Chapter 17 – The Tournament
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...How did I get into this situation?

Gripping my two practice daggers, I stared at my opponent. One of the younger mercenaries stood before me, a guy with light brown hair and a youthful face who had just overpowered a few villagers in a row, each with a single swing of his greatsword.

I was nervous, and Karla’s words hadn’t really filled me with confidence. 

“The tournament isn’t really organised or anything,” she’d explained while also dragging me to the edge of the arena. “It’s more freeform. Whoever wins the spar stays in the arena, and someone else can jump in to challenge them.”

And that meant that even if I managed to win one of these, I wouldn’t get a break — I’d keep going until I was beaten. And the idea of that was nerve-wracking.

This wasn’t like the spars I’d done with Karla — people could get hurt. A few clumsy villagers had already been injured when their opponents had gotten a bit overzealous, getting scraped up by the practice blades.

“You see this guy?” As we crouched at the edge of the arena, Karla had pointed to the winner of the previous bout. “He’s pretty new, so he doesn’t have much experience. The only reason he’s won so far is because he’s just a little bit stronger than he looks.”

She had continued to commentate on the mercenary’s weaknesses as we watched the fight, all the while encouraging me to try my hand against him. But I was still nervous, I still didn’t want to spar... especially seeing him break through his opponents’ guards with just a single swing. How could I stand against that?

“Everyone’s trying to block, but all you need to do is just get out of range.” Karla had patted my back as she spoke, pushing me closer and closer to the arena. “Make him whiff, and you have the perfect opportunity to strike.”

And after his previous opponent had stumbled out of the arena, Karla had pulled me upright, unceremoniously shoving me into the ring with a, “Go get ‘em, girl!”

And that was how I ended up in the arena, face to face with a mercenary.

He was staring at me, running a hand through his light brown hair as his gaze went up and down my cloaked form. “Who are you?”

I… didn’t have an answer ready for that. Blankly looking back at him, my mind raced to try to find an answer. I couldn’t say that I was one of the mercenaries, since he was too, so he’d know I was lying. But on the other hand, I also couldn’t say that I was a villager, since none of the villagers would recognise me either.

Or if they did, they’d recognise me as Fenne, my mother, and—

My thoughts were interrupted as Karla shouted from the edge of the arena. “You’ve got this, Triss!”

“Oh, you’re one of Karla’s friends, huh… Triss?” my opponent noted, his eyes narrowing. “This’ll be interesting.”

Maybe I’d been overthinking when he’d asked me who I was. It wasn’t a formal tournament, so maybe I could stay anonymous after all.

As I readied my two wooden daggers — I had used them so much that by this point, they felt very familiar to me — I watched my opponent’s movements carefully. He took a step forward, brandishing his sword towards me, weaving it through the air in a figure-eight motion.

Was he trying to intimidate me?

I pulled the cloak tighter around myself, trying to make sure that my tail wouldn’t be exposed by any vigorous movements as I fought. But it felt… difficult to move, somehow. My legs felt slightly sluggish, and I couldn’t quite put as much strength into my arms as I wanted to. And it wasn’t just that I was tired. Was this... nerves from the tournament? This was the first time I had fought against anyone other than Alvin or Karla, after all.

My opponent hunched down, pointing his sword towards me and saying, “Ready when you are.”

I nodded, gripping my own daggers tighter and planting my feet to steady myself, getting into the stance that Karla had drilled into me.

And then he lunged. Luckily, it wasn’t just the stance that Karla had drilled into me — as the mercenary pulled his sword back, winding up for his strike, her teachings about opportunity flashed into my mind. 

I saw the opening. I could step into that strike, manoeuver around his arms, and go for his torso. It would work. With that single swing, instead of his victory, it would be mine.

If only I didn’t have the cloak.

Moving that fast would likely make the cloak flap around behind me, which would end up exposing my tail. I had to be careful. Changing plans, I glanced at his feet, trying to figure out where he would be standing as he swung. It seemed like he was hoping to hit me with the end of his sword, so there’d still be a distance between us when he struck.

I braced myself, waiting for the perfect time to step out of range.

He brought his sword down in a cleaving motion, letting out a large yell as he did so.

Was that… it? Compared to Karla, his attack felt like it was almost in slow motion. I ducked back half a step as soon as he started to swing, watching as the tip of his sword rushed past the front of my clothes, missing by a hair.

Was that really how slow a mercenary was? 

Before the end of his sword hit the ground, my opponent smoothly twisted the blade to bring it back up, swinging it in a leftward motion towards my side. I backpedalled once more, readying my daggers. 

As his sword flew past me again, he brought it around in a loose curve to make one more strike at my other side. This time, I was ready. I stepped to the side, letting the sword pass by me once more before I rushed in close.

The match was over a moment later as I pressed one of my daggers against his throat.

My opponent lowered his sword, closing his eyes and shaking his head. 

“I still have a long way to go,” he said, lightly bowing towards me as he strode to the edge of the arena. “Thank you for the match.”

I breathed a heavy sigh of relief, staring down at the dagger in my trembling hand. The moment the fight was over, all of my nerves caught up to me, and I couldn’t stop myself from shaking.

That was what it was like, fighting against another person. Someone that I didn’t trust, at least. It felt like it would be a very long time until I finally was used to it.

Karla’s cheering brought me back to the present, and I glanced towards her to see her jumping in the air. 

“Way to go, Triss!” she cheered. “I knew you could do it!”

I took a deep breath, steadying my nerves. That’s right, I had to be ready for the next opponent. Whoever stepped into the ring, I’d have to fight them. Gripping my two wooden daggers, I scanned around the crowd, watching for who would be next to enter the arena.

“I’ll step in,” a deep, gruff voice called out from within a mass of people. “‘Scuse me, coming through.”

From the middle of the group, a tall man emerged, pushing people left and right as he made his way into the arena.

“You’ve got guts, kid,” he said, wiping the sweat off his bald scalp with a gloved hand as he strolled towards the centre of the ring. “I watched that last fight. You weren’t even fighting Will… you were just playing with him.”

I shifted nervously. This man seemed like he knew what he was doing a bit more than the one I’d fought just before. And I didn’t have Karla to tell me his weaknesses, either... I was on my own.

“But you aren’t the only one that can play with an opponent,” the man said, drawing a long wooden sword out from his belt. He gripped it with both hands as he pointed it towards me.

“Let me put you in your place.”

As I readied my two daggers once more, I heard Karla whisper from just behind me. 

“C’mon Triss, you can do it,” she said. “I believe in you.”

I hunched down, pulling the cloak tighter around myself as I watched for my second opponent’s approach.

He slowly strode towards me, keeping his sword between the two of us. As we got close to each other, he turned, beginning to circle around me. I followed his footsteps, walking to the side as I watched for him to make a move.

Unlike the last fight, there was no big wind-up, and no easy-to-dodge lunge at me. Instead, we orbited around each other, each keeping our blades between us. 

He swiped at my side, a strike that didn’t seem to have that much power behind it. Crossing my daggers over each other, I blocked his attack, catching his sword between them for a moment before pushing it back.

He nodded for a moment, muttering, “Very good…” as his eyes roved up and down my cloaked form.

With the way I was turning, I had to be careful. The cloak was slightly twisted, and any extraneous movement threatened to expose the tail hidden inside it. As long as I didn’t have to jump to the side, it would be fine, but…

My opponent suddenly stopped his circling, standing still in front of me with his sword pointed forward.

What was he planning? I stopped as well, turning to face him. 

And the moment I did, I realised that I’d made a mistake. My cloak swung with the momentum, the end of it flapping slightly as a soft breeze blew over the arena.

I couldn’t be exposed here! Not in front of this many people!

As my worry about the cloak spiked, my opponent charged, his eyes locked with mine. He swung his sword, and I barely managed to bring up one of my daggers to block the attack as I backpedalled.

And at that moment, my hood started to slide off my head.

The match didn’t matter anymore — staying hidden was so much more important. I dropped one of the daggers, reaching for the side of the hood and pulling it back into place. And as I looked back at my opponent… I found a wooden sword pointed at my throat.

“It’s my win,” he said, a smug smile creeping up his face. Had... had he intended for that? He’d taken advantage of my weakness, just like I had with the mercenary before...

I slumped my shoulders, slipping the one wooden dagger I still held back into my belt. This was why I didn’t want to participate in the tournament. As much as Karla had gone on and on about how I’d do well in it… the chance of my fox features being exposed was just too great.

As my opponent finally lowered his sword, I picked up the dagger I had dropped, slowly walking to the edge of the arena where Karla was waiting for me. 

“Triss…” she began, concern evident in her expression.

My legs wobbled as I reached the edge of the arena, and I stumbled out, tripping over my feet and losing balance.

“Woah—” Karla reached out, catching me before I fell. “You okay?”

“I’m so tired,” I mumbled, lifting myself back upright with her help. The sounds of the crowd had dulled in my ears, and the world didn’t seem quite as bright as it had, when I was in the middle of the arena.

“You did good.” Karla sat down at the edge of the arena, patting the empty space on the ground next to her. “You did really well in there.”

“Th-thanks. Though I think I would have done better if not for...” I held some of the cloak’s fabric out towards her.

She winced. “Yeah... it’s not just overconfident guys that have weaknesses, huh?” 

I flopped down next to her, feeling around inside my hood. My legs and arms felt so heavy, and didn’t think it was just because I had transformed back. They’d felt heavy and sluggish even before then, after all... 

Whether or not it felt hard to move, though, I was done in this tournament. I’d given in and done it once, and after how that second fight had gone… I didn’t have any interest in jumping into the arena again.

I sat back, content to spectate the rest of the matches.

*     *     *     *     *

Alvin looked unstoppable.

As the day had gone on, most of the lesser-experienced villagers and mercenaries had exhausted themselves sparring, leaving only the stronger and more determined fighters in the arena or hanging back for another turn. And that was the point that Alvin had stepped into the ring. The crowd had gone quiet at his appearance, a lull only broken by a whisper here and there.

It only took a few matches to show just how far Alvin was above everyone else.

The first match had finished in mere seconds as Alvin simply deflected his opponent’s sword, pushing it out of the way and stepping in to claim victory. The second match had gone down in roughly the same way, only his opponent put up just a little bit more of a fight.

Just a little bit, enough to give Alvin’s opponent hope.

Hope that was quickly dashed when a wooden sword hung at his neck.

It didn’t even look like Alvin was really trying... everyone he faced was defeated with a terrifying ease. And the crowd was still quiet as he did it, each fight feeling more tense than the next. Again... Alvin looked unstoppable.

As the third match started, Karla stood up, readying her own weapons. Thinking back, I hadn’t seen her participate in the tournament at all, so far. Had she been waiting for this point?

Her and Alvin were going to spar. And if Alvin won, he’d join the mercenaries, and leave the village.

The third match ended not long after it started, with Alvin disarming his opponent through a neat flick of his wrist. Terrifying — he still hadn’t even broken a sweat. By this point, the whispers had stopped and the crowd was dead quiet. Neither did anyone make a move as his sullen opponent left the arena.

No one… except for Karla.

She hopped into the ring, deftly spinning her daggers in her hands as she strode towards Alvin. 

“You know why I’m here,” she said, toeing the ground just a short distance away from him.

“I know,” Alvin replied, shifting his stance. “I’m ready. This time… I won’t lose.”

“We’ll see about that.”

The two stared at each other for a moment — a long, silent moment where you could’ve heard a pin drop... even without fox ears. And then, without any warning at all, Karla rushed forward at a completely inhuman speed. Far faster than when she’d been training me. I’d known she’d been holding back, but I hadn’t realised it was to this extent. My eyes could barely follow her as she swiped at Alvin, turning her whole body to strike with both daggers, one after another.

Alvin deflected the first strike with the bottom of his blade, letting it fly harmlessly past his shoulder as he twisted the blade to catch Karla’s second dagger. Then he leaned into the blade, his strength throwing her two steps back.

He’d barely even moved — just following the daggers and blocking them each with the smallest movement necessary. It was the kind of defense that could have only been executed by hours and hours of practice. Time spent learning to predict an opponent, time spent learning how to move his body to best defend against their attacks. All the time he’d spent practicing was clearly time well spent.

But even being shut down so completely, Karla was still steady and light on her feet — a smile playing even across her lips as she spun her daggers in her agile hands. 

“You’ve improved,” she said, her breathing steady and composed as she took a step towards him. “I see you’ve been busy.”

Alvin feinted a swipe at her, causing her to jump back again. With his single one-handed sword, he definitely had the advantage in range against Karla. That advantage wouldn’t alone win the fight for him, though — she was moving much, much faster than he was. 

“You know how much I’ve been trainin’,” Alvin said, his eyes narrowing. “I’m not backin’ down here.”

“I know. I guess we’ll see if that’s enough, huh?” Karla  winked.

And then she dashed to his side, swiping at Alvin with a single dagger — which he effortlessly blocked — followed by a short slide as she rushed past him. Her shoes kicked up a small cloud of dust as she bounced back towards him, aiming a strike at his other side. It was still just as fast, too... still an inhuman speed. From the distance I was watching at, and without the better senses of my normal form, I was struggling to keep up with her movements at all. And I wasn’t alone in struggling to keep up — Alvin seemed like he’d also been caught off guard by her movements, just barely managing to raise his sword and block her attack in time. Except... it was not an attack, it was a feint, and by blocking there he’d left his other side completely open as she dashed past. 

She stabbed her dagger towards his side, and her aim was true... but by attacking him on all sides at such a speed his feet couldn’t quite keep up, and he stumbled just enough to save himself from the blow.

The mercenary girl skidded to a stop a short distance from him, turning back to face him with a disappointed pout. “That usually works. If you hadn’t stumbled...”

“And now I know that attack, too,” my brother grinned. “That isn’t gonna work a second time.”

“I guess I’ll have to try this, then,” Karla said, and then without a moment more for Alvin to recover, she lunged forward once more, holding one of her daggers across her body as a shield while her other one went for Alvin’s torso.

A loud, collective gasp echoed out from the surrounding crowd.

Alvin looked surprised by her move, how straightforward it seemed. With the flat of his sword, Alvin knocked aside the dagger that was heading right for him, neatly stepping forward into Karla’s lunge. She tried to spin around and use her other dagger, but then with his free hand, he grabbed her arm and roughly pulled her towards him, stopping her mid-movement and knocking her dagger from her grasp.

As she lurched forward, struggling to keep her balance, Karla found a sword placed at her throat.

It was over.

The two of them stayed like that for a few moments longer, staring into each other’s eyes as the crowd looked on in silence. Everyone seemed shocked, mercenaries and villagers alike, and no one made a move to enter the arena. As for me... I was watching listlessly, seeing everything that was happening and knowing what was coming, but being completely incapable of actually processing it.

“...I didn’t think he’d actually do it,” someone said from the middle of the crowd.

Instantly the silence broke, and loud chatter cascaded out of the crowd like a tidal wave. A few people cheered, some shouted, and some just stared in silence, open-mouthed at the fight they had just witnessed. Some of Alvin’s friends couldn’t contain themselves and ran into the arena as well, congratulating him and patting his arm or holding out their fists for him to bump.

As Alvin and Karla finally separated, another man walked into the ring — another of the mercenaries, an older man with greying hair that exuded an air of confidence and authority. He was the mercenary group’s leader, right? Karla nodded to him as he got close, stepping away from Alvin but not leaving the arena.

“Well, Alvin…” the man began, holding his hands out to show he didn’t have a weapon. “Congratulations.”

Alvin relaxed his shoulders, a giddy smile appearing on his face.

“You rose up to the challenge we set,” the man continued. “You’ve managed to surpass Karla in a duel, and, as promised, earned yourself a spot with the mercenaries. I know you’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but being a mercenary is a lot more than just fighting. You’ll be learning a lot of things... seeing a lot of things, things you wouldn’t have expected and might not be prepared to handle.”

He crossed his arms, and in a very serious tone, said, “Alvin, this is your last chance to back out. We won’t think less of you if you do — there is nothing wrong with staying here and you’ve already proved your strength. Are you absolutely sure you want to join us?”

Alvin sputtered, his voice almost breathless as he replied. “You kiddin’? I’ve… been workin’ towards this for so long. I—”

But he was cut off, because at that moment, a set of heavy, clomping footsteps echoed around the arena — the distinctive sound of my father’s work boots.

He strode towards Alvin, drawing a large wooden greatsword from his belt and brandishing it towards him.

“Hold it.”

 

Well, all things considered, the tournament could definitely have gone better for Triss. But hey, at least she didn't get exposed. Now though... what does Triss's father want with Alvin?

If you want to read ahead, my Patreon has up to Chapter 22 of this story, and hopefully I'll be uploading Chapter 23 later today!

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