“You do have a status, right?” I asked Sarn.
“... Everybody has one,” he said. “Even the forsaken.”
“Doesn’t it say anything special?”
His eyes went vacant for a second, and for the first time I saw what I must have been looking like whenever I checked my status. Then they opened wide with surprise.
“It-the food boosted my stamina regeneration?”
“Correct,” I said. “Now this is something you will have to keep to yourself, alright?”
He promptly nodded, as he pulled folded pieces of cloth from his pockets.
Seems like he also wants to use this opportunity to do some work.
“Do you know of other things with similar effects?” I asked.
“Um... only of the mistress’ Blue ointment. It helps healing faster by boosting the vitality regeneration. That’s... that’s what they used on you earlier,” he said. Then after thinking it over for a second he added, “There’s also the rocks the bunker rats use, but... those are drugs.”
“I see,” I said as I stretched my arms and got up from the bed. “Any idea where I can find Ardos?”
“At this time he must be about to finish with the second group of fighters... There’s a path behind the temple that goes up to the cliff; that’s where the training grounds are.”
“Then I’m going. You can stay here to work if you want, but don’t let anyone in.”
“Got it,” he said with a wide smile. “Thanks Edward.”
As I left, I heard noise on my left and saw Tamie trying to open the room two doors after mine. She was visibly flustered and only spoke when it was clear I had noticed her.
I was about to leave it at that when she added, “I am sorry for earlier... It was weird, wasn’t it?”
“It was,” I said, which caused a tinge of red to appear on her face. “Feeling any better now?”
“Yeah... So, there’s something I would like to show you later, if you have time? It would mean a lot to me.”
“Can I know what it is?”
“Just... things I have been working on.”
“Great! See you later.”
Glad I wasn’t at fault for her behavior, I navigated the temple’s strange layout until I could find a door leading to the backside. From there I followed a path climbing up the escarpment, surprised to see that it was the afternoon already.
How long was I unconscious for?
More than four hours? It seemed that I had underestimated the severity of what had happened to me.
I glanced back to the temple. From this side there were even more indicators of its age and insufficient maintenance; from the chipping paint to the metal sheets used for reinforcement. But it could all be overlooked in favor of the charming blue flowers that grew around it.
On my way out, I had caught a glance at people in robes kneeling in front of the main hall’s statue, which had been intriguing, but made sense. The fervent whispers of their prayers reminded me that I really was in a temple, and not just a glorified orphanage.
I wondered for a moment whether the prayers had any palpable effects, and about the nature of the angel they were offered to. The statue was a representation of a long haired child lifting up a bouquet of flowers to the sky, which wasn’t very similar to how angels were described on earth.
Umion Ji, was their name. How important were they in this world’s divine hierarchy? Important enough to be in the Court? Had she been one of voices laughing at my confusion when I was being offered a deal I couldn’t refuse?
Doesn’t matter. For now.
It really didn’t. My short term goal was survival, and quickly getting stronger was the way to achieve it. That was the reason why I was pushing myself to go to this sparring session in the first place.
And for the long-term... we’ll see.
I continued my ascension of the rocky hill looking out for snakes or any other small things that could be hiding in the now stretching shadows of the red rocks. The slope was more vertical than it was before the the temple, and I gained even more appreciation for my boots.
Before long I started hearing the shouts and thumps of fights and, as I finally reached the top of the hill, the training grounds revealed themselves to me. But what immediately caught my attention was the view.
Beyond the training area, the hilltop abruptly ended in a jagged edge of rocks, and in the distance I could see the fog that blurred the lands surrounding the valley. It looked like an eerie wall of clouds that connected the earth to the sky. It was unlike anything I had ever seen.
There were a dozen pairs of people fighting each other, either with wooden weapons or none at all, in circular arenas delimited by makeshift fences.
Their fighting style was fast and brutal, but simple. Maybe too simple, if I listened to the feeling of strong disdain that it caused in me.
Since when am I a fighting snob?
In the case of the barehanded fighters, the sound of their blows was abnormal, to say the least. It was louder and sharper than it should have been, especially considering they weren’t wearing armor.
It was the sound I had been hearing on my way here. Not the sound of practice weapons coming in contact with each others, but the sound of fists colliding with flesh.
Some sort of magic was definitely at work there, and I wasn’t eager to find out how strong they really were.
Walking between those fences were older men and women who sometime stopped the fights to give pointers or examine an injury. Ardos oversaw everything from a distance, arms crossed.
Standing next to him was the girl who was apparently able to sense lies. Seeing her posture, her spotted tail and ears, I had a moment of clarity.
Oh so she’s Ardos daughter... with Royin, I thought with amusement as I walked closer.
It sure gave an explanation as to how good Royin and Ardos’ line of communication was. It also gave me an insight as to how strange genetics were in this world. Ardos was a tiger and Royin was...
Wait, what was Royin again? She looks... human.
But considering hers and everyone’s reaction to my presence in this region, she couldn’t be. In any case, it was interesting to see that the result of their union would be a girl with tiger features and not some kind of genetic abomination.
Ardos spotted me and made a sign that caused all the fights to stop and for the people to start leaving the arenas. When the girl noticed me getting closer surprise appeared on her face, then determination as she walked toward me.
“You!” she spat when she got close enough that her father wouldn’t hear.
“Me,” I said.
“You lied to us! You’re not forsaken, you’re a fighter!”
It was humorous to see her trying to be menacing without her father noticing as she walked to my side.
“Never said I was forsaken,” I said.
“Don’t you dare play dumb, what you said was basically the same!”
That made me raise an eyebrow. I paused and gave her a look.
“Dare? What do you mean, don’t I dare?
She gave me a look of confusion.
“Who the fuck do you think you are?” I asked on an even tone. “Did you and your gang bully the kids for so long that you truly believe people just have to tell you whatever you want to know?”
“Gang? Bully, us? No we-”
“Get the hell out of my sight,” I said as I left her fumbling with her words and closed the distance with Ardos.
“The two of you already know each others?” he asked with a smile.
“No,” I said. “But I know you need to teach her better manners.”
He frowned then looked at her. She was still standing at the same spot. “Merle?” he asked.
She clearly wasn’t expecting that turn of event. “It’s... nothing, dad.”
“We will talk about this later. Go help with the equipment.”
She left with her head down and Ardos faced me. “You are back on your feet a bit faster than I expected,” he said. “Are you really fine? I wouldn’t want you to faint during our spar.”
“Funny. You might actually be surprised.”
“Oh, I never doubted I would be. Come.”
The fighters and most of the instructors had already left, leaving only a few people to gather the practice weapon and fix the damage done to the fences.
“Give him a sword,” Ardos said to one of the helpers.
“You’re sparring with him?” Merle asked to her father with audible disbelief. “Are you serious?”
“The answer to both those questions is ‘yes’,” he said. “And as I have already said, we will talk later.”
A woman handed one of the wooden swords to me, as foreign outrage and indignation filled my mind with enough force to cause me to wince.
“Something wrong?” Ardos asked.
“Um, no.” I said as I followed him. “It’s fine.”
It was easy to tell that the outrage was my jealous sword’s, but even I could feel how everything was wrong about the practice tool. From the weight distribution to the vulgar material, without mentioning that-
No, that’s definitely also the sword messing with my mind again... I’ll have to figure out a way to put an end to that later.
Ardos and I entered one of the stages and stood at a respectable distance from each others. He didn’t ask for any weapon, and only took a pair of gauntlets that the barehanded fighters were using.
“Start whenever you’re ready, I will evaluate your current level of skill and see if you’re ready for tackling the Undermine. If it appears that you are not, we will keep having these sparing sessions until you are. In any case, I will push you to use everything you’ve learned this morning so that you have a concrete hold on it.”
“Alright,” I said as I tightened my grip on the wooden weapon that half of my mind was telling me to throw away.
This time, I didn’t have to awkwardly look for a way to hold my sword or how to properly stand. It all came to me as if it was natural.
“Interesting,” Ardos said as he saw my fighting stance. “Begin.”
I kicked the ground and dove forward, leaving a trail of dust and closing the distance between the two of us even faster than I had anticipated.
Testing the water, I struck toward Ardos’ mid section. He dodged the attack with seemingly no effort, moving to the side before my arm was even fully extended.
I moved past him, as if carried by my speed. But as soon as I entered his blind spot, my foot hit the ground with enough force to fully nullify my motion and propel me upward.
I twisted my body and spun in the air, slashing toward his neck.
Or where his neck should have been. My weapon met nothing, and I saw Ardos crouched, not even facing me.
But I wasn’t done yet.
My weapon made a full circle as I spun a second time in the air with unnatural agility and aimed a devastating overhead strike to Ardos’ back...
The tiger blurred, there was an explosion of pain on the left side of my head, and my vision became white.
Next thing I knew, I was on the muddy ground of the arena and heard whistles from the onlookers.
I’m down. How.
I should have hit him three times in a very short amount of time, and each time he had managed to dodge.
It was reasonable to think that he simply was stronger. But there was something else.
The third attack.
It had definitely connected. I had felt resistance. But not from his body.
Gathering myself, I slowly got back up and faced Ardos who still had his foot in the air. I chose to not concern myself with the distance his kick made me fly over, and studied him.
“Did you recently lose that eye?” He said. “You have no awareness of your blind spot. Though I have to command you for being so ruthless. Not many aim for the neck during the first exchange.”
Obvious provocation. He is doing something.
However his face didn’t reveal any clues.
My fighting style had two different “rhythms”, one offensive and the other defensive.
I had started with the offensive one to gauge the level of threat he posed, but it seemed that I had to let him reveal his hand.
Controlling my breathing, I calmed myself and exploded into motion again. But this time, I circled around my opponent, getting faster as I slowly creeped closer to him. Baiting him into action.
Ardos didn’t do anything for a moment, just watching me. Then he unfolded his arms.
“Very well,” he said.
He became a blur again, but this time I was ready.
His fist tore the air where my stomach was a second ago, and I immediately slashed at his overextended arm in a punishing blow.
Right before the weapon was supposed to come into contact with it, there was a loud thump and it bounced back.
The same thump I had heard the trainees make when they hit each other.
Not giving me a second to think, his arm flexed and I barely managed to avoid the following backhand.
I jumped backward to give myself room to breath, but Ardos was still only one step behind. This time it was his leg that cleaved the air, utilizing his gigantic size and aiming for my head like an axe. In a spinning side step, I once again avoided the blow and thrust my weapon to his side.
The same loud thump centimeters from his skin. The same lack of results.
It was obvious that I wasn’t going to get any success, but Ardos didn’t leave me any room to retreat as he chased after me through the arena. Aiming to break my guard, he kept attacking without any thought for his defense.
And while each of my attempts made it clear that he didn’t need to, they at least helped me discover what was going on.
There was a transparent coat of... something that was fully enveloping his body and protecting it from any blunt damage. And the reason why it took so long for me to notice it was that it only appeared at the moment of impact.
All I wanted was to throw the useless piece of wood in my hand and use Ikun Omi, my only sword, but at the same time I didn’t know how much of those thoughts were really mine.
Then, amidst the constant rain of blows, my movements suddenly got sluggish. My stamina was almost depleted despite the regeneration boost and Ardos knee finally reached my stomach, although I managed to soften the blow by moving in the same direction.
Still, it was enough to break my focus and I fell to the ground gasping for air.
I barely avoided the following jump on where I had landed. When I heard a sound indicating it had been strong enough to crack the bed of rock under the mud, I raised my hand, asking for a break.
That seemed to be enough, as it caused him to stop and fold his arms once again.
His breathing wasn’t even different than normal.
“A pause?” he said. “Do you think an enemy will offer you a respite whenever things start getting bad for you?”
Sunken dance [ minor proficiency : 66% ]
... Maybe not so bad.
“You’re... cheating,” I said with as much of an accusatory tone I could manage with my panting.
He shook his head.
“Edward. When I said I would spar with you instead of my students, you thought I was protecting them. But the reality is that I was protecting you.”
And with a shockwave that made me wince and raise my arms in protection, it appeared.
It was like a coat of water that was undulating and tightly wrapping every inches of his body, from the tip of the ears to the tip of the tail. It almost looked like a halo, or like an-
“This,” Ardos said, “is the beastkin Aura. It is what makes us the strongest physical fighters amongst the races. Your skills are decent for your age, but you are ultimately forbidden from climbing higher by your heritage. I won’t allow you to attempt the Undermine unless you can make me more serious than this. If you want to blame someone, blame Fate for making you a human.”