Dawn was breaking in a breeze.
A thin line of rosy morning glow appeared from the distant sky, shining on the white mountainhead before reaching the green valley. The black and white outside set against the bright colors in the valley; the contrast made them seem like two different worlds, yet all shades were pleasant to the eye.
Xiao Qiu had started off early, sitting under the old tree consuming the essence of early morning. Her little face looked all the more lively under the morning sunlight. White fog twirled around her and the river was enshrouded in a mist that was spreading out gradually, luring the fish in the water to leap out and chase it.
A good while later, when the sun had completely leapt out of the horizon, Long Qiu finished her exercise and rose to her feet. Looking up, she saw Xiaojin approaching from the direction of the training field.
Despite her indolence in her daily life, Xiaojin was incredibly diligent in her cultivation. She trotted happily near, snuggled up to Xiao Qiu, and asked, "Qiu Qiu, what are we having for breakfast?"
"Rice porridge, rice pancake, and pickled radish… Aiya, why are you clinging to me all the time?"
Long Qiu could not get rid of her and could only drag this human-sized pendant along.
"There are only the four of us here. Whom else can I cling to?" Xiaojin replied matter-of-factly, then added, "Thank God you're back. No one's cooking anything and I've been eating cucumbers for five days!"
"Haha, blame yourself! You should have learned to cook!" Long Qiu laughed at her.
The girl was utterly ignorant of the art of cooking. While Xiaozhai could, she would spend her entire day cultivating and leave the girl to her own device. Xiaojin's stomach was starting to digest itself and she had to feed herself on all sorts of fruit.
The two returned to the cottage. Long Qiu busied herself with cooking and breakfast was soon ready. She then ran to the meditation room and called out, "Brother, Sister, time for breakfast!"
No one answered.
"Brother? Sister?" she called again.
There was still no response.
"Why, they still haven't finished?"
Xiaojin found that strange as well. Rolling her eyes mischievously, she moved furtively to the door, put her face against the board, and listened.
"What are you doing?" Long Qiu's eyes were wide open.
"Come here! Come!" She waved at her eagerly.
"I, I'm not eavesdropping…"
That being said, Long Qiu's legs moved, showing her honest intention. The two strained their ears in silence for a while and she began to wonder, "Why isn't there any sound?"
"It shouldn't be like this. Have they managed to pump in silence already?" Xiaojin sounded puzzled.
"What nonsense are you talking about?" Long Qiu was instantly flushed.
The other girl moved closer and asked eagerly, "Why, you're too young for the adult talk? Speaking of which, have you slept with anyone before?"
"You… I'm not talking to you!"
Long Qiu glared at her and ran off in a bashful vexation.
"Wow, what year is it now? People actually are still capable of blushing that way…"
Xiaojin found that remarkable. Covering her face with both hands, she copied Long Qiu and left in with a feigned shyness.
Well, they knew little of what the two were doing inside.
Smoke coiled and curled in the air in the meditation room.
The third Essence-gathering Incense was burning on the table. The smoke lingered there like layers of rolling clouds, from which two thin streaks had separated, constantly making up for their consumption of spiritual essence. Gu Yu and Xiaozhai were still in the same nightgowns. They were probing the jade plate simultaneously with their mental force and combing through the information bits by bits.
The "Book on the State of Mind of Black Bead" was very loosely organized and barely had any structure. It was more like a compilation of journals and essays. Ancient cultivators followed different theories from today; one sentence or a single word could have a profound meaning behind.
Therefore, they could not afford to take it lightly. They weighed the words repeatedly, trying to figure out their meaning by filtering out the useless content and extracting as much valuable information as they could.
After quite some time, Gu Yu opened his eyes suddenly and said, "At the end of Chapter Six of the Travel Notes, a Small Confining Technique is mentioned."
"How does it look?" Xiaozhai also retrieved her mental force.
Gu Yu considered for a while and nodded. "It's useable."
He then closed his eyes again and Xiaozhai left him to it. It was about an hour later when he spoke again. "The practice is not difficult. It's a confining skill commonly used in the ancient times."
With that, he stood up and walked three meters out. The fingers of his left hand pinching in a commanding gesture, he stuck out his right hand with fingers spread and reached out.
Instantly, a peculiar fluctuation rippled out and expanded like a small fishnet, forming into an invisible curtain between the two.
Xiaozhai moved closer and touched it, her finger blocked by a transparent film. The film was woven by numerous thin lines of spiritual essence, which intertwined and formed a giant web.
"Any countermeasure?" she asked.
"There are two ways. Break it by sheer force, or wait for the spellcaster to remove it themselves." Gu Yu said.
Xiaozhai found the article he mentioned and studied it for a long time. "Its function is to confine a space and objects. In that case, can we..."
She waved her hand and wrapped the confinement around her, forming a narrow cube with sides no longer than a couple of meters. She opened her mouth as if she was talking while she eyed Gu Yu inquisitively.
Gu Yu shook his head, indicating that he could not hear her. Xiaozhai then lifted the confinement and chuckled. "Very handy."
They then continued.
They had lost count of time when Xiaozhai said, "The middle section of Chapter Twelve of "On Utensils", there is a Storage Technique." She was mildly excited. "Basically, it's a method of storing information in a jade slip. The media of storage can be anything, but jade was more commonly chosen back then. It doesn't have to be top-grade jade, normal ones would do. It has to be spiritual, that's all."
"Oh? This technique is making our life much easier." Gu Yu also looked into the article and chuckled. "We still have some green jade stone left. Let me fetch it."
With that, he ran happily out of the meditation room, dashed into the warehouse under the stares of Xiaojin and Xiao Qiu, and went back holding a small piece of stone.
"What is Brother doing?" Long Qiu was utterly baffled.
"Some new trick. You're too young for that." Xiaojin sneered.
Gu Yu could not be bothered to retort and went straight back inside with the stone. Xiaozhai produced her Green Leaf and cut the stone into five thin slips eight cm in length and two cm in width.
He picked one up, activated the spiritual essence inside with his mental force, and entered the Small Confining Technique and Storage Technique they found just then.
He tried another few times and found that he could enter and withdraw information without any difficulty, which pleased him greatly. "It is equivalent to an ancient-style U disk. Once the confinement is set, it's safer than our modern security technology."
"Exactly. Only those more powerful than us can break in by force, otherwise no one else could access it."
Xiaozhai put away the pen and paper as she spoke. They were there to record the skills, which would no longer be necessary from now on.
These two simple skills were very easy to carry out. They might not be powerful, but they were practical enough to be written down as fundamentals for cultivators.
They worked on like this and dusk soon set in. Xiao Qiu came a few times to call them to eat, but got no response. She realized by then that brother and sister were busying themselves with something important and disturbed them no more.
Time crept by as they lit one Essence-gathering Incense after another.
The two were completely immersed in the "Book on the State of Mind of Black Bead" like two explorers setting foot on a new continent for the first time. Every time they discovered a paragraph of valuable information or usable Taoist skills, they would be overwhelmed by an indescribable exhilaration and a sense of achievement.
They were so taken over by the excitement that they had forgotten about hunger or fatigue. For most of the time, both were silent. They only exchanged a word occasionally, some of those in agreement, others arguments. Then the silence resumed.
"At the beginning of Chapter Seven in Anecdotes, Yue Zhenzi mentioned a story about his Martial Grandfather." Gu Yu raised his head. "Celestial Master Ye had a pair of bronze seals, which were great treasures that could expel evil. The inscription was 'Founder of Nanyang' on one and 'Treasure of the Scripture Teacher' on the other. The first one seemed to have been long lost and the later enshrined at the ancestral temple of the Ye Clan in Songyang. Why, I think you've collected similar information before."
"I've checked plenty enough. The Ye Clan was growing smaller, but they have managed to preserve the seal for over a thousand years. But they somehow lost it shortly before the modern state was established." Xiaozhai paused and went on, "A Dali Bell is kept in Yanfu Temple in Taoxi Town. Legend had it that it was cast by Ye Fashan, but it was also said that the bell was not built until 58 years after he passed away. I went there just to check it out when I was messing with those monks. It was just an ordinary bell, nothing special."
"I see. These are all valuable information, though." Gu Yu considered it and said, "We should organize them into chronic order and compile a 'Cultivation Anecdotes' ourselves. It'll be a nice initiating reading material."
"I was thinking about the same thing." Xiaozhai chuckled.
After that, the two were silent again. The pondering and selecting went on.
The "Book on the State of Mind of Black Bead" was sifted through paragraph by paragraph and word by word. There were sections that they thought could be useful but were too profound for them at the moment, which they had to copy down separately into another jade slip so that they could study those later.
Three days passed and they finally stumbled upon something substantial.
"Void-arranging Technique. It allows one to be lifted off the ground and walk at great speed as if carried by wind," Gu Yu explained in plain terms.
"Lifted off the ground?" Xiaozhai frowned. "Do you mean the skill of shrinking the distance one walks?"
"The Thousand-li Stride?"
"A little bit like that. We'll only know how effective it is after we learn it." Gu Yu held up a jade slip and suggested, "I think we'd better categorize it as a transportation skill and record it separately."
Another two days passed and Xiaozhai made a discovery.
"Small Moving Technique. It can move physical objects from one place to another. It cannot be used on oneself and the object cannot be too big."
"Is it the Five Ghosts Moving Technique?" Gu Yu was intrigued.
"The Five Ghosts is a money-making skill. Five ghosts are summoned by talismans to help one with their luck in making money. That's a base method used by Lower Mao Mountain and one risks the backfire in form of retaliation by five ghosts. It's rather not worthy mentioning."
Xiaozhai glanced at him. "This one is a proper Taoist skill. Mark it down as a transportation skill as well."
"Ag- well, you're the boss."
All skills related to teleportation and exchange of things between different spaces were known as transportation skills in Taoism. Escaping Technique, for instance, included Five Element Escaping Skill, which helped one to escape up to thousands of kilometers away by using Five Elements.
There was also the Invisible Escaping Technique, which could make one invisible. Other examples would be Nine Halls Escaping Technique, Wall-crossing Technique, etc.
The Small Moving Technique might sound plain, but it was incredibly practical, which the couple realized right away. They thought very highly of this skill and even held it above the Void-arranging Technique.
Exactly fifteen days later.
With a creak, the wooden door was finally pulled open, revealing two gaunt faces. Gu Yu and Xiaozhai dragged their exhausted bodies out of the meditation room.
They had only had the minimal amount of food and water during this time while burning out their vital essence. Even with reinforcement of the Essence-consuming Incense, they were reaching their limit.
They were exhilarated nonetheless. Not only did they sort through the "Book on the State of Mind of Black Bead" and the two jade slips, they had also recorded all Taoist and ordinary skills Phoenix Mountain obtained so far.
Their thin layer of foundation was instantly elevated in terms of both their cultivation level and accumulation.
As Gu Yu said before: horses would never grow strong without the nighttime snacks.