If there was anything that Gu Yu could never bring himself to deny, it would be this: Xiaozhai was a veteran.
Exactly how "veteran" was she? Well, pick any subject and she would know about it, while you might not be able to follow every topic she raised and would have to feel abashed for your lack of creativity.
That was what Gu Yu felt now—abashed, to such an extent that he rarely spoke during the train ride and was reflecting on himself in silence the entire time.
The train rumbled on for over three hours before entering Qian Zhou territory. The city was located in a mountainous region and not highly urbanized. Looking into the distance, all they could see were small villages and towns inserted in the foldings of the mountains, reminding them of jigsaw pieces.
Another ten minutes and the train pulled into the station.
The two did not waste any time wandering around, but rented a car and headed directly for Tianmen [TL/N: meaning "the gate of heavenly palace"] Town, which was right at the foot of Tianzhu Mountain. Tianmen Town had a long history and numerous historical buildings could be found in the town. Tens of thousands of people relied on the mountain to make their living.
They had booked their rooms with a B&B, whose houses were adorned with corbel steps and small gray tiles. It was a typical three-section compound and was arranged symmetrically along the central axis with three aligning rooms across the width. A hall was in the middle, on either side of which were rooms.
In front of the hall was a courtyard, which provided natural light and ventilated the rooms. Together with the surrounding high walls, there was a self-satisfactory beauty about this space.
The B&B belonged to a family of five—the grandparents, the parents, and a teenage daughter. The wife was in charge of the household. She was a dumpy and jolly character whose laughter resounded in the rooms.
"Welcome, welcome! We knew you were coming and have made the room ready for you."
She led them to a standard double room. The bedding was newly changed and the bathroom was sparkly clean. Gu Yu was about to nod his approval when something dawned on him. "Sister, didn't I book two single rooms?"
"Well, unfortunately, the one you booked was occupied until this morning. I don't know what they did in there, but when they checked out, I found out that they had crushed my bed. One of the legs was broken and I did not have time to fix it! It's still slanting to one side," explained the landlady.
"Do you have other rooms?" He asked.
"We only have two singles and this one is the only double room left. Do you want to take a look at the suite? It has separate rooms."
Gu Yu was going to pose another question when Xiaozhai interjected, "That's fine. We'll take this one."
"Great, please come over here to check in."
The landlady grinned widely. "Don't worry. I'll refund you the extra amount. It's our fault. I'll sent you a fruit bowl later, on the house."
Since Xiaozhai had expressed her approval, he didn't argue anymore. After checking in, they returned to their room and had a brief rest.
They then sat by the table and studied the mountain route they were going to climb the following day. Both behaved normally without any of the "blush and palpitation" cliche. That was just how things went sometimes. If one started to get self-conscious, then everyone would find it awkward. No one would give it another thought if all assumed a relaxed attitude.
Tianzhu Mountain consisted of two parts, namely the West Pass, and the East Pass. The west side had beautiful sceneries, while the east side was more perilous to climb. Normally, tour groups would only take their tourists to the West Pass. The East Pass was a hikers-only region.
"Let's enter from the west entrance. We'll go through Snow in June, Stockaded Village of South Pass, Paradise Valley, Green Dragon Pavilion… and finally make camp at Alchemy Lake. It's close to Tianzhu Mountain Villa and we can stock up our food there."
Gu Yu gestured with a pen over the map and continued, "The day after tomorrow, we'll set out from Alchemy Lake early in the morning. We'll pass Green Dragon Pond, Flying Dragon Peak, Immortal-greeting Peak, Thrush Ridge, Echo Terrace… and finally get to High Ladder of Wonder Valley. It'll be a perilous journey. Apart from the trekkers, hardly any tourists ever walk the route."
"Based on what we learned from Phoenix Mountain, the node of spiritual essence should be somewhere deep on the mountain. Tianzhu covers an area of over five hundred square kilometers, so be prepared for a long camping trip. Alchemy Lake will be an important base for us. We'll estimate the distance from it and return to the lake in time for provision."
Xiaozhai also took up a pen and made a few swipes over the map. She then added, "By the way, what do you sense here?"
"The spiritual essence is very dense here, slightly more so than on Phoenix Mountain. I think we've guessed it correctly," replied Gu Yu.
"Good. Hopefully we won't leave here empty-handed."
They had passed over thirty train stations so far and had been recording the density of the spiritual essence for every one of them. The criteria was pretty straightforward: 0 denoted non-detectable; 1 was the minimum level possible to support cultivation; 2 meant satisfactory; 3 meant good; 4 equaled excellent; 5 made it a node.
For instance, Shengtian scored 0, Wudao River a 1, Bai Town a 2, and the old tree in the valley a 5. All thirty-or-so places they recorded had zeros and ones, but not Tianmen Town, which scored as high as 3!
This indicated that if there was indeed a node on the mountain, it must have surpassed that of Phoenix Mountain.
Night, Tianmen Town.
It was a small town with an advanced service industry. There was even a side street cramped with raunchy pink facade shops, from which "physical therapists" dressed in all styles were ready to offer their bubbly personality and genuine affection. [TL/N: in case anyone does not see what the author was hinting at, the "service quarter" was referring to a red light district.]
Gu Yu and Xiaozhai went out for dinner and walked about the town in passing. They had only just got back. Placing a large black bag on the table, they started to take things out of it one by one.
Taken out first was a thick stack of talisman paper, then came out an inkstone, an ink stick and two writing brushes.
Apparently, having nothing better to do, they decided they would try to learn drawing talismans. The bag of bits and bobs was bought in the town. Cinnabar was what they actually needed, but they had a hard time finding the pure one and had to use ink instead for the time being.
According to Tan Chongdai, the talisman and the incantation were an organic whole. One could not use a talisman without the incantation, and vice versa. Talismans were divided into five grades, namely golden, silver, purple, blue, and yellow, with golden talismans being the most powerful.
They could also be categorized into seven types based on the application methods. Some examples were carrying-on talismans (portable ones), digested talismans (to be burnt, put into water and drunk), sticking-on talismans (to be attached to one's body and used indoor), decocted talisman (to be cooked with medicine), buried talisman (to be buried underground), etc.
The School of Zhengyi used to have thousands of talisman types, but not anymore. Take the inheritance of Qionglong as an example, the only five types left were the Golden Armor, Bone-melting, Snake-expelling, Miscarriage-preventing, Bedwetting Cure talismans.
The original Golden Armor Talisman was to be activated by spiritual essence and no blade could physically harm the wearer. The existing one was the degraded version, whereby one would activate it with essence and blood, significantly reducing its effectiveness.
What the Bone-melting Talisman did was self-explanatory. It turned bones into liquid.
Snake-expelling Talismans were to be stuck to the doorhead and the house would be free of snakes or mice. Such a talisman was the reason Xiao Qing got agitated the other day.
As for the last two types—don't laugh—they were real talismans as well.
Curing diseases, saving lives, giving blessings to one's luck in wealth and domestic safety, and making sure one's love life went smoothly… those services had always been Zhengyi's core business. Hundreds of talismans were invented for curing diseases alone, covering discomfort from abdominal pain, eye pain, and dog bite to chills, fever, etc.
They spread the the talisman paper on the table, rubbed the ink stick on the inkstone until the ink reached certain consistency, and started the incantation.
"This water is no ordinary water. One drop onto the inkstone, and clouds and rain are to follow in an instant. Patients will be cured of all their diseases once drinking this water. The evil spirit will be annihilated. Obey at once!"
It was called the Incantation of Water-cleansing, followed by the Paper-cleansing and Brush-cleansing ones.
Only after finishing the three incantations did they pick up the writing brushes and start drawing the talisman, which was a tedious procedure. Starting from the top, the talisman could be generally divided into four parts: the heading, the edict, the gut, and the ending.
They first drew three patterns at the top, which looked like three ticks. It was called the Triple Purity Heading, the most commonly used one.
Below that, they wrote down two ancient characters, which meant "the edict".
After that came the most important part, namely the gut of the talisman. The function of the talisman, be it curing diseases, home-guarding, deity-inviting, or asking for rain, would depend on what they wrote in the gut. They were making Golden Armor talismans, therefore they wrote down a forbidden character: Gang. [ED/N: Gang = 罡 and it refers to a part of the Big Dipper and a god who's supposedly living there]
The so-called forbidden characters were a written language invented by the Taoist community for their internal use. They were obscure, complicated, and were used to refer to various Immortals.
The ending came last on the bottom of the paper, whose odd pattern reminded one of a cardiogram.
Above generalized the composition of a talisman. It had to be drawn at one stretch and no stopping was allowed. Both of them were bright and knew their Taoist concepts well. They had no difficulty in keeping their minds focused, but were not quite used to the practice as beginners.
Before long, they both finished drawing and burst into laughter after glancing at the works of each other.
Despite making the same talisman, the drawings came out very differently. Gu Yu's had a delicate and distant feeling, looming behind which was a vast world. Xiaozhai's, on the other hand, felt free and unrestrained, but also full of irresistible fighting spirit.
"Obey my order. Go!"
Gu Yu picked up the talisman between his fingers and yelled a goofy line. He then smacked it onto himself. "Come on, hit me."
"There you go!"
Xiaozhai stuck out a finger with a straight face and jabbed quickly at his chest. Our fellow let out a cry and commented with a grimace, "Nice strike!"
They just couldn't help it...
Some couples spent their time together shopping and watching films; some liked to spend their time with more intimate activities. While these two, well, probably preferred cultivating together. 
They then drew another several talismans, trying to familiarize themselves with the patterns. Around nine o'clock, they heard a clamor coming from the courtyard. Some drunkard was making a scene and the landlady was trying to appease him.
A while later, the shouting stopped, but a knock came at the door.
Gu Yu went to answer it and found a capable-looking man in his twenties outside smiling at him. "Sorry about that. My friend overdid it when drinking. I hope we did not bother you too much?"
"That's fine. Are you here on a trip?"
"Yes, we are going onto the mountain tomorrow."
Xiaozhai also walked to the door at this moment and the three chatted a bit.
That fellow was Zhao Jiu, a white collar from Shu Zhou who enjoyed outdoor activities. He had set up an outdoor activity society and would go on trips when he was free.
He brought eight backpackers with him this time. They were here to hike on Tianzhu Mountain.
The fellow was quite a bit into making friends. After learning the two were going up tomorrow as well, he invited them to join the team. Gu Yu and Xiaozhai found the invitation an optional extra and left him with their phone numbers.
After Zhao Jiu left, the night grew darker.
Silence finally fell upon the three-section compound. All human voices had quieted down. The courtyard was illuminated by two lanterns, whose dim light created faint reflections on the white screen windows.
Gu Yu struck a match and lit a Calming Incense. It was rushed out before the journey; it could help with sleep, as well as expel mosquitoes and other insects.
Xiaozhai leaned on her bed reorganizing the survival kit, which contained a compass, bandages, wound treatment medicine, compressed biscuits, and other bits and bobs.
After that, she checked the time and said, "It's late. Do you want to take a shower now or later?"
"You go first. I'll sort through some stuff."
She agreed and walked into the bathroom with her pajamas and towel. Xiao Qing swooshed out from some unknown corner and coiled up outside the bathroom like a guard, with "You shall not pass!" written all over its body.
Despite having witnessed such behavior several times, Gu Yu was still amazed by it. This snake-controlling skill was fantastic! The snake was slightly problematic when going through security checks, but other than that, it was an indispensable sovereign remedy for daily life and getting away with murder!
 TL/N: here's another pun from the author. The "clapping for love" part in the raw was referring to sleeping together, for the clapping sound is "啪啪啪" in Chinese, which is also a metaphor for having sex (you know, the sound of bodies clashing into each other).