“Brother Green, the task ordered by Master Fang three days ago is almost finished. It would be done if bother Tong of the Tian Yin Sect had not been sick today. He is really unwell, making mistakes all the time, so I’m afraid we can’t finish on time. What do you think we should do?” A blue-robed youth scuttled toward Mountain Green, speaking with great haste.
The news clearly did not appeal to Mountain Green and his lips curled up as he pondered over the unexpected matter for a minute. Afterwards, a meaningful smile spread over his face. “Leave it to me, I’ll find you a capable substitute,” Mountain Green said reassuringly, then nodded his head toward Shi Mu, who was standing beside him, “Come see our new team member. Brother Shi Mu, from the Black Demon Sect. He’ll help reduce our pressure greatly.”
The blue-robed youth stirred at the mention of Shi Mu’s name, and he immediately sized him up, his eyes opening widely.
“Shi Mu? What?” The blue-robed youth’s face tightened in surprise.
[ED: As a reminder, Shi Mu spent some time helping two young men with some gang fights while he was in Feng City. Feng Li was the more polite and considerate of the two, still thinking that Shi Mu would go places when everyone else was rejecting Shi Mu for his ‘waste blood’.]
“You are...Feng Li?” After recognizing him, Shi Mu was also startled. This young man standing before him was, one-hundred percent, the Feng Li of the Black Fox Gang back in Feng City, but his appearance at this moment did not match with the passage of the long years since he the two had last seen each other. He looked even ten years younger than he was back then, as if time did not elapse for him, but had been flowing counter-clockwise.
“What? You two are old acquaintances?” It was Mountain Green’s turn to be taken aback.
“Yes, brother Shi and I are of the same origin, and we met several times back in our hometown.” There was a hint of fluster flashing across Feng Li’s eyes, but he quickly recovered and explained in a quasi-calm tone.
“No wonder. Go back to your work, I’ll take brother Shi to Master Fang’s office. You two can catch up later. “ Mountain Green was not interested in this old-friends topic but dismissed Feng Li lightly, oblivious of his initial strange reaction. However, smiling as he was, Shi Mu did not let any detail pass his keen eyes, which recorded the momentary agitation in Feng Li’s expression. The latter nodded briefly to Shi Mu and turned his back to them, walking off.
“Follow me.” Mountain Green said, and they continued their journey, this time by another pathway. Shi Mu stole a quick glance at Feng Li’s back and then followed Mountain Green wordlessly. The proud leader resumed to brief Shi Mu on the stronghold’s roles and rules, changing into a more affable voice, “Unlike other disciples, fighting at the battlefront, we make charms in this stronghold, which offers safety and more generous feat points. However, missions distributed here are not less challenging, after all, a mission is a mission. You must have discovered that everyone here is busy with his own work, and that’s because every task is demanded to be finished on time. A single slip-up may ruin your stay here. You’ll be transferred back to the battlefront and do more dangerous tasks!” Taken by the mood, Mountain Green deliberately exaggerated the outcomes, admonishing Shi Mu of the possible peril.
“Thanks for senior’s instruction.” Shi Mu nodded, but with a face not the least worried, contrary to Mountain Green’s expectation. But the man was too absorbed in his demonstration that he took little notice of Shi Mu’s indifferent face as he went on, his voice toned down for he had sensed his over-harshness in the previous teaching, “But there’s no need to be flustered, we are still understaffed concerning the large amount of charms demanded by the union each day. So unless you make some really big mistakes, you won’t get sacked easily. Ask for help if you feel the task is too much.” This finished, Mountain Green still failed to perceive Shi Mu’s easy mood, but savored the feeling of being a teacher, which he had just felt secretly in his heart, much satisfied with his performance - a presentation with a perfect blend of stateliness and amiability.
After a while, the two of them had traveled through another long hallway and reached yet another hall, which was smaller, but not any less majestic than the former. Mountain Green adopted yet another manner, and this time was quite disciplined and submissive. The hall seemed to be a simply decorated reception room, where some tables and chairs were clustered around a platform that rose above the floor several inches. On this platform, a white-haired old man, dressed in a light green long gown, was sitting imposingly. Right next to the old man was laid another chair where perched an impressively charming young girl, clothed in gilt-edged robes from head to toe. Her eyes were half-closed, lethargically, like a sleepy cat wallowing in a luxury nap. Her face, if anything, was not the stunning type, but rather delicate in a way that reminded one of a chaste virgin, but an odd discordance could be detected between her face and her body, which was mature and sexy, like that of a grown woman’s, especially her full, pointed bosoms that could take any man’s breath away. Notwithstanding, her looks were not the reason she was exceedingly alluring. It was her air - flirtatious and inviting - which exuded from her very large, shining eyes. She could be a deadly killer with the most disarming appearance. An elegant, furry cat that lounged on a sofa in a half-sleep, but could awaken suddenly and kill a passing prey in less than a second.
This girl was exactly Jin Xiaochai.
Shi Mu entered the hall behind Mountain Green, and, after seeing her on the platform, his blood froze. Although he had got information from Mountain Green that she was the one who had recommended him to the union, he had not supposed that Jin Xiaochai herself would be here in this stronghold. What was her purpose?
Seeing Shi Mu come in, Jin Xiaochai’s eyes lit up, and she slowly straightened her back, leaning against the chair, and threw Shi Mu a most enigmatic look, her pupils glowing green. Shi Mu failed to contain his shivers, his face contorting slightly, and his body feeling like it was being looked at by a viper. His heart throbbed abruptly, out of control. But to his surprise, this hair-raising sensation vanished promptly the next moment, as if it was all an illusion. The unfathomable expression on Jin Xiaochai’s face had now been replaced with a gentleness. Her liquid eyes watching him in a manner that only resembled a mother’s - embracing and warm. Shi Mu would not believe in this semblance of an angel, and without casting her more looks, he directed his eyes to the white-haired old man, his heart still beating fast. This elder had a diametrically different air about him, reminiscent of a bottomless deep hole that lurked under a pitch-dark cliff. Instinctively, Shi Mu knew that this elder could beat any of the Xiantian saints he had met before, and was, roughly, at the same level as Master Xie, the Star Grade Adept of the Black Demon Sect. Shi Mu had only a cursory, if not furtive look at him, before he bent his head, assured that this one must be the Master Fang that Mountain Green had spoken of, who was the guiding master of this stronghold.
“Master Fang, Shi Mu of the Black Demon Sect is here.” Mountain Green said reverently, bowing to the elder man. Shi Mu also followed his fashion and saluted.
“Right. Stand up, you two young boys,” the white-haired saint opened his lips slowly.
The two of them stood to full height hearing this. Then the elder man examined Shi Mu, nodded his head, and then turned to speak to Jin Xiaochai, who was at his side, “So this must be the disciple Sister Jin has mentioned. Good, his magic power is deep and refined. If he really is that skilled in making charms, I’d have no objections.”
Jin Xiaochai giggled, uttering a relaxed laugh. Pursing her lips, she answered sweetly, “That’s for sure, brother Fang. I hope he’s as good as you said. I got along quite well with the boy, and have always thought of him as a brilliant disciple. Recently I heard that he had learned to draw charms, so I thought, why not bring him here, to learn from brother Fang?”
Shi Mu was totally flabbergasted by Jin Xiaochai’s words, and so was Mountain Green, though they didn’t let anyone know they felt this way.
“So if there’s no problem, Mountain Green, take nephew Shi[A] to receive a jade slip so that he can come in and out freely. Then sort out the stone room Kun[B] for nephew Shi. He’ll work there from today on.” The white-haired saint nodded his head, and gave the order without consulting Jin Xiaochai.
Mountain Green’s continence changed to surprise, and he did not answer the order until he gave Shi Mu another close look, his lips quivering.
“Nephew Shi, as long as you work hard here and make progress in your charm magic, I promise to ask our sect’s leaders to receive you as an immediate disciple to one of our sect’s elders.“ Jin Xiaochai also assured Shi Mu with a benign countenance and that same motherly smile again.
However suspicious he felt, Shi Mu could only say “yes” on such an occasion, and keep the doubts to himself. With various thoughts in a tumult in his mind, he answered with a forced grateful smile, “Yes, thank you for your instructions, senior Jin. Your humble disciple will do everything to live up to your expectations.”
“Alright, you two can go now.” The white-haired elder man waved them off. The two of them bowed once more before turned back to leave. Shi Mu felt again a sharp look at his back, and his skin stung. He quickened his pace to walk out of the hall, and only felt release from the gaze after that. He turned his head to look at the tightly shut stone gate, his eyes glinting in suspicion.
“Brother Shi, I never thought that Master Fang would value you so much that he would give you an independent room.” Mountain Green could no longer restrain his curiosity and envy, breaking forth the question.
“Oh, are independent rooms rare here?” Shi Mu asked, baffled.
“Of course. You’ve just seen it. Every Adept works in the commune hall, where it’s easy to be affected by the environment. But the stone rooms are clear of such worries. Each is fully equiped, not to mention, they have a Reincarnation Formula set by Master Fang himself, which is able to restore your magic power and peace of mind quickly. This stronghold has, altogether, four independent stone rooms, and should have been reserved for Master Fang and the three Spirit Grade Adepts. But half a month ago, the Spirit Grade Adept living in the Kun room was transferred back to his sect, Tian Yin, so the room was emptied.” Mountain Green explained.
Shi Mu nodded his head slowly, and his face did not show much delight.
“Brother Shi, in our stronghold, the independent rooms are a signal of high status. You’ve just come, and now you have one of the four rooms, so I fear that some Adepts may hold a grudge against you. Do pay attention.” Mountain Green reminded, assuming the earlier teacherly manner again.
“Thank you for your instruction, brother Green.” Shi Mu cupped his hands to express his genuine gratitude. Mountain Green smiled, seeing that his gracious manner had worked. Then without any more words, he walked on, like a teacher that had just ended a class.
Meanwhile, in the reception hall.
“Sister Jin, I’ve done as you asked, so don’t forget your promise to me.” The white-haired saint shook his head and spoke resignedly.
“Rest Assured. Your sister has promised you, so she’ll keep her words.” Jin Xiaochai stood up from the chair and giggled.
“By the way, what’s that special about this Shi Mu? You rarely recommend someone in person.” The elder man threw his “sister” a curious look.
“Do you really want to know?” Jin Xiaochai’s eyes shimmered, and she titled her head back, showing a trace of a wicked smile around her lips.
“Well...all right, I won’t ask again. Not interested in your odd penchants. But one word, leave Ke Er alone.” The white-haired elder man changed his tone, warning her seriously as his white brows twitched slightly.
“Hehe, I just meant to have some small talk with her, and ask her about something I care about. Besides, she wasn’t there at all. Why are you so nervous?” Jin Xiaochai sneered, a smile that was beautiful enough to overthrow a kingdom.
“That girl has five degrades in Wood-sensing - a rare talent in my sect - so keep your fingers far from her, or I’ll teach you a lesson on behalf of your master.” The elder man snorted and said.
Jin Xiaochai replied with another laugh, completely ignoring the old man’s warnings. She had her own plan.
Just then, some vague noises of someone bickering came from outside the hall. The old man frowned furiously and started to walk to the door. Jin Xiaochai rolled her eyes, and cracked into a knowing smile, quickly following the old man with nimble steps. The two of them soon came to the big hall where the Adepts made charms, and the hubbub came from a circle of twenty-odd Adepts in the hall, fiercely discussing something.
The crowd stirred after seeing Master Fang and Jin Xiaochai coming their way, and hurriedly stepping aside for them to pass. Most of them shut their mouths immediately, except one hapless Adept who continued shouting indignantly,
“...In a word, you, a new-comer, gets the Kun room? To this, I am the first to oppose! Why on earth should a new guy get an independent room? Others won’t have their mouths shut at this matter, either!”
Shi Mu was standing on the opposite side of this angry young man, his chin pulled in. But even though the young man’s slobber had been spit all over his face, Shi Mu was still wearing his usual cool face.
[A] Nephew Shi: Here “nephew” does not convey its biological meaning, only an amiable form of address to someone of your nephew’s generation. So is “Sister Jin”. It does not signify that Jin Xiaochai is Master Fang’s biological sister, nor that the two of them are of the same generation. Here the sequence of seniority is decided by one’s level in cultivation.
[B] The Kun Room: “Kun”, one of the Eight Diagrams, denoting the earth. Here it is just used to signify the room’s number, like Room A, B, C or Room 1, 2,3.