1

The opening ceremony of the tournament was supposed to be a spectacular event, with thousands of challengers — each of them a talented Awakened fighter — gathered in the magnificent central courtyard of the illusory Bastion. Slightly more than a thousand of them were those participating in the individual competition, and the rest were members of competing cohorts.

The representative of the great clan Valor welcomed them and gave a short speech, after which an androgynous person of undetermined age in exquisite silk garments — the eccentric Saint responsible for creating the Dreamscape — followed suit. This Transcendent had a hypnotically beautiful face that was, for some reason, plastered with an unreasonable amount of makeup, and a genteel, almost effeminate bearing.

If Sunny was there, he would recognize their pleasant voice as the one that read all the announcements in the Dreamscape.

But he wasn't.

Why would he waste time on these theatrics? He skipped the speeches, the performances, the incredible montage of the most exciting moments from the battles of the previous day, and even the event that everyone had been waiting for with bated breath — the formation of the tournament bracket that would determine who would face whom and in what order.

Sunny didn't care who was going to fight him, he just wanted to kill somebody as soon as possible.

With each round of duels, half of the participants were going to be eliminated. That meant that he had to win ten consecutive fights to receive the best reward. Of course, it wasn't an easy task… by now, there were no amateurs remaining in the tournament. Every single one of the thousand challengers was a formidable warrior, and by the end of it, only true talents would remain.

It was also a perfect chance for him to try and learn their polished battle styles.

Sunny waited until the bracket was almost complete and finally dove into the Dreamscape. The menacing black figure of Mongrel appeared among the crowd of challengers, causing a bit of a stir. Immediately, those closest to him began to whisper.

"Hey! It's him!"

"Man. The bastard is even scarier in real life. That scene from the montage... gods, I'm so glad we chose to enter the tournament as a cohort!"

"Ptui! What's the big deal? I hope I draw him as an opponent… crushing this wannabe should be fun…"

Ignoring the whispers, Sunny looked around with curiosity. He wasn't interested in the people gathered around him, but in the courtyard itself. This was his first time inside Bastion… well, an illusory version of it. Still, he couldn't help but feel a bit of awe. This was a legendary place… one of the earliest Citadels conquered by humans, their greatest foothold in the Dream Realm. The seat of a Great Clan's power.

...And the former stronghold of one of the daemons.

It was like he was part of history.

Sunny's curiosity didn't last long, however, quickly drowned by anger and annoyance.

'That girl! What does she even know!'

His hands were itching to slaughter someone.

Finally, the bracket was complete. Sunny didn't bother to study it and just prepared himself for the battle.

A few seconds later, his vision darkened for a moment, and then he found himself in the courtyard again — only this time, the crowd of challengers was gone, leaving only him and his opponent standing opposite each other.

There were flags streaming in the air, and thousands of excited spectators looking down from the stands. They were chanting, screaming, and waving their hands.

His opponent was a young man in a striking bloodred armor, wielding a long espadon. His looked vaguely familiar.

As soon as the young man saw the black mask, his face paled.

"I knew this would happen! Crap, not agai…"

Sunny growled and dashed forward, raising the Soul Serpent.

A few moments later, a human head flew into the air, the audience exploded with cheers, and the pleasant voice announced:

"Challenger Paradise in Red was eliminated!"

***

Syclus was in the middle of a lighthearted discussion with Dimi when the producer of the broadcast addressed him through the earpiece, forcing the young man to blink a couple of times and mask his surprise with a smile.

"Ah, sorry to interrupt you, Dimi, but it seems we already have a win! Wow, that was fast!"

The feed changed to a replay of a swift and brutal duel that ended before the voice of the Dreamscape could even introduce the fighters. That was a first in his memory...

"Ah, ha-ha! Of course, it was Mongrel. Who else?"

His colleague laughed.

"Such bad luck for his opponent! I hope that he is not disheartened. There is no shame in losing to such a fearsome enemy… everyone who made it through the qualifying rounds already deserves our respect. Back in my day, getting into the tournament was much easier…"

Syclus agreed, glanced at the figure in black armor standing motionlessly above the corpse of his opponent, and couldn't help but shiver.

Was it just him, or did Mongrel look especially ferocious today?

'Maybe he really is a Nightmare Creature…'

After that first unexpected win, several other heated duels were shown. Syclus and Dimi switched from commentating on them to commercial breaks, to sometimes joining the other commentators to spectate the most exciting cohort battles. After a while, it was Mongrel's turn to fight again.

This time, the producers switched the feed to his duel beforehand, expecting another fast and brutal kill. However, they were left disappointed. In that duel — and during a couple of next ones as well — the enigmatic swordsman seemed to lose all his edge, and engaged in protracted, slow, exhausting battles with his opponents, only managing to dispatch them after long and arduous fights.

Syclus, who was somewhat of a Mongrel fan, but not a diehard follower, was a bit confused by the sudden change.

Luckily, he had an expert partner.

"Hey, Dimi… why does it seem that Mongrel is struggling all of a sudden? After his performance yesterday, I was sure that we will see pure carnage again!"

The older man chuckled.

"Ah, I see that you did not do your homework! That is what Mongrel does, and what makes him so dangerous. Yes, it might seem as though he is struggling, but in fact, he is not. He is… learning."

Syclus glanced at the chat, then laughed.

"No, I am sure that Dimi didn't mean "learning to suck". But, uh… what exactly did you mean, Dimi?"

The resident expert smiled.

"Mongrel is known as a genius fighter not because he is strong and skilled — there's plenty of such people among the duelists — but because he has an uncanny ability to absorb and mirror his opponent's battle style. So what you see is not him losing, it's him trying to comprehend the enemy's technique through being on the receiving end of it. It is truly remarkable! And a bit terrifying..."

Syclus stared at the feed and finally noticed that, indeed, Mongrel's style seemed to change with every duel, closely resembling that of his opponents. His strange weapon also shifted and changed to mirror theirs.

'...So cool!'

He turned to the camera with a wide, delighted smile.

"Well, there you have it, folks! So don't dismiss Mongrel yet… who knows, maybe he will shock us all yet!"

***

Soon, it was time for Sunny's last duel of the day. Once again, he appeared in the courtyard and glanced at his opponent, excited to learn what style they were going to use.

When he saw the enemy, though, a dark smile appeared on his face.

'What a nice surprise… so we meet again! Or rather, for the first time. Yesterday, we didn't have a chance to get properly acquainted, you bastard…'

Opposite him stood a tall young man with broad shoulders and an incredibly muscular physique. He looked mighty and confident, like a statue of an ancient deity come to life.

...It was the damned archer who had almost sniped him from across the arena during the battle royale.

'Dar of the Maharana clan, was it? Well, well. Let me introduce myself…'