Competing Magic (Chapter Fifteen)
"Hello?" went Ezekiel as he walked into the barren room. His footsteps on the golden wood floor echoed off the whitewash walls.
There was no one in the room.
Thinking he might have gotten into the wrong room, unlikely as that sounded, Ezekiel pulled out the paper notice that Professor Wu had given him after suddenly tricking him into joining the interschool games. On the paper were details about where and when training for the games would take place.
Nope, this was definitely the right place.
"Ezekiel? What are you doing here?"
Ezekiel turned around as Sarah Wu came in. She had a piece of paper in her hand just like the one Ezekiel had.
"That's a foolish question," Ezekiel replied. "Your brother tricked me into taking part in the interschool competitions. Since you're here, I assume he's done the same to you. This is where we're supposed to have training for the coming games we're supposed to take part in."
"Yeah," replied Sarah.
While she was on her way to lunch, Sarah explained, Professor Wu had caught up to her with a notice to head over to this room. She was horrified to find out that he had signed her up to compete against Merlin Institute without asking her first. And she was definitely not thrilled with the idea of losing what little free time she had to train for a competition she didn't want to enter in the first place.
"I wanted to get out of it, but after hearing how excited my parents were, I couldn't really do that," Sarah said. "Jeez! What is James thinking?"
So Professor Wu got her the same way he got me, Ezekiel thought. Great. As if this whole thing wasn't already enough of a headache.
Pulling out his phone, Ezekiel discovered that the coach was two minutes late already.
He sighed in exasperation. Some prestigious school this place turned out to be. Professor Wu was one thing, but you'd expect a coach of such an important school like Paladin Academy to at least be on time. Especially when time was short for training.
Sarah dropped her book bag by his feet and sat down on the floor. Although it was undignified, Ezekiel did the same. With nothing better to do, the two spent the next ten minutes quietly doing their homework while waiting for the tardy coach. Ezekiel was halfway through his arithmetic exercises by the time the scrawny man in a white lab coat burst in.
"Sorry I'm late!" the man shouted. He had a high, but strong piercing voice and a British accent. His wavy hair was combed back up, exposing a large forehead. "I was finishing up a part of some research at the science department and lost track of the time."
"The science department?" went Ezekiel. "I thought I was training for the MAGIC games."
"You are," said the man. "You are Ezekiel von Ghoul, aren't you? And you must be Sarah Wu. I am Doctor Smith, new member of the science department. However, I am a licensed magician and a former professional athlete in magic games and competitions. If you do a little research, I'm sure you'll find that I am the most suitable of all the teachers in this school to help coach you in the forthcoming magic competitions."
Ezekiel doubtfully looked the teacher up and down. This man, Doctor Smith, looked nothing like a magician. Beneath the lab coat, he wore a tight-fitting dress shirt and sweater vest. His trouser leggings were so short, that his ankles were exposed. No matter how he looked at him,
Ezekiel could see nothing more than an adult science nerd. Just what was the magic department thinking, having a scientist coach him and Sarah for a magic competition? Magic and Science are complete opposites!
"You're a new teacher here?" he asked, striking up what he thought was a polite conversation.
"That's right," said Doctor Smith. "I started just at the beginning of this year. Although, my main duty is helping other scientists in their advanced research. Right now, I'm helping a professor in Quantum Physics from the United States develop something special."
"Like what?" Ezekiel asked, his interest somewhat piqued.
"Oh, I shouldn't say," Doctor Smith said. "This is supposed to be top secret stuff. Only people with high level clearance can know about it."
Then don't talk about it in the first place, Ezekiel thought.
"But now is not the time to talk about that," Doctor Smith continued.
"We're not here about what goes on in the science department. We're here to train in some magic.
"Now then," he said, clapping his hands together, "there are many different kinds of magic-based tournaments. The one you two have joined is a magic version of Capture the Flag. As the name suggests, the goal of the game is to capture the other team's flag before they can get your flag. For the magic version of the game, one person stays to defend the flag by creating obstacles with whatever magic spells they can think of. The other person has the job of running through the obstacles of the other team to try and grab their flag. Simple, right? Wrong. In order to win, you not only need to have the speed, agility and strength of an athlete, you also need to have a varied and in-depth knowledge of magic that you can use to strategize and trip up your opponents. And it helps to be creative in order to escape whatever traps your opponents lay out."
As he spoke, Doctor Smith moved his hands about. Sometimes he waved them around. Other times, he just wringed air with his fingers. And he paced around, sometimes even turning away from the students he was giving a lecture to. It was as if he was unable to stay still for even a moment.
"For your training, you two will be going against me in mock battles. You will take turns trying to evade my magical traps while your partner tries stop me from taking your flag with traps of their own. Like they say, experience makes the best teacher, and so on. Let's get to it, then."
"Huh? Now?" exclaimed a startled Sarah.
Doctor Smith stamped his heel twice on the floor. A second after that second heel stamp, the room quaked.
"Whoa!" Sarah cried out.
Startled, Ezekiel slid sideways across the wall he had leaned his back against as he had sat back, and his shoulder hit the floor.
The four walls and ceiling fell back, and the wood planks of the floor split apart and twisted. Traces of the previous room disappeared and Ezekiel found he and Sarah were sitting in the center of an arena that looked like a basketball court complete with high rising bleachers with polished wood seating. A single red line divided the court which was illuminated by blinding overhead lamps hanging from the indescribable ceiling.
"What are you waiting for?" Doctor Smith shouted as he stood at one end of the arena. He was standing, grinning from ear to ear, beside a six-foot pole that bore a large white flag. And with him was a featureless mannequin. He looked like a child excited with anticipation over a new amusement park ride. "Come on. Decide who's doing what and then get to your places."
Ezekiel exchanged looks with Sarah, who shrugged. Together, they made their way to their end of the arena. They stood on either side of the red flag.
"Hey, so I'll go after the flag while you play defense," Sarah said. "Sound good?"
Ezekiel scowled at her. "Who made you in charge?" he wondered in silence.
Seeing that scowl, Sarah glared back, demanding "What?"
"Nothing," Ezekiel said, sourly turning away. He wanted to argue with her, but his own plan was pretty much the same as hers. Since she knew Kung Fu, the role of runner was perfect for Sarah, while Ezekiel, who was definitely the better mage, could craft traps with his magic power as easily as breathing.
"Now, before we begin, let me lay down some more ground rules," said Doctor Smith. "One, you absolutely cannot attack the other team or engage them in direct combat. Two, traps need to stay on your side of the court. You can't set up any curses or traps past the boundary line. And Three, there's a limit to the kinds of traps and pranks you can pull. Traps that can hurt people are big no-nos, as are anything that could break the mind to the point of being scarred for life. Breaking any of these rules will result in immediate disqualification in the real competition. So please keep that in mind. Everyone got that?"
Sarah and Ezekiel replied with a collective long, monotone "Yes".
"Good," Doctor Smith said with a satisfied nod. He snapped his fingers and a cluster of dark brown tree bark flew out and grew. The streak of wood bent and stretched until it resembled a solid giant number "5".
"When the signal (that giant piece of wood floating above our heads) reaches zero, we begin! Get ready!"
The giant piece of wood blinked into the shape of "4". And the it blinked into the shape of "3". As the giant piece of wood transformed to count down, Sarah crouched into a runner's starting stance. Doctor Smith did some arm stretches, gave the two students a determined glare, and then conjured a chair that he laid back on. Ezekiel didn't let that bother him. He was used to that kind of attitude thanks to Professor Wu. Then the wood transformed into the shape of "2". And then "1". And finally "0".
The wood burst into a dazzling fireworks display that lit up the top of the arena. Doctor Smith raised his hands up, signaling his magic power to raise a variety of obstacles from within the floor. These included pitfalls, mud puddles, walls made of brown jelly, and huge, inflatable clowns. At the same time, the mannequin at his side broke into a run, dashing across the floor like a bullet train.
Sarah sprang forward and ran with all her might, making it to the center of the court at the same time as Doctor Smith's animated doll. She glanced at the mannequin for a second as they brushed past each other. The doll seemed to respond with a glance of its own, and then the two parted.
When Sarah started her run, Ezekiel wagged his fingers about like a music conductor. Black smoke flew from his fingers and bounced around his half of the court. An army of snakes crowded the area. Two serpents, the largest of the entire pack, flanked either side of the flag. These two were large enough to swallow horses whole.
Ezekiel waited in anticipation of the mannequin. He was looking forward to seeing his creations tear the doll to pieces with all sorts of curses and spells that he had never had the chance to try out before now.
Without the hesitation most humans would have, the mannequin dove into the pool of snakes that Ezekiel had conjured. It deftly hopped from snake head to snake head, kicking and punching the snakes away before they had the chance to coil around its legs and arms. One snake that rose a distance spewed black sludge out of its mouth. That black sludge was meant to dry and harden around the mannequin, trapping it. But the mannequin noticed, and jumped high in the air, boosted up by a burst of wind at its heel. The mannequin twisted in a downward arch. Black sludge followed the puppet's hand like metal to a magnet, and drawn toward clusters of snakes, splashing them, and trapping them instead in a frustrating mess.
While the battle between snakes and a mannequin was going on, Sarah was ducking beneath balloon clowns, and hopping over mud puddles. She skirted around the walls of brown jelly, and scaled between various pitfall traps. Deep in the pits, she could see colorful pillows laid out in no set pattern.
Even though Sarah was making great progress through the obstacles, Doctor Smith didn't seem worried at all. In fact, he wasn't even paying attention to the game, and instead, opted to read a magazine that had a picture of some atoms on the cover.
He is seriously underestimating us, Ezekiel thought as he watched the science man lounge about.
After successfully eluding all the traps Doctor Smith set up, Sarah made a straight-line run towards the flag. Doctor Smith didn't even bat an eye when Sarah ran past him. He just flicked to the next page of his magazine. Sarah glanced back with an uncertain look in her eye, but she kept going and reached for the flag.
The moment her finger brushed around the side of the pole, Sarah was suddenly covered in a shell of brown bark. No wonder Doctor Smith had been so relaxed. He had set a trap, using the flag itself. Sarah didn't suspect a thing.
"Wu!" Ezekiel cried out. Dreadful memories cropped up of when Sarah had been turned into a statue.
The shell of tree bark exploded and at the center where Sarah would have been was a rabbit whose fur color was identical to the brown bark Doctor Smith always conjured. The rabbit fidgeted right and left, and glanced up. She tilted her head a bit in confusion. Then, she felt around her face with her small paws. Now rabbits aren't known for their expressive faces, but it seemed to Ezekiel that the rabbit was struck with horror. She was practically tearing off the fur atop her head between her ears.
"Oh, come now, Miss Wu," said Doctor Smith, glancing over his magazine. "No need to make such a fuss. The spell will wear off by the end of the game, so you don't have to worry about spending the rest of your life as a rabbit. Although, I don't see how we can continue with you being a rabbit and all."
The rabbit was hopping mad, pun intended. Ezekiel didn't understand what she could be thinking, but he was relieved to see Sarah otherwise unscathed. And he thought it amusing how the rabbit was now trying to use its tiny paws to try and lift the flag bearing, six-foot pole.
But now wasn't the time to be distracted by a funny spectacle. Ezekiel didn't know how much longer his snakes could hold off that mannequin. He quickly cast a spell to break the curse on Sarah. Black smoke burst from the rabbit's feet and covered her in a cylinder cocoon that reached up to the ceiling. When the smoke dispersed, Sarah was human again.
Sarah flashed Ezekiel a thumbs up before continuing her efforts to yank the pole off. She stopped when she saw something at the pole's base, and then conjured vivid red fire from both hands which she hurled at the tree bark that served as the pole's stand.
"Oh, real smart," Doctor Smith remarked. "I've really underestimated you kids. But can you get back to your side before my puppet gets back to mine?"
Sarah glowered at the scientist as she lifted the pole over her shoulder. She didn't answer him and ran towards the obstacles again, stumbling at the start of her charge beneath the weight of the flag.
As Sarah made her way back through the obstacles a second time, the puppet was already at the halfway point. The mannequin swiftly dodged all of the snakes' attacks, striking back with bursts of magic power of its own. Only the two giant snakes that guarded the flag were left, but not even they could stop the mannequin from completing its goal.
Even the sword the mannequin had conjured was made entirely out of dark brown wood, the mannequin easily sliced off the serpents' heads as cleanly as a knife would cut soft butter. Ezekiel could only stare incredulously as the mannequin pulled the flag from its stand and made its way back to Doctor Smith's side.
"Oh no you don't!" Ezekiel shouted.
As a last ditch effort, Ezekiel had every snake that could still move to spring at the mannequin. Dozens of the small, obsidian-scaled serpents tightly wrapped themselves around the mannequin. They were all part of Ezekiel's obstacles and would only wrap themselves tight enough that the mannequin couldn't move, so it wasn't like he was breaking any of the rules.
But alas, even with all of the snakes piling on top of the mannequin, it wasn't enough to stop it from reaching its goal. As soon as the last of the snakes became a part of the massive cocoon, they were all swallowed up into a ball of brown tree bark. The wood ball crumbled into a pile of splinters and only the mannequin was left standing. It stepped over the wooden remains of the snakes and ran past the border line. All the traps and obstacles that Doctor Smith had conjured moved aside on their own, leaving a clear path for the mannequin to take.
"Better hurry!" Doctor Smith called out casually to Sarah, whose slow progress only got her halfway through Doctor Smith's side of the court. She ignored the scientist and continued her way.
When Sarah reached the clowns, she twirled the flag around, using staff and spear techniques to swat them aside, or, preferably to her, pop the creepy things. The mannequin already passed her at this point, but she was undaunted. With a determined fire in her eye, she continued to make her way back to the other side of the court. But just as she was about to cross the line that divided the two sides, she found that Doctor Smith still had one more surprise in store for her.
Just a few feet from the border line, Sarah stopped. Ezekiel wondered what she was doing, pausing at the worst possible time. But then he saw her pull at her feet. Even before Sarah gingerly took off her shoes as used them as stepping stools, Ezekiel realized that Doctor Smith must have conjured some kind of invisible glue trap on the floor. And just in case there were more glue traps around her, Sarah tossed the flag over the line before leaping off of her shoes towards the other side. She landed on the floor and started to run hard towards her goal. But by the time she laded, it was already over.
Doctor Smith's mannequin put the flag in its new stand, and a loud horn blared. The game had finished with Doctor Smith's victory.
A tornado of brown tree bark suddenly hit the stadium and within a few seconds, it dispersed, restoring the room to how it was before, just a simple barren room with four white walls and a bright wood floor.
"Hmm," went Doctor Smith, nodding with satisfaction. Even though Ezekiel was downright exhausted from conjuring all those snakes and traps, the scientist, himself, didn't look tired at all. "Not bad. I'm quite impressed. Even though I was holding back, you two lasted a lot longer than I thought. Keep up the good work and I've no doubt that you'll both become splendid mages in the future."
"Thanks for that," Sarah said, breathlessly. Ezekiel couldn't tell if she was being sarcastic or not. Although, she did look about as bitter of the defeat as Ezekiel felt.
"Well, will you look at the time," Doctor Smith said, glancing at his watch. "We'll end our time here for now and meet back same time tomorrow."
Ezekiel and Sarah didn't have any objections. After a few minutes to rest up, Ezekiel, Sarah, and Doctor Smith bade each other polite farewells and went their separate ways. Ezekiel didn't go far before he spotted the Desorciere twins. Judging by the way they were approaching him after hanging around in the middle of the hall, they were probably waiting for him.
"Come to make unfounded accusations of me again?" Ezekiel dryly asked.
Jacques Desorciere scowled.
"No," he said. "We wanted to ask you about something."
"And what, pray tell, is it?" Ezekiel asked. He tried to sound like he didn't care, but in truth, he was really curious.
"Do you know anything about something your dad might have handled over eleven years ago?"
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