I Shall Seal the Heavens
Chapter 1: Scholar Meng Hao
The State of Zhao was a very small nation [1. The State of Zhao is named after the historical State of Zhao]. Like other small nations in the lands of South Heaven, its people admired the Great Tang [2. The Great Tang is named after the historical Tang Dynasty] in the Eastern Lands, and they admired Chang’an [3. Chang’an is named after the historical Chinese city Chang’an]. Not only did the king carry this admiration, all scholars in the State of Zhao did. They could see it, almost as if they stood atop the Tower of Tang in the capital city, oh so far away.
This April was neither extremely cold, nor scorching hot. Light winds caressed the land, passing the Qiang Di flutes of the Northern Reaches, blowing over the lands of the Great Tang. Under the twilight sky, it lifted the fog-like dust, then swirling, twisting, reached Mount Daqing in the State of Zhao. Then it fell onto a young man who sat there on the mountaintop.
He was a lean young man, holding a bottle gourd and wearing a clean blue scholar’s robe. He appeared to be about sixteen or seventeen. He was not tall, and his skin was somewhat dark, but his bright eyes sparkled with intelligence. And yet, all his intelligence seemed to be hidden by the frown on his face. He seemed lost.
“Failed again…” He sighed. His name was Meng Hao, an average student from Yunjie County, which lay at the foot of the mountain [4. Meng Hao’s name in Chinese is 孟浩 (mèng hào) – Meng is a family name. Hao means “great” or “many”]. Years ago, his parents went missing, and did not leave much behind in the way of assets. Education was expensive, so he was almost completely broke.
“I’ve taken the Imperial exams three years in a row. In all that time, I read books written by the sages until I wanted to throw up. Maybe that isn’t the path for me after all.” Filled with self-deprecation, he looked down at the gourd bottle, his eyes bleak.
“My dream of becoming an official and getting rich just keeps getting farther and farther away. I might as well forget about trying to reach the Great Tang… How useless to be a student.” He laughed bitterly. Sitting there on the silent mountaintop, gazing at the bottle gourd in his hand, he looked increasingly lost. He began to feel fear. What would he do in the future? Where would he go?
Perhaps a high-ranking official would take an interest in him, or a beautiful young maiden. Or would he continue to take the exams, year after year?
There were no answers to the questions. He was but a teenager, and this feeling of being lost had devoured him like a giant invisible mouth. He truly felt afraid.
“Even the teachers in town can only make a few pieces of silver. That’s worse than Uncle Wang’s carpenter shop. If I’d realized that earlier, I could have learned some carpentry skills from him. At least then I wouldn’t be starving like I am now.” He grew silent for a while.
“I don’t have much food or money left at home. I owe Steward Zhou three pieces of silver. What am I going to do?” He raised his head and looked up at the sky, blue and grand. It was so large you could not see its ends. Much similar to how he could not see his future.
After a while, Meng Hao shook his head and took out a slip of paper from his robe. He read it carefully, placed it in the gourd bottle, then stood up and threw the gourd down the mountain.
At the bottom of the mountain was a wide river which never froze during the winter, and was said to flow all the way to the Great Tang.
Meng Hao stood on top of the mountain, watching the gourd bottle drift further and further along down the river. He stared unblinking. For a moment, he seemed to have glimpsed his mother, and the happiness of his childhood. The gourd carried his dreams, his wishes, and his hopes for the future. Perhaps one day someone would pick it up, open it, and read the note.
“Regardless of what I do, be it study or work, I will keep on living.” This was his personality: intelligent and determined. If he wasn’t this way, he would not have been able to survive after his parents left.
He raised his head toward the sky, the stubborn look in his eyes growing deeper. He was about to head down the mountain.
At that exact moment, he heard a weak voice coming from a nearby cliff. The sound seemed to be borne along by the wind. As it passed Meng Hao’s ears, it was almost too faint to notice.
Meng Hao stopped for a moment, shocked, then listened carefully. As he concentrated, the sound of the voice calling for help grew stronger.
He walked a few steps forward until he had nearly reached the edge of the peak. When he peered over the edge, he saw a person, his body sticking out of a crevice halfway down the cliff. Pale face full of fear and desperation, he cried for help.
“You… you’re Meng Hao, right? Help, Scholar Meng! Help me!” It was a teenager. As soon as he saw Meng Hao, he expressed surprise and happiness, having suddenly found hope in a desperate situation.
“Wang Youcai [5. Wang Youcai’s name in Chinese is 王有才 (wáng yǒu cái) – Wang is a common family name. Youcai means “to have talent or ability”]?” Meng Hao’s eyes grew wide as he looked at the young man. He was the son of Uncle Wang, who owned the carpentry shop in town. “How did you end up here?”
Meng Hao looked at the crevice. The cliff itself was quite steep, and it seemed impossible to climb down. The slightest carelessness would send the climber falling into the river.
Considering how fast the river flowed, if you fell in, the chances of dying were about ninety percent.
“It’s not just me, there are other people from nearby towns,” Wang Youcai gushed. “We’re all stuck here. Brother Meng, let’s not chat, please, just help us get out.” Perhaps he had been hanging out of the crack for too long. His hands grasped at the air, and if not for his compatriots, who grabbed him by the shirt, he would have slipped and fallen down the cliff. His face turned pale with fear.
Meng Hao realized the danger. But he had climbed the mountain alone today, and had no rope. How could he save anyone? At that moment, he turned and realized that the mountainside was covered with rattan vines.
As frail as he was, it took him two hours to find a rattan vine that was long enough. Breathing heavily, he dragged the rattan to the cliff. Calling out Wang’s name, he bent over and lowered the rattan down the cliff.
“You still haven’t told me how you got down there,” Meng Hao said as he lowered the vine.
“By flying!” It was not Wang Youcai who spoke the words, but another young man who stuck his body out of the crevice next to him. This boy looked feisty and intelligent, and spoke with a loud voice.
“Bullshit! You can fly?” mocked Meng Hao, pulling the rattan vine back up a bit. “If you can fly down here, then why don’t you fly back up?”
“Don’t listen to his nonsense,” said Wang Youcai, clearly worried that Meng Hao wouldn’t lower the rattan vine back down. “We were captured by a flying woman. She said she’s going to take us to some Sect to be servants.”
“More bullshit?” said Meng Hao dismissively. “Only Immortals from legends can do that. Who believes in that?” In books he had read, there were stories of people who became rich after meeting Immortals, but it was all just lies.
Just as the rattan reached the crevice, Wang caught it. But then, Meng Hao suddenly felt a cold wind behind his back. From the temperature around him, it seemed winter had returned. He shivered. He slowly turned to look back, then screamed and stepped forward into emptiness, beginning to fall off the cliff.
He had seen a woman in a long silver robe and pale face, standing there staring at him. It was impossible to tell her age. She was extremely beautiful, but radiated a coldness that made one feel as if she had just crawled out of a grave.
“Sometimes when you find certain things with certain qualities, it’s just fate.”
When the voice hit his ears, it felt like bones rubbing together. This woman seemed to possess some sort of strange power, and when Meng Hao looked into her eyes, his whole body felt ice cold, as if she could see through him. As if he could hide nothing from her.
Her words still floating through the air, she shook her wide sleeve, and suddenly, a gust of greenish wind picked up Meng Hao. He flew down the cliff with her. His mind went blank.
When they reached the crevice, the woman waved her hand and threw him inside. As for her, she stopped moving, as did the greenish wind. Wang and his three friends scurried backward in fright.
The woman stood there, not saying a word. She raised her head and glanced at the rattan vine.
Meng Hao was so nervous he had started shaking. He stood up, glancing around quickly. The crevice was not spacious, and was in fact quite narrow. Even with only a few people inside, there was not much room.
His eyes fell on Wang and the two other young men. One was the clever fellow; the other one was clean and pudgy. The two of them shivered, looking as if they might cry from fear at any moment.
“I was short one person,” said the pale-faced woman. Now she looked at Meng Hao instead of the rattan. “I’ll put you in with them.”
“Who are you?” asked Meng Hao, concealing his fear. He was an educated person and had a strong personality. Despite being afraid, he controlled himself and did not panic.
The woman said nothing. She raised her right hand and waved, and the green wind appeared again. It lifted up all the young men, and they flew out of the cave together with the woman, shooting up into the sky. They disappeared. Left behind was only Mount Daqing. It stood there, straight and tall, merging in the darkness of twilight.
The blood drained from Meng Hao’s face. He saw himself within the green wind, crossing the sky. As he flew above the ground, wind blew into his mouth, making it impossible to breathe. A word appeared in his head.
“Immortals?” He held his breath for the amount of time it would normally take to breathe ten times, until he couldn’t hold on any more. Then he passed out.
When he opened his eyes, he found that they had landed on a platform paved with green stone, halfway up a mountain. More rolling mountains surrounded them. Clouds and fog drifted about; this was definitely not the mortal world. The beautiful peaks of the surrounding mountains looked very strange.
Wang and the other young men woke up, scared and shivering. They stared at the back of the woman.
Standing in front of her were two Cultivators wearing long green robes. They appeared to be in their twenties. They had sunken eyes with fear-inspiring green pupils.
“Excellent work, Elder Sister Xu,” said one of the men, his voice flattering. “You found four talented young babies.”
“Take them to the Servants’ Quarter,” said the woman, her face cold, not even looking at Meng Hao and the others. Suddenly, her entire body transformed. She became a rainbow and then disappeared into the mountains.
By this time, Meng Hao had recovered his composure. He stared, numb, at the place where the woman had disappeared. An expression appeared on his face which had not appeared there for sixteen years. His blood boiled.
“Servants?” he thought. “If the work is for Immortals, the pay must be good.” Now that he knew the people didn’t want to kill them, he took a step forward.
“Sister Xu has reached the seventh level of Qi Condensation,” lamented the second of the Cultivators. “The Sect Priest bestowed a Wind Pennant upon her, which means even though she isn’t at the Foundation Establishment stage, she can still fly.” He looked arrogantly down at Meng Hao and the others.
“You and you,” he said pointing at Wang and the clever young man. “Follow me to the Southern Servants’ Quarters.”
“What is this place?” Wang asked, his voice and body both shaking as the Immortal pointed at him.
“The Reliance Sect.”
Chapter 2: The Reliance Sect
The Reliance Sect, located within the borders of the State of Zhao, on the southern edge of the lands of South Heaven, was once first among the Four Great Sects. Even though it was still famous in the Southern Domain, it had experienced a decline in recent years and did not maintain the glorious position it once had. Nowadays, compared to the other Sects within the State of Zhao, it could only be considered inferior.
Actually, it hadn’t always been called the Reliance Sect. But a thousand years ago, a Cultivator appeared who caused a great sensation in the Southern Domain. He’d called himself Patriarch Reliance, and had forced the Sect to change its name as such. He’d trod roughshod over all the other Sects in the State of Zhao, plundering their treasures, remaining unrivaled for some time.
But things were different now. Patriarch Reliance had been missing for nearly 400 years. If it were not for the fact that no one knew if he was alive or dead, the Sect would already have been swallowed up by some other Sect. It was past its glory days. Considering the lack of resources in the State of Zhao, and pressure from the other three Sects, if they wanted to get new recruits, they were forced to kidnap people to act as servants. There was no way they could open their doors to recruit openly.
Meng Hao followed the green-robed man along the small paths that wound among the mountain peaks. The surroundings were garden-like, with strange rocks and odd-looking trees everywhere. Amidst the beautiful scenery, extravagantly decorated buildings with jade roof tiles rose up out of the clouds and mist. Meng Hao sighed continuously. Sadly, the fat teenager next to him wailed the entire time, somewhat ruining the mood.
“I’m finished, really finished…. I want to go home,” muttered the fat teenager, tears rolling down his face. “There’s mantou waiting at home, and fish. Dammit, dammit. I want to inherit the family land, become a rich old man, and have a few concubines. I don’t want to be a servant here.”
He muttered under his breath for the time it takes to drink half a cup of tea, until the green-robed man turned. “If you spout one more bit of nonsense,” he said coldly, “I’ll cut your tongue out.”
The fat teenager suddenly trembled violently, his eyes shining with fear, but he shut his mouth.
When he saw this, Meng Hao began to reconsider how wonderful the situation might or might not be. But he had a persistent personality, so he took a deep breath and maintained his silence.
After a while, when they reached a point about half way up the mountain, Meng Hao saw a row of flat buildings emerging from the roiling fog.
Seven or eight young people wearing hemp robes sat outside the buildings. They looked exhausted. As Meng Hao and the others approached, the young people noticed them, but did not call out any greetings.
Some distance away, a young man wearing a light blue robe sat on a crag. His face was long, almost like a horse, and his robe was obviously more expensive and fancy than those worn by the other youths. Though his face was cold, when the green-robed man approached leading Meng Hao, the young man stood and greeted him with cupped fists.
“Greetings, Elder Brother.”
“These are two newly arrived servants,” said the green-robed man impatiently. “Please arrange for their accommodations.” With that, he turned and left, not even glancing at Meng Hao and the other young man.
After he left, the horse-faced young man sat down again, crossing his legs and coldly glancing over Meng Hao and the fat teenager.
“This is the Northern Servants’ Quarter,” he said in a cold, emotionless voice. “The Reliance Sect does not support slackers. Now that you’re here, you will work for thirty years, upon which you can leave. If you try to escape, well, there are many wild beasts in these lonely mountains, and you will certainly die. Go retrieve your work uniform. From now on, you are isolated from the mortal world, and will work peacefully as a servant.”
The fat teenager trembled even harder, his face filling with despair. Meng Hao remained calm. In fact, deep within his eyes was an indescribable sparkle. The horse-faced man noticed. He had held this position for many years and had seen many young people captured to be servants, but had never seen anyone as calm as Meng Hao.
“If you have a good temperament,” he said lightly, “you may not need to labor for the full thirty years. You can practice cultivation in your time off. If you manage to reach the first level of Qi Condensation, then you will be promoted to the Outer Sect.” He flicked his wide sleeve, whereupon two hemp robes appeared in front of Meng Hao and the fat teenager. On the front of each robe was a wooden badge the size of a thumb, engraved with the character “Servant.”
In addition to the robe, there was also a small booklet, upon the cover of which was written three characters: “Qi Condensation Manual.”
As soon as Meng Hao laid eyes on the characters, he began to breathe hard. He stared at the booklet and recalled how when discussing the cold-faced woman, the green-robed man had mentioned the seventh level of Qi Condensation.
“We can become Outer Sect disciples when we reach the first level, but that woman has already reached the seventh level… what is Qi Condensation? Perhaps that is the way to become an Immortal, like they talk about in stories.”
If that was the pay he would receive from his work, well, it might not be money, but it would be worth hundreds of pieces of gold in the outside world. Meng Hao’s excitement rose. He grabbed the robe and used it to wrap up the badge and booklet.
“The East Seventh house is where you will live. Starting tomorrow, your job is to cut wood. Ten logs each, every day. You are not permitted to eat until your chopping is finished.” He closed his eyes.
Breathing deeply, Meng Hao imitated the young man and saluted with clasped fists, then walked toward the house, followed by the fat teenager. The building appeared to be a siheyuan courtyard dwelling that had been expanded multiple times. Following the signs, they located the seventh one, then opened the door and entered.
The room wasn’t large. It contained a table and two small beds, and though simple, was quite neat and tidy. The fat teenager sat down on one of the beds, then, unable to hold it in anymore, began to cry.
He was about 12 or 13 years old, and he cried loudly. It surely echoed outside.
“My father is a Lord, and I’m supposed to be a Lord too. I’m not supposed to be a servant.” He seemed extremely distraught, and his fat little body trembled.
“Stop crying,” said Meng Hao, trying to comfort him. “Think about it. It’s not that bad here. We’re working for Immortals. How many people would envy us if they knew?” He quickly closed the door.
“I don’t want to work for other people,” he replied. “My marriage has already been arranged and engagement gifts sent. My poor, beautiful lady hasn’t even married me, yet is already a widow.” The more he cried, the more heartbroken he grew.
A strange expression appeared on Meng Hao’s face. This fat teenager was still young, he thought to himself. I can’t believe he’s been promised a wife, yet has never even felt the touch of a woman’s hand. He sighed emotionally, thinking about how amazing it would be to be rich. This fat teenager’s family is so rich that he never has to worry about food or clothing. And yet I have nothing. Even after selling my ancestral home last year, I still owe Steward Zhou a lot of money.
Thinking of the money he owed made him laugh. Now that he was here, Zhou could come to chase after him for the money if he was strong enough. If not, he would be dead by the time Meng Hao left.
The more he thought about this place, the better he felt about it. He didn’t need to worry about money, or lodging or food. He even got payment worth hundreds of pieces of gold, and that was before he even started working. Considering that this was a dwelling-place of Immortals, it could truly be said that he had unexpectedly been rescued from a desperate situation.
The fat teenager’s crying had begun to annoy him. Ignoring him, he pulled the manual out from the hemp robe and started reading. After reading the first line of the first page, he felt shocked.
“A person should have something to rely on. If you are a mortal who desires riches and titles, if you are a Cultivator who wants to live a life free from worry, join my Reliance Sect. You can rely on me.” That was the introduction to the manual, and it was signed by Patriarch Reliance.
Even though it was only a handful of words, they were filled with an indescribable power. It was both an invitation and a description of the Reliance Sect. Meng Hao felt numb, and then, everything suddenly made sense.
“The Reliance Sect. Is this the meaning of the Sect? People must find something to rely on; when they find the Reliance Sect, then they will be rich, powerful and free from worry.” It made more and more sense. He realized that if he’d had an official to rely on, he would never have failed the examinations three times in a row. He sighed, his respect growing for Patriarch Reliance, whom he had never actually met. With that one sentence, it seemed as if a door in his life had suddenly opened.
“In other words, I have to find someone to rely on while I’m here. If I do, I won’t have to worry about anything.” His eyes grew brighter as he continued to scan the manual. Soon, he lost track of time, and didn’t even notice the fat teenager crying next to him.
The fat teenager finally cried himself to sleep around midnight, whereupon his snores began to reverberate around the room like thunder. Meng Hao reluctantly closed the manual. Even though he felt very tired, his eyes were filled with vim and vigor.
“This book isn’t worth 100 gold, it’s worth 1,000!” he said to himself. For someone who had always dreamed of becoming a rich official, something worth 1,000 gold was worth more than anything except his life.
In his excitement, he noticed that the fat teenager’s snoring had ceased. He looked over, and saw that the young man had sat up in bed and was waving his arms around and muttering.
“I’m gonna beat you to death! How dare you steal my mantou! I’m gonna bite you to death! How dare you steal away my wife!” As he talked, he got off the bed, his eyes still closed, waving his fists angrily. Then, amazingly, he grabbed the table and bit the corner hard with his mouth, leaving a deep mark. Then he went back to sleep and began to snore.
Meng Hao watched him for a bit, just to confirm that he had been sleepwalking just now. Then he looked back to the bite mark, realizing that he should never provoke the fat teenager when he was asleep. He inched away from him, then looked down at the manual again, feeling excited.
“The ninth level of Qi Condensation is the path to being an Immortal. Working for them, I have a chance to become an Immortal myself. That is the biggest payment possible. If I become an Immortal, I must have a chance to become rich.” Meng Hao gripped the manual, his eyes shining brightly. He had finally found another path besides studying for the exams.
At that moment, the door was kicked open with a bang, and a loud “harumph” sounded out.
Chapter 3: Promotion to the Outer Sect
“You went to sleep early. Now it’s time to wake up for Grandpa Tiger!” The door shook as it opened, and a tall, strong man entered wearing servants’ robes. He glared fiercely at Meng Hao and the fat teenager.
“Starting today,” he said angrily, “you two little bastards will chop ten trees per day for me, each. Otherwise, Grandpa Tiger will flay you alive.”
“Greetings, Grandpa Tiger,” said Meng Hao, scrambling off the bed and standing there nervously. “Maybe you could quiet down a…” Before he could finish speaking, the large man fixed his eyes on him.
“Quiet farts! You think I’m speaking too loud?”
Looking at his fierce bearing and large stature, Meng Hao hesitated, then said, “But… the Elder Brother in charge of servants already assigned us to chop down ten trees per day.”
“Then chop an extra ten for me,” he said with a cold harrumph.
Though Meng Hao said nothing, his brain spun. He had just arrived in the Immortal’s Sect, and was already being bullied. He didn’t want to give in, but the man was so big and strong, and he himself was clearly too weak, unable to fight back. Then he glanced at the table, and noticed the bite marks. Thinking back to how strong the fat teenager had been in the clutches of his dream walking, he had a flash of inspiration. He suddenly yelled at the sleeping fat teenager.
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, the fat teenager sat up, eyes closed, shouting, his face twisted with furious savagery.
“Who’s stealing my mantou? Who’s stealing my wife?” he cried, leaping out of the bed. “I’ll beat you to death! I’ll bite you to death!” He began striking randomly around the room. The big man stared in shock, then took a step forward and made to slap the boy.
“You dare to shout in front of Grandpa Tiger!” His slap landed on the boy’s face, but then the big man cried out. The fat teenager, eyes closed, had bitten down onto the man’s arm. No matter how the man shook his arm, the boy refused to let go.
“Stop biting me, dammit. Stop biting.” This man was a servant, not a Cultivator. He had been a servant for a long time, and his body was strong, but the pain had caused him to break out in a cold sweat. He punched and kicked, but couldn’t make the fat teenager loosen his jaw even the slightest bit. The harder he hit, the deeper the boy bit. The man’s flesh was mangled, and it seemed as if a chunk were about to be ripped off.
“What’s the ruckus?”
It was the voice of the horse-faced young man. As soon as the big man heard it, he began to tremble in fear. Despite the horrible pain which twisted his face, he ceased his screaming.
“It’s not a good idea to upset the Elder Brother in charge of servants,” said the big man hurriedly. “There’s no benefit to continuing this. Quick, stop biting me! I don’t need the ten logs.”
Meng Hao never imagined the fat teenager’s dream state would be so intense, and also wanted to stop the situation. He walked forward and lightly slapped the fat teenager, then whispered into his ear.
“The mantou is back, and so is your girl.”
The young man suddenly relaxed and released his jaw. Continuing to punch the air, he returned to his bed, his face covered in blood, then fell back to sleep.
Giving another nervous glance toward the fat teenager, the big man left without saying another word.
The following morning at dawn.
As the morning sun filled the sky, the sound of bells filled the air. It seemed to carry with it a strange power; as people heard it, they woke and began their work. The fat teenager woke up. He looked down dumbly at the marks on his body. He touched his face.
“What happened last night? How come my whole body hurts? Did someone beat me up?”
Meng Hao dressed silently for a while before speaking.
“Nothing happened. Everything seemed normal.”
“How come my face feels swollen?”
“Maybe it’s mosquitos.”
“Then how come my mouth has blood on it?”
“You fell out of bed last night. Several times, in fact.” Meng Hao opened the door and stepped out, then stopped and looked back. “Look, fatty,” he said in a serious tone, “you need to grind your teeth more often, sharpen them up.”
“Oh? My dad used to say the same thing,” he said in surprise, gingerly putting on his robes.
Each of them was responsible for ten trees. Around the Northern Servants’ Quarter, the wild slopes were covered with trees. Although the trees were not big, they were very dense and spread like an ocean as far as the eye could see.
Carrying his servant’s axe, Meng Hao rubbed at his shoulder. His arm felt both numb and painful. The axe was heavy. Off to the side, the fat teenager panted as they climbed. Eventually, they found a suitable area, and the sound of chopping axes gradually rang out as they began to work.
“My dad is super rich,” said the fat teenager with a long face. He raised his axe. “I’m gonna be super rich too. I don’t want to be a servant… These Immortals are strange, and they have magic. What do they need fire for? And why do they need us to chop down trees for them?”
Unlike the garrulous fat teenager, Meng Hao was too tired to speak. Sweat showered off of him like rain. Because of his poverty in Yunjie County, he hadn’t been able to eat much meat and as such his body was weak. He didn’t have much energy. After the space of time it takes half an incense stick to burn, he leaned up against a tree, breathing heavily.
He looked at the fat teenager, who, though he was so tired he trembled, he continued to curse under his breath and chop at the tree. He was younger than Meng Hao, but a lot stronger.
Meng Hao shook his head bitterly and continued to rest. He pulled out the Qi Condensation Manual and examined it again. Following the description in the manual, he attempted to sense the spiritual energy of Heaven and Earth.
Time passed, and soon it was dusk. In his day of work, Meng Hao had managed to cut down two trees. The fat teenager had managed to cut down eight. By pooling them together, it was enough for one of them to eat. They consulted for a bit, and then the fat teenager went to get some food which the two of them shared in their room. Then they fell to sleep, exhausted.
Eventually, the fat teenager’s snores filled the room, and Meng Hao struggled to sit up, his eyes filled with determination. Ignoring his hunger and exhaustion, he picked up the Qi Condensation Manual and started reading it again.
“When I used to study for the examinations, I would usually stay up reading until dawn. I’m used to being hungry. As for my life now, it may be tiring, but at least I have a goal. I can’t believe that after failing in the Imperial examinations, I will fail in Cultivation.” Stubborn persistence shone in his eyes. He lowered his head and began to study.
He continued on until late in the night, until he finally fell asleep, although when exactly that was, he didn’t know. As he slept, his dreams were filled with thoughts of sensing the spiritual energy of heaven and earth. The bells woke him up in the morning. He opened his bloodshot eyes, yawned, and got out of bed. Then, along with the energetic fat teenager, went back to chopping wood.
A day, two days, three days… time continued on until two months had passed. Meng Hao’s wood-felling ability slowly grew until he could chop down four trees in a day. But, most of his time was spent trying to grasp the meaning of spiritual energy. His eyes grew more and more bloodshot. Then one evening around dusk, as he sat panting in mediation, his body suddenly vibrated, and he felt a prickling numbness in his limbs. Then, it seemed as if tiny wisp of invisible Qi condensed within his flesh and blood, then seeped out of his body.
After that, he felt a strand of spiritual energy appear inside him. It disappeared almost instantly, but Meng Hao opened his eyes excitedly. His exhaustion disappeared, and his bloodshot eyes grew whiter. His body trembling, he clutched at the Qi Condensation Manual. He hadn’t eaten or slept much in the past months. Other than chopping down trees, he spent almost all his time on spiritual energy, and now, at long last, he had some results. He felt as if he were filled with power.
Time passed in a flash, two months, and now it was the eighth month of the year, summer. Broiling sunlight fell from the sky.
“Condense the Qi into the body, fuse and disperse it, open the blood vessels and Qi passages, resonate with heaven and earth.” It was noontime in the deep mountains near the Reliance Sect. Meng Hao used one hand to stoke the bonfire in front of him, and the other to hold the Qi Condensation Manual, which he studied intently.
He closed his eyes for the time it takes an incense stick to burn, sensing the delicate strand of Qi within his body. This was the Qi which had appeared two months ago, and Meng Hao regarded it as a treasure. The strand was clearly much thicker now. Using the mnemonics and circulation technique described in the manual, he sat in meditation, allowing the Qi strand to move about his body.
After a short time, Meng Hao opened his eyes and caught sight of the fat teenager approaching quickly, carrying his axe.
“Well, how is it?” panted the fat teenager as he ran up. Though fat, his body was strong.
“I still can’t disseminate it throughout my entire body,” said Meng Hao with a laugh. “But I’m quite confident that within a month, I’ll be able to reach the first stage of Qi Condensation.” Belief filled his demeanor.
“What I meant was, how is the chicken?” He licked his lips as he looked at the bonfire.
“Oh, pretty much done,” said Meng Hao, also licking his lips and pulling back the branch he’d been using to stoke the fire. The fat teenager used his axe to dig through the soil and pull the chicken out. It was fully cooked now.
A fragrant aroma filled the air. They split the chicken in half and began to wolf it down.
“Ever since you were able to get some spiritual energy,” said the fat teenager, his lips covered in grease, “you’ve been able to catch wild chickens. Compared to now, the first two months here were like a nightmare…” This was his new practice, to flatter Meng Hao.
“A lot of people get food out in the wild, you just don’t know about it, that’s all.” As Meng Hao spoke, he took a bite out of a chicken leg, making his speech a bit garbled.
“Ai, if you really reach the first level of Qi Condensation next week and become an Outer Sect disciple,” said the fat teenager, his face bitter, “then what will I do? I don’t understand any of those mnemonics.” He looked at Meng Hao expectantly.
“Look fatty, the only way you can get home is if you become an Outer Sect disciple,” said Meng Hao, dropping the chicken leg and looking him in the eye.
The fat teenager sat quietly for a while before giving a determined nod.
Six days flew by. It was night. The fat teenager was already asleep, and Meng Hao sat cross-legged in his room, meditating. He thought about how other than wood-chopping, he had spent all his time these past three months in sensing spiritual energy. He thought back to two months ago, when the strand of Qi had first stirred within him. He breathed deeply, closing his eyes and causing the strand of spiritual energy to circulate throughout his body. Then, a loud sound reverberated in his head. Up to now, he had been unable to disperse the Qi throughout his entire body. But just now, he had succeeded, diffusing the Qi to every corner of his body. He felt as if his body were floating.
At the same moment in which Meng Hao achieved the first level of Qi Condensation, the horse-faced young man sitting on the big stone outside slowly opened his eyes. He looked in the direction of Meng Hao’s house, then closed his eyes again.
At dawn, under the envious eyes of everyone in the Northern Servants’ quarter, Meng Hao walked out of the room that had been his home for the past four months. He stood in front of the horse-faced youth.
The fat teenager didn’t come with him. He remained in the doorway watching Meng Hao, determination filling his eyes.
“You reached the first level of Qi Condensation in four months. You’re not quite outstanding, but not stupid, either.” The horse-faced young man looked at him, his expression no longer cold. Calmly, he said, “Now that you are going to the Outer Sect, I must explain to you the rules there. Every month, Spirit Stones and medicinal pills will be distributed there, but it is not prohibited to take things by force from others, or to gang up. There is a Public Area there that some people call the Killing Zone. You … you will need to look out for yourself.” As he finished speaking, he lifted his right hand, whereupon a jade slip shot out and hovered in front of Meng Hao. He grabbed it.
“Imbue spiritual energy into that jade slip and it will lead you to the Treasure Pavilion in the Outer Sect. That is where you will register your promotion.” The horse-faced young man closed his eyes.
Meng Hao said nothing. Clasping his fist in salute, he turned and glanced at the fat teenager. They looked at each other for a moment, and Meng Hao felt emotion welling up in his heart. He chose not to dwell on it. He pinched the jade slip, which then began to glow with a green light, and gradually floated forward.
Meng Hao followed it, slowly leaving the Servants’ Quarter.
He trod a narrow road which led away from the main gate, walking further and further away, toward the foot of the mountain. Eventually he reached an area he had never stepped foot into during the past four months.
The Reliance Sect was comprised of four main mountains, with east, west, north and south peaks, respectively. Surrounding them were vast mountain chains which seemed to never end. At the halfway point up each mountain was a Servants’ Quarter. Meng Hao had been assigned to the Northern Servant’s quarter on the Northern Mountain. The way further up was protected by defensive spells. Beyond them lived the Inner Sect disciples and elders.
Each of the four mountains was like this. As for the flat area in-between them all, it was filled with countless houses inhabited by the Reliance Sect’s Outer Sect.
In this respect, the Reliance Sect was slightly different that other Sects. The Outer Sect was located at the foot of the mountain, whereas the servants lived halfway up. This was a sect rule created for unknown reasons by Patriarch Reliance.
From a distance, the entire area seemed to be filled with roiling fog. However, upon stepping foot into the fog, it disappeared. In front of him stretched a scene of carved balustrades and marble steps, of lofty buildings and roads paved with green stone. Outer Sect disciples bustled about wearing green robes. A few of them noticed Meng Hao as he walked past.
Some of them shot him contemptuous glances which lacked even the slightest bit of good intent. He felt as if he were being stared at by wild beasts, which caused him to recall what Elder Brother Horse-face had said about the Outer Sect.
Not long after that, he reached a black building in the southern section of the Outer Sect. It was three stories tall, and despite being black, appeared to have been carved from jade, and almost seemed to be transparent.
As Meng Hao approached, the building’s main door opened noiselessly and out walked a wizened, middle-aged man. He wore a long robe of deep green, and a shrewd expression covered his face. He lifted his right hand in a grabbing motion, and the jade slip flew into his hand. He looked at it then began to speak languidly:
“Meng Hao has been promoted to the Outer Sect. He shall be bestowed with a house, a green robe, a spirit tablet, and a bag of holding. The spirit tablet can be used to enter the Treasure Pavilion to retrieve a magic item.” He waved his right hand, and a gray bag appeared in Meng Hao’s hands.
He looked at the gray bag for a moment, then thought back to one of the Outer Sect disciples he’d passed on the road. That man had a bag just like this hanging at his waist.
The shrewd-looking man looked at Meng Hao, and could instantly tell that he was not familiar at all with the ways of the Outer Sect. Otherwise, how could he be unfamiliar with a bag of holding? Feeling a bit bad for him, he coolly said, “By imbuing the bag with spiritual energy, you can pack many things into it.”
Having heard this, Meng Hao imbued the bag with a sizable amount of spiritual energy. It grew blurry, and then he caught a glimpse of a space inside about half the size of a person. There, he could see a green robe, a jade slip, and some other objects.
At this point, his interest was quite piqued. This bag of holding must be worth at least a hundred gold. It clearly was the product of Immortal hands.
He concentrated, and the jade slip suddenly appeared in his hand. He focused his attention even more and found that inside the bag was a map of the Outer Sect Quarter. In a remote corner was his house.
“Go look at it later,” said the shrewd-looking man coldly. “The Treasure Pavilion is open and you haven’t entered it yet.”
Meng Hao lifted his head and stuffed the bag of holding into his robe. Looking at the opened door of the Treasure Pavilion, he sucked in a deep breath and stepped in, filled with anticipation.
As soon as he entered, his expression changed, and he sucked in a breath.
Chapter 4: A Copper Mirror
The Treasure Pavilion was indeed filled with treasure. Upon entering it, one’s eye would be dazzled with brilliant lights. Neatly arranged jade shelves were filled with a dazzling display of bottles, swords, ornaments and jewelry. Meng Hao began breathing heavily, and his heart started pumping. It felt as if all the blood in his body had rushed to his brain. He stood there, dumbfounded.
In Meng Hao’s short life, he had never seen so much wealth. He felt as if it had submerged him. His brain spun, and he inadvertently thought about grabbing all of it and running away.
“The value of these treasures…” murmured Meng Hao, “… they’re priceless. The compensation for working for Immortals, it’s incredible.” He walked past one of the jade shelves, his expression filled with excitement, unconsciously stretching his head forward. He wondered if the third floor of the Treasure Pavilion was the same as the first, or if it perhaps had even more valuable treasures.
“Immortals… they’re so rich!” Meng Hao heaved a deep sigh. Suddenly, his eyes fell upon something strange. On one of the jade shelves he noticed a copper mirror.
There were traces of corrosion on it. It didn’t seem very special, nor did it glitter. It didn’t seem like it could compare in any way to the treasures around it.
“Junior Brother truly has insight,” said a voice from behind him. He didn’t know when the shrewd-looking man had entered, but he stood there looking at the copper mirror. His voice filled with praise, he continued, “The fact that you picked up that copper mirror shows that you were destined to do so. There are many legends regarding it. The strangest thing is, only those with good fortune and accumulated good deeds in past lives can acquire it. It seems Junior Brother is just such a person. With this mirror, you can lord it over heaven and earth. You definitely have this opportunity.” As the man spoke, he sighed over and over. His voice seemed to contain some strange power which forced Meng Hao to listen to him.
“This mirror…” Meng Hao looked down at it again, a strange expression on his face. It was not covered with complicated carvings, but instead, corrosion, making it very unclear.
“Junior Brother, don’t look at the mirror’s blurriness. You should know that true treasures of a spiritual nature often conceal themselves in ordinary things. The more humble they appear, the more precious they are.” Meng Hao was about to put the copper mirror back onto the shelf when the shrewd-looking man took several hasty steps forward to prevent him. He looked seriously at Meng Hao.
“Junior Brother, the fact that you picked up this object shows that you were destined to do so. Will you really put it back just because it looks ordinary? I have been responsible for the Treasure Pavilion for many years, and I know the origin of all the items here. Many years ago, this copper mirror caused a huge commotion in the State of Zhao. It was created from a ray of light which fell from the Heavens. After acquiring it, Patriarch Reliance studied it in secret, believing it to be a treasure of the Heavens. In the end, he couldn’t unlock its mysteries, and came to the conclusion that it was predestined to fall into the hands of someone who would use it to trample upon heaven and earth.”
It startled Meng Hao to hear the name of Patriarch Reliance. He had just entered the Outer Sect, and there were many things he wasn’t familiar with. He began to hesitate.
“Patriarch Reliance studied it, but couldn’t understand it. I…”
“Your words are incorrect, Junior Brother. Allow Elder Brother to explain: Patriarch Reliance’s lack of success in his studies proves that there is something unique and unusual about this treasure. Before you, ten or more people took it to study it, and though none of them succeeded in understanding it, none of them regretted their decision.
“What if… what if you are the person destined to possess the mirror? In any case, if you take it, you can rest at ease. Of your fellow disciples who took the mirror in the past, most came back within three months, and I let them exchange it for something else. After dealing with me for some time, you will find that I am very easy-going. I don’t want to give fellow disciples a hard time.
“If you take it, but are unable to unlock its mysteries, then you can return it at any time and exchange it for something else. But if you abandon it, and it turns out you were destined to take it, then you will regret it for your entire life.” The shrewd-looking man stared intently at Meng Hao. When he saw Meng Hao hesitating, he laughed to himself. The new disciples were always the easiest to toy with. All he had to do was tell them the story of the mirror’s legend, and the grand words would seduce them. Their hearts would begin to boil.
“But…” Meng had studied and read from childhood, so he was quite intelligent. From the shrewd-looking man’s seemingly earnest expression, he could conjecture that the mirror was not exactly as had been described. But, the man stood there in front of him, clearly determined to prevent him from putting back the mirror. Even dropping it to the ground would be of little use. He began to regret picking it up in the first place.
“Junior Brother,” he said, his face stern, his voice low, “don’t violate the rules on your first day. When you pick something up in the Treasure Pavilion, you are not permitted to put it down.” The shrewd-looking man felt that enough was enough. This was his usual method to get people to take the mirror. He waved his wide sleeve, and a whistling wind picked up Meng Hao, flew him out of the Treasure Pavilion, and deposited him outside.
There was a crashing sound as the main door of the Treasure Pavilion slammed shut.
The voice of the shrew-looking man echoed from inside: “I’m soft-hearted when it comes to fellow disciples. If you truly are not destined to have the mirror, then you can return it in a few days.”
Frowning angrily, Meng Hao looked up at the closed door. Then he sighed and looked back down at the copper mirror in his hands. He thought back to the words in the first chapter of the Qi Condensation Manual and hesitated. If this truly was something that Patriarch Reliance had studied, then it must have some value. Shaking his head, he put the mirror into his robe. Then, with a final hateful glare at the Treasure Pavilion, he turned and left.
He walked along the green paths of the Outer Sect, using the information from the jade slip as a guide. Around noontime, he found his house. It was along the north border, in a very remote section of the Outer Sect. Several other houses crowded around it.
He pushed the door open, and it slammed against the wall. Inside were a bed and a desk. Meng Hao stood there, feeling quite content. This place was much better than his room in the Servants’ Quarter.
He sat down cross-legged on the bed, took a deep breath and pulled the copper mirror out of his robe. He studied it carefully, until the sun began to set over the western mountains. He lit an oil lamp and continued to study it, all to no avail. He had no idea what the purpose of the mirror could be.
No matter how he looked at it, the copper mirror seemed completely ordinary in nature.
When the night grew deep, Meng Hao put the mirror to the side and looked out the window at the moon. He thought about the fat teenager and his snoring. He missed it a little bit.
The bright moon shone outside, its rays touching the eaves of his window. Everything was silent, save for the sound of the wind among the leaves of the trees. Meng Hao took a deep breath, thinking about the moon. He felt emotional, as if he had entered a new age.
He murmured to himself: “I will never again be a scholar in Yunjie County. I’ve become a Reliance Outer Sect disciple…”
Meng Hao gathered his thoughts, closed his eyes, and sat in meditation, circulating the thread of spiritual energy in his body. He had been living in this fashion for months now, and was used to it.
One difference between the Outer Sect and the Servants’ Quarter was that here, no one prepared food for you. You had to take care of your own food needs. If you didn’t, you would starve to death and no one would care a whit. Although, in all the years, no one in the Reliance Outer Sect had ever starved to death.
Upon reaching the first stage of Qi Condensation, one could absorb and emit the spiritual energy of Heaven and Earth. Though that could not alleviate hunger, it could sustain your life.
Several days passed. One afternoon, Meng Hao sat cross-legged in meditation, when he suddenly heard a miserable scream from outside. He immediately opened his eyes, moved to the window and looked outside. He saw an Outer Sect disciple on the ground, being stamped upon over and over again by another. Blood oozed from a wound in his chest, but he wasn’t dead, just wounded. The person who had been kicking him grabbed his bag of holding, then walked off with a cold harrumph.
The trampled disciple struggled to his feet, his eyes filled with violent ruthlessness. He staggered away. Surrounding onlookers stared at him coldly, their faces filled with ridicule.
Meng Hao observed silently. He had watched similar scenes played out countless times in the past few days, and as such had a deeper understanding of the ways of the Outer Sect.
Time blurred as seven days passed. During that time, Meng Hao saw even more instances of disciples being robbed. The fighting and plundering which occurred between Outer Sect disciples caused Meng Hao to grow more and more taciturn. Especially disturbing was when he had seen a disciple of the second or third level of Qi Condensation killed by another in the Public Area. This caused Meng Hao to be especially careful and cautious when he went outside.
Thankfully, his Cultivation base was low, and he didn’t have anything of value, so others mostly ignored him.
Actually, Meng Hao had reached a standstill in his Cultivation. The second level of Qi Condensation was different than the first. He still needed spiritual energy, but according to the Qi Condensation Manual, his mortal body had already begun to change. As such, reaching the second level of Qi Condensation would require many more times the amount of spiritual energy than the first level did.
Similarly, Meng Hao now understood what latent talent was. The body’s ability to absorb the spiritual energy of Heaven and Earth was just that, latent talent. The more latent talent someone has, the more energy they could absorb. The less latent talent one has, the less energy they could absorb. For someone with considerable latent talent, the more time they spent on breathing exercises, the more spiritual energy they could absorb.
According to his calculations, to reach the second level of Qi Condensation would probably take at least one or two years. The amount of time required to reach the third level would be many more times than that.
Of course, if he acquired some medicinal pills or Spirit Stones, he could use them to amplify spiritual energy, then, he could decrease that time. That was why so much horrific robbery occurred in the Outer Sect; every month, pills would be openly distributed.
“The strong become stronger, the weak become weaker,” said Meng Hao quietly. “This is how the Reliance Sect grooms disciples for the Inner Sect.”
One early morning, when the sky had just begun to grow dim with light, Meng Hao sat in meditation as usual. He had no special resources, except for his determination. Therefore, he did not give up on his nightly meditations and breathing exercises. Bells reverberated throughout the Sect, and Meng Hao slowly opened his eyes.
“These bells…” Meng Hao’s eyes focused, as if he had come to a realization. An excited expression appeared on his face, and he dashed out of the room to see fellow disciples everywhere, rushing off into the distance.
“When these bells sound, the time has come for distribution of Spirit Stones and medicinal pills. It must be today.” More and more people began running in the direction of the bells. It seemed everyone within the Outer Sect was there.
“Pill Distribution Day,” said Meng Hao, breathing heavily. He ran along with the crowds until he reached the square in the center of the Outer Sect. The square was monumental in size, and along its borders were nine stone pillars covered in carvings of dragons. Placed on the foremost pillar was a platform over ninety meters in diameter, over which swirled a multi-colored cloud. Inside the cloud could be seen shapeless forms.
Over a hundred Outer Sect disciples stood there in their green robes, murmuring amongst themselves and glancing frequently at the multi-colored cloud.
Then, the cloud slowly dissipated, revealing a pock-faced old man wearing a golden robe. His face was placid and emitted a calm, natural power and dignity. His eyes shone like lightning. Two people stood next to him, a man and a woman, both wearing silver robes. The man was exceedingly handsome, with an upright appearance, although indifference covered his face. As for the woman, as soon as Meng Hao laid eyes on her, his pupils constricted.
This woman was the woman who had taken him from Daqing Mountain three months ago.
Chapter 5: This Kid isn’t Bad
“It turns out Master Uncle Shangguan is distributing the pills himself, along with Inner Sect disciples Elder Sister Xu and Elder Brother Chen. They all came. You don’t see this very often. Don’t tell me there’s an Individual Pill Distribution this time?”
“It must be. Look, Elder Brother Han Zong [1. Han Zong’s name in Chinese is 韩宗 (hán zōng) – Han is a common family name. Zong means “Sect” or “religion”] is here. He’s the second-ranked disciple in the Outer Sect. His Cultivation base has reached the fifth level of Qi Condensation. If he can reach the seventh level, then he will automatically become an Inner Sect disciple. Too bad Elder Brother Wang Tengfei [2. Wang Tengfei’s name in Chinese is 王腾飞 (wáng téng fēi) – Wang is a common family name. Tengfei means “to soar”] isn’t here.”
“Considering Elder Brother Wang Tengfei’s abilities, he wouldn’t care a whit about medicinal pills. The year he joined the Sect, he caused a big sensation amongst the Sect Elders. He probably doesn’t want to violate Sect etiquette, so he’ll rely only on himself to enter the Inner Sect. Then there will finally be a third Inner Sect disciple.”
“Heh heh, this is gonna be fun. With Individual Pill Distribution, there’s a twenty-four hour period of sealing in which the pill can’t be used. Every two hours, the pill glows brightly. Anyone who wants to fight for it will be able to determine its location. Even if you grab the pill and run, you won’t be able to keep it hidden for twenty-four hours.”
Meng Hao listened to the discussions around him. Even though it was his first time taking part in this sort of thing, he knew whenever pills were distributed, there was a lot of fighting. In his half a month here, he had seen plenty of fights and even some deaths.
If today was really an Individual Pill Distribution day, then the fighting would be even more intense.
Meng Hao remained silent. Considering he was at the first level of Qi Condensation, there was no way he would end up with the pill. Just looking at the greedy faces around him gave him a deeper understanding of the expression “the law of the jungle.”
“Quiet!” said the old man in the gold robe. His voice was cold as he stood on the platform, and though he didn’t speak loudly, his voice reverberated like a booming thunderclap. The Cultivators standing below him were shocked to the core. Their ears hummed. Meng Hao was the most shocked of all, and it took him some time to recover.
“I am Shangguan Xiu [3. Shangguan Xiu’s name in Chinese is 上官修 (shàng guān xiū) – Shangguan is a relatively obscure family name. Xiu is the same character which appears in terms like “Cultivation” and “Cultivator”]. Today, everyone in attendance will receive one Spirit Condensation pill, and half a Spirit Stone.” Shangguan Xiu flicked his right arm, and immediately, hundreds of medicinal pills and Spirit Stones flew about in all directions. They landed perfectly in front of everyone present. Meng Hao gazed at the medicinal pill and Spirit Stone floating in front of him. A fragrant, intoxicating aroma washed over him. This was his first time ever seeing a medicinal pill or a Spirit Stone.
The Spirit Stone was about the size of his fingernail, sparkling and almost translucent. Just looking at it could mystify a person.
His heart began to beat rapidly. These two items must be worth thousands of pieces of gold. Without any hesitation, Meng Hao reached out and grabbed the pill. He was about to pop it into his mouth and swallow it down when he noticed that no one around him was doing any such thing. His heart lurched. He looked down at the pill in his hand and noticed that it had a faint glow to it, and was sealed with a strange mark.
As Meng Hao stared at the pill in his hand, Shangguan Xiu’s voice once again rang out from the platform: “There is also … a Dry Spirit Pill.” A purple-colored medicinal pill could be seen in his hand.
As soon as it appeared, a wonderful fragrance filled the entire square. Even just breathing it, Meng Hao felt as if his spiritual energy had increased a bit. This was clearly no ordinary pill.
“That’s… a Dry Spirit Pill!”
“That’s … that’s something incredibly precious to anyone under the fifth level of Qi Condensation. There can’t be many within the Sect, and yet, there it is!”
“When that pill is distributed, the fighting here in the Outer Sect will be fierce. Who knows how many people will die?” The crowd buzzed as they stared up at the glowing pill held by Shangguan Xiu, their faces filled with greed and desire. This was especially true of disciples who were on the brink of breaking through to a new level of cultivation. They fairly panted.
“Originally, the Dry Spirit Pill was not to be distributed today. However, I heard there was a disciple promoted to the Outer Sect this month, which makes me very happy. If we can do this every month, then brilliant glory lies just around the corner for the Reliance Sect. I bestow this pill upon that person as an encouragement.” Shangguan Xiu smiled, and his glittering eyes swept across the crowd to fall upon Meng Hao.
Meng Hao’s heart began to race. The first half of the short speech had left him feeling unsettled, but he had no time to react; Shangguan Xiu’s right hand flicked, and the purple pill appeared in front of him. Before he could even make an attempt to refuse, the pill lowered into his hand.
As of that moment, Meng Hao’s entrance into the Reliance Sect could be called unprecedented. The eyes of the entire crowd focused on him.
Greed and cruelty filled their expressions, as if they planned to rip him to pieces alive. Even the man and woman standing next to Shangguan Xiu were staring. The woman had a look of shock on her face, which she quickly covered up with an icy expression.
“Haha, so a first level Qi Condensation disciple receives the pill. There will be a lot of fighting this time. This guy is going to be public enemy number one.”
“He’s finished. Last time there was an Individual Pill Day, the guy who received the pill was at the second level of Qi Condensation. He hesitated for just a moment too long, so Elder Brother Zhao Wugang [4. Zhao Wugang’s name in Chinese is 赵武刚 (zhào wǔ gāng) – Zhao is a common family name. Wu means “martial” or “military.” Gang means many things, including “strong” and “unyielding”] dragged him in a fury to the Public Area and lopped off his head.”
The sound of discussion reverberated across the square, and many disciples of the second or third Qi Condensation level, despite knowing the danger, grew greedy. Because the Cultivation base of the person who received the pill was so weak, they felt as if they were qualified to snatch it.
Meng Hao’s entire body broke out in a cold sweat. He wanted to throw the pill away, but he found that it actually stuck to his hand, making it impossible to get rid of. Around him, covetous eyes stared at him menacingly, and suddenly, it was as if he could feel the shadow of death hanging over him. Some people began to slowly walk toward him, murderous expressions filling their faces.
“Junior Brother, why don’t you toss that pill to me? If you don’t, I’ll give you a thrashing.”
“If you don’t give it to me, next year today will be the anniversary of your death.”
The murmurs blasted at him like a cold wind from all directions.
At that moment, two old men sat cross-legged on one of the nearby mountain peaks, smiling as they discussed the scene unfolding in the Outer Sect Square.
“Master Shangguan really doesn’t pay attention to things. To give the medicinal pill to a pup like that who just entered the Sect… He’s finished. It seems our Reliance Sect will be short another disciple.”
“The fighting this time isn’t going to be interesting at all. I bet that as soon as the restrictive fog dissipates from the square, the pup will toss the pill.”
As soon as the second old man finished speaking, the nine colorful, dragon-carved statues surrounding the square began to fade in color. From the look of it, after the space of about ten breaths, they would be completely colorless. At that point, the restrictive fog would also disappear.
Meng Hao’s heart began to pound. He didn’t need anyone to explain to him what would happen when the glowing pillars grew dark. The square would become a scene of madness. Even if he threw the pill away, that in and of itself would make some of the people angry at him.
“How… how could this be given to me?” said Meng Hao, sweating. His mind began to spin. If he didn’t get rid of the pill, he would die; if he did throw it away, he would become an object of hatred. Trying to make use of all the knowledge he had acquired in his three years of studying, he looked at the fading, colorful glow, and then at Shangguan Xiu, who stood amidst the colorful fog on the platform, preparing to leave. At this critical moment, Meng Hao suddenly had a flash of inspiration.
He took a step forward and called out, “Disciple has something to say.”
“Being able to come to the Reliance Sect and experience the wonders of living amidst Immortals has been a wonderful stroke of good fortune. Disciple would very much like to offer thanks to the one person who made this possible.
“Disciple has been waiting day and night for another opportunity to lay eyes on her, to offer thanks in person. Today, I finally have that opportunity.” He talked faster and faster, and as he did so, Shangguan Xiu stared in shock, no longer making his leave.
“That person is Elder Sister Xu. Elder Sister Xu, Junior Brother is extremely appreciative of what you did, and is truly unable to pay you back. I would like to offer this pill to you as a measure of my thanks to you for giving me a new lease on life.” Meng Hao lifted up his right hand, raising the medicinal pill up high.
Shangguan Xiu gaped, clearly never having imagined that Meng Hao would say such a thing. A strange expression appeared on his face, and he slowly smiled. Standing next to him in her silver robe, Ms. Xu also stared in shock. Even though she was still cold and detached, there was something different about her expression now. Her Cultivation base was the seventh level of Qi Condensation, thus the Dry Spirit Pills would not be of much help to her. However, Dry Spirit Pills were still relatively rare and not easy to acquire, even for her, a member of the Inner Sect. If she took this pill and melded it together with a few other pills, she could create a new pill worth five normal pills. For a moment, she couldn’t help but palpitate with eagerness.
At this moment, even the man in the silver robe with the cool expression looked down at Meng Hao.
Everyone was quiet. The Cultivators who had been advancing on Meng Hao suddenly stopped in their tracks, strange expressions on their faces. They stared at him with confusion.
After the brief silence, there was a sudden uproar.
“You can do this…?”
“To give away a medicinal pill in front of all these people, to an Inner Sect disciple… who dares to fight for the pill now? That would basically be picking a fight with the Inner Sect.”
“What a simple method! How come I never thought about that? Dammit, dammit!”
“That freaking… I can’t believe I didn’t think of doing this that one time. I was injured so badly I was bed-ridden for three months.”
The people staring at Meng Hao seemed to all have different feelings on the matter. It was hard to say what had happened in ages past, but as for the Cultivators here, they had never seen anyone deal with a medicinal pill in this fashion. As of now, Meng Hao had been indefinitely impressed onto everyone’s memories.
As of now, the dragon-carved pillars were completely colorless. The pill still lay in Meng Hao’s outstretched palm, and yet no one moved to take it. This was truly something rare to see in the Reliance Sect.
Ms. Xu’s expression had returned to normal. Without hesitation, her right hand flashed downwards, and the medicinal pill flew from Meng Hao’s hand into hers. Seeing the pill taken away, Meng Hao secretly sighed. However, he knew that in his current state, it could only bring him calamity. Around him, everyone else sighed, feeling angry at Meng Hao. But, as soon as they thought of Elder Sister Xu, any such anger dissipated.
Ms. Xu hesitated for a moment. Considering her status as an Inner Sect disciple, it would be a bit improper to take something so valuable from an Outer Sect disciple and not offer anything in return.
She was silent for a moment, then said, “Years ago, when I was a member of the Outer Sect, an Immortal’s Cave was bestowed to me. I shall lend it to you to live in.” She reached into her bag of holding and pulled out a white jade slip. She tossed it down toward Meng Hao and he grabbed it from the air.
“Elder Sister Xu’s Immortal’s Cave… this fellow really got lucky. They say there’s a lot of spiritual energy in there, more than anywhere else in the Sect.”
“Elder Sister Xu says she’s going to lend it, but she’s obviously just giving it to him. She just used the word lend so that everyone wouldn’t think too much. This kid really did the right thing in giving her the pill.”
“Dammit, I wish I had thought of this back then.”
Just then, back atop the mountain peaks outside the Outer Sect were the two gray-robed old men who had been betting on the proceedings. Tall and grand, their eyes glittered brightly with praise. They laughed heartily.
“This kid is pretty interesting. He just entered the Sect, but already knows that he should find someone to rely on. Don’t tell me he has innate instincts… Very good, splendid. He comprehends the true meaning of the Reliance Sect. This kid isn’t bad. He really isn’t bad!”
Edited and proofread by audiowuxia.
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