Prologue: A Memory From Eight Years Prior
Having watched the scene of carnage unfold before him, these were the only words the pale white-haired youth could mutter. Despite lying collapsed on the ground covered with filth, sweat, and blood, the child’s eyes did not betray even a single trace of fear.
Before the child’s sight was the back of a lone dark figure standing on crimson field. With a pitch-black cloak shrouding his entire body, it was difficult to determine if he was even human. And it wouldn’t be surprising if he were in fact a demon. He carried the overwhelming scent of darkness and death, and he could very well be mistaken for the grim reaper or angel of death himself.
Such a title would be rather justified. After all, this death bringer was the being responsible for single-handedly having dyed this battlefield with the blood of hundreds of monsters of various races. Instead of a battle, it would perhaps be better to have described what had transpired as a massacre or a mass execution.
Here, this reaper was the sole judge, jury, and executioner.
Right now, this location was a part of the world where human rules had no jurisdiction. At this very moment, the only truth here was that power was the only law. And as a testament to this indisputable fact, there was no one alive left to oppose him.
Well, that was not entirely correct. After all, the youth was also alive as well, albeit just barely. Despite what had just transpired, the child still did not fear this reaper. Rather his eyes only held the greatest respect and admiration for this savior who had rescued him from certain death.
Done with his task, the reaper was prepared to leave to his next destination when he suddenly felt a small tug from the hem of his cloak. Perhaps having had his interest piqued, or whether he thought it would serve as some small amusement, he turned his head around slightly and waited on the child who had slowly crawled and reached towards him. To this child who was on the steps of death’s door. To this child whose life was in the hands of this “god” ruling over death itself.
The child continued to speak while struggling to crawl onto his knees to stand up.
“Please make me stronger!”
(Are you not scared?)
Suddenly a voice reverberated inside the child’s head. The intensity of the atmosphere suddenly oppressively rose, completely overwhelming the child’s senses. The child suddenly collapsed back to the ground, seemingly crushed by an immense unknown pressure. But the child who had nothing left to lose, and nothing left to fear, only stared unwaveringly back.
To stare at death with such resolution at such a young age… the reaper was impressed.
Perhaps at merely just a whim… Suddenly the crushing pressure immediately ceased, and the child started to cough, realizing that he had earlier been holding his breath the entire time. The <God of Death> turned around and fully faced the child.
(Those are good eyes. How amusing… however I cannot save you.)
The child was not deterred and continued to steadily gaze at him, showing his firm resolve. It may have been just a trick of the mind, but the child thought he felt this angel of death smile for just a moment.
(But power is something I can grant you. But as with all things, there is a heavy price. What can you offer me?)
Without hesitation and with a single breath, to pay for the contract with this demon:
(It has been quite some time since I last recalled this memory. Is it some sort of premonition, or am I just severely lacking in sleep?)
Business had run very late into the early morning, and Ashe had not yet had had the time nor leisure to rest. There was still sometime before sunrise, and everything was still shrouded by the darkness of night. And with his destination in sight, he looked forward to taking a long much needed rest.
This was going to be his first time entering the school campus, entirely located on an artificial island connected to the mainland by only a single bridge. Founded only just five years ago by a group of the most powerful people in the world and funded by a mysterious yet wealthy backer, the International Military Academy was outside the jurisdiction from any and all international powers. Many nations have tried to contest its independence and have tried to take over and acquire the school, but the power of the school’s headmaster alone was enough to not just repel, but utterly crush and destroy any attempts.
With a combination of the International Military Academy’s talented and top-quality teaching staff, its strict international neutrality, and protection by the powerful headmaster, nations worldwide sent many of their promising and talented students there to be raised and cultivated. Thus despite all initial doubts, this school had since then become the most famous and prestigious institution for producing the strongest and most powerful knights and magicians.
Although Ashe was currently at the age where he could be attending here as a student, he had come here strictly for business. This business, however, was not actually officially recognized by the school, and thus he could not just openly enter through the academy’s front entrance. The entrance was not only manned by skilled guards, it was also closely monitored by high-speed security cameras and powerful detection magic. With the school’s top notch security, it would be difficult to infiltrate the grounds undetected. That is, if it were any other person.
Upon approaching the far-side of the bridge connecting the International Military Academy to the mainland, Ashe suddenly disappeared from sight and any traces of mana from his body were abruptly cut off. Light refracting magic was a basic ability that most light element magicians were first taught when learning light elemental spells. However, eliminating all evidence of mana from himself while continuously casting a spell required the highest skills and absolute control of internal mana manipulation. Such high-level stealth and infiltration abilities were acquired out of necessity when Ashe was carrying out his various past jobs and missions.
With his abnormal physical abilities, Ashe was easily able to traverse the two-kilometer length of the bridge and enter through the academy’s entrance past the armed guards completely undetected, all within the span of a minute.
Having researched the layout of the school earlier, he was able to quickly determine the direction to the administrative buildings, which was where the headmaster’s office was also located. The school campus consisted of the entirety of the hexagonal man-made island, with the path from each corner to the center of the campus being five kilometers in length. Due to the size of the island, there was a rather extensive monorail system in place to transport students within the campus to even to the mainland across the bridge, which Ashe could not use as he did not have a student identification badge.
Since it was still the crack of dawn, this intruder expected for the rest of his journey to be relatively quiet and uneventful. At this time, both students and staff members would still be asleep, and even if awake would still be far away at the edge of campus, where the dormitories were situated. Only the headmaster and the top school officials had the privilege of residing in the administrative buildings, right in the center of campus.
As he neared his destination, his attention was suddenly drawn elsewhere and he stopped in his tracks.
(What is this mana?)
To a certain degree, Ashe was surprised to suddenly sense strong waves of mana clashing nearby. It was rather strange for there to be fighting, presumably between students, this close to the campus center, especially at time of day. This would be more easily explainable should it just be early morning practice, and thus these students should be commended for their diligence.
The mana quantity or strength being emitted was admittedly quite impressive, but still nothing particularly special. However, the quality and purity of the mana was on a completely different level than anything he had felt, with only a single exception. With his curiosity outweighing his sense of urgency for his current task, he decided to make a short detour. His business with the headmaster could wait.
Following the direction of the source of mana, Ashe found himself at the edge of an open practice field made of artificial turf. He could just barely make out three female figures, presumably students, standing in the center of the 100-meter length of the field. Two of them seemed to be sparring with their weapons respectively, while the third was watching them on the sideline. Given the elegance of their moves, it seemed more of a beautiful dance of blades between two performers. As each attack with their weapons were supplemented with each wielder’s respective elemental magic, the clash of the fire magic’s red-colored mana of water and wind magic’s green-tinted mana seemed to create mini-fireworks that were quite the sight to behold.
Having seen them spar for a short while, Ashe judged them to be very skilled for their young age. And moreso their talent was unrivaled, given the quality and purity of mana the two displayed. Having had his curiosity sated for now, he planned to quietly leave. But more often than not, plans do not always turn out as expected.
“Halt. Who are you?”
Ashe, who had started moving away from the open practice field, had his path suddenly cut off by a sharp gust of wind, cutting a sharp line into a ground. At these words, the two students sparring suddenly halted their movements and looked at the direction of their third companion. Ashe turned back to see one of the sparring students, the wind-element user, start walking to his direction with an elegantly designed spear in her hand. She had quite the beautiful appearance, with graceful facial features curtained by her long raven-colored hair. However, her sharp silver-colored eyes seemed to pierce straight through Ashe, despite the fact that he was still casting his light refraction magic and erasing his mana traces. Needless to say, he was mildly impressed that there was a high school level student who was apparently able to see through his invisibility.
Having been discovered and having had his escape route shut down, there was no reason for him to keep this façade.
“I’m impressed. How did you discover me?”
“All the wind here is under my command. Even if I cannot see you, I can still sense your presence.”
As if to verify this point, the spear-holding student held out her left hand, palm faced upwards, and watched as wind, colored green by her mana, seemed to lightly swirl onto her palm.
(How careless of me.)
Ordinarily Ashe thought that a distance of fifty or so meters would be enough to remain undetected against unguarded magicians, even those proficient in the earth or wind elements whom were particularly gifted in the detection arts. It seems that she was much more talented than he thought. In light of what he had observed in this brief time and his read on their mana signatures, each of the three students could be considered prodigies born once in several generations.
“Also, please do not make me ask the same question twice.”
“I’m sorry. I am a visitor on my way to the administrative building, but it looks like I lost my way.”
He hoped that this reason would suffice. Unfortunately he had no such luck. The female student responded by thrusting her left hand at his direction. With this seemingly simple motion, she summoned a violent vortex of winds tightly surrounding Ashe from every direction. Usually complex magic casted with this speed would be deficient in at least one way or form. Unfortunately for him, this was a non-issue; it seemed that this caster had the highest levels of magic precision and abilities. Any attempt to escape from this invisible spherical prison would result in being instantly shredded to pieces. This spell was definitely a level well beyond what was taught in the high school curriculum.
“This looks a little bit dangerous. Haha, how scary.”
“I have no mercy to show for someone who continues to hide his appearances and lies so easily. Besides, visitors are not allowed past the academy’s front gates until the morning at nine.”
(No wonder I was so easily seen through. However, what I said wasn’t exactly untrue…)
“So speak truthfully, unless you wish to die. Oh, and no need to worry. Our school infirmary is ranked as one of the best medical institutions worldwide.”
Such an elegant smile was completely at odds with her current actions. Also her words were very little consolation. After all, even the best doctors could do little for someone who was dead.
“Sorry, but I think I will have to keep my silence.”
“Then take your silence to the grave. Ah, I’m sorry not to have introduced myself earlier. My name is Sylvia Windsinger, pleased to meet your acquaintance. Hopefully you will remember my name for the next time we meet.”
“Hah, that’s assuming if I do manage to make it out in one piece.”
With one swift, fluid motion, Sylvia leaped towards and thrust her spear at Ashe, who was still trapped by her cage of wind. With her spear imbued with powerful wind-element magics, even a light scratch would cause severe injuries.
(There’s nowhere to dodge, and it looks that it’ll be painful to get hit. I guess there’s little choice…”
At the last instant, as the spear was about to pierce and rip the trapped person’s body to shreds, a flash of light suddenly parried it off course from its intended destination.
In the instant Sylvia was about to pierce Ashe, the wind prison had ceased to exist. And with the opening caused by his surprise counter, this should have been enough to give him a small opening to escape. As he turned to flee, his hope was completely crushed by a giant barrier of ice. And standing in his path was the fire-element student who had been sparring with Sylvia earlier. In her hand held a beautifully crafted flame-covered longsword. To her side was the caster of the high-level ice barrier.
For just a moment, Ashe was stunned at the appearance of the two before him. One had unruly pink-red hair and fiery-red eyes, befitting with her wild beauty. The other had an attractiveness that was in complete contrast, as her blue-white hair and deep blue eyes gave her a much softer impression. Being surrounded by beautiful girls would ordinarily be welcomed with open arms, but the reality was not so pleasant.
(To my front is both fire and ice, and to rear are violent winds. I guess no one here is merciful enough to let me simply escape with that small opening. How troublesome…)
As there was now little point in remaining hidden when everyone here could sense his presence, Ashe released his light magic and revealed his appearance. His clothing was actually quite casual, consisting of a sleeveless dark grey hoodie and a pair of thin jeans with inexpensive sneakers. Although obscured by the longer left-side bangs of his unnatural silver-white hair, an eyepatch covering his left eye was still somewhat visible. His right held a military-standard combat survival knife, with the blade wrapped thinly with light magic. His left arm, with its entire length wrapped in bandages, remained dangling by his side.
Ashe had prepared to fight a battle of attrition. Given his current predicament, instead of trying to continue to uselessly hide, it would be best to redirecting and focusing his mana to his knife.
But the tension that had been quickly building up suddenly defused with a blunt statement by the fire user.
“Huh? How young.”
“Young? I can’t be a year older than any one of you.”
It was not just the water caster that was surprised; even the fire swordswoman and Sylvia could not disguise their surprise. Ashe couldn’t help but wryly smile at their reactions. Despite his rather rough unnatural appearance, his age remained largely undisguised. He had turned seventeen this past year, and assessed the three surrounding students to be about the same age judging by their outward appearances and, more importantly, their mana signatures.
“Well this is annoying, I’m no longer in the mood to fight.”
As Scarlet extinguished the flames on her longsword, the Sylvia questioned her, with a tinge of slight confusion on her face.
“He’s about our age and it’s now three versus one. Right now it looks like we’re just bullying him.”
“Well I suppose it would be a disgrace for us to claim victory in this fashion. Will you also stand down Azura?”
“I have no complaints,” nodded the water caster in agreement.
“Mister Intruder, neither of my colleagues will interfere in our duel as long as you make no attempts to escape.”
(Duel? I do not recall ever agreeing to this.)
“And please do not say something as obtuse as ‘this was not something you agreed to.’ As soon as you had stepped into the school grounds without the proper procedures, your rights have been forfeited.”
(Ugh, so she can read minds now?)
“And no, I am not reading your mind. Stop with those stupid-looking expressions.”
With a sigh, he had no choice but to hold up his blade and to acknowledge this duel. Seeing this resolve, Sylvia smiled briefly.
“Let me introduce myself again, this time in full. My name is Sylvia Windsinger, a Fourth Year representative of the International Military Academy. B+ Rank Wind Magician.”
Giving one’s first name, last name, year, institution, elements and element proficiency was standard duel introduction. As naïve as such an introduction would seem to be, all the players’ cards were essentially already revealed to the table anyways.
Unless one was to wear head or eye-gear to obscure the eyes, it was easy to identify one’s primary elemental affinity, as it was directly correlated with the color of his or her eyes. A person with green eyes, like Sylvia, was someone who excelled with wind magic. Likewise, a person with red eyes was talented with the spire element whereas a person with blue eyes was skilled with water and ice manipulation.
A person’s magical talent can be ranked via a rather simple letter system. While an F Rank represented a person with no proficiency whatsoever, an A Rank implied that the magic user could majorly influence a major battle between nations. In regards to revealing one’s magic proficiency, just sensing and observing the opponent’s mana was enough to determine the general level. Thus there was truly no point in hiding one’s abilities, except in exceptional cases.
“You can call me Ashe Greysword, independent affiliation from any organization or institution. C+ Rank Wood and C Rank Light Magician.”
“Hmm? Duel magic concentrations?” muttered Sylvia involuntarily.
To be fair, duel magic concentrations were not altogether that rare, especially if one of the concentrations were either light or dark magics. It was much more difficult to be proficient in any two of the seven core elements. But secondary concentrations were usually developed after the mastery of a single element, and usually not before a person was at least in their mid-twenties, when their mana levels have completely matured.
“You already having achieved B+ Rank at sixteen, or seventeen, years of age is already scary enough. Haha, I might seriously be in trouble.”
(At her rank, no wonder she was able to cast that complex wind prison spell so easily and flawlessly.)
Given her growth rate, it wouldn’t be surprising for her to achieve S Rank once fully matured. Although there was quite the vAshetion in power between magicians within the S Ranks, they each had the ability to greatly influence a war between nations. According to the International Ranking Administration, there were only thirteen S Rank magicians at this point in time.
“That should be enough with the pleasantries. Ashe Greysword, prepare yourself!”
Despite her words, Sylvia immediately charged at Ashe with her spear thrust forward, mana heavily concentrated at the weapon’s tip. As a response to her attack, Ashe leaped backwards while quickly flicking his wrist, throwing his knife at Sylvia’s head. As the projectile traveled forward, it started to take form of a sparrow made of light, as it had been completely infused with Ashe’s light magic. Before the light sparrow could even approach close to its intended target, it was completely warded off by a barrier of wind. The knife dropped uselessly to the ground whereas the sparrow separated from it and continued to fly and disappear speedily into the night
“The perfect offense and the perfect defense. To make Sylvia your opponent… you just have no luck.” Scarlet looked somewhat disappointed, as if she had expected a better counterattack from Ashe.
Apparently against Sylvia’s invisible shield, any halfhearted attack would be completely deflected. And Ashe, having thrown away his only weapon, continued to dodge her attacks. After Sylvia’s sixteenth thrust, Ashe was able to retreat far enough to catch a breath and speak.
“You’re kidding me. Are you really a high school student?”
“You’re not too bad yourself. You are apparently quite talented at running away.”
Sylvia seemed to allow this brief pause as she readjusted her offensive stance and ready her next strike.
“Well they do say that those who run fast also live long. But I was talking in regards to your killing intent. It is definitely far beyond the level of a high school student. What kind of past did you have to…”
Before Ashe could finish his inquiry, Sylvia’s killing intent increased dramatically, causing Scarlet and Azura on the sidelines to slightly shiver. As if to match this phenomenon, her mana levels continued to rise in intensity and output as well.
“You talk too much for someone who does not belong at this academy.”
(Her mana level, isn’t this breaching the A- Rank?)
“Hey wait, can we please talk this over peacefully?”
“I think it’s about time to wrap this duel up. Please die now.”
Although there was a smile on her face, it could not be said to be the same for her eyes.
“Huh, isn’t this your <Demon Winds>? Aren’t you going too far with this?”
“Wait Sylvia, you might actually kill him!”
Despite Scarlet and Azura’s best efforts, it didn’t seem that their words reached her ears. The wind surrounding the entire vicinity grew increasingly violent, and the gray tinge of the winds, colored from her mana, grew increasingly darker. Without warning, swirling vortex of air quickly formed spherically around Ashe started to close in on him. Unlike the wind prison cast earlier, this cage was intended to completely crush and annihilate its contents.
Earlier Sylvia had been using her spear to fight in close range, which was more fitting of her notion of the spirit of dueling. All pretenses have now been dropped.
There was nowhere for Ashe to escape.
“About time. It took you long enough.”
In a single instant, all the wind in the vicinity dispersed and everything was calm once again.
Standing next to Ashe, with a hand on his shoulder, stood the very headmaster of this school.