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Chapter 15: Chapter 15

Long story short, Flender made us all sign-up for the one-on-one fights in the arena—and also made us fight on our first day.

"We have a new challenger!" said the announcer, dressed in his gaudy showman clothes.

People filled the stands surrounding the ring, some cheering, but most of them with bored and listless looks. My opponent was coming out from the other side, and I was to come out second. Stage fright was something I never had to deal with back in the day, because I never did anything grand. I guess now was as good a time as any to find out.

"First," said the announcer, "we have an experienced fighter, Hong Lian, twenty-seventh rank battle spirit master."

Hong Lian stepped out from the ring, raising his hands and rousing the few spectators he could. He was shirtless and only had his trousers, showing off his chiseled and scarred back. It was… sad, in a way, to also be at the same rank as someone so old. Such was the difference between talent and luck in this world, and at least from my previous life, the difference in birth could somewhat be closed with enough effort—here though, to be born without enough meant you were screwed, and neither would your environment encourage you to reach higher.

"And next," said the announcer. "our newcomer, only ten years old but already at also twenty-seventh rank, control system, Tang Mao!"

Of course, appearing in public like this, I still wasn't stupid enough to completely reveal my real identity. The Clear Sky sect was too well known to hide completely, but everyone knew the family had black hair; which is why aunt Yuehua's silver, my blonde, and Tang San's dark blue were all such clear misfits.

I stepped out of my hall into silence, that turned into a slow trickle of applause. Them announcing all that was verified before I even stepped into this stage, so good luck to these people figuring anything out. On signing up, Spirit Arena's officers had a spirit crystal for testing various levels of cultivation, and they also had the same set-up to just before entering the ring to be sure.

I hopped onto the raised stone platform, and a few chuckles came from the crowd. I waved to the few people there were—none of whom I recognized since everyone else was out fighting their own battles.

Hong Lian was a lot older up front, his face had the beginnings of a few wrinkles, and the luster in his hair wasn't as fine anymore. Though that could also be because of bad hygiene. Note to self: try to make shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste, liquid soap, and maybe detergent for clothes and dishwashing fluid or cakes for dinnerware and cookware. Damn, I am so owning this damn empire in the future.

The announcer made us bow to each other, and stepped away to signal the bell. Ding! It rang out, and Hong Lian released his spirit, two yellow rings floating up from behind him, and so did I.

When earlier people still seemed unsure, now, no one dared speak at all—my opponent, like a deer in the headlights.

"That can't be right," said Hong Lian with a higher voice than I expected.

"I find it hard to believe too," I said with a shrug. "So, you're a tool spirit master as well?" Beast spirit masters didn't have a choice on getting their bodies transformed by their spirits, but us tool spirit masters could choose when to manifest ours.

He nodded, and brought out a Monk's Spade, shining against the arena's glowstone ceiling. It was as long as he was tall, and he flared it about, twirling it in front of him and behind him before settling into holding it across from him. It was both a stance and not, something forged through battle and experience instead of careful study.

Here came the moment of truth, did I dare reveal my Hammer and expose my identity further? Or my Crown and keep it hidden. Flender had no advice to give on the matter, and Tang San let me decide as well. Unlike him, I had a choice on which spirit I could use, it's just that it came with some downsides. My Crown was scary in that it gave me staying power and ranged damage—but not by much. Sure, I had some of my martial arts, but if I met someone stronger than me then all I could do then is make it a battle of Attrition. On the other hand, my Hammer dealt with everything upfront—but it exposes my identity and eats through spirit power like a Hummer on nitrous.

I sighed, and wore my Crown.

"Hail to the little king," said Hong Lian with a chuckle.

"Greetings to the honorable monk," I said with a smile.

He nodded, and I burst into a run—spreading Devour to connect me to him. When the gold light reached him, his face became something bitter. Both Xiao Wu and Tang San would have troubles under that light, so someone at my same level should feel it just as bad. Spirit power filled my limbs as I took the straight and narrow path.

His first spirit ring shone, then he slashed his weapon across from him and sent out a crescent wave of energy.

It flew out for the fifteen meters between us, but its brilliance faded before it reached me, and tongue-in-cheek, I chopped at it and broke his ability together with the skin of my palm. Well, fuck.

But from the other side, Hong Lian spit out a mouthful of blood.

"What the hell?" I said.

The man looked at me like he was looking at some freak who just said something stupid. "You broke my ability, of course I'd feel the backlash!" he said, charging at the same time.

"Oh," I said, and used Shock on him.

And the guy went down, writhing on the ground with his spirit dispelled. I was left standing there not entirely sure what to do when the ball rang then, and in came the announcer's voice saying, "We have a winner!"

Everything happened too fast, and the few people there applauded somewhat, when I was ushered out of the ring in favor of the next fight. I was then told by the kind lady to show up at the fight counter and received my winnings of ten gold coins—and a few beautiful ideas floated up from the depths.

"Ma'am," I said. "Where are the betting pools?"

A quick explanation and a reassuring dismissal of my wanting to rig bets to my favor, plus a note I couldn't bet on myself later, I then went up by the betting booths and saw Flender smackdab in the middle, raking in a killing from my fight just now.

Our eyes met, and he gestured at me to go somewhere else. I guess that explains where they get their money then. Spirit Hall's stipend only went up to the fortieth rank, or the Spirit Elder stage, at one hundred gold coins—Spirit Masters get one gold, and Spirit Grandmasters get ten.

I walked to a small away corner, hidden from the people's eyes, already used to such cloak and dagger methods and Flender walked in not a moment too soon.

"How did you find this area?" said Flender.

"I asked," I said.

He pursed his lips before saying, "I suppose you'd like me to place bets on your fights?"

"You already did," I said, then passed him my winnings for today. Ten gold was something I could make in about two days' worth of trading, and one on a good haul. Letting go of it now to make it grow was a simple exercise in patience, and as an unknown newcomer, my odds were sure to be shitty—which meant everyone else in the academy was a cash cow right now. "I want a cut on the earnings," I said.

Flender and I negotiated our portions, and settled an agreement of seventy-thirty for any money I made. The option was also open to my schoolmates if they asked and gave their own money for betting, and I was supposed to tell them. I excused myself to seek out the next fight—Tang San and Mubai's.

I found a seat next to Xiao Wu who was together with Zhuqing and Hongjun.

"Hey big sis," I said, taking my seat next to her.

"You did well on your fight, Little Jin," she said. "But your hand will need some time to mend."

I hid the bandaged hand, and filed a mental note to go see Oscar if we can fix this with his sausage. I'd already seen and felt what his spirit could do, and though really perverted in nature, the instantaneous effects were nothing short of extraordinary.

Zhuqing only nodded, and Hongjun said nothing, staring fixedly at the ring.

The announcer announced their names, and Mubai and Tang San both walked out from opposite sides, and the bell to start the match rang. Three rings then sprang up from both sides, one side with two yellow and one purple, the other with one yellow and two purple, and again, the crowd went silent.

"This must be some sort of trick," said one of the spectators near us.

"And to think this kid was just twelve?"

"I heard there was one who was ten with two purple rings!"

"What sort of nonsense is Spirit Arena pulling off now."

"That kid must have some sort of camouflage ability to be able to show something like that."

Xiao Wu's baby face gradually turned from rosy to red, and in her eyes spelled murder. I tried placating her by offering her some sweets but she turned them down.

"I'm alright," she said, "just angry at these ignorant fools."

Dirty looks came from the people around us, and I bowed for the both of us in apology.

"And you," Xiao Wu said, "to bring your head down for these riff-raff, have you no pride?"

I shook my head at her, and her eyes turned from annoyance and into a glare. "Politeness is the blade of the learned," I said—totally just made that up. "There are three things any wise person fears: the sea in a storm, the night with no moon, and a gentle man's wrath."

She tilted her head at that.

"I'm just saying they wouldn't like me very much when I'm angry."

She raised an eyebrow. "Now that I think of it, I've never seen you angry before."

I winked at her, then smiled and said, "Just imagine me with all the might of my spirits out to kill someone."

Xiao Wu smiled and nodded to that, and when we looked back at the fight was Mubai in a precarious position thanks to Tang San's white swords.

"That was anti-climactic," said Zhuqing.

Hongjun only stared at what happened with hard eyes.

Xiao Wu stood with hands akimbo, and said, "You see now what could've happened, fatty?"

Hongjun hmphed, as the announcer declared Mubai's forfeit. I knew better than to screw with Tang San, and with his second and third abilities—the Machineel's evolving poison and the Jewel Mantis' blades—the guy was practically unstoppable. Just imagining having poisoned spikes spring up to stab my nuts sent shivers down my spine, and I'd never won against him after he got that second ring of his. Xiao Wu was still manageable with my crown, but he was just untouchable. Always just out of reach and throwing out his Machineel needles.

"Out of the three of us," I said, gesturing to Xiao Wu. "Tang San is the only person we both can't defeat after his second ring."

"I see," said Zhuqing.

The next fight was Hongjun's with a beast spirit master whose soul was an ox. It didn't end well for his opponent. Then Zhuqing fought a control system dude who had a snake whom she barely snatched a victory from. Xiao Wu also wanted to form a two-person team with Tang San but their differing levels of cultivation made it impossible. I kinda wanted the extra income, but my only real match in the academy was Rongrong, so taking her here was definitely within expectations because of course Oscar also needs to cultivate through combat. Hongjun already having a badge just confirmed my speculation.

We then made our way back to the school and went straight to bed—though I did pass by Rongrong's place to check on her and got a teasing smile from Xiao Wu.

#

The following morning, I went back to the village and got another haul of trading goods: more seeds, textiles, spices, the usual things that sold well in distant places, and I traded them some things I'd only found in the capital, like porcelain pottery or certain cultivars of tea that sold well with nobles. As for the ores we needed, there were barely any today.

I arrived with time to spare back in school and went straight for breakfast—finding the same scene as yesterday, except now there was Hongjun.

"Hah," he said, "my Evil Fire seems to have been cleaned out last night."

Mubai shot him a dirty look and Rongrong and I could only look over to the three who seemed to know since Oscar wasn't there yet.

"What's this about an Evil Fire?" I asked.

Hongjun's expression became bitter, and his eyes trailed over the three girls. He sighed and said, "I'll tell them, boss Dai." He breathed in and continued, "This is a consequence of my spirit variation, my Evil Fire Phoenix threatens to make me burst into flames unless I suppress it with… you know."

He gestured something vague, and Xiao Wu scowled, though Tang San remained impassive.

"I don't understand," I said.

Hongjun shook his head and said, "I need to sleep with women."

The two other girls joined Xiao Wu's scowling, and Mubai could only smile with a hint of pity. It was cruel to punish someone for something they had no control over, and it was something all too common back in my supposedly more enlightened world.

"I see," I said. "And it must be difficult, to be forced into such matters. I mean, the pleasure aside, to actually have to must take quite a toll."

Rongrong looked at me like I was on fire but she didn't know what to do, and Xiao Wu's mouth just hung open while Zhuqing narrowed her eyes. Mubai nodded though, and Tang San still remained impartial.

"He never chose to be afflicted with this," I said, "it just so happens his burden isn't so bad as to, let's say, need to eat a thousand jin a day, or to bathe in the blood of other people." I said all that with a smile, and the joke seemed lost on the people around me.

No one really reacted to that.

"It's something to think about," I finished, and went back to my porridge.

We finished breakfast and went back to our dorms to wait for class. Tang San secluded himself to his curtained part of the room to work on his hidden weapons, and I went out to give him the space he wanted. I never got to see Oscar since yesterday, so to fix my hand, I did the next best thing I knew. Feed on the life force of the plants around me.

I sat an away corner in the nearby forest and expanded Devour, letting the life force circulate through my hand. The pain lessened, but unlike that active repair effect from Oscar's sausage, this was a lot slower. Thirty-seven minutes pass, and my hand was as good as new, though the next step to rank twenty-eight still remained rather far at me being only twenty-two percent of the way there.

That fight with Zhao Wuji allowed me to reach my current rank from fifty percent, and to cultivate through battle was something shared in principle by Flender and uncle Xiaogang.

With nothing better to do, and without a relatively clean area to do my chemistry, I instead sought Zhao Wuji out to ask for some pointers.

I knocked on the wooden door, and the gruff man appeared with a scowl, and said, "What do you want?"

I bowed and said, "I was hoping to exchange pointers with teacher Zhao, our fight from two days ago allowed me to advance the rest of the way to the twenty-seventh rank that night, and I believe you are my best bet at reaching the rest of the way to reach the Spirit Grandmaster rank."

He raised an eyebrow at that, and said, "Does dean Flender approve of this?"

I frowned and said, "He has to? If yes, then I don't mind asking for permission."

Zhao Wuji scratched his head and said, "I'm not really one for holding back, and to exchange pointers with someone more than twice your rank sounds like the path of a madman to me."

Everyone knows cheesing a high-level grunt in an open map environment is the best way to level-up, and here I had said grunt and a healing station—read as Oscar's sausages—nearby, of course I'd take this opportunity to grind.

"So, what if it is?" I said. "The battle spirit master I fought in the arena last night was just too weak, and you're the strongest person I've ever faced so far."

Zhao Wuji started smiling after that. "And you'd dare face me alone?"

"If that's what it takes," I said, "and I could ask the others if they want to join. But to reach out for power is something they should do themselves. I, their junior, shouldn't be the one deciding for them."

He nodded to that, and said, "I wasn't wrong then with letting you five pass, you especially."

I scratched my head. "Please, teacher, you'll make me blush."

"Fine," he said, "I'll play with you little Jin."

I then raised my hand and said, "I only request you take me to Oscar should I end up injuring myself beyond sensibly moving by myself.

When the bell rang later that afternoon, I fell in line—literally, and only stood myself up fast enough before Flender could walk in.

"Little Jin?" said Tang San. "What happened to you?"

I chuckled at the cultivation bar showing me at already fifty-percent. "I asked teacher Zhao for some lessons, and we just socked each other until I couldn't go on anymore." I looked around for Oscar's beautiful face—and found him still nowhere to be seen.

Rongrong looked at me with a 'what the hall' kind of wonder and Xiao Wu just flat out glared. Zhuqing though seems to have had a flash of inspiration.

"You actually asked teacher Zhao to beat you senseless?" said Mubai.

"Not senseless," I said, "and I got to hit him back too." Though doing so only had my abilities bounce back at me. Rongrong's power truly was astonishing, to allow me to hit Zhao Wuji like it mattered.

"This kid is mad," said Hongjun.

Flender arrived with a grunt, and Oscar was still nowhere to be found.

"You look like shit, little Jin," he said.

"At least I don't look like you," I said.

He laughed at that and Mubai stared at me again.

"That almost makes me want to hang you from a tree," he said.

I shook my head, and said, "That won't help rouse my spirit power one bit. You might as well just give me some pointers after I recover with one of Oscar's sausages."

This time was Flender's turn to look at me weird. "Speaking of whom," he said, "that Oscar sounds like he wants to take that lesson together with you."

Mubai stepped up and said, "The last time I saw him was this morning, and he'd been cultivating all night."

Flender nodded. "Go call him then and tell him he has a lesson later with me and little Jin."

Cue then Oscar running towards our assembly with a big bright smile plastered all over his face. "I made a breakthrough," he said.

"One big sausage please," I said, "and congratulations."

He seemed a bit distracted and said, "What happened to you?"

"The same thing that will happen to you later," I said. "Sausage. Now."

He raised his hands in front of him and went through the motions then passed me the Schublig which I immediately ate, feeling its restoration work its magic on my bruises and pains.

"Are you done little Jin?" said Flender.

"I'm not feeling half-dead anymore," I said, "please carry on."

He shook his head, and none of the others there dared to say anything. "Fine," he said. "Oscar, congratulations on your breakthrough, tomorrow, we'll hunt for your next spirit ring together with the rest of the students." He then turned to me. "We'll need all of you at your best tomorrow so your lesson with Oscar will have to wait, and no going to Zhao Wuji later."

I nodded. Hunting spirit beasts was no laughing matter, and since we were in Suotuo, the closest forest to us was of course Star Dou Forest, and that place was hell on earth even if I had my two grandpas together with me. To go there with this rag-tag bunch of misfits though, that sounded like suicide. Perfect.

"Please wipe that smile from your face," said Oscar.

"I'm smiling?" I said.

Flender waved his hands dismissively and said, "Enough, since our lesson will need to be changed for today, and also because it will be relevant to you all later on, your lesson for now will be to eat one of Oscar's sausages."

The girls all put on sour looks, and even the boys, but then there was me. "They taste pretty good though," I said, holding out the half-eaten sausage.

Flender shook his head. "Little Jin here has already eaten so—"

"Wait, what does your second spirit ring taste like?"

Oscar opened and closed his mouth, and I held out my hand. He still seemed a bit lost though, but he shook himself out of it and said, "I, your father, have a little sausage."

His second ring shone, and the light condensed into a wrinkled cocktail wiener which he passed to me.

I popped it into my mouth without hesitation, and like I expected, the thing tasted like a Saveloy, a bit salty and tangy. "Seconds please," I said.

"Eh?" said Oscar, "err." He made me another two of his sausages, and to think I'd actually get a taste of home from this guy, hell, I was real excited for his third ring now!

"You know," I said, "we could really make a business out of this."

Oscar smiled at that, and Flender cleared his throat. "We still have a lesson," he said.

"Of course," said Oscar, making more sausages, one of each for the other students.

"How could you even stomach that?" whispered Mubai.

It tastes like sausages I don't fucking know how to make, is what I didn't say, and instead said, "They have a very unique taste which I enjoy, what's not to like?"

"But," said Mubai, gesturing at the large dildo looking Schublig in his hands. "It's a sausage!"

"And a damn good one too," I said.

He swallowed his pride and ate the thing, though given his lack of reaction meant he'd probably had it before. The real fun though was watching the girls.

Rongrong bit into her big sausage with a snarl, making Oscar's vulgar look at her turn pale. Zhuqing only faced away from everyone but her chin never stopped moving. Xiao Wu looked like she was gonna puke any second.

Hongjun didn't have any problems with food, though I guess the penis look-alike was a bit too close to home, he ate it without really looking and probably had it before as well. Tang San though, looked the same as when I'd first eaten it after that bout with Zhao Wuji.

"Your sausages help recover spirit power?" said Tang San.

Oscar nodded with a smile. "And the second ring helps cure poison."

"Which means it's alright to poison people," I said.

"Only if you don't kill anyone," said Flender.

Rongrong then spoke up, "How old is big brother Oscar now?"

The person in question smiled bright, saying, "This Sausage Monopoly Oscar is fourteen now my lady."

Rongrong narrowed her eyes at him and said nothing more.

But Flender cut in, smiling with a devious light in his eyes, saying, "Now you see why I prize him so?"


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