As green light shone on the tree root, a black hole, about three meters in diameter, appeared out of thin air. There seemed to be stone ladders inside, which extended down into the ground.
Shi Mu moved swiftly and soon disappeared into the hole. After he left, the air rippled for a while, and the hole became blurry and gradually disappeared.
Shi Mu passed through a short passage and soon arrived at a spacious space underground. There were white ores on the walls that shone with white light, allowing people to see in this, otherwise, dark space.
The underground space seemed to be a deserted mine. The air inside was fairly dry. Traces of excavation were left everywhere on the walls, and a dozen of stone rooms were still there. Deep in the space, there was a crude table and several stools, all made of stone. There were seven or eight people were sitting discussing something heatedly. As footsteps approached, all of them looked back vigilantly, their faces reflecting the faint silver light emitted by the fluorescent stones, and thus the scene took on a dreamy quality, making it look like an illustration of some mysterious story. Everyone in the room looked to be around the age of eighteen or so, and they wore varied suits belonging to several different sects.
As they saw Shi Mu come in, some of the disciples around the table smiled, greeting Shi Mu energetically.
“Brother Shi comes back much later than usual this time.”
“See that smile! He must have fulfilled his task again.”
Shi Mu smiled, not saying a word, and nodded to the disciples who were greeting with him.
“Ah, brother Shi, you are wounded!” A melodious voice rang out, and among the male disciples stood up a green-robed girl about sixteen. Her innocent, starry eyes blinked. Her nose beautiful and cute. Anxiously, her eyes ran over Shi Mu’s bare arm that was smudged by congealed blood. A long knife wound was still distinct on his bronze skin, stabbing her heart.
“Its just a little cut, nothing serious. Though I thank Ke Er[A] for her concern.” Shi Mu looked casually at his wound and replied to the beautiful girl with a smile.
The green-robed girl frowned and wanted to say something, but a young man, who had been silent, stood up and spoke with a cold face, muffling all the other’s voices.
“Brother Shi, how was your mission?” The young man who wore the blue suit of the Black Tortoise Sect asked sardonically.
Shi Mu frowned, and then handed a silver-edged bone token to the young man, who received the token and checked it several times before taking out a round jade plate and a short silver stick. The young man gently touched the plate with the silver stick, and the plate vibrated in response. Instantly, the jade plate was covered by a glowing layer of white light, which then formed a light screen in the air, with lines of words floating on it. The screen obviously recorded all the missions distributed to the disciples, who simultaneously cast their concerned eyes to the screen.
The young man in blue then pointed at a mission of ambushing barbarian patrols with the silver stick, and a beam of light shot up, forming an image of a young barbarian with a stone token on whose surface strange characters could be clearly seen. The young man then compared the bone token in his hand with the image carefully for several times, and his eye corner twitched, betraying his displeasure. At last, he gave a reluctant nod, muttered something to himself and pointed at the screen another time. Immediately the mission disappeared from the light screen.
Seeing this, Shi Mu fished out a black token the size of a palm and tossed it to the young man indifferently.There was his name on one side of the token and magic characters shaped like clouds on the other, with the number 452 etched in the center.（TL’s note: maybe they use the cloud computing!)
The young man in blue looked gloomy but said nothing. Taking Shi Mu’s token, he touched it with the short silver stick again. A silver beam was shed as the number increased by twenty into 472. This done, the young man tossed the token back to Shi Mu, who took it without exchanging looks with him. After giving the others a brief nod, Shi Mu turned to walk to another stone room.
Now let’s have an overview of the warfare up till now. During the last year, apart from the several head-on battles between the two parties, the union of the seven sects had also waged three wars against the barbarians, convening all the strong warriors they had. But the results always turned out to be detrimental to both sides, with many Earth Grade saints getting badly wounded, and many Xiantian saints got killed. Though the union boast more Earth Grade saints, the number soon lost its preponderance before the overpowering strength of the barbarian’s top warrior Wild Killer. Therefore, somehow after the third big war, a mutual understanding was established between the two parties, and a delicate balance was attained. It was tacitly agreed that warriors and saints at and above the Xiantian level would no longer come to battle within a certain extent, thus leaving Houtian warriors as the main force on the battlefield. Under such conditions, the human union dispatched large numbers of Houtian warriors to the war-ridden districts that had been captured by the barbarians, constantly raiding their strongholds as well as assassinating the Totem warriors, in the hope of undermining their strength bit by bit. However, the barbarians did not just sit by, waiting for their deaths. They adopted the same policy. Consequently, no large-scale battles ever happened again, replaced by constant skirmishes all over the fortress prefecture.
At home, the union of seven sects had arrived at an unprecedented understanding that they should mobilize all the disciples to fight back for their communal land. The high-level elders had reorganized all the resources of the seven sects, and set up a special system of union missions which rewarded the disciples according to how many feat points they managed to obtain from their tasks. Also, the sects’ disciples were reshuffled and distributed into teams that worked together. Along with the kingdoms’ official armies, these teams would actively fight against the invasion. As for the mission system, the union would reward a disciple with feat points that could exchange for further training resources from the union strongholds or their respective sect. The missions may differ in difficulty, but to be sent to the forefront, deep into the barbarian’s camps like Shi Mu’s team did would be, undeniably, among the most dangerous tasks.
Not that Shi Mu was against this set up. The union had made this iron rule that every disciple had to stay at the battlefront for at least one year before they could apply for a transfer back to the inland. Only by implementing this rule inexorably could the union guarantee their combat effectiveness.
This mine is one of their secret strongholds behind the enemies’ frontlines, and there are tens of disciples of all the sects convened here, most of whom are on the primary or junior stage of Houtian level, and they constitute quite a crack troop for assassinating barbarian warriors as well as gathering top intelligence about the enemy. In a word, this is one of the most significant strongholds of the union, which runs dangerous missions day and night.
The young man in blue was called Jade White, and is an inner disciple of the Black Tortoise Sect. He has reached the advanced stage of the Houtian Warrior level, and is preeminent above all his comrades. Naturally he was nominated as the leader of this team, and had been a competent leader except that he had always failed at seeing eye to eye with Shi Mu. Thus, whenever the two met, the air around them felt even denser. And the girl in green is named Ke Er. She is an Adept apprentice of the Ethereal Phoenix Sect and is good at the Curing Magic of the wood element. As one of the only two Adepts in this stronghold, she naturally became quite popular among the male disciples, not least because of her pretty face.
Undoubtedly, the other Adept was none other than Shi Mu, so the two of them got to know each other quite well, sharing many things in common. Also, Shi Mu had been concerned about Zhong Xiu, who had also joined the Ethereal Phoenix Sect, so he was willing to talk with Ke Er more than anyone else. And who knows, maybe Ke Er’s moving beauty attracted him? Anyway, they spent quite a lot of time together in this war.
“Hold on, brother Shi, let me check your wound.” Ke Er had approached him and held his wounded arm without having even the slightest bit of an embarrassed expression. The sight filled Jade White with displeasure. Moreover, Shi Mu’s noncommittal acceptance of Ke Er’s good will only compound Jade’s miserable mood.
The wound was long but not deep, and there was no indication of poison. Ke Er relaxed, extended her long, thin finger to the wound, while opening her pink lips to chant some clear and melodious spells. The next moment, a ball of green light emerged on her finger tip, moving with her finger slowly onto the long wound and soon wrapped Shi Mu’s arm in. The blissful youth stood completely still, not knowing how to show his refreshed feeling. Then he felt an irresistible itch from the wound, which was rapidly healing, and, after a while, had recovered, leaving only a slight scar on his arm. And he knew that the scar would totally disappear after three or five days.
“Thanks a lot. Ke Er’s curing magic is always so effective.” Shi Mu tried swinging his arm, feeling no pain at all.
“Don’t be so polite, brother Shi, it’s all thanks to you for the charms you make for our missions.” Ke Er smiled sweetly, her curved eyebrows quivering.
“Tsk, sister Ke always speaks to us so politely, but it seems that there is someone that can make her act just like a little girl. I feel she is biased against us!”Suddenly, a strange voice broke the moment.
But Ke Er was not bothered by the joke at all. She tilted her head naughtily and made a fake grimace at the other disciples. The witty face together with her beauty had quite a unique air that even made Shi Mu feel attracted to her. But, on the other hand, this only made White Jade feel even more miserable, his envy mingled with a simmering anger, and his face more gloomy than ever.
“Sister Ke, why not give me a private treatment in my room? I’ve got a wound here too. ” A fat man also participated in the joking party, grinning amorously. Ke Er turned back to glare at him without saying a word. She then bid Shi Mu goodbye and made way to her room. Another tiny girl with a cold face stood up and left with Ke Er, whispering to her while they two of them walked away. This girl was always quiet and all Shi Mu knew about her was that she was a female disciple of Tianyin Sect and was on good terms with Ke Er.
Seeing that Ke Er had left, Shi Mu also turned back to his room, which was situated deep inside the mine. He chose the room for its seclusion and quiet.
Shi Mu changed into clean clothes after he came back, and then there was a clear knock on his door. Shi Mu frowned and when he opened the door he found a young Taoist warrior with a sword on his back standing there.
“Brother Shi, I know you’ve just returned from a mission and I didn’t want to disturb you so soon. But I‘ve just received a difficult mission and am in desperate need of a Golden Armor Charm just in case...”The young Taoist said sheepishly.
“Don’t be so polite Brother Qin, just come in with your materials.” Shi Mu invited him in with a smile.
In this stronghold deep in the enemy-occupied territory, he was the only one could make charms, so, naturally, all the disciples had to ask Shi Mu for charms. This way, Shi Mu held a very high status in the stronghold, and everyone was quite polite to him. After all, in this war, even just one charm could decide life or dead.
[A]: Ke means white jade in ancient Chinese, and "Er" is an affectionate form of address, often adopted to show intimate relations.