“So you understand the rules of this battle?” I confirmed, gripping the edgeless sword in my right hand.
“Grandpa…” My granddaughter’s eyes softened as she hesitated. However, from my unrelenting expression, she hardened herself, raising her sword. “I understand.”
I nodded approvingly. “Integrate.”
My body burned with untamed excitement as I released the second form of my beast’s will. As my skin and even my clothes darkened, wrapped in a veil of shadow, I took a step toward Tessia.
With my heightened senses, I could hear the quickening pace of my granddaughter’s heartbeat as she waited for me to make a move.
As far as I was concerned, the battle had already begun.
Closing the gap between us, I thrust the pommel of my sword into Tessia’s stomach. Lurching forward in response, I could tell from the force of impact that she had taken a step back in time to decrease the strength of the blow.
Putting distance between us, any trace of uncertainty had been wiped clean off the child’s face as her eyes now regarded me as an opponent.
“Good,” I let out a growl as I slowly circled around her. Tessia’s heartbeat steadied as she prepared herself.
“Acquire,” she muttered as a thin layer of emerald green enveloped her like a second skin. The aura around her then exploded out from under her feet, spreading through the grass.
I jumped back in time to avoid a root as thick a tree that erupted from the ground beneath me. The entire ground affected by the aura soon became a web of dense vines that spread around the child like snakes protecting their master.
Tessia was already advancing towards me, dashing atop a trail of vines that led toward me, her sword shining a brilliant green.
I couldn’t help but reveal a smile at the outright pressure her domain contained from the perspective of an opponent.
I held my sword up as I easily sidestepped another thick tendril. Using the thick roots as stepping stones, I augmented my sword in time to meet Tessia’s blade.
Our weapons clashed, producing a shriek as sparks were sent scattering into the air. Using her forward momentum, I fell back, grabbing onto her sword hand as I stamped her leading foot to stop her from regaining balance.
As she fell forward, I prepared to twist her into a throw when a thin vine wrapped itself around the child’s waist, preventing her fall.
Using the vine to keep herself afloat, Tessia lashed out with both her feet to send me flying back.
Blocking her kick with the flat of my blade, I was unable to contain my excitement, exclaiming, “Haha! Your control over your beast will has gotten much better!” If it was anyone else, I’d be impressed if they had managed to defend against her unorthodox counter.
Releasing more mana out into my limbs, I flashed toward Tessia, avoiding the barrage of tendrils meant to protect their master.
We exchanged blows on top of the ever-changing terrain of roots that wriggled and convulsed at my granddaughter’s beckoning. Tessia moved gracefully atop the vines, easily using them as platforms to maneuver in all directions. Her movement and swordplay utilizing both her beast will and wind attribute spells resembled an elegant dance in the air, as if every step, swing, and lunge she executed had been choreographed. I couldn’t be more proud of my granddaughter, who had matured so much as a mage—she had come far, that much was certain However, letting her win too easily would only make her complacent.
Her domain transformed the surrounding area to her advantage. However, if her opponent was as quick and agile enough as I was, he’d be able to take advantage of the vines as well, and use them as a route to get to Tessia. My fighting style especially, which consisted of erratic movement to utilize the full potential of the shadow panther’s innate stealth, excelled in this environment.
Soon, both the tendrils and Tessia were having a hard time keeping up with my movements as I constantly flitted atop the wave of vines that my granddaughter had conjured.
The child was nearly in range of my sword and she had lost track of me, but just as I stretched my arm out to swing, she sunk into the depths of the vines below us. As Tessia disappeared inside, the countless tendrils beneath me began congregating to one spot.
I quickly hopped away as the green tendrils gathered to form a protective sphere around what I assumed was Tessia.
For a second, I was afraid that she had lost control again like last time. But as the shell of vines burst apart, I could whistle in admiration at the sight of my granddaughter.
“You did it!” I exclaimed, my voice coming out much huskier than normal because of the integration.
“Hehe!” My granddaughter pointed her sword at me with a wide grin on her face. “Be careful, Grandpa!”
Her body, now covered in a thick, emerald aura, coiled around her. Tessia’s fair skin had lightened to a pale, ivory tone while her hair and even eyebrows had changed to a forest green shade. The child’s turquoise eyes shined brighter, with intricate markings spreading around her eyes making her seem…otherworldly—celestial, almost.
As she launched herself toward me, the translucent aura surrounding her already began lashing out attacks. While Tessia’s pressure didn’t contain the same bloodlust Arthur or other experienced mages and warriors had, it was still a shocking improvement to her previous, lackluster aura.
I had already known that Tessia’s beast will was much more powerful than mine and that, in direct combat, my beast’s will had the disadvantage. However, I couldn’t resist the urge to go head to head with my granddaughter at her strongest—she, who had been training so relentlessly these past two years to not become a burden to anyone close to her.
Tessia had no use for the training sword as the translucent green aura surrounding her molded itself into two emerald blades in her hands. As she spun into a flurry of slashes with her dual mana swords, I couldn’t help but become overwhelmed by the never-ending whirlwind of attacks. She hacked and twirled relentlessly, sometimes looking for openings, other times making them. Tessia wasn’t a master in the art of dual-wielding, but the openings she had, her aura would defend. It wasn’t just the two blades in her hands that were her weapons—she was able to mold her aura into almost whatever shape she saw fit.
Just when I thought I had found an opening, the aura enveloping her would mold into another weapon to block my attack as Tessia continued her bombardment.
Fresh nicks and cuts emerged from my body, splashing drops of blood on the grass around me as I avoided with all my wit, wondering why I had been stupid enough to think that taking her head on would be a good idea. What put me at unease was that it seemed like the child was incurring damage as well; blotches of red had spread from underneath the tight-fitting blouse she wore for fighting.
However, I soon noticed that the emerald aura covering her had become thinner and more transparent. The glowing runes embellishing the child’s face receded as her face crumpled in a painful cringe.
As her movements dulled and her attacks slowed, I grabbed her by the arm and buckled her legs from behind her knee, gently bringing her to the ground as the rest of her beast will aura dissipated.
“I-I…lost. I couldn’t do it, Grandpa. I couldn’t even land a clean hit after all of that,” she panted, gasping for breath. As my granddaughter lay sprawled out on the field of grass covered in cuts and bruises acquired, not from me, but from the intensity of her beast’s will, I couldn’t help but imagine her out in the battlefield; the state she would be reduced to in battle where her opponent had no intention of looking out for her well-being.
Getting rid of such poisonous thoughts, I sat down beside her.
I studied the child’s face silently for a moment, but with a resignated sigh, I shook my head. “Out on the battlefield, you are to address me as Commander, not Grandpa.”
Tessia’s eyes lit up brighter than when she had released her integration phase. “Does that mean…? Th-Thank—”
“But!” I interrupted. “I have a few conditions.”
“Okay,” she replied, her gaze firm.
“You must still get both your mother and father’s consent. You must also keep in mind the gravity of who you are. Whoever is leading your team or battalion will definitely mention it, but it is up to you to not become a liability. If your teammates are under the impression that you cannot take care of yourself, I will have you rescinded from the fight immediately because the ones around you will be too concerned for your safety to act effectively in battle. Is that clear?”
“Yes!” Tessia nodded feverishly.
“Oh, and also. Try not to be caught in a situation where you need to use your second phase. I’m not sure if it’s because you haven’t fully learned to control it, but that form makes you too reckless,” I added, thinking to when she had attacked me madly, relying solely on her beast will to defend her.
“Master Indrath told me that too. He said that the beast will that I had assimilated with is different, although he couldn’t really put a finger on why,” the child admitted.
As we both got up and headed back out of the training room, I stopped her to say one last thing. “Child. From here on out, I can no longer be your grandfather. The actions I had taken and the decisions I had made concerning you have always been for your safety and happiness. However, now that you are a soldier, I must treat you like one. Whether it is me directly giving you an order, or another person in charge of the team you are in, you must keep in mind that the orders given will not place your safety above all of Dicathen. This is my final warning to you.”
My granddaughter looked at me, studying the pained expression I had on my face, then buried her face into my chest into an embrace. “It’s okay Grand—I mean, Commander. Dicathen is my home and I will do whatever it takes to protect it and the people I love.”
“Yes, I know,” I mumbled. “That is what I am afraid of.”
After shooing her away, I remained in the training grounds for a bit longer before heading to a different room on a lower floor.
Approaching the isolated room down on the lower level beneath the basement of the castle, the sharp smell of various medicinal herbs filled my nose.
I opened the door at the very end of the narrow corridor.
“C-Commander Virion! My apologies, I was not expecting anyone to visit,” the middle-aged nurse said as she frantically scrambled out of her chair.
“No need to apologize, Anna; I came here on a whim. How is she?” I asked, lowering my gaze to the woman lying unconscious in bed.
“I just finished administering the necessary supplements to keep her body healthy. Physically speaking, she is in great shape, but no matter what we try, we can’t get her to wake up,” Anna sighed, placing a hand gently on Cynthia’s arm.
“So same as always?” I let out a faint smile. “Anna, do you mind giving me some time alone with her?”
“Of course! I mean—not at all! I’ll get out of your hair. Take your time!” she answered, hurriedly heading towards the door as she picked up some trash on the way out.
Slumping down on the wooden chair beside the bed, I closed my eyes. This wasn’t the first or second time I had come here. It seemed like, these days, I came to this room whenever I wanted some time alone or wanted to get away from the suffocating pressure the war continued to afflict on me.
“My old friend. How goes your slumber? I’m not sure you knew this but I think the Alacryan Army is capable of building steamships and is most likely using them to transport tens of thousands of soldiers. I’m sure you didn’t know. After all, you were already here when the Dicatheous began construction,” I sighed, staring blankly at Cynthia’s peaceful face.
“You know, I just gave permission to Tessia to start fighting in real battles. Can you believe it?” I laughed aloud. “I’m sure you’d be pretty surprised by that choice if you were awake right now. But… I was afraid. I knew how much she wanted to make a difference and be a part of the fight, and I know how stubborn she is. I was afraid that she’d run away and go off to fight, even without my consent. I just thought that if she was going to actually take part in this war, it should at least be under supervision.”
I leaned forward, resting my elbows on my knees. “That’s probably a lie. I think, more than that, I just didn’t want her to keep hating me. Pft! And I just told her that I’m going to treat her as a soldier, not my granddaughter. What a load of bullcrap, right?” I scoffed, shaking my head.
“But still, It’s hard, Cynthia—doing all of this, I mean. I stepped down as king because I wanted to avoid doing what I’m doing right now. And what I’m doing right now is on a much bigger scale. I have an asura making sure I am fit emotionally, mentally, and physically to lead this war while all of the lances and guild leaders answer to my beck and call. Is it pathetic of me to want nothing more than to sit in my garden, watching my granddaughter grow up peacefully? What sort of cruel joke is it to send my own granddaughter to battle?
“Alduin and his wife, Blaine and Priscilla…they’re all doing what they can to help, but in the end, they turn to me for orders now that Lord Aldir has condemned me as the only fit leader.” I let out another deep, trembling breath as I ran my hands down the length of my face. “Cynthia, I’ve already lived a few dozen years longer than my wife. I don’t want to live longer than my child and grandchild. I don’t think I can take it.”
I reached my hand out toward Cynthia, afraid that she might crumble at my touch. Finally, I gathered the courage to finally place my hand on top of hers. “I never apologized to you. Even after Lord Aldir removed the curse on you, I had the feeling that something was wrong. You knew, didn’t you? You knew that it wasn’t fully removed and that you might die if you revealed information about Alacrya, about the Vritra, right? I think I sensed that fact as well, back then. But I didn’t stop you. For a chance to gain the higher ground in this war, I allowed you to succumb to this state…” I stopped talking, trying to keep my voice steady. “And I’m sorry for that. I shouldn’t have let you do that to yourself. There might be people that shun you for being a spy, but I would never. You chose to go stand up to your own people to help ours. Making that choice makes you stronger than anyone else here.”
I rose from the chair, quickly rubbing my eyes with the ends of my sleeves before heading out. Turning back, I took one last glance at my old friend. “The true war is going to start soon. I won’t be able to come back down here for a while, my friend, but I promise you that after this war is over, I will do whatever it takes to wake you back up.”