Episode 54

Midterm Test (4)
6 days ago
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Constellations aren’t meant to measure strength but rather the will of a person. Possessing a constellation doesn’t necessarily mean one is outwardly strong; it means they have a will and integrity that remain unbroken compared to others. Such individuals recover from mental shocks more swiftly than ordinary people, buoyed by an inner voice that believes in and supports them.

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"Rusti, let's try one more time."

Rustila had lost to Zelnya more than 50 times, a fact that weighed heavily on her. She knew that in her current state, she couldn’t defeat her in a direct confrontation. This realization bred frustration, but what cut deeper than the frustration were the words she hurled at her after each defeat.

“Just give up.”

It’s human nature to remember one criticism more strongly than ten compliments.

“You think you can beat me with that level of skill? Listen well. You have absolutely no reason to pursue a career as an inspector. If you can’t even beat someone like me, it would be best to give up on such a pathetic dream right now.”

To Zelnya, it might have seemed like sincere advice for Rustila. In reality, inspectors with mediocre skills are easily defeated by slightly stronger monsters or incarnates. Even if they die like ants, the federation doesn’t bat an eye. The population is overflowing, and there are as many people desperate for money and jobs as there are grains of sand on the beach.

But Rustila was different. A long time ago, her planet was invaded by the Laplace Legion. Amid the battlefield’s gunfire, it wasn’t her parents who saved young Rustila but an inspector. This inspector sacrificed her own life to ensure that Rustila and her family could escape safely. From her receding figure, a sense of tragic beauty could be felt. Rustila wanted to be like that person.

“Are you here to challenge me again? Aren’t you tired of it?”

Zelnya frowned and told her to leave.

“It would be good for you if you win again, right? You’ll earn more points, won’t you?”

“Sorry, but I’ve already gained enough points in this test. I don’t want to waste my precious time fighting a fool who has already lost many times against me.”

Rustila clenched her teeth. Zelnya continued, “Get lost.”

“No.”

“I said, get lost.”

“Just one more match.”

“You idiot. I knew it from the moment you threw those five cards at once. If you want to win, it would be better to challenge someone you can actually beat.”

Zelnya resisted stubbornly this time. A different approach was needed to persuade her.

What did Zelnya hate the most?

A sharp spark flashed through Rustila’s mind as she pondered for a moment. It was a somewhat underhanded method, but if she used it, she could undoubtedly touch Zelnya’s sore spot and get her to move.

“Why, scared?”

She threw the words at Zelnya’s back as she was about to leave gracefully.

“…What?”

“I said, are you scared?”

Zelnya turned around with a scowl on her face, her amethyst eyes fierce like a demon’s, filled with fighting spirit. It was working. This was it.

“Systematically, if I win against you, you lose a bunch of points just like that, right? Then you’d fall behind Aidel and end up in second place again. You’re scared of that happening, so you won’t accept my challenge, right?”

“What nonsense…”

“Speaking of which, Aidel’s score is incredibly high this time too. He even got first place in the written test again. You might not be able to turn this around at this rate. Are you okay with that?”

“You bitch! Are you done talking?”

Thud. Two cards fell in front of Zelnya. Rustila, undeterred, continued with a smirk.

“Bring it on. Second place.”

That day, Rustila heard the word “bitch” for the first time in her life.


As soon as she engaged the gear and submerged herself in the virtual fight capsule, Zelnya’s fierce attacks began. She skipped the countdown process entirely, attacking like a rabid beast.

“I don’t even want to waste time fighting you. Know your place this time!”

Zelnya, clearly provoked, was now half out of her mind—emotional and potentially beatable. Rustila quickly gathered ether on her blade and steadied her breath.

“Phew.”

Her chest felt hot, but her mind remained cool. Just holding the sword made her feel secure as if she had become one with it. Memories of training diligently, even under her parents’ oppression, flashed through her mind like a lantern in the dark.

Woong-!

Rustila swung a heavy strike. Zelnya’s diagonal thrust was blocked with a crack, the sound of discharging ether. Using the repulsion of the force, Rustila pushed ahead as the two blades touched. While Zelnya’s technique was unknown, Rustila’s sheer physical strength was superior.

Zelnya’s eyebrows arched up.

“This is…”

Creating distance, Zelnya changed her offensive pattern immediately. Instead of thrusting forward, she began to feint agilely, striking and retreating to test the waters. It was a rational decision. Rustila’s swordplay was different than usual. There was no hesitation. She was in an emotionally unified state.

The outcome of the match with Zelnya wasn’t important to Rustila. Whether she won or lost, she would continue to train with her sword. Hearing unpleasant things from others wouldn’t shatter her dreams or force her to abandon them. With this mindset, she felt at ease, and her anxiety disappeared. There were no restrictions on swinging her sword to her heart’s content.

Rustila parried all of Zelnya’s attacks. Despite holding a heavy sword, she swung it sharply like a rapier. Zelnya sensed something eerie—how could such strength come from the forearms of a frail girl? She was surprised as it seemed physically impossible. Moreover, it wasn’t a sword technique learned in lessons. There was no way to counter it with conventional methods taught by instructors.

‘Damn it,’ Zelnya gritted her teeth. Her body shot forward once again, fully aware that she was being overpowered. Her cursed body had clear limits in accumulating momentum, so she always hid that weakness with tricks. While Rustila swung mightily, Zelnya slid through and leaped up. Whoosh! She spun in the air and landed after a horizontal slash with her sword.

‘Got her!’ she thought, quickly moving to Rustila’s rear. Zelnya’s purple eyes sparkled as she wrapped her blade with ether. ‘This is the end,’ she thought. As she sliced the sword horizontally, Rustila’s head dropped down to dodge. A beat too late, the blade sliced through empty air.

“Kuaak…!”

Rustila’s back kick followed immediately, her leg not reaching very high but landing squarely on the shorter Zelnya’s face, leaving a bright red mark. Once, twice, three times. Zelnya rubbed her face, stepping back as she kicked. It felt numb. Thankfully, this was virtual reality; if it were real, her nose would have bled or, worse, broken.

“Damn it…!”

Zelnya poured the maximum output of ether into her blade.

“How dare you set your filthy foot inside my territory?!”

“It’s virtual reality,” Rustila shrugged.

“Feeling filthy is the same anywhere. Well, you’re caught now. You’re done for. I’ll chop off your head. Prepare to faint in agony!”

Time had already passed the two-minute mark. They had to conclude the spar within the next two minutes and thirty seconds. By now, students who had gathered like clouds to witness the rematch between Zelnya and Rustila began to exchange words.

“Fighting for a whole month, what a bad relationship they have.”

“I heard it’s all over a guy.”

“Really? Who?”

The rumors had spread and twisted to unimaginable extents. However, for the two fighters engrossed in their duel, these stories went unheard. In a completely isolated space, Rustila swung her sword fiercely. Opposite her, Zelnya delicately adjusted the angle of her rapier, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

Rustila remained calm while Zelnya grew anxious. Until now, Rustila and Zelnya had never fought for more than two minutes. However, this match was clearly turning into a long battle for them—a first. Rustila’s agility was comparable to the first time Zelnya fought Aidel. No, perhaps she was even more nimble.

What exactly was happening?

It seemed strange to Zelnya. In her mind, she was the strongest, followed by Rustila and then Aidel. Even though Aidel had learned swordsmanship for a month, he had only grasped the basics and couldn’t employ high-level skills, either in reality or in the virtual world.

Lost in thought, Zelnya swung her sword. This lapse caused her to be pushed back, and in a moment of inattention, she found herself driven to the edge of the ring.

“Damn it,” she muttered.

Snapping out of her reverie, she twisted her body just as Rustila’s sword strike whizzed past the outside of the ring. Rustila, carried by her momentum, was about to step out of the ring. This was an opportunity Zelnya couldn’t ignore. She remembered a similar situation in her first fight with Aidel. Back then, she had been in Rustila’s position, and Aidel had been where she stood now.

‘I don’t hit women.’

How amusing. Aidel lacked the skill to finish it, but Zelnya was different. With the gap now open, she could send Rustila out of the ring with a single hit. Given their positions, she couldn’t strike vertically. More importantly, since she had decided to aim for the neck, a horizontal cut would be the right choice.

Facing Rustila, whose center of gravity was tipping outside the ring, Zelnya prepared to deliver the final blow.

But she couldn’t.

Woong-!

Rustila let go of the sword she was swinging. In a split-second decision, she released it, allowing it to spin freely with its own angular momentum. Zelnya’s expression turned dumbfounded for a moment. Rustila intuitively understood the center of gravity and motion of her body. As she let go of the sword, her forward-leaning center of gravity shifted back inside the ring. Simultaneously, the sword spun outside the ring, drawing a smooth arc.

But it wasn’t over yet. To avoid Zelnya’s deep sword strike, Rustila split her legs to either side, flattening her hips, thighs, calves, and ankles against the ground.

“You fool!”

The rapier’s characteristic is the short delay between strikes. After slashing horizontally, it could switch to a thrust within 0.3 seconds. Zelnya tried to deliver the final blow to the defenseless Rustila, who had lost her sword. However, she failed.

“Kyaaak!”

Twisting her upper body, Rustila kicked Zelnya’s leg with her injured leg. Zelnya stumbled as if she had tripped over a stone and threw herself to avoid falling out of the ring. In the process, she dropped her rapier. Rustila, who got up first, kicked Zelnya’s rapier towards the center of the ring.

In the next moment, crack! Rustila’s sword, having rotated half a turn, thrust into the ground next to Zelnya’s rapier. The principle of the match was to win by slashing with a sword. Rustila and Zelnya pushed each other and ran towards the center of the ring.

Rustila reached it first. She picked up Zelnya’s rapier and took her stance. Zelnya’s expression turned dumbfounded.

“Concede.”

“This crazy bitch…”

Concede? Zelnya’s pride wouldn’t allow it.

Rustila had picked up Zelnya’s rapier but felt slightly troubled. She had to win by clashing swords. Only then could she regain her pride. The true meaning of victory and defeat would be determined at that moment. After a moment of thought, Rustila threw Zelnya’s rapier back in front of her. Zelnya, who had been pondering how to retrieve her own sword, blankly stared at the ground.

10 seconds left.

“Hurry and attack.”

What was the intention behind returning the rapier? There was no time to think.

5 seconds left.

Zelnya had to end everything with one move.

4 seconds.

She dashed forward.

3 seconds.

Both Zelnya and Rustila, casting aside all other thoughts, focused solely on one.

‘I will win!’

2 seconds.

Students outside the virtual reality swallowed hard as they watched the monitor. Among them were Aidel and Ceti. Even teachers were present. Homeroom teacher Kendra, who had arrived late, watched the outcome unfold with sweaty palms.

1 second.

Rustila recalled the words of Instructor Naier.

‘An individual’s swordsmanship is more vulnerable to emotions compared to standardized techniques.’

The advice that hesitation creeps into the sword when uncontrollable situations whirl emotions around. Rustila had kept that advice in mind until now. And only now did she realize.

‘It’s better to anchor your emotions.’

From the very beginning of this fight, Rustila had maintained a single calm breath of emotion, whether unconsciously or consciously.

Respect.

Inside Rustila’s eyes, the figure of Aidel was reflected.

0 seconds—

At that moment, she wasn’t alone; she had more than one person supporting her.

EX-grade Conversion - Dual Star Sword Energy.

Two powerful forces, like descending blades, converged upon her.

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