Luo Shangyan kept silent but her fingers remained on the hilt of her sword warily. The young woman in red laughed chirpily as she strode closer to them. Silkily she said, "Surely there is no need for such tenseness when a Senior Sister meets a junior of hers?"
Xiao Chen observed the person, remembering that she was called Wen Qingyu, a disciple of the Fourth Elder, and a Cultivator of Lv 6 Qi Refining Realm. He tugged at Luo Shangyan's sleeve and simply said, "Let us leave, Senior Sister. The night is upon us soon."
Wen Qingyu cast a simple look to her subordinates. At once, more than ten of them immediately leaped into the way of Xiao Chen and his companions. With a frigid voice, Xiao Chen growled, "What do you want, Senior Sister?"
Wen Qingyu giggled and looked at Luo Shangyan, "Oh my! Look at this, Senior Sister. Does he not have a temper, this little apprentice of yours? Does he not know any manners?"
Looking at the bunch of ten people standing in their way, Prince Zhao came forward, showing a jade medallion, "Impudence! I am the Prince of the State of Zhao! Are there any citizens of the State of Zhao here? Come forward at once!"
Four people slowly slithered away from the group blocking the way. Spurred by this, Prince Yan, too, came forward with his jade medallion, "Those from the State of Yan, leave at once!"
"Anyone from the State of Qi! Do you still value your life!?" Prince Qi too flashed his jade medallion.
The three princes stood at the front of the companions. Only two remained in their way; both of them were Tibetans. But cowering before the difference in number, they swallowed hard and drifted back to Wen Qingyu's side miserably.
Prince Zhao turned and glared at Wen Qingyu, "You refused to lead us, Senior Sister Wen, even we are endorsed by your own master. But what do you intend to do now?"
Unabashed, Wen Qingyu remarked off-handedly, "You only have yourselves to blame. You are the ones who have followed the wrong lead!"
"Curse you! Then why did you refuse to lead us? We would have been forced to return if not for Senior Sister Luo!" Prince Zhao barked and spat onto the ground.
Wen Qingyu stared at them coldly, "Do you think you three useless wretches are worthy of learning the arcane crafts of the Immortals? Enough squabbling! I want 50 Octarine Cores. Surrender them or none of you shall hope to reach the top of the Lingtai Mountain!"
"That is so imposing of you, Senior Sister Wen. So, do you intend to shed some blood here if we refuse to surrender our Cores?" Xiao Chen asked simply, his expression still calm and composed.
"The gazes of the Elders do not reach this far... Don't you ever think that I lack the nerve for committing murder..." Wen Qingyu hissed insidiously.
"Why do you not try and see if you can..."
Xiao Chen's eyes took on a deathly look. Luo Shangyan might have long been giving in too much to the dogged bullying and coercion of her peers. But the rules would be changed, starting from now. He would never give in to duress and intimidation. With already a rivalry with Mo Yu, Xiao Chen was confident that one more would hardly be too many. Anticipating another bout of combat, he focused and channeled his powers to all his main aperture points.
The Mystic Cyan Sect had a method called the Immolation Spell of the Three Elements. It allowed its user to enhance his powers for a short duration albeit with a terrible cost after its use: the spell would consume and damage its user's heart and meridians. Hence, all disciples of the Mystic Cyan Sect were prohibited from practicing this spell. But it was by chance long ago, that Xiao Chen had once managed a glimpse on this forbidden skill.
Luo Shangyan placed her hand on his shoulder and channeled some of her True Qi into him and dispersed the True Qi that was accumulating and concentrating within him. She then replied to Wen Qingyu, "All right then. We will surrender our Cores to you, but only twenty of them."
Wen Qingyu shook her head, "No no no, Senior Sister. You do not hold the cards here. I do."
"We are, after all, fellow disciples of the same order," said a voice suddenly, "Surely there is no need for such animosity. Senior Sister Luo has but so few of them. Please do not inconvenience them, Senior Sister Wen. You can have my 50 Cores."
From afar, they saw a young man dressed in white garb. There were more than ten people following closely behind him, including Xiao Wan'er and Xiao Han. It was the group led by Cheng Ying.
Wen Qingyu turned and smiled frostily at him, "My oh my... It is Junior Brother Cheng. What makes you think you are worthy to barter with me?"
Cheng Ying shook his head, "Please, Senior Sister Wen. Please trouble them no more." He gestured towards Xiao Chen and said, "That young man, our Junior Brother Xiao, is, after all, the person endorsed by the Sect Leader himself."
"Ah? So, he is the one endorsed by the Sect Leader himself. That explains his haughty temperament," Wen Qingyu remarked, her face turned cruel suddenly. "But what makes you think that I will look kindly upon a person he endorsed when I look upon his own True Disciple with disdain and contempt!"
"The Sect Leader is presently absent from the fastness of our stronghold. Please trouble Senior Sister Luo no more, or I'll have to offend you," said Cheng Ying.
Luo Shangyan frowned and said, "Please, Junior Brother Cheng... Say no more..."
Wen Qingyu threw her head back and shrieked in laughter before she fell silent and beheld them with a cruel stare, "Well then, let us see how a Lv 6 Qi Refining Realm Cultivator offends me!" Her Immortal's Sword shot out of its sheath and shot at Cheng Ying like a white flash of light. Its tremendous speed and intensity whipped the fallen leaves into the air, shuddering the branches and boughs of the trees in the woods. Even the onlookers witnessing their duel could feel the sting of its intensity prickling upon the flesh of their cheeks.
Cheng Ying recited some incantations and his fingers twirled as he performed some magical seals. His sword flew out of its scabbard too, meeting its match in mid-air and clashed with it, sending a strong shockwave that shook the woods. Feeling a powerful force like a huge and indomitable mountain before him, Cheng Ying was being forced back. Not being able to hold on, he was sent flying backward for meters.
"You! You have reached the stage of Lv 7 Qi Refining Realm?" Cheng Ying gaped with disbelief at Wen Qingyu. Despite the difference of merely one level, the gap between the strength of both stages was vastly different; Level 6 was one of the intermediates stages of the Qi Refining Realm whereas Level 7 was in its late stages.
"Hahaha!" Wen Qingyu broke into another bout of maniacal laughter, proud of her strength. She returned into her icy demeanor and spat, "How dare you, a mere Cultivator of Level 6, to speak haughty words before me. Your master is but merely Level 8 of the Foundation Building Realm. Even if she is here today..."
But her voice had not fully escaped her throat, when a cold voice came from the boughs of the trees above, "So here I am. What do you make of this?"
A woman clothed fully in white stood proudly and sternly while remaining perfectly steady despite standing on a branch. It was Bai Ying, the Third Elder of the sect. Wen Qingyu immediately turned pale. She bowed hastily and clasped her hands as a gesture of reverence, "My respects to you, Third Elder!"
Cheng Ying came up to his mentor with his head drooping unto his chest, saying, "Master..."
From her perch, Bai Ying looked down at him indifferently, "Did you intend to ride to a damsel's distress with that paltry skills of yours?"
Her words pricked deeply into him that his head sunk even lower. Through the thick of the leaves, he could almost make out the profile of her face. Absent-mindedly, he murmured, "Master..."
Bai Ying shot a look at him, frowning, "You silly one. Hold your horses. You are still far away from truly becoming my disciple."
Xiao Chen then regained his senses; he had erroneously mistaken her for his former master. He too bowed and apologized, "My apologies, Elder. I have mistaken you for somebody else."
Bai Ying was however amused and she broke into a faint giggle, "Silly one. But you are an interesting one, I suppose. Surely you will not address any girl as wife and tell her that you have mistaken her for someone else later?"
Xiao Chen remained speechless. But when he looked up again, she had already gone.
Wen Qingyu wiped off her cold sweat. Knowing better than to remain, she hurriedly led her band of minions and left. Cheng Ying came over to Xiao Chen and his companions, "Are you all well?"
Luo Shangyan shook her head. "We are. Thank you so much earlier, Senior Brother Cheng."
"Don't mention it. The sun is setting soon. Let us stay together for now."
As they continued, Xiao Chen slipped a question to Cheng Ying, "Is that your master earlier, Senior Brother Cheng? She looks so young."
Cheng Ying chuckled in reply, "She is close to a hundred years old actually. But she had managed to achieve bodily immortality so long ago, hence she managed to maintain her youth."
Xiao Chen was amazed by this. "Is this true that even mortals are able to achieve bodily immortality?" Xiao Chen was positively certain that he had heard Wen Qingyu mentioned that she possessed powers only of Lv 8 Foundation Building Realm.
Hearing this, the three princes and the followers of Chen Ying's group were also astounded. "This is true immortality indeed!" cried the princes.
Cheng Ying laughed. "Nay," he said, "This is still far from true immortality. In truth, my master's cultivation is the lowest among the five Elders. But she is the only one that achieves bodily immortality. Most Cultivators of the Core Forming Realm, including the legendary Nascent Soul Realm Cultivators, have been no closer to achieving this feat. I myself know little of this."
"Bodily immortality, eternal youth... Now that I think of it, Mother, too, seems to never age..." Xiao Chen shuddered, remembering how insistent his mother was to forbid him from pursuing the Immortal's practice. Before he left home, she had slipped to him a strange medallion. He shook his head hard, trying to purge all disturbing thoughts from his mind.
The following day, Cheng Ying's group went on their separate ways. It was the final day. Lingtai Mountain was within reach now. Looking up at the cloud-filled mountains, Xiao Chen could not help feeling excited. His goal of joining the Three Pure Sect and making another step closer to immortality was within sight.
But this time, his true purpose was not to achieve true immortality and unravel the mysteries of immortality but to find out the secrets about his past and locate his master. He knew full well that his journey to his objectives would surely be a strenuous and precipitous climb.
With Xiao Chen's knack of clearing traps and magical barriers, the companions made their way unhindered. By noon, they have reached near the peak of Lingtai Mountain. Even the three princes, given their usually loquacious disposition, were silent now; their minds were filled with thoughts of their own.
The three princes could not have been more aware. It was only due to Xiao Chen and Luo Shangyan that they had made it this far. They would never have survived the ordeals on their own. Were they truly unfit for the practice of immortality? Were they, as others had mentioned, truly useless and good-for-nothing wretches?
Slowly and gradually, they began to question the purpose of coming here.
Xiao Chen spun and looked at them. He laughed loudly. "Why are you not talking to each other?" He asked them. "Are you secretly plotting against each other to join the sect?"
The three princes awakened from their dull lethargy and hurriedly waved their hands in denial. "No, no, no! Together we've come and together we will leave. We will not remain even if one of us fails..." But their voice trailed off. The three sighed and their heads sagged sadly.
Luo Shangyan had remained silent all the while. She full well knew herself; it was inevitable that more than half of the fresh aspirants would be culled when the three-day test ended.
Xiao Chen broke into huge laughter. "You are indeed the Three Swordsmen! To think that you share such brotherhood!" But he turned serious suddenly, "Indeed, I have once mentioned that countless trials and tribulations abound the road to immortality. But there..." He pointed up at the peak where mist and fog veiled its mystics from their naked eyes, "... Is the end yet also a beginning. With steeled resolve, even a mortal can achieve immortality!"
His words resonated deeply with the three princes. They rose their heads and nodded, renewed with hope and inspiration.
At length, they were close by the foot of the main peak. Two bolts of Sword Qi rained from the sky suddenly before them and transformed into two men; one clothed in green and the other in white. The pair rushed forward at the companions and addressed Luo Shangyan respectfully, "Senior Sister Luo."
Xiao Chen looked closely at them. They clearly held Luo Shangyan in higher regard than the rest.
Luo Shangyan nodded at them, "My greetings to you both, Junior Brothers."
The three princes came forth and asked expectantly, "Have we passed the test? Are you here to receive us?"
The young man in green smiled and spoke nicely to them, "Indeed, we are disciples of the Three Pure Sect."
This was strange. Were the disciples here not of the Three Pure Sect? Could there be disciples of other sects around, such as the Cold-billow Sword Sect or the Skygale Sect as well?
The other man in white smiled faintly, "Junior Brothers. You are all blessed with extraordinary physical qualities and Spiritual Meridians. It is destined that you should join us."
The three princes leaped with joy, hugging each other tightly with exuberance. Prince Yan even sobbed happily, clenching his fist as he looked into the eastern sky, "I have not disappointed you, Father! I am now a student of the arcane arts!"
The three were formerly worried and distressed that they would not pass the test; and the admonishment, the contempt, and disdain that they had suffered during the test had hardly helped with their confidence and spirits. The praises of the two men were the spurs that stimulated them.
The man in green snickered and said, "Shall I lead you three back to the sect?"
"Now? Of course!" Prince Zhao cried out loud.
But Xiao Chen felt something was not right. He stretched an arm and yelled, "Now wait just one minute!"