Project Beat the Heavens: Day 1
A loud thud sounded when Li Yundong's back crashed into the floor of the living room. He'd just been ejected from the simulation by the Purple Gold Jade Plate. Again.
How many times had this happened already?
Right. The twenty-seven times.
Yet, the number of bolts he managed to dodge remained the same: a big fat zero.
Way to go, Li Yundong.
His eyes blinked open the moment he felt a tickle on his right cheek. Zi Yuan's face was hovering inches above his, and she seemed troubled. Before he could say anything else, a set of gentle fingers wrapped themselves around his arm, pulling him out from the bottomless chasm of pain that had, just seconds ago, threatened to consume him whole.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah..." he croaked out, his voice hoarse due to all the screaming he'd been doing inside the simulation.
Zi Yuan rose to her feet. "Wait here. Let me get you a glass of water." Seconds later, Zi Yuan was gone from his side, moving quickly towards the kitchen.
With a soft grunt, Li Yundong rolled over and then got into a sitting position.
A quick scan of his body put his mind at ease; at least all his limbs were still intact.
Zi Yuan was right about something though. That simulation was no virtual reality; no virtual world could emulate pain to such a realistic degree.
Li Yundong flinched at the sound of Zi Yuan's voice. He whirled around and saw Zi Yuan standing beside him with a glass of water in her hand. He didn't even hear her approach.
"Calm yourself," Zi Yuan said, handing him the glass. "The state of your Zhenqi is in disarray."
Li Yundong took the glass gratefully and finished the water in three huge gulps. Then, he placed the glass on the floor and massaged his forehead a few times. "I think I…" He exhaled shakily. "I need a minute."
"Take your time." Zi Yuan picked up the glass from the floor and moved away again.
Li Yundong moved a portion of his Zhenqi to his Lingtai. A wave of calmness washed over him as soon as he did.
Zi Yuan returned minutes later, empty-handed this time. "Wanna try again?" She pointed at the Purple Gold Jade Plate, which was still hovering in the air.
Li Yundong studied the jade plate for a moment, noting in silent wonderment the jade plate's radiance as well as the ethereal quality that it seemed possess in spades, just like its owner.
"Hey…" Zi Yuan snapped her fingers and shook his shoulder a few times. "Are you with me?"
"Yeah." Li Yundong shook his head slightly. "Sorry."
"Ready to continue?"
Li Yundong looked towards the jade plate again. After a few moments of silent contemplation, he sighed.
"27 tries already, Zi Yuan." Li Yundong shook his head, then lowered his gaze to his lap. "And I still couldn't even get past the first bolt."
The unspoken implication behind his words resonated soundlessly inside the apartment, suffusing the air with dread and gloom.
Li Yundong sighed. "It would be unwise to try again until I've come up with some sort of game plan." He lifted his gaze and stared into Zi Yuan's eyes. "I'd just be wasting the jade plate's spiritual energy if I keep going in blindly."
Zi Yuan nodded. "You have a point." She sighed and lowered herself to the floor in one elegant movement. The next thing he knew, they were sitting side by side on the floor, staring at the spinning jade plate.
"Did you at least learn something useful from the previous tries?"
Li Yundong's gaze went from the jade plate towards his mentor.
Zi Yuan's expression was calm as usual, though the stiff set of her shoulders betrayed her worry.
He gave her a smile, hoping that it would at least assuage some of her stress.
"Well, I think I know what the problem is," he said.
Zi Yuan inched closer towards him. "Which is...?"
"Speed." Li Yundong said before looking away. "I couldn't dodge in time." He sighed heavily. "It's like..." He rolled his fingers into a fist and shook it a few times. "It's like I could feel the moment the strike was coming, but..."
"But you were hit before you could even move," Zi Yuan said.
"Yeah..." Li Yundong uncurled his fingers and lowered his hand to his lap.
A long silence ensued.
Zi Yuan seemed pretty content with letting him work through his own thoughts.
"Maybe I'm thinking about this the wrong way," Li Yundong mumbled after a while. He felt Zi Yuan shift beside him as soon as those words left his mouth. After a quick sidelong glance, he managed to catch a glimpse of the questioning look on her face.
"I mean, it's kinda pointless to think about how to make myself move faster, isn't it?" Li Yundong paused for a few beats. "No matter how fast I can move, I doubt I'll be able to keep up with the speed of light." He shook his head.
"Which means..." Zi Yuan's eyes widened slightly. "You have to know when the next strike is coming way before it hits."
"Yeah..." Li Yundong nodded. "That's what I thought too."
"Hmm..." There was a frown on Zi Yuan's features.
"What is it?"
Zi Yuan glanced at him. "I don't think you should eliminate movement speed from the equation just yet."
"Hmm..." Li Yundong pondered her words. Seconds later, he snapped his fingers. "Right. Coz the faster I can move, the less I have to rely on premonition to compensate for my lack of speed."
"Exactly." Zi Yuan hesitated for a moment, then gave him a wry smile. "Well, if it helps, Wushuang-qianbei seemed pretty convinced that you can pull it off."
Li Yundong chuckled humorlessly. "She probably wouldn't have suggested the method if she didn't think I could."
"Nah. She probably would've suggested it anyway," Zi Yuan said, pausing to glance at him. "Why wouldn't she when you have no other options? Don't forget that the alternative is to stand there and take those hits. Or—" Zi Yuan's voice hitched, and an uncharacteristic pallor spread over her features right then.
Li Yundong frowned. "Hey, you alright?"
Zi Yuan cleared her throat and regained her composure. "I'm fine." She smiled at him as though she hadn't acted like some kind of trauma victim seconds ago.
Li Yundong narrowed his eyes. What the hell was that about?
"There's something you haven't told me, isn't there?" Li Yundong said, raising a brow. "What is it?"
Zi Yuan gave him a nonchalant smile. "Look, it's nothing, okay?" she said emphatically.
"Not buying it," Li Yundong fired back. That definitely didn't sound like nothing.
Zi Yuan sighed. "I was just... I imagined for a second that it was me getting hit. It jarred me a little, that's all."
"Is that so?" Li Yundong said without taking his eyes off her.
"Yes." Zi Yuan rolled her eyes. "Now can we focus on the problem, please?"
"Fine," Li Yundong mumbled, deciding to let it go.
Zi Yuan released another sigh. "You were right before."
Something in Zi Yuan's pointed statement caught his attention, and he glanced over at her.
Zi Yuan nodded. "It is crucial that you make every simulation count." Their gazes locked. "Though in hindsight, it should have less to do with conserving the jade plate's spiritual energy"—Zi Yuan arched a brow—"and more to do with the fact that the training might hasten the coming of your divine punishment."
It took Li Yundong a few seconds to put two and two together. "Coz the training strengthens my Vital Orb. And the stronger my Vital Orb becomes, the sooner the punishment comes." He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "I don't really have much wiggle room, do I?"
Zi Yuan rose to her feet and started pacing around the living room. "Look... There has be a way to enhance your movement speed and sharpen your ability to sense the Heavens' striking intent. We just have to figure it out."
"Maybe you should teach me the high-speed flying thing that you and Su Chan often did."
Zi Yuan waved her hand without slowing her steps. "That will require you to develop your Yin Spirit," she said distractedly. "The divine punishment would come before you could reach that stage."
Zi Yuan reached the dining table, stopped, turned around, and then walked back towards the living room. Her steps were quicker now, more hurried.
"Wushuang-qianbei said it's possible..." Zi Yuan whispered. "But how... What's the trick?"
"What about the Jindan's Aura?" Li Yundong suggested.
Zi Yuan pulled up short and stared at him for a moment.
"I mean... I can still activate the Jindan's Aura inside the simulation, right?"
"Well, the aura will give me a boost in speed, won't it?" he said in a hopeful tone.
Zi Yuan nodded. "It will." Then, she sighed. "I'm just not sure if it's gonna be enough."
"Whoa, wait a minute..." Li Yundong sat up straighter and glanced up at Zi Yuan from the floor.
"If I can still activate the Jindan's Aura inside the simulation, then..." Li Yundong shook his index finger as he slowly rose to his feet.
Once he was up, he started walking towards the jade plate.
"What is it?" Zi Yuan's voice sounded behind his back.
Li Yundong paused at the edge of the circle of light on the floor. "I'm gonna try something." He turned around to meet Zi Yuan's questioning look. "I think it might work."
The smell of fresh leaves assaulted Su Chan's nose. An annoying twig was poking against her left cheek, which was still stinging from all her crying earlier. The urge to move that stupid twig away from her face was overwhelming, though Su Chan didn't dare move an inch lest she alert those mindless harpies (as Master liked to call them) to her presence inside the thick shrub.
If only she was allowed to fly. If only. Then, none of these fools would've caught up to her.
Indeed, what a pain in her backside.
Speaking of pain in backsides...
Su Chan was pretty sure there was another annoying twig poking on her backside too. Su Chan sighed inwardly. The things she would do for stealth. Ugh.
Now she was starting to wonder why Master never tried to invent a spell to turn one's body transparent. Like a more advanced version of the Yin Spirit or something.
There was a rustle.
"Did you find her?" one of those harpies said.
"Nah. What about you two?" said a second voice. "Any luck?"
"We've got nothing as well," the first voice grumbled.
"We've searched the whole school though," said a third voice.
"Yeah," said the first harpy.
"Think she's off the mountain already?" the second voice asked.
"On foot?" The first harpy sounded skeptical. "I doubt it."
"I agree," the third harpy said. "She must still be here, skulking around somewhere. We just have to find her before she leaves the mountain for good."
Heh. These useless bimbos had another think coming if they thought they could catch her. Where did Gu-shibo find these women anyway? A brothel?
Su Chan winced internally. She wasn't even sure if she should regard Gu Feng as her shibo now. For all she knew, Gu Feng could be in on the whole treachery. Why else would his disciples be running around trying to catch Su Chan? Hmph! Treacherous cowards! Wait till I get to my Yundong. None of these fools would stand a chance if Yundong and Master teamed up together.
"God... Master's gonna be so pissed if we don't find the girl before daybreak," mumbled Harpy 2.
"I wonder why he wants to look for her all of a sudden," said the first harpy.
There was a loud snort, which came from Harpy 3. "You have to ask?" Another snort. "You mean you didn't see the way Master was undressing her with his eyes back there?"
There was a collective sigh.
"Guess you have a point," said Harpy 2.
"I don't think he'd touch the girl though," said Harpy 3.
"Yeah? How do you figure?" said number two.
"Seriously?" Harpy 3's voice was laced with incredulity. "Didn't you see how powerful her master is?"
"Wait a minute, Master didn't tell you?" said Harpy 1.
"Tell me what?"
"The girl's master isn't here," said Harpy 2.
"Yeah. Master said she changed her mind about fighting for the school," Harpy 1 said with a snort. "Apparently, she ran away like a coward."
Su Chan clenched her fist and fought down the sudden impulse to growl.
Damn you, people... Damn you all!
That wasn't even what happened! Master was anything but a coward!
"Yeah right. Why would she leave the girl behind if she ran off?" Clearly, Harpy 3 had some brains. A little. Just a little.
"Well, that's what Master told me," said Harpy 1.
Harpy 2 echoed with a low hum.
"And where did Master even get that news from?"
"Oh, well..." Harpy 1 said, trailing off.
"I didn't really ask," Harpy 1 said sheepishly.
"Wait!" Harpy 2 suddenly said. "I think it came from Grandmaster Liu." There was a pause. "I overheard Master speaking with Mo-shibo."
A fourth voice interrupted the conversation just then.
"Hey! You three! Why are you still standing around for?" A pause. "We have a girl to find! Move your asses!"
Su Chan kept herself hidden within the thick shrub as the harpies moved away in grumbles and mumbles.
You're going to pay for this, Mo Ahshi... Just you wait!
Li Yundong found himself surrounded by a sea of green the moment he opened his eyes. Instead of hovering in midair like in all the previous 27 simulations, he was now standing on a vast, open grassland.
"Zi Yuan?" Li Yundong said warily. "This is different from the previous simulations."
"I thought a change of scenery might help," Zi Yuan's voice resonated in the sky. "Besides, something like this is a closer approximation to your actual divine punishment."
They had come to an agreement that Li Yundong would play lightning dodgeball on the ground instead of in the air.
When Zi Yuan had suggested it, Li Yundong had agreed in a heartbeat simply because Zi Yuan's argument made logical sense: the act of flying would occupy a portion of his mental focus, which should all be directed towards anticipating when the Heavenly Thunder would strike.
"There won't be much difference," Zi Yuan continued. "So just do your thing, whatever it is that you want to try."
"Roger that," Li Yundong said, looking up at the sky.
Li Yundong formed Acalanatha's 2nd Mudra with his hands—the Immovable Mountain of Treasure.
"In three... two... one... Begin!"
"Namah samanta vajranam ham!" Li Yundong chanted at the same time he bridged his Three Gates.
A thin, semi-transparent golden sheet appeared and formed a dome shape around Li Yundong. He had used this mudra to support over a ton of snow before, not to mention ward off the attacks from a powerful magical weapon.
It was worth a try.
There was a bright flash followed by a crackle.
Li Yundong could barely maintain the mudra's form when the bolt struck the top of the dome.
Li Yundong's heart did a little flip when he looked up and saw that the dome was still intact. Yes!!!!!
"Arrrrgggghhhh!!!" Li Yundong's hands flew apart as pain ripped through him once again.
He didn't stop screaming until a warm hand shook his shoulder. Zi Yuan...
He opened his eyes and saw Zi Yuan looking down at him worriedly. He was back inside his apartment.
"Are you okay?" Zi Yuan asked, pulling him to a sitting position.
Li Yundong groaned. "Well. I'm still alive."
And his balls were still intact. Probably.
Zi Yuan let out a sigh, which quickly turned into a chuckle. When their eyes met, he noticed that Zi Yuan's eyes were sparkling with amusement.
"That was pretty clever, I'll give you that," Zi Yuan said. "But it won't work."
Li Yundong frowned. "Why not?"
"The mudra's power depends on the user's spiritual energy," Zi Yuan said. "That's why the dome shattered when it was struck by the second bolt." Zi Yuan arched a brow. "Don't forget that there are 81 bolts in total. And each one will be more powerful than its predecessor."
Li Yundong's heart sank to his toes. "And the divine punishment will come way before I can amp up my spiritual energy to the point where I can use the mudras to hold off all 81 bolts of the Heavenly Thunder..."
"That's right," Zi Yuan said, then paused for a moment. "Remember that yours is a special case." She chuckled wryly. "You aren't even supposed to be thinking about facing the Heavenly Thunder at this stage…" Zi Yuan sighed wearily. "Alright, look... Even if you do manage to hold off the Heavenly Thunder with the mudra during the simulation, I honestly wouldn't bank on it to hold against the real thing."
"Right." Li Yundong hung his head low. "Coz this is still just a simulation."
"The real thing is still more powerful," Zi Yuan said.
"So I guess it's back to dodging, then?" Li Yundong asked, raising his head to look at Zi Yuan.
They stared at each other for a few seconds before they both sighed.
Li Yundong broke their eye contact and glanced towards the jade plate.
Time to face the truth: they were stuck.