"S- Save us?! What do you mean, Master?"
Ao Wushuang smiled and patted Chan'er's head. "Do you think I'm that blind? I know true love when I see it, Chan'er. Which is why..." Ao Wushuang sighed and looked at Chan'er, who stared back at her with those huge, watery eyes that were filled with apprehension and hope. Ao Wushuang shook her head. "Which is why you have to stay with me for now."
Chan'er's face scrunched up. "But why?"
Ao Wushuang snorted. "I know he failed miserably in his first attempt to pass the Zhuji phase."
Chan'er jumped slightly. "W- W- What? But how did..."
Ao Wushuang shook her head. "I was watching you two from the shadows that night." Ao Wushuang pinned Chan'er with a scathing look. "A motel? Seriously?"
Chan'er pouted. "We had no other choice… It was too risky to remain at our home…"
"Yes." Ao Wushuang sighed. "You were ambushed. I know about that too."
"What?" Hurt flashed across Chan'er's face. "You knew and you didn't come to my rescue?"
"Oh, Chan'er…" Ao Wushuang stroked Chan'er's hair. "I would've rescued you in a heartbeat if I'd known about the attack when it happened." Ao Wushuang sighed. "Unfortunately, I only found out about it much later."
"Oh." The hurt look vanished from Chan'er's face and was replaced with a look of curiosity. "But how did you find out about the ambush, Master?"
"I've been keeping an eye on Mount Longhu… Well, more specifically, on Zi Yuan." Ao Wushuang looked at Chan'er. "I know she's been sent to hunt you down."
"Oh." Chan'er still looked adorably puzzled.
"Then one day I saw Ruan Hongling appear at Mount Longhu," Ao Wushuang continued. "The girl was crying and whining to Zi Yuan about how your beloved had stolen her red damask from her." Ao Wushuang looked towards Chan'er again. "That's how I found out about the attack. I heard from her own mouth that she had attacked you, and that she lost the damask while fighting your beloved."
A tiny smile played at Chan'er's lips.
"Yundong saved me, Master…"
Ao Wushuang returned Chan'er's smile. "Ah. The Jindan's Heir. Yes, I heard about that too back at Mount Longhu. Ruan Hongling was grumbling to Zi Yuan about some man being the Jindan's Heir." Ao Wushuang chuckled wryly. "I was really surprised at first because I thought the Jindan was still with you. But after that I put two and two together and guessed that you had probably found yourself a lover." Ao Wushuang snorted. "It had to be someone special if you were willing to give up the Renyuan Jindan. So I knew it had to be your lover."
Chan'er suddenly looked sheepish. "How it actually happened might be a lot different from what you imagined, Master…"
Ao Wushuang waved her hand. "Anyway. I followed Zi Yuan and her protégé back to the city and eventually found out where you were. I had to lay low and stay in the shadows, so I only watched over you two after the sun was down. Even then, I didn't linger around for too long. No longer than ten minutes each time."
"Except for that night when the Jindan's Heir attempted to pass the Zhuji phase, of course. I was in the area during the entire disastrous session." Ao Wushuang gave Chan'er a stern look. "How else do you think you managed to survive all the times you passed out after you tried to bring him back?"
Chan'er gaped at Ao Wushuang.
"Oh yes, that's right," Ao Wushuang gave her disciple a withering look. "You nearly died, Chan'er. Multiple times." She snorted. "I have honestly never seen a clumsier attempt at passing the Zhuji phase in my life."
Chan'er's eyes widened as though she had just remembered something. "But how did you get in, Master? I placed protective spells all over the place that night—"
Chan'er's mouth clicked shut the moment Ao Wushuang raised a brow at her.
"I'm your master," Ao Wushuang said. "You think those petty tricks of yours can actually stop me?"
Chan'er blushed and shook her head meekly.
Ao Wushuang huffed out in annoyance. "And you two have to pick tonight of all nights to cause trouble too." At Chan'er's confused gaze, Ao Wushuang decided to explain further. "I decided to take a break from watching you two tonight. Left you two alone after you guys left for Shengyuan Hotel. I never really liked that place anyway." Ao Wushuang shook her head. "I wasn't even in the city when I saw the Heavenly Thunder strike down from the sky. But when I did, I knew right away that one of you must be in trouble. So I flew back into the city as quickly as I can." Ao Wushuang glared at Chan'er. "Trust you to give away a talisman of the most powerful spell in existence to a complete amateur. What were you even thinking?"
Chan'er puffed out her cheeks and pouted. "S- Sorry Master."
Ao Wushuang sighed. "Never mind…"
Maybe it was meant to happen.
"Why didn't you reveal yourself to me?" Chan'er asked. "We could've talked. I… I missed you…"
Ao Wushuang smiled wryly. "I have my reasons."
"When I first started watching you, I wasn't planning to show myself at all." Ao Wushuang smirked at Chan'er. "But when I saw the Heir's miserable attempt to pass the Zhuji phase, I knew I had to separate the two of you." Ao Wushuang glared at Chan'er. "I just didn't expect it would take a bolt of Heavenly Thunder to prompt me into action."
"But… But… Still, you could've stepped in and helped Yundong pass the Zhuji phase..."
Amused, Ao Wushuang pinched Chan'er's cheek. "Nonsense. Okay, well, it is technically possible for me to help him pass the Zhuji phase, but then it would be pointless."
"Huh?" Chan'er frowned. "Why would it be pointless?"
Ao Wushuang released Chan'er's cheek. "His Vital Orb wouldn't be pure if he receives external help during the process of its formation. In fact, no Vital Orb obtained by artificial means can be pure." Ao Wushuang paused to look at Chan'er. "In Cultivation jargon, any Vital Orb that isn't pure is known as a pseudo Vital Orb."
Chan'er sat up in attention. "You never told me this before, Master."
Ao Wushuang smiled. "That's because there wasn't a need to. Why would I want my disciple to end up with a pseudo Vital Orb?"
Chan'er had a thoughtful look on her face. "Are they that terrible though?"
Ao Wushuang sighed. "I suppose having a pseudo Vital Orb is better than having no Vital Orb at all. But there's a fundamental flaw in pseudo Vital Orbs." Ao Wushuang gave Chan'er a stern look. "They lack structural integrity and can be destroyed with ease. A master Cultivator have ways to destroy pseudo Vital Orbs without even breaking a sweat. And I have a feeling that the Jindan's Heir will be crossing paths with a lot of master Cultivators in the future."
Chan'er stared down at her lap. "Oh."
"Which is why it is absolutely crucial for him to establish a solid foundation in the art of Cultivation," Ao Wushuang said earnestly. "His Vital Orb must be strong. Otherwise his talents—and the Jindan, of course—would be wasted on him."
"Um… Is that what you meant when you said you were trying to save us both, Master?"
"You think?" Ao Wushuang rolled her eyes in exasperation. "He'll never pass the Zhuji phase with you hanging around him every minute of the day. Not in a million years!"
Chan'er's head shot up. "What?"
"Do you know the real reason he failed his first attempt?" Ao Wushuang snorted, then gave Chan'er a pointed look. "Lust, Chan'er, lust. His lust for you is what led him to failure."
At Chan'er's blank stare, Ao Wushuang explained further, "Passing the Zhuji phase requires the Cultivator to sustain the state of Ishvara until their Vital Orb fully forms. But sustaining Ishvara is no easy feat, especially if done over a long period of time. Your personal god would spent the whole time tempting you with all kinds of worldly desires." Ao Wushuang paused and pinned Chan'er with a hard stare. "Your presence will just give his personal god extra ammunition to be used against him!"
Chan'er visibly deflated. "So it's all my fault..." she said sadly. "It's my fault that he failed..."
"Yes," Ao Wushuang said. A second later, she added, "Well, partly, anyway."
Chan'er fiddled with an invisible piece of lint on her skirt.
A moment later, Ao Wushuang sighed. "The man desires you, Chan'er. And that's why I want you to stay with me for now. At least until he passes the Zhuji phase."
Suddenly, Chan'er's head shot up. "Wait! B- But what about the Heavenly Thunder? Wouldn't he receive divine punishment if he passes the Zhuji phase?"
"Yes, but I'll deal with that when the time comes," Ao Wushuang said.
A soft weight bumped against Ao Wushuang's chest. Before she knew it, Chan'er's arms were wrapped around her neck. "Yayyyyy!!! Yayyyy!!! I knew it, Master! I knew you're the best person in the world!"
Ao Wushuang grinned and stroked Chan'er's spine. "One moment you wanted to die for your lover, and then the next, you're claiming that I'm the best person in the world?"
Chan'er rubbed her face against her chest. "Master! Stop making fun of Chan'er already!"
Affection bloomed inside Ao Wushuang's chest. However, Chan'er ended their hug before Ao Wushuang could say another word.
"Master! Master! There's something I have to tell you!"
Ao Wushuang quirked a brow. "What is it?"
Chan'er beamed. "Yundong is a super genius!"
Ao Wushuang nodded. "I don't deny that he has a lot of potential. I realized that already when I found out that he managed to grab Ruan Hongling's damask."
"No, no, no." Chan'er shook her head adorably. "He visualized nine lotus thrones in a row during Guanxiang!"
Ao Wushuang thought her brows were about to shoot off her forehead when she heard that. "What did you say? Nine lotus thrones??"
Chan'er bobbed her head up and down. "Mmm! It's true, Master! It's true!"
Ao Wushuang felt her lips moving on her own. "That's... impressive..."
Impressive? More like insane.
Chan'er cheered. "I know right!"
Nine lotus thrones in a row... Heavens above.
Seconds later, Ao Wushuang was brought out of her thoughts by a series of sharp, insistent tugs on her arm.
Chan'er was staring back at her expectantly. "Master, Master! Will you teach Yundong? Please?" Chan'er's eyes sparkled. "Yundong is very smart! He'll pick up whatever you teach him quickly! Please, teach him, Master!"
Ao Wushuang shook her head wryly. "While I agree that someone has to teach him, I have to decline."
Chan'er's face fell. "What? Why?"
"Because I'm not qualified to teach him."
"But you know so many powerful spells!"
Ao Wushuang sighed. "I know my own abilities, Chan'er. It's true that I have a huge arsenal of spells at my disposal, and that I can perform spells from all five elements. Even so, I'm more of a Jack of all trades, but master of none, you know? I lack specialization in my knowledge. I think..." Ao Wushuang hesitated for a moment. "I think his talent would be wasted if I teach him."
Chan'er gazed at Ao Wushuang with piteous eyes. "But who else is qualified to teach him if not you, Master?"
Ao Wushuang smiled. "Well, you've met her already."
Chan'er frowned. "Who?"
Ao Wushuang sighed. "The Cultivator who is most qualified to teach the Jindan's Heir. You've met her already..."
Ao Wushuang could hear the gears turning in Chan'er's head. Seconds later, Chan'er shouted. "Y- You mean..."
"Yes, that's her." Ao Wushuang chuckled, then sighed. She stared out into the darkness of the lake. "Actually, that person did tell me about this ten years ago..."
"I don't understand, Master. Who told you what?"
Just like that, the familiar tug returned to Ao Wushuang's chest. Enough! Why couldn't she stop thinking about him? Even after all these years?
Ao Wushuang shook her head, disgusted with herself. "Forget it, Chan'er. Let's not dwell in the past. Anyway, you don't have to worry about your lover. He has his own path to follow. But rest assured that as long as he managed to pass the Zhuji phase and survive the divine punishment, the amount of potential he has will be insurmountable. He will be a great Cultivator. Far greater than you and I will ever be…" Ao Wushuang sighed. "And when the time comes..." Ao Wushuang trailed off.
"What is it, Master?"
Ao Wushuang smiled at Chan'er. "My mind will be at ease when I hand you over to him in the future."
A panicked look spread across Chan'er's face. "Master, are you abandoning me? You don't want Chan'er anymore?!"
Ao Wushuang burst into laughter. "Gosh! Minutes ago you hated me for separating you two, and now you're begging me not to abandon you? You really are something else, Chan'er."
Chan'er lowered her head quickly, but not before Ao Wushuang caught the shy look on her face. After a while, Chan'er peeked up at her from below her lashes. "Umm... Master...?"
Ao Wushuang smiled. "Yes, Chan'er?"
"C- Can I... Can I go say goodbye to Yundong properly...?"
Ao Wushuang regarded Chan'er for a moment, then released a long sigh. Young love…
"Fine. Go. But don't take too long."
Surprise flitted across Chan'er's face. "Really?"
"Yes. Besides..." Ao Wushuang looked out into the lake again. "I don't want him to end up hating me. Otherwise... in the future..."
"Future? What's going to happen in the future, Master?"
Ao Wushuang shook her head. "It's nothing. Just go. And make sure you keep it short."
"Yayy!" Chan'er vanished in a flash of green light.
Ao Wushuang's gaze drifted to the lake once more. Darkness suffused the lake. Tiny ripples swept across the lake's surface, reminding her of the halcyon days she'd spent with…
But he's gone. He's no longer here.
Green light flashed beside her. Ao Wushuang turned and saw Chan'er staring back at her with pleading eyes.
Ao Wushuang gave her a strange look. "I know I told you to be quick... But I didn't mean this quick."
A blush crept up Chan'er's neck, ending at the tip of her ears. "Master..."
God, this girl is so transparent... Ao Wushuang rolled her eyes. Clearly she wants something from me…
It was the same look Chan'er had back in the mountains when she'd begged Ao Wushuang to give her extra play time after her lessons.
"What do you want?"
Chan'er raised her gaze. "Hehehe... Master… Remember that magical weapon you promised to give me last time?"
It took merely a few seconds for Ao Wushuang to connect the dots.
"You..." Ao Wushuang gasped.
Well. She did not see this coming.
Seconds later, Ao Wushuang laughed. "Boy... You really have it bad for him, Chan'er... You want to give the Fox Zen School's treasure over to him?"
Chan'er blushed heavily and fiddled with her sleeves. "Is that... Is that not okay?"
Ao Wushuang rubbed her temples a few times, then sighed. "Fine… Give it to him then. No one back at the Fox Zen School can wield it anyway. With his strength and talents, he might actually be able to use it to its fullest potential."
"Yayyyy!!!!" Chan'er jumped around on the grass.
Ao Wushuang shook her head in amusement. "Tsk! Settle down..." She did a hand sign, after which a large, colorful silk pouch materialized in front of Chan'er. "It's in there."
Chan'er stopped jumping and took the pouch gratefully.
Ao Wushuang gave her a stern look. "Remember to be quick. And avoid too much physical intimacy, you hear? Otherwise you'll just affect his training."
Chan'er nodded. "Mmm!"
Li Yundong had no idea how long he'd been kneeling on the ground. Hell, he wondered if he was even breathing.
No. No he wasn't breathing. He was drowning. Drowning in a sea of emptiness, dejection, and self-pity. Weak. He was f*cking weak.
There was a green flash somewhere nearby.
"Hey!!!" Someone shouted. He recognized that voice. But sadly, it was only Ruan Hongling. It wasn't the voice he yearned to hear again, to hear forever and ever.
Footsteps sounded behind him. A familiar scent assaulted his nostrils. Great, now I'm imagining things, he thought as he slowly turned around.
It was a magical moment when he saw Su Chan walking up to him. It was like he could finally breathe properly again.
"P- Princess?" Try as he might, Li Yundong couldn't prevent his voice from trembling. "Y- You're back..."
Su Chan broke off into a sprint and then threw herself into his arms. By the time they both tumbled to the ground, Su Chan had turned into a crying mess again. "Beloved..." Su Chan wailed. "I missed you! I missed you so much!"
Li Yundong shook his head in a fruitless attempt to clear the fog in his head. "B- But how did you come back?"
Su Chan climbed off his body and kneeled beside him. "Master let me come back!" she said, beaming through her tears.
Joy and relief coursed through Li Yundong. "She's no longer taking you away?" Then, Li Yundong steeled his heart. "No! You need to stay away from me! It's too dangerous to be around me! You need to—"
Su Chan clamped her hand over his mouth and shook her head. For the next fifteen minutes or so, Li Yundong listened to Su Chan as she recounted everything her master had told her: his lust for Su Chan being the cause of his failing to pass the Zhuji phase; Ao Wushuang's plan to temporarily separate them until he passed the Zhuji phase; pseudo Vital Orbs (what the heck?); Zi Yuan being his new teacher (God damn it, seriously?).
Su Chan even told him that Ao Wushuang would figure out a way to help him survive the Heavenly Thunder. Which didn't sound all that reassuring, but it was still better than nothing.
"Yundong..." Su Chan took his hands. "Don't worry about anything else when I'm not around, okay? Just focus on passing the Zhuji phase and surviving the Heavenly Thunder. I'll come look for you when everything's over!"
Li Yundong smiled and nodded. He still didn't know how to accomplish the second part, but he figured it must involve making himself stronger. The stronger he became, the more likely it was for him to survive the Heavenly Thunder. There was no arguing with that logic; it just made sense.
Li Yundong exhaled lengthily. "She's right, you know?"
Su Chan frowned. "What?"
Li Yundong shook his head. "Your master. She's right in everything she said about me. I'm still just a weakling. I can't even protect myself let alone protect you."
"But you'll get stronger!" Su Chan declared confidently. "You might be weak now, but one day you'll become the greatest Cultivator to ever live! Master thinks so too! And… And I have faith in you!" Su Chan patted her chest. "I believe in you here!"
Tears sprang to Li Yundong's eyes, but he held them back. "Mmm. I... I'll work hard!"
"Also... I want you to have this, Yundong..."
Su Chan performed a strange hand sign.
Suddenly, a colorful bag appeared out of thin air. The bag was large and about as tall as him.
"What's that?" Li Yundong asked.
Instead of answering, Su Chan reached into a pouch and pulled out a glowing object.
Li Yundong raised his hands to cover his eyes. When the glow subsided, Li Yundong lowered his hands and saw a black tessen—a war fan—about as tall as a human being.
Wait a minute…
He had seen this tessen before. It was the same fan that his personal god had wielded in one of its six hands!
Su Chan lugged the tessen towards him.
When Li Yundong took it from her, Su Chan patted its surface a few times. "This is for you, Yundong. You can use it to defend yourself in the future."
Li Yundong picked it up and swung it gently above his head before putting it back down. "It's quite heavy," he remarked.
"This is the magical weapon left to us by Grandmaster Pan Shi, the founder of the Fox Zen School. It's called The Fan of Seven Treasures." A pensive look formed on Su Chan's face. "Grandmaster Pan Shi has defeated a lot of powerful foes with it!"
"B- But..." Li Yundong shook his head. "It isn't right for me to take this, princess. This fan belongs to your school. You can't just give it to me, a complete outsider—"
Li Yundong was silenced by Su Chan's raised finger. "The truth is that nobody in the Fox Zen School has enough strength to wield it to its full potential. It would be a total waste if we keep it locked away in the vaults... Please have it, Yundong."
"Please? For me?"
Li Yundong stared at the tessen for a moment. "Okay then... I'll keep it safe for now until we can return it to your school."
Su Chan seemed satisfied with his answer as she beamed happily at him. "Yay! Hey, have you forgotten something, Yundong? What's mine is yours, and what's yours is mine! Remember?"
Li Yundong gave her a sly look. "What's yours is mine, huh? You sure about that?"
A quizzical look formed on Su Chan's face. Seconds later, she gasped and started smacking his arm. "Meanie, meanie, meanie! Not the Hello Keedee!" Su Chan stomped her foot. "T- The money is m- mine! I don't care! You're not allowed to touch Hello Keedee!"
Li Yundong chuckled. "Fine, fine, I'll leave the piggy bank alone, happy?" Then, he reached over and ruffled her hair. So soft and smooth... It felt really nice to touch her hair. However, his smile faded when a sad thought hit him. Guess I won't be doing that for a while, huh?
Su Chan's shoulders shook. "I don't want to leave... Yundong... I don't wanna leave..."
Just like that, the sting returned to Li Yundong's eyes again. "It's alright, princess. Maybe it'll only take a few days?" he said, keeping his tone light.
Su Chan wiped her tears with the back of her hand. "Remember to think of me when I'm not around, okay?"
Li Yundong wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her forward until she was flushed against him. Then, he lowered his head and captured her lips with his own.
After what felt like forever, Li Yundong pulled back, and their gazes locked.
"Of course I'll think of you, silly," Li Yundong said. "How is it possible for me to not think of you when you're already inside here?"
With a teary smile, Li Yundong raise his hand and tapped the left side of his chest, where his heart was.