Violent magical energy tore open a portal in the middle of the dusty, abandoned square. A slender female demon emerged, followed by two shapes roughly the size of men and finally a hulking ten-foot mass of moving muscle. The four demons took several steps away from the portal and waited in the meager plaza, surrounded by dilapidated wood houses.
“Remember the plan,” the male demon on the left said to the female. “Once your display of power is through, they’ll be pissing in their pants. Someone is bound to crack and make a move against you.”
“Understood, uncle,” the female replied, not looking at him. “I will complete my purpose.”
“Good girl,” her uncle said with a sharp-toothed smile.
“Make sure you leave some for me, girly,” growled the giant creature that towered behind her.
“Of course, tutor Khrex. I will do my best not to destroy them too fast,” she spoke with a tone implying she would do no such thing.
The hulking mass of Khrex shifted forward, but the figure on the right raised a many-ringed hand, suspending all threat the creature posed.
“They’re almost here,” said the imperious figure, waving its bedecked in opulence hand. “The girl can destroy you with just a thought right now, Khrex, so save your posturing for later. This is an enterprise our whole species has undertaken for some centuries now, and I will not allow you to muck it up at the very end. Jehma, keep your back straight, head held high. Show no weakness to your lessers.”
“Yes, father,” Jehma set her jaw and leveled her chin.
She watched the humans arrived in the square, spreading out like insects.
Rog walked in the middle of the tight military formation. His gaze fell on the giant being at the back of the demon group. The size of it made him trip, but he caught the pauldron of the nearest soldier.
“Keep focused, boy!” a hobbling man in robes chided.
“Apologies, magus,” Rog said, rubbing the back of his head where his light blond hair became darker as if licked by flames.
“The preparations are complete, so all we need you to do is damage that thing,” spoke a stocky man from behind Rog’s back. “We’ll take care of the rest, lad.” His deep voice sounded like an echo climbing the bottom of a well.
Rog expected emotions to stir in his chest when the old square had demons in it and wasn't empty like on his every previous visit. He thought he'd be frightened like before the start of his training almost a decade ago. The fear of his younger years had vanished, hammered away by a man with a well-climbing voice. Rog had high hopes for anger, but its red-hot blaze did not stir a fire in his chest. What he did feel was interest in the shorter female shape in front of the taller demons. Coming closer, he caught glimpses of her facial features. High, regal cheekbones, bright, inquisitive eyes, and those backward curving horns on her head made her appear both dangerous and exotic.
“Caught your eye, did she?” said a lavishly dressed man, poking an elbow in Rog’s side. “A lot of men dream of being with a beautiful woman during their last days. Life is beautiful, and death could be as well if a woman as lovely as that is by your side, no?”
“That’s not a woman, lord Vandia. That’s a demon,” Rog said as they drew closer to the otherworlders. “And besides, she might just be a tutor and not the actual champion.”
“Please," Vandia scoffed, looking up at Rog from under his eyebrows. "I’ve taught you better than that."
He continued in his melodic voice. "What we know of demon society points to it functioning like our own, and the young demon lady looks roughly your age, so I'd bet good money that she’s their champion. Look at her poise, the way she’s on edge and ready for a fight.”
Rog nodded in agreement as he looked over the demon woman. Few inches shorter than him, with an athletic build, she wore plain, comfortable-looking brown shoes and dark trousers. A sleeveless blouse showed her trained and well-defined arm muscles. Her neckline was free from jewelry. Black freckles ran from the blouse’s collar along the sides of the neck and up into the back of her hair. Her face was much too angular for Rog’s taste, but she was no doubt beautiful, by any species standard. Her mouth stayed locked into a line that showed no emotion. Her nose had a few of those dark freckles, but they were much less distinct. Discerning, violet eyes studied him, their prolonged gaze made Rog anxious about how he walked, and he almost stumbled on flat, paved ground. The final thing that caught Rog’s attention was her horns. They began a few inches behind her hairline, curved back horizontally, and at the tail end shot straight up into the sky. Jet black hair tumbled around the intimidating spikes and reached an inch beneath her ears. The others in the group had their hair braided onto their horns in intricate and hard-to-understand shapes. No doubt this was the fashion in the demon world, as even the giant monstrosity behind her had rough tangles of grey hair running along its horns.
“Stop your babble, Vandia. You’re distracting the boy,” the magus chimed in. “Don’t get fooled by beguiling beauty, or you won’t manage to do the single thing you're useful for. And you, Vandia, why are you dressed like a street performer? This is a holy and official function.”
“Judging by your choice of outfit, magus Dran, I wouldn’t get that impression,” Vandia looked over his shoulder at the much-shorter man. “As for why I'm dressed like this, the answer is - I’d like to look good when I die. And if that’s today, I hope the foul demons have a modicum of understanding for fashion so I may be labeled the best-dressed corpse.”
Rog attempted to stifle his laugh, but it escaped and rang through the broken windows on the houses surrounding them. Despite his situation and the prospects of his survival, he was here of his own volition, and dying was okay. The demons stood motionless and waited for Rog and the others to arrive. Close as they were now, even someone as uninitiated in magic as Rog noticed the raw pulsing power coming from the demon woman. He carried a magical instrument on his right hand in the form of a gauntlet. The piece of armor had received the benefit of imbuement from every living magician in the empire. Its purpose, providing defense against magical attacks to a complete layman. Rog compared the aura emanating around the demon woman to the minuscule hum his gauntlet produced. In terms of power, the side of the demons was like a giant, red wolf that stalked its prey. While the instrument on his hand was like a young baby bunny, about to ripped to shreds in the span of a shallow breath. Rog glanced over at magus Dran. The man’s face was white as a cloud. Rog's eyebrows arched up at the contorted from terror expression plastered on the magus' face. Turning forward, Rog met the woman’s eyes.
Jehma had a good look at the champion of the humans. He was wide as the doors to the wooden houses and a head taller than her. Short blond hair on top that changed color to burnt orange on the sides. The skin on the back of his neck, pink and reddish as if recently burned. His face was long and narrow, cheeks a bit sunken, and his eyes, while showing a vibrant spark as he laughed, were tired and somber. He was clean-shaven and dressed in intricate armor. Bulky pauldrons inscribed with fortifying runes covered his shoulders and continued down the upper and lower vanbraces that covered his biceps and forearms. The pitiful excuse for an imbued item on his right hand almost made Jehma chuckle. Remembering Khrex’s tutelage to never underestimate her foe, she continued her inspection. Besides the pathetic amount of power the gauntlet radiated, she sensed nothing even remotely threatening, so she only had to worry about the man inside the suit. Calling upon the power within herself, she gazed into his eyes. It was a shame she’d have to kill him. He wasn’t unpleasant to look at.
Jehma’s father stepped forward and spoke.
“Hail hated enemy,” he watched the old man behind the humans’ champion.
“Hail hated enemy,” Dran replied, voice cracking.
“This is our champion, the strongest amongst our ranks,” the regal demon waved his hand at the woman and continued. “As per the rules of the ancient pact, she will now display her power. Our species obviously being stronger, it falls to you then to choose the nature of the contest in which the champions will compete.”
The demon spoke the common tongue in its highborn version. The one reserved for those that walked the streets of the human world with their nose in the air. Rog's chest rose up and down faster. Deep hatred for the demon filled his lungs, burning his insides. He despised the demon, not because of his race or his intentions, but because of the noxious air of superiority enveloping him like an invisible, poisonous shroud. If that were the champion, Rog's fist would smash his smug face, and in one impulsive action, he'd doom the entire human race. Taking a deep breath, he calmed his thoughts.
“Proceed,” Dran stammered, then slinked back with the speed of a mage-initiate.
The demon leader waved their champion forward with a curt movement of his slacked wrist. The gesture had so much boredom infused in it that Rog had to close his fists tight to stop himself from lunging forward. The woman took a confident step forward and raised both hands. A howling wind began to circle around the gathered crowd. It quickly picked up speed nearing that of a hurricane. The boards on the old houses groaned and snapped under the strain of the brewing disaster. The small party of demons remained stationary while all humans hurried to the center of the demon-made storm. Houses buckled under the deafening destruction. Their doors, leftover windows, and boards spun with wild intensity. The power swirling around Rog grew to such heights that his armor was the only thing keeping him from passing out. The woman’s arms shook as the winds became faster still and the flying debris ground to dust. The obliterated houses obscured the sun, leaving only two points of violet light to shine from within the beautiful eye of the storm. Rog met the mauve gaze and did not look away as the woman ceased calling upon the terrible winds and began to pull the house-dust together, forming it into a big, dense ball over her head. Once the house-ball formed, she lowered it into the palm of her right hand and held it there by sheer strength. Rog had seen magic raise someone's physical potential, but this was absurd. Even with his meager knowledge, Rog knew that making someone this powerful would take years of exposure to unimaginable amounts of magic. With stark clarity, he understood that the demon woman was a walking weapon of mass destruction. The thought made him smile. The woman took that as a challenge and hurled the tremendous ball behind her back. It landed a few feet away from the still open demon realm portal.
The impact shook most off their feet. The demon woman began to gather power once more. This time Rog really did feel faint. One of the mages that Dran brought collapsed on the ground. As the grand magus knelt to attend him, another of his pupils raised his hands and called upon the power, creating a magical blockade around the portal. A devious smile spread on the demon leader's lips.
“Proceed,” he said, dragging out the word with visible pleasure.
The demon woman’s demeanor changed for a split second. Her determination waned, and the light in her eyes dimmed, reminding Rog of his own weary gaze staring back from the surface of the water in the bucket he used after training. Believing his intuition that this woman was different, Rog made his choice. He only saw her shoulders move slightly forward before she vanished. Already in motion, his gauntleted hand made it in time to protect the young mage’s throat. The woman’s dark crimson fingers sunk into the metal. Moving only her eye to look at Rog, he noticed her other hand had two outstretched fingers pointing at his abdomen and slowly rising.
“Was that wise, champion?” she said, her fingers stopping their movement as they aligned with his heart. “Sacrificing this valuable magical instrument for the sake of one life?” The edges of her lips moved up in a snide smile.
“Apologies for my companion’s behavior, lady…” Rog’s voice trailed off as the gauntlet cracked under the power of the woman’s fingers.
“Lady Jehma,” she said, retracting her two fingers because of the wild energies she felt erupting around them.
Jehma ceased pushing and relaxed her body to an upright position. All around them, the sky began to hum and vibrate with a slow, steady beat. Rog saw only glimmers of the new arrivals but felt their primordial power in the deepest parts of his marrow. The spirits judging the contest had arrived. Smiling, Rog knelt. His life was saved, for now.
Before bowing his head, he caught a glance at the shimmers. Ranging in all shapes and sizes, they bulged through the thin sheen of this reality and their own. Their fantastical and multicolored forms made his eyes hurt even though he had only fractions of a second to glimpse them.
“Great spirits!” Dran’s hoarse voice made Rog wince. “Thank you for blessing us with your presence.” He finished his greetings and went down on his hands and knees, forehead almost digging into the ground.
“Revered judges,” Rog and Jehma said in near unison.
Throwing a glance at Jehma, he saw her bend her head forward and spread her arms wide as if lifting a gown. Even though the gesture looked rather unrespectful, Rog still had the breath catch in his throat at Jehma’s graceful movements.
“Great spirits. Thank you for attending this long-awaited day,” Jehma’s father said as he rose from a much deeper bow than his daughter. “I believe you saw the humans’ provocation, so please allow us to dispatch them with great haste.”
“Hold,” said a voice immeasurable as the sky itself. “Know your place, mortal! We are here to judge, not play into your pitiful machinations.” The voice’s ire made Rog keep his head down from fright.
Any thoughts of sneaking a peek at the speaker were destroyed like night banished by rays of light. He did however, catch Jehma’s father bow deep once more and step back to his companions.
“Rog, champion of this realm,” the sky spoke again. “You protected your fellow man even at the expense of your life and valuable weapon. If you so choose, you may request an additional allowance of time so that your realm may repair the lost asset.”
Rog bowed his head nearly to the ground, and on the way up, looked back at Jehma, whose eyes were locked on him.
“No need, great spirits,” Rog said in a calm voice, taking a gamble and deciding to believe his hunch. “There was a simple misunderstanding between us, but nothing that would warrant the challenge to be postponed. Please continue to provide us with your valuable wisdom and oversight.”
The sky vibrated and shifted for a few moments, then spoke again.
“Very well. As per your wish, the challenge may resume. Name the contest as it is your realm’s right.”
“Thank you, gracious ones,” Rog bowed less deeply this time and got to his feet. “I would like the contest to not be one of violence and destruction, so I choose the field of compassion as our battleground. The loser will be the first contestant to show, in a physical way, affection or genuine understanding for their adversary. As for the place where we shall compete, there is a yearly festival for young couples that is held in our city today. I propose we compete there.” He lowered his head in reverence and looked over to Jehma, flashing her a toothy smile.
Jehma found this amusing. Her right eyebrow arched, and her mouth went up in a smug smirk.
I’m master of any discipline he'd care to name! What does this lowly human think he’s doing?
Out loud, she said nothing and bowed her head as well. The power held within her was so great and vast that she felt nigh unstoppable. That being the case, she liked the human’s ingenuity. With his gamble, he managed to increase his chances to a significant degree. The probability of a being like Jehma losing was unfathomably minuscule, but now it wasn't zero.
“I accept,” Jehma raised her head.
Her father’s gaze managed to accomplish the feat of containing the disapproval of an entire race. Rog's left hand scratched his right shoulder. Even standing in proximity to that look filled his head with anxiety. Vandia pushed him to the side and stepped close to Jehma.
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lady Jehma,” he lowered his head and torso until they were parallel to the ground. “I am lord Vandia, a humble tutor to our champion.”
The palm of his right hand faced the sky and stood just above his head, waiting for Jehma to place hers on top. She did, and Vandia pulled it close, placing a soft kiss just above her fingernails. Jehma knew enough human etiquette to understand this gesture meant that the man wearing the many-colored suit showed her the highest possible reverence for a stranger.
“The pleasure is mutual,” she placed her free hand coquettishly on her chest.
The respectful greeting unbalanced her, making her steely expression soften. Vandia rose and smiled at her discomfort.
“You may be our enemy, but that doesn’t mean I should be rude to an elegant vision such as yourself,” he winked and stepped back.
Rog admired Vandia’s impeccable, as always, timing. With the situation defused and the gaze of Jehma’s father diminished, her hands rose up.
“Exalted spirits, if I may?” her hair stirred in the air, moving like the agitated whips of a rushing carriage driver.
Jehma’s father put up a barrier for him and his companions.
“Proceed,” the sky answered.
Her body changed. Dark-red skin became softly tan, black hair became as bright as midday sun, and her piercing violet eyes dulled to a mundane calm sea blue. The horns on her head disappeared, and her freckles turned to flakes of sprinkled gold on her ivory skin. She made an obvious first attack by giving him a warm, inviting smile with her new, pink lips.
“By the spirits,” Vandia's resignation could be felt a continent away. He looked at Rog, patted him on the shoulder, then moved away.
Rog studied Jehma’s camouflage spell, and although she looked more human, she was not more appealing for him, as was her unmistakable intention. Meeting his gaze, she realized the desired effect wasn’t achieved, and her face became sullen for the briefest moment.
“Could you make me see you like you did before?” Rog requested, frowning, his eyebrows furrowing with dissatisfaction.
Jehma’s head tilted back slightly, and she narrowed her eyes.
“Sure,” she said, a sly smile on her lips. “A hunter of the exotic, I see. Nothing wrong with that. Would you like some embellishments with that?”
Lifting her right hand up, she moved each finger back and forth, which changed the proportions of her hips, thighs, and breasts.
“No need,” he said smiling, then closed his eyes. “I’d really like to compete against the whole of you, not the outward appearance you just created. The way you came was great.”
Jehma didn’t expect to hear that, and the innocent face Rog was making didn’t help her keep calm. She was glad demons weren’t able to blush.
“Done,” she said after excluding Rog from the spell’s effect. “You can open your eyes now.”
He did. The corners of his mouth remained upturned.
“Like I said, great.”
His features were earnest enough, and Jehma didn’t bother using her power to find out if he was lying.
“Shall we?” he asked, extending his right arm towards the city gates.
“Yes,” Jehma nodded, her voice cracking at the end, “but you’re getting me a hat.” She put her chin up when walking past him.
“Whatever you need,” Rog agreed and followed his adversary towards the city.
They walked the next few minutes in silence until reaching the city gate. The guards saluted Rog, then threw glances at Jehma, not bothering to cover up any of their lechery. Jehma paid them no mind and just continued onward with a confident step. Her eyes shifted from person to person and a few times up toward the bangs on her forehead. Their eyes met.
“I just need a few minutes to run an errand, and we’re off.”
“Hat first,” Jehma said, her lips squeezing together in determination. “Then I’ll pick out an outfit, and then you can run your errand.”
Her tone left no place for debate, so Rog moved his chin up and down and took a sharp left turn, towards the nearest, to his knowledge, clothes store. The couple of houses that towered over them made Jehma turn her head and marvel at the sights while using deft sidesteps to avoid those passing by. Reaching the store, Rog opened the door for Jehma and waited for her to get in.
“Good day, how may I…” said a young girl, and the sight of Jehma made her stop in her tracks so fast that her glasses flew from her nose.
Catching them with ease, Jehma returned them to the girl's face. Once they settled into place, Jehma's index fingers slid down the girl's cheeks and along the contours of her chin.
“…help you?” the girl finally managed to deliver her greeting.
“Yes, first, get my companion here something stylish, dark blue or black is preferable,” Jehma spoke with such confidence that Rog could swear she was one of the highborn ladies of the city. “Hurry, please.” She added, tilting her head and giving the girl a benevolent smile.
“O-o-of course,” the girl said, taking a step back and bumping her lower back into the countertop.
She scraped along the edge of the until she could turn and run to complete the task. Rog's eyebrows rose in silent surprise then he began to take off his bulky magic-enchanted armor. Two pieces of the armor he left on a nearby chair, which groaned from the strain. Deciding not to chance damaging something, Rog set each piece on a different chair. The right arm’s vambrace he left on the ground because he ran out of furniture. Turning around, he saw Jehma studying two pairs of suits. Her hand ran through the fabric of the one in deep black. Choosing that one, she nodded. The girl scampered over to Rog and gave it to him.
“Whatever the lady desires, get it for her,” he said, then showed her a silver badge that had a staff and sword smashing a pair of demonic horns. “I work for the champion. He’ll cover the cost.” He smiled at the irony.
“Uh, okay, sure,” the girl said as if only now remembering that someone with Jehma's demeanor had to pay.
“I’ll indulge a bit then,” Jehma flashed her teeth in a mischievous smile. “Come, darling, show me where your hats are.” She beckoned the girl who made a few mesmerized bounds until reaching Jehma, then they both disappeared.
Rog was sure Jehma wouldn’t do anything to anyone else but him, so he took the clothes in his hands to the nearest dressing room. Inside, he began to struggle as soon as he put on the pants and work out how to close the hanging belt embroidered in them. After figuring it out, he put on the pure white shirt then the loose black coat. It, too, had a few golden pieces of cloth dangling like tendrils. Rog grappled with those for about a minute, and after not discovering a logical reason for their existence, he gave up and walked out of the dressing room. Jehma was a few feet away, donning on a dark-blue, wide-brimmed hat. Looking at him from underneath, she gave him a confident smile. Rog definitely wasn’t ready to see Jehma dressed so finely. Her simple and practical look was gone. Now she wore a dark-blue dress that looked far too big, so it had to be wrapped around the body and tied at the waist with a light blue cloth belt that stood like a ribbon on a gift. The hem of the dress flowed free and showed Jehma’s knees and muscular calves.
“They’re so silly, aren’t they?” she said to the young girl, and they both shared a look of complete understanding.
Jehma turned back to Rog and took the two steps need to get to him. She grabbed his suit’s tendrils and did something close to magical with her hands to tie them together. All the while, never looking at what she was doing because she had her head tilted back, keeping the hat’s brim out of Rog’s eyes. Her own locked on his. She moved both hands up to his shoulders, brushing off imaginary dust, then took a big step back, looking him over.
“Perfect, I’ll take him,” she said, giggling to the girl, who joined in hesitantly, her cheeks becoming flush.
Rog set his jaw then threw a longing look at his armor on the side. He sighed and walked to the door, where Jehma waited.
“Someone will come to pick those up,” he gestured with his chin towards the strewn about metal, “probably.” He added with a quieter tone.
“Hey, wait,” the girl raised her voice as Jehma walked out past Rog. “Probably?”
He closed the door and set off towards his errand. This time, Jehma drew in a larger, by a considerable margin, amount of looks from those on the street. The hem of her dress flowed around her as she stepped, and her hat gave her an air of mystery. Rog had to push several people away because they stood in his path, gawking at her. Jehma reveled in the attention, flashing flawless smiles whenever she could. Ten minutes of this impromptu fashion display passed until they reached a cozy inn, nestled between two larger and newer houses. Rog opened the door and waited for Jehma, then followed her.
Inside the inn, every gaze fell on Jehma as she walked to a free table nearby and took a seat with seamless elegance. Rog noticed she had changed her shoes, and while they were still practical and low to the ground, the straps that went all along her foot and up her ankle complimented the dress nicely. Looking around for Wenra, Rog’s heart skipped a beat when he realized that everyone in the wide dining hall had their eyes fixed on Jehma. For a moment, he thought they could see her same as him, but looking closer at their hungry stares, he saw lustful captivation and not the primal fear that they would exhibit if they knew the truth. Someone hit the bar’s counter several times, snapping Rog out of his momentary stupor. Wenra came out from the back, her hands white with flower.
“Stop your pesterin’, you filthy animal,” she raised her voice to the already drunk patron. “I’ll get you your hooch in a moment.”
Shaking her head, muttering, she began to turn back but saw Rog standing near the door, and her face brightened. She quickly ducked in the back and came back out after ten seconds. Moving around the counter, she and Rog met at the center of the room. Wenra embraced Rog’s waist and pushed her face into his lower chest. He put his left hand on her back and his right around her neck, stroking the back of her head.
Unhooking her arms and looking up, she asked. “Where have you been, boy? We haven’t seen you in days!” Her stern gaze focused on his face.
“Preparation. You know how it is each year,” he shrugged his shoulders. “Sorry about making you worry.”
“Pheh,” her hand waved his remark away. “Did you go to their entryway already?”
“Nothing’s changed,” Rog lied. “Still no sign of them, same as always.”
“Thank the spirits,” Wenra put her hand on her sizable chest and sighed. “So, did you decide to take someone to the festival finally?” Smirking, she looked at him, then pointedly at the girl sitting behind and watching them.
“Yeah, something like that,” he said, frowning, right index finger scratching his clean-shaven cheek. “Let me introduce you.”
“Wenra, this is Jehma,” Rog said, stepping to the side. “Jehma, Wenra.”
“Pleasure,” Jehma gave Wenra a disarming smile. “I’m sorry to say I haven’t heard anything about you.” Her eyes darted to Rog, who raised both eyebrows and tilted his head slightly.
“I can say the same,” Wenra replied, her eyes looking Jehma up and down with no shame. “You’re very pretty, young lady.” She announced, then closed the distance between her and Jehma.
Before she could react, Wenra had a hand on each side of her waist. Jehma was taken aback by the situation so much that she did nothing except crane her neck back in surprise.
“Rather thin, aren’t you, dear?” Wenra quickly removed her hands and smiled at Jehma’s shocked expression. “Don’t they feed you at home?”
“Almost every day,” Jehma replied with a gentle smile, her features softening.
“I see,” Wenra nodded her head as if understanding perfectly. “Well then, do you have a favorite dish I could treat you to while you’re here?” Her tone shifted from somewhat hostile to affectionate.
“We really don’t have…”
Wenra snapped her head back, silencing Rog’s remark with an angry spark in her eyes.
“Chicken would be great,” Jehma said.
The edges of her eyes relaxed, and the corners of her mouth showed genuine emotion. Rog realized he was seeing Jehma's first sincere smile since meeting her.
“Do you have a specific way you like it or?” Wenra asked after turning her head.
“Whatever you decide, I’ll try, eagerly,” Jehma bobbed her head to the side with great enthusiasm, activating her charm once more.
“You’ve got it,” Wenra winked and tapped the table. “Sit, sit, sit.” She waited until they did, then left towards the kitchen.
“She’s nice,” Jehma said when Wenra was out of earshot.
“Yes, she is.”
The expression on his face showed the confidence of a child that had brought a friend over, and their parents hadn’t disappointed. The two of them sat across each other, saying nothing and waiting for the arrival of their food. Several people saw Rog and either waved or passed by and tapped his shoulders. Some gave a wry smile and put their fist in front of their belly, then extended their thumb upward. Jehma was rather confused by the gesture and the way that everyone seemed to avoid Rog even though it was obvious he was well-liked.
The new factor that could be influencing this was Jehma, so she asked. “Why does no one talk to you and show you their thumbs? And why do only the men do it?”
Rog put his palm on his face and dragged it across the skin of his cheeks and nose.
“They think I’m courting you, so they’re steering clear and giving me space.”
“Well, you are,” Jehma tilted her head to the side.
“In a way, yes. But they’re just making it awkward now,” the dejection in Rog's voice visible on his sullen features.
He slumped down to the table, stretching his right hand forward and resting his chin on his left forearm.
“What about the thumbs?”
“They convey admiration and approval.”
“Of?” Jehma’s voice rose with slight frustration.
“It’s because you’re very pretty. They’re giving me a thumbs up, as it’s called, to cheer me on. Can we not discuss it, please?” Rog’s right hand ruffled his hair as he spoke.
“I see,” Jehma narrowed her eyes in disbelief.
“Which part didn’t you believe?” Rog leaned back up.
“Don’t worry about it,” she gave him a very dignified hand wave. “I just didn’t expect you to start laying on the compliments before we got to the actual festival.”
“Oh, you mean like you did back in the store?”
“Why,” Jehma put a hand on her heart and spoke with mock modesty, “I can’t help but be charming. We are in a contest, after all.”
“Point taken,” Rog nodded. “But to be honest, I wasn’t trying to win just now. It just so happens to be the truth.”
Jehma narrowed her eyes again, their violet color enhanced by her blue clothes and hat. Rog felt like this was a good chance.
“Go ahead, use your magic to find out. You are powerful enough to do that right now. Right?”
“I can do nearly anything I wish to, yes,” her eyes focused their razor-sharp edge on him as she spoke.
Her expression remained neutral, but Rog knew with acute clarity that the way he phrased his question was wrong.
“I wouldn’t dare doubt your power, and I didn’t mean any offense,” he tried to defuse the situation.
“I see,” Jehma's gaze lost its dangerous gleam, but it lingered on Rog, careful in its inspection of his face. “Well, in answer to your question. Yes, I can determine if you’re saying the truth or not, but that would be a violation of the terms of the challenge that you yourself set. Surely, you don’t think I’m stupid enough to use overwhelming magic to extract information from you and disqualify myself and my species?” Her right eyebrow arched up.
“Of course not,” Rog gave her a single calm wave of his right hand. “I consent to you using magic on me. Since the spirits are watching, they can attest to my sincerity, and then you’ll see I’m not lying to you.”
Reality shimmered for a moment as the two contestants received notification of the spirits' decision. Jehma nodded, then decided to put on a show and make Rog back out of his, honestly, insulting bluff. She placed both hands on the table and called upon the power. Her hair whipped back as the inn surrounding them disappeared and became a dark void. The nothingness that streamed out of Jehma was the color of a starry night sky, while her face and horns shone with a soft, red light. Rog knew perfectly well she was putting on a show, but at this exact moment, he just admired the contrast between her crimson face and the background of darkness.
“So, how does this work then?” he kept his voice calm in a deliberate attempt to unnerve her.
The ends of both of her well-trimmed eyebrows quivered.
“I’ll ask my question again,” she answered, trying to hide her annoyance with marginal success. “Then you give your answer, and this time, I’ll know for sure.”
“Go ahead,” Rog said, his face unyielding as a rock slab.
“Why do the others steer away from you, and why do they give you that weird gesture?”
Her voice boomed louder than before, vibrating within Rog's bones.
“Because they think I’m courting you, but mostly because you’re pretty,” he said and smiled a smile so idiotically happy that Jehma lost control over the spell.
That’s what she told herself, but the truth was no one had ever called her pretty. She’d been called beautiful, alluring, enchanting, and all the other words men used to cover up their lust. But this creature, this human male, was not lying. With utmost certainty, Jehma knew that he thought she was pretty and not the kind of pretty that you say when someone is less attractive than the established norm. No, this was the kind of pretty you in particular found quite appealing. Jehma leaned on her hands and pushed the chair back. The scratching noise of wooden legs made on the stone floor drew everyone's attention. Wenra came over to check up on them.
“Food’ll be ready in about ten minutes…” her voice trailed off when she saw Jehma’s face.
“What did you do, fool boy?” she threw a stern look his way.
“Nothing,” Jehma said before Rog had a chance to open his mouth. “He didn’t do anything. I’m just feeling a bit unwell, that’s all. I'll need to freshen up.”
Wenra nodded with understanding and grabbed Jehma by the hand, pulling her towards the nearby stairs leading up.
“Come, come. This way. I’ll take you to a place you can do just that.”
Jehma couldn’t compose herself in time, and when she was finally able to straighten out her thoughts, Wenra was already opening the door to a lavish second-story room.
“The best one we have,” Wenra spoke with pride, her hand waving toward the interior. “Over there’s the vanity. You take a seat on that small butt of yours and do what you need to do. I’ll go finish up your order and come get you when it's done.” Wenra winked and gave her a gentle push on the lower back.
The door closed, and Jehma found herself alone. She allowed herself a single moment of respite from her duties and the contest. Walking over to the bed, she removed her hat and sat on the soft mattress. Lying back, she almost forgot about the untold amounts of magical energy her body was carrying. She really wanted to be free of the pain, free of her family and the expectations others had for her. Closing her eyes, she imagined she was the blond girl every human, except one, saw her as. Her days filled with worrying about everyday life trifles and pains of the heart, not with lessons about maximizing the destruction her magical reserve could achieve. She opened her eyes and stood up. Donning on the hat, she went over to the vanity and took a seat. Looking herself over, then bringing up the human image she had created. The blue eyes that weren’t hers stared back with frosty indifference. Was that the look everyone else saw? How could they find it that attractive? The door opened, bursting her contemplation. She had dallied, and that meant punishment wouldn't be long in coming. Pushing her chair back with a scrape, she stood. Her back straight, chin level, like the soldier she’d been molded to be.
“Is everything okay?” Wenra's eyebrows furrowed in confusion at the odd actions.
Jehma exhaled and turned to face the woman, one of her hands on the vanity.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” her voice had a slight tremble in it. “I got scared is all. Sorry for the bother.”
“No bother at all,” Wenra closed the door a fraction.
A strong wind came through the opened window behind Jehma, knocking off her hat. Panic ran through the skin on her neck and up her cheeks. She forgot about her spell, and for a frightful moment, she thought her horns were visible. She didn’t know what to do, her eyes darted all across the room, and her nose wiggled left to right several times. Wenra hadn’t seen any horns, of course, but she had noticed the distress. Picking up the hat off the ground, she came closer. Handing it back to her, she asked.
“Are you worried about your freckles?” Wenra’s voice was serious and full of inordinate amounts of concern for someone she’d met half an hour ago.
“About my…” Jehma put her fingers on her skin, “…freckles. I suppose so, yes.” Her mouth attempted a smile but only stretched to a fine line.
“Take a seat, dear. You’re so tall it's hard to talk to you,” Wenra looked at the chair then gave Jehma a gentle push on the shoulders when she hesitated.
Seating herself, Jehma was spun around until she faced the vanity’s three mirrors.
“Your freckles are very pretty, and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise,” Wenra began with a stern, commanding voice. “Besides making you look pretty, they do a pretty good job of distracting away from your sad eyes. The brim of the hat gives good shade and keeps the freckles hidden, right?”
Jehma’s breath caught in her throat, and she looked away. This woman was so perceptive that she’d figured this out in the brief time they’d known each other. This meant Jehma wasn’t half as ready as she thought she was if a simple innkeeper could see through her. What if Rog had as well?
“No!” Wenra grabbed the chin and dragged it back up. “You are who you are, and you look how you look. Some’ll like it, and some won’t. But no one has the right to tell you how you should feel about your body. You’re the you no one else can be. Be proud of that!” Her hands squeezed Jehma’s shoulders with genuine affection, which she was embarrassed to admit almost made her cry.
“Thank you for the advice,” Jehma said, and the woman's fingers moved away from her face. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
Wenra snorted and tapped her palms on both of Jehma's shoulders.
“If you come over again,” Wenra squeezed, “we’ll visit this really good hairdresser friend of mine. She’ll love your hair and will make you a hairdo that’ll dazzle everyone. But there’s one condition.” She released her shoulders and went by the door.
“You gotta lose the hat,” Wenra said, then added. “Food’ll be ready in a bit. Come down when you’re ready.” She closed the door behind her, and the room fell silent.
Jehma looked at herself for a few more moments, then giggled and stood up, leaving the brightly lit room behind.
Coming down the stairs, she saw several men standing around Rog, speaking and laughing. Her foot stepped on a creaky board, and all of them looked up. Proud smiles lit up their faces, and by the time her foot stepped on ground level, each man had given Rog a strong pat on the back. The last hand touching him belonged to a gigantic man, who hit Rog so hard that his chest almost touched the table. Rog received the praise with an embarrassed expression, fingers running through the hair on the back of his head. When she arrived, she took her seat with a prim motion and gave him a diplomatic smile. Their table was quiet for a few moments, neither knowing how to continue forward. The inn’s front door let in the sounds of men marching. Both Rog and Jehma leaned in its direction, keeping a close ear to the outside world's sounds. Their training seemed to align when they were assessing a situation. Gazing over, Jehma caught his stare, and her features grew keen for a split second.
Wenra came over, breaking the tension by leaving two big plates of food on the table.
“Here you guys go,” turning to the demon in disguise, she said. “Jehma, dear, eat your fill, and I’ll swing by later so you can let me know how you liked it.” She tilted her head in anticipation.
“Thank you,” Jehma did nothing to hide her excitement, letting her chin bob up and down, “I will.”
“You both have a nice time then,” Wenra said, pulling the side of Rog's head into her hefty bosom.
He raised a hand and laid it on the woman's forearm, giving it a gentle squeeze. Wenra released him a few moments later and went behind the bar.
“Well,” Jehma rubbed her hands together, “Onto the good part!”
Before Rog had a chance to blink, she was already stripping meat off a drumstick. Her left hand pinned the fowl's bone with a piece of bread while the prongs of her fork twisted like a wild tornado. Putting the first clean bone to the side, she continued to devour one piece of chicken after another. Rog bit into a drumstick he was quick enough to snatch from the hungry whirlwind. Jehma ignored him, stuffing her face like a squirrel. Her cheeks swelled to bursting, which forced her to begin masticating the hoard she'd amassed. Rog watched with awe as the food on Jehma's plate disappeared. Noticing him, she curled her lips like a child that was allowed to gorge on its favorite treat. Rog smirked and continued the modest task of finishing a single drumstick. He was enjoying some baked potatoes when Jehma’s hands stopped moving. Placing them on each side of her plate, she closed her eyes, and her face showed a blissful tranquility that Rog felt a bit awkward for seeing. Meeting his gaze once more, her eyes slid down to his plate. More soldiers marched outside, but this time Rog may have been the only one to notice.
“Are you going to finish that?” she asked in a voice as sweet as fresh-baked pastries.
“I don’t think so, you can have it-” Jehma grabbed a drumstick before he could finish, “-if you want.”
“I take it you like chicken then?” Rog ventured.
“Never had it before,” Jehma said through almost closed lips, talking didn't seem to hinder her eating efforts. “It is divine, though!” She dabbed a piece of bread on her lips to catch any leftover sauce then chomped the bread down.
“Never had it? Surely there are chickens in your world.”
“There are some,” Jehma nodded.
She gave Rog's plate a critical look, and seeing only side dishes, she pouted then leaned back in her chair.
“Meat is a very rare delicacy. It’s scarce, and only the extremely wealthy can afford it. Even then, it is exorbitantly expensive. I, of course, can have it regularly, but my war tutor frowns upon indulgences.” She sulked, and both of her eyebrows rose in resignation, but not acceptance, of the situation.
“Mine frowns on it too,” Rog nodded with understanding. “He’s of the mind that a swordsman’s belly should be as small a target for a sword as possible. He’s seen quite a few disembowelments, and that’s put a big fear in him, I think.”
“He’s kept you in fine shape. You won’t have to worry about losing your guts with a body like that,” Jehma set her elbows on the table and rested her chin in her palms while studying his torso.
“Thanks,” Rog smiled, his right hand moving up and down the darker part of his hair. “I try to keep fit.”
“Let’s get to it then,” Jehma said with a much colder tone, her eyes passive like before.
“Let’s,” Rog nodded, pushing back his chair and standing up.
They both looked for Wenra and saw she was servicing a customer. Sharing a look, they made a silent agreement not to bother her and headed out. Rog opened the door for Jehma. Taking a last look at the people drinking, eating, and talking, he pulled the door, and as it creaked to a close, his desire to keep the people inside and all those living their lives across the vast world grew a thousandfold.
Walking up the street, Rog and Jehma took a left turn. Five minutes later, they were out of the poorer side of the city and into the wealthier one. The buildings were better maintained, and the clothes those on the street wore were much more expensive. The marching soldiers, Jehma noticed, were in greater number here, but their postures were more relaxed and laid back. She also caught the unabashed glances between the young, well-dressed ladies and the uniformed men. Rog noticed quite a few young nobles he would like to avoid, so he took Jehma on a much more roundabout way to the festival. Turning the corner, a child bumped into Rog’s thigh.
“Hey,” the boy on the ground yelled, “watch where you’re…”
His eyes went wide with recognition.
“Rog! It’s you,” the boy squealed and, with a hasty recovery, was back on his feet. “Don’t tell me you’re here cause of the festival?” The boy’s tone was dripping with condemnation and disbelief.
“Fraid so, Scamper,” Rog brushed his fingers through a singed patch of hair. “Did the others already get in?”
“Nah, the girls are still waiting out front.”
“So why aren’t you there with them?” Rog crossed his hands on his chest. “Don’t tell me you don’t want money for food.” His right eyebrow rose.
“I love food, but I’m not a slave,” the boy, Jehma judged to be no more than ten or eleven years old, puffed his chest forward. “I’d rather find…illternative employment.” A confident smile spread across his face after he almost recreated the phrase he’d heard.
“So stealing then,” Rog placed his right hand over the top of the boy’s head. “You’ve been hanging out behind the inn, eh?” Rog’s tone turned cold like the frigid winds of winter.
Small hands clasped the enormous wrist above his forehead and tried to pry his head free. The grip around his skull remained firm and the boy's hands flopped to his sides.
“I do what I want,” he pouted after the unsuccessful breakout attempt. “It’s not like you’re around anymore, so why do you care?”
“Hey, hey, hey,” Rog knelt down and moved his palm to the boy's cheek. “Stealing isn’t work. It's stealing, and that’s plain wrong.”
“If you work hard, something will always happen for you,” Rog paused, his eyes lingering on his scarred fingers. “It may not always be good, but you have to make do. That’s what life’s about.”
“Now, did you steal anything?”
“No,” the boy replied with a sad frown.
“Good,” Rog nodded and grasped his shoulder. “Are you gonna go work the festival with the others?”
“No!” the boy's eyes fixated on Rog's.
“That’s fine. You don’t have to if you don’t want it. But,” Rog’s tone rose, his hand was so immense that his squeeze encompassed the boy's whole shoulder along with most of the upper arm, “you’ll go to Wenra and ask her if she has something to do, and she’ll feed you.”
“Why do I gotta? She’ll feed me either way,” he furrowed his brows in confusion.
Rog tilted his head to the side and kept silent. The boy exhaled and nodded. Rog smiled, ruffled the boy’s hair, and gave him a gentle push. Moments later, he was gone. Rog stood up and noticed many more people walking the street.
“Sorry about that. Let’s continue.”
“Let’s,” Jehma agreed and locked step with his. “That was some interesting advice you gave.” She kept her hands behind her back while walking beside him.
“It’s what I’ve found would work best for people like Scamp and me.”
“Urchins, you mean?”
“Mhm,” Rog nodded, then made a right turn. “I lived on the street for some time, and stealing’s hard to do well, so kids usually just get killed by the target or by the city guard.”
“In my experience,” Jehma placed a hand on her chest, “no amount of work could ever get me out of my circumstances. I’d venture it's the same for you.”
“Pretty much, but we’re not him. We don’t know how the future will unfold.”
“True enough, but aren’t you giving that boy too much hope. He’s just an urchin. No offense, of course.”
“I’m only giving him a good foundation, so he’ll know that working is the safest way to live. Nothing more. If he wants to follow that rule, great for him. If not, he’ll end up in a tough spot. I only have so much time to keep an eye on him and the others. We’re coming up on the festival's venue.”
Turning the corner, Jehma perked up at the sight of the big plaza stretching before them. Multitudes of people dressed in their most expensive and striking outfits congregated in front of a tall, three-story wall that continued both down and up the street, then snaked between the other buildings. Rog led her towards a group of dozen children, most were girls between the ages of five and thirteen. The tallest of the three boys carried the youngest of the girls. Who was the one that noticed Jehma and Rog, then screamed.
Breaking away from the hold of the boy, she wobbled over and clutched Rog’s shin and calve.
“Hey there, Arlee,” delight brightening his features, Rog reached down and picked up the girl. “How’s it going?”
Jehma couldn’t hear the girl’s answer from the swarm of shouts that came their way. The other children moved like a wave that crashed around Rog’s legs. Two of the older girls remained in their spot, the eldest waved at Rog, and Jehma caught the girl's cheeks reddening before she turned away.
“Hey, hey,” Rog had to raise his voice, “one at a time. I can’t understand you when you’re all babbling together. Arlee.” He looked at her and gave her the go-ahead.
“I’m gonna be in the festival!” pride suffused her entire face.
“Really? They let you in even though you’re small?” Rog said with narrowed eyes and a suspicious tone.
“I’m not small anymore,” Arlee furrowed her brows and raised her tiny right hand. “I’m five!” She wiggled her hand with its five fingers extended dauntingly.
“Oh, five,” Rog closed his eyes in admission to his mistake. “That’s okay then.”
He smiled at pleasant giggling and began to point at different children. Hearing a couple of sentences from each until they all said their piece. Jehma neither bothered to remember names nor what these dirty, little humans had to be worried about. She did, however, begin to sense a pattern. Everywhere they went, Rog met with people that liked him a lot, and that was suspicious to an extreme degree. The demon world would be hard-pressed to find someone like him, and what Jehma knew from studying Rog's home, most humans did not operate like him as well. He noticed her staring and gave an apologetic smile as a girl clamored to get his attention. The girl threw a contemptuous gaze at Jehma, who only had to raise her eyebrow in ire to make the girl back down. An older woman came out of the building and spoke to the two girls. They received some sort of instructions, and the eldest girl went inside. The remaining one waved the group over. Everyone besides Arlee left. She whispered in Rog’s ear the moment he tried to put her down. He listened, nodding his head at each critical junction when Arlee took in a loud gulp of air.
“Do it then,” he said to her, lowering her down. “Don’t be afraid and just go.”
Arlee half-faced Rog, but after taking a breath, she turned to Jehma. Taking firm steps that shook her small frame, Arlee came closer. Jehma studied the girl as she neared. A single blond pigtail on a lightly freckled face that held soft blue eyes. Jehma towered over the girl, and as Arlee came closer and closer, the diminishing of her resolve was visible in her eyes. Jehma was the most powerful living thing in this world, so she wasn’t worried about how it would look to go down to eye level in front of a mere child. She grabbed the hem of her dress and pulled it close to her thighs, then put her hands on her knees and knelt down as a soft wind rustled a few locks of her hair. Arlee came to a stop and looked at Jehma with unbridled awe.
“Hello,” Jehma's tone was soft as the morning sun's light. “I’m Jehma. It’s nice to meet you.”
“I’m Arlee,” the girl managed, then hesitated, “…and you’re the prettiest pretty lady ever.” She took a white flower that rested on her ear and handed it to Jehma.
“Thank you,” Jehma gladly received the gift. “This is a very pretty flower, and you’re a very pretty lady too.” She put the flower on her chest and used a little bit of magic to affix it there.
Smiling at Arlee, she winked and put her finger in front of her lips. Arlee's face beamed, and her hands shook from the excitement. Turning around, she rushed back to Rog.
“You did it, Arlee,” he stroked her head. “Now run along, or you’ll be late.”
“Bye,” she said, then shot off like an arrow.
When reaching her group, a small cheer arose from the children that couldn't look away from Jehma. The oldest girl put their loud behavior in order and corralled them inside. Jehma watched them disappear into the building, then turned to Rog, giving him a piercing gaze.
“That was all well made,” she spoke with a satisfied grin on her face. “The children make this thing, this act of yours, so much more believable.” She waved her hands in a wide, Rog-encompassing circle.
Rog's face tilted like a capsized ship, confusion wrinkled his forehead.
“Yes, this,” she pointed her right index finger at his face, “right here. This is what I’m talking about. The somber eyes and the noble bearing. The magnanimous attitude. It’s so convincing. I must admit you’re making the whole thing work.” Jehma tapped her palms together in a soundless clap.
“Oh,” Rog nodded and rested his right fist in his left palm, “you think I’m doing the challenge. And this is a ploy. I get it now.” His successful deduction made the right corner of his mouth turn upwards with pride.
Rog’s genuine-looking surprise made Jehma narrow her eyes.
“I can see why you’d think that, but we were on an errand, and this was just a coincidence,” he said, but Jehma’s visage remained unchanged. “I don’t think something like that would work on you, though.” He resumed going forward.
“You’re damn right it wouldn’t!” Jehma raised her chin and nose in the air.
“Then why would I try? You’re from another world, and your purpose here is to win unconditionally. You don’t know me, and I don’t know you,” he walked and spoke, Jehma moving close behind him. “I would wager that the better play would be honesty. Since someone is most probably not coming away from the challenge unscathed. So I’d prefer my last hours to be spent doing my best and being myself. I’d encourage you to do the same, but you’re too suspicious to believe me.” He gave her a toothy smile and extended his right arm for her to go into the building.
Jehma gave him a respectful nod and strode past him. Her features had softened, but it still looked like she didn’t believe anything he said. This wasn’t good. Rog had to make a genuine connection to her if his plan had any chance of working. Catching up, he renewed his attempts.
“Let's take the children as an example. I could’ve used them much better if that was my intent. I could’ve gone and rounded them up from the places on the street and around warmer buildings where they sleep. I could spin a web of stories about how hard it was for me on the street and even point out a couple of spots I used to sleep in, which we passed on our way here. Better yet, I could recant the sob story that led me to this very building, in which I had to do some heinous things to become champion during the exam.”
The corridor they walked down branched out to the sides every fifty feet. Jehma’s pace slowed, and her right eyebrow arched at his words.
“But I didn't even consider doing something as simple and transparent as that. You’ve gone through your own training just like I have,” his left hand went over his heart. “And I’m sure you’ve done and been ordered to do some unsavory things while you were in training.”
They were nearing the wide exit at the end of the hall. People moved around them, Jehma once again drawing in lots of glances.
“Don’t tell me you’re trying to say we’re the same or some such nonsense,” Jehma gave him a look of disappointment from under the brim of her hat.
“Nothing of the sort,” Rog shook his head. “We’re two different species, at the very least, and taking into account how each life unfolds in such a complex and different manner, I don’t believe it would be possible to compare us in any way. But, we’ve both gone through similar pain, which gives me hope that we could try to understand one another.”
They both crossed through a giant double-winged marble door that led into a city-sized walled-off area.
“Welcome to the festival of love, Jehma,” Rog announced and turned to face her. “We just need to register, and we can begin.”
Jehma examined the wide arena at the bottom. Its entire territory was sectioned into different-sized square shapes, and around it were the stands. Each one flanked on either side by white stairs that led up or to the next viewing section. The stands contained only railings on which spectators could lean and watch their chosen segment of the arena. Jehma saw people file in from the stairs, take a spot inside the stand, and look out. She thought it an odd way to set up an arena without any seating. And all those stairs. Thousands and thousands of them, leading up, down, and to the sides. Jehma shifted her focus back to him.
“Be careful with your suspicion from now on,” Rog said, adding confusion and mischief to the situation, “because you might fixate on the wrong thing and miss my actual plan.”
He was sure Jehma was much too savvy to fall for a self-evident bluff like that, and to no surprise, she had a wicked smirk on her face.
“You be careful as well, champion. The last mistake a warrior makes is to underestimate their enemy.”
Rog bowed his head in reverence to Jehma’s quote of martial philosophy. Rising back up, he turned and descended through the crowded steps.
The people draped in their best clothes made way for Rog, but Jehma noticed the reluctance in their eyes, some of which shone with downright malice. Making it to the arena on the ground level, Rog flashed his badge to a couple of guards. Lances were uncrossed, allowing them access to the inside. A lot of confused looks passed through the staff when Rog entered himself and Jehma into the contest. He received two circles with numbers on them. One he pinned on his chest, the other he handed to Jehma. Using two fingers only, she took the badge. The corners of her mouth went down with disgust. The yellow color looked so sickly to her that the thought of pinning that on her fabulous dress brought her borderline physical discomfort. Rog urged her with his eyes.
“I guess it would go well with my blond hair,” she sighed and fastened the badge on the opposite side of Arlee’s flower.
Looking down, she grimaced and moved her right hand over her chest. Rog’s arm hairs stood up, and the skin on and below both shoulders tingled. The color of the badge changed to a saturated blue that resembled the sky near dusk.
“Perfect,” she announced with a small smile.
Rog's frantic gaze looked around, but he saw no indication that anyone had seen something out of the ordinary or magical happen. Looking back at the badge, he realized Jehma changed the color, so it would match her outfit and real outward appearance. The one he saw.
“I was told we need to go to the event board and choose from there,” he told her, without commenting on the use of magic.
She nodded, and they both left the registration building. Rog navigated the signs on the rock-paved roads until they were near the lower-left quadrant of the arena. A procession of ladies and lords was going down the steps to a section marked Start. Rog stopped by a nearby staircase and looked up, displeasure turning his mouth upside down into a frown.
“Well, if it isn’t Champion Streetrat,” a young man dressed in a bright red suit with golden embroidery said as he descended down.
“Lord Breavlin,” Rog bowed his head when the man reached the bottom of the stairs.
“Dear!” a young woman from the crowd ran to them in a light, elegant jog.
Her neck and hair were so jewelry ladened that Jehma was genuinely impressed how the woman made even two steps faster than walking pace.
“Thoradra, my lovely,” Lord Breavlin said, then did his best to push his face into that of the lady.
A kiss much too obscene for the general public followed. Rog and Jehma looked at the theatrics as the young lord's aggressive kiss continued without an end in sight. The two figures allowed their mouths to rest after a solid minute of caresses. Rog stayed in place, his posture rigid and very militaristic.
“Why are you talking to this street scum?” lady Thoradra asked, her nose wrinkling in disgust as she eyed Rog up and down.
“Oh, look at this, dear,” lady Thoradra pointed at Jehma’s circular participation badge. “He even managed to dupe a poor highborn to come with him.”
Two pairs of amused, noble eyes looked at Jehma’s chest. Breavlin’s slid up her neck, lascivious gaze lingering on her features.
“She is rather beautiful. I’ll give her that,” Thoradra said with no attempt to hide the superiority in her tone.
“Not as beautiful as you, my lovely,” Breavlin yanked her closer by the waist and kissed her cheek. “She looks well enough but probably lacks manners. I guess that’s what you can expect. A rat in fancy clothes is still a rat.”
Rog glanced over at Jehma, catching her dangerous squint before it could grow into something more.
“Lord Breavlin, I’ll respectfully ask you not to insult my guest,” Rog said, forehead bowed, not looking in the noble's eyes. “She is from a faraway land, and I am not sure what her rank there is, so it would be prudent for an important person such as yourself, to take caution when speaking. Otherwise, I might involve you in an international incident due to my lack of knowledge.”
Breavlin's stomped over. “What did you say?” He hissed through his teeth and came closer. The color of his face changed so much that it resembled a late sunset.
“Do you presume to tell me what to do?” spittle flew out of his mouth.
Rog fell to one knee, his right fist touching the ground.
“I wouldn’t dare, sir,” Rog groveled, his head down, eyes watching the pavement.
“And you, peasant woman,” Breavlin stood over Rog, but his gaze was on Jehma. “Are you of some class, or did a courtesan drop you in a ditch?”
Rog glanced at Jehma again and this time saw her nostrils flaring, her eyes burned with purple flames.
“My father serves where yours wouldn’t even be allowed to clean outhouses, little man,” the strain of keeping herself calm shook the edges of her lips.
The reigns on her near limitless magical powers started to slip. Her arms were poised and ready to turn this presumptuous human into the basic building blocks of the universe. His female companion gasped at Jehma’s remark and hid her heavily powdered face behind a fan. Breavlin’s right foot rose, and the heel of his boot hit the top of Rog’s head. The lord began to rub his sole in the kneeling man's hair.
“Tell this wretched peasant,” he heaved the words out of his throat like they were heavy bricks, “how high my father sits on the Emperor’s council. Then tell her what treachery you did to get yourself your title. Scum like you isn’t fit to breathe the air in this city.”
The crimson color his face had adopted deepened.
Smashing a fist into his chest, he yelled. “My city!”
“Don’t get angry, dear,” Thoradra came to Breavlin’s side and put both of her arms around his elbow. “He’s not worth your time.”
Jehma saw this unfold and, for a brief moment, felt sadness. Smothering it, she raised both of her arms and unleashed her pent-up power.
This is the time to expose him! You can make people believe in lies, but it is monumentally harder to make them act on those lies. This is where I'll crush his naïve ideals.
The skin on Rog's shoulders crawled from the magical activity. He glanced back. Jehma's hands rose, and her hat blew away. Power that could shatter the world flowed out of her slender fingers. Rog pushed up, but the foot on his head was heavy and unmoving like stone. He leaned to the side and stood. The faces of Breavlin and Thoradra showed no recognition of his movement. The world around him was still and lifeless. Rog waved a hand in front of the frozen nobles and saw no indication that they were even alive. Turning back, he saw Jehma’s horns glow with power. Her eyes were aflame, and her feet were a few inches off the ground. She floated there, alluring and supremely dangerous.
“What are you doing?” he did his best to sound calm.
“I’m conducting a simple test,” her right arm rose. “I want to see for myself how far your ideals and duty go.”
A spear of magical energy took shape in the air next to her outstretched arm. Its size stayed the same, but the volume of magic packed into it grew. Soon, Rog worried that the simple fact of its presence threatened to destroy the whole arena, city, and surrounding villages. He looked around and didn’t see the faint shimmer that signified the spirits watching them were nearby. Gloom descended over the world, covering everything in a dark sheen. Rog speculated some kind of barrier was around them. He didn’t doubt for a moment that Jehma was capable of doing that, but he was still unsure of its purpose. Dusting off his suit, he stood still and watched her raise her other arm and create a new spear in the nearby air.
“What will you gain by testing me?” Rog steadied his eyes on hers and not the monstrous magical weapons she called forth from nothingness.
“Personal satisfaction,” her voice echoed in his ears, bones, and mind, the power she summoned seeped out of her in any way possible. “I want to prove to myself, and you as well, that you’re deluded. You don’t care about these people. How could you? Look at how they treated you, their champion.”
The two spears undulated towards each of the frozen figures. Rog sighed and took a step forward. Both arms spread wide in defense of the frozen humans behind. His body becoming the final barrier between the two nobles and their destruction.
Jehma chuckled, sending pain through Rog's teeth.
“That won’t stop me,” her voice ran through his chest like stampeding horses.
The two spears moved too fast for Rog to trace. Stopping close to his wrists, Jehma made a soft gesture with her fingers, and the spears touched his skin. Their immense weight was like that of an entire castle resting on his arms. Rog didn’t flinch, standing his ground and watching her face. Jehma waved her hand, dismissing the spears back to her side. Her feet touched the ground once more.
“You’d protect them?” she took a step towards him, the two weapons flying in tow.
“Yes,” Rog's determination kept his features still as glass.
“Even at the cost of your own life? You’d trade it for theirs?” Jehma’s eyebrows furrowed, the lines on her face becoming more jagged and sharp.
“In a heartbeat,” Rog's words were calm, and he even gave her a smile that infuriated beyond reason. “One life is like another. Everyone deserves saving because if I turn my back on one person, how can I fight for all?”
Rog’s smile grew. If Jehma was going to kill him, he won. If she was just bluffing and he didn’t back down, he won. In either case, his life would end the way he chose, and that was really all that mattered to him. All that had mattered to him since he had to kill Breavlin’s older brother in this very arena all those years ago. He looked into Jehma’s violet eyes as she took another step. One more, and he would be dead. He took a breath and found himself calm and somewhat happy to be seeing such a magnificent sight right before the end of his mortal journey.
Jehma stepped once more, and the spears pushed through Rog’s chest. Confusion ran through his face as there was no pain. Jehma took another step. Her body closer to him. Looking into his eyes, she marveled at their strength. His gaze was anchored into the now. She could make out no plans for future dominion or schemes hidden deep within his mind. He drank the sight of her, and even though she was a weapon molded by her people, he didn’t flinch when he saw that part of her.
Sighing, she recalled the power back inside her and released the barrier she’d put up. Breavlin’s foot pushed down through the air. Stumbling, he fell face-first onto the ground. The noble cursed as a shimmer filled their surroundings.
“Champion Rog,” the sky spoke, “there was a large amount of magical energy around you just now. Were you threatened or influenced in any way?”
Rog smiled at the sprawled lord. That sight alone was worth confronting a godlike amount of dangerous magic.
“I was not,” he kept watch on Jehma’s face. “Everything is alright, holy spirits. I humbly thank you for your concern.”
“Very well,” content with the answer, the spirits faded away.
Jehma looked up, their chins only inches apart. Rog returned her gaze, captivated by the intensity in her eyes.
“Spirits damn you, peasant,” Breavlin shouted and pulled Rog back by the elbow. “How dare you make me sully my suit!”
Rog was spun around and the lord's hand slapped his cheek. Anger expanded his chest more so than air.
“Get your filthy, outlander whore and disappear from my sight!”
Breavlin’s hand rose for another slap. Intercepting it, Rog twisted until the noble’s feet buckled from the pain. Hoisting him up, he shoved Breavlin against a nearby railing. Releasing the man’s hand, Rog grabbed his throat and leaned closer.
“Please refrain from insulting a lady in my presence again, sir,” his fingers closed around Breavlin's throat, and his palm pushed the pampered neck further into the railing. “If by some unfortunate coincidence it happens again. The city guard will be busy for a month, finding pieces of you in every gutter this city has.”
His grip relented, and he stepped back next to Jehma.
“Help, help!” lady Thoradra screamed, “We need…”
Breavlin's right hand on her shoulder cut the scream off. The fingers on his free hand massaged his bright red throat.
“Don’t…” he spoke with the hoarse voice of a man who'd coughed for an hour straight, “let’s go…”
Without waiting, he turned his back to Jehma and Rog and hobbled away. With a smooth, prim motion, lady Thoradra put her fan in front of her face, gave them a dismissive grunt, and followed her companion. Rog and Jehma both made rude hand gestures at their backs. Each different in its form but same in function. Exchanging a look, they both laughed and set off toward their destination.
Rog led Jehma through the gathered people to a wide message board riddled with pinned paper sheets. The top of the board read Events and the sheets contained the quadrant of the arena where each competition would take place. Rog scanned the names and types of events, finding that the left side of the arena was mostly used for mundane and lighthearted events. Three-legged races, bobbing for apples, cooking competitions, arts and crafts. The setup of the message board reflected the layout of the arena, so he went to the left side and grabbed a few sheets that held directions. Jehma stepped to the right and, after a brief overview, plucked a few papers. Coming closer, he inspected the titles visible between her fingers. Home invasion, practical barricade contest, siege survival, ration management. Never visiting the festival before, he questioned the validity of these contests. His concern grew with each new list she yanked free. Turning to face him, she pushed the bundle of papers to her chest and gave him a cheerful smile. Her eyes shone with a hint of violet mischief.
“Ready,” she said, urging him forward with a swing of her chin.
Rog nodded and took a long breath in to regain composure.
“How about we do one of yours, then one of mine?” Jehma waved the stack of papers in her hand. “Deal?” A bit of sunlight reflected off her eyes, giving them a dangerous gleam.
“Deal,” Rog said, undaunted.
Looking at his first sheet, Rog found a map at the end of the text that showed a top-down view of the arena, each event area marked with a small square. The one he needed had a red dot marking its location. Setting a brisk pace, his mind couldn’t help but wander. The events were not at all what he expected. Vandia had taught him how to woo and be charming, but that was in a regular setting. A ball, a hunt, a wedding. The lesson plan had not covered three-legged races and siege survival. Jehma would destroy him in a straight fight. So these ridiculous competitions were his best chance, slim as it was.
They arrived at the competition area and waited in line. This part of the arena had mock-ups of a castle wall, lined up in several rows. The starting positions faced the entrance, while the “walls” themselves were visible from the nearby stands.
“So,” Jehma said, her gaze swinging around, taking in her surroundings, “what is the point of this event?”
“The way I heard it done," Rog began, "they tie two of our legs together, and we have to walk like that up to the finish line. First one across wins.”
“Ladies and gentlemen!” a voice enhanced by magic boomed around them. “Welcome to the Three-legged race. We’ll be starting shortly. Please find your partner, hold them close and come up to the contest area.”
Rog offered his arm, and Jehma hitched hers to it. They stepped up to the nearest section of fake wall and waited. Both their bodies tensed from wave of magical energy that rose from the mock-up, then swiftly flew through them. Jehma lost her balance. Her right shoulder hitting Rog. Her right foot went limp from the crippling effect of the spell. Rog didn't fare better. His eyes drooped, and an inordinate amount of fatigue weighed him down. It was like the world had chewed him for eight hours straight then spat him out at this exact spot.
“Everyone is feeling the effects,” the announcer’s magical voice spoke again. “New contestants, don’t worry, this is normal. To veteran ones, all I’ll say is - sucks, eh?”
The gathered crowd laughed.
“For the newcomers,” the voice continued after the crowd quieted, “the objective of the race is to get your wounded partner across the finish line. Tough luck for all the ladies that drew the short straw and got their male partners reduced to hobbling piles of fancy clothes.”
Cheers and laughter reverberated through the crowd.
“While contestants are crossing the wall, they should watch out for flying objects!”
Arrows, shot from off-stage, pierced the air above the battlements.
“Don’t worry though, they’re magical constructs and cannot kill you, but they do hurt like a swarm of wild, angry bees.”
Confusion further clouded Rog's thoughts as he fought against his lumbering eyelids.
“On your marks.”
All the couples staggered in a slow crawl along the length of the wall. Rog pushed through the fatigue, taking a step forward, then another and another. Jehma had her left arm around his neck, and her right held his elbow. She struggled to match his stride with only one leg. An arrow hit her wrist, making her grimace. Rog took the next hit, which felt like someone throwing very, very sharp pebbles at him. They neared the halfway point of the wall. Rog wanted to gauge their progress against the others, but he was so dead-tired that anything beyond shuffling forward was impossible.
The scream came from the wall next to them. Rog looked over, where a man had fallen on top of his partner.
“Please, help,” the woman screamed again from under him. “H-h-he fell and passed out.”
Rog focused his gaze but only managed to see the fallen man’s left wrist and hand. His fingers clawed the air like he was trying to dig something out of it. A moment later, they contorted in unnatural shapes. Rog had witnessed this before - it was a phenomenon called low magical tolerance. Some parts of the population exhibited poor reactions when exposed to magic. He pulled Jehma’s arm away and set her down on the fake battlements.
“Keep going,” he formed the words with great effort. “I need to help. He might suffocate her.”
Jehma's lips squeezed together in confusion. Rog made no further explanations, took a step back, then with a running start, jumped over to the next wall.
“What about the event?” her complaint reached him in mid-air.
Catching the battlement, he hoisted himself up with great effort, several arrows striking his broad back. Kneeling, he rolled the unconscious man away from the woman, who took a loud breath.
“Thank you,” she said, her eyes glazed and afraid. “Thank you.” She muttered again while Rog stepped back to gain distance.
His left hand slipped on the return jump. His heart pumped from the exertion, keeping his fingers firm against the edge. Hoisting up took him an embarrassing amount of time, but he was successful in returning to his own wall. Jehma had continued along, almost reaching the finish line. Rog resumed walking.
A few heavy steps later, he caught up and said. “Why didn’t you wait for me?”
“Didn’t have to,” she grunted, both of her arms on the parapet, using it as leverage to move forward. “The wounded partner, meaning me, has to get across the finish line. No one said anything about you having to be there.”
Rog saw no fault in the logic and acknowledged that fact with an eyebrow twitch.
“Well, I’m here now. Let me give you a hand.”
His arm came close to her, then continued going forward until his body hit the ground. Jehma dragged herself across the finish line and sat in the opening between two squares of the parapet. She remembered her tutor telling her that her seating position was called a crenel. Looking down, she watched Rog’s sprawled body. Half across the line, half behind.
“This man. I swear.”
She sighed, shaking her head, an amused smile she couldn't keep down forming on her lips. The results of the event put them in second place. The magic affecting the wall lifted, and Rog’s eyes opened. Still on the ground, he looked to Jehma, sitting on the crenel, legs crossed, dress immaculate. Her irises shone with playful light, and her right hand shook a sheet of paper. She stood with a smooth, graceful movement, then stepped over him on her way to the entrance of the contest area. Rog put his palms on the ground and pushed off until he was upright. Dusting off his suit, he clicked his tongue, forsaking the dirty splotches he couldn't get rid of, then followed Jehma.
He reached her near the entrance. Not slowing, she took charge and led the way. Rog kept quiet and followed. They walked past several contest areas, but Rog couldn’t see inside from the throngs of people crowding the entrances. He kept being amazed at how many people flocked to this festival, some even knowing what it entailed. His attention shifted to Jehma’s left arm. Her fingers and wrist trembled ever so slightly. A soft tug pulled at the hairs on his arm, and a tingle ran across the skin on the back of his neck and shoulders. His right hand rose, and his fingers raked through a patch of darker hair.
“Why is part of your hair a different color?” Jehma asked, not slowing her pace.
“Oh, this?” Rog stretched a clump of hair. “It's a byproduct of my training. When the magus was doing his best to teach me defense against magic, there were these blasts that I had to deflect using the gauntlet they made for me.”
Jehma’s gave him a sideways glance, which dared him to say anything about her involvement in the destruction of the tool. Rog made no such foolhardy mistake and continued to speak with a cheerful tone.
“So I had to become better at deflecting harmful spells, like fireblasts, lightning strikes, and the like,” Rog frowned, his right hand combing through his hair. “Never could get the angle right, though, so I got hit on the sides. The burnt hair and skin on my back is proof I wasn’t good enough.” He shrugged his shoulders.
Jehma nodded. The look on her face was one of almost total understanding. Her left hand rose up.
“This is my byproduct,” her arm vibrating with a magical rhythm. “This and the freckles.” Her other hand rose, and she gestured with her fingers at the black specks dotting her nose and cheeks.
For a moment, she almost told him that her horns were deformed by the magical exposure as well, but she caught herself right in time. It seemed she couldn’t fully suppress her need to talk to someone who understands. Someone who was in the unique position only Jehma had been. Someone like Rog.
“So they think they’re ugly?”
Jehma’s heart jumped at the question.
How did he know?
Looking at him, she saw his eyes fixed on her freckles.
Relieved, she replied. “By most all, yes.” Her tone was measured and even.
“Huh,” Rog said with surprise, “they look fine to me.”
The intense sideways glance returned, and Rog braved it once more.
“The way I see it, they’re a part of you,” he explained as they crossed the border separating the two parts of the arena. “The way you got them is not okay, of course, same way my hair and skin getting burned isn’t, but those parts are still me. So how could I treat them like they weren't?” His silly, happy smile returned, brightening his face.
Jehma couldn’t very well agree with the enemy, but inside, she was glad to be understood. They walked past two more contest areas until they reached an enormous square of houses. The sign at the entrance read - Practical barricade contest. Jehma turned and grinned at Rog, urging him to enter with a broad sweep of her hand. His lower jaw moved left to right then he stepped inside.
This area was larger, with more people packed into the tight space unoccupied by the nearby houses. Jehma made it inside, and a moment later, the gate slammed behind her.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a different voice heightened by magic said. “Welcome to the barricade challenge. Please, take your partner and choose a building to compete in.”
A great shuffle of feet and clothes followed. Rog saw people almost battle each other for a spot they deemed theirs. Jehma’s eyes swept the boiling crowd until she found a free spot. Keeping a calm pace, she strode towards it, nodding at Rog to follow. Coming over, he inspected the building that corresponded with their chosen spot.
It was shabby and rundown. Even with a barricade in place, a small band of warriors could tear through the property with relative ease. The more he looked at it, the more he understood why everyone shied away.
“I see all contestants are ready and set,” the voice boomed louder than before. “The rules of the game are simple. Each pair of contestants has a building which they must fortify against enemy attacks.”
“Use all available resources on the property,” the voice made a meaningful pause, then resumed. “Anything goes.”
“Now,” the voice resumed with exuberant energy. “On your marks.”
Every couple in the vicinity raced forward while Rog and Jehma calmly surveyed the building.
“The first-floor windows are in miserable condition,” Jehma said, her eyes moving across the facade. “That drainpipe over there is a breach hazard.”
She pointed to the far left side of the building, where a rusted metal tube snaked down from the roof. Rog grunted in agreement. Both finished their inspection at the same time and moved towards the back. Circling around the left side, they found no possible entryways. The only breach hazard at the back was the first-floor window. The right side's first floor was secure, but the second had a drooping sill which was a huge security risk. Fortunately, the only way to reach it was the drainpipe. Rog grabbed with both hands and tested its fixtures. A feeble groan rang from the old tube.
“Be a dear and take care of that,” Jehma said in a honey-dipped voice. “I’ll take a look on the first floor.”
“You bet,” he nodded.
He placed his right foot on the wall and strained his arm muscles. The drainpipe popped off the wall, tilting toward the neighboring roof. Dashing, Rog braced his shoulder under it, then pushed in the opposite direction until it settled. Exhaling, he carried it with a careful step to the front of the property. Setting the pipe on the ground, Rog took another cursory look at the house, noticing a window that could leave them vulnerable. Tucked at the back of the second-floor, it was hard to reach, but desperate enough attackers could manage. He smirked as an idea popped into his head. Dragging the pipe over, he set it against the wall, its top edge resting on the windowsill. Taking a deep breath in, he swung his arms forward and pushed the pipe inside the room. Its edge reached the ceiling, and Rog let go, waiting to see if it slid back, but it remained in place. Smiling wider, he rushed inside, and ran up the stairs to the second floor.
Finding the appropriate room, he ducked inside. The pipe scraped the window, sliding back down. Rog's fingers caught it right before it fell out. Pulling, he moved to the side so the whole thing could make it inside. Shuffling back to the corridor, he met Jehma.
“Hey,” he groaned, a sheen of sweat making his forehead gleam. “I’ll be right with you.”
Raising both eyebrows, she didn't comment, leaving Rog to continue on his way into the room across the hall. Inside it, he hauled the pipe to the open and vulnerable window there. Leaving the lip on the windowsill, he took a long satisfied breath.
“I think I’m done with the second floor,” he beamed.
Jehma looked his sullied suit over and tilted her head. Her frown made Rog's fingers go through his hair. Lifting her hand, she made a curt gesture like swatting a fly. The grime and rust clinging to the black fabric disappeared, leaving the suit crisp as new. Rog bowed his head in thanks and admission of his guilt. Raising his head, he saw Jehma staring at his handiwork.
“And what, pray tell is this for?” she gestured at the long, hollow piece of metal stabbing through two rooms and one hallway.
“Fighting enemies, of course,” he narrowed his eyes as if that was the most obvious defense strategy in history.
Jehma rubbed her chin for a few moments, trying to figure out what he meant.
Not able to reach a satisfying conclusion, she arched both eyebrows with resignation and waved him over. “Let’s go downstairs. I could use some help.” Turning, she left without waiting for a reply.
Rog followed her to a downstairs window next to the front door that she had barricaded with the clever use of two stools and a medium-sized table. This took care of one of the four vulnerabilities Rog had spotted on the building’s facade. The remaining ones being the front door and the other ground-floor window. Rog walked behind Jehma into the room that had the unsecured window.
“I need you to break this apart,” she pointed to an old bookshelf. “First break here and here, so we can use the long planks for the door. The backboard we’ll use on the window.”
Jehma's hand and finger trembled. Her other hand did the same but with near unnoticeable frequency. Not commenting, he started his dismantling mission. First, he toppled the bookshelf to one side, then used his soles to kick the backboard between the shelves. Once it was free, he stepped with both feet on one of the sideboards framing the shelves. Putting his palms beneath the opposite side, he pushed upward. The wood groaned, refusing to break. He tried again and again until the board flew out, missing his chin by less than an inch. Gathering the varnished planks, he turned around. Jehma’s eyes were half-closed, and her body swayed like willow leaves in strong winds.
“Are you okay?”
Jehma heard greater concern in his voice than she deserved. Swallowing a biting remark, she nodded.
“Do the best you can with these. I’ll go sit in the next room,” she turned with a slow, measured movement as if breathing too hard might make her fall down.
Taking small steps, she went on towards her destination. Rog didn’t want to press the issue. Keeping quiet, he worked on fortifying the window. Finishing up, he went to inspect the door. After a short consideration, he broke two of the boards and the smaller pieces he put, at an angle, underneath the bottom hinge of the door. The remaining longer one he put under the door handle, but it didn’t hold right. Using the heel of his foot, he kicked the end of the board that touched the floor. Several of these hits made it break, and after it did, he kicked again, this time straight down so that the broken edge would stick to the ground. Feeling happy with his work, he went into the next room over.
Jehma stood near the pile of furniture blocking the window, her back turned to him. The shivers wracking her body had gotten stronger to the point of violently shaking her hat as well.
“Hey, hey,” Rog took one large stride to get to her. “What's going on?” He put both arms around her shoulders, the moment their skin touched, she let her whole weight fall on him.
“I’m fine,” she said with the feeble voice of a half-dead beggar on the street. “I just need to sit down. Help me get to that blasted table.” Her eyes pointed to the table that was under the other table barring the window.
Rog's left foot rose from the ground. Jehma did not move at all.
Is she paralyzed?
Moving in front of her, he cradled her thighs and upper back. Her chin rested on his shoulder as he lifted her body off the ground with ease. Turning on his heel, he carried her to the barricade and plopped her down on the table. An unpleasant tingle ran through the skin on his shoulders when he was in such close proximity.
“I need to,” she began gasping, “expend some energy. It’s…too much.” Her voice was ragged from the pain.
“Do it then. Can you use the house somehow?”
His mind first urged him to help, and only then did he remember that he was in a bigger, more dangerous situation.
Jehma nodded with gratitude, releasing overwhelming energies that streamed harmlessly around him. The invisible winds of power flowed into every wall, crevice, and hidden corner of the house, soaking all materials with so much magic that Rog's skin stopped to prickle altogether. Sighing, Jehma perked up and rested the back of her head, crumpling the hem of her hat against the broad table behind. A scraping noise made Rog turn around to see a secret door opening on the floor. A small, robed man climbed a set of stairs from the underground that led into the house.
“Hello,” he spoke with a flat, uninterested tone. “Are you finished?”
“Uhm, yes,” Rog said, scratching the back of his head.
“Very good,” the man nodded and walked the interior.
He held a thin, wooden rectangle to which a few pieces of paper were attached. Moving from barricade to barricade, he wrote things down on the topmost paper in his stack. Going up the stairs, Rog and Jehma followed. The inspector went to the drainpipe that barred the way to the other rooms and stopped.
Looking left, then right, he turned and asked.
“And what is the purpose of this?” he tapped the pipe with the back of the pencil.
The man and Jehma looked at Rog.
“That’s for bashing the enemy until dead,” he replied, then moved forward. “Allow me to demonstrate.”
Going into the left room, he stopped by the window.
“If someone manages to climb up here or the other window, a defender has to do this,” taking care not to sully his suit again, he pulled the pipe off the lip of the windowsill and, grunting, jabbed at an invisible foe outside. “Having more people would be better for this particular defense mechanism, but you get the idea.” He returned the metal tube to its previous position.
Jehma stood at the entrance to the room, behind the inspector, yet still, put her hand up to hide her chuckle. The pipe wasn’t all that practical, but it was an interesting and very, very amusing idea. Rog caught her struggling to contain her laughter and narrowed his eyebrows in a silent, fake scolding. About to erupt, she dove backward, out of the room. The inspector's head spun. Not seeing anything out of the ordinary, he turned around.
An irked exhale later, he wrote something on his list. “I’ll carry on.” Circumventing the pipe by straddling it, he slid off on the other side and Rog left him to his business. Coming back down, he found Jehma shaking, this time from laughter.
“Glad to see you’re better,” he said with a smirk as he stepped off the stairs.
“Yes,” she steadied her voice and stood up straight. “I’m much better now.”
Footsteps above them signaled the inspector was coming their way. Rog turned around and stood next to her.
“I’ve done my inspection,” he announced at the bottom of the stairs. “Now’s the time for the stress test.”
Rog and Jehma exchanged a look. The inspector sighed and waved for them to follow. Walking them to a nearby wall, he touched a plank jutting out that revealed a hidden door. Opening it, the man jumped the one-foot drop to the ground, exiting the house. They both followed into the front yard of the property, where a young mage waited. Rog’s shoulders wiggled from the discomfort when they reached him.
“This lad will be conducting the stress test. Basically, he'll apply magical force that would be roughly equal to a few men and test out the strength of your work. It’s much easier than dealing with muscled meatheads,” the inspector caught himself and glanced at Rog. “No offense, of course.” He smiled a practiced to perfection bureaucratic smile.
“None taken,” Rog's chin bobbed, worry growing in his belly.
Leaning towards Jehma, he whispered. “How strong are the barricades now?”
“Let’s say I tried to destroy this city right now,” she whispered back. “This little shack will be left standing after my best efforts.”
Rog’s eyes went wide, and she gave him an apologetic shrug. His right hand raked the side of his hair, mind racing to think of a way out of disqualification.
“Inspector, is it possible…”
He took a step towards the man, but the test was already underway.
“One man,” the inspector said, and the mage applied the necessary magical push.
Jotting something down, he spoke again. "Ten men."
Taking a second to write a note, he continued. "Twenty-five."
The mage gathered the appropriate amount of energy, then unleashed it. The house stood firm. Writing the result, the inspector looked up, his features bewildered.
“Hundred,” his voice trembled.
This continued for a minute. The inspector increased the number of hypothetical men attacking until it reached a thousand. Still, the house would not budge. Sweat broke through the skin on the mage's forehead. His face lost all color and now resembled a freshly washed bedsheet. At one thousand two hundred, he could no longer hold his hands up. Bowing, he took his leave.
“Which one of you used magic on this house?” the inspector pointed an accusatory pencil at them.
“It was me,” Rog said without a moment’s consideration.
He got out his badge and showed it.
“C-c-champion,” the inspector mangled words, the shock making his tongue betray him. “I didn’t know, I-I-I wasn’t told.”
“Now, now, my good man, no need to worry,” Rog put his arm around the man's shoulder and used his most reassuring tone.
“You, s-s-see, magic is against the rules.” The inspector’s palms began to rub together.
“I didn’t know, honest,” Rog put his free hand on his heart, “but I see why that would be in the rules.” He shook his chin with understanding.
“And the punishment is?” Rog inquired with a serious look on his face.
“Disqualification,” the inspector squeaked.
“Understandable,” Rog nodded, then spun the man and pulled him away from Jehma. “But see, here’s the thing.” He spoke in a low and conspiratorial tone.
“This is the only spell I’ve successfully learned. You’ve probably heard the rumors, right?” Rog’s eyebrows rose up, and the inspector gave silent agreement. “They’re all true. I couldn’t do magic up until now. For the life of me, I couldn’t do it. They even had to make this ugly, bulking gauntlet thing, so I could have any chance at all in a magical fight. Anyways, this fortification spell I managed to do, and I did it really well. You saw your fellow struggle to go through it. He’s half-dead and couldn’t even put a dent in the house. Great stuff.” He squeezed the man’s shoulder for emphasis.
The inspector nodded in agreement, but his eyes continued to make confused jumps from Rog to the unbreakable house. He was a man of little imagination, it appeared. Rog held back a sigh and got ready to spell out his motives.
“I did it to impress the lady,” he told the inspector, pointing at her with his chin.
The inspector's gaze ran over her like he was getting ready to rip off her clothes, even eating them if he had to. Pushing the pang of revulsion to the back of his mind, Rog continued.
“I mean, look at her. You get what I’m saying, right?”
The inspector's dull eyes lit up from the flash of understanding. Now all Rog had to do was appeal to every bureaucrat’s weak spot. Their greed.
“You're a man of exceptional cunning, good inspector,” Rog’s voice went even lower. “I’m sure we can figure something out for you and your exhausted young associate over there. How about it?”
The inspector’s gaze shifted to Rog, the sick light of avarice shining through.
“After the festival, okay?” Rog proffered his left hand. “I’ll find you, and we’ll settle. Deal?”
The inspector’s left hand caught and shook Rog’s. With their pact sealed, the inspector went to get the young mage and disappeared.
Walking over to Jehma, she caught his shirt’s cuff with two fingers.
“Why did you do that? I was about to lose,” dejection saturated her every word.
His answer was simple. “Because I want to win.”
Jehma didn’t understand. Her cheeks rose up from the effort to grasp his meaning.
“You being disqualified isn’t the same as me winning,” he explained but Jehma's confused features did not relax.
He tried to make it clearer.
“You were probably made to hold all that energy within you as a way to make you more powerful. I’m not smart enough to understand magic, but I know the power you have isn’t natural, and they probably did some pretty nasty things to get you to this point. Competing honestly is all I care about, and there’s nothing honest about your own people taking advantage of you, turning you into a magical weapon. And besides, I suggested you use magic on the house, and I’m taking responsibility.”
“Still,” Jehma argued, “I don’t need you to cover for me. I’m capable of handling my own affairs.”
“And I wasn't doing that. I stood up for you because you needed help, and you were right there in front of me.”
Jehma opened her mouth to speak, but Rog stopped her by raising his hand.
“Beyond our contest here, you needed help, and I could, so I did. It’s as simple as that. That’s how I am, and I can do as much about that as you can about your horns.”
"Well," Rog rolled his eyes, "besides the obvious, of course." His hands drifted through the air in his best impression of spell casting.
His attempt at improving the mood didn't succeed, and a short silence followed.
“It's probably dumb to help your enemy,” Rog said, looking at her.
“I think that’s probably the definition,” Jehma chuckled and looked back at him.
Smiling, Rog said. "Right then, if you’d be so kind to follow this dumb enemy, there’s more contests to visit.”
She released his cuff, and he offered her the crook of his arm. Taking it with gratitude, she walked with him out of the vacant yard.
“Want us to try another one of yours?” Rog asked, keeping his hand close to the sheets of paper in his pocket.
“No,” she answered with a firm voice and a determined head shake. “We did one of mine, so the next choice is yours.”
Rog nodded and thumbed through his options. Narrowing his eyes, he looked Jehma up and down. Still finely dressed and lovely, he saw no obvious place where she could keep her stack of papers.
“Did you memorize the contest sheets?” he asked.
“Where are they then?”
“Oh,” Jehma waved one hand and coquettishly put her other on her mouth. “A lady never reveals her secrets.”
“Apologies,” he said with a livelier tone, then bowed his head.
Rising up, he looked at the contest sheet he’d selected. Turning it around in his hands, he tried to understand where the map at the bottom was trying to lead him. These instructions weren't like previous ones, showing on which side of the arena the event would be. On this piece of paper was a specific part of the whole competition grounds that Rog had to navigate to, like solving a geographical puzzle, he assumed. Jehma managed to sneak a peek right before he shrugged his shoulders, folded the map, and returned it to his pocket.
“This way,” he pointed.
Jehma followed close behind, her arms behind her back. They walked through several right-side contests, crossing the border into the left side of the arena. Jehma noticed the contest areas began to look more and more refined, soon turning into actual buildings like the ones that they’d passed on their way here. Rog consulted his small map one last time, then stopped in front of a heavily flourished gate. Continuing onward, Jehma lagged behind for a moment because she was admiring the metalwork of the gate. Realizing she’d been left behind, she made a few long strides, then a short jump, and caught up to Rog, who was engrossed in the map. She got her second peek of it, and it seemed like the red square marking the event had shifted to a different spot. Before she could point that out, Rog had his palm on a shabby wooden door.
“I think this is it,” he said, pushing it open.
A dark corridor appeared before them. Rog took slow, tentative steps into the darkness. Finding safe and solid, albeit dark, ground, he waved Jehma inside. Steeping through the threshold, she felt impressive amounts of magical energies at play. The door slammed behind her, and a wide hall made itself visible to both their eyes.
People dressed in dazzling clothes filled the hall. They stood waiting before another set of masterfully crafted metal gates.
“Our final contestants have arrived!” an invisible voice announced, to no crowd fanfare.
Rog looked around, noticing a type of dome surrounding them, obfuscating the outside world.
“Will our newest arrivals take their place with the other contestants so we can begin?”
Rog took slow and cautious steps towards the gathering. Jehma was next to him, and glancing over, her face had the same amount of confusion that he felt. Joining the ranks of the other couples, they stopped in place, and the voice spoke again.
“Welcome all to this year’s hidden event. The right people are aware of how things work, but for those of you who stumbled here through cunning or pure luck, here are the rules. The event is called Practical siege survival, and we’ll ask you to do just that. Of course, there’s a little twist that will keep you on your toes and show that you’re worthy of receiving enough points to win the Love contest outright.”
Jehma and Rog looked at each other.
“I see some of you are more clueless than expected,” the voice spoke again, a wave of snickers ran through the crowd. “For those unsavvy enough, this contest is worth more points than all the others combined. Obviously, this means that only the right people get the chance to participate, so if you’re not one of them, and you most certainly know when that’s the case, my advice to you is: keep your mouths shut and try to make it through.”
A meaningful pause followed before the voice resumed.
“Now, with politics out of the way,” the voice elicited a small wave of chuckles, “here’s the rules. Each couple gets a house and supplies. As you are all aware, today is the anniversary of the ancient pact made between human and demonkind, so you’ll be facing invaders that stand in as the ruthless demons that might invade the world any year. There are fifty slips of paper in the box in front of the gateway. Each couple should take one and then head to the house marked with the number on the paper. Good luck to all!”
The voice went quiet, and forty-nine couples formed a line to the aforementioned box. Jehma and Rog took their place at the back and moved forward as each couple went inside. Jehma looked at Rog questioningly. Returning her gaze, he shrugged his shoulders and tilted his head to the side, showing he didn’t know what was happening as well. Getting the contest sheet out, they saw it had turned a different color. Now dark green, the map on the back showed the square at their location.
“This was a different color, right?” she asked him, wanting to make sure.
“Yep,” he said with a frown.
“And I saw the square marking the location move at least once.”
“It moved a couple of times for me as well,” the words left a bad taste in his mouth.
“So magic, then,” she said flatly, crossing her arms.
“Mhm,” Rog agreed, feeling his hand clench into a fist. “I guess using magic is okay…for the right people.” Anger flared in his stomach with each word.
Reaching the box, Rog swung his arm in a wide arc and grabbed it off the table. Tearing the lid off and throwing it to the side, he got the last piece of paper out and looked at the scrivened number two on the page. He threw the box and paper to the side, spat on the ground, and walked inside. Jehma quickly went after him.
The houses inside the contest area weren’t mock-ups. They were the real thing. Jehma marveled at the craftsmanship of their facades. On the paved road in front of each house was a number. They did not go in chronological order, so Jehma walked over the number thirty-six, then forty-four, then nine. Rog continued his silent fuming, so Jehma left questions like where are we going, at the far back of her mind. They turned the corner, walked down the new street, then turned again, and there it was, house number two.
Jehma wasted no time in ascending the flight of stairs that led up to the front door. Rog stood at the bottom, still struggling to keep calm. Jehma understood the issue he was having, but it was neither her place nor obligation to speak about it. Opening the door, she went inside to find a young girl standing in what appeared to be the main room.
“Arlee?” Jehma asked, eyebrows rising.
The girl’s face flashed with recognition, and she ran over, hugging Jehma's right thigh.
“Hey,” Jehma put her hands on the girl’s shoulder gently and knelt down. “How did you get here?”
“I’m working,” Arlee said in a small, proud voice, her cheeks rosy from excitement.
“Rog!” she squealed, letting go of Jehma and colliding with muscled leg.
“Hi,” Rog said cheerfully, “how are you, little lady?”
“I’m working,” she repeated with even greater pride.
“Working, huh? Great, great,” Rog picked her up in his arms and looked around the interior. “And what did they tell you to do?”
“Um,” Arlee pondered, her eyebrows furrowing with the furious effort she was putting into remembering.
“Contestants,” the invisible voice returned, sounding like the person talking was inside the house itself. “Each of you has entered your respective building and has found a surprise inside. Now, as all responsible parents know, you are the main guardian of a child. And thus, our contest today will test whether you have the capabilities of caring for a young life during an all-too-possible upcoming siege.”
Rog looked at Jehma, then went over to the window, surveying the street. No one was there yet. Arlee fidgeted in his arms and started to cry.
“Hey, hey,” he spoke gently, cupping her cheek, “you don’t have to be afraid. Everything’s going to be okay.” He tried to reassure her, but she continued crying.
“Children get easily upset, do they not?” the announcer’s voice came again. “So in order to reflect that, each child was just put under a nausea spell. This particular spell has very good medicinal usages when someone has swallowed the wrong thing, and it needs to be purged out of their body. This is the effect the spell has on adults. When done to children, it makes them emotionally unstable. Fret not all you bleeding hearts, this is only a temporary change, and no long-term negative effects have been observed.”
Rog saw Jehma’s eyes blaze with anger. Her hands trembled, then closed into fists. Arlee stopped crying, her cheek resting on the crook of his neck. His concern bloomed into wrath.
“Arlee, hey,” he said, grabbing her under her armpits and holding her up.
Her short legs dangled limp in the air.
“Do you hear me, Arlee?” Rog shouted almost, anger seeping into his voice.
“Let her down,” Jehma came closer. “I'll have a look at her.”
He laid Arlee down, and Jehma knelled next to her. She closed her eyes and touched the skin on the girl’s forehead, neck and arms. Clicking her tongue, she opened her eyes and looked at Rog.
“She has latent magical powers, and when they cast the spell, she was awakened to them,” she stated as if that explained anything.
The look on Rog's face made her continue.
“Some practitioners of magic believe that unlocking a child’s ability at a young age can make them better at the craft. Children are naturally inquisitive, so when they are shown the beauty of magic, they latch on without knowing how to let go. Arlee is caught in what is called a magical stream and doesn’t know how to get free.”
Rog watched as a thin sheen of sweat covered Arlee’s face. Her features scrunched up into a grimace and a moment later relaxed to infrequent twitches.
“Please help her,” he said to Jehma.
She was shocked he asked no question. He seemed to believe she could do it outright and was asking her to help straight away. No one had ever believed in her so much. Not even her father, who had done his very best to make her into the deadliest demon that ever lived.
“I’ll do my best,” she said without lingering on second thoughts, then placed her palms to Arlee’s cheeks.
Rog gave her a grateful nod and stood up. Walking to the window, he saw men in armor. There were four of them. The one that led was his war tutor. Rog heard Jehma sigh then her clothes shuffled. Glancing back, he saw her hold Arlee in her arms. Jehma’s forehead touching the top of Arlee’s head. Small fingers gripped her dress while Arlee’s cheek touched the patch of skin just beneath Jehma’s throat.
“Someone is coming,” Jehma whispered.
“I know,” Rog grabbed the door handle. “Don’t worry. I’ll handle it.”
Stepping outside, he stood at the top of the stairs and looked down at the four men.
“Let us in, boy,” the leader commanded as if Rog was back in the barracks.
His training almost made him move aside. Calming himself and taking back the reigns of his mind, he gave a simple reply.
“Don’t let her trick you. She’s not human and will destroy everything in the blink of an eye.”
Rog debated whether to argue, but seeing the look in these men’s faces told him it wasn’t worth it. They were set in their ways. Keeping quiet, he just watched.
“She’s bound by the rules, boy,” his war tutor said in a hurried voice. “You named this as the contest, so she can’t use her magic. That old coot Dran thinks she probably could if you gave your consent, but he wasn’t sure.”
He stepped closer to the bottom stair.
“Either way, this is our chance, your chance, to win!” he clenched the fist not holding a weapon.
“No,” Rog concluded, his head cool and mind clear.
Nothing obstructed his judgment, neither his temper nor his scorn. He only thought of protection for Arlee, and Jehma, who was doing her best to help her. His teacher waited a moment for Rog to say something more, but he had taught him well. Whenever there was a fight, whoever had not readied himself was most likely to lose. Still, the boy had been in his care for too many years, and he did care, so he tried one last time.
“Why protect that creature, huh?” his teacher’s voice was full of anguish. “Or is it because of the child in the house? Are you worried about her?” He ventured.
“Yes,” Rog replied, still standing his ground.
His teacher’s clenched fist limped back to his side.
“Her life isn’t worth everyone else’s!” he shouted out of frustration.
“It’s definitely worth more than yours,” Rog's left index finger swept across the gathered men. “I’d kill any and all of you just to save her.”
“And you already have, Streetrat,” a voice behind a helmet said with animosity.
Rog didn’t need to see under the armor to know it was Breavlin.
“So I have,” Rog agreed, “but don’t come here with your soldiers and pretend like this is some lofty mission to save humanity. And don’t pretend you ever expected me to walk away from this contest. You created a weapon that would break at the appropriate time so it could slow down the enemy. But I was actually doing it!” He shouted, hitting his chest with his palm.
“If you’d just let me handle it,” he continued yelling, “I had a chance, but now, you’ve targeted her and destroyed all I had accomplished.”
Rog took a breath and shook his head slowly, then said.
“I’m not going to waste my breath anymore,” his voice was low and grating. “Probably only Vandia recognizes that our major strength as a species is understanding and compassion. Not our inferior magical or military might. It doesn’t matter anymore. You’ve come here for a fight.”
Rog kicked the wooden railing next to him, and a hefty piece of wood broke at the bottom, where it was whittled out to make a lovely inward indentation. Pulling, he ripped the wood free and held it like a bludgeon.
“And I’m going to give you one,” he said, taking the first step leading down.
Jehma struggled. Arlee’s energy was so hard to find in the wild rush of colors that made up the stream. Every time she came close to the girl, she slipped through her ethereal fingers. Her ears heard the noise of battle in the real world. Wood struck metal, and metal, in turn, rent flesh. Pushing those sounds away, she focused on finding Arlee again. The girl’s faint but unmistakable trace faded more and more as her spirit entwined with the untamed dimension-piercing magic. Jehma had only been on the other side of this phenomenon when her only friend had died, destroying half the building they were in. Arlee had latched onto one of the most powerful magic streams around, and if she wasn't saved, the potential blowout would be catastrophic.
Jehma became anxious. No matter how much effort she put in, she did not get closer to Arlee. She tried calling the spirits, rules be damned, but they did not respond. Her frustration grew, and the energies around her responded, changing color. Infecting the space around her with potent emotion cleared her view enough to see Arlee. Keeping angry, she moved closer and closer, the malleable space around her becoming the color of rage. All the things she’d endured during her life came out of her and colored the magical canvas. The space became a painting with vivid enough colors for Jehma to grab onto Arlee’s small frame and hold her tight. The girl recognized her once more and strengthened their embrace. Jehma turned, trying to leave. The color of fear plunged everything around her into darkness. She didn’t know what was the way back. Swirling her head, she only saw the colors she’d brought. Darkness was quickly overtaking the multitude of other colors. Jehma slowed her mind and focused. The real world was where sounds were. She listened for Rog and heard him repeating one word over and over and over. Holding onto Arlee, Jehma moved towards Rog's chant.
“Please, please, please,” he muttered.
His forehead was pressed against the back of Arlee’s head. Jehma held the girl in her embrace and leaned back against a wall. Rog couldn’t raise his arms properly, so all he could do was gently touch his head to Arlee’s. Her breathing was shallow, and she moved frightfully little. The powerlessness made tears well up in his eyes.
“Move you, oaf,” Jehma groaned.
Rog swung back so fast he nearly fell. Jehma put a hand around Arlee’s throat and held it there for a few moments.
“She’s safe. We made it out thanks to you.”
Rog sat back on his haunches and sighed. Warm tears ran down his cheek. Feeling too happy, he did nothing to stem their flow. Jehma focused on him and saw he had several deep cuts on his arm, one across his chest, and the side of his head bled profusely. Still, his face was the happiest she’d seen him be.
His head tilted to the side, and he shrugged his shoulders as best he could.
“Nothing much. Just a friendly squabble between allies,” he tried to sound cheery, but his eyes began to flutter.
Jehma laid Arlee on the ground and rushed over to him. He lost consciousness for a moment and tipped over. Jehma managed to get there just in time, catching him in her arms. He opened his eyes and looked up.
“Thank you for saving her,” his gaze was locked on hers. “You didn’t have to, but you did.”
“Yeah, well,” she smirked, “since you asked so nicely.”
Rog realized the real Jehma was in front of his eyes. This innocent, light-hearted exchange was how her life could be, free of the worries that had been thrust upon her. Rog’s belief in his plan grew, so he implemented the final step.
“Hey, I’ll need your help with something. Come closer.”
Jehma leaned down. Rog used the last of his strength to raise his arm and put it on her cheek. Before she could react, he pulled her close and kissed her. It was a simple, almost child-like kiss, but the feeling behind it overwhelmed her. Regaining her composure, she pulled away. The corners of her mouth stretched to the sides in confusion.
Rog’s head fell to his shoulder, and his eyes watched Arlee on the ground, the slow rise and fall of her chest urging his eyes to close.
“I’ve seen and been through enough pain,” his weak voice could barely be heard. “Maybe you guys will do better.”
Jehma said nothing. She had won. The contest was over, and Rog had, in her mind, forfeited. She propped him up on the nearby doorframe.
“Why did you do that?” her eyebrows furrowed in anger.
“Because I think your life was similar to mine,” he said, eyelids moving down. “I was raised to be a weapon, and being a weapon is easy. You do what you’re told, hurt who you’re told. Kill…when you’re told.” It was hard for him to stay awake.
“I think I can at least give you the chance,” he said, voice fading.
“A chance for what?” Jehma's frustrated words kept him from passing out.
“To be whatever you want.”
His eyes closed and did not open. Jehma noticed the pool of blood underneath him. Moving quickly, she stripped his shirt and was horrified at the wounds she saw. His whole torso was red, and his life essence was calmly pouring out. Jehma knew how best to destroy, not heal. Even so, she began ripping his shirt in strips, then tying them around the damaged areas. Some of the cuts were too deep, those she had to burn closed. Finally treating all of him, she looked around and noticed the world was starker and more vivid. The spirits had been watching all this time. “Arise, Champion,” the air spoke. “You have won the competition, and as the victor, you are the official ruler of this realm. Your delegation awaits.”
Jehma took a last look at Rog. He wasn’t bleeding out, at least, so she took firm steps to the outside. At the bottom of the staircase, she saw four bodies splayed on the ground. None of them had made it up even one step. Her father and two other tutors waited in front of an open portal.
“Well done, child,” her father congratulated. “Let us quickly retire so that we can recharge you. These creatures will not take your victory lying down, so we need you prepared.”
“Yes, father,” she said with the mechanical and formal tone he liked.
Nodding with satisfaction, he let her walk in first, then the rest followed. The spirits closed the portal and departed the human world.
Rog woke up in the barrack's infirmary. His injuries hadn’t killed him, but the pain they caused made him wish they had. As soon as he could walk by himself, soldiers came to drag him out. On the streets, people threw rubbish and filth at him. Shouting and screaming, they walked with him up until the main gates. He was pushed out, and the gate crashed shut behind him. Gathering his meager strength for a moment, He limped towards the abandoned huts in front of the city. Finding a house near where the portal opened last time, he settled in and waited for his fate.
A few weeks later, his time came. A portal to the demon world opened. Rog grabbed his walking stick and staggered outside. Jehma stepped into the human world wearing resplendent armor. Her majesty took his breath away once again. Swallowing hard, he began hobbling toward her, determined to be the sole architect of his demise.
Rows upon rows of soldiers were visible behind Jehma. And looking back, the battlements of his former city were stocked full as well. Jehma’s hands rose, and even from this distance, he felt the gigantic power she was calling forth. Rog watched as Jehma unleashed that power and her battle attire changed to a colorful sundress. Her helm transformed into a beautiful straw hat, and the portal behind her diminished until it was a minuscule dot against the horizon.
“What’s going on?” he asked when he got closer.
“I managed to sever the connection between our world and yours,” her head bobbed from side to side like a pole during high winds. “I think. It won’t be easily opened for a couple of thousand years, at least.” She looked at her hands for a moment.
“Can’t say I’ll be able to do magic anymore, though.”
She seemed somewhat sullen, so Rog decided to lighten the mood.
“Who needs it,” he waved his hand dismissively. “How about we go for a walk?”
“Sure," her eyes scanned the filled battlements behind him, "but where?”
“Out there,” he pointed in the opposite direction of the city towards the wide world.
“Okay,” she agreed and smiled, grabbing the crook of his arm.