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    Chapter 206: Master, Who Am I Really?

    Mo Ran sped through the surging tide of corpses, heading straight for the foot of the mountain. Once he was out of the barrier, his eyes immediately landed on Nan Gongsi.

    Nan Gongsi's bindings had been removed, and Ye Wangxi knelt beside him, tending to his wounds. Mei Hanxue, with her icy expression, sat calmly between Nan Gongsi and the Jiangdong Sect, a guqin before her as her fingers lightly plucked the strings, producing the sound of flowing water.

    Mei Hanxue was the eldest disciple of Kunlun's Treading Snow Palace, known to be elusive and unpredictable, with an unusual fighting style that shifted unexpectedly. One moment he would be utterly serious, the next he would display bizarre techniques that left people baffled.

    Thanks to him, despite their hatred for Nan Gongsi, the Jiangdong Sect members were powerless and could only sit obediently on nearby rocks, staring helplessly.

    Upon seeing Mo Ran, Mei Hanxue stopped playing, put away his qin, and rose, nodding slightly. His demeanor was extremely dignified and proper.

    "How was it up there?" Mo Ran asked.

    "It was all fake," Mo Ran replied.

    "Fake?" Mei Hanxue furrowed his brows slightly. The Jiangdong Sect members heard this and gathered around, while Huang Xiaoyue, lying in a pavilion nearby, feigning exhaustion with disciples massaging his legs and shoulders, couldn't resist narrowing his eyes and straining his ears to listen.

    Mo Ran said, "Xu Shuanglin isn't on this mountain; he's likely on Dragon Mountain. I—"

    Before he could finish, Nan Gongsi's face had paled, and he stared fixedly at Mo Ran. "Xu Shuanglin is on Dragon Mountain?"

    "Perhaps, but I can't be absolutely certain."

    Nan Gongsi was stunned for a moment, muttering, "…That's impossible. Dragon Mountain only obeys the orders of the Nan Gong family. Xu Shuanglin…."

    Suddenly, he recalled something and fell silent, his remaining color draining from his face as his dark eyes locked onto Mo Ran's.

    He had momentarily forgotten that Xu Shuanglin had originally been a member of the Nan Gong family.

    The Nan Gong clan, with its two branches, Yulu and Xuyu, had once been celebrated as brilliant young heroes. Everyone believed that under the leadership of these brothers, the Confucian Wind Sect would flourish like the sun at its peak. Who could have imagined that the end of these two brothers and the sect would come to such a pass?

    Nan Gongsi lowered his eyes in silence, no longer speaking.

    At that moment, others began descending from Phoenix Mountain, a throng of thousands returning to the foot of the mountain like a school of fish swimming upstream.

    Chu Wanning approached, with Xue Meng and Shi Mo following behind him. He looked at Nan Gongsi. "What happened to your hand?"

    "Nonsense, I did it to myself," Nan Gongsi replied. "Thank you, Grandmaster, for your great kindness."

    Xue Meng sighed. "Call him Master, not Grandmaster. Really, you don't even appreciate the respect Master shows you. You..."

    "I have never formally taken on a master," Nan Gongsi's cracked lips moved slightly. "Everything I've learned, I didn't learn from a grandmaster. My mother's request when I was young, Grandmaster, please don't take it to heart."

    Chu Wanning: "..."

    "Apologies. But I don't even remember the three bows of respect from back then."

    Before Chu Wanning could respond, Jiang Xi and the leaders of several other sects approached, accompanied by various followers. Unaccustomed to speaking privately in front of so many people, Chu Wanning pursed his lips and said no more, simply handing him a small jar of medicine from his Qiankun Bag.

    "Apply this externally every day, and you should recover within three days."

    He finished his brief instruction just as the others reached them.

    Huang Xiaoyue, supported by others, also stumbled over from the pavilion. The Jiangdong Sect would certainly not miss out on their share of the spoils.

    Now that Solitary Moon Night was the leader of all the sects, it was proper for Jiang Xi to speak first in such significant matters. But looking at Nan Gongsi, Jiang Xi was momentarily unsure what attitude would be most appropriate to adopt towards him—

    For years, the Confucian Wind Sect had tyrannized others, accumulating countless grudges with various factions. All these unresolved enmities would eventually fall on Nan Gongsi's shoulders.

    But what had Nan Gongsi done wrong? He hadn't taken the sword manual from Azure Pond Manor, nor had he been the one to demand exorbitant compensation. He didn't even know where the manual was... His father, Nan Gongliu, was guilty of numerous crimes; his death might have been a quick escape, but now everyone spoke of children repaying their parents' debts. Yet, how many people sitting here could claim to be truly innocent if that principle were applied?

    Moreover, this young man was currently the sole surviving member of the Nan Gong lineage and the key to unlocking the gates of Dragon Mountain.

    "You..."

    Jiang Xi began carefully.

    He only managed to get out a single "you" before someone nearby stammered, "Venerable Nan Gong, you must come with us. As they say, the one who tied the bell must also untie it. You can't ignore the mess left behind by the Confucian Wind Sect."

    Jiang Xi glanced over to see Master Xuanjing, the abbot of Wubei Temple. A cold sneer curled at the corner of his mouth as he thought to himself that this old monk, with his unclean six roots, was looking for an opportunity to make a show of himself.

    Nonetheless, Jiang Xi found this convenient since he wasn't skilled in social interactions. He lazily shut his mouth and stood aside, watching as Master Xuanjing leaned on his staff and lectured Nan Gongsi on Buddhist principles.

    Nan Gongsi barely listened before responding, "Sure, I'll go with you to Dragon Mountain."

    Master Xuanjing was surprised by his willingness to help open the Dragon Mountain barrier. After a momentary pause, he clasped his hands together and said, "Amitabha, it's admirable that you understand your responsibilities. If the gods and buddhas are aware, your sins will surely be mitigated."

    For a moment, Nan Gongsi seemed to want to say something, but he didn't. Nai Baijin whined mournfully from within his quiver, trying to crawl out, only to be silently pressed back in by him.

    "I journey to Dragon Mountain because I wish to prevent the Confucian Wind Sect's generations of heroes from becoming puppets, serving as tools for others' evil deeds," Nan Gongsi said with restraint. "But I appreciate your kind intentions in showing me the way forward."

    Thus, the key to unlocking Dragon Mountain has been found.

    However, the four demonic mountains each possess distinct characteristics that set them apart. Unlike Phoenix Mountain, for anyone intending to visit Dragon Mountain, whether they are from the Nong Gong family or any outsider brought in by them, there are two prerequisites they must fulfill.

    First, observe a fast for ten days.

    Secondly, when arriving at the Dragon Mountain, which is part of the Panshan Range, one must travel on foot. Flying on a sword or riding a horse is forbidden. One must sincerely climb over the first three mountains solely with their own two feet to demonstrate their devotion.

    Xue Zhengyong calculated the days and said, "It would take roughly ten days to reach the Panlong Mountains on horseback, coinciding perfectly with the end of our fasting. If none of you have pressing matters, there's no need to rush back to your respective sects for the fasting period. Let's journey together."

    The Treading Snow Palace's Palace Lord replied, "Very well, if we go together, we can discuss our strategy for what comes next."

    Xue Zhengyong remarked, "There are at least three thousand people here. Finding horses for everyone might be quite a challenge..."

    At that moment, a faint voice rang out from the crowd. A hand rose up, belonging to a man with a sly and unappealing appearance, dressed in a bright red brocade robe. The edges of the robe were embroidered with black patterns of prowling night cats: "I have some in my manor, it should be sufficient."

    "Lord Ma?" Jiang Xi's brows rose.

    This person was the head of one of the Nine Great Sects of the Upper Realm, "Peach Bud Manor," Ma Yun. On the meaningless list that Xue Meng had purchased, he ranked third in terms of wealth. However, with Nan Gongliu now deceased, he should be second in riches.

    Compared to Jiang Xi, Ma Yun seemed more down-to-earth, with a touch of a merchant's demeanor. Nevertheless, the two men's methods of accumulating wealth were distinct. Jiang Xi was ruthless and unconventional, dealing in precious treasures through the black market.

    On the other hand, Lord Ma had established numerous relay stations throughout the cultivation world, offering package delivery services and rentals of immortal horses, immortal boats, and spirit-powered carriages. Their manor was renowned for crafting agile vehicles and breeding strong livestock, earning Lord Ma the nickname "Guest Welcoming Horse."

    In front of the grim-faced Jiang Xi, Guest Welcoming Horse appeared somewhat cowed, shrinking his neck as he suggested, "Well... how about we head to Linling Island instead? Headmaster Jiang's stables must have more fine steeds than mine, hehehe."

    The crowd: "...."

    Jiang Xi gazed at his wrinkled smile for a moment before responding, "I merely appreciated Lord Ma's generous offer and had no ulterior motives. This place is closer to Peach Bud Manor, and it would be most convenient for Lord Ma to provide mounts for everyone."

    Hearing this, Lord Ma sighed in relief and smiled, "Then please make your way to my manor. It's already late, so why not stay the night and set off together tomorrow morning?"

    Peach Bud Manor stood by the banks of West Lake, nestled atop a solitary mountain. Though called a mountain, it was more like a small hill, requiring only half an hour to reach its summit.

    "We're here!" Lord Ma, brimming with enthusiasm, stood at the grand, bright red entrance to the manor and lifted his hand to dispel the protective barrier. "Please come in, come in, all of you."

    On their journey to Phoenix Mountain, the hearts of the various sect leaders were either restless or anxious, but Master Ma was as calm as ever, even managing to force a warm smile. Everyone exchanged glances and smiled bitterly, but no one said anything. The sect leaders went first, followed by the elders, then the direct disciples, and finally, the numerous disciples from each sect entered the barrier gate of Peach Bud Manor in an orderly line.

    Xue Meng whispered to Mo Ran, "What's up with this Host Ma? His smile is giving me goosebumps. Could he be in cahoots with Xu Shuanglin, trying to lure us into a trap?"

    "…No."

    "How can you be so sure?"

    Mo Ran replied, "The nine major sects' leaders and prominent figures are here. If he were truly Xu Shuanglin's ally, he wouldn't be able to do anything without exposing himself, given how cautious everyone is."

    "Then why is he so happy?"

    Mo Ran sighed. "He's happy because he's made a fortune."

    "What fortune? He's clearly making a loss on this deal." Xue Meng was confused. Like his father, he had no head for business. It was said that when he was young, Madame Wang had given him a silver leaf to exchange for smaller coins at a peddler's stall. Instead, he had returned with a small kite and three greasy copper coins, having been completely swindled. Yet, he thought the kite looked nice and believed he had bought something that brought him joy, so it was worth it.

    A person like him could never understand Host Ma's mind.

    After pondering for a while, he still looked puzzled. "Maybe you heard wrong. He said he'd lend us horses, not rent them to us. He isn't charging us a single coin—he—"

    At that moment, a low-ranking disciple from the guesthouse arrived to escort them. Mo Ran waved his hand, indicating that there was no need for further explanation. A smiling servant girl in a peach-colored jacket led them to the detached courtyard where they would be staying for the night.

    These rows of courtyards nestled against the mountain slope, with each one accommodating up to six people. As dusk fell, Mo Ran stood by his chamber's window, gazing at the distant mountains veiled in a chilly mist and the shimmering waters of West Lake.

    Since descending from Phoenix Mountain, Mo Ran had been restless and uneasy. Now, with the door closed, he allowed his agitation to surface fully. He stroked the window lattice with one hand while unconsciously rolling a smooth object in the palm of the other.

    The scenery in southern China was always picturesque, but he had no heart to appreciate it now. The setting sun cast a gloomy light, and if anyone were to see his expression at this moment, they would never believe him to be the upright and sincere Grandmaster Mo.

    This face belonged to the Tyrant Immortal Emperor of his past life.

    Malevolent.

    The fading sunlight pierced his light brown eyes.

    As twilight descended, Mo Weiyu's countenance transformed like a leopard's.

    The person who had been reborn behind Xu Shuanglin sent chills down his spine. It felt as if a knife was pressed against his neck, its edge piercing his flesh, drawing blood.

    But the blade didn't strike, and he couldn't turn around. He couldn't discern who stood behind him, ready to take his life at any moment.

    His mind was in chaos; he felt that his secret about being reborn couldn't be hidden for much longer.

    What would happen if the day of the decisive battle turned out to be the day the truth was revealed? How would his uncle and aunt view him then? How would Shi Mo see him? And Xue Meng?

    And Chu Wanning...

    If the events of his past life were exposed, how much hatred would Chu Wanning bear towards him? Would he refuse to even glance at him from that point on?

    Mo Ran's thoughts were in disarray, and the more he pondered, the colder he felt, down to his very bones—

    "…Clack."

    There was a sudden noise as the object in his hand fell to the floor.

    He picked it up in a daze, giving it a casual glance.

    The trinket was coated with a layer of dust, suggesting that this detached courtyard in Peach Bud Manor had been abandoned for quite some time and not tended to properly; there was even a film of dust on the floor...

    He paused.

    Mo Ran's face paled drastically.

    He suddenly realized what he was playing with—

    In the palm of his hand lay a dark, lustrous chess piece.

    A Jūnlóng Chess piece!!

    Mo Ran's expression turned ghastly!

    In his previous life, during the last two years before his demise, he had developed a habit. Whenever his emotions were convoluted and he felt immensely irritated, he would involuntarily gather spiritual energy into his palm, forming a tiny black chess piece that he would constantly fiddle with.

    This habit had terrified many attendants in the palace back then. Mo Ran had accidentally overheard their discussions about it, and they all believed that he must be enraged, that whenever he made a chess piece, it was a sign he intended to kill, to turn living beings into puppets.

    "They're so scared that His Majesty might throw out that chess piece in his hand at any moment."

    "To be honest, I'd rather watch him play with human skulls."

    "What are you all afraid of? I'm His Majesty's personal attendant; who knows how many times my knees have gone weak? How much spiritual energy does it take for the Emperor to make these game pieces? It can't just be for fun, right? He must have a purpose or need an outlet... What if that outlet happens to be me...?"

    Mo Ran found this both frustrating and amusing.

    He couldn't fathom how these chattering courtiers could be so certain about his intentions. Why did they feel entitled to psychoanalyze him?

    In truth, there was no hidden meaning behind his creation of these chess pieces; it was simply an eccentric hobby of Immortal Emperor Beyond the Void. But after overhearing their discussions, he sometimes amused himself by pretending to throw one of the precious chess pieces at a maid, causing them to beg for mercy with trembling legs. Maintaining his cold facade, he secretly chuckled at their reactions.

    That was the only joy in the last two years of his life.

    He had not focused on a game of Zither Pieces for a long time.

    It was as if subconsciously, he wanted to sever ties with his past self. Ever since his rebirth, Mo Ran had never used that spell again.

    Years had passed by in a blink of an eye; he thought he had forgotten that set of mental cultivation techniques, those incantations.

    But it turned out that he could never truly escape them—

    Sin had taken root in his soul.

    Mo Ran stared at the black stone, his palm trembling uncontrollably...

    He suddenly felt utterly hopeless—

    He suddenly didn't know who he was. Was he Heaven-Stepping Lord? Or Grandmaster Mo?

    He suddenly didn't know where he was... Was it by the West Lake? Or before the Wu Mountain Temple?

    He suddenly couldn't distinguish between dream and reality. He trembled, continuously trembling, as that small black stone reflected in his eyes like a heavy nightmare, like pitch-black stains of blood. A grotesque voice roared wildly within his skull:

    "Mo Weiyu! Mo Weiyu! You can't escape! You can't escape! You'll always be a villain, a vengeful spirit! A calamity star! Calamity star!!!"

    The words echoed like a thunderous pronouncement.

    "Knock, knock, knock." Suddenly, the door was rapped on.

    Mo Ran jolted awake, drenched in cold sweat. Gripping the chess piece tightly, he spun around and snapped, "Who's there?"

    "It's me," the voice outside replied. "Xue Meng."

    Author's Note:

    "The Peach Bud Manor of Jack Ma"

    Jack Ma: Welcome to Peach Bud Manor! Here, we offer a variety of unexpected immortal sect artifacts and trinkets. Now, let me introduce you to our brand ambassadors who will showcase some of our products!

    Xue Meng: Envious of couples? Longing for swollen lips from kisses? Fear not, Mama Wang's chili sauce grants you a breathtaking sensation akin to (cough) a passionate kiss. With Mama Wang's chili sauce, be prepared to experience life's spiciness to the point of questioning existence, lifting off the ground, and embracing bachelorhood.

    Shi Mo: In this world, there are no ugly young men or women, only those who do not attend to their grooming. To be beautiful, not a single strand of hair can be neglected. Shi Mingjing's Hair Conditioner offers you the chance to start anew from the very top. Come on, Lu Xiaokui, you are the best.

    Chu Wanning: No customer service. Purchase the cat directly and pay. Enjoy your cat-cuddling, and have a good day. The boss dislikes being at work; thus, the store operates one day and rests six. If you're not satisfied, hold your peace.

    Mo Ran: For your lord, I'll serve with unbridled dedication, applauding fervently, advancing powerfully, working tirelessly six days a week and resting only one. Endlessly entwined, I acknowledge you as my sole navigator throughout life.

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