The crowd broke into an uproar the instant that happened. It went without saying that Kurdak was the victor. Though it should've been a duel to the death, if the victory was willing to spare the loser, the duel could conclude as it had.
The problem lay in how the end of the match should be decided. One side would have to die fighting or be suppressed in battle so completely that the duel's witness declared one of them the victor and concluded the duel.
However, while Kurdak did manage to subdue his opponent, the witness from the Association wasn't able to announce the results in time. In other words, the duel still hadn't ended. That was why Orwen's sneak attack wasn't against the rules, even if the audience raged against it as being underhanded.
"Shameless coward! How can there be scum like you in Starfall?!"
"You're so shameless as to ambush Kurdak, who tried to spare your life!"
"Screw off! Starfall doesn't welcome shameless scum like you!"
After seeing Orwen's underhanded attack, the crowd broke into a flurry of curses and rebukes. However, they knew the rules and understood the duel still hadn't ended, so they didn't rush forward to take action.
"Darn it! Orwen you scum!" cried Leguna as his expression darkened.
Vera was also enraged. She didn't understand why Kurdak softened at the last moment. She took out her bow and prepared to kill Orwen, even if it was against the rules.
"The duel still hasn't ended, yet you tried to leave without keeping your guard up?!" mocked Orwen.
He knew that regardless of the results, he was no longer welcome in Starfall. Since it had already come to this, he decided to go all the way and take Kurdak's life. Kurdak spat out a mouthful of blood before he mumbled something.
"Do you have any last words? Don't worry. I'll make sure to dig your heart out and ferment it in alcohol," said Orwen as he nudged the dagger he had buried in Kurdak to intensify the other's suffering.
The feeling of complete domination sent waves of pleasure and excitement racing through his body. At the same time, he pierced Kurdak with his dagger, he injected a stream of impetus into his opponent's body with the intent of causing as much damage as possible. This was one of the skills he'd learned. While the destruction of all the vital organs wasn't guaranteed, it was exceedingly useful for limiting the mobility of one's foe. Had it not been for Kurdak's staggering regeneration ability and his natural vigor, Kurdak would've already shut his eyes and awaited the peaceful slumber of death.
He withdrew his dagger, took a few steps back and prepared to deliver the final strike. The two-handed sword slipped from Kurdak's grip and fell to the ground with an audible clang. At that moment, he was barely standing and seemed as if he would collapse at any moment.
"Well, I guess this is farewell," said Orwen as he calmed his breathing and leaped at him.
But just as Orwen made his move, Kurdak acted as well. He suddenly drew Leguna's Flameblade from his waist and swung it with a quick twist of his body. Orwen's face melted into a terrifyingly surprised expression. His stomach was cut open the instant Flameblade crossed its path. His innards leaked out like spilled porridge. As what remained of his life drained away, he struggled to understand how Kurdak was still able to counterattack despite being so heavily injured. In the end, he couldn't do anything. He gave the world one last gaze bursting with dissatisfaction and collapsed in a pool of his own blood.
I didn't think I would be saved by Moonsink Cycle again, thought Kurdak bitterly as he looked at his two companions scampering towards him.
Is that... Annelotte?
He could no longer see well. The injuries and loss of vitality fogged his consciousness. He struggled to take a step only to feel his vision darken before the world around him spun as he blacked out. Annelotte pushed the panicking Vera aside and dictated a spell with immeasurable calm to check on the extent of Kurdak's injuries. A moment later, she looked at him surprised and nodded.
"He's very lucky. Only his lungs were injured. His heart would've been pierced if the dagger was two centimeters off the mark."
Next to them, Leguna had already prepared the healing potion and applied first aid to him with Vera's help. Annelotte looked at Kurdak's wounds from the side. She was surprised that they were recovering at a rate visible to the naked eye. Her usually cold and indifferent visage revealed a rare thoughtful expression.
After Kurdak had been sufficiently treated, the Association's staff helped transport him back to Shining Star. Vera hired a mid-order priest and paid ten gold coins for the treatment. Kurdak had finally been stabilized. The two were only able to rest after a long day of busywork.
Annelotte had helped them out a lot today, so Vera wanted to treat her to a meal.
"Thankfully, you were there today, Annie. This cup is my thanks."
While Vera didn't have high alcohol tolerance, she wouldn't have any trouble downing a cup or two with Annelotte.
"I... I don't drink," whispered Annelotte hesitantly.
"Oh come on, it'll be fine. Here, try a cup or two. You don't have to drink it if you can't take it, but you have to at least give it a go," insisted Vera warmly as she handed Annelotte the alcohol-filled cup.
As they were both women, Vera didn't order Flame's Embrace, which was Kurdak's drink of choice. Instead, she ordered the more refreshing fruit wine. But Annelotte still regarded it with suspicion even though it was light as juice as it was her first time tasting alcohol. Her ice-blue brow furrowed slightly the moment her lips touched the wine, eventually, however, her expression softened. It was apparent that her first experience was rather pleasant. Leguna downed his cup ravenously. He felt incredibly parched from all the work he had done, and the low alcohol content of fruit wine was no different from normal fruit juice to him.
It was worth noting that he had a good stomach for alcohol despite his small frame. Though he wasn't as tolerant as Kurdak, he was considered second best in the party. Cyranos was no match for him either.
"Wine only tastes good when it's drunk quickly," said he when he saw Annelotte only taking small sips.
Annelotte looked at the purplish-red liquid with some hesitation before she mimicked Leguna and tried to drink it in one go. Her face flushed immediately. It made her look more alluring than ever. Her delicate cheeks seemed all the livelier with the extra trace of red. Even though she still wore the same cold expression on her face, the touches of color did nothing but accentuate her beauty. Leguna looked at her face in a stupefied trance. Though he had interacted with her quite a bit over the past couple of days, he still hadn't developed the slightest resistance to her beauty. It was not until Vera stomped on his foot and glared at him that he snapped out of it.
"I have something I want to ask you two," said Annelotte.
While her face was still reddish, she didn't feel any different. Both her expression and tone remained the same.
"Go ahead," replied Leguna.
Annelotte hesitated for a moment before she asked, "Did Kurdak use Moonsink Cycle?"
The two started before they stared at each other. After a while, Vera sighed.
"Since Annie's joined our party, there's no point to hiding this. That's right, he has indeed used Moonsink Cycle."
Annelotte nodded and confirmed her suspicions. Orwen's skill should've decided the match, but it failed to incapacitate Kurdak. After seeing his ridiculous recovery rate, she had a general idea of what was going on.
"Then, Annie... you..." Vera tried to probe.
She was uncertain whether the girl would leave the party now. Annelotte shook her head.
"Don't worry. Kurdak seems like a good leader. I won't leave for something as simple as this. However, Moonsink Cycle is a kind of concoction that drains your life force while providing you with staggering vitality. I happened to notice Kurdak has only a little life force left when I was checking up on his injuries."
"What?" Vera said.
She could believe what she was hearing. While they knew from their experience at the elven settlement that Moonsink Cycle would consume the user's life force, they didn't think it would be this dire already.
"Five years at most," said Annelotte after some thought.
"That can't be! Kurdak's always been so hardy, how can he have only five years left?!" cried Vera.
"Don't panic. Even though he only has five years left, it's still enough time to find other ways to replenish his life force," said Annelotte in an attempt to calm Vera down.
"What methods are there?" pressed Vera hurriedly.
Annelotte shook her head.
"While I don't know for sure, there are many precious items that can extend people's lifespans. As long as we keep our eyes open, we'll get some kind of clue."
"Is that so..." Vera knew Kurdak's problem wasn't something that could be solved overnight.
Trying her best to calm down, she resolved herself to ask around about anything that could help.
"Annie, your teacher is a high-order magus, right? Is there something he has that he could use to extend lifespan?" asked Leguna all of a sudden.
"I'm sorry. My teacher left long ago. Even I don't know when he'll be back. I don't have access to his things either," said Annelotte as she made a reason up.
Leguna wasn't too disappointed. He knew Annelotte's teacher wasn't in Starfall in the first place. So, he asked without expecting much. Not to mention the fact that he was trying to ask a favor of someone without offering something in return. Even Kurdak would probably refuse free aid given his personality.
The atmosphere for the rest of dinner was rather subdued. Annelotte had wanted to remind them of Kurdak's condition, but she didn't think it would unnerve the two that much. She felt a little guilty. That was the reason she didn't refuse any drink Leguna and Vera poured her. By the time they finished the meal, she realized she was a little drunk.
"Hey, Ley, walk Annie back, will you? It's rather dangerous for a lone girl like her to walk back home in the middle of the night," said Vera.
She had a feeling Leguna was fond of Annelotte and decided to give him a hand.
"Come on, who'd seriously think of messing with an eleventh-stratum magus like her? Even if we run into any trouble, it'd be up to her to protect me," said Leguna without much thought as he shot down Vera's arrangement with surprisingly sound logic.
"Just do as I tell you! You dare talk back to me?!" Seeing her efforts ignored just like that, she gave the back of Leguna's head a harsh slap and pushed him forward.
Rubbing the spot where he was hit in a dizzy spell, he had no other choice but to follow Annelotte out of the inn obediently in fear of receiving more of Vera's tyrannic wrath.
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