Hace Matthews. Lunday, Aries 18th, 2348 AA. 11:44 AM. Westridge (Athenaeum – Stadium).
Hace raised his fist in the air, smiling as the crowd applauded. His opponent, Evrin Walsh, had frozen in place, horrified by his mistake—one step over the boundary. Hace hadn’t thrown a single punch throughout their match. He simply dodged everything Evrin threw at him, leading him perilously close to the ring boundary, and then gave him one powerful, sorcerous shove. Just like that it was over.
Hace approached Evrin with his hand extended. Evrin put on a shit-eating smirk, trapped by the expectations of amagiate sportsmanship, and attempted to crush Hace’s hand. Hace reinforced his grip with his wyrd and let Evrin do his worst.
“Fuckin’ scatch,” Evrin said from behind his smile.
Hace just laughed. I may only be half-human, but I’m twice the man you are.
He looked to the crowd, spotting his small cheering squad. His aunt and mother—who was having a good day so far—were clapping and whooping. Cyphira shouted something he couldn’t make out. Glem said something to Senice, and they both shook their heads with exasperation. And Drav roared like a psychopath, both fists raised in the air.
Hard to believe we already made it this far.
In the end, the masters elected to shorten the practical part of the Chirothecam rather than adjusting the school’s calendar. The dimensional labyrinth came to an uneventful close. I mean, aside from the fact that there’s a fugitive angel living in Pensey’s head, and that CIC Officers are actively patrolling the campus. Hace tried to touch base with Valmont over the weekend, only to have her scold him for “potentially drawing attention,” to them. All she said was that Averael wasn’t satisfied that the danger had passed yet.
As Hace left the court, he passed Drav in the hallway leading to the seats. He was up next. Drav gave him a high five and said, proudly:
“You flew him like a kite.”
“I know you’ll be tempted, but try not to kill him, Drav,” Hace joked.
“No promises,” Drav said, his smile wolfish.
Hace laughed. I can’t blame him. I have been waiting for this match-up all day. Drav went to the warm-up area and started to stretch, squat, and jog in place. Hace made his way to the seats and sat between his mom and Cyphira.
“Welcome to the round of sixteen,” Cyphira said.
“I’m coming for you, Cy,” Hace warned.
Her gold eyes seemed to glow at his words, and she replied:
“No shit. If you don’t make it to the semi-finals, death is your only acceptable excuse.”
Hace smiled at her. We spar on a daily basis, and it never gets old, but tomorrow… tomorrow there will be actual stakes. And I know I can beat her. She’s got a bit more power than I do, but I’m better under constraints than she is. Well. Usually.
Her fight against Ajir was beautiful. It was like it was choreographed. No unnecessary movements, but still stylish. Even more importantly, Cyphira had taken one of Hace’s favorite tricks—his use of illusory clones to feint—and put her own twist on it. She gave her body a lingering shadow glamour, creating after-images that followed her movements. Then, when the lines between her body and illusion were blurred, she would use a second illusion to feint. It was hypnotic. It was deadly. It was—
“You two should really get a room,” Sivia stage-whispered to Hace.
His cheeks seemed to combust. Christ, mom, can you—
Glem emanated emphatic agreement, gestured between himself and Senice, and said:
“This is our life. Every goddamn day.”
Cyphira sighed and Hace shot Glem a very hard look that spoke volumes without word or wyrd. Dude. We’ve been over this. I get that we can be annoying, and that you think it’s funny, but the teasing bothers her, okay? She gets embarrassed. She feels pressured. It’s like you are poking her with a sharp stick every time we have a moment!
Glem returned a flat stare, also making his meaning plain: You two have had a lot of moments lately, bro.
Glem withdrew his head first, but did so flippantly. Hace shook his head and settled into a slouched, sulking posture. Sera, who sat on Sivia’s other side, prodded her sister sharply in the ribs. Sivia yelped, then said, reproachfully:
“Well, yeah, I regret saying it now!”
And just like that the mood cleared. Hace and Senice were the first to laugh. Then Glem, and finally Cyphira.
Drav’s match began a few minutes later. As soon as the ref shouted for them to start, Drav withdrew from the traditional amagiate fighting stance, instead opting to stand upright, legs spread at shoulder width, and arms folded across his chest.
What are you up to this time, comrade?
Drav’s opponent, Jrett, hesitated less than a second before springing into action. He ‘dodged’ left, no doubt following the script he had in his mind rather than adapting to his opponent.
Admittedly, Drav just stood there. Legs parted. Arms crossed.
Jrett fired two pulses of kinetic energy at Drav, and shoulder-rolled to the right—needlessly—before firing a third. The amagia in the audience started laughing, to the confusion of the asfalis spectators. Drav didn’t move a muscle. The kinetic bolts didn’t even reach Drav.
“That bastard,” Hace chuckled.
“What’s going on?” Sera asked Hace.
Drav’s abilities with contracts were surprisingly abstract. Metaphysical interactions. Recollective magic. Acuity boosting spells and knacks, or other charms that could impart temporary boosts of talent. He was also a decent generalist. But as a sorcerer, he had to work hard to keep on par with the rest of his cohort. Hell, he struggles at everything. With only two exceptions: making things stop, and making them go. Usually, a sorcerer had to channel their wyrd to effect change; they had to release ether from their wyrd. But Drav…
“He’s just holding his fucking breath,” Hace said, shaking his head. “He’s drawn in as much ether as he can and he’s just holding it in his wyrd, using it to block everything Jrett throws at him in a five-foot radius.”
“Five feet already!” Sivia repeated. “My, my.”
Most adult, asfalis wyrds could affect things two to three feet away from their body. Drav’s average reach was phenomenal. A fully trained amagia usually had a reach of five feet, but their powers steadily grew with practice and age.
“I mean, my range record’s seven,” Hace said, not at-all-casually.
Cyphira elbowed him in the ribs without looking away from the fight.
Jrett was now circling Drav, peppering him with pulses of kinetic energy. Each hit would tax Drav’s wyrd slightly, but a mosquito would have more luck undoing a ball of yarn. Which meant…
“You’re gonna have to get in there, Jrett!” Glem called, a touch apologetic.
The aspirants in the audience were howling with laughter now, while the masters and professionals in the audience had started sighing and mumbling about bad sportsmanship. Cycling energy, and countering blows with a specific amount of energy was always a more energy efficient approach than just maintaining maximum energy capacity. Drav had the skill to do the smart thing. But he definitely isn’t gonna bother against Jrett.
Jrett, growing frantic from the crowd’s uproar, put more behind his bolts, and actually started pitching his body into his blasts. Drav stood, unsmiling, arms-crossed, indifferent.
Overcome with anger and humiliated red, Jrett finally charged forward, cocking back a ridiculous haymaker punch. To his credit, that’s probably the only attack you could manage to hurt him with. Jrett had a weak wyrd. Mean to say, maybe, but stupid to pretend otherwise. While it had gotten stronger since he joined the Athenaeum, it would never be… Well, it will never be on par with Drav’s.
Before Jrett could land his punch, Drav smiled broadly, and slapped him. Right palm to left jaw, backed by a whole lot of sorcerous strength. The blow echoed throughout the gym. Fighters in the other three matches flinched at the impact. Jrett’s body slapped against the mat so hard it bounced. The referee started the count a full second late. Sera and Sivia stared with open-mouthed horror.
“My dude,” Cyphira said, also shocked, but trying not to laugh.
“Did he just kill Jrett?” Hace asked, dumbfounded.
Glem simply smirked.
“How in the hell?” Hace asked.
“What?” Glem asked wickedly. “You couldn’t read the ripples, Mr. Seven Foot Reach?”
Hace glared at him.
“Looks like ol’ Drav’s learning some new tricks,” Glem explained: “He had the blow disperse energy throughout Jrett’s body in a wave, possibly targeting a few nonlethal pressure points. It’s not even going to give him a concussion. But seeing how open he was? That boy’s not getting back up.”
Sure enough, Jrett was violently trembling. His arm gave out as he tried to stand back up before the technical count ended. The ref gestured ‘victory’ at Drav, who raised his fists in silent triumph, then bowed.
It was hard to tell if there were more boos or cheers.
—12:10 PM | Westridge (Athenaeum – West Dining Hall)—
The refs called for a recess for lunch after the last matches from the round of sixteen played out. Glem and Senice peeled off from the group to spend time with their parents, who had also come to visit the campus open house.
Hace and the others—Drav, Cyphira, Sivia and Sera—made their way to the west dining hall, which overlooked the Grand Arroyo. Spirits were high and life was good. While they wouldn’t receive their final grades until Jovday, the hardest parts of the Chirothecam were over, and Hace knew that he would be accepted into the Peacekeeping discipline barring some sort of apocalyptic event. His mother was having a good day. Everybody was still in the tournament, and nobody had suffered any kind of injury.
The smart thing to do is to just sit back and enjoy this. Just live in the moment. But something was nagging Hace, and he couldn’t help but pick at the scab. When the conversation hit a lull, he asked his aunt and mother:
“How are things with the business? And how is Uncle Tibbon?”
He actually wanted to invite Tibbon to the kumite as a means of apology for snapping at him earlier, but each aspirant could only invite two people. Unless you’re royalty. Valmont’s father and mother were basically obligated to come wave for the cameras and symvisions. Even her brother had to put in an appearance, even though eleventh-years were usually busy officiating the matches, taking tests, or doing other soon-to-be-graduate stuff.
Sera shot a glance at Sivia who nodded and said:
“You know he’ll fret over it if we don’t tell him.”
Sera gestured deference to Sivia. It was the first time Hace realized that his mother was coaching his aunt; not only about business, but on how to handle him as well. The thought shook him. Stop acting like you’re dissolving, mom. Fight this. Have some faith in yourself. Have some faith in me!
“We’re accepting Westmarque’s offer,” Sera said.
“Great,” Hace said, convincingly to his own surprise. I’m still not sure that’s the right call, but I’m looking at this from the outside. Best to trust mom, right?
“We’re still working on what to tell Tibbon and how to make things fair,” his mom added. “Sera told me about your idea for a pension, and I think it could be a good compromise if we can make the math work.”
Hace gestured “sounds good,” and decided to let the topic drop for the rest of lunch. They talked about the craftsman architecture, the things they had seen in the Chirothecam’s dimensional labyrinth, and the sort of light, stupid anecdotes that slip your mind until gathering in the company absent friends and family.
When they had finished eating, Sera and Cyphira excused themselves to the bathroom, while Drav insisted on single-handedly bussing everybody’s trays. Which left Hace waiting alone with Sivia. He wished that Fitz was able to join them. He felt like they would get along famously, but his mentor always seemed nervous around his mother. The two of them had only met a handful of times, and their conversations were always brief.
The thought reminded Hace of a warning Fitz had given him earlier.
“So. This is the first time you’ve… really seen me ‘do my thing,’” Hace said to his mom. “Fitz warned me that it can… be kind of traumatic for asfalis family members. But I told her I was pretty sure you’d be fine. I mean. Like, right?”
Sivia’s conflicted, timid expression hit him harder than any blow he had taken in the kumite. Hace loved to say that he couldn’t lie because he was half-fae, but he learned to be honest from his mother. She had the opposite of whatever a poker face was supposed to be. She always froze up when a simple fib would suffice as an explanation. He had been so sure that given what she had seen and endured in the Faed at his age, she would be fine in the presence of magic. Instead, I’m re-traumatizing her. Christ. I’m an idiot.
“What do you think?” He asked, mouth dry.
“It’s… magic,” she replied, smiling but hoarse. “It’s stunning. It’s brutal, frightening, and… a little sad. I want to say I’m not sure it suits you. But that’s really not up to me. You have a tremendous talent for it and I trust you.”
Hace pursed his lips, unsure how to reply. Finally, he decided to hug her, because that made more sense than anything else. Eventually they pulled apart, and Sivia was sniffing slightly.
“You, okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she assured him. “I feel anchored today. Watching you fight… Well, I don’t like seeing you get hurt, and honestly, I don’t like seeing you hurt other kids either… but watching you ‘do your thing’ is inspiring. I’m proud of you. And that helps keep me centered.”
“Keep watching,” Hace said, glowing with pride. “I’m going to win this for both of us.”
—2:34 PM | Westridge (Athenaeum – Stadium) —
The group returned to the stadium at two. Drav, Cyphira, and Hace immediately reviewed the bracket, then started doing warm ups together. Unlike the morning’s matches, their fights would be happening concurrently in the afternoon.
Hace knew he was up against Azmuir Stillman, but he wasn’t really sure what to expect. Azmuir’s smart. Definitely not as brilliant as he seems to think he is, but at least as clever as I am. He’ll have a plan. Hace always thought Peacekeeping was an odd choice for Azmuir. In classes, his interests seemed to skew more toward politics, policy, and philosophy than the actual practice of law enforcement. But he has a hell of a temper, and he already beat two other Keeper aspirants to get here, just like me. Can’t afford to underestimate him.
Like Hace, Azmuir was destitute and there on a full-ride scholarship by his magic’s merits. His wyrd was powerful and flexible; one of those rare talents that seemed to come from nowhere. His family was completely asfalis, with no amagiate affiliation in its history.
Despite coming from comparable circumstances, Azmuir never missed an opportunity to express scorn toward Hace, however. Hace never really bothered to figure out why; it wasn’t exactly an unusual state of affairs. Cause I’m near the top of the class. Cause I’m half-fae. Cause I’m a smartass. Doesn’t matter. He’ll need to take a number. Honestly, Azmuir hating me is like the most normal part of his personality.
When the ref called Hace to the ring, his muscles were warm, his head clear, and his wyrd brimming with power. Azmuir scowled his melancholy, tormented scowl, cat-like hazel eyes buried beneath an unkempt mass of coiling black hair. Well, if worse comes to worse, I can pull his stupid hair.
Azmuir’s lip curled into a scornful smile as the ref had them shake hands, bow, and assume the traditional fighting stance opposite each other.
When the ref shouted for them to begin, Hace darted forward, sending an illusory double to attack Azmuir from the right as Hace dodged to the left. As Azmuir punched at the decoy, Hace punched Azmuir in the jaw. The gangly boy leaned with the punch and buffered it with his wyrd, but he still had to do an awkward, sorcery-assisted aerial summersault to stay on his feet.
“Flashy moves, Matthews,” Azmuir said, rubbing his jaw. “But I’ve seen flash before. And I’m not impressed.”
“Well… that’s two of us, I guess?” Hace said, shrugging. Bro. I literally just sent you spinning.
“How about I show you something new then?” Azmuir asked as he stood up.
Azmuir had striking eyes. His hazel irises were nearly as vibrant as Cyphira’s. So Hace wasn’t sure whether he actually saw them glow or imagined it. And then he was staring at himself; seeing himself from Azmuir’s perspective. What the fuck, when did he hijack my head!?
Hace watched Azmuir step forward and drive a vicious, sorcery assisted punch into his body’s stomach. He saw himself get hit. And then, nearly half a second later, pain yanked him back into his body and severed the mental connection with Azmuir.
He was on all-fours, and his gut ached horribly.
“Did you see that one coming?” Azmuir asked sneering.
He does it with his eyes.
Hace jerked his head upward and locked eyes with Azmuir for an eighth of a second then looked away sharply. I’m not possessed, so it takes him time to consciously trigger it. And now that he was really paying attention, he felt Azmuir’s wyrd—subtle, dry, and complex—strike his own. But nothing happened. He needs to make eye contact to trigger it.
Still averting his gaze from Azmuir’s face, Hace launched a spinning kick in Azmuir’s direction. His boot made a satisfying, crunching contact. That’s a broken nose. Kicks to the head were excusable in the tournament, provided they were flukes, but they were a dick move. Hace winced as he heard Azmuir groan and hit the mat.
Hace averted his gaze as he waited for Azmuir get back up. He’ll be waiting to trigger his perspective swap the second I look at him. So, all I have to do is keep my eyes on his lower body…
Hace felt Azmuir’s wyrd roar to life. Hace dodged on reflex, fleeing prematurely like an idiot. That was an obvious feint! Telegraphing a big attack gave Azmuir all the time he needed to catch Hace off balance for an actual, measured shot. A pulse of urdic energy slammed into his left hip… well. Didn’t really slam. Permeated is more like it. I don’t feel any different. Was that a dud?
Hace pivoted to track Azmuir, and fell, painfully, on his tail bone. It was like his boots had been soaked in soap, and the mats encased in black ice. Hace tried to push himself up with his hands, only for them to splay apart, and his sternum and chin struck the mat again.
You fucker. Hace growled as he started to push himself to his feet. You cursed me with reduced friction. That’s such a fucking nerd-bitch way to fight, Azmuir, I swear to god… As Hace supplemented his body with a field of friction and managed to stand to his knees, ending the technical count, Azmuir dropped into a crouch, leveling his eyes with Hace’s, inches away from his face.
Again, Hace saw himself through Azmuir’s eyes, his expression utterly creeped out. Azmuir took a step back, and Hace felt his body panic, even though he watched himself laying there, frozen with fear. Huh. The revelation came half a second too late to avoid Azmuir’s side kick to his chest. And like the first gut punch, there was a strange gap between the visuals of the impact and the pain that should have immediately followed.
“Figure it out yet?” Azmuir asked, sneering. “Because I can read you like a book.”
Hace laughed. He tried not to. It would be better if Azmuir didn’t know that he had, in fact, figured it out. But I mean. Come on. The irony. Azmuir’s anti-friction curse had receded, so Hace bolstered himself with his own wyrd, stood, and confidently looked Azmuir in the eye.
“Boo” yourself, asshole.
Azmuir did his cute little perspective swap. And Hace committed his entire mind to commanding his body to move, regardless of what his eyes showed him. Specifically, he took two steps forward, and launched a blind upper cut at Azmuir’s jaw with enough force to raise him off his feet.
Hace returned to his own perspective as soon as his knuckles made contact with Azmuir’s chin. Azmuir jerked straight upward and fell to the ground in a heap. He looked up at Hace, too astonished to pull his perspective trick again.
“You’re clever, Azmuir,” Hace said. “But you could use that trick a lot more effectively if you didn’t overthink it.”
He wasn’t just channeling what his eyes were seeing into my mind. That would have been disorienting enough, used properly. He was visualizing what he wanted to happen next, and feeding me his mentally-edited, remix. That’s why the hits always struck with a lag. Because they hadn’t happened yet. You wanted me to think you could see the future. Instead, you just told me what to dodge.
“Who are you to judge my techniques?” Azmuir snarled, forcing himself to his feet. “I fucking loathe you!”
The ref pulled a foul card—beating the shit out of your opponent was expected, and accidentally kicking people in the head was fine, but profanity earned you naughty points.
“Fuck you too!” Azmuir shouted at the eleventh-year ref and then turned to face the bleachers. “All of you! Fuck you. Fine! Disqualify me, I don’t care. But you’re gonna hear me out first.”
What the hell? Azmuir was completely ignoring Hace at this point, as if they weren’t in the middle of a duel. That’s just rude, man. Hace briefly considered subduing him to end the match, but he was curious to see where the speech was headed.
“This bastard carries on like he came from nothing; like he knows what it means to struggle! He thinks his family’s poverty entitles him to sympathy, even though the masters fawn over him and his akrasia.”
“He’s been blessed with the rarest gifts magic has to offer and he still has the temerity to act like he’s been cursed by his heritage. He never misses the chance to disparage his fellow half-fae, even though he owes all of his sorcerous talents to his father—”
Rage surged through Hace’s wyrd, and came to a head in the form of a fireball.
Fuck. The second the energy left his wyrd, he regretted it. He watched the projectile in slow-motion horror. Elemental magic wasn’t forbidden outright, but there were certain unspoken understandings. Understandings like “fire can kill people, so be very careful if you decide to use it. Keep it light.”
In Hace’s defense, the orb was only about the size of a basketball, but it still exploded pretty well when it struck Azmuir square in the back. The other boy was so busy ranting that he didn’t even raise his wyrd to protect himself. The blast launched him out of the ring, and he landed on the very edge of the mat with a sharp, squeaking cough.
Oh god. Did I kill him? Did I just kill him? Am I going to be expelled? Oh god.
The entire stadium froze for a full second, and then, mercifully, Azmuir began to wail.
Hace slowly exhaled as he brought his hands to his head. Yeah. I should not have done that. Fuck you, Azmuir, you asshole! I mean, honestly! You can only talk so much shit before somebody cashes your fucking check! Hace peered at him, feeling sick. Azmuir had curled into fetal position as the medisophs tended to him. Ahh shit. I melted like the entire back of his uniform. And is… yeah, his skin is literally smoking. Fuck. I’m definitely out of the tournament. Maybe out of the Athenaeum.
The ref was stunned speechless. The crowd was in an uproar, but it fell silent as Master Faulkner, seated in the first row, stood and raised hands.
“Matthews wins,” Headmaster Master Faulkner announced, matter-of-factly.
“I do?” Hace asked.
The referee seemed somewhat skeptical, and the crowd also made it clear they weren’t sure how they felt about that outcome. Faulkner projected his voice to the stadium, while gesturing to Azmuir, who was still screaming.
“The match was already over. Stillman disqualified himself. Matthews, you will be punished for assaulting a fellow aspirant with pyromancy, which is… admittedly serious, but from where I was seated, matters were exacerbated by a number of extenuating circumstances.”
Hace looked between the Headmaster, the ref, and the commotion around Azmuir’s toasted, wailing body.
“Get off the mat, Matthews,” Faulkner prodded, cheerful. “You’re holding up the next match.”