The chains rattled as Li Yundong towed the wagon uphill. The wagon, which carried the pilgrims' various travel equipment and food supplies, felt as light as a feather. Before they left the temple, one of the pilgrims in their group suggested to Changbagela that they borrow some kind of wagon from the monastery to store all their equipment, and then use an animal (using motor-powered vehicles during a pilgrimage would be a huge disrespect to Buddha) to pull the wagon. Changbagela balked at the idea at first, expressing concerns that the use of an animal wagon was too risky since the animal's scent might attract the wolves. But then Li Yundong stepped forward and offered to pull the wagon for them. Surprisingly, nobody gave him skeptical looks when he made the offer. After he brought Changbagela back to life, most of them seemed to think of him as some kind of super sage.
After loading up the wagon, they set off a little before dawn. It was almost mid-morning now, and most of the pilgrims were tired. Li Yundong could easily tell from their sluggish forms and steps.
Li Yundong had asked some of them to climb onto the wagon, but they declined. He supposed it made sense. Travelling on a wagon would probably defeat the whole purpose of the pilgrimage.
Apparently, Meiduo wasn't as devoted as the rest of the pilgrims. She had climbed onto the wagon half an hour ago, claiming that she needed a break, otherwise she would pass out. Right now, Li Yundong could feel her stare even though he wasn't looking at her.
"You know, Brother Li..."
Li Yundong switched the chains to another hand and turned his head around. "Yeah?"
"Before, when you said that you walked here from Tiannan City, I didn't really believe you." She shrugged. "I mean it was over 2000 kilometers away. But now, I think I'm starting to believe what you said." She gaped at him for several seconds. "Like, don't you ever get tired?"
Li Yundong chuckled.
"We've been walking for hours without taking a break! And you were even dragging a heavy wagon with you!"
Li Yundong turned his head again. "Correction. I didn't walk here." He paused for effect. "I ran here."
Meiduo's jaw went slack. Li Yundong burst into laughter.
"W- What... You r- ran here?!"
Li Yundong looked to the front again. "Yep. That's how I lost my shoes, actually. They fell off due to all that running."
"Amazing..." Meiduo whispered.
Li Yundong smiled to himself and gave the chains a sharp tug.
His smile faded away as a wave of sadness washed over him. He couldn't disagree with that statement more. The truth was that he was just a pathetic amateur who couldn't even save his friends from the claws of an evil man. He couldn't even protect the woman he loved.
Ao Wushuang was right. He was a weakling. A failure.
The question now was how could he change? How could he become better?
Around evening, Changbagela stopped their march and ordered the group to rest for the night. Collective sighs were heard as Li Yundong dragged the wagon towards a large tree, and then parked it right under the tree. For the next thirty minutes, the pilgrims bustled around, using the waning light of the sunset to set up camp. Li Yundong sat on top of the wagon and watched them work. The men worked on the tents whereas the women started fires and prepared food. Several men nodded at him when they walked towards the wagon to grab supplies—firewood, pots, food, and water.
Meiduo was whispering to a group of men. A bag of hung from her right hand. When Li Yundong zoomed in with his telescopic vision, he realized that the bag contained sewing needles, thread, and yarn.
What was she trying to make? A jacket?
Li Yundong scanned the area for Changbagela, but the old monk was nowhere to be seen. He hoped Changbagela didn't pass out somewhere again.
Watching the pilgrims work was rather hypnotic. After a while, Li Yundong felt his eyelids growing heavy.
He shouldn't do this.
He shouldn't be drifting off.
Somebody could easily attack him if he let his guard down. But he just felt so tired and relaxed that he couldn't help it.
Just for a few minutes…
His body felt immensely light, like he was floating into the sky and...
He was back at the amusement park, on the Space Shuttle. He turned, and Su Chan was sitting right there next to him, looking totally unfazed. He smiled. The Space Shuttle could never faze his princess. He'd learned that lesson the hard way.
Then they were back on the ground, strolling hand in hand around the amusement park.
Su Chan was dancing around excitedly, yelling and screaming, swatting at balloons. She looked so happy.
Su Chan giggled and whispered something to him. Then she grabbed his hand and, before he knew it, they were soaring above Tiannan City, laughing and giggling like a bunch of school girls.
Wait... Where was this? He knew this place.
The soft carpet.
The gentle hum of classical music.
Shengyuan Hotel. They were at Shengyuan Hotel. He turned around and once again found himself smiling. Su Chan was all dolled up. She looked so beautiful.
The banquet hall vanished in a flash. Darkness surrounded him.
This was the gates. He was standing in front of Shengyuan Hotel's gates.
Where was Su Chan? Where—
A loud splat filled his chest with horror. No... No... No... Please... No! Not again! He moved past the gates and headed towards the hotel's building. His knees hit the ground and he screamed at the top of his lungs.
The woman who lay dead in a pool of blood wasn't Deng Yu.
It was Su Chan.
Peals of laughter filled his ears. He hated that voice. He hated that voice with a vengeance. What he hated even more was the owner of that voice. The laughter grew louder and louder.
Li Yundong looked up at the building and saw He Shao standing somewhere above him. Li Yundong glared up at He Shao and raised his arms.
"Die!!!!!!!" Li Yundong pointed his finger at He Shao. "Have a taste of the Heavenly Thunder!!!"
He Shao's laughter kept growing louder. At one point, it almost seemed as though He Shao's voice was coming from the sky. Why wasn't it working? Why, dammit! Why?! Didn't He Shao deserve to die?
"Come on!!!!" Li Yundong pointed his finger at He Shao again. "Come on!!! Heavenly Thunder!!! Slay this evil creature!!!"
"The Heavens have abandoned you, you loser!" He Shao said. "I am untouchable. I am invincible! You can never touch me... Hahaha..."
The ground crumbled under him. "Nooooo!!!!!" He fell and fell until he landed on some kind of rough surface.
"You are a failure..."
Li Yundong opened his eyes and saw Zi Yuan staring down at him. Her eyes were filled with disappointment.
"I've changed my mind. You are not the Jindan's Heir. You are nothing but a disgrace..."
There was a snort of contempt.
"I was right all along, Elder Sister Zi Yuan. I told you from the start that he couldn't possibly be the Jindan's Heir."
A sharp, high-pitched, metallic noise caused his ears to ring.
Li Yundong screamed and covered his ears.
Seconds later, the noise was replaced by the clanging of metal. When he opened his eyes, he saw thousands of blades and swords swirling around him. At that moment, there wasn't a single doubt in his mind that he was facing the wrath of Ao Wushuang.
"You killed her...!" Ao Wushuang's voice blared from all directions. "You killed my disciple!!"
Li Yundong's knees hit the ground. How was he supposed to defend himself against the accusation? How could he deny the truth?
"She died because you are too weak!!!"
She was right. That truth was impossible to deny.
"I shall make you pay!!!"
The blades closed in on him from all direction, spinning around, slashing through every inch of his skin.
He knew very well what was happening—he was being skinned alive.
And he let it. He let it because he deserved it.
Beloved.... Wake up... Wake up...
The searing pain on his skin was gone.
It's just a dream, beloved... Wake up... Wake...
The voice faded away.
Li Yundong gasped and took a huge gulp of air. His butt slid off some kind of surface and he crashed into the ground with a thud. He glanced around frantically, heaving and panting.
A sliver of light streaked across the dark sky. What time was it? Was it dawn already? He fumbled around with his hand until he touched something circular, like a wheel.
He had just fallen off the wagon.
All of a sudden, he realized that he wasn't alone. A shadow was hovering above his head. A shadow with long hair and a slender figure. Shock coursed through his veins.
"Y- You're here!"
Li Yundong reached out and pulled the dark figure right into his arms.
Zi Yuan strode into Hongling's apartment at New Hongsheng District, closing the door behind her. The apartment was quiet and peaceful ever since she sent Hongling back to Mount Longhu last week. By now, the twins' souls should be safely placed inside the Tianyi Pond. Zi Yuan hadn't had the chance to return to Mount Longhu, since she'd been busy keeping an eye on Li Yundong over the past month.
Hopefully Hongling had handled the souls with care.
A soft breeze caressed Zi Yuan's cheeks the moment she stepped onto the balcony. She smiled to herself when she remembered all the times Li Yundong had stared at the cloud she'd been hiding behind during her surveillance. The poor guy had no clue. But still, Zi Yuan had to commend the Jindan's Heir for his sharp instincts.
He had done well so far. No. He had completed his tasks exceptionally and had even picked up a lot of new things on his own. Other than the fact that he'd blatantly ignored her warning to mind his own business, Zi Yuan was very satisfied with his progress.
One other thing was rather troubling though: she hadn't heard a single thing from Zhou Qin yet. The girl wasn't picking up her phone when Zi Yuan called. Then again, the authorities hadn't issued an order for Li Yundong's arrest, so Zi Yuan figured that Zhou Qin had done a good job.
The Heir's secret was safe. For now.
Zi Yuan looked sharply to the side, then bowed slightly when she saw who her visitor was.
"Greetings, Senior Wushuang."
Senior Wushuang approached her gracefully. "You don't have to act so formal around me."
Seconds later, Senior Wushuang stopped beside her in front of the railing. The lights from the city gave Zi Yuan the opportunity to study Senior Wushuang's features.
The most powerful Cultivator of the Fox Zen School was, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman Zi Yuan had ever set eyes on. Zi Yuan thought Su Chan was beautiful, but Ao Wushuang...
Ao Wushuang's beauty was on another level.
"How's the kid doing?" Senior Wushuang asked.
"He's progressing rapidly." Zi Yuan shook her head slightly. "I've honestly never seen a more talented Cultivator."
Senior Wushuang sighed. "This is bad."
Zi Yuan stared at the woman beside her. Moments later, she sighed. "I know." Zi Yuan wrapped her fingers around the railing. "I... I don't think he's going to make it, Senior Wushuang."
Senior Wushuang stared out into the city, her expression stoic and calm.
Zi Yuan turned away from Senior Wushuang; the woman's silence was a little unnerving.
"Have you... Have you found a way yet, Senior Wushuang?"
"I'm working on a few ideas," Senior Wushuang answered without taking her eyes off the view of the city below. "But there are still tons of research to be done before I can be sure that it'll work." Senior Wushuang returned Zi Yuan's gaze. "I need more time."
"But we don't have more time," Zi Yuan said earnestly. "The Heir is already halfway to Mount Duonian's summit when I checked on him today. At this rate, he'll probably pass the Zhuji phase within the next few days."
"I see..." Senior Wushuang answered flatly.
Zi Yuan's heart sank. So not even the great genius, Ao Wushuang, could find a way then.
"Here..." said Senior Wushuang.
Zi Yuan turned and saw Senior Wushuang waving a silk pouch at her.
Zi Yuan took the pouch carefully. "What's in this?"
"Something that can buy us more time. But..." Senior Wushuang gave her a pointed look. "You need to make sure you're there in time to cast the spell. Do you understand?"
Zi Yuan opened the pouch and saw a talisman that she'd never seen before in her life. Zi Yuan's gaze snapped up. "What's—"
"It's a spell to mask the Vital Orb's true power," Senior Wushuang said.
Zi Yuan took out the talisman and studied it. The drawings and patterns were convoluted. There had to be at least two hundred symbols on the talisman.
"Took me a whole week of research to find the spell," Senior Wushuang said. "Had to go through thousands of ancient scrolls and texts."
Zi Yuan was mesmerized. Never in her life had she seen a talisman so complicated.
"You were right in thinking that he wouldn't be able to survive the Heavenly Thunder," Senior Wushuang said.
Zi Yuan looked up from the talisman to find Senior Wushuang staring at her.
"If he really is as talented as what that idiot disciple of mine kept telling me, and what you yourself have witnessed over the past month, then he won't even survive the first bolt of Heavenly Thunder let alone the other eighty."
Zi Yuan lowered her gaze to the floor. The strength of the Heavenly Thunder increases with the target's aptitude. To survive divine punishment meant that one had to be struck by 81 successive bolts of Heavenly Thunder, each one faster and more powerful than its predecessor.
"Not even the first bolt…" Zi Yuan mumbled.
Senior Wushuang chuckled darkly. "He doesn't stand a chance."
"How much time can this spell buy you?" Zi Yuan asked.
"If my calculations are correct, then the Heavens won't be able to detect his Vital Orb until he passes the Shentong phase."
Zi Yuan looked up again. "If your calculations are correct?"
Senior Wushuang smirked. "I'm rarely wrong."
Zi Yuan nodded and put the pouch away.
"Take care of the talisman, will you?" Senior Wushuang raised a brow. "It's extremely hard to draw, even for me. Took me a few days to complete it."
Zi Yuan nodded. "I will."
Senior Wushuang stepped away from the railing. "Remember that timing is key," she said. "The Heavenly Thunder will strike the moment he passes the Zhuji phase. So you have to be on standby and cast the spell the moment he passes. Do you understand?"
Zi Yuan nodded.
"Good." Senior Wushuang did a hand sign; Bahuang materialized on the balcony.
Zi Yuan couldn't help but stare at the sword. Her master's sword.
"Don't even think about it, child," Senior Wushuang said. "You won't be able to take it from me."
Zi Yuan looked away from the sword. But how and where did you get Master's sword? How come you're able to wield it?
When Zi Yuan turned to ask Senior Wushuang the questions that had been plaguing her mind, the woman was already gone.
Zi Yuan sighed and leaned against the railing. So many questions but not a single answer.
What on earth have your foreseen, Master?