Because Jiang Chen had sorted out his line of thought, everything followed naturally from there. His consciousness suddenly rippled with a finding. He shot towards the distortion he detected with a burst of joy. “This is the place. Open up!”
He leapt confidently into the patch of space. A brilliant flash of lightning-like radiance blasted forth. His body disappeared from the labyrinth with a white flicker.
In the next moment, peace returned to where he had been. Jiang Chen’s figure had disappeared.
The young man landed back on solid ground. The palace was cleanly behind him, the one they’d just entered. He was now at its back entrance, having entered from the front.
“And just like that, I’m done.” The hint of a smile escaped from his lips. Footsteps came from behind him, followed by applause.
“Not bad, not bad. Not even fifteen minutes for you to get out. It seems you are quite skilled in spatial formations.” The exclamation came from the tester responsible for this round. A middle-aged man in scarlet robes appeared. Approval and admiration was plain on his face.
Jiang Chen smiled slightly, offering a cupped fist salute. “I got a bit lucky.”
The man raised an eyebrow. “Martial dao permits one or two instances of good luck, but you have the best time so far for this round. I doubt anyone can do better. In this field alone, you are the most brilliant among your peers!”
Jiang Chen laughed. “I was lucky enough to have a master teach me about the mysteries involved in space and formations. Or at least the fundamentals, at any rate.”
There was no self-satisfaction in his voice. His composure caused the red-robed man to admire him all the more. “It’s rare that a young man like you can stay so calm and collected in the face of compliments.”
Each group had been allotted an hour’s time to pass the second round. Bit by bit, more people emerged from the palace.
Among the thirty who’d passed the first round, nine remained at the end of the hour. The elimination rate was astonishing indeed. A group of a hundred had been reduced to only nine, and a final round yet remained. Judging by the last two rounds, the third round wasn’t going to be easy, either.
About nineteen thousand had signed up for the competition. If one batch was comprised of a hundred, then nearly two hundred batches existed.
If only nine remained at the end of the second round for every group, roughly two thousand would be left. But the staff member prior had said that less than five hundred would pass the qualifiers.
This meant that the third round would have the most shocking elimination rate of all. Only two or three would remain out of nine.
The nine that were left were already generally quite elite – or so they thought themselves. There was increased mutual suspicion because of this.
At this point, no further cooperation could be possible. They were direct competitors to each other. Every person wanted the others to be eliminated, and themselves to stay. After all, passing the third round meant that they qualified to enter the city lord’s residence and have a good shot at becoming one of his dignitaries.
The remaining nine were led to the entrance to the third round.
The man responsible for this round was old and bald, and had two middle-aged assistants. They were slightly surprised to see that nine remained in this group.
“Not bad. Nine in this group, eh? It’s much better quality than overall.” The bald old man was taken aback.
A middle-aged man laughed from the side. “Elder Lu, how many do you think will pass round three?”
The old man chuckled in response. “I won’t try guessing, but I don’t think they’ll do poorly. Maybe they’ll even be the group that excels the most.”
The conversation had barely finished before the nine-person group was before them.
“I would like to congratulate you ahead of time,” the bald old man smiled. “You are one-in-hundred geniuses to have made it this far. However, you must prove that you are one-in-thousand instead. Only after passing round three will you be considered to have passed the qualifiers. There’s no point to your previous successes if you stumble here.” The old man’s words sobered up all nine candidates.
They knew that to be true, but hearing it straight from the mouth of the examiner was a different feeling.
“The third test is one that tests a mixture of skills. Your strength, speed, willpower, and courage!
“Remember, this round carries with it considerable risk to your lives. You still have time to give up and drop out. There will be no room for regret once your test begins. Your decision here may mean the difference between life and death,” the old man warned.
There was no hint of interest from any of the nine. Such a thing didn’t exist in the world of martial dao. How could any would-be candidate be someone who feared death?
Wealth was also often found in great peril. None of them were going to so easily give up at a chance to affiliate themselves with the city lord.
“If that’s the case, come with me.”
The third test was one of life and death.
“Do you see? From here on, there’s a passage that leads to the other side. Many checkpoints are present, each taxing limits to the point of mortality. You only have one chance to get through all of them smoothly. If you reach the end, you pass. If you’re held up anywhere along here… there will be a fair chance of death.”
A fair chance of death.
This was a rather tactful way of putting it. Whether it would occur or not was hard to determine.
“Arrange yourselves according to your registration number.”
The candidates checked amongst themselves. Jiang Chen’s number was exactly in the middle of the pack. He glanced into the distance. It wasn’t obvious how many checkpoints there were, but he had the feeling that many traps were hidden in its recesses. The entire affair looked rather horrific.
A cultivator with monolids was the first. “Everyone, watch me obtain a clean victory!”
He pumped himself up incessantly even as he entered the passage.
There was a haze over everyone else’s visions as he did so. Nothing inside was visible from the outside, to ensure fairness for the earlier candidates. Thus, the passageway was sealed off whenever someone entered.
Time passed by very quickly. After a few breaths, everything was as it had been before. There was no information about the first entrant passing or failing. The non-reporting of results was so no psychological pressure would fall on those who came after.
“Next,” the bald, old man commanded.
The second candidate disappeared just like the first. Then the third, then the fourth. More people went forward and disappeared in silence.
The crushing atmosphere actually caused those who further down the line to tense up. Not knowing how many had passed, were there any who had?
Everything was unknown.
“Next.” It was Jiang Chen’s turn now. The young man was completely calm. Every bit of his consciousness, martial strength, and pore in his body was prepared.
“Go on,” the bald, old man commanded.
Without further ado, Jiang Chen disappeared in a blur of light.
A sharp guillotine sliced down from above as soon as he entered; its swiftness was reinforced by advantage in terrain.
Jiang Chen had sufficient awareness to seem almost prescient. Rather than slowing down, he sped up.
In that critical moment, his body already left behind afterimages as he swept past. The remnants of light and shadow left by the Kunpeng Meteoric Escape were the only things destroyed by the blade.
After evading the guillotine, Jiang Chen swept forward with the aerodynamic ability of a swallow. Suddenly, a strange wind with unknown origin roared beneath his feet. Uninterested in being delayed at such an unfortunate time, he accelerated once more.
There was crashing wind behind him, a consuming demon that roiled in his direction. It seemed to want to swallow up all that came into the passage.
Jiang Chen’s speed and swiftness of judgment were the best measures of self-preservation he could’ve asked for.
Wait, this isn’t good. There’s something wrong with the wind speed. There are arrows around here!
With faster reflexes than ordinary people, he stiffened and dropped his body backwards like a plank, feet firmly planted to avoid a hail of arrows. They soared harmlessly over his body.
He didn’t know whether a trap had triggered the arrows, or if someone was specifically here to get some revenge.
He wasn’t exactly going to wait around for the next attack, though. Recovering himself instantly, he propelled himself up from the ground and hurtled forward once more. The only way to pass was to go forward.
A ravenous maw cut in from the side of the passage as he did so, bringing with it a rancid smell and bloody gore. It pounced at Jiang Chen, intent on swallowing him up.
The passage was filled with fatal checkpoints alright.
Jiang Chen’s speed advantage was being used to its maximum here. Before the maw could approach, his feet were already upon it, using it as a vantage point to leap forward once more.