When Su Chan noticed Yundong's frown for the 50th time since they came home, she couldn't take it anymore.
"Yundong... What's wrong?"
Yundong looked away from the TV and gave her a smile. The frown was still there. "Nothing's wrong," he said.
Liar... Su Chan shook her head. "You've been acting strange since you went away to talk to that guy..."
Yundong looked away. Su Chan shifted herself on the couch until their shoulders were touching, then turned his head so that he was looking at her. Su Chan ran her thumb across Yundong's forehead as though to smooth away the frown. "That man said something to upset you, didn't he?"
Yundong sighed and attempted another reassuring smile, which failed miserably. "It was nothing, Chan'er. Really. So don't worry about it, okay?"
Su Chan held Yundong's gaze for a moment. Not buying it, beloved. I'm not buying it... She looked down, then took Yundong's hand, intertwining their fingers together. She raised their joined hands to his eye-level. She gave Yundong a few moments to stare at their hands.
"Yundong..." Su Chan lowered their hands so that they were resting on her thigh. "Right now, you are my training partner and lover. I trust you with my life. So I hope you can trust me with yours too. And I hope..."
When she didn't continue her sentence after a few seconds, Yundong turned in his seat to stare at her. Su Chan looked up and met his gentle gaze. "I want to share your burdens in the future, okay?"
The warmth of Yundong's hand caressed her cheek. "Aww... Looks like our chipmunk isn't as obtuse as she seemed. So you have a sensitive side after all!"
Su Chan gaped at Yundong. Obtuse? How dare he! Su Chan smacked his hand away. "Who are you calling obtuse! And I'm not a cheap monk! Hmph!"
Li Yundong burst into laughter. Seconds later, his expression turned sober. "I guess I was wondering if I've made a mistake."
A mistake? What was he talking about? "What mistake, beloved?" Su Chan waited patiently for Yundong to answer. It took about a minute or so before Yundong finally opened his mouth. "I basically told a powerful government official to shove it." Yundong looked at her worriedly. "I doubt he would take it well…"
Oh. So he was worried about that trivial thing. Su Chan chuckled in amusement. "I thought it was something serious."
Li Yundong stared at her as though she had suddenly become bald. "I've pissed off the frigging deputy governor! You don't think that's a serious matter?"
Su Chan smiled. "Yundong... You're now a trainee Cultivator. And once you passed the Zhuji phase, you'll become a true Cultivator. You have nothing to fear, Yundong. Normal people will revere you!"
Li Yundong pondered her words for a moment. "The Zhuji phase, huh?"
Su Chan nodded. "The fourth phase of Cultivation. It's the first step to become a true Cultivator."
Li Yundong nodded. "And once you pass all phases of Cultivation, you become a Shenxian, right?"
Su Chan gave him a nod. "That's right." Then she paused to look at him. "But Cultivation is only one of the ways to become a Shenxian."
Yundong's head whipped to the side. When Su Chan met his gaze, he seemed surprised.
"What? You mean there are other ways to become a Shenxian?"
Su Chan smiled at him. "Many ways, in fact. Okay. So tell me. What is a Shenxian? I've told you this before."
Yundong stared at the ceiling or a moment. "Um... A Shenxian is someone who is immortal?"
"True," Su Chan said. "Well, technically speaking, a Shenxian is someone who has achieved spiritual transcendence."
Yundong snapped his fingers. "By becoming one with the Tao."
Su Chan nodded and snuggled closer to Yundong. "When someone becomes one with the Tao, their existence transcends mortality." Su Chan paused to let Yundong process her words. Moments later, she continued, "What is the Tao? The Tao is the natural order that governs the Universe. But the Universe is so big and complicated. It has many, many aspects."
"I see." Yundong lowered his gaze from the ceiling to look at her. "So that's why there are many paths towards transcendence. Because the Tao manifests itself in different forms."
Su Chan smiled. "Take the King of Medicine, Sun Simiao, for example. He achieved transcendence through his mastery of the art of healing."
Yundong chuckled. "Yeah. You told me before that Sun Simiao is a Shenxian." He shook his head. "I just didn't believe you back then."
Su Chan looked at Yundong. "But now you do?"
Yundong nodded. "Now I do."
Good. Yundong had to start getting use to these things now. Once he passed the Zhuji phase, he would be capable of even more extraordinary feats. And by the time he reached the Shentong phase, he would be able to fly and use magic. Su Chan trailed her fingers down Yundong's forearm. This strong arm had saved many lives already despite Yundong's lack of training. There were times when Su Chan found herself wondering whether Yundong's consumption of the Renyuan Jindan was really just happenstance. After all, despite its power, the Renyuan Jindan couldn't change a person's aptitude in Cultivation. Yet, through an unlikely chain of events, the Renyuan Jindan somehow ended up inside the body of a man who could visualize nine lotus thrones in a row. All of it screamed the work of a higher power. Still, Su Chan couldn't prove it. It was merely conjecture at this point.
"You alright?" Yundong's voice broke her reverie. "You've gone quiet all of a sudden."
Su Chan cleared her throat. "Where were we?"
"We were talking about transcendence," Yundong said, then shot her a worried look. "You sure you're alright?"
"I'm fine." Su Chan waved him off. "Anyway. Transcendence, or unity with the Tao, can be achieved through the complete mastery of an art. The art of Cultivation is just one of many."
"Right. Sun Simiao did it through the art of healing."
Su Chan nodded. "Some arts are only available to Cultivators though. Like the magical arts, for instance." Su Chan turned her head slightly to gauge Yundong's reaction.
Yundong was still staring at the ceiling. "Magic, huh?"
"Yes. You've encountered one already."
Yundong tore his gaze away from the ceiling and looked at her.
Su Chan nodded. "The art of Shenda."
Yundong sighed. "Oh. That crazy old man."
"Remember that yellow paper you saw yesterday?"
"Yeah. The old man was burning it before he transformed."
"Mmm. That was a talisman. Some spells require talismans."
Suddenly, Yundong clapped his hands together. "Holy shit..."
Su Chan sat up straighter. "What?"
Yundong eyed her suspiciously. "Is that why the flames disappeared from the stove? Because you performed some kind of magic on the stove?"
Su Chan's cheeks heated up. "I- I might have used a spell or two..."
Yundong laughed. "And then after the kitchen blew up, you mentioned something about the talismans from some whatchamacallit school. I didn't even know what you were talking about back then."
Su Chan stole a glance at Yundong through her lashes. "A- Are you still mad at me about that?"
Yundong stared at her for a moment, then laughed. "Nah. I'm over it." He ruffled her hair. "Besides, I like our new place better."
Su Chan sighed in relief and leaned against Yundong's chest.
"So what makes Cultivation so special then?" Yundong asked.
Su Chan frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Well... I mean, if people can become Shenxians through the mastery of other arts, why bother with Cultivation at all? Cuz' it seems difficult as hell."
Hmm. That was a very interesting question. Su Chan had to pause for a moment to think of the best explanation. Then again, this was a good sign; it showed that Yundong was on the way to completing the 6th dan of the Ningshen phase. Su Chan took a breath and began her explanation. "In general, the likelihood of transcendence depends on the complexity of the art. The higher the complexity, the more likely it is for one to achieve transcendence." Su Chan paused to let that sink in.
"Right. That makes sense. There are a lot of brilliant doctors out there, but not many of them became Shenxians. Somehow only Sun Simiao did..." Yundong suddenly turned to the side to face her. "Come to think of it. How did Sun Simiao become a Shenxian? Did he, like, suddenly grew wings and rose to the sky or something?"
Su Chan burst into giggles. Yundong and his funny ideas. How cute. "No, I don't think so, beloved."
"Well, then how?"
Su Chan shook her head a few times. "Only he knows. But according to history, he became a Shenxian after he turned a hundred years old. Anyway. The point is, unlike other arts, once you master the art of Cultivation, you are guaranteed to become a Shenxian. For other arts, it depends on the depth of your understanding. It's just like you said, there are many good doctors out there who didn't become Shenxians."
Yundong went silent in thought. "Okay. So let's say we compare two people who have achieved transcendence through different arts, one in the art of Cultivation while the other in some other art. Like, sure, they are both Shenxians, but they are still different, right?"
"Of course. Actually, Shenxian is just an umbrella term that refers to immortal, transcendent beings. Their specific abilities are different and depend on the path they have taken towards transcendence. Those who transcended through the art of Cultivation will have magical powers aside from their immortality." Su Chan chuckled. "By the way, that's also why most Shenxians have magical powers, because most of them used to be Cultivators. Like I said, the art of Cultivation is the surest path to transcendence. It's more difficult to become a Shenxian through the mastery of other arts."
Silence spread between them. Su Chan stole a glance at Yundong to see if he had fallen asleep. As it turned out, she couldn't have been more wrong. Yundong's eyes were wide open and they were burning with intensity as he stared up at the ceiling.
"So Shenxians..." Yundong finally said after a minute or so. "They're basically deities, aren't they?"
Su Chan chuckled. "That's not entirely accurate. Okay, well, by definition, all deities are Shenxians. However, not all Shenxians are deities."
Yundong looked at her in confusion. Su Chan smoothed her thumb over the crease in his forehead. "In his book, Baopuzi, Ge Hong wrote an essay on the subject of Shenxians. According to him, humans can become Shenxians by achieving oneness with the Tao. Even so, oneness with the Tao doesn't make them deities. A Shenxian only becomes a deity when mortals willingly worship them. Worship as in they pray, make offerings, and burn incense to the deities."
Yundong stared at her for a moment. "So, like, the more worshippers they have the more powerful they are?"
Su Chan nodded. "That's why Guan Yu is such a powerful Shenxian—and deity—even though he wasn't a Cultivator. Guan Yu became a Shenxian through the mastery of the art of war and the martial arts. But a lot of people worship him."
Su Chan raised her head from Yundong's chest when she felt him shudder. "What's wrong?" she asked, failing to keep the worry out of her tone.
"Just thinking back to that fight with Lin Youfa." Yundong shook his head. "That guy could really hit, princess. It made sense now that you mentioned how powerful Guan Yu is. I got kicked around like a helpless puppy."
Su Chan snorted. "I'm sorry to tell you this, beloved. But what you saw yesterday doesn't even come close to Guan Yu's true power." Su Chan laughed when Yundong gaped at her. Su Chan patted Yundong's cheeks a few times. "The art of Shenda allows the user to borrow only a small portion of a deity's power. It's like offering a prayer—or a sacrifice—to a deity in exchange for their help." Su Chan rolled her eyes and snorted. "Do you really think a deity would grant a Cultivator their full power?"
Yundong cleared his throat. "Fair enough."
They stayed in each other's arms in comfortable silence. Su Chan's mind began to wander. She began to think about their future—if they had one, that is—together, about the challenges they might have to face. Moments later, something occurred to her.
She sat up and looked at Yundong. "Yundong... Do you want to be a Cultivator?"
She realized that she had never really asked Yundong whether Cultivation was a path he wanted to take. The life of a Cultivator wasn't smooth sailing. It was filled with trials and tribulations that would destroy a lesser person.
Yundong's answering nod was resolute. "Of course!"
"Why? Why do you want to be a Cultivator?"
When Yundong opened his mouth, Su Chan's hand shot out and covered it. "Take your time to think about it first before you answer."
When Yundong nodded, Su Chan lowered her hand. Yundong's gaze was focused on the ceiling again. Su Chan relaxed against his side and listened to his steady heartbeat. This was an important step for him. He needed to find his purpose and reason to pursue the art of Cultivation. When things get tough, it was this purpose that he would fall back on, this purpose that would motivate him to push forward and continue his journey.
"I guess I want to make a difference in the world," Yundong said after a long while.
Su Chan sat up and regarded him curiously, waiting for him to go on.
Their gazes met when Yundong suddenly turned his head. "I want to make the world a better place."
Su Chan nodded. Yundong's selflessness was one of the first things that Su Chan had noticed about his personality. That, and also his powerful sense of justice.
"There are people out there who are just bullies, you know?" Yundong said, shaking his head. "People like He Shao, Liu Chuan, and Zheng Youming... They walked all over others just because they're rich and powerful. I don't like that." Yundong took a breath. "And then this thing"—Yundong gestured up and down his body—"inside me." He paused to look at her. Su Chan nodded. He was talking about the Renyuan Jindan. "I want to put it to good use. I want to use it to help others. To protect others from bullies like He Shao."
Suddenly, Yundong blushed and looked away sheepishly. "I know it all sounds like some lame and clichéd storyline from a superhero movie, but it's true." Yundong held her gaze again. He was no longer blushing. "I've been bullied and treated like trash all my life, so I know what it feels like to be bullied. That feeling of helplessness and powerlessness..." Yundong shook his head. "It's not a good feeling. It puts you in a dark place that sometimes feels inescapable. It's like being sucked into a never-ending, dark tunnel. Sometimes, you feel so worthless that you start to wonder why you even exist." There was a pregnant pause. "I guess I want to spare someone else from having to live through all that shit."
Something tugged inside Su Chan's chest. Poor Yundong. It hurt to even consider how the world had treated such a good man. Even though Su Chan was despised—because she was a fox spirit— by a lot of Cultivators from other schools and sects, she still had Master. But Yundong had no one; even his parents had abandoned him. Su Chan clung tighter to his arm. Not anymore. He has me now. For as long as he wants me at least.
Yundong chuckled all of a sudden. "And then you came along."
Su Chan lifted her head slightly. Yundong reached over and hook a strand of her hair behind her ear. "You came into my life and gave me a chance to make a difference. And..." Yundong looked away. "You saw something in me. Like I'm someone worth a damn, you know?" He chuckled in disbelief, then looked at her pointedly. "You said it yourself. You could've taken that thing away from me, but you didn't. You changed your mind." Yundong cupped her cheeks. "I want to prove that you've made the right choice. And also... I want to become a man worthy of you, a man who deserves your love."
Something wet touched her cheeks. Su Chan sniffed. She'd been crying for Tao knows how long, and she didn't even know it. She pulled away and dried her tears with her sleeves.
"I'm sorry, princess," Yundong said. "I didn't mean to make you cry."
Su Chan shook her head.
"Are you alright?"
Su Chan wiped her cheeks again and smiled at him. "Mmm!"
Yundong's face broke into a grin. "So the answer is hell yes! I'm going to work hard and become the best Cultivator I can be!" He pumped his fist in the air. The sliding door rattled slightly.
Su Chan cleared her throat. "Once you pass the Zhuji phase and reach the Shentong phase, you will have to make some choices though..."
Yundong visibly tensed, out of wariness or excitement she couldn't tell. "Choices? What do you mean?"
"When you reach the Shentong phase, you can start to use magic. But there are different types of magic out there. You have to pick one to learn first."
Yundong closed his eyes. When he reopen them seconds later, they were filled with determination. "I want to learn the most powerful type of magic."
Su Chan regarded Yundong seriously. Should she tell him? Master will probably teach him if I beg her... Fear coursed through Su Chan. But that kind of magic was not only difficult to learn, but dangerous as well. Have faith in him, Chan'er... Nine lotus thrones, remember? Nine!
Yundong nudged her. "What? What's the matter?"
Su Chan leaned forward and took his hand. "Of all types of magic known to Cultivators, there is only one that is universally acknowledged as the most powerful magic. The Five Thunders Spell."
"The Five Thunders Spell?"
Su Chan nodded. "According to Chinese philosophy, the material world consists of five elements. Gold, wood, water, fire, and earth. The usage of these elements is common and doesn't require any magic at all. You can see the usage of these elements in everyday life. But thunder..." Su Chan looked deep into Yundong's eyes. "There is something sacred about thunder. Of all the forces of nature, thunder is the most fearsome of all. But the problem is, nobody can really harness its true power without the use of magic. And that's what the Five Thunders Spell is all about."
Yundong sat up straighter. "So it's about controlling and harnessing the force of thunder?"
Su Chan nodded. "Once you master it, you'll be able to summon thunder, lightning, and even control the weather with a flick of a finger."
Yundong's eyes went wide. "Good God... That's insane…"
"It is the prime form of all magical arts known in the Cultivation world. It is also the most difficult type of magic to master. To learn it, you have to first master both Internal and External Alchemy, and believe it or not, that's actually the easy part. The most difficult challenge lies in getting your Spirit to be in complete harmony with Heaven and Earth."
Su Chan didn't know what to make of the look of excitement on Yundong's face. She liked that he was showing interest in the Five Thunders Spell, but the idea of him dying in the process of mastering it made her sick to her stomach.
Su Chan got up from the couch and sat down cross-legged on the floor. They were now face to face with the coffee table separating them. Su Chan studied Yundong for a moment, then sighed. "There's something else you need to know..."
Yundong's butt inched forward until it was at the edge of the couch. "What?"
"Learning the spell poses great risks. There's a chance you might lose your life..."
"Your Spirit has to be in harmony with Heaven and Earth the whole time you're using the spell. That is actually what allows you to command the power of nature. But the moment you lose focus, the spell will turn on you, and you'll be struck. And if you're struck, not even the King of Medicine, Sun Simiao can save you."
Yundong stared at her in silence.
"I want you to think carefully before you make a decision, Yundong. Are you sure you want to learn it?"
Yundong smirked. "Yes..."
"B- But it's difficult to master! Thousands of Cultivators have tried to master it, but only a few have succeeded!"
Yundong shook his head. "I've been a useless nobody all my life, princess. Now that I have a chance to achieve something great, I'll never walk away from it."
Either he didn't understand how great the risks were, or he was just that brave. Su Chan took a deep breath. "Are you certain, Yundong? Are you absolutely certain?"
Yundong nodded. "Yes. I'm certain." Then, he looked deep into her eyes. "Teach me."
Su Chan twiddled her fingers. "I don't know the spell..."
Yundong's butt slid off the edge of the couch and hit the floor.