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Sunny swayed slightly and thrust the Soul Serpent into the ground, leaning on it for support. His breath was labored and ragged. The wound on his neck had already disappeared, but drops of crimson blood remained on the onyx surface of his fearsome armor.

All around him, the crowd was going crazy.

"Mongrel! Mongrel! Mongrel!"

The fight against the noble Queen had not been as savage and bloody as some of his previous ones, but it had been incomparably harder. Even though each of the fighters had only managed to land one strike, the mental strain and physical effort the duel had required of them was nothing short of tremendous. Facing a true battle master was a tough trial.

Sunny was completely spent… but more than that, he was also bitter and full of fury.

'Damnation! I almost had it!'

Not paying the crowd any attention, he closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on the dissipating sensation he had felt during the last seconds of the intense battle against the undefeated champion of the Dreamscape.

During their fight, after grasping the secret of the elusive Queen, he had come close to making a breakthrough in his mastery of the Shadow Dance. It had been so close that Sunny could practically see it… but in the end, he failed to make the last step. There was an invisible obstacle in his way that had pushed him back, one that he didn't know how to overcome.

Something was still missing… all the styles he had absorbed created a vast and solid foundation, but it was not enough. At this point, he knew that the problem was not quantity. He had already done the groundwork. Then what? What did he need to do to bring this stage of Shadow Dance to completion? Find a unifying element? Face even more formidable opponents?

Sunny didn't know, which made him extremely frustrated.

However, he didn't receive any time to savor his frustration or consider the issue deeper, because a thundering voice suddenly drowned out the roar of the crowd.

Up on the central tribune, the Saint of the Dreamscape had risen from their seat and was now looking down with a brilliant smile, already in the middle of an excited speech.

'Right… I won! I am about to receive my reward!'

Sunny grinned behind the mask and straightened, lifting the odachi and putting it back on his shoulder.

The reward… wasn't this why he had entered the tournament in the first place? And now, it was finally time to reap it!

The Saint was going on and on, showering Sunny with praise.

"...glory… marvelous… duty of the Awakened… true warrior… bravery… courage… future of humanity…"

'Gods, can you just get to the point?!'

Sunny didn't care about all that nonsense, he just wanted to receive his prize and disappear. However, he had to stand in the middle of the arena like the world's most fearsome scarecrow and endure the endless barrage of flowery words flying out of the grandiloquent Saint's mouth... for a while.

'This guy… uh, woman?... this person really likes the sound of their voice, huh…'

At least it gave him a chance to recover.

After something that felt like an eternity, the Saint was finally finished with their long speech and gestured at the representative of Valor.

"... personally reward the winner!"

As the crowd applauded, the young woman in black armor stood up and approached the parapet of the tribune. Then, smiled at the audience and looked down at Sunny.

Suddenly, he felt a small shiver run down his spine.

The young woman was smiling in a friendly manner, but her eyes were as cold as the sharpest of swords. They were also of a strange, vibrant color — bright red, the same as her full lips and vermilion cape. With her alabaster skin and raven-black hair, she looked both beautiful and daunting, like a lethal blade.

The pressure she exerted could be felt even from where Sunny stood.

'...A Master.'

The young woman spoke, her raspy voice easily reaching all across the arena. It sounded friendly enough, as well as strangely familiar, for some reason.

"I am Ascended Morgan of clan Valor. Congratulations, warrior… ah, what a splendid duel it was! You truly are a worthy winner!"

Sunny stared at her for a moment, then bowed his head slightly, expressing his respect… well, pretending to.

Smiling in response, Morgan of Valor continued:

"...And you are truly worthy of wielding a Memory forged by the smiths of the great clan Valor. In fact, your remarkable skill brought me so much joy that I have decided to gift you one of my personal armaments!"

'Jackpot!'

The thing Sunny had hoped would happen did, indeed, happen! Ascended Morgan seemed to be in a very good mood. Whatever it was that a Master of one of the Great Clans had in her arsenal was bound to be good!

The young woman waited for the excited cheers of the crowd to quiet down and looked at him with a curious smile.

"Tell me, what do you wish to receive? A weapon?"

'Yes, a weapon would be great!'

Sunny started to smile, but then, suddenly, his eyes widened.

'Crap!'

…And before he could think of a crafty lie, the Flaw forced an answer out of his mouth:

"...No."

'Crap, crap, crap! Curse it!'

Morgan of Valor tilted her head a little.

"A suit of armor, then? Or maybe a powerful charm?"

'Yes! Yes! Both would be good!'

Sunny gritted his teeth, but the result was inevitable. He had no choice but to answer in a hollow voice:

"Neither."

The young woman laughed.

"Really? Maybe you want to receive an Echo, then?"

'Oh, no…'

Mongrel remained silent for several seconds, and then answered:

"I do not."

Sunny was on the verge of shedding bloody tears. How had it all gone so wrong, so fast?

Master Morgan studied him for a bit, then leaned on the parapet and asked in an amused voice:

"Really? What do you want, then?"

Sunny panicked. He obviously wanted to receive one of the rewards she had mentioned, but it was precisely because he did that Weaver's Mask would not allow him to say it. He scrambled to salvage the situation and get at least something out of this disaster…

Suddenly, a crazy idea appeared in his mind.

And then, in front of countless thousands of people, Mongrel said something shocking:

"...You, Ascended Morgan. I want to duel you."