"Now I have a few questions for you."
Zi Yuan's voice made Li Yundong look towards the bed. For the nth time since they met each other beside the stream, Li Yundong wanted to cringe and then crawl back to the privacy of his own room.
There she was, sitting there looking like a goddess while he could barely get that strange smell—whose source he didn't even want to know—off his hair. Maybe he should take another shower when he got back to his room later, this time with twice the amount of shampoo.
"Sure." Li Yundong shifted in his chair and cleared his throat. "What do you wanna know?" God. He felt like he was soiling the chair just by sitting in it.
"How did you manage to figure out the secrets of the Mahamudra Tantra?"
Well. That was unexpected. He'd expected Zi Yuan to start berating him for his blatant defiance of her advice to mind his own business.
"It's nothing too impressive," he said, leaning forward until his elbows were resting on his knees. "I kinda figured it out by accident."
A tiny smile graced Zi Yuan's features. "I highly doubt it. But do continue." Zi Yuan smirked. "I'm interested to know how a relatively inexperienced Cultivator managed to crack the Esoteric Sect's secrets in less than a day."
"There was a code." Li Yundong sat up straighter and performed Mahavairocana's first hand sign. "When I was going through the third scroll, I realized that there was something special about this hand sign."
Zi Yuan's eyes darted briefly to his hands.
"Mahavairocana's first mudra," she said. "The Intelligent Fist."
Li Yundong nodded and lowered his hands back down.
"There are probably hundreds of mudras in that scroll," Zi Yuan said. "What drew you to this one?"
Li Yundong chuckled. "It's kind of a long story. But the gist of it is that when I was trying to memorize those hand signs, I got curious about the Buddhas who performed them. So I asked that girl…" He looked up at Zi Yuan. "Ah, I forgot to mention that the girl—the one I mentioned just now—was reading the scrolls to me coz I don't know Sanskrit. Anyway. I asked her about Mahavairocana, and she told me that Mahavairocana is the root or origin of all Buddhist powers."
Zi Yuan nodded. "That's why you came to the conclusion that Mahavairocana's first hand sign holds the secrets to unlock those powers."
"It was just a guess." Li Yundong paused in thought. "At first, I focused too much on the hand signs. Well. I had a feeling that the mantras need to be chanted as well, but I didn't really think much about it until later. I kept practicing the hand signs, but nothing happened. Then I tried doing the hand signs and chanting the mantra at the same time, but nothing happened as well. So I knew something had to be missing." He chuckled. "The idea that Mahavairocana's mantra represents a code only came to me when I saw those colored beads."
Li Yundong narrowed his eyes. "Wait, how come you don't know any of this? I thought you were watching me the whole time?"
Zi Yuan rolled her eyes. "I was busy casting the spell for another Observer Cloud." She glared at him. "Since you blew the first one apart."
Li Yundong reached behind to rub the back of his neck. All he touched was hair. God, he really needed a haircut.
"Impressive shockwave, by the way." Zi Yuan smirked. "I'm just glad that there weren't any airplanes or members of the avian species flying around during your creative, but utterly ineffectual, attempt at weather manipulation."
Li Yundong let his hand drop and stared at Zi Yuan blankly. Did she just… Did she just crack a joke?
"Don't look so surprised." The woman's smirk widened. "I can still have a sense of humor, even though the mere mention of my name incites fear across the entire Cultivation world."
Li Yundong laughed. Now we're back to being haughty again.
“So. The colored beads." Zi Yuan's expression turned serious. "What about them?"
"Prayer beads, to be exact. But they didn't look like the typical ones." Li Yundong glanced at Zi Yuan. "Six of the beads were colored. The rest of the beads were all brown."
"I see…" Zi Yuan looked calm and composed, but he knew she was already piecing everything together in her head.
"Five of the six colors match the colors of the five Zangs according to Zhang Zhongjing's Five Organ Pathological Model. I didn't think that was a coincidence, so I gave it more thought. Eventually, I figured it out."
Zi Yuan sat there silently. After a while, she smiled and stood up. "Well done." He then realized that she was walking towards the desk behind the chair he was sitting in.
Li Yundong rose from the chair and stepped aside to give her room.
She thanked him and opened the topmost drawer. "Here," she said.
Li Yundong took the tiny slip of paper from Zi Yuan.
It was a train ticket from Lhasa to Tiannan City. The train was scheduled to leave the station at 6 PM tomorrow.
So we're going home…
Li Yundong slipped the ticket into his pocket. "What time do we leave for Lhasa tomorrow?"
Lhasa was probably 700 kilometers away. If they travel by car, it would take at least half a day.
Zi Yuan closed the drawer. "The car will be ready at six. But we'll leave at eight after breakfast. Now get some rest."
Li Yundong nodded and bade Zi Yuan good night before heading for the door.
Sometimes, Ao Wushuang wondered if her gifts for Cultivation were really just a compensation for her inadequacies in other areas of life. Among those inadequacies were, first and foremost, her culinary skills (or lack thereof), and also her ability to pick disciples who understood the concept of obedience.
"Oh, for Heavens' sake…" Ao Wushuang muttered and then slowly opened her eyes.
Instead of sitting in a meditative posture like Ao Wushuang had instructed her to not five minutes ago, Chan'er was on her knees, crawling towards the door.
Crawling. That silly girl was trying to sneak out by crawling towards the door. Ao Wushuang feared for the future of the Fox Zen School.
"What do you think you're doing, Chan'er?"
Ao Wushuang's exasperation must have shown in her voice because Chan'er flinched and starting crawling back towards her.
Chan'er sat down on the edge of the meditative cushion and twiddled her fingers. "M-Master…"
Ao Wushuang bit the inside of her cheek to stifle her smile. This girl looked so adorable even when she was being a total nuisance. "Just spit it out, Chan'er." Ao Wushuang regretted it the moment those words left her mouth. Ugh, here we go again…
"H- Has Yundong passed the Zhuji phase yet?"
Ao Wushuang raised her gaze to the ceiling. "Four thousand eight hundred and fifteen… Are you kidding me?" Ao Wushuang mumbled.
Ao Wushuang lowered her gaze and shook her head tiredly.
"Four thousand eight hundred and fifteen? What does that mean, Master?" Chan'er placed a finger under her chin. Suddenly, she perked up. "Ooh! Is that the height of a mountain? Had Yundong conquered a summit? Which mount—"
"Tsk!" Ao Wushuang poked Chan'er's head with a finger. "That's the total number of times you've asked me that question since last month, you little—" Ao Wushuang stopped to take a deep breath. She exhaled slowly. "I told you already, Chan'er. I'll tell you when I'm sure that he has passed, okay?"
Chan'er was still staring at Ao Wushuang like she was some kind of Shenxian who had all the answers in the world. Then, a slow grin spread across Chan'er's face. "Hehehe!" Chan'er clambered towards Ao Wushuang.
Ao Wushuang barely had time to react when Chan'er threw herself against Ao Wushuang's side.
"Master, Master, Master…" Chan'er rubbed her cheek against Ao Wushuang's arm. "You're a genius, right?"
Ao Wushuang looked down at her disciple through narrowed eyes. "Uh-huh… What do you want?"
"Then you must have excellent divination skills!" Chan'er pulled back a little, then blinked those eyes at Ao Wushuang.
"Chan'er…" Ao Wushuang said in a warning tone.
"I'm just saying, Master… Why don't you use a divination spell to predict whether Yundong is going to make it—Ow!!"
Chan'er started rubbing her forehead after Ao Wushuang poked her finger into it.
"I told you to stop worrying about that and focus on your own training!" Ao Wushuang scowled. "It's been nearly two months and you've barely made progress at all!"
Ao Wushuang wondered if Chan'er would start listening to her if she summoned Bahuang and leave it at her side during every training session.
Chan'er had the decency to look sheepish. "I- I just can't focus."
Ao Wushuang smacked Chan'er's forehead. "And you call yourself a Cultivator!"
Suddenly, Chan'er's face brightened. Her eyes were brimming with hope again. "Ooh! I know, Master! You should let me see Yundong and see how he's doing! I—"
"No!" Ao Wushuang said harshly. "How many times do I have to tell you that your presence will only get in the way of his training?"
Chan'er deflated. "He doesn't even have to know I'm there. I can just look at him from afar a- and… and then… leave…"
Yeah right. As if that would happen. This love-struck girl would run straight into the man's arms the moment he was in sight.
"No…" Ao Wushuang hardened her tone. "You're not going anywhere near him. Not until I say you can." Ao Wushuang gave her a warning look. "This isn't a joke, Chan'er."
Ao Wushuang sighed. "Just be patient, okay?"
"It's been nearly two months…" Chan'er mumbled. "And I can't even see him."
Yeah. And not for lack of trying either. Ao Wushuang suppressed an eye-roll. Ten times Chan'er had tried to sneak away to go see him, and ten times Ao Wushuang had thwarted the girl's miserable attempts to escape.
"I don't even know if he's gotten thinner…" Chan'er kept rambling. "O- Or maybe he's gotten fatter…"
"He's the Jindan's Heir, for Heavens' sake!" Ao Wushuang poked Chan'er's head again. "If he ends up gaining body fat after two months of harsh training, then he might as well hang himself to death right now!"
Chan'er's eyes were now wide and fearful. "W- Why?"
"Because then he wouldn't be able to survive the divine punishment no matter what I do to help him, you idiot! Gaining body fat means that his meridians have weakened! Honestly, Chan'er! Have you forgotten everything I taught you?"
Gaining body fat after making progress in Cultivation. That was probably the most ridiculous and absurd thing Ao Wushuang had ever heard in her entire life. Where on earth did Chan'er get that silly idea from anyway?
Love makes people blind, a small voice sounded in Ao Wushuang's mind.
Ao Wushuang silenced that voice before it could spout any more nonsense. She stood up and pulled Chan'er to her feet.
"You listen to me well, Chan'er—"
Ao Wushuang stopped talking and looked towards the window.
Chan'er tugged her sleeve. "Master?"
Ao Wushuang silenced her with a finger, then waved her other hand at the window.
The window creaked open. A small, white paper crane flew in and landed on top of Ao Wushuang's open palm. Ao Wushuang stared at the paper crane and watched it unfold into a palm-sized square note.
"But there's nothing's written on it, Master."
Ao Wushuang looked up from the memo and found Chan'er studying the note curiously.
"I don't see anything written on it…" Chan'er reached out to take the note.
"Of course you won't see anything," Ao Wushuang said, pulling the memo away from Chan'er's reach.
"But why would someone send an empty memo?" Chan'er's face lit up. "Ooh! Is it a secret message?" She leaped up in joy. "Is it about Yundong?"
Ao Wushuang smiled and shook her head. "Let me take a look at it first."
Ao Wushuang raised the memo and cast a spell to reveal the hidden message.
Moments later, Ao Wushuang folded the memo once and held it in front of her eyes. The memo burst into flames and was reduced to ashes in seconds.
Chan'er was staring at her expectantly. "What does it say? What does it say?"
Ao Wushuang smiled. "He passed."
Chan'er started jumping around. "Yayy!!! Master!!! He made it! He—"
Chan'er's face paled.
Ao Wushuang smirked. She was wondering when Chan'er would realize the main concern.
Chan'er was by Ao Wushuang's side in an instant. She looked like she was about to cry. "The Heavenly Thunder!"
"Oh, relax, Chan'er. He's fine."
"B- But he passed the Zhuji phase. His Vital Orb—"
"Has already been masked by a spell. Tsk. Tsk. So little faith in your own master."
Chan'er looked like she could barely process what she'd just been told.
Ao Wushuang stroked Chan'er's hair. "His Vital Orb won't be detected until he reaches intermediate level Shentong phase."
What happened afterwards was beyond her control.
Chan'er appeared to have recovered from her stupor. "A spell? You mean you went to see him without me?!"
Ao Wushuang's expression softened. "Of course I didn't, dummy. I prepared the talisman and gave it to Zi Yuan."
"Mm. And Zi Yuan cast the spell successfully. So there's nothing for you to worry about, okay?"
Chan'er suddenly looked up at Ao Wushuang. Her eyes had glazed over a little. "You were working on the spell..." Chan'er sniffed and tugged Ao Wushuang's sleeve. "I- Is that why you spent so much time in the study, Master?"
And also why you were able to sneak away from me ten times.
The next thing she knew, Chan'er's arms were around her neck. "Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you, Master! Thank you so much for saving him!"
Ao Wushuang smiled and patted Chan'er's back. "You're welcome."
Ao Wushuang would do anything to make Chan'er happy. Even though she could be such a nuisance at times.
Chan'er ended their hug and beamed up at her. "I knew you're the best, Master! I knew it!! Hehehe!"
Ao Wushuang gasped in surprise when Chan'er suddenly leaned in and planted a huge kiss on her cheek.
"Yayy!! I'm soooo, soooo happy, Master!" Chan'er began dancing and skipping around the room. "Weee!!! You're the best!!"
Ao Wushuang burst into laughter.
"Alright, alright! Settle down already! Geez!"
Chan'er stopped in her tracks and ran back to Ao Wushuang's side again. "So he's safe? He's really okay, Master?"
Ao Wushuang nodded. "Mmm."
"Hooray!!!!" Chan'er leaped into the air and started floating around the room.
Ao Wushuang rolled her eyes and pointed a finger at Chan'er.
Chan'er squeaked and began flailing her arms and legs.
"I told you to settle down," Ao Wushuang said and released the Levitation spell.
Chan'er landed on her feet with a soft thud.
Ao Wushuang walked over and pinched Chan'er's cheek to get her attention. She gave Chan'er a stern look. "Now can you finally focus on your own training?"
Ao Wushuang glared at Chan'er, who hadn't moved an inch from her spot.
"Well? What are you waiting for?" Ao Wushuang pointed at the meditation cushions set up at the center of the room.
"Oh." Chan'er lowered her head and shuffled towards the cushions.
Chan'er stopped walking and turned back around. She was smiling.
Ao Wushuang arched a brow. "What?"
"Now that he has passed the Zhuji phase…"
Ao Wushuang narrowed her eyes. "Mm-hmm…"
Chan'er broke into a grin. "Can I go see him?"
"Why you little—" Ao Wushuang scowled. "No you can't!!!"