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    Chapter 77: The Pit of Ten Thousand - Part One

    Zhe Dan vanished without a trace, leaving his words echoing in An Zhi's mind just as faintly.

    In the battle between Ju Lang and Jiaomiao, it was evident that Ju Lang held the upper hand. After a few moves, his blade was poised to pierce her heart. At the decisive moment, he sheathed his sword and landed beside An Zhi.

    Confused, An Zhi asked, "Just let her go like that?"

    Ju Lang replied with a cryptic answer, "If Jiaomiao dies, this world will collapse." He wrapped his arms around An Zhi's waist. "Let's go."

    Upon arriving in the Realm of Demons, when Ju Lang pushed open the temple doors, An Zhi was greeted by the jovial scene inside. Instinctively, she shrieked, "Don't touch me!"

    Seeing the fear in her eyes, Ju Lang's gaze drooped, and he said dejectedly, "I'll leave first..."

    After Ju Lang left, An Zhi felt drained. What kind of people and events had she encountered?

    Silently, he walked over to the bed and fell asleep.

    Before opening his eyes, he sensed something breathing against his cheek and licking his face with audible smacks!

    "Curses!" An Zhi grumbled under his breath, abruptly opening his eyes.

    A large black dog was sprawled beside the bed, its neck stretched out as it continuously licked his face with its tongue.

    He was indeed a dog lover, and the puppy was undeniably adorable, but it reminded him all too vividly of the canine that had darted out from behind Xixuan Men and snatched away his heart.

    An Zhi had no desire to engage with it, feeling nothing but annoyance. He rolled over, burying himself under the covers, leaving only a mess of silver hair exposed.

    The puppy approached An Zhi's head and started toying with the silver strands using its paws.

    Rustling sounds filled his ears as the dog's claws brushed against the bedding. An Zhi couldn't tolerate it any longer. He flung aside the covers, ready to chase the puppy away, only to see a young girl sitting quietly beside him.

    Her eyes were pitch black, sparkling like obsidian. She tilted her head innocently, her appearance pure and endearing. Upon her head were a pair of dog ears, and behind her was a large, bushy black tail swishing back and forth.

    "Master!" Enthusiastically, she leaped at An Zhi.

    Both of them tumbled onto the soft blankets.

    "Boys and girls should not have intimate contact! Boys and girls should not have intimate contact!" An Zhi screamed, shutting his eyes in fright.

    Unintentionally, he touched something beneath the dog demon, causing him to shriek in terror, "You're actually a guy?!"

    With that, he slapped the creature so hard it flew away.

    The dog demon sniffled, covering its swollen cheek as it obediently stood aside.

    An Zhi asked indignantly, "Why do you call me Master?"

    The dog demon, having seemingly forgotten its pain, wagged its tail excitedly and replied, "My name is Ye Lu!"

    Then, it pounced on An Zhi again, sticking out its tongue to lick him.

    If it were still in its dog form, this might have been tolerable, but now in human shape – and a feminine one at that – such an action was unsettling and somewhat disgusting.

    An Zhi opened his palm and slapped it over Ye Lu's face with a cold "pat," saying, "We're not close, so keep your boundaries."

    The tail froze, drooping down, and the ears wilted as Ye Lu whined, "I've waited for you for so long, yet you don't want me..." Sobbing, it lifted its head and wailed loudly, tears streaming down.

    The howling was ear-piercing, each wail more shrill than the last. An Zhi's ears hurt from listening, so he bellowed, "Shut up!"

    Hearing this, Ye Lu immediately clamped his mouth shut. Upon closer inspection, there were no tears in the corners of his eyes. He had indeed been howling without tears.

    An Zhi said, "Change back first, and I'll reluctantly take on the role of your master."

    As soon as he finished speaking, Ye Lu's ears twitched, and he promptly transformed back into a dog.

    Just as he was about to fulfill his wish of cuddling with An Zhi, a pair of large hands suddenly clasped around the back of his neck, lifting him off the ground.

    With his round eyes rolling, he dared not move at all.

    Ju Lang's magnetic voice rang out, "I could hear you bawling from eight hundred miles away. I told you not to touch him, just watch from afar, but you didn't listen, did you?"

    He placed Ye Lu back on the ground and chased him away, "Out!"

    Ye Lu let out a whimper from his throat, reluctant to leave as he turned back three times before taking a step.

    When he was far enough and out of sight, An Zhi said to Ju Lang, "Ye Lu said that I am his master."

    Ju Lang replied, "His original master was Dian Shan, and then you became his master later."

    An Zhi pondered for a moment and suddenly realized something.

    Recalling the incident when Ju Lang had plunged into the Yupo River with three thousand fallen stars to save Shen Yuan, a figure dressed as General Jiu Li had suddenly appeared. That person was none other than Xiang Yan, who was pursuing the escaped Ye Lu from Jiu Li.

    "Both of you!" Xiang Yan shouted from the riverbank. "Who are you? Do you know whose three thousand lanterns these are?"

    Shen Yuan recognized Xiang Yan's voice and gestured for Ju Lang to step aside.

    "A...Ayuan?!" Xiang Yan eagerly asked Shen Yuan. "Did you two release the lanterns on the Yupo River? Oh my, you've truly saved me and countless soldiers from Jiu Li...".

    Despite his appearance having changed significantly, Xiang Yan's talkative nature remained unchanged.

    Back then, Shen Yuan had been annoyed by Xiang Yan's incessant chatter, and it still grated on him now. He raised his hand and slapped Xiang Yan's back forcefully, causing the general to cough uncontrollably.

    "Why are you suddenly coughing?" Shen Yuan pretended not to know and warned him, "Your health is your capital in warfare, General Xiang must take care."

    As he spoke, he heard the hurried sound of galloping hooves coming from ahead.

    Looking ahead, he saw one of his soldiers rushing towards them.

    Soon, the soldier arrived before him, dismounted, knelt on one knee, and respectfully reported, "General Xiang, we found a cave at the original site, and it appears to be a mass grave."

    Xiang Yan immediately mounted his Jade Lion and galloped towards the end of the road.

    Not knowing the location of the so-called mass grave, Shen Yuan hurriedly approached the soldier who brought the news and leaped onto the horse, following closely behind Xiang Yan.

    Upon seeing numerous soldiers stationed in front of a cave, they had set up several bonfires around the area, amidst scattered white animal bones.

    Gazing at the vast and dark entrance, Shen Yuan asked, "Why has Jiu Li come unannounced to our Demon Realm?"

    Xiang Yan explained, "Recently, a palace maid escaped from Jiu Li's royal palace, and Dian Shan instructed me to lead a small team of about fifty men to capture her."

    Shen Yuan let out a soft chuckle.

    Perplexed by the laughter, Xiang Yan looked at him questioningly, also smiling as he asked, "What's so funny?"

    With a calm demeanor, Shen Yuan replied, "Is a mere palace maid worth the trouble of having General Xiang track her down?" After saying this, he dismounted the horse, landing firmly on both feet.

    Xiang Yan leaped down from the jade lion, passing its reins to a nearby soldier, instructing him to secure it. Then, brushing aside his bangs, he huffed in frustration, "Who knows what Dian Shan is up to! He acts on a whim, clearly humiliating us. A proper man is sent to catch a palace maid!"

    Shen Yuan replied, "We're all in the same boat. There's no shame in it."

    At that moment, a soldier approached with news. Glancing surreptitiously at Shen Yuan, he realized he didn't recognize him. To be cautious, he tiptoed close to Xiang Yan's ear and whispered, "General Xiang, we were ordered to stay put and wait for your return. Not long after you left, the palace maid appeared brazenly before everyone, holding a lantern. When we tried to apprehend her, she led us to this cave."

    "Where is she now?" Xiang Yan asked without reserve, his voice loud enough for Shen Yuan to hear.

    The soldier continued whispering, only to receive an annoyed "tsk" from Xiang Yan. "Speak properly, there's no need to mimic mosquitoes buzzing in my ear."

    Obediently, the soldier straightened up and announced, "The palace maid escaped into the cave and hasn't come out." As he spoke, he handed them two luminous pearls, adding, "Our men are currently investigating inside the cave."

    Just as he finished speaking, a piercing scream echoed from within the depths of the cave, followed by more cries.

    Xiang Yan's brows furrowed, his eyes gleaming with intensity. Silently reciting a sword formula, a golden radiance flashed, and he grasped Chang Yang's sword hilt tightly. Racing into the cave, he left in a hurry.

    Watching his figure vanish into the darkness, Shen Yuan swiftly followed.

    As he reached the entrance, several figures emerged from the cave, shouting frantically.

    Their faces were contorted in terror, their eyes narrowing to mere slits. Trained soldiers, unflinching on the battlefield, there could be nothing that should make them so afraid. Clearly, whatever had suddenly appeared inside must have been horrifying.

    Shen Yuan reached out to stop one of them, asking, "What's inside?"

    The soldier gasped, "A monster! – A monster that eats people!!" With that, he broke free from Shen Yuan's grip and fled.

    The eerie green glow of the night pearls illuminated the depths of the cave, casting an ominous atmosphere.

    Shen Yuan dashed towards the light source, only to find the mangled remains of the soldiers scattered about in bits and pieces, some bones broken into short sections.

    Surveying the area, he saw no sign of Xiang Yan or the monster. Amidst his confusion, he heard the sharp clash of weapons overhead. He looked up to find the source.

    Xiang Yan was armed and armored, while his opponent fought barehanded.

    A crimson glow flickered in the man's eyes as his hands moved with agile dexterity, seemingly effortlessly parrying each of Xiang Yan's attacks with casual grace.

    It was clear that Xiang Yan was at a disadvantage. Despite his continuous counterattacks and evasive maneuvers, he found few opportunities to launch a meaningful strike.

    Suddenly, a gust of wind rushed into the cave, whistling fiercely. The man's sleeves billowed with the wind, and he opened his mouth, emitting a shrill, piercing cry.

    Xiang Yan's ears were ringing from the sound waves, yet he found an opening in the opponent's defense and slashed his sword horizontally at the man.

    But from the man's sleeves emerged countless leaves that danced in the wind, enveloping both of them in a leafy sphere. The flexible leaves transformed into something as hard and sharp as metal, clashing fiercely with Xiang Yan's sword. Sparks flew in the brief moment of their collision.

    The man's shrill cries continued, and the metallic grinding sound grated on the nerves.

    Xiang Yan felt his blood surge, churning in his chest. He frowned deeply to resist the pain, a hint of crimson seeping from the corner of his mouth, though his eyes brimmed with defiance. He lifted his chin at the man, "If you can't kill me today, I'll make sure to strip you of your skin another day!"

    Upon hearing this, Shen Yuan tapped the ground lightly and rose into the air, standing atop the countless leaves forming the sphere. Squinting, he flipped his wrist and struck a palm, causing the sphere to crack open.

    He slipped through the gap, swiftly and precisely plucking a leaf. A cold glint flashed in his eyes as he hurled it forcefully at the man.

    The leaf had the same effect in Shen Yuan's hand. It tore through the wind, hurtling towards its target with reckless abandon.

    Just as it was about to pierce the man, he suddenly twisted his body backward, dispersing the leafy blade in his hand. At the same time, he lifted a foot to deliver a fierce kick to Xiang Yan's abdomen, dodging Shen Yuan's attack while catching Xiang Yan off guard. With a thud, Xiang Yan crashed to the ground.

    The leaf that Shen Yuan had thrown embedded itself into the stone wall of the opposite cave.

    Seeing this, Shen Yuan's expression grew increasingly solemn.

    The demon's reaction was astonishingly swift, its movements deft and ruthless, an unexpected turn of events.

    Then, the man's eyes flashed with a sudden crimson glow, accompanied by a thunderous roar from deep within his throat as he launched a brutal assault on Shen Yuan.

    "Ye Lu—"

    A tranquil and serene voice echoed abruptly within the cavern.

    The crimson hue in the man's eyes vanished abruptly, and his body paused momentarily. However, the surrounding blades of leaves continued their sharp, swift rotations uninterrupted.

    "Ye Lu—"

    The voice rang out again.

    "Lin Xing?—" The person called softly, their voice trembling. It was the sweet and charming voice of a young lad.

    Immediately after, the voice replied, "It's me—Ye Lu—"

    The wind in the cave suddenly ceased, and all the leaves floated down gently. The person turned their head towards the direction of the sound, descending as if they hadn't seen Xiang Yan. They stepped right over him, rushing towards the source of the voice.

    Shen Yuan also descended to the ground, helping Xiang Yan up and supporting the injured man out of the cave.

    As soon as they emerged, they saw a canine demon weeping bitterly while cradling Lin Xing's lifeless body. Despite having taken human form, two large, jet-black ears still stood atop his head, indicating that he had recently transformed and was not yet skilled in disguising himself fully.

    "Warriors die with honor on the battlefield, but now they've lost their lives for a mere palace maid!" Filled with disgust towards Ye Lu for the soldiers' demise, Xiang Yan's anger flared, and he grabbed Ye Lu by the back of his collar.

    Startled, Ye Lu transformed into a completely black dog, suspended in mid-air with all four paws off the ground. Their eyes met, and seeing the much larger Xiang Yan, Ye Lu froze in fear, ceasing his sobs and quietly whimpering.

    Unconsciously, Xiang Yan's gaze fell upon Ye Lu's abdomen, and he wondered aloud, "Huh, why is Ye Lu a boy?"

    A soft smile graced Shen Yuan's lips as he gently held Ye Lu and mounted a horse, heading back to Orchid Garden.

    This was the same canine demon that had been found in the mass grave.

    "Ye Lu..." Ju Lang hesitated before speaking. After a pause, he said, "That day at the foot of Xixuan Gate, he was the dog that carried away your heart..."

    "No wonder she looked familiar!" An Zhi exclaimed in surprise.

    Ju Lang continued, "That's why Ye Lu was able to transform into human form within just a few short years."

    Recalling Ye Lu's lick, An Zhi shuddered at the thought that perhaps she had intended to consume him.

    Ju Lang reached out and grasped An Zhi's shoulder, turning his body to face him directly. With a serious expression, he asked, "When you told me not to touch you earlier, were you blaming me?"

    An Zhi replied nonchalantly, "I'm not Shen Yuan." He gently patted Ju Lang's shoulder. "Don't worry, I'm not someone who holds grudges. It was just a reflex, not intentional."

    Upon hearing this, Ju Lang's eyes widened in surprise, and he stood there stunned for a moment before breaking into a wide smile.

    When he smiled, his phoenix-like eyes curved like crescent moons, narrowing into two charming slits. His expression was both adorable and innocent.

    It was the first time An Zhi had seen Ju Lang smile so brightly. The haze in An Zhi's eyes instantly cleared, replaced by a brilliant gleam as he stared, mesmerized.

    Noticing An Zhi's intense gaze, Ju Lang immediately reined in his smile. He reached up to touch his cheek, puzzled. "Is there something on my face?"

    Realizing his actions, An Zhi quickly turned away from Ju Lang, vigorously shaking his head. "No, no..." He felt deeply embarrassed, and his voice trembled with fear.

    Their encounter unfolded amidst the ebb and flow of the Southern Breeze in Caiye Town, a bond now forged between them that was hard to sever.

    "Master," Ye Lu's voice echoed unexpectedly.

    Following the sound, he stood outside the hall, backlit, with his ears perked up. He twitched his ear, stirring a faint cloud of dust. His expression turned solemn as he said, "I request that Master accompany me to the mass grave. There's someone who has lingered for a long time, desiring only to meet you."

    Ju Lang and An Zhi exchanged glances before they chorused, "Alright."

    Ye Lu led them along the Yupo River, navigating through twists and turns until they ventured deep into the forest, where they paused in front of a cave.

    Though autumn had arrived, cicadas still sang tirelessly. A gentle breeze swept through the trees, causing their leaves to rustle softly against each other.

    Then, a ghostly figure gradually materialized beside Ye Lu.

    Seeing this, the already ghost-phobic An Zhi promptly sought refuge behind Ju Lang.

    It was a male ghost, not nearly as terrifying as the female ghost haunting Jian Fengzi. Instead, he had an attractive and refined appearance, suggesting he had been a kind and trustworthy person in life.

    Strikingly, he possessed phoenix-like eyes that bore a remarkable resemblance to Ju Lang's.

    "Milord," the male ghost called out to An Zhi, attempting to draw closer to him as he spoke.

    An Zhi, filled with fear, cried out, "Y-Y-You! Please, just speak without coming any closer."

    The male ghost halted his steps and said, "Milord, it's me, Lin Xing. Back then, when you were fond of me, you asked Empress Dian to grant me the status of a Demigod."

    An Zhi didn't recall Lin Xing, but hearing "fond of me" and seeing how similar he looked to Ju Lang, he suspected that this might be Shen Yuan's first love.

    He awkwardly chuckled twice in response.

    Lin Xing continued, "When the young master met his demise at Xixuan Men, I was bound to tend to the old palace daily, sweeping and cleaning. But then... then Dian Shan seized the position of Jiu Li's ruler from Lady Dian. He executed all the servants in the palace. Having become a demigod, my body cannot perish, and my soul cannot enter the underworld for reincarnation. Thus, I am condemned to wander eternally on earth."

    Upon hearing this, An Zhi's expression turned grave. "You're saying that the people in that mass grave were all servants executed by the palace?"

    Lin Xing nodded, "Yes."

    Ju Lang objected, "Wouldn't it be noticed if so many people suddenly vanished from the vast Jiu Li Imperial Palace overnight?"

    Lin Xing countered, "Are you familiar with puppets?"

    Ju Lang nodded. "I see."

    Lin Xing said, "A group of people disappearing overnight would certainly attract attention. But what if the timeline was stretched? Annually, under the pretense of granting them freedom and compensation for their years in the palace, a portion of the servants could be released with some gold and silver. Then, a new batch could be recruited. Over time, all the original servants would eventually be replaced."

    An Zhi had a foreboding feeling. "So you're saying that Dian Shan turned those servants into puppets, using the excuse of freeing them to send them away, only for them to end up in that mass grave…?"

    "Correct," Lin Xing replied. "Another characteristic of puppets is that they lack independent thought and can be controlled by others. If those servants from back then were all turned into puppets, no one would ever divulge Dian Shan's secrets."

    An Zhi frowned, feeling uneasy. He spat, "That Dian Shan is too wicked!"

    Lin Xing hummed in agreement. "I'm already a Demigod, and after the young master's passing, I rarely left the main hall. I wasn't aware of this matter."

    Ju Lang asked, "Then how did you find out?"

    Lin Xing turned his gaze, casually sweeping over Ye Lu's face.

    At the same time, Ye Lu was looking at Lin Xing.

    His affection for Lin Xing filled his eyes, but Lin Xing refused to give him more than a glance, even showing disdain. "This dog told me."

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

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