examinee had failed the exam by the way he was bleeding from the scalp and being carried off in a stretcher. Some attendees were sweeping up the damage left from the last fight and using were their magic to repair the parts of the floor were the stone had cracked and split. At the edge of the battlefield stood a rather scrawny and gangly teenage boy of average height, his face was marred by the spots that had broken out around his chin. His black hair was loose and chin-length and his fringe fell into his eyes, compelling him to flick his head nervously every so often, only to have the hair fall back into place. He was obviously fidgeting a great deal, shifting from one foot to the other as if the floor was burning his feet, and he held his fingers close to his mouth, nibbling on his thumb.

"He looks nervous." Hibernia commented dryly. She and Liam were both apprentices to the same master; they were technically a team although Igna had never actually seen the two of them work together. Hibernia was prodigy, and although Liam ought to have been Hibernia’s peer and equal, he instead he plodded along after her, desperately trying to keep up as she surged ahead of him.

"He definitely looks like he could use some support" Igna hinted to Hibernia in her best attempt at subtlety, "I’m sure he’d love it if you’d cheer him on." Liam wasn’t just desperate to be Hibernia’s equal, Liam also admired her, and- as Igna would’ve put it: had the hots for her.

Hibernia didn’t respond to Igna’s hint in the least, instead she kept observing the goings on below her with a sort of bored interest, like when you look around in the hopes of finding something to grab your attention. Hibernia’s eye fell on the judge’s panel, a table occupied by five of Crowfang’s prestigious master’s. Most of them were grey haired and pushing fifty or sixty, after all it took a great deal of time for a mage to gather the power, knowledge and experience required in order to achieve the rank of Master.

However there was one exception to the rule: Eric Djavulen. He was a young man of about 18 years or so it was said. Rather than dress in the typical mage garb of robes, jewellery and occasionally a pointy hat for the mages who were particularly traditional. Instead Eric wore a black vest and combat trousers, clasped round his neck and draped over his shoulders was his long and thick grey winter coat, trimmed with wolf fur, which he wore like a cape. He was rarely seen without the cloak or the signet ring he wore on his left ring finger. He could’ve passed as a regular person aside from being rather on the edge of fashion if it were not for two distinct features: such as his cowlick which was a distinct platinum blond which he always insisted it wasn’t dyed. Finally his eyes, his most unusual feature of all: his irises were deep violet and when he cast magic they sometimes glowed ominously and gave the watcher the feeling that they might just be looking at their own fast approaching demise. He was the youngest Master in Crowfang Keep history, perhaps even the youngest ever. On top of all this he was also Igna’s very pushy mentor despite the fact that he was only a handful of months older than her. Eric was leaning back in his chair, his arms folded, his head slumped and his eyes closed, it looked like he might be dozing but Igna, who knew him best, knew that this was how he sat when he was waiting.

At last the room was cleared of damage and the referee who was standing on the other side of the arena loudly called out: "The next match shall begin shortly: Liam Éire Ualach will face his opponent in a duel, the winner shall be decided by the judges or the one who forces the opponent to surrender. The victor shall achieve the rank of Adept." This was followed by a smattering of applause from the mages who were assembled. Igna leant further over the bannister to get a better look as Liam shuffled over the arena, his knees trembling with fright. Eric opened one of his eyes curiously. He knew that Igna hung out with this mage quite often and that the two of them had trained for this exam together.

"What a joke." Eric heard from his left. Slowly he turned his head to the two Masters sitting on his left. "Look at him he’s trembling like a leaf" one of them muttered bitterly "I couldn’t possibly pass someone who’s such a coward."

"Humph" replied his companion "at last years’ examination he failed at even the most basic spells and was defeated within a minute." There seemed to be even more annoyance and anger in this one’s voice "he’s one of those people who are just born to be failure’s" the man explained as if it were a matter of fact, "after all the world is comprised first and foremost of the powerful and those that lie beneath them. Not everyone can become a legend; it’s simply not the poor runt’s destiny."

What a closed mind you have old man thought Eric coldly. "Whilst I’m sure you meant no harm by you idle chatter" Eric commented coolly to his fellow Masters "but the examinee can hear you."

Unfortunately it was true, the Masters had been so caught up in their chat they hadn’t bothered to keep their voices down and Liam had heard their condescending conversation. He seemed even more deflated than ever, as if what little determination he had left had drained out of him. Disheartenedly dragging his feet over the boundary of the arena and made his way over to his starting point. His expression was wilted like a flower in a drought, wilted and despairing. Liam looked around, his gaze searching around the room till he spotted Igna and Hibernia. Igna waved supportively while Hibernia didn’t move at all. Liam slumped even lower at Hibernia’s cold reception. He couldn’t imagine this exam getting much worse than this.

Igna hesitated in her waving as Liam turned helplessly away. Turning to Hibernia she confided "did you see his face? He looked miserable. Whatcha thinks up with him?"

Hibernia shrugged coolly "He probably expects to fail." She replied flatly, casting her gaze slightly closer to the arena. "Last year he failed spectacularly" she told Igna in passing as if they were exchanging casual gossip. "Master said Liam was nothing but an embarrassment to him and sacked him. But Liam persisted; he said that he was definitely going to pass this year even without Master’s training." Hiberia turned to Igna, "something makes me think that you inspired him to take the test."

 Igna raised her eyebrows, "Me?"

Hibernia nodded "Liam’s never been the kind of person who shows off. But ever since the two of you started practising together he’s slowly been getting more confident." Hibernia informed Igna. It seemed to Igna that Hibernia might’ve appreciated the change. The Liam who had no faith in himself was nowhere near as fun as the one that did. "However" Hibernia continued, turning to face the arena again "it seems that all your help may have been for nothing." Hibernia muttered, as Liam slouched at his post, his head hung with self-pity.

Igna snorted derisively, "as if! When was the last time you saw Liam work?" Igna asked cockily "since you passed the Adept exam? Since you started prepping for the Expert exam? Liam’s skills have grown way beyond far beyond what you think he can do." Igna promised. "Sometimes when the two of us spar he wins!"

Hibernia’s brow furrowed "but Igna, you and Liam are both Novice rank."

"So?" Igna replied, not catching her drift.

"Liam’s a water mage whilst you're a fire mage."


"So water beats fire! Liam ought to beat you every time not just sometimes!" Hibernia swiftly turned back to the arena "we better hope he gets an easy opponent, or else he’ll be destroyed." Hibernia said worriedly, staring at the referee who was pulling the name of Liam’s opponent out of the hat.

Igna leaned over the balcony "so we want him to draw against someone whose element is weak to water." She started to recite the elements under her breath, "let’s see there’s the element of fire and… umm… stone?"

Hibernia ground her teeth "no Igna, water is weak to stone, that’s basic stuff."

"Whatever. So he wants to face a fire mage, right?"

Hibernia sent Igna another dirty look "Igna including yourself how many fire mages do you think are in this coven."

Igna shrugged "well I don’t know everyone here so-"

"There are two." Hibernia hastily cut in "there are only two fire mages in this entire part of country."

 Igna smile shrank suddenly "and that other mage would be-"

"Archmage Crowfang, yes" Hibernia cut in, finishing her sentence for her yet again.

"Oh well." Igna decided, leaning over the edge of the balcony yet again, her grin back on her face “in that case you should be glad he’s only going up against some water mage.”

Hibernia cast Igna a curious look “how do you know that?”

Igna drew a pamphlet from her pocket and showed it to Hibernia “well a lot of people were placing bets on the matches and I…” Igna’s eyes darted around nervously “...was just passing by the betting pool, when a bookie gave me the odds for Liam’s match.”

 “So you were gambling.” Hibernia summarised, giving Igna an unimpressed glare “very, well who is Liam facing? What are the odds of him winning?”

 Igna nodded happily “oh he’s up against a real monster, a guy named ‘Rippledancer’. The bookie gave Liam odds of 1-11 odds of victory. The bookie said you’d have to be mad to place a bet against Rippledancer since he’s a natural born prodigy, only been training three years and he’s already ready to take the exam.”

 Hibernia buried her her face in her hands “Liam’s screwed Igna” she moaned despairingly, “Rippledancer will kick his ass and then where will Liam be?”

 Igna rolled her eyes at Hibernia “come on Hibernia don’t be so melodramatic, Liam’s improved loads since you last saw him. Remember he was out training with me for two months.”

 Hibernia shot Igna another despairing look “oh I am so relieved, the dead-last has been training with the second-to-dead-last.”

 The referee’s voice rang out yet again: "The person who will face Liam Eire Ualach is Henry Anima!" The hall broke out into a solid wall of whoops and cheers as a young man strode confidently into the centre of the hall, grinning widely and encouraging his many fans in the audience to keep cheering him on. He was dressed in expensive ruby red robes with golden lining. His dress sense was so extravagant it was topped off with a broad brimmed cherry red hat with an ostrich feather sticking out of it. Whoever this challenger was he’d already won the prize for style.

 Igna ignored Hibernia and the roaring crowd and began to make her way towards the stairs, heading down to the arena and into the heart of the action. As she reached the top of the stairs she turned back. "Liam’s only in this situation because he wants to work on a team with you again. Did you ever think of that?" Igna challenged Hibernia.

 Hibernia hastily cast her face away from Igna. She could feel heat rising to her face and didn’t want to be seen. She felt her throat was constricting itself with embarrassment. Just for a moment Hibernia glanced down at Liam down in the arena, and for the first time he seemed both very small and very alone "Why would you do something stupid like that?" Hibernia sighed under her breath.

Liam felt like he was being trampled by the applause, the roaring cheers that raised Henry on a pedestal made Liam feel like as insignificant as a germ, squirming on the floor of the arena. I shouldn’t have agreed to do this. He fretted, nibbling anxiously at his thumbnail. I should have listened to teacher and waited till next year, I’m not ready! Desperately Liam searched about for a sign of his Master. Perhaps Master came to give me some advice; perhaps he’ll give me a strategy that can help me beat this guy. But his Master was nowhere to be found. The great Richard Vestal hadn’t shown to his apprentice’s exam. Perhaps I should surrender now. Liam considered, Master wouldn’t count that as a defeat, right? It was a futile hope, but it was one Liam was going to risk taking. He recalled what Hibernia had told him once when she became impatient of his failures:

 "Just give up Liam." She’d sighed exhaustedly as a he failed yet again a simple task. She had her face half buried in her palm, with one eye lazily peeking out at him from between her fingers; the other eye was closed as if it had fallen asleep from boredom. "Listen Liam…" she carried on "I’m going to give you some crucial advice: when you're facing an impossible scenario sometimes it’s better to save face and give up than keep trying and be humiliated."

 Liam took a deep breath, that’s what I’ll do, he resolved. The moment the match begins I’ll put up my hand and say “I surrender.” At least then people might laugh at him for being a coward but they wouldn’t mock him for being weak. Liam nodded at the referee, if he was going to be humiliated he might as well face it with his chin up. The referee caught Liam’s nod, nodded in return and then beckoned for Henry Anima to come forward.

 Igna sidled up next to Eric, sinking down to his level so they could talk face to face. "So what do ya’ know about the guy Liam’s about to fight?" Igna discreetly whispered into Eric’s ear.

 Eric met her eye and leaned close to whisper: "Henry Anima, a magic prodigy from a wealthy family. He joined the coven last year just after the last Adept exam. I’ve never seen him in action but I’ve heard he’s pretty tough stuff. In fact he’s already gotten himself a nickname: Rippledancer. They say he’s so graceful that he can dance across the surface of a pond leaving only the smallest ripple."

 Igna nodded, he did sound like a tough opponent for Liam. "But what do you think of him?" Igna whispered, keeping her voice low and quiet.

 "I think he’s a bit of prick." Eric replied, shrugging his shoulders disdainfully. "When it comes to the field of battle it doesn’t matter whether or not you can dance gracefully or not. It simply comes down to whether you’re strong enough to still be breathing once the dust has settled."

 "Sometimes I worry that you're not all there Eric." Igna muttered quietly to him. "If this guy’s not much of a threat then surely Liam’s got this in the bag."

 Eric shook his head, closing his eyes once again "listen to that crowd Igna, this guy’s made a lot of friends. What’s more see the two judges on my left…" he paused momentarily as Igna leaned forward and saw the two Masters who had laughed at Liam. "...I’m pretty sure that pretty boy over there bribed them a lot of money to vote in his favour." Eric said this coolly but Igna got a faint idea that Eric was in fact seriously peeved by the Masters corruption.

 Always the optimist Igna didn’t seem perturbed by the news. "That’s fine" Igna told him cheerily, not keeping her voice down anymore "even he did bribe those scumbags as soon as Liam wins the fight you and the other judges will have to pass him."

At the word scumbags the two bribed judges turned to glare at her with silent fury and Eric squeezed his eyes tighter shut and began to rub his temple, nursing an incoming headache.

 "I guess you have a lot of faith that Liam will pass." Eric murmured as the other Masters turned their attention back to the match that would begin any moment now. Eric opened his eyes and met Igna’s "is this blind faith or does he really have the skills to win?"

 Igna sly smile shone out like the rising sun, "Eric, I’m not sure if he has the skills to win. But I’m absolutely certain that he has the resolve to win."

 "Let’s hope your right" came a voice from behind Igna’s back. Hibernia was stood there grumpily, her body language said it all: It’s not like I care about the match. I just came to get a better view.

 Sure you did. Igna thought triumphantly. She turned her attention to the arena where Liam’s decisive match had just begun.

No sooner had the referee shouted "Begin!" Liam had jammed his hand into the air to surrender. But his arm had barely left his side when Rippledancer waved his hand and summoned a wave of water out of thin air, striking Liam and sending him bowling off his feet. Liam hit the floor hard, landing painfully on his back and was sent skidding head over heels by the force of the wave. His mouth and nose were filled with water as the wave surged to life and started to toss and turn him like a salad. He was jerked this way and that up and down, left and right, whilst his empty lungs began to urge him to breath. It was as if the water were some great beast that had him imprisoned in its palm, squeezing and playing with him before it gobbled him up.

 The Master next to Eric grunted disdainfully "Looks like this match is over already. Hmph struck down by the first blow. He’s more pathetic than I expected."

 I’m a water mage Liam barely managed to think to himself as he was pushed and pulled by the unceasing torrent of water, I can free myself from this attack. But what spell? which one would be effective? Liam was in such a panic he couldn’t think straight, he wanted to breathe but there was no air. Am I going to die? Liam thought panickedly, would the referee let me die? He couldn’t be sure, the exams were notorious for being dangerous, and people were often battered, sliced and even caught in bizarre indoor rock slides. It was the reason that most novices only attempted the exam after five years of training, Liam had only received two. I can’t speak words for an incantation Liam realised, but I have the power to turn my prison into a weapon. Liam slammed his hands together and clasped his fingers. Inside his mind he cast the incantation: “the creatures of water breathe in deeply the air of the ocean- Path of the Water Bearer: Mermaid Tide!"

 The watery prison erupted into spray as a horrendous spout of water burst through the wave and blasted it apart, causing the water to fall down as a violent burst of rain in the hall. The audience threw their robes over their faces to protect themselves from the sudden downpour.

 The two unbiased judges were scribbling down hurried notes on the match, whilst the two bribed judges just stood on in silent disapproval. Liam drenched and on his knees from the attack spied tiniest grin crossing Eric’s face. Igna was nudging him enthusiastically and grinning like a madwoman. Liam felt a small candle of hope light in his heart; there were at least two people here who thought he would win. Liam clambered clumsily to his feet, turning his eyes fixed on his opponent. Rippledancer hadn’t moved an inch from his starting location; in fact he looked incredibly nonplussed by the events that had transpired. As people got over the eruption of water they started to clap and chant for Rippledancer again. Rippledancer indeed stood like a dancer a hand placed confidently on his hip, his broad brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes. He was the very image of grace and confidence.

 "What’s wrong?" Rippledancer asked him snidely, shooting Liam a satisfied grin from under the rim of his hat.

Liam couldn’t reply, he badly wanted to throw a witty retort back at Rippledancer, but he couldn’t find the words. Instead his mind was filled with a desire to throw himself at Rippledancer and smack the self-satisfied grin off of his face. I can’t surrender. He fumed heatedly, his fist clenched with fury; I have too many people who I have to prove myself too.

 As if on cue a voice pierced through the cheering like a knife: "Liam that was awesome!" Igna was on her feet and whooping ecstatically, the Masters were sending dirty looks at her, and Eric had clamped over his mouth, but his shuddering shoulders betrayed his laughter at his apprentice's antics. Many of Rippledancer’s fans had broken off cheering to stare appallingly at Igna, as a result the amount of noise in the hall had dipped significantly and Igna’s words could ring out strong.

 Liam began to walk. Slowly and hesitantly at first, but picking up his pace into a trot, then throwing himself forwards in a furious dash. Rippledancer was staring daggers at Igna and had lost focus, and Liam couldn’t help but take advantage of the situation. He threw his left arm out wide, tracing his fingers like knives cutting through the air and calling upon the magic from within him. As he summoned his magic he could feel all the surface water responding to him. Rippledancer had lost focus and relinquished control over the water, now it all belonged to Liam. He began to chant a brief incantation: "Path of the Water Bearer: Mermaid’s spear." The water leapt up as if it were coming alive obediently following his the motion of his arm.

 Rippledancer started as he saw the slim figure of Liam bearing down on him, violent white water blossoming out behind him. Rippledancer threw himself back and brought his arms hurriedly upwards; water burst into existence around him, forming into a frothing shield. Liam let out a yell like a crashing wave, swing his arm swinging forwards, feeling mightier than he’d ever felt before.

 This is it! he thought triumphantly I’ll charge forward and close the distance between Hibernia and I. I’ll crush his defence with one stroke and I’ll claim this match for my own!

 Rippledancer shouted out desperately "come alive water!" Rippledancer’s water swirled ahead him rising up like a protective barrier in front of him.

 "Crush him Liam! I bet money on you winning" Igna yelled from the sidelines, bouncing with excitement. Even Eric was leaning forwards with a look of hungry curiosity on his face, could Liam really have advanced that much in just one year?

 Liam lunged out with his arm and the water mimicked him and blasted forwards forming into a spear of high pressure water. The attack clashed with Rippledancer’s frothing shield, erupting into a spire of white haze. The devastating onslaught exploded with a horrendous crashing sound that dwarfed the previous blow. The air became a hurricane as droplets of water were blasted in every direction like a storm of bullets.

 Eric threw his thick cloak over his face to stop himself being pelted by a maelstrom of water. Igna had the presence of mind to overthrow the judges table and with a cry of "get down!" push two of the Masters under the cover with her. Not everyone was so lucky and many members of the audience were blown off of their feet by the hurricane blast and by the wall of rain that pelted them mercilessly.

 After several endless moments the wind and rain died away, petering off as the drops became less regular and finally vanished completely. Liam lay on his back, windswept and was lying half submerged in water that was several inches deep. He’d been caught at the dead centre of the clash and had been sent sailing through the air. He slowly clambered to his feet, fighting against the bruises that were forming on his back, he’d used up a fair bit of magic on the last attack but he wasn’t feeling completely drained. On the sidelines Eric lowered his cloak away from his face to peek at the arena. The clash had created so much water that the hall was now over ankle deep with water, more water had been thrown around that some of it hadn't even reached the ground yet and was hanging around the impact zone as a thick white mist of drizzle. Igna also clambered to her feet, sloshing through the water and clambering over the complaining Masters she’d rescued who were face deep in the water. Igna sidled up to Eric and spied Liam.

 "Looks like he’s the last one standing" she told him cheerfully, as if Liam hadn’t just caused what closely resembled a natural disaster inside the hall.

 "Let’s hope" Eric confided in her "I admit I’m pretty impressed by how much he’s improved since last year, he did terribly last year. Only little  worse than you as you" he added as a cheeky afterthought.

 Igna raised a confident eyebrow "we’ll see how things go this year, don’t forget I’m the one who coached Liam." The mist began to slowly fade away, drifting gently to the ground sending out ripples across the water. Liam turned his head to where the judges were clambering grumpily to their feet, water dripping from their soaked robes. The referee was lying dazed in the water; he’d been hit unawares by the attack and was lying on his back in the water staring dreamily at the ceiling.

 "Is the match over?" Someone from the top balcony called down.

 "It was over pretty quickly." Someone else commented loudly, there was a betting pool on this match so tension was higher than normal, and it looked like Igna was the only one who’d placed bets on Liam.

 "It’s not over yet" came a haggard voice from within the fog. With one swing of his arm Rippledancer banished the rain, and revealed himself. Rippledancer was drenched to the bone, his tidily ordered hair was damp and disarrayed, he’d held onto his hat but that hadn’t seemed to have consoled him, he was furious. His barrier had held up against Liam’s attack, Liam gaped at the shield that Rippledancer had summoned. It wasn’t a wall of water, it was a mob of deer built out of water, each one a tossing his head this way like a real live animal.

 "You look surprised." Rippledancer huffed tiredly, his chest heaving with heavy breaths "is it really so surprising that I could withstand even your best attack?"

 Igna ground her teeth furiously "dammit, Liam’s attack meant nothing?"

 Eric shook his head, his eyes closely fixed on the fight "even if Rippledancer weathered that attack he still cast an advanced spell without an incantation, he’s certainly exhausted. Now that Liam’s lost the element of surprise I’m not sure who’s going to win." Eric was scratching at his temple determinedly; it seemed to Igna that Eric was very curious about Rippledancer’s power. "It all depends on how Liam handles the next attack."

 Rippledancer delivered Liam a satisfied grin, "tell you what Ualach" he purred with a bemused look in his eye "how about we spice this event up with a little wager?"

Liam’s eyes narrowed at Rippledancer’s cockiness but he was ready to take the bet "alright name your sum."

 Rippledancer’s eyes sparkled delightedly, "Oh no my dear Ualach, I’m not talking about money I’m talking about a bet for honour. For example…" he paused for a moment as he considered what to demand of Liam, "...your teammate" he finally decided on with foul look of satisfaction "I want Hibernia Fletcher."

 Liam swallowed and clenched his fist, holding back the feeling of hateful disgust that was brewing in the pit of his stomach. "I’m afraid I’m unable to oblige that request" Liam replied through clenched teeth, his hands visibly shaking with anger.

 "What’s the matter? It’s only your woman on the line... as well as your honour" Rippledancer decided as he lifted up his right arm as if he was commanding an army "Allow me to show my offensive power. Path of the Watery Beast: Greyhound Pack." With a snap of his fingers the deer pack leapt forwards, reforming as they flew into a pack of six greyhounds that bounded across the water towards Liam.

 Liam aggressively swept an arm at the pack and released a simple spell, "Tempest of daggers." A brace of a hundred watery rotating blades flew swiftly at the pack cutting the dogs to pieces. But the dogs didn’t hesitate, they’re bodies reforming from the water on the floor and continuing the assault. They dogs were bearing down on him, mere meters away. Liam stumbled backwards, but the water kept him from fleeing at speed. Igna wanted badly to shout out support, but she was too busy gnawing on her nails.

 Eric was on his feet with anticipation what now Liam Ualach? Eric thought excitedly can you snatch victory?

 Liam squatted and wildly clasped his hands together; the nearest dog was right on top of him "Mermaid Step!" he desperately yelled as the dog’s teeth, cold and sharp as ice brushed his neck, icy breath caressing his exposed throat. Then the jaws snapped shut… on thin air. Igna gapped, the judges blinked, the crowd gasped and Rippledancer nearly had an apoplexy. Liam was skimming across the surface of water, not taking steps but leaning left then right like an ice skater.

 Eric gave a respectful hmm sound "an original use for the technique but inspired none the less." Liam was skidding across the surface of the water but the pack had split and was pouncing at him from every direction. Liam dodged to the right, barely avoiding one of the ravenous dogs as it snapped at his arm.

 "How long can you keep this up Ualach?" taunted Rippledancer, who was still stood in his spot, directing the dogs like a puppeteer "how about I step up the game?" He asked as he raised his other hand and snapped his fingers "Path of the Watery Beast: Jaguar Pack." With a savage snarl three huge feral cats burst from the water soaked ground, no sooner had they formed they were off pursuing Liam.

 "Liam’s really on the ropes now." Igna muttered nervously as Liam dived beneath a savage claw, then immediately had to leap over one of the dogs to stop his leg being bitten off. "If those animals can’t be killed, he has to cast a spell to take out that Ripple-guy. Problem is he can’t get close enough to land a hit if those animals keep chasing him all over the place."

 Liam was hardly a step ahead of the dogs, whenever he made it to safety it was by mere inches and then another beast would strike out at him. I can’t keep this up forever Liam thought panickedly I have to all the animals take out in a single strike then go after Rippledancer. Liam focused his power, feeling it radiate from his core and circulate throughout his body. Liam threw his arms out wide sending his magic flooding to his arms so he could perform the spell. "Path…" was far as Liam got before a sudden, horrific pain shot throughout his arm. One of the dogs had crept up on him and leapt at him, sinking it’s razor sharp freezing teeth into his arm. With a cry of agony Liam desperately sent as much magic as he could to his bitten arm, squeezing his fist closed he cast "Mermaid crush!" With a yip of pain and splash of water the dog exploded into a shower of water droplets and showered around the area. Liam fell heavily to his knees, clutching at his bicep which where blood was spilling down his arms and dripping off his fingers, where they fell into the water on the floor and spread like a dark red dye. The animals paused in their assault, freezing in motion as if time had stopped, Rippledancer was breathing even heavier than before, he was reaching the end of his magic, and if he went much further he could easily pass out.

 "Forfeit the match and I won’t have to hurt you any more than I already have." Rippledancer ordered him.

 Igna nudged Eric urgently and leant in close to whisper "pfft, he’s bluffing, he could pass out any second and he knows it."

 Eric replied by shaking his head "unfortunately for Liam Rippledancer has dominated the fight so far. He blocked Liam’s attack and is the only one to have injured his opponent. So even if Rippledancer passes out right now I will have no choice, I’ll vote for Rippledancer and he will win." Igna shot Eric a furious look before she angrily turned her attention back to the fight. She was furious that Eric would let a scumbag like Rippledancer win under any scenario.

 Rippledancer in order to maintain his magic, relinquished the magic in his right arm, causing all the dogs to collapse back into water, the three jaguars however were still active. The cats stalked closer to the kneeling Liam, approaching stealthily as they went to pick off their prey. Liam was finished, but a wounded enemy could be as dangerous as a healthy one. As Liam knelt on the wet ground, nursing the bite with water he heard a voice, one that pierced straight through the crowd, a commanding voice, one that in the past had harshly told how to do things better and kindly stood up for him when he couldn’t himself, it was a voice that Liam recognised.

 "Are you taking a break?" Hibernia demanded crossly from the sidelines, her arms folded and her face set in a look of furious disappointment. "Remember what you told me last time we saw each other?" Liam could remember and he blushed furiously as recalled the pledge he’d confidently made that day.

 Hibernia continued on "You said-" Suddenly Hibernia realised that Igna and Eric were mere meters away and were paying rapt attention to her speech. Hibernia’s cheeks also turned a rosier shade of red as she recalled how Liam had opened up to her last time they’d met. Maybe I shouldn’t mention the more personal parts Hibernia considered before continuing her speech "-you said that next time we met you would have advanced to the rank of Adept..." -Liam was rising to his feet now- "...and that you’d keep on advancing..." Hibernia carried on as Liam made it to his feet and stood straight. "...until you had caught up to me so we could work together as partners once again."

 "Partners" Liam muttered to himself as if he was recalling the morning where he himself had said those very words. It had been just over two months ago yet now that he was hearing them from Hibernia’s lips it could’ve been just over two minutes ago.

 "I know you didn’t lie to me Liam" Hibernia told him as if no one else was there "you're not the kind of person who would lie about something like that."

 "Hey Rippledancer" Liam called out, his voice set like stone "about that bet you wanted to make."

 Igna and Hibernia exchanged a look of shock, Hibernia in particular; her mouth was hanging agape with surprise. Rippledancer looked amused, even if he was exhausted "have you decided to surrender your woman to me?"

 "I’m not surrendering anyone because I don’t own her." Liam spat back, "but I have realised what I want when I win the match."

 Rippledancer snorted but he beckoned with a motion of his hand for Liam to continue.

 "When I win this match" Liam commanded, pointing a finger directly at Rippledancer "you will never take the Adept exam again." The sound of harsh breaths being drawn resonated throughout the hall, it was a damning request as unlikely as it was to come about. "What’s the matter Rippledancer? It’s only your career on the line… and your honour."

 Rippledancer snapped his fingers "you shouldn’t make bets you can’t win, Ualach" he snarled, the jaguars bounded forwards hungrily, the first one right on top of Liam.

 "Don’t make me into a liar, Henry" Liam responded, raising his healthy left arm and forming a magic hand-sign "Vanish into mist" he chanted under his breath, water from the floor leapt up and formed a protective screen around him, hiding all but his shadow from sight. The jaguars quickly closed the distance between them and Liam and were forming a wide circle around him so he couldn’t escape, they circled him relentlessly. With a snap of Rippledancer’s fingers the three jaguars sprinted at the screen of water that shrouded Liam. They easily burst through the shroud all three predators slammed their massive combined weight onto the helpless Liam, plunging their long claws into his robes and flesh and drawing blood, driving him heavily onto the ground and leaving him… totally still.

 Igna gasped in horror at the match’s brutal finale. Hibernia lunged fearfully forwards towards the arena before holding herself back, her hands clasped over her mouth and her eyes wide with horror; but Eric gave a satisfied grin "textbook" he told Igna in a pleased and satisfied voice.

 She glared at him with unbridled rancour "what the fuck do you mean textbook? Liam just got wrecked out there and you’re complimenting his bloody opponent?"

 "Why would I complement Rippledancer? After all..." Eric asked Igna innocently, a gleam of mischievous pleasure shining in his eyes. Across the arena from the two of them the referee coughed and reached for his flag to end the match "...he just fell into Liam’s trap."

 Rippledancer sagged from tiredness and grinned widely as the referee collected his flag and stepped forward to announce: "the match is over the winner is..."

 "Liam Eire Ualach" Liam said, from directly at Rippledancer’s feet, Rippledancer yelped and jumped with shock, Igna leapt for joy and Hibernia’s face broke out in a relieved grin and muttered under her breath: "making me worry for nothing, huh?"

 Liam slowly began to emerge from the water, rising up slowly like a sea monster rearing its head above the surface of the sea. Water washed down Liam’s body like a waterfall cascading down his chest, his cloak was gone now and his chest was bare and he was dressed only in his trousers. Far behind him, the other Liam that was pinned lifelessly beneath the watery Jaguars began to deflate, releasing spouts of steam that seemed to erupt from each of the mimic’s limbs, all that was left behind was Liam’s robes and some very confused jaguars.

 "A doppelganger?" Igna wondered aloud "I didn’t know Liam could do that, he didn’t learn that when he was working with me."

 "Of course you wouldn’t know" Hibernia told her, a slight grin on her face "because that’s the technique he never could complete when the two of us were schooled under our master. It’s precisely because he could never manage it that Master grew weary of Liam and gave up teaching him, it’s the reason he lost the confidence to pass last exam. Every single one of Liam’s failures stem from his inability to use that technique, and now he’s used it beautifully."

 "Like I said" Eric muttered in a satisfied manner "textbook."

 Rippledancer swung desperately at Liam, throwing an exhausted punch at his face. Liam coolly caught Rippledancer by the wrist with his healthy left hand, stopping him cold. There was silence throughout the room, the judges, Liam’s friends, the referee and all of Rippledancer’s many fans were deadly silent.

 Till Hibernia’s voice resounded boldly through the room "Come on Liam show them who’s in charge of this match!"

 "Sorry Rippledancer..." Liam taunted, his face locked in look of almost repulsive confidence as he brought his right fist back. Blood was still trickling from his wound but Liam didn’t seem to care "...but I can’t afford to not look cool in front of her." Liam slammed as much power as he could into his right arm. Blistering heat radiated from his forearm, "Path of Ex, Scalding Fist." Liam unleashed his punch letting all his power break loose as he caught Rippledancer in the stomach. The magic blasted Rippledancer off his feet, sending him rolling and splashing into the water finally coming to a rest in a dishevelled heap, moaning painfully with a scorched hole in his robes. There was stunned silence throughout the hall, Rippledancer’s fans and the referee were having trouble coming to terms with the realization that Liam had gone from dismal defeat to triumphant victory.

 Igna leapt victoriously onto the judges table and pointed triumphantly at Rippledancer’s fans "that’s right fanboys, cough up I won the bet fair and square." The referee nodded in agreement and there was a chorus of disappointment and the many fans began to avoid eye contact with either Igna or each other, they rubbed the backs of their necks awkwardly.

 "You made a bet with every single one of his posse?" Eric asked Igna worriedly as he hastily guided her off the judges’ table, as he noticed that all the judges were glaring at her again "what if Liam had lost?"

 "You heard him Eric" Igna replied as if it were obvious, Eric set her gently down on the wet floor again "he couldn’t afford to break his promise to win." Hibernia was pretending not to listen, and she turned her face away from Igna and Eric so as to hide her deep blush.

Eric turned briskly to the other judges "I’m very certain who I’m voting for. It’s clear that Liam has improved tremendously since last examination and was indeed the superior mage in this fight." The two bribed judges looked away unashamedly and shrugged uncaringly in response. The final two judges: Antonio Hortus and Iago Funis, who nodded in agreement with Eric.

 "I agree, Djavulen" replied the Loremaster, an extremely old and wizened man dressed in robes that were almost as old as him "the young lad certainly has a great deal of brains and spirit. I’d say he’s certainly worthy of the title of Adept, at the very least!" The last judge Antonio who was focused on repeatedly tying and untying a piece of rope he was holding. His attention seemed more fixated on the rope than Eric and Eric wasn’t sure if he’d even watched the match. However Antonio nodded in agreement with the Loremaster muttering "quite, quite" under his breath "a very surprising match indeed."

 Eric turned to the final two judges: Brutus Quincy the Ironmonger and Claudius Onyx the Stonemason "Ualach has passed the exam regardless of your decision, shall we at least do him the honour of making it unanimous?" Eric asked them hopefully, hiding the fact that he knew that they had been bribed. The two judges turned to each other and exchanged meaningless looks, they’d already been paid, Liam was going to pass the exam regardless of their decision so what did it matter what they voted? Besides it was Rippledancer’s own fault for being defeated.

 "Very well" conceded Claudius then spoke to the arena at large "I suppose that Liam Ualach to our… moderate surprise has won the match and passed the exam." His speech was greeted with a round of polite, if subdued applause, but that hardly mattered to Liam, he hurriedly sploshed through the ankle deep water, rushing delightedly, with a colossal smile on his face towards his friends on the side lines. As he reached where they were standing and before he could even speak a word he found himself being set upon as Hibernia pounced at him, wrapping her arms tightly around him and squeezing him hard with delight.

 "You did it!" She exclaimed ecstatically, raising her chin to see his very shocked expression, he’d never seen Hibernia have such an emotional outburst. Warily he reached round with his arms and hugged her back.

 Igna strolled cheerfully up and gave Liam a congratulatory smack on the back which made him wince. "Atta boy!" she told him delightedly "you certainly showed them the results of your awesome training."

 "Master will surely unite our team again." Hibernia told Liam warmly, then her expression turned to one of suspicious outrage "what the hell was that about betting me?!"

Once an exasperated doctor had managed to pry Liam away from the group and quickly escorted him to the medical ward, Igna left Eric’s side and headed to the upper balcony to collect the debt she was owed by the majority of Henry Anima’s fan-boys. Hibernia escorted her, doubting that all of those she had struck the bet with would freely give up their money to Igna. As they made their way across the balcony, the floors of which were slick with the water that had splashed up and fallen like a bitter rainfall. Many of those who had watched the previous match were headed out to catch some fresh air and dry themselves off in the warm May sun. There was a group of young men clogging up the balcony ahead of Igna and Hibernia. They were formed in an angry circle and were complaining loudly about the match and Rippledancer’s defeat.

 "Ualach obviously cheated" one of them insisted frustratedly, "there’s no way that he could have beaten Rippledancer fair and square. He was second to bottom of the class last year, and Rippledancer is a prodigy."

 Another young man grunted dissatisfied "a bet’s a bet Samuel. Even if Ualach did bribe the judges it doesn’t change the fact he knocked Henry out cold, the victory was his let it go."

 "Shut it Dom, just because you didn’t bet!" The group argued back and forth further, their voices grew louder and their discussion grew more and more heated, until Igna interrupted them with a sharp cough. They all instantly became hushed, and turned their heads at one to face Igna.

 "Oh hey guys!" Igna began as if it were an accident that she was bumping into them "I don’t suppose you have the money that you owe me for the bet do you?"

There was a long empty pause where everyone refused to look in Igna’s direction or even at each other, until someone found their tongue: "What bet?" Samuel demanded triumphantly "I don’t remember any bet. What about it boys? Do you remember?" There replied a chorus of many people shouting "nope" or "what’s a bet?"

 "Sorry Redhawk." Samuel told with mock sympathy "none of us know what you’re talking about."

 Igna gave a smile of mock innocence in return "oh you don’t remember?" She asked reaching into her pocket and drawing out a scroll of paper "allow me to refresh your memory." She released one end of the scroll and allowed the scroll to unfurling, descending all the way to the ground till it hung a mere inch above the ground. The scroll was cluttered with large sums of money and signatures, each one pledging to pay Igna a large sum of money if Liam won his match against his random opponent.

 Igna looked at the long list of names with a look of bemused pleasure "seems a lot of people thought Liam was going to lose his match." She reasoned as if this were the first time the thought had occurred to her, "I imagine almost as many as those who thought Rippledancer would win his match, and considering that so many if you did both... some of you must be pretty short of cash right now" the crowd responded by shuffling it’s feet guiltily and looking at the floor with shame. "Especially you Samuel" Igna told him cheekily, "you bet a LOT of money on Liam losing, got a personal grudge against him?" Samuel averted his gaze furiously. Igna raised a finger pointedly "however since I’m so nice I’m going to give you one more chance to make your money back."

 For a faint moment Samuel's eyes lit up with the thought of being able to win his money back, but then they dimmed with suspicion "how can we get our money back?"

 "It’s simple, if I lose my match then those that except this bet get all their money back, the debt will be completely wiped away."

 There was a murmur of nervous excitement, could it be so easy? "What an easy bet" Samuel spoke up with a satisfied smile "everyone knows that the odds are against you."

 Hibernia shot a concerned look at Igna from behind her back, Igna may have trained Liam well but Samuel had a point, when you looked at the mathematics Igna was very unlikely to win.

 Igna snorted "you haven't got a clue what you’re talking about."

 "Don’t I?" Samuel asked the crowd behind him that laughed dutifully at his joke "let’s take a look of the facts, shall we?" He began to list off the points on his fingers "you are a fire mage who is facing mainly water and earth mages giving you an elemental disadvantage. Most of the mages here have trained for five years before taking this exam whilst you have been for only two; you lack experience since you are three years younger than your opponents, men of twenty years. What’s more last year the judges failed you before the match even ended!" He had a broad grin on his face now, as if the thought of Igna’s failure gave his some sadistic delight, as if the failings of another person proved that he was superior. "Oh, but I’m not even finished" continued Samuel "I’ve yet to arrive at my strongest point: that you Igna Redhawk are a nobody, some street rat that Master Djavulen found in some back alley and had the wild idea of training to be a mage. You’re an overconfident woman who’s yet to learn her place; you learnt combat magic instead of training in Household magic with the other tarts that had the audacity to think that they had what it took to become real mages. Look at your friend Hibernia" he added, shoving a palm in the direction of Hibernia’s hateful glare "its common knowledge around the castle that she only made it to the rank of Adept because she dresses like a whore to entice the Masters. The simple fact of the matter ladies is that you two are woefully outclassed, much like Liam’s magic, you’re just dainty little mermaids that wanted to swim with crocodiles."

 Igna said nothing. Hibernia said nothing. They just looked Samuel dead in the eye, till he began to feel that he was no longer facing two young women but two impatient tigers that could tear his head from his shoulders.

 "Are you competing this year Samuel?" Igna asked him in a patient but icy voice. "You see what I was going to say…" Igna said in a slow meditated voice which dripped with malice "...was that if I win the match, all of you had to do something embarrassing, write a song about my victory for example or maybe tidy up my room for a month, but you’ve made me change my mind." Igna took a long stride forward till she was right up in his face. "Let’s cut chance out of the equation shall we? I challenge you to a duel in the next match of the competition we’ll fight fair and square and I’ll make you eat your words. And the stakes are this: if I win… you will become my subordinate from now till when I release you from our contract." The look of horror and disgust that crossed Samuel’s face was almost as sweet as the giggles that came from the ranks of his friend’s.

 "The rest of you will be me back what you owe me for Liam’s fight." She told the others coldly, her eyes still fixed on Samuel like a laser beam. "The only person who I have any desire to crush is Samuel, the rest of you are free to do as you wish."

 Samuel gaze a terse laugh, but there was a quake of nerves in his voice as he took a hasty step back from Igna "I couldn’t possibly take such a foolish bet, it is never wise to bet so hastily."

 Igna nodded wisely "such are the words of a retreating coward."

 "I am no coward." Snarled Samuel, raising a fist as if he were about to strike her.

 Igna was immovable as she told him "whenever a mage takes on a mission there is a chance that they will not come back alive, there is no greater bet to take than that. If you fear me then by all means surrender. It’s a simple choice give up your money to a woman because you feared that she would defeat you, or be defeated by her and spend your life in shame and servitude."

 "You forget that I am the superior mage Redhawk, I cannot be bested by the likes of you." Samuel boasted, thumping his chest like some sort of uber masculine salute.

 Igna smiled warmly, a mask covering her crafty thoughts "it sounds to me that you’ve accepted our bet. On your own head be it Samuel." She replied before turning on her heel and marching away, Hibernia hovering at her side like a sentinel. It was long after they were out of sight and sound of the group that Hibernia spat a series of foul curses over the flock of arrogant pricks who were led by Samuel, the most ignorant of the arrogant pricks.

 "Who the fuck does he think he is? Thinking he’s better than us because he’s a man, saying that we belong somewhere else, treating us as subhuman, telling me how much of my body I’m allowed to show." Hibernia, Igna had always thought was stunningly attractive. Where Igna was lean, rough and made of toned muscle, her face with its single remaining cluster of red spots that tenaciously survived no matter how hard she tried to expel them, Hibernia had attractive curves and bust, long flowing hair and smooth spotless skin whilst still retaining her athleticism. It was no surprise that these attractive features combined with her confidence and razor sharp mind meant that Liam had fallen hard for her. However Igna and Hibernia formed part of a small minority in Crowfang Keep, female mages.

 "Excuse me, Redhawk! Miss Fletcher!" Came a man’s voice from behind them, they turned to see Dom, the young man who’d been arguing with Samuel jogging after them. When he reached them he instantly bowed low, to Igna and Hibernia, who were visibly shocked to see someone bow to them. "I want to apologise for the actions of my friends, it’s when they act like this that I question why they are my friends." He straightened up to face Igna directly, “Samuel does not want to take this bet, but I fear that you may be underestimating him, he is by no means weak, I beg you to reconsider the bet, this match cannot end well.”

 Igna gave Dom a warm smile, “you shouldn’t have to apologise on behalf, he’ll have plenty of time to make up for his words himself when he’s working for me, and no I won’t take the bet back. Samuel made his choice and he will pay for it. Besides I have absolutely no choice in the matter of winning, I can’t be beaten by the likes of him; I have my own plans to take care of.”

 “Is this just you being cocky again Igna or do you genuinely have a plan as to how to win?” Hibernia asked her doubtfully, she was well aware of the fact that Igna could be incredibly overconfident; she was the kind of person who leapt long before she looked. In fact in the past year Igna had challenged Hibernia to a fight several times despite the fact that every odd stood in her opposition.

 Igna gave Hibernia look, the look of someone who possessed a terribly exciting secret that she was dying to tell but couldn’t. “You’ll see.” Igna promised, pursing her lips to hide her ear-to-ear grin.

 Hibernia was beginning to genuinely get worried about what Igna had in mind “you aren’t going to try another advanced fire spell are you? I really don’t want to the one who has to put out the fires.”

 Igna looked one way then the other as if checking for eavesdroppers but it was just Hibernia, Dom and herself. “Let’s just say that today is the day I achieve my aim of surpassing you Hibernia.” Igna warned her mischievously “the title of Crowfang's strongest female wizard will belong to me.”

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