The atmosphere of the scripture hall was dominated by solemnity and reverence. Priest Huayang announced the first name, together with a brief comment. "She received the top grade in the monthly exam last month, which makes her a natural candidate."
"Thank you, Abbot!" The little girl bowed.
The others admired her fortune with little surprise or discontentment. He He's outstanding performance was there for everyone to see and her being selected was long expected.
"Xu Ziying!" Huayang announced the second name. "She came the second in the monthly exam and is qualified for the program."
"Thank you, Abbot!" said Xu Ziying.
He then named two boys. The former was the third in the monthly exam and the latter was not among the top few in his exam grade, but performed exceptionally well on a daily basis, rendering him a plausible selection.
There was tension in the air after four names were announced. All the other little ones were hanging on to the sound of the last name, hoping against hope that it would be their own.
However, when Huayang scanned the room with his eyes and spoke the name slowly, it was one that no one had anticipated. "Lin Junlong!"
Everyone began to talk at the same time. The precept of the scripture hall was ignored and voices erupted from every corner. Even Lin Junlong himself was taken by surprise. He did not have good grades, nor was his daily performance particularly good; he did not even have good people skills. Why on earth was he chosen?
Frowning, Fangchengzi snapped, "Silence!"
His voice seemed to have gone through a giant bronze horn and shot out into the air before quickly spreading out. The kids felt their eardrums vibrating at the sound, which was rather uncomfortable. They raised their hands hastily to cover their ears and stopped talking.
Huayang kept his face as still as the bottom of an ancient well and commented briefly as he did with the other four. "Despite his lack of natural endowment, Li Junlong is the most arduous in his studies among all students. After a discussion with the rest of the priests, we decided he should be selected."
That was almost a passable explanation. The little ones did not know the meaning behind all this, but should someone more experienced be present, they could see through the reasoning at the first glance.
He He was from a poor family and extraordinarily gifted; Xu Ziying had a government official background and was a talented student herself; both Nie Zhaoyuan and Bai Xiangting were from prominent businesses families with above average grades; Lin Junlong was the child of a poor family as well, and represented the disadvantaged lot making up their lack of talent with their diligence.
Such arrangement managed to take all social classes into consideration, which would avoid inducing reverse psychology and give incentives for the poor kids to strive for higher goals.
"All twenty-four forests of ten directions will participate in this exchange program. Priest Fangchengzi and Priestess Qinghui will be your instructors and you will leave in the morning the day after tomorrow."
Huayang summoned the five pupils to his side and reminded them, "After leaving Taiqing Palace, you will first arrive at Baiyun Temple of the capital city, from where you will set out for Qiyun Monastery in Tianzhu Mountain. The entire program will take around thirty days. 528 intern disciples have been recruited by the Taoist community in total this time, among whom some are talented, some not so much, some are kind, while others are of domineering characters. After the past three months or so, you are now more knowledgeable than when you arrived here. When all the young pupils are gathered together, it is inevitable that conflicts may occur. Keep in mind that you should avoid unnecessary confrontations, but make no concessions on matters of principle. However, under no circumstances should you initiate disturbance. Your sole purpose of this trip is to widen your horizons and learn!"
"Yes!" replied the five in unison.
Tianzhu Mountain, Tianmen Town.
Mid-June had just passed and the temperature was growing all the more frantic. Qian Zhou alone was suffering from temperatures of 40 and above for the past three days in a row. Over five million people were in agony.
It was especially the case in the central downtown area, where the density of the population was the highest, resulting in the highest temperature. A crowded bus ride was like being drowned in body fluids.
Tianmen Town was no exception. But there was something unusual here: the town itself was as hot as everywhere else, but the closer to Tianzhu Mountain, the cooler the weather became.
Never underestimate the strength of the masses, who found this secret in no time. Hence, "hotdogs" from everywhere were gathering here every weekend for the cool air.
Miraculously, the rows of farm stay villas along the mountain foot on the verge of closing down were showing signs of resurrection.
"Why, you're going out early?"
"I heard there's this agricultural park over there, thought I'd have a look."
"Oh, it's not far from the mountain. Quite nice and cool there. Enjoy!"
In the courtyard of a farm stay villa, the female owner greeted a family of three before watching the latter driving off.
The so-called agricultural park was a specially approved plantation of fruit and vegetables after the base was set up. It had been contracted to some local people, who were in charge of sending the products onto the mountain.
Those were some clever folks. Seeing that so many people were coming, they quickly transformed the plantation into a fruit-picking theme park—anyway, it was as close as anyone could get to the mountain.
"Oh my, this weather is simply ridiculous!" Wearing a sleeveless top, the chubby female owner sat under a big tree outside the yard, talking to herself. "It's like 25 km apart but its 40 degrees here and 20 over there! That's so unfair!"
Shaking her head, she appeared to be utterly baffled. Then, slouching back into her chair, she rested comfortably with a teapot in her left hand and a fan in her right.
She was still lying there when a loud noise woke her up. Sitting up, she saw a truck rumbling its way along the tarmac road, heading straight for the mountain.
The female owner was taken by surprise. She then noticed a black rectangular object loaded on the truck, which looked like a big box. In the passenger seat was a young man, who had a pale and sickly face.
He darted a random look towards her direction and his eyes swept past her...
The female owner shuddered. A chilliness crept up along her spine and spread all over her body. She broke into a cold sweat.
The monastery, outside a certain courtyard.
Thirty-four priests gathered around and were talking absentmindedly in low voices while darting a look at the closed door every now and then. The only event in the monastery that could be given such importance was the breaking through into the innate state.
Two men had succeeded before and normally, this time should not have made them nervous like so, but it was not the same—two priests were going into seclusion at the same time! One was called Sikong Chan and the other Zhang Wumeng; both were disciples of Quanzhen.
They were both middle-aged men that had been cultivating diligently since childhood and had accumulated profound knowledge. They might not be a match for Lu Yuanqing, but were still among the top ten most able priests in the monastery.
This double seclusion was unexpected, yet within reason. After two years of cultivation on this mountain and being imbued with the energy of the node every day, together with the help of the spiritual rice, even a toad would have jumped higher than before.
They had lost count of time when Lu Yuanqing and Shi Yunlei suddenly looked delighted. They both sensed the energy change inside: they made it!
As expected, the wooden doors were pulled open and out came two middle-aged priests. Their demeanor was completely changed.
"Congratulations, Senior Brother Sikong!"
"Congratulations, Senior Brother Zhang!"
The crowd gathered around the two and offered their congratulations. Right after that, the priest on shift received the news and sounded the bell. The toll sounded for exactly twelve times.
"With two senior brothers rising into the innate state, our monastery is a tiger with wings. Congratulations!" Lu Yuanqing saluted solemnly.
"We're flattered. We will spare no effort to spread the prestige of Qiyun." The two bowed back.
Lu Yuanqing and the other four suffered their defeat at the beginning of the year and came back to the monastery wounded. Lu and Shi Yuanlai's authority did not suffer from the incident and their status remained solid, for everyone understood that competitions produced winners as well as losers and men of Qiyun were not that narrow-minded.
The situation with Zhang Shouyang, Chao Kongtu, and Zhong Lingyu was a different story. They knew perfectly well that there was no hope of them winning and they were given a choice, but they had chosen to follow their original teaching and refused to switch to practice Neidan.
Back when Qiyun was first started, men of Zhengyi and Quanzhen were incompatible like fire and water. They later gradually reconciled and were now having everything in common—that was, apart from these three. Everyone else had taken up Neidan practice.
Needless to say, they became the outcasts. Despite his title of house supervisor, Zhang Shouyang was no longer able to convince the others.
When the three went up to offer their congratulations, Sikong Chan and Zhang Wumeng replied indifferently and there was noticeably a lack of warmth in their voice.
The three smiled wryly and backed away in silence. Seeing the other senior and junior brothers gathering around the two, the feeling of being outsiders overwhelmed them.
It couldn't be helped. Most of the others could not understand their choice: you have lost your heritage! The great opportunity is upon us and the Taoist community needs capable men more than ever, why would you stubbornly hold on to your orthodox? What's wrong with communicating with the others and helping each other out?
Even their fellow priests of Zhengyi were exasperated at their failure to make the right choice.
"Senior Brothers, please take some good rest. Senior Brother Shi and I will visit you later."
Seeing those three were going to leave from the other side, Lu Yuanqing bid the two farewell and caught up with them.
"Senior Brother Zhang, please wait a minute!"
He went up to them and in a mediating attempt, he switched the subject. "I was going to ask you about the Flying Message Technique. How did it go?"
"Well, it was a talisman used by ancient cultivators to communicate with one another. Despite its high grade, the requirement on one's cultivation level to use it is rather loose. My work with deconstructing the patterns has been fruitful and we will be able to refine the talisman ourselves in three days," replied Zhang Shouyang.
"Senior Brother is the expert in talisman. You have my thanks for all your hard work."
Lu Yuanqing paused a little and only after seeing that the they were far enough from the crowd did he ask tactfully, "Senior Brother, I noticed that since we were back from Changbai, you seemed to be out of spirits and preoccupied. Do you mind to talk to me about it?"
The three fell silent. A long while passed when Zhang Shouyang halted abruptly and turned to Lu Yuanqing, "Abbot, I am fully aware of my lack of talent and I would now hand in my resignation. The position of house supervisor is better suited for those two Senior Brothers."
Lu Yuanqing did not see that coming. He had never expected the man to be this resolute and tender his resignation outright. It was also putting Lu Yuanqing into a difficult position. Zhang Shouyang held a prestigious status because of his status of being the pupil of an abbot, but the man was indeed unfit for the job with everything that had happened.
They were still talking when a priest ran towards them from the front yard. "Abbot, Senior Brothers, we have visitors!"
"Have they announced who they are?" All four were surprised.
"Well, he did not say, but only asked for your presence."
"Who did he look like?"
"He came alone. Oh, not alone. There are two of them. One is a young man and the other is wrapped in black cloth from head to toe without showing the face."
Lu Yuanqing had a idea who that might be. "Come, let's go have a look."
The four hurried to the front lobby and saw two people standing in the middle of the room. The one in the front was tall and lean, had delicate features, yet was surrounded by an eerie and creepy air, which severely hindered his good looks.
"I thought so. Nice to see you again, Priest Li!" Lu Yuanqing greeted the young man warmly.
Li Suchun scanned him from head to toe and replied in a rigid tone, "Hm, long time no see!"
"Please take a seat!" Lu Yuanqing gestured with a smile. "It's been almost a year since we last met in Emei. I see Priest Li is doing well as always. Haha, this fellow iron corpse is also as imposing as ever!"
Youngster Li gave him a funny look, which was equivalent to a silent sarcasm. 'Where on earth did all your crap come from!' He produced a official document and unfolded it. "Here's the official approval. I'm going to live here for a while."
Lu Yuanqing ignored the paper. "You're welcome here whenever you come. There's no need for such formalities. The monastery will open its door for you no matter what. However, if I may ask, what is the reason for your sudden visit?"
Youngster Li darted him another look and gave his succinct answer, "Stay away from the heat!"