The registration for the competition happened at the Beaumont Estate but the actual competition came the day after that and it happened in the arena. It was a circular building with yellow paint outside it. Inside the building, it resembled a luxurious inn where the rich stayed, with red carpets and fancy chandeliers.
That decoration extended to the VIP seats of the arena that overlooked the field from above.
In terms of stories, it would be equivalent to a room on the third floor. The distance to the stage was so that it’d be the perfect spectacle from that exact spot. That meant there were seats to the VIP Booth’s sides, below it and above as well.
Unlike the booth, though, they did not share the comfy chairs with red cushions nor the roof, and that meant there were no sources of light to speak of but the pale blue moon and the torches stabbed around the stage.
They doubled as the sources of the runes that operated the barrier around the stage.
Without it, the spectators would be in mortal peril if a powerful attack was unleashed, though that only happened in combat between those of the Mind Refinement Stage.
None of the younger generations were at that level.
“I hear that your son is a first-generation,” said Lord Beaumont, seated next to Thomas Anderson.
Merchants, no matter how wealthy, were not able to sit side-by-side by the nobles but today was an exception, for a single parent of the participants was allowed in the booth.
“Indeed,” said Thomas lightly after a nod.
His expression was fit for a seasoned gambler, betraying nothing. The clean mustache and goatee that adorned his face coupled with his distant eyes made him seem like he always had ulterior motives that none could see through, even if he didn’t have any.
Lord Beaumont was an old man.
From his appearance alone, one would assume he was in his late seventies but he’d long since passed the age of eight hundred. Over a hundred years ago, he’d become a veteran of five wars and accrued enough wealth to match even the greatest of nobles.
His defining feature, his amber hair, was now faded and several shades whiter to resemble pale blond, resting on his shoulders.
“That means either you or your late wife found a priceless treasure, does it not?” asked Lord Beaumont.
Thomas didn’t respond.
“Not to worry. First generations are rare to come by. I bear no ill will. It truly is a shame that he’s a boy, though,” said the lord.
Lord Beaumont’s butler, a man with round glasses and a dark complexion glared at Thomas, his gaze intense.
“Does that mean what I assume it does?” asked Thomas.
“Most Noble Houses would graciously accept your son if he were to be wed to their daughters,” said Lord Beaumont, “The blood is still strong in him.”
Thomas’s face contorted into a frown for a second but that was hastily replaced with his deadpan expression.
The only one that saw that was the butler and he earned himself a glare from Thomas himself, complete with narrowed eyes.
“Mind if I join your friendly banter?” asked a young man that looked to be in his thirties, holding a fat glass of wine in his hand.
His most noticeable feature was his golden hair: not blond, but golden in a literal sense. Made of precious metals.
“You’re always welcome,” said Thomas with practices ease.
“I truly did not expect your son to become a Cultivator. You have my congratulations,” said Gunther as he swirled the wine within his glass, staring into it, “I’m supposing you’ll be selling rarer herbs soon. Even the Merchant Sect wouldn’t dare to offend you if you start doing so.”
Thomas chuckled slightly.
It was elegant as if he’d faked it millions of times before. But that’d be wrong, for he’d faked it billions of times.
“Sadly, I will not be endangering my son with such tasks. He has dreams other than supporting his father’s trade, I am sure,” said Thomas.
“Shame,” said Gunther. He took a sip from the wine and stepped closer to the glass windows.
All twenty seats were lined up at the very front but as the match hadn’t started yet, all of them were enjoying the banquet on display. There were other peasants in the room but most were the family of crippled Cultivators that had their status stripped, or hadn’t bothered to contest for nobility.
“It’s started,” roared Lord Beaumont’s butler, loud enough for everyone to hear.
Slowly, all the contestants made their way to the stage.
There were twenty of them and that meant four of them had to be disqualified for the qualifiers to end. After their number is reduced to sixteen, for a minute, they’d be able to do whatever they desired —including fighting, so in most cases, less than sixteen remained at the end of the contest.
“Would you make a bet with me, Mr. Anderson?” asked Gunther.
“On how many make it to the next stage, I assume,” said Thomas as a faint smile appeared on his face.
His guise of a seasoned gambler had to be earned, and what better way to earn it than gambling?
“Not quite,” said Gunther and turned around, staring directly at Thomas, “On who makes it into the next round.”
“Wouldn’t that be too easy?” asked Thomas, itching to hear about the catch.
There had to be a catch.
“Yes, but we’ll be betting on everyone that we believe will make it to the next round. Correct guesses will yield nothing while a wrong guess will cost a hundred Red Crystals. If both of us guess incorrectly, then no one will pay. However, we’ll choose as contestants as the largest number chosen by any of us to assure a fair game,” said Gunther.
“That is quite interesting,” said Lord Beaumont, “I’ll take you up on it as well, Earl Ulrich.”
“Please, call me Gunther. It’s confusing when you address me by my family name. There are too many others named Earl Ulrich,” he said with a shrug.
Unlike Lord Beaumont and his family who swore allegiance to him to become Honorary Nobles, House Ulrich had numerous Named Nobles amidst their ranks.
That translated to more land, one part of which was in the Blue Pavilion City.
“That said, you would not mind if the bet was to be raised to two hundred, would you? I doubt your treasury is too large,” said Gunther, “After all, we’d be paying two rather than one.”
“Five Green Crystals,” offered Thomas. After a slight pause, he added, “You are correct. My treasury isn’t large so I make up for it in quality.”
“Hmm, that is quite a hefty sum. I suppose winning is the only path,” said Lord Beaumont as his face contorted to a smile.
“Excellent. We’ve all come to a conclusion, have we not?” asked Gunther after a clap, “I’ll be placing my bets on both my nephews, the Demon Twins as well as the duo from House Cranford. That’s six, I believe,” said Gunther as he sipped on his wine, “And for the wild card, I’ll choose Diana Alcott.”
“Ah, the Titan’s daughter is participating as well, is she not?” asked Lord Beaumont, to which Gunther gave a nod.
Thomas hummed underneath his breath for a few seconds before making his choice as well.
“I’ll go for the Demon Twins, both of the prodigies from House Ulrich, the lad from Cranford, and the Titan’s daughter for the sure-to-pass list,” said Thomas before pausing for a few seconds. As if he finally found an answer, he added, “My wildcard will be Emma Beaumont. She’s been in Solitary Cultivation for the last year, was she not?”
“I suppose I can find nothing from merchants. You have your ways,” said Lord Beaumont and let out a deep sigh, “I’ll have to place my bets before the fight starts, won’t I?”
“Very well. I’ll go for the Demon Twins as well as Emma from my family, Tristan, and Edna from House Ulrich as well as Mr. Anderson’s son for my favorites to win,” said Lord Beaumont with a smirk.
Thomas raised an eyebrow.
“That boy feels peculiar but I’ll have to see him in combat to make a judgment,” said Lord Beaumont.
“And your wildcard?” asked Gunther.
“Elsa Cranford,” said Lord Beaumont.
Both Thomas and Gunther nodded sagely.
“That is indeed an excellent choice, but-” said Gunther, “Wouldn’t the lady from Cranford have been better listed as your sure-to-win? And then you name her a wildcard. It is a fortune that none of the Cranfords came to watch the show.”
The butler announced that the battle started the moment everyone took a stance on the stage.
Thomas peered down at Adrian standing there without a care in the world as if he was begging to be attacked. Both of his hands were hanging almost limply instead of forming any pose.
No one was using their weapon yet, strangely.
“That Anderson kid… he’s either a madman or he’s good,” said Gunther as his constant smirk turned to an expression of fascination.
“Even the Demon Twins can’t ignore Tristan’s Martial Intent. To not be fazed even a tiny bit by that is a grand feat, not to mention the constant clash,” said Lord Beaumont with a nod of approval, “If things turn out well, I might talk to my brother about betrothing Emma to Adrian.”
Despite no one moving an inch, they seemed to be sweating. One of the participants, specifically Elsa Cranford, lashed out at thin air after generating a knife from her Spatial Ring, only to fall down, unconscious.
“What happened?” asked Thomas.
“She couldn’t bear the clash of intents and lost her consciousness. She’ll recover in a few hours,” said Gunther, his face wider now, “So it seems the both of us owe Mr. Anderson some Green Crystals, huh?”
Adrian wasn’t fazed by that?
As if on cue, all of them pulled out their weapons from their Spatial Rings.
Tristan pulled out a massive staff that was more pillar than weapon from his Spatial Ring and threw it at the older of the Demon Twins, the wielder of the sword, which he was helpless against and was thrown out of bounds.
Before the staff, too, left the arena, Tristan closed the distance with a single step and grabbed it from behind. While he stepped, it seemed like one of his legs was far longer than the other.
“Oh? That’s the Far Step. At such a young age? He truly deserves his title as a prodigy,” said Lord Beaumont as he stared at Tristan.
Then almost within an instant, two of the participants that hadn’t been bet on were knocked out by Eric Cranford’s strike with the back of his spear: both of them were thrown out of the ring with a single blow.
Then as if that was a cue for the true battle to begin, Eric launched at the younger of the Demon Twins.
They were too busy to commentate the fight, instead fully focused on it.
Thomas’s attention was now on Adrian, though.
His only son being crippled during a so-called friendly event was a possibility and he’d much rather not let that happen.
Still, he wanted to do it and now, Thomas was unable to do anything of it.
To Thomas’s dismay, the younger of the Ulrich prodigies, the girl, launched herself at Adrian with her rapier aimed at his chest.
Adrian effortlessly swayed to the side, as if a paper in wind, and let the attack pass by.
Driven by her inertia, Edna’s rapier landed on an unfortunate fellow that hadn’t been bet on and the moment it did, the blade seemed to curl up instead of stabbing into his flesh. It coiled and coiled until the entire length was equal to that of a small book.
Then with a mighty boom, the fellow was pushed away and into the barrier outside the stage with immense strength.
The barrier stopped him but a crack loud enough to be heard from above could be heard, and as that couldn’t be the barrier, the result was obvious.
“An Aural Item with an effect? I didn’t expect House Ulrich to be so resourceful,” said Lord Beaumont as he stared harder at the stage, “But that Anderson boy. I assume he has a master already.”
“Does he?” asked Lord Beaumont after turning to Thomas.
“Not any I know of,” he answered.
“That is understandable. Martial Masters are often kept a secret by their students,” said Lord Beaumont with a few nods.
“Both the Demon Twins got taken out!” Gunther exclaimed, dragging their attention back to the fight between the younger of the Demon twins and the lad from Cranford.
In a similar fashion to the two others that were sent out of the field by him, Eric had simply thrown the poor sod out of the field with the back of his spear.
Almost within a moment, the daughter of the Titan grabbed two of the participants by the throat and smashed them down to the ground, knocking them out.
Twelve left and that was when the time was up.
Finally, a minute had passed after they were down to sixteen.
“We’ll call it even for them,” said Lord Beaumont with a shrug.
“Eric, was it? That boy is talented. He defeated the Spear Demon at his own game,” said Gunther and put a finger to his chin, “But how? That brat has that annoying technique. It shouldn’t be that easy.”
“That’s because of a Martial Disturbance,” said Lord Beaumont, making both Thomas and Gunther raise eyebrows.
“Hey, hey. You have to be kidding me. There’s no way I wouldn’t spot it if it was so,” said Gunther with a twitching left eye.
“That’s because one of them used a Qi Technique. You have yet to break through to the Soul Refinement Stage so it is understandable that you have not noticed it,” said Lord Beaumont with a smirk, which looked rather unusual on his face, considering he was known to be a stern man.
“You mean to tell me one of the wildcards is already at your level?” asked Gunther, eyes wide.
Thomas knew what that meant.
“Not quite,” explained Lord Beaumont, “Qi Techniques can still be taught to those that haven’t broken through to the Soul Refinement Stage. Contrary to popular belief, every Cultivator has Qi within their bodies, and using it is indeed possible. They simply cannot generate their own so the effects are underwhelming due to the minuscule amount held within them.”
“Qi Techniques? If that’s true, you would’ve taught it to your children as well-” started Gunther.
“The Cloud Body Technique that Joseph uses is one such technique. Sadly, only he could learn it among our house,” said Lord Beaumont.
“Wouldn’t that mean someone else also used the Cloud Body Technique? Did that brat Tristan copy that as well?” mumbled Gunther.
“Not quite. Mr. Anderson’s son used it to dodge Edna’s assault. Due to that, his superior mastery disturbed Joseph’s Martial Heart and he couldn’t fight back against the Cranford boy,” explained Lord Beaumont.
“Then his Master has to be someone at the Soul Refinement Stage as well. There are only a handful of them on the Empire, so… who could it be?” asked Gunther.
“If I’d known of the boy’s existence earlier, I would have been sure to talk to my brother. It is too late now,” said Lord Beaumont with a slow nod.
“So he’s already engaged to someone related to his Master is what you’re saying,” said Gunther and gave a nod of approval, “I’m supposing it’s one of the Knight Errants or Lord Cranford. He’s always had a good eye for talent.”
Thomas slowly nodded along, as if he didn’t have the faintest clue.
But he knew who it was, and he knew that it was none of those that they discussed.
They had no business knowing of the Shadow, after all.