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    Chapter 65: Foolish Kindness

    Shangchicheng was situated within the borders of Heng Yao, nestled in its southwestern corner.

    Starting from Ang Liu Bay, one would head southwest-southeast to reach it.

    Within the city, An Zhi gradually approached Wen Yan and whispered, "Why didn't he feel pain before, but now he does?"

    Wen Yan countered with a question of his own, "If Yu Yuan's right eye was taken too, why aren't you blind in one eye now?"

    "Oh, right!" An Zhi finally realized something was amiss and hazarded a guess, "Could it be that this body I'm in now isn't actually Yu Yuan's? Yeah, yeah, yeah, he was long ago devoured by the vengeful spirits summoned by Yu Yuan. This body I'm in now definitely isn't his..."

    "Stop being ridiculous!" Wen Yan retorted.

    As if he had heard something astonishing, An Zhi's mouth gaped open in surprise, "Are you saying that Yu Yuan wasn't actually devoured by the vengeful spirits summoned by Yu Yuan, and someone saved him?"

    Wen Yan glanced around, ensuring that Chi Zi'e and Ju Lang were not paying attention to their conversation before he softly said, "Let me tell you, Xiang Yan went down and retrieved his body. He even cut off his own finger to give to them."

    An Zhi lifted his hand and gently placed it on Wen Yan's forehead, "You're not feverish, so why are you talking nonsense? Why would Xiang Yan go to such lengths for Yu Yuan?"

    Wen Yan slapped An Zhi's hand away with a dramatic roll of his eyes. "Believe it or not, it's up to you!"

    A towering snow-capped mountain stood tall, its base nestled beside a crimson structure that overlooked a lake of sapphire blue. Beyond the lake were houses and streets arranged in a harmonious pattern.

    This was the Wangsi Terrace.

    An Zhi was engrossed in the view when Chizi E turned to block his path, holding out his palms. Suddenly, golden half-faced masks materialized in each of his hands. "Cover your face."

    A hint of resistance flickered in An Zhi's eyes as he grinned. "This... seems a bit excessive, don't you think?"

    Whenever matters became serious, Chizi E would adopt a stern demeanor and speak with authority. "Your so-called physical body is sealed within the Pure Pond. The citizens of Shangchicheng visit the Wangsi Terrace every morning for worship, and they must pass by the Pure Pond. They're already familiar with your appearance."

    As Chizi E finished speaking, Ju Lang, who had been silent until now, chimed in, "Indeed. That's right."

    Wen Yan echoed, "Yes, yes, yes."

    An Zhi glanced sideways at the mountain and took the golden mask from Chizi E.

    High noon found the sky a brilliant blue, cloudless and as pure as the lake below. It was a perfect reflection of the serene atmosphere in Shangchicheng.

    "Look!" A sudden cry echoed. "The Wu family's Artificers have started crafting Sacred Tools!!"

    The three of them turned around upon hearing the voice from behind. They saw a massive crowd surging towards them.

    Their faces were filled with smiles, brimming with excitement.

    To avoid being caught in the rush, the four of them instinctively moved to the side of the street.

    As the crowd trampled past, it was as if a herd of horses had just run by, causing the ground beneath their feet to tremble slightly.

    "Woah, what's got everyone so worked up?" An Zhi asked, perplexed by the continuously bouncing pebbles at his feet.

    Chi Zi'e replied, "Let's go see for ourselves."

    The quartet began walking towards the throng.

    As they drew closer, they could hear the animated discussions within the noisy crowd:

    "The Joyous God Bureau announced yesterday that this year's Purification Pond ceremony requires no less than thirty sets of Sacred Tools!"

    From the tone of the speaker, they seemed rather proud, as if those dozens of holy artifacts were made of pure gold, each weighing a thousand pounds and being invaluable.

    Another voice chimed in with a hint of concern, "This place will turn into another bloodbath, I suppose."

    Promptly, a group of people dismissed the notion with disdain, "The Pure Pond Ceremony happens once a year, and there are only thirty sets. Not much, not much at all. They're not exactly priceless treasures."

    Confused, An Zhi sought to clarify what these holy artifacts were.

    Looking up, he saw a massive crowd, packed tightly together. He lifted his feet and craned his neck to peer through the crowd but could see nothing. Frustrated, he leaped onto a nearby rooftop for a better view.

    From this vantage point, his field of vision widened, and he heard the swish of wind drawing near before softly landing beside him.

    Glancing sideways, he saw Ju Lang had jumped onto the roof to join him.

    An Zhi didn't divert his attention from the distance, focusing keenly instead.

    In the midst of the onlookers, there was an empty circular space with a scattering of enormous cages.

    An Zhi narrowed his eyes and counted - precisely thirty cages, each draped in black cloth, obscuring their contents entirely.

    Beside the cage, a figure was moving about.

    An Zhi assumed that this person must be the "Wu Family Artisan" mentioned by others.

    The artisan strolled slowly between the gaps of the cages, occasionally lifting a corner of the black cloth to peer inside before bending down for a closer look.

    After inspecting no fewer than ten cages, he finally focused on one.

    With a swift motion, he pulled away the black cloth and unlocked the cage's iron door, dragging out its contents.

    "THAT'S!" An Zhi's narrowed eyes widened in shock as he exclaimed, "THAT'S A HUMAN!!!"

    Before his words could fade, a pinkish figure dashed out from the crowd, landing gracefully and precisely in front of the artisan.

    "It was said to be a Sacred Artifact, but it turns out to be a red steamed bun!" An Zhi flew into a rage, gritting his teeth as he spat out a cold rebuke, swiftly joining the artisan.

    Ju Lang, not fond of much talk, followed closely behind, step by step.

    The two landed in the open space in the center of the crowd, one in front and one behind.

    Before they could approach, the woman in the peach-pink dress declared, "Wu Liang, you're aiding the tyrant, not saving them."

    An Zhi asked, "Wu Liang, is that the name of the Artisan?"

    Ju Lang replied nonchalantly, "Seems like it."

    However, before Wu Liang could speak, the onlookers began to jeer at the woman. "Jiao Lin, stop pretending to be virtuous!

    "You're the Director of the Joyous God Bureau; all sacrificial matters are under your jurisdiction. Why put on this show here? Who are you trying to fool?"

    At this, the crowd chimed in, "Exactly, exactly..."

    An Zhi was perplexed, his gaze fixated on Jiao Lin.

    She remained composed and unbothered, her face devoid of any emotion. Her aura was steady, like an ancient pine, with her back straight yet not stiff.

    She exuded the air of a seasoned battlefield commander, strong, efficient, and valiant – much like her demeanor.

    She declared earnestly, "It is the duty of the Chief of the Joyous God Bureau to convey orders, and it is ethical to refrain from fratricide. If we were to abandon such cruel rules earlier, such commands would cease to exist."

    From the crowd, one person stepped forward and said, "The materials for sacred artifacts should be approved by the divine. Blame Shen Yuan for his insatiable thirst for blood!"

    Upon hearing this, An Zhi grumbled indignantly, "I wonder who's being hypocritical now..."

    "Dead men don't speak; seeking counsel from the deceased... Hmph, hmph..." Jiao Lin didn't finish her sentence, instead substituting it with two mocking titters.

    An Zhi detected the sarcasm in those chuckles.

    Although Shen Yuan finally had someone speak up for him, An Zhi felt a sense of satisfaction upon hearing it, but the constant mention of death left a bitter taste in his heart amidst the joy.

    Just as everyone's attention was focused on Jiao Lin, they were suddenly jolted by Wu Liang's agonizing cry, "Someone's killed! ——!!"

    In an instant, all the onlookers, in a frenzy, scattered in terror.

    In that brief moment, apart from the four companions of An Zhi and Jiao Lin, no one else remained in the area.

    As Wu Liang bent down to seize the person in the cage, the captive burst his own eye with a piercing blow.

    A vivid arc of crimson splashed before An Zhi's eyes, causing him to instinctively take a step back.

    With a splash, he lowered his head and saw a pool of red just a step away on the ground, the air thickening with the pungent scent of blood.

    Wu Liang fell to the ground, clutching his eyes and howling in agony.

    Before An Zhi could react, Chizi E appeared with lightning speed from among the onlooking crowd.

    It was a display of overpowering strength. With one hand, he seized the murderer's wrist, twisting it behind their back, while his other hand clamped down on the nape of their neck. With a sudden surge of force from his back muscles, he forced the person face-down onto the hard stone ground.

    Bending his knee to press down on the culprit's back, he declared, "No wonder I could smell that stench of a fox from afar. There really is a fox here!"

    Hearing this, An Zhi turned to look at the perpetrator, a small, thin girl with tattered clothes.

    Pinned to the ground, she was unable to resist, her eyes filled with fear and confusion. Clutched tightly in her hand was the murder weapon, a tube-like object stained with blood, its original form indiscernible.

    "I think there might be a mistake," he ventured as he stepped forward. "She doesn't seem like a demon at all."

    "Even if they were reduced to ashes, I'd still recognize these damned foxes!" Chizi E spat with venom. "Foxes are inherently cunning and skilled in illusions and hallucinations. To achieve their goals, they can transform into anything. Want to know if she's a fox? I'll show you right now!" With that, he raised his palm, preparing to strike down.

    Regardless, all An Zhi saw was a young girl, and he couldn't bear to witness her being struck down. He instinctively reached out to stop Chizi'e's descending hand strike.

    Blocking the downward chop, a searing pain shot from his forearm up to his brain, draining the color from his face in an instant.

    "Wen Yan!" he called out, rushing over.

    Chizi'e was startled, his face turning pale as he hastily retracted his hand. Frustrated, he bellowed, "Are you a pig?!"

    Ju Lang arrived at the scene, noticing An Zhi's right hand trembling slightly. His brows knitted together, and he was about to inspect An Zhi's injury.

    As his fingers brushed against An Zhi's forearm, An Zhi winced and furrowed his brow, saying, "Chizi'e was really going for it..."

    Chizi'e retorted angrily, "Naive! This fox injured someone; it should be put down. Do you doubt my judgment?"

    An Zhi lowered his gaze to the girl.

    The girl was also looking at him.

    Under Shangchicheng's clear sunlight, the two of them locked eyes.

    In the depths of the girl's eyes, he saw an unwavering determination to live beyond her fear.

    He didn't know if this girl was a monster or not, nor could he judge if his actions were right or wrong. He couldn't bear to witness an innocent girl die before his eyes.

    "I..." An Zhi sighed, finding no words to refute.

    "Regardless of who the person is, those with good intentions should never be ridiculed," Jiao Lin interjected suddenly. "The sacred instruments used in the Purification Pond ceremony are crafted by mute boys and girls who have just reached adulthood, and their bodies are still pure and intact. There is absolutely no existence of a monster among them."

    Chi Zi'e held onto his own conviction. "She must be a fox!"

    Since he laid eyes on the girl, his words had been laced with immense hatred.

    "Ye Lan—Ye Lan—" Just as An Zhi and Chi Zi'e were at an impasse, a voice called out from behind them.

    "Yan Shu!" Jiao Lin looked towards the newcomer, joy shining in her eyes.

    It was as if the warrior-like Jiao Lin from before had vanished, replaced by a neighborly woman.

    An Zhi mused to himself: Regardless of gender, people change significantly when they have someone they care about deeply.

    As he anticipated Jiao Lin to approach Yan Shu, the two exchanged a glance, and to his surprise, Yan Shu halted in his tracks, standing still and not advancing any further. He even turned his body away from her, refusing to look.

    Observing Yan Shu's sudden change of attitude, Jiao Lin's expression shifted as swiftly as a page turning, her eyes turning cold in an instant.

    Confused by this development, An Zhi wondered - what grudge or resentment did these two hold against each other?

    Suddenly, the sound of "taptap" footsteps echoed from afar, as if someone was tiptoeing nearby.

    An Zhi looked around but saw no one else in the vicinity apart from their group. Still, the footsteps grew closer and closer.

    Suddenly, Ji Zimo let out an "Ouch!"

    Looking down, An Zhi saw him pull out a ball of pure white creature from behind his back.

    At first glance: fur as white as jade, a fluffy and bushy large tail, a pointed face...

    "A white fox?" An Zhi wondered.

    "It belongs to Yan Shu," Jiao Lin replied solemnly.

    An Zhi suddenly understood and said, "No wonder he keeps calling her 'Ye Lan'; it turns out he's addressing the fox."

    He had experience with such matters.

    Jiao Lin shook her head, looking down at the girl pinned to the ground and said, "Ye Lan is probably her name."

    "Take this little one away... I let it go, but it came back to bite me. If not for its cuteness, I would have... Tsk!" Chi Zi'e held the white fox by the scruff of its neck, unsure whether to release it or not. He was in a dilemma, feeling utterly helpless.

    He wouldn't show mercy to a fox demon, but he was more lenient towards an ordinary fox.

    The white fox wasn't afraid of people and was quite playful, squirming wildly in Chi Zi'e's grasp. It would occasionally turn its head and attempt to bite his hand.

    "Give it to me," Ju Lang offered his hand.

    An Zhi warned, "It bites. Be careful."

    Hearing this, Ju Lang glanced at An Zhi. A flash of joy and relief similar to what Jiao Lin had shown when looking at Yan Shu just now passed through his eyes as he asked, "Are you worried about me?"

    A chill ran down An Zhi's spine, and he quickly averted his gaze, inspecting the injuries on his arm.

    "Who should deal with this fox spirit?" Chi Zi'e stood up, lifting the girl into the air as he asked.

    Ju Lang responded, "Ayuan is right. The girl isn't a fox spirit. Her name is Ye Lan; she's human."

    Chi Zi'e felt a bit embarrassed upon hearing this and turned his head to look at Ye Lan.

    Ye Lan remained silent, slowly nodding her head.

    Chi Zi'e wouldn't ignore the facts, but he also strongly believed in his own judgment. He questioned Ju Lang, "How did you determine that this little girl isn't a fox spirit?"

    Ju Lang lowered his phoenix eyes, gazing at the white fox in his arms. It buried its face in his embrace, softly whimpering. He answered, "It told me."

    Chi Zi'e then shifted his gaze to the white fox, furrowing his brow slightly as he probed further, "And how did it know?"

    "Ye Lan was the first owner of this white fox. Later, Ye Lan entrusted it to Yan Shu for care," Jiao Lin replied on behalf of Ju Lang.

    Fixing her sharp gaze on Ye Lan, Jiao Lin's voice turned cold as she said, "I had thought Ye Lan was merely a figment of Yan Shu's imagination, someone who didn't actually exist in this world. I never expected there to be such a person."

    Jiao Lin also possessed a pair of phoenix eyes, though hers were more pointed and piercing, exuding a cunning ferocity.

    If one were to liken Ju Lang's eyes to ice sculptures, they would be exquisite and clear, meticulously crafted pieces that emit a chill yet draw admiration despite their coldness.

    In contrast, Jiao Lin's phoenix-like eyes resemble frozen blades forged from molten iron, tempered through countless hammer strikes and the extremes of fire and ice. They shine with a menacing frostiness, as if any proximity would result in injury or bloodshed.

    Feeling a chill, An Zhi took a cautious step back, distancing herself from Jiao Lin.

    Jiao Lin pressed on with her inquiry, "According to Yan Shu, you're not actually mute. So why were you brought here as a mute to aid in the creation of sacred artifacts?"

    Ye Lan opened her mouth and pointed her index finger inside.

    Upon closer inspection, her oral cavity appeared empty save for two rows of slightly yellowed but otherwise normal-looking teeth. No other organs could be seen.

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

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