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 Chapter 104 - The Three Fortress Prefectures

When the flames finally died down and the smoke cleared up the view he saw astonished him. The giant stone was no longer there, and the air was filled with an overpowering smell of ash. More surprisingly, a huge pit had formed near where the stone had previously laid, measuring almost ten meters in diameter. The pit was all burnt inside, and the heat seemed to have melted much of the nearby soil.

Unable to believe what he saw before his eyes, Shi Mu found himself overwhelmed with joy. This strike should be on the level of what a Xianxian Saint could unleash!

...­

The next morning, Shi Mu left his residence and made his way to the plaza in the valley.

The sun was high in the sky when he left the plaza. His bad was bulging with weapons and gadgets that he had purchased: two rings, forged from refined iron, two incredibly elegant silver blade sheaths, and a black sheath whose dullness stood in stark contrast to the elegance of the silver sheaths. He also got two threads of heavenly silk. This silk came from silkworms that were raised in the north part of the country, where winter lasted longer and the temperature was always freezing. Therefore, the silk produced was exceedingly tough and almost transparent - you would miss it if you weren't looking for it.

After returning to his room, Shi Mu emptied his bag and grabbed the rings and silk. He tightly fastened the rings to two of his curved knives and then put each knife into a silver sheath. Next, he put his favorite black blade into the humble-looking black sheath. Last, he found two strong strips of leather and used them to tie the two silver sheaths and the black sheath to his back. The two sets of sheaths instantly gave him the overpowering air of a gallant warrior. He stretched out his right hand and quickly pulled out the black blade, which was like a dark shadow, flitting through the air. He activated his Qi and threw out thirteen shadows that pierced the air, swirling around him like a whirlwind, his blade roaring like a lion. Before the whirlwind abated, his blade had already returned into the sheath, the windows still rattling in the wind. The whole process was accomplished in one breath, and not a wasted movement was made. Without taking a breath, Shi Mu accumulated Qi in his left hand, and accordingly the ring in his left index finger shook violently before it emitted a cold light rushing skyward, accompanied by a streak of silver light that rose like an unbridled beast from the silver sheath at Shi Mu's back.

The Knife-Throwing Art he learned from Li Canghai! [A]

Swish! The silver bent knife, linked by the heavenly silk to his ringed finger, changed its direction abruptly once it was fed Qi from the silk, then began circling incessantly above Shi Mu's head - a bizarre sight as if a silver bird was hovering in midair, crying in a strange way as it circled. Each time the silver bent knife was about to fall, Shi Mu would instill some Qi into it, via the silk, and the knife would be reinvigorated, continuing its flight. Therefore, with the heavenly silver there to transmit Qi, he could control the knife as he willed. The Knife-Throwing Art worked perfectly.

For the following few days, Shi Mu shut himself in the room, practicing the Gale Force Blade Art and Knife-Throwing Art, trying to achieve a perfect coordination between the two.

In this way, seven days slid by without him noticing. His room kept shaking under the roar of wind created as he wielded his knives. The sharp edges of the curved knives and black blade created many bright gleams of light. The black blade, once in his hand, was wielded in such a way that its dark blade shadows turned into a solid shield that denied any attack. Meanwhile, a gleam of silver light danced among the shadows nimbly, like a bird, weaving its way through the shadow shield unceasingly. Its erratic movement made it quite difficult for an enemy to tell where it was going to be.

Suddenly, Shi Mu's left index finger flicked, and the silver bent knife swished toward the stone table in the other side of the room. A crash seemed inevitable, but without warning, the silver knife made a sudden twist at the last second, tracing an arc in the air and arrived at the right side of the table in an instant. The next moment, the rotating black shadow shield suddenly came to a stop, and the silver knife shot back like a tired bird yearning for its nest. In accordance with the black blade, the knife found its way back into the sheath effortlessly, without making a sound.

Shi Mu let out a soft sigh, radiating satisfaction as he took the ring from his finger. Lost in deep thought, he played with it in his hand, his eyes drifting off and becoming unfocused. Now he had his own trump card to protect himself in fierce competitions and from the greedy old disciples who coveted his precious blade. The recent fight with Zuo Yan had given him a chance to get a feel for the general strength of older primary disciples, and that came as a warning to him. For if it had taken him a great deal of energy to fight Zuo Yan, who ranked, at best, within the top one hundred. How could he win against even stronger ones in the annual competition? If the Art of Throwing Knife could not be mastered by that time, then he must make some more preparations in order to obtain decent grades in the competition.

Shi Mu's eyes sparkled with a thrill as he had a sudden insight and he began to think about the Great Sutra of Formulas. The Sutra had told of a defense formula of the earth element named The Golden Armor Formula. The Body-Lifting Formula consisted of twelve magical characters, likewise, this formula had the same number of characters, but a different degree of complexity. Each character demands more caution and energy to draw it, but, in return, provides a much stronger protection that could bear against a heavy strike from an advanced Houtian warrior. With the assistance of this defense formula, his chances of winning in the annual competition should be greatly enhanced. After giving the idea some more thought, Shi Mu eventually decided to give it a try.

He needed to get his hands on some heavenly stones of the earth element, for he was not equipped with earth sensing. Therefore, the next day he paid a visit to the Hall of Wealth, and published a notice asking for some earth stones, whose reward should be paid by making a limited number of low-level formulas for the stone supplier. It was very likely that, due to the approaching annual competition, that there were a lot of disciples in need of formulas. Almost as soon as he had put up the notice, disciples of the Li Fire Group and the Holy Spirit Association were knocking at his door. Assured that the two groups were both dying for the chance, Shi Mu purposely raised the price and the two sides nodded their heads and handed in the required number of earth stones happily. In the following ten days, he fulfilled both the orders and successfully earned twenty low-level earth stones. He also some extra money, amounting to nearly a hundred thousand silver, much more than the pay he had asked when putting up the notice. For the following period, many people kept pleading at his door for more formulas, some offering even better pay, but he dared not accept the orders. For one, the incoming competition would not allow him more spare time making formulas. It was also because he knew that a great number of low-level formulas in the market would only cut down the price and demand in the near future, which was not something Shi Mu wanted to see.

Ten days later.

With a brown heavenly stone in hand, Shi Mu moved his brush slowly, leaving green marks on the magical paper. All went smoothly, until the eleventh character, which suddenly flared upon completion. Amid the yellow flames, the whole formula was burnt to ashes.

Shi Mu sighed with a heartache in his chest, regretting the loss. This was already the eighth time he had failed in drawing the Golden Armour Formula, and also the farthest he had made it in any of his attempts, but it all still turned into nothing. Seeing that the earth stone was running out of energy, he stared at the ashes in a trance, at a loss as to the next step. He was painfully aware of the reason for his failure: the twelve characters in the formula were not independent of each other. On the contrary, a subtle link had combined them all, woven in every stroke of the twelve characters. Therefore, the more complex a formula is, the more intangible the links would be. A failure to catch the links would lead to the whole formula becoming unstable. It can be said that the success of the Golden Armour Formula actually depends upon the inscribers luck.

Finally, after three good days of trial and error, he succeeded in making a paper charm of the Golden Armour Formula, at the cost of two low-level heavenly stones. But the problem with making a paper charm is that you cannot test it out.Once you activate it, it will be made unusable, unless you've got a batch of them and the loss of one copy would not amount to much. Therefore, considering the difficulty of making this formula, Shi Mu stored it, untouched, though his mind was in a fluster as to the charm's effect. Anyway, the most reliable thing in a combat is not the weapon, nor charms, but one's real strength. He decided that before the competition came he should stay indoors practicing the Art of Heavenly Elephant and the art of Accumulating Spirit Power with all his might, hoping to achieve some progress before the big day.

But the world outside was not so simple. Thousands of miles away, in his home country, a sensational event was taking place, making the three kingdoms all hold their breath.

...

In Qi the Heavenly Country, Wu, Fu, and Rui are three fortress prefectures among all the thirty-six prefectures of the country, neighboring the wilderness that is controlled by the barbarian tribes.

The barbarians live in barren lands, and, as a result, have very little in the way of resources, especially in rigorous winters, when their tribesmen could barely tell in the morning if they would still be alive when evening falls. As time passed, the barbarians began to covet the wealth of their neighbors - the three kingdoms, who lived in comfort and wealth. Therefore, their tribe would dispatch soldiers from time to time to the fortress prefectures, plundering resources and captives to keep them as servants. The three prefectures of Da Qi naturally fell prey to the barbarians, and the smoke of war rose from the earth year-round. There was no way the Qi court would sit watching, so, time after time, they sent armies to quell the barbarians, but they were a people that inherited a bloodline of an ancient giant tribe, so the barbarous generally grew taller and stronger than normal human beings. They had an innate disposition to kill and were undaunted before death. There are some Totem Warriors among the barbarian soldiers, whose strength was greatly enhanced by tattooing the body and sealing some monster's spirits inside. As a result, their character was even fiercer, the desire for fresh blood burning in their chest unceasingly until it was satiated. But the totem warriors do not account for a large part of the barbarians, like cultivators among normal humans. Even so, in the war with the barbarians, human armies had always been put at a serious disadvantage, until a hundred years ago, when Yue Tai, the National Guardian of the Heavenly Qi Country came to power and put an end to this passive state. Under his leadership, the Qi armies were sent out and drove the barbarians out of their country, back to the desolate land where they had come from. Since then, peace had reigned in the Three Kingdoms for a hundred years, while the barbarians curled themselves up in the merciless coldness on their wasteland, daring not to direct their eyes to the warm land of the Three Kingdoms. On that account, Yu Tai was given the title of 'Great Warlord of Crushing the Barbarians' for his illustrious war exploits and raised to be one of the few warlords not born of the king's families.

However, this time of peace is soon to come to an end.

One day, in the deep of night in Xing He City, Wu prefecture, the following took place.

Xing He City covers an area of over six million square meters, and, looking from afar, its winding walls sprawled like a giant dragon, crouching on the land, forming a rectangle that enclosed the whole city. It lies quietly at the juncture where the Wu Prefecture borders the barbarian's wilderness, constituting a shield for the former. This was the most important fortress against outside attacks. Speaking of Xing He City itself, it had the best location a city could ever have wanted: mountains, waters, rich resources. Outside the north gate is a rolling mountain that, though not majestic in height, is one of the longest mountain ranges in the country, meandering its way for over a thousand miles, leading to the well-known Qi Mountain (renowned as the Protector of Wu Prefecture). Whereas the mighty river of Lun Jin roars day and night out of the south gate, running a distance of over ten thousand miles. The river harbors a great number of reefs, which unnerves even a veteran fisherman, preventing him from going further than the middle of the river, not to mention the barbarian men, who know little of traveling on water. With a hundred thousand permanent soldiers in the city, Xing He is a powerful fortress, and many barbarians have died trying to conquer it. On the other hand, since the Wu Prefecture lies in the middle of the three fortress prefectures, as long as it is still safe, the armies in the city can give a helping hand to the Fu and Rui Prefectures. Consequently, even if the barbarians made an attempt to attack the cities of Fu or Rui, they never dared to go too far.

Therefore, the city of Xing He assumes a self-evident significance to Qi country, and thus, without a doubt, falls to be a thorn in the barbarian's sides. Aware of this, Yue Tai, the Great Warlord, chose this city as his place of residence, in the Military Hall in Xing He city, and imposed a curfew on the city all the time. Except for some patrols, there was barely a citizen to be seen during the night.

However, this night saw something alarmingly different. Under the cover of the dark night, an inn's back door creaked open, and some ten-odd figures, dressed in dark tight-fitting suits, appeared. They entered the inn in single file, and, after a few minutes, reappeared in a city street, moving silently toward the west part of the city. Judging from their smooth movements, they certainly had a clear knowledge of the city's roads, and always chose the less visited alleys.

Meanwhile, a file of patrol soldiers passed a shop in a certain area of the city. Just as they had walked past, the gate of the shop was quietly pushed open, and out flashed a few figures, disappearing into a nearby alley.

All of this went on as if it had been rehearsed several times. At the same time, the door of a citizen's yard also opened, and seven more silhouettes emerged and also soon vanished into the dark night.

Notes:

[A] - Okay, I am pretty sure this art has multiple names in this translation, because it has never been used and has simply been mentioned, in passing, several times. I simply assumed the author had made this and then forgot about it, and that it was now useless. I apologize for this.

ANYWAY, this is the blade art the Li Canghai taught Shi Mu for winning the matches between all the major martial clubs in Feng City.

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