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 .
"Here . "
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 . "
"Good point . "
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?"
"Of course . "
"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!!!!!
Another flash .
"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 .
Facing the Odds
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-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 .
How depressing .
"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 . "
"I see . . . "
"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?"
"Yes . "
"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 .
Facing the Odds
Project Beat the Heavens: Day 4, 5:49AM; Apartment 20A, New Hongsheng District, Tiannan City .
The glimmer of sunrise coruscated from the eastern horizon, painting the dark sky with a tinge of blue . The first light had arrived, yet hope eluded them still .
With a heavy sigh, Zi Yuan scratched the last two items off the list in her hand . Two more had bitten the dust . How many more would it take before they finally got it right?
The paper rustled when a morning zephyr blew across the railing she was leaning against . When the breeze tickled her cheeks, Zi Yuan had to fight the sudden impulse to tear the paper to shreds before tossing the pieces off the balcony .
She folded the paper and faced away from the railing, then peered into the living room through the glass of the sliding door .
The living room was currently unoccupied, and had been so ever since Zi Yuan forced the Heir to get some much-needed rest in his bedroom half an hour ago . As soon as the Heir's bedroom door closed, Zi Yuan herself had left the living room and moved towards the balcony .
Heavens knew she needed to clear her head, which, admittedly, was starting to doubt the feasibility of their quest .
Last night, the Heir had come up with two more ideas, both of which were rather ingenious . The first idea involved the use of basic Qi Kinesis to "push back" and "slow down" the Heavenly Thunder, which would give the Heir a larger time window to dodge the strike . That idea didn't out pan out . The mental focus required to slow down lightning with Qi Kinesis was too great; so great, in fact, that it affected the Heir's motor coordination, thus reducing his chances of making a successful dodge . Clearly, that solution wasn't ideal . It depended too much on external variables, on things that they might not have control over . What they needed was a clean, foolproof solution with minimal chances of error .
They needed something robust .
The second idea turned out slightly better . The Heir had tried to apply the principles of Qi-Kinetic flight to give his movement speed an extra boost (on top of the boost resulting from the Jindan's Aura) . With the second method, the Heir managed to slightly offset his Vital Orb's position from the lightning's path . Alas, the amount of offset was far too insignificant to make a clean dodge possible . Although it fared slightly better than the first method, the second method yielded the same result as its predecessor: the Heir failed at the first bolt .
A wave of queasiness rose inside Zi Yuan, causing her stomach to clench . Was Wushuang-qianbei wrong after all? Maybe the Heavenly Thunder wasn't meant to be dodged . Perhaps it really was physically impossible .
But still .
What other options did they have?
No Cultivator could withstand a direct hit from the Heavenly Thunder unless they had already reached the Jinshen phase .
Not for the first time, Wushuang-qianbei's parting words on the balcony invaded Zi Yuan's thoughts .
Then I guess it depends on how much you're willing to sacrifice…
Project Beat the Heavens: Day 4, 9:11AM; Dongwu City
The mortals called them trains . To Su Chan, they were just long cuboids with tiny wheels . Bendable and flexible cuboids equipped with the ability to roll along curvy tracks thanks to said wheels .
Those things were essentially grounded roller coasters .
Or was it the other way around? Were roller coasters really just trains with elevated and spiraling tracks?
Su Chan had more important things to worry about than the nuances of mortal nomenclature .
Su Chan strolled past a group of giggling mortals, making sure to keep her face hidden under the hat she was wearing . Yes . The hat . What a strange article of clothing indeed, the hat . It was shaped like one of those round Chinese caps from the Qing Dynasty . The only difference was that this one had a cute little visor in front . Yundong had taught her how to use one of these caps for disguise after he had convinced her that paper bags with holes weren't the way to go . So she went and bought one from the clothing store near Master's corn-door .
A lady's voice rang out . Apparently, it was some kind of announcement: the train to bla bla bla will be leaving in . . . bla bla bla minutes .
Just another normal day here, she supposed .
Indeed, Su Chan had been here before, this place with a bunch of platforms where mortals lingered about, waiting for their respective trains to roll in—those trains were surprisingly coordinated, like they knew when it was their turn to roll towards the platforms .
Mortals and their clever (but puzzling) tricks .
Su Chan had taken to a new routine ever since her arrival at Dongwu City two days ago . The routine wasn't all that complicated . Basically, she would spend her nights at Master's corn-door and then come here (to the train station) during daytime . As to why she chose to be here instead of holing herself up at the corn-door? Well, there were several reasons, actually .
One, she didn't want to spend too much time at the corn-door lest its location got compromised . Like, sure, Su Chan could easily give those mindless harpies the slip if they ever found her, but it was still a terrible idea to get caught at the corn-door . Where was Su Chan supposed to spend her nights if the corn-door's location got compromised?! Master had kept the location of the corn-door under wraps . If Su Chan were to venture a guess, the only person who knew that Master owned a corn-door was Grandmaster Liu Ye . Like, duh . The man had visited them a while back, and the lack of furniture at the corn-door suggested that Master didn't entertain guests .
Now, for the silver lining: Grandmaster Liu Ye wasn't part of the whole treachery; Su Chan was sure about that now .
She had come to that conclusion based on the fact that none of those treacherous harpies had shown up at the corn-door to look for her yet .
The second reason was more of a precautionary measure . Staking out at the train station would allow her to watch and monitor anyone arriving and leaving Dongwu City . The trains generally didn't run during the night, so if anyone were to arrive at Dongwu City by train, it could only happen during the day . She had even used a few clones (in different disguises, of course) so that she could watch multiple platforms at the same time . So far, she hadn't encountered those people who were hunting her, but it was probably best to keep a close watch . She was on her own now with nobody watching her back . She couldn't afford to slack off .
But of course, people-watching wasn't the only thing Su Chan did during her daily excursions; she'd been keeping a close eye on the sky as well .
No signs of the Heavenly Thunder so far, which meant that Yundong's divine punishment hadn't arrived yet . Then again, she might not be able to tell for sure since they were in different cities . . .
Was Yundong training hard right now? Had he been eating and sleeping well?
The ceiling went ding-dong again .
Su Chan recognized that sound: the mortals were about to make another announcement .
"Attention all passengers . The train to . . . "
Su Chan didn't catch the rest of the announcement because her mind was suddenly sent reeling by a sensation of shock . Su Chan sprang up from the bench and began making her way towards the nearest bathroom .
One of her clones had seen something .
Inside the bathroom, Su Chan hurried into the stall and linked her Spirit to her clone .
"Ruan Hongling?" Su Chan whispered . "What on earth is she doing here?"
Project Beat the Heavens: Day 4, 10:11AM; Apartment 20A, New Hongsheng District, Tiannan City .
Li Yundong woke up in a start . Feeling utterly discombobulated, he let out a groan and groped around until his hand touched something solid . He opened his eyes and saw the Hello Kitty piggy bank lying beside his pillow . For a brief moment, Li Yundong allowed himself the simple joy of smiling, of thinking about his beloved .
Then, reality settled in, and the warm feelings inside his chest were doused by a sea of despair .
He sighed and turned away from the piggy bank, focusing his gaze at the ceiling .
Four days . Zero progress .
This was bad .
He closed his eyes and replayed his previous two attempts . If there was one thing he learned from all his failed attempts, it was the fact that it was pointless to impede (stop, slow down, delay, hold back, etc . ) the Heavenly Thunder . He had tried Qi Kinesis, but that didn't work at all . Not even the most powerful tool he had in his arsenal—the mudra—could hold it back . The Heavenly Thunder was, for the lack of a better term, unstoppable . In other words, fighting force with force was definitely a no go .
But then herein lay the problem: avoiding the force seemed pretty damned impossible either . He just couldn't generate enough speed to do that .
So he couldn't fight the force head on, but he couldn't avoid it either?
What the f*ck was he supposed to do? It wasn't like there was a third op— (T/N: Recommended soundtrack for the following scenes is up on Google Drive; see track label 246_p3_t1)
Li Yundong sat bolt upright .
"Oh my God . . . " he whispered .
Seconds later, he was scurrying out of bed and bolting out of his bedroom .
"Morning, Li Yundong," Zi Yuan said from the kitchen . "Brunch will be ready in . . . "
Li Yundong tuned out her voice and dashed past the kitchen; his mind was still reeling from his sudden revelation .
Once he reached the living room, Li Yundong grabbed the stack of papers from the coffee table and then spread them all out on the floor .
Come on, come on . . . Where is it . . . ?
He kept rummaging through the sheets until he found the paper he was looking for . It was the sketch he'd drawn yesterday, the one illustrating the design of his Qi Probe . With trembling hands, Li Yundong picked up the paper from the floor and began scanning over the sketch: a stick figure at the bottom of the page (the ground) with a sphere drawn at its midsection to represent the Vital Orb; a tapering, rod-like structure which extended from the stick figure's head and stretched towards the sky; a bunch of tiny annotations that Zi Yuan had made all over a paper .
Where's that thing she wrote?
He was looking for one particular annotation, something about spiritual energy .
Five simple words stared back at him from the top edge of the paper, right beside the tip of the rod-like structure: spiritual energy spike starts here .
"Holy shit . . . " he whispered .
The paper rustled when he let his arms dropped limply to his sides . A light touch on his shoulder made him turn around .
Zi Yuan was standing beside him, apron in hand, staring back at him with concerned eyes .
Li Yundong raised the paper and shook it a few times .
"I think I've got it, Zi Yuan," he whispered . "I've figured it out…"
Zi Yuan's eyes went round in an instant . "Are . . . Are you sure?"
Li Yundong flipped the paper around and showed her the sketch .
"Take a look at this . . . " he said, pointing at the Qi probe on the sketch .
Zi Yuan took the paper from him and gave it a quick glance .
"But we tried that yesterday," she said with a frown, giving him a puzzled look . "It didn't work . "
Excitement surged inside him, and an unbidden laugh burst through his lips .
"Don't you see? It didn't work because I used the wrong approach!" Li Yundong took a step closer and pointed his finger at the sketch . "When we tried this yesterday, the idea was to use the Qi Probe for sensory purposes, right?"
Zi Yuan nodded . "The… um…" Her brows furrowed and she tilted her head slightly . "The early spike in spiritual energy will let you know in advance that the next bolt is about to hit . But…" She frowned and shook her head . "Even with the extra time window you still have to be fast enough to—"
"No . . . " Li Yundong took the paper from Zi Yuan's hand . "Incomplete . " He wagged his index finger a few times . "That approach is incomplete . That's why it failed . We didn't take it one step further!"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa… Hold on a second here . " Zi Yuan raised a palm . "One step further? What are you talking about?"
Li Yundong looked deep into Zi Yuan's eyes . "I can't fight force with force . And I don't have the speed to avoid the force, either . " He paused pointedly . "So what do I do?"
Zi Yuan frowned and shook her head a few times .
"Simple, isn't it?" Li Yundong smirked . "I borrow power from the force I'm fighting against, and then use that power to my advantage . "
"Wait a minute…" Zi Yuan whispered, blinking a few times . "Are you're saying . . . "
"Yes . " Li Yundong nodded . "That's exactly what I'm saying . " Li Yundong shook the paper in his hand as his smirk grew wider . "I'm going to use the Heavens' power against it . "