"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...