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    Chapter 217: The Nightmare on Dragon Mountain

    He walked down the long central aisle of the Heavenly Palace's forecourt, where every brick and stone under his feet gleamed like polished mirrors, as thin and translucent as ice, reflecting his figure.

    Tap. Tap. Tap.

    Each step echoed hollowly in the vast emptiness of the hall.

    But Mo Ran was not alone. He stood in the middle of an endless aisle in the Confucian Wind Sect's forecourt, surrounded by countless people on both sides – men, women, old and young, with faces bearing diverse expressions.

    He stood at the center, and this place was like a tiny city. On his left, the corpses of the Confucian Wind Sect members who had wronged Xu Shuanglin were degraded, subjected to cruel tortures, sliced apart, and then resurrected only to be killed again. On the other side, there was merriment and carefree joy.

    He even saw Luo Xianxian. It wasn't her true soul but an illusion created from another corpse, manipulated by the Blackened Sun, just like the flood dragons under Jin Chengchi's command.

    Luo Xianxian's hair was elegantly coiled up, and she was currently with her husband, Chen Bohuan. The two of them looked comfortable and relaxed.

    He also saw the younger daughter of Master Chen sitting beside her brother and sister-in-law, chatting with them cheerfully. Meanwhile, Luo Xianxian leaned on Chen Bohuan. When she heard something amusing, she would cover her mouth with her sleeve and laugh, her eyes curved in delight.

    This scene was beautiful and surreal, yet it sent shivers down Mo Ran's spine.

    He strolled down this long corridor, where half was hell and half was heaven, with good and evil distinctly divided. To his left, laughter and joy abounded, while to his right, anguished cries echoed.

    Moving forward, he seemed to traverse the realms of water and fire, light and shadow. Glancing left, he saw a hundred butterflies fluttering amidst blossoming flowers, a stream trickling from behind a pillar, carrying clear liquor. Beside the wine river, some lounged leisurely with books in hand, others recited poetry and composed verses, children laughed, and women lay drunk amidst clouds of silk.

    To his right, cauldrons boiled fiercely, hot oil sizzled, as writhing bodies were drenched in scalding liquid, tongues ripped out, hearts pierced. People cursed each other, tearing at one another with ferocity, their eyes gleaming with feral coldness.

    He also spotted the former abbot of the Weeping Buddha Temple, that old monk who had orchestrated the corruption of the Spirit Mountain Congress. Surrounded by three figures, each holding a rusted cleaver, they were slicing his face, legs, and brotherhood in turns. Again and again, the flesh would heal only to be cut anew, causing the old monk to scream in agony. But all that came out was an indecipherable roar - his slanderous tongue had been violently torn away.

    The further Mo Ran walked, the more chilled he felt to the bone.

    He no longer wished to look either side, to witness tears, laughter, fury, or joy.

    To his left, a woman softly recited, "Life and death, a lonely fate. Lovers cannot call out to their beloveds..."

    To his right, a woman was being torn apart by vicious dogs, her shrill screams piercing the air.

    Half of his peripherals beheld brightness, the other half, darkness. These extremes were absolute, like chess pieces on a board, black and white in stark contrast, good and evil clearly demarcated.

    Mo Ran felt his head throb with pain.

    He stood motionless in the center, deciding to close his eyes and refuse to witness the fusion of celestial heavens and infernal realms any longer.

    There, he waited for the main group, whose pace was slower than his, to catch up.

    "The falling leaves disrupt my dreams, leisurely pacing amidst fragrant dust to count the fallen blossoms..."

    "No! Please don't treat me like this anymore! I beg you... Save me... Save me..."

    Yet, the voices from both sides persisted, piercing through like arrows, embedding themselves deeply.

    He heard Luo Xianxian's gentle words to her husband, "Chen, the orange flowers in the courtyard have bloomed. Would you like me to show them to you?"

    He heard the former leader of Jiangdong Sect, Qin, laughing maniacally, "Adultery? Hahahaha, yes, I did commit adultery with Nan Gongliu! I am a wanton, a harlot, a slut, a poisonous woman - I killed my own husband, and I want to be the leader - hahahaha, come and see my true face, all of you. Look at how ugly and despicable I am, ah hahahaha..."

    Everything seemed to converge in that moment.

    The living and the dead.

    Reality or illusion?

    Is it black or white? Good or evil?

    The voices around him swelled like tidal waves, and amidst the ebb and flow, he seemed to see two massive dragons bursting forth from the water, their scales glistening coldly under the moonlight.

    Were they malevolent dragons?

    No, they were his two souls.

    They had begun fighting again, roaring and spewing dragon fire as they fiercely clashed and bit at each other.

    The earth shook, mountains trembled.

    Mo Ran couldn't tolerate this madness; he covered his ears, but still could not block out the cacophony of noise. Finally, unable to endure it any longer, he was about to cast the Silencing Spell.

    He snapped open his eyes.

    Everything around him vanished.

    Mo Ran was stricken with fear.

    He stood frozen—what was happening? Why had everything around him vanished?

    Where was he?

    Why was it all pitch black, an endless expanse of darkness...

    Was this an illusion created by Xu Shuanglin?

    Mo Ran looked around but saw nothing but darkness.

    He took a few steps and called out tentatively, "Master?"

    "Xue Meng?"

    "Is anyone there?"

    No one answered him. The silence was as black as death.

    Despite having weathered countless storms, this kind of darkness still sent shivers down his spine. He walked forward, feeling goosebumps rise on his arms as he proceeded...

    Suddenly, he noticed a faint beam of white light in the distance, seemingly indicating an exit.

    He headed toward it.

    Figures began to materialize around him, their faces indistinct, but he could hear their murmurs, like a tidal wave of voices kneeling before him.

    They chanted in grandeur, their voices deep and resonant, forming a river of praise:

    "Blessings upon Emperor Heaven-Stepping, whose life equals the heavens."

    Emperor Heaven-Stepping?

    No... No!

    He shuddered, trembled, and felt a chill run down his spine. He pushed forward with all his might, yet it seemed as if countless hands were reaching out from every direction, attempting to seize him.

    "Your Majesty—"

    "Heaven-Stepping Lord, your grace extends for eternity."

    "Endless lifespan, boundless fortune."

    Mo Ran was pushed to the brink of madness. He struggled with all his might to break free from those invisible hands, dashing towards the sliver of light. "No, it wasn't me... Get away... All of you, get away!"

    "Heaven-Stepping Lord..."

    But those voices pursued him relentlessly, impossible to shake off. Mo Ran began to wonder if Xu Shuanglin had summoned the vengeful spirits and malevolent ghosts from the Netherworld to hunt down this escaped fiend.

    "Why does Your Majesty wish to leave?"

    "Empyrean, Empyrean..."

    Mo Ran stumbled in his steps. His eyes blazed with a fierce light. He wanted to escape, but all the vengeful spirits trapped him, leaving him cornered and with nowhere to hide. In a sudden burst of fury, he spun around, drawing his sword to slash at the apparitions, shattering them into fragments of darkness.

    His face contorted, resembling a wolf or a leopard, almost ferocious.

    "Scram!!" he roared. "All of you, get out of my sight! scram, all of you!"

    As his voice faded, his expression turned ghastly.

    He heard whispers and giggles around him: "Your Esteemed Self?"

    "He said Your Esteemed Self... yes... he's talking about Your Esteemed Self..."

    "Empyrean, where have we gone wrong? You yourself know who you are and where you came from. There's no escape for you."

    Mo Ran retreated with his sword in hand, shaking his head. "No, it's not... it's not like this..."

    The fragments of black smoke he had slashed apart reassembled, forming a vague shadow that slowly descended before him, advancing step by step.

    The shadow spoke softly, "What's not like what?"

    "I'm not Heaven-Stepping Lord!"

    "How can you not be Heaven-Stepping Lord?" The voice was ethereal and gentle, like the delicate smoke rising from a summer silk veil, "Of course you are. Guilt has its head, debts have their master. Only you can't escape this..."

    "But it's over!" Mo Ran stared intently at the dark silhouette, "It's over! Heaven-Stepping Lord died long ago in front of the Tower of Heaven. His grave has nothing to do with me! I'm just... I'm just..."

    The shadow chuckled gently, as delicate as a flower petal, "Just what?"

    Mo Ran: "..."

    "It's just your returning soul?" it asked. "A body that holds only a fragment of memory? Are you merely an innocent life living in the shadow of Heaven-Stepping Lord? Or... were you just a dream?"

    If anger and fear had dominated before, now Mo Ran's emotions froze like ice, his blood congealing within him.

    Almost dazed, he failed to react. He tried to speak, yet could not form a complete sentence for a long while. Eventually, his voice was hoarse, scraping out a single, shattered word: "A... dream?"

    "You've always believed you were reborn, but who can truly say? Is what you think the truth? Who is real now—me or you?" The nebulous smoke swirled around him, growing clearer with each passing moment. "You claim to have died beneath the Tower of Heaven, yet here you stand, very much alive... Did you truly die?"

    Mo Ran stared at the mass of black smoke.

    No longer trembling, he felt only coldness, as if he'd fallen into an icy abyss, stepping into a bottomless chasm.

    So cold.

    Did he really die?

    The chill of Mount Wu's palace still seemed to seep into his bones, while the fiery flames of the ten major sects' uprising coiled up the mountain like serpents, hissing to sever his throat.

    Xue Meng seemed to have just stood before him, empty-handed, tears brimming in his eyes as he said with unyielding vehemence, "Mo Ran, return my Master to me."

    Was he truly gone?

    He recalled swallowing the poison, its venom piercing his heart and tearing his lungs apart. Stumbling to the Tower of Heaven, he used his last bit of strength to crawl into the pre-dug grave and lie within the coffin.

    The peach blossoms were in gentle bloom, their faint fragrance mingling with the shifting light and shadows of the sky.

    He closed his eyes...

    "And then you opened them again. You returned to the year you were sixteen, back to a time when everything could still be salvaged, right?"

    That dark silhouette seemed to see through his thoughts, chuckling softly as it murmured.

    "You came back. The Summit of Life and Death was not destroyed, the Confucian Wind Sect was burned to ashes a second time but not by your hand. Ye Wangxi did not die, neither did Shi Mingjing. You saw your true feelings, you fell in love with Chu Wanning, and you became Grandmaster Mo, who finally accepted you. You believed you had found liberation. Now you're the leader of the righteous rebels, an esteemed Daoist priest, a young hero sought by the mountain to apprehend the tyrant Xu Shuanglin—"

    A moment of deathly silence.

    Veins pulsed visibly on Mo Ran's neck, throbbing in rhythm with his racing heartbeat.

    The shadow had no face, but it was staring at him, and he knew it was staring at him.

    "You wish."

    A cold sword pierced his heart, while venomous fangs pricked his neck.

    Mo Ran could hear despair spreading within him, like a poison, just as the fatal toxin he'd consumed at age thirty-two had done, spreading... infiltrating his liver... seeping into his heart...

    "That rebirth you think you had never happened. You're dead, everyone's dead. Xue Meng is still alive, but he hates you with every fiber of his being," the shadow said. "Now, wake up from your dream, Heaven-Stepping Lord. You remain the Master of Darkness."

    "No..." Mo Ran heard someone speaking, a voice so weak and shattered, as if it had been broken countless times and then pieced back together. To his astonishment, he realized that the voice belonged to himself. "That's not true..."

    He summoned every ounce of courage in every crevice of his bones and every drop of blood. He opened his eyes, his gaze filled with a frenzied determination.

    "You're lying! It's impossible! Impossible!!"

    He gathered his sword and slashed through the air, panting with rage.

    The black smoke dissipated once more.

    However, its voice did not dissipate. Instead, it chuckled in a low tone: "Lying? But Your Majesty, wouldn't you rather look down and see exactly what it is that you are holding in your hand?"

    Author's Note: I'll be quite busy for the next few days with meetings, so I won't be able to reply or edit the author's notes in advance. Please accept my apologies upfront. Anyway, I've stockpiled seven days' worth of chapters, which should last until I finish work and can take a break. The daily chapters are released on a timer. If it doesn't appear by 10 PM, it means Jinjiang (the hosting site) is experiencing technical issues – just refresh a few times, and it should be fine. Muah!


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