Episode 52

Midterm Test (2)
1 week ago
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No matter how advanced shielding techniques become, it’s inevitable that a student might break a rib or two when blows are exchanged in a fight. This is precisely why virtual reality was developed. Once you don the gear, it creates an avatar identical to you, and you’re instructed to duel in this digital space.

It’s almost like a game. The technology of this era is so advanced that conducting duels in the virtual world poses no significant issues. With this in mind, Zelnya inserted a card into the slot and put on her gear.

[Reading card information.]
[Unique Identifier: Zelnya von Adelwein]
[Number of Cards Inserted: 1]
[Evaluation Target: Zelnya von Adelwein - Aidel von Reinhardt]

“Adelwein versus Reinhardt.”

“It’s a majestic battle of the nobles.”

Students began to gather around us in small groups, drawn by the unfolding spectacle.

“What’s this? Are we going to fight?”

I sighed inwardly and followed Zelnya, who was already gearing up. As soon as we entered virtual reality, Zelnya drew her sword and sneered at me.

“I don’t care about the written test. But be prepared to be turned upside down in here.”

There’s one question that needs addressing before we fight.

Why is Zelnya, who has been avoiding sparring with me, suddenly so eager to confront me now?

The answer is simple: the results of the midterm written test were just released.

1st place: Me.

2nd place: Zelnya.

3rd place: Ceti.

The image of Lady Adelwein sandwiched between the Reinhardt siblings, both in front and behind, made it understandable why she was angry. Zelnya faced a crisis where her reputation as the perpetual runner-up would be cemented unless she utilized her unique hexagonal talent in practical skills to secure a victory. Her pride would not allow her to remain in second place.

“Damn it, why did I get that question wrong?” she muttered under her breath.

“Huh? What did you say?” I asked.

“You don’t need to know. Just hurry up and draw your weapon, will you?”

“As you command.”

I pulled a sword—Calipers—from subspace. No matter which weapon I selected from the hologram window, it always defaulted to Calipers. Clearly, this was Cartesia’s will at work. Virtual reality provided the perfect battleground for the Descartes Legion, famously known as “brains in a vat.” The sensations here were so close to reality that I sometimes struggled to remind myself that this world wasn’t real. If I wasn’t careful, I might even lose myself in this illusion.

As I stood ready with Calipers in hand, I couldn’t help but wonder about the Outer God’s intentions. These virtual reality simulations often served as a prelude to the deity’s cryptic quests. Let’s see, it’s about time for the Outer God to issue a new challenge.

“……”

“What are you doing? I’m all set.”

Strange—is Cartesia silent? The absence of a quest made me more anxious than usual, akin to a professor ignoring my emails for a week.

“What’s that? Did you pull out what you call a plasma sword? You’re really funny,” Zelnya said, raising her chin and eyebrows.

“If you’re going to play around, it would be better to quit now. I’m telling you, I won’t go easy on you.”

“I am not joking.”

“Idiot.”

[The practical test begins now.]

[The contestant who steps out of the ring first or exhausts all three shields will lose.]

[Additionally, the time limit is 5 minutes—]

“Can we start a bit faster now?”

[……]

Soon, the countdown commenced.

3, 2, 1.

At the count of zero, Zelnya surged forward like a ray of light. She closed the distance quickly and unleashed a sleek sword slash. It was swift, but I could track it with my eyes. I, too, have learned much under Instructor Isaac.

‘Your swordsmanship style is pretty typical. Stick to the basics, and you’ll get by. But of course, that’s not the same as having a real talent for it.’

It’s the path most people take. However, without constant effort, you’ll quickly fall behind. I’ve been steadfastly walking this righteous path to master the way of the sword.

‘The most important thing in swordsmanship is believing in yourself and your abilities. Trust in yourself first and foremost. Even if you’re up against someone with more skill, you can definitely win if you have that confidence.’

I can do this. As long as I keep my breathing steady, I can take on anyone.

Crack!

I dodged backward just as the sword nearly grazed my neck. Zelnya’s expression twisted with frustration, but she didn’t halt her assault. As soon as one strike failed, she immediately launched another, aiming to corner me. Her movements were like basic maneuvers linked into a fluid sequence; the more skilled the practitioner, the shorter the delay between movements. Thus, she left no openings for me to exploit. For the time being, I had to adopt a defensive stance.

“……!”

Suddenly, Zelnya’s sword strikes doubled in speed, resembling a professor’s lecture video played at double speed on an exhaustingly long day.

[The shield has been damaged.]
[Remaining Ether Shield: 2]

Damn it.

[The shield has been damaged.]
[Remaining Ether Shield: 1]

I can’t go through this!

It’s absolutely hopeless. I had no choice but to start swinging my calipers, too.

“Kagagang!” Ether burst into flames. The ionized blade slid with enough force to shatter her guard.

“Looks like you’re finally getting serious, huh?”

Her sword’s speed increased; her previous attack hadn’t even been at full strength. I dodged some blows and deflected others. As my body warmed up, moving became easier than before, and I noticed a twitch in Zelnya’s eyebrows. Rustila, more talented than I had been defeated by Zelnya several times. However, after only a month of training with the instructor, I had adapted quickly.

Could the core muscles I’ve trained all this time be aiding me now? No, it might be that Rustila’s teaching methods weren’t right for me. Rustila’s swordsmanship wasn’t something an ordinary person could easily handle or learn. I now realize how crucial it is to master the fundamentals. The more relaxed my approach, the more Zelnya’s smile faded. Our duel had already surpassed the three-minute mark when…

“It’s over.”

Damn it. A single mistake pushed me all the way back to the boundary line. Can I really not overcome the difference between us?

“Get the hell out of the ring!”

‘Remember, it’s not over until it’s over.’

I twisted my upper body, exerting all my skill to avoid stepping on the boundary line. I reversed direction, spinning like a vigorously spinning top, completely rotating around the axis of my body.

“……!”

Then, Zelnya’s sword sliced through the air, her body propelled forward by inertia. “This is my chance. I cannot let it slip away,” I thought. Poised to strike with all my might, I gripped the calipers when, suddenly, a new quest appeared.

[Sudden Quest Assigned]

[— Lose.]

The quest window has been updated. Originally aiming for Zelnya’s head, I instinctively twisted my hand at the last second, causing my strike to miss. Goosebumps erupted from my wrist to the nape of my neck.

“Ahh, shit,” I muttered as Zelnya quickly adjusted her stance and maneuvered into my blind spot.

What came next was predictable: a swift slash targeted at my lower left.

[The shield has been damaged.]
[Remaining Ether Shield: 0]

As the shield shattered, my left arm was cleanly sliced off.


“What? Adelwein won?”

“That’s boring.”

“Is Reinhardt only good at studying, after all…”

Zelnya frowned as she removed her gear. Although she had won, it didn’t feel satisfying. Turning to Aidel, who was absentmindedly stroking his left arm, she asked, “Did you go easy on me?”

With a smirk, Aidel shrugged. “Too bad. I thought I’d win once you went out of bounds.”

Ah, I see. That’s why he let his guard down and halted his attack at the end. Zelnya’s body is more flexible than it seems, allowing her to adjust her angle even when her center of gravity shifts forward.

“……”

Still, that explanation didn’t fully make sense. If it were her, she would have decisively finished the match. The same should apply to Aidel. This is virtual reality, not the real world; there was absolutely no reason to hold back. Could he have intentionally lost, then?

Watching Aidel dust himself off and rise, she stealthily followed him. Aidel was in conversation with someone—James, or a name similar to that.

“Why did you go easy on me?”

“It’s my principle not to hit women.”

“Even in virtual reality?”

“The sensations are the same. I nearly screamed when my arm was about to be severed earlier.”

“Damn.”

Aidel just shrugged. Zelnya stopped dead in her tracks, dumbfounded.

“……”

The process isn’t important; what matters is that she effortlessly overcame the top incoming student. As long as she continues to win, securing first place is inevitable. It’s only a matter of time before she surpasses Aidel. Now, she just needed to find about four more opponents to challenge as she roamed around. Of course, it would only be advantageous if they agreed to duel, as that would significantly improve her score.

She scanned the area for a worthy opponent. Everywhere she looked, she found only mediocrity—trash, trash, trash. Despite her extensive search, a worthy rival remained elusive. Eventually, she decided to bide her time and target someone on a winning streak at the last minute. In the meantime, several fools dared to challenge her, and after she decisively trampled a few, no one else stepped forward. Even though she demonstrated an overwhelming skill gap, there were still pests who didn’t take the hint and challenged her.

Sitting on a bench and munching on blueberries, Zelnya was abruptly interrupted by five tickets landing in her lap.

“Three times,” said a voice.

Zelnya’s gaze shifted to the side.

“Okay?” she responded, puzzled.

There stood Rustilla, eyeing her intently.


Though Zelnya utterly defeated me, there was no real loss. This was what you might call a surprise quest. Outer Gods sometimes issue quests at crucial moments to scatter one’s focus.

For example, imagine I am developing a Graviton bullet. Just as the graviton detection is about to succeed, a quest like “Destroy the detector within 100 seconds” might pop up, forcing me to destroy it.

Of course, making a contract with a Constellation prevents such unfortunate situations since the Constellation plays a role in self-regulation and protection. But haven’t I already made a contract with an Outer God? Was I coerced then? Can’t the Constellation intervene?

Sigh. I’ve been pawned off to Cartesia. It seems like a test to inform me about this situation subtly. I have to do what she asks. It was a dire situation, but I don’t regret it because the risk of failing the quest would have been greater. It could even be said that my snap judgment was spot on.

“Phew.”

As I let out a sigh of relief, a boy wearing sunglasses approached.

“You got beaten up like a dog in there.”

“Welton?”

“Calling me by my name now, Young Master Reinhardt? Wow, this is an honor.”

I wanted to be friends with this guy for a long time, unlike the others. My reason was a simple one: Plan to have him research condensates—specifically, the strong interaction of ions. The more research colleagues, the better, especially in my field.

To make that happen, I need to get close to him. As I was recovering from Welton’s sharp joke, red-haired Matus slid a card in front of me as well.

“Yah. You have to fight me too.”

“I just got beaten up; give me a break, you two.”

Despite my protest, I stood up. After all, I needed to maintain my position as the family head. To pass the leadership to Ceti, I first had to become the head myself.

“I think I’ll feel a bit better after knocking you down.”

“Alright, let’s fight.”

“No holding back then.”

In the virtual reality, Matus chose a giant sword as his weapon, with plasma flowing in a crescent shape from it. I, on the other hand, opted for the calipers again. Sparks like lightning wildly jumped between the outer jaws, both in size and quantity. Matus narrowed his eyes and said,

“You… Change that weapon to something else.”

“Scared?”

“I’m warning you: I won’t go down easily. It’s not too late now, so come at me with a weapon that is worth my time…”

“Really?”

“This guy!”

The match began. Matus immediately charged at me, aiming for my neck, which made me realize just how much he resented the noble kids. He wasn’t lacking in skill, but he was clearly slower than Zelnya.

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