Following a group of high ministers, Wu Qi slowly made his way down the lofty mountain that was the Torch Dragon's coiled up body. His legs were stiff and his eyes were blank. Loud and long belches constantly rang out across the stream of people, and the air was filled with the bloody stench of meat. Every so often, muffled groans and moans could be heard coming from those Oracles and civil officials with frail bodies, whose bellies were stuffed with vegetables.
As he walked, Wu Qi looked back over one shoulder at You Xiong Palace on the top of the mountain, crouching like a monster.
The imperial banquet of Great Yu looked like a farce, ridiculous to the core. And yet, such a tradition had continued from the ancient times to the present day. The subjects of Great Yu, the Kings, the members of the imperial clan, and even the Elders of the Tribal Alliance, none of them criticized the way it was carried out. Generations of officials had gnawed on half-cooked meat and whole cabbages to keep the tradition alive.
It was a frightening tradition, an obstinate convention. After attending the imperial banquet, Wu Qi suddenly felt that Great Yu was as rigid as adamant, who, regardless of the passage of time and the changes of the world, stubbornly retained its most original style.
Wu Qi took a glance at the people around him. He knew they did not feel comfortable in their stomachs, but their expressions were calm all the same, and even could be described with indifference. To them, although the foods and drinks at the imperial banquet tasted awful, it was a tradition they had to follow. It was like how people needed to breathe, and fishes could not live without water; these subjects of Great Yu could not part from their traditions either.
'A frightening state with its frightful people!' Wu Qi thought with mixed emotions. When tradition became a habit, it would be the most fearful power in the world.
As the long stream of people slowly walked down the mountain, a few Oracles in black cloaks suddenly loomed out from the side of the road and came before Wu Qi, stopping him from going further. "Are you Tan Lang, the Marquis of Dong Hai Province?" One of them whispered, "Come with us! The Human Emperor decreed that you can pay a visit to Yan Tian Palace, the Secret Palace of Great Yu!"
Ji Ao narrowed his eyes as he grabbed Wu Qi by the wrist and whispered into his ear, "There are countless powerful mystic arts and divine abilities in the Secret Palace...If truth be told, the most advanced divine abilities of Great Yu are not in the Directorate of Celestials, but the Secret Palace. Also, you will find countless diagrams and secrets of formations, both from the immortals and us, in Yan Tian Palace. So, choose wisely!"
Ji Ao only had the time to speak a few words to Wu Qi, and then was forced to leave together with the crowd under the glum gazes of the few Oracles. The Secret Palace held a high place in Great Yu. It was mysterious and fearsome, a place where all Supreme Oracles ended their lives. In addition, it was responsible for sorting out and keeping all the ancient books and records of Great Yu, and undertook the important task of continuing the state's legacy. As such, even the Council of Elders of the Tribal Alliance held great respect and awe toward the Secret Palace, and dared not to show any disrespect to it.
A random dying old man walking out of the Secret Palace might be the ancestor of the current head of some powerful family in Great Yu, or the previous High Magus of some mighty clan. In other words, those who dwelt in the Secret Palace were all the spiritual leaders of the influential families and clans. With such formidable latent power, the Oracles from the Secret Palace were so distinguished that even Kings of the imperial clan such as Ji Ao dared not to offend them.
The few Oracles gestured at Wu Qi, and he followed them away from the only road in the imperial palace, into the depths of the woods beside.
After braving through the thick growth of weeds and woods infested with poisonous insects for two hours, they came to an opening surrounded by trees, where a dozen Oracles in white robes waited quietly in a circle. It was the first time Wu Qi had seen Oracles in white robes, and he could not help giving them a few more curious glances.
These Oracles looked young, with the oldest in his early twenties. But Wu Qi was shocked when he saw they had nothing but the pattern of sun embroidered on their sleeves, from one to a few. In other words, they were as strong as Gold Immortals. And when he studied their naive expressions again, he was certain that his guess of their ages was accurate.
Was this the Secret Palace's latent power? Sun Oracles in their early twenties?
The corner of Wu Qi's mouth twitched a little. For a mortal to become a Gold Immortal, it required a very long time of cultivation, going through the realm of Gold Core, Nascent Soul, Nascent Divinity, Heaven Immortal, and eventually Gold Immortal. Even a genius such as Lady Dark Gold Water had spent several periods before achieving that. And yet, these young Oracles already had the power equivalent to Gold Immortals, who spent eons to cultivate painstakingly.
A fearsome latent power…Nevertheless, Wu Qi reckoned that there should not be too many of such freakish Oracles in the Secret Palace.
Led by the few black-robed Oracles, Wu Qi walked into the circle. As soon as they entered, the young Oracles cried out softly and their fingers moved quickly in the air whilst their mouths intoned some strange spells. Before long, countless runes rushed out from around them together with thick plumes of smoke, forming into an eighteen-layered rune formation around Wu Qi.
All of a sudden, the surrounding void distorted. Wu Qi heard a muffled crackle as the world around him turned dim, and an immense pressure came pressing against him from all directions. When he saw the light again, he was already standing in front of a valley. A terrible windstorm was lashing out of the valley, sending bright sparks everywhere as it brushed past the rocky ground.
A few white-robed Oracles pointed their fingers out, conjuring a thick layer of protective barrier made of runes around Wu Qi. He felt he was wrapped by an invisible armor which rippled like water and dispersed any wind that came near him. He looked in surprise at the pale-black windstorm that was coming toward them, and concluded that it was half natural and half man-made; otherwise, it would not have been so terrible. Ordinary Heaven Immortals would not be able to withstand the wind blades here, judging from their speed and the way they were formed.
He glanced back over one shoulder and saw the lofty mountain that was the Torch Dragon looming in the distant horizon, and You Xiong Palace, sitting mightily on the mountaintop, wrapped in a strong beam of light. It made him realize that he was still inside the imperial palace, and perhaps there were many restrictive spells between this place and You Xiong Palace. Hence, these white-robed Oracles brought him here using some mystic art.
Following these Oracles, Wu Qi walked slowly against the strong wind. As the windstorm howled and screamed in his ears, they walked into a narrow opening that led into the valley, a crevice that was about a hundred miles high and thirty feet wide.
After a long walk down the dimly lit crevice with those white-robed Oracles performing all kinds of mystic arts along the way to clear a path for them, Wu Qi finally left the darkness and saw light again.
A blackened cliff rose a hundred miles high ahead of him, tens of miles away. On either side of him were steep cliffs, and behind him, apart from the crevice, was also a steep cliff. From the surrounding cliff walls, gusts of strong wind rose out of thin air, compressed by some invisible restrictive spells into countless pitch-black wind blades that plunged into the crevice. Inside, they were further compressed and accelerated by layers of restrictive spells into violent windstorms, before rushing out of the crevice.
Measuring about two hundred miles wide, the surface of the blackened cliff was carved with countless statues of celestial fiends, the shortest of whom stood a mile tall. They appeared to be fighting against each other, and the battle was also participated in by numerous statues of ancient beasts. All of them looked lifelike, and Wu Qi could even hear the miserable howls and screeches let out by them.
Between the two largest statues of celestial fiends in the middle, there was a square entrance that was less than ten feet wide and about thirty feet tall.
The entrance was about thirty miles above the ground, and could be reached by a long flight of stone steps that started its ascent about a mile away from Wu Qi. The steps were only ten feet wide and about a hundred miles long, thrusting straight upward like an arrow pointing at the entrance. Each step was carved with numerous complex patterns and inscribed with countless ancient and mysterious spells. As Wu Qi cast his gaze on them, he could hear a peal of faint but shrill laughter ringing in his ears.
After bowing to Wu Qi, the few black-robed Oracles went over to the cliff wall on the left, where they disappeared into another entrance. Escorted by the few white-robed Oracles, Wu Qi slowly made his way up the stone steps toward the entrance.
As he climbed higher, the wind grew strong around him. Soon, even the protective barrier the white-robed Oracles conjured for him began to fail to withstand the blow. The invisible barrier was shivering, and Wu Qi could feel winds blowing against his skin, giving him a delusion that he was about to be blown up into the sky.
Along the way, the Oracles repeatedly performed various types of hand incantation gestures to temporarily unlock the vicious traps on the stone steps. Stealthily, Wu Qi kept these hand incantation gestures in mind, together with the patterns of energy fluctuation. If he had a chance in the future, he would definitely pay this Secret Palace a visit again. Although it was claimed that this place only stored ancient books and records of Great Yu, who could be certain that there were not some secret treasures in it?
After ascending for nearly an hour, they finally arrived at the end of the stone steps and stood before the entrance. A few middle-aged Oracles, who were also clad in white robes but with black lines embroidered on their sleeves, suddenly appeared out of nowhere and stopped Wu Qi from going further. With a smile on his face, the Oracle in the middle reached out his hand toward Wu Qi, palm side up, and said, "Please hand me the three pets of yours, Marquis of Dong Hai Province. They are now allowed to enter the Secret Palace."
The pair of dragon python sisters, who had been following Wu Qi for more than a year, slipped out of his ear without saying a word, coiling up their bodies atop his shoulder and staring at him. Almost at the same time, Ao Buzun bolted out of his other ear, fuming with rage as his body grew to thirty feet long in just the blink of an eye. Then, he pointed at the Oracle's nose and growled, "Who said I am a pet? YOU are a pet! Everyone in your clan is a pet! I..."
With one swift move, Wu Qi grabbed Ao Buzun by the mouth and squeezed his body until it was as thin as a strand of hair. Then, Wu Qi tied the long and thin body in a complicated bow around Ao Buzun's mouth before handing him and the dragon python sisters to the middle-aged Oracle.
Looking deep into the Oracle's eyes, Wu Qi smiled and said, "Do take good care of them. I don't want to see them harmed!"
The middle-aged Oracle smiled and nodded, then moved out of the way.