Feng Na really had a knack for theatrics, Li Yundong would give her that. She had picked the perfect scene from the Chinese Paladin for the play, one that struck a good balance between exciting swordplay and melodramatic tear-jerkers. It was a superb blend of action and drama.
Li Yundong had been to the rehearsals once, so he had a pretty good grasp of the play's sequence. The play would begin with a scene about Li Xiaoyao and Ling Yueru going on a quest to track down Zhao Ling'er, who was kidnapped by Elder Shi prior to the scene. Li Xiaoyao, Ling Yueru and their search party would run into Gai Luojiao and Elder Shi during their quest, after which a fight would ensue. The fight sequence would end with Elder Shi unleashing a powerful move that killed everyone involved in the battle except for Li Xiaoyao and Ling Yueru.
Li Yundong's character, the master swordsman, just so happened to be passing by the area shortly after the fight ended. Upon his arrival at the scene, the master swordsman discovered Zhao Ling'er sitting alone amidst a litter of dead bodies (courtesy of Elder Shi's suicidal move). Aghast at the massacre, the master swordsman mistakenly assumed that Zhao Ling'er was the one responsible for the deaths. He thought that Zhao Ling'er must've been possessed by an evil spirit to be capable of such a horrendous act. In a fit of rage, the master swordsman decided to bring Zhao Ling'er away to properly exterminate the evil spirit.
In the original scene, both Li Xiaoyao and Ling Yueru were knocked unconscious by Gai Luojiao before the master swordsman showed up. However, Feng Na had modified the scene a little to make it more dramatic. In Feng Na's version, Li Xiaoyao was conscious even after Elder Shi's suicidal move.
Li Xiaoyao would then engage in a duel with the master swordsman after the latter threatened to take Zhao Ling'er away. The play would conclude with an emotional scene where a defeated Li Xiaoyao watch Zhao Ling'er be taken away by the master swordsman.
The entire sequence was oddly similar to how Ao Wushuang had taken Su Chan away from Li Yundong that fateful night. Then again, he decided not to read too much into it since there was no way Feng Na could've known about what transpired the night He Shao died.
From behind the curtains, Li Yundong observed the choreographed fight between Elder Shi and the members of the Li Xiaoyao's search party. Zi Yuan (Zhao Ling'er) was kneeling somewhere on the stage, watching the brutal fight unfold with a fearful look in her eyes. For someone who hated making a fool of herself in front of a large audience, Zi Yuan seemed really into her role.
Li Yundong smiled to himself. Guess I should really up my game too. He might as well do his best since he was already involved in the play.
Li Yundong took a deep breath and exhaled. He wouldn't have to make his entrance until the final scene of the play, so he still had a bit of time to pep himself up a little.
Screams of horror drifted from the stage.
Li Yundong recognized that to be the cue for Elder Shi's suicide scene. He did a final check of his costume and made sure that the sword was secure on his back. Then, he took another peek from behind the curtains. Elder Shi was now striking some kind of weird pose, clearly about to unleash his deadly, suicidal move.
Li Yundong counted three seconds in his head.
At the third count, the stage lights flashed brightly to simulate some kind of explosion. Screams of anguish filled the stage where bodies were flung away from Elder Shi. Then, when the whole stage plunged into darkness, Li Yundong knew it was time for him to make his appearance.
Li Yundong stepped out from behind the curtains and hurried towards the center of the stage where he stood with his head bowed, waiting for the stage lights to come back on.
The lights dazzled him a little, but he raised his gaze anyway.
The entire hall came alive almost instantly: members of the audience were now cheering and chanting his name.
Li Yundong unsheathed the sword from its scabbard and held it high above his head. As expected, the blade began to glow brightly. Since there was nothing he could do to prevent the sword from reacting, he figured he would use the sword's reaction to his advantage and incorporate it into the play somehow.
The roaring from the audience diminished the moment the sword was out. Despite the absence of cheers and claps, the grand hall wasn't silent at all. An ear-piercing, whining noise resonated throughout the hall, drowning out everything else, even the pounding inside Li Yundong's ears. The stage lights dimmed, yet the stage remained gloriously lit by the sword's radiance.
Li Yundong swung the sword in a downward arc.
Zi Yuan, in a feat of dramatic virtuosity, let out a frightened gasp when Li Yundong pointed the tip of the sword at her face; Zhao Ling'er was terrified.
So far so good.
"Did you slaughter these people?" Li Yundong said in a cold voice. "Are you responsible for this massacre?"
Zi Yuan scrambled backwards and shook her head wildly.
But the master swordsman was having none of it.
"There are corpses strewn all over this place!" Li Yundong said sharply. "And you are the only one left standing! How dare you deny your wrongdoings, you devil!"
Li Yundong took a step forward. That was a cue; they had rehearsed this before.
In three, two, one…
Li Xiaoyao rose from the pile of dead bodies and ran forward to shield Zi Yuan behind his back.
"Please, sir! Please do not harm her! She didn't kill these people!" Li Xiaoyao yelled. "I can attest to her innocence!"
"Out of my way, you bumbling fool!" Li Yundong shoved Li Xiaoyao aside.
Then, as Li Xiaoyao stumbled sideways, Li Yundong reached forward to grab Zi Yuan.
"Get away from her!" Li Xiaoyao screamed.
Li Yundong turned his head. As expected, Li Xiaoyao had drawn his sword and was about to attack Li Yundong with it.
Just when Li Yundong was about to start trading blows with Li Xiaoyao, something freakish happened.
Liuhe's hilt twisted around Li Yundong's fingers and then flew out of his hand with astounding speed.
The sword swung around in a quick circle, stopping when it was a good twelve feet above the stage.
The sword's whining grew louder and louder.
At one point, Li Yundong thought his ears might start bleeding since he was standing so close to the sword. He shot Zi Yuan a worried glance. To his surprise, Zi Yuan wasn't even paying attention to the sword; she was glancing around desperately as though she was looking for some kind of invisible object in the air.
A second later, Zi Yuan gasped.
Her eyes were on him then; she was staring straight at him with an expression that could only be construed as that of sheer horror.
Alarm coursed through Li Yundong when Zi Yuan suddenly moved towards him. Zi Yuan grabbed his shoulder with one hand and then shoved his head downwards with the other. He grunted when his knees hit the stage's wooden surface. A split second later, he looked up from the floor. Zi Yuan was now standing about two feet in front of him with her back facing him. It looked like she was trying to shield his body from something in front of them, but he didn't know what it was.
"Show yourself!" Zi Yuan yelled, striking the air with her palm. There was a sudden spike in air pressure as a burst of green light flew from Zi Yuan's palm towards an empty corner of the stage.
Some kind of high-pitched noise rang out, and all of a sudden, numerous golden needles flew out from the corner the stage where Zi Yuan's palm strike had just landed.
CLINK! CLINK! CLINK!
The golden needles rose into the air, circling and twirling.
Then, they shot downwards, every single one of them.
Shit! Li Yundong ducked and did a shoulder row. A few of those needles streaked past his head and circled towards the ceiling once more.
Keeping his head low, Li Yundong rose into a half-crouch and hurried towards Zhong Xiuguo, who had completely forgotten his role as Li Xiaoyao. The poor guy was down on the floor, trembling in fear.
Li Yundong shoved Zhong Xiuguo away the moment he was within reach.
"Go," Li Yundong hissed at the dazed man. "Get out of here. Hide."
Li Yundong turned away, not caring whether or not Zhong Xiuguo had actually followed his instructions.
While making his way back towards Zi Yuan, Li Yundong immediately realized why the golden needles had stopped coming at him after that first attack. The needles appeared to be subdued by some kind of purple ribbon attached to Zi Yuan's right hand.
Zi Yuan kept rotating her wrist as she slowly backed away from the needles. The purple ribbon spiraled along its length, herding the golden needles into a clump.
"Grab the sword!" Zi Yuan said without taking her eyes off the needles. The purple ribbon's spiraling motion had forced the needles into some kind of conical structure.
Li Yundong leaped into the air and extended his arm to grab the sword's hilt. The sword twisted away before his fingers could reach it. Li Yundong landed on the stage with a loud thud. Damn it! He sprang to his feet once more, this time adding more explosiveness into his movements.
Again, his attempt to grab the sword came up short.
Fine. How about this!
He raised his palm and aimed it at the sword.
His Zhenqi shot out from his hand the moment he jumped into the air.
His Zhenqi enclosed the sword in a large bubble before the sword could fly away. He wrapped his fingers around the hilt and then yanked the sword towards him.
He landed on the stage with the sword secured in his hand.
Zi Yuan sent another airborne palm strike towards the golden needles.
The needles burst apart from its conical structure and flew away from the ribbon, scattering towards the ceiling.
Li Yundong's blood ran cold. Shit… What the hell?
The needles had begun to merge.
A large—at least 5 inches long—golden hairpin appeared in the air.
And judging from Zi Yuan's reaction (a loud gasp and an abrupt stiffening of her posture), she probably recognized the weapon.
Li Yundong hissed when his body lurched sideways. He widened his stance and managed to regain his footing before he toppled over.
There was another lurch. But this time, it felt more like a powerful tug on his arm.
The sword was trying free itself from his grip.
He grunted and gripped the sword with both hands.
Then, the hilt did a sharp twist, causing his wrists to bend at an odd angle. He tried to fight back, but his efforts were futile: the sword suddenly surged upwards, flinging his body over the edge of the stage.
The sword's hilt slipped from his fingers the moment he was thrown off balance.
Reacting purely by instinct, Li Yundong kicked out with his right leg. His foot slammed into the edge of the stage, and he used the contact to propel himself upwards before somersaulting back onto the stage.
ZING! ZING! ZING!
Li Yundong dodged three slashes from the sword and landed in a Bai Jong stance, blading his body sideways to make himself a smaller target.
Footwork, footwork, footwork...
Li Yundong followed the sword with his eyes, keeping his weight balanced on the balls of his feet.
Li Yundong leaped backwards and managed to dodge two successive cuts.
The sword retreated and spun in the air. Take this! Li Yundong stretched out his hand and launched his Zhenqi at the sword.
His Zhenqi missed the hilt by inches when the sword jerked sideways.
The blade shot towards at him like an arrow.
Li Yundong's hand rose instinctively. The surface of his palm slid along the surface of the blade and managed to deflect the sword sideways. The thrust narrowly missed his throat, and the blade grazed the side of his neck.
Clenching his jaw, Li Yundong gripped the hilt with both hands and yanked the sword away from his throat. Then, he channeled his Zhenqi straight into the sword, hoping to erase the pre-existing spiritual signature from the sword. That was the only way he could think of to get the sword under control.
Li Yundong was brought to his knees when his Zhenqi was met with a powerful resistance.
Li Yundong hissed in pain but held on nonetheless.
Come on... Fight! Damn it! Don't give up!
Li Yundong growled and channeled another wave of Zhenqi into the sword.
The resistance weakened slightly, though the sword was still highly agitated, jerking and tugging at his arms repeatedly.
Li Yundong shut his eyes and held on to the sword with all his might. A moment later, he felt his feet sliding along the stage. He dropped into a crouch to lower the center of gravity and managed to stabilize his body.
"Claim it," someone hissed. "You have to claim it!"
He opened his eyes and realized that he was now standing near the side wing of the stage, and Ruan Hongling was staring right at him with anxious eyes.
"Come on! Claim it!" Ruan Hongling pleaded desperately.
"I'm trying, damn it..." Li Yundong said through gritted teeth.
Yes, he was f*cking trying.
He knew he couldn't afford to lose, not this time. The stakes were too high. There was no telling what the sword would do the moment he let go of it. What was stopping the sword from slaughtering anyone in its path if he let go? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Closing his eyes, Li Yundong mustered all the control he had over his Zhenqi, and then channeled it into the sword in one powerful surge.
The sword answered with a powerful jerk against his fingers.
The whining of the sword grew louder, and even though his eyes were closed, he could tell that the sword's radiance was growing brighter as well.
Then, it all stopped: the whining; the lurching; the resistance; everything.
"Y- You did it..." Ruan Hongling whispered.
Li Yundong opened his eyes and glanced at the sword in his hands, not daring to loosen his grip on the hilt lest the sword decided to go nuts again.
A few drops of his blood had spilled onto the blade's surface during the scuffle, but that wasn't the thing that had caught his attention.
Something creepy was happening to the blade: his blood was seeping into the surface of the blade as though the sword was absorbing his blood.
A bunch of weird symbols flashed across its surface as soon as the blood was fully absorbed. However, the symbols vanished almost as soon as they appeared.
Li Yundong looked up from the sword and saw Zi Yuan's purple ribbon striking at the golden hairpin like a whip. The hairpin shot to the ceiling and then disappeared into thin air.
Was it gone? Or had it just turned invisible?
A deafening silence permeated the hall, and Li Yundong knew that all eyes were now on him. Ignoring the audience's gazes, he strode over towards Zi Yuan, who was still staring at the ceiling, at the exact spot where the hairpin had just vanished into thin air.
The grand hall erupted in cheers and whistles as soon as he reached the center of the stage. The audience's applause was so loud that it even drowned out the pounding in his ears.
Li Yundong ignored everything else and kept walking towards Zi Yuan.
Screw the play.
This show was over.
Someone had just tried to assassinate him, and he wanted to know who and why.