Once they reached the front of the line it didn’t take long to get signed up. They just needed a name and some basic details like age and cultivation level so that contestants could be placed with people at least somewhere near their own strength. There wasn’t any point in lying about it either- if you pretended to be weaker you would be placed lower and have to participate in more rounds. Likewise, if you pretended to be stronger you would be placed higher- but against stronger people. Of course, strengths varied between styles and individuals even at the same part of a single tier- early, middle, or late- but it served as a good basis for organization.
The next morning Barrett receive his placement. “I’m starting in the fourth round.”
“Same here.” Reina nodded. “It seems rather strange… out of a few thousand people we’re already part of the top several hundred.”
Mistress Seviren nodded. “That is to be expected. Most people under the age of twenty aren’t in the second tier- and even many of those below thirty. The first few rounds will be among people in the first tier. Even gathering people from the many countries around a few thousand participants is an impressive showing. Only a small number of people truly step onto the path of cultivation- and some of them only do so later in life. Since the two of you have reached the early second tier at seventeen, you can be considered somewhat exceptional.”
Barrett scratched the back of his head, “Well, we got lucky to run into excellent teachers.”
“Perhaps so… but I would rather think that some of us got lucky to run into excellent students.”
“A good style helps a lot though…” Barrett frowned, “Wait, how old are- how old is Master Hykel?”
“Oh, why do you ask?”
“Well… he’s at the fifth tier… and here’s a gathering of people less than thirty who aren’t even at the third. With each one taking longer he’d have to have been training for a long time… Over fifty years.” Barrett tilted his head, “He doesn’t even look that old, even if he started training as an infant.”
Mistress Seviren nodded, “The ravages of time grow weaker as one grows stronger. Hykel will likely look quite young until well over one hundred years old, even if he grows no stronger. As for his actual age… it should not be much more than seventy or eighty.”
“Really?” Reina looked puzzled, “I didn’t know that there were such effects.”
“You wouldn’t, yet. Your body will still continue to grow until it reaches it natural limits. It is only the decline that arrives later and takes longer. Many people take up cultivation of various sorts hoping to increase their lifespan… but such people usually make little progress. It requires hard work and dedication. Fear of death usually holds people back.” Mistress Seviren turned toward Barrett, “Those who are afraid of death would never even touch a style such as yours.”
“I am afraid of death though,” Barrett replied, “If I don’t become strong, anyone can kill me. It was worth risking my life some to prevent that.”
“That is not being afraid of death- but merely being afraid of being weak. Tell me, when your manor burned down around you and collapsed on top of you, was the only thing you were thinking that you didn’t want to die?”
“I thought it a lot.” Barrett nodded seriously.
Reina shook her head, “I know you weren’t just thinking about yourself though. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have thrown yourself over me.”
“Well, yeah. I wanted you to live… and you even saved me first.”
Mistress Seviren interrupted, “That’s enough of that. It doesn’t really matter who saved who first, but that you both thought about others at all. That proves you two weren’t afraid of death- at least not as your primary concern. That means you can be motivated by other things… which are generally much more effective than just fear of death, or concerns for yourselves.”
“I see.” Reina nodded, “But maybe it’s good to have a bit of fear of death?”
“Not particularly. A healthy caution of what could kill you, perhaps, but not fear.” Mistress Seviren looked back at Barrett, “Of course, Barrett and Master Hykel- and the rest of their school- must absolutely not be afraid of death. They face it more than most.”
“Uh, can we not tell Barrett to be less afraid of death? He already does crazy things.”
“That’s just how the training works.” Barrett crossed his arms.
“Ah, it’s already too late.” Reina shook her head, “He’s already passed the bounds of sanity.”
The early rounds were actually the longest ones in the tournament. They had the most people and thus the most matches. Each round there were half as many people, so though the first round took a full day, the second and third rounds weren’t quite a full day on their own. Even so, the fourth round would take place on the third day.
Before that there was nothing to do but watch other matches. “Hmm… “ Barrett stroked his chin, “I’m glad we’re not participating in those rounds. It would barely be worth walking onto the stage for most of these fights.”
“Don’t get too cocky, Barrett,” Reina cautioned, “Anyone could pull out a surprise.”
“I’m just saying, if you were up there you could have your sword pressed against their throat before they could react. I could just toss them out of the ring right away.” There were several possible win conditions, since the matches weren’t to the death. Ultimately it was up to the judges unless the opponent was knocked out or surrendered, but in a number of matches it was obvious who was stronger. The arenas had an edge, however, and being outside the ring for a set period of time would result in a loss. They were large enough that contestants had enough room to maneuver, but if your opponent was enough superior in controlling where you could go safely you could be trapped out of the arena long enough to lose. Someone who was entirely unable to maneuver back onto the stage would almost certainly lose eventually anyway. It wasn’t entirely fair to some, but no system would be. Everyone had their own strengths, but if an opponent could completely dictate where you could go they would hold a large advantage unless the terrain was truly featureless.
Finally came the day for the fourth round, and Barrett and Reina were told when they would go up.
“Oh, I’m facing off against someone from the Raging Fire sect.” Barrett liked the idea of fighting other berserkers… but he wasn’t so keen on the fire part.