“. . . . . .Doug writhing in pain there is still one of the leading swordsmen in our country.
As much as he got careless fighting against a child and attacked with his fists, he’s not a man who would be taken down that easily.”
Watching the knight named something canine-like whimpering and clutching his groin on the ground, the old knight said so.
“To think that Doug could be reduced to such a pathetic state with a single blow, I am genuinely surprised.
But, the counter-move earlier was so excellent that this outcome seems inevitable.
It’s admirable that you’ve acquired such skill without divine protection. However. . . . . .”
At that moment, the old knight disappeared from my sight.
No, that’s wrong.
He moved at a speed that made it seem like he had vanished.
At a speed too fast for my eyes to catch.
The presence of the old knight is already behind me.
He got to my back in an instant.
“That’s your limit. It’s harsh, but the ceiling for strength you can reach without divine protection is far too low.”
The old knight’s hand blade strikes me.
Too fast to react to.
Moreover, he doesn’t look like he’s trying at all, yet he’s easily stronger than a serious demon.
He’s clearly on a different level.
“I am [Sword Saint] Ruberto・Valkyrias. One of the Holy Warriors.
If you wish to fight alongside Hero-sama, you must attain at least strength equivalent to mine.”
The strongest swordsman holding one of the special divine protections known as Holy Warrior’s divine protection.
I thought so.
This strength, I had figured he must be something like that.
I loudly keep Stella, who tries to run to me out of concern, at a distance.
“Don’t come, Stella. This is my fight. . . . . .”
I force my aching body to move and stand up.
The damage from a mere hand blade is unbearably severe.
And he even held back for this.
This talentless body of mine without divine protection is sadly fragile.
But there are times when I absolutely can’t fall.
Times when I have to stand back up through sheer will.
“Hmm. . . . . .You can still stand? Did you quickly adjust your stance to avoid vital points?”
“You said it earlier. If I want to fight alongside Stella, I have to be as strong as you.”
After confirming, I draw my Onryomaru from my waist.
“Then, if I’m stronger than you, there’s no problem. ━━Let’s fight. I’ll prove my strength.”
With all my fighting spirit, I throw down the gauntlet.
The old knight quickly reaches for his waist sword, then looks surprised and pulls his hand back.
“What determination. . . . . .That’s not the intimidation of a child. Why are you so desperate?”
“. . . . . .Why, you ask?”
“It’s to protect Stella, my precious childhood friend, of course.”
“! . . . . . .I see. My apologies. It was a foolish question.”
The old knight looks at me with surprisingly gentle eyes, then looks at the blushing Stella and draws his sword from his waist.
“I accept your challenge. Come at me.”
“No interference. No back talk.
A man is challenging a formidable enemy for the woman he loves.
I won’t allow anyone to spoil his resolve.”
“T, The woman he lo. . . . . .!”
I hear Stella’s surprised voice but ignore it.
Also, this old knight seems to be quite mistaken, but I’ll ignore that too.
If I try too hard to deny it, I feel like it would break my focus.
Holding my sword low, I close the distance by running towards the old knight.
Even though someone with divine protection could cover the distance in a single step, I have to run due to my own limitations.
Yet, the old knight does not let his guard down and meets me with a flawless mid-level stance.
Using the momentum of my charge, I thrust upwards, aiming for the old knight’s eye.
Excluding some exceptions like Hero’s Divine Protection, the old knight possesses the divine protection of Sword Saint, which is considered top-tier among martial divine protections. Naturally, he must have an incredibly resilient body to match.
Against such a foe, a regular slash won’t do much.
Given my current strength, even a direct hit probably wouldn’t even scratch him.
It’s better to think that the only effective attacks are aimed at vital points or attacks that utilize the opponent’s strength with Flowing Blade.
The old knight avoids my thrust by slightly turning his face, using minimal movement.
Simultaneously, he steps diagonally forward and swings his sword horizontally, attempting a counter-attack to slice my torso.
However, I had anticipated that move.
My thrust was partially a feint.
I hadn’t committed my weight to it.
That means I can change my movements without losing balance.
Leaning my upper body back dramatically, I let my feet slide like I’m performing a slide, using the height difference between an adult and a child to pass under the old knight’s sword.
At that moment, I clash my retracted blade against his sword, gaining both the force of his swing and the recoil from my own charge.
I release this force the moment I slide past him, converting it into a horizontal slash aimed at his legs.
The blade aimed at tripping sweeps towards the old knight.
Although the power I could use was limited due to him holding back, aiming for the seams in his armor with this attack should inflict some damage.
My estimation was. . . . . .far too optimistic.
“Hmm. Unusual swordsmanship.”
The attack I thought had caught him off guard was easily dodged by the old knight stepping aside, and he swung his sword around in a spin.
I purposefully let myself be thrown off balance by my own sword, rolling on the ground to avoid the swift slash.
The speed of the slash was no joke.
I could barely dodge it, let alone counter.
If I hadn’t been able to anticipate its trajectory, I would’ve been done for.
In other words, if I fail to anticipate even once, it’s game over.
I create distance by rolling and quickly get up, taking my stance with my sword.
“Nice moves. Dodging that, you’re stronger than even my own grandchildren.”
“Haa. . . . . .Haa. . . . . .”
My breath is heavy after just one exchange.
The mental fatigue is far from normal, not just physical.
But so what?
“Phew. . . . . .”
I exhale deeply to heighten my concentration.
Deeper and deeper.
I hone my senses to the extreme.
I’ve learned well that there’s no winning against this old knight if I initiate the attack.
So, my aim is a single counter-attack.
Come at me.
I’ll take you down with a counter.
“. . . . . .Remarkable focus. Planning several moves ahead, are you? Very well, I’ll play along.”
The moment I realize that, the old knight is already in front of me, raising his sword.
Not only is his sword fast, but his movement speed is also too quick for the eye to follow.
But, I’ve been reminded of that plenty when I took his hand-chop.
Although I can’t follow his moves, a mere afterimage is still visible.
And with my current heightened focus, I can anticipate his moves from that afterimage.
Experience from training with Stella, as well as countless life-or-death battles against strong foes in dreams, grants me a near-future-predicting ability to anticipate.
The power of anticipation, grounded in experience.
The old knight parried my downward diagonal sword swing with his blade.
As always, my sword easily yielded to the opposing force, turning it into a backward force, and I used that to activate Flowing Blade.
I spun to the right, targeting the defenseless old knight immediately after his sword swing.
However, the old knight blocked it.
He swiftly retracted his sword, holding the hilt upward and the blade downward, perfectly blocking my sword.
Impressive to say the least, he didn’t even flinch or lose his balance after receiving a blow that used his own force against him.
Such is the Sword Saint.
The moment our swords clashed, I put a little force into my feet and jumped.
A small hop is all I need.
Doing so allows the tremendous force on my sword to lift my lightweight body into the air.
I adjust the flow of power, letting my sword slide over his, and do a vertical spin in place.
Flowing Blade is unleashed with the second strike as if it flows smoothly.
“First Strike Deformation━━[Flowing Wheel]!”
Seems like this time, I caught him completely off guard.
The old knight stepped back, his face full of surprise, trying to avoid my sword, but. . . . . .he failed and a thin cut was etched onto his cheek.
“Impossible?! The Sword Saint getting injured. . . . . .?!”
The audience of knights gasped.
Ignoring them, I landed while still spinning and converted the remaining momentum into speed to close the distance with the old knight.
Strike him now while he’s shaken and off-balance!
But before I could catch up, the old knight disappeared again.
He didn’t attack from the other side. . . . . .
The old knight cautiously and calmly used his super-speed to put distance between us.
“. . . . . .Getting injured by a kid is a first-time experience for me.”
He murmured while touching the cut on his cheek.
“Obtaining such strength without possessing divine protection. . . . . .It is likely that an extraordinary amount of effort was invested, a level of dedication that words cannot adequately express.
To endure the rigors of such effort and, above all, to hold Hero-sama in higher regard than one’s own self. . . . . .
It’s a pity. If only the Holy Warrior’s divine protection were also bestowed upon you, there would have been no one more deserving to stand by Hero-sama as a comrade.
If possible, I wish I could exchange you for my successor.”
“. . . . . .Thank you.”
Was I being praised? So I thanked him just in case.
“I initially intended to make you give up. But I’ll reconsider. You’re strong. Therefore. . . . . .”
The atmosphere around the old knight changed.
He was serious before but had been holding back because I’m a kid. Now it’s different.
I felt genuine killing intent and pressure emanating from him.
“Now I will teach you my [true strength]. You may not overcome it now, but someday, you should.”
With those words, the old knight moved. . . . . .
Before I knew it, I was cut.
A slash so fast, it left no afterimage or shadow.
I wasn’t even allowed to react; a deep cut was carved into my chest.
My ribs are torn, and my lungs are badly damaged.
But with sheer willpower, I avoided falling.
This is my pride.
“You’re not falling. Admirable spirit.”
Stella ran towards me and began casting Healing Magic.
I can’t tell her not to come this time.
I can’t even speak because my lungs are damaged, and more importantly, I no longer have the strength to fight.
The battle is over.
There’s no longer a reason to keep Stella away.
With my healing lungs, I mustered a voice and spoke to Stella.
“I’m sorry, I lost.”
“. . . . . .Is that so? Just to confirm, I can’t take this loser with me, right?”
“Yes, I’m sorry but it’s the rules.”
Hey Stella, this girl.
Calling me a loser, huh.
“Only Holy Warriors can be companions of the hero. The minimum requirement to overturn this rule is for him to demonstrate power greater than that of a Holy Warrior. So. . . . . .”
“I get it. I won’t say to bring him along anymore. It’s this loser’s fault for losing.”
“Calling me a loser over and over. . . . . .”
“Because you are a loser, right?”
“. . . . . .Tch.”
Can’t even argue back.
“But you’re not always going to be a loser, right?
I mean, my rival isn’t planning on staying a loser forever, are you?”
“. . . . . .Of course not.”
It’s decided then.
There’s no way I intend to give up like this.
“Remember this, Sword Saint. I will beat you one day.”
“Heh. I’ll be looking forward to it.”
Yeah, look forward to it.
I’ll definitely take you down one day.
And then, I called out to Stella.
. . . . . .After this, Stella will probably be taken to the royal capital.
Just like in the dream, all alone.
But unlike that time, there’s no sign of fear in Stella.
That’s proof she still believes in me.
I know exactly what I should say to Stella now.
In my dream, I had forever regretted the words I had said at this moment.
So, I won’t make a mistake.
To reassure her, and with confidence, manliness, and pride, I’ll declare the words that I should have truly conveyed at this time.
“I’ll become a man who can protect you, and come to get you. So wait for me.”
I told her this while looking straight into Stella’s eyes.
Then Stella, her face turning bright red, said. . . . . .
“Okay! I’ll wait for you! So make sure to come get me soon!”
And she smiled.
It was the most beautiful and adorable smile I’ve ever seen, like a blooming flower.
Afterwards, Stella said goodbye to everyone in the village, including Uncle and our family, and then set off on her journey.
It’s a journey from which one normally wouldn’t return alive.
But neither Stella nor I have any intention of accepting such a fate.
I made a promise to you.
That next time, we’ll fight together.
I will definitely keep that promise.
And I will also fulfill my vow.
To stand beside her in battle, to support her, and to protect her until the very end.
I will definitely become that kind of man and come for her.
So wait for me, Stella.