The sudden arrival of two Titled Douluos, which only a handful knew of but I didn't doubt everyone else could figure out, interrupted our routine, but after a round of introductions things went swimmingly enough. We all had breakfast together a little louder than normal save for Tang San who was still locked away in his smithy, and boss Dai and Zhuqing couldn't help but gawk at the two. Well, even Oscar and Hongjun were staring pretty hard. Rongrong and Xiao Wu on the other hand were a bit more used to their company—and thankfully grandpa Shan wasn't teasing the two anymore.
As for the matter of my engagement to Rongrong, that was something we haven't properly discussed yet as a family. Or at all. Because I didn't have any plans yet for that and we were both still so young!
We haven't even both reached puberty yet dammit!
"I heard from Xiaogang here that you proposed to Rongrong?" grandpa Shan said with a knowing smile.
Rongrong buried her face in her hands and Xiao Wu joined him with the staring. Grandpa Shan also approved of Xiao Wu for my cousin, and he said perhaps this was heaven's way of making amends for the tragedy of uncle Hao. As such, after that run in with her brother, Er Ming, it was agreed upon in the clan to make sure no one would ever harm the two great powers in Star Dou forest, specifically those brothers of Xiao Wu, and anytime we would wish to hunt for spirit beasts for any of our family then we would first let the masters of the forest know of our intentions.
It was a small price to pay to ensure we didn't offend such strong powers—and it was only right to extend such courtesy to our would be family. That last part generated a lot of weird topics with the elders though, to consider ourselves family to spirit beasts that is. Father fully supported the idea given auntie Ah Yin's situation, but it was still a matter for the future.
"And to think it is something so haughty as to be called the Queen's Guard," he continued. "Perhaps it should be renamed to a Wife's Honor instead."
He laughed some more, the mirth echoing in the small dining hall and teacher Zhao joined in on the jeering.
I slumped against the table face down. "Please don't start with this grandpa." Him being obnoxious like this reminded me of the shame I'd felt when I was younger whenever my family did something weird in front of my classmates, and it wasn't entirely unpleasant.
"I see now where little Jin gets it," boss Dai said.
The girl seems to have warmed up after finally letting it out. Besides, everyone already knew they were involved anyway, just not to that extent. I'd admit I was a little surprised, had I known what their backgrounds were though I would've been able to put two and two together. But instead I got it the other way around, learning first of their relation before their families.
They couldn't be just normal people that was for sure. Only prominent families like spirit master sects or royalty did such an archaic practice, and for boss Dai to so easily spend on luxuries without a care could either be attributed to his own winnings in the spirit arena or old money.
Stories and boasts were passed around with the teachers acting very familiarly with my grandpas together with an inappropriate amount of alcohol so early in the morning. And it wouldn't be a stretch to say they'd probably met before. We'd been gone for a few months back in the mountains before after all. That much time was just perfect for getting to know everyone.
Oscar and Hongjun stuffed themselves silly since it was my grandpas' treat, and sure we were in hiding, but that didn't mean we'd completely given up on our investments. On the contrary, we were invested in quite a few ventures thanks to aunt Yuehua's efforts and connections.
Flender kept pouring for grandpa Shan, and not one for ceremony the two really got around to drinking as much as they could. Only grandpa Lin and uncle Xiaogang kept the voice of reason in the hall.
Rongrong finished her soup and set down her bowl. "Jin," she said, "how come your grandpas are here?"
I shook my head. "I can only assume they'd been nearby all this time, probably been keeping watch over us even as far back as when we first enrolled."
She rolled her eyes—then stopped and widened them. "So that time with the ant nest?"
Xiao Wu stiffened for a bit but returned to her skewers.
"Ah, well, that one." I couldn't exactly say something like, oh that was just a mistake with Xiao Wu's giant ape brother and Tang San's dad saved us all. "Probably that they were ready to step in if any of our lives would be endangered. And I guess that explains how I was able to absorb"—nice save, me— "that rank exceeding ring safely."
Rongrong agreed to that and left the matter for a small cup of wine, which boss Dai was already knocking back one after the other with Zhuqing berating him with every gulp. It was only a matter of time now before everyone found out about their engagement.
Xiao Wu took that chance to sit next to me.
"Tang San still doesn't know, yes?"
"Our lips are sealed," I said. "And besides, we understand the necessity of secrets."
She let out a breath. "I'm taking you at your word, alright?"
"I mean it when I call you sister you know," I said. "If and when you marry cousin San, then we'd be in-laws by then, though it'd be pretty funny to one day literally be able to call myself a monkey's uncle."
Xiao Wu pinched me. "Shut it." She groaned. "And Er Ming is an ape, don't insult him with that."
I was about to explain myself about the idiom when I remembered I haven't revealed myself as a reincarnator yet. I bet it would make for an interesting story someday, but right now they'll probably just dismiss it as me pulling their legs. Except grandpa Shan and Lin, maybe. They'd probably believe me.
"I wasn't insulting you brother," I said, "it was an amusing thought in case he ever had a monkey for a child, after all, you were a rabbit and you still called him brother."
She rolled her eyes. "That's not how it works."
Oh, believe me I know for a fact that I know jack shit about any of this spirit master shit. "You never know, there are so many mysteries in this world after all."
Xiao Wu looked at me funny.
Breakfast ended after a solid two or so hours, I kinda lost count. The clean up was phenomenal and the bill, enormous. It barely made a dent on my occasional earnings by the city so it wasn't so bad, and at least everyone was happy enough. Would've been nicer though if Tang San was there, but for him to take so much time meant this last project of his was sure to be exceptional.
Intoxication from alcohol could be taken care of with some spirit power, and a nice workout after a hearty meal was the way to go. Hongjun and Oscar were fighting against Zhuqing and Rongrong, and Xiao Wu was sitting by the sidelines.
That left me to face off with boss Dai.
But before that, grandpas Shan and Lin took me aside.
"I see you've gotten around to unleashing the seals on your rings," grandpa Lin said. "And you're now at the late thirties?"
I nodded. "I don't know about any seals on my rings, but uncle Xiaogang had a theory that my abilities were too weak for thousand year rings. I took him up on that and meditated, and lo and behold, my abilities improved after a few days of whatever it was I did."
Grandpa Shan nodded with pride. "Hmm, it took longer than I expected, but at least you didn't suffer any ill effects?"
"If you don't count causing a forest fire, then no. It was a lot easier than I thought. Ah, and I'm already at the thirty-seventh rank after my meditations."
"Good, good." Grandpa Lin stroked his beard. "Would you let your spirits out? I wish to see that state of your rings, we wouldn't want any trouble with some partially undone seals."
I summoned my Crown and Hammer, and the world came alive with a thousand more colors and sounds and sensations. My Hammer was about the size of my torso now and the handle just as long. I could now wield it with both hands if I so chose.
Grandpa Shan stepped closer, humming. "Yes," he said. "Very good."
Grandpa Lin raised a brow at him and took a good long look at each of my rings as a sensation of spirit power washed over me. He was checking something with his senses, perhaps at my cultivation or something.
Another minute of scrutiny passed until grandpa Lin stopped his probing. "Nothing seems to be wrong," he said. "But we'll still keep watch during this next bout, I'm not completely sure yet whether you've really assimilated your power fully, and if you have, I'd rather you not accidentally hurt your friends."
"You don't make a lot of those after all," grandpa Shan added.
I glared at him.
"But at least this means you can better protect your future wife," he said with a smile.
"And truly, Xiaogang is worthy of being hailed as the foremost theoretical master when it comes to spirits," grandpa Lin said. "He may not have known of the Refining Method's manner, but he was able to deduce as much from observing your progress."
"Well, wouldn't it be obvious though if I wasn't able to output as much from my rings?"
Grandpa Shan chuckled. "And how many have you seen bring up such a matter?"
I raised a finger. Precisely only for uncle. "Fair enough, but anyone could've said that."
"And yet no one did," grandpa Lin added.
"Only because I asked uncle," I said.
"And that," grandpa Shan said, "is why we elders truly approve of Grandmaster. He is not afraid to be wrong, and he is also not afraid of the unknown."
I nodded. It was a little strange here how so few dared to experiment, but I guess it made sense coming from the standpoint that cultivation could easily affect the future life and prospects of any spirit master. It would've been difficult then to gain any willing volunteers to test out any theories.
And it wasn't like metaphysics was a thing all cultures developed.
Grandpa Shan did his scheming smile. "If you lose this exchange of pointers with the little tiger then I'll get Yuehua to arrange a meeting with the Seven Treasure sect for when you all arrive in Heaven Dou city."
Grandpa Lin didn't stop him.
I glared at him. "Grandpa Lin, weren't you supposed to be the responsible one here?"
But the old man only shrugged. "The sooner we can find a future wife for you the sooner I can be at ease, your personality isn't exactly the easiest to get along with."
"But from what I've seen, Rongrong suits you perfectly, and even your spirits would benefit a lot from each other. Your Crown's detriments, her Pagoda's improvements, and your own Hammer's formidable might would ensure stability for both our sects in the future."
Grandpa Shan nodded. "And her father supports this, even if you are younger by two years."
"Especially because you're younger by two years," grandpa Lin added.
"What, is that also a thing here?"
"I'm sorry?" grandpa Shan said.
"No, its because you should grow soon enough with your next ring," grandpa Lin added. "I believe your next one should finally allow your body to mature to better accommodate your powers."
I shrugged. "Staying small isn't so bad for a few more years."
"I don't think you'll still be able to say that once you see her get her next ring as well," grandpa Shan said with a sleazy grin.
"Bah!" I waved my hands at his face. "Wait, you both knew about our plans to go to Heaven Dou?"
Grandpa Shan shrugged. "We have our ways."
I stared at him. "No you don't. You both have been just nearby all this time."
He looked away. "Whatever gave this brat that idea?"
Grandpa Lin shook his head.
"And how come only now?"
At that grandpa Lin raised a brow. "Because a certain troublesome child finally figured out how to undo what his grandpas did to keep him from hurting himself."
"Ah," I said. "Does that mean you'll be staying with us from now on then?"
Grandpa Shan sighed. "Unfortunately, we shouldn't. Try as we might, your grandpa Lin and I cannot completely conceal the fact that we are Titled Douluos. Our very auras give us away, and even if we hid our presence, anyone good enough to see through that would only invite questions about your group. It is still safer to be away from you for a while longer."
"Who knew you could be reasonable too when you felt like it."
"Hey!" the old man said with indignation.
"Aiyah," grandpa Lin said.
"And what about that matter with the Continental Academy competition thing? I'm not so in favor of competing in that with Tang San and Xiao Wu."
The two nodded. "We both agree with that assessment as well, but your uncle Hao has given his approval, so we believe he will be nearby in case any trouble comes up."
"But, wouldn't that make us three targets in Spirit Hall's eyes?"
Grandpa Lin pursed his lips. "Only if any of your secrets are revealed."
"Eh, that's not really anything new I guess," I said.
"And you can't deny three spirit bones aren't worth that risk, yes?" grandpa Shan added.
"But at least you've already given one to Rongrong," he continued. "That saves us a great deal of trouble."
We returned to the makeshift battle grounds and the four earlier were now taking a break. Rongrong said that Xiao Wu went ahead to bring Tang San his food and a fresh change of clothes. The dean, teacher Zhao, uncle and the other teachers were also by the sides to watch.
Mubai stood in front of me with his arms crossed.
He nodded to me and I nodded back.
"To think you'd catch up to me so soon," he said with a fierce smile. "I wouldn't have expected any less from the Clear Sky sect."
Grandpa Shan cheered loudly from the sides. "That's my grandson!"
"And I doubt you have any less impressive of a background, boss Dai."
He laughed and brought out his spirit, three rings floating behind him, two yellow and one purple, as his body enlarged together with his claws and zx stripes of black appeared in his hair. "Dai Mubai, rank thirty-ninth battle spirit master, Evil Eyes White Tiger." He humphed. "Don't hold anything back."
I nodded. To show him any less than my all would be an insult. I brought out my Crown and Hammer, the long handle I rested against my back.
"It's much larger now," uncle Xiaogang said. "Quite an improvement."
"Size doesn't matter!" Hongjun said with a snicker.
Rongrong and Oscar laughed and Zhuqing showed her displeasure at them but a timely glare from the dean stopped the free-range chicken's potty mouth.
I held my hammer parallel to the ground and reared it back. "Tang Jin, rank thirty-seventh control and battle spirit master, Amber Crown and Clear Sky Hammer."
A breeze blew past between us.
"Begin," the dean said.
Boss Dai's yellow ring shone as light condensed in his mouth.
I activated Shock and shot my Domain straight for him. In all the fighting I'd been doing lately, most of them fell into large group battles where my Domain had to be stretched to its full range. Doing so was a lot slower than simply deploying it towards a singular direction since I had to scatter my spirit power over a wider area.
But for a spar like this, I could launch it as fast as I could think it.
The light from boss Dai shot out like a bolt of burning power and was soaked in my Domain due to its straight line nature. Shock weakened its powers on top of electrocuting boss Dai.
I dodged the slowed down light wave—which didn't actually move at the speed of light—with a quick sideways hop, and unleashed a Bullet with a big swing
The black bolt shot towards boss Dai who was already caught in my domain.
Both a yellow and his purple ring shone and his spirit force swelled together with his muscles just in time for him to swat away the Bullet into an unsuspecting tree.
He charged towards me, albeit slower than I pegged him for, and I activated Thunder Heart Strike as I spun into the first and second swings of the Disorder Splitting Wind method using both hands, only to meet his fist head on with the third.
Our strikes connected.
And he was thrown back from the collision as lightning erupted from my Hammer.
He rolled away and stood back up, his yellow and purple rings still shining. Boss Dai's spirit power swelled some more and dispelled the lightning wrapped around his body.
"Always with so many surprises," he said with a wince. After all, all this time he'd been fighting under my domain and even after that use of Thunder Heart Strike, I was still quite well off in terms of capacity.
That's when I turned on Corrode and Devour together with Shock.
His face contorted into one of pain. "You haven't been using your other abilities?" he said as he charged again.
His yellow ring shone and another Light Wave flew my way only to be hampered so much by my domain that it almost didn't reach me.
Just as he was about to pounce, I hopped away from him, taking care to always be away of arm's reach. He was good with straight line charges, but with his lack of knowledge of proper footwork and martial arts, he didn't do too well against offensive lateral movements.
I kept dodging his monstrous strength, and even at mid-range I was safe thanks to my domain bleeding away the power from his ranged attacks. I held the advantage for now, but to have all three Crown abilities turned on without any support from Rongrong or Oscar was a heavy burden to bear.
Boss Dai kept chasing and lunged.
I side-stepped to dodge—but it was actually a feint, and he charged in that small lapse in judgement when I stumbled from the trick.
He opened his arms wide to catch me.
I activated Mantle and swung sideways.
Boss Dai met my attack with both arms crossed.
He was pushed back with his legs gouging the ground beneath him and I spun into a second hit as I activated Thunder Heart Strike.
But a Light Wave too fast to dodge hit my back and I fell forward to a face full of dirt.
Not one to give up, I changed the target of my strike to the ground instead.
The earth exploded to a shower of lightning and dirt, and I was thrown away from boss Dai.
Mantle protected me from most of the self-inflicted damage, though the cut to my spirit power was starting to get to me. I landed on the ground and rolled back into a stance.
But boss Dai was already half-way up to me when I saw him.
I let go of my Hammer but did not dispel it, and kept Mantle up despite its consumption.
He lunged forward with a fist and I stepped into his guard and opened with an uppercut.
Boss Dai bobbed his head left to dodge, and his other hand hooked for my head. We exchanged blows without hitting each other, always just dodging by a hair's breadth. But the few wild swings he first gave me were eventually replaced with more calculated strikes, and each one inched closer and closer to hitting me.
And then, he landed on his butt—his spirit already dispelled and the guy was panting hard.
"Eh your face little Jin." He chuckled weakly. "That domain of yours is still annoying after all." His clothes were ragged and every part of him was drenched in sweat.
"Yes," the dean said as he passed teacher Zhao some coins. "Little Jin, you indeed won."
I was still sitting at thirty-four percent spirit power, and though the feeling made me sick, the clarity from my Crown kept me going despite the consumption. I'd really been spoiled for too long by Rongrong and Oscar, to fight again on my own like this really had the monstrous hunger of the Clear Sky Hammer reiterated, and to keep using my abilities without pause was something I needed to remember my Absolutes for. It's just that using them in a fight was easier said than done.
And with that, I knew now the next direction of my training until my fourth ring.
"I still say we meet the family," grandpa Shan said from the side.
The fight ended with my win but the next few after that I found difficult if I didn't have enough time to recover spirit power in between. I still had the advantage of being able to replenish myself quick thanks to Devour, but that still didn't mitigate my consumption. Once lunch time rolled around, people started calling it quits with all the fighting so I had some more time to kill.
My grandpas were planning to stay with us for two days before they returned to whatever hole they hid themselves in. I figured it'd be best to get some pointers from them with how to better handle the Earthly Realm techniques of our Clear Sky Absolutes in battle. That last fight with boss Dai reminded me of how difficult it was to fight without the help of an auxiliary spirit master—and I guess it reminded me as well as to just why my family was so adamant about Rongrong.
"Heh," grandpa Shan was all smug. "So now you come to us to ask for the Absolutes?"
Grandpa Lin tsked at him. "Don't mind him little Jin, now remind your grandpa which techniques you already know of?"
The Clear Sky Absolutes were nine self-created spirit abilities exclusive to the Clear Sky Hammer, and it wouldn't be a stretch to say that our renown as the number one sect owed its reputation to these techniques. There were three levels, the Earthly, Heavenly, and Void realms. In theory, anyone with the Clear Sky Hammer could use all three techniques, its just that the backlash with trying out the stronger techniques were more dangerous. With enough skill, the Heavenly realm techniques were manageable, but the Void realm was safest only with Titled Douluo level strength.
I summoned my Hammer and held the half as large as me spirit in one hand.
The Earthly realm techniques were: Flow, Growth, and Undertow. Flow was the practice of quickly pushing and pulling away of spirit power from the Hammer, it allowed us to manage the weight while swinging and attacking. Less weight meant the hammer was easier to manuever, and more weight meant it could hit harder.
I pushed spirit power into my Hammer and let it grow as I erupted into the first swing of Disorder Splitting Wind, on the recovery phase after the down swing, I pulled spirit power from the Hammer and held it in my hand to allow me more control and stepped forward to add more leverage before growing my Hammer again into a second down swing.
I kept up the exercise I got used to doing to practice the two main techniques—and on the fourth swing, I willed spirit power to collect on the Hammer head and pushed even further out as a black trail was left behind from the swinging.
Successive swings also meant more and more power accumulating from the constant leveraging of force.
"You can stop now little Jin," grandpa Lin said.
And not one to waste accumulated power, I summoned a Bullet and shot it up into the sky with one last baseball swing. The rumbling my spirit power thundered with was music to my ears.
Then grandpa Lin cuffed me. "Why were you moving around while doing the Disorder Splitting Wind?"
I scratched my smarting head. "Because if I don't then I'll get hit. It's not like someone will just let me wail on them because I'm doing something cool!'
Grandpa Lin snorted. "Bah, that's because you're not using it correctly." He shook his head. "You're not supposed to use this technique in battle until after you've mastered the Earthly and Heavenly techniques."
"Well, that explains a lot." It did leave me wondering just how useful of a technique this was when most of the time I was caught having to store power or reneged to a ranged attacker using my Bullets, and at worst trying to fight head-to-head like I did with boss Dai earlier.
"Indeed," grandpa Shan said with a sigh. "No wonder you've been getting injured so many times, as bright as you sometimes are, you also come up with equally as many stupid ideas."
"Mistake is the mother of success!"
"Assuming you learned from them." Grandpa Lin shook his head. "However, it's not like you're not worthy of praise, your use of the Method in that spar was rather good considering how much you are capable of."
"But it leaves a lot to be desired," Grandpa Shan added. "And your Undertow needs a lot more work. How come you only used it on the fourth swing? And why continuously after that?"
I was about to say something but no good ideas came out. "I just felt it, I guess."
Grandpa Shan hummed. "The best use of Undertow is during the attacking swings or mid-recovery to throw your opponent off-balance or reposition them. Your Flow and Growth are also adequate, though I'd prefer if you can do both of them faster."
"A passable proficiency with Flow and Growth is to be able to increase your hammer to twice its size in a second, and to reach a thousand jin as well in that time. If you can achieve both, then you can say that you've mastered those two techniques. Undertow is easy enough, but you must be able to release the aura to thrice the volume of your hammer head as well as to be able to release it from any time during your swings or even as you grow your hammer."
They gave me a few exercises like the Flour Trail drill we did for the Undertow technique which generated attractive paths of the aura, and something I used to do back in the sect. Though this time the challenge was to pull the flour from a pile on the ground as opposed to just making the flour cloud stay in the air. Still, that was supposedly the easiest to do of the three, but the hardest to use in battle. They also gave me this thing I liked to call Water Golf where I had to hit water from a stream into a bucket with a hole at the bottom some ten paces away from me. The goal was to learn how to best time the mass and size changing of the Hammer in order to best get as much water as possible to fly as well as follow-through with the flight, its challenge then was in developing the proficiency to do the transfers quickly as well as the timing with when best to erupt with force.
After they demonstrated the exercises, the only thing on my mind was that I still had so much to learn.
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