Sylvia’s heart was beating even faster than before. Afraid that he would hear it, she steeled herself and curtsied. “Hello,” She replied.
“Hi Sylvia!” Anise also called out to her with a big smile.
“Hi Anise.” She returned a radiant smile to conceal her embarrassment.
“So, what were you doing here Sylvia?” Her mother questioned again.
Turning to look at her mother, she saw a big grin. “I–…” She didn’t dare to answer in front of everyone. Her face began heating up. She knew her mother knew why.
Her mother was the only person she ever talks to about her feelings. She had already made it quite clear that she liked the boy.
“Just kidding, honey. What about you Naleen? How did your match go?” Her mother turned to question Naleen instead.
“It went well, Lady Reanne. I’m waiting for the next match right now.”
“I see. You girls walking around to watch the matches?”
“To the food stalls, actually. We were going to grab a snack before Naleen’s next match.” Jillian answered.
“Ah, why don’t we go together then?” Her mother turned to her. “Or would you rather stay here, Sylvia?”
“Eh? I’m coming too…” Sylvia quickly replied.
“Anise, do you want to go get a snack with everyone else?”
Her eyes lit up upon hearing her crafty mother asking the young girl.
“Daddy, can I go?” Anise turned to her father and pleaded.
“Only if you stay with the group. And Kaidus, please go with your sister.” Troyle answered.
Internally, she was shouting with joy. Her mother knew exactly what to do. By asking for the young girl to join them, there was no way Anise would be leaving her big brother behind. Even if Troyle did not tell him, Anise would have pleaded for Kaidus to join them.
They quickly moved away from the second stage and towards the food vendors. Anise clung to Kaidus’ left arm while Sylvia herself walked beside Anise.
Two guards were in the front leading the way.
Jillian, Naleen, and her mother were walking behind the guards while the three of them followed. There were an additional two guards on each side of them, and two following behind—along with the two Ravon knights.
Her mother was talking to Naleen about Naleen’s parents, but Sylvia wasn’t paying any attention to that conversation.
She was occupied, remembering how they used to walk like this—following behind her mother and Adalina—as they went shopping in the 3rd ward market district a couple of years ago.
“How are you enjoying the competition?” Kaidus asked her.
Although lost in thoughts, his simple question rang in her ears and brought a bright smile to her face. “It is quite exciting, really.” She calmly answered. “I never thought there could be so many people in one place at the same time. Such a festive atmosphere is truly breathtaking.” She gave an honest reply, having witnessed the competition for the first time.
“It is, isn’t it?”
“Kai look.” Anise pointed to a performer in the crowd.
The performer was an older Gveril man with long gray hair. The man had a broken horn, but his metallic arm was spinning a spear around skillfully. The man called his two assistants to join him and they began demonstrating different spear forms before fighting each other, displaying their abilities.
“He’s very good.”
She heard him voice out loud his thoughts.
“Is he stronger than daddy?” Anise questioned her brother with a puzzled look.
“Maybe, maybe not. It’s hard to tell from just demonstrations, but he’s certainly adept with the spear.”
“Hey! You guys are falling behind!” Jillian yelled out from ahead.
Looking in front, they were at least twenty paces away and behind a wall of people.
They quickened their speed to catch up.
“Sylvia.” Kaidus spoke up beside her. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for my mother these past couple turns, and for always looking after Anise.”
Her heart fluttered, and her face started burning up. She was not expecting such gracious words. “S-Such thanks are unnecessary… It is Adalina and Anise who’s been taking care of me.” She replied, lowering her head to hide the embarrassment.
Although they were still visiting the Paltos house, it was not because of her mother’s original purpose, but because of a genuine friendship between their two families. She herself had grown quite fond of Anise, looking after the younger girl as a sister. After learning that Adalina was having another baby, she had taken it upon herself to do most of the chores and food preparations whenever they were over at the Paltos house.
She was not working because she coveted gratitude, but hearing the thanks from him brought endless delight and joy.
“Regardless, thank you for everything you’ve done.” He replied.
“No… I didn’t…” Afraid she would make a fool of herself, she stopped and walked silently beside them.
Naleen swerved to the side, barely evading a strike. She moved around her opponent and launched herself forward, thrusting with her wooden sword.
Her opponent quickly turned around and blocked it with his hand axes, getting knocked back a couple steps.
She moved forward once again and kicked at the man’s left leg while swinging her sword, but the kick was shallow and her slash was blocked once again. The man was larger than herself, and a lot stronger.
She was currently fighting her 3rd match, and it from the way it was going, it was bound to be another drawn out fight.
Naleen quickly put some distance between them and began trying to come up with a plan of attack.
She attempted to ponder about the other boy, about what Kaidus would have done in this situation.
The last time she’d seen him was that morning he departed for Zorin Academy almost six years ago. Witnessing his match earlier, she’d been having a hard time coming to terms with such a thing. Although he was younger than herself, the boy easily grounded a man twice his size with a single blow.
It was done without hesitation nor fear, and the speed of his strike was beyond that of a boy his age. From what she saw, it was like when she watched Horan and her father—two master swordsmen—sparring with no restrictions.
*Thwack!* She brought her sword up horizontally and blocked a vertical strike. The man’s strike pushed down her sword and the head of the axe was edging closer to her shoulder. Pushing and moving her body, she managed to roll away before her opponent’s other axe whizzed by, grazing her legs.
Naleen quickly recovered out of the roll and darted away to keep her distance.
‘I can’t lose here. I’m here to win this competition.’ She told herself.
Unrelenting, the man charged at her again.
She changed her sword to a two-handed grip. Stepping forward to meet the charge, she attempted a two-handed thrust.
The man struck the thrust to the side and swung his axe at her with an overhead swing.
She felt the force of his first strike against her sword, numbing her hands for that instant.
Instead of moving away to dodge the overhead strike, Naleen ducked forward and closed in on the man. With her sword still out of position, she released her two-handed grip. Using her right hand—that was still holding the sword—as a brace, she charged in front of the man and elbowed his stomach with her left.
It had the desired effect and the man lost his solid stance, instinctively moving one of his hand to grab at where she elbowed him.
Naleen darted behind him, having done some damage.
She saw her chance. Instead of waiting for the man to recover, she swiftly kicked the back of the man’s knees, buckling him forward.
With her opponent on his knees, she quickly swung her wooden sword down to his neck, stopping before the impact. She shot a glance at the announcer, and the match was over.
With haste, she stepped off the stage to a plethora of praises from the audience. Her two house knights fell in behind her as she walked over to where Jillian and Sylvia were waiting.
“Way to go, Naleen.” Jillian commended.
“Are you alright? You seemed to be in a pinch a couple of times.” Sylvia questioned.
“I’m fine. There’s going to be a few more fights until my next match. What do you both want to do?” She asked the two girls.
“Would it be alright if we went to look for my parents?” Sylvia shyly asked.
“Why don’t you just say ‘go look for Kaidus’?” Jillian spoke with annoyance.
“Sure.” Naleen answered, seeing the silent Sylvia.
They had separated from the others ever since their trip to the food area. At the rate she was going, if she kept winning, she would eventually face off against him sooner or later. It would be good to get some information about his combat capabilities beforehand.
Although she didn’t understand Sylvia’s infatuation with the boy, it didn’t matter to her. From what she remembered, he was a liar and a spineless coward. That match earlier may have tipped her view of him a little, but none of it mattered as he didn’t even remember her.
She recalled him the moment Sylvia spoke his name, but the same thing couldn’t be said about him.
Not only will he remain a liar and a coward in her eyes, now he was also a crass idiot.
The three girls walked away from the stage and their guards followed behind.
The day was well past the afternoon.
An old Knight wearing plated armor decorated with a helmet and sword on his breastplate was walking through the event grounds, making his way toward the second stage.
He was working in tandem with a few others in charge of organizing the day’s security, but had left the position to his son for the time being.
Many of the knights who were working around stage two and came to report at the eastern tent, were clamoring about something extraordinary occurring there. About an unknown dark-haired boy who was single handedly decimating all his opponents. Many were saying the boy fought using both single and dual sword styles, switching between them expertly.
As the old Knight approached the stage, an extensive wall of people impeded his path. The stage had garnered quite the audience, and he could do nothing but watch from afar.
There were currently two people on stage squaring off against each other.
A youth even younger than his granddaughter, and a woman with a sword and shield. The youth had long black hair and was deftly wielding two swords against his opponent.
The young boy flitted around the woman as if gliding along the stage, looking for an opening. In an instant, his swords flickered and his opponent drop the protective shield. Two quick strikes, and the woman fell onto the ground.
He heard as the stage thundered with applause and shouts. The announcer bellowed out the victor’s name, but he was unable to make out who it was through all the noise.
The boy bowed and calmly walked off the stage without any problem.
Midafternoon came around, and the number of contestants had dwindled.
They were only using three stages now, and only those who have been winning were competing against each other. From the hundreds of contestants, less than thirty were still in the tournament.
Rest periods in between each match had shortened drastically, and it was now more a mental than physical competition. Those who had been winning decisively were beginning to lose because of accumulated fatigue through strenuous physical exertion, and many had even given up, understanding that they could no longer continue.
It was truly a competition of the most stalwart of contenders.
Kaidus stepped onto the stage again as his name had been called. He was tired, but not to the point of exhaustion. His matches had been relatively quick, allowing for plenty of rest.
His next opponent was a Gveril man with dull green hair who looked to be in his late twenties. The man’s horn shone in the midafternoon sun majestically, and his metallic arm held a long slim wooden sword.
“I’ve been watching your matches. How is it that a young one like you has come upon such skills?” The man asked as they stood face to face.
“I’ve had some great teachers.” Kaidus replied, giving a courteous bow to his opponent.
“That so? I would love to meet them some day.” Surprisingly, the man also returned a polite bow.
“Contestants ready? … Begin!”
Unlike his other matches, it was he who was taken by surprise this time.
The instant the signal was given, the man’s sword tip shot straight out at him—without warning—aiming to pierce his chest. Kaidus quickly swiped upward with his two swords, cutting at the man’s attack, deflecting it.
With the defensive parry, the man lunged straight at him, repositioning the long slim sword once again for a draw strike.
Kaidus hastily darted to the man’s left side, moving away from the impending slash.
The man fluidly changed his direction mid-dash, slashing out at him once again and the sword veered over to where Kaidus was as if alive with a mind of its own.
He smiled, seeing his opponent’s skills. The man was definitely better than many of his previous opponents. Bracing himself, his own swords shot forth and delivered four quick and consecutive blows to the long sword, stopping it before it could hit him.
He dashed straight for his opponent, evading the next few strikes and moving to get in close for some body blows.
His opponent saw through the plan and moved backwards, keeping him at a distance with flurries of quick precise slashes.
Seeing the futility of it, Kaidus stopped his pressure. ‘It’s almost like fighting uncle Dalzak again.’ He mused to himself and changed to a low stance.
Seeing the switch, the man prepped his own stance and watched cautiously.
He could see that his opponent was breathing heavily, possibly worn out from their exchanges or maybe even before the fight.
Kaidus slowly lowered both his swords, bringing his right to align with the left. In a sudden burst of movement, he launched straight at the man. From a low angle, his right sword flew upward, cutting into the man’s frantic defense. Another upward strike followed behind and ripped the sword out of the man’s hands, hurling it into the crowd. Following Twin Fangs, he jumped and kneed the man’s chest, sending the man backward to the edge of the stage.
The man stumbled, but refused to fall.
Without a weapon in hand, “Wait, wait. I forfeit.” The man cheerfully accepted his defeat. “I saw it the instant I failed to land that initial strike. I dare say, this land is full of surprises. Thank you for this enlightening bout, and may we meet again someday.” The man grinned, gracefully stepping off the edge of the stage.
“Thank you.” Kaidus uttered, bowing once again to the man who was now quickly disappearing into the audience.
“Kai you’re the best!” Anise cried out, hugging him as soon as he joined them.
The Varath couple was no longer with them, having left elsewhere with their daughters. He had asked about Larant earlier, but Lord Varath said the older boy was currently busy with various things for school and had not been coming home for the past couple ryes.
“Wonder where he’s from. He felt quite strong.” Troyle stated.
“He is. I forgot to ask for his name though.”
“That quick draw at the beginning was quite the technique. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that before.”
“It took me by surprise, but just a little.” Kaidus replied with a grin.
Troyle gave him a peculiar look. “I know that smile. Don’t tell me you?”
“It won’t be perfect, but I’m sure I can imitate it if I use magic. It’ll probably take me a while before I can do it without.”
“Hahahaha! Come here!” Troyle grabbed him and started rubbing his head proudly.
It was her 8th match, and her laborious effort every fight was taking its toll on her body.
She had severely underestimated the sheer magnitude of the arms competition. Thinking about it now, her outcry of winning the competition was nothing but arrogance and a general lack of understanding.
Having watched the competition four years in a row, she thought she had a firm grasp of what to expect. Yet, watching two people fighting and being directly involved in the matches were two very different things.
The competition only got harder as it progressed: with the skilled contestants weeding out the weaker ones, each match became tougher than the last, forcing her to put in twice the amount of effort.
Walking toward her was her greatest adversary yet. As she foresaw, the matches eventually paired her up against the boy. Against Kaidus.
Looking at the boy’s relaxed movements, she could tell there was no way for her to win. He had effortlessly dispatched many of his opponents while she had to painstakingly struggle against hers.
“Let us have a good match.” The boy bowed to her as he had done to all his other opponents.
“Likewise.” Taken aback by his nonchalant attitude, she nodded. She took two steps back and readied herself. Grasping her sword with a two-handed grip, she silently waited for the call to start.
She quickly moved away from her initial position and barely managed to dodge a strike. The boy’s first attack was as quick as ever.
If she hadn’t been watching his matches and didn’t know about his inhuman speed, she would have lost already.
She lurched sideways awkwardly, barely stumbling away from the next attack.
His swords came at her with a horizontal swing. Naleen slashed out with her own sword, blocking the slashes. The impact knocked her back, causing her to stumble a few paces before catching her footing again.
Before she could ready herself, he was already upon her. One of his swords smashed into her own sword, numbing her hand and shooting intense pain all along her arm. She felt a sharp pain in her hands as the boy’s other sword dislodged her grip, causing her to drop the wooden weapon.
“No!” She cried out, instinctively reaching down to grab the sword once again.
The boy also lowered himself, holding two swords to her chest. “Give up.” He told her, not finishing her off.
She jumped back to put some distance between them. Anger boiled up from inside her. “You!” She angrily shouted.
The fact that he doesn’t remember her was incomparable to the way he was treating her now. To look down on her and not deliver the finishing strike was disrespectful. It was disrespectful to her as a warrior, and to the years of hard work she’d put into getting this far.
‘I can’t lose to someone like him!’ She shouted internally.
She glared at him standing over her sword. Her body twitched, and she lunged in head-first for the sword.
She heard as pain manifested across her back, knocking her to the ground.
‘No. I can’t lose…’ Her inner self cried out.
In her anguish, memories flashed through her mind.
Her first meeting with the boy. Her humiliation that night at dinner. Her grandfather’s words and praises. Her many bruises and callouses incurred over countless evenings of practice.
Suppressing her tears, something else came into her mind.
The image of a crystal flower on top of her dresser, sitting there silently for all these years.
Tears began to swell from inside.
The world truly was unfair. Not only was the boy already a mage, he has even surpassed her with the sword.
“Why!?” She shouted out. Not to anyone in particular, but because of her own frustration.
Everything she’s done was to prove herself to those around her.
To her parents.
To her brother.
To everyone who treated her like a princess that needed protecting.
To show her grandfather that she too, was worthy of his praises and approval.
Even her talent with the sword could only take her so far. She saw for herself today what true talent was.
‘They were right… I’m no one. Just a little girl who wanted to be spoiled…‘
She closed her eyes, and tears leaked out.
Suddenly, the image of the crystal flower bloomed into her mind once again.
‘!’ She felt as if a spark ignited inside her.
Her body felt like lightning had struck it.
“Ahhh!!!” The pain on her back intensified as if trying to rip her apart.
Her fingertips rippled with a numbing sensation that started to move along her arms to her body as if alive.
She felt two hands grab her shoulders and turn her body upward. She saw the dark-haired young man’s face staring back at her: his mouth moving, but she could not hear what he was saying.
“AHhh!! W-what’s GUHHH!!!–…”
Flames erupted around her. The pain intensified, and her mind went blank.