Zi Yuan jumped up from the couch the moment she saw Senior Wushuang appear on the balcony of Hongling's apartment. Anticipation coursed through her as she quickly made her way towards the sliding door.
Senior Wushuang had reached out. Perhaps she had finally figured out a way to help Li Yundong.
The moment Zi Yuan unlocked the door, however, she began to sense that something was horribly wrong. Senior Wushuang stormed past Zi Yuan into the living room without even a greeting.
Zi Yuan frowned and hurried after her.
"Good evening, Senior Wu—"
Senior Wushuang turned around abruptly, her sharp gaze stopping Zi Yuan right in her tracks. Those eyes didn't look friendly; they were filled with anger and menace.
"Did you know about it? Is the Linggong Sect part of it?" Senior Wushuang snarled.
"Part of what, Senior Wushuang?" Zi Yuan shook her head. "I don't understa—"
Senior Wushuang silenced her with a raised palm and stepped closer.
"Why didn't you tell them?" Senior Wushuang snapped. "You knew where the Jindan is all along. Why didn't you reveal it to them?"
Senior Wushuang was standing so close that Zi Yuan could feel the woman's breath on her face. "Reveal what to whom? I don't even know what this is about—"
"Are you saying that you have no idea?" Senior Wushuang's eyes narrowed even further. "You aren't aware of any recent changes in the Zhengyi School?"
"What recent changes? God, I'm so confused! What—"
"I'm going to ask you again," Senior Wushuang growled. "Are you or are you not aware of the recent developments involving the Zhengyi School?"
"No!" Zi Yuan said adamantly, then took a deep, calming breath. "I haven't contacted anyone from the Linggong Sect or any other branches of the Zhengyi School since I left Mount Longhu to look for the Heir. And I've been busy doing what you asked for the past two months." Zi Yuan held Senior Wushuang's gaze firmly. "I really have no idea what you're talking about, senior. I swear."
Senior Wushuang backed away a step. "So you really didn't know..." Senior Wushuang whispered. "They've kept you out of the loop…" Senior Wushuang looked utterly confused. "But that makes no sense... Why would they do that? With your abilities... Surely they would've come to you..." Senior Wushuang's frown deepened. "Or maybe..." A look of understanding formed on Senior Wushuang's face. "Maybe just not yet."
"Okay. Will you please tell me what's going on here, senior?"
Senior Wushuang's gaze returned to Zi Yuan's face where it lingered for a few seconds.
"No," Ao Wushuang stated firmly.
Zi Yuan frowned. "Why not—"
"I'm sure you'll know about it soon enough."
"No," Senior Wushuang said in a tone of finality. "You'll just tip them off if you start acting strange. Right now you need to keep doing what you've been doing. Watch over the Heir. Help him survive the divine punishment."
Senior Wushuang began to move towards the couch.
"But how am I supposed to do that when you haven't..." Zi Yuan came to a halt beside the couch. Something clicked inside her mind. "You..." She looked towards Senior Wushuang, who had just taken a seat on the couch. "You've found a way."
Senior Wushuang nodded. "Yes."
Anticipation coursed through Zi Yuan once again. She lowered herself slowly onto the armchair beside the couch.
Senior Wushuang chuckled wryly. "You know, all this while I've been going about this the wrong way." Senior Wushuang shook her head as though she was disappointed in herself. "I kept thinking along the lines of making him strong enough to survive being struck when in fact there's a much better and safer way."
"What way?" Zi Yuan leaned forward on the armchair and held her breath.
Senior Wushuang smirked. "By not getting hit at all, of course."
Zi Yuan's heart sank. "But isn't that what he's doing right now? The spell masks his Vital Orb. But I thought that's only a temporary solution."
"No, you misunderstood me." Senior Wushuang's smirk grew wider. "I didn't say anything about avoiding the Heavenly Thunder. I'm saying he needs to avoid getting hit by the Heavenly Thunder when it's happening."
Zi Yuan blinked a few times as Senior Wushuang's words sank in.
"You want him to dodge the Heavenly Thunder?" Zi Yuan had never felt so shock in her life. "All 81 bolts?"
Senior Wushuang nodded. "Yes. That's precisely what I'm saying."
If the situation weren't so dire, Zi Yuan would've laughed at the sheer absurdity of the idea. "But that's impossible! His aptitude is so high, and he has pretty much breezed past the early Cultivation phases! The Heavenly Thunder will strike him hard and fast. You know that, Senior Wushuang. He'll never be able to pull that off."
Senior Wushuang rose from the couch. "He will with enough training."
Zi Yuan sprang to her feet. "Training?" Zi Yuan shook her head. "I'm sorry, Senior Wushuang, but is that a joke? It's virtually impossible to create a training drill that can even come close to the real thing! This involves the Heavenly Thunder!"
Senior Wushuang chuckled. "Impossible? Are you sure about that?"
Zi Yuan's scalped tingled. Had she missed something crucial?
Senior Wushuang sighed. "Honestly, I'm a little disappointed in you, Zi Yuan." Senior Wushuang arched a brow. "Tell me. What are the magical properties of the Purple Gold Jade Plate?"
Zi Yuan frowned. "Well... its main function is to allow its user to create a simulated world and..." Zi Yuan's eyes went wide. "Oh my God..."
"Precisely." Senior Wushuang smirked. "And the moment the jade plate's magic is activated, every living person in its vicinity will be pulled into that world. Remember one of the Purple Gold Jade Plate's most basic properties, Zi Yuan."
Zi Yuan's mind was reeling. She couldn't even speak.
"The Purple Gold Jade Plate will extract a portion of a person's Qi and then use it to recreate a version of that person inside the simulated world," Senior Wushuang went on. "It'll be just like the real thing, you see? Inside that simulated world, every aspect of that person's experience will be exactly the same as his or her experience in the real world. They will have a body, a Vital Orb, Qi, Spirit, Essence... Everything will be there. In fact, they might not even be able to tell that it is a simulation at all unless they were told beforehand."
Zi Yuan could feel Senior Wushuang's presence beside the armchair. She turned, and sure enough, Senior Wushuang was right there beside the armchair, staring down at her.
"You thought it is impossible to create a simulation that closely resembles the real Heavenly Thunder," Senior Wushuang said. "Well, I beg to differ. The Purple Gold Jade plate has been around for like, what, thousands of years?" Senior Wushuang chuckled. "Think about that. Thousands of years to absorb and store the Qi of the Heavens and Earth. Sure, it might not be able to emulate the real Heavenly Thunder, but it'll be pretty damn close if you ask me."
Zi Yuan raised her head and stared wordlessly at Senior Wushuang.
Senior Wushuang must've misconstrued Zi Yuan's slight head movement as a gesture of doubt as she suddenly crouched down in front of Zi Yuan and grabbed her shoulders.
"I've done the calculations," Senior Wushuang said firmly. "Yes, a normal Cultivator won't benefit from this kind of training drill at all. But the Renyuan Jindan has enhanced the Heir's reaction time." There was a pregnant pause. "I think the Heir will acquire significant gains from the drill and then translate those gains into the real world. If he can reach a point in his training where he can repeatedly dodge all 81 bolts inside the simulation, there is a good chance that he can do the same when the real thing comes, don't you think?"
Senior Wushuang released Zi Yuan's shoulders.
"Besides, the drill will confer additional benefits on the Heir," Senior Wushuang said. "Like I said, the Purple Gold Jade Plate has been around long enough to absorb and store a vast amount of Nature's Qi. And when you emulate the Heavenly Thunder inside the jade plate, you're tapping into that vast power source. Now think about what will happen when the Heir goes through the drill. Each bolt of Heavenly Thunder that he encounters inside the simulation will expose him to a powerful dose of Nature's Qi. Such repeated exposure will—"
"Strengthen his Vital Orb..." Zi Yuan said, finally breaking her long silence.
Senior Wushuang nodded. "Not to mention significant enhancements in terms of his physical strength, agility, and reaction time, all of which will be immensely helpful when he faces the real thing."
"Oh my God. That's… That's…" Zi Yuan whispered. "Brilliant."
"Even if he gets struck during the simulation, he will benefit from that experience as well," Senior Wushuang said. "He won't die since it's just a simulation, but he'll experience the same pain as if it were real. That experience will also help strengthen his Vital Orb, unleash the Jindan's full potential, and build up his willpower and mental strength, among other things." Senior Wushuang rose to her feet. "But remember, the main strategy is still not to get hit. The whole point of the drill is to help him acquire the necessary agility and reaction time to dodge the real thing." Senior Wushuang shook her head. "It is folly to even entertain the idea of helping him survive being struck by the Heavenly Thunder. If he has already reached the Jinshen phase, he might have a chance. But right now he's forced to face the Heavenly Thunder while still in the early stages of the Shentong phase."
Zi Yuan stood up from the armchair and followed Senior Wushuang to the balcony.
Senior Wushuang stopped short at the balcony's threshold. "If all else fails..." she said, slowly turning around. "If all else fails, I have a contingency plan." She gave Zi Yuan a pointed look. "Well, two, in fact."
Zi Yuan stared at the woman, waiting for her to continue.
Senior Wushuang's expression turned grim. "But I would highly advise against them unless..."
Senior Wushuang suddenly looked away and shook her head slightly.
Zi Yuan frowned. "Unless what?"
Senior Wushuang held her gaze steadily. "Unless you're willing to sacrifice the two precious items he left you before he transcended."
"W- What?" A sinking sensation formed at the pit of Zi Yuan's stomach. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Senior Wushuang sighed. "You're a clever woman, Zi Yuan. I'm sure you've already figured it out."
Zi Yuan took a deep breath, then slowly exhaled.
"But like I said, those should only be used as last resorts," Senior Wushuang said. "If the Heir's training goes smoothly, you might not even need them." Senior Wushuang crossed the threshold and stepped out onto the balcony.
"Will they work?" Zi Yuan said. "The contingencies. Are you certain that they will work?"
Senior Wushuang turned around and gave Zi Yuan a sad smile. "The Great Mirror repels all forms of magic, Zi Yuan. So you do the math." There was a pause. "But it will suffer a blowback too. I highly doubt that it can survive the power of the Heavens. At least that's what my calculations told me."
"But what about the jade plate? If I can transport him into another space, then surely—"
"No," Senior Wushuang said. "Look, I know what you're thinking, but aren't you forgetting something else? The jade plate doesn't hide Vital Orbs, Zi Yuan. It only serves as a container. It can create a world to store the bodies of those in its vicinity, but that's all it does. It stores, not hides. The bodies and Vital Orbs still exist. To be exact, the jade plate becomes one with the entities it contains. Even if you do manage to send the Heir into the jade plate's simulated world during the divine punishment, the Heavens can still see his Vital Orb. Not only that, the Heavens will—"
"See the jade plate and the Heir as one of the same," Zi Yuan said.
"Yes. It will strike the jade plate as though it were striking the Heir himself." Senior Wushuang sighed. "The Heir will remain safe inside the jade plate, sure. But make no mistake, the jade plate will take the full brunt of those strikes."
"But you've said it yourself, Senior Wushuang. The jade plate has been around for thousands of years. The power it has accumulated might increase its chances of—"
"But what if the Heir slips up at, say, the twentieth strike?" Senior Wushuang said. "The jade plate would then have to survive the other sixty-one bolts of Heavenly Thunder. Look..." She sighed. "It all depends on the circumstance, of course. If it's just one or two bolts, then yes, I'd say that the jade plate stand a good chance of surviving. But successive bolts?" Senior Wushuang shook her head. "I highly doubt it."
Zi Yuan nodded. "I understand."
"That's why I said the best bet is to have the Heir focusing on not getting hit. If he can do that, all will be fine."
"But the Heavenly Thunder is the most unpredictable force of Nature." Zi Yuan sighed. "Things will go wrong at some point. You know that, Senior Wushuang."
The ensuing silence was palpable. The air hung thick with tension until Senior Wushuang's voice sliced it open.
"Then I guess it depends on how much you're willing to sacrifice."
Zi Yuan raised her gaze at those words. The curtains fluttered in the night breeze. Ao Wushuang, the most powerful Cultivator of the Fox Zen School, was gone.
Chan'er practically bounded across the living room the moment Ao Wushuang strode into the apartment in Dongwu City.
"Ready my luggage, Chan'er," Ao Wushuang said without preamble. She walked past Chan'er and headed into the bedroom, ignoring the puzzled look on Chan'er's face.
Seconds later, she heard the pitter-patter of footsteps behind her. A moment later, Chan'er was by her side, tugging her arm.
"Are we returning to the Fox Zen School, Master?"
Ao Wushuang stopped walking and stared into her disciple's innocent eyes. The girl was practically beaming, her eyes sparkling with excitement and possibly joy. Doesn't she know that we're about to walk into a massacre?
Something tugged inside Ao Wushuang's chest. Ao Wushuang had taken Chan'er as her disciple when she was very little. Chan'er had spent her early years at the Fox Zen School, but that still didn't change the fact that she hadn't returned to the school in a decade. Chan'er was only six years old when Ao Wushuang was kicked out of the school.
Which is why there is no an easy way to do this...
Ao Wushuang sighed inwardly. "Not you, Chan'er," she said. "I'm returning alone."
"What! You're taking me back with you?!" Chan'er yelled. "But Master! I—"
"No, I'm not." Ao Wushuang shook her head. "Destruction is upon the Fox Zen School, Chan'er. It's too dangerous for you to stay with me." Ao Wushuang stopped talking and stared off into space for a moment. This wasn't ideal at all, but right now, the situation had forced her hand.
Ao Wushuang sighed. "Return to the Heir. He'll look after you. Just make sure you stay away from him when the divine punishment comes. And make sure you keep your identity a secret. Don't tell anyone that you're from the Fox Zen School, and you'll be fine."
There, Chan'er. That's what you've always wanted, isn't it?
Ao Wushuang did a double take when the look on Chan'er's face wasn't that of joy or elation but one of grim determination.
Such an uncharacteristic expression for her adorable little disciple to have.
"No! I'm coming with you, Master!" Chan'er shook her head. "If the Fox Zen School is gone... then Chan'er will be the only member of the Fox Zen School left... I don't want that." Chan'er grabbed Ao Wushuang's arm and shot her a pleading look. "Please let me come with you, Master! Besides, I... I share part of the responsibility for what's about to happen to the school as well..."
Anger rose inside Ao Wushuang. "For Heavens' sake, Chan'er!" she yelled. "Why do you always have to disobey me? For months, you've been pestering me to let you go back to your beloved Yundong. Now I'm granting you your wish! So go!" Ao Wushuang pointed at the door. "Leave! Now!"
"No, no, no!" Chan'er shook her head frantically, then threw her arms around Ao Wushuang's waist.
Tears stung Ao Wushuang's eyes.
"Isn't this what you've always wanted, Chan'er?" Ao Wushuang said, trying hard to keep her voice steady. "You've wanted to go back to your beloved, don't you? Now I'm allowing you to do just that. I'm giving you my permission." Ao Wushuang sighed. "Why? Why won't you just go?"
Chan'er pulled back and stared up at Ao Wushuang. "Master... You're the one who raised me. You taught me how to read and write. You taught me the first spell I know." Chan'er's voice cracked a little. She sniffed and then wiped her eyes. "If I abandon you at the first sign of danger, then I would be the most ungrateful person in the world. And Yundong... Yundong is going to hate me if he finds out."
Ao Wushuang smiled warmly at Chan'er. Oh, how she adored this girl. Which was why she had to do what was best for her. Suddenly, Ao Wushuang glanced towards the door and feigned a look of surprise. "Oh, hey! What are you doing here?"
Then, Ao Wushuang raised her hand in preparation to strike the back of Chan'er's neck—
Instead of turning her head around like Ao Wushuang had expected, Chan'er jumped backwards with both fists raised to the sides of her head. The wary look on Chan'er's face was so impossibly adorable that Ao Wushuang nearly laughed.
"Master..." Chan'er glanced around a few times, then shook her fists. "You were planning to knock me out and then head back to the school on your own, weren't you?"
Ao Wushuang lowered her raised palm. "Fine... You win." Ao Wushuang sighed. "Come along, then!"
Chan'er's fists rose a tad higher. Her eyes kept darting around in their sockets. "Y- You can't lie to me, okay?"
Ao Wushuang glared at her disciple. "Enough nonsense!" She turned around and walked into the bedroom.
"Maaasssteeerr! Wait for meeeee!"
Ao Wushuang hid a smile. "Hurry up and start packing!"
"Um... Can I tell Yundong about this?" Chan'er said, opening their luggage. "He's the Jindan's Heir, right? He might be able to help us!"
Ao Wushuang rolled her eyes. "Don't be ridiculous, Chan'er. Right now, the Great Six is attacking us because they believe that we have the Renyuan Jindan. Your Yundong is screwed if the Great Six finds out that it is him who swallowed the Jindan." Ao Wushuang snorted. "They'll all try to capture him, and Heavens only know what they'll do to him if they succeed."
Chan'er was staring quietly at the open luggage, pouting.
Ao Wushuang sighed. "Besides, I doubt there's much he can do even if he comes to our aid. He's only at the early stages of the Shentong phase. But who knows, maybe..."
Ao Wushuang shook her head. "It's nothing. Just hurry up and pack."