The monastery had been expanding since its construction. Zhu Ridge had an altitude of 518 m and Lu Yuanqing's vision was to divide it into three sections in the future.
The topmost section was to be a new temple revamped from the original buildings, which would have enough rooms for over a hundred residents and also be where the thirty-six priests of Qiyun lived. This section was already completed.
Dozens of houses and cottages were to be built halfway up the mountain, together with a sizable round square, all still under construction.
At the foot of the mountain, two stretches of buildings would be built next to the memorial archway both inside and outside, which would total up to over a hundred houses and also under construction.
The plan was straightforward. 528 intern disciples were recruited as the very first batch, which would be trained in the forests of ten directions for three years before being dispatched to various offspring temples all over the country, where they would be trained for another three years. The outstanding pupils would then be chosen by the monastery.
The second batch was planned to start recruiting the year after the next with an expanded enrollment. The program would continue like so, increasing the base number of cultivators. As the sole orthodox Taoist establishment certified by the authorities, the monastery would then receive homage from thousands of temples and have more pupils than they could count.
Lu Yuanqing was an incredibly provident man who wanted nothing but the prosperity of the Taoist community. That was the main reason the priests believed in his leadership.
One day, a few coaches arrived at the grand plaza outside the front gate of Tianzhu mountain. The doors opened and hundreds of little priests filed out.
They were between the ages of six and sixteen, dressed in Taoist robes, had their hair in Taoist buns, and wore shoes of ten directions. Despite their great number, there was no yelling or shouting. Forming into teams, they followed their own leading adult priests and went up the mountain.
He He walked after Xu Ziying and looked around curiously. All around, a thousand cliffs were contending for beauty and ten thousand slopes raced with running streams. The sky joined the glossy blue stone walls of the mountains; the pine trees swayed like folding screens at the mountain breeze. The grand panorama was unlike anything one would expect from this mortal world.
"I have traveled here before with mum and dad. It was quite messy with a lot of peddlers. It is nice and quiet now, with the mountain closed for tourists. It almost feels empty."
Holding He He's little hand, Xu Ziying struck up a conversation. Every now and then, she would point at some direction, telling He He about various scenic spots.
Despite the bitchy side of her, the little elder sister was very sensible. As much as she enjoyed an internal strife, once out here, they represented the entire Taiqing Palace. Plus, they were the only two girls of their team and should look out for one another.
He He was still an innocent child and never had a competitive nature to begin with. As a result, the two girls had become much closer.
Five pupils were selected from each of the twenty-four forests of ten directions, making them 120 pupils in total. They first visited Baiyun Temple in the capital city, where Li Qingzhi, the leading figure of the Taoist community, gave them a speech himself, encouraging all the young pupils, who also took the opportunity to make acquaintance with many talented people.
All were with an outstanding personality, equally exceptional in their natural endowment and disposition with He He.
One's mind and taste improved with their experience. Inside their local temples, all pupils felt they were God's favored one. Once outside, however, they began to perceive the vastness of the country, not to mention the whole wide world out there.
After a fortnight, the little complacency they had and the superiority feeling they held from the common folk were long dispelled.
The procession marched for about an hour when they reached the foot of the Zhu Ridge. They were slightly disappointed, for it was nothing but a big construction site. However, as they climbed on, the disappointment turned into amazement halfway up the ridge.
A round square lay across the full width of the mountain. Bluestone slabs paved the ground neatly without any visible gaps between them. The ground surface was as smooth as a blue mirror. The square was big enough to hold a thousand people. The color deepened in the center, where a pair of Yin Yang fish was embedded.
Rallings ran around the square and on both sides were houses and cottages still under construction, which did not stop one from imagining their grandness once finished.
They lined up in the square and waited, holding their breath in silence. Before long, the toll of a bell rang out up the mountain.
The sonorous sounds reminded them of a mountain breeze knocking on the bell, which resonated across the mountains. Then, a priest walked gracefully down the stone staircase.
After that came the second, the third… all thirty-five of them moved at a brisk pace with their loose robes swaying in the wind, reminding one of banished immortals descending from heaven. Lu Yuanqing was the last one, as he walked out slowly on his own.
He had no intention of showing off, but to the audience, he was the most imposing one. Watching him moving closer, the children felt each step was a thump on their chest. It was only when he finally stood still that the pressure was eased.
A hush fell over the square. Without realizing it, everyone was watching the scene with more reverence.
"I am Lu Yuanqing, the abbot of Qiyun. It was by fate and heaven's blessing that you became members of the Taoist community. Be sure to devote yourselves to the training and studying of the profound Taoist knowledge. In six years, you will be able to join the monastery and become a pupil of the masters here…"
On his left was Shi Yunlai and Zhang Shouyang, while Sikong Chan and Zhang Wumeng stood on the right. Zhang Shouyang had lost his position of the house supervisor, replaced by Shi Yunlai. The other two innate state men were promoted accordingly and become high-ranking officials of the monastery.
They were perfectly clear of the government's purpose: to show their muscle to the next generation as a psychological incentive. They were happy to oblige—everything was to ensure a bright future for the Taoist community.
Lu Yuanqing's instruction was brief. The priests did not linger and left promptly after the speech.
That was so deliberate, but the kids bought it all! Everyone strained their necks following the long stone stairs reaching all the way into the clouds. The show had infatuated them all, planting in their heads something to yearn for.
"That was awesome. I must join the monastery in the future!"
"Priest Lu is so cool! I want to become his pupil!"
"So do I!"
The adult priests leading the teams did not stop the hubbub. Instead, the envious look on their faces was apparent—they themselves did not get chosen by the monastery because of their lack of capability. The excitement of the kids was interrupted after a while when they were led to the half-finished lodgings. Despite the shabby accomodation, no one complained.
He He's eyes shot open as a dream woke her up. She lay there dazed for a moment and felt something cool at the corner of her eyes. Wiping it away immediately, she rolled out of bed as if nothing had happened.
Eight girls shared the bedroom, including Xu Ziying and some other senior and junior sisters who were still sound asleep. The little girl hesitated for a moment and eventually decided not to wake them up. She finished washing up, changed her clothes, and went quietly outside.
The sun had not fully risen and the light was still dim in the mountain.
She followed the familiar track to a grove, where two teenage boys were already refining their Qi in meditation. One was called Lu Guimeng, who was from the Celestial Master Cave of Qingcheng Mountain, a branch of Zhengyi, while the other was called Lu Qian, a pupil of Louguan Tower of Chang'an, a branch of Quanzhen.
Louguan Tower was the birthplace of the Way of Louguan that had a famous first patriarch Yin Xi.
This sect had been following its own path, but after the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties, few masters and theories were produced by the sect and it gradually waned. Li Zhirou, its leader at the time, made the resolute decision to join Quanzhen and became Qiu Chuji's pupil. Hence, from Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties until present, the Way of Louguan had been following the teachings of Quanzhen.
Both teenagers were incredibly talented and more diligent than ordinary pupils. He He would often run into them during her training here. The three were sort of nodding acquaintances.
She found a spot for herself, sat down with her short little legs crossed, and began to circulate her energy around her little internal universe perfectly as taught. The basic Qi-nourishing method did not have much power, but mainly focused on strengthening the physical body, building up a feeling for the energy, as well as expanding one's potential.
It was a long while before she finished the practice, after which she practiced two rounds of the physical training fist movements.
When the last dimness was gone, the bell of the morning class rang out. The three kids then ran hurriedly back to the monastery. The schedule here was the same as Taiqing Palace, only that the lecturers had become the masters of the monastery.
The content of elementary education was vital for children.
The textbooks and the contents of the classes had gone through multiple corrections, so as to present the new world in a language as plain and comprehensible as possible.
In this world, there were immortals, Taoist skills, cults… what happened in Huo Zhou was an abnormality, Tianzhu Mountain was a node, and the extremely hot weather was caused by the spiritual essence, etc.
Of course, those above had made sure that only the proper concepts were introduced to prevent the ignorant kids from asking questions such as, "Priest, who is the toughest cultivator now?"
Or, "Priest, Phoenix Mountain is also a node, why can't we go there?"
Or, "Priest, is Neidan the most invincible method in the world?"
Well, and so on and so forth.
The textbooks avoided such areas cleverly and only mentioned them briefly.
He He could not wait to go out after the morning classes were over. Xu Ziying caught sight of her and called out, "Xiao He, are you going to that Uncle Zombie again?"
"That man is so scary. Why do you like to be with him?"
"He doesn't scare me. He's a nice man."
The little girl ran happily down the mountain, hopped on a free electrical shuttle cart for monastery personnel only, and headed right for White Crane Hollick.