When they reached the circle, Jayen’s hands were already flush with energy, the sparking red magic of his clan. He was of the Malthusius blood as well as the bond, so his sparked and snapped much redder than Vico’s, even when Vico zapped it out of his hands to disperse in a shiver of scarlet. “If we’re doing this, we’ll do it by the rules,” Vico said, ignoring Jayen’s outraged exclamation. “Two of three strikes is a win—”
“Make it three of five, I want to see her begging quarter.”
“Three rounds,” Vico said, fixing him with a stern look. “No crossing the line, no physical violence. No face shots. Nothing below the belt.” That last one was directed at Seya.
She shrugged. “Fine with me. I don’t need to fight dirty to win.”
“No, just like a suicidal maniac,” Vico muttered. “Are you even carrying anything?”
She rifled through her pockets. All she had was the handful of coins that comprised her entire financial situation and a couple of small stone charms, long since depleted of their energy. Stone charms were the most reliable and cheapest for dueling and casual protection, but they took a long time to regenerate, and Seya hadn’t stopped anywhere long enough recharge or trade them.
“Gods and spirits, woman,” Vico said. “Don’t wander around challenging people to fights when you’re practically unarmed. Here, you can use my kit. It’s pretty basic but you should be fine with it.” He fished a leather cord strung with dueling chips from under his shirt and pulled it over his head, and took off the magnetic copper bracelet he was wearing as well.
“That’s not fair, she shouldn’t go around challenging people if she can’t fight with what she has!” Jayen objected. “The rules say only what you bring into the circle!”
“You’re not in the circle yet. And if you want to talk about fair, why don’t you lose some of that flash and just fight with the standard issue chips. You’re walking around with enough junk to start a war over there.”
“Someone did try to kill me recently, not that you seem to care or anything,” Jayen snapped. He pulled off his own dueling chips and tossed them on the ground, and began pulling off his jewelry as well. When he was done, all he had was a couple of rings—diamond, silver, steel, and the fire charm angling from his ear. “Like I’d need all this shit just to kick her ass.”
“Like I need any chips to kick yours,” Seya retorted.
“I said we’re doing this by the rules, so you are taking these,” Vico said, putting them in her hand and closing her fingers around them. He gave a sigh of exasperation as she stuffed the chips into her pocket without even looking at them, though she did put on the bracelet. He fished the fire charm out of his pocket and tried to hand it to her too, but she drew back in disgust. Bad enough she had to use his obviously Malthusius-manufactured charms; she wasn’t going to touch something that was made of energy harvested from their bond-seated fire element.
Vico exhaled loudly and clipped the damn thing back onto his earring, then went to the witnesses’ podium at the edge of the circle. He laid his palm over the ring of sigils carved into the top, activating the energy barrier meant to keep the dueling spells from escaping and causing damage to the surrounding area. A red line of light appeared, bisecting the circle. Seya chose the right side. Jayen strode into the left. “Damn it, Jayen, wait for my mark,” Vico said, and Jayen raised his hands innocently, letting the red sparks fade on their own. “I swear to all the gods and spirits of Caldona, if you don’t abide by the precepts I will report you to the Guard.”
“When have I ever not! And anyway, you’d get in trouble too,” Jayen said.
“So what else is new? All right, then, ready? First round!”
The words were hardly out before Jayen spun up a glittering spectacle of an attack, and lunging up to the edge of the line, he flung it at her full force. The Malthusius clan had always been partial to earth and fire, and it was a potent combination, perfect for fighting. His first attack was all blinding-sharp-hot splinters of sunlight to distract and teeth of glittering diamond energy from his rings, infused with and bolstered by the biting red essence of the Malthusius clan magic.
It was very hard on Seya’s defensive shields, but she held them as long as possible, the better to read his casting technique in her sense. There was nothing of subtlety in Jayen’s spellwork, it was all about the force behind it. He wasn’t much better with spiritual magic than he had been she’d left, and that had always been his biggest weakness. When he fought with her, anyway. He was bad at reading attacks, and all the best defenses were grounded in internally-based spiritual energy. Having to depend on externally based elemental energy to protect himself meant he was at the mercy of what was at hand. His elemental levels were higher than hers now, she judged, not that it mattered. But at sixteen, he’d been too young to have taken his clan’s pinnacle, and had to rely on the limits of his blood connection to the clan bonds. Now he was carrying the full weight of the Malthusius bond behind that, which was impressive even if he couldn’t utilize the full range of the spiritual energy it offered him. He used it freely, but it was like piling silk up to block a sword thrust—if you had enough, it worked, in a wasteful sort of way. Not that he cared. It was his birthright, regardless of his actual position in the clan, to use as he saw fit. The Malthusius magic was strong enough that wasting it on a pointless duel wouldn’t even make a ripple.
She fingered the chips in her pocket: steel, a water charm, acid, spark, something generically stone-like—a synthetic composite? She didn’t have a lot of experience with those, they were new magetech things. She didn’t need them quite yet, not with the heavy summer humidity just begging to be used. She swiped it down and wrapped it around the sun splinters, absorbing them until the energy hissed and spat like water on a hot griddle, bound together carefully with her own spiritual energy to prevent a polarity reaction between the two opposing elements that might have rebounded her spellwork. The diamond energy she deflected by drawing out the polished coppery reflection from the bracelet; she spun it out in a wave around the outside of her shields. The sharp, angry edges were swiftly canceled out by their own energy, rebounding back on themselves with sharp cracking sounds.
It didn’t last long. The surface of the copper grew duller and blacker as she spun out the reflective properties, until the spell finally winked out, but it had lasted long enough for her purposes. She had allowed a portion of the shards through, snatching them out of the air and stripping them of the clan magic Jayen had used to bind them to his will—one of those spiritual techniques he could not use himself. She wrapped them in the sizzling water/sun mixture and sent them back at him, coated in magnetic energy from the bracelet that she’d set to focus on Jayen to increase the force of the strike.
Jayen made a valiant effort to disperse them, but with each shard wrapped in its own barrier of spitting, angry heat, he couldn’t break them all fast enough. The magnetism drew it directly into the heaviest part of his shields, situated over his chest where his magic was centered the strongest. It punched him backwards into the barrier, and he fell to one knee, momentarily stunned by the force of his shields being broken.
Seya was slightly disappointed that it had worked that well. She had expected more of a fight from him. Vico leaned over the pillar, half surprised and half concerned, until Jayen sat up, seething. His shirt was sliced across the front in several places, the skin underneath lightly abraded by the strike, which she had pulled back at the last second, in deference to Vico’s restrictions—and also because she knew it would infuriate Jayen.
“That’s one for Seya, then. Do you need a minute?” Vico asked.
“I don’t,” Jayen growled, standing up. “Don’t expect me to be so restrained, either.”
“I’m good.” She watched as Jayen collected the stray threads of magnetic energy—she thought she knew what he was going to do, and was already formulating her defenses accordingly.
“Just call it already!” Jayen snapped.
“Fine. Round two!”
Jayen was more cautious with his next attempt, disguising his intent with a flurry of fire energy drawn from his charm. His shields utilized the diamond energy from his rings but seemed more solid, even without using his clan magic or his limited spiritual abilities to shore them up. Seya was impressed despite herself, and wondered if he had only been testing her with his first attempt, or if he had underestimated her. It took considerable skill to manipulate pure elemental energy without a catalyst such as a clan bond or the strong spiritual sense she had inherited from her mother. One of the reasons clan magic remained popular even with the government restrictions levied after the Upriser’s March was that it decreased the energy load of spell ignition and maintenance while amplifying the force behind it—one effectively borrowed from the power of the clan as a whole, with the combined spiritual magic of all the bonded magnifying the effect of the energy in a way purely elemental energy could not. It hadn’t occurred to her that Jayen might have leveled his abilities so far up, but it had been a long time, after all. He’d always been the type to push himself. The thought sent a thrill of excitement through her; maybe this would be a proper fight after all.
Unable to discern the intent of his next attack, she shored up her magnetic shields with steel from the dueling chip, layering them with slick water and dense layers of air, and drafting a second attack, which she did not have time to finish before Jayen launched his own. She could sense the magnetic energy he had reclaimed at its fore, and shifted the focus of her shields to draw it away while she finished preparing her own attack. This proved a mistake. Jayen reversed the polarity of the magnetism at the last second, and she did not have time to recalibrate for it before it struck. Her shields reacted accordingly, bowing inward instead of holding, nearly shattering over her. She expended precious energy whipping up another shield with equally opposing polarity to protect herself from the first one, and that was when he launched his second blow: a steel-based attack laced with—silver? It was a whirling kaleidoscope of bright, blade-like energy, beautiful and deadly. Silver was not a strong metal, but the way he had laced it through the steel energy made it immune to the magnetic energy of her defenses.
She drew hard on the water charm, melding the energy with a searing dose of sunlight, stoking the mild polar reaction of the combination, and drove the boiling result out in a wedge before her shields. His metallic attack sizzled against it, softened by the heat and slowed by the cushioning properties of the water, and it was almost enough—but in the end his greater force outweighed her hastily constructed defenses, bending them nearly in half around her. The heat dragged against her arm and she gasped as she was scalded by her own shields.
“And one for Jayen!” Vico said, clearly surprised. Jayen dispersed the energy, looking down at her with smug satisfaction. Seya stood, smiling back fiercely.
“Seya, you want a minute?”
“I think I will take a few,” she said. Jayen scoffed and summoned a swirl of clan magic to recharge himself. Seya examined the energy levels of the chips in her pocket, trying to decide on her next course of action.
Vico hopped over the low wall around the circle to examine her arm. It was a bit red, but it didn’t hurt enough to bother her. “How come you’re all concerned about her?” Jayen objected.
“You’re the one who said you didn’t need a break,” Vico retorted. “That’s how it works. You know the precepts.”
“What, is she made of glass? Get a move on!”
Seya draped her arm over Vico’s shoulder by way of response, smirking at Jayen. His aura washed with fresh anger, and his clan magic rumbled in the air like silent thunder.
“You’re awful,” Vico said, not without humor, as he disentangled himself. “Ready?”
“Hell yeah,” she said, giving him a shove toward the pillar and turning her full attention to her opponent. Jayen hadn’t waited for him for resume his place as witness before gathering his energies for the final round. His clan magic bristled thick and fierce, hiding his preparations. Seya extended her sense to the edge of the barrier, watching for a hint of his next attack, whipping up a new shield of her own, a dynamic whirlwind of air and water, liberally threaded through with magnetism, lined inside with steel and stone, which she reinforced with more of her own energy than was probably wise, considering the attack she had planned. She truly had not expected to be pushed so hard by him, but it was a fight worth having. She was a little surprised by a pang of nostalgia for that brief time when they had almost been friends, and had fought with each other purely for the thrill of proving themselves instead of for the rivalry between them. She shoved those old feelings aside—she was the one who had left all that behind. She didn’t have the right to regret it.
She concentrated on her casting; if Jayen was going to give her a one-two attack, she was going to go for three at the very least. That really was pushing herself—not that it was past her abilities, but there was already a slight ache blooming in the scars on her left hand, and while it didn’t hurt enough to stop her, it was dangerous to squander too much of her own energy when she didn’t know how much of the forced bond from her time as a member of Fifteenth Squadron was still in effect. If she used too much, the warding on it might lose integrity. She wasn’t sure how low she’d need to get before that was a threat, and she’d just as soon not find out.
Well, it wasn’t like she was planning on staying in Starling much longer. Ignoring the pang of regret accompanying the thought, she prodded discreetly at Jayen’s defenses. They were solid; she was still unable to get a sense of his intentions, but the power he was manipulating was immense. She doubled the energy in her defenses.
“Round three!” Vico said, and Jayen unleashed his next attack, a burst of energy so heavily shielded with clan magic she couldn’t read its composition. She answered it with a blunt, straightforward stone-based attack, something separate from the one she had originally planned.
She aimed slightly to the right, and when it hit, his shield shredded away to reveal another steel/silver attack. She shifted the polarity of the magnetism in her shields to cloak it against the silver’s interference, barely in time for the blow to strike the left side of her shield. The clockwise motion combined with the reversed polarity to send the strike back at Jayen, and he lost valuable seconds dispersing it instead of launching his next attack. That left Seya more than enough to get out the first of her three-part casting, another blunt-force deluge of stone energy, jagged with the reclaimed bits of the diamond energy he had sent at her before.
Jayen swore violently as he was thrown off balance by her counterattack, and she pressed the advantage, whirling her second strike over and around his. His was a blazing orange flame, dense as stone, but with no metal or stone incorporated. The sheer intensity of the flames brought up the sense-memory of Keraday, and that made her falter for a second, left her scrambling to keep the momentum of her own attack,—stone energy, mostly from the circle under her feet, but she had coated it with the essence from the acid charm as well, and charged it with a white-hot spark. When it hit Jayen’s steel-reinforced shields, it ate through enough to send a sharp shock at him, and he let out an undignified yelp, losing his control over the attack he was casting in an effort to keep his defenses up. It would have been her point, except when he lost control over his spellwork, it rebounded in spectacular fashion, knocking them both down. Her shields held, as did his, and they both fell back with no physical damage.
She expected Vico to call it a draw. By most conventional dueling rules it would have been, but Jayen shot him a glare as he opened his mouth. Vico threw up his hands. “Go on, then,” he said in exasperation. That was fine with Seya. If she was going to be leaving Starling again, possibly for good, she preferred to go out on a victory, not a draw.
Losing was out of the question.
Seya quickly patched her damaged shields, though the furious tension she could feel from Jayen said he hadn’t bothered. He reached up, snatching the nearly depleted fire charm from his earring and throwing it down on the ground. She assumed at first it was a fit of temper, and snatched the moment to further reinforce her defenses and finish the casting on her next attack, but then he brought his heel down on it. It took the full weight of his aura to break the tiny, magically-reinforced glass sphere and release the scintillating spark captured within. Seya watched in shock—not that he could do such a thing, but that he would. She heard Vico swearing to himself at the recklessness of trying to use a pure fire elemental, but Jayen didn’t seem to have the least problem controlling it. In an instant, he had twined his clan magic to it to create a raging wall of orange and red flame between the two of them.
There was no chance of countering that with the elements Seya had on hand. She could have broken open Vico’s water charm in response, but she didn’t have a virtually unlimited clan connection to draw from to replace the energy it would cost. He wasn’t leaving her any choice, so she drew deeply on her own energy to shore up her defenses even further; pain lanced up her arm from the scars on her left hand, reminding her that she couldn’t afford to waste it. She sent her sense out to the edges of the barrier, searching for a weak spot in the flames and trying to anticipate his next move. Her intention was to avoid it rather than counter it directly, wait for him to expend his energy, then launch her own attack. No matter how much bond energy he had access to, he still needed physical endurance to manage it. He was using a lot of energy to control the flames, so it was a tossup as to which would falter first, him, or the elemental.
If it isn’t me, she thought, tensing as she felt the power fueling the fire surge. He didn’t hold back, just slammed it at her in a brute-force attack that would have easily decimated her shields had she not vaulted out of the way. She couldn’t avoid it entirely. The heat devoured the energy of her defenses where the two met.
She heard Vico shouting something, presumably at Jayen for trying something so dangerous, but his words were lost over the roar of the flames. Jayen wasn’t trying to kill her; though she felt the fire far closer than was comfortable, he focused it on her defenses and batting at her with only his clan magic. He wasn’t quite fast enough, but he sent volley after volley of it after her as she darted and dodged. It took every reflex she had built up over the years, but she managed to come out physically unscathed, though her shield was in tatters before she could find a spare second to launch her last attack. Sweat poured off her, from both heat and exertion, stinging her eyes so she could barely watch him, and she found herself relying more on her sense, which also cost her energy she didn’t have to spare, even if it wasn’t much.
But Jayen was flagging too. His fire elemental had all but burned itself out, and he was forced to rein in his attack so he could summon more energy to keep it going. Seya dropped to one knee, panting, her left hand clenched in a fist at the stabbing pain—if she didn’t attack soon, it would all be over. It had probably been a mistake to challenge someone when she wasn’t really up to her usual standard, energy-wise.
“Hey, guys, let’s just call it a draw!” Vico called across in the sudden lull. Jayen snarled a reply that was lost amid the rumble of his casting. Leaning forward, Seya readied her attack and opened her sense one more time, panting at the effort it cost, and felt his magic gathering. Something felt—wrong—like there was more coming from outside the barrier—had more of Corin’s people arrived? No, there was no one in her interior-shielded sense range. She thought for one incensed moment that Jayen was preparing some spellwork outside the barrier to throw her off—but that was not his way, he’d always kept to the precepts—and it didn’t feel like Malthusius energy anyway…
“The hell, Jayen—” Vico shouted, then stopped abruptly, as he came to the same conclusion Seya had. Spellwork, composed of water and something sharp and deadly, swooped in toward the circle. The magic breached the barrier easily—it was composed to keep spellwork in, not out—and Jayen stood directly in its trajectory.
Jayen, whose already weak sense was drowned out by his own casting, his attention focused between his next attack and Seya’s defenses, did not see it. It was not a single person’s attempt, but some obviously cooperative effort, perhaps an unfamiliar clan magic, though it lacked the proper markers, and the greater force plus the water/sharpness combo would decimate his fire-based shields easily. And there was a curse bound up in it, something vicious and hungry. Vico and Seya both ran for him. “Gods, Jayen, get down, get down!” Vico shouted, fingers flying to his fire charm to spin up a defense, but Jayen only turned toward him furiously, likely thinking Vico was trying to enforce a draw to end the duel.
Seya was closer, and prepared for a fight as well, so she did what she thought would work better—slammed her prepared attack, and herself, into Jayen’s defenses while he was distracted by Vico, pumped with every spare scrap of energy she could muster, and dragging together the remains of her shield in an effort to blunt the force of the attack as she knocked him down to the circle.
It would have worked—if the attack had not been targeted. The tell-tale intent came across too late for her to do anything but wonder how they had managed to learn enough of his aural signature to do such a thing. She felt Jayen’s outrage and then his burst of fear and anger as he realized what had happened. He tried to redirect his attack into a defense, and that, with Vico’s attempt to defend the two of them, was the only reason she wasn’t killed immediately as the shredding force of the strange attack tore through her battered defenses and slammed across her back and left shoulder trying to get through to Jayen.
It hurt like hell, and that was before the curse latched into her blood. She was vaguely aware of Jayen swearing, and Vico shouting her name; aside from that there was only pain, and then merciful blackness.