The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.
Despite his newfound strength, Adam had a hard time going through the first matches— finding decent opposition amongst the young talents brought here to compete in every duel.
"I'm glad to know that you haven't lost yet. It would've been a real shame to see our competition crumble before we can even cross blades," said Xenovia the moment they saw each other. The smirk on her face was insufferable.
It was the first time where they both were out of the arena simultaneously—meaning they had won their fights nearly at the same time.
Adam was puffing, looking at 'nothing' with a sharp gaze. Something that Xenovia had remarked he did often.
"That is true," Adam said before drinking the water they gave each contestant at the start of the tournament. He shot a glance at the woman sitting next to him in his cell before returning to his previous activities. His eyes focused on thin air. "Come to think of it, you don't seem tired of your matches?"
"No." She sighed. "It appears that I have gotten the lucky side of this trial. Every opponent I have fought until now has been… inadequate."
Adam simply nodded, but he knew that there was more to this. The difference between their current states ran deeper than this.
Despite having surpassed Xenovia in strength and constitution, he had realized that his lack of dexterity seriously hurt his fighting style.
His swings were rough, powered by his insane strength, but lacked the previous finesse he had painstakingly trained for when he learned of the incoming Holy Sword Trials. His weaker body was much more adapted for the swordsmanship his late mentor had given him, and he struggled to adapt and change his usual style.
Moreover, Xenovia—trained by Griselda Quarta herself, a fearsome sword master renowned in the entire world—was definitely better than Adam in the way of the sword, and thus could dispose of those opponents who would give Adam trouble.
His influx of strength came at a cost, Adam realized, in the arena.
"Are they inadequate, or are you much stronger than the average exorcist?" Adam spoke, looking at the ongoing fights on the stage. Compared to the exorcists on the bleachers, the cells were at eye-level with the arena, so it didn't give Adam the best view to analyze the fights, but it was enough for him to scan them using his skill [Truth].
The results… were as he expected.
"Please," Xenovia scoffed. "I'll admit that I am a decent exorcist, but according to Mother, I am still at the beginning of my journey."
"I still have a long road before I can contend with her and other great exorcists."
One of the brightest female exorcists in the world trained the girl, so it made sense that she was above most contestants. However, the lack of self-awareness she possessed shocked Adam, no matter how many times she displayed it.
Adam lifted his eyes off of 'nothing', to talk to Xenovia, who followed his gaze with her eyes.
"Xenovia, the people that you are comparing yourself with are all accomplished men and women who had been fighting evil for years." He gestured to the young exorcists battling with each other in front of them. "We — No... they are barely warriors and most of them have never even seen blood in their lives."
Xenovia didn't understand the relation between warriors and blood, since exorcists were warriors in her eyes and often had to deal with beings that didn't have any blood flowing through their bodies—such as ghosts and revenants.
But she figured Adam must have been raised on old values. She didn't even know if these could be values belonging to the Church. But then again, what she knew was that the Church had changed a lot throughout the centuries.
"And you have?" she asked.
"Yes." His brief answer said it all. Just like Xenovia speculated, his late mentor had 'old-school' beliefs that one can only become an exorcist by being in the field.
In Adam's experience, fields, where exorcisms were required to intervene, were filled with disturbing details—dark rituals, sacrifices, ghosts… Blood was the most normal of them.
His late mentor wasn't what Xenovia would call a normal exorcist, either.
"... That much?"
"Far more than I would have liked." Adam paused. "But far less than what is necessary."
Xenovia blinked her eyes once. "And what exactly is necessary?"
"... But of course, the extermination of all Evil." Adam's expression silenced her. It was as if what he had said was such a given that he implied the blue-haired exorcist was stupid for even asking the question.
There it is again, she thought. The moments where she genuinely feared that her new friend was a fanatic.
She pursed her lips. "... Are you talking about devils?"
"Among other things, yes." He ever so slightly tilted his head to the side.
"I see." She lowered her head. What are those other things? "The problem is that... It's not that simple."
Adam pondered on her answer. He realized Xenovia was making the same mistake her predecessors did, so he looked at her and only spoke after a brief pause, "Is that truly the case?"
If she could not see the truth by herself, then Adam would wash himself of this responsibility. One could not force another to open their eyes, after all. He could only hope that she would understand before it was too late.
"Contestant number 68?" called out a voice. It was one that Adam recognized.
He turned around and walked away from Xenovia, who was narrowing her eyes towards Adam. She let out a long sigh of exasperation and wished him good luck.
"May you win this fight and grind to the top of this tournament. I'll be waiting for you," she said, as Adam left the cell.
He simply nodded in response, because he had no plans to lose this tournament.
"Ewald, who is that kid?" asked one exorcist in the bleachers. The words were directed to the middle-aged man walking towards him.
The voice was distinctively male and as he sat, his body unmoving, on a seat, covering his head full of coarse white hair with the hood of the priest vestments he wore, his eyes flickered towards the man approaching him.
The quiet tone, however, betrayed his age. The hoarse undertone of his voice accompanied his aged visage. Despite the wrinkles on his face, his body was a pillar of strength, representing the best of what humanity had to offer. The thickness of his arms and his neck were unnatural, just like the rest of his frame.
"Vasco Strada, my good friend." The man responded, taking a seat next to him. "Not even a hello? This brings great pain to my heart." He clutched his chest, right where his heart would be, in mock pain, with a calm smile on his face.
Vasco's only acknowledgment was a small nod and a grunt. The question he asked was still not answered.
"Who are you talking about, the black-haired one or the blond one?" Ewald's smile disappeared as he also turned his head towards the arena, where Adam and his opponent faced each other, waiting for the start of the match.
Only 32 contestants were left. Therefore the true start of the tournament was launched.
"The blond one is Michael Strazza. Coming straight from the United States, he is the heir of a long-lasting line of exorcists who have been loyal to the Church since their beginning." Catching Vasco's exasperated glance towards him, he allowed himself to smile just a bit at the dark-haired young man stretching his arms on the stage.
"The other one… is not as much a kid as Michael, and his name is Adam."
"No last name?"
"No last name. He is an orphan coming from a small town a couple of miles away from Florence…" he said, trailing off at the end.
Vasco stared at Adam for a few seconds before sighing. "So? What do you know about him," he asked.
"Truthfully? Not that much. My old master apparently took him in at the small Church he retired in. Other than that…"
"Your old master? The one that got kicked from the Church for his… fanatical tendencies?"
"I am afraid so." Ewald nodded.
Vasco took in this information, as he let the conversation peter out. Ewald's master was someone renowned in the Church, even to himself, as one of the greatest fighters of the past era. He was even someone that Vasco had considered being his rival at one point in time.
Alas, he did not take well to learning the truth about the Great War that ended centuries ago. He was someone passionate about his love for God. He preached the truth of the Bible any time he could and—of course—ended up devastated when he learned what had truly happened. The deception was not something he could endure.
Vasco knew little about what happened after that, but Ewald's master was quickly declared dangerous after such a revelation and was no longer deemed fit to be an exorcist. The old man was not even privy to the punishment he received, but it didn't matter anymore, as he had died a couple of years ago.
Meanwhile, his new disciple was already making a reputation of himself in the Church, as his holy energy grew with each fight. Adam returned each blow with more ferocity than the previous. He returned each slight with a zeal that Vasco had not seen in years.
If it wasn't for the current circumstances, Vasco would have immediately taken him in as a disciple of his own.
The discovery of another man raised by Tretario, Ewald's old master, was as interesting as it was dangerous. No one knew what Ewald's master taught Adam. Except for Ewald himself.
Vasco shot him a glance, looking for anything in his expression, but found nothing. Ewald was watching the match with his usual blank face, concentrating on the young men trading blows. What a problematic situation.
The Church did not allow people that knew of… God's secret out of the institution and in the open. Ewald's master was an exception that simply made little sense to Vasco. But it didn't matter to him. The tension between the three factions was at an all-time high and the Church could not afford to make any mistakes.
He hated acting like this, but if this Adam proved to become a mistake… Then he would meet his sword.
'Forgive me, Father,' prayed Vasco.
The life of one man didn't stack up against the fate of thousands. And as the current second strongest exorcist of the Church, Vasco had to decide. So he did.
"Ewald, you're part of the exorcists responsible for this tournament, right?"
"Good. Keep a close eye on this Adam. I think I don't have to tell you why." His orders made the middle-aged exorcist nod, not only because the order was from Vasco himself, but because he understood the gravity of the situation.
Only the divine above in the skies knew of the bile that rose from Vasco's stomach at the idea of trusting Ewald with anything. But he would have to do so. The song of battle was already blasting, and those that were aware of the situation knew. Vasco had wished that it wouldn't have been inside of the Church, however.
But wishes rarely became the truth, and miracles did not exist anymore.
Adam, on his way to his next fight, fiddled with the summoning token. It was a golden crystal-like golden stone that shined brightly under any light—as he had tested. The item could fit snugly in his palm and was decorated with a woven crown of thorns.
He observed the item with a heavy gaze for a few seconds before returning it to his inventory—a function that he discovered when he tried to retrieve the summoning token. Adam was still confused about the truth behind this strange crystal, but he knew that simply looking at it would not offer him any revelation on the divine meaning behind this reward.
He lifted his head towards the arena, the heat of the sun bearing down on him as he left the shadowed region of the coliseum. His new height allowed him to get a better view the surroundings, so he looked at his opponent. Blond hair, as tall as himself, strong and defined muscles—geared towards fighting if his intuition was to be trusted—and an annoying smirk on his face.
His opponent's green eyes gleamed with amusement, which made Adam furrow his brows. He steeled himself and his expression became blank as his eyes were laser-focused on Michael Strazza, if the name on the status displayed by his skill [Truth] was correct.
And it was, it was always correct. But that was the problem. Right in the middle of the information that he could glean from anyone affected by the skill, the faith and impurity stats were displayed. Adam's hands gripped the handle of his sword harder, and his glare tightened. I must purge the infidels.
He let out a long, and almost pained sigh as resignation settled on his face. He was not amused at all by the number of heretics he found wandering around these sacred walls. The thought already made him wince, the question 'how' coming back at the forefront of his mind every time.
Michael only scoffed when seeing Adam's serious and cold expression. He even allowed himself to chuckle a little when seeing the state of Adam's weapon. Sections of the edge were dented, and the weapon looked a dull grey as a result of zombie innards corroding the steel. Even with Adam taking care of it as much as possible last night, he simply couldn't perform the impossible and, as a result, he couldn't restore his claymore completely until he had access to a blacksmith.
It was even possible that the weapon was beyond repair. Who knows what the zombie blood did to the steel.
Despite its state, this sword would have to do for Adam. He watched his status once more while Michael took a relaxed stance, waiting for the match to start.
His body changed a lot in just a couple of hours, just like Xenovia remarked. Thanks to the bouts he won in this arena, under the eyes of everyone the Church gathered to witness these trials, he had maxed out his warrior role, but he had not yet decided on which role to take next amongst the choices he had been given.
However, his three other stats only experienced meager gains, as every single point he earned in these categories was only through his efforts. Though he still did not know how he earned some points, to begin with, in CHA, which he supposed was Charisma.
Even the small amounts he gained in INT and WIS affected his holy energy on a noticeable scale. But the biggest change came from the advancement in his skill [Holy Energy Manipulation] in which he achieved its fourth, thanks to the fights against fellow exorcists.
Michael scoffed loudly, just enough for Adam to lift his eyes off his status and shoot him a glance. The bored demeanor of the blond-haired exorcist reflected Adam's eyes, who knew that Michael tried to get his attention.
"... What," Adam bit into the bait, unbothered by the disdain Michael projected towards him. If he cared about every heretic's opinion, he would not have gotten far in life. The blond's eyes wrinkled, focused on Adam as the corner of his lips lifted into a childish smirk.
"Nothing," said Michael, shrugging exaggeratedly. "I was just.. wondering how someone like you managed to get so far into the trials."
Adam's gaze became flat, and his breath hitched, as he couldn't believe what was happening. He could have tried to talk with Michael, see what was his problem, answer to his provocation...
But he didn't have time to deal with what looked like a pompous brat. The golden beads, forming a chain around his neck, each gold pearl bigger than the cross dangling on his torso, the pristine clothes, as if he never fought at all…
Michael meanwhile silently gritted his teeth. Taunting his opponents had worked every time until now, but this strategy would have to be put on the back burner as he advanced through the tournament. However, he inwardly nodded in acknowledgment. Despite his appearance, he at least isn't as stupid as the others I faced, Michael thought.
Adam let out a brief sigh and simply ignored Michael in the end. A heretic was one thing. A young and annoying heretic was another.
Unluckily, Michael was both. He looked to be barely into his teenage years, and though Adam could be mistaken—and since the [Truth] skill didn't inform him of the age of the targeted people—he only had his eyes to trust. But Adam didn't think of Michael as pitiful as many others would have made the mistake to think, in his opinion. Michael's age only meant one thing to him… That he could cut down an evil before it could truly fester into something putrid and, more importantly, powerful.
Evil was evil, no matter the circumstances.
And considering Michael's position as an exorcist, as evidenced by his clothes—similar in some ways to Xenovia—it was an evil that would entrench itself inside the Church.
A genius and talented young boy, who should have devoted himself to the Church but fell prey to the manipulations of Evil… Truly a tragedy, thought Adam, watching the referee take his spot between the two men, ready to confront each other.
One with a frigid look but a burning zeal, the other with an expressive face but a calm and focused mind.
"Are you both ready?" said the referee, distancing himself from the fighters. His steps on the dry earth that composed the arena were like a countdown, the arid and coarse grass—turning yellow from the bright sun that never left the sky in this artificial dimension—that he crushed under his heels, resonated in both Michael's and Adam's ears.
They both stared at each other, taking their stances.
Adam was the first to act. He dashed towards Michael without a second to waste, the edge of his sword providing a dull glint in the sunlight. Sword raised against the enemy and, thanks to his newfound strength, he created a powerful swing that only hit the air.
The edge of the blade burrowed into the ground, the shock wave continuing to split matter well after the tip of the sword.
Michael, who was observing the dark-haired man facing him, trusted his instinct and dodged at the last second a blow that, when looking at the aftermath, was recognized as too powerful to parry. Adam's attack, as a testament to his insane strength, fractured the very ground.
Adam took his weapon out of the ground and attacked once more with the same ferocity.
"Oh, what a bummer. I thought I would fight someone with a semblance… of intelligence this time, but I was mistaken," taunted Michael, rolling out of Adam's attack once more.
The dark-haired man only grunted, which elicited a small smirk from Michael, readying himself for the next attack. Internally, he was wondering if he could afford to keep on dodging every attack like this, trying to gauge Adam's stamina from the state of his body. Unfortunately for him, no sweat could be found on Adam's face, even after those two powerful strikes, and the clothes hid any evidence Michael could find on his body.
The moment Adam's blade was raised again, Michael could only think about how much of a monster the man in front of him was. These strikes could have put me into grave danger, and that's just his natural strength apparently… he thought, the smirk never leaving his face. Well, no one will say that I didn't earn my place after winning this fight.
He ducked under the next blow and this time; he was the one on the offensive, hacking away at Adam's admittedly amateurish defense. Despite his powerful body, Adam was not experienced enough in swordsmanship to completely repel Michael's attacks. Pang! He blocked a strike to the left, letting his right side open because of overextension.
Michael took advantage of this as he delivered a powerful turnaround kick aimed at his right ribs. He took the hit with his arm, but even his strength could not stop him from being pushed away because of Michael's holy energy infusing his body. A technique that Adam still didn't know how to use. His mentor had passed away too soon, after all.
Michael's body didn't glow like Adam's when he used his holy energy. Instead, every ounce of his holy energy was stocked inside of his muscles, a golden and very faint haze being the only sign of the technique.
So faint that Adam had to squint his eyes to see it, and feel the pain spreading from the point of impact to understand it.
The bruise on his right arm already forming, Michael once more dashed towards him. With the help of his holy energy, he was faster than Adam, but not by a margin that would allow him to instantly win the fight.
Each blow became harder for Adam to block. But as taught by his mentor, he let small opportunities appear in his spotty defense, drawing Michael in further and further each time. Slight injuries stacked upon his body as his holy energy bubbled up inside of him, ready to roar at the enemy.
"What's happening, huh? What's happening, big man, thought you could act with impunity in front of me just because you have the muscles?" Even if Michael recognized the value of taunting against certain opponents, it didn't mean that he himself didn't enjoy the practice. Having been flaunted as a genius since his birth, it was with no small amount of pride that he walked into this tournament and already thought of himself as the winner. He delivered another slash to the leg, the area Adam had the most trouble protecting.
The dark-haired man buckled, one knee dropping to the ground in pain from the fearsome wound. He let out a pained groan as his sword lagged behind Michael's for just an instant because of the sudden drop. Michael smirked. This is my opportunity!
Light exploded from Adam's body, blinding Michael. But he didn't stop. His sword dug deeper into the air, bloodthirst and searching for Adam's flesh.
When his arm was gone the next second, he realized he had been fooled. It was Adam's opportunity all along. His limb unceremoniously fell to the ground, the cut not even making a noise.
Instead, an arc of golden light crashed into the wall behind Michael. Far, far away from Michael. The barrier surrounding the arena emitted a small buzz before the attack disappeared.
"T-that's Cristaldi's technique!"
"More importantly, stop the fight! This young boy will bleed out otherwise!"
The tension from a match that was thought an easy win for the blond was reversed in an instant. Michael tried to stifle the cry of pain his throat let out and tried to stop the blood from escaping the wound. But the red liquid poured, it poured around his fingers, like a never-ending waterfall. The itch from sticking his dirty palm onto his wound was nothing compared to the feeling of the warmth of his body cascading out from where his arm should be.
Michael huffed when he realized that life was leaving him. He fell to the ground and was hyperventilating. Sweat ran down his forehead and his face became paler and paler.
Meanwhile, Adam stood up slowly, his cold eyes burning with a fanatic fury, Michael kneeling in pain in front of him. He couldn't hear the shouts from the exorcists on the bleachers, nor the announcement that the match was over. He raised his blade high once more, ready to erase the heretic from the face of the Earth.
The gleam of Adam's sword made Michael jerk his head towards him. He froze, and his lips trembled when he realized what was happening. The sword was at the pinnacle, ready to lurch down at him and execute him.
"N-n-no, wait!" tried to say Michael, the pain of his arm missing and the blood loss making his vision blurry and his body cold. His eyes shook in terror, judgement had come for him.
The only thing that Adam's sword hit was a wall of steel. There was a clang as his claymore produced as it hit Vasco's back, bent, and finally broke under the strain, shaking Adam out of his daze. Pieces of his abused weapon fell to the ground.
"Unfortunately, I had to be right on a lot of things…" Said Vasco, but Adam could barely catch the rest of his sentence as he felt a powerful blow on his nape, and everything went dark for him.
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A/N: Sorry for the delay. Was hit by a writer's block and had a lot of inspiration for Ascension.