Project Beat the Heavens: Day 5, 7:52PM; Apartment 20A, New Hongsheng District, Tiannan City.
Zi Yuan had just finished setting up the dining table when the Heir reappeared on the floor in a bright flash.
"Dang… That hurt…" The Heir rolled onto his side. "How many this time?" He let out a groan. "I kinda lost count."
"Look up," Zi Yuan said, pointing her finger at a bunch of numbers floating beside the jade plate. The figure looked promising.
"Oh. Thanks." The Heir seemed rather engrossed in the floating numbers. "Sixty-four." He turned his head to look at Zi Yuan. "Not too shabby, eh?"
Understatement of the millennium. To go from 0 bolts to 64 bolts in just a few days was impressive to say the least.
"You'll get much better with more practice," Zi Yuan said, taking a seat at the dining table. "But first, you have to eat."
"It smells amazing in here," said the Heir as he climbed to his feet.
"I hope you're hungry, then," Zi Yuan said, reaching for her rice bowl.
The Heir pulled out a chair and sat down. "Hell yeah I am."
"So. Evaluation time," Zi Yuan said once she was done with her dinner. The Heir was currently devouring his fourth helping. "Tell me all your observations. What have you learned?"
Zi Yuan had proposed that they approach the training in a more systematic manner. As such, every time a simulation ended, she would ask the Heir to report everything he had observed and learned during the simulation. These post-simulation evaluations were more for the Heir's sake than hers if she was being completely honest. Which was why the evaluations would take place even on the occasions where Zi Yuan herself had been observing the whole simulation prior to its end; and on such occasions, the evaluations would usually involve the two of them comparing notes and sharing their own observations with each other. The evaluations had proven highly productive since they had allowed Zi Yuan to come up with several refinements to add on top of the Heir's solution.
The Heir lowered his chopsticks and bowl onto the table. "I found that things start to get a little tricky past the 40th bolt."
Zi Yuan studied the Heir's pensive expression, silently waiting for him to continue.
"The area of damage is significantly larger." The Heir shook his head slightly. "I have to dodge a larger distance to avoid getting hit."
"That's to be expected." Zi Yuan nodded. "Anything else?"
"Yeah, there is." The Heir looked up at her. "The intervals. It got really erratic. And sometimes, the intervals were super short."
Zi Yuan detected a hint of worry in his eyes. "I see," she said with a nod. "That does pose a danger." If the interval between two bolts was too short, the Heir would be struck by the next bolt before he had time to react after he had dodged the previous one.
Zi Yuan glanced at the Heir. "Do you have a solution in mind?"
"I think I do."
"Keep my body in motion slightly longer after dodging each bolt."
"Mm." Zi Yuan nodded. "Since the time interval between two bolts is so short, you can dodge two bolts with just one motion." Zi Yuan held his gaze. "That could work, but there are a number of caveats."
A grim look spread across the Heir's features. "Yeah." He sighed. "My speed might drop a little if the dodging movement becomes too large. I'll have to take extra care to prevent that."
Zi Yuan went silent in thought. She might have a solution for that. "You could recruit your own spiritual energy to compensate for the speed loss."
So right now, he had a speed boost from the Jindan's Aura, from the borrowed spiritual energy, and finally, from his Vital Orb.
Admittedly, that was a lot of speed boosts.
The Heir was smiling at her now. "That's actually a great idea, thanks."
Zi Yuan didn't return his smile; there was another problem to address.
"You can't keep your body in motion for too long." Zi Yuan gave him a serious look. "Let's say you manage to dodge two bolts in one movement. That's good and all. But if you stop too late—"
"Yeah, I know… The time I stop moving would be too close to the time the third bolt is sent out, which leads back to the same problem." The Heir paused. "I wouldn't be able to react to the third bolt in time."
"What if..." The Heir's eyes narrowed. He seemed to be thinking hard about something. "What if I..."
"What if I'm constantly moving around?" The Heir shot her a hopeful look. "Would that work?"
Zi Yuan's brows rose to her hairline. "Moving around? You mean throughout the entire divine punishment?"
The Heir nodded.
"No." Zi Yuan shook her head. "It's impossible for you to keep moving at dodging speed."
"Right." The Heir's shoulder's sagged. "Coz I don't have enough juice to do that. The only way I can move at dodging speed is by borrowing the Heavenly Thunder's spiritual energy." He let out a groan. "Damn. This is tough."
You think? Zi Yuan suppressed an eye roll. It wasn't just tough; it was close to impossible.
"Anyway, I just need to find the right balance, right?" said the Heir. "I have to keep my body in motion for longer after each dodge, but not too long."
It sounded easy, but in actuality, it would take nothing short of perfect Qi control to pull it off.
"Okay." The Heir sighed tiredly. "I won't lie to you, Zi Yuan. I don't feel confident right now."
"Hey." Zi Yuan tapped the table top a few times, and then waited until she had the Heir's attention. "You'll get there, okay? You just need more practice."
The Heir stared at her for a few seconds before he nodded. He didn't seem too convinced. Zi Yuan cursed inwardly at her lack of ability to inspire and motivate.
"What else have you observed?"
Since she was so terrible at giving pep talks, she would resort to distractions. Besides, what better way to boost the Heir's morale than reminding him of all the progress he'd made?
"Oh, yeah. There's something else." The Heir was frowning. "I didn't notice this before because my eyes were always closed. But I opened my eyes on one occasion. And when I did, I saw these green... strings?" He looked towards her. "I don't know. They looked a bit like smoke, to be honest..." The Heir shook his head. "But anyway. Those green strings suddenly appeared out of thin air." He paused in thought. "I think they were scattered along the path of the Heavenly Thunder, but I couldn't tell for sure. There was just…" The Heir frowned and gestured with his hands. "Like, a lot of them floating around."
"Hmm. Let me guess," Zi Yuan said, "the green strings flew towards you and entered your body?" She paused to give him a look. "Like they were drawn to you?"
"Oh." The Heir looked at her in mild surprise. "You were watching?"
"No." Zi Yuan pointed at the empty dishes on the table. "Was preparing dinner, remember?"
"Well. The green stuff you saw inside the simulation is the result of the Heavenly Thunder's residual spiritual energy being drawn to your Spirit."
Recognition flashed in the Heir's eyes. "I was absorbing them."
"Yes. And that's actually a good thing." Zi Yuan folded her forearms above the table. "What else?"
"Hmm... Nothing else, I suppose." The Heir spent a few moments in thought. "The early bolts are pretty easy to dodge now. But then things became progressively more difficult, of course... Oh, right!" He snapped his fingers and grinned at her. "Your levitation idea worked really well! The dodging became so much easier since my movements were smoother."
"I'm glad it helped." Zi Yuan smiled. "It does require more mental focus though. Would that pose a problem?"
The Heir shook his head. "Haven't encountered any problems so far."
Zi Yuan hummed. "Just keep practicing until it becomes like second nature."
"Yeah..." The Heir glanced over at the jade plate. "Just have to keep practicing..."
A companionable silence passed between them, which felt rather odd considering the looming threat of the divine punishment. After all, they were now less than two days from the one-week mark. Zi Yuan couldn't pinpoint the exact time it would come, but she knew it would be here sooner rather than later.
"I should probably get back to work," said the Heir, jolting Zi Yuan out of her reverie.
The Heir's eyes never left the floating jade plate. Zi Yuan followed his gaze and stared at the number hovering beside the jade plate.
Sixty-four down. Seventeen more to go.
"Yeah... Back to work..." Zi Yuan whispered.
The number beside the jade plate change from 64 to 0.
Project Beat the Heavens: Day 7, 8:00AM; Tianyi Pond, Tianyi Cavern, Linggong Sect's Sacred Grounds.
Ruan Hongling stood near the edge of Tianyi Pond, marveling at the dozens of lily pads scattered across the pond's surface. Before her, the pond lay as still and transparent (at least for regions that weren't obscured by lily pads) as ever. Tianyi Pond was by no means large; in terms of surface area, it occupied no more than ten square meters. Then again, what it lacked in size it compensated with depth and beauty. With thousands of years of history, Tianyi Pond remained one of the Zhengyi School's most treasured places. The place had long since been hailed as sacrosanct and inviolable, so much so that only a few people were allowed to even set foot on it. Ruan Hongling was proud to be one of the very few who could.
Two soft splashes ended Ruan Hongling peaceful admiration of the pond's beauty and reminded her of the task at hand.
Ruan Hongling glanced down just in time to see two lotuses falling off their stalks before tumbling into the pond water.
"Failed..." Ruan Hongling released a tired sigh. "Again."
How on earth did Zi Yuan jiějie manage to do it anyway? (T/N: jiějie is a Chinese honorific that means "elder sister"; it is the same jie in the term shījiě) Zi Yuan jiějie had always made it look so effortless when the actual task was anything but!
Zi Yuan jiějie must be really busy if she was willing to entrust Ruan Hongling with such an important task. A task, Ruan Hongling might add, that she was failing miserably—if the past two days she'd spent holed up in here was anything to go by.
Ruan Hongling bit down on her lip and stroke the locket resting against her chest. No way she was giving up now. She was ready to keep trying even if it killed her. The last thing she wanted was to let Zi Yuan jiějie down.
Ruan Hongling crouched down beside the pond and positioned the tips of her index fingers above the surface of the pond.
It had to be simultaneous. The spiritual energy released from both fingers had to be in the exact same magnitude. Simultaneity. Uniformity. Equality. Those were the key components of the task. Ruan Hongling lowered her hand and watched her fingertips dip into the clear pond water. A moment later, her finger tips broke the water surface. Two concentric ripples spread across the pond surface.
Two tiny flower buds rose from the water's surface. Ruan Hongling tilted her head slightly and studied the buds, noting their size and color.
Disappointment coursed through Ruan Hongling's veins when she saw that the bud on the left was slightly larger than the one on the right.
Simultaneity. That was where Ruan Hongling had failed.
The good news was that the two buds had the same shape and color, which was a vast improvement compared to her first few attempts at the task. Ruan Hongling shuddered at the memory of those attempts, which had produced malformed lotuses and distorted buds.
The two buds continue to grow until their respective lotuses plopped back into the water.
Right. Time to try again. Time to make Zi Yuan jiějie proud.
Ruan Hongling repeated the task ten more times before she finally got it right. Two pink, perfectly shaped, and evenly sized buds emerged from the center of the ripples. Without further ado, Ruan Hongling removed the necklace from around her neck, and then held its locket with her right hand. Two balls of light (one blue, one red) swirled above Ruan Hongling's palm the moment her right hand left the locket's surface.
Ruan Hongling grinned. Now for the easy part.
Ruan Hongling raised her right palm until the two balls of light were level with her lips. Then, she blew gently on the two balls of light, causing them to drift towards the waiting flower buds.
The balls of lights then merged with the flower buds, which immediately bloomed into two glowing flowers.
Ruan Hongling sighed and rose to her feet, satisfied with her work. Even though it had taken her two days and one night...
Whatever. It was the final results that counted.
With a silly grin plastered on her face, Ruan Hongling turned around and walked away from the pond. On her way towards Tianyi Cavern's exit, she entertained herself by studying the magnificent wall whose surface held numerous engravings of faces. Not just any faces. Those faces belonged to the previous grandmasters of the Linggong Sect.
Ruan Hongling really liked that wall; it reminded her of the Linggong Sect's glorious days. Every time she looked at those engravings on the walls, she could forget, at least temporarily, the miserable state that the current Linggong Sect was in. Not that it was Zi Yuan jiějie's fault that the Linggong Sect turned out like this. The truth was that the Linggong Sect had lost a lot of influence ever since Master and Yan-shibo were gone.
Ruan Hongling stopped in front of the wall and then turned around.
The wall was located near the cavern's exit, so she could see pretty much the whole cavern from where she stood.
Tianyi Cavern. Famed for its beauty and serenity. No doubt one of Ruan Hongling's favorite places in the world.
"Hello?!!" The boisterous voice of a woman shattered the quietude. "Hey, hey, hey!!! Anybody home?!! Is anyone from the Linggong Sect still alive?!!"
Maybe not so serene after all.
Scowling, Ruan Hongling marched out of the cavern. Who could that be? It had been forever since anybody had visited the Linggong Sect. And so rude! How dare they kick up a fuss here? This was a respected Cultivation sect, not a playground for a bunch of uncivilized barbarians.
The grounds outside the cavern were deserted when Ruan Hongling walked out, which meant that the voice had to have come from the temple.
And she was right. There were three of them. Three visitors, standing in the front hall, each immaculately dressed in pristine Daopaos.
All three of them were standing side by side. The one on the left—a short and plump man sporting a long, black beard—was carrying a miniature pagoda in his hand. Ruan Hongling found herself taking an instant dislike to the portly little man; the arrogant look on his face rubbed Ruan Hongling the wrong way.
The visitor on the right was a beautiful woman with a curvaceous figure. Ruan Hongling immediately inferred that she was the one who had shouted earlier. It wasn't that big of a deductive leap considering that the woman was the only female among the three visitors. The voice she had heard just now was most definitely female.
A long sword was attached to the woman's back. There was a fly whisk in her hand as well. A Taoist priestess, Ruan Hongling surmised. From the way the woman's eyes were darting around in their sockets, Ruan Hongling could tell that the woman was taking stock of the place. Ruan Hongling would have construed the behavior as that of curiosity if the contempt in those eyes wasn't so blatantly obvious.
The person in the middle was a handsome man. Unlike his two companions, the man wasn't armed at all. Even so, Ruan Hongling could tell that the man was the most powerful among the three. Something in her gut told her the man was in the same league as Zi Yuan jiějie.
Whoever these people were, Ruan Hongling knew that she had to tread carefully. Even more so when Zi Yuan jiějie wasn't here. Ruan Hongling stepped away from the huge pillar that she'd been hiding behind and marched over to greet her visitors.
The handsome man in the middle broke into a grin as soon as he noticed her approach. The next thing she knew, the man was making his way towards her as well. It was then that Ruan Hongling noticed the jade earrings that he was wearing. Yet another sign of high status and prominence.
The man folded his hands in front of his chest and tilted his head forward. The gesture revealed the various jade rings adorning the man's fingers.
Definitely no ordinary Cultivator, this one.
"Peace in the Tao," greeted the man. "Are you perhaps Zi Yuan Zhenren of the Linggong Sect?"
Ruan Hongling would be lying if she said that she wasn't surprised. Nobody had ever mistaken her for Zi Yuan jiějie. And to be frank, she didn't think she was worthy of such comparison.
Ruan Hongling returned the hand gesture. "Who might you be? And to what do I owe the pleasure?"
Admittedly, Ruan Hongling's social skills required some refinement. She realized that she hadn't told the man that she was not, in fact, Zi Yuan Zhenren of the Linggong Sect.
"Are you blind?" the woman on the right snarled. "Are you seriously telling me that you don't recognize him?"
Ruan Hongling glanced at the woman briefly before returning her eyes to the man whom she was supposed to—but sadly didn't—know. Ruan Hongling had decided to ignore the rude lady for the rest of the conversation.
"This is Zhang Tianhé, the son of the current Head of the Zhengyi School," the woman continued in her annoyingly loud voice. "Everyone knows him as the Jade Zhenren."
Clearly not everyone, Ruan Hongling added silently.
"And you're saying that you've never heard of him?" the woman said. "How absurd."
There were probably millions of people who'd never even heard of Grandmaster Pan Shi, as legendary as the man was.
Ruan Hongling schooled her features and gave the man her most polite smile. "Greetings, Zhang Zhenren," she said with a bow. "I apologize for not recognizing you sooner."
Though I feel not a single ounce of remorse, sorry not sorry.
Zhang Tianhé smiled and waved off her apology. "So you are Zi Yuan Zhenren then?"
"My shījiě is away." Ruan Hongling regarded Zhang Zhenren carefully. "Is there anything that I can assist you with? You have a message to deliver to my shījiě, perhaps?"
Ruan Hongling tried not to squirm under the Jade Zhenren's intense scrutiny. "You mentioned that Zi Yuan Zhenren is your shījiě..." Zhang Zhenren smiled. "Are you perhaps Hongling Zhenren?"
"Indeed, I am."
Ruan Hongling didn't really mind living in Zi Yuan jiějie's shadow, but this was starting to feel a bit bothersome.
"So. Is there something that I can help you with, Zhang Zhenren?" Ruan Hongling repeated her question.
"Ah, right. Here's the thing." Zhang Zhenren shared a few glances with his companions. "We're here to borrow your shijie's strength."
It took Ruan Hongling everything to maintain her poker face. "Borrow my shijie's strength?" Ruan Hongling frowned slightly. "Is there... Is there an ongoing battle?"
"Indeed." Zhang Zhenren smiled. "You might be unaware of this, but there will be—"
"I don't see why you're wasting your breath on these people, shīdì," the woman interrupted rudely. "Just look at this place. It looks like it's been abandoned for years! There are probably cobwebs hanging from those statues over there."
Ruan Hongling released a feral growl. "Hey! Watch your—"
"Their strength has most likely weakened considerably if they couldn't even keep their halls clean," the woman said snidely. "I say we drop the whole idea of asking them to join us. They might end up becoming a burden for all we know."
"I completely agree!" the plump man spoke for the first time.
Anger rose inside Ruan Hongling.
"Watch your foul mouth!" Ruan Hongling snapped. "How dare you insult my shījiě like that?!"
A smirk spread across the woman's lips. Ruan Hongling wanted to wipe that smug look off the foul woman's face and then shove it down her equally foul throat.
"Oh? Are you saying that I'm wrong?"
Ruan Hongling bristled. "You…"
"Where is your precious shījiě now? Hiding away like a coward?"
Something inside Ruan Hongling snapped right then and there. "That does it! Let's duel, you and I! We don't even have to wait for my shijie's return. I am going to wipe the floor with you right here right now!"
"Have it your way, then!" The woman drew her sword from its scabbard. "As if I'm afraid of weaklings like you!"
"Hey, hey, hey." Zhang Zhenren stepped between Ruan Hongling and the woman. "Let's just calm down, okay? We're all from the Zhengyi School. Allies shouldn't fight amongst themselves." Zhang Zhenren turned around to face the obnoxious woman. "Zou Ping shījiě... Please don't make things difficult. My father will have our heads if we stir up trouble here."
Anger flashed inside Zou Ping's eyes. "That weakling challenged me." The woman swung her sword in a downward arc.
"Who are you calling a weakling?!" Ruan Hongling growled, fully prepared to summon her damask.
"Zhang Zhenren grabbed Zou Ping's arm.
"Zou Ping shījiě... Please drop this, okay? Do it for me. Please?"
Seconds passed in silence. Ruan Hongling struggled to keep her rage in check. Calm down, Hongling. Calm down... Zi Yuan jiějie wouldn't want this... Just breathe... Just breathe...
A moment later, Ruan Hongling noticed Zou Ping's sharp glare.
"This isn't over," Zou Ping growled, resheathing her sword.
"Thank you, shījiě," Zhang Zhenren said, then turned back around to face Ruan Hongling. "Now. As I was saying, a joint assault is about to take place and we would like you and Zi Yuan Zhenren to be part of it."
Ruan Hongling's stomach tightened. A joint assault? This was her first time hearing this. Then again, nobody told the Linggong Sect anything anymore.
"Pardon me? A joint assault?" she asked, keeping her tone even.
"Indeed," Zhang Zhenren said. "A pact has been reached between the members of the Great Six to destroy the Fox Zen School once and for all."
Ruan Hongling's blood ran cold. "The Fox Zen School?"
Zhang Zhenren nodded and gave her a look of sympathy. "It's the last place your shibo had visited before she went missing nine years ago, isn't it not?"
Stunned by the news, Ruan Hongling could only nod.
"My deepest condolences to you and your shījiě," Zhang Zhenren said. "I myself was greatly saddened by the news."
"I- I thank you," Ruan Hongling stammered.
"So will you and your shījiě be joining us?"
Panic rose inside Ruan Hongling. What the heck was she supposed to do here?
Contact Zi Yuan jiějie... She'll know what to do.
After all, Zi Yuan jiějie herself had told Ruan Hongling to contact her the moment the Linggong Sect received any word from the other sects. Had Zi Yuan jiějie anticipated that someone would reach out to them?
She should call Zi Yuan jiějie right this instant and let her know what happened.
Ugh! Grow up, Hongling!
What was she, a ten-year-old? Why did she always have to rely on Zi Yuan jiějie to handle everything? Zi Yuan jiějie had enough on her plate already, especially with the Heir's incoming divine punishment.
Ruan Hongling might not like the Heir, but she didn't want him dead.
The Heir needed Zi Yuan jiějie right now, so she should just suck it up and handle this herself.
Ruan Hongling snapped out of her tumultuous thoughts. She realized then that she had left Zhang Zhenren's question unanswered. She cleared her throat. "Yes. I would like to join you."
"And what about Zi Yuan Zhenren?"
"Shījiě is currently in training and has specifically asked not to be disturbed until her training is fully complete."
"I see," Zhang Zhenren drawled.
"Might I suggest that I join you first?" Ruan Hongling stood firm under Zhang Zhenren's studious gaze. "That way I can bring shījiě up to speed when she join us later on."
This was the best way to handle this, Ruan Hongling was sure of it. She would go along with these people and then find out what was really going on. She would gather all the facts first and then report everything to Zi Yuan jiějie.
"Hmm. That works, I suppose," Zhang Zhenren said, then paused for a moment. "But do you mind if we depart now?" He smiled at Ruan Hongling. "The schedule is rather tight, I'm afraid."
"I am ready to leave any time," Ruan Hongling said politely. "But where are we going?" Last time she checked, the Fox Zen School was literally gone. Had the school been relocated? Did these people know where its new location?
"There will be a meeting later tonight," Zhang Zhenren said with a pause. "All members of the Great Six who are part of the assault will assemble before the actual attack takes place." Zhang Zhenren smiled. "It would be best if we leave now if we want to make it there in time."
Ruan Hongling squared her shoulders and gave the man a nod. "Please lead the way."
Translator End Notes:
An astute reader (taratect) has recently suggested the use of Mandarin intonations for the honorific terms that I introduced at the end of Chapter 209: Civil War. I personally think that it is a great idea. Ergo, I will include an update here on all those honorific terms and, at the same time, share with you guys an instructional video where a gorgeous, English-speaking (she speaks English really well) lady teaches you the nuances of Mandarin intonations.
Here is the link to the video - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wV8B4bx1lM
Now, let's talk about one of the most important tools in a mathematician's arsenal—notation. But before that, here's a crash course on Mandarin intonation. There are four tones in pretty much all of Mandarin pronunciations. The first, second, third, and fourth tone. These tones are denoted in the pinyin of Chinese words by including accents on top of vowels. For example, for the vowel "a": ā (first), á(second), ǎ (third), à (fourth)
Okay. That's pretty it for the notations. To learn the right way to pronounce them, please refer to Miss Cheng's fantastic video lesson.
Let's put all that information into our honorifics:前辈 / Qiánbèi
Senpai's equivalent. In terms of semantics, it basically means "senior."
2) 后辈 / Hòubèi
Kouhai's equivalent. Semantically, "junior."
3) 师兄/ Shīxiōng
A fellow male student under the same master. This honorific can only be used if that male student is your senior; meaning that they became the master's disciple before you did.
A fellow male student under the same master. This honorific can only be used if that male student is your junior; meaning that they became the master's disciple after you did.
5) 师姐/ Shījiě
A fellow female student under the same master. This honorific can only be used if that female student is your senior; meaning that they became the master's disciple before you did.
6) 师妹/ Shīmèi
A fellow female student under the same master. This honorific can only be used if that female student is your junior; meaning that they became the master's disciple after you did.
7) 师伯/ Shībó
Your master might also come from some school, meaning that he also has his own master, Shīxiōng, or Shījiě. Shibo is basically your master's Shīxiōng/Shījiě.
8) 师叔/ Shīshū
Your master's Shīdì/Shīmèi.
And… that's pretty much it. You might see these notations popping up in the future chapters too. They will be used to refer to distinguish Mandarin pronunciations from English ones. For example, a Chinese di is actually pronounced as dee. In English, we might pronounce di as die.
Also, some syllables do not have tonal accents, such as in the case of jiějie (elder sister). Note that there isn't a tonal accent in the second syllable. The reason for that is because the second jie in jiějie is pronounced softly. In Mandarin, we call them light tones, or 轻声 (qīngshēng)
A huge shout-out to Miss Cheng Yangyang for the fantastic video. And thank you again, taratect for your brilliant suggestion.
Have a pleasant day.
The Final Push
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.