After reaching the less densely populated suburbs, Xiao Bai broke into an unbridled free run, galloping happily as the wind whistled past his ears.
"Slow down, Xiao Bai, we're almost there." Jiang Shaoliu patted the tiger on the neck.
They had passed a 'slow for inspection' sign, and it could likely cause a misunderstanding if Xiao Bai barged in at a dead run as they entered the military control zone.
They stopped not far from the gate sentry and Jiang Shaoliu jumped off the tiger's back. "Hello! I want to see your lieutenant."
The young soldier stretched out his open palm. "ID please."
Jiang Shaoliu showed his new ID card. "He knows me, we met yesterday."
The young soldier took the ID card and inspected it briefly. "We guard the gate in shifts. The officer from yesterday is not here today. You'll have to go to our base to see him."
It never occurred to him that the officer might not be present.
A stocky soldier came out from the command room and approached Jiang Shaoliu. "What can I do for you?" he said.
With a single star on his uniform, he had to be a second lieutenant.
"Sir, he is looking for Lieutenant Chen. He says they met yesterday," the young private saluted. "I've informed him that Lieutenant Chen is not available today and he has to go to the base to see him."
After a quick look over the five-meter-long and four-meter-tall Xiao Bai, the second lieutenant turned to look at Jiang Shaoliu and smiled pleasantly, "Well, you're lucky I'm here, or you will have made the trip to the base in vain."
"How so?" Jiang Shaoliu raised a quizzical brow.
The officer signaled the private to stand at ease and said, "Lieutenant Chen finished his shift here yesterday and he's now on a mission in the life ring monster area. He won't be back for a while."
Jiang Shaoliu nodded.
"If it's urgent, I could requisition the special line to call him in the field," the lieutenant offered. "The army has special benefits for fighting masters."
Jiang Shaoliu shook his head. "I just wanted to know what I would be doing in the military if I join. I want to be a soldier if possible."
The second lieutenant beamed. There would be good bonus in it for him if he signed up a new master for the army, perhaps even a commendation!
"Follow me, please," he beckoned him to the command room. "Let's discuss the details inside."
Following behind Jiang Shaoliu, Xiao Bai shook his head bemusedly.
Why did humans always have to find a place to sit to talk? Is it such a hassle to speak while standing?
Inside, the officer offered Jiang Shaoliu some hot water and sat in front of him. "The military recruits masters from the public and offers the best pay out of the four factions in Yungang City. We also provide special protection for family members as long as you earn enough contribution points."
"So I've heard." Jiang Shaoliu had browsed the forum posts about a person named Liu Guang who had three bronze life rings and received a villa in the city center. News spread very fast on the net.
The officer smiled knowingly. "Liu Gang, right? I've watched videos of him fighting. He's incredibly fast; I've even seen him take down monsters with silver life rings."
Jing Shaoliu considered this.
Liu Guang was probably just an alias to protect his true identity. No one else in Yingang City had three bronze life rings.
"Well, let's talk business." The officer took out a file. "These are the rules and regulations for fighting masters in the military. They are not that strict."
Jiang Shaoliu perused the documents. The more he read, the deeper he frowned.
The rules weren't so strict compared to the rules for the common soldiers. He would have to act according to his superiors' orders and shouldn't act on his own initiative or even leave his unit without approval.
Still, this was a little too restrictive for him.
It was possible to practice the Great Sage's Formula in secret, but the Demon Fist and the Ape Fist might attract unwanted attention from others. What's more, the Monkey King had told him that the best way to improve his abilities was to fight and kill.
That would be difficult to do under the army's restrictions.
The second lieutenant saw his hesitation. "There's another way to have your family protected without directly joining the ranks," he supplied.
Many masters chose to join one of the other three factions because they didn't want to be restricted by the rules and regulations of the military, preferring freedom over the military's benefits.
A true master could not be constrained by such rules and regulations.
Jiang Shaoliu's curiosity was piqued. "And what would that be?"
His family could be protected by the army and he could also get a villa without joining the military?
"Not many masters choose to officially join the four factions, but we also issue bounties and other tasks to those masters who don't join us, which are rewarded with contribution points," the officer said. "The army can afford to pay more for the same kind of task, of course," he added proudly.
Jiang Shaoliu's eyes gleamed. "What are contribution points used for? How many contribution points would need if I want to get a villa in the city center like Liu Gang?"
"I'm not sure how many points a villa would cost you," the lieutenant shook his head, "but there is fierce competition for them since there are few houses and a lot of demand for them. But let me tell you, it cost Liu Gang 100,000 contribution points to get that villa."
How much were 100,000 points worth? Jiang Shaoliu had no point of comparison, but looking at the second lieutenant's serious expression, he could guess that it was a rather impressive sum.
"You can use smaller amounts of contribution points or useful parts extracted from monsters you kill to acquire weapons." The second lieutenant casually pointed at Xiao Bai: "There is also special equipment for tamed beasts, but that costs more points since it's all individually tailored."
Xiao Bai, plopped on the floor at Jiang Shaoliu's feet, chuffed softly and rubbed his head on Jiang Shaoliu's leg.
The tiger couldn't understand contribution points, but it could understand that special equipment must be a good thing.
Absentmindedly scratching Xiao Bai's head, Jiang Shaoliu said, "So, how do I sign up for a task? I want to give it a go."
"Each faction has its own task bureaus. The nearest one is at Hongfa Square." The officer stood up and saluted. "I have some things to take care of right now. Good luck to you."
Jiang Shaoliu returned the salute. "Thank you."
The second lieutenant stood at the door for a long while, watching the two go back the way they came.
He knew the young man who went by the name of Jiang Shaoliu was really powerful.
Jiang Shaoliu ate another fruit from Xiao Bai's basket and gave two to Xiao Bai. They didn't have many fruits left, as he had also given some to his sister when they separated that morning.
Soon, they would have nothing left to eat.
"Speed up, Xiao Bai. I'll take you out for a good meal later." Jiang Shaoliu patted the tiger's flank. "Let's go faster!"
Something good to eat?!
Xiao Bai's teal eyes lit up and he ran like a white hurricane, dust billowing in his wake.
Hongfa Square, in southern Yungang.
In the middle of the square was a thirty-meter pillar with giant LCD screens displaying various information.
Panic surged through the crowd as Xiao Bai and Jiang Shaoliu stormed into the square. A wide corridor opened up in front of them as everyone scattered out of the way.
This was one of the advantages of being a beast-tamer: ordinary masters could never make such a spectacular entrance!
Jiang Shaoliu rode the tiger forward through the sea of envious and amazed faces.
In front of him was a big map of the Yungang region, which was divided into dozens of districts, with information panels underneath.
"A population of 530,000 people registered in the south of the city…"
He focused on the four main faction's zones of control, clearly marked out on the map with thick yellow outlines.
Outside the yellow zones were dangerous areas overrun with monsters, while small red zones indicated the known territories of beasts with life rings. Those without any life rings would die for sure if they dared to trespass there.
There were also green dotted lines crossing the yellow areas, denoting the current safest transport routes. These tended to change occasionally.
The residential neighborhoods in the downtown area were divided into different levels. The central part of Yungang City had ordinary houses with air-conditioning, water heaters and cable TV, with armed patrols and sentries on duty at all times.
As for the villa purchased by Liu Guang, it was guarded by the army's martial masters.
"This map is based on footage from military surveillance satellites and integrates the territories of the main factions in real time. It's very accurate, you know." A middle-aged man in suite appeared beside Jiang Shaoliu and said: "I'll pay top dollar for that tiger, brother. Would you consider selling it?"
Jiang Shaoliu shook his head 'no', which was as he expected.
The man smiled and gave him a business card: "You can contact me at any time if you change your mind. There are many strings I could pull for you, both legal and… not so legal."
Jiang Shaoliu absentmindedly took the card and focused on the next screen.
It was the task distribution screen, displaying the active bounties assigned by the four major factions. Most of the tasks involved fruit collection, and monster-slaying was only a small part of them.
"10,000-20,000 contribution points for one Lingyao fruit, 20,000-50,000 for one Linghuo fruit, at least 100,000 for one Lingbao fruit, at least 500,000 for one Lingwen fruit…"
He nodded ponderously.
The rarer the fruit, the more contribution points it was worth. Liu Gang could had earned his 100,000 points just for finding that Lingbao fruit.
Jiang Shaoliu browsed the monster-slaying bounties.
"Monster hunting: 10 contribution points for slaying an ordinary mutated monster, 50 for a beast with one bronze life ring, 200 for two life rings, 500 for three life rings, 1000 for one silver life ring, 1,500 for two, 3,000 for three…"
After reading through the available bounties, Jing Shaoliu began to calculate in his mind.