The orange glow of dusk spread across the sky of Tiannan City. Zi Yuan lowered herself onto the balcony of Hongling's apartment. Her feet felt slightly wobbly, so she reached out with a hand and grabbed the railing for support. A three-hour flight from Tibet to Tiannan City without stops was draining even for a Cultivator at her level. The observer cloud that she'd deployed to follow Li Yundong around had dispersed two days ago, so she had to fly back to Tibet to recast the spell. It took her a day and a half to track him down, and then another hour to form the observer cloud. No wonder she felt drained; she'd probably expended too much of her magical powers. It wasn't a major problem, of course. An hour of Da Zhoutian would make her feel refresh again.
Zi Yuan pushed away from the railing and opened the sliding door. Then, she padded into the kitchen to grab a glass of cold water.
"You look tired."
Zi Yuan turned around so quickly that the glass slipped from her hand. She found herself face to face with none other than Ao Wushuang.
Zi Yuan heaved a sigh of relief. "Good evening, Senior Wushuang. When did you..." Zi Yuan swallowed the rest of her words when she realized just how silly they would sound. Those from the Fox Zen School were masters of the stealth arts, and Ao Wushuang was the greatest of the Fox Zen School.
Case in point: not many people could sneak up on Zi Yuan like that.
"My apologies," Senior Wushuang said. "I didn't mean to startle you."
Senior Wushuang drew a tiny loop with her finger. The glass hovered in the air for a few seconds before it landed back in Zi Yuan's hand. Not a single drop of the water had spilled from the glass.
Zi Yuan set the glass on the counter. "You're here to deliver good news, I hope?"
"I'm here..." Senior Wushuang leaned her hip against the counter and gave Zi Yuan a pointed look. "... to get an update. Because according to you, the Heir should have passed the Zhuji phase by now." Senior Wushuang arched a brow. "I trust that you've performed the spell successfully? I didn't detect signs of the Heavenly Thunder earlier today, so your timing must've been impeccable."
Zi Yuan smiled wryly. "No, Senior Wushuang." Zi Yuan shook her head. "The spell has not yet been cast."
There was moment of silence.
"But how could—" Senior Wushuang slowly narrowed her eyes. "That's not possible."
Zi Yuan raised a palm. "There wasn't a need to."
Another stretch of silence.
Suddenly, Senior Wushuang's eyes widened in alarm. "Oh, dear Heavens. You can't possibly mean that the Heir has failed the Zhuji phase yet again?"
Zi Yuan's gaze snapped up from the counter. "Oh, no, no. That's not it at all. I meant he hasn't made his attempt yet. There has been a..." Zi Yuan sighed, then shook her head. "He was sidetracked."
"What do you mean sidetracked?" Senior Wushuang scowled. "If you tell me that he got sidetracked because of some… some"—Senior Wushuang's face twisted in disgust—"woman other than my disciple, then by Heaven's name I am going to castrate him."
Zi Yuan had to bite her lip to stifle a laugh. "No, senior. He got mixed up with a group of pilgrims and ended up having to change courses."
"Change courses? So he's not climbing Mount Duonian anymore?"
Zi Yuan shook her head. "He's headed for the Himalayas now. It's what I suggested to him in the first place."
"Good call." Senior Wushuang nodded approvingly at Zi Yuan. "Secluded place, which means he is unlikely to be disturbed there. Besides, there'll be less chance of collateral damage if the Heavenly Thunder strikes."
Zi Yuan nodded. "Indeed. But it's probably going to take another week for him to get there."
Senior Wushuang waved her off. "That's fine," she mumbled. "If nothing else, he just bought me more time to come up with a solution to deal with his little conundrum."
Zi Yuan's back stiffened. "How far are you from a workable solution, senior?"
Senior Wushuang shrugged and said nothing.
"Well, if you must know, I've just scrapped 23 potential solutions off the list." Senior Wushuang smiled. "Ten more to go."
Zi Yuan sighed dejectedly. "I just don't know if..."
"Why, you're not giving up already, are you?" Senior Wushuang arched a brow. "You know... I don't think your master would be too happy if he sees you giving up so easily."
Zi Yuan's head snapped up at the mention of her master. For a moment there, she and Senior Wushuang just stared at each other. Obviously, it had been a slip of tongue on Senior Wushuang's part as well. Judging from the woman's surprised expression, she hadn't meant to bring up her master in the conversation.
Senior Wushuang looked away first, then cleared her throat. Zi Yuan had dozens of questions for the woman: how did Senior Wushuang know Master; how come Senior Wushuang was wielding Master's sword. Before she could find her voice, however, Senior Wushuang was already speaking. The moment was gone. Zi Yuan had lost her opening to get some answers.
"So. I guess the Heir climbed half of Mount Duonian for nothing, then. Tsk. Tsk. A waste of time. It took him, what? A few days?"
"I wouldn't call it a complete waste," Zi Yuan said.
Senior Wushuang stared at Zi Yuan for a moment. "Really now..."
Zi Yuan nodded. "He picked up several useful skills along the journey." Including how to disperse the clouds in the sky. Which was also the reason why Zi Yuan had to waste half a day flying over to Tibet to recast the observer cloud. Zi Yuan smirked. "Oh, and guess what? The Mahamudra Tantra is now in his hands."
"The Mahamudra Ta—" Senior Wushuang's eyes widened comically. A second later, those beautiful eyes flashed in anger. "That idiot! What was he thinking?!" Senior Wushuang's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Did he steal it from the temple?"
"No." Zi Yuan shook her head. "An old lama gave it to him as a thank-you gift after the Heir saved his life."
"A thank-you gift..." Senior Wushuang snorted. "Look, it doesn't matter. He's in trouble. The Buddhists won't like the fact that one of their sacred texts, one that contains all their secrets, had fallen into the hands of a Cultivator. There's probably a legion of guardian sentinels out there hunting for him as we speak."
"Don't worry, Senior Wushuang," Zi Yuan said reassuringly. "I'm keeping a close eye on him." Zi Yuan had made sure to increase the size and breadth of her observer cloud to give her a wider visual field.
Senior Wushuang pushed away from the counter and made her way out of the kitchen. "Just make sure he doesn't lose the Fan of Seven Treasures to some bandit."
Zi Yuan smirked and followed Senior Wushuang until they both reached the balcony. "I'm sure you can easily take it back if it ever comes to that."
Senior Wushuang snorted. "Reclaiming it is easy. Tracking it down? Not so much."
"There hasn't been any attempts to steal the fan so far. He's done a pretty decent job keeping it concealed. Well, I'm pretty sure a few pilgrims caught a glimpse of it, but none of them seemed to recognize it."
Senior Wushuang paused at the railing and turned around. "How long did you say it'll take him to reach the Himalayas? A week?"
"Ten days to be exact."
A bright flash lit up the balcony. Bahuang materialized in front of Senior Wushuang. "Get some rest," she said. "I need you to be in top form when you perform the spell. The more magical power you expend on the spell, the more time the spell can buy us." Senior Wushuang's eyes widened slightly. "Ah. Which reminds me." Senior Wushuang's expression turned serious. "Last time, I told you that the spell can mask his Vital Orb until he passes the Shentong phase. But that's only the best case scenario."
Zi Yuan sighed. "I thought you said your calculations are rarely wrong."
"I can only calculate the upper limit of the spell's effect." There was a pause. "The truth is, there are a lot more factors at play here. Without more data, it is impossible to account for those factors."
"Right. The speed at which he advances through the Shentong phase. The strength of his Qi. The size of his Qi reserve. The maximum concentration of his Qi. The amount of time he spent training."
Senior Wushuang nodded. "Exactly. And let's not forget about the Jindan as well. There is no telling exactly when his Vital Orb will become too strong for the spell to mask. Which is why I need to come up with a solution before he learns how to fly." Senior Wushuang picked up Bahuang. "You'll need to be on constant alert once he passes the third dan."
Zi Yuan nodded resolutely. "Understood."
"Get some rest." Senior Wushuang turned around. "I have to get back soon. Otherwise that silly disciple of mine might be up to no good again."
The Himalayas stretched out majestically before Li Yundong's eyes. On one side, the side he was standing on, lay the beautiful Tibetan Plateau. And thanks to geography class back in high school, he knew what lay on the other side: the Indian subcontinent.
Thick clouds obscured the Himalayan summit. Even with his telescopic vision, he couldn't see the top of Mount Everest. Try as he might, he couldn't help the fear coursing through his veins as he stood before what appeared to be the greatest obstacle he had ever faced in life. He had only one chance left. This was all or nothing. A voice inside his mind kept reminding him that he could always just turn around and walk away. Maybe he should try again next year, or the year after.
Don't be a coward, Li Yundong.
This was what he had run over thousands of miles for. He had to do this. He had to become stronger for Su Chan. He took a deep breath, then slowly exhaled.
Make the climb, Li Yundong. Make the climb...
The first step was liberating. The moment he started climbing, it was full steam ahead. Doubts constantly niggled at his mind, but he squashed them down mercilessly, thinking only of Ao Wushuang's taunt a month ago. You are nothing but an amateur! A weakling!
"Just watch me..." Li Yundong growled, leaping over a bunch of thick roots. "I'll show you what I'm made of... Just you wait."
For the first time, Li Yundong truly embraced the fact that he was the Jindan's Heir. So help him God he would try everything in his power to ensure that the Jindan was not wasted on him. Or, at the very least, he would die trying.
At the 1000-meter altitude mark, Li Yundong stopped his climb to take a breather. He didn't really need it, but he figured he would stop to admire the view. It was his first time climbing the Himalayas after all. And sadly, it might also be his last. Stretched out beneath him were vast green plains interspersed with winding rivers that sparkled under the morning sunlight. Li Yundong kicked a rock off the cliff and watched it roll soundlessly down towards the boundless plains. Funny enough, he thought his situation was not much different than the rock: falling off a cliff, coasting in the air thousands of feet above the ground with no idea where it will land next; or whether it will even be in one piece when it hit the ground.
Li Yundong turned away from the cliff and continued his climb. Along the way, he watched the grass beneath his feet slowly thin out. Soon, the ground became slippery. Splotches of green algae smeared across the rocks and soil. Where it wasn't green, the ground was white, covered in snow. It was like a different world up here, with beautiful subalpine conifers lining both sides of the path.
Keep climbing. Just keep climbing.
The further up he climbed, he began to notice something strange. There was snow everywhere, so the temperature had to be below 0 degrees Celsius. The winds were pretty darn strong, too. And yet he didn't feel cold at all. Not to mention that he was walking barefoot. At the 2000-meter mark, he stopped his climb again and walked towards the edge of a cliff. Gone were the beautiful plains he saw earlier. In their place were wisps of clouds and fog. Up here, one could easily delude oneself into believing that one was a Shenxian who lived among the clouds.
White steam rose from his skin, but stopped when he consciously shut the pores of his skin.
Zi Yuan was right. The Himalayas really was a good place to pass the Zhuji phase. He climbed on and paid attention to his body. He wondered what the physical cues would be. So far he hadn't felt anything out of the ordinary.
It wasn't until he passed the 4000-meter mark that he felt it. It began as a reinvigorating sensation inside his body, like he was on top of the world—which wasn't that far from the truth. Something was happening to his meridians. There were these strange pulses occurring in various parts of his body. Each pulse felt like a jolt of electricity. All in all, he counted twelve strong pulses followed by eight weaker pulses. He didn't think those numbers were a coincidence, because the Canon of the Yellow Thearch stated that there were 12 major meridians and 8 extraordinary meridians inside the human body. When the pulses ended, a ball of heat gathered in his lower Dantian. Again, he didn't consciously try to convert his Essence to his Qi; it happened on its own. Moments later, his Qi surged to the top of his head. That sensation reminded him of the first massage Su Chan had given him at the lecture hall.
Then his head started to glow in various colors.
The Convergence of Five Qis.
It was time.