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    Chapter 120 - Master's Seclusion

    Dawn broke, painting the sky with hues of red. Though it was still early, a large crowd of disciples had already gathered outside the Red Lotus Water Pavilion. Clad in white mourning clothes, they stood on both sides of the road with bowed heads.

    "Boom... Boom... Boom..."

    The morning bell echoed from the Tower of Heaven. A few people carrying a coffin approached slowly in the distance. Leading them was Xue Zhengyong, the Greedy Wolf Elder, followed by Mo Ran and Xue Meng. On either side stood Shi Mo and a monk with a half-worn kasaya. They walked along the slippery bluestone path through the mist.

    The monk held a lantern, which, despite the bright daylight, still shone with a dazzling brilliance, its golden glow resembling the vibrant summer flowers. Mesmerizing.

    All the disciples lowered their heads, focusing and holding their breath. They had heard that Venerable Huaiwei from the Temple of No Sorrow had come especially for Elder Yu Heng. This unassuming monk must be him. For this legendary figure, respect outweighed curiosity, and no one dared to look closely at him. They only saw a pair of straw-woven monk's shoes passing by as the staff tapped gently on the ground. The master moved on, leaving everyone standing in solemn silence.

    The coffin was carried steadily, as it was for resurrection, not burial, so there were no tears. When they arrived at the Red Lotus Water Pavilion, Huaiwei surveyed the area and said, "Let's place it by the lotus pond. It's rich in spiritual energy, suitable for the ritual."

    "Very well, we'll follow your instructions, Venerable!" Xue Zhengyong led the others to set down the black ice coffin. "If you need anything, just say the word. You've saved Elder Yu Heng, which means you've saved half my life. I, Xue, will do everything in my power to help!"

    "Thank you for your kind offer, Sect Leader Xue," replied Huaiwei. "For now, I have no requests. If I do in the future, I'll inform you promptly."

    "Alright, then please don't hesitate to ask, Venerable."

    With folded hands, Huaizui gave a gentle smile and bowed to Xue Zhengyong. He then turned to address the others, "This humble monk is unworthy, but to revive Elder Chu will take five years of my time. To avoid disturbances, the Red Lotus Water Pavilion will close its doors to visitors starting today. It will reopen only on the day when Elder Chu returns to life, five years hence."

    Although Xue Meng had heard this before, the confirmation from Huaizui still brought tears to his eyes. He lowered his head silently.

    "Honorable patrons, if you wish to bid farewell to Elder Chu, please approach the coffin. After today, it will be over a thousand days before we meet again."

    One by one, they approached the coffin.

    First came Xue Zhengyong and the other elders. They stood solemnly before the sarcophagus, taking turns to say their goodbyes. Xue Zhengyong said, "May we meet again soon."

    Tanglang remarked, "Awaken earlier."

    Xuan Ji added, "May all go smoothly for you."

    Luchen sighed, "I envy you in a way. Time will stand still for you, and you won't age during these five years."

    The other elders also offered their own words of farewell, and soon it was Xue Meng's turn. He had intended to hold back his emotions, but he was impulsive by nature and couldn't resist. Tears fell once more at Chu Wanning's coffin.

    Through his sobs, he wiped away his tears and choked out, "Master, I'll practice my saber diligently even without you here. At the Spirit Mountain Gathering, I won't disgrace you. When you wake up, I'll tell you about my high ranking. There's no such thing as a defeated disciple under my master's tutelage."

    Xue Zhengyong approached and patted his son's shoulder. Unlike usual, Xue Meng didn't embrace his father but turned away with a sniffle, stubbornly determined not to appear as a dependent, wayward youth before his Master anymore.

    Next was Shi Mo, whose eyes were also moist. He didn't say anything, only gazed at Chu Wanning for a moment before silently stepping aside.

    After he left, a delicate pink hibiscus flower softly landed on the coffin. The hand that placed it still carried a hint of adolescence, yet was already slender and refined.

    Mo Ran stood by the coffin, as a gentle breeze swept across the lake, carrying the sweet fragrance of lotuses. His stray hair danced in the wind, but he lifted his hand to gently tidy Chu Wanning's face instead.

    Mo Ran's lips were pressed together, as if he had much to say, but ultimately, he only whispered in a slightly hoarse voice, "I'll wait for you."

    Wait for what?

    He didn't elaborate. He felt like he wanted to say 'wait for you to wake up,' but saying just that seemed insufficient. It was as though he couldn't express the overflowing emotions within him. A fiery magma seemed to be churning in his heart, searching for an outlet without finding one, battering against his chest and causing him distress and pain.

    He sensed that someday, his heart would burst from the pressure, and the lava would surge uncontrollably, reducing him to ashes amidst the tumultuous sea of flames.

    But at this moment, he wasn't certain what exactly those intense feelings were.

    So he simply said, "I'll wait for you."

    The Red Lotus Water Pavilion was ultimately shuttered.

    A massive barrier descended like a portal dividing life from death, cutting everyone off from the outside world.

    From then on, the scent of summer lotus and winter snow fell silent. For five long years, no one else would be able to appreciate the beauty within the pavilion.

    Bamboo leaves rustled, and hawthorn flowers drifted down. The disciples knelt in unison from the edge of the Red Lotus Water Pavilion all the way to the mountain gate. Among them, Mo Ran, Xue Meng, and Shi Mo were at the forefront of this endless river of kneeling figures.

    Xue Zhengyong's voice echoed through the forest, resonating with the clouds: " bidding farewell as Elder Yu Heng enters seclusion."

    The disciples bowed their heads and solemnly replied in unison, "We respectfully bid farewell as Elder Yu Heng enters seclusion."

    The voices of thousands merged unevenly into a torrent, abruptly bursting forth amidst the misty realm atop the summit of life and death. Crows took flight, cawing discordantly, circling the tree branches without daring to land. The rumble of their voices resembled distant thunder, rolling through the billowing clouds and piercing the heavens.

    "Respectfully bidding farewell as our Master enters seclusion," Mo Ran whispered softly.

    He bowed deeply.

    Guarding for five years.

    After Yu Heng secluded himself, his three direct disciples refused to temporarily apprentice under other elders, choosing instead to practice and cultivate on their own.

    Due to differences in aptitude, cultivation techniques, and other reasons, Shi Mo and Xue Meng remained on the mountain, while Mo Ran chose to embark on a journey afar.

    However, besides the fact that he was suited for such an adventure, his decision was also influenced by his rebirth. Many things were different this time around, not to mention the changes in Chu Wanning. What worried him most was the fake Jiu Chen.

    He had a hunch that the person hiding behind the scenes might also be a reincarnated soul. After all, this individual's grasp of the Zhennong Chess Game was now almost perfect, something no one else in the previous life had achieved until Mo Ran's self-destruction.

    Investigating the person's identity wasn't his forte. Following the incident in Butterfly Town, the entire cultivation world was watching closely, waiting for the nocturnal predator to reveal its true colors. Mo Ran didn't need to get too involved in this matter.

    Mo Ran knew he wasn't the brightest, but his spiritual energy was abundant, and his talent for cultivation was astonishing. Since a battle was inevitable in the future, his goal was to regain his formidable strength from before his rebirth as soon as possible.

    In his past life, he was a destroyer.

    In this life, he aimed to become a protector.

    Not long after Chu Wanning entered seclusion, Mo Ran stood at the entrance of the Summit of Life and Death, his backpack slung over his shoulder, ready for his journey.

    There weren't many people to see him off—Xue Zhengyong, Madame Wang, and Shi Mo.

    Xue Zhengyong patted his shoulder, somewhat awkwardly saying, "Meng'er isn't here. He said…"

    Mo Ran chuckled. "He said he's practicing his saber in the woods and doesn't have time to see me off?"

    "…" Xue Zhengyong grew even more embarrassed and couldn't help scolding, "That rascal is really disrespectful!"

    Mo Ran smiled. "He's set on winning first place at the Spirit Mountain Gathering; it's only right that he practices diligently. Our Sect Master's reputation will depend on him."

    Xue Zhengyong glanced at Mo Ran hesitantly and said, "The Spirit Mountain Congress is the pinnacle of orthodox immortal techniques. Although your journey to wander the four seas will greatly enhance your skills, I'm afraid the congress won't acknowledge the hodgepodge of techniques from various sects and schools. It would be a shame if you miss out because of that."

    Mo Ran replied, "I have my cousin, don't I?"

    "You don't want to strive for a ranking?"

    This time, Mo Ran genuinely smiled.

    A ranking?

    In his previous life, he was unable to attend the Spirit Mountain Assembly due to being punished and confined, hence he harbored resentment. But now, how insignificant were those trivial matters in comparison? He had experienced countless separations and reunions, going through the torrent of calamities from reluctance to longing, from longing to resentment, from resentment to acceptance, and then from acceptance to guilt.

    Until this day, Mo Ran's desires were no longer for fine wine, beautiful companions, or eternal worship, nor for revenge or the thrill of bloodshed.

    The infinite splendor of the heavens, the intoxicating luxury – he had seen it all and grown tired of it. He didn't wish to return, feeling only coldness there with no one by his side.

    After all, he had once been the Immortal Emperor, summoning winds and rains atop Mount Tai, witnessing the world's flowers bloom. Why would he care about applause on Spirit Mountain or scattered cheers?

    As for rankings...

    Let whoever wishes to rank themselves do so.

    "I still want to do something different," Mo Ran smiled, saying, "Xue Meng is a noble, and nobles have their way of living. As for me, I'm a scoundrel; scoundrels have their own days."

    Madame Wang couldn't help but show her affection, saying, "Silly child, what are you talking about? You and Meng'er are the same. There's no difference between a noble and a scoundrel."

    Mo Ran chuckled, but his smile held a tinge of bitterness.

    Born into wealth versus born into humility – even if they both reached the peak of life and death by good fortune, how could their experiences during those blurred years be the same?

    Madame Wang wore a tender and caring expression, so Mo Ran naturally couldn't say anything and nodded in agreement. "Auntie is right. I didn't explain properly."

    Madame Wang smiled and shook her head, giving him a small, exquisite purse embroidered with the duoruo flower. She said, "You'll be traveling alone, with no one to look after you. Take this purse; it contains many medicinal herbs, all personally prepared by Auntie. They're much better than what you can buy in regular shops. Keep it safe and don't lose it."

    Mo Ran was deeply grateful. "Thank you very much, Auntie."

    Shi Mo said, "I don't have anything for you, but I do have this jade pendant. Wear it; it's good for nurturing your spirit core."

    Mo Ran took it and examined it. The white jade was like congealed cream, warm to the touch, an extremely rare and fine piece. He hurriedly stuffed the pendant back into Shi Mo's hand. "I can't take this. It's too valuable. Besides, my spirit core is fire-based. Nurturing it further... I might end up cultivating recklessly."

    Shi Mo laughed. "What nonsense. How could you cultivate recklessly?"

    "I'm not taking it," Mo Ran insisted. "Your constitution is weak. It would be better for you to keep it."

    "But I had someone bid for it at the Xuan Yuan Assembly..."

    Hearing this, Mo Ran felt warmth in his heart, but also pain. "Items at the Xuan Yuan Assembly are astronomically priced. This jade pendant won't be of much use to me, but it would be perfect for you. Shi Mo, I appreciate the thought, but please keep it for yourself. Wear it often to nurture your spiritual energy."

    Shi Mo still wanted to argue, but Mo Ran had already untangled the pendant's thin cord and hung it around his neck.

    "It suits you well," he said with a smile, patting Shi Mo's shoulder. "It would probably be damaged by my rough handling in no time."

    "Ran'er is right. Although anyone can wear this jade pendant, it's most comfortable for those with Water Spirit Core. Mei'er, you should keep it for yourself."

    Since Madame Wang had spoken, Shi Mo naturally followed her advice and nodded, then replied to Mo Ran, "Take care of yourself."

    "Don't worry, I'll write to you often."

    Feeling a bit melancholic at the thought of parting, Shi Mo couldn't help but smile as he heard this. "Only Shifu could decipher your handwriting."

    The mention of Chu Wanning stirred up complicated feelings within Mo Ran.

    The bone-deep hatred had faded, yet guilt still lingered, like a scab forming over a wound, causing his heart both pain and irritation.

    With such emotions weighing on him, he set off down the mountain alone.

    "One, two, three..."

    He walked with his head lowered, silently counting under his breath.

    "One hundred and eleven, one hundred and twelve, one hundred and thirteen..."

    Reaching the foot of the mountain, he couldn't resist turning back to gaze at the mist-shrouded Peak of Life and Death in the distance. The endless stone steps seemed to stretch on without end. He murmured, "Three thousand seven hundred and ninety-nine."

    He had counted every step along the way.

    This was the number of stairs leading up to the mountain gate – the exact number that Chu Wanning had carried him up that day.

    He felt that he would never forget Chu Wanning's hands for the rest of his life – cold, bloodied, and damaged.

    A person's inclination towards good or evil was often not innate. Everyone was like a field, and some were fortunate to have rice and wheat seeds scattered across their furrows. In autumn, they reaped bountiful harvests, with fragrant rice paddies and golden waves of grain. Everything was commendable, praiseworthy.

    But there were fields that didn't have such luck. Poppy seeds were planted amidst their soil. When the spring breeze blew, it nurtured a blissful sin that stained the land with crimson. People despised it, cursed it, feared it, yet they also reveled in its pungent intoxication until they rotted away.

    In the end, righteous heroes would gather, setting fire to the field. Amidst the twisting, ascending smoke, they declared it a breeding ground for karma and malevolence, labeling it a demon that devoured humans without leaving bones, saying it deserved death and had no conscience.

    Amidst the flames, it writhed in agony, moaning as the poppies withered into charred earth.

    But it had once been a fertile field too, longing for rain and sunlight.

    Who was the one to sow the first seed of darkness, which later grew into an overwhelming tide of wickedness, beyond redemption?

    This field had once been warm and bountiful, ablaze with life, but it was now reduced to ashes.

    Abandoned.

    No one wanted it anymore; he was a discarded plot of land.

    So he never imagined that someone would enter his life and give him a chance to till the soil anew, to start over.

    Chu Wanning.

    He would not meet this person for another five years, and today marked the beginning of those five long years.

    Suddenly, he found himself already missing Chu Wanning's face—stern, annoyed, gentle, solemn, and upright.

    Mo Ran slowly closed his eyes.

    He delved into memories of past and present, recalling how many events had been scattered by the winds like snowflakes. He gradually realized that the rupture in the Realm of Ghosts had been the most significant turning point in his life.

    In his past life, he deeply loved a person.

    Eventually, that person gave up their life, and he descended into the underworld.

    In this lifetime, another individual cherished him.

    Later, that person sacrificed themselves, guiding him back to the mortal realm.

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