We were supposed to have Tang San meet auntie and grandpas Shan and Lin tomorrow, but given the shit I put myself through this afternoon, a meeting was more than recommended just to make sure I didn't screw myself over for real. I left word with Hongjun that San and I were gonna make some rounds at the markets to see what rare metals we could find, and naturally Xiao Wu would tag along because the two were attached at the hip.
Rongrong still wasn't too genial with me after what happened between us, but at least she wished me a good haul. I know messing up her hair like that was a big deal, but I figured my fixing it was at least still something to make up for it.
Oscar, I didn't know where the hell he was, and neither did I know where boss Dai and Zhuqing were. Probably together, but I wasn't gonna hold my breath on that.
Xiao Wu, Tang San, and I walked the road towards the city at a relaxed pace all dressed up in our best clothes—rather, the two of them were since I was in what could only pass for rags, at least for my standards. I mean, my sleeves were torn in places and singed everywhere else, so yeah, pretty damned ragged.
I included dinner in the message I left behind, and uncle Xiaogang didn't see any more reason to look after me than was needed. My spirit ring had regenerated and I was able to make use of my ability from either spirit, so it was already working like normal, though it probably helped that he already knew where we were going. He decided against coming with us since as weak as he was, he was still famous among Spirit Hall's members for writing his Ten Core Principles—since not a lot of people actually bothered writing down their findings, much less publish them for use by the general public.
Loath as uncle was at admitting to it, but Spirit Hall had a reason for being as prolific as they were.
They practically gave out money to people to encourage them to cultivate, and keep doing so to a high enough level that a handful of them in every village would be able to fend off a bandit attack all by themselves. Of course, this system went both ways in that as long as the bandits themselves didn't get caught, then they too could benefit from Spirit Hall's system if they didn't get flagged. They were a lot like an evil university that welcomed anyone who wanted to pursue a doctorate in exchange for a life long residency that sucked up all the proceeds of their victims' research and subsidiaries.
Hmm, that was a bit too ominous a coincidence for me, still the benefits didn't end there.
Stipends only went as high as the thirtieth rank, but just that was already enough to live a comfortable life safe from most harm—save for the really exceptional cases where one actually dared get into trouble. The population more or less tapered off every ten percent per spirit ring rank thanks to some historical censuses provided by—as expected—Spirit Hall, such that in any given population, ten percent of the people there would have a rank between one to ten, then from that population of one to ten, another ten percent would be able to reach somewhere within eleven to twenty, and so on and so forth.
However, these statistics got skewed whenever one had one of the great clans involved, or even the lesser clans. That's because these people—us Clear Sky sect included—favored strong spirit masters for producing more children. However, call it luck, or maybe even another system like with the spirit rings, but fertility among the great clans was also lower the higher one's spirit rank is. Otherwise, I'd have had a brother or sister, and Rongrong, likewise, wouldn't have been an only child.
Childbirth was likewise harder, and I wouldn't be surprised if Rongrong had lost hers. Turns out not even a shit ton of spirit power could save one from heaps upon heaps of blood loss. That, and the lack of good and modern medical facilities. Healing could only do so much after all.
Thus, the tendency of most clans was to marry off a strong spirit master to someone who didn't have a spirit to encourage the birth of more members, but only the best of the best would be engaged to others of equally high bearing and potential. My grandpas and aunt weren't joking around whenever they teased me with Rongrong, and my grandpas approval of Xiao Wu, and probably by extension uncle Hao's liking her, was one that bore the sect's future in mind first and foremost. Though maybe grandpa Shan was just a total sap, but that's up for debate.
Of course, this favorability of being able to cultivate spirit masters had become something only the noble and landed few—the sects—could afford, thus making a lot of the general populace who couldn't do so gravitate towards other means of getting the support. Spirit Hall was one such answer, or at least that's how I figured they came to be. I'll still need to confirm as much from whatever records I could get from the library.
If there were any surviving documents that is.
"Are you really alright, little Jin?" Xiao Wu leaned in closer with those big pink rabbit eyes of doom and slaughter.
We were now walking through the city's streets and everywhere around us the city was alive with all the sights and sounds and smells of a bustling night life. Light stone lamps lit the place up every few meters, and each shop likewise had one of their own. There were restaurants with waitresses calling for customers, and stalls here and there with grilled stuff smoking with aromas both familiar and bizarre, there were also some establishments offering tea and alcohol among other things. For however prim and proper the capital was in the morning, so too did it come alive at night with a different gait.
"Yeah." I pat down the goosebumps riddling my neck. "I ended up with an interesting discovery, but I'm still not sure if it's something I could repeat. It wasn't exactly a gentle thing that happened."
"Another one of your experiments?" Tang San had on a small smile.
"One of the successful ones at least, though the last one before this caused me to have to learn how to cut hair well, and well, you saw the results."
Wu gave her shining approval. "You did good with Rongrong and Zhuqing," she said. "If neither of them already had someone in their hearts than I might've tried to woo them myself."
"Yeah, but Rongrong still won't talk to me like normal after."
Wu giggled. "Perhaps it's not because she's upset?"
I shook my head. "I prefer not to assume anything. When dealing with people who don't regularly participate in underhanded plots and social engineering, it's usually best to stay literal with them."
"You have such a strange outlook on things most of the time." Wu placed a hand on her hip.
"What can I say," I said. "Twelve or so years of life tends to make you jaded, I can't even begin to imagine anything above a hundred or something."
Wu kicked my ass. "Ah such an impertinent junior."
San was smiling despite all that. "It's good at least to say you're more amiable now."
I scratched my cheek. "I did feel like I'd ended up damaging the spirit ring I took, so yeah, I was feeling real down earlier."
Wu put on a sad smile. It was bittersweet, and stung like a needle to the chest. "You should take care of them more."
I steeled my resolve. "I know, and unless I'm sure nothing bad would happen to them, I don't think I can use that thing again." It would be too cruel otherwise… and only unless I absolutely had no other choice left… went unsaid.
And yet knowing the life I had ahead of me, how many times would such a necessity arise? Too many to count, was the closest bet.
San put a hand on his chin. "So what happened exactly?"
I told them the sequence of events that led up to uncle Xiaogang finding me in the treasure system mimicry environment, including all the little monologues and whatnot and even rehashing some darker memories on losing something so dear. The last bit about the spirit beasts I also added, not out of consideration for Wu, but more to reassure myself that I hadn't completely lost sight of the person I was before coming here.
"It's… so compassionate of you to feel that way about spirit beasts," Wu said. "But I can only say it was for the best that you'd already lost that stupid bed of yours. It smelled weird."
I was thirty seven shades of offended at that.
"Don't you look at me like that," she said with a glare. "That bed of yours made every time we camped out so unbearable because it made your entire hut smell."
San looked away. "I'm sorry Jin, but Xiao Wu is right…"
"Et tu, San?!"
The two blinked at my theatrics, but the die had been cast and the betrayal set in stone. I was going to remember this petty thing for as long as I could and call it back a thousand times and one before I let the matter go. That bed held the story of my life and the memories of seven or so years, I wasn't about to let it die just like that.
"What happened to me with the spirit ring," I said. "It covered my body with electricity and allowed me to move faster thanks to the cut to the communication between my brain and body, but I needed to cover my body in my own Domain to help out with perceiving my own movements."
A flash of inspiration shined behind San's eyes. "I see," he said. "Electricity can indeed be used in that way as well…"
He had some medical knowledge then. That wasn't really so surprising.
Wu though had other ideas. "You covered yourself in electricity? But that's neither of your abilities?"
"Yes," I said. "That was nothing like I'd ever been able to do before. And never would I have thought it would happen that way either."
She gave me a puzzled look. "What made you think it was a good idea to use more spirit power than necessary anyway?" She shook her head. "Why would you even try that in the first place?"
I tilted my head at her. "Because I didn't know what would happen if I did?"
San and her stared at me for a good long second.
Wu crossed her arms. "Even if you don't know whether what will happen after was bad?"
San smiled. "Ah, but what if it worked?"
We arrived by the Moon Pavilion without a fuss, the hour wasn't so late yet as to be inappropriate for budding young men and women to go on home and be with their families already so the earlier spectacle of the princely little master was replaced by two young masters and their beggar pet. These douchebags for nobles probably thought as much, but then maybe I was giving them too little faith.
"Wasn't that the boy earlier?" One of the young women said.
"What happened to him?" Another young man added.
"Are those two with him his masters then?"
"Maybe he's making them out to be the center of attention?"
Welp, at least I know all was still right with the world. Wu couldn't get enough of the rich wood used in the building's construction, she took every chance she got to touch all of the carved little details while San was the very image of grace.
"I never expected you to start turning to a life of begging," uncle Wei said with a chuckle.
Wu snickered and San's eyes went wide.
"Just you wait," I said. "Once I save up for a silver piece I'll buy your beard from that ugly mug of yours."
Some of the peanut gallery giggled with Wu, but San shot me a withering look.
Uncle Wei shrugged. "You've done better before."
I hung my head. "Yeah, I'm not really used to making poor jokes."
Uncle Wei snorted.
He led the three of us up the stairs again and left the murmurs of gossip and shallowness behind. Not even a stay in the Moon Pavilion could cure these bastards of their chronic bitching, but alas, such was the way of the world. People with too much money and time on their hands without any appreciation for what they already had rarely found much fulfillment with staying in their own lanes.
But if I showed off my strength here, then who knew who else might hear of the irregular child with the three purple spirit rings. I could do so far away from auntie, but not here specifically where I could be connected to her. Not a lot of people had such a configuration after all, and it was only my luck how trustworthy the people I'd met so far had been, though that could change at any time.
Uncle Wei led us through the inner chamber and went through the motions.
Unhurried footsteps soon sounded against the brightly polished floor, and that's when he took his leave—to fetch his and auntie's gear.
"Little Jin?" she said from around a corner. Auntie met my eyes before she took the rest of it in. "You look like trash."
I shrugged. "I blew myself up."
She looked at me with confusion. "Why?"
"I wanted to do something with impact."
Wu shook her head, and San gave auntie a bow. "I had no hand in this," he said. "He says terrible jokes all the time."
Auntie sighed with disgust. "Indeed he does." She clapped her hands once. "You must be little San and this cute little lady here must be little Wu?"
The both of them nodded. "I see little Jin has told you of us?"
"He has," auntie said. "And you may refer to me as your aunt, seeing how your father is my brother."
San smiled the biggest smile I'd seen on him in years. "I see," he said with a stupid grin. "It is an honor to meet father's sister."
Auntie Yuehua gave him an approving nod. "I too am honored to see my boorish brother's antics didn't rub off on you."
"Thank you," San said, "it was helpful having someone while growing up whom I knew I shouldn't emulate."
The three shared a laugh at my expense.
Auntie Yuehua straightened up and brought forth all her regal manner to bear. "And now I suppose it wouldn't be unbecoming of this auntie to ask for a hug from her long lost nephew?"
San didn't hesitate to close the distance between them. It was refreshing to see the child—not really—who once hated the Clear Sky sect with a righteous reason now act more amiable to our family. Maybe, just maybe, there was hope yet for our enmity with Spirit Hall. Oh, and the clans we left behind too… okay, maybe I was jumping ahead too far with all that.
This world had shit values.
Auntie gave San a tight hug, and let him go gingerly as a light flush painted her cheeks. She cleared her throat and turned to Wu. "And little Wu," she said. "It is a pleasure to finally meet you as well, I can see my other nephew has a good eye, though I hope he has been treating you well?"
Xiao Wu nodded with a fervor. "Ge treats me the best."
"To the point of neglecting giving me attention, I might add."
Wu stuck her tongue out at me.
"Ah, so adorable," auntie said. "I always did wish to have a daughter."
"Boys can be rather dirty," Wu said with a sly smile.
"Oh," auntie pursed her lips. "I'm unmarried and have no children."
"Ah." Xiao Wu slowly turned her head to me. Help me, she mouthed.
It was the sweet sweet flavor of awkwardness.
"It's no matter." Auntie waved a hand and gave me a chiding look. "It just so happened that no man could ever meet my standards." She smiled at Wu. "And as much as I would dote on my nephew, and this"—she gestured in my general direction—"mess, I would sooner tell you to never settle for any less than you deserve."
Xiao Wu's eyes reflected nothing else but auntie. She tugged at San's sleeve. "Ge, please make sure I grow up to be like her."
Auntie raised a brow. "But not childless, perhaps?"
Wu lit up in bright pink. "Oh, ah, we're still much too young for that."
San looked away but didn't express his displeasure.
Auntie giddied up. "Are they always this precious?"
"Quite often, actually." These two were so damn sweet to each other it was rarer to see them even remotely upset with the other or even apart. Though San did have his moments of lonesomeness when he did his forging of Hidden Weapons, then again, Wu would still look after him so kinda not really?
"At least I won't have any problems seeing grandchildren with little San," she said. Auntie raised a brow at me. "It doesn't have to be Rongrong, you know."
I rolled my eyes. "I never said it'd be her, and neither am I thinking about that so early."
Auntie clicked her tongue. "You'll reach twenty in no time and be a man soon enough, you should start looking for a wife early who doesn't mind that overbearing haughtiness of yours."
"What? I am not even remotely haughty." I crossed my arms. "And I'm barely twelve! Twelve, auntie!"
That's when uncle Wei came back with enough robes for us four.
"Before I forget." She looked me up from head to toe. "What did I tell you about showing up here in such drab and worn clothes?"
"Not again," Wu said.
"Just let him have this," San followed up.
I glared at them before I gave auntie the full rundown of what happened to me including the part where I'd lost my most precious bed. Ah, and the thing about the exploding spirit ring too. Even putting it to words for a third time didn't alleviate the anguish of losing that part of me I'd had for so long. It was a harrowing journey for me to trudge through once more, but I had to power on through to honor the memories as well as to get auntie up to speed.
Then, in her calmest and most modulated voice said, "We have a hundred workers making those things you call mattresses every day, and you tell me you've had the same"—she glared at me— "one all these years?"
I pouted at her. "Shouldn't you be more worried about the spirit rings?"
Then horror registered on her face as her cheeks suddenly went pale. "I-is that why you and Rongrong hadn't progressed much?"
We were out of the Moon Pavilion in no time and our group took the same route as this morning, and after a few minutes of stealthy walking, avoiding any too crowded streets, and making sure our hoods were up all the time we eventually reached the little hut just behind the Blue Tyrant Academy and went through the gates. Another minute later and we then came face to face with grandpas Shan and Lin.
I was the first one they saw.
"Aren't you a little early for tomorrow?" grandpa Lin said with a sigh.
"Oh," grandpa Shan said, "San and Wu are here as well."
"I can see that," grandpa Lin added. "Something important happened that this couldn't wait?"
Auntie nodded. "Little Jin says he blew himself up."
Grandpa Lin stared at me long and hard. "What did you do?"
Grandpa Shan inspected me closer. "And why are covered in dirt here and there?"
"That would be all that's left of my bed."
"Oh," grandpa Lin said, "I don't understand how, but good."
"But I almost destroyed my spirit ring!"
Grandpa Shan choked on air. "What's this about destroying spirit rings?"
And so began the, hopefully, last retelling of the tale of my bed—
"Little Jin," auntie said, "please skip the part about your bed, I don't want to have to sit through a minute of that any longer than I already had to."
"We've heard it twice already," Xiao Wu added.
San shook his head. "And it was just as bad as the first time."
I took my seat by the cushions arrayed around the small but regal living area. "Spoil my fun."
"Just get on with the story," grandpa Lin said.
So I told them about the experiments on charging up my rings or making my skin glow from all the spirit power I could cram into them, even showed off how quickly I could grow my Hammer's size now to double it's normal form in as little as two seconds. I even included the part where I ended up messing with Rongrong and Zhuqing's hair plus the hair cut thing as backstory for the charging part, then came the nastier part where I was completely glowing then ended up throwing out all my stuff thanks to being so saturated with spirit power and then making everything go boom when I got annoyed, eventually culminating with said spirit ring blowing up and getting covered in electricity.
"Wait." Grandpa Shan held up a hand. "That doesn't sound like the Great Sumeru Hammer method."
"What's this about the summer hammer?"
Grandpa Lin glared at me. "The Great Sumeru Hammer is our clan's most prized possession. It is the same power that allowed our spirit to bear the name of Clear Sky, and you better give it the same reverence expected of everyone that bears the name of Tang."
"This is related to that inheritance ceremony, isn't it?"
Grandpa Lin gave a firm affirmative. "Little San, your father, this generation's Clear Sky douluo, had inherited the Great Sumeru Hammer method of our family which allows one to bring to bear power approaching the gods."
Grandpa Shan's eyes reflected a time long before ours. "Our dear uncle, your great grandfather, Tang Chen dared to even call it a divine ability. Although we do not know where he is right now, we believe he is still somewhere out there pursuing his goal of reaching divinity."
Tang San steeled his gaze. "But Spirit Hall likewise has their own method able to match this technique?"
I raised my hand. "Wait, did you just say great grandfather was trying to become a god?"
Uncle Lin glowed with pride. "Indeed."
I narrowed my eyes at them. "Gods are real?"
"There have been legends." Grandpa Shan looked aside. "And it was only thanks to a map that uncle Chen had come across before that he'd ended up pursuing his lifelong goal."
I pinched the bridge of my nose. Gods. Maps. Divine Abilities. How come I was only finding out about this now. "And we still have this map?"
Grandpa Lin let out a rush of breath. "That, unfortunately, has been lost with the times."
Grandpa Shan ran his fingers through his greying hair. "We do not know where the map or if any of its copies still exist with the sect, and it stands to reason we can't just ask any others about it, yes?"
San's eyes shone. "So you mean to say our Clear Sky Hammer has the potential to pursue divinity?"
"But where exactly does divinity lie?" Wu scooched forward intently with doe-eyed wonder.
Everyone here except for San knew Wu was a spirit beast turned human, though I couldn't remember if we'd already told auntie about that. Still, this talk of gods and divinity just flew above my head, it was a lot to take in for one evening after all. We had more immediate concerns like how to avoid the genocide Spirit Hall—supposedly—wanted to enact upon us Tangs.
"Uncle Chen said it was beyond rank one hundred," grandpa Lin said. "And if he had indeed reached this mythical rank, then surely we would be the ones to know first."
"And still we haven't to this day?"
The two hung their heads.
I wanted to roll my eyes. Of course, it stood to reason that us being suppressed during the mishap with uncle Hao was related to this hot mess of a situation. "And let me guess, Spirit Hall likewise has their own great figure who was trying to become a god?"
"Qian Daoliu," auntie said with poison. "That accursed name."
Welp, that sure as hell sounded like a final boss fight. "And he's the one behind the state of our sect now?"
"Indeed," grandpa Lin said, "as the one who stands at the pinnacle of Spirit Hall, the rank ninety-nine super douluo, Angel Douluo, is the true power behind all their movements."
That was a shitty title if I didn't know any better, but fine, such was the name of someone who could strike fear into the hearts of others.
"Hao killed Qian Daoliu's son and eventually started this grudge," grandpa Shan said, "but the enmity of Spirit Hall for all the non-subordinate sects was already there anyway. They just needed enough of a push to rally enough to their ideals."
"But does Spirit Hall also have a technique like our Great Sumeru Hammer?"
"None," grandpa Shan said, "but they have even more Titled Douluos than us."
"A very fair point," I said.
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