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    In Murim, someone who wields a sword for the first time is referred to as a low-grade warrior, while in the Cieran Empire, they are called a sword beginner.

    After swinging the sword a thousand times, enough for their hands to be covered in calluses, they advance to become a third-rate warrior, or a sword user.

    Once they have a bit of an idea how to wield the sword and can hold their own against five third-rate warriors at the same time, they’re considered a second-rate warrior, or a low to intermediate sword expert.

    And once they gain the ability to use internal energy, or aura, they become a first-rate warrior, classified as an upper-level sword expert.

    Those who can wield their internal energy freely and use it to attack others are regarded as masters of the peak realm, the pinnacle stage of sword expert.

    And the stage where one achieves enlightenment and can envelop their sword in sword aura—that is known as transcendence, or sword master.

    That was the position I barely managed to secure in my previous life, though I was only at a lower level.

    The current me had barely scraped past from the first-rate to the peak stage. Although this was considered early for a thirteen-year-old, it wasn’t a remarkable feat since I was merely retracing a path I had already walked once.

    I had yet to experience the world beyond transcendence.

    It had been a long time since I couldn’t gauge someone’s level with my eyes. Although I continued to wield the sword, it had been ages since I left the treacherous lands of the gangho.

    Over a decade ago, I was running into the jaws of death. Within the Murim Alliance, my rank was fifty-eighth.

    Among them, the leaders, elders, and direct disciples of the nine sects—Kunlun, Kongtong, Qingsong, Emei, Diancang, Zhongnan, Mount Hua, Wudang, and Shaolin—as well as the two elders of the Beggars’ Gang, often referred to as Beggar and Drunkard, and the heads as well as the direct descendants of the five great families—Moyong, Hebei Peng, Sichuan Tang, Jegal, and Namgung—counted fifty-seven individuals with martial prowess above transcendence.

    However, even among those of relatively similar ranks, there were bound to be stars that shone brighter than the others.

    The foremost among them was Jang Muhyeon, the leader of the Murim Alliance and the greatest sword master of Wudang, followed by two masters of the unrestrained realm, each boasted by the Mount Hua Sect and the Namgung Clan.

    With just a wave of their hands, the heavens wept and the ground turned upside down.

    The Sword Aura Manipulation Technique, where dozens of swords rose up by themselves and cut people down; the Twenty-Four Strike Plum Blossom Sword Technique, where sword aura bloomed like petals from a single branch, the sword as its body, and massacred hundreds standing in rows of dozens in a single breath; the Emperor Sword Form, where a single step made ten kneel and two made two hundred sob and groan.

    Their brilliant nicknames and the three characters of their names were imprinted in the minds and hearts of all the martial artists in the gangho.

    They were not men, but martial gods who had descended into the human realm.

    I wanted to be like them.

    Was it the desire to become a god in a human body, or the competitive spirit of a martial artist who wielded a sword from birth?

    Or perhaps I was jealous of my peers who, from an early age, wolfed down elixirs like food and alcohol and occasionally received massages from elders to facilitate the flow of internal energy, regularly earning the nicknames the Five Dragons and Three Peaks¹.

    Regardless, what I wanted to become, both on the day I died and after being reborn, was always the same.

    A master of the unrestrained realm.

    I yearned to reach that dizzyingly high stage—a level I could never set my sights on, no matter if I craned my neck until my shoulders ached or lifted my chin as high as I could—even if only with the tips of my fingers.

    I longed to glimpse its peak just once, even if it meant that my nails would fall off as I climbed a cliff of ten thousand jangs², even if it meant that my entire body would be crushed.

    The unrestrained realm was also called the true form. It was a state in which one appeared to be an ordinary person despite having reached an exceptionally high level of martial arts mastery.

    This was true for Jang Muhyeon, the greatest swordsman of the Wudang Sect, and Maello Sanson, who stood before me now.

    As I focused my vision and studied him closely, I noticed that the meridians of his temples were even and wide, his expression gentle, and his entire body—from his solid shoulders to his torso and down to his feet—was perfectly balanced without any unnecessary tension.

    He, who looked like an ordinary middle-aged man, had golden hair and possessed a quiet yet luminous bearing.

    Observing someone was the use of internal energy. It was the movement of qi. From the moment I heightened my sense of qi, I knew that Maello Sanson had noticed and was looking in my direction, but I couldn’t bear to avert my gaze.

    A teacher of the unrestrained realm.

    I was so overjoyed that I could hardly contain myself. It was a strange fate, one I thought I would never encounter again.

    “Classes haven’t even started yet, but your momentum is quite admirable, Michael Ernhardt.”

    “Yes!”

    “No, what I mean is, don’t look at me like you’re about to devour me… Yeah, among the new students, there’ll be some who recognize me by name… and others with just a glance, like our youngest over here. I guess I’ve got a bit of a reputation, huh?”

    “Yes!”

    “…There’s another Grand Sword Master in the Imperial Knights, but that fellow isn’t qualified to teach anyone. That’s why I’m staying at the academy, for the sake of both the empire’s future and everyone here.”

    “Yes!”

    “Simple guidance is available during the training grounds’ operating hours, so come find me if need be. Just remember, if you decide to seek me out, forget about taking it easy.”

    “Yes!”

    The first, second, and last time, I was the only one answering. A few students quietly chuckled, while others copied me, straightening their backs and fixing their gaze firmly on Sanson.

    Just the thought of rigorous training under the guidance of an outstanding teacher was enough to make my chest swell.

    Maello Sanson carefully observed the students’ faces before giving me another glance and, using the space transfer technique, placing the handouts he was holding in front of all the students.

    The space transfer technique! And so effortlessly, as if he were merely breathing! I felt myself on the verge of fainting.

    The first page of the handout listed the classes available to swordsmanship division students in a clear and concise manner.

    Under each class name, the name of the professor in charge and the contents of the subject were written in small text. Without even giving it a second thought, I picked up my pen and wrote down Beginner Swordsmanship and Advanced Swordsmanship on the schedule on the second page.

    It was because I didn’t want to miss a single moment of the opportunity to study under a master of the unrestrained realm.

    With the eyes of someone from the unrestrained realm, Maello Sanson naturally noticed my behaviour and wore a reluctant expression.

    However, I pretended not to notice, already feeling a pang in my chest at the thought that this opportunity would only last three years.

    Maello Sanson informed us which classes listed on the handout were essential, which were beneficial, and which were fun to take, then fell silent for a moment.

    “No lessons will be given from twelve to one, as that is lunch time. I will also be eating during that time, so don’t come searching for me.”

    Those words were practically aimed at me. I flashed him a smile, trying my best to look like an innocent and well-behaved child.

    * * *

    Shayden Rose, who had just become my peer in the swordsmanship division, leaned his red head close to mine to peer at my schedule.

    He was sitting right beside me, so there was no need for him to stick so closely. I wondered if he had poor eyesight.

    Since poor eyesight would be a definite disadvantage in sword training, I felt a little sorry for him and nudged my schedule in his direction.

    Shayden mumbled as he helped me fill out my schedule.

    I knew that speaking casually would make us seem close to others. Especially since he had already gone ahead and started to call me by my childhood nickname.

    It was obvious that I had given him permission to do so at some point in the past when I was too distracted to notice, so I didn’t reproach him for it.

    “Are you planning to take both Beginner Swordsmanship and Advanced Swordsmanship? Damn, I was hoping to coordinate our schedules.”

    “Opportunities like this are rare.”

    “Well… can’t argue with that. So, what other classes are you signing up for? You’ll have to take World History as a required liberal arts class, and… you probably won’t need Etiquette since that’s already been taken care of in home education…”

    “Basic Magic and Principles of Equation.”

    “Huh? Why that?”

    “I want to befriend a mage.”

    “Huh?”

    Shayden’s voice was so loud and shrill that I could feel our classmates looking in our direction. Feeling unashamed and unperturbed, I repeated, “I want to befriend a mage.”

    “No, just for that reason… you’re really going to take it? You know that there will be midterms, finals, and assignments, too, right? Can you handle all that?”

    “I haven’t tried yet.”

    “Mika, are you serious? All the kids in the magic division have been casting ice balls and memorization spells since the age of ten. You need innate mana to…”

    “I’m going to try it, starting now.”

    It can be surprisingly easy to convince someone who has no intention of being convinced. Just make a strong argument or take action first. Whether I’ll succeed or not, I don’t know either. I replied firmly and continued to fill out my schedule. Shayden hesitated for a moment, but soon declared that he would give up trying to coordinate his schedule with mine.

    I thought it might not be boring to have him around, but he also seemed like he could be an obstacle in my efforts to meet new people, so I obediently gave in.

    And so, I easily arranged my schedule for the first semester of my freshman year.

    On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I had Beginner Swordsmanship with Maello Sanson from ten in the morning until noon, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I had Advanced Swordsmanship with Maello Sanson during the same hours.

    Perhaps it was because he was a martial artist of the unrestrained realm, but apart from the weekend, he seemed to adhere to a rather orderly schedule. I decided I should emulate that.

    I pushed all my classes and electives, except for swordsmanship, to the afternoon.

    However, just as I had decided to leave my Friday afternoons open in case I needed to reach out to Maello Sanson, a dark hand suddenly appeared in front of me.

    “Nice to meet you, young master Ernhardt. My name is Benjamin Claudian, the third son of Marquis Claudian.”

    * * *

    “Sir Sanson, why do you look so dead? I hear there’s a lot of talented freshmen this year. How about that, uh, pink-haired kid who was admitted early? Rumour has it that he’s been running around the training grounds since he was five, even though no one told him to, kicking up a fuss about becoming a sword master.”

    “…Cedric, do you still have some of that sun block ointment the second-year students whipped up during class?”

    “Huh? Yeah, I think so. Why?”

    “You know, I once was a fiery kid myself… Only twice in my life have I encountered such a crazy pupil. The way he carries himself, he might as well be a little Kyadris. I’ll keel over before he does.”

    “A grand sword master shouldn’t be complaining so easily, hm? Learn to appreciate a shining star when it emerges in the empire.”

    “I’m at the ripe age for retirement, but a kid who’s both too young and too powerful has turned up…”

    ¹ 오룡삼봉 – Term referring to the five most outstanding men and three women of the future generation of juniors
    ² 장(丈) – Approximately 3.3 m.

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