As more and more people came from the pagoda, they did seem to fall into one of two groups. Some disciples had fought tooth and nail for every point, going out violently and brutally. Even if they knew the fight was helpless, they either gave their lives to take one last enemy or suicided to do as much damage as possible. One could see the trauma in their eyes as they reappeared. One couldn’t fake the shaken appearance after having experienced death.
The second group voluntarily surrendered once facing an opponent they didn’t believe they could defeat. In their minds, a single extra point wasn’t like the difference between victory and failure. They either feared experiencing the pain of death or felt there was no point and put the towel in early. For children so young, experiencing death could truly cause mental damage which might even kill their fighting spirit and prevent them from continuing to excel as martial artists.
It was hard to tell which attitude the Xaoi sect favored. On the one hand, having a good understanding of your abilities was a good trait to have for cultivation. On the other hand, one would never make it far in cultivation if they weren’t willing to put their life on the line. In the end, those that persevered would on average earn more points and last longer than those that quit while they were ahead, so it would all end up showing in the end.
One of the most familiar and anticipated people finally appeared out of the pagoda. It was none other than Dian Ai. She had a calm expression, but she was also panting with red cheeks. One wouldn’t be able to guess whether she had chosen to fight until the last breath, or opted not to take her chance and left with a bit of dignity when she knew she was overwhelmed. Many hoped that she did the latter, as she was already talented, and given her youthful age, such trauma wouldn’t be good for her.
As she walked off the platform over the waiting area, everyone held their breath and watched for her to appear on the scoreboard. Her name finally popped up after a few moments of computation, and for the first time since the competition had begun, people broke out into cheers. Dian Ai had ended up in first place.
It was true that she was one of the first to enter the pagoda, not holding back like many of the others. However, she had still completed in a rather short time, which meant that her ability to defeat enemies was quick. This made a lot of sense considering she was in the youngest group but already in the 2nd realm. She would have been able to clean house with the first dozen encounters before having to face anyone who could even be called her equal. This was truly a contest that favored the young. Each subsequent age group only would increase that difficulty level.
More and more competitors finished. One of those that came out was Xiong Mengyao. After the day of registration where he was repeatedly outshined by other people, Xiong Mengyao had gone into closed-door cultivation. He had sent a few ruffians to cause trouble with Bao bi, but they had fled shortly after getting close to his mansion after being overwhelmed by killing intent. Xiong Mengyao hadn’t been able to follow up with them, but as he remembered the powerful dark horse Liao An who had made it to the third realm, he decided it was best if he didn’t cause any trouble. He’d save his vengeance for the competition.
That’s why he had worked so hard up until this day. He hadn’t increased his levels as others had, but he had managed to stabilize his cultivation and strengthen his mental aptitude considerably. That allowed him to shoot right through the 1st competition. He had managed a time of eleven minutes and three seconds, just barely defeating his love interest, and decimating Bao Bi’s time. He had witnessed Bao bi’s accident and had only wished that the explosion caused permanent damage. He’d also been one of the ones to push the theory that Bao bi had cheated. He wasn’t against slandering Bao bi’s name.
Bao bi had been alongside Jiang Ying Yue most of the competition, and Xiong Mengyao could only grind his teeth and watch from afar. Bao bi already appeared to have the beautiful Liao An wrapped around his finger, so why was he pursuing Ying Yue as well? Xiong Mengyao had long had the desire to make Jiang Ying Yue his bride. He envisioned himself in Bao bi’s place, cultivating alongside his woman until she reached the perfect level to pluck. Then, he would take his one hundred strokes from her. She would give herself to him, and he would use her to reach new heights, possibly even getting a chance at being an inner disciple.
Once he reached inner disciple, his life would be set. By then, Ying Yue’s cultivation would have been mostly lost due to her being used up in dual cultivation, and so she’d need to leave the Xaoi sect. She’d return home to the palace, being a dutiful wife and consort, and Xiong Mengyao would be free to grow to unimaginable heights. He’d take on many concubines, and he may even occasionally return to his wife’s excitement, filling her with a few babies.
This life plan wasn’t necessarily his delusion. This was the same plan her father and the other nobles wished for her. There would be nothing more honorable for a woman than to sacrifice her body and her cultivation to help her husband grow powerful in the sect, and then pop out his babies for the rest of her life. This would tie a powerful immortal to the throne, and give her family stability, clout, and power that would last for generations.
And yet, his plan to get close to Jiang Bo and by extension, his future wife had been upset by that kid Bao bi. He was so young but had already reached the upper tier of the 1st realm. Xiong Mengyao was still more powerful than him, but that window would be closing the longer he delayed. His only option was to destroy the opposition before Bao bi was too powerful to defeat. Jiang Ying Yue would be his, whatever it took.
He looked up at the scoreboard to see himself come out in the 50s. It was difficult at this stage to determine if that was a good score or a bad score. After all, he could drop fairly suddenly. At this stage though, there were enough high scores than those in the top hundred who would very possibly pass this round, so he didn’t feel he needed to worry.
Qi Xue, the boy who had threatened Bao bi after the first test had also come out, but his score was just over a hundred. He looked haggard and pale, and it was clear he had fought tooth and nail to the end. His mind wasn’t on his recent death though. It was in his place. He could still get kicked off the list if he was unlucky. The only thing he could think of to make himself feel better was that he had to be better than that Bao bi kid.
Jiang Ying Yue appeared a short time later. She expected to get out before her brother, but she still looked up and checked the board eagerly. She had taken her brother’s advice and quit once she found an opponent that was too much for her. As a younger opponent, she felt she had already had an advantage, and didn’t want to risk losing her martial arts spirit. Plus, she was still young and feared the feeling of death.
As she examined the board, she was looking specifically for several names that weren’t her own. She was relieved to see Bao bi hadn’t come out yet, although considering he had started later than her, that seemed unlikely. Seeing Dian Ai in the first place made her lips tighten. At least, she knew one woman who would be able to decimate Dian Ai.
Liao An, who was in the third realm, hadn’t seemed to do so well in the first exam, but that wasn’t based on some factors beyond age and cultivation. However, this was the competition that would reveal her as the undefeated champion of the event. That was what Jiang Ying Yue was thinking, but just as she had those bitter thoughts, Liao An appeared without any fanfare. She did not look like she had given her life either, and rather walked away from the pagoda while giving no one any mind, not even sparing Jiang Ying Yue a glance.
Just after the incident where she was exposed to Bao bi, Bao bi went into close cultivation. Based on the information she could get from her brother, it was very important and he couldn’t be bothered, yet somehow Liao An was involved with it. Her brother wouldn’t go into specifics, and then he immediately went into closed-door cultivation of his own, leaving her hanging with that idea.
Today had been the first day she had seen Liao An after the pair went into closed-door cultivation together. Her demeanor had seemingly completely changed. The sexy way she used to walk had been replaced with something more refined. Her bored expression had become intense and focused. She seemed somehow separate from the world, like a ghost wandering through.
After enough time passed that her name should have been on the board, Jiang Ying Yue frowned. Liao An should have been first place, but her name wasn’t there. She went searching once again, and only eventually did she find her name marked at 99. How had a third realm not been first place? Liao An started to put two and two together. Bao bi went into closed doors with a woman. Now that woman’s behavior has changed, and her cultivation has seemingly dropped.
Jiang Ying Yue couldn’t help but audibly gasp, getting several dirty looks from nearby moderators. Covering her mouth, she quickly crossed the bridge away from the pagoda and to the final waiting area. Yet, she couldn’t shake the idea that had formed in her head. Had they dual cultivated? Did Bao bi take her?
Jiang Bo finally came out and looked up to see himself at 58th place. He was rather pleased with himself. He also looked to see his sister Ying Yue had reached 100th. With a smile, he crossed the bridge, ready to congratulate her. What he found instead was a sobbing sister who looked to be about to break mentally.
“Sister, you don’t need to be upset. You’ll pass this round. Don’t forget you’re younger and have a lower cultivation. Still making 100 all but assures you will make it to the third round.” Jiang Bo tried to guess why she was upset.
“That’s not it at all, stupid!”
Jiang Bo was at a loss again as he tried to soothe his crying sister, who wouldn’t even explain why she was upset.
Although she had her theory about Liao An, the elder who had tested her had another theory. She had deliberately thrown the match to keep her score lower. She was trying to enter without being seen. He nodded at these words, and even considering the possibility that she was from some powerful sect. However, he had already asked around, and it was easy to find information on Liao An as a merchant’s daughter. Not only could he see knew connection to a more powerful sect, but for all intent and purposes, she had no connections to cultivators at all. That might not mean much. A sect powerful enough to had a thirteen-year-old in the third tier also likely could alter minds and forge accounts. They could have created an airtight history for her.
While the elder had reported her presence to the higher-ups, he had made Xaoi Wang and the others that had overheard promise to keep this a secret. Although there were rumors of a third realm in the competition, no one would connect that to Liao An. The elder was surprised he had done such a good job keeping the information from spreading. It was almost like there was someone else powerful who was also doing a good job making her presence obscure.
As was, she would join the Xaoi sect without issue, and she’d be drawing no attention. The same could not be said about Bao bi, and as the final contestants began to leave the pagoda one after another and the final tallies appeared, he still hadn’t made his presence. The last ten or so were especially exciting because at that point time was a good indicator of who would have the highest score. Dian Ai was beaten from 1st place and had fallen to 9th.
Jiang Bo had barely managed to remain under 100 at 98, and Jiang Ying Yue had fallen to 920 with Liao An barely better than her at 918. That was the level of difference between those who came out earlier and later. Qi Xue had also narrowly made it at 999. He was sweating as the last few came out, knocking him down one notch at a time. However, the contestants that left had finally stopped, and it looked like the competition was finally at an end.
Only a hand full of people had their brows furrowed, still worrying about one last person. That person would be Bao bi. Ying Yue and Bo both knew that he was still in there. As a few more minutes passed, it started to spread that there was still one person in there. Someone who had seemingly managed to be in there longer than anyone else. Didn’t that mean they were extremely powerful? Some managed to connect Bao bi with the face of the boy who had the accident in the first round.
Some began to murmur that he must have cheated again. Xiong Mengyao in particular was eager to spread that rumor. There was also talk that he must have somehow died or was stuck in some epic battle between life and death. The longer they waited, the crazier the theories got. Of course, if they had only known how close they were…
After defecating in the pagoda’s pot, the administrator had shown no mercy. He started sending increasing more powerful enemies, granting them special powers and exempting them from restraints. After all, these were powerful heroes, and even with their cultivation restrained, if they were allowed to go all out, there wouldn’t be a competition about who would win at a given level. Thus, even ignoring cultivation, there was a handicap given to the disciples to help them achieve victory.
Such handicaps were ignored when it came to Bao bi, and each battle became more frantic and insane. He was a 9th tier 2nd realm opponent who sent out a barrage of spirit skills Bao bi’s way. Bao bi used his strange movement technique refined by Tigra to dodge the attacks. His shirt was drenched with sweat, and while he’d like to say he had defeated a lot of enemies, it took all he had to take down one at a time.
He also had to learn on the go. Every time he won, his next opponent would possess a completely new technique. This was another way the administrator increased the difficulty. They were supposed to change up techniques only once every five matches. The Xaoi sect believed tests should also be teaching opportunities, and allowing someone to slowly get used to a technique as it increased in difficulty was one way to help them learn. Yet, the administrator didn’t give him this favor, so he received the strongest opponent of a style all at once.
Thus, it was immediately followed by a cat and mouse game where he had to avoid his opponent as he learned about his skills and abilities. Only once he was confident would he take a strike did he risk it. This sounded simple, but it was extremely exhausting. Furthermore, the enemies quickly reached a point where they couldn’t be defeated with a single strike. He had to wear his opponent down slowly. Furthermore, his opponents had weapons, and he was still given nothing.
He had even attempted to strip a weapon from an opponent, but once he killed the opponent, the weapon had evaporated with his enemy like a cruel joke. It wasn’t exactly easy stealing weapons, and so it eventually made more sense for him to just depend on his hands. Besides, he had no weapon training, and all of his techniques depended on barehanded fighting.
He finally brought down a group of three 2nd realm. One had a bow and arrow, one had a spear, and the final had a sword. This allowed them to attack him from every range, and Bao bi only narrowly managed to avoid it through pure luck. That’s when the next enemy came out, a 3rd realm.
Although the Xaoi sect made it seem like disciples should be able to defeat enemies over their tier, the test was mostly designed that as long as you were able to defeat enemies two tiers over you, you’d earn enough points to be in the top 1000. Someone who was able to defeat an opponent one a section higher than their tier could be good enough to reach the top 100. Those 9,000 that had fallen off the list had all failed to kill enemies stronger than them.
In comparison, Bao bi had been forced to battle enemies that were more powerful than him from nearly the start, and even those were more powerful than anyone else had to face. If he knew that the points were also being nerfed, he might have torn his hair out in frustration. All that he did know was that this test was very difficult, and he once again found himself admiring all of those other kids who had managed to hold on and score high. As an adult, he didn’t want to be the one left behind, thus, he got back into form and faced the third realm.
“Is that all you got?” He responded.
Had he known he was being watched by an administrator who was now half-crazed with a desire to kill him, he might have chosen his words a bit more carefully.