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Hace Matthews. Marday, Aries 19th, 2348 AA. 1:46 PM. Westridge (Athenaeum – Stadium).

Drav took a titanic liver blow from Zaire, and the audience collectively winced. Hace could feel the urdic ripples even seven rows away from the court. This doesn’t look good, Comrade.

Zaire stood 6’10” at roughly 280 pounds, and Drav at 6’8 with a similar weight. They had similar fighting styles too; heavyweight sluggers who put their wyrds behind every strike and block.

As soon as the referees gave them the go ahead, they had charged at each other like bulls. It had been nearly a minute since then. Drav started strong, putting Zaire on his back foot with an intense barrage of jabs and hooks, landing a couple body blows and one head shot. But Zaire answered by driving his right knee into Drav’s chest. The blow was enough to wind him, and as Drav doubled over, Zaire launched a nasty uppercut that floored Drav until the count of six.

He should have stayed down longer. Made the most of the break. But Drav tended to get tunnel vision when he was hurting. He forced himself to his feet and Zaire was on him as soon as the refs resumed the fight. Drav managed to defend against most of Zaire’s punches until Zaire feinted to the right and used a burst of sorcery to loop around to his left, landing the strike in his liver.

“Shake it off, Drav!!” Hace shouted.

“Stay cautious! Wait for an opening!” Glem added.

Drav didn’t hear them. He threw an extremely reckless punch directly at Zaire’s well-protected head. But just before his fist could make contact with Zaire’s guard, Drav used sorcery to pry his arms apart, paving the way for the punch to connect. Again, Hace could feel the ripple in the stands. It was the strongest hit of the exchange yet.

“Hell yeah!” Hace shouted.

“Nice,” Cyphira said, approvingly.

Senice, Glem, Sera, and Sivia also cried out encouragement.

Drav followed up with a flurry of sorcery-enriched body blows. He kept going until Zaire collapsed. The refs blew their whistles simultaneously, and Drav barely managed to restrain himself from earning a foul. Zaire hocked a glob of bloody spit onto the mat and took several deep breathes on his knees. He rose to his feet on the count of eight, making the most of the break. Drav rushed forward, still running hot on adrenaline, wyrd bordering on exus.

Zaire staggered Drav’s next assault with a high roundhouse that struck him square in the shoulder. Drav tried to shrug off the hit to continue his assault, but Zaire hit him with a broad, full-body wave of telekinetic force. The blast was too defuse to do any damage itself, but it was enough to force Drav off balance. Not missing a beat, Zaire used a telekinetic cord to yank Drav back into a sorcerous armbar, hard as woven rebar. It caught Drav just under the chin, downing him again. If Drav’s wyrd were any weaker, that blow would have snapped his neck.

“Don’t rush, Drav!” Glem shouted. “Be smart; rest up!”

“Rest up!” Hace echoed.

Drav rolled off his back onto all fours. He struggled for a moment, trying to tamp down on his wyrd and keep himself from entering exus, which would mean an instant disqualification. Surrendering your faculties to magic was an arch sin for aspirants.

Unfortunately, Drav’s wyrd started flagging as he calmed himself down. There was an art to mastering urdic momentum. You want to be dancing on the ledge of exus. Maximize your output while maintaining control. But Zaire had completely disrupted Drav’s cadence, and now he was obviously flagging.

This time, Drav stood at the count of nine. Zaire came at him like a mad bull, weaving invisible urdic strikes with his volley of physical punches. Drav could only defend, and eventually his wyrd faltered. One of Zaire’s telekinetic strikes pried away Drav’s guard, and the follow up right hook sent him spinning to the mat, head trailed by a ribbon of bloody spittle.

And that was that. The refs didn’t even bother counting. They knelt to Drav, declared him unconscious and called Zaire the victor. He bowed towards his downed opponent, and raised his fist in triumph. Everyone applauded. I hate to admit it, but that was a damn good fight. And even if Drav didn’t win this match, I’m pretty sure he cost Zaire the tournament title.

The towering Japanese-Erician aspirant swayed perilously as he walked off the mat. From his expression, it was clear that he wasn’t all there. He was also favoring his left leg, probably due to Drav’s repeated shin kicks throughout the match.

Drav woke a few seconds later, and the crowd applauded again, even louder than before. His face was a mess. Split lip, left eye swollen shut, right ear bleeding, and bruises literally everywhere else. He searched the stands for Hace’s cheering squad and gave the audience an appreciative but shallow and shaky bow before the medisophs led him in the direction of the infirmary.

“Hope he’ll be okay,” Glem said, genuinely concerned.

“Are you kidding?” Cy asked. “Drav is a super tank. Hell, he’s already awake.”

“I’m not talking about his body,” Glem said. “He lost because of a stupid mistake, and that’s gonna hurt his pride bad enough to fuck with his head.”

Cy furrowed her brow.

“What mistake? His technique looked solid to me. Zaire just outlasted him.”

“Yeah. Because of the fight against Jrett,” Hace said. “It looked like a straight boxing match, but Drav lost because his magic gave out. If he had used his wyrd more efficiently yesterday, he would have won.”

Glem nodded and continued:

“Not sure y’all noticed, but Drav’s extremely hard on himself. He jokes around and plays the muscle-bound idiot because we all love him for it, but he wanted to win this just as much as you two. And now he’ll always regret botching his shot.”

A brief pall fell over the group. Drav did have hidden depths, and he was also extremely driven. Figures that Glem would be the one to notice. He has the sharpest eyes and the keenest sense of empathy out of all of us.

As the 11th-years wiped down the mat, Elroy walked to the center court and spoke in a voice amplified by contract magic.

“We will proceed to the second quarter final of the western bracket shortly. Cyphira Quinn and Luthas Gates, please report to the mat.

“That’s my cue,” Cyphira said.

She stood and stretched her arms over her head. Aspirant uniforms were hardly flattering, but with her back arched and chest thrust out it was all Hace could do to avoid drooling. She caught him staring and smirked.


“I kept up my end of the bargain, Cy,” Hace cautioned. “You’d better come through.”

Cy snorted and rolled her eyes.

“If I lose against Gates, I’d better be dead, because I will never live that down.”

“Kick his ass,” Senice said, standing to give Cy a hug.

“You can do it, Cy!” Sera added.

“Be careful!” Sivia called as she walked away.

— 2:10 PM —

It was hard to tell which of the following two fights was more one-sided.

Cyphira knocked out Luthas Gates in just under thirty seconds. He favored highly technical ranged sorcery, and had defeated most of his early opponents with well-aimed kinetic bolts before they could close the distance. Cy knew what to expect though.

She steadily approached while shepherding him into a corner of the ring. And as soon as his distance advantage was eliminated, she demolished him. She didn’t even use that much sorcery. Just a brutal string of blows followed by a sedating strike to the head. He simultaneously passed out and fell out of the ring’s boundary.

Next, Lin faced off against Zaire in the Eastern Bracket’s semi-final match, employing almost the exact opposite tactics. Drav had chewed Zaire down to his bones, and he was a close-ranged specialist. Lin simply kept her distance, raining down bolts and tricky hexes, circling him and keeping him pinned down in the middle of the arena. He went down twice before she actually engaged him in melee combat, and by the time she started laying into him, he was already punch drunk.

And Valmont proceeds to the finals, surprising absolutely nobody.

Hace was disappointed that Drav couldn’t go the distance—fighting him in the finals would have been a blast—but he had to admit that Valmont’s victory was well-deserved. She preserved her stamina almost as effectively as Cyphira. Definitely more effectively than me. Hace had beaten Vetha earlier that the morning, and while she was an easier opponent than Azmuir, her punches hit like artillery shells, and he had several bruises to prove it.

“Alright! Onto the semi-finals for the Western Bracket. Cyphira Quinn and Hace Matthews, please report to the center court,” Elroy called.

“We’re up,” Hace said.

He stood from his seat, twisted his back, and shrugged his shoulders.

“Ready to lose?” Cyphira asked.

“You wish.”

“Pity one of them has to win,” Senice muttered to Glem.

“I can see the headline now,” Glem said holding his hands out as if viewing a masterpiece: “‘Notorious Asshole Wins Western Bracket’”

“Try not to kill each other out there,” Sera pleaded.

Hace’s mother wore a troubled expression, and offered him an unconvincing smile. He gave her a reassuring grin and kissed her on the forehead—much to her chagrin—and then he and Cyphira left the stands and started walking down the tunnel leading to the court.

They were evenly paced at first, but Cyphira fell behind when they were a third of the way through the tunnel.


Her voice was almost timid. No. Not timid. Concerned. Troubled.

“What’s up?” He asked.

Cyphira tried to start several times, but in the end, she surprised him by taking his right hand in both of hers. Aside from the dance they shared last winter, and a few precious hugs over the years, it was the single most intimate gesture she had ever shared with him.

“Don’t hold anything back, okay? I don’t care what you do to me in that ring, as long as you come at me with everything you’ve got,” Cy said.

Hace put his left hand on her right and smiled at her with solemn eyes. She stared back, and swallowed. He spoke in the voice he reserved for making promises:

“You know I respect you too much to give you anything less. Besides, I’m pretty sure you’d kill me if I didn’t take this seriou—”

Cy stood on her tiptoes and kissed him. Just a quick, light peck on his lips. She pulled away and jogged toward the court before he could process what happened. He was utterly stupefied. His heart raced and fire swept over his body from his head down to his toes.

She kissed me.

It was his first real kiss. Not at all like he imagined it—he had the recurring fantasy of brushing her bangs aside and kissing her deeply when—no, if—she decided she felt the same way he felt about her. But Cy had beaten him to the punch. Does that mean she feels the same? Is that… is that her answer? He touched his lips and then looked at his fingers, searching for some kind of proof that it had happened.

He shook his head and started jogging down the hall. Deal with it later. You have a fight to win. But he couldn’t stop smiling. When he emerged on the court, the crowd applauded and cheered. He waved back appreciatively, wondering if he was still flushed.

“Everyone, please take your seats; the second semi-final match will begin presently!” Master Elroy called. “At the top of the Western Bracket, we have Cyphira Quinn and Hace Matthews, both mentored by Master Fera Fitzgerald.”

Fitzgerald stood from her seat in the front row and waved at the crowd lazily. Two referees were present for the quarter and semi-finals, along with all the Masters observing from the front three rows of the stadium. Any one of them could declare a foul, or pause the fight if they felt it was getting out of hand, though usually exus was the only thing that could motivate such an intervention.

Hace and Cyphira took their positions across from each other, eight paces apart on the mat. They both bowed, wearing their “I’m gonna kick your ass,” smiles. Elroy called for the fighters to ready themselves, and they assumed their conventional fighting stances, mirroring each other.

Cy’s aggressive. She’ll probably come straight at me. I’ll use Azmuir’s shitty little friction hex, but focus it on just her feet. Should make it last longer than applying it to her whole body. After that… It was pointless to plan further. She had an arsenal of tricks up her sleeve and he would need to adapt in real time.

His breathing was steady; his muscles were warm and loose. And his wyrd was alive, positively crackling with power. She kissed me. He thought, one final time before shoving it out of his head. But each heartbeat seemed to strike his entire body like a drum. The intensity of the moment, the pressure and expectations threatened to overwhelm him.

He thought back to one of Fitz’s earliest pieces of advice. “The difference between nerves and eagerness is razor thin. They aren’t static conditions, either. Both have momentum. Nerves backslide into cowardice. Eagerness blossoms into courage. If you can control the flow of that momentum, you can control the fight.”

“Begin!” the refs called.

Hace immediately felt a swell of urdic energy coming from Cyphira, followed by an intense wave of cold. The air around her erupted into a cloud of billowing steam that swallowed half the mat, and quickly swept over Hace. By flash freezing the ambient water in the air, and then immediately making the ice particles thaw, she could effectively create a smoke screen in the space of a second. She’s been practicing that trick with Fitz for a long time. But she never managed to pull it off before. Hace grinned.

The vapors obscured Hace’s anti-friction plan. Can’t hex what you can’t see. But I can’t afford to back down or guard up. She’ll take my hesitation and beat me to death with it. Instead, Hace fired off a broad dome of force to part the mists directly around him. The brief cover bought Cyphira enough time to close the gap between them, however.

She launched a devastating roundhouse kick. Hace narrowly ducked beneath it and blocked her inevitable follow-up left hook kick. In response, he worked her guard with a quick series of jabs until she had to withdraw. Eager to land a solid hit, he launched a right straight that he regretted immediately after throwing it. Overextended. Telegraphed. Fuck.

She grabbed his outstretched arm, turned, and threw her back into his chest as she yanked him over her shoulder. As he flipped, he collected his wyrd beneath his back at a gradual angle, cushioning his fall and allowing him to roll quickly to the side before Cyphira could drop her knee into his chest.

The quick recovery caught her off-guard, and she backstepped, channeling energy into her wyrd for something complex. Hace resorted to one of his more desperate, but well-practiced tricks. He fired two telekinetic waves of force into her temples, effectively clapping her head with magic.

It worked. He disrupted whatever sorcery she was planning, dazing her just long enough for him to spring forward and launch a powerful right straight into her face. Her nose crunched beneath his fist, and his knuckles came away hot and wet. As she rocked backward, Hace spun with the momentum of his punch and fired a powerful left back-kick into her chest.

She buffered the blow with her wyrd and protected herself with her arms, but the kick still had enough force to knock her off her feet. She hit the mat gracefully, rolling to her feet with a reverse somersault. They squared off, briefly meeting each other’s eyes. Her golden irises blazed, but she was grinning, euphoric and breathless.

Hace returned her smile, gathering his wyrd into his hands, telegraphing pyromantic energies. Cyphira took the bait, bracing for the hit. His fire magic was too dangerous for her to do anything else. But Hace deliberately released the sorcery prematurely, resulting in a medium-range explosion of smoke and cinders rather than the focused blast she expected. The blast blistered the palms of his hands, but the resulting cone of smoke swallowed Cyphira’s field of vision.

Yes! I’ve got the momentum now. Finish it before she can find her feet!

Hace seized on the opportunity to create an illusory double of himself. But instead of merely releasing an illusion, he channeled telekinetic force behind the clone’s fists. With his wyrd stretched thin between the glamour and force sorcery, the clone’s blows were rather weak, but the tactile contact was enough to trick Cy into thinking the clone was real.

She guarded against a follow-up attack that never came, and Hace launched a right sidekick into her exposed right flank. Gotcha.

As his foot touched her body, it shimmered and dissolved into the thin, smoke-like threads of a dispelled glamour.

Oh fuck.

Cyphira must have created a clone of her own at the last second, because she stood two paces back, crouched low. And as Hace’s body pitched forward, she had all the time in the world to prepare a counter attack. When his kicking foot returned to the mat, leaving him overextended and off-balance, Cyphira thrust her right palm against his ribcage.

Hace managed a desperate barrier on reflex; just enough to prevent her from making direct contact with his uniform. Direct contact enabled casters to use devastating magic because it left the defender’s wyrd with no room to buffer attacks. They could use their wyrd to fortify their body to some extent, but less distance inevitably translated to more damage.

Cy’s wyrd punched through his barrier and flooded his body, painting the world white with pain. It was as if she had temporarily knocked him out of existence. He was launched into the air, and there was no graceful landing or skilled recovery this time. His shoulder struck the mat and he rolled, painfully, in a messy heap of limp limbs.

The next thing he could hear was the refs’ slow count:

“One. Two. Three…”

I can’t lose. If I lose, I’ll look weak. She’ll think I’m not worthy enough to be her partner. Get up, asshole! Get up and win this, goddamn you!

Hace’s intercostal muscles were shredded. The pain in his left ribcage was so sharp he thought he might have a cracked rib. He shifted his weight to his right arm, and managed to press his chest off the floor before the count hit five, but when he tried to stand his legs weren’t responding. By the count of seven, he managed to use sorcery to pull himself to his feet. Standing upright helped his seizing muscles, and the sensation slowly returned to his legs.

He took stock of Cyphira. Blood streamed down her broken nose. She shook her head, breathing heavily.

“Can’t stay down, can you?” Cyphira asked.

“Not a chance,” Hace said, forcing a smile.

They snapped toward each other like magnets. She threw a knee that he slapped down with his left palm, and answered with a right backhand that cut into her brow. She spun with the blow and launched her elbow into his flank. They stumbled apart. Hace attempted to use the anti-friction hex, but his wyrd stuttered, still weak from Cyphira’s palm strike.

She seized the opportunity to bring an invisible cudgel of force against his left shoulder, striking his collar bone perfectly, sending bright frissons through his body. The pain was so intense it left him dizzy. But she got greedy and went for a lateral follow up swing aimed at his ribs.

He caught her by the wrist and channeled his wyrd directly into her body. She shuddered as if he was a live wire, unable to even cry out in protest. When his wyrd was spent, and her body was limp, he yanked her arm to its full extension, and simultaneously snapped a sidekick beneath her armpit.

I am so sorry, Cy. But if I held back, you’d know it and never forgive me for it.

There was a sickening pop, and Cyphira screamed as her arm was pulled from its joint. She used the pain to fuel her wyrd on reflex, and blasted him with a surge of air so cold it felt caustic. He released her arm, body numbed by the plunging temperature, and stumbled backwards coated in frost. Cyphira tried to take a step forward, but her legs gave out beneath her and she fell onto her knees and right hand.

The refs started the count. Cyphira knelt until four, gasping, then shakily pushed herself to her feet. Hace sucked in air and ether, trying to take advantage of the break in the melee. But she was already on him again. She closed the gap with a spinning back kick that caught his left shoulder with her heel. How the hell!? Was she faking how bad she was hurt?

Hace lost track of himself for a few seconds, punching, kicking, guarding, grabbing, and buffering on instinct and conditioned responses. He started going for bone-to-bone blocks; a desperation technique Fitz discouraged since it resulted in mutual damage. But she’s already down a limb, I just need to wear her down and stay on my feet.

Hace fired a volley of kinetic bolts at her, changing target levels. Head. Left shin. Right shoulder. Body shot, body shot, body shot. Instead of blocking though, Cy stumbling forward with a messy right haymaker that missed his jaw but caught the edge of his nose, breaking it.

The pain helped sober Hace, even as he stumbled backwards. He gasped for oxygen and ether. Cyphira’s dislocated left arm was curled into a crook tight against her body, tendons stretched taught even though they were unable to properly engage the joint. Her right eye was swollen shut. She can barely defend herself. I’m so close. One more good hit and it’s over.

Cyphira started drawing in energy a split second before Hace could do the same. She’ll complete her spell before I can get mine off.

Again, Hace deliberately unleashed his sorcery prematurely, resulting in another flashbang of smoke and cinders that enveloped Cy and deafened the audience.

He raised his guard, preparing for Cyphira’s response.

This is it. You’re going to use your favorite move.

Her signature piece of sorcery was a volley of icicles that bombarded everything in front of her, in either a broad cone or focused stream. The thing that set it apart from innumerable other ice-based projectile magic, was its second impact. After piercing the target, the projectiles would themselves fire jets of cold into their target, effectively using the victim’s own blood to impale them from within. Fitz had dubbed it “Cyphira’s Red Chisel.” Cy claimed to hate the name, yet it stuck immediately and they all referred to it as such when discussing techniques.

During sparring, Cy blunted the icicles, and used the second impact to make them explode like thrown glass bottles instead of impaling her target. Still hurts like a wicked son of a bitch. But I can brace for it. If she misses, I’m golden, and if she goes for a spray, I can take it.

But when a full second-and-a-half-passed and Cyphira didn’t use Red Chisel, Hace’s heart sank.

He caught the merest glance of her as she emerged from the smoke, charging forward, leading with her ruined left arm, right hand cocked back behind her. Instead of a fist though, it held a very familiar, very visible orb of swirling urdic energy—though the energy was a bluish hue of white, rather than the smoldering, angry reds and oranges he was accustomed to.

Part of Hace was delighted. She was using his favorite technique. Fitz called it “Hace’s Lullaby,” a title he also originally despised, until Cyphira pointed out it was “cool in an ironic sort of way.”

He had been working on a way to quickly, and non-lethally subdue targets, while leveraging his talent for elemental magic. Ultimately, he settled on a short-range flash-bang type of strike whose smoke was laced with a sedative energy. The sensory overload of heat, force, sound, and brightness, paired with the smoke could knock out trolls with one shot. Hace had done it before. It was a hell of a move. It took nearly two full seconds to prepare because there was far more advanced stuff going on than most contract magic. And I gave her all the time she needed.

Of course, he had no way of knowing. I couldn’t pull that off right now. Yet she’s doing it.

He smiled despite the pain.

God, I love you.

Cyphira bellowed. Hace managed to block the orb, and to his credit, his wyrd didn’t tear. But the resulting blast was even stronger than Cy’s point-blank palm strike. The blowback sent her flying back as well.

Hace’s jaw clacked shut hard enough to rattle his brain. Cold stabbed his lungs and ice rimed his hair and eyelashes. He could taste Cyphira’s wyrd through the blood and smoke. It was impossible to sum up the flavor, but thinking back, there was a sweetness that reminded him of blackberries laced with a sharp evergreen aroma.

At some point he hit the mat—he was vaguely aware of the fact that he was laying on his chest—but he was also still falling, spinning as black spots swallowed his vision. He dug his fingers into the mat, as if he could literally cling to consciousness. But the magic from Cyphira’s attack lingered in his wyrd, continuing to press down, and oblivion embraced him.

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