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    Chapter 216 - Dragon Mountain Falls into Servitude

    The vast Dragon Mountain returned to tranquility as the bloodthorn vines vanished, and the corpses manipulated by the precious chess pieces sank into the earth's depths. Nan Gongsi had given a death order to the spirit of the dragon, making it impossible for even its descendants to alter the outcome.

    Under the moonlight and clear breeze, the devastated landscape was illuminated.

    Nan Gongsi's Cloud Piercing Bow, after firing its final arrow, gradually lost its luster due to the depletion of Nan Gongsi's spiritual energy and eventually fell silent. As he dripped blood onto the ground, Ye Wangxi rushed over the moment the barrier dissolved, kneeling beside him. "Don't move, don't move around," she said, her voice trembling. "I'll heal your injuries..."

    "Nah, I was still able to jump around, but if you treat me, I'll probably end up meeting the Grand Sect Leader," Nan Gongsi coughed softly, pushing Ye Wangxi away. His black eyes turned to Jiang Xi. "Sect Leader Jiang, could you please...?"

    Jiang Xi nodded. "I'll do it."

    As the leader of the Medicine Sect, his aid would naturally surpass that of others.

    Jiang Xi's jade-white fingertips touched Nan Gongsi's wrist. Upon contact, his pupils narrowed slightly before he fell silent, gazing intently at Nan Gongsi.

    He could clearly sense that Nan Gongsi's spiritual core was shattered. From now on, he would be no different from an ordinary person, unable to cast spells or utilize spiritual energy.

    Nan Gongsi was undoubtedly aware of this, but with Ye Wangxi nearby, he looked at Jiang Xi and shook his head imperceptibly.

    "How is he? Leader Jiang, how's Si doing?"

    "..."

    Jiang Xi withdrew his hand in silence and then took out a light purple porcelain bottle from his Qiankun Bag, handing it to Ye Wangxi. "There's nothing major to worry about. None of his injuries are fatal. Miss, you can rest assured. Keep this powder and apply it to the wounds daily. He should fully recover within ten days at most."

    After saying that, Jiang Xi condensed spiritual energy into his fingertips, tapping several acupoints on Nan Gongsi's body before placing his palm over the sword wound, promptly stopping the bleeding. Done with his tasks, Jiang Xi stood up and addressed everyone, "It's not advisable to stay here for long. There might be unexpected changes. Let's ascend the mountain."

    As he turned to leave, he could still overhear the conversation between Ye Wangxi and Nan Gongsi.

    He heard Nan Gongsi whisper softly to Ye Wangxi, "I told you I'm fine. I'll be okay in a few days. Why are you still crying? Sigh, why have you become so useless? Alright, alright, it's just some minor injuries..."

    Jiang Xi closed his eyes briefly.

    Recalling the silent words Nan Gongsi mouthed when he believed his life was hanging by a thread inside the barrier, Jiang Xi sighed and led the group up the long white jade steps leading to the Celestial Palace of the Ancestral Shrine.

    Three more checkpoints needed to be passed on the way up the mountain, each requiring the blood of the Nan Gong family to proceed unobstructed. However, Nan Gongsi didn't need to cut his finger to shed blood at this point; his body was already covered in wounds, and any one of them would suffice to dispel the barrier's illusions.

    They continued upward without encountering any further obstacles.

    As Nan Gongsi smeared the blood on the white jade dragon's eyes, the final massive stone door slowly and solemnly descended into the earth, revealing the Celestial Palace atop Dragon Mountain to all.

    It was a divine palace shrouded in immortal aura, with a dense forest outside its gates. They now stood beyond the vines and flowers, listening to the gentle flow of water, and could glimpse a towering staircase stretching upward, consisting of nine thousand nine hundred and ninety steps. The staircase was so high that the summit's ancestral temple seemed to rest in the clouds, visible only as a hazy silhouette that shimmered under the moonlight like the Palace of the Moon or the Heavenly Palace, indistinguishable from heaven or earth.

    Almost everyone was initially awestruck by the grandeur and magnificence of the temple, its craftsmanship seemingly crafted by supernatural forces. Then came anger, envy, greed, and desire – a myriad of emotions surged within them.

    Among them, Ma Zhuangzhuang was most speechless.

    He slapped his forehead and cried, "My goodness, such a long staircase! And we can't fly our swords on Dragon Mountain – how long would it take us to walk up? It's another mountain!"

    Huang Xiaoyue chuckled. "I mean no harm, just joking around – in my opinion, Immortal Master Nangong Ying truly doesn't need to ascend. He can build a celestial palace like this. What difference is there between being in the mortal world and in the heavens?"

    Suddenly, someone said coldly, "The Confucian Wind Sect's Celestial Palace, constructed for the purpose of worship, was initiated by the third sect leader, Nangong Yun, and completed by the fifth, Nangong Xian. This palace has no connection to Nangong Changying."

    Huang Xiaoyue: "…"

    He turned to face Chu Wanning's extremely frosty expression. Mo Ran knew that Chu Wanning was nearing his limit and that another spark could ignite a repeat of the events in Butterfly Town when he had whipped someone with his Heavenly Questions whip.

    Chu Wanning said icily, "Like Immortal Master Huang, I offer a well-intentioned piece of advice without malice: one should learn to speak and act with caution before attempting to understand a book thoroughly."

    Huang Xiaoyue was always one to value his reputation. Being publicly exposed by Chu Wanning in front of so many juniors left him utterly embarrassed. His lips quivered as he prepared to retaliate, but then Jiang Xi spoke up: "Huang Xiaoyue, how dare you make light of Immortal Nan Gong's esteemed name?"

    With Jiang Xi's words, his authority and stance were clear. Huang Xiaoyue's face turned ashen, yet he tried to maintain composure with a forced chuckle. "Why take me so seriously, Sect Leader Jiang? I've already said I had no ill intentions..."

    "Am I supposed to tolerate your malice just because you claim it?" Jiang Xi's eyes flickered coldly as he glanced askance at Huang Xiaoyue, not even bothering to look him in the eye. "Am I supposed to endure your ignorance because of your age?"

    "..." Master Chu was a master, but ultimately, he wielded only skill, not actual power. Jiang Xi, on the other hand, was different. Now, a mere cough from Solitary Moon Night could send the entire cultivation world trembling. Huang Xiaoyue broke into a cold sweat and immediately held his tongue.

    Jiang Xi brushed off his sleeves and entered the forest with a chilly demeanor, heading for the long staircase at its end. The other sect leaders either glanced at Huang Xiaoyue with disdain or sympathy, while some simply ignored him altogether. They all followed suit, leaving without another word. The abbot of No Sorrow Temple murmured an "Amitabha," and if circumstances hadn't been so dire, Mo Ran might have genuinely laughed.

    As they walked through the woods, Nan Gongsi suddenly hummed, "Hmm?"

    Jiang Xi asked, "What is it?"

    "Orange trees..." Nan Gongsi looked around, noticing orange trees in every direction, their white blossoms in full bloom. "How can there be orange trees here? These used to be Dragon Lady Spirit Woods."

    "Look over there!" Before he finished speaking, a sharp-eyed junior pointed to a distant spring and whispered, "There's someone!"

    Following the junior's indication, they saw a man sitting with his back to them under a lush orange tree by the tinkling mountain spring, engrossed in some task.

    Xue Zhengyong frowned. "Is it a person or a ghost?"

    Mo Ran replied, "I'll take a look."

    He was exceptionally skilled in lightness kung fu. In the blink of an eye, he swiftly darted over and silently hid himself among the nearby trees. Then, he cautiously circled around to approach from the side.

    He was stunned.

    Because he had clearly seen the man's face.

    It was Nangong Si's father, the last sect leader of the Confucian Wind Sect – Nangong Liu.

    What was going on? Didn't Nangong Liu consume the Lingchi Fruit? ! He should have died after enduring a year of excruciating lingchi torture, but why did he now appear unscathed, relaxed, and even in a good mood, sitting by a clear spring...

    ...washing a basket of oranges??

    Ripples spread across the clear spring, reflecting the shimmering moonlight. Bathed in this glow, Nangong Liu wore a dream-like expression as he hummed a tune, draining the water from each washed orange before placing them into a basket beside him.

    "The prime of youth is most delightful, with swift steeds and light footsteps, one sees all the flowers at the edge of the world."

    Nan Gongliu hummed softly, his sleeves rolled up high, both arms submerged in clear water. His limbs were unblemished, without the scattered scars one would expect of someone who had consumed the Ling Li Fruit.

    Mo Ran's eyebrows furrowed into a frown, as if forming the character "Chuan" on his forehead. He could clearly sense that something was amiss with Nan Gongliu. It was evident that this person had been turned into a Zhenlong chess piece, and the corpses in the tomb were not the same as him. Nan Gongliu had apparently retained a significant portion of his own consciousness. Judging by his actions and demeanor, there was not much difference between him and a normal, living person.

    "How about it?"

    Xue Zhengyong, upon seeing Mo Ran return swiftly, immediately asked with concern.

    Mo Ran first glanced at Nan Gongsi, then whispered, "It's Nan Gongliu."

    Many present had grudges against Nan Gongliu, and immediately, a cultivator drew his sword with a swish, "That beast! I'll go kill him right now!"

    Nan Gongsi's gaze was dim, his complexion ashen, and he hung his head, saying nothing.

    Mo Ran remarked, "Something's off. This Nan Gongliu is clearly also under the control of the Precious Chess Game, but strangely, there's not a single scar on him indicating he'd consumed the Lingchi Fruit. I think it's best not to rashly provoke him."

    Chu Wanning pondered before asking, "Is the effect of the Lingchi Fruit reversible?"

    Solitary Moon Night was the master of such situations. Cold Scale Saint Hand said, "It's possible, but it would be rather troublesome. I don't think Xu Shuanglin would have given Nan Gongliu a Lingchi Fruit only to go through great lengths to lift its curse. That would make no sense."

    Jiang Xi replied, "Regardless, since Nan Gongliu is here, Xu Shuanglin must be in the Ancestral Temple. At least this time, our journey won't be in vain."

    As he spoke, he caught sight of a shadow moving in the distance. Jiang Xi turned his head, and the others followed his gaze. They saw the former leader of the Confucian Wind Sect emerging from the woods with a basket full of oranges on his back. He leaned on a staff, tapping the ground lightly as he walked briskly. As he drew closer, they could see a bright smile on his face.

    Nan Gongsi had decided not to look, but in the end, he couldn't resist. He lifted his gaze to his father, his eyelashes fluttering like dandelions in the wind. He couldn't describe how he felt—was it hatred, concern, or something else?

    He didn't know. He wanted to avert his eyes, but that figure was like a hook that had sunk deep and wouldn't let go.

    Suddenly, someone overwhelmed by emotion roared, "Nan Gongliu! Today, you'll pay with your blood!"

    With a whoosh, an arrow was loosed, aimed at the back of Nan Gongliu's head.

    It was too late for the others to intervene, but fortunately, the archer's aim was poor. The arrow veered slightly and pierced the basket on Nan Gongliu's back, skewering several round oranges.

    Many cursed inwardly. There were downsides to having a large group, as there were always a few troublemakers among them. But now, it was pointless to dwell on who had fired the sneak attack. What mattered was that Nan Gongliu had sensed their presence and slowly turned his head.

    Seeing so many people standing in the woods, Nan Gongliu was initially taken aback. Then, he started walking towards them, still wearing that ethereal expression.

    As he drew nearer, numerous cultivators had unsheathed their swords by several inches, their eyes fixated on him with intense wariness. Under the scrutiny of over a thousand pairs of eyes, Nan Gongliu seemed to finally sense some pressure. He halted, somewhat sluggish, and stood firm amidst the swaying shadows of the trees.

    "Gentlefolk..."

    The moment he spoke, the deathly stillness was shattered. Dozens of people couldn't resist and instinctively took a step forward; a few even had their swords fully drawn.

    Nan Gongliu suddenly broke into a smile, a face well-known to the few Sect Leaders standing at the forefront of the formation. It was the same ingratiating and enthusiastic grin he had once worn when facing them all.

    The Treading Snow Palace's Palace Master was taken aback. "This..."

    The sect leaders exchanged glances, all finding this turn of events perplexing. They had no idea what game Nan Gongliu was playing. At that moment, Nan Gongliu dusted off his sleeves, rolling them up, then unexpectedly knelt on both knees, bowing respectfully to the multitude of cultivators.

    "Oh dear, this lowly servant Nan Gongliu offers his apologies. Honored guests, I welcome you from afar, but I was remiss in not greeting you sooner—"

    With each bow, a good portion of the oranges in his basket tumbled out, scattering around him.

    After finishing his bows, Nan Gongliu remained kneeling on the ground and, without a hint of shame, set down his basket to gather the fallen oranges. Under the stunned gazes of everyone present, he picked up the fruit and rearranged them, then rubbed his hands together and smiled. "Honored guests, are you here to meet His Majesty?"

    His Majesty?!!

    Mo Ran instantly broke out in goosebumps. After all, he had been addressed this way for nearly a decade, and upon hearing the word "Your Majesty," he still instinctively felt it was meant for him.

    The other sect leaders, however, were utterly perplexed. They exchanged bewildered glances, and even Xue Zhengyong could only manage a wry smile. For a moment, no one knew how to respond.

    Nan Gongliu, noticing that he was being ignored, scratched his head in confusion and then cautiously asked again, "Heh heh, honored guests, are you perhaps here to pay a visit to His Majesty?"

    Jiang Xi: "..."

    Nan Gongliu appeared slightly discouraged but still persisted, "Honored guests, are you here to audience with His Majesty?"

    "..."

    "Greetings, esteemed--"

    Mo Ran asked calmly, "Who is His Majesty?"

    "His Majesty is His Majesty," Nan Gongliu replied, pleased that someone had finally acknowledged him. "If you wish to meet with him, you must ascend further. But he's quite busy and may not have the time for you. He has the affairs of the world to tend to."

    Xue Zhengyong couldn't hold back his laughter any longer. Despite the tense atmosphere, he burst out laughing. "The affairs of the world? Haha, what affairs of the world? Managing a mountain of dead people, playing chess with himself, and controlling marionettes – is that what he calls the affairs of the world? Ha ha ha, Xu Shuanglin, he's truly, too amusing."

    A shadow of unease lingered between Mo Ran's brows as he asked, "So you're saying that he's currently in the Heavenly Palace, even though he's busy. We can still go see him, right?"

    "That's right," Nan Gongliu said. "Of course you can meet him. If he's not receiving visitors, just wait in the city. His Majesty will come out himself once he's done. Enough chit-chat, I need to get back up there too. The oranges have run out again, and I have to replenish them quickly, or His Majesty will be upset."

    With that, he left, leaving everyone staring at each other in confusion.

    "What do we do now?"

    "Should we go up?"

    "Could this be a trap...?"

    But Mo Ran had already taken the lead, leaping upward. He moved swiftly, soon leaving Nan Gongliu, who was struggling to carry the oranges, and the others behind.

    He arrived at the Heavenly Palace, panting, and stood before the main hall's entrance. Looking up, he finally realized just how grand and magnificent the palace was. The double doors seemed to reach the heavens and block out the sun, engraved with bas-reliefs depicting the journey from the Underworld to the Heavens. On the left, a dragon coiled around the sun, while on the right, a phoenix swallowed the moon. The sun and moon shone together, radiating a dazzling light. The scales of the dragon's body were filled with molten gold, and the tips of the phoenix's feathers were adorned with pearls and jewels, trailing along the ground. Above the roof beams hung whale oil bronze lanterns with a thousand leaves, their flames never extinguished. In the glow of these countless candles, the gate to heaven shimmered with golden brilliance and flowing light.

    Mo Ran had expected the door to be incredibly heavy and difficult to open. But when his fingers brushed against its surface, it swung inward with a rumble, seemingly without requiring any additional effort...

    And in that moment, as he caught sight of the Heavenly Palace's forehall, Mo Ran stood frozen in place.

    What... What kind of surreal spectacle is this? !

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