Chapter 420: Weeding Out the Stragglers

    Chapter 420: Weeding Out the Stragglers

    Lan Jue was beset by danger, suspended alone in the air. He looked destined to be impaled on the great earthen spikes.

    The stalagmites picked up speed and tore through the air like ballista bolts. They closed the gap between their target and the tumbling meteors that were crashing down from overhead. He had nowhere to hide.

    Once the danger from below was more apparent, Lan Jue responded by moving even faster. He moved left and right and in between with the speed of a lightning bolt to evade the threats. On occasion the increased gravity would get the better of him and a meteor would find its mark.

    Those that he couldn't avoid were deflected, just as he'd done before. The point was to take as little damage as he could from these errant boulders and spikes. Still they kept coming until the boulders blotted out the sky and those terrible spikes hid the floor from view. Lan Jue could only be seen as a bolt of blue light flitting between the cracks. This was possible the most stunning fight of the tournament up to this point, as was evidence by the fact that almost the whole audience had their eyes glued to their ring.

    "Smash him! Smash him! Smash him!" The cries swelled to a cacophonous chant as the spectators cheered 122 on.

    122 watched him from the ground, a dignified and imposing expression on her face. The meteor showers and earth spikes were her most practiced abilities. Her concentration was honed to a laser focus, bringing all of her power to bear against that single dark spot in the sky.

    Where she struggled was in finding a way to lock the speedy bastard down. Every time she thought she had him dead to rights he'd find some way to slither out of it. She had every advantage but it wasn't enough, and the longer this went on the darker the outlook became.

    Lan Jue was focused entirely on evasion. He was spending a great deal of energy in the process as well, but it was all worth it to force 122 in to this position. At the very least her doughty attacks served to make him stronger!

    For ten minutes neither earned the upper hand, but even so the audience knew what the result would be. 122 was outmatched, even if she was holding him off for so long. In the end the chances of her coming away victorious were slim.

    Perhaps she knew it, too, for the staggering hail of meteors lessened. The spikes spat from the earth below came slower as well. Lan Jue could also feel that the gravitational anomalies pulling at him had begun to ease. Just in time, he thought. His clothes were torn and dirty - the result of repeated run-ins with the focused meteor field he'd survived. Although she didn't know it she'd had him against the ropes. Any faster and there wouldn't have been much for him to do but get knocked around like a rag doll. He had suffered some injuries though none were serious - but only because the explosive nature of his Discipline and his Taiji training had spared him a very dismal fate.

    More important than any of this was the continued adjustments to Lan Jue's Core. This had been his goal the entire time, and the result of this competition was a distant secondary concern.

    Suddenly the yellow haze and pummeling rocks subsided.

    Eh? Why'd she stop? Lan Jue pondered. He stopped his erratic flight patterns and looked down at her. Her chest heaved from the effort... but there was something more. Her red-rimmed eyes were thick with tears when, suddenly and with a shrieking voice she cried, "you bully!." She ran from the ring choked with sobs.

    He watched her go, flabbergasted by what just happened. She had tried to flatten him with an unending cascade of rocks the size of his head, and he was the bully? What the hell?

    "Lowlife! Lowlife! Lowlife!" The crowed had settled on a single curse to call in unison. Few could hear what she'd said, but there were screens in front of every seat that showed the tears streaming down her face.

    It was a possibility and a potential problem with any fight between a man and a woman. Sometimes the women cry, and when they did who would side with the man?

    Others decided more choice curses were more appropriate, and screamed them liberally at him. Somehow he'd become persona non grata out here.

    Meanwhile, the Gourmet had his hands pressed firmly against Jun'er's ears. He had to be careful that these overenthusiastic fans didn't corrupt her young mind.

    Lan Jue wordlessly left the ring and made for the relative safety of the waiting area. Contempt was in the eyes of many a spectator as he trudged away. He even earned a strange look from the Pharmacist as she walked out for her own fight.

    "Were you making fun of her on purpose?" She asked, the slightest note of disapproval in her voice.

    "What?" He asked quickly. "You'd told me before about my Discipline, and about how retraining made it more stable. I was just testing out the theory, and it ended up being true. But in order to get there I needed to be pushed. I was hoping to get some help from the girl to help me improve! So why the hell is everyone cursing at me?"

    She just shook her head. "You fail to understand them. They don't know how strong she was, or what kind of pressure you were under. All they saw was your determination not to strike back. You forced her to use everything she had and beat her without a single punch. Can you think of any better way to shame an opponent? The girl thinks you're looking down on her - not even worth really fighting. The audience sees it as cruel teasing."

    Lan Jue stared at her, entirely dumbfounded. "This is a travesty!"

    Worse, his assertions could only be told to the Pharmacist because no one else would believe him. His only course of action was to flee the contemptuous glares of the crowd. He could still hear the curses as he left to change, persisting until he came back some minutes later without the mask or uniform.

    Was he just pissing off everyone he came across? He felt completely powerless - luck was actively working against him. Could this be a flaw in his own character?

    He had originally wanted to stay and watch the fights, but after the shaming he just experienced the best course of action was to flee.


    The fourth round concluded without any notable upsets. The highlights were widely available on the television. The on-demand options were more telling, with Lan Jue's fight topping the charts. Reports flooded the screen with images of the young girl's teary eyes. What followed was a tirade against the 'monstrous' actions of Zeus.

    Perhaps unexpectedly the resurrection vote for this round didn't go to 122. Instead Chu Cheng's opponent, the stunningly beautiful Sariel, was called back to compete. Meanwhile the media had chosen a pithy nickname for Chu Cheng - the Dark Gentleman. Of course where there was a hero a villain was needed, so Lan Jue filled that vacuum. And once the populace had an idea in their head, changing that was near impossible.

    Lan Jue's singular blessing was the mask that concealed his identity. He praised his wise decision to wear, because otherwise the lynch mob would already be breaking down his door.

    Chu Cheng - perhaps wisely - wasn't answering his calls. He was like a horseman of the apocalypse, and gone without a trace when trouble came knocking. That was brotherhood for you.

    Really, though, none of this bothered Lan Jue too much. If he concerned himself with the opinions of others than he'd have lost his mind years ago.

    The next few days saw his fortunes experience an upward swing. Though not of his opponents were weak, they also weren't outside of his capabilities. Meanwhile the contender pool kept shrinking. Round five had more than two hundred Adepts brought down to one hundred and eighty, round six dropped that to ninety five. Round seven finished with forty-eight Adepts and going forward from here, no challenger would be less than ninth level.

    The Avenue had a strong showing. Aside from the Pharmacist, the Driver, Bartender, Barber and Beautician had all advanced to the eighth round. Lan Jue and Chu Cheng were also still in the running. Sariel - thanks to the resurrection vote - was there too, with her compatriot Constantine. The necromancer who had defeated the Coffee Master was also still in contention, and several other notable young Adepts. A few surprising exceptions did exist - unknowns from the West and North - but they were few.

    Now they all waited for the eighth round of fights to begin. This would be the final elimination round before double-elimination began.

    The twenty four Adepts in that round had two chances to get in the top sixteen. First they'll fight, then the winning twelve will advance as the losing twelve fight for a second chance.. The losing six are gone from the tournament and the winning six are voted down to four. Those final winning four then join the original winning twelve competitors to advance to the next round - group battles. If the losing two are not voted out by a margin larger than ten percent then they are also permitted to join the groups. In that case it would be two groups of five against two groups of four.

    All of this meant that round eight was very important. The winners here had a real shot. The prize for reaching the group battle stage was an A-ranked power gem, and not a common one either.

    Lan Jue had tried very hard to remain aloof, indifferent and invisible through rounds five six and seven. The curses had largely vanished by the eighth round since his last few opponents had all been men.

    Chu Cheng was the darling, a representative of the North who was both gentleman and warrior. He was as powerful as he was noble, and suddenly the dream boy of no small number of young ladies.

    Woe be unto any of them who learned of his other persona, as the Prince of Nightlife!
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