Days went by like this, and, before Shi Mu had realized it, two months time had passed. Now it was time for him to conduct the next Blood-and-Marrow Cleansing. Though he had long since prepared himself for it, mentally, when the Devil Qi, again,invaded his body, the excruciating pain was even stronger than the last time. Even with his superhuman perseverance and ability to bear pain, Shi Mu shuddered at the thought of the third experience that was to come in a few months time. Fortunately, he had reached the fifth level in the Art of the Heavenly Elephant, which helped him tremendously in protecting his veins, so at least the hellish second Blood-and-Marrow Cleansing, though painful, ended successfully.
After he recovered from the pain and exhaustion, he was delighted to find that his physical strength and toughness had been boosted to a great extent. Currently, his speed and strength had almost been doubled compared to what it was before he began the Art of the Strong Ape. Thus his confidence was greatly enhanced. With a cheerful heart, he continued to climb up the ladder to the third level.
However, after three months, when he steeled himself for the third wave of pain, he found his luck had been exhausted.
Shi Mu was sitting on his stone bed, his face puckering in pain. His bare upper-body was already smudged with blood, as if he had just finished taking a shower in blood. Every pore was leaking blood, as if someone had been cutting at his muscles with a sharp-edged knife. His bed was already dyed red.
At this moment, his marrow seemed to groan, as though being gnawed at by hundreds of ants, which created an unbearable numbness mixed with itchiness. This time, the pain was two times worse than last time. It seemed to focus on Shi Mu’s spirit, so much so that Shi Mu almost broke down. At length, after having endured the constant pain for a complete hour, Shi Mu fainted, darkness filling his eyes.
Shi Mu’s consciousness gradually returned, and, by reflex, he shook his head in an attempt to shake off the dizziness and heaviness he felt. But, to his great shock, he found himself unable to budge an inch. He groped in the dark, and stared out at his surroundings, then was filled with shock: white hair had sprouted all over his body! He was that mysterious white ape again! He was in his dream, except that the environment had shifted. He was not on the familiar boulder on the cliff, but in a huge open space, surrounded by verdant trees. The trees seemed to tower into the sky, each at least as high as three thousand meters. Quiet and energetic, these giants stood and watched the world.
Suddenly, a booming noise resounded, shaking the earth, and dragging Shi Mu’s consciousness back to the ape’s body. By then, he had noticed that, this time, the ape was not practicing the Moon-Swallowing Art, but had half of his body buried in the earth, leaving his hairy head sticking out. It seemed he was at the center of a great formula drawn on the ground, dotted thickly with unfathomable characters and brightly flashing patterns. These patterns extended out in all directions, constructing the immense formula that was blurred by lights and shadows.
At either side of the formula stood a mountainous yellow-cloaked man. Their heads were cleanly shaven, making light gleam off of them. Their features were as ugly as a ferocious ghost’s. Every vein in every muscle protruded. The two men were each wearing sloppy yellow cloaks, with glittering silver magic characters on the surface of these cloaks.
The two were both expressionless. They each had an iron hammer the length of thirty meters in their hands. They were hammering at the periphery of the formula, each strike making an earthshaking noise, and simultaneously shooting silver light into the formula, making the lights on it flash even more wildly.
Meanwhile, at the center of the formula, Shi Mu could feel the earth vibrating, and strange energies wrapping him in like cool liquids, squeezing him constantly. As the silver hammer in the yellow-cloaked giant’s hands moved even faster, the pressure of the strange energy grew accordingly. Shi Mu felt his body temperature falling, and the energy soon penetrated his skin, like countless tiny needles.
The white ape screeched, grimacing in pain. The tiny needles of energy whizzed into his body, occupying his organs, and stabbed fiercely. The inexpressible agony inflicted Shi Mu to the extent of wishing to die. More frighteningly, Shi Mu’s spirit felt fits of pain tenfold times more excruciating than that he experienced before he fainted.
Thirty meters away from the silver formula, a white-haired elder with long brows was floating in the air on a dark green cushion. He saw the white ape screaming in the formula, and then raised his brows and flicked his fingers, muttering something under his long brows. This old man was the mysterious elder in Shi Mu’s dream that had imparted the Moon-Swallowing Art to him.
By now, Shi Mu had neared another breakdown, and the gnawing pain was about to make him lose consciousness again. He felt like he was going to faint in a few breaths, unable to resist the pain any longer.
But just then, the elder’s incantation, which eluded his comprehension, reached his ears, clearly and sonorously. Then, to his surprise, the white ape began to imitate the elder, despite its great pain, muttering those words with a widely opened mouth, like a human being. The language of the incantation sounded both foreign and familiar to Shi Mu, as if he had spoken it himself a thousand times before.
Then the most eerie thing happened. As the ape articulated the words, the pain in his body and spirit began to wear off, until what was left was fairly tolerable. This was undoubtedly a pleasant surprise to Shi Mu. He relaxed a bit, but the next moment, the dizziness came over him again, and, before he knew it, he lost consciousness.
Without warning, Shi Mu’s eyes opened, and he was in his stone room. He made no attempt to move, his brain feeling rather heavy on his body, and an overwhelming vertigo came again, accompanied by sore limbs. Lying exhausted on the bed, he sighed at the pain of the third Washing, which had far surpassed his expectations. As Auntie Dream had warned, having to wash one’s blood and marrow was the deadly disadvantage of the Art of the Strong Ape.
But the next moment, his body shuddered, and he finally detected something unusual inside him. His physical toughness had been again, and the Yin power in his dantian increased tremendously. He sat up in his bed with excitement. So his third Washing had succeeded!
Various thoughts started to fill his mind. The reason for his successful breakthrough this time may have everything to do with the dream, and, at its root, the incantation of the white-haired elder that markedly eased the pain. He anxiously racked his brains, trying to recall the spell that the white ape had learned in the dream, but his memory was in a tangle, and not even a single word was remembered. Regardless, he would not abandon this, and, after much deliberation, he sprang up from his bed and began to scrub the blood from his body with the clean water he had prepared beforehand. Changing into clean clothes, Shi Mu headed for the stronghold’s east exit, his black blade in hand.
It was the middle of the night and the moon was hanging brightly in the sky. He easily found his way to a clearing in the dense forest. After making sure of his privacy, he drew the blade and dug a hole in the open ground, then jumped into it without hesitation. He raised his right fist, which glittered under moonlight like crystal, and then he punched the edge of the hole.
The surrounding soil instantly fell, completely burying his body, except for his head. Shi Mu closed his eyes hastily. After a short while, he entered the dream again.
Everything went as he had expected. The white ape appeared at the center of the formula, and the two yellow-cloaked giants were stilling hammering. The intense pain paid its visit again....
After some time when Shi Mu woke up with a jolt, his forehead glistening with sweat. He did not climb out of the pit immediately, but knit his brows tightly, trying to recall the spell. However, to his disappointment, the memory grew somewhat clearer, but still he could not remember a thing.
He clenched his teeth determinedly. Then, with eyes shut, he reentered the dream.
For the following period, he reenacted the scene, time and time again - waking up from the dream, then entering it again, with all his attention focused on the white ape’s spell. Though each time he had to go through the same pain, it was worth it. He slowly began to hear the spell in his mind, even when he left the dream. After repeating it forty times, he finally managed to rememberl the weird incantation - though with much effort - even in the ape’s dream. And, after he could finally remember every word of it, three silver characters appeared in his mind - Zhen Hun Zhou - [The Soul-Comforting Spell].
Eventually, he returned to the real world, and tried to repeat what he had learned by heart in the dream. And, to his excitement, he was already able to use this spell, uttering it in the language beyond his understanding.
He leaped up from the pit. After donning his shirt, he began to head back - or, should we say dance back - to the stronghold, filled with joy.
At the moment, the sky was still pitch dark, the moonlight slanting toward the earth from the west. Shadows were cast among the trees, and, together with the pale starlight, they created a surreal world. Suddenly, something rustled in the distance, and then came footsteps that resembled a human’s. Shi Mu’s muscles tightened up, and hurriedly he hid behind a bush, his black blade grasped in hand.
The sounds went deep and faint, as if leaving. Shi Mu was rather confused, and narrowing his eyes, he followed the direction of the sounds quietly.
However, after making it some three hundred meters, the footsteps suddenly stopped. He waited for a few breaths, but nothing stirred in the distance. Eyes flashing, he paused to sniff the air. Faintly, a fishy smell was coming from the source of the sounds.
Shi Mu’s face creased in alarm, and he followed the smell to a small hill. What he saw there was a ghastly scene: lying in a pile of pebbles and stones was a piebald leopard, small in build, some three meters in length. The hide around its skin was scratched and slashed, the exposed flesh had blood congealing on it. From the look of it, it must have only recently died. The most strange thing about the body was that it had shriveled, as if the essence inside had been sucked out.
Just as Shi Mu was about to have a closer look, a foul wind blew up from behind him. and a hairy black claw was seen trying to scratch Shi Mu’s head. Shi Mu was startled, and he twisted his body like thunder. His right hand became crystalline, and thrust forward like a white light, meeting the black claw. Surprisingly, the hairy claw immediately turned into a fist, too, clashing heavily with Shi Mu’s fist.
With a dull thud, Shi Mu’s body trembled, and he was forced backward by the impact. But this allowed him to clearly see what was attacking him: a giant, grey ape-like monster. The fur around its mouth was smeared with blood, which proved that this was the one who had sucked the leopard’s blood out
The previous clash of fists had sent the monster flying into the air, but caused no harm to it. The ape rolled over the ground for a moment, then quickly got to its feet, its bloodshot eyes viciously glowering at Shi Mu.