The arrival of dusk saw the beginning of bloodshed in Mount Tianlong. Crimson spilled forth, blending into the dark ambience surrounding the temple. The sounds of bones crushing and flesh rupturing drifted into Zi Yuan's ears.
First blood had just been drawn.
And Zi Yuan found herself questioning the entire purpose of Cultivation. Was this really the so-called path to transcendence? Or was the world of Cultivation long past its glory days?
In the olden days, master Cultivators sought to spread the truth and cultivate virtue amongst humanity. Nowadays, Cultivators associate themselves with pointless squabbles and petty crimes.
When had things come to this?
Above the bloody corpse on the ground, the glowing chakram gyrated, reveling in its first kill of the night. A second later, the chakram abandoned its victim and returned to its master's waiting hands.
"She's pretty strong, isn't she?"
Zi Yuan turned sideways to face her companion, the man whose company was anything but welcomed.
Zhang Tianhé zhenren's broad smile remained visible in the dark, much to Zi Yuan's displeasure. Why couldn't this man leave her alone already? She didn't even want to see his face. Zi Yuan curled her lips. She knew exactly why the man was so intent on bugging her.
"The seven-tailed fox spirit, Ye Yu," Zhang zhenren continued as though he didn't have a single clue of Zi Yuan's bubbling annoyance.
Sometimes, Zi Yuan wished she couldn't hide her emotions so well.
Zhang zhenren chuckled. "And it's my first time seeing the Adamantine Chakram of Magnificence in action too."
Zi Yuan frowned and returned her gaze to the front.
A green apparition rose from the misshapen corpse on the ground; the man had managed to activate his Yin Spirit in time.
"Ye Yu! You demon witch! How dare you destroy my body!"
Ye Yu released the chakram in her hand and let it circle above her head.
"We can go for another round if you're not satisfied," Ye Yu taunted. "Though I assure you that it will be the end of you this time."
"You witch!" the apparition growled.
A ruckus spread over the crowd of Cultivators gathered outside the barrier. Boos and hisses drowned out the apparition's angry curses.
Heathens, Zi Yuan concluded, curling her lips in disdain. The majority of the Great Six consisted of heathens.
As though to prove Zi Yuan right, a brouhaha erupted among the crowd.
"Tsk, tsk, tsk… The Quanzhen Dragon Sect has become rather weak, hasn't it?"
"Hmph. Just look at the man. His body is in tatters! And the fight barely lasted three seconds. How pathetic."
"Right? Leave it to the Quanzhen Dragon Sect to ruin the Great Six's reputation."
"You mean you folks never saw this coming? Hah! Lemme tell you something. The Quanzhen Dragon Sect is a mere shadow of its former self."
A sardonic smile spread across Zi Yuan's lips. The entire Cultivation world was a mere shadow of its former self. Not that these people cared.
"I suppose you're right. Its glory days were back in Qiu Chuji's time."
"Oh, yes. Definitely."
"Indeed. Master Changchun was the most famous among the Seven True Taoists of the North."
"But sadly, his legacy was ruined by Yi Zhiping, Li Zhichang, and their cohorts…"
"Mm-hmm. It gets worse generation after generation, doesn't it?"
"Shut up! Who are you people to be bad-mouthing our sect!"
"Yeah! You people from the Golden Elixir Sect are no better than us!"
"What the hell did you say?! How dare you lump our sect together with the likes of yours!"
"Tch! Which powerful Cultivator has the Golden Elixir Sect produced since Zhang Bóduān and Bai Yüchan? Oh, that's right. No one. Heh. No one worth mentioning anyway."
"Hey, hey… Relax… My fellow friend from the Golden Elixir Sect. Just let it go, eh?" There was a sneer. "It is not worth your time arguing with these weaklings."
A chorus of yells and curses broke out. Someone from the Quanzhen Dragon Sect stepped forward to quiet the ruckus.
"Yeah. You're one to talk. The Donghua Sect is even worse than the Golden Elixir Sect!"
"Well said, shīxiōng! Well said! The Donghua Sect hasn't produced a single worthy Cultivator ever since Ning Quanzhen died nearly a thousand years ago! These hacks have no right to even open their mouths here!"
Zi Yuan heard a loud sigh beside her.
"Well. I guess that's my cue to step in." Zhang zhenren let out a resigned chuckle. "It's best if I do something before they start killing each other."
Zi Yuan smirked. Good riddance, I say.
Zhang zhenren gave her a pointed look which rubbed her the wrong way. "I expect you to join us soon, Zi Yuan zhenren." One of Zhang zhenren's brows rose. "The Zhengyi School thrives on the loyalty of its subsidiary sects." A slow smirk crept onto Zhang Zhenren's lips. "The Linggong Sect has been rather… quiet, of late."
Zi Yuan's skin crawled.
"The Linggong Sect's loyalty has always been with the Zhengyi School." Zi Yuan gave Zhang Tianhé a smirk of her own. "Perhaps you have forgotten how much my master had sacrificed for the sake of the Zhengyi School all those years ago."
Zhang Tianhé's smirk faltered instantly.
"I will step in when the time is right, Zhang zhenren." Zi Yuan quirked a brow. "And when I'm actually needed." She tilted her head towards the quarrelling crowd.
Zhang zhenren regarded Zi Yuan for a moment before he nodded. "See that you do, Zi Yuan zhenren. See that you do."
Zi Yuan watched through narrowed eyes as Zhang zhenren floated away from the grove they had been hiding in. Zi Yuan had picked this grove due to its density—she could use the trees for cover. The fact that it was located on higher ground helped as well, since it would give her a good vantage point of the temple.
Zi Yuan didn't like what she had seen so far. There hadn't been a single sign of Mo Ahshi.
The noise from the crowd dwindled when Zhang zhenren rejoined the crowd.
"Calm yourselves, my fellow comrades." Zhang zhenren's voice resonated through the night. "Tonight, we, the members of the Great Six have convened for a common goal and to take down a common enemy! We…"
Zi Yuan stopped listening when she felt a familiar presence in her vicinity. Relief coursed through her as Hongling's figure scoured through the dark foliage and landed beside her. The damask hovered above her protégé's head after she landed.
Hongling opened her mouth to speak but Zi Yuan silenced her with a finger.
Realization crept into Hongling's wide eyes, and her mouth clicked shut.
Zi Yuan pulled out a talisman and went through a series of hand signs.
Water Element: Sound Barrier.
The talisman on Zi Yuan's palm began to glow in red; the surrounding water vapor shifted and gathered until she and Hongling were enclosed inside a transparent bubble.
"Did you find her?" Zi Yuan asked once the spell was in place.
Hongling shook her head dejectedly.
Zi Yuan frowned. "I see."
Hongling glanced down at her feet guiltily. "I… I'm sorry, Zi Yuan jiějie."
Zi Yuan reached over and rubbed her protégé's arm affectionately. "Don't be silly, Hongling. It's not your fault that she isn't here."
Hongling nodded weakly.
Zi Yuan released a soft sigh. Hongling had been walking on eggshells around Zi Yuan ever since their yelling match the other night.
"What did you find, then?"
Zi Yuan turned her head instantly, almost wishing that it was a joke. Alas, Hongling's grave expression bespoke the significance of that finding.
"Five. All of them belonged to the members of the Great Six."
Zi Yuan mulled over Hongling's findings in silence. "The Heir's doing?"
Hongling shook her head. "Doesn't seem like it." Hongling pulled out something from her pocket. "I also found this."
Zi Yuan took the paper and studied it.
It was a talisman.
"The Divine Fist School." Zi Yuan frowned. "I see."
Zi Yuan shook her head in disgust. The talisman burst into flames courtesy of a Fire spell.
"It was brutal, Zi Yuan jiějie." Hongling shuddered. "One of the corpses didn't even have a head."
Guess we now know what happened to Zhang zhenren's trusted patrol unit.
"Any Yin Spirits flying around?" Zi Yuan asked.
"No." Hongling paused. "I doubt any of them had reached the Yuanying phase, Zi Yuan jiějie."
Zi Yuan hummed in agreement. It made sense. Zhang Tianhé would choose to keep the powerful ones here for the assault.
"Any signs of the Heir?"
Hongling shook her head again.
Zi Yuan nodded. "Good."
If Hongling couldn't detect his presence, then it meant that he had hidden the Jindan's Aura well.
"Do you think he's here? In Mount Tianlong?" Hongling asked tentatively.
"Of course he's here," Zi Yuan said. As if there could be any doubt about that.
Hongling nodded meekly.
A companionable silence filled the space between them.
"What about you, Zi Yuan jiějie?" Hongling stared up at her. "Did you manage to find anything?"
Disgust welled up inside Zi Yuan's throat as she shook her head. "I was being watched."
Hongling visibly tensed up. "By whom?"
"By Zhang Tianhé and his people, no doubt." Zi Yuan glanced at Hongling from the corner of her eyes. "It's another reason I chose to hide here."
Hongling began to glance around fearfully.
"Don't worry," Zi Yuan said. "Nobody's watching now."
Hongling stopped her frantic glances. "Oh."
"He was testing me, Hongling." Zi Yuan chuckled humorlessly. "Wanted to see where my true loyalty lies."
Hongling sighed. "So what do we do now, Zi Yuan jiějie?"
"Have you searched the entire mountain?"
"Yes," Hongling mumbled.
"Even the summit?"
"And there were no signs of her aura?"
Zi Yuan hummed thoughtfully. The damask would know if Su Chan was in fact nearby. "Either she isn't in the mountain. Or…"
"Or she's in there?" Hongling pointed at the temple.
Zi Yuan nodded. "Mo Ahshi hasn't made her move yet."
"Wait. You mean she hasn't shown herself?" Hongling sounded surprised. "Not even once?"
Zi Yuan shook her head. "The barrier is still up." Zi Yuan paused in thought. "At least we know that Liu Ye is still alive."
Hongling sighed dejectedly. "I guess it's pointless to ask where Bahuang is then…"
"The barrier will come down once Mo Ahshi makes her move." Zi Yuan paused, holding Hongling's gaze. "He's expecting us to fight." Zi Yuan tilted her head towards the crowd where Zhang Tianhé appeared to be giving a lecture on teamwork and the pride of the Great Six.
A conflicted look spread across Hongling's face, the sight of which made Zi Yuan smile.
"Why? Having scruples about killing fox spirits now, Hongling?" Zi Yuan teased. "That's a first."
Hongling's face crimsoned when she looked away.
"Hasn't it been your wish to wipe out these so-called foul creatures from the face of the earth, hmm?"
Zi Yuan knew she shouldn't teased the poor girl so much, but she just couldn't help herself.
Hongling's blush deepened.
"T- They aren't all bad," Hongling mumbled.
Zi Yuan's smile widened. Zi Yuan had known for a while now that Hongling's view on fox spirits had changed. To be exact, she had known since the night the twins died at the hands of Hé Shao. Zi Yuan didn't think she could ever forget the look on Hongling's face that night when they both saw Su Chan, a supposed demon witch, trying desperately to save the life of a human girl.
Something warm bloomed inside Zi Yuan's chest.
You've grown, Hongling. And I'm so proud of you…
"Don't worry, Hongling."
Hongling's gaze suddenly returned to Zi Yuan's face.
Zi Yuan gave her protégé a firm look, hoping that it would reassure the girl. "All eyes will be on me once the fighting starts." She paused and cast a glance towards the temple. "I'm not expecting you to take part in the battle."
Zi Yuan glanced at Hongling. The poor girl looked puzzled.
"I have another mission for you."
The red damask faltered in its flight and landed on Hongling's shoulder.
"This is important, Hongling." Zi Yuan gave her a protégé a serious look. "And you must not fail me."
Hongling stood up straighter. "O- Oh." Hongling cleared her throat. "I- I'll try my best, Zi Yuan jiějie."
"All hell's going to break loose once the barrier is down." Zi Yuan paused pointedly. "When the fighting begins, I want you to sneak into the temple."
Hongling's eyes widened slightly.
"Infiltrate the temple." Zi Yuan nodded firmly. "See if you can find out where Su Chan and Bahuang are."
Zi Yuan slipped a talisman into Hongling's palm, then gave her a pointed look. "This will summon me to you when activated."
Hongling stared at the talisman for a moment before she pocketed it.
"If you encounter Mo Ahshi inside the temple and she happens to have the sword, do not engage," Zi Yuan said sternly. "Do not attempt to take Bahuang on your own." Zi Yuan paused. "Instead, you are to summon me with the talisman immediately. Do you understand?"
Hongling gave her a shaky nod.
"Good." Zi Yuan sighed and looked towards the temple. "With any luck, the Heir would arrive and stop this mess before a carnage breaks out." Zi Yuan shot Hongling a glance. "He's probably going to start his search from the temple."
"But what if she isn't even here?" Hongling stared at Zi Yuan for a moment. "We've run out of leads, Zi Yuan jiějie." Hongling sighed. "It's like she's gone without a single trace."
"There is another option," Zi Yuan said thoughtfully, then shook her head. "But I fear we might not have the opportunity."
Zi Yuan glanced at Hongling briefly. "Liu Ye."
Recognition flashed inside Hongling's eyes. "I- I see…"
"The Great Seer might have ways to find her." Zi Yuan paused. "But Mo Ahshi might take him out before we even have the chance to ask him for help." Zi Yuan let out a heavy sigh. "And then there's the fact that he hasn't found Wushuang-qiánbèi yet, which is very worrying." Zi Yuan shook her head. "Either he hasn't suspected anything yet, or…"
"Or what?" Hongling asked.
Zi Yuan shook her head instead of answering.
Or Wushuang-qiánbèi's captor had managed to conceal Wushuang-qiánbèi's location from the Great Seer's sight. There were certainly ways to accomplish that. Powerful sealing spells could pull it off; so could magical objects such as the Purple Gold Jade Plate.
"Zi Yuan jiějie?"
Zi Yuan waved a hand. "Never mind—"
A bright flash appeared below. Zi Yuan looked towards the temple. A human-sized gap was slowly forming on the barrier's surface.
"That's a counter-spell, right?" Hongling asked.
Hongling stepped forward until her face was less than an inch away from the sound barrier Zi Yuan had erected earlier. "Hey… I know that man." Hongling turned around to look at Zi Yuan. "He's the one whose conversation I overheard back at the guesthouse."
Zi Yuan stepped in to take a closer look. A short, plump man was sliding through the gap. "Which sect is he from?"
"The Jinshan Sect."
"I don't know who his opponent is though," Hongling mumbled.
"Ye Yu," Zi Yuan answered quickly. "She's a seven-tailed fox spirit."
The battle began when Ye Yu's chakram hurtled towards the short man.
"You know we can't just walk up to Liu Ye and ask him about Su Chan, right?" Hongling said all of a sudden. "Zhang zhenren will be watching."
"Of course we can't," Zi Yuan said without taking her eyes off the battle. "Hopefully the Heir would show up before anything happens to Liu Ye."
"You'd think he'd be here by now," Hongling grumbled, "given that he's fast enough to dodge lighting."
Zi Yuan smiled at that remark.
"He'll be here, Hongling."
The glowing chakram morphed into a blue streak, chasing its enemy back and forth. As the battle continued, Zi Yuan began to wonder if things would've been different had Master not left them so soon.