The granules of sand and grit were different. The former was finer and softer, while the latter was fuller, harder, and discernibly grainier.
The abnormality had eroded Kumtag Desert, turning a third of it into black grit. It just so happened that the yellow and black was separated by an oasis narrowly escaping the disaster. It would be a strategic point in the days to come.
Speaking of the black grit, it was hollow inside and had a smooth, round outer shell. It could withstand a considerable pressure and was highly conductive.
Xiaozhai knew what Gu Yu expected out of the grit, thus she refined a small amout to begin with and put it in her small gourd.
When purely used as a container, the gourd was small enough to hang around the waist. The bigger ones could only be refined into magical instruments so as to be stored away in one's mental space.
Sitting down in the training field, she unplugged the gourd, gave it a pat, and a blast of inky black grit spurted out, soon forming a small cloud of gritty fog with a rustling, crunchy sound.
It wasn't closely packed; all granules kept distance from one another. Despite the apparent disorder, they were in fact regularly arranged. The granules weren't floating in midair, but stretched out quite close to the ground, covering all areas on all sides.
At the very bottom, only a tiny gap was left out, revealing a thin line of the ground, which was as lightless as elsewhere and covered completely by the shadow.
At her summon, the green snake showed up tossing it head and tail while sticking its two-pronged tongue in and out in an ingratiating manner.
"Have a go inside."
There, the green snake froze. There was even a human-like baffled look on its face. It spun around and fled, but did not make it very far. A hand dragged it back and threw it right into the fog.
The green snake struggled to straighten itself and resume its flight, but it was too late. As if a red button had been pressed down, the static gritty fog started moving at the snake's tumbling around.
As the granules bumped into one another, the thunder energy within them was activated. Purple light flickered, tearing at the air inside the fog, reminding one of dark clouds looming over a city, harbingering a cloudburst.
Immediately after that, there came the "Rumble! Rumble! Rumble!" sound.
Streaks of lightning emerged from the black fog, hacking at the green snake with its destructive power that had been severely downsized.
Xiao Qing was scared out if wits. Scraping hard against the ground, all it could think of was to run away as quickly as it could. However, it could never outrun the lightning even if it could fly. It seemed it would turn into a skewered snake the next second when a fair, slender hand reached in and lifted it out of the fog.
The lightning struck the ground, blasting out shallow pits as crushed stones exploded and dust flew all over the place.
Xiaozhai watched it for long when she finally got some idea. Waving her hand, she commanded, "Back!"
The fog shrank into a thin thread, slithering across the air back into the gourd. Saved by the sudden act of mercy, the green snake scrambled out of the field and disappeared out of sight.
Xiaozhai was very pleasantly surprised. The power had been weakened to some extent, but it could be made up by the quantity. The fog could not issue active attacks, but defense and confinement it could, making it the most practical thing to have around.
They had brought back two bags of the grit. If they were to refine them all, sprinkling all the grit into the air would be like the God of Thunder himself arriving on earth.
In general, magical instruments belonged to one of the two categories. The first was the universal type, which did not require refining by mental force but was nourished by spiritual essence alone and could be used by anyone. The second was the exclusive type, which needed refining by mental force, had the owner's own mental imprint, and could be stored in the mental space.
Refining the grit would be quite energy-consuming for her, for the grit was to be put inside the gourd and she would have to refine the grit together with the gourd.
Just imagine: a stunning beauty like her would one day hold a giant gourd over a meter tall with sand gushing out of it opening—it would be too ridiculous a scene to watch!
Tianzhu Mountain, the monastery.
The monastery was no longer its deserted self. The thirty-six sects had sent two people each, making it seventy-two in total. That, plus with those already there, made the number of residents 108.
The seventy-two newcomers were in fact handymen taking care of cooking, cleaning, hall-caring, guest-welcoming, etc. No one explained about the odd jobs, for they knew well enough what this place was.
It was six in the evening and the time for evening classes. The time of morning and evening classes was not fixed, for each sect differed from the next. Here, the morning classes took place between five to seven am, while the evening ones were between five to seven pm.
"The spiritual rice is here!"
With that, two priests entered the kitchen, each with two bags of rice in hand. The bags were 50 kg each and they were carrying it without effort. As soon as they put them down, someone else came along to open the bags, wash the rice, and dexterously moving on to cook it.
On the stove on the other side, three priests were making vegetarian dishes.
There were six people in total working in the kitchen. After several months, they were fairly well acquainted. Seeing that the head of the kitchen Wang Yuanji was not around, they struck out a conversation in low voices.
"I heard they were going to develop Mt Emei now. Senior Brother Lu is definitely going. I wonder who will accompany him."
"Why, I heard it wouldn't happen for another while. The country has taken toll because of what happened in Huo Zhou and needs time to recover."
"The foundation of our country is more solid than you think. Plus, Mt Emei is going to be developed even if they have to pawn everything else. Just wait and see."
As they chatted merrily on, the bell rang outside, the sound resonating in the mountain, announcing that the evening classes were over and dinner was ready,
The six men stopped talking right away. With quick and steady moves, they filled the bowls and plates and carried them through a small door to the canteen in the front. Before long, the priests arrived in twos and threes. The relationship between two schools was much more relaxed. Before, each school only sat with their own, but some were sitting with the other side now; men on both sides would even exchange casual words on a daily basis.
After all this time, especially the impact of Huo Zhou incident, most people here had embraced the idea of "once inside Qiyun, there is no other sect".
Right now, in the scripture hall on the west of the main hall, two men remained behind. One was Tan Chongdai and the other was Shi Yunlai.
"Junior Brother, you said yesterday that the loss of ten years needed making up by a year's hard work."
Tan Chongdai seemed even more scrawny than before, his face fraught with distress. "I'm seventy-one already. Will it be too late for me?"
"In the Senior Brother's case, the base of practice can be reached in five years." Shi Yunlai was frank.
"Five years, then I'll be seventy-six…"
For a brief moment, the old priest was lost in his thoughts. He then muttered, "It's not too late. Not too late at all!"
The practice of Neidan started from building the base. The so-called base was essential to the cultivation of Yang spirit and where the mind and breathing rested. By building the base, Yang spirit—or the primordial spirit—was obtained.
In simple terms, building the base was a method to repair the body and nourish the vital essence.
In the teaching of Neidan there was a saying, "building the base in a hundred days." But the older the practitioner was, the longer actual time required would be; and the natural endowment and comprehensive ability were also factors to be considered. Starting from the age of sixteen, it would cost a male practitioner one more year to build the base for every ten years older.
The signs of obtaining the base varied depending on the aspect referred. Some of the standards were to resume the physiological state to the pre-16 level: before the males had their first seminal emission and females their first menstruation. Others focused on the fullness of one's vital essence internally and the intactness of eyes (brimming with vigor), teeth (fallen teeth growing back), and voice (loud and clear) externally.
Seeing that the old man was dispirited, Shi Yunlai comforted him. "Since Senior Brother has decided to take this path, you must have known the road ahead is ridden with frustrations. You can't let yourself be discouraged now."
"I know, I know…"
Tan Chongdai nodded repeatedly.
The two went on talking for quite a long time. The old priest asked and Shi Yunlai answered. Had an outsider been present, they would doubtlessly be shocked, for all the questions were about the key points on Neidan practice.
It was not until late into the night when the old priest bid Shi Yunlai farewell and strolled back to his own dwelling. Walking in, he saw someone else was sitting inside. It was none other than Zhang Shouyang himself.
Although the job titles had been allotted, the monastery was such a new concept that the customs were yet to be established. They were still addressing one other in old terms.
"Junior Brother Zhang, what brought you here?"
"Senior Brother Tan, did you just come back from the scripture hall?" Zhang Shouyang was very direct.
After a brief moment of silence, Tan Chongdai replied, "Yes, that's correct."
The outright affirmative answer rendered Zhang Shouyang's prepared speech redundant. He could only heave a sigh and say, "Senior Brother, you have been cultivating for decades following the teaching of Zhengyi. The youngsters have always retained immense esteem towards your knowledge and virtue. Why would you abandon your integrity in your later years?"
"Abandoning my integrity?"
Tan Chongdai smiled and replied in that same calm voice, "I'm not like any of you. I'm old. I have been pursuing the Great Dao for my entire life and I don't want to be shut out at its doorstep now when I'm one foot in the grave. The world is changing and my limited talent can only take me so far. I'm afraid I won't live long enough for the great fortune to fall upon me… Junior Brother, what would you have me do instead?"
Looking into the old man's eyes, Zhang Shouyang found words had failed him.
Mo Haofeng was the oldest priest here in the monastery, followed by Tan Chongdai. Yet Tan did not have all those years of practicing Dan method like old Priest Mo did, nor was he any good in combat. It was common knowledge that if one had to pick the least likely priest to achieve the Great Dao, it would definitely be Tan Chongdai.
Now that the old man had abandoned his old teaching and turned to Neidan instead, no one found themselves in the position to accuse him.
"Junior Brother, I have prepared myself before coming here, yet when I am among all these outstanding talented young people, I still couldn't reconcile to this reality." Tan Chongdai sounded a little bitter with his hoarse voice. "Don't worry about me. This is my own decision. Whatever consequences there are in the future, I will face them."
"Do let me know if you need any help."
There was nothing more Zhang Shouyang could say. With that, he left the room, feeling his legs weighing down on him.
Once out of the courtyard, he stood still on the pebble-paved trail and looked up at the bright moon above. The thought lay heavily upon him. He agreed with Lu Yuanqing on casting aside the internal strife and focusing on expanding the Taoist community, but he could never accept the idea of fusing Zhengyi and Quanzhen into one.
Many Taoist followers had switched sides in history, such as the Fourth Patriarch Chen Nan and Fifth Patriarch Bai Yuchan of the Southern Sect of Quanzhen. Both had learned the Thunder Technique of Shenxiao and had become quite skillful at it. Of course, their inheritance had long been lost by now.
But not him. He was the abbot's personal disciple of the Way of Celestial Masters. If the Way itself changed over to practice Neidan, it would be the utter betrayal of all their forefathers!
In the following days after Tan Chongdai and Zhang Shouyang's talk, the old man decided to stop hiding and went to ask for Shi Yunlai's advice in public.
Seeing this, the others were all brooding over their own ideas.
No specific rules were set back when the scripture hall was established, such as limiting Shi Yunlai to teach Quanzhen or Chao Kongtu Zhengyi only. The priests were all clever men, and soon grasped Lu Yuanqing's unspoken lines.
Some supported it while others did not, but everyone had agreed on one thing, which was to reinvigorate the Taoist community. Lu Yuanqing was clever enough to provide them with an opportunity to choose freely instead of forcing it on them.
Now that Tan Chongdai had made the first move, some of the others could no long sit still.
They were young men after all. Be it to start Dan method or talisman from scratch, they all had plenty of time.