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“Everyone, on!” Master Qui ordered the group of disciples.

Everyone moved into the circle of runes, which was large enough to fit all of the students without them needing to crowd. Dian Ai glanced over at Bao bi, and for a brief moment, she wondered if she should take his hand again. They would be teleported randomly into this unknown space, but if they were holding hands, then they might be able to travel together. It would truly be safest for them to travel in groups.

She found herself shaking her head. This was a competition, in the end, and to the best went the spoils. Although she was part of the youngest group, and they were all weaker and less capable than the older contestants, there was still quite a bit of luck involved in who could win. Any of them could stumble upon a rare ingredient or a lost manual and become the winner of this competition. By joining with others, you were only giving up that chance at victory in exchange for a little bit of safety.

Even if she would team up with someone, it should be one of the older boys who were already farther along than she was in cultivation. They were the ones who could make a difference and potentially keep her safe. Bao bi was the same cultivation as her, and given his youthful age, one couldn’t even claim he could provide an experience that she didn’t also possess. It made much more sense that she traveled alone. If she found something she didn’t have confidence in handling, she could always look for others when the time presented itself.

“I’ll be going off on my own. It’s better for both of us if we move independently.” Jiang Bo slapped Bao bi’s back. 

“Ah… now that I think about it.” Bao bi spoke in a loud voice so everyone could hear. “If any of us get in trouble, we should probably have a means of contacting each other. A specific whistle would probably be good. How about since we don’t have time to practice, we can just use the wolf whistle.”

Bao bi demonstrated the two-tone whistle unabashedly. It had just been the first obvious and unnatural tone that came to his mind. Although it was typically used in his world to display attractiveness to a woman, the blank looks on their faces told him they didn’t know of such things. Even the older kids and the elder seemed to be clueless about the whistle, so it was probably fine to use it. If they had recognized the sound, it might have been a little embarrassing, but Bao bi worried for nothing.

“Wolf whistle…” Jiang Bo nodded, repeating the sound and nodding. “I like it.”

“Contact each other?” Qi Xue sneered, eager to find a way to cut Bao bi down. “Only a coward would cry out for help.”

“I think it’s clever.” Hao Xing spoke up, causing all the others to look his way. “This may be a competition, but we are all part of the Xaoi sect now, and currently at the top of our respective years. It would be embarrassing if any of us died, and a hit to the sect itself. If your life is in jeopardy, please feel free to call for help. I, for one, will answer.”

“I will answer as well.” Xie Mingyu stepped forward. “Of course, I’ll accept any resources you have discovered as payment for saving you.”

“You’ll rob us?” Tian Mei glared at him, pulling on her ponytail irritably.

“I’d be taking a risk going to save you. Surely, your life is more important to you than winning this competition, and a handful of resources is a small price to pay.” He smiled, but his eyes were cold. “Of course, if you want to carry your resources to the grave, you may be my guest.”

Everyone glanced at Hao Xing, but he merely shrugged, his smile slightly tense. The result was that anyone could whistle for help, but if someone came to help you, you might end up with nothing. Bao bi, in particular, frowned at that. He had been trying to keep everyone safe, but Xie Mingyu’s words had assured them they were less likely to use the whistle if they needed help. He shook his head. He could only do his best to protect everyone.

“Your life is your most valuable possession.” He decided to add. “As long as you still have it, you can recover from any loss. Remember that.”

Someone from the younger generation speaking in such heavy terms caused many of the older kids to knit their brows. They felt like he was saying the obvious. Wasn’t it natural that you should protect your life above all else? Only Dian Ai seemed to be affected by his words, shooting a side glance before becoming lost in her thoughts. Tian Mei smirked, looking him up and down.

The elder was also surprised by his words. He had been listening to them, a bit impressed that they were considering such things so quickly. He felt like this year’s recruits might be rather interesting. However, Bao bi’s words were something he should have been telling them, and it caused him to snap out of his reverie and feel just a bit of embarrassment.

“Ahem… I also must warn you that beyond the normal threats you will experience, there is a chance you may encounter disciples from the Black Shadow Destruction Clan.”

“Dark cultivators!” Hu Tian’s face lifted, his neck muscles bulging with anger.

“The rift that we use to enter this place is not the only rift.  There are other clans and even other members of our clan in different sects that visit this place as well. We have an agreement with the other sects of our clan so that we don’t overlap and compete with our own. In short, you could say we have it reserved. However, the Black Shadow Destruction Clan and the Xaoi Clan do not offer each other any respect.

“Although our students do not always run into enemy disciples, I just want to warn you that it is possible. They will be at the same levels as you, and their policy is to obtain resources at all costs. They won’t hesitate to kill and steal resources from you. Should you defeat one, they each have a badge which we will offer credit for obtaining.”

“A badge… you say.” Xie Mingyu had an intense look on his face as he could already see himself collecting badges.”

“Ah, that reminds me, here!” The elder waved his hand, and a bunch of streaks came out, striking each of the disciples on their chests.

They all let out noises of surprise, touching their robes and feeling a badge attached to them.

“These are your badges as official members of the Xaoi sect.” Master Qui continued. “They identify you as one of ours. Some will respect the badge and stave their hand. It offers a small amount of protection and will make it easier to pull you back at the end of the time limit, so do not lose it! It also possesses a certain amount of storage. Put your rarest and most fragile items inside the badge.”

Bao bi touched the badge. It had the Xaoi sect symbol, a complex character that might have been an Asian language if this was his old world. He felt that if those black shadow pedophiles were present, then these badges were more like bullseyes than protection. He also had a feeling that these badges served another need too. The other kids might not have picked up on it, but Bao bi was a grownup at heart. The badges could help lock on and transport a person back home, and they also could store the rarest and most fragile supplies. Even if a student died, as long as his badge survived, then it would be pulled back along with whatever was left inside. It allowed them to maximize their profits.

He still decided to leave the badge in full view. It wasn’t about having a sense of pride in the Xaoi sect. Even if they hadn’t abandoned his father, kidnapped his mother, and taken his childhood home, he had never had a great deal of respect for the Xaoi sect. He was joining them out of necessity, not out of adoration. However, if he was going to be a Xaoi sect disciple, he might as well appear like one. He just preferred to keep things direct.

“It’s warm.” Tian Mei stated.

“Yes, these should have enough spiritual energy to last you your trip. Ah, one last thing, if you put some qi energy into the badge, it will unlock a list of ingredients in your mind. This is a comprehensive list of the items previously found in the Midnight Realm and their trade values, as well as some of the more ordinary ingredients that you might locate by chance. You can only move the list into your mind once. You will then have roughly one hour before the qi dematerializes and you’ll have to depend on your memory, so find a safe place and do this before beginning your journey. This is all I have to say to you. Good luck!”

He didn’t wait for any of them to digest what he had said or ask any further questions. He waved his hand again, and the symbols under their feet. The symbols grew brighter and brighter, and with a flash which was accompanied by a sound similar to paper tearing, the group was gone. A small smile reached his lips as he looked at the afterglow. This was an interesting group.

To Bao bi, it felt like space was bending and time was warping. The only times he had felt similar experiences was when he was on particularly powerful psychedelics. The world snapped back into place, and he was no longer in that underground world but seemed to be standing in a large field. It was no longer daytime, but even though the sky was dark, there was still light. The sky above was black complete with stars, and sitting overhead was a massive sun, but right in front of it was a massive back object which blocked the majority of the light except for the area around the circumference.

Bao bi squinted at it briefly, remembering it wasn’t a bright idea to stare at an eclipse. As a minute went by, the eclipse showed no signs of going away, and the world was still bright enough to see and navigate around. Was this why it was called the Midnight Realm? He shook his head and started focusing. This was a dangerous place where someone could lose their life if they weren’t careful. He couldn’t let himself sit around dwelling on things. 

“First step, find somewhere safe.” He muttered to himself.

He glanced around until he found a large tree that was particularly tall and filled with leaves. It would give him a good view of the area around him and provide a lot of covers too. Furthermore, after spending countless nights with Liao An racing through the forest, Bao bi had become very accustomed to climbing trees. It reminded him of the stories of vine-swinging wild men from back home.

He jumped up into the tree and climbed up a few dozen branches until he finally found a small niche. It was hidden to the point where no one would see him unless they climbed up as well. Plus, he could see the immediate area around him without too much difficulty. When he was confident that he wouldn’t accidentally fall, he took another fifteen minutes to meditate. This was something that Liao An had taught him.

Meditation was an advantageous way to spend your time. You’d heal faster, restore your profound energy more rapidly, and restore your mind quicker. You could enter that state almost anywhere and remain aware of your surroundings should something come up. A proper immortal was in a state of meditation whenever they weren’t accomplishing some other task. At least, that’s the state one was supposed to meet. Bao bi wouldn’t say he was there yet, but he did see the advantages here.

Once he ignited the badge, he’d have an hour to meditate, and he wanted to wait enough time that he was certain nothing would suddenly come up and interrupt that time, so he continued to meditate until he was sure the place he selected wouldn’t be interrupted. Only then did he activate the badge. The badge began to feel warm, and a moment later he felt a barrage of imagery enter his mind. It very nearly overwhelmed him, but thanks to his spiritual training he was able to compartmentalize the information and start to go through it one after another.

He started to think that effectively using this badge was another aspect of the entrance exam. After all, if you didn’t know something had value, you’d have no reason to collect it. Most of the group one disciple wouldn’t even have the spiritual training necessary to recover this list, let alone the fortitude to examine it all in one hour. Even Bao bi started to sweat when he realized how much of it there was. It had taken him fifteen minutes just to sort all of the data in his mind, and with that, he only have another forty-five minutes to remember. It made all of the tests he had taken in school seem like nothing.

Yet, to his surprise, after reviewing each item, no matter how far down the list he went, he was still able to recall the previous item. He reached the end of the list in only thirty minutes, yet after reviewing it in his mind and comparing it to the list in his spiritual consciousness, he was not only able to remember every item and its value but other innocuous details as well, such as collection practices and potential uses.

Bao bi didn’t realize this, but the mind expansion pill given to him as a baby had altered his brain. He could remember just about anything told to him. It was just never something he had paid a lot of attention to. He took his tendency to pick up things quickly on his having an adult brain and having already experienced most of it twice. It was rare up until that point he had to learn new things, except when it came to the likes of cultivation, and that required more than just memorization anyway, although he had taken for granted his ability to memorize the mantras.

Done a bit early, he decided he might as well get a good view of the area. He climbed up the tree the rest of the way until he was as high as the branches would allow. That was quite a bit higher than he once would have imagined. He had long since become familiar with the almost supernatural behavior of the techniques Liao An had taught him. His movement skill, for example, seemed to defy the weight of the objects he stepped on. He could step on twigs that should have broken in half and glide across them with ease. This meant he was very nearly at the top branch and was clear to look out over the entire terrain.

The space was quite large and gave Bao bi an impression of a video game. That was to say that the environment changed depending on the direction he looked. There were different biomes in this place, and he could see a tundra in one direction while seeing a desert on the other side. He understood what the Master had meant about a distinct border. There were mountains along one edge that rose into the sky and appeared completely impassible. Nothing could be seen beyond them.

“That’s the tower, I suppose.”

His eyes had improved a lot since he started cultivating, and he could now see with a distance and clarity he hadn’t been able to before. Thus, even from that treetop, he was able to make out things far off. Yet, his eyesight wasn’t so good that he could see the opposing mountains. It seemed like the farthest thing he could make out was the tip of a tower barely perceivable on the horizon. That appeared to be the place he had to head, and he had three days to reach the top.

Well, that was the goal. Bao bi had no dreams or delusions of actually making it. If no one had ever made it to the top, Bao bi would be arrogant to think he’d be the exception to the rule. Instead, he decided to just focus on point earnings. He looked for notable places on the way he should check out. There were a few interesting places that looked like they might contain spiritual items. Even at his feet below he recognized several of the plants that were now a part of his memory.

Bao bi climbed back down the tree and then started collecting while making his way in the direction of the tower. On top of the ingredients he could store in his bag, he also had a large collecting bag they had handed him. Although it didn’t store things in an alternative space using spiritual power and it wasn’t bigger on the outside, it did seem to have quite a bit of give, able to expand to two or three times its original size. If there was a limit to this expansion, I hadn’t found it with my little bit of tinkering.

Bao bi started to collect various grasses and roots that applied to the list. Most of them were only worth a point or two, but he figured it couldn’t hurt to grab them. If it turned out that he found things worth more points later and couldn’t carry anymore, he could always discard them then. As Bao bi collected a small mountain of herbs and his backpack was nearly as tall as he was, he was starting to think that might be the best course of action.

The night started to fall, and Bao bi decided it was time to look for cover. He still had two full days ahead of him and he hadn’t rested since before the disciple selection.

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