Chapter 184: Aspect of Unpredictability
Nico slapped the back of my dueling vest. “Are you ready, Grey?”
I continued the last set of my stretches, more out of anxiousness than to loosen my body. We were in the underground waiting area where dozens of other students were either practicing their techniques on the padded mats or restlessly pacing until their name was called by one of the officiators.
“Ready as I can be, I suppose,” I finally replied while swinging my arms.
“Come on. You’re going to have to be more confident than that—more hungry,” Nico pressed. “I know how hard you’ve had it, being bullied by everyone from the second and first division—”
“How could you possibly know how hard I’ve had it?” I cut in, annoyed. “Moving from Division Four into Division Three last year made their ‘pranks’—most of which ended in me having welts and broken bones—worse because I apparently didn’t ‘know my place.’”
“My bad,” Nico stammered, taken aback by my sharpness.
“You’re in the first class of Division One, respected by teachers and peers. While I’m proud of you for that, just don’t think that translates into you knowing what I’ve been through these past years.”
He nodded. “I was just trying to help.”
I let out a sigh. “It’s fine. I’m sorry for snapping at you. I’m just really sick of those nobles flaunting their house names as a badge to do whatever they want to me.”
“Yeah. It doesn’t help that most of their parents are generous donors of the academy. It only serves to have the teachers turn a blind eye to students with no family to back them like us.”
“At least they treat <i>you</i> well,” I said, sitting with my back against the cold wall. “Being better at them intellectually doesn’t seem to hurt their ego nearly as much as being better at them in combat.”
“Thank God for that,” Nico chuckled. “At least you can defend yourself.”
I agreed. “I’m just hoping the judges won’t be as unfair as they have been and let me finally get into the second division.”
“Seriously. Even if your ki level isn’t as high, taking into account your overall combat ability should have at least put you in Division Two last year. I still can’t believe they held you back even after you pummeled that mouthy kid.”
Letting out a scoff, I asked, “Remember him taunting me before the start of the match, saying he could beat me with one hand?”
Nico suppressed a laugh in fear that the boy in question was somewhere in the large room. “That match was over so quick, he didn’t even have time to take his hand out of his pocket.”
“Yet, here I am, taking part in these rigged assessment duels.” I thumped my head against the wall, letting the dull pain wash away my despair.
“About that.” Nico lowered his voice. “I heard from the other engineering students that there’s a new judge this year, said to be cold and impartial.”
I raised a brow. “How would the engineering students know about that?”
Nico let out a cough and looked away. “Supposedly, she’s also a very attractive-looking lady. You know how it is with the engineering guys; they’re a lewd bunch.”
“Seems like that includes you as well,” I smirked. “I wonder what Cecilia’s going to think when I tell her this.”
“Y-You wouldn’t.” Nico’s face blanched. “After all I’ve done to try and help you.”
Just then, a gruff voice called out my name over the intercom. “Cadet Grey to Arena Six. Failure to show will result in an automatic loss. Once again, Cadet Grey to Arena Six.”
I picked up the blunted dueling sword that was lent to me for the assessment, and winked at Nico. “I’ll keep you and your engineering dogs’ little interest to myself.”
Nico just let out a breath of defeat and motioned for me to go.
After waving back at my friend, I made my way up the wide ramp that led to the surface.<span class=”Apple-converted-space”> </span>I had to raise a hand to shield myself from the midday sun until my eyes could adjust, and when it did I found myself in the center of a wide outdoor stadium.
Raised circular platforms dotted the large field of grass. Students and faculty members of the academy surrounded the platforms, some judging or scouting while some were just there to watch their friends or upcoming opponent.
The bleachers surrounding the stadium were dotted with people too far away to recognize, not that I would know any of them. Prior events made it easy to assume most of the adults seated were family members of students participating in today’s assessment duels.
I made my way in the direction of the sign that read ‘Arena Six,’ slipping through the crowds congested around the arenas in between.
“Great, an audience,” I mumbled to myself. There was a large group of varying age excitedly chattering amongst themselves. One portly middle-aged man had his arms up on the arena, giving last minute advice to the boy my age until the slender referee informed the man not to lean on the stage.
I barely had room to go up the stairs that lead to the elevated dueling arena, and all throughout the way, eyes bored into me. Some cast assessing gazes, trying to size me up to make their own prediction on whether their son, cousin, nephew—or whatever their relation to the boy up on the stage was—could beat me.
On the arena platform stood only me, the boy I’d be facing, and the referee. The later rounds in assessments would have a panel of ‘unbiased’ judges as well, but this was only the first.
“Make us proud, Simeon!” the portly man from earlier roared.
“You can do it, Simmy!” A curly-haired woman hooted excitedly.
“Sir, the barrier will be up soon, so please refrain from leaning forward onto the arena. I will not remind you again,” the slender referee said sternly.
“Dad, please!” the boy named Simeon groaned, shooing his father away.
Without further delay, the referee took out a key and slid it alongside the far edge of the arena. Immediately, a light flickered around us, casting a translucent wall about thirty feet high.
“Weapons in position,” the referee announced. “Traditional dueling rules apply. Match will end when one of you yields or when the protective barrier around the dueling vest shatters. Points will be earned on solid contact, not glancing blows. Cadet Grey, Cadet Simeon Cledhome, are you ready?”
I kept the blade of my sword low, gripping only with one hand, while Simeon took on a more traditional pose with both hands firmly on the handle and the blade positioned vertically out in front of him.
The two of us dipped our heads in acknowledgement, our gazes locked onto each other.
Immediately, Simeon lunged, clearing the distance of over ten feet between us in a single step. He had concentrated his ki to his back leg, pushing off and redistributing back to the rest of his body after gaining the momentum he wanted to achieve—not an easy feat.
However, his burst seemed seemed like a wade through viscous waters in my eyes. By the time his sword was lined in position to stab at my vest, I was contemplating between three different courses of action.
I went with the simplest, pivoting so his blunted weapon would would barely glide across my chest.
Executing the same technique as Simeon, I concentrated ki into my back leg and torso for support. In one swift stroke, I stepped into range and spun using my leg and hips for momentum. That way, even though I didn’t enhance my arm with ki, the strength of my attack was enough to knock Simeon off his feet.
Just before my sword struck him, he managed to twist his body so his left shoulder took the force of the blow, not his vest.
“Gah!” Simeon let out a pained yell as his right hand dropped his sword and cradled his injured shoulder.
I thought for sure he’d yield so I remained in my position, my eyes shifting between the referee and Simeon.
A muted thump drew my attention, and I could see the father banging wildly at the barrier. “Get up, Simeon! Get up!”
After a series of groans and curses, my opponent was back on his feet, his left arm dangling limply by his side while his right arm struggled to hold his long sword.
I cast a look of doubt at the referee, but he shook his head. The match wasn’t over.
In an act of desperation, Simeon tried to catch me off guard while my attention was on the referee. He dashed once more, sacrificing his speed by allocating most of his ki into his arm. With his right arm strengthened, he was able to easily swing the heavy dueling sword.
His stubbornness was respectable, but the match was already over.
I struck his right hand, causing Simeon to drop his weapon immediately. Without stopping, I spun and kicked his right thigh, which was unprotected by ki.
Simeon let out a grunt while he buckled to his knee. The tip of my sword was already waiting for him underneath his chin.
“I-I yield,” he breathed.
“No!” his father protested, banging wildly against the barrier. “The boy cheated! No way my Simeon would lose to some no-named rat!”
“Enough!” The referee berated. “Cadet Simeon Cledhome’s assessment duels will take place amongst the other defeated cadets while Cadet Grey will move on. That is all!”
With that, the referee withdrew the barrier and allowed us to leave. Simeon walked down those stairs like his soul had just withered. I almost felt bad for him. His ki control was considered pretty good since most kids in my division were now getting a firm grasp on basic body strengthening, not ki allocation.
His mother immediately gave him a hug and gingerly caressed his wounded shoulder while his father stared daggers, as if his son’s loss was because of me.<span class=”Apple-converted-space”> </span>I guess it was, so I stared back and did the respectable thing to the portly man of House Cledhome.
I smir—smiled politely. Now… if he saw that as being rude or arrogant, that was on him.
<span class=”s1″><b>ARTHUR LEYWIN</b></span>
“What were you dreaming about?” a familiar coarse voice asked, startling me awake.
My eyes shot open to see Virion, his face just a foot away from my own, wrinkled with a wide grin.
“Gah!” I yelped, bolting up and nearly colliding heads with the old man.
From the side, I could hear Emily and my sister giggling while even Boo and Sylvie huffed in amusement.
“Damn it, Virion. Your face is terrifying,” I cursed, gathering my wits.
“You were smiling so widely that I just had to wake you up and find out what it was you were dreaming about,” the old elf snickered. “Was it perhaps one of <i>those</i> dreams?” he continued, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.
“Are you sure you’re fit to lead this continent’s entire army?” I groaned, fighting back the urge to roll my eyes.
The commander, who was casually sitting on the ground next to me with his back against the cold metal wall of the training room like any old elder you might find in a rural town, simply shrugged. “I’m pretty sure smiling lewdly while asleep in a public setting isn’t very fitting of a lance either.”
“It wasn’t a lewd smile!” I protested.
“It was kind of creepy,” Ellie chimed in.
“It was just a dream about when I was younger. You know, when times were simpler,” I shot back.
It wasn’t a lie. Just not the entire truth.
Ellie exchanged glances with my bond before shrugging.
<i>‘Was it another dream of your former life?’</i> Sylvie probed, concern in her voice.
<i>I wouldn’t worry too much about it, Sylv,</i> I comforted.
Turning my gaze away from my vulpine bond, I watched as Kathyln and the three elders finished warming up. Only a day had passed since the first training session, but the fact that I couldn’t get any sleep while trying futilely to extract mana out of Uto’s horns without the acclorite in my right hand absorbing it first made it feel like a week had gone by.
The last thing I had remembered was coming into the training room and seeing my sister and Boo with Virion. While Emily and Alanis prepared the training equipment she had made for Kathyln and the elders, I had sat down and talked with the commander. I had asked him about my personal training assistant and how he even found someone like her and why he never bothered to tell me.
Virion had explained how he first met Alanis while visiting a unit stationed near the southern border of Elenoir, where the Elshire Forest ended. He had stumbled upon Alanis in one of the medic’s tents helping a soldier who had gotten ambushed by the corrupted beasts. While she was only a nurse there, Virion apparently saw the true value of her deviant magic and brought her to the castle. During the time I was training in Epheotus, Virion had made all of the lances undergo evaluation by Alanis so they could improve where their mana flow was the weakest or slowest.
Virion explaining to me that corrupted beasts were what the soldiers dubbed the mana beasts infected by the Vritra was the last thing I could remember before waking up to the sight of the old man’s face hovering over mine.
Trying to shake off the lingering weariness, I got up and stretched.
“Looks like the boy is ready,” Virion exclaimed, motioning Emily over.
The artificer hurried to me, carrying the training equipment she had managed to upgrade in such a short amount of time.
Instead of the full leather armor used to bounce back the mana waves needed for Emily to record the power of my spells without interrupting Alanis’ internal readings, I now only had to attach a few bands to my arms and legs and wear a thin chestplate with the gem embedded on it.
After I finished putting on the new equipment, my training assistant approached me with her eyes glued to her notebook.
“General Arthur. I have finished compiling the training schedule for the next seven weeks catered to improving your mana flow times during body augmentation and spell casting of your lesser elements,” she said, raising her gaze to me while handing me her notebook.
“The first two weeks will be one-on-one training,” I noticed after a cursory glance. “That probably isn’t the best use of time considering I only have two months, right?”
“I agree,” she nodded, taking back her notebook, “However, your goal in all of this, General Arthur, by immersing yourself in combat scenarios involving all of the elements, was to acquire the knowledge of which elements can be best utilized depending on the situation in order to apply that in later battles, correct?”
Her thought process was a lot more technical but she got the gist of it. “Correct.”
“While it’s commendable that you’re willing to become a training dummy in order to achieve this goal, it’s impractical for one main reason.”
Her statement piqued my curiosity. “Go on.”
“It is to my understanding after your assessment with your four trainers that the main reason for your—forgive my bluntness—problem stems from how solidified your fighting style is already,” she answered. “It is to my understanding that you have previously tried to train your lesser elements before by forcibly inhibiting your strongest elements, correct?
“Yet, even after doing so, once you allowed yourself to go back to your more comfortable elements, your fighting style reverted back to what I gathered as close-combat with elemental integration in your attacks.”
“That sounds about right,” I said, thinking about what my core fighting style was. Much of my abilities had improved since my time as Grey, but my core style, which was the use of the sword and body, still existed—albeit improved after my training with the asura, Kordri.
“In order for your body to learn new ways of fighting outside of your usual methods, a slow transition is required, along with another important component: unpredictability.” I could tell the twinkle Alanis’ eyes that she was almost as enthusiastic about training regimens as Emily was about artificing.
“General Arthur, you will start off with one-on-one spars against the four training partners here today. They will trade places in random time frames so your body will not get the chance to acclimate,” she explained in a serious tone. “On top of that, for each session, you will not be able to use one element.”
“And which element is that?” I asked, looking over her notes.
The usually impassive elf had the slightest glimmer of a smile. “That will be chosen at random and switched at random, General Arthur. Unpredictability, remember?”
“It seems like my original idea of brainlessly sparring four versus one has become much more convoluted,” I chuckled.
“The training regimens she made for the other lances were just as complicated,” Virion chuckled, standing up.
After dusting off his robe, Virion headed to the door. “I’ll be by whenever to see how things progress. Alanis, don’t break Arthur. I still need him.”
Alanis nodded sternly, as if she had seriously considered it a possibility.
With that, the old elf bid us farewell. Kathyln and the elders, who had just finished warming up, showed their respects as the commander left.
“The equipment is all ready to go!” Emily exclaimed as soon as the door closed behind Virion.
I looked around at the training room, spotting Kathyln blotting her forehead with a handkerchief and Hester straightening out the creases in her tight-fitting robe. “So, who am I going up against fir—”
The ground underneath my feet abruptly shot up like a spring, ejecting me into the air.
I was startled for perhaps a split second before realizing that it had to be Buhnd. It had been less than a day since I first met the bearded ball of muscle and he was already becoming somewhat predictable.
My body was launched about twenty feet in the air and when I managed to twist myself to face my first opponent, the old dwarf was waiting for me with a wide smile, his bulging arms stretched out wide as if expecting me to hug him.
A smile creeped up on my face as I siphoned mana into my hand.
<i>At least I won’t be bored. </i>