Published at 29th of December 2018 09:40:17 AM
Chapter 5

[127th year of the Age of Kings - Summer]

[Planet Eunos of the Endless Worlds - in the Arena of Valour]

A certain young boy was soon to awaken with the memories of his past life; of his memories as a legendary mage .

But that is a story for a later day; for today he was still just a boy .

But by no means was he just *any* boy . . .

* * * * *

Mikael - Miller Knight Larsson (Lars) panted; cold sweat pouring down his scalp and covering his entire body . He cursed at the slippery sweat; an uncontrollable reaction from the blood loss and pain lancing through the right side of his body .

But the sweat was not the worst of it - the worst was his bloodied right arm hanging limply by his side; crippled and useless until he was healed of the tendon-severing cut .

He held a long dagger in his remaining good hand; equally skilful as his right - but his chances were grim .

He faced his erstwhile best friend Gardner . An opponent who was also injured, but had no critical wounds; and who held the absolute advantage with his two long daggers identical to his own . Lars' own second dagger was lying far away behind Gardner; lying where he had dropped it - where he had fallen victim to the bigger boy's deception .

'How . . . How can I . . . ' He racked his mind; trying to find a way to live without unveiling his trump cards - trump cards reserved to take down the "raid boss" of the Death Arena - the dark-skinned berserker beast-man; Linges .

To take him down, and pave the way for Moira to be crowned as champion in the inhumane death battles .

'I . . . I won't make it by defending anymore . . . I-I have to take him down; best friend or not! For Moira! I . . . I cannot let myself lose!'

Lowering his stance, Lars prepared to take the offensive once more; prepared to take a life-and-death gamble with his best-friend - now his partner in this dance to the death .

* * * * *

[3 minutes earlier]

"Number 14 - Larsson! Number 6 - Gardner!" The scar-faced arena invigilator called out harshly; striking fear into the normally fearless trainees . All the trainees released a collective sigh of relief; glad that their names were not called; that they would live to see another day .

Except for Lars and Gardner .

Lars swallowed all his emotions; forcing his nervous face to look composed; killing his heart as he had been taught to since being sold to the Sea of Sands . He exchanged a quick glance with his best friend and opponent, Samuel Gardner; then stilled his jitters; desperately keeping the tremors and butterflies in his stomach from rising up . He could afford no signs of weakness; or the invigilator might just execute him for being a "lily-livered coward" .

He drew upon what he had learned and calmed his heart - and his hands . Things he had learned to do for many years in the Arena of Valour .

Despite the glamorous name; the Arena of Valour had nothing to do with valour - it was a place of death, darkness and cruelty . It was a place where child slaves were brought to be trained into fighters; trained in every form of weapon, killing art and facet of combat from their childhood . If you discounted that they were not taught any arcane arts; there was no form of murder that the child trainees were not masters of .

They were turned from sweet-natured; innocent and pure children into monsters - emotionless killing machines .

Except; not all of them were devoid of emotions .

Lars was one of those who still retained a heart - buried somewhere deep inside; only unveiled to those closest to him; others who still kept their humanity beneath their cold, ruthless exteriors .

And another one of them being Gardner, his best friend who had protected him, mentored him and shown him the ropes to survive in this hellhole . It was now some days or months after Lars' 14th birthday, the actual date unknown .

He only knew that he had been here for more than 9 years now - since the tender age of 5 .

And the big-hearted, red-headed Gardner was also ranked number 6 in the weekly rankings . Lars himself was only number 14 .

Lars stood up when his name was called; the thin, wiry and slightly malnourished boy silently shuffled over to the entrance of the combat ring .

He was handsome; with a smooth; squarish face, clear eyes that would drown the beholder and soft and short golden hair . All features that made him the perfect target for bullying in the Arenas . In fact, if not for him being slightly too thin (a facade he used to hide his inhuman strength), he could be mistaken as a fallen prince or enslaved noble scion!

He stepped into the ring, standing in a designated circle - the waiting area for "contestants" .

He had stood in this same spot thousands of times before; facing off against each and every one of the trainees dozens of times - both for training and to settle arguments with violence - most often, Lars came out on top . By now, he was familiar with all of his fellow trainee's habits, strengths, and weaknesses - and used them to his advantage .

But the most familiar opponent of all was the one he was about to face - Samuel Gardner - his training partner day in, day out .

His best friend of these tortuous 7 years .

Today, there would no concept of friendship in the ring .

It was no longer training, no longer sparring for learning or growth .

All that mattered was survival .

The invigilator clapped his hands . At this signal, the stewards dropped the metal barriers, sealing off the only entrance to the combat area .

Lars and Gardner looked each other in the eyes, then bowed slightly to one another .

Then they took their combat poses; ready for the fight to begin .

*Clap clap!*

It was the signal to start .

Before the second clap could even fade; the smaller, shorter and faster Lars had already crossed half the 10m distance separating the two boys . He kept his stance low; twin daggers held tightly in reverse grip .

Gardner remained in his original pose; defaulting to his style of defence and counter-attacks - an effective strategy against a faster opponent; to wear him out with small, solid parries and dodges . He stood with his left foot in front; slightly angled to reduce the surface area his opponent could strike .

The brown-haired Lars darted forward; entering attacking range . Gardner lowered his left dagger to guard against attacks from below; while keeping his right dagger above his head; pointed forward and guarding the middle and higher zones .

Their daggers clashed more than 10 times in 2 seconds; going through the usual pattern of feeling each other out - just like they had countless times in their spars .

Then, utilising his greater agility and speed; the thin, brown-haired boy twisted his wrists; changing the angle of his daggers and skipping away from the larger boy's defence . He managed to land two long gashes on Gardner's shoulders, shocking the boy; before jumping backward; using his superior speed for a hit-and-run tactic .

'You want a battle of attrition? I'll show you my new strategy - created just for cracking open your vaunted guard stance!' He sprung backwards to safety; away from the redhead's attacking range and prepared to dart in again to slow whittle away at his opponent's defences .

Or so he thought .

Gardner's face changed from one of feigned shock to a confident, chilling smile . Then his right leg bent, and he kicked off the ground with uncanny speed - speed far exceeding Lars' .

Speed great enough that he far exceeded even rank number 4's Kaido; the so-called fastest trainee .

Speed great enough to land a near-lethal strike on Lars' shoulder; cutting into his bone and severing tendons and muscles .

"Urgh!" He would have screamed louder if not for his toughness built up from years of being cut and beaten bloody . Instead, he just let out a grunt; incongruent with how serious his injury was .

And incongruent with his situation - one in which only one outcome awaited him if he could not turn things around .

The cold embrace of the grave .

* * * * *

[In the present]

'Gardner looks winded from the move earlier . . . looks like he's trying to hide it . . . Or is he feinting fatigue to lure me in? Can he use that super-speed freely? Or are there limitations . . . ? I . . . I don't know . . . ' Lars analysed his opponent again and again; an adversary that he thought he knew well . But seconds ago, he realised that he probably knew nothing of the true Gardner; and his true skills .

Perhaps his 6th rank position had just been him hiding his strength all along .

Regardless of whether Lars could suss out his foe's strategy and trump cards or not; he had only 1 choice - kill or be killed .