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    Chapter 103 - The Plague, Part Two

    Xun Wu, situated in the far north of Jiu Li, was separated from the barren Northern Wasteland only by the Scarlet Water River.

    Due to the plague's cause, the city was eerily quiet. Many crows and vultures flew overhead, as if they were deathly signals sent from the netherworld.

    Perhaps it was the oppressive atmosphere that made Wang Pan and He Mengfang subconsciously tense up, vigilantly scanning their surroundings, fearful of any unexpected danger or missing the chance to question any surviving citizens about the plague.

    Under such high alertness, they failed to notice Shen Yuan not following them.

    Nonetheless, after walking down Xun Wu's streets for a while, they didn't encounter a single inhabitant.

    He Mengfang suggested, "Let's just knock on the doors."

    Wang Pan nodded. "Alright."

    The two then split up, knocking on doors on either side.

    "Is anyone home?" Wang Pan asked as he rapped on a door.

    A moment of silence ensued, with no reply. This was Wang Pan's seventh attempt. He turned around, ready to leave.

    "Cough, cough, cough..."

    A faint coughing sound emerged from within the house.

    Wang Pan immediately spun back, "Can you get up to open the door?"

    Another pause—"Cough, cough, cough..."

    It seemed that wasn't possible.

    "Wang Pan always manages to exhibit the perfect blend of politeness and gravity," she said. "Too much would be overly stern, too little would be jovial."

    With that, she slammed her foot against the wooden door, sending it swinging open.

    In an instant, a scent of herbs mingled with a strong musty odor assaulted their nostrils. Wang Pan's brow furrowed.

    Xun Wu Street also carried this aroma, but within the confined space of the room, the smell was not diffused into the surroundings, thus appearing exceptionally pungent.

    "Cough, cough..." — Another bout of coughing echoed.

    Wang Pan traced the sound to its source. Enduring the pungent smell, he ventured deeper into the house and eventually found the person in the kitchen.

    There, the figure was wrapped in black cloth, leaning against the stove. A pot of medicine hung beside them, with the charcoal fire beneath reduced to cold ashes. It seemed that the hearth had been left unlit for several days.

    Wang Pan crouched down beside the individual. He conjured a ball of spiritual energy on his fingertip and gently inserted it into the person's forehead.

    — Strangely, he couldn't discern any illness at all!

    "Mind your own business!"

    Suddenly, an unfamiliar woman's voice reached Wang Pan's ears.

    He quickly withdrew his hand and looked out the window, catching a glimpse of a dark shadow darting by. Just as he was about to rise to pursue, he heard the person scream in terror, "Y-Your hair!"

    In Wang Pan's memory, his mother had white hair, and he was also born with prematurely gray locks. He replied nonchalantly, "Nothing unusual about it."

    "Fang Han, it's that white-haired demoness Fang Han back again! She wants us all dead! Y-You... Your hair! ...You're in cahoots with her!!" the person exclaimed emotionally.

    Human affairs are fickle, Wang Pan mused to himself.

    He inquired, "Then, do you know why Fang Han is doing this?"

    "The girl is a born enchantress; does she need a reason to commit evil?!"

    "Enchantress? What kind of enchantment?"

    "She was born different from us, with innate white hair, clearly bearing an eerie aura! She's an outsider!! Cough! Cough, cough…" The man spoke with conviction, but his excitement provoked a severe bout of coughing.

    Upon hearing this, Wang Pan felt somewhat disappointed. He muttered softly, "So it's not that she's an evil spirit from the demon realm or a soul from the Ghost Domain; she's just different by birth, and thus considered monstrous?..."

    The man continued, "She is... Cough! ...the source of the plague! Yes! They are the sources!! Yes! Cough, cough, cough..."

    Wang Pan said calmly, "Don't get agitated just yet."

    However, as soon as he finished speaking, the man abruptly stood up, his eyes piercing into Wang Pan's. Through gritted teeth, he spat out fiercely, "Fang Han is the... source!..." After saying this, the man's chest rose and fell violently as he struggled to draw in air, but still couldn't catch his breath. His eyes rolled back, and he slumped backward.

    Moments ago, they were standing mere inches apart. Wang Pan had a clear view of the man's face and was startled by what he saw.

    The figure was entirely swathed in black cloth, with only a pair of eyes exposed. Up close, one could discern a faint outline of ashen-gray skin around the eyes, even sprouting a layer of gray fuzz!

    Unease began to well up within him.

    After a stunned pause, he reached out to peel away the black cloth.

    His face paled instantly.

    —There were livid corpse spots on this person's body, and it was even covered in mold!

    He couldn't comprehend it and left the room in a somber mood.

    "If anyone's inside, just open the door... I'm a student from Peng Lai Island... Hey..."

    Somewhat farther away, He Mengfang persisted in knocking.

    Wang Pan approached, his robe fluttering as he gave the wooden door a swift kick.

    To avoid alarming anyone inside or causing them to babble incoherently, he said to He Mengfang, "You go in. Get straight to the point, but keep your tone gentle. Inquire about the specific ailment, its cause, and how long they've been suffering from it."

    He Mengfang couldn't help but look at Wang Pan in surprise. He had expected Wang Pan to wait politely for the homeowner's response, not to be so direct. If that was the case, what was the point of him worrying about etiquette and being overly cautious?

    He seemed to have ignored Wang Pan's earlier remarks, only focusing on nodding and entering the house.

    In Xun Wu Street, the songs of birds and chattering of people filled the air, with countless dwellings amidst the bustling city life. It should have been a scene of prosperity and human activity, yet now it was eerily silent, as if the heavens and earth mourned.

    In the past twenty years, Wang Pan had never witnessed such a gruesome sight. The atmosphere felt like being in a ghostly realm, a haunted place still within the mortal world. The suffering of humanity recorded in the books of Peng Lai Island had clearly been softened by the pen.

    "Heavens! That man actually had the nerve to call me a wastrel, saying that the He Style Heng Yao would change hands! Does he dare to tell me who will take over? When I find him, I'll pierce him through with a long sword!" He Mengfang fumed, venting his anger to himself in the empty house.

    But it was precisely those words that thoroughly enraged He Mengfang, and when he was angry, he always sought out Shen Yuan.

    Only then did they realize Shen Yuan was missing, and promptly retraced their steps.

    Shen Yuan offered He Mengfang another perspective. "Why end him? Wouldn't it be better to utilize him for your own gain? Once you ascend to the position of Heng Yao's leader, you'll have a capable aide by your side."

    Shen Yuan possessed an unusual clarity beyond his years. His words could either hit the nail on the head, illuminating listeners' minds, though sometimes they were too sharp, provoking anger and leaving people embarrassed, making enemies easily. Alternatively, he could be lighthearted and bold, eliciting laughter with his casual remarks, but taken too far, he bordered on foolishness.

    "Ahh—That's a great idea!" He Mengfang brightened momentarily before sinking back into gloom. "But how would I know who will take over Heng Yao in the future?" ...

    Shen Yuan said, "Let's ask that person again."

    He Mengfang replied, "We did. But they said, 'The secrets of heaven cannot be divulged,' and refused to speak no matter what."

    Shen Yuan was speechless for a moment. Then, with a smile, he said, "It's not a certainty. Perhaps that person was just spouting nonsense. Those without much knowledge tend to repeat the same old phrases..."

    "Why?" Wang Pan suddenly interjected.

    Shen Yuan turned to look at Wang Pan. "Why what?"

    Wang Pan asked, "Why do people continue to devote themselves to the world despite knowing its fickle nature, unable to let go?"

    This question genuinely stumped Shen Yuan. Wang Pan had never left Peng Lai Island and knew nothing of the vastness of the human world, making it difficult to explain.

    After a moment of contemplation, he pointed at a pavilion on Xun Wu Street and asked Wang Pan, "Look at that pavilion. How does it make you feel?"

    Wang Pan looked as instructed, measuring it with his gaze.

    With upturned eaves and green tiles, the roof held a row of glazed beasts shimmering in the sunlight, casting a soft glow. The pavilion rose high into the air, surrounded by swirling mists.

    He commented, "Elegant and resplendent, it matches the grandeur of the Penglai Pavilion, but the pavilions here seem rather new, suggesting recent construction."

    "Yes," Shen Yuan nodded. Then he asked, "How long did it take to build the Penglai Pavilion back then?"

    Wang Pan wasn't born when the Penglai Pavilion was constructed. However, there was another pavilion on Penglai Island that was comparable to it – the one where Chu Yun resided. Although the Medicine Pavilion was built at the same time as the Penglai Pavilion, Chu Yun often mentioned it.

    Recalling his memories, Wang Pan said, "About three days, I think."

    Shen Yuan then asked, "Do you know how long it took to build that other pavilion?"

    Wang Pan shook his head.

    Shen Yuan explained, "That pavilion was built by our parents in the year that Dian Shan and I were born. It was constructed for his well-being and safety, hence its name, the Unhurt Pavilion. With human labor, it took around ten years, thanks to the artisans working day and night. That's why the Unhurt Pavilion looks so new; it was only completed a month ago."

    "I know, I know," He Mengfang interrupted, "They say that under the Unhurt Pavilion is where Dian Shan's illness originated, and they needed to build something over it to suppress it. Dian Shan, being so silly..."

    Before he could finish, Shen Yuan gave He Mengfang a stern look. "Cousin, you're speaking about my brother right in front of me. Aren't you afraid that I might..."

    He Mengfang mumbled, "Didn't you also call Dian Shan silly when we were young?"

    "Hmm?" Shen Yuan raised his fist as he spoke.

    "Hehe, go on, go on..." He Mengfang chuckled.

    A breeze swept by, carrying the peculiar scent that the trio had long grown accustomed to, and also stirring a wind chime. Its ethereal melody breathed life into the seemingly transparent Xun Wu Street, imbuing it with a touch of vitality.

    With the wind chime's sound as his pillow, Shen Yuan said, "So you see, this Xun Wu Street, with its hustle and bustle, is the result of generations upon generations. It has seen countless decades, hosting and embodying so many joys and sorrows, loves and hates, and passions. Thinking about this, how could we bear to let it become a desolate ghost town?"

    Wang Pan lifted his gaze to look at Shen Yuan. His almond-shaped eyes were exceptionally bright, as if reflecting an entire galaxy.

    Thump, thump, thump... A strange pulsating sensation arose in his chest again.

    The gentle breeze persisted, and fearing that it might convey some secret message, Wang Pan quickly spoke up to cover it, "But... But the world is fickle, and the Netherworld used to be a city of eternal daylight. Now, it's shrouded in darkness. There are things we can't stop from happening, like the changing of the seasons, unalterable cycles."

    Shen Yuan patted Wang Pan on the shoulder, speaking with an old-world wisdom, "In the human world... even with torrential rains, natural disasters, or man-made calamities, as long as there's a spark, it can ignite a prairie fire. This unpredictability also means infinite possibilities. How do you know that there aren't idle immortals who envy the world's variability?"

    As he spoke, he hooked his hand around Wang Pan's neck, forcing him to bend and lower his head. Right next to his ear, Shen Yuan continued, "Pingdu turned into the Netherworld because it hadn't met us yet."

    The position with his neck hooked was truly uncomfortable, so Wang Pan stretched his neck, trying to straighten up. As he lifted his gaze, their eyes unexpectedly met. Shen Yuan raised an eyebrow, his lips curving slightly, and his almond eyes crinkling into a smile as he asked, "Young Island Master, do you agree with what I'm saying?"

    Wang Pan felt as if something had exploded in his mind. He couldn't quite describe the sensation, but it was akin to a chilling shock that sent shivers down his spine and left his back drenched in cold sweat.

    He abruptly straightened his posture, adjusted his collar, and spoke with suppressed anger, "What kind of behavior is this?!" Finished, he strode forward briskly, creating a distance of about seventy feet between himself and Shen Yuan.

    He alone struggled to contain the violent rise and fall of his chest.

    He Mengfang bowed his hands towards Shen Yuan and said, "You dared to loop your arm around his neck? Nephew, I admire your audacity, truly."

    Shen Yuan replied in puzzlement, "Is he made of glass, fragile and not to be touched?"

    He Mengfang chuckled softly. "Not really. It's mainly because you're not well-acquainted with him."

    Shen Yuan tilted his head, barely audible in his sigh. As if under a spell, he halted in his steps. His face was grave and silent, his eyes narrowing slightly as the bags under them became more pronounced. He fixated on a particular shop.

    Confused, He Mengfang approached and asked, "What's up? Are you planning to 'part ways' with him?"

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