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Exactly how many construct puppets there were in these combat grounds was an unknown. They wouldn’t have gotten an answer, in any case. A lot of things were left unanswered.

“Alright, it’s time for all of you to go in!”

The required stay wasn’t long at just seven and a half minutes. It didn’t seem too difficult for anyone to last that long.

But Jiang Chen could sense that this was a lie immediately upon entering. The construct puppets weren’t just for show. They lacked human intelligence, but they were carefully laid out in such a way so as to launch an ambush from almost anywhere.

After entering, the first thing he did was put some distance between the other cultivators and himself. 

He wasn’t afraid of the puppets, per se, as his consciousness was strong enough to judge wherever they could potentially come from. Though the appearance of this trial was rather sudden, he felt up to the task. Rather, it was important to be wary about his fellow man.

Perhaps his fellow competitors were a more dangerous element than the mechanical puppets. Amid the chaos, it was quite possible for some to take advantage by attacking the other candidates, thus reducing the competition.

Though it may not be the smartest thing to do so, human hearts were the hardest to guard against. Jiang Chen wasn’t holding out hope that anyone would want to cooperate with him, but he didn’t want to be caught unawares or blithely become someone else’s stepping stone.

He became much more composed after coming to this decision and utilized an especially clever method of avoidance. Deploying his consciousness, he looked for any danger that could possibly arise.

The puppets didn't attack with particular intensity at first. As time went on, more and more puppets charged ferociously forward. It didn’t take long for the puppets to outnumber the hundred in his batch, making it easy to differentiate the strong from the weak in the ensuing fray.

The weaker cultivators were quickly hit and fell to the ground. Those who were slightly stronger could just barely dodge or parry their blows.

After a moment, some cleverer cultivators began to work in unison. They fended for themselves using basic cooperation and territorial designation. But bonds born here didn't withstand the test of anything strenuous. A puppet’s point of origin was random and unnoticeable. A line of defense so hastily set up was easily broken by another few unpredictable puppets.

Cooperation that was born on largely shaky terms wasn’t reliable from the outset. The smallest of cracks would bring it back to the ground. All of this was due to their lack of mutual trust, since no man would leave their back open to another fellow candidate they didn’t know.

Ghastly screams sounded all over.

The fighting became limited to autonomous pockets. The puppets tore through every group fighting together.

Jiang Chen hadn’t thought of working with another from the start since a few minutes wasn’t nearly enough time to form a bond of trust. Perhaps a fairweather alliance was feasible in favorable circumstances, but any difficulty or change could quickly sour the situation.

Time passed moment by moment. The puppets present began to strengthen and rampage about.

This resulted in a rapid reduction in the contestants’ numbers. More and more were incapacitated and transported out. Finally, there were only forty left out of the initial a hundred, a number that was still diminishing.

Thankfully, the first round was only seven and a half minutes long. Just as the situation was about to become the most dangerous yet, the excruciating waiting period was up.

A shrill whistle brought all the puppets to a halt. They disappeared on the spot, as if a puppet master had engaged in sleight of hand.

“Time’s up!” The tester responsible for this segment came in smiling. “Not bad. Almost thirty remain in your group – a very good score. Congratulations. I hope you find success in the next round as well.”

A group with a survival rate of less than thirty percent in the first round was considered a good showing? Jiang Chen didn’t know what to say. 

The qualifiers seemed significantly crazier than he’d thought. With this elimination rate, it was entirely possible that there would only be five hundred left after three successful rounds.

At least, that would be the case if this first round’s rate was anything to judge by.

Thankfully, he’d simply been warming up for the first round. In fact, he’d barely fought any of the puppets other than symbolically doing so. He’d mostly avoided them ahead of time using his speed and consciousness.

He hadn’t intentionally evaded all contact, occasionally exchanging a few blows with them. All of this had been done in a way as to not leave any room for criticism.

All in all, Jiang Chen’s performance had been middle of the pack. The most astute of observers might be thinking he was concealing his strength, and not much more than that. This was all he could hope for right now, really.

The remaining group was quickly brought to the site of the second test.

“Everyone, arriving at the second test means you’re already both lucky and proficient. However, the second round is hardly easier than the first. You should prepare yourselves. The second round tests your consciousness.

“You will be placed into a labyrinth. More accurately, it’s a normal palace with a formation inside of it. You must navigate out of the labyrinth within an hour. All who cannot will fail the second round.”

A test of the consciousness?

Jiang Chen snickered to himself. There was no other test he would have guaranteed success with, but his consciousness? Navigating out of a maze? This was nothing short of trivial.

He was a master of formations quite capable in labyrinths. Moreover, his consciousness had been vastly empowered by the lightly active chain seal within it.

In actuality, his consciousness was already equivalent to an empyrean one. Some cultivators of that level even wouldn’t win against him on purely consciousness alone.

Many empyrean experts had tried their head at attacking him using that avenue already, but none had succeeded. The biggest example had been Elder Xi from Huang’er’s family, an old man who’d attempted to undetectably destroy his mind. The attack had been invisibly neutralized without a change in expression.

The chain seal had been responsible for that. But now, the chain seal was clearly much more active. His consciousness saw a very real benefit in the form of an increase to his consciousness.

A labyrinthine maze?

Anticipation crept in. Jiang Chen hadn’t seen every kind of labyrinthine formation or maze there was, but he had plenty of ideas and experience about them.

Many things of that nature shared common, underlying theories. His Nine Labyrinth Formation was the perfect example of a powerful maze. His Minor and Major Artifice Formations were similarly designed to confound and perplex.

Furthermore, there had been an illusion-generating formation in Guo Ran’s residence – as well as secret spatial methods. Jiang Chen had the requisite knowledge base from his previous life, which was paired with the Ancient Crimson Heavens Sect’s heritage.

“Alright. The maze is open, go inside!” A voice sounded. Everyone ventured in without hesitation.

In the next moment, they found themselves in an entirely new world.

Entering into the formation, Jiang Chen’s heart was as still as water. If this round tested one’s consciousness, he couldn't buzz around aimlessly like a headless fly.

Within the palace, he took in all the empty space, passages, and gateways around him. There were exits everywhere. But scattering forth his consciousness revealed that they had a common destination, being connected to each other in the end. There was no actual way out.

Jiang Chen took his time. This was the unique characteristic of labyrinth formations. Exits and related clues appeared to be everywhere, but taking one of them wouldn’t yield a real egress.

There’s only one way out of a labyrinth like this, and it’s always very well hidden. Normally, anything visible to the eye cannot be the true way out.

Those who set up these mazes had different intentions based on their personalities. Some preferred a sharp and deviant style, others enjoyed effecting confusion through all sorts of illusions, and still others hid all actual passages within falsehoods.

Jiang Chen had run into the third example. There were many passages, but none of them was the real one.

The one who set up the formation doesn’t seem weak at all. It must be someone who has spatial abilities. Only someone like that could hide the real exit within an unknown patch of space. Finding that may be the way out.

Mentally speaking, Jiang Chen was quite relaxed. Though he thought the labyrinth pretty remarkable, he didn't found it remotely difficult enough. He’d already sorted out his thoughts. What he needed to do next was to find the door in unknown space. He firmly believed that it did exist. However, discovering it required great experience and greater strength of consciousness.

There definitely will be many who won’t find the exit. Of this he was sure of. The labyrinth had been constructed in a clever enough sort of way to ensure that. An exit couldn't be found without a clear line of thought.

His consciousness pushed forward in space, finely sensing its fabric and all minute changes. There was sure to be a subtle disturbance in the air near the actual hidden exit.

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