“The end of the story was completely beyond what the young lad had expected.
But at that point, even an idiot would have learned something from it.
Sang paused momentarily before adding, “But he wasnt an idiot.
In fact, he was incredibly smart.
He was the smartest person that had ever been and would ever be.”
Xu Xiaoshou was speechless.
The old man was shameless!
“It was then that the old geezer appeared again.
“The young lad asked him…”
Sang turned and gave Xu Xiaoshou a look.
“What do you think he asked him”
Xu Xiaoshou scratched his head before looking Sang in the eye.
“Why do you have such dark eyebags”
Sang froze momentarily.
Then, he blew up.
He gave the young man a hard smack on the head.
“But I am…” Xu Xiaoshou wanted to say, but he swallowed the words instead.
He wasnt going to joke around.
His life was precious.
“Why did you force feed me the Infernal Fire Seed” he asked.
Sang raised one finger.
“Thats the first question.
“The old geezer said he did it because he enjoyed doing it.”
Xu Xiaoshous eyelids twitched, and he suppressed his sudden urge to beat the old man up.
He wasnt the old mans match.
He shouldnt even try.
Sang raised a second finger.
Xu Xiaoshou knew that this was the old mans eccentric way of getting him to ask questions.
He stopped asking questions like he were the young lad in the story and instead voiced his own.
“Did it ever cross that ugly d*mn geezers mind that maybe no one wanted the fortuitous opportunity he was granting and the pain and suffering that came with it”
Sangs lips twitched.
They were alone right now.
What was the point of throwing shade at him when there was no audience to appreciate the subtlety of his jabs
“Mind those unnecessary adjectives of yours!” he scoffed unhappily.
“The old geezer said that men who have no ambition or will to better themselves belong in the secular world.
Only those who desire to improve themselves will end up at the Holy Palace.
“You already knew the answer to that question.”
Xu Xiaoshou was ready to retort when Sang cut him off.
“The young lad agreed.
If given another chance, he might have chosen to take the Infernal Fire Seed anyway.
But the thought of the pain that he would have to suffer…
“Without the thirst for vengeance, he might not have suffered the process during which his Innate Level Physique was destroyed and then rebuilt, and his subsequent advance to the Master stage.”
Sang gave Xu Xiaoshou a deliberate look, which only served to baffle Xu Xiaoshou.
What was the meaning of this
The old man wouldnt let him speak, wouldnt let him ask any questions, and was now putting words into his mouth.
He suspected that the old man was trying to brainwash him, and he had the evidence to prove it.
But he did kind of grudgingly agree with what the old man said at the end though…
Hold on a second.
That wasnt right.
The brainwashing had nearly worked!
Xu Xiaoshou leveled a murderous glare at the old man to express his disgruntlement.
“One last question.” Sang raised a third finger.
The last one
He would have to make it count…
Xu Xiaoshou thought for a long moment before slowly saying, “Who was the masked figure”
His eyes were filled with curiosity.
A vein throbbed visibly on Sangs forehead.
He was barely holding himself back.
There was something seriously wrong with this young man!
He wondered, suddenly, if he had chosen the wrong man.
“Stop fooling around!”
“Erm.” Xu Xiaoshou got serious.
Sang smoothened his sparse eyebrow and nodded with satisfaction.
“Now, thats the kind of question a normal person would ask.”
A solemn expression settled on his face.
“I need to be honest with you.
The Infernal Heavens is known for having stripped a man of his Innate Level Physique.
“What its not known for is its death count, which has exceeded a hundred deaths.”
The look on Xu Xiaoshous face implied that hed expected that.
Sang hadnt expected this reaction, and continued talking.
“Ive tried it on a dozen others before you came along.
They were prodigies who werent from the Spirit Palace.
All of them died.
“I didnt harbor much hope for you at first.
I was simply giving it a shot.
After all, whats the worst that could happen, I thought.”
“Another man dead.
He glanced at Xu Xiaoshou and caught the look of composure on the young mans face.
He had no idea if the young man was putting up an act.
Xu Xiaoshou wasnt feigning composure.
He had gotten used to Sangs antics.
He wouldve been surprised if Sang had said he cared for a nobody hed never met before.
In fact, the old geezer had spoken the truth, which was more than hed expected from him.
“Back to the story,” Sang said.
“The young lad asked the same question.
The old geezer replied the same way I did, and more.”
As he went on, he seemed to assume the mannerisms of the character in his story.
“The world is an enormous cage, and everyone is seeking freedom.
“Everyone begins as a nobody.
When youre insignificant and small, no one sees the potential in you.
“You strive hard and reach a certain level in life.
That is when others discover your potential.
But you are still not free then.
“You are still a pawn, a tool that others use to pursue their own freedom.
Your life rests in the hands of the person who discovered your potential, not your own.”
He pointed at Xu Xiaoshou.
“Thats who you are right now.”
Xu Xiaoshou understood what Sang was trying to tell him.
The old man went on talking.
“You continue to strive hard and finally free yourself from the shackles of being a pawn.
You earn the right to pursue your own freedom.
You cultivate and groom your own pawns and successfully unlock the door to the enormous cage.
“You walk out of that world and discover the skies beyond the cage.
You think this is freedom.
The next moment, you realize that this is just a larger cage.”
He pointed at Goose Lake.
The surface of the lake was as smooth as a mirror.
Within it was the reflection of the blue skies dappled with white clouds.
The calm lake seemed to have taken on a strange quality.
“Youre still trapped.
How do you break out”
Xu Xiaoshou squatted momentarily, then stood up.
A pebble landed in the lake, instantly shattering the pristine skies.
“Its broken now, isnt it”
Sang was speechless.
He had to control himself.
Youre out now.
You look up and see the real sky…” Sang jerked Xu Xiaoshous stubborn head upward.
“Youre looking at the real sky right now.
How do you break out
“Even if you do, youll just be greeted with another layer of sky.”
Xu Xiaoshou nearly choked.
It felt terrible.
He barely got his words out.
“No infinite regressions allowed!”
“Whats that supposed to mean”
“Erm, nothing.” Xu Xiaoshou yanked his head down again.
He asked confusedly, “You talk a lot.
What are you trying to tell me”
Sang clutched Xu Xiaoshous head and said slowly, “Thats just how the world is.
Its filled with malice and danger.
Youll see when you leave the Spirit Palace.
“Of those who discover your potential, not every one of them will use you well.
You may end up being sacrificed, like the others whom Ive tested.
“Thats why you should play your part dutifully and be a good pawn when youve not yet acquired true and complete power.
“At the very least, you should make sure these folks who discover your potential view you as just a pawn!”
Xu Xiaoshou froze.
Honestly, he seemed to understand what the old man was saying, yet at the same time, he didnt.
Hed already known how terrible the world could be.
But the old man had spoken of its dangers as infinite layers of regressions, which was something that he hadnt yet experienced personally…
Ill break out of every one of those cages,” he said earnestly.
The wrinkled creases on his face unfolded like the many petals of a blossoming flower.
“Thats what I said then too…”
Xu Xiaoshou looked up.
“So youre the young lad in the story.
Is the ugly old geezer your master”
Sang smacked him again.
“What ugly old geezer are you talking about
“Thats your grandmaster youre talking about!”
Xu Xiaoshou was dumbstruck.
“At the end of the story, the old geezer said,Ive taught you the first lesson.
Do you wish to take me as your master”
Sang pulled himself out of his memories and repeated himself.
“Do you wish to take me as your master”
“Are you going to be nice to me” A pitiful look instantly appeared on Xu Xiaoshous face.
Sang was rendered speechless.
This was hardly the time to fool around!
The young man before him fell to his knees before he could yell at him.
“Master, please allow your disciple to pay his respect!”
Xu Xiaoshou might have harbored some resentment towards the old man in the past, but those sentiments had vanished without a trace after he discovered that mastering the Infernal Heavens required his physical form to be destroyed and then rebuilt.
Besides, without Sangs intervention tonight, he would have ended up being cast aside by Ye Xiaotian or kidnapped by the masked figure.
Sang might be a terrifying and eccentric loner, but he had shown genuine concern during his attempt to rescue Xu Xiaoshou.
He couldnt have feigned that.
In any case, Sang had made his intentions extremely clear.
Xu Xiaoshou didnt exactly have a choice.
He didnt receive a response for a long time.
When he looked up, it was to the sight of an old face under the brim of a straw hat, all scrunched up, and to eyes that seemed to gleam and ripple with tears.
Xu Xiaoshou was momentarily dazed.
Behind the old man was the sun, which was steadily rising over the eastern horizon, and with it, a spill of violet light.
A tiny stream of faint light fell over the silent old man and youth.
Goose Lake stirred awake as the new day dawned.
The wind arrived, stirring cicadas and geese into song, streaming down fissures in a wounded earth and brushing against fallen bodies of weeping willows.
From a ravaged land blossomed hope for new life.