The silver luster of moonlight rushed forth like a surging tide, and submerged into the white ape’s head. This triggered the rotation of the white and dense whirlpool. It began to rotate at a lightning speed. Then, the duck-egg-sized crystal grain at the acupuncture point began to release numerous waves of light beams. Those light beams gathered together, and took the form of a shining and round full moon.
A circle of light emerged behind the white ape’s head at the same time; it looked like a misty moon. It was similar to a halo of light around the God’s head.
The white ape drummed its hands, and shouted loudly. Then, it dashed towards a huge tree that stood next to the mountain. It gently jumped onto the tree-top, and ran for a couple of steps. After that, it stomped its feet, and sprang to another tree-top. It seemed extremely quick and agile.
Its shadow continued to shuttle back-and-forth on the trees in the dark. It leapt and jumped from tree-to-tree in a continuous manner.
Shi Mu finally experienced the overwhelming excitement of the white ape. But, Shi Mu had a premonition amid this excitement. The white ape should be practicing the Moon-Swallowing Art to the consummate stage!
Shi Mu felt as if a spell of dizziness had been cast upon him as he saw the white ape jump from one tree to another. After that, his eyes opened since he woke-up from his dream.
Then, he discovered something queer. The crystal grain in its mind – that was almost as big as a Soapberry fruit – had grown almost a full-circle bigger than its original size.
Moreover, the magic power that he had stored within his body had got completely used-up. Only a wisp of slightly dense Real Qi remained flowing within his body.
Shi Mu brimmed with happiness. His past experiences told him that it had taken him only a few days to increase its size.
Suddenly, a thought dawned upon him. He suppressed the excitement and emotions that blazed in his heart. After that, he closed his eyes, and started to practice the Art of Accumulating Spirit Power. His chest began to rise and fall with his breathing.
Then, the familiar scene appeared before his eyes.
A tiny wisp of his magic power flowed and touched the crystal grain in his mind. ‘Boom!’ The crystal grain got ruptured. However, it didn’t take the shape of a white crescent moon as earlier. On the contrary, it turned into a white full moon! In fact, it was as round as a disk.
However, Shi Mu couldn’t comprehend the faint circle of light that had emerged behind his head – like a full moon. It stayed there for a fleeting second. Then, it disappeared.
The white moon in his mind transformed into a mighty current of magic power. Then, this current converged and streamed into his lower abdomen as per his guidance. Shi Mu was pleasantly surprised to find that the meridians within his entire body had widened. Moreover, the accumulation of magic power had exponentially increased in his lower abdomen.
Shi Mu continued to slip into the dreamland to practice the Moon-Swallowing Art on moonlit nights throughout his journey.
He would always need some time to swallow the silver radiance of the moon once he had entered the dream ever since he had the dream of the white ape practicing the Moon-Swallowing Art in a swift manner.
It took him almost an hour every time to absorb the radiance of moonlight completely. But, he had been able to absorb the silver radiance of the moon several times in a row one particular evening.
He had taken six months to increase the size of the crystal grain to the size of a Soapberry fruit in the past. But, he had managed to achieve his desired result in only a fortnight this time. This had become possible because of the fast absorption of the moonlight essence.
Shi Mu had refined three Soapberry-fruit-sized crystal grains. He had finally made a break through to the fifth layer of the Art of Accumulating Spirit Power on one night after three months.
Shi Mu sat cross-legged on the ground somewhere in the forest. He felt a torrential flow of magic power in his lower abdomen; his heart quivered with exhilaration.
His spirit power had also made an astonishing enhancement along with his magic power. Moreover, he always had a cool and refreshing feeling in his mind.
Shi Mu had already broken through the fifth layer of the Art of Accumulating Spirit Power. So, he had got promoted from being a Magician Practitioner to the Spirit-Grade Magician. Moreover, he had officially become a Formula Magician.
Suddenly, an idea flashed across his mind. He closed his eyes, and tried to recall the contents pertaining to the ‘Qi ring pile’ of the Art of Accumulating Spirit Power. This technique was used to attain the fifth layer of this Art.
He then sprang-up from the ground, and walked towards the two grazing horses.
Shi Mu stopped ten feet away from the two horses. Then, his hand formed a strange gesture. After that, he began to read an incantation. The magic power surged-up rapidly within his body.
He stretched out his hand towards the two horses. He then pointed his finger at them, and shot out a white air mass. Suddenly, the air mass elongated in the air, and took the form of a long and white chain of Qi.
The horses were alarmed as they saw the white light flying towards them. They tried to evade the attack. But, they failed since there was nothing for them to hide behind.
The chain of white Qi wound itself around the belly of the two horses. Then, it formed a white Qi ring, and tied the horses together. The horses looked like conjoined-twins under the effect of the formidable binding force; they couldn’t separate themselves from each other.
The ring of white Qi gradually dissipated after a span of seven or eight breaths.
The horses found themselves free from the shackle after a long struggle and constant neighing. They obviously tried to run away. But, they couldn’t escape since they were tied to the tree.
Shi Mu nodded with satisfaction. This blow was dangerous enough to hack the enemy into two or three segments at one fell swoop.
Several months later…
It was noontime. The scorching and glaring sun was high up in the sky.
Shi Mu walked out of the forest that was laden with numerous gigantic and grotesquely-shaped trees. He looked famished and exhausted by the long journey. Suddenly, his eyes were drawn towards the thirteen gigantic pillar-like black mountain-peaks. He got excited.
Shi Mu’s path had been full of hardships and perils ever since he had been inflicted with the Fierce Snake Tribe’s curse. He had been forced to infiltrate the barbarians’ wasteland as a result. This condition had lasted for two years until this day when he had finally returned to his Sect.
He had continued to consume a steady stream of Blood Strengthening and Bone Tempering Pills along the way. Moreover, he had often competed against the Xian Tian strength of Yan Luo. This had incredibly boosted-up his combat capabilities. In addition, he had made a break through to the eleventh stage of the Art of Breeding Heavenly Elephants a few days back. He had finally attained the consummate-stage of this Art. Moreover, he was only one step away from stepping into the Xian Tian realm.
He shot a glance at the nearest thirteenth mountain peak. He then hurried in that direction.
Shi Mu finally entered the residential area after a quarter-of-an-hour; it was crowded with numerous stone-houses. A trace of suspicion flashed across his eyes.
He walked through the area. But, he felt that an air of loneliness prevailed in the Sect; as if it was deserted. Also, the stream of people that used to shuttle back-and-forth seemed considerably low now. These people would normally be seen wandering around in the public square that was at the center of the mountain-valley. However, even the residential area gave-off an ambience of emptiness at this time since there wasn’t a single person around.
Shi Mu arrived in front of his stone-house while being lost in his thoughts. He then opened the door and walked inside.
He looked around the room, and found that not a single thing or furniture had changed even after so many years. But, the furniture was covered in a thick layer of dust. Shi Mu finally heaved a sigh of relief.
He put down the meteoric hammer and the package from behind his back. He then quickly tidied-up his room. After that, he turned around, and walked outside the room. He advanced towards the Bluestone Plaza to find someone to inquire about the situation.
He soon arrived near the square after some time. Suddenly, a joyful voice was heard from behind him.
"Hey, Shi Mu! So, you’ve finally returned… ah!"
Shi Mu’s footsteps stopped. He whirled around, and sized-up the young man who was striding over.
He saw that the young man had long hair that was trailing over his shoulder. There was a strand of velvety-black beard around the corners of his mouth. He had slightly thin facial casts. A sparkling luster could be seen in his eyes whenever he opened and closed them.
A faint smile spread across Shi Mu’s face. This youth was Bai Shi. He had crossed the Black Demon Sect’s threshold with Shi Mu a few years ago. But, he seemed to have matured a lot since then. Moreover, there was a faint aura of Hou Tian middle-stage strength around him.
"Brother Bai, what happened to our Sect? Why are there just a handful of people around?" Shi Mu asked after an exchange of pleasantries between them.
"Hehe… so you’re still unaware of it. Everyone in our Sect is absorbed in the preparation of the annual competition. We all have to participate in this competition!" Bai Shi replied with a smile.
Bai Shi’s heart skipped a beat as he sensed that the imposing aura around Shi Mu's body was even stronger than his own.
"The Annual Competition of the Sect?" Shi Mu said in a surprised tone.
"Our Sect’s Elders announced the resumption of the Annual Competition when they heard that an alliance had successfully been formed between the human and the barbarian races. This year’s annual matches began some time back. The Elders have decided to present astonishing awards to the top-ten rank-holders… as this year’s annual competition has commenced after a long gap of several years. I’ve even heard that the first rank-holder can be awarded with an exceptionally precious thing. Brother Shi, it would’ve been good if you had returned a little earlier. The ranking list of the third-grade disciples has already been declared. Now, you can only enter the ranking-list of second-grade disciples. In any case, Brother Shi’s current cultivation can easily facilitate him to enter the ranks of the second-grade disciples, "Bai Shi explained.
Shi Mu revealed a trace of a bitter smile as he heard Bai Shi’s words.
He hadn’t exactly hurried back here. But, he had almost let a great opportunity slip-by his hands by doing so.
However, Shi Mu was an open-minded and optimistic person. So, he began to talk and laugh merrily with Bai Shi. He desperately wanted to participate in the annual matches in order to obtain resources. He wanted to exchange them for pills that could support his practice of the Art of Breeding Heavenly Elephants. However, he wasn’t in a hurry since he had already attained all the eleven stages of this Art.
"Oh, that’s right. Brother Bai, what rank did you get this time?" Shi Mu asked in an inquisitive tone.
"Haha... I’ll keep it as a secret for now. You’ll know when the time comes," Bai Shi replied with a mysterious laughter.
"And Xiao Ming, is he okay?" Shi Mu didn’t seem to care about Bai Shi’s rank anymore. He then asked.
"Hehe… Xiao Ming is good. Both Lan Feng and Huo Mao turned out safe and sound after the barbarians’ invasion. Fortunately, we’ve already fixed an appointment at the Fragrant River Tavern for the dinner tonight. It seems that you’ve returned at the right time. It would be better if we go together. It’s the same venue where we went before. So, would you like to join our little get-together?" Bai Shi said with a smile.
"I heartily accept your invitation!" It was a bliss for Shi Mu to reunite with his old friends. He was delighted. So, he readily accepted Bai Shi’s invitation.
"Brother Shi Mu, let’s go and see the annual matches. They’ll select the top ten second-grade disciples today. The chosen disciples are qualified to challenge the experts of the third-grade disciples. The competition will be incomparably splendid!" Bai Shi appeared to be in a blissful mood as he turned towards Shi Mu, and invited him to accompany him to see the matches.
Shi Mu complied with him without any hesitation. He was also very curious to analyze the strength of the second-grade disciples.
They headed to the valley that lay between the seventh and the eighth mountain peaks. This was the designated place where the annual matches were held by their Sect.
"Brother Shi Mu, I had specifically inquired about you a few years ago. I then found that your name wasn’t in the list of disciples who died in the battle. Then, why did you return to the Sect after such a long time?" Bai Shi asked out of curiosity.
A bitter smile crawled across Shi Mu’s face. He then recounted his experiences during this period – how he had been doomed with the barbarian’s totem curse, and how he had crept into the barbarians’ wasteland. He withheld the information about the matters that were inappropriate to talk about.
However, Bai Shi was dumbfounded to hear about the things that Shi Mu had disclosed to him.
He had never thought that Shi Mu could sneak into the barbarians’ wasteland on his own. Moreover, he had rescued Princess Huo Wu of the Da Qi Kingdom, and had went to the barbarians’ Holy Mountain with her. In fact, he had even entered into the Portal of the Brave Warriors that Bai Shi had never even heard of before.
His was indeed a strange experience that was loaded with a number of twists and turns. This bizarre experience made Bai Shi look into Shi Mu’s eyes. There was a complicated look in Bai Shi’s eyes; it revealed both admiration and amazement for Shi Mu. His mouth remained open in astonishment for a while.
Bai Shi answered Shi Mu’s questions about his experiences during the barbarians’ invasion. He didn’t have vigorous and intense encounters like Shi Mu’s. But, he did have a narrow escape a number of times.
Shi Mu also learned from Bai Shi that the percentage of causalities had been very high during the war. Almost fifty percent of the total three or four-hundred disciples of their Sect had suffered severe casualties during the war. Even the old disciples like Wild Zhou and Qu Kun had lost their lives during this war. Shi Mu secretly lamented in his heart as he heard this mournful story.
A lot of new disciples had also been recruited in their Sect during these past years.