It was pitch-black dark everywhere he looked, like he was floating in some kind of void space, a universe without stars. This was a stark contrast to his last attempt in passing the Zhuji phase, where people like He Shao, Liu Chuan, Xie Fei, and Zhao Yujian had appeared inside his Spirit Space for no other reason than to taunt him. This time, there was nothing in his Spirit Space except for this emptiness and void.
Maybe it had something to do with the location, or the fact that he had better control over his Qi's concentration this time around.
Still, he wished he had some kind of indication or clue that he was on the right track.
He waited in the darkness.
After a while, he tried to imagine himself moving around inside his Spirit Space. After a few tries, however, he began to realize how pointless it was. For one, he couldn't tell if he had actually moved without some sort of reference object—there was nothing here except for dark, empty space. For all he knew, the notion of space and motion might not even make sense here.
But what was he supposed to do now? Just wait and do nothing? Again, that felt way too easy.
There had to be something for him to accomplish here. Well, he was supposed to sustain Ishvara while his Vital Orb was forming. So where was that feeling of omnipotence, of supreme power? Where were the temptations or the illusions? None of this made sense.
Was he even in Ishvara?
He spent a moment recalling exactly what happened when his personal god showed up. His personal god looked the same it did the last time he saw it—three faces, six arms that wielded various magical objects. After it showed up, the six-armed being had pounced on Li Yundong, filling him with a sense of omnipotence. However, the moment his Spirit overpowered his personal god's will, he found himself trapped inside this dark world.
In the end, Li Yundong decided to go with an age-old advice: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
He decided to wait it out and see what would happen. So he did. He waited and waited until he felt something strange—he could feel his chest again. When he first arrived inside this dark world, if was like the concept of sensory perception didn't even exist, like he couldn't receive any sensory input other than this persistent darkness before him. But now he could actually feel a sensation, one that he was absolutely certain originated from his chest.
The sensation grew stronger and stronger until it became some kind of emotion, like a need—the need to break free from something that he couldn't even identify let alone fathom.
Was this how a baby feel like inside its mother's womb?
Then, he heard a rumbling sound, which turned into a roar in a matter of seconds. Something was happening, but Li Yundong hadn't a single clue what it was. All he could do was hang on for dear life until everything blew over—he hoped.
Which, of course, was a fool's hope.
It didn't blow over, but blow up instead, right in his face.
A bright flash filled the dark void inside his Spirit Space. His sensory perceptions returned to him all at once, crashing into him like an avalanche. When he opened his eyes, he found himself drifting through what appeared to be the sky.
All of a sudden, his body stopped moving.
More rumbling sounded. This time, however, there wasn't a single doubt in his mind what had caused that sound—thunder.
He glanced around him frantically. Large storm clouds swirled around him, enveloping him like some kind of cocoon. Soon, he was surrounded by a frigging maelstrom of dark storm clouds.
He tried to free himself from the cloud cocoon, but it was too late. Bright flashes lit up the surface of the clouds. The next thing he knew, he was screaming as waves of pain shot through him.
He was being electrocuted.
"Come on, Ruben! Keep up! We gotta move!" Jack yelled as he helped Miss Liu Xia down a steep slope.
Miss Liu Xia's foot slipped.
"Damn it!" Jack reached out with his hand, but he was too late. Miss Liu Xia fell flat on her butt.
Jack scrambled over towards the woman and pulled her to her feet. "Are you okay?"
The tour guide nodded weakly. Jack sighed, relieved that the woman hadn't hurt herself. They couldn't afford to be slowed down by injuries. Jack lowered his backpack to the ground and crouched down. He stuffed his digital camera into the backpack. Now wasn't the time to take photos. They had to get to lower ground as soon as possible, preferably before one of them got struck by lightning.
Jack turned his head around and yelled over his shoulder, "Ruben! Come on, man! What the hell's taking you so long?!"
"Man, cool your jets, will ya? Geez." Seconds later, Ruben emerged from between the trunks of two large conifers. Suddenly, Ruben stopped walking and glanced up at the sky. "Jesus Christ..."
Jack followed his friend's gaze. Dark storm clouds swirled above their heads, which was pretty damn strange if you ask him because he could've sworn that the weather was fine ten minutes ago.
"I've never seen something like this before... I swear to God..." Ruben whispered.
Neither have I.
"Yeah well, you won't being seeing shit if you get your ass killed by a lightning strike." Jack stood up and secured the straps of his backpack over his shoulders. "Come on, people! Let's go! Time to move!"
Ruben snapped out of his stupor and hurried towards them.
The three of them ran down the Himalayan trail as fast as their legs could carry them.
"Guys..." Miss Liu Xia said. "Is it just me, or are the clouds following us?"
Jack stopped running and looked up at the sky. Somehow, the clouds seemed even closer to them now despite the fact that they'd been moving downhill for the past fifteen minutes.
Jack turned to Ruben, who appeared to be studying the clouds intently.
"I don't think they're following us." Ruben pointed past Jack's shoulder at the sky. "Look."
Jack turned around and studied the clouds. "They're moving downhill…"
"Yeah," Ruben said.
"So what do we do?" Miss Liu Xia asked. "We're still quite far away from the base camp."
Jack glanced down the mountain trail. Their jeep was still parked at the base camp. And Miss Liu Xia was right; it would take at least half an hour before they could get to the base camp.
"I think we should find shelter around here and weather out the storm," Ruben said.
Jack looked up at the sky. "Agreed."
After ascertaining the wind direction, Jack looked down from the sky and scanned over their surroundings.
"Over there," Jack said a moment later, pointing at a tall rock not far away. The leeward side of the rock could shelter them from the wind. Hopefully, it would be enough to help them weather out the storm. The best case scenario was that the clouds kept drifting downhill.
Jack led Ruben and Miss Liu Xia towards the rock and quickly got settled behind it. Ruben never took his eyes off the clouds, staring at it as though they were the most fascinating thing in the world.
"Holy shit... Guys, look!" Ruben pointed at something beyond the rock.
Jack crawled to the edge of the rock and took a peek.
"Oh my God..." Miss Liu Xia whispered beside him. "What on earth is happening?"
Jack had never seen anything like this before. The clouds' movement patterns were just... unnatural.
"Jesus Christ..." Ruben said. "They aren't just moving downhill, bro. It's almost like... like they are gathering at a specific location. Christ Almighty..."
Jack scrambled towards their backpacks and began rummaging through their contents.
"Dude. What the hell are you doing?" Ruben asked from the edge of the rock.
"Looking for our binoculars, of course."
"Oh, right!" Ruben snapped his fingers. "Good thinking."
Seconds later, Jack found what he was looking for. He grabbed his digital camera as well and switched it on.
He moved back towards the edge of the rock and tossed the camera to Ruben. "Make sure you get clean shots!"
"Roger that!" Ruben said. "Like hell I'm gonna miss out on something like this."
Jack handed Ruben's binoculars to Miss Liu Xia, and then brought his own binoculars to his eyes. He adjusted the lens until he got a full view of the clouds.
"Looks like you were right, Ruben..." Jack mumbled.
The clouds were indeed amassing at a specific location, growing taller and darker as more clouds began to drift in from all directions. Jack shifted the binoculars downwards. The clouds appeared to be gathering directly above a large rock full of cracks and—
"Oh my God!" Miss Liu Xia shrieked. "Did you guys see that?"
"Huh? See what?" Ruben asked.
"S- Something flew down from the clouds! Some kind of white object! I swear!"
Jack adjusted his binoculars. A white object? Where—
A red flash blinded Jack's eyes, causing him to drop the binoculars. Beside him, Miss Liu Xia screamed and fell backwards from the rock. Ruben cursed as he scrambled to pick up the digital camera from the ground.
Jack blinked a few times, then groped around for his binoculars.
"Shit! What was that?" Ruben asked.
"Was it lightning?" Miss Liu Xia asked, leaning her back against the rock.
Jack peered out from the rock.
"No," Jack said, shaking his head. "That wasn't lightning."
"Yeah... We would've heard the sound of thunder by now if it were lightning," Ruben said.
Jack brought the binoculars to his eyes.
"Ruben... The clouds. They're dispersing."
Jack lowered the binoculars and handed it to Ruben.
Seconds later, Ruben lowered the binoculars from his face and turned to face Jack. If this whole thing wasn't creeping the hell out of Jack, he would've laughed at the stunned look on Ruben's face right now.
"And now they're gone..." Miss Liu Xia said. "The clouds are completely gone."
Jack peeked out from behind the rock. Miss Liu Xia was right; the storm clouds were gone.
"Bro. Remind me when we get back to make a donation to one of those climate change NGOs," Ruben remarked. "The weather these days is seriously creeping me out."
Once he was sure that there weren't any storm clouds around, Jack led his companions out of their hiding place. Then, the three of them hiked downhill towards the base camp. Ten minutes into their hike, Ruben stopped walking and did a low wolf whistle.
Jack stopped walking and raised a brow at Ruben.
Ruben smirked and pointed at something in front of them.
Jack nearly dropped his backpack when he saw a beautiful Chinese woman walking uphill towards them.
Beautiful didn't even come close to doing the woman justice.
The woman could've been easily mistaken for a goddess.
Jack shook himself out of his stupor and nudged Miss Liu Xia. "Do you know her? Have you seen her around here before?"
Jack looked towards the woman again. The hem of her purple dress billowed around her legs as she walked. And that veil around her shoulders made her seem ethereal somehow.
She was a goddess.
The woman walked past them as though she didn't see them.
Ruben suddenly turned around and headed back uphill.
"Hey!" Jack hissed, grabbing Ruben's shoulder. "Where the hell are you going?"
Ruben stared at him like he was nuts. "You think? To get her number of course!"
Jack smacked Ruben upside his head. "Quit messing around! Let's head back to camp before it gets dark."
"Well. Somebody, it seems, needs to get laid," Ruben mumbled, rubbing the back of his head. Then, he smirked and nudged Miss Liu Xia with his elbow. "What do you say, huh? Why don't you take one for the team? He might stop acting so grumpy after you give him the night of his life."
Miss Liu Xia blushed and smacked Ruben's arm.
Jack scowled. "Enough already. Now let's go."
The three of them trekked along the path in silence until Miss Liu Xia suddenly tapped on Jack's shoulder.
Jack turned his head around and saw Miss Liu Xia pointed at something on the side of their trail.
"Guys... Isn't that where the clouds were gathering above just now?" she asked in a wary tone.
Jack stepped closer to the side of the trail and studied the rocky terrain before him. "Yeah... I think you're right. See that big rock with the cracks? I recognize it from…" Jack squinted. "Hey… I think there's..." Jack took a few steps closer. "Shit... There's someone there..."
"What? Seriously? Where?" Ruben stopped beside him.
Jack pointed at the rock. "Look over there. See that large crack on the rock?"
"F*ck... You're right, bro."
Jack began running towards the rocks. "Let's head over there. Someone might need our help."
It wasn't until they were within ten feet of the rock that Jack recognized who the person was. It was that vagabond dude who brought the monk back to life at the foot of Mount Duonian. They had driven past the guy ten days ago, right after the guy left the pilgrims' camp. Jack had stopped the jeep to offer him a ride, but the guy declined. And now he was sitting inside a fissured rock in the middle of the Himalayas?
Ruben was already pulling the guy out of the crack.
"Gosh! His body is freezing!" Miss Liu Xia said.
All of a sudden, Jack had a bad feeling about this.
"Ruben, check his pulse."
Ruben removed his gloves and crouched down to check the guy's pulse.
A minute later, Ruben stood up.
"So?" Jack asked.
Ruben shook his head grimly. "He's dead, bro."