Li Yundong's question incited two entirely different reactions: from Ruan Hongling, it was a loud snort followed by a derisive laugh; Zi Yuan, on the other hand, merely gave him a look of amusement.
"Him? A Cultivator?' Ruan Hongling sniggered. "Stop joking around." Her eyes darted briefly to Yan Hua. "He's just an overambitious guy who doesn't have enough talent to turn his ambitions into reality." Ruan Hongling shrugged. "There is a Cultivator in his family though."
"Let me guess," Li Yundong said. "Your shibo?"
Ruan Hongling nodded, then jerked her chin towards Yan Hua. "My shibo is his aunt."
Li Yundong glanced at Yan Hua. The guy was trying to show off some cool feature of the sword to Feng Na. "Does his family know?" Li Yundong returned his gaze to Ruan Hongling.
"About Yan Hua's aunt being a Cultivator?" Ruan Hongling smirked. "No."
"Yan Hua himself doesn't know as well," said Ruan Hongling.
"How did the sword end up with him?" Li Yundong raised his brows. "Didn't you say that the sword belongs to your shibo?"
An uncharacteristic seriousness crept over Ruan Hongling's countenance. "My shibo is missing."
"Oh." Li Yundong blinked several times. "I'm sorry to hear that."
Ruan Hongling waved him off. "My shibo met my master when she was fourteen. They joined the Zhengyi School together and became Cultivators after that." Ruan Hongling stole a glance at Zi Yuan. "Apparently, my shibo had some kind of score to settle with Ao Wushuang, so she visited the Fox Zen School nine years ago." Ruan Hongling gave him a serious look. "She never returned from the visit. No one has seen her or heard from her ever since."
Li Yundong would be lying if he said that he wasn't surprised.
What was Ruan Hongling implying? That Ao Wushuang killed or kidnapped her shibo?
Li Yundong looked towards Zi Yuan whose gaze was still fixated on the sword. There was a vacant and faraway look in her eyes.
"Zi Yuan?" Li Yundong said. "Are you alright?"
"Sorry." Zi Yuan cleared her throat and shook her head slightly. "I just couldn't believe it, that's all. Two months ago, Bahuang mysteriously appeared. And now Liuhe was brought here of all places?" Zi Yuan gave him a strange look. "I wonder if..."
"Wait..." Li Yundong turned towards Ruan Hongling again. "You still haven't told me how the sword came into Yan Hua's possession."
"Don't worry, it's not like he won over the sword or anything." Ruan Hongling snorted. "My shibo left the sword at the Yan family home before going to the Fox Zen School. She didn't tell us much though. Just asked us to watch over the sword. She said that she'd come back to reclaim the sword one day."
Li Yundong frowned. Something didn't add up. So Ruan Hongling's shibo thought it was a good idea to leave her magical weapon at home, and then show up at the Fox Zen School to settle a score with a skilled Cultivator like Ao Wushuang?
That made no sense at all.
Feng Na joined their conversation before Li Yundong could voice out his thoughts.
"Hey there!" Feng Na clapped Li Yundong's shoulder. "What are you guys talking about?"
"Oh, nothing much." Li Yundong smiled. "Just admiring the sword's beauty, that's all."
Feng Na's eyes lit up at the mention of the sword. She stepped forward held the sword in front of him. "There you go, master swordsman. Your prop!"
Li Yundong took the sword and tested its weight in his hand.
It felt super light. Well, it could be that he was too strong.
"How on earth did you manage to convince Yan Hua to allow his family treasure to be used as a stage prop?"
Feng Na giggled. "I didn't have to try."
Li Yundong lowered the sword and stared at Feng Na.
"I was asking everyone if they have something at home that looked like an ancient sword." Feng Na shrugged. "And Yan Hua volunteered to bring one. I didn't even know at the time that it would be something this valuable."
Li Yundong nodded, then lifted the sword again. He ran his fingers over the scabbard and was surprised by the smoothness he felt there.
"Shark skin," someone whispered beside him.
Li Yundong turned and saw that it was Ruan Hongling.
"Smooth, but tough," Ruan Hongling whispered. "Highly resistant to wear and tear."
Shark skin, huh?
Li Yundong nodded and returned his attention to the sword. Grabbing the hilt, he pulled the sword upwards to reveal a portion of the blade from the scabbard. To his surprise, the blade was covered in delicate patterns. Piqued, he leaned in to take a closer look.
What were they? Taoist symbols? Hieroglyphs from an unknown language?
Li Yundong took a deep breath, and unsheathed the sword from the scabbard. He was going to have to be careful here. This was a real sword and could easily cut—
Li Yundong nearly dropped the sword when it started vibrating like crazy in his hand.
A series of high-pitched, whining sound filled the backstage.
Li Yundong snapped the sword back into the scabbard and glanced around, hoping that nobody had seen or heard that display. That hope went down the drain the moment he saw Feng Na's open-mouthed stare.
"W- What was that?" Feng Na asked.
Great. How the heck was he supposed to answer that? He looked towards Ruan Hongling and Zi Yuan for help. Neither of them seemed surprised by the sword's reaction earlier. Then again, it didn't seem like either of them would come to his aid and help him explain the sword's behavior. Granted, he had expected that from Ruan Hongling—the girl probably enjoyed watching him squirm. But Zi Yuan didn't even look like she had been paying attention to anything that was happening around her; she looked like she was miles away.
"How did you do that, Li Yundong?" Feng Na was practically shouting now. "The sword! It was glowing and whining like crazy just now! It was like magic!"
"I..." Li Yundong gave Feng Na a helpless shrug, then stared down at the sword. "I don't know."
And he really didn't. He didn't even try to push his Zhenqi into the sword like he did with the Fan of Seven Treasures.
The sword just reacted to his touch.
All of a sudden, there was a loud thud followed by an angry snarl.
Li Yundong looked away from the sword and saw Yan Hua's murderous glare.
Right. Poor dude was probably pissed as hell that someone else got to show off with the sword that he had brought.
Li Yundong looked down at the sword once more.
But still. What the heck just happened? Why did the sword react that way? Was the sword trying to attack him? But it didn't feel like an attack at all. It wasn't like the sword had tried to stab him or anything.
It was just… vibrating and glowing.
Someone gripped his arm.
Li Yundong turned his head.
It was Zi Yuan.
Zi Yuan tilted her head, indicating a corner of the backstage. "I need to talk to you about something."
Li Yundong complied and followed Zi Yuan to a secluded corner of the backstage.
"What is it?" Li Yundong asked warily.
Zi Yuan's stern expression was starting to unnerve him.
"Claim ownership of the sword," Zi Yuan said. "Put it to good use."
Li Yundong's eyes widened in surprise, his eyes instantly darting to Yan Hua. The guy was still shooting glares in his direction. Yeah… He's totally gonna flip out if I claim the sword... Li Yundong cleared his throat and looked away from Yan Hua. "It's probably not a good idea, Zi Yuan. It belongs to your shibo."
"Yes. And I want you to wield it," Zi Yuan said firmly.
"But your shibo—"
"Has been missing for nine years," Zi Yuan said.
Li Yundong glanced down at the sword in his hand.
"Look… I don't think it's a coincidence that the sword found its way into your hands today, Li Yundong."
Li Yundong looked up in surprise. "You're saying someone planned this? Someone wanted me to have it?"
"I think…" Zi Yuan shook her head suddenly. "No. I am sure, that this is the work of unknown forces." She gave him a pointed look. "Powers beyond our control."
Li Yundong frowned. Like what? Fate? Kismet? Or did this have to do with the prophecy again?
"Well… I'm not sure if I can handle this to be honest," Li Yundong admitted. "I already have the Fan of Seven Treasures to look after."
Which nearly killed a guy because I still didn't know how to control it.
He kept that thought to himself. No need to alarm Zi Yuan with that information.
Still, the point remained: one magical weapon was already a handful.
"No." The intensity in Zi Yuan's eyes stunned him a little. "You must have it," Zi Yuan said in an insistent tone. "You must."
Li Yundong studied the sword again. While doing so, he considered the chain of events leading up to this moment: the fact that Yan Hua had a crush on Ruan Hongling and ended up following Ruan Hongling to Tiannan University instead of going to North Qinghua University; the fact that Yan Hua became Feng Na's fierce competitor for the presidency of the student council, which in turn drove Feng Na to start scheming in order to win; the fact that Li Yundong got dragged into all this through said scheme; and then the next thing he knew, he was holding a magical sword in his hands.
It was like everyone in this world was linked together by invisible puppet strings with fate, kismet, destiny, or whatever being the puppeteer.
After a while, Li Yundong gave Zi Yuan a firm nod.
"I understand. I'll take care of the sword."
Zi Yuan smiled. "Good, I—"
Zi Yuan was cut off by a chorus of cheers.
"Oh, there she is!"
"Prez! Prez! She's here!"
"Woohoo! She's here now!"
"God, Liu Ling! Where have you been?"
"We thought you weren't gonna show!"
"And good lord! What happened to you? Why do you look so wasted?!"
Li Yundong looked towards the source of the commotion.
A girl with wild and unkempt hair stumbled through the door of the backstage and began pushing her way through the performers gathered around her.
Zi Yuan shot Li Yundong a look: this discussion isn't over.
Li Yundong gave Zi Yuan a nod.
As soon as they rejoined everyone else, Li Yundong immediately noticed that something was amiss about Liu Ling. First of all, the girl reeked of cigarette smoke and alcohol. She was walking a bit strange too: her steps were wobbly, and she seemed to be favoring one foot over another.
Also, she seemed a bit disoriented, like she couldn't even recognize the people she was walking past.
Unless Li Yundong was very much mistaken, this girl had been out partying all night and was currently suffering from a massive hangover.
Li Yundong winced when he heard Feng Na's angry voice: "What have you been up to, Liu Ling, huh? What the hell is this?! Are you having a goddamn hangover?!"
Liu Ling shot Feng Na a sheepish look. And then she giggled.
"Oops." Liu Ling stuck out her tongue. "Guess I had too much fun last night... Hehe. Sorry."
Li Yundong could feel Feng Na's wrath even from where he was standing. He had honestly never seen Feng Na this angry before.
"God, what is the matter with you?! What were you thinking?!" Feng Na yelled. "Have you forgotten that you're supposed to go onstage today?"
Liu Ling no longer looked sheepish now; rather, her brows were knitted together and her face was twisted in displeasure.
"What's the problem?" Liu Ling slurred. "We still… still… have four hours, right?"
Feng Na took in a deep breath.
"Everyone's been waiting for you, do you know that?" Feng Na said in a tight voice. "We called your phone so many times and you never picked up. And then you suddenly show up here looking like this?" Feng Na gestured at Liu Ling's appearance. "How can you be so irresponsible?"
Liu Ling suddenly leaped to her feet. As soon as she did that, she winced and slowly sat back down, confirming Li Yundong's suspicion that the girl had hurt her leg.
"What's wrong with… with how I look? I think I look fine!" Liu Ling said indignantly, then did a hair flip. The whole tough-girl act would've been convincing if she was sober.
Murmurs of protests filled the backstage.
"I look fine," Liu Ling slurred.
Li Yundong winced. Yeah, sure. You look fine… If you're supposed to play the role of a zombie, that is.
In her inebriated state, Liu Ling had probably screwed up her makeup. It was like someone had pressed a frigging color palette over her face. Patches of incompatible colors spread over both her cheeks. Dark rims circled her eyes, making her look like a panda. A very colorful panda. And to top it all off, she was wearing purple lipstick.
The other performers were starting to voice out their protests as well.
"You look fine? Is that a f*cking joke? Girl, just look yourself! You don't even look human!"
"And you look totally wasted! Wait a minute... Don't tell me you were also doing drugs last night?"
"Damn it! You're gonna screw up the entire play!"
"Yeah! And we've all worked so hard for it too!"
"Guys! Guys! Settle down!" Feng Na said, rubbing her temples tiredly. Then, she sighed. "This won't do." Feng Na glanced around at her performers. "We're gonna have to look for a replacement."
More shouts of protests broke out.
"But Prez... We can't just replace one of the main characters on such short notice!"
Feng Na raised her palm to silence everyone.
"First of all," Feng Na said, pausing to glare at Liu Ling, who had actually dozed off in the chair she was sitting in. "Look at this useless girl. Do you think she can go onstage in her current state? She might not even remember half of her lines!"
Groans filled the backstage.
"Um… Maybe we can go buy something to help her sober up?"
"Yeah, Prez! Like caffeine or something."
"No," Feng Na said firmly, then gave Liu Ling a look of distaste. "We never should've picked her in the first place."
After Feng Na's voice had petered off, the backstage was silent except for Liu Ling's snores.
Moments later, the guy with the green headscarf broke the silence. "Then do you have a candidate in mind, Prez?"
"Oh I know!" Yu Le exclaimed. "Why don't you do it, Prez?"
"Yeah! You're familiar with all the scenes. And you were there during the rehearsals! Why don't you fill in?"
"I wish I could," Feng Na said with a sigh. "But I have to oversee the event. And Cheng Cheng is busy..."
Li Yundong had requested Cheng Cheng to help keep an eye on Zhou Qin during the event.
"Then we're screwed, Prez," Yu Le said with a sigh. "There's no way we can find a replacement on such short notice..."
"Well we have to!" Feng Na snapped, then took a deep breath. Seconds later, she exhaled slowly. "Okay guys. Think. We need to find someone who can remain calm and composed in front of a large audience, someone who can think on their feet. Oh, and someone with a good memory too." Feng Na paused to look at her performers. "Do you guys have anyone in mind?"
Murmurs and whispers broke out.
Li Yundong sighed. This was clearly going nowhere.
He did have a solution in mind though: rouse Liu Ling from her drunken state with a head massage plus some basic Qi-control tricks.
He was just about to step forward to offer his solution when something else occurred to him. All those criteria that Feng Na's had listed out… Calm and compose. Has a good memory…
Li Yundong smiled. I think I know just the person for this. He glanced sideways at the woman beside him.
His smile turned into a smirk.
And it definitely helped that she was gorgeous as hell.
When Li Yundong met Ruan Hongling's gaze, he saw a playful glint there. Clearly, the girl had the same idea as well. Smirking, Li Yundong gave Ruan Hongling an eye signal, then tilted his head slightly.
Ruan Hongling's face broke into a playful grin. "I know someone!"
Feng Na and her performers immediately halted their discussion. All eyes in the backstage were now on Ruan Hongling.
"Who is it?" Feng Na said excitedly. "Whom do you have in mind?"
Ruan Hongling's eyes slid towards Zi Yuan. "Why, my dearest Elder Sister Zi Yuan, of course!"
"Hey!" Zi Yuan protested.
Li Yundong bit the inside of his cheek to stifle a laugh.
"Oh my God!" Feng Na gasped, then clapped her hands together. Her eyes were practically sparkling at this point. "You're absolutely right! She's perfect!"
Ruan Hongling bobbed her head up and down. "Mm-hmm! She is, isn't she?"
"Hongling!" Zi Yuan hissed. "Stop joking around!"
Ruan Hongling left Feng Na's side in an instant and sidled up to Zi Yuan.
"Elder Sister Zi Yuan..." Ruan Hongling said in a sickeningly sweet tone. "You're perfect for the role. Actually, no. You look far more mature than Zhao Ling'er, but that doesn't matter. The important thing is your beauty and elegance, Elder Sister! You'll make a perfect Zhao Ling'er!"
"I agree," Li Yundong chimed in.
Zi Yuan shot him an exasperated look. "Oh God, not you too?"
Li Yundong shrugged. "Just stating the truth. I really think you're perfect for the role. Zhao Ling'er is supposed to be beautiful and elegant. And you clearly have both. She, on the other hand..." Li Yundong jerked his chin towards Liu Ling, who was now drooling all over her colorful face.
"Come on, Elder Sister Zi Yuan," Ruan Hongling implored. "Won't you do it? Please?"
Zi Yuan glared daggers at Ruan Hongling.
"Tsk! How insolent!" Zi Yuan chided. "Are you trying to make a fool out of your shijie? Is that it?"
"Hehehe... Not at all, shijie..." Ruan Hongling grinned. "Didn't you notice how everyone was staring at you just now? You're a sight for sore eyes, Elder Sister. You'll never make a fool of yourself! Trust me!"
Zi Yuan looked a bit flustered. "You—"
She was interrupted by Feng Na's arrival.
"Um... Hello, miss..." Feng Na said. "I'm sorry, but I didn't catch your name just now..."
Zi Yuan glanced at Feng Na briefly. "I'm Zi Yuan."
Li Yundong watched in amusement as Feng Na's smile faltered a little. No doubt the girl felt intimidated by Zi Yuan's regal presence.
Feng Na cleared her throat and smiled. "Well... Miss Zi Yuan... As you can see, we're in a bit of a trouble here. We're shorthanded, you see? So… Um… Won't you let us a hand? Please?" Feng Na pressed her palms together and shot Zi Yuan a pleading look. "You're perfect for the role."
"No," Zi Yuan said.
"But…" Feng Na's face fell. "Please?"
"The answer is no," Zi Yuan said firmly.
That was when Li Yundong felt someone kicking his shin. He looked up and saw the pleading look that Feng Na was sending him.
He chuckled. "Go do your thing, Feng Na xuejie. I'll convince her."
As soon as he said that, he felt the sharp dig of Zi Yuan's elbow against his rib.
Feng Na cleared her throat and drew closer to Li Yundong.
"I'm counting on you now, pal," she whispered. "You must get her to agree, okay?"
Li Yundong chuckled and waved his hand a few times. "Alright, alright. Geez. Just go do your thing. Leave this to me."
Li Yundong crossed his arms in front of his chest and watched Feng Na walk away. At the same time, his began to outline several arguments that he could use to convince Zi Yuan to take part in the play. Whatever his game plan was, Li Yundong knew it had to involve Cultivation somehow, since Cultivation seemed to be the only thing Zi Yuan cared about.
Li Yundong followed Feng Na with his gaze until she stopped in front of the chair Liu Ling was sitting in.
Liu Ling jerked awake when Feng Na kicked her leg.
"Wh- Wha... What?"
"You're out," Feng Na said. "I found someone else to replace you."
Liu Ling blinked several times. "What! H- How could you?!"
Feng Na glared at her.
"First of all, take a look at yourself in the mirror," Feng Na said with a snort. "You must be out of your damn mind if you think I'm gonna let you go onstage looking like this. No. You're out! Oh, and I want you to hand in a self-reflective report after this!"
"No!" Liu Ling stood up from the chair but then hissed in pain as soon as she did. A second later, she sank back down into the chair with her hand holding on to her right ankle.
"Huh… I thought you were walking funny just now..." Feng Na's eyes narrowed. "What's up with your leg?"
"I... I twisted it last night," Liu Ling mumbled.
"Oh you have got to be kidding me..." Feng Na stared at Liu Ling with nothing but incredulity in her eyes. "You show up here, on the day of the performance, with a twisted ankle?" Feng Na looked up at the ceiling and let out an exasperated huff. Seconds later, she lowered her gaze and glared at Liu Ling. "Out." She pointed at the exit. "I don't want to see your face."
"Argh! Fine!" Liu Ling stood up slowly, then wobbled towards the exit.
"And don't forget the report!" Feng Na growled.
The door slammed shut seconds later.
Li Yundong nudged Zi Yuan's side. "You really not gonna help out?" He shot Zi Yuan a glance. "They're in trouble, you know? If you don't take the role, they would still have to find a replacement for her. You noticed the girl's ankle, right?"
Well… that wasn't exactly true. Li Yundong could easily fix the ankle with a bit of Qi control.
Zi Yuan turned and glared at him. "So you want to see me make a fool of myself as well?"
A loud crash and a scream sounded before Li Yundong could speak.
"Oh for God's sake," Feng Na growled. "What is it this time?"
"It's Liu Ling, Prez!" someone yelled. "She slipped and fell down the stairs. That ankle looks pretty bad, Prez."
"Take her to the clinic!"
"Huh? Right now?"
"No. You should wait until her ankle is swollen like a balloon," Feng Na said sarcastically, then rolled her eyes. "Of course right now! She shouldn't even have come here with her ankle in that state."
Li Yundong cleared his throat and watched a few guys exiting the backstage to help Liu Ling.
"You know, Zi Yuan…"
"Isn't it your master's wish for you to gain as much mortal experience as possible?" Li Yundong remarked casually. "And it's one of the Linggong Sect's requirements, right? That's why you sent Hongling here, to experience how mortals go through daily life…"
Silence spread between them.
Someone nudged his elbow. He glanced sideways and saw Ruan Hongling giving him a thumbs up.
Keep going, she mouthed.
Li Yundong smirked and cleared his throat again. "Well, I think this is a good opportunity to expand your mortal experience. Think about it. You'll be standing on a stage in front of hundreds of people. I bet you've never had that kind of experience before."
More silence ensued. A quick glance at Zi Yuan gave Li Yundong a glimpse of the hesitant look on Zi Yuan's face.
Li Yundong let out a wistful sigh. "Ah. Mortal experience. Isn't that the ultimate test of a Cultivator's resolve? After all, no Cultivator can claim that their resolve would never waver unless they have already experienced everything..."
Zi Yuan suddenly cleared her throat. "Hongling... This Zhao Ling'er... What kind of character is she?"
Ruan Hongling squealed in joy.
"Does that mean you'll do it, Elder Sister Zi Yuan? You've agreed!"
"You better not be enjoying this too much, Hongling." Zi Yuan glared at Ruan Hongling. "Or else…"
Ruan Hongling giggled and started giving Zi Yuan a rundown on Zhao Ling'er's character as well as a brief summary of Chinese Paladin's plot.
"Fine. I'll do it," Zi Yuan said after Ruan Hongling was done. "What do I have to do?"
Ruan Hongling leaped into the air. "Yes! This is perfect!"
Zi Yuan shot Ruan Hongling another glare. "You're gonna pay for this later, Hongling. I assure you."
Li Yundong watched in amusement the interaction between the two living goddesses: one had a playful grin while the other one looked nothing but flustered.
He wondered what Su Chan would say if she were here.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the hopeful look that Feng Na was sending him.
He turned, then gave Feng Na a smile and an OK sign.
Feng Na's face broke into a huge grin.
Yeah. This night might not turn out so bad after all.
"Li Yundong..." Mo Ahshi growled, crumpling the note as well as the paper crane she had intercepted the day before.
Mo Ahshi had never heard of this Li Yundong before.
Which sect did this man belong to?
Were these fools calling for reinforcements?
Mo Ahshi laughed darkly. It matters not...
None of it mattered now. Of course it wouldn't matter. Nobody, not even the Jade Emperor himself could stop her from destroying the Fox Zen School with her bare hands.
Mo Ahshi opened her palm, where the paper crane and the note lay in a crumpled ball.
Seconds later, the ball caught fire, and Mo Ahshi watched it burn into ashes.
Soon, the Fox Zen School would suffer the same fate.