Two gentle knocks on the door brought Zi Yuan out of her meditative state. She got up from the chair and padded over to the door. Even though she had a pretty good idea who it was on the other side of the door, she looked through the peephole anyway.
A freshly-showered Li Yundong didn't look much different than what he looked like a few hours ago. The guy barely looked presentable. Not with the wild, shoulder-length hair and unkempt beard. Unfortunately, his personal grooming would have to take a back seat to other important matters, at least until they got back to Tiannan City.
Zi Yuan stepped aside to let him in, then watched from the doorway as he walked past her into the tiny hostel room. His steps were slow and tentative, and when he passed by the bathroom, he stopped and lingered in front of the bathroom door.
Zi Yuan shut the door and walked towards him. He still hadn't moved from his position in front of the bathroom; he was staring at his own reflection in the mirror with a blank look on his face. She supposed he could just be feeling self-conscious about his appearance, but Zi Yuan doubted it was that simple. He had a lot of opportunities to ask her questions during dinner, yet he barely said a few words to her.
Something was clearly bothering him.
Maybe he's just lovesick, said an amused voice inside her head.
Zi Yuan moved past the Heir and took a seat at the single bed at the center of the room. When the Heir finally looked away from the mirror, Zi Yuan motioned him towards the chair at the corner of the room. He complied and trudged towards the chair, then sat down.
"So. What's bothering you?"
The Heir sighed and rubbed a hand across his face. When he lowered his hand, she saw an expression of weariness. "Is any of this real?" He waved his hand around for a bit.
Zi Yuan allowed a tiny smirk to show. Ah. So that's what this is about.
"All of this," he continued, waving with both hands now. "What if they're just illusions? What if I'm still inside my Spirit Space?"
Zi Yuan schooled her features. "What do you think?"
"I honestly don't know what to think." Li Yundong sighed, dropping his hands limply onto his lap. "Last time when I failed, I really thought I had passed. Everything was so real, you know? My daily experiences. The people I encountered inside that illusion. The places. My surroundings. Everything was so close to reality that I couldn't tell the difference at all." He shook his head slowly. "I hate to say this, but I'd probably be trapped inside that illusion forever if Su Chan hadn't pulled me out." He buried his face inside his hands. "And now this uncertainty is driving me nuts."
Zi Yuan rose from the bed and headed towards the window. She unlocked the latch and opened the window slightly.
"Your doubts ground you in reality," she said, leaning herself against the ledge.
The Heir looked up from his hands. He didn't say anything, just stared at her, his eyes pleading and begging for an explanation.
Zi Yuan gave him a smile that she hoped would seem at least a little bit reassuring. The Heir had already reached the first dan of the Shentong phase. The divine punishment was approaching.
She still hadn't heard back from Senior Wushuang yet.
"When Ishvara is broken and your Spirit falls prey to your personal god's temptations, you'll sink into complete indulgence." Zi Yuan walked back towards the bed. "Your personal god won't give you a chance to start doubting the things it has shown you." She sat down and shifted so that she was facing the Heir. "The fact that you're capable of expressing doubt is a sign that you're in reality." She smiled. "Don't worry. This is all very real."
The Heir's shoulder sagged. He seemed relieved, though Zi Yuan could tell that he wasn't totally convinced.
"Then why isn't my divine punishment here yet?" He finally met Zi Yuan's gaze. "You said I'd be struck the moment I pass the Zhuji phase. So far nothing's happened yet."
Something did happen. Zi Yuan smiled wryly. You just didn't know it.
"That's coz I cast a spell on you."
The Heir drew back in surprise. "A spell?"
"Remember what I told you the other day when you asked how the Heavens identifies which Cultivator to strike?"
"By their Vital Orbs."
Zi Yuan nodded. "The spell masks your Vital Orb."
The Heir stared at her, his expression a mixture of disbelief and awe. Moments later, he shook his head. "Thank you. You saved me again."
"I can't take all the credit." Zi Yuan chuckled. "I was merely there to cast it. Senior Wushuang was the one who put the spell together."
"Ao Wushuang?" The Heir was up on his feet now. "You heard from her?"
Zi Yuan nodded.
"T- Then… What else did she tell you? Did she say anything about Su Chan? How is Su Chan doing?"
Zi Yuan smiled. Clearly, the man had it bad.
"She didn't say much. But she did tell me that Su Chan was undergoing her own training."
A smile lit up the Heir's face. That smile was infectious, and Zi Yuan couldn't help but smile back. Oh, yes. The man totally had it bad.
"However…" Zi Yuan raised a finger. "There are several caveats that you need to be aware of."
The Heir's smile faltered a little. He sat back down in the chair.
"Oh, don't look so disappointed." Zi Yuan chuckled. "This should've been obvious from the start. The spell isn't foolproof after all."
The Heir blushed and scratched his cheek. "Sorry. I guess I got a little carried away there."
"First of all, you must stay close to the ground at all times. Which means no flying, no standing on top of tall buildings, etc."
"Coz the higher above ground I am, the closer I am to the Heavens."
Zi Yuan nodded. "Based on Senior Wushuang's calculations, you'll be safe as long as you don't go higher than ten thousand feet above ground level. Any higher than that…" Zi Yuan gave him a pointed look. "There's no telling what will happen."
"Ten thousand feet… Such a specific estimation…"
Zi Yuan smiled. "What can I say? Senior Wushuang is a genius."
"Anything else I need to watch out for?"
"As your CQ increases, your Vital Orb will eventually become too powerful for the spell to mask." Zi Yuan paused briefly to collect her thoughts. "Well, in a way this is unavoidable. Every Cultivator will face divine punishment at some point in their training, but that's only when they reach the eight phase. Your case is different because…"
"Because I violated the commandment and did the unforgivable."
Silence spread between them.
"How much time can the spell buy me?"
"Senior Wushuang says…" Zi Yuan let her words trail off. If she told him now, he might start thinking that stalling the progress of his training was the best way to go.
"What did she say?"
Their gazes met. He seemed wary, like he was afraid of what she might say.
"She told me to watch out once you reach the 3rd dan of the Shentong phase. The divine punishment could come any time after that."
The Heir's face fell.
Zi Yuan was struggling to come up with something to say. None of the things she had in mind sounded reassuring.
After what felt like forever, she went with, "Senior Wushuang will find a way."
The Heir raised his gaze. "So in the meantime I just wait and do nothing?" He shook his head wryly.
Zi Yuan let her gaze drop to her lap. She had nothing else to give him, not when her own mind was filled with doubts
"Zi Yuan… I need you to be straight with me here."
Zi Yuan looked up from her lap.
"What are my chances of survival?"
"If there's a workaround—"
"I mean if Ao Wushuang couldn't find a way. What are my chances of survival?"
Zi Yuan sighed. "You won't even survive the first bolt. Senior Wushuang agrees."
"The first bolt…" He chuckled darkly. "Great. Now I find out that I have to be struck more than once."
"Eighty-one times to be exact."
The Heir raised his palm, then let it drop to his lap. "Eighty-one…"
Silence reigned once again. Zi Yuan had never felt so powerless in her life.
"If I die, then I die…"
Zi Yuan's head shot up. "Pardon?"
The Heir's eyes now held a new kind of intensity, the kind that inspires hope and determination, the kind that belongs to a man who would fight to his last breath.
"It doesn't matter whether Ao Wushuang can come up with a solution. I'll continue my training and keep getting stronger."
That declaration should've made Zi Yuan feel proud and content, but for some reason, she just felt sad.
The Heir paused to take a breath. "I think there are enemies coming and I need to be ready to face them."
Zi Yuan nodded. The attempt to steal the Fan of Seven Treasures came out of nowhere. When the Heir was attacked, she didn't intervene because she didn't want word to get back to the Zhengyi School that one of their members was somehow involved in the incident. At the moment, nobody at the Zhengyi School—other than Zi Yuan and Hongling—knew about the Jindan's Heir or the Jindan's whereabouts. And for the Heir's safety, it was best to keep it that way. If Zi Yuan stepped in back then, those two Cultivators from the Yin Yang Sect would've recognized her right away. Soon, the entire Mount Wuhua would know of her involvement. And if Mount Wuhua knew, so would Mount Longhu.
Besides, she was confident that the Heir could handle the situation himself, which he did.
"Someone must've sent those two to extract the Fan of Seven Treasures from me," the Heir continued. "Unless Su Chan or Ao Wushuang told everyone that the fan is with me, then I think the Fox Zen School might be compromised."
"Don't worry about that for now," Zi Yuan said. "I'll look into the matter."
She would have to do it on her own though.
Zi Yuan cleared her throat. "You should just focus on not dying."
The Heir chuckled while Zi Yuan stared down at her lap. She didn't share his humor.
"Hey. Don't look so sad."
Zi Yuan looked up to find the Heir smiling at her.
"None of this is your fault," he said. "It was my choice to use the spell. You guys did your best to stop me, but it was my call in the end."
"Do you ever regret it? Using the spell?"
The Heir sighed and leaned forward until his elbows were resting on his knees. "I thought about this a lot during my journey to Tibet. And… I think that the whole divine punishment thing is fair." Suddenly, he raised a palm and gave her a stern look. "Don't get me wrong. I still think that He Shao deserved to die. But I agree that I, too, must suffer the consequences for killing him."
He's grown… Zi Yuan allowed a tiny smile to form on her face. She didn't think he had noticed it though; he was too engrossed in his own thoughts.
"If there isn't some kind of divine punishment in place for Cultivators who kill mortals with spells, even good Cultivators would eventually become morally corrupt," he said. "The divine punishment is there to remind Cultivators that taking a life is inherently wrong. If Cultivators could get away with killing every time, then there's really nothing stopping them from doing it again and again. Worst, they might even start deluding themselves into thinking that they are doing it in the name of justice. But, to answer your question, no I don't regret killing He Shao." There was a pause. "Back in Tibet, there was a girl who helped me see things differently."
"Oh? Do tell." Zi Yuan was piqued. She didn't know about this. It must've happened during the time when the observer cloud was down.
"Basically, when I killed He Shao, I was trading my own life to save other people from suffering. I guess what the girl was saying is that the intent or motivation behind the act matters too. That's why I think the divine punishment should be there." He looked at Zi Yuan. "If taking a life leads to one's own death, then no act of killing could be for selfish reasons. I mean, how can a person kill for selfish reason if the act itself always leads to their own death?"
Zi Yuan smiled but said nothing.
The Heir chuckled. "But I guess that applies only to Cultivators, spells, and such." He waved his hands a few times. "Well, that's probably because Cultivators are so powerful that such measures are required."
Zi Yuan disagreed. Mortals, too, were capable of enough wickedness to warrant such measures.
"I suppose I could've just beaten He Shao to death that night. That way I wouldn't have to worry about the Heavenly Thunder at all."
Ah. Interesting. Zi Yuan would be lying if she said she hadn't wondered about that before.
"Well why didn't you?"
The Heir was silent for a moment. "It wouldn't be fair to the people around me."
Zi Yuan waited silently for him to continue.
Seconds later, he did. "The cops would be all over me if I beat him to death. I would be leaving too many incriminating evidence behind. Su Chan would end up as a suspect, or worst, be charged as an accomplice. Zhou Qin would probably try to buy my freedom and end up butting heads with the He family. All kinds of underhanded dealings might come into play. Judges, police officers, prosecutors, and God knows how many more people would get dragged into the mess."
Zi Yuan nodded.
"But if I kill him with the spell, the responsibility falls solely on my shoulders. I killed him. So I alone suffer the consequences for the act in the form of the divine punishment. Nobody else has to pay the price."
Zi Yuan stared at the man in front of her, the man who'd grown so much in just two months. She sighed. "It's such a waste of talent if you die, you know."
He burst into laughter.
"Well. I guess I just have to try not to die, then."