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Blood and Honor

by Zephir

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Chapter 4

Rika smiles at him in his head... but it's not a happy smile, nor a comforting one, it's a cocky grin, exuding confidence and pride. She mocks him quietly like this, drifting in and out of his view but never leaving. Vargas' feet move beneath him, carrying him over the dirt mindlessly. Normally he doesn't let such a thing bother him so much, or let someone get in his head like she is... but she'd decided to make it personal, and it's certainly getting that way for him. Even the sight of her face is getting on his nerves... her fire red hair, her sky blue eyes, her small, slender nose and full... luscious... red lips...

He shakes his head and slaps himself mentally. What the hell're you thinking?! She's the enemy. So deeply is he stuck in thought that he's actually surprised when he comes back to and looks up to see an arena full of spectators, staring down in the pit.

Staring at him, and his opponent, and cheering for each in turn as the announcer calls their names.

"Xerael, and Vargas!"

The crowd's cheers fall on deaf ears, for both of them crack knuckles and ready weapons, priming for battle. Eyes narrow and concentrate on reading the other's intentions, and feet square off in the sand.

"Begin!"

Xerael quickly brings his battle staff around and aims it at Vargas, hurling a massive ball of flame at him. It singes the earth and closes the distance rapidly, then burns furiously against Vargas' shield, swirling over and over impotently against the wall of Holy aura. Xerael draws his staff back, surprised and intrigued. The shield dissipates along with the spell and Vargas flashes his claw at him, then charges headlong with one arm drawn across his chest.

Xerael steps back and holds his staff close with both hands, concentrating on a powerful spell. A deep, dark power forms within and around him, coloring the air with a mixture of red and black hues. They swirl inwards like a pinwheel-shaped smoke cloud, gathering together into a weave of arcane magics the likes of which Xerael has spent years perfecting. He grits his teeth and counts the seconds off as Vargas draws closer, finally finishing the last rites of his spell and releasing its energy in a massive wave of magical power.

He smiles to himself as the punishing spell Quasar seems to disintegrate Vargas into nothing on contact... but the moment's only fleeting, as a hard kick sends Xerael lurching forward with a yelp. He barely has time to even stand up straight again before Vargas starts slashing away at his back, cutting into his flesh deeply and in a hurry. Xerael manages to turn around and start blocking with his staff, but not before Vargas has a chance to cut a few straps on his armor and break it off.

He grunts and backs away, erecting a hasty shield to buy himself time and hiding behind it. Vargas strikes at it a few times and spits, then backs away a few steps as he performs a series of swinging arcs and pose switches. Xerael thinks quickly and waits until the shield drops, then feints inaction and watches while Vargas charges forward, arms swinging... and just when it seems that Vargas will engage him hand-to-hand, Xerael slams his staff into the ground and summons a wall of flame that rises in front of Vargas and slants backwards, washing him with a curtain of fire.

Vargas curses and stumbles backwards, wiping his face off. I swear, that's the last time I get hit by that spell!

When he finally stop shaking his head and looks up, it's to see Xerael forming another spell with his staff and preparing to launch it his way. Vargas crosses his arms over his chest and snarls, and when the spell finally comes his way in the form of a powerful lightning bolt, he disappears in a cloud of black smoke and reappears behind Xerael, powering up and releasing an Aurabolt attack before he has time to react.

Xerael falls forward, somersaulting once and landing on his back. He begins to get up slowly, placing first one hand and then the other on the ground while getting up. Vargas comes up behind him, weapons ready to attack, and Xerael turns his head to the side to listen for his footsteps, and just when Vargas stops moving and prepares to strike, Xerael spins around and levels his staff at him, unleashing a tremendous burst of dark energy that slams into Vargas' chest and explodes.

He's lifted into the air and thrown backwards several meters, but he manages to remain upright and lands on both feet, sliding backwards and collapsing to one knee, then placing a hand on the ground. He pants hard for a moment and finds himself thinking not of the fight, but about Rika... again.

That style... it's a lot like hers... He muses. He's from Tzen, though I don't know where she's from... maybe they were Imperials?

Xerael comes at him with a series of strikes and lunges with his staff, but Vargas blocks and parries them all without thinking, his mind still far away. Xerael grits his teeth and slashes away furiously, but unsuccessfully. Growing frustrated, he steps back and slams his staff in the ground, causing a great burst of ice magic to explode between them, knocking both men backwards.

Xerael takes the time to cast a quick healing spell on himself, while Vargas falls to one knee again, gasping for breath as he stifles a sob, because somewhere in the middle of his musing, his thoughts had turned to Darell.

Damnit, Darell! Why'd you make me do it?!

Xerael notes his inaction and makes another opportunistic move, summoning a quake under Vargas' feet.

I helped you! I studied with you!

The chasm grows larger and the ground shakes, but still he doesn't move... instead, breathing harder, his breaths becoming ragged and labored.

If I can kill my friend... if I can kill my own father... if I can do that...

He closes his eyes and clenches his jaw, forcing a tear down his cheek.

Then... I can... do... just about anything...

The earth falls away beneath his feet and he finds himself suddenly weightless, plummeting downwards into a deep chasm with no end in sight. He throws his head back and up to the sky, opening his eyes to the harsh lights of the domed ceiling.

Anything.

His eyes close again as his arms stretch out to his sides, as if he's offering himself to some powerful deity for divination.

And suddenly he disappears in a cloud of smoke, and reappears in front of Xerael. Actually half-expecting this, Xerael only pauses for a moment and takes a step back, then uses his staff again to attack Vargas... but this time, Vargas slaps it aside effortlessly, throwing it several meters away. Taken aback and without a weapon to defend himself with, Xerael attempts to erect a shield and falls back further, trying to put distance on them. Vargas acts too quickly and teleports behind him, slashing at him with his claws twice and gutting his back. He then teleports back to the front and kicks and punches and slashes with shocking speed, carving him up surgically in a matter of seconds that seem to pass in slow-motion for both of them.

When all's said and done, Xerael's falling in a somersault to his side, blood pouring from several wounds. He lands hard and rolls while Vargas floats back to the ground after a high jumping roundhouse kick, assuming a tough-looking stance with his fists clenched at his sides and his legs apart. Everything falls silent for a split second, a brief period of time where time slows and only two things matter: Vargas and Xerael, one dying and one alive.

Vargas' hair flaps in an odd breeze, now loosened and hanging all about with his hair tie gone, and the crowd explodes in a great cheer, chanting his name yet again. Cicero leans back in his seat and places a hand on his mouth, watching him with concern. Next to him, Rika opens her fan and waves it, cooling herself off and smiling at him. I've got him.

A chill runs down Vargas' spine as he stands looking at Xerael's body, and a tear rolls down his face... and at that moment only one word comes to mind in his head, repeating over and over.

Father...

***

Later that day, after Rika has won her match with her next bracket opponent, Cicero goes to Vargas' room and stands in front of it, breathing in deeply once. He checks himself and stares at the door, then swallows his fear and knocks on it lightly, and waits.

Inside, Vargas sits on the floor in a meditative stance. In front of him a ball of fire floats in the air, cradled between his two cupped hands and rolling over and over calmly. He then opens his eyes, ignoring the sound of knocking coming from his door, and concentrates on the fire, moving one hand out ahead of him. The fire then begins to swirl and form a snakelike column, bridging the space between his hands and following his right palm. His heart beats faster and a cold sweat breaks on his forehead, and he holds his breath as he extends his arm further and feels through the fire, making it extend outwards and reach across the room.

He then grins widely and allows the fire to dissipate, then lets his hands fall into his lap. He did it. He manipulated the flame. The next level in his training, and he did it on his own.

The knock comes at the door again and he jumps, mildly startled. He calms down quickly and rises, composing himself on the way up. "Come in."

Cicero opens the door slowly and steps in, then closes it behind him and crosses his arms in front of him. "I, uh... came to speak with you about--"

"About what?" Vargas says, cutting him off and turning around.

"You looked distracted back there, in the pit..."

Vargas crosses his arms and levels his head at him. "...What about it?"

"Just wondering if that was going to be a problem in the future."

Vargas shakes his head slowly, with cold eyes. "It won't."

Cicero looks in his face, studying the lines and folds... then nods. "Let's hope so. You're due up in a couple hours."

Vargas tilts his head and narrows his eyes. "Again? After a fight like that?"

"Yes, again. Your rematch with Terral?"

Vargas slowly nods, diverting his eyes to the ground. He'd totally forgotten about that. Cicero looks him over during their silent moment and then uncrosses his arms, turning back around and heading for the door. "I wouldn't worry too much about it. You've been through rougher gauntlets before, and you've already beaten her once."

"Wait, Cicero..." Vargas says, stepping closer as Cicero stops and turns to face him, his hand on the doorknob. "When exactly is our fight, again?"

Cicero pauses for a second before answering, swinging the door open as he does so. "In three hours. You have that long to prepare."

And with that, he steps out and closes the door behind him, leaving Vargas standing alone and staring at his door. He stands for a long while with his arms crossed and his head down, drifting into an almost meditative state of contemplation.

Three hours. I can meditate for a while before then, practice some... nah, I could use some rest. Xerael actually took a bit out of me. Shoot, this whole week's been takin' a lot out of me. I'll be glad when this whole thing's over. I'm getting tired... too many bad memories, too many new enemies...

An image of Darell flashes in his head suddenly and that finally forces him to consciousness. He looks around his room in slight confusion, then gathers his composure and walks off to his bed, sitting cross-legged on the floor mattress and beginning his meditation exercises.
Caves of Narshe: Final Fantasy VI
Version 6
©1997–2017 Josh Alvies (Rangers51)

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