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 Chapter 111 - An Encounter in the Woods

"Many thanks, brother Shi! I'll rely on you then." The young Taoist warrior was all smiles, and he quickly took out several pieces of magic paper, a bottle of yellow ink, and a heavenly stone of the earth element. Shi Mu placed and ordered the stuff on his desk, and then spread one piece of magic paper before him. With brush and stone in hand, Shi Mu lost no time in drawing magic characters, which, one-by-one, filled the paper within half an hour. When the last stroke was finished, a brand-new Golden Armour charm was completed.

Shi Mu felt quite gratified at the result - this kind of charm had been the most frequently requested during the war, thus his proficiency in drawing it had saved him the trouble of making use of his supernatural eyesight. He could probably even make it with eyes closed.

Returning the remaining ink, paper, and stone to the Taoist warrior, along with the completed paper charm, Shi Mu smiled gently. He was friendly to all except those who bear enmities against him.

"Brother Shi is just superb at making charms! The charm Adepts of our sect can no long compare with you. They'd waste a dozen pieces of paper and other items without making one charm successfully." The Taoist warrior took his charm and paid a tribute to Shi Mu's achievement.

"Hehe, I appreciate that, brother Qin. But I won't charge you less just because you praise me, haha. The old rule, one charm, two feat points." Shi Mu made a joke, which he secretly took pride in, and handed his identity token to the Taoist youth.

"Sure." The youth fished out his own ID token and rubbed it twice; immediately two light dots shot up from his and flew into Shi Mu's token. All done, thanking Shi Mu again, the Taoist youth exited the room.

Hardly had the youth's figure disappeared from view, when another blue-robed Black Tortoise disciple walked in, greeting Shi Mu earnestly, "Brother Shi, I've been waiting for you for ages! You must make me a Body-Lifting Charm this time!"

Shi Mu looked through his window to find two more disciples waiting outside the door impatiently, which made him grin to himself resignedly. However, White Jade, who had been sitting by the stone table in the meeting room was exasperated by the sight even more. He coldly announced the end of the meeting, and, without turning his head back, went to his room. The image of a soft body floating in his mind, White Jade's eyes hardened. "Humph! He'd better count his luck! Next time he'll never make it. A primary Houtian warrior can die at any time in this damned place." White Jade banged his table and kicked his stool, cursing loudly.

......

It took Shi Mu another hour to finish all the requested charms, and, seeing the added twenty feat points, his face creased into a contented smile. All he had to do now was endure the hardship of war and await his return to the rear base, by which time his accumulated feat points would be of great use. The union of seven sects had gathered all the essential materials at this base, most of which were rarely seen and could only be obtained with feat points, including some precious heavenly stones, powerful magical weapons, as well as some herbs and pills. With enough feat points, even other sects' arts and techniques were not out of reach.

Shi Mu closed his door and sat cross-legged on his bed. Taking out a small jade bottle, he poured out a Bone-Tempering Pill and downed it. After some time, his complexion changed into an irregular blend of blue and white, and his clothes seemed to bulge, squirming restlessly, as if an invisible vapor stream was flowing beneath them.

Shi Mu did not open his eyes for a long time. Eventually, his face lit up. He had just made another small step forward in the Art of the Heavenly Elephant. It is worth noting that even the smallest advance in this art costs a tenfold investment of time and energy. For the last year, though he constantly received tasks of fighting enemies in every dangerous district and thus led a hard life, he did not slack the slightest in his self-discipline. What's more, the extreme conditions of war - the killing, the blood shed, etc. - had all stimulated his potential. By now, with the assistance of pills, he had reached the fourth level in Heavenly Elephant Art, not far from the fifth level also, and become a Houtian Warrior of middle stage. Furthermore, due to his Moon-Swallow Art, his Art of Accumulating Spirit Power had also advanced greatly, entering the fourth level months ago. But ever since he had reached this level, the speed at which he crystallized moon energy had slowed down considerably. A month's effort of accumulated moonlight crystal sized to, at most, as big as a rice grain, and could only enhance his spirit power to the smallest extent. He had not experienced the euphoric sensation of making a spurt of progress in his spirit power by just accumulating a bean-size moonlight crystal for a long time.

But this was not a strange phenomenon. The higher stages of an art requires a greater investment of effort. Shi Mu had a rough estimation that, even with the Moon-Swallowing Art there to facilitate his training, he'd have to spend at least another two years in making it to the fifth level in the Art of Accumulating Spirit Power. Thinking this, Shi Mu sighed, then laughed to himself scornfully, nodding his head. So the old saying is right, one never gets gratified. In introspection, he knew he had been too ambitious, insatiable, and impatient. For any new disciple, to reach such a stage as Shi Mu within two years is indisputably an extravagant hope, not to mention his mysteriously learned Moon-Swallowing Art! In hindsight, the way he got access to this art was unimaginably queer. Who could ever learn a miraculous art of swallowing the moon's heavenly energy in a dream!

Shi Mu made a self-interrogation in his heart, exclaiming how greedy a human being could be. The realization restored his peaceful state of mind, and, re-closing his eyes, he continued with the training, at an appropriate speed this time.

Soon, night had come. Disciples had returned to the stronghold, one after another, all with haggard faces and worn-out bodies that could only be restored by a good night's sleep. Apart from the ones on guard, all had fallen asleep.

So it was then that Shi Mu pushed his door open and tiptoed through the mine, making his way to the huge tree at the entrance. Outside the mine, the heavens and the earth were filled with an all-embracing tranquility, and a bright moon hung solitary in the night sky, pouring its clean, liquid light on the earth.

"Brother Shi, you heading out again?" Behind a boulder at the entrance, a disciple on watch stuck his head out and greeted Shi Mu in a low voice.

Shi Mu nodded without a word, then relaxed his pace and moved to the nearby wood quietly, soon disappearing into the darkness.

By this time, the stronghold's disciples had all learned that Shi Mu would, for sure, stay out whenever there was moonlight in the night sky. About this strange habit of his, Shi Mu had explained that he was definitely not a werewolf, or a psychopath mesmerized by the moon. All he was doing was a decent training that demanded the involvement of sufficient moonlight. And he well convinced them, after all, there are all kinds of strange arts in the world.

Shi Mu did not stop his steps until a quarter of an hour later, when he reached a clearing in the woods some distance away from the stronghold. He carefully scanned the environment, and was assured that there was not a soul except himself in this area. Although basically no one dared to spy on him, considering his identity as the sole charm Adept in this stronghold, but Shi Mu would still carefully choose a new spot every time he went out for his nightly training.

Next, he fished out four pieces of blue charm paper, which he then placed around him, and chanted a spell that lit the four charms. After a short glare, the light went out and the charms returned to normal. Seeing this, Shi Mu was quite satisfied, nodding to the charms as if they were his loyal servants. Actually, the four paper charms were not usual at all. Named 'All Around Charms', they could combine to make a simple probing formula able to detect any suspicious phenomenon within a radius of 500 meters. These charms were exchanged by Shi Mu from a disciple of the Wind and Fire Sect with ten thousand silver and a low-level fire stone. Only with them could he relax when out for training. All ready, he sat, cross-legged, on the grass and made the posture for the Moon-Swallowing Art, and soon entered his usual ape dream, in which the moonlight flooded the earth, and the ape his incarnation watched the moon with head raised, absorbing the heavenly energy from the moon.

......

A whole night slid by, and day broke. Shi Mu's body twitched as he was dragged forcibly from his dreamland. In his brain, a bean-size crystal was floating, emitting a faint luster, reminiscent of the moonlight. Ever since he found that the crystal would not help as much as before, he had begun to save it for further use, in hopes that he could find a better way to use it. Or rather, he'd like to wait and see if the crystal would turn into something else one day.

Exhaling a long breath, he got up to his feet and started walking in the direction of the mine. The morning sky had gained in brightness, and mists floated among the verdant trees like bands of delicate blue gauze, constituting an ethereal picture resembling a wonderland. Shi Mu was taking pains not to tramp on the newly grown plants when the faint ripple of a stream reached his ear, refreshing his spirits. After all a night's training had drained his energy, and he felt his mouth parched. He scuttled to the rivulet, filled his canteen with the clean water. Just as he was to lift it to his mouth, a vague sound of water splashing caught him unguarded.

Shi Mu soon put away his canteen with a nervous face, like a rabbit that got startled. The next moment, he reached for the black blade at his waist, and, with his back arched, began to move slowly toward the source of the sound. Behind a dense bush, he carefully stretched forward, his rabbit ears stirred in search of any little sounds. Finally, he saw where the water-splashing sounds had come from. Not far from the bush, in a puddle that connected to the rivulet, a girl's naked back was exposed amid morning fog that floated above the water, drops of water glittering on her skin. Her dark, black hair tumbled down like a cascade, drifting in the water like gracefully mists that hung about her. It was just her bare, thin arms that were splashing water, making the same sounds that had frightened Shi Mu out of his wits. (Ok, not that serious, I'm making fun of Shi Mu again. H.J.)

Shi Mu felt it was hard to catch his breath as he saw water bead down the girl's curved shoulder, and her skin was just glaringly fair under the morning sun. Shi Mu was frozen to the spot, not knowing how to react. His heart pounded as the girl turned back and was just about to face him. He was all jolted within, and before the soft breasts were to be exposed to his eyes he managed to turn around, only catching a glimpse of the girl's face.

Ke Er!

This time Shi Mu was really frightened out of his wits, and at a loss as to how to apologize. For a moment his mind was a total blank, and by reflex he thought of fleeing from the embarrassing scene. But like every unfortunate plot he tramped on a withered twig and made a cracking sound.

"Who's there!"

Ke Er's voice resounded, not as sweet as usual. The next moment, as she swayed her arm, a green vine branch leaped up from the water and shot towards Shi Mu like a deadly snake. Shi Mu was frightened again, and managed to recover from his trance, jumping aside to dock the branch.

Pa! A powerful clear sound. The branch landed on where he had stood, and sprang up, leaving a deep mark on the earth. Then the nimble snake made its second attack without delay. Shi Mu was quite amazed, aware that Ke Er had also been hiding her actual strength, just like himself. The branch jumped, swooping over him, and Shi Mu pulled out his blade in a second, his eyebrows raised. A sway of his arm produced several blade shadows that surrounded the vine branch. As red light shone within the shadows, the branch stopped its movement, falling onto the earth in several pieces. But the cut pieces were not dead yet, black fluids gushing wildly out, and the branch grew complete at a lightning speed with its color completely black and its body emitting an unpleasant, fishy smell.

Shi Mu was frightened again, and quickly defended himself with the black blade, while his other hand fished out a charm. All the while he had forgotten the quickest way to end the fight: just call her name.

"Why, brother Shi, it's you!"

Ke Er had got out of the water at some unknown time, well dressed, only leaving her bushy hair untied. Her face was all surprise when she saw the unexpected visitor, fighting clumsily with a vine branch.

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