He didn’t freeze as he once may have but time unquestionably passed between his rig being released and Nic beginning to cast. No more than a second, barely a blink, but enough that it left him scrambling, unbalanced during the vital first exchange. If Arthur could get something off fast enough, he’d get himself a free hit before Nic could so much as raise a hand. That could cost him the duel right there.
Things, in short, were not off to a great start.
With effort, Nic pushed those worries aside and focused on getting his defenses up. His fingers traced the patterns against palms, summoning protective energies around his body and the all-important Arbiter. He cursed his own tendons to move faster, his circuits to charge quicker, his spells to slip into place those few crucial seconds sooner.
Such thoughts were swiftly lost when the lightning struck.
It was over before Nic fully grasped what happened, the young techne left equal parts stunned and baffled. Thoughts were slow to sink in, though the three most pertinent ones came together in rapid succession.
First, thunder was very loud. Louder than he’d ever thought sound capable of being. His ears rang from it, even through the relative protection of the twin wards around his head.
Second, lighting was very bright, the brief glimpse he’d gotten searing itself into his vision, leaving shimmering afterimages of electricity arcing through the air. It persisted even through Nic’s efforts to blink it away, dimming but never quite vanishing.
That didn’t concern him nearly so much as his third and final realization. The bolt had been dead on target, striking him center mass with no possibility of a near miss. It must have hit him, there was no other possibility. And yet, a glance at his Arbiter ward showed it had suffered no damage, the bar still reading a full one hundred percent charge.
From this evidence, Nic was left to conclude only one thing. The bolt must have struck one of his own wards, the one he could now see layered atop the Arbiter. Somehow, against all odds, he’d managed to get them up before Arthur’s attack.
The implications hit Nic like a hammer. Despite everything, the flinching, his cobbled together gear, the vortex of nerves raging away in his gut, Nic had beaten Arthur to the punch. Arthur Worthington, who wore some of the best tech money could buy and had an entire lifetime of practice in the art of dueling, had been too slow.
Silence reigned, the same revelations Nic was experiencing passing through all others present. No one moved, barely anyone dared breathe, each waiting for someone else to break it first. Not least among them was Arthur, standing across the field, hand raised from his recent cast and looking like he’d just been punched again. It was he who broke the stillness in the end, fumbling for his controls as he desperately tried to raise the defenses he had neglected for a killing stroke.
Nic leapt to action as well, realizing he had a very narrow window in which to turn the tables. His fingers blurred across his palms, gesturing for the first spell that came to mind. A simple wind charm as it turned out, harnessing a fist sized mass of gases to his will. Before he could overthink it, Nic threw the mass in Arthur’s general direction, the sphere somehow finding its target despite Nic’s haste. Arthur was thrown clear off his feet by the impact, a powerful wind sweeping the arena followed by a sharp crack as the air rushed into the vacuum left behind. Arthur landed near his edge of the field, unmoving as he lay sprawled on the tiles. He rose quickly but it gave Nic no sense of satisfaction to see the smug smirk gone from his face.
“Beginner’s luck,” he said, more for the crowd than his opponent.
“Whatever you say,” Nic replied before adding. “Worthy.”
That seemed to really get under Arthur’s skin, though Nic didn’t have time to enjoy it. Three thin trails of fire began to snake across the ground, cutting jagged lines towards where Nic stood. He briefly wondered how Arthur had managed to cast without him noticing, before remembering the ancient lesson of fire hot and throwing himself out of the way.
The tongues reared up like snakes as they struck where Nic had been standing, searing the air as they passed. Two missed completely but the third managed to just catch his leg. It broke through his ward instantly, the passive protection too weak to hold up to the spell’s power. Though he couldn’t feel anything more than a slight pressure, Nic still felt dismay as he watched a healthy chunk of his Arbiter charge vanish. Slower though it might be, Arthur’s rig had more than enough punch to make up for it.
With a quick flick, Nic adjusted his wards to account for the new threat. When they came again the snaking flames splashed over him like water, the combustion pushed aside by directed micro-bursts of force, leaving Nic and his remaining Arbiter charge untouched.
Before Arthur could realize and react, Nic launched another attack. Prepared this time, he tapped out the signs to summon a nameless air elemental, one with no body, appearing instead as a sudden flutter in the air. It wouldn’t be able to stay long as a result, but it provided the needed power to blast Arthur with an even stronger gale, all focused into a space barely an inch across. The shockwave kicked up every scrap of dust there was to be found in the area, the crowd gasping as it even managed to tickle the perimeter shielding them.
It never even came close to Arthur. The spell struck something solid several feet in front of him, invisible save for a dim, crackling glow of contact. In a furious burst, the full force expended itself on the barrier and left Arthur completely untouched beyond. Nic was left dumbstruck, mind furiously calculating the sheer power such a ward would need to negate his spell with no obvious struggle. Worry must have shone through on his face as Arthur’s grin regained its smug venom.
“Is that all you have slum dog?” he asked.
Nic had no time to reply as Arthur raised his hand and sent a bolt of amber light flying at him like an arrow. Nic barely had time to raise his defenses, saved only by the simplicity of the needed gesture. It still hit like a runaway truck, draining a huge chunk of his power reserve in a single stroke. The second bolt hit just as hard, as did the third. He managed to sidestep the fourth, taking the chance to strike back with a blast of his own. A summoned fire elemental served for this, blasting Arthur with a plume of reddish flame. It proved no more effective than wind, Arthur’s ward parting the inferno with nary a whisper of complaint.
Things quickly devolved into a bleeding stalemate. Spells flew across the field in both directions, each techne dodging or blocking as needed. Mostly dodging in Nic’s case as each of Arthur’s attacks packed a proper wallop, strong enough to punch through Nic’s wards as if they were paper. Even just a graze usually got in a solid hit.
By contrast, Nic’s own attacks proved worse than useless. The barrier surrounding Arthur appeared impenetrable, standing up to everything Nic threw at it. Summons, charms, energy blasts, one desperate attempt at throwing large rocks, nothing worked. Nic flatly did not have the power to brute force his way through it, not without draining his power cells trying. Panic began to set in as Nic realized he was losing. Slowly but surely, time and tide were against him and Arthur knew it.
“Nervous Greytower?” Arthur taunted. When Nic didn’t reply, he continued. “It’s alright, no one really expected more of you.”
He stood back, gesturing to the crowd for attention.
“But never let it be said I am not a good sport. Tell you what, I’ll give you one free shot, best you have. See if the Lady’s luck favors you this day.”
For some reason, Arthur’s words infuriated Nic. The same simmering rage that had led him to punch that smug smiling face in the first place. He glanced over at the stands, looking at the crowd as they watched the scene with rapt attention. He spotted his master, watching with detached interest, Lord Worthington, who looked the height of engaged, and Isabella, the one he cared about. She noticed him looking and tilted her head, giving him a small smile and a nod. It might have been encouragement, or it might have been judgement, Nic couldn’t tell but it did the trick.
“Fine,” Nic said, keeping his voice steady.
Arthur smiled like he’d just sprung another trap. He stood up straight, arms crossed as he waited for his opponent to act. Nic took a breath, hauling his thoughts back into order. Panic would not help him here, he needed to think. Thinking was the techne way.
Brute force was off the table, that much was clear. If his lessons with Isabella had taught him anything, it was that charging in headlong usually resulted in pain. He needed to come at this from another angle. Pondering that, Nic realized he’d only ever tried to attack the barrier from the front. Mostly out of necessity as he’d had no time to try anything else. Now that he had this opening, the obvious move was to probe the barrier for weaknesses. If they existed, then he could go from there. He tried not to dwell on the possibility that there were none.
Moving slowly, for care rather than dramatic effect, Nic began to cast his spell. At his command, a cloud of fine mist appeared in the air around Arthur, wafting in lazy, swirling patterns. Arthur looked at it in amusement, the cloud not even thick enough to obscure his vision, though it pleased Nic to see a sliver of worry cross his face. Clearly Worthington had not been expecting this. Good, let him worry. Hopefully it would keep him off balance for what came next.
With another gesture, Nic drew all the heat from the air. Instantly the mist flash froze into a cloud of ice crystals, each one glittering wickedly in the afternoon sun. They seemed no more harmful than the mist at first glance, but an attentive eye would spot their sharp edges and needle points, each artificially shaped into a crude dagger by Nic’s spell. An entire swarm of tiny knives, hanging thick and menacing around their target. Before Arthur could react, Nic gave the final command and took his shot.
The cloud struck as one, prickling Arthur from every direction, front, back, sides and above. His ward came alive under the assault, easily stopping it but finally given challenge by the sheer mass of attack. It looked like a dome of stars over Arthur, winking in and out of existence as each crystal was vaporized one after the other. Beautiful, in a way, seeming to stretch on forever, though in reality it was over in seconds.
In the end, Arthur was left untouched. His ward hadn’t even come close to breaking, not that Nic had expected it too. It had also confirmed that the defense was absolute, covering every possible angle with no obvious weaknesses. A near perfect shield.
“Such a shame,” Arthur said. “At least no one can say you didn’t try.” He dropped back into casting stance. “Shall we end this little charade then?”
Not waiting for an answer, he conjured fresh spray of flame from one hand. Blue flames this time, much hotter than the orange and yellow kind he’d been throwing up until now. The fire expanded without warning, washing over Nic like a wave before he could scamper out of the way. Alerts screamed in his display as his wards fought to hold them at bay, sucking up more and more power in the process. Nic thought to try getting clear, but the flames were too expansive, filling the air in every direction. There would be no more delaying tactics. One way or another, this duel was very nearly at his end. All he could do now was make his last move and pray Arthur didn’t realize what he was doing.
Making the now familiar gestures, Nic summoned another gust of wind. Not as an attack but instead as a makeshift shield to push the flames away. It did the job, making Arthur pause as backblast struck his ward, his look equal parts incredulous and amused, though Nic didn’t really care. The spell had bought him breathing room and that was all he needed.
Taking every second he’d clawed back, Nic began what he suspected would be his final cast of the duel. It was complicated, requiring more gestures than the last three spells combined and pretty much all his remaining power. He was still going through it when Arthur renewed his attack, throwing glowing white bolts of what Nic suspected was plasma. He had no defense left that could ever hope to fend that off.
In the end, Nic doubted he could have cut it much closer. Everyone, Nic included, got quite the shock when the ground between them suddenly buckled and formed a shallow crater. From within the earth there erupted a shape, pulling stone and soil up with it, cracking the slates of the arena like eggshells. The form that arose was imposing, a small hill erupting from nowhere without warning. The plasma that had been meant for Nic struck the creature, doing no damage aside some scorch marks, quickly lost in the roiling mass of living earth.
Soon it had risen entirely from the ground, a pile of dirt and stone supported on stubby legs that grew up from below. Ugly perhaps but without a body the earth elemental couldn’t hope to do much better. Much of its strength was already going to keeping itself anchored to this reality.
Knowing he had no time to waste, Nic flicked two fingers and sent the elemental at his opponent. It rolled forward, gaining momentum as it sought to crush everything in its path. Unhurried but inevitable, a mind driven by weight and ponderous time.
“I’d have thought you’d learned this lesson by now,” Arthur said, raising both his arms in a mock invitation.
The look on Arthur’s face alone was worth whatever happened next. Before he could try something, Nic sprung his attack, ordering the elemental to dive back into the earth. It pushed aside the slates like water before vanishing from sight completely. For an instant, all was still, the crowd and combatants waiting with bated breath. Wondering and praying in equal measure. Then it broke as the elemental burst through the ground at Arthur’s feet.
While on the surface it had failed, Nic’s little trick with the ice had in fact revealed one crucial flaw in Arthur’s defense. When the ice had struck the barrier, it had been completely vaporized, leaving not so much as a drop of water behind. A mildly curious factoid by itself, but of dire importance when combined with the puddle of water that had briefly appeared on the ground. It had evaporated quickly but had definitely been there, formed by crystals that had struck not the barrier but the ground at Arthur’s feet. Those had melted normally, the water flowing as physics demanded, across the floor without being impeded in the slightest.
For all its power, the barrier did not cover the ground beneath it.
Nic was almost amazed that Arthur had made such an obvious oversight. A near perfect defense with one giant, gaping hole. Perhaps it had been difficult to program without obstructing his movement, perhaps the young Worthington simply hadn’t thought it would ever be a problem. Whatever the case, he was paying for his negligence now.
The elemental went to work, smashing into Arthur with all the force of a landslide. Rocks the size of cannonballs pummeled him, tonnes of earth churning as they raked over his torso and limbs. So violent was the onslaught that Arthur was lifted into the air, thrown about like a rag doll as the elemental snaked back on itself, striking again and again. Arthur had kept nothing in reserve, leaving his Arbiter completely exposed to the crushing ministrations.
Then, everything stopped. A loud tone sounded, and the elemental fell still, the earth which had anchored it falling to ground inert. Arthur fell with it, a quiet grunt of pain confirming he was alive but making no moves otherwise. For a moment Nic was confused, then a message popped up on his display.
ARBITER BROKEN: TERMINATING DUEL
“Uh, v-”, Lord Worthington began before clearing his throat and trying again. “Victory goes to Greytower!”
As if a spell had been broken, chatter erupted among the crowd, words indistinct but excited. Stunned, Nic looked around, his gaze quickly settling on Isabella as she approached him from the sidelines.
“…I won?” Nic asked.
She nodded. “Yes genius, that’s what victory means.”
“Oh,” Nic said, surprised for some reason. “Good.”
Isabella rolled her eyes.
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