The gentle summer breeze ruffled my hair. The world faded away. Only the two of us existed, my opponent and I.
Dressed in a traditional black hakama and carrying a katana at his waist, he was the picture of a traditional Shogunate swordsman.
A member of the Duchess’ team, he was the shadow mage ranked twelve.
If I had to select one of the six elements against which I stood the best chance, it would be the shadow element without a doubt.
Assassination is a game of speed and all shadow mages are inborn assassins equipped with the tools of the trade: stealth and mobility.
The shadow mana running through my mindscape made me immune to much of the trickery that shadow mages relied upon to set up their targets for that one swift strike.
All that left was their speed against mine.
The wind mana and my superhuman reflexes due my body tempering made me fearless.
I studied his stance. Left leg stretched back, right leg to the front with the knee bent. One hand holding the scabbard of his katana to his waist and the other on its hilt, ready to draw.
It was the form for the sword art famed for its speed.
Iaido: The Art of the Draw.
The curved katana facilitated his motion while drawing the sword from its sheath. And draw he would, at blistering speeds that would exceed the limits of his body.
Once that sword was out of its sheath, it would either draw my blood or he would lose. He would have no control over it.
My muscles coiled and wriggled under my shirt, storing energy for the explosive burst of power I demanded of them.
At my high degree of concentration, my thoughts grew fewer and fewer till, I reached a state that I had reached only once before, when I had fought Phobos’ feral form.
My mind merged with the air around me. It felt like even with my eyes closed, I could see.
No, it was more than that, I could see, touch, hear and feel everything in contact with the air.
The wind was my eye, my nose, my tongue, my skin.
Father had said that it was the Oneness, one step prior to the Void. For this fight, it would have to suffice.
As Sol made his daily journey from horizon to horizon, the shadows lengthened. The moment his shadow touched mine, we moved.
He drew his sword. The sound silenced by the shadows. The sword seemed to divide into three, one slashing down upon my head from top to bottom, one slashing at my neck from the side and the last slashing upwards from our melded shadows.
The wind informed me of the impossible. All three were real. All of them existed.
A truly shocking technique. Yet my mind was devoid of awe, for I was faster.
To anyone viewing us, it would seem that we stood still for a long time before flickering into motion. A thunderous sound and we were still again. My palm a hair’s breadth away from his forehead and his sword an inch from my neck.
The tiny difference was enough.
A trickle of blood ran down his nose and he collapsed to the floor, the soundwave from my palm having jarred his brain, knocking him unconscious.
His katana clanged to the ground and in the pin drop silence, the sound echoed far.
Out of respect for a closely matched opponent, I helped him sheath his sword and carried his unconscious form to the bleachers where the medical personnel took over.
Accompanied by the cheers of the crowd, I reached the twelfth seat and claimed it as mine.
“In an interesting turn of events we have three of the Felidae sitting side by side. Bruno at fourteen, Lionel at thirteen and Mars at twelve. Will they manage to stay together till the end or will they be separated by a twist of fate? Watch on to find out!”
I rolled my eyes at Marquis Delphinidae’s theatrics. Our situation was a bit unusual, I admit, but that was no reason to make us the target of public attention.
Though, there was one thing that was facilitated by this turn of events. The three of us could now share cards. Bruno had two left while Lionel and I had none. I could be challenged once more while Lionel could be challenged twice.
My previous match hadn’t consumed much mana and I was ready to fight again, as was Bruno. Lionel was the only one who needed protection from challenges.
Thus, we had him display both of Bruno’s cards in front of himself to ward off potential challengers.
My rejection of my previous two challenges at the cost of cards, along with my lineage, had caused my opponent to underestimate me. Rather, he had underestimated my level of fleshly cultivation. As a Hominum, even with the feedback from two bonds, my body intensity should only have equalled a Bestia’s. Even taking my wind and shadow mana into account, my speed should have been slower than his.
Thus, he had accepted my challenge and suffered for it.
After regaining his consciousness under the care of the healers, he returned to the stage and fiddled with his two cards. Glancing at the two cards arrayed before Lionel, he shook his head and turned to Bruno and challenged him.
Before leaving for the fight Bruno locked eyes with me. I knew what he meant to convey. ‘Watch me defeat your defeated.’ It was an indirect confrontation between the two of us.
The match was short and extremely lopsided. Bruno wrapped himself in a thick coat of armour that froze whatever touched it and surrounding him a bluish-white corona came into being. It was his Ice beam.
Whatever entered that area would be slowed down and frozen. Bruno brought winter to the arena in the heart of summer and denied the ability to approach him safely, my shadowy opponent chose to forfeit in order to save his mana.
Bruno was rather discontented by the forfeiture of his opponent as it made his victory lack satisfaction. It made him seem surlier than ever when he just stomped off stage without even a word to his opponent.
All training and no leisure had made Bruno a rude boy. The lack of parents in his life wasn’t doing his emotional development wonders either. He seriously needed someone to look after him. Maybe a wife?
After that, the matches continued and we, Bruno and I, were the prime targets for challenges since we had no cards to protect us. But, people were hesitant to extend a challenge to us since we were covered by a veil of mystery.
The ice element was quite unconventional and tactics to counter it hadn’t been taught to the competitors on the stage. So, unlike their set approaches to dealing with the six conventional elements, against Bruno they would have to wing it.
Surprisingly few people were willing to wing it; so, Bruno remained unchallenged by the time number nineteen took to the stage.
He turned his attention to Phobos at the ninth seat and tried to speculate how likely she was to accept his challenge. He came up with a blank. He knew that we had an extra card from the public marriage ceremony but in the course of the tournament, both Lionel and I had used three cards which meant that either we had received more cards on the sly or either Phobos or Deimos had only one card.
Abandoning Phobos, he challenged me. Smart move.
Just as I was going to get up to accept, I felt something laminar suddenly appear in my pocket. Putting my hand into it, I drew out a jet-black card which was brimming with shadow mana.
Number Nineteen groaned before turning his attention back to Phobos and challenging her, only to get stuck with another dark card.
I shared a smile with Phobos. I had nearly forgotten the strategic cheat we had. In our team, we had two shadow mages capable of Shadow walking cards to each other. As long as one of us had cards, all of us did.
Bruno received another challenge from a fire mage and this time, the fight was more evenly matched with both of them pulling out all the stops to clinch victory. For a time, the arena was filled with fiery explosions and shards of ice until, with a swing of his war hammer, Bruno knocked his opponent unconscious.
Bruno had exhausted most of his mana in the match and so, we had him put a card in front of himself. My logic was that since Lionel could be challenged twice and he had only one card while currently unfit for battle, not only would challenging him mean that he would surely reject it with a card, it would be like helping the next challenger win an easy victory since Lionel would have no more cards to block with.
Thus, I believed that no one would challenge him. It was a competition not a socialism drive, helping others would mean hurting yourself.
I was right and we remained unmolested as everyone began challenging the higher ranks. When number sixteen challenged Phobos, she decided to take him on due to her prior experience dealing with Tier 2 fire mages in the qualifiers.
So, once again the Heavenly Demon Dance appeared in the world.
Her dance was beautiful. Her form graceful. Her fans a psychedelic mix of black and white.
Her dance was deadly. Her movements treacherous. Her fans sharp scythes of death.
She won, leaving a mesmerised audience behind. I think I fell in love all over again.
Back in her seat, she pulled out a card from her satchel that had been kept there during the fight and placed it in front of herself.
The fact that the card in front of Bruno was now missing was ignored by everyone else as they were still ruminating over her performance. Seeking counters for it.
The only one that came to their mind was fighting blind. But doing that against a shadow mage was like seeking death as call of the Dark could isolate sound.
Unless someone was several levels higher than his opponent, fighting deaf and blind and winning was the dream of a fool.
So, she remained unchallenged for the rest of the tournament and when it was her turn, she decided to challenge the Lutrinae team leader who was at rank two only to be blocked with a card.
Deimos on the other hand simply rejected two consecutive challenges and with the help of Lionel’s unused card, transported to her by me, she blocked the third one, confirming her status as the rank one.
The world was dyed red as Sol said his goodbyes for the day and slipped below the horizon.
The final match was over. The tournament had ended.
It was time for the tally.
Marquis Delphinidae cleared his throat and began, “Leading the scoreboard with six participants in the finals and a cumulative score of seventy-four, we have team Lutrinae.”
The cheers from their fans were drowned out by the sound of the discussion on a new Ducal clan coming to power and the reshuffling that entailed.
Raising his hand for silence, the Marquis continued, “The runner-up; team Vulpine, similarly had six contestants in the finals but they only managed to get a cumulative rank of seventy-eight. A close match ladies and gentlemen. Please give them a hand.”
I was confused. If they had won, why was the Countess’ sour expression so contrary to her happy team’s?
And why was the Duchess so unflustered?
“But,” said the Marquis, his voice cutting through the cheers. “Ladies and Gentlemen, all hope is not lost for them. May I request team Vulpine to take out any unused cards they might have.”
They did. Their team leader handing out one pristine card with barely suppressed hope in his eyes.
“Five negative points!” Then they were hugging each other screaming with the joy of victory as the Lutrinae contingent just stood there, shell-shocked.
We were declared third and the Primate team was fourth. After a neck-to-neck result from team Ursa and one of the teams from the Countess’ clique, team Ursa was finally declared fifth.
So, we finally had the new power structure of the south-eastern province.
I tuned the rest of the proceedings out. After the rankings were over, we were given leave to disperse. Tomorrow would be the resource distribution ceremony and the Awards function. It would be the time to get the fruits of our labour. Tonight, was a time for rest.
Feeling the warmth of Phobos and Deimos against my side, my lips curved upwards.
I could imagine a few things more interesting than sleeping the night away.
It remained to be seen whether my two girls could beat my imagination.