“Sometimes you win and yet you lose.”
“Are you mad!” Zane screams and gestures at the duelling circle. “Didn’t we just tell you that people get hurt or even killed in duels?”
Fearing for her, I turn and grab Nova’s shoulder. “You aren’t even a member of the guild! And you have next to no experience in duelling against an ability user. I have no doubt that you are strong, but this is a certain path to injury or death!”
It’s not that I doubt Nova’s abilities, but ability users like that ice-manipulator can do totally unexpected things. Their magic isn’t as tightly bound to scientific rules as the spells which a normal magician casts. They can unleash magical effects which are much too complex to cast them in a traditional way.
And all it takes to die is being surprised a single time.
Nova reaches up and brushes my hand aside. “I don’t know what made you so afraid of duels, but I see this as a perfect chance to get first-hand experience against so called ‘good fighters’. And it’s even better that this man seems to be a strong ability user. I always wondered what I have to expect from them.”
My gaze flickers down to the man inside the ring. Gohal Martinus, known for his ability to create and control ice. I never watched his fights in person. I think that he is among the top hundred in the league. That alone wouldn’t be enough to know him by name, but I heard bad rumours about him. He likes it to end his battles in a lethal manner, if possible.
Martinus has long black hair which is bound in a ponytail. His face is littered with little scars. Battle-wounds which he refused to heal. His body isn’t too impressive, but it doesn’t have to be. He mostly relies on his ability, which is almost as flexible as real magic.
I clench my hand into a fist. “There is a difference between a real battle and a duel. Many good warriors found themselves outmatched when they suddenly have to obey certain rules which distort the realities of combat.”
The judge butts into our conversation by clearing his throat. “I am afraid that this isn’t possible anyway. Even if the infamous ruler of Illum makes the challenge, Gohal can’t answer it. You have no rank, while he is among the top hundred on the ladder-board.”
I realize to my annoyance that everyone listened in on our conversation. The whole hall turned completely silent when Nova voiced her challenge. But I am glad that the judge is a stickler for the rules. This is an easy way for Nova to take her challenge back.
That’s when Gohal raises his hands in order to stop the judge. “Actually, I would like to know if the rumoured ruler of Illum is really a magician who defies common sense! There are all kinds of rumours floating around. Some are saying that she is lifting her island with her mind alone. Others claim that she lifted an entire pool with merfolk on a whim to show off her strength.”
He gestures at Nova, an evil grin on his face. “Can’t we call it a duel for honour and treat it as taking place outside the normal ranking lists. After all, we are here to show off our powers. What would be better for any duellist than to defeat a magical monster like the infamous ruler of Illum?”
Showing my displeasure, I pull down the corners of my mouth.
The judge scratches his neck and nods slowly. “I guess that’s possible if both parties adhere to the rules for an honour duel.”
I want to warn Nova, but before I can stop her, Nova grabs the railing and jumps over it. Her skirt flutters in the air, almost revealing her panties, but an unseen force keeps it in place. What is she thinking? Why does she have to show off like that?
Zane throws his hands up into the air. “Does she even know the rules!?”
The judge looks uncertain, switching his gaze between Zane and Nova. He places a hand inside his black jacket to hide his discomfort. “The rules are simple. Both duellists aren’t allowed to move from the spot. There are no limitations to ranged spells or summonings. The first duellist who lands a clean hit is the winner, may it be an attack spell, a curse, or the attack of a summoned being.”
Nova takes the place of Gohal’s opponent and rolls her shoulders. “That’s fine with me, though I am not a fan of this standing still rule.” As an afterthought, she pulls Lucifer from her pocket and casts a spell, floating him gently upwards and into Zane’s hands. “Look after him. I’ll be mad if he escapes.”
Zane grabs the kitten, a baffled expression on his face. Lucifer just looks at him expectantly.
I rub my hands anxiously, trying to find a way to stop this. But there is simply no other way than to get violent with Nova. She clearly isn’t receptive to reason in this. She has some sort of goal in mind, but I’ve no idea what it is. If I knew her intentions, I probably could have talked her out of it or offered a better solution.
The judge shrugs and climbs out of the arena, using a nearby ladder. “This arena isn’t big enough for moving contestants. The rule of standing still also keeps the destruction within reasonable limits. I’ll now raise the barriers in order to protect the spectators. You can start as soon as the barriers are up.”
The judge reaches the top of the ladder and climbs out of the pit which serves as the arena. “You may begin!” He places his hand on a stone slate next to him. Shimmering force fields and barriers appear, sealing the arena off and making interference almost impossible.
Gohal crouches down into a defensive position, expecting an immediate attack from Nova. She doesn’t do anything of the sort and simply stands there with a confident smile on her face. It doesn’t look like either of the two opponents intends to strike first. But if anything, Nova is too confident. She should be erecting barriers and force fields.
After a few seconds, Gohal can’t take her mocking expression any longer. He thrusts his hand forward and a large icicle springs into existence, shooting directly at Nova.
She raises her hand and a complex magical formation appears on her palm. With the hiss of an oversized blowtorch, blue flames shoot from her hand, melting and evaporating the icicle within an instant. The resulting cloud of steam covers Nova, blocking my sight.
Gohal doesn’t hesitate for a second. He follows up by summoning two saw-blades of ice. He sends them on arching trajectories towards his opponent. One from the left and the other from the right. With a sickening screeching sound, they disappear inside the cloud of steam. Raising his hands, Gohal summons a huge cube of ice directly above Nova’s position, intending to end the duel in the same manner as the previous fight.
I close my eyes and open them again, trying to use all my sense to find out what’s going on. Normally, I would have no problem to analyse Gohal’s magic, but the protective wards around the arena are charged with so much magic that it’s hard to see through. Their light is obstructing my view.
Gohal senses something I missed from my point of view. He slams his arms together in front of him and kneels down. A triangular wall of ice appears in front of him, serving as a protective shield.
A white ball of energy leaves the cloud of steam and slams into his defence, cracking the ice. The crack widens as the spell almost drills through the ice. Judging by the complex structure of the spinning spell matrix, there is no doubt in my mind that it carries a complicated curse. Yet, it doesn't seem to matter.
As the spell travels through the shield, it slowly dissolves within the ice. It’s like the spellwork came apart and lost its energy, something that shouldn’t happen normally.
Gohal raises his head above his shield and inspects the result of his attack with a raised eyebrow.
The cloud of steam clears slowly, revealing Nova. She isn’t smiling anymore.
The cube of ice is levitating above her head, while the two saw-blades are whirring in place at the left and right side of her head as if they are docile pets.
I intensify my attempt at seeing through the barriers, using my spirit vision in order to take a closer look. Nova’s whole body is a vortex of whirling energies. The barrette in her hair is a bright star of light, clearly the source of all the power. She is channelling almost as much energy as I do when I tap into the energy which is released by the slain souls on a battlefield.
“I feel insulted.” Nova raises her head and inspects the cube of ice above her. “You are throwing physical objects at someone who is known to be extraordinary at force magic. Don’t you have any other tricks?”
Gohal purses his lips. “I can see now that it was a mistake to fight you in a conventional manner. It won’t happen again.”
“If you get a second chance.” Nova points a finger at Gohal and the two saw-blades shoot towards him, followed by the cube of ice.
Sucking in a sharp breath, Gohal moves his hand as if wiping away the threat. Surprisingly, the three projectiles vanish just as easily as he summoned them. He smiles. “You won’t use my own ability against me.”
“I see,” Nova mumbles something, and a small ball of light appears in front of her. I can virtually see energy flowing from her into the spell formation. Suddenly, the spell matrix unfurls like a blossoming flower and creates a little halo of light. The spell is beautiful, yet terrible to behold. Inside the halo, is nothing, except for gaping, black emptiness.
Is it real, or is it a visual effect? It's impossible to tell with all the wards between me and the spell.
Gohal squints his eyes in complete concentration and another icicle forms in front of him. This one isn’t like the previous ones. Instead of real ice, this icicle has an ethereal feel to it. It’s not physical ice, but an area that’s completely devoid of any form of energy. That’s when I realize that Gohal’s ability isn’t simply the creation of ice, but some form of energy conversion.
That's the explanation why his ice was so effective at stopping the curse. It simply sucks the energy out of any spell matrix which comes in contact with the ice. And also the reason why force magic works on the ice. Force magic just creates a physical effect. The spell never touches the ice.
Gohal must have bound his ability to the ice in order to make it easier to control. But I can tell that this second field of zero energy isn't bound to the icicle. The ice is just a side effect of creating the field. He thrusts his hand forward at the same time as Nova. But while he caused his field of zero energy to shoot forward at its target, Nova reached with one hand into the halo.
Nova’s hand appears behind Gohal from seemingly nowhere, grabbing his long hair. A surprised yelp escapes him as she yanks hard, pulling his head through the miniature portal and directly into the path of his own icicle of zero energy. His mouth opens in surprise and incomprehension as he gets to watch his own headless body which is standing in an awkward, bent-backwards position.
The icicle embeds itself directly into his forehead. Immediately, a thin sheet of ice starts spreading over his skin. The effect acts like a curse and rapidly freezes flesh, blood and bone.
The miniature portal closes, severing Gohal’s head from his body. The body drops to its knees and slumps backwards, going down in an awkward position. With the heart not having realized that death is already at hand, fresh spurts of blood are pumped out of the severed neck, creating a rapidly growing puddle on the floor.
When the sheet of ice reaches Nova’s fingers, she hisses and drops Gohal’s head. The flash-frozen piece of bone and meat shatters into a thousand pieces upon impacting the ground.
Nova inspects her frostbitten fingers which are in the process of turning blue. “What a peculiar form of magic.” She casts a regeneration spell and her fingers slowly return to their natural, pale colour. “Gohal clearly managed to teach me something. Sadly, it seems like I lost the duel.”
“Wha- Wha-” The stammering judge is clearly at a loss for words, like everyone else who watched the fight.
Nova gestures at the melting mess by her feet. “I guess that – going strictly by the rules – he landed the first clear hit. Therefore, isn’t he the winner?”