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    Chapter 97: This Seat...

    "Mo Ran, Mo Ran."

    It seemed like someone was calling him.

    He faintly opened his eyes, and through his dazed vision, he saw a snowy white figure. He vaguely sensed that this person resembled Chu Wanning, but he dared not believe it. All he felt was that the person's hands were clasped on his chest, continuously pouring spirit energy into the wound that was gushing blood.

    So warm...

    Who is it?

    He struggled to blink, attempting to discern the blurry figure before him.

    "Mo Ran..."

    "Mi-Master?"

    He swallowed the blood in his throat and murmured the question.

    Warm droplets fell upon his cheek, gradually revealing the person before him: almond-shaped eyes like blooming apricot blossoms in southern Jiangnan, with a pale face stained by blood. Mo Ran stared at him, never having seen such an expression on Chu Wanning's face before.

    His master had always been indifferent, but this person before him was weeping.

    Mo Ran reached out, yearning to touch, to determine if this was reality or a hallucination of a dying man. Yet, his fingertips halted just inches from the other's cheek.

    Hating someone could become a habit. If suddenly there was no reason to hate them, it left one feeling lost.

    He didn't dare touch.

    Afraid that it was real.

    And afraid that it wasn't.

    He saw a mountain of corpses and a sea of blood behind Chu Wanning, unsure if it was the aftermath of a brutal battle in Butterfly Town or if he was already in the realm of Asura. He knew he had committed countless atrocities, deserving death and eternal damnation in the abyss.

    But Chu Wanning...

    He was a good person.

    How could he be here, forever trapped in the Abyss of Abysmal Misery with me?

    "There's one last thing," Chu Wanning's voice seemed to echo from the depths of the ocean, hazy and distant. "You can't fall asleep, or else..."

    He saw blood seeping from the corner of Chu Wanning's mouth.

    The golden light grew brighter and brighter, and suddenly, the figure before his eyes was enveloped by the glow, transforming into that of a child.

    "Or else, you'll no longer be my disciple under Mount Yuheng."

    "Junior Brother Xia!"

    Watching Chu Wanning transform into Xia Sini with his own eyes, Mo Ran was so startled that his wounds suddenly flared with pain. Before he could think further, he lost consciousness once more.

    "Mo Ran."

    That gentle voice, almost a sigh, might have been an illusion from his past life, or a whisper left lingering in his ear.

    "I'm sorry, it was Master's fault..."

    Again with this! This very sentence!

    Chu Wanning, I don't want your apology. I want you to—

    What?

    He abruptly stopped, unsure of what he truly desired.

    If not an apology, then what did he want from him?

    He snapped open his eyes, gasping for air. Mo Ran's soaked clothes clung to him as he looked around and saw a tidy, modest room, sparsely adorned.

    He was already in the bedroom on the Summit of Life and Death.

    He was... still alive...

    Incredulously, he surveyed his surroundings and lifted his slightly cold hand to touch the injured spot on his chest. It was wrapped tightly in bandages, the blood seeping through the gauze. The touch stung a little, but beneath the fabric, his heart thumped forcefully, pulsing with the wild joy of having survived a calamity.

    He was still alive.

    He's still alive!

    Blood rushed wildly through the young body, shaking his very soul and causing his fingers to tremble with the force of it. Suddenly, he heard the rustling of a warm curtain being drawn aside. Mo Ran, sitting on the bed, lifted his head abruptly and found himself staring at a beauty who had just entered, perhaps having felt the chill from outside, draped in a white fur robe. His black hair cascaded down, and as he lifted his luminous eyes slightly, the corners of his lids took on a subtle flush, outshining even the most mundane rouge.

    Shi Mo hadn't expected Mo Ran to be awake and was startled. Then, he stammered, "Aran? Y-You..."

    "Shi Mo! Shi Mo!"

    Mo Ran called out to him repeatedly, his eyes shimmering like obsidian, radiant with excitement. Jumping off the bed, he ignored the pain in his wounds, grinning through clenched teeth as he rushed over and embraced Shi Mingjing tightly, joyously repeating himself.

    "Fantastic! You're alive! And so am I! It's all behind us now! All of it!"

    This celestial rift had been his great calamity in his past life, when malevolent spirits descended from the heavens, taking Shi Mo away and pushing Mo Ran into a abyss of guilt.

    After his rebirth, he had lived in constant fear that this chaos would repeat, leaving him once more alone, stepping on the jagged bones of his dearest kin as he walked alone into the barren Wu Shan Temple.

    But fate had not forsaken him. When he stood up, willingly offering his life for Shi Mo, everything changed.

    He would no longer be alone, betrayed, or forced to flee into the night like a wanderer on the margins of society. From this moment on, the evil curse was broken.

    He had truly escaped the nightmare of his past life and been reborn anew.

    Mo Ran held Shi Mo in his embrace for a long while before they finally separated. His eyes shimmered like fireworks, bright as two cascading curtains of stars.

    Shi Mo stood there in a daze, until Mo Ran enveloped his shoulders and looked down at him with a smile. It took a while for Shi Mo to regain his senses. Slowly, he leaned forward and pressed his forehead against Mo Ran's chin.

    "Aran."

    "Mmm."

    When Shi Mo lifted his face again, a faint smile played on his lips, though his eyes were somewhat moist.

    "Thank goodness you're still alive."

    Mo Ran chuckled and ruffled his hair. He took Shi Mo's hand and said, "Fool, why would anything happen to me? I... "

    Just as he was about to say more, someone suddenly flung open the curtain from outside and strode in.

    "Xue Meng?"

    "…" Xue Meng indeed had a narrow mind. Perhaps he was still bitter about being overshadowed during the demon purge in Butterfly Town, his face was gloomy, and his lips were tightly pursed. Seeing Mo Ran wake up, he paused only for a moment before turning to Shi Mo and asking, "When did he wake up?"

    Shi Mo hesitated for a moment before speaking with concern, "Just now."

    "…Mm." Xue Meng acknowledged but still refused to look at Mo Ran.

    Mo Ran thought to himself that children were just children; being outdone was like having their candy taken away, leaving them sulking for hours.

    But he was in a good mood and didn't want to argue with Xue Meng. Instead, he smiled and said, "Looks like I've been out for a long time. Who brought me back?"

    "Who else could it be?" Xue Meng tossed his sleeves and crossed his arms, his expression terrible, "Isn't it our Master?"

    "Oh."

    Hearing this, Mo Ran was taken aback. Fragmentary memories from his unconscious state flashed before his eyes, but after waking up, the shock and joy made him doubt the authenticity of what he had seen.

    He pondered, "Master… Junior Brother Xia…"

    At the sound of those words, Xue Meng's body trembled imperceptibly. Then, he stammered stiffly, "You saw it?"

    "What?"

    "Junior Brother Xia is actually our Master."

    Mo Ran had only been speculating, but hearing this revelation so suddenly, his face paled in shock. "What?!"

    Xue Meng spun around abruptly, his expression odd as if he was suppressing something. "Why? I thought you already knew."

    Mo Ran exclaimed, "How could I possibly know? All I remember is...in my unconscious state, I vaguely saw their figures intertwining... I..."

    Recalling Xia Sini's companionship in the Peach Blossom Spring, their shared bed, and the time on Linling Island when he couldn't control his emotions, getting entangled with Chu Wanning, only for a golden hairpin to fall from his collar.

    The peach blossom handkerchief.

    Clothing that resized to fit one's form.

    And the earthenware soup pot held in Xia Sini's hands.

    He looked up and called his senior brother, who then stroked his head with a smile, saying they would be like real brothers from then on, and that as his senior brother, he would cherish him.

    Scene after scene appeared before his eyes like fleeting tendrils of smoke: one moment it was Chu Wanning's too aloof expression, the next it was Xia Sini's lips pressed together in silence.

    He had once told Xia Sini to his face that he didn't think Chu Wanning was good, that he didn't like him.

    He had also patiently combed Xia Sini's long hair.

    The hair was so soft, flowing through his fingers like ink.

    Upon closer reflection, it really was quite similar...

    Mo Ran felt as if his head were about to explode. He paced around in a daze, muttering to himself, "Shifu is Junior Brother Xia... Shifu is Junior Brother Xia... Shifu is..."

    He suddenly stopped, almost on the verge of madness.

    "What kind of joke is this?! How can Shifu possibly be Junior Brother Xia?!!"

    "Aran..."

    Mo Ran couldn't help but chuckle and cry at the same time. "Th-though they share many similarities, they're... still different. Junior Brother Xia is such a good person, how could he—"

    "Explain yourself."

    Xue Meng suddenly interrupted Mo Ran, his sharp eyes locking onto the other's face.

    "Junior Brother Xia is such a good person? So, a good person can't be our Master? "

    Mo Ran replied, "Of course I'm not saying that Master is bad. It's just that Junior Brother Xia has always been sincere with me; I've come to treat him like a younger brother. How can I possibly accept it when you suddenly tell me he's Master?"

    Xue Meng raged, "If Junior Brother Xia is sincere, does that mean Master is fake?"

    Perceiving the brewing storm in Xue Meng's voice, Shi Mo quickly tugged at his sleeve.

    "Young Master, think about what Father asked of you! Aran has just woken up, and..."

    But Xue Meng abruptly shrugged off Shi Mo's hand, his brown eyes still fixed on Mo Ran's face. Veins on his neck pulsated with anger, resembling a snake coiling, ready to strike its prey with venomous fangs.

    "Mo Weiyu, you'll explain this to me today. Why can't Master be Xia Sini? Why doesn't he deserve the title of sincerity? Tell me, why do you think he's fake? !"

    Mo Ran grew annoyed by the barrage of questions. He had seen Xue Meng's infuriating attitude before, especially during his previous life when he became the Immortal-Treading Empyrean. Every time he encountered Xue Meng, the latter always had that same irritable temperament.

    He couldn't help but feel irritated as he frowned, saying, "Why do you care so much about my business with him?"

    "You and him?" Xue Meng asked. "Do you have feelings for him in your heart?"

    Mo Ran was amused by anger. "Are you crazy, Xue Ziming? What's with this sudden outburst? Come on, Shi Mo, let's go to the Heart-Devotion Hall and ask Father and our Master for clarification." With that, he tugged at Shi Mo and passed by Xue Meng, planning to leave.

    Xue Meng stood there for a moment, seemingly suppressing something. But just as Mo Ran was about to exit, he couldn't hold back any longer and yelled, "Mo Weiyu, do you have your Master in your heart?!"

    "..."

    Mo Ran was suddenly bothered by the yell. He stopped in his tracks, and his originally relaxed expression gradually darkened.

    Shi Mo held his hand, whispering worriedly, "Ignore him. He's been in a bad mood lately. Let's go."

    "..."

    As he reached for the warm curtains, ready to part them, Xue Meng's voice echoed again, stifling, hot, and fiery, as if it had burst from the flames.

    "Mo Weiyu, you damn bastard, you truly aren't worth a damn."

    The curtains fell with a rustling sound.

    Mo Ran closed his eyes, then opened them again.

    "Aran…"

    Shi Mo reached out to grab him but was gently pushed aside.

    He turned his face away and spun around. Though the two youths were of similar age, Mo Ran had already surpassed Shi Mo in height. That cold, sinister expression on his face was truly intimidating.

    Mo Ran suddenly smiled, but his dark eyes remained heavy, devoid of any mirth.

    He said, "What a fine way to put it - not worth a damn."

    "Xue Ziming, I've never belittled our Master in normal times, nor did I stand idly by during the Heaven's Tear. When the Voids Hell cracked, I offered to help repair it since his power alone couldn't fix it. I ask you, as his disciple, what have I done wrong?"

    "…"

    "The disparity in our powers was immense. The barrier I repaired couldn't hold, and I fell from the Pillar of Coiling Dragon. Yet he didn't even spare me a glance, leaving me to my fate. If it were you, wouldn't your heart turn cold?"

    "Mo Ran..."

    With two lifetimes of unresolved issues, discussing their pain made Mo Ran's handsome features contort with bitterness. He spoke deliberately, "I thought I had done all I could for him, that I had no regrets. How do you have the nerve to stand before me and call me worthless? ...Xue Meng, do you really think I never cared about him? You're wrong, I did."

    "But he's made of stone," Mo Ran whispered, each word slicing into his heart like a blade, leaving it bleeding. "Xue Meng, listen carefully. It doesn't matter how esteemed he is as a Taoist priest, how formidable he is as a grandmaster, or if he's the revered Celestial Ruler of the North Star, Yu Heng. None of that is important."

    "What matters is this: when the heavens cracked and my life hung by a thread, I begged for his help, yet he didn't even grant me a single look."

    It was a tale of such bitter coldness and fury.

    But as he spoke, his tone remained strangely calm, though his eyes were slightly reddened.

    "Furthermore, Xue Meng, let me tell you. Whoever fell from that Pillar of Coiling Dragon, whether it was me, you, or Shi Mo, he wouldn't have saved any of us."

    For I saw it with my own eyes.

    In the midst of a blinding snowstorm, he turned away, leaving his disciple's remains to freeze.

    "Nothing is more precious than the esteemed reputation of his Beidou Immortal Venerated," Mo Ran scoffed coldly. Perhaps it was the dim light, but there was a hint of desolation in his smile.

    "The fated survive, while the ill-fated perish."

    As the last word left his lips, a flurry of shadows danced before his eyes, accompanied by a sudden gust of wind.

    The room was cramped, and although Mo Ran had sensed the danger, he hesitated to dodge due to Shi Mo being right behind him. He stood his ground, determined to shield them from harm.

    Xue Meng pounced like a leopard, grabbing hold of Mo Ran's robe. With a sharp crack, Xue Meng slapped him hard across the face.

    Fuming from the unprovoked attack, Mo Ran retaliated by grabbing the aggressor, his teeth clenched in fury. "Xue Ziming! What are you doing?!"

    Xue Meng didn't reply; instead, he howled in anger, "Mo Weiyu, you beast!"

    He was utterly irrational, as if possessed by some unknown force, devoid of any sense or sanity. Engaging in a fierce struggle with Mo Ran within the empty chamber, they resembled two trapped beasts, desperately seeking to tear each other's fur from their bodies, crunching bones and drinking blood. A solitary lamp flickered dimly, casting their enraged profiles upon the stone walls like primitive shadow puppetry depicting savage feasts, resembling the totems of malevolent spirits.

    Suddenly, Mo Ran heard a choked sob from Xue Meng.

    It wasn't loud enough for him to be certain, but he thought he might have heard it wrong.

    Just as he had this thought, a few teardrops landed on the back of his hand.

    Suddenly, Xue Meng released Mo Ran and pushed him backward fiercely, curling up on the ground with his knees hugged to his chest, weeping uncontrollably.

    Mo Ran's cheeks were still swollen, but he was bewildered by Xue Meng's reaction. He didn't think he had used lethal force, so there was no reason for Xue Meng to be in such pain. Besides, it was Xue Meng who had attacked him first. Why was this happening all of a sudden?

    Before he could finish his thoughts, he heard Xue Meng sobbing and wailing incoherently.

    "How could you say he didn't save you? How could you say he didn't save you?!"

    Tears rolled down relentlessly, leaving no respite.

    Beside them, Shi Mo saw that Xue Meng couldn't keep the truth hidden any longer. He sighed softly and lowered his gaze, remaining silent.

    Through his sobs, Xue Meng said, "If you say that, how sad he would be, hearing it from down below..."

    The words came out too abruptly, catching Mo Ran off guard. He stared blankly, "What?"

    Xue Meng continued to cry bitterly. His venomous fangs had pierced Mo Ran's neck, but they had also wounded himself in the process.

    He wept so bitterly, his words torn apart by sobs. He kept wiping his face and eyes, his expression alternating between ferocity and sorrow.

    He refused to rise from the ground.

    His face was buried in the crook of his arm for what felt like an eternity.

    Mo Ran gradually sensed a numbness creeping up from his feet, gradually chilling his entire body.

    He felt his lips moving, heard himself asking the question.

    "Xue Meng, what did you say..."

    Xue Meng cried for a long time, or perhaps not that long – it only seemed eternal to Mo Ran as he waited for that thunderous reply.

    "Shifu..." Xue Meng choked out in the end, "He's gone."

    Mo Ran was momentarily struck speechless, his body cold as he listened in confusion, unable to grasp the meaning behind those words.

    Gone?

    What's missing?

    Where has it gone?

    Who's missing... Who's missing!!

    WHO'S MISSING!!!

    Xue Meng lifted his head slowly, his eyes filled with resentment, mockery, and the deepest loathing.

    "Do you know why he didn't turn back then?"

    "..."

    "My father said that after he repaired the sky's fissure, he was exhausted of spiritual energy. Do you really think the ghost realm's aura only struck you? The Mirror Reflection Barrier is a twin connection! Whatever harm you suffered, he endured the same! He just held on and didn't tell anyone."

    Mo Ran felt a buzzing in his head.

    Could it be that in his previous life, not saving Shi Mo was also...

    Mo Ran couldn't bear to continue the thought, his fingertips trembling slightly.

    "It's impossible... He seemed so calm..."

    "When has he ever not been composed in front of others?" As Xue Meng spoke, his eyes reddened again, and tears fell. "After he came down, he was already exhausted. After casting a defensive spell for you, he left without looking at you. Do you know why?"

    Xue Meng's words were laced with grief.

    "Master knew he couldn't hold on much longer. His spiritual energy was immense, and once he showed any weakness, it would attract countless malevolent ghosts... Mo Ran, Mo Ran... You thought he left because he didn't want you?"

    Mo Ran: "..."

    "He left to spare you trouble! Mo Weiyu! He was afraid of burdening you!"

    "After the Netherworld Hell sealed shut and the undead horde ran rampant, the ten major sects fought until dusk, with countless casualties. Who could have taken care of you? My father only realized you were missing after he returned to the Peak of Life and Death with Elder Xuan Ji, who had been severely injured." Xue Meng paused to catch his breath, his voice choking up. "Mo Weiyu, he brought you back... He took the medicine to regain his form, then dragged you out from the mountain of corpses and sea of blood. Despite his injuries, he used his last bit of spiritual energy on you..."

    "It's impossible..."

    "He carried you home while you were still unconscious. His spiritual energy was drained, making him no different from an ordinary person. He couldn't use magic or transmit sound, so he could only carry you up the steps of the Peak of Life and Death one by one..."

    "No..."

    "Over three thousand steps... He was... a person with depleted spiritual energy..."

    Mo Ran closed his eyes.

    He saw in his mind's eye, the still-living Chu Wanning carrying his near-lifeless self up an endless staircase under the shimmering moonlight, covered in blood, his white clothes stained.

    That person had once been so unattainably high and untainted by the dust of the world.

    The Venerated Immortal of the Northern Dipper, Nighttime Jade Scale.

    Mo Ran's throat constricted, and he whispered, voice shaking, "It's not possible... How... could he have done it..."

    "Yes," Xue Meng said, lost in thought, his eyes reddening.

    "When I saw him, I thought I must have been mad, seeing illusions. Because I was also wondering... How... could he have done it..."

    "It's impossible..." Mo Ran suddenly let out a sob, burying his face in his hands as he murmured helplessly, "Impossible..."

    "The blood on the long steps hasn't dried yet — that's the path he took to bring you home." Xue Meng spoke with a viciousness born of intense hatred. "Go and see for yourself, Mo Ran. Go and see."

    "It's impossible!!"

    Overwhelmed by shock and desperation, Mo Ran flew into a sudden rage. He fiercely pulled Xue Meng up from the ground, pressing him against the wall, his features contorted with anger.

    "It's impossible, absolutely impossible! Why would he save me? He has never favored me, always looked down upon me!"

    "..."

    Xue Meng remained silent for a moment before suddenly breaking into a grim smile.

    "Mo Weiyu, it wasn't him who looked down on you."

    Amidst the flickering candlelight, Xue Meng lifted his damp eyelashes, looking at him with resentment.

    "It was me who looked down on you."

    Mo Ran: "..."

    "I despise you, Elder Xuan Ji despises you, Elder Tianlang despises you... What are you, really?" Xue Meng spat out these words at Mo Ran, nearly grinding his teeth in the process. "Scum."

    "You—!"

    Suddenly, Xue Meng laughed. He looked up at the dark ceiling. "Mo Ran, on this Summit of Life and Death, there's only one person who truly respects you, and that's him. And this is how you repay him."

    As he laughed, he suddenly closed his eyes, and more tears rolled down his cheeks.

    This time, it was a soft, stifled sob.

    "Mo Ran, your Junior Brother Xia, my Master, is dead."

    It was as if Mo Ran had been bitten by the most venomous serpent in the world. Burned and startled, he abruptly released his grip and took two steps back, as if he had just comprehended the sentence for the first time.

    His entire body began to tremble.

    Xue Meng called out to him, "Brother."

    Mo Ran retreated, but his back hit the cold wall, leaving him with nowhere to go.

    Xue Meng eventually stopped crying, his tone as calm and undisturbed as that of the deceased.

    "Brother, we no longer have a Master," he said.

    The author has something to say:

    Second Dog: "...."

    Forget it, Second Dog 1.0 is on the verge of collapse, with its system completely disrupted. Let him process the truth alone for now. Mengmeng, it's your turn.

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