"This way, Chan'er," Ao Wushuang said, looking over her shoulder . Chan'er seemed engrossed in her scrutiny of a bunch of strange-looking flowers scattered along the roadside . "Hurry up! We don't have time to sightsee . "
Chan'er rose to her feet instantly and walked away from the flowers, casting longing glances at them once every few steps . As Chan'er trudged towards her, Ao Wushuang thought she saw a flicker of emotion inside Chan'er's eyes . The vulnerability she saw in Chan'er's eyes triggered an avalanche of emotions inside Ao Wushuang's chest . It reminded her of that six-year-old girl whose hands she had held ten years ago as they travelled along this very road but in the opposite direction . It'd been the same back then as it was now . Behind her disciple's playful exterior, underneath all that curiosity and excitement, there was a hint of insecurity and fear .
"S- Sorry, Master . . . Those flowers just looked so pretty," Chan'er mumbled .
The way Chan'er had refused to look Ao Wushuang in the eye tugged on Ao Wushuang's heartstrings a little . It was like Chan'er was deliberately putting on a brave front for Ao Wushuang's sake .
Ao Wushuang sighed inwardly .
Have I been too harsh on her?
"Come along, then," Ao Wushuang said in a gentler tone .
They continued their journey towards the foot of Mount Tianlong . They could've just flown there, but Ao Wushuang didn't want to risk drawing any attention now that the Great Six had their sights set upon the Fox Zen School . The enemy could be monitoring the sky for any Cultivators flying in and out of Mount Tianlong .
Ao Wushuang led Chan'er along the winding path, taking the opportunity to instruct Chan'er on the finer points of the stealth arts . Chan'er had seemed a little withdrawn ever since they left Dongwu City . It also didn't escape Ao Wushuang's notice that her disciple's reticence had become increasingly pronounced as the foot of Mount Tianlong drew near .
"Don't be afraid, Chan'er," Ao Wushuang said when the foot of Mount Tianlong finally came into view .
Chan'er stopped walking and gazed up at Ao Wushuang . Ao Wushuang's heartstrings nearly came undone when she saw the insecurity in Chan'er's eyes .
"There is nothing to fear . " Ao Wushuang smiled reassuringly . "Just stick close to me and you'll be fine . "
A hint of cheerfulness returned to Chan'er's face, which warmed Ao Wushuang's heart a little .
"Mmm!" Chan'er nodded .
Ao Wushuang walked on, but stopped when she felt a tug on her sleeve . "Yes, Chan'er?"
"D- Do I… Do I have to g- greet the elders later?"
"Maybe," Ao Wushuang said in a light tone . If our arrival is well-received, that is . . .
Ao Wushuang felt a stab of guilt in her chest .
It was because of her association with Ao Wushuang that Chan'er had lost her home . Ao Wushuang's past decisions had turned Chan'er into an outcast . Had things been different back then…
If I never met him . . .
Ao Wushuang shoved that thought into the deepest recesses of her mind . "Come, Chan'er," she said . "Let's get to the school before it gets dark . "
Under normal circumstances, Ao Wushuang would have preferred to travel at night . After all the stealth arts thrived in the darkness . However, Ao Wushuang was also aware that stealth doesn't pick sides—the enemy could also use the darkness to their advantage . Ao Wushuang didn't want to risk running into traps, especially when Chan'er was travelling with her .
"I just have to greet them once, right?" Chan'er said .
The forests blanketing Mount Tianlong's slopes seemed thicker than Ao Wushuang remembered . Overhead, clumps of foliage formed wide and dense canopies, which cast a comfortable shade on the trail .
"I mean . . . Is… Is it okay if I just greet them once . . . and then hide behind your back?"
Ao Wushuang suddenly stopped walking .
"Oof…" Chan'er bumped into her back a second later . The girl let out an adorable squeak . "S-Sorry, Master…"
Ao Wushuang smiled down at Chan'er and patted her head a few times . "If it makes you feel better, you can hide behind my back for as long as you like . "
Ao Wushuang's tone sounded amused even to her own ears . She had honestly never encountered a person with a personality like Chan'er . Her words had clearly provided Chan'er with a small amount of relief as the girl seemed more at ease after the exchange .
They walked on for another ten minutes in complete silence .
"Does anything here seem familiar to you?" Ao Wushuang asked, breaking the silence . Admittedly, she wasn't used to Chan'er being this quiet . She kind of missed her perky and adorable (and sometimes annoying) little pupil .
Chan'er released a long hum . Ao Wushuang had no idea what to make of Chan'er's response . Was that a hum of agreement or denial? Well, at least her voice sounded lighter now compared to ten minutes ago .
"It feels kinda weird, Master . . . "
Ao Wushuang frowned a little . "Mm-hmm?"
"It's just . . . everything here seems kinda familiar, like I've been here before . But then when I look closer, everything feels foreign . "
The heaviness returned to Ao Wushuang's chest in full force . Seconds passed in silence with Ao Wushuang struggling to come up with reassuring words .
"You know what this trip reminds me of, Master?"
"What?" Ao Wushuang said . The smile in Chan'er's tone eased the tightness in Ao Wushuang's chest a little .
"Hehehe . . . Of all the times we traveled together in the mountains, of course!"
Those words made Ao Wushuang stop walking altogether in order to stare at Chan'er . A wave of affection swarmed her chest, chasing away the sadness she'd been feeling right down to its last sliver .
"It does, huh?" Ao Wushuang said, keeping her tone even .
"Mmm!" Chan'er bobbed her head . "There are trees . . . flowers . . . mountains . . . And . . . " Chan'er suddenly sidled up to her and grabbed arm . "And there's Master!"
Ao Wushuang chuckled . It amazed Ao Wushuang how this adorable girl could make her temporarily forget about the dangers that lay ahead of them at the school .
"I really missed traveling with you, Master . . . "
Ao Wushuang stroked Chan'er's hair . "Not as much as you miss your beloved Yundong, I'm sure," she said dryly .
"Well… I miss him too . . . " Chan'er mumbled as they hit the trail once more . "But I also miss . . . I miss… Argh! Whatever! I don't wanna choose! I miss you both! Hmph!"
Ao Wushuang burst into laughter, allowing herself this small moment of peace and happiness, this calm before the storm .
Halfway up Mount Tianlong, Ao Wushuang pulled Chan'er to a stop .
"This way," Ao Wushuang whispered, pointing towards a side trail on their left .
Chan'er nodded and followed her obediently . The side trail would lead them to a Taoist temple where the Fox Zen School was using as its base . This was a rather common practice among Cultivators who wish to set up schools inside the mountains . Most temples were built halfway to the summit of a mountain, not on the summit itself . They hurried along the side trail until the aforementioned temple came into view .
Chan'er stopped walking and studied the temple's facade with her head tilted slightly . Her cute little disciple, it seemed, was back in curious mode again .
"Our school is called the Fox Zen School, isn't it?"
Alarm coursed through Ao Wushuang, and she looked sharply towards her disciple . Surely this girl hadn't forgotten the name of their school .
Chan'er's head remained tilted to one side .
"The word Zen stems from Buddhism, doesn't it?" Chan'er continued . "And the school was anointed by the great Zen master Baizhang Huaihai . . . Ooh, and not to mention that the founder of our school practiced Buddhism!"
"Your point?" Ao Wushuang quirked a brow .
Chan'er pointed a finger at the building's facade . "Then why does our school's building look like a Taoist temple?"
Ao Wushuang sighed inwardly, grateful that Chan'er's question about the school name arose from curiosity, not a bad case of amnesia .
"I thought it would look like a Buddhist temple," Chan'er mumbled quizzically .
Ao Wushuang smiled . This wasn't the first time Chan'er had raised this question .
Ao Wushuang patted Chan'er's hand, the one pulling at Ao Wushuang's sleeve . "That's a long story, Chan'er . Maybe save the question for another day . "
"This answer again? Boo . . . " Chan'er's lips shaped themselves into what appeared to be the largest pout in the history of pouts . Ao Wushuang smiled . The only thing that could rival that Chan'er's innocence was perhaps her insatiable curiosity . Then again, perhaps those two traits were interdependent .
Ao Wushuang stepped forward and knocked on the tall double doors plastered at the center of the building's facade . She didn't have to knock, of course . If she wanted to, she could break in easily . But then she didn't want to, since that would just make her presence even more unwelcome than it already was . The double doors creaked open to reveal a beautiful woman clad in a Taoist robe .
Ao Wushuang could feel the woman's wary gaze on her . Ao Wushuang appraised the woman at the door . Human, not a fox spirit . Probably not a virgin . Even when dressed in full Taoist vestments, the woman was wearing heavy makeup . Clearly an outer disciple .
"Yes?" The woman's voice ended Ao Wushuang's appraisal .
"Send word for Liu Ye," Ao Wushuang said coolly . "Tell him that Ao Wushuang has returned . "
The Taoist priestess' face took on a hostile expression . "I've never heard of the name Ao Wushuang before . "
Right . Her name had probably become a taboo ever since the old man kicked her out of the school .
"It doesn't matter whether or not you know my name," Ao Wushuang said coolly . "Liu Ye knows who I am, and that's the only thing that matters . "
Anger flashed inside the priestess' eyes . "How dare you address the head of our school by name!"
Ao Wushuang shook her head slightly . Perhaps this was a mistake . Why should she come to the aid of an organization who had cast her aside like she was some worthless junk? Why should she risk her life for the people who had abandoned and ostracized her because of whom she chose to fall in love with? Because you're loyal, that's why . Admittedly, Liu Ye was right when he told her that she would forever be tied to the Fox Zen School . Even now, a small part of her still considered the Fox Zen School her home . And now her home was under siege, and this foolish woman was making them lose precious time .
"Lady," Ao Wushuang said in a calm voice . "I assure you that our visit concerns a matter of utmost urgency, one that demands Head Liu's immediate attention . So I would appreciate it very much if you could send word for Head Liu immediately and notify him of my arrival . " Ao Wushuang took Chan'er's arm and stepped forward . "Now . If you would just let us through—"
"Stay where you are!" The woman drew her sword, the tip of which was now hovering inches away from Chan'er's face .
"That," Ao Wushuang said, pausing to stare at the woman coldly, "was a huge mistake . "
Nobody draws their weapon on my disciple . Nobody .
The sword stayed up .
"Leave," the Taoist priestess sneered . "The Fox Zen School does not grant entrance to outsiders . "
Ao Wushuang touched Chan'er's shoulder to get her attention .
Ao Wushuang smirked . "You've always been curious about the spells I know, haven't you?"
"Mmm!" Chan'er bobbed her head with zest, not caring at all that the tip of a sharp blade was mere inches from her face . A second later, Chan'er looked adorably puzzled . "But why do you ask, Master?"
"Because, my dearest disciple . . . " Ao Wushuang smiled at Chan'er sweetly . "I'm about to show you one of them . "
Chan'er beamed . "Really?"
"Mm-hmm . . . Now watch closely, Chan'er . " Ao Wushuang turned away to give the woman blocking the door a cold stare . "Here's a little something from the Water element . " Ao Wushuang mobilized her Zhenqi . "Steam Vortex . "
A split second later, the sword-wielding woman was blown away from the entrance by a swirling blast of water vapor . The woman's body flew across front hall and smashed into the wall at the far end .
"Whoa . . . " Chan'er said in awe when the woman's body slid down onto the floor .
Ao Wushuang stepped into the large hall with Chan'er .
"It was not my intention to harm you," Ao Wushuang said to the woman . Indeed, the vapor's temperature would've been much higher if she wished the woman harm . "But we're in a hurry, you see . And you were in the way . "
The woman climbed to her feet . "Sisters!!! We're under attack! I repeat! We're under attack!"
A second after the woman's voice fell, dozens of similarly-dressed Taoist priestesses filled the hall, each wielding some kind of weapon in their hands: long swords; fly-whisks; Emeicis; etc .
Soon, Ao Wushuang and Chan'er were surrounded by these fools . Ao Wushuang pinched the bridge of her nose and groaned inwardly . God . This is stupid . . . Why am I even here . . .
"Intruders!" one of the women shouted . "Identify yourselves and state your purpose!"
Ao Wushuang did a quick scan of their surroundings . Seconds later, she sighed . Might as well give Chan'er the opportunity to put her skills into practice . God forbid Ao Wushuang ended up killing one of these idiots by accident if she fought them herself .
"All yours, Chan'er," Ao Wushuang said .
Chan'er's face was positively coruscating at that point . "Hehehe . . . Yes, Ma'am!"
It filled Ao Wushuang with a sense of pride to witness Chan'er's mastery of the Shadow Mist . Thick, green mists enshrouded the large hall, throwing their attackers into a state of confusion . Ao Wushuang eyes darted around as she followed Chan'er's movements . There was a cacophony of screams and yells before the green mists gathered into a thick cloud beside Ao Wushuang .
The mists cleared away to reveal Chan'er's beaming face and a bunch of weapons she was carrying in her arms— the ones that Chan'er had sneakily disarmed from their opponents .
The Taoist priestesses watched them with stunned expressions . Some were holding their arm limply against their sides, while others were rotating their wrists . All of them were still standing though .
Clearly, Chan'er had gone easy on them .
"What the f*ck just happened!"
"Motherf*cking coward! Hiding inside mists?! That's a dirty trick! Fight us head on if you dare!"
"Return our weapons!"
"Yeah! Fight us head on, you slut!"
Ao Wushuang frowned . She couldn't believe her eyes that this was the state that the Fox Zen School had fallen to .
Ten years . Ten years since Ao Wushuang left the school . That was all the time it took for the Fox Zen School to fall to such philistine standards . Since when were the disciples (even the outer disciples) of the Fox Zen School capable of such crass, and vulgar language? If this was the state that the Fox Zen School was in for the past decade, then Ao Wushuang feared that school had already fallen . This place wasn't even a Cultivation school anymore—it was a breeding ground for a bunch of uncivilized brutes .
Is this what you've been doing all these years, Liu Ye? Running the school to the ground and destroying Grandmaster Pan Shi's legacy?
"Return our weapons, you slut!"
Anger rose inside Ao Wushuang .
A powerful shockwave swept across the hall the moment Ao Wushuang's voice rang out . It brought Ao Wushuang a sense of satisfaction to see her spell sending those ill-mannered brutes sprawling onto the floor .
Ao Wushuang rolled up her sleeves and stepped forward . "Didn't your master teach you people any manners? Is this the way you people treat your guests?"
The women scrambled back in fear and started screaming and shrieking .
"This intruder's trying to kill us!"
Ao Wushuang stared at the scene in disbelief . What in Heavens' name am I seeing here? Why were the school's outer disciples acting like a bunch of . . . a bunch of mindless harpies!
Ao Wushuang looked towards Chan'er to see the girl equally stunned . In hindsight, it was a good thing that she brought Chan'er away from the school ten years ago . The mere thought of Chan'er spending her childhood with these harpies brought a bad taste to Ao Wushuang's mouth .
A green flash lit up the hall . Someone had just arrived .
Ao Wushuang snorted . Of course these floozies were his . Of course .
Why am I not surprised . . .
The women scrambled to their feet and ran towards Gu Feng the moment he showed up; some were even crawling on all four towards the man .
"Oh, Master! Thank goodness, you're here!"
"We were bullied by these intruders! Please help us, master!"
Gu Feng raised his arms and put his sword behind his back . "Now, now . Slow down my dears . One by one, okay? Tell me—"
The look on Gu Feng's face when their eyes met made Ao Wushuang smirk .
" Ao Wushuang? Y- You . . . You . . . You're back?"
Those annoying women instantly quieted down . Ao Wushuang took a step forward and sized-up Gu Feng from afar . The man looked the same as she last remembered . He still wore the same bun on his head and the same robes . And he still carried his sword the same way .
Just then, one of those women pointed her finger at Chan'er . "That slut stole our weapons, Master!"
Gu Feng flinched in surprise when he glanced at the direction indicated by that harpy . Ao Wushuang let out a low growl and immediately stepped in front of Chan'er . She didn't like the way Gu Feng was leering at Chan'er .
Not my Chan'er, you sick pervert .
"I- Is that . . . C- Could she be . . . Su Chan?" Gu Feng stammered .
Ao Wushuang could feel Chan'er's grip on the back of her dress . When she turned, she saw Chan'er stiff posture .
Chan'er shot her a tentative glance . "Who is that man, Master?" Chan'er poked her head out from behind Ao Wushuang's back to look at Gu Feng .
Gu Feng had clearly regained his composure as he now had a friendly and amiable smile on his face . "You were only this tall the last time I saw you . " Gu Feng held his palm to his hip level, then chuckled . "I can't believe how much you've grown!"
Ao Wushuang glared at Gu Feng . Yeah . I bet you've noticed how much she's grown .
Ao Wushuang pushed away her morbid thoughts when Chan'er tugged her sleeves . "Who is he, Master?"
Ao Wushuang chuckled humorlessly . "Meet your Shibo Gu Feng . " Ao Wushuang smirked . "The most incompetent and inept member of the Fox Zen School . " (T/N: Refer to the end chapter notes for an explanations for the honorific terms Shibo, Shijie, Shishiong, Shidi)
"Still with that poisonous tongue, Shimei . " Gu Feng let out a strained laugh . "Ten years, and you haven't changed at all . I guess old habits die hard . "
Ao Wushuang snorted . "Says the one who still acts like a perv after all these years . "
"You—" Anger flashed inside Gu Feng's eyes, though his expression remained amicable . "I wonder what made you come to that conclusion . . . "
Ao Wushuang did a quick visual sweep of the hall . The Taoist priestesses were all gaping at her now . "What's up with these people?" Ao Wushuang shook her head in disgust . "What an insolent bunch . " Ao Wushuang shot a glare at Gu Feng . "I must say that your teaching methods are questionable if your disciples act like harpies instead of Cultivators . "
Gu Feng's smile faltered, and he opened his mouth .
"Some of them are my disciples," said a woman's voice . "Does that mean you find my teaching methods questionable as well, Shimei?"
Ao Wushuang chuckled darkly . "Chan'er," she said without taking her eyes off Gu Feng . "Meet Ye Yu, another one of your Shibos . "
Ye Yu landed at the center of the hall with a soft thud . Ye Yu's appearance hadn't changed at all as far as Ao Wushuang could tell . Despite being much older than Ao Wushuang was, Ye Yu still looked like an eighteen-year-old teenager . In fact, one could've easily mistaken Ye Yu and Chan'er as peers . Ye Yu approach Ao Wushuang slowly, a dark scowl spreading over her features . As always, Ye Yu carried her signature weapon—a huge chakram—on her back .
"I hope you've been well, Shijie," Ao Wushuang said coolly .
"Drop the act, Ao Wushuang!" Ye Yu snarled . "Stop pretending that you still care about the school!"
"Ah . I suppose this is how you people treat those who have come to your aid these days," Ao Wushuang said in a glacial tone . "What a shame . "
"It's because of you that we're in this mess," Ye Yu snapped . "Or have you forgotten already what you have done . "
Ao Wushuang kept quiet . She knew Ye Yu's explosive temper as well as her tendency to defend the shortcomings of her own people .
Ye Yu smirked . "What, so you got nothing to say for yourself now?"
"I didn't return to seek forgiveness, Shijie . "
Ye Yu laughed derisively . "Shijie? You still have the nerve to call me your Shijie after everything you've done? After all the trouble you have brought upon the school's doorsteps?" Another derisive laugh . "Forget that your actions have led to the Fox Zen School's downfall . And now you come back after ten years to bully my disciples?" Ye Yu pointed a finger at Chan'er . "You're the one who beat them up, aren't you? Very well! Come on! Let's see what your master has been teaching you all these years!"
Chan'er jumped slightly and quickly hid herself behind Ao Wushuang .
"Your beef is with me, Shijie," Ao Wushuang said, stepping forward to shield Chan'er with her own body . "Leave my disciple out of it . "
Ye Yu laughed snidely . "Sounds rich coming from a person who tossed my disciples around . " Ye Yu pointed a finger at Ao Wushuang . "Move out of the way, Ao Wushuang . Otherwise I'll deal with the both of you at the same time!"
Ao Wushuang smirked . "You're not a match for me, Shijie . Or have you forgotten about that little fact?" A moment later, Ao Wushuang's smirk changed into a glare . "And also the fact that we have a school to protect . We are wasting precious time engaging in these useless and pointless scuffles!"
The huge chakram on Ye Yu's back sprang into the air, releasing a series of harsh, grinding noise—like two abrasive metal surfaces being rubbed together repeatedly .
Bahuang materialized in front of Ao Wushuang and began circling around her, ready to protect its master .
Ye Yu's eyes widened in shock; a second later, they were filled with rage .
"I can't believe he even gave you that sword!" Ye Yu snarled, then pointed a finger at Ao Wushuang . "You! So it's true after all! You were in cahoots with the Zhengyi School! No wonder Yan Fang from the Linggong Sect came here nine years ago with all these wild accusations! This was all your doing wasn't it? You traitor!"