"It's not normal?"
Rongrong shook her head with a straight face, and Xiao Wu was even more resolute with her reply.
"I myself have never seen anyone do that before." Xiao Wu made a show of a big shrug.
I took a good look beyond the barren ground and charred trees and saw burnt tracks that trailed along the ground that drew forked paths through the grass. There were a few small craters as well with the dirt charred black with me at the center of all that chaos.
"Uhh, did you two see anything else?" Any information would be nice to have. "And how'd you get near me in the first place?"
Xiao Wu snickered and pointed at Rongrong.
The girl cleared her throat. "We didn't come near at all, I just thought to use my spirit on you to get your attention, and sure enough the lightning stopped and you woke up by the time I reached you."
I shrugged. That explained what I saw then. "So, anything?"
They both shook their heads.
"Sorry little Jin," Xiao Wu said, "besides the lightning tearing up the place, there wasn't much else I saw."
"Same with me," Rongrong said.
"You've never done that before," Xiao Wu said. "Did you try anything new?"
"Sort of," I said, "I was talking to uncle earlier and he said that my abilities didn't match the supposed might that thousand year spirit rings ought to display."
Rongrong tilted her head at me, but Xiao Wu nodded. "Now that you mention it," she said. "It isn't as noticeable, but I always thought it was only because of your weaker body."
"That's what I thought too," I said with a sigh. "Tool spirit masters don't exactly get very strong physically, but it's not like we don't completely grow at all."
"So, why the lightning then?" Rongrong said.
I shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. Our working theory was that I still haven't fully assimilated my spirit rings' powers yet, so there ought to be a bit more I could get from them."
Xiao Wu didn't look too happy with that, and I gave her a sheepish wince. Having a hundred thousand year spirit beast walking among us made the matter of ranking up a not as easy topic. Perhaps there was still some distrust with her being so close to us, since a hundred thousand year beast would give so many benefits to anyone regardless of whether they could absorb the spirit ring or not.
Naturally, she would be under the protection of our sect as Tang San's future wife. And no one doubted that for even one second. Even uncle Hao had already given them his blessing though there was still that promise to keep away from harm as much as possible. It also went without saying that uncle Hao's approval also meant dad's and pretty much guaranteed a solid vote of confidence from the elders in the sect as well.
Which really brought to mind these doubts of whether us three ought to show up for that continental fight between spirit masters. To so willingly walk into the heart of Spirit Hall's influence was just asking for trouble, and by then it'd only be a matter of time before we were found out. Maybe I could weasel us out of the competition, or maybe we really could get away with it, but there were way too many unknowns for any good outcome to be reached within reason.
"I see," Rongrong said with feigned awe, "I didn't think it were possible, but here you are with merged spirits, and I am but a young lady in a wide wide world."
Sure, and I was a monkey's uncle. Wait, if Tang San really did marry Xiao Wu and that Er Ming ape dude ever had a kid… no, that was a bad metaphor now then. Err, if a snake grew horns? Nah, too likely. And with pigs flying I'm willing to count Hongjun and his phoenix spirit in the future so… uhh, you know what, this was a bad train of thought. I'd rather not jinx anything at all.
Xiao Wu smiled wryly. "Just don't overdo it then, little Jin. It'd be a little difficult if you ended up with the same problem as before."
I waved at them as they left me to my devices.
I moved away from ground zero and found a big rock to sit on. All this destruction of nature in my wake was really going to take its toll someday. Though hopefully not so bad as to become a walking calamity or something. Still, lightning, eh. And judging from Xiao Wu's reaction, it might not be normal either for spirit beasts to do that. Whether this was a success or not though I still didn't know.
I checked Interface for anything out of the ordinary and didn't see anything different besides the cultivation bar displaying the smallest hint of an improvement.
I summoned both of my spirits and arrayed my rings around me, my Crown on my head and my Hammer in hand. There was nothing different either from having them out. But there was that something at the tip of my tongue, or like an itch just outside my reach.
I willed my Domain to reach out for the nearest live tree and I activated Devour—and still it was at more or less the same rate as normal.
My first ring flashed once more, this time a bolt of black light appearing from my Hammer and I shot it towards the tree I illuminated with Devour—and destroyed it like normal. I then fully consumed the wreckage to nothingness.
I grumbled and activated Shock.
But nothing happened. Which was to be expected since there was nothing to feel the electrification of my Domain, and its not like it'd suddenly call down lightning in the middle of a clear day anyway. I hung my head in embarrassment, thankful there was no one around to see that.
I raised my Hammer high and willed the Thunder Heart Strike into being before having it crash down into the ground as a spider web of electricity erupted from the ground and broke through the earth.
That was, a bit different than normal. But I needed someone to hit to really see if anything changed. Still, I don't remember ever seeing my attack release electricity like that—though the consumption stayed its solid twelve percent of my available spirit power.
I sat back down with a plop.
The Clear Sky Hammer didn't give two shits about staying power, only and always erupting with the strongest powers. I guess now it makes sense why the sect created the Nine Absolutes as a workaround to the hammer's usefulness in regular combat. After all, if it always consumed so much then we'd basically be one hit wonders, maybe literally.
Welp, whatever. That… meditation I did would most likely yield some better effects if I kept it up.
I emptied my mind and sank back down into that vastness.
I awoke to the same jeweled light as before.
And the first thing I saw was the rest of our guys standing around me with Rongrong at the helm. They all looked like they were dusted with soot and there was a faint burnt smell in the air.
None of them were smiling. And Tang San still wasn't with them. Though Hongjun didn't look too bothered. Oscar and Mubai on the other hand had seen much better days. Xiao Wu also had a frayed lock of hair standing out by the sides, and Rongrong's white dress from earlier had now changed into a pastel pink—and it was night time too. Zhuqing though, well, she was missing a sleeve from her robes.
"What the hell happened to you guys?"
Boss Dai grabbed my head and turned it to the side.
There was a sizeable fire off in the distance that was currently being fended off by the combined efforts of the dean and the other teachers. It hadn't reached the ring of houses that was our Shrek academy though so that was good, but left on its own, it could've gotten much worse.
"Yeah," boss Dai said. "Care to explain?"
I opened my mouth. But nothing came out. I closed it again and massaged my temples. Oh boy. "Actually, no. I can't explain because I don't know what happened."
He narrowed his eyes at me and inched his face closer, the scrutiny in them burning into my soul.
Rongrong pointed at the remnants of the now dying fire. "The village won't be too happy once they realize that was all you."
"Umm, err, foliage gets really dry around the fall season?"
"That excuse might have worked little Jin, had it been fall." Oscar shook his head. "It's spring right now."
"There's always blaming it on some… uhh… explosives?"
"That won't help anything," Xiao Wu said with a stomp.
I was so distracted I'd forgotten the little thirty-seven now sitting in Interface denoting my cultivation. But now probably wasn't the best time to bring that up.
"I'll help with the clean up," I offered.
No more words were said after that and all of them retired to their huts, the teachers who just finished up with the fire included. The dean however made sure to leave a few threats over my head with hellish training if I didn't get everything cleaned up by sunrise.
I bathed the whole space under my Domain and I really did a number on the area, easily big enough to span some thirty or so meters everywhere, which also meant I'd hurt the chances of this patch of land selling for a high price by the time we left.
I guess I ended up de facto buying this land for the sect then. Eh, whatever. It was pretty close to that little mountain base we made during our training so it wasn't too bad. I'll probably get a sturdy stone house built here and station a few people to stand guard, maybe have a month or so worth of supplies between here and the mountain station. It wasn't half bad considering the history associated with this place and its proximity with Suotuo city where my identity was revealed no matter how private of a situation that was.
Still, either Flender made a mistake with his demands or he didn't mean it to be impossible but he never specified any restrictions with how I went about my business. The bits and pieces of organic matter I took in with Devour and whatever I couldn't dissolve I crushed with my Hammer into dust.
I finished around four in the morning with most of everything already cleared away. They probably hadn't expected me to be so good with hiding my tracks, and it was an easy mistake to make when dealing with a single man in his twenties living on his own. Of course I'd be damn good at taking care of any evidence.
By the time the sun appeared, all that was left was a wide tract of land bare of any vegetation or stone, almost good enough to start plowing with. And as one who liked his symmetry, I went ahead and fixed the rest of the land into a nice square and broke the earth up where it wasn't yet.
Flender dropped by while I was in the middle of prepping the land.
He frowned at me and raised a brow.
"I thought I might as well, the earth was already broken up and the chaos was getting to me."
He looked the fresh turned soil over and the even size of it all pleased me to no end.
"This… is actually a good idea, little Jin," he said while stroking his beard.
And that was how I inadvertently made myself known as a man of many talents, since I knew an art as lowly as farming. But any true warrior worth his salt would give agriculture the respect it rightly deserved. He who controls the grain, controls the people!
Down with the bourgeoisie!
After I finished clearing a fifty by fifty meter area of turned earth cleared of any trees or stone—it was larger than the original damage but I preferred even numbers so I went at it anyway—that was the time I reported to the dean that I was done.
Flender was all smiles, and that usually meant either a money making scheme or vengeance. Though in this case it could be both. I don't think I've done anything so horrible to him though besides maybe keep him up all night with all the crushing I did.
He left me after inspecting the place one more time, but I couldn't help my suspicions.
With some more free time on my hands, I felt it prudent to continue with my experimentation. And since I'd already cleared an area for myself, I went ahead and stamped an area flat with my Hammer and sat down there. Hopefully this time I won't end up burning anything anymore.
Back down the rabbit hole I went.
Days and nights would pass and where before I only perceived a maelstrom, in time it became a more distinct myriad of profound hunger, unsatiated resentment, and an all consuming need. One grabbed and clawed, and the other pushed where the other pulled, and as one the maelstrom surged and stormed. It took my gold just as quickly as I'd taken from it, while the black kept its throes at bay.
The maelstrom was still there, but neither could it penetrate further nor could it run either.
Together they roiled, and apart they unraveled into their distinct impressions.
Slowly but surely, with patience and fortitude and the simple quiet effort of perseverance, the storm kept crashing against the lustrous gold and endless black. There was peace on the side of night and day, and chaos beyond.
Slowly but surely, the storm would dissolve and only my lights would remain.
Slowly but surely, all of it would be truly mine.
On and on, bit by bit, piece by piece. I would make it all mine. Just like I did with everything else in this life. Tiny little steps too few to notice in its first pass, but a journey of a thousand miles began with the first step, and I'd long been taking my steps.
I just didn't always have the right ideas.
There was no time in this vastness. Only me and the storms, and my light, and the few sparse thoughts in between. Impressions were all I had to go on. Interface could not reach here and make sense of the world for me so it was up to me to make sense of it on my own. It was the steady sort of need that I couldn't leave alone, the itch I needed to scratch, and the craving I needed to fill.
Step by little step, chunk by little chunk, slowly, always, steady and calm.
It must've been forever before I opened my eyes again.
When I came to, there was no butterfly emerging from its chrysalis or a dam burst open, it was more instead like waking from the depths of sleep. My cultivation sat at a solid thirty-seven following the developments of the last how many days. I stopped eating sometime between then and now when the process to descend into that meditative state became easier and easier, and now my cultivation was already halfway from the thirty-seventh.
The sun was already well into the afternoon when I stood, and there were the same darkened patches in the upturned earth but no great fires like the night before or as much destruction since everything was already disturbed.
I willed my spirits to manifest, and together with them came a depth unlike before.
My Hammer was larger than I remembered, even larger than when I first absorbed the queen's ring and my Crown came with a clarity even more potent than before.
Perhaps this was what I was waiting for.
I willed spirit power to enter my Hammer and let it swell, filling it with as much as it could take and the spirit grew as it took more and more. There came a point when pushing in would take more effort than to release, and it was at this time that I'd activated my second ring.
Glorious purple light shone as I raised my Hammer high, electricity crackling on its body—and fell like a drop of starlight down to the ground.
The earth exploded with a shower of sparks that shot upwards from the ground and clawed and roiled outward, licking with wisps of electricity within my immediate vicinity. It still took the same twelve percent of spirit power as before, plus the spirit power I infused into the Hammer beforehand, but it never erupted with the same intensity as now.
Sometime after that I must've started laughing.
I willed Shock into being, and my golden light was infused with a violent crackling—again another major change from before. I willed Corrode and a hissing issued from the gold. Together they churned like a storm where the light passed, and Devour came like a howl in the night.
I summoned a Bullet and shot it out—and it went through a tree and bore into the ground a solid three feet before it dissipated, and when I activated Mantle, I felt as if I could shake the world.
My spirit power dwindled fast under the tyrannical consumption of my Hammer, and I raised my spirit high once more as I willed Thunder Heart Strike and Iron Wasp Bullet together before giving everything I had to erupt with the first swing of Disorder Splitting Wind.
The explosion after that was something I could only dream of.
Flender arrived shortly after that.
"Little Jin?!" he said with a worried look.
I stopped laughing to catch my breath, but my limbs wouldn't move from having expended all my spirit power in the span of a few seconds. "I-I'm alright teacher," I said from within the meter deep crater I'd made.
A lecture and another quick clean up later, and dinner was a torrid affair because whatever it was I did left me famished as all hell by the time I recovered enough to stand on my own. Rongrong sat next to me watching me keep up bowl for bowl with Hongjun from all the rice I was eating, and still I didn't feel anywhere near full.
Uncle walked up to where we were.
"I take it the experiment was a success?" he asked.
I finished my fourth bowl before answering, "Yes, uncle. My abilities have improved and I am now at the thirty-seventh rank."
The already noisy dinner erupted further into an uproar after that.
"Little Jin?!" boss Dai said. "Are you really already so close?"
Xiao Wu though crossed her arms and smiled. And it wouldn't be a surprise if she suddenly said she'd broken through herself tomorrow. I always assumed she kept up with my speed just to spite me, but I knew better now that she only didn't want to overtake Tang San.
Hongjun and Oscar both looked at me like I was a freak, and Zhuqing's intense gaze almost made me fear for my chastity had I not known that was simply how she was as a person.
"We should start a fire too," Oscar said to Hongjun.
The dean cleared his throat from a table away and that idea died in its infancy. Teacher Zhao started laughing and made a motion to come at him anytime, and I was definitely going to take him up on that offer as soon as I could.
"And still so young," Rongrong said. She slapped her cheeks and pointed at my face. "I can't lose to you!"
Zhuqing joined her resolution and the two were more fired up than ever before.
Uncle stayed calm and asked, "And the changes?"
"My Thunder Heart Strike now properly releases lightning as opposed to only applying some sort of shock on contact, and Shock from my Crown now truly saturates my domain with electricity. Devour and Corrode both seem to cause some sort of sound to emanate from my domain, while my Black Wasp Bullet now launches with enough energy to go through a tree and gouge out the ground. And last but not least, Honored Ant Mantle allowed me to create that crater in the middle of the farmland together with my other two Hammer abilities."
"Of course you made that crater," Mubai said while shaking his head. "And, did you just say you did it in one attack?"
"Well, yes," I said while scratching my cheek. "But it took so much from me."
Uncle hummed. "But anyone would eat grief with such an attack. And yes, this is indeed what I'd expected of the Clear Sky Hammer's prowess. After all, seeing that legend of a man Tang Hao before was like witnessing the heavens split apart in his honor."
The title of Clear Sky was a hereditary title given only to one wielder of the Clear Sky Hammer in any generation, and uncle Hao was the one who held it. To gain that title, one must unleash the full might of the Clear Sky Hammer using the full eighty-one strikes of the Disorder Splitting Wind method and dispel a raging storm. Hearing it and having the power of a Titled Douluo seems like a simple affair, but to exhibit enough power to actually defy the power of nature was something not so easily achieved.
"Thank you for helping me gain this insight, uncle," I said with a bow.
"Anything to help a friend," he said with a chuckle.
The following morning, I was the first to show up around the same area where I started sparring with teacher Zhao. After a week or so of not going here, the place was already pockmarked with little holes and footsteps and the grass was long stamped out. Looks like it caught on to the idea, and constant adversity was usually a good thing for growing spirit masters.
It wouldn't be inaccurate to say I was excited to see how the changes I'd experienced would translate to some light combat experience, but more important was I needed to get used to them again if I didn't want to get taken by surprise during an actual fight. I needed to fight, but I was also too early.
I was sitting by the edge of the make-shift ring with my Crown out and cultivating.
"Little Jin, you're up early."
I opened my eyes and saw boss Dai making his way towards me, and behind him was Zhuqing with her usual intense gaze. There weren't any other people out and about so maybe they got into the habit as well of waking up early.
"Good morning boss Dai, Zhuqing," I greeted. "You both are also here to exchange pointers with everyone?"
Boss Dai smiled but shook his head. "For today, I'm only interested in you."
"Please big brother, I don't swing that way."
Zhuqing rolled her eyes and boss Dai laughed. "It would be strange of me to get a blonde," he said. But Zhuqing was having none of it and glared at him.
He raised his hands in front of him to placate her.
"You know," I said, "I never got around to asking, but would you two be related somehow?"
"We are not," Zhuqing said, terse. "Come on little Jin, weren't you looking for a fight yourself?" She raised a brow my way.
I stood up from where I sat and stretched my legs. "Why yes, yes I was indeed looking for a fight." I turned my body a few times and stretched my arms. "But that doesn't answer the question."
The girl narrowed her eyes at me and Mubai was making these cut it out gesture from behind her.
"Do you really wish to know?" she asked.
I swallowed a lump in my throat.
Mubai looked like he was about to go down on his knees or something.
"I wouldn't be asking otherwise." I covered my mouth with my hand and giggled, and Zhuqing flinched. Boss Dai just frowned.
"It really doesn't suit you," he said.
"I agree," Zhuqing said. She sighed. "I do owe you for your help with my spirit ring." She scratched her cheek before crossing her arms.
Boss Dai was starting to blush.
"He and I," she said while pointing back to him with her thumb, "are engaged."
Boss Dai smiled a goofy and careless grin. Zhuqing snapped at him and he went rigid.
"As you can see, he isn't exactly an image of poise and grace," she said with rancor.
I shrugged. "It's not that uncommon to see families arrange for marriages."
Zhuqing nodded. "If only this lewd tiger could be as upstanding as Tang San then I would be left at ease."
Boss Dai's tense mug broke into a deep frown.
"Aren't I also an example of a good man?"
Both of them shook their heads.
"No offense little Jin, but as virtuous as you might be with the desires of the flesh, you aren't exactly one to evoke stability or refinement." Zhuqing clicked her tongue. "I'm rather worried now for the future of your Clear Sky sect."
"I couldn't agree with you more," said grandpa Shan.
"We were hoping this time away from home would make him a better person, but it seems its making him worse," said grandpa Lin.
I looked up to the two old bastards.
They both looked at me with shit eating grins.
Boss Dai and Zhuqing hopped away from them and brought their spirits out.
Grandpa Shan was about to summon his spirits when grandpa Lin cuffed him.
"Behave yourself you old coot!" Grandpa Lin scratched his balding head and grandpa Shan laughed like a thundering storm.
And that's when most of everyone decided to show up, with Flender at the helm together with teacher Zhao and uncle Xiaogang.
"Esteemed elders," the dean said with a bow. "It is a pleasure to see you once more." His smile was the same I'd seen of him after we won that large purse, and of course my grandpas would've paid him off somehow.
"It is good to see you all as well," grandpa Lin said with a slight nod.
"These must be little Jin's friends," grandpa Shan said. His gaze swept over our team and settled on Rongrong whom he nodded to.
"And little San?" grandpa Lin said.
Uncle smiled. "Still in his smithy," he said. "He's been in there for the past month and it must be something interesting to be as consumed as he is with his project."
Grandpa Lin grimaced at Xiao Wu. "Do forgive the stubbornness of our blood."
But the girl shook her head with a smile. "Ge is only more handsome when something interests him so."
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