He's getting closer.
The Mana bullet lay ready in his left hand. He closed his eyes and focused entirely on Perception.
You lost 600 HP!
His body could not take the strain, however he had no other choice but to bear the pain. Two streaks of blood were now dripping down the corners of his mouth.
Kid!, called out Kirin furiously. Helial was too focused to take notice.
The Shadow was now only ten yards away.
Helial's eyes shot open. He first moved the arm back then let out a scream and hurled a tiny sphere of Mana at his own Shadow.
It was the Mana he had condensed during the first task. The Sphere, however, was not fast enough to hit the Shadow frontally, and even if it had hit him, it probably would not be powerful enough to kill him.
The Sphere kept moving forward. The Shadow sneered. It was not going to it him. The Shadow kept advancing straight ahead, fearless. It moved slightly sideway just enough to avid the sphere of Mana.
After hurling the sphere, Helial did not break the momentum his body had gained and, twirling around violently, he aligned his right hand with the sphere of Mana.
The Skill Mana Pistol is amplified by 5 times.
The damage increases by 500%.
Your body cannot bear the strain; the Meridians in your left hand are injured.
You will be unable to use your left hand for 3 days.
You lost 700 HP.
Helial let out a bloodcurdling scream. His voice did not even sound human anymore, but it sounded more like the scream of a demon.
A thunderous boom spread from his hand. Mana Pistol had just let out an extremely powerful shot. It was likely to have the same destructive power of the sphere of Mana generated by Kirin and condensed by Helial.
The Shadow saw the bullet shooting towards him at great speed. It would have been impossible for him to dodge it, since he had the limited agility of a boy. Anyway, he just had to parry the Mana bullet in order to avoid serious injuries. But suddenly the Shadow noticed that something was amiss: the bullet was not coming his way! The Mana bullet was approaching at high speed but was not directed at him!
Shit, thought the Shadow. He finally got it! The Mana sphere was dangerously close to him and the bullet was directed right at it.
Mana Pistol had something different this time. The quantity of Mana was more or less the same as the other times, but Helial had Condensed the Mana to the point of emitting a monstrous charge. Mana Pistol was a Skill that was learned right at the beginning of the First Phase, destined to be forgotten soon enough, replaced by more powerful Skills. It was the first time a bullet of Mana Pistol appeared so magnificent. That Skill, void of any Affinities and without tendencies towards any kind of Energy, was now showing itself in all its terrifying splendor.
Helial had not aimed at the Shadow. He knew perfectly well he had no chance to injure such a stronger version of himself. He had been forced t be clever. Helial had kept the sphere of Mana hidden in his palm, pretending it had long dissolved.
No one had said that was against the rule, but he could tell from Kirin's reaction that the Qilin was not happy about it.
Helial was exhausted. He had lost half of his HP to pull that stunt. The skin of the hand that had activated Mana Pistol was now cracked due to the exploded capillaries. Blood was dripping copiously along his fingers coating the chunk of raw meat that was everything that was left of Helial's hand.
The boy fell on one knee, trying as hard as he could to not fall face first on the ground. Despite all this, only one thought was flashing in his mind: Victory.
BOOM BOOM BOOM
The bullet had reached the sphere of Mana, which exploded with unbelievable violence. The shockwave threw Helial off his feet, even if he was standing quite far from where the explosion took place. He slammed hard on his backside. But while Helial had not suffered much, the same could not be said of the Shadow. The latter had been tore apart by the blast of Mana, losing one arm and part of the trunk. The Shadow was now lying on the ground, puking blood. Even though the bullet was not aimed at him, the force of the blast had defeated him completely.
Kirin just stood there gaping; that was not something you could see every day. During his long life, he had seen many things, including fights between great geniuses who could bridge the difference between Phases. But it was the first time he had seen anything like that. That kid… was more a demon than a genius. He had almost lost a hand to generate a bullet well beyond his abilities and had used it to blow the sphere of Mana obtained from the first task…
Ruthless! He was flat-out ruthless!
What genius would have put such a plan into practice? He had risked a permanent injury to his Meridians to secure his victory. What kind of kid had the guts to do that? Kirin knew the answer and it terrified him. It was not rare to meet supergeniuses in the universe. It was nothing out of the ordinary, just a matter of likelihood. How many people had an incredible innate aptitude for Mana? Kirin knew several even more talented than Helial in terms of Mana Control, but he could not say he knew any as ruthless as that boy.
He could have had the greatest talent in the world, but he would have died for sure if not for his fast and lucid thinking.
The Shadow was bleeding Mana from the deep gushes and was about to vanish.
Helial made himself pick up Curse of the Demon, that had been waiting to be used since the beginning of the task. He stood up and, stumbling, he covered the few yards that separated him from the Shadow. Every step costed him an incredible effort, while dragging with only one hand the ridiculously large, but oddly lighter, weapon.
Kirin was speechless.
After managing to lift the Longsword and almost being crushed by the weight, Helial dropped a blow on the Shadow's head, finishing the job.
His doppelganger made of Mana vanished and Helial fell on his knees, letting the sword fall on the ground with a heavy thud. He was exhausted. He had put all his efforts into passing the second task. Everything had happened so fast but if he had waited a second longer he would have likely been hacked to pieces. It was a weird feeling: for the first time Helial had found himself in a life or death situation. He had to make a very difficult choice in just a fraction of a second. Despite having already killed Goblins, this could be seen as Helial's true blood baptism.
For the first time in his life, he had faced a desperate situation. He still had no idea, but this had initiated a change in his mentality that was going to be fundamental for his development. His heart, from that moment on, was not going to be overwhelmed anymore by envy for stronger opponents. Kirin had already understood that: no one would ever scare that boy again. Though, it was not entirely a good thing. He would have needed a Master now, to discourage him from starting on the wrong path.
A deafening roar made Helial's ears whistle. The boy was expecting something like that, since after all he had smuggled the sphere of Mana.
You brat! I'd never have thought you capable of such brazen act! Who allowed you to keep that sphere of Mana? I don't recall I ever did, moreov-
"But you didn't forbid it either. I won. Heal me and let's move on to the next task," interrupted Helial, who had no intention of questioning his, albeit reprehensible, victory.
PWAHAHAHAHHA, do you really think you can trick me? You lost. You didn't pass the task counting only on your strength. You tried to bite off more than you could chew. In the future, try to be more respectful of mythological creatures like myself, stated Kirin proudly. I will heal you and then send you back to the hole where you came from. PWAHAHAHAHHA. Learn to respect your daddy and maybe one day you'lli be strong enough to find another fragment of my soul. PWAHAHAHAHHA.
"You've never said anything about that. Are you afraid I might pass the third task?" inquired Helial, with a frown. The Qilin was acting oddly. Could he really be afraid of Helial passing the task? No… It was impossible. The first task was still doable, the second one was borderline impossible, the third one was bound to be mind-blowing. This all led to how strong the Skill at stake might be. Gaining the body of a Qilin would allow Helial to dominate everyone in his same Phase.
Helial was deep in thought and suddenly it looked like he had an Epiphany.
"What do you want me to do to gain access to the third task? I'm willing to take the second test again after being healed. Are you in?", asked Helial, the corners of his mouth curved slightly.
I'm sorry, kid, stated Kirin solemnly, you did not prove yourself worthy of the Skill.
"I'm willing to do the second task over again. Even raising the difficulty level, let's say… by 60 times?"
This time, Kirin almost choked, but was able to splutter, K-k-kid, I'm sorry, I-I can't make any exceptions. You lost. You will be sent back to the cave. Farewell.
Some years earlier, in the Headquarters of the Mana Congregation
"Boy, you have to understand that acting honorably is the basis to a successful life. You see, unfortunately I made a serious mistake when I lived in the Capital and now I found myself here to expiate my crime," Vidio sighed, in mood for heart-to-heart talks. Helial had almost become a friend to him, the only person, beside the servants, with whom he normally interacted. Vidio was the only real Master of the Congregation in the city.
"Brat, if I had acted honorably… well, I probably wouldn't be here now."
"Master, I have a question."
"Were you forced to live the city and come here because you didn't act honorably?"
"But what would have the consequences have been if you remained in the capital?"
"I would have had to renounce to be a member of the Congreg-"
"And why didn't you do that? You've been here for ages and you're unhappy; why didn't you leave the Congregation?" asked Helial puzzled.
"Kid," started saying Vidio, "it's not as easy as you make it sound. First of all, after leaving the Congregation, one has to pay them back for all the resources they provided for your training. Plus, you have to fulfil very dangerous missions for them, so as not to end up on their black book. There are several conditions… do you really think they would let you go as if nothing happened? Besides, without the Congregation's aid, I wouldn't have access to all the resources I need, I would have to restart from scratch. Do you think is that easy to give everything up? Everything in this world comes at a price, kid, everything."
And there are some things that would cost me much dearer than a handful of stupid Skills, thought Vidio.
In the present
A beam of light shot out of Kirin's paw and enveloped Helial, healing all his injuries, both the minor and the serious ones.
The bleeding Helial found himself immersed in warm golden light, the same one that had cured him after the first task.
This Qilin is full of resources. But I am no fool.
Your Health has been restored to 100%!
All of a sudden, Helial found himself in the cave where he had first sensed the presence of Kirin.
Could he really have lost just like that? Because of a mere trick? Was that Qilin so touchy to reject him like that?
The corners of Helial's mouth curled in an amused grin.
It was morning. An entire night had gone by since he had been carried in another dimension by Kirin.
Lumia? Helial turned around. The spot where Lumia had been sleeping was now empty. Only then he realized that the rocks that were blocking the entrance had been moved and were now shattered to pieces. The feeble light could now flood the cave undisturbed.
Helial took a deep breath. He could not afford to make a mistake: he only had one shot.