Chapter 149 - Together to the Sacred Mount
While Shi Mu talked tirelessly about his extraordinary experiences, Tian Huowu listened silently, her facial expressions changing all the time. When Shi Mu was done, she sank into a brief contemplation.
Word did reached her about the raid of the Rat Nest, which conformed well with Shi Mu's story and gave much credence to it. As for herself, she entered Tian Yin sect as a little girl and had been under the instruction of several saints of their sect since, hence her rather comprehensive knowledge of the martial arts ring. Therefore, the barbarian's secret curses were not unfamiliar to her. On top of this, if Shi Mu was really an enemy, there was absolutely no need for him to help her earlier; he could have waited for the best chance to take her life.
In conclusion, Tian Huowu was assured that it was her that was being oversensitive. To accuse somebody without solid proof is unfair, let alone to try to kill him. Thinking this, Tian Huowu flushed with shame. However, she soon recovered and questioned Shi Mu, "What you have just said makes sense, but how can I believe your story without any proof?"
"Well..."Shi Mu found himself in a predicament, mumbling helplessly. Unless he became a sorcerer, he did not know how to conjure up an exhibit to convince this suspicious judge. Eventually he gave up hope while feeling rather exasperated, and answered indifferently, "If I have failed to dispel sister Tian's doubts, then so be it. Please excuse me." Saying this, he turned back without Tian Huowu's consent and walked along the road he had come.
"Hold on. You still have my sword." Tian Huowu reached out her hand as her eyes blinked hesitatingly.
Shi Mu frowned and passed her the sword wordlessly. The girl took it with a hint of smile. But suddenly, she thrust the sword forward with a flick of her wrist, aiming at Shi Mu's chest with the speed of an attacking snake.
Profoundly shocked, Shi Mu shot himself backward thirty meters while his face twisted in great anger. The giant snake on his chest was bleeding.
"Sister Tian, what do you want? Do you really want to fight with me?" Shi Mu asked in a cold voice as his face turned serious.
A heavy silence hovered between the two. Tian Huowu did not answer as she withdrew her sword and held it before her eyes. She stared intently at the tip of the blade that was smeared with Shi Mu's blood. A moment later, she smiled faintly and said, "I'll help myself since you can't provide proof."
After saying this, she took out a bead the size of a thumb that looked like it was made from a kind of transparent jade, with tiny, fine magic characters glittering inside. This should be a magic weapon without doubt.
The sulky look on his face subsided while his eyes were fixed on Tian Huowu's hands. Shi Mu knitted his brows.
The girl chanted some incantations, and in response, the bead began to glow mildly white. Next, she shook her wrist swiftly, causing the blood on the sword tip to drip onto the bead. With a sizzling sound like water falling onto a heated iron, the white glow of the bead deepened as a gray and misty cloud emerged and tumbled inside the bead. Tian Huowu observed closely, holding her breath. After a while, she nodded confidently and stored the bead away.
Finally she broke the embarrassing silence, "The tattoo on your chest gives off a very profound and evil power. Now I believe your words completely. That is indeed a kind of evil working."
Shi Mu made a discontent noise through his nostrils and remained mute.
"Brother Shi, please accept my sincere apology. I was being rather rude, but please try to understand that I'm on a serious mission that requires me to act as cautiously as I can. Any small mistake may lead to a series of immeasurable consequences; that's why I was being so... obnoxious." Tian Huowu made a deep bow to Shi Mu, apologizing sincerely.
Now it was Shi Mu's turn to feel embarrassed. The girl's genuine attitude made the angry waves in his heart calm down. He relented and asked, "What do you mean by this serious mission?"
"Well... Actually, I'm not only a disciple of Tian Yin sect, but also the princess of Qi, the Heavenly Country..." Tian Huowu managed a bitter smile. She then told Shi Mu the story of her being ordered to negotiate with the barbarians to save the situation, now that the sea dwellers had launched a full-scale invasion into the peripheral islands of the three kingdoms. She also told him about how their fellowship was attacked en route.
Shi Mu was filled with consternation at the news. In the recent days, he had wandered the depth of the wasteland where the wings of pigeons rarely arrived. He had been in the dark about the sea dwellers' clandestine moves and the much hoped truce between man and barbarian.
"Can I make a bold guess that brother Shi has not been informed of all these affairs?" The princess asked with a surprised face.
"Yes, you are right. I entered the wasteland months ago, when the sea dwellers had not invaded us yet." Shi Mu's look gradually returned to normal as his thoughts went wild about how this new international situation would affect his mission of obtaining the secret totem art of the Firing Snake Tribe.
After seeing the distracted look on Shi Mu's face, the princess sank into a momentary hesitation. After thinking it through, she resolved to ask as she bit her lip, "I know I was being really rude to brother Shi that I dare not ask you to forgive me. But still, I have a presumptuous request that I wish brother Shi will hear out."
Shi Mu gave her a reassuring look and answered, "Your Highness, I now understand perfectly your difficult situation. You did what your responsibility require you to do. Besides, I'm not a narrow-minded person. So just speak whatever you want."
"Thank you, brother Shi. As I've said before, our fellowship has been completely wiped out except for myself. Now that I'm heavily injured and the barbarian Sacred Mount is still a month's journey ahead, the road will be full of danger. As a disciple of the union, could brother Shi escort me to the destination until we meet the Great Shaman of the barbarians?" The princess made the request earnestly.
This entreaty of hers set Shi Mu's thoughts tumbling in his mind. The negotiation directly concerned his people's safety and being a civilian of the Qi country, made it is his duty to protect the princess on the road. However, the journey would take him at least two months, jeopardizing his every last hope to lift the curse.
"About the curse, please don't let it worry you, brother Shi. Since this negotiation is equally important to the barbarians, I'll seize the right moment to ask for this secret art of the Firing Snake tribe from the Great Shaman. I'll do everything I can, and the cost shall be covered by the union. Even if the Great Shaman should decline this request, we can return to the union. As the direct disciple of the saint GongSun, I have my way to seek help from an Earth Grade saint. Therefore, we can fix your problem either way." The princess beamed, as if already seeing Shi Mu through.
This was definitely a rewarding offer. Shi Mu immediately consented after a brief thought. He was clear that even if he could slip into the tribe at the risk of his life, it would not ensure his final success. On the contrary, to steer his way to the Sacred Mount with the princess, proved to be a better approach with bigger odds. Even if he failed in procuring the art from the Great Shaman, he was sure he could find some other ways. After all, as the holy land of the barbarians', the Sacred Mount should be abundant in secret arts.
The princess's face lightened after Shi Mu agreed to be her guard. She said, full of excitement, "Then let's depart immediately. This is not a safe place." However, the next moment, her face went pale again as she had coughed violently.
"You are still not recovered. Let's find a place to rest, at least for tonight. We can set out the first thing in the morning." Shi Mu urged, a trace of concern crossing his eyes.
The princess' face was furrowed with anxiety as she vaguely felt the dull pain in her bosoms aggravating. Though the injuries inside her body had been temporarily suppressed by the pill she had taken, they would probably break out in an immediate trudge.
"All right... But what should we do with the dead bodies?" She nodded hesitatingly, and then asked.
"Leave the job to me." Shi Mu answered briefly and then began the clearing of the barbarians' bodies lying in a mess on the ground. He scoured each of them, and was disappointed to end up with only a few golden leaves. Next, he assembled the bodies and fished out a patch of grey hide from his shirt that had some red magic characters of fire element drawn on it. This was a Fire Ball charm. The hide was a magical paper that he happened to buy a half a month ago in a certain barbarian tribe. The paper, made from the skin of some fierce animals, was material for making dark magical charms. After several times of trial, he was surprised to find that this paper had a highly flexible property that enabled it to bear the human magic, working even better than normal magical paper.
He flicked the hide and it immediately caught fire, turning into a giant fire ball that fell onto the pile of the dead bodies. After several minutes, there were only ashes swirling low above the ground.
The next morning, in a wood not far by the oasis, Shi Mu was sitting cross-legged in a clearing while absorbed in meditation. His breath was slow and regular; his expression calm and rapt.
"Brother Shi," the princess' clear voice came from behind his shoulder.
Shi Mu opened his eyes slowly and looked back, only to be surprised by the sight. A strange barbarian man, heavily built in a grey cloak, was walking towards him. He had dark red complexion and a shaggy ginger beard. If it was not for the familiar ringing voice, Shi Mu would definitely take him for a genuine barbarian.
"You are... the princess?" Shi Mu asked tentatively.
The big barbarian giggled girlishly. "Sure, who else would I be? I picked up the art of disguise in my sect. After the attack yesterday, I thought I'd better be more discreet. So... Well, let's give you a makeover, too." The princess sneered.
Shi Mu nodded his consent. Although barely anyone knew him in this wasteland, his appearance still resembled a normal man's. A good disguise is always welcome when it involves an undercover job.
The princess proved herself to be a professional after an hour's effort. Shi Mu now looked exactly like a middle-aged barbarian man with dark complexion and a weather-beaten air. Even Shi Mu himself was amazed while looking at his reflection on the lake; he could not help but give unceasing praises for the princess' proficiency.
In the Death Space. Chilly wind whistled, adding to the dingy land a bleakness that made one shudder with a heavy heart. The sky was dim and cloudy as usual, with a row of blood-red moons hovering like dead spirits. If Shi Mu was here at the moment, he would find that one moon was somehow missing, leaving only eleven others gazing at the land. However, each of the moon had grown slightly bigger.
The creatures on the land did not care the slightest about the blood-red moons or about how many there were now or where the missing one had gone. Numbly, they moved on.
At the foot of a dead mountain, broken bones littered the brownish ground; they gave a sad cry whenever a stiff wind howl past. Apart from some normal skeletons, there were also bone pieces of zombies, skeleton riders, and some fierce beasts on the ground, suggesting a recently ended war.
Amid a mass of bone pieces, the skull of a damaged skeleton suddenly jiggled; its eye sockets flashing. The skeleton had lost both its feet and half of its left body, left with only a smaller part of its chest supporting its head and the right arm.
The skeleton propped itself up with the single hand, endeavoring to straighten up. Examining its injured body, the green gleams in its eye sockets wavered as if in sorrow.
This skeleton was exactly Silk.