In a small building by the road, an old man and a girl stood by the window inside a dark room and looked down through the opening in the curtains.
"They are people from the Special Forces. Why are they here?" the white-haired old man asked confusedly. "Who is that military officer?"
"I've seen him once at a banquet. I think he is Colonel Su Lin of the Special Forces. Rumor has it that he's a useless playboy who only got a firm standing in the army because of his parents. Why is he here instead of in Hotel Pleasant fooling around with women?" the pale girl asked, equally confused. "Looks like he's a friend of that Garen. Does he intend to buy a hatchet man?"
"A playboy giving up pleasure activities to lead a troop to this suburb for a rescue mission? Looks like they have a close relationship," the old man said in a low voice.
"I know about Su Lin's situation. His parents spoiled him. Whatever he wanted, they would find it for him by whatever means necessary. He has an elder brother managing the family business who is also very fond of him. He is considered the darling of the Mobius family, but he did not live up to expectations. He didn't apply himself to anything and only knew how to indulge in pleasure-seeking activities," the girl said sarcastically in a hushed tone. "I didn't expect White Cloud Gate to be involved with this guy. They should consider themselves lucky."
"It's great that the power of Celestial Circle Gate has been curtailed slightly. We put in so much effort, but they only want to contribute a little. It's so unfair." The old man started smiling.
"But this Garen has concealed himself well. Su Lin's character has always been arrogant, so spoiled that he doesn't allow anyone to disobey him. He's very difficult to get along with. It's unexpected that he would be able to hit it off with this Garen. Su Lin is famous for being imperious and domineering." The girl looked at Garen and Su Lin downstairs as they chatted happily then boarded a black car under the protection of bodyguards and left. The other White Cloud Gate disciples, along with the disciples from two other sects behind them, boarded other cars and left together.
"Come on. White Cloud Gate is temporarily safe and it's even protected two other sects. It's impossible for us to act here." The old man turned to move away from the window.
"Wait! What's that?" the girl suddenly shouted in a muted tone. Her gaze was fixed on a body being carried out from behind the distant building. "Is…is that Tenstar Ni? It can't be!"
"What?!" The old man raced back to the window and looked down. The body of Tenstar Ni was being carried into a car by a few soldiers.
In that instant, a chill went down their spines and they exchanged a look.
Tenstar Ni was dead!
"It seems that we have underestimated this Garen from White Cloud Gate…" the old man spoke slowly in his baritone voice. "Fortunately, we didn't go down there. Otherwise, we might not have been able to come back alive."
"The strongest man from the Southern Twelve Gates… is indeed extraordinary! He is already eligible to be ranked as a Grandmaster of Combat," the pale girl murmured. She pulled out a rolled up map from her front pocket and gently opened it. "I'll make a note of it now!"
On the white map was an enlarged image of all of the nearby provinces. There were already a few red dots marked at different spots on the map. The pale girl bit her index finger until it bled and forcefully imprinted a blood mark on Galantia Province, which contained Huaishan City.
"I can't believe that we managed to witness the entire process of a Grandmaster of Combat breaking though the limits of the human body during this trip. The time spent can now be considered worthwhile," the old man said as he started to get slightly emotional.
On the yellow-green plains, a winding pale yellow road stretched into the distance
like a long, thin piece of yellow ribbon.
A black motorcade rolled along on the road. The motorcade consisted entirely of black luxury sedans. Delicate patterns decorated the car bodies while some protracted sections even had extensions of elegant hollowed floral ornaments.
There was even a hook-like dark golden ornament erected on the hood of the second black car: it represented the number "6."
There was ample space inside the car and two youths sat in the rear passenger seats. The youth on the left had flaming-red hair and a handsome face. He wore a brown military uniform with a colonel-rank insignia, was fiddling with a lighter in his hand, and had the temperament of a frivolous playboy. The aloof and serious military uniform seemed mismatched on him.
The other person had purple hair and dark red eyes. He wore a loose white shirt, his face was calm, and he exuded an aura of peace and serenity. His eyebrows were a strange reddish-black since his original black eyebrows had been replaced by two scars. This added a sense of mystery to him.
These two fellows were Golden Hoop Number 6 and Garen traveling on their way back.
Garen turned to look out the window at the yellow-green plains that flashed past. A breeze was blowing and the grass rippled like creased waves. "How should I address you?" he suddenly asked.
Golden Hoop Number 6 snapped the lighter shut. "Just call me Su Lin. To be honest, you and I, we really… uhm, what's that Eastern phrase? Have serendipity! Yes, serendipity. Actually, I didn't intentionally help you the last time. It was by chance that I encountered that incident and it just so happened that I was in a temper, so I dealt with it straightaway. This time, I was busy with another matter when I heard about your situation, so I decided to help you out while I was at it. What's this, if not serendipity?"
"I thought you would say you rushed over deliberately to help me." Garen shook his head and smiled. "You're really honest."
"Honesty is my virtue." Golden Hoop Number 6, Su Lin, chuckled. "This time, White Cloud Gate should be in big trouble right? Need my help?"
"We're indeed in big trouble, but it's a relatively small matter. The main problem is my Senior Sister…" Garen's expression turned grim at the thought of it. Eldest Senior Sister had always been kind to him. Although she had a strange temper, he didn't expect her to betray the sect.
"Regarding your Eldest Senior Sister, I do have some news. She has gone to Behemoth Gate." Su Lin stopped smiling and whispered, "Behemoth Gate… that's a really vexing organization. Even though both your Methods and Secret Martial Arts share the same namesake, their strength is unimaginably powerful."
"Behemoth Gate?" Garen pondered. "Are they as powerful as Celestial Circle Gate?"
"Roughly the same." Su Lin frowned. "The background of Celestial Circle Gate is too strong. They have many alumni disciples in the upper ranks of the federal army and the government. As the strongest sect in the South, there is even a special full brigade in the Confederation specifically trained and led by them."
"An entire brigade…" Garen's head throbbed. He knew the meaning of "brigade." A complete brigade had at least tens of thousands of well-trained soldiers. This was a relatively strong force even in the context of the entire Confederation. Let alone a "special" brigade.
Su Lin took a look at him and continued, "Additionally, many alumni of Celestial Circle Gate have joined the National Security Division. They have plenty of experts like Tenstar Ni."
Garen narrowed his eyes, carefully masking the shock he felt.
Su Lin continued regardless, "But fortunately you have finally reached a new level." He suddenly smiled. "Not everyone can attain the level of Grandmaster of Combat. Congratulations, Garen."
"The level of Grandmaster of Combat?" It was the first time Garen had ever heard of it.
"Yes." Su Lin glanced at the female soldier driving. "This is now an open secret. Your master was probably worried that you would be distracted by this status. That's why he didn't want to tell you."
He paused, then continued, "A so-called Grandmaster of Combat is a martial arts practitioner who is able to train their physical body to the extent of the human limit. Everyone who has become a Grandmaster of Combat possesses tempered skills, a strong body, and represents the extreme pinnacle of humankind. Every Grandmaster of Combat has a quality that they excel at, just like how you are exceptional in your Strength and Defense."
Garen was silent for a while. "If what you say is true—that I have entered the level of Grandmaster of Combat—why is it that against experts at the level of Tenstar Ni, I can only handle one at a time at best?"
"That is because you haven't properly solidified. In the examples of Grandmasters of Combat that I know of, each and every one of them has a tough physical quality and vitality. Their ability to recover is shocking and the true strength that they wield is far beyond the limit that a normal human being can achieve. Simply put, Grandmasters of Combat are top experts who are one league ahead of average martial arts practitioners and represent the extreme limit of the human body’s advancement," Su Lin answered formally. "If my estimation is correct, once you return, you will enter an explosive growth phase in the enhancement of your true strength."
Garen slowly nodded. What he did not say, however, was that he was already experiencing this enhancement. During the process of fighting his way over here, he had sensed his body become easier to control and using his skills felt more natural. Occasionally, a flood of combat experience would instinctively surface and he would land a phenomenal strike.
"In that case, you should know a few experts at this level?" Garen asked in a low voice.
"Indeed I do. There are 42 people who can be considered Grandmasters of Combat and these are only the ones on-record. There are probably more off the record, but there should be about 80 people in total. They are the strongest group of people in the entire Confederation! Normal firearms have no effect on them and only especially powerful firearms can harm them."
"80 people… How many people are there in the Confederation?" Garen didn't expect there to be so many more peak experts.
"The result of last year's population census was 160 million people. In other words, combined with the older generation of Grandmasters of Combat, you are one in two million. But don't fret, among these 80 people, more than 50 are senior people from the previous generation. They are advanced in age, most of them have retreated to a life of seclusion, and no one knows how many of them are still alive. The active individuals are the Grandmasters of Combat who have emerged in the past 50 years, which total to approximately 30 people. And that's the amount when you count everyone on- and off-record."
Su Lin held the lighter, then repeatedly lit it and put it out again. "Based on the information we have gathered, there are probably 10 Grandmasters of Combat scattered throughout the 13 provinces of the Confederation. Five are from Celestial Circle Gate representing the Southern Alliance and five from the Northern Alliance. It's evenly matched, but I have a feeling that this has been deliberately decided by both parties in conference. It's too much of a coincidence that both sides have the exact same total of five people."
"Five people huh?" Garen started contemplating. "By my count, these five people should be from Celestial Circle Gate and Crimson Sand Sword. What about Andrela?"