Lee Haeun raised her sword high and oscillated it once.
Clink! Clink! Clink!
Whenever her pure white sword moved forty-five degrees, a phantom of itself was left behind, and the particles slowly congregated into three ice swords above her head. Like a gentle maiden seeking a walk in the summer breeze, Lee Haeun gracefully executed her sword techniques as if she were a swan dancing on the water.
“Dance, my blades.”
Each elegant step that the young girl took released a torrent of white pixie dust which shrouded her silken slim ankles. The three blades at the top of her head each flew at Kanari with their own unique attacks. The first one moved in a wide arc to execute a slash, the second one darted forward like an arrow as a piercing strike, and the last blade swivelled erratically, slicing and dicing the air as if it were eradicating weeds in a garden.
Meanwhile, Haeun didn’t stay stagnant. The handed down Spirit Blade in her hand shone with resplendence bringing forth a chilling temperature akin to that of the arctic circle. She knew that the Witch in the South was a menace to be reckoned with and to beat her, Haeun had to throw everything that she had.
‘Hah… What’s the point of this?’ Kanari immediately waved one of her tails to create a stormy gale that pushed the swords back without even looking at them. At the same time, one of the three blue flames fell onto the floor, allowing her to create a zone of scorched earth, barring any movement towards her.
‘Tsk… Meddlesome.’ Lee Haeun leapt into the skies like a leopard and rotated her body to keep herself airborne. Barely evading the flaming ground, the Dalgeom Sect disciple jumped over Kanari’s head and immediately re-established herself right behind the black-haired girl.
Kanari wasn’t a slouch though. Predicting the trajectory of Haeun’s movements, Kanari spun one of her flames at an untraceable speed and landed it accurately at the spot where her opponent landed. A deafening explosion tore through the crisp warm air, enveloping the swordmaiden in a ball of flames.
“Is she dead?” One spectator remarked. The detonation of her blue flame sent shockwaves through the arena. It wasn’t strange to think that Haeun wouldn’t have survived that attack.
“Do you honestly think that a Spirit Core cultivator from the Dalgeom Sect would go down that easily?” Another scoffed at his fellow spectator’s ignorance. As if to prove his point, a gleaming light burst forth from the engulfed flames, revealing a pristine young woman, who had her lips pursed as if she was mildly pissed off.
Bringing her blade up to her cheek, Haeun closed her eye and allowed the mana to flow through her and into the white blade in her hands. The sword twinkled as the same fairy dust began to flow out from its cold, sinister blade and fell to the ground. Each sprinkle of dust froze the ground beneath Haeun, each blooming into a gorgeous tiny flower. Bit by bit, the desolate concrete floor had turned into a flower garden of ice and frost.
‘Icy Dust!!!’ Utilising the Dalgeom Sect’s movement technique, Haeun closed in the distance between Kanari and herself within the blink of an eye.
Forced to defend herself, Kanari used her transformed fox nails to clash with the oncoming slash. However, as her hands approached the blade, Kanari could feel a tingling pain in her finger joints.
‘Frostbite!’ Immediately determining the cause, Kanari coated her right hand with a blue flame to melt away the ice flowers that were forming on her fingers. At the same time, her ruby eyes turned vampiric, and Kanari used her Mind Elemental Charm ability to mesmerise Haeun for a brief moment while she jumped to safety.
‘That dust that she creates… It freezes anything that’s within a few metres of it!’ Kanari deduced. ‘As much as I hate to do this… I have to end it before it gets too dangerous.’
Initially, Kanari thought that she could feel Haeun out for a few moves before she got serious. Unfortunately, the tight movements and deadly strikes that the Dalgeom Sect’s disciple was generating were anything but light. Kanari had to finish the match before Haeun ends her.
Kanari mana strengthened her body to the absolute limit before racing forward at breakneck speeds. Trained by Saint Firebird, the young girl knew how to fight at the level of a martial arts master while utilising the pale blue flames that the Kumiho could generate. Coating her hands with fire, Kanari melted away the icy dust as smoothly as flicking her fingers.
Haeun was sharp. After being temporarily bewitched by Kanari’s ‘Charm,’ the swordmaiden knocked herself into concentration and barely evaded the flaming fist by the breadth of a hair. From there, a full-on brawl ensued.
Haeun used her Ice Fairy Sword Dance. Kanari applied the martial arts that had been handed down to her by dozens of experts that the Highgarden Duchy had hired for her. The two clashed violently, and each time a hit collided, the crowd would shake as their faces flushed with excitement. Earlier on, the match between the Luminaries was thrilling in their own right, but many couldn’t follow the movements of Bingying, Sierra or Qilong Hu. Even Lorian Yang’s match was difficult to follow if they weren’t at the very least a Spirit Spectre.
Hence, the match between the two Spirit Core cultivators was a breath of fresh air. They could clearly see the punches and dodges. The sweet sweat that dropped down from the girl’s hair and onto the floor. Each grunt and shout that the maidens cried out. And most importantly, the movements and martial arts that the two prodigies had.
“Kanari really is the perfect being…” Shizen dropped his face and frowned. “She’s good at studying, has good looks, was born into a mighty background, powerful with her spiritual abilities and now… She’s capable of going toe to toe with a martial arts expert? The Immortals above are really biased…”
Shizen had fought with Kanari back in the semi-finals of the Year-End Tournaments. Back then, Kanari used a mixture of spiritual abilities to overwhelm Shizen in every aspect possible, but now, she was only using martial arts to push back Haeun, who was a pure sword master.
“Haha, she does have her weaknesses though…” Shin laughed at the nature boy’s words. Kanari was perfect. So much so that there was basically no one that didn’t envy her. However, because of that envy, because of that distance that she had with the common man, Kanari was inept in all sorts of social interactions.
Always seated on the pedestal, the world from her eyes was much different than Shin’s or any others. There was basically no one that could be her equal, let alone surpass her. For that reason, she didn’t have the social capabilities of an average person. An excellent example of how socially inept Kanari was, was the first time she met with Shin.
Forcing her ideas to build a connection, Kanari had almost ruined a cordial relationship and almost lost any hope of winning Shin over. If not her mending Shin’s wounds when he lost to Danroy for the first time, it would have been almost impossible for the downtrodden youth to open up, even just a little bit, to Kanari.
‘No one’s perfect in the world…’ Shin knew a side of Kanari that the world didn’t. In fact, Kanari herself might be unaware of her blatant flaws. Nonetheless, Shin wasn’t going to leave her side just because of some social flaws that Kanari had. The boy had long begun to see Kanari as a good friend of his, who is earnest in her intention, but morbidly poor in her actions.
Just as he needs social help from the orphans back home, his friends in the academy, and his beloved master, Shin wanted to be a pillar of support for Kanari as well.
BANG!!! BANG!!! BANG!!!
The duel between Kanari and Haeun had finally reached its climax. Haeun was utterly outmatched when it came to martial arts and had continuously been defending herself with a high guard. Kanari kept pushing and pushing, ignoring the blisters that started to form on her soft, silky hands. Victory was just an inch in sight. She couldn’t slip up now.
‘How is she so fast?!’ Haeun cried out mentally. She had fought with multiple swordmaidens in her young twenty-year-old life, but she had never fought a peer that could push her to the brink of collapse that smoothly.
Of the twenty-five major moves of the Ice Fairy Sword Dance, Haeun has mastered thirteen, more than anyone of her age. She had towered through many sword masters from her sect just by using the thirteen major moves, and yet, Haeun hadn’t been able to break through Kanari’s guard!
While Kanari’s additional nine limbs helped in interrupting Haeun’s swordplay flow, it didn’t make sense that the swordmaiden had to be forced on the defensive for that long of a time. Each time Haeun felt that she could break through and land a clean hit on Kanari’s body, a furry white Kumiho tail would slap her sword away with no remorse. Furthermore, it didn’t help that Kanari’s agility and speed were slightly more advanced as compared to her own.
‘I’m going to lose?’ Haeun feared the worst. The condition that Jingyu Taiyi had laid down for her to get a match with the Pearl in the East was to beat Kanari in an open match. Yet, not only was she nowhere close to bringing Kanari down, she hadn’t been able to land a single blow on the fox lady that was hunting her down.
‘If not for those erratic tails, I would have… Erratic?’ Watching Kanari’s nine tails move in whichever manner they pleased, Haeun began to have an epiphany. Each tail wagged by itself as if they had a mind on its own. However, if one observed carefully enough, a pattern would emerge.
It seemed as if they were individual limbs that defended and attacked as they pleased, but in truth, they all shared one collective brain. Kanari’s brain. They all moved thoughtlessly, just as how a human would control the hands to swap a fly out of the air without any prior thought. That was the secret of the nine tails, and also…
‘The fourteenth stance! Snowflakes in the Sky!’
The fairy dust being released from Haeun’s blade turned into gorgeous, crystalline snowflakes and they all floated up against gravity, glimmering with a vicious sword intent. Like Kanari’s tails, the snowflakes all moved erratically, instantly opening up the space that had been constrained by Kanari abilities.
“W-What?!” Kanari bit the lower part of her lip and jumped back. ‘Danger.’ That was all that she could tell. If she continued fighting in the same manner, there was no doubt in her mind that Haeun would gain the upper hand.
‘I can’t just use martial arts anymore… Tsk, I didn’t want to use Lunar Beam, but looks like I have no choice.’ Kanari unwillingly decided to use her ace in the hole. It would spend a tonne of mana, but to finish the match, the exhaustion would be well worth it.
However, before she could continue to execute the finishing blow, Haeun sat down, ignoring the cries from the crowd, and started to meditate. The Nykur Fairy escaped out of the pure white sword and floated up into the sky with pure jubilation written across its small face.
“She’s… Breaking through?” Prince Koshaku rubbed his eyes as he couldn’t believe what he was witnessing. Instead of finishing the match, Haeun actually just… Sat down?!
“Yeunghi…” Deputy Prime Minister Venus wasn’t that thrilled as well. “Your faction’s disciple sure is a piece of work.”
“M-My apologies, your honour! I’ll be sure to discipline her when we get back!”
“No… It’s fine.” Fortunately, the Deputy Prime Minister didn’t want to make a big commotion about a mere junior. “She’s putting her cultivation first. That’s an admirable aspect of a Spirit User. However, please make sure that this kind of scenario won’t repeat itself ever again.”
“Y-Yes! Your Honour!”
‘ARGHHHH!!! This Haeun! Can’t you just breakthrough a little bit later?!’ While Yeunghi was chiding her protege mentally, deep down in her heart, the swordmaiden was secretly jumping for joy.
Learning fourteen out of the twenty-five moves that the Ice Fairy Sword Dance had at her age was no mean feat. Yeunghi herself had only mastered eight when she was just twenty-years-old.
Without an opponent to fight, Kanari had released her Spiritual Body Enhancement while frowning in displeasure the entire time.
‘You pulled me down here just so that you could break through to Rank 30?! You sure have some nerve…’ If Haeun were part of the Himmel Empire, Kanari would be sure to punish her with all of the resources that she had. Fortunately for the swordmaiden, the Highgarden Duchy didn’t have any jurisdiction in the Kori Federation.
Clap… Clap… Clap…
Just as Kanari was about to leave the arena and return back to her seat, she was stopped by the sonorous harmony of two hands meeting each other, again and again.
“What a wonderful match between Spirit Core cultivators!” A tanned man commended the valiant efforts of Kanari and Haeun as he beamed from ear to ear.
“Lukman… What are you doing down there?” Deputy Prime Minister Venus looked down at the Luminary, who should have been patiently waiting his turn to fight.
“Your Honour, don’t you think that it’s unfair for only Spirit Adepts and Spirit Spectres to participate in the exhibition matches?” Unfazed by the pressure that his superior was exuding, Lukman followed in the footsteps of Jingyu Taiyi and opened his arms out wide. “There are plenty of Spirit Core cultivators that are capable of sharing the stage with us. These two ladies are the finest of examples!”
“What are you getting at, boy?” The Blacksmith League President, Ingram, questioned Lukman.
“Let’s all be honest here. Other than the Witch in the South, aren’t we all looking forward to seeing another Spirit Core practitioner take the stage? The boy that has been on the tip of everyone’s tongue for the past couple of days?”
“Don’t tell me…” Through his words, one could infer what Lukman was planning to do.
Qilong Hu’s match with Lorian Yang had proven that a Spirit User with higher cultivation could easily face someone of lower stature. Zheng Kieren’s match with Brahmadhvaja Kittichat had shown that not one person in the Summit could be underestimated. And finally, the straw that broke the camel’s back, Kanari’s match with Haeun had broken the unwritten rules of the exhibition match that only Spirit Adepts and above could compete.
All of these factors had laid the groundwork for Lukman’s final plan. Now that these matches have been contested, no one could question Lukman’s decision anymore.
Pointing up high into the audience stands, the tanned man singled out the one person that everyone was talking about. The one person that could bring the Summit to its knees. And… The only person that Lukman wanted to face.
“I challenge Shin Awter to a match!”