It didn't take Li Yundong long to give his crazy fans the slip. After he ran out of the media room, he sneaked into the men's room and hid himself inside a stall, where he stayed for about five minutes until the coast was clear. Once he was sure that those nutjobs were gone, he sneaked out of the building and went to the library. Since he was already in the campus, he figured he might as well borrow a few books. At least that way his trip to campus wouldn't have been a total waste of time.
The old librarian looked up from the counter and smiled at him the moment he walked into the library. Li Yundong smiled back and waved at the old man. The old man didn't even seem surprise to see him there anymore. This had become a ritual of sorts—Li Yundong would come in here and borrow a few books, then returned the books the next day to borrow new ones.
The old man chuckled when Li Yundong slid the two books he'd borrowed yesterday across the counter.
"Finished them already, eh?" said the old man. "Why am I not surprised."
Li Yundong laughed in response. "Sorry to trouble you again, sir."
The old man waved him off. "Nah. Don't worry about it, young man. It's my job after all."
"Appreciate it, sir. Um... I'd like to borrow these two books." Li Yundong passed a piece of paper to the old man.
The old man took the paper and glanced at it.
"Do you have them here?" Li Yundong asked.
"Yeah..." The old man nodded. "Yeah, I think we have 'em. But it's a bit hard to find among the shelves. I'll go bring 'em out for you."
"Thank you, sir."
The old man came to the halt when he was about to leave the counter to look for Li Yundong's books.
"Sir?" Li Yundong asked.
The old man was staring at something. A second later, Li Yundong realized that the old man was staring at the bulky object sticking out the top of his backpack.
Li Yundong was starting to think that he should buy a bigger backpack. Then again, he doubted he'd be able to find one that would fit the size of the fan.
Maybe he should have one custom made.
"Isn't it troublesome to carry that bulky thing around?" asked the old man.
Li Yundong smiled. "It is when I first started carrying it around. But I'm used to it now."
The old man nodded, then regarded Li Yundong carefully. "You probably wouldn't tell me if I ask what that thing is, right?"
Li Yundong tried to hide the surprise in his expression. Well. What do you know? Looks like not everyone knows about the incident at the canteen...
Li Yundong recovered himself and shrugged at the old man. "It's just something important to me," he answered smoothly. "And I'd like to keep it with me at all times."
The old man nodded and left the counter.
After leaving the library, Li Yundong decided not to stay on the campus lest he run into his crazy fans again. Instead, he went to a coffee shop and spent the afternoon reading the two books he'd just borrowed from the library. Around four-thirty, he left the coffee shop and headed home. Based on his jogging speed, he knew he would be able to reach home in half an hour.
When he walked through the door of his apartment, he was once again greeted by the scent of home-cooked food.
He strode towards the dining table and saw that his dinner had already been prepared.
Must be Zi Yuan again.
When Li Yundong strode into the kitchen, he was surprised to see that Zi Yuan wasn't there. The kitchen was neat and tidy. It didn't show any signs that it had been used recently.
I'll have to thank her the next time I see her.
Li Yundong grabbed himself a bowl of rice and sat down at the dining table to finish his meal. The food tasted wonderful as usual, a testament to Zi Yuan's fantastic culinary skills. He ate slowly, making sure he chewed his food properly before swallowing. Half an hour later, he cleared the dining table and took care of the dishes.
As he walked past the living room, something caught his eye: a glass of water on the coffee table.
He walked over and picked up the glass—
What the hell?
The glass was warm.
How the heck could it still be warm when…
He looked towards the dining table. How long had the glass been sitting here? Even the food on the table had gone a bit cold when he was eating it earlier.
He glanced down at the coffee table.
A note lay beside the glass pad: Be sure to drink this.
Li Yundong glanced around the living room.
This all seemed a little odd.
Why didn't she just leave the glass on the dining table?
Li Yundong brought the glass to his lips and emptied its contents in one gulp. The water—assuming that it was indeed water—felt really warm. About a minute after he finished the drink, he felt it: a series of pulses at his lower abdomen, just like what he experienced last night.
Li Yundong let out a harsh gasp and slowly lowered himself onto the couch. The sensation didn't feel bad, per se (it wasn't pain or anything); it just felt a bit strange. Suddenly, a thought occurred to him. He closed his eyes and performed the technique he'd learned during the 7th dan of the Lianqi phase—Neiguan.
Blobs of colors appeared inside his mind. Underneath those blobs was a spinning orb—about the size of a human pinky—which he assumed to be his Vital Orb. Something strange was happening to the spinning orb. It appeared to be expanding and contracting rhythmically.
Wait... What if I...
He quickly lowered himself to the floor and got into a meditative posture. Then, he performed the Orb Fortification cycles several times, after which he performed Neiguan again.
His Vital Orb had grown in size—now it was as big as a human thumb.
Something inside that "water" must have caused the effect.
Li Yundong closed his eyes and went back to his training.
It was already dark the next time Li Yundong opened his eyes. A quick glance at the clock told him that it was past midnight. He had spent hours performing the Orb Fortification Cycle. He sighed and stood up from the floor. Billows of cool breeze caressed his face as he stretched himself out. The wind howled gently beside his ear—
Wait, how's that even...?
His eyes shot open. Why was it so windy in here? He didn't remember leaving the windows open. He turned around until he was facing the sliding door leading to the balcony. The sliding door was obscured by the curtains, which were billowing out rhythmically in the wind.
The sliding door was open.
Li Yundong approached the curtains and drew them open.
Zi Yuan was there, standing on his balcony with her back facing him, staring out into the cityscape.
"Hey... Good evening," Li Yundong said softly.
Zi Yuan slowly turned around.
They stared at each other for a moment.
"Thanks for dinner," Li Yundong said, ending the awkward silence.
Zi Yuan smiled and moved away from the railing.
"You're welcome," she said.
Li Yundong stepped back to let her through the sliding door. She moved past him and then took a seat on the couch. Another flash of green light lit up the balcony. Seconds later, Ruan Hongling was marching into his apartment like she owned the place. The girl was still dressed in the same outfit she wore to that fiasco back at the media room. Li Yundong closed the balcony and joined the two women in the living room.
"You've made good progress in strengthening your Vital Orb, I hope?" Zi Yuan asked.
Li Yundong nodded and lowered himself to the armchair opposite the couch.
"Yeah. It feels twice as strong now."
Zi Yuan nodded, but didn't speak.
Li Yundong stared at Zi Yuan for a moment.
"So. Those special drinks you've been fixing me," he said. "What are they?"
There was a haughty snort. From the corner of his eyes, he saw Ruan Hongling glaring at him.
"So you've finally noticed, huh?" Ruan Hongling said snidely.
Li Yundong glanced at Ruan Hongling. I wonder what her problem is this time.
He forced himself to hold Ruan Hongling's gaze despite the hostility he saw in her eyes. "At first I thought it was just warm water. But then—"
"Warm water!!" Ruan Hongling sprang to her feet. "My God... Elder Sister Zi Yuan! Would you look at how clueless he is!"
"Hongling..." Zi Yuan said warningly. "Calm down. There's no need to get so worked up."
Ruan Hongling looked away from Zi Yuan and glared at Li Yundong. If looks could kill, Li Yundong thought he'd probably be dead a hundred times over by now.
Ruan Hongling's expression morphed into a dark scowl. She really looked like she wanted to strangle him to death.
"That glass of warm water was a solution obtained by dissolving the Enneacyclic Haworthia Extract in water, you doofus!"
(T/N: I've chosen the term Enneacyclic in order to convey the meaning of 九转, which means nine cycles. The prefix ennea, which originated from Greek, also means nine. Haworthia is a type of plant, which, in Mandarin, is written as 玉露. All in all, when written out in Chinese, Enneacyclic Haworthia Extract is 九转玉露丸. My translation fully conveys the underlying concept behind its Chinese name without making its English name seem lame and awkward at the same time. The concept behind the name is "an extract obtained from Haworthia that has undergone nine refining/purification cycles." Hence, Enneacyclic Haworthia Extract.)
Try as he might, Li Yundong couldn't hold back the surge of defensiveness that Ruan Hongling's words had brought upon.
"Hey! How was I supposed to know when neither of you told me anything!" Li Yundong paused when he realized that he was shouting. Then, he sighed and softened his tone. "Besides, I've only had it twice. The first time was only yesterday, and it really tasted just like water—"
"Twice!" Ruan Hongling snarled. "What, are you rubbing it in my face now? Is that it?!"
"What? Rubbing…" Li Yundong frowned. "No! I was just telling you the tru—"
Ruan Hongling stomped her foot and whipped her head around to face Zi Yuan. "How could you, Elder Sister Zi Yuan..." Ruan Hongling sounded so hurt right now that Li Yundong actually took pity on the girl. "You gave two of your precious Enneacyclic Haworthia Extract to that man, Elder Sister..." Then, the anger returned to Ruan Hongling's voice once again. "Two!! While you only gave me one! How could you be so unfair?!"
Zi Yuan sighed. "Hongling... Please... I…"
Ruan Hongling looked like she wanted to start screaming again, but Li Yundong decided to intervene before things escalated further.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa... Why don't everyone just calm down for a second, okay?" Li Yundong raised his palms. "Let's just..." He sighed and lowered his hands. "First of all, will anyone please explain to me what this Ennea thing is?"
"The Enneacyclic Haworthia Extract is the Linggong Sect's most powerful magical pill!" Ruan Hongling snarled, then quickly looked away as though she couldn't even stand the sight of him. "Don't you dare underestimate the Zhengyi School's proficiency in the art of External Alchemy. Sure, we might not be in the same league as the"—Ruan Hongling gave him a pointed glance—"Gezao Sect when it comes to External Alchemy, but the pills of our creation are still noteworthy and capable of life-changing bodily reformations!"
Li Yundong stared at Ruan Hongling, stunned by her outburst.
The Gezao Sect.
Su Chan had mentioned that name before.
It was where the Renyuan Jindan came from.
Ruan Hongling pointed at the empty glass on the coffee table. "One glass of that amounts to five years of harsh training," she snapped. "Five years! Get it? Five years! And do you know how much the Enneacyclic Haworthia Extract is worth in the Cultivation market?"
Li Yundong kept staring at the girl without saying anything. He couldn't stop the girl's tirade anyway, so he might as well let her finish. Ruan Hongling looked like she was about to pounce on him and start throttling him.
"Just one of those pills costs at least ten million yuan!"
Li Yundong's butt nearly slid of the edge of the couch right then.
His gaze snapped towards Zi Yuan, who was now pinching the bridge of her nose.
"As if it should cost any less than that," Ruan Hongling spat. "What, you think it is like your normal Six-Flavor Rehmanni Pill? I can't believe a doofus like you just swallowed—"
"Hongling! Stop talking!"
Clearly, Zi Yuan had had enough.
Ruan Hongling stomped her foot angrily. "I was just telling the truth!"
"Are you going to disobey me, Hongling?" Zi Yuan said, glaring at Ruan Hongling. "Is that it? Do you not respect my wishes at all?"
Ruan Hongling clammed up instantly and looked away.
Li Yundong sighed and ran his hands through his hair. Zi Yuan had just fed him two super pills, each of which was worth ten f*cking million yuan.
How the f*ck was he ever going to repay her for all she'd done?
"Don't worry about it," Zi Yuan said in a soothing tone.
Li Yundong raised his head and forced himself to meet Zi Yuan's gaze.
"You have bigger things to worry about," Zi Yuan said with a brief pause. "Your divine punishment is nearing, so you have to use all the tools and resources you have to become stronger."
"The tools I have." Li Yundong let out a heavy sigh. "That's just the problem, Zi Yuan. Those pills aren't mine. They belong to you and your sect."
And yet you gave them to me just like that.
Zi Yuan shook her head gently. "Fine. Say, I kept those pills. Then what? What would be the point? They aren't going to benefit anybody if I keep them to myself."
Aren't going to benefit anybody? Are you sure about that?
Li Yundong stole a glance at Ruan Hongling. The poor girl was biting down on her bottom lip, and she looked like she was struggling to keep her tears at bay.
Li Yundong sighed. "I don't think I can ever repay you, Zi Yuan..."
Zi Yuan gave him a cryptic smile. "Did I ever say anything about wanting you to repay me?"
Then why are you doing this? Why are you giving so much to me without asking for anything in return?
Li Yundong lowered his gaze to the floor.
He had been mulling over those questions over the past few weeks, and there were only two explanations he could come up with to make sense of Zi Yuan's behavior.
The first had to do with this prophecy that Ruan Hongling kept referring to. And based on the bits and pieces he'd overheard, there seemed to be some kind of prophecy that could only be fulfilled through him. Perhaps that was why Zi Yuan was trying so hard to help him. Perhaps she wanted that prophecy to be fulfilled.
The second possibility was, decidedly, more dreadful than the first—that perhaps Zi Yuan had feelings for him. That possibility filled him with guilt every time he thought about it. Because no matter how much he cared about Zi Yuan as a friend, and how much he respected her as a person, he just didn't have that kind of feelings for her, just like he didn't have that kind of feelings for Zhou Qin.
"You're overthinking this," Zi Yuan said in a warning tone.
Li Yundong looked up to find Zi Yuan's cool gaze on her.
Li Yundong cleared his throat and decided to change the subject.
"Oh, by the way. Do you guys need anything?" He glanced at the clock again. "You must have something important to tell me to drop by this late, right?"
"Just checking up on your progress." Zi Yuan smiled. "And I wanted to ask you about the spells you're interested in learning."
"I see." Li Yundong thought for a moment. "What kind of spells do you know? Do you know a lot of them?"
"What kind of stupid question is that?" Ruan Hongling snapped. "Of course Elder Sister Zi Yuan knows a lot of spells. Do you know how—"
"Hongling… Please…" Zi Yuan said tiredly. "That's enough, okay?"
Li Yundong regarded Zi Yuan for a moment. "What about spells that allow me to summon the Heavenly Thunder?"
Zi Yuan stared at him until he couldn't stand the awkward air anymore.
"What?" he asked.
"Are you serious?"
"Yeah." Li Yundong nodded. "Yeah, I am."
The living room plunged into silence. Zi Yuan clearly didn't like his spell preferences judging from the way her brows were knitted together.
"Is there something wrong with wanting to learn how to control the Heavenly Thunder?"
His idea was that if he could somehow learn how to control the Heavenly Thunder before he had to face his divine punishment, then he might stand a better chance of surviving it. Then again, whether or not he could actually make that much progress in learning the spell before his divine punishment arrived was a different matter altogether.
"There are thousands of spells across all five elements," Zi Yuan said. "Yes, the power of the Heavenly Thunder reigns supreme over the power of the five elements, that's true. But despite its vast power, the Heavenly Thunder is also the most unpredictable force in existence. Its unpredictability makes it a far more difficult power to master and control compared to the other five elements." Zi Yuan sighed and shook her head. "Not to mention all the dangers you might face in the process of mastering it. One misstep, and you will perish before you even master it." Zi Yuan held his gaze once more. "On the other hand, spells from the five elements are easier and much safer to learn. And once you've truly mastered them, the power they grant you is comparable to the Heavenly Thunder anyway. So why pick a difficult route when there's an easier one?"
Li Yundong held Zi Yuan's gaze for a moment, then laughed.
"Hey!" Ruan Hongling growled. "What's so funny? Did you take what Elder Sister Zi Yuan said seriously at all?"
Li Yundong raised his palm. "Sorry. It's nothing... I just... " He cleared his throat and composed himself. "In the third chapter of the Art of War, Sun Tzu said to know oneself, and know one's enemy. According to Sun Tzu, that's the secret to winning a hundred battles." He stood up from the couch and walked away until he was standing in front of the sliding door. He stared out into the night. "I figured that by learning how to control the Heavenly Thunder, I can improve my chances of surviving my divine punishment. What Sun Tzu said made a lot of sense to me. How can I beat something if I don't even understand it?"
A gentle breeze wafted into the apartment when Li Yundong opened the sliding door. He stepped out onto the balcony and pointed at the stars above. "That out there?" He turned his head around and found both Zi Yuan and Ruan Hongling staring at him with rapt attention. "That's where the unknown lies." He lowered his hand and chuckled. "Scary, I know. But if we keep letting ourselves be limited by our fears, we'll never be able to reach new heights."
Li Yundong stepped back into the living room and closed the sliding door. "Am I afraid of the Heavenly Thunder? Well, yes. Absolutely." He sat back down on the couch and then smiled. "I'm not gonna lie. I'm terrified as hell. Even more so considering I'm about to face 81 bolts of it soon." He chuckled and shook his head as memories came rushing into his mind. "I've learned so many important lessons throughout my journey to Tibet, and one of them is that we all have to face our fears in order to grow." He shot Zi Yuan a pointed look. "After all, isn't that what Cultivation is all about? It's an act of going against the natural order. That's what you told me the other day. Every time a Cultivator makes progress in his training, there's always this growing fear of divine retribution, right? But if he chooses to run and hide instead of facing it, he'll never achieve transcendence. And..." Li Yundong gave Zi Yuan a searching look. "You said that the Heavenly Thunder is the most powerful force in existence, correct?"
Zi Yuan nodded wordlessly.
Li Yundong smiled. "Well? Just imagine what would happen if I have the ability to command the most powerful force in existence? My name itself would strike fear in my enemies and make them think twice about hurting the people I care about. It's the ultimate form of defense, you see? Stopping an attack before it even takes place. Defeating my enemies without even have to fight at all."
The two women sat there silently like they had no idea how to respond. Zi Yuan had a contemplative look on her face. Ruan Hongling wasn't even looking at him; instead, she was staring out into the darkness through the glass of the sliding door.
"Don't get me wrong though." Li Yundong sighed. "I want strength not for myself, but for the people I love and care about. Months ago, I watched two of my friends die in the worst way possible. Their deaths made no sense at all. There's so much injustice in their deaths that it pains me." He paused and shook his head. "The guilt still ate at me sometimes, you know? I couldn't help wondering about things. Like, if I'd been stronger back then; if I'd already reached the Shentong phase and learned how to fly, or learned Qi Kinesis. I would've been able to prevent their deaths. So yeah. I have my struggles and regrets. But I also know that the only way is forward. I have to become stronger to protect the people I care about." Li Yundong shrugged. "As cheesy as that sounded, it's what I really think. And it's also why I want to master the Heavenly Thunder."
Zi Yuan rose from the couch elegantly. "I cannot dictate the direction of your magical training. Nobody can." She picked up the glass on the coffee table. "Ultimately, the decision is yours. But I do urge you to choose wisely."
Li Yundong opened his mouth to speak, but then held his tongue at the last second; Zi Yuan looked like she wasn't done talking yet.
"You don't have to decide now," Zi Yuan said, then sighed. "Perhaps I have brought up the subject too early."
"Oh. Okay." He would think take some time to think it over, but he doubted it would matter—his mind was already made up.
Zi Yuan set the glass back onto the table, then glanced at the clock.
"Are you tired?"
Li Yundong was a little surprised at the question. "Um, no. Not really. Why?"
Zi Yuan shrugged, then stepped away from the table.
"I figured I'd teach you how to fly if you aren't."