The sun was disappearing over the horizon and, with twenty thousand silver in his pocket, Shi Mu stepped out of the smithy and began to head back to his house. It was a rather successful day, earning such a large sum of money by doing such an easy job. He began to wonder if he would come across such a good opportunity again.
As he was walking around a cliff, a large building entered his sight, it had a spire reaching into the sky and it was covered with grey tiles. The valley was home to a large number of various buildings, so he had not seen it when he went to the blacksmith’s forge. Now, given his slower pace and open mind, he saw it looming at one corner of the valley, with a huge board hung above its gate, saying “The Hall of Magic”. A few dozen disciples were standing in front of the gate, looking eagerly into the hall, but no one really entered it. This aroused Shi Mu’s curiosity, making him slow down his pace.
Right at this moment, a gust of wind rolled out of the hall and blowing sand blurred the vision of those there. The force of the gale pushed the crowd back several steps.
A black figure flashed past the crowd, flung against the gate by the forcible wind, making a dull thud as it fell onto the ground.
Shi Mu was out of the gale’s range when he neared the building, so he was lucky to not have been involved. He stared hard at the black figure, which turned out to be a young man with dark skin, looking close to Shi Mu’s age, but he was tightly tied up by blueish-green branches like a zongzi [A]. Only his head and feet sticking out.
Having been flung out of the hall, he was, apparently, badly injured. Rolling over on the ground, he groaned, his face twisted in pain, unable to rise from the ground.
Two young men, who seemed to be the hapless youth’s acquaintances, rushed out of the crowd, but stopped short of his body, remaining some distance from the hall with their eyes looking timidly in.
“How dare you waste my time with your lack of talent!” An old, irritated voice came out of the door. The speaker seemed rather annoyed.
The dark youth struggled several times to get back to his feet but failed. Finally, with his two acquaintance’s help, he rid himself of the branches. With a flushed face, he looked into the gate and protested, “That’s not true! I’ve asked some specialists to check to see if I have what it takes, and they said that I had the talent to be an Adept. Moreover, I’ve already begun learning the basics!” The youth’s face was blushing, he objected over his wounded pride.
“Humph! Some ‘specialists’? Don’t you dare compare them to me! Everyone knows the cost to train an Adept is ten times that to cultivate a Warrior to the same level. Do you think I’d waste countless resources on you, an Adept that can only sense one basic element? The weakest of those that I train can make the crystal shine with a Grade Three brightness!” The voice grew even more impatient.
The youth with dark skin was deeply humiliated by such a remark. With an embarrassed face, he quickly walked away with his two companions.
“Whoever wants to test their talent better come with a sober mind! If you waste my time I won’t go easy on you! I’ve got better ways to wake you up. “ The voice resounded again, this time with a tinge of viscousness, followed by a dead silence in the hall.
The crowd sank into a quiet shock. After some time, they began to whisper to each other solemnly. Shi Mu finally understood, by overhearing some snatches of different conversations, that this ‘Hall of Magic’ was the place to test if you were born with the talent to become an Adept, therefore increasing your position in the sect. But this was no free service. Anyone dreaming of becoming an Adept needed to pay the test fee of three thousand silver. Moreover, the examiner was an old, queer guy, who would humiliate anyone who had no talent.
The discussion, outside of the hall, continued for a while. Though some of the braver guys were eager to test themselves, thinking of the misfortune befalling the previous disciple, they left with discouraged hearts. From then on, no one dared to enter the eerie hall.
Shi Mu had a moment’s hesitation too. But the status of an Adept beckoned him, reminding him of the missions exclusive to Adepts, which had excellent pay. With a touch of his pocket, bulging with silver notes, he steeled his heart and entered the gate.
The crowd was astonished, seeing someone entering the hall after what had happened. Filled with curiosity, they began to talk about Shi Mu’s identity, putting their heads together and whispering quietly, as if sharing some top secret information.
Shi Mu continued his steady steps into the hall, disregarding the droning noise of people talking about him. A broad corridor, over ten meters in length, led to a spacious, sombre hall, devoid of any decorations. On the left side was laid a vast desk, made of red sandalwood, behind which sat an old man in a grey robe, completely focused on reading a yellow scroll. On the right stood a round stone platform, half a meter high, its surface covered with strange characters. Crystal columns, around a ⅓ of a meter in diameter, surrounded the platform, and though each one had was colored differently, each crystal column was painted with nine check patterns, looking extremely enigmatic.
After having a clear look at the platform and the columns, Shi Mu wore an expression of surprise. The old man behind the vast desk looked up from the scroll after hearing Shi Mu’s footsteps. The man was rather small in stature, with sandy hair and triangular eyes. His mouth stuck out and his chin looked like an ape’s - an appearance dominated by an unkind expression.
The elder rolled his triangular eyes, scroll in hand, and glanced contemptuously at Shi Mu, without even rising from his seat.
“Another dreamer? ...Name and level.” The grey-robed elder snorted coldly, going through the motions as he asked for Shi Mu’s basic information.
“My name is Shi Mu, a new disciple. I just entered our sect two months ago”, Shi Mu answered with clasped hands.
The grey-robed elder sized up Shi Mu with an insulting look, then snorted, “Haven’t you seen what happened earlier? Do you think you have amazing luck or were you just born with a stupid amount of courage?”
Shi Mu’s color changed, but he took the humiliation without responding.
“I’ve seen enough of you guys, so many that you make me sick. The Hall of Magic is the place where we sift real Adepts out of you useless idlers, not a scenic spot for you to come and explore after buying a ticket. Better save your money and leave with your body still intact.” The elder started at Shi Mu and spoke with hatred.
“Senior, since your humble junior has entered, he must have had made up his mind. Here are three thousand silver notes, please spare some of your valuable time to test him.” Shi Mu took out three silver notes from his pocket and put them, respectfully, on the desk. On his face was a look of firmness and persistence.
This surprised the grey-robed old man. He spent some time observing this strange youth with his old eyes narrowed, but, no matter how hard he examined Shi Mu with his eyes, Shi Mu would still stand their firm and unperturbed.
“Humph, you’ve got guts.” The grey-robed man’s eyes became more focused. A spark of doubt flashed across them. He gave another snort and slowly rose from his chair.
“Come over here and stand on that stone platform.” The elder was now standing near the platform, a jade ruler in his hand. There were colorful characters printed on the ruler, looking somewhat similar to the patterns on the stone platform.
Seeing that his chance had come, Shi Mu cheerfully strode to the platform, as told. Then the grey-robed man began to mutter something to himself. Soon his body began to glow with green light, which was slowly absorbed into the jade ruler in his hand. The characters lit up, and they were flashing too. The grey-robed man waved his arm, soon a colorful light shot from the ruler, which then flew to the stone platform.
A droning noise echoed in the hall, while the patterns, on the round platform, began to glow in various colors. Meanwhile, the air seemed to start shaking with the loud noise.
Shi Mu had no idea what was happening. He was now shrouded by colorful lights. As this was happening, a warmness welled out from the floor beneath his feet, streaming into his body and traveling throughout it, before it returned to the stone platform.
The patterns on the platform now seemed rather dim, but the crystal columns were showing some changes.
One blue column, one red column, and one black column lit up simultaneously. The light seemed to have penetrated the columns from the bottom and begun to fill them. Among them, the blue crystal column was lit with only one check pattern, the red column two, and the black one was shining brightly, with all five check patterns filled!
The grey-robed old man could not be more astounded at the sight.
Translator’s note: yes our boring hero was still standing obediently on the platform, knowing nothing at all. Maybe he’s thinking, [why are you people around me always “being astonished”? What’s there to be astonished? Give me another face, will you? Will you do me this favor if I give you 1 silver?]
[A] - (It’s like a rice ball wrapped in leaves) I don’t really know how to put this into other words (without changing this entirely, so instead I give you an internet link! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zongzi