From afar, Garen could see three contestants, including his sister. They gently released their bowstrings. Three lines of shadow flew out and nailed their targets.
His eyesight wasn't that good, but he managed to see that the arrows of the other contestants were slightly off the mark and Ying Er's arrow was much closer to the bull's-eye.
Cheers and boos roared from the crowd. Class 6, Ying Er's class, cheered the loudest.
The competition continued into the second round, followed by the third…
Garen didn't understand the rules at all. He just kept hearing the crowd cheer every time Ying Er fired an arrow. The classmates from Class 6 and all the female students were yelling Ying Er's name. It seemed that she was quite popular in school and not as subdued as when she was around their parents.
The archery event took more than an hour to complete; Garen kept yawning while he watched. When the time finally came for him to take the dojo test, he bid his sister goodbye and squeezed through the crowd behind him towards the exit.
Coming out of the crowd, the other parts of the Academy that were used for daily teaching seemed deserted. Occasionally, students and teachers would rush past while moving equipment, apparently to prepare for some sporting event.
Garen looked up at the sky. The sun was pale and its rays didn't provide any warmth. When an autumn breeze blew at him, a chill went through his body.
Heading out from the slightly deserted school gate, he turned towards the street where the dojo branch was located.
White Cloud Dojo had set up this branch dojo right by the street where Shengying Academy was situated. Many of the martial disciples were from the Academy. Combat was regarded as a part of the comprehensive development of quality education, so the Academy had no objections.
He took out the key and slipped into White Cloud Dojo through the main entrance. There was a mix of young and old people in white clothing sitting in the front hall. One of them was an instructor that Garen had seen teach before, the pretty Sharmilla.
Garen didn't know any of the others.
The seats in the front hall were usually reserved for the management personnel of the branch. Even though disciples were not specifically prohibited from sitting there, there were only those few seats when entering the front hall, so it would be unseemly for juniors to take up that space.
Garen gave Sharmilla a polite nod, then headed towards the courtyard through the left corridor. He didn't enter the courtyard, but continued walking left under the eaves. He came to a stop in front a small room with a white door and gently knocked on the door.
"Come in, it's not locked," a young man's voice answered from inside.
Garen opened the door and walked in.
The interior resembled an office archive room. A gentleman sat behind a desk. He whirled a pen in his hand, as if deliberating on a problem.
"Yes? How can I help you? The registration deadline has passed. You'll have to wait until the next quarter if you want to register." The man didn't look up from the documents in front of him.
"I'm not here to register. I'm Garen, one of the branch students chosen to be a Formal Disciple some time back." Garen walked over to the desk, took a chair and sat down. "I'm here to apply to be a Formal Dojo Disciple."
"Oh that. That's simple. Fill out this form right here."
The man handed over a form with a table of details to be filled in: name, age, family, etc.
Garen took a pen and smoothly began to fill in his personal information. A faint burst of cheering could be heard coming from outside while Garen was filling in the form. It sounded like some disciples had started a duel while the crowd looked on.
Garen turned around for a look. Peering out from the open door, he could perceive a few onlookers applauding and cheering.
"Those little bastards outsid
e are betting on a fight. The losers will have to treat the others to dinner tonight. Don’t let them distract you, just fill out your form," the man said with a smile.
Garen quickly filled out the form and handed it to the man. He saw the man review the details once, then pick up a seal and stamp the form.
"It's done. Take this down to the Martial Colosseum and hand it in together with the $1,000 application fee to the Financial Department, then wait for further arrangements."
"Okay, got it. It's just as well that I haven't received my stipend yet. I could directly credit from that." Garen stood up and left the office. He headed back under the eaves, form in hand, while looking at the crowd gathered around the courtyard.
The sounds of punches and kicks kept coming from the middle of the crowd. Garen peered in through a gap. One of the combatants fighting was a boy from his dojo class, whereas Garen did not recognize the other one.
There was nothing interesting about the way they fought. They were only slightly better than Garen; they should be normal students from the branch.
He kept to the path and turned into the front hall. The people who sat there earlier were all gone, with only a young student sweeping inside.
Without another thought, Garen walked out of the dojo and headed back toward the Academy. The tournament was still in progress, but the focus had switched to a girls' swimming competition. The girls in swimsuits attracted catcalls from the crowd.
Without a second look, Garen took the form and headed out from the Academy. He hailed a carriage and directly headed towards the Martial Colosseum.
Ten or so minutes later…
"There are three people applying for the Formal Disciple certification today. I'll remind you in advance that if your application doesn't go through, the money you paid won't be refunded."
In the white courtyard, a middle-aged man with a handlebar moustache clad in black clothing was speaking loudly to the three youths in front of him.
"Understood!" shouted the three aloud.
From left to right stood a black-haired girl, Garen, and a brawny man. All three of them wore white Taoist robes.
"The test is very simple. Hold me off for half a minute and you pass," the mustached man calmly said. He had his hands crossed over his chest, inadvertently exposing his strong chest muscles and some black hair.
"Half a minute?" The three of them were stunned. They knew that if the man was confident enough to say that, he must have something up his sleeve.
"Don't worry, it's actually just to test your overall quality," the mustachioed man said casually. "Who's first?"
"I'll do it."
The black-haired girl was the first to step forward.
Both didn't exchange any courtesies. They stood their ground, their eyes met, and they abruptly started.
The mustachioed man took a forceful step forward and the ground shook slightly. He adopted a bow stance and deftly punched straight forward, not showing any of the delay that White Cloud Dojo trainers usually exhibited.
The girl didn't manage to dodge in time and the punch glanced off her shoulder. When she was ready to counter attack, another punch followed, so she could only hastily evade.
In huffs and puffs, one attacked and one evaded. This continued until they went in a full circle. Finally, the black-haired girl gave a loud cry and fell to the ground.
The mustachioed man reverted to a resting position and stood still, not the slightest bit out of breath.
"About 17 seconds." He shook his head.
"Thank you for your direction, Senior Brother." The girl clenched her teeth, got up, and gave a bow. She then stood aside, ready to see the other two take the test. It was obvious that she wanted to see others' performance after her own failure.
Having acquired the Secret Method and Explosive Fist Arts not too long ago, it was very clear to Garen that it should have been impossible for him to instantly apply them. Someone who was able to learn the Explosive Fist Arts in a few weeks wasn't a genius, he was a monstrosity!
For this test, he was prepared to use only the minimum amount of power to pass.
Garen took a look at the brawny man whose brow was furrowed, as if realizing the difficulty of the situation. Those able to participate in the test were extremely confident students from the branch dojos; all of them had learned the Explosive Fist Arts and White Cloud Secret Method.
It was unclear what level the man’s White Cloud Secret Method was at, but his training in Explosive Fist Arts seemed effective. His muscles and skin had a particular characteristic to them, which looked similar to what an elementary level of achievement would produce.
Earlier, the girl completely lacked this characteristic and purely relied on a mishmash of techniques complemented by her reflexes.
"My turn." Garen didn't want to waste any more time so he stepped forward.
The mustachioed man glanced at him and seemed slightly impressed.
"You're a new disciple who has just been taught fist arts. Not only did you not lose confidence after witnessing the previous challenger, but you still maintain a fighting spirit. Not bad, not bad."
"Confidence can't be judged by appearances," Garen replied calmly after taking a deep breath.
"Very well! Shall I begin?"
Garen stood in place. The mustachioed man's waist sunk low as he took a step forward and threw a quick straight punch again. Somehow, Garen instinctively knew that this punch was easy to dodge.
He didn't give it another thought as he turned his body sideways to the right. The punch missed. Garen had planned to grab his opponent's shoulder to do a takedown, but he didn't expect the man's fist to recoil and spring forward like a snake to punch straight towards his shoulder.
There was a 'shwiff' and Garen didn't manage to evade this time. The punch grazed his shoulder and he felt a slight burning pain.
Before he could catch his breath, another punch flew straight at him. This time it hit his right shoulder.
Garen was determined to face the attack head on, but was worried about revealing his level of Explosive Fist Arts, so all he could do was endure and dodge awkwardly to the side. However, he had never learned any practical dodging skills and was used to facing attacks head on. Although he was able to clumsily escape the full brunt of the punch with his dodge, he was still grazed by the side of the fist.
Fortunately, his skin was tough enough. His elementary level of training in Explosive Fist Arts had hardened the skin cuticles all over his body. The graze caused a lasting numbing pain, but he was otherwise alright.
"Eh?" the mustachioed man sounded perplexed. His punches incorporated a certain level of the Explosive Fist Arts so that recipients would not only feel pain, but would also be numbed to the nerves. Consecutively, he had hit the boy in front of him twice, yet the boy seemed fine and was still able to continue dodging.
Seven to eight seconds had passed.
[This boy has potential. His physicality seems good. He has a strong constitution for someone his age.] The man had an idea and wanted to test Garen. He retracted his fist and instantly threw it out again with increased speed.
As he threw the punch, a faint snap came from the sleeve as it tightened at his wrist.
This punch was aimed to hit Garen squarely in the right shoulder and it was twice as fast as previous strikes so Garen wouldn’t be able to dodge it even if he saw it coming.
Wham! Garen fell back three steps, standing on the spot with his face slightly flushed. When he tried to raise his right arm, he realized it was completely paralyzed.
"Ten seconds." The mustachioed man went back into a resting position and stood straight, a trace of disappointment in his eyes. He had a bulky build and his footwork seemed sluggish, but when he actually fought, the explosive speed of his fists was extraordinarily quick.
"Next. Let's get this over with."
The brawny man clenched his teeth and stepped forward.