The girl stared up at him from the floor, her lips trembling and her bloodless face etched with confusion, relief, and gratitude. As Li Yundong rose to his feet, his heart all but sank to his toes. Instead of finding Su Chan, he had just made a grave mistake.
"It's you." The pause in that voice allowed Li Yundong to register the astonishment it contained. "The young warrior."
What? Young warrior?
He turned around to face the owner of the voice: an old lama dressed in a golden kasaya.
The old man was seated cross-legged on the floor. Both of his hands were occupied: prayer beads in his left hand; a wooden fish in his right.
Li Yundong frowned. "You know me?"
The old lama broke into a grin. "Of course. You're the one who—"
The lama was cut off by a blood-curdling scream. Li Yundong whipped his head to his left, towards the edge of the circular room. A man was climbing to his feet. The shackles were still attached to his wrists and ankles, but the chains were broken.
The man's mouth suddenly dropped open.
Li Yundong once thought that Lin Youfa's transformation was grotesque. Only now did he know just how wrong he'd been. Panicked screams shook the room as the man's figure ballooned into a golden anaconda. A giant anaconda whose girth was about the same size as a standard water bucket. And as if that wasn't bad enough, the anaconda was freakishly long. Even when coiled up, its body occupied about a quarter of the large room. The anaconda hissed at the lamas closest to it, then charged at Li Yundong.
Li Yundong leaped aside, and the anaconda slithered past him.
Only then did he realize that he wasn't the anaconda's real target at all.
It was the girl. The snake was going after the girl.
The anaconda bit off an entire chunk of the totem pole. The restraints on the girl's wrists and ankles snapped. The girl shot Li Yundong another grateful look before she, too, transformed into an anaconda.
"No!" Li Yundong pounced just as the two anacondas slithered down the side of the pagoda. He managed to catch one of the anacondas' tail and then hold on to it with all his might.
The anaconda twisted its body, and its scaly skin slid out of Li Yundong's grip. Two bright flashes lit up the side of the pagoda seconds later.
The anacondas were gone.
Li Yundong turned around and walked back to the center of the circular room where the old lama sat. The other lamas were all watching him silently. Even the arhats, who were hovering in a circular formation above the room, were watching him.
When he reached the old lama, Li Yundong got down on one knee and bowed his head in shame. "Venerable Master," he began. "My recklessness has caused trouble for Xiyuan Temple." He paused to take a breath. "I am prepared to accept any punishment you deem appropriate for my wrongdoings."
Li Yundong kept his head low as his cheeks burned.
Then, the old lama started laughing.
Li Yundong's head shot up in surprise.
The wrinkles on the old lama's face creased further as laughter shook his shoulders. At one point, the old man started to shake his head, causing his white, cheek-length eyebrows to sway from side to side.
"U- Uh… S- Sir?" Li Yundong stammered.
What the heck was so funny?
The lama suddenly raised his gaze to look past Li Yundong's shoulders. He realized then that the lama was about to address the rest of the lamas gathered in the room.
"This kid is so funny, isn't he?" the old lama said loudly.
Soft chuckles filled the room.
Li Yundong glanced around the room.
The younger lamas were all smiling at him.
"Bless Wu Hua and his divination skills, truly," the old lama remarked, drawing more chuckles from the younger lamas. "All these years, that boy has never gotten it right. Not even once!" The old lama chuckled to himself after that.
"Amitabha," one of the lamas piped up. "It would appear that there is a first time for everything, Master."
The old lama released another round of mirthful laughter.
Li Yundong stared at the old man in utter puzzlement.
As though sensing his confusion, the old lama stopped laughing and smiled at him. "Wu Hua, one of my disciples, has recently predicted that trouble would befall the temple during the course of this ritual." The old lama's smile crinkled his face further. "I just didn't know that it would be a calamity of such scale!"
Li Yundong lowered his head in shame. "My actions are indeed unjustifiable." Li Yundong sighed and shook his head. "As I said earlier, I am prepared to accept any form of punishment you deem necessary to—"
Someone burst into the room.
"You fool! What have you done?"
Li Yundong raised his head and saw the middle-aged lama making a beeline towards him.
"Wait," said the old lama.
The middle-aged lama pulled up short, blinking in confusion. "Master?"
"You're dismissed," the old lama said.
"I-I beg your pardon, Master?"
"I said you're dismissed," the old lama repeated.
The middle-aged lama seemed aghast at his master's suggestion. "Master." The middle-aged lama took a deep breath, then exhaled. "This man had disrespected the temple by barging in here and interrupting the ritual. Please allow me to—"
The old lama raised his palm. "You're dismissed." The old man swept his gaze around the circular room. "All of you."
The middle-aged lama bowed slightly and retreated. The other lamas rose from the floor and filed out of the room as well. Minutes later, Li Yundong and the old lama were the only ones left in the room. And the dozens of arhats floating above them, of course.
The old lama rose to his feet and put his prayer beads away. From inside his robe, he pulled out a small wooden stick with a rounded end. Then, he began a series of percussions by knocking the wooden fish with the stick. The old lama's lips moved soundlessly as he chanted a mantra. Seconds later, the arhats above the roofless pagoda began to disperse.
It took about five minutes until the last of the arhats was gone.
"Come with me, young warrior," the old lama said, beckoning him towards the room's exit.
After collecting the Fan of Seven Treasures, Li Yundong followed the old lama to another building behind the pagoda. The building was small but well-maintained. If he were to venture a guess, this was the old lama's personal quarters.
As they entered the room, Li Yundong paused at the doorway and said, "I'm terribly sorry about the ritual, Venerable Master." And not to mention the damage he'd inflicted on the pagoda's roof. Correction: there wasn't even a roof now, since he'd blown it away.
The old lama chuckled and said nothing.
They walked past a large table where numerous scrolls were stacked neatly on top of each other. Eventually, they entered a smaller room with an incense pot placed at the center. A medium-sized square table was pushed against the corner of the room. He didn't see any stools under the table, which was rather strange since the table was clearly set up for guests—if the large teapot and the various teacups on top of it were anything to go by.
The old lama stopped in front of the incense pot and lit up several incenses. After that, he moved past the pot and took a seat on one of the round cushions set up on the floor.
The old lama gestured at a second cushion on the floor. "Please have a seat, young warrior."
Li Yundong padded towards the cushion and lowered himself onto it. "I don't deserve to be called a warrior, Venerable Master," he said as he lay the Fan of Treasures beside him.
He was no warrior. Just another troublemaker. He didn't mean to cause trouble though. He just really thought it was Chan'er.
The old lama chuckled again. "You were willing to sacrifice your own life to punish Hé Shao for his evil deeds," he said. "In my book, you're a warrior."
Li Yundong gaped at the old lama. "Y- You… You knew about…" He gestured his hands a few times.
The old lama laughed. "Most of us in the Cultivation world aren't blind, you know? We managed to put two and two together." The old lama paused in thought. "At least I did. I'm not sure about other sects though."
"Yeah… It's probably just you, sir."
None of the Cultivators from the Great Six seemed to recognize his name when he introduced himself to them during the battle. Zhang Tianhé didn't even react when he told him his full name.
The old lama's expression turned somber. "The truth is, Hé Shao's name had popped up in most Cultivation sects' radars a long time ago."
Li Yundong stared at the old man, waiting for him to continue.
A wry smile formed on the old lama's face. "You must be wondering why nothing was done, right?"
"Yes," he admitted.
"Well. The Cultivators were hesitant to take action." The old lama held Li Yundong's gaze. "They were afraid."
Li Yundong kept staring.
The old lama gave him a pointed look. "Of the consequences, I mean."
"They didn't have to kill him." Li Yundong sighed. "They just had to make sure that he didn't evade the law."
"True." The old lama released a wry chuckle. "But their sects wouldn't allow them to act."
Li Yundong frowned. Why not? Did it involve politics again?
The old man raised a hand. The large teapot and two teacups floated from the square table towards them.
Li Yundong stared at the teapot's movement. "Qi Kinesis…"
The old man smiled knowingly and took the teapot from the air.
"Wait, sir," Li Yundong said, holding up a hand. "Please allow me." Then, he took the teapot from the old man and began filling the two cups with hot tea.
"So. Li Yundong zhenren," the old man said in a strange tone. "I heard you've recently been named the new Head of the Fox Zen School."
Li Yundong would've fallen flat on his butt right then if he wasn't already sitting down. "Hey… I thought… B- But that was only hours ago! How could you have found out about that already?!"
Was there a telepathic news bulletin or something?
The old lama seemed to find Li Yundong's reaction amusing as he chuckled again.
The old lama took a sip of from his cup, then pulled out something from his robe.
Li Yundong nearly dropped his own teacup when he saw what it was.
It was a smartphone.
The old lama unlocked the screen with nimble fingers, then pulled up a messaging app with surprising adroitness.
Li Yundong stared at the old man in wonder.
A tech-savvy lama. How about that.
Li Yundong took the phone when it was proffered to him and read what was on the screen.
It was a group chat, where his recent "adventure" at the Fox Zen School was announced to everyone. The announcement ended with a declaration stating that Li Yundong, the man who had fought off the Great Six's army, was now the new Head of the Fox Zen School.
Li Yundong stared at the lama, stunned.
"Who's the source?" Li Yundong shook his head a few times. "I mean, who made the announcement?"
"No doubt someone from inside the Fox Zen School," said the lama.
Li Yundong pondered the lama's words for a moment. Was it Cao Yi? Probably. It made sense though. She must have done it as some kind of deterrent. Nobody would dare attack the school again if it was made known to the entire Cultivation world that he was now the new head. After all, he had given the Great Six quite the scare during the battle.
"Can't say I'm surprised though," the lama remarked.
"I beg your pardon?"
The lama took the phone from Li Yundong's hand. "I'm not surprised that the Great Seer named you as the new head."
Li Yundong smiled wryly. "Even though it's totally unconventional?"
Yeah. A human becoming the leader of the Fox Zen School. To hell with orthodoxy.
The lama laughed. "Yes."
Li Yundong shook his head, not knowing what else to say.
"Your strength is definitely the main factor he picked you," said the old lama.
Li Yundong stared at the lama and waited for him to continue.
The lama sighed. "To be honest, Li zhenren… I'm surprised that you could last even five minutes against the arhats let alone get past them to reach the pagoda." The old man gave him a serious look. "Even Zhang Tianshī, the Head of the Zhengyi School himself, feared the Great Arhat Formation."
Li Yundong lowered his gaze to the floor.
"Go back where you came from. That's where you'll find her."
Li Yundong's head shot up.
The old lama smiled at his reaction. "You were looking for a young lady named Su Chan, weren't you?"
Li Yundong sat up straighter. "Y- You know where to find her?"
"Go back where you came from."
Li Yundong frowned. "Where I came from? But…"
Where? The Fox Zen School? Tiannan City?
"Um… Could you be a bit more specific?"
The lama laughed. "I'm afraid not, Li zhenren. I'm just the messenger, you see."
"A messenger? For whom?"
"For that disciple of mine, of course. The one with the unparalleled divination skills?"
Li Yundong stared at the old man silently.
The old man sighed. "My disciple warned me that an outsider would try to interfere with the ritual tonight." The old man paused and gave him a pointed look. "Did you see those talismans outside?"
The old lama nodded. "Nobody took Wu Hua's prediction seriously, but I did." The old lama chuckled. "I requested my disciples to set up the Great Arhat Formation just in case." The old lama looked into Li Yundong's eyes. "I just didn't expect this intruder to be the infamous conjurer of the Heavenly Thunder who brought retribution to Hé Shao."