The crisp morning air carried the scent of pear blossoms. Bassem, the Esteemed Fourth Elder of Ash Mountain Sect, slowly opened his eyes. He released a deep breath, his lips pulled upwards in a rare slight smile. In this evening’s meditation he had managed to cultivate over thirty times faster than the average night. This pace was unprecedented even in the sect’s precious hidden sanctuary. Unfortunately, the rapid pace had only been maintained for a few hours; if not, he would have certainly continued cultivating for as long as it lasted.
Bassem stood, stretching his limber muscles. Though this body was already sixty years old, his appearance remained that of a man in his mid thirties. With his stocky body and flat gorilla-like face, however, Bassem had no vanity over his comparatively youthful appearance. Adding along the fact that he resided beside some of the greatest beauties of the Origo continent, his already substandard looks became even less appealing.
Even so, Bassem was not a man who cared for matters of love and warm beds. Rather, his looks were a blessing. He did not have to fend off the advances or fear for his virtue; he did not have to wonder about the intentions of any beautiful woman who approached him. Compared to the daily troubles Bassem’s more attractive colleagues faced, being an ugly but carefree man suited him more.
Bassem rearranged his robes, making sure there were no out-of-place details over which Second Elder Joslyn could mock him. Today the Sixth Origo Junior Cultivator Tournament officially began, and the elders of the sect who came to supervise in Lamane were holding a meeting to discuss the plans for the day, as well as formulating any last-minute advice and encouragement for the disciples. Bassem frowned. He had to remind the disciples not to underestimate their opponents. All too much these young cultivators believed the only true rivals could come from other large sects, such as the oppressive Clear Water. Bassem could only be grateful that the presence of Honorable Saint Zhen offset Clear Water Sect’s influence.
Turning to leave, Bassem noticed a scroll, brush, and inkstone on the desk which hadn’t been there the night before. Only someone of higher cultivation could have entered his room and left this message without Bassem’s noticing, so he assumed that either Honorable Saint Zhen or Second Elder Joslyn had stopped by and decided not to disturb his morning meditation. Before Bassem even picked up the scroll, however, he immediately knew that this was not the case.
The words on the scroll seemingly leapt out at him, the force of power and energy contained within each enormous brushstroke enough to make his heart palpitate with tension. Fierce! The writing on this scroll was simply too fierce! The wild and untamed letters, huge and unwieldy, sprawled across the scroll’s surface. With shaking hands, Bassem picked up the scroll and read:
“Dear mortal cultivator,
Su Yulin has talent, hardworking, strong, cool, lovely. Please consider him as a disciple.
Speechless, Bassem could only stare at the scroll’s astonishing message.
His first immediate thought was, which flighty senior cultivator decided to prank him?
With the scroll tucked into his sleeve, Bassem descended to the Phoenix Pavilion’s first floor private courtyard. Only a few of the sect’s elders had arrived at this time. “Greetings to Esteemed Fourth Elder Bassem!” They each stood and bowed to him. Bassem nodded in acknowledgment. He sat in one of the chairs surrounding the rosewood round table. One of the elders poured him a cup of tea, while another offered him dumplings. Bassem took the tea and waved off the food.
Bassem leisurely sipped at the fragrant green tea, a small frown on his lips. When Second Elder Joslyn finally arrived, Bassem’s frown deepened. He and the junior elders rose and bowed while calling out their greetings to the handsome and elegant Second Elder, who nodded absently at them. Joslyn slid into his seat; the junior elders rushed to pour his tea and place a plate of thousand-layer jelly squares, sesame balls, and steamed sponge cake in front of him. Joslyn smiled, his charming red lips causing the junior elders’ hearts to flutter.
Aiya, such a glutton… Bassem couldn’t help but scold in his head. The Second Elder was so close to purification, yet he continued to gorge on sweet foods.
“Your face is more terrible than usual today, Bassem,” Joslyn said, carelessly as ever. He held out a piece of sponge cake between his elegant, willowy fingers. “Here, why don’t you eat some.”
Ignoring the proffered food, Bassem sighed. “Second Elder Joslyn, I humbly ask that you cease provoking me in such a stressful time,” he said solemnly.
“If you don’t feel like eating, you could just say so.” Joslyn retracted his hand, not having expected Bassem to take the cake anyway.
“I refer to the scroll you left me whilst I meditated in my chambers,” Bassem rumbled.
Joslyn popped a sesame ball into his mouth. “I have no idea what you mean,” he said.
Exasperated, Bassem pulled the scroll from his sleeve.
“If you mean to deter me…” Bassem trailed off as Joslyn plucked the scroll from his hand. The bored-looking senior cultivator pulled it open. Immediately he flinched, his gaze flickering with unreadable emotions.
“What is this?” Joslyn muttered, his eyes narrowed as he peered at the scroll’s contents.
“You didn’t write it?”
Joslyn didn’t respond. Bassem watched him with a bewildered expression. If not Second Elder Joslyn, then who could have written this scroll? No other person knew that Bassem considered taking the embarrassingly inexperienced, yet highly-cultivated boy Su Yulin into Ash Mountain Sect. Moreover, to leave this without Bassem’s knowledge, the only other person could be Honorable Saint Zhen who disregarded everything except his younger sister.
Unless it was someone outside of the Sect…
“You said this was left in your room while you were meditating?” Joslyn asked. Bassem nodded. Joslyn’s face darkening, he rolled up the scroll and stood. Beckoning Bassem, he said, “Come, we’ll consult Little Zhen.”
Joslyn and Bassem stepped onto the roof of the Phoenix Pavilion, where Honorable Saint Zhen sat in meditation. His eyes opened before their feet even touched the tile. He gracefully stood and bowed. “Nephew greets Venerable Uncle Joslyn, Fourth Elder Bassem.”
Joslyn waved his hand. “No need for formalities, nephew. Bassem and I have something to ask you.”
“Of course,” Zhen smoothly said. “How can I help?”
“Last night, did you notice anyone enter Bassem’s rooms?” Joslyn asked.
Bassem wondered why Zhen cast such a suspicious look at Joslyn. “No, I did not.”
“Are you aware of anyone who could do so without your noticing?”
A slightly irritated expression formed on Zhen’s face. A tinge of petulance could be heard in his voice, “What is this about, uncle?”
Joslyn handed him the scroll. Zhen opened it curiously. The fierce aura spilled from the scroll’s surface, rising almost tangibly. Zhen shuddered, his face shocked. A mix of awe and worry formed in Bassem’s heart. Even a Saint was affected by the writing?
“Elder Bassem, this?” Zhen looked at him with open inquiry. Bassem grimaced.
“I found it in my rooms this morning, along with a brush and inkstone which weren’t there before,” he answered. Zhen exchanged a look with Joslyn, and the two of them jumped down to the window of Bassem’s rooms. They swiftly entered, eyes zeroing in on the desk. Bassem entered after them, his body not as nimble as the two advanced cultivators.
Zhen stepped forward, examining the brush and the inkstone. His finger dipped into the well of the tablet, and came away with flakes of recently-dried ink. Looking at the stiff black tip of the calligraphy brush, there was really only one conclusion to form.
“Even if it were a late-stage Saint, no one could have entered without attracting my notice,” Zhen said.
A solemn silence fell over the three cultivators.
“There hasn’t been a Demigod since the fall of Xian Kingdom several thousand years ago,” Joslyn murmured.
Bassem frowned, thinking. “The letter referred to me as a ‘mortal cultivator’. It implies that the writer himself is not mortal.”
The cultivators exchanged incredulous looks.
“Who is this Su Yulin anyway?” Zhen asked.
“An unaffiliated sixth rank cultivator. He is obviously untrained and untaught, yet somehow he possesses such a high-ranking cultivation,” Bassem answered.
Joslyn huffed. “Perhaps I hit the mark after all,” he muttered, thinking about the inane comments he threw out earlier, specifically the one about a goddess. Turning to Bassem, Joslyn asked, “Did you notice anything strange last night?”
With a conflicted face, Bassem told them of the strange increase in the pace of his cultivation. “I hadn’t been aware of it at the time, but it was as if the air itself had become laden with spiritual energy, and my body took it in like breathing.”
The elders took some time to contemplate this information. Eventually Joslyn concluded, “Whoever this Pipin is, we shouldn’t offend them. Taking in another disciple isn’t even a trifling matter for our sect. The boy’s utter lack of skills may be a stain on the face of cultivators, but as long as he doesn’t stir up trouble, what does it matter?” At these words, Zhen and Bassem nodded in agreement. Joslyn took the scroll for safekeeping, intending to show it to the Grandmaster upon his return. With that decided, Bassem and Joslyn returned to the first floor courtyard to properly discuss the important issue of the day’s competition, while Zhen stepped back onto the roof, his handsome face heavy with thought.
At the end of the long meeting, the elders called Ash Mountain’s disciples to meet in the Pavilion’s large public courtyard. The seven young faces looked brightly at their teachers. Bassem stood back while Joslyn went through the speech the elders had prepared, essentially telling the disciples to fight well and honorably; to be graceful in defeat and humble in victory; and to never underestimate their opponents. Bassem was satisfied at having slipped that last bit into the speech. When Joslyn finished speaking, the disciples shouted in assent and bowed.
“Good, good, you guys are lively,” Joslyn said, reverting back to his careless tone of voice. “Well, go on. Go chat with your masters.” He flapped his hand, and the disciples dispersed to meet with their teachers.
“Master Bassem!” A delicate, feminine voice rang out. Bassem smiled, watching his disciple Mayrelle skip toward him.
“Greetings to you, Little May. Did you sleep well?”
“Yes!” Mayrelle smiled cutely. “How was Master’s evening cultivation?”
“… It went well,” Bassem said, not intending to reveal any of the strange events to his disciple. She had more than enough to worry about right now.
The Origo Junior Cultivator Tournament was divided into two parts. The first part consisted of single-elimination matches meant to weed out the weaker cultivators. If a cultivator lost just once, it was all over. The second half of the competition switched to a double-elimination setup where cultivators could still compete after taking one loss. This setup meant that even if a cultivator was severely outmatched, they would have another chance to show off their skills in the next battle.
The most significant aspect of this tournament was not the first place win, but the chance to gain reputation. In battles between cultivators it was obvious that those with higher cultivation ranks would win, yet who could look down on a lower-ranked opponent who admirably fought to bridge that gap? This tournament was a chance to prove one’s tenacity, character, ability, and most importantly: potential. That was why high-ranked cultivators who easily trounced low-ranked ones received no particular praise or admiration for their skills. Such an obvious outcome, who would possibly cheer for it? It was only when facing an equal or greater opponent that one could truly prove their worth.
As such, Bassem had a few concerns for his disciple.
Mayrelle was the second genius child of Ash Mountain Sect. Her brother, Zhen, was the first. Only thirteen yet already in the high stage of sixth-rank cultivation, it was certain that she would follow her brother in reaching Saint level. There were only a few junior cultivators who could be her match. Her foremost rival was Vinai of Clear Water Sect, a boy who was only two years older than her. There were only three sixth-rank cultivators from the other sects, and each of them was already over twenty-five years of age.
That strange boy, Su Yulin, was also a sixth-rank cultivator, but his lack of training meant he was no match for even a third-rank cultivator properly trained by a sect.
While Bassem could rest assured that Mayrelle would advance far in the competition, this also meant that she would have a difficult time balancing her strength for lesser opponents. If Mayrelle defeated her opponents too easily, her battles would be seen as boring and her memorability as a cultivator would decrease. If she artificially prolonged the battle, she might be seen as too weak for her cultivation, or worse: as an arrogant cultivator playing around with her prey. Common decency for high-ranked cultivators meant allowing lower-ranked opponents to display their skills, while also not looking down upon them. This contradiction always caused headaches for the teachers of high-ranked cultivators.
“Master, you’ll grow wrinkles if you keep making that face!” Mayrelle leaned forward and poked the space between Bassem’s brows. Smiling, she said, “Don’t worry! I already have plans. I definitely won’t let you down!” She made a manly pose, rolling back a sleeve and bending the arm as if trying to show off her muscles. Since she was such a slender and beautiful young girl, however, the action only served to show off the milky-pale, smooth skin of her arm.
Bassem couldn’t help but smile at the cheerful antics of his disciple, and reached out to pat her on the head. Another hand landed there before Bassem could reach it.
“Ah, little niece, you sure are shameless. Shouldn’t you roll down that sleeve before your brother catches you?” Joslyn stood behind Mayrelle, heartily patting her head, his handsome face gently smiling. Mayrelle was also smiling, each heavy thump causing her hair ornaments to jangle like they were caught in an earthquake.
“What~ It’s just an arm, uncle, don’t be such a prude. Master doesn’t think my arms are shameless, does he?” Mayrelle turned her wide sparkling eyes on Bassem.
“Of course not. There’s nothing shameless about my disciple,” Bassem said calmly. Though she was a bit childish sometimes, it was a good thing that she could enjoy her youth. The greater tragedy would be for her to grow old too soon on her long road of cultivation.
Mayrelle turned around to face Joslyn, her smile turning cold and triumphant. Joslyn clicked his tongue. Withdrawing his hand, he said carelessly, “Fine, fine. In any case, it’s time for us to set off. Little niece, do your best to represent Elder Bassem’s teachings, all right?”
“Of course, uncle. I would do that even without your saying so!”
Their two chilly gazes met, an intense energy sparking between them. Bassem felt the air turn inexplicably chilly and frowned. “Come, we should get moving,” he said, ushering the pair forward. They joined the rest of Mountain Ash, and after one last cheer, departed from the inn.