Chapter 876: The Lion’s Loyalty II
The duels following the first couple of rounds proceeded apace, Menander having little patience for waiting around. Almost as soon as he confirmed who won each round, he would announce the next.
Following Marcus and Alcander came Rain-Dancer, and it was here that Leon’s side suffered their first loss. Rain-Dancer didn’t use his hawk form, though Leon could understand not wanting to play that card just yet. But it did mean that he fought against one of the Thunderer’s army officers, a man who evidently had significantly more experience than either of the Thunderer’s first two combatants possessed. Rain-Dancer fought admirably, but in the end, he suffered a slash across his thigh that, while far from fatal or even debilitating, was enough for him to lose the duel.
After Rain-Dancer went Cloud-Runner, and again, he lost his duel, though his was less evenly fought. Another of the Thunderer’s officers fought against him and held no punches back, and Cloud-Runner found himself outmatched right from the get-go.
And like that, Leon and the Thunderer were tied for wins.
“It seems that my people aren’t the only ones who lack combat experience,” the Thunderer observed, and as neutrally as he said it, Leon still detected a faint speck of pride in his tone. While he was disappointed, he didn’t take it too personally; the Thunderer was right, after all.
“Tigers?” Leon asked after a moment of pause, to which the Thunderer nodded in confirmation.
‘That would explain why they seem absent from his entourage,’ Leon thought. ‘They are here, but they’re in uniform rather than representing their Tribe.’
Next came Alix, who redeemed the honor of Leon’s side by winning her duel in spectacular fashion, using the fighting style of House Raime combined with the lightning magic she’d learned from Leon to run circles around her opponent and left him knocked down in the sand, bleeding from a stab wound to the chest—though, to Leon’s immense pride in his former squire, avoiding all vital organs.
And then it was Gaius’ turn, and again, he won, though not quite as spectacularly as Alix did. Instead, he moved quickly and clinically, dancing around his opponent and analyzing her fighting style. When he made his move, it wasn’t even fully clear what had happened until he stood ten feet away from her. She initially tried to close the distance until Menander announced Gaius’ victory, to her and many others’ surprise, until it was revealed that Gaius had cut into a gap between her gauntlet and bracer without her immediately realizing it.
The fights continued, with Red, Anshu, and Anzu scoring victories. Anna went up against a fellow beastmaster—their duel having to wait a while for their beasts to be brought into the arena—and one that unfortunately had greater experience than she did in using the domination bracelets and had had longer to grow his war beasts. Anna sent Ladon, her Attican Snapper, but Ladon lost the fight to a large ape-like beast of equal tier.
What took Leon by surprise was when Valeria fought her duel. He had full confidence in his lady, having fought both by her side and against her in spars enough to know her skill in both arms and magic. So when she lost, his eyes just about bugged out of his skull. Fortunately, she sustained nothing more than a light slash across her abdomen from a blade of light that managed to penetrate the defensive enchantments Leon had placed on her armor, drawing blood but not doing any significant damage.
Cassandra went next and fought with all the rage that Leon—and Valeria, he knew—felt from her loss, winning against her opponent so completely that it made Alix’s victory look even. Had Menander not been so quick on declaring her the victor, Leon felt like she might’ve kept going until her opponent was killed.
Maia lost hers, but Leon thought that had much more to do with the fact that she was fighting an eighth-tier mage, and so her power was restricted by the Lions’ anti-magic field. Since Maia only ever fought with magic and rarely ever wore armor, she was heavily restricted in the means she could use to attack. Leon felt her immense frustration and anger through their connection as she was forced to block her opponent’s spear lunge with her forearm, causing the steel to bite flesh and draw blood.
The Jaguar won his bout, but Ipatameni didn’t win his. Most of the Hawks and Eagles, too, lost, and of the Jaguars, they mostly went up against Tigers and won as much as they lost.
By the end of the first set, despite Leon’s retainers largely putting on a fantastic showing, the wins and losses were about even. Strangely enough, Leon noted that the Thunderer’s few Bison supporters had done better than his Bear or Spider supporters despite their reputation for being peaceful farmers.
“It seems you both have placed your faith well,” Menander observed as the final round of the first set was finished in the Thunderer’s favor. “Your supporters are strong and loyal. But who has the strong—”
“Why should we wait for the next sets?” the Thunderer asked, interrupting the Lion Lawspeaker, much to the man, much to Menander’s obvious displeasure. To an extent, Leon could understand the Thunderer’s impatience as the fights had taken most of the remaining day and already pushed well into the evening, but this was a battle to win the Lions’ support, so he was more than happy to keep going.
But it seemed the Thunderer was less willing to go along with it.
“Our supporters are strong,” the Thunderer continued. “That much is clear enough at this point. Why waste the time to go through the remaining rounds when the strength of our supporters is now established?”
“There is a process for duels such as these,” Xanthippe, the female ninth-tier Lion, growled in warning.
“You wish for our support,” Creon, one of the other male ninth-tier Lions, added. “This is how you get it. If you wish to forfeit…” He shrugged to show just how much he would care if the Thunderer wished to take that option.
“I will not forfeit without a fight,” the Thunderer declared. “However…” He turned his eyes to Leon and gave him a meaningful look.
Finishing the man’s statement for him, Leon said, “You want us to fight right now? Without waiting for the others to finish?” A grin began spreading across Leon’s face even as his heart began to race uncontrollably.
“Yes,” the Thunderer confirmed. “Our strength is all that needs to be established now. Shall we have ourselves our duel now and bring this ‘negotiation’ to an end?”
Leon saw the Lions glare at the Thunderer, but it was Menander who spoke, his voice calm and collected.
“If this is your wish, that… can be arranged. I am eager to see all that you two have to show me.”
Menander then turned to Leon. “Well, descendant of the Thunderbird? Will you accept our noble Thunderer’s challenge?”
“I will,” Leon said more firmly than he felt. “I don’t relish skipping the rest of the fights, but I’ve never been one to back down when so directly challenged. Do you give your blessing for what seems to be a breach of protocol?”
As Leon finished his acceptance, he saw the Thunderer twitch in what seemed to be a slight cringe, and Menander briefly glanced at his three other counterparts, all of whom eventually nodded, though Xanthippe needed a few seconds to ponder the matter. Then, the Lawspeaker said, “Very well. Let’s see what you two are capable of.”
Without further ado, the Thunderer leaped down into the sand. The rest of the arena had been buzzing with words of anger and celebration, depending on who won or lost and who was going to fight next. But the entire arena fell silent as the Thunderer’s feet touched the sand. The silence became deafening as Leon followed him.
The Thunderer took a position about thirty feet from Leon, the Lions on the Thunderer’s right and Leon’s left. He was expecting it, so when Leon felt the magic in the arena flare up and his aura was practically stuffed back into his body from the anti-magic, he wasn’t surprised. What he did find surprising was the muting of the arena. No one had been speaking, but there had been enough ambient noise for Leon to notice it all fade away.
“Seems like they want to give us some manner of privacy, if I’m not mistaken?” Leon wondered aloud as he glanced around the arena, not concerned that the Thunderer might make some kind f sneak attack while he was distracted.
The Thunderer responded with a civil, “That may be the case. I’m grateful, it gives us a chance to speak with… relative impunity. This will allow us to speak without even any natural worry…” Without any kind of dramatic flourish, the Thunderer retrieved a spell from his soul realm that Leon recognized as being primarily wind magic. He stiffened for a moment when the Thunderer activated it, but he realized that it only added another layer of protection from anyone trying to listen in to their conversations.
“That’s interesting,” Leon said. “How is that working with the anti-magic field up?”
“You’d have to ask the Ravens,” the Thunderer replied. “I’m no enchanter.”
“I’ll have to keep that in mind…” Leon said as he cast his gaze around the arena again.
“I would take this chance to speak with you, Leon,” the Thunderer said. ‘We don’t have to fight just yet, do we?”
Leon frowned and nodded in acceptance, though he kept his distance from the Thunderer and remained on guard.
“It’s… borderline criminal that it’s taken us this long to actually try speaking in private about these matters,” the Thunderer said. “We should’ve spoken like this when I visited the Jaguars. Not insisting we do so was a mistake on my part. I have no wish for violence, but this conflict between us could easily boil over into a civil war that I don’t see the Ten Tribes surviving.”
“If there is a civil war, it won’t be started on my end,” Leon said. “Yours, however… the Bears building up forces along their border with the Jaguars might wind up being a problem. It already has quite a few people paying attention…”
“I’ve argued against it, but my kinsmen trust the Jaguars about as much as the Jaguars trust us.”
“‘Us’?” Leon noted. “Aren’t you supposed to represent all of the Ten Tribes, not just your own?”
The Thunderer smiled embarrassedly. “A slip of the tongue. Centuries spent in my Tribe, among my own kinsmen… I keep all the Ten Tribes in my thoughts, but it can still be hard to disentangle old ways of speaking from newer modes of thought.”
“You don’t seem to be creating much love amongst the Ten Tribes despite this,” Leon observed.
“I am confident that history will vindicate me even if I’m not loved in my own time.”
Leon sighed and glanced around the arena again, gauging how the rest of the arena was taking their conversation. Most of the people were chatting amongst themselves and watching them with curiosity, and Leon noted that their respective supporters—especially his retainers, and especially his ladies—were watching them with greater concern, but no one seemed to be reacting to what they were saying. It seemed to him that they truly were speaking privately. Even the Lions on the platform didn’t seem to be paying much attention with only Menander watching them with any intensity.
“Let’s cut to the chase,” he said. “What do you actually want to talk about?”
“I want to ask you to set aside your goal to become King,” the Thunderer said. “If we are to be a truly united people, it can’t be under the yoke of the old ways. We must move forward, not back to a bygone age that saw us ruined. Your Clan may have given us some glory, but we were only your servants, not your partners.”
“I can’t do that,” Leon calmly replied. “I will rebuild my Clan and all those who come with me. I will not go back to the old status quo, but I will not give up the reason I came here unless I’m soundly rejected by the rest of the Tribes. There will always be a place in my Kingdom for those who aid me in my goals—not as slaves or servants, but as partners and friends.”
“Yet you still wish to be our King? Kings are partners to no one.”
“There’s a first for everything.”
“You’re a child.” The Thunderer punctuated his statement with a rolling of his eyes and drawing of a large two-handed sword, one that would be truly unwieldy for even the strongest of mortals, yet which he twirled about with ease. While the anti-magic in the arena was dampening it greatly, Leon could still feel a large amount of magic flowing through the weapon and knew it was incredibly dangerous.
But he had dangerous weapons of his own, which he showed as he donned his armor and drew his family’s Adamant blade. Even with the anti-magic in the arena, a few bolts of silver-blue lightning sparked across the surface of the weapon.
“The Ten Tribes must be united,” the Thunderer gravely intoned. “If we are not, then the Empires will overrun us all, and bring about our final defeat. If I must defeat you here and now with force of arms, I would be immeasurably disappointed, but that is simply how the world works sometimes. Prepare yourself, Leon Raime; your desire to be our King ends today.”
“We’ll see,” Leon replied, taking the Thunderer as seriously as his power demanded. They would be fighting without elemental magic, but he was still at a disadvantage—which the Thunderer immediately proved when he lunged forward with startling speed and brought his blade down in an overhead chop. Leon was taken aback, but lightning coursed through his veins and the world seemed to slow down; he slipped around the Thunderer’s strike and raked his blade across the man’s ribs. However, a millimeter from the man’s shirt, Leon’s blade hit a barrier of white light and failed to do any damage.
“The Tribes will never unite without strong leadership!” the Thunderer professed as he pressed Leon back with more strikes, each one too strong for Leon to take directly. “I wanted to convince them with the strength of my arguments, but it seems all they ever want to see is strength of arms!”
Leon danced around the Thunderer, his speed giving him enough of an edge to keep from being hit, but not enough to create a good opening with which to strike back, and those few openings that did present themselves amounted to nothing with the Thunderer’s light barrier in the way.
“Given their enemy, is valuing martial strength so bad?” Leon countered as he managed to deflect a blow aimed at his head.
“It should not be what defines us!” the Thunderer shouted as he swung again at Leon’s ribs.
Leon took the hit to his ribs, trusting in his armor to protect him. His faith was rewarded with a harsh blow to the chest, but he doubted it would do anything more than bruise. Taking the hit allowed him to stab at the Thunderer’s sword arm, but again, his blade was deflected by a light barrier.
Leon dodged around the Thunderer, not giving any ground, but getting away from the man’s weapon anyway. As he did, he conjured his anti-light magic gem into his gauntlet but kept it in reserve for the moment.
“The Ten Tribes united could dominate this plane!” the Thunderer insisted as he pressed Leon again. “The barbarian Empires would bow at our feet! I would lead us out of the mire we’ve been stuck in for eighty-thousand years and build us from a mere confederation into a powerful centralized state that would see us thrive for millennia to come!” He punctuated most of his words with sword strikes, which Leon continued to dodge and deflect.
Leon noticed his strikes becoming just a little more erratic, though whether that was intentional or not, Leon couldn’t tell. A few suspicious openings emerged that he refrained from taking, thinking them feints, but he started becoming more and more convinced that they were real and that the Thunderer was allowing himself to get distracted.
“Is that where your ambition stops?” Leon shouted back as he ducked and let the Thunderer’s blade slice the air above his head. “The Empires and the continent of Aeterna?”
“My people’s prosperity is ambition enough!” the Thunderer thundered. “Anything more would be for my own ego!”
“What does it matter if it means a better life for your people?” Leon retorted.
“Nothing’s guaranteed! Bringing my people into conflict just for ego is a pointless risk!”
“Then you should’ve stayed on Kataigida and not taken the Sword! Vengeance for grievances is vengeance for the sake of ego!”
“The Empires have never given up trying to kill us! We are defending ourselves by striking at their territory! And when we’re done, the Empires will never threaten us again! That is what I want! Not war, but peace and security!”
Leon stole a glance at the platform where Menander continued to stare at them—at him, he realized.
“I wouldn’t just accomplish this, I would rise beyond it!” As Leon shouted his response, he noticed the Thunderer’s blade slow just a fraction. “Your conflict is petty and meaningless!” Leon continued. “The Empires want to see us gone? Then we shall leave! We should leave this plane behind and reclaim our place among the stars! That is our place! Not on one petty plane waging petty wars! We were once akin to gods to these people! And I would see us made so again! Peace and security would be achieved by reclaiming our rightful place in the universe!”
The Thunderer’s blade slowed again, finally pausing as if in shock at what Leon was saying as Leon finished his declaration.
Sensing that this was his moment, Leon waited for another moment, and when it presented itself, he fired off his anti-magic, hoping that it wouldn’t be stopped by the Lions’ own anti-magic. Fortunately, it seemed he was right, and where the anti-magic field hadn’t managed to stop the Thunderer’s light barrier, Leon’s directed anti-magic pulse accomplished that task. A flash of white light was all Leon needed to know the Thunderer was vulnerable.
Calling upon all the speed his body could muster, Leon sliced at the Thunderer’s left arm, but as he did, the Thunderer began moving again, too. As Leon’s blade raked across the Thunderer’s arm, the Thunderer’s sword caught Leon in the face, caught on the edge of his visor, and tore his helmet right off his head. Leon felt burning pain along his cheek as steel met flesh, and hot blood immediately began pouring from the wound.
Both froze as their blood hit the sand. Leon’s strike had opened the Thunderer’s forearm, but the cut was shallow and easily ignored by a tenth-tier mage.
The wound the Thunderer had given Leon, on the other hand, was gushing blood and had it been only a hair to Leon’s right, it might’ve taken out his left eye. The Thunderer’s blow was by far the deadlier…
… But Leon had spilled blood first. By a fraction of a second, but first was first.
For a moment, Leon thought the Thunderer might contest the result, his eyes wide and staring at the wound on his arm. But after that moment passed, the Thunderer sighed and straightened up.
“Well fought,” he said.
Despite the wound on his face, Leon grinned. He was given reason to smile even more when Menander rose from his seat and shouted for the entire arena to hear, piercing through even the Thunderer’s privacy spell, “LEON RAIME IS THE WINNER!”