For the first time in ten years, the large double doors at the top of 9999 steps of a huge mountain were opened.
It was with a groan that they slipped open and the exhausted faces of the new disciples had hard-won victory written all over them. The room that they saw when they entered was just as big and extravagant as the rest of the mountain, colorful murals painted all over the walls and the ceiling. Light came from torches that were lit up all along the walls.
At the center of the room was a long-curved table, shaped in a half-circle.
Five people were sat behind this table.
At the very farthest left was an old man, looking somewhere around sixty, but of course, with cultivation, there was no way to tell. The man's long hair and beard were all as white as snow. Next to the man sat a woman, the only woman among the gathered people. She was of average beauty, her arms crossed and a glare in her dull eyes.
On the other side of the table, to the farthest right, sat a handsome man who looked to be middle-aged. He had a dark goat-tee and his hair was pulled back into what looked like a complicated plait.
Next to the man was another man, this one older then the middle-aged man but younger than the old man. He had a cheerful air about him, sitting and smiling at the new disciples.
And than there was the man at the center of the table.
He was dressed, like everybody else, in white and purple robes, his dark hair long and hanging down over his front. His eyes were sharp and black as the night, glaring daggers at everybody who attempted to make eye-contact with him. His mouth was pressed into a thin line of disapproval and he was tapping his finger on the table in front of him. He looked young, like he was only a teenager, but that was obviously untrue, as he sat in the seat of the Sect Leader.
The Heavenly Abyss Sect was legendary. They only accepted a handful of disciples every ten years, but almost all of them managed to get to at least the fifth stage of cultivation. And their Sect Leader was even more legendary, seen as the genius of the millennia, he had already reached the Immortalization Stage.
"Well," it was the Sect Leader's voice that echoed in the large room. Somehow, he sounded pissed off. "let's get this over with."
The only woman of the group — one of the Peak Lords — rose from her seat and said, "All of you have done well to reach this part. However, your exam is not yet finished. In order to pass this last test, all of you will be given a piece of paper. Simply write your name on it."
A brash young man called out, "That's it?!"
The woman glared at him and the air grew cold. "That's it!" she snapped back.
Frightened and abruptly reminded that they were dealing with real cultivators, nobody said anything as they each received their paper.
Once everybody had written their names, the papers flew out of their hands and arranged themselves neatly on the table in a pile in front of the Sect Leader. He hadn't moved a muscle, yet the papers settled themselves down as if by his command.
While the examinees were busy gawking at the effortless use of Qi, the Sect Leader had started to peruse the papers.
"Hmm." the Sect leader said when he was finally finished with sorting them into two piles. "I think..."
The Sect Leader waved his hands and suddenly both piles caught fire. The fire was put out as soon as it was started by the woman, and the Sect Leader said. "Those whose papers haven't been damaged may join the sect as outer disciples. Congratulations."
With that, the Sect Leader rose from his seat and left the room through a side door before anybody had time to react.
The remaining people looked at each other, unsure about how they were supposed to react. It was the old man that rose next from his seat. He cleared his throat and said, "The Sect Leader has spoken. Come and find your paper. If it's undamaged, you will be accepted as a disciple."
Mumbling among themselves at the absurdity of the decision, they all went forward to search for their names.
Within minutes, it was revealed that only a grand total of eight disciples had papers untouched by fire, and were thus permitted entry.
Grumbles and murmurs rose in the large hall, as the nearly forty people protested at the unfairness of such a test. In response, the woman once more snapped out a sentence, "It's the Sect Leader's ruling, so shut it, you ungrateful idiots!"
Nobody dared to say anything after that.
Eventually, the only people left in the room were the eight accepted disciples, and the four peek lords.
For a moment, nobody said a word.
Then a young boy, barely out of childhood, stammered, "A-Ah, I-what happens now?"
"You're brave, I'll accept you as my disciple." the woman, Wu Mei, gleefully announced. The boy swallowed nervously, but nodded his head in agreement. Not that he could disagree, but still. Wu Mei continued to look over the gathered new disciples, frowning when she didn't see anyone else impressive. As the winner of the bet, she had the first pick this time around.
Finally, she just pointed at a random person and grumbled, "I suppose you'll do."
The muscular young man, who had probably never worked a day in his life, jumped nearly a meter in the air, but didn't contradict her.
Wu Mei immediately started walking in the direction of another side door, glaring at her new outer disciples until they followed after her. Next, the cheerful man, with his hair streaked with white and laugh lines on his face, stood.
Hui DuYi smiled at the disciples and pointed at the two ones he had already selected.
Next up was Peng Guang, the old man who, similarly, had already chosen his two new disciples. After him went the stern man with the goat-tee, Liu Xiang, who simply nodded to the only two people left.
With that, the room was empty.
Wu Mei and her two new disciples were headed to her Peak, the Sorrowful Grace Peak, when they caught sight of a bunch of other disciples in the middle of training. Among them was a disciple known as a prodigy named Fan GuiRen who had been a disciple of the sect for over a decade now. He was currently in charge of training some of the younger ones.
When he caught sight of his Peak Master and the pair of young men following her, he waved to the other disciples and ran over. His face was clear and bright, his eyes as black as his hair. "Shifu, Sect Leader accepted new disciples?"
"Yes." Wu Mei stated harshly, nodding to show her agreement.
"Wow..." the young man dragged out the sound as he craned his neck to get a good luck of them. "I didn't think he was going to accept anyone."
Wu Mei's eyes narrowed sharply. "Speak of the Sect Leader with respect."
"Yes, of course. My apologies." Fan GuiRen nodded and looked serious, the mischievous look disappearing from his expression.
An awkward silence commenced.
After a few minutes of awkwardly staring at the older disciple, one of the new ones, the youngest one of the two in fact, cleared his voice and asked in a meek voice, "Ah- who are you?"
Immediately, Fan GuiRen was smiling brightly at them again. His eyes seemed to shine with an inner light and he chuckled lightly. "I'm Fan GuiRen, your Senior Disciple. I'll be in charge of your training once you get settled in. And what's your name?"
As they spoke, they had started to slowly walk again. The young boy answered, "My name is Wen ZiHao."
Humming in thought, Fan GuiRen glanced at the other one. "And you?"
Fan GuiRen rose an eyebrow when the teenager didn't say any more than that, but didn't say anything himself. He didn't really care if they didn't want to be friendly. After all, it would only hurt themselves not to have a good relationship with their fellow disciples.
Some time later, they arrived at the Peak's main building. Fan GuiRen waved his arms and announced, "Here we are, the Sorrowful Grace Peak."
The new pair of disciples looked around at the old house and the few disciples running around doing chores. They looked visibly disappointed, having undoubtedly imagined something far more grand based on all of the stories they had heard.
Eventually, it was Song YongNian that broke the silence. "It's... small."
"Yes, well.... " Fan GuiRen shook his shoulder in a clearly exasperated movement and said, "Sect Leader doesn't like accepting new disciples."
The new disciples' faces clearly conveyed their surprise at that. Everybody knew that the bigger sects took in disciples by the hundreds every time the selection came around. It was a sort of status, like declaring "Look how much resources we have to pass around!". And yet, the sect leader of the Heavenly Abyss Sect — one of the most famous sects — didn't want to accept any new disciples?
"Why not?" Song YongNian asked fearlessly.
Fan GuiRen just shook his head and stated, "You'll understand soon enough."
He sounded amused as he said it and the two new disciples shared a worried look between them. What was it, they wondered, about that sentence that sounded so ominous?
"Come on!" Wu Mei yelled from the other side of the grounds, in front of the door to the building. "I don't have all day, and if I don't have time to show you your rooms, you'll be sleeping outside tonight!"
Her threat sounded harsh and her voice was unyielding, her average face scrunched up in rage. When the disciples gave Fan GuiRen questioning looks, he answered, "She means it."
They started running toward her immediately.
Watching them run away, Fan GuiRen was hit by the urge to bully them. It was a well-known secret in the sect that Fan GuiRen's nice personality was only a mask, and in reality, he was the type who liked to bully and tease others, often to the point where they would be enraged enough to attempt to murder him. In fact, the only reason that he hadn't been murdered so far, was because he truly was a genius when it came to cultivation.
"I wonder how long you'll last, hmm~?" Fan GuiRen's expression twisted into something demonic as he thought of the torment he could inflict on them. They were so unprepared for the place they had entered!
Ah, the pain he could put them through~ he couldn't wait to start...
Wu Mei saw the look on her personal succeeding disciple's face and contained the urge to sigh in exasperation. These new disciples weren't going to last long, not with a wolf in sheep's clothing like Fan GuiRen around. Truly, it was bad luck to be in the same generation as him.
Their fates had already been decided, the moment they had passed the Sect Leader's test.
All she could do now was make sure that they got a proper burial after their deaths.
Wen ZiHao gathered up his courage to ask a question he had been grumbling about for a while now. "Wh-why doesn't the Sect Leader w-want new disciples?"
Wu Mei threw him a glare, but at seeing his young innocent face, she figured she might as well answer this one question. Regardless, it wasn't like it was a secret or anything. It was just difficult for some people to understand.
She stopped walking and turned to her new disciples, facing their young faces and forcing herself to remember them.
Sighing, she stated in a tired tone,
"Because the Sect Leader doesn't believe in cultivation."