“Xihe-Jun, since the good times enjoyed with one’s lover are always short, please remember to indulge while you can.”
Due to the urgency of the situation, Mo Xi did not have time to pay a special visit to the Emperor to notify him. He could only send a sound transmission butterfly to the palace, while he hurried ahead to the foot of the Mountain of War Spirits alone.
Once he reached the entrance, he saw that the two cultivators who guarded the mountain had died—their eyes had been dug out, and their hearts had been taken from them.
Exactly the same way in which Elder Yu had died.
The ring on his thumb burned hotter, pointing straight towards the blood-speckled mountain path. Mo Xi stared at the ring for a beat1[More precisely, Meatbun says that Mo Xi stared at his ring for a 须臾 (xū yú), which converts to about 48 minutes, but has a non-literal meaning of “a short moment”. Contextually, he doesn’t have the luxury of 48 minutes here (other than the fact that it’s a bit too specific).], gritting his teeth as he muttered, “…Gu Mang…is it really you?”
His heart grew colder, and he flitted directly up the mountain.
The terrain of the Mountain of War Spirits was extremely complex. At its peak, amidst floating clouds like gauze, heroes of each Chonghua dynasty were buried. Rumour had it that deep into the silent night, the neighing of war horses and the clanging of metal on metal would occasionally resonate from the mountain range, as if verifying the rumour that “As long as the wars among the Nine Provinces do not cease, the heroic spirits of Chonghua will not reincarnate.”Here, many navigation artefacts suffered interference by spiritual energy, and were unable to indicate the correct direction. Even Mo Xi’s silver ring was affected some, only turning once more after a good few adjustments were made.
Mo Xi arrived at the foot of the Mountain of War Spirits.
Upon reaching, he halted in his steps. Gazing at the faint, chilly mist drifting throughout the dense forest, he muttered, “Dream of Longing…”
Indeed, this mist was no ordinary mountain fog, but the “Dream of Longing” employed by only certain advanced cultivators from the Liao kingdom.
This was a sort of illusory technique that could transform the appearance of one’s actual surroundings, reforging a new world around them. If a person had their lust incited and lost their mind to it, their mind could be easily destroyed. However, Mo Xi had gone up against cultivators from the Liao kingdom who used “Dream of Longing” on many occasions. To him, resisting this technique was not difficult.
This was where the tip of the ring’s needle pointed to, which also meant that Gu Mang was currently within the mist created by Dream of Longing.
He had to enter.
Mo Xi pondered for a moment, then raised his hand and intoned, “Conjure a butterfly.”
A sound transmission butterfly appeared at his command.
Mo Xi said, “Convey the coordinates and the situation to the Emperor. I will go scout out the situation first. Let him send men as reinforcements.”
The butterfly fluttered its wings. Barely a moment later, it had disappeared into the depths of the mountainous wood. Mo Xi, on the other hand, stepped into this thick fog that could not be dispersed.
Around him was white fog stretching in all directions. If he extended a hand, it was difficult for him to distinguish his five fingers.
“Gu Mang!” He raised his voice. “Gu Mang, come out!”
His voice echoed in the fog. After a long while, a person’s light laughter came from within the chilly mist. “Xihe-Jun?”
The person who spoke was not Gu Mang.
That person sighed. “I was careless. I had the constant feeling that this Beast of the Altar I captured seemed to have some traces of a foreign spiritual energy. So it was you, who implanted a tracking talisman in him.”
“…May I know who you are?”
“Who I am? Does Xihe-Jun not have his conjectures after having investigated the brothel case for so long?” That vague figure looked so insubstantial in the mist, flickering into view for that short instant, before quickly vanishing again.
It was no more than this brief, startling glimpse, but Mo Xi had already attacked swiftly and ruthlessly, hurtling a burning fireball hurtling over with a bang.
“Aiyo.” A humph came from within the dense fog. After a few beats of silence, that voice sighed. “Xihe-Jun, the warrior god of indomitable will, truly lives up to his reputation.” Abruptly, he chuckled, dark and dangerous, “You have a really terrible temper.”
Mo Xi gritted his teeth. “Where is Gu Mang? What is your relationship to him?!”
“I don’t have any relationship to him. As for who I am, aren’t there many theories bouncing around in the city of Chonghua?” That person said sweetly, as if he was narrating something that he found extremely interesting. “The brothel rapist, the cook who escaped from the Luomei Garden Villa…” He scoffed, and the sound echoed in the thickening fog. “This is too fun. I have heard many accounts, and even told one myself.”
He even told one himself?!
As if he could see Mo Xi’s slightly widened eyes, that person drawled cheerily, “Oh, yes, I was bored, and posed as a storyteller to tell the guests stories at the tea shop. I said that I mounted seventy people in a night, but that friend of yours, Younger Yue-gongzi, was simply not satisfied. He wanted to say something about a quick-shot brothel customer, he’s really so playful.”
“You dared to…then, the actual storyteller…”
“I killed him, of course.” The person was nonchalant. “After I killed him, I think I threw him into a dried-up well? Flung him into the mass graves? I’m sorry, I’ve killed too many people, I can’t remember it clearly myself.”
At last, he chuckled. “Although, I have to say, you’re more reliable than that Wangshu-Jun. He thought up a few answers with his wild imagination, and instantly rushed to pry evidence out of the suspect. On the other hand, you know to properly examine the handful of sword wounds on the corpses.”
The person paused, and said with considerable elation, “So, have you found anything?”
Mo Xi’s voice was a heated rumble. “…You are really Li Qingqian?”
The other remained silent for a beat in the dense fog, before he suddenly cackled. That laughter grew louder, and creepier, reverberating through the surroundings. It was hard to tell where it was coming from.
“Li Qingqian…Li Qingqian, haha, hahahaha….” That name seemed to prod at a sore spot in that person’s heart; the long laughter that crawled out of his throat was like an eagle circling overhead, lingering.
“I am not!” Abruptly, his voice went tight. Amidst the echo of his words, he snarled, “The first chapter of the Water Parting Sword Manual: The heroic sword parts the waters, the righteous sword executes sorrow. Save humanity despite one’s poverty; one should not reject calls for help even when endless trouble comes knocking…how laughable, how woeful, how pitiful! Grandmaster Li is nothing but a pauper, a useless bum, entirely antiquated in his beliefs!”
He continued to castigate him and rage for a while, before gradually calming down after some time. In the desolate silence of the chilly mist, he suddenly said, “I look down upon you false gentlemen. Clearly, all the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance are present in your hearts. Yet, to pursue fame and a clear reputation, you don’t dare to admit to them, nor do you dare to let go of them.”
His words were teeming with dangerous intent.
Mo Xi could not be more sensitive to the aura of someone out for blood; instantly, his gaze hardened, and he commanded, “Shuairan! Come!”
There was a flash of red, and the heavenly whip was hissing in his hand.
“Oh, Shuairan.” That person hmphed, “It is incredibly extraordinary. It has a might that shocks the heavens, but unfortunately, I think you probably won’t be able to use it here.”
“I can’t best you in a fight, so I won’t fight you head-on. However, I had the luck to overhear some secrets about you—to trap you, I have an abundance of other methods.”
“For example…” He paused, then asked with sudden interest, “Back when Gu Mang was confined in isolation in the Luomei Garden Villa, did you tell him that…you were the one who marked him with the lotus sigil?”
Cold gripped Mo Xi’s heart. Clenching his teeth, he bit out, “…What, exactly, are you!”
“Don’t rush to ask me what I am. How about I ask you instead?” That person said with more interest, “Let me ask you—Chonghua’s top general, the aloof and unsullied Xihe-Jun. Who distances himself from men and women alike, restraining himself for thirty years. The shallow-hearted man whose coldness could not even be melted with Princess Mengze’s patient effort.”
His voice fluctuated between near and far; at this moment, it was nearly plastered against the back of his ear, his tone dripping.
“You and that General Gu; what relationship do you two have?”
With a swish, Shuairan snapped downwards, his fury causing sparks to explode all along the whip.
Yet, that apparition seemed to have predicted this. This time, it missed him, and he disappeared without a trace once more.
“Sir, you’re so fierce. Looks like I’d guessed it entirely correct?”
Mo Xi did not answer, but he ordered, “Hand Gu Mang over!”
“Hand him over? I’m not stupid. He used to be the Liao Kingdom’s fiercest general. Although his golden core has been shattered, I have my own ways to control him and reawaken his battle prowess.” The apparition remained smiling. “Since I have such a capable warrior, why do I have to hand him over?”
He paused, and his smile grew more distinct. “In your Chonghua empire, the only one who can take him on in single combat is you, Xihe-Jun. As long as he helps me stand guard, the others who come won’t be able to defeat him. As for your arrival, Xihe-Jun…”
The greasy overfamiliarity in his words grew even more pronounced.
“I have other methods too.”
As he spoke, the last of his words drew further away, as if he intended to disappear like this.
“Since you have the outstanding bravery to step into this illusion for him, naturally, I should fulfil my duties of hospitality, and let him entertain you properly.”
That person chuckled lightly. “Xihe-Jun, since the good times enjoyed with one’s lover are always short, please remember to indulge while you can.”
As if responding to his intentions, a flash of red suddenly lit up in the distance, accompanied by a warbling operatic tone. Someone was singing in a clear voice, “White camellia, awash in fresh rain. Within the humble loft is a clear day. Song and wine flow nonstop for those capable of thought. One is even moved by the insensible insects he spies2[From the Chinese play A Dream Under the Southern Bough]…”
Mo Xi knew that once he stepped into the Dream of Longing illusion, he could not break it from within and could only wait for the Emperor’s reinforcements to arrive. Before that, the illusion in front of him was unavoidable. However, as long as he maintained his awareness, it was not a difficult task to endure his way through it.
But at this exact moment, that apparition’s voice rang from deep within the illusion. “Xihe-Jun, I know what you’re planning. You’re thinking of forcing yourself to last through it, right?”
He giggled. “How unfortunate. You might be able to withstand it, but Gu Mang might not be able to.”
Unease gripped Mo Xi’s heart. “What do you mean?”
“Everyone says that Xihe-Jun’s self-discipline is astonishing, and it is difficult to interfere with his willpower. Of course, I won’t be so foolish to pick a hard nut to crack. Now that Gu Mang is missing parts of his soul, and is nothing more than a poor, mentally-damaged thing—of course, it’ll be easier for me to do things to him.”
He drawled, “When that ring of yours was pointing the way for you, did it also tell you that he had been drugged?”
Mo Xi’s blood grew cold in an instant. He seethed, “You–!”
“I, what? I’m despicable?” The apparition laughed. “I only gave him a little drug that would stimulate his vigour, all the better for him to be my bodyguard with. The virtuous Xihe-Jun, where did your mind wander to?”
Pausing temporarily, the apparition continued delightedly, “Although, you aren’t wrong either. I am indeed shameless. Because the next drug I intend to feed him, is another kind of drug entirely.”
“I’ve not only thrown you into this illusion, I’ve thrown him in as well.” The apparition’s voice was oily. “You may be able to hold out with your lofty virtue and self-discipline, but can you bear to see him…hehehe, I won’t say anymore, I won’t say anymore.”
Mo Xi was infuriated enough that he was tempted to curse aloud. But what was the true identity of this rapist? Was it Li Qingqian? Was it the cook from the Liao kingdom? Or was he some wild demented spectre?
“Man is no more than lust given flesh and blood. Some people are held back from progressing by the vices, and others pursue a grand and pristine reputation. However, if carnal desire is lust, isn’t the desire for a pristine reputation also considered lust?” The apparition tittered. “What difference is there?”
“Continue on forwards. Your Gu Mang-gege is waiting for you ahead.”
His voice vanished entirely, but the music intensified in volume, and the wailing song of the entertainer nearly shot up into the clouds in pitch, slithering over to him like a venomous snake. “The nation is forged in the gloom of the seventh month. Flirtatious glances blossom into a blessed marriage. Still Qixuan chants the remaining scriptures. I pose the question: if the eastern wind scatters the dream—when will they wake—!3[Continuation of A Dream Under the Southern Bough. Qixuan refers to Abbot Qixuan, a character who appears in the fourth act of the play.]”
With the last cry of “Wake!”, the surrounding mist dissipated at once.
Mo Xi found himself standing amidst a sea of incandescent lamplight. It was night-time, and people were hurrying back and forth, weaving among the crowd like threads brought together tightly on a working loom. With the galaxy of stars sparkling overhead, it was a night as bright as day.
Two guards wearing blue cultivator robes hemmed with a gold cloud-and-thunder pattern stood at the grand gate of the white-walled, blackish green-tiled manor. The eight lamps lining the path to the manor’s entrance were blazing, and a blue sigil above the lintel shifted with a blue bat motif.
The insignia of Murong Lian’s clan.
–Why was it…the Wangshu Manor?
The illusion created by Dream of Longing usually had some connection to certain memories that one found difficult to let go of.
At this moment, he was not the only one trapped in this illusion. There was still Gu Mang, and therefore this scenario should not have been caused by any obsession of his, but by the similarly-trapped, and drugged…
Although Gu Mang’s memories were incomplete, the compulsions of his heart could be exploited. However, why was it the Wangshu Manor?
Wangshu Manor. The drug. Lust. Their past. These phrases surfaced in his mind one by one; with further consideration, Mo Xi suddenly thought of something, and his elegant face paled instantly.
Could it be that Gu Mang had been hijacked of…that memory?
Cursing silently, his figure glided up to the tiled roof adorned with rearing beasts and chiwen4[One of the nine sons of the dragon, the chiwen is frequently used in architectural designs on roofs like the Western gargoyle.], and streaked towards a particular corner of the Wangshu Manor.
The author has something to say:
Murong Lian: If you want me to aid the gong for whatever is going on between the both of you, whatever. But you’re gaying it up in my house, and despite me providing the location, the effort, and the talking, I’m still cussed out to no end. I quit, I want to be the main lead. I’m hiring for someone to form the ship with me, who’s willing to feature on-screen with me?
Yue Chenqing: I am still a kid.
Mo Xi: Keke.
Gu Mang-mang: I heard that some people ship the unorthodox ship of me x you.
Jiang Yexue: I am a straight dude.
Fourth Uncle: I am an emotionless side character.
The Emperor: A-Lian, Jinjiang forbids random ships, how about you put up a show “Crazy Emperor, Perverted Concubine” with me? I’m very willing to do so.
Jiang Fuli: Someone once said that romance and dating is an illness that has to be treated. These words epitomise my beliefs.
Murong Lian: …Did I invite you to answer? I’m a straight fucking dude too, I was inviting female guests, okay??? Everyone above5[seal’s note: I always find this so funny, but the original text says “upstairs”, which refers to Chinese netspeak. They refer to the OP of a thread as the “apartment owner”, and every comment is a “floor”, so when he says ‘upstairs’ he’s referring to the ‘comments above him’ LOL. Think of a twitter or tumblr thread!], scram!!!
Translator & Editor’s note: Today is February 10th, so happy birthday Gu Mang!!!!!