3 days later, all the 1st year disciples were grouped in front of the arenas, standing to attention. This was the 10th disciple ranking competition.
By now, the gap between the 2nd and 3rd grade talents had become a chasm. The best 3rd grade talents had entered the 4th stage of body strengthening while the 2nd grade talents were still at the 2nd stage of body strengthening.
Cultivation was unfair and the school didn't make separate rankings for different talents. Nearly all 2nd grade talents had come to terms with being at the lowest ranks for their year. They could only hope for their luck to take a turn for the better at the qi condensation stage.
Some digested the realization better than others. At first, this was a hard blow for Chang Sile who had built grand ambitions since his initial rise from last place. It would have been a nice story! By now, Chang Sile (who ended at the 541st rank) had revised his motivations. He would take it slow and steady. Build a strong foundation and overtake his peers once they become stuck at bottlenecks later on! If only all the other disciples didn't have such thoughts…
Anyway, except perhaps for his small group of friends, no one cared much about his rank. What the disciples wanted to see was some showdowns between the best. And this time, rumor had it that the 6th ranked disciple Han Lingyun had broken through to qi condensation already.
There hadn't been a 4th qi condensation 1st year yet. So, will he challenge someone? Will the 1st years witness a duel between qi condensation cultivators?
Whispers and rumors spread like wildfire in a dry forest.
This must have triggered other 4th grade talents out of their complacency as the top 50 had more challenges than during the last 4 months combined. The level of anticipation was reminiscent of the duels in the first trimester.
After half a day, the crowd held its breath as it was finally Han Lingyun's turn to issue a challenge.
He took a big breath. "I challenge the 4th ranked disciple, Li An!"
A roar resonated from the watchers. They could be witnessing a change in the 1st bracket for the 1st time in 9 months!
There is always something mystically exciting about a duel. Romanticized in countless epic stories. No outside interference, the ideal test of one's strengh against one another. The adrenaline rush before the final outcome. Then the uncompromising result.
Li An took his usual staff and calmly walked to the arena. He would not concede, even if his opponent was stronger on paper. His own techniques were extraordinary, with a hint of deep profoundness he had gleaned from witnessing his powerful uncle training silently.
Han Lingyun walked to the stage with a random short sword he picked from the pile of weapons available for the duels. Right now, the weapon didn't matter too much anyway.
The match began and Li An stood poised in place, analyzing his opponents every detail, scrutinizing Han Lingyun's breathing and his minute movements. He took deep breaths and steadied himself, every fiber of his body ready for an explosive and precise reaction.
Meanwhile Han Lingyun began taking slow steps towards Li An, which gradually accelerated into a sprint as he rapidly approached the immobile Li An.
The disciples held their breaths as the clash came.
Just at this instant, Han Lingyun speed suddenly multiplied by twenty-fold as he used the second level of his blackbird art. Li An reacted instinctively and his muscles contracted but Han Lingyun's sword had already reached his neck, only stopped by the elder watching the duel.
The elder declared without batting an eye. "Disciple Han Lingyun wins and reaches rank 4".
The disciples that weren't shocked by the abrupt end cheered at the impressive display. Qi condensation cultivators were really at another level! The result was too fast! Anticlimactic even! With a sudden burst of absolute speed from Han Lingyun, the mysterious and unfathomable Li An had just… lost in a single move?
Some needed more than a couple of breaths to step out of their stunned state.
Han Lingyun had a faint smile. He tried to look unperturbed but he had trouble hiding the breath moment of pride he felt. He graciously took his new place next to Yu Tao. No matter how skilled and refined Li An's technique was, it couldn't make up for the gap in cultivation in such a straightforward environment. Han Lingyun only had to show the tiniest part of his blackbird art to take down Li An. To be fair, Han Lingyun wasn't your average disciple either, and he was probably a stronger opponent than your average newly advanced qi condensation cultivator.
The ranking competition wasn't done yet and it was now Liao Shao's time to issue a challenge but he decided to pass and just at the 6th rank.
The disciples looked at Han Lingyun as it was his turn again but they were disappointed when Han Lingyun chose to end at the 4th rank.
Yu Tao gave him an intense look that could mean anything. Han Lingyun couldn't even determine if it was some kind of warning or gratitude. He nodded and smiled back anyway while grumbling inside.
Neither Yu Tao nor Wang Yimo issued a challenge so the competition ended on that note and Wei Muchen kept his golden medal of first rank once again.
One week later, in a remote corner of the sect, another duel was going to begin. A gorgeous black haired, 30 year old looking woman briefed two young disciples on the details.
Surprisingly, the atmosphere was tense and seemed more stifling than before any duel of the ranking competition.
"As we have agreed, I will be stopping the fight as soon as I judge that one of you two is in mortal danger. I won't intervene for non-lethal injuries. You can use your own weapons and there are no additional rules. The duel will take place in this whole valley. If for some reason none have won after two hours, the duel will end and the bets will be null.
Now for the bets.
If Wang Yimo wins, Han Lingyun's mentor, will provide through him a Starlight formation's disc to me. I will then reward Wang Yimo with a Calypso's blessing pill.
If Han Lingyun wins, I will provide a Spirit condensing pill to him, and a 200-year-old blue Fountain grass to his mentor.
Has your mentor formally accepted this exchange disciple Lingyun?"
"Yes, here is his token as proof."
The two disciples had serious faces. The had deliberately raised the stakes high to compensate for the lack of a deadly threat. The result of this bet would definitely have an impact on their future cultivation.
The stunning Elder Zhang smiled; she wouldn't mind her protégé bringing her some benefits and she felt quite confident.
"Very well. I will now send the two of you at different sides of the valley."
'Hum, this Han Lingyun does seem rather fierce but he doesn't seem to understand how fast one advances during the early stages of qi condensation. Wang Yimo has been at that stage for a longer period and is a once-in-a-decade talent, she necessarily has denser qi and greater reserves. Not to mention her battle sense that has been refined since a young age. The gap in cultivation is an arduous mountain to overcome. This little guy can only rely on some trickery to snatch the victory but let's see him try to fool my clever Yimo. And little tricks are meaningless in front of absolute strength. But to propose such a duel, he is indeed rather interesting. I am curious to see what cards this little fellow hides under his sleeves.'
With her perception, Elder Zhang could make an accurate judgement of Han Lingyun's cultivation. She had never seen Han Lingyun before, but her initial judgement had reassured her on the bet. This bet didn't just involve the juniors, but their teachers too!
Han Lingyun stayed in place while Wang Yimo sped to his direction by rushing through the trees with unnerving agility.
After an incense stick worth of time, she finally slowed down to a halt as she saw Han Lingyun in his white robe 20 meters in front of her, and a dangerous smile crept on her face. They silently stared at each other, concentrating to the maximum. Everything could be decided in an instant of inattention. But with the two disciples' proficiency, none should make these rookie mistakes and this set up could lead to a prolonged fight arbitrated by a careful use of the environment around.
Han Lingyun activated his blackbird art and slowly began merging with the background which caught Wang Yimo slightly off guard. This was a very unique use of qi! She couldn't let him do as he wanted though so she decisively approached her opponent.
At the instant Wang Yimo took her third step, Han Lingyun abruptly jerked his left foot back while Wang Yimo made a violent attacking motion.
However, right at that moment, the two disciples realized they had been frozen in place.
An angry roar coming from a female Elder broke the tense silence that had momentarily engulfed the scene.
The beautiful Elder descended between the two young disciples and looked a bit reproachfully at Wang Yimo, who still hadn't registered what had happened.
Then she noticed it, the thin thread centimeters from her neck and her legs. She touched it with her finger and cut herself, the thread was being imbued with qi. Shocked, she turned to Han Lingyun and saw the small handle attached to his ankle which was at the end of the thread.
While trying to maintain an emotionless face, Elder Zhang announced "Han Lingyun wins."
"H-how? I-I didn't…. I-If this was real life, I would have died, right?" Wang Yimo faced her master.
Elder Zhang's air seemed to change at this moment. It was as though the tension in the air relaxed as she took the countenance of a helpful teacher.
"That's right, at the very least, you would have lost a leg. Perhaps a miraculous instinct could have saved your neck. That's only because qi isn't strictly staying inside your body so a cultivator at the qi condensation realm might sense danger from an approaching dagger even if he cannot see it. But back to the topic, you were really too naïve my disciple, you acted like it was a normal duel! On that note, you have disappointed me. But it's all right, you are here to learn after all.
All your attention was on Han Lingyun so you forgot about your surroundings. Also think from your opponent's point of view. Of course, he wouldn't just sit there without preparing anything. Why would he keep his visible white robes? Why not merge with the environment like he demonstrated and launch a surprise attack?
He was obviously baiting you here. I must say, disciple Lingyun, your idea wasn't bad, but a bit too rough for cultivators that have true battle experience. May I ask where you obtained such a treasure?"
"Thank you for the compliment and advice Elder Zhang, I will refine my methods against more experienced opponents. I bought this thread at the Thousand Treasure Pavilion for 500 Ps, in the section for young body strengthening disciples. I never had the opportunity to use it at the body strengthening stage and realized it would struggle more to cut through a qi condensation cultivator that could react with the qi inside his body to resist the thread. However, as I experimented with qi manipulation, I noticed that the material of the thread could support qi very well, even better, passing qi through it felt easier than passing through a sword. It has a remarkable qi conductivity!"
"You indeed found yourself a bargain. This thread could have been advertised as a qi condensation treasure. The one classifying it at the Thousand Treasure Pavilion seems to have stopped his inspection at its lack of runes, which is a surprising negligence.
Anyway, now that the bet is over, do the two of you wish to have another round and truly exchange blows?"