The partner-binding was unsuccessful.
Fang Lang was speechless—the lady was using an alias.
He made a mistake.
Fang Lang had a grasp of the System's binding requirements—direct visual contact with the target and the true name were needed to initiate a partner-binding.
He rubbed his nose. He did not expect the lady to use an alias in the presence of Headmaster Cui and the mentors.
This gave weight to the young lady's social status and identity.
'Why is she using a fake name to join the Gathering of Swords? Does she have an ulterior motive?'
Fang Lang spent some time mulling over the issue, then abandoned his line of thought. It was none of his business.
All he had to focus on was his own performance.
The mysterious lady's name would be revealed to him sooner or later.
'I wonder if I can win the competition with the Sword Draw Technique and the Spirit Step.'
Fang Lang took a deep breath.
The pressure was ever-present even when he had these two sword techniques. The Gathering of Swords had more than 200 academy's sword disciples participating. What hidden talents would be revealed in the competition?
Dang! Dang! Dang!
The academy bell rang.
There was shuffling in every study hall as students took their seats, back straight and attentive.
Fang Lang entered his floor and greeted Ni Wen with a wave. The girl who sat a distance away shrugged her shoulders bashfully.
From the other end of the room, Yang Zhengyi shot Fang Lang a look. He flipped his hair, making a smacking sound.
The mentor who was in charge of delivering the martial arts lecture struck the gavel. Class began with some insights into the Tang Dynasty's Martial Arts Scripture.
The day passed quickly with lessons after lessons.
When the last bell rang, the green-robed students left in groups. The students were like a collection of leaves falling from trees, transported everywhere by the river flow.
Fang Lang did not leave the study hall. When the bell rang, he approached Ni Wen with the Tang Dynasty's Martial Arts Scripture in hand.
"Little Wen, I'm unclear about this part. Can you help me with it?" Fang Lang asked with a friendly smile.
Ni Wen eyed him warily but did not turn him down. "Sure… I'll do my best to answer."
Fang Lang sat cross-legged on the prayer mat across Ni Wen and pointed at the question.
"When a martial arts master and a sword master are at two ends of a strong spell master's five-layer spiritual energy barrier. In one day, the sword master breaks one layer with his sword, the martial arts master breaks one layer with his fist. The sword master's damage doubles each day while the martial arts master's damage halves. On which day will the two cultivators break through the barrier and meet?"
Such questions truly frustrated Fang Lang.
After skimming through the question, Ni Wen had the solution. She raised a slender finger and began drawing on the desk. With a patient tone, she explained the trick to the question.
Fang Lang did not bother to switch cultivation modes for these theoretical questions.
'Ding! The host has engaged in modest interaction with the binding partner. You have been rewarded with one Grade-Rush Card Fragment!'
The System notification popped up.
He read the item description. 'Grade-Rush Card Fragment: Collect five pieces to complete the Grade-Rush Card. It can be used to break through any bottlenecks in skill, technique or cultivation training.'
Fang Lang was glad with the reward.
Little Wen was a gem. He would pay Little Wen a visit everyday. A short discussion—be it meaningful or modest—would allow him to gather these fragments. Then, cultivation training would be easier.
Fang Lang did not spend too long at Ni Wen's desk.
He told Ni Wen he could not walk her home as he had a training session for the Gathering of Swords.
He did not bother to inform Yang Zhengyi. When the bell rang, Yang Zhengyi had met up with some classmates and headed for the entertainment house with the excuse of needing mental and physical unwinding.
Fang Lang did not oppose that school of thought.
The setting sun was a bright flame in the sky—crimson splashed across the horizon.
When Fang Lang arrived at the practice grounds, the elegant Jiang Linglong was already under the willow trees.
She was dressed in a green robe, face covered with a veil. The wind blew and green silk floated in the air. The sunset, willow trees and lady were like a painting.
Fang Lang was stunned for a moment. When he recovered, he smiled at the lady despite not knowing her real name.
A distance away, Zhao Wuji and the mentor in charge of the weapons were smoking their tobacco pipes. Zhao Wuji felt a discomfort when he saw Fang Lang.
'Something about the boy ticks me off. Feels like he harbors ill will toward the lady.'
Zhao Wuji's neutral expression belied the wariness in his heart.
He was the lady's escort and he would make sure she returned to Imperial City safe. If there was anything amiss—for example, having the lady's heart stolen by some unscrupulous teenager—Zhao Wuji would be beaten up by the young men back home.
That was after suffering a horrible death at the hands of his master.
'Fang Lang, you better watch yourself.'
Zhao Wuji watched the boy with eagle eyes, the tobacco pipe dangling at the edge of his lips.
As if sensing the attention, Fang Lang turned and spotted Zhao Wuji. He gave the man a bright smile.
The presence of Zhao Wuji confirmed Fang Lang's suspicions. This lady was the mysterious person who was inside the Spring Cloud Chamber.
Fang Lang did not approach the young lady. In addition to her aloof demeanor, her aura made her surroundings uncomfortable—standing beside her was akin to being rubbed against a thorn armor.
He had met her in person and to secure a binding, he only needed the lady's name. He carefully laid out his plans.
Soon, Liu Bubai joined them. He had changed into a set of training clothes. His head was raised high like a proud swan.
He had an impressive sword in his hand. The sheath was studded with a variety of gemstones. The guard of the sword had rune carvings and a red tassel.
The sword complemented the appearance of a talented sword disciple.
Mentor Wen emerged and eyed the proud Liu Bubai and his elaborate outfit. An amused smile graced Mentor Wen's lips and he turned to look at Jiang Linglong.
He had no visibility on Headmaster Cui's arrangement with the young lady but he figured it was for the best interest of Luojiang Academy. It was likely to improve the academy's standing in the Gathering of Swords.
"I'll brief you on the Sword Guild. Perhaps one of you will be taken in after the Imperial Examination."
Mentor Wen held the wooden practice sword and smiled.
Liu Bubai lifted his head even higher.
The mentor must be talking about him.
Jiang Linglong was unperturbed—only the veil moved with the blowing breeze.
Fang Lang had on his usual charming smile.
"The Sword Guild is the ninth-ranked sect in the Tang Dynasty. They have more than 10,000 disciples, split between the inner sect and the outer sect. The sect leader is Xuanyuan Taihua, a first-class official in the imperial courts, also known as Tang Dynasty's First Sword. The sect's biggest achievement is the suppression of the demon portal that connected the demon world and the Tang Dynasty. The collective effort ensured the safety and peace in the regions around the Sword Guild," Mentor Wen said.
Liu Bubai listened with eagerness.
Jiang Linglong was quiet, unmoved by the tale.
Fang Lang squinted his eyes. He was curious about the mentioned demon portal.
According to the books, the Tang Dynasty and the demon world were disconnected from each other—a barrier stood in between the two worlds.
Since time immemorial, the only way to access the other world was to use these portals—even the ninth-class cultivators could not bypass the barrier.
Rumors had it that the barrier between the two worlds was evidence of a cultivator who surpassed the powers of the ninth class.
Fang Lang was incredibly curious but Mentor Wen did not elaborate more on the topic.
Mentor Wen prodded the ground lightly with the wooden sword. "The Sword Guild hosts the annual Gathering of Swords to encourage networking among the younger sword disciples. It also helps students who are going to sit for the Imperial Examination.
"The competition has two categories: single and team. It follows a best-of-three system. Being in the top three for the single match will earn you 20 points in the Imperial Examination. The top three teams will see that every team member gets an extra 10 points.
"In total, you can gain 30 points which will give you a significant lead in the Imperial Examination. Traditionally, the talented sword disciples who are sitting for the Imperial Examination will train hard in hopes to secure the 30 points."
A fire burned in Liu Bubai's eyes and his fighting spirit was ignited.
Fang Lang and Jiang Linglong retained their original expressions.
Mentor Wen smiled and lifted the wooden sword.
His eyes fell on Fang Lang, then Jiang Linglong, then Liu Bubai.
"Now, let's begin our training so I can evaluate your swordsmanship. Without using your cultivation, come at me. If you can nudge me from my position using only your sword, we will end the training. Else, each of you will have to perform 3,000 sword strikes before you leave."
Mentor Wen grinned. The fingers on his left hand stroked the blade of the wooden sword.
A clear ring echoed despite the sword being made of wood.
The sword cry was ferocious like a dragon.
The sound broke the silence of the practice grounds in the sunset.