The atmosphere in the grand hall was suffocating. As soon as we woke up this morning, the speakers around the academy crackled with the voice of Headmaster X calling the senior class to assemble in the grand hall. The announcement did not come as a surprise but the palpable fear that spread around the room as the seniors shuffled in reminded us that we were nothing but teenagers facing a terror bigger than all of us.
Bleak and tired faces trickled in slowly, the front seats filling up with anxious seniors and as my eyes landed on Kyle, a ball of nerves that had nothing to do with the upcoming announcement formed in my stomach. Of all the feelings I had had for Kyle in the short time I had known him I had never thought that fear would be a dominant one but as I recalled last night’s events, I couldn’t help but look away from my boyfriend and shrink back in my seat.
“Are you alright?” Kira asked, giving me a concerned look.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” I nodded and straightened up; giving her a smile I could tell my blue haired best friend knew was forced.
“Good morning class.” The booming voice I had come to associate with MR. X rang through the almost empty grand hall, effectively snapping everyone’s attention to the stage.
“I’m sure by now most -if not all- of you know that the royal covenant had launched an attack on the underworld a few days ago. This act came as retaliation for the senseless act of violence that the Grim ones enacted on our academy.”
Kira, Rose, Gabby and I exchanged bewildered looks. Retaliation was not on the forefront of the royals’ minds when they planned to portal their best warriors into the underworld, risking thousands of lives in the process. Were they really keeping their real motives a secret from the seniors that they demanded be ready to join their ranks in the event of a war?
The look of shock and disbelief wasn’t limited to our little group. As I chanced a glance at Chase who was sitting two seats to my left, I could tell that he was just as disturbed with the fact that the royals chose to lie to all of us.
“The attack however,” Mr. X continued, “did not go as smoothly as we had hoped. The Grim ones were able to detect the warriors’ presence very quickly and were able to protect their grounds, which resulted in many casualties in our ranks.”
Gasps echoed across the room and what started as hushed whispers grew into frantic shouting. Hearing about the strike on the underworld was one thing, but knowing for a fact that we had lost many lives so soon after we were attacked was heartbreaking. Chaos soon settled over the once silent venue as everyone was trying to find out the identity of the fallen. Countless questions were being shouted from every direction, coupled with a few insults directed at the royals for planning an attack they most likely knew would fail.
“Quiet!” The one word command managed to silence the rowdy crowd and as everyone begrudgingly settled back into their seats, Mr. Xavier continued.
“We have lost many precious lives, but the attack was not an utter failure. Our troops have managed to create a huge dent in the grim ones’ numbers. They matched them blow for blow and accomplished what they set out for-“
“Which is what exactly?” A student chimed in from the back. “What were they hoping to accomplish?”
“As I have said in the beginning,” Mr. X cleared his throat, clearly displeased with the interruption, “this counter strike was an act of retaliation. The royals figured that we can’t let the attack on the academy go unpunished. It would be interpreted as a sign of weakness and the Grim ones could very well attack again.”
“You expect us to believe that?” Hannah, the pink haired girl that interrogated Rose after the royal meeting a while ago, snarled. “You honestly think that we’re dumb enough to believe that their royal highnesses orchestrated an attack on the underworld, risking the lives of countless of their loyal soldiers in the process, for revenge?”
“I would watch that tone if I were you miss Sinclair. You’ll do well to remember that you’re addressing your headmaster.” Mr. X glared at Hannah who glowered right back at him.
“How many lives were lost?” Another student asked.
“I’m not at liberty to discuss that information with students. I can tell you however, that the warriors will be returning to their respective kingdoms tonight. Our teachers and staff who had joined the battle will also be returning to the academy.”
A nervous huff of breath rushed out of me as I heard that last part. The troops were being released tonight which means that Mr. Blackthorn would be returning soon. I’ve been worried about him ever since he left.
“In other related news,” Mr. X started again, “the royals have made some changes to the curriculum of the senior class due to these pressing circumstances.”
“Can they do that?” I turned to Kira, my face no doubt betraying my astonishment.
“They’re royalty Lilith.” Kira rolled her eyes. “They can do whatever they want.”
“The magic trials that were scheduled for the second semester, as they are every year, have been pushed up. Starting tomorrow, you will be undergoing battle simulation alongside your regular classes.”
What in the fresh hell?
“Your morning PE classes are cancelled effective immediately. Instead, you will be expected to demonstrate the power of your elements through random battles throughout the school day. A few rules you should keep in mind: attacks during classes are prohibited. The battles commence in the morning and end with your curfew. There will be no sneak attacks during the nights or outside of the academy’s grounds. Any student who is caught cheating in any way shape or form will be expelled immediately. The point of the magic trials is to prepare you for sudden unsuspected attacks, to strengthen your elements and learn to deflect attacks from elements you don’t master. But this does not mean that you get a free pass to hurt each other. Your classes will continue as scheduled tomorrow especially since potions, charms and spells will be of great help during the trials. You can take today off to rest and prepare.”
The headmaster looked around the hall, as if trying to get his point across through his cold stare. He eventually nodded, seemingly satisfied with the lack of protests, and gave us a forced smile.
“Good luck seniors. Dismissed.”
Back at the house, lunch was a quiet affair. We opted for a quick pizza delivery from Joe’s instead of the cafeteria, which no doubts would be crawling with pissed off students.
We ate in silence, each of us trying to make sense of what we heard in that meeting. The fact that the royals lied about their incentives was suspicious, but to reschedule a whole trial that was supposed to take place 4 and a half months from now didn’t make sense. We were already being trained like soldiers, why would they change our whole curriculum?
“Is it just me,” Rose broke the silence, “or did that announcement create more unanswered questions?”
“I have no idea what our parents are thinking anymore.” Kira shook her head, dropping her slice of pepperoni pizza back into her plate.
“Maybe they figured the magic trials would be more helpful than making us run 7 miles every day?” Gabby shrugged. “I know I’m tired of running.”
“Me too.” Rose agreed. “Making us wake up at 5 every morning is dreadful. I’m willing to endure Lilith’s fire balls if it means I get an extra hour of sleep.”
“Hey”, I pouted while Kira and Gabby snickered.
I was vaguely familiar with the concept of the magic trials. The girls explained it to me when I was a new, clueless mystic joining the academy for the first time.
God, that seemed like ages ago.
Basically, the trials were battle simulations that all the senior mystics were required to undergo in order to graduate. They constituted of mock attacks between the students in order to harness their powers and learn to defend themselves against sudden attacks. Teachers and council members were supposedly always nearby, watching the battles to observe the progress of each student as well as prevent any major accidents and or injuries. The battles were all graded, and the final score is made up of how many battles a student took part in as well as how many they have actually won. All in all it seemed like some deranged game from a dystopian world and I was not excited for it.
Conversation flowed easily after, with Rose cracking jokes at my expense and Gabby consoling me while Kira laughed her heart out. Before I knew it, it was almost 4 pm and I had to get ready for my training session with Chase.
The cold air whipped at my skin and my hurried footsteps echoed across the cobble stoned path. As I looked around I noticed that the academy grounds were practically deserted. Apart from a couple of students who lingered around or walked briskly towards an unknown destination, the academy looked more like an abandoned gothic castle than a high school on a weekday. It seemed that everyone was enjoying what seemed to be our last day of freedom and relaxation before the battles commenced.
“You made it!” Chase’s deep voice echoed across the empty space, a bright smile lightning up his face as his dark brown eyes landed on me. “I thought you were standing me up.”
Well, doesn’t that sound familiar!
“I would never!” I chuckled lightly as I made my way towards him. A look of confusion and something else I couldn’t place clouded his features for a second before it disappeared and he laughed it off. I wonder what that was about.
“Well let’s get going then, shall we?” He stood up from his place on the bench- the same one we occupied yesterday- and started heading towards the front of the academy.
“And where are we going exactly?” I gave him a questioning sideway glance as I hurried to match his pace.
“This place is way too exposed for my liking. I don’t want a repeat of last night’s events so I figured a little privacy wouldn’t hurt. I wouldn’t want anyone to see me kicking your ass in a magic battle anyway.” He chuckled at his own words, the teasing tone in his voice oddly comforting.
My heart clenched at the mention of last night and memories of a fight I didn’t understand nor wanted to remember flashed through my mind. I had yet to tell anyone what happened between Kyle and I and I wasn’t sure I wanted to, not while I didn’t even know what happened yet.
“How did that go by the way?” Chase asked. “Did he give you a hard time?” His tone was cautious with a hint of frustration or anger and I wondered for the millionth time about the reason for these two boys’ feud.
“No, it was fine. Just a misunderstanding.” I cleared my throat and looked away, my blatant lie hanging in the air between us for a painfully long moment before Chase nudged my shoulder with his.
I looked at where we ended up and couldn’t help but snicker.
“Your idea of privacy is a large tennis court?”
“It’s an open space so fire won’t do much damage, and it’s practically deserted all the time nowadays. With our never-ending PE classes and the preparations for the trials underway not a lot of mystics seem to have time for tennis.” He gave me a sly smirk, seemingly proud of his quick thinking.
“Such a shame.” I shook my head in mock disappointment.
Our fake battle went about the same as the last one. Chase was not holding back, which I appreciated. It wouldn’t help me in anyway if he were to take things easy on me and as he came at me with one attack after the other I came to the conclusion that he was a very powerful mystic. I knew he had to be good seeing as he belonged to Agni’s extended royal family but I was pleasantly surprised to note how disciplined and hard working he was. He was agile, quick on his feet and calculating. None of his attacks were random and he chose his moves very carefully which made me follow suit. He advised me to work on my defense first and we spent the better half of 2 hours deflecting fiery attacks and warding off powerful spells. Then it was my turn to attack and he was there every step of the way, teaching me to combine my elemental power with carefully crafted spells for maximum damage. The spells varied from simple ones that reflected light around you to make you ‘invisible’ to more serious ones that could cause a lot of harm.
By the end, we were both breathing heavily as we lay down across the tennis court. Every muscle in my body was protesting but the satisfaction I got from knowing that I was at least one step closer to catching up with my classmates rushed through my veins like liquid joy.
“Damn girl” Chase panted heavily, a soft smile brightened his tired features. “If I didn’t know any better I would have thought you were trying to kill me.”
“It wasn’t a priority, but I could definitely put it on my to do list if that’s what you want.” I turned around to face him, a smirk on my face.
“I’m good, thanks.” He laughed. “I don’t doubt that you can.”
A few more minutes passed by in comfortable silence before Chase hopped up and extended a muscular arm towards me.
“Let’s get going. It looks like it’s going to rain.”
I took his hand, letting him pull me up to my feet and walked alongside him back to the living quarters. We crossed the courts and stadiums and were almost by the main office when I decided to break the silence.
A quiet hum was his response.
“Why do you think the royals decided to lie about the reason behind the attack on the underworld?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about it since this morning and the only logical explanation I could come up with was that they didn’t want the traitor to figure out their plans. I don’t know if I’m right though.”
“You most definitely are Mr. Serafino.” A familiar voice interjected and Chase and I turned towards the main office to see none other than Mr. Blackthorn marching towards us.
I had known that he was coming back tonight but seeing him in the flesh was so shocking that I couldn’t help throwing my arms around him in a tight hug as soon as he reached me.
“Mr. Blackthorn, thank God you’re alright.” I breathed, the feeling of relief overtaking my entire being.
“Lilith.” Mr. Blackthorn stroked my back lovingly. “How many times do I have to tell you to call me Isaiah?” A soft chuckle escaped his lips as he slowly let go of me.
Looking at him now, you could tell that he was in a brutal fight. A dark bruise formed around his left eye, a red angry cut came down from his left eyebrow all the way to his jaw line and his lower lip was split open. His knuckles were bruised and he leaned slightly on his right side as he stood with us, his right hand hovering over his abdomen.
“Isaiah.” I let out softly. “You don’t look so good. Let’s take you to the infirmary and get you checked up.”
“Don’t worry about me kid.” He waved a hand dismissively, his smile straining his busted lip. “Nothing a few potions can’t heal.”
“Glad to have you back Mr. Blackthorn.” Chase stepped up next to me, his hand reaching out to shake Isaiah’s.
“Glad to be here Mr. Serafino.” Isaiah nodded. “Where were you two anyway?”
“Tennis court.” I explained. “Chase has been helping me practice while you were away.” For some God awful reason, heat rose through my neck and a faint blush coated my cheeks.
Thankfully Mr. Blackthorn seemed unaware of the sudden rise in my temperature as he continued talking.
“That’s extremely nice of you Chase.” He gave an approving look to the boy who nodded in return.
“Wait.” I turned back to Isaiah as I suddenly remembered what he had said earlier. “What do you mean Chase was right? About the royals.”
“They did indeed lie about their motives to keep the traitor in the dark.” Isaiah explained, a grave look replacing the appreciative smile he wore seconds ago. “Some members of the covenant suspect that the traitor isn’t just a random person but a high ranked mystic. It makes sense seeing how a portal of the magnitude of the one that was opened on the day of the attack couldn’t be mustered by a freshman in the academy. So they decided to take zero chances. Everyone remains in the dark until one of the prisoners talk.”
“And what are the odds of that happening?” Chase asked.
“So far, not very likely.” Isaiah revealed dejectedly.
“What about Nicholas? How is he?” the look on Jessica’s face when she realized her brother was attacked flashed through my mind and I couldn’t help but feel sad for her. She obviously loved her twin and I hoped that she wouldn’t have to lose him.
“How do you know about that? Isaiah gave me a bewildered look.
“A story for another time.” I answered sheepishly, rubbing my hands together for warmth. The temperature dropped drastically as the night approached and I couldn’t wait to go back to the warmth of my bed.
“Which you will be telling me tomorrow after classes as we resume our usual lessons. You’re welcome to join us Chase, I’d love to see what you managed to teach my favorite student.” Mr. Blackthorn gave us an amused look and I was surprised with the blush that rose to Chase’s face.
“Thank you, Mr. Blackthorn. I’ll be there.” Chase confirmed.
“Isaiah,” I cleared my throat in an attempt to gain back his attention. “You haven’t answered my question. Is Nicholas okay?”
“He was terribly injured during the attack.” Isaiah explained. “His wounds were severe and so he was sent back to Agni for treatment.”
“Unfortunately it’s not looking very promising.”