“What do you mean you decline the challenge!?”
“I won’t fight.”
“You are a water mage and I an earth mage. We have no elemental superiority over each other. I am at the bottom of the rankings. What if you meet a shadow mage later on? Don’t you want to save a card?”
“Don’t want to.”
I rubbed my aching waist as I derived pleasure from the little prankster’s misfortune. After being thoroughly interrogated by Phobos and Deimos, I had only managed to gain a temporary reprieve due to the gong indicating the end of the half-hour social period ringing.
The main culprit behind the red welts on my waist had then been called upon to kick off the tournament proceedings with the first challenge of the day as she was first from the bottom.
The Pholidota girl had immediately chosen to direct her card at a slovenly blue-haired male from the Delphinidae clan who had been slouching on the seat ranked forty.
It was apparently a miscalculation on her part as the boy had yawned and flicked his own card, glowing with blue mana, at her nullifying her request leading to her outburst.
Currently, she looked like she just wanted to walk up to him and lay into him with the large mace in her hand, to hell with the rules.
Marquis Delphinidae looked quite embarrassed to have such an unambitious contestant in his team. Clearing his throat, he spoke, “Ahem. Miss, why don’t you challenge again? I’m sure he must have his own game plan.” Beneath his breath he muttered, “Or, more likely, just being lazy as always,” as he adjusted his glasses.
She showed an embarrassed expression. “I-I don’t have another card.”
“Oh,” said the Marquis, “Ohh!”
The audience began whooping and Marquis Delphinidae smiled at her. “Well, congratulations then. You might have just won something more valuable than a victory in martial arts this tournament.”
She flushed red as she hurriedly denied, “It’s not like thaat!”
The Marquis merely chuckled, sending her back to her seat and announcing, “We have our first confirmed rank of the day! Emily Pholidota; Rank fifty! A round of applause please.”
Amidst the thunderous applause, she got rid of her sullen embarrassment and waved to the crowd with a smile.
When her gaze met mine, she mouthed, “You better win. Or else!”
Well, I certainly had no intention to find out what her ‘else’ implied. I intended to win.
Sol had made a quarter of his way to the horizon from the top of our heads by the time it was finally Lionel’s turn to take the stage.
The preceding challenges had been lack-lustre to say the least. Everyone was concerned about conserving their resources and it had mostly been people flaunting their cards.
Those who did fight, did so after reaching some sort of agreement with their opponent to stop after consuming some portion of their mana. A valid strategy that we had overlooked, but one which made for extremely uninspired viewing.
No wonder the audience enthusiasm resembled a plant that had wilted under the sun. Marquis Delphinidae, as the host of the tournament had the duty of making it more interesting for the audience but he seemed to have underestimated the ‘intelligence’ of the current batch of participants.
Yet, he was helpless as shown by the embarrassed expression on his face as each subsequent challenger was stuck with a card to his or her face, or performed in a farcical spar.
The one fight that did occur in earnest was between two Tier 1 Earth mages. Watching two stone clad warriors chipping away at each other’s defences was just as, if not more insipid than the card-fighting that came before.
I even saw number forty drooling as he snoozed in his chair and I was sorely tempted to follow his lead. He had been challenged twice and had declined both times, successfully preserving his seat without any opposition. Left with no cards to challenge anyone, he had just made himself comfortable in his chair.
Actually, this state of affairs was to be expected. Hot-blooded the youth may be but we were the elites and as such could take the broader picture into account. Personal glory paled in front of clan benefit and whatever ensured that was what we aspired to do.
Also, the distribution of mages over the rankings after the qualifiers had all the Tier 1 mages bunched in the bottom twenty-five with the wind and shadow mages with their speed and one-hit-kill strikes occupying the preceding ranks while the more tactical water mages followed them and finally, the earth and fire mages with skewed defence and attack statistics occupied the bottommost ranks due to how slow they were to eliminate their opponents in the qualifiers.
The same trend was repeated in the top twenty-five ranks which were occupied by the Tier 2 mages.
In fact, Lionel and I were glaring exceptions in that he as an earth mage had managed to leverage his experience to quickly beat his opponents and I with my greatly strengthened body and synergistic dual elements had clawed our way up the rankings.
Lionel stood from his seat, walked up to the middle of the stage and brought out a card.
Having already used one to block a challenge, he had only two of them left. The card glowed golden as he pointed with it to the boy in the seat to my left.
“Well, bro, it looks like your clan bro wants a piece of me.” said the overfamiliar wind mage who was ranked twenty-three.
He was actually a large part of why I hadn’t fallen asleep during the snooze-fest of a tournament. The hyperactive guy had latched on to me as a conversation partner and chattered on continuously throughout the duration of the contest to alleviate his own boredom.
From his nattering, I had gleaned that the reason he was ranked so low despite his innate superiority as a Tier 2 wind mage was that he had been unfortunate enough to meet another Tier 2 wind adept in the qualifiers and it had devolved into a high-speed chase throughout the limited space of the arena.
It was a case very similar to my bad match-up with Marcus and his extraordinary defence and we had hit it off quite well based on this common ground.
‘I’m sorry bro, you’re in for a nasty surprise.’ I muttered in my heart.
He strode up confidently to the stage and began mouthing off. “I commend your courage in challenging me while you are still in Tier 1, but, unfortunately, such courage is indistinguishable from stupidity. Save yourself the embarrassment and me the mana and just forfeit.”
I covered my face with my hand. ‘Bro, don’t dig your own grave.’
Lionel just narrowed his eyes and silently took a battle-stance, holding up his gladiatorial short-sword and shield, indicating his resolve.
Bro just sighed and took his own stance while shaking his head.
“Begin!” said Marquis Delphinidae and Lionel moved.
Tier 1 earth magic: Stone skin.
Tier 2 earth magic: Earth spikes.
Bro’s eyes widened in shock at the astonishing momentum of his charge. Instead of using Earth spikes as an area of effect magic, Lionel used it for movement, each step causing a spike to rise underneath his foot and propelling him forward, neutralizing the only failing of most earth mages: their sluggishness.
The control required for this was phenomenal and along with Steven’s personal brand of shadow manipulation, this generation of Felidae juniors was filled with stellar talents.
If my Ghost step was all about the mutability of my movement path, Lionel’s movement was the epitome of straight-line speed.
Tier 1 wind magic: Haste.
Bro immediately dodged to the side, hoping to leverage his flexibility to avoid his charge and then attack his flank.
Just as he was about to pass by him, the spike below Lionel’s foot propelled him sideways and his movement path bent in a right-angle.
All the air in Bro’s lungs emptied as Lionel’s shoulder slammed into his solar plexus. He rag dolled in the air for a short moment before slamming onto the ground and sliding to a stop, leaving a metre-long trail in the dirt.
Coughing out blood, he clambered to his knees as fast as he could only to see the large form of Lionel bearing down on him.
With a primal scream, his eyes glowed white as his hair whipped around as the wind rose to his defence.
Tier 2 wind magic: Blade edge Hurricane.
Bro was no slouch and instead of a wasteful un-differentiated attack, his Blade edge hurricane was focused in front of him in a cone of death.
Lionel glowed golden as with every step his form grew larger as a new layer of rock covered him.
Stone skin evolved version: Giant of the Earth.
The field shivered as, propelled by the spikes of earth, the three-metre tall stone giant dashed towards the kneeling wind mage.
Blue veins popped out on Bro’s forehead and the glow in his eyes grew ever brighter as he directed the wind blades with both hands.
The stone giant shrunk the closer it got to him as the blades of wind chipped more and more of the layers off it.
Until, when he had reached within a metre of Bro, Lionel was only protected by his Barrier.
Tanking two blades that caused his Barrier to light up a brilliant white, he crossed the final metre in one stride and let loose with a devastating uppercut.
Bro’s body drew an arc in the sky before landing outside the arena with a dull thump.
He was still.
Thunderous applause broke out as the audience finally dared to blink lest they missed a moment of the fight.
“A brilliant show of unconventional tactics by Lionel Felidae. He earns the right to sit on the twenty-third seat. Congratulations.” announced the Marquis.
I watched the medics rush to Bro’s unconscious form as a ten-minute break was declared to treat his injury. I had noticed several teeth scattering from his mouth from the last punch. It wouldn’t be pretty.
As Lionel walked up to take his seat beside me, I welcomed him with open arms and gave him a short hug, patting his back.
His stiff expression loosened slightly.
I said, “Man, while I appreciate your swift and efficient win… was the last strike really necessary?”
“The only way to guarantee a win is if your opponent can’t move anymore,” he said in a monotone.
I looked into his eyes and found them a bit unfocused.
I squeezed his shoulder. “Relax, big guy, you aren’t in the pits anymore.”
He shuddered as his eyes snapped back into focus and his hand subconsciously reached for his contract mark. He muttered, “I’m not, aren’t I?”
Letting out a long breath he relaxed as he sat back in the chair beside me. “Thanks. The environment brought back memories.”
“It’s fine, and actually, it’s no real problem. The Marquis is overseeing the match. Any fatal attack will be blocked by him with his Water Veil. Don’t lose just because you feel like you are being too cruel to your opponent. Just remember that you’re one of us now. You’re Lionel Felidae. Not Lionel, the slave. You’re free.”
He shot me a grateful look and bumped his fist with my outstretched one.