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    Chapter 163: Master and No Return

    As one of the twenty-some youths in the hunt within the forest, Xue Meng also had a precious chess piece planted within him. He continuously circled around the lake with an empty gaze, rushing forward with the others when phantoms descended from the sky, fearlessly charging like puppets that felt no pain or fear, slaying the ghosts beneath their blades to prevent them from disrupting the formation. However, they paid no heed to those that escaped into the night.

    The purpose of these chess pieces was clear — they were protecting this Five Elements Formation.

    Seeing his disciple restrained, Chu Wanning held back for a moment, but eventually couldn't bear it any longer. He was about to leap up when Mo Ran abruptly stopped him.

    Chu Wanning gritted his teeth and whispered, "Let go."

    "Don't go out. Just wait a little longer—"

    "How long do we wait? That's Xue Meng!"

    Chu Wanning's strength was too great; Mo Ran couldn't hold onto him with one hand and was forced to tightly grip him, pressing him against his chest. He covered Chu Wanning's mouth with one hand, refusing to release him even as he struggled fiercely in his embrace. Mo Ran whispered into his ear, hot breath brushing against his earlobe.

    "It's too reckless to go out now. Don't act on impulse. Listen to me just this once. Okay?"

    In response, Chu Wanning struck back with his elbow, causing Mo Ran to wince in pain. Chu Wanning broke free from his grasp, taking a deep breath. His phoenix eyes burned with anger as he spoke in a low voice, "Under the control of the Precious Chess Game, spirit energy is being rapidly depleted. These are all fierce ghosts. If anything goes wrong, he'll lose his life!"

    "No, he won't."

    Silence.

    Mo Ran seized his hand, his gaze intense and unwavering. "I understand the Zhenlong Chess Game. Trust me."

    Seeing such a solemn expression on Mo Ran's face, Chu Wanning was slightly taken aback but his breathing gradually calmed. At that moment, a bizarre howl echoed from afar. They turned their heads to see a malevolent ghost burst out of thin air, lunging viciously at Xue Meng.

    Whoosh!

    The Longcheng curved blade shimmered in the frosty moonlight, and Xue Meng moved with the agility of a swallow, instantly piercing through the ghost!

    "The living person possessed by a Zhenlong Chess piece will gradually lose their spiritual energy until they weaken. But since he's been controlled for a short time, he'll be fine for now."

    Chu Wanning looked at him, a crease forming between his brows. "Why do you know so much about it?"

    "...From my travels and observations."

    The malevolent ghost fell, shattering into dust soon after. Xue Meng held the Longcheng curved blade, black blood droplets continuously trickling down the blade, leaving twisted trails in the snow.

    Moonlight illuminated his face, cold and lifeless, his pupils devoid of light.

    Mo Ran's heart clenched tightly.

    Xue Meng had never been used as a pawn in his previous life. Who on earth…? !

    Suddenly, sounds echoed from afar.

    Mo Ran regained his composure and whispered, "It seems like someone is coming."

    Sure enough, two figures emerged from the forest, walking across the frozen lake toward the array eye. A green glow flickered at the center of the array, and one of the men held a divine weapon, though Mo Ran couldn't discern its true form due to the angle.

    The man struck the ice with his palm, plunging the divine weapon into the array eye. Instantly, the center of the array glowed brightly, dispersing the dark clouds. The moon revealed itself behind the thick veil of fog, casting a chilly radiance that shimmered across the ice and illuminated the two figures guarding the array eye.

    One was dressed in luxurious garments adorned with golden threads, exuding elegance and brilliance, but he wore a heavy cloak and a hat that concealed his face. The other, strangely, walked barefoot in the freezing cold without any apparent discomfort.

    This person lifted his head and gazed at the Rupture of Oblivion.

    Mo Ran's eyes widened abruptly.

    "How could it be!"

    —Xu Shuanglin? !

    Utter astonishment and disbelief coursed through him. Xu Shuanglin... Elder Shuanglin?

    He was Ye Wangxi's adoptive father, the kind man who had used his own flesh and blood to shield Ye Wangxi from a barrage of blades in his previous life. How could it possibly be him? !

    Chu Wanning was unaware of Mo Ran's shock. He gently patted Mo Ran's shoulder and whispered, "Go."

    "Why hasn't he shown up yet?" The person wearing a straw hat next to Xu Shuanglin spoke, and Mo Ran recognized the voice as Nan Gongliu's.

    Nan Gongliu's tone was laced with obvious frustration and gloom. He couldn't help but curse, "Damn it, did you make a mistake?"

    Xu Shuanglin replied, "Let's wait a little longer."

    "Hurry up! Make that rift in the sky even wider. I have no idea when those guests will send someone after us. If we delay any longer, it'll be too late!"

    "I know you're anxious, but don't you already know if it's possible to widen the rift further? Last time at Butterfly Town, our haste led to an uncontrollable situation, attracting the ten major sects. If you can't keep your cool, you'll end up failing all over again."

    "Sigh..."

    Xu Shuanglin closed his eyes and replied, "Sect Leader, you've searched for these five divine weapons with different attributes for so long, weapons that can absorb and accumulate the spiritual energy of cultivators. You've endured for so many years; how could one short night make a difference now?"

    "You're right," Nan Gongliu took a deep breath and nodded. "I've waited for five years... No, it's been more than five years. Ever since the day I became the leader of the Confucian Wind Sect, I've been waiting..." He caressed the ring in his sleeve, his eyes glowing like embers in the dark.

    Nan Gongliu murmured, "I've been waiting all this time..."

    "Don't wait any longer."

    A sudden, stern male voice cracked through the stillness of the lake, like thunder splitting the clouds, causing the two figures on the water to look up at each other in alarm.

    The bright moon hung high in the sky, and the howling wind swept through thousands of mountain ridges, rustling the pine waves. Upon a treetop stood a tall, slender man. With his narrow phoenix eyes narrowed, his moon-white sacrificial robes billowed dramatically. The dark clothing accentuated his face, making it seem like a piece of jade frozen within ice – exquisitely handsome yet imbued with an icy chill.

    "Nan Gongliu, this ends here."

    Nan Gongliu was startled, then he gritted his teeth and exclaimed, "Chu Wanning...!"

    Thunderous golden light erupted from Tianwen, reflecting in Chu Wanning's eyes, making him appear even more ominous and unpredictable.

    "Well played, Yu Heng of the Night, the Esteemed Immortal of the Northern Dipper. The calamity in Butterfly Town didn't claim your life, and now you dare to ruin my plans? Beast!"

    Chu Wanning was startled, lowering his brows as he sternly said, "So it was you who caused that disaster five years ago?"

    Seeing that his actions were exposed, Nan Gongliu saw no point in hiding, sneering coldly, "So what if it was me?"

    Chu Wanning raised Tianwen, running his fingers over the willow vine. The vine shimmered brighter and brighter under his touch, nearly glowing like white gold. His eyes were sharp as hawks, "Back then, when you sought a sword at the Golden City Pool, the pool's spirit demanded your wife's spirit core in exchange. You had her heart ripped out and thrown into the lake. I was disgusted to the core, filled with hatred to kill you. But you told me that Nan Gongsi was still young and couldn't be without a father... You said it was a momentary lapse of judgment, and that you were filled with regret... You even promised to rectify the Confucian Wind Sect and no longer do evil. You..."

    As the willow vine reached its end, golden light burst forth.

    Chu Wanning gritted his teeth, "Nan Gongliu, your wickedness knows no bounds! How cruel!"

    "Nonsense," Nan Gongliu laughed lowly, "Why don't you blame your own naivety back then, Master Chu? Weren't you just a fifteen or sixteen-year-old youth? So innocent and trusting, easily swayed by my few words, a few tears, and the pretense of sparing your son, Nan Gongsi. Heh, Master, why don't you consider that my present state is also linked to your leniency back then?"

    Even before his words faded, gale winds arrived.

    Tianwen sliced through the darkness, heading straight for where Nan Gongliu stood. In an instant, dragon lights danced, flames bursting through the sky, cleaving the frozen Lin Water Lake in two, shattering all the ice!

    And Nan Gongliu roared, "Rise!"

    The puppet army, which had been circling Lingshui Lake, suddenly regained a glint in their eyes and turned to charge at Chu Wanning. Xue Meng, the most powerful among them, took the lead.

    Clang!

    Longcheng and Tianwen clashed violently. Fearing for Xue Meng's safety, Chu Wanning withdrew his stance in time, stepping back several feet with a fierce expression. "Nan Gongliu, what kind of skill is it to use others as pawns?!"

    "Haha, if you can't lay a finger on me, that's my ability," Nan Gongliu laughed loudly. "Go ahead and attack. They're all living beings, only bewitched by my Zhenlong Black Chess. Little Master Xue, isn't he your disciple, Chu Wanning? Can you bear to harm him? You're helpless, just like you were by Jin Chengchi's lake over a decade ago. You're powerless, unable to stop me. You'll have to let me go –"

    Suddenly, he couldn't continue. The smile on his face froze as if doused by a basin of cold water. The grayish-black embers still smoked, but the fire was dying.

    — Chu Wanning's gaze was too calm.

    He stared intently at Chu Wanning, whose composure made him uneasy, sending shivers down his spine. Nan Gongliu's lips quivered as if he felt guilty. "What do you plan to do...?"

    Chu Wanning didn't waste words with Nan Gongliu. His eyes were icy cold as he raised Tianwen and shouted, "Tianwen, Ten Thousand Coffins!"

    Dozens of golden vines sprang up from the ground, entwining the puppets under the influence of the Zhenlong Chess. A thick, powerful vine rose like an azure dragon, breaking through the icy waves of the lake. Ice crystals scattered as Chu Wanning leaped onto the ancient vine, his clothes billowing in the wind. He lifted a slender, strong hand, enunciating each word deliberately.

    "Nine Songs, summon."

    A thread of golden light emerged from his palm, coalescing on his knee into a jet-black ancient zither. The instrument's tail curled like a living tree, its end lush with branches and leaves, adorned with blooming cherry blossoms. Its strings were transparently icy white, continuously emanating a chilling aura.

    Divine Martial Nine Songs.

    Heavenly Questioning's signature move was "Wind," a deadly attack, while Nine Songs' specialty was "Praise," a soothing, healing technique. Chu Wanning lightly plucked the strings, playing a brief excerpt of "Praise." Those trapped in the Precious Chess Game began to look dazed; they had been struggling against Heavenly Questioning's vines, but now seemed confused and disoriented.

    Nan Gongliu flew into a rage, muttering incantations under his breath as veins popped on his forehead. He clashed with Chu Wanning, unable to hold on any longer. Turning in anger, he shouted, "Shuanglin, go disrupt his melody!"

    "…Me? Sigh, alright then."

    Xu Shuanglin sighed, reluctantly preparing to soar towards the treetop where Chu Wanning stood. However, a black shadow darted across his vision – Mo Ran stood in the wind, raising his whip to block his path.

    "Elder Shuanglin, please enlighten me."

    Xu Shuanglin blinked, bursting into a mocking laugh. "Trying to stop me? Your master-disciple bond is truly touching."

    As Chu Wanning fought, he spoke to Mo Ran, "Set up the barrier."

    "It's already done."

    It turned out that Mo Ran's absence earlier was due to an assignment to reinforce the protective barriers around Lingshui Lake. Although this Celestial Rift wasn't as devastating as the one in Butterfly Town back then, the creatures imprisoned in the Realm of No Escape were all twisted spirits and demons with no trace of sanity. If only a few managed to escape, it might not be too bad. But if many escaped, the mortal world would likely be plunged into chaos for a long while.

    Mo Ran and Shuanglin clashed in combat, exchanging over a dozen moves in the blink of an eye. Mo Ran said, " Elder Shuanglin, stop trying to run towards my Master. The person you should be dealing with is me."

    "Why?" Shuanglin suddenly chuckled. "Is fighting now a mandatory date? Let me tell you, young man, you're too fierce. Uncle's getting old, and I can't handle your roughness."

    Mo Ran: "…."

    "Don't come after me, or you'll break me," he said with a grin. "Brother, spare me, let me go have some fun with your Master?"

    Mo Ran didn't know how to deal with Xu Shuanglin. He had witnessed the man's death in his previous life and knew he wasn't an evil person. Yet, in this lifetime, Xu Shuanglin was involved in the machinations alongside Nan Gongliu, leaving him momentarily at a loss. Thus, he remained silent, focusing solely on countering his opponent's moves.

    The See-through Soul had the same interrogation ability as Heaven's Inquiry. As long as Mo Ran could keep Xu Shuanglin occupied, extracting the truth from him wouldn't be difficult. However, Xu Shuanglin was nimble, his movements far more refined than Nan Gongliu's. He floated about the shattered ice lake like a kite, evading the red light that could only hit but not hold him.

    Moreover, given that he was Ye Wangxi's adoptive father, Mo Ran couldn't help but hold back a little until the situation was clearer...

    Xu Shuanglin suddenly laughed sinisterly again. "That's enough, Grandmaster Mo. Let me apologize in advance."

    Mo Ran was puzzled by the sudden apology and asked, "What?"

    "Because I'm going to provoke your master."

    Xu Shuanglin raised his hand, and a flicker of light danced across his fingertips. A white whip-like entity screamed as it lunged towards where Chu Wanning was playing his zither high above.

    Mo Ran's concern for Chu Wanning distracted him immediately. Xu Shuanglin's eyes darkened, and with lightning speed, he drew a fan from his waist, aiming for Mo Ran's throat with deadly precision.

    "Snap—"

    Blood splattered in an instant. Although Mo Ran dodged swiftly, the sharp prongs of the fan still managed to graze his neck. Xu Shuanglin retracted the fan, its handle now stained with Mo Ran's blood, and pointed it downward. A drop of blood fell into the lake, and suddenly, a green glow illuminated from the depths below.

    Looking down, they realized that the divine weapon which Nan Gongliu and Xu Shuanglin had been guarding - the core formation of the Wood Element - was immersed in the icy lake, absorbing the essence of the surrounding vegetation.

    In that moment, due to the blood essence brimming with vibrant spiritual energy shed by Mo Ran, the divine weapon suddenly erupted with dazzling emerald light. The earth trembled, and after a brief silence, an ancient, rugged, and razor-sharp black saber pierced through the water, its radiance reaching its peak!

    Xu Shuanglin cried out to Nan Gongliu, "The forbidden curse is breaking! He's about to emerge—hurry to the rift in the sky and meet him in battle! Prepare for combat!"

    Engage in battle?

    Did they summon someone from the Realm of Endless Torment just to engage in a battle?

    But the thought only flashed through Mo Ran's mind for an instant. When he clearly saw the divine weapon hovering in mid-air, he could think of nothing else. It was as if he had been struck by a whip, rendering him motionless and speechless.

    Because that array eye weapon imbued with wood properties was...

    Heaven-Stepping Lord's renowned weapon of countless battles—Divine Weapon Unreturning!!

    Mo Ran suddenly felt a dull pain in his chest, and his vision darkened. He heard some indistinct whispers echoing in his ears. He couldn't catch his breath, feeling as if the blood from his past life was rushing at him from the darkness, drenching him entirely. He felt nauseous, dizzy, and his heartbeat raced emptily...

    Seeing what Xu Shuanglin intended to do with Unreturning, Mo Ran didn't have time to ponder further. He raised his hand, attempting to recall the divine weapon. However, the moment his spiritual energy reached out, he heard Chu Wanning's zither music abruptly cease. Something felt off, so he endured the inexplicable suffocation and turned back.

    His pupils constricted.

    "Master!!"

    How could he forget?! Chu Wanning's spiritual core was fragile; doctors had mentioned it when they left the Xuan Yuan Assembly. Unreturning seemed to have some kind of repelling force against Chu Wanning, causing it to backlash against him and further strain his already weak spiritual core.

    How could he have forgotten?!

    Mo Ran hastily severed his connection with Unreturning. He leaped onto the giant vine just before its vitality waned, bounding upward to catch the ashen-faced Chu Wanning as he tumbled down. Together, they landed in an orange grove nearby.

    Meanwhile, the Ten Thousand Souls Coffin summoned by Chu Wanning crumbled into pieces. Fortunately, those under the spell were now disoriented. Though they hadn't fully awakened, they no longer obeyed Nan Gongliu's commands. They stood there in a daze, their faces bearing a dreamlike expression.

    "Shifu!" Mo Ran was both anxious and regretful. Kneeling in the snow, he held Chu Wanning, whose brows were knitted together, and caressed his face repeatedly. "How are you?"

    When he noticed blood trickling from the corner of Chu Wanning's mouth, his heart ached even more. He hastily wiped away the blood, only to be reminded of the past life where Chu Wanning had lain in his arms, dying with blood flowing from all seven orifices on the peak of Kunlun Mountain. Just like now, he had frantically tried to wipe away the blood, but to no avail.

    It pierced his heart like a sharp needle.

    His eyes reddened. "Does it hurt a lot?"

    The impact of the Unreturning Evil Qi on Chu Wanning was overwhelming. He felt the malicious energy surging into his chest, as if it intended to tear open his ribcage.

    Worse still, he saw shattered illusions flickering before his eyes.

    Shaking his head, he tried to shake off the blurry visions and struggled to look at Nan Gongliu. However, upon catching a glimpse, the last vestiges of color drained from his face.

    With an unexpected surge of strength, he grabbed Mo Ran's arm and croaked, "Be careful over there!"

    Seeing Chu Wanning's face as pale as paper, with shock reflecting in his eyes that shimmered in the firelight...

    Flames?

    He turned around to see that the rift in the sky was no longer spewing out minor demons, but instead a torrent of molten lava from the depths of hell. Flames rained down from above, engulfing those fleeing demons in a raging inferno, leaving them as mere wisps of smoke before they could even let out a tragic cry.

    What kind of eerie situation was this?

    The molten lava hung in the sky like a magnificent, golden-red waterfall, flowing leisurely and viciously licking at everything it touched. When it reached Lengshui Lake, the ice and water were ignited just like wood, beginning to burn fiercely. Nan Gongliu and Xu Shuanglin, standing at the forefront, activated their most powerful water-based spells to prevent being consumed by the flames.

    Though the flow of flames was slow, it would soon reach those frozen in place, ensnared by the Xuanzhong Chess Game.

    Mo Ran cursed inwardly and raised his hand to form seals, but he was not proficient in water-based formations. Halfway through, Chu Wanning suddenly pressed his hand, his face pale as he said, "Your seals are incorrect. Let me do it."

    Mo Ran embraced him, helping him sit up against his chest, but stopped him from continuing. "Don't move anymore. Teach me."

    Though hesitant, Chu Wanning knew that his spiritual energy had been compromised, and he might not be able to cast the spell effectively. Lives were at stake, so he couldn't afford to be careless. Thus, he took Mo Ran's hand, aligning his fingers properly and positioning them, before he croaked, "Cast the spell."

    A flow of spiritual energy surged from their fingertips, rapidly forming a barrier in the air, shaped like blue waves, enveloping the mindless puppets.

    Chu Wanning breathed a sigh of relief, ready to praise Mo Ran, but as he lifted his eyelashes, he noticed moist trails of tears shimmering on that handsome face under the light of hell.

    ...Why is he crying?

    For whom?

    Chu Wanning felt a bit lost.

    Shi Mo wasn't here, Xue Meng was unharmed, and the others were strangers to Mo Ran. So, could he dare to be so audacious and selfish, believing that Mo Ran's tears were shed for him?

    "...Don't cry."

    Mo Ran snapped back to his senses, hastily wiping his face in a disoriented manner.

    "At your age, how unsightly."

    With moist eyes, Mo Ran looked at him and asked, "Does it hurt?"

    Hearing this, Chu Wanning was taken aback. Then, amidst the lingering pain in his chest, a warmth like a gentle spring stream surged forth. Sorrow and tenderness intertwined, sourness and pain, sweetness and bitterness. For the first time in his life, he experienced personal emotions amidst a great calamity. It was so inappropriate, yet he couldn't help it.

    "It's just a minor injury. Probably because I overexerted my spiritual energy summoning two divine weapons, causing my old ailment to flare up." Chu Wanning raised his hand, hesitated for a moment, then stroked Mo Ran's hair. "Don't worry, the pain is gone now."

    He then turned his head to gaze upon the vast, raging inferno of hellfire and crimson lotuses.

    His eyes darkened, the pain within them subsiding as his gaze became resolute and unwavering.

    "You must observe Nan Gongliu closely and seize the right opportunity," he paused, his words now devoid of hesitation, "Kill him."

    Chu Wanning's eyes burned with intense hatred, tinged with regret.

    Nan Gongliu had been right. By Jin Chengchi's side, it was indeed his younger self, at the age of fourteen or fifteen, naively venturing into the world, with limited understanding of its complexities. Back then, he had let the devilish Nan Gongliu slip through his grasp. Even for the sake of maintaining peace in the Upper cultivation realm and sparing the young Si from the truth, he had not exposed how Nan Gongliu had sacrificed his own wife to obtain divine weapons.

    It was his youthful ignorance and excessive kindness that had led to this present situation, his act of releasing a tiger back into the wild, inviting the engulfing flames of the crimson lotus karma fire...

    What on earth did Nan Gongliu intend to do?!

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