Xue’er was on the verge of going crazy. She wasn’t sure what she had done to offend Meng Hao. All she had done was secretly follow him for a while, and actually had no ill intentions whatsoever.
Furthermore, she’d even given him an incredible medicinal pill just to get him to play a game of Go with her. Those were the instructions given to her by her Master, to find all the Echelon cultivators of the generation, and find the one she was meant to help.
All of the other Echelon cultivators had been easy to convince; Meng Hao was the only one who wouldn’t cooperate.
Seeing him leaving, Xue’er gnashed her teeth.
“I just want to play a game of Go!” she cried. “It doesn’t matter who wins or loses, I’ll still give you the good fortune, something that can help you escape the black-robed people from the Third Nation!
“I can help you get out of this dangerous situation!” Xue’er ground her teeth. This was the first time in her dealings with Echelon cultivators where she had started offering them her benefits before she had even made a choice.
Meng Hao stopped and looked back at Xue’er. He had known all along that if Dao-Heaven cared so much about this young woman, there must be something very special about her. Furthermore, he could tell from everything she had just said that she really was very important to the Echelon.
“Your obsession runs too deep,” he said coolly, his expression tranquil and impossible to read, even transcendent.
His words caused a tremor to run through Xue’er. Next, he clasped his hands behind his back and began to speak, his tone light. To him, this was like a debate, and going all the way back to his days debating the Dao of alchemy, he had never lost.
“The word obsession is made up of two characters, one relating to thoughts, the second to actions. If your thoughts are occupied by the game, and your actions pertain only to the game board, then… aren’t you merely searching for game pieces, not an Echelon cultivator?
“Playing Go is just a way for you to help make your decision, right? But decisions… can be made in many ways. And you seem to be obsessed with this one method. Instead of saying that you are looking for people to play the game, it would be more accurate to say… that you are stuck within the game itself.
“In the grand scheme of things, the game is insignificant, and yet you have sunk yourself into it as if it were Heaven and Earth. Because you are stuck in the game, your path has become blocked, your Dao limited. The game of Go… is for you, not for me.”
Xue’er trembled, and from the expression on her face, it seemed as if she were experiencing enlightenment. After a long moment, she took a deep breath, clasped hands, and bowed deeply to Meng Hao.
“This is my fault for being too fixated,” she said. “I also understand why you weren’t willing to play Go with me, Elder Brother Meng. If you devoted yourself to the game, you would lose yourself in the game board, and fall into that world.
“Therefore, you only played a single piece, then turned and left. It was like leaving behind a single thought in Heaven and Earth, so that the mountains remain pristine and the waters undisturbed. You left behind no ripples or waves, but instead chose to remain on the outside, observing… watching as great changes unfolded….” Eventually her voice trailed off. Finally, she clasped hands and bowed deeply to Meng Hao one more time.
“Many thanks, Elder Brother Meng!” Her expression was completely sincere, and in fact, her aura seemed even more extraordinary than before. It was as if she truly had experienced some sort of enlightenment, as if she suddenly understood more about life. Apparently, even her cultivation base experienced advancement.
Meng Hao looked startled, but then quickly recovered his calm demeanor and enigmatic expression. He smiled faintly, and a look of praise could be seen within his eyes.
He was actually shocked to see the transformation which had just occurred in Xue’er. The only reason he had made his little speech just now was because he couldn’t actually play Go. He would never have guessed that his words would actually affect Xue’er in such a way.
“Elder Brother Meng, I already understand that it doesn’t matter who wins or loses this game. However, my Master’s stipulations are hard to work around. Elder Brother Meng, please do me the favor of making your move.” Xue’er’s expression was very sincere, and all the haughtiness from earlier had vanished. She now seemed very respectful when she looked at him, as if to her, his words were the Dao.
Meng Hao was grumbling inside, and wasn’t sure what to do next. However, his expression of praise deepened. Ideas racing through his head, he looked down at the game board and then smiled slightly.
“Do you really understand?” he asked, his voice suddenly becoming very archaic as he attempted to imitate the way Zong Wuya had spoken and held himself moments ago. “You know, just now, someone asked me what the Dao is.
“My answer was that the Dao relates to the thoughts in your heart. Whatever you focus your thoughts on, that is your Dao. The Dao is shapeless, and cannot be touched; it can only be contemplated, just like life.”
Xue’er frowned; this time she didn’t quite understand what he meant.
“Life?” she asked.
Meng Hao didn’t answer her. Instead, he turned to the mastiff and stroked its fur gently. Its ferocious eyes suddenly turned soft, and it licked him.
At first, Meng Hao had simply been trying to pull a fast one on Xue’er. However, their conversation caused him to think about the cultivator in the Immortal jade mine. Then he thought about the black-robed men in the Third Nation. He thought about many things.
“Look, this is my mastiff, who I raised from a tiny puppy.
“It is not constrained by morals, nor bound by any rules. It only has its primal desires to guide it. The one thing that is not subject to that, is me. I am its family, and it is my family. Besides that, all it has is instinct. Even when it kills, it is not a matter of good or evil.
“The Windswept Realm is similar. Foreign cultivators can become forever lost here, and end up being driven into acting only on instinct.
“That is a sort of primitive freedom and independence, and that is the life that they are living.
“If you defined life as having different Realms, then that would be… the Natural Realm.” All of a sudden, it was as if he broke through to a higher level in his mind. It was as if he had truly reached a level of philosophical enlightenment that caused his eyes to glow with a strange light.
Xue’er stood there thoughtfully.
“Consider them,” he said, gesturing toward the soldiers not too far off in the distance, and the cultivators from the Mountain and Sea Realm. “Now consider yourself.
“You have a special status. You’re the successor of Immortal Ancient. You’re innately superior, with a unique identity and position, with extraordinary power and authority. What about all those soldiers and other cultivators, though? They also possess such things. The strong have their power, the weak… have their schemes.
“Between humans, the only thing we do is compare ourselves to others, in any and all matters. We compare who has the highest cultivation base, who is richer, who has the better status, who has the higher position, who has the most power, who has the best family background, who is the smartest, or who is the strongest.
“The weak with the weak and the strong with the strong, all people are constantly comparing themselves to each other. Because of these comparisons, people covet what they do not have, and what they do have, they are even more unwilling to lose.
“That is another kind of life, and most importantly, that is the type of life… that most people live. I like to call such life the second Realm, the Pragmatic Realm!
“You are in that Realm, and so am I.” By the time he finished speaking, Meng Hao’s voice was soft. He shook his head and sighed.
Xue’er was trembling, and couldn’t take her eyes off of him. The words he had spoken echoed like claps of thunder in her mind, causing her breathing to become ragged.
She understood that he was speaking from the heart as he mused about things he had seen and done. He had only come up with the idea of the first Realm after seeing cultivators who had become lost in their desires. She had also seen such lost cultivators in her time here in the Windswept Realm.
In her opinion, the concept of his second Realm came because of the struggles of the Echelon, and how the Echelon cultivators were constantly competing amongst each other. It was also in response to her words and strength.
“So… is there a third Realm?” she asked quietly.
“Of course!” Meng Hao looked over at her, his expression ever more archaic and his aura swirling even more mysteriously. His eyes glowed with bright light, like twin lamps on a moonless night.
“The third Realm is … when you leave something behind,” he said softly.
Xue’er stood there, dumbfounded.
“Are you willing to give that something up?” he asked, shaking his head slowly. “Do you accept letting it go? Are you even able…to leave it behind?
“The third Realm is the realm of abandonment. After you have something, you abandon it, or perhaps you could say… put it aside!
“Put everything aside, and you have emptiness. At that time, you… can finally explain what the Dao is!” He took a deep breath and looked at Xue’er, who was staring at him blankly. Suddenly, he raised his voice beratingly. “Don’t you get it?!
“Consider the game board. What is it? That game board is your world, and in your heart, it is your everything. When all is said and done, it has borders, limitations, creating an intangible perimeter beneath your feet, an area in your heart that you cannot leave!
“If you don’t put it aside, then you will forever remain in the second Realm. For all eternity… you will be unable to explain… the Dao!” His voice seemed to contain a bizarre power that left Xue’er shaking. Her expression was one of struggle, but after a moment, she looked deeply at him, then stretched her hand out and laid it onto the game board. A pop could be heard as the board shattered into pieces.
She closed her eyes, and all of a sudden, she seemed to relax. When she opened her eyes again, she asked, “What is the name of that third Realm?”
His lips moved soundlessly for a moment, and then he calmly said, “I call that Realm… the Dao!”
“The Dao….” After a moment of thought, she stared at Meng Hao closely, as if committing his features to memory. Then she waved her hand, causing a beam of five-colored light to fly out.
Inside of that beam of light was a five-colored crystal that glittered with radiant light. It looked like some sort of incredibly valuable treasure.
As soon as the glittering light appeared, a wind sprang up, and everything began to tremble. The world almost seemed to be unraveling. As soon as Meng Hao laid eyes on the glittering light, the Echelon mark in his forehead began to glow.
It wasn’t just him. Dao-Heaven was currently speeding through midair when, all of a sudden, he lurched to a stop. He turned to look back in the direction of the central temple, and after a moment, a look of disbelief and rage covered his face.
“The Echelon Heart. You SLUT!” he roared. “The Echelon Heart should belong to me! Nobody else qualifies to have it!!” He changed directions in a flash, heading toward the central temple area. He knew that the Echelon Heart would be going to Meng Hao, and although he wasn’t completely confident of being able to beat him in a fight, his rage offered him no other option than to go find out.
Lin Cong, Han Qinglei, Yuwen Jian and all of the other Echelon cultivators in the Windswept Realm all realized that the Echelon marks on their foreheads were glowing brightly. They could also sense the call of the Echelon coming from the central temple region.
That call was something like a thirst, felt by all Echelon cultivators. Instantly, their faces fell.
“It’s the Echelon Heart!! Could it be that Miss Xue’er finally chose Dao-Heaven?!”
“It must be Dao-Heaven. He’s going to get so much more powerful in the Windswept Realm!!”
Everyone was shaken, even Meng Hao. The mark on his forehead glittered brightly, and the five-colored light seemed to be calling out to him. He took a deep breath.
“What is that?” he asked.
“The Echelon Heart. Every generation of the Echelon will have one member who is approved by Immortal Ancient. That person will be bestowed with… the Echelon Heart!”
“Does that mean I’ve gained approval?” he asked, looking over at her.
“You can’t even play Go, and yet you caused me to break my Go board,” she replied coolly. “You have won the Echelon Heart. However, you did not win my future assistance. If you ever reach that third Realm of which you spoke, then come find me.” With that, she waved her hand, causing the five-colored beam of light to speed toward him. He reached out and caught it, and his mind reeled. In the same moment, his divine sense exploded out to cover the entire area.
“It… belongs to you,” she said, giving him another deep look. Then she turned and sped off into the distance.