Project Beat the Heavens: Day 2
Li Yundong had decided to skip all his classes today. Actually, scratch that. He'd already decided to skip for the whole week. Who needs classes when you could play dodge-a-lightning-bolt against the fearsome Heavens? Orange light filtered in from the balcony door, soaking the walls and floor with its hue. The sun glowed weakly from the west like a beacon of dusk.
Another day squandered where precious seconds had trickled towards oblivion and progress remained a formless and elusive silhouette.
"You know, Zi Yuan..." Li Yundong paused, allowing his voice to mix with the orange glow permeating the living room.
"Maybe you know some kind of mining spell..." He rolled onto his side, the side facing the balcony. "Like, I don't know... Something from the Earth element?"
Zi Yuan's incredulous chuckle drifted from the couch. "What are you even talking about?"
Li Yundong studied the scarlet gleam smeared across the evening sky. The color reminded him of the dress Su Chan had worn on the day they first met.
"Well, I was just thinking… Maybe you can dig a massive hole in the ground with that spell," Li Yundong mumbled. "Create an underground bunker or something."
"And what good will that do?" Zi Yuan chuckled again. "The Heavenly Thunder will just blast it open anyway."
Li Yundong grimaced, then released a groan. "I suppose you're right." Rolling over, he stared up at the ceiling.
"Hey, you hungry?"
Li Yundong glanced towards the couch.
Zi Yuan was staring back at him. Unlike him, she didn't look like someone who had been slogging away for hours on end trying to figure out the solution to some elusive puzzle.
Seriously. Not a single hair out of place. The woman was not from this world.
"I could make you something if you're hungry," Zi Yuan offered.
An image of Su Chan's chipmunk pouches instantly came to mind.
"Nah... I'm not hungry at all." He chuckled. "To be honest, I would've forgotten all about dinner if you hadn't reminded me."
"Dinner?" Zi Yuan scoffed. "You didn't even have lunch."
Li Yundong groaned and covered his eyes with his both hands. Admittedly, food wasn't high on his list of priorities right now, even though he knew that having some food in his system would do him good.
"Did you check the state of your Vital Orb?"
"Yeah," Li Yundong answered. "It definitely feels a lot stronger now."
Zi Yuan let out a low hum, though she didn't comment.
"If those two pills you fed me the other day could double the size of my Vital Orb," Li Yundong said, "I can't even imagine what's gonna happen once I'm exposed to the Heavenly Thunder." He chuckled. "It's probably gonna swell up like a balloon."
"It isn't just about size," Zi Yuan said briskly.
Li Yundong lowered his hands from his eyes to look at Zi Yuan.
Zi Yuan gave him a small smile. "You'll know what happens the moment you pass the Shentong phase."
If he passed the Shentong phase.
Li Yundong nodded and looked away.
A hush fell upon the room. The silence dragged on for quite a while before Li Yundong felt the need to end it.
"I'm sorry, Zi Yuan," he said softly.
There was a long pause.
"For wasting your time?" Li Yundong let out a self-deprecating chuckle. "And your resources?"
"Stop that," Zi Yuan said sternly. "I told you not to worry about any of that."
"I can't help it, Zi Yuan," Li Yundong said tiredly. "It just feels like I'm dragging everyone down, you know?" He sighed. "Su Chan was in trouble because of me. Zhou Qin lost everything because of me." He paused for a beat. "And then, there's you. You're putting your own life on hold, hell, even risking your own life, just to help me." He shook his head in disgust, then let out a sad chuckle. "Looks like I'm still as useless as I was back then."
Zi Yuan sighed. "Li Yundong... Now isn't the time to be feeling down—"
"These hands..." Li Yundong raised his hands above him. "These hands held so much power now. And yet what have I done with them?" He chuckled darkly, letting his hands drop. "Some hero I am." Another scornful chuckle. "I couldn't even save my friends."
"I'm only going to say this once, Li Yundong, so you better listen up."
Zi Yuan's harsh tone put an end to his self-mockery, forcing him to turn his head to look fully at his mentor, at the woman who was now radiating silent anger in spades.
Li Yundong gulped.
"The twins' deaths aren't your fault." Zi Yuan leveled a harsh stare at him. "The sooner you get that through your head, the better." Zi Yuan's eyes softened. "You have to come to terms with your guilt at some point, you know? That type of thinking isn't healthy at all."
"I know, sorry." Li Yundong sighed. "Actually, I've already come to terms with it during my trip to Tibet... But, well..." He chuckled. "I guess getting hit by the Heavenly Thunder fifty-nine times made my brain go a bit haywire."
Another stretch of silence ensued.
"It wasn't your fault, Li Yundong," Zi Yuan said in a small voice.
"I know... It was—"
"If anything, it was my fault."
Li Yundong's eyes grew wide. He stared at Zi Yuan for a few seconds, searching her face for a hint that she was only joking.
The woman was dead serious.
"What?" Li Yundong scoffed. "Come on. That's not true at all."
"I didn't kill them, sure. But…" Zi Yuan shook her head. "I'm pretty sure I could've saved the second twin if I wanted to."
Li Yundong blinked a few times.
"I mean… I couldn't perform Qi Kinesis to the extent that you're capable of." Zi Yuan's eyes darted to his face. "Your Qi reserves far exceed mine. But I could still reach the second twin..." She looked towards him. "I don't know her name..."
"Deng Jiao," Li Yundong supplied.
Zi Yuan nodded. "I could still reach Deng Jiao in time if I fly at my top speed."
Silence filled the living room as Li Yundong searched for the right words to say.
Before he could say anything, however, Zi Yuan rose from the couch and padded towards him.
Piqued by her actions, Li Yundong sat up from his lying position.
Zi Yuan took both of his hands the moment she crouched down in front of him. "A time will come when these hands are needed, Li Yundong." The intensity in Zi Yuan's eyes right then matched that of her voice. "The world will need you one day. I'm sure of it." She released his hands, though her expression didn't lose a single ounce of its gravity. "And that's why you must do everything in your power to survive. You must. Do you understand?"
Li Yundong nodded. "I know."
Zi Yuan got up and returned to the couch.
Li Yundong waited until Zi Yuan had sat down before he spoke again.
"I know I've asked you this before..." Li Yundong glanced at Zi Yuan warily. "But why are you helping me, Zi Yuan?"
Zi Yuan's guarded eyes zeroed in on his face.
What ensued was a long staring match between the two of them.
"Does it matter?"
"It matters to me."
"Why?" The challenging glint in Zi Yuan's eyes shone back at him. "Why do you care about the reason I'm helping you? Isn't it more than enough to know that I'm on your side?" Zi Yuan's lips curved into a smirk. "Or is it because you still don't trust me."
Li Yundong raised a brow. "If our roles were reversed, wouldn't you want to know too?"
Instead of answering the question, Zi Yuan kept staring at him.
Li Yundong sighed. "It matters to me because you're doing so much for me, and I want to find a way to repay you, okay?"
Zi Yuan's smirk grew wider. "Survive your divine punishment, then. That's a good enough repayment for me."
Li Yundong rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on, Zi Yuan. That's just…" Li Yundong sighed and raised his palms. "You know what? It's fine if you don't wanna tell—"
"You are my path towards transcendence."
Her voice had come out so soft that he almost failed to catch it. And when he did, all he could do was stare her; admittedly, her words had rendered him momentarily speechless.
"That's right." Zi Yuan gave him a wry smile. "You hold the key to whether or not I can survive the Lightning Retribution phase in the future."
"Me?" Li Yundong pointed at himself. "But how can I possibly—"
"Haven't figured out that part yet," Zi Yuan said with a quick shake of her head, then paused to study his face for a moment. "I'm just telling you what my master told me."
"And that's why..." Zi Yuan sighed and looked away. "Until I've figured out the true meaning behind my master's message, it is in my best interest to keep you alive."
Li Yundong nodded. "That's why you're helping me."
"Besides..." Zi Yuan smiled at him gently. "You're not a bad friend to have."
Somehow, that declaration brought him a small amount of relief. He chuckled. "Glad to know that you approve."
"Did that address your concerns?" Zi Yuan's smile turned into a smirk. "Or do you have any more questions regarding my motivations?"
Li Yundong regarded Zi Yuan for a moment. That wasn't the only question he wanted to ask, to be honest. The one question whose answer Li Yundong was dying to know was this: What does the prophecy mean?
But then he remembered how Zi Yuan had broken down that night after she wrote down that prophecy, so he decided not to ask. Plus, he got the distinct impression that not even Zi Yuan herself knew the full meaning behind the prophecy.
Seriously, why did Cultivators like to speak in riddles? Why?
"Nah," Li Yundong said with a wave of his hand. "I've got no other questions."
"This might be hard for you to believe, but..." Zi Yuan sighed. "It isn't just about self-interest."
Li Yundong's gaze snapped to her face. "What do you mean?"
"I mean me helping you." Zi Yuan paused to look at him. "It isn't just about self-interest."
"I know." Li Yundong smiled. "We're friends."
To his surprise, Zi Yuan shook her head. "This has nothing to do with friendship."
Li Yundong frowned. "Okay?"
"There's something special about you." Zi Yuan's sharp gaze felt as though it could pierce through his soul. "I don't what it is just yet, but I do know something about you is extraordinary." There was a pause. "And I think it's more than just talent."
Li Yundong stared at her for a moment. "How so?"
Zi Yuan went silent in thought. "When I consider all the circumstances surrounding you, I can't help but think that…"
Li Yundong held his breath. "Think… what?"
Zi Yuan's eyes bore into him.
"That there's an unknown force guiding your existence towards some greater purpose."
A chill ran down Li Yundong's spine. "You seem…" He cleared his throat. "You seem awfully sure."
Zi Yuan smiled. "Call it a gut feeling."
Li Yundong chuckled. "Gut feeling, huh?"
"You started out by taking the Taoist approach to Cultivation, didn't you?"
"You did," Zi Yuan said in a tone of certainty. "The Jindan itself is a product of External Alchemy, which is a known Taoist practice. And the Qi-control methods you used so far are also from Taoist lineages. The foundation of your Cultivation definitely has Taoist roots. And yet..." Zi Yuan shook her head. "And yet you ended up mastering the tantric mudras in just a few hours." She stared at him in awe. "On your own, no less. You didn't even have external guidance." Zi Yuan chuckled incredulously. "You know, there are actually a lot of dedicated Buddhists out there who have spent decades trying to accomplish the same. Yet some of them barely made progress at all." Zi Yuan schooled her features and held his gaze. "Good Cultivators out there will definitely recognize your value right away." Zi Yuan paused as though to let her words sink in. "I'm sure this is one of Wushuang-qianbei's reasons for helping you as well. It would be such a waste if you fail to attain your potential due to the lack of proper guidance."
Li Yundong nodded silently. He didn't know what else to say.
To be honest, he was still reeling a bit from everything Zi Yuan told her.
All his life, Li Yundong had been called many things, most of which were less than flattering. But to be considered by another person as some kind of revolutionary figure? That was definitely a first.
"I meant what I said earlier."
Li Yundong looked up to see Zi Yuan looking deep into his eyes.
"One day, the world will need your talents."
She made it sound like he was expected to save the Universe or something. No pressure.
"But until then?" Zi Yuan jerked her chin towards the hovering jade plate. "Survive. Figure this thing out."
Project Beat the Heavens: Day 3, 5.30 PM
Zi Yuan stood over the Heir's slumbering form, watching the steady rise and fall of his chest. Now in deep slumber, the Heir's face was devoid of stress and worry. For the first time in days, he actually seemed peaceful.
Zi Yuan crouched down and picked up the pieces of paper strewn all over the floor.
Charts. Diagrams. A geometric sketch illustrating the most efficient dodging pattern that the Heir had drawn himself. Another one contained a series of detailed diagrams elucidating some kind of pivoting footwork from martial arts; the Heir had considered the option of dodging via a slight pivoting motion instead of moving his whole body out of the way. Needless to say, it didn't work. Each bolt had a blast range, which required more than just a pivoting motion to clear.
Zi Yuan collected the papers into a neat stack, then brought them over to the coffee table. Moments later, the stack joined another piece of paper on the table—a list of viable solutions that Zi Yuan herself had written down earlier. The last item on that list had been crossed out an hour ago after the Heir was ejected from the jade plate for yet another failure.
Indeed, it was a failure, in every sense of the word, since the result was the same as the first try: the Heir couldn't even get past the first bolt.
That alone was a crushing blow, considering the third day was already nearing its end.
Despite the apparent ingenuity and inventiveness that the Heir had showcased over the past few days, all their ideas came up short.
The Jindan Aura had been activated during the simulation to give a boost in the Heir's movement speed. However, it turned out exactly as Zi Yuan had predicted: it wasn't enough.
The best solution the Heir had come up with so far was the idea of utilizing his Zhenqi to enhance his ability to sense the Heavens' striking intent. Well, to give him a sensory boost, so to speak. In one of the simulations, the Heir had sent his Zhenqi out into the sky in the form of a long rod to help him detect the signs indicating that the next bolt was coming.
It was, in the Heir's own words, some kind of "Qi probe."
Zi Yuan had to admit that the method was ingenious, though it still wasn't enough. The method did allow the Heir to sense the coming of the next bolt slightly ahead of time, but the prior awareness proved useless when it came to helping him dodge the strike. If he dodged too early, the Heavens would just readjust and send the bolt to his new location, which, essentially, led them back to the same problem: how to be quick enough to dodge in time.
One thing was pretty clear at this point: the Heavens would not be hoodwinked.
The Heavens would strike, and it would strike hard.
What did you mean when you said "dodge," Wushuang-qianbei...
For the nth time, Zi Yuan's mind went back to Master's psalm. Perhaps something in the prophecy contained a clue, like a secret trick to this whole endeavor. After all, wasn't the prophecy about the Heir? And this was the Heir's divine punishment. It was a major event in the Heir's life; it concerned the Heir's fate. Surely the prophecy would contain some kind of clue?
Of course it was. The clue was definitely inside the prophecy. She just had to figure it out.
But which verse? Which verse held the clue?
As far as she could tell, there were only two verses that were connected to the Heavenly Thunder:
The sound of the first thunder shall complete thine soul.
Behold! Behold the ocean of clouds!
The first verse probably wasn't relevant. And she'd already tried out the second verse—the initial scenery of the simulation was an ocean of clouds. But that evidently didn't work.
What were they missing?
Her phone buzzed against the coffee table. She reached over and grabbed the device from the table.
The call came from Hongling.
Zi Yuan frowned. So soon?
Zi Yuan stepped onto the balcony, closing the sliding door gently.
"I didn't expect to hear from you so soon, Hongling," Zi Yuan spoke into the phone. "Is the mission a success?"
"No, Elder Sister… I…"
Something was wrong with Hongling's voice.
Zi Yuan's body grew taut. "What happened? Are you okay?"
Hongling cleared her throat.
"I'm fine, Elder Sister," Hongling said. "But..." There was a loud sigh. "God, I don't even know how to explain this..."
Zi Yuan's frown deepened. "Try."
"The Fox Zen School is gone."
Zi Yuan was silent for a few seconds. "Wait, what do you mean gone?"
"It's just... gone. I..." Hongling sounded frustrated. "There was nothing there when I got there. I couldn't even find the entrance!"
"Are you sure you went to the right place? It's Mount Tianlong—"
"It was the right place, Elder Sister," Hongling said. "I swear."
Seconds went by in silence. "When you were there, what did you see?"
"Trees and forests, nothing else." Hongling paused. "The temple should be located at mid mountain, right?"
"There was nothing there, Elder Sister. And I checked everywhere," Hongling said. "Not even a single building in sight. It was like the school never even existed."
What was this? Some kind of illusion spell? A concealment spell?
"Elder Sister?" Hongling's voice ended Zi Yuan's musings.
"Where are you now?"
"At some motel in Dongwu City." Hongling paused. "What do I do next, Elder Sister?"
Something was definitely going on at the Fox Zen School, and truth be told, Zi Yuan feared for Hongling's safety.
"Return to Mount Longhu," Zi Yuan said into the phone. "Stay there and wait for my instructions."
"What about the mission? I..." Hongling hesitated. "I didn't even manage to start the mission because I couldn't find the place."
"Abort the mission," Zi Yuan said in a tone of finality.
"Yes, Elder Sister."
"Did we receive any messages from the other subsidiary sects recently?"
There was a snort. "Not at all, Elder Sister."
That wasn't surprising news at all. The Linggong Sect had pretty much isolated itself from the rest of the Cultivation world ever since Zi Yuan took over.
"Alright. That's all for now," Zi Yuan said, then paused when another thought came to mind. "Were you followed when you were poking around Mount Tianlong? Did you run into anyone?"
"Please don't doubt my abilities, Elder Sister Zi Yuan..."
Zi Yuan smiled as she pictured her protégé's eye roll. "Mm. Make sure you're not followed, okay? And watch your six."
"Fine," Hongling grumbled, not sounding happy at all.
"Stay safe, and don't take unnecessary risks. Oh, and keep me posted."
After the call ended, Zi Yuan spent a while leaning against the railing, looking out into the city. When the sliding door clicked open, she turned around.
"Hey," the Heir greeted sleepily.
Zi Yuan smiled. "Did you have a good nap?"
The Heir mumbled something inaudible before he joined her on the balcony.
His movements stilled just when he was about to reach the railing.
The Heir's eyes went from her hand to her face. "You were on the phone?
Zi Yuan smiled. "Just checking up on Hongling."
"Oh." He studied her for a second or two. "Everything alright?"
"Everything's fine," Zi Yuan answered.
The Heir nodded and turned away to look out into the city.
"Another failed day, huh?" said the Heir seconds later.
Zi Yuan studied the man from the corner of her eyes, noting the disappointment and disquiet marring his features.
"You'll figure it out, Li Yundong." Zi Yuan looked out into the evening sky. "You'll figure it out."
The sun was setting, but it would rise again tomorrow; her only wish was that it would carry a ray of hope with it when it did.