Their eyes were filled with fear. Some were shaking. Even the Praeceptor was stunned. Her face was turning ash white. Cairn looked at the drake he summoned. It was twice the size of a horse, barely fitting within the confines of the circle.
“Send it away!” the Praeceptor commanded. The drake turned to her and snarled. It flexed its wings, screeching in pain as the barrier constricted their movement.
Cairn stretched his hand out, and the circle began to glow. The magic came so easily, but with the river’s flow, he felt the coming Surge. The others would have chanted, but it seemed so pointless. Everything about magic was felt.
In his mind he imagined the Arshain Mountains, the drake’s home. He saw its lofty peaks and valleys. He saw a nest with drakelings crying for their mother. His heart shuddered, filling with remorse.
I took you from your family… No wonder you’re angry. With the image of the drake’s home in his mind, Cairn willed it away. He turned to the others and the Praeceptor. All were astonished.
“Cairn, the incant…” the Praeceptor said. “How did you send it away without it?”
“It didn’t seem necessary. I already knew what I wanted to happen.”
“You’re all dismissed,” she said, her attention to the doorway. The Praec had been watching at a distance, his expression hard and unreadable.
Cairn felt a chill as the man’s stern gazed passed over him. You know something. You’ve been coming to observe me for weeks now. He stepped through the doorway into the hall, but the sense that the Praec’s eyes were following him remained. He turned down a connecting hall, his heart quickening upon seeing Lidia. Her warm smile was like the sun as she walked toward him. Unlike everyone else, she wasn’t afraid of him.
“Cairn!” she said happily. “I was looking for you.”
“You weren’t the only one.”
She paused, creeping up to the end of the hall and peering around the corner. “He’s been watching you again, hasn’t he?”
Cairn nodded. “It worries me.”
“Don’t worry, Gran- I mean the Praec can’t do anything. You’ve got top scores. Well, except in Arcane Theory.”
Cairn narrowed his eyes. “Gran… As in grandfather?”
Lida turned; guilt written on her face.
“He’s your grandfather?” She stood there, staring at the floor. “It all makes sense. Why you were so determined to prove yourself. It was because of him.”
“Cairn. Calm down. Let me explain.”
“I could have killed you during the test and he wouldn’t have batted an eye!” His chest tightened as the smell of ozone filled the air. How can anyone be so cold toward their family? Cairn reached for the wall, his breathing labored, as the Surge overtook him.
A deafening thunderclap followed alongside the sound of stone crumbling. The sensation was vague, but Cairn knew he had fallen to his knees. Fatigue washed over him and when the haze cleared, he saw the wall beside him had a gaping hole in it.
Scorch marks lined the mouth of the opening as the Ediscites and Their Praeceptor stared at him in stunned silence. Thankfully, no one was hurt. The force of the blast had only knocked a handful of the students in the class down.
Cairn looked up, his heart breaking when he saw how terrified Lidia was. “Please, Cairn,” she said. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
“Lidia…” he replied before exhaustion overtook him and he passed out.
“So, Cealia, have we confirmed it?”
“Yes, Praec, he is indeed a channeler.”
“So, just like Princess Serai,” he commented.
“Continue to observe him, Cealia. This is a rare opportunity for us. We cannot afford to pass it up.”
“What of his brother? The gladiator?” The way the Praec smiled filled her with chills.
“Gladiators die all the time,” he said. “The boy is ours now, he will serve Absonian interests and the Arcanum.”
“As you wish, Praec.”
A loud thunderclap drew their attention and the two of them rushed out the chamber and up the hall. Cealia placed her hands over her mouth in shock at the gaping hole in the wall when they turned down the connecting hallway. The Praec however, was smiling.
Cairn lay unconscious on the stone floor. He looked pale. Lidia was kneeling beside him, cradling the young boy in her arms. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and she looked as if she blamed herself for what happened.
“Lidia,” the Praec said. “Tears are for the weak. Are you weak?” he asked.
Her expression hardened. “No gran… Praec. Weakness if a trait of the coward and the commoner.”
“Very good. Then wipe that weakness I see on your face and report to your next class. You are a weapon. Act like it.”
She stood, leaving Cairn lying on the ground, while the Praec knelt over him like a spider cocooning its prey. Cealia felt a chill.
“Take him to the apothecaries,” he said, shifting his attention to the damage done to the wall. The Ediscites their Praeceptor in the chamber beyond were silently watching. “Janna, why don’t you take your Ediscites to the summoning chamber and teach them there.”
The gate closed, leaving a chill at his back. The guard locked it, shook his head, and resumed his post. “Another win for Iron Fist,” he commented.
Vahti cringed, shifting his eyes to the blood on his hands. Have I fallen so far?
“The first time is always the hardest kid,” the guard said. “It gets easier.”
“Should it though?” Vahti replied. “Wouldn’t that make you less human?”
“Life is harsh. No one is forcing you to stay here.”
Vahti glanced at the gladiators dueling beyond the iron gate. One was bald, wielding a shield and spear. The other, a chain flail. His hair was raven black. Both wore no armor, only loincloths. Slaves… The one with the black hair is Feraldiath.
The Feraldiath’s eyes took on a sinister glow, and he swung the flail at the bald gladiator’s shield. It shattered, splintering to pieces. His opponent screamed, his mangled left arm hanging limply at his side. The Feraldiath sneered, panting as the glow faded from his eyes.
“Cursed savages,” the guard commented. “That power they wield makes them inhuman monsters.”
“What do you mean?”
“When their eyes glow like that, they gain incredible strength and feel no pain. You could stab one through and they’ll keep coming.”
A sharp scream drew Vahti’s attention. The fight was over, leaving him to stare at the raven haired Feraldiath holding his opponent’s severed head in his hands. His blue eyes were glowing again.
“Back to the boards,” the guard said. “If they find out I let you stay to watch the fight, it will be my head they take.”
Vahti nodded and continued up the corridor. Over the past few months, the Colosseum had become less of a labyrinth. In design, the corridors were surprisingly simple. The difficulty came from the layout. The passageways were all made to look the same. Wander deep enough and one would find themselves caught by the guard or centurions.
After a few minutes he reached what everyone called ‘The Boards’. The riotous shouts of the Libertas gladiators filled the air. Each was discussing their rankings and placing personal bets on the day’s matches listed. Others were issuing challenges, which were then approved by the Auctor or match organizer, and marked on a giant slate board mounted to the wall.
Anyone could refuse a challenge, but it dropped their rank by a few points. Ranks were broken into six categories: Bronze, Copper, Silver, Gold, Platinum and Diamond. Bronze and copper matches were prearranged and non-negotiable. Silvers got more leeway and could refuse one match per day.
Golds could issue challenges and refuse up to two matches. Platinum and Diamonds were the stars. They could challenge each other at any time and refuse any match they wanted. There was a catch, though. Refusing to fight meant they had to make up for any projected loss based on the odds for the remainder of the week. In essence, they accrued a debt. Failure to pay meant they risked their rank and started as the bottom of the next lowest rank.
“Quite the haul this morning, Vahti,” the Auctor shouted. “You’re close to Plat!”
Inwardly, Vahti cringed. “Who am I fighting next?”
The Auctor grinned. “Let me roll the dice.”
It truly is a lottery… Vahti thought.
The scrawny Absonian rolled the six dice he always kept with him. No one had figured out his system, but he had a list of names, each specifically numbered. He paused, his face turning ashen as he whispered to himself.
Vahti froze, as did the rest of the room. Even with the din, the very mention of the dragon’s name was enough to silence the room. All eyes turned to him, some filled with pity, while others, the ones who were jealous of his success, smiled with glee.
“I’m sorry, young monk,” the Auctor said. “I cannot go against the dice and you cannot refuse this fight. It’s the Arena Master’s rules.”
Vahti could only nod, then look at the blood staining his hands. He felt his stomach turn. Cairn, I think I got lost somewhere on the way…
“I’ll inform Master Arturo so he can make arrangements. We will hold the fight a week from now. I pray Karien favors you, young monk.”
Hoyim be with me…
So arrogant… The sound of laughter pricked Gmork’s ears from beyond the door of his cell. The guards were in a rare mood. Each was placing bets on how long Vahti would last against Xanthir.
He glanced at his other skulking in the shadows of his cell. It had been quiet, almost sullen. “Nothing to say?”
It gave no response.
Gmork repositioned himself, taking a seat on the cold stone floor. He looked up, a mote of hope filling his heart. “Please, Great Creator, or whatever you call yourself. Please let my only friend live.”