Xiao Wu just now gave me a cup of tea, and Tang San resumed his kneading of my back, his energy tracing the same paths from earlier.
Grandpa cleared his throat and said, "I'll call for grandmaster first, I'm sure you have a lot of questions."
Without much choice, I sat there and just took everything in stride. Tang San was my cousin. That was a big enough thing, but to think this genius could save me as well, and how I might add, I didn't know. Luck, perhaps? Or maybe it was because he had the same spirit as what I'd devoured before?
But all that came out was, "Thank you, cousin San." I would've bowed if I could but he was behind me, I owed the guy my life after all.
"It's no matter between family," he said, not stopping his massaging and whatnot.
"That's very noble of you," I said. It was something I didn't come to expect of others, both now and back then. The few people I'd interacted enough with were family, and the rest were all merchants who like me had motives of each other. But here, by all accounts was a stranger. And to be in their home and getting nursed, no less.
"Be at ease cousin," he said. "I speak the truth." He tapped specific points along my back, and the energy gathered there in clumps moving against a mass, as if pushing through.
The door opened and in came grandpa together with a sharp looking man with graying hair. His robes were of a fine cut, though already tattered and old, but the bearing behind his gait spoke volumes of his character.
Tang San bowed to him, and said, "You have returned, teacher."
Our eyes met. "You must be Yu Xiaogang," I said.
He nodded. "Indeed, I am."
I bowed, and said, "Thank you for your kindness."
His expression softened somewhat, but the stern gaze remained. "Who am I to turn away someone who wishes to learn?"
"Grandpa has already told you?"
A light played in his eyes. "He has told me more than that."
Tang San finished his massaging, and after the numbness subsided, a clean and taut feeling remained in my body—like I'd just woken up to a fully warmed up state, ready to spring at any moment.
"It is done, teacher." Tang san then bowed to grandpa Shan. "Cousin Jin should be alright now, though I'm surprised to see a person I could only call blessed by the heavens." He had on a wry smile.
I raised an eyebrow at grandpa Shan. "Is this because of my spirit ring?"
"No," Yu Xiaogang said, "rather, it is because of the reason you came here, and the circumstance you brought with you."
I felt taller, somehow. "That saves us a lot of time then," I said, smiling at the people there. "Someone mind getting me up to speed?"
Yu Xiaogang's eyes took on a sharp light. "You were a bloody mess when you came here, and your grandpa came in with tears streaming down his face, begging us to help him do something."
I looked at grandpa who looked away. "This rascal actually made this old man beg," he said. But there was no catch in the way he said it, and good lord that was really stupid of me.
"I'm still young," I said, "I'm entitled to be stupid." I chuckled at my own expense.
"You were a fool," said Xiaogang, his voice ragged and harsh. "You were arrogant and selfish as well."
"I know," I said, staring at him, while Tang San and Xiao Wu frowned.
"As expected of a little master," she said with a sigh, but Tang San chastised her with a shake of his head.
"I had to watch him grow up," added grandpa Shan. I pouted at him. "What? You can't blame this old man for having a few tender feelings."
"Fine," I said, then dropped the jovial tone in my bantering, "how bad was it?"
Xiaogang tilted his head side to side. "It wasn't as bad as I initially thought."
"Hence, my calling you blessed," said Tang San. "Your spirit power was all over the place, and you had an amazing amount of spirit force but so little strength in your body."
"I feel amazing though," I said, gathering spirit power in my hands when I noticed the staggering twenty in Interface. Grandpa rolled his eyes and Yu Xiaogang shook his head. "And I'm at the twentieth rank already."
"You are?!" said grandpa Shan, his eyes wide with surprise.
"A genius among geniuses," said Xiaogang, unfazed. "But you have a fatal flaw."
"My body isn't as strong as my spirit," I said, repeating what cousin San said just now.
"Yes," Xiaogang said. "But it is within reason seeing how young you still are." Grandpa and I nodded. "But I wouldn't advise you to get your next ring just yet." He looked hard into my eyes.
"I don't really mind, but then what would I do instead?"
"Just bring out your spirits," he said.
I did as he ordered and summoned my Crown and Hammer, my one ring floating behind me. "As requested," I said.
"Will your ring forward so I can see," said Xiaogang.
I did, and when it floated next to him, Tang San was taken aback.
"This ring is half purple!" Tang San said.
"Huh?" grandpa Shan said.
"This is new to me too," I said.
"This is an unprecedented case," said Xiaogang. "You've completely breached my own theoretical understanding of the limits of cultivation for a first ring." He nodded. "Little San, please bring yours out as well."
Tang san nodded, and stretched out his left hand, blue light surging from it as a tuft of Blue Silver Grass appeared, a single yellow ring floating behind him.
"Then your other," said Xiaogang.
"Twin spirits then," I said. "That makes more sense."
"You're taking this rather well," he said.
I shrugged. "I've done my reading on them, and cousin San was rumored to have awakened with full innate spirit power."
Tang San nodded, and black light surged out of his right hand, that overbearing Hammer appearing after the light condensed.
"But he can only bring one out at a time," I said.
Yu Xiaogang smiled a bit. "Indeed, worthy of being hailed a genius," he said. "So now we come to your situation, you can have both your spirits out at the same time, but never has it happened before in record. And given the three other known cases of twin spirits, all of them could only bring one out at a time." He raised an eyebrow at me.
"Which means my conjecture is right," I said. "And that I have merged spirits." He nodded, and Tang San dispelled his Hammer.
"But to call it merged is to cast it in stone," Xiaogang added, "at best we still only have an educated guess."
"But it's the best we have," I said. "And the matter of not getting my next spirit ring?"
"Your grandfather told me you only reached the twelfth rank on getting your exceptional ring." He gestured at Tang San. "But little San here managed to achieve the eleventh with a four-hundred-year ring."
"That doesn't sound strange to me."
"But the limit for absorption of the second ring is only at seven hundred years."
"So, it's as close to saying I absorbed a thousand for my first?"
"That," Xiaogang raised an eyebrow, the same light from earlier flashing in the. "Or four hundred and fifty for each of your spirits."
"Oh, that makes sense," I said. "Okay, I never considered that before."
Grandpa met my eyes and nodded as well. "Going here was right after all."
"Thank you." Xiaogang cleared his throat. "But again, in terms of the quality of the ring you absorbed, it still falls short." He raised a finger. "Which leads me to suspect this cultivation of yours." He put up another finger and pointed at my ring.
"Your grandfather told me you have your own cultivation pathway, could you show me?"
"Alright," I said.
"May I also observe?" Tang San said.
"If he goes, I go too," Xiao Wu said.
I shrugged and presented them my back. "This might feel a little strange." I opened my Domain and Pranus Core, making sure to remove them from my power's effect as much as I could, and bathed the small office in golden light.
"This is a domain?" said Xiaogang. "You actually have a domain!"
"Is it that impressive?" I asked.
Tang San shook his head. "The frog in the well really knows not how large the ocean is."
"No one else in our sect can compare to him," grandpa said. "And he only has us old geezers to play with, little San. He really knows nothing of the outside world."
"Yes, little Jin, it is impressive," Xiaogang said. "Now proceed with the demonstration."
I closed my eyes and felt some threads of power connect with me, one was a cool and refreshing blue, another a dull yellow, and the last a fiery red—it reminded me of what happened in the forest. I shook it off and did as asked, taking in the energy of the universe through my Domain and passing it through Pranus Core before filling each chakra up, spinning for a while then entering my Crown. We stayed like that for a minute or so until I stopped.
"Your cultivation method makes no sense," said Xiaogang. "You concentrate your spirit power into your spirit?"
"Yes," I said.
"At least now we know why your body's so weak," Tang San said.
"The soul is analogous to the spirit," I said, "isn't that right?"
"You're not wrong," Xiaogang said, stroking his chin.
"And I'm also still higher in cultivation than these two," I pointed at Tang San and Xiao Wu.
Xiao Wu grunted, and Tang San remained indifferent.
"Cultivation isn't everything, little Jin," said Xiaogang. "A spirit master's foundation matters just as much. To believe numbers are all that matter in a fight is naïve."
Grandpa groaned by the side.
"Perhaps junior and I can exchange pointers?" Tang San said with a smile. "I've never fought anyone other than Xiao Wu who's had a higher rank than me before."
"Then Xiao Wu Jie can also teach junior a thing or two," Xiao Wu said with the sweetest smile.
"Aren't I still injured?" There were no indicators in Interface saying anything was wrong. As far as I was concerned, I was as fit as a fiddle.
"You'll be just fine," said Xiao Wu.
We were out the door faster than I could complain, with Xiao Wu nearly prodding me with a stick all the way as Yu Xiaogang led us to an away clearing in the forest near the academy. It was just a small patch of dirt about ten meters all around, enough for a fight between kids—and much smaller than our courtyard back home.
"Feel free to cut loose here," Xiaogang said. "Your grandpa is more than sufficient to ensure nothing happens to any of you."
Grandpa nodded. "I'll be sure to step in if any of you are about to get hurt."
Tang San stepped up first. "I trust grandpa won't take sides in this matter?"
"You are both my precious grandchildren," he said. "But I also enjoy seeing little Jin get his butt handed to him."
Xiao Wu looked at grandpa funny. "Ge, are you sure your family is right in the head?"
Tang San didn't answer her.
"Am I limited to only one ability?" I asked.
"Do you think you should be?" asked Xiaogang.
"It'd be like facing two spirit masters for the person to fight me."
"Are you confident then to face me and brother together?" said Xiao Wu with hands akimbo.
"I'm a genius, not a miracle worker," I said. "But if I do beat you both, then wouldn't junior be really cool?" I laughed in my haughtiest manner.
Tang San smiled wryly at that. "I don't mind, if Xiao Wu is alright with it and if you agree, but don't go complaining if after we defeat you."
"I give you my word," I said, raising my hand.
Xiao Wu stepped into the clearing with a fierce smile. "Junior truly is annoying," she said, "Xiao Wu Jie of Nuoding Elementary Academy, Soft-boned Rabbit, nineteenth rank battle spirit master." She bowed and released her ring, a brilliant yellow as her ears elongated and got covered in fluffy white fur, and a pink sheen glowed from her skin.
I turned to the two seniors. "I'm starting to regret what I said just now," I said.
Grandpa Shan started laughing at the sides. "Too late now, you little rascal!"
Tang San also released his spirit, blue rays of light shining in layers around his body as a single yellow ring floated upwards and his hair became translucent. "Tang San, Blue Silver Grass, nineteenth rank control system spirit master." He bowed as well.
I sighed and released both of mine, Crown and Hammer shining in gold and black together, one rested on my head, the other in my hand as the world shifted into one of distinct clarity. "Tang Jin, Clear Sky Hammer and Amber Crown, twentieth rank control and power attack system spirit master." My spirit ring floated into view, half-yellow and half-purple.
A breeze blew past, and I met Tang San and Xiao Wu's eyes.
"Begin," said grandpa with a smile.
Xiao Wu rushed in, her long legs moving with fluid grace as she closed the distance between us. Right behind her was Tang San with his grass already wrapped around his arm. As a control system, Tang San's grass most likely ensnares targets, while Xiao Wu as a rabbit might do kicks and jumps.
My ring shone and from my body extended a pillar of gold light. "First ring, Devour, takes spirit power or life force from anything caught in the light and gives it to me."
The light then settled on Xiao Wu and she winced from the first contact.
"Junior has such a devious ability," she said, then jumped about left and right, my gold light chasing her fleeting form.
She was much faster than my light could track—okay, yeah, that sucked ass. When she came within half a meter, she whipped out her head, braided hair trailing behind and it went straight for my outstretched hand. I willed my Hammer into my left hand and its aura prevented her snare. At the same time, a line of blue shot towards my right hand, and I avoided it with a quick twist of my body.
When I regained my balance, a pair of slender and soft calves squeezed my head.
"Waist bow," said Xiao Wu, she was standing with her hands. "Increases core strength by a hundred percent, and by another percent for each rank above ten."
Then she fucking flipped, throwing me face first into Tang San.
Tang San jumped, lines of blue again coming towards me, but I wrapped myself in Devour and set it to absorb at its hardest. When his grass touched my skin, a slight numbing set in, but the grass became brittle fast enough and I was able to break it off.
The two had me surrounded, but with the exchange just now, they had nothing strong enough between them to really put the pain on me. Like I guessed, Tang San has that grass binding for his first ability while Xiao Wu has Waist Bow, as long as I can disable one of them it'd be my win. I concentrated spirit power into my Hammer and charged at Tang San.
He took a stance to receive.
I stopped my charge. "Huh?"
Tang San looked at me funny. Then I threw my hammer at him covered in that black light. The beauty of Devour was that it barely cost me any spirit power to maintain, so I could have my little bit of insurance on for as long as I need, and it gave me back spirit power too.
The same braid of hair appeared in my vision and I dropped like a rock towards the source. Tang San's eyes widened as I fell while he dodged and let my Hammer pass him. Then I recalled it to my right hand and smashed it down backhand into Xiao Wu. The flexibility of a body under ten years of age was impeccable, then a jolt shot me away from my last dance partner.
I skipped back to the clearing's edge, putting Tang San and Xiao Wu back in front.
"Are you alright, Xiao Wu?" asked Tang San.
"I'm alright brother," she said with a feral smile.
Xiao Wu charged again, this time with Tang San by her right flank, but his movements were… odd, I'd expect him to step one way but he'd do so in another direction the moment I think I had him. And he was a bit faster than Xiao Wu, a battle spirit master with an agile spirit. His movements were too peculiar to not be deliberate.
I charged at Xiao Wu, Hammer in hand and covered in my golden light. She again whipped out her braid, but this time I was prepared and pulled hard—but a coat of grass bound my leg and pulled me in just as hard. Hurtling towards Tang San, I charged my black light even more, pumping weight into the Hammer. I expanded Devour forward in a cone, enveloping the two and they both winced under that gold light. My spirit power started trickling back, getting replenished in place of their own.
They were the ones pressed for offense since I could replenish my spirit power in battle, and attrition was another of my possible tactics.
Tang San picked up some rocks. "Junior truly is a genius to repel us so much. I am honored to face such an opponent."
I pushed Devour towards them in a longer and wider cone, and charged forward. My Hammer was enough to threaten Xiao Wu, and any attempts to trap me from either side would be met with an extra focused Devour.
"Left shoulder," said Tang San, and a shadow flew straight to between my eyes.
I swung my head clear but that stone changed trajectory and bent into where Tang San said it would hit. The strike stung, but didn't do any real damage. "So, we're free to use whatever means?"
"Just the things around us," Tang San said with a smile.
"Good," I said, and charged as much weight as I could into the Hammer.
"Right wrist, left elbow, right knee," Tang San said, three shadows flying.
I stood my ground. Perhaps he read my reactions ahead? The three stones bent into different paths and all hit true where he said. "That throwing technique makes no sense either!" I smashed my Hammer down and kicked up a large cloud of dust. I retracted expanded Devour into a wide bubble and bathed everything in gold. If he could turn this into a backyard brawl, then so could I. I willed a clump of dirt into my Inventory.
"Forehead," said Tang San, and a shadow flew straight for my head.
Him being able to see through the screen wasn't all that surprising given he could throw shit that bent the fucking laws of physics. I willed the clump of dirt to appear right over Tang San's eyes, and he seemed to scramble—within my Domain, I sensed all. I charged after Xiao Wu, Devour eating in a wide berth to block her from finding me. But then in came a flurry of stones, hitting me in my limbs and shoulders and hips. This was getting annoying. I charged after them, reinforcing my body with as much spirit power as I could and ignored those flying stones. A steady trickle came in from Devour, meaning they were still within my range.
I neared the two, and more grass sprouted from my feet, binding me for a second but they crumbled soon enough. Then in came Xiao Wu and Tang San together, he had his Hammer out as well. I concentrated Devour onto the two of them, focusing its effect.
"Black Wasp Bullet," I said. "Take care." My ring shone again, and black light surged from my Hammer, forming a bolt. I swung at the bolt and it flew towards them.
Tang San dodged, and I recovered my swing to leverage the force, producing another black bolt and hitting it—this one flying faster than the first. Tang San dodged again but Xiao Wu was almost caught. Another recovery formed into a strike and another bullet thundered towards them.
"Disorder Splitting Wind can be used this way?" Tang San said.
The last bolt grazed Xiao Wu, Devour anticipating where they'd dodge and eating at their spirit powers. Bolt after bolt flew towards them, flying faster and faster each. Tang San had no problems dodging, but he was also pulling Xiao Wu here and there.
After the fifteenth bolt, I stopped and fell flat on my back breathing hard. "I'm out of spirit power," I squeezed out.
Xiao Wu also fell on her butt and Tang San wiped off the sweat from his brows.
Grandpa Shan and Yu Xiaogang walked into the clearing, both with satisfied looks.
"I stand by what I said," Xiaogang said, "but I must recognize your talent."
"Thank you," I said, "and I stand by what I said too. Though this is completely contrary to what I was saying back at the sect, but in the face of overwhelming power, technique can only do so much." I stood myself up. "But until I get there, techniques are the way to go."
I walked over to Tang San and Xiao Wu but the two were already recovering themselves.
"Big sister Wu and big brother San, junior really enjoyed exchanging pointers with you," I said with a bow. Which wasn't a lie. These two gave me a run for my money, even if I technically had the advantage. But still, a giddy feeling welled up from within. That was still two nineteenth ranked spirit masters I fought.
The two shared a look and bowed as well.
"Such a crafty junior," Xiao Wu said, "to hide your second ability like that until the end."
"Thank you as well for letting me see the practicality of the Disorder Splitting Wind method," said Tang San.
We returned to Yu Xiaogang's office after that, and ate a rich dinner—or at least as rich as we could get in such a small city—then retired our separate ways. Xiaogang and the two other students back in their dorm, and me and grandpa in a hotel. We were expecting uncles Zhi and Hu to catch up in another two days.
The following morning, grandpa brought me up to speed with what had transpired with Tang San.
"Little Jin," he said, "Tang San is the son of your uncle, Tang Hao."
Yeah, that made even more sense now. "That explains a lot."
Then his eyes went red again, and he said, "But to think our Clear Sky Douluo was reduced to a man spending every day in a drunken grief, this is too much for this old man to bear." He breathed hard. "Little Hao has already lost so much, and the support of the sect on top of that and the right to pay respect to his father, it's too cruel."
"How did uncle Hao get exiled?" I said. "I know the general story, but what else is there?"
"Little Jin," grandpa said, "I shouldn't tell you any of this until you are much older, but grandpa trusts you, so be very careful with how you use this information."
Grandpa spared nothing. Uncle Hao's wife was named Ah Yin, and she travelled together with my father as well when they were still younger. Together, the three of them made waves in the spirit master world. Uncle Hao and Ah Yin eventually found love with each other, and father found it elsewhere. The news of what transpired after they parted would later come with my uncle after the fact. Ah Yin was a hundred-thousand-year spirit beast who'd chosen to become human, and it was also thanks to her that he reached the Titled Douluo realm. Spirit Hall came for her, and uncle Hao naturally retaliated, and after that he came to the sect to ask for help, but the council of elders then—led by his own father, said no, thus leading to the in-hiding state of the sect now, and the tragedy that befell my uncle's family. From the council then, grandpas Shan and Lin were the ones in favor of rallying behind uncle, while grandpas Bai, Huang, and Guo were against it.
At the end of the story, grandpa excused himself to be alone for a while, and I… just had a lot dumped on my plate.
I wandered around Nuoding city after leaving a message with grandpa that I'll be out for a bit, and eventually found myself back in Yu Xiaogang's office.
"Greetings to cousin's teacher," I said.
"Please be at ease, little Jin," he said. "There are no strangers here."
"I… need to ask you of something," I said.
"Don't you think favors are a little too early into things?"
"No, not a favor." I shook my head. "Just information."
He raised an eyebrow. "Go on."
"I'd like to know what you know of hundred-thousand-year spirit beasts… and how a certain manual reached our sect's hands." I willed the training manual uncle Zhang gave me when I started practicing with them into my hands. I passed him the theorem he wrote all those years ago.
"These ten core spirit principles of yours is the reason the Clear Sky sect survives until now," I said. "And I also owe you a great deal with my cultivation." I bowed low to him.
His eyes became watery but he stayed composed. "Thank you, little Jin." He sat down and told me to do the same. "Your uncle Hao asked for a copy of it from me almost twenty ago."
"And it's been put to good use ever since," I said. "Your theories are also what lead me to seek you out for my condition, and you truly shed some light on my predicament."
"And why the curiousity about hundred-thousand-year beasts?"
"Because my aunt was one, and Spirit Hall at least deserves to pay some reparations."
"I see," he said, "and does little San know of this?"
"I only came to know just now," I said. "I leave this information to you to decide with, to me, it doesn't matter." Then I smiled wryly at him. "This complicates my dreams of obtaining a hundred-thousand-year ring though." And my general understanding of spirit beasts in general—since it means I'm killing potentially sentient beings every time. …wait, so those grasses?"
"You look a little pale," he said.
"Don't mind me, just a bad memory."
He sighed and said, "From what I know, hundred-thousand-year spirit beasts are able to choose to become human or to continue as beasts, with the cost that they are only able to live for another thousand years."
I raised my hand, and he knit his brows. "Err, yes?"
"I'd assume a million years is the next stage, but why stop at a thousand?"'
"That's at least what the legends and records we've recovered from whatever ruins we could get said." Then his eyes regained that sharpness. "And I agree with your conjecture."
"Great minds think alike," I said.
"And besides the ring, those formidable beasts are also guaranteed to grant two abilities, as well as a spirit bone that would also contain two abilities."
I sighed and shook my head. "No wonder Spirit Hall wanted her so much."
"Would you tell me her name?"
"I want to, but I think that revelation should be for uncle Hao to explain."
"Then I defer to your wisdom," Xiaogang said with a slight bow.
We shared a solemn chuckle.
Then he said, "And what are your plans now? I trust you'll follow my instruction to wait before getting your next ring?"
I nodded. "I agree, my rising in ranks too fast led to some… unecessary troubles, and I also need to learn how to properly cultivate."
"Actually," Xiaogang said, "your cultivation method is not bad, just incomplete."
"Well, if you say so, then I'll work on completing it, and I'll be sure to document everything and pass it all to you."
He seemed taken aback. "What for?"
"I've felt the spirit power of a lot of people before, uncle Xiaogang. And I know you cannot be higher than the thirtieth rank, which leads me to believe you can't. Then perhaps an alternative method might help? One that allows you to cultivate your spirit directly?"
He nodded. "You have a way with words, little Jin."
"And I and my sect owe you a great deal," I said. "And when cousin San needs our help, I'll be sure to bring my other grandpa when he needs his next ring."
He raised an eyebrow.
"And of course, I won't invite you into the sect," I said. "Maybe as a guest but not as a member for sure."
He let out a breath of relief.
"That doesn't mean I can't commission you for some lessons though, maybe hire you as a part-time instructor?"
He smiled and shook his head. "The offer is flattering, little Jin, but this old grandmaster still would prefer to teach his dear disciple."
"And what if you gained another?"
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