The next morning, Han Lingyun, Shen Lin and Yang Haoyu were back in their cave, in the middle of a cultivation session, with only gentle bird songs as distractions.
Meanwhile, a huge commotion was happening at the 1st years plaza. Since the first rays of the sun, word had spread at breakneck speed and disciples were rushing to look at the unbelievable spectacle.
None came to take the disciples hanging by their feet down. Many of the spectators had suffered from one of them already. Their friends felt too ashamed to associate with the poor ones dangling down.
Somehow, even the sword maidens had caught wind of this and were chuckling in their little group at the side. Li An appeared to be in a good mood today as he greeted them. Qin Tengfei seemed very serious, crouching with a thoughtful expression like he was contemplating a work of fine art. The groups of disciples that had been acting widely during the last few days were getting more and more unbridled and many of the best disciples had been recently approached by them. They felt quite overwhelmed by the rapid deterioration of the unity and willingness to focus on individual cultivation.
Even Wang Yimo was in her corner with an amused smile on her face. She couldn't get herself to examine those hanging disciples too closely though.
"Did some rabble come to annoy you too, disciple Li An?" Liao Zhenzhen raised.
"Surprisingly yes. I quickly finished them but the idea didn't come to me to display the result in such a grand fashion."
Liao Zhenzhen laughed. "Disciple Han Lingyun's methods might be a bit brutal, but they sure sound promising. I regret not doing it earlier with the girls."
Suddenly, the laughter and clamor died down and Yu Tao emerged from the crowd. He stood silently in front of the hanging disciples. Some had woken up and were dangling like fishes taken out of the water. Yu Tao took a glance at the text and spat.
"You bunch of trash. I want protectors, not rabble that cower when alone but bully others if they are numerous enough."
He turned around and left. This was all done to save face and dissociate himself with those ridiculed disciples. Not to mention, he could not take his own lackeys down without helping some of Wei Muchen's followers because all were attached together and Yu Tao would never give a hand to his enemies.
Wei Muchen also made an appearance. Gasps were heard as his new imposing air indicated that he had broken through to the 3rd stage of body tempering: the muscle stage! Wei Muchen didn't say anything and only looked coldly at his dangling followers. He tried to repress the corners of his mouth from curling up. After a short struggle, he broke his serious face and laughed before turning away.
This started a good 10 minutes of laughter from most of the crowd, as the tension died down and only the ridiculous situation of the naked bunch remained.
Finally, Liao Shao arrived. Without any comments, he untied the rope, helped the disciples down and gave them new robes.
He turned towards the crowd that was already leaving. "Many have been causing trouble in the past week. But there is no need to result to such shocking measures. The Collective of Order and the punishment hall will crack down on troublemaking disciples as long as you report them."
He then faced the humiliated group. "There is still a chance to redeem yourself, join the Collective of Order and fight back against those that have previously corrupted you."
The humiliated disciples, who had been abandoned by Yu Tao and Wei Muchen just before, were all more than glad to join another camp. Some shivered at the thought of the revenge they would have suffered from if they remained alone.
Like this, Liao Shao promoted his camp and gained new followers. He also showed that he would accept those from any side.
Not everything went to his plan though, as Han Lingyun's actions seemed to have inspired some frustrated high ranked disciples.
The next morning on the plaza, dozens of unconscious disciples were arranged on the ground to spell SWORD MAIDENS.
Another group of disciples were tied and mangled together. The stone of the plaza had been carved by a rod that read Li An.
10 other disciples were pinned to the pillars by their robes with spears. Only Qin Tengfei could boast of having such an accuracy with the spear.
By now the message was clear. Don't involve us in your games!
If the groups learned to fear the highest ranked disciples, the weaker ones didn't get an easier life after those events. For many, it became a living hell.
More and more tried to find hidden spots in the woods to cultivate. Those weak disciples even hesitated to come back for class and receive 1P per day, at the risk of being spotted by a gang. Staying hidden in the forest wasn't a long-term solution though, as all resources could only be gained or bought at the halls of the disciple village.
Some found that missions could be a good way to leave this environment. By taking week long missions at the other side of the sect and sleeping there, they could cultivate, gain Ps and avoid troubles.
The demand for missions grew as a consequence and Han Lingyun took the opportunity to lower the mission rewards that he posted to 30 Ps and his missions would still be taken immediately.
Soon, two weeks had passed since the second disciple rankings. Han Lingyun, having downgraded from the 1st to the 2nd bracket during the competition, had to leave the sect under Captain's Lacroix's command with all the disciples that had fallen by one bracket.
Shen Lin and Hang Haoyu decided to come as well. They just wanted to leave the sect! In fact, they were a lot more than the 200 to 300 disciples that had lost a bracket. And this didn't account for the wounded. Many disciples of all levels had volunteered. Some thought it would be the chance to escape from the mess, others wanted to see something else than the 1st years' village and its surroundings.
Han Lingyun even spotted the sword maidens and Wang Yimo. In total, more than 400 disciples were making the trip.
Wei Muchen, Yu Tao and Liao Shao were nowhere to be found. They seemed to prefer cultivating. Perhaps they also had in mind the struggle between their 3 factions and didn't want to lose their support during an absence. As a result, most of the members of the factions that where not required to leave the sect chose to stay with their leaders.
In the groups that was leaving the sect, those belonging to a faction were a minority and didn't have any support from a leading disciple for the trip.
'That's good, it should be more peaceful.' Han Lingyun thought. A lot of figure heads probably chose to dedicate their time to cultivation. Li An and Qin Tengfei were not there as well for instance.
Captain Lacroix eyed the crowd of disciples with a smirk. "We are leaving for 5 to 6 days. The schedule is the following: a two day walk, 1 to 2 days of harvest and 2 days for the return journey. I hope you remember well your survival classes because we will be living of the wild in the meantime and I will let you show me what you learned."
Survival classes weren't that engaging as they entailed a lot of memorizations but Han Lingyun had been especially attentive in them. His number one priority was to stay alive after all.
However, some disciples hesitated after hearing that. A handful that was not required to be here decided to stay in the sect after all. The program wasn't really enticing and some became scared at the idea of having to live off the forest.
"Now that the cowards have left, let's go!"
The group first headed back down the mountain they had to climb the day of the disciple examination. Then the long march in the unending forest commenced. A march wasn't an accurate term, it was actually a jog. There was something quite satisfying to be able to jog in a huge group, with some ease. The physical improvements in just 2 months' time were huge!
Every 2 or 3 hours. Captain Lacroix would stop the pack and make the disciples spread out to search for anything comestible. Some fruits, insects, rodents, herbs, mushrooms and even roots. The disciples soon turned it into a game to find the greatest amount of comestible stuff.
It tested vision, memory and discernment.
However, the group was a lot less enthusiastic when Captain Lacroix ordered everyone to eat what they had brought up. One deeply regretted picking up this questionable mushroom while the other tried not to gag as he bit into a cicada.
A couple had evidently consumed poisonous substances. Captain Lacroix would feed those some average healing pills to keep them going while still punishing them by not completely relieving the symptoms.
When they crossed a river, they had to drink the water and fill their bottles even if the water didn't look that clear.
"Your body isn't your former self; you are now cultivators! You should be able to drink river water without falling ill."
At the end of the day, the majority of disciples started to run low on their batteries. Captain Lacroix's discerning eye didn't miss the signs.
"All right let's stop here. I warn you, on the way back we won't be making any pauses for the night. Okay, I want 200 disciples to clear out all the trees around. The others should go a little further to find food. We will share in an hour. GO!"
Like little ants, the disciples spread out and started their tasks. Everything was done at high speed. One should keep in mind that every disciple was stronger than the average bodybuilder. Captain Lacroix had selected an area devoid of magical beasts but she remained attentive for any uninvited guests, she was the disciples' protector as much as their guide after all.
After having eaten the small amount of available and hard to stomach food, Han Lingyun found Shen Lin and Yang Haoyu and they sat down to cultivate and have some rest. They would only leave at dawn.
As the group was having a laugh at the things they had just eaten, a gentle voice interrupted them.
"Excuse me, could I sit with you this night?"