When Song Shuhang opened his eyes, he was no longer in the Demonic Tribulation Realm. Nor was he in the Wielder of the Will's 'small black room'. Instead, he was lying on the ground next to the living spring at the heart of his Inner World.
"Oh, Shuhang, you're awake?"
Song Shuhang turned his head. Next to him sat Senior White's clone, and towering over both of them was his tree-shaped light of virtue. Senior White had a shining, golden branch in his hands that was steadily becoming more sword-like by the second. On the ground in front of him was a small pile of completed disposable flying swords, each of them as shining and golden as the one in his hands.
Song Shuhang's mouth twitched and he looked away again. Now that Senior White had that still-unnamed ring of light formation that could burn through hundreds or thousands of disposable flying swords at once, he often used his spare time to make a few dozen here and there, and it was even easier for him now that he had his own portable tree. But the image of Senior White calmly building up a pile of them still brought back some painful memories whenever he saw it.
"Senior White, we made it out?" Song Shuhang asked. The various magical treasures he usually carried were all with him again, so this had to be his main body, and of course, there had been no way to bring Senior White, Sixteen, or Soft Feather into his Inner World before. So they must have made it back to the main world somehow.
"You don't remember?" Senior White put down his completed disposable sword and snapped off another branch off the tree of virtue. "I figured out the secret of the Space-Time Traversal, so as soon as you reappeared, I brought the four of us out of the small black room. Then you immediately brought us all here, said we should hide out for a day or two, and passed out."
As he spoke, Song Shuhang began to recall flashes of what he was saying—leaving the Demonic Tribulation Realm and reappearing in the back of Senior White's hand-guided tractor; finally making their way back to the main world; Senior White Two warning him that he should quickly hide somewhere lest he get thrown right back into the small black room, probably without help this time; and finally, catching a glimpse of the living spring as he crashed to the ground and blacked out. He couldn't remember any of it very clearly; he must have only just been able to cling to consciousness after surviving the heavenly tribulation. They were probably lucky he'd managed to bring them all here at all.
"By the way, congratulations on transcending your tribulation," Senior White said.
Song Shuhang groaned and slapped his hands over his face. "Thanks," he said, because he knew Senior White only meant well, but he really didn't want to be reminded of it at all.
Senior White paused and frowned down at him. "What is it? Did something go wrong?"
Song Shuhang silently shook his head. After a long moment of thought, he said, "Senior White, is there any way for me to slow down?"
"Slow down?" Senior White repeated, like someone learning a new word for the first time.
"It's not that I'm ungrateful for how quickly I've been able to advance!" Song Shuhang said hastily. "But going so fast has also brought with it its own share of problems. First, I nearly ran out of time to condense my pseudo innate true qi because a powerful senior dumped a bunch of strength on me. Then I spent all that time worried I'd explode because my constitution wasn't keeping up with everything else. And just now I had to scramble to complete that magical treasure in time because I ended up in another situation where I couldn't control my advancement at all, and I had to face another heavenly tribulation without any preparation. I really don't want to seem ungrateful, but isn't there any way for me to ascend to the next realm at my own pace? Even just once?"
"Hmm, you have been advancing remarkably fast," Senior White said. "If you continue at this rate, you might even reach the Ninth Stage Tribulation Transcender Realm by early next year."
Song Shuhang wanted to cry. Senior White, please don't say that! If you say that, it'll definitely happen!!!
Senior White pinched his chin in thought. "I don't think I've ever thought about how to purposefully slow down advancing in realm before...maybe you could try doing the opposite of what other cultivators do to speed things up? Practicing less or practicing techniques you aren't compatible with, not using any sort of medicinal pills when you practice, or maybe closing up for a while in a place with little spiritual qi?"
"Knowing my luck, that'll work for about a week, and then something will happen that'll make my realm skyrocket again. Maybe my ghost spirit will reappear and it'll dump a bunch of energy on me, because it already advanced without me while it was gone. Or I'll be closing up and a meteor will fall on me out of nowhere and it'll have some kind of Enlightenment Stone 2.0 inside that'll flood the place with spiritual qi."
"Don't be silly, there's only one Enlightenment Stone," Senior White said.
He placed the next disposable flying sword on the ground with the rest and happily broke another branch of the tree of virtue. Song Shuhang could only stare at him through his fingers. He seemed to be taking his time today crafting these swords.
Anyway, that wasn't the point! It didn't matter what the method was, it would somehow appear and sweep him along to the next stage regardless. Even if something like an upgraded Enlightenment Stone didn't exist, maybe his unfortunate luck would create one out of thin air!
"There probably isn't anything that can stop you from being affected by outside influences like that," Senior White said eventually. "Not if being trapped in that small black room couldn't even stop it."
Song Shuhang was sure that if he glanced at the ❮Tome of Never-Ending Tears❯ again at this time, he could quickly learn it and catch up to Ye Si in an instant.
"Then, Senior, do you have a way to delay the heavenly tribulation for a while?" Song Shuhang asked. "Even if I keep advancing quickly, just being able to delay the tribulation until I'm ready for it should be enough,"
He remembered that many of the seniors in the group had mentioned delaying their tribulations until a later, more auspicious time, particularly when it involved advancing from the Fourth Stage to the Fifth Stage in order to condense a better golden core. Even Senior White should have some way of controlling when he wanted to face a tribulation, because he had said he could advance to the Eighth Stage at any time weeks before he'd actually gone ahead and done it.
But Song Shuhang hadn't learned any of those kinds of techniques yet. He had not had a chance to, and no one could have anticipated how fast he would advance either.
"I do have a couple methods I could show you," Senior White said. "They also work well with techniques that can conceal or dampen your realm. But the true expert on this subject seems to be Fellow Daoist Horizon. I seem to recall his Sage Speech was on this topic; have you tried any of the methods he described?"
Senior White, you could even listen to Daoist Priest Horizon's speech while you were playing around with all those guided missiles? Song Shuhang could only feel that the heavenly tribulation was even more pitiable than he'd thought. It had really gone through a lot with Senior White.
"Most of his methods require a lot of time and resources I didn't have this time. The only option I had was 'strength imparting', and I did try that"—Song Shuhang told him about Miruru the little monster tree who had once asked for his autograph, and how he'd been able to send energy to her through the Sage Seal to help her during her own heavenly tribulation—"but it wasn't enough, and it wouldn't have been fair to anyone else I've stamped.
"Anyway, most of his advice was for lower-level cultivators, too, so I can't use much of it anymore."
Senior White nodded his head as he listened, and the corners of his mouth curled up in a slight smile by the end of it.
"In that case, I'll show you a couple methods," Senior White said. "But I also have another suggestion."
Another flying sword got added to the pile; another branch was broken off. Song Shuhang wondered if he was really intending to make enough of these light of virtue swords to fill the whole formation. He hadn’t quite done that yet.
Senior White continued, "If I really put my mind to it, I could probably ascend again in another few months. At that time, why don't we go for it together?"
Song Shuhang: "..."
Senior White, aren't you a bit too casual about this? Is it really that easy to just decide when you want to advance? Even I want to cry after hearing you say that! How do you think the other seniors in the group would feel?
But that wasn't all.
"Senior, you mean...both of us breaking through and bringing down the tribulation at the same time? In the same place?"
"Mm-hmm." Senior White smiled down at him. "I think I may have pushed it to the limits of the Ninth Stage this last time, so I want to see what might happen if there are two of us pushing it even further. Will there be anything stronger than the hydrogen bomb? Or an even more exquisite sword formation? I think it could be really interesting!"
It's not interesting! It's not interesting at all! Song Shuhang cried in his heart. Out loud, he said, "Heavens! Don't you think that might break it?"
When two (or more) people ended up transcending a tribulation together, or when someone accidentally interfered with someone else's tribulation, the power of the tribulation would increase, and the effect wasn't as simple as mere addition or a single increase in realm. The power of a heavenly tribulation of two Profound Sages together would be unprecedented and incalculable, and it was sure to be several times stronger than even what Senior White had eventually dealt with—they would definitely die!
That was if it even materialized. Had two Profound Sages ever been stupid enough to try that? Could the Heavenly Tribulation Realm even handle it? Or would it be like when an appliance got overloaded with electricity and exploded or just fizzled out?
Song Shuhang imagined the dark clouds of the heavenly tribulation building over the two of them, until the whole sky was dark and crackling with electricity and then—poof! The whole thing collapsed in on itself and dissipated without doing a thing.
Or maybe they would make it as far as the Heavenly Tribulation Realm and the tribulation would be building around them until—boom! The whole space imploded around them and that was that. No more Song Shuhang. No more Senior White. No more Heavenly Tribulation Realm.
Or, even worse, the heavenly tribulation would fizzle out as before, leaving them trapped inside the Heavenly Tribulation Realm until they (Senior White) could figure out a way out.
Or perhaps, if there really was a hard limit to the heavenly tribulation and both of them attempting it at the same time would surpass that limit, they might just be sent to the Heavenly Tribulation Realm separately and it wouldn't even try to deal with both of them at the same time.
Knowing Senior White's luck, that was the most likely scenario. If they did it together, they would definitely die, so he'd luckily end up alone and out of harm's way. The disaster that would then befall Song Shuhang would also be having to face a real Ninth Stage tribulation alone and probably with only minimal preparations.
"If it breaks, that's also very interesting," Senior White said earnestly. "We'd learn that there's actually a limit. Besides, you haven't considered that it could break in a way that's more favorable for us, such as becoming weaker than it should be or not changing in strength at all."
...He had a point. The heavenly tribulation had already become quite weird, and recently one of those oddities was it being extremely weak. Four or five months was a long time, and there was no knowing how it might change in that time, but it being weaker than normal was...within the realm of possibility.
The next branch Senior White broke off had two golden bayberries hanging from it. Senior White picked them both and gave one to Song Shuhang.
"Shuhang, in the world of cultivation, there are many difficulties. Improvement is like a boat going against the current. You'll fall behind if you don't try your hardest. So let's both try our hardest, okay?"
Senior White had said almost the same thing to him once before, as he prepared to race a fellow daoist with a helicopter. This was a much better time to be saying it. It was too bad his serious image was still ruined when he popped the other bayberry into his mouth and an expression of bliss washed over his face.
Song Shuhang sighed and stared at the bayberry of virtue in his hand. Thinking about the last time Senior White had said those words reminded him of something True Monarch Yellow Mountain had said to him once—that even if Senior White sent them out into space, taking flying lessons with him would still be safer than without him, because if something went wrong, Senior White could protect them from harm.
This was a sentiment that had since firmly taken root in Song Shuhang's heart—if Senior White was there, everything would be fine. Even if his luck also brought disaster, Senior White would be able to take care of anything truly dangerous, and anything he didn't need to deal with would be worth it.
Maybe...if it was with Senior White...two Profound Sages transcending a tribulation together wouldn't be suicide...
It was sure to be miserable! He might think they were going to die! But maybe they wouldn't actually die.
Moreover...if he really thought about it, he didn't think Senior White would suggest something like that if he thought there was a decent chance they'd fail at it. Senior White was fairly...lackadaisical about his own tribulations, but he tended to treat other people's seriously. Senior White had also always taken Song Shuhang's safety very seriously...even if it didn't always quite work out the way they planned.
He was probably confident that he could ensure that both of them made it through. And even though Song Shuhang would probably just drag them both down, Senior White wanted to do it with him anyway.
Or maybe...he believed that Song Shuhang would be capable enough to mostly defend himself by that time and he wouldn't be dragging them down?
If Song Shuhang thought about it that way, he was deeply moved.
He finally popped the bayberry of virtue into his mouth. It instantly melted on his tongue, and an incredible sweetness flooded his taste-buds, tempered by just the right amount of tartness, and there was even a fizzy sort of quality like in a soft drink. It was the most perfect bayberry he'd ever tasted in his life. He even felt somewhat refreshed after eating it, like some lingering exhaustion from his tribulation had been swept away.
Song Shuhang spat the golden virtuous core out and clutched it in his fist.
"Sure, why not!" Song Shuhang said with a short laugh. His voice still held a hint of panic, but the fist he thrust into the air was steady. "We'll tackle the Ninth Stage tribulation together! Senior White, since you suggested it, I'll trouble you to wait for me to catch up when the time comes!"
Senior White also laughed softly. "That's the spirit! Although I think it's also likely that you'll be the one having to wait."
Even though he had already agreed to this wild plan, Song Shuhang could help but cry silently: Senior White, saying once was enough! I don't need any more of a blessing than that!
Senior White smiled and moved the pile of golden swords off to the side. "Then, Shuhang, you should work hard and learn as much as you can before that time. You wanted to learn about the disposable flying swords, right? You'll need a good foundation in formations and runes and your knowledge of both is extremely lacking, so let's begin with that. We'll also cover a few tribulation-transcending formations so you won't be caught so off guard next time."
"Yes, yes, yes! Senior, thank you!" Song Shuhang scrambled to sit up and got into a good position to give Senior White his full attention. Then he hesitated. "Senior White, do you want something in exchange...?"
Senior White's knowledge of formations was first class—easily in the top three of everyone in the group—and the disposable flying swords were his own personal invention. Even though he had already promised to teach Song Shuhang about them, the value of these lessons was so high that Song Shuhang would feel awkward if he didn't even offer to give Senior White something in return.
"Hmm, you can think of it as my thanks for all the help you gave me during my tribulation," Senior White said as he grabbed another branch. "And also, as something like an investment."
"I understand! I won't let you down, Senior!" Song Shuhang said, giving him a thumps up with both hands.
This might end with Senior White turning me into a disposable flying sword factory, but it'll be completely worth it!
If this was actually Senior White's plan, he gave absolutely nothing away. He only nodded in satisfaction and began his explanation, using the tip of the golden branch to draw in the air as needed as he went along.