When they walked through the gates and entered the Fox Zen School's courtyard, Cao Yi was there waiting for them. Upon their approach, Cao Yi bowed. "Welcome back, Li zhǎngmén."
"Thank you," Li Yundong said, releasing Chan'er's hand. "And what did I say about this bowing nonsense?"
"My apologies, zhǎngmén. I—" Cao Yi stopped talking when she realized that she had just bowed again. When Li Yundong raised his brows at her, Cao Yi straightened herself and cleared her throat. "My apologies, zhǎngmén. Force of habit."
Li Yundong smiled and waved off her apology. "It's fine."
"Su Chan." Cao Yi acknowledged Chan'er's presence with a smile. "I'm so glad you're okay."
Chan'er dipped her head cordially. "Shībó."
A sad expression formed on Cao Yi's face. "I'm sorry about your Master."
Li Yundong studied Chan'er from the corner of his eyes. When he saw Chan'er staring quietly at the floor, he knew it was time to change the subject.
"Has Grandmaster Liu's body been taken care of?"
Cao Yi nodded. "Yes, zhǎngmén. I was actually going through the grandmaster's things in his office when I sensed your return."
Li Yundong nodded and shot Chan'er a furtive glance. The downcast look he saw earlier had abated. Chan'er was now glancing around as though she'd never been here before.
Li Yundong turned to Cao Yi again. "Please take us to the late grandmaster's office. There are important matters that we need to discuss."
"As you wish, Li zhǎngmén." Cao Yi turned around and gestured at the temple's front door.
Spending some time inside Grandmaster Liu's office was a logical first move. Perhaps Grandmaster Liu had kept written records on the school's management, things that Li Yundong could refer to for guidance.
And so help him God he needed some guidance.
He wouldn't lie. Right now, he didn't have a single clue how to lead the Fox Zen School. And it certainly didn't help that he knew absolute zilch about leadership in general, and about the organization he was supposed to lead.
Regardless, the responsibility had fallen on his shoulders. Whether he liked it or not, Cao Yi and the other members of the Fox Zen School were now turning to him for leadership. And obviously, something had to be done to get the school back in order; otherwise the school would fall apart and the Great Six's agenda would've come to fruition (at least partially) even though their assault had been thwarted. And then there were also the younger fox spirits to consider. If those young fox spirits were anything like Su Chan when they first met…
It was like being tossed into a large room with a bunch of little Su Chans running around, and then asking him to create some form of order inside the room.
The temple's front door opened to a large foyer. The hall was empty when they entered, but for some reason, Chan'er's gaze kept straying towards the center of the hall even though they had already walked past it. Her eyes were sad, and she looked like she was reminiscing about something.
Past the large foyer, Cao Yi led them to a long hallway with lots of doors on both sides.
Halfway through the hallway, Li Yundong decided to break the silence. "Any trouble while I was away?"
"Not at all, Li zhǎngmén," Cao Yi answered dutifully.
Cao Yi shook her head. "None." Cao Yi suddenly smiled. The smile accentuated the admiration in her eyes. "Your idea of using an illusion spell worked perfectly, Li zhǎngmén."
Li Yundong smirked. "That, and"—He gave Cao Yi a pointed look—"the announcement you made in a certain group chat…"
Cao Yi stopped walking, her face pale. "I… Li zhǎngmén.... I- I was just… I was... I was trying to protect the school and—" She stopped stammering and stared at Li Yundong fearfully. "Did I overstep?"
Li Yundong smiled and waved off her concerns. "Nah. You actually did well. It's a good strategy." Li Yundong smirked. "I myself would've suggested something similar if I knew that some of you actually know your way around a smartphone."
Cao Yi seemed surprised that he had let her off the hook that easily, but she didn't comment.
They took a right turn at the end of the hallway.
"Did you find the others?" Li Yundong glanced at Cao Yi.
"Very much so."
Li Yundong stared at Cao Yi for a moment. "Okay…?"
Cao Yi sighed. "They were drugged."
The statement was shocking enough to bring Chan'er out of her deep reverie.
Li Yundong frowned. "By whom?"
"By Grandmaster Liu."
"Wait a minute. What?" Li Yundong shook his head in confusion. "Why on earth would he do that?"
"To protect them, I think," Cao Yi said, then sighed. "I found them in a cellar under Grandmaster Liu's quarters."
None of this made sense.
"How come you weren't drugged?" He stared at Cao Yi. "And what about the young ones who were present during the battle? They were perfectly lucid."
"That's just the thing, Li zhǎngmén." Cao Yi gave him a wry smile. "I would've been drugged too if I had stayed inside my room before the assault began." Cao Yi sighed. "I was with the young ones. We weren't in our quarters. We were at the backyard."
"That's why they weren't drugged too."
Cao Yi nodded.
"Any idea why he did it?"
"This way, Li zhǎngmén."
Cao Yi turned towards a stairwell and started to climb the stairs. Li Yundong climbed after her, resisting the urge to just levitate up the stairwell. Behind him, Chan'er trudged along quietly.
"I don't know why he did it, Li zhǎngmén." Cao Yi sounded weary, resigned.
"Your best guess?"
Cao Yi paused at the landing, causing Li Yundong to stop walking as well. Chan'er let out an adorable squeak when she bumped into his back.
Li Yundong regarded Cao Yi, who now had a conflicted look on her face.
"You may speak your mind, Cao Yi." Li Yundong paused. "What's your take on the grandmaster's actions? What does your gut tell you?"
"That he was trying to keep the rest of us out of the way while he flushed out the traitor?"
Li Yundong and shared a brief glance with Chan'er.
"So he did suspect something." Li Yundong looked towards Cao Yi again.
Cao Yi nodded after a brief glance at Chan'er. "He said so himself when he confronted Yan Fang during the battle." Cao Yi's eyes returned to Li Yundong's face. "I overheard their confrontation."
Li Yundong narrowed his eyes. "Which means whoever he didn't drug are the ones he suspected to be the traitor."
"I concur, Li zhǎngmén."
"Who are they?"
"I beg your pardon, zhǎngmén?"
"The ones who weren't drugged," Li Yundong said. "Who are they?"
Chan'er's eyes were bouncing back and forth between him and Cao Yi.
"Mo Ahshi, Gu Feng, and Ye Yu," Cao Yi said.
Li Yundong frowned. That's a little odd…
"Two people on that list were compromised." Li Yundong held Cao Yi's gaze for a moment. "Why did things become so devastating if both traitors were already on his radar?"
Cao Yi's lips pulled into a grim line. "I think he suspected Ye Yu the most."
Realizing that they had stopped moving, Li Yundong motioned Cao Yi to lead the way. "How do you figure?" Li Yundong asked after they moved past the landing to climb another set of stairs.
Cao Yi hastened her pace. "Before you arrived, he stationed Ye Yu outside the gates to confront the Great Six's army."
"I see. He wanted to observe Ye Yu's interaction with the Great Six's army to see if she was the traitor."
"Too bad he was wrong." Cao Yi stopped walking once they reached the top of the staircase. Then, she pointed towards a hallway. "The grandmaster's office is just up ahead."
Li Yundong nodded and followed Cao Yi to the hallway. Inside his chest, excitement and trepidation brewed. He wondered what he would find inside Grandmaster Liu's office. Hopefully something that would provide some sort of guidance on how to run a school of fox spirits.
"We're here," Cao Yi said, stopping outside a large wooden door.
For some reason, Chan'er's attention wasn't focused on door in front of them. She was staring at something further down the hallway. Li Yundong followed her gaze and saw another door down the hallway, about 20 meters away from the wooden door.
Li Yundong turned and saw that Cao Yi had already stepped through the door.
"Is everything alright?"
Li Yundong smiled. "Everything's fine."
Cao Yi held the door open as he and Chan'er entered.
The office was quite huge, though it didn't have much furniture. There were two tables: a large office desk; and a square table for guests. A large shelf was set up against the wall. Scrolls and boxes lined the shelf. One of the boxes was filled with paper cranes.
Chan'er headed straight towards the office desk after they entered. She crouched down beside the desk and started poking her finger at a large hookah beside the desk. The hookah's presence wasn't that surprising since Grandmaster Liu was a smoker—if the fancy opium pipe on the desk was anything to go by.
Chan'er seemed rather occupied with the hookah, so he decided to let her be.
He turned to Cao Yi, who was hugging a disproportionately large box against her chest. He mobilized his Zhenqi and relieved her of the burden with Qi Kinesis.
Surprise flashed in Cao Yi's eyes when the large box floated out of her hands. "Oh." She glanced towards Li Yundong. "Thank you, zhǎngmén. But I could've carried that."
Li Yundong waved her off. "Where do you want this?"
Cao Yi glanced around a few times, then pointed at the square table.
"So," Li Yundong said after lowering the box onto the table. "Bring me up to speed."
Cao Yi sighed. "First of all, the grandmaster didn't leave a will."
Li Yundong nodded. The old man probably didn't plan on dying.
Cao Yi pointed at the box. "These are some of his personal belongings."
Li Yundong leaned over the box and checked out its contents: a robe; one of those spirit pouches; a bunch of scrolls; several calligraphy paintings; some kind of rack used to hold vials.
He pulled out the rack and shot Cao Yi a questioning look.
"Potions," Cao Yi answered. "Grandmaster Liu's personal collection of potions."
"Where are the rest?" He pointed at the holes on the rack where vials were missing.
"Huh." Cao Yi stepped forward and frowned. "They're gone."
Judging from the worried look on Cao Yi's face, those vials weren't supposed to be missing. Maybe the grandmaster used them during the battle. Or maybe…
"Yan Fang might've stolen them," he suggested.
Cao Yi glanced up from the rack. "Perhaps."
"Anyway." Li Yundong put the rack back into the box. "Let's move on. What else do I need to know?"
A troubled look formed on Cao Yi's face. She reached into the box and pulled out a thick notebook. Li Yundong took the notebook and flipped through a few pages.
He frowned. "These are…"
"Our finances," Cao Yi clarified.
Li Yundong looked up from the notebook and immediately noticed the crestfallen look on Cao Yi's face.
Cao Yi sighed. "And as you can see, we're facing a huge problem right now."
Li Yundong lowered his gaze onto the notebook and flipped to the most recent pages. Heaviness filled his chest. "The grandmaster didn't leave you guys with much, did he."
Cao Yi stared down at the table and said nothing.
He felt Chan'er's presence beside him right then. Chan'er, too, was in a subdued mood. Clearly, his career as the Head of the Fox Zen School had not gotten off to a cheery start.
He scanned a few more pages of the notebook. "You guys have lasted this long," he said without taking his eyes off the page he was reading. "So Grandmaster Liu must have a source of income, right?"
Cao Yi looked up from the table. "He did. We just didn't know what it was."
Li Yundong stared at Cao Yi. Okay, what?
"He always made sure we had money to use, but he never told us where he got the money from." Cao Yi smiled wistfully. "Some of us had even tried to follow him around a few times." She looked towards Li Yundong. "We wanted to figure out if he was running some kind of side business." Cao Yi shrugged. "Not that we've had any success on that front. The Fox Zen School's income source remains as elusive as ever."
Li Yundong chuckled and shook his head a few times. "Unbelievable."
"The grandmaster is a very secretive man, Li zhǎngmén." Cao Yi sighed. "None of us had a single clue about the barrier's existence until he cast the spell."
"Barrier? What barrier?" Li Yundong shot a quick glance at Chan'er. His princess looked just as confused as he felt. He looked towards Cao Yi again.
The surprise in Cao Yi's eyes was clear. "Wait… You… So you didn't know…."
Li Yundong shook his head.
Cao Yi sighed. "The assault actually began long before your arrival, Li zhǎngmén. The barrier is the only reason we could last long enough for you to arrive."
Li Yundong frowned. "Makes no sense." He held Cao Yi's gaze. "The enemy has quite a few users of earth spells, don't they?"
"No. The barrier stretches underground. Nobody could get past it without the use of a counter spell."
Li Yundong sighed. "Alright," he said, closing the notebook and then placing it back into the box. "What are your expenses? Food, obviously. What else? Utilities? Electricity? Water?"
"We have our own water supply," Cao Yi answered. "But we do require electricity."
Li Yundong hummed. He wondered if he could power the entire school by summoning lightning using the Dance of Storms…
Nah. Probably a dumb idea. He'd just end up blowing up the entire school.
"Okay. What about food? Who handles the food?"
"I'm in charge of food," Cao Yi answered in a heartbeat. "I leave the mountain a lot to restock our food supplies."
Li Yundong chuckled. "Hence your tech-savviness."
Cao Yi smiled.
Li Yundong shook his head. Group chat. Seriously. It took Chan'er days just to learn the subtle art of texting.
Li Yundong went silent in thought. Worse comes to worst, they could just sell some of the items inside the secret vault. Then again, that would probably go against the grandmaster's wishes. The grandmaster himself would've sold those items years ago if that was what he truly wanted. After all, anyone from inside the Fox Zen School could access the vault. The Fan of Seven Treasures was only required when one wished to enter the vault from the outside.
"Li zhǎngmén?" Cao Yi's voice pulled him out of his thoughts.
Cao Yi's expression right then was the very definition of gloom. "What do we do now?" Cao Yi released a heavy sigh, then waved a hand across the room. "We need money to maintain the place." She gave him a sad look. "And I don't think any of us has the skills to get a job in the mortal world."
What did a fox spirit's skillset entail? Stealth? Seduction?
An image of a bunch of fox spirits prancing around in a brothel came to mind.
Li Yundong shuddered.
"I'll figure something out," Li Yundong said.
"Zhǎngmén? Y- You have a plan?"
Li Yundong smiled. "I have a few ideas."
Cao Yi was visibly relieved. "Oh, thank Heavens…"
Li Yundong tilted his head towards the notebook. "The amount Grandmaster Liu left us should be able to last in the meantime. Just make sure you use it wisely."
Cao Yi nodded. "Yes, zhǎngmén."
"Right now, my priority is to track down Yan Fang and rescue Wushuang qiánbèi." He felt Chan'er shift beside him. When he stole a glance, he saw the hopeful look her eyes held.
"But, I don't think I can do it from here."
Cao Yi frowned.
"I'll be away." He gave Cao Yi a pointed look. "I have to return to Tiannan City."
"Do you think you can find Yan Fang there?"
Li Yundong sighed. "I'm not sure yet. But I've got a few contacts there that might be able to give us reliable leads."
None of the fox spirits—other than Su Chan—were aware that Zi Yuan was actually on their side. Considering the antagonism between the Linggong Sect and the Zhengyi School's main sect, it was probably best to keep things that way. Fox spirits tend to have rather loose tongues.
"You and the other disciples…" Li Yundong paused to look at Cao Yi. "Where are they anyway?"
"At their personal quarters," Cao Yi answered. "Recovering."
"Right. You and the other disciples are in charge of running the school while I'm away." Li Yundong paused in thought. "Keep going through Grandmaster Liu's things." He gestured at the large shelf. "See if you guys can figure out what kind of side business Grandmaster Liu was running. Right now, we need all the funds we can get."
"Will do, Li zhǎngmén."
"If there are any problems, send me a paper crane or give me a call." Li Yundong paused to give Cao Yi a stern look. "If there is another attack, do not engage. Send me a message and then hide inside the vault with the other girls." He paused again. "If hiding isn't an option, abandon the temple."
Cao Yi's flinch at the end of his last statement didn't escape him.
"Your lives are more important than your pride," Li Yundong added in a gentler tone.
Cao Yi lowered her head slightly. "Understood, Li zhǎngmén."
Li Yundong nodded and handed a slip of paper to Cao Yi. "Here's my phone number."
Cao Yi took the paper dutifully.
"Those are Grandmaster Liu's magical objects, I assume?" He pointed at the desk where the brush and opium pipe lay.
Li Yundong nodded. "Keep them safe."
Cao Yi nodded. "Will you be back for Grandmaster Liu's funeral, Li zhǎngmén?"
"Of course. Just let me know the exact time and date. Chan'er and I will be there."
"Is there anything else that I should know before I go?"
"That will be all, Li zhǎngmén."
"Good." Li Yundong turned towards his princess. "Chan'er."
Li Yundong smiled. "Let's go home."