Two days later, Phoenix Mountain.
Mountain view in the north was nothing like that of the south, especially in the winter. Dead grass and withered trees rolled out in layers. From afar, one could only make out a vast sea of grayness.
Unlike Mount Emei, whose name was known far and wide with tourists pouring in throughout the year, Phoenix Mountain was deserted early in winter. Until the warmth of spring returned and the flowers started blooming, no one would visit the mountain; even the travelling agencies stopped sending touring groups in.
Right now, Gu Yu and Xiaozhai were ascending the mountain along a winding stone-paved path. They walked past the scenic area and continued deep into the mountains. Gu Yu then looked around and let out a sudden whistle, breaking the silence of the empty mountain.
Before long, scuffling footsteps approached them, together with a series of eager squeaks.
A lump of dusty-colored little creature leapt out of the woods abruptly, tumbling directly into Gu Yu's arms. It was none other than Brother Fatty itself, whom they had not seen for quite some time.
"Poor little guy. You've lost a lot of weight."
He stroked the squirrel, feeling sorry for the "sized-down" little body. Digging out a handful of nuts from his pocket, Gu Yu apologized, "Sorry for not visiting you for a while."
Brother Fatty was ready to give full vent to its frustration and complaints, but that idea vaporized in a poof as soon as the nuts showed up. Peanuts, pine nuts, little walnuts—you name it—were all stuffed into its mouth, stretching its cheeks into ones twice their original size.
Xiao Qing also slithered out, sticking out its two-pronged tongue in a showing-off manner. After travelling around with its master, it felt it had seen a fair share of this wide world, qualifying it to be someone of the "upper class".
Brother Fatty would not tolerate its attitude and responded with brandishing its claws. Within no time, the two started their usual mauling and tearing again.
The two masters paid little attention to the commotion; it was not like the two animals would lose their way. Gu Yu and Xiaozhai led themselves across the black thorny forest and entered the valley. Everything here was the same: the flat shoal, the rivers, the old tree… it was quiet and windless.
Of course, the feeling they had this time was completely different. Before, they stumbled on this place by sheer chance, but now, they were the official owners.
"The land is narrower on the north and wider on the south. I think the houses can be built in the southern side."
Gesturing at the view in front of them, Gu Yu smiled. "I've thought it through. We'll have three meditation rooms, three bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, a bathroom…"
"And we'll hang a plate up there, with black base and golden characters, saying 'Phoenix Mountain Private Lounge'!" Xiaozhai laughed.
Gu Yu paused at her teasing tone and asked, "What do you mean?"
"Are you building a Taoist lodging or a villa?"
She retorted and went on before Gu Yu could reply. "Two or three Taoist lodgings will do. Even if we'll have more people in the future, five to six would be more than enough. With your plan, we might as well build a private garden."
Gu Yu was a little embarrassed. He thought that with two girls around, he should at least maintain certain standard of living—such as places for them to have a bath or wash their hair conveniently.
"Haha, I know you're doing this for the sake of our convenience, but it's really not necessary."
Xiaozhai stopped her criticism before going too far. She smiled, "This is a place for cultivation and making it too comfortable is not a good thing. Don't worry about us. We'll be fine."
"In that case, we'll change the plan."
Shaking his head, he leapt across the river with Xiaozhai by taking her by the hand. They landed on the other bank, which was the wider southern side.
They started by measuring the area of the clearing and agreed on building six houses: three meditation rooms with attached bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a small living room. In other words, the most basic living facilities.
After some consideration, he circled out another large plot of land nearby and marked it with twigs. It was going to be their medicine garden.
With the planning all done, the two sat down under the old tree and started sorting through some information.
"I've studied that Dan recipe carefully. It's not feasible in the current situation. We can't get the stuff from anywhere, be it the alchemy furnace or the ingredients... And if I guessed it right, the requirement for taking that Essence-gathering Dan is extremely strict. Normal cultivators won't be able to assimilate the medicinal property of it."
"How strict? Innate state only?" Xiaozhai asked.
"Very likely. We might not be able to eat it until we reach the innate state. Anyway, that stuff is a bit of a 'mathom' and we'll keep it for the time being. Let's find some wild herbs and transplant them here first, then see if they can be of use."
With that, they raised their heads involuntarily, both looking at the two round fruits on the tree.
They were already there when they found this place the first time last year, looking unripe and puckery at the time. They were still nowhere near getting red now, just slightly larger than before.
According to Sima Che, the lake only started acting out a couple of years ago, which was probably the time when the spiritual essence started recovering. The fruit Brother Fatty gave Gu Yu was picked last year and it had eaten one before that. Doing some math, they deduced that it would take at most two years for a red fruit to ripen.
But that only applied to the fruit. They had no idea how herbs would react to the environment. All they could do was to collect samples and experiment on them as they grew.
After that, Gu Yu told Xiaozhai about the refining procedure of the Whisk of Tranquility, the specific method of refining with mental force, and his dissatisfaction with the style of horsetail whisks.
Xiaozhai chuckled at his narration. "If whisks annoy you that much, what are you going to refine?"
He took out that jade casket. In it, the two green jade needles were glistening coldly. "These needles are extremely fast and have a strong penetrating force. They are suitable for surprise attacks, long-range attacks, as well as infiltrating from a single point. And, they are hard to detect.
With the method of refining with mental force, we can pretty much refine anything as long as we have good materials to work on. As for that Whisk of Tranquility, it'll be our trial run."
"That sounds good. I think there is over ten thousand mu of peach flower grove in Hekou Town. We should check it out later." Xiaozhai had no problem with Gu Yu's suggestion. The Whisk of Tranquility was too impractical. Even if they managed to make one, where would they find the evil for it to dispel?
At that, an idea suddenly dawned on her and she said, "Oh, hand me the seal."
"What are you going to do with it?"
Gu Yu passed her the seal, somewhat baffled.
Xiaozhai tossed it around a bit and chuckled, "This thing can be refined as well. I bet it would feel really good to smash people with it! And those patterns on it, I always thought they look like some sort of formation. We should study it. We have few resources at the moment and we need to exhaust everyone of them."
'Okay...' Twitching his mouth, Gu Yu found words had failed him.
They wasted no time in setting out to execute their short-term plan: they would focus on cultivating in seclusion and spare some time for collecting materials. They reckoned that by the time spring came and the weather turned warm, the government would move into action, seeking out Gu Yu for the development of Tianzhu Mountain and Mount Emei.
They had not forgotten that, similar to the case in Tianshan, the stone wall in the node of Tianzhu Mountain also consisted of an unusual mineral. And there were also those trees in the node of Emei, which were extremely hard but highly ductile at the same time.
Most importantly, those were all spiritual substances that would be perfect for instrument-refining.
The two stayed on the mountain for the most part of the day and did not return to Phoenix Fair until dusk set in.
Xiaojin and Long Qiu had come back a long while ago after going shopping and were whining with empty stomachs. Both wailed at their return. Gu Yu hurried into the kitchen to prepare dinner and brought out four dishes and a soup. The three women and a man arranged themselves perfectly around the table on the kang.
After dinner, Xiaojin and Long Qiu went back to their hotel room, with Xiaozhai staying behind.
She looked rather serious, even rather serious, even more so than during their daytime discussion. "I went to my parents' for dinner yesterday. My mom told me that she had just attended a meeting, informing her that she would be promoted by half a level. She's now second-in-command and the raise would make her the first. My dad also said that the municipal officials had talked to him and he would soon be promoted by a pay grid as well."
Gu Yu frowned slightly. Not that he had any problem with their promotion, he was just sensing some subtle maneuvering behind all that.
"They are not stupid. With me disappearing all the time recently, they must know it had something to do with me. They did not ask, but…"
Xiaozhai sighed, "They will eventually find out. I can't bring myself to imagine how they will react to all this."
Gu Yu fell into silence. There wasn't much they could do. Despite the apparently peaceful agreement with the government, the two sides were in fact each acting on their own benefits and with conflicting interests. The means of the government were limitless. Any move from those people would mean that Gu Yu and Xiaozhai would be at a disadvantage.
They could grant the parents high positions and the relatives wealth. Everything would be carried out with a manner of equality and all prayers would be answered. These were sugar-coated bullets.
"Sigh. It seems we'll have to limit our contact with the government. The more we deal with them, the more complicated that relationship will become. It would make everything difficult in the future—no matter whether we continue to work with them or fall into an overt conflict with them."
"Yeah. Let's steer clear of them unless there is no other option."
"What about building the houses and collecting the herbs?"
"Don't worry about that. We still have the families of Zeng, Lei, and Yuan to turn to…"
Gu Yu smiled. "This matter of spiritual essence can't be covered up forever. It won't do much harm to let them know a little bit. They would be more than happy to help."
"Haha, you're trying to form a clique and lord over the mountain."
"Hey, enough with the labeling. It's for survival, nothing more."