“You are fighting like a girl!”Derek chuckles and immediately gets a pulsar in his face. Not big, not strong, but enough to shut his mouth before I launch my next attack, which swipes him off his feet and lets me put a blade to his neck.
“You were saying?” I smirk at my sparring partner and notice Rick and Norton laughing in the corner of my eye. Big mistake. As this is when Der knocks me down with a masterful kick to my legs and is on top of me in seconds, breathing heavily.
“Every freaking time!” He wriggles his eyebrows, and he is definitely much closer to me than he should be. That’s why it’s so easy to kick him to his jewels and push him off.
“Every freaking time!” I mimic him as he rolls on the floor.
“Still my win; this is a prohibited move,” he groans through the pain.
“Who cares? You know far too well that in a real-life situation, the win would be mine,” I snort and give him a hand to help him up.
He bounces up quickly and holds his head high. This is exactly why he is the leader of our little team of future battle mages. Always in control, always ready to fight. Again and again. And also because he is open-minded. When I had just got into the Royal Academy of Magical Arts and joined the Faculty of Battle Magic, no one wanted to pair with me in fights or even in classroom experiments. I was an outcast. A girl who dared to dream of being a warrior. It wasn’t unheard of, but usually, the girls who joined were the bigger and stronger ones. And I was a girly girl. The one with long red locks and a slender frame with curves where needed, the one wearing pretty dresses and make-up. So, yeah, no one was happy, and they all thought I’d just made a mistake and would drop out soon enough. Until one day, Derek personally chose me as a member of his battle team and as his sparring partner. Everyone thought that he was crazy or just wanted to date me. But nope, none of those things. I personally thought that he took me in out of pity. But considering that he hasn’t shown mercy on me in battle even once, I don’t think that it was that either.
However, when our team outperformed everyone at the Academy’s most important yearly tournament, and not without my help, it became clear – he is just a natural-born leader and has a good eye for warriors. As he told me later, he saw that I was the diamond in the rough. And that’s how Diamond, or Di, became my nickname in the team. Oh well. I guess it could be worse.
The four of us go to get some water and take a well-earned rest when a sharp pain pierces my heart. I drop my flask and scream: the pain is unbearable. Hot, so hot!
“Di! Di!” Derek tries to shake me and looks at me with horror in his eyes, “What happened? Does it hurt? Mira, please say something! Was it me? Did I break something?”
Mira… He almost never calls me that.
Unable to breathe, I tear off the top buttons of my training costume, trying to get to the source of my pain. I notice how the boys’ faces flush red at my actions, and Derek, who still holds me in his arms, doesn’t look like he is able to breathe.
Heart, my heart is on fire... Something is there. Something that shouldn’t be, and I want to claw it out!
I finally get to it, the area just above my breast, and see the eyes of my teammates looking there with horror and shock.
“Mira!” Derek pushes me into him and embraces me tightly. His voice sounds as if he is in…pain? Why? What happened? What did he see?
Slowly, my pain goes away, and I am able to breathe normally again. But it’s a while till I come back to reality and realise that Derek is still holding me in his arms. What the hell?
I slowly distance myself from him and see the faces of my friends. They looked like I am dead already… Why? Why would they…
I quickly look at the area, which still stings a bit, and a chill runs down my spine. It can’t be! It just can’t! Not possible! No!
And yet the Mark of the Dark Ones is there, shining dark purple light – the light of the dark magic. The pattern is known by everyone in the kingdom. The sign that takes away my freedom forever. With that, I just lost everything, and I will have to leave the Academy without even graduating.
What’s worse, I will have to enter the one thing I detest more than anything – The Dark Selection. The infamous event where the Dark Lords of the neighbouring Gerdian Empire will choose their brides among human girls. And the girls have no say in anything that is going on there. As soon as the mark arrives, they become the property of the Empire. Dolls, destined for one purpose only… creating offspring for the Dark Ones and looking pretty by their side. Although, I guess that's two things.
“It can’t be–” I mumble and look at my friends again. I am met with dead silence. Der and Rick are looking at me with sadness in their eyes, while Norton simply turns away and hits the wall next to him.
“Do you want to take part in that?” Derek asks me after a while.
“Do I look to you like someone who would enjoy something like that?!” I yell in frustration and finally come back to my senses.
Derek quickly closes the distance between us and takes a scarf off his neck, wrapping it around me to cover the mark.
“Hide it, then.” He hisses, looking around. “Rick, Nort, make sure no one saw us just now. Check the corridors behind the training room.”
The guys follow his orders, and I just watch them absent-mindedly.
“Mira.” The leader takes my face into his hands and turns me to look at him. “It’s going to be OK. We will hide you and get rid of the mark. They will have to take someone else instead of you. We are mages, after all – I am sure we can figure something out!”
“They will find me!” I feel tears burning my eyes, but I refuse to spill them.
“No, you are not alone. We are a team, Mira, and we are going to protect you! Now, let me walk you to your room. Stay there until I come back. Got it?”
“Yeah,” I sigh. It's not like I have a better plan at the moment. I need to think.
Back in my room at the dorm, I am still distressed. I take a shower, trying to bring my thoughts into order. Standing in front of a mirror, I take a look at the mark. For a second, it feels like it suddenly gets darker in the room and harder to breathe. I notice a strange shadow in my window and run towards it. But no matter how long I stare in the darkness, I can't see anything.
“It’s just your imagination, Mira!” I say to myself, trying to calm down once again. The stress is taking its toll on me.
I change into my silk nightgown and get into bed.
For a second it seems that if I get to sleep, this nightmare will be over once I am up. And at that thought, the darkness consumes me.