Noises drifted to Zi Yuan's ears. Empty taunts. Meaningless chatter. She had picked this spot to avoid precisely those, but apparently, this place still wasn't far enough to dull out those obnoxious voices.
"Not planning to join the others?"
Zi Yuan looked towards the source of the voice, which sounded like it came from above. The voice was close. Too close for her liking.
Zhang Tianhé, the son of the current Head of the Zhengyi School, was floating down towards her.
Zi Yuan acknowledged the man with a cordial nod. "Zhang zhenren."
Zhang zhenren's robe rustled when he landed beside her.
"Zi Yuan zhenren," he greeted politely.
Zi Yuan turned away from the man. "Crowds aren't my thing," she said coolly.
Nor is greed, she added in her mind.
Greed. Greed was everywhere; she could see it in the eyes of those gathered here, could smell it in the air.
"I really appreciate you coming out here today, Zi Yuan zhenren."
Zi Yuan glanced sideways at the man who had all but invited himself into her private space.
Zi Yuan acknowledged the remark with a hum, all the while fighting back a frown.
Zhang zhenren appeared to be studying the crowd as well. At the moment, there were over a hundred people gathered in the temple's vicinity. An entire legion of Cultivators flying under the banner of the so-called Great Six.
Disgust pooled inside Zi Yuan's belly.
Greed. That's all there is to it. Pure greed.
They had all heard about the Fox Zen School's legendary vault, about the kinds of treasures that were locked away inside the vault for centuries. Now, a former member of the Fox Zen School had stolen the Renyuan Jindan. The perfect opportunity had presented itself, the perfect excuse to march into one of the oldest schools in the history of Cultivation and claim all its prized possessions. The Fox Zen School had to be destroyed, its members slaughtered, and its vaults pillaged. They had no right to exist, no right to own those treasures. Forget that Grandmaster Pan Shi was once a great Cultivator. Forget that the Fox Zen School was once a reputable organization before the Mystical Silver Fox became Head. Fox spirits were evil creatures that deserved eternal condemnation, and they had proven their evil by robbing the Gezao Sect of its finest creation.
As if the members of the Great Six themselves had never entertained the thought of stealing the Renyuan Jindan.
This was never about justice. This was Great Six feeding their own greed in the name of justice. This was hypocrisy at its finest.
Zi Yuan curled her lips in contempt.
The Heir had been right. The longstanding creed of the Cultivation world was flawed. So what if there were a bunch of rules in place. So what if the rules had been around for thousands of years. Evil manifests itself everywhere, even amongst those who are supposed to embody virtue and honor.
The siege on the Fox Zen School today was proof that the best of Cultivators were no different than the vilest of mortals; that behind the veil of Cultivation, a bunch of greedy, and power-hungry creatures lurked.
Zi Yuan tamped down her raging emotions. She had a job to do, a mission to accomplish, and hence, a role to play.
"It appears that I'm not needed here after all," Zi Yuan remarked, her eyes darting briefly to Zhang zhenren's face. "There isn't much fighting going on."
Zi Yuan returned her gaze to the crowd.
Technically, there wasn't any fighting going on. The Great Six's forces were just hanging around, doing absolutely nothing.
"Ah, well, the truth is… We've… Well, we've sort of hit a snag." Zhang zhenren chuckled. "It seems like the Great Seer still had a few tricks up his sleeves."
Zi Yuan glanced sideways and raised a brow.
Zhang zhenren smiled at her reaction. "A powerful barrier surrounds the temple." Zhang zhenren gestured with his arm. "Anybody who touches it will turn to dust."
Zi Yuan returned her eyes to the front. The temple's door was wide open. A woman stood guard in front of the door, glaring at the Great Six's forces. Zi Yuan didn't know every member of the Fox Zen School, only the most prominent ones, but she was fairly certain that the woman guarding the door was Ye Yu—if the huge chakram in the woman's hand was anything to go by.
"Is that so?" Zi Yuan glanced at Zhang zhenren.
"Mm." Zhang zhenren nodded. "It is quite a powerful enchantment." Zhang zhenren chuckled. "As expected from the Great Seer, I suppose."
"That's too bad," Zi Yuan said, keeping her voice even.
This is perfect.
Zi Yuan did a quick scan of her surroundings. "Our forces have yet to withdraw." Zi Yuan looked towards Zhang zhenren. "So I suppose you have a plan then?"
Zhang zhenren smiled. "A couple of my guys are working on something." The jade rings Zhang zhenren wore on his fingers clinked as he crossed his arms in front his chest. "A counter-spell."
Zi Yuan arched a brow. "Would it deactivate the entire barrier?"
Zi Yuan highly doubted it. It would certainly take more than just a makeshift solution to fully counter a spell performed by a Cultivator of the Great Seer's caliber. At least that was what Zi Yuan hoped.
"Not the entire barrier, unfortunately." Zhang zhenren shook his head a few times. Zi Yuan couldn't help the satisfaction that arose inside her at the hint of frustration that she'd detected in Zhang zhenren's tone. "But it would create a gap large enough to fit a person."
Zhang zhenren shook his head again. "Only temporary."
There was a few seconds of silence.
"A couple of seconds, perhaps?" A look of displeasure spread across Zhang zhenren's countenance. "After that it would take another fifteen minutes to reset the counter-spell."
Zi Yuan turned away to hide a smirk. So Liu Ye had essentially turned the tables on the Great Six. If the Great Six insisted on attacking, they could only send one person through the barrier until the next person was sent in fifteen minutes later.
A lot could happen in fifteen minutes.
In fact, during those fifteen minutes, it would be one fighter from the Great Six going up against the entire Fox Zen School.
Liu Ye had played the Great Six at their own game.
Zhang zhenren chuckled. "However..."
The smugness in the Zhang zhenren's tone made Zi Yuan turn.
"We have someone on the inside." Zhang zhenren smiled. "So it shouldn't be long until the entire barrier is deactivated."
Zi Yuan hummed thoughtfully.
Several moments passed. Zi Yuan wanted the man to leave her alone. Well, she could leave, but then she didn't want to give up her perfect hiding spot.
"Would you like to join the rest of us?" Zhang zhenren asked in a hopeful tone. "I'm sure a lot of our associates would be delighted to meet you in person, Zi Yuan zhenren."
Well, the feeling isn't mutual. Zi Yuan kept that thought to herself.
"I prefer staying out of sight for the time being, if you don't mind." Zi Yuan raised a brow at Zhang zhenren. "Isn't it in our best interest that the Fox Zen School remain unaware of my presence?"
"Ah." Zhang zhenren smiled. "You're saying that we shouldn't show our hands too early."
"Exactly," Zi Yuan said with a nod.
"Very wise, Zi Yuan zhenren. Very wise."
Zi Yuan hid a smirk, satisfied that she had successfully fooled the man. Remaining in the shadows was a wise policy, that much was true; but not for the reason Zhang zhenren imagined.
The real reason Zi Yuan had decided to keep her presence hidden was to minimize the chances of Mo Ahshi recognizing her.
Then again, she might not even have to worry about that at all. She hadn't seen any signs of Mo Ahshi since she got here. Nor was Grandmaster Liu Ye anywhere in sight.
"I must say I'm a bit surprised that Hongling zhenren isn't here with you." There was a pause. "She seemed very eager to participate in the assault during the briefing."
"She will be joining us shortly." Zi Yuan gave Zhang zhenren a sidelong glance. "After she has secured the perimeter on my orders."
But of course, securing the perimeter was just a smokescreen for Hongling's real task: searching for Su Chan.
Zhang zhenren turned and gave her a look of surprise. "I don't think that's necessary at all, Zi Yuan zhenren."
Zi Yuan arched a brow.
"I have about a dozen units patrolling the area," Zhang zhenren explained. "In fact, we've chased away quite a number of Cultivators already." Zhang zhenren smiled. "No one other than the members of the Great Six has to be involved in this affair."
More treasure for the Great Six, you mean.
"No harm in taking extra precautions." Zi Yuan smirked. "The Fox Zen School's mastery in the stealth arts is legendary."
"True, true." Zhang zhenren chuckled. "I suppose it's a good idea to cover all the bases."
"Your patrol units haven't encountered much resistance, I hope?"
"Hmm…" Zhang zhenren's expression suddenly became thoughtful. "Not much, I suppose." Zhang zhenren wiggled his ring-clad fingers dismissively. "Not much activity along the path leading to the temple." He jerked his chin towards said temple. "That path has been concealed."
Zi Yuan nodded. She had already anticipated this when she was composing her long note to Li Yundong. She just hoped that Li Yundong was crafty enough to find another way in.
"And you're certain that there aren't other ways to enter the school?" Zi Yuan asked, keeping her tone neutral. No harm in trying to fish for more information while she was here. It was the whole point of their mission after all.
"Well… There is the hidden passage in the vault," Zhang zhenren said thoughtfully. "But I doubt that would be a problem."
Zhang zhenren nodded, then froze. "Come to think of it, the unit in charge of guarding the path to the vault hasn't reported back to me yet."
Zi Yuan feigned a look of disinterest, though deep down she was anything but. Perhaps Li Yundong had found the passage?
Zi Yuan studied Zhang zhenren's expression for a moment. "I assume you haven't told anyone else about the hidden passage?"
Zhang zhenren smiled and shook his head. "Of course not. Even the patrol units knew nothing about it." Zhang zhenren looked back towards the temple. "I only told them to guard the entrance and prevent any thieves from accessing the vaults while we're here." Zhang zhenren paused. "Well, I suppose one unit knows. About the hidden passage, I mean." Zhang zhenren glanced at Zi Yuan. "But we can trust those guys. That's why I put them in charge of guarding the vault in the first place."
Zi Yuan nodded and looked back towards the temple. "Then there's nothing to worry about."
Zi Yuan had deliberately failed to mention how idiotic it was to station only one patrol unit outside the vault, since the members of the Fox Zen School could all escape through the hidden passage in the vault if they wanted to.
It had also occurred to Zi Yuan that Su Chan could be hiding inside the vault as well, which was a good thing since she might run into the Heir in the vault if he was in fact planning to infiltrate the Fox Zen School through the hidden passage.
White light flashed ahead, followed by a crackling sound.
"It seems like the action has begun," Zhang zhenren remarked in a tone of amusement.
The casting of the counter-spell had caused the enchantment to reveal its full structure: a large, semi-transparent dome which covered the entire temple.
Near the temple's door, a human-shaped hole begun to take shape. A second later, a man wielding an iron whip slipped in through the hole.
"Why attack now? Why not wait until the barrier is down before attacking?"
"Well." Zhang zhenren smiled at Zi Yuan. "Who am I to stop our fellow associates if they want to have some fun?" Zhang zhenren chuckled. "It's not all bad, Zi Yuan zhenren. We have the number's advantage to begin with. Besides…" Zhang zhenren glanced at Zi Yuan again. "It would give us the opportunity to gauge the Fox Zen School's strength."
There was another flash, after which the hole disappeared. The man with the iron whip was now inside the dome. Zi Yuan noted with interest that the barrier became invisible again as soon as the hole vanished. It would seem that the barrier's structure was only visible when the counter-spell was active.
A harsh, abrasive grinding noise sounded as Ye Yu's chakram came to life.
Zi Yuan could only wonder how much blood would be spilled by the time this night ended.
Li Yundong guided his Wandering Soul away from the map as soon as he felt it. Something strange was happening to his Vital Orb, something intriguing yet scary at the same time. The merging of his Wandering Soul with his body allowed him to put a finger on the strange sensation.
His lower Dantian was burning from the inside.
He activated Neiguan and quickly took stock of his body's internal state. The first thing he noticed was the size of the Vital Orb, which was now as large as his fist. A red orb sat inside his middle Dantian, which wasn't there when he last checked.
The Elixir of Fire.
That explained the burning sensation, which Li Yundong suspected was caused by the presence of this so-called True Flames.
Something shifted inside his Vital Orb. When he focused his Neiguan on his lower Dantian, he saw something totally freakish: something was uncurling from the surface of his Vital Orb, as though it was trying to crawl out from his Vital Orb.
Moments later, he saw a green blob emerging from his Vital Orb. As it rose, the green blob launched into a series of seemingly erratic expansion and contraction, as though it couldn't decide what form it should take. By the time it was fully outside his Vital Orb, the blob had morphed into the shape of a baby.
Li Yundong didn't even have time to puzzle over the sudden appearance of this baby-shaped thing when his whole world plunged into darkness. For a second there, he really thought he was screwed, that he had screwed up the attempt and gone into Zouhuo Rumo state.
But then he suddenly came to.
And when he did, he realized that he was that baby. His Sprit had somehow become attached to the baby.
Then it hit him.
This had to be his Yin Spirit.
It meant that he had just passed the Shentong phase. Apparently, the process of mastering the Nine Elixirs Method had grown his Vital Orb so much that his Yin Spirit had begun to develop.
To test out that theory, Li Yundong performed the Wandering Soul again.
As usual, his consciousness rose from his Baihui until it became fully detached from his physical body.
However, the end result was different this time.
This time, he could actually see his own form while viewing everything through his Wandering Soul. And his form was, unsurprisingly, that green apparition of a baby. Piqued, he guided his Yin Spirit around the large room, pausing every time he flew past Lin Youfa's corpse.
After a while, he guided his Yin Spirit downwards and let it hover above the map.
It's still there… It's still there…
The fire inside his Vital Orb continued to rage. At one point, the arms and legs of his Yin Spirit began to grow longer. It only took him a second to realize that the limbs of his Yin Spirit weren't just lengthening: they were maturing; his Yin Spirit was growing from its baby form into an apparition of him.
Unfortunately, he didn't get to see the complete maturation of his Yin Spirit. As soon as his Yin Spirit had matured into a toddler, it was sucked back into his body. The burning sensation inside his lower Dantian vanished instantly.
When he opened his eyes seconds later, he was himself again.
He exhaled lengthily and glanced down at his arms. He felt more powerful now, but other than that, everything was normal.
Those flames flashed inside his mind again.
"You… have… mastered… the Truth…"
The sharpness of that hissing voice made Li Yundong wince.
"Now… Go…" His mind's eye went ablaze. Colorful flames spread apart, forming a glorious halo. "Go… and… carry out… my will… Fulfill... your destiny..."
Li Yundong's body swayed, and he gripped his hair to stave off the intensity of those images.
"Those… who see my body… shall embrace the Bodhicitta…"
Li Yundong opened his mouth to scream, but no sound came out.
"Those… who hear my name… shall banish all evil… and cultivate goodness…"
It was as though those flames were burning his head from the inside.
"Those… who heed my teachings… shall obtain ultimate Wisdom…"
"Those… who understand my will… shall attain Buddhahood…" There was pause. "Whatever… you do… I… will… be… watching…"
The halo-like flames expanded, and everything went white.
Li Yundong felt his shoulder hit the floor.
The hissing voice persisted in the form of diminishing echoes.
And then it was over.
The flames were gone.