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    Chapter 202: Master Meets the Demon for the First Time

    But after circling around the Red Lotus Water Pavilion several times, Mo Ran regained his composure and refrained from doing something reckless.

    It was too risky.

    This was the first time he was refining the Zhenlong Chess, and he had no idea about its effects. To rashly target the First Ancestor would be courting death.

    After much deliberation, Mo Ran managed to restrain his impulse and left the Red Lotus Water Pavilion. After careful consideration, he decided to cast the two Zhenlong black pieces on two junior disciples from the Peak of Life and Death – he needed multiple tests, and targeting disciples with unstable foundations would be the safest choice.

    It was a cool night, with darkness enveloping the mountain peak. Mo Ran moved swiftly, watching as the two young men who were just competing in skipping stones by the river froze. His hands trembled with nervousness, and his pupils constricted. Moonlight illuminated his pale face as he pursed his lips and stepped forward with a slight movement of his fingertips.

    This was the first time he was using such an unforgivable forbidden technique, and he was both excited and nervous.

    "Shhh—"

    The two men suddenly knelt down, but Mo Ran, like a startled bird or a murderer on the run, darted into the nearby bushes at the slightest sound, his heart pounding as if it were about to leap out of his throat.

    Thump, thump, thump.

    After a long while, he observed the two men kneeling motionlessly in place, their rigid forms untouched. Only then did his pounding heart gradually settle.

    His inner garment was drenched with cold sweat, and his scalp felt numb and taut.

    He stepped out.

    Once again, he stood beneath the moonlight by the riverbank, amidst the pebbles.

    This time, he was marginally more composed, though he still dared not breathe too deeply. He moved with the cautious stealth of a slithering snake in the night.

    Mo Ran lowered his gaze to inspect the two junior disciples before him.

    The pair, who had just been playfully bickering, now wore expressions as colorless as still water. They knelt motionlessly on the ground, and under Mo Ran's scrutiny, they did not lift their heads, remaining in that position.

    "..."

    Mo Ran attempted to move his fingertips again, invoking magic.

    The two disciples prostrated themselves, then rose, rolling their eyes. In the depths of their dark, abyssal irises, Mo Ran saw his own reflection.

    The reflection wasn't particularly clear, but for some reason, Mo Ran felt that he could see it with utmost clarity, noticing every tiny detail and leaving nothing unnoticed.

    He saw a ghostly figure standing against the full moon, its face pale with red eyes glowing.

    Mo Ran heard his own voice, trembling and hoarse as he cautiously inquired, "State your name."

    In response, a calm, unperturbed voice answered him, "My name is not mine to give."

    Mo Ran's heart pounded fiercely within his chest, his blood racing wildly. Swallowing hard, he continued to whisper, "Where am I?"

    "The place is not mine to choose."

    "What day is this?"

    "The year is not mine to decide."

    As a low-ranking black pawn under Juzhong Chessboard's control, there were three things that were not one's own: the name, the location, and the time.

    —All were determined by the Master.

    This is identical to what's recorded in the fragmented ancient text.

    Mo Ran trembled, and it was strange—when facing the two pawns he had created with his own hands, the dominant emotion he felt was not ecstatic joy, but sheer terror.

    What was he afraid of? He didn't know, but his heart was in turmoil, terribly so.

    He was aware that he had already stood at the edge of a precipice - no, he had already tumbled down, into the darkness, an endless abyss. He could see no bottom, no point of death, no end, no fire, no conclusion.

    It felt as if a soul was howling and screaming in agony within him, but it swiftly shattered, turning into powder, dissolving into remnants.

    Trembling, he reached out and gently touched the cheek of one of the chess pieces.

    He swallowed, but there was no saliva in his mouth; his lips were cracked. His handsome face contorted as he stared at his junior apprentice brother, then asked his final question: "What do you seek?"

    "My desire is to be your chess piece, to shatter into a thousand pieces without regret."

    "..."

    Mo Ran was no longer trembling.

    Everything around him suddenly became eerily quiet, cold and still like ice.

    With just two pawns, he had turned two junior disciples whose names he didn't even know into puppets under his control. They would go east if he said so, not west; they would engage in mortal combat at his command, showing no mercy to each other.

    He was their master.

    The Zhoulong Chess Game could manipulate lifeless objects at its weakest, but at its strongest, it could control living beings.

    Mo Ran's innate spiritual energy was domineering and fierce, and he possessed an exceptional talent for this art. In his first attempt, he had already managed to control two living cultivators, albeit young and inexperienced ones who had recently joined the sect.

    After the initial fear, Mo Ran felt an intense rush of excitement. It was as if a grand tapestry was unfolding before his eyes, filled with vibrant colors, pleasures, and treasures all within his grasp. Everything belonged to him.

    What he loved, he could hold tightly in his fist.

    What he hated, he could grind into dust.

    Mo Ran was ecstatic. His heart raced, but not from fear; rather, from the thrill of it all. The Zhoulong Chess Game! One of the Three Forbidden Arts!

    After countless failed attempts in secret, he had finally succeeded... He had done it... He had done it exceptionally well.

    The entire world would be within his grasp!

    With these black stones, he could accomplish many things that were once impossible. He could make the lands from the desert north to the southern Jiangnan region bow to his will!

    Before him was a dazzling array of colors, brilliant and mesmerizing.

    It was as if he could do anything, achieve everything. He...

    "Mo Ran."

    Suddenly, a familiar cold and deep voice interrupted his thoughts.

    It was like a basin of cold water, causing the grand pavilions and towers to crumble in an instant. He felt as if he had fallen from the clouds back down to the harsh ground, returning to the oppressive reality.

    Mo Ran slowly turned his head, his gaze bloodshot and fierce. Under the moonlight, he saw the cold figure of a man in white standing on the gravel.

    "..."

    Never before had he wished less to see Chu Wanning than he did at this moment.

    "What are you doing here?"

    Mo Ran's hand clenched into a fist, his lips pressed together in silence without answering immediately.

    Behind him stood two Jolinko chess pieces, imperfect replicas. If Chu Wanning were to approach and inspect them closely, he would certainly notice something amiss, exposing everything.

    Considering Chu Wanning's character, he might very well extract Mo Ran's tendons, shatter his legs, disable his spirit core, and then burn to ashes the ancient scrolls he had illicitly copied from the Book Collection Pavilion's forbidden area.

    Seeing Mo Ran's silence, Chu Wanning faintly furrowed his brow. His white silk shoes stepped onto the gravel, advancing forward by one step.

    But that was truly just one step. Afterward, he paused, looking at the two disciples standing strangely behind Mo Ran.

    No longer able to ignore the situation, Mo Ran softly curled the tip of his little finger, using almost all his willpower to inwardly roar out commands. Finally, the two disciples moved as he wished.

    One disciple laughed heartily, "This one was thrown too close. I'm sure my last throw was farther than yours."

    "You keep boasting. Anyway, you... Ah, Elder Yu Heng!"

    They acted as usual, playfully bickering as before. Upon seeing Chu Wanning, they even froze for a moment before the pair bowed to him in turn. Chu Wanning gave them a few looks, sensing something off, but not quite able to pinpoint it clearly.

    "Greetings, Elder."

    "Greetings, Elder Yu Heng."

    The two disciples suppressed their smiles, respectfully greeted Chu Wanning, and tactfully prepared to leave.

    Chu Wanning's brows remained knitted, his gaze fixated on the two chess pieces as they approached from the riverbank, drew near him, brushed past, and headed towards the bamboo grove... He stared at them for a long while before turning his head back to Mo Ran, who secretly let out a sigh of relief. But before he could fully exhale, Chu Wanning suddenly said,

    "Halt."

    "..." Mo Ran's expression subtly changed. His nails had already left red marks in his palms, but he kept silent, not uttering a single word. Instead, he quietly observed Chu Wanning's subtle expressions and every move he made.

    Addressing the two frozen figures, Chu Wanning said, "Return."

    With no other choice, Mo Ran steeled himself to obey the command, making the two chess pieces slowly walk back from the end of the bamboo grove and stand before Chu Wanning.

    Light clouds shifted, revealing a full moon.

    Bathed in the bright moonlight, Chu Wanning gazed at the faces of the two disciples. Suddenly, he lifted his hand, the tip of his finger touching the side of one's neck.

    Mo Ran fixated on Chu Wanning's expression, outwardly calm but with a racing heart.

    He knew that Chu Wanning must have sensed something amiss, which was why he suddenly reached out to check their pulses. Generally, novices in the art of manipulating Jingzhong chess pieces could only control corpses, not living beings. Though these two had been created directly from living individuals, Mo Ran wasn't certain if his work was flawless. He couldn't be sure if he had instantly killed them when he planted the black chess piece into their hearts.

    "..."

    After an unknown period of tension, Chu Wanning finally lowered his hand and brushed off his sleeves. "Let's go."

    Mo Ran felt the knife hanging over his neck shift away – Chu Wanning hadn't noticed. Heaven had been merciful, allowing him to cheat death under Chu Wanning's watchful gaze.

    After the two disciples left, Chu Wanning glanced at him and said, "It's quite late. Why are you here?"

    Mo Ran replied, "Just passing by." His tone was well-controlled; he didn't suddenly become friendly with Chu Wanning just because he had something to hide. Perhaps it was his cold and rebellious demeanor that made Chu Wanning, who should have been suspicious, purse his lips and fall silent for a moment.

    He didn't want to spend any more time with Chu Wanning and shifted his gaze away, starting to walk forward. But as they were about to pass each other, Chu Wanning suddenly spoke, causing Mo Ran to tense up instantly.

    "Someone has recently trespassed into the forbidden area of the Book Collection Pavilion."

    "..." Mo Ran didn't turn back, but a faint glint twisted in his eyes.

    "You should be aware that those scrolls contain forbidden techniques, each under the supervision of the Ten Great Sects."

    Mo Ran halted in his tracks. "I am aware."

    "One of the most crucial scrolls shows clear signs of having been tampered with."

    Mo Ran sneered. "What does that have to do with me?"

    He was putting up a tough front. He knew that the moment Tianwen was unleashed, its tendrils coiling around him in interrogation, all his wicked deeds and nascent demons would be laid bare before Chu Wanning's eyes.

    His grand delusions, his ambitions, would come to an end.

    Chu Wanning fell silent for a moment. "Mo Ran, how long will you persist in your obstinacy?"

    Frustration tinged his voice.

    "..." Mo Ran didn't respond, but he could almost predict what was to come.

    The fleeting glow of Tianwen's golden light.

    Anticipating Chu Wanning's righteous indignation, asking why he would commit such a bestial act, for in Chu Wanning's eyes, he was forever —

    "Are you even aware of how perilous the situation is?"

    Hopelessly beyond redemption.

    He still managed to complete the thought, albeit dryly.

    Then, almost in a daze, he turned his head to look at Chu Wanning's face, illuminated by the moonlight.

    With a pallid complexion, beneath his sword-like brows lurked an indistinct sense of restlessness. His eyes, as penetrating as flames, gazed upon him, yet failed to penetrate the depths or decipher anything.

    "If someone were to practice that forbidden technique, it would prove fatal. You weren't sleeping at this late hour and came to such a remote place instead. Do you wish to risk your life in vain?"

    "..."

    Chu Wanning's voice was low, almost growling through gritted teeth. "Has the Battle of Heaven's Rift, with all its countless deaths, not taught you the value of preserving life? Knowing that the fragmented scroll was stolen and read, how can you rest so easily?"

    Mo Ran remained silent, his dark brown eyes fixated on the other person.

    Fine beads of sweat covered his forehead, and as he gradually calmed down, even the breeze felt chilly against his skin.

    His body relaxed bit by bit, and an odd sensation swirled in his heart. In the end, Mo Ran almost broke into a smile. "Master..."

    Chu Wanning's phoenix eyes flickered slightly.

    Since Shi Mo's death, Mo Ran had never smiled at him again nor called him Master very often.

    With a slight smile, Mo Ran asked, "Are you... concerned about me?"

    "..."

    The smile bloomed even brighter.

    So bright that it was like a stabbing dagger—white going in, red coming out, piercing the chest with a thud, its blade glistening with blood droplets. He slowly bared his teeth like a malevolent ghost, resembling the venomous claws of a scorpion.

    "Battle of the Heavenly Split..." He chuckled. "It's excellent that you mention the Battle of the Heavenly Split, Master. What I learned from it doesn't matter; the crucial part is that you learned to care for someone."

    He saw the light in Chu Wanning's eyes tremble, struggling to maintain composure while unable to escape or retreat.

    Mo Ran's smile grew more outrageous, wild, and cruel.

    He invaded and ravaged, tearing and biting. He gnawed at Chu Wanning's throat bone, suddenly feeling an intense pleasure that made him burst into laughter. "Hahaha, excellent, truly excellent! What a fine trade—a nameless disciple for Master Chu's conscience. At last, Master Chu will remember the lives of those around him. Master, only today do I finally feel that Shi Mo died well."

    Even someone as composed and stern as Chu Wanning trembled slightly in the face of Mo Ran's crazed, vulture-like laughter.

    "Mo Ran..."

    "Shi Mo died well, died honorably, died with justice, died in his place!"

    "Mo Ran, you..."

    Stop laughing.

    Don't say anymore.

    But he couldn't speak, Chu Wanning couldn't say it. He couldn't beg for mercy or plead, nor could he reprimand this near-mad disciple from on high and say — You're wrong, it's not that I didn't want to save him, it's just that I no longer have the strength.

    I've suffered the same injury; any further drain on my spirit energy would turn me into bones in a grave, a soul beneath the earth.

    He found himself unable to speak.

    Perhaps it was because such a confession seemed too vulnerable.

    Or perhaps it was because he sensed that in Mo Ran's heart, even if his Master were dead, he would still be insignificant, never amounting to the gentlest Shi Mingjing who had treated him with kindness.

    Thus, Chu Wanning ultimately managed only to suppress the quiver in his voice, speaking in a low and deliberate tone: "Mo Weiyu, how long will you continue this madness?"

    "..."

    "Go back."

    Rage boiled with sorrow, filling his throat with bitterness and saltiness.

    "Shi Mingjing didn't die for a madman like you."

    "Master is mistaken," Mo Ran said with a cheerful smile. "How could Shi Mo's death bring back someone like me?"

    He was like a venomous serpent, a bee, or an ant, gnawing at one's heart.

    "In exchange for his death, it was clearly you, Master, who returned."

    The bee stinger pierced flesh.

    Watching Chu Wanning's ashen face, he derived a painful pleasure. He goaded and ridiculed him with reckless abandon, tearing his own heart to shreds, making Chu Wanning wish he were dead.

    Excellent.

    They would both descend into hell together.

    "I want to go back too," Mo Ran smiled calmly, his dimples deep like they held poisonous wine. "I don't want to wander around in the middle of the night. But his house is right across from mine."

    Mo Ran didn't specify who 'he' was, using the pronoun instead.

    This intimacy torturing Chu Wanning even more.

    "The light in his room will never shine again."

    Chu Wanning closed his eyes.

    Mo Ran smiled, and after a long while, his expression gradually calmed. "I want to ask for a bowl of wontons, but I can't anymore."

    For a fleeting moment, Chu Wanning's eyelashes fluttered, and his lips moved slightly as if he wanted to say something.

    But Mo Ran didn't give him the chance to speak, nor the courage. With a hint of mockery, Mo Ran said, "Shifu, when it comes to wontons, the people of Sichuan are the experts. They must be prepared with chili oil, Sichuan pepper, and nothing less. All things you detest. I appreciate your intention in wanting to cook another bowl for me back then. But I know without even tasting it that there's only one word to describe what you make."

    Chu Wanning still hadn't opened his eyes, his brow slightly furrowed.

    As if by doing so, he could avoid the piercing words.

    "I haven't read much, but fortunately, I recently heard Xue Meng mention a phrase that I think fits Shifu's wontons perfectly."

    What was it?

    Futile effort?

    Useless endeavor?

    Chu Wanning frantically searched within himself, like someone rushing to find a suitable armor, seeking the harshest word to shield himself from humiliation.

    Worthless?

    Mo Ran still didn't respond, savoring the word on his lips.

    Yes, worthless.

    Chu Wanning was convinced there was no colder term than that.

    He composed himself.

    Until he heard Mo Ran speak calmly, "Imitation of Dong Shi."

    He opened his eyes, almost in a daze.

    He had never imagined the other could be so vicious. Under his sleeves, his hands trembled delicately.

    Kneading dough, seasoning, filling...

    Following "Sichuan Food Chronicles" meticulously, flour dusted his face as he read every word. The wontons he made evolved from crooked to perfectly round and charming.

    He had always been studying diligently, constantly striving to grasp its essence.

    Yet, those four words were all it took to change everything.

    Imitation of Dong Shi.

    The moonlit riverbank shimmered with silver, and Mo Ran gazed at him. Chu Wanning stood there for a moment before suddenly turning and leaving without a word.

    For some reason, Mo Ran felt that his departure that day was hurried, lacking the composure and calmness of old—it was as if he had been defeated or was fleeing.

    An inexplicable uncertainty stirred in Mo Ran's heart. Frowning, he watched Chu Wanning's retreating figure. Just as that figure was about to vanish, he finally called out, "Wait!"

    Author's Note: Be cautious when fighting dogs; they have high attack power. It's recommended to team up.

    I've saved my draft for today, and I won't be able to reply to all the comments later. Today, after writing the draft, I wrote 6,000 words but deleted 4,000... Nothing seemed satisfactory, my head hurts. I'm out of energy, bye for now.

    Episode Zero Point Five: Why do I feel like the Zhenlong Chess Game resembles a very modern activity?

    Episode Two Point Zero: Please elaborate.

    0.5: ... Collecting various human and animal figurines, and then engaging in pretend play.

    2.0: Hahahaha, so you're a obsessed otaku? No wonder you're 3cm shorter than me!

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