Navarre’s fist connected firmly with her left cheek, sending her stumbling backwards. She wiped the trail of blood running down her chin from her mouth before lunging forward with a punch of her own. Just as it seemed like it would land, Navarre sidestepped, and the attack missed him by almost a foot. In one fluid motion, he placed his hand on her wrist and pulled it down to her side, then kept pulling as he slid behind her. Finally, he stopped when her arm was flush with her spine, forcing her onto the ground.
“You’re slowing, Exliana,” he said. She struggled to break free of his grasp, but the harder she tried to free herself, the tighter his grip grew. “If you hadn’t held your fist out in front of me for so long, we wouldn’t be like this. You basically handed me victory.”
Exliana muttered something that Navarre didn’t seem to care about, before weighing her options. Forcing her way out of his hold wouldn’t work with the current situation, and he had restricted her legs with his body weight, ruling out any plan to knock him away via kick. Instead, she decided to mock going limp, successfully convincing Navarre that she had admitted defeat. His grip loosened momentarily, but it was enough for Exliana to capitalize on and shove him off her.
She jumped up and spun around as Navarre fell to the ground. He rolled backwards and onto his feet, narrowly dodging a heavy dropkick. Force him on the defense, Exliana commanded herself as she relentlessly showered him with jabs and punches. He narrowly dodged each one, swinging the weight of his body accordingly.
It wasn’t long before his repeated dodging led her to impatience, and she changed her approach abruptly. Leaping up vertically, she twisted around with her leg extended, creating a sweep kick. Navarre predicted the change in tactics and ducked low. When gravity pulled Exliana down, Navarre was waiting. He wrapped his arms around her thighs and jumped backwards. She slammed onto the ground behind her and Navarre, and the air was knocked out of her by Navarre’s entire body weight landing atop her.
“Okay, that’s enough. I’m declaring Navarre the winner,” came a voice from behind them. The older man in the green cloak—Sage Meru, as he went by—approaching them nodded, and Navarre hopped off of his partner. Exliana stood up indignantly, wiping the dirt and dust off of her clothing.
“Good fight, Ex,” Navarre said, holding out his hand for her to shake.
Exliana turned to Meru, not shaking his hand. “It’s not fair! Why can’t we use magic in the spars? Everyone else will be using it tomorrow.”
“Both of you will be better off if you hone your martial combat skills, and use magic solely as a backup. I don’t expect either one of you to outperform a single combatant with your magic alone, so I’m forcing you to practice as though you won’t be using it at all,” Meru explained.
Sighing, Exliana turned and finally shook Navarre’s hand. “Good fight. How’d you know I was going to change tactics?”
“You’re really transparent when something annoys you. I figured your attacks repeatedly missing would make you a bit more reckless, and the aerial sweep-kick was the most likely follow-up attack.”
Exliana laughed, rubbing the bruise forming on the back of her head. “Damn, I guess you had me figured out from the start.”
“Exliana,” Meru started, “You must start utilizing your body weight more. You’re smaller than Navarre, but if you were to place your entire body on him, there would be little he could do in response. Even against larger opponents, it can at least buy you time.”
Exliana nodded, taking a seat beside a tree on the edge of the sand-floored clearing. Navarre walked over and placed himself beside her. The two said nothing, and did nothing, but they were so exhausted that doing nothing was the desired course of action. Sage Meru remained standing in the center of the hollow, staring into the branches of one of the trees.
Following his gaze, she saw nothing except a bird’s nest. Two baby birds sat in the home of wood and leaves, feathers puffed like balls of fuzz, chirping louder than it seemed bodies of their size should be able to. The mother—or perhaps father—was sitting on the edge of the nest, nodding at the ground. A number of worms were swarming the base of the tree, and the grown bird seemed to be trying to make their children fly to the ground themselves.
“Why's he so enthralled by that bird's nest?” Exliana whispered, leaning close to Navarre. He was following Meru’s gaze as well.
“It’s a metaphor,” Navarre whispered back.
“Oh.” The two watched him admire the nest for a few moments longer. He wiped a tear from his eye and turned back to Exliana and Navarre. They looked away, acting like the beetle on the bush beside them was the most interesting thing they had seen today.
“Navarre. Exliana. Look at me.” She looked him in the eyes, elbowing Navarre to tear his eyes away from the beetle and do the same. “You two are the only apprentices I’ve been fortunate enough to train. Truly, you’ve been wonderful students. However, the assessment tomorrow marks the end of my mentorship, whether you’re accepted into the Magicians’ Program or not. Stand up.”
Exliana and Navarre rose to their feet. After a long pause, Meru reached under his cloak and pulled out a red ribbon and light blue ribbon. He placed the red ribbon in Exliana’s hand, and placed the light blue ribbon in Navarre’s. “These ribbons state that you have officially been deemed fit to compete for admission into the Magicians Program by your mentor.” He stepped forward, pulling the two of them into an affectionate embrace. Exliana and Navarre stared at each other over his should, a shocked expression crossing both of their faces. “Good luck tomorrow.”
“Now,” he said, releasing them from the embrace, “You have a big day tomorrow, and the day grows late. Go home and get some sleep.” He turned and walked away from the clearing without another word, and Exliana smiled. The Meru she grew up with was back.
Moonlight illuminated the room, making the few pieces of furniture glow an eerie white color. Exliana lay with her head facing the only window, watching the full moon rise higher and higher into the sky. Her stomach was doing loops, and she struggled to calm the nervous anxiety creeping into her veins.
“58 contestants, and only 16 can be accepted,” Navarre spoke softly, clearly aware that Exliana was still awake. She had assumed he was too, but didn’t want to start a conversation.
“Really just the worst timing there, Nav.” Exliana laughed, rolling and peering over the side of the top bunk to where Navarre was laying. He was staring up at her, smirking.
“What? Are you nervous?”
“Damn right I am, and don’t act like you aren’t either!” she exclaimed before rolling back to watch the moon again. “I would be much more confident if I was able to take these stupid gloves off, but Meru still won’t tell me where he hid the key.”
“You know that’s for the better.” A pause. “Remember that time you cut them off with a knife? A knife you stole, I’ll add.”
“Yes, of course I remember.”
“You nearly burnt this place down. You nearly burnt me down!” His voice shook as he said it, almost to suggest he was shivering.
“I said I remember. But I was younger then, and a lot more reckle-” Navarre burst out into laughter, and Exliana threw her straw pillow over the side of the bed at him to shut him up. “Come on though, surely you’re nervous too?”
Navarre seemed to grow serious. “If I’ve learned anything from Meru, it’s that worrying gets you nowhere, so it’s better to never worry at all.”
“Easier said than done...” Exliana muttered under her breath. “If you used your magic to its full potential in tomorrow’s contest, you would be just about guaranteed a place in the program.”
“I’ve already decided to never use my magic without limits again. It’s dangerous, and trust me when I say I know what I’m capable of. The last thing I want is for a contestant to die tomorrow.”
“I guess.” A sigh escaped Exliana’s lips. “Well, we really should get some sleep.”
“Yeah, we definitely should. Good night, Ex.”
“Good night, Nav. Good luck tomorrow.”