The man in white looked at him, his expression still pleasant and friendly, "I assume you still have questions, Junior Brother?"
Xiao Chen's eyes narrowed as he studied the two newcomers. "Questions? Of course, I do. If I might ask, who among the five Elders are your masters?"
"This..." The two men shared a look, brief and embarrassed. The man in green answered, "To speak the truth, we are actually Outer Disciples of the Three Pure Sect." He then pointed at a shorter peak beside the main peak.
"Outer Disciples..." The sudden revelation caught the three princes unawares that they began to look sullen as if a pail of icy cold water had been poured over them.
The man in white then continued, "We may be Outer Disciples, but we are not much different from the Inner Disciples of the order. There are ample opportunities for us to be promoted as Inner Disciples."
Seeing that Xiao Chen was looking derisive, the man in green remarked, "We are aware that you have excellent results in your tests. But there are more than a handful of others who have displayed greater potential than you. Our Sect accepts only five fresh Inner Disciples and fifty Outer Disciples per intake. But let it be known that we will never accept not even another once the tally is full."
Prince Qi asked sharply, "What do you mean?"
The man in white replied, "It means that you may reject our invitation to be one of us, the Outer Disciples. But we will find others who might be interested until the count of 50 is met. By then, your only chance of gaining entry into the Sect would only be that five openings for new Inner Disciples."
So, this was the conundrum: they could elect to continue further and seek to enroll as Inner Disciples, but this will see them forfeiting the final chance of being Outer Disciples. However, if anyone were to stop and leave with the pair now, they would directly become Outer Disciples.
Luo Shangyan stood silently without uttering a word. Prince Yan was the first to move, shifting closer to the men in white and green, whispering to his companions, "I think their offer is acceptable. Should we just..."
Prince Zhao and Prince Qi listened quietly. But seconds later, they too relented, "Senior Brother Xiao, Senior Sister Luo... Our apologies..."
Xiao Chen heaved a long and heavy breath, gazing up at the densely-clouded peak. "The journey in pursuit of immortality has never been for the faint-hearted who lack the needful resolve and will. Let us press on, Senior Sister," Xiao Chen said to Luo Shangyan.
"Ah, I hardly care if this is the end or not. I am only curious to see how the top of Lingtai Mountain looks like," said Shangguan Yan nonchalantly. With that, the three companions continued their upward hike.
The companions, now with only three remaining, went on without words. Luo Shangyan was especially silent. Xiao Chen gave a little laugh, "Trouble yourself no more with sad thoughts, Senior Sister. Everyone has a choice of their own and they made theirs, knowing that being Outer Disciples might suit them better. We do not force others to walk the same path as we do."
Luo Shangyan shook her head gloomily; still refusing to say anything. But suddenly, they heard the sounds of huffing and puffing coming from behind them, "Senior Brother Xiao, Senior Sister Luo! Wait up!"
It was the three princes. Xiao Chen laughed enthusiastically, "I thought you have already become Outer Disciples! Why have you returned? Are you here to see us off?"
Prince Zhao held to a tree as he panted hard. Finally, when he regained his breath, he said, "We have decided! It is just as Lady Shangguan here had said, we do not care if we are accepted as disciples or not. But we will step onto Lingtai Mountain ourselves and behold with our own eyes a stronghold of the Immortals!"
"Hear hear! We have gone through thick and thin to reach this far. We must at least see it on our own lest we might have regrets! It is a sacrilege for us, the Three Swordsmen, to just walk off!" Prince Qi quipped as well.
"Hahaha!" Xiao Chen laughed to the sky heartily.
Even Luo Shangyan emitted a stifled giggle. Her eyes were red and moist. "This is good. It is a blessing that you had not left with them," said she.
"Huh? What do you mean?" The rest of the five companions looked at her incredulously.
"Nothing. Let us continue our journey," said Luo Shangyan as she giggled again.
At the foot of the mountain, the young men in green and white were still there. The man in green was the first to speak, "Argh... This is a silly idea by the Second Elder to have concocted such a lame plan to test the will of the fresh aspirants! We have even failed to lure away the three morons! Who else can we fool now?"
"Could it be that you have spoken too much, and they have noticed something wrong?"
"That is impossible. Hush! Look, somebody's here! Let us prepare again to fall from the sky!"
The two young men leaped onto their Immortal's sword and took into the skies once more.
Two hours later, Xiao Chen and his companions finally reached the peak of Lingtai Mountain where they found that they were surrounded by a sea of clouds rolling about around them and silhouettes of divine cranes flying freely in the sky. Into the distance, they could see that there were four other mountain peaks which were of equal height and the five mountain peaks were connected by steel chains. There were majestic and imposing halls build upon these peaks. Marble fences line around buildings of scarlet-red walls and fresh-colored roof tiles. This was the sacred domain of the Immortals.
They were at the first of the five peaks. Standing here, Xiao Chen could feel the Spiritual Qi emanating richly around him; a huge contrast to the grounds below where mortals reside.
The three princes were breathless by the beautiful and extraordinary sight before them. "So, this is where the Immortals live... Our journey has not been for naught..."
"My congratulations to all of you. You are the first group to complete the test," a cheerful voice came from within the thick clouds and mists.
A young man, looking like a true Immortal, appeared from the plumes of clouds. He flailed his sleeves and dispersed the incessant clouds around him. It turned out that they had reached a large square where many young men and women in white robes have congregated. Silent without a word, they regarded Xiao Chen's and his companions' arrival quietly. Some nodded with approving smiles.
"G-greetings... Immortals." The three princes felt their knees giving way. The sudden appearance of so many Immortals made them feel so uncomfortable that they could barely speak.
A disciple, a girl, covered her mouth as she suppressed a laugh. She whispered to a Senior Brother beside her, "The three men are so silly. They addressed us as Immortals."
Dusk was nearing as another couple of hours passed. The setting sun cast a golden luster upon the clouds that looked as if they were burning brightly in gold. The 14 other groups, too, have arrived. What was formerly a thronging mob of 300 aspirants was nothing more than a crowd of a little more than 100 now.
All of a sudden, two bolts of sword radiance fell from the sky and landed in front of everybody and transformed into two men, one in green and another in white. Everyone was shocked by their sudden appearance, "Y-you! Why are you both here!"
The two men roared in laughter, "Hahaha! Congratulations to you all. You have passed the test. The rest who failed are now on their way down the mountain.
Only now did everyone understood as they felt relieved and thankful that they have not made the decision to follow these two men earlier. It was a test to lead them astray. Those that followed them were immediately eliminated from the test. It was as Xiao Chen had said before, the road in pursuit of immortality was tough, and only failure would wait for those who lacked the needful resolve and will. The Three Pure Sect did not require anyone whose heart would waver; hence the test was set by Xingzhen Zi, the Second Elder of the sect.
The three princes could feel cold sweat running down their backs. Xiao Chen smiled thinly; he had long seen through the ruse. Outer Disciples would hardly possess the powers of Lv 5 Qi Refining Realm. He looked around and found both Xiao Wan'er and Xiao Han.
There was but only one person who was sulking despite the reverie around him: Mo Yu. His lackeys numbered 29 when the test began, but now, there were only a little more than ten left. Despite being fully informed about what might come during the test, he could only watch as his flock was led astray into ruin lest he disobeyed his orders.
"Well then. We will now announce the final score for your performances in this test." The two men in green and white announced.
Mo Yu broke into a vicious smile. Despite losing more than ten men, his group still has close to one thousand Octarine Cores. He was definitively certain that he would gain the first place.
Each Core would represent one point. It was beyond any doubt that Mo Yu's group managed to gain the most points. The score was divided equally to all members of his group, including those who were eliminated, all of whom received 30-plus points. The group with the lowest score was expectedly Xiao Chen's group who managed only a measly 200 points. But due to their relatively low number, each of them received close to 50 points.
Hence, the groups with the least members would look to benefit greatly compared to larger groups.
The man in green laughed and continued, "All right. Next, we have the group who has achieved the highest place in this test, Senior Sister Luo's group! Some applause, everyone!" The two began to clap their hands.
But no one else responded. All was quiet across the entire square save for the lone and ludicrous clappings by the two men that slowly faded as even their smiles slowly froze. Everyone was motionless, gaping with disbelief.
Cued by the silence, Mo Yu's angry voice tore through the square, "Have you lost your mind? My group has 900 points and they have only 200. Why is it that they are the highest placed group?"
Surprised by the sudden outburst of rage, the man in green hardly dared to answer. His companion, the man in white, replied weakly, "Please be calm, Senior Brother Mo. It was a sudden amendment of the rules by the elders three days ago, that the highest placed team will be decided based on the average points of a group's members."
"Why did you not inform me of this earlier!"
"I did try to... But you were not listening, Senior Brother..."
"Wretched fool! Go to hell!"
Without so much as a look at the bickering two, the three princes erupted into a euphoria of joy. Their group had achieved the highest place; even if all of them failed to be selected by the Elders themselves, Luo Shangyan would still be able to name one of them to become an Inner Disciple.
Excited and agitated murmurings and chatters could be heard throughout the square. A voice came suddenly, cutting through the air like a blade, "Are these the ones who have passed the test?"
Everything fell into silence. They could hear only the light pattern of footsteps approaching before a young man in his early 20s, dressed fully in white, appeared. Over his back, he carried two Immortal's swords, one red and one white. With eyes as clear as dew and a cheerful face as bright as the sun, the young man radiated strongly with the auric presence of an Immortal.
With a gift of keeping everyone silence with ease, none of the current disciples of the Three Pure Sect dared utter a word before him. Not even Mo Yu dared to squeak. Tame and docile like a lamb, he gasped, "Perfected Immortal Yu."
The young man smiled gently, his demeanor graceful like the fleeting breeze, and answered, "Don't, I deserve not this title. Just call me Senior Brother Yu." He walked to the steps of the square and looked at the remaining aspirants, nodding approvingly.
Xiao Chen's eyes narrowed as he studied the stranger. Who was this man? Why did he look so familiar to him? He seemed to remember the two swords from his past, yet he knew not when or how.
At this moment, a hushed voice nearby asked, "Who is that person, Senior Brother?"
Another disciple, the senior brother of the one who had asked, motioned for him to be silent. Carefully, he said, "An Immortal had come from the Violet Manor a while ago. This man might be one of his disciples. He may look young, but his powers are well above our Elders."
"Ah... So, he is one of the Immortals from the Violet Manor..." The younger disciple stuttered with surprise and amazement.
Xiao Chen kept his head down as he raked his memories for any recollection of the young man. But everything was sketchy; some were clear as day and some were chaotic until he finally remembered. "Brother Yifeng?" Xiao Chen gasped.
It was a faint but accidental spasm that escaped his lips. But it did not go unnoticed by the young man in the chilly silence in the square. He came slowly over. Everyone held their breaths as they watched him stop in front of Xiao Chen.
"Are you... are you Lil Chen?" The young man asked suddenly.