I grabbed my usual croissant and tea and sat next to Celeste, who immediately looked at me with her head cocked. When I didn’t say anything at all for a long time, she moved a little closer.
“Are you alright?”
“Whatever do you mean?”
I took a bite of my croissant, going over all the preparations I would have to do before tonight. It was all listed in my notebook: I needed potions, items to infuse and transform, practise with a few new spells… Nobody knew what the obstacle course would bring, so it wouldn’t be that out there to make sure that my broom was trimmed and polished.
“You know it’s okay, right?” Celeste asked out of nowhere.
I snapped my eyes up to meet hers and laughed nervously. “What’s okay?”
She smiled. “We saw the two of you kissing, you know, and that’s fine. You seemed a bit out of it when you saw us, but really-.”
“It was nothing.”
After a conversation with Ifrey – that was stunningly one-sided – I’d decided that it hadn’t meant anything. Some might argue that I had kissed Nadir. Some might even argue that I had done it several times. But so what? A sudden lapse of judgement meant nothing. I was back to normal and sure that I wouldn’t do something so foolish again.
Celeste groaned. She looked at me from different angles, as if I were a sculpture where she was trying to find the imperfections. The cracks in the marble that would eventually lead me to crumble.
Shaking my head, I went back to eating and planning. If I did a simple transformation potion, that might be useful…
Then Nadir came to our table.
I hadn’t even seen him coming in the door, but there he was. He had his usual cup and nothing else with him, and he sat down at the table even though Celeste was there, shaking all the while. We stared at each other across the table.
Celeste got up, patting my shoulder, and before she left whispered: “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
She pushed her chair back and told us both to have a good morning. I held Nadir’s gaze all through it, and he held mine.
“Good morning,” he said carefully, after she had left, and he took my hand on the table.
“And to you.”
I waited for him to say something more, but when he didn’t, I returned my gaze to my book and my plans.
“You’re scared as well.”
“No,” I said, without looking up. “I’m just very busy with…”
“Genevieve, this is hard. Please, look at me.”
He thought he had it hard? It was stupidly hard to look up. Even harder to look him in the eyes.
“I don’t know what happened,” I said in a whisper and everything in me tensed and screamed for me to run or get back to my books. Preferably my books. I would have loved to read and ignore this, but if I did he might leave. And if he left…
Nadir gave my hand a squeeze.
“Will you come visit me in Egypt? There are so many things you could learn there, and then you could stay with me. I would like to get to know you better.”
I found myself nodding as my body relaxed. He nodded back. Maybe there was more to say. If there was, I couldn’t figure it out, so I stayed quiet.
We spent the day in the library, working quietly side by side. Every now and again, Nadir asked for a suggestion on his notes, or I asked if he had ideas for potions to bring. I didn’t move in for a kiss, because every time I considered it I panicked. He noticed when it happened, and his hand came to rest on my shoulder or on top of mine. Being close to him made it easier.
That evening, we walked together to the stage, hand in hand. The evening was chilly, but not too cold, and all around us cicadas were singing. His hand felt so much bigger than mine and soft. We had almost made it to the stage when he stopped and turned to face me. I was afraid that he would kiss me, but instead he drew me into a hug. It was nicer than I had thought, so I closed my eyes and let him stroke my hair.
“Good luck, Genevieve,” he said.
“Good luck,” I said back.
We stood like that for a long time, even as the other contestants and the watching council members filed to the stage. It almost wasn’t scary. When he drew back from the embrace, his hand lingered at the back of my head.
“I have to tell you something when we’re done here,” he said.
“You can tell me now.”
His entire demeanour changed for less than a second, but then he was back to his usual self. “No, I don’t want you to be distracted. You have a tournament to win, after all.”
I pushed aside the fear that he wanted to tell me something really bad and shot him a champion smile.
“I’m not going to go easy on you, Hazan,” I said.
“Good. It would be an insult if you did.”
He hugged me again, tighter than before, and we went to find our places on the stage.
“The 124th Annual Moonlight Tournament is on its final round and its final day,” Isadora said from the podium.
Myself and the other participants were lined up on the stage, each of us stood in front of a column made up of little lights. They were the beginning of a teleporter network. We’d move from here to the next one when Gabriel set off fireworks.
“You never know what to expect from the obstacle course,” Orion said. “Anything can happen: transformation, alchemy, broom racing, duels: This is all of that and more. The contestants have prepared spells, potions, and a few items that might come in handy, but they never know what they might need in there. It could be they use all the things they’ve prepared – it could be they don’t need any of them.”
“The rules are simple: We have a set of ten rooms with obstacles for the contestants to overcome, and whoever makes it through their rooms first and get to the end wins.”
Gabriel walked around and cast spells that would keep an eye on us during the test, much like the broadcasting spell used on the crystal ball. The excitement was palpable, and only strengthened by the councilmen and -women who were in the audience seats in front of the stage. While we were doing the course, they would be watching.
“Contestants, at the ready,” Gabriel said out loud.
Every one of us got ready. My heart hammered in my chest, and it beat harder when I found Nadir’s gaze.
When the fireworks came, I ran into my column and cast a teleportation spell. The spell flung me through the air. It was Ifrey’s preferred mode of travel, but my stomach hated it when it was more than a few metres. Once I got there, I had to close my eyes and steady myself on a wall to stay on my feet.
When I opened them again, I found myself in a passageway. The walls were made of heavy, grey stones and it was cold, so I guessed it was some basement in town. Right now, the other participants were in identical rooms with the same kind of obstacle, probably in the rooms right next to mine.
Ahead of me was a tall, black gate. It was locked and at the other end was another teleporter column. It was the only place in this room from which I could cast the teleportation spell. I grabbed a pebble from my backpack and transformed it into a beetle. The insect came to life and looked up at me.
“Go through the bars and stay over there,” I said, setting it down on the ground.
It walked over there dutifully after hesitating for a while. It looked a little confused, but I reiterated that it needed to stay. Not my finest transformation, but it did the job.
“Stay,” I said.
I readied a teleportation spell, after turning the beetle into an anchor, and luckily the gate didn’t prevent it. I looked at the time. Only a few minutes, and with any luck, I was ahead in the race. I turned the beetle back into a pebble, and then I moved on through the next light column.
The next room was another basement. There was another column, barred by a metal gate. Right next to it was a bowl. The shelves around me were stocked with potion ingredients: mushrooms, feathers, dusts, roots… and in the middle of the room there was a single bottle on a stand. It had a label saying ‘Use me’.
I grabbed it and smashed it, and the room was immediately filled with rain. It poured down from the ceiling and soaked me through in an instant. After half a minute of rain, it cleared up and I dried as well.
There wasn’t an alchemy station in the room, so I didn’t have to brew this potion myself. However, there was that bowl. I gathered up the ingredients I thought had been used here: Rain water, of course, and a few other things, and deposited them in the bowl. The gate opened wide.
The next room was covered in fake lava that I had to cross. Another had a canyon that I crossed with my broom, after turning myself invisible to sneak by a flock of birds; there was a room full of rats whose natural squeaks had been enhanced to deafening levels. Room after room went by without much trouble.
I sped through a room with a mirror version of myself that I had to duel and made my way to the last teleporter. I wondered if I was the first to pass through it and if I’d won. I wanted to win, but then at the same time, if I went through there and Nadir stood out there, victorious… I could live with that. I would come back next year and demand a rematch, of course, and I would train harder than ever for it. Maybe even along with him in Egypt. But I’d live.
Before I did my teleporting spell, I closed my eyes, imagined the scene that I expected to meet there, and I cast it.
Something was wrong.
Something was warm against my face, and when I opened my eyes, I was met by a roaring inferno. I couldn’t see the room past it, and when I spun, I met a brick wall. The fire was near-blinding to look at, and above that was a thick carpet of black smoke.
I looked around me and asked for Gabriel, but nobody answered. He usually made sure that he could talk to the participants if he saw that something was wrong, but I got only silence and the sound of fire. There was nothing and nobody here. I must have miscounted the rooms, but I felt certain that that wasn’t the case. Regardless, I raised my hands and readied a spell that could extinguish fire.
It wasn’t that easy, of course. The fire dimmed for a moment and looked like it would settle down a little, but instead it spread. I had to take a step back as it came closer. I reached into my backpack for a freezing potion and threw that. When the contents splashed over the flames, I saw a cold wind spread in the inferno, but almost as quickly, it was suffocated by the roaring fire. It crept even closer.
A transformation spell had no better luck, and there was no way I could fly a broom over this. I tried to send a transformed beetle over as an anchor, but the flames ate it up. Every time I cast another spell, used another potion, it spread. Any hope that it would be harmless flames like Celeste’s dissipated when I tried a final spell, and it moved close enough to lick at my outstretched hands. A scream stuck in my throat, while my skin burnt and blistered, and my head whirled. I threw myself back against the wall.
That’s when I realised that it wasn’t an obstacle, at least not one created for the tournament. They would have never made anything this dangerous, and if they had, they would have made sure that they could get us out of here. This fire absorbed all spells I threw at it, it fed on them. It was eerily close old myths I’d heard.
I tried to cast a spell to get help, to call for Gabriel or someone else to come and get me out. The fire lapped it up and grew and roared and every time I used a spell, the energy stung my burnt hands.
There were flames on all sides, and when I tried to scream for help, my throat felt like it had been clawed up by sharp nails. Sweat was dripping down my back and my face, mixing with tears. I tried to cry out again, tried banging my hands on the wall and screaming. None of it was any use and only led to my hands being more hurt.
The room seemed to be softly rocking around me, and it was so hot in here as the fire closed in. Even worse, I was feeling dizzy. There were faces in the flames, and they seemed to be taunting me because I was going to lose the tournament. I tried to scream at them that it wasn’t my fault, but instead I broke into a fit of coughs and curled up on the floor. Breathing was a chore and I was getting tired. Not even the blisters and burns could keep me up now. Neither could the hands that tore at me through the flames and clawed at my flesh.
Everything went dark.
Feeling lost? If you’ve forgotten previous chapters and need a recap you can find my recap page here. Be aware that it contains spoilers for the story.
Author’s note: And then there was fire! May I draw everyone’s attention to the buyable fire, without which I would not have bothered to do this? It’s really cool, and great for all
pyromaniacs storytellers! I also would like to point your attention towards the column lights. Without all these cool light sources, I wouldn’t have nearly as many beautifully lit night scenes (though I totally would because they give me life).
Anyway, the couple of poses I used for Gen and Nadir’s adorkable little chat will be up for download shortly, because even though I’m not sure if they’re too specific for others, I figured I might as well. Other than that, there’s nothing to say but thanks for reading if you’ve made it this far and have a great weekend. See you for the next one 🙂