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511 Back in Harms Way

    For the following three hours the platform kept dashing into the seemingly infinite canal of warped space, leaving the students with no other choice but to spend their time talking to one another, or mentally preparing for the test.

    The young woman named Saha had decided to spend this time by standing right next to Daniel, while the core disciple tasked with guarding him, as well as her friends, stood a few meters away. Daniel, on the other hand, had spent these three hours feeling an increasing degree of nervousness.

    This feeling was caused by the failure of the mission that was supposed to keep him alive in this universe, where many cultivators would be able to disintegrate every form of his being with a wave of their hand. In his mind, he kept wondering whether he should have been more forceful in his attempt to not join this expedition, and if that would have prevented the quest from failing.

    Now back in the dangerous position he had been in when he had first reached this universe, he could only thank his ability of mental fortitude for allowing him to maintain his calm, and think ahead.

    At the end of these three hours, the azure canal inside which the platform was dashing through suddenly turned into a reddish one, which reminded people of the colors one would witness at dusk. This change greatly worried a few of the students, who also happened to be the ones who had never experienced this kind of travel.. But before they could ask their more experienced companions for an explanation, the warped space stabilized around them, and the platform stopped.

    Once again, Daniel could not help but feel in awe for the odd form of transportation that existed in this universe. One that, like his mental teleportation, at least for cultivators who relied on the use of the surrounding mana, left absolutely no trace behind. What surprised him even more, was how common these methods were in this universe, as shown by the tens of thousands of similar platforms which were currently occupying the same sky as theirs.

    Under this fleet of platforms, and the hundreds of thousands of students that they carried, was a planet whose surface was completely covered by metal. Be it buildings, streets, or small spaceships that roamed over the large cities-with an exception made for a few plants, artificial gardens, and a peculiar round sea of clean and drinkable water that could be seen in the distance, everything on this planet emitted the distinctive essence of metal.

    It did not take long for Daniel to realize that this planet housed a society which revolved around technology, and therefore, was likely unaware of the existence of lifeforms alien to their planet. A society that, if more advanced in their own means of survival, could have been a champion for the aspect of Ingenuity. Unfortunately, since their technological advancement wasn't enough to allow them to compete for the universe, as shown by the fact that their biggest feat had been to find a mostly metallic asteroid on which their society could move into. Their whole existence could have been obliterated by any of the young cultivators present on any of the platforms that seemed to have invaded their home, erasing their existence from history with a snap of their fingers.

    What the citizens of this planet were unaware of, however, was that as followers of Competition, these invaders would never bother to harm any of them. After all, their society revolved around competition between equal or similarly powerful entities.. A society where killing a harmless mortal was amongst the most dishonorable actions. Instead of this planet's population, these cultivators were much more interested in the stairway that had appeared in the middle of one of the planet's cities, and who appeared extremely out of place when compared to the dull metallic jungle that surrounded it.

    One by one these platforms descended from the sky, allowing for the hundreds of thousands of disciples that they were carrying to jump off, and create a line in front of the base of the stairway.. One that soon turned into a column of people that crowded numerous of the city's wide streets.

    Daniel, still held by his arm by Saha, could do nothing but follow her onto the planet's surface, where they landed about two hundred meters from the head of the line.

    "He should not be here. At least make him put a mask on. Some people might recognize him." Said Daniel's guardian, who despite Saha's attempts, had easily managed to follow them and was now standing next to them along with her group of friends. In her hand was a simple white mask with curved black brows, a van dyke mustache, rosy cheekbones, and lips curved into a smile, which Saha took from her and put on Daniel's face.

    Daniel was barely able to hold the irritation he was feeling from being treated like a dummy from these two women, but since a mask could help him in maintaining his anonymity, and he couldn't have protested even if he wanted, he tried to distract himself by paying attention to his surroundings, which kept his mind occupied during the long march that awaited him.

    -----

    "So I just climb it like every other flight of stairs?" asked a young man in his late teens to his brother, who was walking confidently alongside him.

    "Yes. That is about it." Responded the brother with exasperation. It was clear that this wasn't the first time that they had had this conversation, nor did it seem like it would be the last one. However, while irritated by his younger brother's stubbornness, he could not help but remember how, only a couple of years back, he had pestered his father in a similar way when he had accompanied him to his first attempt at taking this test.

    The words of his older brother seemed to do nothing but deepen the confusion of the younger one, who asked, "You are telling me that this test takes place several times in every single universe of Lord Competition's domain, and that the guide created by the accumulated knowledge about it is 'just climb it'? Really??"

    Numerous young cultivators who stood around him could not help but burst out laughing, while the more experienced ones, as well as their older family members, scoffed at the older brother with disdain, almost as if they were disappointed with how he had instructed his family member.

    "You idiot." muttered the older brother while covering his face in embarrassment. "The stairway tests your will to compete. It presents deeper degrees of power as you climb it, and if you manage to resist until the end, showing your drive and lack of fear, you become a champion of Lord Competition. It is a mental test."

    "Oh, you could have said that earlier! Mom gave me a mental talisman.. Should I wear it?" Asked the younger brother after finally understanding the nature of the test.

    Once again, the older brother could barely contain the shame he was feeling. "Do you really think that the will of an aspect of existence could be stopped by mom���s trinkets? Wouldn't we all be champions if all it took was a damn pendant?! There has never been a mental protection capable of protecting someone from that kind of pressure.. The ones who succeeded had a naturally stronger mind." Responded the older brother before finally going quiet.

    "That sucks.." responded the younger brother with disappointment.

    This conversation had taken place only a few meters away from Daniel, and was quickly able to catch his attention. The part that he had found most interesting was the fact that even though the older of the two brothers was fairly knowledgeable about the test, based on the reaction of the surrounding cultivators, it did not appear that they were aware of what was truly tested when climbing the stairway.

    What he had noticed the first time he had climbed the stairway was that the pressure was not the real obstacle, or at least, not as much as the extremely thin veil of killing intent present in it. This imperceptive layer of killing intent, paired with the immense pressure, would slowly take an extreme toll on the mind of the participants, who would soon lose their composure, or worse, lose their senses.

    This killing intent was representative of the underlying menace present in the existence of stronger cultivators, and formed a barrier that, without the proper competitive drive, would hinder someone's future progress. The presence of this hidden obstacle was the reason why so many people were eliminated, but at the same time, the reason why almost every young cultivator who had succeeded in the past, had been an unstable individual, or a sociopath incapable of fear for their life.

    As the line advanced, and Daniel's eyes landed on the elders of the various unranked groups who were in the midst of talking down this planet's governor and chief of the military.. He began to wonder whether these powerful entities were aware of the real nature of this test, or if they were just clueless and greedy followers of a fifth rank group who followed orders blindly.

    -----

    Around two hours after their arrival, Daniel was once again in front of the magical looking staircase. However, this time, any form of interest or curiosity were absent from his eyes, so instead of climbing it once again, he chose to follow the relatives of the young participants and step out of the way. This decision was, to his surprise, shared by the young woman named Saha, who decided to follow him while showing an absolute lack of interest in taking part in the test.

    Less surprising, was the result of the test of the other disciples of the Half Moon sect, who failed miserably regardless of whether they belonged to the outer, inner, or core circles of the sect. But, alas, that type of result was not odd, as shown by every other group, which had no better result to boast about.

    "Why are you laughing? It is more dishonorable to give up without even trying, than trying and failing." Said the young woman with long dark hair to Saha, who was enjoying the spectacle from beside Daniel while showing a satisfied smile.

    "A mentality shared by those who have mastered the art of failing spectacularly." responded Saha, completely unbothered by the hostile attitude of the group of young women.

    The already hurt competitive nature of the four young women was further damaged by Saha's words, but since they were not in a place where fighting was allowed, they could do nothing but send verbal shots at her-something that she seemed to find extremely pitiful and, at times, amusing.

    At this point Daniel had spent almost a month in this universe, and had already gotten used to the behaviour of the disciples of the half moon sect. It was for that reason that he could not help but to feel a newfound curiosity towards the woman that kept following.

    Saha's stoic and careless behavior in the face of many insults did nothing but further irritate the other young women, who became more and more vicious in their attacks which kept going until the young woman with straight black hair said, "How someone as defenseless as you can have such a big mouth and careless attitude is beyond me. No wonder that those who attacked your group left you alive. They must have mistaken you for a mortal."

    As the young woman finished speaking, Daniel felt the sharpest killing intent he had ever perceived flare up within Saha's body, surprising him to a point where he couldn't stop himself from turning to look at her with alertness.. Only to see a face that lacked any trace of hostility. Instead, her lips were curved in a malicious smile that sent a shiver down the back of anyone who looked at it.

    "What happened to your eye.." muttered the young woman with short red hair while pointing at Saha's right eye, which for only a few moments, had turned from a green color, to a bright blood-red one.

    While this detail went unnoticed by Daniel, something else had caught his attention.. Something that only he could have noticed. And that was the rapid change in Saha's karma, which went from a positive four-digits number, to a negative one with more numbers than he could have counted during the few moments before the number changed back.
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