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    Chapter 198: Master's Journey to Phoenix Mountain

    After ten days of fasting, Nan Gongsi and Ye Wangxi were ready to embark on their journey to Dragon Mountain. Nao Baijin, having sustained injuries and lost much of its vitality, was unable to carry its master on long distances for the time being. The enormous demonic wolf transformed into a tiny cub, small enough to fit in Nan Gongsi's quiver, with its fluffy head poking out.

    Mo Ran saw them off at the entrance of the mountain, stroking the mane of the horse beside him as he smiled. "The trip to Dragon Mountain is a long one, and flying on a sword drains energy. Take these two horses with you. They've been fed spiritual grass and can travel a thousand miles a day. Though not as formidable as Nao Baijin, they'll do just fine."

    Nan Gongsi thanked Mo Ran, and he and Ye Wangxi mounted their horses. Lowering their heads, they cupped their fists in greeting. "Thank you, Brother Mo. There's no need for you to see us further; we'll meet again in the future."

    "Alright, be careful on your way," Mo Ran replied.

    He stood at the mountain gate, watching as Nan Gongsi and Ye Wangxi's figures receded into the distance. Just as he was about to leave, he suddenly heard a crisp snap from the woods to his left. It sounded like a dry branch breaking and falling to the ground.

    "Meow..."

    Mo Ran narrowed his eyes slightly and murmured, "A cat?"

    On the other side, Ye Wangxi and Nan Gongsi rode side by side, descending from the mountain gate. There was still a deserted path to traverse before reaching Impermanence Town. Sunlight filtered through the dappled, lush foliage, and with each hoof strike, the fragmented rays were crushed into motes of dust.

    Nan Gongsi glanced at Ye Wangxi, about to say something, when Naobaijin, who had retreated into its quiver, suddenly popped its head out, revealing its two golden-tipped white paws. It let out a pair of "Aow- Aow-" howls. Startled, Nan Gongsi sharply pulled on the reins, exclaiming, "Be careful!"

    Hardly had the words faded when a downpour of needle-like projectiles assaulted them from all directions. The horses reared in panic. Nan Gongsi and Ye Wangxi drew their swords almost simultaneously. As childhood companions, they were highly attuned to each other's moves. They leaped apart, Nan Gongsi to the left, Ye Wangxi to the right, their swords dancing in harmony. After a series of clinking sounds, the poisoned pear flower needles fell to the ground. Ye Wangxi then threw out a talisman, summoning a protective barrier that enveloped the two of them.

    Nan Gongsi bellowed, "Who is it?!"

    The sunlight dimmed, not due to clouds but because a figure stood on a slender branch. He wore a wide-sleeved robe, his hair and beard billowing in the wind as he faced the sun with a look of hatred and disdain – it was Huang Xiaoyue, the former leader's cousin of the Jiangdong Sect.

    Perched on the branch, he exuded an air of immortality but remained silent, only fixing a cold stare on Ye Wangxi's face. Then, rustling sounds emerged from the forest as over a hundred Jiangdong Sect disciples emerged, each wearing a bright red headband, marking them as elite disciples.

    Huang Xiaoyue stroked his beard and said, "Well, did you enjoy your stay at the Edge of Life and Death? Hiding for ten days and nights before coming out – you've kept this old man waiting."

    Nan Gongsi seethed. "Huang Xiaoyue, why is it always you?!"

    "What if it's me?" Huang Xiaoyue replied coldly. "You're well aware of the enmity between the Jiangdong Sect and the Confucian Wind Sect."

    Nan Gongsi gritted his teeth. "From Lin Yi to Sichuan, we've repelled four of your attacks. Yet, you still pursue? What grudge do you have? It was your sister-in-law who killed your brother, yet you keep coming after us. Where's your dignity?!"

    "Dignity? This old man thinks it's Young Master who has none," Huang Xiaoyue said darkly. "It was your Confucian Wind Sect that severely weakened our Jiangdong Sect, causing it to splinter. Do you dare deny that?"

    Ye Wangxi said, "Even if you're seeking revenge against the Confucian Wind Sect, you should do so honorably and according to justice. Resorting to assassination now, what kind of behavior is that?"

    "Shut up. Men are talking, and it's not your place, a little girl, to speak." Huang Xiaoyue waved his sleeve. "Don't think that just because your beastly father raised you as a boy, you actually are one. A yellow-haired girl will always be a yellow-haired girl. Women belong in the kitchen cooking and cleaning. What right do you have to come out and show off in front of this old man?"

    Nan Gongsi raged, "Huang Xiaoyue, have some reason!"

    "Very well, then this old man will talk reason with you two and settle the score." Huang Xiaoyue pointed at Nan Gongsi and said grimly, "Your father disregarded all morality and had an affair with a married woman, persuading that poisonous woman to poison my own biological brother and seize power. As for the one next to you—"

    He fiercely pointed at Ye Wangxi. "She is the daughter of a beast. Her foster father revealed our Jiangdong Sect's private matters to the world, sullying our sect's impeccable reputation. This old man has personally led our finest disciples today to intercept you scoundrels, to restore justice to the Jiangdong Sect and the world!"

    With a wave of his hand, the hundred disciples pounced forward, only to be thrown back by a burst of flame and gale force winds that suddenly descended from the sky.

    Nan Gongsi exclaimed, "Brother Mo?"

    The arrival was none other than Mo Ran, standing atop a tree opposite Huang Xiaoyue, holding a willow vine and staring coldly at his opponent.

    Huang Xiaoyue didn't expect Mo Ran to appear and his expression turned sour. After a moment, he said slowly, "Why would Grandmaster Mo find pleasure in watching the commotion down the mountain?"

    "You should ask your disciple why he chose to be a person instead of hiding in the woods imitating a cat."

    Huang Xiaoyue's face darkened, nearly matching his surname in its grimness. He said irritably, "What does Grandmaster Mo mean by this?"

    "Senior Huang should be the one asking me that question," Mo Ran replied. "In the territory of my Death and Life Peak, attacking our guests... Is Senior Huang dissatisfied with the cleanliness of our mountain gate and wishes to sprinkle some blood on the ground?"

    "I am beyond your sect's jurisdiction once I step out of the gate. Seeking revenge for my brother's death is none of Grandmaster Mo's concern!"

    Mo Ran said, "Senior Huang is correct. Personal grudges are no longer the concern of the Death and Life Peak once we leave the mountain gate."

    Huang Xiaoyue snorted coldly. "Then why doesn't Grandmaster move aside?"

    Mo Ran didn't budge. The ghostly blood glow intensified, turning the willow leaves above into clusters of bloody beads. "But what if I want to take care of it myself?"

    "You—!"

    Huang Xiaoyue was well aware of Mo Ran's capabilities, but he couldn't bear to let his brother's blood go unavenged. All he could do was threaten angrily, "Grandmaster Mo, are you declaring war against the Jiangdong Sect?"

    "That's not my intention. I merely wish for my sect's esteemed guest to leave Sichuan safely. Whether it's the Jiangdong Sect or the Jiangxi Sect blocking our way, it makes no difference."

    Huang Xiaoyue narrowed his eyes, the hatred in his brown irises almost taking the shape of flames that could engulf Mo Ran and the evergreen cypress he stood on in ashes.

    "You insist on protecting these two remnants of the Confucian Wind Sect?"

    "How can you call them remnants?" Mo Ran asked coldly. "May I ask, Senior Huang, how much did Miss Ye and Young Master Nangong have to do with the tragedy at the Jiangdong Sect?"

    "..."

    "Did they plot against the internal upheaval within the Jiangdong Sect? Or did they expose its disgraceful secrets?" Mo Ran looked at Huang Xiaoyue. "Did they kill the former sect leader, or were they intentionally involved in the scheme that harmed your brother?"

    "But what does it matter!" Huang Xiaoyue shouted angrily. "The sins of the father are inherited by the son! It's only natural!"

    "Well said, 'only natural'," Mo Ran replied coolly. "Enough. There's no point in reasoning with Senior Huang. Let our weapons speak for us. Let's fight."

    Huang Xiaoyue was furious and bellowed, "Mo Weiyu! How unreasonable of you!"

    "Now, who's being unreasonable?" A voice with an arrogant tone sounded from the path ahead. Xue Meng emerged from the woods, holding Longcheng in his hand, its blade so sharp that it glinted fiercely under the sunlight.

    "You're shouting and threatening to kill in front of my family's gate. Has the Jiangdong Sect forgotten the peak of life and death? Are you looking for death?"

    If it had been just Mo Ran before, Huang Xiaoyue might not have been able to defeat him, but he could have potentially escaped while Mo Ran was preoccupied and taken the opportunity to avenge his brother. But now, Phoenix Child Xue Meng had stepped forward. He was the pride of Spirit Mountain, the winner of the assembly, and everyone knew the ferocity of the Longcheng sword in his hands.

    The two brothers now stood together before the mountain gate, determined to protect Nan Gongsi and Ye Wangxi with their lives. No matter how desperately Huang Xiaoyue fought, there would be no chance for him to exploit any openings.

    Upon seeing Xue Meng arrive, Mo Ran's expression turned solemn. He said to Xue Meng, "Go back."

    "I'll assist you—"

    "This matter has nothing to do with the Peak of Life and Death; it's my personal choice to help. You shouldn't get involved," Mo Ran furrowed his brows, wondering to himself if this younger brother was being naive. Although Jiangdong Sect's power had waned, it was still akin to a emaciated camel being larger than a horse—remnants of its former glory. It remained one of the nine major cultivation sects. Furthermore, the niece of the former Jiangdong Sect leader was coupled with the senior disciple of the Fire Phoenix Pavilion. They were bonded by marriage. If Xue Meng were to step forward and assist, it would undeniably drag the Peak of Life and Death into the fray, openly rupturing ties with two major cultivation factions at once.

    Absolutely not.

    Mo Ran said, "Hurry back."

    But Xue Meng was simple-minded and failed to grasp the subtle nuances behind Mo Ran's words. Instead, he grew frustrated that Mo Ran didn't want his help. Amidst their standoff, they noticed dust rising in the distance as a snow-white steed approached swiftly. Upon it sat a fairy maiden from the Treading Snow Palace of Kunlun, her white robes as pristine as snow, and a pipa slung across her back.

    "Urgent news! Urgent news—" The fairy maiden furrowed her delicate brows, urging her horse forward as she cried out loudly.

    However, as the dust settled and she turned a corner, she was met with the tense scene unfolding below the mountain. She abruptly pulled on the reins, momentarily stunned. Perched atop her horse, she blinked blankly.

    "Urg—uh… What are you all… doing?"

    Due to the unexpected arrival of a messenger nun from Kunlun's Treading Snow Palace, Mo Ran and Huang Xiaoyue's confrontation was interrupted. Instead, Huang Xiaoyue was invited to the Summit of Life and Death by Xue Zhengyong, accompanied by Ye Wangxi and Nan Gongsi.

    Within the Heart-Dedication Palace, the celestial nun stood, her vermilion lips parting as she bowed before announcing:

    "Urgent news – Xu Shuanglin has been found."

    Upon hearing this, Ye Wangxi's face paled dramatically, all color draining from his cheeks.

    The nun continued, "Our sect released over ten thousand jade butterflies, which we've trained to track Xu Shuanglin's whereabouts. This morning, two of them returned, reporting unusual magical disturbances near Phoenix Mountain. Our Palace Master inferred that Xu Shuanglin might be hiding there and thus ordered us to swiftly inform all major sects so that we may discuss further actions."

    Xue Zhengyong was both surprised and delighted. "We found it already?"

    The Immortal Nun replied, "It's not certain, but the Jade Butterfly has reported a lingering aura of blood around Phoenix Mountain recently. The scent doesn't dissipate all day, and unusual phenomena have emerged. It's probably quite close to the truth."

    Xue Zhengyong slapped the table in excitement, "Excellent! Now that we have a lead, let's not delay any further; speed is of the essence in war. What is your Palace Master's opinion on this matter?"

    "The Palace Master and the Sect Leader share the same perspective. She also believes that there's no time to lose and that we should investigate the place as soon as possible."

    "Excellent!" Xue Zhengyong turned to Huang Xiaoyue and said, "Venerable Huang, why don't we go together? If we manage to seize the mastermind behind it all, Xu Shuanglin, I'll finally have the chance to avenge my brother's death."

    Huang Xiaoyue's heart skipped a beat. He was well aware that the chance of him personally slaying Xu Shuanglin was negligible, and the notion of revenge was merely an excuse.

    How much did his brother's death actually have to do with Nan Gongsi and Ye Wangxi, these two young upstarts?

    While he shouted slogans about avenging his brother, he harbored ulterior motives – knowing that the Jiangdong Sect had been weakened by this disaster, he had heard rumors of a hidden treasure within the Confucian Wind Sect. He planned to capture both Ye Wangxi and Nan Gongsi, forcing them to divulge their sect's secrets for his own gain.

    Beneath his sleeves, Huang Xiaoyue's hands clenched into fists. After weighing his options, he forced a wizened, tawny smile, akin to a shriveled orange, and said, "It's still uncertain whether the person on Phoenix Mountain is Xu Shuanglin. Moreover, the feud between the Jiangdong Sect and the Confucian Wind Sect has already been established. This isn't just a personal vendetta; it concerns the reputation of our sects. It must be settled properly."

    "That's true," Xue Zhengyong replied. "Should we first seek revenge against Xu Shuanglin for your personal grievance, then deal with the Confucian Wind Sect?"

    "Haha, amusing words from Sect Leader Xue," Huang Xiaoyue said. "The Confucian Wind Sect is now in ruins. Where am I supposed to seek retribution?"

    "I'm not sure about that," Xue Zhengyong smiled. "You'd have to ask Daoist Huang yourself. Why the urgency to eliminate these two young men when the Confucian Wind Sect is already nothing but rubble?"

    "You – !" Huang Xiaoyue's expression darkened as he swept his sleeves, rebuking, "This is a private matter concerning the Huang family."

    Xue Meng chuckled. "Just moments ago, you called it a matter of the sect's honor, a significant issue. Now it's a personal affair? As one of the top nine cultivation sects in the Upper Realm, how can the Jiangdong Sect act so impulsively?"

    Realizing he was in the wrong, Huang Xiaoyue didn't know how to respond, so he chose silence. He glared at Xue Zhengyong, then flung his sleeves and led a group of Jiangdong Sect disciples out of the Peak of Life and Death with an imposing air. At the forefront, he rode his sword towards Phoenix Mountain.

    Ye Wangxi was deeply apologetic as he said to Xue Zhengyong, "Headmaster Xue, I'm truly sorry. We—"

    "An inexperienced bird caught in a net is spared by the hunter." As he watched the Jiangdong Sect members depart, the smile on Xue Zhengyong's face faded, and his gaze turned cold. "Jiangdong Sect has gone too far."

    He gazed at the daylight beyond the grand hall, his brows furrowed with a faint crease. After a moment, he sighed. "Let's go. To Phoenix Mountain."

    The journey to Phoenix Mountain was long, so they chose to travel by sword flight. Upon arriving, they found a throng of cultivators already gathered at the foot of the mountain. The other nine sects had all assembled, their indistinct faces moving about busily, like a multitude of fish crossing a river, though no one knew what exactly they were doing.

    Chu Wanning was the first to descend from his sword flight, his steps slightly unsteady and his complexion very pale. Fortunately, his naturally pale face didn't betray any unusual signs, but Mo Ran noticed. He approached and, taking advantage of the lack of attention, gently brushed against Chu Wanning's hand.

    "Shifu, you flew exceptionally well."

    "Hmm?"

    Mo Ran smiled. "Really."

    Chu Wanning coughed softly and looked away.

    Looking up, they could see a thick layer of malevolent aura almost visible on the summit of Phoenix Mountain. The other eight headmasters had already arrived, standing at the forefront of the mountain base before a towering barrier. They were pouring spiritual energy into it, and Xue Zhengyong promptly joined them to assist.

    The disciples of Mount Death and Life arrived one after another. After a while, Xue Meng arrived, landing steadily beside the two. Taking in the scene before him, he immediately frowned and asked, "What's going on? Why aren't you climbing the mountain?"

    Upon seeing Xue Meng, Mo Ran explained, "We're not not climbing; we just can't."

    Xue Meng was rather puzzled. "Why not?"

    Chu Wanning spoke up, "Phoenix Mountain is one of the Four Demon Mountains of the cultivation world. This mountain is peculiar; it's not so easy to enter."

    Xue Meng was surprised. "I only knew about the Four Sacred Mountains. So there are also Four Demon Mountains? Which ones are they?"

    Chu Wanning replied, "Dragon Mountain, Armor Mountain—"

    Xue Meng was taken aback. "Fake Mountain?"

    "…Xuanwu's Armor."

    "Oh, oh." Xue Meng blushed. "Right."

    "Horned Mountain, and this one right here, Phoenix Mountain."

    Chu Wanning paused before continuing, "This is a dark chapter from the past of the cultivation world, seldom mentioned nowadays. One can only stumble upon records of the Four Evil Mountains in obscure texts."

    "Why would there be such things as evil mountains?"

    Chu Wanning didn't answer directly but asked Xue Meng, "Do you recall the tale of the Confucian Wind Sect's first sect leader subduing an evil flood dragon?"

    "I do," Xue Meng replied. "There was a malevolent dragon causing havoc in the East Sea, and he defeated it, sealing it within the Golden Drum Tower. He then made a blood pact with the dragon to serve him. After the first sect leader passed away, the evil dragon transformed into a hill, its tendons becoming the earth's mantle, its blood flowing as rivers, its bones turning into mountains, and its scales into trees. This mountain has guarded the graves of Confucian Wind Sect disciples throughout generations, thus named Hero's Tomb or Dragon Mountain."

    Chu Wanning nodded. "Indeed, so Dragon Mountain is the embodiment of the evil spirit of the Azure Dragon. As you know, the Four Auspicious Beasts are Azure Dragon, Vermilion Bird, White Tiger, and Black Tortoise. However, offspring with malevolent transformations can arise from these four. They cause chaos wherever they go."

    Xue Meng began to grasp the concept. "So the other mountains are also the spirits of malevolent beasts, just like Dragon Mountain?"

    "Indeed."

    Xue Meng ventured, "Then Phoenix Mountain... is it the Vermilion Bird?"

    He looked up at the colossal mountain shrouded in gloom, realizing that its central peak towering high while the sides sloped gently resembled a phoenix stretching its neck to sing.

    Chu Wanning confirmed, "Correct. Moreover, each of the Four Evil Mountains possesses unique malevolent magic. For instance, Dragon Mountain only permits descendants of the Confucian Wind Sect to lead others inside. Those who intrude without permission will be dragged into the ground by the vine-like tendons of the dragon, buried alive. The same applies to this Phoenix Mountain."

    "But it's so strange," Xue Meng turned his head to look at the sect leaders casting their spells, his father among them. "Everyone knows that Dragon Mountain belongs to the Confucian Wind Sect. So what about Phoenix Mountain? Wouldn't it be enough to just bring over the descendants of the sect that subdued the Vermilion Bird's evil spirit?"

    Mo Ran, who had been silent until now, spoke up, "That person died in an accident not long ago. If she were still alive, your suggestion would have worked."

    Xue Meng was taken aback. "You know who it is?"

    "I do," Mo Ran replied coolly. "It was a woman we all knew."

    The author has something to say:

    Mini-sketch: "Someone's Dying Tomorrow"

    Mo Ran: To build up excitement for the final battle, someone's going to die tomorrow.

    Xue Meng: It's not me.

    Nan Gongsi: It's not an important character.

    Ye Wangxi: It's just a minor role; maybe people have already forgotten who they are.

    Chu Wanning: I apologize, it was my fault for judging him/her too superficially. I should look beyond appearances, and I offer my apology.

    Xue Zhengyong: I believe no one would really feel sympathy for him/her.

    Madame Wang: After all, this person has even fewer lines than I do.

    Mei Hanxue: ...I initially didn't want to comment, but seeing the remark above, I feel compelled to clarify that the character with few lines is not me.

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