In the darkness of early dawn, the storm churned with the wrath of an approaching army. Nahlia and the rest of Wolfe Clan waited inside the tunnel at the south edge of the Gorge. A pair of heavy oaken doors were all that stood between them and the arena beyond.
"We can use this weather to our advantage," Elias said, his voice muffled beneath a slate-gray scarf. "Break into squads of two, and you should be able to slip by their offense undetected. Let them come to me instead."
He looked so calm as he spoke. Aegon... they all looked so calm. As if this were no less ordinary than going to breakfast in the mess hall. Meanwhile, It was all Nahlia could do to keep herself from shaking. Circumstances had forced her to fight before, but waiting on the edge of a battle was even worse.
"This is it!" Elias's voice snapped her back to reality. "Get ready."
The gates swung open, letting out a heavy groan that was almost lost in the howl of the wind. The audience applauded from the plateaus above as Wolfe Clan emerged into the canyon. Sleet and snow mixed with the rain, shooting down in violent sheets all around.
Elias drew his twin blades from their scabbards, and the others followed his lead. Snow crunched beneath Nahlia's boots as she ran, her own sword feeling clumsy in her half-frozen fingers.
"Split here!" Elias had to shout over the storm. No sooner had he given the command than they broke into four separate squads down the various trenches. Nahlia stuck close to Yimo so as not to lose him in the mess of sleet and fog.
The crelan moved faster than she could have imagined—ducking through shortcuts and vaulting over fallen logs, weaving his way down the path as if guided by pure instinct.
They arrived at the enemy base a few minutes later. The clearing was as big as a Ship's deck, and the flag stood on a stone slab in the center, thrashing about in the wind. If Howler Clan's defenders were out there, the rain hid them well.
"They're out there," Yimo assured her. "We just need to draw them out. You create a diversion by going for the flag. I'll handle the guards."
"What? Me?" She turned to regard her companion but he was already gone.
"Blast." Having no other choice, Nahlia stood and dashed toward the middle of their base. Her world emptied of anything but for the burgundy fabric billowing against a sea of white and gray.
She was almost there when someone emerged from the mist ahead of her, swords raised.
Hurry up, Yimo!
Nahlia snatched the flag, pivoted, and took off in the opposite direction. The warning cannon sounded, and another member of Howler Clan broke the curtain of falling rain, moving to bar her path.
She clenched her teeth and darted to the side. Maybe if she ran fast enough, she could actually—
A blade slapped her hard between the shoulders and she fell face-first in the snow. The hit was brutal, and she realized just how gentle her own clan had been.
Focus, Nahlia. She forced the pain away, pushing out the numbness that pinned her to the earth. Yimo's counting on you.
Clashing swords joined the cacophony of sleet and thunder. She turned her head just enough to see Yimo dodging and weaving through their attacks.
Focus. Deep breaths ... just like before.
When she finally regained her footing, she found Yimo standing over their two paralyzed bodies.
"Let's get out of here," he said, wiping the ice from his goggles."You want me to take the flag?"
"It's all yours." Nahlia removed it from her belt and handed it over, more than eager to be rid of the thing.
Their retreat was even faster than their attack. They met up with Relyn and Marcus in the middle of the Gorge, and the three of them formed a protective ring around Yimo.
The fog of war grew denser as they ran. At this point, her clan members could lead her off a cliff without her realizing it. How did the Battlemaster and audience even see what was going on?
They passed a tall ridge just as lightning split the sky, illuminating two figures above.
"Look out!" Nahlia bellowed as she came to a halt.
The figures descended from the ridge, raining down on Wolfe Clan with swords extended. Kalak Demeron—Howler Clan's former captain—struck Relyn in the shoulder, tossing her aside in an undignified heap.
Another boy from Howler Clan exchanged blows with Marcus. His sword crashed into his outer- thigh, followed by another hit to his chest.
Everything happened so fast, it took Nahlia a moment to remember that she had a sword as well.
Both men rounded on the flag runner. Nahlia charged and struck the slender one from behind.
Kalak Demeron came down on Yimo with a blow that could have crushed him. Fortunately, Yimo was far quicker. Like a flash of lightning, he sidestepped each attack, forcing the larger man on the defensive.
Nahlia hurled herself at Demeron's back. Somehow, he saw her coming and parried her blow with ease. His counter-attack took her in the stomach, and he rounded back on Yimo before he could take advantage of the distraction.
Swords clashed together as she sank to the ground. Nahlia clenched her teeth and forced away the poison, far quicker than last time. Before Demeron could realize what she'd done, Nahlia lunged forward, her sword taking him in the ribcage.
Yimo stepped back in awe, watching the larger man fall like a slain giant.
"Nice work." His voice came out dry and breathless.
Nahlia gave a weary nod. She knew she'd feel sore later, but for now, the adrenaline kept the pain at bay. "How much farther?"
"Just over this ridge," he gestured. "Be careful. Ciena's still out there somewhere."
Ciena spun her quarterstaff, striking her brother in an alternating rhythm of attacks: left-right-left-right.
Elias parried, dodged, twisted and parried again, turning back her assault.
Between the speed of the duel and the chaos of the storm, neither twin had any time to think. They had to react purely on instinct—on the experience they'd gained over their years training together.
Ciena had always been second best in this academy. Never as strong as her brother, never as elegant or precise. For all that, he could never have her fire. While he shied away from the storm, she embraced it—letting each burst of lighting fill her with a fresh wave of fury.
Her next attack sent Elias into a partial retreat, forcing him to switch from Lionform to Moonform.
There was a brief lull in the action as Elias retreated back. Just then. Yimo and the half-blood emerged from one of the trenches.
She saw the red flag on Yimo's belt, and she moved to block Wolfe Clan's flag before they could score.
Aegon... could the rest of Howler Clan be any more useless? No matter, she thought. It's time for this academy to realize who their new champion is.
"We'll take her together," Elias said to the others and they formed up on either side.
They raised their swords in response.
Ciena held her own weapon above her head, spinning it until it was nothing but a blur. "Come and try."
Lighting struck again, and she embraced its power, letting herself become a force of nature.
She fell into Lionform and darted forward, unleashing her energy in a tremendous rush of power. She channeled it through every fiber of her being, so fast that the rest of the world fell still by comparison. At that moment, she knew she could slice a souring bullet in two.
They tried to hit her, but it was like striking the wind. A storm raged through her body, and Ciena fought back with more speed and strength than she ever thought possible. She didn't think, she only moved.
Nahlia fell first, then Yimo a second later.
Finally, Elias went down with a scarlet gash on his forehead.
Aegon ... she hadn't meant to do that. Ciena buried the guilt and moved on. There'd be time for apologies later.
She grabbed Wolfe Clan's flag from atop the stone slab, then Howler Clan's from where Yimo had fallen. With that, she began her limping way back to her own base.
Cold water ran down Nahlia's cheeks as she forced herself to her feet. Ciena Raider had escaped with both flags, and everyone else had been eliminated. If she made it back to her side of the Gorge, Howler Clan would win.
All Nahlia had to do was stop her. Just one hit and Wolfe Clan would be victorious. Every rational part of her said to lie back down in the snow until the round was over. But no ... if she shied away from conflict now, she would never grow strong enough to fight her true enemies.
She broke into a run down the rocky trench. Panting, a sharp pain in her side, she didn't slow until the other girl was in sight. Elias had been right about one thing; this storm gave her the element of surprise. As long as she was careful, she could sneak up on her without—
Ciena whipped around and fell into Sunform, a look of utter shock crossing her face.
Nahlia swallowed hard, raising her own sword in response. A week ago, she had lost to a twelve-year-old, now she was about to duel Ciena Raider. Either way, it was too late to turn back now.
Ciena lunged forward, coming down in a savage overhead strike that Nahlia was just barely able to block. She tried to recoil, but Ciena was too quick. She spun her staff around, attacking with the opposite blade.
Nahlia managed a second parry, but the force sent her own sword flying free. When Ciena came in for the finishing blow, Nahlia raised her arms and caught the staff. The blades tore bright lines of pain across each of her palms
Ciena pushed back, waiting for her arms to turn numb and weigh her down.
Only they didn't.
Rain swirled and lightning struck around them. Nahlia forced the pain and numbness away before it could affect her. She threw Ciena into the stone wall with an explosion of raw, unexplainable power.
Ciena hit the wall and raised her goggles. Her shock turned to rage in the blink of an eye as she charged again.
Nahlia ran to retrieve her sword, but Ciena batted it away with ease, landing several hits in her ribcage. This time Nahlia felt her ribs crack from the impact, which was no trick of the poison.
Ciena landed the third hit on her cheekbone. The strike shredded through her skin, drawing blood.
Nahlia fell back into a small alcove, away from the audience's line of sight. She raised her hands in submission as Ciena stepped closer.
"Ciena stop," she tried to speak through numb lips. "I surrender!"
"Oh no," she hissed. "You had your chance..."
Ciena cast her weapon aside but didn't relent. Rain and tears flooded Nahlia's vision, and her arms were too numb to clear them away. Ciena's figure was a dark blur as she grabbed Nahlia by the hair and pushed her hard against the snow-covered wall. Her head swam. She tasted blood.
Then nothing at all.