At the referee’s signal, the match began.
All traces of pompousness from Darvus disappeared as he carefully circled around Arthur. As our leader’s childhood friend remained standing in the same position, Darvus continued to side-step around him, warily looking for an opening.
Darvus had in his hand two identical axes that differed only in color. These two weapons were precious family heirlooms that had been passed down generation to generation to the strongest practitioner of their Clarell style of axe-wielding. The two axes looked more like misshapen swords with blades melded right above the handle, not near the top. The flat of the blades had strange markings etched into both of them that didn’t match the simple, unadorned handles of the weapons. I knew that Darvus was serious just from the fact that he took these weapons out. I’d only seen this pair of axes once, and that was only because Caria begged him to show us.
Darvus continued to slowly circle Arthur, always keeping a steady position, never crossing over his legs in between steps. Arthur, for some reason, stayed completely still even as Darvus inched behind him.
Sweat beaded down the sides of Darvus’s face as he stopped right behind his opponent’s open back. The only sound inside the cavern was the faint rushing of water from the stream as the crowd’s cheering subsided. Everyone stared anxiously at the two contestants, not doubting the reason for Darvus’s hesitation despite his advantageous position.
After another slow sidestep, Darvus lowered his position and launched himself at Art’s back. I couldn’t help but become involuntarily drawn into the battle as Darvus closed the five-meter gap in just two quick steps.
Darvus had both his axes loaded to his right in preparation for what looked like an upward swipe, but as soon as he was about to get in distance, Darvus abruptly veered course. Steering clear of the seemingly still Arthur, Darvus went back to his original distance, his forehead drenched in sweat as his chest heaved in and out for air.
“What was that, Darvus?” a soldier cried out.
“Stop being a wimp!” another voice shouted.
Tessia, Caria and I exchanged glances, unsure of what was going on with Darvus. It hadn’t even passed the two-minute mark since this duel had started, yet he looked to be in worse shape than that one time our team had been locked in a battle for several hours.
It was impossible for Darvus to be this tired after just a few minutes, but it wasn’t the only thing that confused me.
I’d been with Darvus as he mercilessly hacked away at A class mana beasts with cruel efficiency, and beat down adventurers twice his size and in the same class with a content smile on his face, so I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Even from here, I could make out the distinct features of an emotion that I had thought the battle-hungry Darvus lacked: fear.
At the discontent hollers of a few more soldiers, Darvus clicked his tongue before snapping out at the crowd to shut up.
Taking a deep breath, Darvus lowered his center of gravity with renewed fervor in his eyes as he stared attentively at Arthur—who may as well have been a statue at this point.
The edges of my teammate’s two axes glowed amber as he lowered them so that the tips were touching the ground. Darvus stomped his right foot as if he was about to leap toward his opponent, but instead, he stayed rooted as he swiped both of his axes upward in a cross.
Darvus’s spell caused a trail of fine grain to follow his two blades before shooting out in a cross-shaped attack
As the crescent of pebbles shot out towards Arthur, I couldn’t help but admire the effectiveness of the spell. While normal grains of sand didn’t strike fear into my heart, at break-neck speeds, they could put dozens of small holes in unsuspecting opponents.
The fine, earthen barrage reached its target almost instantly, but rather than poke holes or even break skin, the pebbles bounced off Tessia’s childhood friend harmlessly, as if a toddler had thrown the sand at him.
At first, I thought Darvus had failed to properly cast the spell, but the remaining spray of grain that hadn’t landed harmlessly on Arthur, dug into the cavern wall behind him with an explosion of consecutive crashes. Luckily, the spray hadn’t hit any of the spectators near it, because the area where Darvus’s spell had hit crumbled a layer of the cavern wall.
Everyone’s gaze shifted back and forth in shock between Arthur, who had received the brunt of the attack with no harm, and the wall where a small cloud of dust had formed from the sheer force of the small cluster of rocks. Everyone in the entire cavern was in a silent display of surprise and awe—everyone except for Darvus. My spoiled friend had a discontent grimace on his face as if he knew that something like that would happen.
Arthur, on the other hand, finally turned around to face his opponent as he casually dusted off his sleeve where Darvus’s spell had bounced off of him—not even his clothes damaged.
With another annoyed click of his tongue, Darvus leaped back as he dug his axes into the ground once more at another attempt to stone his opponent with sand. However, as Darvus swung his priceless weapons, Arthur raised a hand.
Suddenly, the trail of grains that were trailing behind my teammate’s blades all dropped before fully manifesting into a spell. Darvus’s eyes widened and I knew that somehow, his monster of an opponent had cancelled or stopped his spell from forming.
Darvus’s frustration was evident on his face as he bit down hard on his lower lip, his eyebrows furrowed into a scowl. However, as Darvus continued to try and conjure his spells, from here, it simply looked like he was flailing his axes at a ghost in front of him.
“Damn it!” Darvus finally howled, locking gazes with Arthur, whose lips curled up just a tad at the edges. My wild-haired friend finally stopped attempting to attack from afar and moved in. He closed the gap and swiped savagely at the bare-handed Arthur. As his glowing axes created streaks of mana behind them, his opponent easily parried them with the back of his hand.
Darvus struck again—simultaneously this time—hoping to catch his opponent off guard, but Arthur merely dipped the right axe that was aimed at his head, and pivoted and parried the left axe that was aimed at his torso.
My teammate, however, kept his composure as he mixed it up, feinting to his left before veering, his other axe rising to quick-strike to the right. Arthur dodged the attack beautifully, maintaining a steady balance as his body dipped and weaved into a rhythmic trance.
Darvus’s flurry of attacks, mixed with off-timed kicks and elbows, was relentless as the crowd—myself included—silently gawked at the spectacle of one attacked with monstrous speed and control while the other dodged or parried everything perfectly without damage even coming to his loose clothing.
My attention had been solely focused on the two of them for the entirety of the duel, so when Darvus suddenly dropped his axes and fell to his knee, I couldn’t make sense of it.
From here, it looked like my stubborn and prideful friend had simply given up, but by the wide-eyed, stupefied gaze he had toward his opponent, I knew it wasn’t that simple.
On his knees, Darvus raised his left shoulder—as if to swing his arm. However, his arm remained limp, dangling at his side. He then tried to get up. With his legs merely trembling, they gave out, causing Darvus to fall to his back.
The crowd murmured to one another as they exchanged raised brows and similar looks of confusement.
“W-What’s going on? Why can’t I m-move?” Darvus stammered as he remained sprawled on his back.
“You’ll be fine, boy,” a husky voice called out reassuringly. “Right, Arthur?”
The familiar tone that came from behind was filled with power, immediately causing Darvus to fall silent. The rest of us all whipped around at the source of the voice.
I let out a frightened gasp before immediately dropping to my knee.
Dresh’s voice, laced with surprise and apprehension, rang from within the crowd. “We salute you, Commander Virion.”
As he said this, my gaze remained planted to the ground, not daring to look up until otherwise stated.
That was just the kind of figure he was to all of us.
I had read about Virion Eralith in textbooks and documentaries from during the time of the old war between humans and elves. He was king at the time, and from what I had read, an exceptional one. It was ultimately through his leadership and cunning that the human army, despite having an advantage in numbers, was forced to retreat in the end. It was no wonder why the Council, which comprised of the current kings and queens of their respective nations, turned to Commander Virion for guidance in this war.
I had the honor of meeting him once when I was first chosen to be placed in the same team as his granddaughter. At that time, I could only imagine her to be a spoiled, ill-mannered girl that wanted to chase after some lunatic fairytale. But I was wrong. She was stronger, more mature, and more dedicated to the war than I would ever be. If this was the girl that was raised by her grandfather, I could only imagine what kind of beast Commander Virion would be.
As we all remained genuflecting, I kept my ears open as two pairs of footsteps approached.
“He’s right,” Arthur’s voice rang from behind. “You’ll be back to normal soon.”
From the brief moment I had, I couldn’t recognize the peculiar-looking man beside Commander Virion. Most of his face was covered underneath a woolen hood, but his clean-shaven face and was sharp, a pair of thin, pursed lips hiding any signs of emotions.
“Arthur! Tessia,” Commander Virion’s rough voice called out once more. “With me.”
Footfalls, from what I assumed to be Arthur, approached me from behind as even Tessia made her way towards her grandfather as well.
After a few moments, our expedition leader told us to rise, the Commander, his companion, Tessia and Arthur all gone.
“What was all that about?” I asked in a hushed voice to Caria.
My friend shook her head. “I have no idea. I’ve never seen Commander Virion out on the field, and even then, coming all this way just for one person?”
“Seriously,” I agreed. “Even the high-ranking leaders back at the Wall rarely get to communicate with Commander Virion directly.”
“Well, it makes sense since his granddaughter was here, right?” Caria inquired.
“I’m not so sure about that,” I murmured before remembering my injured friend. “Caria! Darvus!”
The two of us hurriedly made our way over to our teammate that was still lying on his back. Kneeling beside him, Caria lifted her childhood friend’s head and placed it in her lap. “Darvus, are you okay?”
“Y-Yeah,” he huffed. “I can move my fingers and toes now, at least. What happened? I thought I heard a familiar voice? Who was it?”
“It was Commander Virion!” I answered, rolling up Darvus’s sleeves to take a better look at his condition.
“What?!” he cried, attempting to get up before falling back into Caria’s lap with a groan.
“Stay still, idiot. You’re hurt!” Caria chided. “Anyway, you heard Commander Virion. He said you’ll be okay, and I don’t think Arthur hit you with the intent to cripple you.”
“Thanks.” Darvus rolled his eyes. “Because the one thing a guy wants to hear after getting his ass handed to him is that his opponent wasn’t even trying.”
I turned my attention back to his arm and noticed a strange welt near his wrist and the inside of his elbow. What was weirder was that I felt a trace of mana coming from the red bruises.
Without a word, I ripped open Darvus’s shirt, eliciting a shout of protest from my friend and a squeal from Caria. Just as I had expected, more red welts littered his body.
“Darvus, did you not feel that you were getting hit while you were attacking?” I asked.
“Must’ve been the blood rushing to my head. I didn’t feel a thing,” he answered. “Why? Is it that bad?”
“It’s not that.” I shook my head. “But the locations of all of these welts that you have are in very important places.”
“What do you mean?” Caria chimed in, taking a peek underneath her childhood friend’s shirt with flushed cheeks.
“I’ve read a few books on mana flow anatomy—you know, the theory behind the movement of mana inside a mage’s body—and one of them mentioned that there are known to be areas where clusters of mana channels coalesce. Naturally, these areas are naturally more protected when an augmenter strengthens his body, but if properly struck, it can inhibit the flow of mana to that particular region.”
“Oh! I studied that too! My trainer taught me about . But it couldn’t be that he was able to hit those, right? My trainer said it was impractical—almost impossible—to target them in battle because of how small and protected these points are,” Caria exclaimed.
“True,” I acknowledged, “and I read that these coalition points differ in each person. But, I can’t help but think these marks are related to that.”
“Well, it would explain the marks, but it doesn’t explain why Darvus suddenly fell down like a broken doll—”
“Hey!” Darvus glared from the ground.
“Excessive Mana Discharge,” I stated, my eyes glued to Darvus’s fading wounds.
“You mean backlash? Isn’t that when a mage uses too much of his mana?” Caria inquired. “I’ve seen Darvus use much more mana-heavy spells for longer periods than this.”
“Well, if Tessia’s childhood friend was able to hit all these coalition points, the mana leakage from these areas could potentially cause backlash. Of course this is only assuming that he was somehow able to locate these miniscule coalition points,” I clarified, wondering how in the hell Arthur had even managed to hit him without anyone—not even Darvus himself—realizing.
“How about we stop admiring the man who left me in this state and help me up?! I think I can walk with some help now,” Darvus interrupted, gingerly wiggling his legs.
As Caria and I helped our friend to his feet, we slowly made our way toward the tent that Commander Virion was in, along with Arthur and Tessia, hoping to be the first to hear any new updates.
However, as we neared the large white tent, Tessia stormed out with a discontent scowl etched onto her creamy face.
“Tessia! Over here!” Caria called out, but the princess ignored her. Moments later, Commander Virion and Arthur, along with the mysterious companion that the Commander arrived here with, came out of the tent.
The hooded man lifted an arm and a teleportation gate conjured out in the space in front of him. The soldiers that were lingering nearby, evidently bored with nothing to do, all jumped at the sudden manifestation of the gate.
“Are they leaving?” Darvus asked, his arms wrapped around our necks.
My eyes were fixated on the three figures as they approached the gate. Commander Virion was the first to go and behind him was the hooded figure. Before Arthur stepped in through the gate with his bond, he looked at us with a regretful—almost apologetic—expression. I couldn’t hear his voice from the distance, and I wasn’t even sure he had actually spoken aloud, but I clearly understood the words formed from his lips—‘take care of her until I return.’
He disappeared into the light as the teleportation gate closed behind him.