After she showered, Yun Ruoyan leaned against the windowsill and observed the serene sea of clouds in front of her eyes. It was an unusually calm and windless night. One moment, Yun Ruoyan’s heart seemed stuffed to the brim with thoughts; another, it felt as though she were thinking about nothing at all.
There was a little warmth by her chest: the snowy-white serpent core necklace that she kept by her bosom, which gave off a gentle glow. Not only could such a serpent core allow one to breathe freely underwater, it could even adapt one’s body to the surrounding temperature.
Yun Ruoyan knew that this core was undoubtedly a treasure. Given how concerned the Zhao siblings had seemed about the loss of Zhao Xu’s pearl, however, this seemed to be a far more valuable treasure than she had given it credit for.
Fall had come and gone, and it was the eve of winter. Even without any wind, the air was brisk and cold. Despite the spiritual energy protecting her body, Yun Ruoyan could still feel a pervasive chill in the atmosphere.
She looked at the sea of clouds for another long moment before finally turning to bed. Just as she was shutting the window, however, a red beam of sword aura cut through the clouds and zoomed toward Yun Ruoyan.
Li Mo’s sword aura was green, and Yun Moxiao’s was yellow. Shui Yun, Mo Yun, and the other seniors all had green and yellow auras, and she had never seen anyone with a red sword aura before.
Yun Ruoyan glanced at the scene through her window. The red sword aura drew closer and closer, and she infused spiritual energy into her eyes to augment her vision. Riding on the sword was a mysterious black-robed man.
As the sword flew above Yun Ruoyan’s cottage, she felt a strange, but nevertheless somewhat familiar, aura. She quickly ran into the washroom and opened her northward-facing window, where she saw the sword aura land in a courtyard.
Yun Ruoyan was unfamiliar with the courtyard, and she didn’t know who lived there. However, she was certain she had encountered the aura before—but it had to be an incidental encounter, or she would be more familiar with it.
After carefully recollecting her memories, she suddenly recognized the impression. About a month ago, while heading to the Kongming Mountains with Yun Moxiao as an escort, she had encountered a suspicious group of horse thieves.
Twice upon finding the thieves, she had sensed a rather powerful aura, but it quickly vanished after appearing for only a moment. Yun Ruoyan had always suspected that this aura was from the poisoner who had created the poison, but she had never had a chance to verify her hypothesis.
I’m sure it was this aura! I’ll figure out your identity, just you wait!
She went out from her cottage in such a hurry that she didn’t have time to put on an outer garment. Infusing her feet with spiritual energy, she ran in the direction of the fading sword aura. Very quickly, she arrived at her destination: two neat rows of cottages, with a few other cottages scattered throughout. Only one of those cottages was lit up; the others were all dark.
It was very late at night, and the students were all deep asleep—all but one.
Yun Ruoyan retracted her aura and walked toward the illuminated cottage slowly. She put her ear against the window and listened to what was going on within. As expected, she could hear a conversation between a male and female—and the female student was none other than the girl who had caused a commotion with Lin Qingxue during the day, Li Furong!
On the other hand, the male voice was unfamiliar, and Yun Ruoyan was quite certain she had never heard it before. The male hadn’t retracted his aura, and Yun Ruoyan could confidently claim that he was the one who had had the red sword aura. In addition, she was certain that he was the hidden culprit behind the horse-poisoning incident.
Based on his aura, the mysterious man’s cultivation was surely far higher than her own. If she were to be discovered, she didn’t doubt that he could kill her on the spot. Yun Ruoyan didn’t dare to make a sudden move; instead, she retracted her aura, slowed her breathing, and tried to discern what they were saying through the window.
“Why did you contact me?” the man asked, somewhat dissatisfied.
“Look at my hand.” Li Furong didn’t answer the man’s question directly.
“What happened?” The man’s dissatisfaction turned into concern.
“Master,” Li Furong called out plaintively, “I was bullied by another girl, and you have to get revenge for me!”
Li Furong called the man her master, but her tone sounded as though she were talking to a lover instead. Yun Ruoyan tried to ignore the raised goosebumps on her skin as she continued listening on.
“This is all a minor matter,” the man coaxed. “Once you finish the major task I’ve given you, you’ll be able to punish anyone in Kongming Academy with impunity save the six elders themselves!”
“Really?” Li Furong was clearly satisfied by the man’s reply. “I knew you doted on me, Master.”
“Naturally.” The man chuckled. “After all, in order to send you into Kongming Academy, I sacrificed two medicinal puppets. I made those puppets at great personal expense, so you have to steal the all-seeing mirror out of Kongming Academy to compensate me for my loss.”
The man’s words validated Yun Ruoyan’s hypothesis: he was indeed the master of the two medicinal puppets!
However, what was more shocking to Yun Ruoyan was the fact that he was trying to steal the all-seeing mirror from Kongming Academy! The mirror was one of the grandest treasures that the academy possessed. Who would even dare attempt to steal it?
Her curiosity sufficiently aroused, Yun Ruoyan poked a hole through the window and tried to observe the conversation, heedless of the potential consequences. 
“Who?” The moment she poked a hole through the window, the man seemed to notice something amiss.
“What’s the matter, Master?”
“I seem to sense someone outside.” The man walked to the door and poked his head out, but he didn’t find anyone present.
“Who would be skulking around these cottages so late at night? After all, Kongming Academy’s notoriously difficult for outsiders to get to. Given the arrays surrounding the academy, there’s not even a night patrol around, so no one will be able to discover your presence!”
The man seemed to disagree with Li Furong. “There’s no reason not to be careful. After all, I wouldn’t want all my plans to be disrupted because of carelessness. If there’s nothing else, I’ll be leaving now.”
“Master, wait!” Li Furong suddenly grabbed his sleeve. “The black-mist spider you handed me for protection was killed by Yun Ruoyan, the girl that bullied me!”
“What?! The black-mist spider was killed?”
“Yes, by that hateful, horrible Yun Ruoyan!” Li Furong recounted her clash with Lin Qingchen and Yun Ruoyan earlier in the day.
“I raised that black-mist spider over a prolonged period of time with countless poisonous herbs. Even a magical beast would have died with just one bite…” The man’s voice was pained. “Someone crushed it, just like that?!”
Yun Ruoyan had killed that black-mist spider in one shot, so no one realized just how strong it was. However, what they didn’t know was that Li Furong had managed to survive the trial grounds a few times only because she had that spider with her.
The man was shocked that the spider was killed so easily, and potentially by the fact that Yun Ruoyan was far stronger than he had anticipated. Li Furong’s exasperated voice rang out once more.
“That Yun Ruoyan caught me by surprise! Once I’m done with this task, Master, you have to kill her as revenge for the black-mist spider!”
Suddenly, her voice turned pitiful once more. “My cultivation’s too low, Master, and without something to defend myself, I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep myself safe from danger. Master, could you give me something else for protection?”
“Alright.” The man extended a hand, revealing a jade-green snake in his palm.
“This little snake is also rather venomous. It’s not as potent as the black-mist spider, of course, but a regular cultivator will die with one bite from the snake. Even those with more advanced cultivations will find this snake’s venom troublesome to deal with.”
Li Furong cupped the snake in her palm, and it crawled into her sleeve.
“In the future, unless it’s something of utmost importance, don’t send me a signal so casually.” Then, the man flew off on his sword.
Yun Ruoyan was hiding in a small spot by the eaves of the cottage. The man’s sudden discovery of her presence left Yun Ruoyan’s back cold with sweat, but she was luckily still small enough to squeeze into a tight corner.
Worried that the black-robed man would suddenly come back to look for her, she curled up in her spot for quite a while before finally descending to the ground and running back to her cottage once more. The matter was of such importance that Yun Ruoyan decided to find Li Mo early in the morning and inform him of the man’s plan at once.
The next day, Yun Ruoyan arrived at the southern college early. It was the first day of term, and the doors to the southern college were wide open. Within the college were a few outer disciples performing the daily cleaning routines.
Yun Ruoyan circled around the main instructional area and headed straight for the southern tower. Along the way, she ran into Cang Song.
Kongming Academy didn’t have a single director or principal, but was instead jointly directed by all six elders together. At the same time, the elders were separately responsible for the five colleges and three specialized institutions. However, they were often so busy with their responsibilities that they handed most of the instructional responsibilities to provosts. Except for a few specialized cases in which the elders’ judgment was necessary, ordinary affairs were handled by these provosts.
Cang Song was in charge of the southern college. He was in his forties, much younger than the six elders, but was of the same generation of disciples as they were. Unfortunately, because of his relatively poor cultivation, he became a provost rather than an elder.
“My greetings to you, Master Cang.” Yun Ruoyan bowed. Cang Song had been responsible for quite a number of affairs pertaining to the selection of new students, and Yun Ruoyan was more familiar with him than with most of the other instructors and provosts. Furthermore, he seemed to be genial and impartial.
“Where are you rushing off to in such a hurry?”
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