~ A remote fishing village, Quan Zhou, Kai Yuan Prefecture, Da Qi Kingdom. ~
A richly ornamented carriage stood parked outside a shabby wooden cabin while several armed men in black robes stood on guard around it. The villagers were swarming around the scene in excitement, talking to each other in whispers about the scene in front of them.
“Are they really from the Jin Family? The Feng City’s Jin Family?”
“Yes, I am not mistaken. See that golden embroidery on their robes? No other Family in the Kai Yuan Prefecture wears it apart from the Jin Family.”
“This is unbelievable! Since no one had heard anything from Shi Ting in these ten years after he left his wife and son behind, everyone assumed that he had died an untimely death, probably falling prey to some illness, in some unknown land. But now it seems he has established himself with the Jin Family, and has sent his men back to collect Shi Mu, his son. It’s a pity that the boy’s mother died; else she could’ve enjoyed a life of great wealth and prosperity.”
“Wealth and prosperity! That’s quite unlikely. Didn’t you overhear the Jin Family’s soldiers say that Shi Ting is now the Jin Family’s son-in-law, and that he wouldn’t have dared to send his men for Shi Mu if the boy’s mother was still alive?”
“Nonetheless, Shi Mu’s hardships will finally come to an end. He was just an orphan until yesterday, but now he’ll become a young master.”
“My father lies in bed, seriously ill, and I have a younger sister that I did not know of?” asked Shi Mu unbelievingly of the blue robed old man who stood in front of him.
The harsh sun and the winds from the ocean had turned his skin a shade of auburn, making him look a lot older than thirteen. His features were strong, and made him stand out from his peers. His shabby shirt did little to hide his muscular stature, adding a fierce aura to his presence.
“That’s right. The ailing master may not be too far away from his day of doom. That is the cause for my arrival here. Madam has asked me to take young master Shi back with me to bid the master goodbye at his deathbed,” replied the man, smiling mildly.
“Who is this Madam that you speak of? My father abandoned me and my mother when I was a little child. There is no use of him coming back for me after all these years. You may leave, for I will not go with you to the Jins’,” the boy answered sourly, without a hint of hesitation in his voice.
“Alas! I’m afraid that you, young master Shi, have misunderstood my master. Master has had many difficulties over these years, which is why he was unable to come back for young master Shi. It is his greatest desire to meet the young master in order to resolve the differences, and leave the past behind,” the old servant tried to explain.
“Humph! That man abandoned his own family. Nothing you say can change that fact. You may leave,” said the boy coldly.
The blue-robed old man seemed to be in state a flux. He knit his brows close together, and only spoke once he had observed the boy’s features. His voice had a sense of decisiveness to it.
“Didn’t the medicine that the young master Shi has been buying from the town’s pharmacist seem unreasonably cheap? Moreover, hasn’t the martial arts instructor of the town been charging the young master less than every other student of his’? Not to forget, aren’t the fish that are caught from the sea sold quickly, and almost magically when young master Shi comes to the town’s market? Not just that, haven’t there been quite a few customers haggling over the price of the fish?”
“Do you mean to say that all these things have been arranged because of that man?” the boy asked bluntly, his color rising.
“I do not know if it was the master’s idea. However, madam was the one who requested these arrangements in person,” answered the servant with a smile.
The words seemed to have an impact on the young boy, and he began to look agitated and troubled.
“If I may ask, haven’t you, young master Shi, been studying the art of Body Tempering? There is no doubt that the young master must aspire to be a true warrior. Madam was kind enough to offer to secure an opportunity for young master Shi to take the enrollment test of Kai Yuan Martial Arts School, as long as there was an agreement to meet the master. Of course, the final admission would depend on the extent of the young master’s talents and abilities,” said the man, carefully laying out his trump card on the table.
“Kai Yuan Martial Arts School?” the boy repeated, dumbfounded. Like any other boy of thirteen, he too was moved by such a temptation.
“As a martial arts student, I’m sure the young master must be aware of this: Kai Yuan Martial Arts School is one of the four most prestigious schools that only enroll students once in every five years. The candidates are required to meet two important conditions to be eligible for the entrance test. First, they must have finished studying the art of Body Tempering before they turned fifteen. Second, they are required to have grasped the essence of Qi, which is essential for them to be able to cultivate their real Qi. This means that they would be able to circulate it easily through their meridians. It is impossible to be a true martial arts scholar without fulfilling these conditions. However, it is not an easy task to sense Qi. A Qi Ling pill is required to induce one’s Qi into a flexible state, and this pill costs a lot of money. Even the Jin family is only able to afford ten pills at most at a particular time. I am worried for the young master’s dreams and aspirations, seeing as you wish to fend for yourself,” the old man said slowly and with confidence, ensuring that his words would sink in.
The boy was silent for a long time, and his voice was cold as ice when he finally spoke.
“You may come back in three days for your answer.”
“Good, it is settled then. I will be back in three days to hear the good news,” said the blue-robed man.
He could sense that the boy had made up his mind, and so, he bowed slightly and left soon after.
“Butler Cheng, why are we returning without the boy? We won’t have to waste any more time if we just take him by force,” observed a rider after they had left the village.
“Nonsense! He may not be madam’s own son, but young master Shi is the master’s son by blood. We have been asked to take him back safely and of his own will, or the master will not be happy. Upsetting the master will cost us our jobs, considering madam’s affection for him,” the blue-robed man retorted sourly.
“Ah, sorry… I was being foolish,” mumbled the rider.
Just then, a shadow suddenly flashed in the distance. A black-robed rider rushed to the old servant and bowed.
“Butler Cheng, we have found some Biao warriors sent by the fifth master. What should we do?” he asked.
“Humph! It appears that the fifth master is still sticking to his earlier plan. You will not be able to handle the Biao warriors. I will deal with them. Show me the way, and ask the rest of the men to wait here. I will bring this foolish scheme to an end myself,” frowned the old man.
“Yes,” said the rider, leading the way back into the woods, following the path he had come from.
The blue-robed man jumped off the horse and followed swiftly, with his body resembling that of a light feather. He disappeared in less than a moment, while the other rider stayed back with the carriage, not daring to move a muscle.
It was nearly evening when Shi Mu found himself kneeling before a tomb outside the village, on an unnamed hill. The moonlight shone softly on the yellow tombstone, which read “The Tomb of the Shi Family’s Wife, Originally Surnamed Wang.”
“Dear mother, you will not believe what I’m about to say. Father is not dead. He has even married into another family in an unknown land. But please, you need not fear, for I shall fulfill my promise to you. Father had lied to you when he left saying he wanted to pursue martial arts, but I will be a true warrior. Your son will be the strongest warrior the world has ever seen, so that you can eternally rest in peace!”
The boy murmured a few more words to his mother’s tomb before standing up. He then stretched his muscles and began exercising on the same spot.
To anyone watching from afar, his body would have resembled that of a tiger’s. His movements grew faster with every passing second, and the sound of his bones creaking and cracking could be heard from a distance. Soon, it became hard to see his frame in the cloud of dust that had been stirred up because of his intense movements.
Charging out, his figure emerged from the circle of dust and punched the thick trunk of a tree nearby. Bang! The tree trembled with the impact of the blow, and a thunderous sound echoed. A number of leaves fell from the tree, and an impressive fist imprint stood in the middle of the tree trunk.
Shi Mu raised his eyebrows as he noticed the deep mark that his fist had left on the tree.
This series of movement was the first technique he had been taught at the town’s martial arts school. It was also the most popular skill in the art of Body Tempering in the Da Qi Heavenly Kingdom. His instructor had told him that one had to be at the seventh level in Body Tempering to leave an imprint as deep as the one he just had. This meant that he only had to cross two more levels before he could be able to practice Qi sensing.
It had taken him four whole years to reach the seventh level. There was a certain amount of truth in the saying that martial arts was only for the rich.
It had taken him five or six months to save up the tuition fee of 32 silvers from the day he had decided to study martial arts. This was already a lowered fee, as the others had to pay an even higher fee for their training. He had managed to reduce the fee because of his relentless and sincere pleading.
The exorbitant price of the medicine bath that was needed to temper his body had left him penniless. Despite his poor situation, Shi Mu had been able to reach a remarkable level. This had left the school astonished, and had gained him his instructor’s respect and admiration. It was believed that with his talents and physical stature, there was no doubt that Shi Mu was a natural born warrior.
He may have asked the school’s pharmacist to prepare medicinal baths for him from time to time, but given the money he had, no one could afford to give him rare and expensive herbs. So he was only able to bathe with ordinary herbs which did little to enhance his physical growth.
Shi Mu sighed heavily, knowing that he had not been born with sturdy bones. There had been a stroke of luck two years ago, which had played a huge part in his achievements thereafter. He knew that this was partly the reason why he needed time to make his decision about whether he wanted to move to live with the Jins’.
Troubled by these thoughts, he looked up at the moon before rushing down the hill. He arrived at the seashore where groups of rocks stood, and within seconds, jumped into the sea. He moved his arms swiftly, like a giant fish in the deep sea. After some time, he swam three hundred to four hundred feet deep.
This was when something spectacular happened before his eyes.
The sea, which had been pitch-dark previously, began to glitter with white light. The light became brighter and illuminated the area around it.
Shi Mu was not taken aback by this development. He held his breath, and swam several meters downward, near a patch of sandy floor. He had reached the bottom of the sea, which was covered with white fine sand.
He was able to see that the glittering light was emanating from ten shells, each the size of a man’s palm. In the middle of the circle of shells stood a rock which was seventy or eighty feet high, flickering incessantly.