Meng Hao gaped at his father. He’d forgotten how long it had been since he’d seen him act so strictly. The seriousness of his tone instantly caused him to wake up.
“A Master is like a father….” Meng Hao watched his father’s back as he left. He clearly was wearing a simple, unlined robe. However, for some reason, it seemed to Meng Hao as if he were surrounded by a violet wind.
The wind seemed to shatter some barrier in his mind; suddenly an image appeared. It was his father. The image was blurry, but he could tell that his father was looking at him and sighing softly.
His mother was there too, gazing at him warmly. It looked like there were tears in her eyes.
For some reason… there was also a Tower of Tang, as well as many, many complicated memories. Meng Hao thought for a long moment before shaking his head roughly and turning to look off in the distance. There, in the middle of the county, was a very tall tower. It was… a Tower of Tang.
“That wasn’t there before, was it…? No, it never was.” A confused look appeared on Meng Hao’s face.
In the midst of his vacantness, an ancient-sounding voice reached his ears. “This isn’t a boarding school.”
As his father disappeared into the distance, Meng Hao turned to look at the old man who stood in front of him. Now that his father was gone, only he and the old man were there in the coutryard.
The old man looked down at Meng Hao, then slowly continued, “Up to now, I’ve had seventeen apprentices. A few ended up returning to dust. A few left and forged their own path. There were also a few… who are still pondering what they wish to pursue. In fact, when you think about it, some don’t really even count as my apprentices. As of today, you are my eighteenth apprentice. However, I’m actually going to call you… Little Ninth.” As the man spoke in his ancient voice, all the sound in the air around Meng Hao seemed to fade until he was focused completely on the old man.
“You have a Junior Sister. She became my apprentice before you, but in a bit of an unorthodox fashion, so she ranks below you. She is surnamed Chu.”
Meng Hao wasn’t sure why, but he felt nervous. He didn’t know whether to get onto his knees and kowtow, or bend from the waist with clasped hands. He was completely ill at ease.
“I haven’t used my own name for a long time,” said the old man. “Outsiders usually call me by my alchemist name, whereas friends usually call me Mr. East. I’ve never been married, so I have no heir. My apprentices are my heirs. Eventually, you will pass on my teachings, and the mark I have made on the world, will be extended by you. As far as I am concerned, you apprentices are… my closest relatives.” The old man gazed at Meng Hao, looking very majestic. However, his eyes were warm and filled with kindness and love. It seemed almost as if he had been watching Meng Hao for years, and had been testing him for a very long time. “From now on, I’m your Master!”
Without thinking, Meng Hao responded, “Respect Master, venerate the Dao. Master is like a father. I….”
“There’s no need to say such things,” said the old man, his eyes gleaming with a keen light. “As long as they exist in your heart, that is enough. Little Nine, kneel!” In the blink of an eye, his entire person seemed to become the pinnacle of Heaven and Earth.
Meng Hao couldn’t really describe exactly what he was feeling. It was as if in this instant, the old man had become the Heavens. And yet, he was not cold, but instead filled with deep kindness and warmth. It was as if he were a mountain that could shield against wind and rain alike.
Meng Hao bowed his head and got down on his knees.
As he was kneeling, he could not see how everything above him in the sky had stopped moving. The clouds were still. The birds no longer flitted about. The earth did not quake, but everything within the city grew silent.
“As my apprentice, you only kowtow twice in life, at least in the true sense of the word. The first time is upon becoming an apprentice. This kowtow sows Karma with me, whereupon our fates are intertwined. If you do not break this connection, then neither shall I! As for the second kowtow, wait until you come to your senses, then come ask me about it, and I will tell you.
“The first kowtow upon becoming an apprentice is actually divided into three further kowtows, those of the Innocence, the Roaming, and the Sunset Gazing. Your kowtow today is the kowtow of Innocence.”
Meng Hao didn’t really understand. However, he placed his hands onto the ground and kowtowed deeply.
With this kowtow, the sky sprung back into motion. The winds and the clouds swept along. The birds flew!
With this kowtow, the earth shook, as past events flitted dream-like through the minds of all the living creatures.
With this kowtow, past life Karma, future Karma, present life…. If you do not sever it, then I shall not sever it!
The old man laughed contentedly. It echoed about, filled with emotion, satisfaction, kindness and duty.
From this day forward, the young man in front of him was his apprentice. In the future, the young man’s every action would be marked by him. From now on he was… the young man’s Master!
This is Karma. Karma is not something predestined, but something decided by people. It can be called fate; not fate determined by the Heavens, nor doom from the underworld, but something decided between two people.
One person decides to take another as Master; the other decides to take an apprentice. This creates… Karma!
His voice soft, the old man said, “You must still experience the kowtow of Roaming, and the kowtow of Sunset Gazing. Throughout the process, you will be able to choose from many paths. As for which path you choose… that is your decision. If in the end you are able to perform the kowtow of Sunset Gazing, then that will name us Master and apprentice. No one will ever be able to sever that bond! I will accept no gifts in becoming your Master; I have already accepted everything I need to accept.” He reached down and softly tousled Meng Hao’s hair. His smile was kind as he helped Meng Hao to his feet.
Meng Hao still didn’t really understand. As he stood, he looked at his master, and could feel the kindness and love within him. Beneath the man’s gaze, he could also feel a warmth deep inside of himself.
He nodded his head solemnly.
Springs and autumns came and went. Years passed. Meng Hao was now nineteen years old. In the past seven years, he spent most of his time living with Master, studying, observing the cool breeze and the white clouds, gazing up at the moon and the stars.
After reading from many books, he finally understood what it meant to respect Master and venerate the Dao. He also understood that the world was a very large place.
During the seven years, his father had aged quite a bit. Master had grown even older. Peach Blossom’s popularity in the bordello waned. Eventually, some moneybags from another county paid her debts and took her as a concubine.
Before she left, she came looking for Meng Hao. It seemed she viewed him as something like a little brother. She spoke some tender words, then, accompanied by Meng Hao’s smile, got into a sedan chair and left Eastern Emergence County.
According to their agreement from years ago, his two friends really did grow up to become the biggest bullies in the county.
Meng Hao, however, no longer called himself a bully. He didn’t wear fancy, expensive clothes, but instead, a simple scholar’s robe.
It was green, just like the greenness of his youth. However, in just the same manner that spring changes into autumn, his face no longer carried the frivolity it used to, but instead, calmness. He liked to think, and to gaze off into the sky, even though he didn’t really know exactly what it was he was looking at.
He liked the wind and the rain. He liked to stand in the pavilion and look at the lightning off in the distance, and hear the thunder. When the rain fell down onto the earth outside, he liked to open up a book and read about how life had changed throughout the ages.
Everything was like a dream. Seven years passed like the falling of a rainstorm. Meng Hao didn’t feel like he had changed much, but from the perspective of others, he had changed quite a bit.
As he watched his Master continue to grow older, he often thought of bringing up the subject of the Roaming. He wanted to climb mountains, travel to distant lands, to see the realities of the world.
But in the end, he looked at the city, his father, and Master, and instead maintained his silence, saying nothing.
A year. Another year… soon, seven more years had passed. During autumn of that year, as the leaves drifted down to the ground, floating in the wind to return to the earth, his father fell sick. One night, a violet wind blew, and his father passed away.
Meng Hao stood in front of his father’s grave, a blank look in his eyes. He vaguely remembered how, fourteen years ago, his father had held him in his arms and taken him to meet Master. In the blink of an eye, fourteen years had passed. Meng Hao stood there silently, sipping from a pot of alcohol.
Finally he turned and left. He found Master, and told him how he desired the Roaming. It was the only dream he possessed now, and had been fermenting in his heart for years.
Before he left, Meng Hao kneeled before Master and kowtowed a second time. This was… the kowtow of Roaming.
Master watched early one morning as Meng Hao shouldered his scholar’s pack and walked off into the distance, framed by the rising sun.
Eventually, Meng Hao looked over his shoulder. By that time, Master was no longer visible. Later, he looked over his shoulder a second time, and even the Tower of Tang couldn’t be seen.
He was thoughtful for a moment, then gradually seemed to come to an understanding. He looked forward once again, and continued to walk off into the distance. He did not look over his shoulder a third time.
He reached a mighty river and encountered a ferryman, with whom he chatted about some of the legends of the river. Supposedly, an Immortal resided somewhere here.
In the books Meng Hao had read, he had occasionally come across the title Immortal. He decided to live next to the river. Unfortunately, in the three years that he did, he never saw an Immortal. What did see, however, was his own inverted reflection in the river waters, a different him.
He saw himself flying in the sky, practicing cultivation in the mountains, and some place called the East Pill Division of the Violet Fate Sect, where he concocted….
It seemed as if all he had to do was jump into the water, and he could become that other person, and this life would be over.
By the time the three years had passed, Meng Hao was twenty nine years old. In the end, he did not jump into the water. Instead, he left the river and travelled far off to another place.
A year later, in the depths of a seemingly endless forest, on a blustery and nearly moonless night, Meng Hao caught sight of woman floating in the air. There was also an abandoned tomb, with no incense burning in front of it. The surrounding forest was pitch black, and Meng Hao was a bit scared. A moment later, he found himself surrounded by countless shadowy forms. Suddenly, a sealing incantation popped into his mind.
He extended his palm, and everything around him vanished.
Starting then, he was very curious about this dark, mysterious forest. He continued to travel about in it, sleeping in thickets when necessary. He saw many, many strange things, including a variety of fantastic fierce and wild beasts.
It took three years to travel through the forest. When he emerged, he looked back, and an absentminded look covered his face. He had the feeling that if he wished, he could stay and become a part of the forest.
In a place like this, a person could become one with Heaven and Earth, and transcend the mortal life.
As Meng Hao gazed at the forest, he thought back to Master’s words from twenty-one years ago. There are many paths in life, as to which path he would choose… that was his decision to make.
“This place is not the path I wish to tread.” Lost in thought, Meng Hao turned and walked off into the distance.
This chapter was sponsored by Darren Chen