A giggle escaped Ruan Hongling's lips despite the gravity of the situation. Below them, the plump man's limbs had withdrawn into his torso, which had swollen up like a gigantic, round, spherical…
A meatball. The man had just transformed into a human meatball.
"What kind of spell is that, Zi Yuan jiějie?" Ruan Hongling burst into giggles again. "It looks like something from that cartoon show!"
Zi Yuan jiějie raised a brow.
"Oh, you know." Ruan Hongling bit her lip to stifle a smile. "Teenage mutant ninja turtles."
Zi Yuan jiějie looked like she had no idea what Ruan Hongling was talking about, so Ruan Hongling decided to let it drop.
The human meatball began to roll around on the floor to avoid the chakram's vicious slashes.
"Pfft! Hahaha…" Ruan Hongling clamped her hand over her mouth and then stole a quick glance sideways.
Amusement shone in Zi Yuan jiějie's eyes, much to Ruan Hongling's relief.
"Do not underestimate that spell, Hongling." The corner of Zi Yuan jiějie's lips twitched. "It's actually a pretty decent Earth-style escape spell."
Ruan Hongling let her hand drop from her mouth and gaped at Zi Yuan jiějie.
Zi Yuan jiějie smiled. "Watch," she said, indicating the ongoing battle with a slight head tilt.
The meatball rolled again. Sparks flew as the chakram scraped against the ground.
"I don't get it, Zi Yuan jiějie." Ruan Hongling bit her bottom lip. "He's just… rolling around."
Zi Yuan jiějie chuckled. "You'll see soon enough."
"Soon" turned out to be one minute later.
The chakram struck empty air.
"Hey—" Ruan Hongling was rendered speechless. The meatball had just vanished into the ground. "W- What? How did he do that?"
Zi Yuan jiějie answered with a cryptic smile.
The chakram continued to circle Ye Yu, who looked just as surprised as Ruan Hongling felt.
"Here it comes," Zi Yuan jiějie said.
Ruan Hongling leaned forward slightly and squinted through the darkness. "Whoa…"
The man rose from the ground a few feet behind Ye Yu, who didn't seem to be aware of his presence yet.
Suddenly, Ye Yu turned around, but she was too late.
The man's thick arms wrapped around Ye Yu's body, successfully trapping her in a tight bear hug. Something was happening to the man's arms, like they were turning into rocks.
"It's called the Earth Transformation Spell."
Zi Yuan jiějie's voice brought Ruan Hongling out of her trance.
"That huge boulder just now is actually an earth shield," Zi Yuan jiějie explained. "The user can also harden his flesh, effectively turning his flesh into stone."
"But how did he… how did he go underground?" Ruan Hongling asked. "There wasn't even a hole on the ground. It's like he…" Ruan Hongling gestured with her hands wildly as she searched for the right term.
"Like he could move through the earth?" Zi Yuan jiějie said.
Ruan Hongling turned to face her mentor. "E- Exactly."
Zi Yuan jiějie nodded. "In its most advanced form, the Earth Transformation Spell allows its user to become one with the earth. You could move through the earth, or even conceal yourself in the ground as long as you have to spiritual energy to maintain the spell. It's a very good escape tool."
The sound of roaring laughter drew Ruan Hongling's attention back to the battle.
"You're done for, demon witch!" the short man snarled. "Now you can't use that chakram of yours unless you want to slice your own body in half." The man snickered. "Meanwhile, I'm just going to crush your body with my bare hands."
"The battle is over." Disdain colored Zi Yuan jiějie's tone. "He's too careless. Too full of himself."
The crowd's cheers turned into screams of horror when Ye Yu transformed into her fox form. Seconds later, a seven-tailed fox with fire red fur towered over the temple. One of Ye Yu's tails rose and plucked the short man off her back. A loud crack sounded when the man's body slammed into the ground.
Ruan Hongling winced internally when one of Ye Yu's paws squashed the man's body into a bloody pulp.
The short man's Yin Spirit rose from under Ye Yu's paw.
"Uh-oh," Ruan Hongling said.
A soft sigh was Zi Yuan jiějie's only reply.
They both knew what was coming.
Ye Yu's mouth opened wide.
The crowd went into an uproar: some were screaming in anger; some were screaming in fear.
The short man attempted to flee with his Yin Spirit, but he was too late; his Yin Spirit was sucked right into the seven-tailed fox's mouth.
"You goddamned demon witch!" someone from the crowd yelled.
"Release this barrier now so that we can kill you properly!"
The crowd was silenced when all of Ye Yu's seven tails slammed into the ground. A feral grin formed on the giant fox's mouth.
Someone broke the silence.
"The Jinshan Sect will not tolerate this!"
"Release the barrier you cowards!"
The fox's body glowed in red as it begun to shrink in size. Seconds later, Ye Yu was back in her human form, grinning smugly at the members of the Great Six through the barrier.
Ruan Hongling looked towards her mentor. "She's strong…"
"This is nothing," Zi Yuan jiějie remarked. "Wushuang-qiánbèi is far more powerful."
Ruan Hongling nodded. If this was what a seven-tailed fox spirit could do, she couldn't even imagine what kind of power a nine-tailed fox spirit like the Mystical Silver Fox possessed.
Suddenly, Zi Yuan jiějie took a small step towards the sound barrier. "Hongling…"
Ruan Hongling's stomach dropped when she noticed the tensed set of Zi Yuan jiějie's shoulders.
Ruan Hongling quickly followed Zi Yuan jiějie's gaze to see what was wrong.
Something was happening at the temple.
Below, the crowd had parted to two sides to make way for Zhang Tianhé zhenren, who was moving towards the temples protective barrier. On the other side of the barrier, an old man was stepping out from the temple. A long, grey robe enveloped the man's dwarfish figure. The robe billowed and fluttered around the old man with every measured step he took. Trailing after the old man was his entourage, which consisted of the members of the Fox Zen School.
Ruan Hongling noted with interest that aside from Liu Ye and one other man among the entourage, the rest of them were all women.
Zhang Tianhé zhenren unsheathed his sword. A golden radiance emerged from Zhang Zhenren's right hand, dispelling the gloom in the temple's vicinity.
"Z- Zi Yuan jiějie…" Ruan Hongling never thought she would have the opportunity to see that sword with her own eyes. "I- Is that…"
"Mm," Zi Yuan jiějie said. "The Sword of Seven Stars."
Zhang Tianhé zhenren's clear voice resonated through the night. "So you have finally shown yourself, Liu Ye."
"Round up your people and leave, Zhang zhenren." The old man stopped beside Ye Yu. "Before more blood is spilled." The old man flicked the sleeve of his robe. "I see a lot of young faces here. It is such a waste for them to die in such needless scuffles."
A woman stepped forward from the entourage, stopping on Liu Ye's right.
Ruan Hongling felt Zi Yuan jiějie shift beside her.
"There you are," Zi Yuan jiějie whispered to herself, "you snake in the grass…"
Frowning, Ruan Hongling observed the woman on Liu Ye's right. The woman's posture and facial expression bespoke a regal air and a dignified comportment. Compared to Ye Yu, this woman looked far less threatening.
Then, it clicked.
"Wait… You mean that's Mo Ahshi?!" Ruan Hongling practically screamed. Pretty sure the entire mountain would've heard her voice by now if they didn't have the sound barrier.
"I think so," Zi Yuan jiějie answered after a moment.
"But I thought you've never met her before," Ruan Hongling said with a pause. "How could you tell?"
"Take a closer look at the woman's hair."
Realization swamped Ruan Hongling. "The hairpin…"
"Mm." Zi Yuan jiějie's gaze remained fixed upon the scene below them. "It's her, Hongling. There's no mistake."
"B- But she looks so… so…" Ruan Hongling shook her head. "I mean, she's like a Bodhisattva!"
"Never judge a person by their appearance, Hongling," Zi Yuan jiějie said, sounding unimpressed.
"I know… It's just…"
Ruan Hongling didn't manage to finish her sentence as Zhang Tianhé zhenren's voice sounded again.
"We will leave once your walls are reduced to ruins."
"Your plan has been foiled, Zhang zhenren," Liu Ye said. "There is no way you can breach this barrier. It is futile."
It surprised Ruan Hongling a little that a frail old man could speak that loudly.
"Oh, I beg to differ, Liu Ye," Zhang Tianhé zhenren said in a smug tone.
"Is this what you call a successful assault, Zhang zhenren? Sending in one man at a time to face all of us?" Liu Ye gestured at the army of battle-ready fox spirits behind him. "You are sending your men to their deaths."
Zhang Tianhé zhenren's elegant laughter sounded below.
"It would seem that your fears are unfounded, Liu zhǎngmén," Ye Yu sneered, ignoring Zhang Tianhé zhenren's laughter. "At this rate, I alone can dispatch these weaklings." A look of disdain spread across Ye Yu's face. "We don't even have to count on that despicable woman to show up."
Ruan Hongling frowned. Despicable woman? It took Ruan Hongling a second to realize that Ye Yu was referring to Ao Wushuang.
"None of them knew," Ruan Hongling commented. "None of them suspected anything."
"Wushuang-qiánbèi never got along with any of them," Zi Yuan jiějie answered. "I doubt anyone bothered to look into her disappearance."
Not even Liu Ye?
Ruan Hongling looked towards the temple, where Liu Ye and Zhang zhenren appeared to be having a heated argument with each other.
"Get ready, Hongling." Zi Yuan jiějie's serious tone interrupted Ruan Hongling's observations. "Things are about to go south."
Ruan Hongling squared her shoulders and gave Zi Yuan jiějie a firm nod.
I can do this… I can do this…
"Do you know your mission?"
Ruan Hongling nodded. "Sneak into the temple. Find Bahuang. Find Su Chan."
"Tell me your plan," Zi Yuan jiějie said. "What's your strategy?"
Ruan Hongling answered in a heartbeat, "I'll let the damask find the girl while I myself search for Bahuang."
Zi Yuan jiějie seemed impressed. "That would be wise."
"If I find Bahuang, I will summon you with the talisman," Ruan Hongling continued to outline her plan. "If I find Su Chan and her life is in immediate danger, I will summon you with the talisman. If her life isn't in immediate danger, I will take note of her location and then report it back to you."
Zi Yuan jiějie suddenly turned her head. "And in the event of an emergency?"
Ruan Hongling forced herself to meet her shījiě's stern gaze. "I will activate the talisman and summon you to my location immediately."
"Good." A thoughtful look spread across Zi Yuan jiějie's features. "When you're looking for Bahuang…" Zi Yuan jiějie trailed off as though she was considering her words carefully.
"What is it, shījiě?"
"Avoid the common areas in the temple." Zi Yuan jiějie frowned. "If she has the sword, she's most likely going to keep it hidden somewhere to avoid Liu Ye's suspicion." Zi Yuan jiějie glanced at her briefly. "I'm not sure about the rest of his disciples, but I think Liu Ye knows that Wushuang-qiánbèi had Bahuang."
"Understood." Ruan Hongling nodded. "I know what to do."
Zi Yuan jiějie's expression remained thoughtful when she returned her gaze to the temple. "The battle is probably going to take place in front of the temple. However, the Great Six has the number's advantage, so they're probably going to spread out to cover more ground."
"And to prevent anyone from escaping," Ruan Hongling added.
The Great Six had made things pretty clear back at the guesthouse: slaughter everyone; leave none alive.
Ruan Hongling turned her head when she felt Zi Yuan jiějie's gaze on her.
"You need to infiltrate the temple from above."
Zi Yuan jiějie nodded. "Once the barrier is down, fly up high and then lower yourself to the temple's compound. Make sure to be quick."
"Roger that." Ruan Hongling froze, suddenly remembering something. "When do you think—"
Zi Yuan jiějie raised her hand and pointed at the temple below them. "Something's going on."
Zhang Zhenren's voice was too soft to be audible, but Ruan Hongling knew that he was speaking to a few members of the Great Six. What surprised Ruan Hongling a little was that nobody was working on the counter-spell.
Maybe because they know they won't be needing the counter-spell soon, an ominous voice sounded inside Ruan Hongling's head.
"Leave, Zhang zhenren!" Liu Ye said loudly. "It is over."
Zhang zhenren stopped speaking and turned around to face the barrier. The Sword of Seven Stars suddenly stabbed itself into the ground.
"That's where you're wrong, old man," Zhang zhenren said in a confident tone. "The game's just about to begin!"
"You're wasting your time!" Liu Ye snapped.
Zhang zhenren laughed. "Am I?"
"What is the point of all this, Zhang zhenren?" Liu Ye said. "The Fox Zen School has never harmed anyone!"
"You shouldn't waste your breath on the likes of him, Liu zhǎngmén," Ye Yu sneered. "These people are just a bunch of lunatics."
Zhang zhenren suddenly stopped laughing, and a confident smirk spread across his handsome features. "The barrier is coming down, old man."
Liu Ye slid his hands under the sleeves of his robe. "You're out of your mind."
Zhang zhenren suddenly grabbed the hilt of the Sword of Seven Stars. "And you, Great Seer, are blind."
It all happened so fast that Ruan Hongling almost missed it: Liu Ye's body flew backwards until it crashed into wall of the temple; Ye Yu sank to her knees, her chakram rolling uselessly on the ground.
Mo Ahshi's hair had come loose, though it wasn't the woman's hair that struck terror into Ruan Hongling's heart.
It was the woman's face.
The face of a female rakshasa.