When all eight of us had finished eating, uncle Xiaogang stood up and said, "Tomorrow morning, the bell will ring by sunrise and food will only be served until an hour after that. Anyone who doesn't come will not eat either. Are we clear?"
"Yes," I answered together with Xiao Wu and Tang San. Note to self, debrief everyone later about uncle's quirks.
Rongrong met my eyes, and mouthed 'What?'
'Later' I mouthed back.
"You all sit to cultivate until we call for you," uncle said. "Dismissed for now."
He then went back to Flender's cottage, leaving us to cultivate.
"So, this is Grandmaster," Mubai said, nodding.
"His personality is very firm," Hongjun added.
"Bossy too," Rongrong said with a sigh.
"Teacher is indeed like that," Tang San said with a wry smile, "but his knowledge on spirits is unmatched."
With uncle here though, that meant my family couldn't be far either. Grandpa Shan is too much of a sap to let that go, and I do miss getting spoiled by him.
"You get used to it," I said, and Xiao Wu nodded hard to that.
"So that was the teacher who made you three as strong as you are?" Zhuqing said.
"Yes," Tang San answered for us.
"Good," she said.
"Come," Oscar said, "we should do as Grandmaster said, from what I could feel from him just now, he seems the type to be even more difficult than dean Flender."
We all went to the middle grounds and sat down to cultivate, and almost two hours later to the dot rang the bell for classes. When I opened my eyes, out came uncle with the dean and teacher Zhao.
"Come little monsters," uncle said, as we fell in line after coming out of our meditative states. "I have already reviewed your performance as well as the experiences you've had last from your trip to Star Dou Forest."
We all nodded.
"Little Ao, and fatty, you both received spirit bones from this last trip?"
The two nodded.
"We will discuss later some special trainings for you to get used to them. Little Jin and Rongrong, we too will discuss later whether that torso bone you obtained is suitable for her."
We shared a look and nodded.
"Next, I believe Dai Mubai had hinted of the possibility of a resonance with Zhu Zhuqing?"
Zhuqing only stared at uncle, while boss Dai stepped up. "Yes," he said.
"Truly a collection of little monsters you have here, Flender," uncle said, nodding. "You two will verify if that is indeed correct. Rongrong and little Jin, I believe you've shared something like this as well?"
"I believe so," I said.
"But we've never tried either," Rongrong said.
"Then you will try." He then turned to Xiao Wu. "And you," he said, "will not slack off."
Xiao Wu stiffened up and nodded hard, then pouted a bit outside of uncle's view. Her talent was somewhat of a sore point for uncle, given she never really cultivated with intent like me or San. And all he could really do was try to motivate her, by depriving her of Tang San otherwise.
Uncle walked back to the front, and said, "From now on, Mubai, Hongjun, and Jin you three will regularly exchange pointers with your teacher Zhao."
"Yes," we three said.
"Then Xiao Wu, Tang San, and Zhuqing with Flender."
"Yes," the three of them said
"And Rongrong and Oscar both will accompany your bouts every time as valid targets."
"Yes," the two also said, though weaker.
"Now that that's over with," uncle said with a clap. "Little Jin, Oscar and Hongjun, you three fight Tang San and Mubai. And Xiao Wu will face Zhuqing and Rongrong together."
He clapped again and made us all go to our positions without any time to voice objections. Xiao Wu looked like she wanted to just go home and sleep while Mubai was looking every bit as confident. Zhuqing had a serious look to her but Rongrong's smile said she was feeling lucky. Tang San was smiling himself, while both Oscar and Hongjun already had their war faces on and were flipping boss Dai the bird who was returning the gesture.
Xiao Wu versus Zhuqing sounded like a bad idea even with Rongrong's support, and that's not even counting her new ability. And our fight looked just as bleak. Mubai was a reasonable opponent, but Tang San fucked up any situation. It was pretty nice how he couldn't manifest his Needles apart from him, but those Swords of his were too broken—add to that his Bind ability getting upgraded thanks to the toughness of the mantis blades, and well, facing him just isn't as fun anymore.
The moment we all got into position, uncle then spoke up, "Little San and little Jin, you both are not allowed to use anything other than spirit abilities or spirit bones." We both nodded. "Besides that, there are no restrictions. Begin!"
Uncle was on a roll today, and just then a black needle flew my way that was burned to a crisp by Hongjun's flame. I then jumped to just in front of Oscar.
"Oscar, legs out," I said, taking out both my spirits and expanding Devour over to Mubai who was already charging. "Behind me," I said.
Hongjun and Oscar did as told, with the latter already generating sausages and Hongjun's purple ring shone just before boss Dai could reach us, his purple ring also shining.
Boss Dai was flung away with a face full of purple flames but a rain of Swords and Needles assaulted us from all directions which I dispelled with Corrode and Devour together, taking a solid chunk of spirit power from me. The real power of Tang San's abilities came not from their being unbreakable, but from how relatively little spirit power they consumed.
Oscar passed me a set of eight, but the slight downside was I needed to eat one for the two-point-five. I popped in a link and started chewing. "Oscar, Hongjun's our only hope of winning this, I'll draw their fire and you make sure to get him a full set."
"Yes," Oscar said from his raised position. His spider legs were about three meters from end to tip, enough to make a difference with how he moved. Given Tang San, his goal should naturally be our auxiliary master first.
Mubai recovered and his two yellow rings shone, body enlarging as a white beam shot out of his mouth.
Hongjun met the White Tiger Light Wave with a thick plume of purple fire from Phoenix Fire Wire as a flash of white shot up from my feet.
Tang San could only have done that on the ground. I dodged away from the series of rising Swords making sure to expand Devour to its largest, and felt a hint of him just at the edge of my range. He quickly disappeared, and Mubai was charging for Hongjun again.
I still had a buff on me, but then in swooped Tang San snatching me away from the fight, and let go the moment Corrode burnt him.
"Formidable," he said, wincing. He hovered just ahead of me, and his hands flashed once, three white flashes moving for Hongjun. The speed of his projectiles was another thing I hated about fighting him.
I erected a wall of Corrode to just in front of them and charged towards Tang San. Using my Domain in an unfocused manner diffused the effects of Shock and Corrode, so for bouts like this, it was better to conserve those unless I had a sure shot. Devour though was kept on since it didn't really consume anything from my side.
Chasing Tang San was in itself an exercise in frustration with that fancy footwork and wings of his, but the goal was more to stop him from focusing enough to bother Hongjun and Mubai. I then expanded Domain forwards in a cone together with Shock and caught him in its light.
Tang San winced again and shot me with some Needles.
I was gonna roll over but a tuft of grass had my leg firmly in place on the ground, I turned on Mantle for the first time and those poisonous projectiles bounced harmlessly off me. Oh wow, that finally worked. The consumption though was enormous. I created a Nail and shot it at Tang San, and a flash of black made him dodge in a haphazard way.
"Well," I said. "That surprised you?" It surprised me too.
He only smiled, and flew to the side with a wide arc, and I turned in time to see Mubai right behind me and almost twice as large, with his purple ring glowing.
Tang San was met with a blanket of purple fire but his Swords penetrated the deep flames and Oscar was the one who got Hongjun out of the way.
Boss Dai's tiger palms had five large knife-like edges at their tips plowing straight for me, and I met his downward strike with an upwards blow of Thunder Strike augmented with Mantle.
Our attacks collided and the influx of the foreign spirit power I dispelled as fast as I could with Devour. This was the first time we'd ever really fought, and to think he could push me back this much, but it's not as if he wasn't untouched from the exchange either. Boss Dai landed on the ground a moment later with a heavy thud, and his purple ring stopped glowing just as I turned off Mantle. My spirit power was already half-way spent just from that.
"That Hammer is monstrous," boss Dai said, standing up.
"And rank thirty-eight is just as hard to surpass," I said.
We both smiled and went at it again, this time both yellow rings of his shone, and I retracted my Domain to completely enclose him in Devour, Shock, and Corrode all at the same time.
His mouth burst out with white which I dodged just in time thanks to my Crown's increase in perception, and when that failed, his claw attack aimed to close the gap—but I quickly side-stepped him and grabbed his waist, my body already saturated with spirit power and German Suplexed the guy into the ground.
We crashed onto the grass but his body didn't crumple in the slightest, and his abdomen just burst out somehow, taking off my grip and I rolled away as Swords again chased after me.
"What the hell was that?!" Mubai said, and shot another beam at me.
I then ran towards Tang San harassing Hongjun and Oscar who were holding the fort down pretty well, with the former burning everything Tang San hurled at them and the latter continuously feeding Hongjun with recovery sausages. I then hastily ate the rest of the sausages still wrapped around my arm, making sure to spit the dirt and grass that got on it, and felt my spirit power well up from god knows where.
After I swallowed the last piece, I turned on Mantle and quickly shot a Nail with a diameter almost as large as my head and speeding towards Tang San like a cannonball, and that wasn't even the full twenty percent boost.
Tang San was hit by my spirit ability even though he reacted in time, he just didn't expect the size of it maybe, but his flight was undeterred.
Thanks to Oscar's sausage, the absurd consumption of Mantle was kept at bay somewhat with that momentary use. I then rejoined with the rest of my team with Mubai panting after me. As the person with the highest combined cultivation years from his ring, I most likely had some advantage with the quality of my spirit abilities and my own pool of spirit power, it's just that my rising in ranks too quickly made me unaccustomed to my new capacities.
The end eventually came when boss Dai finally exhausted his spirit power under Devour, while Tang San had taken out Oscar with those impossible throwing skills of his that made those Needles and Swords fly in patterns that made no sense whatsoever, and me and Hongjun ran out of spirit power soon enough.
Tang San himself had to sit on the ground to recover spirit power by the time we finished, and the fight between Rongrong and Zhuqing had apparently already ended way before ours with Xiao Wu teleporting behind Zhuqing and backflipping with her into the ground much like my suplex.
After a quick bit of rest, uncle then called us over again. "Tell me," he said, "what mistakes did you all do in your fights?" He narrowed his eyes at each one of us. "Little Jin?"
"My biggest mistake was getting separated from my team in the first place," I said. If it weren't for that, then turtling would've been an option. "After that was thinking I could take out boss Dai."
"And what of facing off with Tang San?"
"I believe keeping him from attacking the two was better than trying to regroup at the time," I said, and uncle nodded. "I believed boss Dai wouldn't have been able to defeat Hongjun and Oscar readily given the two's sprit bone abilities, but then Tang San would've been able to regroup as well. And that would've been bad news for us."
"Good," uncle said. "Little San? What did you do wrong?"
"I failed to account for Jin's Hammer's new ability and paid the price of losing my team mate."
"I underestimated Hongjun and Jin's long range abilities."
Uncle nodded, and said, "Hongjun?"
"I failed to protect our auxiliary system spirit master," he said.
"Try again," uncle said.
Hongjun tilted his head at him. "I'm not sure what you mean, Grandmaster."
"Your fire was able to restrain Tang San," uncle said. "You should've pressed your advantage instead of wait for Jin to reunite with you."
Hongjun nodded after that. "Yes, teacher," he said.
"My awareness of the battle was what lead me to get taken out," he said. "I should've been paying more attention."
"Hmph," uncle said, "at least you little monsters understand a bit. And you girls, what did you do wrong?"
"I charged in without first finding out Xiao Wu's new ability," Zhuqing said.
"And I forgot to warn her," Rongrong added.
Uncle then started rubbing his chin, then closed his eyes to hum to himself.
Rongrong leaned in and said, "I see now where Tang San gets it."
"Yeah," I said, distracted. With uncle, training wasn't over until he explicitly said it was, so with the sun still three hours away from noon, things were bound to get hairy.
"Good, good," uncle Xiaogang said. "With this, at least I understand you are all open to the blunders you performed with the bouts just now. Remember, in the future, if you do those again I will be sure to punish you as well. Are we clear?"
We all said, "Yes."
"So that you never forget, you'll be performing a punishment then to really drive the lesson home." Uncle smiled my way. "Go to the entrance of the academy and you'll all be acquainted with your new best friends for the coming months."
Fuck. I hate it when he smiles.
We made our way as indicated, and found… suits that could only be described as a cross-fit nut job's dream. There in leather and metalworks were eight… suits, if they could even be called that. It was essentially a series of harnesses with springs connecting the limbs' parts together to prevent movement, and each one was marked with our names. They were full-body resistance sets I once thought up as a joke after I found out the blacksmiths in this world knew how to make springs, it was just my luck someone listened to me—and apparently indulged uncle.
I looked over to Tang San who wouldn't meet my eyes.
"I blame you," I said.
"What are these?" Mubai said, picking up the one marked with his name. The thing made clinking noises as the different moving parts collided with each other.
"Oh," Xiao Wu said, then looked over at me. "This is on you."
"Yeah, but Tang San made them."
"And you gave uncle the idea."
Tang San, Xiao Wu, and I helped everyone to wear their suits, and just standing was already hard. But the tensions on our springs were all different, and the battle spirit masters had the toughest, while Rongrong and Oscar had lighter springs, but they found movement just as hard. What was nice though was how smooth everything felt even encumbered like this, but on closer look, the hooks by the shoulders were not reassuring in the slightest.
Dean Flender and uncle then arrived, with uncle smirking at me.
"From now on," he said, "you will all wear these suits whenever we perform basic training."
Just then, teacher Zhao arrived carrying exactly seven iron plates all with different sizes.
"And you'll be wearing weights together with them, which we'll be increasing as time goes on."
"Of course," Xiao Wu said with a face palm.
Tang San only smiled back after I glared at him.
Teacher Zhao passed out those heavy iron plates—which had hooks on them. Ingenious, but also devious. He then helped secure the weights, and I noticed how easy it was to put on and remove—meaning it was meant to do that.
"For today," uncle said, "I want you all to run until you pass out."
"Did I hear that right?" Oscar said, raising his hand. "You want us to run until we pass out?"
"Yes," uncle said. "No using spirit power allowed. Teacher Zhao will make sure all of you come back to the academy as well as subject you all to twice the gravity, so feel free to go all out. Anyone who exceeds my estimated number of laps gets a rest day tomorrow."
That was a load of bullshit, but the glare uncle directed my way stopped me from saying anything.
"Your path will be from here to the foot of the mountain next to Suotuo city, I want you all to get as familiar as possible with the way there."
Which meant we'll be seeing a lot more of it in the near future.
"Teacher Zhao, if you'd be so kind," uncle said.
Teacher was smiling too much as that purple ring of his shone and my feet sank into the ground.
"For now, you also aren't allowed to share your weights," uncle said, "that will come at a later time." He nodded. "You may begin."
Tang San was the first to run ahead, followed closely by Mubai and Xiao Wu then Zhuqing, Hongjun, and us three: me, Rongrong, and Oscar at the very back.
The first lap was doable with everyone running at a steady pace together, but as the laps went on, so too did the mental exhaustion catch up, and the rest of that day passed in a blur, and all I really remember was the sun in the sky, the annoying clinking all our suits made, then waking up in a medicinal bath already so late into the night. As we ate our hearty dinner, we were all surprised to find our bodies were doing fine even after that hell we went through.
Apparently, Tang San and Mubai were the ones who did the most laps at nine round trips, then next was Xiao Wu and Hongjun with eight, then me and Zhuqing with seven, and lastly Oscar and Rongrong with six.
"That can't be right," Mubai said. "I was expecting little Jin to keep up."
I groaned from the table.
"To think little brother would fall to a bit of running," Hongjun said, just staring at me.
Tang San pat my back as he put away his dishes. "Little Jin's spirit power is especially potent because of his two spirits, but you forget he's younger than all of us by two years."
"Oh yeah," Oscar said. "But he reminds me more of a shrewd merchant trying to cheat me."
"Where'd that come from?" I said.
"Whatever happened to sausage monopoly?" Oscar said, chuckling.
"Grandmaster happened," I said.
"Make it stop," Xiao Wu said, clinging onto Tang San.
The following morning, uncle mixed up our sparring bouts, this time it was me and Tang San versus everyone else together and it all came down to a near draw thanks to my and San turtling with his flying and my cheesing them all with Devour. After that, we broke off into our groups to face off against teacher Zhao and dean Flender, then back to basic training with sore bodies and spent spirit powers.
Next on the menu this time was mountain hiking up and down. The day after that was wading upstream a river, then mountain climbing, then pushing a cart back and forth from Star Dou Forest's frontier town to sell off my stockpiled goods for money.
At the end of the week though, uncle made us do something extra. We didn't do any spars that morning because we were to do the full course: upstream river wading, mountain climbing, then running the rest of the way back to the academy as one lap, and to return to the river to do it all again to start the next. We had to ten in total, again without spirit power, and this time everyone had to make it back since teacher Zhao wasn't coming with us. Not impossible, but not easy either.
"This'll be our hardest bout yet," Mubai said.
Altogether we had a collective weight of a hundred and forty kilos distributed among us. Two ten kilo plates for Rongrong and Oscar, then a ten and a five for me and Zhuqing, two tens for Xiao Wu and Hongjun, and two tens and one five for Mubai and Tang San.
We started out strong, finishing the first two laps at a steady pace. Then on the third, Rongrong and Oscar passed theirs to Tang San and Mubai who gave them the five kilos in exchange. On the fourth, the two auxiliary masters took back their plates and Zhuqing and I passed our five kilo plates to Xiao Wu and Hongjun. The fifth had Hong Jun and Xiao Wu passing back a ten plate to me and Zhuqing, and a slightly slower pace than before. The sixth we returned to our original configuration without any problems, but also slower than the fifth lap. On the seventh, Rongrong and Oscar gave their plates to me and Zhuqing in exchange for our fives. The eighth had me hyperventilating and I had to pass all my plates to Mubai, and half-way done, Rongrong collapsed. Together with Oscar, I supported Rongrong while Tang San took her plates. On the ninth, Xiao Wu passed me a five so she could take a ten from Mubai while Hongjun took ten from Zhuqing. At the start of the tenth, Mubai fell next, and I had to power through a third with a twenty for him to recover enough, then Rongrong woke up and took a five from Xiao Wu, and Tang San took my ten.
When we entered the academy's borders, everyone collapsed together—and the same scene as the nights before played out. We woke up in the baths the following morning, and ate as if we'd all just come back to life. It was a hellish training that kept breaking us down and rebuilding us anew, and with each pass of night, Flender more and more looked miserable.
Our schedule would continue like that for the better part of two weeks until uncle added another ten kilos to everyone, then another ten two weeks later, and so on and so on until we spent three months cultivating, training, and sparring all the way.
Besides Rongrong breaking through to the twenty-ninth rank, no one really made any progress with our cultivation, but the plates we carried were all well above what we first carried, but even at the end of it all, we still had to struggle hard through the dirt and grit.
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