I sat up from my bed in the cool and dim room, awoken by the rumbling of my stomach.
A dark sky loomed outside the window, and from the moonlight, by my tableside was a long-cooled tea-boiled egg covered with a light cloth and already peeled. I ate the snack without a second thought and got up, and tripped, falling onto the wooden floor on my finger tips to a feather's landing.
My body felt wrong.
I pat myself down and felt for any pains and found none. My breathing was right, there was no stiffness to any of my joints, and neither did I have a fever, everything was alright as confirmed in Interface. Yet despite all the okays, there remained that strange sensation of something unfamiliar. I tried standing myself up and found an uncanny sense of vertigo as I rose. Panic flashed through me, and I pulled from within and summoned my Crown.
The room lit up in gold, and my bars displayed one hundred percent for both spirit power and stamina while the cultivation bar sat at the knife's edge towards eleven. No notifications of any injuries or unknowns arose even after that little spell. I willed my Domain inwards anyway and the redundant scan showed nothing wrong.
I breathed out and settled my nerves. The events from this afternoon came back to me in pieces: grandpa's pushing, my Domain getting suppressed, then that shattering before my Hammer appeared. I held my right hand in front of me and concentrated spirit power into it, black light surging in clumps and mixing with the gold. Two new icons sat to the right of Interface across the three aspects, displaying both my Crown and Hammer.
I retracted my Crown and the gold light replaced with black, and the icon for it hollowed into an outline. I retracted my Hammer and brought out my Crown, the black light replaced with gold, and the icon for it became just like the Crown's. Then I brought both out and both icons became solid at the same time, all this while, the nine boxes remained unchanged—but something told me they were related somehow.
My stomach grumbled again. Food was my top priority right now, and whatever conjectures I had would have to wait. I went out of my room and headed for the dining hall, the golden glow illuminating the dark halls. Interface displayed it was three in the morning.
Padding with bare feet, the cold floor was wonderful despite the biting sensation of hard grit. One of the attendants patrolling the halls noticed me and ran straight for the elder's hall. When my Hammer appeared, not even one person clapped or celebrated from the rest of the family—the oldies sure had a field day though.
I sighed and continued my way—but I felt the same wave of presence touch my Domain. A second later, grandpa Shan appeared before me, wisps of spirit power betraying the calm night with a flourish.
"Little Jin!" he said, "something wrong?" He had on a frantic look.
"I'm alright grandpa," I said, finding the peculiarity of feeling dizzy despite everything being alright unpleasant. "I'm just really hungry."
"Of course, of course," he said matter-of-factly, he tucked me under his arm. "Come little Jin, eat as much as you need."
He didn't bother making me walk, instead carrying me all the way to the dining hall before waving a hand over the kitchen counter, calling up a still steaming hot feast from the dining storage tool. Our kitchen had a large spirit vault that allowed it to store still hot food for a time, and it was for times like these that there was always food in it. Children undergoing cultivation usually spent themselves too long and too much, and forgetting to eat in between training wasn't unheard of.
Grandpa Shan sicced me on the food and I kept wolfing down steamed bun after steamed bun and slurping noodles and soup and eating whatever else was there. My hunger was profound, like I hadn't eaten in days and no matter how much I ate, it was still like filling up an empty cavern.
"You look taller, little Jin," grandpa said.
"I do?" I said between mouthfuls of stewed pork.
"Your second awakening was worth the effort then," he said.
I finished off another bowl of soup before saying, "Maybe that's why I've felt so dizzy all this time?"
"It'll pass," he said. He raised a snowy white eyebrow, "And little Jin, could you let me see your Hammer again?"
I shrugged and called my other spirit, the gold light from my Crown lessening in brightness when its black aura spread. The hammer was heavy, but not to the point of straining my right hand—though I had to reinforce it with spirit power to keep it aloft.
"Impressive," he said, leaning closer to inspect the deep grooves along its entirely black surface. The hammer was intricate but everything on it was a uniform jet color, there were no shadows to be noticed or highlights besides where the aura undulated. "And how is it that you have your Crown out?"
"Why wouldn't I?" I slurped the last of the noodles.
"Of the only two cases of twin spirits ever recorded, neither could summon both at the same time, little Jin."
"You do keep calling me a genius," I said. Still, if what he said was true, then it was also possible my Crown wasn't a spirit per se.
He laughed in his usual boisterous way, then stopped once he'd realized the time. "That, we do," he whispered.
Having finished the feast for four, I leaned back against the wooden counter, retracting my Hammer but leaving on my crown. Now that everyone knew I had two spirits, there was no longer a need to avoid showing off. "So, what comes next after having innate spirit power of ten?"
After awakening my Hammer, I underwent the same spirit power test as everyone and got the full ten like I'd hypothesized. And again, no one clapped, but jaws had to be picked up off the floor. Grandpa smiled. "It means we need to get you your first spirit ring, little Jin."
"Ah," I said, not at all surprised at the connection. "Is that also why I can't seem to break through the eleventh rank?"
All pretense of playfulness dissolved, his eyes taking on a sharp light. "You're already at the cusp of the tenth rank?"
"I'd say it was thanks to grandpa Lin, I'd been trying to breakthrough to eleven for half a year now, and I was only able to make so much progress after what he did earlier."
"My gluttonous little Jin ate so much of Old Lin's spirit power?" He laughed in his usual boisterous way, and stopped halfway, quieting to a snicker. I knew my Domain could devour energy when directed outside, but to affect other people was a lesson I wasn't willing to learn on just anyone. "Back to the matter." He cleared his throat. "Every spirit master requires a Spirit Ring to breakthrough to the next level of cultivation, and each breakthrough happens at the next rank after a multiple of ten."
"To break towards eleven, the first spirit ring is needed. Then at twenty-one, thirty-one, forty-one, and so on." He manifested his Hammer and nine rings floated around him. "For each ring obtained, a corresponding title is earned. The first ring earns you the right to call yourself a Spirit Master, then Grandmaster, Elder, Ancestor, King, Emperor, Sage, Douluo, and finally as Titled Douluo."
"That meant uncle Zhang was a Spirit Ancestor. And since you and grandpa Lin have nine both, you are both Titled Doulou?"
"That is right, grandpa is called the Storm Cloud Douluo, and your grandpa Lin is Thunder Clap Douluo."
"Then that must mean father is also a Titled Douluo? And if father respects uncle that much, then he too must be of the same strength?"
"Truly worthy as our little genius. Yes, that is right. Even if that fool Tang Hao had hurt our sect so, he was still this generation's Clear Sky Douluo, the next strongest of our school since your great grandfather Tang Chen founded it, even stronger than I or your father by leaps and bounds."
"And of course, Spirit Hall also has these Titled Douluos?"
"Unfortunately, little Jin, but they wouldn't have been able to establish their foundation in the continent otherwise."
"I understand, grandpa." Wait, given this trend of a ring every ten… "But what about the tenth ring?" Grandpa stroked his beard, nodding. "If we follow the trend of a ring every breakthrough, why are there only titles of up rank ninety? By simple trend, wouldn't it be natural to expect a tenth ring?"
"Dear little Jin, no one in written history has ever reached the mythical rank one hundred." Grandpa shook his head, but his eyes betrayed a twitch. "At most we know of someone who has reached the absolute threshold of ninety-nine, but besides that, we know of nothing else."
And for us to cower from Spirit Hall was most likely from that.
"But enough of that you cheeky brat," he said with a chuckle, "to reach the absolute pinnacle of Spirit Masters is still a long way away for you." He ruffled my hair. "For now, we should focus first on getting you to rank eleven."
"Alright, grandpa." With hope, I wouldn't have to open that can of worms until way later into the future. Level ninety-nine sounds so daunting coming from a measly ten. "And when and how will we get this ring of mine?"
Grandpa poked my cheek. "Get some more sleep first, we'll talk about this again after the sun had risen."
I woke up with the sunlight on my face and a cool air in the room. This was one of the things I loved about living in the mountains, the temperature was always just right—since I preferred the cold.
I got up and got dressed sliding my arms into the fine cotton and tying up my sash. The vertigo from a few hours ago had passed, and Interface displayed the time at nine in the morning. Grandpa Shan had something planned for later, so maybe we'd get my first ring. I manifested my Crown, bathing in the clarity and jumped out the window, willing spirit power to reinforce my legs.
I landed on my toes without a sound, the grass beneath my feet laid uncrushed. With a push of power into my legs, the spirit power bar drained with a steady trickle, and I jumped as the wind hit my body like a rush of water, substantial and plentiful. One thing I'd noticed after awakening my Hammer was that my spirit seems to have taken a more unbridled nature. Where before it was still and clear, now it seemed to rage and echo within me.
I ran back towards my little hideaway, expanding my domain under the sunlight and stifling the consumption of spirit power as I moved. There was an explosiveness to each step, and the ground was indented with little footsteps. My cultivation bar no longer displayed any changes, but from the depths of my core, I could still feel a hollowness.
"Little Jin," came grandpa Shan's voice. "Come, we must be off early."
I stopped in my tracks and turned back. If it was a simple trip to the nearby Heaven Dou Empire capital, the whole distance wouldn't take any more than about three hours of grandpa's hard running. He'd taken me there before when I was younger to see a bit of the outside world, and that was also when I'd first learned of spirit power. Grandpa ran like the wind, over tree tops and unimpeded by both hills or mud and he laughed all the way when he saw my surprise.
When I reached the gates, I was directed by one of my cousins to head for the main hall. I got there a moment later and had a big steamed bun shoved in my face by my mother while father was talking to grandpas Shan and Lin about something.
"My little Jin grows up so fast," said mother with a smile. She gave me a small rucksack and a less regal set of robes. "Now go change immediately and you'll be off with your grandfathers for a few days."
"Aren't you excited to get your first spirit ring?" asked grandpa Shan. Grandpa Lin and Father stood next to him, both with a smile.
"Just a little," I said. "Since I don't understand yet how getting a spirit ring even works."
Grandpa Shan waved a hand in front of him in a dismissive gesture, "I'll explain when we get there, me and your grandpa Lin here will take you to Star Dou Forest in a bit so eat your fill and we'll be off as soon as possible."
Father bent down to one knee in front of me, "Trust in your grandpas to get you a good spirit." He then placed a small knife in my hands. "But you'll have to be the one to strike the killing blow."
I tilted my head at him, and extended my right hand, summoning my Hammer. "I already have this, father."
He pursed his lips at that. "I'm not so sure beating some spirit beast with your hammer will be a very pleasant sight."
I shrugged. "I'll get over it."
"Grandpa Shan?" father turned to him, and mother joined her husband's stare with a glare while grandpa Lin shook his head, his glasses sliding off his nose a bit.
"That's all him," grandpa Shan said.
"He's not wrong," I said.
Grandpa Lin cleared his throat. "We should be leaving soon."
I was corralled to get changed and fed another bun and mother fussed over me until we reached about another hundred meters away from the compound. It took father reigning her fierce motherly instincts back before grandpas Shan and Lin could really cut back on the brakes. I ran together with them for a while, expending most of my spirit power just to keep up without lagging. Where my legs exploded against the ground, my grandpas' toes just brushed against the grasses and they glided as if on air, barely stirring up any of the blades or flowers in their paths.
We stopped when we reached a sheer cliff face, with the clouds near our feet. Today was a cooler morning than usual so the clouds hung lower, I could just faintly make out the outline of the forest below us even with my Crown on. From here on out, we'd no longer be within Clear Sky lands, the time read nine forty-seven.
"Little Jin, grab on tight," grandpa Shan said.
"Yes grandpa," I said, and climbed onto his shoulders. The last time we went to the capital, we took the gentler slope down, so this path was new.
"Star Dou forest is one of the three great hunting grounds of this continent little Jin," said grandpa Lin. "And we'll be sure to get you the best spirit possible.
"Don't you think it's a bit much to have two Titled Douluo escort me though?" I said.
Grandpa Lin raised his eyebrows at me before glaring at grandpa Shan. "We place foremost importance in the future head of the Clear Sky sect, and of course, your grandpas also dote on you," he said.
I raised an eyebrow at him. "Are you sure we're not expecting trouble from Spirit Hall?"
Grandpa Lin frowned at grandpa Shan who shrugged in reply. "This silly old man sure has his way with words." Grandpa Lin sighed. "No little Jin, we are not expecting trouble with Spirit Hall."
"Hmm, then Star Dou forest has some strong Spirit Beasts then? At least possibly as strong as Titled Douluos?" It made sense coming from a cultivation point of view.
Grandpa Shan nodded with a chuckle. "That's our little genius for you, old Lin."
Grandpa Lin smiled as well. "We're fortunate you inherited your wits from your parents," he said.
My grandpas then nodded after each other, and both leaped into the unknown at an angle, forward and away. The wind roared in my ears, and I protected myself with a coat of my own spirit power, lessening the numbing feeling of the frigid wind hitting me.
"Oh, sorry little Jin," said grandpa Shan.
Then a wave of black light surged from all around us, and wisps of cloud came apart even before our bodies hit them. I could sense that both grandpas Lin and Shan had released their own spirit power, and that the sheer pressure was enough to physically drive the vapor and winds away with a shell of about three meters around us.
Our home was about a kilometer and a little bit more above the ground, and with the effect of gravity roughly being the same as about with Earth, then even at just a kilometer we'd end up falling at a little over five hundred kilometers per hour at just before the point of impact. And with my and grandpa Shan's weight at a conservative eighty kilograms, then we'd be crashing towards the forest with the same force of about getting run over by a small school bus running at sixty kilometers per hour.
All that flashed through my head in the span of moment, it was one of the lesser aspects of Interface that allowed me to make better use of mental calculations and memory called Brain Charger. With it, I effectively gave myself an eidetic memory with an indexing function, so it wasn't too far off to say I had an operating system running in my head.
It took us about sixteen seconds of falling—which translated to about a kilometer and three hundred meters—to reach the tree tops, after which a quick pulse of black light from grandpa Shan allowed us to land with a small crater in the ground and continue running. Grandpa Lin landed the same way and off we sped through the woods, the underbrush passing like a running river beneath the two octagenarians.
"Little Jin," grandpa Lin said, "you make sure to only use your crown if we ever meet anyone, alright?"
"We're supposed to be a sect in hiding," grandpa Shan added, "and our Clear Sky Hammer's fame still rings true even after all these years. Best err on the side of caution, yes?"
I frowned at the two. "I doubt I'm going to be as eye catching as two old grandpas running like the wind through the forest."
"But you forget." Grandpa Lin smirked. "You're getting carried by these two grandpas running like the wind through the forest."
I shrugged. "You do have a point."
"And what better news than to have a little boy escorted by two old grandpas wielding the Clear Sky Hammer bring out his spirit when he looks like someone who should be looking for playmates instead of spirit rings, hmm?"
"Okay, fair." I sighed. "But is it really that weird?"
The two grandpas shared a look.
"Old Shan, we really should bring little Jin out of the sect more."
"I agree old Lin." Grandpa Shan shook his head. "I fear this boy will grow without a clue of the state of the real world otherwise."
I cleared my throat. "I'm right here, you know."
"Not only is he unconventionally rude." Grandpa Lin crinkled his nose at me with a twinkle in his eye. "But he's also got a silver tongue."
I crossed my arms. "I don't sweet talk my way out of things."
"But you admit to being rude," grandpa Shan said with a smug grin.
"I'm a sweet little child," I said, poking my own cheeks with my index fingers. "I'm entitled to be cute."
Grandpa Shan tsked with transparent disdain. "If you're cute then I'm not a Titled Douluo."
Grandpa Lin cuffed grandpa Shan and huffed. "Hush old Shan, you never know who might be listening."
"Would it kill you to hold back, you old fart." Grandpa Shan rubbed his head.
I couldn't see the forest for the trees, rather, for the blur of brown. Grandpa Shan moved with little nudges left and right, weaving a path like water through a cluster of stones. Fluid and graceful despite his overbearing spirit power. He moved the way nature would, as if he was meant to be there in that point in time. Mesmerizing to watch, and daunting to fathom.
"Grandpa Shan," I said. "How far away is the Star Dou Forest anyway?"
"It's about eight hundred Li of our home, little Jin."
"And we're planning to cover this before nightfall?"
"No, no," grandpa Lin said, "before sunset should be fine."
"Oh." These old geezers were fucking crazy! A li was approximately a third of a mile from what I'd observed, and six hundred was roughly two hundred miles, and to think we'd left at a quarter before ten and we're planning to get there by around four or five in the afternoon? Then that'd mean they'd be running for at least forty miles an hour for like six hours straight.
"Little Jin." Grandpa Shan waved a hand in front of me. "Are you alright?"
I shook off the shock. "I'm alright," I said, "just surprised at how fast and far we'd make the journey for."
"What for?" grandpa Lin asked. I swear, these old guys are just as clueless as me about the real world. "And what's with that sour look?" Grandpa Lin's lips turned up into a smirk. "Amazed with these old grandpas?"
I stared at him, and the two practically navigated these woods without bothering to look left or right or even forwards all the while maintaining this speed of at least forty miles an hour without breaking a sweat. "Yes, I'm amazed," I admitted.
"D-did little Jin just praise us?" grandpa Shan turned to me with mocked surprise.
"You grandpas running like the wind really are running like the wind," I said, "of course I'd be amazed." I'd be damned if I weren't.
True to their word, we arrived at some strange frontier city before sunset, though we had to stop a hundred or so meters away from the actual place. I was relieved to hear there was at least some common sense to this world, and apparently, people running faster than should normally be possible still counted as weird and frightening. So that was good. At least some of my sensibilities here weren't completely for nothing.
"We're here," grandpa Shan said while letting me down.
"And remember," grandpa Lin said, "do not bring out your spirit, and unless you really must, then only use your Crown."
"Understood grandfather," I said using the formal way. To make these two old people cautious enough—and the rest of the Titled Douluo leveled elders wary, Spirit Hall for sure wasn't to be taken lightly.
"Little Jin, old Lin," grandpa Shan said, "take these." He passed us a wide brimmed bamboo hat each and put on one himself.
"You weren't carrying anything," I said, wearing the hat.
Grandpa Shan furrowed his brows at me before something dawned on him. "I have this spirit tool like the one in the kitchen," he said, bringing out a little suede pouch. "It has about five cubic chi of space, not terribly large, but comfortable enough for a few days' travel."
A chi was about twenty centimeters, and five cubic chi would mean roughly a cubic meter of space, not bad at all for carrying a tacky little pouch at all times. "There were smaller versions of the one we have in the kitchen?" People carry around little pocket dimensions around with them?! Like freakin' Doraemon?!
"Now that you mention it, you've never asked me that before," grandpa Shan said. "And you're giving me that look again."
Grandpa Lin leaned closer. "No, that's different. That one looks more like he's annoyed than amazed."
"Oh," grandpa Shan said, "you want one too?" He held up his little pouch that broke everything I knew of the conservation of matter and energy. Then again, spirit power was already a huge ass rule breaker, what was a few other laws of nature getting upturned compared to qi being a real thing.
"Yeah, now that's the look where he's amazed," grandpa Lin said.
My cheeks flushed at the attention. "Yes," I said, "I'd like to have one of these as well." Just imagine all the crap I can horde in that thing! I could keep a tent there, maybe a few clothes and some emergency rations—hell, I can even use that to pickpocket stuff. And now that I think about it, I never bothered learning about money before. Damn. It feels damn good to be rich. Wait, we're rich, right?
"Yeah, I don't recognize that look," grandpa Shan said.
"Neither do I," grandpa Lin said.
"Bah, wait." I waved their banter away. "Do we have any money for a room?"
Grandpa Shan pulled out a little pouch from his little pouch and jingled it. It looked really silly despite how big a boner every physicist from back in my old world would've had from that. That was a horrible metaphor.
"Yeah, I'm lost here," I said.
The two shared another look. Grandpa Lin raised an eyebrow and grandpa Shan shook his head and reared it back as if offended by the gesture.
"He never asked," grandpa Shan said.
Grandpa Lin rolled his eyes. "Little Jin," he said, "our money works with four denominations: copper pieces, silver pieces, gold pieces, and purple jade tablets, and they are valued at a hundred of the lower serial denomination."
"Okay, so one hundred copper pieces is one silver, and one hundred silver pieces is one gold, then a hundred gold is one purple jade?"
"Yes," grandpa Lin confirmed.
"Understood." Clean, simple, easy to memorize. "So, we're rich?"
"Yes, little Jin, we're rich," grandpa Shan said, "but we're not as rich as those misers in the Seven Treasure school, because those bastards cheat."
"Language," grandpa Lin said.
"It's alright," I said, "I don't mind."
Grandpa Lin glared at grandpa Shan and just sighed.
We walked into the city and was met with a cacophony of the day to day haggling of a bustling merchant street. It sounded a lot like the bazaars from back home so I wasn't too lost on the scene. There were people peddling food, chopped meats and vegetables and fruits, then some peddling blacksmith goods like knives and pans, there were some swords and spears too. Then some further still, there were people calling out for others.
"Looking for an agility system, at least rank thirty!" cried one.
"We're a part of five, two power attack, one control, and agility, and one support, looking for a defense type!" cried another.
They were clearly looking for team mates, like forming a raiding party just before going after a boss. I tugged at grandpa Shan's sleeve and looked up from my wide hat. "Spirit masters form teams?"
"Correct little Jin," he said. "But these people are doing it wrong." Grandpa Shan frowned at them. "You can't just get some random people to come with you to hunt spirit beasts."
"Besides the danger involved, there's something else then?" Killing isn't all that difficult if you've got the strength, since all you really need is a good trap and you're all set. "And it involves the spirit, I guess?"
"Do you remember what your father said?" grandpa Lin asked.
"That I have to be the one to land the killing blow." So, a last hit sort of deal then. "Which means spirit rings go to the one who killed them." Grandpa Shan gestured to go on. "But is it from an honor sort of thing?"
"That's incorrect," grandpa Lin said, "but that's the right line of questioning. You see little Jin, the last spirit to come in contact with the still living spirit beast will, in a way, mark it."
So exactly like a last hit thing with creeps in those online battle arenas. "The spirit ring can only be taken by the person to deal the last hit, yes?"
"Correct," grandpa Shan said, "but spirit beasts also sometimes drop something else." Rare drops, for sure. "These are called spirit bones, and even the weakest of them have always belong to at least a thousand-year spirit beast." To be honest, that sort of hunting down of ancient spirit beasts doesn't sound very sustainable. "And spirit bones always grant you another ability besides the one you already got from the ring."
"What's this about abilities?"
"You've got that look again," grandpa Lin said.
"Spirit rings grant abilities?" Okay, you know what, staying clueless sure has been a horrible experience so far. "No, they do. And spirit bones allow you to get more abilities than your limit for rings, since you can only get one every ten… then that should also mean that you can absorb these spirit bones whenever you want?"
"Indeed, little Jin," grandpa Lin said, "there are six types of spirit bones: head, torso, and one for each arm and leg. There is no real limit to absorbing spirit bones, except that you should only absorb those that fit your path of cultivation."
"And this path is exactly what those earlier spirit masters were shouting about, it would be the focus on which kinds of abilities they would specialize in," I said. Huh, kind of like football.
"Remind me to be more careful when I talk around you," said grandpa Lin.
"Don't bother, just avoid him if you can, and otherwise, just don't talk," said grandpa Shan.
We checked into an inn later that day and went to bed earlier than normal, it was so we'd be first in the forest.
Honestly, I'm liking the interface here than over in FFnet, it's a lot easier to manage, and I really like how easy it is to port from my word files to here.
I'll be slowly adding in the chapters here all the way to the most current one as of the writing of this at chapter 36, and I'll try to finish it within my day. Assuming of course work doesn't pick up too hard.
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