Three years had passed. Everything was mostly the same in the world.
Green Mountain was the same as before, still enshrouded in the mist; the flashes of sword lights would be seen once in a while. Jing Jiu, who had been away from Green Mountain for six years, had been mentioned less and less there, like back when he was in the snowland. On the other hand, the mayhem of the West Ocean three years ago was often discussed among the Green Mountain disciples. They were curious about who that elder was and whether or not Guo Dong was rescued.
There wasn't much change on Shenmo Peak save for an extra horse. The horse didn't have to do any work there, spending its days grazing the grass in the mountains. The only irritating thing for the horse was that the monkeys among the cliffs would often harass it; the situation improved only after they had become familiar with each other.
One early morning, the horse strolled to the bank of Golden-Whip Stream to drink water. A young naughty monkey sat on its back and waved a tree twig, making a sound of some sort which only Gu Qing could understand.
Yuan Qü emerged from the forest with a few broken pieces of black golden stone in his hands. He was taken aback at first after seeing the scene, but soon revealed a jovial expression on his face.
As the sword light landed, Gu Qing appeared. Seeing the broken pieces of black stone in his young brother's hands, he recalled what had happened three years ago and asked hesitantly, "Is Senior Master Zhao…still practicing the flying sword?"
"Yes," Yuan Qü replied excitedly, "my Master's Cultivation state is really formidable now."
Gu Qing mused that this was truly something worthy of celebrating, but not worthy of being so excited about.
Yuan Qü said while pointing to the horse by the stream, "Big Brother, what do you fathom when you see the monkey on the horse?"
Gu Qing understood what Yuan Qü meant after his initial confusion; the scene of a monkey on a horse indicates a good fortune. "Getting promoted in the government is something only mortals desire, which has nothing to do with us."
Yuan Qü protested, "Omen! I think this is a good omen!"
Gu Qing realized what he was talking about.
Zhao Layue was prepared to take part in the Center Sect Meeting, though she only said that she just wanted to have a look.
The Center Sect Meeting was to celebrate the founding of their sect thirty-thousand years ago. They had invited as many Cultivation sects as possible to attend the meeting. They also offered the Longevity Fairy Book as the reward for the winner of the Dao Competition. However, not all the Cultivation practitioners had the opportunity to win the price. The rules were crystal clear: the participating Cultivation practitioners in the Dao Competition had to be the ones who started their Cultivation less than sixty years ago, and their Cultivation state couldn't be lower than the Golden Pill State.
The Golden Pill State of the Center Sect could be regarded as the initial state of Free Travel at the Green Mountain Sect.
The Dao Competition could be considered as the more advanced version of the Plum Meeting. The winners of the last Plum Meeting had obtained the qualification to take part in the Dao Competition.
Gu Qing didn't remember who the winner for the Cultivation tournament was in the last Plum Meeting, but he remembered clearly that Que Niang of the Mirror Sect was the winner of the chess tournament again.
He Zhan quit playing Go, and Tong Yan and Jing Jiu didn't take part in the Plum Meeting. As a result, Queniang became the number one unchallenged Go player in the world.
The Grand Scholar Guo in Zhaoge City even believed that her current level of Go playing was nearly as good as that of Tong Yan's when he played last time at the Plum Meeting.
According to the rules of the Center Sect, every sect could choose a qualified young Cultivation practitioner to participate in the Dao Competition, and it went without saying that the number was not limited for the participants from the Center Sect.
Based on such strict rules, many small sects couldn't even find one qualified practitioner to attend the Dao Competition; even some of the larger sects like the Kunlun and the Great Marsh could merely find one or two at most.
Yet, the Green Mountain Sect had quite a few disciples who were qualified.
It was evident that the Green Mountain Sect was indeed the leader of the orthodox Cultivation world, which had profound resources unmatched by other sects.
The Green Mountain Sect had more qualified disciples, but there was only one available spot. As a result, the contest for the spot was fierce.
In the beginning, attention was mostly paid to Liangwang Peak.
The disciples on Liangwang Peak like Guo Nanshan, You Siluo and Gu Han had all reached the Free Travel State by now.
But later, the sword letter from Shenmo Peak told all the peaks that Zhao Layue wanted to participate in the contest. Now all the attention was fixed on Zhao Layue.
As the Peak Master of Shenmo, Zhao Layue wanted to contend with the disciples of later generation, which caused some discontent.
The elders of all the peaks thought that anybody would want to go to the Dao Competition to have an opportunity to win the Fairy Book; since Zhao Layue could go, they should be able to as well.
However, when they checked their own qualifications, not even one of them was qualified…
It was then that many of them remembered that Zhao Layue was much younger than Guo Nanshan and others in actual age.
Zhao Layue walked out from the manor cave and took over the broken pieces of black stone from Yuan Qü. She looked at them for a long time with furrowed brows, seeming not very satisfied with the result.
Gu Qing approached and bowed to her and then took out two paintings.
Zhao Layue threw the broken black stone off the cliff and took over a painting to take a brief look of it.
"This is the ancient painting that was stolen from the Li family," Gu Qing explained. "This painting is recorded in many books, so it's very famous and had been in the possession of the Li family for a long time. That friend of his had his eyes on this painting from the very beginning, so he didn't do anything suspicious when helping him sell other possessions."
The painting was of a starry night and an aged cliff on which a young woman held an umbrella amid the thin fog by the cliff's edge.
The young woman's two eyes looked like two lines, and they appeared to be gentle but actually seemed to be phlegmatic to an extreme degree. The mixture of the two different emotions on the same face would give any observer of the painting an unforgettable impression.
The painter employed a complicated method when painting it. The night sky and the aged cliff were painted with rough and broad brushes, but the stars and the young woman were painted with a great care.
The impression the observers of the painting had was that the painter was in a mood as complicated as the methods he used to create the painting.
"That man was very cautious, and didn't sell it for a long time, waiting for a good opportunity in the south. It took a good deal of effort to find him," Gu Qing added.
Zhao Layue looked at the painting quietly without uttering a word.
This was an excellent painting; otherwise, it wouldn't be so famous.
She hailed from a noble family, so she could tell the quality of the painting.
Yet, she felt odd about the painting. It seemed that she had seen the young woman in the painting somewhere. Even though the painting had been maintained in a good condition, the edges of the painting still turned a bit yellowish and were brittle, as it was painted a great many years ago. It occurred to her that the young woman in the painting should be someone who lived hundreds or even one thousand years ago; so there was no way she had seen the woman somewhere.
After some thought, she said, "Send it back then."
This was something Jing Jiu requested; as such, Gu Qing would carry the task out as flawlessly as he could.
She then took the second painting. This was a sketch painting, and should have been painted not long ago.
After quite a few years, the Curtain Rollers had finally finished sketching the portrait of the new Sect Master, or the Church Master, to be more precise, of the Mysterious Dark Church.
This church master called himself the Ming King, about thirty years old. He appeared suddenly on the Cold Mountain about ten years ago, had a formidable demonic magic prowess, and he also had improved his Cultivation state at a fast pace.
Most of all, it was said that he had been recognized by the Sun Banner as its master.
Being able to employ the full force of the Sun Banner meant that he had the power of someone in the Heavenly Arrival State.
Hearing what Gu Qing described by the side, Yuan Qü was dejected. He couldn't help feeling bewildered as well.
He and Gu Qing were both talented in Cultivation and also encountered brilliant masters. And their Cultivation states improved fairly fast; Gu Qing was on the verge of breaking through the Free Travel State, and he was not far behind as well. Yet, in comparison to the Mysterious Dark Church Master…it was indeed unfair. He had become so strong in the time period similar to the time they had spent on Cultivation.
"The prowess of the deviant swordsmen relies mostly on the external objects. I'm in the similar situation; if I don't suppress the Thoughtless Sword, I can fight against someone in the Broken Sea State. But it's meaningless."
Zhao Layue continued, "This person must pay a heavy price if he wants to completely control the Sun Banner in his current Cultivation state and at his current age; and it will be hard for him to get on the true path of Cultivation. Thus, it's not something we should admire."
Yuan Qü suddenly thought of a possibility and said, "This person calls himself the Ming King. Would it be possible that he has some connection to Sir Ming in the Royal Palace?"
Gu Qing shook his head and said, "The Ming Clan checked it among their clan members and found no such a person in their clan."
Looking at the young face of the devil man in the painting, Zhao Layue also felt that she had seen him somewhere.
She eventually remembered where she had seen him this time.
Back when she visited Zhaoge City years ago, she requested her family to send someone to the storage house of the Pure Heaven Bureau to paint a sketch.
"It turns out to be you."
Seeing the pair of the eyes full of lethal intent on the face of the young devil man, she mused that he was not Ming King, or Xiaoming Wang, and reversing the name would be his real name.
Thinking of what had happened back then, she lifted her head to take a look at Gu Qing, feeling unpleased.
Gu Qing's heart skipped a beat, wondering what his Master had done wrong this time.
Gu Qing always acted cautiously, and had seldom made mistakes.
He had realized a long time ago that Senior Master Zhao was actually looking at his Master when she looked at him with such an expression in her eyes.
Zhao Layue didn't explain why she felt this way, thinking that she had suggested wiping out the roots of the grass by killing him, but Jing Jiu didn't heed her advice…
A crisp sword sound came out from Tianguang Peak and could be heard throughout the nine peaks.
The disciples who wanted to participate in the Dao Competition of the Center Sect should go to Tianguang Peak to take part in the Sword Trial now.
Zhao Layue stepped on the Thoughtless Sword and shot up skyward.
Gu Qing and Yuan Qü followed close behind.
The peak of Shenmo Peak was quiet again.
A moment later, the white cat strolled out from the manor cave, the bell on his neck making a crisp sound.
Cold Cicada crouching on his head looked at the bell with wavering eyes, showing a great deal of curiosity.
The white cat walked to the cliff's edge, looking at the distant Bihu Peak with a grave expression.
The Sword Trial would begin soon; the Great Formation of Green Mountain would change its energy, and the thunderstorm atop Bihu Peak would come to an end.
The piece of Soul-Thunder Wood left on Bihu Peak should be ready soon. He thought that he should go back to keep a tab on it.
But, the other pieces of Soul-Thunder Wood were still on Shangde Peak; what should he do then?
Why hadn't Jing Jiu come back already?
The Sword Trial on Green Mountain took place in the Stone Forest on Tianguang Peak this time as well. It was because it had a high requirement for the Cultivation state; so the participating disciples were not as many.
For some unknown reason, the fog was very thick that day. The elders of Shiyue Peak tried a few times but failed to lift the fog.
Nan Wang was irritated by the effort and said it was not that important to get rid of the fog. She urged Chi Yan to announce the beginning of the event.
It was because Qingrong Peak was to host a Red Leaf Banquet that day, so she was eager to go back to her peak to drink alcohol.
Chi Yan took a glance of the cloud and fog, feeling that something unfortunate might happen that day. Yet, he still raised his hand with furrowed brows to signal the beginning of the Sword Trial.
The flying swords broke through the clouds and fog and brought out countless nice-looking lines. Innumerable cutting marks were left on the stone posts, and the stone chips fell down in tandem.
The competitors were all Liangwang Peak disciples.
Though the sword fights were tense and exciting, there was no danger involved; especially compared to the Sword Trial in which Jing Jiu participated, the sword combats were rather peaceful.
A sword light as blue as the sea appeared and then disappeared in the fog.
As the fog abated, Guo Nanshan and You Siluo walked out from the fog and exchanged a smiling look.
Guo Nanshan was the principal disciple of the Immortal Sect Master, and the principal disciple of Liangwang Peak. He had a strong Cultivation state and naturally won the combat in the end.
Then, all the gazes focused on the far end of the cliff.
It was the spot where Shenmo Peak stayed.
Zhao Layue arrived by riding her sword.
The thick fog covered the Stone Forest, blocking the sight.
Zhao Layue and Guo Nanshan stood on top of two separate stone posts about three miles apart.
This was the maximum striking distance for those in the initial state of the Free Travel.
Nobody thought that Zhao Layue bullied Guo Nanshan as a senior. Regardless of age and the time of Cultivation, she was younger than Guo Nanshan.
It was only that she inherited the sword of Shenmo Peak back then and became the personal disciple of the Immortal Jing Yang and a senior.
But, Guo Nanshan didn't dare look down on this little senior master, and he didn't want to lose to her in the least.
All the Cultivation geniuses in the world would go to the Center Sect to participate in the Dao Competition this time. The Fairy Book could help increase the lifetime; though this was an important factor, more importantly, the person who obtained the Fairy Book would receive the fairy energy left by the Fairy Lady and be able to understand a much higher principle, which was much more important to any Cultivation practitioner.
The thick fog blocked the sight, and the opponents could only use the sword awareness to ascertain the other's position. In many people's eyes, this situation was beneficial to Guo Nanshan.
No matter how talented Zhao Layue was, she hadn't cultivated as long as Guo Nanshan, so the range of her sword awareness had to be limited.
The mountain wind tousled the fog. Her eyes were closed and her hair was messier than ever.
Suddenly, she opened her eyes and gazed at a deep spot in the fog.
A flash of red sword light suddenly appeared, illuminating the thick fog to make it look like the morning sunlight.
The Thoughtless Sword shot up through the sky.
Guo Nanshan lifted his head suddenly to look at the inside of the fog.
As far as Zhao Layue was concerned, she wouldn't pay much attention to a combat in the Free Travel State; but as she called out her sword, she found something was not quite right.
The color of the Thoughtless Sword was not the same.
Breaking through the fog.
The Thoughtless Sword hovered quietly in front of Guo Nanshan's eyes.
The expression in Guo Nanshan's eyes was complex.
He didn't find Zhao Layue's position, but her flying sword had already arrived.
Now that the Thoughtless Sword could stop right in front of his eyes, it meant that she could have done more than that.
Stopping is often harder than running.
However, what Guo Nanshan couldn't understand was how she could determine his position through layers of thick fog.
If he were a highly achieved swordsman from another sect such as the Center Sect or the Great Marsh, he might be able to use a magic treasure to protect his body and block the flying sword to gain another chance.
But the Green Mountain Sect didn't allow such a maneuver; what they emphasized was one single fatal attack.
The winner for this sword combat was of course Zhao Layue.
It was quiet for a long time in the surroundings; and then the surprised screams broke out suddenly.
Big Brother Guo Nanshan had lost.
It was unbelievable.
Moreover, the person to defeat him was Zhao Layue, who was much younger than he and had cultivated in a much shorter time period.
But what was more unbelievable than the result of the combat was that people took it for granted that Zhao Layue had defeated Guo Nanshan.
At the Green Mountain Sect, the name of Zhao Layue meant genius.
She was the youngest peak master and youngest Cultivation practitioner in the Free Travel State…and many other Cultivation records had also been set by her.
After the Grandmaster Jing Yang, they couldn't find a second person who would be able to equal Zhao Layue.
Returning from the snowland, Jing Jiu had been even more famous; but as he stagnated in his Cultivation state and then disappeared for many years. His fame had faded away.
Seeing Zhao Layue walking out from the fog, many people had tremendous awe and admiration when they saw her. She was the true genius at the Green Mountain Sect.
Still, many people might feel resentful when they thought of another talented disciple who stayed behind closed doors right on this peak.
He was the only one who might be able to beat Zhao Layue.
This was the opinion on the minds of many people.
The clouds and fog suddenly dissipated. The sunlight shone down and illuminated the Tianguang Peak.
A rainbow suddenly appeared on the top of the peak.
There was a person under the rainbow.
What was going on?
Nan Wang arched her brows slightly, thinking it was getting interesting today.
Chi Yan furrowed his eyebrows a little, thinking something was, as expected, going to happen today.
Bai Rujing, Mo Chi and other elders of Tianguang Peak abruptly stood up, excitement showing in their eyes.
The news scattered even faster than the fog.
The Green Mountain crowd was shocked into silence while they watched the peak top.
Bai Rujing commented sentimentally while looking at the peak top, "He looked this way when he went behind closed doors, and he hasn't changed a bit. The strength of his Dao Heart has no equal in the world."
The person standing on the top of the peak was Zhuo Rusui.
He was the personal disciple of the Immortal Sect Master of Green Mountain and called the most talented disciple in the last hundred years.
He came to the bank of the Sword-Washing Stream from the North-Crane Pavilion, became the personal disciple of the Immortal Sect Master, and then stayed behind closed doors ever since.
He had stayed behind closed doors for over twenty years.
He had finally come out from behind closed doors that day.
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