The battle between Yang Ying and Bao bi was over in a flash. Few people even saw what happened, and of those that saw it, few understood what truly happened. To the common eye, it only looked like Yang Ting, in his overexuberance, had accidentally stumbled over his move and fallen out of bounds. He had lost that match, but almost no one who saw it believed that it was because of anything that Bao bi did himself.
Even his closest friend Jiang Bo considered it a lucky break that Yang Ying had acted so recklessly. Was Yang Ying so concerned about Bao bi, that he overextended himself and attempted to do some kind of technique that he wasn’t prepared for? That was the thought of everyone, even Yang Ying, who didn’t understand how he had calculated his punch trajectory so badly that he’d miss like that. He shouldn’t have missed, and he definitely shouldn’t have tripped over Bao bi’s knees. Both things were complete accidents in his mind.
Only Bao bi, Liao An, and the elder happened to know better. Liao An only responded with a nod. She felt a strange swelling of happiness in her chest that she didn’t quite understand. She told herself it was normal to be excited when your disciple succeeded. There was nothing about it. As for her former thoughts of seducing and having her way with him, those thoughts had been dismissed as soon as Midnight returned. Midnight was an extreme prude, so Tigra could only do her best to put aside those strange and unresolved emotions.
Bao bi jumped off the stage after a nod from the elder. He still put on a proper face, but his jaw was clenched and his mind was working. Yang Ying had been his ace in the hole, and yet the kid had screwed up. No, he might get one more chance. If Bao bi and Yang Ying both succeeded in their next few matches, then he could make it so that they were pitted against each other one more time. Yang Ying could have one more shot at victory. However, by that point, Bao bi would have already reached the perquisites to join the Xaoi sect. That meant that victory was no longer enough. The only chance the elder had to fulfill the mission he was given, is if Yang Ying killed Bao bi in their next pairing.
As the young Yang Ying finally recovered from his rage, he turned to leave, but the elder squeezed his shoulder, stopping him from looking away. He leaned in close and whispered into the man’s ear.
“You erred, but there may still be a chance. When you get that chance, you must take it to the end, or there will be no future for you in the Xaoi sect.” The elder’s words were despicable, holding not just redemption, but also threat.
Yang Ying stiffened under his words. His expression started with resolve, turned white for a moment, but then a desperate determination filled his face. To those watching, it looked like an elder was providing encouraging words to a young disciple who had erred, preventing him from falling into despair. Such a thing was hardly expected. These weren’t even disciples yet, so for an elder to go out of his way, only confirmed to the audience watching how magnanimous and kind the Xaoi sect was. If they only knew the truth that he was conspiring with a child to murder another child, then one could wonder what expression they would be wearing.
The elder had merely worried that the young boy wouldn’t understand the intention of his words. However, the severe glare he shot and Bao bi’s back and the clumsy streams of killing intent told the elder enough. He just caught himself from nodding in approval and quickly made his way back to his post where he could preside over the next match. Bao bi hadn’t reacted to the glare, which mean he was clueless about the conspiracy. This could all still be saved.
Of course, it wasn’t that Bao bi couldn’t feel the killing intent, but that it was nothing to the current him. A mouse could glare at a cat all day, but the cat would never truly feel the mouse’s malice. Upon returning next to Jiang’s siblings, they both congratulated him enthusiastically for his win, although neither thought that he had truly won it. Even Jiang Bo who had fought Bao bi many times did not understand the depth of his strength and assumed that he had lucked out in such a match where his enemy had accidentally overextended a technique. Naturally, Bao bi did nothing to dispel this belief.
“I didn’t do anything.” He shrugged.
What sounded like modesty to the elder’s ears only sounded like admittance to everyone else. A few spared him scornful looks, but most were more concerned about themselves. Rather than worrying about Bao bi any further, they decided to focus instead on the next match.
“Dian Ai versus Dong Jingfei.”
A quickly stifled whimper came out from the crowd. The crowd split up revealing a rather large boy. For someone only twelve, he was extremely muscular and in another setting, he would have been the largest and most intimidating kid there. In this setting of martial artists, he was pale and his expression was filled with regret. To be placed up against Dian Ai in the first match was truly unlucky. If people had been thinking Bao bi was unlucky going against Yang Ying, then their luck was magnified ten times by versing Dian Ai. In short, there was no chance of victory, and no one expected some kind of mistake like what had overturned Bao bi’s match.
The boy who looked like he had a career punching boulders stumbled onto the stage like a ghost, all of the air and vitality blew out of him. Across from him, the golden child Dian Ai had merely opened her eyes, stood up, and then gotten on stage. For a person his size to be fighting a girl as small and dainty as Dian Ai, it appeared like it was pure bullying. A few mortals watching the event who didn’t know any better even threw out a few jeers at Dong Jingfei for daring to stand against such a delicate flower. Most knew better.
To everyone’s surprise, Dong Jingfei let out a roar and then charged Dian Ai. It looked like he had made his decision. In the wake of defeat, he would try to depend on surprise to try to overthrow her. His meaty arm mercilessly slammed down on the small girl, aiming to crush her in a single brutal attack. It was startling and sudden enough that the crowds held their breath.
However, Dian Ai was being carefully watched by many. The elder presiding over the 1st group, on top of trying to kill Bao bi, had also been told that under no circumstances could Dian Ai be hurt. In the same way, one was destined for defeat, the other was blessed with success. Yet, despite that brutal attack, not a single elder even tensed. It was well within the abilities of Dian Ai to handle such a man. She gently moved to the side, grabbing his fist and then pulling. Her body spun like a butterfly, and Dong Jingfei’s body went flying out of the ring, crashing into a nearby wall.
Her defense hadn’t been all that different from Bao bi’s. Dong Jingfei had depended on pure strength, not having any spiritual energy at his disposal, so in many ways, her movements were less profound than his own, but the crowds watching her immediately started applauding. Even some of the contestants watching let out a word of excitement, even though they might be her next victim. Both Bao bi and Dian Ai had dealt with their opponent nearly identically, but no one doubted that Dian Ai had skillfully thrown off her enemy using her skill, while everyone was certain Yang Ying was an accident. That was the difference between expectations.
Dian AI quietly left the stage, sitting back down and closing her eyes as if the results did not affect her. As for Dong Jingfei, he didn’t put up any argument or even give Dian Ai a dirty look. He went back to his spot, mostly relieved that he was still in fighting shape for his next match. Two more contestants were given matches, and then on the third match after Dian Ai, another familiar person was called.
“Jiang Bo versus Wen Hong.”
Jiang Bo looked a bit nervous, so Bao bi slapped his shoulder and nodded. Jiang Bo nodded back and then headed up onto the stage.
“Wen Hong was the fourth highest.” Jiang Ying Yue spoke quietly next to Bao bi, a worried expression on her face. “In the previous competition, it was Dian Ai, Yang Ying, Brother, and then Wen Hong. He was only about 10 places behind Brother. This will be a closely matched fight.”
“Oh?” Bao bi asked nonchalantly. “You guys worry about places too much.”
Jiang Ying Yue gave him a side look but didn’t respond. How could placements not be important? Their entire future was dependent on where they were able to place within the sect! She wanted to correct Bao bi, but the two competitors had already ended up on the stage and silence overtook the crowd. Jiang Bo appeared graceful, clean, and princely. His opponent was another boy who appeared to have a somewhat messy appearance.
“So, you’re Prince Jiang. I’ve always wanted to beat up a noble.” The boy spoke with an insolent grin on his face.
Before this match, most of the 1st group had been too nervous to speak. The same could not be said about the older kids. It seemed like the older they became, the more prone they were to talk before a match. For the youngest though, he was the first to dare such trash talk.
“We’ll see about that.” Jiang Bo responded; his hands clenched slightly.
“I come from a family that has lived on the streets their entire lives. In my world, it was do or die. You may have scored better than me in the previous event, but I don’t believe you have the street smarts necessary to excel in a real fight. We’re evenly matched in cultivation, so in the end, it will be cunning than wins. Prepare yourself, Jiang Bo!”
Rather than attack, Wen Hong threw out a hand as soon as the battle began. A cloud of powder flew out, and Jiang Bo who had jumped forward ended up getting it right in the eyes. He let out a cry, stumbling back as Wen Hong jumped to the side and sent out an attack, hitting Jiang Bo and throwing him off balance.
“He cheated!” One of the contestants cried out.
“That’s not fair.” Another added.
“As you progress, you will face all kinds of opponents with all kinds of tricks. We never said that you couldn’t use whatever weapons you possess. We specifically stated that you were to win by any means necessary.” The elder spoke up, cutting into the muttering. “It’d be more foolish to hold back when you had any trick that could provide you victory. There will come a time when you will be against a real opponent who wants your life. Will you hold back then too? If that is the case, then you might as well die!”
His words were like a bucket of cold water over the heads of the kids. Bao bi frowned a bit, thinking that such a lesson was a bit cruel to dump on them so young. He supposed he understood it. This was to save lives. Both Bao bi’s father and Liao An had made sure he understood that the path of cultivation held a great deal of risk.
“Brother!” Jiang Ying Yue cried out in fear.
Wen Hong didn’t let up even with the upper hand. He had pulled out a dagger and then began to slash wildly at Jiang Bo. He had no choice but to hold up his hands to block, take several cuts on the arms as he tried to right himself. This was the first match where blood was drawn beyond a bloody nose. Jiang Ying Yue was looking on worriedly, her hands holding each other tightly together as she watched the events unfold.
Bao bi felt a bit of anxiety watching this too. His previous calm demeanor dissipated. He didn’t like seeing any young kid get cut up, let alone a friend. He didn’t realize he had taken a step forward until a hand grabbed his wrist. He looked back to see Liao An there. She had seemingly returned to herself in this final match, after acting strangely distant the last few days. She had remained close, and even reached out and touched him. She had a serious look on her face though, and the gentle shake of her head told Bao bi what he already knew. This was Jiang Bo’s fight, and he had to overcome it.
By the time Bao bi looked up, the fight was going a bit better for his friend. Jiang Bo had regained his feet and was now trying to get past the dagger of the other boy, who was slicing it out while laughing crazily. Whether he was truly unhinged, or only wanted to look unhinged as to make others frightened, it was hard to say.
“Is that the best you got, prince?” He snarled, spit flying out of his mouth.
His words seemed to strike a nerve with Jiang Bo. “No, it’s not!”
The other fighter had only managed to get as far as he did use his ferocity and preying on a child’s inherent fear of knives. Such an attack would be useless to those older in their cultivation, but for someone at their age, knives and the thought of getting cut with one were still frightening. Jiang Bo wasn’t someone who had never dealt with weapons. The assassins who had tried to kill him used weapons, so it wasn’t that he was inexperienced with them.
He had merely walked into the match with the same mindset as the other children. This was a safe battle using only attacks with your body. This wasn’t because of anything that the elders had suggested, but something the kids had seemingly decided on their own. Only a quick look to the other stages would show the older kids had already switched to using weapons, and some fights could be quite bloody. Jiang Bo brandished his hand and the same blade he had used against the assassins appeared in his hand. It was a Dao blade that suited Jiang Bo nicely.
Wen Hong made a face as he saw that. “A storage ring? Only a rich noble like you would be able to afford such a rich weapon. I’ll pull it off of your corpse!”
Wen Hong lunged at Jiang Bo, seemingly enraged. Although most of the contestants had brought weapons, when they had their match, they had left them behind. Had they grabbed their weapon, their opponent would have assuredly seen it and grabbed their weapon too. That’s why Wen Hong, who had hidden his weapon, was so confident that his method would work, as he’d be looking to surprise his opponent, and it’d be too late for them to change their mind.
However, Jiang Bo and Jiang Ying Yue each had a very small storage ring. Their kingdom was hardly rich, and storage rings were exorbitantly expensive. Although Bao bi had one because of Liao An, he didn’t realize that this was an abnormal thing, and even most disciples wouldn’t have one until they were elders. Their rings wouldn’t attract the interest of the cultivators thought, as they were only just large enough to hold a single weapon and a small bundle of emergency rations. For nobles, such a ring could be considered a lifeline.
That lifeline had saved Jiang Bo’s life, as he had brought his blade onto the stage and thus had it for this match, despite what Wen Hong had been hoping for. This only caused the poor streetsmart Wen Hong to fly into a rage. He attempted to stab Jiang Bo brutally. Jiang Bo leaped back and then brought his blade down onto Wen Hong’s wrist. He wore a dark expression with no humor on it as he chopped off Wen Hong’s hand. His hand landed outside the ring; the knife still clutched in it.
There was a brief moment of silence as everyone tried to reason what just happened. Even Wen Hong seemed to not understand what he had just lost. As blood shot like mist out of the stump at the end of his arm, he grabbed onto his wrist and let out a howl. Many of the audience and a few of the contestants looked on in disbelief. This was just a fight among children, yet someone’s wrist had just been severed.
“You didn’t give me any choice!” Jiang Bo yelled; a bit distraught over disabling his enemy permanently.
Wen Hong didn’t respond to him though. He was still staring, crying, and screaming as he held onto his stump. The elder left their platform and grabbed the boy.
“If you plan to act so bloodthirsty and brutal, you need to be prepared to pay that cost in blood three-fold!” His words held no sympathy for the boy.
He had been the one to pull out the weapon in the first place, to taunt, and threaten. These were the consequences of his actions. A disciple from the Xaoi sect appeared and grabbed the dismembered hand before retrieving the boy and bringing him away. It was unknown whether the Xaoi sect was going to heal him or not. However, one thing was certain, he was knocked out of the selection. Someone who should have been 4th and a guaranteed admittance into the sect had been kicked out of the running just like that.
From this point onward, the matches would only grow more brutal and desperate.