"Were you able to hear them?"
"Yes. They were loud."
"What were they talking about?"
"Li Yundong was forcing He Shao to turn himself in."
More lies. Zhou Qin didn't even know if Li Yundong and He Shao were actually talking.
"He Shao tried to bride Li Yundong with money, but Li Yundong didn't take the bait."
"Was there a physical altercation? I mean... Was there any violence involved at some point during the argument?"
Zhou Qin raised her brow at Detective Wang's blatant insinuation.
Detective Wang shrugged. "It's a reasonable question. Just now, you said they were yelling at each other. Did the argument escalate?"
"No. They were just yelling. Besides, do you think Li Yundong is stupid enough to attack He Shao when he knew that He Shao was armed?"
Lies. All lies. Even though they sounded logical and totally believable.
"Fair enough," Detective Wang said, closing his notebook. "And afterwards?"
"He Shao tried to make a run for it into the woods. Li Yundong ran after He Shao, but before he could get close..." Zhou Qin gave the detective a pointed look. "You already know the rest."
Detective Wang tossed the notepad onto the table. "Right. A bolt of lightning came down from the sky and turned He Shao into ashes..." Detective Wang rubbed his face. "Come on. You expect me to believe that?"
"I expect you to rely on the evidence, detective." Zhou Qin smiled. "I mentioned that there was a dark hole on the ground?"
"You did." Detective Wang chuckled bitterly. "You said it is the spot where the lightning struck He Shao."
"Well. It is." Zhou Qin smirked. "Has your forensics team examined it?"
Detective Wang stole a glance at her. "They're working on it."
"Then I have no doubt that your team would be able to uncover traces of He Shao's DNA in that hole." Zhou Qin shrugged. "Charred tissue, maybe? Bones? Hair?"
Detective Wang's eyes narrowed. "Even if we do find those things, that isn't enough to validate your story." Detective Wang leaned forward, pressing his elbows on the desk. "Come on, Miss Zhou. Do you really think that a story of... of..." Detective Wang grimaced and made a couple of wild gestures with his hand. "... of a person killed by a random bolt of lightning would be taken seriously inside the court of law?"
Zhou Qin lifted a shoulder casually. "Why not?" Zhou Qin arched her brow. "You do know that lightning strike fatalities occur everywhere in the world, right?"
"Seriously, Miss Zhou? Who do you think I am? An idiot? If there was a thunder storm last night, and He Shao was standing on open ground, then the claim would at least be believable! But guess what? The weather was perfectly fine that night!" Detective Wang took a deep breath. "Look, Miss Zhou. You've got to give me something else here. Come on…"
The detective almost sounded like he was pleading. Perhaps he was. God only knew how much pressure the He family was putting on the police to find He Shao's "killer."
Zhou Qin sighed. "You're not listening to me, detective. I can't give you anything else because what I gave you is the truth." She paused. "And regarding what you mentioned about the weather. I have one more thing to add."
Detective Wang sat up straighter and picked up his pen. He gestured for Zhou Qin to continue, then opened his notepad.
"There were storm clouds above the field that night."
Detective Wang looked up from his notebook. "Are you sure?"
"Absolutely positive," Zhou Qin said firmly. "I'm sure because I was there. I saw the clouds. You can check the satellite data if you don't believe me."
Detective Wang scribbled something down. "Right. Storm clouds. And then this bolt of lightning supposedly came flying down from the sky and then struck He Shao until there was literally nothing left of him." Detective Wang tossed the pen onto the table. "Good luck asking the jury to believe all that crap."
Zhou Qin shook her head. It seemed like she had run out of options now. That footage had to be revealed.
Zhou Qin and Detective Wang stared at each other across the table.
"I can prove it," Zhou Qin said minutes later. "I can prove that He Shao was struck to death by a bolt of lightning."
Detective Wang's eyes widened. "How?" He leaned forward, seemingly intrigued.
Zhou Qin sighed. "I recorded the whole thing with my phone."
Detective Wang deflated. "We've already checked your phone, Miss Zhou. There wasn't any recording."
"Not that phone," Zhou Qin said. "My other phone. It's inside my car. In the glove compartment."
Detective Wang waved at the two-way mirror, then turned back to give Zhou Qin a narrow-eyed stare. "Why isn't the footage the first thing you showed us?"
Miss Zi Yuan's warning came flooding into Zhou Qin's mind. Nobody outside of the four of them should know about the events of that night. Yeah. Easy for her to say.
Zhou Qin lowered her gaze like a scared little girl. Great. Now she had to act like a victim she didn't have an excuse for why she didn't reveal the footage first thing she was brought into this interrogation room.
"I- I panicked, okay?" Zhou Qin said with a sigh. "The footage was rather... graphic."
The interrogation dragged on for another twenty minutes before the door of the interrogation room opened slightly. Another detective poked his head in. "Hey, Wang. I think you need to see this."
Detective Wang exited the interrogation room, closing the door behind him. "You got something?"
"Oh, yeah I've got something alright," his colleague said. "Come take a look at this."
This better be good.
Detective Wang walked over and peered over his colleague's shoulder. "That's the footage?"
"Uh-huh... Now watch." His colleague tapped the space key.
The video began to play.
Like Miss Zhou claimed, He Shao had tried to run into the woods. The image shook a little as Miss Zhou followed He Shao's movements with the camera.
A bright flash lit up the center of the screen.
Detective Wang brought his face closer to the screen, which showed He Shao's entire body engulfed by a white—maybe blue?—light.
Three seconds later, the light vanished, but the video didn't end. The image moved again, and Miss Zhou's stilettos came into view. The poor girl had probably lowered the phone in shock.
Seconds later, the image shifted and refocused on the center of the field. The camera zoomed in on the ground.
The dark hole was exactly where Miss Zhou had described it earlier.
"Holy shit..." Detective Wang whispered.
Sounds of Miss Zhou's heavy panting blared through the speaker.
Dark fumes rose from the hole on the ground as the video played on. At one point, the image began to shake; Miss Zhou's hands were trembling.
Then, the video ended.
"F*cking hell..." Detective Wang muttered. "F*ck…"
"There's something else bro," said his colleague.
"What?" Detective Wang said without looking away from the screen.
"This shit is legit, bro. The geeks checked. The video wasn't fabricated. It's one-hundred percent legit. Even the time stamp matches the timeline of Miss Zhou's story."
Detective Wang turned his head and met his colleague's stare.
"Bro, I think the girl's telling the truth," said his colleague grimly.
Detective Wang ran a hand through his hair. "Then there's no way to blame it on Li Yundong..."
There was a brief moment of silence.
"What the hell are we supposed to do, man? The commissioner is breathing down our necks."
Detective Wang snorted. "Yeah well, the He family is breathing down his."
Another silence spread between them.
Detective Wang shook his head. "Miss Zhou's story is pretty much rock solid."
That was an understatement. Her story was flawless.
"Agreed," his colleague said.
"But… My gut tells me that she's hiding something from us," Detective Wang said. "She's left out some key information."
Detective Wang paused in thought, then glanced at his colleague. "Did you notice how she always kept her statements short and brief when I asked her about Li Yundong?"
"You think she knows more about Li Yundong than what she told us?"
"I think she's protecting him."
His colleague sighed. "Then, we'll just have to find other ways to coax the information out of her."
Detective Wang shook his head. "The usual tricks won't work on her. That girl is smart as hell."
Detective Wang reached for the keyboard and played the video again, skipping to the part where the lightning struck He Shao.
"Shit, bro... Do you really believe all this?" said his colleague.
Detective Wang raised his brows at his colleague.
"I mean, do you think that He Shao's death is... you know... the work of God? Some kind of divine punishment?"
Detective Wang sighed. "Hell if I know, bro."
His colleague's phone pinged.
"Forensic results just came back. The tissue samples obtained from the hole has He Shao's DNA..."
Detective Wang shook his head. "Come on, man. You and I both know that that's far from conclusive."
"They also did a heat transfer analysis on the tissue. Based on the temperature profile, they estimated the temperature of the heat source. Around 49,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which corresponds to a lightning strike."
Detective Wang's jaw dropped open. "You're shitting me…"
His colleague shook his head grimly. "No. And guess how long the heat transfer lasted? 3.5 seconds. That's way too long for normal lightning strikes, but it corresponds to the video."
Detective Wang replayed the video. The flash lasted for 3 seconds.
"F*ck... Divine punishment…" his colleague muttered.
Detective Wang snorted. "The guy probably had it coming. I mean you know how—" Detective Wang paused, then lowered his voice into a whisper. "You know how f*cking corrupt he is, bro. All the stuff he's done? Maybe he f*cking deserves it."
His colleague threw his hands up. "But the He family is gonna want answers from us, you know? And this..." His colleague pointed at the computer screen. "This ain't gonna cut it." His colleague fell silent, clearly waiting for him to answer.
"What did the commissioner say? What does he want us to do?"
His colleague shook his head. "He said to pin it all on that Li Yundong guy."
Detective Wang snorted. "Slimeball. That way he can avoid pissing off both the He and Zhou families."
"Well, that's not gonna work anymore," said his colleague. "The evidence is rock solid. It's clear that He Shao was struck by lightning. There's no way we can blame it on Li Yundong. Like, what the f*ck are we supposed to say? That Li Yundong summoned lightning from the sky? That's ridiculous!"
Detective Wang sighed. "Does the commissioner know about this evidence yet?"
"Not this video. But I think he knows about the forensics report." His colleague paused and stared at him. "What do you reckon we do? Pin it on Miss Zhou?"
Detective Wang looked towards the interrogation room. Through the two-way mirror, he saw Miss Zhou's elegant and composed expression. That girl had a lot of guts, that was for sure; she wasn't even here with her lawyer.
Detective Wang shook his head. "She didn't do it, bro. This is way too messy. With her resources, I'm sure there are much more efficient ways to get rid of a guy. And besides, what's her motive? The Zhou family won't benefit at all from He Shao's death. If anything, they'll lose an ally."
"The commissioner is gonna try to pin it on her whether we want to or not."
Detective Wang stared at Miss Zhou through the mirror and shook his head. "But this ain't right, bro. This ain't right."
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Chapter 167 The Running Man
"Hey!!! Young man!!! Do you need a lift or what?!"
Li Yundong lowered the water bottle from his lips and looked to his left. A car had deliberately slowed down to match his pace. Through the car's lowered window, Li Yundong could make out the concerned face of a middle-aged man.
Li Yundong capped the bottle and waved at the driver. "Nah! I'm good!"
"You sure?" The middle-aged man looked at him skeptically. "
"Yep, I'm sure!" Li Yundong increased his pace. "Thanks for offering though!"
"You training for a marathon or something?"
Li Yundong met the driver's curious gaze. "Nope!" he said. I'm just running to frigging Tibet, he added silently.
"Alright then! See you around kid! I hope you reach wherever you're going."
Li Yundong gave the man a wave as the car gained speed and pulled away from him.
Well. That was the third time today something like this happened. Yesterday, he had had around twenty such encounters. If the passing drivers thought he was crazy, Li Yundong couldn't really blame them. He himself thought he was nuts for doing this. But if this training could help him pass the Zhuji phase and survive the Heavenly Thunder afterwards, then he'd be damned well sure he'd ace it.
What surprised him, though, was the fact that he didn't feel tired at all despite having run God knows how many kilometers without sleep, food, and rest. Even when he was rehydrating himself, he hadn't stopped running. Instead, he merely slowed his pace to a slow jog and then sipped on his water.
Zi Yuan had insisted that he never stop for a breather once he started running, that he should keep running until his legs gave out entirely. So far, he'd been doing exactly that. The way he saw it, his entire journey to Tibet would consist of: all out bout of running; collapse due to exhaustion; eat, sleep, and rest to replenish his strength; repeat.
Basically, the whole journey would consist of cycles. Hmm. He would call it the Running Man cycle. Yep. That definitely had a nice ring to it.
Right now, he was still in his first Running Man cycle—he had yet to stop running since he left New Hongsheng district. He wondered when his body would finally reach its limit because at this rate, he felt like he could keep running for days without problems. Well, he did experience a minor discomfort yesterday, where his skin began itching like crazy minutes after he started running. However, the itching disappeared as soon as he started sweating. Other than that, there weren't any major discomforts. His heart rate was slightly elevated but consistent. His legs didn't feel sore at all. His body felt hot all over, but he supposed that was normal for anyone who was running. The heat inside his body never became uncomfortable, most probably because he was sweating heavily, which helped cool him down.
One other thing did strike him as odd. Somehow, the Qis of his five Zangs got drawn out on their own and started circulating through his meridians after he'd been running for a while. That had never happened before. Usually, he had to consciously draw out the Qis of his five Zangs with his Yuanyang, but this time the Qis seemed to have a will of their own. He wondered why. He made a mental note to ask Zi Yuan about it later.
Su Chan was constantly on his mind. Whenever he ran past something interesting, he'd start wondering about the kind of funny remarks that Su Chan would make if she were there beside him.
Ooh, Yundong! Look! That thing has so many wheels!
Hey, Yundong! Colorful lights! Hehehe!
Oh, Yundong… Look! Octopus food! Dagoyakee balls! Yummy! Can we have some? Cue puppy dog eyes. Blink. Blink. Blink. Seconds later: Yay!!! You are so nice, Yundong! Muacks! Muacks! Muacks!
Yundong! Squids! Fried squids on sticks!
Yundong this. Yundong that.
Who was he kidding. Those were all memories. She'd actually said those things to him.
A large archway appeared ahead. Above the archway was a huge sign with a bunch of words printed on it. He squinted and tried to read the words from afar. He couldn't.
His vision was too blurry from the tears that had welled up in his eyes.
Li Yundong's knees hit the pavement. Well. What do you know? His first Running Man cycle just ended. So this was what it felt like to run till you drop. Surprisingly, it had taken over 600 kilometers to reach his limit.
Good God. Am I dead? He took several long gulps of air, and then rolled onto his back. The stars blinked down at him from the clear, night sky.
Where was he anyway?
He sifted through his memory for any signboards or landmarks that he'd passed by before his knees gave out.
He came up with nothing.
Great, now he didn't even have a clue where he was. All he knew was that he was lying half-dead in a middle of some highway. Highway to hell, he thought, chuckling to himself.
God. What the heck am I doing...?
Seriously, what the f*ck was he doing?
He shut his eyes and kept breathing and filling his lungs with much-needed oxygen.
The first signs of fatigue came when he was about to leave the previous city—the first city he'd arrived at after he left Tiannan City. His breathing started to become rapid. His heart rate increased. Eventually he started to feel the burn in his lungs.
But still, he kept pushing forward. He left the city quickly and entered the highway. He'd been running on this highway for an hour or two before his muscles finally gave out.
He tried to remember the last time he ate. It was actually during the afternoon before he left for this crazy trip. He had lunch with Zi Yuan and Ruan Hongling before Zi Yuan told him about this trip. So it was three days since I last ate, huh? Wasn't too bad, he supposed. Even though it felt like ages ago. And yes, he was hungry as f*ck. But that wasn't even his primary concern. Right now he had bigger problems to worry about (aside from feeling like he'd just turned into a cripple, of course): he had run out of drinking water.
Li Yundong groaned at the thought. Stupid, stupid, stupid! He was a f*cking idiot. Why did he choose to leave the city? He should've just run around the city in circles until his legs gave out. At least he'd still be inside a city when he exhausted all his strength. Right now he was in the middle of a highway. Where was he supposed to find water in the middle of a highway? What should he even do? Pray for the rain?
Yeah. That was pretty dumb.
Regardless. What's done is done. He would just have to walk back into the city tomorrow, buy some water and some food, and then be on his way again.
His breathing had begun to even out, and he felt like he was drifting in and out of consciousness. He knew because he kept seeing Su Chan's face floating before his eyes, kept hearing her sweet voice beside his ear.
Maybe she was here? Idiot. Why would she be here?
Maybe he should just sleep... Wait, no. Li Yundong shook his head a few times and blinked his eyes open. He pushed himself into a sitting position, then removed his backpack from his back. After that, he leaned his back against some kind of concrete surface and got into a meditative posture. Performing Da Zhoutian and Xiao Zhoutian would help him recover faster. He closed his eyes and let his breathing take over.
I miss you, Chan'er...
Guess what? He'd just crossed the borders into another province. Another province! On foot! Woohoo! Great stuff to tell his—hopefully foxy—grandkids.
Now he was on his way towards Zhangfang, the first town he would pass after crossing the borders into Hunan province. He'd passed by a lot of towns and counties over the past few days when he was traveling towards the borders of Jiangxi province (Zhaoxian, Shibi, Huangzhou, Luoshi, Shangfu, Ganfang, and etc.), during which he realized the importance of planning and strategizing in order to achieve a goal.
He'd learned to avoid big cities and pick routes that would lead him through smaller towns and counties instead. Generosity was abundant in small towns unlike in large cities. In a few towns that he'd stopped by, the townsfolk had actually opened their homes to him, letting him use their bathroom and giving him food. And it certainly helped that prices for food and water were much in small towns.
It wasn't just about picking the right routes as well; it was also about timing and the ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. He had to make creative adjustments to his pace—heck, even the length of his strides—so that he would end up somewhere inside a town when his legs finally gave out. It had taken him several tries to get the hang of making these adjustments. For example, he could still keep running after entering Zhaoxian's town area, so he couldn't stop (Zi Yuan said he had to keep running until he dropped). But at the same time, he wasn't sure he had enough steam to reach the next town before collapsing. In the end, he ended up running around Zhaoxian in circles—he didn't want to end up in the middle of some highway again when he reached his limits.
There were also noticeable improvements in his stamina. Every time after he reached his limits and recovered, he was able to push himself further (in terms of speed and distance) in the subsequent Running Man cycles. In other words, the training was working. It was really working. He could feel the Qis of his five Zangs growing stronger and becoming more concentrated. Which reminds me… He should start collecting concrete bricks and test out the results of his training. Hopefully he could achieve the same thing Zi Yuan did with the marble block soon. He needed a name for that effect. Yeah. He definitely needed a name for it. How about... the Palm Print effect? Yep. That would do.
So. His goal was to reproduce the Palm Print effect before he arrived at Tibet. Operation Palm Print. How about that?
Day 15. Near the borders of Hunan Province.
Finally, this day came, the day he was forced to throw his shoes away because they were no longer serviceable—the base was completely torn off due to all that wear and tear. At the moment, he had three choices: buy a cheap pair of shoes; continue his journey barefoot and hope that some kind Samaritan would give him a pair of shoes for free; find his own shoes, either by rummaging through the trash can or by making his own shoes.
Li Yundong dismissed the first option almost instantly. A new pair of shoes wouldn't be worth the investment at all. What would be the point in buying a cheap pair of shoes only to ruin them after a few days of running? He would be better off saving his money for food and water. Making his own shoes seemed to much of a hassle. Rummaging through dumpsters for a pair of shoes seemed like a terrible idea too, especially when he had no ready access to a shower. He'd much rather go barefoot than facing the possibilities of having maggots crawling up his legs.
Barefoot it is, then. Li Yundong shoved his old shoes into the trash can and looked up at sky. For once, Li Yundong was grateful for the summer weather—even though it could be stifling at times.
So far, he only had one encounter with the rain, which happened four days ago, where he was caught in a thunderstorm. Since he wasn't allowed to stop, he had to run through the whole storm.
It wasn't that bad. He kinda saw it as a free shower.
Silver lining, right?
Yeah. After everything that happened, he'd learned to look for silver linings everywhere.
"Ugh, this is no good," he muttered, lowered his gaze from the sky. He had to get to higher ground. He couldn't see very far from down here.
He sighed and surveyed his surroundings. He wasn't on a highway yet, so there were still some trees nearby. He just had to pick one that was tall enough.
Even though he got a free shower during the thunderstorm four days ago, he didn't want to run into another storm. The slippery ground would slow him down. It might even be dangerous now that he was going barefoot.
He couldn't check the weather forecast because he'd sold his phone for more cash. So here he was, standing on top of a large Gingko tree, gazing out into the afternoon sky. Might as well put the Ningshen phase to good use... He activated his telescopic vision and gazed out as far as he could. The sky was pretty clear with little to no clouds, which meant he could probably make another run today...
Li Yundong lowered his gaze from the sky, then unstrapped his backpack from his shoulders. He took out a map and unfolded it. Okay.... Let's see... Where's the nearest town... Huayuan County. Roughly 200 kilometers from his current location. During his last Running Man cycle, he ran at 25% of his top speed and covered roughly 600 kilometers of distance. The whole run lasted for two days before his legs gave out, which would put his average jogging speed at around 12.5 kilometers per hour. If he jogged at the same pace, he would reach Huayuan County in 16 hours.
Less than two days...
Which meant he might have to pass that town and head to the next one without stopping to rest. Li Yundong unfolded the map. The town after Huayuan County was... Lixi. Approximately 80 kilometers away, which would add 6 more hours to the total time. 22 hours.
He could last longer than that.
Li Yundong sighed and checked the map again.
In the end, he realized that he had to pass five more towns after Lixi before he reached his limits.
Li Yundong folded the map and slipped it into his backpack. The Fan of the Seven Treasures felt weightless now. Guess that's what training does to you... Li Yundong leaped down from the tree top and landed on the ground. He glanced at the road ahead.
Time to be the Running Man again.
Day 20. Outskirts of Chengdu City, Sichuan
"Yess!!!!" Li Yundong exclaimed and pumped his fist a few times. Operation Palm Print was a success! Finally! After dozens of failed attempts, he'd finally done it! Wait... no. There were still tiny cracks around the thumb and middle finger. Damn it. Not a success then. But it wasn't a total failure, he supposed.
Li Yundong tossed the brick aside and lay down on his back. The sun was setting soon, and he'd just finished a hearty meal that consisted of Kung Pao Chicken, Ma Po Tofu and Dandan Noodles. A group of kind village folks practically dragged him back to their village when they saw him collapse in the middle of the road a couple of hours ago. They bathed him, fed him, and even offered him a place to stay overnight. Li Yundong had gladly accepted their generous offer except for the last one. He didn't want to impose or overstay his welcome. More importantly, he didn't want his presence to be a threat to those kind folks. Call him paranoid or whatever, but he kept having this feeling that he was being watched. He did activate his Xianjue to check things out, but he didn't find any threat. It did occur to him that it might be Zi Yuan watching him, but he didn't want to take the risk.
So he left the village after the wonderful meal and took a long hike from the village to the nearest town, where he bought more food and water supplies. In the town, he came across a demolition site and spent some time there sifting through piles of smashed rubbles for more concrete bricks; he needed those to test the progress of his training.
Speaking of progress...
He'd picked up a bunch of new skills too. First, he learned how to multitask with his Qi. For instance, when he was running, his Qi would usually circulate around his body and interact with the Qis of his five Zangs. But at one point his feet had begun to hurt because he'd been running around barefoot, so he isolated a small portion of his Qi and then channeled it to the base of his feet.
It worked like a charm.
He managed to produce a thin film of Qi under his feet while the rest of his Qi circulated around his body. The effect was similar to wearing shoes, only that this was much, much better. Guess he might call it, what, the Qi shoes? Anyway, that discovery was the only reason his feet weren't covered in blisters and calluses right now. So yeah. Cultivation. Awesome stuff.
Another thing he had gotten quite good at was making weather predictions based on cloud patterns. Well, it wasn't that complicated actually. In fact, he could sum up his observations with just two tips: clouds with darker bottoms are more likely to produce rain; if the clouds start to grow vertically, be prepared for heavy rain or a storm. Brilliant stuff. Worked every time.
Oh, wait. There was something else. He actually made another interesting discovery during his foray into meteorology. He learned that he could actually bridge his Three Gates using the Qis of his five Zangs. The effect was essentially similar to bridging his Three Gates the normal way: he could generate shockwaves by punching the air. The only difference was that the new shockwaves were more powerful and had far greater range. He'd come across that discovery when he was—color him nuts—trying to move a cloud in the sky.
A week ago, he was checking the weather as usual to decide whether it was feasible for him to make another run. Unfortunately, he saw a dense cloud several miles away. That damned cloud was probably going to bring heavy rain, so he wanted it out of the way.
Anyway, the genius idea he came up with was to blow the cloud away with a shockwave. However, he found that the shockwaves he produced couldn't reach the clouds if bridged his Three Gates the normal way. The shockwaves simply didn't have enough range, so he had to improvise.
Another idea hit him when he remembered something Su Chan told him a long time ago: the Qis of his five Zangs were much more powerful. So he did it. He bridged his Three Gates with the Qis of his five Zangs, generated a mega shockwave and... ended up disintegrating the whole cloud instead of blowing it away.
He ended up producing rain instead of preventing it.
He left the town after getting enough food and water to last another marathon. He could've spent the night inside the town, but he didn't want to draw attention to himself. Hah. Trust him, it's pretty hard to remain inconspicuous when you have a bulky magical weapon half-sticking out of your backpack. And running a marathon to frigging Tibet. Barefoot.
Anyway, after a one-hour walk from the town, he spotted this cozy little spot—under a flyover—from afar using his telescopic vision. The place provided enough shelter and privacy, so he decided to spend the night here. God bless the Ningshen phase. Otherwise he would have to sleep on the roadside like during the few—unfortunate—times when he had mistimed his runs. One time, he actually woke up with an ambulance beside him because some well-meaning Samaritan had called the hospital thinking that he was dying. Then he overheard the paramedic telling the ambulance driver where they were taking him—a mental institute. He gave them the slip after that and picked a new route to continue his journey. Zi Yuan would probably lose her marbles if he ended up in a frigging asylum.
Li Yundong sat up and removed a dirty towel from his backpack. He rolled up the towel and placed it on the hard concrete. Then, he lay back down, using the rolled towel as a pillow. An orange tinge spread across the sky as the sun set. Wisps of clouds drifted in the sky. Huh. Wait... There it was again, that same, spherical cloud. He'd seen a similar cloud the last time he stopped to rest. Were spherical clouds common in the sky? Maybe they were.
Li Yundong shut his eyes and released a long sigh. Times like this were double-edged swords. On the one hand, it gave him some reprieve, at least when he was asleep. But at the same time, it also made it impossible not to think about Su Chan. His beautiful princess. The woman he had come to love so dearly despite the short amount of time they spent together. He wondered how she was doing. Was she eating well? Was she sleeping well? Was she staring up at the night sky, wondering where he was? He wished there was a way for him to speak to her. She hadn't called him again after the day Zi Yuan told him about the trip. He'd called her a few times during the end of his first run, but her phone was turned off. That was part of the reason he sold his phone for cash. He would probably drive himself mad if he hadn't done it.
It was easier to blame their lack of contact on the lack of means than to accept that Su Chan was ignoring him on purpose.
She didn't even have to speak to him though. He just wanted to know if she was safe and sound...
Who was he even kidding.
Of course she was safe. With a powerful Cultivator like Ao Wushuang protecting her, Su Chan was much safer than when she was with him.
He had to get stronger. Yes. He must. For Su Chan...
Day 33. Baiyu County, Western Part of Sichuan Province
Li Yundong's shoulder-length hair fluttered in the gentle breeze as he stood on a large cliff overlooking Baiyu County. Below, Bailonggou River flowed freely from his left to his right, carrying boats and dinghies filled with people dressed in maroon robes. The lamas. Which meant that he was close to the Tibetan borders. The Running Man's journey was reaching its end. At long last.
He was a changed man, reformed by 33 days of running, meditating, problem-solving, improvising, and good old surviving.
Li Yundong breathed in the fresh air from the mountains, then exhaled loudly. He ran a hand through his hair, which felt sticky and goopy with sweat, grime, and things that he didn't even want to know. He grimaced and lowered his hand. He really, really needed a haircut. And a shower. Preferably with shampoo. God, he missed shampoo.
A dark tan spread over the once fair skin of his arms. His shirts were pretty much ruined. They had turned crusty due to the salt crystals from his sweat, which were impossible to wash off. Not that he had a lot of opportunities to wash his shirts. Actually, he did wash his shirt often—with his sweat.
He had grown a beard too, which probably looked as unkempt as a bird's nest after a hundred fledglings had tumbled in it. In other words, he looked like shit. Correction: he looked like a Neanderthal who smelled like shit.
The bright side? He no longer had to struggle with the overwhelming urge to see Su Chan. He'd rather die than allow Su Chan to see him in his current state.
Li Yundong jumped off the edge of the cliff and landed in front of Baiyu town with a loud thud. The lamas, townsfolk, and a couple of tourists glanced over at him. Ignoring the whispers and strange looks, Li Yundong took out his map and checked the direction of Mount Duonian. About... 45 degrees west of north... Li Yundong folded the map and took out his compass, using it to reorient himself.
Aha. There it is...
A large group of lamas and monks in maroon and saffron robes were crawling on all fours up a winding path. Those must be the pilgrims Zi Yuan mentioned. Zooming in with his telescopic vision, Li Yundong noticed that the pilgrims were wearing gloves. Some tourists, who were probably on their way towards Mount Duonian, stood beside the crawling pilgrims, snapping photos with their phones.
Li Yundong zoomed out, then put the compass away. After that, he adjusted the straps of his backpack and marched towards the pilgrims.
Even though the town area was pretty crowded, Li Yundong didn't have to worry about congestion at all. So far, the tourists and townspeople he'd passed had given him the wide berth. Was it the smell or his general appearance? Probably both.
Li Yundong hid a smirk behind his hand. These folks probably thought he was just some beggar. Good. This was exactly what he needed—hiding in plain sight. Nobody would associate a beggar with a Cultivator after all.
Li Yundong trudged forward, keeping his head low. The Fan of the Seven Treasures was safely concealed inside his backpack with its top part—the part jutting out of the backpack—covered with a towel. Li Yundong closed his eyes and sealed every single pore on his skin. Now that he was closer to his destination where he would make his attempt to pass the Zhuji phase, he should avoid sweating so much.
He had acquired this new skill—sealing the pores on his skin—about the same time he had perfected Operation Palm Print. He now had much better control of his Qi. Not only can he move his Qi wherever he desired, he could now also condense his Qi at a particular body part to boost its strength. Using Zi Yuan's lingo, he now had total control over the concentration of his Qi—the amount of his Qi per unit volume of space inside his meridians.
The walk towards the winding path took about fifteen minutes. When he arrived, he stood at the bottom of the winding path and looked up towards the mountain. Zi Yuan said that the height of the mountain didn't matter, and that he should just pick any mountain in Tibet to climb. Apparently, the effects would be similar as long as the mountain had the same terrain as most mountains in Tibet. So he figured he would try to climb Mount Duonian first before he attempted to conquer Mount Everest.
Truth be told, he was hoping—no, pleading—that it wouldn't come to that. Maybe his opportunity to pass the Zhuji phase would come when he was in the middle of climbing Mount Duonian?
Speaking of which...
Zi Yuan had told him that his body would tell him when it was the right time to make an attempt to pass the Zhuji phase. She said that when the right time came, he would start feeling something, whatever this something was.
Li Yundong took a deep breath, then exhaled. He only had once chance left. One chance to pass the Zhuji phase. One chance to survive the divine punishment. One chance to reunite with Su Chan.
Li Yundong stepped onto the winding path and began his climb.
One chance. Just one.
Zhuji phase, here I come...
Chapter 168 The Living Buddha!
Halfway to the summit, something caught Li Yundong's attention. A group of pilgrims and tourists were gathered into a crowd about fifty meters ahead.
Li Yundong stopped climbing and glanced towards the crowd, which consisted of approximately twenty people.
Li Yundong took another step, then hesitated.
Should he wait until the crowd dispersed before he keep climbing? Or should he just say screw it and get on with his journey. He took out his map from his pocket and studied it for a moment. There was only one trail leading to the summit. He folded the map and sighed.
I should hang back for now.
It was best to avoid drawing too much attention to himself.
Maybe the crowd would move on if he waited for a—
A loud, high-pitched wail drew his gaze towards the crowd.
Li Yundong frowned. What the heck is going on over there? Is there trouble? Was this the universe's way of saying: Hey! Get your lazy ass over to Mount Everest now!
Li Yundong channeled his Qi to his Shenting, then activated his telescopic vision. He saw the monks first. The monks looked like they were standing around something... or someone? A few monks were spinning some kind of strange cylindrical objects on spindles. Wait a minute. He recognized those things! Those were prayer wheels.
Is this some kind of ritual?
The monks were surrounded by a bunch of tourists. The tourists appeared to be far less stoic than the monks. They were gesturing at something that Li Yundong couldn't see because it was hidden from his view by the monks' bodies.
Noises filled his ears the moment he activated Eryue.
The monks were chanting some kind of mantra. Amidst the chanting, Li Yundong heard the sobbing of a girl. The girl stopped sobbing once ever few seconds to utter something in a foreign language, which, if he were to venture a guess, was probably Lhasa Tibetan.
The girl's voice sounded like a plea.
What the hell?
Li Yundong scanned the crowd with his eyes. He didn't see any crying girl.
It hit him then that the girl must be hidden from view by the monks.
"Make way! Make way!" a dark-haired Chinese woman with a large backpack yelled. The tourists moved about, and the Chinese woman squeezed her way through the crowd. When she reached the monks, the Chinese woman gently tapped the shoulder of one of the monks, then whispered something in Tibetan. Seconds later, all the monks stepped aside to allow the Chinese woman to go through.
Li Yundong saw the source of the commotion right then.
A teenage girl dressed in traditional Tibetan costume was sitting on the ground, sniveling weakly. Cradled in her arms was an unconscious old man dressed in a red and yellow robe.
Li Yundong zoomed in closer on the old man's face, which was deeply wrinkled. The man's forehead was covered in dark callouses. Strange.
When he scanned the rest of the old man's body, Li Yundong noticed that he, like the pilgrims he'd seen earlier, was wearing gloves. Scratches and dry scabs covered the man's knees and chest.
This old man, it seemed, was a pilgrim. Even though he appeared to be in his eighties. For a moment there, Li Yundong was stunned by the old man's devotion.
But still. What on earth happened? Did the old man pass out during his pilgrimage? And why wasn't anyone trying to help the man?
A horrifying thought hit him. Was the old man dead?
The dark-haired Chinese woman crouched down and touched the sobbing teenager's shoulder. The woman muttered something in Tibetan to the girl.
To Li Yundong's surprised, the girl answered the woman in perfect Mandarin. "Changbagela collapsed during his pilgrimage! Oh, he's leaving me isn't he! He's leaving me to go to Buddha!"
The teenager buried her face into the old man's robe and continued sobbing.
The Chinese woman seemed taken aback by the girl's outburst. But she quickly recovered and touched the girl's shoulder again. "What is your name, young girl?"
"Okay, Meiduo," said the woman gently. "Is he Changbagela?" She pointed at the old man in the girl's arms.
The girl nodded.
The woman shook the girl's shoulder. "Alright listen, Meiduo. You see those two men over there?" The woman pointed towards two Caucasian men in sunglasses standing among the group of tourists.
Meiduo nodded feebly. "W- Who are they?"
The woman gave Meiduo a compassionate smile. "They are experienced mountain climbers and hikers. And I'm their tour guide and translator."
Meiduo glanced over at the two men warily. The two men removed their sunglasses and waved back at the girl. Meiduo turned and gave Miss Tour Guide a hopeful look. "Can they help Changbagela?"
Miss Tour Guide smiled. "Like I said, they are experienced mountain climbers. So they know a great deal about first aid. Do you want them to take a look at Changbagela?"
Meiduo nodded fervently.
Miss Tour Guide turned and waved at the two Caucasians, who hurried towards the woman seconds later. The tour guide said a few things to the foreigners who nodded grimly. One of the men walked over towards Meiduo, then bent down to say something to her in English.
"He said not to worry. He'll try his best to help your friend."
The Caucasian man, a buff-looking dude with dark brown hair, rose to his feet and crouched down beside the unconscious old man, then began to take the old man's pulse. A grim look formed on the foreigner's face, but he didn't seem like he was giving up yet. Li Yundong spent the next few minutes watching the man perform CPR on the old man. Eventually, foreigner stood up and shook his head at the tour guide.
The tour guide crouched down and patted the Meiduo's shoulder.
"I'm very sorry, Meiduo. Your friend has passed. There is nothing we can do."
Meiduo's high-pitched wails grew so loud that Li Yundong had to deactivate his super hearing to avoid going deaf.
Li Yundong's eyes never left the crowd. The monks closed in again after the tour guide and her two foreign companions moved away from Meiduo.
Something gnawed at Li Yundong's insides. Should he go over there and help the man? It wasn't the first time he'd revived a person with his Qi. He did it for John and President Cao. Shouldn't he at least try to help the old man?
Zi Yuan's warning echoed inside his head: keep to yourself... minimize human contact...
Li Yundong looked towards the crowd again. Some of the tourists had already left the crowd. Meiduo was still down on the ground, crying her hearts out. Meiduo reminded so much of Su Chan right now. The way she was crying over the loss of someone dear to her…
Li Yundong lowered his backpack and pulled out a dark towel. Stealth be damned. He would not stand by and watch someone die without doing something to help. If he walked away right now, he'd be no different than all those hypocritical Cultivators whom he loathed.
Li Yundong lifted the towel and wrapped it around his neck like a bandana mask. Once he was sure that his face was covered below his eyes, he stood up and sprinted towards the crowd.
Smelling like shit definitely had its perks. One of it was that people would make way for him without him having to say anything. The crowd parted to two sides the moment he got close. The remaining tourists covered their noses and gave him wary looks. It was like he had the bubonic plague or something. Li Yundong ignored the looks and whispers and walked on.
The monks paused their chanting and turned around to regard him. Kudos to these monks because they didn't even flinch when they saw him.
Li Yundong stopped in front of the monks and gestured with his hand: make way please, I'm trying to save a guy's life here.
The monks stepped aside without question, much to his relief. Li Yundong stepped past the monks and walked towards Meiduo and the fallen old man slowly.
Shouts erupted around Li Yundong as he approached Meiduo. The people were shouting in Lhasa Tibetan, so he couldn't understand a single word they were saying. But judging from their tone, these people were probably cursing at him. Meiduo turned around abruptly before he even got close. Maybe it was his smell.
Wariness shone through Meiduo's eyes as she regarded him. Ignoring the shouts and looks of disdain cast his way, Li Yundong moved past Meiduo and crouched down beside the old man.
"Hey!! What are you doing?!" Meiduo shouted in Mandarin. "Don't touch Changbagela! His spirit has gone to see the Buddha. You're not allowed to touch his body!"
Li Yundong looked up Meiduo, who had already stopped crying and was now scowling at him. He smiled even though he knew the girl couldn't possibly see his smile behind the towel covering his face.
"B- Back away from Changbagela!" Meiduo yelled, glaring at him.
The Tibetans began to shout again.
Li Yundong gave the girl a reassuring look. At least he hoped it looked reassuring. He reached out with his hand and touched the top of the old man's head—the Baihui.
The shouts and yells grew louder, but Li Yundong ignored them. Instead, he focused on channeling his Qi into the old man's body. Once a portion of his Qi was inside the old man's body, Li Yundong closed his eyes and performed a skill he'd learned when he passed the 7th dan of the Lianqi phase—Neiguan.
Blobs of colors appeared in his mind's eye. The blobs were dim and faint, but still present. The old man still had Qi in his five Zangs. There was still hope for this old man yet. Li Yundong smirked and opened his eyes. It seemed like the Buddha wasn't planning on claiming this man's soul just yet.
Meiduo looked like she wanted to skin him alive. The Tibetan folks and tourists were still shouting and chewing his ass. Only the monks remained calm and stoic. A few of them were studying him curiously; others were sharing knowing looks with each other.
Li Yundong looked at the old man on the ground. He was confident that he could save this man, but he didn't want to risk the crowd seeing anything weird and start spreading rumors. God knows he started glowing later, and the next thing he knew, every Cultivator in the area was on his ass.
Li Yundong looked towards the monks, then jerked his chin towards the crowd. The monks stared at him, clearly not understanding what he meant. He pointed towards the crowd, then did a "go away" gesture. A moment later, Li Yundong pointed at the crowd again, then covered his eyes a few times. One of the monks, an older fellow, slapped his hands together. Then, the monk whispered something to his companions. Seconds later, the monks nodded at Li Yundong, then began making their way towards the crowd. The older monk walked towards Meiduo and pulled her away. When Meiduo protested, the monk whispered something to her. Meiduo calmed down instantly.
Li Yundong waited until the monks had ushered Meiduo and the crowd away before he got to work. He closed his eyes and gathered his Qi at his right palm. When he was about to touch the old man's Baihui again, Li Yundong hesitated. The patient was probably in his eighties. His body was weak and frail. Li Yundong closed his eyes again and increased the concentration of the Qi gathered at his palm. Moments later, he covered the old man's Baihui with his right palm and channeled his Qi into the old man's body.
Meiduo freed herself from the old monk's grasp and charged towards Changbagela, who was still lying on the ground. How dare that slovenly young man touch his body! How dare he! Where was he anyway? Meiduo kneeled down beside Changbagela and scanned the area with her eyes. She followed the mountain trail ahead until she located the young man, who was continuing his climb as though nothing happened. Anger surged in Meiduo. What a disrespectful and vile—
There was the loud gasp. Meiduo tore her gaze away from the young man was nearly overwhelmed with joy when she saw Changbagela's chest moving.
"Changbagela!! Wake up! Please... Wake up!"
The crowd was around them in an instant, yelling and screaming for Changbagela to wake up.
Seconds later, Changbagela released a long sigh and opened his eyes.
A scream of joy tore out of Meiduo lips. "Changbagela!" She threw herself into Changbagela's arms. "I thought you were gone! You scared me!"
Changbagela pushed himself into a sitting position. "W- Why am I here? I thought..." Changbagela shook his head like he was confused. "I thought just now I..."
"What?" Meiduo asked.
"I..." Changbagela stared into Meiduo's eyes. "I saw a living Buddha. The Buddha was about to enlighten me and take me to Sukhavati, the Western Paradise. But all of a sudden... I'm back here."
A ruckus erupted among the crowd.
"Changbagela! You saw Buddha?"
"What did he look like?"
"How was the Buddha planning to enlighten you?"
Changbagela nodded. "Yes. I saw a living Buddha!"
Chapter 169 Mister Han Chinese
Changbagela's words threw the crowd into an uproar. Meiduo stared down at her old companion, stunned by the gravity of his words.
"What! Changbagela! Did you really encounter a Living Buddha?"
"Hey, I think it's totally possible! Remember what Jeepgela said? He mentioned that we can actually have encounters with gods and Buddhas during near-death experiences!"
"But... I don't get it. How did Changbagela come back to life then? He stopped breathing for so long!"
"H- Hey... Do you think the Living Buddha saved his life? He said he saw a Living Buddha, right?"
"Whoa... I think you might be right!"
"But what's the deal with that strange young man? First, he touched Changbagela's head, then he asked us to turn away. Then a few minutes later, Changbagela came back to life!"
"H- Hey... Do you think that young man is... you know... the Living Buddha Changbagela saw?"
"Pfft! No! That's ridiculous! The young man is a Han Chinese! How can a Han Chinese be a Buddha!"
Changbagela's voice shook Meiduo out of her stupor.
"You're all wrong," Changbagela said. "The Buddha said that everyone is born equal. It doesn't matter whether you are a Tibetan or a Han Chinese. Anyone has the potential to reach enlightenment."
The uproar died down instantly.
"Meiduo..." Changbagela said, reaching out a hand to her.
Meiduo went into panic mode in an instant. "No! Changbagela! You shouldn't move around. You nearly died, Changbagela! Please, you need to rest!"
Changbagela burst into laughter. "Nonsense. I feel fine. In fact, I feel great! I haven't felt this good in twenty years!"
Changbagela placed his palms on the ground and struggled to stand up. Meiduo hurried over to help him up.
"Meiduo... What really happened?" Changbagela whispered into Meiduo's ear once he was up on his feet.
"What do you remember, Changbagela?"
"I remember passing out in the middle of the pilgrimage... After that, I saw a Living Buddha standing behind me, guiding me towards enlightenment."
Meiduo could feel her own eyes growing wide. To have a chance to encounter a Living Buddha... Wow.
Suddenly, Meiduo remembered something.
"Changbagela!" Meiduo nudged Changbagela, then pointed at the two foreigners and the tour guide. "They took your pulse and tried to resuscitate you." Meiduo's lips trembled. "They told us you died."
Changbagela turned towards the foreigners and the tour guide, then pressed his palms together. Changbagela bowed. "Tashi delek. Thuk je che. You have my sincere gratitude for your kindness." (T/N: Thuk je che is Tibetan for 'thank you" and Tashi delek is a form of Tibetan greeting)
The tour guide said a few words to the foreigners. She was probably translating Changbagela's words to them. A moment later, the foreigners mimicked Changbagela's gesture and bowed.
Changbagela straightened himself. "Everyone was saying that a young man saved my life. Is there any truth to the claim?"
Meiduo looked towards the mountain trail again.
The young man was long gone.
Meiduo returned her gaze to Changbagela. "Yes. There was a young man. He came out of nowhere dressed like a beggar. He had long hair and was carrying a large backpack. The bottom part of his face was covered by a dark cloth, but his eyes were sharp. He was barefoot and... Oh! Um… Some kind of long object was sticking out of his backpack, but it was also covered with a piece of cloth. Anyway, he came over and then touched your head for a moment. Then, he asked everyone to turn away while he did something to you. I don't know what he did, but he got you to start breathing again—"
"Meiduo! Where is this man?!" Changbagela asked with a fervor that was uncharacteristic to him. He seemed really riled up all of a sudden.
Meiduo frowned and pointed towards the mountain trail. "He followed the path towards the summit, Changbagela."
Changbagela sighed and stomped his foot. "Oh, Meiduo... Have you forgotten everything I thought you?! Why didn't you ask him to stay? He is the Living Buddha I saw!"
"W- What? C- Changbagela... A- Are you sure?" Meiduo stammered.
Changbagela closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Of course I'm sure. Your description of him was a perfect match for the Living Buddha I saw!" Changbagela exhaled and began chanting a mantra to calm himself.
"But he's a Han Chinese! How can he be a Living Buddha?" someone from the crowd yelled.
Changbagela stopped chanting and glanced towards the source of the voice. "I was about to die. But this man pressed a palm over my head and brought me back to life. Not even Master Dorjee Tenzin is capable of something like that!" Changbagela started to pace around, then stopped. "No, no, no. That young man must be a Living Buddha. He has to be."
Whispers and hushed voices washed over the crowd. Meiduo followed Changbagela's movements. He seemed worried, like he was thinking hard about something.
The whispers in the crowd continued.
"But a Han Chinese... How can a Han Chinese be a Living Buddha?"
"Well... It doesn't really matter, does it? Like it or not, you can't deny that the young man saved Changbagela's life."
"Yeah... Maybe he is some kind of sage among the Han Chinese…"
Meiduo turned away from the crowd and looked towards Changbagela again.
"Changbagela," Meiduo said, grabbing the old man's arm to stop him from pacing. "Should you really be moving around so much?"
Changbagela waved off her concerns. "I'm fine, I'm fine..."
"What's on your mind?" Meiduo asked carefully.
"I'm facing a major dilemma, Meiduo..."
"Tell me what's bothering you. Maybe I can help."
"It's impossible for us find him now..."
"Oh! But I know which way he went!"
"That's not the problem, Meiduo..." Changbagela sighed.
"That what is?" Meiduo asked.
"Tell me, Meiduo. How is it possible for us to catch up to him if we have to kowtow once every three steps we take?"
"Oh," Meiduo answered lamely.
"But this sacred ritual is an important part of the pilgrimage. Failure in its observance is a serious disrespect to Buddha." Changbagela sighed. "There are consequences, Meiduo. If we abandon the ritual, we'll never be able to reach enlightenment after we die."
There was a moment of silence.
Then, Meiduo jumped slightly. "Oh, I know!"
Changbagela gave her a puzzled look.
"Oh, Changbagela… He's headed for the summit, remember? Which means he'll pass by Kathok Monastery! He's probably going to rest there, and who knows? He might still be there when we arrive!"
Hope spread across Changbagela's face. "Oh... That's a wonderful idea..." Changbagela suddenly gave her a stern look. "Meiduo... Why didn't you stop him from leaving in the first place? It isn't like you to behave like this. I taught you better than that." Changbagela narrowed his eyes. "I doubt it's just because he is a Han Chinese either. There was something else, wasn't there?"
Meiduo lowered her gaze, then shook her head sheepishly. "U- Umm... H- He smelled kinda bad... And h- he looked kinda dirty..."
"Y- You!" Changbagela gaped at her for several seconds. "How many times have I told you not to judge a book by its cover?! Have you forgotten all about Buddha's teachings? Everyone is born equal! And we should never judge a person's value by their status, wealth, appearance, or even their cleanliness! Look at how you've treated the kind man? And yet you call yourself my disciple? You should be ashamed of yourself!" Changbagela paused to glare at her. "Do you know that the great Buddha himself was once a beggar?"
Hot tears stung Meiduo's eyes as guilt and remorse stabbed through her. She sniffed, then reached out to grab Changbagela's arm. "P- Please don't be mad, Changbagela. Y- You just came back from the dead, and I'm worried about your health. I'm sorry for what I did, and I will repent. Oh! And I'll apologize to that young man if we run into him later!"
"And what if we don't run into him? What then?" Changbagela answered in a sharp tone, then wagged his finger in front of her face. "Mark my words, Meiduo. If we don't run into him later, you'll never be able to make up for your sins. You'll suffer the laws of Karma!"
Something wet slid down Meiduo's cheeks. She sniffed and quickly turned her face away from the crowd. She didn't want to appear weak in front of the others.
"I think you should go easy on Meiduo, Changbagela," someone from the crowd said while Meiduo was busy dabbing her eyes with her sleeve. "You have no idea how hard she cried for you when we thought you were dead just now."
"Yeah, that's right, that's right! We might still run into the young man if we hurry now!"
"And what if we don't?" Changbagela asked sternly.
The crowd grew quiet. Meiduo sniffed and turned around back around to face Changbagela and everyone else. Time to stop feeling sorry for herself and atone for her errors.
"They're right, Changbagela," she said, smiling brightly. "We shouldn't give up hope. Didn't Buddha teach us that too?"
Meiduo sighed inwardly when Changbagela's features softened. He turned to face the trail leading up to Mount Duonian's summit, then pressed his palms together. When Changbagela kneeled to the ground and kowtowed, the message was clear: let's get on with the journey. Behind her, the crowd fell to their knees and mirrored Changbagela's gesture. After one last glance at Changbagela, Meiduo lowered herself to the ground.
Jack stared after the group of pilgrims who were now continuing their journey towards the summit. Changbagela, the old lama who, just moments ago, had no pulse, was now alive and well, leading the pilgrims up the mountain trail. Jack had been on hundreds of dangerous expeditions, conquered several mountains, and waded through more forests than he could count on one hand, yet he'd never seen something like this today.
How did that beggar do it? How did he bring the old man back to life?
The old man was dead, Jack was absolutely sure of it!
Someone nudged Jack's shoulder. He turned and saw his travel companion, Ruben, staring back at him. "Dude, are you sure the guy was dead when you checked?"
Jack scowled at Ruben. "Who do you think I am, eh? Some amateur? Of course I'm sure! He had no pulse! And he wasn't breathing for more than 10 minutes!"
Ruben raised his palms. "Gee. Chill. I was just asking. No need to bite my head off."
Jack shook his head and turned to Miss Liu Xia, their lovely tour guide.
"Miss Liu, does this kind of thing happen very often in China?"
Liu Xia shook her head. "Not that I know of. This is my first time seeing something like this too."
"Holy shit, dude..." Ruben said. "How did he do it? If the old man really was dead like Jack said..." Ruben raised his palms again when Jack glared at him. "Then there's no way to bring him back to life! What about brain death? Surely there would be brain damage if the guy wasn't breathing for over ten minutes! But the old man just got up and walked it off like it was nothing. What the heck?"
Jack shook his head in awe. "And all the guy did was touch the old man's head..."
"Ah... But we don't know what else he did," Liu Xia said. "He asked us to turn around, remember?"
"Argh..." Ruben scratched his hair, then glared at Jack. "We would be watching a video recording right now if somebody here had the good sense to put his fancy digital camera to good use."
"Hey!" Jack protested. "I was busy trying to save a guy's life, Ruben! I forgot, okay?"
"Whatever man," Ruben said with a dismissive wave. "Miss Liu, those pilgrims were talking a lot just now. What were they saying?"
"Oh. They were planning to go after the young man. The girl suggested that the guy might make a pit stop at Kathok Monastery, so they might still be able to catch up to him if they hurry."
Jack shared a glance with Ruben, who was now grinning like a Cheshire cat.
"Then what are we waiting for?" Ruben said. "Let's go, let's go! Chop, chop! I have a feeling that the show is far from over. And for God's sake, Jack, use that digital camera of yours."
Li Yundong slowed his steps and massaged his chest a few times. Something weird was happening. He'd been experiencing this strange tightness inside his chest since ten minutes ago, like something was squeezing his lungs from the inside.
Li Yundong stopped walking and sat down on the ground, then leaned backwards until his back touched the rough surface of a tree trunk.
What the hell is happening?
Was it something in the air?
Bullshit. The air was here fresh and healthy.
It had to be something else, something that was causing this stifling feeling inside his chest.
Did he lose his Qi when he saved the old monk just now?
Nah. That couldn't be right. He'd made sure to return his Qi into his body every time. Su Chan had basically drilled that into him since she started teaching him about Cultivation. Li Yundong rested his head against the rough tree bark. He shut his eyes and let himself breathe.
Maybe I'm just tired...
Yeah. He was probably just tired.
Ten minutes later, the sensation intensified. Now it felt like an invisible weight was pressing down on his chest. F*ck... What the hell's wrong with me... He struggled to his feet, leaning his whole weight against the tree trunk. Don't panic, don't panic... Then, he remembered something. He closed his eyes and moved his Qi to his Baihui, Lingtai, Shenting, and Huiyin.
Calmness washed over him, but the weird sensation was still there. Which meant the sensation had nothing to do with his state of mind.
Li Yundong exhaled slowly and tried to think. Is this a spell? Is there an enemy nearby?
Li Yundong activated Xianjue.
Nothing. He couldn't feel or predict any threats. But it could mean that the enemy had a stronger Spirit. That thought brought chills down Li Yundong's spine. Alright, stay calm...
Li Yundong activated Eryue and sorted through the ambient noise. He heard rhythmic footsteps and whispers of prayers. The footsteps were uniform. Three steps, then a thud, like they were kneeling down. Then another thud, but this time softer. Then the rustling of clothes, like a group of people standing up. Li Yundong immediately knew what it was—a kowtow. The pilgrims. He was hearing the march of the pilgrims.
There was another sound. Chatter. A few people were having a conversation, and it sounded like English.
Must be the foreigners just now...
Li Yundong sighed. This was pointless. He deactivated Eryue and scanned his surroundings: winding mountain path... trees... more trees.
He should lay low. If an enemy was lurking nearby, then he shouldn't be out in the open. It was too dangerous. Someone could ambush him and he doubted he would even stand a chance. Not in this state, where he was hungry and exhausted.
But where should he hide? Should he climb to the top of a tree and hide there?
Li Yundong activated his telescopic vision and gazed at the mountain path ahead. He zoomed and zoomed until—
There was a bulding. A temple.
Li Yundong sighed in relief. That could work. He could hide inside the temple, and maybe take a few hours' break. He zoomed out and broke off into a sprint. The tightness inside his chest amplified. Li Yundong gritted his teeth and soldiered on. Come on, come on... just run. Don't give up.
The temple's facade grew larger and larger.
When he finally reached the temple, he was completely out of breath and panting for dear life. What the hell was going on? Just yesterday, he could run around for days without feeling out of breath, and now this?
His chest squeezed violently. Li Yundong gasped and fisted the front of his shirt. Something was seriously wrong with his body—the Qis of his five Zangs were drawn out on their own and was now charging along his meridians towards his upper Dantian.
Was is time to make his attempt to pass the Zhuji phase? Was this what Zi Yuan meant when she told him that he would know when it was the right time?
But why was there this feeling of doubt niggling at the back of his mind?
No. This didn't make sense. Zi Yuan mentioned that the ideal state of mind to pass the Zhuji phase was when he was free from all worldly troubles. Right now it didn't feel like he was free from worldly troubles at all. If anything, he felt like he was in a world of trouble.
There was some kind of… of mysterious force.
And this force was somehow capable of messing up his Qi flow.
He detected movement in front of him. He raised his gaze and studied the front of the temple.
That was when he saw it.
Hovering above the temple's rooftop was a golden apparition of a fierce-looking arhat.
There was a bright flash of gold.
Next thing he knew, the apparition was charging straight at him.
Chapter 170 Mahakala
The only thoughts running inside Li Yundong's mind at that moment were: run; flee for your life.
So he did.
He leaped to the side, not caring where the golden apparition was. His knees scraped against something rough when they hit the ground.
Then, he scrambled to his feet and ran.
The temple. He had to get to the temple.
He channeled more Qi into his legs and pumped his legs harder.
Somehow, the strange feeling inside his chest had spread to his entire body. Some kind of invisible force or pressure was squeezing his body from all sides. It was as though something was trying to flatten him and forcibly fit him into some kind of two-dimensional flatland.
What the f*ck is this shit?
Li Yundong gasped, and before he knew it, his knees hit the ground again. This time, he couldn't even get up.
He gasped for air and started to crawl his way towards the temple. His eyes darted around their sockets, scanning the area for more threats.
He didn't see the golden apparition anywhere. Was it gone?
Come on... Move... Move!
He reached forward to grab hold of something. Anything.
Something tickled his palm. He opened his eyes and realized that he had just grabbed a fistful of grass. Damn it. He wasn't even facing the right direction. He pulled back his hand and re-oriented himself on the ground.
Don't give up... Don't you dare give up!
Li Yundong growled and mobilized more Qi from his lower Dantian.
The pressure squeezing against his body grew stronger the moment he did that.
Su Chan... Think of Su Chan...
Li Yundong fought back against the pressure with everything he got. Alas, it seemed like the more he struggled, the stronger the pressure grew.
"Damn it!" He slammed his palms against the ground and tried to push himself up.
Suddenly, he heard a whisper.
"Do not harbor hostile intentions..."
The voice sounded feeble and frail, like the voice of an old man.
"Malevolence fuels its power. Rein in your Qi, young man."
Li Yundong gave up the struggle right then and guided his Qi back to his lower Dantian. The effect was almost instantaneous—the pressure vanished and he felt like he could breathe again.
Li Yundong rose to his feet and scanned his surroundings. The temple lay about thirty meters ahead. Trees lined both sides of the inclined path. He didn't see any old man around. Nor did he see the golden apparition of the arhat.
He sighed in relief.
He wondered who gave him the tip just now.
Li Yundong shook his head and forged on. Better get inside that temple before the attacker returns…
He made it to the temple in a couple of minutes.
He stood in front of the temple and studied its facade for a while. The temple was quiet and peaceful, almost idyllic. Beside the temple were shops selling incense, food, and drinks. Li Yundong directed his gaze to another corner and saw several hoses scattered around. Beyond the hoses were several water faucets.
Seems like a good place to rest and stay overnight…
He approached the steps leading up to the temple and lowered his backpack onto one of the steps. Then, he sat down to take a much-needed break.
It was almost nightfall by the time Meiduo and her fellow pilgrims arrived at Kathok Monastery. Light from the temple pierced through the darkness of their surroundings, illuminating their path. Meiduo smiled at the metaphorical significance: the path towards enlightenment.
The smell of incense greeted Meiduo as they approached the temple's facade. Wisps of white smoke swirled around them. The rhythmic sounds of Tibetan drums drifted from inside the temple with chants of mantras forming a soothing background noise. Meiduo closed her eyes and spent a brief moment to soak it all in. This was home.
The head of Kathok Monastery was a close acquaintance of Changabela. After Changbagela exchanged a few pleasantries with the head, the rest of the pilgrims went about their own business. Everyone seemed tired and weary after the long journey. Some sat on the stairs, chatting with their companions. Others picked a spot and lay down on the ground to get some shut-eye. Meiduo scanned the crowd for Changbagela. She found him sitting on one of the steps, staring up into the sky with both hands hugging his knees. Meiduo walked over and sat down beside him. The moon shone down at them from the clear sky.
After a while, Changbagela broke the comfortable silence. "Meiduo..."
She turned to regard the old man. "Yes, Changbagela?"
"Are you angry at me for yelling at you in front of the others?"
Meiduo shook her head. "No, Changbagela. I think you were right in everything you said. I shouldn't judge a person's worth by their appearance." She sighed. "Looks like I still have a long way to go towards enlightenment."
Changbagela said nothing after that and kept staring at the sky.
Minutes later, Meiduo detected movement from the corner of her eyes. She turned and squinted through the darkness. She caught a glimpse of dark, shaggy, shoulder-length hair spread across a set of broad shoulders. The man disappeared around the corner a split second later. Meiduo sprang to her feet. "I- It's him!"
Changbagela stared up at her. "What?"
Meiduo reached down and pulled Changbagela's arm. "He's here! The Han Chinese who saved your life!"
Meiduo tugged Changbagela's arm until he was up on his feet.
"Where? Where is he!"
Meiduo pointed at the corner of the temple. "I saw him rounding that corner!" she said, then began to pull Changbagela in that direction. "Come on, Changbagela! Let's go!"
They rounded the corner in record time and walked on for a few more seconds. Meiduo helped Changbagela stepped over a bunch of tangled hoses, then continued forward. They reached another corner, by which time they could hear the sound of running water. Maybe he was taking a drink—
Meiduo blushed the moment she and Changbagela walked around the corner. The Han Chinese was completely naked as he stood in front of the faucet. Under the moonlight, the sharp planes of the man's muscular back gleamed at them. Meiduo blushed even harder and turned away.
Changbagela patted her shoulders and said, "Let's give him some privacy."
Meiduo fought down the burn in her cheeks and nodded meekly.
After that, the two of them retreated around the corner and waited. A while later, the sound of the water stopped. Meiduo shared a glance with Changbagela.
Changbagela shook his head gently. "Not yet," he whispered. "He still needs to get dressed."
Meiduo flushed again. It seemed like her common sense had left her tonight.
When the Han Chinese man didn't show after twenty minutes, Meiduo began to worry. Surely it wouldn't take that long to get dressed.
Had the man left?
Meiduo shot a worried glance at Changbagela, whose lips were moving as he spun a prayer bead in his right hand.
Meiduo shifted forward and shook Changbagela's knee.
Changbagela opened his eyes a second later. "Hmm?"
"Shall we take a look? It's been nearly twenty minutes."
Changbagela got to his feet. "Sure."
They walked around the corner again.
Relief coursed through Meiduo when she saw that the young man was still there.
However, her relief was short-lived.
Something strange was happening. Something really, really strange. Like supernatural.
The young Han Chinese appeared to be meditating. Dust and leaves spiraled around him as though he was the center of a tornado. Then, something even stranger happened. A jet of white, gas-like substance shot out from his mouth. The white jet travelled forward for over ten meters before it ran into a huge rock and vanished in a puff of white smoke.
All of a sudden, the young man sprang to his feet and cocked his fist back. A split second later, the air in front of him exploded in a soundless clap. The ground trembled under Meiduo's feet as some kind of shockwave shot out from the man's fist. The ground shook again when the shockwave slammed into the giant rock ten meters away, releasing a muffled crack.
Meiduo turned sideways to look at Changbagela.
Changbagela wasn't looking at her, but she could tell that the old man was in shock.
When Meiduo looked to the front again, the young man was nowhere to be seen.
Meiduo turned to Changbagela. "Hey, where did he—"
Changbagela was already making his way towards the rock.
Meiduo hurried after Changbagela.
Seconds later, they were both staring at a deep imprint of a fist buried several inches deep into the rock.
"Mahakala..." Changbagela mumbled.
Meiduo turned her head sharply. She gaped at Changbagela, too stunned to speak.
Changbagela closed his eyes and pressed his palms together. "Amitabha... We have just encountered the living reincarnation of Mahakala. The great Dharma Protector. The Defender of the Law. The Lord of Justice."
Meiduo shook herself out of her stupor right then.
Mahakala. One of the most powerful gods known in Tibetan Buddhism. The god with three faces and six arms...
Before Meiduo could open her mouth to speak, a cold voice sounded behind her.
"What are you two planning? Why were you following me?"
Li Yundong stared at startled faces of the young girl and the old man. He had heard their whispers with Eryue while he was washing himself earlier and had decided to confront them.
The girl was still in shock when the old monk recovered his composure.
"Well?" Li Yundong said sternly. "State your purpose! Why were you following me!"
Suddenly, the old monk lowered himself to the ground and prostrated himself before Li Yundong.
Alarm coursed through Li Yundong. "Hey! What the—"
"Hail, great Lord of Justice, Mahakala!" said the old monk. "I thank you for saving my life!"
Li Yundong moved forward and quickly pulled the old man to his feet. "Please rise, old sir. This isn't necessary."
The old monk grabbed Li Yundong's hands. "Thank you, my lord."
Li Yundong smiled. "You don't have to thank me, sir. Any decent human being would've done something to help."
"But still... My lord—"
"I prefer Li Yundong, thanks."
The old monk stared at him for a few awkward moments.
"You have my utmost gratitude, then, Mr. Li."
Then, the old man nudged the girl with his elbow.
"Meiduo!" he hissed. "What are you standing around for? Say something!"
The girl's eyes cleared a little.
She stepped forward and gave Li Yundong a bow.
"I am terribly sorry for the way I've treated you today," she said shyly. "I shouldn't have yelled at you. And I should've at least tried to properly thank you after you brought Changbagela back to life."
Li Yundong nodded. "You're welcome."
Changbagela stroked his long, white beard. "If you don't mind me asking, Mr. Li, are you here for a vacation? Or are you here for some other purpose?"
Li Yundong regarded the old man warily. What should he tell them? After a moment of thought, he decided to answer with the truth but keep his answer vague.
"This trip is part of my training."
"I see, I see!" Changbagela said pensively. Suddenly, Changbagela beamed at Li Yundong. "Well, I'm leading a group of people on a pilgrimage to the summit. You can join our group if you like?"
Li Yundong rubbed the back of his neck. "Well... I'd like to, but you see... I'm kinda in a hurry... And you guys... Well…"
Kowtowing once every three steps didn't exactly fit the definition of "hurry" no matter how he looked at it.
"Come on… You don't actually think we have to perform the kowtow ritual for the whole journey, do you?" Changbagela said as though he'd read Li Yundong's mind.
When Li Yundong didn't answer, Changbagela laughed and waved his hand casually. "We don't actually have to do that. The ritual is only necessary when we are near the foot of the holy mountain." Changbagela laughed harder. "Come on, the whole journey is more than 100 kilometers long! Most of us would die of head traumas if we kowtowed all the way up."
Li Yundong burst into laughter.
"Am I right, Meiduo?" Changbagela nudged the girl again.
"Yep! Yep!" Meiduo nodded with zest. "Changbagela is right. Besides, we could use some protection."
Li Yundong raised a brow. "Protection? From what?"
Meiduo stared at Li Yundong as though he'd grown three heads. "Wolves, of course!"
Meiduo nodded again. "Mm-hmm! This mountain is filled with them!"
Li Yundong tried his best not to gape.
Wolves. He'd been running around in a mountain full of wolves, and he hadn't a single f*cking clue.
Li Yundong cleared his throat. "Umm… That's… that's good to know."
"Like I said, you can protect us from wolves," Meiduo said. "And in return, we can be your guide towards the summit. It is very easy to get lost as you go further along this path."
Li Yundong studied the pair for a moment. Should he accept the offer? Or was this too big of a risk?
Argh. Screw it.
Li Yundong sighed. "Fine."
Chapter 171 Tantric Secrets!
Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of two male lamas, who were carrying a lantern each.
Li Yundong would've given the lamas some kind of polite greeting if they weren't shouting at them in Lhasa Tibetan.
Alarm coursed through Li Yundong. However, Changbagela placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder and stepped forward to greet the lamas before Li Yundong could make himself scarce.
Tibetan words spilled from Changbagela's lips: something, something Changbagela; something, something, Danba (was that someone's name?) something, something.
The two lamas moved in closer towards them and raised their lanterns. One of them laughed and called out Changbagela's name. More conversation in Tibetan ensued. Then, the lama shone his lantern at Meiduo.
The lama gasped in surprise. "Meiduo?"
Meiduo bowed at the two lamas and gave each one of them a polite greeting. Brief pleasantries were exchanged between Meiduo and the lamas before the lanterns were directed at Li Yundong's face.
Looks of suspicion spread across the lamas' faces.
One of the lama said something in Tibetan. His tone sounded hostile.
Maybe I should make a run for it…
Changbagela laughed and gave Li Yundong's shoulder a friendly pat. Then, Changbagela spoke to the lama in Tibetan.
Li Yundong sighed inwardly when the looks of suspicion fell away from the lamas' faces. The two lamas gave him respectful nods before turning back to Changbagela.
More words were exchanged between the monks.
A while later, Changbagela began to make several hand gestures as he spoke animatedly about something. It was like he was telling the lamas an epic story.
"What are they talking about?" Li Yundong asked Meiduo.
Meiduo smiled at him. "Changbagela was telling them about how you brought him back to life. Puqiong"—Meiduo pointed at the shorter lama of the pair—"is still skeptical. But I think Mima is starting to believe him."
Li Yundong smiled. "Nah. It's okay. I don't really care whether they believe it or not. So long as they don't punish me for sneaking into the temple..."
Suddenly, the conversation in Tibetan halted.
Mima—the taller lama—was now staring at him in shock.
"Y- You sneaked into the temple?" Mima asked in perfect Mandarin.
Li Yundong sighed. "Yeah... I figured I'd stay overnight at the temple before continuing my journey to the summit tomorrow." Li Yundong grimaced. "Is that a violation?"
"You cannot spend the night at Kathok Monastery without permission," said the second monk, Puqiong.
Puqiong's Mandarin sounded rather awkward. Li Yundong had to bit the inside of his cheek to stop himself from laughing at Puqiong's weird pronunciation.
Li Yundong nodded. "Alright. I understand. I apologize for the intrusion." Li Yundong bowed his head slightly. "It really wasn't my intention to cause any trouble. And I definitely didn't mean any disrespect by my actions. I'll grab my things now and be on my way."
Li Yundong stepped around Meiduo and—
"Wait!" Changbagela grabbed Li Yundong's arm.
Li Yundong stopped walking and shot the old gentleman a questioning look.
"You are my savior, kind sir," Changbagela said, then gave Puqiong a pointed look. "And we Tibetans will never turn away those to whom we are beholden." Changbagela patted Li Yundong's arm a few times, then gave him a reassuring smile. "Give me a moment. The head of the monastery is a very good friend of mine. I shall speak to him and get this sorted in no time, don't you worry."
"Sir, um... Bhante Changbagela," Li Yundong said. "That's very kind of you. But it's really alright. I mean, I have to be on my way anyway, so..."
Changbagela tutted and tightened his grip on Li Yundong's arm. "Please, let me repay you for the kindness you've shown me. I'd never be able to live with myself if you walk away right now without at least giving me a chance to repay you."
Li Yundong opened his mouth to say something, but Meiduo beat him to it.
"Brother Li, I know you didn't get lost on your way up here, but trust me, this path gets even more confusing past this point. There aren't any sign boards or indications around to guide you. I really think it's best if you travel with us."
Li Yundong sighed and nodded. "Fine. But only if it's alright with the head of the monastery."
Changbagela brightened up. "Ah! Fret not, kind sir. I shall speak to him at once! Wait for my good news."
Changbagela gave Meiduo a pointed look, to which the girl answered with a nod.
Then, Changbagela waved at the two lamas. "Hurry up, you two! Bring me to Danba!"
Li Yundong watched as Changbagela left with the two lamas. He couldn't help but wonder if he had made a mistake in agreeing to stay. He still wasn't sure if anyone was following him. He might put the pilgrims at risk if he traveled with them. But still, he couldn't deny that Meiduo made a solid point.
He would end up wasting a lot of precious time if he got lost in the mountains.
"Don't worry, Brother Li," Meiduo said. "Changbagela and Danba are very good friends. They're like brothers. It'll all work out."
Li Yundong smiled. "Nah. I'm not worried about that at all. I can just camp out somewhere in the woods if it doesn't work out. That's what I've been doing for the past month anyway."
Meiduo suddenly went quiet. When Li Yundong looked at her, he noticed that the girl was studying his feet with interest.
"Brother Li..." Meiduo looked up from his feet, her eyes filled with shock and amazement. "Have you been travelling barefoot all this while?"
Li Yundong hesitated for a moment, then decided to answer the girl truthfully. "Yeah..."
Meiduo gaped at him. "B- But you don't have any blisters!"
Li Yundong smirked and said nothing. It wasn't like he could start explaining to the girl the nuances of Qi control.
"Where are you from, Brother Li?"
Li Yundong stared at the girl for a moment.
Meiduo blushed. "I- I mean it's totally okay if you don't want to tell me... It's really none of my business…"
Li Yundong smiled. "Tiannan City. Have you heard of the place?"
Meiduo perked up instantly. "Of course I've heard of it! It's a city far, far away from here." All of a sudden, she stopped talking and stared off into space. "It's more than 2000 kilometers away!"
Li Yundong nodded approvingly. "Wow. You even got the distance right."
Meiduo beamed proudly. "I know my geography!"
Li Yundong chuckled. "Impressive. I bow to your superior knowledge."
Meiduo's face was positively glowing at that point. "Hmph! I'm a top student in my school, so don't underestimate me!"
Li Yundong stifled a laugh. "Oh, no. Trust me, I wouldn't dare underestimate you. You sound like a far better student than I was."
She would agree if she saw his high school report cards.
"Um... Brother Li?"
"How old are you? Are you working now?"
Li Yundong smiled. "Nah. I'm a university student. I'm just twenty."
The astonished look on Meiduo's face almost seemed comical. "T- Twenty? But... But you look like you're in your early thirties!"
Gee. Way to make a guy feel young. Maybe it was the beard and the unruly hair.
"I can't believe you're only two years older than I am!" Meiduo continued. "Ooh! Guess what? Hehe. I'm applying for tertiary education next year!"
Li Yundong gave her a tiny smile. "Is that so? Which university?"
"Hmm..." Meiduo hesitated. "Actually, I'm not sure about that yet..." Meiduo's eyes sparkled. "Wait! Which university are you a student at, Brother Li?"
Li Yundong chuckled. "Tiannan University," he said, then waved dismissively. "But it's just a third-rate university. Not even worth mentioning."
"Hey! I know!" Meiduo jumped excitedly. "Why don't I apply to your university?"
Li Yundong shook his head grimly. "Nope. That would be a terrible idea."
Meiduo's face fell. "Why?"
Li Yundong gave her a strange look. "You're joking, right? I just told you that it's a third-rate university like, seconds ago."
"Is it really that bad?"
Images of Director Qian's obnoxious face popped up in his mind.
Yep. It really was that bad.
Li Yundong snorted. "It's not an ideal place for learning, that's for sure." Not with the likes of Professor Liu standing at the lectern. These so-called educators. Li Yundong gave Meiduo a pointed look. "Trust me, you'll just be wasting your talents if you come to Tiannan University."
Meiduo looked at him quizzically. "But you're a student there, Brother Li. And you seem like a decent guy." Meiduo shrugged. "How bad can it be?"
Li Yundong wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the question.
How bad can it be?
Famous last words.
"Danba! Danba! Are you awake!" Changbagela banged the door with his palm.
Nobody answered the door.
Changbagela knocked on the door again. "If you're already asleep, then wake up! We need to talk!"
Changbagela turned around to face Mima and Puqiong. "You two should wrap up your patrol and head back to bed."
Mima and Puqiong glanced at each other, thought they didn't move.
Changbagela sighed. "Just go. I'll handle things here."
Mima and Puqiong shared another glance, then headed back to their own quarters.
"Danba! Wake up! We need to—"
The wooden door swung open. "Come on, Changbagela! Why are you making so much noise at this hour? You might disturb the Buddha with your yelling."
Fear coursed through Changbagela. He turned sideways and gave the Buddha statue at the temple a deep bow. After that, he grabbed Danba by the arm. "This is an urgent matter, my friend."
"My, my. You really haven't changed at all, my friend. It's been what, several decades, and you're still so hot-headed." Danba gave him a wry smile and shook his head. "Come. Let's head inside so you can tell me about the matter so urgent that you'd risk the wrath of Buddha by making so much noise at His sacred temple in the middle of the night."
Changbagela followed Danba into his living quarters and then spent the next fifteen minutes recounting everything that happened in the last five hours, including how his life was saved by the man who was the living reincarnation of Mahakala.
"All he did was touch your head?" Danba asked in shock.
Changbagela nodded. "Indeed, my friend. That young man is the closest thing to a Living Buddha I've ever seen."
Danba sprang to his feet. "Where is he now? Bring me to him!"
Changbagela stood up and blocked Danba's path before he could reach the door. "Hold up, my friend. I'll bring you to see him, but you have to promise me one thing first."
"What is it?"
"Give him permission to stay overnight here at Kathok Monastery."
Danba laughed. "Is that all? Done! Now can we go?"
"Wait..." Changbagela said. "There's something else."
Danba sighed. "What is it this time?"
Changbagela schooled his features into a serious look. "Listen. That man saved my life. I wouldn't have the chance to complete my pilgrimage if it weren't for him. I want to repay him, but I have nothing to offer him at the moment."
Danba narrowed his eyes. "What do you want to borrow from me?"
"The Mahamudra Tantra!"
Chapter 172 Backfiring
Changbagela's heart sank when Danba answered his request with a head shake.
"No! Absolutely not! The Mahamudra Tantra is such an important scripture to us Tibetan Buddhists! And you want to give the original copy to an outsider? Are you out of your mind?" Danba glared at him. "And you call this borrowing?! This is giving the book away for free!!"
Annoyance flared inside Changbagela. "Have you forgotten the promise you made to me last time, Danba?" He raised his brows. "You promised to give me a full copy of the Mahamudra Tantra." Then, he smirked. "Whom I give it to afterwards is my choice."
Danba shook his head again. "Absolutely not. The Mahamudra Tantra is the Kathok Monastery's treasure, Changbagela. You can't just give it away to an outsider!"
Changbagela laughed. "What do you take me for, eh, Danba? An idiot?"
Danba narrowed his eyes. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Changbagela rolled his eyes. "I'm not blind, pal. I know you've been printing out copies of the Mahamudra Tantra and then selling those copies to tourists as souvenirs. Souvenirs! How's that any different?"
Silence spread between them. Changbagela felt a twinge of satisfaction when he saw the redness coloring the tip of Danba's ears.
"Come on. Those doesn't count!"
Changbagela's brows rose to his hairline. "I don't see how they don't count."
"Because those are—" Danba stopped talking and glanced around a few times. Then, he lowered his voice to a whisper. "Those are incomplete copies with all of the scripture's secrets removed."
Changbagela sighed in frustration. "Have you been listening to what I said?" He shot Danba an exasperated look. "I'm telling you, man. This guy isn't normal! He's extraordinary! He isn't just some... some... outsider. If anything, he's better than every single one of us combined." Changbagela reached forward and grabbed Danba's shoulders. "He's the living reincarnation of Mahakala, the great Dharma Protector and Lord of Justice. I'm sure of it, my friend."
More silence ensued.
Changbagela shook Danba's shoulders. "Come on, pal. That scripture won't be wasted on him. Trust me."
A moment later, Danba sighed. "Fine. Wait here."
Changbagela couldn't help the grin that spread over his face. "That's right, buddy! I knew you'd see sense!"
Danba returned minutes later with a book as thick as a human thumb. "There."
Changbagela took the proffered book and flipped over a few pages. Anger rose inside him. "Our friendship ends today, Danba!" He tossed the book to the ground.
"What!" Danba grabbed Changbagela's arms. "What on earth are you—"
Changbagela glared at his friend. "That's one of those bogus copies you sell to tourists!" He jabbed a finger at the ground. "You think I'm an idiot?"
Changbagela turned away and marched towards the door. Seconds later, he was stilled by a hand on his shoulder.
"Alright, alright. Calm down my friend... Here it is."
Changbagela turned around and saw Danba pulling out a much thicker book.
This one was worn around the edges, and the front cover looked a bit yellowish. He reached out and snatched the book from Danba's hands, then flipped it open.
Joy surged through him. "Now that's more like it..." He snapped the book shut and placed it under his armpit.
Danba sighed. "Now can we go see this Mahakala reincarnation you keep telling me about?"
Danba followed Changbagela out of his personal living quarters. Admittedly, his desire to see this so-called Living Buddha had waned substantially. The fact that Kathok Monastery had practically been robbed of its only copy of Mahamudra Tantra had ruined Danba's mood for anything else. Why did he make that stupid promise to his friend in the first place? Maybe this is all Buddha's will, a small voice inside Danba's head added. Danba trudged along behind Changbagela as Changbagela led him through a series of hallways and turns. Danba had to admit that something about Changbagela seemed different. It was like his friend's vitality was renewed.
For as long as Danba remembered, Changbagela's body had always been frail and weak. Now, he was walking around with a spring in his steps. And he was fast, so much so that Danba had to jog to even keep up with him.
"Hey, Changbagela! Wait up!" Danba yelled.
"Tsk! Come on, my friend. Keep up!" Changbagela yelled back.
Danba raised his gaze and saw that Changbagela was a good ten meters ahead of him. Geez, when did Changbagela become so spry? Perhaps Changbagela's savior really did something to him?
By the time Changbagela and Danba arrived at the monastery's courtyard, Danba was already out of breath.
"Behold... My savior!" Changbagela announced.
A young man with shoulder-length hair stood beside Meiduo. The first thing that struck Danba about the young man was his eyes. Those eyes were razor-sharp, like they could cut through a person's soul. The power and spirit behind those eyes were incredible. Danba didn't think he had seen such potent eyes before, not even among the holy mountain's guardian sentinels. Who on earth is this guy—
Danba's blood ran cold.
Changbagela was gravely mistaken. This man wasn't a Buddhist at all. He was a Cultivator! And most probably one that was looking to steal Buddhist secrets!
Panic coursed through Danba's veins. This was bad. He was about to lose one of the most treasured Buddhist text to a Cultivator! What a disgrace!
"Is everything settled, Changbagela?" Meiduo said, then paused.
Suddenly, Meiduo's eyes were on Danba. "Oh!" The girl bowed to him. "Greetings, Head Danba!"
Danba forced out a smile. "Greetings, Meiduo." He cast a glance towards the young man beside her. "Is he the one who brought Changbagela back to life?"
Changbagela beamed at him. "Indeed, my friend! Indeed!" Changbagela clapped his hands together. "Come! Let me introduce you."
With that, Changbagela stepped forward and pulled the young man's arm. "Li Yundong, this is a very good friend of mine. The Head of Kathok Monastery, Bhante Danba."
The young man gave him a nod. Even though the nod had been polite, Danba could detect a hint of wariness and vigilance in those sharp eyes.
"Danba," Changbagela continued, utterly oblivious to Danba's internal turmoil, "this is the man who saved my life, Li Yundong!"
So it's Zhenren Li, huh? Danba forced out a tight smile and pressed his palms together to perform an Anjali Mudra.
"Namaste," Danba said.
Zhenren Li smiled and bowed slightly at him.
"Now. Let's get right down to business," Changbagela said. Danba tried his best not to wince when Changbagela pulled out the monastery's only original copy of Mahamudra Tantra and then presented it to Zhenren Li.
"Please accept this book as a token of my gratitude, kind sir," Changbagela said.
Zhenren Li stared at the Mahamudra Tantra in Changbagela's hands, though he didn't reach out to take it.
Hope surged through Danba when he saw the hesitant look on Zhenren Li's face.
That's it... That's it... Reject it... Reject it... A Cultivator like you don't need a Buddhist text at all—
"Come on, Brother Li! Just accept the gift!" Meiduo prompted. "You saved Changbagela's life, you know? Changbagela would feel miserable if you refuse to accept this small gift."
Danba nearly fell flat on his butt.
S- Small gift?!
That child had no idea what she was talking about! This was the Mahamudra Tantra, for Buddha's sake!
Zhenren Li took the book hesitantly, then crouched down to put it into his backpack. Danba resisted the urge to snatch the backpack from him.
Not now... Not yet... This isn't the way...
Changbagela clapped his hands together. "Alright then! Bhante Danba has given you permission to stay the night at the monastery. We should all get some rest, don't you think?"
Zhenren Li stood up and gave Danba a nod. "Thank you, sir. That's very kind of you."
Danba pressed his palms together and smiled. Keeping Zhenren Li in the monastery might be a good thing. That way, he could find a way to get the scripture back.
It wouldn't be that hard.
He just needed a bit of extra assistance.
When Danba returned to his quarters, he saw Mima and Puqiong waiting outside his door. The two lamas had just finished their nightly patrol and were now waiting to be debriefed.
"Get me Dorjee Tenzin!" Danba snapped, storming past the two lamas into his living quarters.
After a while, a buff-looking man dressed in a red and orange kasaya strode into his living quarters and bowed to him. "Greetings, Bhante Danba. You wished to see me?"
"Rise," Danba commanded.
Dorjee Tenzin straightened himself and proved why he was Kathok Monastery's guardian sentinel—the man was at least two heads taller than Danba.
"I have a mission for you," Danba began. "The Mahamudra Tantra had fallen into the hands of a Cultivator."
Danba paused to look at Dorjee Tenzin, whose face was as stoic as ever.
"This is a threat to our school and therefore cannot be allowed." He gave Dorjee Tenzin a pointed look. "I want you to retrieve the book."
Dorjee Tenzin's head snapped up. "Are you asking me to commit murder, Bhante Danba?"
Danba shook his head. "No. Of course not. We are Buddhists. We cannot take a man's life. I just want you to retrieve the book. You can talk to him, buy it from him, or even steal it from him. Just don't harm the guy."
Dorjee Tenzin nodded. "Understood."
Dorjee Tenzin turned and headed to the door.
"Wait," Danba said.
Dorjee Tenzin paused at the door and turned back around.
"Make sure to act only when Changbagela and the others aren't around. Changbagela can never know about this, do you hear me?"
Dorjee Tenzin nodded.
"And do not underestimate your opponent," Danba warned. "You might be one of the Eighteen Guardian Sentinels of the holy mountain, but we still have no idea what that man is capable of. And if he can bring Changbagela back to life, it's safe to assume that he's a force to be reckon with." Danba held up a finger. "But of course, the best case scenario is if you can get him to hand over the book willingly."
Dorjee Tenzin frowned. "And if he refuses?"
Danba sighed. "Then you'll have to take it by force."
"But do not kill him, you understand?" Danba said.
The next morning, when Danba woke up and headed to the temple's courtyard to perform his morning ablutions, he saw a large group of lamas gathered around a rock near the faucets.
"Hey, hey!" Danba yelled. "What's this about?"
One of the lamas approached him and bowed. "I think you should come take a look at this, Head Danba." Then, the lama turned back to the crowd and yelled, "The Head is here! Make way! Make way!"
The crowd parted to two side to reveal the tall rock.
Danba felt his knees go weak.
"W- W- Who d- did this!" Danba stammered, staring at the deep—several inches—imprint of a fist buried inside the rock's surface.
"It was fine yesterday evening!" one of the lamas piped in.
"Head Danba," Mima said. "Meiduo, Changbagela, and the Han Chinese were the only ones here last night when I ran into them during my patrol."
"T- The Han Chinese?" Danba stammered.
Zhenren Li. This had to be Zhenren Li's doing!
"Wait! Guys!" one of the lamas yelled. "Meiduo mentioned something last night!"
"Yeah! Tell us, tell us!"
"Ahem. Well, a few of us ran into Meiduo last night. And she told us stories about the Han Chinese. More specifically, she told us the amazing feats he's capable of. Well, Meiduo claimed that the guy could punch a rock from ten meters away. I think she might be referring to this!" The lama pointed at the rock.
The crowd went into an uproar.
"Ten meters away?!!"
"Not even Dorjee Tenzin is capable of that!"
"Guys... Guys... I think we should calm down a bit. Meiduo is a kid. Maybe she exaggerated her claims?"
"Well... She sounded pretty serious when she was talking about it last night."
"Oh, yeah, she was. When I told her I didn't believe her story, she got really mad and stormed off."
"So that's why she looked so mad—"
"Silence!!!" Danba shouted.
Danba took a deep breath. "W- Where's Dorjee Tenzin? Bring him here!"
The lamas looked at each other. "Um... Head Danba... Dorjee Tenzin left the monastery at dawn... He went after Changbagela and the pilgrims..."
Danba's knees buckled right then and he fell flat on his butt. The lamas went into an uproar again.
"What's wrong Head Danba!"
"Are you alright?"
Mima crouched down beside him. "What's the matter Head Danba?"
Danba shook his head. "I might have just sent our guardian sentinel to his death..."
Chapter 173 Distorted Reality
The chains rattled as Li Yundong towed the wagon uphill. The wagon, which carried the pilgrims' various travel equipment and food supplies, felt as light as a feather. Before they left the temple, one of the pilgrims in their group suggested to Changbagela that they borrow some kind of wagon from the monastery to store all their equipment, and then use an animal (using motor-powered vehicles during a pilgrimage would be a huge disrespect to Buddha) to pull the wagon. Changbagela balked at the idea at first, expressing concerns that the use of an animal wagon was too risky since the animal's scent might attract the wolves. But then Li Yundong stepped forward and offered to pull the wagon for them. Surprisingly, nobody gave him skeptical looks when he made the offer. After he brought Changbagela back to life, most of them seemed to think of him as some kind of super sage.
After loading up the wagon, they set off a little before dawn. It was almost mid-morning now, and most of the pilgrims were tired. Li Yundong could easily tell from their sluggish forms and steps.
Li Yundong had asked some of them to climb onto the wagon, but they declined. He supposed it made sense. Travelling on a wagon would probably defeat the whole purpose of the pilgrimage.
Apparently, Meiduo wasn't as devoted as the rest of the pilgrims. She had climbed onto the wagon half an hour ago, claiming that she needed a break, otherwise she would pass out. Right now, Li Yundong could feel her stare even though he wasn't looking at her.
"You know, Brother Li..."
Li Yundong switched the chains to another hand and turned his head around. "Yeah?"
"Before, when you said that you walked here from Tiannan City, I didn't really believe you." She shrugged. "I mean it was over 2000 kilometers away. But now, I think I'm starting to believe what you said." She gaped at him for several seconds. "Like, don't you ever get tired?"
Li Yundong chuckled.
"We've been walking for hours without taking a break! And you were even dragging a heavy wagon with you!"
Li Yundong turned his head again. "Correction. I didn't walk here." He paused for effect. "I ran here."
Meiduo's jaw went slack. Li Yundong burst into laughter.
"W- What... You r- ran here?!"
Li Yundong looked to the front again. "Yep. That's how I lost my shoes, actually. They fell off due to all that running."
"Amazing..." Meiduo whispered.
Li Yundong smiled to himself and gave the chains a sharp tug.
His smile faded away as a wave of sadness washed over him. He couldn't disagree with that statement more. The truth was that he was just a pathetic amateur who couldn't even save his friends from the claws of an evil man. He couldn't even protect the woman he loved.
Ao Wushuang was right. He was a weakling. A failure.
The question now was how could he change? How could he become better?
Around evening, Changbagela stopped their march and ordered the group to rest for the night. Collective sighs were heard as Li Yundong dragged the wagon towards a large tree, and then parked it right under the tree. For the next thirty minutes, the pilgrims bustled around, using the waning light of the sunset to set up camp. Li Yundong sat on top of the wagon and watched them work. The men worked on the tents whereas the women started fires and prepared food. Several men nodded at him when they walked towards the wagon to grab supplies—firewood, pots, food, and water.
Meiduo was whispering to a group of men. A bag of hung from her right hand. When Li Yundong zoomed in with his telescopic vision, he realized that the bag contained sewing needles, thread, and yarn.
What was she trying to make? A jacket?
Li Yundong scanned the area for Changbagela, but the old monk was nowhere to be seen. He hoped Changbagela didn't pass out somewhere again.
Watching the pilgrims work was rather hypnotic. After a while, Li Yundong felt his eyelids growing heavy.
He shouldn't do this.
He shouldn't be drifting off.
Somebody could easily attack him if he let his guard down. But he just felt so tired and relaxed that he couldn't help it.
Just for a few minutes…
His body felt immensely light, like he was floating into the sky and...
He was back at the amusement park, on the Space Shuttle. He turned, and Su Chan was sitting right there next to him, looking totally unfazed. He smiled. The Space Shuttle could never faze his princess. He'd learned that lesson the hard way.
Then they were back on the ground, strolling hand in hand around the amusement park.
Su Chan was dancing around excitedly, yelling and screaming, swatting at balloons. She looked so happy.
Su Chan giggled and whispered something to him. Then she grabbed his hand and, before he knew it, they were soaring above Tiannan City, laughing and giggling like a bunch of school girls.
Wait... Where was this? He knew this place.
The soft carpet.
The gentle hum of classical music.
Shengyuan Hotel. They were at Shengyuan Hotel. He turned around and once again found himself smiling. Su Chan was all dolled up. She looked so beautiful.
The banquet hall vanished in a flash. Darkness surrounded him.
This was the gates. He was standing in front of Shengyuan Hotel's gates.
Where was Su Chan? Where—
A loud splat filled his chest with horror. No... No... No... Please... No! Not again! He moved past the gates and headed towards the hotel's building. His knees hit the ground and he screamed at the top of his lungs.
The woman who lay dead in a pool of blood wasn't Deng Yu.
It was Su Chan.
Peals of laughter filled his ears. He hated that voice. He hated that voice with a vengeance. What he hated even more was the owner of that voice. The laughter grew louder and louder.
Li Yundong looked up at the building and saw He Shao standing somewhere above him. Li Yundong glared up at He Shao and raised his arms.
"Die!!!!!!!" Li Yundong pointed his finger at He Shao. "Have a taste of the Heavenly Thunder!!!"
He Shao's laughter kept growing louder. At one point, it almost seemed as though He Shao's voice was coming from the sky. Why wasn't it working? Why, dammit! Why?! Didn't He Shao deserve to die?
"Come on!!!!" Li Yundong pointed his finger at He Shao again. "Come on!!! Heavenly Thunder!!! Slay this evil creature!!!"
"The Heavens have abandoned you, you loser!" He Shao said. "I am untouchable. I am invincible! You can never touch me... Hahaha..."
The ground crumbled under him. "Nooooo!!!!!" He fell and fell until he landed on some kind of rough surface.
"You are a failure..."
Li Yundong opened his eyes and saw Zi Yuan staring down at him. Her eyes were filled with disappointment.
"I've changed my mind. You are not the Jindan's Heir. You are nothing but a disgrace..."
There was a snort of contempt.
"I was right all along, Elder Sister Zi Yuan. I told you from the start that he couldn't possibly be the Jindan's Heir."
A sharp, high-pitched, metallic noise caused his ears to ring.
Li Yundong screamed and covered his ears.
Seconds later, the noise was replaced by the clanging of metal. When he opened his eyes, he saw thousands of blades and swords swirling around him. At that moment, there wasn't a single doubt in his mind that he was facing the wrath of Ao Wushuang.
"You killed her...!" Ao Wushuang's voice blared from all directions. "You killed my disciple!!"
Li Yundong's knees hit the ground. How was he supposed to defend himself against the accusation? How could he deny the truth?
"She died because you are too weak!!!"
She was right. That truth was impossible to deny.
"I shall make you pay!!!"
The blades closed in on him from all direction, spinning around, slashing through every inch of his skin.
He knew very well what was happening—he was being skinned alive.
And he let it. He let it because he deserved it.
Beloved.... Wake up... Wake up...
The searing pain on his skin was gone.
It's just a dream, beloved... Wake up... Wake...
The voice faded away.
Li Yundong gasped and took a huge gulp of air. His butt slid off some kind of surface and he crashed into the ground with a thud. He glanced around frantically, heaving and panting.
A sliver of light streaked across the dark sky. What time was it? Was it dawn already? He fumbled around with his hand until he touched something circular, like a wheel.
He had just fallen off the wagon.
All of a sudden, he realized that he wasn't alone. A shadow was hovering above his head. A shadow with long hair and a slender figure. Shock coursed through his veins.
"Y- You're here!"
Li Yundong reached out and pulled the dark figure right into his arms.
Zi Yuan strode into Hongling's apartment at New Hongsheng District, closing the door behind her. The apartment was quiet and peaceful ever since she sent Hongling back to Mount Longhu last week. By now, the twins' souls should be safely placed inside the Tianyi Pond. Zi Yuan hadn't had the chance to return to Mount Longhu, since she'd been busy keeping an eye on Li Yundong over the past month.
Hopefully Hongling had handled the souls with care.
A soft breeze caressed Zi Yuan's cheeks the moment she stepped onto the balcony. She smiled to herself when she remembered all the times Li Yundong had stared at the cloud she'd been hiding behind during her surveillance. The poor guy had no clue. But still, Zi Yuan had to commend the Jindan's Heir for his sharp instincts.
He had done well so far. No. He had completed his tasks exceptionally and had even picked up a lot of new things on his own. Other than the fact that he'd blatantly ignored her warning to mind his own business, Zi Yuan was very satisfied with his progress.
One other thing was rather troubling though: she hadn't heard a single thing from Zhou Qin yet. The girl wasn't picking up her phone when Zi Yuan called. Then again, the authorities hadn't issued an order for Li Yundong's arrest, so Zi Yuan figured that Zhou Qin had done a good job.
The Heir's secret was safe. For now.
Zi Yuan looked sharply to the side, then bowed slightly when she saw who her visitor was.
"Greetings, Senior Wushuang."
Senior Wushuang approached her gracefully. "You don't have to act so formal around me."
Seconds later, Senior Wushuang stopped beside her in front of the railing. The lights from the city gave Zi Yuan the opportunity to study Senior Wushuang's features.
The most powerful Cultivator of the Fox Zen School was, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman Zi Yuan had ever set eyes on. Zi Yuan thought Su Chan was beautiful, but Ao Wushuang...
Ao Wushuang's beauty was on another level.
"How's the kid doing?" Senior Wushuang asked.
"He's progressing rapidly." Zi Yuan shook her head slightly. "I've honestly never seen a more talented Cultivator."
Senior Wushuang sighed. "This is bad."
Zi Yuan stared at the woman beside her. Moments later, she sighed. "I know." Zi Yuan wrapped her fingers around the railing. "I... I don't think he's going to make it, Senior Wushuang."
Senior Wushuang stared out into the city, her expression stoic and calm.
Zi Yuan turned away from Senior Wushuang; the woman's silence was a little unnerving.
"Have you... Have you found a way yet, Senior Wushuang?"
"I'm working on a few ideas," Senior Wushuang answered without taking her eyes off the view of the city below. "But there are still tons of research to be done before I can be sure that it'll work." Senior Wushuang returned Zi Yuan's gaze. "I need more time."
"But we don't have more time," Zi Yuan said earnestly. "The Heir is already halfway to Mount Duonian's summit when I checked on him today. At this rate, he'll probably pass the Zhuji phase within the next few days."
"I see..." Senior Wushuang answered flatly.
Zi Yuan's heart sank. So not even the great genius, Ao Wushuang, could find a way then.
"Here..." said Senior Wushuang.
Zi Yuan turned and saw Senior Wushuang waving a silk pouch at her.
Zi Yuan took the pouch carefully. "What's in this?"
"Something that can buy us more time. But..." Senior Wushuang gave her a pointed look. "You need to make sure you're there in time to cast the spell. Do you understand?"
Zi Yuan opened the pouch and saw a talisman that she'd never seen before in her life. Zi Yuan's gaze snapped up. "What's—"
"It's a spell to mask the Vital Orb's true power," Senior Wushuang said.
Zi Yuan took out the talisman and studied it. The drawings and patterns were convoluted. There had to be at least two hundred symbols on the talisman.
"Took me a whole week of research to find the spell," Senior Wushuang said. "Had to go through thousands of ancient scrolls and texts."
Zi Yuan was mesmerized. Never in her life had she seen a talisman so complicated.
"You were right in thinking that he wouldn't be able to survive the Heavenly Thunder," Senior Wushuang said.
Zi Yuan looked up from the talisman to find Senior Wushuang staring at her.
"If he really is as talented as what that idiot disciple of mine kept telling me, and what you yourself have witnessed over the past month, then he won't even survive the first bolt of Heavenly Thunder let alone the other eighty."
Zi Yuan lowered her gaze to the floor. The strength of the Heavenly Thunder increases with the target's aptitude. To survive divine punishment meant that one had to be struck by 81 successive bolts of Heavenly Thunder, each one faster and more powerful than its predecessor.
"Not even the first bolt…" Zi Yuan mumbled.
Senior Wushuang chuckled darkly. "He doesn't stand a chance."
"How much time can this spell buy you?" Zi Yuan asked.
"If my calculations are correct, then the Heavens won't be able to detect his Vital Orb until he passes the Shentong phase."
Zi Yuan looked up again. "If your calculations are correct?"
Senior Wushuang smirked. "I'm rarely wrong."
Zi Yuan nodded and put the pouch away.
"Take care of the talisman, will you?" Senior Wushuang raised a brow. "It's extremely hard to draw, even for me. Took me a few days to complete it."
Zi Yuan nodded. "I will."
Senior Wushuang stepped away from the railing. "Remember that timing is key," she said. "The Heavenly Thunder will strike the moment he passes the Zhuji phase. So you have to be on standby and cast the spell the moment he passes. Do you understand?"
Zi Yuan nodded.
"Good." Senior Wushuang did a hand sign; Bahuang materialized on the balcony.
Zi Yuan couldn't help but stare at the sword. Her master's sword.
"Don't even think about it, child," Senior Wushuang said. "You won't be able to take it from me."
Zi Yuan looked away from the sword. But how and where did you get Master's sword? How come you're able to wield it?
When Zi Yuan turned to ask Senior Wushuang the questions that had been plaguing her mind, the woman was already gone.
Zi Yuan sighed and leaned against the railing. So many questions but not a single answer.
What on earth have your foreseen, Master?
Chapter 174 Sign Language
Something was wrong. None of this felt right.
It was the scent. The scent was wrong.
"There, there…" A soft palm patted the back of his head. "Everything's going to be okay. You're safe now, Brother Li."
What…? Brother Li?
Li Yundong jerked backwards as though he was burned, causing the back of his head to smash into the wood of the wagon.
The woman in her arms wasn't Su Chan.
It was Meiduo.
Li Yundong scrambled to his feet and fought down the waves of disappointment coursing through him.
Meiduo was staring up at him with confused eyes. "Is… Is everything alright, Brother Li?"
"S- Sorry!" he mumbled lamely. Then, he pushed past Meiduo and ran off before he embarrassed himself further.
"Brother Li! Wait!"
Li Yundong ignored the voice and kept running. Most of the pilgrims were still asleep, so he guessed it was still pretty late… or early, depending on how you look at it. He ran and ran until he reached a small brook nearby. Crouching down beside the brook, he buried his face into his palms.
God damn it. He had got to get his shit together. How was he supposed to pass the Zhuji phase if his head was so messed up?
But that dream…
It was so vivid.
What was this? PTSD? Shit.
It hit him then that he hadn't really had the chance to properly deal with the trauma he'd experienced that night at Shengyuan Hotel. He was thrown into training immediately after the incident and didn't have time to make peace with the twins' deaths.
He reached down and dipped his hands into the brook, then splashed some water onto his face. The brook water felt cool and crisp against his cheeks. A few more splashes later, the fog in his mind began to clear as alertness seeped in.
God knows he needed a clear head after this. He had one more chance. Just one. He couldn't afford to f*ck things up now; there was just too much at stake.
Footfalls sounded behind him. He wiped his face and turned around abruptly.
Meiduo was walking up towards him timidly, and she appeared to be hiding something behind her back.
"B- Brother Li…"
Li Yundong sighed and rose to his feet. "Listen. I'm sorry about just now. That was inappropriate." He squared his shoulders and looked her in the eye. "It won't happen again."
Something flickered inside Meiduo's eyes. She shuffled a few steps closer and peered up at him from under her lashes. "W- Were you having a nightmare?"
"Yeah," Li Yundong answered, then sighed.
It was the most horrifying dream he'd ever had.
He shook his head to block out the mental images of Su Chan lying in a pool of blood.
"Um… Then are you okay?"
"I'm fine." He smiled. "Thanks for asking."
Li Yundong glanced around a few times, then looked up at the sky. "What time is it?"
"It's nearly dawn."
Dawn, huh? It seemed like he slept for quite a while after he dozed off on the wagon. He even skipped dinner. Great, now he sounded like his little princess chipmunk.
Li Yundong tore his gaze away from the sky. "Wait. Why are you up at this hour?" He paused in thought, then regarded Meiduo carefully. "Did you sleep at all?"
Meiduo shifted on the spot, seeming shy and sheepish all of a sudden. Then, she shook her head slowly.
Li Yundong frowned. "What? Why? Why didn't you sleep?" Li Yundong paused in thought again. "Was I too loud when I was… you know… having a nightmare?"
Meiduo's looked up sharply and shook her head earnestly. Seconds later, she pulled her hands out from behind a back to reveal a pair of cloth shoes.
"F- For you…" Meiduo held out the shoes timidly.
Li Yundong stared at the shoes for a few seconds, then it all clicked. The thread. The needles. The sewing equipment. It all made sense now.
Li Yundong's gaze snapped to Meiduo. "Y- You stayed up all night to make this?"
Meiduo nodded shyly.
Oh shit. Even someone like him, who was obtuse 90% of the time, could see what this gesture meant.
Meiduo might have developed feelings for him, feelings that he could never return.
Li Yundong must have been quiet for a long time because Meiduo suddenly launched into a nervous ramble. "U- Um… Why don't you try them on! Here! I'll help you put them on!"
The meaning behind Meiduo's words struck Li Yundong, jolting him out of his thoughts. Alarm coursed through him, filling his chest.
"Wait, no!" He raised his palms when he saw that Meiduo was about to bend down to help him put the shoes on. Meiduo stilled her movements and straightened herself. Confusion swirled inside her eyes.
Shit. Should he refuse to accept the shoes? But wouldn't that be too harsh? The girl had spent the whole night making it, for f*ck's sake. What the heck was he supposed to do here?
Once again, Li Yundong cursed his lack of dating experience.
Li Yundong cleared his throat. "U- Uh… I mean I can do it on my own."
Understanding flashed inside Meiduo's eyes. She beamed and handed him the shoes. Li Yundong smiled and took the shoes with both hands. "Thank you," he said, then crouched down to put them on.
God. This was awkward.
The softness enveloping his feet felt foreign to him. Wow. So this was what wearing shoes felt like. He had honestly forgotten after one whole month walking around barefoot.
Li Yundong looked up from the shoes and saw Meiduo staring down at him. Anticipation shone in her eyes.
"Do they fit?"
Li Yundong nodded and rose to his feet. He jumped on the spot a few times, then smiled at Meiduo. "Yep. I think they fit perfectly. And they feel comfortable too." Li Yundong held Meiduo's gaze. "Thank you. You don't really have to do that."
Meiduo grinned. "Oh. I wanted to! I mean… You saved Changbagela's life. It's… It's the least I can do…"
Li Yundong regarded Meiduo's expression. Was that all? Gratitude? God, he sure hoped so. Because friendship was only thing he could give this girl. His heart already belonged to someone else.
Regardless, he had to maintain his distance and keep things professional between them. Not that he hadn't been keeping things professional, but just… you know. Extra precautions were necessary, especially after knowing that Meiduo had stayed up the whole night to make him a pair of shoes…
Li Yundong cleared his throat.
"When will we set off again? What did Changbagela say?"
"After breakfast," Meiduo answered in a heartbeat.
An awkward silence spread between them. Meiduo looked like she wanted to say something else, but couldn't get the words out.
He had to say something. Preferably in the next few seconds.
"H-Hey, Meiduo. Can you read Sanskrit?" he blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
Meiduo brightened up instantly, much to his relief.
"Oh, yes I can!" Meiduo jumped slightly. "I'm pretty good at it actually!"
Li Yundong couldn't help but smiled at the girl's enthusiasm. "Well, then I need your help."
Li Yundong chuckled wryly. "You know that book Changbagela gave me?"
A look of recognition formed on Meiduo's face. "Oh. Was it written in Sanskrit?"
Li Yundong nodded. "Part of it, yeah." He shook his head. "Some parts were written in Tibetan I think."
"So you need me to translate it for you?"
Li Yundong nodded. "Yeah." He paused to look around their camp. Changbagela and the others were still fast asleep. "I mean we have time until breakfast, right?"
Meiduo nodded. "Mm-hmm!"
Li Yundong smiled. "Right! Shall we get started?"
"Oh my God!" Meiduo exclaimed, startling Li Yundong so much that he nearly dropped his water bottle.
"Something wrong?" He stowed the bottle into his backpack.
Meiduo was staring slack-jawed at the book. Seconds later, she looked up sharply.
"T- This is the Mahamudra Tantra!" she hissed. "I can't believe Changbagela gave you the original copy!"
Li Yundong frowned. "What, is that like a sacred text or something?"
Meiduo stared at him like he was nuts. "Are you kidding? This is the Kathok Monastery's treasure!"
"What!" Li Yundong hissed. "Then you must give it back to Changbagela. I can't accept something like this. It's too much!"
Meiduo seemed to balk at the idea. "But he already gave it to you."
Li Yundong shook his head. "Return it," he said firmly. "The text belongs to the temple. I have no right to take it."
Meiduo shook her head. "But it was a gift!"
Li Yundong thought for a moment. "Okay. How about you translate the whole thing for me, and I'll try to memorize its contents. That way, you can return the book to the temple after this since I won't be needing it anymore. Deal?"
Meiduo gave him a skeptical look. "Memorize the whole book?"
Li Yundong smirked. "I have a good memory." Oh, you have no idea, he added silently.
Meiduo sighed. "Fine. I'll translate it for you." She paused for a second. "You know what, I might as well just read the book to you."
Li Yundong smiled, then hopped onto the wagon and sat beside Meiduo.
"I'm all ears."
Apparently, the term mudra refers to a symbolic hand gesture or hand sign used in Buddhism. And, as Meiduo had kindly told him before she began translating the words from the text, the Mahamudra Tantra was all about mudras.
Li Yundong wasn't an expert in Sanskrit or anything, but even he could tell that maha meant great. After all, maharajah meant a great ruler.
The book was divided into three scrolls, the first of which was titled Ganga Mudra. In the Ganga Mudra, the author expounded on the three major classifications of mudras: the Truth mudras; the Emptiness mudras; and the Enlightenment mudras.
By the time Meiduo got to the end of the first scroll, Li Yundong realized, much to his dismay, that its content was pretty similar to that of the Canon of the Yellow Thearch. He was hoping for a book that contained some hidden secrets in Cultivation, not a bunch of articles whose contents he'd read and mastered from a book that he could literally buy from Xinhua Bookstore for all of fifty yuan.
In essence, both the Canon and the first scroll of the Mahamudra Tantra were about the fundamentals of Cultivation, only that they were told from two different perspectives. The Canon approached Cultivation from a medical perspective, whereas the Mahamudra Tantra expounded the basics of Cultivation through Buddhist principles and practices.
As it turned out, they were just two sides of the same coin.
The second scroll contained a vivid and interesting account on the origins of om mani padme hum, a six-syllable Sanskrit mantra that Buddhists chant as a form of prayer. Disappointment coursed through Li Yundong when Meiduo told him that she had reached the end of the second scroll. None of what he heard so far was beneficial to his training. All he got was a bunch of history lessons.
A sliver of light from the east betokened the coming of dawn. Some pilgrims were starting to rouse from their sleep.
"Is everything alright, Brother Li?"
Li Yundong smiled. "Nah. I'm fine. Just thinking about the contents." He nodded at the book.
"Shall I read the third scroll to you?"
Would there be a point?
"Sure," he said nonetheless.
Meiduo flipped to the next page, then suddenly looked up from the page. "Um… Brother Li, there's nothing else to read."
She showed him the book and flipped through the remaining pages from the third scroll. The pages were filled with diagrams of mudras (hand signs). Below each diagram was a bilingual—Sanskrit and Tibetan—caption. Perhaps the names of those hand signs?
One unique hand sign caught his eye. The diagram showed a right hand forming a fist with the fingers wrapped around the left index finger.
"What's this sign?" Li Yundong pointed at the diagram.
"Oh. That's one of Mahavairocana's hand sign. The Intelligent Fist."
"Yes," Meiduo said. "He's one of the five Primordial, or as we Buddhist call it, Dhyani Buddhas."
"Well, what does that mean?"
"Primordial Buddhas are celestial buddhas who are self-born. They've existed since the beginning of time."
Li Yundong still didn't quite get it, but he nodded anyway. He dropped his gaze back onto the page and pointed at another diagram. "What about this one?"
The diagram showed two hands pressed together with each pinky bent inwards until they touched the palms.
"Oh! That's one of Divyadundubhi Meghanirghosa's hand signs!"
Li Yundong looked up from the page and stared at Meiduo.
Meiduo smiled and did a—rather poor—imitation of the hand sign. "We call him the Buddha of the Heavenly Drums!"
Li Yundong smiled politely and returned his eyes to the page.
Moments later, he held out his palm for the book. "May I?"
Meiduo smiled and handed the Mahamudra Tantra to him.
Li Yundong flipped through the pages of the third scroll. Each page was filled with little diagrams of hand signs and captions. Could it be that the real secrets of the text lay within these hand signs?
Li Yundong flipped back to the first page of the third scroll, then placed the book down on the wagon.
After that he got into a meditative stance.
"What are you doing, Brother Li?"
Li Yundong glanced at Meiduo, who was looking at him strangely. He smiled. "Learning, of course!"
Then, he began to perform each of the hand signs successively.
When he got to the third page, he realized that he had a real knack for this; the hand signs came to him almost naturally. It was just like how he could copy and execute a martial arts technique only after watching it once.
Perhaps it had to do with the Renyuan Jindan.
But still, there was something mysterious about these signs. Like they held some kind of unknown power.
Then again, maybe he was just deluded. After all, he'd been performing over a hundred hand signs so far and nothing happened.
Near the end of the book, he spotted a short line written in Sanskrit.
"Meiduo…" Li Yundong turned the book around. "What does this say?"
Meiduo craned her neck forward and stared at the page. "Oh. That's a Buddhist mantra!"
Li Yundong frowned. "Which mantra?" He had a pretty good idea which mantra it was, but he just wanted to make sure.
"The om mani padme hum."
Hah! I knew it!
Li Yundong smiled and took the book from Meiduo. He might have just figured out how the hand signs worked. Perhaps the effect would only come when the signs were performed in tandem with the mantras.
Whispers and footsteps sounded around them as more pilgrims roused from their slumber. Li Yundong glanced at the page again. Now he just had to commit all the hand signs and the mantras to memory. Thanks to the Lianqi phase, he could do that easily.
Li Yundong glanced at Meiduo and patted the spot beside him. "Come here for a sec."
Meiduo climbed over and sat down beside him.
"Read out the mantras for me while I memorize the diagrams."
Meiduo stared at him in shock. "Y-You can do that? Memorize all of them?"
Li Yundong smirked. "I guess we'll see."
Chapter 175 Strength of a Thousand Men
With Meiduo's help, it didn't take long before Li Yundong memorized every hand sign in the third scroll as well as the mantra associated with each sign. Once he was done, Meiduo put the book away, and they spent some time chatting with each other while the rest of the pilgrims roused. Meiduo kept asking him questions about what Tiannan City was like and what campus life back at Tiannan University was like. Despite Li Yundong's many attempts to dissuade Meiduo from wasting her talents at Tiannan University, the girl didn't seem deterred.
It was like she had already made up her mind to enroll herself at Tiannan University, which confirmed his suspicion that Meiduo had developed feelings for him that were beyond platonic. He knew he had to talk to her at some point before he parted ways with the pilgrims before he hurt the girl even more.
At one point, Meiduo steered their conversation towards dangerous territory. She began asking him questions about his personal life: his parents; his hobbies; his likes and dislikes; etc.
Li Yundong deflected her attempts by steering the conversation back into safer territory: Buddhism; her relationship with Changbagela; etc.
Then, just when the women were about to start prepping breakfast, there was a commotion. A group of men were rushing towards Changbagela as though they had some urgent business to report to him.
Meiduo craned her neck. "What's going on over there?"
Li Yundong activated Eryue and listened to the whispered words between Changbagela and the men.
"…The same foreigners who tried to save your life, Changbagela…"
"It doesn't matter. As Buddhists, we should mustn't be selective in the kindness we give others. Enlightenment will elude you otherwise."
Changbagela turned and motioned to a few other men behind him.
Li Yundong deactivated Eryue. "There's trouble. I think we should go check…"
Meiduo was already leaping down from the wagon and running towards Changbagela.
Li Yundong sighed and climbed down from the wagon. Then, he walked over towards Changbagela and Meiduo. Along the way, he passed by curious and bewildered pilgrims, who kept sneaking glances at him.
Changbagela noticed his approach and gave him a smile.
"Good morning, kind sir!"
"Good morning." Li Yundong nodded before stopping in front of Changbagela. Then, he jerked his chin towards a group of men who appeared to be hurrying in the direction downhill.
"Oh. Some tourists' car got stuck in a mud hole." Changbagela smiled. "I've sent some of my men down to help."
Ten minutes later, one of the men returned.
Mud covered the man's legs up to his shins. The man didn't seem all that happy, judging from the scowl on his face.
"Where are the other boys? We should get moving soon," Changbagela asked in Mandarin, much to Li Yundong's surprised. Perhaps Changbagela did that for Li Yundong's benefit.
The man stopped beside Li Yundong and gave Li Yundong a nod before turning to Changbagela. "They're still with the tourists, Changbagela. We… um…" The man gave Changbagela a sheepish look. "The jeep is still stuck."
Changbagela raised his brows. "What have you guys tried so far?"
The man looked down at his dirtied feet. "Some of us climbed into the mud and pushed, while others pulled from the front." The man shook his head. "Didn't work."
"Did you try removing stuff from the vehicle to lighten the load?" Li Yundong remarked.
The man gave Li Yundong a glance. "The tourists didn't carry much."
Changbagela frowned, then turned around. "Maybe we should ask the rest of the boys to help out too…"
"Um… Brother Li? Maybe you can lend a hand—" Meiduo yelped when Changbagela elbowed her. Meiduo muttered a quick apology, then rubbed her ribs.
"I think that's a good suggestion," Li Yundong said. "You should call back your men, Changbagela. They need to reserve their energy for the rest of the trip. I'll handle this."
Changbagela opened his mouth to protest, but Li Yundong silenced him with a hand.
"It's not a problem, Changbagela. I'll just go down there and take a quick look," Li Yundong said. "Who knows? It might save us some time." Then, he turned to the man. "Lead the way."
The man nodded. "Follow me, then."
Li Yundong followed the man under the curious stares by the other pilgrims. Meiduo and Changbagela followed closely behind him.
Upon their arrival on the scene, Li Yundong saw three of the pilgrims in the mud, pushing the jeep from behind. The two foreign man were on each side of the jeep, pushing at the jeep's center pillars. The Chinese lady, whom Li Yundong recognized as the foreigners' tour guide, was in the driver's seat.
Li Yundong crouched down beside the jeep to examine the mud hole, which appeared to have formed when a large area of the trail's surface caved inwards. Cracks spread out from the edge of the hole, which he estimated to be at least several feet deep. Both of the jeep's rear wheels had sunk into the muddy hole.
Wait a minute…
Li Yundong rapped his knuckles at jeep and turned towards Miss Liu Xia, the tour guide.
"Step on the gas," he said.
The rear wheels spun a second later. Li Yundong tilted his head away just in time to avoid a piece of mud flying towards his face.
More grunts were heard as the men tried to push the jeep out of the hole. Li Yundong rose to his feet and chuckled. Now he knew what the problem was. The jeep was a two-wheel drive, so stepping on the gas wouldn't help at all since the rear wheels had no surface to generate any traction.
The rear wheels kept spinning, sending more mud into the air.
Li Yundong tapped the roof of the jeep. "Kill the engines."
"How are we supposed to free the car then?"
Li Yundong gave the lady a look. "Right now, you're just wasting fuel." He pointed at the rear wheels. "The engines aren't doing any work because your wheels are free spinning."
Miss Liu Xia killed the engines immediately.
Li Yundong positioned himself beside the jeep once again and crouched down. Then, he activated his telescopic vision and zoomed in at the layer of mud that the rear wheels were resting on. The mud lacked firmness, so turning the wheels with the engine would just send more mud into the air. The solution was pretty clear. He had to lift the rear end of the jeep high enough to clear the depth of the hole.
One of the two foreigners said something to Miss Liu Xia in English.
Miss Liu Xia turned towards Li Yundong. "He asked if you have a solution."
Li Yundong suppressed a smirk. If you call raw strength a solution, then sure.
Li Yundong turned towards Meiduo, then waved at the men who were knee-deep in the mud. "Ask the guys to step aside."
Meiduo relayed his words to the men in Tibetan. At first, the man just looked at each other. But then they complied with his request moments later. Once the men were out of the mud, Li Yundong stood beside the jeep and tried to come up with a plan.
How should he do this? Well. He was afraid that there was really no way to do this without staining his feet with mud…
Or maybe there was.
He just had to do the same thing he did that night at Shengyuan Hotel, where he shaped a body of water into a sphere using his Qi. Li Yundong stared at the deep mud hole. Okay. The mud was pretty much fluid, so this would work.
On second thought…
There was a much better way, one that wouldn't appear as flashy, which was precisely what he wanted.
"Miss Liu, step out of the vehicle please," he said without taking his eyes off the mud hole.
The jeep swayed a little when the door slammed shut seconds later.
Li Yundong closed his eyes and mobilized his Qi to his legs—below knee level. The idea was simple. He just had to use his "Qi shoes" again, but this time turn it into a pair of "Qi boots" which covered up to his knees. He removed the shoes that Meiduo gave him and set it aside.
After that, he stepped into the pool of mud and then positioned himself behind the jeep as quickly as possible, just in case some sharp-eyed dude noticed that something freaky was going on below his knees.
Thankfully, everyone's gazes were fixated on the jeep, not him.
Reaching down, Li Yundong grabbed the bottom of the jeep's rear bumper.
His surroundings had suddenly gone eerily quiet. He didn't even need Xianjue to know that everyone's eyes were now on him.
He glanced down at his feet and shins, making sure that his Qi formed a thin film on the surface.
Well, it didn't feel heavy at all. The jeep's springs creaked when Li Yundong hefted its rear end upwards. Then, with a couple of pushes, the jeep was out. Li Yundong lowered the bumper until the rear wheels touched the ground, then pretended to clean his feet at a patch of grass nearby.
When he was done, he turned around and walked back towards the mud hole to grab his shoes. However, his movements stilled the moment he turned around. His jaw went slack at what he saw. Except for the two foreigners and Miss Liu Xia, everyone—including Meiduo and Changbagela—had prostrated themselves until their foreheads were touching the ground.
"Guys!" Li Yundong exclaimed. "What the hell do you think you are you doing?! Get up! Now!"
Meiduo raised her head from the ground, but made no moves to get up. Admiration and reverence filled her eyes as she looked at him now.
"Come on, get up already," Li Yundong said. "None of this is necessary!"
"Of course it's necessary! This is a show of respect!"
"Respe—" Li Yundong could feel his brows knitting together. "What?"
"You're the living incarnation of Mahakala, Brother Li!"
Chapter 176 Epiphany (Part 1)
This was absurd. As in the is-this-shit-really-happening kind of absurd. All his life, Li Yundong had been scorned, laughed at, bullied, mocked, ridiculed, and even spat at. But now, he was being worshipped by a bunch of Tibetan Buddhists. Weren't Buddhists supposed to be devoted to their faith?
Maybe the Buddha took a day off or something.
"Seriously, guys… Come on... What's with this Mahakala nonsense, eh?"
Truth be told, this wasn't the first time he'd been called by that name. Changbagela had mentioned that name too back at the monastery when Li Yundong caught him and Meiduo spying on him that night. However, Li Yundong's mind was too occupied back then to ask what the name meant.
Li Yundong surveyed his surroundings. The pilgrims, much to his chagrin, were still on their knees with their foreheads touching the ground. Miss Liu Xia was staring at him in shock whereas the two foreigners just gaped at the jeep.
They were probably so mind-fucked that they might need brain condoms.
Then, the pilgrims began to chant.
"Mahakala! Mahakala! Mahakala!"
Li Yundong shot Meiduo a desperate look, then dropped his voice into a low hiss. "Hey, can you all just stand up and, you know, talk like normal people?"
Meiduo shook her head, then prostrate herself before him. "No! We can't do that! Doing that would be a great disrespect to you, my Lord Mahakala."
As if embarrassing him and making him feel awkward wasn't a form of disrespect.
"Come on, guys. Get up already!"
The pilgrims kept chanting. He wasn't even sure most of them could hear him over the loud chants.
Li Yundong rolled his eyes. "Fine! Mahakala orders all of you to stand up!"
The chanting stopped immediately. Clothes rustled as everyone rose to their feet like obedient soldiers. Li Yundong resisted the urge to do a face palm.
"Alright, guys. Look… I think there's some kind of mistake here. I'm not Mahakala—"
"You're too humble, kind sir," Changbagela said with a smile.
Meiduo bowed reverently. "That's right, Brother Li. We've seen what you're capable of. Twice now, in fact."
"But I don't even know who this Mahakala is!"
A look of surprise flashed across Meiduo's face. A second later, she schooled her features and assumed a look of reverence again. "Mahakala is a protector deity that we Tibetan Buddhists worship..."
Gee, thanks. That explained a lot.
Li Yundong gave Meiduo a blank stare.
Meiduo smiled shyly. "And he's the Dharma Protector and the Lord of Justice."
Li Yundong forced out a smile. "Well, good for you guys. I truly hope you'll get to meet this awesome deity one day."
Meiduo looked at Li Yundong from under her lashes. "Perhaps we already did." Reverence shone in her eyes.
Li Yundong sighed. "Look, like I said, I'm not—"
"We think you're a reincarnation of Mahakala sent to protect our people," Meiduo said, cutting him off.
"Reincarnation…" Li Yundong said in a skeptical tone. "Which part of me looks like a deity?" He gestured down his own body.
Meiduo blushed and waved her hands a few times. "Oh… I mean I know you don't have six arms, three faces, and all that, but—"
"What did you say?" Li Yundong whispered, his eyes narrowing into slits.
Chills travelled down his spine as every single muscle inside his body went taut. Meiduo had just described the physical appearance of his personal god, the one he saw inside his Spirit Space when he achieved Ishvara.
How the hell could she possibly know what his personal god looked like?
Meiduo frowned and shared a glance with Changbagela. "Um…"
"You said six arms and three faces!" Li Yundong snapped, causing Meiduo to flinch. "What do you mean by that?"
Meiduo's eyes flicked towards Changbagela's face.
"Explain yourself," Li Yundong said sharply.
"At ease, kind sir. She meant no harm by that. In fact, what she said is common knowledge among us Tibetans," Changbagela said gently.
Li Yundong raised his brows. "Common knowledge?"
Changbagela nodded. "That's right, sir."
"That's Mahakala's physical form, Brother Li," Meiduo explained hurriedly. "Six arms and three faces."
Li Yundong stared at Meiduo for a few seconds before relaxing his stance. A moment later, he tensed up again. "Wait a minute…" His eyes snapped to Meiduo. "Just now you said I was sent here to protect your people…"
Silence pervaded as Li Yundong waited for Meiduo to elaborate. When he didn't get an answer seconds later, he raised both hands and sighed heavily. "Look, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but you've really mistaken me for someone else. I am not your protector. And I'm definitely not here to stay. I must return to my city the moment I—"
Li Yundong held his tongue before he let slip about the true reason he was here.
He cleared his throat. "I mean I'll leave after I get what I came here for." He finished lamely and let his hands drop to his sides.
Granted, it was still a matter of some debate whether or not he was able to leave Tibet alive, but none of the pilgrims needed to know that.
Whispers spread over the crowd.
People were giving him strange looks now. Some of them even looked crestfallen, like they just had all their hopes crushed. Perhaps this was why Zi Yuan had warned him to mind his own goddamn business and to minimize social contact once he crossed Tibetan borders.
Li Yundong took a step back, then bent down to put on his shoes. A twinge of guilt coursed through him. He sighed and removed the shoes, then stood back up. He approached Meiduo and took her hands before pressing the shoes into her hands. Meiduo stared back at him in utter confusion.
"You should keep them." Li Yundong nodded at the shoes in her hands. "The other men need them more than I do." He pointed at one of the pilgrims with muddy shoes.
Then, Li Yundong turned towards Changbagela. "And about that book you gave me…" Li Yundong sighed. "I really think you should take it back. It belongs to the temple. I have no right to take it."
Changbagela opened his mouth to protest, but Li Yundong was already backing away.
Changbagela reached out to grab Li Yundong's arm. Something fell out from the sleeve of his robe. Li Yundong glanced down at the fallen object and realized that it was a string of prayer beads. Li Yundong picked up the prayer beads from the ground and studied it for a moment.
All the beads were brown in color except for six of them.
Each of those six beads had its own color—white, green, yellow, blue, red, and black—and they were all evenly spread out.
Li Yundong looked up from the prayer bead and found Changbagela eyeing him curiously. Li Yundong raised the beads higher. "Why are there six beads with different colors than the rest?"
Changbagela flashed a smile and waved his hand casually. "Well, they represent the colors of a special mantra."
Six beads… Six syllables?
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute…
"Which mantra?" Li Yundong asked anxiously.
"The om mani padme hum mantra." Changbagela paused and gave Li Yundong a strange look. "Have you heard of it before?"
Li Yundong exhaled slowly and started pacing around.
His mind was reeling.
"That's one of the mantras mentioned in the Mahamudra Tantra…" he whispered to himself.
"I beg your pardon, sir?" Changbagela asked.
Li Yundong ignored the man and kept pacing.
"The Intelligent Fist…" he mumbled to himself. "Mahavairocana's hand sign…"
Suddenly, he stopped pacing. Wait… what if…
He raised the prayer beads to eye level and studied the six beads again.
Five of those six beads had colors that corresponded to Zhang Zhongjing's Five-Organ Pathological Model first presented in The Essential Prescriptions from the Golden Cabinet. Su Chan had told him about the Five-Organ Pathological Model the other night before he passed the Lianqi phase.
And according to the Five-Organ Pathological Model, each of the five Zangs in the human body was color-coded: white for the Lung; green for the Liver; yellow for the Spleen; red for the Heart; and black for the Kidney.
Was it just a coincidence that five of those six beads had colors that corresponded to the colors of the Five Zang's Qis?
Wait. What about the remaining bead? What about blue?
Li Yundong lowered the prayer beads and turned around abruptly to face Changbagela. "What does the color blue represent?"
Changbagela stared at him blankly. Not that Li Yundong could blame the old man. The guy was probably surprised by Li Yundong's sudden show of interest in the prayer beads. After all, the beads themselves looked innocuous enough.
"Well?" Li Yundong prompted when Changbagela didn't answer him. "Why is one of the beads blue?"
"Blue corresponds to the syllable pad in padme."
"Okay, but what does it mean? What does it represent?"
Just like that, a million light bulbs went off inside Li Yundong's head.
"Wisdom…" he whispered.
"Yes," Changbagela said with a nod. "Blue represents the elimination of moha from one's character or existence. In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a concept known as the three poisons, or what we call the three defects of one's character: Moha; Raga; and Dvesha. Moha refers to delusion, confusion, and ignorance."
A smile tugged at Li Yundong's lips. "So it's a code…" He chuckled. "Now I see…"
Changbagela frowned. "Code? What code?"
Li Yundong laughed and handed the prayer beads back to Changbagela.
Blue represents wisdom, and wisdom comes from the mind or, in other words, the upper Dantian. When he was memorizing the contents of the Mahamudra Tantra, he had a hunch that those hand signs and mantras were all linked somehow.
Now, it seemed like his hunch might be right.
The Convergence of Five Qis.
That, was the key to unleashing the Intelligent Fist.
It all just fit together perfectly. Each of the six syllables was associated with a color. At the same time, five of those colors represented the colors of the Five Zangs' Qis. The remaining color, blue, represented the upper Dantian. When put together, the meaning was obvious: to unlock the power of the Intelligent Fist, the Qis of the Five Zangs had to be drawn out and then gathered at the upper Dantian, which, in essence, was just the Convergence of Five Qis.
Well. So far this was all just theory. He had to test it out to be sure.
Li Yundong began to walk away from the crowd.
"Brother Li!" Meiduo yelled. "Where are you going?"
He kept striding uphill without looking back.
Suddenly, he stopped walking and turned around. Then, his eyes swept over the crowd. "Don't follow me," he said sternly. "I need you guys to give me a few hours alone."
With that, he turned around again and continued his path uphill.
Yeah. They really should stay away from him.
It was for their own good.
Because if he was right, then things were about to get dangerous.
Chapter 176 Epiphany (Part 2)
Meiduo stared at the shoes in her hands. Everyone was now back at the camp, sitting around, resting and chatting. After Brother Li's hurried departure, Changbagela had decided to postpone their journey for another day, which meant they would set off tomorrow morning instead of today as planned. Changbagela wanted to wait for Brother Li to return first before they set off again. Nobody had outright admitted it, but everyone felt much safer with Brother Li there to guard them from the wolves. Even more so after everyone saw Brother Li effortlessly lift a jeep out of a deep mud hole a few hours ago.
That feat had cemented everyone's believe that Brother Li was indeed Mahakala's reincarnation sent to protect their people. Now, even some of the men (who'd initially been skeptical about Brother Li's abilities) couldn't help but be in awe with Brother Li's strength. Meiduo herself was sold on the idea ever since she saw Brother Li put a dent in a rock from 10 meters away. And she was pretty sure that Changbagela was the same. But of course, it was Changbagela who suggested the idea of Brother Li being the living reincarnation of Mahakala in the first place.
Meiduo sighed and lowered the shoes onto the wagon's surface. About time too, since she'd been staring at them for the past few hours since Brother Li left. It was now noon with the sun hanging high in the sky.
Still, there were no signs of Brother Li.
His backpack was gone too.
Maybe he left them already.
The wagon swayed a little when someone took a seat beside her. Her heart hit her stomach when she turned and saw that it was only Changbagela.
Meiduo scooted the side for make room for Changbagela. Then she pulled up her feet and hugged her knees to her chest.
They sat there quietly for a while, watching the other pilgrims bustled around with various chores.
"Maybe we should just be on our way…" Meiduo said, hoping that Changbagela couldn't detect the sadness and dejection in her tone.
When Changbagela didn't answer right away, Meiduo turned her head to look at him. Changbagela was turning those colored prayer beads in his hands. He seemed distracted.
Changbagela shook his head a few times and put the prayer beads away. "Sorry," he said, then gave her a smile. "You said something, Meiduo?"
Meiduo hugged her knees tighter. "I said maybe we should continue our journey on our own…" Those words left a bad taste to her mouth. "He's probably on his way already. His things are already gone."
Brother Li didn't even take the Mahamudra Tantra with him.
A small part of Meiduo hoped that Brother Li would return for the book, though she knew that it wasn't likely. After all, he did say that he had memorized the whole book.
Still, the book was rather thick…
"It's already noon," Changbagela said, bringing Meiduo out of her reverie. He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the glaring sun. "It's pointless to set off now, since we won't be able to go far before we have to stop for the night. We might as well just wait until tomorrow."
Meiduo heaved a small sigh of relief. She didn't want to just leave Brother Li behind. Well, she didn't want to be separated from Brother Li, period. And deep down, she knew the real reason she wanted him to stay, and it had nothing to do with wolves. When Brother Li hugged her this morning…
She felt so warm and safe inside his arms.
She wanted to experience it again.
Maybe Brother Li felt something for her too. Why would he hug her out of the blue if he didn't at least have some feelings for her? Maybe there was a chance they could…
Meiduo turned her face away from Changbagela to hide her blush.
"Besides, some of the others are still exhausted from yesterday's journey," Changbagela continued. "And the climb will be even more difficult past this point. It might be a good idea to rest for an extra day so that we can regain our strength for the journey ahead."
Silence passed between them.
After a while, Meiduo began to play with the shoes she'd made for Brother Li.
"Do you think he left already?" Meiduo asked carefully, half-afraid to hear Changbagela's answer. Changbagela always had a knack for reading people and their behaviors. He was also a great judge of character. That was how he had garnered so much respect from the lamas and even the guardian sentinels. He could smell evil and sin from miles away.
"I don't know," Changbagela said. "But I don't think he'd leave without at least saying goodbye." Changbagela laughed. "He's too honorable, Meiduo."
Meiduo pondered Changbagela's words for a moment.
"Amitabha… A man like him, a man of honor, is in short supply these days. Sad." Changbagela paused. "But true."
"An honorable man..." Meiduo said wistfully.
"Indeed he is…" Changbagela shifted slightly on the wagon. "He brought me back to life. He rejected my offer to repay him several times now." Changbagela chuckled. "And did you see the way he tried to return the Mahamudra Tantra earlier? A lesser man would've taken the text and then resold it back to the temple at a high price!"
Changbagela made a good point.
"There's something special about him, Meiduo. I'm certain of it," Changbagela said. "I just don't know what it is."
Meiduo had to agree. She was certain that Changbagela was gone before Brother Li brought him back to life. At first she thought that perhaps Brother Li was a worshipper of the Healing Buddha. In Tibetan Buddhism practices, worshippers of the Healing Buddha perform healing rituals by chanting the healing mantra 108 times: Tadyatha Om Bhekhaze Bhekhaze Maha Bhekhaze Bhekhaze Radza Samungate Swaha. But when Brother Li revived Changbagela, she could've sworn that he didn't make a sound.
A group of men were walking towards the wagon.
Meiduo stole a glance at the men and shifted in her seat. "The others said that they felt safer with Brother Li travelling with us."
Changbagela nodded. "I'm aware of that. But let's not forget that the whole point of a pilgrimage is to show our devotion to Buddha. A pilgrimage is not meant to be easy. Whatever that may come our way, we must face them, with or without his help."
Meiduo kept quiet. The men stopped in front of wagon. One of them, a senior member of their group and one of Changbagela's trusted disciples, greeted Changbagela with a bow.
Changbagela pressed his palms together and nodded.
"The foreigners have requested to join our camp for the night," said the man.
"Then we shall open our camps to them and see to their needs," Changbagela replied in a heartbeat.
Two men left the group, most likely to carry out Changbagela's orders.
"You know, Meiduo…"
Meiduo looked up from the shoes and found the man staring at back at her.
"There might be a way to keep him," said the man.
"Nobody is keeping anyone," Changbagela said sternly. "Whether he stays with us is entirely up to him. We cannot, and will not, force him to stay. "
"My apologies, Changbagela," said the man. "Perhaps I should've phrased my suggestion better. I don't mean forcing him to stay with us. I am merely suggesting that we give him a reason to stay…"
The man shot a pointed look at Meiduo.
Meiduo blushed and looked towards Changbagela.
Changbagela's eyes were now closed, and there was a peaceful look on his face. Meiduo would be lying if she said she hadn't been entertaining that thought herself. Would Brother Li stay for her sake? This morning, he had looked at her with eyes filled with desire. Maybe there was a chance if she offered herself to him…
Changbagela sighed. "As long as nobody is forcing anybody to do something against their will…"
Meiduo construed that as Changbagela's approval.
The question was, would Brother Li accept her?
Li Yundong gripped his hair with both hands and paced around the large rock he'd been sitting on for the past few hours. He had tried everything he could think of, but nothing worked.
He tried converging his Five Qis first before performing the hand sign. When that didn't work, he thought maybe he got the order wrong, so he did it in reverse—performing the hand sign first before converging his Five Qis.
After that, he began messing around with the order in which he channeled the Qis of his Five Zangs into his upper Dantian.
The mantra went like this: om mani padme hum.
And based on Changbagela's explanation, it was obvious that each syllable of the mantra was associated with a colored bead; Changbagela mentioned that the color blue corresponded to the syllable pad in padme.
It made sense to assume that the rest of the syllables were color-coded as well. In that case, if his interpretation of the mantra's coded message was correct, then it follows that each syllable of the mantra—other than pad—would correspond to a Zang. And since the syllables were to be uttered in a certain order (as defined by the mantra), then perhaps the Qis of the Five Zangs should be channeled into the upper Dantian in that specific order as well. But he didn't know which color corresponded to which syllable other than the fact that pad corresponded to blue, so he ended up trying out all 120 different permutations of sequencing the Qis of his Five Zangs, which took him hours to complete. Fruitless hours, since he literally got nothing out of his efforts.
Li Yundong stopped pacing and leaned his back against a rock. He'd found this place after a fifteen-minute trek from the camp. It was far away enough from the camp to provide him with the privacy he needed as well as to ensure the pilgrims' safety from whatever he was doing. He had brought his backpack along too. He didn't want to leave the Fan of Seven Treasures out of his sight.
Li Yundong pushed away from the rock and huffed out in frustration. "I'm missing something…"
Was it the code?
Had he interpreted the code wrongly?
No. His interpretation fit the code too perfectly to be wrong. What if there was another piece of code that he had yet to crack? That was certainly a reasonable assumption. As far as he could tell, the Buddhists loved to speak in code. What if every single aspect of the technique contained a hidden code, like some kind of cipher?
Li Yundong jumped onto the rock and got into a meditative posture, ready to explore his newfound insight. Okay. Think. What are all the elements that make up the technique? First, there was the mantra. Then, there were the colors corresponding to each of the Five Zangs. And…
The hand sign!
Perhaps the hand sign itself contained the final piece of the puzzle.
Feeling a surge of excitement, Li Yundong performed the Intelligent Fist hand sign as shown in the Mahamudra Tantra, making sure to go through each step slowly this time. He held out his left hand and pointed the index finger upwards at the sky. Then, he wrapped all five fingers of his right hand around the top half of the left index finger, ensuring that the tips of his two index fingers touched each other.
Li Yundong froze.
Something clicked inside his mind.
What if the five fingers of the right hand represent the Qis of the Five Zangs, and the fact that they are wrapped around the tip of the left index finger represents the Convergence of Five Qis? Which means…
The tip of the left index finger must represent the upper Dantian.
Li Yundong unwrapped the fingers of his right hand from his left index finger, then brought his left index finger to his eye level. He studied his finger for a moment, taking note of its features. Two lines cut across the length of the finger, dividing it into three sections.
Wait. Three sections…
"Oh my God…" he whispered, and slowly let his hand drop.
The three Dantians. Each of the three sections represents a Dantian!
He raised his index finger again and stared hard at it. When all three sections were connected together, they formed the entire length of the index finger. So using the same analogy, if he connected his three Dantians together...
The Bridging of the Three Gates. That had to be the missing element. He had to perform the hand sign, converge his Five Qis, and then connect his three Dantians together using his Qi.
Li Yundong exhaled slowly. Time to test it all out. He rose to his feet so that he was standing on the tall rock. Then, he turned away from the direction of the camp to face the woods, where clumps of tall trees stretched far beyond where he stood. The sun had set an hour ago, so the sky was dark.
He performed the Intelligent Fist hand sign, and then guided the Qis of his five Zangs into his upper Dantian. He hesitated at the final step. The Mahamudra Tantra didn't mention the effects of the technique, so he didn't know what to expect.
Maybe I'll try with a little bit of Qi first and see what happens.
He gathered a tiny portion of his Qi at his lower Dantian.
Right. Here goes… He held the hand sign away from his chest, just in case. At least it wouldn't be too close to his heart when things went to shit—like when his hands blow up or something.
He exhaled and bridged the Three Gates.
His hands exploded in a flash of gold the moment his Qi passed his upper Dantian to reach his Baihui. The next thing he knew, a golden apparition of the hand sign flew out from his hands and barreled towards the trees. He was so surprised that he lost his footing and fell off the rock with a loud yelp.
There was a strange roar, which lasted for seconds on end until all he could hear was the splitting of wood and the rustling of leaves.
When things quieted down, he climbed to his feet and peeked out from behind the rock.
"Holy shit…" he whispered.
He had just cleared an entire path through the forest.
Chapter 177 Parting Song (Part 1)
When Li Yundong returned to the camps
fifteen minutes later, every single one of the pilgrims were on their feet,
staring at him with frightful eyes. A few men even had their rifles out while others
were armed with hunting bows. Some of the women were hiding inside the
Relief spread across each of their faces
when they saw that it was him.
Li Yundong strode past the frightened
crowd and stopped in front of Changbagela. "What's the matter? Y'all look
like you've just seen a ghost."
Changbagela seemed a little shaken as
well. "There was a strange noise," he said. "We thought it was
"Oh no, that was me," Li
Yundong said. "I was…"
Was what? Blowing shit up? Deforesting?
"Training." Li Yundong cleared
his throat. "I was training."
The colors returned to Changbagela's
countenance. "So there weren't any wolves?" Suddenly, Changbagela gave
him a reverent look. "Or… Did you take care of the wolves as… you know,
part of your training?"
Li Yundong laughed. "No. There were
no wolves." Li Yundong turned towards the armed men who looked like they
were about to charge into a war zone. "Y'all can relax."
Changbagela sighed and waved to his
followers. "Alright, settle down, people. No wolves, so we're safe. Return
to your tents and get some rest."
There was a collective sigh, after which
the crowd began to disperse.
"Changbagela," Li Yundong said
when Changbagela turned away to leave. "May I have a word in
From the corner of his eyes, Li Yundong saw
Meiduo watching him curiously. She was holding the shoes he had returned to her.
Something about Meiduo felt different.
"Sure. Follow me." Changbagela
smiled and began to walk away.
Li Yundong followed Changbagela until
they reached the inside of Changbagela's tent. Li Yundong declined the glass of
water that Changbagela had offered him and sat down at a corner of the large
Changbagela lowered himself across from
him and arranged himself into a meditative posture. "So. Are you going to
tell me who you really are?"
Li Yundong's gaze rose sharply.
Changbagela merely smiled at him.
"I know there's something special about you, so I gave it a little thought
and made a few educated guesses. Are you perhaps…" His brows rose just a
tad. "A Cultivator?"
Li Yundong held Changbagela's gaze for a
moment, then let his head drop. "Yes..."
Changbagela closed his eyes and pressed
his palms together. "Amitabha… Perhaps there is some truth after all in
the saying that you're the reincarnation of Mahakala…"