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Art of War

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“Come now, Aeleus. Where is your confidence?”

“But Master, these are real weapons.”

“And? I do recall forbidding the use of real weapons for spars, but that has never stopped you three before.”

“I…I apologize. But Master, what if you get hurt?”

As soon as the words were spoken, a loud obnoxious laugh rang from the other side of the courtyard. Ansem and Aeleus looked over to see Braig doubled over by the steps between the colonnades, waving his hands in exaggerated motions.

“Really, Dude? That’s rich. As if his Lordship would suggest a real duel if he had any reason to think he wouldn’t come out of it completely unscathed. You should be worrying about yourself.”

“Nonsense.” Ansem chuckled to himself. “It has been a good while since Aeleus and I last sparred. I look forward to being pleasantly surprised. Naturally, you are not to hold back.” He nodded expectantly at Aeleus, who’s uncertainty only grew.

“I’m really not sure about this…”

“Aw, c’mon. This is the most exciting thing to happen around here since…I dunno, Even set the lab on fire?” Braig said. “Oh hey, what if I pretend to hold the others hostage and—

“If you even think of casting Zero Gravity on us, I will freeze you where you stand,” a new voice threatened sharply. Like the devil himself, Even appeared down the hall, Ienzo trailing behind him. “What’s going on here?”

In the center of the courtyard, Ansem the Wise stood in a battle stance, a rapier in his hand. Across him was Aeleus, clutching his axe tightly in front of him.

Ienzo broke off from Even to run to the railing, and watched the site with wide eyes. Braig grinned.

“Well, would you look at that? Look how excited he is. You wouldn’t disappoint your littlest fan, would you Aeleus?” Braig patted the spot next to him to signal Ienzo over. The child sat down, and watched his two guardians intently. Then spotting another face in the opposite hall, Braig waved his arm.

“Hey, Xehanort, you come over here too,” he called to the newest member of their group.

The quiet scientist stopped, and looked over. “What’s going on?”

“Duel of the century about to commence,” Braig explained. “Ansem the Wise versus Aeleus the Guard. Taking bets now.”

Xehanort glanced over at the two combatants, and when Ansem nodded at him, he bowed and moved to take a seat on Braig’s other side. Even came over as well, standing in the hall over the rail. All they were missing now was Dilan, but Braig had already caught him peering down from a balcony. If he wanted to come watch with them instead, he would.

Ansem had seen him as well, and chuckled. “It seems we’ve amassed quite the audience now.”

“Yes,” Aeleus agreed, knowing full well he had lost his chance to back out of this. He wasn’t entirely sure how he even got into this match in the first place. One moment Braig was talking, a lot, and the next he was suggesting a match between Master and student, a proposition Ansem found all too interesting.

“How shall we do this?” Ansem asked. “Magic or weapons only?”

“Magic,” Braig answered for them promptly. There was an uncharacteristically stern expression on his face when he said that, but when all eyes turned to him, the grin returned. “I mean, where’s the fun otherwise?”

“Actually, I disagree,” Even said. “Magic makes thing unnecessarily chaotic, and, in this matchup, would give his Lordship too great an advantage. They’re both accomplished warriors. They should let their weapons speak for them.” Ienzo nodded emphatically.

“Lame.”

Aeleus lowered his axe and straightened up. “Braig, would you like to have this duel instead?” he said calmly, but the frustration on his face was clear.

“As if. His Lordship would wipe the floor with me in ten seconds flat,” Braig tossed his arms up defensively. “Besides, how long do you think it’s been since I’ve seen the good King fight? I want a show! Hell!” he wrapped his arms around the two apprentices at his sides and pulled them in. “This is the first time Xehanort and the kid would be seeing him fight at all. Don’t you two want to see what the old man’s really made of?”

“I wouldn’t mind…” Xehanort admitted quietly. Ienzo just scowled and vehemently pushed Braig’s arm away. But the words stuck, and he looked back out into the soon-to-be battlefield with a small sheepish smile.

Aeleus met his eyes and grimaced.

“Don’t mind, Ienzo,” Ansem told him kindly. “I challenged you to this match, and it is a gentleman’s courtesy to let his opponent set the rules.”

“With all due respect, I can’t help but feel it was Braig who challenged me.”

“All the more reason for you set the terms,” Ansem said lightly, but then his expression hardened into that of a mentor’s. “Aeleus, I have no intention of forcing you to fight if you’re this reluctant, but as your teacher, I do wish to test how much you have improved since our last bout. I do know that you’ve been augmenting magic into your attacks, and I would like to see it on display. If you feel the magical gap between us is too great, we can set a handicap.”

“No,” Aeleus shook his head. “No handicaps. I too would like to face you at your full strength. Magic and all.” He held up his axe once more. They ignored Braig’s victorious fist pump in the background.

Ansem smiled at that answer. He turned to their audience. “Even, this will be a magic duel after all. I do not doubt our control, but just in case…”

“Yes, Sir, I have Reflect spells at the ready,” Even said firmly. Magic duels were dangerous even in the best of circumstances, and they had two non-combatants sitting out in the open. Xehanort and Ienzo both refused to stand in the (very relative) safety of the hallway.

“Oh. Yeah, yeah, me too,” Braig said more dismissively, but then turned to Ienzo. “Stay close to me. Shit does happen and the Prof fudges the timing, we teleport.” When this was accompanied by a rare solidary nod from Even, Ienzo listened.

“Good,” Ansem said. “Braig, will you referee this match?”

“Fight till the first hit?”

“Yes.”

“I’m on it,” Braig rubbed his hands together and sat up eagerly. He gave Xehanort a playful shove. “Hey, pay attention, kay? You’re in for a real treat.” Xehanort nodded, his expression severe.

With the setup taken care of, Ansem and Aeleus took several steps back. On Braig’s count, they lunged.

Whatever fears of chaos there were, they were quickly diminished. Ansem and Aeleus’ movements were swift and precise, and though Even’s fingers twitched a few times, he never needed to pull up a shield. The spells thrown around never came near them, or any part of the castle, a testament to the discipline of their casters.

Aeleus was a large man with a heavy weapon, but his speed was still formidable as he swung at his teacher with all of his strength, random quake spells summoning stalagmites around him. However fast he was though, Ansem was faster, and dodged each swing with elegant footwork, the anticipated rock formations serving as his steps. He wasn’t just on the defensive though, as pillars of light blasted through the stone, forcing Aeleus to time his swings carefully, and parry away any lunges that came his way during those openings. The duel resembled less a battle, and more an elegant dance.

Ansem the Wise was not only a scholar; he was also a very accomplished swordsman. Though Aeleus, Dilan, and Braig all favored different weapons, they still recognized him as a teacher, and considered themselves fortunate to be able to study military sciences under him.

Despite the lengthy preparations, and despite the fact that Aeleus likely set a new personal record for himself, the duel still ended quickly. After being led around the courtyard for a few loops, Aeleus started to slow, and that momentary falter was all of the opportunity Ansem needed. He jumped down from the rocks and in one motion, rocketed past Aeleus. In the split second they were right beside each other, the hilt of his sword, tapped the guard’s side.

“Hit!” Braig yelled out, and the duel was over.

Aeleus quickly took a knee, breathing heavily as sweat poured down his face. In contrast, Ansem the Wise still stood tall, humming to himself happily. With the match over, Ienzo rushed over from his seat. Though he was never an expressive child, even he couldn’t hide the excitement on his face. Even and Xehanort followed after him. Braig remained spread out on the steps, head rolled back, and a huge grin visible.

“That was an excellent match,” Ansem told Aeleus and held out his hand to help his opponent to his feet. “You’ve improved.”

“Thank you, sir,” Aeleus said, though his disappointment was palpable.

“There were a few hits in there I wasn’t quite sure I would avoid. Had we fought without magic, I think the outcome could have been very different. We should test that at the next opportunity.”

“…Thank you, sir,” Aeleus said again and bowed. He knew the difference in strength between him and his mentor. The only difference he could picture was that it may have taken slightly longer to arrive at the same result. The duel was still a good one though, and even now his next training session mapped itself out in his head.

There was a tug at his pant leg, pulling Aeleus out of his mind. Ienzo stared up at him.

“Don’t worry, I’m alright,” Aeleus assured him with a tired smile. “I lost because I still have much to learn. You should congratulate Master Ansem.”

Ienzo nodded, but instead of doing so, he raised his hand and a soothing green light enveloped Aeleus, quickly washing away the fatigue.

“Curaga?” he asked in surprise. The healing spell felt too potent to have been anything weaker.

“I see Ienzo has been training hard as well,” Ansem said approvingly. “How do you feel, Aeleus?”

“Great. Thank you, Ienzo.”

“That was simply exhilarating,” Even clapped politely. “I will never grow tired of watching you in combat, Sir.”

“Thank you,” Ansem said and looked at his newest apprentice. “Xehanort, what did you think? Does this inspire you to take up a sword?”

“Oh no, I couldn’t,” Xehanort said, carefully. It seemed Ansem was referring to that strange sword-like weapon he’d had when they rescued him. Xehanort knew for certain it wasn’t his. “I learned a lot from this duel. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to spectate.”

“Yes! Yes!” Braig called out from his seat. “That was friggin’ awesome! Aeleus, I owe you man.”

“Perhaps you would like to cash in by helping clean up the courtyard,” Ansem suggested. Though the magic had been contained, they had still uprooted a good deal of the field.

“I’ll do you one better. Leave clean up to me.”

You?” Even exclaimed in disbelief. “By yourself?”

“Eh…” Braig considered it. “Xehanort, buddy, you’ll help right?”

“I don’t mind.”

“Still. You?” Even eyed him critically.

“Hey, Ev, believe it or not, I’m an apprentice too,” Braig replied squarely. “There’s honestly a lot for me to digest here.”

“Oh? Was this match a test run for your own challenge to me?” Ansem asked with a knowing grin.

“Maybe.”

“Very well, I’m looking forward to it,” Ansem looked at Aeleus, Even, and Ienzo. “Shall we take Braig up on this rare offer?”

“If that’s really alright,” Aeleus said. “I could use a shower.”

“Yes,” Even said without hesitation.  

Ienzo followed after the rest of them obediently.

When the four were out of sight, and Dilan vanished from the balcony, Braig got up and walked over to Xehanort, throwing an arm around his shoulders.

“So, what’d you think?” he asked, the usual joviality in his attitude completely gone.

“That was intense.” Xehanort said with a frown. “Master Ansem is...strong.”

“No shit. I was really banking on Ael lasting another minute at least. Dude is a monster.”

They studied the remains of the courtyard closely. Most of the damage had come from Aeleus’ quakes, but the light pillars left cinders as well, and Braig couldn’t forget how easily Ansem had anticipated the placement of every one of those random spells.

“How would you gauge your own odds at the present? Would you last this long?”

“As if. I wasn’t kidding about getting my ass handed to me in ten seconds.” Braig shuddered. “Hell, I don’t even believe in fighting fair. I would absolutely send “accidental” stray bullets into the peanut gallery and he still wouldn’t break a sweat crushing me and blocking each one. And don’t even think about sneak attacks. Man could pick out my breathing on the other end of the Garden.”

“I see,” Xehanort said thoughtfully. “Interesting. If the need really should arise, how do you propose we proceed?”

“What, am I supposed to think of that too? Aren’t you a slave driver,” Braig retorted, but already the gears in his head were turning. “Ah well, still kinda hoping it doesn’t come to any of that, but I’ll think of something. “Supreme excellence without fighting” and all that crap.”

“Hmph. And here I’d thought you’d enjoy surpassing your Master in a proper fight.”

“I just told you, I don’t believe in proper fights.” Braig let go of Xehanort and looked up at the sky. His golden eye seemed to glow in the light.

“Crushing the Master utterly. One way or another. Now that’s how you surpass him.”