"My respects, Senior Sister Luo! My name is Xiao Chen!"
Luo Shanyan was slightly surprised as she raised her head to look at him. Softly, she murmured, "H-Hello... Junior Brother Xiao." Her head drooped swiftly down again.
Everyone was stunned. As the leading candidate, joining Mo Yu would be the best course of action for him. But what was he doing? Did he not want to complete the trials and fully become a disciple?
A few of the other Inner Disciples noticed Mo Yu's frosty glare and hastily spoke on Xiao Chen's behalf, "If some of you can go to Senior Sister Luo for the sake of balance."
Xiao Wan'er stomped her feet in anger and said, "Hey! We came here together! Why are you not with us!"
"It's probably... Because he once shared a similar fate to hers..." Xiao Han mumbled suddenly.
But as directed by the Inner Disciple earlier, three other people reluctantly came to join Luo Shangyan. This made the rest assume that the three people were rejects that had been sent to Luo Shangyan's group.
"Oh my God! Why does it have to be you three! How is it possible that you three are even alive! It does not suit you here! Come now, let's not wear that frown on your faces. It is you who will be harassing me with trouble in the next round!" Xiao Chen could not believe that the three wretched fools were able to make it.
Luo Shangyan's head rose again, "I am sorry. It is all my fault. Please forgive me, Junior Brothers." With that, her head sank back down again.
Prince Zhao said with a bitter-looking face, "We know you are the strongest, Big Brother Zhao. There is much that I will have to depend on you in the future..."
Xiao Chen gave him a strong slap at the back of his head and said, "Cheeky boy! Behave properly when you are speaking to your Big Brother!"
Prince Yan and Prince Qi followed suit and bowed to Xiao Chen. Their hands clasped tightly before them as a sign of respect, saying, "Our noble lineages hardly matter here, Big Brother. Please, we beg you. Please help us in joining the Three Pure Sect."
Xiao Chen waved dismissively, "All right, all right. I will do what I can, but only so much. The Teacher chooses as he wills. Go along and stand aside." He wiped the sweat off his forehead, suddenly feeling a chill down his spine. Softly, he murmured to himself, "I hope that Ghoulish Woman has gone to some other group."
"Are you speaking about me, Xiao Chen?"
Lo and behold, Shangguan Yan reappeared behind his back like a wraith who would never rest until she possessed him.
Xiao Chen could only smile bitterly, "Ah! Miss Shangguan! It seems that not even the complexities of Qimen Dunjia can hinder you..."
Shangguan Yan giggled sheepishly like an innocent angel. She then smiled at Luo Shangyan, saying, "Greetings, Senior Sister Luo. My name is Shangguan Yan."
Luo Shangyan smiled and nodded in return, saying, "Hello, Junior Sister Shangguan."
The three princes were mesmerized by the charms of the angelic beauty who had suddenly appeared, thinking, "Even though we have all been forced into this wretched group, at least there is still sweetness in the midst of our sorrowful outcome, heh heh heh..."
There was the sound of bells ringing softly through the air suddenly. Xiao Chen felt another chill over his back, swiftly followed by the terrified screams and howls by the three Princes, "Oh my God! Where did all these spiders come from! They are crawling all over me!"
A half hour passed, finally, everyone was all divided into different groups. It was beyond any question that Mo Yu's group was the strongest with a full complement of thirty of the best disciples. The weakest of the groups was Luo Shangyan's, which has only six people; three among them could almost be considered as non-entities.
From the heart of the boisterous crowd, an Inner Disciple stood forward. He raised an arm and called out, "All right then. Silence, everyone! The next test will thus begin: you will all start from here and make for the mountain, atop which is the stronghold of our order, the Three Pure Sect." As he spoke, he pointed at a peak which stood out from a line of mountain ridges in the distant.
"You have three days. There will be demons and monsters lurking about, as well as various traps and formations designed by our Elders to ensnare you. Listen closely to the directions given to you by the Senior Brothers and Sisters leading your group and do not leave the group without permission, otherwise, you might be lost or in danger. The rest of the details will be relayed to you by your Senior Brothers and Sisters. Now come one by one this way."
Led by the leading Senior Brothers and Sisters, the few hundred prospects shuffled slowly towards the gorge. It was a huge and wide valley with many different paths, where the fifteen groups each scattered and set off on their ways.
After traveling for almost an hour, the shades of twilight began to thicken. Even as they grew closer and closer to the domain of Immortals, the creepiness of the dark woods still managed to burrow fear into their hearts.
"No, no, no... I can run no further..." Prince Yan panted, out of breath.
"I suggest we look for a place to rest. I am hungry. We have three days after all. There's no need to hurry," said Prince Qi who was also gasping for breath.
Xiao Chen shook his head and said, "The price of attaining Immortality is never cheap. We still have a long way to go. Politics and intrigues in the royal court might suit you more, I think."
Prince Zhao, who was also chuffing, hugged a tree to steady himself. He said, "All the riches and power in the world is nothing without everlasting life... Without the perpetuity of Immortality, we would still be nothing but dust when we perish... The journey of pursuing Immortality may be hard for us mortals. But are you not a mortal yourself? Surely we can also achieve our dreams if you can..."
Xiao Chen clapped his hands approvingly, "Well said indeed! Alas..." His voice suddenly ended. Instead, he channeled his powers and flicked his finger, sending a projectile of True Qi from his fingers that shot through the air and struck the tree that Prince Zhao was holding on too, instantly killing a venomous snake.
Prince Zhao leaped with shock at the sight of the serpent, "Oh, Mother! Where did the snake come from!"
Luo Shangyan immediately drew her sword, her brows furrowed in alarm. "I am sorry, it is my mistake that I have not noticed the snake." She cast a curious look at Xiao Chen, eager to know the contents of his unfinished sentence.
"Alas, I am no mortal." Xiao Chen revealed bluntly.
He had just finished when a thunderclap boomed from the skies, frightening Prince Zhao who whimpered, "We are in the domain of the Immortals... We must be careful of what we speak, lest we would be assailed by lightning from the sky..."
Trying to mask his embarrassment, Xiao Chen feigned a cough and said, "Let us stop with the chatter and continue."
As the darkness of night was upon them, they finally found a cave where they thought they could stay for the night. The three Princes were about to enter the cave when Luo Shangyan exclaimed, "Wait! There is a magical formation set here by the Elders!"
The three immediately scampered backward, saying, "God, no! Are the Elders so sadistic!"
Luo Shangyan's head shook as she said, "No. This is also a test. My points will also be deducted if you have fallen into the trap. Let me see if I can break it." With her sword, she shot a few Sword Qi projectiles at the mouth of the cave. The auric bolts flew and struck harmlessly upon a shimmering wall of light that materialized before the cave.
Minutes passed as night beckoned. The cries of crows could be heard through the gloom of the coming darkness. Yet, still, the magic that guarded the entrance of the cave could not be broken. Beads of perspiration glistened on Luo Shangyan's forehead. "I am sorry. It seems that I am unable to undo the magical formation conjured by the Second Elder."
"Ah... What can we do then? I heard that the demons will come out of their hiding place in the night to hunt for preys..." Fear and panic were beginning to appear on the faces of the three Princes.
"I am sorry. It is all my fault. My cultivation is so low that it now brings trouble to us. I am sorry..." Luo Shanyang said, her head hanging with disappointment over her shoulders.
"No matter. Everything will be all right. Demons are nothing to be afraid of, in truth," said Prince Zhao with a giggle as he scratched the back of his head.
Xiao Chen walked to Luo Shangyan, shaking his head softly as he smiled. He held her wrist and raised her arm, aiming at the mouth of the cave and channeled his powers, sending bolts of True Energy that shot forth and shattered the magical defenses of the cave.
"Junior Brother Xiao... You..."
Xiao Chen smiled thinly in response and said, "I have once studied a little on magical formations."
The three Princes then scoured the surroundings for firewood and lit a small fire in the cave. Luo Shangyan then revealed to them the details of their current test, "At dawn tomorrow, we will start to look for something called the Octarine Core. The more we find, the more points we have. Of course, we will also have to prevent conflicts from our fellow disciples."
Xiao Chen's brows rose inquisitively, "Prevent conflicts with others? Does it mean that we can steal or plunder for the Cores?"
Luo Shangyan's head dipped slightly as a tacit nod, gesturing her muted approval. Her head then rose as she continued, "But we are all fellow disciples of the same order, nonetheless. This rarely happens, unless..." At that, her head sank once more.
But Luo Shangyan kept her head down, giving no more answers. Xiao Chen then understood that her Octarine Cores must have been taken away by her fellow disciples last time. He smiled assuredly, "Worry not, Senior Sister Luo. We will not have any 'unless' happen again."
"Indeed! Be at ease, Senior Sister! With our combined efforts, we will guard our Octarine Cores well!" The Three Princes voiced their agreement, through their mouths full of food.
Xiao Chen looked at them and saw them eating some strange fruits. He asked them, "From where did you find these?"
"Ah! We found these when we were foraging for firewood. Why don't you have one? It is sweet to the taste," said Prince Zhao as he took another bite on his fruit with a hand offering one of the fruits to Xiao Chen.
"Ah! This is bad!" Luo Shangyan exclaimed suddenly, her hand over her mouth. "I am so sorry! It is my mistake! I have neglected to inform you that you must not simply eat the fruits around here."
"What happens if we eat them?" Prince Zhao asked, his eyes blinking with interest.
Xiao Chen pointed at Prince Yan who was at his back. Prince Zhao turned and looked, only to find Prince Yan dancing wildly, his hands flailing about, "Hahahaha! I am the most beautiful person in the world! Come you all! Prostrate yourself before me and give me your allegiances!"
Frightened, Prince Zhao yelled, "You! Insolence... Hahahaha! I am the most beautiful person in the world, not you..."
"Preposterous! Only I am the most beautiful person under all heavens! You two should come and accompany me to bed!" Prince Qi screamed as he, too, began to dance and stripping off his clothes.
Xiao Chen slapped his forehead with disgust. "What profanity and misbehavior! Ghoulish Woman, deal with them if you please."
Shangguan Yan clasped her hands together before her chest. Shaking her head, she cast a spell. There was a soft chime of ringing bells and all three princes collapsed into a deep slumber.
"What... What happened to them?" Luo Shangyan asked anxiously.
"No matter. I have cast a sleeping curse on them."
It was deep into the night when the stars above glittered brightly. Shangguan Yan had already fallen into sleep, leaning on the wall of the cave. Xiao Chen noticed that Luo Shangyan was still awake. "Why are you still not asleep, Senior Sister?" Xiao Chen asked.
"No matter. Go ahead and rest. I am remaining on guard."
Xiao Chen stared at her, taking note of the faintly trembling eyelashes in the flickering glow of the firelight. He asked, "Are you a native of the Serene Province, Senior Sister?"
Luo Shangyan threw another branch into the fire, shaking her head. "I know not myself. My teacher found me by a river."
Xiao Chen felt a sore in his heart, is it so, he mused to himself. He was once an orphan too in his past incarnation. His teacher, too, had found him left alone in the mountains.
The pair fell into a reverie of their past recollections as a lethargic voice rose from the heap of sleeping princes, "Halt! Drumstick! Don't move..."