Something was seriously wrong with this forest. He could feel it in his bones. It was like there was some sort of mysterious aura suffusing the forest. The aura was suffocating, like an invisible pressure squeezing his body—and even his mind—from all directions. And the deeper he moved into the forest, the more intense the sensation became.
This wasn't the first time he'd experience something like this. He'd experienced this before back in Tibet, when he was making his way towards Kathok Monastery. Afterwards he was attacked by a bunch of golden apparitions which looked like arhats. A mysterious voice had given him a tip back then to help him survive the arhats. The identity of the owner of said voice had, of course, ceased to be a mystery.
After all, the same voice had led him to the discovery of the Nine Elixirs Method.
As per the tip he'd received back in Tibet, Li Yundong reined in his Qi and tried not to harbor any malicious intent towards the lamas. The latter was pretty damned hard to accomplish since the lamas in question were about to burn Chan'er alive.
Regardless, the tip had worked.
The pressure in his chest had eased a little, and he no longer had to stop to catch his breath once every few steps. His mind still felt a bit heavy though. He could still use Eryue and Mingmu, but he could tell that their effectiveness had been reduced. The pressure on his mind had taken a toll on his ability to concentrate and focus.
The working hypothesis was that this was the effect of some kind of Buddhist magic. And if he were to expand on that hypothesis, he would surmise that the purpose of the magic was to ward off intruders or anyone who harbor ill will or malicious intent towards a Buddhist establishment: a temple; a monastery; or some creepy forest where random lamas convened to conduct an exorcism.
Yeah. An exorcism.
How the heck was it even going to work? Would an exorcism still work if the target wasn’t evil to begin with? And what about all that burning and soul-freeing crap? Were these lamas seriously intending to burn Su Chan alive? Or was that a figurative expression for something else?
He staggered a few steps when the overwhelming pressure returned. It honestly felt like his head was about to explode.
Suck it up, he chided himself. Chan'er needs you…
He pushed himself up and trudged forward.
After five minutes of slogging through the dark, creepy forest, he ran into another problem: he lost the lamas' trail.
The footprints were gone, not because the lamas suddenly took off into the sky, but because the ground ahead was covered in roots and detritus—fallen twigs, dead leaves, broken branches, etc.
There was no way he could find any footprints amidst a bunch of decomposing organic material. He sighed and lowered himself to the ground. After that, he leaned himself against a tree trunk to catch his breath.
Catch his breath.
Ever since the Jindan reformed his body, there hadn't been a single occasion where he had to catch his breath just from walking. And now look at him.
Okay. That was a bit unfair. He wasn't pathetic. Not when he just fought off an entire army of powerful Cultivators several hours ago.
He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the trunk. The rough bark dug into his scalp, momentarily distracting him from the annoying sensation of being squeezed by an invisible pressure.
The pressure seemed to be growing stronger the deeper he moved into the forest. Maybe he should just let the pressure guide him towards Chan'er. Pretty sure the spell's effect would be the most powerful where the exorcism or whatever ritual took place.
A traitorously selfish voice in his mind suggested calling Zi Yuan for help. That voice was immediately drowned out by a wave of guilt and disgust. No. He was doing this on his own. The woman deserved a break.
He opened his eyes and went through his options again. Moments later, he activated Eryue and tried to listen for more noises: crickets; rustling leaves; the breeze; the cracking of twigs; and… well, more crickets.
He sighed and massaged his temples a few times. That pressure was seriously a burr up his ass. It was making it increasingly difficult for him to think clearly.
Okay. That didn't work. Now what?
He spent a few moments going through a list of all the tools he had in his arsenal. The mudras had served him pretty well all this while, but none of them would give him the ability to track down a foe. The elixirs didn't seem like they had any applications beyond combat situations either.
He shifted his leg and pulled out the colorful pouch from his pocket.
The Omnivacant Spirit Pouch.
Before he left the Fox Zen School, Cao Yi had taught him how to use that magical pouch. Apparently, the pouch could sense a person's genuine intent to take out a particular object and then act accordingly by removing the correct object from its Spirit Space. Pretty darned clever if you ask him. No thief could steal anything inside if they didn't know what the heck it contained in the first place. And the spirit pouch had—surprise, surprise—a Spirit Space, which implied that it had its own Spirit and could probably tell whether a person was a thief or the true owner of the object based on their intent. Also, the pouch was constructed from the Rainbow Cirrus, which, Su Chan had once told him, was practically indestructible (physically, at least). The term "rainbow" certainly jibed with the pouch's colorful appearance.
Removing the Fan of Seven Treasures from the pouch now was definitely counterproductive, since it would probably worsen the spell's effect. Prancing around with a deadly weapon was the exact definition of "harboring malicious intent." He had no idea how to use the Adamantine Chakram of Magnificence, so that was out as well.
Eventually, his mind returned to the nine elixirs. Perhaps one of the elixirs had some hidden property that would be applicable in his current situation? If there was, then he was woefully unaware of it.
A twig snapped.
Li Yundong sat up straighter and listened for more noises. He heard nothing else. Probably just a squirrel, or a hare, or whatever species that live in forests. Moments later, he climbed to his feet and decided to just rely on the intensity of the suffocating aura to navigate himself to the right place. After all, it made sense for the spell's effects to be the strongest near the source of the spiritual energy responsible for its—
Li Yundong froze.
During his battle with Zhang Tianhé, the Elixir of Transcendence had allowed him to see the flow of Zhang Tianhé's spiritual energy.
If a spell was responsible for this thing, then…
Li Yundong pressed his palms together and focused on the elixir inside his upper Dantian.
Elixir of Transcendence!
The effect was immediate: golden loops and tendrils appeared in his vision.
It was like donning a pair of night goggles.
The golden strings were quite scattered, a clear sign that the spell (or whatever the heck it was) was pervasive and had a huge range of effect.
Li Yundong followed the strings, hoping that they would lead him to their source. When the strings became denser and thicker as he moved deeper into the forest, he knew that his hunch was correct.
Ten minutes later, he stopped moving. Now the strings were all over the place, forming some kind of complex golden web around him. He half-expected a golden tarantula to suddenly crawl out of the woods and start attacking him.
Li Yundong moved forward slightly, then stopped again.
There were no massive tarantulas, of course.
But the strings appeared to have gathered into some kind of tall… structure… thingy… Hell. He couldn't even tell what it was. The strings were too confusing.
He deactivated the Elixir of Transcendence and watched the golden strings disappear.
What in the world…
"What the heck?" he whispered, overwhelmed by a sense of disbelief.
It was a pagoda.
A frigging six-story pagoda, sitting right in the middle of a flipping forest.
And that wasn't even the creepiest part.
The creepiest part was that there were strings—actual strings—crisscrossing all over the pagoda's vicinity. Attached on each of those strings were tiny talismans. And there were so darned many of them. There were probably hundreds—hell, maybe even thousands—of tiny talismans hanging above his head.
Maybe that was why his Eryue couldn't pick up the sounds coming from inside the pagoda. What were the chances that some of those talismans had soundproofing effects? After all, he'd seen Su Chan isolating their apartment from the outside world with a talisman during his first attempt to pass the Zhuji phase, so he knew that it was possible.
If Su Chan was inside the pagoda, then he would have to find a way to get past all these talismans without triggering them…
Or maybe not.
Why get past them when he could just disarm them at one go?
May the Mouth of Samadhi breathes the True Flames of Samadhi…
Li Yundong moved his hands and formed Acalanatha's 5th Mudra. All hell would break loose the moment the talismans were disarmed, so he would have to act quickly.
"Namah sarva tathagatebhyah sarva—"
Li Yundong leaped sideways and then rolled into fighting stance.
A lama emerged from the woods. Not just any lama. It was the middle-aged lama who had greeted the two younger lamas at the double doors earlier.
"Looks like my hunch is correct after all," said the middle-aged lama. "I suspected the presence of an intruder… And now look what I've found."
Li Yundong stood up slowly and lowered his hands to his sides. He had decided to take a non-hostile approach. If possible, he didn't want this to result in a fight at all.
"Sir," he said in a firm but respectful tone. "It has come to my knowledge that you and your associates have recently apprehended a girl."
The lama's brows rose to his non-existent hairline. "Oh?"
Li Yundong took a deep breath and exhaled. "Yes. She has long, dark hair. A beautiful face. Has a nice figure. Quite tall. About 165 centimeters."
"I see," the lama sneered. "You're referring to that demon witch. The animal spirit."
Li Yundong's blood ran cold. "Animal spirit…"
A cold look formed on the lama's face. "That's right."
"What kind of animal spirit?" Li Yundong implored, not caring how desperate his voice sounded. "Is it… Is she a fox spirit?"
The Chinese culture speaks of all kinds of animal spirits. Maybe it was some other kind of animal spirit.
"It's impossible to tell what kind of animal spirit she is if she refuses to reveal her true form." The lama took a step forward. "Whatever she is, we will find out soon enough once the ritual is complete."
Which means the ritual had already begun.
F*ck. Why couldn't he hear a damn thing? The Ningshen phase had never failed him before.
It had to be due to the talismans.
"Look, sir…" Li Yundong pulled out his phone and unlocked it. "Is this her? Please, just tell me if this is the girl you've apprehended." He stepped towards the lama, wanting to show the latter Su Chan's photo.
"Don't come any closer!" The lama leaped backwards and got into a fighting stance. "I know why you're here." He pointed a finger at Li Yundong. "You're here to interfere with the ritual!"
"Please… Kind lama… Please listen," Li Yundong said in a calm voice, raising the phone slightly. "The girl in this photo… I know her. She isn't evil at all."
All of a sudden, a look of recognition formed on the lama's face. "You…" He wagged a finger at Li Yundong. "She's bewitched you, hasn't she?"
"What? No! Just…" Li Yundong sighed. "Alright, look. I have a photo of her right here. If you would please just take a look at it and tell me if she's the one you and your associates—"
A hand sign flew towards his face before he could even finish his sentence.