Old man Greyvern. He looked better without his clothes on, but I only realized that after dressing him up. Even the left leg became kinda messed up...
Branches snapped and wood splintered off as the tree slammed down. A tremor ran through the earth, the force of the impact pushing out air and dirt from underneath.
Bloom’s heart galloped as she soaked in an incredible sense of relief. The boulder saved her. It stopped the tree from falling straight to the ground and squishing her flat. She was safe, though only by a foot. A long, zigzagging crack ran down the massive trunk from where it smashed into the rock. She reached out, touching the slightly damp wood inside the fissure.
Well, ‘someone’ didn’t survive the duel.
She pushed against the rough surface. Her condolences could wait. The cramped, dusty space around her smelt of wood, dirt, and a thin, metallic scent like gunpowder. Definitely not ideal for her air supply. If she didn’t get out soon, she’d choke.
“What’s the matter with you, Greyvern?” She almost leapt out of her skin at Ragnar's booming voice. If that guy caused another collapse, that’d bury her alive. A definition of a fate worse than death.
She redoubled her effort, literally “putting her back into it”, but the damn trunk refused to budge. No surprise, since at least five of her would need to spread their arms wide to circle its entire girth. And with how long her arms were, that was hefty.
[Pushing against a wall.]
Bloom punched the trunk. That wasn’t funny, though it was the truth right now. If only she was more... stronger.
[Would you use your elemental affinity of fire to temporarily raise your strength? YES/NO]
“Oh!” Bloom stared at the message. Yeah. There was that, too.
The familiar stream of warmth coursed through her blood, leaving it boiling until her body turned bright red.
[Elemental Affinity: Fire, activated. Strength doubled for 10 seconds.]
“Whoa!” a gasp escaped her throat. She hadn’t noticed it the first time, but this sensation... she couldn’t help soaking in it for a second.
The sensation of power!
Addicting. She thought. Is this what steroids feel like?
A disturbing idea, but she didn’t dwell on it. Ten seconds wasn’t a whole lot.
Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!
She pushed as hard as she could, and the tree trunk started trembling on her palms, shifting ever so slightly. But time didn’t care for that slight shift.
[You have reached the time limit of your fire element enhancement. Your base strength is now halved for 5 seconds as a penalty]
The abrupt weakness hit her limbs, turning them into jelly. Bloom bit her lips as she let them drop to her side.
The sound of collapsing dirt and a thin stream of light drew her eyes to the base of the tree.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, looking at roots as thick as her thighs fresh out of the ground, with just enough gap between them for her to squeeze through.
The surge of strength, it did its work; though not directly.
Greyvern lay on the ground, rubble burying his body from the waist down. A thin layer of chalk-white hair slick from sweat pasted on his skull. Gaunt cheeks, eyes set deep into cavernous sockets; the very image of a man with one foot in the grave. Ragnar stood overlooking him, a frown creasing his brows.
This fight just didn’t feel right. The Greyvern he knew, shouldn’t be this... weak.
He sighed, shouldering his sword. “You won’t last long this way, Greyvern. Just give up.”
A fire erupted in Greyvern’s sunken eyes. With a smack of his hand, the rubble blasted away, pushing him up to his feet. He took a deep breath and flexed his limbs.
Not yet. He raised his sword once again and spat, “The battle is not over yet.”
Ragnar regarded him for a moment before shaking his head. “You could’ve easily stopped my [Rend Earth], but you didn’t. You never tried to use [Split Moon] either. You’ve just been attacking recklessly.” Some concern entered his voice. “Why, Greyvern? What made you so impatient?”
The air sizzled at the tip of Greyvern’s sword as he slashed out. Ragnar’s eyes shrank. He took his blade down from his shoulder and swung against the oncoming blade of light.
“If you have the time to spout so much nonsense,” Greyvern began, lowering his sword as the characteristic calm returned to his demeanour, “you should try winning first.”
Ragnar’s fist tightened around the hilt of his sword. Winning? Though he didn’t want to lose, the possibility didn’t scare him right now. But if he won...
He sighed. If only there was a better way to resolve this.
But there isn’t.
Both raised their swords once again and charged at each other. All they had to do was put an end to this battle, even if only one of them remained standing.
Bloom perched atop the fallen tree trunk. It was high enough to be a good vantage point, better, she could just slide down and hide behind it if anything came her way. She was fully secure now. Satisfied, she turned her eyes to the fight, especially, to Greyvern.
Impatient, is it?
Ragnar had said that, and she could see why. The old man continued the same pattern of attack, sending out droves of light blades at Ragnar. The other knight also didn’t change his tactic. He didn’t need to. Biding his time would give him the chance he needed.
Bloom gripped her fist. She could tell that, so Greyvern too should be able to. But he still didn’t change his tactics. He was rushing. But why?
She furrowed her brows, looking at the red bar hovering over both knight’s heads.
Wait a sec!
Ragnar was losing health. As he should, suffering so many attacks. But they were just scratches. Nothing that could have any lasting effect on him. Then why was Greyvern losing health too? As far as she could see, Ragnar didn’t even try to strike back. Instead, Greyvern’s own attacks sapped at his health, with the bar taking noticeable dips whenever he used bigger moves, like those blades of light. He’d already lost a quarter of it.
The pieces of the puzzle slowly fell in place inside her mind. Her body tensed. Both Greyvern’s position and his health would deteriorate as the fight went on.
I don’t like that!
She pinched her forehead, thinking. Should she... help? Maybe it won’t have any effect, but she couldn’t just let the old man continue like that. But from the stories she read, interfering in a duel, wasn’t that kinda dishonourable?
Another loud sound from the battlefield caught her attention. Ragnar had taken a chance swing, pushing Greyvern away. Bloom clenched her jaws.
The inventory window popped up with a nudge of her mind, though a look at the contents gave her a pause. A messy cluster, most likely piled up with her continued bandit hunt. And where the hell was her bow?
“Hmm...” She pursed her lips for a moment before sending out another thought.
The contents of the window changed, displaying what she wanted. Bows. But there wasn’t just one or two. Bloom frowned. Which one she’d been using again?
A sudden shift in the surrounding air sent a jolt of icy current through her spine. The wind stood still, but seething with a pressure she could never forget. Her eyes shot up, vision landing on the battlefield. The same brownish-red aura swirled around Ragnar’s sword again, the veins on it resuming their hypnotic pulse. Her heart skipped a beat.
That horrid skill! It was coming again!
Bloom thrust her hand in the inventory and grabbed a bow at random. It was the one she got from the bandit commander! A fancy black weapon with silver stripes running along its spine felt different in her hand. Stronger! Sturdier! But she didn’t have the time to admire the looks now. She had to act fast.
She barely fixed the arrow to the string, when Ragnar’s sword came crashing toward the ground. The pressure bore down on her like a giant tsunami. She fought against the voice in her head screaming to take cover and put all her strength in drawing the string.
She had to disrupt Ragnar! Give Greyvern a chance!
A blinding white light swallowed the world, burning through Bloom’s eyes. She blinked, but between her eyelids closing and opening, she missed Greyvern’s swing.
“...Fast…!” Bloom rasped, her eyes set on the rippling red and white, where the embodiment of strength met the incarnation of speed. No explosion, no avalanche; an overpowering silence buzzed in her ears like a thousand bees. A stifling pressure squeezed her lungs, leaving her suspended somewhere, like floating in the vacuum of space for a full second.
An uncomfortably long second.
Ragnar clutched his shoulder, blood streaming from the gaps of his fingers. “So you finally used that skill,” he said, looking at the other man who was gasping for breath. “But you look far worse than I am.”
Greyvern wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. Ragnar was right. More than he knew, he was right. This was why he didn’t want to use [Split Moon]. But if the girl had really shot the arrow...
Interfering in an agreed duel was sacrilegious. A crime punishable by death. Though she probably wouldn’t know that.
He sighed. So much for a trump card. Now he only had one chance left.
Gently, he caressed the blade of his sword. Once would suffice.
He flexed his back to keep down the scorching, acid-like pain creeping up his spine and looked at the giant man. “Let us end this, Ragnar.”
“End this?” Ragnar frowned. “The way you are, you won’t be able to...” his voice faded away, his pupils shrinking into dots.
“Impossible!” he whispered hoarsely.
Specks of white light flowed from the surrounding, gathering towards Greyvern. They twisted around his arm, whirling as they gathered at the blade in his hands. And little by little, it glowed brighter.
“[Split Moon]!” Ragnar muttered, his heart hammering against his ribcage. How could it be so soon? The cooldown period shouldn’t have ended. He frowned. [Split Moon] should’ve been over in a blink, but this one...
Could it be another skill?
He raised his sword, bracing himself as beads of sweat trickled down his broad forehead. Something was different. The white light lacked its usual pristine aura, hiding a sinister gloom that grated on his nerves; but the overwhelming surge of power from [Split Moon], he could never mistake that.
Ragnar grimaced. How could such a sacred skill feel so… Evil?
He frowned, turning his eyes to Greyvern. The man looked grotesque. His thin hair fell off, scattering into ashes around him. His cheek and eyes had sunk further than before, skin stretching on his skeletal form like something was siphoning his flesh from the inside. And those black, squiggly marks creeping around all over his body...
It struck his mind like a hammer. “Greyvern…” he said in a trembling voice. “You are cursed!”
Greyvern opened his eyes. He said nothing, but those deep eyes said everything Ragnar needed to know. The giant wanted to say something, but could only sigh. He lowered his sword, lips curling into a resigned smile as Greyvern slashed out.
And the world turned white.