Preach, Wingman, Preach!
A step faster than Dong Ling, Chun Xu projected her Spiritual Sense, scanning the scene while her brain recalled the events preceding her collapse. Dong Ling followed suit, and images of Tusha confronting Xinzi resurfaced. Though not as experienced as Chun Xu in battle-related matters, even Dong Ling could tell that the blow that knocked them both out came from behind. Did Xinzi play tricks, or did a third expert sneak up on them? Their eyes cleared up, and a shocking scene challenged their doubts.
Xinzi's arms wrapped around their shoulders, sheltering them underneath his hulking frame while a sheen of golden force split the room in two. A step behind, Xinzi stood on his knees, warm blood poured from his wounded scalp, wrists, chest and thighs—staining the White Immortal sect uniforms in a thick sanguine shade.
"No, no, no! Xinzi, Xinzi!" Dong Ling broke into a frenzy, grabbed and shook Xinzi's shoulders. Her moves and screams fell on deaf ears, and as Xinzi failed to respond, Chun Xu checked his pulse—her eyes widened at the result. "He is...dead?" Chun Xu couldn't believe the words pronounced by her own lips. How could their ever-resourceful monk fall in this decrepit place?
An earthshaking roar shook the hall, forcing the girls to take their eyes off Xinzi and glance past the golden forcefield. A five-meter-long Armored Lion stood before the forcefield. His metallic wings spread wide, going from one extremity of the room to the other. Golden light lit up the Armored Lion's skin, matching the forcefield and markings all over Xinzi's flesh. A mangled nun lay below the lion, her head crushed underneath his paw, while her lustrous blood pooled into a puddle of gore.
One golden lotus bloomed underneath Xinzi, and the Armored Lion spun to face the girls.
"Why? Why? Can someone tell me…what is going on here?" Dong Ling's words came out like choked grumbles. At the border between confusion and enlightenment, Chun Xu's eyes went back and forth between Xinzi, the holy lion, and Tusha's corpse. A gaping wound tore open the lion's chest—proof that it'd just went through a murderous battle.
"Are you...a rank 6 Ordained Beast?" Unable to see through the Armored Lion's cultivation, Chun Xu relied on the golden light coiling its form and the lotus below Xinzi to make an educated guess. Past the fifth rank, mysterious beasts couldn't progress without the blessings of a devil, saint or god. Only by receiving the Ordinance of those supreme beings could they go further down the cultivation road. However, by receiving the Ordinance, mysterious beasts became de-facto slaves of the entity and could not only be summoned at will, but their progress, lifespan and even thought process couldn't escape the supreme being's control.
For that reason, most peak-level rank 5 beasts chose the Golden Lotus, preeminent existence of the Blessed Paradise and ambassador of liberation, as their master.
The Armored Lion nodded, confirming Chun Xu's guess. How could the poor gal know that the golden light, corpse, wounds and lotus were all mirages set up by Tusha at Xinzi's command? Led astray by what she saw, Chun Xu came to a heart-wrenching conclusion: "Did he...summon you?"
Those knowledgeable about Lianism knew that Enlightened Monks' most dreadful weapons weren't the Words, Laws or Sentences they became enlightened in, but the Mantra of Sacrifice. The deeper the monk's devotion to the Lotus, the higher the sacrifice's value, and the more astounding the feats the monk could accomplish. Thus, with enough devotion and sacrifice, there was virtually nothing an Enlightened Monk couldn't do.
In the fight against Xia Hu, Xinzi used the Mantra of Sacrifice to offer his right arm to the Golden Lotus in exchange for a boost in Soul Force. But how could a replaceable arm compare to his life? Instantly, Chun Xu inferred that Xinzi offered the Lotus his life to summon an Ordained Beast and defeat Tusha.
"Indeed. At first, that boy faked submission to the vile nun, let her drop her guard, then offered himself through the Mantra of Sacrifice to summon me. Despite millennia of existence, never have I seen such a deceitful yet loyal youth. I suppose one of you snatched his heart, leading to this selfless move," the Armored Lion King said, following Xinzi's script to the letter, and ambled at the girls. The forcefield broke down, enabling the colossal beast to pass through.
Dong Ling and Chun Xu's eyes widened at his words. Neither could believe that a foul-mouthed bastard such as Xinzi would give up his life for anyone but himself. But with the truth right under their nose, how could they deny it? Waves of bitter emotions wracked them instantly.
Guilt and regret intertwined in Dong Ling's eyes while her trembling hands clenched hard at the inert Xinzi.
Chun Xu's emotions were more complex. The Sword Fairy wanted to feel relieved at this result she'd been promoting for months, but couldn't find the sensation. Worse, the longer she stared at the bloodied Xinzi, the tighter her heart became. Drowning in confusion, Chun Xu clenched the lower hem of her dress.
"Senior, can you save him?" Dong Ling and Chun Xu said in synch. From the former, these words came without surprise. But in the latter, they sounded so out of place that even Chun Xu couldn't believe she'd uttered them.
"Let's not even mention that my cultivation base cannot affect the reincarnation cycle, since he offered himself to the Golden Lotus, even gods can't save him." The Armored Lion King shook his head, inwardly impressed by how well Xinzi's script predicted the girls' reactions.
The last rays of hope vanished from the ladies' eyes—both reeled back, unable to accept this result. Tears filled Dong Ling's eyes, whereas Chun Xu's turned red.
Arching his head back, the Armored Lion King closed his eyes, and one teardrop trickled down his face. "Back in those days, I chose the Golden Lotus so that no foreign entity would interfere with my life. But after thousands of years of cultivation, what have I accomplished besides watching my loved ones leave me one after the other? Today, I came willingly, but too eager to see this through, I miscalculated the vile nun's might and will not survive my wound—another mistake on the long list of things that make me a failed existence. That being the case, I might as well trade this wrecked body of mine for the boy's life."
Chun Xu knew that since the Lotus summoned the Armored Lion, no matter what wound he suffered, the Lotus would heal him. This was just an excuse served so the girls wouldn't feel guilty. Though she didn't know as much about Lianism, Dong Ling also saw through the Armored Lion's intentions. The sisters exchanged a glance, then kowtowed at the Armored Lion.
"From the Earth I came, to the Earth I return. If I don't face the Bitter Sea, who will?" As he chanted the Mantra of Sacrifice, a golden lotus bloomed underneath the Armored Lion—siphoning his soul.
"From now on, I hope you three can treasure this bond and take care of one another, less you face regrets that no deity can overturn." These were the Armored Lion's final words before he broke into particles or golden light that flew into Xinzi's body.
"Thank you senior for rescuing us! We sisters pledge to not betray your expectations!" Moved beyond what words could convey, Dong Ling and Chun Xu dared not lift their heads. The golden lotus folded its petals, vanishing alongside the last trace of the Armored Lion. Xinzi's wounds healed, and as the gals paid their "savior" a last tribute, our monk's eyes opened wide.
"Huh? How am I still…" Confusion flashed in our theatric monk's eyes, his words trailed off, and Dong Ling rushed into his arms.
"Xinzi!" The monstergirl's emotions exploded through that one name, and her tears rained down Xinzi's chest. "The Golden Lotus be praised. The Golden Lotus be praised..." Despite a strict Daoist upbringing, Dong Ling repeated those words.
Xinzi wanted to say that the Lotus had nothing to do with this, but didn't want to waste the gains of this splendid play. Like a man risen from certain death, Xinzi showed no restraint, broke into tears—and met Dong Ling's embrace with a tight hug.
"A'Ling, I thought I'd never see you again!" He said. And while the partners' emotions flowed out, Chun Xu dared not approach, yet wouldn't retreat. So she just stood there, trapped in an uncomfortable state.
Meanwhile, cloaked by mystical arts, the Armored Lion King and the true Tusha observed the scene.
'Barefaced scoundrel. If theater had a god, it would still ask him for pointers! Master, how did your faith manage to produce this bandit?' The Armored Lion King waved his paw at Xinzi, half-impressed, half-fearful of the monk's ability to hoodwink.
'Did you expect direct descendants of the Thousand-Faced God to be anything less than deceitful knaves? Don't blame Lianism. Blame the Hengye clan!' Tusha said and snapped her fingers. A blood-colored spark flashed in her hand—then turned into an invisible ray that merged with Chun Xu's soul.
'Now even Qi Refinement dolls can become hosts for my honorable soul.. How the mighty have fallen!' Tusha sighed and vanished alongside the Armored Lion King.