Having successfully ridiculed the swindling priests, Xiaojin finally found this trip somewhat delightful. However, the delight only lasted for about ten minutes before turning into irritation.
Mountain-climbing was never among her favorite activities to begin with, not to mention all the cultural relics, which only aggravated the annoyance. Shangzhen Temple was filled with halls and towers, each looking not that much different from the next one. While Gu Yu and Xiaozhai were enjoying themselves touring among all the buildings, Xiaojin could not take it any longer.
As for now, she was mewling to her sister for the fifth time. "Sister, let's go. I'm starving! It's eleven o'clock already! Time for lunch!
I can see restaurants over there and I heard the whitebaits here are the best. There won't be any tables left if we don't hurry. Dear Sister…"
Xiaozhai remained unmoved by Xiaojin's bugging and pestering. Gu Yu, on the other hand, found her pitiable and tried to comfort her. "There's only one place left. After that we'll go have lunch."
"By the time you're done, I'd be either starved or bored to death… well?" Mumbling to herself, Xiaojin suddenly grabbed Gu Yu and hauled him some distance away. She whispered to him, "Brother, this won't do! You have to hurry up and rise above her. When you become the head of the household, she'll have to do anything you ask her to!"
"Come on, how am I supposed to achieve that?" Wrying his face, our fellow retorted with a string of questions. "Say I could 'handle her', how does that make me the head of the household? Even if I get the title, do you think she'll start listening to me? Of all people, you should know best what your sister's like."
"Bro, have some ambition, will you?" Xiaojin went on prompting him to do as she said. "Hear me out. From now on, I'm your ally. If there's anything you want to know, all you need to do is ask. I'll give away as much as I can!"
He tried to refuse, but could not resist the temptation and gave his tacit consent in the end.
"That's a deal! Here!"
Xiaojin lifted her hand and gave him a fist bump.
The little rogue had her own plans. Although she was attending university in Jiang Zhao, her family would like her to go back to Shengtian in the future and find a job there. Being in the same city with Xiaozhai meant endless oppression for Xiaojin, so naturally, she would need a helping hand.
Xiaozhai paid no attention to the pair muttering on the side.
The overall layout of Shangzhen Temple was fairly straightforward. The Three Mao Hall, the Tower of Pure Trinity, and the Hall of the God of Wealth formed the central axis as well as divided the temple into three areas, each scattered with some secondary buildings such as the Hall of the God of War, the Hall of the God of Literature, etc.
They had seen most of the scenic spots by now and were about to enter the last one through a double wooden door.
Just then, Xiao Qing, who had been hiding somewhere quietly all this time suddenly stuck its head out from behind Xiaozhai's shoulder and hissed with its two-pronged tongue. Xiaozhai was surprised and gave it a tickle under its chin. "What's wrong?"
Xiao Qing kept its gaze on the wooden door. An aura inside seemed to make it uncomfortable.
"You two, come back here!"
Seeing this, she beckoned at the two.
As those two fellows ran back towards Xiaozhai, Xiao Qing disappeared again with a swoosh. Without any explanation, Gu Yu realized something was amiss just by reading Xiaozhai's expression. He grinned at the young one, "Xiaojin, if you don't want to stay here, you can go to the restaurant first. Get some seats for us while you're at it."
"Yeah, we'll be down there in a minute," added Xiaozhai.
"Great. I'll take the order without you, then!"
Blinking, the girl found their behavior a bit odd, but did not ask further questions and trotted away on her own.
Once she was completely out of sight, the two walked past the threshold.
Behind the door was a black-brick-paved courtyard with a pristine look. In its southeast corner grew an old tree, under which was a stone table with chairs. A building stood at the center of the courtyard with a plaque hanging up across its front, which said "Hall of the Celestial Master". There were side halls on either wing and three houses at the back, presumably a living quarter.
They could see no one in the yard. It was a rather quiet and beautiful place.
They had just stepped into the main hall when a green flash materialized. It was Xiao Qing, who had lost its patience and came out from hiding. It wound itself around Xiaozhai's arm, acting extremely agitated.
"I think something has scared it?" Gu Yu asked in surprised.
"There must be something special in here," Xiaozhai frowned.
The two glanced around. The interior of the hall was rather simple and crude. The only implements here were stuff like worship table, altar, and ever-burning lamps. On the altar was a statue of Celestial Master Zhang; an incense burner was set in front of the statue, where blue smoke was curling upwards from three burning incense sticks.
Gu Yu turned around and pointed towards a direction suddenly. "Take a look at that."
Xiaozhai followed his fingers and saw a yellow talisman on the door frame. The rune drawn on it formed a simple pattern resembling a downward spiral. She moved one step closer towards it. As expected, Xiao Qing became more irritated, its two-pronged tongue quivering incessantly.
Gu Yu walked up to the door and put his hand on the talisman. A little while later, he said, "I can detect a special aura," pondering, he added, "it feels like a Taoist skill, but not exactly that. I think it's activated by some unusual method and can expel evil energy…"
"This is it! Shi Liangsheng has visited Longhu Mountain to study talisman skills. The disciple must be here!"
Xiaozhai was excited. She had anticipated a fruitless trip, but it turned out that there was light at the end of the tunnel. However, the green snake had reached its limit and was helplessly pleading to its master. Seeing this, Xiaozhai shook her arm. The green snake dashed away with a whizz.
Just as they were going to explore the place further, coughs came from behind the statue.
Immediately after that, a scrawny old priest with a wizened face strolled out, and was taken aback by the sight of the two. He then greeted them, "I'm afraid I have been a poor host. I was meditating in the quiet room. I hope you are not offended by the neglect."
"Senior Priest, please accept my salutation."
Xiaozhai greeted him with the Zi-Wu gesture again, saluting the priest. Gu Yu was not of Taoist descent, so he saluted with the hand-cupping gesture that could be used by both Taoist disciples and laymen.
The old priest was startled at first, then various expressions flashed across his face before he returned the greeting with a Zi-Wu gesture. "So, a young member of our community. Please come inside."
With that, he led them in. A small door behind the statue opened, leading directly to three houses. The three of them entered the guest room and each took a seat before the old priest asked, "May I inquire where does the young friend come from?"
"I come from Shengtian."
"May I know the young friend's surname?"
"My name is Jiang Xiaozhai."
"Can I have the pleasure to know who your master is and which sect the young friend belongs to?"
"Rules of my sect forbid me from revealing those names to the outside world. I do hope you can understand."
After answering those questions, it was her turn to ask. "Do I have the honor to know the senior's name?"
"I'm the twenty-first generation disciple of my sect. My layman name is Tan Chongdai."
"Senior Tan, Jiang Xiaozhai is here to pay respect."
By now, the genteel greeting ritual following the traditional etiquette was finally completed. Gu Yu watched all this with curious eyes. Back then, when he met old Priest Mo, the greetings were exchanged so slovenly that it felt very vulgar comparing to this.
After the introduction, Tan Chongdai served two cups of tea for them and said, "I made these from wild tea trees myself. It's nothing special, but it has a pure and fresh taste. Please try some."
Gu Yu took a sip. It was slightly bitter at first and the bitterness spread out once the tea slid down the throat, then an unusual aroma of tea started to surface.
"Great tea!" He commended.
"Great tea indeed," echoed Xiaozhai.
Tan Chongdai was very pleased with their praise and took a sip himself. He appeared to enjoy the tea a great deal. His wrinkles seemed to smooth out, taking away much of the sorrow on his face.
"To be honest with you, this remote and unknown corner of mine has few worshipers and it's been years since I had visitors. You are both very young, but I can see you are both accomplished cultivators. It's a great happiness for me to have you here."
"The senior's talisman skills are very profound. We should be the ones showing admiration," said Xiaozhai.
The old priest chuckled meaningfully.
It was obvious. Two junior cultivators showed up at his doorstep, who seemed the type one did not want to be trifled with. There must be something they wanted from him. Both sides had realized by now that the day might not end peacefully. However, neither was going to show their hand.
Having chatted discursively on all sorts of irrelevant things, Gu Yu suddenly asked, "Old Priest, we were coming in from the front just then and ran into several fake priests there. Who are those people?"
"Sigh…" Tan Chongdai sighed despite himself. "To tell you the truth, the Three Mal Hall, the Tower of Pure Trinity, the Halls of the God of Literature and God of Wealth have all been contracted out and those are hired men. The little bit of Taoist scriptures and literary quotations they know have allowed them to run their scam out there. It was thanks to my status as a disciple that I managed to keep this small courtyard after much struggle."
The two looked at each other in bewilderment. They had heard such rumors, but were still amazed to witness the real thing. Xiaozhai asked, "Do you mean that this hall is the only thing left of the legacy of Shangzhen Temple?"
The sorrowful look returned to Tan Chongdai's face. "The young friend is correct. Of the three-hundred-years worth of heritage, this hall and myself are the only living remains of Qionglong Mountain."