Chapter 111 - Burning Pain

“You’d best surrender now, you won’t get another chance,” Antonius loudly said to Themistocles.

“Fuck surrender and fuck you!” Themistocles shouted back.  “You humiliated me last time we fought, and now I’m going to do the same to you!”

Without even waiting for the announcer to begin the fight, Themistocles launched himself at Antonius and swung wide with his greatax.  Leon noticed that despite only having a single enormous blade, there seemed to be far too much weight in Themistocles’ swing, especially as he didn’t even bother to stop the swing when Antonius nimbly ducked out of the way.  Instead, Themistocles followed through by swinging his ax over his head and straight into another strike, which Antonius also dodged.

“What’s the matter?” the Golden Man mocked.  “You seem to have gotten even slower than you were five years ago!  Even a mortal could easily dodge your pathetic attacks!”

Themistocles roared pulled back a little, taking a more defensive stance, but stomping on the ground as he did so.  In response, all the sand around him for almost twenty feet solidified into stone and lifted both Themistocles and Antonius several dozen feet into the air.  His intent seemed to restrict the amount of ground that Antonius could use to dodge him, but the Golden Man smiled derisively at him and slammed the pommel of his spear into the rock hard enough to crack the entire surface.  Then, he concentrated his own light magic into the head of his spear and thrust into the rock again, causing what sounded to Leon like an explosion within the small plateau.

“You really shouldn’t do something so foolish as this,” Antonius said, not bothered by Themistocles’ look of hatred, “those poor people in the lowest stands can’t see us anymore…”

Themistocles snarled and took a menacing step toward Antonius, but at that very moment the plateau he had created splintered apart in a flash of light that briefly shone through the cracks.

Antonius leaped back to the sands of the arena with an almost inhuman grace, while Themistocles came down with all the grace of an avalanche.  He barely managed to land on his feet, but he near-imperceptibly stumbled.

“Themistocles has lost,” Leon said.

“Indeed, it’s over,” Valeria agreed.

“What makes you two say that?” Elise asked.

“He just stumbled.  He was injured in that fall, and look at the way he’s standing now, he’s avoiding putting too much weight on that injured leg,” Leon explained.

“He probably can’t move that well anymore.  He’s a sitting duck for the faster Antonius,” Valeria added.

Both of them left something out of their explanation, something that they could only suspect.

‘That ax looks too heavy, Themistocles isn’t used to its weight…’ they thought.  It wasn’t much to go on, but they both had a feeling that somehow Themistocles was using the wrong weapon, meaning that the match had been rigged in a way that was significantly less obvious than the earlier fights.  Someone wanted him to lose—or, more accurately, they wanted Antonius to win.

The fight didn’t last much longer after Themistocles’ platform was destroyed.  Antonius danced around Themistocles and attacked with impunity, while the larger gladiator could barely assume a stance stable enough to bring even half of his strength to bear thanks to a broken ankle.

“Let this be a lesson to you, you upstart!” Antonius shouted while sweeping Themistocles’ good leg out from under him.  “Never challenge me again!”

Antonius thrust his spear into Themistocles’ head, sending his black helmet flying across the arena.  Then, he viciously beat Themistocles around the head a few times with the pommel of his spear until the announcer finally declared him the winner.  As soon as he did, Antonius spat in Themistocles’ face—which had started rapidly swelling, bleeding, and forming bruises—then raised his arms in triumph, loving every second of the crowd’s jubilant cheers in their champion winning yet another match.

Leon couldn’t but frown and lower his view of Antonius even further.  His actions were incredibly excessive and vindictive, though it was the spitting in the face of his fellow gladiator that really drew Leon’s ire, as well as the suspicion that the Golden Man had cheated.

Antonius left the arena after celebrating his win and the announcer began the second main fight, a large-scale battle between two teams of thirty gladiators.  Leon had no idea who anyone was, though, so he only watched out of curiosity in seeing their fighting styles.  He quickly decided that he wasn’t fond of said fighting styles, as it left many openings and focused more on flashy moves over practicality.

He and his group didn’t stick around for long after the final match was over.  Asiya and Valeria had some other business to attend to, so they said their goodbyes at the doors of the arena.  As they did so, Elise noticed a few more looks Valeria gave Leon that raised some questions in her mind, foremost of which was, ‘Does she like him?’

They were hardly in a place for a private conversation, though, so Elise pushed it to the back of her mind just as she had when she saw the same thing in the viewing room.

“If you don’t have anything else to do, why don’t we head back to the Heaven’s Eye Tower?” Elise asked Leon.  “I actually have something for you there…”

“Sure,” Leon swiftly responded.  “There are some things I’d like to talk to you about, too.”

“Anything in particular?” Elise asked with a smile as she took Leon’s arm and set off for the Tower.

“… Let’s wait until we get somewhere with a little more privacy…” Leon said, looking around at the crowds of thousands of people that were leaving the arena.  His serious tone brought some anxiety to Elise’s heart, leading to an awkward silence between the two until they had returned to the Tower.

The two wasted no time heading to one of the private rooms on the upper floors.  As soon as they entered the room, Elise turned to Leon and said with a proud look, “Can you wait here for a moment?”

Leon’s heart was racing due to his own anxiety about clearing up their relationship and he felt like he could use another few minutes to muster up his courage, so he nodded his acceptance.

“Then I’ll be right back, don’t go anywhere!” Elise said as she closed the door with a seductive look, leaving Leon alone with his thoughts.

[Look at you, so nervous you’re practically sweating,] Xaphan said with faintly mocking tone.

[Of course I am,] Leon answered, [I don’t know what she’s going to say.  What if she says that she only wants to be friends?  Or worse, what if she avoids my question entirely?]

[Trust me, kid, you’ve got nothing to worry about,] Xaphan responded, dropping any hint of teasing in his voice after hearing how panicked Leon sounded.

[Trust is for the rational,] Leon shot back, [my fear isn’t rational…]

[You sound rational enough if you can make an argument like that.  Why don’t you stop over-thinking it and relax?  Either way, getting a clear, unambiguous answer will be good no matter what it is.  You’ll be better off with it than without, no?]

[Y-yeah,] Leon said.  His voice wobbled a little, though, making it clear that he was in no way relaxed about the matter.

Just as Xaphan was going to offer a few more comforting words, Elise returned to the room with a small thin box.  She was so excited to give the box to Leon that she almost skipped over to him with a huge smile on her face.

“What… is this?” Leon asked, his stoic face showing little sign of his inner anxiety.

“It’s a dancing bear.  Just open it!” Elise said with a laugh.

Leon undid the latch and opened the box.  Whatever was within had been covered with a bolt of red satin, but Leon could sense an incredible amount of wind magic as soon as the lid was cracked.

“Is this…” Leon began, looking at Elise who was smiling and nodding furiously.

Leon pulled the satin out of the way, revealing a pure white feather.

[YEEEEESSSS!  FINALLY!!!!] Xaphan couldn’t help but roar.

“The final thing you wanted Heavens Eye to find was a feather from a fourth-tier bird who was strong in wind magic, no?  Well, the one I acquired was from a fifth-tier Eskellion Dove,” Elise said with a look of expectation.  She wanted Leon to praise her a little, or at least say something, but he just stood there staring at the feather.

“Is there something wrong?” she asked with some worry after a moment of silence.

“No, it’s perfect,” Leon replied, a wide smile breaking out over his face.  It had taken him a moment to respond because from within his soul realm had come an overwhelming feeling of surprise, followed by excitement and joy.  Xaphan’s feeling was infectious and he had needed that moment to calm himself down enough to speak.

“How much is this?” Leon asked.

“… It’s a gift!” Elise said with a proud smile after a moment of slightly confused silence.

“Are you sure?  This couldn’t have been cheap…”

[JUST TAKE IT AND FINISH MY POTION DAMN YOU!] Xaphan bellowed, having completely forgotten that Leon still had something to discuss with Elise.  In fact, his excitement had given way to impatience, and Leon could barely stand still while holding the box due to his connection with the demon.

“Please take it!” Elise said, with a steely firmness in her voice.  She wasn’t going to let Leon pay a single silver coin for a gift she had presented him with.

“Thank you!” Leon exclaimed.  Perhaps out of the restlessness that had overcome him from Xaphan’s desire to finish the potion, or simply out of sheer happiness and gratitude at receiving a gift from Elise, he took a few steps forward and threw his arms around her, pulling her into a hug.  “This was very important for me.  I can’t overstate my gratitude for your help in this matter.”

“Don’t mention it,” Elise said, her face rapidly turning red.  Leon’s quickly followed suit as soon as he realized what he was doing, and he just as quickly released her.

“So,” Elise continued, feeling a little awkward from the unexpected hug, “what was it that you wanted to talk about when we left the arena?”

As soon as she said that, Leon froze.  He needed to know where he stood with her, but he also felt an extreme compulsion to hurry back to the Snow Lions’ tower stemming from Xaphan’s wild joy.

[… Right, you have to have a conversation with her, don’t you…  I can wait…] Xaphan said, though even through the mental communication Leon could tell that the demon’s teeth were clenched.  He’d waited almost eighty thousand years to leave that prison and recover his former power, and now Leon was holding the final ingredient he needed to give his recovery the jumpstart it needed.  He deferred to Leon’s judgment, but the young mage could tell what Xaphan thought was more important.

And he couldn’t honestly disagree.  The faster Xaphan recovered, the faster he could provide Leon with his true power, beyond the occasional blast of killing intent.

“That… is a conversation that can wait…” Leon reluctantly said after a moment of thought.  “It’s not too important.  I mean, this feather actually kind of answers it already…  Well, it would be nice to hear it from you…  But I do need to head back to finish… what I needed this feather for…”

Elise promptly stepped forward and interrupted Leon by putting her hand on his cheek.

“Whatever you wanted to say, I can wait to hear it if I need to,” she said with a gentle tone.  “I’ll be here whenever you want to talk again.”

Truth be told, she was just as nervous as he was, as she had a feeling that whatever Leon wanted to talk about was serious enough to completely change their relationship.  That scared her more than a little, and she was perfectly willing to kick that can down the road a ways.

“… Well… next time, then,” Leon whispered, pulling Elise into a gentler, but more deliberate hug than the previous one.

“Next time,” she agreed, returning his hug.  They stayed like that for a few moments more before Xaphan’s impatience finally boiled over and Leon said his goodbyes.

After leaving the Heaven’s Eye Tower, Leon hurried back to the Knight Academy as fast as he could, sprinting through the streets of the capital.  He didn’t care one whit for the stares he attracted as he hurtled past the early afternoon crowds.

[I must apologize to you, Leon…] Xaphan muttered.

[Don’t mention it, demon.]

[But-]

[Don’t mention it, demon.]

[… Very well.]

When Leon made it back to the Snow Lions’ tower, he rushed up the stairs straight to his room.  Waiting for him in the corner was the tall bowl covered in spell paper.  He grabbed it and moved to a table in the center of the room.

[Now, what do we do?] Leon asked.

[First, remove the water-coals.  They’re not needed and will only get in the way,] Xaphan immediately replied, though the demon kept his voice calm and measured so he could communicate the right information.

Leon removed the lid of the bowl and, using a pair of thin metal tongs, removed the water-coals and threw them into the sink in his bathroom.  They almost immediately stopped burning without water around them, but they were still too hot even for a third-tier mage to handle with his bare hands.

[And then?] Leon continued.

Instantly, a flood of runes forming a complex enchantment entered his mind.  [Take as much time as you need to inscribe this enchantment.  It must be perfect,] Xaphan said.

Leon didn’t hesitate to get to work.  As he wrote each rune, his hand was steady and his penmanship near perfect.  His practice in the enchantment classes was truly paying off; although this was the most complex enchantment he had ever written, it only took as many tries as he needed when learning how to make a crude flare spell.  He finished in only two hours.

[Hmmm,] Xaphan murmured as he inspected Leon’s work.  Once he was satisfied that everything was in order, Leon peeled off the spell paper already on the bowl and replaced all of it with what he had just written.

[So what does that enchantment do?] Leon asked.

[What do you think it does?] Xaphan asked back.  He wasn’t trying to be a sarcastic dick, he only wanted to fill some time and distract himself with speech while the enchantment went to work.

[The enchantment’s core was made of more than half a dozen separate runic circles, totaling three light runes, eight wind runes, and more than twenty fire runes.  The modifiers had something to do with bodies, though I couldn’t quite parse what they did exactly.  So I would have to guess that it fills your body with fire magic that was stoked with the wind magic, plus a little healing from light magic.]

[Not bad, though not very specific either and missing quite a few very big and important details.  The enchantment is actually an amalgamation of two different enchantments.  The first creates the potion itself, while the second dictates the potion’s effects.

[The salamander core is going to melt, releasing so much fire magic that it will saturate and feed the Kagu flower.  Then, after the flower has had its fill, it will secrete a juice that will combine with the fire magic-rich water, which will form the potion.  Lastly, you will need to eat the feather, then wash it down with the potion.  And don’t eat the remains of the Kagu flower!  You’ll probably be incinerated from the inside if you do…]

[But what will the potion and enchantments do exactly?] Leon asked.

[Once it settles in your stomach, all of its magical energy will be directed into your soul realm, thanks to the second enchantment.  From there, the magic power will enter my body and stimulate my recovery.  Essentially, the light runes will give the potion the healing properties it needs to enter your body without causing permanent damage, while the fire energy will invigorate my own atrophied demonic core—where my magic is produced, much like your magic comes from your bone marrow.  The wind magic will help to feed those flames, prolonging their effect until the job is done.]

[Well, sounds easy enough,] Leon said.  He figured that he had finished the hard part, a notion that Xaphan wasn’t in a hurry to dispel.  It wouldn’t help anyone if Leon spent the next hour or so while the potion finished being made in a state of dread.

Leon spent his time quietly meditating, while Xaphan used his magic senses to monitor the bowl.

[It’s ready,] the demon finally growled.

Leon’s eyes opened and he opened the box he received from Elise and grabbed the feather.  It was only as long as his index finger, making it easy enough to put in his mouth, even if it was less so to swallow.  Complicating things was the strength of the wind magic the feather possessed; it vibrated and filled Leon’s mouth with air, making getting it down his throat a difficult task, especially as the air quickly turned sharp.  Leon’s mouth was filled with shallow cuts and he spat out blood.

[Ugghh,] he moaned in pain.

[Swallow the potion!  There’s not much time!  It will hurt, but the injuries and the pain will only be temporary!] Xaphan shouted, spurring Leon onward.

With an awful look of pain on his face, Leon cracked open the bowl and started chugging without even looking at the thick red liquid in the bowl.  The potion was scalding hot from the fire magic and it felt like his stomach had been set aflame, but Leon didn’t stop.  The pain wasn’t nearly so intense as what he had felt when he had awakened the Thunderbird’s Bloodline.

[How are you doing?] Xaphan asked with a little worry as Leon finished, leaving nothing but a few drops of potion clinging to the side of the bowl and the shriveled Kagu flower at the bottom.

Leon barely managed to say [Alright,] through the burning pain.  The potion had settled in the pit of his stomach, growing stronger as the feather kept vibrating.

‘At least the potion is suppressing those tiny wind blades…’ Leon thought, grateful for the small comfort.

Despite his brave face, Leon took a few staggering steps toward his bed before collapsing onto the floor, barely stopping himself from screaming in pain.  He could feel the magic of the potion slowly moving through his body, scorching him from within.  Eventually, the pain grew too great and he slipped into the comfortable oblivion of unconsciousness.

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Chapter 112 - Severe Burns

Chapter 110 - The Arena