Ten warriors lunged at Esther at the same time, their swords glinting coldly in their hands. Esther sighed and brandished her sword, still in its scabbard, in response to their attacks. Sparks were flying everywhere as their weapons collided in midair. They were using the Solarburst Sword. In less than a second, the warriors were already pulled into the tempo of battle that Esther controlled.
The warriors of the Springbear tribe sucked in their breath, their eyes filled with fear and uncertainty as they realized they were at a disadvantage. But the female warrior, who was acting as leader, clearly had no intention of backing down. Her eyes glowed with rage and determination.
This one's stubborn.
Esther charged forward, as graceful and agile as the wind, her body becoming a blur. In the next split second, she landed smoothly on the ground behind them. The ten warriors blinked, confused. A gentle breeze swayed their hair and robes. Esther was right in front of them just a second ago. How did she move that fast? She moved faster than the blink of an eye. It almost looked like she used teleportation or became the wind.
Then, like waves crashing on the beach, realization hit them. Their hands were empty. All of their weapons lay uselessly on the ground. And like a marionette that had lost its strings, they fell on their knees and coughed up blood. The defeated warriors then lost their consciousness, except for the leader. The fierce-looking woman raised her head and looked at Esther.
"W-who are you?"
Esther tilted her head, twirling the sword in her hand. She didn't answer.
The woman was looking at her in a different way. She used to be this fierce and bold woman who could bring fear from anyone, but now she was the one who appeared terrified as she stared at the demure lady wearing a fox mask. Esther looked as harmless as a dove. But when she attacked, it was deadly, fast, and unseen. Like a serpent.
Esther remained quiet until the woman finally lost consciousness.
"Ah, Young Mistress. You never failed to amaze me," Helio commended as he walked toward her. "The level of your footwork was almost close to mine! And that amazing sword technique! Your father would be happy to hear of this."
"Thank you, Helio," Esther said with a smile. Even though Helio couldn't see her face, he knew that she was smiling.
Esther's heart sped a little bit out of sheer happiness at Helio's comment. She couldn't help but feel proud.
Lightwind Steps is a high-level footwork technique used by Esther and Helio to gain the ability of lightness. By altering the distribution and flow of chi, they could make their bodies light in weight and move swiftly and smoothly like the wind. It was the technique Esther used during the sparring match to dodge Hasim's powerful attacks with ease.
In the Ophiuchus clan, Helio was the only practitioner of this technique before teaching it to Esther when she was six years old. Esther learned this technique first before attempting to learn any sword movements. It was because of Helio that she was able to possess such powerful skills.
A clap sounded, and Esther turned around to face the newcomer.
A familiar bulky warrior emerged from the shadows, still clapping. He was carrying a massive sword on his back. "Excellent! You defeated my companions on your own; truly outstanding!"
Helio appeared next to Esther, his face set in a deep scowl.
"Hasim," Esther greeted.
Hasim grinned. He appeared to be almost perfectly fine already, but Esther could almost feel no chi emanating from him, implying that his internal energy hadn't fully recovered, so he was still in no condition to fight. He had a bandage over his injured eye. Based on the damage Esther inflicted, Hasim's wound would take about three days to heal using his chi.
"Don't worry, I didn't come here to fight," Hasim assured as he glanced at the scowling Helio. He looked at Esther. "I was truly impressed by your swordsmanship and amazing footwork; it seems that you possess such high-level martial arts. Would you mind sharing this knowledge with me, fellow warrior?"
Esther blinked, then she felt a smile spread over her face. "I don't mind sharing my secret with you, but I'm afraid it won't be free."
Hasim frowned. "What do you want?"
"I know you and Elder Ragnar are good friends, so I assumed you knew something."
"Spit it out," Hasim said in a low voice.
"How did Elder Ragnar obtain the soul-binding scroll?"
Hasim's eye widened at her question, clearly indicating that Esther hit a mark. Since hearing about the strange bettor from Helio, Esther had been trying to piece things together. The soul-binding scroll was such a rare item to acquire. No sane warrior or magus would willingly give it away as a prize to random disciples. That was no different than tossing a sum of twenty thousand gold coins along with a great opportunity.
Ragnar was the head of the Bolivar family, so the first thing he'd do was keep it for his own family. So what made him think it was a brilliant idea to use that as a reward?
Because it wasn't his in the first place.
"He didn't give a name," Hasim admitted, his brow furrowed. "He ordered Ragnar to host a reward and use the soul-binding scroll as a prize for the victor, and he even threatened the old man that he would kill his family if he didn't obey him!" Hasim's voice tightened. "That guy! If I ever saw him, I'd beat the crap out of him!"
"Does he wear a black and white robe?" asked Helio.
Hasim's dark-eyed gaze snapped toward him. "You know him?"
So it was really him.
Esther clutched her sword tightly as she tried to suppress her frustration. "No, we don't, but Helio saw him during our sparring session."
"He was definitely there. So why are you asking about this?"
"Nothing important; I'm just... genuinely curious," Esther replied in that soothing voice of hers.
Hasim frowned, trying to figure out if she was lying, but it was all for naught because he couldn't see the face behind her mask. He shrugged, then a wide grin split his face. "So, what is the name of the sword art you're using, and when will you begin teaching me or give me a copy of the instructional manual?"
"It's yin and yang," Esther said.
Hasim's frown deepened. "What?"
"You must be calm and attentive during combat," Esther explained. "Have nerves of steel on the inside but be completely calm on the outside; that was my method in sword fighting."
"I'm not sure what you're on about, woman, but I didn't ask for advice or philosophy; what I need is for you to teach me martial arts! Like actual movements!"
Esther gave a palm and fist salute before turning around and walking the other way. Helio immediately followed suit. Their footsteps were as soft and quiet as a gentle breeze, almost imperceptible. Hasim called them again and again, but they kept walking until they vanished from his sight.
With Lightwind Steps, they could also move as silently and stealthily as a highly trained assassin.
As soon as Esther no longer felt Hasim's presence from behind them, she felt some slight relief. She never lied to him about anything she told him. Her martial art was completely based on that philosophy. However, she was unwilling to teach him any techniques. Not now, when the Ophiuchus clan was at its weakest. Anyone could betray them.
Serpentine Sword Art was a high-level sword technique as well as a breathing technique. This martial art resembled the skills and movements of a serpent. It featured stealth moves and deadly strikes. It looked gentle and simple, but it was imbued with firmness. The secret of this sword art was the use of yin and yang energy, just as Esther told Hasim. During a battle, one should strengthen the spirit while staying calm.
She and her father were the only practitioners of this martial art, and it was the only high-level sword art of the Ophiuchus clan that the other clans failed to steal. For that reason, she wasn't willing to share this knowledge with anyone else.
"Helio." Esther struggled to keep her voice steady as she thought about the mysterious bettor. "We were being played by that guy. He intended me to win the sparring match and have this soul-binding scroll."
Helio's brows knitted into a frown. "I don't think he's a warrior or a magus; I didn't sense any chi or mana from him."
Esther fell silent for a few moments as she contemplated. "We can't be sure, though; he could be a high-level warrior or magus who uses high-level martial art or spell to conceal his aura."
"Hmm. So what do we do, Young Mistress?"
A short period of silence stretched between them before Esther responded to his question.
"We will proceed as planned and play along until we learn of his intention."