Li Yundong exited the First People's Hospital with Zhou Qin in tow. And yes, Zhou Qin had walked out on her own two feet as though she had never been crippled before.
"How are you gonna get home?" Zhou Qin asked once they had reached the curb.
Li Yundong scanned his surroundings, hoping to spot Zi Yuan's car.
Zi Yuan didn't specify a rendezvous when he called earlier, just that he should look for a red Hongqi once he passed the hospital's front entrance.
Zhou Qin cleared her throat.
"I could ask my father to drive you back if you want."
Ah. There she is...
Li Yundong smiled at Zhou Qin. "Nah, it's alright. I've got my ride." He pointed at the red sedan across the street.
Zhou Qin looked across the street and visibly froze.
Li Yundong frowned at her reaction, though he didn't comment.
The sedan's door swung open, and Zi Yuan stepped out from the driver's side.
"Thanks for the offer though," Li Yundong said.
Silence spread between them as Zhou Qin stared at the sedan across the street with a guarded look on her face.
Zi Yuan had evidently spotted him too as she was staring back at them from across the street. With her lithe figure leaning against the car, Zi Yuan was very much the definition of poise. Pretty much everything about her screamed elegance and class, like she was the product of years of good breeding and stellar upbringing. She stood there quietly, evidently unfazed by the sight of Zhou Qin's recently-acquired ability to stand. A smile tugged at Li Yundong's lips. The level of self-possession that Zi Yuan had never ceased to amaze Li Yundong. Then again, he supposed he should expect nothing less from a living goddess.
Li Yundong turned away from Zi Yuan and the car to face Zhou Qin.
"Well, I'm gonna head home now." His gaze swept from Zhou Qin's head to her toe. "Everything's good with your legs? Do you feel any pain?"
He was pretty sure that her legs were fine, but there was no harm in checking.
Zhou Qin tore her gaze away from the car and gave him a tight smile.
"No pain at all," she said with a quick shake of her head. "My legs feel as good as new."
"Good." Li Yundong tilted his head towards the hospital's entrance. "You should head back in."
Zhou Qin's eyes flicked towards the hospital's entrance before returning to his face.
"I'll see you off," Zhou Qin said rather insistently. Then, she shrugged. "It's the least I could do for the person who healed me."
Li Yundong smiled and decided to let her have her way.
"So I'll see you tomorrow at the campus, then?"
Zhou Qin smiled. "Yeah."
Li Yundong gave Zhou Qin a parting wave, then moved across the street towards Zi Yuan's car.
Li Yundong had opted to take the backseat since there wasn't enough room at the front seat for the bulky Fan of Seven Treasures. Besides, he had to put his backpack at the backseat anyway, so he might as well sit there too.
"Thanks for picking me up," Li Yundong said once he got settled in his seat.
He looked up and immediately saw Zi Yuan's piercing gaze through the rearview mirror.
She didn't start the car's engine.
Up close, Zi Yuan's posture seemed a bit stiff, like something was troubling her. Frissons of fear coursed through Li Yundong. For a fleeting moment, his traitorous mind conjured up dozens upon dozens of horrible scenarios, most of which involved finding Su Chan's dead body amidst the burning ruins of the Fox Zen School.
Had Ruan Hongling reported back to Zi Yuan?
Had he been right all along that the Fox Zen School was facing imminent danger?
"Is everything alright?" Li Yundong asked, his voice sounding surprisingly even despite the fear raging inside him.
Zi Yuan kept staring at him through the mirror.
Several moments passed before she finally answered.
"Yeah. Everything's fine. Why do you ask?"
Relief washed over him, dispelling some of his fears.
Li Yundong shrugged and shifted his backpack towards the other end of the backseat. "Well. No offense, but you looked like you were about to murder someone."
I just hope that it isn't me, he added silently.
"Ugh." Zi Yuan sighed tiredly. There was a soft thud as Zi Yuan rested her head against the steering wheel.
"Don't even ask," she mumbled.
Li Yundong shifted forward in his seat and poked his head between the two front seats. "Something the matter?"
Zi Yuan lifted her head from the steering wheel and shot him a wry look. "It's nothing serious."
Li Yundong raised a skeptical brow.
"It was just Yan Hua." Zi Yuan rolled her eyes. "That boy kept pestering me about Liuhe." Zi Yuan shook her head slightly. "I'm sorry to say this, but I've just returned the sword to the Yan family home." Zi Yuan sighed. "Otherwise that child's tantrums would drive me insane."
Li Yundong chuckled. Now he was starting to wonder how Ruan Hongling had managed to stay sane all these years.
"You have my sympathy."
Zi Yuan gave him another wry look.
Li Yundong chuckled again.
"And you're okay with it?" Zi Yuan raised a brow at him. "Me returning the sword to the Yan family home?"
"Why wouldn't I be?" Li Yundong waved off her concern. "You can do whatever you want with the sword. I don't really need it."
Zi Yuan made a sound of disapproval. "Such a waste though."
"Hey." Li Yundong shrugged. "It might be worth it if it helps get Yan Hua off your back."
Zi Yuan fired up the engine.
"Now I've got a question for you," Li Yundong said.
Zi Yuan raised a questioning brow at him.
"Where's your driver?"
Zi Yuan turned her head around to look at him. "Pardon?"
Li Yundong smiled. "Your driver." He shrugged. "Someone of your status usually has a personal driver, right?"
"Usually Hongling drives me everywhere, but since she's not around..."
Zi Yuan shrugged.
Li Yundong laughed. "So you have condescended to drive yourself around."
"Hey." Zi Yuan shot him a playful glare. "I can drive, you know? Besides, it's not that bad." She adjusted the rearview mirror. "I quite enjoy the task, actually."
As the sedan pulled away from the curb, Li Yundong allowed his mind to wander. Most of his thoughts were centered on Su Chan and the Fox Zen School.
She's gonna be alright. Ao Wushuang can keep her safe.
After a while, his thoughts strayed towards the secret mission that Zi Yuan had sent Ruan Hongling on. Truth be told, he was dying to know what the mission was about, but he (miraculously) refrained himself from asking. It was pointless to ask anyway.
Hell, he could even imagine Zi Yuan's reply if he asked: probably something along the lines of "that's none of your concern," or "you should just focus on your training."
"So you did it."
Li Yundong looked up and met Zi Yuan's eyes through the rearview mirror.
"You healed Zhou Qin," she added a second later.
"Mm," Li Yundong said. "The treatment worked much better than I thought."
Instead of answering, Zi Yuan returned her eyes to the road.
"It's the least I could do, you know?" Li Yundong said, feeling the need to fill the awkward silence in the car. "I mean... after everything she's done for me... It's just..."
Li Yundong sighed and shook his head, not knowing how to finish his sentence.
"And you feel nothing for her?" Zi Yuan said. "Not even a little?"
Zi Yuan's skeptical tone drew Li Yundong's gaze to the front of the car once again.
The sedan pulled to a stop at a junction just as the lights turned red.
The meaningful look in Zi Yuan's eyes reflected back at him through the rearview mirror. Those profound eyes whose depths Li Yundong couldn't even begin to fathom. Despite everything they'd been through together for the past few months, Zi Yuan was still very much an enigma to him: the mystery surrounding her shibo's disappearance; Wang Yuanshan's mysterious past; and that strange prophecy which became the object of Zi Yuan's obsession.
Every time he thought he had unraveled some truth about Zi Yuan's life, the air of mystery surrounding the woman would thicken.
Eventually, Li Yundong realized that he had failed to observe the most basic rule of social decorum: he had left Zi Yuan's question hanging.
The car had already left the junction, yet Zi Yuan's question remained unanswered.
"No," Li Yundong said, shooting Zi Yuan an apologetic look. "I feel nothing for Zhou Qin beyond friendship."
Zi Yuan drove silently. Even though she didn't acknowledge his answer with any response, he could tell that she was waiting for him to say more.
"If... If I never met Su Chan, then I would probably develop feelings for Zhou Qin." Hell, he had even confessed to her at one point. "But right now?" Li Yundong shrugged. "I really can't feel it. There's no…" Li Yundong paused to search for the right word. "Spark. There's no spark between us, you know?"
"I literally have no idea what that means," Zi Yuan said dryly.
"It's this feeling of... of..." Li Yundong made a few wild gestures with his hand. "Ugh. Well. I guess I can't explain it."
"Sparks, huh?" Zi Yuan mused out loud. "Is that even a thing?"
Li Yundong laughed. "Well. You'll know when you finally meet the man of your dreams."
They drove in silence until the Hongqi pulled into New Hongsheng District ten minutes later. They parted ways at the parking lot, though Zi Yuan did tell him that she would drop by his apartment later. She said she had to stop by Ruan Hongling's apartment first.
When Li Yundong entered his apartment, he was surprised to find Zi Yuan already there. She was standing on his balcony, gazing out into the night sky. One of her arms was stretched beyond the railing, like she was feeling for something in the air. Li Yundong strode into the living room, stopping briefly at the couch to put down his backpack before moving towards the sliding door.
The night breeze skimmed across his cheeks the moment he opened the sliding door.
"It's approaching," Zi Yuan said, lowering her outstretched arm onto the railing.
Li Yundong stepped across the sliding door's threshold onto the balcony. He didn't even have to ask to know what she was referring to. Her dark, ominous tone said it all.
"You can actually feel it?" Li Yundong asked curiously.
Zi Yuan turned and faced away from the railing. One of her brows arched. "Can't you?"
Li Yundong noticed a medium-sized canvas bag leaning against the bottom of the railing, though he didn't ask what it was.
"Not really," Li Yundong said. "I don't feel anything at all."
Zi Yuan turned around with a huff and continued her scrutiny of the night sky. "Well, you would if you were paying enough attention."
Li Yundong sighed.
"I guess so."
He moved forward and took the spot beside Zi Yuan in front of the railing.
The Immovable Wisdom King's cryptic words echoed inside his head. Those who see my body shall embrace the Bodhicitta...
He had already seen Acalanatha's body, up close. And yet he didn't feel anywhere close to enlightenment. Things seemed as bleak as ever, especially in light of recent events.
Movements beside him made him turn. Both of Zi Yuan's arms were now stretched out beyond the railing. Her eyes were closed.
A green glow coated Zi Yuan's body from head to toe like a beautiful veneer.
The Yin Spirit?
"I can feel it," Zi Yuan whispered. "It's in the air. The power of the Heavens, amassing in the sky, growing more potent each day."
Li Yundong pondered her words in silence. He had no idea what kind of sensation Zi Yuan was referring to.
"You've been too distracted by worldly affairs to take notice," she added moments later.
Li Yundong turned away and gazed beyond the railing, trying desperately to catch just a glimpse of what Zi Yuan could evidently see.
A few moments passed before a few whispered words broke through the lull, shattering the companionable quietude between them.
"The Heavenly Eyes have opened."
The ominous undertone of those words made Li Yundong's scalp tingle.
Li Yundong swiveled his head. The green glow on Zi Yuan's body had disappeared.
"The Heavenly Eyes?"
Zi Yuan regarded him silently.
"Have you been inside your Spirit Space recently?"
"No," Li Yundong answered in a heartbeat. Like Zi Yuan said, he'd been too busy with Zhou Qin's treatment.
The tiniest of smiles flitted across Zi Yuan's lips. Her sleeves rustled when she turned her body to lean her hip against the railing.
"Try it now," she said, pointing at the floor.
With a nod, Li Yundong pushed away from the railing and got into a meditative posture on the balcony floor.
"When you reach the point of Guanxiang, reach out with your Zhenqi," Zi Yuan said just as Li Yundong's eyes slid shut. "I bet you've never tried that trick before."
Indeed he hadn't.
It took less than a minute for Li Yundong to complete Xiao Zhoutian and Da Zhoutian; these Qi-control drills felt like child's play now. Next came the Convergence of Five Qis, which took him another minute or so to complete. On the cusp of Guanxiang, he mobilized a portion of his Zhenqi from his Vital Orb, then pushed them out as though he was performing Qi Kinesis. Instead of shaping his Zhenqi into a bubble that enveloped his body, he molded them into tiny tendrils. The sudden appearance of the ocean of white clouds told him that he was now inside his Spirit Space.
Zi Yuan didn't mention anything about completing Guanxiang, so Li Yundong ignored those clouds, focusing instead on stretching the tendrils of his Zhenqi out further into—
A flurry of sensations coursed through him. A sensation of fear, danger, and imminent threat, like he was being watched.
He shifted his focus towards the clouds.
Something was embedded within those clouds...
It was a pair of cold and forbidding eyes.
Li Yundong exited his Spirit Space and withdrew his Zhenqi into his Vital Orb. He stared up at Zi Yuan without getting up from the floor.
"I saw them," he said, suddenly feeling ashamed at how shaky his voice sounded. "Those eyes..."
"The Heavenly Eyes," Zi Yuan said, smiling at him. "Any Cultivator who has passed the Zhuji phase will be able to see them whenever their Spirit is connected to Nature."
Li Yundong blinked a few times, then closed his eyes when realization hit him. "My Zhenqi." He nodded before re-opening his eyes. "My Zhenqi is a condensed form of Qi that has been fortified by the Spirit. So when I send it outside the body..."
"It interacts with Nature," Zi Yuan said, completing his statement.
Li Yundong nodded. "Make sense. It forms a connection between Nature and my Spirit Space."
"Those eyes you saw..." Zi Yuan said, eyeing Li Yundong steadily. "Were they clear? Did they have distinct forms?"
Li Yundong climbed to his feet. "They were clear."
He didn't have to be a genius to know what that implied.
"Usually"—Zi Yuan gave him a brief glance—"for a Cultivator at your current level, the Heavenly Eyes will only appear as vague outlines."
Right. Since he had done the unforgivable, the Heavens now had a vendetta against him.
"Your Vital Orb's strength has grown beyond the spell's ability to mask," Zi Yuan said after a moment of silence. "Wushuang-qianbei's estimate is pretty spot-on..." Zi Yuan let out a sigh. "Come." She turned around and picked up the canvas bag from the floor. "We don't have much time to lose."
Li Yundong followed Zi Yuan through the sliding door, closing it on his way in. Inside the living room, Zi Yuan lowered the canvas bag onto the coffee table and turned around to face him.
She didn't sit down.
Her stiff comportment right then bespoke the gravity of the situation.
It was, after all, a matter of life and death.
"Things will start to heat up from this point onwards," Zi Yuan said. "You're about to enter the fray, so to speak."
Li Yundong held his mentor's gaze unwaveringly.
"Are you ready, Li Yundong?" Zi Yuan's steady voice was the very definition of the calm before the storm.
Li Yundong took a deep breath, then exhaled.