I looked up at the man who was obviously Pietro in disguise. I hadn’t thought to ask him for help, but I sure was glad that he arrived.
“Sir Claude. I believe that you have another task to take care of, do you not?”
Giving him a nod, I quickly leapt to my feet and circled around them. Looking around, I saw that Cornelius and his team had arrived. They had started to engage the remainder of the Duke’s supporters, who had regained their confidence at the backing of the Chancellor.
“Hmph. The Watchdog believes that he can go against the judgement of the King’s right-hand man? How confident you must be to throw your support against the Duke.”
Cornelius and the Chancellor stared at each other, both ready to make their move. The aura of mana that surrounded them started giving off a chill to those around. The other combatants instinctively moved away, not wanting to be caught in their crossfire.
Making my way towards the Duke, several soldiers lined up in front of him, offering him protection as he started to cast magic. This would not be an easy battle even with the extra help.
Eryn and Saki had been locked in nearly-even exchanges since the start. Familiar with each other’s movements and techniques, they had managed to avoid being hit with any blows so far. Given how strong each of their attacks were, one strike would likely determine the match.
Despite Eryn’s lack of defensive gear, her drive to succeed pushed her on, not that her normal armor would make a huge difference. The memory of Saki’s strikes crippling a dragon were fresh in her mind. However, she had gained much since their last faceoff, in battle experience and in levels, so her speed and technique kept her safely out of danger.
On the other hand, Saki had been fighting while in a conflicted state. She had her doubts that Eryn and Claude’s accusation of the Duke were some ploy to simply degrade his standing. She had believed that they weren’t that kind of person, having worked together amicably. However, she had to follow her master’s orders. He had never been wrong before, and she didn’t want to start doubting him now.
In part, Saki had hoped that she would be able to challenge Eryn again in the next tournament. Their previous bout had surprised her at how close she came to winning. No doubt she would be much stronger next time, so it wouldn’t do to lag behind. The gap between their levels had only gotten slimmer, so it would all come down to personal skill.
However, Saki was already struggling to keep up in this battle, despite how closely matched they should’ve been. Though she tried to focus on Eryn’s movement, she was somehow slow to respond to them. Distractions and unnecessary thoughts plagued her mind as she tried to wipe them away.
A slight blush appeared on her face as Saki’s breathing started to get ragged. This wouldn’t do. How could she let herself be distracted at a time like this? How could she stare upon the strikes coming at her, not with caution, but of appreciation?
Saki was slowly becoming enamored by the gracefulness of Eryn’s movements. She stared at the feminine form of Eryn, accented by her wedding dress, as it fluttered in the wind from her sword dance.
The more that she tried to focus on the battle, the redder her cheeks got. Her grip on the mallet started becoming sloppy. A memory of her past life flashed in front of her eyes.
In her bedroom of a small Japanese suburban home, Saki was staring at her collection of PVC figurines. They were hidden on a shelf in the back wall of her closet. She had been fairly open as an otaku, both to her parents and her friends, so this alone was not the reason for her to hide such things. Upon closer inspection, the figurines were all female, many with scantily clad outfits in suggestive positions.
If those that knew her came to know of her taste in partners, they would surely shame and denounce her. Part of the reason she had gotten into anime had been her captivation of fanservice in late-night shows. The proliferation of eye-candy during these times was a guilty pleasure to soothe her desires. Pretty soon, she was watching shows to fall in love with the cute, female characters, or listening to the music of popular idols to secretly fawn over the girls dancing on stage.
She knew it was wrong. She knew that others would not take kindly to her interests. Society had drilled that into her. It seemed like everything would be okay as long as it remained buried in her heart and locked away in her closet.
From the first time she had fought Eryn, the fierceness of her character had drudged up similarities to the main characters that she got excited about. Now, seeing her mesmerizing figure in front of her was too much for her to endure.
The mallet in her hand was blown back as she misjudged and overextended her reach. It felt like things happened in slow motion as the object of her interest looked straight at her with a fire of determination.
The polar opposite of her current state now.
The flat part of Eryn’s sword smashed into Saki’s side and likely fractured some ribs. Feeling a pain that she had never felt before, Saki crumpled to the ground. In all of her fights before, her human opponents had been fearful of her great power, one that could easily end a life in a single instant. Monsters that knew no fear of her would strike, only to have their attacks dulled by the best armor that the kingdom could offer.
Indeed, she had been protected from harm by others, through her status and her good luck. She was no warrior. She was a simple girl with desires. A girl seeking praise from others. A girl influenced by the things in front of her.
Like any other girl, her resolve would crumble in front of adversity, just like it had done in the past. As she started to black out from the pain in her side, a thought flashed across her mind.
‘I was foolish to think that I had truly gotten stronger.’
That moment was the first step that Saki took toward her true path to strength.
On the other side of the garden, Roderick and Butler Mask were exchanging sword blows with each other. However, the match was far from being equal.
Now, it was Roderick’s turn to be toyed with, as the mysterious man calmly kept him at bay. Roderick started feeling outmatched as each of his swings were calmly swept to the side. When he tried to push through the masked man’s guard, he felt a tingle of collected mana in front of him. Able to sense mana-infused attacks, he dodged back as he felt the air momentarily distort where he would have been if he had held his ground. An indentation was formed as an invisible mana strike cut into the ground.
In the twenty years of being in the army, Roderick had not faced anyone with pure combat skills such as this. Sure, he could dodge attacks magical in nature, but those were visible to the eye and required preparation. A blow of pure mana was nearly undetectable until it hit, and not many had undergone enough training to sense the aura of mana around them. It had certainly come as a shock to see one that could wield mana as proficient as the masked man in front of him.
Just who was this man? Why had he never heard of anyone such as him throughout the kingdom?
With those thoughts in mind, Roderick was left with no choice but to exert his full power.
Roderick cried out the name of his skill, one that boosted his detection of the surroundings. Now, he could make out the mana that flowed out around him. He could see the mana being collected into the palms of magicians’ hands, which gave him foresight into a spell about to be cast.
The wave of pure mana that quickly launched towards him was now straightforward to avoid. Butler Mask paused his attacks, having realized that they no longer burdened the captain.
Seeing his chance, Roderick readied his best attack before leaping forward. Striking the ground shortly before the masked man, the surface exploded and sent a shower of reinforced earth at him in a wide angle. The masked man launched another mana wave to counter the attack, but the hardened spray of earth crashed through it and littered the man’s limbs with shrapnel.
“Did I get him?” Roderick wondered if it had caused enough damage.
He had infused the ground with mana, locally pressuring the earth which shattered into hard fragments that flew into the air. Given the wide angle, there would be little room to escape and each piece of reinforced earth had a good fraction of his normal sword strike’s power.
The dust settled, revealing the masked man still standing but with trickles of blood across his body. Though he appeared to be noticeably wounded, he remained strangely calm.
“That technique. The Land’s Howl. Where did you learn that, young man?”
Finally, Roderick had done enough to make the man speak.
“What do you mean? It’s a legendary mana strike that all warriors know of and aspire to achieve! Of course, the Captain of the Royal Guards would possess such a technique!”
To Roderick, it was common knowledge. Ever since he was a boy, he looked at the picture of a legendary man who first performed that technique, hanging in the castle grounds. Many of his seniors had talked about that man’s tales and his prowess in swordplay. His achievements as a former Captain of the Royal Guard were such that his successors hoped to exceed. His fame was known throughout the kingdom as the man who single-handedly slayed a demon. What aspiring warrior wouldn’t try to grasp even a fraction of that power and ability?
With that man as his goal, Roderick trained fervently. After ten years of being a soldier, he finally became proficient enough with mana transfer to impart it into the earth. Though the resulting spray of earth was messy and hardly did any damage, that was his first success in the technique. He would spend years refining it to the level of damage it caused now.
“Let me see it again, young man.”
Unsure of the masked man’s intent, Roderick launched it once again, putting even more mana into it. The resulting spray of hard earth was cast over an even wider area.
This time, the masked man simply stood still, neither dodging nor blocking. Though the earth pierced his body and blood started to drip on the ground around him, the man stood firmly in place. A large shard of earth smacked into his mask, splitting it in half before the two pieces fell onto the ground.
Roderick looked on questionably as to why the man let himself feel the brunt of that attack. But his heart froze as he finally saw the man behind the mask.
Pietro lifted up his sword and slammed it into the ground. As he did, Roderick saw the perfectness of his technique. Not a single bit of mana had been wasted, the entirety of it being focused into the tip of the sword that stabbed the earth. With a noise like that of a deafening howl, the earth sprayed not in an arc, but a straight beam right at Roderick.
Futilely holding his sword up to block, Roderick’s eyes were dyed in fear as he watched the earth shatter his sword before lightly grazing him in the side. The beam of earth continued past him and shot through the air. Moments later, a loud crash could be heard.
Looking behind him, Roderick saw that the beam had hit the second floor of the Duke’s mansion, destroying an empty, unused wing. The sound of wreckage tumbling down caused nearly everyone present to pause in awe.
Roderick looked down at his side. His armor had been cleanly shredded where it hit, and there was a large gouge in his side. The injury was not fatal, but if the attack had hit him squarely, he questioned if there would’ve been anything left of him.
“So this is the power of the man of legend… of Pythagoras Tromaine…”
Roderick stared at the face of the man he had always admired, a face now marred with age, but still unmistakable from his younger self.
“You were alive?… All this time?… Why?… Why did you disappear?… Why did you abandon our kingdom so long ago?” Roderick voiced his frustrations as his knees sank to the ground.
The tales of Pythagoras Tromaine had all ended with him disappearing one day, in the prime of his career. People wondered if he had been slain, or if he had left the kingdom for another. As if he were merely a myth, the man never came back, leaving a void in the kingdom.
“Why?” Roderick knelt down and pounded the ground with his fist. “Why did you have to come back and show how weak I truly am?”
He knew that his technique had been imperfect, but it had been enough to make him captain. He could proudly flaunt his strength and compare it to a legend. That was, until he witnessed the true might of the man himself.
“Why you ask? For love, of course. It is the weakness and strength of all men.” Pietro stared at the man on the ground.
Roderick started to laugh. ‘Something so simple, huh?’ he thought. His urge to fight was entirely gone.
He rolled onto his back and faced the sky.
“Maybe it’s time I look for a girlfriend.”