“Well then, shall we continue?” Natasha’s words echoed themselves in Shin’s mind. Instead of getting into his combat stance, the black-haired boy quietly stood there with an opened mouth. Although he didn’t have much experience with using the Divine Needle Binding technique, based on the books that he had read, no sane individual would be able to retain their wits after they pulled out the acupuncture needle that was disrupting their mana flow.
‘And they called me a zombie that never gives up… If I’m undead, then what is she?!’ Shin argued. The swordmaiden that stood in front of the boy, seemingly unaffected by the pain that the silver needle had inflicted onto her body, had the blood of a true warrior flowing through her veins. Natasha wasn’t one to give up just because of one setback. In fact, she would come back stronger and more resilient than ever before.
Deeply sighing, Shin closed his eyes and shook his head. “Natasha… I fully understand your resolve now. Forgive me for insulting you earlier.”
“HAHAHA!!! Come at me! Let’s enjoy this fight!!!” Bellowing out in laughter, Natasha moved her Starlight Katana from her right hand to her left side. With her dominant hand broken, the swordmaiden was unable to perform the most reliable move in her arsenal, the quick draw, and had to rely on her footwork and overall martial arts.
“I won’t hold back just because you’re injured…” Taking out three new needles from his robes, Shin summoned out five water spheres, ready to hit the girl with everything that he had.
“Just what I wanted!!!” Natasha cried out, jumping forward at the same time. Space distorted as the Starlight Katana in her hands emitted out its signature Celestial Aura and the mana being released from her body made Shin question if she had already condensed her Spirit Core.
‘How the hell did she get more aggressive?!’ Evading the first slash, Shin used the Lightning Swallow Steps to slowly back away from the onslaught of sword light that blinded the average spectator. As much as he wished to exploit Natasha’s now weakened right hand, each time Shin attempted to move to the side, a blinding light descended onto the area where he wished to go, forcing the boy to retreat further back.
“The Second Waltz! The Blanket of Shooting Stars!!!” Natasha hollered out.
After awakening her Starlight Katana, the young Natasha, who had held a sword even before she could walk, used her extensive knowledge to develop her own set of sword techniques that were catered to her heavenly weapon. Making full use of the innate Celestial Aura that the Starlight Katana possessed, the swordmaiden ensured that her enemies would be blinded each time she swung her sword, giving rise to a deadly technique that gave the illusion of millions of shooting stars descending from the heavens.
‘I can’t break through?!’ Shin was appalled. Even though he had the superior speed, he still couldn’t find an opening to exploit.
‘Tsskkk, I can’t stay here forever!!!’ From his peripheral vision, the young boy could tell that he was about to be pushed out of the ring if he continued to back off. Sending a significant amount of mana into his thighs, Shin sprung out from his location and flew high up into the skies above. At the same time, he created another vortex of liquid destruction to cover his escape route. Once he was out of the impact distance, Shin waved his hands and sent the whirlpool crashing down on the young swordmaiden.
“HARGHHH!!!” Screaming out in passion, Natasha’s Starlight Katana released a torrent of mana as an Astral Slash flowed out from its blade tip, instantly evaporating the descending attack. As the water created by Shin turned to mist, an ethereal atmosphere descended upon the arena. Falling to the other corner of the ring, Shin gathered his mana once more to create five larger water spheres that orbited around him like they were planets. Adding the fact that he had a full body of scales and three silver needles that could take down any foe in a matter of seconds, Shin looked like a descended immortal, here to inflict judgement on the mortals that crossed him.
Emerging from the mist, the opposite atmosphere was felt from Natasha. Bruised and bloodied from her earlier exchange with Shin, the tenacious swordmaiden was furiously panting while firmly grasping her Starlight Katana with her left hand. Even though she had been beaten down and outclassed, Natasha never gave up. The fire in her eyes still burnt zealously and the stars in circled around in her sword sparkled even brighter than it did before.
“Are the two of them really freshmen?” No one knew who asked that question. Be it average students, the elites, or those in the VIP stands, everyone was in awe at the spectacle that both Shin and Natasha were bringing.
“Round of sixteen?! This is a match in the round of sixteen?! I doubt that we can even beat one of them?!” The second-year valedictorian, Lyanna grabbed the wrist of her compatriot, Angie as she commentated on the match. “Angie… What the hell are we witnessing?!”
“I don’t know… They are just one year below us… Yet how the hell did they grow so strong?!” The petite girl couldn’t fathom how Shin and Natasha grew to be that powerful. Back when they were competing in their own freshmen year-end tournament, there wasn’t even a single match that could compare to what was happening right now.
“…” On the other side of the stadium, both Suji and Danroy, who were eventually going to face the winner of this match, both wore solemn expressions.
“They… are… strong…” Suji bit his lip as he enunciated each word of his statement. “And you’re going to face the winner of this match next…”
“Yeah…” Danroy clenched his fists while he replied. As much as he hated to admit it, Danroy knew that he was inferior to the both of them, making him extensively worried about his next match.
Of course, not all of the audience was shocked at the current turn of events. Lady Seph, who had been formulating strategies with Shin days before, was happily sipping on her tea while enjoying the stunned faces of those in the VIP lounge. Even the ordinarily unreadable face of the Duchess of Highgarden that smiled twenty-four hours of the day had changed into a stoic one. Evidently, she had been taken aback by Shin’s performance.
“Venerate Seraphim… Your disciple is quite the piece of work huh?”
“Thank you. I have raised him well.”
“But aren’t you a little too relaxed?” The Duchess questioned the blonde beauty’s nonchalance. “From what I see, the daughter from the Aldana family is a little too skilled at martial arts, and your disciple has yet to break through her movements?”
“Don’t worry about that. Shin will find a way… He always does…”
“I see…” The Duchess marvelled at how much faith Lady Seph had in her precious disciple. ‘Well, let’s see how much more you can surprise me, little one…’
Now that he had reached the later stages of the battle, Shin’s mind blocked out any thoughts of his surroundings as his vision only focused on the swordmaiden that stood at the other corner of the arena. Shin had even forgotten that he was fighting for a spot in the quarterfinals as his mind furiously calculated all of the variables for his next successful attack.
‘A long-range attack like the whirlpool vortex would be evaporated by Natasha’s Astral Slash while close-combat is completely neutralised by her superior sword arts. Hell, how is she able to move after sustaining those injuries?!’ Wholly disturbed at how the young swordmaiden was able to resist defeat, Shin gritted his teeth. ‘I should be the one driving her to the corner, but her movements are way too sharp! Tskkk, the only thing that I can do is go head to head with her, and hope she leaves an opening.’
Shin opted to use his superior speed to his advantage and evade the oncoming onslaught that was expected to occur.
‘Let’s open with this!’ Opening up his palm, Shin turned two of the water orbs around him into twenty tendrils with a human fist for a tip. Slamming all of the tendrils concurrently at Natasha’s location, Shin hoped to move the young swordmaiden from her original position.
Judging by how powerful Natasha’s strikes were, even after being injured externally and internally, Shin had decided to tire the girl down using a combination of long-range and close-combat attacks. Once her mana had been thoroughly depleted, Shin would then swoop in for the finishing move. Unfortunately, there was no way that Natasha would play into the cunning boy’s pace.
“*Zsssstttt!!!*.” Sending an Astral Slash, the size of a tidal wave crashing at the twenty water tendrils, Natasha immediately evaporated the weak attacks. Leaping off her feet, the Celestial Aura surrounding the Starlight Katana shone brightly as her figure became illusory.
“The First Waltz! Entering the Cosmos!!!” Natasha closed in the distance between Shin and her as quickly as a falcon diving down for its prey, slicing and dicing any of the remnant tendrils that were in her path.
Although Shin was caught off guard by Natasha’s aggression, the young boy kept his calm and sent a palm strike, coated with a glove of water, straight at the swordmaiden. Through pure instinct, Natasha parried the oncoming attack using her left arm, leaving her weakened right side unguarded for a brief moment.
‘NOW!!!’ Thinking that it was his chance, Shin turned half a round to allow the silver needles in his right hand to exploit the weakness that he had found. However, instead of landing his hits, Shin realised that something was amiss mid-turn. From the corner of his eyes, he could see a brilliant downpour of heavenly light akin to that of a meteor shower.
‘Shit!!!’ Panicking, Shin used his Lightning Swallow Steps to evade the onslaught of strikes and just barely managed to get out of range. However, as he stumbled, a celestial sword light came flashing in his direction.
‘Astral Slash again?! How many of those can she shoot?’ Jumping back until he was ten metres away, Shin watched while the salient light dissipated into nothingness. ‘Thankfully, I calculated its range beforehand!’
Before he could even complete lauding his earlier self, Natasha took advantage of Shin’s shock and sped forward once more with her first sword technique. Only when she was within striking distance did she swing her Starlight Katana once more.
“The Second Waltz! The Blanket of Shooting Stars!!!”
‘Tskkk, it won’t work on me again!!!’ Experiencing the technique before, Shin immediately pounced up into the sky, to completely neutralise the swordplay that blinded its opponent. However, Shin’s aerial evasion was precisely what Natasha had hoped for.
Abruptly stopping her charge, Natasha switched stances once more, this time, she one-handed the Starlight Katana in the opposite direction and crouched down like a ninja. Now that Shin was in the sky, he had no means of using his superior speed to evade Natasha’s strikes. The swordmaiden congregated her mana once more and launched herself heavenward as if she were a rocket entering the stratosphere.
The Starlight Katana in her hands began glimmering as the mana being supplied to it doubled in quantity. Spinning three times, Natasha positioned herself right above the airborne Shin and hollered out her final move, hoping to end the match right there and then.
“The Third Waltz! STARFALL!!!!!!!!!!!”
Combining her Astral Slash with the strongest aerial strike that she had, Natasha created a patch of dark space and stars, even though the sun was still shining radiantly up high in the empyrean above. All of her prior moves, feints and techniques, had all boiled down to this final moment. If she landed her sword, Shin would undoubtedly be sent to the hospital, in search of emergency aid. However, if she missed, the swordmaiden would be utterly depleted of her mana, essentially becoming a sitting duck for Shin to toy with.
While watching the celestial phenomenon that Natasha had created, Shin’s eyes glistened in awe as he felt a tremendous amount of respect and marvel for his opponent. Being someone who trained tirelessly to become strong, Shin knew that for Natasha to reach this level, a considerable amount of sacrifice was necessary.
‘It’s a pity… If you faced another foe, perhaps you would have gone all the way to the semifinals… Unfortunately, you’ve met me in this round.’ Shin shook his head as he watched the descending swordlight edge closer and closer to his body. ‘It’s my win, Natasha!!!’
“BOOOOOOMMMMMM!!!!!” A thunderous blast broke through the grounds of the arena, instantly shredding the added enchantments that had been applied to it.
Thick black soot rose from the impact crater and remnants of the mana used flowed out into the air, distorting the vision of the square instantly. The referee who was supposed to adjudicate the match had long retreated into a safe location and was therefore unable to accurately determine what had happened, sending the audience into disarray.
“What the hell?! Did you see who won?!”
“I don’t know! Everything went blurry for a moment there!”
“Tch, you’re useless!!!”
Of course, it wasn’t just the regular students who were confused, even elites like Kanari and Suji had no idea what transpired in that millisecond. Only the eagle-eyed spectators in the VIP stands knew who the winner of the match was.
As the smoke began to clear, the first person that came to view was a panting Natasha. Her forehead sweating and eyes dilated, the young swordmaiden could barely keep her wits as she used her Starlight Katana as a walking stick to prevent herself from falling. Only after a brief two seconds that she used to regain her breath, did Natasha click her tongue in annoyance.
‘I… missed?’ When she used her big finishing move, instead of hitting the soft flesh of Shin, Natasha’s sword sliced through empty space, and her Astral Slash was sent flying into the ground. ‘How did he dodge while in the air?! It doesn’t make any sense!!!’
Raising her head, the swordmaiden saw a black-haired boy, whose entire skin had been turned into scales, sauntering towards her. In his hands, eight silver needles reflected the gleaming sunlight, briefly blinding the young girl for a moment.
“H-ho… H-how?” Barely able to speak, Natasha tried her best to question the youth.
“Let’s just say, a magician never reveals his tricks.” Shin’s legs turned illusory as he performed his signature Lightning Swallow Steps for the final time. Instantly appearing behind the weakened swordmaiden, Shin inserted all of the eight silver acupuncture needles into Natasha’s greater meridians, completing the Divine Needle Binding technique.
“Sorry, just stand still for a bit… I can’t have you pulling any more tricks.”
The Divine Needle Binding was potent enough to disrupt Natasha’s mana when only one needle was inserted into her body. Now that the technique was fully executed, the swordmaiden was in a state of complete paralysis. Her mana flow fully sealed and her movements barred like an encased butterfly, there was nothing that Natasha could do to fight back.
“Senior… Please announce the winner of this match!” Shin screamed out to the teacher that had flown far away from the arena.
“A-ah… Yes! Winner, Shin Iofiel!!!”