The Grand Hall of the Warrior Academy had four long rectangular tables properly lined. There were two on the right side of the room, and another two on the left, leaving a large, long aisle in the middle of it all.
Jane Arven was sitting on the third table, among the other third-year Dual Wielders. Next to her was Theresa DeWinter, her closest friend. They were sitting closest to the stage, where their teachers sat in a table of a semi-circle.
That day was the start of a new semester—which meant that new sixteen year-old first-years would come and be named where they belonged in the Academy. They took tests where the teachers measured their speed, or precision, or strength—or even magic.
The Academy had four Categories of warriors—there were Magicians, sitting on the most left table; then the Knights next to them; then there were Dual Wielders and finally Archers. They were all—as the Grand Lord, or the Headmaster, would say—important to the school.
But Jane doubted it. She was just grateful she was in the Dual Wielders' Category instead of the Magicians or Archers. Those two were lowly Categories—none of the students from those groups ever won the Warrior Games.
The Warrior Games—Jane despised having to deal with it. It was their 'graduation'. But the thing was: there was to be only one graduate, no matter what. The Warrior Games was where all the third-years were thrown into the Colosseum behind the school to kill each other. It happened. Every. Single. Year.
The most recent winner was a Dual Wielder—his name was Stephen Hale. He was let go after all the others had died, and the Academy had never heard from him again. It wasn't shocking—the students that were in the Academy never knew what their fate was to become of until their first day in the school.
Jane ran a hand through her long wavy blond hair, grasping it tightly on the nape of her neck and embracing the pain.
She had always hated the Academy. She had always tried to kill a teacher when they came too close; had once tried to poison one by giving them belladonna. She knew exactly how to do those things, for all her grades—were A. All the subjects. Everything. She was a good student.
When she graduated her first year, they had given her the position of valedictorian. The teachers loved her until the middle of her second year when she turned rogue.
No. She didn't only try. She had killed a teacher before. Mr. Seranov, her second year combat teacher. She had been sparring with him that day, and she took it a step above training and pierced his heart with one of her twin swords. She had pushed it into his chest to the hilt. She could still feel the warm and sticky blood running down her hand, feeling his heart stop underneath her fingers.
Jane shivered at the memory and was thankful that the Grand Lord had taken his place on the podium. There was also a crowd of students standing behind him, most of them wearing threadbare clothing. Orphans. With happy nervousness.
They didn't know.
The school . . . The Games' audience were strictly the Royal Court and Court Houses only. The school was their entertainment. Barbarians—all of them. The rest of the kingdom didn't know the school existed. The caretakers of those in orphanages only knew that the Grand Lord adopted the students.
Maybe that was why the Academy only took in orphans. So that no parent would grieve for their children and order the school gone.
The rules of the Games were all so vague—it was as if the Academy didn't want anyone to win.
The Grand Lord was a middle-aged man, rumored to have immortality in his veins. He had white hair, and a white stubble surrounding his mouth and chin. He was well-built, muscled arms sheathed over with a black silk shirt lined with gray buttons down the center. His breeches were a dark stone gray, and his boots were brown leather, reaching up to his knees.
He wore what the Dual Wielders wore—because he was one. The hilts of twin blades peeked out his back, black leather baldrics strapped across his chest.
Nobody in the entire Academy knew his name.
His blue eyes were bright with feigned liveliness as he spoke.
"Good evening, Warriors!" The Grand Lord's booming voice filled the room. Cocky students who were sure they'd win the Games cheered with sickening exhilaration. Jane, however, yelled out a sentence vulgar enough to get her executed if she were in the kingdom.
The Grand Lord only raised an eyebrow her way as more cheers from her sentence erupted. Cheers from the rest of the miserable students, implying that they agreed with Jane.
But all the other teachers were calm.
And that was another suspicious problem: Jane killed a teacher. She wasn't punished in any way. Instead, she had only given a idle warning not to so that again.
"I am here with exactly thirty-three students behind me. Like every year, I will call on their names by alphabetical order and announce their Category.
"A wonderful year, I am sure, we have ahead of us."
Theresa groaned next to her.
"All of you are special! You each have equal chances of winning the Warrior Games."
He turned to the new students, who all had curious looks on their faces.
"The Warrior Games will be a test in the end of your education here, and it's where all of you are supposed to fight to show your strength to us."
The students looked at one another, hardly understanding the profoundness of his words.
Theresa put both hands around her mouth and yelled at the top of her lungs, "The bastard means it's a game of 'Kill or be Killed'!"
The Grand Lord shrugged. "Something like that. The Warrior Games shall only have one living victor. The rest of you—shame . . ."
Someone from the Magicians' table yelled, "The rest of you are dead. All but one."
Every year—the Grand Lord would speak unfathomably, and there would always be students that explained further, not caring one bit if they were rude.
And then the thirty-three students started talking all at once, and it was like bees buzzing in Jane's ears.
The Magician teacher shushed them with her magic—the first-years stood with docility, mouths pressed tightly as if sewn shut.
The Grand Lord turned back around, and started calling out names. "Abilene Moramin," he started. "Magician."
A girl with thick brown hair moved to the table on the left, obvious that her movements were forced.
"Andersen Yorren—Dual Wielder."
Andersen walked towards the empty space across from Jane, and when he sat, his mouth opened, and he was panting. Not a second passed when he jumped off the bench to run off. But the Magician teacher, Jane just remembered that Ms. Eleanor was her name, caught him with her powers and he was shoved back into his seat before he was even two meters away from it.
Andersen had auburn hair and skin so pale it was almost gray. The hollowness of his cheeks showed how underfed he was. His brown eyes were sunken with hate and morose.
He looked up at Jane and asked, "How long have you been here?"
Jane looked away, not wanting to see him cry—more out of disgust than respect. She hated it when people showed their sadness. It was as if they were putting their best effort on catching attention.
Names were called, and their Categories followed.
Down the long table, not very far, around the middle—was Jane's classmate. He was blond, like her, but it was more ashy, messy from having run through by fingers many times. His eyes were a tireless dark green, donned with a shadow of frustration. His pale skin was a stark contrast against the black cotton shirt he wore.
Nathaniel Calestra, his name was.
He raised both his hands, and Jane knew exactly what he meant. Ten o'clock.
He wanted to meet her at ten.
Then he pointed at himself.
Ten o'clock later tonight in his room. Just like every Monday.
Jane gave him a smile. Cal was by far the only thing that was able to keep her away from her depression.