Liu Ye's ears were ringing, and it had nothing to do with the commotion tearing through the crowd right then. Nine years ago, Yan Fang showed up at the Fox Zen School demanding for Ao Wushuang's location. And Liu Ye had chased her off the Mount Tianlong back then.
She must have infiltrated the school around that time.
And killed Mo Ahshi.
Liu Ye cursed his own carelessness. Zhang Tianhé was right about one thing. Liu Ye had been blind. All these years, he had been so blind. His old age had weakened him and clouded his judgement.
He honestly didn't think he deserved the title of Great Seer anymore.
The crowd grew more riotous by the second.
"Y- Yang Spirit!"
"Heavens above! T- That lady passed the Yuanying phase!"
"That lady?! Are you kidding me right now? Don't you know who that is? That's the Eventide Reaper!!"
"Wait, what?! Y- You mean… Y- Yan Fang zhenren?"
"My God! You're absolutely right! So this is where she's been hiding all these years?!"
Liu Ye staggered to his feet. There was still time. Her Yang Spirit would require some time to reach its full form. Even more so if her Yang Spirit had been residing in another body for a period of time.
And nine years was a very long time.
"Revenge," Liu Ye said, pausing to let a few coughs pass. "Whose death are you avenging? The Fox Zen School has never touched anyone from the Zhengyi School."
Distract her. Keep her talking.
Once her Yang Spirit was sufficiently formed, a well-aimed strike at the Qihai should take her out.
"To avenge me, of course," Yan Fang fired back.
Liu Ye reached under his robe with one hand. "Avenge you?" He chuckled when he felt the Brush of Duality's cool surface under his fingers. "How could the Fox Zen School possibly have wronged you? We never had a single dealing with you before you barged into our halls nine years ago to look for trouble."
"I'll tell you how your foul school has wronged me, you old fox," Yan Fang snarled. "My life has been over since the day that bitch from your foul school stole my shīxiōng from me!"
Liu Ye's fingers tensed around the Brush of Duality. So this was about Wushuang and Wang Yuanshan after all.
Ten seconds. This would be over in ten seconds. Liu Ye began the countdown in his head.
"You mark my words, Liu Ye," Yan Fang growled. "Your demise and the destruction of the Fox Zen School are just the beginning." Yan Fang let out a scornful chuckle. "I'll let Ao Wushuang experience what it feels like to lose everything! By the time I'm done, she'll be begging me to kill her, to ease her mental agony—"
Liu Ye had never moved so fast in decades, not since he had gone past his prime and lost his former strength to old age; but right now, the speed of his movements was enough to cause his vision to warp.
His senses tingled.
Something was coming at him from his right.
Liu Ye pulled out his pipe just in time to parry a slash from the Sword of Seven Stars. A powerful aura threw him backwards, and he had no choice but to double back.
He blew it. His attack had just been thwarted.
Zhang Tianhé stood in front of Liu Ye in a regal manner.
"That is a respected elder of the Zhengyi School, Liu-qiánbèi," Zhang Tianhé said smugly. "You would have to go through me if you intend to harm her."
Liu Ye clenched his jaw. He was so close. He knew he would've gotten her if Zhang Tianhé hadn't stepped in.
"My deepest apologies, Yan zhenren," Zhang Tianhé continued in a reverent tone, "for not recognizing you sooner." Zhang Tianhé's eyes slid back to Liu Ye's face. The Sword of Seven Stars began to release a golden glow. "Now it is time to put an end to this." Zhang Tianhé pointed the tip of the sword at Liu Ye. "I shall claim your life and deactivate the barrier."
Liu Ye pulled out the Brush of Duality the moment he saw Zhang Tianhé's figure vanishing into thin air.
Liu Ye avoided the slash and charged towards Yan Fang again.
"Don't even think about it, Liu-qiánbèi!"
Something grabbed Liu Ye's feet as soon as Zhang Tianhé finished speaking. Liu Ye thrust the Brush of Duality to the ground to prevent himself from toppling over. When he glanced down, he saw a bunch of thick roots crawling up his legs.
Liu Ye raised his gaze and saw Zhang Tianhé swinging the Sword of Seven Stars downwards at his head.
Liu Ye turned into a billow of green mist before those roots could fully engulf his body. Surging upwards, the mist turned left and flew away from those roots. Liu Ye landed on the ground to catch his breath.
That was a mistake.
The ground shifted beneath Liu Ye's feet, causing him to lose his balance. Before he could take off into the air, the ground broke apart around him. Pieces of earth rose from the ground, forming a sphere around him.
Liu Ye mobilized his Zhenqi and did a quick hand sign.
Water Element: Erosion!
The sphere turned slimy before it could close in on Liu Ye. A split second later, the sphere lost its structure and was reduced to a pile of mud on the ground.
Liu Ye mobilized his Zhenqi and unleashed his spiritual energy again.
Water Element: Sonic Wave!
Liu Ye opened his mouth and roared. The air around Liu Ye compressed, sending powerful sound waves outwards in a hemispherical pattern. Shrieks and screams were heard when the sound waves moved beyond the barrier and reached the crowd.
Liu Ye stopped roaring, satisfied that he had managed to take out some of Zhang Tianhé's cannon fodders as well.
Liu Ye fell to his knees, heaving and panting.
There were no signs of Zhang Tianhé.
Seconds later, the ground shifted and Zhang Tianhé rose from the ground. The Sword of Seven Stars continued to glow in the man's right hand.
Liu Ye quickly rose to his feet.
Wood style and Earth style…
This young man was a force to be reckoned with if he could casually toss those kinds of spells around.
"You impress me, Liu-qiánbèi," Zhang Tianhé said coldly.
Liu Ye narrowed his eyes and wrapped his fingers around his opium pipe. The next attack would come from the sword. He was sure of it.
"Come on!" Zhang Tianhé vanished once again.
A cloud of smoke emerged from the pipe when Liu Ye blew on it. The smoke moved swiftly until it shrouded Liu Ye from head to toe. The smoke had sensory functions, which would allow Liu Ye to sense incoming attacks in his vicinity.
The sword's thrust came from behind, but Liu Ye was ready for it.
Sparks flew when the opium pipe clashed with the Sword of Seven Stars head on.
Liu Ye looked behind Zhang Tianhé's back, at the invisible barrier, mentally calculating the amount of Zhenqi it would require for his next strike.
"You've reached the end of your line, young man!"
Zhang Tianhé's eyes grew wide when Liu Ye moved his hand to deliver a calculated palm strike.
Zhang Tianhé twisted his body slightly.
Liu Ye's palm slammed into Zhang Tianhé's left shoulder at the same time the Sword of Seven Stars unleashed a golden aura.
Liu Ye and Zhang Tianhé were both thrown away from each other.
Liu Ye grunted as his world spun around. Although his strike had missed Zhang Tianhé's chest, he was certain that it still had enough power to send Zhang Tianhé towards the barrier.
Liu Ye crashed into the ground, coughing out more blood. The scream of pain he'd been expecting to hear from Zhang Tianhé never came. When he opened his eyes, he immediately understood why. The Sword of Seven Stars had saved the man by stabbing itself into the ground, giving Zhang Tianhé something to grab on to, thus preventing the man from crossing the barrier's threshold.
Liu Ye stood up on shaky legs, resigned to the fact that he only had one option left.
Grandmaster Liu Ye of the Fox Zen School shall unleash his full fox form for one last time.
Ruan Hongling struggled against Zi Yuan jiějie's hold. "Shībó!!! Shībó!!!"
Why, Yan-shībó? Why? Why have you not returned to us? Nine years! You've hidden yourself away for nine years! The Linggong Sect needed you!
"Let me go, shījiě!!" Ruan Hongling screamed and clawed at Zi Yuan jiějie's arm, which was wrapped around Ruan Hongling's neck in a non-lethal chokehold. "Can't you see? That's Yan-shībó! She's right there! Why aren't we going to her?!"
"Calm down, Hongling."
Ruan Hongling gasped when her feet suddenly left the ground. Zi Yuan jiějie had hoisted her up and was now pulling her back towards the grove.
"Why, Zi Yuan jiějie?!" Ruan Hongling kept struggling, kicking out with her legs. "We thought she was dead! And now she's there! She's right there!" Ruan Hongling swung her arms wildly. "Our shībó is right there! Zi Yuan jiějie!!"
Ruan Hongling felt her back slam into the rough bark of a tree trunk.
"Enough!" Zi Yuan jiějie hissed. "You're not thinking straight, Hongling! I need you to calm down, okay?"
The anger and intensity in Zi Yuan jiějie's beautiful eyes startled Ruan Hongling into silence. And for a moment, she felt all the fight trickle out of her.
Then it all returned: the hurt; the betrayal; the confusion; and the sense of utter despondence.
Ruan Hongling's vision blurred as tears began to fill her eyes. She twisted her body around so that she was once again facing the temple. Some kind of battle was going on in front of the temple, but Ruan Hongling couldn't bring herself to care anymore.
Her eyes were glued to Yan-shībó's Yang Spirit, which was hovering above the temple.
Ruan Hongling's knees buckled, and she felt her side sliding against the tree.
She turned her head when she felt a warm presence beside her.
Zi Yuan jiějie's blurry face came into view. Ruan Hongling sniffed and dried her tears with her hands.
Ruan Hongling kept swiping at her tears.
"Hongling, look at me."
Ruan Hongling lowered her hands and met Zi Yuan jiějie's concerned gaze.
"You saw what happened." Zi Yuan jiějie gave her a pointed look. "You saw what she did to those people, Hongling. She murdered those young Cultivators, her own allies, in cold-blood."
It was then that Ruan Hongling saw it: the pained look in Zi Yuan jiějie's eyes; the hurt of having been betrayed by someone whom they once held dear.
"Is that really the Yan-shībó we once knew and looked up to, hmm?" Zi Yuan jiějie asked. "Think about that, Hongling. Just think for a second, okay?"
A sob tore past Ruan Hongling's lips.
A warm palm ran through Ruan Hongling's hair. "No, Hongling. Whoever that person is, she's no longer the shībó we once knew." There was a sigh. "It's like she became another person entirely."
"Zi Yuan jiějie…" Ruan Hongling threw herself into her mentor's arms and started wailing. "T- This is so… so unfair… Zi Yuan jiějie… So unfair… First, Master was gone. And now shībó too? W- When will th- this end… Zi Yuan jiějie… When will this end…"
It was like the forces of the Universe were conspiring against the Linggong Sect.
Ruan Hongling continued to weep until she ran out of breath. Suddenly, she felt so tired; tired of being bullied, of all her futile attempts to defend the sect's pride and glory which she knew, deep down, no longer existed.
As her sobs began to ebb, Ruan Hongling rested her head against Zi Yuan jiějie's shoulder, seeking solace in the gentle strokes of Zi Yuan jiějie's palm against her hair.
"These are difficult times, Hongling," Zi Yuan jiějie suddenly spoke. "But we need to be strong."
Ruan Hongling sniffed and pulled away from Zi Yuan jiějie's embrace.
A glimmer of hope flickered inside Ruan Hongling's chest when Zi Yuan jiějie smiled at her.
"We're on our own now, you and I." Zi Yuan jiějie patted Ruan Hongling's head and let out a soft sigh.
Ruan Hongling stared at her shījiě expectantly, waiting for her to continue.
"Master wouldn't want us to give in to our circumstances, Hongling." Zi Yuan jiějie held her gaze. "He would want us to stand up and fight."
Ruan Hongling nodded weakly. "Mm."
Zi Yuan jiějie grabbed Ruan Hongling's shoulders firmly. "We will get through this, Hongling. We will."
Ruan Hongling took in a deep breath, and then exhaled. "Together."
Zi Yuan jiějie smiled. "Together."
Ruan Hongling dried the rest of her tears and stood up. "I'm sorry, Zi Yuan jiějie."
"It's okay." Zi Yuan jiějie stood up as well. "But, we still have a job to do." Zi Yuan jiějie gave her a serious look. "Are you up for it?"
Ruan Hongling summoned her resolve and nodded.
Zi Yuan jiějie turned away and looked towards the temple. "It's all there, Hongling." She sighed. "The answers we seek. It's all there."
Ruan Hongling agreed. Whatever happened to turn Yan-shībó into this mad woman must've occurred some time during her visit to the Fox Zen School nine years ago.
The fighting in front of the temple seemed to have come to a lull. Liu Ye had removed his grey robe and was now tossing it aside. Once again, Ruan Hongling found her gaze drawn towards Yan-shībó. The Yang Spirit was floating down until it was hovering directly above Mo Ahshi's corpse.
Ruan Hongling's eyes narrowed. What's she doing?
Yan-shībó was down on her knees beside Mo Ahshi's body. One of her hands was rummaging for something inside Mo Ahshi's dress.
She's looking for something…
Without taking her eyes off Yan-shībó, Ruan Hongling shook Zi Yuan jiějie's sleeve. "Hey, Zi Yuan jiějie… Look—"
She was cut off by Zhang zhenren's voice.
"Look out, Yan-qiánbèi! The old fox is going all out!"
Yan-shībó sprang away from Mo Ahshi's body immediately and took off into the air once more.
"Things are getting serious," Zi Yuan jiějie mumbled. "Liu Ye is about to transform into his fox form."
Something caught Ruan Hongling's eye right then. Yan-shībó was carrying some kind of object in her hand.
"What's that clock thing she's carrying?" Ruan Hongling blurted out.
Ruan Hongling felt Zi Yuan jiějie shift beside her.
Seconds later, Zi Yuan jiějie gasped. "Heavens… Is that… I… I can't believe she has it!"
Ruan Hongling's scalp tingled. "What is it, shījiě? What's with that clock?"
"That's the Clock of The Heavenly Emperor, Hongling," Zi Yuan jiějie said in a grim tone. She sighed. "I think I now know what happened to Wushuang-qiánbèi."
Yan-shībó's Yang Spirit rose higher.
"Um… Zi Yuan jiějie…" Ruan Hongling squinted thought the darkness. Yan-shībó seemed to be waving to someone at the temple. "I think… I think she's giving a signal."
"Do it!!!" Yan-shībó's voice suddenly rang out. "What are you waiting for, you fool! Do it now!!"
Zi Yuan jiějie sighed and pointed her finger at something below. "Look."
Liu Ye screamed in pain.
" A second traitor," Ruan Hongling whispered.
A man had just stabbed a long sword into the old fox spirit's back, interrupting the transformation.
A large group of fox spirits charged out from the temple.
"Stay away!" Liu Ye's strained voice stilled the fox spirits' movements. "Back to the temple, now!"
"Tonight will be your end, Liu Ye!"
The man pushed the blade deeper into Liu Ye's back.
Liu Ye's scream of pain turned into an angry growl. "Damn you, Gu Feng!"
The man named Gu Feng laughed and twisted the hilt of the blade.
Liu Ye roared and slammed his palm into Gu Feng's chest. The force of the blow flung Gu Feng away until his body crashed into a wall.
Ruan Hongling found herself grimacing internally.
That palm strike was so powerful that it had caused one side of Gu Feng's chest to cave in.
Liu Ye pulled out the sword from his back. "Damn you!" The sword clanged to the ground. "Damn you all!"
"Give it up, old man," Zhang zhenren said, grabbing the hilt of the Sword of Seven Stars. "It's all over for you and your school."
Liu Ye ignored Zhang zhenren's taunt and pointed a shaky finger at Gu Feng, who, much to Ruan Hongling's surprise, was struggling to get back up. "You're not really Gu Feng, are you? You're another impostor!"
Gu Feng slumped against the wall weakly. At first, Ruan Hongling thought the man had died, but then he started laughing. Even though blood was spilling from his mouth, that lunatic was laughing his head off.
"You…" Liu Ye growled. "You're from the Wanxiang Sect, aren't you?"
Ruan Hongling frowned and looked towards Zi Yuan jiějie. "The Wanxiang Sect?"
"It's an old sect," Zi Yuan jiějie answered softly. "Its members are masters in transfiguration spells."
Gu Feng stopped laughing and started poking his fingers into various acupoints on his body.
"What's he doing?" Ruan Hongling asked.
"He's deactivating the transfiguration spell," Zi Yuan jiějie answered.
Several members of the Fox Zen School had clearly decided to ignore Liu Ye's orders to stay inside the temple as they charged out and hurried to Liu Ye's side.
"These are either the loyal ones," Ruan Hongling said, "or they're all traitors looking to finish him off."
Liu Ye was down on his knees, coughing up more blood. Ruan Hongling was honestly surprised that he was still able to keep the barrier up despite his debilitating injuries.
What tremendous willpower…
Something tugged inside Ruan Hongling's chest. She shook her head and sighed. She couldn't even imagine what the old man must be going through right now, having just been betrayed by the two people closest to him. Even though those two were impostors, they had still played their roles well over the years. The realization that both of them were impostors wouldn't soften the blow either, since Liu Ye would now have to face the reality that the real Gu Feng and Mo Ahshi were dead.
"Observe," Zi Yuan jiějie said, drawing Ruan Hongling's attention towards the wall Gu Feng was leaning against.
The man's face was undergoing a series of contortions, as though his entire facial structure was rearranging itself into a new form.
The whole process lasted about ten seconds.
There was a series of feminine shrieks. Liu Ye had just pushed his aides aside and was now up on his feet again.
"I recognize you," Liu Ye growled, pointing at the man. "You're one of Gu Feng's disciples!"
A smug smile spread across the man's original face. "R- R- Remember… the name of… of your k- killer… Liu Ye…" More blood dribbled out of the man's lips. "I- It's W- Wang… Wang Yu… of the Wanxiang… Sect…"
That last syllable carried the man's final breath.
There was a bright flash.
By the time Ruan Hongling's vision had readjusted, Liu Ye was lying on the ground.
Ruan Hongling's blood ran cold.
Is he dead?
"The barrier is down, Hongling." Zi Yuan jiějie shifted beside her. "Get ready."
More fox spirits rushed out from the temple. They all closed in on their fallen leader, forming a circle around him.
Ruan Hongling sighed, relieved that those were the loyal ones.
"No!!!!" Liu Ye screamed. "Leave the Emperor's Clock!"
A split second later, Yan-shībó's Yang Spirit disappeared in a flash of green light. For a fleeting moment, Ruan Hongling felt that familiar urge again, the urge to fly after her shībó. She quickly tamped it down and replaced it with anger.
Shībó had betrayed them.
"NOOO!!!!" Liu Ye's voice, filled with helpless anguish and agony, tore through the night.
"My fellow comrades!" Zhang zhenren's voice boomed below them, drowning out Liu Ye's scream. "Rise, my friends! Rise! The time has come for the Great Six to bring destruction upon the Fox Zen School!"
Cheers and roars erupted—sounds of bloodlust and murder.
"Draw your weapons!" Zhang zhenren commanded, raising the Sword of Seven Stars above his head.
The unmistakable noise of swords being drawn sounded through the clamor.
"Glory to the Great Six!" Zhang Zhenren swung the golden sword in a circle.
"Glory to the Great Six!" the crowd repeated.
"Remember, Hongling." Zi Yuan jiějie's calm voice drifted into Ruan Hongling's ears.
Ruan Hongling turned her head and immediately noticed the determined set in Zi Yuan jiějie's eyes.
"As soon as the battle starts, you make your move." Zi Yuan jiějie clasped Ruan Hongling's hand. "Don't take unnecessary risks, okay?"
"Mm." Ruan Hongling nodded.
She could do this. She wouldn't let Zi Yuan jiějie down this time. The damask floated upwards and hovered above her head.
"CHARGE!" Zhang zhenren yelled.
The Great Six's army swarmed towards the temple.
Ruan Hongling levitated off the ground, ready to take off into the sky.
"Hongling." Something in Zi Yuan jiějie's voice made her stop. "Wait."
Ruan Hongling landed on the ground and sent Zi Yuan jiějie a puzzled look. "What is it?"
Zi Yuan jiějie's eyes were closed, and her brows were furrowed as though she was thinking hard about something.
A second later, a smirk formed on Zi Yuan jiějie's lips. "He's here…"
(T/N: Recommended soundtrack starts playing here; click on the link to play it https://drive.google.com/file/d/17fh7wPMM91gVUbab_0XFD6qag9s3GLmN/view?usp=sharing )
Ruan Hongling's gaze snapped towards the battlefield.
"OM MANI PADME HUM!"
"Ah!!!" Ruan Hongling screamed when something exploded below them.
Four, no, five golden hand signs rained down from the sky before they scattered across the battlefield in multiple directions. Screams of terror sounded as the Cultivators of the Great Six scrambled away to avoid the hand signs. Ruan Hongling gasped when she felt her own body being thrown back slightly.
"Steady…" Zi Yuan jiějie's firm hand on her back prevented Ruan Hongling from stumbling.
"My God…" Ruan Hongling whispered in awe. "Isn't that the Esoteric Sect's…"
"Mm." Zi Yuan jiějie removed her hand from Ruan Hongling's back. "Mahavairocana's 1st Mudra, the Intelligent Fist."
A long object flew down from the sky and landed in front of the Fox Zen School's entrance with a loud crash. Through the darkness, smoke, and dust, Ruan Hongling could make out the shape and form of the object. It looked like a longer and thicker version of a Bo staff.
"The Fan of Seven Treasures," Ruan Hongling found herself whispering.
The fan stood vertically on the ground with one of its ends lodged in the ground. Standing on the exposed end of the fan was the unmistakable form of the Jindan's Heir.
"Something's different about him," Zi Yuan jiějie whispered.
Ruan Hongling glanced at her shījiě. "What?"
Zi Yuan jiějie frowned and shook her head. "I'm not sure."
Ruan Hongling returned her gaze to the Jindan's Heir, who was still standing on the fan with his arms crossed in front of his chest.
"So badass," Ruan Hongling blurted out before she could stop herself. Then, she felt her own lips pulling into a smile. Whether she wanted to admit it or not, the Heir's presence was a huge relief.
"Well. He does know how to make an entrance, doesn't he?" Zi Yuan jiějie remarked dryly.
"Show-off," Ruan Hongling mumbled through her smile.
"I'm removing the sound barrier now," Zi Yuan jiějie said. "And then I'll try to communicate with him." Zi Yuan jiějie reached up and grabbed the glowing talisman above them. "You make your move upon my signal."
"Help has arrived," Zi Yuan jiějie mumbled. "Now we just have to make the best of it."