As Shi Mu stepped down from the stone platform, the grey-robed old man regained his equanimity. However, Shi Mu did not forget the trace of excitement that had crossed the old man’s face earlier. Therefore, he asked in a tentative voice, “Senior, have I passed? I think the test showed that I ranked at, at least, grade three in a sensing ability of some type.”
“Well...you may be right.” The grey-robed old man gave Shi Mu a measured look with his funny triangular eyes, and his expression again became inscrutable.
“Senior, was there something wrong with my test?” The old man’s answer was exhilarating, but his face was ominous. Shi Mu could not help but start to feel queasy.
“Adepts are different from warriors. One’s element-sensing ability practically decides his potential. We, of the Big Sects, have this common view that Adepts whose element-sensing ability falls below Grade Three have little hope of entering the Star Grade. So it would be a waste of resources to train them. The threshold is Grade Three. If you pass it, we will see if we want to train you. If one of your elements-sensation ranks higher than Level Five - which means, five checks on the column are lit - you’ll have a small chance of entering Moon Grade in your Adept practice. That’s theoretically speaking, of course.” The old man stopped sizing Shi Mu up, and made the explanation, after some thought.
Hearing this long story, Shi Mu involuntarily cast a hopeful look at the black column he had lit, his heart leaping up.
The old man noticed Shi Mu’s excitement. Nodding his head, he seemed to be both feeling sorry for and marveling at Shi Mu’s potential. Speaking slowly, he went on with his explanation, “I wish you had made one more column light up with five checks, apart from the black and white ones. If so, our sect would treasure you tremendously. I have to admit that the black crystal column you have lit stands for a spatial sensing, which is exceedingly rare amongst all the sects, next to the temporal sensing. Throughout the history of our sect, no one has ever inspired spatial sensing, so we barely have any arts for this element. It is most closely related to the arts of spirit Adepts and formula Adepts. But, of course, an unfitting art won’t get you far. It’s almost impossible for you to be an Adept of high level. Have I made myself clear?”
The old man’s words made Shi Mu bitterly disappointed. But, after thinking for a second, he cleared his mind of misgivings. After all, Shi Mu had entered the hall without much hope, therefore, even if he could only become an Adept of the lowest level, it was still a big gain. If memory did not fail him, many tasks, with good offers at the Hall of Wealth, were available to Scholars[A]. Thinking this, Shi Mu became too excited to wait.
“Could I ask if I am eligible to become a Scholar? “ Shi Mu asked worriedly, seeing that the blue column and the red column both failed to shine with more than three checks.
“Absolutely!” The grey-robed old man answered without hesitation.
“So can I choose to become a formula Adept?” The positive answer from the old man made Shi Mu incredibly excited. He could not keep himself from asking the question that concerned him most.
“You don’t have any other choices but to become a formula Adept or spirit Adept?” The old man rolled his eyes impatiently.
His words, though somewhat harsh, were music to Shi Mu’s ears. Now all he could think of was the lucrative tasks at the Hall of Wealth.
“This is not the real Spirit Hall, where one registers to become an Adept. Come with me!” The old man had seen too many who would forget how to walk on their feet the moment they heard they could be an Adept. Leaving Shi Mu in his daydream, the old man walked further into the room and gently touched an ordinary looking wall. Then a faint sound came from the wall, as a panel receded, leaving a doorway the size of an adult man.
Shi Mu hurriedly follow the old man, marveling at the intricacy of the hidden door mechanism as he went.
The passageway, inside the secret gate, was not a long one. Soon the two of them reached a small room. There was not much in the way of decoration in the room, except for a huge round design printed on the center of the floor, surrounded by silver patterns and strange characters.
“Come on in, what’s holding you up?” The old man was already standing at the center of the circular design on the floor, and seeing that Shi Mu was still looking around with mouth wide open, he spoke impatiently.
Shi Mu woke from his reverie and quickly walked in. Then the old man took out a yellow paper charm and flicked his wrist. The charm caught on fire quickly and left the old man’s hand, turning into a yellow ball of light that was enveloped by a strange energy. The light ball quickly moved to the floor and merged into the intrinsic design.
The air was filled with a droning noise, as energy vibrated invisibly. The silver patterns and characters seemed to come alive began to light up and swirl. White smoke rose up from the floor and rolled into the air. Shi Mu and the old man disappeared from the room.
Shi Mu felt a familiar dizziness. Before he knew it, he found himself in an underground hall, which was made of some blue wood he had never seen before. The floor space of it was small but, due to the emptiness of the hall, it seemed rather spacious and grand. The ceiling was decorated with several luminous pearls, the size of a fist, illuminating the whole space. A wall of magnificent blue jade stood at the center of the hall, and a huge bronze incense burner, shaped like some animal’s head, was in front of it. A thick purple candle was inside the burner, it was not burning now but, obviously, had been used before.
After a quick survey of the hall, Shi Mu’s eyes were finally fixed on the huge jade wall. Over a hundred marks were printed on the wall: The top two were light red star-shaped marks. The next eight marks were green and shaped like clouds. The rest of the marks were white dots. All the marks were glowing mysteriously, reminding him of what he had learned from Huo Mao the day they drank at the Fragrant River Tavern. Huo Mao mentioned that there were, altogether, ten official Adepts in the Black Demon Sect, and some hundred unofficial Adeps at the Scholar level. This seemed to be an explanation to the marks.
“Keep your mouth shut and don’t look all around!” The grey-robed old man suddenly reproached with a solemn face.
Shi Mu was startled, and thus meekly stood behind him, not daring to make a sound. The atmosphere grew rather strained in the hall, which seemed to satisfy the old man tremendously. He nodded and walked up to the burner, waving his hand gently above it.
The candle caught fire immediately, a visible wisp of smoke curling up from it.
The old man quickly bowed to the air in the most respectful manner.
After some time, a red light came out from the first red star mark on the wall, and something faintly visible swirled above the burner for a while before fully revealing itself. Shi Mu stared hard at the vague silhouette, which turned out to be a middle-aged man with a long black beard.
“Master Xie!” The grey-robed old man bowed to the silhouette, his head bent humbly.
[A] - Adept rankings:
Scholar (not considered a full-fledged Adept yet)