As soon as Zhang Tianhé and his party left Mount Tianlong, the rest of the Great Six's army dispersed. Some had taken off into the night sky while others had left on foot. Li Yundong did a quick visual sweep of his surroundings, sighing in relief after he did. Except for several dead bodies lying around, the area surrounding the temple was pretty much unoccupied.
It was over.
Li Yundong raised his right arm. "Come here, buddy!"
The Fan of Seven Treasures hurtled towards him from the side. He grabbed the fan's rivet and then snapped the fan close. Then, he turned around and flew back towards Cao Yi and the others.
Cao Yi dried her tears and rose to her feet as Li Yundong landed in front of the temple. Li Yundong shifted the fan on his shoulders and joined the fox spirits in their mourning for their fallen grandmaster. None of them said anything as they continued to weep.
It was a wordless lamentation, a requiem of tears.
After a while, Cao Yi sniffed and cleared her throat.
Li Yundong stepped back, wanting to give them a moment. But then Cao Yi suddenly spoke up. "Hail, Li zhǎngmén, the new Head of the Fox Zen School!"
All of a sudden, the other fox spirits filed towards him and dropped to their knees, right beside his feet.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hey, you—" Li Yundong shot Cao Yi a helpless look.
Cao Yi wasn't kneeling, though her body was bent forward in a slight bow. Those who were kneeling, Li Yundong realized, were the younger ones.
"Cao Yi." Li Yundong sighed. "Let's not stand on ceremony, okay?"
Cao Yi straightened herself, looking utterly puzzled.
Li Yundong gave her a wry smile and waved at the kneeling women before him. "This isn't necessary."
Cao Yi frowned in puzzlement. "But—"
Li Yundong cut her off by raising his hand. Then, he turned towards the kneeling women.
"Rise," he said to the women.
The women rose. Potion Girl was staring back at him with an expression of awe.
Li Yundong turned to Cao Yi again. "No more of this kneeling stuff, okay? It makes me feel so awkward. And oh, you guys should also drop the zhǎngmén while you're at it." He smiled. "Just call me Li Yundong."
Cao Yi suddenly cleared her throat. "I'm afraid we must decline, Liu zhǎngmén. Such formalities must be observed." Cao Yi bowed slightly. "You are the leader of our school now. You are our direct superior. The formalities are a sign of respect."
But I want you girls to respect yourselves first, he added silently. These women had already proven themselves to be loyal and courageous. In his book, they shouldn't have to bow to anyone.
"Thank you," Li Yundong said, smiling when an idea occurred to him. "How about this? Let's come up with a compromise."
Cao Yi straightened herself and eyed him curiously.
"I'll allow the zhǎngmén title," Li Yundong continued, "but I don't want all these kneeling and bowing nonsense. Deal?"
Cao Yi's features twitched as though she'd just tasted something rotten. "That’s… agreeable, I suppose." All of a sudden, Cao Yi's eyes went round as though she just realized that she had said something impudent. She cleared her throat. "I-I mean… As you wish, Li zhǎngmén."
Cao Yi took a deep breath, then exhaled.
"Then please allow me to properly introduce myself, Li zhǎngmén," Cao Yi said reverently. "I am Cao Yi, one of the main disciples of the Fox Zen School. Originally, there were eight of us."
Li Yundong stared at Cao Yi blankly.
"The main disciples of the Fox Zen School, I mean," Cao Yi clarified seconds later at Li Yundong's confusion. "There were eight of us."
Cao Yi nodded. "In terms of seniority, I'm ranked sixth."
Li Yundong glanced around a few times. "Where are the others?"
A sad look spread across Cao Yi's face. She pointed at one of the corpses. "That's Mo Ahshi, the most senior disciple among us." Cao Yi shook her head. "We recently found out that she's been dead for over nine years."
"Yan Fang," Li Yundong said.
Cao Yi nodded, then pointed at the bag of dry bones and skin on the ground.
"That's Ye Yu, the 7th disciple." Cao Yi lowered her finger. "What's left of her anyway…"
"Okay… What about the rest? You said there were eight of you."
"Technically, only seven." Cao Yi hugged her torso.
Li Yundong frowned. "Technically?"
Cao Yi shifted awkwardly. "Wushuang was the youngest among us."
Right. And she'd been expelled.
"Not that it mattered." Cao Yi sighed. "Liu zhǎngmén had always regarded her as one of us."
"Okay. So there's Mo Ahshi and Ye Yu." Li Yundong gestured at the corpses. "Where are the other four?"
Cao Yi shook her head tiredly and gestured at another corpse leaning against the wall. "That's Gu Feng's impostor," she said. "The real Gu Feng is dead too. And… And the others are missing." Tears swam in Cao Yi's eyes when she looked up at him. "I fear that the worst had happened to them, Li zhǎngmén." She sighed and pointed at Potion Girl. "She didn't see any of them when she went back inside the temple to look for the potions just now."
"So these are the younger disciples, then?" Li Yundong pointed at the others who were lingering around, whispering to each other.
Cao Yi nodded.
The young fox spirits seemed lost, like they no longer had a purpose in life. Not that he could blame them. Their whole world had just fallen apart within the span of one night.
"They're brave," Li Yundong remarked, glancing at Cao Yi. "They've got guts, those girls."
The tiniest of smiles graced Cao Yi's lips, but it quickly tuned into a scowl. "Well. Not all of us are."
Li Yundong turned around to face Cao Yi fully. "What do you mean?"
Cao Yi snorted. "Gu Feng's disciples"—Cao Yi did air quotes—"fled the school just before the assault began."
Li Yundong glanced around and took stock of his surroundings. The temple didn't sustain a lot of damage during the battle, which was a good thing.
"So what now, Li zhǎngmén?"
Cao Yi's question drew Li Yundong's attention back to her.
"Do you have a plan?" Cao Yi sounded almost tentative.
Yeah… He was still working that, to be honest.
"I'll track down Su Chan first and then bring her back." Li Yundong stared at Cao Yi. "I hope you understand."
Li Yundong wanted to smack himself in the head as soon as those words left his mouth. Why the heck was he speaking as though he was asking her for permission? He was the frigging Head of the Fox Zen School now, for Acalanatha's sake.
Guess it might take a while for him to get use to that idea.
"But…" Cao Yi suddenly looked towards the temple. "What if the Great Six attack us again after you leave? Who's…" Cao Yi lowered her gaze. "Who's gonna defend us?" Cao Yi looked up at him with pleading eyes. "Only a few of us in the Fox Zen School are great in combat. And… none of them are here at the moment." Cao Yi sighed and lowered her head. "Liu zhǎngmén is gone. So are Mo Ahshi, and Ye Yu. Ao Wushuang is the most powerful among us. But then she's been captured…"
Li Yundong clasped Cao Yi's shoulders with both hands to interrupt her rambling. When Cao Yi looked up again, he gave her a smile. "They won't attack again. Trust me."
Cao Yi didn't look convinced. "A- Are you sure?"
Li Yundong released Cao Yi's shoulders and nodded. "Yes." He smiled again. "Besides, none of them has to know about my absence."
Li Yundong was certain that he had scared the living crap out of those assholes. They wouldn't return if they thought he was still here, guarding the place. And he was fairly certain that Zi Yuan would dissuade those idiots from attacking again.
Cao Yi still didn't look convinced.
Li Yundong chuckled. "You guys are pretty good with illusions, am I right?"
He'd seen Su Chan perform one of those cool illusion spells.
Li Yundong nodded. "Just create an illusion of me standing right there." Li Yundong pointed at the temple.
Cao Yi's eyes widened slightly. "O- Oh… That's… Actually pretty clever."
"Which means…" Li Yundong smirked. "I never left the school." Li Yundong raised a brow. "After all, I am the guardian of the Fox Zen School."
Cao Yi smiled. "I think you're more than that now, Li zhǎngmén."
"Anyway." Li Yundong lowered the Fan of Seven Treasures to the ground. "Here's the plan."
Cao Yi stood up straighter.
Li Yundong couldn't help but feel amused at her behavior.
"I'll head to Dongwu City to find Su Chan. Meanwhile, you guys should take care of Grandmaster Liu's body." Li Yundong sighed and glanced towards the old man. "I don't know much about your customs, but for us humans, there's usually some kind of ritual. A proper funeral."
"As you wish, Li zhǎngmén," Cao Yi said. "I'll handle—"
There was a gasp.
"What's wrong?" Li Yundong looked towards Cao Yi.
Cao Yi was looking past his shoulder, squinting through the dark.
"Who's there?!" Cao Yi suddenly flung a bunch of needles at something behind him.
Li Yundong whirled around and saw a dark, wraith-like creature hovering above Mo Ahshi's corpse. The needles went through the phantom and struck a tree nearby. Then, the phantom shot into the night sky.
Li Yundong turned towards Cao Yi. "Take the girls into the temple."
Cao Yi nodded.
Li Yundong turned towards the Fan of Seven Treasures. "You stay here and protect them."
The Fan of Seven Treasures rose from the ground and snapped open.
After that, Li Yundong took off into the night sky.
Even with Xianjue, it was extremely hard to keep up with the dark phantom, especially now when it was completely dark.
Hell. Who was he even kidding. He wasn't even keeping up. The phantom had given him the slip about two minutes ago, and now he had no idea where it was.
Who could that be? Was it Yan Fang? But why would she return?
There you are!
He caught a glimpse of the phantom somewhere below him on his two o'clock. The phantom vanished into the trees.
Li Yundong flew downwards and landed on a tree branch seconds later.
Damn it, where did it go?
Li Yundong closed his eyes. Ningshen: Eryue!
He spent a minute listening to any voices or noises indicating the phantom's presence.
"… Ping'er! Ping'er! Where are you?"
The voice was male. An old man, in fact.
"I'm over here, Master!"
Li Yundong's blood ran cold. What the hell? That voice…
"Where have you been, Master? I've been waiting for you for so long!"
No. This had to be some kind of mistake. It had to be. It wasn't Ding Nan. The old man had called her Ping'er. Maybe it was just someone with a similar voice.
The old man chuckled. "Look what I found, Ping'er…"
"What's that?" Ping'er said.
"This, my dear, is the Fox Zen School's Threaded Hairpin of Traversing Soul!"
Li Yundong located the source of the voices just then. It was quite far away from his current location. Li Yundong took off into the sky, but kept his Eryue activated.
"Is it powerful?"
"Of course it is!” The old man paused. "But first we have to go. Someone's after me."
No you don't!
"Oh… Okay. As you wish, Master."
"Hmm. I'll show you how this thing works once we return," the old man said, then chuckled. "Well. I was planning to give it to you anyway."
Li Yundong increased his speed and activated his telescopic vision.
He saw and old man putting his arm around a young woman's shoulders. Li Yundong bridged his Three Gates and sent a shockwave towards the pair.
The pair morphed into a phantom and took off into the sky before the blast could reach them.
Li Yundong landed on the floor, stunned.
There was no mistaking that figure, and that T-shirt.
That woman was Ding Nan.