White Crane Hollick.
The four innate state priests, He He, Lin Junlong, Zhang Shouyang, and some others gathered at the top of the mound, their eyes all fixed on the ancient well. Lu Yuanqing kept a solemn look on his face—being the one with the highest cultivation level, he sensed it the most acutely.
Spilling out of the well was unmistakably a dense and pure Yin energy, which would even materialize every now and then, rising up in thin streaks of black smoke—exactly what He He saw earlier.
"Priest Li, you have been living here for over a week, hasn't anything struck you as unusual?" asked Sikong Chan all of a suddenly, implicitly accusing Li Suchun of holding back information.
Li Suchun would have none of that and retorted right away, "I was refining my corpse in the shed the entire time. Why on earth would I climb all the way up here?"
"Your iron corpse feeds on Yin energy, which is so dense in this well. Even if you sensed nothing, I don't believe that the corpse would not react to it." Sikong Chan would not let the subject drop.
"You must be so capable with your innate state and all, but even you could not sense something like this a mere 10 km away, what do you expect my mute zombie could do?" Youngster Li was not only a "tsundere", but also an expert in tongue-lashing, only that he did not get much use of it for the past few years with his isolated lifestyle.
"That's enough!" Lu Yuanqing interrupted. "The well probably did not act out until the past few days and it is perfectly normal for Priest Li not to notice it. Our top priority now is to go down there and examine it."
"The mound is said to be the site of White Crane Palace. There are no supporting records to confirm that this ancient well is the White Crane Spring, but the age is right. It was built during the reign of Emperor Wu of Liang. With what is going on, I think we can reach a conclusion now," said Shi Yunlai.
"Priest White Crane would never have chosen a place where Yin energy converged to build his temple. I think this change is new—brought by the recovery of the spiritual essence. I'm afraid there might be evil objects down there," said Zhang Shouyang.
"Abbot, shall I notify the base?" asked Old Priest Mo.
"Not yet. They wouldn't be able to go in even if they were here."
Lu Yuanqing had obviously made his own plans. He took in the surroundings and said, "He He, you will be rewarded for this valuable discovery, but it is too dangerous for you to stay here, so I'd like you to return to the mountain now."
"Yes!" replied He He.
"Senior Brother Sikong, Senior Brother Zhang, Priest Li, if you would please wait up here. Senior Brother Shi, do you mind coming down with me?" said Lu Yuanqing.
"That was what I thought." Shi Yunlai smiled.
Of the four innate state priests, Sikong Chan and Zhang Wumeng were newly promoted and their temperaments had yet to reach a reliable state. Shi Yunlai was not only a remarkable cultivator, but was also calm and prudent, rendering him ideal for secret expedition like this.
Momentarily, most of the team stayed up on the mound, while those two made some preparation and grabbed their refined instruments. Lu Yuanqing led the charge. "I'll go first!"
With that, he flipped his whisk and jumped into the well.
The other men watched, waiting for that plop of him hitting the water. However, not a sound came out, despite the fact that an adult man had jumped in.
The light inky water was like a gaping mouth swallowing him whole.
Down in the well, Lu Yuanqing did not feel the wetness of the water, either. Instead, he was impeded by a strange layer of air. Activating his spiritual essence right away and wrapping it around himself, he broke through the barrier and fell right down.
Instantly, he felt the pull of the gravity and all light was gone. He was now surrounded by a pitch-black darkness. Fortunately, he was able to see in the dark and could make out a solid ground below. He immediately slowed down the falling speed with his inner energy and landed lightly on the bottom.
Looking around, Lu Yuanqing saw a concealed space. The wall and the ground were built with some unknown substance, which had a smooth and firm texture. Up ahead, he could faintly make out a passageway. The visibility was no more than five meters and beyond that, all was covered by the darkness.
Looking up, the view was even more remarkable. Water rippled above his head, reflecting the faint sunlight, as if someone had really just jumped into the well, disturbing the still water.
"That priest indeed had divine skills. All this miraculous scene probably took him no more than a wave of the hand."
Lu Yuanqing sighed with emotions. He was about to call out to those above when the water was disturbed again and a man jumped down. It was none other than Shi Yunlai himself. Seeing that Lu Yuanqing was all right, he was relieved. "Have you found anything?"
"This place was probably built by Priest White Crane, who then concealed it with some secret skill, and it did not reappear until this day."
With his whisk in one hand, Lu Yuanqing switched on a flashlight in his other hand. However, the light only reached a couple of meters before it was devoured by the darkness. He shook his head and put away the flashlight. "The Yin energy is extremely dense here. Be careful!"
With that, the two activated their spiritual essence to fend off the Yin energy while sending out their mental force to explore the space ahead. Slowly, they proceeded forward.
It was quite a sizable place. The passageway was very long and their field of vision was too small. They walked a long while and still did not finish passing.
Shi Yunlai held a sword in his right hand and kept his left hand pressing lightly against the pouch at his waist, where a couple of yellow talismans were kept. He made a remark in passing, "I wonder what became of that priest? With his ability to turn the paintings alive, it would be such a pity that he did not become immortal."
"Countless masters before us had trodden that path and in the end, it might all come to fate itself, rather than— watch out!"
Lu Yuanqing shouted abruptly, for he saw with his mental force that two lumps of dark shadows were lancing at them at a tremendous speed. In half a heartbeat, the shadows appeared into sight and he could vividly sense a strange cold Yin energy, which seemed to be trying to take possession of their bodies.
"How dare you!"
Flipping his wide sleeve, he produced a powerful streak of air. The shadow was apparently rather weak, for it dissipated instantly with the strike, leaving behind a shrilling wail.
"What was that unnatural thing?"
Shi Yunlai took out the other one and wondered, "It was formed by the purest Yin energy with little intelligence and was shapeless…" His words hung in mid-air before he asked with surprise, "Could it be a ghostly being?"
"Very likely. Nothing would surprise me now."
Lu Yuanqing remained expressionless and only kept walking.
The two kept pushing forward and were met with even more of those strange beings, which were showing up more and more frequently. They had little combat ability but would not stop bothering them, which was to their great annoyance. It took them forever to finally clear their path.
Finally, Lu Yuanqing stopped at a pitch-black gate made by yet another unknown material. The marks left by the past thousand years were evident.
The two exchanged a look, then each held one side and pushed with all their effort. "Open!"
With a heavy noise reminding one of muffled thunder, the great gate slowly opened. Just then, however, a lump of dark shadow several times denser than the previous ones whooshed out and pounced towards the right side.
Taken by surprise, Shi Yunlai was instantly wrapped inside it. His body then turned rigid and his energy went into a rampage.
Lu Yuanqing hurriedly pressed his palm against Shi's back and activated all his spiritual essence, then with a forceful push, he shouted, "Leave him!"
Shi Yunlai had not fully lost consciousness, and with them working together, the dark shadow was not their match. It was pushed out of Shi Yunlai and whooshed back into mid-air, emanating a malicious aura.
Lu Yuanqing was combat-ready. He shook a talisman into life right away. Clouds and mist erupted and there was a blazing golden light, from which leapt out a two-meter golden armored divine warrior holding a pair of maces, which it hammered down at the shadow.
It was none other than the Golden-armored Divine Warrior Talisman that Zhang Shouyang had used before.
The shadow had no combat skill whatsoever and was barely intelligent, causing it to take the below head on. It dissipated at the impact of the golden maces, but soon gathered back into one lump again.
The strike seemed to have hurt it in some way, for it made itself turn around and lunged at the divine warrior.
Meanwhile, Shi Yunlai came to himself and released a talisman himself. Purple arcs of lightning flickered, hacking ferociously at the shadow—it was the Flying Thunder Spell that Zhong Lingyu used once.
Nowadays in the monastery, men of Zhengyi were learning Quanzhen's Neidan, while those of Quanzhen were learning Zhengyi's talisman. There were hundreds of types of talismans, but most of them were of a low grade, whose effectiveness was very limited when facing the real masters (aka the "Two Saints of Phoenix Mountain").
Despite its ferocious appearance, the thing did not have a matching capability. It was soon losing its ground.
Lightning frightened it tremendously and it was keeping distance all the time. Realizing its soft spot, Shi Yunlai found plenty of room to maneuver, creating ample opportunity for Lu Yuanqing to attack.
They exchanged a few more rounds of blows and Lu Yuanqing found the opening. He swept down with his whisk. Bang!
The shadow exploded and left nothing behind.
"Phew… fortunately it was not fully developed, or we wouldn't have been able to subdue it."
With his energy almost exhausted, Shi Yunlai was already panting and the color on his face was rather washed out by now.
Lu Yuanqing searched the room with his eyes and his face suddenly lit up. The place the shadow used to occupy turned out to be an inner chamber with a couch and a low table, on which lay scattered a few things.
He was about to move closer and examine them when the breathing sound beside him grew heavier. Turning around, he saw Shi Yunlai was drained of all color, apparently no longer able to fend off the encroaching Yin energy.
"Hold on! We're leaving now!"
Resolute in action, Lu Yuanqing waved his whisk, dragging the objects to his side, then retreated supporting Shi Yunlai on his shoulder.
They ran all the way until they were beneath the well, by which time Lu Yuanqing was short of breath himself. He squeezed out the last of his energy and jumped up. Supported by the well wall, he moved their way upwards one section at a time.
Up on the ground, Wang Ruoxu shouted. Then two figures shot out of the well and stumbled a long way before they finally managed to stopped still with much difficulty.
The others went up to them in a hurry and asked after them, "How was it? Did you get hurt?"
"Don't worry. It was a threatening situation, but not dangerous."
After his breath was adjusted, Lu Yuanqing said solemnly, "Senior Brother Sikong, Senior Brother Zhang, I'm afraid you'll have to guard the well for a while longer. I have to go back to the mountain now. All will be explained later!"
At the ninth toll of the bell, all thirty-six members of Qiyun gathered in the inner court. Unlike the guest hall, the inner court was smaller and more private.
Lu Yuanqing was on the host seat. After everyone else had sat down, he met the eyes of the others, some of which were doubtful and others expectant, and smiled. "I went on an expedition with Senior Brother Shi down a well seven days ago. I am sure you have all been wondering what exactly was under that well. I have been trying to figure things out the past few days and would like to share the information with you all today.
That well was indeed the White Crane Spring. White Crane Priest had built a three-story underground palace in his days for cultivation and refining medicine. A great spell was then conjured to cover the palace up, so that to anyone else, it was nothing but a deep well.
Maybe the long years have rendered the spell ineffective, or maybe it was disturbed by the fluctuation of the spiritual essence; the secret chamber has reemerged. Unfortunately, the recovery of the spiritual essence has changed the energy of the mountain, turning it into a place where Yin energy converges, giving birth to a lot of ghostly beings."
"Abbot!" Zhang Shouyang was astonished and asked hastily, "Are you sure they're ghosts?"
"No, they were not bound by physical bodies and were pure gestations of Yin energy. Moreover, they lacked the adequate intelligence, so I would not call them ghosts. But if things proceed like this, with the appearance of ghostly beings, it won't be long before the discovery of ghosts…" Lu Yuanqing explained, then concluded, "All in all, the underground palace was taken up by Yin energy and with the long-term corruption, those things are bound to reappear. We have to be alerted all the time in case they break out of the well and disturb the mountain. Senior Brother Shi, I will leave it to you. Please make arrangements of shifts so that it is guarded around the clock."
"Yes!" replied Shi Yunlai.
"As I mentioned just then, there were three floors below the well and we haven't even finished exploring the first one. We will continue with it some time later. I would even go so far as to propose that if we could find out a pattern and make a plan to raise those ghostly beings, we can make it into an experiment and training facility of the monastery."
The claim shocked the room. That was audacious to extreme!
"Abbot, with due respect, the monastery is still in the early stage of development and the capabilities of all senior and junior brothers are very diverse. Facing those beings might cost their lives," cautioned Old Priest Mo.
"Haha, don't worry!" Lu Yuanqing smiled even wider as he suddenly took out a few objects and laid them out in a row. "I took these from the secret chamber. Recorded in them are some of the cultivation achievements of White Crane Priest."
All faces in the room lit up. Looking to either side, Lu Yuanqing then announced loudly, "We now have the beast-controlling method, which allows us to raise and tame spiritual beasts. The priest received his title for riding a crane, which was a demonstration of this method!
We now have the technique of talisman water, which melts refined talisman into water and which in turn dispels plagues, stops calamities, and benefits mankind!
We now have the method of refining with mental power, which allows us to refine mighty instruments that connect with our minds. The resulting power is unmatchable!
We now have the method of refining Soul-calming Mirror, which could stabilize the mind and soul of living creatures!"
With each description, the eyes of the others lit up a little more. By the end, the entire inner court was taken over by a strange atmosphere that was both extremely suppressive and utterly exciting at the same time.
Heat seemed to be flowing in the air, warming everyone from inside out.
The Taoist community had been waning for centuries and when the great fortune was finally upon them, they were suppressed by those above and trampled on like stray dogs.
Who would be willing to live such a life?
As much as they believed that Taoism would rise again sooner or later, they still thought it to be a distant thing. But today, right here and right now, they finally saw a glimpse of that hope.
"Atchoo! Atchoo… hm?"
Up on Phoenix Mountain, Gu Yu rubbed his nose and wondered, "I am almost an immortal and a cold has got to me? Or is someone missing me?"
Shaking his head, he walked out of the meditation room with a blue talisman between his fingers, which he waved at Xiaozhai in the courtyard. "It's done. Let's try this Flying Message Talisman!"