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"Chief, are you sure about not accompanying Tao Jie?"

"Hum, he needs to learn to take command on his own as well. He is the most promising one among us all and I want to make him the next leader.

 

"But you are at the late qi condensation level and he is just at the early qi condensation! And you have always been our big brother, even when the Snake Island still stood. Nobody here would accept little Tao Jie to take your place."

"That's why I am also trying to gradually make everyone used to Tao Jie leading others. And, Shi Nui, you already know the main reason in your heart… With my age and talent, I don't have any chance of making it to the foundation establishment stage. It would already be an achievement if I can cultivate to the peak of qi condensation."

The young man looked a bit dejected at this last comment. He spoke without thinking. "What does it change anyway? None of us would think twice about following you even you remain at your level forever. Most wouldn't have escaped from that time without you anyway."

"…"

"Shi Nui, don't you have any dreams?"

The young man reflected for a moment. There was an obvious one, oh how he wished he could tear apart and rip to pieces those traitors from the Penglai sect. But he didn't dare to say this out loud. This was because, he wasn't qualified.

 

The chief's eyes were gleaming. "Shi Nui, I don't plan on staying in our current situation. My dream, is to build back a Snake Island Sect.

We will head to the west, cross forest, mountains and rivers and finally start anew far away. But for all that, we need a foundation establishment cultivator. Be it to cross the continent safely or to start a legitimate sect.

I originally had little hope but that was until little Jie's talent showed itself. If he keeps the rate of progress he has shown for the last couple of months, we could set off in 5 years' time.

But for that, we will have to continue to carefully catch resources, and a good portion will be focused on Tao Jie. He is a good kid and I trust his heart.

And if this plan doesn't work out, I think I will simply shatter my cultivation and live the rest of my life as a mortal."

"Chief!"

"What about it? My heart is for the sect. For me, there would be nothing more fulfilling than seeing it sprout again, seeing new young and eager disciples enter its walls. I'll never reach a fantasied immortality anyway, so for me cultivation only serves this purpose, it's the only reason I can do the dirty work without a flinch. If I cannot do that, I might as well just get rid of it all and join the mortal world.

What about you, Shi Nui, are you satisfied with this life?"

 

The young man looked around. They were in a large cave that felt quiet imposing. Some blueish luminescent moss covered the walls and ceiling making the scene somewhat surreal. He heard the laughs of his brothers in arms playing cards on a lopsided wooden table they had crafted, with empty jugs of cultivator's liquor on the rocky floor.

A couple other burly dudes were sleeping on patches of moss to the side.

Over there, a tiny stream of water meandered before disappearing to an unknown location.

They had somewhere to sleep, pure water, and trusted companions. They only lacked food and perhaps some cultivation resources. That's why they had to hunt wildlife at night.

For cultivation resources, they had to rob other cultivators. The chief had decided on one key rule. Never let someone you rob get away. One needs to kill or a disciple might come back with his elders as reinforcements. Shi Nui learned to be ruthless and found it completely natural.

Under the chief's lead, they improved their use of poison and combat ability. They made a strong group that could take down any Qi Condensation cultivator they met. They had also hunted a bunch of magical beasts over time and feasted on the meat of the edible ones.

All in all, Shi Nui didn't want to admit it, but he was satisfied with this life. He wasn't an especially ambitious one after all. But it was true that the Chief's aspiration did sound pleasing to the ears.

"It's not that bad here."

"You're right, Shi Nui, but we will still have to leave this cave soon as well, if we want to continue getting cultivation resources without getting targeted. Anyway, it's not like…"

The laughter from the card players had suddenly been cut off.

Shi Nui followed the Chiefs dangerous gaze to the entrance.

 

A young girl dressed in white had made her way into the large cavern, her measured steps didn't display any emotions.

For a moment, Shi Nui was completely dazed. The idea of a fairy popped up in his brain. And with the faint blue light coming from the top, he felt as though he didn't belong here. This was the fairy's home and they were just trespassing.

This thought flashed and was immediately extinguished as he was reminded about his comrade guarding the tunnel and supposed to alert the others.

Shi Nui's eyes narrowed as he spotted the red liquid sliding down her sword, falling drop after drop on the ground.

 

Staying in the cave without any retreat path wasn't a complete oversight by the group. Their poison would be a lot more effective in a closed off environment.

And if a Foundation Establishment came after them? They wouldn't survive anyway. In here, they could probably trap a team of qi condensation cultivators.

 

The chief had already released poison in the air. He was quietly gazing in the direction in the entrance for other cultivators.

But… the girl seemed to be alone? Her behavior was very weird. Was she all right in the head?

 

She had stopped advancing at some point and silently stared at the only Qi Condensation cultivator.

After a minute had passed, the men visibly relaxed.

"Am I dreaming? She is actually only at the early qi condensation realm! I thought she was some high-level cultivator for a moment. HAHAHA. Come to daddy little girl, I will take good care of you." One of the men playing cards suddenly couldn't take it anymore.

They wouldn't take lightly any enemy at the qi condensation realm though. So they just waited for the Chief to act.

The Chief left Shi Nui's side and just approached the immobile girl, a wide grin on his face.

'Hehe I won't be saying no to a delivered meal. Looking at your robes, you should be quite rich.'

 

His confidence wasn't based on nothing. By now, the poison should have paralyzed the girl. And even without the poison, he had a defensive treasure on him! With his defensive treasure, he was virtually unmatched at the qi cultivation realm.

 

Just at this moment, the girl made a natural step forward, took a deep breath and moved to an attacking stance. Then she slashed the air to release the most condensed crescent she had ever launched.

The man was taken by surprise and observed the beautiful crescent rapidly coming closer. Even though this was unexpected, he still kept his wide smile as a round metallic shield hovered in front of him to intercept the crescent. That shield had already taken the attacks of some peak qi condensation cultivators from small nearby sects.

At the same time, he took a step forward to prepare his counterattack.

Then the shield was cut in half with his head.

 

The men that weren't passed out all sat up and looked it shock at the smiling head of their leader. The rest of his body seemed to fall forward in slow motion. At that moment they went through many emotions in the blink of an eye, terror, realization, relief, desperation, frustration, incomprehension, anger.

In the end, they weren't unfamiliar to death. They had fought as a group for months now and they had developed some understanding between themselves.

The men wordlessly pounced on the girl in a desperate charge, even if she was at a higher realm than them, 2 arms couldn't face 10 punches. Deep down, they knew that their odds were much lower though, but they hated her, they hated all she had, they hated their weakness.

The girl executed a different movement, this time all her body rotated but her eyes remained fixed. A powerful blast shook the cave, as the moon gaze tore 7 bodies to shreds and their remains painted the cavern wall.

 

Shi Nui had slipped through by not charging the girl like his brothers in arms. He had exited the cavern already and had nearly made it to the entrance where he could see a faint ray of moonlight. Even if he didn't survive the night, at least he would not die in that damn cave.

His wish was denied as an invisible blade separated his body in two.

 

The girl had just finished slashing the last neck.

She looked back at the cave's entrance where she could see the silhouette of a young man leaning against the wall.

 

He threw out a sword and some dubious pill bottles to the ground.

"Let's go, these bandits are too poor. They only have some worthless stuff on them. There is nothing left to do here."

"Right."

The two flew off like that, what happened to the cave wasn't of their concern anymore.

 

About 15 minutes later, as the two were wordlessly flying on their swords, the boy broke the heavy silence. "Let's have a chat."

The girl faintly nodded and the two landed. She was trembling slightly.

 

"It's okay, they are all dead now."

"I killed them."

"Do you feel guilty?"

"… I am a bit scared. It was my first-time killing humans and I didn't feel much doing it."

"It's all right, you're not a monster. One day, you will probably have to kill others or be killed just because of the circumstances. That sort of overqualified missions should be meant to get us used to the idea of killing."

"I-I see. But how come you don't seem as affected; you know, finishing up that first group?"

"I already had the internal conflict last time round when I had to assassinate a mortal to get the 2nd part of my martial art. It wasn't as brutal as this mission though. What helped me was to understand what I would allow myself to do, and to place barriers. You see, I hate killing, it makes me want to vomit every time. Now this bandit group, it had to be cleaned out, we just happen to take on that ugly mission not realizing too well what it meant."

"I will try these methods then, but I'm not sure all this is meant for me."

"That's all right. I strongly suggest you seek counselling from your teacher, she would be much more capable than me to help you find the correct path."

She tucked a strand of chestnut hair behind her ear. "Thank you, and for the support too. I feel much better now. Let's go back to the sect."

"Wait."

"Hum?"

"Don't you want to take a moment to look at the stars? The mission is finally accomplished and they feel especially beautiful tonight. In the end, we took the mission together but didn't share a lot of time."

"O-okay."

...

They didn't exchange any words after that.

There was perhaps nothing more calming than observing the stars and seeing one's insignificance in their reflection. Even if their planet suddenly collapsed, it wouldn't change the skies of cultivators from elsewhere, so what were a couple of low lives?

The two young disciples stayed on that unnamed peak until the morning where they witnessed orange rays peeking out of the horizon. Then colors replaced the grey of this night as the vibrant ball appeared, subliming the rocky scenery and their hearts.

They took deep breaths of that soothing atmosphere. In the end, they were alive and well; they had only started on that fantastical road full of promises.

It was on that note that the pair finally headed back for the sect. This mission hadn't been a trial of martial strength as much as a trial of the martial heart.

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