Nassar stepped over the line. The worm streaked to him. It skimmed the surface of his magic and clamped onto his shoulder. Nassar’s magic shrunk. He staggered and ripped the worm off. Grace cried out.
The worm flipped in the air and slid over him. Nassar tried to knock it off, but it slipped past his hands and leeched onto his side. Nassar gasped. His face went bloodlessly white. He spun, tripping over his feet, pulling at the writhing body, and stumbled to her. The worm slithered from his fingers and swooped down on him. Nassar fell.
Grace lunged forwards. She meant to thrust herself in front of it, but instead magic pulsed from her in a controlled, short burst. The worm hurtled back, swept aside.
She pushed harder and the worm convulsed, squeezed between the press of her power and the glowing lines. “Nassar?” She knelt by him. “Nassar, are you OK?”
Nassar’s green eyes looked at her. His nose bled. He wiped away his blood with the back of his hand. “Protective instinct,” he said. “You’ve done it.”
It felt so right. As if the pressure straining at her from the inside suddenly found an outlet. So that’s what she’d been missing. All these years, she had suspected there was something more to the magic coursing through her and now she finally found it.
“I guess I did,” she murmured.
“Were you scared for me?”
“Yes. How could you have done that? That was so reckless. What if I couldn’t save you?”
“I hoped you could,” he said.
The way he looked at her made her want to kiss him.
“Your family is free,” he said.
“I’ve let Clan Mailliard go,” he said. “I signed the order before lunch.”
She sank to the floor. “Why?”
He sat up. “Because I decided that’s not what I do. I don’t force people to fight our battles. I don’t want to be the man who blames children for their parents’ mistakes. And I don’t want you to be the last of the Mailliards. Whether you have children should be your choice alone. I don’t want to take it away from you.”
It slowly dawned on her. “So I’m free?”
She stared at him. “You don’t even know me. I could just take off right now and leave you here to deal with the game on your own. Do you have any idea how scared I am? I don’t want to die.”
“Neither do I.” He gave her another sad smile.
She hung her head, torn. She was deeply, deeply afraid. But walking away from the children wasn’t in her. She wouldn’t be able to look herself in the eye. It was as if they stood in the road with a semi hurtling at them at full speed. What kind of person wouldn’t push them out of harm’s way?
“I should practise more,” she said.
“We’re going to need another worm then,” Nassar said.
She glanced at the beast. It lay dead, sliced in half.
“You killed it,” he told her. “Sometimes the Barrier magic can also become a blade.”
“But I don’t even know how I’ve done it.”
“We don’t need to worry about that now,” he said. “As long as you can defend me, we should be fine.”
Three days later Grace stood in the middle of the street in Milligan City, hugging herself as the sun set slowly. Nassar loomed next to her. Behind them unfamiliar people moved, their magic shifting with them, their clothes colour-coded by their clan: grey and black for Dreoch, green for Roar, red for Madrid. Nassar had explained the rest of the colours, but she couldn’t recall any of it. The anxiety pulsated through her with every heartbeat.
Ahead a seemingly empty stretch of a suburban street rolled into the sunset. The round, red sun hung low above the horizon, a glowing brand upon the clouds.
Familiar magic brushed her and a heavy hand touched her shoulder gently. Nassar. He wore grey pants tucked into military boots. A long-sleeved shirt hugged his arms and over it he wore a leather vest that wanted very much to be called armour. She wore the same outfit. The leather fitted her loosely enough not to be constricting, but tight enough not to get in the way.
“Don’t worry,” Nassar said.
Her gaze slid to the large axe strapped to his waist. She touched her own blade, a long, narrow combat knife. Gerald had taught her the basics of knife-fighting a long time ago but she’d never been in a real fight.
A male voice rose to the side. “Can he bring a servant into the game?”
It took a moment to sink in. Of course, her status would be public knowledge among them, but it still cut her like a knife. She turned. A group of people stood on the side. Five of them wore dark blue robes. The arbitrators, she remembered from Nassar’s explanations. An older female in the arbitrator robe regarded her with serious grey eyes.
“If you want to withdraw, you may do so now,” the woman said.
She could withdraw. She could simply refuse to go in. If she did, Nassar would be doomed. He had already committed to the game and she knew he couldn’t simply substitute someone else in his place. He wouldn’t.
Overnight, her fears had grown into near panic. Now she could walk away from them.
Grace looked at the gathering of the clansmen. Her family used to be a clan. Her people should have stood right here. Instead the clansmen viewed her as a servant. Pride spiked in her. She had as much right to be here as anybody else. The vague feeling of unease that had eaten at her ever since Nassar had transformed into a bird crystallized and she finally understood it: it was envy. Envy of the magic used freely. Envy of knowledge. Circumstances had jettisoned her out of this world, but she refused to stay locked out.
Grace drew herself to her full height. “Why in the world would I want to withdraw?”
A red-haired man in Clan Roar’s green shook his head. “She can’t refuse. She isn’t even properly trained. She’s a servant.”
“Not any more,” Nassar said softly behind her.
The gathering suddenly grew quiet.
The arbitrator surveyed them for a long moment. “Nassar, am I to understand that you’ve released Clan Mailliard from their service?”
“Yes,” he answered.
The arbitrator looked at her. “You’re here of your own free will?”
“Yes,” Grace said.
The arbitrator glanced at the Roar clansman. “There is your answer. Let the record reflect that Clan Mailliard chose to assist Clan Dreoch. You have our leave to proceed.”
They passed her. Grace let out her breath.
“Thank you,” Nassar murmured.
Two young men in Clan Roar’s green came to stand at the other end of the street. Both were lean, strong and hard, as if twisted from leather and twine. Both had long hair bound into horse tails: one red, one black.
Nassar leaned to her. “Conn and Sylvester Roar. Powerful, but they lack experience.”
The arbitrators passed between them, blocking her vision. As the blue robes fluttered by, Grace saw Conn Roar turn to her. He grinned, his eyes alight with feral fire, and snapped his teeth.
Alarm dashed down her spine in a rush of cold. She raised her eyebrows. “Someone forgot his muzzle.”
“See the pendant around Conn’s neck?”
Grace glanced at a small black stone hanging on a long chain.
“That’s a summoning stone. They’ll use its power to manifest creatures.”
Marrow worms. They’d use it to summon the marrow worms. Nassar had warned her that the Roars would try to kill them. Him, specifically. The game was only the opening salvo to the hostilities between the two clans, and the Roars wanted to land the first blow by taking out the Dreochs’ best magic user.
The arbitrators raised their hands. A controlled surge of magic washed over the street. The reality drained down, as if it were a reflection in a melting mirror. A new street opened before them. Green and red lianas hung from the dark, sinister houses. Kudzu vines climbed in and out of windows. To the left a huge clump of yellow foam dripped rancid red juice onto the street. A puddle of brown slime slivered across the asphalt like an amoeba and slipped into the storm drain under the light of street lamps. Ahead something furry dashed across the intersection: a long, shaggy body with too many legs.
Somewhere in that zone a flag waited. Whoever touched the flag would be instantly transported out. They just had to survive long enough to reach it.
The woman arbitrator raised her hand, fist closed. Next to Grace, Nassar tensed.
“Let the game begin!” A white light pulsed from the arbitrator’s fingers. The crowd erupted in a ragged cheer.
The two Roar clansmen screamed in unison. Flesh bulged out from under their skin. Their bodies contorted, their limbs thickened. Black fur sheathed their skin. Horns burst through their manes. Their eyes drowned in golden glow and an extra pair opened beside the first set. As one they raised monstrous faces up, the sharp fangs in their jaws silhouetted against the red sky. Eerie howls tore free from their throats, blending into a haunting song of hunt and murder.
The Roars dashed into the zone on all fours. Nassar watched them go, his face calm. Leaping and growling, they turned the corner and vanished behind the abandoned houses. The echoes of their snarls died. Nassar took his axe from its sheath, rested it on his shoulder, and strode into the zone, unhurried. Grace swallowed and followed in his footsteps.
The street lay quiet. They would be watched by magical means while in the zone, but for now the press of many stares bore directly into her back. Her nerves knotted into a clump.
They reached the intersection.
A hint of movement on the roof of a two-storey house made her turn. Grace frowned.
A flat, wide shape leaped off the roof, aiming at her. She caught a glimpse of a fang-studded mouth among bulging veins. Too stunned to move, she simply stared.
Nassar’s huge back blocked the mouth. A hot whip of magic sprung from his hand, cleaving the creature in two. Twin halves of the beast fell to the ground, spilling steaming guts onto the asphalt.
“You’re allowed to dodge,” Nassar said.