Author: 梦溪石 / Meng Xi Shi
Translator: Kinky || https://kinkytranslations.com/
Li Han’er lay drenched on the sandy ground. In the past, she would have felt uncomfortable all over, wishing she could rush to take a shower and change clothes immediately. But now, as the mist hadn’t yet gathered, sunlight shone down from the sky cleared of dark clouds, warming her body and filling her heart with a sense of contentment.
She gazed at Dong Zhi from a distance with a slight smile forming at the corner of her mouth and exhaled a long breath.
Li Han’er still remembered the moment she learned that she had been temporarily assigned to the exchange team and that the team captain was Dong Zhi. There was a sense of dissatisfaction in her heart. Although she wouldn’t go to the leader to strongly protest and request a replacement, she did harbor ill intentions towards Long Shen’s disciple. Because of the unrequited affection she had once held for Long Shen, she found anyone who was favored by him displeasing in her eyes.
But when did this emotion change? Perhaps it was during the time when everyone was in a state of disappointment and despair, yet Dong Zhi remained calm and composed, seemingly unfazed by any difficulties. Perhaps it was when Dong Zhi took the lead, running at the forefront in the face of danger. Or perhaps it was during his bantering with Liu Qingbo, repeatedly pulling unexpected things out of his backpack to ease their tension and give them new hope. Li Han’er had to admit that Dong Zhi was simply not someone you could hate. Instead, he had a charm that made you involuntarily like him.
It was as if, wherever he was, the vitality of the world could be seen. Who could possibly dislike the vibrant and warm sunlight?
If it were Liu Qingbo, Zhang Song, or even her own elder brother, Li Ying, serving as the team leader, perhaps they could still achieve the final victory. However, it would inevitably come at the cost of sacrificing one or two people, and they would not have the same cohesive force as they did now. Only Dong Zhi could achieve this.
“My dear Han’er, who are you looking at?” William followed her gaze and couldn’t help but widen his eyes. “Are you looking at Dong? My goodness, do you have a crush on him? Do I still have a chance?” His astonished tone attracted a lot of attention, and Li Han’er wished she could sew his mouth shut.
“Who said I have a crush on him!” Li Han’er gritted her teeth. This person seemed to challenge her good manners every time. Li Han’er suspected that if this continued, by the time they returned home, she might age several years due to anger.
“You were looking at him just now, with a sad smile!” William had an innocent look on his face. “Han’er, although my skin isn’t as fair as his, I’m taller than him and have a better physique. I can make you happy. Besides, he clearly doesn’t like you!”
“That’s not sadness; it’s contentment! Get it right!” Li Han’er couldn’t hold back any longer and grabbed his ear, shouting, “And you don’t call it a good physique, you call it strong*!”
*Clarity: William is using the term “good physique” (身材好) in the sense where it’s a slim, fit, aesthetically pleasing figure, whereas Li Han’er is correcting him using the term “strong” (雄壮) which is more of a muscular, strong, robust figure.
“Dial it down. Calm down. Think about your ladylike demeanor. Think about our reputation,” Dong Zhi said.
Li Han’er took a deep breath, smiled slightly at William, and spoke softly, but her words sent a chill down one’s spine.
“If you keep talking nonsense, be careful; I’ll twist your head off and use it as a ball.”
William looked at her in horror, thought for a moment, and whispered, “If you’re willing to accept my pursuit, it’s okay to let you play with my head. Don’t you Chinese have a saying that goes, ‘Even if one were to die immediately, it’s worth it if they can kiss the most beautiful flower?'”
That’s called “dying under the peony flower, remaining a romantic ghost*.” Li Han’er was furious but couldn’t help laughing. “If you can learn Chinese and use idioms proficiently, then I’ll accept your pursuit.”
*(牡丹花下死，做鬼也风流) Idiom referring dying for love is seen as romantic.
William’s eyes lit up. “Really?”
But he wasn’t stupid. He immediately added conditions. “Is it okay if I just become fluent in spoken Chinese?”
Li Han’er thought that the conditions shouldn’t be too difficult, or the other party would suspect something was amiss. So she nodded. “That’s fine. But you have to understand idioms and their origins. I don’t want to be in a relationship with a man who can’t even understand simple idioms like ‘tiger’s back and bear’s waist*.'”
*(虎背熊腰) Idiom referring to someone who has a robust and strong physique (broad muscular back and well-defined waist) || Basically, what William’s physique is supposed to be.
She said the last sentence in Chinese.
“Tiger’s back and bear’s waist?” William imitated her tone and looked puzzled. “What does that mean?”
Li Han’er remained unfazed. “It means you’re handsome and suave.”
William became excited. “Don’t worry, my dear. I know you’re concerned that I’m just temporarily enthusiastic, but I have genuine feelings for you. Give me six months, and I’ll learn Chinese. But during these six months, you can’t have a boyfriend.”
Li Han’er nodded. “Of course, I am a person who keeps promises.”
The two reached an agreement, and everyone was happy. Dong Zhi and the others pursed their lips but ultimately didn’t say anything. They could all tell that Li Han’er was teasing William. However, who knew what the future held? Perhaps William would give up on his own before six months, or maybe the two of them would develop into a pair of happy enemies. Life was always full of variables, and no one could predict the future.
The storm subsided, and the sea gradually calmed down, but the islands were left in ruins. Diana Island seemed to be the most devastated, with trees falling or leaning haphazardly, in a state of disarray. The flood had not completely receded, leaving pits and ditches between the trees—a distressing sight.
In the distance, a ship emerged from the mist and gradually approached. It was the boat sent by the organizing committee to pick them up.
Liu Qingbo sighed. “Like the movies, the police always arrive hastily after everything has settled.”
Dong Zhi couldn’t help but laugh.
Japan, Atsuta Shrine.
Long Shen carried his sword and kept moving forward. In every direction, there were countless mirrored spaces, one after another, with no end in sight. The space beneath his feet extended infinitely, but unless something unexpected happened, no matter how he walked or where he went, he could never escape from here.
However, Long Shen didn’t stop his steps because he knew that once he halted, his perspective would easily be confused by the mirrored contents, and he would lose his way. Losing direction was just the first step, and eventually, even his mind would be lost in the mirrored space. He had just shattered the surveillance of Otowa Hatsuhiko, but if he couldn’t find an exit, he would be forever trapped here.
The scenes within each mirrored space were roughly the same, but there were subtle differences. For example, every Li Ying inside had a different expression—some looked anxious, some looked worried, some smiled, and even exhibited happiness and the seven emotions, making it difficult to distinguish which Li Ying was real. While Long Shen seemed to keep moving forward, he was actually observing each Li Ying at an extraordinary speed that ordinary people couldn’t match.
He believed that there must be one real Li Ying among them.
“Li Ying,” Long Shen said in a deep voice. “Keep speaking. It doesn’t matter what you say, just don’t stop your voice.”
“Boss Long!” Numerous Li Yings responded in the mirrored space, their voices overlapping like countless echoes. However, no matter which Li Ying it was, their tone sounded weak, indicating that they were likely seriously injured.
“Boss Long, if I can’t return, I have to trouble you to please inform my master, parents, and my sister Han’er for me. Tell them that I’m incompetent, unable to complete the mission. And for Han’er, ask her to take good care of our parents…” Li Ying gasped for breath. “And also, Banxia. Tell her I’m sorry and ask her not to wait for me anymore!”
A true man sheds no tears easily, and Li Ying didn’t cry when mentioning his master and parents. However, when he uttered the name Banxia, he couldn’t help but shed tears.
He recalled the time when he first joined the Special Administration Bureau, seeing that lively and smiling girl who instantly captivated his attention. He remembered the ambiguous interactions between them during missions, and he recalled how he abandoned a promising team to join the so-called miscellaneous group of Team Three, which caused his father to be furious. But Li Ying had no regrets.
Throughout his life, he had been mature and responsible, considering the overall situation. His every word and action were almost a model among his Maoshan peers. After joining the Special Administration Bureau, he became the future pillar in the eyes of his superiors. Many people couldn’t understand why he didn’t choose the outstanding junior sister in Maoshan but fell for a mysterious and unpredictable witch instead.
Li Ying had always thought that he would follow a steady path in his cultivation journey, either inheriting the position of head of Maoshan or joining the Special Administration Bureau like his father, Li Rui, and gradually climbing the ranks to become a high-ranking official, perhaps even a Director with considerable power.
However, he had never expected that he would meet his downfall before achieving his goals.
Besides the fear and unease towards death, what constantly came to his mind was the face of Chi Banxia.
He knew that Chi Banxia would never be able to escape the shadow of his death. Perhaps when others saw the title of a witch, they would feel a sense of mystery and fear, not daring to provoke, but Li Ying knew that this lively girl was more sentimental than anyone else.
As Long Shen swept his gaze, numerous reflections of Li Ying displayed expressions of pain. However, most of the mirrored Li Yings had a sluggish and numb kind of pain, like puppets imitating their agony with poor acting skills, which failed to touch anyone’s heart and instead felt eerie. There was only one. The only one that genuinely revealed pain and fear on his face. Even though he was a practitioner and more outstanding than most of his peers, Li Ying was still human. He was still young and couldn’t remain calm in the face of true death, especially when he faced eternal separation from his loved ones and family. Even Long Shen would be moved, let alone Li Ying.
Without hesitation, Long Shen immediately shot out a beam of sword light, directly aimed at the Li Ying with the most genuine expression of pain!
The mirror shattered, and Li Ying stared in astonishment at the swiftly approaching sword light. He instinctively wanted to dodge, but with his severe injuries and facing Long Shen, there was nowhere to escape. The cold and sharp sword aura reached his forehead, causing a stinging sensation. His arm was already tightly restrained by someone.
He looked at Long Shen, who appeared beside him, with both surprise and joy.
As soon as Long Shen spoke, his figure didn’t stop, and Li Ying felt the world spinning before his eyes. Countless images flew backward, layers of mirrors shattered, and fragments scattered throughout the space, cutting through his clothes and skin, causing him to feel pain.
“This is real!” Long Shen seemed to perceive his confusion and rapidly explained, never stopping his footsteps as he pulled Li Ying along.
A protective energy surrounded Long Shen, preventing the fragments from coming near, but after being trapped for days, Li Ying’s mind was in a haze. Sometimes he would see Chi Banxia and his senior martial brothers, and other times he found himself in the depths of hell, surrounded by skeletons and evil spirits, unable to break free. His consciousness was already somewhat confused, and now he couldn’t tell if he was truly saved or in another illusion.
In a moment of desperation, he reached his hand beyond the protection of the energy and touched the fragments. As expected, his fingertips stung, and blood droplets immediately emerged.
“Isn’t this an illusion?” Li Ying said in confusion.
“True is false, and false is true. Any illusion is based on reality,” Long Shen replied, turning his head with a furrowed brow. He extended his finger and flicked Li Ying’s forehead.
Li Ying’s body trembled slightly, and his expression instantly became much more sober.
“Boss Long…” His voice was hoarse, as if he had just been pulled out of water, drenched in sweat.
“Don’t move, don’t speak.”
Although Long Shen had seen through the formation that Li Ying was trapped in, the surroundings were still filled with numerous illusions. He couldn’t afford to spare attention for Li Ying and needed to focus entirely on finding a breakthrough.
Li Ying, indeed, dared not speak again. He was being pulled forward by Long Shen, unable to resist. He watched as countless fragments of mirrors came towards them, only to diverge and create paths as Long Shen passed through. It was as if wherever Long Shen went, the sinister entities and inner demons automatically made way for him.
From this, Li Ying gained a deeper understanding of this man’s strength.
Unaffected by external factors and not swayed by any emotions of weakness, Long Shen’s heart was as firm as a rock. These illusions naturally couldn’t influence him.
Coming from a prestigious sect, Li Ying didn’t possess the same strong desire for performance as Zhang Song and Liu Qingbo. His sharpness was naturally restrained, which made him appear stable in the eyes of his elders. However, he couldn’t help but carry the pride of a disciple from a renowned sect. Before joining the Special Administration Bureau, apart from Wu Bingtian’s team, he regarded the other teams as being average. Although Long Shen’s name was already widely known, in Li Ying’s heart, Long Shen was ultimately just one person and couldn’t compare to the profound heritage of renowned sects like Maoshan and Mount Longhu.
Yet at this moment, he realized that even the head of Maoshan would speak of Long Shen with solemnity, not because Long Shen was a Director of the Special Management Bureau, holding high status and seniority, but because of Long Shen’s true strength.
Whether on the righteous path or among demonic beings, human society and the animal world, fundamentally, there wasn’t much difference. They all sought continuous self-improvement and pursued strength. The strong may not earn respect through their character, but they would make others have no choice but to face them.
Suddenly, Li Ying felt fortunate.
He was glad that Long Shen was on his side and not an enemy. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have the opportunity to escape now. He would be like Ding Lan, with his soul trapped or even dead without a complete corpse.
Thinking of Ding Lan, Li Ying couldn’t help but shudder.
In the brief moment that he lost focus, Long Shen had already found the final exit of the mirrored space.
The sword light in his hand flew up and shot forward according to his will, finally piercing into a piece of debris containing a pine tree. Li Ying couldn’t figure out why that pine tree was the key to breaking the formation, but Long Shen could see it with just one glance. Wherever the sword light reached, the pine tree vanished with a loud noise, and all the floating fragments of the mirrors also disappeared in an instant.
The scenery around them suddenly changed!
No more countless repetitions of mirrors, no more confusing reflections and fragments obstructing their vision. They found themselves on an open lawn, not far away from a picturesque lake and mountains, reflecting the blue sky, serene and peaceful.
It was an excellent vacation spot. If Long Shen had assumed his previous disguise, he would have been delighted to immediately take out a camera and start framing shots. However, he wasn’t a genuine photography enthusiast. It was just an identity he randomly adopted to infiltrate the Atsuta Shrine.
Li Ying became even more nervous. Without Long Shen needing to say anything, he also knew that this couldn’t be the original scene in the Atsuta Shrine. In other words, had they once again entered an illusion?
“Boss Long, is this an illusion?” he asked in a low voice.
Unexpectedly, Long Shen gave him a surprising answer. “No.”
Before Li Ying could ask further, Long Shen answered his doubt, “This is also real.”
If this was real, did it mean that they were still within the barrier of the Atsuta Shrine?
Or perhaps, they had already left the Atsuta Shrine and arrived in another place?
Li Ying noticed that Long Shen’s words were cryptic and could be interpreted in various ways.
Just then, the man beside him spoke again. “Don’t forget what I said earlier.”
Li Ying forced a bitter smile. He suddenly sympathized with Dong Zhi. How high of an understanding did he have to stay by Long Shen’s side without constantly doubting his own intelligence?
But he also understood that with his serious injuries and his mind not as clear and sharp as usual, Long Shen wanted him to engage his thinking abilities, ignore his own condition, and avoid falling into a state of unconsciousness due to severe injuries.
The fragrant breeze blew on their faces, inducing drowsiness. There seemed to be distant singing, clear and melodious, reminiscent of the way his sister used to sing when she was little, innocent and carefree. In such an environment, it was difficult for anyone to muster their fighting spirit, and Li Ying was no exception. He almost involuntarily relaxed his mind. However, deep within, he suddenly remembered Long Shen’s reminder.
True is false, and false is true.
This sentence felt as cold as ice on his spiritual platform, forcefully pulling him back from the sleepy warmth. Li Ying pinched the palm of his hand, feeling the stinging sensation and the sticky liquid, instantly alerting him.
There was no warm fragrance, no singing. The lake was still a lake, and the grassland was still a grassland.
Indeed, it was an endless illusion of reality and falsehood. Li Ying couldn’t help but break out in a cold sweat, unable to imagine the consequences if he had truly fallen asleep just now.
Perhaps he would never wake up again.
He couldn’t help but look towards Long Shen beside him, hoping to draw some confidence from him.
But Long Shen had disappeared.
Li Ying’s heart skipped a beat, and he couldn’t help but panic. The feet that were stepping on the grass unknowingly sank downward. Li Ying lowered his head and realized that the grassland had turned into a marsh, with rampant wild grass growing around the lake. He was trapped in the swamp, unable to free himself, and his body slowly sank. In an instant, the water reached his knees.
He struggled to move forward, but it only caused his body to sink further. There was nothing around to grab onto or hold onto. Li Ying instinctively reached behind, only to remember that his sword had been taken away during his previous confinement.
“Boss Long? Boss Long!”
He pinched his palm forcefully, closed his eyes, and then opened them again, but before him was still the marsh. His body had sunk up to his chest, and breathing was starting to become difficult. It wouldn’t take long for the swamp to block his breath, cover his eyes, and bury his entire being. Over the course of several decades or centuries, he would slowly dissolve, merging with the swamp.
Li Ying felt liquid flowing down his nose and reached out to touch it. His hand was stained with a bloody red color. It was likely caused by the pressure on his original wound in the chest and abdomen. His body was sinking rapidly, and the swamp had already reached his neck. Breathing became increasingly difficult. He couldn’t convince himself that this was an illusion, so he closed his eyes and silently recited the spiritual mantra of Maoshan.
After a few sentences, his mood gradually calmed down, and he felt the pressure on his chest lighten. He bit his tongue, spewing out a mouthful of blood, and then opened his eyes. As expected, it was an illusion. Long Shen was still standing beside him, with grass beneath his feet and a lake in front of him.
Li Ying’s body weakened, and he was about to collapse. Long Shen reached out and grabbed his arm, looking calm as if he wasn’t surprised that he looked like he had just finished running a five-kilometer race.
“How long has it been…” Li Ying gasped.
“Only three seconds,” Long Shen replied.
Three seconds, but it felt like he had experienced a lifetime.
Li Ying forced a bitter smile, relying on Long Shen’s strong support to stand unsteadily, and apologized, “I’m sorry, Boss Long. I’m so useless.”
Long Shen said, “Otowa has set up multiple layers of illusions here. It’s already impressive that you managed to break free in such a short time.”
Li Ying couldn’t help but ask, “Compared to Dong Zhi?”
It was inevitable for outstanding peers to have a sense of comparison, and Li Ying was no exception. Suddenly, Long Shen smiled.
This smile was like a clear sky after rain, with stars hanging in the vast expanse. Li Ying was momentarily captivated by it. But before he could examine it closely, Long Shen had already regained his usual calmness. “He’s about the same as you. Have confidence in yourself.”
Li Ying doubted that these were just words of consolation from Long Shen himself. Otherwise, why would he smile so happily when mentioning Dong Zhi? But he didn’t delve further into it. The exhaustion from breaking free of the illusion had drained all the strength from his body.
He didn’t have time to ponder further because, the next moment, the calm surface of the lake suddenly trembled violently. Ripples spread out from the center of the lake, growing larger and larger. After a few seconds, a colossal creature burst out of the water, announcing its presence with a roar!
At first glance, the body of the monster almost obscured the sky and earth, casting a shadow that blocked the light from Long Shen.
When the majority of the monster’s body emerged from the water, Li Ying’s heart couldn’t help but tremble, and his expression changed drastically.
It looked like—
Eight giant snakes twisted together, with blurred flesh at the junctions, but they were indeed connected as one. Eight ferocious heads swung in the air, and eight tails thrashed the surface of the lake restlessly. Each of their wide-open mouths spewed out a massive poisonous breath, exuding impatience and greed, revealing their arrogant desire to devour everything.
Yamata no Orochi?
Li Ying couldn’t believe it. Wasn’t this legendary monster from Japan supposed to have been killed long ago?
“Is this another illusion?”
“No, it’s real. Be careful!”
Just as Long Shen finished speaking, a large snake tail was already lashing towards them. Long Shen pulled Li Ying to evade, and the snake tail struck the grassy ground, leaving a scorch mark in an instant.
Li Ying could even smell the scent of burnt grass. He was pushed aside by Long Shen, stumbling back a few steps and falling to the ground.
Meanwhile, Long Shen leaped up and gestured, summoning a beam of sword light from an unknown source, shooting it towards one of the snake heads.
Li Ying understood that his physical condition rendered him unable to fight. It was already good enough if he didn’t become a burden. He quickly found a concealed spot to hide and watch the battle, hoping that the Yamata no Orochi wouldn’t notice him; otherwise, Long Shen would be distracted.
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