Once Meiduo got settled on the rock, Li Yundong sat down beside her and began recounting the story of how he and Su Chan met, leaving out the parts about the Renyuan Jindan and the fact that Su Chan was a fox spirit .
"And that's pretty much how we met . I was on my way back to my apartment because I got drunk after a failed love confession…" Li Yundong chuckled and stared down at his hands . "And then… voila . There she was, the most beautiful woman I've ever met . "
"Was it… Was it love at first sight?" Meiduo's sobs had turned into snivels .
"Nah…" Li Yundong shook his head, then smiled . "Well, I'm not gonna lie . For me, it was lust at first sight . As for her…I'm pretty sure it was neither . " Li Yundong chuckled darkly . "I had nothing back then . Literally nothing . " Li Yundong shot Meiduo a look and waved a hand in front of his face . "I don't always look like this . "
Meiduo frowned . "What do you mean? You mean the beard and the long hair?"
"No . I meant I was fat and chubby . "
The way Meiduo's jaw went slack was so comical that Li Yundong laughed out loud .
"B- But now you look so… so…"
Li Yundong shrugged . "It only happened after I met her . "
And after I swallowed a magical pill by accident .
Meiduo pulled her robe tighter around her shoulders . "But she accepted you when you were… chubby?"
Meiduo nodded . "A little…"
Li Yundong rummaged through his backpack and pulled out another towel, then offered it to Meiduo .
"Yes, she did," Li Yundong answered as Meiduo took the towel . "Well, she did have an ulterior motive at the beginning . " Li Yundong smiled at the memory of Su Chan's teary confession that night . "But I found out later that she had a change of heart . She abandoned her original cause and chose to be with me instead . "
Sometimes he still couldn't believe that Su Chan had given up the Renyuan Jindan for him .
"Then why are you here? Why aren't you with her now?"
Li Yundong slowly looked up from his hands . There was a hint of boldness in Meiduo's tone, as though the question was meant as a challenge .
Then, as if sensing her own impertinence, Meiduo blushed and looked away . "I- Is she… Is she alright?" she asked in a more tentative tone .
"She's fine . " Li Yundong sighed . "At least I know she's somewhere safe . "
That seemed to have gotten Meiduo's attention as her eyes snapped back to his face . Plastered across her face was a look of alarm and concern .
"Was she in danger before?"
Li Yundong smiled wryly . "She's in danger every second she's with me . "
"What do you mean?"
Li Yundong sat there in silence .
Li Yundong looked up into the night sky . "I did some things recently… Things that some might consider questionable . " He lowered his gaze from the sky and looked at Meiduo . "Things that are punishable by death . "
The look of alarm on Meiduo's face intensified . "Wait . Are you a fugitive?"
Li Yundong thought for a few seconds, then shook his head . "No, I don't think I am…" A fugitive from the Heavens, yes . But the law? Maybe not . As far as he could tell, the authorities had not called for his arrest yet . He had a feeling that he had Zhou Qin to thank for that .
"I don't get it, Brother Li . You're not making any sense . "
"I can't tell you the details . All I can say is that I did some questionable things that pissed off certain powerful… parties . " Li Yundong shrugged . "And my punishment is death . "
At least the He family hadn't put a bounty on his head .
Meiduo was silent for a long while . Li Yundong turned his head to the side to check whether she was still there . Finally, Meiduo looked into his eyes . "Is this what your trip is about? Are you trying to escape death?"
"No," Li Yundong stated firmly . "It's the opposite, actually . This trip is meant to help prepare me for my punishment . If I train myself hard enough, I might survive . "
He had never really discussed with Zi Yuan about his chances of surviving the Heavenly Thunder, but he knew it was pretty slim . He Shao turned into ashes in literally just seconds after being struck . With the Jindan's help, Li Yundong might last, what, a few minutes?
"What on earth did you do, Brother Li? And what kind of punishment are we talking about here? Electrocution?"
Meiduo's voice pulled him out of his thoughts . Li Yundong smirked . Electrocution pretty much summed it up .
Li Yundong opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it again . He sighed and shook his head .
"Right . You can't tell me . I get it . " Meiduo sounded disappointed .
"If…" Li Yundong trailed off . He really didn't know the best way to say this .
Li Yundong cleared his throat . "Let's say there's a man who owns a powerful weapon . "
Meiduo frowned . "A weapon? What kind of weapon?"
"One that can destroy a person in an instant . But, at the same time, it'll also bring death to its user . "
Meiduo's baffled expression made him laugh .
Seconds later, he stopped laughing and raised a palm . "Bear with me for a second, okay?"
Meiduo smiled for the first time since their unfortunate "accident . "
"Okay," she said .
"Anyway, this man—the man with the weapon, well, let's call him Weapon Guy—encountered another man . And let's call this second man Evil Guy . " Li Yundong kicked a loose pebble on the ground . "Evil Guy… Well, Evil Guy was very wealthy . And very powerful too . He had a lot of influence . However, he used his wealth and influence to do bad things . "
"Right . Because he's an evil man…" Meiduo said dryly .
Li Yundong nodded . "He killed without remorse . He raped and violated women… and basically treated everyone else like trash . "
Meiduo's face scrunched up . "That's horrible…"
Horrible was an understatement .
"Then one day, Evil Guy crossed the line and murdered two of Weapon Guy's friends . When Weapon Guy learned about his friends' deaths at hands of Evil Guy, he… Well, he lost it . He decided right then and there that he'd had enough . He didn't want Evil Guy to hurt anyone else, so he killed Evil Guy with the weapon . "
Li Yundong turned his head and saw Meiduo watching him carefully . Meiduo hadn't said a single word, but he knew he had her full attention . She looked like she was processing his words carefully .
Li Yundong smiled wryly .
Perhaps she would change her mind about her feelings for him after this .
Li Yundong lowered his gaze and kicked another loose pebble . The pebble rolled away until it stopped at the edge of the brook . "Some might think of Weapon Guy as a sanctimonious and self-righteous prick who killed Evil Guy because he was looking for an emotion outlet . They might think it was all about vengeance, because Evil Guy murdered two of his friends in cold blood . Others might think that Evil Guy had it coming, that Evil Guy's death is justified because he had too much influence for the legal system to work properly . " Li Yundong sighed and angled his head towards the sky . "I guess the question is… Was Weapon Guy wrong in killing Evil Guy?"
The stars blinked down at him in a peaceful, almost idyllic, manner . The silence between them was palpable . Li Yundong would've thought that he had gone deaf if it weren't for the sounds of the flowing water that came from the brook .
Just when Li Yundong was about to move the conversation forward, Meiduo spoke .
"Killing is wrong," she said softly . "Buddha said that taking a life, be it animal or human, would lead to karmic consequences . "
Li Yundong chuckled wryly . I thought so…
"He's brave though…"
Li Yundong looked down from the sky towards Meiduo and raised his brows .
"The man with the weapon," Meiduo said . "I think he's brave?"
Meiduo nodded weakly .
Brave but dumb I guess .
"Was he aware that using the weapon would cost him his life?" Meiduo asked .
"Yes . "
Meiduo released a hum of approval . "And yet he still did it . " There was a brief pause . "In a way, he sacrificed his own life to protect everyone else from that evil man . " Meiduo gazed at him steadily . "He would rather suffer the karmic consequences of taking a life than have anyone else suffer at the hands of the evil man . "
Well . That's… an interesting way to look at it .
Li Yundong nodded . "I guess so . "
Meiduo smiled . "That's why I said he's brave . "
"He was angry too I think," Li Yundong said, stealing a glance at Meiduo . "I can't help but think that vengeance was also part of why he did it . " Li Yundong sighed . "Which is why he is paying the price now . "
There was another stretch of silence .
"Are you… Are you going to die, Brother Li?"
Li Yundong stared out into the dark silhouette of trees . Ao Wushuang didn't seem optimistic at all and had insisted on taking Su Chan as far away from him as possible . She did promise Su Chan that she would find a way to help him, but he couldn't help wondering if it was even possible to survive the Heavenly Thunder at his current level . Cultivators typically didn't have to worry about the Heavenly Thunder until they had reached the eighth phase of Cultivation—the Lightning Retribution phase . Su Chan herself had said so during their conversation with Zi Yuan .
Man… the eighth phase .
Yet here he was, forced to survive the Heavenly Thunder after passing just the fourth phase of Cultivation . That was like asking a three-year old to survive being run over by a truck .
Zi Yuan had remained pretty tight-lipped on the subject of his impending divine punishment, telling him to just worry about passing the Zhuji phase . What he didn't understand, though, was why . Why did she push him to pass the Zhuji phase so quickly? If even Ao Wushuang had doubts about his chances of surviving the divine punishment, shouldn't he refrain from passing the Zhuji phase for now? Was there something about the Heavenly Thunder that he wasn't told? Somehow, he couldn't shake the feeling that both Zi Yuan and Ao Wushuang were hiding something from him .
Li Yundong looked towards Meiduo . "Sorry . You were saying?"
A look of concern flitted across Meiduo's face . "I asked if… if you're going to die…"
Right . The million-dollar question .
Li Yundong sighed . "I don't know, Meiduo . I don't know . "
"Maybe… Maybe you can talk to Changbagela about this? Perhaps he could perform a sacred ritual for your protection…"
"It isn't fair to drag Changbagela into this . " Li Yundong shook his head . "This is something that I have to face alone . " He, Li Yundong, was the one who made the choice to kill He Shao . This was his punishment, his cross to bear . "I have to become stronger so that I can survive this . "
"And after you survive, you'll return to the woman you love?"
Li Yundong regarded Meiduo steadily . "Yes . "
Silence ensued . Meiduo looked like she was holding back tears .
"I- I understand, Brother Li . " Meiduo stood up and handed him the towel .
Li Yundong took the towel, searching for the right words to say .
"You'll meet someone, Meiduo . "
Meiduo shook her head and smiled . " All the best in your training!"
Then, she ran off without waiting for Li Yundong to respond . Li Yundong dropped the towel into his lap and sighed .
At dawn, Li Yundong stood outside Changbagela's tent . He didn't want to leave without at least saying goodbye to the old man .
"Just come in, Zhenren Li . " Changbagela amused voice sounded from inside the tent . "I promise there is nothing indecent for you to see even if you barge in without announcement . It's just an old monk and his prayer wheels in here . "
Li Yundong chuckled . "Pardon the intrusion, then, Changbagela . "
Li Yundong parted the tent flaps and stepped in .
True to his word, Changbagela was sitting at the center of the tent, meditating . The old man opened his eyes when he sensed Li Yundong's presence .
"Ah . Leaving already, I see?"
Li Yundong nodded . "It is for the best . "
His original plan was to let the pilgrims guide him towards the summit of Mount Duonian until he felt it was the right time to pass the Zhuji phase . And when the moment for him to pass the Zhuji phase—he hadn't yet experienced this mysterious feeling Zi Yuan had told him about—came, he would then part ways with the pilgrims and look for a private and inaccessible spot to pass the Zhuji phase . This was crucial for two main reasons: he shouldn't be disturbed during the process; and his surroundings should be clear of innocent bystanders when the Heavenly Thunder struck .
Admittedly, he hadn't thought things through .
Now, he had to leave before Meiduo got even more attached .
"Why do you think it is for the best, if you don't mind me asking?"
"I'm a Cultivator," Li Yundong answered . "I have enemies . It's better for me to travel alone . "
"Will you guys be fine on your own? What with the wolves and everything . "
"We have measures . Rifles and bows . " Changbagela shook his head . "But with Buddha's blessing, I hope we don't run into any wolves . It is not advisable to take lives, be it human or animal . "
"Best wishes, then . "
"Likewise . " Changbagela stood up . "Where will you go next?"
"The Himalayas . "
Changbagela raised his brows, then stared at Li Yundong's backpack . "With so little supplies?"
Li Yundong nodded . "This is enough . "
Changbagela looked concerned .
Li Yundong gave him a reassuring smile . "Part of my training is to be able to survive in any circumstances . "
How could he survive the Heavenly Thunder if he couldn't even survive the harsh conditions of the Himalayas?
Changbagela grabbed his arms . "Take some of our food supplies with you at least . "
Li Yundong laughed . "It's okay . Your people need them more than I do . "
"I insist, Zhenren Li . "
Li Yundong sighed . "Alright, then . "
Changbagela led Li Yundong to the wagon, where Li Yundong filled his backpack with more food supplies .
"Farewell, Zhenren Li . " Changbagela pressed his palms together . "May Buddha's blessings follow you through the rest of your journey . "
Li Yundong bowed . "Thank you for everything, Changbagela . For your hospitality, your advice, and for the book . "
"Are you sure you don't want me to wake Meiduo so she can say her goodbyes?"
Li Yundong nodded resolutely . "Yes, I'm sure . "
With that, he turned and started walking downhill .
Meiduo's eyes shot open when she felt an insistent shake on her shoulder . She rolled around and rubbed her eyes groggily .
"What?" she mumbled .
"Your Brother Li is leaving…"
Meiduo sat bolt upright and stared at the person who woke up . It was one of Changbagela's trusted helpers .
"Yes," the man whispered . "I saw him enter Changbagela's tent with his backpack and all . "
Meiduo scrambled out of her tent and ran into Changbagela's tent .
"Changbagela! Is it true?! Has he left?!" she shouted, not caring that she might have just woken up the entire camp .
Changbagela stood up and walked towards her . "Come, child . "
Changbagela led her away from his tent towards the path downhill .
"There he is," Changbagela said, pointing along the path .
Meiduo squinted and, through the first light of dawn, saw Brother Li's figure slowly walking down the winding path .
Something wet dripped down Meiduo's cheeks, and she sang the first song that came to mind:
That day, standing amidst the smoky halls of the temple with my eyes closed, I heard your gentle chants;
That month, I spun my prayer wheel, not to free myself from the path of sin, but to touch your fingertips;
That year, I went on a pilgrimage along a winding, mountain path, not to be closer to the divine, but to be closer to your warmth;
That lifetime, I traveled across mountains and oceans, not to achieve enlightenment, but so that our paths might cross…