It was that girl, the same one he saw at the gazebo when he first moved into New Hongsheng District, the one who got scared out of her wits when their eyes met across their apartment blocks that morning. Now she was here at his door, looking all pretty while dressed in her high-school attire (red stockings with yellow stripes up to mid-calf, hair tied in a ponytail), staring at him like he was some creature from another planet. She didn't seem scared at all.
"Can I help you?" Li Yundong tried to keep the annoyance out of his tone. As if that was even remotely possible after this chick had just pulled one of the greatest cockblocking stunts in existence. He would have stomped his foot if his manhood didn't feel like it was about to explode at any second.
Instead of answering his damn question and stating her purpose, the girl began to appraise him intently, her eyes scanning his body from head to toe like he was some kind of science experiment. Which, of course, annoyed Li Yundong to no end.
"Um... Excuse me? Who are you? And how can I help you?"
The girl stopped her appraisal and stared hard at his face. Her eyes, however, held a hint of distaste, as though she thought he was some kind of vile creature.
What the hell was the matter with this girl? She came knocking on someone's door for no other reason than to give them judgmental looks? Did she have a loose screw or something?
"Hey, what are you—"
The girl kneeled, and then kowtowed. Literally.
Before Li Yundong could bend down to pull her up, the girl was up on her feet. One of her hands was raised to the level of her chest with the palm turned sideways.
"What on earth are you doin—"
"Peace in the Tao, my fellow friend and brother in the Tao. May you be blessed with longevity and boundless happiness. It is an honor to finally make your acquaintance."
Honestly, she might as well be speaking to him in another language at this point. If this was some kind of weird sales pitch, then it wasn't working.
"What? What is this? Who are you?"
The girl maintained her hand posture and bent slightly at the knee as though she was doing a curtsy. "I am Ruan Hongling, a disciple of the venerable Zhenren Wang. May I know who your master is and which sect or school you belong to, my fellow brother in the Tao?"
A loose screw. How about a hundred loose screws?
Li Yundong frowned. "Listen, girl. I don't know what game you're playing here, or what kind of sales pitch this is. But you're young and you're clearly still in high school, so I'm going to let this go. I suggest you leave now before I call the cops on—"
"Ah, I see. It seems I might not have made my origins clear enough. I mean no disrespect. Allow me to properly introduce myself then." The girl did that curtsy thing again. "Hello there. I am Ruan Hongling, a 45th generation disciple of the venerable Zhenren Wang from the Linggong Sect of the Qingzong Zhengyi Taoist School. Our school is located at Mount Longhu in the south." (T/N: Zhenren is an honorific and a title of respect used to address Cultivators or great Taoists)
What the hell? Mount Longhu? Ching Chong Zheng Yi what?
Li Yundong shook his head. "Look. I don't understand a single thing you just said. But right now, you're at my door. And I would appreciate it if you state the purpose you're here." Li Yundong stepped forward so that his body was fully blocking the doorway. At the same time, he scanned the corridor with his eyes for threats.
The girl seemed taken aback by his hostility; she took a huge step back, as though she was afraid of him.
"So?" Li Yundong took another step forward. "Are you going to tell me why you're here?"
The girl frowned and gave him a brief nod. "My apologies. It seems like I've mistaken you for someone else."
Li Yundong looked at the girl for a while, then shook his head. He stepped back into the apartment and shut the door. "What the hell was that about?" he mumbled. What's with all those weird names? She dresses like a modern high school girl, but acts like someone from the ancient times. The way she acted kind of reminded him of Su Cha—
Li Yundong gasped and yanked the door open, but the girl was already gone. The empty corridor was all he saw. Could she be someone from Su Chan's past? A sister? A friend? It would certainly make sense if they were related; the girl looked so pretty. Or could it be...
All of a sudden, Li Yundong's spine tingled. Wait a minute... Those strange names... and she also mentioned Taoist School... Su Chan's warnings about his life being in danger flooded his mind. Was this about the drug? Was this what Su Chan was afraid of? That someone would come looking for them?
Li Yundong stepped back into the apartment and shut the door, making sure to lock it. He shot a glance towards Su Chan's room. Only one way to find out.
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, United States.
"Bye Uncle Tom! Thanks for driving me. Send my regards to Aunt Cheryl!"
"Will do! And you take care now, kiddo!"
Kris waved at her personal driver, who waved back at her. "Drive safe!"
Kris kept waving even as the car pulled away from the gates.
When Uncle Tom's car was out of sight, Kris lowered her hand and walked through the gates towards the manor. She made her way across the huge lawn, which was pristine and well-maintained. Near the manor, she was greeted by one of the lawn's diligent maintainers.
"Kris? Hey, you're back! How was the trip to China?"
A wide smile lit up Kris's face. She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. Fresh air. Heavenly. "The trip was fine, Uncle Andy. Thank you for asking! I still prefer the air here though." Kris opened her eyes. "Is Gram home?"
Uncle Andy gave her one of his cheerful smiles. "Oh yes, she is. She's at the usual place." Uncle Andy chuckled. "About time you come for a visit, Kris. She's been moping around lately. Never stopped talking about you. Kept asking if you'd called or when you'd come for a visit."
Warmth flooded Kris's chest at those words. I miss you too, Gram...
"Then I better go say hi." Kris gave Uncle Andy another wave before making a beeline towards the back garden.
The back garden was essentially a square that had been sectioned off from the rest of the manor's backyard with tall wooden fences. On the front side of the fence, there was a gate that led into the garden. Beside the gate sat a folding screen with a beautiful peacock painted on its lacquered surface. With its colorful feathers fanned out, the peacock was eye-catching even from far away. Delicately carved rosewood panels bordered the wooden frames of the tall fence. Kris stopped in front of the gate and swung it open, her grin widening. Of all the places in gram's manor, this was one place she would never grow tired of. It was the most distinctive spot in the entire estate, one that showcased Gram's Chinese heritage.
Through the gates, Kris jogged past a bunch of knick-knacks: several potted plants, mostly bonsai; an array of beautifully carved rocks arranged into miniature ravines and canyons; a Thangka; and several paintings of traditional Chinese women.
Near the center of the square garden, Kris found what she was looking for: an area filled with twenty or so wooden poles that had been arranged to form a peach blossom pattern on the ground. The poles were slightly above a meter in height and had girths the size of a rice bowl.
Affection surged through Kris when she saw her grandmother's figure leaping from pole to pole with the finesse and agility of someone in their early twenties. Some days, Kris still had a hard time believing that her grandmother was more than ninety years old. Today was one of those days.
Instead of making her presence known, Kris decided to watch her grandmother from the sidelines. Far be it from Kris to deny herself the chance to watch the Meihua Quan in action.
Her grandmother leaped down from one of the poles at the end of the routine. Kris did a cheer and began clapping her hands loudly.
"You're amazing, Gram! I've seen people in their twenties who couldn't even stand straight on one leg. Yet here you are, dancing around on a bunch of poles!"
Her grandmother sauntered away from the poles and approached Kris. "Tut-tut, Kris. Didn't we agree to speak to each other in Mandarin when it's just the two of us?"
Kris smiled sheepishly. "Oops. Sorry Gram."
Before Kris knew it, she was enveloped in a warm hug.
"Welcome back, my dear."
When they parted, Kris regarded her grandmother briefly. "You look great, Gram." Understatement of the century. Her grandmother looked fantastic. Even though she was well into her nineties, her grandmother looked like a middle-aged woman in their late forties. Kris had lost count of the number of times where she was astounded by the sharpness and intensity in her grandmother's eyes. Those eyes held a level of focus and mental clarity that no living person in their dotage should possess.
"And you look genuinely baffled," her grandmother said, smoothing down her maroon Tang costume. One of her brows rose. "Bad trip to China?"
"No. The trip was great. Fascinating, even," Kris said, shaking her head. She stared down at the ground. Her grandmother's green cotton shoes stared back at her.
"Well? What is it then? What's gotten my precious granddaughter so confused?"
Kris smiled and lifted her gaze. "It's just... Well, I've always been meaning to ask…" Kris stared into her grandmother's eyes. "How do you do it?"
"What do you mean?" The affectionate smile on her grandmother's face was infectious; Kris couldn't help but smile back.
Kris pointed at the poles. "I couldn't even climb up one of those things. But you were up there kicking and punching and doing weird stances..."
Her grandmother laughed. "Oh. It's just a matter of practice, that's all. It's no big deal."
Her incredulity must've shown on her face because her grandmother released another round of laughter.
"Come on, Gram! You must be joking! I don't think there are many people in the world in their nineties who look like you. No, scratch that. You're probably the only ninety-year-old in this world who looks like..." Kris gestured at her grandmother from head to toe. "Like you could still appear in the front cover of Vogue and not cause it to go bankrupt."
Her grandmother laughed again, but Kris wasn't done yet. "And Jesus, you just performed some fancy kung fu routine for, like, fifteen minutes on a bunch of wooden poles, yet you barely broke a sweat! That's just incredible!"
Her grandmother patted her head a few times. "Oh, Krissy dear. Seems to me like you know a lot less about China than you think." Her grandmother chuckled. "You see, dear, you're not supposed to sweat at all while performing the Meihua Quan's routine. Heavy sweating is a sign of incompetent Qi control."
Kris was piqued. She'd been wondering if that was how Li Yundong was able to send John flying without even touching him. That stuff he did back then seemed a lot like Qigong.
Her grandmother sounded amused.
Kris cleared her throat. Here goes…
"Do you think it's possible for humans to dodge bullets?"
Her grandmother laughed. "How many times have I told you that movie scenes aren't accurate depictions of actual combat?"
Kris's cheeks burned. "It was a serious question, Gram. I didn't ask because of some movie. I asked because… because I was curious... So? Do you think it's possible?"
Her grandmother gave her a funny look.
"No, my dear. That's not possible. No human could dodge bullets no matter how well-trained they are. Human reflexes are too just slow to handle an assault from firearms."
"But that's not what I saw when I was in Tiannan City!" Kris blurted out.
Her grandmother gave her a look of alarm. "What? You were in a gunfight?!"
Kris waved her hand a few times. "No. I wasn't. I just witnessed... Ugh. That's not the point. The point is that there was this guy who dodged the bullets fired from a handgun seven times in a row! I saw it with my own eyes. And you know what's crazy? The shots were fired at him from less than five meters away! That's practically point-blank range!"
The shift in her grandmother's expression was obvious. "No... That's not possible... Unless..."
Something stirred inside Kris's heart. For days, she had been puzzling over the matter. Now she was finally getting somewhere. "Unless what?"
Her grandmother had a faraway look in her eyes, like she was searching her memory for something.
"Unless the person is a Shenxian... or on the way to becoming one."
Disappointment settled into the pit of Kris's stomach. She sighed. "Come on, Gram. Shenxians don't exist."
Her grandmother chuckled and shook her head wryly. "The universe is a large place, Krissy dear. You never know what mysteries lie in it." Her grandmother looked at her wryly. "Well, I suppose the matter is still a moot point. Even if Shenxians do exist, I don't suppose mere mortals like us could even comprehend the intricacies of their existence. So there's that."
The conversation stilled as her grandmother stared out into the large expanse of the backyard. Occasionally, the chirping of birds would break the silence.
"Come," her grandmother said, turning around abruptly. "Let me share a story with you."
Kris was thrown into a daze, and by the time she came to her senses, her grandmother was already walking towards the gate.
"Wait... Grams! You... you mean a story about your past?" Kris asked hopefully.
Her grandmother paused at the gate. "Yes. Now are you coming or what? I'm in the mood for some tea."
Kris didn't need to be told twice. She ran to catch up to her grandmother, her nerve endings tingling with excitement. Wow. This was big. Really big. Kris knew that her grandmother had done some pretty heroic things in the past, but she didn't really know the details. Not that she hadn't tried to find out. Her grandmother refused to tell her anything no matter how hard she pleaded and begged. At one point, Kris just gave up, figuring that she would respect her grandmother's privacy. But now, her grandmother was offering to tell her bits and pieces about her past. Kris's inner Lois Lane was screaming in joy.
They left the garden and decided to sit at one of the most relaxing spots in the backyard—a quaint patio table near the back of the manor.
"I'll get the tea, Gram," Kris said once she pushed her grandmother down into a stool. "Black or oolong?"
Her grandmother smiled. "Oolong please."
"Sit tight, Gram. I'll be right back." Kris entered the house and went straight into the kitchen. The manor was a token of their family's success, which was built through many trials and tribulations.
When her grandparents first came to the United States, gangs reigned over the lands. Even so, her grandmother refused to give in to subjugation. She rallied the local Chinese community and fought back. That was how their family had managed to put down roots in the United States. As such, her grandmother remained one of the most influential members in their family. Her grandmother's words held a lot of weight in any of their family's decisions.
Kris returned to the patio table a while later with a tray containing two steaming cups of oolong tea. After serving out the tea to her grandmother, Kris sat down across from her grandmother, ready to listen to the story her grandmother was about to share.
"You know that I like traveling?" her grandmother said, setting down her teacup.
Kris nodded, taking a sip from her own cup.
"In 1922, I went to Mount Huangshan on a hiking trip."
"Alone?" Kris asked, putting down her cup.
"Yes. Alone. And I ran into a bunch of bandits." Her grandmother shook her head in disgust. "Those were bad men. Very bad men. Not only did they try to rob me, but they also tried to rape me."
"And let me guess, you kicked their asses with your awesome kung fu skills?"
Her grandmother burst into laughter. "No! I was helpless! A damsel in distress! Back then, I was just your typical spoiled girl from a rich family. I didn't even know how to throw a punch."
"What?" Kris blinked a few times. "Ooh! I know. Some badass hero saved your life! Was he handsome?"
"Someone did save my life, yes. But it was a she not a he. She was a Taoist priestess." Her grandmother gave her a playful look. "You wouldn't even be born if it were a handsome man."
Kris chuckled. "I suppose that's a good thing. I'm sure Grandpa would be heartbroken in the afterlife if he knew you were once swept off your feet by a man other than him."
Her grandmother smiled. "Anyway, the priestess fought off the bandits and saved my life. After that, we talked and she decided to teach me the Meihua Quan."
"What? Just like that?" Kris could barely contain her surprise. But that damned Li Yundong had refused to take her and John as disciples no matter how hard they begged! That infuriating, arrogant, and selfish little... ugh!
"Yes, just like that. She knew I like to travel, but she thought it was unsafe for a young girl like me to travel alone without knowing how to defend herself if necessary."
Kris stared at her grandmother in awe. "Wow... That's... That's generous of her..." Unlike a certain someone who could dodge bullets and catch falling bodies.
"Yes, she is..." Her grandmother had that faraway look in her eyes again. "But her generosity isn't why I'm telling you this story."
Her grandmother's tone was serious now. Kris leaned forward in her seat. Her tea had gone cold, but she didn't care.
"In my younger years, I've barely scratched the surface of the Meihua Quan. I thought it was merely a self-defense system, and nothing more."
Kris could feel her own jaw going slack. "You mean it isn't?"
"Well, it is, but that isn't all there is to it. It's only when I was older that I realize there's something... magical about the Meihua Quan."
Something clicked inside Kris's head. "Wait, are you saying that… You mean that's how you retained your youthful appearance and health? Because you've been practicing the Meihua Quan?"
Her grandmother's smile was cryptic. "I believe so, yes." There was a pause. "Like I said, I think there's something special about the Meihua Quan. In fact, I highly suspect that the whole system was invented and passed down by a Shenxian."
Kris burst into chortles. "Oh, come on, Gram! That's ridiculous! How do you even know that?"
Kris rubbed her thigh after her grandmother had slapped it under the table.
"It's not ridiculous if you take a look at the ancient history of China. Do you know the first emperor of the Song Dynasty?"
Kris nodded. "Zhao Kuangyin, right? Also known as Emperor Taizu of Song!"
There was an impressed look on her grandmother's face, and Kris's heart swelled a little at the sight.
"Not bad, not bad..." Her grandmother nodded. "Anyway. Zhao Kuangyin started out as a foot soldier. He had a hobby, though. In his free time, he liked to travel around and challenge people to chess games. One day when he was passing by Mount Huashan, he heard from the locals about a famous man named Chen Tuan. He was intrigued, so he tracked down Chen Tuan to challenge him to a game of chess. Zhao Kuangyin lost the game in the end, but Chen Tuan saw something in him. Chen Tuan saw in Zhao Kuangyin the potential to be a ruler, so he taught Zhao Kuangyin a fighting system. Zhao Kuangyin became a formidable fighter after he picked up the martial art. He quickly gained recognition and rose through the ranks in the government. Eventually, he became the first emperor of the Song Dynasty!"
Kris had been listening to everything her grandmother said with rapt attention until her grandmother suddenly gave her a teasing look, one that made her feel like squirming in her seat. "Why am I even explaining these things to you, my dear? Shouldn't you already know this? Weren't you bragging to all your friends that you are... what was the term you used? China-savvy?"
Kris's cheeks heated up. Suddenly, the teacup's handle seemed like the most interesting object in the universe.
"Have you heard of Chen Tuan before, my dear?"
Kris honestly wouldn't be surprised if she started steaming at the ears at this point. "N- no..."
Her grandmother laughed. "Now, now... Don't look so embarrassed. I was just teasing. You do know a lot about China for a foreigner, but sometimes you have to see and experience things for yourself."
"So who is Chen Tuan really?"
"Oh. He's a great Shenxian, just like the great Lu Dongbin!"
Kris huffed. "But Gram! There's no proof that those historical figures really became Shenxians! Aren't these stories just legends and folklore? They are just anecdotes! Surely they don't count!"
Her grandmother shook her head and gave her a meaningful look. "Listen, Krissy dear... Right now, you're in a lot of doubt, and I can understand that. It's because you haven't encountered a true Cultivator yet. If you are fortunate enough to encounter one, then I assure you that all your doubts will be gone. These individuals, those on the path to becoming Shenxians, are highly extraordinary. The things they are capable of are out of this world." Her grandmother chuckled. "I was like you too when I was young. Completely clueless." She shook her head. "That Taoist priestess I met was actually a Cultivator, but back then, I thought she was only a martial artist."
Her grandmother's wistful expression brought a pang to Kris's chest. She reached out across the patio table to touch her grandmother's hand. Her grandmother raised her head and released a sigh. "If I knew where that priestess was right now, I'd drop everything and become her disciple. I'll follow her guidance and become a Cultivator."
Kris withdrew her hand in shock. "B- but Grams... aren't you happy with your life? Why would you throw everything away to lead a difficult life like that?"
Her grandmother just shook her head. "You're still young, so you don't yet realize how precious life is. Cultivation isn't just about gaining strength and powerful abilities. It's also about discovering the true meaning and nature of life. And most importantly, it can prevent you from aging!"
Her grandmother's sharp eyes brought chills down Kris's spine.
Was her grandmother right? Was Cultivation the key to immortality? Did Shenxians with extraordinary powers really exist? Was Li Yundong a Shenxian? Was that how he dodged those bullets?
The touch of her grandmother's palm on her head jolted Kris out of her reverie. Her grandmother was looking at her with affection. "Krissy dear... If you ever have the good fortune to cross paths with a Cultivator, you must find a way to become his or her disciple. Otherwise, you'll end up like me, forced to watch my youth slip through my fingers like sand. And when your body is depleted of its youth, you'll be left with nothing other than regret."
The pressure on her head eased. Kris turned slightly in her seat. Her grandmother was slowly making her way back towards the manor.
Kris's hands rose to touch her face.
Immortality. Eternal youth. Were those things possible?
Was Li Yundong able to give her those things?