December, Da Xue 1 .
Thanks to global warming, the climate had gone haywire in the past decade or so. The summers were sweltering hot and the winters barely cold. Take Shengtian as an example. Even as recent as twenty years ago, days with temperatures of t wenty or thirty degrees below zero 2 were commonly found, not to mention its reputation of being the "bitter cold place beyond Shanhai Pass" in ancient times.
And now? The average temperature of the winter the year before last was -16 to -3 C 3 . How hopeless was that?
Starting from last year, however, maybe the spiritual essence was having a stronger effect on the climate, but the temperatures were getting normal again: summers were hotter and winters were colder.
Zhang Qianqiu stood at the entrance of the courtyard, rubbed his hand together, and exhaled a mouthful of white steam, which lingered in the air for a bit before it slowly dissipated.
He wrapped his cotton-padded clothes tighter and took in the view: covered with silver ice and snow, the branches turned into a sea of white jade while the freezing creek flowed past outside. And there were also the deserted winding stone paths, which made the picture all the bleaker.
How time flew. He and Li Dong had been here for twelve days already. Right now, he was not where he lived, but in the workshop, which he visited whenever he could. By now, he had become quite familiar with Old Man Gao.
Gao Mingde was the eldest of the lot and a man of fine character. Without being explicitly appointed, he had become the leader of the group.
The old man was very content with everything now. Here on the mountain, he was treated nicely, his son had bought his own house, and he himself had been cured of his old ailments. There was nothing more he could hope for. He was even thinking about selling off all his chickens, ducks, and pigs, and asking his neighbors to keep an eye on his old courtyard so that he would not need to go back often.
Phoenix Mountain was fantastic! It was quiet, beautiful, good for his health, and he got to brew the liquor, which he liked more than anything else… more importantly, it was where the Immortals lived.
There were 16 men on the mountain now. They had probably passed some preliminary test, for every now and then, Miss Jin would bring food down here, or the spiritual liquor, spiritual rice, or some fruit.
There wasn't much and each person would only get a little, but everyone understood. The thing inside, that, well, that spiritual essence… their mortal bodies were simply not strong enough to withstand it.
Zhang Qianqiu and Li Dong had tasted enough to make them more decisive than ever to become pupils of the immortals. At the same time, they felt sorry for Yan Han: if only the man could hold on for a bit longer.
Zhang Qianqiu exhaled another mouthful of white steam as he followed the stone path outside. Before he knew it, he was at the fork on the road.
A bluestone road, which could carry him all the way up the mountain, lay before him. On the opposite side was another small path that led directly to where the fruit growers lived. He hesitated. Should he return to the back mountain, or go over there for a visit?
As he pondered on, he sniffed and halted.
He had a very sharp nose, which had distinctively caught the faintest orchid fragrance. The fragrance drifted past him, together with two figures that almost seemed unreal.
Meanwhile, his ears caught a conversation.
"The snow is so heavy. I wonder what the valley looks like now. It must be beautiful."
"The temperature in the valley is kept at an even level, so everything will look the same as before."
"Brother, how come you're always a killjoy…"
Zhang Qianqiu raised his head and saw a man and a woman treading across the snowy mountain, their movements graceful and elegant. Almost in no time, the pair had gone up the cold mountain. The woman turned back and glanced casually, her eyes just happening to meet Zhang Qianqiu's. The next second, she had turned back and disappeared into the immense forest.
That one look was like a dreamy illusion, a hazy streak of moonlight, a startled autumn swan… it had been branded deeply into Zhang Qianqiu's mind.
Was that Miss Qiu?
"Xiao Qiu Qiu, I missed you sooooooooo much!"
Xiaojin wrapped herself around Long Qiu like a koala and rubbed her head against her little elder sister. "You were away for thirteen days. Won't your conscience hurt from abandoning us?"
"Aiya, leave me alone… we met some bad men and had a fight on Flaming Mountain. That's why we came back late."
Long Qiu pushed her away forcibly, but was smiling as she did it.
"Aaaaaaaaaaah! Fighting! I LOVE a fight! I'm going crazy stuck here on the mountain…"
Xiaojin entered a frenzied mode right away. Staring into certain fellow's eyes, she yelled, "Why did you not bring me along? Why didn't you? WHY?"
"Well, where's your sister?"
Gu Yu acted as if he could not see her.
"I've thrown her away! Go find her yourself!" Little Soap roared.
"In that case, I'll go get her myself."
Gu Yu shrugged. That Xiaozhai did not come out to greet them meant she could only be at one place. He walked around the Cottage of Pure Mind, a few rows of newly built houses, and a two-story wooden building, then headed straight for the training field on the northwest.
This place had changed a lot as well.
For one, the area was twice what it used to be and was now the size of a football court. It had to be expanded. Their training was ruining trees and houses so often that a smaller space was no longer enough for their skills.
An even gravel road had also been built, connecting the valley to the training field. The road elevated abruptly only at the intersection near the field by a dozen stairs. Two wooden houses were built on either side of the stairs as temporary resting rooms.
Gu Yu stood at the side of the training field and saw no one at the first glance. Only after looking closely did he realize Xiaozhai was sitting in the snow, her aura so natural that she was blending into the scene.
He deliberately crunched the snow as he approached slowly. It was only when he saw his girlfriend's eyelash quivering that he called out with a laughter, "Watch out!"
With a casual wave, a flaming dragon flew out, wuthering and roaring. The temperature surged in the area several meters around it, melting the thick snow instantly. But before the snow had time to turn into water, it was vaporized right away, revealing the dry soil beneath.
Xiaozhai opened her eyes and shook her open palm in return.
A streak of golden purple lightning as thick as a small wine cup boomed out of her palm, meeting the flaming dragon head on.
The flaming dragon dissipated slightly, as if being shaken. The next moment, however, the red glow grew brighter, as if the dragon had opened its mouth, devouring the lightning one bite after another. Xiaozhai made no further moves. She only estimated the time and made a gesture with her right hand. The lightning then disappeared.
"The Metal Thunder is indeed as formidable as promised!" Gu Yu offered his admiration. He had exerted 70% of his power and she had managed to withstand it for quite a considerable time.
"The only thing is that it's too essence-consuming. Green Leaf is much convenient to use."
Xiaozhai rose to her feet and said, "As powerful as the Metal Thunder might be, the toughest is also prone to snapping under pressure and lacks change. I'm cultivating Water Thunder next. The two will complement each other, improving my strength."
"I'm looking forward to the day when you achieved perfection in all five thunders and can destroy the world with a snap of your fingers. I'd be able to stay at home and relax then." Gu Yu was not shy with his hope of living off his woman.
"Don't worry. It won't take long."
She walked to her boyfriend. Only then did she let the joy of reunion in her eyes show and smiled. "How did it go?"
"Horses only grow stronger with nighttime snacks and so do cultivators." Gu Yu shook his head and sighed affectedly. "Sigh, my Taoist heart is full of weakness at the moment. I'm in dire need to grab something."
"Tsk!" Xiaozhai could not be bothered with that tease and only replied, "Such a pity. I'd love to see that Ghostly Bug."
"We'll have enough time to catch it once we are accomplished enough."
"What's the fun in having everything ready. Surprise is exciting."
"Tsk, that's some dangerous thought you've got there…"
The two hands joined as the couple walked light-footed back to the valley, squabbling the entire time.
Night, in the meditation room.
Gu Yu and Xiaozhai were both in loose wide-sleeved nightgowns as they sat down at the table, ready to organize what he had brought back from the trip. The human skin scroll, the bone plate, the jade plate, and the two jade slips were lined up on the table. Under the dim light, there was something solemn and mysterious about them.
They were joking about it when they collected the Seal of Patriarch Sa back then, but they were in that mood no more this time.
The current world was under an extreme shortage of Taoist skills and every piece they unearthed was of great importance not only to themselves, but to all cultivators out there as well. As the early starters, they were aware of the significance better than anybody else.
Xiaozhai picked up the bone plate first and inserted her mental force. She closed her eyes and opened them after a while. "I more or less know how this Shadow-Switching Technique works. How do you want to use it?"
The so-called shadow-switching was the ability to turn physical substance into visions and vice versa. The switch could take place both ways.
The "visions" were things that did not take up any physical space.
It could be in the form of light, air, shadow, or any intangible substance. The archmage, for instance, had turned into a streak of red light.
It was not one's primordial spirit, which was a separate being from the physical body. The vision was something transformed from one's physical body and its most remarkable ability was that it could attack the mind and spirit directly.
The archmage was a fake innate state man who had elevated himself forcibly at the cost of shortening his life. With his shaky foundation, there was no way he could have sufficient vital essence to support the technique. As a result, he was only able to carry it out at a limited level and had to exert its power through the ghostly face. Had he been able to master the technique, he would not have done so badly out there.
Now that she had asked, Gu Yu told her, "I want to combine it with my illusion."
"You want to go into an illusion?" Xiaozhai was surprised.
"Anything wrong with that?" He chuckled.
"Old Gu, I've never realized you're such an ambitious man. Why, are you trying to create a world of your own?"
"Nah, l'm not that good. Rather than going into an illusion myself, it's more accurate to say that I am trying to bring an illusion out into the reality. Just read what it says there: the physical substance and visions can be switched around. It never says it could only be a human being or one's own body. This teacup, for example…" He picked up a random cup from the table and said, "Can I make it disappear into thin air and reappear? Can I make an illusion real? Can I turn the reality into an illusion?"
"What you're suggesting…" Xiaozhai frowned, deep in her thoughts. A long while later, she continued, "Theoretically, it's doable. Sort of like a transforming skill."
Transforming skills had had a long history in Taoist teachings. Cultivators of the Qin and the Han Dynasties believed that Taoist skills were the miraculous methods of all sorts of transformations. They had divided transforming skills into three primary categories: heavenly transformations, physical transformations, and divine transformations.
By the time of the Jin Dynasty, there was a vast system of transforming skills.
According to "Introduction of Inner Chapters of Baopuzi", those very able cultivators could made their countenance forever changing. Puckering up their nose, they became an old man; crouching down, they were small children. A wooden stick in their hands became a grove in an instant and whatever they sowed bore edible fruit right away. They drew a line on the ground and it turned into a river; they pinched up some soil and it grew into a mountain. They could freely enter and exit places without a single crevice...
In the time of the Five Dynasties, the cultivator Tan Qiao wrote in the "Book on Transformations" that the fundament of transformations lay in the vital essence. When the vital essence was abundant, "One could manipulate Yin and Yang, stir winds and clouds, raise mountains, and make rivers flood."
Gu Yu would not be confined by the established rules and wanted to think outside the box. He was going to combine Shadow-Switching Technique with his conjured illusions and create a transforming skill of his own. One should admire his courage, but be very cautious with the practice itself.
"As for now—scratch that—as for the foreseeable future, you're definitely not going to be able to do that. What you imagined is more powerful than wonders. It can practically create a world with a single thought." Xiaozhai dampened his enthusiasm, but offered a smile all the same. "But, you'll have my full support should you decide to do it."
"Don't worry, I'm not going to reach for things beyond my grasp. One step at a time. I'll start from the switching of myself." Gu Yu chuckled.
With those said, they put aside the Shadow-Switching Technique for the time being and Xiaozhai picked up the jade plate.
She inserted her mental force and kept her eyes closed for a very, very long time. When she spoke again, she heaved a sigh. "This 'Book on the State of Mind of Black Bead' is indeed profound. It'll take us a while."TL/N: one of the 24 points on the solar term that falls on early December in a Gregorian calendar. TL/N: roughly -22 to -4 in fahrenheit TL/N: 3-26 fahrenheit.