Li Yundong stepped up to Zi Yuan and grabbed her arm.
"What the hell was that?" he hissed. "Who's trying to kill me?"
Zi Yuan turned around to face him. "I'm not sure," she said in a low and grave tone. "But we have to—"
Li Yundong lunged forward, swinging Liuhe upwards to parry the incoming object.
Sparks flew out from the point of contact between the sword and the golden hairpin.
The golden hairpin changed its course and shot towards the ceiling.
Li Yundong stared at the deadly hairpin, which was now hovering slightly below the ceiling. Li Yundong narrowed his eyes in suspicion. For some reason, the hairpin hadn't turned invisible again like it did just now. Had his parry weakened it? Or was it perhaps running low on spiritual energy? Who was controlling it? Was the controller here inside this hall?
The hairpin glowed a little and started moving in the air in a strange pattern: like it was moving around an imaginary axis.
Wait a minute... Is it recharging?
There was a soft rustle behind him. He didn't even have to turn around to know that the sound was caused by Zi Yuan's purple ribbon.
Li Yundong kept his eyes on the hairpin, his mind racing a mile a minute.
Decision time: Kendo or Fencing?
A second later, he decided to go with fencing: the hairpin seemed to favor thrusting attacks rather than slashes; not to mention that the attacks were fast, so his defense had to involve swift parries with minimal movements.
Li Yundong silently thanked Zi Yuan for encouraging him to read more and do more research.
"I'll cover your six," Zi Yuan whispered, "and you cover mine. Got it?"
"Yeah," Li Yundong answered.
A second later, he felt Zi Yuan's back touching his.
They were both standing back to back.
"Any specific reason for this strategy?" he asked.
"I know its attack pattern," Zi Yuan said. "It's most likely going to split up and attack us from all directions."
So it won't be just frontal attacks...
Li Yundong's eyes narrowed further.
"Here it comes," he said in a warning tone and quickly got into a fencing stance. "It hasn't separated yet, though."
"It will, trust me," Zi Yuan answered. "Don't let your guard down just because it hasn't split yet. The actual split will be swift, and you won't know what hit you if you're careless."
Li Yundong parried a thrust with a quick flick of his wrist.
"We have to restrain it first," said Zi Yuan.
The hairpin swerve to the right when Li Yundong parried it again.
"Keep it distracted," Zi Yuan said. "I'm gonna try something."
Li Yundong didn't answer but kept his gaze focused on the hairpin instead.
The hairpin launched another thrust at him. He rotated his wrist, but immediately realized that it was a mistake: the thrust changed course as soon as he moved his wrist just a little.
Shit! A feint!
Li Yundong quickly adjusted his stance to compensate for the opening in his defense, and then flicked the sword upwards to deflect a thrust aimed at his torso.
There was a rustle: the purple ribbon shot out over his left shoulder and coiled around the hairpin.
The hairpin slipped away from the ribbon at the last moment and thrust at Li Yundong again.
Li Yundong flicked his wrist and parried the attack sideways.
"Damn it," Zi Yuan whispered harshly. "Couldn't get the timing right."
"That thing is too agile," Li Yundong said, slapping the hairpin upwards. "It even knows how to feint."
"Keep trying," Zi Yuan said.
"Shit..." Li Yundong said. "You were right. It's separating now."
The hairpin split itself into dozens and dozens of needles, which circled rapidly above their heads like a ring made up of thin spikes.
"Qi Kinesis," Zi Yuan said, pressing her back against his. "They're dispersed. You have to force them into a tight space so I can disarm them at one go."
"Roger that," Li Yundong said.
The needles clinked loudly above them, and for some strange reason, Li Yundong felt as though the needles were watching him.
"On the count of three," Zi Yuan said steadily.
Li Yundong began the count in his head. One... Two... Now!
Li Yundong unleashed his Zhenqi from his hands, shaping it into a donut-shaped bubble. The invisible bubble rose upwards and enveloped the needles from all sides. The bubble shrunk inwards, pushing all the needles together into its center.
Green light shot out from Zi Yuan's palm, striking the needles through the hole at the center of the torus. Li Yundong felt the effect almost instantly: the needles pushed outwards against the bubble, trying to force their way out of his Zhenqi's control.
"Hold it together," Zi Yuan said calmly.
Another beam of green light shot out from her palm. The needles vibrated against his Zhenqi after they were struck.
"Damn it... I didn't know she's this strong..." Zi Yuan whispered in surprise.
Zi Yuan struck the needles with the green light again.
What happened next creeped the f*ck out of Li Yundong: the needles began shifting into some kind of weird formation.
No. It wasn't formation. It was a face, a ghastly and grotesque face. And the face was staring right at him.
A surge of anger dispelled every ounce of fear that the face had roused in him. He retracted his Zhenqi and channeled it into the sword instead.
The high-pitched whining of the sword returned with a vengeance, but this time, the sword didn't resist him; instead, it felt as light as a feather in his hands.
White light filled the stage when he raised the sword and pointed its tip at the grotesque face.
The face recoiled.
"Who are you?" Li Yundong said coldly. "Who sent you to kill me?"
The expression on the face shifted. Just when he thought he was making headway in his interrogation, the face imploded, literally: the needles collapsed inwards and reshaped themselves into the long hairpin.
Li Yundong switched into a Kendo stance and swung the sword downwards.
The hairpin slipped away and shot towards the window of the hall.
A second later, it was gone.
With a sigh, Li Yundong withdrew his Zhenqi from the sword. The blinding white glow vanished instantly, and the stage was visible again. A set of soft fingers wrapped around his hand.
He felt a tug.
"Follow my lead," Zi Yuan whispered.
Before he knew it, Zi Yuan was dragging him off the stage. Seconds later, they stopped at the window through which the hairpin had made its escape.
"Out," Zi Yuan whispered. "Quickly."
They climbed out of the hall through the window.
"What's the game plan?" Li Yundong asked once they were outside.
Aloft in the starry night sky, the golden hairpin floated away from them.
"I'll go after it," Zi Yuan said. "You stay on the ground."
Li Yundong nodded. He shouldn't fly yet, not until he had passed his divine punishment.
"Here. Take this." Zi Yuan handed a phone to him. "Call Hongling. Tell her to take you to the usual place."
Li Yundong took the phone and frowned. "The usual place? What place?"
Zi Yuan looked up at the sky. "Hongling knows. Now go."
Before Li Yundong could say anything else, Zi Yuan took off into the air.
It turned out that "the usual place" was the gazebo located near the edge of the campus compound, past the copse of trees where he and Su Chan had had their little spying adventure the other day.
Li Yundong followed Ruan Hongling up the steps leading into the gazebo, his mind still reeling from what happened back inside the grand hall. He did catch a glimpse of Zhou Qin before Zi Yuan dragged him out of the hall, and she was fine; Cheng Cheng was still with her when he left.
Ruan Hongling lowered his backpack onto the stone table. Li Yundong distinctly remembered that he had smashed the table to pieces during his "talk" with Uncle Zhou's secretary, but he supposed that the university had replaced it with a new one.
Li Yundong walked over and set the sword down on the stone table's surface. Then, he opened his backpack and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that the Fan of Seven Treasures was still there.
He turned his head to face Ruan Hongling.
"Thank you for looking after it," he said.
Even in the darkness, Ruan Hongling looked a little pale in the face. Not once did her eyes left the sword on the table, and she seemed a bit shaken as well.
"Hey... Are you okay?" Li Yundong asked.
Ruan Hongling flinched back when he stepped closer. It was as though she was frightened of him. Li Yundong raised his hands in a placating gesture. "Hey... Relax… It's just me..."
Ruan Hongling cleared her throat and looked away as though she was embarrassed by her own reaction. "Y- You're welcome," she said.
"Are you alright?" Li Yundong asked again.
Ruan Hongling's eyes darted briefly to his face.
"I'm fine," she said a bit too quickly. There was a pause. "Just a little shaken, that's all."
Well. You and me both…
Li Yundong sighed and lowered his hands.
"What about the others at the hall? Did anyone get hurt—"
He was cut off by Ruan Hongling's signature snort.
Li Yundong looked at her curiously. "What?"
"No," Ruan Hongling mumbled. "Nobody got hurt."
A tight knot eased in his chest. A moment later, Li Yundong sighed into his palms. "God... Everyone must be terrified as hell."
There it was again: a snort, Ruan Hongling style.
"Terrified?" Ruan Hongling snickered. "Those idiots thought it was all part of the show!"
Li Yundong stared at Ruan Hongling for a few seconds.
"You're shitting me, right?"
Ruan Hongling shrugged.
Li Yundong chuckled in disbelief. It was like common sense didn't even exist these days.
"Well. Most of them anyway," Ruan Hongling added a moment later. "The smart ones realized that something was wrong and were pretty shaken. Some even ran off. But the dumb ones?" She snorted again. "The dumb ones didn't even know that they just had a brush with death."
"What happened after Zi Yuan and I left?"
"The audience started clapping, yelling, blah, blah, blah..." Ruan Hongling waved her hand casually. "You know the drill." She rolled her eyes. "Ugh. Those fools…"
Li Yundong chuckled.
"And then your friend, the new student council president... Feng Na, is it?"
Ruan Hongling nodded. "She took charge after you left. Got onto the stage and made up some rubbish about the play being a modified version of the original story. She said that in her version, Zhao Ling'er is supposed to"—Ruan Hongling did air quotes—"elope together with the master swordsman."
"And everyone bought it?"
Ruan Hongling sniggered. "Like I said..." She rolled her eyes. "Fools."
"Well, that's better than having the cops knocking on my door tomorrow I suppose," he said wryly.
To be honest, he was just glad that nobody got hurt. And speaking of getting hurt... Zi Yuan had saved his ass again tonight.
"Hongling..." Li Yundong said.
"Who's trying to kill me?" He paused and studied Ruan Hongling's face for a moment. "Do you know?"
After a while, Ruan Hongling shook her head.
"I didn't recognize the weapon."
Li Yundong looked away from Ruan Hongling. "But Zi Yuan did," he said. "She even predicted what that thing would do."
"Hey, Li Yundong..."
Li Yundong looked towards Ruan Hongling. She wasn't looking at him though; she was staring at the sword.
"So fast..." Ruan Hongling whispered to herself. "Way too fast..."
Li Yundong frowned. "Pardon?"
Ruan Hongling tore her gaze away from the sword and stared at him in awe. "Just now..." She pointed at the sword. "How did—"
Green light flared somewhere on the left of the gazebo, where the copse of trees lay.
They both sprang to their feet and ran towards the edge of the gazebo, their conversation forgotten.
Zi Yuan glided from the trees towards the gazebo.
"Did you catch it?" Li Yundong asked.
Zi Yuan landed at the center of the gazebo and sighed.
"No," she said sharply. "It gave me the slip."
"Damn it," Li Yundong said.
"What was all that about just now, Elder Sister Zi Yuan?" Ruan Hongling said anxiously. "That hairpin... I've never seen a weapon like that before."
Li Yundong suddenly stopped his pacing and stared at the two women. He approached them slowly, keeping his eyes on Zi Yuan's serious expression.
"That, Hongling," Zi Yuan said, "was the Threaded Hairpin of Traversing Soul." There was a pregnant pause. "It belongs to Mo Ahshi, a senior member of the Fox Zen School."