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“So, An Ran is opening today?” Yun Ren asked Gou Ren as they rose into the air. They were standing on a large platform with an entire crowd of people. The chains attached to it rattled and clanked as the platform moved, dragging it up the mountain. Yun Ren was staring at a scroll in his hands. It was an explanation of the tournament, along with the matchups, and a bit of commentary. They were sold at each street corner, lots of people seemed to be buying them, eagerly discussing what would happen in each.

“Yeah. She’s a bit nervous, but she thinks she can win it.”

“Oh? She talked to you about it huh?” he jabbed Gou Ren, a grin spreading across his face.

“Speaking of that, I didn’t see you after we got back from the restaurant. Do you have anything to say to your big brother?”

Gou Ren flushed. “Shaddup. Like I told the other vultures, we were just sitting on the roof talking. Nothin’ happened.”

He was half thankful, and half frustrated, at Xiulan pushing An Ran to sit with him. She wasn’t being subtle at all. Sure, the night had been nice, sitting on the roof and just talking with the woman. She was nice. A bit less high strung, when she wasn’t dealing with her fellow ‘petals’ and hounding after them like Meimei hounded after him and his brother. She had a lovely singing voice, and a quick wit, as they started rattling off increasingly nonsensical poems. And they may have fallen asleep together on the roof staring at the stars. And she may have snuggled up to him during the night. But that was all!

He shook his head to get rid of the images, his face flushed.

Yun Ren arched an eyebrow, but he seemed to let it go, turning back to the tournament bracket scroll. “Huyi is near the middle along with Xiulan, and Tigu is last. Then it's two more rounds before the final. They have another day’s break after this round, and then they have a full five days before the last match after the semifinals.”

The lift ground to a halt, and they joined the crowd.

Gou Ren frowned. “Seems a bit awkward.”

“Probably for rest reasons? Don’t want the final fight to be two people absolutely exhausted and injured.”

“Probably,” he said, shaking his head, and starting up the flight of stairs to the seats, when something caught his eye.

The brothers noticed somebody was leaning against the wall, panting as people passed him by.

“…isn’t that the guy we sold one of the images to?” Yun Ren asked, struggling to place his face.

“Yeah. I helped him get back home afterwards.” Yun Ren nodded. “But he lived in one of the manors. Ain’t important guests supposed to have their own boxes?”

His brother shrugged.

Somebody knocked into the boy, and he scowled, nearly losing his balance, before managing to recover it.

Gou Ren pushed his way forwards, his brother trailing behind, a frown firmly on his face.

“Hey,” he greeted. “Surprised to see you here, Young Master.” He leaned against the wall below the kid. Somebody bumped into Gou Ren’s back and cursed, before going around him. Smiled and waved.

Bowu’s face ran through a number of emotions, before he settled on something neutral.

“Is it truly so surprising?” he asked, as he looked away.

“Yeah, I thought you'd be up in a box or something, but you’re getting the true way to experience a tournament!” he said, parroting Tang the Traveller.

The boy smirked, some of his grimace fading.

“Indeed. It is as you said, Gou Ren, Image Master. I wished to get the ‘real experience’ ” he said, shaking his head.

Gou Ren glanced at his brother. Yun Ren shrugged, and nodded.

“Hey, if you’re on your own, you feel like sitting with us?” Gou Ren

Slowly, the kid’s face morphed into a tentative smile. He stood up straighter.

“I suppose I can grace you with my company,” he allowed.

Yun Ren snorted, amused at the kid’s arrogance. “Well, lead on, Young Master.” It was lightly teasing, but the kid seemed inordinately happy about it. Determination suddenly overcame his face, and with his crutch, he started stumping his way up the stairs again. The Brothers walked slightly behind him, in case somebody bumped the kid again.

It was slow going, but they managed to finish the stairs, and get into the seating proper. It was pretty easy to find a spot to sit, and the kid settled in, looking around with interest.

He seemed a bit amused at the crowd.

“You get to see what happened yesterday?” Yun Ren asked.

Bowu shook his head.

The recording crystal came out, showing Bowu the highlights of yesterday.

Slowly, the stadium filled, and the booming echo of the announcer's voice resounded, as he welcomed everybody back.

An Ran stepped into the arena. The girl glanced up at the stands, and offered him a small smile.

================================

 

The trick to avoiding boredom with these matches, Tigu found, was to act like the crowds above.

They shouted and ranted, and it was quite fun to copy them. Especially as she could shout the loudest out of any of them. Her Qi enhanced her voice, and sent it booming off the stands. The people watching listened intently to her shouts, and echoed her sentiments. Even Ri Zu was getting into it, as she poked her nose out, chittering excitedly.

“Go on, Smaller Blade of Grass! Fight!” she demanded, her voice booming off the stands. Her opponent was pressing her hard, using his greater size and strength to try and keep her off balance.

It was finally something mildly exciting. An Ran looked far more composed now than she had this morning. During breakfast the petals had questioned Gou Ren and An Ran about their whereabouts after the meal, both had turned a shade of red, and let out frantic denials that they hadn’t done anything last night.

The rest of the petals had found this most amusing, and Xiulan had been smug about it for some reason.

All that Tigu had heard was the two of them talking about growing crops. Or at least Gou Ren had, while the Smaller Blade of grass listened. Then they started making increasingly nonsensical poems before they fell asleep on the roof, the fools, and Tigu had to get them a blanket after Ri Zu had insisted because they might catch a cold.

Now, the Smaller Blade of Grass’s eyes were focused and narrow, even as she was pressed. Small cuts appeared across her arms, and one small gash tore open her cheek.

Her eyes glanced at Tigu, then the Blade of Grass.

The next strike she blocked fully, throwing herself backwards, and grasping her sword tightly with both hands. With a flip, she landed on her feet, and took a breath. Her hair waved in the wind, as her eyes scrunched closed.

An Ran pulled her arms apart. The blade separated into two.The second sword was ghostly, and smaller by half. Near-ethereal, it's form was not quite solid.

“And An Ran shows the main technique of the Verdant Blade Sect, The Blades of Grass!” the announcer boomed. “What an accomplishment for the outer disciple!”

Xiulan was on her feet, and Tigu leaned forwards, interested. Xiulan’s swords always felt the same. As solid and dependable as the original, but the Smaller Blade of Grass’s was only half grown and incomplete. More a dagger than a blade, and still held in her hands.

Her opponent seemed surprised by the sudden shift, as An Ran abruptly went on the offensive, trying to capitalize. It was inexpert, and had clearly never been used in battle before, but it was the tipping point. The Smaller Blade of Grass managed to block the man’s strike with her dagger, the blade shattering from the force, but the strike diverted enough that she got in a clean blow. It was a cut down the side, and one that sent the man sprawling.

Tigu shouted with the rest of the crowd, as the announcer proclaimed An Ran’s victory.

An Ran managed to stagger out of the arena under her own power, and the next contestants took their place.

She smiled at who it was.

“Go and win, Handsome Man!” she shouted, her voice echoing. The crowd roared its approval, and a few began to laugh.

The handsome man’s face turned bright red at Tigu’s shout. He tentatively raised his hand, waving at her. Tigu smiled brightly at him and waved back. The man’s face somehow got even redder. His entire body coiled as he turned to face his opponent. His shoulder muscles bunched up, and his arms flexed most pleasingly.

The match was called to begin.

The handsome man simply charged his opponent. His large, superior frame slammed into the smaller man like Chun Ke. The spearman tried to put up a fight, but his weapon simply skittered off the Handsome Man’s body.

“The Hermitic Iron Body!” the announcer roared, as the twitching spearman failed to stand.

The Handsome man looked back at Tigu, who clapped at his victory. He would be fun to fight!

================================

The day progressed, and the fights accelerated in speed and violence. This… this was something more like Gou Ren had expected from a cultivator fight. Fire started to swirl. The earth heaved, and the arena’s floor was scarred by blades and hammers.

“The Rumbling Earth’s Wrecker Stance,” Bowu narrated, as the entire arena shook. Dulou Gan rocketed forwards like the guy Tigu called ‘handsome man’ before leaping into the air. “Said to be derived from a truly monstrous wrecker ball. They still live within its shell, said to be two Li in length, hailing from the Bonepile.”

The man slammed into his opponent, and hit him so hard he rebounded off the barrier. The crowd roared, and Gou Ren winced as he heard bones crack even from up where he was.

The next match got just as wild. A Tian Huo spun almost like a top through the air, his sword a mad flurry of colour as his opponent desperately tried to block or parry the powerful strikes.

“The Dervish Dance of the Azure Horizon Sect. Said to be the technique that Sun Ken derived his own Whirling Demon Blade from.”

Blood splattered into the air. The kid was excited as he explained, noting the techniques and history behind them. It was kind of interesting but Gou Ren was uncomfortable, as the sword hacked downwards, cutting through another contestant’s chest and sending him sprawling.The crowd’s glee was palpable.

Yun Ren chewed his lip, as he glanced at the arena through his crystal. It was a dizzying array of techniques and powerful strikes. Maybe he had spent too long with Meimei learning the consequences of all that damage, but he winced every time he saw something leave a body that was supposed to stay inside. The brothers were assuaged a little by the fact that they could see people rather casually walking back to their seats after getting hurt so badly.

“Cao Ci versus Guo Daxian, Young Master of the Grand Ravine!”

Guo Daxian had his face fixed in a vicious glare as he stood with his arms crossed, blue tattoos bright on his arms. His eyes were narrow as he took in his opponent.

Unlike the previous battles, it was explosive from the beginning.

“The Grand Canyon's Canyon Spanning Strikes,” Bowu stated, as the strange rope-blade lashed out from Guo Daxian.

The weapon seemed to have a life of its own as it snaked and slithered through the air striking so fast it seemed to be in five places at once.

Daxian’s opponent was a man who looked familiar, he was in blue silks and carrying a spear. He desperately backpedaled, defending as best he could, until with a sudden grin, he slammed the rope blade down and into the ground. With an explosive leap, he launched himself at the Young Master of the Grand Ravine. Who suddenly seemed to get yanked off his feet, travelling towards the point stuck in the ground at incredible speed.

The spearman ran face first into the other man’s fist, his eyes wide in surprise.

Traversing the Grand Ravine. One of the few movement techniques that exist in the Azure Hills, and ensures their dominance,” Bowu muttered.

The man went flying, but managed to stabilize himself. The rope-blade was already there, and he raised an arm to block it, instead of it cutting into his chest.

And then Guo Daxian was there. Pulled to the point on his bladed rope. He tore it free, and struck three more times. The arm broke, then the ribs. Then finally, a brutal strike to the jaw. That put his opponent down.

The man snorted, and walked off.

Gou Ren grimaced. He’d certainly hate to be down there against him.

=======================

The rest of the day proceeded most pleasingly. It seemed that the quality of the fights was slowly increasing, and Loud Boy managed a victory that seemed certain to end in his defeat. The sudden reversal in fortune had been interesting.

“And our final match for today! Rou Tigu versus Liu Xianghua!” the fat announcer man boomed.

It was finally her turn! Ri Zu sighed, and exited her shirt, waiting for Tigu in the Stands. Tigu bounced from foot to foot, her blood pumping merrily in her veins. This Misty Lady was supposed to be strong! This is what she came here for! This is what it was all about!!

She was going to face a worthy opponent!

Hopefully.

She managed to prevent herself from skipping into the arena out of sheer excitement. It was a close thing, as she calmed herself, and focused her intent. She expected to see her opponent in a similar state. Ready for battle, as they tuned out all the unnecessary distractions.

Her opponent was tall and lithe. Black hair hung in a loose cut down her shoulders. She wore the colors of her sect and stood proudly, an expression of calm focus on her face. A strange contraption was on her back, a large pipe sticking out of it so it rose just slightly above her head. A gauntlet was strapped to her left arm. It looked like a recent addition, and her sword was strapped to her waist.

But the Misty Lake Lady was distracted. Her eyes were searching the stands, almost frantically, until they alighted on something. Her gaze abruptly softened, and a small smile appeared.

Tigu glanced at where she was looking. Her gaze was directed to her fellow disciples—? No, a small boy sitting with them. The boy had a pair of crutches leaned against his shoulder, and he was staring directly at the Misty Lady, a complicated expression on his face.

Tigu’s eyes snapped back to her opponent.

The Misty Lady’s soft smile morphed into a grin, as she planted her hands on her hips. She took a deep breath.

Then began to laugh, her hands on her hips.

“Rou Tigu! I, Liu Xianghua, acknowledge your cultivation!” she boomed, pointing directly at her. “But be warned! Even your power, a stage above my own, will not be enough! The Techniques of the Misty Lake Sect shall defeat you without fail!”

Tigu cocked her head to the side.

“Kowtow before this Young Mistress, and I shall take it easy on you!” Misty Lady declared.

Tigu frowned, annoyed that this woman would dare even insinuate that she would take it easy on her. Did people actually do that? But the woman’s full attention was not on Tigu. Her eyes strayed to the stands. Tigu glanced back to the stands, where the boy with crutches was. He was chuckling, clearly amused at Xianghua’s words.

…she was doing it because the boy in the stands found it amusing?

Some of the ire faded. Tigu snorted and smirked, then she rose up haughtily.

“Oh, you dare? This Young Mistress shall surely defeat you. Kowtow before me a hundred times, and I shall take it easy on you!”

Misty Lady’s eyes snapped to Tigu and her smirk.

“Hpmh! A peasant raising her fangs at the heavens,” she declared.

Tigu picked at her ear. “Did you say something, Damp Pond?” she asked, feigning boredom.

Misty Lady recoiled, her eyes narrowing, but a small smile tugging at her lips.

“You court death with your words! Very well, I shall crush you with all I have!” she flipped her hair out of the way, and leaned back slightly, so she was purposefully looking down on Tigu.

Her eyes flicked once more away, this time to a box seat, high above. She locked eyes with a man who looked around Xiulan’s father’s age. There was a flash of irritation, before she rolled her eyes.

They suddenly focused, going cold and hard. Tigu had her undivided attention.

Mist began to swirl on the ground, getting thicker and thicker, as the Misty Lady’’s Qi formed around her.

For the first time in the tournament, Tigu formed a Qi Blade. Misty Lady was supposed to be strong.

Tigu glanced at the announcer man, who for some reason hadn’t started the fight yet. He had a massive grin on his face, and was rubbing his hands together. He raised his hands dramatically.

“Begin!” he boomed out finally.

Tigu attacked. A relatively gentle, probing strike. To be on the offensive was her place. It felt right, and natural. While her instincts to hunt may have faded, this had remained. In her previous two disappointing matches, her opponents could not even react to her.

For a brief moment, Tigu thought this would be the case for the Misty Lady too.

Until she moved with grace, stepping out of the way. Tigu’s blades missed by hairsbreaths. She drew her sword. It’s blade was a metallic blue colour, mixed through with swirls of white, with the tip completely white and slightly transparent, making the sword look slightly shorter than it actually was. If Tigu hadn’t been paying attention, she never would have noticed.

For the first time, an opponent truly challenged her. The sword lashed out for Tigu’s head, and she jerked herself away, a single strand of orange hair falling to the earth.

Tigu bounced away, creating some distance.

“Hmph. Is that it?” the Misty lady demanded haughtily. She had a bit of a smirk on. “I suppose it is the natural way of things for lessers to scurry away from their betters after a single exchange!”

Tigu stared at the fallen strand of hair. She considered her opponent, and her reactions.

She grinned.

One Qi blade multiplied to six. Three for each hand. The smirk vanished from the Misty Lady’s face.

Tigu absently heard the crowd’s gasp, as she poured on the speed and closed the distance, her claws ready. The Misty Lady’s eyes widened briefly, as Tigu unleashed herself on the woman.

A relentless barrage of strikes, coupled with her own bouncing movements. Attacks that had given the Blade of Grass pause.

Misty Lady proved why she named herself Xiulan’s rival. Six blades tried to break through her guard, and six blades failed.

The Misty Lady’s sword slid through the air like a swan through a lake. She moved across the battlefield silent and deceptively calm. It reminded Tigu a bit of Bi De. A kind of serenity radiated from her in the heat of battle. Misty Lady’s eyes shot from side to side, missing nothing as she catalogued every threat, and responded accordingly.

Two more Qi blades formed above Tigu’s hands.

Tigu pressed harder. Little cuts appeared in the woman’s clothes. A strand of black, tinted blue, drifted free, only to be torn to pieces by a storm of flashing blades.

And still, the Misty Lady held. Her breathing grew heavier. Tigu could feel the grin stretching at the corners of her mouth as she pushed harder on Misty Lady’s defenses.

The mist started to gather around the Lady. Her form became indistinct, and her sword wavered as it seemed to disappear and reappear.

But whatever trick it was, it couldn’t defeat Tigu’s eyes. Her fist passed through a hazy mirage of the Misty Lady’s head. The woman grunted as she was forced to twist unnaturally to avoid the blow that blew past her illusory double.

The hazy outline disappeared.

“To—defeat the Misty Shrouded Swan is no— hmph—mean feat!” the woman shouted at Tigu, trying to project her voice.

Tigu responded by slamming a kick into the woman’s side that she blocked with her gauntleted arm. The woman grimaced at the force of the blow.

Misty Lady let out a breath, and stepped into the next strike. Her sword deflected the claws made of Qi, as she tried to counter attack.

Tigu flipped away, the bold counter striking only air.

Tigu landed gently. Silent. She approved of the aggression.

Her opponent was breathing heavily, but with a single huff, that ceased as well. She clicked her tongue. The woman reached behind her back and pulled on something on the contraption.

It coughed once, and hissed. The entire device squealed loudly, as the vents on it lit up from dull red to bright orange.

Tigu paused, as the air seemed to shudder, and a burst of Qi washed over her.

“I see! You will not be defeated so easily, Rou Tigu. Loath as I am to use this against you, it seems I must use all of my skills!” she boomed out.

The pipe sticking above her back puffed, a great billowing cloud of steam pouring out, and instead of travelling up into the sky, lingered, completely obscuring the Misty Lady from view.

“Behold the technique that will defeat the Demon Slaying Orchid!”

=============================

Burning Breath, First Form. Heron’s Beak,” Bowu muttered. His eyes were locked on the contraption on Xianghua’s back. “Steam generation is good. The gauntlet and seals are holding. The control formation is… working?”

Gou Ren raised an eyebrow at the whispers. The kid had been quiet the entire bout so far, flinching at every hit Tigu landed, and clenching his fist every time she dodged.

“You know what it is?” Gou Ren asked. The kid’s eyes were locked on the fight.

“A converted pill furnace, burning Smokewater root, and filled with The Misty Lake’s Qi infused water. Attack and defense all in one. A trump card, against Cai Xiulan, or any of the Young Masters of the Azure Hills—

“Our Masterpiece.”

==================

Tigu bounced up and down, her eyes searching the mist. Her Qi Blades increased from eight to ten.

The mist was foul smelling. Like the city, or a forge.

Something hissed again. Tigu could hear something that sounded like Chun Ke, when he started to run. The steady puff puff puff as he got faster and faster, building up speed.

Tigu’s eyes widened, as she remembered one of her Master’s sayings, about what Chun Ke did.

Building Up Steam.

The cloud abruptly sucked inwards. Pulled into the gauntlet the Misty Lady wore. Her skin was flushed pink, and her eyes were the same orange colour as the fires within her contraption.

She opened her mouth, and steam poured out in time with her breath.

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A note from Casualfarmer

Back to the tournament.

 

Xianghua got that Steampunk Drip.

 

I actually didn't intend for this to be a cliffhanger right before the weekend, so I apologise for that.

 

And As always, if you wish to read the next TWO chapters, I do have an advanced chapter on patreon


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