We made the trip in five days of hard running and arrived at the capital.
"We shall head straight for the academy," the dean said. His robes were dusted in places and a light sweat was still by his brow, and he wasn't alone with his less than perfect state.
The other teachers all had some manner of dust caked against their skins and patches of sweat here and there. We didn't stop to rest as much as I expected, but at least no one smelled too bad. Hopefully.
Without a chance to bathe the last few days, it was almost a miracle how Rongrong hadn't immediately checked into a hotel herself or gone home for a quick shower once we arrived. Well, bath.
My hair was stuck against my forehead and my skin felt sticky all over. My robes too had that sun dried smell, and the less said about the state of my underpants the better. It had been too long since I'd gone this dirty for so long, not until that last trip to the sea all those years ago.
Seriously, fuck the sea.
"The sooner we can get our accommodations sorted out the better," teacher Zhao added with a huff. With one of the highest ranks in spirit power, he was better off than most of us only surpassed by the dean himself in terms of relative cleanliness.
Rongrong tugged my sleeve and widened her eyes at me. She pursed her lips and gestured at her clothes before sweeping her hand at everyone. She wasn't wrong, unfortunately. Stupid nobles.
"About that," I said.
All eyes went on me.
I continued, "The imperial capital maintains a level of affluence,"—and we all look like shit went unsaid— "and even us honorable spirit masters ought to make ourselves presentable at the very least." Lest we get thrown out, and more importantly, that the matter reached my auntie and she ended up hanging me by my jock straps.
"Hmph, nothing but a few nobles imposing their ideals," Flender said with contempt.
Teacher Zhao cracked his knuckles. "If they have a problem with us, then let them settle it themselves."
I raised a finger. "As someone who's had to skirt the shadows and enjoys the advantages of anonymity, it would be in our best interest not to stir trouble where we are not in a position of surety."
"Bah," the dean said, "has your time with family made you soft little Jin? What was it again that I'd always told you little monsters?"
"Spirit masters who do not look for trouble are no good," boss Dai said.
Rongrong grimaced, and Zhuqing narrowed her eyes at him.
"Sure, and my grandpas weren't Titled Douluos," I added in a flat tone.
Tang San cleared his throat. "I believe little Jin is acting within reason here," he said. "It wouldn't do us well to offend anyone whom we cannot account for."
The dean looked at uncle who gave him a nod.
"Fine," Flender said. "And what would you have us do then?"
I pulled out a small pouch of gold coins. "Worry not everyone, little bro has cash."
I made a considerable fortune from our time in the arena so it wasn't a problem to pay for a day's worth for everyone in a good hotel. And since we were back here, my avenues for making money were also a lot more flexible now. There was the auction house and the markets, and not to mention those underground betting rings I wasn't supposed to go to and the more questionable shops that paid some hefty royalties for anyone willing to transport their goods.
Really, this place was just ripe for the taking.
"Lead the way then," the dean said with a miser's wicked grin.
I asked the teachers to all buy themselves some good clothes, and shot down their prideful retorts with calling it the Clear Sky sect's courtesy. Rongrong's family was also rich enough that this extravagance would've been but a drop in the bucket, but that was her family and not her specifically.
My fellow students however, all had to pay for their own crap.
Rongrong and I led our group to a tailor her family frequented, that way I could maybe bargain for a deal for everyone if I brought in enough business or provided my own materials. It was a quick stroll down the main street and a left near where all the famous restaurants were. The building was a big shop with glass windows by the doors and a fine chandelier of glass pieces as a center piece. It was oppulent and grand, a definite must-see for any noble worth their upper class gossip.
We went in and the people there wasted no time with entertaining us. An uncle inside dressed in a very clean and crisp robe of brown and fine silver trimmings walked up to me.
"Anything we can do for our little master?" He spared no reservations with their hospitality—thanks to the one true passport to and any all sorts of privileges: cold hard cash.
I had my purse out and about as we walked in, and any young boy leading a large entourage was bound to be the little master of some glorious sect. "I would like to purchase some clothes befitting of the capital for my guards, we are expected in the Imperial Academy, and I wouldn't want to be turned away by those city lords." I sighed. "Such arrogance simply because they were born closer to the crown."
The uncle nodded. "Indeed little master, our local lords can indeed be rather disdainful.
"Anything you might recommend then?" I jingled the coins in my pouch. "I would rather prefer we look our best."
"Why, you can never go wrong with silk, of course!" the uncle said. "Nothing but the finest of silks must adorn our honorable spirit masters!" He clapped and some shop assistants came out of a side room with bolts upon bolts of fine cloth in diqfferent colors. "This is our shop's finest and we wouldn't dare offer any less to the proprietors of the Seven Treasure clan."
Rongrong nodded to them and grinned my way. Anyone would probably remember Rongrong's distinctive pink hair. More so if they spent a fortune as well. And I guess when she said frequented, she probably meant she real damn frequent. The other students were already about and looking for their own clothes, and here I was directing the teachers to pair off with some of the assistants, most of them women and in tight clothing. Of course, a place that catered to nobles wouldn't have any less than such an experience to offer.
"Jin!" Rongrong said from all the way at another row of cloths. "Wouldn't you be a dear and get this for me?" She was holding a lavender to pink gradient robe against her and twirling about with it.
I don't know when it happened, but the assistant attending to her already had piles upon piles of clothes against her arms and still the shopaholic didn't stop.
Teacher Zhao, the dean, uncle and the other teachers all had their measurements taken with stiff bodies as the tightly clad women went about their business under the watchful uncle's eye. Zhuqing was glaring at boss Dai all this time, though Tang San wasn't as interested in the fineries as Xiao Wu who went about exploring every nook and corner of the store. Oscar and Hongjun indulged themselves with the ladies as well, and I wasn't adverse either to some fine clothes myself.
"It can only be in one color," the dean said with a flush and a nasty smile.
"You name it, we'll have it by the day if we don't already," the uncle said.
Flender pointed at a bolt of cloth that was collecting dust at a corner.
"This… green is what you wished for?" The tailor asked an assistant to bring it over, and her expression didn't hide the bewilderment at having to retrieve that snot green bolt.
"Indeed," Flender said all pleased with himself.
The look of horror on our girls' and the other ladies present was something legendary.
Uncle Xiaogang didn't give two shits and instructed the lady who was attending to him to get his robes done in brown, and as someone who was not directly under Flender's authority—even if the academy was technically already finished—he didn't need to stick it out with the dean's shit tastes.
I didn't mind wearing that shade of green, but if we became a laughing stock, then it'd make blending in more difficult. "If I may be so bold as to give a few inputs myself?"
We eventually settled for something more manageable, the snot green main color was tempered with some layers of a darker emerald green by the sleeves and lapels and it was all tied together with some goldwork that softened the impact of the harsh hues. I wasn't too well-versed in any particular art style, but I did enjoy the elegance of baroque patterns, so I drew the tailor some samples I remembered.
The robes would be ready in two days even after paying extra to make it a rush order, so in the meantime we also got ourselves some sturdier travelling clothes in the current noble fashion to tide us over for later and the next couple of days, and these ones would only take a few hours for them to alter to the teacher's sizes.
Us students didn't need anything fancy, so we didn't need to buy any more than we already did.
"En," Flender said, "truly a man of many talents this little Jin." He stroked his beard. "Now then, you've already spoiled us all enough with what you've done so far, this lunch I believe we can all take it easy for now and meet back at the hotel to go to the academy later."
Xiao Wu and Rongrong wasted no time with pulling all of us ahead.
Being so close to the Seven Treasure sect's home, I had no doubts Rongrong's family guards would be all over her and keeping her and my friends safe. So, as someone who still had a few unfinished things in place, I chose to go alone to do some soul searching in the bustling city life of the capital—and maybe make a few quick bucks.
I changed into some shabbier clothes and went straight for merchant street.
Not a lot of things changed here, and it was still a treat to see so much people at any given place. As much as I loved my peace and quiet, the liveliness of a city was still as infectious as I remembered it from back home. The traffic, the cussing, even the noisy honking and general sounds of life were things I never thought I'd miss and yet here I was hoping I could feel the pettiness of cursing someone out just for cutting in front of me.
It was nostalgia at its finest.
Peddlers sold fruits and vegetables at exorbitant prices compared to the quieter villages, metal was still sold at a premium being so few dared to work with it, woodworks, furniture, every day necessities, all of them exchanged hands every second of every moment as money jumped from hand to hand in the few spans between. I asked around for prices and negotiated for exchanges, memorized what people wanted and where and how much and what kinds and set about my meditation in retail.
All that mindless haggling and buying and selling I did without thinking too much except maximizing my profits.
Coming from the idea that Tang San was also a reincarnator, it made sense then that the magical sorts of crap he could do was from whatever previous life he had just like how my knowledge on science and what not was for me. He could make his hidden weapons, simple lumps of metal, fly in mysterious ways that danced and laughed at the face of modern science and the natural laws.
Was it magic?
Unlikely. And the only other easy explanation was spirit power. The simplest solution wasn't always the correct one, but in this case, that assumption wasn't a stretch. Assuming Tang San's abilities were indeed driven by spirit power, then the guy basically had access to a skill set other than what his spirit rings made available to him.
And this hypothesis was supported by our clan's own Clear Sky Absolutes. What those were were ways to make use of spirit power to better make use of the Hammer, but Tang San's hidden weapons did whatever it was they did without relying on his Blue Silver Grass, so it stood to reason that he didn't need his spirit to do what he did.
Essentially, there was a possibility to develop ways to make use of spirit power in another way other than to simply nourish or reinforce the body be it offensively or some other manner and if Tang San's previous life's skills could make simple metal crap fly like goddamn snakes with wings, then surely I could make some shit up too.
The main point being, how the hell was I gonna manage that without burning out my body in the process.
And considering that, how was it that Tang San didn't seem to encounter that issue—or at least if he did I never noticed. Which probably meant he had something else to him that he did different to me…
And he did have that, specifically, that way he cycled energy in my body all those years ago to keep my spirit power from running amok.
Was that the culprit then?
To constantly cycle energy would lead to better energy channels? It makes sense in context, all things considered. If his method really did make the body more pliable to handling spirit power, then to constantly trace the energy channels with spirit power cycling probably allowed the body to get better used to the strain.
Rather, exactly as training. And… did that mean I could manipulate spirit power into other forms as well? I mean, if I could move it, then surely I could shape it as well. Though for any intricacies like with Tang San getting his hidden weapons to fly in expert ways wouldn't be as simple as just pushing spirit power into something and hoping a miracle would happen.
I sighed and finished up my latest sale: exchanging a few tens of kilograms of wool for half of that in processed iron. All in all I hauled in a butt ton of metals and made a modest profit of fifty-seven gold coins in total, though ending up with about twenty-three kilograms of iron and another seven of tungsten wasn't too bad overall. I wasn't able to get anything special that reacted to my spirit power, but at least I got to finally feel like I was back in my element again. Shopping in Suotuo city just didn't have that same thrill as the capital.
I wasn't even close to done with just this, and my Inventory still had lots of space to spare. I put up my hood to hide my blond hair before going down the alleys and into the less savory parts of the city with an eye for the not as legal. As far as narcotics and substances went, not a lot of people bothered with the stuff, and instead, the real prize here was the unregulated prices where almost anyone could make a mean buck or two.
That, or get away with robbery and theft.
Spirit power fluctuations filled the air and hushed tones echoed along the darker corners of the city's underbelly. It wouldn't be a stretch to get into trouble here, and usually it was uncle Wei who settled my fights for me before. I wasn't stupid enough to expose myself here though, but I wasn't so meek as to just stay out of trouble myself—I just had my priorities on straight.
I walked through the not so crowded streets and saw the most inane prices for the weirdest crap. There were spirit tools and foodstuffs in the craziest price ranges and shapes and sizes. There were tools and knives and swords in different materials and makes, and crystals, ores, and rocks both small and large and all the colors in the rainbow and more. The best of things could be found in these hidden holes, it just took a little bit more skulking around to get anything worthwhile.
I pushed my spirit power to my fingertips to detect for anything that would react to my energy much like I'd found my ring and those pearls before.
I picked up a bluish rock. "How much?" I asked the cloaked peddler.
"Seventy," he said while holding one finger up. One finger meant gold, two meant silver, and nobody bothered with selling for coppers here.
I picked up another few rocks that responded and bunched them all up. A purplish one for seventy, a silvery one for fifty, an orange streaked one for forty-three, and a few others. All of them easily reached a few hundred gold together. After haggling down to about half the price I threw in a jar of black powder to keep the guy happy. Black powder was sought after by the biggest sects to make their fireworks with, and there weren't too many people with the knowhow to create the stuff.
I paid him and hid away my new purchases in Inventory.
These things I found I basically just dumped onto Tang San whenever I came across them in the hopes he might get lucky with something. His strength was my strength, and the better equipped he was then so was I.
There were some bright colored plants and little tiny vials of all manners of liquids, and a few more gold coins and jars of black powder here and there and I was maybe a small apothecary heavier within the span of a few minutes. Poisons and the like were never my forte, though again Tang San simply adored the stuff even if he could already produce his own.
Another thing on my wish list right now was any and all manners of information. It's been a few years since I'd last passed by here, enough time for so many things to have changed.
I walked around some more, sticking to the darker corners and smaller alleys.
In the imperial capital, as common as the big wigs were in the main thoroughfares were they so seldom seen here beneath the light. With me so near the fortieth rank, I was as close to a power here as I got. Spirit masters had a hundred gold stipend from Spirit Hall all the way until the thirtieth rank after all, and only above that did it stop. To most, the incentive was already good enough to go for the hundred and whoever wanted more than that would usually join up with Spirit Hall to benefit from their vast capital.
Pretty much everyone not attached to a sect and didn't care too much for freedom ended up with Spirit Hall.
And they were a thorn to every kingdom and sect's side.
Holding so many spirit masters under their payroll essentially meant Spirit Hall also had the largest deployable militia slash special forces in the entire continent, and naturally anyone with half a brain wouldn't dare underestimate just how much those assholes had upfront and hidden away. An untold number of Titled Douluos could easily be hiding amongst their ranks, and they would easily have the money and capacity to support so many.
After all, even quantity was a quality on its own.
I eventually found a small haunt by some boarded up side streets. Places like these were usually marked with a circle split in half by a line through the center. This was another one of my requests to uncle Wei. Information was power, and knowing was half the battle.
Not that I actually had any grand plans to destroy the entirety of Spirit Hall. I just wanted to be ready since there's a still standing manhunt for any remnants of our sect out there. Thankfully though, not everyone was on the side of those tyrants.
I went into the seedy bar too dark for normal people to see in.
Places like these were the gathering spots of spirit masters who followed the more questionable paths. Those who preferred their personal gain at the expense of others or did not care for the expense of others, as well as those simply looking for a thrill. Even aunt Yuehua herself didn't dare underestimate the sorts of rumors that went around these places.
I walked up to the bar while ignoring the piercing looks I was getting.
The shop keep looked me up and down before returning to steeping the tea and cleaning up the bowls of food in front of him.
I put down a couple of gold coins in front of him. "I need some help."
He huffed. "And what sort of monster had offended the little master so?" His tone was mocking.
I shrugged and put down a couple more coins. "I'm a peaceful person most of the time, but even I still need to save face at times."
The shop keep hid the bowls away and poured me a cup of tea. "Are you just here to waste my time?"
Simple and to the point, I didn't dislike people like him. "I heard Spirit Hall was putting up spirit bones as a reward for the coming academy competitions, would you know what kinds and grades?" Spirit bones from beasts of different cultivations naturally also had qualitative differences. A spirit bone from a thousand year beast would be of lesser quality compared to one from a ten thousand year, and only legends existed of spirit bones from a hundred thousand year beast.
He smiled. "That depends." He paused.
I let go of the coins and slid them over to him.
"I heard there were three up for grabs." He sighed. "Such fine pieces, and all of them above ten thousand years in cultivation."
I passed him another few coins.
"I believe one of them was from some sort of fire beast, but the others I still haven't heard."
At least that removed some mystery from what Tang San, Xiao Wu, and I were risking our lives for. However, I still wasn't convinced it was something we needed. Honestly though, this whole competing under the watchful eye of Spirit Hall just had disaster written all over it. Even if uncle Hao were to guarantee the safety of us three, he wasn't exactly the best person to count on for good fortune.
I asked the shop keep a few more things like if there are any new mines nearby or any bandit troupes, outlaws, anyone with a price on their head, or even just which sects or noble houses were looking for hired help. There were a few interesting names like the Elephant Armored Academy who was looking for teachers or the ever present offer from the Seven Treasure Sect for power attack and agility spirit masters, though there were some lesser known pickings as well like the One Strength clan—which was a name I never expected to come across, and a recent string of robberies from a bandit group calling themselves the Sons of Huang.
Satisfied with a productive day, I left behind a few more gold as thanks.
As I made my way back it didn't take a genius to figure out there were a few people tailing me. I'd made a point of heading for the main streets using a different path than I went in with, and it kinda sucked now how I wouldn't be able to go back straight to the hotel.
I took a left down two streets before a hard right into another and jumped up towards the roofs. Sneaking about wasn't as refined an art yet here it seemed, and these slum areas were pretty close to the city's edge. A quick hop over to the forest was never too hard, and I bet there were a few bodies here and there as well from unsuspecting victims. For them to be trailing me however means these guys probably weren't that right up the head.
It was still a gamble though depending on how strong they were.
I didn't wait for them to catch up and hopped over the roofs of the houses and headed straight for the city outskirts.
There came a crack of wooden boards broken from too much force, and I chanced a look back to see three figures in a cloak chasing after me. As long as these guys weren't some fifty something spirit masters—which I doubted—then I was pretty confident in my little arsenal of goodies. I still had one of Rongrong's and my clan's own signal flares after all.
Roof after roof disappeared beneath my feet, and on the three gave chase. The forest wasn't too far away, and I'd already reached the sea of trees within a few minutes though the people chasing after me didn't tire with catching up. They were either thinking I was an easy mark or maybe they wanted to offer me something, but whatever it was, it was either the information I asked for or my money.
I jumped towards the ground before I summoned the Flying God Claw over my right arm with Interface and kept the Godly Zhuge Crossbow under my cloak.
I faced them as the three landed about twenty meters away from me.
The cloaked people were all larger than me, adult sized though all of them didn't have any imposing physiques. One was a lady, and the other two were dudes. I could make out a beard under one of the people's faces. The Girl was in the middle flanked by Beard to her left and Guy to her right.
"Good day seniors," I said with a jovial greeting. "Fine weather we have today for a stroll along the forest, yes?"
Beard and Guy tensed their shoulders but Girl kept calm despite all that. The two guys expanded their formation, their intent most likely to surround me.
"This junior wouldn't be mistaken if he assumes you are here to harm me, yes?"
Beard smiled from beneath his cloak as he started slowly moving towards me. Guy by the right was still aiming to circle, and Girl stood her ground, her heels raised the slightest and ready to pounce at a moment's notice.
Spirit rings then floated up from behind them, four from Girl, white-yellow-purple-purple; and three each on Beard and Guy, both of them white-yellow-purple. The girl grew fox ears and an orange tail, while Beard had a farmer's sickle and Guy had a pitchfork.
Three against one and one of them was already at the fortieth rank. Their spirit rings were less than ideal, and with hope the difference in quality would allow me to bridge the gap.
I summoned my Crown and flared all three rings as I lunged forward into Beard, time seeming to slow down as the adrenaline kicked in and my Domain covered everyone in Devour, Shock, and Corrode.
Beard raised his sickle to meet me—and fell down to the ground writhing and screaming as electricity surged in arcs from my golden light, his clothes already charring in places. Within my domain, I also felt Guy go down, also screaming aloud, his mouth foaming at the edges as he jerked and contorted, and both of their spirits had dissipated just like that.
But Girl was still alright.
I looked into her hooded form and our eyes met. Then she turned tail and ran with her yellow ring flaring behind her—only to meet a face full of dynamite.
She was thrown back and landed hard on her back, her body was battered and bruised and her clothes had seen better days. Beard and Guy were both still twitching though their screaming wasn't as loud anymore.
I looked around but didn't feel anything else touching my Domain. I stayed like that for a minute, just waiting for the next shoe to drop—but nothing. It was almost disappointing, but at the same time so jarring. None of my fights in the Spirit Arena ever ended with such an anti-climactic event, and none of my spars were ever that easy—though the last few ones as well before leaving for the capital may have been less hard at least. I guess undoing that seal on my rings finally let me display the true prowess of my three one thousand year level spirit abilities all at once.
I kinda feel cheated now after all that time getting my ass handed to me by everyone else.
I took my time and tied up the girl first before the two guys, the three of them having fainted sometime between this and that and almost all their clothes disintegrated on contact, revealing their skins that were charred and smoking in places. Girl was a brunette who looked to be in her twenties, Beard was probably in his late twenties, and Guy was bald and probably older than Beard. The three of them had lanky bodies just like their cloaked forms suggested.
Only after making sure the three were sufficiently bound did I turn off my abilities—but kept my Domain up just to be sure no one could sneak up on me.
I sighed, and summoned a water skin from Inventory and poured it over the sorry lot.
All three of them woke up.
Girl glared at me. "What are you waiting for, what, are you planning to have your way with me first?" Her spirit rings appeared behind her as fox ears stood up on her head.
I turned on Shock.
She started screaming together with the other two. Electricity arced between the three of them like a morbid plasma generator as the poor saps twisted and turned.
I stopped Shock.
Girl and her companions were breathing hard, and they all looked at me with contempt.
I squat down so I was eye level with them. "Were you people planning on robbing me?"
And Corrode destroyed it mid-flight.
I scratched my cheek. "So, no other motives besides robbing me then? No secret messages or anything? No offers to join any sort of secret society?"
Beard frowned and tilted his head.
Guy didn't flinch and said, "What?"
It kinda left a bad taste in my mouth to kill these guys when they weren't a threat to me anymore. Then again, who knows how many they'd killed before with these methods of theirs. To let them go now would be to possibly damn their next victims to die. And I've killed others before too, so it's not like I was dirtying my hands any more than I already had.
"Guess not then," I said. "And weren't you guys supposed to be receiving a stipend from Spirit Hall? Why rob a hapless guy then?"
"Such a sheltered little master," Girl said. "You actually believe Spirit Hall would be so benevolent? Don't make me laugh."
Huh, I expected as much, but what sorts of crap did these assholes do for them to be shunned that way anyway? And really, did I want to listen to their life story and whatnot? To kill them was easier, so much easier. Whether my conscience—or what little of it remained—could take it though was the real juncture.
I summoned my Hammer, and their eyes all went wide.
"Y-you are with the Clear Sky sect?!" Beard's face was a mask of undying rage.
"Sorry," I said, "I'm not about to take any chances."
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