Zi Yuan dragged her feet into Hongling's apartment. Ambivalent feelings had prevailed over her usual poise, over cold logic, but Zi Yuan was too tired to care. She just wanted some time alone to lick her wounds.
It was the right thing to do.... I did the right thing.
Everything was falling to place now: Master's abstruse words all those years ago; the fact that Master had left the Purple Gold Jade Plate and the Great Mirror in her care instead of giving them to shībó'.
Zi Yuan's knees bumped into the edge of the dining table. She paused in front of the table and loosened her grip, feeling the strength leave the lengths of her fingers. A series of clinks and two loud clacks followed the sudden lightening of her hands. Zi Yuan sank into the chair and rested her elbows on the table.
Shards of the Great Mirror stared back at her from the table. Amidst the broken shards, lay the two broken halves of the Purple Gold Jade Plate.
The Purple Gold Jade Plate, once a vibrant and glorious shade of purple, was now no different from an ordinary piece of rock.
Two pieces of rock.
Green light flared.
Zi Yuan looked towards the balcony. Hongling leaped down from the railing and landed on the balcony. TAP! TAP! TAP! The sliding door shook, but didn't open; Zi Yuan had locked it due to her desire to be alone tonight.
With a sigh, Zi Yuan rose from the chair and padded towards the sliding door.
The taps turned into insistent bangs.
"Zi Yuan jiějie! Zi Yuan jiějie!"
Patience had never been Hongling's strong suit.
Zi Yuan unlocked the door with Qi Kinesis and leaned her hips against the couch. She was so, so tired tonight. She didn't think she had been this tired before. A loud crash sounded when the sliding door flung open.
Hongling came charging into the apartment.
Zi Yuan nearly had the wind knocked out of her when Hongling barreled into her and enveloped her in a tight hug. The poor girl was in tears.
Alarm coursed through Zi Yuan.
"I was so worried!" Hongling wailed. "I came back as quickly as I could after I felt the Heavenly Thunder's presence! And you weren't picking up your phone! And... And I..."
A tide of affection flushed the feeling of dread from Zi Yuan's system. Hongling was just worried about her.
"Hey... It's okay..." Zi Yuan stroked Hongling's head. "It's alright. We both made it out alive."
Hongling sniffed and glanced up at Zi Yuan tentatively. Zi Yuan smiled at the girl. "He survived. The divine punishment is over."
Hongling's eyes widened comically. The fact that her face was tear-stained made her dumbfounded expression even funnier. A chuckle escaped Zi Yuan's lips, easing some of the heaviness in her heart.
"H- He pulled it off? B- But… but," Hongling stammered. "That's amazing..."
"Mm." Zi Yuan smiled. "You should've seen all the clever ideas he came up with."
Hongling sniffed and wiped the tears from her face. "Where is he now?"
"His apartment. Recovering."
Hongling nodded a few times. "I was so worried." Hongling wiped her cheeks again. "You weren't picking up your phone. And I thought... I thought that you..." Hongling's face crumpled again. "I thought you were gone, Zi Yuan jiějie."
Zi Yuan pulled her protégé into her arms. "You didn't have to worry, you know. I knew what I was doing. I had a plan."
"How could I not worry!" Hongling cried. "I… I really don't know what I would if something happened to—"
Hongling cut off her own sentence with a loud gasp.
Surprised by the girl's reaction, Zi Yuan pulled away slightly and glanced down at Hongling.
Hongling was staring past Zi Yuan's shoulders.
Before Zi Yuan could even get a word out, Hongling was pushing away from her. Hongling stormed towards the dining table.
"Oh my God..." Hongling whispered. "T- These... These are..." Hongling glanced at Zi Yuan.
Zi Yuan's heart sank to her toes. She knew it. She knew Hongling would react like this the moment she found out.
Hongling picked up one of the jade plate's broken pieces.
"This is… This is the jade plate... isn't it?"
Zi Yuan nodded weakly.
"And this..." Hongling's hand trembled when she picked up one of the shards. "The Great Mirror..."
Zi Yuan sighed. "Yes... It had to be done—"
"No!!!!!!" The shard and the broken jade scattered across the floor when Hongling crumbled to her knees. The girl burst into tears, screaming and yelling. "No!!!! No!!!!"
Zi Yuan stepped forward. "Hongling..."
"This... This can't be happening!" Hongling cried, her shoulders trembling wildly as she sobbed. "They're both gone... Oh, God... No..."
"Please, listen…" Zi Yuan crouched down beside Hongling. "It had to be done, Hongling." Zi Yuan reached out to pull Hongling into her arms. "There was no other way—"
Hongling smacked her hands away.
"No other way?!" Hongling screamed at Zi Yuan's face, her eyes flashing in anger. "According to what? Some fancy poem?!"
Zi Yuan wouldn't lie. That had hurt. "Hongling—"
Hongling sprang to her feet. "I can't believe this," she mumbled. "You chose him above everything else. You chose him..."
Hongling stormed past Zi Yuan.
"Hongling... Please..." Zi Yuan rose slowly.
"You chose him!" Hongling bellowed, spinning around to face her. "You chose him over the sect, shījiě! You... You even sacrificed two precious magical objects to save him! You betrayed us!"
Zi Yuan flinched at the last accusation. She had honestly never seen Hongling this angry before.
"Our sect has been oppressed for nearly a decade, shījiě! A decade!" Hongling screamed. "And now we just lost two of our most powerful magical objects!" Hongling let out a few sobs. "We're done for, shījiě... The Linggong Sect is done for..."
Hongling wept some more after that, and Zi Yuan let her. The girl needed to let it all out.
"No, we're not," Zi Yuan said after a while. "We're not done for. There's—"
"Yes we are!" Hongling roared, stunning Zi Yuan once again. "God! Can't you see?! The main sect will shut us down for good the moment they realize how weak we've become. And it's all your fault, shījiě! It's all your fault! You let Master down."
The hurt in Zi Yuan's heart had become impossible to bear. Tonight's events had already left her feeling raw, forcing her to make two of the most difficult choices in her life. She had already lost two precious things tonight. Her heart couldn't bear it if she lost Hongling's trust too.
"Don't you think I know that?!" Zi Yuan screamed until her voice cracked. She thought she heard Hongling's gasped, but she didn't care. Her knees buckled and she sank down to the floor. "Did you really think it was easy for me?! Have you never considered how I..." A sob tore past Zi Yuan's lips. "Have you never considered how those choices might have hurt me too?" And it did hurt. It still hurt. Everything hurt so much that Zi Yuan just couldn't take it anymore. Zi Yuan clamped a hand over her mouth and let her tears flow. "It pains me to think that you have so little faith in me, Hongling..." Even to her own ears, her voice sounded weak. "Did you actually think that my decisions were based on some frivolous whim? That I would sacrifice the mirror and the jade plate without good reasons? I..."
Warmth enveloped Zi Yuan's torso.
"Say no more, shījiě... Say no more..."
And Zi Yuan said no more. She closed her eyes and leaned into the comfort that Hongling was offering. For a long while, Zi Yuan allowed herself to be held. She might have even drifted off a few times, but she didn't care. She was just so tired.
"Forgive me, Zi Yuan jiějie," Hongling said in a small voice. "I shouldn't have lashed out at you. I… I shouldn't have said those hurtful things to you.... I'm an awful sister, a horrible person." There was a few seconds' pause. "I hate myself."
Zi Yuan shook her head without opening her eyes. "I don't blame you for being angry, Hongling." She let out a soft sigh. "I haven't been forthcoming with you. There are... There are some things that you don't yet understand."
A comfortable silence spread between them, and Zi Yuan wasn't in a hurry to break it. She needed this, this brief moment of comfort.
"I'm sorry, shījiě," Hongling mumbled. "Will you forgive me?"
Zi Yuan opened her eyes and withdrew from the warmth of Hongling's embrace. "There is nothing to forgive, Hongling." She shook her head. "I was… I was too emotional earlier. I'm sorry too."
"So was I," Hongling mumbled guiltily.
Zi Yuan grabbed Hongling's arm to get her attention. "It's alright, Hongling." She looked deep into her protégé's eyes. "But I can explain everything. Will you listen?"
They both moved towards the living room after that. Near the couch, Hongling pulled up short. Zi Yuan followed Hongling's gaze and realized that her protégé was staring at the main body of the Great Mirror whose surface was now covered in cracks. Between those cracks lay several missing pieces, the shape of which corresponded to the broken shards she had left on the dining table.
"Come." Zi Yuan pulled Hongling towards the armchair. "Sit."
Hongling complied and sat down. Zi Yuan grabbed what was left of the Great Mirror and placed it on the coffee table.
"The mirror shall sunder, for the mortal hath sinned," Zi Yuan said as she took a seat on the couch. Once seated, Zi Yuan stared at the Great Mirror's cracked surface for a moment. "That's what Master's prophecy says."
"I figured out its meaning a while back." Zi Yuan paused. "But I..." She sighed. "I didn't want it to be true."
And she had been trying so hard to deny the prophecy's fulfillment. The amount of hours she had poured into the simulation's design was proof of that.
Zi Yuan looked towards Hongling.
"I mean... When did you figure out?" Hongling clarified.
"When Wushuang-qiánbèi told me about the contingencies, I—"
"Contingencies?" Hongling frowned.
"The Heir successfully dodging all 81 bolts was only the best case scenario," Zi Yuan said. "There have to be contingencies in place in case something goes wrong." Zi Yuan shook her head. "The forces of the Heavens are too unpredictable. Too volatile. Anything could happen." Zi Yuan paused in thought. "Wushuang-qiánbèi suggested two last resorts if all else failed." Zi Yuan looked into Hongling's eyes. "The Great Mirror repels all forms of magic. That's what she said." Zi Yuan sighed. "And I knew right away what she was hinting at. That verse from Master's poem suddenly made sense as well."
"The mirror shall sunder, for the mortal has sinned," Hongling whispered.
"Yes." Zi Yuan nodded. "The mortal refers to the Heir. By killing Hé Shao, the Heir has sinned. And... And because he has sinned, the mirror needs to break."
"But that's got nothing to do with the jade plate," Hongling said, frowning. "Why did the jade plate has to be destroyed too?"
"I don't think it's a coincidence that Master left both the jade plate and the mirror to me, Hongling," Zi Yuan said, then paused to shake her head. "Knowing Master, I think he left those two items to me because he knew I would need them. And... And then there's also something else that Wushuang-qiánbèi said that night. She told me that the last resort would require me to sacrifice the two items that Master gave me before he passed."
"But—" Hongling stared at Zi Yuan for a moment, looking thoroughly baffled. "How on earth did Ao Wushuang know what Master left you before he passed?"
Zi Yuan smiled wryly. "They must have had some sort of dealing with each other in the past. How else do you think Wushuang-qiánbèi ended up wielding Bahuang?" Zi Yuan paused in thought. "And I suspect..."
"It's nothing." Zi Yuan shook her head and sighed. The idea that Wushuang-qiánbèi and Master were past lovers had been brewing inside Zi Yuan's mind for a while now. Of course, it could be that they were just close friends, but that wasn't the point.
The point was that Zi Yuan had no idea that Master and Wushuang-qiánbèi even knew each other. When did they meet? Where did they meet? If Master had been to the Fox Zen School in the past, Zi Yuan didn't know about it.
Zi Yuan did notice something, though: Wushuang-qiánbèi was expelled from the Fox Zen School around the same time Master transcended.
"So you're saying that… that Master gave Bahuang to Ao Wushuang?"
Zi Yuan looked towards Hongling, who seemed aghast at the notion that Master would do such a thing. Zi Yuan wouldn't blame Hongling for feeling that way. She herself had felt that way when the idea crossed her mind for the first time. In fact, it was what had led Zi Yuan to believe that Master and Wushuang-qiánbèi were lovers.
"Yes. I believe so, yes," Zi Yuan answered frankly. "I think… I think he gave her the sword knowing that she would need it at some point."
Just like how Master had left the jade plate and the mirror to Zi Yuan.
"Why would Ao Wushuang need the sword?" Hongling said. "For what purpose?"
Zi Yuan shook her head. "I don't know."
Hongling stared at Zi Yuan for a long while.
Zi Yuan sighed. "You know how Master was, Hongling."
"What's with all this mystery," Hongling grumbled. "Why not just be upfront from the start?"
Zi Yuan contemplated Hongling's words. Indeed, she herself had wondered about this.
"I'm not sure, Hongling," Zi Yuan said in a tone of resignation. "But there has to be a reason he chose secrecy. I think…" Zi Yuan glanced at Hongling. "I think he knew something about the future." Zi Yuan sighed. "It feels like we're all part of some kind of grand plan."
"Yeah," Hongling mumbled. "You said it yourself just now. The prophecy's fulfillment is inevitable."
Zi Yuan chuckled humorlessly. "Believe it or not, I actually refused to accept the prophecy's inevitability back then."
Hongling looked up in surprise.
Zi Yuan nodded. "Oh yes, I did." Zi Yuan chuckled darkly. "I actually tried to prevent the prophecy from coming true. I didn't want the Great Mirror to break. And I was willing to do everything in my power to make sure it didn't happen." Zi Yuan looked towards Hongling. "I poured everything into making Wushuang-qiánbèi's first solution work."
"Yes," Zi Yuan said with a nod. "Nothing would have to be sacrificed if the Heir could dodge all 81 bolts, at least not in the context of the divine punishment." Zi Yuan shook her head. "The mirror could still break for reasons other than the divine punishment."
"I see," Hongling said.
Zi Yuan looked at Hongling tiredly. "And I tried, Hongling. I really did. The Heir did too. We tried so hard." She sighed. "And it nearly worked. We were so, so close to succeeding."
"How many bolts did he manage to...?"
"He failed at the 60th. It wasn't a direct hit, but a graze instead. But he was still hurt pretty badly. I had to step in after that." Zi Yuan paused in thought. "But he did manage to dodge 80 bolts inside the simulation. We didn't have enough time to figure out how to dodge the last one." Zi Yuan chuckled sadly. "He actually confronted the real thing without having a single clue how to survive the final bolt."
"That's why you went after him," Hongling said in a small voice. "With the mirror and the jade plate and all..."
Zi Yuan shook her head. "I would've gone after him even if he managed to dodge all bolts inside the simulation." Zi Yuan paused in thought. "I guess... I guess deep down I already suspected the prophecy's inevitability, and I was afraid. I was afraid that the prophecy would come true." Zi Yuan chuckled self-deprecatingly. "Which it did."
"I never knew you doubted the prophecy, Zi Yuan jiějie. You were always so..." Hongling's face scrunched up. "So..."
"Obsessed with it?"
Hongling blushed slightly. "Y- Yeah..."
"Of course I had my doubts, Hongling," Zi Yuan said with a smile. "I doubt it all the time."
Hongling frowned, confusion spreading across her face. "Why?"
"Well. One of the verses implies that the Heir is my soulmate," Zi Yuan said. "And yet..."
The look of confusion on Hongling's face deepened. "Do you… Do you feel anything for him, Zi Yuan jiějie?"
Zi Yuan shook her head.
Hongling's confused expression turned into a look of surprise. "Nothing? Not even a little?"
"Well. He's a close friend, if that's what you're saying."
"Oh." Hongling paused in thought. "I just thought… Well… since you were always trying so hard to help him and all... I thought…" Hongling shrugged. "You know."
"I knew that's how it must look like to you," Zi Yuan said in resigned tone. "After all, you were always complaining to be about how I was constantly taking his side. But things aren't that simple, Hongling." She sighed. "Believe me when I say that I'm helping him for far more important reasons than some mindless infatuation." Zi Yuan's eyes darted to Hongling's face. "You know me better than that, Hongling. I always have my reasons."
"Reasons that compelled you to sacrifice the jade plate and the mirror?"
Zi Yuan looked into Hongling's eyes. "Yes."
They stared at each other for a moment until Hongling suddenly looked away.
"And those same reasons led you to believe that there's still hope for the Linggong Sect?" Hongling asked.
Hongling stared at her in mild surprise. "Will you explain it to me, then?"
"Will you listen?"
"Of course." Hongling frowned. "That's why I asked—"
"Will you really listen?" Zi Yuan quirked her brow. "With an open mind?"
Hongling blushed. "Yes..."
Zi Yuan scooted sideways on the couch. Then, keeping her eyes on Hongling, Zi Yuan patted the space she had just vacated. "Come here."
Hongling complied instantly and took the seat beside her.
Zi Yuan wrapped her protégé's hands in her own. "Yes. It's true that we lost two magical objects tonight. But we gained something else."
Hongling looked utterly puzzled.
"An ally, Hongling," Zi Yuan said with a pause. "We gained a powerful ally."
For a long while, Hongling sat there wordlessly, staring off into space.
Zi Yuan took that as a sign that the girl wasn't convinced.
"What if I tell you that the amount of talent the Heir possesses surpasses even Master's?"
Hongling's eyes snapped to Zi Yuan's face. "W- What?"
Zi Yuan held Hongling's gaze for a moment. "What about me? Do you think I'm talented?"
Hongling nodded fervently.
"The Heir will far surpass me," Zi Yuan said in a serious tone. "That's how much talent he possesses."
"What makes you so sure?" Hongling said. "It could just be the Jindan, you know?"
Zi Yuan shook her head. "You haven't seen the stuff he did, Hongling." Zi Yuan eyed Hongling seriously. "He mastered all the techniques in the Mahamudra Tantra in just hours."
"What!" Hongling gaped. "Y- Y- You mean... t-the E- Esoteric Sect's..."
Zi Yuan nodded. "In Tibet, he sliced through the Ophidian Whip with Acalanatha's 12th mudra like it was nothing, and then with Acalanatha's 2nd mudra, he managed to hold back two Beads of Gore simultaneously." Zi Yuan paused emphatically. "And he hadn't even begun his training in the Shentong phase yet at the time."
Zi Yuan smiled, but said nothing.
"Wow... Zi Yuan jiějie... That's just..." Hongling looked at her with wide eyes. "Wow."
Zi Yuan's expression sobered. "He would've died if I hadn't sacrificed the jade plate and the Great Mirror tonight. And it would be such a waste. His death, I mean." Zi Yuan ran a hand through her hair. "A waste of talent. A waste of potential. A waste of everything."
Zi Yuan felt Hongling gripping her hands tighter. The gesture was soothing, so Zi Yuan smiled at the girl in appreciation.
"Consider, Hongling," Zi Yuan continued, "what would happen if he died tonight. The Jindan would be lost. His talents would be lost." Zi Yuan paused and turned to Hongling. "The Fan of Seven Treasures would be lost too." Zi Yuan smiled at Hongling's slack-jawed expression. "Oh, don't look so surprised, Hongling. You and I both know that only a man can wield the Fan of Seven Treasures to its fullest potential."
After a moment of silence, Hongling lowered her gaze.
"Mm," Hongling mumbled, staring down at her lap.
"And by helping him survive, we have gained his allegiance." Zi Yuan lifted the younger girl's chin. "And along with it, the Renyuan Jindan, his talents, and the Fan of Seven Treasures."
"You're that sure?"
Zi Yuan raised her brow questioningly.
"You're that sure that we have his allegiance?" Hongling asked. "You have that much faith in him?"
Zi Yuan continued to stare at Hongling until the poor girl started squirming in her seat.
Zi Yuan arched her brow higher. "Have you not noticed one of his most striking qualities?"
"You mean his okay-ish cooking skills?" Hongling mumbled.
Zi Yuan smiled at the comment. "No. I meant his loyalty, Hongling." Zi Yuan gave Hongling a few moments to chew over her words. "He's loyal to his friends, loyal to his lover."
Zi Yuan turned and gave Hongling a strange look.
"Loyal to his lover?" Hongling said. "Seriously?"
Zi Yuan's brows rose to her hairline. "Are you saying that he isn't?"
"But he's constantly surrounded by women!" Hongling protested. "Back on campus, I saw—"
Zi Yuan chuckled. "You saw what you wanted to see, Hongling."
Hongling pouted adorably. "I know what I saw," she grumbled. "He was with those women..."
"And what, may I ask, was he doing with those women? Chatting? Sharing a meal?" Zi Yuan rolled her eyes. "Come on, Hongling. Over the months we've spent with him, has he made a pass at you? At me?" Zi Yuan quirked a brow. "And what about Zhou Qin? The girl was practically throwing herself at him. Did you see him reciprocate?"
Hongling stared wordlessly at her lap, fiddling with some invisible lint on her sleeve.
"You said that he was constantly surrounded by women. But doesn't that just prove my point?" Zi Yuan paused. "He has so many opportunities, you see? So many women are ready to jump his bones the moment he says the word. And yet we saw him going crazy over a slip of paper left to him by Su Chan." Zi Yuan hadn't even told Hongling yet about the heartfelt voice message that Li Yundong recorded for Su Chan before he left to face the divine punishment.
Hongling hummed noncommittally.
"All that proves just how much he loves Su Chan," Zi Yuan said, pausing in thought. Seconds later, she chuckled. "He even gave me a lecture on love the other day. He said something about how love can, I quote, inspire greatness." Zi Yuan paused upon noticing Hongling's confusion. "That was..." Zi Yuan sighed and waved a few times. "You weren't there."
"So um… The prophecy..."
Hongling sounded so tentative right then that Zi Yuan found herself doing a double take.
Hongling looked away and went back to fiddling her sleeve. "The verses are really coming true..."
"Yes," Zi Yuan said. "As far as I know, yes." Zi Yuan let out a wistful sigh. "I've told you several times already, Hongling. There are forces beyond our control at play here..."
Indeed, Zi Yuan did not think for a second that Acalanatha's appearance on the balcony that night was a mere coincidence. As a matter of fact, Zi Yuan was pretty sure that the term coincidence wasn't even applicable to the Heir.
"But Zi Yuan jiějie..." Hongling shot her a tentative glance. "Wouldn't that mean... That you're destined to..." Another tentative glance. "You know, fall in love with him?"
Zi Yuan sighed inwardly. Admittedly, that was a distinct possibility. She wouldn't lie, not to herself, anyway. "Perhaps..." She cleared her throat. "Perhaps completing my soul was meant as some kind of metaphor? Perhaps..." Zi Yuan shrugged. "Perhaps the prophecy was referring to the Heir's soul, not mine?"
"But you told me Master said—"
"I know what Master said," Zi Yuan said a bit too quickly.
Silence spread between them.
"I just... I… I don't want you to get hurt," Hongling said weakly.
Zi Yuan reached over and patted Hongling's head. "Thank you for your concern, Hongling." Zi Yuan gave Hongling a smile. "But it doesn't matter." Zi Yuan shrugged. "Some things are just meant to happen. We just have to accept them."
"Let me guess?" Hongling mumbled. "Because there are forces beyond our control?"
Zi Yuan pinched Hongling's cheek. "That doesn't apply to all cases, so don't use that as an excuse to start slacking off, okay?"
"But in the Heir's case? Yes. I'm convinced that there are unknown powers at play." Zi Yuan paused in thought. "Don't you find it odd that these things keep happening to him? That everything just sort off..."
Zi Yuan frowned and searched for the right words.
"Fell into place?" Hongling supplied.
"Exactly." Zi Yuan nodded, satisfied with Hongling's choice of words.
A comfortable silence passed between them.
"The other night, I came face to face with Lord Acala," Zi Yuan remarked.
Hongling whipped her head around so quickly that Zi Yuan wondered if the girl had twisted her neck. "Wha— Budong Mingwang?! How?!"
"Long story short? Lord Acala is the Fan of Seven Treasure's guardian deity." Zi Yuan paused to relive the memory of that night. After a while, she shook her head. "None of these occurrences are coincidences. It's like everything is leading up to something..." Zi Yuan stared off into space for a moment. "Some sort of greater purpose..."
"Maybe it's in the prophecy?" Hongling said. "Have you figured out what the other verses mean?"
"No..." Zi Yuan shook her head, then gave Hongling a smile. "It has been proven again and again that the meaning of those verses will only be revealed when the time is right."
Hongling sighed. "So you have faith in him, then? The Heir." Hongling gave her a look. "You really think he will help us?"
Zi Yuan sighed. "I have no doubt that he would if we ask." Zi Yuan waved her hand. "Putting aside the affairs about the Linggong Sect, I still think it's good to ally ourselves with him." She looked at Hongling. "In many ways, I think he'll make us better Cultivators."
"Um, Zi Yuan jiějie... About the Linggong Sect..."
Zi Yuan frowned. "Yes?"
"There's..." Hongling gave her a grave look, then sighed. "We're facing a serious crisis. And... I'm afraid we're going to have to pick sides here."
"Pick sides?" Zi Yuan frowned and shifted on the couch. "What do you mean?"
"The Fox Zen School is under attack, Zi Yuan jiějie. And the main sect wants us to join the attack." Hongling gave her a pointed look. "Well, to be exact, they want you to join them."
Zi Yuan stared at Hongling for a few seconds.
"Tell me everything."