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    Chapter 205: Master, A Great Calamity Approaches

    Several people approached to investigate and dragged the body out of the bushes. It was a charred corpse, burnt so badly that it was obvious it had once struggled in a sea of flames. Its features were completely liquefied, making it impossible to discern any facial details. Only by its physique and the unscathed snow silk clothing could one determine that she had been a woman in life.

    Chu Wanning hovered his hand above the corpse, closed his eyes to probe, and then said, "There's no trace of a Precious Chess piece."

    Someone murmured, "How strange. Xu Shuanglin created an entire mountain of Precious Chessboard formations. Could this be the one he missed?"

    Someone immediately retorted, "Have you ever seen a missing corpse left alone on a mountaintop?"

    Mo Ran approached the female corpse as well, scrutinizing it meticulously. As the master of the precious chess game in his previous life, he was well aware of certain constraints of this spell. Thus, he had a fairly confident guess about the corpse's identity, but he needed some evidence to confirm it.

    The evidence came swiftly.

    Mo Ran plucked a blackened bracelet from her wrist, wiping away the grime to reveal faintly pink spirit stones beneath.

    Handing the bracelet to Jiang Xi, he said, "Song Qiutong."

    "…How did you…" Jiang Xi started, holding the bracelet, then realization dawned upon him. "You recognize this bracelet?"

    "It was my wedding gift to her," Mo Ran said succinctly. "Song Qiutong is the heir of Song Xingyi, and the Butterfly Bone Beauty clan, who tamed the Phoenix demon, holds the key to unlocking the forbidden grounds of Phoenix Mountain."

    Someone asked, "Did Xu Shuanglin kill Song Qiutong and use her as the key to open the gates of Phoenix Mountain?"

    Mo Ran shook his head. He gazed at Song Qiutong's face for a long moment, not quite with pity, but with a subtly complicated emotion. "No, I suspect she was still alive when he brought her up the mountain."

    "How so?"

    This time, before Mo Ran could respond, Jiang Xi spoke up. Perhaps to salvage his own dignity, upon encountering a question he could easily answer, Jiang Xi didn't intend to let the younger generation steal the spotlight. He said coolly, "To issue orders to Phoenix Mountain."

    Mo Ran gave him a glance and thought to himself that this was for the best. If he revealed everything, it would only make it harder to defend himself in the future. So, he stepped aside and yielded his position to Jiang Xi, allowing him to speak.

    Someone asked, "Orders? How can a weak woman like Song Qiutong issue any commands?"

    "Though she may be weak, her ancestors might not have been. The vengeful phoenix spirit on Phoenix Mountain only obeys the bloodline that tamed it," Jiang Xi explained, not an idiot. "Song Qiutong is the last descendant of that bloodline."

    The man gasped, "Ah, so it was the Butterfly-Boned Beauty Xi who tamed the vengeful phoenix spirit?"

    "That's right."

    "That's something I've never heard before..."

    Jiang Xi said, "It's normal not to have heard of it. Aside from guarding, the Four Evil Mountains don't serve any other purpose. So whether or not they can be activated, and by whom, doesn't really matter to anyone. Song Qiutong was previously homeless and was used as an auction item. She probably didn't know she could hide on Phoenix Mountain... She likely hasn't even heard of her ancestors subduing the evil phoenix spirit."

    "So... it was Xu Shuanglin who brought her here?"

    "It should be so," Jiang Xi continued. "When the Confucian Wind Sect was engulfed in flames, everyone fled for their lives. No one would return to the main hall to care for that helpless woman. The only one who could have cared for her was Xu Shuanglin, or perhaps someone behind Xu Shuanglin."

    Xue Zhengyong pondered this and nodded. "Since the person behind the scenes could tear open a spatial rift to take Xu Shuanglin elsewhere, it would have been effortless for them to bring Song Qiutong along. Let's hypothesize - he brought her to Phoenix Mountain. Song Qiutong is naturally drawn to power, so once she found this lifeline, she'd follow orders without question. At that point, all the person needed to do was bring her to Phoenix Mountain and order her to give commands to the mountain, and she wouldn't refuse."

    Someone asked, "But why didn't he use the JEWEL chess piece to control Song Qiutong?"

    "Because the evil phoenix spirit can tell if the one giving orders has been manipulated," Jiang Xi explained. "The mountain will only heed its master's call if they're alive and willing."

    Everyone slowly understood the implications. Someone exclaimed, "Then what are we doing here? Haven't we fallen into his trap and ended up behind the scenes? And because of this damned Phoenix Mountain mantle, we can't get rid of these soul-devouring worms... What should we do now?"

    Jiang Xi frowned, seemingly displeased with Mo Ran's metaphor of "front stage" and "behind the scenes." However, he continued, "Find the 'front stage' and destroy Xu Shuanglin's puppets directly."

    "Grandmaster Mo."

    After Jiang Xi finished speaking, he suddenly called out to Mo Ran. Mo Ran, who had been standing nearby with his arms crossed, listening attentively, was slightly startled upon hearing his name.

    "Mm? What is it?"

    Jiang Xi spoke softly, "Grandmaster Mo just analyzed the situation so eloquently. Now, I have another question for you. Where is the stage, and how do we find it?"

    Mo Ran: "...Try summoning a ghost?"

    "Try... what?"

    Mo Ran coughed softly, and a flame ignited in the palm of his hand. The willow vine shot out suddenly, and he said, "This is it. It's called 'Summoning a Ghost.'"

    Jiang Xi: "..."

    Just like 'Heaven's Inquiry,' 'Summoning a Ghost' had the ability to interrogate. It could question the living, the vengeful spirits, and even the corpses of those whose souls had left their bodies. The difference was that when questioning the living or the dead, it made them speak, while when questioning a spirit, it communicated directly with the soul.

    Song Qiutong had been dead for more than a month, and her soul was long gone. Fortunately, the Phoenix Mountain was rich in Yin energy, and her corpse had not yet rotted. Mo Ran whispered, "Summoning a Ghost, interrogate."

    With a sudden rustling sound, the willow vine immediately obeyed the command, spreading its branches and leaves to wrap around Song Qiutong's corpse three times. Her body began to emit a dazzling red light.

    The crimson light flickered in Mo Ran's eyes as he tried to ask, his voice deep, "Was it Xu Shuanglin who brought you here?"

    Song Qiutong's charred face made her features indistinguishable, and she remained still for a moment.

    Someone whispered softly, "Doesn't seem to be working."

    Mo Ran narrowed his eyes and interrogated again, "Was it Xu Shuanglin who brought you here?"

    Still no response.

    Jiang Xi said, "Looks like Grandmaster Mo is still too young. Perhaps it's time for your master to take over."

    But right then, Song Qiutong's neck suddenly moved! Her movement was stiff and extremely slow, but also unmistakably noticeable as she shook her head.

    Xue Zhengyong exclaimed, "Not Xu Shuanglin?"

    Mo Ran gripped the cursed object tightly, veins protruding slightly on the back of his hand. He asked again, "Then, did you see clearly who brought you here?"

    After more silence, Song Qiutong abruptly opened her mouth. But instead of answering, a long, slimy snake slithered out with a plop, hissing as it crawled across the ground.

    One of Solitary Moon Night's disciples immediately recognized it: "She has a Word Devouring Snake in her belly!"

    The Word Devouring Snake, an evil beast, was venomless but covered in spirit armor. It could survive within a person's intestines for over two decades.

    Many sects in the Upper Realm also utilized this kind of snake, specifically for their covert agents to ingest. From then on, those agents could only speak the truth to the snake's master, while answering others with lies or half-truths. Otherwise, the snake would awaken from its slumber and instantly tear apart its host's organs, slash their throat, and shred their tongue.

    The damned red glow suddenly vanished. Song Qiutong's entire body trembled as she shook her head continuously. A large clot of dark red blood oozed from her mouth, looking like mashed organs, a tongue, and a throat.

    She could no longer utter a single truthful word.

    Everyone fell silent. Suddenly, someone suggested, "If she can't speak, why not let her write it down?"

    The moment Mo Ran saw the Word Devouring Snake, he realized that the mastermind behind this was meticulous and far beyond the capabilities of ordinary people. Nevertheless, he stepped forward and lifted Song Qiutong's hands for a closer inspection.

    Xue Zhengyong asked, "What do you think?"

    Mo Ran shook his head. "Her tendons and bones have been severed. She can't write anything at all."

    The crowd drew even closer. Suddenly, an eerie gust of wind blew past, causing the leaves in the forest to cackle sinisterly. The wails and mournful cries of zombies echoed near and far. The atmosphere atop the mountain peak became stiff and bizarre to the extreme. The silence was shattered by the owner of Peach Bud Manor, Ma Yun, who said, "I-I suppose the trail goes cold then?"

    Silence reigned.

    Mo Ran withdrew his Ghost-Seeing Spell. Song Qiutong's lifeless body flopped limply to the ground.

    Soon, vines from Phoenix Mountain slithered over, gently wrapping around her corpse and dragging it into the bushes as if to preserve her within the small shrubs.

    He had actually been puzzled earlier as to why Xu Shuanglin and the others didn't simply kill Song Qiutong and burn her remains but instead went through the trouble of severing her meridians and feeding her to the Swallowing-Tongue Snake. But seeing this scene, he suddenly understood:

    Phoenix Mountain obeyed the Butterfly-Bone Beauty Clan from birth to death. As long as her body remained on the mountain, the vengeful spirit of the phoenix wouldn't allow anyone else to cremate its master and turn her into ashes.

    Mo Ran was momentarily at a loss for how to feel. He suddenly thought of his past self. When he died, no one had buried him; he'd had to crawl into his own pre-dug coffin before his last breath. In the end, it hadn't mattered, as the righteous soldiers who stormed the mountain would have torn him apart anyway.

    In his previous life, his death had probably been even more miserable than Song Qiutong's. Right until the end, there hadn't even been a vine that wanted to protect him.

    Many people nearby were whispering to each other, frowning in contemplation about what to do next. Some, like Jiang Xi and Chu Wanning, had their eyes closed, deep in thought.

    Mo Ran shut his eyes too, sorting through everything that had just happened. This brutal approach was eerily similar to his former self. Perhaps because of this, Mo Ran felt that guessing Xu Shuanglin's thoughts and actions wasn't so difficult.

    He could see Xu Shuanglin pacing back and forth in his Three Lives Courtyard, barefoot. Xu Shuanglin was thinking, asking himself: Without sufficient spiritual energy, how can I control the corpses of these cultivators?

    Then an idea struck him —

    He could use the Shared Heart Formation to kill the same number of ordinary people. Each cultivator would be connected to a common corpse, like marionettes at his command.

    Where was the safest place to carry out such acts?

    At one of the Four Evil Mountains.

    What if he couldn't open the barrier on Phoenix Mountain?

    He would bring Song Qiutong's corpse with him.

    All the scattered clues began to connect swiftly in Mo Ran's darkening gaze as he pondered.

    Where would the common folk's corpses come from?

    —From Lin Yi, consumed by flames.

    Although they were all speculations, each piece fit together. The light in his eyes flickered, revealing his merging identity with Xu Shuanglin; he felt as if he were Xu Shuanglin, and Xu Shuanglin was him, standing atop Phoenix Mountain, scanning the raging sea of corpses below with almost maniacal intensity.

    It grew clearer and more distinct, until it suddenly paused at a critical point.

    If he were Xu Shuanglin, after accomplishing all this, would he not set up his "stage" to perform the puppet show he had meticulously orchestrated?

    But where would be an ideal location for that "stage"?

    Where could one find a significant number of powerful cultivator remains, undetected and protected?

    The brightening sky dimmed abruptly.

    "Dragon Mountain…" he murmured.

    Jiang Xi glanced at him. "What?"

    Mo Ran's expression shifted. He looked eastward, suddenly seething with anger. "Dragon Mountain! The Tomb of Heroes! – He chose Dragon Mountain's Tomb of Heroes as his stage! Most of the victims in the Lin Yi disaster were commoners; Xu Shuanglin could obtain their corpses but not those of more powerful cultivators! – The Tomb of Heroes!"

    Jiang Xi caught on. "You mean Xu Shuanglin is summoning the remains of Confucian Wind Sect cultivators buried in the Tomb of Heroes over the past few centuries?"

    Mo Ran was too lazy to engage in further banter; he cursed inwardly and swiftly darted downward the mountain, running at breakneck speed.

    Xu Shuanglin was truly a madman! The Heroes' Tomb held the remains of generations of Confucian Wind Sect's leaders, even the first founder who had ascended to immortality. It was one thing to control ordinary cultivators with a mind-linking formation, but these individuals?

    Should Xu Shuanglin's magical power falter, these powerful bones would rebel and break free. At that time, Xu Shuanglin would suffer backlash and die violently, while the strongest army of undead from the Confucian Wind Sect's centuries would run amok, causing a catastrophic disaster comparable to the splitting of the Netherworld Hell!

    Author's Note:

    "Live Argument Scene"

    Xu Shuanglin: Why do you understand me so well?

    Second Dog: Only a rogue can understand another rogue.

    Xu Shuanglin: Why do you understand me so well?

    Second Dog: Only a pervert can understand another pervert.

    Xu Shuanglin: Why do you understand me so well?

    Second Dog: Only a genius can comprehend another genius.

    Xu Shuanglin: ??? You're calling yourself a genius? Are you shameless?

    Second Dog: You plagiarized my Mind Synchronization Array! And you still have the nerve to ask if I'm shameless?!

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