“Who is this Perfected One?” Lin Shouxi asked as he slipped into the white Taoist robe handed to him by the young maiden, before stepping out the door and onto the damp, ancient corridor with her by his side.
“The Perfected One is said to be a Taoist master hailing from the famous Yunkong Mountain,” the snow-haired maiden replied, as she led the way.
“His skills are profound and unfathomable, so when you meet him, be mindful of your words.”
Lin Shouxi’s brow furrowed in confusion.
Her tone suggested that he should be familiar with this place, but he was certain he had never heard of it before.
He hoped she would say something further on the matter.
When she didn’t, he finally took notice of her striking hair.
He could see now that it was not the withered white of old age, but instead of newfallen snow, flowing down her back like liquid light.
It was especially remarkable against the backdrop of the dreary, rain-soaked sky.
It’s so beautiful.
Just as this thought crossed his mind, his gaze inadvertently swept outside the corridor, and he froze.
Beyond the aging structure lay a sheer cliff that plummeted into a seemingly bottomless abyss.
A wind howled along the cliff face, and massive clouds surged up from the depths.
The gaping maw that was the abyss below swallowed up the falling rain and spit out billowing white mist.
Lin Shouxi couldn’t help but feel drawn into its tumultuous currents.
He was so lost in the sight that he almost didn’t hear the young maiden’s voice when she began to speak again.
“This abode has been submerged in water for who knows how many years,” she said gently, “you might want to step back a bit so you don’t fall off the edge.”
Lin Shouxi’s attention snapped back to the present moment at the young maiden’s warning.
“Submerged in water for who knows how many years?” he asked, surprised by the information.
The young maiden nodded.
“Yes, that’s right,” she explained in a soft voice.
“This was once a vast lake, known as Wuzhu Lake.
Recently, most of the water mysteriously evaporated, causing this sunken ancient courtyard to be uncovered.
In addition, the cliffs and ravines below have accumulated yin for a long time, which has made them a breeding ground for evil spirits,” the young maiden explained softly.”
A dried up lake… an ancient courtyard at the heart of it… as well as evil spirits…
As the maiden spoke of these things as if they were normal, Lin Shouxi’s heart gradually tightened.
He began to suspect that he had stumbled into a new world, a world filled with countless mysteries that he could not even begin to fathom yet.
It was then that memories of a conversation he’d once had with his master flooded back into his mind.
“Our world may not be the only one,” his master had said.
“What?” he’d asked.
“Our world is gradually being corrupted by evil forces,” his master explained, “like a drop of ink falling into a crystal-clear vase of water.
But if the clear water in the vase represents our world, then who could have dropped that ink in?”
“There are other worlds out there? With people in them?” Lin Shouxi could hardly believe it.
“Do those people want to come here?” he asked again.
“They may already have,” was his master’s solemn reply.
At the time, Lin Shouxi had dismissed his master’s words as mere ramblings.
But now, he found himself in one of those worlds.
In the midst of that violent storm in the City of Death, the gateway between two worlds had opened before him, and he had been drawn in.
“So that is how it is,” he muttered, both in response to the young maiden by his side as much as to himself.
After gaining some slight insight into his current situation, he was certain that he couldn’t let anyone discover his true nature as an outworlder.
Immersed in their own thoughts, the two continued on in silence down the ancient cliffside corridor.
But every now and then, Lin Shouxi couldn’t help but sneak a glance at the snow-haired maiden.
Other than her hair, she seemed like an ordinary girl, with no discernible special features.
Despite this, she walked with a light and graceful step, as if she were a palace maid carrying a lantern.
As they passed through the straight corridor and turned the corner, the cliffside dropped away behind them.
Lin Shouxi saw a few trees that resembled iron.
At first, he thought nothing of it, but then he remembered that this place had once been at the bottom of the lake.
His heart shuddered at the thought – had people really lived at the bottom of this lake and had enough time and leisure to plant trees and flowers down here?
Many of his preconceptions were being shattered at a breakneck pace.
“We’re here, the Perfected One is inside,” the girl said as they arrived at an old and weathered wooden pavilion.
Lin Shouxi gazed upon the two shattered bronze beasts guarding the entrance and felt a chill run down his spine.
He stepped into the pavilion, hand in hand with the young girl.
The pavilion was dimly lit, with a few candles flickering, casting a weak glow that was more suitable for some sort of ritual than for illumination.
Within the pavilion, there were about a dozen people, mostly young boys and girls around the same age as Lin Shouxi.
They knelt on the ground, heads bowed, while a young white-faced Taoist sat cross-legged in front of them, his left hand clasping a stone and his right hand clutching a wooden sword.
The Taoist was dressed in black, with his pale face illuminated by the candlelight.
Lin Shouxi quickly scanned the room, but Mu Shijing was nowhere to be found.
Suddenly, a young boy of about ten years old timidly approached the Taoist.
“Hand,” the Taoist ordered .
The boy nervously extended his hand.
The Taoist placed the stone in his left hand and asked, “What is your name? Have you been married or have you lain with a woman?”
The boy answered with his name but shook his head to the other questions, indicating that he was still a virgin.
The Taoist nodded, but then his brow furrowed.
The Taoist picked up the wooden sword and slashed the boy’s arm.
A layer of dirt fell, revealing a black and purple line that looked like a bloodsucker hiding under his skin.
Lin Shouxi’s heart sank as he beheld the boy’s condition.
He recognized the telltale signs of demon’s breath all too well, having witnessed its ravages before.
Even his master, with all his skill and training, had succumbed to its deadly grasp, confirming his suspicions.
This world was awash with the taint of demon’s breath.
Perhaps this place was the very origin of the darkness.
“You have been sullied by evil.” The Taoist’s voice was cold and emotionless.
The boy’s pupils shrunk like beans as fear gripped him.
He had tried to conceal the revealing mark on his hand by slathering it in mud as dark as his skin.
But his attempts at deception were in vain, for he never anticipated the keenness of the Taoist’s vision.
With a gaze as sharp as lightning, the Taoist had seen through his ruse, even in the dimly lit environment.
“No! That’s not it… It’s a birthmark, a birthmark… I was born with it! I haven’t been possessed by evil, I swear… Please, great one, believe me!”
The boy raised his head, his face now ashen, and stammered out his defense, his body shaking like a live wire, but the Taoist remained unmoved.
A bloodstain appeared on the boy’s chest and quickly spread, expanding rapidly into a pool of vermilion.
The boy’s pupils dilated and his voice fell to a few meaningless syllables before he crumpled to the ground like a wooden puppet, never to rise again.
The Taoist’s gaze fell upon his two disciples seated in the front row, who promptly rose to their feet and carried the boy’s lifeless body away, tossing it over the cliff with practiced ease.
As he peered at the wound on the boy’s chest, Lin Shouxi couldn’t help but feel a jolt of shock course through him.
“Don’t be afraid.
Many more will die,” the young maiden whispered, mistaking his surprise for fear.
When in truth, he had been awestruck by the Taoist’s swordsmanship.
Even as one of the top swordsmen in his world, he had never witnessed such a swift and deadly strike, a sword draw so imperceptible.
The girl and he took their seats among the crowd.
She sat with an air of detachment, as if she didn’t belong.
Lin Shouxi’s emotions still churned within him, and he had to forcibly quell his killing intent.
He sneaked a furtive glance at the Taoist, who now summoned another young man forth.
This man was finely dressed and appeared to hail from a wealthy family, but his bloated physique belied his outward appearance.
The young man approached the Taoist, visibly trembling.
“Wang, Wang Ji,” he said nervously.
Glancing at the young man’s wrist, the Taoist handed him the stone and asked the last two customary questions: “Are you married? Have you had sexual relations?”
The young man’s legs swung nervously as he replied in a trembling voice, “No… I haven’t.”
The stone emitted a sharp hum that caused everyone in the room to shudder and straighten their backs.
The slightly overweight young man sat on the ground, feeling as though his insides were about to split apart.
As a scion of a prestigious family, he had yet to marry, but his family had many maids.
How could he still be a virgin? In the past, he and other young masters of noble families had boasted about their sexual exploits, but now his virginity had become the very thing that would cost him his life.
He fell to his knees with a thud and screamed, “I am the third young master of the Wang family.
I don’t know how I got here, but I heard that the Perfected One is from Yunkong Mountain… My family has an old connection with one of the elders there.
If you send me back to the Wang family, I will do everything in my power to repay you…”
His scream was cut short as he collapsed to the ground, his back covered in blood.
He convulsed twice and then lay still.
Next up was the snow-haired maiden.
Like the previous disciples, she had to answer the three questions.
The young maiden took the stone from the Perfected One and glanced at her wrist before answering in a soft voice, “My name is Xiao He.
I am not married, but I have had sexual relations…”
She paused for a moment, seeming to hesitate.
The Perfected One looked at her with surprise and asked, “How old were you when you lost your virginity?”
“Eighteen,” Xiao He replied.
The room fell silent.
The Perfected One asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: “How old are you now?”
“Fourteen,” Xiao He answered.
The stone in her hand remained silent, indicating that what she had said was likely true.
What was going on?
The Perfected One, who had seen and experienced much, furrowed his brow and took out a pen, writing a line on a piece of paper: “Suspect ‘foresight spirit root’.”
Xiao He turned around and walked back to her spot, sitting on the ground and tucking her feet under her skirt.
As she passed by him, Lin Shouxi wasn’t sure if it was his imagination or if she had given him a faint glance, her pale eyes hazy with emotion.
Now it was his turn.
Lin Shouxi approached the demonic-looking Taoist, feeling an oppressive force pressing against his chest that he couldn’t resist.
Even in the past, when he had exchanged swords with his master, he had never felt this way.
He took the stone handed to him by the Taoist, and something seemed to enter his palm from the surface of the stone, making his arm feel cold.
If he lied, the stone would emit a warning sound that meant death.
The Taoist looked at his arm to confirm that he was not tainted by demon’s breath before asking the usual questions: “What is your name? Are you married? Have you had sexual relations?”
“My name is Lin Shouxi,” he answered crisply.
“I am not married, and I have not had sexual relations.”
Even though he knew he was telling the truth, Lin Shouxi still didn’t feel safe.
In his world, he had been a top master.
But now he was at the bottom again, in an unfamiliar and alien world, facing a Taoist whose depth was unfathomable.
He even had a hallucination that the stone might go off any second now.
The stone remained silent.
The Taoist held his tongue, then a hmm escaped his lips.
Lin Shouxi’s heart pounded in his chest as he handed the stone back to the Taoist, careful not to make any sudden movements.
He stole a quick glance at the Taoist’s face, which was covered in white powder and marred with scars that looked like they had been burned into the skin.
He quickly averted his gaze.
But before he could compose himself, he caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye and instinctively turned to the right.
He saw a great shadow crawling over the window.
The shadow looked like a grotesque creature with a long tail, resembling an infant in some ways.
Its large, bloated body clung to the glass like slime, its wrinkled flesh contorting its face.
The crab-like pupil in its eyes glowed with a blood-red hue, and it opened its mouth, revealing its sharp teeth as if it were grinning at those inside.
Lin Shouxi back straightened up, his heart racing as he realized that none of the others in the room had yet noticed the monstrous apparition.
Suddenly, the Taoist’s sharp voice cut through the silence.
“What are you looking at?” he demanded, fixing his gaze on Lin Shouxi.
With a deafening crack, lightning ripped through the air, but Lin Shouxi remained surprisingly still.
He remembered the vow he had made to his master before he died, swearing to vanquish all wickedness no matter the cost.
Even though he had thought he would never have the chance to fulfill that promise after his confrontation with Mu Shijing and the evil god, fate had brought him to this strange world, and he refused to squander it by dying here.
Gathering his courage, Lin Shouxi met the Taoist’s gaze with a steady one of his own and said.
“Perfected One, it’s raining heavily outside.”
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