Kier climbed up the ladder to the dust-filled loft that he and his brother used to share. He hadn’t returned to Karsen in a good few years – regrettably. He had spent his time travelling with the famed Corvina Varnseling – one of the most powerful witches in Rakatraah, and consuming every volume about magic that he could find.
It was everything he had ever dreamed.
But being back here, in Karsen with its old air was familiarity, was comforting.
Even though the loft always smelt faintly of boiled cabbage, and the dust in the air made him cough – it was home. And Kier wondered why he didn’t return sooner.
Tubby was currently taking up Herron’s bed. He was the stray cat that Kier had found outside a pub a few weeks before he left. Herron had despised him, but Kier knew Herron was soft on the inside – he wouldn’t have kept Tubby otherwise.
“Herron,” Kier called.
“I’m coming, just hold on,” Herron’s voice came from behind the curtain. The water was running – he was probably taking a bath.
Kier had received a letter from him late at night, inviting him to watch the Maryana Tournament. It was held in Safra every year. There was a lot of fighting and performances on the more dangerous end of the spectrum. It wasn’t really to Kier’s taste, but tickets were hard to get, and it was him who hadn’t visited in forever – so it was up to Herron to choose what they were going to do.
His brother emerged from the bathroom with a clatter of the pan – small living space problems. Herron groaned and picked it back up. Kier couldn’t help but think how different he looked.
Herron took after their father; long, wiry limbs and a mess of auburn hair that never behaved. There were heavy bags under his moss green eyes – purple like bruises on his paler than usual skin.
“Are you sick?” Kier asked, touching Herron’s arm. All he felt was skin and bone.
“No,” Herron replied, raspier than usual. He rubbed at his eyes – they were bloodshot and red. “Just tired.”
“Well, you should rest then, I won’t be leaving for another few days, and you know, we have time aplenty for quality bonding—”
“When have I ever wanted to intentionally spend time with you?” Herron grumbled. He pushed Tubby to the side and sat down on the bed.
Kier swallowed. “Oh.” He thought after a few years apart, things would be different between them. But Herron was still as bitter as ever. “Do you need something then?”
Herron buried his face in his hands. There were patched-up holes all over the back of his shirt. Working labour in Karsen didn’t pay for much, but it at least paid for clothing when it was needed.
“Father’s ill,” Herron said.
Kier’s heart gave a jump. “What? When? How come I don’t know about this?”
“I didn’t want you to get distracted from your sorcerer apprenticing,” Herron said. “And also because I didn’t have the money to send the letters. I gave it all to the local healer. She was the best I could afford, and she said that he had to be taken into the city, but I… I don’t have the money.”
He tore at his hair, still damp from the bath. Worry lines marred his face.
Kier felt horrible. He had been off living the time of his life, and his brother had only been a passing thought.
“What can I do?” Kier asked. Herron looked up at him, corners of his lips pulled tight. “Please, Herron.”
“Nothing,” Herron said. “Watch me compete in the tournament tomorrow.”
“Tournament?” Kier said, his mind not quite processing it. “The Maryana Tournament?” His eyes grew to the size of dinner plates. “No, Herron, that is… too dangerous.”
The Maryana Tournament was known for its casualties. Jumping through rings of fire, taming savage dogs.
It wasn’t a place for the faint of heart.
“What do you suggest I do then?” Herron said. “Even if I don’t win, the money I get paid would be enough.”
Kier knelt in front of Herron, uncontrollable tears wobbling his face. “Please, Herron, don’t do it. Think about how Father would feel.”
“He is delirious out of his mind!” Herron yelled. “He cannot think, Kier!” Kier backed away at his brother’s outburst. “Unless you can somehow make money appear out of thin air.”
“That is not how my powers works,” Kier said.
“Then you are no use,” Herron sneered. “I don’t even know why I told you to come.”
Kier had learnt not to take Herron’s words to heart. They were harsher than he actually meant them. But this time, they made the tears come faster.
Herron always made fun of him for that.
“Please don’t tell me you want me to watch,” Kier said. “I can't do that, Herron.”
“No one ever said you have to watch me die,” Herron said. “But in the event that I might, I want you there.”
“Why?” Kier asked. “You don’t think that would scar me for the rest of my life? That you know, emotionally, I might not cope that well, that I might… miss you?”
“When have you ever missed me?” Herron said, standing up. “You are living your dream, the dream that everyone told you was impossible. Even half out of his mind, Father is muttering your name. When I’m sitting by his bedside, he is imagining that it is you. Because it has always been you! You are the one with the powers, special and unique. People made fun of you but you didn’t care, and in the end, it all worked out for you. And I’m still here.”
Kier scrambled for words, but he had none. Herron was always the one laughing at him, telling him that his dreams were nothing. Yet, what was the cost of those dreams? He didn’t even know his own father was ill or that his brother could barely keep food on the plate, let alone pay for a doctor.
“I’m sorry, Herron,” he said. “Really sorry.”
“What?” The look of disbelief was written all over his face. “Why are you… why are you sorry? That you’re the favourite? I’ve lived with that for a long time.”
“I am sorry that I have been so far away. That I was off chasing my dreams, and I left you here. And Tubby.” The cat gave a purr at his name.
“It’s not your fault,” Herron said. “I thought I could make something of myself out here in the city. That I could fight my way to the top, enjoy the luxuries the world had to offer. I was so wrong.” He walked to the miniscule kitchen. “I should cook something.” He opened the cupboard, sighing at its emptiness. “Guess we could boil a potato. I’ll fry some fish for Tubby.”
“You give the meat to Tubby?” Kier asked.
“Well, I’ve grown to like the cat,” Herron replied. “And I think he will miss me if I die tomorrow.”
Kier did not like this at all. His heart was beating so fast he could hear it pounding in his ears. He sucked in a few deep breaths, but he forgot how dusty Karsen was, so all that did was burn his sinuses.
“Kier, you can’t be here,” Herron said. “The tent is for contestants only.”
“I can’t just leave you,” Kier said. “I don’t want this to be the last time I see you before you die a horrible death.”
“Wow, way to reassure me,” Herron said. But he couldn’t fool Kier. The fear on his face was evident, but he hid it behind a mask of nonchalance. Kier didn’t know what else to do, so he opened his arms for a hug. Herron backed away, “What are you doing?”
“Don’t you want a hug?” Kier asked, taking his arms back awkwardly.
“When have I ever wanted a hug from you?” Herron said, giving Kier a push. “Now get out of here.”
Kier made his way to the stands.
“Who do you think will die first?” the woman beside him said. “My bet is the skinny kid.”
“Well, sometimes the skinny ones can surprise you. I think it’s going to be the girl.”
Kier looked towards the centre where all the contestants were lined up. Right at the end was his brother; his head was bowed, shirt hanging limp from his body.
Around him, people continued to gossip about who was going to die, who was going to win.
A horn sounded throughout the stadium. “Welcome, welcome, ladies and gentlemen to the annual Maryana Tournament!” The crowd cheered. “My name is Arkturus Talenfay, and I will be commentating the competition. One person out of these twenty contestants will be walking away with the title. Maryana Tournament champion! Who will it be? I guess we will find out. Let the tournament begin!”
Kier wanted to look because he wanted to see where his brother was at all times, but he also didn’t want to look.
“Now, hear the rules of the first competition Twenty contestants against ten savage dogs. They must fight off the dogs for half an hour. Contestants are forbidden to leave the stadium at any time, even in the event of serious injury, or death.”
The dogs were released from all corners of the arena. Their eyes gleamed, and they snapped their teeth, looking like they hadn’t eaten in days.
The contestants remained perfectly still, their breaths almost frosting up the air, even though winter was long past. Kier watched Herron. He knew his brother was scared, but Herron was tougher than he looked, and Kier prayed to whatever god would listen that he would be all right.
The dogs barked and ran, kicking up dirt as they went. The contestants fled, but every which way they turned, there was a dog baring its razor-sharp teeth. They had been given nothing to fend the dogs off, only their bare hands.
So it wasn’t long before the blood came.
A dog pounced at the woman on the far right. She had been fighting another one, driving a stick between its teeth, but another one had come from behind. She let go of the stick as she was knocked to the ground.
She barely had time to scream before the dog sunk its teeth into her neck. The blood spurted from her skin, splattering on her pale and lifeless face.
“It appears we have our first death, ladies and gentlemen,” Arkturus announced, sounding delighted.
“Told you the girl was going to die first.”
“The skinny one still isn’t doing well either. There’s a good chance he will die next.”
Kier swallowed down his meagre breakfast that was fighting its way up his throat, and looked to Herron who had fallen to his knees. Kier’s heart was hanging on a string, watching Herron scramble his way back up, clawing at the dirt.
An old man died next. He had attempted to climb out of the stadium, but his legs gave out, and down he went tumbling. He broke his neck when he landed and the dogs feasted on his body.
“Well, that would certainly teach them the consequences of trying to leave,” Arkturus said.
A boy not much older than Kier had died jumping in front of a boy with stark white hair. “No, Semi!” The white-haired boy clutched onto Semi’s broken body and cried.
The dogs got to him soon after.
“Isn’t that sweet?” Arkturus commented once again, and there was nothing Kier wished more than to shove that voice projector down his throat.
Herron ran across the stadium. Herron had always been a runner, but Kier wasn’t very confident about him outrunning a savage dog.
The people kept dropping like flies. Kier couldn’t watch anymore. Some people lay on the ground, limbs still twitching like a broken puppet.
A dog ran towards Herron, and just as it pounced, the stadium door opened, and the remaining few tumbled through the door. Kier’s head fell into his hands, breathing so, so heavily. After he caught his breath, he clambered down the stands to the competitor’s tent.
Herron was sitting on a bed. His shirt was torn, bleeding scratches across his back. Kier approached his brother tentatively. Herron’s gasping breaths made it as though he was drowning on air.
“You’re not meant to be here, Kier.” His teeth were gritted as the nurse pressed a cotton pad to the scratches. He hissed, groaning in pain.
“Herron, please just drop out,” Kier said, thinking he was going to cry again. “You’ve made it one round, that’s more than enough money.”
“It’s not,” Herron said.
“You said it would be enough,” Kier said.
“I lied,” Herron said. “I have to win.”
“You won’t win in your condition,” Kier said, wondering when his brother would see sense. “Herron, please… just please. I don’t want you to die. I will stay longer, we can both work extra hours to get the money.”
“Father will be dead by then,” Herron said. “We need the money today.”
Kier made a sound somewhere between a groan and a choke and a cry to convey his frustration. He peered through the door into the stadium to see what the next round would be.
It was rings of fire.
“Fine then,” Kier said, walking back. “If we must win, we will win.”
“What?” Herron said, looking up.
“I will take your place for the next round,” Kier said.
Herron shook his head. “No, most certainly not,” he said. “I am not going to let you go out there and be an idiot.”
“Says the idiot!” Kier said, surprised by how loud his voice was. “Think about how I have been feeling all morning watching savage dogs chase after you wondering which one is going to disembowel you. You’re my brother, Herron, you may hate me, but I don’t want you to die.”
“I don’t hate you,” Herron said. “But if you get hurt, that’s on me. I wouldn’t be able to bear that.”
“You think I could bear you dying! That I would just go on living my life. I don’t care if I have to give up living my dream. I would do it for you and Father, so please, let me do this for him,” Kier said. “It’s rings of fire. There is less chance of me dying.”
“I’m still not agreeing to this,” Herron said.
Arkturus paraded into the room, fancy coat billowing with the wind. “How are the remaining contestants? Ready for the next challenge?”
“Excuse me,” Kier said, trying to sound more confident than he was.
“Young man, you are not a contestant,” Arkturus said. “Please proceed to the stands if you are watching the tournament.”
“I would like to take Herron’s place,” Kier said.
Arkturus only quirked up an eyebrow. “You know there are rules against that.”
“I know,” Kier said. “But if you bet your money on me, I can guarantee you a win.” He snapped his fingers, a flame lighting up in his palm. “Fire is my speciality.”
“That certainly makes it interesting. Very well, I will grant it.”
Kier turned back to Herron. “I will be all right.” Herron sniffed, looking away. Kier was surprised to see the tears in his brother’s eyes. Even more surprised upon realising that he had never seen Herron cry before.
Without a word, Herron stood and embraced him. “I’m sorry, Kier,” he said. “I was an idiot.”
“Well, we’re all idiots sometimes,” Kier muttered. “I will see you in a bit.
He broke away from his brother and headed towards the door, into the arena.
There were several ladders propped up across the stadium. Each ladder led to a small platform, and a fair bit below it was a hoop. Roaring with flames.
“The second competition is known as the Rings of Fire. Contestants must climb up the ladder, onto the platform. There will be a moment where the fires cease, they must jump through it before the fires resume. Granted they do not fall to their deaths.”
Kier looked at the crowd of people. The arena was so packed; thousands of eyes staring down at him. How did Herron do this, knowing they were gaining amusement from every drop of blood spilled.
Kier breathed, feeling the familiar warmth of his magic flooding through his veins. He ascended the ladder, trying to disregard the way his hands trembled as they gripped onto the rungs. Higher and higher he climbed, until he stood on the platform.
It was wobbly and absent of railings.
The flames were dancing, brighter and wilder than ever. The other contestants all waited for the moment the fire should cease.
And as the fire ceased for them, enough to make their jump.
Kier’s went on.
The other contestants hit the ground, screaming as they jumped through, their legs breaking beneath them.
“Looks like we have one contestant who missed their jump,” Arkturus said. “What will he do now?”
Kier sucked in the deepest breath he could. The fire was still raging, but he jumped. Soaring through the air, he caught onto the wind. The minute Kier hit the red flames, black fire burst from his skin. It engulfed the red and diminished it.
Then, with a kicking of dust, he landed.
Kier’s vision swirled with his dark fire, and then it went completely black.
He woke a moment later, to Arkturus’s shouts. “Ladies and gentlemen, it looks like we have a winner!”
Kier just lay in the dust, looking up at the sky, and those rings of fire, thinking there had never been a moment where he was more free, even though carnage lay around him.
He held up his hand, and summoned a flame, smiling at the beauty of its dance.