Su Chan's teary face was the first thing Li Yundong saw when he opened his eyes. Blinking a few times, he realized that he was still lying on the ground and Su Chan was sitting right next to him. His body had stopped glowing, much to his relief. He really thought he was going to die just now. Then again, the fact that he was still alive was pretty much moot, since he was about to die soon.
Hopefully not too soon.
Li Yundong forced out a smile. "Hey, princess..."
"Yundong..." Su Chan wailed loudly, then slumped forward until she was lying directly over his torso.
Li Yundong raised his hand and patted Su Chan's head. "Su Chan... Listen..."
Su Chan raised her head from his chest and sniffed a few times.
Li Yundong stroked her cheek. "You have to go now, princess. Get as far away from me as possible..."
He had just killed a man with a spell. He didn't want Su Chan anywhere near him when the Heavenly Thunder struck.
The thought of Su Chan dying returned a bit of strength to his weak body.
"Go!!!" Li Yundong gave Su Chan a hard shove.
"I'm not going anywhere!" Su Chan crawled back towards Li Yundong.
Li Yundong bit back a curse.
"Su Chan..." he said sternly. "You have to go! Now! Go! Before the Heavenly Thun—mmph!"
Su Chan's hand clamped over his mouth. "Don't say it! Please, don't say it!" Su Chan's shoulders trembled as she sobbed.
Li Yundong turned his head away and freed his mouth from her hand. Hot tears slid down his own cheeks.
"Listen to me, princess... Please just go, okay? There's no point in both of us dying..."
"No, no, no!!! I'm staying! I'm staying! I'm not going anywhere!" Su Chan yelled, then crumpled into a sobbing heap on top of him. "Yundong... Please don't make me leave… I can't live without you... I can't!!!"
Li Yundong sniffed, feeling the sting of his own tears. "Silly girl... You were living just fine before you met me, weren't you?" Li Yundong patted Su Chan's head. "Go, okay? Go back to your master. She..." He cleared his throat. "She'll keep you safe."
Su Chan's face rubbed against the front of his shirt as she shook her head wildly. "No, no, no... I won't leave you... I won't leave..."
Li Yundong grunted and pushed himself into a sitting position. Then, he cupped Su Chan's face and dried her cheeks with the pad of his thumb. "You'll be fine, princess." He smiled wanly at her. "You'll soon forget about me and find someone else to love—"
"But I don't want anyone else, dammit!" Su Chan cried out. "I want my Yundong!!"
Li Yundong choked back a sob. "I'm so glad you came into my life, Su Chan. Even though the time we spent together is short—"
"Don't!!!" Su Chan shrieked. "Don't talk like that!" Su Chan covered her ears and began shaking her head wildly. "I don't wanna hear it! I don't wanna hear it!"
More tears stung Li Yundong's eyes. He reached up and pried Su Chan's hands away from her ears. She had to hear this whether she liked it or not. This might very well be the last conversation they had with each other.
"You've brought so much joy into my life, Su Chan. I'm forever grateful to you." He stared deeply into Su Chan's eyes. "I love you."
Su Chan's face crumpled. "Yundong..." she sobbed. "Please, don't…"
"I want you to always, always remember something." Li Yundong waited until he was sure he had Su Chan's full attention. "It doesn't matter what everyone is saying about fox spirits. None of it matters. To me, in my eyes, you are the kindest, the cutest, the prettiest, and the most adorable girl to ever live. And… over the short time I've known you, I can say with absolute certainty that you are a good person." Li Yundong tapped Su Chan's chest. "You have a good heart, and you shouldn't let anyone tell you otherwise."
Su Chan kept shaking her head. "W-Why are you telling me all this?" Su Chan gripped the front of his shirt. "Why are you talking like that?! Don't talk like that! Like you're about to leave me!"
Li Yundong gave her a sad smile, then pried Su Chan's hands off his shirt. "I guess this is goodbye, Chan'er…"
They stared at each other for a moment. The look of shock in Su Chan's eyes was almost as intense as the wistful longing in his own eyes.
"I love you..." Li Yundong whispered, then turned around and ran towards the woods at the edge of the field.
He had barely taken a few steps before a pair of slender arms wrapped themselves around his waist, bringing him into a complete stop. He turned and saw Su Chan clinging onto his waist like he was her favorite bolster.
Li Yundong sighed and tried to unwrap her arms from around his waist, but the stubborn girl refused to let go.
"Please don't make this harder than it already is..." Li Yundong said. "Please let me go, Chan'er…"
Su Chan shook her head desperately and sent him a pleading look. "Just let me die with you... Let's die together, Yundong—"
"Don't be stupid, Chan'er!" Li Yundong pushed her away. "You have a full life ahead of you!"
"But life would be meaningless without you!!!" Su Chan yelled back.
Li Yundong groaned into his hands, and when he lowered them, he realized that his palms were wet.
"Don't say that!" he shouted. "That's nonsense! Now stay where you are! Don't follow me!"
Li Yundong turned around and marched towards the woods. A moment later, a solid weight rammed into his body from behind, sending him tumbling to the ground. A warm body crawled on top of his torso. That familiar weight felt so damned good that he almost didn't want to open his eyes. Warm liquid dripped all over his cheeks and neck. He opened his eyes and saw Su Chan's face hovering inches above his own.
"Can't you see?" Su Chan hiccupped a few times. "If you die, I'd just kill myself anyway..."
All of a sudden, Su Chan's face turned into a complete blur. The next thing he knew, his shoulders were shaking violently. His eyes burned with such an intensity that he thought he was going blind.
"Oh, you stubborn, stubborn girl..."
Warm palms ran through his hair. "Since we're both going to die anyway, why not spend our final moments together?"
Li Yundong half-groaned and rolled his head to the side.
"Please, Yundong…" Su Chan pleaded. "Please don't let me die alone…"
"I don't want you to die at all…"
"But life without you is even more painful than death…"
A sob tore out from Li Yundong's lips. "Goddammit!! This is so unfair! Why do I have to die just because I helped rid this world of an evil man!!"
Su Chan poked his cheek. "Say yes, Yundong? Please say yes? Let me stay by your side…"
Li Yundong kept sobbing.
"I- I promise I'll never steal from your plate again!" Su Chan added. "I'll… I'll even let you call me cheap monk!"
Li Yundong chuckled despite his tears. After a few moments, he sighed and opened his arms. "Come here, you little chipmunk."
Su Chan threw her arms around his neck and cried. Li Yundong patted Su Chan's back and stared up into the night sky, breathing in Su Chan's scent. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if Su Chan's scent was the last thing he breathed before death claimed him?
"Are you sure about this, Su Chan?" Li Yundong asked into Su Chan's hair after a while. "You don't have to die, you know?"
Su Chan pulled back and wiped her cheeks. "Nonsense," she said. "I told you I'd rather die than live a life without you in it."
Li Yundong opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted by another voice.
"Not to ruin your little romantic moment or anything... But nobody has to die."
Li Yundong raised his head from the ground and saw Zi Yuan approaching them from the roadside. Li Yundong looked past Zi Yuan's shoulder and saw Ruan Hongling and Zhou Qin looking straight at him. Both of them had tears in their eyes.
Li Yundong snapped to attention the moment Zi Yuan got close. He frowned. "What are you talking about? You made it pretty clear just now that I'm doomed the moment I cast the spell..." Then, a thought hit him. Li Yundong's eyes went wide. "Wait. Why aren't I dead yet?"
Zi Yuan stopped in front of him and smirked. "Ah. Finally you're keeping up."
Li Yundong's head was spinning. He shook his head a few times, then paused when another thought hit him. He glared daggers at Zi Yuan. "So it was all a lie to stop me from using the spell? Is that it?"
Zi Yuan gave him a withering look. "No. Everything I told you is the truth."
Li Yundong spread out his arms. "Then why am I still alive?"
"That's easy." Zi Yuan smiled. "Because you haven't passed the Zhuji phase yet, of course."
Hope coursed through Li Yundong. "Wait, so if I'm alive because I haven't passed the Zhuji phase..." Li Yundong looked into Zi Yuan's eyes. "Then..."
Zi Yuan smiled. "You'll be safe from the Heavenly Thunder as long as you don't pass the Zhuji phase."
Li Yundong looked towards Su Chan, who looked just as confused as he felt. It was obvious that Su Chan didn't know anything about this. Otherwise she wouldn't have made a fuss about wanting to die together with him.
Li Yundong looked towards Zi Yuan. "But why?"
Zi Yuan raised a brow at Su Chan. "I'm surprised your master never told you about this."
Su Chan blushed and looked like she was about to argue, but Li Yundong grabbed her hand. "Easy, princess. Let her finish." He gestured for Zi Yuan to continue.
"The nature of Cultivation revolves around the pursuit of immortality. And, as you know, immortality isn't part of the natural order of things. All life ends with death eventually. Where there is life, there will be death. To attain immortality is, therefore, to go against the natural order of things."
"So..." Zi Yuan stared at Li Yundong pointedly. "It is also part of the natural order for those who go against the natural order to suffer divine punishment."
"Okay?" Li Yundong narrowed his eyes. "But what does that have to do with the Zhuji phase?"
Zi Yuan's expression suddenly turned pensive, like she was thinking hard about something.
Li Yundong flicked a quick glance at Su Chan, who, much to his surprise, was staring at Zi Yuan reverently.
After a while, Zi Yuan lips began to move. She raised her right hand and wiggled her fingers. Green tendrils emerged from her fingertips.
Li Yundong tensed up instantly. "What are you doing?" he said, moving in to shield Su Chan with his body.
Zi Yuan finished the incantation and gave him a look of amusement. "You really have to start getting used to the idea that I'm on your side."
Su Chan patted Li Yundong's shoulder from behind. "Relax, Yundong. That's just a projection spell. It's completely harmless."
Li Yundong glanced at Su Chan briefly, then shot a wary look at Zi Yuan.
Zi Yuan sighed. "Look over here." Zi Yuan flicked her fingers. The green tendrils danced and weaved in the air until they formed some kind of holographic image—two human figures standing on a flat surface.
"Imagine a simple world consisting of only two mortals. The flat surface represents the earth, and..." Zi Yuan flicked her fingers again. A round sphere formed around the flat surface. "The sphere is the boundary of the sky, which represents the Heavens."
Li Yundong stared at the image. "Right. So the whole point of Cultivation is to reach to the sky? To get closer to the Heavens and unite with the Tao?"
Zi Yuan nodded. "Very good. So you get the basic idea of the analogy. Now let's move on." Zi Yuan waved her hand again. The image morphed into an enlarge view of the two human shape figures. "To be closer to the Heavens, you have to be closer to the sky. Now. What do you think these two mortals have do to get closer to the sky using just their bodies?"
"Without any tools?" Li Yundong asked.
Zi Yuan nodded. "Without any tools."
"Umm... jump?" Li Yundong ventured a guess.
Zi Yuan shrugged. "But you'll fall. It won't be permanent."
"Grow taller..." Su Chan answered.
Zi Yuan nodded. "That's correct." She flicked her hand, and the two human-shaped figures began to elongate. "When you develop the three fundamental components of life (the Three Treasures), you'll get slightly closer to the Heavens. In terms of the analogy, you will grow taller. And when you do, you'll be able see the sky a bit better." Zi Yuan paused to give Li Yundong a look. "By the way, in case you haven't figured it out already, this growing taller stage refers to the first three phases of Cultivation—the Sutai, Lianqi, and Ningshen phases. These phases develop the Essence, Qi, and Spirit separately."
Li Yundong nodded. "Right."
The holographic image changed back to the one with the flat surface and the sphere. "However, there is a limit to how tall you can grow." Zi Yuan wiggled her fingers again. The two human-shaped figures on the flat surface elongated for a moment until the elongation process slowed to a stop. "More has to be done to reach greater heights." Zi Yuan stared at Li Yundong. "This is where the Zhuji phase comes in." Zi Yuan flicked her hand, and all of a sudden, a building appeared under each human-shaped figure. "To reach the Heavens, you need a structure—or in terms of the analogy, a building—for you to stand on. And the Zhuji phase is basically the process of establishing the foundation of that building or structure."
Li Yundong's mind raced. "So the Heavenly Thunder can only reach those standing on top of buildings..."
"Indeed. And..." Zi Yuan waved her hand. The two buildings begun to stretch towards the sky. "As you advance through the phases of Cultivation..."
"You're making your building taller..." Li Yundong said.
Zi Yuan nodded. "By building on top of the foundational structure obtained during the Zhuji phase."
"And the taller your building is, the more likely it is for you to be struck by lightning..." Su Chan added.
Zi Yuan smirked. "Correct. And as a matter of fact..." Zi Yuan arched a brow. "Surviving the Heavenly Thunder is what the 8th phase of Cultivation is all about."
"The Lightning Retribution phase..." Su Chan whispered.
The holographic image changed again. A thin film appeared slightly below the surface of the sphere. "Like I said, Cultivation itself is against the natural order of things. So there comes a point in one's Cultivation journey where it would be impossible to move forward without experiencing divine punishment." The two holographic buildings kept rising until they stopped just under the thin film. "There are only two possible outcomes..." The building on the left breached the film. Bolts of—holographic—lightning extended from the surface of the sphere and struck the top of the building. When the building remained intact after nine successive strikes, it kept extending beyond the film until its top merged with the surface of the sphere, after which it glowed brightly. "If you can survive the wrath of the Heavens, you'll achieve transcendence. On the other hand..." When the building on the right pushed beyond the boundary, it crumbled after one of the bolts struck its top. "Failure would lead to the total annihilation of one's soul." The holograms vanished after a final wave of Zi Yuan's hand.
Li Yundong met Zi Yuan's gaze steadily. "This is a good analogy and all that. But how does it actually work? I mean, surely the Heavens must have some kind of way to pinpoint which Cultivator to strike?" Li Yundong raised his brows. "How, for instance, can the Heavens tell between a person who has passed the Zhuji phase and someone who hasn't?"
"The Vital Orb..." Su Chan answered.
"That's correct," Zi Yuan said with a nod. "The presence of the Vital Orb is what separates a person who has passed the Zhuji phase from those who haven't. Without the Vital Orb inside your body, the Heavens would never be able to pinpoint you."
The penny dropped. "The buildings..." Li Yundong looked towards Zi Yuan. "In the analogy, the buildings represent Vital Orbs..."
"Yundong... Let's forget about the Zhuji phase, okay?" Su Chan shook his arm. "You don't have to pass the Zhuji phase! We... We can go to a place where nobody can find us and... and live a happy life together!"
Li Yundong gave her a sad smile. "And then become virgins for the rest of our lives?" He chuckled. "Is that what you want?"
A blush bloomed on Su Chan's cheeks. "M- Meanie! H- How can you be t- thinking about... about that at a time like this!!"
The sound of a throat clearing interrupted their banter. Li Yundong looked away from Su Chan and found Zi Yuan staring back at him with a guarded expression. "Well..." Zi Yuan cleared her throat again. "If you don't pass the Zhuji phase, you'll be able to live out the rest of your lives peacefully. But..." Zi Yuan sighed. "It also means that your Cultivation journey ends here..."
"It's okay, Yundong! This is a perfect plan! You can forget about passing the Zhuji phase! We can—"
"Is that all the Zhengyi School is capable of? Coming up with silly ideas?" A new voice sounded out of nowhere.
What the hell…?
Li Yundong glanced around to locate the source of the voice. The voice had been cold, haughty, and most definitely feminine. But he didn't see any woman around, present company excepted.
An eerie silence descended upon the field. Then, Li Yundong noticed a frown marring Zi Yuan's features. She was also looking past his shoulder at something.
Li Yundong turned around and squinted through the darkness.
He realized then that Zi Yuan was staring at the woods, but nobody was there. Frowning, Li Yundong turned back around. Just as Li Yundong was about to ask Zi Yuan what she was staring at, the voice sounded again.
"Looks like the standards of the Zhengyi School hasn't risen at all even after all these years... What a disappointment."
A look of recognition formed on Zi Yuan's face. "No... No… It can't be..." she whispered.
"What is it, Elder Sis—" Ruan Hongling gasped, then pointed a shaky finger at something behind Li Yundong. "T- That sword..."
Li Yundong turned around abruptly. Sword? What swo—
A thin strip of white light shone through the darkness of the woods. Seconds later, an object burst through the dark foliage and stabbed itself into the ground. The thin object glowed brighter and brighter until it became so dazzling that Li Yundong had to shield his eyes with his hands. Moments later, the glow waned, and Li Yundong slowly lowered his hands from his eyes.
There in front of him stood a beautiful sword about three feet long.
"Yes, Hongling. This is the same sword Master used to carve the prophecy on the Obelisk of Fengchen ten years ago..."
The word prophecy did ring a bell, but not Obelisk of Fengchen. Li Yundong shot Zi Yuan a questioning look. However, Zi Yuan appeared to be too engrossed with the sword's presence to notice his questioning gaze.
"B- But that's Master's sword!" Ruan Hongling tugged Zi Yuan's arms. "How come it's here? And who on earth is wielding it?"
Zi Yuan sighed and pointed at something past Li Yundong's shoulder. "Look..."
Li Yundong looked over his shoulder and nearly got the fright of his life. When the heck did she…?
Standing on the hilt of the sword was a beautiful woman with long, straight hair. Then, Li Yundong felt a trembling beside him. Su Chan. Li Yundong looked sideways and saw Su Chan staring at the woman with tears streaking down her cheeks.
Something tugged inside his chest.
"Hey, what's wro—"
Su Chan was up on her feet before Li Yundong could even finish his sentence.
"Hey! Where do you think you're going?!"
Su Chan ignored him and kept running towards the woman standing on the sword.
"Master!!! You're here! I can't believe you came back for Chan'er!!"