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"BEGIN."

Following the Elder's signal, two disciples rushed towards each other. They crossed swords multiple times per second, every strike containing the force that could lift one ton. They dodged, slashed, deflected, and rivaled in ingenuity to push their opponent to commit a mistake and leave an opening.

The intense collisions were momentarily stopped as both disciples took a step back to catch their breaths. The keen observer had the time to spot the beads of sweat on both of the disciples forheads before the combat resumed with a renewed fervour.

One of the disciples was momentarily slower on his footing. It was all it took for the other to release an explosive thrust that would pierce his adversary's heart.

Just before the fatal blow could hit, the two disciples froze in place as qi bound them down and dampened their stop.

The white bearded Elder announced flatly. "Disciple Chang Sile wins and moves from rank 571 to rank 391." The disciple in question, sweating and huffing, raised his fist under the cheers of 3 friends and claps from a couple of other disciples watching. Perhaps he would make it to the top 400 this time.

 

The new 2nd years had moved to their new settlements. They were now assembled to determine the new rankings. The stakes weren't small as the rewards would provide a boon to their cultivation.

Captain Lacroix had presented the reward repartition for this trimester under the gasps of many disciples.

 

-9th bracket. Rank 600-681: 50 Ps +10 qi crystals.

-8th bracket. Rank 400-599: 125 Ps +25 qi crystals.

-7th bracket. Rank 200-399: 250 Ps +50 qi crystals.

-6th bracket. Rank 100-199: 500 Ps +100 qi crystals + 1 sun pill.

-5th bracket. Rank 50-99: 1000 Ps +150 qi crystals + 1 sun pill.

-4th bracket. Rank 25-49: 2000 Ps +200 qi crystals + 2 sun pills.

-3rd bracket. Rank 12-24: 2500 Ps +400 qi crystals + 2 sun pills.

-2nd bracket. Rank 5-11: 3000 Ps +600 qi crystals + 2 sun pills + 1 condensation pill.

-1st bracket: Rank 1-4.

-Rank 3-4: 4000 Ps +800 qi crystals + 2 sun pills +2 condensation pills.

-Rank 2: 5000 Ps +1000 qi crystals + 2 sun pills + 2 condensation pills.

-Rank 1: 7000 Ps +1000 qi crystals 2 sun pills + 3 condensation pills + 1 special medal for the trimester.

 

The rewards had stunned many disciples, wide eyed at the numbers. Even Han Lingyun couldn't simply disregard 7000 Ps and the other rewards that came with it. In terms of worth, the sect tried to fix the value of 1P to 1 standard low ranked crystal. The crystal was used as money in the cultivation world as it was a stable currency. The sect didn't distribute too much of it as they didn't want the crystals to replace the sect points as the currency inside its walls. Those crystals rewarded were meant for the disciple's personal use: to cultivate faster and to refill the qi they spent.

The rewards were even more concentrated towards the top than for the 1st years. In terms of Ps alone, the lowest ranked disciples only had their reward multiplied by a factor of 5, while the highest ranked had their already inflated Ps multiplied at least by 10. The bigger figures also hid the fact that the ranking competition and reward distribution would only be held once every 3 months, rather than once every month for the 1st years.

Still, the fights were more intense than during the previous ranking competitions and that held at every echelon.

 

In the end, Chang Sile was pushed back once again from the top 400 and failed to win another challenge. This was a big blow as his rewards were halved just like that. This system was even more cruel when one considered that a difference of 1 rank could double one's resources, while disciples with a 199-rank difference could receive the same payout. Life was unfair.

 

Less and less disciples still had to issue a challenge but the excitement didn't die down. Another heated topic were the disciples who had reached qi condensation during the last month. There was 9 of them, all 4th grade talents.

From first to last to reach qi condensation, the list included:

Qin Mei, the red head sword maiden,

Li An, the bold staff user,

Qi Bo, a sword cultivator,

Pan Xiulan, a sword maiden,

Qin Tengfei, a spear user,

Liu Meifen, a female disciple that didn't enjoy to battle,

Wu Fa, the only axe user among the 4th grade talents,

Liao Shao, the former head of the now disbanded Collective of Order,

Lei Jie, a sword user.

 

For the first time, the 4th grade talents were separated into two groups of different cultivation. Han Lingyun was just the exception for the previous month.

And there were surprises. Some disciples that had cemented their place in the top 10 during the previous year hadn't made it to qi condensation yet such as Ma Zhong the giant, Liao Zhenzhen the historical leader of the sword maidens and even Yu Tao that had only just reached the marrow tempering stage were now threatened by new names, 4th grade disciples that had remained in the middle of the pack until now. These included Qi Bo, Liu Meifen, Wu Fa and Lei Jie.

Liu Meifen for instance has always been among the lowest ranked grade 4 talents, with questionable fighting techniques. She was one of the few 4th grade talents that had lost to 3rd grade talents with lower cultivation.

The highest ranks were about to get turned upside down and the lowest ranked disciples where hyped for the upheavals.

 

Neither Shen Lin nor Yan Haoyu had reached the qi condensation stage yet. Han Lingyun could only try to cheer up his best friends. Sadly, Shen Lin didn't manage to stay in the 3rd bracket as he lost his duel against Lei Jie and was later pushed back to the 25th rank. He was fuming with rage at missing out by 1 little rank. Worst of all, his chance to climb back up would only come in 3 months.

 

It was now time for the challenges of the 3rd bracket.

Before the changes, the ranks held:

#5 Li An

#6 Liao Shao

#7 Qin Tengfei

#8 Qin Mei

#9 Liao Zhenzhen

#10 Ma Zhong

#11 Liao Qiaolian

 

And the qi condensation contenders of the 3rd bracket were currently

#12 Pan Xiulan

#13 Wu Fa

#16 Qi Bo

#17 Liu Meifen

#24 Lei Jie

 

There were 9 qi condensation disciples for only 7 places in the first bracket.

 

Lei Jie was the first to issue a challenge and duke it out with Liao Zhenzhen. He managed to win but had to push himself. He had only entered qi condensation 2 days ago and couldn't fully display the true might of a qi condensation cultivator.

First, the ones still at the body strengthening realm were pushed out of second bracket. Even the frail looking Liu Meifen had triumphed over the brute Ma Zhong. Then came the matches between the qi condensation cultivators. The crowd was watching with rapt attention as this was the first time that they were seeing a duel where both opponents stood at that realm.

Qi Bo challenged Lei Jie and won in less than 10 seconds. There was a huge difference between those that had time to adapt to their new power. Qi Bo had even begun learning the next level of his martial art as it had been available after a short mission. The new arrivals preferred challenging each other rather than attempting to confront Li An, Liao Shao and Qin Tengfei, who were previously a cut above the rest at the same cultivation level.

 

In the end, Lei Jie and Liu Meifen stayed at the 3rd bracket, joined by the desolate bunch of Liao Zhenzhen, Ma Zhong and Liao Qiaolian.

 

It was now time for the final showdown for the 1st bracket.

#1 Wei Muchen

#2 Wang Yimo

#3 Yu Tao

#4 Han Lingyun

---

#5 Li An

#6 Liao Shao

#7 Qin Tengfei

#8 Qin Mei

#9 Qi Bo

#10 Pan Xiulan

#11 Wu Fa.

 

Wu Fa challenged Yu Tao without hesitating. The concerned one stared at him briefly before closing his eyes. He had a plan… but now was not the time. With deep breaths, Yu Tao abandoned without competing. That actually caught Han Lingyun off guard, had he misjudged the guy?

 

Qi Bo then challenged Liao Shao and surprisingly won with one strike. Liao Shao had also only recently joined the circle of qi condensation cultivators and simply didn't have any response to Qi Bo's powerful sword strike imbued with qi. That launched heated discussions among the disciples as one of the most feared disciples had been crushed by a previously lowkey 4th grade disciple.

Pan Xiulan chose Yu Tao and won without competing too. The first prolonged fight between qi condensation disciples came next, when Qin Mei challenged Wu Fa. Disciples admired the shocks of qi attack against qi attack, axe versus sword. In the end, Qin Mei defeated Wu Fa by expending his qi reserves.

For the first time, disciples were seeing the fighters replenish their qi after each match. They absorbed qi from crystals in lotus positions rather than just trying to recover with heavy breaths and slower exercises. Filling one's tank with those little qi batteries was quite fast. This was the other important use of qi crystals: recovering one's qi after a fight. The process had nothing to do with cultivation where one was condensing the qi in his dantian, which required a lot more time and effort.

A metaphor that teacher Xian once used to explain the difference was the following: Condensing qi in a dantian is like shaping a bowl, making it wider to contain more liquid, while absorbing qi from crystals is like filling it with water. The second action is way easier. Furthermore, that ball would naturally fill up if you just place it outside and wait for a bit of rain.

 

The rules of the matches had slightly shifted to accommodate the qi condensation fighters. The elders allowed the disciples more time to recuperate with qi crystals, if that time didn't exceed ten minutes.

 

Now that it was Qin Tengfei's turn, he challenged the somber Yu Tao and momentarily took the 6th rank as Yu Tao continued to give up without a fight.

With those musical chairs, it was now Qi Bo's turn to issue a challenge once again. He was now sitting in 10th and the next reward upgrade was only at 4th place, but there was too much competition for 3rd and 4th ranks. He might have a chance against Qin Mei, but could he then defend his rank against challenges from the likes of Han Lingyun, Li An and Qin Tengei?

This was perhaps Qi Bo's only chance to challenge the cream of the crop and his gaze fell on the two 5th grade disciples. Those two have been at the qi condensation stage for more than 4 months already but Qi Bo also had learned the 2nd level of his martial art. This opportunity wouldn't come by twice, he had to do it. He aspired to become a true sword cultivator after all, one that didn't retreat when faced with adversity.

And thus, after his internal deliberation, Qi Bo declared. "I challenge rank 2, Wang Yimo."

Silence gripped the crowd as the disciples held their breaths.

One young man asked his friend. "Brother, have I heard that wrong?"

He hadn't.

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