Chapter 72 - Her Challenge

Leon’s schedule the next morning was largely the same as the day before.  He spent fifteen minutes simply enjoying how comfortable the bed was before he got up.  Then, he spent another twenty minutes in the bathroom washing up and getting ready.  He then meditated for an additional half hour, so he could mentally prepare himself to be around people all day.

Over the past couple months, Leon had found that it was getting easier to talk to people, but his general social unease was still strong.  He really needed that half hour of mental preparation before venturing back out among the rest of the trainees.

When Leon was ready, he made his way downstairs.  Charles, Alain, and Henry were chatting with a few other trainees which made Leon hesitate to join them, but Henry noticed him and waved him over.  The group’s conversation died down a little when Leon grabbed a seat as the other trainees weren’t very comfortable around a third-tier mage, but the silence suited him just fine.

The Senior Instructor arrived only a few minutes later.  When the entire unit had assembled, they began their three-mile run to the training field.  Just like the day before, a light breakfast was waiting for them when they arrived.

The Senior Instructor gave the trainees a few minutes to eat, then separated them again, with Leon, Castor, and Alphonsus accompanying the Senior Instructor back to the third-tier trainee’s private training area.

Unlike the day before, they weren’t the first to show up; the Steel Century had beaten them there.  Marcus and Alcander nodded in greeting to the three Snow Lions, as did the other two third-tier trainees in their unit.  Leon, Alphonsus, and Castor all nodded back, though Leon’s response was very subdued.

While they were waiting for the other units, Alcander walked over to Leon.

“Hey there!  Leon, wasn’t it?” he asked.

Leon had been meditating in a kneeling posture to pass the time.  He opened his eyes and shot Alcander a curious and slightly reproachful look, but the noble ignored them and kept speaking anyway.

“You know, I admire your combat abilities.  If it isn’t too much trouble, I was hoping to spar with you today.”

Leon thought about Alcander’s request for a moment.  The noble was an admirable warrior in Leon’s eyes.  In fact, there was a large part of Leon that wanted to test himself against Alcander, and it was this part of him that brought a slight smile to his lips.

“That… might be fun…” he said quietly.

“Ha ha!  Wonderful!  I look forward to crossing blades with you!”  Alcander gave Leon a respectful head nod then started walking back over to the other trainees in his unit.  He only took a few steps before he quickly turned back around and said, “My name is Alcander, by the way.  I should’ve introduced myself before, but I was just so eager to make the challenge!”

Alcander beamed down at Leon.  Leon gave a barely audible chuckle at the noble’s earnestness.  He nodded his head to Alcander, who smiled back.

Over the next ten minutes, the other eight units came along.  Leon knew exactly when the Deathbringers arrived because he felt the killing intent from Gaius’ hateful stare boring a hole in his back.  Surprisingly, it felt a little lessened to Leon than it did the day before.

Tiberias completely ignored Leon when he and the Black Vipers arrived.  He still hated Leon almost as much as Gaius did, but he was far more reserved about it.

When all thirty-six third-tier trainees had made their way there, the same Senior Instructor as before silenced the trainees and opened the door for any challenges to be made.  He didn’t say anything more and stepped aside.

Alcander rushed forward, intent on starting his duel with Leon.  Gaius moved forward as well, with the exact same purpose.  However, someone beat them both to it.  Valeria had elegantly and stoically stepped forward and the entire group went silent.

Her sparkling blue eyes slowly surveyed the other trainees while Alcander and Gaius respectfully stepped back so she could make her challenge.  Gaius looked a little bashful when Valeria’s eyes found his own, but his heart plummeted when she moved on a moment later.  His reaction wasn’t unique; most of the male trainees felt inadequate and awkward under her indomitable gaze.

Slowly, she turned her eyes to the still-kneeling Leon, and to the surprise of everyone, she pointed directly at him and unleashed a tiny amount of killing intent.  This wasn’t even enough to alter Leon’s heart rate, but he still clearly felt it and opened his eyes.  He smiled, pushed himself to his feet, and took a position opposite Valeria in front of the stunned trainees.

No one could believe that a woman as dispassionate and detached as Valeria would ever take the initiative to challenge anyone else.  A few trainees looked a little jealous, and Gaius in particular looked absolutely livid.  He hurriedly controlled himself, though, as he remembered that his older brother—and by proxy, his entire family—would now be watching his performance with much greater scrutiny.

Leon calmly drew his sword, while Valeria took out her own weapon.  Instead of the spear she wielded previously, her weapon this time was a shorter polearm, only about five feet long and with a relatively long curved blade at the end.  Leon’s smile grew a little wider when she brandished the weapon in his direction.  Her change in armament clearly showed what she had taken away from their duel the day before.

The Senior Instructor shouted for the duel to begin.

Valeria darted forward, opening with a wide slash.  Leon nimbly dodged, but Valeria wasn’t going to give any room to counter-attack.  She followed through with another slash.  Leon dodged again, then lunged forward with a swift stab.  Valeria rapidly spun her short glaive and deflected Leon’s sword upward, then countered with another slash at Leon’s chest.

Leon threw himself back, narrowly avoiding the blade of Valeria’s weapon.  His shirt, however, wasn’t so lucky.  The blade wasn’t so sharp that it would cut through his shirt, but it did get caught and tore a large hole in the side.

Valeria didn’t stop.  She kept pushing forward, her killing intent soaring all the while.  Leon’s own killing intent rose to match and then exceed hers, but it wasn’t enough to slow her down in the slightest.

Leon pushed back, countering whenever he could, but this was when Valeria’s choice to change weapons began to shine.  The biggest problem she had in their previous duel was that Leon had easily gotten into close enough range to render her spear nearly ineffective.  It had only been her stellar footwork that kept her from a quick defeat.

Valeria switching out her spear for a shorter weapon allowed her to remain effective even at the extremely close range that Leon preferred to fight in.  The curved blade of her glaive rather than the straight spearhead also allowed her to use more than just stabbing attacks.

The two of them fought extremely aggressively, matching each other nearly blow-for-blow.  The watching trainees and instructors were captivated at the combat skill the two were putting on display.  Marcus in particular watched in fascination.

Leon feigned an overhead strike, then attacked her legs when her glaive went up to block.  Just as his blade was about to slash her Achilles tendon, however, the haft of her glaive appeared just in time to block the sword.  Valeria followed up with an extremely fast and unexpected kick, which Leon had to drop to the ground and roll away to dodge.

Leon sprang back to his feet just in time to contort his body to dodge a slash.  Leon responded with a blistering flurry of strikes aimed at her upper body, but she managed to block every one. 

Valeria felt herself losing the initiative under Leon’s relentless attacks, so she blocked another attack and violently pushed herself into Leon.  This forced Leon to push back or he’d lose his footing.  Valeria slowly pushed the blade of her glaive toward Leon’s face, and Leon pushed back just as hard.

But that wasn’t the only thing Leon did; he also subtly shifted his weight so that he could dodge and counter after pulling away from this stalemate.

Valeria’s keen eyes noticed his movements.  In the moments before Leon disengaged, she made her move.  Pushing her blade had been a feint.  Instead of over-committing there, she suddenly pulled her glaive away, surprising Leon and almost leaving him unbalanced.  In an instant, she spun around and caught the back of his knee with the opposite end of her glaive and knocked him off his feet.  Before Leon had a chance to recover, Valeria slammed her blade into the dirt, almost close enough to his face to give him a shave.

The two duelists stared each other down just like the day prior, but this time their positions had been reversed.  It was clear from Valeria’s sober expression and tremendously elevated killing intent that she was perfectly willing to strike a more decisive blow.

But she didn’t, and Leon felt like he knew why.  She had surrendered in their previous fight and was now expecting the same from him.

He reluctantly let go of the sword in his hand and, to the surprise of everyone watching, said, “I yield.”

The briefest hint of a smile appeared on Valeria’s face as she retracted her glaive.  This look was mirrored in Leon when he pushed himself back to his feet.  The two slowly walked back to the group and sat down to meditate.  This duel had lasted for five minutes and wiped out most of their mana reserves, so they needed a few minutes to rest.  Their soul realms held enough magic power for them to fight if they absolutely had to, but it would certainly not be at one hundred percent.

To many of the duel’s observers, it was obvious that they had each given their all in the fight.  It was exceptionally rare to see such a display where two combatants push themselves to the absolute limits of their abilities because it would always vastly increase their recovery times.  It was even more unheard-of to see it in battle, as it could leave the winner in an extremely unfavorable position even if they kill their enemy.  Pacing during long engagements was very important.

Of course, this typically only applied to the stronger mages.  The weaker rank-and-file soldiers would never have the luxury of not giving a life and death battle everything they had.

After the duel, many of the nobles found themselves looking at Leon in a new light.  Even if he was a barbarian, he was still very strong and skilled with a blade, and that strength demanded respect. 

Gaius and Tiberias were not counted among these nobles, however.  Tiberias didn’t care how strong Leon appeared to be, he still despised this barbarian for being so intimate with Elise.  Gaius still despised Leon with all his being, but after the haranguing he had received from Nicomedes, he restrained himself from furiously challenging Leon.

The duels continued, but Leon and Valeria didn’t take part in any more.  Their fight had been spectacular enough to earn them their rest.  Not even Alcander pressed the challenge he made before the duels had begun.

The rest of the day went about as it had the day before.  After the Basic Combat class was lunch.  After the trainees ate, it was on to afternoon classes.  The first-tier trainees went to Magical Theory, while Leon made his way to the enchanting room.

He was surprised to see that Valeria was sitting in the same place as the day before, in the very back.  Gaius had chosen to sit at the table next to hers, but she didn’t mind so long as he was quiet.

Gaius glared at Leon as he walked over and took his seat next to Valeria, but he didn’t say a word.  The three silently practiced writing the seven elemental runes over the next few hours.

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That night, when the Deathbringers had returned to their tower, Gaius let loose with his fury.  He hurled a few pieces of furniture across the third-tier common room while screaming, “THAT FILTHY SAVAGE!  WHO DOES THAT PILE OF PIGSHIT THINK HE IS?!” and other obscenities to that same effect.

The other two third-tier trainees in his unit paled a little and retreated to their own rooms; they had no idea what had set him off and they wanted no part in this display.

‘That filthy brute dared to touch her!  My goddess, my future wife!  HE TOUCHED HER WITH HIS BARBARIAN HANDS!’

During the enchanting class, Leon and Valeria had very briefly brushed shoulders.  It was an act so minor that not even the extraordinarily misanthropic Leon had paid it much mind.  But Gaius had noticed, and though he bottled it up at the time, this outburst was the result.

For a moment, sanity seemed to find Gaius as his hand froze while reaching for a magic lamp to throw at the wall.  He straightened himself up and, as calmly as he could, made his way downstairs to the second-tier common room.  Something had occurred to him and he needed to speak with his second-tier followers.

Gaius immediately drew attention when he came down the stairs.  His clothes were a little disheveled from the tantrum he had just thrown, but his demeanor was oddly quiet and serene.  It was almost as if all the hatred and rage that had filled him for the past week and a half had just melted away.

He gathered his half-dozen followers in a corner of the common room and spoke for a few minutes.  He told them about the idea that had just occurred to him.  The circumstances of the combat test hadn’t leaked out, but they all knew that he passionately detested Leon, so it was no surprise that what he told them to do was related to this upstart barbarian.

Gaius told them to target and harass the commoners who always sat with Leon during meals.  None of his second-tier followers would directly antagonize Leon for him, but the same couldn’t be said about the first-tier commoners that surrounded him.

Gaius’ enmity with Leon now ran too deep.  The noble wouldn’t be content by simply beating Leon in a duel anymore.  Had the source of his hatred only been his humiliation, then he would never order something like this, but now Leon seemed to be getting closer to Valeria.  That was something Gaius would not tolerate.

He left the second-tier common room and returned to the trashed third-tier common room.  He ignored the mess he had made; it would be cleaned while the trainees were off at classes.  Gaius maintained his composure until he closed and locked the door of his private room behind him.  Then, a sinister smile broke out on his face.

‘Get ready, wretch.  This is only the beginning…’

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Chapter 73 - The Pool

Chapter 71 - Brewing Trouble