Nine Astra Skies

Mad Snail

1 The Eighteen Houses Of Lianyun

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It was the year 8329 of the Xiwu Empire. A time where chaos was rife and common lives were deemed to be no more valuable than the gra.s.s that grew along the sidewalks. Rogue va.s.sals of different nations raced to conquer lands of fertile grounds for an uprising of heroes. When Emperor Mingwu took to the throne, he ordered the slaughter of every insurgent along with their armies. Blood was shed and carnage ensued – until every last insurgent was no more. 

In the midst of the Xiwu Empire was Donglin County where the Donglin Mountains sprawled. Deep into the mountainous woods were towering trees creeping up toward the skies, accompanied by rocky slopes, steep and dangerous. Even farther, eighteen fortresses built of stone stood tall. 

One's imagination began to wonder as to how these menacing fortresses' were built. The builders in the days of yore managed to construct the fortresses' one large piece of stone at a time. Hence, they stood proudly among the mountains until now. 

There were eighteen castles in total and each of them was home to a single prestigious clan, every clan bearing the same family name. These families were collectively known as the Eighteen Houses of Lianyun - a moniker that was far from being unheard of within Donglin county. 

In the martial art training ground within the Ye Castle

Although the rays from the dawning sun were just beginning to show from the cleave between two distant mountains, the training ground was already filled with people. 

"An austere effort shall repair any shortcomings - this is the first axiom of any training. The best time to train in any given day is the presence of the first ray of light, as this is the time when Primordial Chi is at its peak," a man of a st.u.r.dy built said to the large crowd of youths. "If you train earnestly at this hour of the day, you're guaranteed a reward two-folds of your effort." 

There were about thousands of clansmen living within the Ye Castle. As children of age ten to eighteen would be eligible for martial art training, there were at least two to three hundred martial art acolytes within the House of Ye. 

These acolytes stood in a straight formation, practicing their punches in a synchronized rhythm. 

"Still as the mountain, strike like the tempest! This is how you overpower an enemy. The first factor of any victory is to strike fast – there may be ways to counter other techniques but speed is one that will never truly be countered. As a matter of fact, we, the Ye Clan always emphasized speed as a factor!" The middle-aged man then demonstrated a sequence of fist techniques. Every punch was as formidable as the pounce of a tiger whose roars rivaled that of thunder. It was the Ye Clan's very own Tempest Fist – a set of unique fist-based technique made more commanding and imposing with the Ye Clan's Inner Thunderclap Energy Cultivation. 

Gusts of wind were formed when the internal energy within each punch punctuated the air, stinging the faces of those watching. 

The people took a step back involuntarily from the middle-aged man. "Whoa, uncle! You're amazing!" 

"Of course he is. He's the third commanding man in the family! His prowess is only second to our Patriarch and the Magistrate!" A voice bellowed as the crowd looked at the middle-aged man in awe. 

His name was Ye Zhanxiong – the main martial art instructor of the House of Ye, a man with an impeccable reputation among his cla.s.smen.

Mesmerised, the crowd burst into cheers as Ye Zhanxiong continued his demonstration.

A few hundred

zhang

1

away from the commotion sat a young man on top of a boulder in the corner of the training ground. With his eyes closed and legs crossed, he resembled the statue of Buddha as the early sunlight illuminated his skin, though it was unable to shine a light in his mind. 

He looked to be just about eighteen or seventeen of age. He had a chiseled face, with eyebrows as slender as a Jian sword and a nose sharp as a cliff. He emanated a countenance of youthful mettle and gallantry but one thing stood out from him – there was an aura of contemplative placidity that boys of his age should not possess. His name was Ye Chen. 

How many times did he repeat the actions —inhaling and exhaling according to the methods taught in the Inner Thunderclap Energy Cultivation course to no avail? Every time he had managed to gather any Celestial Chi within him, they dispersed out into the open through his punctured meridian channels until none was left in him. His body had failed to acc.u.mulate any Celestial Chi. 

Two of these clansmen walked pa.s.s where he was sitting cross-legged. Their expressions immediately darkened with contempt. 

"With a body that can't even store Celestial Chi, it's distasteful to see him play pretend every day." 

"Not to mention the number of medicinal pills he consumed every single day? Gosh, if the same amount were given to us, G.o.d knows how many rising stars would have sprung from our family. I wonder if the pills were fed to a dog rather than him. Had it been me in that pathetic state, I would have drowned myself long ago than to live in embarra.s.sment!"

"Hush! Not so loud! He's still the Chief's son, you know." 

"What of it? We, the Ye Clansmen have never taken pride about one's birth parents anyway, so why should he be granted to royal treatment?!"

The two made no effort to speak quietly. Their words had drifted to Ye Chen's ears but he kept his eyes shut, pretending he had heard none of it, willing himself to stomach the hurtful statements made by the two. Quietly in his mind, Ye Chen laughed at his current predicament – in the past, he would have jumped at the chance to fight those two but now, he had learned to endure their scornful remarks. 

He was a handicapped good-for-nothing who had no hope against those two. 

Ye Chen had shown promises in the past. He was at the Fifth stage at the age of twelve, the Sixth stage by thirteen and at the peak of the Seventh stage by fourteen. He was one of the most promising fighters among his own cohorts, hailed as the martial genius the House of Ye had not seen in a century. Yet all it took was an unfortunate ambush during one of Ye Chen's mystical beast-hunting trips with five other youthful powerhouses within the Lianyun Mountains. All five of his companions perished during the attack while Ye Chen himself had his meridian channels forcibly destroyed. 

It was as if the group of bandits had wanted Ye Chen to suffer this way – the young scion was alive but permanently handicapped. 

In the Xiwu Empire, a person's strength reflected their prestige. Those who had little strength were walked all over by others. If it weren't for the fact that the rule of law made it so that the Primordial Chi was greatest in the morning, Ye Chen would not be caught dead appearing in public. 

'It's been three years. My meridian channels are never going to recover, aren't they?' Resentment bubbled deep in him. He could not help but resent at how abrupt his fall was. 

Ye Chen tried once more, acc.u.mulating as much Celestial chi as possible. Unsurprisingly, he failed again. His damaged meridian channels were as lifeless as logs hollowed out by termites. 

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Nonetheless, he continued to sit cross-legged on his spot. He sank deeper and deeper into the bottom of his consciousness, akin to an elderly monk entering a one-pointedness state of mind. There, at the bottom of his consciousness, a silhouette of a dagger can be seen. Its crimson blade as slim as a cicada's wing was transparent as it was luminous. This was it – the true reason why Ye Chen had never given up hope that he could return to his past vigor. 

Ye Chen pushed his mind through, extending the reach of his consciousness to get closer to the Flying Dagger in the hopes that today would be the day he reached it and gain some form of control over it. 

A loud peal came from his mind. Ye Chen's eardrums rang uncontrollably as if being hit by the force of an explosion inside his brain. Then, a course of power burst into the walls of his damaged meridian channels like waves of water gushing out a levee. In a blink of an eye, the Celestial Chi that Ye Chen had so laboriously summoned was completely pushed out of the openings in his meridian system. 

In a state of panic, Ye Chen realized that this surge of power was completely out of his control. He pulled his consciousness back in fright and the surge vanished completely as if nothing had happened.

'W- what was that?' 

Ye Chen's eyes snapped open wide with his body limp. He panted in loud gasps and inspected his meridians but discovered that they remained damaged. 

The Flying Dagger remained quiet within his mind. The surge of power flooding out of it felt similar to Celestial Chi, yet the former felt more… formidable. It simply felt more enigmatic. 

There was an itch in his hands and he looked down reflexively. That was when a wave of shock hit him as he discovered that there was now a blanket of epidermal flakes around his hands. As he flicked them away, he found himself staring at a pair of supple, rosy-pink hands akin to a baby's, as his hands had undergone a sort of metamorphosis. 

'All I did was trigger the Flying Dagger… And it had already brought out such an effect.' 

The young man shuddered involuntarily. This strange dagger warranted more investigation but he would have to do it when night had fallen. 

After finishing his demonstration before a crowd of acolytes, Ye Zhanxiong, with his hands clasped behind his back, scanned through the attendees until his eyes rested on Ye Chen.

The middle-aged man sighed plaintively, his expression one of morose. Had Ye Chen never been ambushed, the boy's current cultivation base must have had surpa.s.sed his own. The boy would have rightfully claimed the t.i.tle of being the most promising prodigy of the newer generations. He would have become the one capable of shouldering the responsibility of being the guardian of the clan in the future and yet, it seemed that he was being divinely punished for being too stellar. 

Back then, he had liked Ye Chen despite his impulsiveness. However, the three years have changed the young boy into a patient, humble man. If it were not for the damaged meridian channels, Ye Chen was set out to achieve great lengths.

However, fate delights in being unpredictable. 

As he stood in solitude, Ye Zhanxiong began walking toward the boy. 

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Zhang, Wade-Giles chang, an old Chinese measure of length equal to 10 chi, or 3.58 metres (11 feet 9 inches). The value was agreed upon by China in treaties (1842–44 and 1858–60) with England and France.

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