The backs of strangers, a wall of faceless suits, hid from view the two Keepers chanting by the old man’s bed. One of them coughed in hacking fits, as if he was the one dying, and fell out of rhythm every other sentence. It was only a show – the real cleansing had already failed, the old man beyond the Keepers’ help - but Valiann wanted to rip out their throats.
First sister Aliriel, then the old man, gone in the span of two days. Both had left the world hating him. Neither have ever said this to his face, but he knew this from the way they had acted and talked and glared at him until their last breath. Familiar eyes.
Angry, filled with regret.
A momentous day, one for looking forward, yet memories almost made him miss what the Head was saying.
‘All those in favour of Class-A1 proposal number thirty-two, put forth by Cadet Valiann Del, namely, The Controlled Tear Experiment using the Perfect Crystal and Mechanical Conduits, raise your hand.’
‘Then it is decided. The proposal is hereby approved,’ the Head said, ‘but understand well, Cadet, that to run an experiment of this scale you must overcome difficulties that the Citadel has failed to solve for the past seventeen hundred years. What works in your head might not work in reality. I hope you’re prepared to face many challenges.’
Never one to waste works, Valiann simply nodded.
‘Then this session of the Seats is hereby ended. Go forth carrying the will of the Citadel, and eradicate the Haze from our world.’
It was fully dark by the time he made it outside. Finding his friends took no effort, for they were, predicably, sparring in the student arena and surrounded by quite a few spectators.
The air thrummed with Hanni’s Haze. Speed was his Affinity, and to describe him as fast was an insult. When Hanni circled his opponent his silhouette drew a ring of shadows; when his twin daggers parted the air they made small thunder; when his bare shins waded through sawdust they scratched with streaks of bloody red. With that chiselled face and mane of blonde hair it was as if a young god has decided to take a stroll amongst the living sloth.
At moments Hanni would catapult forward with a single leap, and jab with both daggers as if the blades were his fists. No one, not even the senior Keepers most experienced in combat, could hold against such an assault, since one blink was all it took to miss the entire move.
Fortunately, and unfortunately for Hanni, not many played fair in the Citadel. Andariel was his opponent, and her Affinity was more powerful than any feat of strength. Her long silvery hair was flying in the turbulence of Hanni’s run, but she remained still, her eyes in constant motion behind closed eyelids and her lips curved into a distracting smile.
The sabre in her hand swayed up and down like a wave-beaten branch. At the exact moment the blade dipped to its lowest, Hanni threw himself forward in an explosion of dust.
Their two bodies collided and tumbled to the ground in a rain of wood splinters as their training weapons decimated themselves upon impact. The spectators rushed to them with exhilarated hooting; Valiann was not about to hoot and so lagged behind.
Hanni was on his feet instantly. ‘Again!’ He declared, pulling Andariel up by her elbows while shoving back not a few too-chivalrous onlookers. They were both bruised but unhurt, when even a grazing hit could have shattered bones.
Not at all fazed, Andariel began to pat herself down, saw the state of her dust-covered robe, gave up, and tried to pacify her hair instead, pulling hair ties out of thin air. She offered warm smiles to those gathered around her, but gave Hanni a reproachful look. ‘That’ll teach you for going easy.’
Hanni’s face lightly purpled. ‘I was trying to win, not hurt you.’
‘Seems like you can do neither.’
The spectators jeered. One venomous look from Hanni shut them up.
Both of them spotted Valiann at the same time and waved, Hanni with a big two-armed affair as if trying to get someone’s attention from across a mountain range, Andariel a dainty shake of a hand raised at the level of her neck.
‘The Seats said yes,’ Valiann said to their relieved smiles. Retelling the dreary afternoon can wait. ‘Are you two done already? I’ve done nothing but sitting in the auditorium all day…’
‘I’ll oblige,’ Hanni declared, tossing him a wooden staff, the preferred weapon of the self-proclaimed genius.
‘I’ve enough bruises,’ Andariel said, ‘but I shall watch, so don’t you pull any punches, both of you.’
With that, she went to sit with the spectators on the elevated benches around the arena, and was instantly surrounded by all kinds of admirers.
Hanni took up another pair of training daggers and held them in reverse grip. ‘I won’t be going easy on you, that’s for sure.’
‘Were you before? It looked like you were getting your ass handed-’
Hanni sprang like a praying mantis, halving the distance between them before dust could well up around his feet. By the time one could react and move a muscle the blow would have already landed.
They have sparred countless times, however, and Valiann, having lost more matches than he would ever admit, have painstakingly trained to fend off that unearthly speed.
There was no probing Hanni’s eyes to see where he was aiming at, no responding to a particular move with its counter – both are too slow. Knowing exactly where Hanni would strike was his only advantage, since the bait – the weaknesses he had spent countless hours honing into his stance - was intentionally irresistible.
In one breath Hanni struck out twelve times at four spots on his torso. The crossing of weapons was a continuous thud, for there was no distinguishing one exchange from another. A shower of tiny splinters rained amidst the dust.
Ten, twenty, thirty seconds passed, and near a hundred blows were struck without result.
Then Valiann called upon the tamed Haze, the bit of power every Keeper and Cadet who survived the Trials cultivated within themselves. A blanketing warmth covered his head; it was a comforting fuzziness, like dousing himself with steamy water.
A loud crack. Hanni’s next blow suddenly increased in power and the force of it severed the tip of the ironwood staff as cleanly as a steel blade. Hanni tumbled to the ground in a meaty crunch, having lost his balance for an instant. In no time he recovered, spinning like a top and slashing at Valiann’s neck. Then the ground slipped away from under him as his left leg moved a fraction faster than his right, resulting in a comical triple side-flip that ended with his face meeting the ground at incredible speed. Another crunch. The crowd gasped, then roared with laughter.
Hanni got up in short order, wiping his crooked nose nonchalantly. ‘Not again.’
Valiann leaned on his staff, arms numb and shaking as much as his voice. ‘I’m fairly sure I’ve already told you about the spinning.’
‘By the time I realise what I was doing it’s too late to stop.’
‘There’s always next time.’
That lit a fire in Hanni’s steel blue eyes. ‘Indeed! Best of three!’