Leon and Gaius stared each other down. All the other nobles in the room watched, some in fascination, others in sadistic glee. Everyone expected Leon was about to get his ass handed to him by Gaius.
Everyone, that is, save for a thin and unassuming man who had been meditating until just now. He had dark brown hair and sharp blue eyes. He maintained a stoic expression, and in contrast to most other nobles who liked to be the center of attention, he preferred to stay quiet and watch. Anyone who underestimated him would quickly find themselves being taught a brutal and painful lesson, though.
This was Marcus Remus Aeneas, the eldest son of House Aeneas, more popularly known as the ‘House of Strategists’. This was the family who literally wrote the book on standard battle tactics for the Bull Kingdom, and more than half of all Legates of the Knight Academy were taken from their House. The march they ruled over in the east was the only region that hadn’t been ravaged by raids by the Giants living in the Border Mountains in the past fifty years. They were so influential that despite Marquis being a lower noble rank than Duke, Marcus was one of the two men Gaius had gone out of his way to greet before the power test.
Seeing the conflict between Leon and Gaius, Marcus narrowed his eyes and watched. He saw Leon’s subtle movements to take a significantly more aggressive stance, whereas Gaius still stood relatively normally, despite curling his hands into fists and glaring. If they did start fighting, Leon would almost certainly get in the first hit. Given how solid and stable his aura felt to Marcus, then he would be willing to bet that even if the fight lasted a few more blows, it would’ve already been decided with the first hit.
Of course, he didn’t warn Gaius to back down or even share his insight with anyone else. He actually wanted to see a fight between the two, to see if his hypothesis was correct. He watched the two with a slight smile on his face.
However, just as Leon prepared himself to lunge forward at Gaius, the doors burst open and half a dozen knights and examiners poured in, including the man who had announced the start of the power test. Now that they were so close, Leon could see all the detail in his dark green uniform, including the three gold stripes on his shoulders, the gold braid under one arm, and the insignia of the Knight Academy upon his chest. At his rank, he could command an entire legion of twenty-thousand soldiers. If he was here, then he had to be the Legate of the Knight Academy—the man in command of the entire institution—and a sixth-tier mage at the very least!
“Is there a problem here?” he growled. Gaius immediately straightened himself up, then bowed slightly to the Legate.
Leon dropped his stance, and the Legate paid them no more mind, walking towards the center of the chamber. The other nobles followed, and Gaius glared at Leon once more before following suit.
[What a dickhead.]
[You were watching that, demon?]
[I’ve done all I can to recover my power until you get that potion made. Not much else to do other than watch…]
[Right… I’ll get on that soon.]
[Glad to hear it, but you focus on higher priorities. Such as flattening that dickhead noble into a thin paste.]
[Why are you so pissed at him?]
[He insulted you, my partner, and thus he has insulted me by proxy. I am an exalted Lord of Flame, he should feel lucky to lick the ground I lay my eyes upon, but instead he tried to force my partner to leave. Were I not so weak right now, I’d burn him to ash!]
Leon was about to continue, but one of the examiners stepped forward, interrupting him.
“Everyone gather round and be quiet, and we’ll get this show on the road!” There was hardly a need to say this, as everyone had already gathered and stopped talking, but he felt the need to say it anyway since the Legate was watching.
“Now, what’s going to happen for the combat test is we’re going to have us a few duels between the lot of you. There’s no limit to how many times you have to fight, but everyone must fight at least once. Everybody understand?”
Everyone understood. Being third-tier mages, there’s practically no chance for the Knight Academy to let them fail, so this little exhibition was mostly just for show, to let the nobles strut around for each other.
Of course, that wasn’t to say that there weren’t a few who would take this seriously. Leon already noticed Gaius look at him with a malicious smile, and a few other nobles looked positively eager to get up there and fight.
“Do we have any volunteers to start us off?” asked the examiner. One man was so eager to volunteer he almost jumped forward. He was almost seven feet tall, with curly light brown hair, and so heavily muscled as to put marble statues to shame. He wore a sleeveless green shirt, long dark green pants, and had strapped a truly immense double-bladed battle-ax to his back.
“I’ll go first,” he said with a confident smile.
The examiner chuckled at the man’s eagerness, then said, “Well, this is a good time to mention that personal weapons are not allowed during this test.”
The man nodded and took off his ax, placing it on the ground a few steps behind him.
“Good, do we have any other volunteers?” asked the examiner.
“To shit with volunteers! Marcus, get up here!” shouted the enormous noble.
Marcus smiled jovially, not bothered at all at being called out. “Alcander, my friend, you shouldn’t be so rude.”
“Haha! Save the politeness for strangers! Just get over here and fight me!” responded the big guy with an enormous smile and booming laugh.
Marcus complied, stopping only to nod at the Legate, who everyone noticed looked remarkably similar to Marcus. Those who didn’t know their relation didn’t have to wonder as the Legate said, “Conduct yourself well, nephew.”
When he walked over to only half a dozen steps away from Alcander, Marcus asked, “How will we be fighting? Surely not with just our hands?”
“Of course not. We have been given permission to allow you to use our new practice weapons.” To the shock of most of the noble’s present, the examiner revealed himself to be at least of the fifth-tier by retrieving a pair of swords from his soul realm, seemingly waving his hand and pulling them from thin air.
In contrast to most practice swords, these were not made of wood, but rather of an odd white metal with simple leather grips. They also seemed to be as heavy as regular steel weapons, given the way Marcus and Alcander held them. The only thing that indicated that they weren’t made for battle was the lack of an edge on the blade; they were far too dull to cut anything harder than butter.
“These are our practice weapons?” Marcus asked with skepticism. Blunted metal weapons were hardly ‘new’, after all.
“Indeed they are. They contain enchantments that, when activated by channeling your magic into the blade, will coat the sword with a blade of light. This will allow you to use the sword as if it were real, without permanently harming your opponent.”
The two immediately tried this, and the edges of the blades began glowing with a bright white light.
“Hit someone with these, and they won’t cut or break bones, but they’ll hurt like they had, and possibly paralyze a limb for a few hours. Oh, by the way, they have undergone enough testing to be judged as ‘safe’, but no strikes to the head or neck, got it?”
The two young men nodded, as did everyone else when the examiner swept his eyes around the room.
“Are there any other practice weapons like this?” asked Alcander, with a look of great anticipation.
“Of course!” replied the examiner, and with a dramatic flourish, a host of other weapons appeared, all with the same blunt edges and strange pale white blades. Alcander gleefully ran over and grabbed a huge ax that strongly resembled his own, but Marcus seemed content with the standard one-handed sword given to him by the examiner.
With their weapons selected, the two took up positions opposite each other and began channeling their magic. When their weapons lit up with white light, they glanced at the examiner, who nodded back at them. Their duel had begun.
Alcander moved first, his third-tier speed and strength made evident as he crossed the distance between the two in a blink of an eye and striking at Marcus with a horizontal slash aimed at his shoulder. Marcus dodged with apparent ease, allowing Alcander’s strike to taste nothing but air. Alcander used his momentum to quickly spin into another attack, which Marcus dodged perfectly again.
They repeated this pattern a dozen more times, with neither looking even slightly winded. Things changed when Marcus, having watched Alcander’s extremely wide attacks this whole time, suddenly lunged forward, directly into range of Alcander’s swing. He brought his sword up, deflecting the ax mere inches away from his face and throwing the much larger man off balance, then following up with a slash into Alcander’s exposed ribs.
The blade slammed into Alcander but didn’t even leave a mark on his clothes. There was no blood or sound of bones breaking, either. Alcander still dropped to a knee in with a grunt of obvious pain, however.
Marcus took a few steps back and assumed a defensive posture, but he still looked at Alcander with some concern. They were friends, and the big guy was doubled over in pain, not to mention they had never used these training weapons before, so of course he was a little worried.
His worries were assuaged when Alcander rose to his feet with a grimace, then smiled at him. “Nicely played,” he said.
“You ok? Do you want to keep going or call it here?” asked the examiner. There was little practical reason to continue, given that they weren’t fighting for points like the other applicants, but Alcander still smiled and nodded. In the end, Marcus got in two more hits against him before he conceded the duel. The two men placed their weapons with the others and walked back to the group.
“Alright, a great start! Who’s next?” The examiner’s waited for another volunteer. Gaius was about to go up, glaring at Leon as he did, but the woman in yellow beat him to it. She happily stepped forward, almost skipping to the weapons. The woman in blue closely followed. Seeing them, Gaius almost completely forgot about Leon and stepped back.
His behavior wasn’t unusual, as everyone else was perfectly willing to watch these two beautiful women go ahead of them.
“Hey, who do you think is going to win?” Alcander asked Marcus quietly. Leon was just close enough to hear them, but everyone else was so distracted they didn’t notice.
Marcus was silent for a moment while they selected their weapons. The woman in blue chose a long polearm with a curved blade at the end, while the woman in yellow chose a thick curved sword.
“I’d bet on Lady Valeria. Her glaive will give her far better reach, and from what I’ve heard, she’s damn good with it.”
“You sure? Lady Asiya is an artist with a saber, I think she’ll definitely hold her own.”
“I suppose we’ll see, won’t we? Care to put any money on it?”
Alcander didn’t end up betting, which was a good thing, as the fight went about as Marcus expected. Asiya was indeed very good with her saber. She was fast, and her slashes were strong and accurate, but it wasn’t quite enough. Valeria kept her distance with expert footwork, and she took full advantage of the extra reach her glaive gave her. In the end, despite a very commendable showing, Asiya conceded defeat.
The two women returned to the group, with Asiya complimenting Valeria’s skill and fighting style. Valeria still projected a stoic and disinterested attitude, but she responded to her friend quite readily. The two were so captivating talking about something they enjoyed, especially with how animated Asiya was, almost jumping around from the residual adrenaline, that no one stepped forward to be in the next fight. Even Leon couldn’t help but momentarily lose himself.
Gaius was the first to recover and step forward. His movement gradually brought everyone else back to reality, and they turned their eyes away from Asiya and Valeria. Gaius walked over to the training weapons and grabbed a sword. He gave it a few practice swings, smiled, and pointed it at Leon.
“Get up here, barbarian, and let me show why your kind should stay where it belongs!”
Before Leon had a chance to even respond, Xaphan summarized what they were both thinking in three words: [This fucking dickhead!]
[He is indeed an irritating piece of shit, but perhaps he has the strength to back it up? He is a young third-tier mage, after all.]
[… If you don’t break him over your knee like a flimsy board, you and I are going to have some serious problems.] said Xaphan in a threatening tone.
[Yeah, because I was planning to lose to begin with.] Leon replied with great sarcasm.
[I don’t want you to just avoid losing, I want you to kick his fucking teeth in and make him choke on his own blood!] Xaphan was getting heated now, and Leon could feel a frightening killing intent rising from his chest, a killing intent that wasn’t his own. It had become clear to Leon that Xaphan was rapidly regaining his sense of pride after being freed from that prison. Leon didn’t mind this, as the contract they had forged had brought with it a peculiar sense of familiarity, allowing Leon to be far more relaxed talking to Xaphan than he could be with anyone else.
Leon walked forward with an odd half-smile. He fully expected this to be the most challenging fight he’d ever had and was obviously anticipating every moment. He carefully removed the sword from around his waist, and gently laid it on the ground, then went to pick up a training sword of his own.
As he did this, the Legate’s eyes found themselves attracted to the sword Leon had put down. There was something familiar about it, but it took a moment for him to realize what it was.
Eighty years ago, when he was but a young fourth-tier centurion, he had been a part of King Julius’ campaign against the Talfar Kingdom in the east, conducted in revenge of their unprovoked invasion of the Bull Kingdom. During that time, he had laid eyes on the Archduke of the Great Plateau, Kyros Raime, who had been given command of the army by the king. If the Legate recalled correctly, the Archduke had wielded this very same sword, or at least one that was very much like it.
For a moment, his heart almost stopped. He felt a few drops of sweat appear on his forehead, and his eyes turned back towards Leon. Now that he was looking properly at him, Leon looked strikingly similar to the old Archduke!
For a moment the Legate’s mind froze up, at a loss for how to proceed. By the time Leon chose his weapon, a sword that was nearly identical to his own, and took up a position opposite Gaius, the Legate decided to wait and see. He didn’t actually have any proof, only suspicions and some evidence based on momentarily getting a glimpse of Archduke Kyros one time eighty years ago, so he felt the best option was to keep quiet.
Gaius smiled derisively at Leon and assumed a half-hearted stance, barely even raising his own sword. It was plain for everyone to see that he wasn’t going to take this fight seriously.
Leon, in contrast, assumed a much stronger stance, with one foot far ahead of the other, and his sword held up near his ear, ready to lunge forward in a stabbing attack at a moment’s notice.
Just like last time, Alcander turned to Marcus to ask his prediction of what would happen, but Marcus simply held up his hand, telling Alcander not to speak right now. He wanted to watch this fight with no other distractions.
The examiner looked at Leon and Gaius, and after waiting for a moment to let them finish getting ready, he shouted, “Begin!”
For a split second, Gaius made eye contact with Leon. At that moment, he was gripped with fear, as if Leon’s bright golden eyes were those of death itself. He tried to correct his stance, but Leon had already begun to move, lunging forward with all the speed his magically enhanced muscles could muster.
What was remarkable to those watching wasn’t his speed, though his speed was quite prodigious, but rather the oceans of killing intent that erupted from him. It took everyone by surprise, and even the Legate felt his hair stand on end.
Under this killing intent, Gaius wasn’t even able to twitch. Had he assumed a proper stance and channeled his magic into his body before the duel began, he might’ve had a chance, but now it was too late. Artorias had taught Leon to never hold back, and Leon had no intention of holding back here. He drove the tip of sword straight into Gaius’ solar plexus, and the noble dropped like a rock, doubled over in pain.
Leon waited a moment for Gaius to finish channeling his own power enough to move, then begin struggling to his feet. Leon was quietly impressed, as he had expected Gaius to incapacitated for a few more seconds, given that Xaphan’s extreme killing intent had been released alongside his own.
Gaius gripped the handle of his sword and started pushing himself up, but this was exactly what Leon had been waiting for. He took a quick step forward and drove the heel of his boot down hard on Gaius’ sword hand, then slashing his sword against Gaius’ exposed back. The noble shrieked and hit the ground again, but this time, his legs had gone numb.
A few of those watching narrowed their eyes in disapproval, but they didn’t speak up. It was only Gaius, after all. They might suck up to him under normal circumstances—as he was the son of a Duke—but he was only the third son, and he wasn’t going to inherit his family’s lands and holdings. Given his usual abrasive personality, no one felt the need to stop the fight on his account.
No one except the examiner.
“That’s enough! You’ve won, now stop!”
Leon stepped back from Gaius and restrained his killing intent while returning the derisive smile Gaius had given him before the duel began. He returned the training sword to where he had taken it from, then retrieved his own sword, all in silence. That didn’t stop Xaphan from speaking, though.
[I’d have preferred crippling one of his arms, or maybe disfigured that smug shit-eating face of his, but I suppose I can live with this much.]
Gaius struggled to rise but found himself unable. He could barely even push himself up with a single arm. It seems that the examiner wasn’t lying when he said that the training swords could paralyze limbs for a few hours because his legs weren’t moving. In fact, judging from the horrendous smell now wafting from his pants, he had lost control over everything south of the middle of his back, where Leon had hit him.
He didn’t seem to notice, though, as he was nearly blinded by rage. His face was beet red, his eyes were bloodshot, and he sputtered incoherently.
“Y-You! Grah, *cough*, I’ll! I-I’ll! You! Kill you! Ugh, kill you! Dis-dishonorable trash! Barbarian!” That was the last he managed to get out before slipping back to the ground, unconscious from the pain and humiliation.
Leon completely ignored him, returning to where he had been standing, but all eyes in the room followed him, including Asiya and Valeria’s. He truly had no words right now, and he just wanted everyone to stop staring at him.
After Gaius passed out, the chamber was completely silent.
Thank you to my Sixth-tier patrons:
Want to know what happens next? Head over to my Patreon, where you can not only read up to 5 chapters ahead, but also gain access to my Behind the Scenes posts where I talk about the inspirations and iterations the various elements of my story have gone through!
If you want to support this story further, please head over to Royal Road and leave a rating or review! It's free, and every rating helps!