Moments after Shin manhandled Frankie, the stage had been cleaned up to allow the rest of the matches to proceed as planned. Kanari won her bout with ease, and likewise, Natasha Aldana, the Starlight Blade, had little trouble in taking out her opponent. Finally, the match that Shizen had turned out to be a one-sided beatdown. The Freak of the Dundlewoods, lived up to his name, as no one managed to crack the code to breaking free of his mana-draining vines. Once exposed to the Adivinar Tree’s powers, Shizen’s opponent could only gape in awe while allowing himself to get flung around the arena.
When all of the sixteen matches were concluded, Lucha Amphitheatre was emptied so that the staff would have ample time to prepare for the next round. Taking advantage of this break, the audience and contestants all hurried to buy refreshments from the vendors surrounding the stadium. While the vast majority of the crowd were busy purchasing goodies, hidden in one corner of the amphitheatre, one small group of teenagers were surrounding a purple-hair ponytailed girl, trying to comfort her throughout.
“Cheer up, Ella! Getting into the top thirty-two isn’t that bad!” The bob-haired girl, who boasted the same exact features as Ella, tried her best to cheer her sister up.
“That’s easy for you to say… You’re already in the top sixteen, alongside Shin and the others.”
“It was just luck! If I had to face your opponent, I would have definitely lost!”
“Still! You advanced, and I didn’t! Of our group, only I didn’t make it into the top sixteen… Even Isadore made it in, and he never trains!”
“Hey! Who said I don’t train?!” Isadore’s protested. However, it went unnoticed as all of their group’s attention were focused on the young ponytailed girl.
“Ella, don’t beat yourself up too hard. Reaching the top thirty-two basically guaranteed your spot in the Star Class next year. You should be proud of yourself!” Kanari chimed in as well, hoping to console her friend.
“Tskkk… If I were more careful, I would have beaten the crap out of that shield pervert… Arghh, so frustrating!!!” Ella slapped the floor in angst, resisting the urge to pull out all of her hair in the process.
“Here, Ella. Have some sweets. It might help calm your nerves.” At the side of the sobbing girl, Shin handed over some delectable candy that he had purchased from a nearby vendor. It was Shin’s modus operandi for calming any of the other orphans, starting from the time where he stayed at Chilyoja Waypoint.
“Do you think that I’m still a child?!” Ella hollered out in annoyance. However, her actions didn’t match her words as she hastily snatched the candy away from Shin’s hand and popped it into her mouth.
“Hehehe!” Greatly amused by her sister’s actions, Emma chuckled in joy. “Shin, you really know how to calm Ella down!”
“We did grow up together after all…” The black-haired boy stroked the purple hair of Emma as he replied. As his fingers scratched the crown of the girl’s head, Shin abruptly stopped his actions as he started to realise an oddity.
“Is something bothering you? You’re trembling a little.”
“Ah… You noticed.” Emma wore a bitter smile as she shook her head. “I’m just nervous about the next match… My opponent is a bad match for me, and I fear that I might lose in just a few seconds.”
“You don’t have to worry about that, Emma. Safety is the most important. If you feel like you can’t handle the pressure, you could simply withdraw. After all, getting to the top sixteen is good enough.” Shin consoled the girl, reassuring Emma that it was okay to give in.
“No, I can handle it!” A warm affection crept up the depths of Emma’s heart as she purred at Shin’s touch. Ever since they left the mountain, Shin had stepped up to become one of the most reliable pillars for the orphans to lean on. “I’m more worried about your future fights. If you beat Natasha, you still have Danroy and Suji to prepare for. Are you sure you can handle it?”
“Of course I can! I’ll be sure to win all my matches to the final!”
“Hehe, of course, you will!”
While the duo was happily spending some sibling time bonding, at the other corner of the group, Kanari’s gorgeous face creased a little as she witnessed how cheery the pair were. Her eyebrows flinching while her crossed arms twitched, Kanari’s pale white complexion seemed to have turned green with envy.
“Why, are you jealous?” Noticing the change in her friend’s expression, Elrin mischievously whispered into the ethereal beauty’s ear.
“Whatever are you talking about?” Kanari scoffed.
“No, it’s nothing~” Elrin shrugged her shoulders and whistled merrily. “By the way, if all goes well, you will face Shin in the finals. How are you going to deal with him?”
“What do you mean, how am I going to deal with him? I will fight him with my all of course!!! It doesn’t matter that I want to recruit him to my Duchy. After all, some of the rewards of the valedictorian seat are far too alluring to pass up.”
“Hehehe, I thought so… Just had to check!” Elrin stuck her tongue out as the midday bell rung, signalling for the students to return back to the arena.
As the stadium was filled up once more, the order of the remaining eight matches had been posted on the billboard. In the western bracket, there was Danroy Frithron versus Widmann Adams. Shin Iofiel versus Natasha Aldana. Suji Lasgeor versus Biiro Daniels, and Lorraine Grimley versus Jamie Young.
Of the four matches, the most anticipated draw was the bout that Shin was in. Facing against the Starlight Blade, it was perhaps the closest matchup that the Black-Haired Tyrant had been given thus far. As for the other matches in the western bracket. Danroy and Suji were expected to walk over their opponents while the odds favoured Lorraine Grimley to take a close win over her opponent.
In the eastern bracket, the four matches that were Kanari Saniela versus Isadore, Emma Iofiel versus Emmanuel Wensan. Shizen Dundlewoods versus Miguel Thornton, and Sonya Harding versus Melanie Lyfrithe. Compared to the western bracket, the eastern bracket had less entertaining draws as there was a clear winner for each bout. In fact, people were already saying that the finals for the eastern bracket would be Kanari against Shizen, as they were much more skilled than their adversaries.
Starting off with the first match of the western bracket, Danroy was called up to fight against Wildmann Adams, a commoner from the Star Class that awakened a superior beast-type Spirit. Hovering at Rank 16, Wildmann seemed to be a close match for Danroy, who was at Rank 18, however, due to his overwhelming defensive capabilities, the obese youth was able to effortlessly defend himself from the onslaught of his opponent. Ending the match in five minutes, Danroy sent Wildmann flying when the frolicking youth spent all his mana trying to break through the phantom of the Bangeo Rhinoceros.
“Hey, don’t you feel that Danroy seems a little off?” Shin whispered to Isadore, who was enjoying his own candy as if he were unaffected by the fact that he was about to face Kanari in just a few more hours.
“What do you mean?”
“Typically, Danroy would be much more dynamic in his attacks, always charging forward with a certain type of vigour, but in that earlier match, he looked lifeless and lethargic. That’s not his usual style…” As someone who analysed his opponent’s battle techniques to the letter, Shin was instantly able to figure out that something was wrong with Danroy.
“You sure notice the weirdest things… Maybe he was just testing a new method of attack?” Isadore hypothesised. “Well, that passive style won him the match, so I’m guessing it worked well for him?”
‘Hmmm… I don’t know, something seems off…’ Shin scratched his chin, unsure of what was bothering him. Since he had fallen under the hands of Danroy once before, Shin had studied the boy extensively, and believed that he knew everything about the obese youth’s fighting style.
‘Whatever, I have more important things to tend to now…’ Turning his attention to the billboard, Shin got to his feet in preparation for the inevitable announcement.
“The next match! Shin Iofiel versus Natasha Aldana! Contestants, please step into the arena!”
“Shin, good luck!” Isadore cheered the youth on from the side.
“Thanks…” Jumping down onto the hallway, Shin grabbed the pendant in around his neck to calm his nerves. Up till now, he had been taking on adversaries that he had total confidence in beating. However, the next few matches were all against opponents that could be classified as super talents. No matter how hard he prepared for them, there was always a degree of uncertainty when facing against adversaries of their calibre.
Walking into the arena that had been revamped to deal with additional stress, Shin carefully observed the referee and the young girl coming out from the other corner. Her short brown hair had been tied into a bun, to prevent any disturbances during her fast-moving strikes and her combat attire had been tightly fitted to improve movement.
“Shin Iofiel… I have been looking forward to our match.” As the two contestants reached the centre of the ring, Natasha opened her mouth to address her adversary.
“Yeah, me too.” Shin raised his right hand forward and bent his waist to assume his official combat stance. Taking out three of his silver acupuncture needles that he received from Professor Erudito, Shin circulated his mana and said: “I hope that we have a good match.”
“Hoho, spiritual tools? That’s new… You’re using them for the match?”
“Of course, why else would I show it to you?”
Although the usage of spiritual tools was not banned, to ensure fairness, contestants could only use the elementary-grade, and before each fight, they had to show all of the tools that they intended to use to both the referee and their opponent. These restrictions would often deter students from using spiritual tools, but that didn’t stop Shin from bringing his trusted needles.
Smiling at how seriously Shin was taking the bout, Natasha congregated her mana and summoned out a thin katana that emitted a mystical aura, distorting the air around it. If one were to look closer, they would see heaps of celestial stars beaming out from the thin aura. Of course, the katana’s aura wasn’t the main attraction of the audience. The blade itself was so divinely sharp that no one would question if it was able to cut through the fabric of space and time. Naturally, Shin knew of that fact, and he knew that his scales weren’t a good enough protection from the celestial sword. Thus, he had to rely on the acupuncture needles to act as an added protection.
“Could you do me a favour and try not to kill me with that blade?” Shin joked as his Spirit Core shone in a cerulean light, covering his skin with thousands of fish scales. For the first time in the competition, Shin had activated his full Spiritual Body Enhancement. That was how dangerous the Starlight Blade was.
“Surely, you jest!” Placing her katana down to her waist, Natasha assumed a traditional Iaido position as she announced her intention to duel: “Natasha Aldana! Spirit, Starlight Katana! Cultivation level, Rank 17. Please advise me!”
“Shin Iofiel. Spirit, The Sovereign Koi. Cultivation level, Rank 21. Please advise me.” Likewise, Shin stated his attention to duel and heightened his spatial consciousness to the maximum. For the first time in the tournament, the youth was about to unleash his full potential against an opponent.
“Let the match begin!!!” The moment the referee hollered out those words, Shin dashed forward, hoping to probe the reaction speed of Natasha.
Shuffling his feet, Shin’s form became illusory to the layman’s eye as he performed his signature Lightning Swallow Steps. Taught to him by Mychael, Shin had further refined it to suit his explosive speed, and his acceleration was easily the top amongst the freshmen. Thus, in less than a second, he had easily entered the striking range of Natasha and just as he was about to land the first blow, a primal terror crept up the boy’s spine.
Still in a fast forward momentum, Shin’s mind raced at light speed, as his eyes watered and hairs started to stand. Somewhere deep inside of him, his instincts were screaming out to him to get as far away as possible. A thunderous clap could be heard as Shin retreated at a far superior speed leaving a trail of dust and smoke at his wake.
“*Zzzsssttt!!!*” A sharp, piercing sound echoed through the amphitheatre and broke the eardrums of those who stood closest to the arena. Natasha, who was in an Iaido stance before, had unleashed her blade with a deadly slash that no student could trace. Even Kanari, who had ample experience with fighting swordsmen, couldn’t see the trajectory that the sword had taken.
“Phew…” Heaving out a sigh of relief, Shin praised himself for escaping the wrath of Natasha’s blade in time. However, almost instantly Shin felt a slight breeze hit his sweaty skin, prompting him to glance downwards. To his utter surprise, his combat robes had a lengthy tear, exposing his ripped body to the entire world to see.
‘What?! When did she?!’ Shin cried out. Shin was confident that he had left the striking zone on time, and yet, Natasha had landed a clean hit without him knowing.
Returning his gaze back to the brown-haired girl, who had assumed an Iaido stance once more, Shin dropped his jaw as his mind began to theorise what really happened in that half second. ‘She must have a technique to extend her blade reach. Tsskk, she was tough before, and now you’re telling me she was hiding more?!’
With a mischievous smile, Natasha stayed in her defensive stance, unmoving. She knew that her speed draw was unparalleled in the academy and anyone within her range would be devastatingly diced to shreds by her Starlight Katana. Thus, there was no reason to be overly aggressive.
‘Looks like there’s a change in plans… I can’t hide anything for the next two matches… She’s much better than Danroy or Suji!!!’