We sent word back to the sect of our plans on staying here in Nuoding longer, and I got a response from father that it was alright. I was disappointed he didn't ask me to be back in time for my birthday, but we don't really do that here.
Just another one of the many cultural differences I miss, I guess.
"Little Jin!" said uncle Zhi, "good to see you're doing better." He let out a breath, and next to him uncle Hu did too.
"You sure gave us a scare," said uncle Hu.
I smiled back at them, shoulders rising. "Junior messed up," I said, "I was fortunate my grandpa" —I nudged grandpa Shan with my elbow by the ribs— "was such a responsible person."
Grandpa swatted my arm away with an annoyed but not really grin. "This rascal even made a breakthrough for all the trouble I went through." He shook his head. "I trust you two didn't encounter any problems on the road?"
Uncle Zhi shook his head, and said, "Unless you count worrying about little Jin, then no."
Uncle Hu tossed me a small pouch. "Those are Morning Dew Hornworts, they're remedies for healing damage to your foundations, but by not much, still it should help ease any pains left over."
I bowed to the two. "Uncles didn't have to spend for these?"
Grandpa Shan shook his head. "These medicinal plants can only be picked by spirit masters, and even then, they can only be found on the backs of Earth Shelled Tortoises," he said. "I'm amazed you two can confront such a beast."
Uncle Hu chuckled, his wispy mustache swaying. "With a simple offering of a few steamed buns, those stubborn spirit beasts would actually allow you to pick a few."
"We discovered it from sheer fortune a few years back," said Uncle Zhi. "And no one really believes us, so we simply carry on, it just so happened we had a reason to give you these now."
I nodded. "Then I'm glad."
I also found out grandpa Shan hadn't hired them but instead invited them into the sect as my body guards. I felt cheated then for contracting them for their lessons, but a righteous person pays their debts. I'll just get them back later somehow.
I introduced then the two newcomers to Xiaogang and my cousins, as well as my… err, followers in the school.
The kids there liked the idea of using spirit power to fight with so much they started calling me their martial master. Using spirit power not just to fuel spirit abilities was phenomenal, since even if they didn't have spirit rings yet, they still had a way to fight with. What struck me though was the over emphasis on fighting, but seeing girls and boys slug each other in the face without caring for what dongles from whom was a refreshing, albeit strange experience.
"You clean up shop well," said uncle Zhi with a whistle.
"What did you do, Jin?" said grandpa Shan, eyebrows in a knot.
"I enlightened them," I said, standing straight and proud. "Martial arts are the only true mandates of heaven." It made me cringe every time I saw them spar—or exchange pointers in their language.
Grandpa Shan shook his head but didn't say anymore.
After letting our two body guards retire for the rest of the day after their long and harried journey, grandpa and I then paid Xiaogang another visit.
"We wish to help little San get his next ring," grandpa said.
Xiaogang nodded, fingers steepled in front of him. "Little San's anger is his own," he said.
Grandpa and I nodded, then I said, "We are not doing this as an apology, but only as a sign of good will. We will not ask cousin San to rejoin the sect, but we will not reject him his due either."
Grandmaster closed his eyes and let out a breath. "I personally have no qualms against this, but I do not know if he'll accept your help."
"If he does not, then we'll at least make sure to keep you and him safe when you go to get his next ring," I said with a bow. "You cannot stop us from simply tagging along and keeping clear."
Xiaogang leaned back into his chair. "Do you get this stubbornness from your grandfather?" he said with a small smile.
"On the contrary," grandpa said, "I get mine from him."
Another week passed and Tang San finally made his breakthrough to the twentieth rank, and as the hosts—Tang San actually said yes to our offer—we then paid for a luxurious trip towards Star Dou Forest. The trip was genial to some extent, with Xiaogang providing idle chatter, though it would've been livelier if Xiao Wu had come. She said she wasn't too fond of travelling so we left her in the academy. From the looks of it though, we'd need to get her a ring soon as well.
We arrived at the same frontier city grandpa Shan and Lin took me to almost a year ago from now, and to my surprise grandpa Lin was there waiting for us.
I went out of the carriage and ran straight for grandpa Lin.
He opened his arms wide, smile just as large—then cuffed me on the head. "You idiot," he said.
"I missed you too grandpa," I said, rubbing my smarting noggin.
"I missed you too my stupid grandson," he said, he wasn't smiling though.
We retired to our room, and seeing how we were all men, we all shared in the largest room we could find. Our journey took us just shy of two weeks to get here, and it was time well spent on Xiaogang's teachings. Like which paths to take for cultivation and what a good cyclic schedule should be like, he even delved into a bit of how to tell different spirit beasts' cultivation aged. He was the closest to I'd ever get with having Google around here, so naturally, I made sure to memorize everything he said.
It was flattering though when Xiaogang sat to cultivate that night, after saying he was willing to try my method out. He reasoned that as an old man he didn't need to pay much attention to his body's development anymore, so spirit all the way it was.
The following day, we went to the forest early with our huge party of seven, all above the twentieth rank—a rare sight, more so with two Titled Douluos guarding our asses.
"Any ideas what Tang San's next ring should be?" grandpa asked Xiaogang.
"With the powers we have here, we shouldn't have any problems with defeating anything," he said. "Unless of course our luck turns for the worse and some unfathomable beast shows up."
I went up to a tree and knocked on it three times. "Let's not tempt fate grandmaster," I said.
We kept up our wandering, meeting the occasional thousand-year spirit beast, and my grandpas scaring them away while uncle Hu scouted ahead with his Ice Crystal spirit's limited clairvoyance and I was again surprised he was a Spirit Elder of all things. Now I understood why grandpa invited uncle Hu. Curious, I asked uncle Zhi as well.
"Uncle Zhi," I said, "what's your spirit?"
Uncle Zhi smiled with pride and pounded his chest, then said, "Uncle here has his Daybreak Fire Lance."
He summoned his spirit in his hands, and a long pole arm like weapon appeared. Its bladed part was something that looked like half-way between a halberd and a trident, large and heavy, and a hearty flame sat at the tip of its middle edge.
"Uncle here can make his spear spew fire," he said.
Then uncle Hu and grandpa Shan snickered while grandpa Lin stared with glazed over eyes. "I see things have gotten worse," he said, looking into my eyes.
"I had no hand in this," I said.
A little more time passed and Tang San eventually spoke up. "How was it that cousin Jin here was able to absorb a nine-hundred-year ring for his first?"
I looked at my grandfathers then at Xiaogang and said, "Wasn't it because of my nature?"
Xiaogang brought a hand up to his chin, and ran a finger over his stubble. "Perhaps we were going about this wrong," he said. "Your merged spirits make sense from the perspective of after you've finished absorbing, not during."
He then turned to my grandfathers, an eyebrow arching up.
Grandpas Shan and Lin looked at each other, then grandpa Shan raised both eyebrows which grandpa Lin answered by lowering both of his. Grandpa Shan then nodded towards Tang San, then after a long moment grandpa Lin massaged his temples.
Grandpa Lin sighed and said, "We helped Jin absorb his ring."
"Really?" I said. "That's news to me."
Tang San nodded. "I also assumed as much," he said.
Tang San continued, "What teacher said also made me curious, and to think cousin Jin also has a weaker body, I thought there must have been some outside influence that allowed him such good fortune."
"That was an oversight of us old fools," said grandpa Lin. "We should have paid more attention to Jin's cultivation method."
Grandpa Shan nodded as well.
Xiaogang's eyes widened, "Then how come you only found out now?"
"Because at the time," grandpa Lin said, "we were too blinded with our good fortune of finding that Iron Spider-wasp pupa."
"And at just barely a thousand years," grandpa Shan said, "it was perfect to set an unprecedented present for our little Jin."
Grandpa Lin said, "We knew of a way to allow someone to exceed their limit, but it only works for those who also wield the Clear Sky Hammer spirit. But since Tang San is of the same blood, and his soul should also carry an imprint of our spirit, then it should work for him as well."
I sighed and shrugged, then said, "And here I thought I was so exceptional."
Uncle Zhi put on a wry smile. "You'll make me cry little Jin."
Uncle Hu and grandpa Shan chuckled and grandpa Lin whispered at Xiaogang, "You'll get used to it."
Tang San cleared his throat, "And what is this method you speak of?"
After another few minutes of wandering and pushing deeper into the forest we then found three suitable spirit beasts: first was a Ghost Vine in a quiet grove, surrounded by a host of withered bones; second was a Jade Dew Spider as large as a person and dragging a juvenile Windward Fox back into its nest near by a clearing; and third was a one thousand and three-hundred-year Spiteful Velvet Machineel standing along on a little hill and surrounded only by Blue Silver Grasses.
"Tang San," said Xiaogang, "your safest choice is the Ghost Vine, but if these seniors' method can truly allow one to exceed their limits, then the latter two would surely make your cultivation even stronger."
Tang San nodded, and I and everyone else listened in on the impromptu lecture.
Xiaogang raised a finger. "Ghost Vine is a parasitic kind of plant that lures prey in with its flowers, then poisons them to serve as fertilizer. And as a plant spirit, it should have little in the way of an ego so there wouldn't be any ill effects on you at all. And if my suspicion proves right, it should give your spirit something restraining like your Bind."
"Next," said Xiaogang, bringing up a second finger, "is the Jade Dew Spider, this is a spirit beast that weaves its web together with grasses and other foliage to create a land bound nest, and covers it with a sweet poison to attract prey. This creature will have a more potent personality so there could be some retribution when you kill and absorb this ring, but its increase to your restraining capacity will be even stronger than Ghost Vine's, and I'm sure will involve netting somehow."
"The last," he said, voice dropping in pitch, "is the Spiteful Velvet Machineel, a sinister plant spirit that has no natural predator and thrives only on particularly nutritious lands. Every part of it from its fruit to its leaves and roots are poisonous, and our biggest problem would've been approaching it, but with two Titled Douluo here, suppressing the poison with spirit power shouldn't be a problem. Though the energy from its spirit ring might be too much for you."
Xiaogang then turned to me. "Luckily," he said, "we have your cousin."
I raised my hand.
"Yes, little Jin?"
"Would the poison energy poison me?" It was strange how all that worked in concept.
Xiaogang shook his head. "But it may add a slight poisonous effect to your domain."
Huh, a Domain that could drain and poison at the same time… not a bad deal. "Then I'm alright with this."
Xiaogang nodded, then turned to his student. "As your teacher, I of course would prefer to give you the best ring possible, hence this Machineel. But, the danger of absorbing a thousand-year ring is unprecedented, and the only example we have here is your cousin."
Tang San sat at the very edge of his knees, completely focused on his teacher, and here I was thinking how the hell exactly was he gonna kill a tree. I was able to kill those Blue Silver Grasses by Devouring them until their life force gave out, him though… there's always hitting it with his Hammer I guess.
Tang San nodded. "I believe in teacher," he said. "And I believe in my cousin as well." His eyes had a sharp light within them, and he seemed all too eager. "I choose the Machineel."
"Very well," Xiaogang said.
I raised my hand again.
"Uhh, uncle Xiaogang, how exactly is cousin San going to kill a tree?"
He raised an eyebrow at that. "Senior Lin," he said, "if I may ask you to bring out your spirit?"
Grandpa shared a look with grandpa Shan and me, but otherwise did as asked. He brought out his spirit, and that large Hammer appeared again looking just as sinister as the last time I saw it. Nine rings appeared behind him, two yellow, two purple, five black, the normal ideal configuration.
"Little San," Xiaogang said, "if you'd please wrap your spirit around senior Lin's."
Tang San did so, and the black hammer got covered in that brilliant Blue Silver Grass.
"That can't be right," I said, voice rising in pitch. Everyone else there just stared at me. "I mean, right?" I looked at our companions, but most of them were just nodding along like it made sense. "Like, that's just… I don't know? I—I, just no, right?"
Grandpa Shan met my eyes and he just shrugged, "I'm not the theoretical master here."
Xiaogang cleared his throat. "Senior Lin, if you'd be so kind as to hit the tree without coating your hammer in spirit power," he said, then turned to Tang San. "And little San, please coat your grass with as much spirit power as you can."
"No way," I said, shaking my head, eyes widening as grandpa Lin stepped closer and closer to that tree together with Tang San next to him.
"Five gold this fails?" uncle Zhi said to me.
"No deal," I said, not even bothering to look at him.
The two arrived at the tree's base, grandpa Lin swung at it, the damned tree turned into splinters, and poof—a purple ring came out. Tang San then unwrapped his grass from grandfather's hammer and used it to ensnare the ring all the way until where the five of us were waiting for them.
With a smile, Xiaogang nodded at me, and Tang San sat down to cultivate as his spirit started wrapping around that purple ring.
I just stood there with my mouth open as grandpas Shan and Lin started releasing their black light over Tang San, and the pain and spasms that were about to hit—from what I knew from experience—stopped a few moments after they started.
"So that's what you were doing when I absorbed those rings," I said.
Grandpa Shan stared at me with a flat expression. "Usually we do it for geniuses trying to absorb a ring beyond their limit, not an idiot being greedy."
"Touché," I said.
"What was that?" said grandpa Shan.
All in all, absorbing plant spirits were milder due to not having as developed egos or instincts like animal spirits have, and Tang San absorbed the ring for the better part of two days. I and uncle Zhi guarded our group from any wandering beasts for the first six hours, and after that grandpa Shan left grandpa Lin to do his thing.
It was something called the Sumeru Refining Method, and it looked as if grandpa Lin was dancing around Tang San with his spirit out, slowly arching his hammer up and down in undulating waves as lines of black light swirled about. The reddish-purple aura of the Machineel spirit ring was suppressed within that black funnel, and all of it concentrated into my cousin, the power compressing into his body in time with the up and down motions.
I asked grandpa Shan to teach me but he said it was only possible after reaching the Titled Douluo stage for the Clear Sky Hammer, so that was that.
What was surprising though was that I didn't even need to do anything. We were all so worried about what would happen with my cousin that we were all quite happy with how Tang San just soaked up all that energy like a sponge would water, barely anything leaked out. The only strange thing I guess was his aura was white, versus what I expected to be something bluish given his spirit. Everyone else including me had their aura in the same color as their spirit, so maybe this white power was part of his being a genius like me.
When they finished, Tang San opened his eyes and the same reddish-purple luster lingered in them before giving way to his clear blue.
"Many thanks to grandfather," he said with a bow. His body looked a lot more robust and the seven-year-old now looked somewhere closer to nine or ten, standing a good two inches taller than me now. Tang San released his spirit, and two rings floated up: one yellow, one purple. Another freak by all rights.
Xiaogang shook his head and said, "In a way, I'm starting to wish I was born to the Clear Sky sect instead."
"We're still willing to welcome you," grandpa Lin said.
Grandmaster chuckled then said, "I am flattered, but I've already declined little Jin's offer."
Grandpa Shan raised an eyebrow at me, and I winked back, he shook his head before saying, "Did he give any absurd conditions?"
"Nothing strange like that, no," Xiaogang said, waving his hands in front of him. "Though he did offer to teach me his cultivation method."
Uncles Zhi and Hu looked at me.
"Yes?" I said, looking back at them.
Xiaogang clapped his hands. "Little San," he said, "how are you feeling?"
Tang San nodded and brought up a hand with a tuft of grass in it. "I am right now at the twenty-fourth rank thanks to grandfather's help, and this new ability is called the Velvet Piercing Needles."
His purple ring shone, and the tuft of grass twisted into a ten-centimeter long needle in a bluish-purple color. "It also comes with the Spiteful Velvet Machineel's poison." The light in his eyes brightened, and crow's feet trailed along his cheeks at the word. He then threw the needle at a tree and it pierced up to half-way in as the entry point sizzled with a slight bit of smoke.
"This needle also has a piercing property to it," he said, then looked at me with a determined smile. "I think cultivating towards a cross between control and attack system like cousin Jin might be possible thanks to this."
"And all that with Blue Silver Grass," I said, shaking my head. God help us all.
"As long as it's cultivated correctly, any spirit can become strong," Xiaogang said with a firm nod.
"Eh?" I said, and Xiaogang looked just as surprised. "I never said Blue Silver Grass was weak." The others there all looked at me again. "Grandpa Shan saved me from devouring the cultivation of a few dozen clumps of ten-year Blue Silver Grasses."
"You did what?" said uncle Zhi with a pale face.
"Ten-year Blue Silver Grass?" said Xiaogang with a blank stare.
"Blue Silver Grass isn't weak?" said Tang San, simply baffled.
The real details of that night were then revealed, me going mad with power, sucking that patch of forest dry, grandpa finding me in the middle of all that death and decay, the bloody mess I became when shit hit the fan. Everything. At the end of all that, Xiaogang only had one thing to say.
"I absolutely regret not having been born into the Clear Sky sect."
The trip back was uneventful, but our party was larger by one so the conversations were livelier somewhat. We made quick work of the road—or at least as quick as we could with a large carriage: we'd ride non-stop until the horses got tired and set up camp, where Tang San and I would spar every now and then to help stabilize our powers. We'd also walk with the carriage to train our bodies at uncle Xiaogang's urging.
During the times we'd spar, and thanks to the difference of two rings and another four ranks, even my versatility was restrained by those poisonous needles. That unnatural throwing technique of his plus those needles were just perfect for him, and it effectively gave him more avenues of attack and a relatively endless supply of ammunition to harass with that was just not worth the effort of trying to counter.
It was also at this time when I learned to coat myself with the Clear Sky Hammer's aura, though at a high cost. It helped stop the needles outside a range of five meters, but anywhere within that and his throwing was already strong enough to pierce through my makeshift shield.
After twelve days, we finally made it back to Nuoding city and safely delivered Xiaogang and Tang San back to the academy, only to find a now twenty-second ranked Xiao Wu with a yellow spirit ring. Without suspense, her surprise at Tang San's purple ring was understandable, and it took a good long deal of explaining the how and why to finally get her to accept reality, and at the end of it took a good helping of steamed buns to placate her annoyance at me and Tang San.
We said our goodbyes then, and left Nuoding city with our party of five to return to the sect—with the promise to visit every other month to see how Tang San was doing and to provide his allowance as a direct descendant of the sect. Our reserves and income were deep enough to account for another hundred spirit coins every three quarters, and the deal with Shi San's smithy still stood. It was good training according to Tang San, so I went with the deal, promising to provide him with whatever platinum and tungsten I could find.
However, on our way back we encountered something unexpected.
The carriage stopped—and grandpas Shan and Lin both had grave expressions while I found it hard to breathe from the pressure pressing down everywhere.
"Come out," said a booming bass, "alight your carriage and I won't destroy you there and then."
Grandpa Shan shared a look with grandpa Lin and nodded. To scare two Titled Douluo like this meant that whoever or how many ever confronted us had at least another such power waiting. I opened my Domain but my golden light wouldn't even leave my skin, as if the weight of that pressure was akin to being beneath a vast sea—much like the oppressive nature of the Clear Sky Hammer's aura.
Grandpa Shan was the first to come out, followed by grandpa Lin then me, while uncles Hu and Zhi were already lying unconscious. Here were two Spirit Ancestors above the fortieth rank, and to see them in such pitiful states was just beyond baffling.
The pressure intensified as the afternoon forest's sky deepened into a deathly still black.
"We are here," grandpa Shan said.
Grandpa Lin pulled me closer to him as his spirit power wrapped around me.
"What do you want from us?" grandpa Shan added.
The pressure again deepened, and for a moment I lost my breath as those last few seconds of my past life surfaced at the back of my mind. All at once, I was that hopeful idiot crossing the street believing everything was gonna be fine again. The deep black closed in around us as the trees and skies disappeared from view and started to blanket us.
Grandpas Shan and Lin's knees seemed to buckle from the pressure, but they kept their bodies as upright as they could despite that inky black light pressing down on us.
"Why do you approach my son now?" said the voice, and from that silent black stepped out a man in a ragged cloak… with nine rings floating behind him. Xiaogang's lecture on spirit rings surfaced in my mind together with the fate of my aunt. Hundred-thousand-year spirit rings promised untold power: two abilities and a spirit bone with two abilities as well, all well beyond human comprehension.
The rings adorned him like the corona of a solar eclipse, two yellow, two purple, four black… and one blood red ring at the very center.
Something warm trailed down my robes and my pride was crushed within that bright red light.
"We do not know who you mean," said grandpa Shan with a bow—straining against the effort. "If we offended you then we can only apologize, but we do not even know who you speak of."
Another surge of pressure crashed down on us, and grandpa Shan's knees finally fell to the ground.
"My son," the cloaked figure said, "Tang San."
The man raised his hand and a gigantic black hammer, taller than even he appeared in his hands and swallowed the light.
"Little Hao?!" said grandpa Shan, bringing up his head from that crushing sea. "Is it really you little Hao?!" Tears started streaming down grandpa's face and that hooded figure seemed to back away a step.
"What does the Clear Sky sect want with my son?" uncle Hao said, that black light weakening in intensity.
The things that happened next were as fucked up as the scene that led to this shit stain on my damned robes.
Uncle Hao caught wind of Tang San leaving with some old men towards a forest, but he didn't hear fast enough that his son was now a bona fide freak of nature and only cared about those old men—whom he recognized as the elders of the sect. Then one thing led to another and then there we were sharing a meal with the goddamn Clear Sky douluo as three grown men cried underneath the stars well into the night.
After that, we got back to the mountains of our home and under a promise to uncle Hao, would never speak of us meeting him or his request of us to regularly provide him with whatever information we could about the state of the other sects' circumstances, and the situation with Heaven Dou empire during our visits to Tang San. He also made us promise not to tell his son of us meeting him, and to only provide him help during the times he'd need his ring, but to otherwise leave him alone to find his own path.
Like that, our hectic schedule would continue for five years: back and forth from the sect, training my body with the travels, buying metals for my cousin, exchanging pointers with him and Xiao Wu, teaching the Nuoding academy students what little martial arts I knew, meeting with uncle Hao and letting him know about his son, sometimes learning from uncle Xiaogang, then there was that one time uncle Zhi ended up offending some guys from the Blue Lightning Dragon clan but that wasn't that important compared to the date I ended up having to go on under threat of the Sword Douluo's wrath, oh and there was also Xiao Wu's ire at my not buying her her favorite sweet cakes from the capital during the middle of the second year.
But yeah, with all that, things went swimmingly all things considered.
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