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    Chapter 102: Master's Master

    "Master, please pay attention to me."

    These were the first words Mo Ran spoke when they first met at the Tower of Heaven.

    Back then, Chu Wanning had his eyes closed. When Mo Ran called him, he lifted his eyelashes slightly.

    And these were also the last words Mo Ran said when they parted ways at the Red Lotus Water Pavilion.

    At that time, Chu Wanning had his eyes shut. Despite Mo Ran's calling, he never looked up again.

    One sentence, drifting through half a lifetime from the Tower of Heaven, finally settling down by the lotus pond. All the hatred and love from those years dissipated, leaving everything cold.

    After finishing the last jar of pear blossom wine, Mo Ran descended from the Southern Peak of the Summit of Life and Death, stepping into the twilight of his final days. The next day, the rebel army stormed the Wu Mountain Palace only to discover that Heaven-Stepping Lord, who had plagued the world for ten years, had taken his own life. He was thirty-two years old.

    Now, two lifetimes have passed.

    Mo Ran opened his eyes.

    He had fallen asleep under the blossoming tree in front of the Tower of Heaven, and upon waking, he was still disoriented, unsure of what day it was.

    He muttered unconsciously, "Master... pay attention to me..."

    Then he remembered that Chu Wanning was no longer in this life.

    In his previous existence, he had endured hardships, and Chu Wanning had been the last person by his side. In this life, he didn't want to be a villain again, but Chu Wanning wouldn't witness it.

    Perhaps heaven couldn't bear to see it, or perhaps fate had already been predetermined. In his past life, Chu Wanning had grown thoroughly disgusted with him, so in this life, he became the first to leave.

    Mo Ran covered his eyelids with his arm, suppressing the choking sobs in his throat.

    He heard Xue Zhengyong's anxious cries from afar. His uncle was looking for him, calling out, "Ran'er—where are you? Ran'er!"

    Shi Mo was also calling his name, "Ah Ran, where are you... please come out...'

    "Ran'er, come back and keep Yu Heng company! Don't do anything foolish, Ran'er!"

    Accompany Yu Heng.

    Accompany him...

    So Mo Ran struggled to his feet, staggering and stumbling in the direction of the voice.

    He couldn't collapse, he couldn't give in — he still had so much to do. The mastermind behind it all had yet to be exposed, not to mention that the catastrophic Sky Splitting event could happen again at any moment. And with Wanning Sect suffering such devastating losses, so many things needed rebuilding... Xue Meng was already in so much pain that he had lost consciousness, unable to even crawl anymore. Mo Ran couldn't afford to break down.

    So he endured, suppressing his emotions.

    He told himself that it didn't hurt anymore, that it didn't hurt.

    Chu Wanning's death, he had experienced it more than once. It shouldn't hurt anymore.

    It didn't hurt...

    But how could it not hurt?

    Carrying him on his back, they had crawled back up those long, steep stairs of over three thousand steps. How could it not hurt...

    Exhausting the last vestige of spiritual energy, channeling all the spiritual currents within his body into himself—how could it not be painful...

    Despite suffering identical injuries, he put on an air of detachment and left on his own to avoid burdening his disciple... How could it not hurt...

    In his previous life, Chu Wanning's injuries were no different from Shi Mo's; he just never spoke of them. Since he didn't mention it, Mo Ran was none the wiser.

    He still bellowed his fury at Chu Wanning, venting an unbridled hatred upon him, casting aside with reckless abandon the carefully wrapped wontons that Chu Wanning had painstakingly prepared for him while still recovering from his own injuries.

    Chu Wanning knelt before him, lowering his head, and began to pick them up one by one, discarding them all.

    How... could it... not hurt?

    How could it not hurt??

    He had dug out Chu Wanning's heart! How could it not hurt?? How could it possibly...

    Mo Ran couldn't move forward. He remained where he was, enduring for a long while, calming himself for a long while. His entire body trembled, quaked with the pain.

    It hurt so much.

    Hiding his face in his palms, he bit his lip, swallowing both his sobs and the fresh blood. It took an eternity for him to finally regain some composure.

    He lifted his head, his eyes rimmed with red. Taking a deep breath, he descended the seemingly endless staircase, step by step.

    He couldn't fall apart.

    "Uncle."

    "Ran-er, where have you been? You had me so worried. If anything had happened to you, how could I ever face Yu Heng in the afterlife?"

    "It was my fault," Mo Ran said. "I'm fine now. I've caused you concern, Uncle."

    Xue Zhengyong shook his head, unsure of what to say. He patted Mo Ran's shoulder before speaking after a long while. "It's not your fault, not your fault at all. You're much stronger than Meng-er... Ah..."

    Mo Ran croaked, "What about Xue Meng?"

    "He's fallen ill with a high fever that won't break. He just took some medicine and fell asleep, thank goodness. When he's awake, he cries nonstop; no amount of comforting can console him." Xue Zhengyong looked exhausted. "The breach in the Realm of Endless Torment has caused a tremendous uproar in the cultivation world. The Upper Realms have started sending people to investigate the incident, but the mastermind behind it has covered their tracks exceptionally well. Butterfly Town was almost flattened during the battle, leaving us without a single clue."

    Upon hearing this news, Mo Ran found nothing particularly surprising. That person's capabilities had clearly surpassed everyone's expectations, even his own.

    Someone capable of taking Chu Wanning's life would hardly leave any traces behind in their actions.

    "Regarding the Upper Realm, what are their plans?"

    Xue Zhengyong replied, "In light of this incident, they've decided to send representatives to discuss on the summit of Spirit Mountain. I'll be setting off tomorrow... But with Meng'er in such a state, I can't help but worry."

    He was right. The tragedy in Butterfly Town had even claimed the life of the world's greatest master, Chu Wanning. No matter how indifferent the Upper Realm might be, they could not ignore this matter.

    "Who was it that set up the array and opened the barrier?"

    "Why did they do so?"

    "What will their next move be?"

    These three questions circled in everyone's minds like vultures, yet despite all their efforts, they remained stumped. With no other choice, they had to join forces to find answers.

    Mo Ran said, "Uncle, go with peace of mind. I'll assist Aunt in managing the sect's affairs."

    "Good, good... Sigh... You've had it tough."

    With Xue Zhengyong gone, Mo Ran found himself utterly distracted, leaving a backlog of sect affairs for Mo Ran to shoulder alone.

    Mo Ran immersed himself entirely in the paperwork, not daring to allow even a moment's complacency. For whenever he paused to think or rest, the intense pain and regret would drag him into an abyss, torturing his fractured soul. He wished he could bow before the scrolls day and night, seeking escape from the unceasing guilt and torment within him.

    When the Unbounded Hell tore asunder, the earthly realm was overwhelmed with Yin energy. Many long-dormant malevolent spirits took this opportunity to resurface and wreak havoc. These days, requests for assistance from the Peak of Life and Death piled up like a small mountain. Mo Ran worked tirelessly, neglecting both sleep and food, often rushing to the Heart-Devotion Palace at dawn and returning to rest only at midnight.

    Yet, amidst this ocean of documents, he would still be unexpectedly pierced by the remnants left behind by Chu Wanning.

    "...A green zombie stirs up trouble, plaguing the eighty-two vulnerable households of Phoenix Tomb Village. Fortunately, your esteemed sect's elder crafted the automaton 'Night Wanderer,' temporarily warding off the malevolent spirits. However, this is not a lasting solution. I humbly request..."

    Tears dripped slowly from the candle, igniting a string of sparks within the wick.

    When Mo Ran snapped back to reality, he realized he had been lost in thought for a long while, tracing the characters "Night Wanderer" on the letter. In his mind's eye, he saw Chu Wanning in the Red Lotus Water Pavilion, wearing his hair in a ponytail, biting a file, and meticulously applying tung oil to the automaton.

    Mo Ran let out a long sigh, pressing his fingertips to his forehead and gently massaging it.

    Suddenly, there came a knock on the door.

    "Shi Mo?"

    A graceful young man, dressed in a simple white robe, entered and placed the tray he was carrying next to Mo Ran's documents. He rolled up his sleeves, lit the candle, and spoke warmly, "Ran, you've been busy all day. Have something to eat."

    "…Alright."

    Mo Ran smiled wryly, put down the documents, and massaged his slightly aching temples.

    "I made a bowl of ginseng chicken soup and a few plates of stir-fries." Shi Mo arranged the dishes and tested the temperature through the bowls. "They're still warm, thankfully."

    As they ate, Shi Mo noticed a strand of loose hair falling across Mo Ran's forehead, accentuating the exhaustion on his handsome face. He reached out and gently tucked it back into place.

    "Ran."

    "Hmm?"

    "Back then... did you have something you wanted to tell me?"

    Mo Ran's mind was in turmoil, and he didn't immediately understand. He glanced at Shi Mo and asked, "Which day?"

    "..." Shi Mo pressed his lips together, lowering his gaze as he said, "It was on the day of the Heaven's Rift."

    "..."

    "You said you went to assist... assist our Master in repairing the Heaven's Rift. There was something you wanted to tell me when you returned, if only you still had the chance to..." His voice faded, and his head bowed lower.

    In the sea of lamp flames, the translucent, snow-white earrings adorning Shi Mo's ears seemed to have tinged with a slight red.

    Mo Ran gazed at him for a long while but found himself unable to utter a single word.

    For Shi Mo, he knew without a doubt that he loved him deeply, but at this moment, he truly didn't have the heart for it, not even a bit.

    He was indeed shameless, and he cared little for propriety or social norms. He paid no heed to the criticisms of others and was ignorant of righteousness and etiquette.

    But that didn't mean he was heartless.

    "Forgive me," Mo Ran whispered after a long silence. "I'm feeling uncomfortable, and I don't think now is the time to talk about these things. So, can I tell you about that later, alright?"

    Shi Mo suddenly lifted his head, his exquisite eyes filled with surprise.

    Mo Ran gave a bitter smile and reached out. After a moment's hesitation, he gently stroked Shi Mo's hair. "I've always been slow-witted, and with so many things to deal with these days, I... I don't even know when I'll have the chance to sort everything out in my mind. I'm afraid I might be too hasty."

    Despite the warm glow of the candlelight, it couldn't hide the gradual paleness creeping onto Shi Mo's face.

    "Hasty?"

    Pausing, he suddenly laughed.

    "Aran, back then, with life and death hanging in the balance, I thought you were going to say something you had thoroughly considered."

    "Yes," Mo Ran frowned. "I've carried that matter in my heart for a long time, and it has never changed, but..."

    "But?"

    "... Not now."

    With his hand clenched into a fist inside his sleeve, Mo Ran continued, "Not now, Shi Mo. You don't know how important this is, and I don't want to tell you under such rushed and painful circumstances. I..."

    "Master!"

    Suddenly, a subordinate burst in rather impetuously, only to find that the one attending to sect affairs within the Danxin Hall was none other than Mo Ran. Hastily, they lowered their head and offered a bow, saying, "Ah, Young Master Mo."

    Interrupted in this manner, the faint blush on Shi Mo's face dissipated. He adjusted his sleeves and sat back upright, his demeanor turning aloof and serene, giving off an air of simplicity.

    Unaware of the shift in his companion's mood, Mo Ran lifted his gaze. "What is it?"

    "A distinguished guest has arrived at the mountain gate, I have come especially to report this."

    "Guest?" Mo Ran asked. "All the prominent figures from the Ten Great Sects are currently on Spirit Mountain. How could there be any esteemed guest?"

    The disciple seemed both fearful and excited, his words tumbling out incoherently. After a moment, his face flushed as he stammered, "I-I mean, it's Master Huaizui from Wubei Temple!"

    "What?!"

    Even Immortal Emperor Taixian couldn't help but abruptly rise to his feet. Shi Mo was also taken aback.

    "Master Huaizui?"

    No wonder Mo Ran was so astonished. Master Huaizui was a figure in the cultivation world akin to a legend.

    This person had long achieved enlightenment and should have ascended to the heavens. Yet when the heavenly gates opened for him, he clasped his hands together, saying that he couldn't break free from the turmoil of the mortal world, couldn't let go of his lifelong obsession, and couldn't cleanse the sins of his youth. In the end, the divine light faded, the lotus withered, and Master Huaizui's worn-out monk's robe fluttered as his staff tapped lightly against the ground, and he departed without ever having become a deity.

    After refusing ascension, he retreated to Wubai Temple for deep contemplation. A hundred years passed by in the mortal world in the blink of an eye.

    A hundred years later, people in the cultivation world only knew his name but had never seen him in person. Those who had encountered him in the martial world were few and far between.

    In his previous life, despite causing upheaval in the human realm, Mo Ran had never met Master Huaizui. For Huaizui was truly too old, and just a year before Mo Ran reached the pinnacle of humanity, he had passed away peacefully during a spring rain. No one knew how long he had lived as an immortal.

    Who could have predicted that after being reborn, Master Huaizui would visit in the dead of night?

    Countless thoughts flashed through his mind, though he had no idea why the master had come. In that moment, Mo Ran recalled the rumors about Master Huaizui.

    Huaizui... Huaizui!

    How could he have forgotten about Master Huaizui?

    Back when Shi Mo had died in his previous life, Mo Ran, due to his limited knowledge, didn't know there was such a formidable senior in the cultivation world. It wasn't until he ascended to the throne and heard reports from his subordinates that he learned one of the three forbidden techniques, "Rebirth," had actually been mastered by someone in the world.

    That person was none other than Huaizui.

    He had rushed to Wubei Temple to invite someone to come and help bring Shi Mo back from the dead. But when his messenger returned, he was told that the master had passed away, and he had missed his last chance to revive Shi Mo.

    But this legendary figure was alive! Still alive!!

    How could he have forgotten? How could he have possibly forgotten?

    Mo Ran's heart trembled violently, and his entire body began to shake. He abruptly stood up, his eyes glowing with urgency as he said, "Quickly, invite the master in!"

    Before the disciple who had come to report could respond, Mo Ran added, "No, I'll go outside to greet him instead." Taking only two steps, he suddenly caught sight of a blur of yellow outside.

    The candle remains still, the flame unswayed.

    Not a whisper of wind stirred.

    None could tell, not even someone with keen eyes like Mo Ran, how he had entered. A monk, his head covered by a bamboo hat and wearing a worn, half-old kasaya, stood resolutely within the Hall of Ink and Colors.

    He moved like lightning, coming to a stop right in front of Mo Ran with an almost jarring proximity.

    "Pardon the intrusion at this late hour; no need for Patron Mo to trouble yourself with a visit."

    A deep and soothing voice emerged from beneath the bamboo hat, stunning both Mo Ran and Shi Mo upon hearing it.

    This voice didn't sound like that of a centenarian at all.

    Before they could ponder further, the monk removed his green hat. In the light of the hall, they saw a man in his early thirties, with an elegant and refined appearance. His bright, piercing eyes were sharp yet gentle, like the shimmering reflection on a vast ocean.

    "…You are…"

    The monk clasped his hands together and bowed slightly. "Amitabha, I am Monk Huaizui."

    None of them had expected that Master Huaizui, who was over a hundred years old, would look even younger than Xue Zhengyong. The silence that followed was deafening.

    But Mo Ran, familiar with cultivation, wasn't slow to understand. He remembered that Huaizui had willingly forsaken ascension and remained in the mortal realm. Apart from the final transformation to transcendence, he was already akin to a deity. Thus, Mo Ran's anxiety eased, but he found it even harder to tear his gaze away.

    Not wanting to disturb others, Huaizui invited only the three of them to sit in the Heart of Alchemy Hall. Mo Ran personally served the master a hot cup of tea, which Huaizui accepted with a soft word of thanks. However, he didn't drink it, setting the teacup on a small purple sandalwood table instead. Then, he slowly lifted his head.

    Though extremely polite and gentle, Huaizui was direct and to the point:

    "Master Mo, please forgive my boldness, but I have come today on account of an old acquaintance."

    Mo Ran's heart pounded violently, causing dizziness to overwhelm him. He tightly clenched the edge of the desk with his fingertips, applying so much force that it seemed as though he might shatter the table into pieces.

    He fixated on Master Huai Zui's face, and a barrage of words from their past lives once again showered down upon him like snowflakes.

    It is said that there was once a person who successfully executed the Rebirth Technique, one of the three forbidden arts. But rumors are merely rumors; it's uncertain whether they hold any truth...

    "Where is Master Huai Zui? I would pay any price to save Shi Mo!"

    "Your Majesty, you may not know this, but Huaizui... had passed away many years ago. He left behind no written works in his lifetime. Regarding reincarnation, he only mentioned, 'Defying heaven to alter one's destiny is the most perilous of endeavors.' Nothing more was recorded of his words..."

    Those fragmented phrases rushed past like a swift stream.

    "Master Huaizui delved deep into the realms of both humans and spirits."

    "It was rumored that he could communicate with the ghostly realm. If he were still alive, Senior Mingjing might have had a chance at resurrection. Alas, oh well..."

    "Master Huaizui was like a ghost still dwelling in the mortal world, his knowledge encompassing both the Yin and Yang."

    Mo Ran took a deep breath and realized his voice was trembling.

    "An old friend... an old friend..."

    He muttered, his gaze following Master Huai Zui's clear eyes.

    In a whisper so soft it was almost inaudible, Mo Ran asked, "Who is this old friend?"

    The monk slowly stood up. In the dim candlelight, there was no shadow beneath his feet.

    The thin sleeves of his yellow robe hung loosely, the fabric worn but without creases, swaying in the wind like ghostly apparitions. This master truly was enigmatic.

    Mo Ran could hear his own heartbeat pounding in his chest, and he couldn't help standing up to face Huai Zui.

    "Master," he said. If there had been a mirror hanging high at that moment, he would have seen a trace of longing unknowingly appear in his eyes, followed by a thread of pleading. "Who... is this old friend?"

    Is it him?

    Is it him?

    Huaizui suddenly lowered his lashes and sighed, clasping his hands together. "My young disciple, Chu Wanning, passed away seven days ago. Tonight is the night of his return from the netherworld. I, an old monk, cannot bear to see white-haired parents mourn their black-haired child. Thus, I have come to the Edge of Life and Death, seeking Master Mo's mercy, to restore my disciple to me."

    Author's Note:

    Xue Mengmeng: "..."

    Xue Mengmeng was critically ill and unable to rise from his bed.

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