Chapter Thirty-two: River Hue
“So… that just happened”, Thilde said.
Soldo shot her a look so dark it could wilt flowers. Once again. Everything had gone to shit. In the arena’s bowl down below, Bhita was trying to argue that she had not lost and that in fact, it was Valerian who had forfeited the match. The fact that she had passed out meant nothing. The battle was not and still had not been officially concluded. Her opponent, on the other hand, was currently out of bounds. Soldo agreed which was why he flew in to help her argue her case.
Thilde turned to Amerrak, asking, “Why are you here?”
“Excuse me?” the monocle alchemist said in surprise.
“Soldo recruited us because he wanted ‘The Ultimate line-up’ but we all came for other reasons. In fact, until you pushed Stayson of your way, I would not have pegged you for the combative type”, Thilde revealed.
“I guess becoming the legacy disciple of Bathar’s most powerful battle mage is not reason enough?” Amerrak mused.
“No! It is not.” Thilde affirmed. “Fintan came because his clan, the Mosa want the secret of Lady Bloodworth’s mastery of fire. Bhita and the Order of Rudra think it is the key to pushing their [Five Sacred Metals] art to the next tier. Soldo wants it all; the power, the accolades, the benefits that our backers will shower on him when he pulls this off and you? You’re a mystery!”
“I think you outlined it yourself”, Amerrak told her leaning back in his seat. “Everyone is out for whatever secret sap Elder Bloodworth has. Why would you think I was any different?”
“Because, until yesterday I only knew you as that alchemy guy everyone talked about. Today, you’re mister duelist”, Thilde pointed out in a suspicious tone. “Come on, even you should know how that looks.”
“I’m here for the same reason Soldo is here”, Amerrak defended losing his suave manner when a certain high pitched cheering of his name reached his ear.
As ignoble as it sounded, some people were actually yelling their support for Bhita and Soldo. It said something about how Valerian had stepped on their communal pride if this was how low they willing to go to claim a victory over him. Being the ones arguing for favourable judgement, Bhita and Soldo were the targets of this support. However, there was another person eager to remind the crowd that those two were not the only ones fighting for Marrbissi’s pride and her cheering was broadcasted throughout the arena.
Thilde’s eyes narrowed as she traced it to Edith, Amerrak’s girlfriend. Immediately, the wheels began turning in her head. She knew Edith to be a machinist, the top of her class. She also knew that while Amerrak was affluent, he certainly did not have the clout to get into their circle. Edith’s family, however, thanks to their numerous military and diplomatic ties, did.
“Oh my god!” She realized. “You’re doing this for her, aren’t you?”
The hastily suppressed blush that momentarily sprung on Amerrak’s face told her everything she needed to know.
Disgusted by the debate on the stage, Hue stood up to put a stop to it. In her opinion, you could not sink lower than trying to discredit the person who spared your life. Thankfully, the referee was having none of it. He turned a deaf ear to the pleas of the petitioners, a strong stance from someone who escaped the fighting stage the moment Valerian’s second intent came out. Even so, Bhita and Soldo continued to make their case, shamelessly trying to bend the rules in their favour.
“You lost!” the swordswoman told Valerian’s one time opponent. “Get over it!”
The red-faced girl turned to yell at her but Hue had both Heidi and Sweetrot backing her up.
“If I were you I’d worry about my own match”, Soldo said to Heidi.
“And what about yours, Soldo?” Heidi sneered. “Personally, I find it strange how eager you are to debate the issue. You certainly weren’t this talkative when Valerian was around but now he’s gone you’re quick on the take like a dog after a bone. You wouldn’t believe how dearly, I wished you make one of your stupid statements around him. Seeing him punch your stupid face in would have been cathartic. Now, I’m not sure if I should be disappointed or happy that I get the chance to do so myself.
“On the contrary, I should be the one disappointed in you”, Soldo spat. “I honestly thought we’d be done with our dance by now. The only reason I have yet to crush you is that it would be considered bullying. However, if you were to land the first blow…”
His voice trailed off but what came next did not need to be said. Sighing in mock sadness, the preteen arcanist added, “I mean… I gave you every opportunity, I even reduced the barriers between us. Too bad you’re not skilled enough to force the conclusion.”
The atmosphere between the two earth attributed arcanists was incredibly hostile. Heidi’s essence was roiling enough to be felt by those around her and Soldo’s had gone cold with hate. There had to be something more to the story of their enmity than what she had heard. Hue shot Sweetrot a look but he seemed just as puzzled as he was.
“Oh, I am plenty skilled, Soldo”, Heidi said angrily. “It used to be that you didn’t know the meaning of no. All of a sudden, you are the standoffish gentleman? Don’t make me laugh! If you saying I never threw the first punch when you gave me the chance, why not ‘reduce those barriers’ again?”
“In a minute, darling”, the boy said with a laugh. “I cannot possibly just jump into battle. There is an order to things, you know? The leader goes last.”
The referee watched this byplay with raised eyebrows. For a few moments there, he had started treating them like he would his peers. Their powers and pedigree seemed to demand it of him. Then, they started shouting and arguing like children. Being the only responsible adult in the group, he stepped forward and broke it up.
Slamming a magical barrier between the two sides, he said, “That’s enough! The two of you should return to your seats immediately. Go cool off!”
Once more the centre of attention, he took up his assigned role.
“Which of you two will be fighting next?” he asked Hue and Sweetrot.
Sweetrot backed off quickly. He argued that having him take to the stage right after a couple of metal cultivators duked it out would only weaken his abilities.
“Did you not hear what I said?” he asked the others. “OFF THE STAGE!”
Soldo shot him an angry look prompting the referee to issue him a warning.
“Keep that up and I will have you disqualified.”
The boy said scowled but turned away. However, he did not leave without a parting shot.
“Thilde! She’s all yours!” he yelled, rendering the discussion the other side was having useless.
“You wouldn’t also happen to be a monster in disguise now, would you?” Thilde asked Hue.
Hue bristled at that. While she had no idea what Valerian was and thus could say little about him, but the fact that someone called her dearest friend a monster rankled her.
“Then, it’s all good then!” The peppy arcanist told her.
“You shouldn’t write me off so easily”, Hue warned her.
The temperature plunged suddenly, becoming so cold that Hue could see her own breath.
“So long as you aren’t a freak like that other girl, I’ve got this.”
The insinuation was clear and it made Hue doubly irritated. Twice now, her friend had been insulted and now, so was she. The referee said nothing about the remarks. Taking a post at the edge of the fighting stage, he started the match.
“HUE LANGSTON vs THILDE STRONG, FIGHT!”
Hue watched as the world around her was instantly plunged into an ice age. The ground froze over. Even the wind appeared to grow still. Flying above her, Thilde began conjuring ice mirrors. Her confidence was not unwarranted. As a water, ice user, she did possess a slight edge over her opponent. Ice was considered a peripheral element, a variant form of water that was distinct enough to stand on its own. As an attribute, it was relatively uncommon and most people who used ice were actually water attributed cultivators utilizing its transformative qualities. Thilde, however, possessed both and in theory that made her doubly strong in her element.
Each wave of her hand sent a wintery chill through the air. She banished heat and brought in more water to be frozen until she had effectively turned the bowl of the arena into a frozen tundra within seconds. Hue watched her work, her own essence protecting her from the biting chill.
[Palace of Mirrors]
The swordswoman laughed remembering all the times she had to protect Wynna from bullies over the years. As powerful as her friend was, she had little control over her abilities. Additionally, her alter-ego only took over when confronted by other sources of fire. In most other cases, it stayed silent, uninterested in anything that lacked the spark of flames. Thus, it often fell to Hue to drive off any would-be aggressors. Back home, she had developed a reputation because of it. Back home, she was the sword princess, a glorious and unstoppable figure fated to bring about a new era of the sword. Contrarily, here, she was nothing. That had to change.
“It is funny you think you can restrain me with ice!” she said as she laughed.
“You have learned to fear Wynna. You have even learned to fear Valerian but none of you have learned to fear me!” She announced. “Today, I will teach you the folly in that action!”
For the very first time since coming to Bathar, she drew on the full force of her qi, summoning her battle intent. It felt like staring at an exposed blade. There was a palpable danger there. One fully capable of injuring or killing you at the slightest mistake. Under this intent and power, Hue’s presence changed. It grew exponentially, shooting skyward like a geyser. Numerous streams of water qi appeared around her floating around her body like dancing ribbons. Next was the awakening of her sword.
The longsword she carried was a noble artefact but unlike most swords of its calibre, this one was nothing but a shell, a vessel as her family put it. Hue was the swordswoman and her blade was the vessel for her sword heart. It was the instrument for manifesting her sword will. Today, she gave it a single command, ‘Drink!’ She was entrusting it with both her vision and her qi. Fulfilling its duty, the sword drank deep, causing its mistress’ overwhelming aura to visibly decrease.
Drawing the humming blade, she held it before her in both hands. Her opponent, frightened by the sudden growth in strength, was attempting to layer defences. Did they never learn? No defence was inviolable! An internal monitor told her when the sword had absorbed enough essence. Raising the blade above her head, she brought it down in a single stroke. All of the absorbed essence was expelled as a thin streak of compressed water qi.
There was a sudden change in power concepts as the blade came down. First, she was the blade and then, she was the water. Water could not be stopped. It went wherever it pleased. It travelled as clouds and streams. It ran as rivers and rapids. It pooled in oceans and lakes. There was no hole it could not find and no weakness it could not exploit. Nevertheless, the skill she fired off was like none of these. The [Sundering River] was a defiant thing that asked why anyone would meander or go around when you could go through. It divided the world into two extremes; the things that fell on its right and the things that fell on its left. It became the centre line and anything that dared cross its paths was simply cut through.
Sheathing her sword, Hue made her way off the stage. The ribbons of qi surrounding her body faded away. Her opponent should consider herself lucky. She chose to sever only one limb.
The stands were silent making Thilde’s screams sound all the more excruciating. They had just watched her cut through several ice barriers put up by the most powerful water attributed arcanist in their ranks, defeating her in a single stroke. Not even Valerian had done that. A shaken referee called the match a second later.
“WINNER; HUE LANGSTON!”