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Chapter 20

Chapter 20: “I AM……”


Clad in jet black from head to toe, deep hood pulled forward, face hidden behind a magician’s mask.

The man walks forward composedly, until finally stopping a step away from Zenon’s maai.

“The Black-Cloaked One…… So you are the stray dog who has been barings fangs against the Order as of late.”

With a sharp glint in his eyes, Zenon glares at the man.

“My name is Shadow. I lurk in the shadows, and I hunt the shadows……”

It is a voice so deep and so low that it almost seems to be emanating from the bottom of an abyss.

“I see. You might be feeling full of yourself after crushing several of our small hideouts, but I shall enlighten you. In the hideouts that you’ve crushed, there hasn’t been a single person truly important to the Order. In other words, you are merely a coward who only targets the small fries.”

For some reason, the man who called himself Shadow is enemies with Zenon. For Alexia, this is great news. However, she can’t imagine this man being her ally either.

“Who I hunt, and where I hunt, it is all the same.”

“Unfortunately, it is not all the same. A core power of the Order is here. Today, you will be the one to be hunted. Such is your fate.”

Zenon turns his sword towards Shadow.

“I am Zenon Griphi, the person who will soon become the 12th Seat of the Rounds. Taking your life shall become my achievement!”

Then he flies towards Shadow with the force of a hurricane.

However.

Shadow’s figure disappears, causing Zenon’s thrust to pierce through empty air.

“Wha-……?!”

Immediately afterwards, Shadow is standing behind Zenon.

In a mere moment, his back had already been compromised.

He cannot move.

As if forgetting about the flow of time, Zenon holds his sword still, and even stops breathing, concentrating every last drop of his concentration towards his back.

No one moves.

Indeed, Shadow is only standing back to back with Zenon. With his arms crossed, no less.

Then comes a single question.

“So, this core power or whatever…… where is he?”

Zenon’s face distorts with the burning humiliation. Immediately, he turns round with a sharp mowing attack.

But there is no longer anyone there.

“How cou-……?!”

The rustle of a coat flutter turns his head.

He realizes that Shadow is now standing in his original position, looking as if nothing had happened.

Even as someone looking from the outside, Alexia could not catch what had happened. If there was no trickery or contrivance involved, then that would mean this man is someone of quite some skill…… no, one could even call him an aberrance.

Zenon pushes down his shaken heart, and slowly turns around.

“It seems that I had underestimated you a bit. Though they were small, it seems that you do indeed possess the strength to destroy several of our hideouts.”

This time, he has his guard up, and boosts himself with magic before facing Shadow again.

The magic gathered around him is making the air vibrate. And at a scale much larger than that attack that he had used to shatter Alexia’s sword.

Shadow is certainly powerful.

However, Zenon is no pushover either. Growing up amidst the furor of being called a wonder child, having taken the championship of several tournaments, until finally climbing to the position of Swordsmanship Instructor. In this country, there is no swordsman who doesn’t know the name of Zenon Griphi.

“I shall show you. This is the strength of someone a mere step away from becoming a member of the Rounds.”

So fast……!

Alexia’s eyes could only barely catch up with Zenon’s sword.

The white blade cleaves the air, flying straight towards Shadow’s neck.

However.

“What a dull sword……”

With a jet black blade that he seem to have drawn out of nowhere, he easily receives Zenon’s attack.

Kuh……!”

Zenon tries to lock their swords together into a pushing contest.

But Shadow instead lets all the strength out of his sword and uses Zenon’s momentum to fling him away.

Fuh……!”

The last possible moment before smashing into the wall, Zenon performs an ukemi, then he recovers his stance.

But the disturbance in his heart is now clear on his face.

Neither of them move.

For Shadow, he is simply choosing not to move.

For Zenon, he cannot move.

Because he is under the illusion that every single one of his moves has been sealed.

“Not coming, Rounds-wannabe?”

“…..!”

Zenon’s face is dyed with rage. Anger towards his opponent, but even more than that, anger towards himself.

“DON’T YOU DARE TO BELITTLE ME!!!!!”

Along with his roar, he swings his sword.

Thrusts with the speed of a hurricane.

Continuous slashes with the fierceness of a raging fire.

But.

Not a single attack lands.

“AAAAaaaaaaaAAAAHHHHHHH!!”

His battlecry echoes around the room emptily.

It is almost like a practice session between an adult and a child.

Alexia watches this fight with enormous shock.

Has Zenon ever cut such a sorry figure before? With both his composed smile and his mask of being a person of character ripped off, but still he cannot reach. The strongest existence that Alexia knows is her sister. But even her sister would not be able to deal with Zenon so handily.

KanKanKan.

The sword sounds ringing out are so light as to be out of place here.

It is unmistakably the sound of a practice session.

The jet black and white swords draw their arcs through the air.

Before she knew it, Alexia found herself mesmerized by the fight.

She is drawn deeper and deeper into the jet black blade, unable to tear her eyes away.

Why? Because it is……

“The commoner’s sword……”

It is the appearance of what lies beyond Alexia’s own sword.

It is the perfected state of the ideal sword that Alexia had been spending all her time thinking up. This is the sword for those without talent, without strength, without speed – a sword that can be reached solely by the accumulation of pure effort.

But her sword was compared to her sister’s and branded ‘the commoner’s sword,’ causing Alexia to lose her way.

Despite that, she couldn’t bring herself to give up on it.

That ‘commoner’s sword’ is now completely repressing the genius Zenon Griphi.

“Amazing……”

Alexia likes this sword.

By looking at someone’s sword, you can see that path that they had trodden.

This sword is earnest and straightforward, a sword built up bit by bit.

Is it possible that her sister had been thinking the same thing?

“Nee-sama……”

Now, she feels like she finally understands her sister’s words from that day.

Gah…… sh-, shit……!”

Zenon’s body flies through the air, then crashes down. It is already the nth time.

Zenon glares at Shadow while breathing heavily.

His rage-filled eyes show that he still cannot accept this reality.

“Y-, you bastard, who are you……! Why do you hide yourself when you already possess such strength!”

With Shadow’s strength, wealth and fame is but a fingertip away. And his strength would be known and feared across the world.

But no one has ever heard of Shadow’s sword. Even if he hides his face, those who’ve seen his sword only once would never be able to forget it. But today is the first day that both Zenon and Alexia learned of the existence of someone with such strength in the sword.

“We are Shadow Garden. We lurk in the shadows, and hunt the shadows. That is all we live for……”

“Are you in your right mind?!”

Zenon’s and Shadow’s gazes clash.

Alexia is completely a mere bystander by this point.

Why are these two fighting? She doesn’t know either one’s reason nor aim.

Blood. Demon. And Order.

There are several keywords that she’s already heard.

But she is not able to connect the dots into a complete picture. Perhaps it’s only the ravings of deluded lunatics.

But, what if.

What if it is not mere ravings.

What if, in the shadows of this world, there is something of great enormity happening beyond Alexia’s knowledge.

“V-, very well. Since you are serious about this, then I shall answer in turn.”

So saying, Zenon takes out a red lozenge from his chest pocket.

“This lozenge can turn people into people who’ve crossed the limits of being human. We call them the Awakened. However, normal people are unable to properly control such power, and thus would self-destruct and die. But the Rounds are different. Only those capable of fully controlling that overwhelming power can be admitted into the Rounds.”

Zenon swallows the lozenge in a breath.

And then.

“Awakened, 3rd.”

Magic rips around as a roaring squall.

All of Zenon’s injuries heal in a split second.

His muscles tighten, his pupils turn bloodshot, and his capillaries bulge out.

The weight of the power is so overwhelming that it seems it would crush anything in its way.

“I will show you the power of the world’s strongest.”

Says Zeno with the composed smile back on his face.

Without doubt, the current Zenon is far stronger than even Princess Iris.

In the face of such power, Alexia would have curled up and despaired. That is, if she hadn’t come to learn of Shadow’s sword.

For the current Alexia, Zenon’s current appearance is far from the title of ‘the strongest.’

Rather……

“So terrible……”

“How terrible……”

Alexia’s and Shadow’s voice overlapped.

The sword sought by the two of them are the same. Therefore, their sentiment is the same.

“Terrible, you say……?”

So asks Zenon, the smile gone from his face.

“Don’t pretend to be the strongest with that mere level of strength. It is an affront to the truly strong.”

“You fucker!”

“There is no path towards that title that involves reliance on borrowed power.”

For the first time today, Shadow’s magic gathers. Up to now, he has used only almost insignificant amounts of it.

Shadow’s magic condenses. It becomes so condensed that it can almost no longer be sensed.

But, just, what is this.

That rising magic is taking on the appearance of violet lines.

Numerous extremely, extremely thin strands. Like lightning, like blood vessels, it surrounds Shadow, painting an exquisite design.

“So pretty……”

Alexia is enchanted by the sight. Enchanted not by the beauty of the light, but by the beauty of the density of the refined magic. Enchanted to the point of yearning.

“What, is this……”

Zenon is shocked once again. He has never seen anyone use magic in this form.

“What true strength really is…… burn it into your eyes.”

Magic gathers into the jet black blade and carves out a pattern.

It is a spiral that sucks in even more magic.

It is almost as if everything in the world is being sucked towards that spiral.

A terrifying amount of power now rests within that blade.

“This is my strongest.”

Shadow raises his sword into a stance.

It is the stance of a thrust.

It is a stance solely for the sake of a thrust.

“D-, don’t……”

What is shaking with that rattling sound?

Is it the earth?

Is it the air?

Is it Zenon?

No…… it is all of them.

Everything is shaking.

Alexia realizes that she, too, is shaking.

But she is not afraid. Rather, she is ecstatic.

For this is her final destination.

This…… is the sword of the strongest.

“Behold……”

The jet black sword clad in light is drawn back……

“Secret Technique: I AM TAEPODONG.”

…… and then released.

Sound disappeared.

The torrent of light swallows Zenon, then rushes past Alexia.

It pierces through the wall, the earth, everything. It pierces, swallows, then soars into the sky.

And then…… it explodes.

A pattern of light is seared into the night sky, casting a violet shade over the entire royal capital.

From far, far away…… a violent wind reaches the capital belatedly. It instantaneously disperses all the rain clouds, shakes every house, shakes the earth, and then passes by.

The only thing left in its wake is a bright starry sky and the full moon.

Zenon was vaporized, with not even an atom left.

The hole bored through the wall continues all the way to aboveground.

And then…… With a flip of his coat, Shadow fades back into the shadows.

◆◇◆◇◆◇◆◇◆◇◆◇◆◇◆◇◆◇

Previously, there was a man who challenged the taepodong.

The man trained his body, his mentality, and his techniques.

But the taepodong was simply too far away, too high up.

But he did not give up.

At the end of his training of madness, he arrived at the answer.

Question: How can I not be vaporized by a taepodong?

Answer: I simply have to BE a taepodong.

Thus from the simple chain of inspiration was born the ultimate Secret Technique: ‘I AM TAEPODONG.’

◆◇◆◇◆◇◆◇◆◇◆◇◆◇◆◇◆◇

How long has she been standing in place, shell-shocked.

All of a sudden, Alexia realizes that someone is calling out her name.

“Alexia……! Alexia……!”

From far away, there is a breathless voice calling out to her.

Alexia recognizes that voice.

“Nee-sama…… Iris nee-sama!!”

After shouting, she begins to run.

Passing through the large tunnel, all the way to the other side.

“Alexia, Alexia!”

Iris rushes over.

“Nee-sama, I……!”

Before Alexia can say anything else, she is wrapped into a hug.

Iris’s body is drenched and cold, yet so warm at the same time.

“I’m so glad you’re alright. Just…… so glad.”

More and more powerful is being poured into the hug.

Alexia hesitantly wraps her own arms around to Iris’ back.

“I’m sorry, I must feel so cold.”

Alexia shakes her head, buried in Iris’ chest as it is.

For some reason, her tears just wouldn’t stop.