Chapter 4: Sand Puppet Lou Lan
Translator: TYZ Editor: Lis
Not far from him, in the middle of the alleyway, a figure struggled in what seemed to be a pool of yellow quicksand.
Ai Hui increased his vigilance. The first thought that came to his mind was earth elementalists.
They had many unique killing moves that were difficult to guard against. When there didn't seem to be any changes to the situation, Ai Hui took a closer look and discovered something strange about the figure-only the top-half of its body was visible.
Its skin was slightly yellowish with a coarse, gritty texture, and on its face, it wore a black mask that seemed to be made of some kind of dense rock. Ai Hui opened his mouth and blurted out, "Sand puppet?"
The figure stopped struggling and cast a glance at Ai Hui before replying, "Yes, you can call me Lou Lan."
It was a male voice, deep and hoarse.
Sand puppets were a favorite of earth elementalists. They were easy to make and repair, would undertake any tasks without complaints, and were very suitable for manual labor. This one happened to be made of the high-quality heavy sand produced by the Yellow Sand Manufacturer in the Avalon of Five Elements. It was easy to recognize the sand puppet based on its composition, but also, he had seen plenty of them in the Wilderness.
"It appears that you've encountered some troubles." Ai Hui walked to the front of Lou Lan and squatted. "Is it your sand core?"
If a sand puppet malfunctioned, it was most likely because of the sand core. It was the most important component of their bodies, crafted by earth elementalists using heavy sand. Each core was unique, however, since earth elementalists each had their own crafting methods.
The sand core was pivotal in the formation of its body since they were entirely made of individual particles. Hence, if the core broke down, the sand puppet would be reduced to a pool of yellow sand.
"Yes, it's a chronic problem." Lou Lan sounded somewhat helpless. "Can you help me? My master is Master Shao. He lives in the second building from the end of the alleyway. Could you deliver a message to him?"
"The second building from the end of the alleyway?" Ai Hui raised his eyebrows. "Seems like we're going to be neighbors for some time."
Seeing Lou Lan's rather high intelligence, Ai Hui assumed that a powerful earth elementalist lived next to him.
Just as Ai Hui put his hand into the pool of yellow sand, he immediately felt the tug of strong earth elemental energy crushing him like a grinding millstone. His entire face shuddered as he covered his palm with metal elemental energy, making it into a razor-sharp dagger.
"Try to bear with it."
Just as Ai Hui finished his sentence, the metal elemental energy gathered in his hands suddenly exploded outward.
A low, muffled explosion could be heard from within the pool of yellow sand as invisible shockwaves diffused across the area. Lou Lan's upper body froze in the pile of trembling sand.
Two seconds later, his eyes brightened. The dispersed yellow sand rapidly gathered around his body like a pile of metal dust attracted to a magnet.
In the blink of an eye, not a speck of sand could be seen on the floor. With a recovered body, Lou Lan started to move his body around. Amazed, he asked, "Such a magical method, how did you do it?"
"It's a simple method, "Ai Hui corrected him. He picked up his shabby backpack and slung it over his shoulder. "It's only for emergencies though. You still have to go back and examine your sand core again."
He wasn't lying; it really wasn't some ingenious method. Ai Hui had seen earth elementalists in the Wilderness use this method to treat problematic sand puppets every once in awhile. It didn't work every time, but it did at least eight times out of ten.
Admittedly, however, this was Ai Hui's first time trying it himself. No sane earth elementalist would let a laborer repair his or her sand puppet.
Lou Lan naturally didn't know this. Instead, he felt that Ai Hui possessed the demeanor of a very capable individual.
"Thank you very much!" Lou Lan bowed and thanked him sincerely.
"Don't worry about it. My name's Ai Hui." Ai Hui waved his hand, signalling Lou Lan to not fret over it and continued walking towards the alley's end. "Let's go, we're heading in the same direction."
Lou Lan followed beside Ai Hui and asked, "So where are you heading?"
"The Vanguard Training Hall. Is it located here?" Ai Hui asked casually.
"We are indeed neighbors." Lou Lan's deep voice contained a tinge of excitement. "We're right next door. Is this your house? It seems no one's been here in a long time."
Ai Hui's walking pace slowed down, but he acted natural as he replied, "No, I've taken on a commission that requires me to clean up this place."
Lou Lan oohed. "So you're a new student?"
"You got it." Ai Hui nodded. He could already sense that Lou Lan seldom left his house.
A sand puppet's intelligence had the capacity to develop further. While Ai Hui was in the Wilderness, he had seen combat sand puppets behave cunningly and callously-truly killing machines.
There was a saying, "One can easily tell the character of an earth elementalist by looking at their sand puppet." Judging by Lou Lan, he could tell that the master, Master Shao, was an unworldly earth elementalist that focused on trainings.
"We've arrived. This is the Vanguard Training Hall." Lou Lan pointed at an old-fashioned house at the end of the alleyway.
"To build a training hall in such a secluded area is really..." Ai Hui shook his head. The three years he had spent in the swordsman school made him sensitive towards issues regarding training halls. He came roughly knowing that it would be out of the way. However, now that he saw this place with his own eyes, he realized that he had underestimated just how remote it would be.
Was the landlord a depressed individual like the owner of the swordsman school?
Possible. Didn't the old man say that the landlord hadn't contacted them for twenty years? Perhaps he'd been hinting at the landlord's unknown fate.
Whatever. Ai Hui didn't care too much. After all, he was doing this for the money. The training hall and the fate of the landlord had nothing to do with him.
Clusters of spiderwebs covered the door, and the signboard over the door was stacked with layers of filth, rendering the inscribed words illegible. If he didn't know this place was called the Vanguard Training Hall, he wouldn't have been able to recognize it.
He took out the key, easily unlocking the door. It seemed he had found the right place.
As he pushed open the door, heavy stacks of dust fell down like snow.
Ai Hui stood at the entrance and waited for the dust to settle before he stepped in.
The courtyard was dilapidated while the weeds had grown taller than an actual person. Most of the overgrown vegetation were sword reeds, appearing like a sea of blades pointed at the sky. Ai Hui's eyes twitched at the scene. The landlord must have had a weird taste to grow sword reeds in his own home.
The plants were generally used to make grass swords, which was exactly what Ai Hui used as a weapon.
However, when Ai Hui saw the overgrown courtyard, he began to feel the beginnings of a huge headache. Sword reeds were difficult to cut due to their extreme durability that far exceeded even steel's. That wasn't even the worst part. Sword reeds grew in thickets, so if someone accidentally fell into it, their body would be covered in cuts and bruises.
Ai Hui shook his head and laughed bitterly.
Another upsetting matter was that these sword reeds were too thick and old. If they were at most five years old, he could use them to make grass swords, but these were useless to him.
"I can help you," Lou Lan offered.
Ai Hui shook his head. " I can do it on my own. You should go back and check on your sand core. What I did just now was a stopgap measure. It won't solve the root of the problem."
"Okay then." Lou Lan tilted his head. "You can wait for me to return tomorrow."
"I can do it on my own. Since I've taken the money, I should work on it myself," Ai Hui replied as he opened up his shabby backpack. He did not have the habit of throwing his own tasks at other people to do.
"Okay, I'll go back first then." Without another word, Lou Lan's body dissolved into a pool of sand that disappeared into the ground.
Although sword reeds were considered by many as a troublesome plant, Ai Hui knew that wasn't the case.
After three years in the Wilderness, Ai Hui considered himself a fledgling botanologist. It was only a pity that he wasn't a wood elemental; otherwise, he felt he'd have much better future prospects than with his current affinity for the metal element.
His backpack was filled with an assortment of objects: animal bones, pelts, seeds, and colorful stones. These were the spoils of war and savings he'd obtained during his three years in the Wilderness. Most of these he had collected himself, while some had been given to him by other elementalists as rewards or as handouts because they were considered useless by their previous owners.
Ai Hui guarded them closely. No matter what, he never allowed himself to lose his backpack.
From his satchel, he took out a small, red bottle containing a kind of fire poison called Flaming Timbre that he had personally concocted. Its toxicity was not strong enough to be used in combat, but it was an essential item that everyone carried in the Wilderness.
There, the overgrown vegetation could blot out the sun, making many places difficult to access. To set up camp as well, the area had to be cleared away.
Unfortunately, there were countless plant types in the Wilderness that were exceptionally resilient, even more so than sword reeds. Manpower alone could not get rid of them, and they were resistant to ordinary fire. Only a fire poison like Flaming Timbre could dispose of them.
As Ai Hui unstoppered the bottle, a sulfuric smell immediately diffused through the air. He then poured the lava-like Flaming Timbre onto the sword reeds.
As soon as it touched the leaves, the lush green became an ash-gray color that rapidly spread throughout the entire thicket with a visible speed.
Gradually, the sulfuric smell in the air dissipated, and after approximately five minutes, the sea of sword reeds had turned completely gray.
The sword reeds collapsed like an avalanche, leaving the entire area littered with plant ashes.
Ai Hui skillfully buried the plant ashes into the ground. By doing so, he could effectively suppress any future weed growth since they avoided the smell of Flaming Timbre.
Fast with his movements, in the blink of an eye, he had cleared the entire courtyard. Using a broom, he swept away the spiderwebs in the room corners then drew water from the well to wipe the floors clean. With several years' worth of dust built up, he had to do five to six runs to clean it all.
In the corners of the house, there were stone grooves with old calabash gourds. After clearing away the dead leaves that had accumulated in the gourds, Ai Hui wrapped vines around the pillars and eaves before hanging the calabashes on them.
The windows were opened to ventilate the house.
He hung the weather-beaten wooden signboard in the main hall, washed the bronze incense burner and stuck in them three joss sticks that he had found in a cupboard.
After working hard for the entire day, the training hall became as clean as new.
Nightfall arrived, and the calabashes that hung under the eaves emitted a gentle glow, giving the training hall an ambient lighting. The bluestone benches were clean and neat. A simple and rustic wooden house. Neatly-placed equipment. Spiralling incense that contained traces of sweetness.
Like a dream hidden within the depths of his mind, the tranquil scene before him seemed to appear without any warning.
He was caught off guard and somewhat startled by the captivating scene, unable to resist its charm.
He was slightly startled.