Considering everything he'd been through so far, Li Yundong honestly thought that nothing in this world could surprise him anymore. Until he was suddenly bequeathed a title that he was sure he didn't deserve.
Li Yundong, the frigging Head of the Fox Zen School.
What. The. Hell.
He wasn't even a fox spirit, for Heavens' sake!
Grandmaster Liu's coughs shook Li Yundong out of his daze. Li Yundong glanced around a few times to gauge the fox spirits' reactions to this sudden turn of events. Cao Yi and the other fox spirits looked just as shocked as he felt.
"Lead… the Fox Zen School," Grandmaster Liu wheezed. "Protect these… women… Keep them… s—" Grandmaster Liu coughed again. "Safe…" The old man sighed and looked into Li Yundong's eyes. Those dying eyes held a glimmer of hope. "I… know… that… that S- Su Chan… will… be happy… if… if you… become the new… head…"
Warm memories flooded Li Yundong's mind right then—echoes of a past conversation between Su Chan and himself. Indeed, Su Chan had expressed that same wish before. She'd expressed to him how wonderful it would be if he could take over the leadership of the Fox Zen School.
"Promise… me… Li zhenren…" Grandmaster Liu reached for Li Yundong's hand again.
Li Yundong allowed the old man to grab his hand.
"Promise me… that… that you'll… protect… them…"
Li Yundong pulled in a breath and looked deep into Grandmaster Liu's pleading eyes. Then, he exhaled slowly. "You have my word."
Grandmaster Liu nodded and released a shuddering breath. Li Yundong waited with bated breath for the old man's next words.
"D- Dongwu… City… pond…"
Li Yundong leaned in closer. "Pond? What pond?"
"Foot of Mount Qili… Pond… Please… I'm… counting… on you…"
Grandmaster Liu's eyes rolled upwards as he released his final breath.
Li Yundong sighed and lay the old man's hands across the center of his chest.
Cao Yi moved towards them on shaky feet. Li Yundong met the woman's eyes and noted the pools of unshed tears they held.
"G- Grandmaster…? Grandmast… Oh God…"
Li Yundong rose to his feet and mutter a quick prayer to Acalanatha. Please watch over him…
Then he turned around to face the other fox spirits.
"My deepest condolences," he said. "The grandmaster has passed.
"Heavens… Zi Yuan jiějie," Hongling whispered. "What on earth did he do to you?"
Zi Yuan opened her eyes and saw Hongling's panicked expression hovering above her own face. Zi Yuan went for a smile, but it turned into a grimace instead.
"Hongling…" Zi Yuan shifted her head on Hongling's lap.
"A- Are you alright, Zi Yuan jiějie?"
Zi Yuan sighed. "I'm okay."
"That damn bastard," Ruan Hongling muttered under her breath. "How could he hit you for real after everything you've done for him? Couldn't he pull his punches a little?"
Zi Yuan grabbed Hongling's dress and gave her a pointed look. "Hush," she whispered. Hongling scowled at Zi Yuan before turning away. Zi Yuan released her protégé's dress and closed her eyes again.
She could've communicated with Hongling using the same pseudo telepathic spell; but then she only had one talisman for the spell, which she had already used on Li Yundong before their battle began.
Hopefully nobody heard Hongling's careless remark just now.
On the plus side, the crowd was still in an uproar over her defeat. More than half of the army had fled; those who remained were either the loyal ones, or those with too much pride to flee.
With a sigh, Zi Yuan blinked her eyes open. With one hand, Zi Yuan motioned Hongling to shift their positions. Thankfully, Hongling complied, and seconds later, Zi Yuan found herself staring at the temple's façade where the Heir appeared to be speaking with Liu Ye.
Zi Yuan shook her head slightly.
Hongling was wrong. The Heir did hold back when he struck her earlier. Her injuries would've been much, much worse if he'd hit her with full power.
Zi Yuan let out a soft sigh. Admittedly, Zi Yuan was a bit in awe with the Heir right now, the man who had come so far in his Cultivation journey in just months.
The Nine Elixirs Method.
How on earth did he even master it? Weren't the scrolls lost a long time ago? Did he come up with it on his own? No. He knew the exact name of the method. So he couldn't have come up with it on his own.
Zi Yuan forced her tired mind to go through the verses in Master's prophecy. Perhaps another verse had just been fulfilled through tonight's events. A minute later, she gave up the effort. She couldn't see any connections at all between any of the verses and the Nine Elixirs Method.
"Help me up, Hongling," Zi Yuan whispered. "Let me speak to Zhang Tianhé."
Hongling glanced down at Zi Yuan worriedly.
"Hurry up." Zi Yuan gave her protégé a nudge.
Hongling sighed and moved to help her up.
The crowd fell silent the moment Zi Yuan sat up. Zhang Tianhé's eyes flicked towards her body, where they lingered for a moment or two.
Zi Yuan schooled her features and held Zhang Tianhé's worried gaze. Time to become Zi Yuan zhenren of the Linggong Sect again. Cold. Composed. Collected. "Call off the assault, Zhang zhenren." Zi Yuan tilted her head towards the Heir. "The plan has failed. It is futile to continue." It had been futile from the moment the Heir made his appearance. Zi Yuan looked away from Zhang Tianhé and took in the remainder of the Great Six's army. Frightened faces stared back at her. "He has defeated even me." Zi Yuan paused for effect. After a moment, she quirked a brow. "Do any of you really think you stand a chance against him?"
Silence was the only response Zi Yuan got, although Zhang Tianhé now had a conflicted look on his face. And for some reason, Hongling and Zou Ping kept glaring at each other. Zi Yuan would have to ask her protégé about it later.
"Call it off, Zhang zhenren," Zi Yuan continued in a harsher tone. "End this fruitless battle before it results in more casualties." Zi Yuan paused, barely managing to suppress her smirk. Time to bring in the big guns... Zi Yuan arched a brow and made sure she was staring right into Zhang Tianhé's eyes. "I'm sure Zhang Tianshī zhenren wouldn't appreciate having the good name of the Zhengyi School thus tainted." Zi Yuan paused pointedly. "By his son, no less."
Zhang Tianhé flinched.
"How would the Zhengyi School answer to the other members of the Great Six, given that an operation led by Zhang Tianhé, the son of the Head of the Zhengyi School himself, has resulted in hundreds of casualties?" Zi Yuan paused for a few beats. "Who would take the fall? Would it be the commander of the assault force, whose bad decisions have caused the lives of countless talented young Cultivators? Or would it be Zhang Tianshī zhenren due to his failure in keeping his son's actions in check."
"You!" Zou Ping snarled. "How dare you insult—"
"I was only stating the truth," Zi Yuan cut her off sharply. "Think about it, would you? Why can't you just think?" Zi Yuan paused for a moment. "What good will continuing this fruitless battle bring to the Great Six and the Zhengyi School?" Zi Yuan shook her head. "Absolutely nothing." Zi Yuan looked towards Zhang Tianhé. "Rein in before we suffer more losses."
Then, the whispers began, fearful ones. When Zi Yuan turned around, she immediately understood why.
Li Yundong was walking away from the temple's façade and making his way towards them.
I'm still working on it, Zi Yuan said telepathically.
I know, Li Yundong said, then paused. Are you okay?
I'm fine. Just a little banged up, that's all.
Look I… I'm sorry. I—
Don't worry about it, Zi Yuan said. Hey, I think the spell's gonna wear off soon. Did you find out where Su Chan is?
She's in Dongwu City…
Did the Great Seer tell you that?
Zi Yuan sighed in relief. Good job. You've found her.
Li Yundong was now close enough for Zi Yuan to see his face. Despite his newfound knowledge of Su Chan's location, he didn't seem too happy. Something else was bothering him.
Zi Yuan… he said. Grandmaster Liu didn't make it. And he… he made me the new Head of the Fox Zen School.
It took Zi Yuan everything to keep her expression neutral right then.
It was his dying wish, Li Yundong continued after the brief pause. And I agreed. Another pause. Besides… I don't think he would've told me Su Chan's location if I refused him.
Zi Yuan frowned. Was the Heir ready to lead a sect? He could handle himself in battle for sure. But leadership…
Zi Yuan stole a glance at the fox spirits huddled around their fallen grandmaster. Well, he did showcase good leadership abilities with the fox spirits earlier. Zi Yuan decided to table that issue for another time. For now, they had more pressing matters to take care of.
Get over here, Zi Yuan said. Let's put an end to all this nonsense.
Be right there. Instead of walking, Li Yundong levitated off the ground and flew towards them.
Try to look more intimidating, please?
Fine. Li Yundong's expression turned into a scowl.
Li Yundong landed in front of Zhang Tianhé shortly. Then, he crossed his arms and stared down at the Jade Zhenren as though he was looking at a child. Li Yundong let out a heavy sigh.
"Man, just leave already."
Zi Yuan could hear the frustration in his tone.
Zhang Tianhé staggered to his feet and flicked his sleeves once. "This will not be forgotten, Li zhenren," he said coldly, then turned to his associates. "Let's go."
"Hongling." Zi Yuan gave her protégé a pointed look.
"My shījiě and I will take our leave as well," Hongling announced to the crowd. After that, she turned her head and shot Li Yundong a murderous glare. "You'll pay for hurting my shījiě, Li zhenren!" Hongling snarled, pointing a finger at Li Yundong's face. "You better sleep with both eyes open from now on."
Something told Zi Yuan that Hongling wasn't acting at all.
Zi Yuan gave Li Yundong a look. Keep me posted.
I will. Li Yundong paused. What's your next move?
I'll head home to recover for a bit, Zi Yuan answered honestly. I'm still feeling kinda sore.
The corner of Li Yundong's eyes twitched. The poor man had to turn away to hide the guilty look on his face.
I'll be fine after a few hours, don't worry, Zi Yuan said. In the meantime, I'll send Hongling to retrieve the sword.
What about the Linggong Sect? Will things be okay?
For now, yes, Zi Yuan said. I think the battle between us has dispelled some of the doubts about my loyalty. I'll get in touch with the main sect after this and see if I can find out more about my shībó.
Li Yundong's eyes widened slightly.
Yes, Zi Yuan said. I think there's something else going on here. But we won't know until I get all the facts sorted out.
Good luck, then, Li Yundong said. Just let me know if you need my help.
You must find Su Chan quickly and then inform me as soon as you find her. Zi Yuan looked at him pointedly. I've got a few important questions to ask her.
A look of recognition formed on Li Yundong's face. Let me guess? It's got something to do with rescuing Ao Wushuang?
Alright then, Li Yundong said. I'll find a way to get in touch.
Zi Yuan turned away and patted Hongling's arm to get the younger girl's attention. After as many as ten pats, Hongling finally decided to stop glaring at Li Yundong to look at Zi Yuan.
"Time to go, Hongling."