The capital city.
Inside an office, a high-ranking official was listening to the briefing of his subordinate. The man was wise, pensive-looking, and had a demeanor matching his position. It was none other than that old man with black-rimmed glasses who had been in charge of the Huo Zhou incident.
"Was it that crushing a defeat?"
"It was. All twenty special force police officers had been severely wounded. From the face-off, to opening fire, then to the ceasefire, they were only able to fire one single bullet. Moreover, we also found 27 bodies in a tree farm near Huang Village. The scene was, was…"
The subordinate felt words had failed him. He passed the photos to the old man, "Maybe you'd like to see it yourself."
The old man took over the pictures curiously. Even a man as experienced as him found them utterly disturbing: the pictures were either of scorched earth covered with charred objects or of gory scenes featuring severed body parts. There were also pictures of criss-crossing gashes on the ground, which were long, deep, and seemed to be chopped out by some savage cleaver.
The more intact bodies were blood-curdling. The shape, fur, and the limbs suggested they were beasts of some sort, but where the animal faces should be were unmistakable human ones!
They were men and women of all ages, everyone looking as painful and hideous as the next.
Smacking the photos onto the desk, the old man demanded furiously, "What on earth is this—the witchcraft of beastly creatures of the Shamanism in the Northeast?"
"We, we don't have much on them. Based on what we have collected so far, it probably involves raising a gigantic savage beast and a suitable human being, then fusing the souls of the two together via certain occult skill, creating a new, new life form…" The subordinate chose his words carefully as he went on, "This new creature is characterized by both the fierceness of animal and the intelligence of human being. But this is still a preliminary stage. From what we heard, the most advanced form would be, well... are you familiar with the term 'home-protecting fairies'?
The question took the old man by surprise, who, with a little hesitation, asked, "By 'home-protecting fairies', are you referring to those foxes, snakes, hedgehogs, and the like?"
"Yes! For thousands of years, it has been the tradition of numerous families of the Northeast to worship these beings. Legend has it that five types of spiritual beings could become immortal and take possession of the bodies of their disciples so that they could set up shrines and work their magical wonders. From the ample information we have collected and based on the characteristic of this beastly creature, we inferred that the ultimate form of this 'creation' is to be able to switch back and forth freely between the animal and human forms, as well as gaining great abilities, which would make them the home-protecting fairies in the legends."
The old man was secretly astonished: thousands of years of tradition, worshipment… tsk! The more he thought about, the more frightening he found the idea!
With much difficulty, he calmed himself down, then took another closer look at the photos, muttering, "The preliminary stage only and it's already that intimidating, but then… Sigh, we've made such a strategic mistake in our dealing with the two young friends!"
He heaved a sigh and let go of the subject for the time being. He then asked, "Have the five priests of the monastery gone back to Tianzhu Mountain?"
"Yes. They had also been injured, but not too severely."
"We have been training them for two years and their first venture turned out to be a fiasco. The opinions are very divided at the moment. Many think we should stop supplying for them. What do you think?"
"Well…" The subordinate was as much a trusted confidant as he was an adviser. He weighed his words before answering, "In my opinion, we should not reduce the resources we offer them, but ought to put in more effort than before. The confrontation this time has enabled us to understand their individual combat capability in a more intuitive way. With the changes in the environment growing more violent, we will only become more dependent on them. Something must have gone awry to result in such a great discrepancy between the strengths of the monastery and Phoenix Mountain. I think we should investigate into that first and find the adequate solution. The monastery is not beyond saving."
"I agree with you. I was thinking about something along those lines. We're about to send someone there to coordinate. Hopefully they will be able to find something out for us."
The old man rubbed his temples, which were already throbbing from thinking about the coming meeting he'd attend in a minute. With the size of the government, there were as many provident men as the improvident ones. Arguing with them was simply self-abuse.
"Sir, how do you think the bosses will deal with the Shamanism matter?" the subordinate asked tentatively after a pause.
"It is not easy to extend the power of the central government to a strong local one. Leadership is often rendered ineffectual by recalcitrant subordinates! Moreover, they are hidden in the dark and we are out in the open, so all we can do is remove them one piece at a time; otherwise, they might lash out in desperation and cause instability." It was also a matter that worried the old man greatly. "Well, we have made out preliminary plan. You may leave now."
Bai Town, Phoenix Mountain.
Gu Yu, Xiaozhai and Long Qiu stood shoulder to shoulder under the old tree, a large wooden box between Long Qiu's arms. She looked at her brother, got a nod, then opened it.
Instantly, a powerful spiritual essence of life emanated from it and out came a gigantic ginseng that was handsome, graceful, and with leaves and seeds and all. It sounded ridiculous to describe a ginseng as being "handsome" and "graceful", but that was exactly what it was.
The "king of ginseng" among the country's collection of treasures weighed a little under half a kilo, had two tiny "legs" of roots, and was called an "unequalled" wonder. This spiritual ginseng, however, looked almost the size and shape of a real baby. All four limbs were distinguishable and had it not been for the absence of facial features, it would be no different from a human child. With the thin fog curling around it, the ginseng looked all the more otherworldly.
"Jin Jin is hurt and we need a little of your essence. Not much, a few drops will do."
She communicated with it through her mind and made the words as simple as possible so that the message could get through. The spiritual ginseng still could not quite understand the words, but had instinctively sensed the danger. Naturally, it refused.
Long Qiu cajoled and coaxed. Finally, it nodded, though with much reluctance.
Gu Yu then went up to it and sliced his finger lightly across one of the minor roots. A thick, milky juice gurgled out, giving off an exceptional fragrance.
The two "guardian divine animals" grew excited right away. 'Aaaaah! I want to eat it! Let me eat it! It looks so yummy!' Then Xiaozhai waved her hands, sending them into the air.
Gu Yu dared not take this lightly. With a gourd in his left hand, he activated his energy, which twirled and scooped up a little bit of the juice. He then sliced his finger across the root again, sealing the wound.
"I'll be with her!"
Xiaozhai took the gourd, sprinted, leapt over the river, and headed directly for the Cottage of Pure Mind.
Over here under the old tree, the spiritual ginseng shook its leaves repeatedly, its every cell imbued with chagrin and grievance. Long Qiu offered all the comfort she could express while Gu Yu walked around the old tree, found a suitable spot, and activated his Small Moving Technique.
The box was suddenly empty and the spiritual ginseng was planted into the soil, its three branches of leaves and a lump of red seeds all where they should be.
The moment it was planted, the energy in the air surrounding it was stirred. The spiritual ginseng was elated by this dense spiritual essence it had never tasted before. At the same time, it reciprocated by giving off an even strong spiritual essence of life, which immediately combined with the node.
"Rustle! Rustle! Rustle!"
The old tree felt it as well. It shook its leaves violently as if trying to familiarize itself with the ginseng.
The two types of energy were of the same origin and both of the properties of Wood and life. Now that they had fused into each other, a lively green lump of air was formed, floating indistinctly in midair.
It was after quite some time when that lump of air exploded with a loud bang. The green spiritual essence splashed everywhere, disappearing into the mountain. Rumble! There was a shudder and the aura of the entire mountain changed; it felt more awe-inspiring and the earthly energy more solid and steadier.
In the jargon of the "cultivation-from-scratch" novels, it was called "fate is turning to your side"! It was still too early to observe the change now. Given time, when the spiritual ginseng fully matured, this land would have a qualitative leap in its level.
"Oh? That was an icing on the cake. They complement each other."
Gu Yu was also pleasantly surprised, yet could not help but let his imagination expand a little.
It was common knowledge that there were ten major Heavenly Vaults, thirty-six minor Heavenly Vaults, and seventy-two Blessed Places in Taoist records.
According to "Life of Perfected Man Ziyang", "The sky is not defined by emptiness, the mountains not by caves, and men not by houses. A hollow in a mountain is known as an empty palace; the hollow in a man's head is known as Dong Fang 1 . Hence, the perfected man take residence in the sky, in mountains, and in men. In the place of complete emptiness, one could fit Penglai Mountain, or even the universe into a single grain of millet."
The so-called Heavenly Vaults and Blessed Places reflected the Taoist view of universe, which believed heaven, earth, and everything in this world—even humans—were derived from a single kind of Qi, and so were these realms of the immortals. They were interlinked, and together formed a three-dimensional interwoven network. Because of the difference in their energy, they were ranked as "major", "minor", and alike.
They were connected to the mortal world, but also were secret and secluded.
Wangwu Mountain, for instance, which the couple had visited before, was one of the then-major Heavenly Vaults. Needless to say, no such thing could be found there now.
Gu Yu was lost in his imagination for a while after seeing the change the spiritual ginseng brought. He was then himself again, laughing inside at his own foolishness. He asked, "Xiao Qiu, ask the ginseng, can it put up the labyrinth now?"
Long Qiu communicated with it again, then replied helplessly, "It says it wants the liquor."
Gu Yu broke into laughter. He then took out a big gourd, poured out a third of the content, and put it down by the leaves. "I think you'll be able to draw the liquor out yourself, right? We'll keep it coming."
The red seeds swayed around again.
Meanwhile, in the cottage.
Xiaojin slouched on the bed, looking like a perfectly healthy girl. At a closer look, however, one would notice a faint dark purple seeping through her fair skin. She also looked a little weak.
Seeing her sister coming in, she yelled, "Sis, I'm bored stiff lying here. When will I get better?"
"Soon. Here, drink this." Xiaozhai passed her the gourd.
"What is this?"
She downed the content into her mouth right away, which she thought should be a lot but turned out to be a few drops of thick juice only. Shaking the gourd, she smacked her lips. "Why, was that frozen yogurt? Can I have some more?"
"Start your meditation! Clear your mind!"
The girl stopped bullsh*tting right away. She sat up straight and began to practice the Mind-clearing Technique, soon entering the state of looking into her own mind.
The vital essence of the spiritual ginseng was extremely potent. Before long, she felt a warm current shoving and humping inside her body. Her meridians bulged and her Dantian was boiling. She thought she was going to explode.
A moan escaped her throat. She almost could not bear it any longer when a streak of coolness made its way in, guiding the warm current patiently. Gradually, it became comfortable again.
Fine sweat covered Xiaozhai's forehead as she guided the essence around Xiaojin's orifices, nourishing the latter's body little by little.
It was quite a while before Xiaozhai sighed with relief and withdrew her palm. "Call it a blessing in disguise. Your strength has improved a little from this."
Xiaojin was revived with full HP. She never felt so alive and began to swagger right away. "This stuff is awesome! Let's have it three times a day and we'll all be Human Immortals next month!"
"Humph!" Xiaozhai sneered coldly. "Since you're all fine now, it's time we set a few things straight. You knew perfectly of your limits and it was under very suspicious circumstances, so why did you get off alone? Do you know how much trouble you've caused us?"
The girl's face ashened right away. She dived back onto the bed and wailed like a sick cat. "No, no, I'm not all right! Oh my god, my kidneys feel funny! My body feels weak! I'm totally not all right… wait, there's no need to go physical. Help! The poison is still in me. I'm contagious…"
Gu Yu and Long Qiu were already outside the door, but decided not to go in just yet. They said a silent prayer for poor Little Soap.
As mentioned before, the so-called Mada Mountain could be considered two overlapping spaces.
One was the real world and the other the labyrinth. Once stepping into this field, one would automatically enter the labyrinth, walking in a circle over and over again without ever finding the exit. What was more, the labyrinth could also block communication signals.
It was actually pretty easy to remove. As long as one was more capable in Taoist skills than the spiritual ginseng, they could break the labyrinth by force from either inside or outside.
The ginseng had not fully grown and could not cover the entire Phoenix Mountain. The labyrinth would therefore only be set in certain areas. Gu Yu and Xiaozhai had a discussion and decided to put it at the two entrances: one at the iron fence, the other at the unmarked track on the northern slope.
The former would operate around the clock. The latter entrance was frequently used, therefore would only be switched on when enemies were detected. That was the where the value of the spiritual ginseng lay: it was their panoramic radar/mountain-guarding formation/life-saving medicine.
The four checked the areas and were very satisfied with the effect of the labyrinth. They then gathered the staff.
They had planned to stay in Songjiang River for a couple of days only, looked around, and came back here. However, they ended up entangled in a lot of things and were delayed. Chinese New Year's Eve was the day after tomorrow and a lot of people were waiting for their words.
Cottage of Pure Mind, the courtyard.
Over a dozen men were divided into three groups—the liquor workshop, the tea workshop, and the orchard. Li Dong was an extra, stuck with the liquor workshop lot. Zhang Qianqiu was working in the manor now, which was still being taken care of by Yuan, Zeng, and Lei Families, who would withdraw after the Shui Family moved here. From then on, Shui Yao would take over the responsibility.
"The day after tomorrow is New Year's Eve. Anybody that wants to go home is free to do so. Just come back on the sixth 2 . Those that do not want to go back are welcome to stay," Gu Yu went straight to the point.
The crowd exchanged looks; no one found the speech unexpected. The two bosses had always been kind—well, that they knew of!
Gao Mingde spoke first. "My son is bringing his girlfriend back, I have to go back. I won't be away that long. I'll be back on the fourth."
"Sure, no problem." Gu Yu nodded.
"I, I need to go back home as well. I'll probably stay until the fifth." Guo Fei raised his hand.
After that, Li Dong and Zhang Qianqiu also informed them that they would go and so did the fruit growers. Some of the tea planters were from the south and did not have enough time to go back, so they simply stayed behind.
"You've all been working very hard for most of the past year. I'd like to express our gratitude. Those who stay behind, we will make an exception for the next few days: you can buy your own meat and fish. And, everyone will get their share of rice, liquor, tea, and fruit. But please remember, you cannot take any of those back home."
That was unexpected! The crowd said their thanks happily.
After they left, Gu Yu asked, "So, what's you two's plan?"
"I have to remind my parents of something and Jin Jin is going back with me," said Xiaozhai.
Xiaojin puckered up her face. She was estranged from her parents and that home meant nothing to her. She hadn't been intending to go back at all, but it was Her Majesty's decree, so she had to obey.
She darted around and her eyes caught Long Qiu, to whom she said casually, "Why, Qiu Qiu, you've been here forever. Don't you want to go visit your village?"
Long Qiu was a little lost. The person closest to her back in the Miao Village was her master, and after that, her younger sister Long Tang, whom she would miss every now and then. As for the rest of her clansmen, she'd rather think they did not exist.
"I'll go some other day. I want to see my little sister." Scratching her head, she did not quite know what to do.
"Oh my! You have a little sister and so does she. I'm the only one without! You're mocking me!"
Xiaojin heckled on purpose, but got ignored.
Gu Yu said, "In that case, Xiao Qiu, you're coming back with me to Phoenix Fair. I've been away for so long; it's time that I show up again."TL/N: meaning "the innermost room", the name of an acupoint on the head, but the meaning of the word more commonly known is "nuptial chamber". TL/N: the sixth of the first month in the lunar calendar