The sound of flesh against stone resounded in the arena, punctuating the cheers of the audience.
I attacked furiously, eschewing the use of mana in favour of purely physical attacks to leverage the superiority of my body and my martial arts.
Yet, without the addition of wind and shadow mana, I wasn't at an overwhelming advantage anymore.
Marcus was no slouch and despite my strength, skill and speed, he managed to land a hit for every twenty of mine.
That might sound underwhelming, but it was tilting the balance in his favour.
After another intense altercation, I skipped backwards out of his reach, both of us sweating profusely from the exertion.
I looked down at my palms and they were covered with a thick coat of rock, a result of the activation of the Tier 1 magic: Stoneskin, with Tier 2 mana, causing it to evolve to the level 2 version: Petrifaction.
Instead of coating just the user with greatly strengthened rocky armour, Petrifaction actually coated whatever came in contact with the armour in a layer of stone, hindering their mobility.
Thus, a purely defensive spell turned into one which combined both offense and defence in one.
I smashed my hands together and their lithic coats shattered and fell off after a few hard raps.
Looking down at my waist, I found another patch of stone from when he had managed to tap me there. A few more blows and it too fell off.
I turned to look at the referee and saw her turning the hourglass on its end for the first time. I clenched my teeth. This way, I would lose even if I won.
Somewhere down the line, it had turned into a battle of attrition as I was too fast for him and his defence too strong for me.
A battle I had fallen leeward in after he had started applying Petrifaction on his armour.
My mind worked furiously as I tried to come up with a countermeasure.
Growing impatient with the dragging battle, Marcus stamped on the ground, sending a surge of golden earth mana into it.
Sensing danger, I leapt away, narrowly avoiding the pitiful fate of being impaled by the sharp spikes of rock that burst out where I had been standing.
Tier 2 earth magic: Stone spikes.
I had barely landed when I had to hastily dodge as the ground under me fell away into a spiked pit.
Using Haste, my form turned into a blur as I retreated out of the range of the wide area spell, almost toeing the border of the arena.
Stone spike was a nightmare in a limited area, converting the entirety of the user's surroundings into a hair-trigger minefield.
Marcus stepped forwards with steady strides, pumping mana into the ground with each step. Soon, I was trapped between his zone and the edge of the arena with nowhere left to dodge.
He wanted to end this competition in this move seeing that he had held nothing back, pouring all but a sliver of his mana into the spell.
To save mana, he had even deactivated his Stoneskin.
I clenched my teeth, I was in a dilemma, either I stepped into his personal minefield, wrestling a slim chance of victory by trying to outrun his traps, or I lost by ring-out.
I firmed my will. I couldn't lose here… there was too much at stake.
Tier 1 wind magic: Haste.
Tier 1 shadow magic: Shadow Stealth.
Intermediate class step martial arts: Ghost Step.
I was swift like the wind and as elusive as the shadows. My path was as erratic as that of a ghost.
I was one, yet I was many as every movement split several phantoms that seemed to branch out in different directions.
The earth exploded under me, a spike impaling me through the heart amidst the shocked gasps of the audience, only for me to dissipate.
It was but a shadow.
With a primal yell, Marcus slammed his fists into the ground, causing the entirety of his surroundings to explode outwards in a forest of spikes.
The audience burst into cheers, confident that nothing could survive within the range of the attack.
Panting and sweating profusely from the exertion, he raised his fists up in a posture of victory, soaking up the adulation of the crowd, only to stiffen and collapse bonelessly as I stepped quietly out of his shadow.
Tier 2 shadow magic: Shadow Walk.
I wiped the blood that was pouring out of my ears, nose and the corners of my eyes, a consequence of using higher tier magic at my level.
The crowd grew silent for a moment before bursting out in even louder cheers at the sudden reversal.
They had come for entertainment and this match had certainly fulfilled their expectations.
I looked at my fallen opponent as the referee announced my victory.
True to the high resilience of those blessed by the earth, he slowly sat up, kneeling motionless on the ground, staring with deadened eyes at his hands, disbelieving of his defeat.
It was a huge blow to him and his clan.
Terran crystals were much more common than the other five types of elemental crystals on the Continent due to the profusion of expansive landmasses and the trade channel with the dwellers of the Underground. Yet, they were still exceedingly rare.
The area under Marquis Ursa's jurisdiction, though barren and unsuited for farming, had a profusion of earth stone mines. Earth stones, basically rocks hardened by the influence of the Terran crystals were premium building materials for the city walls and aristocratic fortifications.
This close to the war, their prices had soared.
The Pholidota clan were in charge of several earth stone mines and for Marcus to have reached Tier 2 meant that his clansmen had decided to use a crystal on him, thereby turning a mine defunct.
If he had won, that wouldn't be such a problem as the reshuffling of resources would mean that the clan earned a lot more than it lost.
But now, to maintain the stipulated supply of earth stones to the Marquis, the clan would have to dig into its own reserves if it didn't want to confess to embezzling public property.
The clan had gambled and lost.
Yet, in the duration of the qualifiers, they wouldn't be the only ones to be revealed to have made such a choice.
I could only hope that no more of these aberrations would come my way due to poor luck of the draw.
As I passed by him, Marcus looked up with dulled eyes and said, "Win. You are my last hope," before climbing laboriously to his feet and walking out of the arena with a hunched back, waving away the medics who approached him.
They wouldn't be of any use. His wounds were spiritual… their healing light wouldn't reach that deep.
I watched him leave with a complicated expression on my face. There was no free meal in the world. It was a brutal place where person clashed against person, competing for the most meagre of resources.
Marcus wished me victory for based on my final ranking, he as my defeated would get additional marks added to his score, thereby elevating his rank amongst the first five hundred and mitigating his and his clan's losses.
It reminded me of a verse I had chanced upon in my extensive forays into the literary sections of the clan library.
Victors upon mountains of corpses,
Venerated by mournful sounds.
Icy bones rife with curses,
Raise them high above the ground.
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