“Your sister?” Alex all but shrieked, glancing between the two of them.
“I stopped being his sister long ago,” Maggie said, her voice hard. “I left Mayra Raedon behind and became Magdelina Llohilas right after my brother,”—she spat the word like a curse—“the person I loved most in the entire world, abandoned me to follow a tyrant.”
Her phrasing prompted a memory for Alex, words Maggie had spoken almost a fortnight ago: ‘The day Aven killed those humans and fled the city was the day my brother lost his life following the cause of that tyrant.’
Alex had presumed her brother had died. But she now realised Maggie had meant something else entirely. Niyx had lost his life—in the sense that he’d lost his freedom. But he hadn’t done it following Aven.
“Niyx was wrongly imprisoned,” Alex told Maggie firmly. “He never approved of anything Aven was doing back then, just as he doesn’t now. He wasn’t even there when the Garseth attacked the humans outside the palace—he was with me. His guilt was presumed based on his association with Aven, nothing more.”
“Then why did he plead guilty at his trial?” Maggie demanded, her cynicism clear. “Why not fight the charges?”
You had a trial? Alex asked him, not having known that. Why didn’t you prove your innocence?
This time, Niyx answered, offering just three quiet words. You know why.
Alex closed her eyes, realising he’d acted his part as the loyal follower in order to position himself for the future. All to help her. Oh, Niyx.
My only regret was leaving Mayra, but then our parents visited and told me there had been an accident. They said she was dead. I had no idea… His voice trailed off, but then he said, What did you mean about her being a fake you?
Alex quickly replayed the memory of Maggie sharing her story. I’m sorry I didn’t think to tell you sooner, she apologised, feeling awful. It never even crossed my mind.
You had no way of knowing, he returned quietly.
While their mental conversation had been swift, Alex knew it was bordering on weird that neither of them had spoken for the duration of it, let alone answered Maggie’s question. So Alex hurried to do so.
“He had his reasons, reasons I’ve already told you. To help fight against Aven, he gave up everything—including you. Though, if he was led to believe you were dead, then he didn’t realise what he was giving up and for how long.”
Maggie’s aim wobbled slightly, something that caused Alex’s breath to hitch since she was still positioned in front of Niyx.
“I don’t believe you.”
Tell her, Niyx, Alex begged him. She’s your sister. If anyone deserves the truth, it’s her.
“And even if I did,” Maggie went on, swallowing, “I still wouldn’t, because even I know everyone left in Meya is Claimed by Aven now. Whatever you might think about the Meyarin you’re protecting with your life, Alex, guilty or innocent, all that’s left is a shell of a being controlled by a sociopath.”
Alex shook her head. “Aven didn’t Claim Niyx.”
Maggie’s gaze slitted. “More lies.”
“He couldn’t,” Alex said, and in a whisper, she finished, “because I Claimed Niyx first.”
Maggie’s shock was so acute that she accidentally released the arrow. Alex’s Meyarin reflexes allowed her a split second to dive to the side, pushing Niyx down with her, but even then she was still clipped in the arm, the sharp arrowhead tearing through her coat and skimming her bicep.
She hissed at the sting of pain and Niyx was immediately pushing her off him and turning her around to frantically inspect her arm.
“It’s just a flesh wound,” she told him through clenched teeth, something he was now realising for himself, since the same injury appeared on his arm. His was much more noticeable since he wasn’t bundled up against the cold like Alex.
“Here,” he said, shoving the flask of laendra at her. She was relieved they hadn’t finished it earlier. Not that her injury was bad, but she was still bleeding all over the snow. Niyx was, too, and his wound wouldn’t heal without hers doing so first.
A couple of sips and a few seconds later and they were both as good as new.
… Until they turned to look at Maggie, who was swaying on the spot, her hand covering her mouth.
“You Claimed him?” the Archery instructor whispered, horrified.
“It’s a long story, but yes, I did,” Alex said, just as quietly, fully aware that she’d just admitted to carrying out a ritual forbidden to Meyarins on pain of death.
“I was attacked by a Sarnaph, May,” Niyx said, apparently deciding it was a story his sister needed to hear. “I was dying. Aeylia saved my life. And when she later tried to Release me, I wouldn’t accept the Release. She can’t control me anymore, but we’re still connected—as you just saw.”
He looked pointedly to the blood dribbling down his arm from the now-healed wound and continued, “Because of that connection, when Aven attempted to Claim me, he couldn’t. He thinks he did, which is the only reason I’m still able to remain at Meya and spy on him, but Aeylia’s original hold on me is keeping me safe, since her will is stronger than his.”
Maggie was breathing heavily as she looked between the two of them, her eyes welling with tears. “You’re not lying, are you?” she whispered. “About any of it?”
Niyx released a weighty exhale and whispered back, “No.”
“But—But the king…”
Niyx didn’t answer, but Alex wouldn’t allow him to lose what might be the only chance he had to earn back his sister’s trust, so she said, “That wasn’t Niyx, either, but he made Aven think it was to prove his loyalty. No one can know, Maggie. His life will be forfeited if Aven discovers the truth. Do you understand?”
Maggie didn’t respond verbally. She also didn’t nod or offer any other confirmation of secrecy. What she did was hiccup a sob and launch herself at her brother, burrowing deep into him while crying thousands of years’ worth of anguished tears onto his steady shoulders.
I’ll, um, leave you to it, Alex silently told Niyx, knowing they needed some privacy. Share anything you need to with her, including any of my secrets if you think she needs to hear them.
Niyx nodded over Maggie’s head, gratitude clear in his eyes.
Just remember that more people are going to start waking up soon, Alex warned him. You might want to take her somewhere else to catch up. But also don’t stay away from Meya for too long—she’ll understand the risk, especially now.
I won’t, Niyx promised softly. Now go and get some rest before your fight.
Alex’s stomach lurched with sudden nausea. I’ll let you know as soon as it’s over.
And we’ll celebrate your victory, he told her, again with that confident assurance. But then he added, Long-distance celebration, since I shouldn’t leave Meya again today.
Alex grinned and turned away from her friend and her teacher, amused by the idea of what a long-distance celebration might entail.
But as she trekked back to her dorm with the intention of following Niyx’s suggestion to get in a nap before heading to Graevale, Alex realised she didn’t care what that celebration was, just as long as there was cause for it.
Alex couldn’t breathe.
She couldn’t breathe because her nerves were crushing her windpipe, restricting the airflow into her lungs.
She couldn’t breathe because there were purple flames all around her, cutting her off from the masses of Shadow Walkers jeering from all sides of the Obscuria; cutting her off from her anxious-looking friends, her uneasy wolf, the tense Caspar Lennox, the stoic Shirez Ganare and three smug elders.
She couldn’t breathe because she was standing in the middle of the fiery central hexagon of the six-sided star, staring into the dark, merciless eyes of her opponent.
“It’s not too late to back out, human,” Trell said in a surprisingly deep voice, casually spinning the weapon held between her hands—a long, black staff with thick, jagged blades on each end.
Despite Shirez’s early morning warning, the blood had still drained from Alex’s face upon first seeing Trell’s weapon, such was the lethality of the staff.
“The same goes for you,” Alex returned, somehow managing to keep her voice steady, along with her grip on A’enara. The flaming sword had caused quite the commotion amongst the Shadow Walkers when she’d first summoned it, but other than a slight widening of her eyes, Trell hadn’t otherwise reacted.
Alex was just thankful that she and the Shadow Walker were starting their fight face to face rather than with a surprise attack like last time. Trell didn’t seem fazed either way, since everything from her relaxed stance to her amused expression told Alex just how much of a joke the Shadow Walker seemed to think their match was.
Silence descended upon the enraged, catcalling crowd and Alex looked through the flames to see everyone’s attention focused on the balcony of elders. All three of the ancient Shadow Walkers were seated on their thrones and looking out over the assembled masses. In the next balcony over, Alex saw Jordan, D.C., Bear, Caspar Lennox and Shirez all watching together, with Soraya restlessly pacing beside them. The wolf was smart enough to understand when Alex had told her to stay, but that didn’t mean she was happy about it.
“The victor of the vatali targo, Trell Roven, has been challenged by the human, Alexandra Jennings,” Radek called loudly from the elder’s balcony, causing the crowd to hurl insults towards Alex in both the common tongue and their own until he raised his hand for quiet. “Trell Roven has accepted the challenge. We shall witness their battle and, regardless of the outcome,”—Alex could see he looked entertained by the very idea of Trell not winning—“continue with our celebrations to signify the end of the trials.”
Another roar, this time excited.
Saber spoke next, directly to Alex and Trell. “Your battle will be considered complete when one of you willingly yields, or when one of you is unable to continue.”
The next words were from Azalia, and there were only three of them. “You may begin.”
After the surprise beginning last time, Alex was prepared even before the three-word statement that offered at least a modicum of warning. Adrenaline scored through her body, blocking out everything from the screaming crowd to her fears of failure. Instead, she narrowed her focus solely onto the white-haired, grey-skinned Trell. And when the Shadow Walker lunged into action, Alex was ready.
With a battle cry that was painful to Alex’s ears, Trell charged forward, her staff held in the middle by both hands and raised high over her shoulder. Alex planted her feet and used a two-handed hold on A’enara to block when the Shadow Walker swung the staff down in a powerful blow, their weapons clanging together in a shriek of sparking steel.
Undaunted by Alex’s easy deflection, Trell immediately sliced the bottom half of her staff upwards in an attempt to catch Alex with the second blade. But Alex hadn’t spent hours practising that morning for nothing—and with Niyx, a Zeltora-trained Meyarin warrior who no Shadow Walker would come close to beating in a fair, unmoving fight.
Jumping back from the second attack, Alex leapt forward while Trell re-centred herself, hoping to catch her off guard. But before A’enara could make contact, the Shadow Walker disappeared in a flash of darkness, reappearing behind Alex.
Spinning around, Alex only just managed to duck in time when one of Trell’s blades soared so close to her head that the air whistled past her ears. While she was crouching and the staff still following through above her, Alex swung out a leg and hooked it behind the Shadow Walker’s ankle, tugging her forward.
Trell staggered and disappeared in a cloud of shadows again, rematerialising to Alex’s left.
With a growl of frustration, Alex went on the offence, lunging forward and swinging A’enara low. Trell blocked just in time, twirling her staff down, but Alex was encouraged when she saw the Shadow Walker’s hands jolt from the strength behind the attack. Bolstered, she swung again, but Trell disappeared before she could land a second hit.
The Shadow Walker didn’t reappear right away, and the tension mounted as Alex whirled on the spot, waiting and watching for her next attack.
When it came, it was relentless.
Trell appeared with a throaty roar and a burst of shadows, her staff following through on a downward trajectory that would have sliced clean across Alex’s chest if she’d been a fraction of a second slower to deflect. From there, she was unbalanced, having had to twist unnaturally to block the incoming staff and the newly relocated Shadow Walker.
Trell pressed the advantage, coming at Alex over and over again. But every time Alex struck back, no matter how fast she was, Trell disappeared, always reappearing with her staff swinging viciously overhead.
With Trell’s weapon so much longer than her own, the only hope Alex had was by getting in close—but whenever she attempted to do so, Trell would whisk herself away, sometimes taking Alex with her.
Three times Trell was close enough to sweep them both up in her shadows, prompting a sense of disorientation in Alex as they moved between the flamed sections of the star. Trell’s blades made contact each of those three times; short, shallow cuts, but enough to chip away at Alex’s confidence.
Panting during a momentary hiatus as they circled each other, Alex was heartened to note she wasn’t the only one showing signs of fatigue—nor was she the only one wounded, since she could clearly see black blood oozing from Trell’s own grazes. Alex wasn’t sure when, but she’d managed to get a few of her own swipes in. Something which, judging by the Shadow Walker’s expression, had been unanticipated from the ‘human’.
Alex knew by the look in Trell’s hard eyes that the end of their fight was coming. The Shadow Walker’s early humour was now gone. Alex had shocked her with her skill and speed yet again, but Trell was clearly gearing up to end it. If Alex was to offer one final surprise in the hope of turning the tide in her favour, then it would have to be soon.
Trell’s gaze was calculating as she watched Alex intently, her feet light on the ground as she began twirling her staff, building momentum until it was a speedy blur. But Niyx had pulled the same manoeuvre with Alex, so she wasn’t cowed by Trell—not even when the Shadow Walker sprang forward with a bellow, ready to cleave Alex in half from top to toe.
But she didn’t get the chance. Because that was when Alex moved.
In the blink of an eye, she pulled up the horrible memory of Aven again, wrapped herself in the darkness of that moment and activated the Shadow Essence in her ring, concentrating on what she needed and making it happen fast. But she needn’t have worried about speed, because Lady Mystique had been right—now that Alex knew what she was doing, it happened in an instant. One second she was in front of Trell, looking at the bladed staff sweeping towards her head, and the next she was ordering the shadows to move her so that this time it was her who appeared behind Trell in a burst of darkness.
The moment she reappeared, she forced away the dizziness and made sure not to waste the only advantage she had. While Trell was still following the momentum of her downward swing, a swing that overreached now that Alex was no longer there to block it, Alex banished A’enara so both her hands were free.
Still mid-swing, the Shadow Walker’s face was a mask of disbelief when she realised Alex had shadowed away, which Alex saw when she surged forward to Trell’s side and wrapped her fingers around the staff in a move to wrestle it loose.
Trell was too shocked to offer much resistance, but she managed to give a hearty tug that caused Alex’s right hand to jerk along the staff and onto one of the bladed ends, opening a large gash in her flesh.
Hissing from the pain, Alex renewed her hold despite the sharpened steel. She spun around, heaving with all her might, causing the Shadow Walker’s grip to dislodge as Trell lost her balance and went flying through the air, skidding face-first onto the marbled floor. Not hesitating for a second, Alex threw the staff straight into the purple fire, where it immediately went up in flames.
Watching it was enough to pull Trell from her shock, so Alex leapt atop the Shadow Walker’s back to keep her face down on the ground, not giving her the chance to transport herself to safety and recover.
Of course, that didn’t stop Trell from taking Alex with her as she disappeared. But Alex had expected that.
Despite the Shadow Walker struggling desperately to dislodge Alex, she remained stubbornly in place and managed to yank her opponent’s arms back while also wedging her knee into the hollow of Trell’s spine, placing the Shadow Walker in a defenceless position. But Trell refused to be conquered so easily. Just because she no longer had a weapon or the upper hand, that didn’t mean she was done fighting.
Shadow burst after shadow burst, Trell made the two of them appear and disappear over and over again as they moved between the fiery lines of the star. She did everything she could to be rid of Alex, bucking and twisting and writhing under her grip. But Alex wouldn’t let go. She couldn’t let go, no matter how sickeningly dizzy she was from their unending shadowing and no matter how drained she was from the strength of Trell’s fight.
Her muscles were screaming and her gashed hand was bleeding all over both of them—along with her shallower cuts as well—but Alex still held on. She had her opponent’s arms wrenched so far back that, with only the slightest amount of increased pressure, Trell’s shoulders would be dislocated. Alex didn’t want to hurt the Shadow Walker more than she already had, but if Trell didn’t stop fighting soon, then Alex would do what she must.
But then Trell’s struggles started to lessen and she began breathing more and more heavily underneath Alex, the effort of trying to escape finally taking effect. Her strength swiftly fading, the Shadow Walker carried out a few last-ditch attempts to throw Alex off, but then she collapsed fully beneath her, panting with exhaustion.
Not trusting the apparent surrender, Alex didn’t loosen her grip—not yet. She hadn’t fought so hard only to be tricked into a false sense of security. Instead, she gave a warning tug on Trell’s arms, reminding the Shadow Walker that the slightest move on Alex’s behalf would wrench her shoulders out of place, and she leaned in to say, “Do you yield?”
The only response Trell gave was to heave in gasps of air.
Only slightly less winded, Alex yanked Trell’s arms up a fraction, eliciting a pained snarl from the Shadow Walker.
“Do you yield?” Alex demanded, right into her ear.
It felt like years passed before Trell answered, but when she did, it was with a panting, whispered, “I yield.”
Alex’s enhanced hearing had barely caught the response, so she needed Trell to do better than that.
“Louder,” Alex ordered. “So everyone can hear.”
When Trell remained mute, Alex gritted her teeth and, ignoring the sick feeling in her stomach, inched the Shadow Walker’s arms up further, stopping only when she felt the tension of the bone about to pop out of place.
An almighty scream ripped from Trell’s vocal chords, the sound cutting off only when she realised Alex had stopped before actually dislocating her shoulders.
“I yield, all right!” Trell bellowed. Then, again, in her own tongue. “I yield!”
And just like that, the purple flames surrounding them disappeared, revealing a stunned, silent crowd staring at Alex in awe—and fear.
Immediately she jumped up and backed away from Trell. The Shadow Walker slowly rose to her feet as well, crossing her arms to clutch her shoulders protectively, smearing black blood—hers—and red blood—Alex’s—as she did so. Guilt swirled within Alex, but then her hand throbbed with renewed pain as she made a fist to stem the flow from her wound, and she knew she’d done what she’d needed to. Because, as much as the odds had been against her, she’d managed to win. And that meant…
“Alexandra Jennings,” called Radek from the balcony, his loud voice making the silence surrounding them that much more noticeable. “Congratulations. You have won the challenge.”
More sound erupted then, but not from the crowd—from the balcony next to the elders, where Alex’s friends were hooting with glee. Even Caspar Lennox had a smile on his face, a downright scary thing to witness. Shirez, too, appeared relieved. And as for Soraya, now that the threat to Alex had passed, she appeared to be bunkering down for a nap.
At least one of them had their priorities right.
Alex was flung from the dazed shock of her victory to stare into the crowd, searching for whoever had called out. She couldn’t locate the source, but soon enough, more Shadow Walkers were shouting the same accusation.
“Silence!” roared Radek, and instantly the crowd quieted.
Despite his command, it wasn’t he who spoke up to defend Alex, nor did she do so for herself.
Instead, it was Trell who jumped to Alex’s defence, speaking the language of her race.
“She didn’t cheat,” the Shadow Walker said quietly, but in the silence, her voice echoed around the cathedral.
Tensing, Alex braced when Trell slowly approached and reached for her fisted, bleeding hand, holding up the ring for all to see.
“She merely used our own power against us,” Trell told her people. “A human shouldn’t so easily be able to access the shadows and resist them, and they definitely shouldn’t be able to command them. But I think we can all now agree that this girl is not just any human.”
Alex used her free hand to shakily swipe a lock of hair off her face, accidentally smearing blood across her forehead from a small cut at her hairline.
“Alexandra Jennings fought like one of us,” Trell continued, her voice louder now, determined. “Did she surprise me? Yes. But there are no rules that forbid a human from walking the shadows if they have the capacity to do so, therefore nothing she did can be considered cheating.” Trell cast her eyes up to the elders and finished, this time in the common tongue, “If you choose to disqualify her, I will not accept the victory. She won fairly and deserves the honour owed to her.”
Trell released Alex’s hand and the two of them stood side by side in unexpected solidarity to await the elders’ response as they conferred with each other.
It was Azalia who stepped forward to address the crowd, and Alex felt her stomach drop, fully aware of the female’s disfavour towards her.
“We stand by our decision,” Azalia called, prompting Alex’s shoulders to loosen with relief. “Trell Roven will keep her title as victor of the vatali targo, having successfully completed each stage of the trials, but Alexandra Jennings will be considered the winner of this unrelated match. You both fought well. Congratulations.”
Struggling to believe she’d actually done it, as the crowd began murmuring their begrudging acceptance, Alex turned to Trell. “Thank you. You didn’t have to defend me.”
“I could not have lived with the shame of accepting an unearned victory,” Trell returned quietly. “You are an impressive warrior, Alexandra Jennings. I hope we have the chance to cross blades again in the future.”
Alex actually managed a laugh as she replied, “If you can get your hands on another one of these rings for me, preferably with more than one walk available, then you’re on. If not, no chance.”
Trell’s face lit with amusement. “I’ll see what I can do.”
As mad as it was, part of Alex almost hoped Trell would be able to find her another ring. But that was probably just the high of the victory speaking, since she was certain once the adrenaline wore off and her aches took centre stage, she’d never want to see another Shadow Walker again, let alone fight one.
“Come with me, Alexandra,” said Shirez, who appeared at Alex’s side as Trell moved away. She shoved a wad of gauzy material into Alex’s bleeding hand and told her, “The elders will see you now.”
Alex tightened her fist around the material in an effort to staunch her wound. “Now?”
Shirez didn’t try and push Alex through the crowd, instead she just shadowed her straight up to the balcony. When they were in their new location, she simply said, “Yes. Now.”
With a quick glare at the prickly Shadow Walker, Alex straightened her fight-rumpled clothes, wrapped the wadded material around her hand in a makeshift pressure bandage and stepped towards the elders who were staring at her from their extravagant seats.
“You are full of surprises, Alexandra Jennings,” Azalia said as she approached. Her tone was caustic, telling Alex exactly how she felt about surprises.
“Nevertheless,” Saber said, a hint of respect in his uniquely pale eyes, “you have earned our ears. So speak, human, and we shall listen.”
And finally—finally—Alex spoke.