We stopped for a quick break late afternoon the next day at a small clearing in the forest, and sat around a small fire I built to ward away the cool autumn wind. There was just enough shade for the sun's rays to filter through the leaves, the light creating mottled patterns on the grass.
Our group sat in a circle with Tang San next to Xiao Wu, then Zhuqing waiting patiently for the food to cook. Rongrong and me were busy tending to the ingredients and fire, and the rest of the three guys doing what they did best, banter, while teacher Zhao went deeper into the woods to get something extra.
We had some of Oscar's sausages roasting on sticks, and the aroma wafting over made me drool all the same. Those things were condensed from spirit power, which meant the guy was somehow creating matter out of energy that could properly go through the correct reactions while retaining their material integrity and still display supernatural effects when eaten.
Then again, there was Mubai and teacher Zhao growing their bodies in mass with their spirit abilities and shrinking back at the drop of the hat, and my Hammer that could do the same thing. None of this spirit power shit made sense to me even after ten years of living, six of which had me experiencing the thing first hand and even delving into playing with the power of gravity.
I stoked the fire, remembering uncle Hao a night ago. It was nice to know we had someone looking out for us, though a rescue from the ant nest would've been nice. The man was inspiring in an 'I'm strong enough to not give a crap about a lot of things' manner at least, which was a good thing in this kind of world. Though the machismo could use some work. Unfortunately, stubbornness was about the only thing we all shared in the family.
Rongrong inched closer to the fire rubbing her bare arms, and pulled a blanket out of thin air as her jade bangle let out a whisper of spirit power.
Further North, the continent had temperate climates and it was also around this time when their cooler winds would reach the Southern regions like near Suotuo city. What's surprising though was even in the capital and port areas, all the maps I'd seen only listed a vast sea outside the bounds of the continent, but this cyclic weather system hinted at a much bigger world beyond.
It's just the horrible things out in the ocean that stopped further exploration. Still, other continents out there meant more exploitable resources.
Zhuqing swiped a stick of four Salamis and settled back next to Rongrong. After sampling Oscar's newest ability, the spicy and salty tang of it went well with her tastes, though everyone else preferred the normal meaty Schubligs.
"So," Mubai spoke up, "how does it feel to have finally broken through?" He indicated us four newly minted Spirit Elders, and we four looked amongst each other, then he met my eyes and said, "Little Jin?"
Oscar and Hongjun raised their brows and nodded, while Zhuqing leaned towards me a bit and Rongrong sat without a fuss. All the while, Tang San wouldn't let go of Xiao Wu, who was only too happy to cling onto him.
"Taller," I said. "A little less skinny too." Adding spirit rings affected the future cultivation of any spirit master, and there was no such thing as a throwaway ring. All of them together determined the eventual limit a person could reach, and the better the first and next ones were, the better someone's chances were of reaching the Titled Douluo realm.
Xiao Wu stuck out her tongue, though her eyes were a little dull. "Of course, you'd be asking about size," she said with a smile.
"Size doesn't matter," I said, "but I'd at least like to end up as tall as my dad or grandpas."
Mubai cleared his throat, and said, "But it does help."
Zhuqing glared at him and turned away, and Hongjun started laughing, saying, "This lewd tiger would of course know all about that!"
"Hmph," Mubai said, looking distraught after Zhuqing. "This free-range chicken here ought to learn when to save his brother some face."
Mubai shoved him, and Fatty was pushed to the ground with a light plop, but the one who did said pushing frowned.
"Hah!" Hongjun said, "little brother was too good to have given me that ring!" He sat up and started flexing his body. "Just you wait, boss Dai." Hongjun pointed at him with a determined look. "Someday, this free-range chicken might even overtake you!"
Mubai sighed. "Did this guy want to exchange pointers just now?' he said, flexing his knuckles.
Oscar crawled over to Hongjun and clapped his shoulder. "Brothers should stick together," he said.
"Then I get Tang San," Mubai said, laughing
Zhuqing shook her head, and the two other girls just chuckled.
"I'd rather you don't drag me into petty fights," Tang San said, scratching his head with the hand Xiao Wu didn't have pinned down. It was almost annoying now how much these two stuck to each other, and coming from what Xiao Wu told me about how Tang San kept chasing after her through the air despite Er Ming's gravity field and constant swatting, I guess they finally saw what everyone else always did.
"Little Jin?" Mubai said.
I shrugged. "Sure," I said, "why not?" Still though, Tang San's twelve, and… okay, Xiao Wu is a total sugar mama, but she's also technically just twelve if we're going by physical body age.
I snuck a glance at Rongrong and couldn't help a small seed of doubt. How much of it was politics? Maybe peoples' teasing? Simple admiration? Personally, it was a difficult idea to even think about
"Late then." Mubai then turned to San. "And you," he said. "You had a spirit bone for flight? How come you never told us?"
Tang San smirked. "You never asked."
Rongrong laughed together with Hongjun and Oscar.
Xiao Wu spoke up, "But to find yourselves lost in an Acid Snare Ant nest and make it out alright. I'm amazed."
"So, they were called Acid Snare Ants," Hongjun said, nodding.
Tang San clenched his hands into fists, a stern arc drawing itself on his jaw, but Xiao Wu's gentle patting let him relax.
Rongrong absentmindedly rubbed her arm. "I was very fortunate to have been found by Jin," she said with a weak smile, then puffed a cheek and narrowed her gaze at me. "Though he did get handy before waking me up."
Silence—though I could just feel Zhuqing's judgement wash over me.
"Traitor!" Hongjun said.
"Little brother is too cruel!" Oscar added.
Mubai only raised a thumb my way with a gentle smile, while. Tang San kept shaking his head, and Xiao Wu looked every bit the dirty old maniac her spirit implied. Yeah. I'm not that creepy compared to her at least.
Xiao Wu met my eyes. "Were you thinking something rude again?" She was stared daggers at my head as she smacked a fist against her open hand. She was pretty damn strong for someone with such a small frame.
Rongrong elbowed my side with a sly smile. "Not content with me, and you'd still stare at your big sister with lewd eyes?"
I couldn't help but start laughing at the implication of me having the hots for the ancient loli. "I don't know about calling her my big sister," I said. "But I guess she is much older than me."
"I don't understand," Hongjun said.
"Rude," Rongrong said, and pinched my side.
Xiao Wu though went pretty red. "Hmph, this cheeky brat, perhaps we should exchange pointers like boss Dai said?" she said with a sweet smile while cracking her knuckles.
"You're the reason I get freaked out by rabbits," I said, inching back. Seriously though, I was spending my time with a hundred-thousand-year spirit beast turned human. And with Tang San having Blue Silver Grass as a second spirit, then his mother was most likely a hundred-thousand-year Blue Silver Grass too. Which makes me think it's those unlikely spirit beasts that really move up to that mythical realm.
Xiao Wu puffed up both cheeks and released her spirit, her ears becoming longer and getting covered in white fur while a faint sheen of pink glowed from her legs. Three spirit rings then floated up behind her, two yellow and one purple. "Come little Jin," she said.
The smile she had on was not something a rabbit should ever make.
"No thanks," I said. Because if I do beat her she'll just keep coming back until she wins, and by then, Tang San might even join in. And besides, she was a nightmare to fight herself. Using my Crown on her was only gonna get her to keep trying, and my Hammer was too big a risk for both me and her.
"Or you could use your Hammer," Xiao Wu said, and yes, as enticing to the eyes as her slender legs and round hips were, I knew better than to get any closer to them than necessary. Besides, she and Tang San working together was an absolute terror to face, and fuck that third spirit ability of his.
"And risk your burying my head in the ground?" I said. "I'm good, but I'm not a miracle worker."
The others chuckled—but they'd never really seen Xiao Wu fight for real except during that one time in the spirit arena, and that doesn't even count.
"Less talking, more fighting," she said, as that sinister purple ring shone.
"I don't enjoy losing," I said, and hid behind Tang San. A three-thousand-year ant was a fairer fight compared to a hundred-thousand-year rabbit out to get my ass.
Mubai then cleared his throat. "Before we go any further," he said, taking out a little pouch. "I hadn't had the chance to give this back to little Jin here." His hand went into the bag, digging up to the elbow—another spirit tool—and out came a bright yellow crystal-like chest plate.
All eyes went to him, and Xiao Wu retracted her spirit—looking my way. She tried to smile but couldn't, and my stomach turned as she went back to Tang San's side. The strong fluctuations of spirit power coming from that said everything I needed to know.
"Another spirit bone?" Tang San said eagerly. He then leaned in to examine it, and Xiao Wu stepped back while everyone else leaned closer.
Mubai tossed it to me, and I expanded Domain onto it and felt—a seething burning slither into the back of my mind.
"Jin?" Rongrong said.
I shook myself off. "That thing came from the queen?"
Mubai nodded. "After the queen's body turned to dust, this was left behind."
Hongjun came over and smacked me on the back. "Little brother is truly too good!" he said. "To think we'd come back with a haul of three spirit bones?"
Oscar had his arm over him and the two seemed to dance about.
Then a rustling of leaves made us all turn to see teacher Zhao with a wild boar on his back. "Little Jin, I brought you a present," he said, tossing it over.
I stood up and caught the carcass, making sure it didn't hit Rongrong. It was a lot larger than me but it weighed close to nothing. "How do you want it?"
He narrowed his eyes. "Roasted. No funny business." Then he turned to Mubai. "And don't ever bring out a spirit bone like that ever again," he said. "First make sure no one else is listening."
Mubai nodded, a bit red in the cheeks. "I understand, teacher."
"Little Jin," Mubai said, "that spirit bone is yours."
"Thanks boss Dai," I said. A spirit bone no matter how useless or weak the spirit beast it came from was, was still an existence to behold because they weren't limited to a spirit master's cultivation. They also consumed less spirit power than abilities.
"I wouldn't be your big brother if I stole what is due my own little brother?"
All things considered, I should take this since it was rightfully mine. But a glance at Rongrong, sprang a different idea instead. Her protection weighed a great deal to me, not just for fear of retribution, but also because… she's still a friend. And besides, her spirit adding to mine was something nothing could compare to.
"Tang San," I said, "would it be possible for Rongrong to absorb this spirit bone?"
"What?!" came everyone's reactions together.
"To think little brother is too much of a lady killer," Hongjun said, kneeling to the ground with his arms up to the heavens.
Oscar then walked up to me and faked wiping a tear from his eye. "Little brother is too handsome."
Rongrong's eyes were wide and listless, and Zhuqing somehow had a small smile on compared to Xiao Wu's full grin.
Teacher Zhao nodded to me as well, and Mubai only shook his head, mumbling something about losing.
Tang San though gave a firm look. "I'm not sure," he said. "From what you'd told of us, the queen ant you faced was well over six-thousand-years in cultivation and had this screaming attack, and from what we know of Hongjun, they are able to attack with a burst of acid, and his own spirit bone allows him a slashing attack like the Acid Snare Ant Soldier's own mandibles."
Rongrong covered up her cheeks and Tang San continued, "Tell me, what abilities did you gain from that last ring? And what abilities did the queen use against you?"
I nodded. "My Crown obtained the burning poison energy of the ants, and my Hammer enables me to empower myself with an aura." I then summoned my two spirits, the gold and black lights mingling with the pristine purple—and noticed my Hammer's head was larger now. Before, its thickness was about the size of my thigh at around a diameter of fifteen centimeters but now it was a solid twenty-five.
"So, it does grow with the rings," Tang San mumbled.
"Wasn't your first ring tinged with purple?" Hongjun said squinting.
"It turned completely into a thousand-year ring?" Rongrong said with a shaky voice.
"I'm a lucky guy," I said, though coming out of that situation relatively alright was something else.
Teacher Zhao grunted. "A complete freak."
I activated Corrode as one of my purple rings shone, and the bright gold of Domain became a sinister mustard. I made sure to keep it away from everyone else or the surrounding plants as I slowly enclosed a tree with it—and melted the thing in the span of a few seconds.
"What a tyrannical king," Oscar said.
"Does your light function like true poison?" Tang San said.
I raised an eyebrow and looked over to teacher Zhao. "There's only one way to find out."
Teacher glared at me through everyone else's stifled smiles. "Cheeky brat. Oscar, give me a detoxifying sausage." Oscar passed him a Saveloy in a heartbeat, and he turned to me. "You be glad I like you."
"Thank you, teacher," I said.
He then released his spirit and activated a yellow ring, his entire body enlarging with Motionless Bright King body. "Proceed," he said, folding his arms together.
I wrapped him in my light, and the grass around him all bent away from his spirit pressure. I wasn't an asshole to activate all three abilities, and this right now was just a test to see what would happen.
"No," teacher said, "the light itself isn't poisonous, but it burns away the spirit power I use to suppress it."
I stopped Corrode, taking note of the sizeable consumption of spirit power. "Would you also like to sample all three?"
Teacher groaned some more, and parts of his robe was already tattered somewhat. "Fine," he said. "But you kids stand back."
Everyone did as told, and all three rings shone behind me, wrapping teacher in a purplish golden light. He frowned as the first rays of light touched him, and scowled when his entire body was shrouded in it. My spirit power drained to a steady pace, which at best should last a minute with everything at full capacity.
When I reached half-way out, I stopped my abilities. Devour was enough to come of positive even with Shock's consumption, but Corrode ate too much spirit power. I couldn't help my breath quicken as the consumption caught up to me.
"I see there is some fairness to this world at least," teacher said, throwing away his now ragged robes. His trousers underneath were untouched, and his spirit power remained as strong as ever as he fished a new set out of his spirit tool. "You cannot maintain Corrode indefinitely like you do the other two?"
"Yes," I said. "With my current spirit power, Devour can replenish me at a rate of three percent assuming I have an abundant source, while Shock consumes around three percent as well, but can be lowered to two and a half. Corrode however, takes seven percent minimum to maintain."
I then walked up to another tree and gripped my Hammer tight, my third ring shining again as my body was shrouded in a layer of deep black light. "My Hammer's third ability is to extend the tyrannical Clear Sky aura to my body, and enhance strength by double, but at a cost of ten percent spirit power per second."
I swung my fist at the tree and blew it trunk and all away with a punch, then extended Devour onto it and cleaned up the mess I made, retracting my spirits.
"Then you gained a poison and strengthening ability," Tang San said, "while Hongjun obtained a close-range attack and a burst attack. Given what we know, I believe this spirit bone wouldn't be suitable to Rongrong." He nodded, then frowned. "From what I understand, Jin has told me he'd felt a sort of resonance with you before?"
Zhuqing and Mubai both stepped back somewhat, and Rongrong looked my way. "That's what I've felt before?"
"Huh," Hongjun said, "now that I think of it, isn't this Domain of little Jin a lot like the opposite of Rongrong's Boost?"
"Are you sure it isn't just attraction?" Xiao Wu chimed in. "Though I understand why you'd hesitate." She then made a show of cringing.
Rongrong's cheeks reddened but not as much as earlier, and I added, "It's understandable if the pretty lady fell for my charming good looks." And I got a kick in the shin to shut me up.
Tang San raised a hand and we all stopped our chattering. "From the looks of this bone, it's most likely a torso spirit bone, and could well have defensive properties. However, the queen didn't display any attacking abilities, and still Jin received his. We could then conclude that the queen may just not have been able to use those abilities, or that she was able to contain them as the progenitor. If you encountered any ants with defensive abilities, then describing them could be good too."
"The queen," I said, and looked at Xiao Wu, shaking my head a bit. "Before she died, she released this scream which gave me most of my injuries, and from my fight with the soldier, its shell was about as hard as that Man-faced Demon Spider's."
Rongrong nodded, and Tang San continued, "There is a chance then. But we must also remember that Rongrong's spirit power is much gentler than Jin's, and giving her a spirit bone that more likely has an attacking ability could instead throw her cultivation into disarray." He turned to me. "As it stands, you are most suited to this spirit bone since you have the queen's spirit ring, and the least risk with absorbing it."
"But," I said, "in case it does contain a defensive ability, then Rongrong would've received a level of protection she could use to protect herself with—and would put me at ease some more."
We all turned to Rongrong who sighed. "I can't accept this," she said. "I trust you, Jin, but I'm not willing yet to place my life in your hands, nor am I willing to have you be responsible for mine." She walked up to me and gave me a hug. She smelled like mountain flowers and grilled meat. "I really appreciate the offer," she said. "But, this is yours. Tang San himself said, only you can possibly equip this without any risk and with all the benefits possible."
That put a lot of things into perspective, all things considered. "Then perhaps we can use it to get you a more suitable one?"
She frowned. "Are you seriously trying to woo me, Jin? Or is this your fear of my family that's talking?"
I opened and closed my mouth, unsure of what to say. Either answer was bad in different ways. "It's not about your family," I said, "though I can't say anything about wooing you. We're still much too young for that. But what happened in the nest let me know I can't always protect you."
She smiled back something wry and pinched me again. "Didn't you say we were still much too young for wooing?"
We got back to the academy the following morning running well into the night, making sure to go as fast as we could. That last stop over was enough for us to restore the spirit power we'd expended, and the desire to get home was stronger than our need to rest. What we at first intended to only last a solid week took us upwards of another four days and a few years off our life expectancies, but then again, spirit masters do tend to live longer, so maybe living to eighty still wasn't a horrible deal.
Panting, we all fell to the ground, more out of sheer relief than exhaustion under the bright sun. The smell of cooking rice and firewood drifted in from the mess hall, and the wind carried with it the usual wild flowers and dried earth. Teacher Zhao stood tall though a little pale, and met Flender's scowling welcome. They went into the principal's quarters after telling us all to stand on attention, as the rest of us recovered enough grit to sit up and cultivate.
I never absorbed that spirit bone, instead resolving to keep it for now until after consulting uncle Xiaogang. From a sheer value perspective, I should be able to get a fortune even from this not even ten-thousand-year bone, but that also meant I'd need even more money to get something better.
However, ever since that time, Rongrong had been… awkward around me, and I feel like a total creep.
"You were too forward," Mubai said, draping an arm over me.
Rongrong, Zhuqing, and Xiao Wu all sat together with only Tang San near them, and I was stuck with the boys. The awkwardness was then dispelled when Flender finally emerged with teacher Zhao, and we all stood ramrod straight in a line facing the two.
"You were all very fortunate," he said, pacing. "That four of you would even breakthrough with the unparalleled danger you faced, we can at least say the risk was worth the rewards."
Right now, our ranks were: Dai Mubai, thirty-eighth rank; Tang San, thirty-sixth rank; me, thirty-third rank; Hongjun, thirty-second rank; Oscar and Xiao Wu both at thirty-first rank; Zhuqing at twenty-ninth rank, and Rongrong at twenty-eighth.
"Little Jin," Flender said with a crisp tone, "what you did for Oscar and Hongjun was extremely reckless, never do that again."
I bowed. "Understood, teacher."
"Good," he said, "and congratulations as well for the benefits you allowed them. Little San, chasing after Xiao Wu like you did was even more stupid than what little Jin did."
Tang San neither acknowledged or denied what was said, only bowing.
"Make sure to get strong enough that it would never happen."
"Yes teacher," Tang San said with conviction. Xiao Wu looked softly at him back, and I met Rongrong's eyes who quickly turned away.
"Oscar and Hongjun," Flender said, "make sure to get used to those new spirit bones of yours." He turned to me. "And you, little Jin, spirit bones are no simple matter. More so when you present it to someone else, were you trying to propose to Rongrong?"
"Didn't you know?" he said, his lips curved up into a sinister smile. "Influential families present dowries to each other when they ask for a daughter's hand, and with spirit master sects, what do you suppose they use?"
"Yes," Flender said.
I then looked over to Rongrong who was red up to her ears as well.
"Little brother is too forward," Hongjun said.
And a timely glare from Flender stopped him and Oscar and Mubai who were about to say things. Xiao Wu though was all thumbs up.
Flender cleared his throat. "Our next order of business then is to have Zhuqing and Rongrong reach the Spirit Elder ranks as well."
The two girls nodded, Zhuqing with a firm response, and Xiao Wu in a dreamy state.
"But before all that," he said, "I have an announcement to make as well." Flender turned back, his belly hidden by his flowing robes and called out, "You may present yourself now, old brother."
We all turned to Flender's quarters.
"Master!" Tang San was the first to say, and to my surprise, the person I needed to see most was right there.
"Uncle Xiaogang," I said, bowing together with Tang San and Xiao Wu.
He bowed slightly back to us, and Flender continued his introduction. "This here is Yu Xiaogang, my brother, and you all might know him better as Grandmaster."
The rest of us bowed to him in greeting.
"From now on," uncle said, "I'll be taking charge of your education with the help of my brother's Shrek Academy and faculty. Be prepared."
That was all the explanation we got. Uncle Xiaogang was never one for longwinded discussions except when it came to matters about spirits. We were then dismissed early and allowed to rest for the rest of the day before we began in earnest tomorrow. Tang San decided to stay in the village and gave me a list of things he wanted, and I asked the other students for materials and goods they wanted from Suotuo city as well.
Rongrong however, offered to come with me, and Xiao Wu wouldn't stop her teasing.
The day then ended with most of the supplies I spent on that last trip replenished, and I got more another five extra sacks of flour and a lot of trimmed off pig and cow fats I'll be extracting glycerin from. The concentrated nitric and sulfuric acids I'll need to get elsewhere, and with hope, Tang San might have some idea how to synthesize them.
When morning came, we all woke up to a lavish breakfast with uncle Xiaogang and Tang San serving up everyone with steamed buns filled to bursting with flavorful meats and heavy and sticky bowls of porridge filled with veggies.
"Oh," I said, frowning at the amazing spread.
"Why say no to a feast?" Hongjun said.
"It's what comes after that I'm not too fond of," I said.
Rongrong raised an eyebrow. "Throwing up?"
"No," I said, "Grandmaster's training."
Xiao Wu shivered.
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