Chapter 281: Once In a Lifetime
I felt somewhat bad.
Chief Mason’s son, Braxton, had won the striker’s tournament, meaning he would be sent to Aramoor City to become a student at Stormcove Academy. Any other day, Braxton would’ve been the center of attention for his victory and the target of envy of his peers and even the parents of those peers. Not only Braxton, but his entire family’s status would be elevated within Maerin and—if he did well at Stormcove—all of Aramoor City.
However, after Cromely had congratulated Braxton on winning the tournament and half-heartedly expressed that he was looking forward to seeing him at Stormcove, the old representative practically pushed the poor boy off stage and announced a ‘once-in-a-lifetime event’ for the citizens of the four towns gathered here today.
The crowd quickly forgot about the exhibition and erupted into cheers as his two students and I entered the stage with Cromely standing between us. Workers moved the raised platform that they had used for the student’s fighting stage since we’d need more space, leaving only the leveled dirt floor of the arena.
“Thank you for agreeing to spar against us,” Pallisun called out from about a dozen yards away as he stood beside Aphene. “We were afraid you would decline.”
“The pleasure is mine,” I said with a smile, ignoring the haughty undertone in his gratitude.
Both he and his companion had changed from their more formal wardrobe. While their armor looked more like a fashion statement than functional battlewear, their weapons told a different story.
Pallisun withdrew a coffin shield that was nearly as tall as he was and twice as wide from his dimension ring. Aphene, meanwhile, gripped a claymore with a pearlescent blade in her right hand while a silver bracer covered her entire left arm.
“Following the standard rules of non-lethal duels, weapons are permitted but must be blunt,” Cromely announced as he stood between us to moderate.
The three of them waited silently for me to withdraw my weapons but I waved my hand. “I’ll fight bare-handed.”
Aphene stepped forward, eyes narrowed. “Are you looking to blame your defeat on the lack of a weapon, Ascender Grey?”
‘Nnngh! They’re so cheeky,’ Regis growled, bristling with anger within me.
“I promise to blame only myself upon defeat,” I replied calmly before turning to Cromely. “Now, can we begin?”
The old man let out a cough before he began stepping back several paces, holding his right hand high in the air.
“Begin!” Cromely belted as he swung down his hand.
Immediately, the crowd began to cheer as Pallisun held up his shield to cover both him and his partner while studying me closely.
Now that I thought about it, they had no clue whether I was a caster, shield, or striker.
After a brief pause, the two charged forward. Though both were hidden from view behind the large shield, I could sense Aphene preparing for an attack using the ambient aether around them.
Taking a dueling stance with both arms relaxed at my sides, I pondered how to approach this. By the visible manifestations of mana flaring out from the two of them, it was safe to assume that their levels rivaled that of an A-rank adventurer—probably more.
With my mana reserves barely at the ten percent mark, there was just enough danger to keep me on my toes.
Pallisun kicked up a storm of dust behind him as he continued his charge toward me. Sidestepping out of the way was simple enough, but Aphene was waiting for that, brandishing her claymore.
Aphene’s dark hair fluttered in the wind as she swung a broad arc, following up with a lunge.
Meanwhile Pallisun made a sharp turn aided by precise bursts of wind until his shield glimmered just a few feet away like a bull rearing its horns. “You’re going to have to do more than just dodge!” the shield-wielding student roared.
Their movements were well-practiced and without blatant openings. Aphene used Pallisun as protection—and an obstruction to limit my view on her—while she launched a series of attacks. With the two of them fighting like this together, I wouldn’t doubt their ability to rival even a veteran AA-rank adventurer.
Unfortunately, with my experience supplemented by the inhuman reflexes I had inherited, they might as well have been calling out their moves.
Pivoting on my front foot, I redirected Aphene’s next lunge with my hand against the flat of her blade. At the same time, I stamped my back foot into the ground just as Pallisun was about to tackle me.
With my foot obstructing Pallisun’s charge, he flew over my shoulder, barely able to hold on to his shield. Aphene had put most of her weight into that lunge, making her body lurch forward as her attack missed its mark. Making use of her imbalance, I hit her with an open palm square on her gauntlet.
Aphene toppled on the ground while barely able to roll to her feet. Pallisun fared better with his wind magic that allowed him to reposition himself in the air to land deftly on his feet.
It seemed that the structured magic emblazoned on his back in the form of either a crest or emblem allowed the broadly-built student to create quick and accurate bursts of wind.
My gaze lingered on the two naive students as their expressions shifted to that of anger framed neatly with the flush of embarrassment.
“What’s with those faces?” the ascender tilted his head. “You should’ve expected this much from an ascender, right?”
I studied the man that had just completely countered all of our moves. Despite his toned but slender frame and unarmed state, I couldn’t help but begin to fear this man. His golden eyes, nonchalant expression, and charming manner should’ve come off as amiable, but he had all the warmth of a predator seeking blood.
Unwilling to show any weakness, I swallowed my emotions.
“We didn’t want to accidentally hurt you. My apologies for underestimating your prowess.” I stood back up and spoke through gnashed teeth. “It won’t happen again.”
Pallisun, next to me, abandoned his shield as if to punctuate my point. Realising that our opponent was clearly a striker, he withdrew the two plated gauntlets that he had inherited as the next-in-line of the Blather blood.
The wind hummed and hissed as he curled his fingers into a fist before dashing forth while I followed shortly behind.
Pallisun swung his wind-clad fist, hitting thin air as the ascender easily stepped back before kicking him the chest. Despite the weight difference between powerfully built Pallisun and the ascender, my partner doubled over, gasping for breath.
Not willing to give the ascender even a moment’s chance, I leaped over Pallisun and swung Harmony downward in a feint. My sword’s shimmering blade whistled as it cut through the air just in front of the ascender before I channeled a flood of mana into my sword arm in order to change the trajectory of my blade mid-swing.
My own sword’s motion was a blur and even I was barely able to follow it, but somehow, his pale hand had grabbed my wrist out of the air.
“Not bad.” Despite how thin and pretty his hand looked, he held my wrist in an iron grip, dodging nonchalantly as I caught Harmony with my free hand and swung.
“Try again,” he said as if he were my instructor rather than my opponent. The ascender released my hand—then pushed me square in my shoulder.
My whole body jerked back from the sudden force before I spun from the impact.
Pallisun managed to get out of the way before I tripped over him. As the two of us recovered, we stood side by side with weapons up to defend. However, the ascender merely stood there with that aloof—almost bored—expression of his.
“Cocky bastard.” My partner spat on the ground and straightened himself as swirls of wind encased his entire body.
He gave me a knowing glance and I nodded in understanding.
Just like how we’ve been practicing.
We burst forward once more at the ascender from different angles. I dug my heels and prepared to thrust Harmony’s point at him a few steps shy of reaching him while Pallisun ducked low and aimed for the legs.
However, just as I began to channel lightning through my arm and into my blade, the ascender had flashed past Pallisun and was right in front of me.
Moving with keen precision, he dodged my stab. Then the world suddenly flipped as I found myself in the air.
“Aphene!” Pallisun’s voice rang, snapping me out of my reverie.
A rush of wind oriented me enough to aim the spell that I had been channeling. I unleashed the voltaic spear from the point of my blade while I descended.
Yet, even the fastest element of all couldn’t catch the ascender off-guard as he blurred away from view.
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By the time my feet had touched the ground the ascender had tripped, spun, slammed, and thrust his fist down at my partner’s chest. Thankfully, Pallisun had managed to bring his arms up in a crossguard, but the sheer strength of the impact cracked the dirt floor.
Immediately, I kicked back to maintain my distance rather than try to fight close quarters against this monster.
I swung Harmony in a broad arc. A shockwave of lightning ripped out of my blade and arced toward the ascender standing on top of Pallisun.
I didn’t stop there. Focusing more mana into my emblem, I willed the voltaic crescent to split into over a dozen separate projectiles. It took all of my concentration to control the chaotic nature of lightning into the form I wanted, but in that span of time, the ascender pried Pallisun from the ground and raised him to use as a human shield.
“Coward!” I cursed, dispersing the spell just before it hit my partner.
“I’m the one fighting without a weapon.” The wheat-haired ascender frowned as he peeked his head from behind Pallisun’s unconscious body. “But I’m confused. Are you a striker or caster?”
Is he not even taking this seriously?
Both Pallisun and I had tested into the threshold of high-tier mage—he as a shield and myself as a striker. The evolution of one of my crests into an emblem had allowed me to even fire lightning over a distance.
Yet, this ascender who seemed to be using only pure mana, was drawing circles around us like we were toddlers barely able to walk.
The ascender’s gaze flickered over to Pallisun. “You’re conscious already?”
“Screw you!” my partner roared, unleashing a dome of aura around them. The uneven ground flattened as even I felt the pull of gravity weighing down on me.
Pallisun’s first emblem took a heavy toll on him with his current mana capacity. If he had decided to use that as well, then I shouldn’t hold back either.
“Hold on!” I shouted as Pallisun broke free from the ascender’s weakened grip.
My partner and the ascender broke out into a close-quarter brawl. But even within the gravity field that should’ve been slowing down his movements, the ascender seemed unimpeded.
Wasting no time, I ignited my second emblem.
“Aphene, stop!” I heard my grandfather’s concerned voice in a drawl as the entire world shifted into slow motion.
My body protesting as my mana coursed through my emblem, releasing voltaic mana that pulsed through my veins like thousands of small pinpricks. I could feel every inch of my body electrified with energy, renewing my confidence.
In a way, the ascender’s capabilities would work to our advantage.
With the footage our artifact captured from this spar, Pallisun and I would surely be able to get into an ascender’s academy in the central domain.
My gaze flickered onto the ascender who—even as he fought against Pallisun—had his gaze cemented on me with an expression of surprise for the first time.
It’s not surprising. Internal lightning magic is rare, and this one is a high-tier emblem.
Tuning out my grandfather’s shouts, I approached their duel. “Pallisun!”
The emblem on my partner’s lower back blazed underneath his tunic and the dome of heightened gravity condensed around his gauntlets to form a glassy aura that blurred the space within it.
A confident smile arose from Pallisun’s worn face as he activated the full effects of the precious artifact designed for Blood Blather’s inherent affinity for gravity magic.
Once he was able to fully master his emblem and gauntlets, Pallisun would be able to not only block physical projectiles, but redirect magical ones as well through the use of the repellent force.
Even in his current state, he would be a force to be reckoned with. And with me by his side, even a full-fledged ascender would be hard-pressed to beat us, let alone one that had just barely finished his first ascent.
“Interesting!” the ascender beamed.
Then, for the first time, the ascender approached us.
I had known he was fast. He’d been not much more than a blur or flash of color during our previous exchanges. But even with my internal lightning spell greatly heightening my senses and reflexes, I was barely able to keep up with his movement.
Pallisun managed to bring his arms up to defend against the ascender’s strike, allowing me to step around my partner and swing toward the man’s exposed side.
The world around me moved in slow motion while my senses took everything in—the crunch of dirt beneath my feet, the whistle of Harmony’s blade cutting the air, and the resounding thud of the ascender’s fist hitting Pallisun’s gauntlet.
Yet, before I could finish the blow, the ascender spun on his heels, closing the distance between us and my swing ran harmlessly behind the man’s back. He trapped my sword arm under his own and swept my legs out from under me.
I could follow every moment of the ascender’s brilliant maneuver, from his footwork, to his apparent ability to predict the position of my swing while timing his own movements. Following and reacting, however, were two different stories.
Before he could finish his move, Pallisun managed to swing a gravity-imbued punch from behind the ascender.
It wasn’t surprising to see that he was able to dodge—maybe one of his emblems or a regalia had given him a pair of eyes behind his head. This time, however, the field of gravity surrounding my partner’s gauntlet expanded just as it passed the ascender’s head, pushing him just enough for me to wiggle free from his grasp before executing a lateral handspring to upright myself.
My left leg throbbed like it was on fire from just a simple kick, but I managed to put enough weight on it to follow up Pallisun’s attack with a low horizontal sweep with Harmony.
The ascender pivoted back, dodging my strike, and at the same time, hooking his leg behind the inside of Pallisun’s knees.
Before I could even warn Pallisun, the ascender kicked his leg back and swung a straightened arm right at his face.
Pallisun’s neck snapped back from the force while his legs flailed up in the air before the back of his head smashed against the dirt floor in a resounding crash.
A guttural yell tore out of my throat as I charged the ascender.
I can do this. I can still read his movements. As long as I can read it, I can react.
The ascender looked back over his shoulder with an impatient gaze, causing me to involuntarily flinch. He turned toward me and began approaching.
Currents of electricity coiled around me, reassuring me that I could win this exchange, while I continued I watched every inch of his body for signs of his next move.
His left shoulder twitched, and I responded by bringing Harmony to defend my left side. Then his right shoulder twitched, followed by his left arm rising. I tried to react and predict all of his movements but by the time he had gotten into range, I realized his hand was by my throat.
His grip was gentle, with just enough pressure to let me know that he had won.
He hadn’t simply won. He had completely used my most powerful spell against me.
Withdrawing my mana, I dropped my sword. “I-I concede.”
It was when I spoke that I realized that I had been holding in my breath. As I acknowledged my defeat, my shoulders slumped and the trapped air escaped from my lungs.
I was frustrated, disappointed, and envious of the man who stood in front of me. But more than anything, I realized I was relieved—relieved that he wasn’t truly my enemy.
Because I knew that had he considered this a real fight, I wouldn’t be alive.
The entire arena shook from the crowd erupting into cheers, pulling me out of my thoughts.
“It was a good fight,” he spoke in a low voice as he lowered his hand from my throat. “But you shouldn’t rely so heavily on something you have no idea how to properly use.”
“Aphene!” the familiar voice of my grandfather rang from behind.
The ascender patted my shoulder as he walked past me. “Do you have a name for that spell?”
“There’s no official name for it in the records,” I mustered, turning my head toward him. “I just call it internal lightning.”
He looked back with a faint smile. “How about naming it ‘Thunderclap Impulse’?”