It took another hour before the five graduates had been reduced to one final winner, and, not surprisingly, it was the Sea Academy’s only remaining Advanced Student who had eventually emerged victorious. The young man was a good fighter; tall and quick, with a solid mid Champion cultivation. Due to Canis’ absence, the final was changed into a three-way free-for-all, but had quickly turned into a two-on-one situation, and yet, the tall youth had no real problems winning.
Next to Raven, Arowana sighed.
“I had hoped that one of the other students would have used some sort of spirit medicine to eliminate that fellow from the tournament! Graduate Ray isn’t much weaker than Lady Tanuki, but as long as she was the final winner, I could still argue that an Earth Empire girl should be disqualified, but now. . . . I guess we will have to think of another way to get out of the engagement after all.”
Raven glanced at Arowana but said nothing. On the stage, the five finalists, ranging from the youngest – Javelin – to the oldest – graduate Ray – had lined up in a neat row. The Emperor was standing in front of them with a proud smile on his face.
“Fellow citizens, three days of battles are almost over.” Emperor Hamlet’s voice boomed throughout the arena. “Before you stand five youths with unlimited potential which you have all witnessed first-hand. You have seen them fight, you have seen them push themselves to their limits – and sometimes even beyond that. . . .”
The Emperor glanced at the student representing the seventh grade, who was the only kid who had gained his victory using the Queen Ghost Pill. It was a subtle thing, but few were likely to miss the Emperor’s insinuation.
“With talents such as these, I don’t think this emperor is being presumptuous when I say that the future of the Sea Empire is very bright!” the Emperor continued, and loud cheers erupted in the arena, showing the crowd’s frenzied support. “To further improve the prospects of these promising youths, there will now be a few exhibition matches, allowing the younger generations to learn from the older.”
Raven saw Emperor Hamlet turning towards Javelin, an odd look of both pride and disappointment on his face. “Javelin Hake, as the youngest, this Emperor will ask you first: which of your seniors do you wish to gain guidance from?”
In her seat, Raven suppressed a snort. The emperor picked his words carefully; clearly, he didn’t think Javelin stood a chance but put it in such a way that there would be no shame in him losing.
“Your Majesty, this one would like to challenge graduate Ray Esox.”
Javelin’s voice was loud and clear; nobody in the arena missed what he had said, and for a moment it seemed like no one knew how to react to his request. The whole point of the exhibition matches were to allow the younger generations to learn from the older, but, as far as most were concerned, Javelin was only a high Adept. While he could perhaps hold his own against a newly advanced low Champion, he was definitely no match for a mid Champion.
Emperor Hamlet was the first to regain his wits. He laughed heartily and gave Javelin an approving nod. “Good, young mister Hake – I see that you have inherited your father’s fighting spirit. Well, as they say: the greater the challenge, the greater the reward. Young mister Esox, teach him well.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Ray Esox replied with a respectful bow, but even from her seat, Raven could see the disdainful sneer on the youth’s face as Emperor Hamlet walked away. The look only intensified as he and Javelin were left alone on the stage.
Raven’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Arowana, is there any particular reason why this Ray should dislike Javelin?”
“Huh?” Arowana had been talking to Crown Prince Argus, so it took a moment before she reacted to Raven’s question. “No, not that I ca-. . . wait, Esox? I think there was a Commodore Esox who applied for the Vice Admiral position under Admiral Hake a few years back. He was rejected, though; something about tactical decisions under pressure.” Arowana suddenly looked a bit worried. “Oh, Raven, this could be bad – what if Roy takes it out on Javelin?”
The tournament naturally didn’t allow any fatal attacks to be made, but the students were after all fighting with real weapons; injuries were bound to happen and Javelin already had one bloody fight to prove it.
On Raven’s shoulder, Hoatzin also seemed worried. “Do you still think he can win?” he asked mentally.
“Oh, I bet he will,” Raven replied out loud with a cold smile, not specifying whom she was answering.
On the fighting stage, Ray Esox faced off against his opponent, the thirteen-year-old brat, Javelin Hake. Apart from the fact that Javelin was the youngest son of Admiral Hake, Ray didn’t really have anything against him, but that one fact was enough for Ray to thoroughly want to embarrass the boy.
Too rash. That had been the reason Admiral Hake gave Ray’s father when his promotion had been denied. Two words, no more, and yet his father’s career had been in tatters ever since. His mother claimed it was for the best – she liked having him home more – but Roy looked up to his father dearly and he knew that the Admiral had simply been afraid of the competition!
Ray snorted, clearly seeing the irony of it all; who was being too rash now?
“Junior Student Hake,” Ray called out, emphasizing his own seniority. “I admire your courage! How about we make a deal?” Laughing slightly, Ray walked in a large circle around Javelin, using the heel of his boot to draw a line in a layer of sand and dust on the ground. “I will stay within this ring, and if you manage to force me out, it’s your win.”
Ray noticed Javelin’s eyes narrowing in dissatisfaction. Good.
“I don’t want any special handicaps,” said the Hake boy, and Ray rolled his eyes. If he were to beat Javelin in a straight out fight, how would that be even nearly embarrassing enough?
“It is no handicap, Junior Student Hake. The point of this match is to learn; how can you do that if it ends too quickly?” Ray smiled, doing his best to seem like the caring senior. “In fact, I think I will only use my left hand – that way it should give you the time to learn even more.”
Javelin’s eyes narrowed further, but he didn’t object again. “As you wish,” he said calmly, his indifference sounding very fake to Ray.
“Good, good, good.” Ray couldn’t help but feel a bit smug at his well thought out plan. He unsheathed his sword and held it in his left hand. “Come, junior.”
Ray watched as Javelin withdrew his staff from within his spacial ring – another reason to dislike the brat – and rushed at him with spirit essence running wild. Once within range, Javelin swung his staff at Ray. He was aiming for his knees, but Ray met the swing with his sword, easily overpowering it.
With Javelin slightly out of balance, Ray stepped forward and used his left shoulder to slam into the brat’s side. As expected, Javelin grunted heavily under the impact and stumbled backwards several steps.
“Never lose your balance, Junior Hake,” Ray reprimanded, reveling in the moment.
This process repeated itself several times, Javelin looking more and more haphazard with every attempt he made to force Ray out of his circle. Ray had been careful to not give Javelin any too serious wounds, hoping to draw out the ordeal as long as possible, and it was working splendidly.
“Your skills with the staff are really quite impressive,” Ray admitted. “It’s a pity you don’t yet have the strength to back it up.”
A few steps away, the heavily panting Javelin was rushing towards him yet again, ignoring Ray’s jeering comments. Annoyed, Ray upped his game. “In the end, power rules supreme – look, even with only a third of my strength it is enough to blo-. . .”
Ray didn’t get to finish his sentence. He had raised his sword to block Javelin’s attack yet again, actually only using a third of his strength, but as soon as his blade made contact with the staff, Ray could tell that something was different. Before he knew it, the spirit essence of a low Champion slammed into him like a tidal wave, catching him off guard.
Still, Ray wasn’t an Advanced student for nothing. On instinct alone, he pushed his own spirit essence to the max, firmly gripping his sword to counter the blow. Quickly, Ray got the attack under control, but before he had the chance to retaliate, Javelin stepped back, even bowing to him.
“Senior graduate let me win,” he said, but for a moment Ray didn’t understand what he was saying.
Slowly, realization dawned on Ray and he looked down. To his dismay, he found that one of his feet had been pushed outside of his self-made circle and, making matters worse, he was holding his sword with both of his hands.
“You . . . you . . .” Ray was clutching for straws, desperately trying to understand what had gone wrong. “Y-you cheated!” he suddenly shouted, pointing accusingly at Javelin. “You used some sort of spirit medicine!”
“I did not,” Javelin replied, calmly pulling out his soul stone to prove that his cultivation was real. Only then did Ray notice the metallic anklets lying on the ground further back. Limiters.
Ray forced a snort. “So what? You only managed to pu-. . .”
“Enough!” A loud voice cut Ray off. Steps away from him, Headmaster Hammer had appeared with a stern expression on his round face. “Graduate Esox, a loss is a loss. You chose the route of your demise yourself, so let this be a lesson to not let your emotions cloud your judgement. Learn to be less rash next time.”
The last sentence hit Ray like a bombshell. He didn’t even notice that the headmaster had moved to his side and was guiding him off the stage. Nor did he register the headmaster’s warning to Javelin as they passed him: “Just because I’ve accepted your victory doesn’t mean the Emperor will.”
It wasn’t until Ray was back in the corridor that his mind started working again, and it dawned on him: he had lost to a kid six years his junior because of the same reason his father had lost to Admiral Hake.
Oh, the irony!
Suddenly, Ray started laughing.
High above the arena, the little girl’s vulpine ears twitched slightly as she too laughed merrily.
“Well played, fish boy, well played!”
The two armored men by her side nodded in agreement. Even for a low Champion, beating a mid Champion head-on was almost impossible; the difference in the quantity of spirit essence that their spirit cores could contain was simply too large. However, since the Hake boy had hidden his strength so well, he could use the opponent’s one moment of carelessness against him and take home the victory.
“It’s a pity though – for a kid his age to have reached the champion realm on this continent could be considered quite impressive. If he lived somewhere else he might actually reach peak Champion before the age of twenty, but now. . . .” the man called Cozimo shook his head.
The little girl looked up at him, smiling mischievously. Her expression seemed to unnerve Cozimo, because the man coughed a few times, as if to show that he had spoken out of term. However, the girl’s smile only widened, her pearly fangs now clearly visible.
Poor Cozimo started to cold sweat.
Suddenly there was a flash as the girl flung her small hand towards him. Instinctively, Cozimo took a step back, nearly losing his balance in the process, but as he regained his wits, he saw a large, red pouch being held out for him. Inside were hundreds of small, frosted-over berries.
“Want one?” the girl baited. “They are delicious.”
Hesitating, the armored man eventually decided that refusing her was a bad idea, so he took a berry and popped it in his mouth. A symphony of subtle flavors instantly filled his mouth; it really was a delicious berry. However, his pleasant surprise was short-lived. . . .
“Great, right? They are very rare . . .” the girl suddenly added. “Grandpa found them for me.”
Cozimo instantly paled, almost choking on the rare treat in his mouth. Had he actually eaten something that man had gifted his granddaughter?
‘I’m doomed. . . .’ he lamented, getting a pitying look from his friend Azmer, but the girl clearly ignored his inner torment. Instead, she was staring intently towards the north, her ears twitching.
“Arara, it seems that an old pup is coming to play.”
The girl giggled softly, her fluffy tail swaying behind her, but Azmer and Cozimo frowned.
“Should we do something?” Azmer asked, but before he could react, a frosted berry had smashed in his face, turning into a mushy mesh on his cheek.
“And ruin our entertainment? Don’t be silly.”
Now it was Azmer’s turn to pale in fright; Cozimo had at least been offered the fruit. . . .
Down below, Raven’s eyes suddenly twitched, her entire body tensing. Before anyone else had noticed what was going on, spirit essence gushed throughout Raven and her figure disappeared, her body’s sudden shift causing a fireless explosion in its wake.
In the next instant, Raven reappeared at the edge of the fighting stage, but she didn’t stay there for long, so only the very strongest spiritualists noticed her presence. Two Spacial Dashes later, Raven appeared next to Javelin, her leg instantly flexing out to kick him in the side.
Less than half a second had passed since she left her seat, so, even with their souls connected, Javelin had no chance to react at all and flew across the stage like a kite in a storm. In that very moment, an overbearing pressure descended on the spot where he had been and where Raven still stood.
The audience watched in shock as the center of the fighting stage suddenly erupted in flames. The ear-shattering explosion overlapped with the first three produced by Raven, but, yet again, few realized that there had been more than one to begin with.
Everything had happened too fast. In one moment, Javelin was arguing the validity of his victory. In the next, the spot he was standing on was engulfed in vicious flames! Even the protective membrane around the stage shimmered slightly as it fought against the heat and power within.
There were screams of surprise and panic from the crowd, but most were too shocked by the sudden development to even consider moving. All they could do was to stare at the sea of flames, wondering if anyone could survive such an inferno.
Suddenly, there was movement in the flames; the chaotic inferno turned more structured as it started spinning, forming a sphere. Moments later, the sphere expanded, pushing away the flames in every direction. With the flames gone, only Raven’s figure remained at the center of the stage.
She held a spear in her hand and stray winds from her Divine Skill whipped at her clothes and hair. There was a tint of black in the corner of her eyes as she stared up at the sky with insensible rage.
“My, if it isn’t Councilor Tanuki, what a surprise.” Raven’s voice sent chills into even the most hardened hearts. “I would very much like to hear your reason for blatantly attacking a student from the Sea Academy.”