Celeste AcademyKnight

Chapter Thirty: Roaring Tiger

CASeries #1: KNIGHT

Chapter Thirty: Roaring Tiger

After getting the necessary preparations done, Valeriana was dragged towards the arena. Quincy, Poulette, and Zoel looked more nervous than she was.

Valeriana groaned. The school’s policy was seriously harsh. It was kill or be killed or eat or be eaten type of system, so it wasn’t pleasing at all. Now, the girl was getting the reason why some students died or if they simply quitted.

The girl sat anxiously. She looked up from her seat. The Celestial Circle were all present and they took their seats. All of them, including Corvan, were patiently reclining until the start of the fight. She noticed Lady Seraphina, Headmaster Kylon, and Lord Aeron as well.

“Really. I wish that Zion tried to misbehave,” she muttered, rolling her eyes.

The duelist’s waiting area was a small cavity under the numerous seats in the arena. It was where the competitors take their place and prepare for the upcoming fight they were participating in. Valeriana tapped her feet nervously while her aides merely cowered in their seats in anticipation.

“Everyone, your attention please!”

“The duel’s starting! Miss Valeriana!”

Her heart suddenly jumped to her throat that her breath stopped as well.

The whole arena quieted down and the Headmaster’s voice became evident. The girl turned and looked out from where she was. She realized that the sun’s rays had finally broken through the clouds and that with this sign, the duel would commence.

“Thank you all for coming,” he said. “A ranker’s second duel is always regarded to be the most important. Today we witness, the newly appointed fifth-ranker of the Celestial Circle and a student with a famed reputation.”

Valeriana tensed. “Oh, god. I’m nervous again,” she whispered.

“As of today, Valeriana will prove her worth as a titleholder. Zion Brunhild stepped up to challenge her for this very reason. As all of you may know, Valeriana is not of this world. Just as rumors say, she’s not a Valemnian, but a human.” He made a dramatic pause. “In short, she has to rely solely on her swordsmanship and physical capabilities to win this fight. This is bound to be thrilling. With everything they have on the line, let the duel between the two commence!”

Valeriana stood and walked towards her three aides, who automatically strapped a scabbard that held a sword around her waist. After they finished putting the weapon in place, they crushed Valeriana into a tight embrace. The girl was shocked at first, but patted each of their heads and smiled affectionately down at them.

“I’ll be back,” she said, before breaking away from the three and walking out into the battleground.

Her heart hammered in her chest as she took long, slow steps into the familiar arena. She fought here before against Courtney, but it suddenly felt very large. Its walls looked high and everything seemed so . . . distant.

Valeriana eyed her opponent who was standing with the same smile she last saw on him that day he challenged her. He held a lance over his shoulder, its length probably matching his own height. It consisted of a very long shaft and a blade that resembled the pincers of a crab. It was painted red with an elaborate design, as if custom-made solely for its user. It looked somewhat heavy despite its thin frame. It was a wonder how he carried it as if it was a feather.

He nodded at her, his grin widening. “Give me a good time, will you? I was really bored these past days from the lack of a worthy opponent. Not to mention I had to go through that horrible probation, so you better give me what I want—if not more.”

Trying to hide her anxiety, Valeriana drew her weapon and flashed him a small—nervous—grin of her own. “Exactly how did you even behave?”

“I don’t need to tell you the details,” he replied with a quirk of his brow. “Anyway, you know Lord Corvan right? He’s an entertaining lad at first but he’s very predictable and boring. He’s one of the very few that forced me to use my strongest cards, but in the end, he’s just like the many others I fought. I wonder if you’re the same.”

Valeriana frowned, but tightened her grip around the hilt of her weapon nonetheless. “We’ll find out,” she replied.

He shrugged, raking his hands through his midnight blue hair. It had a dark tone, somewhat like the color of a midnight sky decorated with stars—the color of the galaxy. It might look like a shade of black at first, but its color became more evident under the light of the sun. Paired with his electric blue eyes, it was a match made in heaven.

“The fight will start when the light signal has been launched,” said a ceremonious voice.

Lord Aeron raised his hand and pointed it to the sky, letting it linger in the air for a good few seconds before a ball of light shot out from his palms and illuminated the whole area with an eerie glow.

Valeriana circled Zion, sizing out the place she would be fighting in the next few moments and taking note of the things that would give her the advantage. Valeriana knew she possessed the ability to win. She just had to play her cards right.

While she acted all cautious and wary of her opponent, Zion stood there casually in the same position he was in before the fight started. He showed no signs of movements or interest in doing anything at all.

His lance looked intimidatingly heavy. It was not the kind of weapon a sane person would use in normal combat. Lances were meant for mounted knights on horseback and even then, these people bore swords when these lances became liabilities instead. But this guy was an oddity. Why did Valeriana even expect anything else?

She recalled Seraphina’s advice. ‘Get the flow of the battle in your favor by making sure you fight in your rhythm. Do not let Zion control the fight. You have to make the first move. Land the first strike.’

Zion eyed Valeriana derisively, raising his brows as if urging her to make her move. The girl didn’t think twice and dove forward, making sure her guards were properly put up.

With a swift clang, their weapons crossed. Zion moved much faster than she would’ve imagined. He was like a swift blur. Heck, she didn’t even realize he moved! She was a little startled at first, but tried to make up for it by regaining her composure quickly.

“Is that seriously the best you can do?”

“Oh, shut it. I haven’t even started.” 

“Then what was that? So disappointing,” he told her.       

“Then you shouldn’t have challenged me, idiot,” she spat at him before briefly withdrawing. “You should learn how to manage your expectations.” The girl then made a quick barrage of attacks. Zion blocked all of them effortlessly, parrying them before they even came.

She watched as he gracefully spun the object between his hands, letting it circle his body to ward off her attacks. Then, he struck fast. His lance clashed strongly against Valeriana’s sword that the force sent her shaking to her very toes, and although her hands trembled from the strong impact, she clung tenaciously to her weapon.

Zion smiled eerily. She glared back.

Valeriana had been pushed rearward by the strength behind his strike, but she managed to plant her feet to the ground and prevent herself from falling over.

Seraphina’s words kept playing like music. ‘Whatever happens, do not ever let go of your sword. If you do that, it’s all over. Do you understand?’

The woman’s advices were the only things she could cling to at times like this.

“I take back what I said,” he told her. “You’re interesting.”

“How many times did I hear that already?”

“I can’t exactly say it’s a lie, so it’s the truth,” he said with a smirk.

“That’s the lamest line I’ve ever heard,” she said, fighting the urge to roll her eyes. If she did, she was afraid he would use that as an opening.

Clang.

Valeriana brought her sword to meet Zion’s lance and felt weight of the force sent her way. A swift cut from the right sent her body flying to the opposite direction. She fell on the ground and rolled a few feet away from where she originally was. The impact her body made as she landed made her gasp. She clenched her fisted hands from the worry of losing the sword. Yet, when she felt it sitting firmly within her grasp, she breathed out in relief.

“What the—” Elfre stopped in the midst of her sentence, her jaws slacked open. “She’s still holding that godsdamned sword!”

No matter how disheveled Valeriana appeared, the glint of defiance and determination in her eyes never ceased to glow.

“Valeriana . . .” Seraphina muttered. “What in the world . . .”

 Lord Aeron hummed. “I can see that Valeriana improved a great deal—far better than anyone and even I would expect. Very intriguing.”

“What exactly did you teach her, Lady Seraphina?” the headmaster asked. “For someone to be able to move that way in such a short amount of time . . . I wouldn’t believe that she just started holding the sword a few days ago.”

“Believe it or not, that girl is, for the lack of a better word, a genius,” she said. “I made her do advanced exercises to see how she would fare. I know rushing was a bad idea, but the priority was to let her learn as much as possible in the short amount of time given. I never thought she would improve so fast.”

“So the girl has a natural talent when wielding a sword. I wonder what else she can do?” Lord Aeron thoughtfully stated.

Valeriana buried the sword’s blade on the ground and used it to help herself back on her feet. She clung to it for support and assessed her exhaustion. The girl exerted her best efforts through and through, but no matter how good she fared for the first few minutes, she still didn’t have enough stamina to last long.

She clumsily lifted her sword and pulled a stance. Breaths came out from her mouth in short puffs as she stared at her opponent daringly. Her hands hurt a lot. Her limbs and some bruising somewhere started to hurt as well.

Zion stared back at his opponent. He looked distasted.

Valeriana’s breath shuddered as she stubbornly maintained a shaky grip on her sword. The continuous impacts that would’ve normally knocked a sword from someone’s hand brought her a great deal of damage. She didn’t want to let the weapon go, hence, she was absorbing a lot of injuries. Her fingers felt sore at the joints. The occasional jerks and twitches made her grit her teeth in pain.

She panted, sweat sliding down her face. Zion was no longer smiling. Instead, he looked pretty serious for a change.

Even so, despite the pain throbbing from her hands, she tirelessly continued attacking him. She was gritting her teeth, trying hard not to mind the pain. Their continuous exchange of blows was slowly tiring her out, but lethargy was a luxury she could not afford.

“Are you really this serious about proving your worth?” Zion asked amidst the clamor. “Going this far? You don’t have to feel the need to satisfy other people. They don’t care about you one bit.”

“I’m not doing this for other people! I’m doing this for myself! I cannot care less about those jerks!” she said. “Do you think I like being in this situation?”

He went silent for a few moments. “Then I’ll feel bad if I don’t fight you seriously, seeing how much effort you’re putting in this.”

“You’re thinking of that just now?” She paused, a small spark escaping from the clash of their blades. “What have you been doing?”

 “Why go so far for something trivial?” he curiously asked.

“It isn’t trivial,” she told him, growling.

The increasing cadence of the fight initiated a serious, heavy, and uncomfortable air around the arena. The cheering around her was a strong indication of the crowd’s uneasiness. Valeriana continued with her unending cycle of assaults and Zion blocked them with little effort, staying defensive the whole time. When he decided that he got tired, he gave her another strong hit that sent her tumbling once more.

She got up much slower than the last time.

“Give up.”

“Shut up,” answered her weary voice.

“Why do you go so far for this?” he inquired. “I simply cannot follow. . .”

Valeriana felt a numbing pain coming from her hand. She did not dare take a glance down at the fear of losing her determination, but she felt a disgusting wetness that dripped on the sand. She knew she was bleeding. The only thing that kept her holding the sword was her willpower.

He waved his lance in the air, creating a figure of a circle. Fire erupted from the blade, making Valeriana—if not everyone—gasp. The roaring flames licked at the weapon’s sharp edges, but it didn’t seem like it was being burned.

“You know what?” he said. “This might just be the fight I’m looking for—a fight worth winning.”

The girl was shaken.

“Get yourself ready, Valeriana,” he said and smirked. “I won’t be holding back.”

The girl almost slapped herself. Now that he said that he was going to be serious about the fight, she felt more than anxious of what was coming. She stared at the golden flames that crackled on his lance.

“MISS VALERIANAAA!” a voice screamed. “YOU CAN DO IT!”

She recognized that voice—it was Poulette. A chorus of voices echoed, all which belonged to her aides. Valeriana was glad that she had them. They really lifted up her spirits.

Holding back the tears that threatened to fall out from her eyes, she fixed her gaze on Zion and determinedly tightened her loose grip around her sword. Her hands ached and trembled unsteadily.

“Alright, bring it on,” she muttered.

Her opponent stared at her incredulously.

“What is with you, woman?” He sighed problematically. “Why are you so confusing?”

“Not my fault.” She sniffed, wiping her tears away. “I was born this way. Maybe you can ask my mother.”

Zion burst into a fit of laughter and he didn’t look like he would stop any moment soon. The bladeless tip of his lance hit the sandy ground. Instead of a weapon, he used it as a substitute for a cane to prevent himself from falling over.

“Now that,” he began. “Is a joke!”

“Stop laughing,” Valeriana said. “There’s nothing funny.”

“But there is,” he told her. “Valeriana Kerrigan, quite the funny girl indeed.”

She blew off the hair that fell on her nose. “I can’t wait until this fight ends.”

“Now, don’t be in such a rush, fifth-ranker,” Zion told her. “I want to savor every moment of it as much as I can. It’s people like you that I love to defeat.”

He then repositioned his weapon in front of him and got into his fighting stance. The flames that were lively beating on his blade seemed even more intimidating than before. The look in his eyes visibly changed, the sudden shift sending a shiver down her spine.

Despite the fear that pooled inside her stomach, she took a huge calming breath and held her ground. Her hands were shaking. She didn’t know if it was because of the fact that they were already trembling since a while ago or because of resurfacing fear.

She recalled Seraphina’s words. ‘In battle, you’ll find yourself in very dangerous situations. Though you may feel that you are the prey, it doesn’t always mean that you’ll end up getting eaten. Just make sure you don’t go down without a fight.’

She now knew where his alias came from. At first, she didn’t entirely get it. But, now that he was looking at her with those eyes, she finally understood. Those electric blue orbs seemed to turn into slits and the smile that showed his teeth appeared like he was baring his fangs. The flaming blade made him look the part all the more.

Her steps stuttered.

He grinned dangerously. The girl swallowed hard.

“Ah, damn it all to hell.” She clenched her jaws.

Zion shifted in his steps and shot forward without warning. The crowd gasped at the speed he displayed, which in turn made Valeriana even more nervous. Instead of worrying, she decided to brace herself for whatever was coming. She had a feeling in her guts that everything would turn for the worst-case scenario.

Her opponent appeared in front of her in a flash and their weapons collided with unbelievable intensity. Valeriana clenched her jaw from the sudden pain that shot out from her hands but planted her feet to the ground to avoid being driven back by the force. This action, however, caused her feet to be buried in the sand, which then served as an evidence of how serious Zion really was.

Her hands were bleeding profusely, making her grip on her weapon somewhat slippery. However, if she let go now, then all those sacrifices from before would be nothing.

Grunting, she threw Zion back with all her might. The challenger skidded a few steps away from her, but it did not stop him completely. He moved with the same speed as before and started attacking her relentlessly.

Valeriana tried blocking each and every one of his attacks, but her skills proved to be inferior to his. She received a big gash on her shoulder. The girl cringed at the smell of her own flesh burning and realized that the swiftness of his movements made it even harder for her to keep up with the pace of the fight. Valeriana began to block his attacks mindlessly, depending on luck and instinct to help her.

Damn it.

Valeriana backed away, staggering. She felt like she was breathing in sand while her heart hammered. She held her sword wearily, its tip pointing to the ground. Unfortunately, Zion did not allow her to rest—nor was she expecting him to. He pulled his weapon back before swinging it hard towards Valeriana, maintaining the current distance between them.

The girl’s eyes widened when she saw balls of fire coming her way. She hurriedly eluded them and jumped off before they could land a hit.

He pointed his weapon at Valeriana.

“Shiznits,” she muttered, watching the building up of energy that seemed to fuel the fire’s flames on his lance.

She speedily jumped out of the way as a roaring ball of fire bigger than her flew towards her direction. She hit the ground painfully, landing face first on the dirt while missing the recent attack by a hair’s margin. The fire crackled passionately as it flickered, gradually diminishing. The ground was marred with soot, flames of the surviving blaze decorating the ground of the arena.

“Whew,” she whispered in relief but yelled and scrambled to move when another one came her way.

It stayed like that for a few moments before Zion suddenly decided to stop and finally began to cross blades with the girl. Another wound appeared on her thigh, cutting through the cloth of her pants. Valeriana truly did not know where he was throwing his blade, but all she knew was that she was clumsily retaliating. She could feel her weapon slowly slipping from her hands.

“I . . . will not . . .” She grunted. “Let go of this sword!” She tightened her grip on her weapon further, not minding the pain that came with it.

With a battle cry, she stepped forward with all her strength and fired a barrage of attacks his way, completely reversing their positions. Zion was smiling while skillfully parrying her blows. He jumped from toe to toe gracefully like a gravity-defying, dancing sprite, while  Valeriana—a bird with a broken wing.

The flames of his lance roared from each strike, causing the girl to sweat from the heat being emanated.

She shook the bad thoughts away, but they had rooted deep like weeds. “I am not going to lose, damn it!”

Never minding her remark, the fight continued in its current pace.

“I’m going to enjoy this victory,” he said.

Valeriana knew from the very start that she would lose. Her muscles screamed, blood soaking through her clothes. She never felt so miserable her entire life that she wanted to just pass out and sleep through everything. Yet, through all the hardships of the duel, she knew that she couldn’t and must not back down.

“Not if I can help it.”

She hopelessly tried to fight him. Zion could tell she was already at her limits. Her attacks were getting weaker and she wasn’t exactly in the same condition before the fight started. She moved clumsily on her feet, waving her sword around unthinkingly.

“You’re still saying that? With the state you’re in?” Zion quirked a brow. “Come on, I’ll give you a chance.” He stopped and jumped away from her, lowering his blade. “Maybe I can change my mind and we can continue this fight another day.”

Her knees quivered. It took tons of her willpower just to remain standing. “You think I will believe you? This fight has already started. I might as well finish it.”

“You really are stubborn, aren’t you?”

“Who said I wasn’t?”

“Ah,” he paused and looked at her thoughtfully. “I must admit you impress me, Valeriana.”

“I don’t need to impress anyone,” she muttered. “I . . . just want to get this fight over with.”

The battle continued and Valeriana shakily responded to his attacks. Zion looked as if he was having fun at first, but it gradually faded and was replaced by total boredom. The light from his eyes disappeared and his mood turned dull.

Valeriana noticed that he started to move slower than he did from the past few minutes. She couldn’t but think that they were back to square one. “What the hell’s wrong with you?” she asked. “I thought you were going to fight me seriously.”

“I changed my mind. This is pointless.”

“You’re seriously confusing,” she told him. “One minute you do this and the next thing you do that.”

She was starting to think he was suffering from bipolar disorder.

“I can’t help it.” He lowered his lance. “I can’t help but think I’m beating up a poor kitten that can’t fight back. I mean, just look at you.” He gestured to her form. “You’re not even in condition to fight anymore. Although I admire your determination and spirit, you just can’t keep up with my pace.”

Valeriana gritted her teeth and felt her face going red from anger. “So what are you planning to do?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Zion lowered his weapon and the flames flickered before disappearing. “I’m throwing it away. It doesn’t amuse me anymore.”

“So it’s only like that? After everything?” she asked. “You won’t even try and actually—”

“Defeat you?” He laughed. “What are you saying? I don’t need to,” he said. “And I don’t want to. Like I said, I only want a fight worth winning. I don’t need to waste my time here anymore. I should start looking for a more worthy opponent.”

Valeriana’s blood boiled and she began to chew on her lower lip. She didn’t move to make any retorts and instead kept quiet from where she stood, trying to control her anger. That proved to be impossible, even so, as Zion’s words sunk in.

“Don’t freaking underestimate me, you ass.” She lashed out at him her grip tightening around her weapon. “I can very well cut off that swollen head of yours and feed it to the dogs. I’ll savor every minute of it.” For once, she could not believe those words just came out of her mouth.

He sighed. “Your threats can be pretty unnerving alright.”

“That’s more to where that came from.” She growled. “I don’t give a damn about what you think. I won’t let you out of this fight until it’s over, do you hear?”

“But it is already over,” he grumbled.

“Not until I say so!”

 With that said, Valeriana attacked, but she was only pushed down by Zion. He competently evaded her attack and forced her to the ground, pointing the tip of his lance at her neck. She sat on the sandy floor, hands buried in the rough grains. Her grip was wrapped tightly around the hilt of her weapon still.

Her head lowered.

That was it. She didn’t know what to do. The helplessness nagged at her for being so weak—like it was an unchangeable fate.

How naïve she was.

No matter her hard work, it wouldn’t be enough for her to win.

There was a strange sensation that surged through her and her heart pounded. She never felt this way her entire life—the strong need to prove herself to herself mixed with a flare of built up anger and annoyance. It was painful and frustrating. Her heart was crumbling to pieces and so was she.

What exactly did she get herself into? Why was the world so unfair?

She then realized. It wasn’t easy.

Valeriana never felt so defeated her entire life. She should’ve just become a slave like Lord Aeron suggested. Perhaps everything would be easier. Maybe she would’ve been saved from this cruel place.

She wanted to surrender. She wanted to succumb to the desire of being freed from all these hardships weighing her down. She wanted to have the old life she had before she saw Seraphina slaying those stupid demons.

She wanted to go back home.

A few seconds of silence, a choir of voices echoed in the arena.

“MISS VALERIANA! GET UP AND FIGHT!” the three chorused together.

At long last, a song which she never thought she would hear permeated the area. The three’s voices didn’t blend that perfectly, but their words were loud and clear. It sent the whole arena silent, attention rapt on the lyrics.

At first, no one seemed to know what was going on, but the girl caught on to what they were doing.

They were cheering for her. The idea itself brought more tears to her eyes.

She silently chastised herself for berating her own person. This wasn’t the time to actually lose spirit, right? She was in the middle of a battle. There was no backing out. No retreating.

Zoel, Poulette, and Quincy continued to cheer from the background.

It clicked in place. She realized that that was what they were talking about earlier this morning. The song of Katy Perry became the instrument for their cheering. She didn’t actually expect them to actually do it, though.

She hated this song. But right now, it was something she could cling to. So why not? The important thing was the thought.

“You can do it Miss Valeriana! ROAR!

The long strands of Valeriana’s hair fell on her face, shadowing her expression.

“Catchy song. Too bad.” He started to lower his weapon. “Don’t worry though. It’s not like I want to win or anything. I’ll surrender soon. I just want to let you know that—” He was cut off.

“What’s the use if you gave this fight away? If I’m going to win anyway, I might as well do everything in my power or else I’ll be living off a stupid lie,” she stated. Her voice was low but held a dangerously sharp and threatening edge. It sounded daunting, and the pause between her words seemed like the eye before the storm. “This fight isn’t over until I say so.”

“Hm?” He tilted his head to the side, questioningly gazing at the girl. The tip of his blade pointed tenaciously at Valeriana.

Zion gazed at his fallen opponent as if she was the oddest creature he saw in his entire life—but of course, that wasn’t not true.

“What’s wrong, Valeriana? Where’s all the spirit you had a while ago?” he asked, yet she caught the uneasy shifting of his feet against the sand, a wary and cautious light sheening his eyes.

“Do you think I’ll let you walk away that easily? You challenged me to a fight. You might as damn well see it through. You stuck up, goddamned bastard.”

The whole area grew quiet and all the noises that permeated the air vanished. Valeriana caught several voices from around her.

Seraphina stood from her seat abruptly. “Valeriana!” she hollered. “Use that technique! You can use that technique!”

Valeriana twitched at the sound of the lady knight’s voice but her words had tuned out like a loud whirring from a broken microphone. Her body was boiling. She felt numb from the pain and her mind went blank.

She wanted to win.

She never felt so strongly about doing something before. Every fiber of her being screamed and urged her to defeat the man before her and mind the consequences that would come with it later. With a loud, enraged roar and newfound strength, she moved.

To hell with it all.

“Victory is mine.”

Valeriana then stood from where she fell and fired a seemingly endless onslaught of swift strikes towards Zion. She started moving by instinct alone, her assaults executed without rhythm.

She glowered at Zion intently, hell bent on pushing him down.

“Valeriana!” Seraphina exclaimed.

“Valeriana!” Tamara yelled. “Snap out of it!”

I must win. She chanted inside her mind.

“Miss Valeriana!”

Win.

“This is a disadvantage of killing intent brought about by extreme situations. When one succumbs to that desire, nothing else comes to mind. I was foolish to think Valeriana would be able to subdue that so easily,” Seraphina said. “I should’ve taken into consideration that she was human as well.”

“What is this killing intent?” Keelan wondered aloud.

“Basically a form of adrenalin rush,” Aneeka told him. “The person is fueled with unbelievable strength to survive a particular situation. But, while in the state, it is no different to losing yourself to your primal instinct. You lose control of your body and you become reckless.”

Zion grunted. “Damn.”

Her opponent was apprehensive of her impending moves. He took a few steps back from Valeriana warily. He called upon the flames and his lance was set ablaze.

He hastily jumped back and shot a stream of fireballs Valeriana’s way. She dodged his attacks, evading them while one grazed her arm. The girl made an audible hiss as she felt her skin burn, but didn’t stop.

It wasn’t long before she reached him and they started to engage in combat once again. She continued her unremitting assault. Their weapons clashed repeatedly, the incessant sound vibrating. Zion felt a surging feeling of distress coming over him as the girl’s insistent attacks continued without letting either of them breathe.

The challenger gritted his teeth and parried another blow from Valeriana. He twirled his lance between his fingers as if it weighed like a feather and swung down at the girl, only to be repelled by an equally strong force.

“What?” He gasped as he was pushed back. He might’ve been wrong, but did she just predict his move?

Fight. Win.

Zion made a quick swing from below but was easily warded off by the girl. He tried moving in again to get back the upper hand which he lost a few moments ago, but Valeriana managed to stop and destroy the pace he was trying to build up.

Tension grew and he stiffened.

“Fine! Be that way if you wish!” Zion bellowed, hopping a few steps back before skillfully letting his weapon spin between his fingers. The fire that clung to his blade seemed like beams of light moving in circles.

Zion held the shaft of his lance with his right hand, the blade pointed to east of where he was currently facing. Slowly, a stream of fire erupted from his weapon. He moved the blade around him, creating a ring of fire with him and Valeriana inside.

“You cannot step outside this ring,” he said with a wicked grin. “If you try, the fire will burn you.”

The girl didn’t say anything and continued glowering at him. Charles paused for a moment and tried to discern the challenger’s plan. He massaged his chin with his thumb, lips curling thoughtfully.

“According to my calculation,” he started. “The radius of that circle limits to Zion’s best fighting range which leads to the conclusion that—” He was cut off when Tamara piped in.

“He’s trying to win by putting everything to his advantage. He has the upper hand as long as the both of them stay within that circle,” she finished.

Zion started assaulting Valeriana in his best fighting range as Charles predicted, and slowly, the tide of the battle could be seen flowing to Zion’s favor.

The human girl felt herself getting pushed back. His speed and the force he exerted increased dramatically.

Valeriana anchored her feet to the floor to prevent herself from getting pushed back even more, but that strategy was futile. As her ankles went a few centimeters close to the fire making up the figure of the ring, the flames immediately roared, as if cautious of her sudden closeness. She instinctively dove forward to avoid the eruption.

She could hear the challenger chuckle but did not mind it. Instead, she decided to try and adapt into the sudden change of environment. Even with her current state, a part of her seemed to be conscious enough to be aware of the dangers.

Fight. Win.

Valeriana tried fighting back, but Zion proved to be more powerful than what he seemed and completely overpowered the poor girl. The challenger was overcome by anxiety and anticipation from a while ago, but with everything playing right to his victory, his uneasiness disappeared. He, instead, continued to enjoy the torment he was putting upon the current fifth-ranker. She started to appear less and less a threat.

He pulled back his lance and struck her leg, wounding the flesh of her lower calf. Valeriana staggered from the pain and gritted her teeth, maintaining the current position she was in.

“Valeriana!” Corvan exclaimed, fists clenched.

Everyone stared at him questioningly.

“Just finish the damned fight already and use that technique! Come back to your senses! You stupid witch!”

It took a few moments until those words sunk in.

Something inside Valeriana awakened.

“I . . .” she muttered. “Am NOT a stupid witch, you idiot devil!” she screamed from where she stood, facing Corvan with a face flushed with anger.

Tamara guffawed. “That brought her back alright!”

Shaking her head, the girl finally regained control of her own limbs. “Damn it.”

She looked around.

They were standing inside a ring of fire. Her instincts told her not to get close to the line that drew the circle. Her memories were foggy, but she could recall focusing solely on Zion and the strong desire to defeat him.

“The technique, Valeriana!” a voice behind her shouted.                                                      

“The technique?” she muttered questioningly. “Technique? Wha—oh.”

She willed her face to stay serious and the air around her solemn. The pain around her fingers started to throb and intensified each passing minute, but she tried her best to ignore it. She gnashed her teeth together.

Even though Seraphina told her to use the technique she was taught, she still didn’t know how to execute the so-called killing intent which was an important factor when trying to perform it. She strained her mind to think of something.

Control yourself, Valeriana, she told herself. Then bare your fangs. This time not as a cornered rat, but the tiger in the wild.

She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. She managed to pick up the scent of the fumes that curled from the fire. The wind whispered in her ear ever so gently that she would’ve not noticed it if she did not focus.

Get your emotions under control, but keep your goals set and clear, she mentally noted. Let the fire burn, but do not let it burn you.

Killing intent was the fire, she realized. There was always a risk it would burn her, but she must manipulate it to get it under her control instead.

If her assumptions were correct, then now was the best time to apply what she learned. She willed her eyes to open, her pupils dilating at the sight of Zion in front of her. He didn’t move, just staring at her cautiously. He still looked unsure if he had to attack or wait for her to make the first move.

I am no prey, she chanted. I’m the predator.

She walked forward, slowly and dauntingly while her eyes stared straight into his. She wanted him to feel her fire—the flames that burned with her thirst for victory.

“Did she lose control again?” Keelan curiously asked.

“This one is . . . different. This is not the aura of a wild, untamed beast, but . . . one of a predator’s,” the lady knight said.

Lady Seraphina could only look at the fight in front of her with mouth open and eyes wide in utter disbelief. Everyone else beside her had the very same reaction, save for Lord Aeron who was openly laughing. She did not know why he was laughing since nothing was funny, but kept it to herself and instead concentrated on the duel at hand.

“Does this mean humans have killing intent, too?” someone asked.

Lord Aeron stopped as he thought of something. “Or . . .”

Seraphina gazed at Valeriana as she made quick strikes with her weapon, applying the technique she was taught a little bit clumsily at first. She managed to remember the timing—when she had to apply the feints and when to land a real attack.

The Ghost. A technique made up primarily of feints backed up by threatening blows. It was a technique developed by Dantalion Wisperia. The movements consisted of quick strikes in all direction, some mostly fake moves to confuse the enemy. But of course, feints did not usually work on skilled weapon handlers so it needed to look real in the eyes of the opponent. Killing intent, if controlled upon will and worked successfully on the enemy, could make even the smallest feints look like real moves.

Valeriana raised her hands and thrust her sword forward only to suddenly swing to her right and land a quick blow on Zion’s side. She was surprised when her challenger did not make any attempts to block her attack and brought his lance up to shield his front. It was too late when he realized that he was actually bleeding.

Valeriana moved back from her previous position and got into stance, dust springing from her tracks.

“What did you just do?” He growled.

Zion stared at the girl with slightly wide eyes. She suddenly made an attack from the left, so he brought his lance up instinctively to meet hers. Contrary to his expectations though, nothing came. He was holding his weapon out into thin air while Valeriana moved from his right and swiped down, wounding him on the cheek.

Valeriana assaulted him head on, letting their blades clash noisily. He gritted his teeth and tried not to let her disrupt his rhythm, but every time he managed to pick up his pace, she would attack so suddenly from a direction, her sword visibly moving to cut the air but then disappearing the next second. Next thing he knew, she was right beside him, slicing his skin open.

She moved but he didn’t even know when she did.

“What . . . was that?” he asked. “A feint? What the hell’s going on?”

He moved to parry her attack, but he then saw her sword coming from above. Instinctively, he brought up his lance to shield himself when her strike actually came rushing from the original direction. Shocked, he attempted to react as fast as he could, but it was too late.

With a battle cry, Valeriana mustered up all the force she had left and struck at his weapon hard, causing the lance to fly out of his hands. He grunted and attempted to reach for his weapon, but was stopped short when he realized that the girl’s sword was aimed at his throat. He seethed.

The moment the object flew out of his hands, the fire on the blade was extinguished and so was ring of fire he previously created.

Valeriana was shocked.

She used that technique, and now, it really did lead to her victory—although she had to go through hell and fire quite literally before she did.

“Somehow, I have a feeling that wasn’t something Zion did on purpose,” Aneeka said in her seat, narrowing her eyes at the scene.

“It wasn’t,” Charles answered. “It’s a genuine victory.”

“So it’s an actually, really winning victory stuff!” Tamara howled before looking down at Charles with a triumphant grin. “YOU LOST THE BET!” Shooting out from her seat with an excited jump, the third-ranker cheered at the top of her voice while doing an unsightly victory dance.

When Valeriana recovered from her shock, she looked at Zion to see an impassive expression. “Surrender,” the girl said, panting heavily.

In order to win the duel, one must be able to subdue the opponent and make them admit defeat or knock them out. That was the rule.

Instead of having a look of defeat, he grinned. A skin-crawling smile crept up on his lips and showed his perfectly aligned white teeth.

“Are you gonna surrender or not?” she repeated with a threatening edge in her voice.

“Why would I?” he asked her, making her freeze and hold her breath. “This fight just got even more interesting.”

She panted. “You . . .”

Zion gazed at her tauntingly before smiling. “But let’s end it here at the moment. I underestimated your worth. I lost because of that. I’ll challenge you again someday, but before that day comes, I’ll make sure I’m ready, so you get yourself polished up good.”

“You mean . . .”

“For this time, for real, I surrender,” he said, before he held both of his hands up to symbolize his admission of defeat. “For now. This fight is not over yet.”

Lord Aeron leaned forward to whisper something in Kylon’s ears. The man nodded in reply to whatever he told him and stood to make the announcement. From this point on, the whole arena was filled with silence.

“The duel ends here!” the headmaster exclaimed from his seat, his voice resounding fiercely. “This duel’s officially, actually, really winner! Valeriana Kerrigan! Roaring Tiger!”

“I sense something wrong with how that grammatically sounded.” Charles seethed, fixing his glasses.

“Oh, come on! You’re just bitter!” Tamara replied, patting his back while cackling exultantly.

A chorus of laughter from the Twelve echoed, mingling with the resonant cheers from the audience. Her three, little aides were screaming and shrieking from utter happiness that they were literally crying out her newly established theme song with tears. A few, however, were befuddled from the recent declaration that they could not help but scratch their scalps.

“I’m confused. So is this an official victory, or an actual, real victory?” A spectator among the crowd questioned.

“Haven’t you heard the headmaster? It’s an official, actual, real victory so get over it!” someone replied.

While others gave a positive response, there were still a few from among audience who felt dissatisfied with the recent conclusion. Some in particular had unprepossessing frowns on their faces.

With that, the sword fell from the girl’s hands. She kneeled over in relief and looked up, meeting her opponent’s eyes.

“Holy crap.”

Zion smirked. “I just realized. Winning battles is losing them as much. Don’t you agree?”

“What?”

“How much did you sacrifice to achieve this victory?”

She looked at her bleeding hands and began to laugh. The pain made her fingers twitch and tremble. “I guess you’re right.”

He looked up and eyed the sky as the healers started coming in. “Is it really worth it? To lose so much? Just to win once?”

“You win once, but you gain something along the way.” She found herself smiling at the emotion that bubbled inside her. “You lose something, but something even bigger replaces it. That’s exactly what makes it bittersweet.”

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