Chapter 35. One Punch

It was a new day. The rosy light of dawn lanced through the canopies of Arcadia, awakening the critters who scurried about. Everything was peaceful. Brightly-colored butterflies flapped silently among the vivid flowers, which danced alongside the gentle breeze. In the distance a stream babbled, its constant movement keeping the forest feeling, in a word, alive.

And as the lights shone through the treetops, Kel fon Grantz awoke. His eyes fluttered open, a crimson mirror reflecting the slice of serenity before him. His body ached from his training, but it was a dull, adaptable pain. Today was a full day of Arcadia, another day of facing off against Yuan, in an attempt to land but a single blow. He flexed his fingers before letting out a yawn. He was ready.

Alongside him, Alex Polivah joined him in consciousness. The new day light bathed gave his skin a slight pinkish glow. His eyes were not foggy as he woke up, but instead were crystal clear as he prepared himself mentally for the battle ahead. His once pristine noble robes had been torn and scuffed by his fierce battles, but he did not mind. He was ready.

The two locked eyes as they rose to their feet. They simply gave each other a nod. Today was the day. It had to be.

They found themselves a quick meal of wild game, nothing too hearty, to give themselves the energy they would need. They did not speak, for they didn't need to. Their actions were more than enough. They washed their faces in the stream, feeling the cool water drip over their faces for a moment as their thoughts reorganized themselves. Today was going to be different. Today was going to be the day they bested Yuan.

Once they had mentally prepared themselves, the two young mages stood before Yuan's little cottage, their fists clenched, their gazes steeled. Kel could feel his heart pounding rapidly. Last night, he had found his focus. He could use that power now. He was going to surpass Yuan's expectations.

The door to the cottage creaked open, and Yuan stepped out, a lazy yawn escaping her mouth. It had been a long week watching these two fail miserably, but she respected their tenacity. As her golden eyes took in the mages once more, she could feel a strange tension in the air. The boys' gazes were solid, focused, as if today would be their greatest battle. They looked ready to risk their lives. For a brief, almost impossibly short moment, Yuan was surprised, but she instead made a casual smirk.

"I suppose you're ready for another thrashing?" she cooed.

Kel gritted his teeth, but it was Alex who spoke up. "Just you watch, Master, we've got this now!"

"Oh?" Yuan chuckled. She stepped forward into the open clearing, her every move measured, her gaze never once wavering. She outstretched but a single arm, and beckoned forth her students with a curl of her fingers. "Prove it."

Kel was first to act. There was no time for hesitation! He launched himself forward. "One punch, right?" he said, throwing a right hook. Yuan caught the blow easily, and responded to his question with a nod. She pushed him back, but Kel was going on the offensive. One strike, two strikes, three, his fists lashing out in rapid succession. Yuan took note that he was no longer coating his fists in flames. Looks like he truly learned something.

She once again deflected each blow, before raising her knee in a swift shot to Kel's jaw, throwing him back. She swiftly turned about, however, as a lance of ice shot itself in her direction. She struck out with her leg, deflecting Alex's magic almost instinctively. Her movements were graceful, simple, yet elegant. She was so beyond them, but Alex would not give up. He'd be a shield.

Kel was back at it again, leaping into the air before coming down with a heavy kick. Yuan snatched him out of the air immediately, grabbing a hold of his leg before slamming him to the dirt with a heavy thud. Kel let out a loud gasp as the shock coursed through his body, but he was not deterred. As he lay on the ground, he pointed his hands up at Yuan. They glowed bright for a brief moment before a gout of fire escaped from them. The master mage, however, rolled to the side, avoiding his spell.

"Got you," Alex whispered to himself. He clenched his hands, focusing on his spell. The moment Yuan touched down on the ground, a magic rune manifested where she was. She looked down with genuine surprise as a pillar of ice was conjured beneath her, rising from the ground swiftly in order to strike her. But her reaction was too fast for Alex's slow magic, and she leapt up, riding the column as it shot ten feet upwards.

From her icy perch, she looked down on the mages, twirling her plait. "Casting from afar?" she said.

Alex nodded. "I'm not good close-up, I know this. So I'll support Kel and we will get you!"

Kel had already risen to his feet again, and shared a glance with Alex. "Right," he said. Then he turned his attention back to Yuan. "Get ready lady, because I'll wipe that smug look right off your face!"

Yuan couldn't put her finger on it, but these boys were different. Not just in their actions, but in their very presence. They were confident, but more than that. Had they found some sort of enlightenment? No...that'd be ridiculous. But even so, the potential in them was rising to the surface. If she wanted to bring it out, she'd need to push them harder.

She stretched her arm behind her, the veins glowing a searing orange that reached her palm. A loud crash boomed through the forest as Yuan launched herself with her explosion magic, obliterating Alex's ice spire as she rocketed into Kel, driving her boot into the young mage's torso. She sheer speed in which she did this took both Kel and Alex off guard, and Kel was summarily blasted backwards into the forest. Yuan immediately twisted on her feet, launching another kick towards the nearby Alex. Alex reacted a tad quicker this time, conjuring an ice wall to take the hit. Yuan's boot cracked it, but did not break it. Not that it mattered, since she launched another explosion through her hand into the ice, blowing it apart with a shrieking crash and throwing Alex back.

The way she moves and mixes magic with her martial arts, Alex thought, it's incredible. He hit the dirt with a thump, but managed to roll a bit and get to a knee.

Yuan was about to give another remark, but before words could even leave her mouth, she heard what sounded like a high-pitched whistle. She turned, and once again, had a look of genuine surprise as Kel came racing out the forest, condensed flames burning in his palm propelling him forward. Yuan barely reacted in time. Had she been just but a moment slower, Kel would have succeeded in driving his fist into her face. But alas, she caught the attack. However, she was pushed back several inches as Kel's punch had far more power behind it.

There was a wicked grin on Kel's face as he said "You're not the only one who can move!" Without missing a beat, Kel released another burst of condensed fire from his other hand, swinging himself in a wide arc around Yuan and trying to land a kick to the back of her head. Yuan ducked, leaving Kel hitting empty air, before she rose in a swift, yet brutal, uppercut to the back of Kel's knee. Kel let out a gasp of shock, but he wasn't done. Instead of trying to escape, he took that pain, and released a burst of flames from the sole of his foot, burning through his shoe instantly, and using the momentum of the blast to preform a midair back-flip, which ended with him on his feet. He took a moment to right himself, as such movements were unnatural to him and made him a little woozy.

Yuan was genuinely impressed with his maneuverability, but it was obvious he wasn't accustomed to it. So she took the opportunity to attack once again, aiming for an open palm explosion right at Kel's face. But, once again, her attack was stopped by a shield of ice barring her way. She hit the clear surface and destroyed it easily, but it kicked up a large cloud of steam that forced her to leap back.

They're fighting as a team, she noted as the fog dissipated. Kel's upfront attacks meant she could not take her eyes off him for a moment while Alex was free to bombard the battlefield with his ice. She smirked, more to herself than the boys, and silently commended them for such tactics. But she was a master for a reason.

Kel was back in focus, just in time to watch Yuan launch herself with another explosion, heading towards Alex. He tried to intercept, a burst of fire from his hands sending him at her. She responded with with an explosion aimed at the ground, sending her higher into the air and obscuring Kel's vision with smoke and ash. She then blasted herself forward again, coming down on Alex, hard. She was too fast to avoid, and Alex took an impossibly fast kick to the head instantly. Kel was there now, trying to use his newfound speed to catch up to her, but she could easily outpace him with her explosions. Alex got to his feet and watched them move through the battlefield with bursts of speed he could not hope to match. Anytime it looked like Kel could catch her, she responded with swift blows.

But Alex would not be deterred. They needed to do this. They needed to win. He needed to win. It was not just for his sake, but for the sake of Isolde. While he couldn't conjure an ice wall to shield Kel, he could observe the battlefield. There had to be a way. Yuan wasn't paying him attention. He wasn't that much of a powerhouse, he knew that, but he could still assist. He just needed to give Kel an opening...

Kel's teeth were bared as he and Yuan battled in this fast-paced bout. His head was dizzy from the sheer speed at which he was moving. He felt like he was going to vomit. But this new ability, Burst Fire, gave him the speed and mobility he needed to keep up with her. Using his focus, Kel was able to tighten and compress his flames, and by releasing them, just like a fireball, he created a system of propulsion that moved him around. But he was not used to it, not by a long shot, so he tended to overshoot his attacks, leaving him vulnerable to Yuan's counters. He was covered in bruises, his lip busted, and was sweating profusely from the amount of heat he was giving off, but he would not falter. He needed to win. He needed to become stronger than anyone so that he could defeat Gospel.

Yuan could see the glow in those crimson eyes. It was a glow of determination. He so desperately wanted to win. But his skills were simply not up to par. "You're strong," she said, grabbing his hand in mid-strike. "But..."

She never finished, before she could speak Alex roared. "Kel!" He cried. "We can do this! Focus!" He roared, louder than he could ever hope. He was going to help and be the shield that protected all! With every ounce of magic that he could gather, Alex Polivah released his icy walls. Throughout the clearing, pillars of ice shot out of the ground, forcing Yuan to dance about to avoid them. Realizing she was still gripping Kel's arm, she spun a full circle before throwing him into one of the ice pillars. They kept coming, crashing out of the ground with speed and ferocity. Yuan bit her lip, and, using both hands, launched a series of explosions that kept her aloft, weaving through the pillars until she could land on solid ground. In her wake was a massive cloud of fog that spread throughout Arcadia.

Alex grinned, dropping to his knees from the great amount of magic he expended. He was breathing heavily, but he did it, he gave Kel what he needed.

And what a boost it was! Kel came crashing through the pillars, flames bursting from his feet. Both of Yuan's hands were up now, catching his flame-propelled punch before countering with her free hand. But Kel kept going. He launched his flames from his feet, twisting in midair and soaring towards one of Alex's pillars. He would use them! Launching from pillar to pillar, leaving shards of glass-like ice and clouds of steam, Kel jettisoned himself in every direction, striking at Yuan from as many different angles as possible. She was able to keep up with his attacks, her explosions stopping his blows, but not his movements. To Yuan's shock, Kel was getting faster with each pass, using his momentum from the pillars to increase his speed and, therefore, his punches. If he kept this up...

There was a flash in Yuan's eyes. This was it. This was the potential Elephron saw in Kel, wasn't it? He was fighting like a completely different person. She needed to see more. She needed to see them go further and further. Such power needed to be honed. She grinned. "Is this it? Go farther!" Yuan shouted. Their potential was finally shining! So she'd push them to their limits and beyond! Her arm glowed, burning so bright it appeared as though her flesh were made of sunlight itself. She slammed her palm into the ground, and a deafening boom cracked through Arcadia, shaking the very earth beneath them. The trees bent and bark snapped, the pond beside the cottage steamed and hissed, the cottage itself seemed to shift to the side as a wave of absolute power spread through the magical dimension. Alex was nearly immolated, or at least, it felt as though his flesh were burning. His robes were torn to shreds, his upper torso now completely as his vision faded and his ears rang. His ice pillars were evaporated instantly, no match for Yuan's magic.

Kel was caught in the wave as well. The heat was awful, but manageable to him, who possessed great heat resistance. His eyes watered, his vision was going white, and he could feel blood oozing from his nostrils, his ears, his mouth. But he would not stop! He powered through Yuan's spell, moving faster and faster and faster. His flames compressed like streams of dragon fire, and for a moment, a brief, beautiful moment, his signature orange flames burned a shining azure. He raised his fist, ready to end it.

Yuan was impressed. He was still coming for her, even in this dome of heat and power. The very air waved and distorted, but she could keep her vision on Kel clear. He came in once more with a powerful right hook, flames trailing behind his fist. Yuan caught the blow, a shockwave releasing from their clash.

Alex saw Kel struggle to overpower her. Even with his head ringing, his eyes watering and his body in agony, he needed to do something, anything!

"Is this it?" Yuan said as Kel tried to follow through with his punch. "Surely you're stronger, right?"

Kel growled under the intense pressure. He would show her just how strong he was. He needed to be powerful. Simply watching Yuan fight gave him the idea to use his fire for a burst of speed. But if he could use it to move faster, then why not use it to strengthen his blows? That was it. He just needed to focus. Focus. One hand was blocked, but he still had the other!

Kel let out a roar. "Listen up, lady," he screamed. "I'm the Most Badass Mage in the Kingdom!" As he yelled with pride, a jet of flame blasted out the his free elbow. They were wild at first, but he focused, the flames condensing themselves one last to time to amplify his blow. Yuan noticed this, and prepared to strike back with her free hand, which glowed vividly once more.

The two were prepared for one final strike. But Yuan was faster, it was obvious. Kel took too much time to condense his fire fully. His rising blow would not catch her strike in time. She was heading for one decisive blow right to his face. He knew it. Damn! He was too slow.

But, so focused on Kel, that Yuan did not account for Alex. In a flash, a small sheet of ice appeared before her palm as she came down to finish Kel. It was brief, almost barely an existence, and evaporated into nothing just as quickly as it had appeared. But simply breaking through that ice slowed down her attack just enough that Kel's fist reached its target first.

"I will destroy him!"

Kel's fist followed through, a flaming punch striking like a meteor, blasting itself right into Yuan's stomach. He put every ounce of his body into the attack. His rage, his desire, his focus, it all melded together to form this one ultimate blow that demonstrated he was not to be underestimated. That every obstacle put before him would be blown asunder. He kept going, following through until he brought Yuan down with his power, driving her into the dirt. So powerful, this blow, that the very earth beneath him cracked and erupted into a geyser of fire and ash, dispersing the fog that had covered the magical forest.

Yuan, for her part, was completly flabbergasted as she felt her back crash against the ground, a gaping hole burned into her tunic. But, at the same time, she felt rather amused. As she lay on the ground, she could only smile. She underestimated these boys. She could see the light piercing through the canopy above her, shining down on Kel as he stood victoriously, his body bruised and hissing as steam came off of him.

"How's that?" Kel groaned out. He had did it. And then he immediately fell on his back. He was satisfied.

Yuan stayed on the ground for a while, letting the two enjoy their victory. Her abdomen was in immense pain, actually. Kel had probably busted one of her ribs, but she still smiled. The potential he possessed was immense. She exhaled deeply. What a show! But she was a woman of her word.

The real training was set to begin.