Dog Eat Dog
"Impressive medicinal power. Xia Hu, when did you become an alchemist, and such a brilliant one at that?" Be it from the exquisite Qi Gathering pills he'd received from Xia Hu or the medicinal pill the swordsman just swallowed, Xinzi could feel his opponent's aura—meaning that Xia Hu had refined those pills. Rapid progress following fortuitous encounters wasn't unheard of. But for one with such an abysmal starting point to achieve so much so soon went against reason itself. The more he probed Xia Hu's depths, the more convinced Xinzi was that besides heaven's blessings, his good brother had someone helping him. And that someone...likely possessed earth-shaking background or strength—both, perhaps.
Ignoring the probe, Xia Hu stood up and scanned Xinzi's mutant arm. Beasts no longer clogged the scene, and yet Xia Hu had never felt more unsettled. At a glance, he could see that Xinzi's mutant arm carried the same destructive power as the best of black-grade Treasures. At full power, black-grade Treasures and Formation Masters did not differ from Pulse Condensation experts. But as with all external tools, the owner's cultivation base and foundation determined the result.
Just like Dong Ling couldn't tap into 1% of her profound-grade sword, Xinzi would be hard-pressed to unleash even 10% of a superior black-grade Treasure's full strength. If not for those limits, no need to go through all the trouble—a single full-powered second-layer Formation would put Xia Hu to rest.
But now the tide had changed. Xinzi refined a Frigid Flame Heart—giving his foundation a significant boost—and fused with the arm, turning it into an extension of himself. Even if he capped at 30% of the arm's true might, three Xia Hus couldn't threaten him—to say nothing of one. For the first time since the battle started, Xia Hu trembled in fear. Fear that his cultivation road stopped here. Fear that he couldn't stop Xinzi from trampling his pride. Fear that he'd lose it all and revert to being nothing more than Xinzi's inferior. Fear...as far as he could remember, fear and shame had controlled his life. Be it at the village or White Immortal sect, it was all the same.
Biting his lips, Xia Hu suppressed the fears and raised his eyes to cast Xinzi a defiant stare.
'Old man, I know it is too early, but today I must use the tricks you taught me, or the two of us will be buried here.'
'Xia Hu, that kid isn't ordinary. Create an opening and escape.'
'No shit! If he were, how could I fall into this predicament? But while a man of high aspirations can bend and stretch, I refuse to retreat before Xinzi!' Hidden behind barriers of Xia Hu's soul, a wrinkled old man sat crossed-legged. Dressed in a black robe embroidered with a golden dragon, the old man would have looked ordinary if not for that robe that few in the Great Desolation World would dare to put on.
'You might not have a choice. After you found my burial ground and incorporated my soul, I studied those around you and failed to find someone worth worrying about. But since you started pressuring him, that boy's soul has been showing cracks, proof that just like you, potent barriers conceal the true nature of his soul. In fact, I can affirm that before your confrontation, someone or thing must have put a heavy stress on his soul. Otherwise, considering the barrier's quality, even I would have struggled to spot its existence.' The old man was correct. If Dong Hui hadn't attempted to possess Xinzi, thereby forcing him to temporarily take down the barrier and reveal the true nature of his soul, no cracks would appear now. But even then, without an immeasurable level of Soul Force, none could detect the flaws.
At first, Xia Hu wondered if the old man wasn't making things up out of fear of dying with him. But as his words trailed off, a blend of doubts and conjectures filled Xia Hu's mind—his face twisted into a frown.
'What grade?' Xia Hu asked. From the old man, he'd learned that souls had grades too. The grades had very little to do with Soul Force, but instead represented the lifeform's level in Heaven's eyes. Lesser Souls for non-sentient creatures, Intermediate Souls for humans, Greater Souls for Sages, and so on...
'I can't be sure because my current Soul Force is too weak, but his soul seems to have a unique color. This means that, at the very least, it has reached the elemental grade. In this world, people with Elemental Souls or above all belong to factions that even at my peak, I'd have to treat with courtesy. Let's just hope that his soul is neither golden nor black, or you have doomed us both.' Aware of the old man's past status and peak strength, Xia Hu couldn't imagine what faction could make him lose all hope. He could not, and he dared not, because once he did he'd have to retreat and that...was out of question!
Blood-colored rays shot out of Xia Hu's frenzied eyes. His sword shone in that same uncanny hue as, to Xinzi's surprise, a twister of bloody winds coiled up Xia Hu's form. "The Desolate Sword Art? No wonder you became so arrogant," Xinzi said.
'Why does he know?!' The words scared Xia Hu witless. His eyes widened, his momentum collapsed, and before he could regain his wits, Xinzi's mutant limb had met his cheek in a backhand punch.
Carried by the impact, Xia Hu flew across the cave. His bones cracked, but before he could land or ram into nearby walls, Xinzi appeared above him and slammed his right elbow straight into his chest.
"UGH!" Rubbles of broken ice soared up and fell as Xia Hu crashed into the ground and spurted blood. His eyes glazed over, his sight darkened, but Xinzi's fist still loomed over him.
"Profound cultivation base, shallow will: the textbook traits of the arrogant young master. Was living in the shoes of those that kept you down all you could aspire to? How unambitious. Might as well hand that cultivation over to a lurching beggar child. I'm sure they'd make better use of it."
Xinzi's claws and fist came crashing down Xia Hu's chest like a breaking dam. Xia Hu barely had the time to register the pain that the avalanche of blows short-circuited his consciousness. Under Xinzi's pummeling, Xia Hu's chest and stomach became a gory mess. Several steps away, Chun Xu and Dong Ling traded blows. But while Chun Xu held a clear advantage, unlike her usual self, she avoided dealing her match any heavy or lethal blow.
"Senior sister, you are not acting like your usual self. Aren't you afraid of ruining your reputation?" With her sword pressed against Chun Xu's, Dong Ling said.
Beauty only accounted for half the reason why the Dongli people named Chun Xu Sword Fairy. From an early age, she carried out missions and earned that nickname by eliminating countless rogues on behalf of the sect. After going through so many life-and-death trials, Chun Xu became renowned for only aiming her blade at the most vulnerable spots. Eyes, crotch, neck, heart; whatever killed the opponent the fastest received her sword's attention. Even in spars, she struggled to restrain that habit, which forced her master, Zi Yao, to select her opponents from top inners or elite disciples.
But for once, Chun Xu showed perfect control, drawing Dong Ling's curiosity.
"A'Ling, I know that you've always been jealous of me. Master gave you the Lesser Spirit Snake Sword upon you, but that's where her care started and ended. Since I joined the sect 10 years ago, Master invested all her time and resources in me. You envy me and projected that envy on Brother Xia. Because I know that fawning over him was only your petty way of getting back at me, I didn't care.
"To most, you are as stubborn as a mule and more reckless than a charging bull. But that's precisely what I like about you. I don't have to read your thoughts because you never try to conceal them. Xinzi likely thinks the same, which is why he is also fond of you. But though he and I share many similarities, I dare say that unlike him, I would never harm you." Taking a pause, Chun Xu motioned for Dong Ling to look at the other two's clash. The sight of Xia Hu getting brutalized beyond recognition shocked her to the core, but clenching her fists, she shifted her gaze back to her frenemy.
"You are an outstanding cultivator in your own right. Use your Spiritual Sense and see how steady his heart rate is. No normal man can inflict this level of abuse while remaining stoic. Either he's a once-in-1,000-years killing machine, or he is not human. Worse, he has no qualms about using monstrous and even demonic abilities. Sooner or later, he will step into true demonism. Are you going to let him ruin you, or return to those that—" Purple miasma burst from Dong Ling's pores, trapping Chun Xu whose eyes went bloodshot. Razor-sharp sword qi burst from the Sword Fairy, forcing Dong Ling to leap out of its range. But while she avoided the brunt of the blow, the sword qi still cut into Dong Ling's arms and legs—leaving bloody gashes behind. Unfazed, Dong Ling landed on an ice block and smiled at Chun Xu.
"Don't flatter yourself. You are no female Xinzi. He knows how to make deceit entertaining. You just talk too much."
How could Dong Ling not see through Chun Xu's glaring attempt to cheat her sword? But from the moment that Xinzi rescued her in spite of her monstrous secret, she couldn't choose the other two over him. In fact, after seeing how easily Xia Hu, Chun Xu and Xinzi could put their weapons at one another's throats, Dong Ling wondered if she wasn't the naïve one.
In a dog-eat-dog world where the law of the biggest fist ruled supreme, was it not foolish to put emotions above reason? Yet, even as she traded blows with Chun Xu, Dong Ling knew that she could not be as ruthless as the other three. She didn't have it in her…yet.
Meanwhile, the waves of the shattered brotherhood's raging battle spread throughout the cave, alerting several existences from the deepest recesses of the Burning Hell.