Project Beat the Heavens: Day 7, 6:30PM; Apartment 20A, New Hongsheng District, Tiannan City.
White light filled the interior of the apartment. A second later, the Heir flew out from the jade plate and crash-landed on the floor. Zi Yuan's eyes automatically went to the numbers floating beside the jade plate. 79. Two more to go. Just two more.
Zi Yuan was up from the couch in an instant, padding swiftly towards the Heir. The poor man was panting and gasping on the floor. He looked completely exhausted. No. He wasn't just exhausted; he was barely conscious.
Zi Yuan felt a sharp tug inside her chest as stared down at the Heir's crumpled form. Her heart went out to this man, who had been working so hard for the past two days, doing everything in his power to survive. And now, it seemed the effort was finally taking a toll on his body.
The Heir's eyes opened slowly. "Oww..." He tried to sit up, but then gave up after several failed attempts. "That hurt..."
Another wave of sympathy crept into Zi Yuan. Of course it hurt. Of course. Even the first bolt had caused him to scream in agony at the start of the drill. Now, he had just been struck down by the 80th bolt, the power of which was a far cry from that of the first bolt.
It was sobering to think that this was only a simulation, not the real thing.
Zi Yuan crouched down and yanked him up by his arm. The Heir complied and stood up on wobbly feet. The fact that he was still heaving and panting was not a good sign at all.
He needs rest…
Thankfully, the Heir didn't resist her when she dragged him away from the jade plate. She led him to the dining table and sat him down in a chair.
"Drink up," she said, placing a glass of water on the table.
The Heir reached for the glass and emptied the contents of the glass.
"Up," Zi Yuan ordered once he was done.
"Up." Zi Yuan tugged his arm. He complied and stood up from the chair.
Zi Yuan pushed him towards the bedroom. This time, however, he did resist.
"What? No! I'm not done yet," he protested. "I can still keep going."
"Don't be an idiot," Zi Yuan reprimanded. "You look like you're about to collapse."
"But how much time—"
"You'll do much better once you're sufficiently recovered," Zi Yuan implored gently. "Trust me."
Still, the Heir refused to move.
"Two hours," Zi Yuan prodded gently. "Two hours of Qi control to recover yourself. Okay?"
Zi Yuan raised a brow challengingly when the Heir didn't answer.
The Heir sighed dejectedly. "Fine."
"Good. Now go." Zi Yuan turned around and started walking back towards the living room. "I'll let you know when your two hours are up."
Zi Yuan didn't allow herself to relax until a minute later when she heard the sound of the door closing.
Project Beat the Heavens: Day 7, 8:45PM; Apartment 20A, New Hongsheng District, Tiannan City.
"Li Yundong!" Zi Yuan rapped her knuckles against the bedroom door. "Time's up!"
There was a thud, followed by the shuffling of feet. Moments later, the door creaked open to reveal the Heir's face, which, much to Zi Yuan's relief, seemed well-rested.
"Ready to get back to work?" Zi Yuan asked.
The Heir nodded and stepped out of the bedroom.
The short walk back to the living room was fraught with unspoken tension. The clocking was ticking, and they both knew it. Especially the Heir, whose shoulders and posture were stiff.
"Are you okay?" Zi Yuan asked once they had reached the living room.
Zi Yuan had heard voices from the bedroom just now; the Heir had been talking to himself.
"Yeah, I'm fine," he said with a tight smile.
No, you're not. You're not fine at all. He was just putting up a front.
The Heir turned and began making his way towards the jade plate.
Zi Yuan reached out and clasped his shoulder before he could take more than two steps.
The Heir flinched, a testament to how on edge he truly was. He turned around and gave her a questioning look.
Zi Yuan regarded him steadily. "Do you remember what I told you the other night?" She paused for a second. "About what you should do if you ever found yourself unable to carry on during your journey to Tibet?"
The Heir gave him a blank stare. "You..." He sighed. "You told me to think of Su Chan."
"Yes, that's right." Zi Yuan smiled, hoping with every fiber of her being that it would provide him some form of reassurance. "You once told me that love can be a source of strength, that love can inspire greatness." She gave him a pointed look. "Remember Su Chan, Li Yundong. Remember the promise you made to each other. She's waiting for you."
With a sigh, the Heir buried his face into his palms and sank onto his knees. He stayed like that for a few seconds.
The Heir stood back up and smiled at her. "Thank you, Zi Yuan. I needed that."
Zi Yuan nodded firmly. "Two more to go. Just two more" Zi Yuan gave him a serious look. "You can do this."
Master believed in you. Wushuang-qiánbèi believed in you. I believe in you.
The Heir stepped under the jade plate's light. Seconds later, he vanished.
Zi Yuan stood at the side, watching the changing numbers. 3... 4... 5...
Hang in there, Li Yundong. Hang in there...
Project Beat the Heavens: Day 7, 9:15PM; A guesthouse near the foot of Mount Tianlong, Dongwu City Outskirts.
Ruan Hongling was surprised to learn that the entire guesthouse was booked, though by whom she had no idea. All she knew was that the whole place had been turned into some kind of convention center for Cultivators. Apparently, those who taking part in the joint assault were to gather here first and be on standby until they received some kind of signal from one of their associates. Surprisingly, the identity of that associate was unknown even to Zhang Tianhe.
"Why is the Great Six attacking the Fox Zen School?" Ruan Hongling asked as Zhang Tianhé led her down a hallway. They were now inside the guesthouse, heading towards its conference hall where the others were already gathered.
"You must be rather dense if you're asking that question," Zou Ping said snidely. "Haven't you heard about Ao Wushuang and her disciple's theft of the Renyuan Jindan?"
Ruan Hongling glared at the woman. No. You are the fool here...
Of course Ruan Hongling knew that the attack had something to do with the Jindan. But the real question was why now?
The timing of the attack felt a little odd.
It had been known for months now whom the culprit behind the Jindan's theft was. Everyone knew that shortly after the theft, Su Chan had managed to escape with the Jindan because the first responders were too surprised by the sudden appearance of Ao Wushuang that night. The reason for everyone's surprise was because nobody had expected Ao Wushuang to still be alive; everyone thought she had died some time after her expulsion from the Fox Zen School.
Ruan Hongling herself hadn't believed in the rumored sightings of Ao Wushuang back then. She had just assumed that it was some kind of illusion spell that Su Chan had cast as a diversion. That assumption was, of course, overthrown when Ao Wushuang showed up right after the Heir murdered that evil bastard with the Five Thunders Spell. But still, the point remained: why now? Why didn't the Great Six storm the Fox Zen School the same day the Jindan was stolen?
Something didn't add up.
Alas, Ruan Hongling's question remained unanswered even as she, Zhang Tianhé, Zou Ping, and the other portly little man strode into the conference room.
And good God it was like a mini army in there.
A mini army, Ruan Hongling quickly realized, of powerful Cultivators from the younger generation.
Ruan Hongling did a quick visual sweep across the large conference room.
Ten. She counted at least ten master Cultivators who, as far as she could tell, had reached at least the Huaying—sixth—phase of Cultivation.
None of the senior members of the Great Six were present, of course.
But still! These numbers! The Fox Zen School wouldn't stand a chance even if they had Ao Wushuang on their side!
It dawned on Ruan Hongling right then what a serious crisis this was, not just for the Fox Zen School but for the Linggong Sect as well. Zi Yuan jiějie had already made her intentions pretty clear: she would assist Li Yundong in his quest, whatever the heck said quest entailed. And Ruan Hongling had long since decided to support Zi Yuan jiějie in any way she could. However, an alliance with the Heir would inevitably lead to an alliance with the Fox Zen School since the Heir and Su Chan were lovers!
Ruan Hongling stole a glance at Zhang Tianhé.
The Linggong Sect's influence was already hanging by a thread. It would undoubtedly be the end of the Linggong Sect if the main sect of the Zhengyi School so much as suspected an alliance between one of their subsidiary sects and the Fox Zen School.
Master's legacy would be destroyed, every single one of them.
"Are you alright, Hongling Zhenren?"
Ruan Hongling cursed herself inwardly for failing to pay attention to her surroundings. She gave Zhang Tianhé a smile. "Why, of course, I am, Zhang Zhenren."
"You seem a little distracted just now," Zhang Tianhe remarked casually.
"Oh. I was just thinking about contacting my shījiě." Ruan Hongling smiled tightly. "She should be available to take a call soon."
Zhang Tianhé hummed. "That would be wise indeed." He glanced around the room. "The meeting has yet to start. You still have time to make a quick call."
Ruan Hongling nodded. "Please excuse me, then."
Project Beat the Heavens: Day 7, 9:25PM; Apartment 20A, New Hongsheng District, Tiannan City.
Zi Yuan leaped to her feet when the Heir reappeared on the floor. As usual, her eyes went to the counter first. Zi Yuan's heart leaped in joy, and she floated swiftly towards the Heir. "Eighty! You're getting there—" The rest of Zi Yuan's words were stifled by the ashen look on the Heir's face.
Zi Yuan dropped to the floor instantly. "What's the matter?" She slapped the Heir's face gently. "Is it the pain?"
The Heir's eyes cleared a little, but what she saw in those eyes nearly broke her heart. "It's impossible... Zi Yuan..." He stared at her, eyes filled with so much tears yet devoid of even a single iota of hope. "The last bolt is impossible to dodge..."
"What do you mean impossible!" Zi Yuan snapped, pointing at the numbers hovering above their heads. "You were so close already! Eighty bolts! You're giving up now of all times?!"
The Heir shook his head slowly.
Zi Yuan suddenly felt the urge to grab his shoulders and shake the dejection out of his system.
"You don't understand, Zi Yuan," he said. "You weren't there."
Indeed she wasn't there. Zi Yuan had chosen not to enter the simulation in order to preserve the jade plate's spiritual energy.
"The last bolt wasn't just a single bolt," the Heir continued. "It… It sort of forked out when it struck the ground."
Zi Yuan's heart stopped for a beat. "F- Forks out?"
The Heir's dispirited eyes zeroed in on her face. "I already dodged the last bolt when it came down from the sky. It missed me and struck the ground. But then it forked out at the exact moment it hit the ground and charged straight at me."
Zi Yuan sat down on the floor. Heavens help her she needed a minute to process all of this. "Okay… But what if you change directions after it spread out?"
"That's what I did," the Heir replied, then sighed. "That's exactly what I did when the bolt came at me after hitting the ground. But here's the thing. It didn't just fork out into a single bolt, Zi Yuan. It forked out into multiple bolts."
Zi Yuan's gaze snapped to the Heir's face. "H- How many?" She cleared her throat. "You said multiple bolts. How many were there?"
"I didn't count." The Heir sighed. "But I know there were a lot of them. And when the first bolt hit the ground, the other bolts sort of spread out in all directions from the initial point on contact on the floor. It was like a circle growing out from the point of contact."
"Yeah... I didn't see much of it coz I got hit pretty soon. But I think it looked like a circular electrified field or something."
Zi Yuan let out a heavy sigh. "Which means you couldn't avoid it even if you change directions. Coz it's everywhere... in a circle..."
"It's impossible, Zi Yuan... I... I don't think I can make it."
"Don't talk like that!" Zi Yuan snapped, causing the Heir to flinch. "Don't you dare! Don't you dare give up!"
"Look, I'm not saying I'm giving up, okay?" he said. "But I just..." He shot her a helpless look. "I'm running out of ideas."
"Then we'll figure something out." Zi Yuan rose to her feet. "Come. Let's think about it again. Maybe there's another way."
They moved to the living room again.
"Maybe the radius of the circle is limited," Zi Yuan said, drawing a circle on a piece of paper. "What if you move fast enough to clear the entire radius during the initial dodge?" Zi Yuan drew a line from the center of the circle until the line extended beyond the circumference. Zi Yuan glanced up from the paper. "You don't have to change directions at all. You can just charge in a straight line until you clear the entire circle."
"But what if I'm not fast enough to clear the circle?"
"You'll just have to move faster then."
"But how?" said the Heir. "That's already the 81st bolt. The most powerful bolt. I've already borrowed spiritual energy from the most powerful bolt." He shook his head. "But even then I wasn't able to clear the whole circle."
"Absorb more, then."
The Heir shook his head again. "That would take too much time. I wouldn't even be able to dodge the one from the sky if I did that."
Damn it. Zi Yuan dropped the pencil onto the table and leaned back against the couch.
"It's okay, Zi Yuan," the Heir said with a sad smile.
No, it wasn't. This was not okay. What would happen to Master's prophecy if Li Yundong didn't survive? What about her? Did that mean she'd never be able to reach transcendence? But most importantly, did Li Yundong really deserve such an end?
Zi Yuan looked away from the table. She didn't want to look at the papers strewn all over the table, and the Heir's crestfallen expression. Those were all the fruits of their failure, of her failure, and she couldn't handle the sight of them. Not right now.
Her gaze drifted to the number 80 floating beside the jade plate. So close, yet so far. It felt like a taunt now, the 8 and 0 hovering above the floor—
Zi Yuan slowly turned back to face the Heir. "Above..."
The Heir frowned. "What?"
Zi Yuan sprang to her feet. "Above, Li Yundong. Above!" She grabbed another piece of paper and drew a three-dimensional plane. Then, she added a circle on the plane. "Look here." She tapped the circle on the plane. "That's the circle." Zi Yuan glanced at the Heir, who nodded.
"Just now, when you dodged the bolt from the sky..." Zi Yuan drew a line perpendicular to the plane through the center of the circle. Then, she shaded the circle on the plane to represent the bolts forking out from the point of contact. "You were moving parallel to the ground, right?" Zi Yuan glanced at Li Yundong. "You were still on the same plane as the circle."
"So now I just have to move upwards..." A smile spread across the Heir's face. "I leave the circle of effect entirely."
The Heir stood up on shaky feet. "This..." He chuckled. "This could actually work."
Zi Yuan nodded. "Come on, Li Yundong. One final push."
Project Beat the Heavens: Day 7, 10:00PM; A guesthouse near the foot of Mount Tianlong, Dongwu City Outskirts.
Ruan Hongling strode into the conference room with a heavy heart. Zhang Tianhé was by her side in an instant.
"Did you manage to get in touch with Zi Yuan Zhenren?"
"Yes, I did." Ruan Hongling smiled. "Shījiě said she would be joining us."
Lies. Zi Yuan jiějie didn't even pick up her phone. Ruan Hongling's calls had all gone to voicemail.
Zhang Tianhé seemed satisfied with her answer. Thank Heavens.
"When would she be here then?" Zhang Tianhé asked.
The man hadn't even bothered to hide the eagerness in his voice. Unless Ruan Hongling was very much mistaken, Zhang Tianhé had the hots for Zi Yuan jiějie.
"Shījiě didn't specify the exact time she will arrive," Ruan Hongling lied through her teeth. "She only told me to wait for her call."
Zhang Tianhé's smile faltered a little, though he gave Ruan Hongling a cordial nod.
With that, Ruan Hongling returned her attention to the others gathered in the room, all the while praying that Zi Yuan jiějie would listen to her voicemails soon.
(T/N: Recommended soundtrack starts playing here; check out track label 248_p2_t1)
Project Beat the Heavens: Day 7, 10:40PM; Apartment 20A, New Hongsheng District, Tiannan City.
"No... No... No..." Zi Yuan whispered when the counter stopped at 80 without going up. A split second later, an all too familiar white light announced the simulation's end as well as the Heir's failure.
Zi Yuan scrambled towards the jade plate and kneeled beside the Heir's lying form.
His eyes were closed.
"What happened?" Zi Yuan said, pulling him to a sitting position. "The plan... Why did it fail?"
The Heir shook his head.
What Zi Yuan wouldn't give to remove the look of utter defeat from his face right then.
"Did you dodge properly?" Zi Yuan pressed on. "Look, you can't just dodge directly upwards. You have to dodge upwards and outwards. Like in an angle—"
"It's useless, Zi Yuan. I was wrong the first time."
Zi Yuan's stomach twisted into knots. Wrong? What was that supposed to mean?
"The..." He sighed. "The electrified field wasn't just a circular region on the ground, Zi Yuan..." A pause. "It was…" The Heir's voice cracked. "It was a hemisphere."
Zi Yuan's heart sank. A hemisphere. Which meant that dodging upwards wouldn't work as well.
Then we'll find another way.
"Come on." Zi Yuan stood up. "There's gotta be another way. We'll figure this out." Zi Yuan pulled the Heir's arm. "Up."
Before the Heir could rise to his full height, he collapsed onto his knees with a loud gasp.
Zi Yuan was down by his side in an instant. The Heir's hands were buried in his hair, and his body was trembling violently.
"Hey!" Zi Yuan tried to pry his hands away from his head. "What's the matter? Snap out of it!"
The trembling of his body stopped. And he looked up at her with glassy eyes. "D- Did... Did you see that?"
"See wha—" Zi Yuan's blood ran cold. She sprang to her feet and rushed to the sliding door. On the balcony, she looked up at the sky and stretched her Zhenqi outwards.
Zi Yuan pushed away from the railing and stormed back into the living room.
"It's time, isn't it?" the Heir asked from the floor. "I saw those eyes just now."
Zi Yuan began pacing back and forth in the living room. "There's... There's still time. I... I'll find a way to get in touch with Wushuang-qiánbèi and then… And then we ask her for advice on the last bolt." She stormed past the Heir, wanting to grab her phone, which she had left on the kitchen counter.
A strong tug on her hand stopped her in her tracks.
She turned around and saw the Heir shaking his head at her.
"It's okay, Zi Yuan," he said with a sad smile. "It's okay… You've done all you could." He slowly rose to his feet. "This is enough… This isn't your burden anymore…"
Zi Yuan was still in a state of stupor when the Heir brushed past her and entered his bedroom.
No, damn it! No!
Zi Yuan snapped out of her daze and stormed towards the bedroom. However, the Heir was walking out of the bedroom before she could even reach the door.
He was holding a phone in his hand.
"If I don't make it back..." He pushed the phone towards her. "Then please give this to Su Chan."
"Give it to her yourself," Zi Yuan said. "She's waiting for you, damn it! She's… She's waiting…"
A tear slid down the Heir's face.
Zi Yuan clenched her jaw.
"Su Chan is still waiting for you!" Zi Yuan pressed on. "So don't…" Her voice cracked a little. "Don't give up. Don't give up on her…"
"Zi Yuan..." the Heir said dejectedly. "Please..."
The phone was now inches away from her face. She reached out with a shaky hand and took the device from him.
"Thank you," he said, then exhaled slowly.
Zi Yuan kept staring at him, her fingers gripping the phone tightly.
The Heir broke eye contact first. "I should... I should get going before the punishment begins… Before innocent people get killed."
He moved past Zi Yuan and headed towards the sliding door.
"Keep fighting!" Zi Yuan yelled after him. "Keep fighting and don't give up!"
The Heir stopped beside the couch and turned his head slightly.
"Return that to Ao Wushuang for me, will you?" He pointed at the Fan of Seven Treasures leaning against the couch. "And tell her thank you."
Zi Yuan lunged forward and seized his arm before he could step out the sliding door. "Where are you gonna go?"
The Heir shook his head. "I'm not telling you," he stated firmly. "You'd just come after me if I tell you. No more risking your life for my sake, Zi Yuan." The Heir removed his arm from her grip. "No more."
"You don't deserve this, Li Yundong."
A sad chuckle escaped his lips. "Maybe I do," he said. "I killed a man after all."
Li Yundong's feet levitated off the balcony floor.
Zi Yuan sprang forward once again, her fingers wrapping around his ankle this time.
"Fight," she growled. "Fight till your last breath, you hear me?"
Li Yundong looked down at her from his elevated position.
They stared at each other for a few seconds before he gave her a firm nod.
Zi Yuan returned his nod and let go of his ankle.
"Thank you, Zi Yuan. For everything." He paused, smiling wanly. "You've been a very good friend."
Please… Not like this… Not like this! We were so close… Just one more bolt…
Zi Yuan looked up.
"It's okay…" He smiled. "Don't blame yourself."
"You're a good man, Li Yundong." A stinging sensation began to take form in Zi Yuan's eyes. "One of the best I've ever known." Zi Yuan cleared her throat. "Good luck."
With a final nod, Li Yundong flew off the balcony.
(T/N: Recommended soundtrack starts playing here; check out track label 248_p2_t2)
It didn't take Zi Yuan long to find out what it was that the Heir wanted Su Chan to receive. It was an audio file. A short one (about three minutes) with a simple file name: To Su Chan.
Sunk in gloom, Zi Yuan hit play.
The first ten seconds were filled with the sounds of the Heir's breathing, like he didn't know how to begin. Then, when the Heir finally began to speak, the first word he uttered was, unsurprisingly, the name of his beloved.
It hit Zi Yuan then that the Heir wasn't talking to himself inside the bedroom earlier; he was recording this.
"…if you're hearing this, it means that I didn't make it. It means that I've failed to keep my promise to you."
"...I'm sorry, Chan'er. I'm sorry that I couldn't keep my promise. I'm sorry that I couldn't be there with you for the rest of your life. But most of all…" Sound of throat clearing. "Most of all, I'm sorry for hurting you and… and for… for causing you pain. I won't ask you not to grieve for me. Because... Because it would be unfair to ask that of you. I know that I won't be able to stop myself from mourning you if our roles were reversed. What I will ask, though, is for you to move on."
A long silence ensued, and Zi Yuan found herself counting the passing seconds.
Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten.
Ten seconds of wordlessness, which were fraught with unspoken emotions, so much so that Zi Yuan could feel her own heartstrings unravelling.
"I mean it, Chan'er… Move on. You have to move on even after I'm gone. You once told me that you'd end your own life if I didn't survive. Well... Please don't do that. I want you to do the opposite. I want you to live."
More sounds of breathing were heard after that.
"Know that there are others who care about you, not just me. Your master. Zi Yuan. Zhou Qin. They all care. They're your friends too. If..." There was a chuckle. "If you give up on your life just because I'm gone, then I'd end up hating myself in the afterlife. What if I hate myself so much that I end up killing myself in the afterlife?" Zi Yuan smiled as several chuckles drifted out from the speaker. "I wonder what would happen if you die in the afterlife? Like, do you go to the after, afterlife?"
The Heir laughed at his own joke.
Zi Yuan bit down on her lower lip and fought against the tears threatening to spill from her eyes.
This wasn't right. Nothing about this felt right. Nothing.
"Live on, okay, Chan'er? Live. I want nothing but the best for you. You're a good girl with a kind heart. Never doubt that for a second. And… And you deserve happiness. You do." A pause. "You deserve all the happiness this world has to offer." There was a contented sigh. "I know I've already found mine during the short time I got to spend with you. You made my life worth living, Chan'er. Thank you for that. And… thank your master for me, will you? I know that she and I didn't exactly part on good terms, but please let her know that I respect and admire her greatly, and that I'm grateful for everything she did for me. Um… Let's see... What else... Right. Make sure you eat your meals... Oh, you can't have Mac Doo Nurls every day, though." The Heir chuckled. "Who knows, if you try to get along with Zi Yuan after I'm gone, she might even offer to cook for you. She… uh… she might be an even better cook than I am..." Zi Yuan couldn't help but smile at that. "Well... I... I really can't think of anything else to say. So, um... Goodbye, Chan'er. I love you."
The recording ended with a click.
Zi Yuan sprang to her feet and started pacing the apartment again. She would not allow this. She would not.
He didn't deserve this.
Anger rose inside Zi Yuan. Was this really the Heavens' will? Robbing a good man of his future?
This was nonsense.
The Purple Gold Jade Plate flew towards Zi Yuan's hand. She grabbed the jade plate from the air and deactivated it. After that, she slipped out of the sliding door and stood on the balcony, staring into the night sky. No more than 15 minutes had passed since the Heir took off. The divine punishment had yet to begin, so she still had some time.
As Zi Yuan flew back towards Hongling's apartment, Wushuang-qiánbèi's words from the other night kept replaying inside her head like a broken record.
"...should only be used as last resorts... depends on how much you're willing to sacrifice... how much you're willing to sacrifice…"
How much was she willing to sacrifice?
Something. Maybe everything.
Zi Yuan reached Hongling's apartment in no time. After getting everything she needed, Zi Yuan flew away from the balcony again.
Now, she just had to find him.