It was the tenth and final day of the qualifiers and Steven was lucky enough to still be on stage. Of the ten contenders from the Felidae clan, six were still in the competition.
An astounding number considering that the Duchess’ champions with their superior training and resource allocation had only managed to retain seven seats and the next successful Marquis house, the Primate clan, had only retained five.
Come the end of the competition, there would be a great reshuffling of the resources and standings among the clans. Such was Regiis empire policy.
A meritocratic monarchy where aristocrats were made, not born.
Truly speaking, there was a large dollop of luck involved in the Felidae clan’s success. Steven and Lionel had both somehow avoided meeting a Tier 2 opponent in all nine of their matches. Thus, they had survived while the equally talented Gerard, Messi and Fifa had been eliminated by their encounters with Tier 2 mages.
Lionel’s experience in the Gladiatorial pits had given him disproportional battle experience compared to his peers and with his stoic and careful nature, he had crushed his opposition one premeditated step at a time.
He had even earned a fan following and a moniker: The Wall, for blocking the paths of many an ambitious talent.
Steven on the other hand had relied upon his extremely high affinity with shadow, which gave him greater control over his mana compared to his peers, allowing him to make use of Shadow Walk partially, even while at Tier 1.
His irate opponents had saddled him with the unflattering epithet of ‘the Backstabber’ for dispatching all of them via sneak attacks with his dual knives.
They didn’t know how appropriate their spiteful nickname really was.
He sighed as he waited for his final obstacle between the finals to appear while he mused on the circumstances.
Today was the last day of the qualifiers, it was similarly the final day before the clash between the clan head and the sun wolf.
Tomorrow at dawn, the two famed warriors would meet to decide their respective destinies. Tomorrow, only one would leave the battlefield alive.
A feminine form flashed in his mind. Tomorrow, whatever the outcome, it would be the last time his path would cross with hers.
The sound of the referee ringing the gong alerted him to the entrance of his opponent into the arena.
He was a large man in full plate armour, burnished to shine brightly under the morning sun. He wielded a long sword singlehandedly while in another he held a large triangular shield.
His golden curls and blue eyes seemed to glitter under the sunlight and the majestic antlers on his head marked him as a member of the Cervidae clan which was under the jurisdiction of Marquis Primate.
Hanging around with Gerard had made Steven knowledgeable enough about the branches of military services that he could easily identify what his opponent was supposed to be.
While most light mages opted for the medical profession, some, more battle-focused individuals turned their gifts to war.
Armed with the heaviest of armours and a wide array of restorative spells, they were practically untiring, undying war machines.
There was a saying, “The battle is fought among armies. The Paladins are just there to disturb the lines.”
In a battlefield, it was too cost intensive to focus on the Paladins to take them out, so the modus operandi was to let them wreak havoc to their heart’s content while the two armies decided the victory and defeat and whichever army won would then turn around to exterminate the opposition’s Paladins.
Which gave rise to another saying: “All of them return, or none at all.”
It was an extremely bloodthirsty branch of military services and its members enjoyed a diametrically opposite reputation to their vaunted medical counterparts.
Steven, though no poet, found beauty in it. Destruction and construction, the two sides of the same coin. Together they created a balance.
Well, he had found beauty in it till now. Right now, knowing that he would have to face one of the infamous ‘Butchers of the Battlefield’, he couldn’t bring himself to be appreciative of their kind anymore.
The both of them took their stances across from each other, waiting for the battle to commence.
A slight breeze blew through the arena ruffling the Paladin’s golden curls and Steven’s jet-black hair.
The audience waited with bated breath as the referee brought down his mallet on the gong.
Drawing his twin daggers, Steven channeled his mana into them, throwing them at his shadow.
Incomplete Tier 2 shadow magic: Shadow Connection.
Only someone who had been dropped on his head as a baby would even think of engaging a Paladin in a battle of attrition. So, he started off with his signature spell hopeful it would catch the moving fortress off guard.
Tier 1 light magic: Flash.
No such luck, the Paladin immediately began glowing with a blinding brilliance washing away the shadows in his vicinity.
The mana reinforced shadow Steven had linked to his own was the only one that merely desalinated under the illumination, sticking out like a sore thumb.
The Paladin immediately spun around, bringing his shield to bear to block the attack.
Clenching his teeth, Steven cancelled the magic, recalling his daggers into the shadows of his palms, gripping them in a reversed grip.
It seemed that his opponent had extensive data on his technique and had prepared countermeasures.
Well, that was to be expected after nine days of flaunting it publicly.
Stepping on an erratic course, he rushed towards the armoured glowstick. Getting up close and personal with a Paladin wasn’t the brightest of ideas but it was the only path left to victory.
He would just have to hope that the cumbersome armour would slow the man enough for him to exploit his openings.
His form grew illusory as Shadow stealth and a disjointed arrhythmic gait combined to make him seem like a phantom in broad daylight.
The Paladin was as steady as a mountain as he squatted low, anchoring himself to the ground by digging the pointed end of his shield into the earth.
The radiant halo surrounding him grew even more dazzling as he poured his mana into it without restraint before rapidly cycling it in and out of his mindscape causing the light to flicker.
Tier 1 light magic: Strobe.
Steven’s footsteps faltered as his technique broke under the rapidly flickering light. Even protected by a film of shadow mana, his eyes watered as they struggled to adapt to the rapidly alternating darkness and light.
Screams of dismay resounded in the audience as they were blinded by the undifferentiated attack.
The moment of stagnation was enough for the Battlefield Butcher as he exploded forwards, the earth tremoring under the weight of his armour-clad body.
Swinging his sword one-handed from bottom to top, he didn’t hesitate to bisect Steven from crotch to shoulder.
Blood spattered on his face and scattered from his sword in an arc as the two halves of Steven’s body dropped to the ground.
A pool of blood slowly spread from the bisected remains of the Felidae contender.
His pristine armour dyed red with the blood of the fallen… a familiar feeling for him, he turned around towards the referee, seeking validation for his win as horrified shrieks covered the arena from the audience who were just now regaining their sights.
The referee seemed conflicted as the qualifiers were supposed to be spars, to be stopped before the injuries could become life-threatening.
Yet, here he was with a murder case on his hands. It was clearly deliberate… so should he disqualify the boy? But that would just make the Felidae contender’s death meaningless while allowing him to be promoted would just encourage more such incidents and make the finals unsafe.
The Paladin waited for his decision unemotionally.
He was his clan’s tool. A weapon created for this very competition, to help them break out of their current social stratum and reach for the proverbial blue skies.
So, what if a mere child had to be fed into the meat grinder known as the battlefield?
So, what if his innocence was sacrificed on the altar of their ambition?
Only victory mattered. So, they had trained him.
They had trained him a bit too well.
There were no spars on the battlefield. Only life and death. So, only when he felt his sword paring flesh and bone and the warmth of his opponent’s blood on his cheeks did he rest.
One victory, one death.
Maybe one day the death would be his.
Till then, he would fight.
The referee finally reached a decision and raised his head to announce it, opening his mouth only to stagnate, slack-jawed, as his eyes focused on something behind the Paladin.
A thick sense of crisis covered the Paladin and his pupils contracted fiercely.
The peculiarly small feedback from his sword as he cut through the opponent’s bones, the strangely small amount of blood adhering to his blade, the incongruously large amount of blood spattering on his face and body. These thoughts passed through his mind in an instant.
Reflexes trained through a life of waking the wire-rope of death saved him from having his head hewn off as he leapt forward into a roll before springing to his feet and spinning around.
The sight of the opponent he had marked as dead barely managing to stand there, pale with blood loss as he clutched two daggers dripping with his blood made even his battle-hardened heart vibrate.
He touched his neck which was gushing out blood with every beat of his heart.
His jugulars had been sheared.
His palms glowed with a soft radiance and the wounds healed at a speed visible to the naked eye.
Tier 2 light magic: Heal.
He had met all sorts of strange and unusual techniques in the battlefield. But it was the first time he saw someone coming back from the dead.
His eyes narrowed as he flared with magical light and took his stance. If once wasn’t enough, then twice.
If twice wasn’t enough then he would kill him as many times as necessary.
For victory wasn’t yet his.
Suddenly, the referee was there in between the two of them.
“Edward Cervidae, for your attempted murder during a sparring match, you are disqualified! The winner is Steven Felidae!”
Edward narrowed his eyes at the referee, taking his measure. Shaking his head, he turned around and walked away amidst the spirited discussion of the audience.
He wasn’t ready to kill a Tier 3 mage… yet.
Watching the cold-blooded monster walk away, Steven finally let himself relax and the combined effect of exhaustion, blood-loss and adrenaline caused him to sway on his feet before collapsing into the sweet embrace of unconsciousness.
It was a dark, moonless night.
Steven lay on the hospital bed wide awake.
Despite the severity of his injuries, it had only taken the healers a few hours to restore him to health. After all, the most talented healers from all over the province were agglomerated here.
After the news of his injury and the process of his battle had been disseminated, everyone had come to visit him, full of praises for his progress.
They had brought good news. Lionel had met a Tier 1 opponent and continued his win-streak, successfully reaching the finals. Making the final number of Felidae clan participants in the finals an even half-dozen.
He had felt the stirrings of pride at their praise, yet, when they had begun to discuss the coming battle between the clan head and the sun wolf, he had felt an invisible barrier slam shut between him and them.
He felt disconnected from them by the burden of his sin.
The figure of a female flashed in his mind.
It was her advice which had allowed him to develop his technique.
The one which had saved his life and clinched him victory.
And it was her praise, her commendation, that he craved the most.
Struggling to his feet, fighting against the bone-deep weariness that came from his body using up its energy reserves during the healing, he sneaked out of the hospital ward.
Making his way towards his apartment, the pavement felt cold beneath his bare feet and the night wind chilled him through his loose hospital gown.
Yet, he clenched his teeth and persevered, keeping to the shadows to avoid discovery.
Stumbling on an uneven flagstone he went careening towards the ground, only to be stopped by something soft before he could hit it.
A melodious voice spoke in his ear, tickling him with the warm and moist breath.
“Silly boy. Don’t run about while injured. Are you worried that elder sister won’t be able to find you if you aren’t by the tree? You forget. You didn’t have to tell me where you lived the first time.”
He deeply inhaled her scent, memorizing it and the feel of her body, and contrary to his expectations she let him.
They stood there in an alley, wrapped in shadow and silence for an instant that stretched into an eternity before she swept him up onto her back. Ignoring his protests, she leapt from wall to wall until she was running on the rooftops.
Finally reaching his apartment, she Shadow walked into it and set him down on the bed before unlatching the window and throwing it wide.
Taking a seat on the sill, illuminated from behind by the dim starlight, her abyssal black eyes touched with his.
“I spectated your match today. It opened my eyes.” She rested her back against one side of the window, raising one leg onto the window sill. Turning sideways to look out at the starlit courtyard, she said, “No society that can breed a monster such as your opponent is perfect. The Regiis empire, like Huaxia, has its own share of darkness. Only, in our nation, it is open for all to see while in yours, the filth is covered by a veneer of perfection.”
Steven couldn’t take his eyes off her silhouette as he leaned against his bed board, letting her words flow over him.
She was his blackmailer. She was the daughter of the enemy clan’s head. And, lastly, she was a married woman.
Reason dictated that she was the worst possible target for his affections. Yet, his heart was set. He had fallen in love with her.
Maybe it wasn’t that complicated… the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on had conversed with him regularly and his hormonal teenage body had made his decision for him.
Yet, the fact remained… after tomorrow, their fate was at an end.
As he listened to her speak, he couldn’t help but hope that time would freeze in that instant.
“… trained amidst the battlefield. I could sense the malignant influences entwined with his mana. He has the blood of many on his hands. Hey! Are you listening!?”
“Ahh? Oh, yes. A-anyway… did you notice my technique? I used what you showed me to improve it… without it, I would have died.”
“Hmm. Shadow walk applied only within your body to split yourself into two spatially separated, yet connected halves. Just like I demonstrated by sending only my hand through the shadow to the window while I was still on the tree. But that shouldn’t be everything…”
Her eyes brightened as she figured it out. “Right! Shadow stealth and Call of the Dark to suppress life signs and fake death while you actually let the sword cut some parts of you to allow the blood to flow, lulling him into a sense of security before you sneak attacked him.”
She turned to him, appreciation in her eyes. “The sense of timing, mana control, calmness and pain tolerance required to pull it off… Colour me impressed.”
Steven felt a warmth suffuse his chest at her praise. Thinking of their imminent parting, a thick unwillingness sprang up within him.
“Listen carefully.” Her tone suddenly turned serious, snapping his attention to her. “I am going to tell you a story.”
She put her arm on her knee and rested her cheek against it. “A very important story.”