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    Chapter 190: Master Goes into Seclusion Again

    After that day, Chu Wanning and Mo Ran no longer had the chance to meet in private.

    The heavy rains in Shu Province showed no sign of ceasing, almost appearing eerie. Dead fish and shrimp floated in the surging rivers outside Baodi City, while water-based monsters roamed among the people. The elders and disciples of Death Peak were dispatched to various villages and towns to vanquish these demons. Since both Chu Wanning and Mo Ran possessed immense powers, they were not assigned to work together to avoid wasting their strength. One went to the Three Gorges Port, while the other headed for Yi Province.

    Confucian Wind Sect's century-old foundation, with its Golden Drum Tower holding countless beasts, had been destroyed and was now being rebuilt amidst chaos.

    In addition to Shu Province, peaceful regions like Yangzhou, Leizhou, and Xu Prefecture, which originally belonged to the Upper cultivation realm, also experienced frequent incidents of demonic beasts preying on humans and slaughtering civilians. This further divided the efforts and resources of various sects, slowing down the search for Xu Shuanglin's whereabouts.

    Mo Ran's spiritual power was astonishing, and now his actions were even more composed. It took him only four days to swiftly stabilize Yi Province. Upon returning to the Summit of Life and Death, he learned that Chu Wanning had already come back. Overjoyed, he couldn't wait to rest and hurriedly went to the Red Lotus Water Pavilion to find him.

    To his surprise, the pavilion's main gate was tightly shut. Upon inquiry, Xue Zhengyong responded with curiosity, "He's in seclusion. Didn't Yu Heng tell you?"

    "Again in seclusion?" Mo Ran was startled. "Has Master been injured?"

    "What injury? Wasn't it due to the cultivation method? He enters seclusion once every seven years. You even visited him during his last seclusion. How could you forget?"

    Reminded by Xue Zhengyong, Mo Ran suddenly recalled the incident — he had just become Chu Wanning's disciple not long before, and after only half a year, Chu Wanning mentioned that he had rushed through his cultivation method in his youth, resulting in an old ailment. Though not life-threatening, he needed to enter seclusion for a period of ten days every seven years to meditate quietly.

    For ten days, Master Chu's cultivation would wane, leaving him almost mortal. He needed to meditate and rest for his body to recover. During this period, he could regain consciousness for only two hours each day to drink some water and consume a small amount of food. At all other times, he must not be disturbed, nor could he sustain any injuries. Therefore, Chu Wanning would always set up the strongest barrier around the Red Lotus Water Pavilion, allowing only Xue Zhengyong, Xue Meng, Shi Mo, and Mo Ran to enter, ensuring a peaceful passage through this ordeal.

    Not long before his last seclusion, there had been a disagreement between him and Chu Wanning regarding the "picking flowers" incident. After being punished by Chu Wanning, Mo Ran had felt disheartened. Thus, during his master's ten days of quiet cultivation, he did not accompany him even once, choosing instead to help his uncle organize the Book Collection Pavilion.

    Recalling those days, Mo Ran felt uneasy and immediately said, "I'll go check on him."

    "You don't need to. Before entering seclusion, he specified that Xue Meng should guard the first three days, Shi Mo the middle three, and you can join him in the last four days," Xue Zhengyong explained with a smile.

    "I just want to take a look at him..."

    "What's there to see?" Xue Zhengyong chuckled. "Last time, wasn't he accompanied by Meng'er and Shi Mo as well? What are you worried about? Besides, if you go, Meng'er will want to talk to you, which might disturb Yu Heng."

    Mo Ran realized his uncle had a point, so he reluctantly agreed not to go. However, that night, he couldn't fall asleep. The thought of Xue Meng being alone with Chu Wanning at the Red Lotus Water Pavilion made his heart sour, filling him with discomfort.

    Of course, he knew Xue Meng was pure-hearted and had no interest in men. Still, it pained him, causing him to toss and turn for most of the night until dawn, when he finally managed to doze off for a couple of hours.

    Upon waking up, Mo Ran realized he couldn't resist. He wanted to see Chu Wanning, even from afar.

    Though the entrance to the Red Lotus Water Pavilion was closed and surrounded by barriers, Mo Ran, as Chu Wanning's disciple, could easily pass through them unimpeded. The bamboo gate was merely for show; with a leap, Mo Ran landed gracefully within the courtyard. Whenever Chu Wanning practiced meditation, he usually did so in a green bamboo pavilion situated deep within the lotus pond. This time would be no exception.

    Sure enough, from a distance, Mo Ran could see the elegant bamboo pavilion, its curtains of gauzy silk billowing gently amidst the lotus leaves on the rippling water. Chu Wanning sat serenely on the ground, his white robes pooling around him.

    Xue Meng stood beside him, likely sensing the bright sunshine outside. He tied up one side of the snowy veil to allow his master to bask in the warmth. The winter morning sun filtered into the pavilion, illuminating Chu Wanning's slightly pale face. Feeling the warmth, color began to return to his cheeks.

    After a while, beads of sweat formed on Chu Wanning's forehead due to the intensity of his practice. Xue Meng took a nearby white handkerchief to wipe them away. As he did, he couldn't help glancing around, muttering, "How odd, I feel like someone is staring at me..."

    Mo Ran wasn't just staring – he was fixated.

    His expression appeared calm, but inwardly, he was seething with turmoil.

    He felt that Xue Meng lingered too long while wiping Chu Wanning's brow, standing too close, and looking at him with too much... suggestiveness. Essentially, he accused Xue Meng of all sorts of imagined transgressions, leaving him agitated and restless.

    Growing increasingly uncomfortable, Mo Ran decided he couldn't endure this any longer and resolved to leave. However, in his haste, he lost control of his footsteps, causing a louder than intended sound. Immediately, Xue Meng threw out a shimmering, spirit-infused plum blossom dart, shouting fiercely, "Who's there?!"

    Catching the dart with ease, Mo Ran's heart still raced from the sudden shout. Swiftly, he emerged from the bamboo grove, leaped over the lotus pond, and landed softly inside the bamboo pavilion.

    Xue Meng's eyes widened in astonishment. "How did you—"

    "Shh," Mo Ran immediately covered his mouth and whispered, "Why are you shouting so loudly?"

    "Ugh! Ugh!" Struggling for a while, Xue Meng finally broke free from Mo Ran's grip, his face flushed red. Frustrated, he brushed away the disheveled hair from his face and angrily said, "You're talking about me? What were you doing hiding in the bushes like a thief?"

    "I was afraid you'd make a fuss just like now," Mo Ran replied.

    "I'm shouting, but Shifu can't hear me!" Xue Meng grumbled. "Didn't you see that Shifu cast the Sound Eradication Spell on himself? Unless you undo the spell, he won't be able to hear a word you say even if you shouted into his ear!"

    As he rambled on, Mo Ran was taken aback. "The Sound Eradication Spell? Then why did Father say he was worried I would disturb you?"

    "Father must have thought you were too tired from your trip back from Yi Zhou and wanted you to rest first," Xue Meng said exasperatedly. "And you believe him without thinking it through? Whenever Shifu goes into seclusion, doesn't he always cast these spells on himself so we can be comfortable nearby? You really are incredibly dense."

    Mo Ran: "…"

    Seeing that Mo Ran was about to sit down in the pavilion, Xue Meng quickly pulled him back. "Hey, what are you doing?"

    Mo Ran replied, "Since that's the case, I'll stay as well."

    Xue Meng said, "Who asked you to stay? We agreed that I would guard for the first three days. You're just trying to win favor with our Master again. Come on, go, don't snatch my job."

    "Can you take care of him all by yourself?"

    "How can I not? It's not my first time looking after Master during his seclusion."

    Seeing Xue Meng's annoyance, Mo Ran didn't dare say more. After hesitating for a moment, he was about to leave when he suddenly noticed the teacup on the table. The leaves were broad and dark, emitting a subtle, harmonious aroma. He asked, "Is this Snow Ground Cold Fragrance tea from Kunlun?"

    "Eh? How do you know?"

    "...Why wouldn't I know? This is your favorite tea, after all. You always offer your most beloved things to Master, but you never really considered if they suit him or not, if he likes them or not."

    "Snow Ground Cold Fragrance is a cold-natured tea, and Master already has a cold constitution. Can he feel comfortable drinking this?"

    Xue Meng was taken aback, his face turning slightly red as he explained awkwardly, "I didn't think that far. I just knew it was good tea. I...I..."

    "Go and replace it with some Rose Tea, adding two spoons of honey. Wait until he wakes up before brewing it for him. I'll make some snacks to have on hand and bring them over later."

    Xue Meng, wanting to save face, hurriedly said, "Snacks are not allowed. He needs to abstain from food for these ten days."

    "I understand, but Uncle said it's fine to have just a little," Mo Ran replied, waving his hand as he left the bamboo pavilion and headed towards the waterside pavilion. "See you later."

    Xue Meng stared at his retreating figure, lost in thought for a moment.

    When Mo Ran was out of sight, he lowered his head and couldn't help but look at the side of Shifu's neck—the faint purple bruise he had unintentionally noticed the day before.

    Under the sunlight, it was even more distinct, not resembling a mosquito bite or any sort of injury. Xue Meng was no longer fourteen or fifteen years old; though there were things he had yet to experience, it didn't mean he was ignorant. That mark on Chu Wanning's neck disturbed him greatly.

    He pondered over every detail, especially what he had heard in the rear mountain that day.

    He had always told himself it was just the wind, the wind.

    But that vague sense of foreboding seemed to be creeping back into his mind. Beneath the myriad threads of smoke, something bizarre appeared to be gradually revealing its true form.

    Beneath the warm sun, Xue Meng suddenly felt uneasy for some reason, shivering uncontrollably and frowning.

    Due to this unease, on the sixth day of Chu Wanning's seclusion, Xue Meng made a decision—

    He planned to secretly follow Mo Ran and see what he was up to.

    This was Shi Mo's final day serving Chu Wanning. The shift change was supposed to occur at midnight, but Mo Ran had finished his dinner early at the Lady Meng's Hall and brought a box of pastries straight to the Red Lotus Water Pavilion. Xue Meng didn't expect him to take over Shi Mo's duty so soon and abandoned his remaining meal, stealthily following behind him until they reached the pavilion. When Mo Ran entered through the main gate, Xue Meng hesitated for a moment before scaling the wall just as Mo Ran had done previously.

    The sun had yet to set while the crescent moon had already risen. The sky had shed its shimmering radiance, leaving only a faint red hue in its wake. The magnificent sunset had faded away, replaced by the oppressive darkness of night. Stars sparkled like water droplets.

    Seeing Shi Mo walk into the bamboo pavilion with his back turned, Mo Ran held the food box in hand. It seemed that Shi Mo hadn't noticed Mo Ran's approach as he stopped in front of Chu Wanning.

    Mo Ran smiled, about to greet him, when he suddenly caught a glint of cold light in Shi Mo's hand, aimed at the meditating Chu Wanning. Startled, a thought flashed through Mo Ran's mind, and he cried out,

    "Shi Mo!"

    A chill ran down his spine, and his hair stood on end.

    In both his lifetimes, he had experienced too many separations and deaths, making him hyper-sensitive to any hint of danger. As the saying goes, once bitten, twice shy. The Red Lotus Water Pavilion once held Chu Wanning's lifeless body for two whole years until the day he died.

    He didn't have fond memories of this place. Entering the pavilion always reminded him of the last days of Chu Wanning's life, lying in the lotus with his eyes forever closed, devoid of vitality.

    Consciously or not, Mo Ran regarded the Red Lotus Water Pavilion as a cursed site, a dark abyss that could extinguish the last flicker of life in the world.

    Shi Mo turned around, lowering his hand, and the silver light vanished within his sleeve. "Ah Ran? ... Why are you here?"

    "I—"

    Mo Ran's heart raced wildly, and he couldn't catch his breath. Ignoring everything, he frowned deeply and said, "In your hand..."

    "Hand?"

    Shi Mo was taken aback for a moment before lifting his hand again. He held a comb in his hand, crafted from pure silver with fragmented spirit stones embedded on its back, believed to soothe the meridians.

    Mo Ran was at a loss for words, finally managing to say after a while, "You... were combing Master's hair?"

    "Mm-hmm, what's wrong?" Shi Mo sized him up and down, then slightly furrowed his delicate brows. "You look so pale. Did something happen outside?"

    "No, I just..."

    Halfway through his sentence, he couldn't continue. His face flushed slightly, but the darkness of night concealed it. After a brief pause, Mo Ran turned his face slightly and coughed lightly. "It's nothing."

    Shi Mo continued to gaze at him silently. Then, as if he had an epiphany, his expression showed a slight hint of bewilderment. He hesitantly spoke, "Did you perhaps think that..."

    Mo Ran hastily replied, "I didn't."

    After all, Shi Mo had treated him exceptionally well, like family. Mo Ran was startled by his own momentary misunderstanding and felt deeply apologetic towards Shi Mo, so the words "I didn't" slipped out effortlessly.

    Shi Mo didn't speak right away. After a long while, he said, "Aran."

    "Hmm?"

    "I haven't even finished my sentence," Shi Mo sighed softly. "Why are you in such a hurry to deny it?"

    With those words, it was clear that Shi Mo had realized that for that brief instant, Mo Ran had mistakenly taken the silver comb in his hand for a deadly weapon.

    Though this fear was born from Chu Wanning's two lifetimes of perishing, regardless of whether it was Xue Meng or Xue Zhengyong who had stood with his back to Mo Ran just now, he would have likely experienced that fleeting shudder. However, in front of Shi Mo, Mo Ran composed himself, though the distress in his heart lingered.

    He lowered his eyes and said, "…I'm sorry."

    In his recollections, Shi Mo was always gentle and lenient towards others, seldom displaying indifference or reproach. Yet on this particular evening by the lotus pond, he gazed at Mo Ran in silence for a long while.

    The wind has risen, causing the lotus leaves in the pond to flutter and roll, while the red lotuses dance gently.

    Shi Mo said, "If people can't remain the same, so be it. But Ah Ran, we've known each other for nearly a decade. How could my image in your heart have degraded to such a degree?"

    His voice was gentle and calm, devoid of the intense fury or desperate pleading one might expect. Looking into his eyes, Mo Ran saw two pools of clear spring water that seemed to have seen through everything but chose not to dwell on it, desiring no further discussion.

    Shi Mo handed the shimmering silver comb to Mo Ran with a detached tone. "Before our Master closed his eyes in deep contemplation, he asked me to tie up his hair later. Since you're here, I'll leave it to you."

    "Shi Mo..."

    But the tall, striking man had already passed by him without turning back, his footsteps steady as he left the Red Lotus Water Pavilion, surrounded by the rustling of countless leaves.

    The author has something to say:

    Mini-drama: "What to Do When Someone's Angry"

    Q: What should I do when Chu Wanning is angry?

    Mo Ran 0.5: Angry? What right does he have to be angry? I'm the one who's annoyed that he doesn't like to talk in bed. How ridiculous.

    Mo Ran 1.0: Quickly drag Shi Mo away. Who could survive if Chu Wanning is angry?

    Mo Ran 2.0: I won't let Master get angry.

    Xue Meng: ...I messed up... What did I do wrong? I... I'll fix it right away.

    Shi Mo: I won't let Master get angry either.

    Question: What if Mo Ran gets angry?

    Chu Wanning: ...He doesn't seem to have gotten angry before.

    Zero Point Five: ???? Knock knock, have you forgotten about me?

    Xue Meng: Damn thing, curse at him.

    Shi Mo: Then just coax him well.

    What if Xue Meng gets angry?

    Chu Wanning: Isn't he angry every day anyway?

    Mo Ran: Isn't he angry every day anyway?

    Shi Mo: Pfft, isn't he angry all the time anyway?

    What if Shi Mo gets angry?

    Chu Wanning: Will he be angry?

    Xue Meng: Would he be angry?

    Mo Ran: ...He'll be upset. I already angered him in today's main story, but I don't know what to do. I'm not very skilled at comforting people...

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