[Bonus chapter] Rules Exist to be Broken
At the leaders' platform, Guang Fanghu observed Haoyang's moves with scrutiny. Shui Haoyang had just turned 25, cultivated 320 Spiritual Drops, and showed no sign of slowing down. No one expected the Dongli prince to add formation skills to his arsenal—at least not without external help. Either Haoyang got that help, or he deliberately concealed his true abilities—neither option pleased Guang Fanghu, who liked to control all aspects of his nephews' existences.
"I...didn't know," the Dongli King said. Though on paper they shared a deep brotherly bond, Shui Jiankang had always lived in his cousin's shadow and obeyed his every order like a dog trained to divine perfection. Guang Fanghu knew that his cousin didn't have the balls to deceive him. More importantly, had he known that his sixth child had such an ability, Shui Haoyang would be the first to prop him up for better resources and training. Still, the smell of treachery laced this concealed knowledge.
"Humph! Then I suppose Haoyang trusts neither you nor I. Could it be that my virtuous nephew is no longer satisfied with our White Immortal sect?" Guang Fanghu vented his frustration on Shui Jiankang. The monarch broke into a cold sweat and fell to his knees. "Hao...Haoyang wouldn't dare di...disrespect, reject or betray the sect. He must have his reasons. Sect master, for the sake of my late sister, please don't hold it against him," Shui Jiankang said and bowed in helplessness.
The Albizia court mistress, a voluptuous woman dressed in a curve-hugging lavender gown, frowned at this scene. Her veil concealed the grimace, but couldn't fool her peers, who calmed her through a succession of mental messages.
"Jiankang, you're only a Dual Element Root and can go no further than the Golden Core stage. Still, you had a good sister to build your career on, and produced two Single Element Root children to carry your future. Count your blessings, and know that your late sister...cannot always protect you," Guang Fanghu said. The glaring threats didn't escape the Dongli king, whose trembling face practically kissed the ground. Satisfied, Guang Fanghu shifted his attention back to the projection clouds. By then, Xinzi had destroyed Haoyang's array and put him in a body bag.
"So fast?" To say nothing of Haoyang's supporters, even Guang Fanghu couldn't believe how casually Xinzi had disposed of his opponents. No one expected Haoyang, formation master or not, to put up a worthy struggle before Xinzi. But at the very least, there should have been three rounds of back-and-forth.
Alas, from his entrance to his tragic defeat, Shui Haoyang's stint didn't last three minutes—making the spectators, who expected an epic confrontation, rage ceaselessly.
"Damn...he really ended that poor prince's entire political career in one tap—but still had to toss the man out like a cheap, worn-out brothel girl...all before thousands of Dongli citizens. Brutal...too brutal."
"That Shui Haoyang was too arrogant. This was no different from a career floor sweeper challenging a royal guard to a one-on-one sword fight. What did he expect besides a savage beatdown?"
"You can't say that. At the end of the day, Formation Masters can only reveal their true prowess by channeling their subordinates. Shui Haoyang came with 16, Xinzi had none. How could he predict that the gap would be so deep that he couldn't resist a single blow?"
"Ignorant baboon!" The audience dove straight into heated debates, not caring for Shui Haoyang who raced across the sky—crashing towards a tanghulu stand. The guarding elders stretched out their hands, conjuring a formless forcefield that halted the sixth prince's fall.
"Haoyang!" Alarmed, the Dongli king rushed to his son, pulling him out of the body bag Xinzi had placed him in. Meanwhile, the bamboo-hat-wearing monks ignored other contestants to focus on Xinzi.
"Junior brother is as impressive as ever. So young, yet he can already hijack his opponents' formations. In the future, he will surpass you."
"Rubbish! He has just proved that from now on, he's a genuine black-grade Formation Master. When he hijacks a superior opponent's formation, you can compare him to me." Qingxin clapped at his senior disciple, but only revealed half his thoughts.
A black-grade Formation Master needs a Pulse Condensation cultivation base to reveal his full abilities. But by Spiritual Drops alone, Xinzi's current cultivation exceeded most early Pulse Condensation experts. With his prodigious spiritual talents to back him up, it would be a miracle if he didn't break Shui Haoyang effortlessly.
However, this was the Dongli state, not the Eternal Night dynasty. Qingxin wondered how his favored disciple's cultivation could experience such a growth in that short span of time. Was this all the result of a fortuitous encounter, or did the Hengye clan's elders help him in the shadows? Pushing these thoughts out of his mind, Qingxin refocused on Xinzi. Next to his 36,000 points value, another 3,200 took shape—marking his current point gains.
With their leader out of the trial, the wounded disciples lost their composure. To suppress their fears and fight without emotional barriers, they all swallowed Shui Haoyang's pills, enabling them to ignore all physical pain—including the gaping ones on the most injured disciples. However, if painkillers induced immortality, the cultivation road wouldn't exist. Left unchecked, these disciples would bleed to death—smearing Xinzi's name all the same.
The monk wouldn't have it, tapped his storage ring, and summoned more body bags to put the men in. "W-what are you trying to do?" Said one mook goon, still traumatized by Shui Haoyang's disgraceful exit. Not a man of many words, Xinzi didn't bother to explain and wrapped his bag around the man's shoulders.
"Abbot Xinzi! My grandfather is…my grandfather is..." the mook goon was about to flaunt his background, but recalled that Xinzi crushed him in that area as well. The words died in his throat, and he accepted his fate. Ever the gentleman, Xinzi carefully wrapped up his foe and hurled him out of trial. A meticulous session of bagging and tossing followed, with bagged disciples flying out faster than golden coins from a simping nobleman's purse.
At first, the audience had a hard time processing Xinzi's problem-solving approach. But after the third toss, relatives lay in wait—ready to catch their boys. Seventeen grown men thus flew out, forever scarred by this disastrous failure. Considering his gentlemanly manners, the audience saw Xinzi in a better light. The ladies, especially, appreciated his meticulousness. A trait future donors hoped would translate well in the bedroom.
His work done, Xinzi pressed on. In his eyes, this entire Smelting Trial was a sham. A handout set up by the sect's higher up to ensure that he'd win. Of course, they couldn't anticipate the depth of his growth. That growth made the entire event more ridiculous, enabling Xinzi to end it all at breakneck speed.
But in his heart and soul, Xinzi was an entertainer. How could he allow the public to make this trip and have nothing to show for it besides bitterness? More importantly, "Men of high aspirations don't follow inconvenient rules, but legally bend them to fit their taste. Why should I go around looking for scattered opportunities when I can bring them all to my feet?"
Faster than the eyes could follow, Xinzi's hands formed a multitude of mudras. Sanskrit-shaped golden runes poured out in droves, flying towards the sky, earth, boulders, volcanoes, crevasses and even the magma rolling down uneven slopes. The sky grumbled, the earth shook, golden halos enshrouded Xinzi as he relied on the Clear Heart monastery's rune-casting techniques to imprint himself on the formation controlling this virtual hell.
"Is he...impossible." Qingxin was the first to see through Xinzi's ploy. But even he didn't believe the move feasible. Naturally, Abbot Qingxin couldn't have imagined that his disciple received Tusha's lifetime formation knowledge. In that department alone, Lord Hanxing could no longer compare to him.
Lord Hanxing's eyes opened wide, cracks spread across the yang platform, and for an instant, the audience grew still—then exploded for an unprecedented commotion. The vassal masters, Guang Fanghu and Zi Yao all rose from their seats—ignoring all other battles to focus on Xinzi only.
"He's hijacking the entire Yang Platform!" The audience rallied around these words, holding its breath as Xinzi challenged the ownership of an earth-grade Formation Grandmaster's array.
All across the yang platform, disciples took note of the change, and realized that the entire virtual world's potential shifted towards a single point. From Xia Hu to Rong Suishan, all contestants abandoned their shelters or insight quests to rush towards this point. They didn't have time to consider ifs, whys or hows. Should anyone succeed in hijacking the formation, the contest ended now!
"The Golden Lotus be praised. Let's call it...the Burning Hell Maze." Myriad shadows sprinted from all directions. Spreading their Spiritual Senses for reach, they hurled over 200 artifacts at Xinzi. Spiritual beads, knives, bells and mirrors turned into flaming bolts as they aimed at our monk.
He didn't spare them a glance. Retribution Runes flashed across his body, sending the artifacts flying right back at their owners. Curious to see this through, Lord Hanxing didn't intervene. The formation's safety devices broke down, enabling Xinzi's runes to pour into and take over this fourth-layer Array!
Right before that precise moment, Xia Hu pulled back from the assault. His lips curled up, and he spread his arms out. Waves of Sword Qi rose from unsuspected areas of the yang platform, becoming a storm of overbearing sword force that gathered above Xia Hu!