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    Chapter 57: 057 Entering the Dream

    Before An Zhi's eyes lay the lifeless bodies of Jian Jiaojiao and Liang Zhen.

    Though they were deceased, their last moments were filled with happiness.

    They were smiling, their laughter still carrying the fragrance of peach blossoms.

    Even in death, their faces wore an expression of joy.

    This pair of lovers had finally found unity in the afterlife.

    Mrs. Jian wept bitterly, her sobs punctuated by sighs of lament, "You don't understand. Dignity, love, everything is built upon power. Otherwise, if you were with Liang Zhen now, enjoying your sweet moments, eventually you would be worn down..."

    Upon hearing this, Scarlet Water felt puzzled. "In this vast sea of humanity, finding true love is rare. If they truly cared for each other, they should have been together. Why consider these external matters?"

    An Zhi replied, "Scarlet Water, a Divine Lord across the heavens, has no need to consider such things."

    Scarlet Water responded, "I see that the outcome for these two children was entirely of their own making."

    When Scarlet Water's words reached Jian Jiaojiao's parents, Lady Jian shrieked desperately, "That's just how the world works! We're doing this for Jiaojiao's own good!"

    Scarlet Water seethed with anger and confronted them, "For her own good? Then who is the one lying on the ground now?"

    "Servants, throw them all out!" Lady Jian summoned her servants to expel An Zhi and Wen Yan.

    "Ah..." Jian Fengzi attempted to intervene but was held back by the couple,

    "You are the Sacred Son of Wangsi Terrace. It wouldn't do if you were harmed by these rough servants."

    With that, a few burly men appeared, surrounding him protectively.

    Wen Yan was still asleep when he was abruptly pulled awake and tossed out of the mansion, "I was sleeping so soundly, really! ...Tch!"

    Scarlet Water never imagined that he, the esteemed Water Lord of Scarlet Water, would be expelled like this. He vowed to make them see reason, "This is infuriating! No, I'm going back..."

    Before he could finish his sentence, An Zhi and Wen Yan each grabbed one of Scarlet Water's arms, forcefully dragging him away.

    "Let me go! Let me go!" Scarlet Water struggled fiercely, trying to break free from their grip.

    "Enough!" An Zhi boomed.

    Chi Zi'e immediately fell silent, ceasing all commotion.

    Then, An Zhi softened his tone and said, "If we insist on advising them, aren't we being too attached? You've lived for countless years—haven't you grasped this simple principle?"

    The willow branches by the river swayed gently in the breeze.

    The trio left the Jian residence and stood outside its gates.

    An Zhi felt a sense of emptiness. "Why do I feel like something's missing?"

    Wen Yan agreed. "I feel the same way."

    Chi Zi'e's mind flashed to the unconscious Ju Lang in his coma.

    That missing presence was none other than Ju Lang.

    He disliked the idea of An Zhi and Ju Lang being together, so he commented, "Deities are born of nature and nurtured by the world, wandering freely in its four corners. It's only fitting that they come and go with nothing but emptiness."

    "Indeed," An Zhi nodded slowly, but inwardly, he felt that something was missing. Then, as if an illusion, he heard a whisper in his ear:

    "I'm here..."

    Suddenly, it dawned on him. "Ju Lang! Ju Lang is still in a coma!"

    Upon hearing this, Chi Zi'e's face fell with disappointment. Heaving a long sigh, he reluctantly said, "For safety's sake, I'll go in and bring him out. You two wait here patiently."

    "Alright!" An Zhi nodded vigorously. He had intended to thank Chi Zi'e, but considering the latter disliked any formality between them, he kept the gratitude to himself.

    The weather was pleasant that day. It was an overcast summer day with a cool breeze but no rain.

    After only a short wait, Chi Zi'e emerged from Jian's residence, carrying Ju Lang, and leaped down.

    An Zhi promptly took Ju Lang from Chi Zi'e's arms, cradling him in his embrace and resting Ju Lang's head on his shoulder.

    Weak as he was, Ju Lang's once stern features now bore a veil of frailty, and even his phoenix-like eyes, usually aloof, now had a subtle pink tinge at the corners.

    As An Zhi gazed at him, a tender compassion stirred within him, compelling him to want to cherish and care for Ju Lang deeply.

    "Ayuan... Ayuan..." Ju Lang's phoenix eyes were tightly shut, yet in his unconscious state, he repeatedly called out Shen Yuan's name.

    His voice was rather low, and only An Zhi could hear his labored whispers. Upon hearing this, An Zhi immediately felt as if a bucket of lemon juice had been poured over him, souring the inexplicable flutter in his heart by more than half.

    He thought to himself: Even in dreams, it's still him. I really want to know what you're dreaming about.

    With that, he asked, "Chi Zi'e, is Ju Lang's condition critical since he hasn't regained consciousness?"

    Chi Zi'e's expression darkened. "No. He'll wake up on his own soon enough."

    An Zhi spoke gravely, "Don't lie to me."

    Chi Zi'e maintained a calm demeanor, showing no sign of having just lied. He firmly replied, "Of course not."

    An Zhi continued, "Wen Yan."

    "I...," Wen Yan was about to speak the truth when Chi Zi'e abruptly pulled him aside and pushed him behind him, saying,

    "Brat, do you not trust me?"

    An Zhi said, "Given that Ju Lang is growing weaker by the moment, I can't help but suspect you."

    Upon hearing this, Chi Zi'e shot a glare at Wen Yan before pretending ignorance again. "Cattle... He's just slept for a few extra days, that's all."

    Completely losing his patience, An Zhi lifted Ju Lang by his waist, hoisted him up, and carried him away on his shoulder.

    Seeing this, Chi Zi'e hurriedly followed.

    As Wen Yan caught up with the two, he candidly explained, "Ju Lang is trapped in the dream you both experienced with Jian Fengzi."

    Upon hearing this, An Zhi paused in his steps, turning around to face Chi Zi'e, who had caught up.

    The two stood face-to-face, only half a step apart.

    An Zhi asked, "What are the consequences of being trapped in there for too long?"

    Chi Zi'e hesitated for a moment, very reluctant, then vented his frustration, "He'll die."

    Upon hearing that Ju Lang's life was at stake, An Zhi's mind spun out of control. Frustrated, he shouted angrily, "Do you really want him to die?!"

    "Certainly," Chi Zi'e acknowledged openly. "As soon as I regained my position, I inquired about your whereabouts and went to find you. After discovering you... I couldn't erase from memory the despicable act he committed against you."

    ...

    In the bed, Shen Yuan's face was flushed, his breathing labored, and his brows knitted slightly, revealing his discomfort. Yet, his eyes were transfixed, lost in the curtains, their almond shape clouded with a hint of haze.

    Ju Lang leaned close, planting a kiss on Shen Yuan's earlobe and whispered, "From today onwards, you're free to come and go as you please within the demon realm's palace. However..." He playfully tugged at a strand of Shen Yuan's white hair, "You stand out too much... If you wish to venture out, make sure to disguise yourself properly."

    After a while, Shen Yuan's breathing calmed, and he regained consciousness, pushing himself up with arms that supported a body marked by love bites.

    At that moment, Ju Lang took the red string and bound it around Shen Yuan's limbs, following the contours of his muscles. "The child you saved together with Zhe Dan is still here. You wouldn't just leave him behind, right? He's only a month old, fatherless, motherless, with only you to rely on."

    "Your unfamiliar presence will easily be noticed," Ju Lang taunted, deliberately rubbing the rough rope against Shen Yuan's sensitive nipples.

    Shen Yuan nodded slightly, letting out a soft hum in response, "Alright."

    After Ju Lang left, Shen Yuan sighed helplessly as he began to clean himself up.

    *

    The sun shone brightly over the vast expanse of mountains and rivers that day. Chi Zi'e had just received news and decided to pay a visit to the young Shen Yuan.

    As he took a step forward, a voice beside him said, "That person who was judged above Yu Yuan not long ago was Shen Yuan! The one who discovered and captured him to present to the Imperial Ruler of Dian Shan was actually the newly appointed Demon King!"

    "I heard that person wasn't Shen Yuan but the foster father of the Demon King. It's said that he turned the previous Demon King, Hao Chang, into a cripple, attempting to seize the throne. But little did he know, he fell victim to his own trap, as the wolf cub he raised betrayed him."

    Chi Zi'e's face paled. "The foster father of the Demon King has no grudge against Dian Shan. There's no reason for him to hand the person over."

    "Why not? The Demon King sent his closest person to the Imperial Ruler to show loyalty. In return, the Imperial Ruler sent a young and beautiful woman to become the Demon King's queen. Now, the Demon Realm is under the protection of Jiu Li!"

    Just then, someone behind them shouted, "The Demon King and Queen's grand wedding marks the alliance between the Demon Realm and our Jiu Li. The Imperial Ruler specially distributes Revitalizing Pills for seven consecutive days. A single pill can extend a person's lifespan by ten years!"

    "Not talking to you anymore! Revitalizing Pills are precious! If we don't hurry, they'll be gone!"

    Chi Zi'e gazed at the crowd racing to grab the pills. "The Imperial Ruler is indeed generous. Why can't he generously grant that boy a few more years of life?"

    *

    Feeling that something was amiss, Chi Zi'e rushed to the Demon Realm but was stopped in front of the palace.

    "Beautiful one, this isn't a place you can enter as you please. However, if you're willing to entertain us, we'll reluctantly let you stay in the palace for an incense stick's time."

    Before Chi Zi'e could say anything, the guards approached him.

    "Cease!" A familiar voice suddenly echoed.

    "It's that brat...?" Crimson Child Eryu turned in the direction of the sound.

    A figure clad in green approached him, drawing ever nearer. Strikingly, this person had a head of white hair! However... a white scarf obscured their eyes.

    "Is it really him?" Crimson Child Eryu hesitated.

    Shen Yuan disliked wearing a conical hat or mask. Binding his eyes with a white scarf was the best disguise he could manage.

    He produced a night orchid crafted from pure gold.

    At just a glance, the guard who had been teasing Chi Zi'e turned pale with fear. "H-He's one of the King's attendants!"

    "We didn't mean to tease her on purpose..."

    Shen Yuan spoke in a solemn tone. "No need to explain further. Let this be a lesson."

    "Th-Thank you for sparing our lives."

    Shen Yuan lifted his gaze, astonished: It was him!

    He clenched his fists and stepped forward, pretending not to recognize Chi Zi'e. With a playful tone, he said, "Miss, are you here on business or looking for someone? I know the palace inside out. If you let me hold your hand and give me a little kiss, I'll reluctantly take you in."

    "Miss?" Chi Zi'e fixated on Bai Ling, seemingly trying to burn through the veil with his gaze to see if this person was indeed Shen Yuan.

    Shen Yuan pretended to be surprised, "Oh, brother, brother! Hahaha, I saw how handsome you were and mistook you for a lady. My mistake."

    In a hurry to leave, he continued, "Brother, I have some matters to attend to, so I'll take my leave now."

    "Hold on!"

    Alongside Chi Zi'e's voice, the red rope tied by Ju Lang around Shen Yuan tightened abruptly, choking his breath.

    Seeing this, Chi Zi'e quickly approached to support him, "Are you alright?"

    Up close, he noticed that Shen Yuan's green robe was much thinner than usual, revealing faint red marks. He asked curiously, "What are those?"

    Shen Yuan hurriedly distanced himself from Chi Zi'e, "N-No, it's nothing."

    Shen Yuan's evasive behavior piqued Scarlet Water's curiosity. "I know it's too abrupt, but I'm looking for a friend, and you resemble him greatly. Would you mind removing your veil so I can take a look?"

    Shen Yuan shook his head. "I'm not who you think I am. I don't know you."

    "But you're so similar," Scarlet Water persisted relentlessly. "I might regret it for the rest of my life if I don't confirm."

    Shen Yuan was truly desperate. They had first met, drinking against the wind, stirring the Scarlet Water to a boil. Now, however... How could he face an old acquaintance in this state?

    Just as Shen Yuan found himself with nowhere to hide, Ju Lang rushed over from behind, pulling Shen Yuan behind him.

    Seeing Ju Lang's phoenix-like eyes, Scarlet Water exclaimed in surprise, "Wang Pan?!"

    Ju Lang neither denied nor explained. "I've heard much about Yi Shujun, but why are you pressing so hard on my queen?"

    "Queen?" Scarlet Water glanced at Shen Yuan. "I respect you both, but I only wanted to verify if he resembled my friend."

    Shen Yuan sensed trouble and tried to escape, but Ju Lang seized his arm, pulling him back to Scarlet Water.

    "If Yi Shujun yearns for a friend," Ju Lang said, his words like boulders crashing into Shen Yuan's heart, "I shall accommodate."

    The white silk gently fell before his eyes. Seeing this, Scarlet Child Misfortune indeed took a step forward, gathering power in his palm and striking at Ju Lang without hesitation.

    Taken by surprise, Ju Lang received the blow and soared away dozens of yards, his hand transforming swiftly into a hard wolf claw that dug into the ground, sparks flying as he left deep claw marks along the way.

    "Damn it!" Scarlet Child Misfortune cursed, grabbing Shen Yuan's hand to pull him away. "Let's go!"

    From a distance, Ju Lang called out, "You can't just leave that child behind, right?"

    Hearing this, Shen Yuan shook off Scarlet Child Misfortune.

    Scarlet Child Misfortune urged, "Come on, let's go!"

    Shen Yuan replied, "Go ahead."

    Just as Scarlet Child Misfortune was about to lead Shen Yuan away, Shen Yuan took a step back. "I said you should go."

    Confused, Scarlet Child Misfortune asked, "You're staying? You're damn crazy! I get it now, foster father, Shen Yuan, the queen – they're all you."

    The red cord gradually tightened, like a shackle binding Shen Yuan to Ju Lang, suffocating him. He spoke calmly, "What you're thinking of is the me on the Scarlet Water River, not the me now. Besides, I'm doing well now, and I've come to terms with things. I'm even basking in the sun properly. Treat him as if he's already dead at Xixuan Gate. You merely saw someone who resembles him today."

    What truly shattered Crimson Child's composure wasn't Shen Yuan's words, but the calmness in his tone. Before he found Shen Yuan, Shen Yuan had already come to terms with it and let go.

    If only it had been sooner, he might have been able to turn things around.

    But if Shen Yuan had already crossed that threshold, attempting to bring him back would be as difficult as ascending to heaven.

    Looking into Shen Yuan's eyes, Crimson Child saw that the old friend was still there, yet the spark they once shared was gone.

    This person before him, even his will, seemed to have died along with his body! How could he recognize any trace of the fiery competitor they once were in Xun Wu?

    Crimson Child took a deep breath, the hint of red seeping through the green robe stinging his eyes. Frustrated, he clenched his fist and struck Shen Yuan fiercely.

    "Ugh..." Shen Yuan didn't even flinch, merely uttering a soft groan.

    ...

    "Impossible!" An Zhi declared. "I refuse to believe it!"

    Crimson Child replied, "This is what he did - trapped him, married him, humiliated him, imposed unbearable demands."

    Hearing this, An Zhi was surprised. After a moment of stunned silence, he turned to Wen Yan, who knew the story's progression, and asked for confirmation, "Is that so?"

    Wen Yan nodded soundlessly behind Chizi E.

    Ju Lang appeared resolute and solemn, as cold as ice, but with Shen Yuan, he had an entirely different demeanor.

    He treated Shen Yuan with great care and gentleness, never imposing on him in the slightest;

    He absolutely protected and trusted Shen Yuan more than anyone else;

    At the slightest hint of kindness from Shen Yuan, his eyes would flush with excitement, and he would bite his lip, blushing like a bashful maiden, too timid to lift his gaze to meet Shen Yuan's snowy brows, lest his gaze grow too ardent and melt them away;

    He had waited for Shen Yuan for so many years, his feelings unchanged, not fading even a bit with the passage of time.

    How could such a devoted and considerate Ju Lang force someone into something against their will?

    "Since he firmly stands by me, I should persist in trusting him," An Zhi said with a serious expression, his almond-shaped eyes reflecting an unwavering resolve like a mountain. "When he wakes up, I'll ask him myself. I want him to tell me personally."

    Frustrated, Chizi E huffed and swept his sleeves aside, folding his arms behind his back as he turned away, looking off into the distance.

    An Zhi carried Ju Lang, ignoring Chi Zi'e's silent grief, and approached Wen Yan. "I know you have a way to wake him up."

    "Wen Yan nodded, agreeing. "Yes, I do." She then tried to persuade An Zhi, "Yi Shujun is not wrong in the slightest. Are you sure you still want to...?"

    "I'm sure!" An Zhi's voice was resolute, more determined than ever before.

    "Very well," Wen Yan acquiesced. "I'll help you enter Ju Lang's dream, but whether or not you can bring him out of it depends on you. If you stay too long in the dream, you might not be able to return. So, you only have three hours. Once the time is up, regardless of success, I'll pull you out of the dream."

    "Alright," An Zhi nodded, giving her consent.

    --------------------

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