They raced through the hallways, trailing cries in their wake. First, it was merely the startled yelps of the occasional servant as they ran through the upper levels and descended the stairs. Then, as they reached the bottom level and neared the duelling arena, they barrelled into the command to halt from the guardians patrolling the area.
Sulin slowed, half heeding the calls.
Dylan let his friend fall behind. If there was anything life-threatening going on in the arena, the alchemist’s magic wouldn’t be strong enough to shield him from it, let alone help anyone.
They’d be punished for this, being out of their quarters at night, doubly so for disobeying direct orders. At least a week’s worth of denying them of their meals. They might even get solitary confinement. Yet, if his defiance of their cries saved Nestria and Mary, he’d weather whatever sentence they gave him. Please, don’t let me be too late.
He turned down the long corridor leading to the arena. The charge of lightning—an attack they both favoured—permeated the air. He slowed, scanning the hallway for any sign of guardian presence. Surely, if something was wrong, then there’d be people trying to right it.
The stench of scorched air grew stronger as he neared the doors.
Dylan focused and a small film of purple shimmered to life around him. Bracing himself, he flung open the doors. Nestria stood in the middle of the arena, the unconscious form of Mary at her feet. Lightning flashed around them, forking as they smashed into the wide, shimmering barrier encircling them.
The attack came from the alchemist’s experimental infitialis shield. It sparked and crackled, each flare pulsing through the room until it connected with something.
He ran for the pair, the barrier around him thrumming with each hit. He dared to glance up. The big shield that protected spectators, which currently consisted of just the overseers, appeared to be holding up better than their personal barriers.
“Dylan!” Nestria screamed as he neared. “What are you doing?” Lightning stabbed her shield with a dreadful crackling sizzle. She winced, then squared her shoulders. “Get out of here! I can handle this.”
No, you can’t. His dear friend held her ground. For now. She wouldn’t for much longer. Not against this barrage. They needed to leave the arena’s confines, let the shield that encompassed the area contain the blast once the metal finally shattered. And it would. If there was one thing the infitialis metal did well, it was exploding.
He pulled the elf’s slight form tight against him and focused on widening his shield, pushing the narrow oval out until it matched Nestria’s range. The effort caused a dull ache in the base of his skull. Manageable, for now. Lightning crackled around them.
What if one of us fails? No, he couldn’t think of failure. Combined, their power should be enough to block out any force. Dylan bent to the alchemist’s inert form and wrapped her arm behind his neck. “We have to get out of here.”
Nestria nodded, flinching as another bolt struck. Only when she moved to help him did he notice how she favoured one side. And a multitude of scorch marks adorned both women’s robes. His friend was fast enough defending herself in sparring, but nothing was faster than lightning.
With them supporting Mary on either side, they hobbled towards the entrance. The doors seemed a lot farther off than they’d been a moment ago. Still, they struggled onwards, fighting to keep the unconscious woman from dragging—a feat that would’ve been a lot easier had they both been stronger and of similar height.
At their backs, the crackling grew louder, more erratic. He dared a hasty look over Nestria’s head to where Mary had lashed the shield to the old targeting blocks. The metal disc was fracturing. Each crack poured more power behind the lightning. Blue and purple branches of it flashed around them, glancing off their shields.
A particularly heavy blow smacked right across the barriers. Dylan flinched. His gaze fastened onto their exit. The closed, scorched doors seemed to be getting no closer. They had to make it out in time. He wasn’t certain if their shields would hold up against the final blast.
A bolt landed a direct hit to their flank.
Nestria cried out. Her shield wavered. Flickering pulses of purple light danced around them as she fought to keep the barrier up. A second blow and her defence fell.
Whiteness glanced across Dylan’s vision. The suddenness of taking the blast’s whole force was like a punch to the jaw. He staggered, blind for several steps. The unconscious woman all but slipped from his hands.
Shaking his head, he put all his effort on maintaining the shield. Like claws squeezing his skull, the dull ache pinched his brain. No matter how he tried, he couldn’t stretch the shield to encompass them all and continue to maintain its strength. Pushing any harder only made his head feel as though it were trapped in a vice.
Instead, he turned to face the cracking disc of metal and focused on picturing a wall. It formed between them and the unstable experiment, far stronger than his previous attempts. The lightning smashed against this new barrier, fracturing along the surface. But the wall held.
“What are you doing?” Nestria screamed. She hunkered behind him, dragging the still unresponsive Mary down with her. A thin glow surrounded her, flickering and failing as she sought to shield them.
He crouched next to the women and wrapped his arms around Nestria’s slim shoulders. “Trust me.” If he could press the fracturing, twisting and glowing mass that was the metal disc up against the arena’s shield and hold it there, then perhaps he could limit the damage the experiment did when it exploded.
His shield edged closer. Forks of lightning climbed the surface, the tips curled and cracked at the top. He kept going. The outward face of his shield brushed the curve of infitialis. Dylan held his breath. The main property of the metal was its ability to negate magic. If his barrier dropped now…
His heart skipped a beat as the gossamer shield bulged, sending a visible shudder shimmering across the surface. He flinched, his eyes unable to stay open. They were going to die. The barrier would fall and they’d be electrocuted well before being blown up was a problem.
After a few seconds had passed without incident, he dared to peek.
The shield held. It shuddered with each bolt spewing from the metal disc, but the barrier remained very much intact. He just had to keep it that way.
Slowly, he pushed the shield closer to the arena’s edge. The target block grated along the dusty ground. Each jump and tilt sent a bigger flare from the disc’s core. Thunder, originally a low rumble, boomed around the domed space.
At last, there was no more room for the block to go. Dylan altered his focus, moulding his flat barrier to sit seamlessly against the arena’s shield. What remained of the alchemist’s experiment twisted further, warping under the pressure of being hemmed on all sides.
He gritted his teeth and concentrated on keeping the wall in place. If he let his shield drop, even for a heartbeat, they’d be dead before the next pulse. “Ness!” he groaned, flailing his hand behind him in search of the woman.
Warm, familiar fingers wrapped around his wrist. They were coated in something slick. He didn’t dare look away from the barrier to find out what.
“Can you…” He puffed, trying to find the air to speak. Words should not be this hard. “…carry Mary… on your own?”
“She’s too heavy.”
“Then…” The room blurred. Warm dampness flooded his eyes. He blinked it away. I have to focus. He might be able to hold on long enough, but if not… “Leave us.”
Nestria tightened her grip on his arm. “Dylan…”
He dared the briefest of glances at her face, felt his barrier wavering and snapped his attention back. Behind his shield, the alchemist’s experiment glowed with an intense blue light. “Go.” There was no point in letting her die alongside him if he failed to contain the blast.
If she gave an answer, he didn’t hear it.
The pause between each pulse of lightning grew closer, hitting his barrier with a rapid staccato rhythm. He hunched down as far as he could, drawn between covering his eyes from the glare and knowing he had to keep watching. Any second now and the metal would—
The world went white and fuzzy.
A muffled boom echoed through the arena. His shield bulged under the pressure. He pushed back, trying to control a barrier he could no longer see even as he felt it ripping apart. The strain was agony. The room spun. Already, he was sweating from every pore. Any moment now and his brain was going to leak out his ears. Can’t stop. It only had to hold for a little longer…
His shield shattered, unleashing the full force behind the blast. Stunned by the sudden absence of pressure, Dylan blindly threw himself to the ground. Bodies huddled against him. He flung his arms around Nestria and Mary, pulling them close, shielding them in the only way left to him.
Only when the blast’s last echoes had finished circling the arena did he dare to lift his head. We’re alive. The thought came sluggishly and a little on the tentative side. Were they alive? The compacted dirt under his chin certainly felt like that of the arena floor, but who was to say the afterlife didn’t start out this way?
He rolled off the women to sprawl on the ground. Everything had a purple glare to it. His chin stung like he’d scraped it back to the bone. Already, he felt the familiar tug of his power working on fixing the latter.
The smoky aroma of burnt linen filled his nose. Summoning what energy he could, Dylan patted himself down. There were a few singed spots on the skirts of his robe. He was whole, seemingly in no danger and most definitely alive.
The arena’s main entrance opened, the customary bang of the doors muffled and tame compared to the previous blast that had assaulted his ears. Dylan rolled his head to the side and blurrily watched the blazing outline of two figures running across the room. One of them wore the flapping robes of a spellster and was most likely Sulin, the other…
He blinked, his vision slowly restoring, and took in the woman wearing the dark grey leather tunic of the guardians. Tricia? He sat up, his body strongly objecting to the sudden movement. How had she gotten here so soon? Had she been one of the voices calling for them to stop? I’m in so much trouble.
Sulin blew past them with barely a glance in their direction, making straight for the twisted pieces of the shield. Dylan idly followed the alchemist’s actions with a sort of distant fascination. The pieces lifted, slowly as Sulin manipulated the meagre talent he possessed to examine the smoking remains without direct contact.
“Dylan?” Tricia collapsed beside him. “What did you think were you doing, child?” She grabbed his head turning it this way and that, examining him for injuries until she was satisfied there weren’t any. “You could’ve been killed,” she whispered, drawing him into a tight hug.
He squirmed. Such a display of concern only made it worse. What punishment was she concocting? Would she have him escorted around the tower like some of the other spellsters? For how long? He shrank from his guardian’s grasp. “I’m all right, Mother.”
Tricia sat back, a rare proud smile curving her lips. “You are.” She fussed with his hair, tucking several dark strands behind his ears. “My brave boy.”
Embarrassment gently warmed his cheeks. He’d been stupid. His gaze slid back to where Sulin was still crouched over the remains of the infitialis shield. The elf was shaking his head, but there seemed to be a distinct lack of concern on the alchemist’s face. That meant the danger was over. From the shield, at least.
Beside them, Nestria groaned. She sat up, her movements oddly stiff.
He crawled across the space between them. “Ness?” Had that final blast struck her as hard as it’d done him? “Are you all right?”
She rubbed at her head. “Just a bump. I’ve had worse falling out of bed.”
His gaze slid to Nestria’s robe. A large, dark red patch had formed on the elf’s left sleeve. Higher still, the pale fabric was a charred mess. “Bit more than a bump.”
Those big brown eyes lowered to where he held her arm. She gasped as he peeled back the blood-soaked sleeve. Blood ran down her arm, trickling from raw peeling skin. Dylan tracked the burnt flesh up her arm until it culminated in a hideous charred and weeping wound near her shoulder. More of the rawness above suggested further injury beneath her robe.
“First bolt must’ve struck before I got a shield up. Funny, I don’t even remember it.” Nestria fingered her forearm, hissing only when she made contact with the blistering skin of her wrist. “It barely hurts.”
Keeping his grip light, he focused on healing her by teasing out the body’s natural ability to mend itself and encouraging it to quicken. The blood stopped flowing. The peeled skin flaked away and the rawness of the flesh underneath faded, leaving behind a strangely delicate branch-like pattern of pink scars. Even these had begun to fade into a silver-purple by the time his power halted.
Nestria beamed up at him. “Thanks.”
He shrugged. It wasn’t the first time he’d healed her, it likely wouldn’t be the last.
“We must get this poor girl to the infirmary,” Tricia said, drawing his attention back to the unconscious alchemist lying beside him. Despite her singed robes, she didn’t appear to have suffered any serious injuries. Just a few scrapes she’d likely gotten when she fell. “Sulin. Help me carry her.” She beckoned the elf away from the pieces of infitialis.
Sulin obeyed, eyeing the remains with every step.
His guardian huffed. “If it was going to explode again, it would’ve done so by now.”
Dylan stood, staggering slightly as his legs objected to taking his weight. “If he wants to examine the shield further, I can help with Mary.”
Tricia snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous, child. You haven’t the strength at the best of times.” She bent to hoist Mary off the ground, waiting for the alchemist to secure the woman’s other side. “Nestria, be a dear and tell the healers on duty that they’ve a patient.”
“Yes, Madam Guardian.” Nestria curtsied and, hitching up her skirts, raced out of the arena, whilst the others slowly made their way to the door.
Dylan trailed after them. He could’ve gone back to his quarters. Unlike Mary and Nestria, his healer training had left him with the innate ability to mend any injuries without him having to think on it. All he truly needed was time to recuperate, but the healer in him wouldn’t allow him to leave Mary’s side until she was in the care of those who were better at such magic than he.
Noises followed in their wake as they neared the infirmary. Soft, almost nonexistent, even to ears listening for the sounds; the careful opening of doors and hushed conversation. Those closest to the duelling arena would’ve heard the shield explode and would be curious to know what had caused it. Then again, when he considered how rumour flowed through the tower’s heart like water rushing downstream, they likely already knew of Mary’s experiment.
Come tomorrow morning, everyone would know the woman had failed. Mary would be punished. The overseers were very particular when it came to wasting even a shard of infitialis. Her guardian would likely share a measure of that punishment as well.
Thanks to Nestria, the healers on duty were waiting at the door by the time they arrived. They hustled Mary to a bed, leaving the rest of them to aimlessly linger near the entrance.
“She’ll be all right, won’t she?” Nestria asked the healers.
“Of course she will,” Dylan answered before any of them could. Those few who chose to practice their craft in the infirmary were the best healers the tower had. He’d once thought of joining them—had even trained enough to gain apprenticeship to one of the few masters—until the call of the army started in his blood. “She’ll be wide awake by morning and ready to improve her work in no time.”
“Gods,” Sulin groaned. “I hope not. That woman’s experiments are always costing us a hefty chunk of dog metal.”
Dylan frowned. It was one thing to lose a fragment here and there during a young alchemist’s training, but a piece as big as the shield? “It can’t be salvaged?”
The alchemist shook his head. “Not after a blast like that. Reusing it will only risk having whatever it’s used for blow up again. Can you imagine if someone crafted a collar from it?”
He’d never seen one of the collars they used, although he did know they were made only by the best alchemists. Nor had he ever heard of one exploding, but if the metal was unstable… “Be rather like wrapping a viper around one’s neck.”
“Which is why I plan to insist the metal is disposed of,” Tricia said. “I also think it’s time you three were back in your quarters. The healers don’t need you lot wandering about like abandoned chicks. Come on.” She flapped her hands at them as if they children. “Off to bed with you.”
They turned to obey only to find the overseers standing in the infirmary’s doorway. Not a one appeared the slightest bit harmed. They looked even less amused. Behind them stood Mary’s guardian. Even with much of her face lost in the shadows, the woman’s focus on her unconscious charge was palpable.
“Am I correct that this is your charge, Guardian?” one of the men asked Tricia, indicating Dylan.
His guardian stiffened at the address. “Yes, sir.”
“We witnessed quite the display this evening,” one of the women said. “It would seem your evaluation of his strength is incorrect. One must wonder if you’ve been paying your charge the proper amount of attention due to him. His years do not grant him full absolution from your watch.”
She bowed. “Yes, madam. I am aware he has displayed a somewhat unusual burst of… That is to say, I have of course been keeping a close eye on his talents. I’m certain you recall how he is most useful in translating the ancient dwarven texts. The hedgewitches are—”
“Enough,” a second man snapped. “However pleasing his skill may be to these so-called dwarven scholars, it does not supersede compliance with the king’s will. If it is discovered you have been deliberately concealing his potential…” His threat trickled off.
Dylan swallowed. He’d never witnessed a guardian being reprimanded, but he had heard rumours. Whispers of spellsters being assigned new guardians with no sign of what had become of the former.
Again, Tricia bowed. No doubt, she’d a better grasp on what punishments the overseers could dispense. “Understood, sir.”
The woman beside the man cleared her throat. “You will inform your charge that, in light of recent events, he will compete alongside the other candidates for the honour of joining the army. You are to make it clear he is expected to report in the arena at midday tomorrow. Refusal will grant him a month’s solitary.”
Dylan’s jaw dropped. Compete? Him? They were actually going to let him compete?
Tricia’s final bow was fawningly low. “Of course, madam. I will ensure he is there.”
“See that you do.” As one, the overseers turned and left.
Mary’s guardian dove through the doorway the instant she’d a chance. She hastened to her charge’s side, demanding answers from the healers before they could give a proper diagnosis.
Tricia sank to the floor the moment the overseers were out of sight. “What have you done, child?” she whispered. “Did it not occur to you that the overseers were watching your every move?”
Dylan wet his lips. He’d not given a passing thought as to how the overseers would see this. But he was now allowed to compete, to have a chance to prove he was good enough to fight in the army. Just like he wanted. “I—”
“Have I not told you enough times that the world isn’t safe? Why… why would you do this to me? Was I not good to you?”
Guilt gnawed at his gut. He’d heard of guardians who were harsh with their charges, sometimes brutally so. But whilst she could be strict at times, Tricia had never laid a hand on him. “Mother…”
She stood, seemingly composed once more. Yet she wouldn’t look at him, instead choosing to brush her tunic clean. “Don’t win. If you value your life, you will fail tomorrow’s competition. Have them think this was a fluke and let another be leashed.”
Fail? His pride wouldn’t allow that. “You’ve always taught me to be the best I can be. If I’m competing tomorrow, then I will win.”
Tricia lifted her head. “Yes.” There was pride on her face, but it was small and overshadowed by a haunting sadness. “Then you will die.”