One of the biggest benefits Li Yundong had reaped from his grueling trial against the Heavens was his heightened strength of will. Nothing frightened him anymore. Not guns. Not status and power. Not the Heavens. Not a cunning old man who possessed the ability to transform into a monstrous demigod. And certainly not the army of magic-wielding men gathered in front of him.
An army of savages who called themselves Cultivators.
Zi Yuan hadn't been kidding when she told him that he would be walking into a warzone.
Li Yundong exhaled slowly and crossed his arms in front of his chest. At the moment, he felt strong, confident, like he could handle anything; and the reassuring presence of the Fan of Seven Treasures under his feet only served to bolster that confidence. Deep inside his middle Dantian, the Elixir of Fire pulsated, releasing a steady stream of True Flames into his system. The True Flames fired along his meridians, pooling in his lower Dantian where they were absorbed by his Vital Orb. His spiritual energy had never felt so powerful before.
"Who are you?"
Li Yundong glanced down at the owner of that cold voice—a young man who was clearly the one in charge with leading the assault. Thanks to the Fan of Seven Treasures, the man was forced to tilt his head upwards to look at Li Yundong's face.
Li Yundong could tell that the man didn't enjoy the height difference.
"Who are you?" the man repeated in a harsher tone.
"Someone who is about to put an end to your barbaric acts," Li Yundong said as he scanned the faces of everyone in the large assemblage.
C'mon, Zi Yuan… Where are you?
Li Yundong pushed his Zhenqi to his Shenting.
A soft buzzing entered his ears.
"Barbaric, you say?"
The golden sword rose until its length was parallel to the ground.
Under his feet, the Fan of Seven Treasures started quivering uncontrollably. Easy, buddy… Easy, Li Yundong sent a telepathic message to the fan. Let me handle this, okay?
The quivering stopped.
"Attacking a wounded old man and a group of women?" Li Yundong glared at the young commander. "What else would you call that? An act of virtue?"
The golden sword lowered until its tip touched the ground.
Li Yundong ignored the look of incredulity on the young commander's face and continued to scan the crowd for Zi Yuan's elegant figure.
Zi Yuan hadn't spoken to him yet. Or had she? Even with the powers granted to him by the Ningshen phase, he still found it difficult to isolate Zi Yuan's voice from the pandemonium surrounding the temple. So far, he heard yells, curses, and even questioning whispers from those wondering who he was.
There were just too goddamned many of them.
"Quiet!" Li Yundong roared.
The Great Six's legion fell silent.
"…hear me? Li Yundong… Can you hear me?"
There we go…
Zi Yuan's voice sounded like it came from the sky. He glanced up surreptitiously but saw nothing. So she wasn't in the sky, then.
Maybe she's on higher ground?
Li Yundong frowned. What? Left? His eyes darted left. He didn't see Zi Yuan or Ruan Hongling.
What did she mean, left?
He focused harder on Zi Yuan's voice.
"…left. I repeat, if you can hear me, turn your head left," Zi Yuan whispered softly.
Li Yundong turned his head left.
"I repeat—" There was a hitch in Zi Yuan's voice. "You can hear me?"
Li Yundong turned his head left again.
"About time." Zi Yuan sounded a little annoyed even though her voice was only a whisper. "Talk to him." There was a pause. "He probably can't hear me, but I don’t want to take any chances."
Li Yundong glanced down at the man with the long sword.
The man was staring back at Li Yundong with calculating eyes, as though he was trying to decide his next move. Li Yundong got the impression that the man wanted to attack, but was too wary to do so.
Li Yundong uncrossed his arms and waved a hand at the temple's façade. "Why are you attacking these people?"
"That's it… Keep talking to him," Zi Yuan whispered softly.
The young commander kept studying Li Yundong while the rest of the legion remained silent. Seconds later, the young commander started laughing.
"Here are the basic facts," Zi Yuan said in her normal voice, clearly taking advantage of the commander's distraction. "Wushuang-qiánbèi is still alive, but she was sealed inside a powerful magical object." Zi Yuan's voice hitched again. "Li Yundong…"
Li Yundong decided that he didn't like that tone; it sounded way too ominous, way too forbidding.
"It… It was… It was my shībó… She…" He heard a sharp intake of breath. "She's the one behind everything... I… Sorry." Zi Yuan cleared her throat. "Hongling has scoured the entire Mount Tianlong including the summit. No signs of Su Chan. The only place we haven't checked is the temple—"
"Don’t'…" Zi Yuan's voice hardened the moment Li Yundong wheeled around to look at the temple. "Hongling is already inside the temple. Right now, you need to stay here and hold off the attack, do you understand?"
Li Yundong clenched his jaw and turned back around to face the legion of the Great Six's Cultivators. The young commander was still shaking his head in laughter.
"What the hell is so funny?" Li Yundong growled. "Are the lives of those women some kind of joke to you? You take pleasure in slaughtering them?" He paused to glare at the man. "Do you not fear Buddha's wrath?"
Those who hear my name shall banish all evil…
"Women?" the young commander retorted with yet another laugh. "I'm sorry, but you seem to be a bit confused here." The commander levelled his sword at the temple. "That, my friend, is the Fox Zen School. The lair of fox spirits." The tip of the sword shifted towards a group of women gathered beside the entrance. "And they, are all fox spirits."
"And you're all supposed to be Cultivators," Li Yundong said brusquely. "Not a bunch of cold-blooded killers."
The same look of incredulity flitted across the commander's face.
The commander was speaking again, but Li Yundong was too focused on Zi Yuan's voice to listen to the man's yapping.
"Keep Grandmaster Liu Ye alive." There was a pause. "The Great Seer is our only hope of finding Su Chan if it turns out that she isn't inside the temple."
Li Yundong stole another glance at the temple's entrance. Those young women had formed a circle around the injured old man. A few of the women were huddled beside the old man, tending to his wounds. The rest of them stood around with their weapons drawn, clearly prepared to guard their leader with their lives.
Li Yundong had counted three dead bodies so far. One man and one woman. He couldn't tell the gender of the third body since bones and dry skin were all that was left of it; there wasn't even any clothing or fabric lying around to help him identify the victim's gender.
The sword-wielding commander was still speaking.
"…of the Great Six. This does not concern the Esoteric Sect."
"The Esoteric Sect?" Li Yundong raised his brow. "Who says I'm from the Esoteric Sect?"
Zi Yuan's voice drifted to his ears again. "That's Zhang Tianhé zhenren from the Zhengyi School." There was a steely edge in her tone when she mentioned that name. "Do not underestimate him." A pause. "He's the only one here that you need to worry about. The others don't stand a chance against you."
"Oh? So you're saying you're not from the Esoteric Sect?" Zhang zhenren laughed. "Sorry, but I don't buy it. Only a true master from the Esoteric Sect can pull off the techniques from the Mahamudra Tantra like you did."
The crowd erupted in screams and yells when the words Mahamudra Tantra left Zhang zhenren's lips.
Zhang zhenren thrust the golden sword towards the sky. "Silence!"
The uproar died down.
"That's the Sword of Seven Stars," Zi Yuan whispered. "A very powerful sword. It's one of the five most well-known swords in the Cultivation world."
"… I don't know what kind of connection you have with the Fox Zen School," Zhang zhenren continued, "but let me give you one word of advice." Zhang zhenren took a step forward. "From one master to another."
Li Yundong raised his brows.
"Walk away," Zhang zhenren said coldly.
Li Yundong stared at the man for a second, then chuckled. "Walk away?" He stopped laughing and glared at Zhang zhenren. "And let you slaughter these people?" He jerked his chin towards the temple. "Not a chance."
"I urge you to reconsider, my friend. This is an official business that you're interfering with."
Li Yundong's brows rose higher. "Official business?"
"This assault was sanctioned by the Great Six. Any attempt to hinder it will be treated as an act of defiance against the Great Six." Zhang zhenren paused emphatically. "However, I'm willing to turn a blind eye if you walk away now."
Anger coursed through Li Yundong.
"I'm not going anywhere."
Zhang zhenren shook his head. "Listen to me, my fellow zhenren." Zhang zhenren pointed at the temple with his sword. "That accursed place is a breeding ground for evil. Nothing good will come out of an alliance with such an organization. Your name and reputation will be tarnished forever if you associate yourself with them!"
"If they are evil, then what are you?" Li Yundong said, crossing his arms in front of his chest again. "Thieves? Robbers? Murderers?"
Zhang zhenren's expression faltered.
Instead of leaping down from the Fan of Seven Treasures, Li Yundong lowered himself into a crouch so that their faces were closer. "I'll tell you what you are," he sneered, pointing a finger at Zhang zhenren. "You're all bigots. Dogmatists who villainize anyone with different values." He lowered his finger and let his gaze sweep across the army of Cultivators behind Zhang zhenren. "Wolves in a sheep's clothing. Devils masquerading as saints."
Something flickered inside Zhang zhenren's eyes, which had grown wide at the accusation.
"Good. Just keep talking," Zi Yuan said. "None of them are attacking because they're afraid of you. Let's try to keep it that way."
"You're making a huge mistake, zhenren," Zhang zhenren said in a dangerous tone.
Li Yundong smirked. "A mista—"
Shrieks and screams broke out before he could finish his sentence.
"No! Liu zhǎngmén!"
Li Yundong wheeled around and saw the Fox Zen School's women bustling around frantically. Shit. Did the old man just die?
"Potion! We need more potion!"
"I-I- I'll go get them!"
One of the women quickly left the group and ran back into the temple.
Li Yundong leaped down from the Fan of Seven Treasures and turned around to face Zhang zhenren and his men.
SNAP! The Fan of Seven Treasures spread open when Li Yundong touched its rivet. The flabbergasted look on Zhang zhenren's face right then almost made this entire shitty situation worthwhile. Almost.
Gasps and words of shock washed over the Great Six's assemblage.
"B- But that's…"
"The Fan of Seven Treasures!"
"That's Pan Shi's…"
"Where did he even get it?!"
"I don't think anybody has seen it since…"
Li Yundong leaped into the air and swung the tessen in a wide arc. The air stirred, and the crowd screamed.
"Take cover, my lord!!"
Streams of concentrated air currents swept across the ground in the direction of Li Yundong's swing, carving out a line on the ground. Li Yundong landed on one side of the partition, while Zhang zhenren retreated to the other side.
"Up!" Li Yundong said, releasing the rivet. A powerful gale blustered against the ground when the Fan of Seven Treasures shot into the air like a missile.
Zhang zhenren raised his sword to the front of his torso as he retreated a few steps.
"Guard!" Li Yundong barked out another order.
The Fan of Seven Treasures stopped its ascent instantly. The runes and inscriptions of the Diamond Sutra began to glow.
Li Yundong glared at the Great Six's army. "If anybody crosses this line…" Li Yundong tapped the ground with his foot, and then looked back up at the Fan of Seven Treasures. "You know what to do."
The blades on the fan's leaves begun to rotate.
Li Yundong turned around and made his way towards the fallen grandmaster. Alas, his actions must have come across as hostile since the women raised their weapons the moment he got close. A few brave ones even stepped forward to block his path.
Li Yundong stopped in his tracks. "At ease, ladies," he said, raising a hand in a placating gesture. "I'm here to help."
The weapons stayed up, though they were all trembling inside their owners' grips. Just like that, Li Yundong's respect for these women grew substantially.
These poor women were all frightened out of their wits, yet here they were, guarding their leader even though they knew it would be the last thing they ever did.
"Ladies," Li Yundong said, softening his tone. "I mean no harm. I swear."
There was a retching sound followed by a series of coughs.
"No, grandmaster! Please stay still!"
"Let… h- him…" More coughs. "T- Through… He has… Fan… Treasures…Wu… Wushuang… t- trusts… him…"
More coughs sounded.
Before Li Yundong could speak, another voice sounded. The voice also came from behind the women blocking his path. "You heard him, girls. Let the man through."
The women lowered their weapons and stepped aside.
"Thank you." Li Yundong nodded and moved past the women.
Grandmaster Liu Ye was lying on his back, and he was naked from the waist up.
"How's he doing?" he asked a lady whose lap the grandmaster's head was resting against.
"Not good." The lady glanced up at Li Yundong, though her fingers continued their ministrations on the grandmaster's scalp. And unless Li Yundong was very much mistaken, she was performing the Three-Pronged Flower Gathering Massage technique on the old grandmaster.
Li Yundong kneeled down beside the grandmaster. "How bad?"
The lady's fingers stilled. "He's lost too much Zhenqi. And blood. His…" The lady shook her head. "His Vital Orb is pretty much depleted."
A few girls burst into tears.
Li Yundong shook his head and scanned the old man's body for more injuries.
"There's… There's another one on his back." The lady suddenly turned her head to glare at something nearby. When Li Yundong followed her gaze, he registered the object of her fury: the male dead body he'd seen earlier.
"That bastard stabbed Liu zhǎngmén in the back," the lady growled.
All of a sudden, Li Yundong looked up at the sky and frowned. He thought he saw a green flash earlier.
Someone gripped his wrist.
Li Yundong lowered his gaze and saw Grandmaster Liu's lips moving.
"W- Who… a- are…"
Li Yundong grabbed the wrinkled hand on his wrist. "My name is Li Yundong. And I'm here for Su Chan."
Gasps of surprise sounded around him.
Grandmaster Liu Ye, on the other hand, looked as though he'd already expected that answer.
"Who are you?" The lady eyed him sharply. "How did you and Su Chan know each other?"
Li Yundong didn't answer right away because Zi Yuan was speaking to him again.
"Hongling has just returned. Bad news, Li Yundong. Su Chan isn't in the temple." There was a pause. "Neither is Bahuang."
Disappointment coursed through his veins.
"Hey!" the lady snapped. "I asked you a question!"
Li Yundong sighed and flipped over Grandmaster Liu Ye's hand to take the old man's pulse. "Su Chan is my girlfriend."
An uproar followed that declaration.
"Girls… Be quiet," said the lady.
The old man's pulse was weak even though he'd just been given the Three-Prong Flower Gathering massage. That alone proved just how dire his condition was. Closing his eyes, Li Yundong mobilized a portion of his Zhenqi and channeled it into Grandmaster Liu's body.
The old man's eyes shot open.
"Don't worry, Liu zhǎngmén," Li Yundong said, "that was me." Li Yundong sighed. "I wish I could do more, but that's all I can do for you now."
And it really was. Zi Yuan had cautioned him to keep the Jindan's Aura hidden at all times.
Understanding shone in Grandmaster Liu's eyes, and he nodded weakly.
"Do you know where Su Chan is?" Li Yundong held his breath as he awaited the grandmaster's response.
The grandmaster suddenly closed his eyes and began chanting something under his breath.
"Liu zhǎngmén! No!" the lady shouted in alarm. "You can't! You're in no condition to—" The lady suddenly glared at Li Yundong. "Stop this! He barely has a Vital Orb!"
The grandmaster's lips stopped moving when Li Yundong suddenly grabbed his hand.
"It's okay, Liu zhǎngmén."
The grandmaster's eyes fluttered open, and Li Yundong stared into them, noting the despair they contained.
"Is she alive?" Li Yundong asked. That's all he needed to know for now. "Is she safe?"
Li Yundong's stomach unclenched when the grandmaster nodded.
Li Yundong cleared his throat. "Will you be able to find her once you're in better shape?"
The grandmaster nodded, then broke into coughs again, his head trembling in the lady's lap.
The lady went into a panic.
"Hey, Miss." Li Yundong snapped his fingers to get the lady's attention. When their gazes met, Li Yundong noted how glassy her eyes were. He also didn't miss the slight trembling of her lips.
"What's your name?" Li Yundong asked in a softer tone.
"Alright, Cao Yi." Li Yundong smiled reassuringly. "Can you save him?" He indicated Grandmaster Liu with a slight head tilt.
"I- I'll try…"
Li Yundong nodded. As much as he wanted to help the old man, his understanding of a fox spirit's physiology was limited at best. His only experience in treating fox spirits was when he performed the Three-Pronged Flower Gathering massage on Su Chan out of desperation. Even then, the nature of the injury was completely different.
Li Yundong sighed. "Alright, then—"
"Jiějie! Jiějie! Potions! Potions! I got them!"
A girl stumbled through the throng of women surrounding them, but then came to a halt the moment she saw Li Yundong. The girl looked young. Very young. Perhaps even younger than Su Chan.
"What are you waiting for?" Cao Yi snapped. "Bring them here! Quickly!"
The girl snapped to attention and scrambled towards Cao Yi. A few vials fell to the ground due to the girl's clumsy movements. Not that it mattered. He was fairly certain that there was enough potion to treat an entire army since the girl was hugging an armful of vials to her chest. Li Yundong didn't know whether to pity her or feel amused by her actions.
The girl kneeled down beside Cao Yi and loosened her arms. The vials scattered to the ground and rolled all over the place.
"What do these potions do?" Li Yundong asked.
Cao Yi uncapped a vial. "It helps regenerates a fox sprit's Zhenqi." Cao Yi slowly poured the contents of the vial into Grandmaster Liu's mouth, then sighed. "I'm just not sure if it'll do enough." Cao Yi sent Li Yundong a grim look. "Yan Fang did a number on him."
Li Yundong nodded. "Help him," he said, rising to his feet. "Do everything you can to keep him alive."
Cao Yi nodded. Then, her expression faltered. "What about those guys?" Cao Yi looked past his shoulders at something. "They've…" Cao Yi's sad eyes returned to his face. "They've made their intentions pretty clear, Li zhenren." She sighed. "I don't think they'll leave until every single one of us are slaughtered."
"I will hold them off." Li Yundong held Cao Yi's gaze. "You just worry about keeping Liu zhǎngmén alive."
Surprise flashed inside Cao Yi's eyes. "A- All of them?" she sputtered. "B- But… But… they have an army!"
Li Yundong's lips twitched. "You know what? I've changed my mind."
A look of alarm spread across Cao Yi's face. "W- What? Changed your… But… But… You… How could…"
Li Yundong smirked and started backing away from Cao Yi and Grandmaster Liu. "Well, ladies. I guess today is your lucky day." Li Yundong turned around and marched back towards the Fan of Seven Treasures.
"W- Wait! What on earth is that supposed to mean?!" Cao Yi's voice rang out behind his back.
"I'm not just going to hold them off, Cao Yi." Li Yundong kept marching, not once slowing his steps. "I'm gonna drive those bastards off the frigging mountain."