I studied Ardos’ appearance, my lungs still burning.
So this is their racial trait... and they are called “beastkins”.
“How does it actually work?” I asked.
“The skill’s flexibility and particular usage varies from one user to the next, and how much ether has been invested. But its general effect is to improve our strength and speed at the cost of stamina. It can protect from regular physical attacks and even reduce magical damage. It’s a natural armor that a mere human has little hope to breach.”
His constant not-so-veiled insults were starting to get on my nerves but for a different reason that he would think.
They didn’t feel genuine and I felt more insulted by the fact that he thought I could fall for them.
Deciding to not waste time considering why Ardos would try to anger me, I focused on the new shocking information.
From the sound of it, it’s a way to boost one’s body... and they all have it?
If every single beastkin had this trait, didn’t it mean that they all had the potential to be warriors, whether they had a warring class or not? Whether they even had attributes or not?
The people I had seen until now already seemed stronger and more agile than regular humans. Not to mention they had claws that could slice and fangs that could pierce... A normal human would stand no chance against an equally normal beastkin.
Would bullets even work against this aura?
At that moment I didn’t see them as exotic locals. I saw them as blood seeking monsters, as apex predators with bodies fine tuned for the Hunt in a world of violence.
And here I was, a sheep at the bottom of the food chain, cluelessly parading through them.
“So this concludes our sparring session,” Ardos said, and his aura disappeared. “We shall have another one tomorrow, and the day after, until you get stronger.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said.
He blinked and frowned.
“Are you giving up before even trying?” he said. “That would-”
I rolled my eyes.
“I’m not,” I said as I stretched my arms and got back in a correct stance. “What I’m saying is that we keep going.”
“Did you not hear a thing of what I have said?”
“Oh, I heard you. But it doesn’t really matter, does it? This aura thing is nice and all, but it would only matter if I was actually trying to kill you.”
His frown deepened.
“You were exhausted a moment ago,” he said. “And your attributes are definitely not high enough for you to be this rested already.”
“Guess you’re not the only cheater,” I said with a smile. “It shouldn’t be surprising for the master, to resemble the student, right?”
He winced but smiled back, unfolding his arms once more.
“Very well, Edward. Show me what you think you can do.”
I focused, studying him and my options.
The only way for me to avoid a fate worse than eternal damnation was to get stronger fast. I didn’t have days to waste.
I knew he had good intentions... but if Ardos was going to be an obstacle between me and getting stronger, then that made him an obstacle between me and staying alive.
That wasn’t acceptable.
Then again, I wasn’t particularly confident in my current chances against him. The way I saw it, there were only two ways things could go well for me now that my stamina was almost full.
The first one was if Ardos ran out of stamina before I did. He had revealed that stamina was needed to use his aura, which probably explained why he only used it at the moment of impact.
Combined with my own boosted regeneration, there was a chance that he would get exhausted before me if I pushed him to use it often enough... and managed to not get knocked out.
Which depended entirely on the second way things could go well for me.
The dances made me act and react differently depending on which one I was using. It was like temporarily rewiring my brain.
There had been some success with the passive rhythm of the sunken dance. It allowed me to dodge Ardos’ attacks, but it was too dependent on the opponent’s actions.
I needed to go beyond simple counters.
If I wanted to make Ardos use his aura for an extensive amount of time , or at least overwhelm him enough that he would have to get “more serious”, I needed the offensive rhythm’s ability to endlessly dish one attack after the other.
But at the same time, it made me too vulnerable.
On their own, they were insufficient. But what if I used both of them?
It would take a few tries to be able to switch fast enough, but it was worth a shot.
Probably thinking I was stalling for more time, Ardos dashed toward me. Fists raised.
Leap and dodge.
I managed to avoid his punch by a hair’s breath, and countered with a slash at his abdomen, and once again the aura appeared, deflecting the blow.
But this time, instead of creating distance before the window of opportunity closed, I went deeper into his guard.
Spin and cut.
I spun, hitting his abdomen a second time, then slithered past him right before thrusting my sword at his exposed back.
I ducked and his leg was a blur as it swept over my head.
His support leg, his torso, his neck. I had spun three times before Ardos could pull back his leg, making his aura flash in quick succession.
Using the two rhythms wasn’t only easier than expected, it felt like it was what I was supposed to do. It felt like they completed each other.
Fusing together to reveal a new one.
Sunken dance [ minor proficiency : 99% ]
Ardos was locked in a single spot, and I continuously circled around him, jumping and spinning, as I showered him with a rain of blows.
I wasn’t able to predict his attacks like he did, but it didn’t matter. My senses were being stretched beyond their limit and were solely focused on his movements, allowing me to slip past his attacks and deliver increasingly more of mine.
The result was that he looked slow and strained. It was as if we were fighting at the bottom of an ocean, but the pressure didn’t affect me. Only him.
Before long, his aura was constantly activated, and all I had to do was following the voice in my head.
My lungs were burning and my mind was filled with delight.
I would soon get to kill the one foolish enough to face us.
Merle had seen her father spar with many people through the years.
He was strong, so it was normal that many would seek him to test their skills or receive guidance.
But the only time she had ever seen anything similar to what was currently happening was when her father used to spar with Damian. And even then, it wasn’t really that good of a comparison.
At first she had been mildly surprised by Edward’s skills. He looked like he was a sword dancer, but she had seen a few of those and could tell that he wasn’t a regular one. He had clearly been gifted with an interesting fighting style.
But what of it? There were plenty of geniuses and lucky people who received great classes. That didn’t mean much in the Savage lands, where everybody knew there were powerhouses in Nashran that they would never reach.
Him being relatively skilled only served to make her even more angry at the fact that he was able to trick her aura.
How had he managed to do it? She didn’t know yet, but she would get to the bottom of it soon.
But then, the sparring session got stranger.
It was first revealed that the boy was human, which meant that he wouldn’t stand any chance in front of her father, or any other fighter for that matter.
He won’t spar with me but will waste his time with a human? Merle couldn't help but be shocked.
She watched as her father told the boy he was too weak to enter the Undermine, and wondered how could Edward not know that it wasn’t true?
Even if any beastkin could beat him into submission, he was clearly skilled enough for that instant-dungeon, as long as he wasn’t alone and suicidal.
After all, the creatures dwelling in that darkness did not have any aura to protect them. But why would anyone want to go there in particular? Sure, the other instant-dungeons were further away, but nothing could have made Merle set a foot in that cursed place.
In any case, if the boy had been able to make her father more serious than he currently was, it wouldn’t have been surprising for him to go in the dungeons by himself.
She couldn’t understand why her father was taunting him, why he was trying to push this stranger to improve himself. He surely never was that way with her.
And Merle wasn’t sure of it, but hadn’t Edward insinuated that her father was his master?
Since when do they even know each other?
So many questions were flying in her head as she watched them begin fighting again.
But the second part of the spar could only be described as insanity. It was as if Edward had become a different person.
Until now, he had been struggling to even keep up with her father, but now he was the one dominating.
Even his fighting style has changed!
The boy was like a deadly spinning top that was somehow able to switch direction any time it wanted. He would dodge, slash and spin in the same breath... and seemed to be getting even faster?
Fifty? A hundred? How many times had he hit his opponent already in such a short amount of time?
Protected by his aura, her poor father was unable to do anything with the limitations he had imposed on himself, but Merle could see from the light in his eyes that he was enjoying himself.
And that only made her mood worse.
But then something happened, and her dad’s entire body language changed as he suddenly smashed Edward faster and stronger than he was supposed to, even destroying the practice sword.
Edward flew across the arena, and hit the fence so hard he broke it.
“Ardos, are you trying to kill him?!” screamed one of the instructors.
They started moving to the boy’s rescue, but they stopped when they heard the laughing.
His laugh came from the among the debris, ominous, even though it ended on a coughing fit which indicated that blood had gotten in his airways. Merle saw her father uncomfortably pinch the bridge of his nose.
Edward managed to stand like a drunkard would, wobbling and threatening to fall any moment. He pointed a finger at his opponent, a smile appearing through his bloodied face.
“Ha!” he said. “Got... you. I made you be serious, Ardos... I guess this human isn’t that inoffensive, uh?”
“You should get your wounds looked at,” Merle’s father said, visibly unhappy he let himself get carried away, even if it was only for a fraction of a second. “This is my loss. I went overboard, pushing yourself this much twice in a single day will slow down your recovery.”
But the boy chuckled, which, combined with the fact that he was struggling to stay on his feet, made Merle think that he must have badly hit his head.
“No, no, no,...” Edward said with a ragged voice, wiggling a finger. “Not yet. There’s someone I want you to meet... Show me that aura again.”
Edward lowered his stance, almost crouching this time as he leaned forward. Was he not even aware that he didn’t have a weapon anymore? And even if he did, what could he hope to accomplish?
The next instant, Merle’s got goosebumps all over her body as she instinctively took several steps away from the kid. She now understood why her dad had reacted so violently.
The others could not feel it and were giving her weird looks, but there was no mistake.
Killing intent, insidious and cold, was seeping from Edward.
“Here,” the boy said. “Why don’t you say hi to Ikun... Omi...”
He stood like that for a few seconds, filling the air with violence... then he perked up, looked around, and sat on the ground with a groan of exasperation.
“... Goddamit,” Edward said as he waved at his opponent. “My bad Ardos... Lost my mind for a moment.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Imane, would you please look after his injuries?”
The female instructor ran to the boy, as the rest gave each other looks of relief. They seemed happy that such a talent had joined the temple. But even if this stranger could fool them and her father, he wouldn’t trick Merle twice.
There was something wrong about this boy and she would find out what.