Our team closed ranks around Oscar, Rongrong, and I, with me in the center maintaining Corrode. My third ability was destroying the poison as it touched my light, and even now I could feel a push coming in from all directions—a rather strange sensation—but that was something good if anything. Spirit force or not, the poison couldn't get through or destroy my Domain.
The poison around us had an alien energy with it that passed through the filtering of Devour, and it was better to be safe than sorry. Absorbing unknown energies carried with it a risk that could overwhelm my body, and I needed to be in this fight for as long as possible.
Oscar passed me another sausage after I finished the last one, and Rongrong had already shifted her Boost to only me. The effect of Oscar's third ring only passed once the ability it was used with had stopped, so for single use abilities, they were just that, power-ups, but for channeled abilities like mine and Rongrong we could keep the upgrade up indefinitely.
"Will you be alright?" Tang San asked me. A tendril of Blue Silver Grass extended from his hand and reached for outside my light.
Its veins blackened on contact with the purple mists.
I compressed my Domain to as small as possible to conserve Spirit Power.
Whether Dugu Yan could sense whatever was within her poison or not was a moot point if my ability failed now. The cover of purple was too thick to see through, and call it luck no one else had attacked us during the lull so far.
"I should be good for another five minutes," I said, "but that's as long as I could maintain it. Any more than that and I might end up killing this guy." Yu Feng's struggles were getting weaker and weaker, his eyes had gotten darker around the edges too. People could only provide so much spirit power until they started leaking life force, and for someone at the thirtieth rank, that was quite a bit.
But we were only here to compete for sport, not kill. It was during times like these when I'm reminded just how out of the norm it was to be able to freely replenish myself.
Hongjun stepped forward and breathed out a puff of flame, but his fire only made the inky purple shy back.
"I'm not sure I can burn this," he said.
Time was against our team, with my dwindling spirit power and Rongrong's eventual limit. But for Tianheng, they should be able to manage assuming Dugu Yan didn't need to expend Spirit Power to maintain this poison cloud.
"No one touch the poison," Tang San said, "I'll take care of it." He smiled something reassuring, and I could just feel the wave of comfort wash over the others.
Boss Dai was a little worse for wear with his mask and clothes nicked and charred in places, while Zhuqing and Hongjun were more frazzled and shaken. Oscar's robes were torn in places because of his spiderlegs, and Rongrong was the only one untouched. Tang San was still his clean and pristine self, save for a few choice cuts on his clothes, and I was the only one covered in blood—mostly from me.
I'm starting to notice the trend, all things considered.
Another line of lightning barreled forward, and a timely Light Wave from boss Dai saved our butts.
"We should hurry up," I said.
Another flash of lightning came and we all dodged as one to the left while a tendril of Shock and Devour guided the bolt further away from us. For Tianheng to keep sniping us like this meant Dugu Yan could sense things within the mist. In a sense, she was sort of like me then.
Tang San produced two sacks from his storage belt. "Hongjun," he said, "use your fire when I tell you to."
"And little Jin, lend me your hammer after I give the signal."
My what now? "Cousin, err, did I hear that right?"
If before his smile was a refreshing wind, this one now was like a lick of flames. "It would be prudent to make as good an impression as possible, yes?"
I frowned. But alright. It's not like there was a big taboo with lending other people a part of your soul anyway, it's just it wasn't exactly something I was too comfortable with doing. "What, you're gonna throw it at someone?"
Tang San laughed.
"You owe me for this." I sighed and started gathering what spirit power I could spare for my Hammer.
Tang San threw the bags out into the purple mists then a handful of Swords outward. The unassuming burlap sacks cut through the poison and were getting signed, before they exploded in mid-air after hitting each other.
The bags scattered a fine mist that glistened against the stadium's lights together with a cloud of fine white powder.
"Hongjun," Tang San said.
A stream of flames then ignited the cloud and produced another explosion—that scattered the purple mist surrounding us.
Tang San then flew out of my Domain's light and straight towards the now revealed emperor team that was by the ring's leftmost edge, and a Dugu Yan that had fallen to her knees just now.
The Shi brothers, as battered as they were, faithfully stepped forth to meet Tang San while Tianheng shot more lightning our way. I then took the chance to completely enclose their group with Corrode while squeezing everything I could from Yu Feng.
"Jin!" Tang San extended his hand back together with a strand of Grass that reached towards me.
I summoned my Hammer and threw it towards him.
Hongjun and Boss Dai sent ranged attacks towards the other members of the emperor team while Zhuqing intercepted Osler who had rounded off to our left flank.
Nobody expected Tang San to suddenly break Dugu Yan's technique, and for her to be downed means she also maintained a connection with her poison. It was a good thing then that I didn't take too much of it in.
The flower in Lingling's hand started shining on Dugu Yan, at the same time, Tang San had finally gripped my hammer.
Shi Mo and Shi Mu blocked his way forward.
And Tang San threw my Hammer to the side.
"What the hell?! You missed!" I couldn't help but shout.
And the bombardment of either side with lightning, fire, and light lulled for a moment—before a flash of a handful of Swords stopped the turtle brothers from advancing further.
Then Lingling got thrown out of the ring from the right—after my hammer hit her in the ribs from the side.
Dugu Yan's eyes went wide.
And only then did it register that Tang San made my hammer curve like a fucking boomerang from god knows how. I don't even have enough energy to spare to just… fuck. Fuck this!
I retracted my hammer after I felt it hit the ground.
That's when all hell broke loose.
"Charge!" Tang San said as he wielded his Swords and became a storm of blades. He slashed with his swords, and rained needles everywhere, and snared the other team's limbs with his bind.
He was a force on his own.
Boss Dai, Zhuqing, and Hongjun gathered towards him while Oscar led me and Rongrong to follow, all the while her boosts all gathered on Tang San—who started pushing back both brothers as he wove in and out of their moves, avoiding their shields.
Tianheng couldn't do anything but charge forward himself.
The rest after that was a battle of attrition with the Emperor team fighting under Corrode and Devour. I'd long thrown away Yu Feng outside the ring after Oscar force fed him a detoxifying sausage since any more and he could've died.
But Shi Mo eventually got done in by Tang San's poison and was promptly thrown over to me to continue my reign of terror.
Minute after grueling minute passed with our front line fighters decking it out with our opponents. Tang San pretty much held the line all on his own and Oscar's constant support made all the difference. That was what decided it, really. Had Lingling stayed in the fight longer, and had the Emperor team chose a blitz instead of a protracted battle from the start, then maybe have lost in terms of sheer burst power since we didn't have any grand attacks that could meet their fire power head on.
But in the face of Oscar's superior carrying capacity, Tang San's ferocity, Rongrong's cheating boosts and my domain, then it was just their luck they played into a battle they weren't equipped for.
When Tianheng finally fell, nothing else was sweeter than the announcer lady's angelic voice singing of our victory.
I must have fainted after that since I woke up in a bed with Rongrong sitting on a chair next to me and holding my hand. As cliché as cliché went, it was still nice to wake up like this. Though she was a child and I'm like, pretty old inside. But again, once we both hit twenty or something then it'd be just like one of those old moguls getting it on with their secretaries. Not that I ever reached that point nor did I idolize them.
Yeah, this was a bad train of thought.
Rongrong was fast asleep, and she was already changed to her normal robes. I was too. Someone must've changed out my bloody robes for clean ones.
We were in a small room with no one else besides us. The walls were a drab olive and the sheets were a clean white, all lit by a soft and warm light stone that shone over both. It was, homely. If anything. Someone else might've called it sweet, or romantic. But, that's not really something I'm willing to entertain just yet.
I poked the girl's cheek.
She stirred, then swatted my hand away.
"Rongrong," I said, "I'm awake now."
She stirred some more but was still fast asleep. She must've been pooped out from the fighting. I mean, she did pretty much keep using up her boosts all throughout the fight. And it was only thanks to Oscar how we somehow made it through.
That, and Tang San doing some magic shit with making my Hammer fly like a goddamn boomerang and that powder explosion. Speaking of, what the hell was that anyway? I haven't heard of anything doing something like that to poison before, but that's just going with my modern knowledge. Maybe it really was magic?
I checked Interface and found my cultivation had broken through to the Thirty-Sixth. If any, that was at least something good that came out of this shit stain of an experience.
The door opened to Xiao Wu—who smirked before closing the door again.
"Hey!" I whispered out loud.
She put a finger up to her mouth and shushed me before giving one last wink.
Then Tang San poked his head in before she could close the door.
Xiao Wu stuck her tongue out at him.
"Can you walk now, little Jin?" he said.
There wasn't anything in the red from my scans, so I was more or less good to go unless I got shoved into another life or death sort of fight. Which, I dared to hope, wouldn't come again anytime soon. It wasn't like my luck was bad enough to shove me into a crisis every now and then after all.
Except when it comes to bugs.
"I think so," I said.
I pulled off a strand of hair from my head and tickled Rongrong's nose with it.
She yelped and hit me without really trying to and her cheeks were dusted the slightest hint of pink. Just below the indignant glare was a smile.
"You make me worry and this is what I get?" she said.
"It's not in my nature to be too sweet."
"Ge, I believe we should've left them alone a bit longer."
"I would agree," Tang San said, "but teacher needed us all together before telling us the results of our last bout."
I got off the bed and the four of us joined the rest of our group in a large dining hall where Hongjun was the only one eating, while the rest sat by the table.
Rongrong didn't bat an eye at him. "I'm not even going to bother this time."
We joined our team by the table while our teachers sat on the other side of the large round table. Teacher Zhao sat next to the dean, and he next to uncle.
Uncle stood up. "First off, the Great Spirit Arena extends their thanks to us for pulling them out of their difficult situation and even allowing them to rise from their losses together with winning a sizeable purse for us."
I started clapping at the promise of cold hard cash—literally.
Everyone stared at me. I stopped.
Uncle cleared his throat. "The next matter, would be the poor performance you all showed at the beginning."
I straightened up, and the others did so too.
"Jin. You were too eager to show off your spirit after you'd been allowed its use. Had you kept it secret, the Emperor team would've kept wondering whether you truly were of the Clear Sky sect or not."
Grandpas Shan and Lin couldn't have been far off, and that meant whoever saw us there would've been marked for dead had there been some risk. But for uncle to speak like this meant there was none. At least, none he could think of and none my grandpas dared to act against.
"I understand, uncle." He wasn't wrong either. In hindsight, I should've played it off as a joke instead. Our opponents were already underestimating us after all, and I only blew our cover by confirming that our team was indeed the solution the Great Spirit Arena prepared. "I should have played their confusion to our advantage."
He nodded. "Good, at least you understand. That, however, will not change the punishment I have in store for you."
I swallowed hard. Xiao Wu shook her head.
"Look forward to it," uncle said. He turned to Rongrong and Oscar. "You two both did the best out there. Not only were you both focused on your roles, but you both were also proactive with seeking advantages."
"You have both gone beyond your duty as auxiliary spirit masters. Keep it up."
Uncle turned to Mubai. "Why did you and Zhuqing not dare to make use of your fusion?"
Mubai and Zhuqing turned away from each other.
"You both have the possibility to grasp at such a magnificent power and yet you neglect what you have. Perhaps this experience should at least let you know how wide the world is. Yes, you both might not like it but you cannot deny that had you used your strength, your team would not have eaten such a dry victory."
Uncle then turned to Hongjun. "Hongjun, you have the highest potential for fire ranged power in this team. Your phoenix shines best when it is burning bright. Why then were you on the defensive instead of pressing the attack?"
"If you find yourself scrambling to defend everytime your opponent does something unexpected then you will never be able to bring a surprise of your own out. Instead, attack through your opponents' most decisive moves for they are likely to not expect a counter attack either."
Uncle at least turned to Tang San.
"Little San, I trust you know where you were lacking?"
Tang San stood. "Yes, I believe so, Teacher."
He motioned for him to continue.
"I was trying too hard to control our opponents' moves using my own attacks when I instead should have been controlling our own team's performance to its fullest." He nodded. "Little JIn's unexpected outburst caused me to reevaluate my plans at the last minute instead of staying with what we had all already decided."
Uncle nodded to his words.
"Had we continued with our original formation, we would've been able to better play Jin's revelation as a joke and have our opponents underestimate us, perhaps."
"Good," uncle said. "Now that that's settled, you may all now eat. We still have a meeting to attend to after this so don't take too long."
I wasn't sure what to expect exept something not normal. This whole last fight shenanigan was out of the norm already, what was a few more after?
We all ate dinner in silence, some from ruminating over their shortcomings and figuring out how best to make up for them in the future—maybe. Me though, I was just tired.
Maybe I should have expected it, had I been paying more attention to the specialness of what had been happening so far. It was in the details really, like how uncle Xiaogang got the Spirit Arena to agree to keeping my secret—besides the threat of death, or how come we were the ones selected to fight the Emperor team since they could've been the ones to fight at a higher rank instead. Though the latter was due to this place being too far off from any major population centers hence the lack of any bigger names in the sport.
"Qin Ming greets dean Flender," the young man who was apparently the teacher of the Emperor team said with a bow.
"Ahah! You little rascal you!" Teacher Zhao said as he pulled the smart-looking man into a bear hug. The other teachers too joined in with passing him praises and greetings.
"Teacher, it has been too long," Qin Ming said with a softer tone. "Once a student of Shrek, always a student."
"And our school is proud to have nurtured such a talent as well," the dean said. "And for you to have fostered such a formidable team yourself, truly you are worthy of calling yourself an alumnus of our academy."
The principal preened at his own words and Qin Ming simply let him have it all. It was the sort of conscientiousness borne after years of being together through thick and thin—mostly thin if the academy's poor state of finances was anything to go by. Still, Flender must've been doing something right to have gotten someone to reach the sixtieth rank under forty.
"I can trust you've already seen first hand what your juniors were capable of?" the dean said.
Qin Ming smiled wryly. "Indeed I have," he said and turned to me, one eyebrow raised on those perfect pretty boy looks of his. "And I take it you are the next head of the Clear Sky sect?"
I looked over to the principal and uncle Xiaogang. They both nodded back, and Qin Ming was piqued from the exchange.
"I didn't think you'd be so prudent as well to vet first for someone's trustworthiness," he said with an amused tone. "Worry not, little master, I too am keeping some secrets as well."
Yeah sure, but that didn't mean I had to give him mine as well. Still, no answer was already as good as an answer. And the two trusted him, so if he ever went traitor then I could always just get the help of my grandpas in taking care of him—and besides, I have yet to get a taste of the full cultivation of someone above the fortieth rank.
I sighed. "Please excuse my caution, it isn't as easy to share such a burden on my shoulders."
Qin Ming bowed the noble's way. "I understand little master. It honors me that you would dare to trust me with such information."
"You are my senior," I said, "and whom my teachers trust. I can more or less also trust."
Qin Ming smiled. "Shouldn't that be with the the uncertainty?"
"I have a natural distate for good looking guys."
"He's just making sure you won't steal Rongrong away," Xiao Wu said from the side.
First off, ew. Second, just no. I mean sure, I was practically like thirty already over here, but at least I was still physically a kid. Okay, maybe she was one to talk since she was actually like this super old loli granny who totally had the hots for a kid. Perhaps it was the pot finding some company with the kettle… but that didn't matter right now.
"Oh?" Qin Ming said. "An alliance between the Clear Sky sect and the Seven Treasure sect?" He nodded in deep reverence. "A strong pair indeed."
Rongrong looked away from me when I caught her gaze. Dammit, don't play into it!
But Xiao Wu already noticed and was already smiling like a dirty old woman. Which she totally was.
Qin Ming cleared his throat. "Teacher," he said to the dean. "I would like to have my students meet once more with my juniors. Not to spite them, but to only ensure a smooth relationship between our charges."
I didn't like where this was going.
The dean nodded, but uncle didn't seem too thrilled. "Perhaps a small gathering at a fine restaurant may ensure no animosity between them?"
Qin Ming chuckled. "And as the losing side, it is only natural that we would bear the tab."
Flender's cheap ass practically leapt for joy at that. He cleared his throat but the smile behind his hand couldn't be hidden. "Please, dear studemt. It should be the teachers who spoil their students."
There was no sincerty in his voice. Of course. As expected.
"Well," I said.
Flender looked at me with bloodshot eyes.
I smirked. "We did win quite a bit of gold from the betting. We can cover a few gold pieces if the need arises."
Uncle Xiaogang smiled at that, but Flender was having none of it. Teacher Zhao though was snickering with Oscar and Hongjun, but a withering glare from the dean had them all regretting their teasing.
Me though, a pissed-off Flender was still a safer fight than a rookie dragon wannabe. I'd take him on any time compared to someone who could accidentally kill me without meaning to, and besides, I was already at the thirty-sixth rank. A few more death defying fights under my belt ought to push me over to my fourth ring sooner rather than later.
To his credit though, Qin Ming didn't rise to the teasing. "Really, it's alright." He had a look that said 'please no,' and it tugged at my little heart how familiar that look was.
I shrugged Flender's way. "Well, if senior insists, then junior defers."
The dean wiped his forehead with a ragged handkerchief. Seriously, how cheap was this guy to keep a ratty thing like that—judging from uncle Xiaogang's frown at the thing—and for who knew how long.
"Now now little Jin," Flender said with a sour face, "we shouldn't keep our guests waiting."
Qin Ming didn't walk much after we followed him out since the Emperor team was in the dining hall behind ours. They all looked just dandy after losing to a bunch of kids, at least, me compared to any of them since I was pretty much battered from the inside out. And it had already been a few hours already anyway, anyone not too badly beaten could've already recovered that much within that span of time.
Except for me and my physically weak ass that is.
Tianheng was the first to stand when we came in. "We welcome you, Shrek's students," he said with a small bow—again the noble's way. "Thank you for accepting our teacher's invitation."
"Thank you for having us," Boss Dai said. Even if Tang San was the one we all listened to in battle, he was still the eldest in our group. And in social settings like these, it naturally fell to him to be the voice of our group.
Though Dugu Yan looked like she had something else to say.
The Shi brothers were at least amiable, I think, with their poker faces, but Lingling was particularly focused on Tang San. Which I cou;dn't blame her for. Yu Feng, on the other hand, had no kindness in his eyes when he saw my sorry state. And Osler looked every bit as uninterested as his spirit suggested.
Which I was starting to think was shared between all feline spirits—though Boss Dai wasn't like that. Which makes me think he's probably also special somehow though for the life of me I couldn't place how.
We all sat around the table with the teachers from both sides off at the sides while us students faced off on either corner. It reminded me of those board meetings I'd usually see on dramas and whatnot.
A waiter came in and poured a round of tea for everyone while Qin Ming ordered some light dishes which Hongjun didn't waste any time with adding to.
"First off," I said. As far as first impressions went, I didn't really care much since I was clearly the most aggrieved here. I faced Tianheng "I speak for myself with this, but I would like to extend my gratitude towards you and your team for allowing me to reach the thirty-sixth rank just now."
"Truly," Tianheng said with a laugh, "whoever said the Clear Sky sect was gone was out of their minds."
I bowed a bit while scratching my head. "Though junior here would prefer we keep that truth under wraps."
"Already scheming at such an age I see," Dugu Yan said.
I shrugged. "I get by, older sister." What went unsaid though was how well it worked out enough. But had I not risen to the provocation from the announcer lady like uncle said, then surely the surprise would've been much funnier for me in hindsight.
Tianheng had a worried look but it was allayed by a timely, "He's always like that," by boss Dai.
"And rude too," Dugu Yan added.
"He is indeed," Flender added from all the way at the back.
The Emperor team and their teacher all frowned at the dean.
"Still," Osler said, "to see someone with twin spirits." He shook his head. "We were lucky to have lasted at all."
At that Tang San spoke up, "Seniors, you underestimate yourselves too much. We were at the disadvantage throughout the whole fight had you all stopped to consider our weakest point."
Dugu Yan and Lingling both didn't have high opinions of my cousin if their glares were anything to go by, and Xiao Wu's rage was most likely kept at bay by Tang San's hand. Probably literally.
Seriously though, why didn't we sub the demon loli in was a mystery to me. But considering Tang San, he probably didn't want any possibility of her getting hurt. As if she could be. Oyvey.
"Please," Tianheng said. And I didn't miss the light in uncle's eyes. Though the two members of the Tyrant Dragon clan seemed to share a quick glance every now and then.
"Our biggest flaw is that we do not have any decisive blows we can unleash, and our best strength is technical battles." Which was true. Sure, I and boss Dai were strong when dueling others one to one, and Tang San had a strong battlefield presence with his range, but only Hongjun had a proper nuke in our ranks and even then his range was shit.
"We were only lucky my Crown Spirit could guide away lightning," I added.
"But luck too was a spirit master's strength," Tianheng said.
"Indeed." Tang San nodded. "It was also our luck that the revelation of Jin's spirit caused your team to stay on the defensive instead of aim for a quick and decisive victory."
Which really should be the norm. Anyone who got into a fair fight had already lost something, the element of surprise for one. And excess expenses as well on any front, like manpower or supplies or hell, even initiative and morale.
"I see," Tianheng said. "Then we can only say that it was our loss."
Dugu Yan spoke up. "But that thing you did to break my poison, how?" Her eyes had a sinister shadow behind them.
At that Tang San actually smiled. "I dare not boast," he said, "but it was only due to my knowledge of poisons that allowed me to counter such a formidable ability."
"Speak," Dugu Yan said without care.
Tianheng probably wanted to say something but it clearly showed that spirit master women were even scarier than their male counterparts.
"It was realgar powder and alcohol," Tang San said with a sheepish grin. "I didn't think I'd ever get to use it, but it was a rarely encountered situation."
Which spoke a lot about what sorts of crap he knew about. First off, knowing those complicated mechanisms and forging methods for the hidden weapons was one thing I clearly understood couldn't be learned in as little as five years in his young age. So really, the only explanation was Tang San also had knowledge from a previous life.
And I was just as guilty.
Dugu Yan had a dumb look to her when she heard that. "Realgar… powder…"
It'd come as a shock to me too shock if anyone broke my proud thousand year spirit ring ability with a common camping supply mixed with booze.
This McGuyver shit was too surreal even for me.
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