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Chapter 1 - Formidable Foe
The referee dramatically dropped his raised hand, signaling the start of the match. The red knight was the first to attack. He lunged forward, stepped to the left, ducked low and missed the black knight's swinging sword by a hair's breadth, and then attacked the black knight's exposed flank-
The black knight pivoted on one leg so quickly that the majority of the watching crowd failed to see the movement, a black blur swinging a flashing sword the likes of which only the richest of nobility owned. Easily, he blocked the red knight's attack to the palpable shock of the crowd. The two swords clashing created a ringing sound that grated on the ears and sent sparks flying into the air.
Their eyes met through the slits in their helmets the moment their swords did.
Red half expected the all-black knight to have black eyes, but he had violet eyes. Violet eyes? Surely the helmets hiding their faces had cast a shadow over his eyes, changing them from blue to violet.
"You're staring." The black knight said, his voice deep and low.
They broke away and Red immediately retreated a few steps.
Panting, Red looked at the black knight through new eyes. Watching him in the previous fights, it was clear to all that the man who'd chosen not to identify himself was a skilled sword master. But now that he was in the ring with him, Red realized that he was the skilled fighter. The black knight was something else. It was like he was reading his mind, anticipating Red's moves two steps ahead. Just when he thought he got him, the black knight parried or blocked. Just when he thought his sword would hit his armor, he moved so quickly, Red thought he'd teleported away.
The more creative he got with his attacks, the more the unnamed stranger seemed to read his mind, and the more flustered Red became. It was a formula for disaster.
Winning the tournament he'd spent years and years training for hinged on this final fight. Through blood and sweat, he'd fought his way to the finals, defeating countless foes from all over the world over the course of a month. He couldn't afford to slip and lose now. This was his moment. He had to reach out and take it.
But it was proving to be easier said than done -not that he'd ever expected it to be easy. Facing him on the other side of the ring was a formidable foe.
Unlike Red whose breathing was ragged, he showed no signs of fatigue. It was worrisome to say the least. Was his opponent that much stronger than he was, or was he simply exceptionally good at hiding his exhaustion?
Something told Red it was the former.
In truth, from the moment the black knight had stepped into the ring and refused to announce himself, Red had instinctively known this would be his fiercest competition yet. It was clear to him from the self-assured way the knight carried himself. There was something almost... authoritative and commanding about it.
As the son of nobility, Red had no problem recognizing a fellow aristocrat. He'd bet his beloved sword on the fact that the black knight was a peer.
Having caught his breath, he advanced again, his sword poised to strike. The black knight was never the one to initiate an attack, but he never failed to block one of Red's. His all-black armor was still alarmingly spotless and unscratched. Red's armor was also untouched, but a part of him suspected that that was only the case because the black knight refrained from engaging.
It pissed him off immensely.
Was he mocking him? Red was a regional champion; his swordplay was not to be underestimated. He'd worked hard to get here. He deserved to be here.
"Why won't you attack?" Red asked, unable to help himself.
The black knight remained silent.
Red felt a cold anger come over him, like a haze descending upon him.
He recognized that this might be his opponent's tactic to rile him up and make him lose focus, but he still felt a clawing anger regardless.
"What, this is too easy for you?" he growled, trying to get the black knight just as riled as he was.
Once again, he was met by a wall of silence.
The crowd grew restless. Whispers reached Red's ears.
"Why are they just standing there?"
"Shh, they're facing off.
"You wouldn't understand."
Red was growing unbearably restless as well.
Calm. Calm. He inwardly chanted mantra-like. It wouldn't do him any good to lose focus and control of himself. He'd seen way too many swordmasters fall victim to a burst of anger that cost them the fight -and sometimes their lives.
Red decided to change tactics. He would wait for the black knight to come to him, or they'd stand facing each other all night. Red had nowhere else to be.
The black knight noticed this change in tactics.
It amused him. Unlike all the other wannabe masters and fools, the black knight noted that this one was adept at controlling his anger. And he wasn't a half-bad swordfighter as well. Actually, if he was being truthful with himself, the knight famously known as Red was a capable fighter. His last trick had almost cost him an arm. His footwork was solid, the power of his swing remarkable, and he thought up maneuvers and attacks as quickly as he moved.
Knight Red might very well be the best opponent he had ever fought.
Who's under the helmet, I wonder? He found himself thinking.
How curious. Zephyr rarely concerned himself with his rivals, but this one interested him.
He was very interested.
With a tight grip on his sword, he lunged, determined to find out the red knight's true identity and send his helmet flying.
Red barely missed the sword aimed at his head that almost decapitated him. Before he had time to think up a plan of counterattack, the sword was coming at him again. He instinctively ducked, the sword scraping against the very top of his helmet.
The crowd cheered.
Hence commenced a flurry of attacks and strikes. Red was forced to go on the defensive, holding the hilt of his sword with both hands to keep it from flying out of his hands. It drained him of strength alarmingly quickly.
The black knight drove him to the edge of the ring.
He dared a glance behind him to see just how close to falling out the ring he was. Leaving the ring was an automatic loss.
Two steps and he was out.
Shit shit shit shit.
He'd worked too damned hard to end up losing in the most disgraceful way. His honor and pride would never recover. He'd be made a mockery in front of a huge crowd. The shame alone would kill him.
Desperate and furious, he summoned the last dredges of his strength and pushed back with a growl that was more animal than man.
Not expecting it, the black knight staggered.
Red seized this unexpected opportunity. He swung outward in a half-arch -and felt the tip connect with something solid.
The black knight hissed, startling him -it was the first sound Red had heard him make.
He glanced down and saw what had elicited it.
He'd cut the black knight's side. The wound he'd inflicted was two inches long and not that deep, but it had momentarily destabilized him.
Never one to let any opportunity slip by, he pounced.
The black knight stabbed his sword into the ground and punched Red across the face.
He staggered and fell backward. His helmet went flying off his head upon impact.
He hadn't expected this type of attack at all. He'd been blinded by the chance of victory so much that he'd rushed in without proper consideration.
Red scurried to get up, blindly grabbing for his sword.
He had to get up! He hadn't lost yet-!
The tip of a sword appeared in his vision, pointed right at his face.
His heart plummeted.
Breathing heavily, he slowly looked past the sword at the black knight, who was now towering over him at 6'2. A sudden chill gripped his spine. Red felt genuine fear. It skittered down his back like a phantom ghost, raising his flesh and the hair at his name. It was such a foreign feeling that he was not used to. It paralyzed him, knotting his tongue and solidifying his feet.
"I have won, Red." The black knight declared in a sultry, deep voice, and Red shuddered when he said his name for some reason. There was something about the way the black knight rolled the r...
The crowd, that had gone eerily silent when Red had hit the floor, exploded.
The knight pulled away his sword and sheathed it. Then, he reached up with both hands and removed his helmet.
The crowd gasped.
The referee gasped.
Red unconsciously gasped.
Of all the people he'd expected to see beneath that helmet, he'd certainly not expected his opponent to be none other than Emperor Zephyr de Corbin, the World Imperator.
"Your Imperial Majesty!" The referee cried and dropped to his knees.
The crowd snapped out of their shock and followed suit. All around the ring, bodies descended into deep bows and kneels in respect for the man who ruled the world.
Red might as well have been facing a god.
Bright violet eyes pierced him, pinning him in place like two serrated daggers. Red's first instinct had been correct; the black knight Emperor Zephyr- indeed had violet eyes.
"Your name." The Emperor demanded, his eyes cold and his tone domineering.
Red gaped at him like a stupified ape.
What in the name of Vetiruza was Emperor Zephyr doing here?
This was a world-renowned tournament, yes, but to have their leader participate, and as a nobody no less!
"What is your name?" The Emperor demanded once again, and then slowly knelt down in front of Red.
Red's heart stuttered, and he couldn't rightfully say that it wasn't partly because he was afraid.
To have the Emperor kneeling in front of him, demanding to know his name filled him with a mix of emotions.
Their faces were too close for Red's comfort. This close, he saw just how devastatingly handsome Zephyr was. He'd seen him before from afar, but it only registered with him now. At thirty-three, the young king who'd inherited half the world from his father and then proceeded to conquer the other half was a vision in armor and outside of it.
Red still couldn't utter a word; he was speechless and paralyzed.
The Emperor reached out a hand and did something that Red would not soon forget -he wiped the blood dripping down the side of his mouth where he'd been punched with a thumb, and then brought him thumb to his mouth and licked the blood away.
Red paled, shaken.
He couldn't look away from the violet eyes boring into him, as if he could see past the flesh and bone and straight into his soul.
"I will not ask you again," he warned in a dark voice, and his eyes flashed.
Again, his heart skipped a beat.
Red cleared his throat and managed to unknot his tongue. "R-Rhydian von Everic, your Majesty."
"Rhydian." The Emperor repeated, as if he was tasting his name.
"You've marked me, Rhydian." Zephyr said, referring to his bleeding wound. It dripped blood down his side and onto the floor.
Red felt all the blood drain from his body when he realized that he'd injured the Emperor, and a different kind of fear gripped him.
Suddenly, he was afraid for his life, more so than when he'd been dueling in the ring.
"It's only fair that I mark you as well, don't you think?"
A shrill voice in his head told him to get up and run. But where would he run from the man who owned the world?
Zephyr drew his sword and the steel sang, grating on Red's ears.
He heard the blood rushing in his ears. Felt it draining from his nerves.
He glimpsed his ashen face reflected in the blade and saw his rounded eyes that were full of fear.
Every single person in the crowd shied their gazes away. None came to his defense. Even the referee turned his back on Red. He could hardly blame them; for to stand in the way of Zephyr de Corbin meant certain death.
Zephyr raised his sword.
And then let it fall.
Red's scream rose above the crowd's.