Chapter 176: Underground Palace
Slowly, the stone door opened. Inside a white-haired old man was drinking tea at a stone table. Next to him stood the owner of the tea house who had brought them here.
The owner ducked his head and smiled at Jun Huang and Nan Xun in greeting. Jun Huang gave the room a once-over without a word.
This room was more brightly lit than the tunnel. Nan Xun had been worried that Jun Huang was hurt. With the brighter light condition, he could see her pale face. “What’s wrong?” he asked quietly, his eyebrows knitted together. “Are you hurt?”
Jun Huang shook her head and walked up to the old man, who put down his tea cup and invited them to have a seat. He gave the teahouse owner a pointed look. The owner nodded and walked away, leaving the three of them alone.
Jun Huang took a deep breath and said, “I don’t know who the gentleman is, but you must be someone important in the House of Heavenly Fiends. We have now passed your test. I hope the gentleman will honor your promise and help me find my family.”
The old man looked at Jun Huang, then at Nan Xun. “Do you know the history of the House of Heavenly Fiends?”
Jun Huang frowned and shared a look with Nan Xun. “What does that have to do with my request?”
“The House of Heavenly Fiends got its name from the thirty-six Heavenly Spirits and seventy-two Earthly Fiends, and is divided into two divisions accordingly. Each division is led by a chief director. The two chief directors must trust each other unconditionally, and both have to be intelligent as well as competent in fighting. Only those who passed the trial of the hidden building are qualified to inherit the House of Heavenly Fiends.”
“What are you saying?” Jun Huang was even more confused. Why would the old man tell them this?
A veil lifted up from her mind. She widened her eyes at the old man. “You can possibly mean - ”
“That’s right,” the old man said slowly. His tone was dull and deliberate, but it inspired trust in the listeners. “You’ve passed the first trial and earned my approval. If you are willing to take over the House of Heavenly Fiends, you’ll need to go through another trial to get the Token of Heavenly Fiends. Then you will become the new leaders of this organization.”
Nan Xun and Jun Huang couldn’t believe their ears. There was no such thing as a free lunch. They were both practical people. They never imagined that one day, they would be given the opportunity to become the leaders of such powerful organization.
Jun Huang had reverted back to her usual calm self. She stared at the old man with eyes that seemed capable of seeing through everything. Anyone with an ulterior motive would not be able to stand her scrutiny. The old man, however, didn’t faze at all. The white robe he wore gave him an air of nobility.
Jun Huang smiled. “The gentleman must know that there are many more talented people in the world. We can’t be the only ones who can escape the hidden building. And yet you have picked us. May this gentleman ask why and what for?”
The old man poured himself a cup of tea and shook his cup gently with his eyes on Jun Huang. “I’ll be honest with you,” he said slowly. “Ji Bo was the one who recommended you. Otherwise I wouldn’t have come to watch you take on the trial. I was thinking that there must be something different about you two for him to give you a recommendation. It turns out that I was right.”
Jun Huang shared a look with Nan Xun. They had notified Ji Bo of their trip to Yun Town. He must have correctly predicted that they were going to ask the House of Heavenly Fiends for help. He had sent someone to talk to the man in charge beforehand.
“Of course, if you’re not willing to, I won’t force you,” the old man said. “Ji Bo has put in a lot of good words for you. It would be a shame if the House of Heavenly Fiends couldn’t acquire your talent. Still, personal choices are personal. You two have the final say.”
With that, he went back to savoring his tea, paying no attention to Jun Huang and Nan Xun.
There was a current of emotions in Jun Huang’s eyes. Nan Xun knew that she was worried. She wanted to try, but she didn’t want her impending death to impact the House of Heavenly Fiends if she got the position.
Nan Xun also knew that Jun Huang was capable enough for the job. She was a rare talent of the generation - born in a chaotic time, but cared deeply about the world. She was as ambitious as any men.
Nan Xun hesitated. He didn’t want Jun Huang’s talent to go unnoticed. He didn’t want her to forever be a strategist hidden away from the public.
“Perhaps we should give it a try,” Nan Xun said while Jun Huang was agonizing over the issue.
Her head snapped up. Nan Xun gave her a smile and said seriously, “Mister Ji Bo must have a reason for recommending us. Why don’t we try? Besides, I believe that you are capable of taking on the responsibility.”
“Moreover, isn’t a united world what you seek after? Do you remember talking to Mister Ji Bo about a prosperous country? Isn’t that your dream? Now that the opportunity presents itself, if you don’t seize it, you’re going to regret it in the future. The House of Heavenly Fiends can be your strongest support.”
Nan Xun had been through a lot in his life. He was able to present the facts clearly in order to convince Jun Huang.
As he expected, his words had helped Jun Huang make up her mind. She nodded. “Sorry for dragging you with me.”
“What silly words,” Nan Xun said with a calming smile and took Jun Huang’s fingers in his hand. “You and I are past the point of concerns such as that.”
Jun Huang took a deep breath and turned to the old man. “We will go through the trial.”
The old man seemed to have anticipated the response. He got to his feet and smoothed over his wrinkled robe, knocking into the table carelessly and causing the teacup to fall. The tea spilled all over the table, but the old man didn’t care at all. Neither did Jun Huang and Nan Xun.
“Then come with me,” the old man said. He led them through a long path. Nan Xun didn’t let go of Jun Huang’s hand along the way. It kept him grounded, somehow. It made him more assured that Jun Huang was safe and sound.
Jun Huang was not nervous at all. Her expression was calm and her mind was quiet. She didn’t look like she was stepping into a battle for her life. Instead, she was here to prove her ability and won other people’s respect.
They soon reached an entrance to a place that looked like an underground palace. It was more intricately designed than the hidden building they had gone through. This must have been where the real challenge was.
Nan Xun was a little nervous. He wasn’t scared for himself. He had stared death in the eyes many times on battlefields. No, he was scared for Jun Huang.
Unlike in battles, where tens of thousands of soldiers were his to protect, now he only had to protect one person - the person he loved. And yet his heart beat as fast as when he was faced with an army. His palm started to sweat.
“Once inside, you will run into great danger to prove your worth,” said the old man. His voice echoed in the tunnel. His aloof tone sent a chill down their spines. “Are you sure you’d like to take on the trial? There’s no way back once you enter.”
Jun Huang glanced at Nan Xun, who met her eyes. They nodded and walked down the stairs. Soon, they stepped into the stone door.
The door slowly closed. The old man disappeared from their view. Jun Huang turned to Nan Xun, her breathing slowed to a halt. Nan Xun looked around at the layout of the man hall.
This was an underground palace. Inside, there was nothing, and yet it seemed like a world of its own. The door they had gone through was now shut. They would have to find another way out. That wouldn’t be easy.
Nan Xun walked across the room and looked at the writings on the wall. He felt around the stone surface, his sharp eyes taking everything in.
Jun Huang stood at the same spot as she surveyed the room. She looked at the words illuminated by the light, then at the ceiling. There was a drawing of the Seven Stars of the Northern Dipper. She looked to her left. Attached to the wall were many crystal marbles. Everything seemed random and without order, but Jun Huang knew that these things must be connected.
“What is the relationship between the Seven Stars of the Northern Dipper and the other stars?” Jun Huang whispered to herself, raking through her brain with her brows furrowed. “The seven stars are part of the big picture. They serve as a signpost for those who are lost. The seven stars pointed at the north...”
Nan Xun glanced at Jun Huang before coming up to her side with a smile. She looked up at him in question. He pointed to the right. There was nothing, which was why it was suspicious.
“Do you mean that’s our way out?” Jun Huang asked.
Nan Xun nodded and walked in that direction. Jun Huang followed after him. He felt around the wall and said, “There are seven stars in the north, but not in the south. There is a northern sea, but not a southern one. The south is our answer.”
Jun Huang nodded. Nan Xun seemed to have found something. His expression relaxed. The next moment, he pushed into the wall and something lit up. Jun Huang took a step closer and realized that it was a luminous pearl. In many ancient texts, it was said that the southern sea was where the luminous pearl was produced.