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    Chapter 113: Master is Imprisoned

    In the grandest eastern courtyard, just as Rong Jiu had described, there were three levels with rooms connected to each other on each floor. Despite its vastness, it was also the most disorganized and filthy. At the entrance of the courtyard, an old tree stood withered, inhabited by countless crows. Each bird held an eyeball in its beak, spinning wildly as they scanned their surroundings for any anomalies.

    Two squads of Yin soldiers patrolled back and forth, stomping loudly, guarding the "offerings" prepared for the Four Ghost Kings.

    Mo Ran hid behind a corner, counting the ghosts' movements while searching for blind spots in the palace.

    The small grid-like rooms were illuminated, and from time to time, sobs and sighs of spirits could be heard. The cacophony of sounds merged into a haunting chant that sent shivers down one's spine.

    Estimating roughly, there were over three hundred rooms, and the patrols below repeated every short while. It was impossible for him to find Chu Wanning effortlessly within the time it took to brew a cup of tea, especially since there were ghost guards standing at each staircase, wielding Soul Shattering Whips and wearing emergency whistles around their necks.

    Mo Ran felt increasingly anxious. Suddenly, he spotted a ghost walking alone in the distance. He wore a black rod with red characters hanging from his waist and was dressed similarly to the guards. Mo Ran retreated further into the shadows, watching as the ghost passed by and reached the staircase.

    The ghost nodded to the guard stationed by the steps. The night was eerily quiet, allowing Mo Ran to easily overhear their conversation.

    "Brother Seven, you've taken over Third Brother's post?"

    "Mm. You'll be next soon."

    "I still have to stay a while longer; the person hasn't arrived yet. Once they do, I'll take my rest."

    The relief guard ascended to the upper level, leaving the one on the first floor to yawn in boredom before resuming his watch against the wind.

    Observing this shift, Mo Ran had a sudden flash of inspiration, conceiving a somewhat risky plan...

    Distant clanks of a wooden fish echoed, followed by taps, taps, taps.

    A crow on a branch cawed twice, as if sensing some unusual activity.

    The guardian at the entrance roused himself, scanning his surroundings. Through the thin veil of night mist, he discerned the figure of someone slowly approaching.

    As the stranger drew near, the guard realized he had never seen this young man before and became even more vigilant.

    "Who are you?"

    "I'm here for the shift change," the figure replied.

    A streak of red cloud passed by, revealing a moon in the sky that illuminated the intruder's face, revealing a strikingly handsome ghostly guard.

    Yet, with his prominent, well-proportioned features and a gentle expression that seemed innate, who could this substitute "ghost" be other than Mo Ran?

    He wore the armor of an underworld soldier, draped over his body, and a black-and-red staff swayed at his waist. A cold silver light radiated from the security badge hanging on his chest.

    The guard said, "I've never seen you before."

    "I'm new here," Mo Ran replied.

    Skeptical, the guard held out his hand. "Badge?"

    Mo Ran unfastened it and handed it over. His face remained calm, but inwardly he was tense.

    Fortunately, after examining the staff repeatedly and failing to detect anything amiss, the guard lost interest and patted his shoulder. "You'll be in charge for the rest of the night. I'm heading home."

    "Have a safe journey, senior."

    The word 'senior' rolled off his tongue smoothly, and the ghost let out a cackling laugh. He waved. "Good lad, see you again, see you again."

    "Hey... Senior, wait!"

    "What's the matter?" The ghost guard turned around.

    Mo Ran smiled and asked casually, "How many of the tribute offerings have the surname Chu?"

    The ghost guard became wary. "Why do you ask?"

    "I'm asking for Mr. Chu from the Favorable Wind Pavilion," Mo Ran replied. "He has a distant relative who said he came down as well, but the Favorable Wind Pavilion can't find him. I wonder if he might be here."

    Sure enough, Chu Xun's reputation still had some influence. The guard hesitated for a moment before pointing upstairs. "The three rooms farthest inside on the second floor, they all have people with the surname Chu locked up. You can go take a look."

    Mo Ran's face lit up with a smile. "Many thanks for your guidance, Senior."

    "Think nothing of it," the senior guard replied, quite foolishly. "It's only right."

    After saying that, the guard strolled away humming a tune. He didn't notice that his supposed shift partner, who should have been there to relieve him, had already been bound by a binding spell and tossed into a sewage ditch. The poor ghost was stripped of his armor, revealing only a thin layer of clothing, his eyes filled with fury, but his mouth was completely sealed, leaving him unable even to hum in frustration, let alone vent his anger.

    Mo Ran was not reassured about Rong Jiu. Although the rejected "tribute offerings" were locked together in a side hall without any supervision, just protected by a barrier spell outside, there could still be ghost soldiers patrolling. Given how much Rong Jiu disliked him, he would undoubtedly reveal his whereabouts when the time came.

    There was no time to lose. It had to be a quick and decisive operation.

    Mo Ran stood in place for a moment, waiting for the soldiers pacing back and forth to pass by before he darted straight for the second floor. There was another guard standing there, brandishing his spear to block Mo Ran's path.

    "Stop right there. What are you doing?"

    "I'm the new guard on duty today, assigned to the first floor."

    The guard furrowed his brow. "Then stay on the first floor. Why have you come up here?"

    Once again, Mo Ran tried using Chu Xun as leverage, but to his surprise, this guard wasn't buying it. Instead, he snapped, "Even if it's Mr. Chu of the Windward Pavilion, once they're inside the palace, they all belong to the Fourth Prince. If he wants to save his relative, let him go talk to the Fourth Prince himself. I won't be getting involved!"

    Mo Ran inwardly cursed, realizing that this guard was much more astute than the one downstairs. He steeled himself and said, "I don't have to take him away today. But I need to make sure I haven't made a mistake."

    "The solution is simple. Just tell me his name, and I'll check for you. There's no need for you to go in."

    "..." Frustration boiled within Mo Ran, but he suppressed his anger and said, "Chu Wanning. His name is Chu Wanning."

    The guard had been about to consult the register, but upon hearing those three words, he put it down.

    Seeing this reaction, a sense of unease stirred in Mo Ran. He asked, "What's wrong? Is there a problem?"

    "What's the problem?" the guard sneered in response, then said, "You truly are a newcomer with no sense of propriety. The Four Kings came to the palace today to admire beauties and have already set their sights on Lord Chu. If it weren't for the fact that his seventh day after death hasn't passed, and his three souls haven't fully reunited, preventing him from being taken to the Fourth Level of Hell, he might've been offered to the Ghost King tonight. You want him? Tell me, what's the issue?"

    Mo Ran's face had turned ashen halfway through hearing this, and by the time the guard finished speaking, he took half a day to reply, "The Four Ghost Kings have their eye on him?"

    "Why?"

    "…Never mind. My apologies for disturbing you." Mo Ran turned around with an ominous expression and took two steps downstairs. Before the guard could react, Divine Martial See-Through Ghost appeared in his palm, and he flipped around to strangle the guard's neck!

    A blinding red flash flickered past.

    Divine Martial See-Through Ghost could injure ghosts and kill gods. The guard only managed to glimpse the fluttering crimson willow leaves before him before hearing the young newcomer say with intense hatred, "Do you really think I'm afraid to snatch someone from the Ghost King?!" In the blink of an eye, his spirit dissipated, and he fell unconscious.

    Mo Ran raised his hand to cast a spell, binding the guard tightly and sealing his mouth before kicking him aside. He then eagerly ran towards the end of the corridor.

    There were three rooms at the end, each occupied by a lonely soul named Chu.

    But Mo Ran, for some reason, felt a sense of intuition, or perhaps a premonition, without even realizing why he was having such a strange feeling. He slammed open the door and, panting from running too quickly, stood in front of the second small alcove.

    He panted, a strand of his broken black hair falling across his eyes, but he forgot to brush it away. Instead, he stared fixedly inside—

    Rong Jiu was not wrong.

    This was a solitary chamber, roughly the size of a beast cage, with desolate walls that bore an eerie, lifeless grayish-white hue.

    Yet, the person inside appeared warmly contrasting, like a flame amidst an endless expanse of frigid white.

    Not all "tributes" were shackled; at least, Chu Wanning was not. Perhaps because he had already caught the eye of one of the Four Kings, the guards dared not offend him. Within his room, there was even a snow-white fur rug spread across the floor, thick and soft, akin to a fresh blanket of snow in the depths of winter.

    Chu Wanning lay asleep on the rug. Though he seemed ruthless and decisive on the surface, he carried a certain restlessness within him, which was most evident when he slept. He always curled up, shrinking himself into a small bundle.

    As if seeking warmth for himself, yet also cautious not to encroach on anyone's space, the slender figure appeared somewhat pitiable.

    This soul was unlike a human spirit; it was clean, with no trace of bloodstains on its face, and it radiated elegance and composure. The attire it wore had also transformed; it donned a resplendent red silk robe that shimmered like a sunset, with broad sleeves and intricate patterns of dragons soaring and phoenixes dancing, alongside golden butterflies fluttering about.

    Mo Ran almost stumbled forward, dropping to his knees beside him, his hand trembling as he reached out to caress Chu Wanning's face.

    "Wanning..."

    What escaped his lips was not "Master" but rather the two words he had been accustomed to calling him during those last days of his previous life.

    Amidst a sea of hatred, their bond intertwined deeply.

    Chu Wanning was lifted up, still dazed, and it took him a long while to regain consciousness.

    Opening his eyes, he found himself leaning against Mo Ran's chest. That youthful face before him had never shown such concern. He felt as if he were dreaming, so he knitted his brows tightly and sighed, closing his eyes once more.

    "Master!"

    Someone called out to him in his ear.

    This time, it wasn't Wanning being addressed.

    "Master! Master!"

    Chu Wanning abruptly opened his phoenix-like eyes. Though his expression remained composed, his fingertips betrayed him, trembling slightly.

    In the next instant, Mo Ran seized his hand, pressing it against his own face, weeping and laughing in a mix of emotions. His handsome features appeared disheveled and out of control under the intensity of his feelings.

    "Master," he choked, staring at Chu Wanning without blinking, as if he could no longer articulate anything else but to repeat, "Master..."

    Chu Wanning, held tightly in Mo Ran's embrace, finally regained his senses. He instinctively felt that something was amiss and thus wriggled free, standing up to glare at Mo Ran.

    For a long moment, he stood there, speechless.

    Then, an intense fury erupted within him.

    Before Mo Ran could react, Chu Wanning had withdrawn his hand, only to swiftly slap Mo Ran across the face. His dark brows furrowed in anger, his demeanor tense and aggressive.

    "Damn it, how did you end up dead too?!"

    Mo Ran opened his mouth to explain but, under the hazy moonlight, he noticed that despite Chu Wanning's intense anger, there was a hidden endurance and sorrow in his lowered lashes. It seemed as if there was an unfulfilled longing, and an infinite tenderness that could break with just a touch. After his scolding, Chu Wanning bit his lower lip tightly, suppressing the sobs that threatened to expose his humiliation and shame.

    Some people, once wounded, yearn to be bound with emotional constraints, broadcasting their injuries to the world.

    Yet others, prideful and resilient, would rather swallow the thorns of injustice and pain, bleeding in silence than share their suffering with anyone.

    Mo Ran had been unaware before, but now that he knew, his heart ached deeply for him.

    He wanted to embrace Chu Wanning.

    But Chu Wanning pushed him away, his voice raspy: "Scram."

    Chu Wanning turned his face aside, a cold and stern mask hiding his profound heartache.

    "You died young. How do you have the nerve to come before me?"

    "Shifu..."

    "Get out." Chu Wanning turned his face even further away. "Our master-disciple bond is severed. I, Yu Heng, do not take as disciples those who die in their prime."

    Dying in one's prime...

    Mo Ran had originally been upset, but hearing such solemn reproach, he suddenly felt a warmth in his heart, as if spring water was flowing gently. He tapped his forehead with his hand, then covered his eyes. He couldn't help but smile through a bittersweet and sour sensation.

    Hearing his soft laughter, Chu Wanning became even more enraged. He turned around and yelled fiercely, "What are you laughing at? You—" Frustrated, he raised his hand to slap Mo Ran, only for it to be caught by Mo Ran.

    The young man's gentle eyes blinked slowly. Without speaking, he took Chu Wanning's hand and placed it solemnly on his own chest.

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