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    Chapter 165: Master, It's Him!

    The spirit-infused grappling hook was abruptly retracted, dragging out a large patch of crimson.

    Nan Gongliu's lips opened and closed, but he was unable to say a single word for a long time. He seemed completely unprepared for Xu Shuanglin's betrayal, and after a moment, he vomited a mouthful of blood and fell to his knees, motionless.

    "Dad—AAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!" Nan Gongsi's anguished cry rent the sky.

    "Headmaster!"

    "…!!" Everyone was shocked.

    Xu Shuanglin calmly squatted down and nonchalantly pulled a fruit from his Qiankun Pouch, stuffing it into Nan Gongliu's mouth, forcing him to swallow it.

    Mo Ran's sharp eyes widened in alarm. "A Lingzhi Fruit?!"

    It was the Lingzhi Fruit that Xu Shuanglin had used to keep the Feathered People barely alive in Peach Blossom Spring, torturing them with the inability to either live or die! Nan Gongliu immediately writhed in unbearable agony, curling up on the ground like a shrimp as he shivered violently. Xu Shuanglin looked at him, his eyes reflecting the flames, warming his gaze.

    "Headmaster, I pity you for living most of your life, only to end up as a helpless, manipulated fool."

    Ye Wangxi exclaimed in shock, "Foster father?!"

    "Father... Let go of my father! Release him!" Blood ties are thicker than water, and despite Nan Gongliu's shortcomings, the sight of his plight stirred a surge of compassion within Nan Gongsi, igniting his fury. He lunged at Xu Shuanglin, but was effortlessly held at bay by the latter's defensive barrier with a single hand.

    Xu Shuanglin rolled his eyes, giving him a chilly glance.

    "Seniors are speaking, what right do juniors have to interrupt? Kneel down for me!"

    With a gesture of his hand in mid-air, Nan Gongsi felt an immense weight descend upon his back, rendering him unable to stand. Clenching his teeth tightly, he endured for a moment, but eventually, he could not help but kneel heavily on both knees.

    "Si," Ye Wangxi immediately stepped in front of Nan Gongsi, unable to raise her sword against Xu Shuanglin and unwilling to stand idly by. Her expression was a mix of pain and confusion. "Foster Father, please don't hurt him..."

    "Who wants to hurt him? He's nothing." Xu Shuanglin turned his gaze back to Nan Gongliu and then kicked the bloody, disfigured cheek. "After all these years, with all these mighty heroes watching, I can't resist the urge to have a little chat with this man."

    Nan Gongliu coughed out a mouthful of blood. "Chat? What is there to chat about? Didn't you tell me that if I summoned Luo Fenghua's soul from the Realm of Unending Torment, the curse he placed on me would be broken? That I'd heal and no longer... no longer fear the night. You lied to me... you actually... you actually lied to me..."

    Upon hearing this, the younger cultivators remained clueless, but Xue Zhengyong's generation paled. Xue Zhengyong sharply looked at the lifeless body of the young man.

    "Luo Fenghua?"

    "It's Luo Fenghua!"

    Lying on the ground was none other than the master of the Nan Gong brothers from many years ago, the short-lived sect leader who had once seized power, and the only non-family lord of the Confucian Wind Sect—Luo Fenghua's body!

    "You're thinking too optimistically," Xu Shuanglin chuckled. "Curse removal? You personally killed him back then, and now you've drunk his blood and eaten his flesh. With such brutality, you still expect the curse to be lifted? How naive you are."

    "Wasn't I supposed to drink his blood and eat his flesh?! I might have hastened his death for power, but before he died, he cursed the sect leader's ring, making me suffer—these past ten years! Not a single… cough, not a single… day… at night could I live normally! Didn't I… deserve… this?"

    "You did," Xu Shuanglin agreed expressionlessly. "Absolutely." He suddenly twisted into a grin and crouched down, lifting Nan Gongliu's face. "You did an excellent job. No one could have done better, more obediently… Sect Leader, no one is dumber than you."

    With a sinister sneer, he concluded, "Useless trash."

    Xu Shuanglin stood up slowly, his face now warm with a solemn and peaceful smile. Extending his arms, he addressed everyone warmly, "Dear guests, the banquet is over, but I have a dessert in store for all of you."

    Someone shouted, "Xu Shuanglin! What do you intend to do?!"

    "Actually, it's nothing much. I just want to share an amusing anecdote with everyone. The Confucian Wind Sect has looked down upon the cultivation world for a hundred years, with countless scandalous affairs. Among them, there's something that I've waited over a decade for, and today, I plan to reveal it to the entire world."

    As he spoke, his voice transitioned from excitement to calmness.

    He then softly said, "This might be the last untold secret of the Confucian Wind Sect."

    Upon hearing this, Nan Gongliu was suddenly overwhelmed with intense fear. His body trembled violently, his lips quivered, and he could barely utter a word. Only his eyes remained fixed on the figure standing above the molten flow. "Y-You... Who exactly... are you?!"

    Xu Shuanglin turned his face slightly and smiled without giving an answer.

    A ray of light suddenly appeared in his hand, materializing into a dagger. He clenched it tightly, cutting into his flesh, and blood flowed from his palm. Using the blood as ink, he drew a formation on his arm. Then, he gently blew on it and said, "A boat by the west window, bearing thee into my dreams."

    He then turned back and smiled again, "Sect Leader, if you wish to know who I am, all will become clear once you've seen what's to come."

    Mo Ran tried to intervene, but Chu Wanning gently held him back.

    "Master?"

    "It's not an evil curse; it's a Return to Dream Realm barrier. It's very similar to the spell used by the Feathered tribe in Peach Blossom Spring. It's a magic that allows everyone to witness his memories," Chu Wanning explained. "Let's wait and see what he has to say."

    Xu Shuanglin's array shone brightly as it soared higher into the sky, continuously expanding until it enveloped the entire Lingshui Lake beneath it. Fragments of memories drifted down like sand, slowly covering the lake with Xu Shuanglin's recollections...

    Just like how snow blankets the ground, as the power of the array dissipated, the scene transformed.

    Although everyone remained stationary around Lingshui Lake, the landscape of molten rock and vegetation before them gradually faded, revealing the form of the Confucian Wind Sect's Soaring Immortal Terrace.

    The illusory terrace was deserted, inhabited by only two figures – one standing, one seated.

    The standing figure was barefoot, dressed in casual attire, with disheveled hair and an askew crown, none other than Xu Shuanglin. The seated person wore a dark crimson robe adorned with elaborate patterns, their fair complexion contrasting against it – this was Nan Gongliu.

    Nan Gongliu caressed the green jade-encrusted Patriarch's ring on his thumb, his face shimmering with a mix of excitement and impatience.

    "Have all five Divine Martial Weapons been prepared?"

    Xu Shuanglin said indolently, "You've asked that for the ninth time. If you ask again today, I'll quit."

    Nan Gongliu, restless with anticipation, couldn't stop tapping his foot. "Fine, fine. We'll wait until all the guests have arrived and until Si'er's wedding day. ... Show me the list of offerings again. I want to see how many more people from the list haven't come yet."

    Xu Shuanglin tossed him a book, and Nan Gongliu eagerly flipped through it, his gaze feverish like a madman parched for water, rustling the pages loudly. He counted once, then again, poking the pages with his fingers as if he could pierce through them.

    "All are here," Xu Shuanglin observed, seeing his frenzied muttering. "More than twenty with pure elemental essences, plus the Five Elements Spiritual Energy Squad you've assembled over the years. Their combined spiritual core power, augmented by Divine Martial Arts, might not be as potent as directly using a refined spirit body, but it will suffice. It's guaranteed to open the gates of the Realm of Endless Torment."

    Nan Gongliu gripped the book tightly and nodded repeatedly. "Excellent."

    "But this is our last chance. If we fail again, breaking the curse will become next to impossible."

    "We can't afford to mess up!"

    Xu Shuanglin said nonchalantly, "You should say, 'We won't mess up.'"

    "Okay, okay, we won't mess up, I promise." Nan Gongliu paused before adding, "Shuanglin, I'm still not at ease. Let's go over the plan one more time?"

    "…Big Brother, you've gone over it a dozen times already."

    Nan Gongliu ignored him. "It can't hurt to be extra cautious."

    Xu Shuanglin seemed resigned. "Fine, if that's what you want."

    Nan Gongliu continued his planning. "On the eve of Si'er's wedding, all the guests will gather at the Poem and Music Pavilion. That's when I'll organize a lottery to draw out the twenty-one marked tokens." He looked up at Xu Shuanglin. "Then it's your turn."

    "…Alright, I'll volunteer to accompany them." Xu Shuanglin had no choice but to agree. "Once we're in the dense forest, I'll lead the sacrifices to the Sweet Spring Lake and plant the precious chess pieces in them, making them obediently offer their spiritual energy to Divine Martial. After that's done, I'll manipulate everyone to ignite the signal fireworks and tear open the rift to Hell."

    "Great, fantastic!" Unlike Xu Shuanglin's casual demeanor, Nan Gongliu was visibly excited. He continued mapping out the plan on paper. "Upon seeing the fireworks, I'll lead the five guard units under the pretense of quelling the chaos caused by the Heavenly Rift and head for the Hunting Forest to meet up with you. Then, we'll turn those five guard units into precious chess pieces and sacrifice them too!"

    Xu Shuanglin nodded, summarizing, "There shouldn't be any mistakes."

    "N-no mistakes at all," Nan Gongliu clenched his ring, his face turning pale. "I've had enough, I've had enough…" He muttered for a moment before abruptly looking up at Xu Shuanglin. "Shuanglin, are you sure it's okay not to use an Essence Spirit Body? What if the Divine Weapon's power isn't pure enough…?"

    "Rest assured, these five Divine Weapons are the finest of the finest, at the pinnacle of their class. They possess the power to move mountains and fill seas. After absorbing the spiritual flow from the sacrifices, they will surely succeed."

    "But what if? I mean, what if the Gate of Hell cannot be opened, or if someone tries to interfere like in Peacock Town… Look at that Chu Wanning!" Nan Gongliu spat. "What kind of honored North Star Immortal Venerated is he, interfering in other people's business! Last time in Peacock Town, we accidentally killed him, which should have been a great thing. But who knew that that old baldie Huai Wei could actually bring him back to life—how infuriating!"

    Upon reading this, Mo Ran was filled with anger. Back then, when chaos erupted in Peacock Town, the Confucian Wind Sect had sent many cultivators to quell the disturbance, and over a hundred disciples had lost their lives in the battle. These two men were well aware of that…

    So who was False Jia Chen?

    Was it Nan Gongliu or Xu Shuanglin?!

    "In any case, Chu Wanning wasn't meant to die," said Xu Shuanglin in the illusion. "He's a capable person. It would be a waste for him to die so easily."

    "So what if he's capable? I can't stand his arrogant face!"

    "Oh, speaking of which, Immortal Sect Leader, you met Chu Wanning the other day, right? How was he? Was his spiritual power affected by being resurrected?"

    "I'm not sure about his spiritual energy, but his temper certainly hasn't mellowed," Nan Gongliu spat with resentment. "Proud and arrogant, looking down on everyone. In front of him, I feel like a dog that's rolled in mud!"

    Xu Shuanglin chuckled. "The Sect Leader's metaphor is rather amusing."

    "You shouldn't have brought it up; now I'm just furious! I, the esteemed Lord of the number one major sect in the world, had to bow and scrape before Chu Wanning, and even his disciple could dictate my actions. That disciple of his, he's something else, Grandmaster Mo. Disrespectful and disobedient, with an even worse temperament than his master."

    He paused, a malicious glint in his eyes.

    "What a fine essence of wood, a spirit body. I only regret that I cannot discard divine weapons and stick to my original plan, using his flesh and blood as a sacrifice to open the gates to the Realm of No Return and tear apart the Underworld!"

    "Jin Chengchi, Peach Blossom Spring – we failed twice," Xu Shuanglin said. "After that, he wandered alone for five years. During that time, we couldn't locate him, and the only attempt to lure him into a trap resulted in him being severely injured by the Yellow River Catfish. But that boy has great luck; Jiang Xi happened to pass by and saved him. Now, Mo Ran has grown wings. He's no longer that sixteen or seventeen-year-old boy. None of us can touch him. The path of the essence spirit body won't work."

    "Just you wait!" Nan Gongliu raged. "Once I break this curse, my powers will increase exponentially. Then, whether it's Master Chu or Master Mo, they'll all have to kneel before me and obey my commands!"

    Xu Shuanglin merely smiled at his words, not deigning to respond.

    Nan Gongliu simmered with anger for a while, gradually calming down. He took a deep breath, staring at the ring on his hand, then suddenly said, "Shuanglin, five years ago, you gave up searching for the essence spirit body, wasn't it because Mo Ran left the mountain to travel, making his whereabouts unknown?"

    "..."

    Slowly lifting his gaze from the ring, Nan Gongliu said, "Also because you investigated and found out that the Earth Elemental Spirit Body is Ye Wangxi, right? You can't bear to part with your adopted daughter, who's the only family you have in this world..."

    "I have no family in this world," Xu Shuanglin interrupted expressionlessly. "Besides, you, as the Sect Leader, know very well that your son is the Fire Elemental Spirit Body. Even if I were willing to let go of Ye Wangxi, could you really give up on Si'er?"

    "Enough," Nan Gongliu waved dismissively, looking dispirited. "If Divine Martial can be replaced, then there's nothing more to say. Let's drop it here."

    "But what if Divine Martial cannot be replaced?"

    Nan Gongliu was startled. "What do you mean?! Didn't you say there would be no risk?"

    "Sect Leader, why get anxious? I'm just suddenly curious. If there's no other choice but to use those five living Spirit Bodies, with Si'er as the sacrifice, to successfully open the Gate of No Return, what decision would the Lord make? Would they continue enduring the curse or..." A hint of mockery tugged at the corners of his lips, but he didn't finish his sentence.

    Nan Gongliu didn't respond. After a long silence that made everyone think the reminiscence was over, he spoke softly, "If one doesn't act for themselves, heaven will punish them."

    "!"

    Everyone's faces rippled upon hearing this, especially Xue Zhengyong, who cherished his son dearly. He couldn't comprehend Nan Gongliu's choice and exclaimed angrily, "Absurd... even a tiger doesn't devour its cub. Sacrificing one's own son for survival? Absolutely absurd!"

    Nan Gongsi stood rooted to the spot, his face blank, displaying no other emotions. His eyes were empty, reflecting his confusion...

    As the scene plunged into darkness, those shimmering fragments of memory stirred and swirled once more, emitting a delicate tinkling sound like wind chimes in gentle collision.

    When the illusion flickered to life again, the vista before them was vast and open, with towering snow-capped mountains reflecting blinding white light. Someone gasped in astonishment, "It's Jin Chengchi?!"

    The author has a message for readers:

    These few chapters are a flashback that unravels events from the past. Many details will be connected to the final chapters and the ultimate forbidden spell. If you have questions, don't worry, all will be revealed in due time!

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