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    Chapter 108: Master's Earth Soul

    Mo Ran followed him up the stairs in a daze. The creaking of the old wooden steps under his feet made him ask, "You call him Mister Chu?"

    "Yes, he was personally appointed by Yama to manage this building. He's our respected elder."

    "..."

    Mo Ran remained silent, but was somewhat surprised inwardly.

    "We're here." The masked man stopped at a half-moon arched door on the second floor and gently knocked on the slightly ajar vermilion carved door. "Mister Chu, an old acquaintance has come to find you."

    There was a moment of silence before a gentle voice rang out, like warm wine on a stove or soft hair beside a pillow.

    "An old acquaintance? Him again? I said I don't want to see him. Tell him to go back."

    The masked man coughed softly. "No, Mister Chu, you've misunderstood. It's not him this time."

    "Then who could it be?" There was a pause before the voice spoke again. "Forget it, please come in."

    The cozy chamber was incredibly elegant and serene, with its simple furnishings exuding a chilly simplicity. Yet, the luxurious plush carpet beneath one's feet was a stark contrast. As Mo Ran stepped in, his foot sank into the softness, and the pungent scent of wild beast fur filled the air. Amidst this atmosphere, a man by the window was trimming a flower branch.

    He wore long, black hair cascading down his back and a flowing white robe. The crimson bud trembled gently between his translucent fingertips. Due to Fengshun Tower's rules, he also had a dark blue demonic mask on his face, with menacing fangs and protruding tiger-like eyes. Yet, even with such a fearsome mask, it somehow appeared gentle when worn by him.

    After pruning away the excess branches and discarding them, he turned around.

    Mo Ran felt his throat go dry. The conversation between the masked man and Chu Wanning had left him perplexed, and he sensed an underlying unease. He wondered what memory this soul had lost. If Chu Wanning didn't remember him...

    Just as he was lost in thought, the man set down his pruning shears and approached.

    Fearless Mo Ran felt a sudden anxiety, beads of sweat forming on his back.

    "Master."

    The man halted, standing a bit too close. Mo Ran thought he heard a faint laugh.

    "What master?" he said. "Have you mistaken me for someone else, young master?"

    As expected...

    What one fears often comes to pass.

    Mo Ran's heart skipped a beat, as if a massive boulder had crashed into his chest, plunging him into an abyss of despair. He stared blankly at the man before him, momentarily at a loss for words.

    Seeing no reaction from Mo Ran, the man placed his slender, fair hand on the mask and gently removed the vividly painted ghostly visage, revealing a refined and handsome face.

    The crushing weight in Mo Ran's heart suddenly vanished.

    He gazed at the unmasked man with surprise but without any suspicion, blurting out, "Chu Xun?"

    No wonder the junior monk downstairs had mistaken the portrait. Chu Xun and Chu Wanning bore an uncanny resemblance, though Chu Xun was gentle, while Chu Wanning was icy. Only those who knew them intimately could tell them apart.

    Like Mo Ran.

    The man standing before him was none other than the young nobleman of Linan City, Chu Xun, whom he had seen in a hallucination more than two hundred years ago. Hence, he instinctively called out the name without hesitation.

    However, the real Chu Xun had never met him before, so he was somewhat taken aback and chuckled, saying, "You actually know me?"

    Mo Ran quickly waved his hands. "No, no, I must have mistaken you for someone else. But I do indeed know you..." As he spoke, he looked at the man curiously. Chu Xun had died over a hundred years ago, yet he hadn't moved on to the afterlife. Clearly, Yama had assigned him a task, allowing him a temporary reprieve from the cycle of reincarnation.

    It was unexpected to catch a glimpse of Chu Wanning's ancestor. Mo Ran found it rather mystical.

    Chu Xun nodded and said, "So that's how it is." He then chuckled. "Who is the person this young master is looking for? Since you've come up here by fate, I'll help you search. Otherwise, with the countless ghosts in the vast South Cocoon Village, it might take ages to find them."

    Mo Ran had initially planned to give a brief explanation before going downstairs to seek another divination. However, Chu Xun's enthusiasm hadn't waned even after becoming a ghost, and he was willing to help personally. Mo Ran was delighted and said, "That's great. Thank you very much, Mr. Chu!"

    Handing over the portrait, he continued.

    Chu Xun unfolded it and smiled. "No wonder the people below made a mistake. We do resemble each other. What's his name?"

    "Chu Wanning," Mo Ran replied. "His name is Chu Wanning."

    "The same surname?... What a coincidence."

    A thought struck Mo Ran, and he asked, "Could he be a relative of yours?"

    "It's hard to say. To know about the world of the living, one must consult the Ninth King of the Underworld. I... have a life-and-death grudge against him. I don't wish to seek his help, so I've stopped meddling in mortal affairs."

    He was referring to the ghost king who had breached Linan's barrier and caused the death of his family. Mentioning the wound in his heart, even someone as composed as Chu Xun couldn't hide a hint of gloom in his expression.

    Mo Ran had originally thought he could confirm the connection between Chu Wanning and Chu Xun, but to his surprise, it turned out differently. He could only shake his head. "What a pity."

    Chu Xun smiled and didn't say anything more. He went to a cabinet and took out a gilded Yin-Yang patterned compass, inviting Mo Ran to sit down.

    "Can this tell me where he is?"

    "Eight or nine times out of ten."

    "What about the one or two other possibilities?"

    "Some people's soul power can be peculiar. It's possible that their whereabouts can't be found," Chu Xun explained. "But it's uncommon. Young Master shouldn't be that unlucky."

    After casting the divination, the tiny golden needle within the compass trembled as it pointed north. But soon, it shifted south, then alternated between east and west, finally spinning around in circles.

    Chu Xun: "…"

    Mo Ran asked cautiously, "How is it?"

    "Cough." Chu Xun coughed lightly, looking slightly awkward. "Young Master… is indeed quite unlucky."

    Mo Ran: "…"

    In truth, Mo Ran's luck had never been particularly good, so he knew it wouldn't be that smooth sailing. He sighed, thanked Chu Xun, and prepared to dive back into the crowded masses to continue searching for Chu Wanning's whereabouts.

    Unexpectedly, the compass suddenly stopped spinning wildly. Its needle pointed in a certain direction, trembling as if uncertain. After a moment, it shifted slightly to another position.

    Chu Xun hurriedly called out to him, "Young Master, wait just a bit longer."

    Mo Ran immediately stopped, focusing intently on the compass at the table, watching as the needle swayed left and right but failed to settle on a single spot. However, it did seem to indicate a general direction.

    Chu Xun frowned, saying, "What's going on…?"

    "Is this some sort of unusual phenomenon?"

    "It's not quite a phenomenon, but it's very odd." Chu Xun's brows drew together as he studied the compass. "It seems like his presence is in two different directions?"

    Mo Ran was abruptly startled.

    How could that be?

    Now that the Soul of Recognition resides within Chu Wanning's lifeless body while the Human Soul is trapped in the Soul-Luring Lamp, only the Earth Soul should remain in the Netherworld. How could Chu Wanning possibly appear in two places at once?

    Chu Xun replied, "Anyway, one direction is southeast, and the other is northeast. Young Master should check both and see. Perhaps the compass has been influenced by some magical force and isn't pointing accurately."

    Feeling extremely anxious, Mo Ran thanked Chu Xun and rushed out of the Favorable Wind Tower, heading east.

    After running for a long time, he suddenly came across a fork in the road. Mo Ran abruptly halted his steps.

    Should I go southeast or northeast?

    He held the Soul-Luring Lamp, his heart pounding with urgency. But after a while, as he gazed at the lantern that contained the Human Soul, a vague and peculiar sensation emerged in his mind.

    Following this elusive feeling, he walked through the narrow streets and alleys that crisscrossed like veins.

    The more he advanced, the clearer this sensation became.

    He even sensed that Chu Wanning's Earth Soul was, in some inexplicable way, calling out to the Soul-Luring Lamp in his hand – or perhaps calling out to him – guiding them towards a specific location.

    Eventually, Mo Ran stopped in front of an old, two-story wooden building.

    "Soul Affliction Hall."

    He lifted his head, scanning the massive and weathered signboard. Exposed to wind and sun, the black paint had peeled off, revealing a large chunk of faded red calligraphy beneath, which had in turn exposed the decaying wood underneath.

    Mo Ran frowned, feeling uneasy. These three characters disturbed him.

    What did "Soul Affliction" mean?

    Could it be the reason why Chu Xun's compass had malfunctioned?

    Pushing the door open, he stepped over the high threshold and entered.

    He would soon find out the answer.

    Inside the Soul Affliction Hall were hundreds of beds, each occupied by unconscious souls. A dozen ghosts wearing white masks moved about, delivering spiritual energy to the sickly spirits.

    This so-called Soul Affliction Hall was essentially the infirmary for the ghost realm.

    Mo Ran found the chief ghost physician at the back, who oversaw everything, and greeted him with a bow. "Doctor, I wish to..."

    The physician was busy and rather impatient. "Herbal remedies are on the second floor, and diagnoses are on the left in a queue."

    "Then, what about finding someone?"

    "Finding someone? What... finding someone?"

    Mo Ran showed him the scroll. "Has the physician seen this Immortal before?"

    The Ghost Doctor took the scroll and examined it, then looked up at Mo Ran. Beneath the dark mask, a pair of eyes seemed to convey pity. "A relative?"

    "Mm-hm, yes."

    "He has damage to his Earth Soul," the Ghost Doctor pointed at the stairs. "He's lying in the innermost room upstairs. We can't cure this condition, only prolong it temporarily. You should go find him yourself."

    Mo Ran was startled. "Damage to the Earth Soul? How could that happen?"

    "Who knows? Reincarnation through the Six Realms is an excruciating process. Perhaps his soul was damaged during his previous lifetimes. But he's a cultivator in this life, so it could also be due to a deviation from the path that harmed his soul. In any case, it's incomplete. If you ask me, who should I ask?"

    Mo Ran said anxiously, "Then... what kind of impact would damage to the Earth Soul have?"

    "An impact?" the Ghost Doctor pondered. "Well, it's not too severe since only one of his three souls is incomplete. It won't affect his reincarnation. If there's any real consequence... perhaps he'll have a shorter life, worse luck, or a weaker body in his next life."

    "..." Mo Ran listened, feeling rather frustrated but also at a loss for a solution. He could only thank the Ghost Doctor before heading upstairs.

    The layout upstairs was less cramped and oppressive than downstairs.

    Perhaps because these were souls that the Illness Soul Pavilion couldn't revive and required less attention, there was only one doctor lounging in a wicker chair in the entrance hall, taking a nap.

    Mo Ran didn't wake him up and walked straight in.

    In the vast space, there were only about ten to twenty sickbeds arranged near the rosewood windows, separated by plain screens between them.

    It was eerily quiet.

    As his footsteps creaked on the wooden floor, Mo Ran's gaze fell on the last partition. There, a half-moon-shaped arched door led to an open-air balcony. Moonlight filtered through the sheer curtains, swaying gently in the breeze.

    Despite there being over twenty sick souls, Mo Ran somehow had an intense sense of awareness, though he couldn't explain why.

    Perhaps the Soul Guiding Lamp was guiding him subconsciously, leading him unerringly to the innermost chamber, into the pure and hazy moonlit night.

    He lifted his hand and drew back the curtains.

    Sure enough, Chu Wanning's last remaining soul was there, lying with his eyes closed, his complexion as pale as the corpse in Shuangtian Temple.

    Even though he had found him, even with the hope of reincarnation looming, Mo Ran couldn't help the ache in his heart or the sting in his nose when he saw this bloodied, cold, and fragile figure.

    He walked over and placed the Soul Summoning Lamp on the bedside.

    Then he sat down beside Chu Wanning's earth soul on the bed, wanting to gently hold the other's icy hand.

    But this remnant soul was different from the human soul before. Perhaps due to severe depletion, his spirit body was ethereal. Mo Ran's fingertips couldn't touch him; they passed right through Chu Wanning's ghostly shadow and landed on the white bedding.

    Mo Ran felt a bitter, unbearable loss at this emptiness.

    If things had gone slightly differently, if Venerable Master Huaizui hadn't appeared, if Chu Wanning's soul had been shattered even more, if his Master had lost all hope and refused to meet him in heaven or on earth...

    He lowered his body, knowing he couldn't actually touch Chu Wanning's forehead, but still unable to resist. With his eyes closed, it was as if he was trying to embrace that intangible earth soul as he leaned over the bed.

    "Master."

    In the moonlight, their spirits intertwined, indivisible from one another.

    Mo Ran let out a long, sighing breath, his heart heavy with bitterness.

    He had seen Chu Wanning's lifeless body, his human soul, and now this ailing earth soul. Each encounter stirred different emotions within him. Before the corpse, he knelt in guilt and remorse, nearly torn apart by his sins. Before the human soul, he confessed and pleaded, holding hands, begging Wanning to return.

    As for the earth soul...

    He tried to embrace it, but grasped at nothing, touched nothing. Suddenly, an endless panic seized his heart, making him realize that this might be the ending he deserved.

    His body was stained with grievances and blood. What right did he have to stay by his old friend's side, never to part?

    Mo Ran closed his eyes, his dampened lashes warming the thin pillowcase.

    Once, he believed heaven had dealt him an unjust hand. Now, it seemed like a ridiculous joke. The truth was, heaven had been generous to him; it was his own heart that was too cold, casting shadows over everything.

    It was his fault.

    He realized he had once walked a path with no return. Now, he wanted to turn back, to make amends with the rest of his life, hoping it wasn't too late to return to where they started.

    What of this Heaven-Stepping Lord, what of the imperial sovereign of the mortal realm?

    He no longer desires any of it.

    All he wishes for is a chance to live anew, to be the upright individual that Chu Wanning had always hoped he would become.

    Some say that acknowledging one's mistakes and rectifying them is the greatest of virtues.

    Yet, his wrongdoings run too deep.

    He didn't know how long it would take to repay this debt, perhaps even until the day he died, he still wouldn't be able to escape this endless regret. After all, ripples on water could return to calm, but a wound embedded in wood would forever pierce through to the bone.

    "Shifu." After a long while, immersed in the moonlight and in Chu Wanning's nearly transparent soul, he said, his voice soothing as if talking to a child, "Come on, let's go back."

    He straightened up and lifted the Soul Guiding Lantern.

    Muttering incantations, the Earth Soul entered the lantern, and the faint shadow quickly dissipated into nothingness within the wick.

    Mo Ran waited patiently.

    Yet, after waiting for what felt like an eternity, even as the earth soul and human soul fully merged, there was still no response.

    Mo Ran's face turned deathly pale.

    What was happening? !

    Wasn't it said that after the fusion of the earth soul and human soul, he would be able to bring Chu Wanning back to the mortal world?

    Had Master Huai Zui's spell lost its efficacy? !

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