Garrick willed himself to breathe slowly as he watched his opponent’s arms and legs expand. Across from him in the sand, Fenra’s olive skin rippled, popped, and tightened around her swollen muscles. Maintaining fierce eye-contact, she cracked her neck, her shoulders, and finally her knuckles, adjusting to the extra weight of her new flesh.
Garrick remained still, half-crouched, tempering his mind for the coming battle. Silently, he analyzed the combat instructor’s rules for the duel: Last one on the rock wins. He and Fenra were on opposite sides of a flat-topped column of stone, about twenty meters in diameter. Underneath his bare feet he felt loose, treacherous sand, while in his ears was the wild rush of churning waters, rising from the spinning pool below the rock.
“Ready for a diving lesson, twerp?” yelled Fenra over the crash of the water. Garrick noticed her confident stance, and thought of the way she had bullied their classmates with weak auras. As a maker, she could enhance the attributes of a target, as she had just now with her own muscles. Of the five Witching Arts, Creation was the best suited for raw physical combat, because it could easily overpower more subtle techniques. Skilled makers could even conjure objects from thin air, but Garrick doubted Fenra could accomplish that.
“How about you go first, so I can see how it’s done?” he said nonchalantly.
Fenra huffed, then charged directly at him, the thick pistons of her legs accelerating her over the sand. She swung one arm in a huge overhead punch, which Garrick avoided by ducking nimbly to his right. She’s strong, but not extra quick. Not enough control to make her muscles large and responsive, he thought. Fenra continued with a flurry of blows, as Garrick danced away around the edge of the circle, just barely dodging each one.
Soon, he began to find the rhythm in her attacks, and continued to slip just out of reach as she hunted him. His first thoughts of a counterstrike were torn apart when he felt an unexpected lump underneath his heel. Garrick had been careful to avoid the arena’s rocks until then, so he realized as he slipped backwards that the girl must have created the pebble right before he stepped on it. In that brief instant, Fenra’s enhanced foot came flashing towards his head, but he was able to raise his forearm just in time to deflect the brutal kick. The bones in Garrick’s wrist crunched, causing searing pain and a brief epiphany: I underestimated her.
The force of the strike flipped him over onto his stomach, and towards the edge of the cliff, now only about three meters away. Fenra barreled towards him, battle-focus etched on her face, obviously planning to end the fight with her next attack. Garrick stared straight at her, calming his mind with a quick breath. Inspired by the maker’s trick, he reached inside himself and found the glowing core of his power. He blocked out the roar of the water, the pain in his wrist, and all his awareness except for the sight of the sand. Just before Fenra’s foot contacted the ground, he twisted the rock beneath her, turning it into slick, shiny mud. Her eyes widened as she slipped—Garrick rolled out of the way—and her momentum made her tumble forward toward the edge of the circle. Fenra skidded to a stop inches away from the cliff, scrambled back a few feet, then turned to face him.
Garrick had retreated to the other side of the arena, and now they both stood motionless, dripping with sweat, panting to appease their burning lungs. Now she knows I’m a twister. Fenra’s eyes held a ferocious glint, but as she opened her mouth to speak, a terrible grating noise surrounded them, and the rocky surface began to tremble. The edges of the column started to crumble and fall away, chunks of stone and sand plummeting into the water below. And one of the instructors is a breaker, Garrick mused as the arena shrank, and inch by inch he was forced towards his opponent.
Again, Fenra rushed at him, but this time Garrick knew he had to stand his ground. He dodged her first quick jab, then ducked under a high kick. She fainted another jab, but instead delivered a blistering hook with her other hand. Knowing he couldn’t match Fenra’s strength, Garrick reluctantly blocked with his good arm. Right before impact, he willed his power to twist his own body, and transformed his arm into hard grey stone. Where the flesh of his elbow met the new rock, all nerves were promptly severed, sending screaming signals of pain up his spine. Fenra’s fist glanced off his stone skin, and he took the chance to lunge forward for a sweeping kick, this time changing his shin and foot into rock. She dodged this attack with an easy sidestep, then countered with an elbow strike. They continued to exchange blows, blocks, and parries with lightning speed; Garrick’s stone limbs managed to equal the strength of Fenra’s swollen muscles. I was faster than her before—my transmutations are slowing me down.
Ever so slowly, Fenra’s barrage pushed him back towards the edge of the circle, which had now diminished to less than half its original size. Thoughts racing, Garrick tried to conceive a plan that would give him some power against his frenzied opponent. He felt the strain on his body and mind; it now took immense effort to change his limbs each time Fenra attacked, and the girl showed few signs of fatigue. A sideways kick caught him in the ribs, and Garrick finally crumpled down to his knees. Fenra stood over him wearing a wicked grin, enjoying her physical triumph and preparing to send him over the cliff. The circular top of the column was now barely four meters wide, and the crashing waves seemed to laugh below them, mocking Garrick’s defeat.
In a final, wild effort, Garrick tried one last time to reach for his aura. He closed his eyes and placed his palms flat on the sand in front of him, mustering all his energy, feeling it swell within him, boiling, rising, ready to overflow with rage. He pushed the force out through his hands, and just as Fenra reared her fist to launch him off the edge, her half of the pillar dissolved into mud, which slid abruptly backwards, wrenching her off the platform.
But the mud continued to spread, and as Garrick also slipped off the edge, he realized his power had gone too far. It left only a tiny spire of rock untouched, which he just barely managed to latch onto as he fell. Dangling from only the fingers of his good hand, he breathed a sigh of relief, and almost allowed himself to relax.
Suddenly, an iron grip enclosed his ankle, his fingers strained under added weight, and he glanced down to see Fenra hanging beneath him. “Looks like we both get to swim,” she spat while tugging on Garrick’s leg. He struggled desperately to shake her loose, but only managed to slide his fingers a bit further towards the edge. As his pinky began to slip off, Garrick’s brain and muscles were already shutting down, pushed beyond their limits by the vicious duel. Well, I had a good run, he thought. But when only two of his fingers remained on the cliff, and Garrick himself had given up on survival, something feral bloomed inside him. His aura, the primal source of the twisting power, was ignited, shocking his whole system into action as it spread through his veins.
Garrick’s mind opened, and he saw the necessary path before him. He honed the inferno within himself, concentrating it all into his left leg, then flipped the switch to transform his own cells. Fenra’s hand seared with pain, and abruptly she felt the absence of the ankle she had been holding onto. With nothing else supporting her, she plunged towards the water. Looking up in a daze, Fenra’s eyes widened in confusion; Garrick’s leg was solidifying, changing from pure fire back into a regular limb.
Still hanging from just two fingers, Garrick heard a short screeching cry, and then all of the noise around him ceased. The unnatural silence marked the official end of the duel, and Garrick permitted himself a very brief feeling of victory. Then, the accumulated pain of all his injuries returned, having been blocked out for so long by his adrenaline. His broken wrist ached, cracked ribs seemed to skewer his insides, and bruises all over his body tingled faintly. Worst of all were the nerves he had severed and reformed so many times while transforming his limbs, now needles in his flesh. As he heard faint applause echoing around him, Garrick had only one thought remaining: I need to train. I need to be stronger, faster, sharper. I need to control the inferno.