Reeree let go of the post as her device lit up. Immediately she dropped her colour spell. A bright pink gnome stands out in the woods like a sore thumb. She considered her options and decided the colour spell had its uses after all.
She used it to create instant camouflage, choosing the best hues to help her blend into her background. Hiding Rex away in the depths of her now green and brown backpack, she added a silence spell to her disguise and crept into the bushes. Sliding forward on her belly, she moved cautiously in search of a rival.
If she was careful and could catch someone entirely by surprise, it could give her the winning edge. She grinned to herself as she caught sight of one of the other competitors. It was Snyder, and he was attempting to climb a tree so he could play sniper. She definitely liked this game.
Biding her time, she waited for the best opportunity to strike. As Snyder balanced on one limb and was reaching for another, Reeree determined that it was her prime time. Figuring she would have a couple of chances to strike before Snyder would be able to respond in kind, Reeree went for one of her more entertaining, less damaging, homemade offensive spells.
Snyder was caught completely off-guard by the series of large pink rubber balls that pummelled him from behind. Several of the lights on one of his panels went out as he lost his balance and fell to the ground.
He winced as he hit the ground, expecting to have the wind knocked out of him. Instead, the blow was cushioned by some invisible force, and a few more damage counters on his device extinguished. Apparently, the damage from his fall had been deemed a result of Reeree’s spell.
Snyder searched the brush, not sure where the gnome was hidden. A few seconds later he was pelted by a second flurry of bouncing balls, this one catching him squarely in the face, quickly followed by a third assault. Sourcing the spells to a small grouping of shrubs, Snyder could barely pick out her shape through the foliage. He threw a quick whistle spell her way. The bushes next to which Reeree crouched began to swat at her.
Stifling a cry and chiding herself for letting Snyder get in a few points of damage, Reeree shuffled backwards, gauging the amount of damage she still had left to do to Snyder as he began to sing something barely audible. She released an enhanced magic dart just as he completed his wind-song.
Battered back and forth by the strong winds he had sent in her direction, she took the painless blows with glee as she watched Snyder’s panel turn gray with the impact of her dart. The relevant panel on her device warmed to a golden glow. She beamed an equally glowing smile, despite her wind-tossed state.
* * *
Reeree did not wait around long enough to watch Snyder head back to the resurrection point. She shrugged off the last of his wind song and brushed the tussled hair from her eyes. Satisfied with the effectiveness of her tactics, she dropped to her belly in the brush and started creeping forward in search of a second victim. After a few minutes of slowly inching her way along the forest floor, she suddenly got an eerie feeling, as though she were being watched.
She shivered, a chill running down her spine, and raised her head to look behind her. She had just caught sight of Ebon’s shadowy form looming at her back when the brush in which she lay erupted in flames. Most of the point-markers on one panel of her device faded to black.
Ebon snickered as Reeree rolled onto her back and sat up.
“You may be underestimated by the others, but you won’t have that advantage with me, little one…”
Reeree reached into a pocket and came up with a tiny wand. With a single wave and one word, an equally powerful fireball blew up in Ebon’s face. Realizing he could not hesitate to gloat, or he would lose what advantage he still had, Ebon roared and released his speedy, magic dart. It struck Reeree mere seconds before she was able to reciprocate that spell.
“Touché!” Ebon hissed as he watched her dart strike his ghostly form moments after the panel on his device had mutated to a soft golden colour.
Reeree lay back in the grass with a huff. When she sat up again, Ebon was already gone. She would have to start thinking differently when it came to dealing with the wraith-mage. She would have five minutes to contemplate that for future Trials while sitting at the resurrection point. Shrugging off the minor disappointment from the loss, she struggled to her feet and marched off.
* * *
Nia was sitting on the stone platform, hunched over and disgruntled, when both Reid and Tom arrived at the resurrection point. As they took a seat on either side of her, Snyder appeared in the clearing as well.
“Ahh, we must be the first batch of losers then,” Snyder mused. “A clever little gnome took me out. Who were the lucky rivals who defeated each of you?”
“Finch – not much luck involved though. She’s actually quite skilled,” Reid responded.
“I drew the short straw. The wraith-mage caught up to me first. He seems to be more powerful than the lot of us put together.”
Snyder raised an eyebrow. “It could be a matter of tactics…”
“Not in my case!” snapped Nia. “The dwarf cheated!”
Snyder gazed at her, puzzled.
Reid laughed, “I don’t think that’s possible.”
Nia glared at him, baring her teeth.
“I hit him fair and square,” she fumed. “But nothing recorded on his magic box. And he didn’t use spells; he used his bare hands. I think the whole thing is rigged!”
Reid rolled his eyes and stood up, stretching his legs.
“You’re just being a sore loser. Your spell must have been a dud, and have you ever considered the fact that Shetland’s hands are technically enchanted items? He beat you according to their rules. There are plenty of worthy opponents here and not everyone is going to win.”
Snyder rose to Nia’s defence.
“Hey now, let’s not everyone jump to conclusions. The dwarf’s device could be defective. It may not be an intentional thing on his part, but if Nia says her spell worked and didn’t register on his device, I believe her. I suggest you consider that a warning and try to avoid Shetland if possible. You could suffer a loss at his hands unfairly.”
“Those devices are fully functional,” he assured them. “I tested them myself before the Trial. But if you suspect some type of foul play, I suggest you appeal to the judges at the end of the Trial. We have never had a year without some mishap. It is the nature of the beast, I’m afraid.”
Nia seemed less than pleased, but the bluster of her fury had calmed, and she sat brewing, mostly in silence. Dr. George returned to inspecting his flowers.
After a few moments, Nia grumbled, “These Trials aren’t what I expected – too much thinking, not enough doing.”
Tom grimaced, and Reid shrugged. Snyder hopped up onto the second level of the platform next to Nia.
“They are exactly what I expected,” he said. “Magic University is all about mastery and control, planning and forethought. They don’t want people who run on instinct and impulse. Now Renegade magic, on the other hand, lends itself to those kinds of freedoms…”
“And the risks involved,” interrupted Reid. “That’s why Gerant wanted me to attend the University. There are occasional accidents even at the University, but a mage’s overall risk is much more limited with the proper training and boundaries. Gerant is a prime example of the risks involved.”
“If a mage has a proper sense of self-discipline, if they can use a certain amount of self-control, they don’t need the bureaucratic impositions of the University,” Snyder retorted.
“If you feel that way, then why are you here?” Nia demanded, following the conversation with zeal. Before Snyder could reply, Nia disappeared.
“Where did she go?” Tom said, staring at the empty space where she had been sitting.
“Her five minutes were up,” Dr. George stated, observing by his hedges. “The resurrection point will teleport you back to your starting point, so you return to the game immediately after the penalty period.”
Tom stared uncomfortably down at the platform beneath him. He hated magical teleportation. He was always afraid something would go wrong, and he would find himself trapped inside a wall or a tree. He looked to Snyder for reassurance but instead disappeared along with Reid from the platform.
Snyder smirked. Things just kept getting more and more interesting.
He stood up, waiting for the sudden breathlessness that came with a portal spell. Finch entered the clearing and waved at him. Seconds later, before he had even had a chance to speak to her, Snyder also vanished.
* * *
Tom gasped for breath, trying to regain his bearings. He saw the post where he had begun the Trial, marked with his device’s symbol. After a few moments of rest, and having regained his composure, he stopped to think things through.
He had already had his bout with Ebon, and as far as he knew, the others were not as keenly attuned to magic. Perhaps a second shadowing spell was not that much out of order. He needed to win this next bout if he wanted to place anywhere near the top of the pack. Deciding it would be the last of its type he would use on this Trial, he followed his inclinations.
Tom slid backward, quietly, into the woods and waited a couple of minutes. Perhaps, if he used some patience, someone would come to him.
His strategy proved sound. As he was beginning to wrestle with himself over whether or not he should set out instead, Snyder came sneaking up the pathway. Had he been attempting this himself, Tom probably would have missed the half-satyr. Tom’s resolve had rewarded him with ample opportunity to strike first.
Snyder did not suspect his presence in the slightest. Tom waited a few more moments for his companion to sidle past him and then struck out at his back with a force orb. It caught Snyder high, but firmly, in the left shoulder, and he cried out in surprise.
“Not again,” muttered the half-satyr Renegade, itching to use some of his more powerful, non-bardic spells. He resisted that temptation, but this time he did not hesitate. He leaped over a clump of dense bushes and quickly played out a seeker spell. If there was someone hidden out there, he was going to find them before they got in a second attack.
Tom tried to avoid the hovering humming ball of light that sought out his hiding place and served as a beacon to his opponent. Realizing he could not keep the annoying sphere from revealing his whereabouts, he decided instead to prepare an ambush. When Snyder poked his head up to target him with a spell, he sent out one of his crack-shot force waves.
It would not do enough to take Snyder out but would definitely further Tom’s lead and distract his rival. He succeeded at this goal, but not without taking the damage from one of Snyder’s wind-songs, one of his only truly offensive bardic spells.
“Oh come on, Snyder! I know you have more than that,” he challenged his teacher. “You don’t have to take it easy on me.”
“This is your test, not mine,” retorted Snyder loudly from behind the bushes. “I’m not about to change my tactics just because I’m facing you. Another couple of my wind songs and you’ll want to turn tail and run.”
Tom laughed heartily but noticed that Snyder had started up the next song. He would have to use something that would have an area effect since he could not target Snyder behind the bushes. He decided that it would be sweet irony if he used one of Snyder’s personal creations to eliminate him from the bout. Thorn-thrash it was.
When Snyder finally managed to untangle himself from his supposed shelter, disengaging himself from the thorns which had grappled him and slammed him forcefully against the ground several times, he stood and gave Tom an acknowledging bow. The windswept noble grinned, pulling pine needles from his hair and twigs from his clothes.
“You did teach me well. Just because you wouldn’t use one of your better spells, didn’t mean I wasn’t going to. I had to find something effective. Your wind songs were starting to become more of a threat.”
Snyder shrugged, glancing down unhappily at his two grey panels. “You did what you needed to. This Trial just wasn’t my game without going back on the promise I made to myself. Bards were never intended to be combat mages. Inspire others in combat, perhaps, but not take on the duels themselves. Good luck with your next bout.”
They smiled and nodded to each other, and Snyder went off in search of the resurrection point.
* * *
Nia stumbled forward as she found herself somewhere other than the resurrection point. She whipped around warily until her eyes finally settled upon something familiar – the starter marker. Somehow, the resurrection point had sent her back to the start when her penalty time was served.
She felt her heart lurch in a moment of panic. After performing so poorly in her first bout, she definitely feared the outcome of this one. She spotted an uprooted tree. She could hide in the hole at its base, sheltered by the drooping roots, so she could have a few seconds to think. She scurried over to it and crawled into its dim interior.
Her mind raced. She was no good at planning things out. She liked to be able to react to things as they happened, but without knowing what sort of tactics everyone else was using, this sort of methodology was sadly lacking. Her first instinct against offense had always been a strong defense, but she could not respond defensively.
She felt her throat tighten and her eyes itch. She knew she was getting angry, growing gradually more frustrated. Nia had promised herself that she would not get upset if something like this happened, but she often found it difficult to keep promises, even the ones that she made to herself.
She had not always looked at things from the same point of view. “No strings attached” was somewhat new. Once she had appreciated strings as much as the next person. She had made plans for the future. She had set things up and had expected life to fall into place, the way most people do, but after a small series of uncontrollable disasters, she had come to the conclusion that her life was not meant to work that way.
Everything she had planned for had slipped from her grasp, and she had decided that from that point on she would stop living for what she hoped would happen and start living for the present. Seize the day.
Nia groaned. At this point, she only wished that she could seize the hour.
Realizing that she was just wasting precious time, she finally forced herself to peek out of her hiding place. She caught movement out of the corner of her eye, up in the trees. It was Stiggle, and where there was Stiggle, there was Reid.
She withdrew into her hiding place. Reid – what sort of spells would he be likely to have? She was starting to wish she had spent less time dallying with the pretty nobleman and more time gauging the abilities of her rivals.
“I know you are in there, Nia,” she heard Reid call. “I have area spells. I can force you out or you can come out and face me, one on one.”
Nia hesitated despite his threat. She soon found herself shivering as a wave of frost swept through her niche, and a handful of the point markers had extinguished on one panel. She was not safe in there. Scrambling out of the entrance, she found herself face to face with Stiggle. The imp grinned and then sunk its teeth into her scaly forearm. There was no pain, and the wounds healed immediately after the imp disengaged. Three more of her point markers burned out.
Frustrated, Nia looked about wildly and spotted the top of Reid’s head. He was approaching from the other side of the fallen tree, and while Stiggle could see her, Nia was not yet in Reid’s direct line of sight. She would need her most potent spell. She had the time to concentrate, ignoring the imp who was pulling away from her arm.
As Reid finally caught sight of Nia, crouched on the opposite side of the fallen tree, he was greeted by a massive rock fall, rising up from the ground around him and then tumbling out of the sky, pelting him from all angles. Driven back mercilessly, Reid fell, and for a brief moment, neither of the rivals could see the other again. Nia struggled to her feet – one more small spell, and she would have him.
Suddenly, something small, dark, and wriggling was in her face, its claws entangled in her clothing and its wings battering at her eyes and cheeks. Stiggle was not much more than a nuisance, but he served that purpose well.
Nia felt the force of an ice meteor strike her on the right side as she struggled with the tiny beast. It had latched on like glue, and all of her efforts to remove it were unsuccessful. Finally, she resorted to the spell she had been saving for Reid. The shock touch gave the imp a good jolt, and he released her, shrinking away in pain and fear. She had peeled him from her face just in time to see another ice meteor that ended the bout strike her in the chest. A second panel went grey, and so did her face. Without even acknowledging Reid, she slunk away. All of this suddenly seemed so pointless.
-Excerpt from Masters & Renegades #1: Magic University, September 2011 release from May December Publications