Amidst the wooden hall, which was besieged by the raging thunder and lightning, Lin Shouxi sat in a state of deep meditation, cross-legged.
His lustrous black hair flowed down his shoulders, concealing his cold and delicate features within the pitch-black shadows.

As the storm raged on outside, it became increasingly clear that this would be a night without repose.
The portly Wang Erguan sat weeping alone for an hour, and the unnamed youth remained hidden in the darkness, deep in contemplation.

By the window, Xiao He sat curled up with her knees to her chest, gazing out at the violent deluge of rain.
Her slender frame was cloaked in a delicate blue cotton skirt and a thin shirt, and the gentle curves of her figure were already beginning to emerge.
Her face was angelic and youthful, with soft lines that could make one’s heart skip a beat.

As Lin Shouxi’s eyes fluttered open in the midst of his meditation, a brilliant flash of lightning illuminated the room, briefly revealing Xiao He’s profile.
The sight reminded him of a tranquil lake enshrouded in a blanket of pristine snow.

“Truly, she is a person with secrets,” he pondered to himself.
“And perhaps they all have their own hidden depths,” he reflected.

Lin Shouxi let out a deep sigh as he finished his meditation, allowing his mind to calm and settle.
He had been embroiled in a fierce battle when he was suddenly whisked away to this strange and unfamiliar place.

In a tale spun by Perfected Yun, he claimed that his family’s deity had conducted a summoning ritual to acquire protectors, divine attendants, before being killed.
However, Lin Shouxi was aware of the actuality.
While “attendants” was the term used, it was in truth referring to slaves, and the pretext of their duty to protect was a guise to guarantee their sacrifice in place of the three descendants of his family if the necessity ever arose.

It was a grim future that lay ahead for Lin Shouxi and his fellow survivors.
They were left with only two options: to become sacrificial pawns or lifelong slaves.
But Lin Shouxi refused to succumb to despair.
Though the path ahead was fraught with peril, he knew that the first order of business was to recover while he had this rare moment of respite.
As for the rest, he would simply have to adapt.

Perhaps, he mused, there might even be a glimmer of hope.
Maybe the enigmatic figure who had slain the God of Protection could turn their sights on the Wu family and destroy this seemingly nefarious clan.

Lin Shouxi was lost in this thought when the stern-looking young man suddenly spoke up.
“Stop crying!” he reprimanded Wang Erguan.

“Why don’t you mind your own business!” Wang Erguan retorted, wiping his tears.
“Even the heavens are crying, but I don’t hear you asking them to stop.”

The cold-faced young man, seemingly unbothered by his reply or feelings, asked with little tact, “Was it your little brother who died?”

“No, my older.
He was born third.
I came afterward,” Wang Erguan replied, still sniffling.

The young man cocked his head as if confused.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
“If you are the fourth child, why did your parents give you the name Wang Erguan?” (T/N: 王二关, the 二 in Wang Erguan’s name means 2.

“Why do you care what my parents named me?” Wang Erguan snapped, his irritation growing.

The young man chuckled, amused by his response.
After he stopped messing with the chubby youth, Lin Shouxi quietly assessed the young man in the darkness.
He was dressed in a clean and neat short-sleeved shirt, carrying an aura of calmness that suggested he came from a family of martial arts practitioners.

Noticing his gaze after a while, the young man suddenly looked at Lin Shouxi.
“What are you looking at me for?” he asked.

“I was merely curious about your name,” Lin Shouxi said, attempting to make small talk.

“You don’t know who I am?” the young man replied in a cold tone.

“Why should he?” Wang Erguan chimed in, still upset.
“Your Ji family only became prominent in the last two years.
You’re not from some great noble family, and you yourself aren’t anyone special.
You’re just a lamb waiting to be slaughtered.”

Ignoring Wang Erguan’s slight, the young man said, “My name is Ji Luoyang.
Luòyáng, as in the setting sun (落日残阳), son of the Ji family.”

As Lin Shouxi mentally scribbled down the name, Wang Erguan scoffed, “Ji Luoyang… never heard the name.
It seems even a prominent family can give birth to a nobody!”

“I haven’t heard Wang Erguan either,” Ji Luoyang replied nonchalantly, unfazed by the chubby youth’s attitude.

“That’s because you know nothing!” Wang Erguan retorted, his frustration growing.
“I am the fourth young master of the Wang family in Wangye City, and we are backed by Yunkong Mountain, one of the three sacred mountains.
It is not something you can compare to.”

“You’re right, but at least my brother isn’t dead, his body growing cold, third young master,” Ji Luoyang returned lightly.

Wang Erguan’s tears returned immediately at the mention of his deceased brother.

Ji Luoyang sneered, “Enough with the charade.
I can tell you’re holding back your laughter right now!”

Wang Erguan glared at him.
“What do you mean?”

Ji Luoyang chuckled coldly, prodding at Wang Erguan’s nerves with each word.
“Let’s not beat around the bush.
Your brother met his untimely demise because he couldn’t resist the temptation of losing his virginity.
I’m willing to wager he even tried to coax you into joining him, but you refused.
And now you’re secretly grateful you didn’t follow in his footsteps, aren’t you?”

“You…” Wang Erguan’s eyes widened, feeling exposed.
“Mind your own business! Do you want to die?” he threatened.

The chubby youth stood up abruptly, rolling up his sleeves as if preparing to fight.
However, after assessing Ji Luoyang’s cold sneer and sturdy build, he thought better of it and sat back down dejectedly.
“Just wait, I… I will avenge my brother,” he muttered, defeated.

As they waited, the rain outside slowly subsided, and the sky brightened.

When Perfected Yun in a Taoist robe pushed open the door, Xiao He was asleep leaning against the window.
Lin Shouxi roused her with a tender touch, and Xiao He, with a murmured expression of gratitude, trailed after Perfected Yun as he exited the room.

Perfected Yun led them to a courtyard, where the algae and water plants were swept aside, and a large tripod decorated with cloud and thunder patterns stood in the center, borne by eight-clawed fish.

“I shall impart to you a core method, for you to practice assiduously and strive to coagulate a pill as soon as possible,” Perfected Yun spoke.

“But I haven’t opened my spirit veins,” Wang Erguan said.

The others nodded in agreement.

The most important condition for cultivation is the opening of veins, for without that, one is forever a mortal embryo.

“Spirit veins?” Perfected Yun smiled, “The altar has already opened them up for you.”

Wang Erguan’s heart was torn between two conflicting emotions, one of skepticism and the other of conviction.
With fervent determination, he started to execute his own core method, and his exhilaration swelled to the point where he was on the verge of leaping up in ecstasy.

For the past decade, he had sat in meditation for countless days and nights, and his veins had never responded.
But now, as he recited the core method once more, a vague, unobtrusive stream seemed to have been unclogged within his body, gurgling without end.

Ji Luoyang and Xiao He also closed their eyes, and when they opened them again, their expressions differed.

Lin Shouxi feigned an attempt.

The true energy of the two worlds was not much different, and he had been gifted with spirit veins since birth.
Yet, at this moment, his inner wounds were too severe, and the veins that ran through him had gone dormant, rendering him powerless to evoke the true energy.

However, the fact that he did not need to open his veins, served to reinforce his belief that his arrival here had been an accident.

Perfected Yun had many pressing matters to attend to, and he had little time to waste.
Seated in a cross-legged position, he quickly imparted a brief Tao art for them to practice before declaring.
“You are free to cultivate on your own or engage in friendly sparring, but take care not to cause any harm to others.
If you do, you will face my wrath.”

After speaking these words, Perfected Yun vanished like a ghost.

Wang Erguan, who had vowed to avenge his older brother’s death the night prior, now saw his hatred dissipate into the clouds beyond.
He quickly found a place to sit and greedily absorbed the true energy permeating the world.

Ji Luoyang, too, began to meditate and adjust his breath.

Lin Shouxi also sought out a secluded spot to sit.
Xiao He cast surreptitious glances at him as she delicately lifted her deep blue skirt to avoid the damp ground, finding a discarded piece of paper to cushion herself upon before sitting down beside him.
Her gaze lingering, she cautiously scrutinized him.

Her lashes were long, her eyes a pale hue akin to gleaming amber.

Lin Shouxi cast a fleeting gaze in her direction before immersing himself in the depths of meditation.
Though his body was marred with wounds, he found upon introspection that not all the scars he bore had been inflicted by Mu Shijing’s hand.
There appeared to be traces of other struggles, yet the details eluded him, like an elusive dream that slipped from his grasp upon waking.

That said, shouldn’t Mu Shijing have arrived in this world by now? Where was she?

At this thought, Lin Shouxi was suddenly reminded of an old tragedy he had heard in his youth.

At the time, he was a mere child of but three or four years, when the City of Death claimed the lives of numerous members of the Tao Gate.
The tragedy weakened their power, prompting the head of the Tao Gate to consider the possibility of a truce with the Demon Gate, one that would be cemented by a matrimonial alliance.

The Demon and Tao sects planned to betroth him to Mu Shijing.
The marriage certificate was said to have been drawn up.
However, the Tao Gate suffered a sudden change when its old leader passed away and a mysterious woman came from Cloud Mountain to take the helm. 

The marriage was never mentioned again after that, and under the stewardship of the new sect master, the Tao Gate rose anew, its momentum unstoppable.
In Lin Shouxi’s heart, the newly appointed leader was the most enigmatic figure under the heavens.

As Lin Shouxi opened his eyes, he discovered that Xiao He was still looking at him.
“Is there something wrong?” Lin Shouxi asked.

“Can I cultivate with you?” Xiao He’s voice was soft and weak.

“Can’t,” Lin Shouxi replied.

Xiao He was taken aback by his answer, momentarily stunned.
She hung her head and wrung her deep blue skirt, somewhat at a loss.

Lin Shouxi knew she had misunderstood and explained, “What I mean is, I cannot cultivate.”

“You cannot cultivate?” Xiao He blinked.

“Indeed,” Lin Shouxi replied with a solemn tone, “My injuries are grave, impeding the flow of my inner energy, and… I confess my ignorance on the matter of pill coagulation.”

“Pill coagulation, hmm…” Xiao He nibbled at her fingertips and after a moment’s thought, said, “When you sit in meditation for a long time, you will feel a bright white center in your body.
Gradually, true energy will be drawn to this point, and when it reaches a critical mass, it will crystallize into a gleaming white pill.
That is pill coagulation.
Only those who have achieved this feat can be deemed true cultivators.”

Lin Shouxi, eyes shut, took to meditation.
He did, in fact, perceive a hub, yet it was a black void, devoid of even the faintest speck of white.

The true energy flowed into the center, as if being devoured by a black hole.
He shook his head.

“It’s alright if you can’t cultivate, just sit next to me,” said Xiao He.

“Why?” asked Lin Shouxi, curious.

“Because you smell really good,” said Xiao He, with sparkling eyes and long lashes that quivered in the wind.

“Do you want to eat me?” asked Lin Shouxi, befuddled.

“Eat you?” repeated Xiao He, taken aback, and her snow-white cheeks blushed cherry red.
“What nonsense are you talking about? How frivolous…”

Just as Lin Shouxi was about to explain, Wang Erguan, who had just completed a celestial circuit, could no longer contain his frustration.
He had been overhearing the incessant chatter between Lin Shouxi and Xiao He in the corner and couldn’t take it any longer.
“Lin Shouxi,” he burst out, “I had thought you were a man of virtue and honor! How can it be that she saved your life and you’re so eager to throw yourself at her feet?”

“Saved my life?” Lin Shouxi responded, puzzled.
“What on earth are you talking about?”

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