Chapter 236: Darkening Grey
“Here.” Lady Vera took a seat beside me, opening a bottle of water before handing it to me. “Drink this and try to calm down.”
I nodded before gulping down the clear liquid. Immediately, my worries, my jitters, and accumulated stresses faded.
“Is something wrong with the water?” she asked, worried.
“N-No. I was just so nervous that it went down the wrong pipe,” I said, taking another gulp.
“Oh, I see. Good, keep drinking. You’ll feel better after drinking all of that and doing some breathing exercises. At this point right now, it’s best you keep your body in top shape.”
I stared blankly at Lady Vera—my sponsor, teacher, mentor and someone akin to an older sister to me. She looked back, smiling in that confident manner that made you feel so safe being on her side.
“You’re almost there, Grey. Just win one more duel and you’ll be the heir apparent until you’re of age to take on the title of king,” she said, leaning in close. “With your skill and talent, this tournament is only a stepping stone for greater things.”
“You’re right.” I steeled myself, thinking back to Director Wilbeck.
To this day, it enraged me how quickly her case had been closed despite the gravity of the situation. It made me suspect that something was going on but in order to confirm this and get to the bottom of everything, I would need the authority of a king.
Like Lady Vera said, this tournament was merely a stepping stone for me to become king and gain Etharia’s backing to launch a full international investigation. I’d find whoever did this and use my full authority as king to make sure that they paid for her death.
“You know that my home country of Trayden and Etharia have signed a treaty recently, but things have been shaky as with all new alliances. I have faith that you’ll become a great king that truly bridges our two countries together, Grey.”
I looked at Lady Vera, hopeful. “You really think so? Even with my background?”
“Your background is under the Warbridge family name, just like mine,” she chastised before her expression softened into a warm smile. “I’ll make sure no one doubts that.”
My chest tightened as tears threatened to surface. Swallowing and sitting up straight, I replied with newfound determination. “Thank you. I won’t let you down.”
“Of course you won’t.” She placed a firm hand on my shoulder. “You’ve guessed by now who your final opponent is going to be, right?”
My fists tightened. “Of course.”
“I know she’s an old friend and you two grew up together, but don’t forget that she threw away everything for this. Forget the rumors surrounding her; no one has forced her to fight—and with her powers, no one can.”
Just as she finished speaking, Lady Vera’s phone chimed.
“Hello? What! Okay, I’ll be there soon,” she said, her voice stern.
“Sorry, Grey, a business partner of mine is here and I need to go outside since he’s not allowed in here. Be sure to finish that water and focus on calming yourself.”
I held up the water bottle. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”
With a tight nod, Lady Vera began speaking again to whoever was on the other side of the phone. As she reached for the door to exit my waiting room, the door swung open, surprising both of us.
“Watch it!” Lady Vera growled at the janitor pulling a cleaning cart.
The thin bearded man dipped his head before stepping out of the way. “My apologies.”
Clicking her tongue, she stepped forward to take a closer look at the man when apparently the person on the other line spoke again.
“I’ll be right there! I want footage pulled up from all angles!” she snapped as she strode away.
The door closed behind the janitor who walked in, his head still lowered beneath his navy uniform cap.
“You really should be more careful, sir,” I warned. “There are a lot of important people in these halls that you don’t want to accidentally anger.”
The janitor didn’t speak. Instead, to my shock, he looked straight at me as he ripped off his thick grizzled beard. What surprised me more was the fact that the janitor’s face began to warp slightly to reveal a face that couldn’t be more familiar.
The janit—no, Nico—clasped his palm over my mouth. “Don’t speak too loudly.”
His hand remained until I confirmed to him that I had calmed down. Wiping my mouth, I spoke to my friend that had been ignoring me for the past few months. “Where have you been? You look terribl—that fake beard… is it an altering artifact? Aren’t those illegal?”
Nico ignored me as his eyes darted around the room. It only took a single glance to tell that these past few months had not been easy for him. His cheeks were sunken and his lips were cracked, showing how little he had cared for his health.
“We don’t have much time before your match against Cecilia,” he said, fumbling through the sanitation cart before pulling out a palm-sized device. “I need you to listen to this right now.”
I pushed the device away. “What is going on, Nico? I know you’re worried about Cecilia but you’ve been ignoring me for the past four months and now you march in here right before my match and distract me like this? What are you trying to do?”
“Please,” he asked, desperation evident in his voice. “Just listen.”
And so I did. Despite having less than an hour before my match against Cecilia, I put on the earbuds together with Nico and began listening.
“Is this… Lady Vera?” I asked, hearing her voice through the device.
He urged me to continue listening and so I did. And as the audio clips continued, it became harder and harder to listen.
“Bullshit,” I spat, pulling the chords out of my ears. “Plans to capture Cecilia during this tournament? What sort of sick joke are you playing at, Nico?”
“It’s not a joke—how could I ever joke about Cecilia?!” he urged, tears lining his tired eyes. “I know Lady Vera has been good to you but this is why. Everything was for this day.”
“Have you gone crazy these past few months?”
“This is where I’ve been these past few months.” Nico pulled up his uniform sleeves and pant legs, showing deep red scars that ran around his wrists and ankles. “I’ve been locked up by our own Etharian embassy because I was trying to break her out of the government facility she’s been held in. I’ve been starved and tortured, but I managed to escape. Since then I’ve been gathering evidence around Vera Warbridge to get you to help me.”
My eyes widened before I shook my head. “No. No, you’re lying. It makes no sense. First of all, why would Lady Vera need to take Cecilia? Trayden and Etharia have an alliance now!”
“That’s specifically why they want it now,” he explained impatiently. “Whoever has control over Cecilia, or what the Traydens refer to her as—The Legacy, has control over the entire two governments.”
I was shaken by the familiar term. The Legacy… that was what that man had called Cecilia as he was torturing me. But I never told Nico that.
“Okay, then how do I play into this? Why would Lady Vera need me specifically rather than any other genius king candidate?”
“Our government has been confining Cecilia for her own protection until she’s officially crowned as a king. The only time she’ll have to appear in public is during the tournaments,” he responded immediately. “And Lady Vera needed you because you’re an orphan. There are strict rules to who can be allowed in the King’s Crown tournaments, especially the final rounds. Lady Vera was only allowed in here because she’s your legal guardian, something that can’t happen with another candidate from an affluent family.”
I mulled over his words for a moment, lost in thought when suddenly, a knock on the door made both of us jolt up.
“Candidate Grey? I’m one of the facilitators here. Lady Vera Warbridge has asked for me to check up on you,” a gruff voice sounded.
I looked at Nico who was panicking. He looked at me with wide eyes, his entire body trembling.
“I’m fine. Please let her know that I don’t want to be disturbed until it’s time for the duel,” I replied loudly.
The facilitator acknowledged my words and dismissed himself, but the two of us waited a few more minutes. I peeked out the door to make sure no one was outside before turning back to Nico. “Look. You’re crazy, but it’s obvious you’ve been through a lot. I’m not going to turn you in, so get out of here safely.”
“Grey,” Nico pleaded, clasping his hands over mine once more. “I’m begging you. I was able to set up a plan with a few friends after I broke free a few weeks ago. Everything is in motion but I need your help if we’re going to escape with Cecilia!”
“ Escape with Cecilia?” I echoed. “Do you even hear yourself right now? We’re competing against each other for the King’s Crown! You’re telling me to throw that all away because you think that there’s some sort of crazy conspiracy going on right now? I saw Cecilia’s last fight; she’s completely fine and healthy!”
“Y-You don’t know what the Warbridge family is going to do to Cecilia once they get their hands on her!” he cried desperately while fumbling through his pockets. “Look! I didn’t want to show you this but this has to prove it.”
I snatched the crumbled picture from his hands, skeptical of his words until I saw who was in the picture. While blurry and hastily taken, there was no doubt that it was Lady Vera talking with a man with a scar running down his face.
“Do you remember him? He’s the one that tried to kidnap Cecilia!” he said, pointing frantically at the blurred man.
“Th-That can’t be… no, it’s not. Nico, this is too blurry to tell. I won’t—I can’t throw out everything I know of and believe in Lady Vera because of one blurry photo,” I responded, handing the photo back to him.
My hands trembled and my heart thrashed against my ribcage. I needed water.
I fumbled with the cap of the clear bottle and took a large gulp. Instantly, I could feel myself calming down, feeling better—stronger, even, and more clear-headed.
Lady Vera was right. I needed to take care of my body by staying hydrated. Taking a deep breath, I turned to Nico. “If what any of what you said to me today is a lie, you could be sentenced to life in prison. As a friend, I’ll pretend this never happened, but you’re out of your mind if you want me to participate.”
Nico fell to his knees, looking up at me in desperation. “Grey! Plea—”
“I’ll help you, Headmaster Wilbeck, and Cecilia the way I’ve been trying to all this time—by becoming king,” I cut him off as I walked towards the door. “Now if you’ll excuse me. My match is about to start.”
The referee—a slim, middle-aged man with a well-trimmed gray beard—was dressed in a formal black suit. He kept his hands behind his back as he spoke sternly. “Will the two finalists step up onto the stage?”
My footsteps echoed as I walked up the marble steps leading onto the square dueling platform, and I could hear her footsteps from the other side as well. The limited audience allowed to be ‘witness’ to this event had been quieted and were anxiously waiting for the next representative of Etharia.
Using the very breathing technique that Lady Vera had taught me, I calmed myself as I stepped up onto the reinforced platform. However, taking one look as my opponent and old friend came up as well, I couldn’t help but shudder.
The very air around her seemed to be filled with electricity as my skin tingled uncomfortably. An aura of pure ki was visible and condensed so densely that I feared not even the sharpest blade could penetrate it.
All it took was one glance to realize how outclassed I was. One glance and I knew that no one in this entire tournament but her ever had a chance to become the next king. Cecilia seemed to know that, as her gaze exuded confidence. She was paler than usual—more sickly—and the dark bags under her eyes showed how tired she was, but her demeanor still spoke of her arrogance.
“In honor of the competition, the two finalists will pay their respects to the reigning king of Etharia, King Ivan Craft,” the referee announced, gesturing towards the highest podium.
I bowed deeply in the traditional manner that Lady Vera had taught me before turning back to my opponent. Cecilia, on the other hand, barely dipped her head before locking gazes with me.
For a moment, time seemed to slow as we exchanged glances. Nico’s words echoed in my mind, wavering my already-diminished confidence. Nico had said from the beginning that Cecilia had been captured by our own government, but I couldn’t believe him. Just from her attitude, Cecilia looked as if she’d chosen to leave him in order to pursue the route of a king… kind of like what I had done.
The referee stepped between the two of us. “Finalists. Show your respects to one another.”
He walked back and I bowed in respect—respect I was never shown back as she kept her chin high and looked down at me. The referee ignored it and signalled for us to ready our weapons.
I unsheathed my weapon, swiping the sword deftly through the air before pointing its gleaming tip directly at Cecilia. I couldn’t afford to lose focus—she was another opponent I had to defeat.
Cecilia’s expression remained unchanged as she elegantly raised an empty hand. In that hand formed a ki weapon in the shape of a rapier. Unlike other ki weapons that I had seen however, its manifestation was near-instant and flawless in detail.
I could hear stifled gasps and murmurs from the audience from just this display. The referee maintained his professionalism by displaying no change in attitude before signalling the technicians to raise the ki barrier.
As soon as the translucent dome soon fully encased the arena, the referee swung down his hand. “Let the duel commence!”
Throwing aside the hesitation clouding my mind, I burst forward, brandishing my ki-clad sword. Years of training with Lady Vera had strengthened my ki pool to an extent that I thought wasn’t powerful enough. While I still staggered just below the average practitioner, with my powerful instincts and sharp reflexes, I was able to utilize every drop of ki I had in my arsenal.
Those same reflexes made me stop mid-dash. Every fiber in my body screamed at me not to get any closer to Cecilia as she remained unmoving.
I felt a bead of sweat roll down the side of my face as I switched tactics, choosing instead to carefully circle around her.
Two things happened near-instantaneously. First, a grimace crossed Cecilia’s pale face. Second, she released a flurry of piercing ki strikes with one stroke.
My eyes widened in shock at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. This wasn’t some fairy tale or fantasy game, but real life. Still, gathering my wits, I managed to weave through the barrage of long-range energy strikes. My legs carried me through Cecilia’s casual onslaught as scores of piercing strikes launched from her ki weapon until I was in range to strike as well.
I feinted a downward strike before pivoting and spinning behind her, catching Cecilia behind her knees.
The attack that was supposed to buckle her and send her to the ground, however, sent a sharp wave of pain down my body instead.
“Weak,” Cecilia muttered under her breath.
I refused to let that get to me. Repositioning myself, I struck Cecilia with a quick set of sweeping attacks faster than the eye could follow.
But none of them could make a dent in the thick shroud of ki enveloping her tiny body.
Cecilia responded, stabbing her translucent rapier down at my feet.
The attack was easy enough to avoid, but what followed was the reinforced ground shattering from the impact of Cecilia’s strike.
Seriously? How is this even fair! I cursed, trying to escape the cloud of debris formed around us. Before I could react, a hand grabbed my wrist and anchored me in place with a strength that seemed nearly impossible for such a small body.
“Is this all that you’ve amounted to even with all of the training you received?” Cecilia taunted, practically sighing in disappointment.
“Shut it!” I spat, jerking my hand free from her grasp. Nico’s statements about Cecilia being held against her will and being forced to compete sounded more and more like bullshit as the duel continued.
Her attitude was just like those candidates from affluent families—haughty and arrogant.
I moved away from the dissipating cloud of debris with rapid steps, just in time to duck under a blast of pure ki.
The barrier surrounding the dueling arena trembled from the impact, widening the eyes of the referee that remained close by.
Moments later, Cecilia shot forward, both hands gripping her ki weapon that was poised to strike. I dodged her first piercing blow, but the aura surrounding her ki weapon was sharp enough to draw blood on my neck.
Cecilia moved in a flurry, her glowing blade turning into an indistinguishable blur of light as she recklessly attacked me.
My first few attempts at parrying her ki weapon resulted in chips forming on my blade—and that was with me reinforcing my weapon with ki.
I ducked, spun, weaved and pivoted at a speed that only I could pull off with such accuracy and timing.
Her attacks her monstrously strong and fast, but her swordplay wasn’t on the same level as mine.
Suddenly, Cecilia’s weapon blinked out of sight as she positioned her now-empty palm directly at my face.
Once again, my body screamed at me that I was in danger, and I reacted by grabbing her outstretched arm and pulling it away while leveraging it to position myself to her side.
Just in time, a cone of glowing energy was released from Cecilia’s open palm, right where I once stood.
“Can all you do is dodge and run away?” she said, her voice apathetic.
Cecilia’s ki-clad elbow struck directly at my sternum, launching me several feet off the ground and knocking the wind out of me.
Before I could even hope to get back up to my feet, I spotted Cecilia sprinting towards me with her newly-formed ki weapon ready.
I desperately tried to reach for my sword, but it was a few inches out of reach. Still, I struggled, trying to claw at the ground to drag my aching body to my only chance at coming out of this alive.
It was too late as Cecilia’s shadow swept over me and I spotted the glimmer of her weapon.
There was nothing more I could do except close my eyes and wait as I was defeated—or in the worst case, killed.
However, the pain never came. Cecilia’s ki sword buried itself into the ground, inches away from my face, and the impact once again destroyed the reinforced ground beneath me.
My opponent smiled, her face close to mine. “That’s once that you would’ve died.”
“Enough!” I yelled. Grabbing hold of my sword that had fallen into reach, I struck Cecilia at her waist using every ounce of ki I could muster at the moment. My blade couldn’t cut through the protective shroud of ki wrapped around her body, but the force did manage to push her away from me.
Cecilia twisted her body, landing nimbly on her feet with a smirk on her face. She was no longer the friend I had grown up with. Nico really was delusional, thinking that everything was forced onto her by the government.
I gripped the sword in my right hand, withdrawing the ki that had been protecting my body. If I wanted to defeat her, I wouldn’t be able to do so by wasting my precious ki on defense.
Noticing this, Cecilia withdrew her weapon, letting the glowing rapier fizzle out of existence.
She got into an offensive stance and gestured for me to come. She didn’t say anything, but didn’t need to. She didn’t even see me as a threat, igniting in me an anger with newfound determination to defeat her at all cost.
Letting out a roar, I imbued ki to my legs in explosive pulses, matching it to my stride. I reached her in three steps at a speed that even caught her by surprise. I swung my sword upward, hoping to at least throw her off balance, but Cecilia stood still and let her ki barrier soak up the brunt of my attack.
Her hand, coated in a thick layer of ki, actually managed to grip down on the sharp edges of my reinforced blade.
She pulled on the sword, pulling me along with it, and slapped me across the face with the back of her hand.
I had managed to protect my face at the last minute but I was still sent tumbling on the ground and my vision swam. Getting back up on my feet, I was immediately met with a barrage of attacks from Cecilia as she swung my own sword at me.
“My trainer was right. You two were dead weights holding me down, especially Nico,” she whispered. “I’m glad I managed to get rid of you both.”
The mention of Nico’s name brought forth another explosive wave of anger. Despite how crazy his conclusions had been, he had done everything because he cared about Cecilia—loved her. For her to spit on those emotions made me mad, despite all of the accusations he had spouted towards Lady Vera.
“Shut up!” I roared. Enveloping my hand in ki, I sidestepped her next downward slash—the end of her attack pattern—and parried the blade so it would get buried in the ground.
Even with my chipped sword, the ki she had embued around it was a strong enough attack to split the reinforced ground and get stuck.
I immediately followed up, delivering a powerful punch across her jaw and another just below her ribs.
My knuckles felt like they had hit a concrete wall, but I managed to make Cecilia stagger for just a split moment. That moment was enough for me to pry my sword out.
At that exact moment, an explosion resounded around the arena, surrounding the entire dueling platform in clouds of dust and debris. I noticed the translucent barrier surrounding the dueling arena quiver before disappearing as screams and shouts of surprise filled the area.
I stood still for a moment, confused at the turn of events until a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eyes.
“This duel is over!” she cried out as she dashed towards me.
She let loose a flurry of swings with her newly-formed ki weapon, unleashing sharp crescents of energy. The attacks bombarded the ground around me, raising even more dust and debris in the already-chaotic situation unfolding. However, I remained focused, wanting to end this duel just as much as she did.
Gripping my sword with both hands, I infused the remaining ki I had left into its blade and prayed for it to endure one more attack. Within the smokescreen of dust obscuring my vision, I managed to spot the faint shadow of Cecilia mid-air.
Her plan to use those flashy attacks to obstruct my view of her might’ve worked on most, but my sharp senses and instincts allowed me to guess her next move.
I let out a primal roar, raising my sword and driving its sharpened tip straight into Cecilia’s shadowed figure with all of my might, clenching my jaw for the impact to come.
Yet the recoil I had expected from clashing with her protective shroud never came.
Instead I watched as my sword slid itself deep into Cecilia’s chest and come stained red out of her back.
I felt her weight falling into me; the warm viscous fluid spilling down my hands and down my arms.
“They… wouldn’t let me… kill myself. I’m sorry… this was… the only way,” Cecilia mustered, her breath ragged.
I let go of my sword, my hands trembling fiercely. “W-Wha—why? How?”
“As long as… I live, Nico will be… imprisoned… used against… me.”
I stumbled back, and Cecilia fell on top of me. To my horror, the blade sunk deeper into her and she let out a pained gasp.
“N-N-No… this can’t be…” I sputtered, unable to even form the rest of the sentence as I choked back sobs forming in my throat.
The dust from Cecilia’s last attack and the explosion around the arena had dissipated as I continued clutching Cecilia. Despite all of the action movies I had seen at the orphanage of the main character dying dramatically, Cecilia’s death was nowhere near the same.
She simply stopped breathing and fell limp. That was it.
“ No! How? What have you done!?” Lady Vera’s voice screamed out from the side.
I turned my head towards the sound of the voice, more out of instinct than as an actual response. To my left were two figures, one male and one female. Both were in military armor, faces covered behind cloth masks. However, the male had taken off the goggles covering his eyes, revealing two different colored eyes.
Perhaps if it had been under any other situation, I would’ve reacted differently. I had found one of the men responsible for Headmaster Wilbeck’s death. I had also just heard Lady Vera’s unmistakable voice behind the mask of the female assailant beside him.
Nico had been right, but that didn’t matter to me right now. I had killed a friend—no, I had killed the woman my best friend loved.
The world turned silent as I stared blankly as the assassin with a scarred brown eye and a green eye pulled Lady Vera away and escape.
I watched as the referee and the judges frantically made their way towards us while guards ran around, trying to control the mayhem.
And from the corner of my eyes, near the very entrance I had come from, I witnessed Nico as his expression crumpled into that of horror and despair.