Author's note: Chapter 23 and things start to get going.
Neleh looked around the arena, while the four of them entered. The audience seats were packed. This was the first duel of the semester, and students were not yet swamped with work, so they had time to come and watch. In addition, the duelists were both fifth circle mages, and both of them were rather famous. In addition to being quite handsome, they also represented some of the more archetypical roles of male popularity in the academy. One was the dark and handsome badboy, while the other was a fiery and wild good guy that liked to stand up for the less fortunate. So it wasn’t exactly a great surprise to see much of the female population of the academy in the audience. And where the girls went, the guys followed.
The arena had circles drawn on the ground to serve as the starting location for the duelists, although there was no requirement for staying inside the circle once the duel started. In fact, it was quite uncommon for a duelist to stay inside the circle, because dodging your opponent’s spells was an effective defensive measure. Some cocky people tried to show superiority, by not moving from the circle, but they were usually quickly defeated and humiliated. It was simply more efficient to avoid the opponent’s spells with a little help from a movement spell, than it was to try and shield against all incoming attacks. Darkness magic and air magic users were especially adept at avoiding attacks, while light magic and earth magic lent themselves more towards straight defense. All that of course assumed that the magician was proficient enough to cast spells on the move. Some people never quite got the hang of focusing on several things at the same time.
The closer one was to the target, the easier it was to maintain a strong shield, so the judges remained relatively close to their respective duelists, only maintaining enough distance to not get caught up in the duel. Attacking a judge was grounds for immediate forfeit, and heavy punishment from the academy, depending on whether the judge actually got hurt or not. Neleh and Kanako followed their duelists towards the starting areas when they separated. Lucian struck a conversation while waiting for the signal.
“It seems the two of you are getting famous overnight. Quite a few people in the audience, wondering about your involvement in the matters. Most likely at least a few jealous people too.” He said with a small smile.
“No matter. Let them wonder. I have no use for people that resent others based on rumors and baseless assumptions. If they want to know, all they have to do is ask. And if they start to get all catty and territorial…well let’s just say I wouldn’t care about those people anyway, and would most likely piss them off one way or another anyway. Might as well get done with it.” Neleh answered with a small sigh.
“Well that is an interesting attitude. I’ve never met someone quite like you. I can’t decide if you’re supremely confident with yourself, or just plain crazy. In either case, I think I’m going to keep my eye on you.” He gave her a look over, clearly appreciating her form fitting clothing. “And I think I’ll quite like keeping an eye on you.”
“Well, if you don’t keep an eye on your opponent, you might end up losing. Now wouldn’t that end up being embarrassing?” Neleh answered with amusement.
Further conversation was cut by the start of the duel. A teacher came to the edge of the arena, ordering everyone to get ready, and then finally gave the starting signal. It became immediately obvious to Neleh that the two duelists were quite skilled, and represented two completely different types of mages. Micah was a more traditional mage, using his power and skill with swift incantations to launch off few but very powerful and high level spells. Any of those spells hitting a defensive spell cleanly was trouble. The celestial was unsurprisingly proficient with light magic, which he used as a main form of offense. He also varied his attacks by using air magic, but mainly using his air spells to quickly move around the arena.
Lucian on the other hand was into wordless incantations and high level of control, utilizing swarm attacks with lower level spells. For every powerful spell Micah lobbed Lucian’s way, he sent a swarm of thirty tiny attacks back. Then just to make things difficult, he mixed a couple more powerful attacks inside the swarm, just so the opponent could never be sure which of them were the real attacks. Thus Micah was forced to assume all of them were threats, and act accordingly. Lucian had obviously gotten training as a warrior, and used his internal strength to move around avoiding Micah’s more powerful attacks, and those he couldn’t avoid he used his own power to unravel, before they hit him.
There was a delicate balance between the two. On one hand Micah’s spells were so strong, that Lucian was unable to unravel all of them, and thus the demon was forced into dodging heavily, and even had to take glancing hits to his protective spells, which drained his power heavily. On the other hand, Lucian swarm of attacks, made it impossible to unravel all of them, and he also guided the attacks in a way that made it impossible to dodge all of them. Thus Micah’s defensive spells were under constant low level stress, punctuated by the occasional heavier hit.
One of the main points of magic duels was that it took several times the strength to defend against an attacking spell with your defensive shield, than it took to make that attack. And that was assuming you used a right strength shield against the attack. Once you put your strength into a defensive shield, that power was spent, even if the attack could’ve been defended against with a significantly weaker shield. On the other hand, you couldn’t put too little strength into the defense, otherwise the attack would overwhelm the shield, and you would end up dead. Or in the case of a duel like this, you would lose. Thus magical battles often turned into a battle of attrition, where you tried to force your opponent into spending too much of his strength on defense.
Alternatively you could try to find a way around the shield, by using a spell that the opponents shield could not defend against, or tried to overwhelm the opponent’s defenses with an attack of superior strength, like what Micah was attempting. It was soon becoming clear that the celestial’s strength was draining faster. Lucian still had to be careful against taking full on hits, but he was winning.
Neleh noted with interest that Lucian was using the opposing elements of Micah, for his attacks, namely darkness and earth. She also noted that while darkness magic suited the demon’s style really well, earth magic wasn’t as great when it came to precise swarm attacks. Earth element was great for defense and large area attacks, but precision and numbers weren’t its forte. She surmised that air and darkness would have been a more effective combination, but one had to work with what one had.
The duel was just approaching a bad conclusion for the celestial, when Neleh noticed him casting a spell she was rather shocked to see. The celestial brought his hands together in what looked like a finger pistol, and a small, narrow and fast projectile shot towards the demon. Why was the celestial casting ‘Piercing’ in a duel not meant for death? ‘Piercing’ was a spell designed to penetrate defensive magic shields, with the principle that the stronger the shield, the faster and more powerful the projectile got, shattering the shield while passing through. The problem was that not only would Lucian’s shield be pierced, so would her shield, possibly killing the demon!
She quickly twisted her shield, altering its nature. The projectile destroyed Lucian’s shield as expected, leaving the demon stunned, but completely disappeared when it hit Neleh’s shield. It was as if Neleh’s shield had eaten the spell. Neleh raised her hand and called for a halt. One way or another, the duel was over. She turned towards the teacher watching over the duel, who also looked surprised.
She raised her voice in question. “A question to the teacher. What is the policy when the judge’s shield is hit by a spell that in a normal situation would most likely penetrate her shield, possibly injuring or killing her duelist?”
That caused a bit of a commotion, and Neleh noticed the shocked look on Micah’s face. He looked like he had no idea his spell would be that effective. It seemed the guy hadn’t used the spell seriously before.
The teacher answered. “In order to simulate a relatively realistic combat situation, the duel doesn’t have limitations on what kinds of spells can be used. If the judge’s shield was hit, then that duelist has lost the duel, and it is the judge’s job to keep her duelist safe, no matter what spell is used. Of course, should the opponent be deemed to have purposefully used a spell that he knew would kill or injure the opponent, then he would be punished severely, for willfully inflicting harm upon another student. Render your judgement.”
Neleh turned back to the two duelists. “The judge’s shield protecting Daemon Lucian was hit, thus he has lost the duel. I deem the spell used fair, in the sense that it was an effective use of magic against the particular opponent and did lead to the opponents defeat. That said, the duelist Micah has endangered his opponent, because he failed to consider the effects his spell would have on the judge’s shield and his opponent. Thus I declare his victory void as a punishment. This duel is a draw!” She decreed with a voice that allowed no argument. Truthfully both of the duelists looked relieved at the judgement.
The audience apparently agreed with the decision, and a loud cheer erupted around the arena. This was the first time in anyone’s memory that a duel had resulted in a draw. Neleh sighed, knowing that her judgement would probably draw more attention to her. It had been a creative solution and preserved everyone’s honor, but it drew attention.
That same evening Nimue was called to a separate building in the grand temple area. A building she didn’t visit very often, in an attempt to not draw attention to it. The building housed the temple’s seers. The elves had a long time ago found a way for certain priestesses to monitor things in the world, which were normally hidden. The seers also often gave hints about the future. Those hints had been very valuable for the elves in the past. As far as the elves knew, they were the only ones to have developed these abilities, and as such tried to avoid revealing their little trump card. If the head seer had called for Nimue, then the matter was important.
The two old priestesses greeted each other warmly. They had been friends and fellow Inquisitors for centuries. “Tell me. What is so important to have me called here? Have the seers seen something dire in the future?” Nimue asked urgently.
“That’s just it. We can’t see the future. Our visions are covered in flames. One of the most powerful seers reported seeing a female shape in the flames. You know that we only see possibilities, and usually we can see hundreds of different visions, most of which don’t even have to come to pass, because future is constantly in flux. This future is so overwhelming, that all the other visions are blocked. Something very dangerous is going to happen, and I’m not sure we can avoid it.” Nimue’s friend replied with worry. Nimue had never seen her friend this distressed. Whatever the vision was like, it had affected her friend as well.
Neleh had been right about drawing attention after the duel. Her next day had been hectic and she was all too glad to be out of the academy for a while. The Head Inquisitor Yunalesca had called for her, apparently with a mission. Neleh had told Kanako that she might be gone for a undetermined time, and the naga girl had bid her a tearful farewell. Neleh had to admit she was growing fond of the weird girl.
She met Yunalesca and Nimue at the Inquisitor’s office. Neleh was slightly surprised about Nimue’s presence, although the whole idea of a mission seemed premature to her anyway. She’d had trained heavily with the Inquisition for the last few months, mainly learning the elven laws, court intrigue, and surprisingly assassination techniques. She had taken a liking to throwing weapons and daggers.
“Come and sit.” Yunalesca waved before Neleh had even gotten out a greeting.
“We have a mission for you, that both me and Nimue think would be good training. There’s a group of apprentice hunters and mage students from the academy that are being sent on a mission in the Sun Elf kingdom. Their mission is a practical training, where they are supposed to hunt certain monsters that are plaguing the area. Ostensibly you are sent as a new priestess to provide support and healing for the students.” Yunalesca explained.
“I’m guessing there’s more to this?” Neleh asked, with a raised eyebrow. Such a trip could take weeks, and would take her away from her magic studies. Neleh didn’t really mind terribly, since only basics would be taught in that time, but it was still an odd timing.
“Indeed. In addition to those duties, you have a mission as a representative of the Inquisition. A local noble, who is distantly related to the royal family by the way, has sent a request for an investigation about her husband. Apparently the husband dearest has been cheating on his wife.” Nimue said.
“Again, I assume there’s more. Catching cheaters hardly falls under the job description of Inquisition.” Neleh asked getting more and more curious.
“Again correct. We have a reason to suspect that the husband has dealings with the Consortium, and he might even be a member himself. Now, we get more hints like this than we have Inquisitors. Even in the best case we think that the man is a low level member of the Consortium, if at all, but it’s a good chance for you to test your investigative skills. Even if you find that there’s nothing to the Consortium angle, then at least you get experience investigating, and one more scumbag gets his comeuppance. If we get lucky, you might find something useful and catch the tail of other Consortium members. And the group of rookies does need a proper priestess.” Yunalesca detailed her thoughts.
“So a wild goose chase that might actually yield something? And at least some experience if not.” Neleh summarized.
“Basically yes. You need the experience, and we need to get a better picture of your skills in the field. I’m expecting a detailed report. Nimue will handle the details, since you’re supposed to be just a priestess in training.” Yunalesca finished.
Nimue took Neleh to meet the leader of the group of students that she would be joining on the mission. The leader turned out to be someone familiar. Dalyor looked up from his meal when he sensed Neleh and Nimue approach. The warrior skills teacher hadn’t given lessons to Neleh for some months now, since Neleh had been spending more time with Solana, but he still quite liked the girl’s spunky attitude.
“Well well. If it isn’t one of my favorite warrior students. What brings you two here?” Dalyor asked genuinely curious.
“What are you blabbering about? I promised you a priestess to take along on your mission to the Sun Elf kingdom. She’s that priestess.” Nimue said smugly. She quite enjoyed being able to surprise Dalyor, and she knew the man had a soft spot for both Solana and Neleh.
“Now, this is interesting. I’m quite happy to get a priestess that can hold her own in combat, and she certainly fits the bill. On the other hand, I also know she isn’t a full priestess yet, so can she handle the job?” Dalyor was quite sure that the girl could, since the mission was fairly routine, but he had to ask anyway.
“She’ll be able to hack it, and then some. I’d trust her with any mission at this point, and her rank is pretty much just a formality. Speaking of missions, there’s something you need to be aware of, as the leader of this expedition.” Nimue knew Dalyor would need to be told, just so it would not be too obvious for Neleh to disappear from time to time, to complete her job as an Inquisitor.
“Don’t tell me, I can read between the lines. I know from Solana that Neleh just started her studies as a mage, so you wouldn’t pull her out on a trip like this if she didn’t have a mission of her own. I’m guessing a mission from Yunalesca or Lysanthir?” Lysanthir was the leader of the Templars.
“I see you can still use that head of yours. Yunalesca sends her regards.” Nimue wasn’t too surprised. The reason she enjoyed surprising Dalyor was because it was difficult. The man could be sharp at times.
“Well that should make this milk run a bit interesting at least. I’ll see to it that she’ll get the time she needs. It should be more interesting trip anyway with her coming along. At least I can waste some time teasing her about Solana.” He finished with a wide grin.
“Oh? Do I sense some jealousy old man?” Neleh teased back.
“Hah! Solana is like a daughter to me, and you brat are young enough to be my granddaughter.” He was quite enjoying the ribbing.
“Well, I suppose there’s no accounting for tastes. If imagining Solana as your daughter and me as your granddaughter gets you going, then who am I to judge? Different strokes and all that.” Neleh continued.
That got both Dalyor and Nimue laughing loudly. “Just be ready bright and early tomorrow morning. The hunters are used to early mornings, but you dainty mages might find it hard to leave your satin sheets. We’ll pick you up at the academy gates. Just make sure to pack some supplies.”
“On that note, anyone coming along that I should know?” Neleh asked, not really expecting to know any members of the little expedition.
“From the mage side you might know one or two. I heard Micah got into a duel or something this morning, so you might have seen that or heard something. Also knowing you, you’ve probably already gotten into trouble, so the leader of the disciplinary squad Aneirin should be someone you’ve had dealings with. If not, soon you will.” Dalyor was surprised to hear Neleh crack into a huge laughter. “I’m guessing those names do ring a bell?” He asked wryly, somehow not surprised at all.
“Oh I’ve heard some things.” Neleh said with a grin.
“Well, I’ve got a small surprise for you with the hunters, but I’ll save that for tomorrow.” Dalyor finished, quite smug at the opportunity to surprise the girl the next day.
Later that night, Nimue was called again to see the seers. Before this, she hadn’t visited them personally for years and now she had been called the second time within a day.
“Obviously something has changed. Talk to me old friend. What is going on?” Nimue asked deathly worried.
“The vision had become clearer. Now the vision shows us a woman clad in flames. Her huge wings of fire fan the flames around her, while she cries tears of mourning and sadness. The world burns with her mourning, while she holds the body of someone in her hands.” The priestess was afraid. “Nimue, the priestess who saw the vision passed away after dictating what she saw. Her body showed sign of burns, and from what we can tell, her body overheated so badly that she died to shock. None of the other seers wants to brave looking into the future any longer.”
“And I’m guessing the fact that the vision has become clearer, means that the likelihood of that future has grown. Did the seer manage to give any description of the woman that might help us recognize her?” Nimue asked, with a growing sense of dread. She had an idea, who the ‘woman’ in the vision might be.
“She said something about a long hair of flames, and burning red eyes, but that might have been something brought on by the setting.” The priestess said, knowing that visions weren’t precise, and often didn’t match the reality exactly.
Somehow that description didn’t help Nimue’s sense of dread.