The moment the referee roared out Shin as the winner of the match, the faces of the entire audience had turned blank. Even though they had expected a close bout with the Black-Haired Tyrant somehow pulling out a win, never in their wildest dreams did they think that they were about to witness one of the greatest tournament fights that had ever occurred on Imperius Academy grounds.
A deathly silence hung over Lucha Amphitheatre while Shin carefully pulled out the silver needles that sealed Natasha’s movements. Being the executioner of the Divine Needle Binding technique, only Shin knew how to safely release the swordmaiden from her shackles.
“You’re free now. If you feel any discomfort in the following days, feel free to approach me. I’ll do my best to treat you.” Shin gently warned Natasha. Even though there shouldn’t be any adverse side effects, it was better to be safe than sorry. If Shin had ruined the prodigy swordmaiden’s future just because of this one match, he would be prickled with a pang of severe guilt for the rest of his life.
“No, I don’t feel any pain… Just really tired…” Natasha swept her hand as she tried to quell the wave of dizziness that impeded her mind, and who could blame her? After breaking her dominant arm, feeling the backlash of mana, bombarded with numerous water whirlpools and eventually, depleting her mana till there was very little remaining, it was a miracle that Natasha could remain conscious of this long.
“Honestly, what are you made off? How could you last for that long in battle?” While Shin did a preliminary check on Natasha’s body, the young boy enquired about the swordmaiden’s resilience.
“I could say the same about you. Not many have faced my waltz and walked out unscathed, you know?” Natasha giggled, combating her urge to faint. “But I have to thank you for that fight… I needed something like that to reignite my passion for growing. Recently, it has become rather boring.”
As the top swordmaster in her generation, there weren’t many adversaries that could bring Natasha to the brink. In that fight with Shin, the swordmaiden learnt multiple flaws in her techniques and was exposed to a whole other side of a battle. While she favoured overwhelming her opponent with flamboyant strikes that utterly destroyed their will to live, Shin’s combat techniques were a lot more calculating.
From the sheer versatility of his attacks to analysing how his opponent would react to certain situations. In fact, the whole reason why Natasha lost the fight was because she let her guard down for one second and allowed Shin’s flying needle to pierced through her greater meridian on her thigh. There was so much that she could learn from the bout that she had with Shin, and after a session of proper reflection, the swordmaiden would be sure to up her game.
“Is it common for those from the Aldana household to thank the person that beat them in battle?” Shin merrily jokes.
“Haha, no! But it is common courtesy to ask for a rematch!!! Give me some time! I will definitely train hard enough so that the next time we fight, I won’t be the one that’s lying on the ground!!!” Natasha declared, her face beaming with delight. Even though she was the loser, the young girl didn’t give up hope and remained optimistic about her chances to beat Shin in the future.
‘A stronger Starlight Blade? Do you really want me to die, Natasha?!’ Shin mentally hollered out. The bout with her nearly pulled out everything that he had, something that he had hoped to reserve for his following matches against Danroy or Suji. If the swordmaiden grew even more mighty, there was a high chance that Shin would be beaten to the ground in a few seconds flat. Of course, there was no way that Shin would voice out that opinion.
“Fine, I’ll be waiting…”
“Hahaha, now that’s the warrior spirit! Ah, by the way… I’m just going to take a little nap… My head is spinning like mad…”
“By all means, Natasha. Thank you for the match.” Shin smiled as he watched the young girl fall deeper into the Garden of Hypnos. Before he could call on the referee to bring the injured Natasha back to an infirmary, the reality of the situation hit him like a baseball bat. Throughout the battle, he had spent all of his brain cells thinking about how he was to overcome the adversary that was Natasha. However, now that it was accomplished, the Shin was given the freedom to reflect on what had happened.
‘I beat Natasha… I’m in the final eight?’ Shin raised his hands in exhilaration. Why did he spend hundreds of hours training tirelessly? Wasn’t because of this precise moment? ‘I’m two matches away from the finals! I’m two matches away from the final!!!’
Reverting back to his childlike self, Shin resisted the urge to hop around the arena. Turning his gaze to the audience, the youth met eyes with a particular pair of teenage boys. One was moderately obese with full cheeks, akin to that of a squirrel, while the other was a muscular, well-built boy, who seemed nothing like a fifteen, sixteen-year-old. Both of them were frowning while spectating the entire match, as they now knew what was to come.
‘Danroy… Suji… You guys are next!!!’ Shin declared. ‘Danroy, I will show you how much I have grown since the last time you manhandled me!!!’
There was no need for words. Even though they were separated by a great distance, Shin’s intense feelings resonated with the two youths. Earlier on in the year, they had thought of the boy as an insignificant threat that they could squash at any moment. However, recent events had proved that Shin was far from a country bumpkin that knew nothing of the world.
“Dan… You have to win.” Suji scoffed at Shin’s declaration of war and angrily jumped out of his seat, leaving his childhood friend alone in the stands.
‘Yeah… Easier said than done…’ Danroy dropped his head and felt a tingling cold manifest all over his body. If someone poured a bucket of iced water onto his chest, Danroy was certain that he wouldn’t feel a thing, that’s how much melancholy he was facing at the moment. In just a few days, the quarterfinals would start, and he would have to face Shin in the ring. However, after a performance like that, even Danroy was tempted to call it quits even before his match with the Black-Haired Tyrant had begun.
‘Whatever… I’ll just take it as it comes…’ Despondently watching as Shin helped the medics to carry Natasha out, Danroy felt as if he were pricked by a thousand needles, as he thought of his next match with the monster.
The match between Shin and Natasha sent shockwaves throughout the academy and was quickly being referred to as the match of the year. From Shin’s expert display of precision to Natasha’s swordplay, which was indisputably the best set of sword arts ever showcased in the academy, each aspect of the bout was a feast for the eyes.
The names of the Starlight Blade and the Black-Haired Tyrant started to become more dominant as even final year seniors were beginning to pay attention, catapulting the two of them to the top of the fame hierarchy. And it was still just the second match in the round of sixteen!!!
With the audience hyped up for the rest of the afternoon, many of the spectators hoped to witness an even more stellar match. Unfortunately, the opposite rang true for the most part. In the western bracket, the two remaining matches were Suji Lasgeor versus Biiro Daniels and Lorraine Grimley versus Jamie Young.
Suji took the easy win, as everyone expected, by smashing his opponent’s spiritual abilities to pieces. His Purple Dragon Crescent Blade showed its hegemony at the top of the weapon-type Spirit food chain through its excessive use of lightning and thunder, bringing fear to all those who witnessed its splendour.
For the final match in the western bracket, Lorraine Grimley versus Jamie Young, the two opponents were much more equal in might, giving rise to a tense bout where Lorraine barely got the win. Nonetheless, it wasn’t able to beat the level of entertainment that the Shin-Natasha match brought.
In the eastern bracket, Kanari was automatically sent straight to the quarterfinals due to Isadore forfeiting the match right before it started. The next match, Emma Iofiel versus Emmanuel Wensan, was a tough contested fight. Although Emma had shown heart in the battle and had tried her hardest for ten minutes straight, the young sniper ultimately fell to the overwhelming physical powers of Emmanuel, eliminating her at the round of sixteen.
Straight after the purple-haired girl’s match, Kanari immediately ran to comfort her and jokingly swore to exact vengeance for Emma once she faced Emmanuel in the quarterfinals, bringing out a couple of laughs from the distraught girl. Of course, when Emmanuel overheard that statement, cold sweat began to drip down his back and eventually, his shirt got drenched as if he were campaigning through a rainforest experiencing a torrential downpour.
The final two matches in the eastern bracket were the most underwhelming ones. For the Shizen Dundlewoods versus Miguel Thornton match, there literally nothing that Miguel could have done to defeat the nature boy’s Adivinar Tree. In fact, a large portion of the bout, Shizen was just standing there and letting Miguel pound down on his defences. However, it was to no avail. After two minutes, Shizen got bored and ended the match through a combination of binding and hammering his opponent with his created roots, until Miguel eventually fell unconscious.
As for the Sonya Harding versus Melanie Lyfrithe match, there was not much to say. The two contestants did their best and fought to their heart’s content. Being fellow members of the Star Class, the two had clashed multiple times before, and they were even sparring partners for a large portion of the academic year. Therefore, they were perhaps the most equal matchup in the entire round of sixteen. Only after twenty minutes of hard grinding, did Melanie beat her partner, to claim the final spot in the top eight.
Danroy, Shin, Suji, Lorraine, Kanari, Emmanuel, Shizen and Melanie. These were the eight names that would go on to the quarterfinals of the year-end tournament. Naturally, with them being so high up in the rankings, they were bound to receive a tremendous amount of resources as rewards for their excellence. However, there was a considerable disparity between the prizes given out to the top eight as compared to the top three.
The third place of the entire cohort, inclusive of those from the auxiliary course, would be granted a personal cultivation chamber for three months, hundreds of medicinal pills to enhance one’s body, unlimited access to the forbidden section of the library for two months; and finally, they were given the privilege to ask for private tutoring sessions from any member of the faculty.
For the salutatorian spot, their personal cultivation chambers were granted for half a year instead of three months. In addition, alongside the medicinal pills, the salutatorian had the right to request for one precious treasure resource that would enhance their cultivation level, regardless of the rarity. As for their access to the forbidden books, hidden to the public eye, the salutatorian had the right to read any books that he or she wanted for four months. Furthermore, when asking for tutoring sessions, the salutatorian could even ask members from the administration, such as Principal Erudito or Vice-Principal Hirda to be their mentors.
And last but not least, the valedictorian. The most coveted spot in the entire cohort. Being the valedictorian would guarantee resources and services that would even make Princes of the Empire drool with envy. For one full year, the valedictorian would be given the right to stay in their own personal cultivation chambers, and unlimited access to whichever forbidden zone they pleased.
For their own cultivation resources, they were given the right to choose three precious treasure resources from the Academy vault, which housed some of the most valuable spiritual herbs and pills that weren’t available on the marketplace. Additionally, they could request for a Spirit Venerate Elder, who was affiliated with Imperius academy, to come and give personal lessons.
However, the most potent privilege that the valedictorian was granted isn’t any of the resource mentioned above, but the right to alter one part of the academy to their liking. For instance, should Shin claim the valedictorian spot, he had the right to ask the academy to create an artificial lake, where The Sovereign Koi thrived the most, in whichever location he chose. Naturally, this privilege was the driving force for many of the students in the academy to aim for the valedictorian spot, and every one of those in the final eight was aiming for that very right.
As day turned to night, the heat of the tournament had died down, and students had all retreated to their humble abodes to recharge. For Shin and the other final eight contestants, their next match was about a week from now. Thus they were given ample time to prepare for their final matches. While the black-haired youth was diving deeper and deeper into his mattress, a soft knock on the door snapped the tired eyes of Shin’s wide open.
“Shin, do you have a moment?” Isadore’s voice sounded out from the hallway, beckoning for Shin to open the door.
“What is it?” Shin rubbed his eyes and shook off his fatigue as he gingerly opened the door. “Hmmm? Why are you in combat attire?”
Scanning the petite body of the silver-haired boy, Shin immediately noticed that something was amiss. At a darkened hour such as this one, most students had already changed into something more comfortable to prepare for bed. Yet, there Isadore stood, with a formal combat attire that had been ironed so finely that Shin was sure that an emergency had occurred.
“I have to talk to you… Can you spare an hour?”
“Sure, come on in.”
“No, we have to go somewhere with fewer ears and eyes… The dormitories aren’t necessarily the best place to discuss what I’m about to say…” Isadore lowered his voice while leaning in on the tired youth. “I have gained access to a training facility, we can talk there.”
“…” Shin was sceptical about Isadore’s cryptic tone but still decided to trust him for now. “Alright, give me a moment. Let me change and get my stuff.”
“I’ll be at training yard seven…” Instead of explaining himself, Isadore turned his back and disappeared down the corridor, leaving Shin with a few simple words.
“What’s wrong with him?” Shin pondered. He had known the silver-haired boy for about a year now, but he had never once seen Isadore acting this queer. “Whatever, I’ll find out soon anyway…”
Donning on his formal training attire, Shin grabbed his trusted backpack and sauntered out into the darkness of the academy night.