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Author's note: Bonus points for anyone who catches the reference at the end.

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Shiori had spent the last few days recovering and getting used to her new surroundings. She had found Asheara to be a very nice and comforting person. Apparently the woman was going through some heavy training, as any time not spent with the others living in the house was spent performing grueling exercise. The woman was beyond exhausted every evening, but she also radiated this odd feeling of accomplishment. It was clear that she enjoyed doing the training, and thought it to be the most important thing in her life currently. Shiori didn’t quite understand her willingness to subject herself to such harsh training. Asheara also seemed to enjoy slipping candy to Shiori whenever the chance arose. Shiori found it a little bit humiliating, but candy was candy and it would be impolite to refuse.

The blue winged celestial called Azrael spent most of her time either teaching classes at the academy, or monitoring Neleh. Asheara had explained that the celestial was here to keep an eye on Neleh, though the woman wasn’t exactly clear on all the reasons that lead to the current situation. Azrael was nice enough though, and it wasn’t a mystery to Shiori in any way why the celestial would monitor someone with a mind as powerful as the great bird of fire. She was more surprised that only the celestials had sent someone to monitor Neleh.

Or were they? The girl Kanako seemed a bit suspicious to Shiori. Oh she was funny and polite, and the antics of the naga girl brought a smile to everyone’s lips. But to Shiori, the naga’s eyes seemed to be hiding something. She had no idea what that might be, but there was definitely something, and the naga wasn’t really quite as peculiar as she was putting on. Shiori resolved to keep her eye on the naga girl, and Kanako was happy to oblige. The two ended up playing all sorts of games, ranging from cards to board games, to pass time. She might as well have some fun while monitoring the naga girl, though Kanako was quite dreadful at most games. The only times Shiori had lost, were when the naga was still teaching the rules to the various games.

On that note, the only ones that managed to put up any kind of real fight while playing any of the games not reliant on luck were Azrael and Neleh. The faces the celestial made when she lost to Shiori always amused the girl. Azrael always had such a look of shock on her face every time she lost, as if she couldn’t believe what happened. Neleh on the other hand was like a mountain Shiori attempted to climb. Every time she thought she got the better of the wily woman, Neleh pulled the rug from under her and finished with a condescending “Better luck next time.” And so Shiori tried to climb the mountain again and again with a better plan, but with similar results. The woman had to be cheating or something! Except that it was obvious that she wasn’t. She was just better, which infuriated Shiori and made her want to work even harder to defeat her, just so she could wipe the smirk of the woman’s face.

On the subject of Neleh, she had done something to Shiori. She had felt some kind of purifying power going through her, and her body had instantly felt so much better. It was as if a great burden that she wasn’t even aware she was carrying was lifted from her shoulders. Her body felt so light now. Beyond that, Neleh had not yet started to really train her. Apparently the plan was to start after the inter-academy competition, so that there wouldn’t be any distractions during the training. That seemed fair, though she was somewhat impatient to start training, now that she knew that something could be done to improve her lot in life.

On a second thought, she could now imagine some reasons as to why Asheara was so eager with her training. The thought of being able to improve herself could be quite intoxicating.

Neleh seemed to spend most of her time either instructing Asheara with her training, or making several plans and diagrams. Apparently Neleh was supposed to become a duchess or something, and the plans were things she intended to institute after taking the position. Shiori had managed to see some of the plans on a couple of occasions when she entered Neleh’s office. Most of them seemed very complex even for Shiori’s sharp mind, but some things and their applications were quite apparent. For example, there were some plans made of huge star shaped fortresses with extremely thick walls surrounded by a deep ditch. Even Shiori could immediately imagine that trying to assault something like that would be an exercise in futility, and would turn into a killing ground.

Some of the most fascinating and disturbing plans were for something called ‘the Order’, mostly consisting of methods of training, testing and possible usage of the members. The plans for training made Shiori shudder. Those subjected to the training would be broken beyond anything she could imagine. On the other hand, if they did manage to get through the training, the results would be obviously spectacular. There was something else too. The bonds created by going through the training together would be worth their weight in gold. She read a quote from one of the members going through the training, who had come back from a short and rare leave.

“A number of people wanted things from me. That wasn’t unusual. Most people not of the Order want something from you. They aren’t like our brothers. All our brothers wanted from you, was for you to pay attention and do your job and watch their backs. The brothers in the group or regiment depended on each other, which meant that they wanted everyone in the group to be at the top of their game. It was a matter of life and death, after all. Or would be once they finished training. For now it was a matter of getting even harsher training from the instructors if you failed, or their grudging approval if you managed to eke something resembling a success, which the brothers feel might be just as important as the life or death thing.

So among your brothers, you didn’t take from each other. You gave each other, to ensure that every member was on his game as much as possible. You cared whether things were going well for him back home. You cared whether that muscle he’d pulled had healed properly. You cared whether his mind could handle the pressures of the training, and whether his motivation was able to carry him through the continuous braking of their minds and bodies. You wanted him as relaxed and happy as possible under the circumstances. So you did things for each other. You took care of each other. You loved each other. Even the trainers, who did their best to break them, did it because they cared. Because if they let one person slide in the training, then he might crack under the pressure when the real danger was present and get his brothers killed. So they repeated every exercise until we bled from frustration and vomited from exhaustion. We did everything until we got it right, until we could repeat the whole thing asleep with both hands tied behind our backs. And then we did it some more, just to make a point.

But back in the world of the soft people and cozy life, people just want things from you. They don’t give a toss how you are doing, not really even if they try to be polite and ask. They just want you to give up something they want. They only care about what you can do for them.”

Shiori wasn’t sure if the attitude of the brother of the Order was a good or bad thing. On one hand, it was fairly realistic and showed the bonds between the brothers, but on the other hand that might not be the best attitude to have for someone who was meant to protect people. Or was the purpose of the Order to protect people. Shiori somehow felt that the brothers of the Order were meant for something else than guard duty.

Worst of all though, she had this nagging suspicion that she herself would be subjected to a training regimen similar to the ones she was reading about. Neleh had after all said that the training would be hard, and that she would be broken, just like the brother of the Order had mentioned. Well, if that was the price of power…

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Shiori was accompanying Asheara, Azrael and Delia to the arena.  Delia was apparently Neleh’s sister and Asheara’s daughter. The girl had given a gleeful squeal when she had heard that Shiori might become another little sister to the girl. They had mentioned the possibility to Shiori before, and she didn’t really have anything against it. She had lost her old family, and having a new one might be bitter but also necessary and enjoyable. Delia’s reaction surprised her though. Was this girl really supposed to be Neleh’s big sister? She seemed much more childish. She could imagine her being Asheara’s daughter, though even that seemed a stretch. The woman was after all a sort of an oddball, but at least a reliable one.

“Why are we here anyway?” Shiori asked, trying feebly to free herself from Delia’s grasp.

“We’re here to watch the qualifiers for the inter-academy competition, and cheer Neleh and Kanako on.” Asheara replied with a smile.

“Wait, so this is a competition of magical skill and power? And Neleh is taking part? Against other students?” Shiori asked incredulous.

“Yes, of course against other students.” Asheara replied confused.

“So why is this competition being done anyway?” Shiori asked still having trouble believing her ears.

“The competition is used to determine the relative position and prestige of the different academies, and showcase the skills of the younger upcoming generation. Why? What’s going on?” Azrael replied, also getting slightly confused.

“I mean, what’s the point of having the whole competition if they’re letting Neleh participate? Isn’t the result a bit too obvious to have a decent competition?” Now even Shiori was getting confused. Why were they pitting the young students against the great bird of fire?

“I’ll be the first to admit that Neleh is very powerful, but isn’t it a bit too soon to decide the winner so simply? She might win the solo division with her excellent skills, but there’s also group competition.” Azrael replied half-heartedly, losing steam the further she got. She herself had lost to Neleh after all, and she most certainly could easily win the competition by herself. The girl had a point. Why were they allowing Neleh to participate?

“Are you kidding? This is like throwing a dragon into a fight between chickens!” Shiori burst out.

‘The other couldn’t be this blind, could they? Was Neleh hiding her power or something? But even then, this whole thing is stupid. Neleh herself should have abstained from a waste of time like this.’ Shiori thought.

Asheara had finally figured out why Shiori was so confused and interjected. “Ah, your confusion is understandable. Neleh certainly wasn’t too excited to take part, but she mentioned something about the prize being worth the bother.” Asheara scrunched her eyebrows a bit. “To be precise, she said something about not allowing others to get the prize. Also one of the students has apparently been bothering her with challenges for a duel, so she thought she might as well make the whole thing public enough to discourage others in the future.”

“Who would be idiotic enough to challenge her to a duel?” Shiori asked thoroughly confused.

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Once all the observers had gathered, the announcer decided to start the event. The audience for the qualifiers wasn’t all that large, mostly consisting of family members, teachers, students not participating and scouts from the other academies.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the qualifiers for the inter-academy competition. Today we have gathered to decide the representatives of the most prestigious academy in the elven continent.” The announcer was a male teacher generally liked by most of the student population, especially the younger girls. He wouldn’t be doing the announcing in the real competition, but he was good enough for the qualifiers, and his looks got him some leeway.

“Normally we have all the qualifiers within the ‘Training room’. However, we have a special treat for you today to start things off. The first contest is an official duel, so it will be conducted with the standard duel rules of the academy right here on the arena. The challenger is a member of the demon race and a fifth circle mage, Daemon Lucian!” The announcer’s voice brought a cheer for the duel itself, but jeers for Lucian from all the students.

“The person being challenged needs very little introduction, the Chosen of the Elune and a second circle mage Neleh Khalidor!” This announcement actually brought a cheer from the audience, especially from a certain section with several female elves and a blue winged celestial. Aside from that section, it seemed that Neleh was also rather popular with the younger girl students for some reason. Some of the girls yelled something like ‘Onee-sama!’, but everyone decided to ignore that part.

Both of them entered the arena, Neleh noticing a wide grin on Lucian’s face. The demon seemed confident, and why wouldn’t he be? He had never seen Neleh cast any spells aside from the shield she used during his previous duel against the celestial Micah. Even though Neleh was the Chosen, how much of her powers could she possibly access this soon after her elevation? And she was only a second circle mage.

“I hope you got someone strong to hold your judge’s shield, dearie. You’re going to need it today. I like pretty girls, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to hold back against them.” He gave a small chuckle. “For some reason the headmaster decided to hold my judge’s shield. I have no idea why, but it seems he thinks highly of you. Or he’s just bored. I vote the latter.”

Neleh smiled confidently. “Doesn’t matter. Neither of us is going to need the judges to decide the victor of this match.”

“Oh? Are you planning of forfeiting? I have to admit, that would be a bit anti-climactic.” Lucian replied.

“Don’t be silly. Why would I surrender to someone weaker than me? No, you’re going to give up this fight without me casting a single spell to attack you.” Neleh replied with a confident smile.

“Now why would I go and do something silly like that?” Lucian asked suddenly confused.

“You will see.” Neleh simply said, giving a small mysterious smile.

They took the starting positions facing each other, and the announcer signaled the start of the match. Lucian moved immediately, thinking there might be some sort of trap, and cast his signature swarm attacks of small shadow bolts and rock bullets. This brought another grin from Neleh. The reason Micah had had so much trouble against Lucian was the sheer number of attacks. It was hard to defend against the seemingly huge number of spells coming at her. Except Neleh was aware of the trick Lucian was using. There was no way to control that many spells without a huge waste of power. Now controlling a single spell that produced multiple projectiles on the other hand, that was doable.

Lucian wasn’t currently throwing a hundred shadow and earth spells at her, he was using one of each. They were simply an interesting variation of the simple projectile spell. The spell created multiple projectiles of the same type at the same time. Not a difficult adaptation, but one that required some thought and understanding of the elements involved. Trying to unravel the singular projectiles would be difficult, because they were simply parts of a much larger spells. On the other hand, if you unraveled the whole spell like this…

With a smile Neleh watched the projectiles disappear. “Surely that wasn’t all you have, right?” She asked the demon cheekily.

“Of course not.” Lucian replied. “You’re simply the first one to see through my little trick.” Lucian chanted a quick spell, and a cloud of grey dust floated towards Neleh.

Neleh gave a small sigh, and gave a small wave of her hand. A gust of wind blew away the dust. “Really? Using petrification magic against a priestess? Even if I had no skill with air magic, that would be rather pathetic.” She goaded the demon again and started walking slowly towards him.

Lucian was starting to get slightly nervous. The petrification spell was one of his better attacks. He had not realized the girl was skilled with air magic. This was inconvenient for him. Most of his best attacks were countered either with air magic, or the holy magic of a priestess. After all, Shadow magic excelled at afflictions and secret surprise attacks. The first was countered by the holy magic and the second by their presence on the arena, with no places to hide. He sighed and started forming several shadow lances to attack Neleh with.

Unfortunately those shadow lances had just as little effect, as they were also unraveled. He decided to use the trump card he had wanted to keep a secret for the more difficult fights. He chanted a much longer spell and thrust his palms forward. The ‘shadow cannon’ was usually a spell used against large magical beasts, and was not usually something learned by a fifth circle mage. A huge sphere of shadow energy blasted towards Neleh.

She was a little surprised by this, as she had not expected Lucian to be able to cast an attack of this level. Luckily she had a cheeky little answer to such a spell. She created a doorway to a small dimension similar to the ‘Training room’ which then swallowed the dark projectile. Usually ‘Training room’ was an area spell, but you could create a doorway to the other dimension as well. She simply created another exit doorway behind her, and the projectile harmlessly passed her and hit the arena wall. The confused and disbelieving look on Lucian’s face was worth the trouble of using such a complex maneuver for mostly dramatic effect. She was now very close to the demon.

Lucian suddenly decided to use his warrior training, and simply punch Neleh. Not the ending he was hoping for, but he was getting desperate. Neleh had been waiting for this moment, and put her inner power inside her fingers and released a large wave of her killing intent. She could’ve just deflected or dodged the blow, but she had decided to be theatrical about the whole thing. Killing intent was not usually enough to freeze anyone of similar strength, or decent experience like this, but Lucian hadn’t really faced real killing intent before, and Neleh’s killing intent wasn’t really normal with her powerful soul and experience from her previous life. She usually tried to hide her killing intent instead, because that would give away her intentions.

The end result was Lucian frozen in the movement of a punch, with Neleh theatrically stopping the strike by simply using two fingers. Time to give the killing blow, so to speak. Suddenly even the audience could feel waves of enormous killing intent pressuring down on Lucian. Some of the more experience teachers were shocked. Killing intent  this heavy could only be emitted by someone who had taken an unfathomable amount of lives. A killing intent like this was a weapon in itself, sharper than any sword. Lucian could feel the weight of a mountain pressing down on him and was forced to buckle.

Neleh commanded Lucian with a grim voice promising death, emphasizing her command with a stronger wave of pressure, and a little cheating from gravity magic. “Kneel.”

Lucian could not fight back, and his knees hit the arena floor in surrender.
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Vihyungrang

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