“Sigh, that Elder Jiang fellow is finally gone. Little lass, do not worry! Us foolish and old things may bend our knee before that vixen, but we haven’t lost our conscience!”
Confirming that the mature woman and the Sword Marquis’ daughter had departed from the tenth platform, the scholars crowding around the young girl released a collective sigh of relief.
The older scholars even displayed a comforting smile towards the irritable An Fei, waving towards the younger, hot-headed juniors to cajole them into action.
A middle-aged scholar boomed, his powerful stature and imposing voice bringing everyone into a halt. Gesturing towards the perimeter of bookshelves, he roared towards the crowd with a righteous enthusiasm.
“There’s still two sichen before the guests must depart! Hence, let’s not follow that contemptuous woman in throwing the face of our Three Lotus Sect!”
“Esteemed Senior…” Xiao Wen stepped forward, a mottled look of confusion evident on her countenance.
“This… what’s going on?”
“Young Miss, please be at ease!” a youthful scholar cheerfully walked before the maidservant, both hands clasped into a respectful greeting. The innocent countenance and pure smile loosened the tension within the maidservants’ hearts, causing both Xiao Ying and Xiao Wen to relax.
“We’ll make proper use of the remaining time to scour the repository for cultivation and martial arts techniques suitable for the Young Miss and her companions. Be at ease, the techniques you walk out with will be no worse in quality compared to the ones Elder Jiang snatched from your hands-“
“Fool!” An elderly scholar interjected harshly, slapping a rolled book against the youth’s head.
As the youthful scholar clutched his forehead in agony, the old man stepped forward to berate him roughly.
“What quality, who cares about quality?” The elder complained in a hoarse tone, shaking the rolled up book at the youth.
“Compatibility! The techniques must be capable of resonating with the practitioner to achieve the full effect. If you seek merely the quality of a cultivation or martial arts technique without confirming its compatibility with your natural instincts, then you will end your path of cultivation with the same result regardless of whatever heavenly technique you get your hands on!”
“You’ve been here for a decade and a half, and you still don’t know such a basic concept!? Get lost, you are prohibited from eating dinner until you copy the transcriptions for the <Modest Heart> mantra thirty times!”
“Yes, yes, yes, elder Luo, I was wrong!” the youth pitifully pleaded.
“So… can you reduce the punishment to fifteen times?”
“Scram! Don’t make this old thing double your punishment, else I – ahem – Young Miss, did you say something?”
Waving the book clutched in his hand in a frenzied manner, Elder Luo angrily chased the youthful scholar away, before suddenly turning to question An Fei. When the girl shook her head, the old man continued to stare at her, causing the maidservants nearby to cast a wary gaze.
“Young Miss, you must have said something,” the elder stubbornly protested. “Otherwise, who could whisper into my ear without alerting my detection?”
“… I truly said nothing,” An Fei replied with a dull tone, her eyes narrowing from the old man’s unusual persistence.
“Besides, how would I whisper into your ear from such a far distance?”
“Hehe, the wheels of fate possesses swift breaks and turns incomprehensible to our understanding,” Elder Luo grinned, placing his hands behind his back.
“Nevertheless, the Young Miss has indeed achieved such a phenomenon. Therefore, as per the customs of our sect, the Young Miss must ask a question!”
The smile deepened as the old man gently inclined his head in a respectful greeting, the pair of experienced eyes glinting with mirth, yet all An Fei could see standing before her was a shameless scholar who ignored the statements of others.
She clearly stood there without saying a word, so why was he spouting such nonsense?
“This… this…” the girl stammered in frustration. Her gaze darting to where the two maidservants debated over a rather large stack of tomes and manuals of various sizes, quality, and appearance, the girl attempted to dash for refuge, only to be blocked by a wizened arm extended before her.
“The Young Miss must ask the question!” Elder Luo resolutely spoke, a helpless and amused expression barely concealed by the cracking façade of a stern, scholarly demeanor.
“After asking the question, the Young Miss may naturally leave.”
Forcefully taking a step back, An Fei glared at the shameless old man. Most annoying was his righteous and serene expression, of which Elder Luo tossed around with every opportunity he received.
“Then… what exactly is cultivation?” the girl grit her teeth before crossing her arms and asking a question that had burned at her heart since early morning.
“What is cultivation… a rather astute question, ah!”
Elder Luo exclaimed, clapping both hands together and revealing a delighted and slightly unnerving smile.
Noticing his improper appearance just a few moments later, the old man awkwardly coughed before struggling to display a solemn expression.
“What is cultivation?” The elder sighed, staring at the granite ceiling that represented the eleventh platform of the Pagoda of Sun and Moon that represented a culminated peak of knowledge and mystic strength yet was utterly forbidden from the curious.
“Cultivation… some call it the process in which the mortal self absorbs the spiritual qi within the earth and the sky. Infuse the atmosphere’s spiritual qi into our bodies and refine it into spiritual essence with the body’s meridians, blood vessels, and soul as the cauldron, thus achieving longevity and great strength.”
“Others have called cultivation as the calming of the mind, cleansing oneself of impure and tainted thoughts. Though those people do not actively pursue brash absorption of spiritual qi as those practitioners of the commonly accepted doctrine, the end result is the same. They will attain great longevity and strength, though their influence lies on the heart and not the actual body.”
“Another uncommon few have defined cultivation as… forget it, that type of ideology is not suitable for the ears of a Young Miss,” Elder Luo sighed once more, directing a peaceful gaze towards the silently contemplating An Fei.
“At the basic fundamentals, to engage is cultivation, is to embark on the path of fulfilling one’s desires.”
“Desires?” The girl inquired in a perplexed tone, her eyebrows creased into a frown behind the veil.
“If a great number of people partake in cultivation to seek their desires, how has the world not descended into chaos yet?”
“Longevity akin to an immortal existence. Great strength to grasp the stars in the sky, to pierce through heaven itself. Desires that have excluded man from its pleasures, are the only desires that can be, and are sought by cultivating. Mortal desires including gathering material possessions, satiating one’s lust and greed, those are simply a natural byproduct. Thus, the world remains stable regardless of the number of cultivators.”
“Temper the body to store the atmosphere’s spiritual qi.”
“Inlay the bodily meridians to establish a basic foundation to refine the spiritual qi into spiritual essence.”
“Carve the pathway leading to the mortal shackles of the soul, allowing the soul to resonate with nature and the heavens.”
“Intertwine the body’s meridians, blood vessels, and dantian to construct a core to house the soul. Channel the refined spiritual essence to constitute a perpetual cycle, preparing the Cauldron of Life.”
“Merge the soul and the mortal cauldron of vitality to ignite the fire of life, establishing a resonant node with the spiritual qi contained within atmosphere.”
Elder Luo’s words hammered directly into An Fei’s mind, each and every single word engraving itself into her memory without the girl taking any conscious effort. Though she didn’t have a single clue regarding their meanings, the fleeting thought that those words were crucial information didn’t escape her mind.
“…How come… that doesn’t seem like the end?” An Fei ventured, her mind spinning in futile contemplation.
“There didn’t seem to be any mention of any longevity? Or the great strength you mentioned?”
The old man directed a startled glance towards the girl, before releasing a silent guffaw vivaciously unbecoming of his reputation.
“Haha! The highest realm of cultivation ever achieved within the Shattered Star Continent is the Realm of the Nascent Soul,” the elder spoke in dismay.
“What the culmination of cultivation is in other regions, we do not know. However, while there have been legends of a realm far surpassing that of the Nascent Soul, the peak realm of cultivation in the Shattered Star Continent in all of history, is the Realm of the Nascent Soul. There simply isn’t a barrier to breakthrough, no inclination of improvement available in any fashion.”
“Nascent Soul?” An Fei repeated to herself.
Somehow, the two words seemed rather familiar, yet the girl couldn’t exactly determine where she had heard such terminology before.
“…what am I saying to myself, haha,” the old man chuckled, shaking his head several times. Releasing a prolonged, audible sigh, Elder Luo strode forward in the direction of the deep recesses of the library, glancing at the young girl before him with a warm smile.
As he passed An Fei, the young girl felt a soft and leathery object being stuffed into her right hand. Looking up in surprise and abruptly pivoting on her heel, all the girl could see was a faint, indistinct shadow.
“A little treasure from the fifteenth platform’s inner sanctum, just keep it on you when you leave. Don’t bother showing it to the others of the Three Lotus Sect, take it as this old thing’s treat!”
The fleeting voice couldn’t escape the vicious torture of age, yet An Fei could clearly perceive the frivolity and warm glee hidden within.
Glancing towards the dog-eared book in her hand, the girl stared for a moment with widened eyes, before turning towards the position the shadow last stood and lowering her head into a respectful bow of the younger generation.
As the elder’s departing words entered her head, An Fei awkwardly came to a halt to stare at her appearance. After a brief moment of agonized thoughts, she embarrassingly stuffed the book underneath the folds of her coat.
…given that she was wearing a thick linen coat that covered her from collar to knee and a lucky mishap that the book’s cover was a softened leather, all that resulted was a barely noticeable bulge at her bosom…