Barely fifteen minutes had passed since he had gotten on this trail, and Mount Tianlong had already proven to Li Yundong just how much he sucked at stealth. He stopped mid-stride and looked past his shoulders. His pursuers were nowhere in sight.
Li Yundong let out a long sigh and returned his gaze to the front.
Goddamn bastards are like bloodhounds...
He stood on the spot and studied his surroundings. Moments later, he came to a decision and swung onto a tree, landing on a huge bough about twenty meters above the ground. The bough was thick and long, so he didn't have to worry about it snapping under his weight. Besides, the copious amount of leaves and branches should be able to keep him out of view.
Crouching down on the bough, he scanned his surroundings once again, focusing his gaze on the ground.
There were still no signs of his pursuers.
But just to be safe...
Li Yundong shifted into a meditative posture. Once seated, he focused on concealing his own Qi by slowly guiding his body into a deep meditative state. Normally, it would be a terrible idea to do this in the absence of a trusted partner (even more so considering he was now inside a flipping warzone), but right now he had no other choice—the situation had forced his hand.
Before he left the apartment, Li Yundong had dressed himself in inconspicuous clothes. He even bought a pair of sunglasses at the train station to hide his eyes, since they were pretty darn distinctive—the eyes of a Cultivator are sharp and powerful, and any experienced Cultivator could identify another Cultivator through their eyes alone. Then, upon his arrival at the foot of Mount Tianlong, he had ensured that the Fan of Seven Treasures was fully concealed inside his backpack. Having done all of that, he could easily pass himself off as some random tourist on a hike, carrying a large backpack of supplies.
Alas, despite the whole innocent tourist get-up, he still ended up rousing the suspicion of those bastards. He didn't exactly know how, since he was sure he'd done everything right and had masked the Jindan Aura properly, though he suspected that it had something to do with his Qi.
Li Yundong had done this enough times to recognize the physical cues associated with being in a meditative state: the evening of his breath; the relaxation of his muscles; the feeling of weightlessness, like he was floating inside a zero gravity capsule.
Time for the next step, which involved pulling his consciousness out of his own body. Li Yundong didn't stop trying until he found himself staring at his own body moments later. His body remained seated on the bough in a meditative posture. His back was leaning against the trunk, and there was a tranquil look on his face.
A surge of excitement coursed through him. And when he saw that his excitement did absolutely nothing to hinder his body's relaxed state, he knew that his first attempt at having an out-of-body experience was a success.
The Wandering Soul.
Before he left Ruan Hongling's apartment that night after Mo Ahshi tried to assassinate him, he had asked Zi Yuan to teach him how to perform the technique. It turned out that the key to performing the Wandering Soul involves a conscious attempt to detach one's mind from the senses, which, in principle, is the antithesis of mindfulness meditation. In mindfulness meditation, the practitioner's goal is to keep their mind fully attuned to their body and their senses. The Wandering Soul, on the other hand, demands the exact opposite; the practitioner has to consciously visualize the mind and body as separate entities until a point where the soul can detach itself from the body. That is why the Wandering Soul can only be mastered by someone who has passed the 7th dan of the Sutai phase—the body has to be strong enough to sustain itself in the absence of the soul. When the soul leaves the confines of the body, it carries a portion of the practitioner's Spirit with it, hence allowing the practitioner to perceive their external environment from a third-person perspective.
Satisfied with his success, Li Yundong redirected his soul's attention from his body towards the mountain trail below the tree. He had just concealed his Qi without leaving himself vulnerable to attack. All he had to do now was wait.
He did give his pursuers the slip earlier, but he knew it was just a matter of time before the bastards figure out where he went. Like, duh? Where else other than up the mountain trail would he go?
The plan was simple. Stay hidden and wait until those guys overtake him. And then he would follow them. Hopefully those guys would lead him straight to the Fox Zen School's hidden entrance, which would save him a whole lot of trouble since he knew that it was impossible for Zi Yuan to get in touch with him.
Fifteen minutes later, two men—both dressed in Taoist robes—rushed along the trail, stopping under the tree. They both looked completely out of breath.
Li Yundong guided his Wandering Soul downwards to take a closer look at his pursuers. He didn't possess a Yin Spirit yet, so he didn't have to worry about being seen.
His pursuers formed an odd pair. While one of them was freakishly tall, the other one was dwarfishly short.
"Damn... We lost him," Tall Dude panted. "How can the guy move so damn fast?"
Short Dude sat down on the ground and scanned the area with his eyes. "Just chill, man. We were behind him the whole time and we didn't see him turning back around. There's only one direction he could be heading to." Short Dude glanced at his companion. "Up."
"Yeah... Yeah, you're right," said Tall Dude when he had finally caught his breath. Tall Dude glanced at Short Dude. "Who do you reckon he is?"
Short Dude shook his head. "Never seen the guy before, so I know he's not an agent of the Great Six."
"His Qi is strong though," Tall Dude remarked.
"It was okay, I guess," said Short Dude.
Li Yundong smirked internally. It would appear that he was better at masking his Qi than he thoughtl.
"But his speed," Short Dude continued. "That's the problem. The guy's too damn fast."
Yeah? They hadn't seen him dodge lightning yet.
"Yeah, I know," said Tall Dude. "We could still feel his Qi like, five minutes ago. And now it's completely gone. He must've pulled so far ahead of us that we couldn't detect it anymore." Tall Dude pulled up short and glanced at his companion. "Can you detect his Qi?"
Short Dude shook his head and straightened out his robe.
"How could anyone move that fast," Tall Dude mumbled to himself. Suddenly, his eyes widened and he looked towards Short Dude again. "Do you think he's gone into deep meditative state?"
Short Dude laughed out loud. "Here? Nah. I don't think he's that dumb." There was a pause. "This place is the Great Six's territory now, and he's travelling alone." Short Dude snickered. "Don't think he would do that unless he has a death wish."
Relief coursed through Li Yundong. Okay. These guys are smart, but not THAT smart.
Tall Dude seemed to be pondering his companion's words. "Hmm... And I don't think he's carrying a magical weapon either." A satisfied smile spread across Tall Dude's face. "Doing that would leave him completely vulnerable."
Short Dude hummed his agreement. "And from the way he moved, he's probably a seasoned Cultivator." Short Dude shook his head. "Don't think he'd make a rookie mistake like that."
"Agreed. Which means that he's pulled ahead of us." Tall Dude glanced down at his companion. "We should get going if we want to catch up to him."
Li Yundong took his words back. These guys weren't smart at all; they were dumb.
"Honestly?" Short Dude chuckled. "I don't think we should bother."
Tall Dude looked at his companion in surprise.
Short Dude shrugged. "The way I see it, he's just one of those thieves." Short Dude smirked. "We don't have to chase after him because we already know where he's gonna go."
A sly smile spread across Tall Dude's face. "The vault..."
"That's right." Short Dude chuckled. "I bet the whole Mount Tianlong will be teeming with looters like him soon."
"Hey, do you reckon the rumors are true?" asked Tall Dude in a low voice.
Short Dude raised a brow. "About the vault you mean?"
Tall Dude crouched down and joined Short Dude on the floor.
"They say there are a lot of treasures and secret scrolls hidden in there," Tall Dude whispered conspiratorially.
Short Dude nodded. "It's true as far as I know." He glanced at Tall Dude. "The Fox Zen School has over a thousand years of history. It's not surprising that they have a large collection."
"I wonder how they would divvy up the treasures after the assault," Tall Dude mused out loud.
Short Dude snorted. "Dream on, pal."
Short Dude rolled his eyes. "If they are divvying up anything, it would probably all go to the subsidiary sects of the Zhengyi School." Short Dude's lips twisted in disgust. "Even though we're all part of the Great Six, the good stuff only goes to the top dogs. You know that." Short Dude glanced at his companion. "Don't you know whom the Zhengyi School has sent this time? Zhang Tianhé Zhenren." Short Dude paused and raised a brow. "Zi Yuan Zhenren." Short Dude chuckled snidely. "I suggest you don't get your hopes up."
Tall Dude visibly deflated. Seconds later, the look of disappointment on Tall Dude's face morphed into that of anger.
"Those Zhengyi pricks!" Tall Dude shouted. "They act all high and mighty, like they're better and more virtuous than all of us. But the truth is that they're greedier than all of us combined!"
"Hey, shush!" Short Dude hissed. "Are you out of your damn mind? What if one of them hears you? Do you know how much influence they have? There's nowhere on this earth you can hide if you end up on their shit list."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah... The Zhengyi School is powerful. But so is the Donghua Sect where I come from." Tall Dude snorted. "As if I'm scared of them."
Short Dude chuckled humorlessly. "Whatever you say, pal. It's your funeral anyway." He rose to his feet. "Now let's get going."
"To the vault?"
"No. To your mom's house. Of course to the vault," Short Dude said in a tone of annoyance. "That way we can take care of those thieves in one fell swoop."
Li Yundong floated from tree to tree, making sure that he was following those two from a large enough distance. He knew that his two "pursuers" had detected the presence of his Qi; he managed to pick up their whispered conversation with Eryue about five minutes ago. But the good news: those two idiots thought they were slowly gaining on him, not the other way around. The thought of him being the one following them never even crossed their genius minds.
And here he thought Cultivators were supposed to be smart.
Apparently, those two geniuses were heading towards some kind of secret vault which held all of the Fox Zen School's treasures. Granted, it wasn't the place he was looking for, but he figured it was good enough: the entrance and the vault probably weren't too far away from each other. If he could get to the vault, he could probably—hopefully—get to the entrance.
Assuming, of course, that the entrance hadn't been sealed off by some kind of arcane spell.
Darn. He should've asked Zi Yuan for a spell book when he had the chance.
Li Yundong froze when he heard the sounds of a scuffle up ahead. He landed softly on a spiraling bough and concealed himself behind a clump of thick foliage. Those two guys had clearly heard the scuffle as well since they were now whispering to each other. Besides, they were both further ahead and closer to the source of the noise.
Li Yundong focused his Eryue on their conversation.
"... Not too far away from here," said Short Dude.
"Why do you think there's a battle going on this area?" Tall Dude mumbled. "It's not even close to the vault."
"Well. We won't know for sure unless we get closer." Short Dude paused. "It could be our allies."
"Oh? And you're sure about that how?" Tall Dude scoffed.
Several seconds passed in silence.
"You weren't paying attention at all during the meeting, were you?" said Short Dude.
"Bah. It was too boring." A pause. "What did I miss?"
"The leaders have decided to send out patrol teams."
"To keep the looters away when the assault is taking place, apparently," said Short Dude.
"Look, let's just go check it out. If it's one of the patrol teams, we might as well join them." Short Dude sighed in annoyance. "We would've been inside the Fox Zen School by now if you weren't so late."
Li Yundong's stomach tightened uncomfortably.
So the assault has already begun.
Li Yundong glanced up and noted the smear of orange clouds across the sky. So Zi Yuan had been spot on in her prediction.
The attack did begin sometime around evening.
Li Yundong activated his telescopic vision and continued to spy at the two Cultivators from afar. He followed them with his eyes until they both disappeared around a bend in the trail.
He had to move in closer.
Li Yundong zoomed out and floated down from the tree, staying as close to the ground as possible. For stealth reasons, he had decided to glide around instead of walk—he could move around quietly that way. He quickly rounded the corner and floated to the crown of a tall tree. Once he was sure that the coast was clear, he sat astride the branch collar of the tree.
Loud and angry voices drifted to his ears. There were three... no, four, men quarreling about something. He hadn't heard anything from Short Dude and Tall Dude again, so those two had to be hiding somewhere as well.
I've gotta be careful here...
Li Yundong leaned forward and hid his face behind the leaves. Then, he focused his Eryue on those voices.
"You people from the Jinshan Sect are just a bunch of cowards!" a man yelled.
Li Yundong frowned.
The man's voice sounded oddly familiar, but he couldn't recall when and where he had heard it before. Well, one thing was for sure: he must have encountered that voice before he passed the Ningshen phase, otherwise he wouldn't have forgotten it.
"Four against one?!" yelled the same man again. "How pathetic! You people don't have the guts to take me on in a fair fight!"
"A fair fight?" a woman sneered. "Hah! We have neither the interest nor time to engage in a duel with you, you fool. You were sneaking around this mountain even after we told you that this is a restricted area!" The woman laughed snidely. "You have a death wish!"
The man with the familiar voice laughed mockingly. "Oh? So you're saying you people can be here and I can't?" Another mocking laugh. "Last time I checked, this area belongs to the Fox Zen School, not the Jinshan Sect."
"Drop the act." The woman snorted. "We know why you're here." There was a pause. "You're after the Fox Zen School's treasures, aren't you?"
The man sniggered. "And you're not?"
"We are authorized to be here," the woman said in a haughty tone. "Unlike a thief like you." The woman scoffed. "And if you managed to find your way here, then it means you're heading towards the vaults. It also means that you know about the hidden passage in the vault."
Li Yundong froze.
Hidden passage? What hidden passage?
He snapped out of his daze and forced himself to keep listening.
"We can't allow that," the woman continued in a snide tone. "Our orders are clear. No one who isn't part of the Great Six is allowed to enter the Fox Zen School during the assault. No one."
Thrill coursed through Li Yundong's veins. So the vault had some kind of secret passage that would lead him into the Fox Zen School! He had just found his way in!
Okay. But first, he needed to sneak past these guys, which he assumed to be the patrol units that Short Dude had mentioned just now.
Li Yundong tuned into the conversation again.
"I don't need your permission to do what I want here, lady," said the familiar voice.
"Heh! Let's not waste our breaths on him, shījiě," said another man who Li Yundong assumed to be another member of the patrol unit. "I say we just take him out and be done with it."
The familiar voice laughed. "Oh, you brats are so going to regret that decision."
Seconds later, Li Yundong finally understood why the man's voice had sounded so damned familiar.
"Maoshan Jida Zhen Shengong. Bada Yuanshuai Xian Shentong! Hearken to me, O Heavenly Marshal of the North! Come to me! Lend me your power! I offer you my body as a vessel..."
It was Lin Youfa.