Any beliefs expressed throughout my story are not my own. They are simply unique to the characters and their personalities. Just wish to clarify that.
Disclaimer: I do not own Final Fantasy or anything related to it. If I did, FF12 would already be getting a direct PS2 or PS3 sequel. I also don't own any other anime, manga, or game that I take elements or characters from.
"Blah" = talking
"Blah" = thoughts, writing, sound effects, or flashbacks
The Feol Viera White Mage pedaled down the rough wooden staircase, her staff tucked firmly in her armpit crease. Her hands reached behind her to tighten a thin pink ribbon, which slimmed her voluminous blonde hair into a ponytail. Her palms now free, she properly grabbed her staff and left the last step behind, turning to her left into the Inn's lobby.
Population was scarce this early in the morning, and with such a day as this one. A few swarthy men close to heading out for the day dredged down breakfast here and there, but for the most part the place was barren. At least, except for the table near the right center.
She approached said table lightly, surveying the five people amassed around and near it. The Hume Hunter standing next to a nearby support beam pulled his gloves tight. The Moogle minstrel sat on the table itself, blowing a few testing notes at times. The lithe, Viera Assassin fingered a few kunai before raising her bow and testing the tension in its string. The silver haired Hume Thief sat in a chair with legs crossed, filing her nails with a rough knife. The Black Mage leaned back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest and eyes closed, concentrating.
"Ready?" The Thief asked in amused spirits, eliciting a confident nod from the blonde.
The Black Mage's sudden speech startled her, though she didn't show it. "Where'd they run off to?"
"He said they'll be late." The Hunter offered. "Said we should go on ahead, and that they'll meet us there."
One by one, they stood at his answer, turning to face each other with a collective nod, then swiveling to the door. Walking out in file as the White Mage said. "Then let's do it."
The soul forged by fire
Burns the brightest
Chapter Sixty Four: The Burning Up
"Well, here we are."
Anna Gaelic sucked in a deep breath before turning to the building ahead of her, a respectable sized brick building in the market section of Camoa. She walked up carefully, one step at a time, as if expecting something bad to happen. The Viera behind her, who dismounted a snow white chocobo and secured its reigns to a nearby post, egged her on to throw aside her reservations and just enter. And with a second breath, a pull of the latch, and a forward step, she did just that.
It'd been quite a while since she'd last visited her father's weapons shop. More than a couple years, in fact. She'd decided to stay and maintain the shop in Targ Wood ever since he'd decided to move the business to Camoa. She didn't blame him for that, to be honest. Camoa was a far more lucrative place to set up an arms shop, and it was her conscious choice to stay behind. Somehow, through much fighting and depression, she'd convinced him it'd be better for her to stay. To practice the craft on her own and see what she could make of herself. And if the clothed masterpiece on her back was any indication, she figured she'd done pretty well.
The air within was what she'd expected. Slightly singed by the kindled fire in the back. Alive with the sound of hammers pounding steel and customers appraising or discussing prices with employees. Rich with that sweet smell of iron and steel she adored so much.
She and Sasasha moved across the floor, weaving between customers before finding themselves at the back counter, where a black haired young man with multiple time-withered burns on his hands greeted them. "Greetings, welcome to Gaelic Weaponry. Anything I can assist you with?"
Anna had never seen him before. Probably a recent hire. "Yes, I'm looking for Gofannon. I'm his daughter, Anna."
"Ahh, yes." He quickly spun around, wiping off his sweat-covered face and arms with a towel, before grabbing a tan envelope from one of the lower shelves on the back wall. "He said to give this to you if you came by while he wasn't here." She eyed it suspiciously, but eventually broke its seal and retrieved the faded paper within.
"Decided to go to the Camoa Cup this year." She read aloud, withdrawing two crimson hued tickets from the envelope as well. "You and Sasasha should come along. You'll be in for a treat."
She turned to the Viera with inclined eyebrow, who offered a consenting shrug after a few moments. The two thanked the man, spun on their heels, and headed back out the door, giving Sasasha's white chocobo something to snack on from their rations before moving out.
The trip was much easier than the two had imagined. From their knowledge, the streets and walkways at this time of morning would've been packed to the brim with native, tourist, and clansmen alike. Now, they were relatively clear by the city's usual standard. Promise of competition between esteemed warriors seemed to have quite the draw on the populace.
The level of diversity was not lost on it, however. What few Viera there were towered over any semblance of street traffic. The occasional Seeq and Bangaa could be seen hunched in lit alleyways and on terraces, partaking in boisterous conversation or gambling for golden trinkets that the former race just couldn't deny their urges for. Hume and Moogle children weaved between legs and spoked wheels of chocobo drawn carts, bringing in raw materials or fresh produce and grains from the bountiful fields outside the city's gates. Other children stood next to father and mother alike at the market, complaining about missing the tourney.
Their destination came into view after half an hour of traveling, sometimes walking, mostly by hitching a ride on chocobo-drawn public transportation. The famous Camoa Coliseum, erected near the end of the great Archduke Beaudonis' reign and maintained as needed over its now three hundred year life span, seemed even more imposing up close than it did from a distance. It was a perfect circle all around
Large, royal blue banners with golden trophy insignias cascaded down from the top, obscuring the finely hewn details of the sandblasted stone. Camoa's Great Land Festival always held a clan competition, but these banners were never brought out unless it was the true Camoa Cup. She wondered if this was the reason her father gained a sudden, unusual interest in the competition. They'd gone sparingly before, and when they did he was more interested in sparking business transactions with spectator clans.
Rows of hired hands lined the gates, checking tickets and providing information to those unfamiliar with the event. She and Sasasha presented their passes to a kindly Nu Mou, who in turn gave them a playbill of sorts and whistled over a peppy female Moogle to lead them to their assigned section. They passed under the rusted teeth of the raised, wrought iron gate, through a short tunnel, emerging to a breathtaking sight on the other side.
Easily a thousand, perhaps closer to two or even three. The bowled stands filled to the brim with moving people that it looked more like a field of blooming, wind-blown flowers. A number of platform-like structures jutted out from the sea of spectators, housing private boxes for the wealthy or a flat surface to house a few concession stands. Their collective chatter faded into one large background hum as the Moogle led them up the right staircase, navigating the walkway alongside the high wall and railway that separated the seats from the arena proper.
As she expected from her father's frugality, their seats were notably high up, climbing up a terrace and a half before the Moogle spun to gesture them into the row. They expressed their thanks, and then scooted past a boisterous old Hume couple to take the two empty seats next to another two figures.
The first she recognized easily. Short, red hair faded into stubble across the lower portions of his face and chin. A forest green shirt and a beige apron, charred more than their primary hues, overlapped a bulky, hairy physique and the dried scars that littered it. He shot up from his seat, enveloping the girl in a monstrous hug that forced the breath from her. She didn't mind though, or didn't show it, and returned the favor as far around him as her arms would allow.
Their reunion was interrupted by the Viera behind them clearing her throat, and he embarrassedly offered her a firm handshake after setting his daughter down. "Good to see you, Sasasha. Sorry for having you bring her up here. Hopefully she wasn't too much to handle."
"None at all, Gofannon." The elder Viera replied calmly, taking her seat. "Certainly more mannered and composed than you've ever been."
"Charming as ever, I see."
The Bangaa introduced himself to the two newcomers as well. Anna had felt she'd heard the name Chita Wayland before, but chose to inquire further later on. With that, they all took their seats, allowing both the females to get their first clear view of the stadium from such a high vantage point. Below a number of groups stood around on the dusty arena ground, every person armed with some sort of weapon. However, there was some order to their positioning. They all seemed to be spread out in a ring like shape near the wall of the arena, leaving the middle void of movement, none daring to move any closer than their current position.
And at the center of that ring, two combatants battled it out with all they had.
The Defender charged with reckless abandon, his roar filling the arena as he cocked his silver pole arm back. To his credit, he wasn't deterred by any of the arrows that whizzed through the air at him, sometimes imbedding into thick plated armor. Nor was he any less set on overcoming the Viera Assassin firing those arrows from afar, slowly losing her distance from him.
The last arrow ricocheted off his right shoulder plate, leaving nothing more than a small knick, and it was that which gave her the idea to abandon the idea of a long-range fight. She flung both bow and arrow holster to the ground, kunai flaring into her hands just as the Bangaa closed the expanse. His pole arm came around in a horizontal sweep, which her tall ears barely managed to duck under in time, but he carried the momentum into an overhead chop which forced her to leap backwards.
The audience sat mesmerized as they watched her toss and flow between the Defender's strikes. Her motions were more fluid than any liquid, executed with awe-inspiring accuracy and heart stopping near-misses. Her feet never overstayed their welcome whenever they touched the ground. There were more times than not that their eyes would lose sight of her, only to find her behind her opponent, slashing at his inability to keep up.
The Bangaa was careful, however, and despite his earlier show of mindless frenzy displayed a Zen-like amount of patience. He rarely overextended himself, always waiting for her to show a sign of error before slashing out with all his might. She was much too quick for him to throw his energy around for nothing, but he also knew how sturdy his armor actually was. Those knives of hers wouldn't likely leave more than scrapes. In a war of attrition like this, he'd definitely emerge the victor.
He stole the initiative after she stumbled a bit upon a landing, lancing out at her turned back with all the speed he could muster. Her body moved reflexively, shifting just enough to pass by the sharpened edge by a hair's breadth. Then, she was leaping at his torso and twisting her body around, kunai forcing into his chest.
Just as her weapon's metal sank into his armor, the Bangaa released a guffaw of victory. His free hand came around and located her exposed neck, snaking his fingers around and feeling her warm fur on his palms. Her own hands released the kunai and strained to pry the Defender's grip, but to no avail. He raised her entire body into the air, choking and gasping, then slammed her onto the ground. Any breath caught in her upper throat dispersed, and her strained cry failed to sound out.
"That one error sealed your fate, girl. I took the damage intentionally to bait you in." He remarked evenly to her, tightening his grip. "I've faced your kind before. Your attacks don't do well against armored opponents. You were a worthy opponent, but surrender while you still can."
His proposition was met only with a confident smirk of defiance, which brought his eyes to narrow and a sigh to escape his mouth. He tightened every muscle in his hand at once, and her body relaxed in kind, unmoving but still breathing shallowly. He rose back to a straight standing position, then turned on his heel and began walking away. Another man, a brown haired Hume dressed in blue, began walking in towards their battleground at the same time.
Just as the referee and the Defender crossed paths, the world around the latter began to warp, and his hearing began to grow duller by the second, slowly enough to hear a voice from behind him.
"You were a worthy opponent as well." Vili sat up gradually, watching as the Bangaa's stride protracted over each passing moment, until it seemed like he was walking in slow motion. "It was nice to have faced you in honest combat."
Everything in his vision began moving faster, twice the speed of normal, then three times, then four. When it finally stopped escalating, his body would not respond the way he wished, and everything was moving so fast that it became impossible for him to keep track of.
Vili raised up to a stand, then walked calmly over to the Defender, watching the effects of her ability. Then, she looked up to the referee, who only looked mystified by how slowly the Bangaa was moving. She gave him a small nod, then gave her opponent a gentle nudge, knocking him over to the ground. The referee nodded back before blowing a sharp whistle. Signaling the end of the match and a simultaneous roar from the crowd.
"That a girl, Vili!" The Bangaa beside Gofannon shouted, shooting excitedly from his seat with the entire section. He took a swig of the beverage he'd bought at concessions before, then levered himself back into his seat. "Phew, she sure knows how to think on her feet, that one."
"Wait? I don't even get what just happened." Anna admitted.
"That must be Ague." Sasasha remarked. "I've seen a few Viera use it from time to time. It slows the brain's perception of time, and the body is forced to follow through."
"But when did she even use it? Didn't that Defender have her there?"
Chita chuckled, taking another sip. "Aye, he did. But that must have been part of her plan. Assassin techniques require a fair bit of skin contact to execute. The Bangaa was covered head to toe in armor." The Gladiator looked out onto the field. His gaze shifted to the Defender being recovered by his own teammates and a few White Mages on standby. "But armor like that restricts movement. To wield that pole arm effectively, you can't afford the same kind of protection on your hands and fingers."
"I see." Gofannon joined in. "She used it on his hands when he tried to choke her, while she was trying to pry them off." He gave a chuckle of his own. "I bet that stumble earlier was an act too. He must've thought he baited her, but she's the one that baited him."
"Amazing." Sasasha said. "And in so young a child."
Anna gazed out to see the Viera retreating back to her comrades, who met her with praises and open arms. Two girls, one silver haired and one blonde, even ran out from the group to catch her in a massive hug, knocking her over. Others from the same group moved out to corral them all back in, and the red haired girl couldn't help to smile at their display. "They seem like a fun clan."
Gofannon smirked, as did Chita. "That clan's why we're here."
Before Anna or Sasasha could raise a question at that, a voice boomed out over the entire coliseum, silencing the majority and grabbing the attention of all. Anna turned to the largest of the outcropping balconies, directly across the stadium from the main entrance, and gazed upon the most prominent of the figures near the railing.
There stood the largest Bangaa she'd ever seen. A dark red, almost maroon hue stained his thick leathery skin, his extremities as thick as small tree trunks. Chiseled muscles seemed barely contained within his elaborate light-beige robe, divided at the midline by a crisscrossing mauve sash and golden rawhide belt. His bright cobalt cowl fluttered behind him in the small draft that passed by, flashing a golden dragon-like insignia. Even from her position, she could see the scars on his face, and couldn't believe how numerous they were. One even seemed slashed over his right eye, completely hiding any trace of the organ.
Head of House Eden and Lord of Camoa: Fohgginus Eden
Seeing a member of the Coronet in person was always an awe-inspiring event, but whether or not he deserved the attention, his presence alone commanded it. Unlike the others who had spoken before, his voice needed no assistance past the acoustics of the stadium itself.
"A fine battle from Clan Gully and all the victors of the preliminary rounds." Anna and Sasasha's eyes widened so much that Chita though they'd pop out. "You have no doubt so far proven your intentions to chase victory, but from here, we shall test those strong enough to claim it." Eden's eyes scanned the arena floor, taking note of the clan's still left. "We'll take an intermission here. Return here within thirty minutes. Good luck, to all of you."
The assembled clans on the ground gave a simultaneous nod, then split off with their own groups. Some remained within the arena, huddled away from other competitors, while others made their way towards the main gate. Their departure seemed a signal to the audience as well, as many rose from their seats to fetch refreshments and the like. The group of four remained seated, though, and Anna and Sasasha turned to the two males, finally schooling their expressions.
"I don't believe it." The red haired girl exclaimed. "He said Clan Gully right? There has to be one I don't know about."
"No it's definitely them." Gofannon replied with a grin. "Although I wouldn't say it's the same people you met months ago. They've grown a lot more than anyone could have expected."
Sasasha angled her head to ask the man. "He said preliminaries, correct? I hadn't anticipated we'd miss so much of the competition."
"You haven't missed much." Chita commended, leaning back. "There've been a few good matchups here and there, but mostly it's just been a weeding out of the no-name clans." The Bangaa set his drink down and began to thumb through a multi-page pamphlet. "Our kids have been doing alright over the past three days, but now we're down to the final eight. The real battles start here, for sure."
"What's more is this year's prize." Gofannon picked up. "The top four clans usually move on to the Palace Tourney, so few waste the effort after they've made it. But with the Baron's sponsorship looming in first place, you can bet it'll be a tough road for them."
"Then, they'll definitely need this, right?" Anna stood from her seat, managing a firm hold of the long clothed object in her arms. She set its end on the ground. "Maybe I should give it to them before the next match. It may come in handy."
"No need for that, girl." Chita said, garnering her curious look. "You don't have a Parivir to give it to."
"Wait, so he's not a Parivir yet?" She fumed, connecting the dots. "Then why was I even called up here? I would've gotten a lot more sleep for sure."
"Don't worry. It wasn't a waste." The Gladiator smirked. "While their goal for the tournament is more important, Ensei told me this would be Luso's last test. To see if he's ready to ascend as a Fighter."
Vili pulled down her mask, revealing her mouth to the ceramic cup of ice water she'd purchased from a nearby stand. She gulped it down as fast as she could, the several flasks dangling over her shoulder while she walked back towards a small grassy knoll hidden by the shade of a climbing oak tree. Her free hand absentmindedly rubbed her neck, and mentally noted to find more efficient ways of dealing with opponents.
She passed around the flasks to her clansmen, everyone partaking of the cool liquid and allowing it to replenish everything they'd lost through sweat. She returned a pleased nod at their many thanks, and took a seat between Kanin and Adelle.
"Which clans are left?" Crow asked after a short silence interspersed with heavy breathing. "I haven't been keeping track as much as I should have." Nobody blamed him for that. The Mage had taken more than his fair share of fights since then tourney began.
Cheney bit off a small piece of some salted jerky before offering an answer. "Houndforce. Whiplash. Magick Edge I think. Braves are still in, no surprise. We won't be in good straights if we have to take them on next." His eyes darted as if reading some list, then narrowed as an epiphany struck. "Then there's Acidwire."
"I heard this next series will be the last one for the day." Adelle remarked. "Final four are tomorrow. At least we'll be able to recover a bit, if anything."
"Hopefully it'll be enough." The Hunter added after nodding. He raised his head to take a sip from his flask when his eye caught sight of something ambling towards them. A Hume, it seemed, with a katana strapped at his waist. One hand holding onto the base of a shaved ice cone, the opposite arm hugging the waist of a medium sized plush doll.
Everyone went completely silent as Ensei noticed them as well. They stayed frozen like that for what seemed like an eternity, until the Parivir flashed an embarrassed smile.
"Oh. Hey guys."
Flasks leapt from outstretched hands, dousing him with any leftover water and smacking him in the face.
"Now was that really necessary?"
"Where have you been!" They all yelled collectively, eyes burning with rage.
"Oh you know. Just enjoying the land festival." He placed the stuffed toy into his daughter's lap. "Here you go, Kanin. I figured you'd like this."
Only Cheney managed to collect himself enough to form words, let alone a yell. "Wait….so you're…you're telling me that the entire time we've been fighting for our lives in that arena…you've been parading around in this fair?"
Ensei pondered that for a moment. "Actually….yeah that sounds about right."
Rational thought ceased entirely for a full half minute, and when it finally returned, everyone's face was so livid that it actually looked controlled and benign. Cheney rubbed his temples for a few moments, then began speaking again, not daring to even look in the man's direction. "I have no words for this."
Crow somehow managed to, noticing an absence. "Where's Luso? Didn't you say he was with you?"
Ensei shrugged. "Haven't seen him since yesterday."
Cheney continued to rub his temples. "I still have no words for this."
"Look, I told the kid exactly when he was supposed to be here. He knows full well what's riding on all of this, so if he hasn't turned up yet, I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt." The black haired samurai tossed his shaved ice cone in a nearby waste bin, then let his hand rest comfortably on the pommel of his katana. "If he doesn't show up, we'll just clean up the mess ourselves, right?"
They passed glances between each other, ending in a series of affirming nods. They rose to their feet, helping each other up and gathering their respective belongings. Staring back at the coliseum before moving towards it. Each giving Ensei a sharp jab as they passed him.
The journey back to the arena was mostly silent after that, each person absorbed in their own thoughts or simply trying to clear their mind for the battles ahead of them. It'd truly been a long three days, and an uphill struggle for the most part. Especially today, with Cid still back in Grazton, Luso missing since the tourney's start, and Ensei's lack of participation during today's trials. Hurdy and Kanin had managed to pull a few things out during the few times they were sent out. The former actually had some offensive music they weren't aware of – something he said he'd been working more on in their downtime since he joined the clan. Kanin's maneuverability and speed had helped her claim victory against a spellcaster today, but even the blonde realized that she wouldn't always get an opponent that she could just beat with her staff. She'd need something else as well.
The brunt had been shouldered by Crow, Cheney, Adelle, and Vili, admittedly. Adelle had been relatively well off, considering, but all could tell that Vili had been moving a lot slower in her last fight. Cheney had actually run out of arrows in one fight, forcing him to reveal his blue magic which they'd hope to keep secret as a trump card later on. Crow had luckily been able to sweep with just the Black Mage basics, but competitors were starting to send their strongest fighters against him, perceiving him the biggest threat.
Really, the only thing that had saved the group as a whole was battle system. Usually in every tourney, clans would choose about six members and battle all at once, but word was the queen had requested a format change: singles and doubles matches. A format that at least gave the small clans a chance to evenly fight against the bigger names, and one that had carried Gully's small personnel to this point.
They greeted a handful of people, mostly children, as they moved back into the square before the gate. Citizens having seen their name in news about the Beltorey rescue brought more attention here than they would have thought, or liked. The Baron had been right; they'd certainly been placed on the map. And it was going to be a struggle proving they'd earned it.
The crowd felt renewed when they stepped back onto the dusty arena ground, perhaps even larger than just the half hour ago. Their collective cheers were enough to drown out any semblance of conversation they had, and only died down as they reached the arena's center with the other groups.
Suzuka eyed them warily for a moment, noticing the new Parivir addition to their fold. The Moogle beside him stepped up, concerned about his leader's look, and kept his voice just loud enough to hear. "They turned out to be pretty good, kupo. You think we can actually take them?"
"Of course." The Nu Mou said. "The only thing I worry about is if we'll be prepared for Camoa Braves tomorrow. We won't escape a best of three today intact."
The Moogle nodded, then a few moments later, a grin split face. "So then we just narrow it down, right?" The Sage eyed with a curious eyebrow, and leaned his head down so that he could whisper in his floppy ear. A similar grin soon etched into his face.
The referee started out towards the middle of the arena from the wall, just as eyes began turning back to the official balcony once more. Lord Eden took his place at the railing again, joined this time by what Cheney and Hurdy recognized as Baron Popple, the famous wheat king. The old Hume held some sort of Whisperweed device that threw his withered voice out of various spots around the arena.
"Welcome, all of you. Let us give a round of applause for our last eight contenders." Clapping and shouts hit the clans on the ground like a wave, and only made some of them more nervous. Popple continued as it died down. "Without further delay, let us delve right into our competition. Would the clans whose names I do not call please leave the arena's center."
Complete silence ushered in. He read the two names that had been drawn. "Clan Gully." Crow and Cheney cursed under their breath while the others save for Ensei bemoaned their ill luck. They'd just finished a match, and now another one. "…and Clan Acidwire."
The two clans' eyes zipped over to each other, no one bearing anything beyond a stalwart façade. They remained like that for some time, the clans around them retreating to the perimeter wall of the arena while the referee finally arrived at the center. He motioned for two representatives to come to him, Suzuka stepping forwards before Cheney and Crow pushed Ensei out. The Parivir eyed the Nu Mou cautiously as he sauntered over, noticing the faintest gleam of malice in his eyes, but discarded his thoughts at the sound of the referee's voice entering a Whisperweed strand and projecting through the stadium.
"Alright, boys. This one will be a best of three one-on-one battles. Any objections?"
Ensei shook his head, and soon after Suzuka's mouth opened to speak. "Actually I do have a request." The referee inclined his eyebrow, signaling for him to continue. The Nu Mou gathered the Whisperweed from around his ear and spoke clearly. "Acidwire's battles were much earlier in the day today, but Clan Gully had just had one. They haven't had nearly enough time to recuperate. It would be dishonorable of our clan to take advantage of their situation."
The statement brought on a large amount of clamour from the audience, what they assumed was agreement. Ensei looked back at the rest of the clan, particularly Cheney, as if silently asking what he was doing. The Hunter only offered a small shrug in response.
The referee inched his face up to speak into the Whisperweed. "Did you have something in mind?"
"Yes, actually." He answered. "To even the playing field, we propose one deciding match instead of three, with the winner claiming victory for his clan. If Lord Ewen would allow it."
Another surge of commotion, this time louder than before. The members of Clan Gully looked between themselves. The proposal sounded nice on paper, especially to their weary bodies, but could they really risk everything on a single match like this?
Ensei seemed to think so. "Sure. We'll agree to that."
"Lord Eden finds no fault in this, but will only permit it this one time." Popple's voice decreed.
"Well…alright then." The referee looked taken aback by the turn of events, but quickly steeled himself. He glanced between the two contenders. "I'll give each clan two minutes to choose a representative."
Both nodded, but only Ensei turned around to meander back to his group's location. Suzuka stayed, firmly planted at his position, a malevolent grin stretching across his visage. When the raven haired Hume returned to his fold, he glanced around at the group and gave a small shrug of his shoulders. "Okay, so who wants to do it?"
They all blinked as one. "You."
"What? Me? I'm not doing it." He ignored the confused, enraged stares in favor of elaborating. "You're all adults now, right? I'm not going to carry you through it. This isn't just to qualify for the Palace Tourney. It's a test for all of you; to see if you can really handle what we've gotten ourselves into." His face was more even and serious. "It only gets harder from here, so one of you get out there and prove you have what it takes."
Heads turned as the voice rang out behind them. Dark brown metal and leather boots kicked up dusty with every heavy step. Tufts of chocolate hair protruding from a worn red cap fell just above striking pools of cerulean, bathed in assurance and determination. Tattered yellow overalls, padded gloves, and forearm guards did their best to cover the litter of small cuts and scars across his skin. Everything about his clothing seemed frayed and damaged, the wide leather belt across his waist, the green sarong-like fabric that said belt crisscrossed; everything seemed to be on its last leg.
Before anyone had a chance to pelt him with questions, Ensei leveled a smirk at the boy. "Ah, and he decides to show up after all."
"Sorry about that." Luso mirrored the gesture. "I'll see if I can make it up to all of you." Then, he looked out to the clan a few meters away, spying familiar faces before turning to Cheney. "It's them, right?"
Cheney nodded. "I was thinking of going out there myself, but on second thought, this should be your fight."
Luso nodded as well. "Anything I should look out for?"
"He hasn't lifted a finger since the tourney began." Crow answered. "There's no telling what to expect."
The referee gazed towards the clan, Ensei just catching the man's gesturing out of his peripheral vision. He quickly grabbed Luso's attention. "No time for strategy. Just get out there." Everyone began to wish him well, giving pats on his back for good luck. He stepped out of the conglomeration and began forwards when Cheney added one last thing.
"Hey Luso." The boy stopped, then waited silently, smiling as Cheney mirrored the words from the woodcutter. "Show them what a real clan is like."
"Is…is that him?" Anna asked aloud, hand shielding against the sun and eyes squinting in vain at the figure making his way towards the center.
"There is no doubt." Sasasha commented bemusedly, focusing on the red cap. "He seems to have grown some."
"Question is, how much." Gofannon said, leaning back and crossing his arms. "The last time I saw him, he was just a little runt with some big ambitions. How far has he come in only a few months?"
"We'll find out soon enough." Chita added. Anna leaned forward in her seat, eyes locked on his form approaching the two others.
"Please be alright."
"Who do you propose will win, Baron Popple? My coin is on Acidwire."
The elder man shifted his head to the young nobleman beside him, extending his glass so that one of the servers could refill it with wine. On his other side, Eden inclined his snout ever so slightly, piqued by the man's eventual answer.
"I remember the boy from some time ago. His clan accepted my request to guard a treasure of mine." Popple leaned back in his chair, taking a sip of his own red-hued wine. "They couldn't even stop a few petty Sky Pirates. I have little expectation from him now."
"How easily we dismiss, Popple." Eden added as quietly as he could, which still equalized out to a normal tone for the Hume. "Have you forgotten their deeds in Grazton? I would not think the feeble able to overcome those with the nerve to kidnap a Coronet." His own glass was more akin to a jug, and he let the cool liquid slide down his throat, wiping the remains on his sleeve. "I'll place my lot with the boy."
"I don't know, Lord Eden." The nobleman warned. "Suzuka's ruthless around these parts, and the kid's pretty small. Are you sure about that?" The Bangaa gave one confirming nod, and the nobleman only shrugged before returning to watch the match.
"Wait….wait…no…" Suzuka's eyes strained, watching a pair of yellow overalls and a red cap approaching him second by second. It took him a few moments to register in his mind, but soon his eyes widened and his mouth split in an uncontrollable mirth. "There's no way…There's no way. Really? Really!" He leaned forward, bellowing out a raspy chuckle that climbed in depth and intensity. "Someone has to be playing a joke. You were in Clan Gully! So then the Hunter over there is…"
When his head rose again, Luso was standing only a few feet from him, perfectly composed. The referee stood slightly bewildered as well, not sure if he should silence the Nu Mou and start.
"Kid, I didn't think you were actually serious. Oh this is perfect. This is a riot." His face climbed to the sky, staring near the sun overhead, laughter continuing to spill out. "The gods must be smiling on me, huh? All in one day, I get to have the Baron of Grazton sponsor me, show up the most obnoxious group of 'saints' that's ever dared to call themselves a clan, and best of all…" His laughter stopped, his gaze fell back down, and his voice dropped menacingly low with it. "…I get to teach a cocky little child his place in the world."
Again, the boy said nothing, only continued to look at him, completely emotionless. The Nu Mou had long since assumed it was his only response when frightened, and so ignored him and gave a nod to the referee. Despite the show of obvious disdain the Nu Mou had just put on, the referee still had to follow protocol and have the contestants shake hands before they began.
To his surprise, the boy was the first to initiate the gesture, holding out his left hand. The Nu Mou eyed him for a moment, then cocked a smirk. Their palms met for a second or two, gave one full shake, then the referee released each in opposite directions. The rest of their respective clans had already moved back by this point, voicing cheers. They continued walking, until there was a good thirty foot distance between them, then both spun around.
The entire stadium grew quiet as the referee held up his hand. It came down in a swift chopping motion, timed with a sharp whistle, and the match began.
As soon as that whistle sounded, neither combatant flinched, let alone moved. Each just sized each other up. Luso remained taciturn during the lull, simply watching, waiting for anything he perceived as a threat. He received only sadistic glances for his efforts, and he grew somewhat unnerved that they looked so…triumphant.
He decided to make the first move, and that's when he it tug.
His left arm suddenly jerked forwards, and would have displaced his entire body if he had not reacted quickly enough and leaned back. Looking at the extremity, he noticed something strange. The skin around his wrist was bleeding shallowly and…indented. Like something was pressing into it. Like…
A flash a few feet ahead caught his eye, and he shifted his vision back and forth until he could see a thin gleam at a certain point. A thin gleam that ran right up to his wrist, and perhaps down to the grinning Nu Mou beyond him.
"I guess you've noticed it by now." Suzuka admitted as the boy saw his fingers. The wire holding him was coiled around the Sage's middle finger, its end slipping into and down his sleeve. Probably originating from the miles of wire probably hanging like a necklace from his neck. He couldn't think of a time when the Nu Mou had the chance to even do this, unless...
His eyes widened, his first display of emotion since he arrived. When they had shaken hands.
The Nu Mou's voice grew cold. "Ah well, too late for you I suppose."
He flicked his finger upwards, and instantly the wire around Luso's wrist began to move, slithering up his arm in a spiral like it was alive, leaving bloody red streaks in its wake. The boy's right arm flew into motion immediately, grasping the handle of his sheathed blade as the wire flew past his elbow. The Flametongue leapt from its scabbard, slicing in front of his hand.
He felt a small jerk from the wire, tension pressing in slightly, then lightening all at once. It slipped to the ground as he let his arm relax fully, and he gave the extremity a cursory glance. The wire had managed to make it up to his shoulder, leaving it somewhat bloody, but nothing he couldn't wince through.
He watched the other end of the wire retract back to Suzuka, the Nu Mou not having lost his grin. Luso moved to put both hands on the blade, in preparation for an attack, when something grabbed his attention.
He couldn't move his left arm. Nothing, from the elbow to the shoulder or the fingertips; its only movement from the slight swaying of his body.
"Didn't I tell you? It's already too late." The Sage heckled. "All my wires are coated in a neurotoxin. You're lucky you stopped it at just your arm. Though if it's in your bloodstream now….who knows how long you'll have." The wire around his neck began to uncoil into the air until several wires orbited in a radius around him. Luso felt like he could see a clear fluid drop from some of them. "But that's the way the world works. Kids like you with no ability always learn their place the hard way."
Luso raised his shoulders up to come to a full stand, head titled downward just enough to obscure his eyes from view. He flipped the Flametongue around into a backwards grip, then threw it back into its sheath before allowing his right hand to find his other blade's handle.
Suzuka raised an eyebrow and a smirk, looking past the boy. "I guess you fit in with a clan like that, huh? Spewing your self-righteous dung around everywhere, playing charity. A clan like you is the shame of all of us." He spit as far as he could in Luso's direction. "But unlike you fools, I plan to make full use of the Baron's generosity. That sponsorship is going to set us up with whatever we wanted." The audience uproar drowned out everything to Luso except the Nu Mou's voice. "And I'm sure Beltorey wouldn't mind if we threw the fight after we spent everything."
The wires continued to build up in the air until the spool around his neck had completely dried up, encasing him in some thread-like cyclone. But Luso paid no mind to that. He gave his feet some distance between each other, lowering his stance slightly. His hand drew out the Atmos Blade gradually, an inch a second, and he cocked it and his arm back. The dust around him began to move, at first churning slowly then kicking up with a bluish glow around his form.
From afar, a number of things happened to a number of different people. Lord Eden brought down his thick snout in curiosity, feeling the boy's energy from his vantage point. Sasasha, Gofannon, and Anna watched with some wonder and confusion. Chita and Ensei failed to restrain outright devilish smirks of pride.
A shudder ripped through Adelle as the boy's eyes rose to view. The same shudder she'd had at St. Galleria when she'd seen their color. But now she was sure she hadn't been seeing things.
Gold. Like hers.
Luso's breath was deep and rapid, but broke to normal as he spoke. "Before…at the pub. You asked if I knew how to swing a sword."
"Take him down, Suzuka!" The Moogle yelled from the arena outskirts.
"Farewell, kid!" Suzuka's arms lanced forwards as he roared, and all the built up wire followed his direction. They snaked through the air at a blistering speed, wetting the ground beneath with their dripping fluid.
Luso stayed rooted in place as they charged, and then everything happened at once. The bright bluish glow surrounding his body flared out in some sort of contained explosion, as if consumed by a fire, blinding all that stared too closely and cracking the ground underfoot. All the muscles in his body tensed at the same time besides his left arm, and the blade in his other arm swung down with all the might he could muster.
The brief period of complete silence that followed was filled with a bright white light emerging from blade tip's arc and morphing into a crescent shaped shockwave of air and aura, a mixture so pure that it put the moon itself to shame. Suzuka's wires collided with the behemoth of an air render, not so much as fazing its momentum, and succumbed to its force.
The attack pushed aside the air like a bolt of lightning, ripped apart any remaining wire still floating around the Sage. Overcoming his cry of anguish as it barreled into his body. Flinging a spray of blood and dust into the air, shielded by the radiance of the air render's eruption.
The explosion left only stunned silence and frozen faces in its aftermath. Only Luso's breathing could be heard, voluminous sweat covering every part of his skin and matting his brown hair. He gazed at the Sage's body, a long gash running up the right side of his body, completely unresponsive, pupils rolled back into obscurity.
He raised his torso up, allowing the Atmos Blade to rest on his shoulder, and continued with a straight face. "Was that alright?"
This one was pretty fun to write for me. Hopefully you guys liked it. This particular arc was never meant to be that long (and plus I assumed that wasting time on every individual fight wouldn't be that fun to read). Next chapter wraps up things, followed by another Tales of Gully segment I've been preparing for.
Also, thanks to everyone that voted. The winner will be revealed next chapter.