Granny's yellow ring shone and a green luminescent beam shot out of her cane into the sky. It was bright against the cloudless afternoon sky, and the wind blew the tail end of the trail East into some trees, their fresh leaves going dark and shriveling up. Hongjun next to me gulped, and I couldn't help my back from getting soaked either as Rongrong tightened her grasp of my sleeve.
"My husband should be here soon," said granny, and she passed a knife over to her Yiran. "If we may be so bold as to bother you while she absorbs this?"
Zhao Wuji bowed another time, again with that shit-eating grin of his, and Yiran stabbed the serpent through its skull. The body jerked, and blood pooled where the beast laid dead. A purple ring then started condensing over its carcass, and I nodded to the rest of our group, the others taking a loose formation around her with granny and teacher Zhao guarding the front and back.
Yiran sat down to cultivate, and I then summoned my Crown and covered all of us in its golden light, expanding it to its full radius—and started breaking down the serpent's body bit by bit with my Domain. Devour was just an enhanced version of it, so the base form could also perform the same function though less efficient.
"Grandma is too kind," I said, also bowing at her using the noble's way versus earlier. Rongrong's eye twitched, and Tang San nodded my way. "I'm quite close to the thirtieth rank as well, and in case big brother Oscar's ring causes me to fight another time, it may be possible I could break through. And by then, if it would be alright to ask for help from esteemed seniors to guard me, then this would indeed be a debt on my side instead."
Granny Tian's expression turned for the better. "It is no matter," she said. "Though your causing trouble with Yiran earlier somewhat pained me, but the lesson she learned from it was just as valuable." Her smile held nothing warm behind them. "And this way, both sides win, do they not?"
I nodded with a smile.
"Tell me though boy," she said, "why did you ask earlier about Spirit Hall. And, what was that about being born?"
Mubai shifted from foot to foot, and Zhuqing's casual glances became more frequent, as an energy settled in the air, tension thickening the scent of pines with something heavy.
This was within expectations, so I showed her the level two tile Tang San and I looted off Ye Zhi-Qiu, and teacher Zhao showed the beginnings of a smirk. "I owe their academy a debt," I said, "for insulting my previous school." Hongjun turned his head Westward with a snap, looking in the distance with Xiao Wu and Oscar following. "My father's life work they called nothing but trash, so I plan to get vengeance on them in the coming Elite Academy tournament in the coming years."
Granny narrowed her eyes, but the beginnings of something sly danced on her lips. "Then I take it Zhao Wuji here shares your goal?"
I shook my head. "My purposes are my own," I said, "and I offer my strength to their school in exchange for support."
"I don't think I caught the name of this school," she said, turning to teacher. "Care to enlighten me Motionless Bright King?"
Teacher Zhao did that ass-kissing bow of his again. "Our Shrek academy is not one for Spirit Hall to notice, only a small academy."
"And yet you have two students here no older than twenty and already at the thirtieth rank," she said, gesturing to Mubai and Tang San. "And more than that you have a budding genius in this boy as well." She nodded at me.
"Outside of notice, doesn't mean without talent," teacher Zhao said with a big smile.
Another minute or so passed, and a presence touched my Domain. Just in time, teacher Zhao, granny, and Tang San all looked in the same direction I felt it from.
"A person," I said, feeling it walk with two legs.
Everyone and all tensed up, but granny raised her hands a moment later. "That should be my husband," she said.
And on cue, an old man with a long white beard stepped forth, wielding a silver staff. He looked all of us over as his eyes settled on the crumbling corpse of the snake, then Meng Yiran, the gold light surrounding all of us, and the fact I guess that we were all facing him.
"Greetings," he said to teacher Zhao with a raised eyebrow, then turned to granny. "My dear," he said, "I trust these people were courteous?"
Xiao Wu seemed to shrink back, hiding behind Tang San who stood his ground. The old man looked her way a bit too long for comfort, but turned away and approached granny instead.
"Dearest," she said, and it was kinda surprising to see her look at him that way. "These kind students here helped Yiran capture her beast, though I agreed to help this little rascal here to catch another for his brother over there." She gestured to me and Oscar in turn. "Such a remarkable pair of food system and control system spirit masters."
"I see you keep good company," the old man said with a slight bow. "And to whom do I owe this pleasant surprise?"
Teacher Zhao bowed as well, and said, "I am Zhao Wuji, and I was leading my students here and chanced on esteemed senior's chase of that serpent." Teacher indicated where Yiran was sitting with Hongjun, Mubai, and Zhuqing stood vigil. "And we agreed to a deal to mutually help each other."
Staff grandpa looked over to grandma Tian who nodded and gestured my way. "Little Jin here tried to compete with our granddaughter for the prize too, staying faithful to his brother."
He hummed to that, stroking his beard.
"But in the end, they also tried wooing our Yiran." Oscar next to me blushed, and Rongrong glared as I rolled my eyes and a stern and bright aura pressed me down. It was strong, but unlike Rongrong's grandpa Sword or grandpa Shan's Clear Sky aura, this was a walk in the park with iron shoes versus wearing said shoes while sinking towards the bottom of a lake or wearing said shoes over a wooden horse.
But that was thanks to my Domain eating some of the brunt of it, it would've been easier with Devour, but he might take it for hostile intent instead.
The old man's eyes shone. "And you say this youth here bested our dearest granddaughter?" he said.
I nodded with a smile. "That is correct esteemed senior," I said, "it was necessary for me to prove my strength always if my goal is to be achieved."
"Hmm?" staff grandpa said.
"I wish to defeat Spirit Hall academy in the future," I said, clenching my fist for effect.
Staff grandpa shared a look with granny who shrugged.
Introductions were made and for some reason, this grandpa Meng even told the story of how he met grandma Tian and their wager of a kiss. All throughout it, Rongrong would pinch me every now and then and grandpa Meng would laugh along. Xiao Wu kept her distance from him together with Tang San, even eating the food I prepared later for all of us near the edge of the clearing. It was also funny how the people we initially considered killing were now sharing a meal with us.
With the three older people, us kids got a good night's rest and the following morning, Yiran awoke together with us, her already developed body exuding a pinkish glow under the light of that new ring around her. Her body looked so soft and supple to the touch, like a handful of it was something to behold.
Then a foot stepped on mine.
"Hmph," Rongrong said, walking away.
Snickers came from Hongjun and Mubai, but Oscar didn't seem to know how to react. Zhuqing kept to herself, and Xiao Wu seemed like she didn't catch a wink of sleep last night. Tang San gave her another bowl of the same soup, and she gulped it down… even though it was the same as yesterday's.
Grandma Tian and grandpa Meng looked at their bowls with small frowns but drank anyway.
Yiran though couldn't stop cursing while praising the food. "You mean that rude boy made this?!"
When we all finished, grandpa Meng spoke up. "About this deal, my wife brokered," he said. "The beast I had marked was a Man-faced Demon Spider with cultivation greater than one-thousand years."
I looked to Tang San who put a hand to his chin. Xiao Wu was behind him, and Oscar scooted closer.
"Its venom was our target in case we didn't catch that Phoenix Tail Crest Serpent," continued grandpa Meng. "But with Yiran getting her ideal ring, I suppose if this beast suits little Ao, then it should be alright."
Tang San nodded. "It would do well for us," he said, "this kind of spirit beast is tyrannical in nature, but it's also this ferocity that might give brother Oscar something good."
Oscar raised his hand, a hint of worry on that girlish face of his. "But wouldn't a tyrannical beast like that instead be harmful to me?"
I waved a hand dismissively at him. "I did promise you I had a way of dealing with this right? What's a few days of pain versus a truly strong ring?"
Oscar nodded then stopped. "What's this about days of pain?"
Still, fuck bugs though.
Grandpa Meng led the way with Yiran and grandma Tian ran together next to me with our group even though her grandfather and grandmother were up front. It was only my luck Rongrong needed to watch the way lest she pelt me with kicks and punches. Another peculiarity was Xiao Wu sticking to the back when her usual place was next to me, but she had Tang San with her so she ought to be fine.
We found our prey an hour later, feeding on another insect. It had its head sunk guts deep into what looked like a large ant.
Tang San bit his lip and looked over at me, and Xiao Wu all reserved smiled as well. The others there all just looked at the exchange.
"Why does little Jin look so upset?" Hongjun whispered to Tang San, but I heard it all.
Everyone looked at the two. We were all spirit masters here. Whispering was more for courtesy than actual function, and this I guess was too juicy a story to pass on.
"I don't mind," I said. "I'll tell you the story myself, but for now, spirit ring."
A problem though was with these three, using my Hammer was out of the question.
"And now he's smiling," whispered Hongjun.
Tang San waved him away. "Little Jin will keep pressure on the beast, and I'll bind its legs and serve as the front to keep its attention from everyone. Big brother Mubai, you won't be able to block it because the tips of its legs are usually coated with its poison, but your White Tiger Light Wave will be good for feeding it grief. I will give you that opening. Oscar, you be sure to keep supplying your detoxifying sausages, and Xiao Wu and Jin will make sure you and Rongrong stay safe. Zhuqing, please keep targeting its eyes to suppress it. Hongjun, you feed it grief too."
The elders and Yiran just watched our preparations, with teacher Zhao Wuji smiling proudly.
"Understood?" Tang San said.
We all nodded and the others released their spirits since I already had mine out.
Tang San's purple rings, both of Hongjun's yellows, one of Mubai's and Rongrong's, and both of mine all shone—and that spider feeding like a maniac was hit with an orchestra of pain. The pillar of light was the first to reach it, hitting its abdomen, as white swords and black needles approached it from all possible corners.
The spider was pushed back a bit by the beam, and black and white riddled its legs and the parts where its abdomen and thorax met. It opened its maw to mouthful of fire and a bath of gold tinged with red. Hongjun looked like log of fire sprouted from his mouth, and the insect shrank back some more seeming to twitch as its limbs started smoking.
"Keep going!" Tang San said, more black and white lines shooting out of him.
Xiao Wu and I stuck close to Oscar and Rongrong, and as expected, that spider charged out in a straight line, breaking through Tang San, Mubai, and Hongjun's attacks. Its body would make Tang San's needles and swords bounce away with metallic dings, and though Mubai could push it back, he couldn't do any real damage to it.
"Brother Mubai, Hongjun, change of plans," said Tang San, "use your attacks on the joints instead."
The two did as directed, and the spider's charge was delayed, giving all of us enough time to jump away. Xiao Wu took Rongrong in her arms, and I Oscar. A leg swung too close, but at least us two guys were who they targeted.
"Watch out," said Oscar.
And I pushed him away from another swinging leg and bent backwards low, my heart pumping like crazy. Things seemed to slow as its sharpened edge trailed a shining path just above my chest—as a line of blue flashed in and pulled the beast back.
I backflipped away, and charged forward to pull Oscar away from its rabid jaws.
A white sword lodged itself between its mouth, and more black needles stuck into its joints, again smoking. Then Hongjun appeared from above together with Mubai who grew bigger in the air and landed to on top of the spider with a heavy thud. He started scratching and punching at its abdomen, its legs twitching with each hit as Hongjun grabbed hold of its head, as if barfing down a torrent of flames onto it.
The creature's legs started scrambling, and just in time came Zhuqing who pierced through three of its eight eyes and darted away just as fast.
But then it jumped high into the air, throwing the two on its back up with it, and with a deft twist, something shot out of its ass.
I focused Devour onto that projectile and gave a quick shock to Hongjun and Mubai, while Zhuqing took my place next to Oscar and I charged in to meet the spider. Outsider or not, these two getting hurt wasn't worth the risk.
Tang San also ran towards them, and the projectile unfurled in the air to reveal a large web as the spider landed back on its legs and charged forward.
Black light condensed in my hands as I willed my Hammer into being.
When a deafening roar threw all of us off our feet. I flinched head over heels into the grass and that spider stopped in its tracks as the earth rumbled beneath my feet and thunder seemed to approach.
Teacher Zhao, grandpa Meng, and grandma Tian all moved ahead of us with all their spirits out: six, seven, eight, their first four all matching in brilliance, two yellow and two purple, and the difference then lied in how many black rings they had.\
"Fall back!" teacher Zhao said.
Someone pulled me off my feet, and granny's yellow ring and a purple one from grandpa shone. Together they sprayed the forest in front of them with a mist of green, and teacher Zhao's body grew taller than both of them covered in steeled muscles, bright and hard with his aura.
I looked up and saw Yiran about to cry, and I looked back to see a gigantic hand smash down the thicket of trees in front of us into a storm of splinters and leaves. The same deafening roar came, this time like the crack of thunder, and my feet left the ground somewhat.
Tang San brought out his wings, looks of surprises coloring our fellow students' faces, and took Xiao Wu and Rongrong on one arm each.
Rongrong looked up to him and slapped herself, bring out her spirit and boosting everyone with blue light. My body lightened, and everyone else sped up. Mubai ran over to Oscar and draped him over his shoulders as Zhuqing pulled on Hongjun's arm.
"Run!" came grandpa Meng's voice, as a black ring shone and he seemed to become entirely silver.
Another black ring shone on teacher Zhao, and his body was covered in bright gold as a large white bear with golden streaks rushed forward to meet that thick arm of black—attached to an ape that towered over the twenty or so meter tall trees.
Two yellow moons watched over us as the three we left behind were all thrown away with a mighty sweep.
"Grandpa! Grandma!" yelled Yiran, turning back, and I had to tackle her to keep her from turning back, and pulling harder to keep her safe.
Then that shadowed titan blurred, and everything went black.
I came to to a burning sensation in my side—and opened my eyes to an ant the size of a small dog eating at my bleeding gut.
I smashed it with my Hammer, and a white ring appeared from it, seeping through the juices and burning me further. I extended Devour over both its carcass and ring, absorbing both into me, the energy from it numbing the pain. Fuck. My blood was dried in some parts, and I ripped open the soaked robe to see a small cut, big enough to bleed but not enough to show guts.
I let out a shaking breath of relief and took a jar of hard alcohol out of Inventory and poured it over the wound, urging spirit power around it to ease the pain. I took off the upper part of my robes and got a roll of bandages out, and wrapped it around my stomach.
I was alive, and despite the warning signs on Interface, none were too serious to merit desperation. My head was pounding though.
I extended Domain further, only now noticing the thirty displayed on the cultivation bar. How, apt. My light extended to show claustrophobic walls surrounding me, smooth and looking as if deliberately shaped.
Because these were tunnels, and there were squirming ants just as large as that earlier one somewhere further in front.
Well, looking at the bright side, at least I had a steady supply of spirit power. The others may have ended up elsewhere, and Rongrong and Oscar worried me, everyone else had a battle spirit and should be alright—assuming they were still alive.
I tried pushing my light upwards, but it wouldn't seep through the walls. At least now I knew my Domain couldn't see through walls or earth. In hindsight, it was kinda stupid of me not to check. I extended it to its maximum single direction, and got a response of something human just beyond. Shock and Devour filled the air, scaring away those smaller ants.
Where there were ten year spirits, there would also be hundred, and possibly even thousand-years, and given the white case-like things surrounding me, it didn't take a genius to figure out this was most likely an ant nest.
I moved over as fast as I could, sometimes shuffling, sometimes jogging along the slippery walls—and found Rongrong of all people.
I extended Domain all over her, retracting Devour and Shock, and checked for any injuries. She had a gash on her forehead but was bleeding nowhere else. I started poking around the usual places to get injured, her limbs were all right, and her ribs were fine too. I then gently touched her head to check for any cracks or tender spots and again found none.
I washed my hands with a bit of water and opened her eye, focusing my light against that pale pink iris—and saw her pupil contract. I checked her breathing, and she was passing air alright, then I turned her over to listen for any obstructions or gurgling in her chest to indicate bleeding—and still found none. I then turned her over to the recovery position and gently poked her belly in different areas, checking for other signs of internal bleeding.
When her eyes opened and she lashed out with a punch and kick.
"What are you doing?!" she said.
And I let out a breath of relief.
"Well?" Rongrong said, her cheeks flushed and covering her chest.
"I was checking your body for any injuries, and with hope you don't feel any pain anywhere, or dizzy or nauseous." Because then we'd have a problem and I'd have no idea how to help you. Not that I knew much. But she didn't need to know that.
She pat herself once over. "And are you sure you didn't do anything at all?"
Her eyes trailed lower.
And I couldn't help but feel my cheeks warm either. "No, I didn't do anything to you," I said. "I just woke up myself." And haven't even gone through puberty in this world yet. Boy, and what an experience it'd be.
"We're in an ant nest, I think," I said, running a hand over the tunnel walls. "The walls look shaped, and there are dog-sized ants lurking about. It also released a white spirit ring when I killed it."
Rongrong's stared hard at me and sighed. "Any idea how to get out of here?" she said.
I shook my head. "Just head up, is all I can think of."
So up we went, with my golden light leading the way, the first few tunnels we found ourselves in were only slightly larger than the one we woke in, but the next ones after that were enough for me to jump in—which also meant bigger ants the size of a golden retriever at least. I killed one to test things out, and out came a hundred-year ring like I expected. I tried absorbing it through my Crown and was only able to get portions of it since my chakras felt close to bursting on the first fill. Rongrong and I didn't need to waste time here.
Interface said it was eight in the evening of the same day, and that incident with the ape happened sometime two in the afternoon.
"How long have we been down here already?" Rongrong said.
"Around six hours," I said, extending Shock forward. Some of the hundred-year ants would charge through my Domain, but a quick smash of my Hammer was enough to scare them away.
We wandered some more after that, stopping at a small chamber to eat some of our preserved foods. We were lucky to have not met anything larger, though the end of the tunnel seemed further and further.
Deeper still we found a few ants' bodies and some spirit rings scattered, and Mubai, Hongjun, Zhuqing, Oscar and Yiran all together fending off the bugs. I extended Shock and Devour beyond them, and those ants started hesitating to approach.
"You're alive!" said Mubai, tackling the two of us.
None of them looked any worse for wear, and though Oscar had his arm in a splint and Zhuqing with a bandaged leg, everyone else was still alive and kicking. Thanks to the rings and carcasses here, I should be able to keep up my Domain as long as those rings last, which should be until much later. And with this many people, digging upwards might not be as bad a proposition as earlier.
Yiran was a lot more reserved than she was earlier, and seemed to be sticking rather close to Oscar.
I smiled at them all and said, "I see you've had a taste of my luck with bugs."
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