Yulin and I struggled to move through the crowded streets. Lamane City sprouted people overnight; you couldn’t sneeze without hitting at least a hundred of them. Everyone bustled toward Lamane Arena like fish caught in a tide, and I did my best to shield Yulin from stray elbows and pushy shoulders, shoving others away until a small bubble of space formed around him. Somehow this slight gap in the crowd became quite conspicuous.
“Damn! We’re going to be late!” A boisterous voice yelled. Behind us, the Jade Sky cultivators shoved their way forward. “Yulin, wait up!”
Yulin paused his steps, the crowd parting around him and allowing the Jade Sky cultivators to catch up. Troy led the way, his bulky figure cutting a path for his smaller fellows to follow. With this many people, it would be easy for them to get swept away. I graciously expanded my bubble of force to include them.
“We’re both going the same way, so let’s stick together,” Derrus said. Troy echoed this heartily. Vita and Lauran stayed behind, muttering to themselves with haunted expressions, though each for different reasons. Vita still couldn’t look at me on Yulin’s shoulder. I truly am such an intimidating figure.
Yulin nodded in agreement. The five little cultivators moved together toward Lamane Arena. The crowd was so noisy that you had to yell to be heard, though for Troy, his natural voice boomed so loudly that he could just speak normally.
“Hey Yulin!” Everyone around glanced over with the interest of someone having just heard a distant explosion. “You weren’t being serious with yesterday’s fight, right?”
Yulin turned his head and nodded solemnly. A relieved expression broke across Troy’s face, but it quickly disappeared when Yulin elaborated, “I was serious!” Troy’s face fell in sheer disappointment.
“What the hell!” Troy shook his head. “Damn. When you said you weren’t taught, you really meant it.”
Derrus shouted, “Then how did you cultivate? You must have some technique, right?”
“Meditation!” Yulin answered simply. What a cool answer! Though Troy and Derrus both looked unsatisfied. Hey, you greedy duo, if you want Yulin’s talent you should just ask to be reborn.
We had finally reached the plaza in front of Lamane Arena. The crowd thinned to only cultivators, the normal humans filtering into side streets which lead to the audience sections. It was no less noisy, however.
“Brother Yulin,” Derrus shouted. “Our Jade Sky Sect isn’t bad. After this is over, if you don’t have any other place in mind, maybe you could…”
Despite its low volume, a scoffing sound clearly cut through the noise of the crowd.
“Which person is so great that they’re being recruited before the start of the competition?” A cold voice muttered.
The chatter died down. Space opened up in front of us, revealing a group of almost-adult boys. All of them were tall and fit, clearly trained and strong. At the front of the group was a stern, haughty-looking boy. He had rich brown skin, braided dark hair, sharp features, and a pointy nose held up in the air.
“V-V-V-Vinai of Clear Water Sect!!” A tiny voice which stuttered itself into dying sounded behind me. It had been Lauran who released that ghastly proclamation as if announcing the rise of an ancient demon. I casually analyzed the boy in front of me and saw nothing particularly noteworthy about him. Though he was tall, he wasn’t as tall as Troy; though he was cool, he wasn’t as cool as Yulin. Everything about him screamed ‘second best vying for first’.
While they put on scared faces, I felt the auras of the Jade Sky group shift to a sharp, deadly atmosphere. Oh, what’s this? Even Vita wasn’t looking away?
Vinai’s piercing gaze locked onto Yulin, looking him over from top to bottom. He narrowed his eyes. After a pause, he snorted derisively.
“Just this piece of trash can get someone so excited?”
Oh, I’m sorry, I must have misheard something.
“Acting this pridefully in front of his betters, this piece of trash sure has guts,” Vinai continued, already laughing with his friends.
Yulin didn’t even answer. He acted like it had nothing to do with him. In fact, he was actually quietly glancing around, as if looking for whoever this guy was talking about.
Ah, I get it. Yulin must be saying, ‘Look, I’m not even doing anything. You’re the one stirring up trouble, dumbass’. That’s right! I glared at the chortling Vinai. You’re the one stirring up trouble! My Yulin has nothing to do with fools like you.
After a moment, Yulin resumed walking to the Arena. Good, good. We shouldn’t let stupid people like this get in our way. Yulin still had to win the rest of the competition; it wouldn’t do to get sidetracked before it started.
Vinai’s face turned splotchy at the way Yulin coolly ignored him.
“You piece of shit! You think you can act that way in front of me?” Vinai snarled, summoning an energy bolt to pierce Yulin’s lungs.
What did you just say?
Is your mouth also an asshole for it to be spewing such shit?
Let me help correct that for you!
With the flames of anger urging me on, I sent a powerful stab into Vinai’s bowels. The boy’s eyes widened; his energy bolt dissipated with the loss of concentration. He crossed his arms over his stomach, his face paling, and dashed away before anyone could blink. Vinai’s lackeys, seeing their boss run, hurriedly followed suit.
Yulin blankly stared after them.
Hohoho! See Yulin, you don’t have to worry about these tyrannical young masters harassing you while I’m around. I happily rubbed my head against him. Yulin blinked, and a slight expression of… something crossed his face. It couldn’t have been pity, I must have been imagining things.
Yulin and the Jade Sky cultivators safely made their way to Lamane Arena and into the competitors’ waiting lounge. All of the competitors had access to the second through fifth floors of Lamane Arena’s main building, but staying there was optional. It was only when their matches were upcoming that competitors had to check in at the front desk and wait on the first floor. Since the upper floors had a good view of the fights, dozens of cultivators were already crowding the balconies.
“The match ups are over there.” Derrus pointed to an enormous board hanging on a wall.
Vita jumped on Troy’s shoulders to get a better look past the sea of people surrounding the board. Holding a hand over her eyes, she reported each of her fellows’ and Yulin’s opponents. “Match 25, Derrus against Yoan of Blazing Cloud Sect. Match 37, me and Henning of Steel Fist Sect. Match 38, Yulin against Nanna of Cerulean Mist Sect. Match 54, Troy against Philo of Ash Mountain Sect…” Vita paused without calling Lauran’s match up.
“H-H-How far am I from M-Mayrelle and Vinai?” Lauran demanded, tugging at Vita’s sleeve with a wretched expression.
Vita said clearly, “Match 3, Lauran against Vinai of Clear Water Sect!”
Gong! Lauran’s knees knocked against the wood floor. Kneeling in despair, Lauran cried two rivers. Vita, Troy, and Derrus ignored the wailing Lauran as if this happened all the time and they couldn’t be bothered to notice anymore. Derrus dragged Lauran to the receptionist’s desk, checked him in for his upcoming match, then propped him up on a bench, leaving him to whimper by himself. I really wondered how this boy would survive.
When we arrived on the second floor, the entire balcony was swarmed. I cheerfully pushed people away to make room. Cultivators found themselves tripping and falling until a spot opened up, where Yulin and the three remaining Jade Sky cultivators promptly settled.
The arena’s setup was slightly different today. There were only two large platforms today instead of four, and between them stood a tall tower. A couple of old men climbed up the tower to announce the start of the day’s competition. They started giving boring some speech about integrity and sportsmanship, so I looked around the arena while they were talking. There were about fifteen thousand people crammed in the siheyuan’s three spectator sides, and a few more thousand in the surrounding streets. I caught wind of the eighth-rank cultivator I’d contacted earlier on the top floor of the western building. That Saint was there too, along with some other minor fogies. Don’t tell me they’re all part of the same Sect? I drooped. No way, wouldn’t it be troublesome for Yulin to have to hang around that Zhen guy… I should have done a little more research.
But, oh well!
The speeches finished, and the old men cleared away. A head moderator took their place. He called out the two match-ups, and four bright-eyed youths went up to the platforms. The roar of an enormous crowd of cheers filled the air as the youths began to fight. Yulin watched avidly with determined eyes. Ah, my Yulin is studying so diligently, he’s absolutely the coolest!
The first batch of matches ended. The moderator called out for matches 3 and 4, and the little group of Jade Sky cultivators eagerly inched forward.
Vita pointed at the shaking speck on the ground. “There’s Lauran!” She, Troy, and Derrus bellowed, “Lauran! Fight!”
Lauran flinched and turned his head to look up at us with an expression of deep despair.
He stood on the platform like a man waiting for his execution. The contestants for Match 4 had both arrived, and they looked around impatiently, wondering when they could start their fight.
The moderator frowned, and murmurs rose from the crowd.
No one had seen the famous rising cultivator. Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed without Vinai showing up. And so, anticlimactically, the great young prodigy of Clear Water sect had been disqualified in the very first round.
Upon hearing this announcement from the moderator, Lauran looked struck by lightning. He wandered back into the crowd with unseeing eyes, and quickly the flow of the competition’s fights picked back up.
A few moments passed where the young cultivators eagerly watched the sole ongoing match. Abruptly, the sound of a handsome man’s laughter came from behind, and a strong aura spilled out.
Oh? I peeked out. Yulin turned around to see the newcomer. The Jade Sky sect’s disciples also turned to look, apathetic expressions on their faces.
There behind us stood an extraordinarily handsome man with golden hair. He chuckled dashingly, posing with a hand under his chin. He exuded elegance and confidence. “As expected!” he crowed in a deep, charming voice. “Of course, there was no way the Heavens would allow this prince to ever lose!” He grinned, and through some trick of the light I thought I saw sparkles gleam off his teeth.
Whoa… how disgusting…
Vita and Derrus sighed deeply. Troy stepped forward and slapped the man on the back. “Good to see you’re feeling better, brother!”
Lauran sparkled up at Troy, a smug smirk on his lips. “Of course! There’s no reason for this prince to not be in a good mood after all!” He tossed his head back and laughed. “Ahahaha!!”
“…” Yulin turned back to watch the matches and I retreated to nap in my shell.
Though I wasn’t aware of very much while I was sleeping, a sudden roar of shouts and cheers disturbed me enough to come to consciousness.
Spreading out my senses, I found that there was nothing unusual. Only, there was a single ferocious battle happening in the platforms. I heard the jingle-jangle of buyao as a girl swiftly spun through the air and swung her foot down in a fierce chop. Her opponent dodged, and the platform rumbled and cracked below the girl’s delicate foot.
The audience cheered and clapped. The girl, without pausing, spun around and chased her opponent. The boy panicked and gathered qi to his hands to redirect the girl’s charge. Unfortunately for him, the girl dipped under his hands, her movements as smooth and flowing as water, and knocked him to the ground with a push of her palm.
Her opponent gasped on the ground, spitting out blood. Though he tried to get up, his limbs had no strength and he simply collapsed.
“Winner, Mayrelle of Ash Mountain!” the moderator called out.
A roar of cheers met his announcement.
“Hm, she’s good,” Vita muttered under her breath. Her narrowed eyes tracked Mayrelle as the girl waved to her cheering fans.
“Dragged it out for just enough time to let her opponent show off. There’s nothing anyone can begrudge her for,” Derrus said. He, too, regarded Mayrelle with an analytical gaze.
“Damn!! I wanna fight so bad!!” Troy bellowed, gripping his hands into fists. All around him, cultivators held their ears and leaned away.
Lauran, sparkling in the background, twirled a rose between his fingertips and said nothing. Wait, where did he get that flower from…
I checked up on Yulin’s expression. His eyes were bright with eagerness, and his hands fidgeted. I recognized that expression – Yulin really wanted to go practice chopping things up right now! Ahh, too bad there were still a few more matches before it was Yulin’s turn.
We waited half an hour more. Yulin’s aura brimmed with quiet tension, which peaked when the time for his match came around.
The Jade Sky cultivators wished him luck and patted him on the back. “Fight on, Yulin!!” The group of them cheered, minus Lauran who was off in his own world. Ah, they’re really such good kids after all! Yulin nodded and walked out to the platform. Under the gaze of the hundreds of cultivators and audience members, Yulin stood and faced his opponent.
The girl had bright brown eyes and cute bobcut hair. A boisterous group of cultivator boys cheered wildly for her, making a small smirk appear on her face.
The moderator glanced at the two competitors, and I took this time to obediently plop onto the ground and out of the way. I noticed the girl glancing at me from the corner of her eye, and turned my head away. W-why are you looking at me… Even if you want to admire me, I won’t agree to it.
The match started. Yulin steadily held the sword in his hands and channeled energy through it. The girl looked at him with half-lidded eyes, not a trace of worry on her face. Yulin slashed forward, the wild wave of energy surging towards the girl, but she simply ducked to dodge. That arrogant little smirk came back onto her face, and she twirled close to Yulin, whose stance was still recovering from his previous action.
Fast! This girl was super fast! I sensed her pull out a dagger and aim it at Yulin’s stomach.
As if I’d let you do that! With just the slightest shove of my consciousness, the girl lost balance and swiped into empty air. Yulin recovered and leaped away.
A small murmur ran through the crowd, but I didn’t pay them any mind. I knew Yulin would win even if I didn’t interfere, but I just didn’t want to see him get hurt. It didn’t matter if I pushed this girl around here and there since she was going to lose anyway. That said, I kept my eye on Yulin’s opponent. After stumbling, she wiped the shock and confusion off her face and span around to face Yulin again. A dark emotion flashed through her eyes.
Yulin held a tighter guard this time. He waited in his position and locked glares with the girl. They paused for two fraught seconds as they considered each other; then they leaped, weapons drawn. The girl raised her daggers while Yulin slashed his sword. Her daggers caught Yulin’s blade, and his advance jarred to a stop. With a smile, the girl used the momentum to pull Yulin onto the ground while she positioned herself at his back. With a dagger raised, she prepared to strike.
I intercepted again, my invisible shove throwing her off of Yulin’s back.
The girl rolled to her feet, and she looked at Yulin with glaring eyes full of accusation. “What trick are you pulling!” she snapped.
Yulin only looked at her with a stony expression.