Chapter 2- The Magician
“There are multiple ways of boosting the strength of spells, by using these methods the mage can use spells for less magic allowing them to do it longer or harder. A rune drawn onto the part of the body that casts the spell, a speaking the spells incantation, sacrificing magic material as fuel to the spell and creating a magic circle around the caster.” -The Flesh and Blood of Magic, Book I, Chapter I
Liam sat on the bed in the doctor’s room; his arm was bound tight in bandages and held aloft in a sling. Liam had ordered the old doctor to get him out in time for the next match, so the doctor quickly stitched the wound closed and casually tossed some mysterious medicinal liquids over the wound.
“Try not to be too active over the next couple of days okay?” The doctor ordered him, only half paying attention as he filled his pipe. “You’ve cast a great deal of difficult spells and your magic is below half your normal capacity, cast any more spells and you could exhaust yourself and then you’ll be staying in here for much longer than you are now.”
Liam nodded, looking over the doctor’s shoulder he saw nurses hovering anxiously round another hospital bed, one of them was binding the figures head and jaw with bandages whilst the was rubbing ointment onto his bare chest. The doctor noticed that Liam’s attention was elsewhere and followed his gaze.
“Your opponent...” Doctor told Liam gravely “...you knocked him around pretty badly,; he’s got a more than a fair few bruises, a hairline fracture in his jaw, and some pretty nasty burns on his neck and chest. What’s more he is suffering from serious magical depletion to he’ll be in bed for a couple of days whilst he recovers,” the doctor shook his head gravely and lit his cigarette.
Liam felt overwhelmingly guilty over what he’d done, had he gone too far in the fight? Should he have forced Rippledancer to surrender rather than hit him one last time?
“All in all...” the doctor continued “...nowhere near the worst case I’ve seen so far today, the guy next door will probably lose his legs. So wipe that stupid frown off your face. Your opponent ought to thank you; you could easily have drowned him or set his clothes on fire. These exams are notoriously deadly, just be glad that you not only survived with superficial injuries but won too. So get out of my office and celebrate, doctors’ orders.”
Liam nodded quickly and marched out into the corridor, and headed back in the direction of the arena to see if Igna had found out who’d she be fighting. She was there to cheer for me, so I’ve gotta be there to cheer for her Liam decided as he strode down the corridor.
“Master, I have good news.” Hibernia was bowing low on one knee, her head held low as she faced her master. Master Richard Vestal was seated at his desk with his back to Hibernia. He was stooped over a huge and ancient text: The celestial bodies and their relation to the manipulation of the terrestrial elements.
“Why do you interrupt my studies, Hibernia?” Vestal replied in deep voice filled with annoyance he didn’t even turn around to face her. “I don’t want my very important studies interrupted by meaningless nonsense.”
Hibernia smiled hopefully, she hadn’t seen her mentor for quite a while, since not long after he gave up teaching Liam “master this is important, Liam has won his match and been made and an Adept.” She waited expectantly for Master Vestal’s cry of astonishment, but it never came.
“Why do you trouble me with this nonsense?” Vestal asked in the same bored tone “what difference does it make to me if Ualach has reached the rank of Adept? He is no longer my pupil. He is a failure.” With that he bent lower over the tome and began to scribble notes frantically in the margins.
Hibernia took a deep breath before continuing, it was essential that she not offend her master any more than she had already if she wanted to reunite the team. “Master, I believe that Liam has improved significantly since the two of you stopped working together. Mere minutes ago in fact he defeated Rippledancer in single combat.” She added hopefully, if she could reunite the team then Liam might be able to prove to master that he was a worthy apprentice.
“Not interested” Vestal grumbled, still not looking round.
Time to play my ace in the hole Hibernia thought grimly. “If you won’t allow Liam to rejoin the team then I will no longer be your apprentice. I am the first woman in Crowfang history to reach the rank of Adept and soon I will be Crowfang’s first female Expert, very soon I will no longer need to have a master, not that you’ve ever taught me much.” She told him with authority and with no small amount of bitterness. Then Richard Vestal said something Hibernia never expected him to say:
“Very well” he grunted calmly, still not looking round “if you wish to leave my service then you may, I very much doubt I’ll find someone to take your place.”
Hibernia gaped at his back and stared outrageously “what do you mean?” she cried incredulously, “I thought you had a dream to unite all of the Zodiac that belonged to the water element?”
“I did” Vestal agreed, turning round in his chair to face Hibernia at last, his bushy black beard was full full of white wisps and fell down over his pot belly and fine expensive robes. “It has been my plan since before I was a master to find water mages who had an affinity for the Zodiac and teach them the ways of magic.” He scooped up the old Tome he was poring over and gestured it wildly at Hibernia “this was my dream.” He spat bitterly “four mages to represent four of the zodiac: Aquarius, Pisces, Sagittarius, and Virgo. The absolute dominion over water, that was my dream. Instead what do I get? a talentless fool and an arrogant, cold woman.”
Hibernia scowled but said nothing. It would make no difference at this point. Vestal was a stubborn man, if he’d given up his lifelong ambition so easily then there was no point speaking to him much longer. “Very well” Hibernia replied, standing up tall and taking a step back out of the door. She spoke to him bitterly, resentment and disappointment clear in his voice “If you are so ready to give up on that dream then I will leave you. I have no desire to be taught anything by someone who surrenders so easily.” With those words she turned on her heel and marched out of the room, closing the door behind her with a sharp snap.
Richard Vestal slowly lifted up the tome and flicked to the front of the book, letting the pages peel away past his fingers. When he reached the very front page he stopped, halting the shifting pages. He stayed totally still as he admired the page; examining the ornately fashioned drawings of four pairs of creatures. The first drawing was of a powerful man in poor clothes kneeling shattered under the great burden he carried: a great wooden barrel that was overflowing with water, standing over him was the kindly figure of a mermaid, beautiful with deep brown hair, dressed in clothes of seaweed. She was holding herself up with her broad fish fin that hovered gently above the ground, she was bent low to offer a cup of water to his parched lips, which he reached out for with grateful desperation.
“Aquarius…” he breathed stroking the image of the mermaid gently as he moved his finger down the page to the next image. Two long eel-like fish coiling round each other like a caduceus, silver scaled with the dumb gobsmacked expression that fish always held. “The twin fish Pisces…” The next image was of a mighty longbowman, dressed in a green tunic and chainmail. His bow was held loosely by his side as he looked up in bewilderment at a mighty centaur that he he had happened upon. The centaur held in his hands a silver flute which he held gently to lips as if he were about to break into a soothing melody. “Sagittarius…” his personal favourite of the zodiac: the archer and the horseman, the sign of a true warrior. Moving his finger along the page he reached the most hideous of the zodiac: Cancer a titanic monster dressed in fearsome armour, it’s mighty claws that dwarfed his tiny black eyes. The artist had made the choice to paint the crab a raw pink and red, as if it were already cooked, chopped to pieces and served with champagne. Then finally there were two naked human figures, a man and a woman. Their gazes were averted, facing away from each other was if they were embarrassed by their naked forms, “and Virgo” he whispered to himself, the zodiac of dedication and purity. “These are my spirits” he muttered gently to himself, “if my students don’t have the skill or loyalty required following me then I must find new apprentices, one’s that will not let me down.”
“Breathe deeply and concentrate on the candle wick” Eric calmly instructed, placing the large wax candle in Igna’s open palms.
She closed her hands around it, gripping it tight as she stared intently at the tip of the candle wick, gazing at it forcefully and inflicting her magic upon it. If Eric concentrated on Igna’s energy he could feel it’s power steadily rising within her. Eric, deciding that Igna could do with some last minute magical exercise before her match with Samuel Iridis, Eric had taken Igna to practise in his chambers, now he was leaning against his chest of drawers whilst Igna knelt on the stone floor, her eyes closed, cradling a candle in her hands.
“Remember” he instructed “the source of all your magic resides in your solar plexus, seek out the source within and command it to your will.”
Igna took a deep breath and felt the magic within her gently rise to her call, like an animal tentatively emerging from a slumber. When she called upon her magic like this it felt like a sluggish hot liquid tossing and rolling around in her midriff. By closing her eyes and focusing her mind on the hot feeling she could trap it and take total control of it. She did so now clamping her energy in an invisible vice grip. Now flow she commanded and her energy responded, surging out from her solar plexus like a breaking dam, and rocketing throughout her body as if following a series of canals. Every part of her body was now humming with power, from the tips of her fingers to the strands of her hair.
Eric nodded, satisfied with the change. He could feel the power emanating from Igna now, it was like a solid wall of heat was issuing from her, as if he’d just opened the oven door and let the heat flood out. “Your power has increased a great deal since our last lesson” Eric informed her with a look of satisfaction, to which Igna responded with a satisfied smile. “Ok” Eric continued, leaning forward with keen interest “now try to light the wick of the candle without touching it.”
Igna nodded silently and redoubled her focus on the candle wick, drawing upon all the magic that she’d summoned from within herself she directed it all in one moment with her mind directly at the candle wick. For a single moment Igna’s hands glowed a furious bright orange and her body temperature skyrocketed as her magic slammed itself into the candle. There was a violent hiss as magic struck the candle and melted it so furiously that all that remained of it was a cloud of white vapour and a handful of violently bubbling wax, the wick itself tumbled into black dust and fell to the ground.
Igna shot Eric a triumphant look as she washed her hands out with the bowl of water that Eric had placed to the side, back in the days when Eric had just begun to coach her she had been unable to even singe the wick, now a mere two years later she had utterly annihilated it. “What’d ya think?” Igna asked, a grin plastered on her face “pretty impressive right?”
Eric let out a long sigh “not really Igna no” he admitted disappointedly. When Igna responded with a look of baffled horror Eric explained, reaching into a large sack of candles he had at his side and tossing her another one. “I gave you this very same test two years ago because you had no control over your magic, no matter how hard you tried you couldn’t summon enough power to even light the wick. Now two years later you’ve had ample training where you’ve learnt basic fire magic, you were making progress. But now that you’ve returned from your several month long training mission with Ualach you have no more mastery over your magic than when you first arrived.”
Igna scowled and stomped to her feet “what the fuck do you mean I haven’t improved? I’m way more powerful than I was two years ago! I’ve learnt dozens of spells and I know way more about magic.”
Eric shook his head “that may be so but it means nothing if you still can’t regulate your magic. Before your training you couldn’t draw upon your magic, now you draw upon too much magic and destroy things because you still can’t control the amount of magic.”
Igna looked like she wanted to fight back, like she wanted to yell about how it wasn’t her fault, about how she’d worked so goddamn hard. Instead she slumped back against the foot of Eric’s four poster bed and fixed her eyes furiously on the ground, her teeth set against each other as she growled “but I spent all that time strengthening my magic, you can’t tell me that it’s all been for nothing.”
Eric stepped over to the bed and leaning against one of the posts he slid down till he was sat by her side “it may not have been a total waste.” He told her hopefully “if you’ve built up the strength of your magic then you may have a large magical reservoir to fall back on.”
Igna turned her gaze to meet his, there was light and excitement back in her eyes “really? how so?”
Eric set her a concerned look “you know I did cover this in my lessons you know.”
“Yeah well…” Igna muttered uncomfortably under her breath “I spent a couple of months in the wilderness… did a lot of pull-ups... maybe I hit my head a little…”
Eric glowered slightly but explained anyway. “Since in the wilderness you focused on doing physical exercises like performing magic spells and… pull-ups rather than mental exercises like meditation, you stunted you precision but greatly enhanced the amount of magic you can call upon.” Eric jokingly prodded Igna’s arm, which he found was firm with muscle “at this point you're more like a hunter than a mage” he told her with a laugh “I’m sure you have a great deal of destructive power and stamina but the amount of power you call upon could fluctuate between being useless and completely overkill.”
Igna grinned and elbowed Eric in the arm “you can leave out the prodding but I appreciate the compliment at any rate.”
“Compliment?” Eric wondered aloud “I wasn’t aware that overkill was a compliment.”
“It is to me” Igna told him cheekily “I learnt some of those advanced spells you told me not to learn whilst I was on my trip, I’ve been dying to try out Phoenix Bomb and Heat Talon?”
Eric closed his eyes and buried his face in his hands, but on the inside he was delighted to see that Igna hadn’t changed a bit over the course of her trip. “You still haven’t learnt the meaning of the word forbidden have you? Just promise you won’t kill your opponent with them in the ring later.”
“I promise.” She told him in her most sincere voice. “Hey how about in the match I show off a secret experimental spell I’ve been working on?”
“A secret spell?” Eric wondered with dread “that you’ve invented?”
“A secret experimental spell” she corrected him with a look of immense pride “I spent ages working on it, it’s going to blow the judge’s minds! Eric why are you looking at me like that?”
Eric as always was attempting to remain composed, however he often found when he was dealing with Igna that it was nigh on impossible not to betray some sign of despair. “Igna” he sighed wearily “going off into the wilderness to train is one thing, but inventing your own spell is much too advanced for you. It can require up to ten years of experience to invent a technique, I’ve only been teaching you for two. Maybe wait till you’re attempting Expert rank before giving it a go.”
Igna was not impressed “too advanced for me is it? How old were you when you invented your own technique?”
Eric clenched his teeth frustratedly “that’s not what this is about Igna” he told her as patiently as he could, but he could feel his argument slipping away from him.
“How old were you?” Igna wondered aloud jeeringly, though she already knew the answer “what were you eleven? twelve?”
“I was fourteen” Eric interrupted a blush blooming across his cheeks “but that was under a very different circumstance.”
“Oh very different I’m sure” Igna jeered bitterly “I’m sure that reaching Expert rank was no problem for you, I bet you just had to invent a spell and the masters took one look at you and said:” Igna cleared her throat and put on her best impression of Master Richard Vestal booming grandiose voice “hmmm, yes, indeed this sterling young chap would certainly make a great addition to the Keep. Hmmm? What’s that he’s not even an Adept yet? No matter he can simply skip the exam? Hmmm, what’s that Hibernia and Igna have proven themselves and want to skip the exam? Certainly not! As the greatest, most highly regarded, and top notch fellow of the keep I have never seen a single argument that would warrant some kind of reform.” Igna rounded off her rant by scratching at her nonexistent beard and letting of a final self-important hmmm.
Eric couldn’t respond to that, he knew that Igna was angry, not angry at him but angry at the flock of stubborn old men who were what qualified for masters in this Keep. Occasionally a member of the Keep would adopt an apprentice who exceeded all reasonable expectation, a genius who effortlessly grew in power and expertise at an extraordinary rate, reaching Adept and Expert Rank far faster than any other student could ever hope to. It had been the pride of Crowfang Keep that they had the largest collection of genii in the entire world, and the crowning jewel of the collection was Eric Djavulen, the prodigy child who’d not only skipped the Adept exam and gone straight to Expert rank but several years later had been made a Master. However that pride in their genii had gone out of the window when Hibernia arrived at the guild.
Once her enormous potential was realised, when she ought to have been given greater challenges than ever in order to increase her power even further she was ignored. She was barred from taking dangerous missions and her own master refused to allow her to learn at a faster rate than her fellow student Liam who was advancing far slower than Hibernia. So when Eric brought Igna to the Keep a few months later she faced the exact same treatment, she was not expected to succeed and when she did she was not rewarded as the male apprentices were but instead met with taunts ad jeers.
“Hibernia passed the Adept Exam.” Igna muttered quietly to Eric, she seemed to have lost a large amount of her determination, her fire. “No one expected her to pass, no one wanted either of us to pass, they wanted us to join the Petal Branch and perform safe mundane tasks for the rest of our lives. Better that than we stray into work that they don’t think we’re capable of doing.” Igna seemed lost in lament, slumping lower and lower as if being pressed down by all her woes.
“Hey,” Eric interrupted her, shifting closer to her and placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder “if it makes you feel any better you’re certainly the best apprentice I’ve ever taken on.”
Igna cast an unimpressed look at him “is that supposed to make me feel better? I’m the only apprentice you’ve ever had.”
Eric nodded sagely “yes but I was thinking of taking on a new one, I heard there these two nice lads called Rippledancer and Samuel Iridis…”
“Don’t even joke about that” Igna warned, but she couldn’t help but smile, she reached up to remove his hand from her shoulder, but as she removed it she didn’t release her hand from his. “Do you think I’ll beat Iridis?” Igna asked Eric hesitantly, the last thing she wanted was to look like she might be scared about the fight. Because she was not worried, not at all worried about losing the match… in front of everybody… after she’d made that stupidly risky bet.
Eric felt Igna’s hand ever so slightly clench around his own, her hand was very warm, Igna always seemed to release far more heat than she ought to, as if her blood was made of fire. “Well I’ve never seen Iridis fight, and I haven’t seen you fight since you returned from your training mission where you could’ve been up to anything” he considered grimly “however… you're my apprentice and I know better than anyone that you’ve grown at a not very astounding rate.”
“That didn’t sound like much of a compliment” complained Igna crossly “‘a not very astounding rate’ he says, what kind of inspirational speech is that?”
“Let me finish Igna. You’re no genius when it comes to magic or combat. You still lack certain basic principles of magic, you lack natural talent and you never think before you act” Eric told her sternly. “However…” he continued, laying his other palm gently across her hand “I’ve never met anyone who works harder, or with more tenacity and focus than you. You may not be prodigy like Hibernia and myself but if there was ever anyone who could surpass a genius with mere dedication and hard work- then without a doubt it’s you.”
Igna was crouched low, stretching out her leg to its full length, tugging on her leg muscles as tightly as she dared. Liam stood by her, watching her perform her stretches whilst he chewed anxiously on his thumb. Now that the heat of battle had passed Liam had reverted back to his old nervous self, at least he stood a little straighter now, and there were a fair few people looking at him with a deal more respect. As Igna brought her warm ups to a close and sprang to her feet, rolling her shoulders back into action.
“Alright I'm ready to go.” She chirped, “when’s the match start?”
Liam leant over the balcony down at the arena; the devastation from his match was still being cleared up. Water was being swept away with brooms and magic into the drains, emptying the room of water till there was only the occasional puddle of water and sheen of wetness over the floor like morning dew on grass.
“Still a while yet” Liam replied, observing the crowd mingling in and around the hall. At the centre of one of the groups was a figure that Liam recognised:
“Samuel Iridis” Liam muttered “essentially Rippledancer’s number one toady.”
“Is he any good?” Igna asked, rolling her neck till it gave a satisfying click.
“That’s weird thing” Liam told her, looking over her shoulder anxiously “the only thing anyone knows about him is… no one knows anything about him. No one’s ever seen him fight, even the one’s who went on the missions with him haven’t a clue what magic he possesses. They say that his enemies are defeated in mere moments, left screeching, and rolling on the ground” Liam’s brow was creased with worry. “He may not be as strong as Rippledancer but he may be twice as dangerous.” Liam bit his lip as he dared himself to speak his mind. “Igna…” he began hesitantly “...perhaps you shouldn’t...”
“Don’t say it.” Igna snapped pointing directing at Liam’s face “There’s no way I’m chickening out of this fight.” Her eyes were narrowed and Liam thought for a moment that her deep brown eyes flashed bright orange, orange like a raging fire. “We spent a year preparing for this exam Liam, one year! noon and night! I don’t care if I have to fight Crowfang himself to pass the test, I’ll do it.”
“My oh my,” came a soft voice approaching Igna and Liam from the right. Padding his way forward slowly was an ageing man whom Igna joyfully recognised: Orsino Lavande with an expanding belly and a shining bald head he would’ve been easy to find if he didn’t keep himself either hidden away in his office or in his small cottage beyond the bounds of the Keep. He was head of the ‘Flower Corp’, the most benign and gentle organisation in the Keep, it amounted to the mages whose interests lie within the confines of medicine, gardening, and book keeping- it also just so happened to be where the masters decided to place every single woman in the coven. It was the butt of many jokes from the other members of the coven; they were easy targets since over half had no magic capable of defending themselves.
“Master Lavande!” Igna exclaimed, marching over to him and grasping him firmly by the hand, shaking it vigorously.
Orsino beamed happily in response and shook her hand warmly, he had the soft hands of a man used to turning book pages “Igna my child, you look even more formidable than when you left on your trip! I trust you found your foray in the wilderness to be most helpful?”
Igna beamed wider than ever, “I certainly did. Although Eric said I should’ve focused more on my control of magic rather than just strength.” She told him grumpily.
Orsino nodded as if considering the notion, “it would certainly prevent lower the number of forest fires we have” he mused.
“Hey that was one time!” Igna protested, her cheek turning rosy red from the memory.
However Orsino merely gave a low laugh and brushed her complaints away, “relax my child I was only joking. Control over your power may not be something that comes naturally to you, but in time I’m sure you'll figure it out.” Orsino momentarily glanced at his pocket watch “it would appear that there’s still quite some time before your match begins, a good ten minutes at least, and one of my attendants has already put the kettle on. Perhaps you and your friend here would like to come to my study for a cup of tea?”
Igna pursed her lips hesitantly, as nice as a cup of tea would be perhaps it wasn’t the smartest thing to do before a fight but then again she was eager to tell master Lavande all about the trip and her upcoming match with Samuel Iridis. “Sure master Lavande” she told him confidently, “we’d love a cup of tea, wouldn't we Liam?”
Orsino’s study was one of Igna’s favourite places in Crowfang Keep, mainly because it was in no way an ordinary study. It was located halfway up the tallest spire and had wide windows that let in lots of light and gave stunning views of the Witchwood Forest and beyond. The office was expansive and ancient looking. The bureau was not just a closed off room, Orsino had specifically designed his room to stand out from the norm, to be a room unlike any other in the Keep: the study was a wide open oval balcony attached to the wall by stilts. It loomed over a wide expanse of Orsino’s domain: The Flower Corp’s library; a citadel of arcane knowledge the Flower Corp had been harvesting for centuries. The office itself was almost as grand as the library; it possessed a certain importance to it which only the ancient can possess. The desks and chairs that were made from deep dark wood that made them look like they’d been hand-carved out of charcoal, and the table they were sat was made from ancient oak and had a face of pristine white and blue mosaic.
Orsino gently placed the tray on the table, careful not to upset the three steaming cups of tea balanced on top. “I apologise for the mess” Orsino told Igna and Liam warmly as he brushed a pile of books on the table out of his way “I always mean to clear up but I never seem to get round to it.”
Liam and Igna readily accepted their mugs, the tea was scorching hot and steam was gushing out of the top, Liam inhaled the steam enthusiastically, as if the steam were the treat rather than the tea.
“Careful with those…” Orsino hurriedly warned as Igna lifted the cup to her lips and tilted her head back “...the tea is still… very hot” he finished dryly as Igna devoured scorching hot tea in a single gulp. Igna sighed, satisfied and Orion thought he could see the steam coming out of her mouth like dragonfire. Orsino shook his head and sipped cautiously at his own tea of course it would take a lot more than some hot tea to make Igna feel the heat. “You know if you chose to give up your aim of being an Adept we could always use your talents for heating the boiler” Orsino joked “you could probably keep the Keep warm for months on end.”
“Don’t hold your breath” Igna warned, setting down her mug with a clink. “You won’t catch me warming up boilers or cleaning windows.”
Orsino shrugged and took another cautious sip of his tea, “it was worth a try at least, the Flower Corp could use someone of your talents, and there aren’t many fire or heat mages around these parts anymore.” Orsino turned his head to face Liam who was still inhaling steam from his mug. “You're the young man who took Rippledancer down a rung or two aren’t you?”
Liam spluttered up some steam and held his hand to his throat as if he were choking.
Orsino raised an eyebrow, his curiosity piqued “you like your steam eh boy? Got a cold that needs clearing out?”
“No sir” Liam spluttered nervously, looking down at the floor and avoiding eye contact. Liam seemed to huddle around the mug he was cradling as if it were a shield.
Orsino recognised the infantile gesture; Liam was subconsciously trying to erect an invisible wall between them, one that would stave off prying eyes. “Perhaps we should change the subject” Orsino decided “perhaps you could tell about your upcoming match Igna? Have you developed a strategy to beat Iridis?”
Igna shrugged her shoulders “not really, I was just going to see what he could do during the match.”
Orsino shook his head as if he was disappointed with her, “Igna research and tactics are how every battle is won, it is imperative that you know an enemy's capabilities before you even step foot on the battlefield.” Igna shrugged in response and Orsino carried on patiently “Fortunately for you I am well aware of Iridis’ abilities, all the mentors in the coven are required to make a biography of their students and their abilities, and I’m the one who processes them.” Orsino reached over to the stack of books and papers that he had pushed aside, he selected a stack of papers bound together with leather straps. “Let me see” he mused, thumbing through the papers “Iridis... Iridis… ah here he is, Samuel Iridis: uses a form of Light Magic called The Path of the Blind Man, he refracts light away from his opponents eyes, rendering them blind before he finishes them off with offensive light attacks. His offensive technique is a technique called Shining Second Skin.”
Igna’s brow furrowed, “wait a second; you have a file on everyone?”
Orsino’s face set into a disappointed scowl “yes before Master Crowfang left on his trip he insisted that he be aware of the capabilities of all the up and comers in the coven.” Orsino looked pissed as he told them “I don’t know whether he wants to assemble some kind of army or if he’s terrified of some young whippersnapper coming to take his place. Either way I can’t stand the idea of giving up my student’s information. Of course...” he went on heatedly “its nonsense anyway, almost every mentor wants to make their students’ report look fantastic so that it reflects well on them, so none of them are accurate.”
“Do you have my report?” Interrupted Igna excitedly, leaning forward and grabbing the file that Orsino was holding.
Orsino held onto the file, a look a curiosity and worry on his face, “are you sure you want to read this my girl? I haven’t read it out of respect for you, but do really wish to know what Master Djavulen thinks about you?” In a moment of hesitation Igna’s grip on the file slackened for a moment and Orsino eased it out from her grasp. “I’m sure he has only nice things to say” Orsino continued sympathetically, “perhaps it’s best that Master Djavulen’s private thoughts remain private.”
Igna nodded uncertainly, she stuck her hands grumpily into her pockets and tried to change the subject. “So Iridis uses light magic huh? So what? do I have to close my eyes when I fight him?”
Orsino rubbed his chin and cast his gaze up to the ceiling as if he were thinking of something. Finally he replied “I recall that during the war Technographers would often carry tinted goggles when they fought against light mages to avoid damage to the eyes. However the whole point of Iridis’ magic is to prevent light from reaching your eyes in order to render you blind, so glasses may not help. I recall when I was a young man a friend of mine called Stephan Vitrum was a light mage,” Orsino began to ramble the way only an old man could “he followed Path of the Illusionist, he would challenge people to duels and always win. You want to know how?” he asked the two of them with a sly look in his eye “he’d create a mirage of himself that always leapt out of the way of his enemies attacks, then when his foe was exhausted he’d appear behind them and simply push them over.”
“Sounds rather troublesome” mumbled Liam “how did anyone ever beat him if they could never catch him?”
Orsino nodded sagely “the thing about surprise attacks...” he told them, acting like a professor at the head of the class “...is that they only work when no one expects it. You see there was this young man- very bossy fellow, always had his head stuck in a book- and he’d had enough of my friend’s antics so he challenged him to fight by the lake. Now this chap was a water mage so he got there early and covered all of the ground around him in water, letting the ground saturate and turn into a bog. So when poor young Vitrum came up to begin the duel he sank down to his knees in mud, even when he made an illusion he couldn’t run away.”
Igna smiled at the story “so what’s the moral of this story?” Igna asked playfully “is it that cheats never prosper? or is that cheats always prosper?”
Orsino frowned mournfully “it’s neither I’m afraid, this story has two morals: firstly that by knowing your enemy you can win the fight before it has even begun, an invaluable lesson that a young mage should always remember” Orsino told the two of them sternly, casting his gaze back and worth between them.
Orsino lost sign of smiling then, he looked stern and weary “Listen, the second moral is one that is even more important, especially for you Igna.”
Both Igna and Liam could sense that Orsino had become even more grave, the exchanged a look of worry and turned back to him, “what lesson’s that Master Lavande?” Igna asked, fearing the answer.
Orsino let out a pent up breath and continued his story “after the duel had been won, the water mage could have let him go, his foe had surrendered and he had been proclaimed the victor. But that wasn’t good enough for Richard, oh no. You see Stephan had offended a great many people, Richard’s friends had been humiliated by Stephan, and Richard wanted to make Stephan pay for dishonouring them.”
Igna gulped, “what did he do?”
“He drowned him” spoke up Liam, much to Igna and Orsino’s surprise, “Master Vestal dunked him in the lake and summoned currents to drag him to the bottom. He liked to boast about it when he was drunk, ‘drowned the little rat I did’ he’d say.”
Orsino paused mournfully, “yes it was Vestal, a promising water mage at the time, in fact it was this ‘act of pride’ that caught the attention of the Masters at the time and he was promoted to Expert rank for his sense of duty at eliminating a young upstart. That’s the moral of this story Igna, you are the young upstart, a woman entering the domain of men, they’ve already promoted one and they don’t want to add another. The judges will be biased against you, Djavulen has been banned from being one of the judges because he might show sympathy to you, Iridis will go all out against you of offending his pride and they won’t stop him even if he kills you. By entering this match you enter the lion’s den, I wouldn’t blame you if you surrendered, took the exam some other time when you feel that you're really ready to face the odds.”
Igna looked away from Orsino, casting her gaze out of the window and over the forest. Her mind was in a turmoil of doubt, perhaps master Lavande is right she thought, if they really don’t want me to pass then they’ll never pass me, what’s even the point of taking the test? It’ll only look bad for me. Igna lamented, still staring hopelessly out of the window.
Liam glanced guiltily at Igna, as if it was his fault that Igna was suffering. He struggled to find the words that would draw Igna away from her anguish, “so... master Lavande why are you a master? I thought there were only six masters in Crowfang Keep.”
Master Orsino Lavande nodded his head slowly, a look of nostalgia growing on his face. “Well you see Igna does me more honour than I deserve, I am not a master at all. Rather I used to be a master before either of you came to the Keep. However I was demoted to Expert for my radical ideas and to make way for an up-and-coming mage who would take my place.”
Now Liam felt a little perplexed by the old master’s tone, Orsino’s demotion must’ve been one of the most shameful periods of his life and yet here he was talking about it like it was just a spot of bad news. “Aren’t you angry?” Liam asked, peering critically at Orsino as if he were trying to see beyond his facial expressions and find how he really felt.
“I’m not angry, no young Liam.” Orsino told him in a relaxed tone of voice “there was a period of time where I was furious that the other masters had cast me aside for a mere boy. I had been a master since before this Keep was called Crowfang. I was one of the masters who reopened the Keep after the end of the war. I was an experienced voice of reason that communicated directly to our Archmage and to the King. I was invaluable to the Keep.” Then Orsino shrugged his shoulders and simply waved his troubles away. “All that changed though when the mage who had been selected as my replacement came to see me, he’s incredibly proud and stubborn but despite that he knelt before me and said that he had no wish to usurp my power, if I wished to remain in
power then he would step down and allow me to return to my position. Well, I was still furious so I very nearly jumped at the chance to have my power back, but I was struck by the boy’s sense of honour and I realised that, in time, he may make an even better master than ever was.” Here Orsino turned his eyes towards Igna “and so that was how master Eric Djavulen and his apprentice Igna Redhawk took their place in Crowfang Keep. When Igna found out that Eric had supplanted me she started calling me ‘master Lavande’ out respect” Orsino smiled.
Igna gave a derisive snort, but she still gave Orsino a grateful half smile “whatever” she muttered bashfully.
Orsino cleared his throat and pushed his chair back from the table “if you really want to attend the match then you’d best get your skates on, I’ve distracted you for far too long.” He escorted them out of the room and bid them goodbye with a smile and a wink. “Do your best at the match Igna, me and the rest of the Flower Corp will be there to support you.”
With that Igna and Liam marched down the hallway, headed to the arena leaving Orsino behind with his books. As Liam looked over at Igna he could see clearly that Igna’s eyes were alive and dancing like fire with grit and determination.
Igna’s cloak fluttered as she strode confidently towards Samuel Irirdis. Igna was dressed in robes of a unique colour, rather than the boring brown that most novices wore. Her cloak was a deep grey coat with a fur trim, worn like a cape just as Eric did, but her tunic was jet black with a fiery orange motif. People on the sideline’s muttered bitterly as Igna made it to the centre of the arena to stand face to face with Samuel who was glaring furiously at her.
The judges quietly entered the hall from their chamber, making their way with ease to their table which some servant had had the presence of mind to turn the right side up after the havoc of the last match.
Liam suddenly started and grabbed Eric’s arm anxiously “master Djavulen what are you doing here? You should be down there with the other judges!”
Eric shook his head “a master isn’t allowed to judge his own pupil. I would be biased towards her, why do think master Vestal didn’t judge your match?”
“Because he disowned me?” Liam ventured.
“Perhaps that too” agreed Eric gravely.
As if they’d spoken of the devil, master Richard Vestal marched determinedly into the hall, dressed in fine navy robes and clutching his precious book of the zodiac under his arm. Liam wilted a little at the sight of his old master, he hadn’t seen him in months, not since master Vestal had matter-of-factly told Liam that he was a failure and a disgrace, whilst Hibernia stood by with her head held low. Liam had gone out training with Igna with the hopes of returning to his master’s side, but Master Vestal hadn’t attended his match, hadn’t come to see the results of his months of training.
Hard, quick steps reached Liam’s ears as Hibernia quickly approached the two of them. Her stride was strict and determined. In Liam’s eyes Hibernia was in her most natural state: immensely powerful, stunningly beautiful and mildly irritated. She reached Liam’s side with her arms crossed grumpily. “I talked to Master Vestal” she told him in what sounded like a bitter growl.
“Oh?” Liam replied cautiously, there was a dangerous edge to her tone that made it sound like she was seething with anger.
“I asked him about whether he’d take you back” she told him discreetly, shooting a secretive glance towards Eric who was standing by close enough to overhear their conversation. “He said that he refused to take you back.” Hibernia told Liam, there was a definite quiver in her voice but Liam couldn’t ascertain what emotion she was feeling. Annoyance? Disappointment? Fury? Hibernia grasped Liam by the arm and turned her till their eyes met, “I’ve quit working for master Vestal” she told him boldly, “I won’t work with someone who doesn’t respect me as a competent mage and who is foolish enough to get rid of a mage as talented as you” on the you Hibernia gave Liam and gentle but firm prod in the chest, letting her finger hang there pressed against his chest.
Liam gulped, his face was beginning to heat up from physical contact with Hibernia. “What will you do now?” Liam asked her nervously, his throat growing tight, she was standing very, very near to him. “Will you join another group? A new master?” he looked away as he asked in a hollow voice “or will you go solo?” Please don’t go solo Liam thought panickedly we just reunited.
Hibernia shrugged nonchalantly as she took a step back away from Liam “I’m not sure what I’ll do” she decided at length “I considered maybe... a one-on-one partnership with someone.”
“A partnership?” Liam stammered “with whom?”
“Oh I haven’t decided yet.” She replied, looking away and leaning casually over the railing, “perhaps I’ll wait for someone to ask me” she mused hesitantly shooting Liam a look. Unfortunately Liam couldn’t see her, he was too busy staring at the floor, biting his lip, his face glowing red.
I guess the hint was lost on him Eric thought to himself, shaking his head as he turned back to the match. A partnership huh?
Igna and Samuel stood apart from each other, staring the other down, their eyes full of determined fury. The message in their eyes was clear: I’m gonna knock your head off.
The referee coughed to catch their attention “Okay the rules are simple: you win when your opponent is unconscious, gives up, or dies, oh and try to not kill the other person. May the best man win.” Igna shot him a dirty look at the word man but said nothing, she took an aggressive stance and raised her fists.
As the referee’s whistle blew Igna launched forwards like a greyhound out of the box. Magic surged to her hands and her two fists caught alight, flashing blazing orange flames without harming her at all. She swung at Samuel, right and left but he weaved out of range of her attacks, keeping well out of her way and bring his hands together to cast his own spell. Igna moved like a tiger, pouncing at Samuel and swinging aggressively at him, he always seemed able to keep out of reach, but only just. Samuel was so far unharmed but he had no time to focus on casting any spells, and Igna’s attacks were coming closer and closer with every attempt. Igna’s fist swept forwards powering through will the motion of her entire body, with no time do doge Samuel instinctively threw up his hands to protect himself and warded off Igna’s burning punch. The flames scorched his wrist and he stumbled back with a yelp of pain, clutching at his scalded wrists, his eyes screwed up and watering with pain.
Now’s my chance! Igna thought triumphantly, leaping into an aggressive stance "flame bolt!” she shouted unleashing a chain of quick punches. From each punch bloomed an orange bolt of fire, which rocketed towards Samuel. Samuel preemptively threw himself to the side and avoid the chain of attacks but was hit directly by one of the bolts which exploded into heat and smoke, blasting Samuel through the air and onto his back where he lay helplessly.
Up in the balcony Hibernia frowned as if she was somehow disappointed “was that it? is this really the best he’s got? Igna could finish him off right now if she wanted.”
But Eric shook his head gravely “Igna won’t finish him off” he told her gravely “she understands the situation she’s in.”
Hibernia noticed that Eric looked terribly concerned, the frown that he often wore across his face was even deeper than normal, and he was surreptitiously clenching and unclenching his fist behind his back.
“What do you mean the situation she’s in? You mean her match? She’s dominating it!”
“Perhaps…“ Eric considered as his piercing eyes focused on her “…perhaps not. It wouldn’t be the first time that the judges failed someone for being overconfident.”
“What are you talking about?” Liam asked worriedly, was it possible that Igna could lose on a technicality?
“The rules state that if an examinee attempts a spell that the judges realise threatens either the wielder or bystanders then the judges may stop the match. Similarly if they feel that an examinee is being overconfident or irrational then the judges may stop the match. After all the test exists to find those who are best suited to advance to the next rank. Any mage who could threaten to embarrass Crowfang Keep cannot be allowed to pass the test.” Eric’s fingers gripped the railing so tight his knuckles turned white, and his nerves were painted across his face. “Most of the Masters of Crowfang are against allowing women into the higher ranks, that’s why there are so few women at Crowfang Keep at all, and why they are all confined to the lower ranks of the Flower Corp. Hibernia, you only passed because of our obvious exceptional talent, but Igna does not possess the same gifts as you. The judges are firmly against her passing this match, her victory has to be hard fought and deserving, otherwise...” Eric fretted as he leaned over the balcony, his eyes fixed hawk-like on Igna “they'll fail her for sure."
Igna stood still, her hands on her hips as Iridis crawled about on his knees, wincing when he put pressure on his wrists. Igna did nothing to stop him as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a roll of bandages and began wrapping his wrists. Igna was well aware that the judges valued good sportsmanship, and she had to win as much favour with the judges as possible if she wanted to get away with her plan. So we waited as Samuel wrapped up his wounded wrists with the soothing strips of cloth. Then he wrapped up his whole hands till even his fingers were totally wrapped up. Samuel shakily got to his feet and stood straight in front of Igna.
“You're better than I thought you’d be Redhawk.” Samuel grimaced raising his fist and experimented with making fists, “I guess I can’t keep going easy on you just because you're a woman.”
“It’d be the worst mistake of your life to go easy on me” Igna warned him softly, a heated look emerging in her eyes.
Samuel brought his now bandaged hands up like a boxer, channelling his power and causing his fists to shine with searing white light. Samuel looked hatefully at Igna, his eyes directing the full force of his fury at her. “I’m going to eliminate you. I want my money back!” He yelled throwing his arms forward with a yell “Bright Flash!” It was as if Samuel’s hands had become the sun itself, terrible searing whiteness shining from his palms. Igna seized her eyes shut tight as fast as she could and threw her arms over her face. The whole audience reeled at the sight, turning away from the light’s heat bit hungrily at her arms and her eyes were squeezed shut tight. The light splashed over her, sending pain shooting through up her arms. Crying out in pain she staggered back, her arms still thrown up over her face and her feet unsteady on the floor.
Seeing his chance Samuel charged at her, raising his fist which once again glowed violent white light. He threw a heavy punch at Igna’s face, hard enough to loosen her teeth and make her brain rattle. But Igna’s head was gone, as with the simplest step his fist missed it’s mark and left him completely open. Igna’s hands clamped round his arm and heaved hard pulling him off balance. Lifting up a leg she stamped as hard as hard as she could in the stomach. The crowd winced as Samuel’s knees gave out and the air rushed out of his lungs. Then, with one final effort Igna tugged hard at his arm, straining hard she heaved him off the ground, throwing him over her shoulder and sending him crashing down onto the ground like a sack of flour.
There was a long moment of silence from the crowd as Samuel lay on his back rolling around in winded pain. Igna didn’t make another move towards Samuel, instead she turned her head and looked directly at the judges, raising an eyebrow at them as if to say “are we done here?”
Several of the judges looked peeved and Master Vestal looked disgusted.
“Wow” Liam murmured almost disappointedly “is that really it? She tossed him around like he was nothing.”
Eric scratched his scalp absently “huh, I guess Igna got pretty scary during her training. Even so Iridis is far more competent than that, he’s completed many successful missions in the past.
Hibernia revealed a small evil smile “perhaps now he’ll realise how outclassed he is and go all out. He friends certainly seem to realise it.”
She was right, huddled on another balcony were Rippledancer’s and Samuel’s cronies. They were locked in deep, frantic discussion, as well as wincing and watching in horror as Igna publicly disassembled their leader.
“Come on Sam!” One of them called out to Samuel, “you can do it!” With that cue the rest of the cronies began to break out into a barked chorus of support that caused Hibernia’s cruel smile to widen.
“Ah camaraderie- that’s cute” she snidely remarked.
Slowly and pathetically Samuel began to clamber to his feet, stumbling and clutching painfully at his stomach where Igna had kicked him.
Igna continued to wait patiently for Samuel to find his feet, making no move to attack him. “You ready to continue the match? I’m warning you: that was just a warmup, I can do much, much worse.”
“I’ll take that as yes” Igna decided bluntly adopting the stance of a boxer and waiting for Samuel’s next move. However Samuel didn’t rush at her, in fact he hardly moved at all.
Moving slowly and with precision Samuel bent his knees and clenched his fists tight enough for his knuckles to turn chalk white. Under his breath in a dark voice of hatred he muttered bitterly “White Shimmer Body.” His hands began to tremor and his face became locked into one of utter loathing and concentration. All the mages in the hall could see the faint shimmer of white light beginning to shroud Samuel, one that grew in strength and clarity till it seemed that his white aura had formed a second skin around him. He had manifested his magic to such an extent that it had taken physical form around him.
Igna whistled “neat trick you made yourself into a lantern, what does it do?”
Samuel facial expression didn’t change at all as he stood upright and took a single step forward, it was still a mask of utter disgust and fury. “It does this Redhawk.” A sudden white blur closed the distance between Igna and Samuel, a heavy and hot blow struck Igna hard across the face before she move an inch.
Igna staggered, her cheek aching from the hit she’d taken. Catching herself on her back foot, she maintained her balance only to be caught across the face again by something moving impossibly fast. This time her body was jerked the other way and she fell onto her back, her lip bursting with sudden pain. “What the hell?” she muttered, rolling to the side as another white blow came swinging by. With that Samuel stopped moving to admire his handiwork, and now Igna could see the attack for what it was: somehow Samuel’s shimmering technique had made his body faster and stronger than ever, till he was able to beat her back with ease.
Igna sprang to her feet, dashing straight into action and lunging at Samuel with her fist drawn back to swing. Samuel slipped to the side like a snake and Igna’s fist passed through air. Samuel swiped his leg out viciously, sweeping Igna’s legs out from under her and sending her toppling once again towards the ground. Igna hit the ground hard, banging her forehead on the ground and smacking her knee on the stone floor. Pain shot up her leg causing her to wince and slump against the floor helplessly.
“Not feeling so hot now are you?” Jeered Samuel. He focused his magic in his palms and his hands began to glow, growing brighter and brighter as the second skin peeled away from him and collected in his palms. Stretching out his hands wide he began to chant “the blank eyes of the seer, the scorched hands of the desert-”
“Cover your eyes” Eric hastily warned Liam and Hibernia “you look at that light and your eyes could be damaged.” To which Liam and Hibernia immediately complied, throwing their arms up over their eyes and turning away from the arena.
Igna barely had time to react, lifting herself hastily and throwing her arms up like a shield
Samuel brought his arms forwards with a mighty push exclaiming “Blinding Nova Cannon!” A colossal beam of light burst from his palms flooding towards Igna. The light bulldozed across the arena floor, scorching the ground and bearing down on Igna. The light consumed her like a colossal beast, blasting at her and hitting her with enough power to roast a wild boar and charring the back wall far behind her like charcoal.
“How’s that?” Samuel breathed heavily “you brought that on yourself bitch.”
Still with his eyes covered Master Quincy nudged Master Onyx and muttered “feel that heat? This match is over, it’s a pity that it had to end this way, I’d never want a dead mage in the exam, even if they were as much trouble as her.
Soon the light faded away and everyone brought their attention back to the match.
“Why didn’t they stop the match?!” Eric growled darkly under his breath, feeling ready to throw himself over to the rail and down into the arena. He had taken one step towards the railing when his eye was caught by an orange glow down in the arena; the glow of a roaring hearth that pierces through the evening cold and darkness. An inferno of hot fire danced and spun in the centre of the room forming around the still crouched Igna like a constantly shifting cloak protecting her from all harm.
“Like I was saying” Igna said boldly, “that skin technique really was very neat. Increasing speed and attack power massively with a single technique, that’s really impressive, and I’m willing to bet it protects you from harm too doesn’t it? Mine only works for defence, though it’s also pretty hot as you may have noticed.”
Sweat rolled down down Samuel’s face, flowing into the canyon of Samuel’s scowl and running down his face.
Igna noticed this, and a look of satisfaction crossed her face “you’re sweating Samuel, are you beginning to feel the heat? or are you just scared?”
With a yell Samuel’s second skin spell shone out once again, bursting out like a halo as he threw himself at Igna. He drove his fist through the flame cloak heedless of the heat, but he found that it was like punching water. The flame cloak pushed back against him as it were alive, slowing his fist down and weakening the blow. The punch still landed, but it was off point, bumping her collarbone, proving a mere nuisance.
Igna jabbed at Samuel and he leapt backwards out of harms way. He stood there for an instant, trapped within indecision. All of a sudden he became of the pain in his hand, looking down he saw the skin on his hand had turned a scalded pink. The second skin of light was meant to protect him from the heat of Igna’s flames, but it seemed that it couldn’t keep out all the intense heat of the inferno. His hand began to tremor as he stared at the scald, no way he thought panickedly I can’t be scared of her! She’s Redhawk! Just some urchin Djavulen dragged to Crowfang. All I have to do is break out a spell stronger than the Nova Cannon, then she won’t stand a chance. All out offence is my strategy now.
Igna stayed still for a second, rubbing her collarbone where Samuel had landed a misdirected blow. As excellent flame cloak was it had a flaw, it constantly drained magic as long as it was active and required focus to keep it alive. Igna’s strategy was clear: All out attack is my strategy now.
As one the two mages hurled themselves at the other, one figure shining like the sun, blitzing forwards like a missile, the other bounded forwards like a flaming predator bounding on it’s prey. Samuel darted at Igna swiping with his uninjured fist, Igna raised an arm and barely blocked the blow before pushing back and striking at him in turn. Samuel ducked her punch and crouched low, bringing his foot round for a savage sweep kick. Igna quick stepped back out of the way and followed up with roundhouse kick, striking Samuel in the face hard enough to knock him to the floor and then scrabbling away from her.
They stood meters apart, staring the other down baiting the other to make the first move.
“What’s up with you?” Igna taunted “I can see all of your moves now. Did you get slower? Or am I just catching up to you?” Then as one the two of them hurtled towards the other, letting out a yell as they threw themselves forwards. The two clashed, forearm to forearm they shoved hard at the other, their eyes set like glowing iron, but neither made headway.
With a grunt Igna grabbed Samuel by the arms and fell backwards, chambering a kick and letting Samuel succeed the pushing match. Just as Samuel found himself suspended above Igna, a look of triumph in his eyes, Igna slammed all the power she could into her foot as she unleashed a kick packed with magic to Samuel’s solar plexus. “Phoenix stomp!” Igna yelled unleashing her spell like water bursting through a dam. The flame that surrounded her surged down her leg, blossoming out into a blot of golden flame which detonated in Samuel’s face.
The sound of the explosion rocked the hall as it blasted Samuel high, high into the air like scorched debris. Igna was hit by the force of the blast too, she rolled over the ground like a paratrooper struggling to find her feet. Samuel’s flight came to an abrupt end when he reached his zenith and gravity took hold her of him, pulling him down to strike the hard stone floor like an exhausted bird.
“Do you think she overdid it?” Liam asked Hibernia as the motionless Samuel’s second skin faded away “that blow looked pretty brutal.”
“No more brutal than your match” Hibernia said glancing pointedly at the bandages tied around Liam’s arm “she didn’t try to chew his arm off.” Hibernia turned her head to look at Samuel’s crew, if they had looked worried before then now they looked mortified, chewing anxiously on their fingernails and muttering darkly to one another, some of them appeared to have left the stands entirely, as if they couldn’t stand to watch their friend get demolished in the ring.
Eric remained silent keeping up a facade of uncaring seriousness, but had there perhaps been a forensic pathologist with a great deal of time on their hands, you might have noticed the tiniest of smiles crossing his face. Well done Igna.
The table of judges sat in cold silence as Samuel lay still on the ground and Igna was knelt, staring straight at them expectantly. The referee cleared his throat the match was very clearly over. But the masters paid neither of them any heed, averting their eyes and ignoring the match entirely.
An expectant silence was growing in the audience and the referee began to fret “my masters” he began anxiously “the match is over. The crowd awaits your judgement.”
There was another long moment where the judges would not reply, eyes closed, or turned away from the action. Then Master Vestal spoke up, “the match isn’t over, obviously.”
The referee looked on astonished “Master Vestal what do you mean?”
“I believe you heard him” spoke up Master Quincy frustratedly “the match isn’t over, we will wait until Iridis gets back up and demonstrates the extent of his skills.”
The crowd began to murmur busily, few people there were fond of Igna becoming an Adept but the idea of the judges refusing her a place this way disgusted them even more. Igna leapt to her feet, her eyes were heated and sparks of flame broke out from her fingertips, taking fast steps towards the judges’ table. Then all of a sudden Eric was standing in front of her, appearing out of thin air and bearing down on the judges table.
Eric stared down at the judges, his face was clear of anger, but he seemed as a tidal wave coming to crash down on them. Looking Vestal straight in the eyes “don’t do this Vestal” he warned “if you deny Igna her victory then you’ll anger all those in the Flower Corp, she’s popular amongst their ranks and Orsino. You don’t wish to anger all of them.”
Vestal stared back at Eric, his eyes filled with fixated disgust “I said the match isn’t over, Iridis has yet to show his skill.”
“Don’t be tiresome Richard” spoke up Master Funis in an uninterested voice “Iridis is an excellent mage but it’s obvious he’s been outclassed, let it go and pass the girl, pass them both even I don’t care.”
“Funis you bastard-” Began Vestal, getting hurriedly to his feet, setting his book down with a loud thump, when all off a sudden a quiet, hesitant voice reached them from the upper balcony:
They all turned. There was Samuel, scrabbling pathetically on his front like a starved tortoise trying to find it’s feet. Igna turned on her heel and marched towards Samuel’s solitary figure. The muttering around the arena ceased as Igna stood above Samuel her fists clenched.
Eric slowly drifted to the to the sideline, his eyes focused on Igna as she stood over her helpless foe. What will you do Igna?
Igna crouched low till she was bent over Samuel and could meet his gaze. He looked looked furious at Igna, but his anger had haggardness to it, as if he was too beaten down to be truly hateful. “Heya Sammy” Igna said “not gonna lie, I’m little surprised you're still conscious. Guess that skin spell is even better than I thought.”
Samuel choked something under his breath, Igna couldn’t quite make it out but it sounded a little like a very croaked “hate... you...”
“Vestal and Quincy don’t want to stop the match till you’ve shown your full skill” Igna continued unabated, “I know Eric would want me to finish you off right now- he’s kinda strict about the whole no mercy thing” she confided quietly “but personally I’d rather we finished this fight properly.”
Samuel looked up in confusion “you want to continue the fight?”
“Yeah, we made a bet and all, seems a waste for it to end here. Besides” she admitted “I want to show off what I can do in front of everyone, I can’t think of a better way to do than to beat your finishing move. You do have one right?”
As Samuel began to understand Igna’s reasoning he gave a hollow laugh “that’s probably the most arrogant thing I’ve ever heard. You want to risk the whole match just to show off?”
Igna shrugged “I dunno. It’s no fun if I beat you when you have a final technique in your back pocket.” She reached out a hand to offer Samuel a way to his feet, he gripped her hand and she pulled him unsteadily to his feet.
The crowd broke out into shocked murmuring, the judges looked on with horrified expressions and Eric was surreptitiously bumping his head against the wall muttering “...this is my star pupil, this is my star pupil…”
Up on balcony Hibernia had buried her face in her folded arms on the balcony and raving “Igna you fuck-face don’t give him a second chance.”
Liam tentatively patted her on the back “there there- I’m sure she won’t balls it up. Mostly.”
Igna and Samuel stood apart from each other just as they had at the start of the match, though now both the fighters were looking a little worse for wear: Samuel was shaky on his feet and Igna’s fire had burned a boot shaped hole in his cloak.
“Ready for round two?” Asked Igna giving Samuel a come-at-me gesture.
“I’m ready” replied Samuel grimly “but this match won’t last long.” With that he cupped his hands, letting out a roar and conjuring up all the magic he could. Light burst out from his palms, forming a sphere of light radiating intense power. The sphere grew and grew rapidly expanding till it was larger than Samuel himself and floated above his head like a miniature sun, “Final Nova Bomb” he rasped.
Igna could hardly bring herself to look at the colossal sphere of light, it shone so bright it seemed to eliminate all the shadows in the hall forcing Igna to cover her eyes. Intense heat like desert daylight burned across the hall, turning the hall alive with heat.
Igna lifted her hood up and over her eyes to shut out the light “not bad, but it certainly isn’t as cool as my move” crouching low Igna pressed her fist to the ground, and conjuring up her flame cloak she drew upon more and more power. The cloak billowed around her, growing in size and intense heat, the flames seemed to take on a savage lifelikeness, thrashing and lashing in all directions like some wild and malformed animal.
The heat from the two infernos was becoming intolerable for everyone in the hall, metal became untouchably hot and people were forced to remove their outer layers and shield their vulnerable eyes.
Eric had thrown away his heavy cloak and had slunk behind a pillar to escape the barrage of heat and light, he swept drops of sweat from his brow, even when dwelling in the shadow of the column it was too hot to tolerate. What is this move? He could only wonder panickedly this is precisely what I feared, if she acts too ambitious the judges will fail her.
Igna’s flames had grown and grown till the spiralling column nearly reached the roof of the hall, it’s fingers stroking against the wooden beams in the rafters, but then they began to retreat, descending back down to Igna, coiling round her like a burning gyre. It was as if Igna was standing at the centre of a drill constructed out of golden flame, turning and turning ceaselessly.
Samuel’s colossal ball of light had grown and grown too, like a large and cumbersome boulder suspended over his head. He seemed to be straining under it, as if containing it was too difficult for him. In fact it seemed to Hibernia that Samuel had lost all control of the sphere, that it was just ravenously sapping his power and growing stronger. Then Hibernia gaped in horrified amazement at Igna is this your plan Igna? she marvelled, get Samuel to make an attack too powerful and be disqualified by the judges, just as Eric had warned them.
It seemed that the judges had gotten a similar idea, Master Hortus was looking on in explicit terror, he was witnessing a calamity in the making: two colossal attacks clashing, with nearly all of Crowfang Keep present in the blast zone. He got hurriedly to his feet, he had to stop the match immediately before disaster struck. He turned to his fellow masters, fear in his eyes “this has gotten out of hand” he rasped, his eyes wide and sweat pouring down his face.
Igna spied the master out of the corner of her eye and with a satisfied grin relinquished her spell, she let out an exhausted sigh as the golden flames faded away and the heat died. She stood there in the middle of the arena, completely unprotected from Samuel’s attack. “Alright Samuel, let’s see it” she demanded “give your best shot.”
Samuel strained hard, heaving the ever growing ball of light at Igna, but it was all for naught, Samuel simply didn’t have control over his attack any more. It continued to leech off of his power, forcing him to his knee as it sapped more and more strength. The ball -which was now twice the size of it’s wielder- no longer glowed with furious light, instead it began to turn a deep yellow, as if the very nature of the attack had changed and it no longer had a master.
Master Festus turned to Hortus and they both nodded in agreement. The normally lax and disinterested master was now panicked alert, he’d seen far too many times what happened when a mage lost control of their spell and unleashed all their power at once. The destruction that could be done, especially when so many people were around was unthinkable. Festus leapt onto the table, drawing a long steel chain from his inner pocket and clasping his hands together to cast a spell. Suddenly a hand gripped his ankle hard, looking down he saw a livid Quincy grabbing hold of him.
“Don’t stop the match” Master Quincy urged desperately “I know Samuel can regain control.”
Master Festus looked at Quincy with bewilderment, surely he couldn’t take his principles this far? He wouldn’t risk the entire coven to stick by tradition? The other masters appeared to be just as shocked, even Master Onyx who was normally entirely in tune with Quincy couldn’t follow him on this one.
“Let’s go Festus” said Eric as he stepped ahead of the masters, his eyes were aglow with arcane light and it seemed a dark purple aura clung to him like a fiendish miasma, “we must extinguish the light before it destroys everyone.”
Festus nodded in response and cast out the chain again like a fisherman, the chain seemed to come to life, soaring round and round the sphere like a swift clasping the orb in a tight grip of steel chains. Festus pumped magic into the chain and it glowed with white light, retracting and clenching Samuel’s attack as if trying to crush the attack back to it’s weaker form. Festus clenched his teeth “I’m sapping it’s power but if Iridis keeps this up then he’ll die.”
Eric turned to Onyx “make a shield round the sphere and I’ll push it out of the hall.”
Onyx didn’t even get to his feet, he just grunted and waved his hand at the sphere. As he cast his spell the tiles of the arena around Samuel rose up and clung to sphere pushing back against it and covering like a stony mask.
Eric bounded forwards towards Samuel’s towering sphere, sprinting across the arena he clapped his hands together, the dark aura that surrounded him began to pool into his palm shaping into what looked like a devilish claw. Eric drew back his shadowy claw and struck the stony hide of the orb of light with all his might, pushing the orb back an inch, but no further than that. Eric forced more power into his palm, concentrating all the magic into a ball of forceful magic. The light ball and Eric were locked in a huge shoving match with the colossal light ball -but the light ball was winning, pushing Eric back his feet scrabbling for grip against the dirt floor that had been exposed when the rocks had lifted up. It was almost every drop of a competent mage's’ power in one space and Eric couldn’t hope to push it back without using all his power.
Eric raised his other palm and a blast of high pressure air coiled around him, he’d summoned the wind to aid him in his pushing match with the ball. With both shadow and wind subservient to him he began to push back against the ball, lifting it up and away from the ground. Letting out a guttural growl Eric began to pump more and more power into his palms, molding the two elements of wind and shadow into one technique: a cannonball of inky darkness sheathed in a blanket of wind.
“Crash through heaven’s domain: Moon Piercing Spear!” roared Eric, striking out with all the might he could muster. The shadowy sphere he cradled in his palms expanded out dramatically rocketing away, wind twisting round it savagely like a drill, and forcing the humongous ball of light away from the arena at tremendous speed. The ball blasted up through the roof of the arena, busting through in an eruption of tiles and wooden splinters. High, high into the air the orb flew, till it was high above the keep’s tallest tower, when finally it exploded, a huge burst of yellow light that illuminated the sky, sending intense rays of light down through the hole in the ceiling, giving the calamity an almost holy appearance.
With a deep exhalation of breath Eric lowered his palms to his sides, tilting his head back exhaustedly. There'd been no time to think during the brief crisis, but now his brain had figured out how close they’d come to a complete catastrophe and his hands were trembling slightly.
The crowd did not seem to understand how close they had come to calamity. Hesitantly at first by quickly building to a crescendo they began to applaud Eric. To them it was just the young Master Djavulen being as cool as ever, demonstrating how magic was meant to be done.
Eric didn’t feel very cool at all, he felt scared and confused like a rabbit that had barely escaped the jaws of a fox. He felt a strong hand grip him by the elbow, and turning his head he found Igna standing next to him, beaming reassuringly, her eyes seemed to be asking: you okay?
“I’m not gonna lie” she confided as she led them back to the sideline “you kinda stole my thunder there.”
Eric couldn’t help but close his eyes for a second and let out a light laugh “oh I’m so sorry, saving the coven? that was so selfish of me.”
“I’m glad you realise it” Igna jibbed as Eric scooped up his cloak. “What did you think of the match?” she asked, fastening her own fur cloak around her shoulders as well.
“Honestly” Eric confined as the crowds began to file out of the hall, abuzz with excitement over the match, “it doesn’t matter that you obviously won the match by miles. The masters will be angry about the stunt you pulled at the end, they might say that you put everyone at risk, that you’re reckless and irresponsible.”
“Do you think they’re right?” Igna asked Eric, a look of quiet satisfaction on her face.
Eric rolled his eyes “you are more than a little arrogant and irresponsible, and dangerous, and reckless and…”
“Rude” muttered Igna playfully boxing Eric on the arm.
“But…” Eric continued, rubbing his arm gently where Igna had punched him “that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to pass the exam.”
“How sweet of you” muttered Igna her voice dripping with sarcasm “you certainly know how to give a girl a compliment.”
Just then Eric realised that he and Igna had lost their audience, the other masters had vanished, disappearing out of the hall away from prying eyes. They must have left to reach a verdict Eric realised as he swept his cloak over his shoulders and trotted hurriedly away out of the hall, living Igna standing confused in the dust.
“Huh?” she wondered as the took a turn at the door at the doorway and vanished from sight “why is he always in a hurry?”
“Such arrogance” raved Master Brutus Quincy slamming his fist on the table furiously “who does that girl think she is violating our sacred tradition? Her attitude is intolerable, mocking her opponent like that and using dirty tactics that put everyone at risk. I cannot abide that girl reaching Adept rank, she should be barred from entering the exams ever again!”
The masters had retreated away from the arena to one of their meeting places, a small but ornately carved stone room where they often met to discuss the state of Crowfang Keep. The masters were gathered round a wide white marble table listening to Quincy spit and snarl about Igna’s victory.
There was an air of patient resignation in the room in aftermath of the dual, no one was quite willing to be the one to bring on the final verdict. Although they were all like minded about Igna being forbidden from advancing in rank, the way that Iridis had completely lost control put some doubt in their minds.
Antonio Hortus gave a slight cough “perhaps we should vote now on the outcome of the match, get the nuisance out of the way as it were.” He looked around furtively at the other masters. The answer was clear: they could not allow another woman to reach the rank of Adept, certainly not one who had refused to remain in the Flower Corp.
Vestal grunted his approval “very well I vote that Redhawk be elim...”
“Are we not even going to have a conversation about this?” Came a new voice belonging to a young man who had silently appeared in the room as smoothly and stealthily as the shadow of a breeze. Eric Djavulen slipped over to one of the two remaining chairs, reclining into it slowly, his eyes fixed on Vestal like a hawk.
Onyx and Quincy exchanged a look of tired frustration whilst Vestal glowered heatedly at Eric. “Djavulen” Vestal grumbled distrustfully “you’re too secretive by half. What are you doing here, we voted already that you couldn’t judge you own apprentice.”
“You're quite right” agreed Eric coolly, keeping a penetrative gaze on Vestal at all times “but as her master I am free to observe all aspects of the match, including the judge’s discussion and verdict. A right that you waved earlier today if my memory serves me well.” Eric chided him scathingly.
The other masters all turned their attention onto Vestal who bristled with agitation, clutching his treasured book closer to him. It was considered shameful and irresponsible for a master not to attend to their pupil at such an important event, and Vestal’s absence had not gone unnoticed by the masters and many members of the coven.
Vestal gritted his teeth as he fought the urge to curse at the young upstart. “Djavulen… you little devil, you came here to persuade us to pass your student didn't you? You’ve always thought far too highly of yourself.”
Eric raised his eyebrows miming a look a surprise and hurt “persuade you? I came here to do no such thing,” and here Eric cast a critical eye over all of the masters “I merely came to hear your discussion about my apprentice’s skills. A fair discussion where we talk about all the things she and her opponent did well in the fight.”
The masters looked about the table, their expressions all masks of shame, anger and everything in between.
“There’s nothing to discuss” insisted Quincy forcefully, glaring at Eric, “we all know the game here, you can’t possibly that naive.”
“Game?” Eric replied in a voice as a cold and sharp as steel “I’m sorry I didn’t realise that squashing the potential of a mage who has demonstrated skills worthy of perhaps even someone of the Expert rank was a game. If it is then I believe it’s a pretty sorry game.”
There was a renewed feeling of intensity and bitterness around the table, Master Hortus in particular looked ashamed and pained.
“Eric my boy I understand you want the best for your apprentice but you have to realise that this…” he waved his hand loftily as if to brush away Igna and all the nuisances that ruined his meticulously structured world “this is how the world is. You have to move at the same rate as the world if you want to keep your place within it.”
Eric slowly turned his head to lock eyes with Hortus, he couldn’t help but break his pokerface and reveal a tiny grin “keep up with speed of the world?” he laughed hollowly “I’m sorry but are you aware of the intense irony of that statement? You’re the one who can’t keep up with the speed of the world, none of you can.”
“Watch what you're saying Djavulen” Vestal warned in a voice like the rumbling of a tiger. “You’re not making any friends here.”
“Neither are you” Eric shot back at him “what do you think will happen when word gets out that mages at Crowfang Keep are refused promotion at the whim of their masters? do think they’ll continue to come here in droves? I doubt it, I think they’d rather join the other magical organisations like the Magi Guardsmen or Steelboar Coven.”
At the mention of Steelboar; Crowfang Keep’s rival organisation, the masters all began to murmur heatedly, Master Onyx looked set to choke someone.
“Oh humour the boy” sighed Funis leaning back in his chair, once more tying and untying a piece of rope “we might as well discuss the match, we lose nothing after all, in fact we might gain a more than competent mage.”
Master Vestal glowered, and Master Onyx and Quincy exchanged another furious look, but they conceded. As for Master Hortus, he merely sagged gently, his shoulders drooping and his eyes sinking to the ground. He’d been called to submission by the young master that he himself had appointed. It was a grim day to be Master Hortus.
“Well then” Eric began “who’d like to go first?”