From the window, Xie Li could see the busy harbour.
Other than trade ships, there were boats ferrying people down one of the many little canals to other parts of the city.
Part of the lake was cordoned off with ornate boats sitting on the water. Xie Li knew it was part of the wealthy Phoenix Manor. It was said that the manor was next to the southern lake. He couldn’t tell where south was, but it was pretty obvious where the lake was.
After staring at the island in the middle of the lake for a while, he called out to the overly friendly guy sitting at his table and asked, “Mister Hu, what’s that island over there?”
“That’s Huahu Island,” said Hu Xun. “Hua as in ‘huaduo’ (flower), Hu as in ‘huli’ (fox).”
“I heard it used to be a beautiful place full of flowers and spirit foxes, but there’s nothing much on it now,” said Hu Xun. “It’s a real pity.”
Xie Li closed his eyes for a moment, then looked out the window again.
“I wonder how the moon looks over the lake at night,” he said.
“It’s definitely a great view that pairs well with wine and music,” said Hu Xun.
Hu Xun continued making some sight-seeing recommendations at Xie Li, who just continued to stare out the window.
After a while, Xie Li stood up and said, “I should go before it gets late.”
Gouzi nodded and took out a money pouch, only for Hu Xun to stop him.
“Please allow me,” smiled Hu Xun, tapping the jar of Dream-Wandering Immortal with his fan. “It’s not every day one meets a ‘limited-edition cards only’ cultivator.”
“Hm,” said Xie Li, looking at his ankle at what probably gave him away. The bells of the silver anklet gave a soft little chime. It wasn’t loud enough to be heard over the noise of the bustling in the city, but with every step he took, it left behind a faint trail of spirit aura.
“I look forward to seeing Mister Xie again,” said Hu Xun, standing up and greeting him.
Xie Li smiled and returned the courtesy. “Likewise. Perhaps you’ll introduce yourself by a different name next time.”
“Interesting!” chuckled Hu Xun, tapping his fan in his palm.
Gouzi looked at both of them, confused. He quickly followed Xie Li out of the teahouse and asked once they were some distance away.
“What was that all about? What did he mean by ‘limited-edition cards only’?”
“Trading cards,” shrugged Xie Li. “By the way, that was Rong Zhong.”
Di Mie had passed him a pile of booklets and an album of trading cards. Xie Li had spent the past few days reading everything to catch up on the important information of this city. It wasn’t too hard for him to figure out that Hu Xun was Rong Zhong.
That, and also Di Mie had told him Rong Zhong’s alias beforehand.
Now he thought back about it, spending his days in a warm room filled with reading materials, hot tea and Di Mie next to him catching him up on current events was pretty nice.
He flapped his hand at the thought.
“Trading—oh, the cards my juniors are always playing with?” wondered Gouzi as he watched Xie Li fan something away.
“They have useful information,” said Xie Li.
Gouzi felt ashamed of himself. He had looked down on those trading cards, thinking it was a gimmick to cheat him of his hard-earned money. Now he saw that his juniors were more proactive than he was when it came to collecting information.
“Yes, Senior Xie,” said Gouzi, bowing respectfully. “I’m grateful for your advice.”
Xie Li looked at the harbour that only seemed to be getting busier as time passed.
It’s noisy here, I’m going back.”
“Wait up—” said Gouzi, chasing after him. “The inn’s the other way!”
Somehow they ended up on a boat in the middle of the lake with Xie Li throwing up over the side.
Gouzi wanted to cry.
On the way ‘back’ to the inn, Xie Li came across a boat that ferried people around the lake and decided to hop on.
“If you’re going to be sick on my boat, you should’ve just flown over on your fancy sword,” muttered the boatman under his breath as he rowed them to the island.
Gouzi winced, hoping Xie Li hadn’t heard that.
Xie Li looked somewhat angry, his eyes narrowed and his breathing slightly laboured. He hopped off the boat, climbing up the sand and rocks onto the island.
“Hey, cultivator sirs, we should head back soon,” said the boatman.
“I’m not going back yet,” said Xie Li.
“Well, sure. You can just fly back, I suppose…” said the boatman, grumbling about cultivators being eccentric.
Gouzi quickly paid the boatman and followed Xie Li off the boat.
The island was surrounded by a barrier emitting from a line of red pillars.
Analysing the carvings on one of the pillars, Xie Li seemed to have gotten an idea of what it was.
“Lingfeng’s disciple, what do you think of this barrier?” said Xie Li.
“Hm? Are you asking me?” said Gouzi.
Xie Li nodded.
Gouzi examined a pillar.
“Seeing how these pillars are probably placed all around the island, these are the source of the barrier. Given how there isn’t much aura emitting from them, they should be seals and not aura barriers,” he paused, stumped. “I don’t know what type of seal it is.”
“Look at the motifs at the corners,” Xie Li pointed them out with a finger.
“Ah, I’ve seen similar motifs in paralysing talismans,” said Gouzi.
“Mn,” said Xie Li. “You can touch this with your hand.”
Gouzi gingerly pressed a hand on the barrier and felt like there was a wall.
“It feels like a solid aura barrier, though, even though it’s supposed to be a seal?” said Gouzi.
“It’s a seal that stops movement. You can’t move your hand past this point and can only withdraw, so it’ll feel like there’s a wall. Looking at the distance between each pillar, you can estimate the range and strength of the seal.”
“I see,” said Gouzi, amazed at how easily Xie Li explained the concept that had taken him three months of classes to understand.
“All right,” said Xie Li. “I’m going to go in and take a look.”
Gouzi gasped as he watched Xie Li simply walk through the barrier as if it wasn’t there.
After a long while trying to get through the barrier himself and pacing about, he was startled when someone suddenly landed next to him.
“Hey, Crystal Peak brat, weren’t you supposed to be watching my Shizun?” said Di Mie.
“Valley Lord Di,” said Gouzi, pointing at the barrier. “Senior Xie went in there.”
“Tsk,” said Di Mie as he briefly surveyed his surroundings and the pillars. “It’s a seal, huh.”
“That’s what Senior Xie said too.”
“Hmm, this barrier isn’t that strong,” said Di Mie as he tested it. “You can create a gap to get through if you destroy a pillar.”
“Senior Xie didn’t do that. He just walked right through!” said Gouzi.
“He just walked in, you say? I guess I’ll have to match his game,” grinned Di Mie.
He dropped a bundle of books into Gouzi’s arms, freeing up his own hands. Taking deep breaths, he suppressed his spirit core. A completely different aura took over, overpowering any remnants of spirit aura he might be exuding.
Gouzi’s eyes widened as he felt Di Mie’s spirit aura disappear, replaced by demonic aura. Right now, his spirit sword was tingling, telling him that Di Mie was an extremely powerful demon. On instinct, he trembled and took a step back.
“This seal stops anyone with spirit aura, so I’m covering it up to fool the barrier into letting me through,” said Di Mie.
Gouzi nodded nervously.
He knew how powerful spirit techniques could be watching his own Shizun, but these two seniors showed him how versatile it really was in their application. The Valley Lord could generate demonic aura and Senior Xie didn’t seem to even have any spirit aura—
Gouzi suddenly felt very confused.
The island was small, surrounded by rocks and dead trees. It should still be bright out, but it looked more like a dusty dusk in here.
The earth beneath Xie Li’s feet was a deep red, covered in weeds and dying plants. Exploring further in, he saw small broken shrines and tattered ribbons in trees. The soil was dry and the air was still. It seemed like this place was in limbo between the living and the dead.
In the silence, the bells on his feet chimed, but no echo returned.
He followed an overgrown path that seemed to lead to the top of a small hill on the island.
“I really need to exercise more,” mumbled Xie Li to himself as he climbed the uneven stone steps up and found himself feeling a little out of breath.
At the top of the stairs, he was greeted by the sight of a beautiful garden.
A string of lanterns lit with spirit crystals hung from the red poles that lined the path leading to a temple.
The same trees he saw around the city were seen here as well, and colourful ribbons hung on the eaves of the golden temple roof. The steps of the temple were flanked by ten wooden soldiers in red armour on each side.
Xie Li walked past them into the temple and looked at the coloured lanterns that hung from the beams. There was no statue or portrait within, save a large altar with a single crystal vase of red camellias. On the wall to the side was a painting of nine foxes frolicking in a garden.
He stood there, arms folded, staring at the flowers.
“What are you looking at?” came a playful voice behind him.
Xie Li quickly turned around.
“Did I surprise you?” smiled Di Mie, taking off his hat and veil, and letting it hang over his shoulder by the strap.
“Mie’er,” said Xie Li. He raised a hand, then clenched it, putting it back down. “How did you get in?”
“I can mask my spirit aura,” said Di Mie. “I should be asking how you got in.”
“I have no spirit aura,” said Xie Li.
“Is it because of the seal on your back?”
Xie Li paused for a moment, then nodded.
“That, and also it’s much weaker than the one on me,” said Xie Li.
“So you’re saying this barrier won’t work on you because it’s like…pouring water on you has no friggin’ effect when you’re already drenched?” suggested Di Mie.
Xie Li thought about his metaphor for a while, then nodded.
“Let me see your collar,” said Di Mie, closing in the distance between them and pulling open the top of Xie Li’s collar. He brushed his thumb over a small seal that was visible just under his collarbone. “Does it override the effect of this one as well?”
“I’m surprised you still haven’t gotten rid of this one, though,” said Di Mie.
“This one’s tricky. I haven’t figured it out yet,” said Xie Li.
“I remember the time you broke the Border Mountains’ main gates not once, not twice, but seven times that particular year when you were trying to get rid of it,” said Di Mie. “Du Yiwen totally lost it with you back then, heheh.”
“Don’t remind me,” said Xie Li, counting his fingers. “I still owe his Elegance Peak repair fees…”
“All right,” said Di Mie. “Well then, since it’s just the two of us now, let’s—”
They were interrupted by the creaks and thuds heading in from outside. The wooden guards ran in and quickly surrounded them, their spears raised. The door of the temple slammed shut.
“Seems like they’ve recognised us as intruders,” said Xie Li, drawing his sword.
“My bad. I probably did something,” chuckled Di Mie.
“I don’t want to damage this temple,” said Xie Li.
“Okay,” said Di Mie. He flew out of reach, standing on a high beam above. “I’ll leave them to Shizun, then.”
“Mie’er, I took a boat here,” said Xie Li, raising a brow.
“How long can you last on an empty stomach?”
“Probably two moves.”
“Just two? What will you do after that?”
“Lie down and play dead.”
Xie Li jumped back onto the altar to escape the mob, then leapt off the side of it. As the wooden guards flocked to him, he took two steps up a pillar and arced into the air, using the momentum to generate torque for Twig to activate.
With deadly precision, he wove through them, striking the joints of the wooden guards while deftly avoiding the spears. His attacks broke two guards and knocked most of the others over.
Once he zigzagged to the other end of the temple, he swung his sword across hard, pulling taut a string of aura emitting from the tip. Five more dummies collapsed onto the ground, their limbs cleanly dismantled.
Running up a pillar and flipping through the air was something he would have preferred not to do if he had a choice. Thirteen wooden guards were still standing despite him trying to net as many as he could in his first move.
“Add oil*, Shizun~” cheered Di Mie, swinging his legs as he sat on the beam, watching the show.
*‘Jiayou’ (work hard/good luck)
He slashed at the remaining dummies and tripped them, using Twig to spin more aura threads to keep them tangled to the pile already on the floor. He sighed, knowing he wouldn’t be able to keep property damage to a minimum.
“Lend me Ashfire,” said Xie Li, holding a hand out.
Di Mie beamed as he threw his sword down.
Drawing Ashfire, Xie Li cut down the surrounding spirit crystal lanterns, which quickly caught on fire. He threw them onto the pile of trapped and broken dummies.
Two moves, twenty wooden guards.
Xie Li panted, dropping Ashfire on the ground as he picked up Twig once more. He didn’t have much strength left, but he had to open the door or they’d suffocate from the fire that was spreading. He couldn’t even muster the strength to sigh.
He walked to the door and took a deep breath, preparing for another move.
“Allow me,” came Di Mie’s voice from behind him.
He picked up his sword and cut through the door’s locking mechanism, opening the door. Fiery sparks followed the path of Ashfire’s blade.
“Entertained?” said Xie Li, leaning on Twig and panting hard.
“Mn-hm,” said Di Mie, smiling fondly as he wrapped an arm around Xie Li’s waist to support him. “I really wanted to watch you fight.”
“If you’ve seen enough, I’d like to rest a while,” said Xie Li.
“Let’s sit outside,” said Di Mie, shooting a seal behind him to keep the bonfire controlled.
Sitting on the steps of the temple with a warm fire behind them, Di Mie pulled Xie Li over to lean on him.
“Shizun, what do you think of the wooden dummies set up here?” asked Di Mie.
“They’re given basic instructions,” said Xie Li. “It seems they’re triggered by the presence of aura, not movement.”
“That’d be my fault,” said Di Mie. “These dummies look like the same ones used by other clan and sect disciples for training. Our Border Mountains Sect don’t even use these anymore since they’re not worth the price.”
“One of these can easily cost a hundred silver coins.”
“Two thousand silvers…” said Xie Li, counting off his fingers how much money that was worth. “How much tea can that buy?”
“You can buy a whole store with that,” laughed Di Mie. “So what would you do if you had that much money?”
“I don’t need the money. You can have it,” said Xie Li, without hesitation.
“You’re always like this,” sighed Di Mie.
“Hm? Like what?”
“Nothing,” said Di Mie, running his fingers through Xie Li’s hair to get the dust off, smiling when Xie Li seemed comfortable with being touched. “Let’s chat.”
“What do you want to chat about?”
“Anything. I just want to know what’s going through that head of yours right now.”
“This place is, um,” said Xie Li, then shook his head. “I’ll tell you next time when I sort it out. Why don’t you tell me what you’re thinking instead?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“Why would I not want to—”
Di Mie leaned in and said softly.
“I want to eat you up right now.”
“If you’re hungry, I’ll roast a chicken for you,” said Xie Li, sitting up. He pulled up his sleeve and showed off a pale skinny arm. “Why would you want to eat this bamboo stick?”
“Shizun,” said Di Mie. “It’s just a figure of speech.”
“Let me try again,” said Di Mie, looking into Xie Li’s eyes. “Do you feel a spark between us?”
Xie Li stared right back at those amber eyes.
“Spark? You can use Ashfire to make one, though?”
“I don’t think you’re getting what I’m trying to say…”
Xie Li sighed. “Oh, right. Figure of speech. You know I’m stupid and can’t understand these things as other people do.”
“You’re not stupid at all,” said Di Mie. “You’re the cleverest person I know.”
“You’re the one who’s clever,” huffed Xie Li.
“You’re clever because you know I’m clever,” grinned Di Mie. “How about it? Do you think you can fall for this clever disciple of yours just a little bit?”
“Fall for you just a little bit?”
Di Mie nodded.
“I can’t do that,” said Xie Li, his eyes half-closed and relaxed.
“Hm? Why? ”
Xie Li fondly brushed a lock of the silvery hair away from Di Mie’s face.
“Pouring water on me has no friggin’ effect when I’m already drenched.”
“You—” said Di Mie. “Do you know what you are saying?”
“A figure of speech,” replied Xie Li confidently, humming as he played with Di Mie’s braid.
They observed a moment of silence as Di Mie sat there, ears red and facepalming, with Xie Li wondering if Di Mie wasn’t feeling well in this strange place.
A while later, they left the island on Di Mie’s sword, since Xie Li said it was fine—he’d already emptied his stomach on the way here.
When they got back, Xie Li slept through dinner to recover from his motion sickness.
Di Mie had a nagging feeling they forgot something.
The next morning, they opened the door to Qing Lingfeng with his two disciples standing behind him.
Upon seeing both of them, Gouzi burst into tears.
“Ah, right. I forgot about you,” said Di Mie.
One Fine Morning…
Gouzi brought in two bowls of lotus root vegetable soup, thinking the people next door ought to be awake by now.
“Valley Lord Di, I brought breakfast,” called out Gouzi. The barrier let up for a moment, letting him in.
Seeing the bed’s curtains still drawn, Gouzi assumed they wanted to sleep in and set the food down on the table.
“Gouzi,” said Di Mie, drawing back the bed’s curtain slightly and holding out a bloodied white tunic. “Help me wash this.”
“Okay,” said Gouzi, taking the tunic from him, trying not to think about where the blood came from. He saw some laundry strewn on a chair and bundled them into his arms. “I’ll help you wash these as well.”
“Thanks,” said Di Mie, flopping back to sleep.
In the backyard of their quarters, Gouzi put the laundry into a tub and started sorting them out. A string stuck out under a robe so he pulled at it. Out came an exquisite silken dudou which by the design and size of it looked like it was mixed in there by accident.
“Oh my heavens…” whispered Gouzi, holding up the dudou gingerly, wondering if it was appropriate to touch it, much less wash it with his bare hands…
“Hm?” said Di Mie, half-naked and looking at the empty chair.
Xie Li stirred at his voice.
“Looking for something?”
“I think Gouzi accidentally took my dudou to wash.”
“You’ve grown quite a bit. Does it still fit you?”
“It’s enchanted, so it’ll fit when I put it on, but it’ll be fun to see that brat’s reaction…”
Names of their swords!
Ashfire : 灰火 (ash-fire)
Twig : 竹枝 (bamboo stick)
If you’ve forgotten what a Dudou is, it’s a sort of ancient undergarment that keeps the stomach area warm. 😀
As usual, thank you for reading this and share it with your friends if you enjoyed it!