When Wu Lixue came back to, she realised she was still in the arms of the senior sister who had escorted her to the second trial.
The senior sister realised that she had woken up and so released her gently. She had a smile on her face as she looked at Lixue. Having brought the new recruit who had passed the trial the fastest would bring her a nice little bonus, even though it was completely by chance.
"Are you alright, Junior Sister Lixue?"
"Mm. I'm fine. I was just a little tired. Thanks for taking care of me Senior Sister Feng."
Lixue cupped her fist and bowed to her senior sister before looking around at the welcome area. It seemed a few more recruits had passed the trial. Many of them had the character 'Fang' embroidered on their robes.
Lixue noticed that her younger brother Lin hadn't come out yet. She couldn't help worrying about him. If he didn't make it, their mother would be disappointed in not only him for failing but also her for not looking out for him. It would be hard to explain that there was nothing she could do.
Fortunately, her heart was soon set at ease. Her brother came stumbling past the bushes and gasped for air with his hands on his knees. When he had caught his breath, he raised his head to see what was happening.
Seeing that he was far from being the first one out, he couldn't help but clench his fists. He had tried his absolute hardest.
Lixue walked up to him and smiled.
"Why the long face, Lin?"
"Lixue? You got out before me?"
It seemed he really wanted to kick himself.
Lixue crossed her arms and frowned.
"Is it such a surprise? I've always had more talent than you. I'll have you know I was the first one out."
Wu Lin's eyes opened wide.
"You beat the Fang Clan? And Tianlan? How is that-"
"Humph! Tianlan? He's just good at punching things. When it comes to a trial of determination like this, he's nothing much. Even you beat him."
A huge smile bloomed on Lin's face as he heard this.
Ever since they had been little, Tianlan, who wasn't even recognised as a legitimate heir of the Wu Clan, had been suppressing them. Even though everyone knew he had no cultivation, he was always a little bit stronger than them because of the developmental differences that came with age. Putting aside the years of martial arts training he had undergone, his muscles were larger, his bones were denser and his reach was wider.
Those differences were hard to compensate for with cultivation at the body refining realm alone.
And then when they finally cultivated enough that Tianlan's age advantage was completely meaningless, he had suddenly become far too strong for them to compare to.
It seemed the Heavens were finally making things right.
"Hm? What's happening over there?" Lin noticed that the elders and senior disciples were focused on a particular section of the forest. "I think I heard someone say 'Despair Path' or something like that."
"I don't know. Let me ask Feng jiejie."
Lixue walked up to her senior sister and tapped her shoulder.
"Hm? What is it?"
"What's the Despair Path?"
"Oh. It's the most difficult path of the Melancholic Forest which requires an elder to supervise. It's three times as long as the regular paths and the intensity of the illusions as much stronger. It looks like one of the others sent a recruit down there without permission, but it seems the recruit is going to make it out."
"Three times as long? And someone's about to make it out?"
Lixue and Lin exchanged glances. They had a sense of foreboding.
And sure enough, they soon saw two cool blue lights amidst the darkness and heard the sounds of slow and continuous footsteps. Then they saw a hand peek out from behind the bushes, revealing a handsome young man who had a book in one hand and not a scratch on him.
Once he emerged from the forest, he raised his arm up to block the excess light and snapped the book closed with his other hand before placing it somewhere inside his robe.
After his eyes had adjusted, he lowered his arm to see a crowd of people in front of him.
"What? Was I too slow?"
Lixue and Lin exchanged glances once more. All traces of their pride had melted away.
Tianlan stared blankly into the audience.
He looked up to the sky and could see that sundown was still some time away.
Before he could ask another question, one of the Fang Clan juniors walked forward with pride dripping out of every step. It was a young man who had come to admire Tianlan above even his own clan elders.
"As expected of Sage Tianlan. A measly trial like this couldn't even put a scratch on you."
He had a beaming smile as he stood in front of Tianlan.
Tianlan widened his eyes when he saw the state of the boy.
"What happened to you?"
He looked back to the forest and then brought his gaze to the young man once more.
"The forest left you in such a state?"
The young man scratched his head in embarrassment.
"Even the most difficult Despair Path was nothing for you, Sage Tianlan, but for me, the ordinary path proved to be quite a challenge. I'm sure the others will agree that without the guidance of you and the other childish sages, we wouldn't have gotten out so fast, if at all."
Tianlan looked around to the other Fang Clan members who all looked worse for wear. They had all passed the first and second trials, all 11 boys and 6 girls.
"You all did well. Now make sure you pass the third trial or Hei will make you feel worthless the next time he sees you."
They all laughed. But a few of them winced in pain. The trial had really been quite difficult.
After Tianlan had finished addressing the Fang Clan members, the second elder, the one in charge of the second trial, walked up to him, suspicion clearly written on his face.
"The Despair Path isn't something you can just stroll through. I'll need to examine you for external treasures."
"Don't worry. We didn't expect anyone from the boonies would have a treasure that could help with the second trial, so we didn't mention it, but the use of external treasures is forbidden. Even if you used one, you won't be disqualified immediately. You'll just have to prove you can pass through on your own merits."
Tianlan shrugged his shoulders and took off his robe, revealing his regular clothing. He passed his robe to the elder then stood with his arms outstretched.
The elder was professional in his conduct and wasn't too rough. Especially because of the jealous gazes he was getting from the ladies as he patted Tianlan down.
"Hm?" The elder spotted the book Tianlan was carrying. "What's this?"
"It's a book."
"Why is it empty?"
"It's a family heirloom. Only those of the Shao Clan can see its contents."
Suspicious, the elder decided to examine the book by infusing his qi in various ways, but nothing appeared. Determining that the weird but otherwise useless book couldn't be used to cheat the second trial, he gave it back to Tianlan along with his robe.
"I can confirm that you didn't have any outside help. You've successfully passed the Despair Path."
Tianlan nodded his head and was about to head back to the Fang Clan juniors to discuss their experiences when the elder coughed to get his attention.
"You don't have to answer if you don't want to, but I'm curious. How did you manage to overcome the Despair Path so easily?"
"From what I've heard, this Melancholic Forest uses illusion formations to attack the doubts and insecurities in one's heart. There are two reasons why it wouldn't work on me. First, I have no doubt in myself. And second," he pointed at his eyes, which glowed brightly for a moment, "these eyes can't be tricked so easily."
While the Fang Clan juniors were cheering for their sage and the senior sisters from the sect were looking at him with hungry eyes, Wu Lixue and Wu Lin had gloomy expressions on.
"That's right. It's only because of his unique physique that he was able to pass the trial so easily. He basically didn't even do the trial!"
"It would be one thing if it were a technique he learned, but it's just the way he was born! How infuriating!"
How long were they going to be overshadowed by their half-siblings? There was Tianlan and the others on the outside, and Wu Ning on the inside. They were caught between a rock and a hard place.
"Let's just hope the third trial is fairer than this one."
"Why do I have a feeling it won't be?"
"Congratulations. You all passed the second trial. In total, there are 27 of you, a good result for Spring leaf city, and a magnificent showing for the Fang Clan, who make up the majority of the group."
The second elder and the others applauded the performance of this group.
The second elder could see some concerned expressions among the crowd.
"Don't worry if you can't find your acquaintances, we'll collect them from the forest after you're gone. They're in no danger here."
After hearing the sighs of relief, he weaved some hand signs and summoned a giant sword.
"All of you get on. I will now take you to the third and final trial. If you manage to pass it, you'll become true disciples of the Shimmering Sword Sect."
One of the new recruits cupped his fist and bowed to the elder, who turned around to address him.
"What is the third trial like?"
"You'll find that out when you get there."
The new recruit didn't ask any further questions, but the elder could tell that he was dissatisfied with the answer.
"What I can tell you is that you won't be the only ones participating in the third trial. There'll be participants from all of the cities under the territory of the five sects. You from Spring Leaf City will be the last to join them, and including you, there are over 300 participants this time around."
"Three hundred people managed to pass the first two trials?" one new recruit blurted out in surprise.
"That's right. It's about the average of what we expect. The number of participants for any given recruitment period can range from 200 to 400."
The elder let the information sink in before he continued.
"The third trial, unlike the other two, is a competition. You'll be going up against all the other recruits to amass points to earn increasingly valuable rewards."
The eyes of the new recruits sparkled. None of them were afraid of competition. They could only think about the prizes they might win.
The elder turned around and shook his head. Every time he would see these expressions, but most of them would be wiped away once they realised the nature of the third trial.
The sun had already set by the time the giant sword landed on a well-lit area of the sea of black. There, the new recruits could see hundreds of cultivators doing various things. Some of them were seated with their eyes closed, some were sharpening their weapons, and some were making small talk.
All of them turned to the giant sword as it landed, and eyed the new recruits like wolves. From this moment on, the Spring Leaf City group knew that things were going to get much more difficult.
"Ah. The last group has arrived."
An elder stepped forward and sent out his qi-amplified voice to grab the attention of the participants.
The second elder went off to join him and handed him a list of profiles.
"I'm sure you're all curious as to the nature of the third trial. I shan't keep you waiting. The third trial takes the form of a survival exercise."
He lifted a sparkling red orb and presented it to the audience.
"Your task is to collect beast cores and amass as many points as you can over two days and two nights. The rules are simple. Obtain them through any means you deem fit."
One participant licked the edge of his blade and raised his hand.
"I'll take your question, but I ask that the rest of you save yours until after the presentation is complete."
"Are we allowed to kill each other?"
"As long as it's your own ability, nothing is off-limits except trying to sneak in beast cores from the outside. Every year we have people who are foolish enough to attempt that. And let me tell you, the punishment doesn't end at disqualification."
The elder coughed once before continuing.
"You are now standing in a safe zone, which is also the completion zone, once you step out of its boundary, you will be transported to a random location within the Nameless Forest behind you. There, you will encounter spirit beasts of various strengths, starting with relatively weak externalisation realm beasts, and expanding all the way up to a fearsome minute realm beast. You are to survive out there and bring as many points back as you can within the time limit."
The elder pointed to a projection coming from a formation in the ground.
"The points are allocated as follows. Externalisation realm beasts award one point per layer. For example, a first layer externalisation beast will award a single point, whereas a ninth layer beast will award nine points. The points then multiply by 10 for each realm. Internalisation realm beasts give 10-90 points, transcendent realm beasts give 100-900 points. There is only a single minute realm beast, and you are advised to steer clear of it. You should all be aware that spirit beasts are stronger than cultivators of the same realm on average."
That last point almost didn't have to be mentioned. None of the participants felt particularly suicidal.
"I will now hand you off to my colleague, Elder Cho Dao Wa."
"Thank you Elder."
Cho Dao Wa stepped in front of the audience and swept his gaze over the crowd.
"We've had an incredible 200-year history with the Shimmering Sword Sect, going all the way back to the beginning, with the first run of the second trial. And now, we are bringing our latest developments in formation technology to the third trial, with all new weather maps launching today."
Elder Cho waited for a moment, letting the crowd release their excitement.
"Since we're here, we thought we would give you an exclusive world premiere of Storm Cloud LXXVI!"
Elder Cho raised his hands up under the excited gazes of the audience and pressed a button on his control jade.
As the audience looked up, they could see dark clouds starting to accumulate in the sky above the safe zone, further stoking their irrepressible excitement.
It was all released in thunderous applause when raindrops started to fall, accompanied by flashes of lightning.
"It's our biggest one yet," Elder Cho continued. "Storm Cloud Levi is four times the size of Storm Cloud IV, and this time, it features all-new accumulation, agglomeration, and precipitation technology, allowing us to have 16 times the detail."
Elder Cho pressed another button on his control jade and spread his arms out. The audience saw blinding light pooling up in the storm clouds and as it fell, they could hear Elder Cho's closing words.
"All of this just works."
Basking in the uproarious applause, Elder Cho ended his section of the presentation, dissipating the storm clouds and restoring the calm.
"Now that you've seen what our weather formations can do, I'll pass you over to Elder Sihan Mu Li who'll tell you a little bit about the environments you may encounter."
Elder Cho stepped away and shook the hand of another elder who took his place.
"Thank you, Elder Cho."
He looked around at the new recruits with a smile on his face.
"Hello everyone. I'm excited to present to you the developments my team have made over the past 20 years ever since the last public selection. And to get right to it, I'll direct your attention over there." Elder Sihan pointed over to the distance. "You see that mountain over there? Yeah, you can go there."
The audience was impressed. The sheer size of the area the third trial took up was something unexpected.
"As said earlier, each of you will be transported to a random location within the Nameless Forest, and that's not all. Each environment in the forest is procedurally generated. In one moment, the spirit beast you're facing may be out of its element, but in the next, you could find yourself in its natural habitat, making the encounter much more dangerous. Of course, these changes can also work in your favour."
At this point, the audience was more dazed than excited. They had never heard of such a thing.
"The one thing you don't have to worry about is not having enough qi. With all of the elements combined, we've amassed more than 18 quintillion units of qi. So even if all of you spend the entire time cultivating. You won't be running out."
Elder Sihan allowed the audience to express their amazement.
"Now comes the question and answer section. If you still have any questions, feel free to ask."
One young man raised his hand.
"Will we be able to collaborate with others?"
"There's no rule against collaboration, but the chances of you meeting someone you know are tiny. Spiritual perception is heavily suppressed within the Nameless Forest, so you can't rely on it to locate others. Communication devices also face interference, so if your confidence to proceed is based on being able to team up, then I suggest you don't begin the trial. Once you cross the boundary of the safe zone, you won't receive any aid from the elders or your seniors until the trial is over."
After the answer was given, another question was raised.
"Are we allowed to use our personal items?"
"All items are permitted except non-contractual summoning items and external beast cores."
"How long do we have?"
"The trial ends at the second sundown from now."
"When does it begin?"
All of a sudden, the majority of the new recruits dashed out of the safe zone, where they disappeared to parts unknown.
The elders were surprised. Usually, there would be questions about the prizes, but it seemed this batch didn't care. There was only one goal, after all. Bring back as many points as possible.
The remaining group were those from Spring Leaf City.
"What's wrong?" One of the rogue cultivators asked. He had only stayed behind because the others did. "Is there an important question that hasn't been asked?"
He watched as the Fang Clan members shook their heads and sat down.
The elders were curious and so walked up to them.
"Could it be that you've all given up?"
That shouldn't have been the case. The second trial was supposed to weed out those with weak hearts. Those who passed it were unlikely to be afraid of the dangers of the third trial.
One of the young men of the Fang Clan answered the elder.
"With all due respect, Elder, we cannot participate in a trial like this."
Tianlan, who was seated on a tree branch not too far away smiled when he heard this.
The elder, on the other hand, was confused.
"The childish sages taught us that life is precious. It shouldn't be taken so frivolously. If we must kill in order to join the sect, then we would rather become workers and learn from the public lectures. Maybe some of us will be lucky enough to become personal assistants. Then we can share what we learn with each other."
The elder frowned.
He turned to the rest, the nine who had remained on their feet.
"Do you all feel the same way?"
The responses came in an avalanche.
"Nope! I'm going to get mine."
"And here I thought they were on to something."
"Damn. Now we're behind. The weaker beasts will be wiped out if we wait too long."
"Who knew the Fang Clan was so soft? Weren't they supposed to be number one? If it's only in organised tournaments, it hardly counts."
The others walked off and stepped past the boundary, disappearing into the third trial.
Wu Lixue and Wu Lin glanced at Tianlan who was seated on a tree branch with one hand acting as a pillow behind his head and the other holding a book. He seemed to have no intention of participating.
They couldn't help smiling. Their half-brother didn't have what it took to kill spirit beasts. There was no way they were going to lose to him.
After everyone else left, there were only the 17 from the Fang Clan, Tianlan, the elders and some disciples of the sect remaining.
The second elder walked up to the tree Tianlan was seated on with a frown on his face.
"Are you also one of these tree-huggers?"
"I'm afraid so."
"But with your results in the first and second trials, if you put on a good performance in the third, you would definitely reap some good rewards." 'And also earn me a little something-something,' he added on in his mind.
Tianlan ignored the elder. He was reading through a few lines pertaining to this exact kind of situation.
<<Simply put, the taking of life for sport is vile and contemptible. Those who do such things can only be quiet when the results of their actions are snatched straight out of their hands.>>
Tianlan smiled as he looked past the boundary.
It seemed there were 300 people who were eager and willing to donate their beast cores.
Hidden title of this chapter: That time when I accidentally put a fairly unique spin on a generic beast core gathering competition.
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