C1 – Scholar

Zhang Xiaoloong found himself reclining on the bed, his chest ablaze with an internal heat akin to a roaring fire.

Five days had elapsed. To be more accurate, it was the fifth day since he had awoken from unconsciousness. Prior to this, even he couldn’t ascertain the duration of his oblivious state.

His memory traced back to the day he sat in Jiang Liu’s tricycle, heading towards the county to embark on a journey to Yanjing.

He held the admission letter from Yanjing University close to his chest. His travel companion, Lu Xiaoya, was journeying to Yanjing with him. A crowd of villagers trailed behind them, serving as their send-off party.

Over the years, the rural landscape had changed. The occurrence of a university student was infrequent, and it was the first time in many years that the village boasted two university students concurrently.

Adding to the novelty, Zhang Xiaoloong had distinguished himself as the nation’s top scorer in the college entrance examination. Even city officials had personally visited Zhang Xiaoloong’s home to express their congratulations. Little wonder then, that the village made such a grand spectacle of his departure.

748 points out of a possible 750. This staggering score had sent shockwaves across the national pool of examinees, filling Zhang Xiaoloong with considerable pride.

Reflecting on it now, that score carried a bitter edge of irony. 748 points, a figure that could take a hike! The ultimate twist of fate had been delivered by a bolt from the blue…

As he journeyed towards the county town, the heavens had appeared serene, a clear expanse of azure extending in all directions. Strangely enough, a deafening peal of thunder pierced this tranquility, and a bolt of lightning struck Zhang Xiaoloong.

At that time, Zhang Xiaoloong fell headfirst and didn’t know anything.

Later, five days ago, he gradually regained consciousness. Although he couldn’t move and even open his eyes, he could still hear the conversation between his parents.

From his intermittent words, he understood one thing.

At that time, among the multitude of individuals in the crowd, not a soul discerned the origin of the thunderbolt. Yet, ironically, Lei Pi only found its mark in him.

Consequently, a flurry of conjectures swirled around Qinghe Village. Some attributed the incident to the Zhang family’s ancestral deficit in virtuous deeds, others claimed it to be the adverse side of acquiring top scholar status, while yet others speculated about Zhang Xiaoloong’s alleged transgressions in a past life. Some even conjectured that Zhang Xiaoloong had been possessed by an entity, as this would explain how the otherwise naive boy managed to attain the coveted scholar rank. As a child, he could barely manage to pass a note to a girl in middle school, so how could he accomplish this feat?

Zhang Daniu, the father, retold these rumors to his wife, Liu Mei, with a tone seething with barely concealed rage. No wonder he was incensed. Once, he had been the proud father of a top scholar, attracting well-wishers; now, he was the topic of hushed whispers, eliciting sideways glances and speculation. The situation was too much for any father who was subjected to such monstrous accusations.

Yet, what truly fueled Zhang Daniu’s rage was the audacity of these gossip-mongers to slander his son despite the boy’s current condition.

As for Zhang Xiaoloong, he remained relatively unperturbed by the gossip. They could say what they wanted. His main concern was deciphering exactly what had transpired within him. What precisely had taken root in his chest?

Indeed. Zhang Xiaoloong distinctly recalled that when the thunderbolt struck, it felt like an extraordinarily heavy object had pounded into his body. While the notion seemed fantastical, he was certain of his recollection. And presently, the searing sensation in his chest could likely be attributed to the foreign object lodged within.

But what precisely was this object? How could it have descended with the thunderbolt, and how had he survived such a heavy impact? Numerous questions flitted around his mind, all lacking answers.

Just as he was lost in thought, the scorching sensation suddenly surged. His chest throbbed erratically, as though the intruder was attempting to extricate itself from his body.

“Hmm…” A stifled sound escaped Zhang Xiaoloong’s throat. His hands reflexively gripped the bedsheet as his eyes widened in surprise.

At this moment, he had recovered part of his ability to move.

But now, jubilation was far from his mind as his chest seemed ablaze. He summoned every ounce of strength to resist the agonizing torment, not wishing to succumb to unconsciousness once again, for he feared he may never awaken.

As he gritted his teeth and soldiered on, droplets of perspiration, each the size of a bean, gathered on his forehead. Suddenly, several luminous beams radiated from his chest.

The emitted light wasn’t blinding but was incredibly concentrated and soothing. Yet, it was sufficient to leave Zhang Xiaoloong agape in shock, the excruciating pain momentarily forgotten.

Within the gentle, earthy yellow light, a simple and unadorned black four-legged cauldron gradually materialized. It appeared ethereal yet paradoxically felt incredibly tangible.

In the space of two to three breaths, both the light and the miniature cauldron dissipated like apparitions, re-entering Zhang Xiaoloong’s body.

Zhang Xiaoloong’s hands roved over his body, but they encountered nothing out of the ordinary.

Opening his shirt revealed a small, four-legged cauldron imprint on his skin. As he reached to touch it, the mark gradually faded, his skin reverting to its usual appearance, devoid of even a black speck.

Zhang Xiaoloong palmed his forehead. Despite being a top-scorer in the college entrance exam and an avid reader of eclectic books, he found himself at a loss to interpret the current circumstances.

If the preceding spectacle had been witnessed by others, it would likely incite terror, let alone… His newly-acquired demonic identity wouldn’t easily be dismissed. Worse still, a more serious outcome might involve his detainment by some clandestine department for invasive research.

Pondering this, Zhang Xiaoloong massaged his forehead once again. Being a lab rat was not on his agenda. He resolved to keep this newfound anomaly a tightly guarded secret.

“Is Brother Daniu home?”

While Zhang Xiaoloong was grappling with the torrent of changes besieging him, a familiar voice echoed from outside. It belonged to Lu Dashan, father of Lu Xiaoya, the individual destined to share a car ride with him that day.

Lu Dashan was not a robust figure. Gaunt and desiccated, his shifty gaze painted the picture of a man who reveled in deceit and exploiting others – a persona that attracted considerable disdain within the village. Despite his own shortcomings, he was the progenitor of a stunningly beautiful and astute daughter.

From elementary through high school, Zhang Xiaoloong and Lu Xiaoya shared a class, and their rapport was cordial. They even embarked on their university journey in Yanjing together. Therefore, Zhang Xiaoloong was well-acquainted with this ‘Uncle Dashan’, despite harboring less-than-favorable opinions of him.

“Brother Dashan, come, please have a seat. Let me fetch you a glass of water,” Zhang Xiaoloong’s mother offered warmly, quickly rising from her seat.

“No need for the bother. I’ll leave once I’ve relayed my message.” Lu Dashan’s beady eyes darted around the room as if in search of something. “How’s Xiaoloong doing? Has his condition improved?”

“It’s been over a month, and he appears unaltered…” A sigh slipped past Liu Mei’s lips at this, her eyes mirroring profound sorrow. “I truly don’t comprehend what sins I committed in my past life that my son has to bear the brunt now.”

“Enough with such talk,” Zhang Daniu, evidently exasperated, cut Liu Mei’s lament short, “Dashan, did you come here to say something? If you have something to express, please do.”

Liu Mei’s expression momentarily hardened, followed by a sigh. She regarded Lu Dashan with a knowing look, almost as if she had anticipated his visit.

Step Into A Different WORLD!

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