It was one of those moments where death is literally within sniffing distance. He could smell it: his charred hair; the sharp scent of ozone as those two bolts lashed through the air and connected with each other.
Then he heard it. The sonic boom due to the rapid expansion of heated air. The heat wave blustered against his face, but he forced his eyes open nonetheless. Zhang Tianhé's shocked expression, illuminated by the colliding blue bolts, was the first thing he saw.
The Elixir of Fire thrummed inside his chest; and when the True Flames rose from his Vital Orb and fired along his right arm, he knew that he had won.
He thrust his hands further at his opponent when the color of his bolt changed from blue to purple. Crackling purple surged forward, overpowering the resisting shades of blue.
Zhang Tianhé's eyes widened in fear, whereas Li Yundong's widened in triumph.
He was faster. Stronger. More powerful. More skilled.
Victory was his.
Alas, his opponent refused to yield.
Zhang Tianhé raised his other arm moments before Li Yundong's purple bolt overwhelmed his blue bolt completely. A second blue bolt shot out of Zhang Tianhé's hand and careened towards Li Yundong.
An object flew in from the side and headed straight for Zhang Tianhé.
Li Yundong dodged the second blue bolt while his purple bolt slammed into the Sword of Seven Stars, though the sword had arrived slightly too late to protect its master this time.
There was a flash of purple. Zhang Tianhé screamed when the residual bolts blasted his body away.
Another anguished scream sounded, though this time it came from a woman.
Zhang Tianhé crashed into the ground below them, his body writhing on the ground as blood gushed out from his lips. A woman in a Daopao rushed towards the fallen commander, and dropped to her knees the moment she reached his side.
Li Yundong saw everything. The flow of the woman's Zhenqi through into Zhang Tianhé's meridians. The exchange of spiritual energy between them. The pulsing of Zhang Tianhé's Vital Orb in his lower belly. It was like there was a sudden explosion of colors in his vision, which dazed him a little.
Li Yundong shook his head and deactivated the Elixir of Transcendence. The colors were too distracting, too much for him to handle right now.
The crowd was eerily quiet by the time Li Yundong floated back to the ground. The chanting of their commander's name had long since dwindled. Their hopes had fizzled out, diminished into nothingness following their commander's defeat.
"It's over!" Li Yundong said loudly, pausing to glare at the crowd. "Leave this mountain! Leave the Fox Zen School alone!"
The echoes of his voice spread across the terrain. A few members of the Great Six actually flinched. Li Yundong took in the scene before him, the remnants of the Great Six's broken army. Was it finally over? Had he done it? Had he successfully defended the Fox Zen School?
His eyes landed on Zhang Tianhé again. The man was whispering something into the woman's ear. The woman was listening to Zhang Tianhé with utmost attention before her eyes widened in shock. Moments later, a dark scowl spread across her countenance.
The woman whispered something back to Zhang Tianhé, who nodded in response.
The woman shifted Zhang Tianhé into a more comfortable position, then nodded at the short guy with the long beard. He hadn't noticed it before, but the short guy was carrying a mini pagoda in his hand.
The short guy crouched down and took over the task of tending to Zhang Tianhé's injuries while the woman rose to her feet.
"You will pay for this, Li zhenren," said the woman.
Li Yundong held his ground. "None of this would've happened if you people left us alone in the first place," he answered back coldly.
"Us?" The woman released a dark chuckle. "Is that a declaration? Are you declaring that you're part of that foul school?"
The Fan of Seven Treasures landed beside Li Yundong. "Why are you people so intent on destroying the Fox Zen School?" Li Yundong stared at the woman coldly. "What's your endgame? To steal their treasures? Is that all?"
The woman snorted. "Ao Wushuang and her disciple stole the Renyuan Jindan from the Gezao Sect. This assault is just—"
"How stupid can you people get?" Li Yundong said in a tone of disgust. He snorted. "And you call yourselves Cultivators."
The woman's eyes flashed in anger. "Why you little—"
"Yan Fang infiltrated the Fox Zen School nine years ago," Li Yundong snarled, taking a step forward. "And the Renyuan Jindan was stolen fairly recently." Li Yundong glared at the woman for a few seconds. "What are you even saying? That Yan Fang could predict that far ahead into the future? That she knew, even back then, that Ao Wushuang would end up stealing the Jindan and that's why she infiltrated the school beforehand? That's absurd."
And no, Li Yundong did not miss the woman's visceral reactions whenever he mentioned Yan Fang's name: the subtle shift of the woman's expression, which betrayed her confusion and what appeared to be mortification. The woman's reactions confirmed his suspicion that Yan Fang had indeed acted without the knowledge of the Great Six. It was Yan Fang who wished to bring destruction upon the Fox Zen School, and the Great Six was just a means to that end, a tool to fulfill that twisted desire of hers.
"I'm not buying your stupid excuses." Li Yundong snorted. "The Renyuan Jindan?" He paused to glare at the woman. "You guys wouldn't even be here if your real goal is to find out where the Jindan is." Li Yundong pointed at the sky. "You would've left hours ago to track down Yan Fang!" Li Yundong lowered his hand. "Because apparently she managed to seal Ao Wushuang inside a magical object."
Silence followed Li Yundong's outburst.
"But you're all here!" Li Yundong pointed at the ground. "Trying to destroy the Fox Zen School instead of spending your time interrogating Ao Wushuang, the only person who knows where the Jindan is." Li Yundong snorted. "Either you're all dumb, or you're all lying." Li Yundong glared at Zhang Tianhé. "And I'm willing to bet it's the latter."
He heard a snort, then a half-suppressed giggle, which sounded suspiciously like it came from Ruan Hongling. His suspicion was confirmed seconds later when he heard Zi Yuan's chiding tone.
"What? That guy is shameless," Ruan Hongling said in an innocent tone, then burst into another round of giggles. "I mean, he spouted all that nonsense about the Jindan knowing full well that he has already consumed it!"
"Quiet," Zi Yuan hissed sharply. "Heavens, Hongling. Are you trying to break our cover?"
Li Yundong suppressed a smirk and looked away from Zhang Tianhé.
"We'll deal with Ao Wushuang later." The woman raised her chin challengingly. "Like you said, she's already been sealed away. She has no chance of escaping. So what's the hurry? But this." She pointed at the temple. "This school has to be destroyed when we have the chance! I'm not sure if you're aware of this, Li zhenren. But it isn't the first time that a member of the Fox Zen School has wreaked havoc in the Cultivation world!" The woman lowered her hand and arched her brow. "The Mystical Silver Fox, the instigator of that bloody war between the Taoists and Buddhists? Ao Wushuang, the culprit behind the Jindan's theft?"
The fox spirits in front of the temple had suddenly grown very quiet.
"Who's next? An evil creature capable of mass genocide?" the woman snarled and pointed at the temple once again. "Are we really going to wait around for the next great villain to march out those gates before we finally decide to burn that school to the ground?! Isn't history enough proof that the Fox Zen School is nothing but a breeding ground for evil?"
Li Yundong chuckled darkly and shook his head. "I guess discrimination exists even among Cultivators."
The woman frowned.
"Let me tell you something, Miss Cultivator," Li Yundong growled, taking a step forward. "I've seen a man—a human being—rape two girls before murdering them in cold-blood. I've seen men who would put a bullet into another man's skull without batting an eye! What does that say about mortals? That we're all evil?"
Silence befell Mount Tianlong. Zi Yuan hadn't spoken to him for a while now, but he knew she was listening.
"You wanna know what else I've seen?" Li Yundong pointed at the temple's façade. "A fox spirit, who risked her life to save mortals, the same group of people who have loathed her kind practically since the beginning of time!"
The woman opened her mouth. "Don't be—"
"Zou Ping shījiě…"
Li Yundong looked past the woman's shoulder and saw Zhang Tianhé moving into a sitting position.
When Zou Ping turned around, he saw Zhang Tianhé giving her a headshake.
"Let's just get this over with," Zhang Tianhé said.
Li Yundong glared at the man. Oh, you're damn right this is over.
"It's over," Li Yundong said, pointing at the trail leading downhill. "Leave, and don't come back."
Zou Ping smirked. "I'm afraid you're wrong, Li zhenren. This isn't over yet."
Li Yundong stared at the woman for a few seconds. "You're out of your mind."
"Am I?" Zou Ping said confidently.
Li Yundong frowned. He didn't like where this was going.
Li Yundong pointed at Zhang Tianhé. "I defeated your commander."
"Oh, but you have yet to defeat the most powerful among us." Zou Ping's smirk grew wider. "Isn't that right, Zi Yuan zhenren?"