Something stirred above him: a sharp rustle; a gust of wind. Li Yundong's instincts kicked in, and he leaped backwards. There was a burst of green light, after which Zi Yuan's figure flashed into existence, occupying the spot he'd just vacated.
Zi Yuan's figure disappeared before Li Yundong even had time to recover from his shock.
She reappeared somewhere on his left.
He turned, fully anticipating an attack, but then she vanished again.
There was a soft rustle. Li Yundong wheeled around, and Zi Yuan was right there with her palm raised, ready to strike. Li Yundong twisted his torso sideways, but then the strike he'd been anticipating never came.
Zi Yuan's figured had vanished yet again.
Li Yundong gasped when the ground shifted under his feet. He leaped away just in time to avoid Zi Yuan's palm strike to his sternum. Zi Yuan's body rose from the ground fully after that miss.
Li Yundong stared at Zi Yuan in shock.
That was the same earth spell Zhang Hongcheng had used earlier.
Li Yundong looked up and saw the Fan of Seven Treasures slicing through a huge boulder that was about to squash him. The boulder burst apart, sending pieces of rocks scattering into the air. Then, the rocks stopped moving entirely, each of them hovering in midair.
Gasps of wonder washed over those who were watching the battle.
Li Yundong knew then what was about to happen. A mudra formed on his hands just as those rocks pelted down towards him.
Acalanatha's 10th Mudra: Almighty Push!
"Namah samanta vajranam ham!"
An omnidirectional force flung the rocks apart before they could hit him.
Screams and yelps sounded among the crowd, but Li Yundong didn't have time to give a damn because (guess what?) Zi Yuan was gone again.
Seriously, how could that woman move so damn fast—
"Ah!!! Li zhenren!"
Li Yundong wheeled around, but he was too late. Zi Yuan's palm slammed into his sternum; and for the first time since Su Chan appeared in his life, he was the one being sent flying.
After cartwheeling around in the air for a few seconds, Li Yundong managed to regain control of his body and floated back down to the ground. Damn. That had hurt. He felt like he had the wind knocked out of him.
"Behold… Zi Yuan zhenren of the Linggong Sect!" Zou Ping announced smugly. "The most powerful Cultivator of the younger generation."
And just like that, the crowd started cheering again.
Li Yundong landed on the ground with a soft thud and then pressed his palms together. The Elixir of Yin's rejuvenating effect coursed through him, easing the discomfort in his torso where Zi Yuan's strike had landed.
He lowered his hands and stared at Zi Yuan who now stood ten meters away from him.
Li Yundong flinched. Wait a minute. That voice…
Li Yundong zoomed in on Zi Yuan's face. But her lips weren't even moving! How could—
Ah. So you can hear me… Very good.
What the hell? It was like Zi Yuan's voice was inside his head.
What kind of crazy spell—
Calm down, Zi Yuan said. I've placed an invisible seal on you.
An invisible seal? When did she even…?
Realization washed over him. That palm strike. She must've placed the seal on him when she struck his torso earlier.
It's only temporarily, Zi Yuan continued, but right now our Spirits are linked. We can communicate with each other through our thoughts.
Okay, Li Yundong answered.
Listen, Zi Yuan said. You're gonna have to fight me. And don't hold back, you understand?
What! No! You're my friend. I'm not gonna hurt—
Now isn't the time for chivalry, Li Yundong.
C'mon, Zi Yuan. You can't seriously expect me to hurt you! I can't, okay? I just can't.
What kind of a person would he be if he even thought of harming the person who had already sacrificed so much for him? He would not go through with this. This was unacceptable.
"You shouldn't have interfered tonight, Li zhenren," Zi Yuan said coldly. Even from ten meters away, her cold, penetrating gaze sent chills down his spine. "And in doing so, you have disrespected the Great Six's authority." Zi Yuan flicked her sleeve elegantly. "And I'm here to defeat you in the name of the Great Six."
A chorus of cheers erupted.
Come on, Zi Yuan… Please don't make me do this… There has to be another way!
The Linggong Sect is in danger, Zi Yuan said grimly. Zhang Tianhé is testing my loyalty. They're gonna shut my sect down the moment they found out that I've been helping you.
But still! This is—
No, Li Yundong. We have to fight. You have to defeat me.
It took Li Yundong everything not to let his incredulity show right there.
"Zi Yuan zhenren, is it?" Li Yundong asked, stalling for time. From the corner of his eyes, he noticed Zou Ping's smug expression. And Zi Yuan was right: Zhang Tianhé was watching her like a hawk.
Goddammit to hell.
Li Yundong took a deep breath, then exhaled. What if we just put on an act? You'll fake your loss and—
That's not gonna work, Li Yundong. Look around you. We're surrounded by trained Cultivators. They'll see through the act right away.
"No! Liu zhǎngmén! I told you, you can't do that!"
Li Yundong turned around and saw a panicking Cao Yi scrambling about, no doubt looking for more potions.
It was like Zi Yuan's telepathic voice had a calming effect. He turned to the front and met Zi Yuan's intense gaze.
Do you trust me? she asked.
Of course he trusted her. How could he not trust her after everything she had done for him?
Then trust me when I say that I have a plan, okay?
"Bring me more vials!" Cao Yi screamed.
Zi Yuan motioned Zou Ping to move aside. "Please stand back, Zou Ping zhenren," Zi Yuan said without taking her eyes off Li Yundong. "You're in the way."
Zou Ping's smug expression turned into a scowl, though she complied with the request and returned to Zhang Tianhé's side.
My plan will work, Zi Yuan said insistently, but only if you defeat me for real.
There was pause.
Li Yundong waited for her to say more.
You don't have to kill me, of course, Zi Yuan continued. Just injure me a little and I'll handle the rest. Okay?
Li Yundong understood the general idea of the plan, of course. Zi Yuan's defeat would, without a doubt, finally convince these assholes to leave the mountain. But still, he couldn't help but think that there was more that Zi Yuan wasn't telling him.
Yan-shībó is probably on her way to retrieve Liuhe right now. I need to go before she gets her hands on that sword. There was a pause. Last I checked, her Yang Spirit wasn't in its full form yet, so we still have time. Another pause. If you injure me in a fight, that would give Hongling and I a legitimate excuse to leave the scene.
Li Yundong sighed. Fine. Let's do this.
Good. I won't hold back, Zi Yuan said. Neither should you.
Li Yundong punched the air in front of him.
A whirlwind formed around Zi Yuan's figure and absorbed the shockwave like it was nothing.
"Good punch," Zi Yuan said once the whirlwind subsided. "Now it's my turn."
Zi Yuan's figure vanished in a flash. One of these days he was going to ask her to teach him how to move that goddamned fast. Hell, he thought she was almost as fast as he was when he'd borrowed the Heavens' spiritual energy to dodge lightning.
Li Yundong ducked instinctively; Zi Yuan's palm sailed over his head.
Not bad, Zi Yuan remarked in tone of amusement. You managed to avoid that. I'm impressed.
Zi Yuan's figure disappeared once again. Great. Now where the heck did she go?
You know, Li Yundong… We might as well have some—Zi Yuan's palm slammed into his forearm—fun!
Seeing the opportunity, Li Yundong trapped Zi Yuan's palm in his hand and threw a straight punch. His fist struck empty air when Zi Yuan disappeared once again.
This is your idea of fun? Li Yundong snorted internally. You're crazy.
Hmm. Let's see how much you've improved, shall we?
Zi Yuan reappeared in front of him, and she was smirking. She was clearly up to something.
Li Yundong gritted his teeth and pounced forward.
Hah! Got you now! There was no way she could dodge this time—
He received yet another surprise when his punch went through Zi Yuan's body instead of hitting it.
Gotcha, Zi Yuan said smugly.
Zi Yuan's figure uncoiled into a long purple ribbon. The ribbon slithered along Li Yundong's arms, moving towards his torso. SNAP! The Fan of Seven Treasures sliced the ribbon into shreds.
Li Yundong untangled himself from the torn ribbon and flew away to distance himself from it. The next thing he saw fascinated him to no end: each torn shred of the ribbon lengthened before they joined with one another to form a longer ribbon.
Oh, that's clever, Zi Yuan. Very clever.
Glad you approve, Zi Yuan answered confidently.
The ribbon's real target was the Fan of Seven Treasures, which was now struggling to untangle itself from the ribbon. The more it sliced the ribbon, the longer the ribbon became.
You should worry about yourself, Zi Yuan fired back.
A whoosh sounded the moment Zi Yuan stopped talking.
Heat caressed the exposed skin of his torso.
Li Yundong quickly formed Acalanatha's 10th Mudra.
"Namah samanta vajranam ham!"
The Almighty Push repelled the ring of fire before the flames could close in on him. Billows of grey smoke obscured his vision, but then he could still see it: something shifting inside the smoke.
Oh come on! Li Yundong yelled internally.
Hundreds of long needles burst through the smog and hurtled towards him.
What? Too much for you to handle? Zi Yuan taunted.
"Namah samanta vajranam ham!"
The smoke and needles were blown away.
Damn it. There was no way he could beat her like this. Zi Yuan was just too good at spell-casting. She knew Earth spells and also Fire spells. And those needles most likely originated from some kind of Metal spell. He glanced to his left. The purple ribbon had forced the Fan of Seven Treasures back into the shape of a Bo staff.
The fan couldn't even spread open its leaves. Dang, that ribbon was something else.
Zi Yuan, Li Yundong said, landing on the ground softly. Are you listening?
I know how to end this quickly. Li Yundong pressed his palms together and closed his eyes. He needed two elixirs for this to work: the Elixir of Structure, to hold his Vital Orb together; and the Elixir of Eleven Transmutations, to protect his vital organs.
"Hey… What's the guy doing? Has he given up?"
"What the hell? Who closes their eyes in the middle of a battle?"
"What's he up to?"
"I don't know. But Zi Yuan zhenren is winning, wouldn't you say?"
"Yeah… Even the Fan of Seven Treasures is subdued."
How? Zi Yuan actually sounded curious.
I'm going to leave an opening on my back, Li Yundong said. And I want you to hit me with everything you've got.
With everything I've—
There was a sudden lull in their telepathic conversation, most likely due to the outrage Zi Yuan was feeling.
But you're gonna die.
I won't. Just hit me with everything you've got.
But your organs won't—
Just trust me, Zi Yuan. Li Yundong opened his eyes, feeling the power of the Elixir of Eleven Transmutations coursing through his meridians. I'll be fine.
At his lower Dantian, the Elixir of Structure expanded outwards, forming a crystalline structure around his Vital Orb.
Just forget it! You're planning to use the Jindan's Aura, aren't you? I told you it's too risky—
Relax, Li Yundong said, cutting her off. I'm not planning to use the Jindan's Aura. I've mastered the Nine Elixirs Method. I can use the elixirs to keep myself safe.
What? The Nine Elixir— Zi Yuan gasped. There was a long pause. So that's how you altered the size of your body…
Heavens, Li Yundong… The legendary Nine Elixirs Method…
Attack me whenever you're ready, Zi Yuan. Let's finish this.
Fine. Zi Yuan didn't sound too happy.
Maybe restrain me with an earth spell or something. Li Yundong lowered his stance slightly. That way it'll be more convincing. At least it won't look like I'm leaving myself open on purpose.
Fine. Just be ready.
Li Yundong knew Zi Yuan's attack had begun the moment his feet sank into what appeared to be a mini puddle of sand. Li Yundong screamed as loud as he could; he might as well play his part and act like someone who's about to wet his pants.
Cheers erupted among the crowd again.
"Go Zi Yuan zhenren!"
"His back is wide open!"
Li Yundong flailed his arms a few times and pretended to wobble on his feet.
"You're finished!" Zi Yuan's voice sounded behind him.
Li Yundong screamed when an impact slammed onto his back a split second later. The scream wasn't even an act; even with the elixirs, that blow had hurt.
Shudders coursed through his spine, and he sank to his knees.
Zi Yuan was right; that blow would've killed anyone else.
Li Yundong indulged in more theatrics by coughing a few times. C'mon, Zhao Ling'er, he said. Play your role. Act like you've won.
Shut up, she fired back.
"It's been an honor, Li zhenren," Zi Yuan said in a haughty tone. "But your journey ends tonight!"
More cheers erupted.
Then, he heard Cao Yi's screaming voice. "Li zhenren! Please, you have to come quickly! I don't think Liu zhǎngmén is gonna make it. He… He wants to speak with you!"
That's your cue, Li Yundong, Zi Yuan said. Go find out where Su Chan is. Leave the Great Six to me.
Li Yundong suddenly turned around and trapped Zi Yuan's arm in a vice grip. The crowd's cheers died down just as Zi Yuan feigned a look of horror.
"I'm afraid you've underestimated me, Zi Yuan zhenren!" Li Yundong said loudly.
I'm sorry, Zi Yuan. But this is gonna sting a little, Li Yundong said. Blade your body slightly to your right.
"I win!" Li Yundong roared and slammed his palm into Zi Yuan's body.
Zi Yuan bladed her body at the last moment, so Li Yundong's palm landed on her left shoulder. The impact sent Zi Yuan flying.
Ruan Hongling screamed. "Zi Yuan jiějie!!! No!!!"
Zi Yuan crashed into the ground. Ruan Hongling was beside Zi Yuan seconds later.
Li Yundong winced internally. God! I'm sorry, Zi Yuan! I'm sorry!
A wave of anger coursed through him, every ounce of which was directed at Zhang Tianhé and the Great Six.
It's okay, Li Yundong, Zi Yuan said. It hurt, but I'll live.
Ruan Hongling shot him a glare right then. The girl looked like she was about to hurl a litany of curses at him, but then Zi Yuan's hand suddenly shot out and grabbed the younger girl's arm.
"Li zhenren!" Cao Yi screamed. "Please!!!"
Go, Zi Yuan said. I'll take things from here.
Li Yundong turned around and ran back towards Grandmaster Liu.
Cao Yi stood up the moment he got near and stepped aside slightly.
Li Yundong crouched down and took Grandmaster Liu's hand. "How you're holding up, Liu zhǎngmén?"
The old fox shook his head shakily. "I… I… w- won't… m-make it…"
Li Yundong looked towards Cao Yi. The lady didn't say anything, but she didn't really have to—the crestfallen look on her face said it all.
"I… know… w-where… sh…. she is…"
Li Yundong leaned in closer. "Tell me where she is… Please, grandmaster." Li Yundong held the old man's hand tighter. "Please."
"I will... tell you…" Grandmaster Liu's eyes glazed over.
Alarm coursed through Li Yundong. "Grandmaster!" He reached out and cupped the old man's wrinkled cheeks.
Suddenly, Grandmaster Liu raised his other hand and grabbed the front of Li Yundong's shirt.
"But you must… agree… to one last… last…w- wish…"
Li Yundong looked towards Cao Yi again. The woman looked utterly devastated.
"P- Please… Grant a dying old man his last… last… wish…" Grandmaster Liu coughed out more blood.
Li Yundong glanced down and held the old man's eyes. A second later, he nodded. "Please tell me your wish, grandmaster, and I'll do everything in my power to fulfill it. You have my word."
Relief filled Grandmaster Liu's eyes right then. The old man beckoned him closer. Li Yundong complied and leaned down slightly. A wrinkled hand touched Li Yundong's head.
"I… Liu Ye… hereby declare Li Yundong zhenren… to… to be the new Head of the Fox Zen School…"