Gao Shen wasn’t dead after being thrown off the stage. He wasn’t even heavily injured. But for someone who walked the way of demonic slaughter, only two outcomes were possible when he was physically and mentally injured. Either he found inspiration from humiliation and made more progress, reaching new heights in his martial dao, or this spelled his doom and he was never able to recover. The former required a strong dao heart and resolution to sweep away the demons of yesterday, whereas the latter happened to roughly eighty percent of this path’s cultivators.
Although Emperor Shura burned with fury, he didn’t lose his composure as he swept a glance around his camp. Beneath Emperor Shura’s command were the three monarchs: Sun, Moon, and Star. Below them was his most treasured disciple, Li Jiancheng. The monarchs were the emperor’s most trusted lieutenants, holding positions similar to those of Sacred Peafowl Mountain’s four monarchs. Li Jiancheng, on the other hand, was Emperor Shura’s favorite student and heir: similar to the late young lord Fan.
Young lord Fan had been a youth who’d sought magnanimity, perfection, and popularity. In stark contrast to him, Li Jiancheng valued swagger, dominance, and authority. Thus, he rarely did anything in the pursuit of a wider following. In the public perspective, he was a lofty character high above the clouds, a genius beyond comprehension. Almost untouchable, in a sense. Young lord Fan, on the other hand, was thought of as a more sincere and down-to-earth individual.
Still, if one had to find geniuses among the city’s younger generation who could match the late young lord, the first choice would be Li Jiancheng. He had a martial dao that was oppressive to the point of being tyrannical. Even young lord Fan at peak performance could barely overcome it.
Rumor had it that Li Jiancheng had been honing a very powerful technique in the last few years. Once completed, it would have been potent enough to force even young lord Fan to give it proper respect. Having spent so much time refining the technique in recent years, Li Jiancheng had been surpassed by his junior brother Gao Zhan in notoriety. However, it wasn’t that his martial dao talent was inferior. Though it tended to manifest itself in imperious, dominant techniques, Li Jiancheng was actually fairly discreet. He was a bit of an opportunist, infinitely ambitious and without scruples. Because of this, the younger generation within Emperor Shura’s inner circle all called him ‘crown prince’ in private. The title made his pretensions self-evident.
“What do you think about Gao Zhan’s loss, Jiancheng?” Emperor Shura rested his gaze upon his pupil, his tone austere.
Li Jiancheng was impassive. “Gao Zhan did not lose because of ineptitude, nor did he lack the intrinsic qualities needed to win. Pill King Zhen had too many trump cards up his sleeve. The sheer resourcefulness he displayed disrupted junior brother Gao Zhan’s rhythm. It’d be more accurate to call it crushed it outright. ”
Emperor Shura acknowledged the analysis. “Pill King Zhen’s origin remains a mystery, but the fact that Emperor Peafowl wants to push him to the forefront is crystal clear.”
“Your Majesty, why does Emperor Peafowl want to make Pill King Zhen the new young lord? Does Sacred Peafowl Mountain want to maintain control of the city for another few thousand years? Are they that unwilling to hand over their current authority?” The Moon Monarch couldn’t help but ask. No one in Emperor Shura’s faction was happy with their current position–third in prominence nominally, second-in-command in actuality. They prepared every waking moment to take the reins from Emperor Peafowl, down to the preparations of the great clans and houses. The Majestic Clan that was now history, for example. They’d pressured Coiling Dragon Clan step by step as a show of force. They wanted to create the impression that Sacred Peafowl Mountain was under siege from every direction. Alas, the entire faction had sustained loss after loss after Pill King Zhen’s appearance. It had begun with the fall of the Majestic Clan, continued with the rumor about replacing young lord Fan, and been supported even further by the decisive victory over Gao Zhan just now…
This series of defeats had dealt a fatal blow to the faction’s machinations. Their painstaking designs were shattered overnight. Moon Monarch’s question resonated with everyone else present. Was Emperor Peafowl going to pass the throne to Emperor Shura, or not? Leaving such a question unanswered for so long was absolutely heartbreaking for the latter’s entire faction.
Emperor Shura was grim. “Emperor Peafowl has never acted with any kind of predictability. Rumors often have a grain of truth to them, and I think there’s a fair bit of veracity to this one in particular. Pill King Zhen is an unknown quantity, so anything is possible.”
“So… have our plans been for naught, then?” Moon Monarch was frantic.
“Our plans have been stalled temporarily, but it’s not as grave as you say,” Emperor Shura explained coolly. “Emperor Peafowl has his heart on the wider world. There must be a deeper reason for his hurry to select a new young lord. Furthermore, there’s no way that the emperor will simply leave the awakening demons alone. No matter how extraordinary this Pill King Zhen is, he’ll still need another century or two to shoulder the burden of the capital at large. If we can’t find a breaching point for that long, then we deserve to fail.”
Each listener sank into thought at the emperor’s words. Before long, Moon Monarch smiled once more. “You’re right. No matter how astonishing that Pill King Zhen proves to be, he’s only a youth. He has a long way to go before he’s able to inherit the throne. Who knows if there’ll be some accident before then?”
The other two monarchs nodded in agreement. Emperor Shura glanced towards his favorite disciple. “It seems, Jiancheng, that the young lord Fan of yesteryear and the Pill King Zhen of present have chosen similar paths. They’ve both invested themselves into winning over the hearts of the people. If you really wish to pursue the throne, you should think about doing so as well.”
His student’s biggest merit was his willingness to think. He accepted the criticism of others in a constructive fashion. After a few moments of consideration, Li Jiancheng inclined his head. “I will ponder the matter seriously, master.”
“Following this, Pill King Zhen will be in the limelight for quite a while. Maintaining the proper state of mind is key for us. The game for power is not played over days or weeks. Remember how glamorous young lord Fan was, and how suddenly he fell!” Emperor Shura smiled faintly. As the leader of his faction, he had to raise his subordinates’ morale.
“Master is correct. These recent engagements are insignificant in the grand scheme of things. As long as Emperor Peafowl is around, the situation in Veluriyam Capital will not change. When that changes, so will the order here.” Li Jiancheng nodded in vehement agreement.
“Well said!” Emperor Shura showed a satisfied smile. “No matter what, you’re still first in the Ranking of Young Lords. Nobody can deny that fact.”
Because of young lord Fan’s death, there was no contest in Li Jiancheng’s position at the head of the Ranking. The second-best disciple under Emperor Peafowl was Zhou Yan, a genius of sword dao. Because of his youth, his renown didn’t quite match either young lord Fan or Li Jiancheng. After the loss of the former, he could still only be placed behind Li Jiancheng as a close second.
Even his current position was held in some doubt. Some said that the spot had been yielded to him out of respect because he was one of Emperor Peafowl’s students. There was some plausibility to that. Shui Rutian, in third place, was the foremost disciple of Emperor Petalpluck. His zen dao had reached the point of forming realms, and it wasn’t a stretch to call him Li Jiancheng’s equal in this regard. Many thought that he was more qualified than Zhou Yan to take second place. Naturally, the ranking battles that followed would reveal the truth to that opinion.
Sitting squarely in eighth place on the Ranking of Young Lords, Jiang Chen became strangely prominent. Ninth and seventh around him didn’t dare entertain the thought that it was undeserved. Quite the opposite: they felt a sliver of pressure just by being next to a genius like him. It was common for people to compare closely-placed things, after all. Under that magnifying glass, even the best of geniuses couldn’t help but be a little self-conscious.
The ranking battles continued. Jiang Chen had begun his challenge from the 20th position. After his set of challenges concluded, it was the 19th ranked genius’ turn.
The proceedings continued another ten days before everyone below the top ten finished their challenges. Jiang Chen’s eighth-ranked spot was entirely secure during this period. Nobody issued a challenge against him. His neighbors were both challenged for their spots. Jiang Chen himself, though, was entirely separate from the conflict, with not a single contender in sight.
His victory against Gao Zhan had sealed his station. His talent and ability had been made known to everyone else in the running for the Ranking of Young Lords. All of them understood how difficult this Pill King Zhen was to deal with. Only the internal struggle among the top ten remained.
There was little ambiguity in the matter. The tenth-ranked genius chose to challenge the ninth-ranked, losing by a hair’s difference. The ninth-ranked skipped Jiang Chen, choosing the seventh-ranked. He lost with a similar breadth of discrepancy, failing to move up in the rankings. This marked the end of Jiang Chen’s work in the Ranking of Young Lords. Since he’d attained his spot through challenging higher-ranked opponents three times, he no longer had any such opportunities remaining. It was, then, the seventh-ranked’s turn to consider his own chances at upward mobility. Because the challenges were restricted to higher-ranked opponents, Jiang Chen no longer needed to have anything to do with them.
After a momentous battle between seventh and sixth, the latter won a pyrrhic victory. He paid a heavy price: he had no strength remaining to contend with the fifth-place genius. Everyone expected there to be fierce competition in the top five, but the result was actually quite peaceful. The fifth-ranked genius, Wang Dongyu, decided to give up his three chances.
Fourth place, Ye Piaoling, was a disciple of Emperor Vastsea. Challenging Zhou Yan in second place, he was soundly defeated by a mighty sword technique.
Third place, Shui Rutian, chose the first-ranked Li Jiancheng as his target. After a vicious fight, the latter came out slightly better in the end.
The second-ranked Zhou Yan met the same fate. His challenge to first place took place three days afterwards, when Li Jiancheng had sufficiently rested. Just like Shui Rutian, his loss was narrow but certain. With that, all of the challenge battles in the Ranking of Young Lords concluded.
The top seven were exactly the same as the preliminary rankings. The eighth was Pill King Zhen, the darkest horse of this year’s entire Ranking! The second-darkest horse was young master Ji San, finishing at twenty-first place. He was the only scion of the great clans to make it into the Ranking of Young Lords.