The transformation round of the tournament took place on a stage a short walk from the practise arena. It was surrounded by the same golden trees, but it was raised and had a few rows of seats set up for spectators. They were sadly empty because of the rule against spectators, but I still felt a rush of excitement as we went through the introduction and the rules. I had been up since five again, practising my transformation with a pile of rocks and Ifrey. He had forgiven me, even if he wasn’t as enthusiastic in his role as he had been back home.
Celeste was the first participant and started the show by transforming a pile of bugs into puppies. The little guys were all coloured bright red and green like bugs, but they were furry and warm and barked, so if you didn’t know better, you wouldn’t suspect that they were anything but dogs. After we had returned to our seats, Celeste confided in me that she sometimes transformed bugs into baby animals when she needed to be cheered up.
The excitement was palpable when Hazan took the stage. Before he even started his transformation, he waved his hands in a summoning spell. A statue appeared on the stage: the shape of a woman, made of ice. Her features were beautiful and delicate, and the cloth of her dress looked realistic. I wondered if it was made with magic.
He lifted his hands and started his spell. He did a pre-spell with a single word of power. Then something I only vaguely recognised and he did a set of familiar movements with a couple of magical words. Anyone could have said what he was going to do. The statue was going to come to life. And as I had expected, as soon as Hazan lowered his hands, the statue lifted her arm. Her colour changed from icy to tan, and her hair gained texture and turned black. When the transformation was complete, she spun around on the spot.
We all applauded politely, but I was slightly disappointed.
“I would have thought he’d do something more advanced,” I whispered to Celeste.
“I hate to say you’re right, but he is a Hazan,” she said back.
However, he hadn’t transformed the ice woman back. Instead he pointed towards the edge of the stage and told her:
“Go over and say hello to Genevieve Thorne.”
I held my breath as she did exactly what she was told. She came up to me, nodded, and said: “Hello, Genevieve Thorne.”
Her voice was odd, ringing like shards of ice, but it was unmistakably real words. Murmurs went up all around me, and I couldn’t tear my eyes from the statue. He had made a statue, a slab of ice, speak. He had made it obey commands. The amount of energy that required, and the precision… Next to me, Celeste’s jaw had dropped.
The row of contestants had gone completely quiet. Nadir let the ice woman follow a few other simple commands: say hello to the judges, comment on the weather, sit down on the stage. She did everything she was told.
“Now this is an extraordinary transformation,” Isadora said from the judges’ podium to the viewers.
Orion nodded in agreement.
Everyone applauded Hazan as he left the stage. It wasn’t just extraordinary – it was impossible.
“How did he give it that much power?” I asked Celeste. “That’s not possible.”
Celeste leaned back in her seat. “It sure is a very handy transformation.”
I raised an eyebrow at her.
“I’d like to know if it’s registered is all,” she said. “Maybe I’ll ask him how he did it.”
“I must have seen that bit at the beginning before,” I said.
But Celeste didn’t answer because Amin had taken the stage. He transformed the stage into jelly. It was amusing, but nothing special, and I couldn’t help but wonder what he was doing here. His broom accident was unfortunate, but this was hardly on the level of the ice woman or even Celeste’s puppies.
When I took the stage myself, Ifrey on my shoulder, I offered up something more in line with a world-famous tournament. I summoned a pile of rocks and then did the actual transformation. I formed complicated patterns in the air, energy dancing from my fingertips, and when I was done, they turned into exact copies of Ifrey. They flew around me and squawked, and I’d wager not even a trained eye could tell the difference.
“Another wonderful transformation from last year’s champion,” I heard Orion say. “It’s not as complex as our second contestant, but so well executed, one cannot help but wonder if it’ll be enough to impress the voters.”
Isadora agreed, and I received applause as I walked off the stage, having turned the many parrots back into rocks.
Finally, as the last entry, Cloris threw a handful of seeds in the air. When they reached their apex, they blossomed as flowers and those flowers suddenly spread their wings and flew as butterflies. The colourful wings sparked and disappeared in fireworks. She received a few positive murmurs and praise from the commentators’ podium.
After everyone had performed, Orion, Isadora, and Gabriel left us to go and receive the votes that would, by now, be flooding in from the public via magical messages.
Celeste moved closer to me. “I think that transformation is good enough to win this round, don’t you think?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Oh, come on. If he doesn’t win, I’ll be very surprised.”
As if to punctuate Celeste’s point, I saw both Cloris and Amin gather around Nadir to praise the work he had done on it. He gave them nothing but a series of nods, of course, and kept looking over his shoulder.
“Well, then your puppies might as well win,” I said.
“You’re grasping at straws, Genevieve. Just you wait. They’re going to announce him as the winner, and it’ll be the beginning of the end of Genevieve, Champion.”
I rolled my eyes, but she was right, at least about him winning.
The three judges came back, and almost immediately declared that Nadir Hazan had received the most votes for his transformation. Celeste mouthed a ‘told you so’ at me, and my stomach dropped.
“Genevieve Thorne comes in at a very close second place,” Isadora said while Hazan got on the stage.
“And that means she and Mr. Hazan are even now,” Orion said.
“But the most exciting rounds await,” Isadora butted in. “Tomorrow’s alchemy displays promise to be every bit as spectacular as the ones from last year. It’s our participants’ chance to truly shine.”
Orion nodded “I guess we’ll have to wait and see how Mr. Hazan is with alchemy displays, then.”
Nadir waved awkwardly and shook hands with Gabriel, and I wondered how someone who had done so well could look so unsatisfied.
I decided to walk back to the manor as soon as Isadora had stopped broadcasting. My body still ached after yesterday’s race, and now I wanted some quiet time to think about the defeat. It wasn’t a big deal, of course, because I had won the first round, and there were three disciplines left. Still, it was hard to wrap my head around. Even harder because Celeste kept sending me that smug smile.
So I sped up a little to get ahead of everyone, breathing evenly and calmly to let the disappointment flow away.
“Your transformation was very good.”
Hazan appeared next to me as though from thin air, and it was all I could do to not shout at him.
I smiled quickly. “Thank you. Yours was, too.”
“Thank you.” He cleared his throat. “Since your advice helped me yesterday, maybe I could tell you about my trick…”
“Oh, yes.” I swallowed something, and nodded. “It was a good technique, but I already know about it. Excuse me, I need to rest.”
He ran a hand through his hair. “Sorry. Yes, yes, of course you do. I-I didn’t mean to…”
I practically ran away and locked myself in my room, fuming.
Nadir Hazan wasn’t so much Tall, dark, and brooding as Tall, dark, and gloating. I paced the room, feeling sweat pool on my back. Laughter from nowhere rang in the back of my mind.
She’s good at magic, but that personality… ugh, I just could not vote for her…
The words were only a shadow, something I had heard in passing years before from one of the spectators. They were words I usually put away and hid. They weren’t useful, and the person had had to eat her words anyway, because I had won. Just like I had the year after and like I would this year.
“It doesn’t matter that I lost,” I said out loud to my parrot. “I’ve lost a discipline before.”
More than a few times, actually; generally the voting ones – the ones that depended on showmanship and persona over actual talent.
I shouldn’t dwell on it.
Didn’t want to.
But I did.
Defeat after defeat flashed in my mind, and the audience that didn’t want me to win and… and Hazan’s transformation.
The truth was, I had no idea how he had given his transformation that much energy. If you gave it too much energy, you ended up draining your own life energy, and that could kill you. I had used some of my own energy before for transformations, of course, but always very little. It was almost impossible to know when you gave it too much.
“He must be cheating,” I muttered.
That had to be it. You could take the life energy of some other creature to use in a transformation, but it was against the tournament rules and it was frowned upon in most magical circles. It had to be what he had done.
“But they have charms to prevent that, don’t they?”
Ifrey clicked at me.
There were, of course, that part of his spell that I didn’t recognise. That had to have something to do with it. But I groaned and admitted to myself that it wasn’t what happened. There were a few spell gestures that could be used to get around the anti-cheat charms, but this definitely wasn’t one. I couldn’t place it, though.
I paced some more, looked in a few of my books, but when I didn’t remember there were just too many spells to search. Then I remembered what Celeste had said at the stage. If that spell wasn’t registered.
That would be cheating.
I pushed through the door and searched the manor until I found Celeste in the alchemy lab. She was bent over a large cauldron and emitting a string of curses that my grandmother would have called ‘unladylike’. I couldn’t help but laugh. When Celeste heard, she spun, murder in her eyes, and said:
“Stop laughing and show me how to make this damned base draft, Thorne.”
I walked up to her and looked into the kettle where a black ooze was crystallising on the bottom.
“Too much heat,” I said. “And try and add a little less of the sunflower than the recipe says. That’ll make it easier.”
Celeste poured out her mixture and started over. While I watched she got the base igredients and tossed in a few red tulip petals in the pot to start; she did it with a little more force than necessary. She stirred, and the draft slowly started crystallising and taking the right kind of pink colouring. Her anger dissipated a bit more with every stir, until finally she looked up at me with a smile.
“I’m sorry for teasing you earlier. I hope you’re okay.”
“Use this instead.” I stopped her from pouring in regular water and picked a bottle of rain water from the table instead and replied: “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You lost and then you ran off in a huff, so I got a little worried. Did Hazan say anything nasty?”
I shrugged. “He wanted to give me advice.”
Celeste nodded, as though everything in the world made sense now, and I stayed silent. When Celeste did something wrong, I silently got the right thing down from the shelf and handed it to her. We worked like that until she had a base fire draft, which I guessed must be for her potion for tomorrow.
“Why was it you came?” Celeste asked while we bottled the draft. “Did you feel in the aether that I was being bad at alchemy and I needed correcting?”
“I was wondering about what you said at the stage. That you wasn’t sure the spell was registered.”
She sighed and smiled apologetically.
“It’s very new, but it is registered.”
“By Mr. Nadir Hazan himself. He registered it two months ago, so it’s not in the lists yet. He didn’t cheat if you were hoping for that. As a responsible fairy hunter, I had a chat with him and looked it up in the lists. It’s a legit spell.”
I moved over to one of the plush armchairs in the room and sat down, pushing down the disappointment. After a little while, Celeste took another chair.
“It hit you pretty hard this time, didn’t it?” she asked, and I only mustered a shrug in answer. “Is it because you don’t know how he did it?”
My mouth felt as though it had been glued together.
“Genevieve, it’s okay to not know,” she said. “He used a variation of an energy lock.”
I snapped my head up. “What?”
But as soon as her words registered, I realised that she was right. I had never seen it used like that. They were usually only used to lock magical energy away so you couldn’t use it. It was a common punishment meted out by the Council. In this case he had used a lock to make sure all his life energy wouldn’t be available to the transformation. I slapped my forehead and collapsed back in the chair.
“I should have recognised that.”
“When was the last time you used a lock?” Celeste asked.
I sighed. “Back at the academy.”
“The Council use them all the time, and especially us fairy hunters. It’s fair that you didn’t see it.”
It was nice of her to say, but I could help the feeling that I should have known. All I did all year round was train for this, and I’d been beaten because I never thought to think of using a spell in a new kind of way. I stood up from the chair and walked around on the creaky floorboards while Celeste watched me silently. Finally, she said:
“With that said, I’m not saying Mr. Hazan isn’t fishy.”
“What do you mean?”
She leaned forward and rested her head in her palm. “What do you think you could do with a living statue that can obey simple commands? Say you enchant it and ask it to stay hidden until everyone is out…”
“The break-in.” Wind howled in the old woodwork as though to express the heaviness in my chest. “But he was as surprised as any of us about the break-in.”
“He’s a very good actor, I’ll give him that. But the Hazan family aren’t only known for their alchemy skills – there’s always been rumours of them being involved in morally grey business.”
“They’re just rumours.”
It came out before I had a chance to think about it. When Celeste asked why I would defend him, I couldn’t say. Maybe I didn’t want a transformation like that to be used for such a base purpose; maybe I just didn’t want to be beaten by a criminal. And either way, I didn’t see why he would search the manor – what could he possibly want here that his family didn’t already have? I told Celeste as much.
“Just stay on your toes,” she said. “I don’t trust our Council favourite. Though I do want him to beat you.”
She laughed. “Thank goodness, now I recognise you again.”
Author’s notes: Hi guuuuuuuyysss 🙂 and welcome back after my
little hiatus. It’s been a rough few weeks, and I sadly haven’t written as much ahead as I would have liked. However, it did lead to this rather different version of the chapter. The older version had been bugging me for a while – Genevieve was much quicker to accept the loss, and Celeste was honestly too dim for a supposed fairy hunter. It’s going to change things to come and lead to more editing, plus it lead to not using a set of poses I’d made for this, but it’s worth it to feel better about the direction the story is taking.
Anyway, I hope you’re all having a great December so far and you’re getting into the holiday spirit. My stupid and anxiety inducing course is close to being over, so I’m getting there. Have a great time, everyone, and see you for the next one.