“Give me a second to collect your pills and you will be good to go!”
The handsome young laborer smiled and made a gesture to another laborer behind him, who gave a quick and neat nod and worked his way to one of the shelves. After taking three blue bottles from the shelf, he quickly returned and handed them to his handsome colleague.
Shi Mu took the three bottles, now in his hands, and open the lid of one to sniff the contents. A pungent scent made him frown. He gave a swift glance at the pill inside, a bean-size, bright red pill lay quietly down at the bottom of the bottle - exactly as described by the Art of the Heavenly Elephant. The sight of the pill overjoyed Shi Mu. He paid the money readily and stored the bottles in his shirt. Then, a vigorous male voice resounded from his back, “Brother Bai, I see your friend has chosen the Art of the Heavenly Elephant!”
Shi Mu was surprised by the voice. He slowly turned around to see the voice’s owner, and found two young men standing behind him. One was rather stout, his face craggy, with deep-set eyes and bushy brows, whereas the other was the long-haired Stone Bai.
“Brother Shi, this is my senior brother Huo Mao. We only met recently, but I found out that we actually grew up in the same place. Isn’t that crazy?” Seeing that Shi Mu was carefully looking over his companion, Stone Bai flashed him a disarming smile and hurried his introduction.
Shi Mu was now growing suspicious of this Stone Bai, who had claimed that Xiao Ming, Fang Tianxu and this guy were all coming from his home country. What are the chances of this actually happening? He began to wonder which place had bred so many talented martial arts scholars.
“Nice to meet you, Brother Huo. My name is Shi Mu. I would like to ask, how did you know which art I decided to practice?” Shi Mu first greeted the craggy-faced youth with clasped hands then asked with a puzzled face.
“Haha, it’s no big secret. It’s all pure coincidence. I, myself, almost picked this same art too, but later abandoned the idea because the Bone-Tempering Pill is so damn expensive.” Huo Mao grinned. “Brother Shi, I’m not sure if you know this but the Bone-Tempering Pills have the marrow of some holy animal in them, so it’s too expensive for ordinary disciples to afford them. Moreover, the Art of the Heavenly Elephant seems simple but actually it’s not, plus, its strength is not that great. That’s why so few have chosen this art.” Huo Mao explained to Shi Mu, wondering if he even knew this. And if he did, why had he still chosen this unfavorable art?
A hint of bitter smile flashed across Shi Mu’s face. How could he make them believe the strange events that had happened to his body, making him fit for the Art of the Heavenly Elephant?
“Brother Shi, I’ve invited Brother Huo to have a drink, why not come along?” Seeing that the two had spoken, Stone Bai invited Shi Mu to join them.
Shi Mu hesitated for a while. Since all newcomers had a year free of challenge, and now, with the newly acquired Bone-Tempering Pills, he did not want to lose a minute increasing his strength. Just as he was about to decline the offer, Stone Bai said something that dispelled his idea, “Brother Shi, we’ve just entered our sect, but brother Huo has been here for a while. He’s kindly agreed to answer any question we have about our techniques and arts.”
Shi Mu was delighted. He immediately replied, “Why not? I’ve got no plans for today, so let’s have a blast!” Shi Mu nodded to Huo Mao, smiling cheerfully,
The craggy-faced young man’s eyes shone with excitement, “Sure, when it comes to drinks, the more the merrier!” He had not even finished speaking when he started leading them out of the hall and to a tavern. Shi Mu did not quite get what was happening, but Stone Bai gave him a meaningful look and he realized that they were going to buy their senior brother drinks for information.
The three of them left the Sweet Pills Market and laughed all the way to a two-storey building called Fragrant River Tavern. Stone Bai reported his name to the servant and they were soon led to an independent room on the second floor.
Just as he entered the room Shi Mu saw the big-mouthed Xiao Ming sitting by a table full of delicious cuisines, and a jar of fragrant wine was giving off a strong scent which made Huo Mao’s eyes fill with excitement. Huo Mao could not wait any longer; without any words of pleasantry he chose a seat and poured himself a bowl of wine, downed it within a breath.
“Good wine!” The wine streaming down his throat and he felt a burst of hot air surging in his stomach which made him exclaim happily.
Stone Bai sensibly poured another bowl of wine for Huo Mao and then for himself, the two beginning to drink together. Shi Mu quickly picked up how to behave in this situation and began to down the wine with them, asking Huo Mao questions every now and then.
Soon three rounds were finished, and most of the dishes had been eaten. The three were now acquainted enough to broach the topic of arts and sects. Stone Bai and Xiao Ming seized the chance to seek answers to their long-harbored questions, and Huo Mao was forthright and spoke without reserve.
Seeing that Stone Bai and Xiao Ming had most of their questions answered, Shi Mu suddenly thought of Uncle Ju, at the General Sutras House, and his strange parrot. Now a rare chance had come his way and he would not let it slip through his fingers. He decided to ask Huo Mao about magicians.
“Magicians? You mean Uncle Ju of the General Sutras House?” Huo Mao looked up at Shi Mu and spoke with a suspicious smile.
Magicians were rare in the Black Demon Sect, and for newcomers, the only magician they could get to know was Uncle Ju. So it was quite normal for them to get curious.
Shi Mu nodded to Huo Mao. Every time he recalled the obscure charms, queer patterns, and enigmatic characters, a strong urge to learn of them would seize him. Now he found that he was not alone. Stone Bai and Xiao Ming were also waiting for the answer, their faces full of interest.
“Well, I will tell you if you wish to know, but let me ask, do you know how many magicians we have, among the thousands of disciples in our sect? Heh, the answer is a few hundred. And, most of them are mere Scholars. In our sect, magicians of the Spirit Grade, like Uncle Ju, number less than eight, and as for the higher level, magicians of Star Grade, there are even fewer. As their titles suggest, magicians cannot be considered magicians until they’ve reached Spirit Grade. Scholars are not counted as magicians That means, as one of the seven powerful sects in Three Kingdoms, we, the Black Demon Sect only have some ten-odd real magicians!” When he said this, Huo Mao, deliberately and looked at the three newcomers gaping speechlessly. Only when he was contented, did he look up and say in a proud voice, as if he himself were a magician,
“Do you know why magicians are so important to our sect? The weapons, pills, charms and even the making of magic formulas all depend on them! So, to some extent, you can say that they are the real strength of a sect. But to be a magician is not that easy. You have to be born with magical talent, and then learn enough holy knowledge to sense the power of five basic elements: Gold, Wood, Water, Fire, Earth. But those born with magic talent are much rarer than practitioners able to sense qi!” Saying this, Huo Mao seemed somewhat envious of magicians.
Shi Mu was full of envy too. But he suddenly thought of something and asked, “I heard that Uncle Ju is a spirit master. What does that mean?”
“Hehe! I never thought you knew this much. Now, you’re asking the right person, others probably wouldn’t know this. So, magicians are divided into several different types, according to their talents and areas of research. Most commonly seen are magicians of the five elements: Gold, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth, with a small number of magicians using wind, thunder, ice, darkness, or light. There are also Incantation magicians skilled at magic charms, magicians of magic formations, magicians of alchemy and medicine-making, and magicians of manipulating puppets. As for magicians of souls and spirits, they can communicate with creatures from other strange spaces via their own soul power, and they are even rarer than puppet-controlling magicians.” Huo Mu threw Shi Mu a complacent smile, explaining while making pompous gestures. His words finished, Huo Mu downed another bowl of wine. Stone Bai hurriedly filled his bowl again.
Shi Mu sat there, musing over what Huo Mu had said, and making sure to remember all of it. He decided to gather more information on this area of practice.
Then the four enjoyed themselves, talking about this and that until they, eventually, drank up three full jars of wine. At dusk they bid each other goodbye and went their separate ways.