The two of them took an empty route and rushed to the airspace over Y City.
Y City also had purification protection around it, but the intensity was different from that near the command center. With Shu Jun’s suppression of the erosion in their bodies, they barely managed to make it through, but the risk of being discovered was a bit high. Fortunately, today’s security guards were focused on the Grand Theatre, and after observing the area from above the city for a while, Zhu Yanchen found a blind spot in the surveillance.
“I’ll go in and take a look first.” When they flew near the command center, Zhu Yanchen spoke again. “The ninth window from the left on the top floor. Throw me over there.”
Things happened suddenly, and this time the two of them didn’t have Dong Lao’s help outside the venue. Before Zhu Yanchen regained his permissions, they had to be careful of those alert systems.
Shu Jun didn’t hesitate, and the wind carried the two of them to the side of the building. He let go of his hand holding Zhu Yanchen. Zhu Yanchen opened the buffering device and landed gracefully on the edge of the roof, then climbed up and opened the window.
The command center was one of the few high-rise buildings in Y City, and its defense on the top floor was relatively weaker. Marshal Zhu’s invasion was extremely smooth.
Shu Jun, who was outside the barrier: “……” He couldn’t figure out how this person had become like this, even if he partially regained his memory.
Inside the command center, the marshals usually had a private room. Zhu Yanchen’s “resurrection” came too quickly, so the room should still be there, and his permissions had definitely been restored. Shu Jun patiently floated in the blind spot of the surveillance, staring at the black window.
Zhu Yanchen jumped into the room.
The furnishings in the room hadn’t changed much, and he had very few personal belongings. There were still many files on the desk, and apart from common office supplies, there was only a solitary photo frame that belonged to him.
Many people had come and gone in this room, but no one had ever cared about that simple photo frame. There was no figure in the frame, only a decorative picture that could be seen anywhere—a few fireworks bursting in the dark night sky; nothing else.
Zhu Yanchen reached out and touched the edge of the photo frame.
Then he turned on the office screen and immediately modified the content of the surveillance image. The password layers of the screen were supposed to be secure, but the security center probably didn’t expect the intruder to be Zhu Yanchen’s own “ghost”.
Zhu Yanchen opened the highest level of permissions and directly extracted the distribution of daily erosion substances from the entire building and imported it into his analysis program.
There was a not-too-big and not-too-small “impurity” slowly wandering around in this huge building. It was hidden deep enough and usually quite dispersed. With the integration of several months of data, Zhu Yanchen could almost confirm that this thing was definitely conscious—at least when the researchers were cleaning erosion substance layer by layer, it knew how to avoid them.
It was time to give these people a big cleanup.
Zhu Yanchen closed the photo frame beside him and lowered the power of the purifiers closest to the erosion substance. After making sure there were no loopholes, he waved to Shu Jun in the distance and made a few gestures.
Since there was something fishy going on in the command center, Shu Jun could invade it openly without worrying, as some sinister Erosion Swamp would take the blame for it anyway.
With the weak spot, Shu Jun successfully broke through again. However, even though it was weakened, the defense system still detected an excessive amount of erosion substance, and the alarm was instantly triggered.
This was what Zhu Yanchen was waiting for.
He intercepted the feedback data from the defense system and overwrote the concentration characteristics of another Erosion Swamp.
“Did you really find an Erosion Swamp?” Seeing Zhu Yanchen calling him in, Shu Jun quickly guessed the reason.
“Mm.” Zhu Yanchen nodded. “I delayed the alarm trigger time. Anyway, let’s go find Luo Duan first.”
Luo Duan’s ward was empty. The white room was spotless, but let alone Shu Jun, even Monday was restless and protesting in the cloth strips.
“The erosion concentration here is not right.” Shu Jun frowned. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
However, the building was too large, and the target deliberately avoided detection. Shu Jun couldn’t sense the location of the other Erosion Swamp at all. But in these matters, the wild erosion swamp, Monday, always performed better than him.
“Can you find the other Erosion Swamp?” Shu Jun asked, releasing Monday from the cloth strip.
Monday grumbled dissatisfied. “I can.”
Then it pursed its mouth and paused every word, with a bit more mockery in its tone. “It. Smells.”
Time was limited, so Shu Jun resisted the urge to twist Monday as he gritted his teeth and said, “Lead. The. Way.”
He used it to hack two alpha-level Erosion Swamps, and it managed to get information and began to freely supplement its own brain. Maybe because it had not swallowed a synthetic human, its compatibility was limited. At this point, not only did Monday not have any human scent, but its strange ability had also grown a lot.
“Okay, okay, I won’t starve you. Hurry up.”
Without the cover of the cloth, the black sword was exposed halfway. The tip of the big sword trembled a few times, and four hippo-like nostrils popped out, inhaling and exhaling heavily.
Zhu Yanchen: “…”
Shu Jun took a few steps forward sorrowfully. “I know what you want to say. It’s disgusting.”
“…It’s quite unique.” Marshal Zhu looked at the four opening and closing nostrils as he responded seriously.
In his heart, Shu Jun wiped away a tear and followed Monday, who was sniffing frantically. Monday sniffed all the way along the corridor, leading the two straight to the underground.
At this moment, Shu Jun had no joking thoughts—when the two of them entered the elevator, Monday knocked the button to the lowest floor with the sword handle. That was their destination last time, and Shu Jun knew exactly what was there.
The two rushed to the door of the underground hall and looked through the window. There was no one in the hall. Monday sprayed a few drops of nasal mucus, and its nostrils retracted. “Here.”
Shu Jun thought for a moment, rewrapped it, and put it by the door.
“Luo Duan!” After hiding Monday, Shu Jun walked in first and took off his mask. “I know you’re here.”
There was a faint chuckle in the air.
“I didn’t expect it to be you.” The mist dissipated, and Luo Duan slowly appeared. “Since you dare to take off your mask… Did you take care of the surveillance system here?”
Facing Shu Jun’s unusual appearance, he didn’t react at all, giving off a terrifying numbness.
“Sort of, but we don’t have much time.” Shu Jun quickly replied, confirming that Luo Duan wasn’t using his ability. “Since you’re here—”
“Yes, I know.” Luo Duan’s voice was very gentle. “I know everything.”
Shu Jun had heard a lot about Luo Duan’s fiancée. He sighed slowly. “Captain Luo, I won’t beat around the bush… My friend and I are making medicine that can make everyone sober. Let’s go together. We also have doctors who can provide you with better treatment.”
Luo Duan just smiled and didn’t say anything.
“Think of the members of Groundwater.” Shu Jun’s tone became gentler. “Remember? Last time we went to the school to give a speech, there were so many children ‘over there’ who didn’t join the team. We need to leave them a way out even if we take revenge.”
Luo Duan’s smile faded slightly with a hint of bitterness. “Revenge?”
“Yes, I will make those who implement the system pay.” Even with Zhu Yanchen beside him, there was no hiding the bloodlust in Shu Jun’s voice.
“To be honest, I envy you.” After staring at Shu Jun for a while, Luo Duan said, “At this point, you can still dream.”
Zhu Yanchen’s body stiffened, and Shu Jun recognized the movement—Marshal Zhu’s hand was already on the gun handle.
He took a deep breath and took another step forward. “I certainly won’t do these things alone. Anyway, you should calm down first, and we’ll talk slowly.”
Luo Duan was a smart person and wouldn’t be reckless enough to expose himself in the heart of the human base camp.
This place was too sensitive, and it was important to stabilize Luo Duan’s emotions first. The captain of Groundwater was always sharp and calm, like a sharp knife. Shu Jun had never seen him look so helpless—they had heard about Luo Duan’s love for Pei Shuyuan. Looking at Luo Duan like this, he always felt like something had been violently shattered in front of him.
Like a delicate knife that fell into the mud and water, slowly rusting.
Shu Jun reached out his hand. “Luo Duan.”
“During this time, I have been wanting to talk to someone about Xiao Yuan’s situation.” Luo Duan stared at that hand, unmoving. “I thought I could be the next Xu Kan, have a small family, and then take her wherever she wanted to go after retiring—anywhere.”
“Do you know? She used her ability to push me to a safe landing spot and fell into the Erosion Swamp herself, sinking in an instant. I watched her sink… Her right arm was always stretched outwards, and I thought she was saying goodbye.”
“If I had tried harder, I could have pulled her up at the time. But at that moment, I thought it wasn’t a bad thing. Even if I forcibly pulled her up, her body would be seriously eroded and was doomed to be lost. It was better for her to withdraw like this—she loved to play, and now she can finally rest for a while.”
“She struggled in front of me, begging me for help, until she took her last breath. Do you know how she felt at that time? I can’t imagine.”
“She really saved my life, and I couldn’t even say goodbye.”
Tears streamed down the left side of Luo Duan’s face. There seemed to be something wrong with his right eye; it showed no response. That slight smile seemed to be engraved on Luo Duan’s lips, adding a hint of madness to his calm expression.
Shu Jun didn’t retract his hand and repeated it again. He tried to make his voice steadier, with a hint of pleading beneath his words.
“No matter what the Erosion Swamp tells you, it only wants us and the humans to both suffer. Even if you don’t plan to cooperate with us, don’t act impulsively.”
After spitting out his grief and sorrow, Luo Duan seemed to have calmed down a bit. He closed his eyes and adjusted his breathing for a while. “Sorry, I lost my composure.”
Shu Jun secretly breathed a sigh of relief. “Come, let’s leave here first…”
Luo Duan shook his head lightly, his tone a bit empty. “I’m well aware that you would be a good collaborator. Maybe after I leave with you, I can really save my team members, and personally drown those who ‘manage’ us. Maybe those dreams will really come true…”
“If I’m still a ‘player’, that is.”
Shu Jun’s pupils suddenly shrank.
Luo Duan opened his eyes. The whites of his right eye had turned pitch black. The whites of his left eye had also been eroded by black blood vessels, slowly fading in front of Shu Jun. The Erosion Swamp broke out of Luo Duan’s clothes and coiled around his neck like an ominous snake.
Luo Duan’s left eye no longer shed tears, and the tiny Erosion Swamp was no longer hiding itself.
No, that statement wasn’t accurate. Shu Jun could feel the faint howling of the “Erosion Swamp”. It was inside Luo Duan’s body.
“Above Sweet Edge, below you,” Zhu Yanchen whispered in a low voice, warning him softly.
There couldn’t be an Alpha Erosion Swamp in the command center. So what he meant wasn’t physical strength.
It was fusion.
It seemed that all Erosion Swamps with a brain had a special ability, and this wasn’t limited by size—at least, Monday could spit and absorb water, changing its own hardness. Sweet Edge could also use the Erosion Swamp’s “Creation” ability, so Luo Duan must have received a little extra benefit as well.
But Luo Duan still looked quite clear-headed, and he had kept his human form. The Erosion Swamp he fused with wasn’t very large; at least since it didn’t cause his body to collapse, perhaps things could still be salvaged. After a quick and decisive moment of contemplation, Shu Jun used suppression.
Luo Duan bowed slightly to him; his withered eyes looked like black holes.
“It’s really a pity.”
He didn’t conceal the ability he obtained from the Erosion Swamp—the next moment, Luo Duan disintegrated in front of the two of them, turning into a puddle of water.
He turned into a not-so-large Erosion Swamp, quickly seeping into the ground and disappearing into the hall. Most of the erosion substance dissipated, and even though Shu Jun tried to suppress it, he still failed to stop Luo Duan’s escape.
Following his departure, the underground hall shook slightly. The ear-piercing siren suddenly sounded, almost piercing both their eardrums.
Shu Jun and Zhu Yanchen looked at the center of the hall at the same time. The brains in the fluid column were no longer pink, but turned a dull grayish white, obviously severely eroded.
From the moment they entered until the moment Luo Duan left, he didn’t use any skills. So there was only one possibility—Luo Duan had already taken action before their arrival. He used water vapor to send the erosion substance in at first, and then used the power of the Erosion Swamp.
With Luo Duan’s water control ability, he didn’t need to be as careful as they were back then. The brain in the jar contained an astonishing amount of water, so as long as the erosion substance was sent into the jar, it could be sent to any corner.
Unlike them, the erosion substance didn’t carefully extract a small bottle but completely destroyed all the brain tissue. Now that the erosion substance had left with Luo Duan, only the shattered remains of the dead brain, which had been eroded, remained, triggering the alarm.
…It seemed that the Erosion Swamp and they had the same goal. It also wanted to implant features into the brain. In this way, the erosion substance could accurately destroy the remnants in the players’ brains, just like it did in his own brain.
In the piercing alarm, Shu Jun clenched his fist.
The theory was indeed similar, but there was one decisive difference.
He had a tolerance to the erosion substance that was different from ordinary people, and with the continuous drug treatment provided by Zhu Yanchen, he was able to withstand it—Zhu Yanchen really did want him to know the truth, and he also wanted him to live a better life.
But the Erosion Swamp didn’t care about the latter.
Don’t give sentient AI feelings and emotions… Especially if you’re going to send them to their deaths.
After two days of travel, it was natural to spend a night on the road before returning.
Once again, Shu Jun dreamed of his strange self.
The dream became even more vivid, and he found himself back in his own home in the “real world”, not surrounded by darkness as before.
It was daytime in the dream. He had drunk most of the juice and left it on the small table, and the ice cubes in the glass pitcher had long since melted. Outside the window, the river that ran through the city sparkled like a warm pink ribbon. The wind was cool and refreshing but carried a strong smell of decay.
After joining the team, Shu Jun’s residence had moved from a small apartment to a large flat, and he had even installed a swimming pool on the balcony. But now, instead of clear water, the pool was filled with overflowing brownish-red blood. Shu Jun suppressed a wave of nausea and approached to take a closer look—the blood in the pool swayed gently, and chunks of flesh that looked like internal organs floated on the surface.
“His other self” was sitting by the side of the pool, still with his black hair and eyes. That thing was bare-chested, wearing familiar swimming trunks, and seemed to have been startled by Shu Jun’s footsteps as it slowly turned its head.
Its form was still fragmented, and many parts were still in a state of skin cracking. The face had recovered slightly, but the blood vessels under the skin were blackened, resembling a corpse that had been eroded to death.
But compared to the previous time when the whole body needed mosaic, this time it was barely acceptable.
…He wondered if it had anything to do with his recovered memories. Shu Jun narrowed his eyes.
The foul smell kept him glued to the spot, and the air became as thick as glue. The thing slowly sank into the blood pool in front of him, and the putrid blood flooded up to his chest. It moved toward Shu Jun step by step, causing ripples in the blood pool.
Shu Jun remained unmoved. “Just say what you want to say. Don’t give me an impromptu performance.”
“I remember now.” The thing’s voice was exactly the same as Shu Jun’s, but with some ethereal echo, as if it were coming from an empty shell. “Zhu Yanchen has been deceiving me since I was twelve years old. All humans are the same.”
The blood in the pool began to leave the influence of gravity, climbing up along the pool’s edge and wrapping around Shu Jun’s ankles.
Shu Jun frowned as countless negative emotions flooded into his mind. The world turned blood-red in an instant, and he was almost unable to think because of those emotions.
“We’ve been kept in the dark. Everything before was Zhu Yanchen’s ruse—he knew he was terminally ill and deliberately induced you to heal him. He was the one who held me back at the beginning, and he has a deep understanding of the Erosion Swamp. Maybe everything is under his control…”
“He has already gained immunity as he wished. Now he wants to use your ability to take the leadership position. Non-human beings will always have different intentions. When Zhu Yanchen snatches the position with the help of me and my brethren, will he really let us stay? Nurture tens of thousands of aliens who will quickly lose their labor capacity? He only needs to use his identity as a collaborator to stab us in the back…”
“I cannot forget those companions who died in confusion. I dare not forget them. Humans are fundamentally untrustworthy. In just half a year of memories, who knows if they are true or not…”
Shu Jun covered his throbbing head and waved dismissively. “Stop. Hold on a second. Let’s not act like we’re old friends. You are you, and I am me. As soon as you come up, you’re already starting off by talking about my identity. It’s really annoying.”
The monster in the pool was taken aback by this unexpected reaction, and it froze in the pool of blood and didn’t make a sound for a while. Even the blood crawling up his leg stopped for a moment.
“You can’t change who you are, and for humanity, you represent disaster. Even if you have a brain, how much drugs can that woman surnamed Ai make? It’s just some sweetness given to you by Zhu Yanchen. Once he uses you to obtain the drug, you must immediately kill all human witnesses. This is the most logical choice…”
“Yeah, yeah, keep addressing me as ‘you’. That makes me feel so much more comfortable.” Finally, Shu Jun suppressed his chaotic emotions and breathed a sigh of relief.
The monster flipped its remaining eye and stared coldly at him.
Shu Jun picked up the tablecloth on the small table and wiped the blood off his leg. “Stop staring. Do you have anything else to say?”
The monster in the blood pool: “…”
“I understand your grievances, and now you can get out.” Shu Jun twisted the blood-soaked tablecloth.
“You should feel the resentment and hatred of those departed—are you going to turn a blind eye to it?”
Familiar faces floated up from the blood pool. All of them were the Blackbirds members who had died on missions. They stared blankly with wide eyes, and their dull pupils faced towards the sky.
Shu Jun’s previously indifferent demeanor disappeared in an instant.
“Before, I only thought you were being chatty, but now I think you deserve a good beating.” His voice was filled with a hint of coldness. “Let me ask you a question. Can synthetic humans win according to your plan?”
The monster remained silent.
“Then what’s the point of all this nonsense? All I’ve heard from you is that you want me to kick Marshal Zhu out early and seek revenge on humanity.”
Shu Jun grabbed the handle of the glass jug on the table, and his veins were popping out from the back of his hand.
“Yes, revenge, and then what? Destroying them unilaterally won’t solve the fundamental problem. Even if an individual is powerful, the number of synthetic humans is too few, and their lifespan is limited. As long as humans give up development and disperse for a few years, when we weaken, they will retaliate.”
“And we don’t have any system-related knowledge, and even if we did, we wouldn’t be able to teach someone to use it proficiently in the short term. Not to mention the casualties in battles—who will treat the survivors who are on the brink of death? Who will maintain the operation of the ‘real world’? I understand that some people are willing to sacrifice everything and die like this. But what about the children who haven’t joined the team yet? Are they also going to be buried with us?”
“If my team members want to live… To let them live, I can give up not only my pride but also my revenge. Although I haven’t lost my most important person, it’s a bit painful to stand around talking about this—unfortunately, I happen to be the Blackbirds’ captain, and this is where I stand.”
The monster’s eroded body showed signs of movement as it considered its response.
“Don’t waste any more time. I’ve already thought about everything you’re thinking about.” Shu Jun stopped by the pool and poured the pale red juice on the monster’s head. “If you can’t come up with a constructive suggestion, then it’s best if you leave now.”
“You will be betrayed,” it said in a slow and deliberate tone a few minutes later, as if cursing. “You will definitely be betrayed.”
“Oh.” Shu Jun shook off the remaining juice from the pitcher. “Sorry, I’ve thought of that too.”
He wiped his hands, and his pupils, which had been raised, became a thin line. “If A’Yan betrays me, I will stand in front of him and let him watch me dig out his heart. After the battle, as the leader who made a major mistake, I will naturally atone with my death without bothering you.”
Shu Jun squatted down, ignoring the sea of negative emotions around him, and gave a cold smile to the thing.
“By the way, if he doesn’t betray me in the end, I might pursue him.”
Seeing the other party stunned, there was a bit of mockery in Shu Jun’s smile. He let go of his hand, and the empty pitcher slammed onto the monster’s head. The blood pool boiled violently, and the thing let out a mournful roar. It glared at Shu Jun with eyes full of lifelessness.
The dream shattered instantly.
Shu Jun opened his eyes calmly and couldn’t help but roll his eyes. It turned out he was facing Zhu Yanchen, who was changing his clothes—he was about to return to Y City. As the leader of the NPC team, Yu Jin went to meet Hu Yan early in the morning. Zhu Yanchen couldn’t reveal his face on ordinary occasions, so he even wore a simple mask to sleep. With great difficulty, he relaxed, changed back into his clothes, and showed Shu Jun a straight look.
Shu Jun wasn’t embarrassed but looked calm.
The scene in the dream was very clear. Half of his bold words that he would “pursue” were to anger the thing, but half were sincere. The emotions that had stirred him the day before had long since subsided, and now was a good time to verify them—as an adult, if he was as calm as water in this situation, his emotions might just be overwhelming his friendship.
Zhu Yanchen noticed Shu Jun’s gaze, and his movements slowed by a few fractions of a second for a moment. The pale skin was warmed by the soft light, with a hint of jade-like color. Although he had what Shu Jun had, he couldn’t help but feel his heart beating a little faster.
Indeed, he had really fallen.
“I dreamt of that thing again.” Shu Jun sighed and got straight to business.
Zhu Yanchen changed into a high-necked inner shirt and frowned at the words.
“Its demands are still the same—wanting to retaliate against humans. I suspect it’s from an Erosion Swamp, but I can’t figure out how it’s influencing me.” Shu Jun got up and put on his coat neatly. “The scene it appears in is becoming more and more specific, and I’m a little worried.”
“I understand.” Zhu Yanchen nodded calmly. “It’s already in the plan. When we return to Y City, I will look at your brain scan as soon as possible.”
“Not just this issue, A’Yan.”
Shu Jun smiled bitterly.
“I know myself. If we miss that day, I’m not sure if I’ll go crazy in the unknown despair. I can resist that thing’s provocation just because I’m lucky—I haven’t lost my loved ones, and I met you earlier.”
He didn’t know if he was seeing things, but Zhu Yanchen’s expression didn’t change at all, his ears turned a little red.
“But if the target had lost a loved one or a partner, I suspect it would succeed.” Shu Jun rubbed his lower lip with his finger. “When people are desperate, they can do anything.”
“A’Yan, is there another solution to the brain shock? I suspect that ‘it’ is not only targeting me.”
Zhu Yanchen frowned. “Speaking of that, I have a guess…”
“Hey, didn’t you two go eat breakfast?” As Yu Jin entered the tent, Zhu Yanchen immediately put on his mask.
Shu Jun quickly changed the subject. “What’s up? Can’t we spend some time together in the morning? Have you finished your meeting?”
“Forgive me, ancestor.” Yu Jin grumbled. “There are enough troubles… We just received notice that Y City is now under lockdown with the highest level of alert. Didn’t that Zhu Yanchen guy come back? Those big shots are holding some kind of concert at the Grand Theatre, and almost everyone with a head and a face is going. Now we have to stay outside the city for another day, and I don’t know if they’ll pay us more.”
Shu Jun and Zhu Yanchen exchanged glances.
“I understand.” Zhu Yanchen spoke up, and he grabbed Shu Jun’s wrist. “Anyway, let’s go eat first.”
Yu Jin: “Hey, hey, hey, can you be more human? I haven’t finished complaining. Can you let me vent?”
“Although we have an agreement, it doesn’t mean I don’t have a temper—”
“This trip has caused you a lot of trouble, and my share will go to you,” Zhu Yanchen quickly responded.
“…Alright, you two can go now.”
Outside the tent, Zhu Yanchen’s voice became lower. “We must find a way to get into Y City.”
“Related to the guess you just mentioned?”
“Well, there might be ‘something’ in the command center.”
Zhu Yanchen grabbed the inspiration that had flashed by that day—indeed, the command center could block large-scale Erosion Swamps and only allow a certain level of erosion substance to exist. But not all those who had brains were necessarily “large-scale Erosion Swamps”. Monday was a perfect example.
Even if they were unable to communicate with the outside world due to the threat of purification, a sole sentient Erosion Swamp in the command center could do a lot of things—such as waiting for suitable prey.
Weak Erosion Swamps may not be able to do much, but if they use the power of experienced players…
The malicious information in Shu Jun’s brain may well have been implanted by it. And at that time, there were definitely more experienced players than just Shu Jun in the command center. Zhu Yanchen secretly clenched his fist.
Today, the bigshots were gathering at the Grand Theatre, and the guards were sure to be partly withdrawn. If Shu Jun’s nightmare source was really in the command center, there could be trouble.
Zhu Yanchen adjusted his emotions and continued to explain quickly, “There are indeed other solutions to brain shock. Synthetic humans are physically unstable and will begin to collapse as they age. Eventually, the erosion substance will invade all parts of the body—including the brain.”
“As biological tissue, the artificially implanted brain fragments will also be eroded, and their suppressive ability will be weakened. If synthetic humans are lucky enough not to die in battle… when their bodies begin to deteriorate, they do have a possibility of ‘realizing the truth’. This is also one of the reasons why you have a fixed ‘retirement’ time.”
“Luo Duan.” Shu Jun’s pupils contracted as he murmured.
“That’s right.” Zhu Yanchen’s voice was dry. “In any case, we’d better confirm it.”
Shu Jun closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then opened them. “I understand. I’ll take care of Hu Yan; you take care of Yu Jin—I’ll take you with me in five minutes.”
The escape route for the synths wasn’t ready yet. In any case, the flames of war couldn’t be ignited now.
Luo Duan walked alone to the lowest level of the command center.
The mist obscured his figure. As for the temperature detector and other equipment, there was someone “human” helping him. The cold Erosion Swamp surrounded his neck, slowly swaying, feeling like a noose and also like the embrace of a dead lover.
He played with Yi Ning’s access card between his fingers with a calm, unwavering gaze. Even when he saw the jar of brains in front of him, Luo Duan didn’t even twitch his eyelids.
“Is this the place?” He stopped at the deepest part of the command center and murmured softly.
The Erosion Swamp rubbed against his neck, giving a definite answer. “Use your ability… to send me in.”
A warm and familiar voice. Luo Duan knew it was fake, but there were too many lies in his life—one more didn’t matter.
“If we use water vapor… Well, it can be done. The problem is… Hmm, what’s wrong?” The erosion substance poked his shoulder, and he turned his head.
No wonder before he recovered his memory, Zhu Yanchen never mentioned that they were friends.
They knew each other when they were too young, and the reality in front of them was too heavy. What could Marshal Zhu say? We said goodnight to each other every day when we were kids, so you have to trust me?
Imagining Zhu Yanchen saying this with a straight face, the half-asleep Shu Jun felt like laughing.
Although his memory hadn’t fully returned, he remembered the trivial things they had done together. If mentioned alone, any one of them would be too childish to be laughed at. But they did make a difference—adding a little fire to the dull memories and gradually warming them up.
He had once had such a special friend.
A sour feeling rose in Shu Jun’s heart. Sixteen years ago, he didn’t understand, but now he could guess the reason why Smoke cried that night.
Sixteen years had passed, and this person’s shell seemed to have been replaced, but inside was still a familiar breath.
He sensed a familiar feeling. With his memory not yet complete, naturally Shu Jun wouldn’t be naive enough to let down his guard. However, at this moment, the pain in his chest was real.
Shu Jun finally mustered the strength to move his sore and weak arms and hug Zhu Yanchen’s back.
“Are you awake?” Zhu Yanchen asked with a barely perceptible tension in his voice.
“You’ve lost some weight.” Shu Jun quickly regained his spirits after taking a break. “Back then, I could hug you and spin around in place.”
Zhu Yanchen: “…”
The darkness around them was cold and gloomy, but the atmosphere didn’t feel heavy.
As soon as Shu Jun spoke, Monday quickly recognized his voice and began to howl in various pitches. Shu Jun didn’t let go of Zhu Yanchen and buried his face in his shoulder, quietly waiting for a while.
Zhu Yanchen didn’t say anything either. He reached out, and the tattered fabric of his glove slipped over Shu Jun’s neck.
“Let’s go back.”
“Don’t we need a long-awaited reunion hug?”
“… ” Zhu Yanchen was silent for a few seconds. “We can hug since it’s a long-awaited reunion, but you should put on some clothes first.”
Only then did Shu Jun realize that he was almost naked, and Zhu Yanchen’s clothes were also a mess. Something was off in the picture.
He had regained much of his memory and thought he could adapt to these physical contacts. Back then, he had given Smoke a lot of physical training guidance, and children’s play and hugs were a natural part of it. He hadn’t felt any restraint or awkwardness back then—children of eleven or twelve were innocent enough that it was impossible to taint their relationship.
It was confirmed that Marshal Zhu was indeed his childhood best friend, and all those question marks in his mind finally disappeared. Their compatible personalities were the result of being together night and day, and their closeness came from the nostalgia of reuniting after a long separation. There was no hint of any ambiguous thoughts, but rather just their subconscious playing tricks on them.
…That was what Shu Jun had intended to think, but reality was beyond his control.
Something was off.
He couldn’t keep his composure, and the sensation was peculiar, like their skins burning as they touched. With the memories now fresh in his mind, Shu Jun, as a healthy adult, immediately realized what the problem was—that deadly hint of romance wasn’t dead at all but rather stirred up a few sparks of anger.
This was terrible.
Shu Jun took a few deep breaths to calm his heart rate. “Okay, hold on, let me practice my ability a bit.”
He reached out and touched the Erosion Swamp on one side of his hand. The Mirror Erosion Swamp was much easier to control than that of the Sweet Edge, and the erosion substance slowly crawled up his arm, taking on the form of a protective suit.
Then, he pulled out Monday, and the erosion substance wrapped around the blade, forming a wide cloth that covered its screaming mouth. Satisfied with his control, he then turned to repair Zhu Yanchen’s clothes.
Unfortunately, his “Replication” ability malfunctioned on Zhu Yanchen.
Not wanting to be pulled into the Zhu Black Factory, the erosion substance refused to cooperate and floated on Marshal Zhu’s skin, giving him the appearance of wearing a spacesuit. He looked like he was about to float away.
“You’ll have to put up with it for now.” Shu Jun laughed wryly as he withdrew his ability.
Zhu Yanchen picked up his broken mask with a particularly gentle gaze. “Mm.”
Shu Jun was the first to stand up and offer his hand to Zhu Yanchen. “As for how much I remember… A’Yan, ‘Let’s call it a day and go home first’.”
Zhu Yanchen held onto Shu Jun’s hand. The black eyes behind the mask were full of excitement.
A hurricane suddenly rose, and the broken erosion substance swirled around them. Shu Jun hugged Zhu Yanchen’s waist, and the two flew into the sky. Below the clouds, Zhu Yanchen closed his eyes in peace, exuding a sense of contentment. Shu Jun silently opened his wind shield, flying slower than before, but he had never felt so stable.
In less than an hour, Shu Jun had thought of many things—from Zhu Yanchen’s experiences over the years to the path they would take in the future.
And the sudden throb just now.
It may have been a momentary impulse, or it may have been a slight mistake caused by the suspension bridge effect*. But it was definitely a throb, perhaps mixed with heartache and longing.
*It comes from a psychology term misattribution of arousal which is the process whereby people make mistakes in assuming what is causing them to feel aroused. The initial demonstration to test out this theory was done on a suspension bridge, which is why it is also called as such.
This conclusion was too shocking. Shu Jun’s heart jumped up to his throat, and he almost choked. With the two of them so close now, their blood was pounding in their brains, and the other’s body temperature felt like it was electrified, making him tingle all over and unable to think clearly.
Fortunately, Captain Shu was able to quickly suppress these anomalies after experiencing many storms and waves. Zhu Yanchen was his treasured friend and most powerful collaborator. Now that the other person saw him as a friend, he couldn’t do anything that might cause trouble during times of tension.
But liking was liking, and Shu Jun didn’t plan to intentionally suppress that romantic seed. Before the smoke cleared, the two would continue to interact normally. Whether they water or weed that seed in the future would be up to fate.
Thinking about this, he silently strengthened his wind shield to prevent the tired Marshal Zhu from being blown away.
Shu Jun wasn’t the only one with huge waves in his mind.
After that hug, Marshal Zhu also felt that something was off. Shu Jun remembered many things, which was something to be happy about. But now he not only felt it wasn’t enough, but even felt inexplicably disappointed—
Shu Jun’s attitude just now was clearly that of treating a friend. Marshal Zhu had once anticipated this moment, but when Shu Jun hugged him candidly, he felt a subtle sense of dissatisfaction.
This wasn’t what he wanted.
Marshal Zhu secretly tightened his grip on Shu Jun’s back. What kind of expression would he have when Shu Jun remembered everything?
Emotions for those close to him were like a vine, with fine tendrils climbing all over his life. It was mixed with too many things and gradually turned into an uncontrollable desire.
As the one with the upper hand, he didn’t intend to let this desire spread. Otherwise, even if Shu Jun responded, he wouldn’t be able to tell if he was truly willing or just complying to maintain their partnership.
There was plenty of time in the future, and he happened to have plenty of patience.
At the border of the erosion zone, the Blackbirds vanguard team had already returned to their camp.
Yu Jin was still stunned, while Hu Yan had already found a good excuse to cover up. The vice captain was indeed reliable, and Shu Jun was almost moved to tears.
“There was a problem with that instance just now, and the official team came to adjust it. It’s normal for the official team to use their strongest abilities. Where’s the NPC? Just wait a bit. They might come back soon. Maybe there’s even a follow-up plot.” When Shu Jun entered the camp, Hu Yan was pretending to be serious while laughing.
“We found an abandoned mud sled on the way.” Shu Jun made up something with his NPC identity. “A’Yan was worried about me, so I didn’t get on the ship… I fell into the Erosion Swamp and almost couldn’t get up.”
Yu Jin listened to Shu Jun’s nonsense with a blank expression as he stared straight ahead.
“When we left, the official team was still adjusting the Erosion Swamp. We don’t know what happened afterwards. Sorry, I’ll go back to my tent first and change my clothes before we talk.”
Yu Jin saw the two of them heading towards the NPC tent and immediately wanted to go in and demand an explanation. But he didn’t expect Zhu Yanchen to turn around and stop him, shaking his head solemnly.
What’s wrong? He’s not even allowed to see a man change his clothes? It was just that the blow of being turned into a player NPC was too great, so Yu Jin didn’t even bother to care about it and simply waited outside the tent.
In fact, he really couldn’t see it—the purifier was running inside the tent, and when Shu Jun had just stepped in, the makeshift erosion clothes had already evaporated halfway. Shu Jun quickly changed into his protective suit, packed his sword, and gestured for the two outside the tent to come in.
This time it was Marshal Zhu’s turn to change his clothes. Although his clothes were real fabric, Shu Jun couldn’t help but block Yu Jin’s line of sight.
Yu Jin: “…Okay, I know you can’t bear it, so spare me. I came to talk about business.”
Captain Shu has never been thin-skinned. He calmly accepted the first half of what Yu Jin said. “Ask whatever you want.”
In a sense, Yu Jin represented the people of a border settlement. The three of them had a rare opportunity to meet, and Yu Jin had good character and was a pretty good collaborator. However, he was a true bottom-level person who only recognized strength. Displaying strength in a straightforward and brutal way was more effective than talking too much.
“What the hell are you guys?” Yu Jin got straight to the point. “Someone from Blackbirds asked me earlier, and I prevaricated. Now it’s my turn to ask you two.”
“This is a long story.” Shu Jun took a sip of water. “But we’ve met before…”
Half an hour later, Yu Jin emerged from the tent. His face was now fluorescent yellow, which matched his hair color perfectly.
Naturally, it was impossible for Shu Jun to reveal everything, let alone Zhu Yanchen’s identity. He only used the name of a surviving player and tried to persuade him with both emotion and reason. As a result, Shu Jun’s mouth was almost dry, and Yu Jin’s facial features were still twisted together.
Zhu Yanchen only added a few words. “The United Government plans to increase the production of synthetic humans, and you will be the first to be laid off when the time comes. You know this better than I do.”
He straightened his new clothes’ cuffs, and his gaze was as deep as water.
“If there is a conflict between the United Government and the players, you will also be the first to be sent to the battlefield to fuel the conflict. Is this what you want?”
Shu Jun, who was trying to be more tactful: “……”
Yu Jin stood there, sighing heavily for a long time. After a while, he shook hands with the two of them, looking gloomy as he left the tent.
“Should I intervene in Hu Yan’s report? After all, his ‘NPC’ affected quite a few people. What if…”
“It’s okay.” Zhu Yanchen shook his head. “Let him report as he wishes. I know how the higher-ups will judge it.”
He then earnestly touched Shu Jun’s forehead. “The top priority is to return to Y City and check your physical condition as soon as possible. From what we can see now, your memory recovery is likely related to these two battles.”
“Mm.” Shu Jun enjoyed the warmth on his forehead. “But before that, I still need to explain to Hu Yan.”
“About the hair and the eyes—I didn’t intentionally create a visual effect. It was all arranged by <Erosion>.”
Not long after, in the Y City command center.
Yi Ning looked at the report in front of him, his brow furrowing in frustration.
The Blackbirds’ report was quite strange—this time, the Erosion Swamp seemed exceptionally abnormal in terms of ability. And there was a mysterious “official” mentioned in the report—someone who seemed to possess multiple abilities, but nobody could see his face.
According to Blackbirds’ eyewitnesses, the person’s weapon appeared to be a pitch-black mace, which also made strange noises. However, the two team members were extremely weak, and their testimony couldn’t be fully trusted.
The NPCs who escaped also submitted a report, only mentioning that the person’s appearance was abnormal and not human-like. They were too focused on running for their lives to notice any more details.
In terms of results, the strange Erosion Swamp had disappeared, but the whole incident was shrouded in mystery.
“I’ll take a look. The Blackbirds report will be made public sooner or later, so it doesn’t matter now.”
A hand reached out to Yi Ning. It was clearly an aggressive action, but Luo Duan made it seem particularly gentle.
“…And you look quite troubled.”
Lately, Luo Duan had been coming to him more and more frequently, so Yi Ning had already hidden all sensitive information. This team captain was very good at handling people and gave useful suggestions, so he couldn’t just kick Luo Duan out.
God knew why Luo Duan’s injury was healing so slowly. It seemed he needed to find Dr. Ai to have a special look.
“Go ahead.” Yi Ning nodded, allowing Luo Duan to proceed.
“Thank you.” Luo Duan smiled. “These guides are quite interesting. Can I invite Groundwater to do the next mission?”
“As long as they’re willing… Speaking of which, I have to go to the theater tomorrow afternoon. The Xia family is holding a celebratory concert to commemorate Zhu Yanchen’s return, and I have to attend—you don’t need to attend.”
“Okay.” Luo Duan’s smile grew even wider. “I’ll probably still come to check things out since I have nothing else to do. You know, plans always change faster than expected, don’t they?”
The author has something to say:
Both of them realized it and then…
Shu Ge: What a good friend. I can’t take advantage of him.
Marshal Shu: What a good friend, I can’t take advantage of him.
When there’s a contrast between friendship and love, love is even harder to hide (.
On the second night, at eight, there was a knock on the door of Shu Jun’s home. Sure enough, Smoke had come, and he had prepared for it with joy.
Shu Jun didn’t have many friends at school. He spent most of his time studying and training, and at most, he would play games online with his friends at night. Perhaps it was because he was used to living alone, but Shu Jun didn’t feel that there was anything wrong with his situation.
But Smoke was different. He was the first special friend that Shu Jun had ever met—a friend he could hang out with in his free time.
“You’re here.” Shu Jun eagerly opened the door.
Smoke stood at the door, looking more relaxed than yesterday, but still a little restrained.
“I applied for my allowance this month and bought a cabinet full of snacks.” Shu Jun puffed out his chest, as if he were a wealthy man with tons of gold. “You can eat as much as you want.”
“I brought a gift.” Smoke whispered and pulled out a small book from his pocket. “It’s a tactics textbook from my side. I memorized it, and we can study it together.”
Then he seemed quite embarrassed. “I only have this one book. I haven’t learned anything else.”
“Come in, come in.” Shu Jun pulled Smoke through the door and opened a package of snacks. “How long can you play? Will your mom come to pick you up?”
At this moment, Smoke was sitting upright on the sofa. When he heard this question, his face turned ashen.
“My mother isn’t well. She goes to bed at 7:30 and sleeps until the afternoon of the next day. I come over every afternoon to accompany her, and spend the night alone, then go… somewhere else in the morning.”
Smoke stared at the table. “But she doesn’t mind me making friends with you. When we’re done playing, the nanny will come to pick me up.”
However, the two of them played until the early hours of the morning, and it became a sure thing that Smoke would stay the night.
Shu Jun looked at the time listlessly. Although Smoke was introverted, when they chatted, they were exceptionally happy, as if they could naturally know what the other was thinking.
He hadn’t been this happy in a long time.
Previously, Smoke had taught him tactics, so Shu Jun had thought about helping him with his strength training. He kept a close eye on Smoke’s movements until they were exhausted from playing sports games, and they decided to take a break before competing in tactics.
“Don’t you have training at school?” Shu Jun took a sip of his drink.
“I don’t go to school. My family hires a private tutor.” Even though he was exhausted, Smoke’s posture was still very proper. “They only teach things like etiquette, literature, and math. There’s no physical training.”
“But you’ve had tactics classes.” Shu Jun opened the small book and could tell that Smoke had studied it very seriously, with extra notes on many passages. “Why didn’t you continue?”
Could it be that something happened during the class that made Smoke’s mother so opposed to anything related to tactics?
Smoke’s body, which had been relaxed, became tense again at this question. “I don’t know either. According to my father’s arrangements, I was supposed to enter school, but she just wouldn’t agree… My physical condition, personality, and grades are all bad; my father doesn’t like me, so it’s up to her.”
Shu Jun: “…” The more he heard about Smoke’s family situation, the stranger it seemed.
“As for the reason, my mom mentioned it once—she said some talents don’t disappear and some imprints are engraved in the brain and can never be erased for a lifetime.”
“I don’t understand,” Shu Jun said, feeling a little dizzy.
“Neither do I.” Smoke took a sip of his drink awkwardly, coughing and almost spilling it. “Ahem… But she also said that once I’m sixteen and still want to follow my father, she won’t stop me.”
Shu Jun took out a handkerchief and wiped Smoke’s mouth. “Your family is complicated, but school is just school. The teachers don’t like me very much.”
Smoke spilled his drink and was wiping the table awkwardly. Hearing this, he turned his head in surprise.
“Because I don’t listen,” Shu Jun grumbled. “If I don’t give standard tactics, I get penalized, and if the tactics aren’t effective, I get double penalized. My tactics scores are terrible, and I rely on evenly distributing points in single combat. If I can’t pass the simulation test in the end, I’ll be advised to drop out.”
“I’ll be transferred to the ordinary level, and I definitely won’t be able to enter a good combat team. But following those standard tactics is just so boring… A’Yan, your tactics are much better-looking than theirs!”
This time, Smoke didn’t blush from the compliment, but his ears flushed, and he was silent for almost half a minute.
“Then let’s get started.” After half a minute, Smoke shook his clothes that were wet from his spilled drink. “Can I borrow your bathroom? I want to deal with my clothes first.”
“Oh, sure. I’ll get you some clean clothes.”
Shu Jun took out a T-shirt from the closet and walked into the bathroom, only to find that Smoke was staring at a corner of the bathroom in a daze.
There was a small vase on the sink with a bunch of flowers in it. With new technology, these flowers could last a long time, and the manager would change the variety every week. Shu Jun had always treated it as a decoration.
But Smoke held his breath and gently touched the velvety petals of the flowers.
The flowers in the vase this week were bellflowers. “Do you like flowers?” Shu Jun asked as he threw a t-shirt to Smoke.
“This flower isn’t common where I live.” Smoke still hadn’t taken off his dirty clothes and just held the t-shirt carefully to avoid staining it.
“I heard there’s a huge flower field outside the city, and they even built an observation tower.” Shu Jun said enthusiastically, “When I become a team member, I can leave the city. We can go see it together.”
Smoke turned his head, and that strange expression appeared again. He seemed to be enduring something painful, as his eyes showed a hint of sadness. Then he turned away, and Shu Jun couldn’t see his face.
“Okay,” he murmured vaguely. “You can go out first. I’ll change my clothes and come find you.”
From that day on, Smoke became especially serious about strategy games, and Shu Jun cherished their friendship even more. The way children expressed their affection was simple: They remembered what you said and shared with you what they liked.
At first, Shu Jun would just share some snacks, but later on, the pies at the school cafeteria was particularly delicious, and he would save a piece to take home. Unfortunately, Shu Jun had no experience storing food, so by the time he got home, the pie was cold and greasy.
But Smoke still ate it all without saying a word.
Smoke’s family education was quite strict, so he couldn’t bring practical gifts and instead brought a brain full of strategic knowledge every time he came over. Shu Jun had never heard of those battles, and the school didn’t teach them macro-battlefield analysis, so he was very happy to listen.
Later, Smoke’s sleepovers became the norm—every time Shu Jun finished school, his secret friend would come to play. And before school, they would have breakfast together.
He was no longer alone but could happily say “see you tomorrow”. If Smoke hadn’t earnestly requested that he keep it a secret, Shu Jun would have wanted to publicize this magical friend throughout the school.
They never even had a fight.
Shu Jun thought he had gained a true brother, but after six months of being together, things finally started to go wrong.
It was during a festival, and the whole city was celebrating. Shu Jun loved this day, as the streets were filled with people and the night was lively—after Smoke appeared, he looked forward to the festival even more. He had never stayed out with a friend so late, watching the beautiful fireworks burst in the sky.
That night, as soon as Smoke arrived, Shu Jun brought out two backpacks.
“I’m all ready!” His nose was pointed high in the sky with an expression saying “praise me”. “A’Yan, let’s go to the river. I know a great place to watch.”
Smoke opened his mouth a little hesitantly.
“It’s okay, there are a lot of people, but it won’t be too crowded.” After half a year, Shu Jun had figured out his friend’s temperament. Smoke didn’t like places with too many people, and he had considered this factor early on.
And Smoke always trusted him. Sure enough, Smoke obediently nodded his head and carefully slung the backpack on.
Shu Jun happily grinned and added a few flowers to his backpack.
Smoke had looked increasingly unhappy lately. Even though he was trying to suppress it, Shu Jun could still tell. Maybe taking him to a lively place could improve his mood a bit.
He even made a small firework as a surprise.
At night, the riverside was packed with people. Shu Jun scurried through the crowds like a monkey, and eventually climbed onto a low building by the riverbank, using the gaps between walls and windowsills. Down below, masses of people bustled about. Sitting on the edge of the roof, Shu Jun swayed his legs with excitement while Smoke, who wasn’t as coordinated, kept his knees close together and his hands on his knees.
“At midnight, the sky will be filled with fireworks, and they’re especially beautiful.” Shu Jun gestured with excitement, enjoying the cool breeze. “This is my special viewing spot. The view is amazing!”
Smoke, however, didn’t look up at the sky. His eyes were down on the bustling crowd below.
“Right, there aren’t usually many people at night. This is your first time seeing so many people, right? Look over there, those are my classmates. The one in the blue shirt! She and her family came out too.”
The expression on Smoke’s face was slightly bitter. Shu Jun thought perhaps it was too dark at night, and he had misread it.
“And those two over there are my classmates too. They’re brothers. Hey, I’ve been keeping my tactical grades in check. I’m going to soar to the top in the simulation test and scare them! When I get first place, I’ll treat you to a big meal.”
His two classmates were having fun playing around, and their laughter was clearly audible.
“Ah, do you see that person over there? That’s the Blackbirds captain, Xu Kan, who I particularly admire!” Shu Jun stretched his neck. “Quickly look, A’Yan—Captain Xu just retired and is supposed to be taking a long vacation abroad with his family. See, isn’t he handsome!”
Xu Kan was standing by the riverbank with a little girl about eight years old perched on his shoulder. He was laughing and talking with his wife, and the festival lights reflected off his eyes.
“His daughter goes to our school too, and she’s also taking a long vacation. I’m so envious.”
Occasionally, laughter rang out from the crowds. In another half a minute, the colorful fireworks would fill the night sky. As usual, everyone would make their own wishes.
The wishes were simple; most wished for family harmony and good health.
But Shu Jun had no family, and there was nothing to worry about with his health. He had long decided on his wish—he hoped to be long-time friends with Smoke.
He didn’t know what Smoke would wish for and turned his head to look at him.
Smoke’s eyes were red.
Lights dotted the crowds, and everyone was smiling. The gentle evening breeze blew, and the river water washed gently against the bank as the whole city was lit up. Everything was incredibly beautiful.
The fireworks exploded.
Dazzling colors jumped in the air. People looked up, and their smiles grew wider. Xu Kan’s daughter was screaming with excitement, the two boys were shouting into the sky, the crowd was buzzing, and countless families touched each other like a dance.
But Shu Jun didn’t look at the sky. He worriedly looked at his friend.
The fireworks illuminated the entire night sky and also lit up Smoke’s tear-streaked face. He didn’t convulse or choke, and his breathing didn’t change too much, but tears kept streaming down.
Smoke tried to wipe his tears with his hand, but the tears seemed to be endless. Finally, he started to sniffle.
“Are you feeling unwell?” Shu Jun lost his mood for watching the fireworks. He wanted to make Smoke happy, but it seemed to have the opposite effect.
“I have…I have something I want to ask you.” Smoke’s voice was hoarse. “If everyone tells you that a certain behavior is right, but you feel like something is not quite right… What would you do?”
“Uh, I don’t know.” Shu Jun was frightened by Smoke’s tears—he had never seen Smoke shed a tear in the past six months. “But, if you feel like something is not quite right, then you should think about it more?”
“Well, I’ve thought a lot about it,” Smoke said softly, tears still streaming down his face. “I’ll keep thinking about it.”
“And… and you’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met, so if you feel like something is not right, you must have your own reasons.”
Shu Jun searched his brain, trying to find the right words.
“Shall we call it a night and head back home?”
On the way back home, Smoke remained silent. However, before going to sleep, Smoke suddenly leaned over and kissed Shu Jun on the forehead.
Shu Jun was taken aback.
“That means ‘goodnight’,” Smoke said hoarsely. “I read in a book that it’s a way to say goodnight to someone ‘important’.”
“Our teacher said that a kiss means ‘like’,” Shu Jun pointed out seriously.
“A kiss on the cheek means ‘like’.” Smoke turned over. “Goodnight, let’s sleep.”
“Goodnight… A’Yan, are you okay now?”
Smoke didn’t answer.
And Shu Jun’s memory stopped there, once again falling into an unnatural darkness.
The Mirror Erosion Swamp collapsed, and the area around them became a little brighter with the moving light source tremblingly floating. Limbless human skin balloons lay stiffly on the ground; their pale skin tinged black from the Erosion Swamp, forming a strange sea of corpses.
Shu Jun knelt by the Erosion Swamp and supported his almost naked body with his greatsword. The fragments of the Erosion Swamp’s brain slowly reassembled, and viscous erosion clumps coalesced and slid over his cheeks, neck, and chest. Unlike the human skin balloons around him, his slightly dull skin and gray-white hair became particularly noticeable, seeming to be the only living things in the world.
But that wasn’t all.
A peculiar web-like erosion hung from Shu Jun’s back, spider-webbing between his back and the ground. The Erosion Swamp on the ground submerged his calves and wrapped around his ankles. Coupled with Shu Jun’s handsome face, it created a scene of strange beauty.
Zhu Yanchen thought he was hallucinating—as if the concept of “natural disaster” had turned into the person in front of him.
There was only one thing out of place.
Seeing Zhu Yanchen approach, Shu Jun smiled. His spirit didn’t seem sober, but there was no malice in his smile, which was so pure that it was shocking. He reached out and pressed his hand against Zhu Yanchen’s chest, and the connecting flesh turned into a branding iron.
“Long time no see,” he said.
Then Shu Jun’s entire body went limp. Zhu Yanchen caught him in his arms in time, holding him tightly. Shu Jun’s breathing was even, and his eyes were tightly closed, probably due to physical exhaustion after the outburst.
Zhu Yanchen sat firmly on the ground, hugging the person in his arms tightly, and stopped moving. The surrounding Erosion Swamp squeezed out into a circle, avoiding him like he was a snake or scorpion*.
*Idiom used to describe someone who’s particularly unpleasant or harmful to be around, as if they were dangerous like venomous snakes or scorpions.
The wind gradually picked up around them. The swamp was bubbling as the human skin balloons’ popping echoed continuously. Monday lay on one side as it muttered intermittently, letting out a few unkind words. Zhu Yanchen tightly wrapped the coat on Shu Jun’s back and closed his eyes.
“Sleep,” he whispered to Shu Jun. “I’ll be right here waiting for you.”
Shu Jun sighed lightly.
He was completely exhausted, and his spirit was shattered. His eyelids were as heavy as if they were hung with two lead weights, and he couldn’t even tell if he was asleep. He tried to control his limbs but couldn’t even move his fingers. His thoughts became even more muddled, and the fear of losing control over his body gradually gripped him.
Fortunately, his legs were cold, and Zhu Yanchen’s embrace was scorching hot. Being held tightly by Zhu Yanchen finally brought some peace of mind in the midst of his uncontrollable panic.
Half asleep and half awake, he finally felt that the battle was over. The Mirror Erosion Swamp left them with more mysteries, but at least one thing was clear—
This time, Shu Jun didn’t need to search for memories in his dreams. During the battle, his head throbbed, and memories rushed back to him. As for the dream he had before, Shu Jun remembered the follow-up.
“Then I’ll call you A’Yan,” he said to the lost child sixteen years ago on that night.
Immediately, he realized that the child in front of him looked familiar—he seemed to have seen an NPC with a similar appearance before.
“Have we met before? During the mission to save Yu Jin, I remember you were on the NPC side. It’s me, Shu Jun, S-001 in <Erosion>!” Shu Jun asked directly.
At that time, he was wearing a protective mask, so it was normal for the other person not to recognize him. Although they were not part of <Erosion>, this child was probably just a facial model for an NPC, so asking an extra question wouldn’t hurt. Shu Jun never suppressed his curiosity.
The child named “Smoke” stared blankly, and his gaze towards Shu Jun gradually became complex. After a while, he said, “I remember you. But I’m not an NPC. That was… That was a role-playing experience level.”
As he said this, Smoke kept twisting his fingers, as if struggling with something.
“As I thought. It’s really you!”
Shu Jun was instantly happy. Although he hadn’t heard of any experience levels, he assumed it was a new game mode for rich people and decided not to worry about it. “Where do you live? I’ll take you home. Can I find you to play in the future? You were really cool that time!”
Smoke’s ears turned red. He struggled for a while and replied in a low voice, “Thank you.”
After a few seconds of silence, he raised his head and looked at Shu Jun seriously. “My place is a bit far. I need to take a car, so you can’t send me.”
“Really? There are no buses at this time. Why don’t I take you to the nearby management office—”
“No.” Smoke’s refusal was quite firm this time.
“You can’t go home, and you don’t want to go to the management office for the night, but I can’t have you sleep outside.” Shu Jun scratched his head. “Why don’t you come to my place…”
“Can I stay at your place for a night?” At the same time, the other person asked tentatively.
“I was just about to ask that. Of course you can!” Shu Jun’s eyes curved. “By the way, you’re so far from home and don’t seem lost. Did you run away from home?”
Smoke shook his head but didn’t explain. He bit his lip and changed the topic. “I… I just don’t want to stay at the management office overnight. And even if I’m sent back, I can only be alone.”
After speaking, he looked a little pleading, like an injured little animal.
With Yu Jin’s mission, Shu Jun already had a great impression of Smoke. Moreover, children were easily attracted to people with good looks. Although at that time Shu Jun considered himself a “mature man” of eleven years old, he still couldn’t escape from the other’s gaze.
Moreover, he understood what it was like to live alone.
“Come on, follow me.” Shu Jun stopped asking. He grabbed Smoke’s hand and led him towards his home, feeling quite happy—everyone liked to communicate through voice or video, but this was his first time entertaining someone of the same age at home.
Shu Jun’s place was a one-bedroom and one-living-room apartment; not too big or too small, and quite clean and comfortable. The kitchen was semi-separated, and the refrigerator contained simple foods with a long shelf life. The hot water in the bathroom never ran out, and the view outside the window was quite pleasant.
After bringing Smoke into the house, Shu Jun opened the refrigerator and took out some milk to heat up. “You can use my communicator. If it’s not convenient, I can also help you contact your family or the management office. Oh, A’Yan, do you want sugar in your milk?”
After finally having a guest, Shu Jun could now play the role of host. When he finished heating up the milk, he happily turned on all the lights in the house and started up the communicator.
Smoke held the hot milk in both hands and stared at the communicator for a while.
“It’s okay.” After a while, Smoke didn’t touch the screen in front of him, and his voice was still low. “I can explain it to them when I go back tomorrow.”
Shu Jun’s gaze suddenly became sharp. He understood that this kid must have had a conflict with his family, and he ran too far away, and was now embarrassed to ask for a ride back. Anyway, his crime had already become history, and the city was very safe, so Smoke probably just wanted to take advantage of the situation and have some fun.
He understood. He understood too well.
“Okay, no need to contact them then. Anyway, I have blankets and pillows at my place.” Shu Jun gulped down the milk and slammed the cup on the table. “Let’s play!”
Smoke sipped the milk with a confused expression on his face.
“What do you usually play with your friends?” Shu Jun started up the augmented reality, and a large number of game icons appeared in the living room. “Not to brag, but I have all kinds of games here.”
“…I don’t know.”
“Ah?” This answer was quite strange. How could someone not know what games they usually play?
“I don’t really play games usually. Um, at home, there are only adults…”
In other words, he didn’t have many friends. Shu Jun couldn’t help but sigh. No wonder he had conflicts with his family. Compared to that, he himself was much freer.
“This is Virtual Combat. I love this one! The only downside is that it requires a lot of physical activity, and if you play too late, you won’t be able to sleep. This one here is chess, but I find it a bit boring. This one is Monster Shooter. Oh, right, do you want to play a shooter?” Shu Jun’s eyes lit up.
Last time, this person was very interested in his gun, and it was clear he hadn’t played much.
Sure enough, Smoke eagerly responded, clumsily jumping off the chair without even wiping the milk off his mouth. Shu Jun could tell that Smoke’s movements weren’t very coordinated. Not to mention formal training, he didn’t even seem to have done much regular exercise.
No wonder he was so thin and weak.
‘What a shame,’ Shu Jun thought. If Smoke was a reserve member of a combat team, he would have been able to block that attack last time. Although his actions were very cool, his physical fitness was really holding him back. Shu Jun rubbed Smoke’s arm a few times, looking rather regretful.
Smoke froze. “…”
Shu Jun then walked around Smoke a few times as his thoughts raced. This person usually didn’t have contact with people his own age, so it wasn’t surprising that he lacked confidence. Perhaps he had a falling out with those child NPCs because of his poor social skills. Since Smoke had taken the initiative to ask to stay overnight, they could at least be considered half-friends.
Even if it was just half, he would do his best to be that half.
A sense of responsibility suddenly arose in Shu Jun’s heart as he handed the controller to Smoke. “Don’t worry if you haven’t played before. I’ll teach you step by step.”
The game started. With the influence of augmented reality, the living room floor turned into a small outpost, and hideous mutant beasts charged at them from the ground and sky.
The two controllers turned into flashing guns.
Shu Jun took the lead. “This is a small game developed based on <Erosion> and the details are similar. Look, the gun needs to be loaded like this… Yes, yes! Is it really your first time using a gun?”
Smoke almost blushed at his praise and looked down.
“Your shooting posture should be like this. Pay attention to the movement of your shoulder. The controller will simulate recoil, so be careful not to hurt yourself.” Shu Jun helped him adjust his posture. “Don’t be nervous. It’s just a game. Okay, three, two, one, fire!”
A mutant beast with an abnormally long arm was shot down and struggled for a while at their feet before disappearing in a burst of light.
Shu Jun had the idea of helping Smoke build confidence, so he purposely led him to shoot down one of the monsters during the tutorial. Although it was just a game, it felt very real. Smoke stared at the gun in his hand, his hand shaking a little.
“It’s your first time. It’s normal to be nervous. It’s okay. It’s not real—”
Before he could finish speaking, Smoke fired again.
For a beginner, Smoke’s accuracy was quite shocking. The monsters moved very fast and weren’t friendly targets. However, even if Smoke failed to get a headshot, he did manage to hit the target without missing a beat.
And he was becoming more and more accurate.
Unable to resist, Shu Jun looked at Smoke’s face—at this moment, Smoke was particularly focused, with no trace of restraint or timidity. His jet-black eyes seemed to be on fire. He seemed rooted to the ground, not even budging when monsters spewed blood and charged at him.
As expected of his friend. Shu Jun thought to himself and became more convinced of his ability to judge people.
After observing for a while, Shu Jun withdrew his gaze from Smoke’s face and instead focused on his body movements, afraid he might accidentally hurt his shoulder. He wasn’t surprised by Smoke’s frightening progress—Shu Jun was also quite talented in combat, and now he found it endearing in Smoke.
Once he confirmed that Smoke had mastered the correct posture, the two started to compete in shooting games.
“You know, you can unlock more small props in this game later on. But they’re all just small weapons with no special features.” Shu Jun introduced while playing. “When I join a team, I’ll definitely choose a super-cool big gun.”
“…These are good enough for me.” Smoke murmured. “I don’t need anything else.”
“Huh? You’re too simple,” Shu Jun exclaimed.
They had fun playing, but Smoke’s stamina was limited. After an hour, his arms became too weak to lift, so they had to stop. It was Shu Jun who noticed Smoke was covered in sweat and trembling, and suggested they stop.
“My score is much worse than yours…”
“It’s your first time playing. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Besides, the scores aren’t that different.”
“That’s because you let me.”
“I didn’t let you.”
“If we played too long, your shoulder would definitely get injured.” Seeing Smoke’s determined face, Shu Jun pinched his arm and changed the subject. He figured out that Smoke was someone who loved to focus on details. “Let’s play something else. It’s boring to play just one game.”
“Yeah, even though I prefer fighting games—if we’re talking about multiplayer strategy games, then it’s this one… but I’m not good at it.” Shu Jun brought over two cans of cold drinks and spoke in a quieter voice.
Smoke wiped the sweat off his face with a towel and looked at him curiously.
Shu Jun grinned and started another game.
The desolate horizon turned back into the wall, and the cracked ground of the outpost turned back into the floor. In front of them was a sand table about two square meters in size, and even small black clouds floated above it.
“This is also a mini-game from <Erosion>, which tests your tactical ability. The rules and controls are very simple. Just eliminate the monsters in the field.”
There were countless strategy games, and Shu Jun chose the one he was worst at. Both of them started on equal footing, which was more beneficial for Smoke to discard unnecessary feelings of inferiority.
‘Plus, the games under <Erosion> have the coolest effects,’ Shu Jun thought solemnly.
“Let’s play together. It can have two commanders.”
Smoke hesitated for a moment. “My mom doesn’t let me touch this kind of stuff…”
Are there really such strange parents? Shu Jun was momentarily confused. He had only heard of parents forbidding pure casual games, but tactical games were officially recommended by the school. Parents should be happy if their child shows interest in them.
“You’ve come out by yourself. What are you afraid of? It’s not like you’re doing anything bad, and nobody will know if we don’t tell anyone.”
Smoke was still hesitant. “I actually like this kind of stuff, but my mom got really angry last time when she caught me secretly reading tactical books.”
“Parents aren’t always right.” Shu Jun poked at the little monster on the sand table and spoke seriously. “It’s just tactical planning. It won’t take your money, it won’t teach you bad things, and it won’t get in the way of your work. Maybe your mom has her reasons, but playing for an hour won’t hurt anyone.”
After some persuasion, Smoke agreed. Ten minutes later, Shu Jun discovered that this game could indeed bring confidence to Smoke, and it worked surprisingly well. Unlike the shooting game they played earlier, Shu Jun could deeply feel Smoke’s strength this time.
Smoke took only eight minutes to familiarize himself with the game controls and another two minutes to break through the level. His score was recorded under Shu Jun’s account, and Shu Jun’s level ranking shot up from over 3,000 to top 100.
This was even counting the first eight minutes.
Shu Jun blushed with embarrassment and quietly turned off the score upload.
The school had tested them, and Shu Jun was particularly good at handling predetermined battles. Once the situation became too large and complex, he began to go wild with ideas. As a result, his overall command score had always been low.
This tactical game, however, tested complex situations and command skills. Every time he saw it, his head would hurt. Who would have thought that he would bring back a monster—was Smoke’s mom afraid of scaring others?
What a waste!
This person was clearly so strong, but still restrained!
Shu Jun rolled up his sleeves and said aggrievedly, “Did you see your score? Did you see it? If you hadn’t spent so long getting familiar with the level just now, you could have taken first place. My god, I don’t even know what you’re doing with your head down all the time. If I could achieve such results…”
As he spoke, his eyes began to feel sore. “I’m not convinced! Let’s keep going—”
An hour later, Shu Jun ran into the bathroom and sniffled for a full three minutes. As an eleven-year-old mature young man, he wouldn’t normally be so unrestrained, but his mentality was just too broken. He didn’t know if Smoke had regained his confidence, but his own confidence was almost gone.
Smoke passed a high-difficulty level on his first try, as easily as tying his shoes. Shu Jun had struggled for a long time, and his tactical score only made up a fraction of Smoke’s. Even without the tactical score, Shu Jun was still an excellent student, so he had never experienced such a blow.
Even if he counted the tactical score, no one else in the school was as savage as this guy, right?
With him crying like this, it would be hard for Smoke to think that he deliberately let him win. With tears in his eyes, Shu Jun tried to save face.
“I’m sorry, I… I didn’t mean to win so much. I controlled myself…”
“What are you saying?!” Shu Jun hiccupped. “Listen to yourself!”
Unable to persuade him, Smoke was at a loss. “Your tactics are really good, and there are many angles that I didn’t think of, but they are a bit… scattered. As long as you make a little change, the effect will be just as good as mine.”
Seeing Shu Jun wiping his nose and tears, Smoke started to stutter anxiously.
“Really?” Shu Jun wiped his nose hard.
“Really, I can show you the changes.”
Shu Jun immediately stopped crying. “Tell me.”
Smoke didn’t expect this person to change his mood so quickly and froze on the spot.
“It was me who couldn’t control my emotions.” Shu Jun tore a piece of paper. “After all, I’m older than you, so I shouldn’t be like this… By the way, how old are you?”
“…” A tear slowly fell from the corner of Shu Jun’s eye. So he was actually the younger one.
“Wuuu.” He sniffed again, sadly. “Brother, please tell me how to improve my tactics from earlier?”
Smoke: “…How about we analyze it?”
Shu Jun’s sadness came and went quickly. The two kids played and chattered until dawn, and Shu Jun satisfactorily took notes. On the other hand, Smoke’s expression and movements became more natural, and even a smile appeared on his face.
“Can you come play with me in the future?” Shu Jun made room for Smoke on the bed. “Or I can come play with you?”
“I… I’ll talk to my family when I go home tomorrow.” Smoke grabbed the edge of the blanket tightly. “It should be okay. Anyway, I’ve been alone at night. If it’s not okay, I can come out by myself.”
“Okay.” Shu Jun yawned. “We made a promise, okay?”
Smoke hesitated for a moment, carefully reached out his hand, and shook Shu Jun’s hand.
Shu Jun slept soundly that night, and when he woke up the next morning, he found that he had used Smoke as a pillow—his octopus-like arms wrapped around the rolled-up Smoke like a cushion. Smoke frowned slightly, but his breathing was still steady.
Shu Jun carefully released his grip and got out of bed. He sent a message to the manager that he didn’t need breakfast, and then started to cook enough noodles for two people—he actually cried in front of Smoke last night, so he had to quickly restore his mature and reliable image.
Although Smoke was older than him by a year, this age gap could be completely ignored—he was taller than Smoke, after all.
…And now that he thought about it, he did get half of a super cool friend.
No, they had so much fun playing together; they should be considered “real friends” now, right?
The author has something to say:
In the real world, children should not wander around alone at night! There is no crime in the virtual world, but there is in the real world.
Shu Ge, 16 years ago: When I grow up, I want to have a super cool weapon!
Shu Ge: ?
Shu Ge, 16 years ago: Although A’Yan is older than me, he is skinny and shorter than me… Spiritually, that makes me the big brother. I have to take care of this introverted friend…
Shu Ge: ??????
Wow I just died of sweetness. They are so cute!!! I love childhood sweethearts!
Hu Yan was shocked on the spot. “Is this within the rules?”
Despite the danger, he still had a game mindset—NPC never participated in battles before, and someone like “One Eye” who was willing to assist deeply was also rare. Moreover, the task needed to be scored, so this might be considered cheating.
Yu Jin was even more terrified. “Yeah, is this within the rules? When can players become NPCs?”
After their duet, they looked at each other sympathetically.
With a burst of energy, Shu Jun looked like he was about to weaken. “…Just consider me a special guest. I’ll clear the way first, okay?”
His response was clever, and each of them interpreted it according to their own understanding. With the situation critical, Hu Yan didn’t say much. The rocks opened like petals and gave way to the upward path.
It was still dark overhead, with no light in the sky. The passage leading out was like an upside-down dry well.
Shu Jun raised a wind beside him, but he didn’t immediately fly away. He nodded at Zhu Yanchen and then tilted his head in the direction where the Blackbirds was.
After years of tactical communication, Zhu Yanchen immediately understood Shu Jun’s meaning—he wanted to lure the attention of the Mirror Erosion Swamp away as a “player”. If the situation changed, the Erosion Swamp might still attack other members of the Blackbirds. Shu Jun wanted him to help protect the team.
Zhu Yanchen nodded calmly. After receiving the other’s feedback, Shu Jun was lifted up by the wind, and his feet left the ground. “Do you want me to help you get another brain?”
When facing Sweet Edge, Zhu Yanchen almost died, and he definitely wouldn’t consider researching. Now another opportunity had presented itself, and it had to be said that it was a perfect opportunity.
“No need,” Zhu Yanchen said softly. “Stay safe.”
“If it’s a safety issue…”
“No, if you dig out its brain, it will soon turn back into an ordinary Erosion Swamp.” Zhu Yanchen explained helplessly. “Just be careful…”
“I know, I know.” Previously, Grand Marshal Zhu had a cold and hard demeanor, but now that he knew his own life was out of danger, he developed a subtle tendency to be overprotective. “Don’t worry. I’m good at running away.”
Although he said that, Shu Jun knew in his heart that they had no other choice.
He couldn’t just leave the missing Blackbirds members alone, nor could he upgrade the battle into a conflict between two Alpha Erosion Swamps—not to mention how to explain it to the Blackbirds vanguard team. Once it was determined that he was a troublemaking humanoid Erosion Swamp, this incident would be classified as an Erosion Swamp conflict. The Mirror Erosion Swamp might clear the field first, and the vanguard team would inevitably be the first to bear the brunt.
To put it another way, even if they could ruthlessly run away, the Mirror Erosion Swamp wouldn’t let the vanguard team go, so conflict was inevitable.
He could only first confront the Erosion Swamp as a powerful player, take advantage of its carelessness, and play dirty.
“Go to the cave entrance.” After Shu Jun flew away, Zhu Yanchen naturally took over the command. “Paprika*… Hu Yan, the three of us will go to the top of the mountain. The view is better there, and it’s also convenient for you to use your ability.”
*Clarity: Zhu Yanchen almost called Hu Yan by his game ID, which literally translates to ground pepper.
This person with the same ID as his sister-in-law had a very pleasant voice, like ice water flowing through his throat on a scorching hot day. It made Hu Yan take a moment to realize that his own ID was indeed harsh to the ears and didn’t match this voice at all.
This voice was more suitable for calling out to someone with an elegant ID like Luo Duan’s. But when he thought of the original name of Shu Jun, [See You Tomorrow], Hu Yan regained his mental balance. “Visibility? It’s pitch black outside…”
As soon as the words left his mouth, Hu Yan realized that, even though he was the captain of the Blackbirds, he had been swept away by the other person’s imposing manner.
“I have a way.” Zhu Yanchen spoke concisely, turning to Yu Jin. “Are you coming? If not, you can wait in with the Blackbirds.”
“I’m already here,” Yu Jin responded absentmindedly. “It’s just a few steps more.”
“Let’s go.” Zhu Yanchen took out his gun.
The stones under their feet rose up and slid smoothly and quickly towards the cave entrance. The journey wasn’t short or long, just long enough for Hu Yan to ask a question. “What’s the relationship between you and Shu… uh, Gray Claw?”
Hearing the key words, Yu Jin turned his gaze slightly, obviously also curious about the answer.
Naturally, Zhu Yanchen wasn’t stumped by this situation. He fiddled with the gun in his hand, not even bothering to look up. “Family.”
The simple and powerful word was accompanied by a cold feeling of “if you ask again, I won’t answer”.
Hu Yan: “…” It really was his sister-in-law’s relative.
Yu Jin: “…” He knew that the two were a couple. Now that he thought about it, was Smoke also a player?
In a moment of silence, the stones emerged from the cave entrance and were surrounded by the rest of the rocks, pushing towards the mountaintop.
“Captain Hu, get ready.” Zhu Yanchen took out a ball the size of a billiard ball from his backpack, threw it into the air, and instead of falling to the ground, it slowly rose, emitting a bright light as if a flash had been paused.
For a moment, the Blackbirds below could be vaguely seen. The entire small rocky hill was illuminated, and a sticky light emanated from the central liquid column.
The visibility was indeed clear enough, but unfortunately, Shu Jun had long since disappeared.
Shu Jun was propelled upwards by the wind but suddenly stopped in the middle of his ascent—countless men and women with the same appearance hugged the liquid column, covering the surface of the Erosion Swamp like aphids. As soon as Shu Jun appeared, all those human skin balloons turned their heads and looked at him together.
Shu Jun’s body trembled all over from being stared at, and he held onto Monday tightly.
For convenience in battle, the cloth strips that bound Monday’s mouth and brain had long since floated away. Monday didn’t have any complicated thoughts. It felt quite comfortable using its mouth to catch the refreshing wind and was panting happily. Now that Shu Jun had stopped and the comfortable wind was gone, Monday began to grumble and yelp.
As soon as Monday made a sound, the human skin balloons were awakened and began to scream together. The voices were so densely intertwined that it made his hair stand on end. Monday probably didn’t expect so many “accompaniment” voices, so it choked and obediently shut its mouth.
If they were still wandering around below, the Mirror Erosion Swamp could have given the four of them a really hard time in the cave. Shifting his gaze over the densely packed human skin balloons, Shu Jun tried to search for living people inside them with his wind manipulation.
Zhu Yanchen didn’t suggest retreating and given the earlier explanation about the Erosion Swamp needing a prototype, his team members should still be alive. However, he had no clue where the two large human figures were hidden and where the Mirror Erosion Swamp’s brain was concealed.
The Mirror Erosion Swamp wasn’t stupid and knew it wouldn’t be able to trick Shu Jun a second time. The human skin balloons were firmly stuck to the liquid erosion column, and the wind couldn’t blow them away again. Shu Jun was also afraid of blowing the real people away, so he continued to fly upward. The liquid column seemed to pierce the sky, and Shu Jun could feel the temperature dropping significantly. The light from below couldn’t reach here, so he took a deep breath, letting the airflow revolve gently around him.
He relied on the subtle resistance to roughly sketch out the appearance of the top of this thing. The Mirror Erosion Swamp didn’t really have a head like a garden eel. Its top was more like a hydra*, with six or seven tentacles swaying in the air.
*Genus of small freshwater organism of the phylum Cnidaria and class Hydrozoa, not to be confused with the hydra of Greek mythology.
Compared to this, Sweet Edge was a much more friendly opponent.
Shu Jun licked his dry lips. This thing had stretched him too thin, spanning the heavens and the earth. Its brain could be anywhere. Even if he used his power to suppress it, he couldn’t cover such a large area. He needed to chop it up like an onion, but that was only possible if the thing didn’t resist and let him cut it up.
After considering it for a while, he smiled and rushed to the top of the column.
Sure enough, the Erosion Swamp, like a hungry hydra, wrapped several tentacles around him at once. Shu Jun put on a look of effort, struggling to chop off those tentacles.
The tentacles quickly took control of him, and the erosion substance invaded his protective suit, pushing him into an empty space inside the column. Shu Jun patiently suppressed his and Monday’s auras, allowing the tentacles to bind him tightly.
To deceive the people below, he was the perfect example of a human skin balloon. The Mirror Erosion Swamp had to constantly produce human skin balloons while keeping the samples alive. Its structure wasn’t very stable, so it shouldn’t spend much effort separating the samples. Even if he guessed wrong, there was still a way to escape.
Luckily, Shu Jun wasn’t wrong.
There was a thin erosion net in the empty space, like a ghost lantern, trapping two Blackbirds members inside. The net was so dense with the erosion substance that they could barely support themselves. The thin erosion silk penetrated the protective suits and covered their bodies, probably copying information.
Shu Jun took a deep breath and released the pressure on Monday’s aura.
Monday was originally happily looking around, wondering if it could rub off some erosion substance. When the pressure was released, it completely exposed its aura, and the Mirror Erosion Swamp’s attention almost instantly focused on it.
Monday: “…Help.” The oppressive feeling squeezed in from all around, and it didn’t even dare to shout out loudly.
Shu Jun remained silent, while Monday’s rough voice made the two Blackbirds members think it was him speaking. Despite being in a critical condition, the female member of the team managed to speak up. “Screaming for help is useless. Hurry… Hurry up and turn on your purifier… Every second counts.”
After discovering Monday, the wall of the Mirror Erosion Swamp began to gather and fluctuate in a regular pattern towards the center.
In order to appear like a good player, Shu Jun had indeed brought a purifier with him. He skillfully activated it, dispersing the erosion filaments on the two team members’ bodies, and then grabbed their emergency hooks, hooking them onto himself.
“It’s dinner time,” he whispered to Monday.
Compared to the battle with Sweet Edge, Monday had made some progress. This time, it didn’t remain motionless like a log but stiffened into a board throughout the process. The sword edge sliced through the erosion net that enveloped the three people, and it hesitantly absorbed the heavily erosion substance, allowing the three of them to break free from their restraints.
Subsequently, Shu Jun didn’t use his trump card of suppression. He concentrated, adjusting the distribution of air—with a whoosh, the thick wall of the liquid column was torn open by a wind blade, and Shu Jun rushed out like a drill while controlling the surrounding air.
“You…” This wind manipulation ability looked exceptionally familiar, but the man was so tightly wrapped up that it left the Blackbirds members completely puzzled.
The captain retired, and everyone on the vanguard team was a familiar face. Except for NPCs without any special abilities. Where did this person come from?
Shu Jun, of course, didn’t wait for them to finish their questions. He waved his hand and unceremoniously scraped off the human skin balloons stuck to the erosion filaments on the liquid column. After confirming that the erosion filaments instinctively wrapped tightly around the two people, he loosened the hooks—
“Ahhhhh—!” The two team members were unprepared. With a large group of human skin balloons hanging behind them. They were about to fall from a high altitude.
Naturally, Shu Jun wouldn’t let his teammates fall to their deaths. With his wind manipulation ability, he borrowed the resistance of the human skin balloons, and the two people fell at a not-too-fast speed, even though the visual effect was quite exaggerated.
The Mirror Erosion Swamp bent the liquid column down, wanting to pull the two people back with its top tentacle, but Shu Jun blocked it with his sword.
The two people quickly descended to the illumination range at the bottom of the liquid column.
The Blackbirds members who saw that scene swallowed their saliva to a greater or lesser extent. Seeing their comrades—or rather, a large group of comrades—screaming and falling, the scene was quite mentally traumatic.
Unlike the shocked Hu Yan, Zhu Yanchen remained quite calm. “Build up stone pillars as a buffer and raise two purifiers to their highest power. First, remove the erosion filaments on the surface of their bodies.”
Hu Yan simply handed over the broadcasting authority to Zhu Yanchen. Apart from the two large human skin balloons connected to people, there was occasionally falling debris from the sky. The whole scene was like a nightmare, and his brain couldn’t accept it for a moment.
Zhu Yanchen readily accepted and gave instructions directly. “Stay away from falling objects and check the wounds on those two people. If there are no penetrating wounds, there is still time for deep cleaning.”
“Captain Hu, change the stone pillars into shields.” After giving orders to the Blackbirds members, Marshal Zhu turned to Hu Yan. “There will be attacks from above, and I will calculate the position. I will control the light source for guidance, and you need to ensure that the shield is above the light source.”
“Oh, okay… Got it.”
“One Eye, keep an eye on Captain Hu’s feet, and don’t let him fall.”
Zhu Yanchen summoned a light screen and stared fixedly at the sky full of human skin balloons and the swaying liquid column without blinking. He controlled the light source, while Hu Yan controlled the shield, and many hard-to-dodge human skin balloons were blocked, leaving a relatively peaceful location for the Blackbirds to rescue the falling people.
After the emergency treatment was completed, they could consider retreating. In the best-case scenario, they could temporarily disable the Mirror Erosion Swamp’s ability to move, as long as Shu Jun didn’t reveal his identity as an Erosion Swamp.
It all depended on what Shu Jun planned to do.
Shu Jun counted the seconds himself. He saw that there were more light sources and a shield blocking below, indicating that the two team members had probably landed. The emergency treatment would take about fifteen minutes, and after enduring these fifteen minutes, the Blackbirds vanguard team would be able to return to a convenient state of action.
Now it was time for a one-on-one battle again.
The Mirror Erosion Swamp was clearly unhappy about Shu Jun taking away the human skin balloon sample. It slammed its tentacles, trying to sweep up a few more from the ground, but even if it could break through Shu Jun’s defense with its volume advantage, its attacks were always blocked by the shield below. Shu Jun’s ally, Monday, became its primary target of attention. Monday whimpered in fear and had to dodge each attack while wailing.
After five minutes of back and forth, the Erosion Swamp realized the problem. Since it couldn’t easily retrieve the hostages, it might as well focus on shooting the head bird in front of it.
The liquid column no longer thrashed about and attacked Shu Jun again in unison.
The Mirror Erosion Marsh was too large, and the airflow it stirred up was quite chaotic. Shu Jun couldn’t control all of its movements, let alone infer the location of its brain. He could only defend passively.
This couldn’t go on.
Despite Shen Jun’s agility, he suffered several bruises. Monday had been whipped hundreds of times to the point of putting it in a stupor. It became more and more sluggish and was unable to even groan.
He needed a solution, but it wasn’t yet time to give up. Revealing his identity and forcing a path was a last resort…
[What should we do here? It’s too troublesome.] A vague voice appeared in Shu Jun’s ear, sounding like a child’s complaint. [The team of monsters is so long. Who knows where the captain is hiding. Or just defend until the end, as long as we reserve our strength?]
[…You can send a small team to launch a surprise attack on the head, middle, and tail of the team.]
Another child’s voice was even quieter, sounding a bit shy.
[Uh, what do you mean?]
[Once attacked, the team will be disrupted. The captain must react and adjust in time. This map… um, doesn’t it not support long-distance communication? Then…]
[I got it, I got it! Simultaneous attack, and watch the team’s reaction speed, right?]
[Wow, this angle is so amazing! I was just thinking about how to operate on defense, thank you—] The complaining child’s mood took a turn, becoming excited again. [Oh, by the way, we got chocolates today… I think these types are pretty good. You should try them all.]
[Also, if we send another team to divide the team in the middle, wouldn’t that be more effective? …A’Yan, look over here, look over here.]
As the memory faded, Shu Jun awoke from his trance. He didn’t have time to ponder the details of that memory. He immediately took action—Shu Jun raised his greatsword and enveloped himself in a thick wind shield, cutting the liquid column from the middle. At the same time, he focused on sensing the airflow.
Separated by the thick wind shield, the bottom half of the Mirror Erosion Swamp became stiff for a short moment while the top half continued to twist madly. Soon, the upper and lower parts quickly fused back together, but Shu Jun’s attack didn’t stop.
This thing had stretched itself too thin, and there was indeed a delay in its reaction.
Without giving it time to transfer its brain, Shu Jun lifted his hand, and three huge wind blades shot out, hitting the upper half of the Mirror Erosion Swamp head-on. Without the help of Monday to clear the way, the wind blades couldn’t cut through the swamp’s body, and the wound would heal within seconds.
However, seconds were already enough time.
The healing of the wound and the rearrangement of the liquid column’s shape had a subtle time difference. After several waves of attacks, the positions of the wind blades became increasingly concentrated, and the Mirror Erosion Swamp finally realized the danger.
It quickly changed its shape and shrank towards the ground while attacking the people on the ground without any regard for its own safety.
Unfortunately, it had missed the best opportunity—the fifteen minutes were already up.
Using the fragments of the rocky mountain, Hu Yan stuck together a thin-hulled ship. The Blackbirds vanguard team evacuated onto the ship, and Hu Yan even reused some waterproof fabric as sails, pulling them up in front of the team members’ eyes full of confusion.
Zhu Yanchen, Hu Yan, and Yu Jin were the only ones who hadn’t boarded the ship yet.
On the other side, Shu Jun quickly descended. He didn’t stop sensing the airflow around him—this Mirror Erosion Swamp messed with its body structure, playing the guessing game of which cup the ball was hidden under. The Mirror Erosion Swamp was much larger than Sweet Edge and hadn’t received any substantial damage. If he lost its brain now, the next battle would be several times more difficult.
“You guys go first!” Shu Jun opened the amplification device inside his protective suit. “Everyone get on board the ship. I’ll send you away!”
If he concentrated his attack on the brain of the Erosion Swamp, it wouldn’t dare fully attack the vanguard team. As a first-tier player, Hu Yan wasn’t just sitting around. If he could buy enough time, others would have a higher chance of escape.
The rest was a head-to-head with him and the Mirror Erosion Swamp.
After all, it came to test humanity and was stronger than Sweet Edge. To be honest, Shu Jun wasn’t sure if he could win. But on the other hand, there was no such thing as a battle that was a sure win.
As long as Zhu Yanchen and the Blackbirds vanguard team could escape successfully, the plan could continue. He was already the one with the highest hope of survival in this group of people, and it was a stable gain.
Hu Yan didn’t know the truth, so he had less psychological pressure and was more decisive at the moment. “Then we’ll go first!”
Seeing the Erosion Swamp collapsing with the momentum of an avalanche in front of him, Yu Jun didn’t dare dawdle. The two of them boarded the ship in a flash. Shu Jun was about to raise his hand, but he found that one person hadn’t moved yet.
Zhu Yanchen had no intention of boarding the ship. He held a fully opened purifier in his left hand and a gun in his right with an unreal sense of calm.
“Aren’t you going to board the ship?” Shu Jun almost hit the ship’s sail with a wind blast, barely retracting it.
But Marshal Zhu immediately took action—he threw two small bombs at the sail, and they exploded into a huge blast of wind, almost pushing the ship out of their sight. Seeing that Zhu Yanchen had no hope of boarding, Shu Jun gritted his teeth and had to push the sail again. The thin-hulled ship disappeared into the horizon in an instant, flying at a high speed.
“Zhu Yanchen, you’re fucking back to your old ways again?!” Just as Shu Jun felt this guy had a positive sign of living actively, Grand Marshal Zhu had started spinning around Death again.
“You need lighting to determine the change in the Erosion Swamp’s location.” Zhu Yanchen saw through Shu Jun’s tactics at a glance. “The concentration of erosion here can’t break my immunity. With me here, your chances of winning will be higher. Besides, once the news of this leaks, the threat of ‘two people cooperating’ sounds much lower than ‘single-handedly’.”
“I understand the principle, but the problem is we don’t know anything about this thing! I can’t guarantee that I can—”
Before he could finish, Shu Jun was interrupted by Zhu Yanchen’s calm voice.
“I know you won’t lose,” he said.
A familiar feeling suddenly hit, and Shu Jun was stunned for half a second. “What if…”
“We might die, and if we do, the Erosion Swamp behind it may relax its guard. I’ve already arranged plans for what to do afterwards… My survival was already an accident, so everything will just return to the original track. Plus, with the recent intelligence, Dong Lao and the Fourth Squadron can act more effectively.”
Staying behind to increase their chances of winning? Compared to Marshal Zhu’s previous behavior, this was really not conservative.
But it had to be said, with the lighting operation and Marshal Zhu’s instructions made the delay tactics much easier—Zhu Yanchen was extremely skilled in calculating the flow of the Erosion Swamp, so Shu Jun didn’t need to distract himself by sensing the air currents. Once the Erosion Swamp attempted to engulf them, Shu Jun would take Marshal Zhu and fly into the air, continuously attacking the brain.
“It’s about time.” Zhu Yanchen fired several shots at the Mirror Erosion Swamp, interrupting one of its tentacles. “The vanguard should have already escaped.”
“But we can’t leave.” Shu Jun’s sweat was dripping down his neck, and his clothes inside the protective suit were already soaked.
Seeing that there was no hope in chasing after the vanguard, the Mirror Erosion Swamp repeated its previous tactic and spread “petals” around the liquid column. However, this time the petals were particularly thick, tightly wrapping the two of them in the middle. Although Shu Jun kept using wind attacks, the gaps kept getting smaller and smaller.
Without even having to use erosion, it wanted to suffocate them with physical means.
The battle had reached the point of revealing his trump card. Shu Jun and Zhu Yanchen were flying in an increasingly narrow space. His suppression was a sneak attack, and it was the most effective for the first time in the face of this kind of deformed, experienced Erosion Swamp.
Shu Jun was a bit nervous.
He had faced uncertain situations before, but he was always carefree then. One reason was the optimism brought by his blessings since childhood. As for the second… life was just like that. Regardless of whether the world was real or not, he didn’t have any relatives.
Compared to Zhu Yanchen’s eighty-year-old man scheme, Shu Jun felt that he was at least honest with himself, and his friends knew the risks of battle. In a corner of his heart, Shu Jun always had this thought—he was a soldier after all, and if the time came, it wouldn’t be so bad to die calmly.
But now he was sweating all over, looking disheveled, and full of anxiety.
…If he died, Zhu Yanchen would inevitably be buried with him.
Seeing that the closed space had stabilized again, the Mirror Erosion Swamp once again used its ability. Countless faceless skin balloons appeared along the inner wall of the Erosion Swamp and gradually filled the space. Numerous soft hands reached towards Shu Jun, frantically hindering his movements.
Piercing screams rose and fell one after another. They didn’t know where the sound was coming from, as these things had no mouths.
“I’m going up.” Shu Jun’s hoarse voice sounded like it had been torn apart. “It’s an old tactic. I can’t take you with me.”
Zhu Yanchen swung his purifier behind him, forcing the surrounding erosion back and created a standing space for himself. The purifier was so incredibly powerful that the skin balloons couldn’t get close to him for a while.
Shu Jun charged towards the Mirror Erosion Swamp’s brain.
The process was much more painful than the fight with Sweet Edge. Countless thin threads instantly squeezed into his protective suit, drilling into Shu Jun’s mouth and nose, trying to strangle him in place. Shu Jun used all his strength and desperately used his suppression ability, slowly moving towards the brain of the Mirror Erosion Swamp.
His attention had never been so focused, and for the first time, he truly hoped that the blessing really came from God. Even if his posture was extremely ugly, he still wanted to win this battle.
The thin erosion threads were tearing his flesh, suppressing one layer after another. To protect itself, the Mirror Erosion Swamp wrapped layers of erosion like human skin around its brain, making it extremely difficult to crack.
But he couldn’t give up. Zhu Yanchen was still struggling behind him.
Shu Jun gritted his teeth and almost squeezed out all his strength. He didn’t know how long he had stopped breathing, and his vision started to darken. Amidst the screaming of the human skin balloon, blurred colors and shadows gradually appeared.
[You will never lose.]
Yes, I will never lose.
With his greatsword, he cut through layer after layer of protection and forced himself towards the Mirror Erosion Swamp’s brain. The pain scorched between his bones, and he almost thought he was being burned alive.
This was his only chance.
Suppress. Suppress. Continue to suppress.
‘…Go fuck yourself,’ Shu Jun thought. He must survive.
He reached out his hand, and gray-white erosion flowed from his claws. Shu Jun didn’t stop for even a moment—in the previous battle, his suppression was relatively calm and had a soothing nature. This time, he wished he could turn into a human blender and wreak havoc in the Mirror Erosion Swamp’s brain.
In the end, his own consciousness became blurry, and the destruction and suppression in his hands became crazier. More erosion substance emerged from his spine, forming a huge blade that resembled wings in the darkness.
Unfortunately, Shu Jun almost lost consciousness.
While the sharp blade was churning, the device on his wrist was still working quietly.
[Fusion Degree: 45%]
[Fusion Degree: 57%]
[Fusion Degree: 73%]
He suddenly felt his breathing loosen. Shu Jun knelt down with a “plop” and the greatsword pierced into the ground. The Mirror Erosion Swamp lost its shape, and the erosion flowed quietly around it. Many human-skin balloons that hadn’t yet disintegrated floated on the Mirror Erosion Swamp, dissolving slowly.
Zhu Yanchen’s moving light source floated tremblingly, like a firefly with its wings injured.
Torn and thrown around by the human skin balloons, Marshal Zhu himself was a bit disheveled, but he was indeed still standing. With the confirmation that the enemy had been defeated, Shu Jun weakly smiled.
His protective suit had long since decayed and fallen apart during the fierce battle, leaving him almost naked. Monday was scared out of its wits again, but it quickly regained its composure and started howling on the spot.
“We were separated for nine minutes.” Zhu Yanchen approached and took off his tattered coat, gently draping it over Shu Jun’s back. “It didn’t have time to transmit information about the ‘Humanoid Erosion Swamp’, so don’t worry.”
Zhu Yanchen calmly opened his waist pack and tested the erosion substance around them for a moment.
“I’m pretty sure. They were suppressed quite obediently and wouldn’t have retained too much information. We really kept our trump card.”
“Nine minutes… I thought it was nine years…”
Shu Jun looked at Zhu Yanchen dazedly. He had so much to say, but now he couldn’t say a word. In the midst of tremendous pain, he did recall some memories. However, unlike when he faced Sweet Edge, the Mirror Erosion Swamp was pure erosion, and no one else’s memories surged into his mind.
He remembered his own memories. Even if they were just fragments, they were enough to piece together many things.
Shu Jun stretched out a hand and placed it on the spot where Zhu Yanchen’s heart was. The strong pulsation passed through the muscles and knocked on his nerves along his palms.
“…Long time no see.”
I have to say, this chapter was truly exciting to read.
The impact of the waves was quite strong, but the greatsword itself was wide enough. Monday was thrown around by the wave and screamed, but luckily everyone was so dazed by the water that they couldn’t tell where the source of the scream came from. The protective suit was thick and slippery when wet, making it difficult for Shu Jun to pull the straps on both sides. During this process, he had to focus on suppressing his own and Monday’s breath, which made things even more miserable.
However, just before the next wave came, Zhu Yanchen reached out his arm and tightly hugged Shu Jun’s waist, holding him close to his body. He held him tightly as the two tumbled in the water until they hit the rocky wall with a loud thud, without any signs of separation.
The thick protective suit served as a cushion, and the speed of the central water flow wasn’t very fast. It was only after the water flow gradually dissipated that the world became pitch black, and they looked like fish caught in a net.
The Erosion Swamp didn’t plan to drown them directly, so the water quickly dispersed. As soon as Hu Yan stood up, he opened the short-range communication to the maximum and then fired a flare into the sky.
“Immediately assembly!” Hu Yan ordered.
The communication device made an unpleasant rustling sound. Under the glare of the flare, the huge liquid column of the Erosion Swamp slowly writhed.
They had been washed up near the huge liquid column. Zhu Yanchen and Shu Jun’s orders had taken effect—after enabling oxygen support and erosion protection, Hu Yan’s condition was quite good. On the other hand, the waterproof cloth was limited, so the team members had to share it. Although the thirteen people were scattered by the water, they managed to ensure that there were two to four people in each group. With the protection of the waterproof cloth, the sharp fragments in the water flow couldn’t hurt the protective suits.
“Damn it, the erosion concentration is too high. Short-range communication devices probably won’t last long.” Hu Yan lit a cold light and looked at the reading. “This Erosion Swamp is really strange. It’s like a flytrap.”
“I took a look just now, and including us, the waterproof cloth wrapped around four groups of people,” Yu Jin recalled. “As long as your people don’t get washed away alone, the situation isn’t that bad.”
“The vanguard team are all elites. They won’t get washed away alone. I’m afraid that—” Hu Yan hadn’t finished speaking when intermittent sounds came from the communication device. “We’ve been washed into a cave… Can’t find our way out…”
Hu Yan sighed and turned the illumination towards the rocky mountain remnants full of holes. “I was afraid of this.”
Yu Jin also sighed heavily. “To be honest, I’ve never seen anything as weird as this. At most, I’ve encountered some strange mutant beasts, but this is fucking strange.”
Shu Jun thought for a few seconds. “The team outside the rocky mountain should assemble at the lighting. ‘One Eye’ will assist Hu Yan here. Smoke and I will go into the rocky mountain to find the missing people.”
“I’ll come with you.” Hu Yan shook his head. “The cave is narrow, and I can widen it. Otherwise, if you encounter something like that… that thing that pretended to be Xiao Zhang earlier, you two may not be able to handle it. Moreover, I’m now the captain of the Blackbirds. I can’t just sit around waiting for you two to risk your lives.”
“I’ll also come and broaden my horizons.” Yu Jin hammered a glowing marker into the ground. “The two of you are even more badass than me in a fight. Anyway, inside or outside, it’s only a few steps away, so I might as well go with you.”
His voice carried a hint of humor. “I’m quite familiar with this kind of mountain terrain. They say that if you benefit from someone, don’t forget to repay them*. I can’t just take advantage of you guys for nothing.”
*When one eats the food of another, one’s mouth becomes shorter. Idiom referring to one shouldn’t be greedy and take advantage of others without giving anything back.
“Okay, but we have to retreat when it’s time to retreat.” Shu Jun surveyed the cave.
If Hu Yan was there, retreating would be easy, not to mention the fact that the erosion concentration here was extremely high and Hu Yan could exert a great deal of power. If things went wrong, compared to himself, Hu Yan could at least send people out faster.
Since the water was flowing towards the center, except for the group that was washed into the cave, the other two groups weren’t far apart. After the two teams gathered, Hu Yan briefly explained the current situation.
Seven people, plus themselves, gathered together. There was one man and one woman missing.
“For now, the situation is unclear. You should gather here and not act separately. We’ll go in and find the missing people. If we haven’t returned within three hours, you should turn the purifiers to maximum power and retreat as fast as you can.”
“It’s best not to use maximum power.” Zhu Yanchen suddenly spoke up after pondering for a while.
Hu Yan wasn’t annoyed by the response. “Why?”
“Its intention is to make us actively approach the center. That’s why it made a fake messenger. If it wants to hunt, it doesn’t need to bother with so many tricks. Just waiting for you to come and investigate is enough.”
If all three hundred core members of the Blackbirds were there, it would be understandable to catch them all at once. With only thirteen people, it seemed like an overkill*. There was no reason to hunt in this way, as the Erosion Swamp also had to calculate energy consumption.
*Using a cleaver to slaughter chickens (杀鸡用牛刀了) Idiom describing a situation when someone uses excessive force or resources to deal with a problem that could be solved with simpler or more appropriate means.
Zhu Yanchen patiently explained in a calm voice. “After it brought us to the center, it didn’t immediately attack us. According to reason, it would have trapped us in water, making it difficult for us to survive. From what I can see, it seems more like it’s observing us.”
“…No, bro. The Erosion Swamp doesn’t have this kind of intelligence, does it?” Hu Yan lowered his voice. “It’s just a lump of erosion.”
As soon as the words came out, he choked a little himself—looking at the fake Xiao Zhang, it was hard to say it didn’t have a brain.
Marshal Zhu didn’t dwell on this issue and changed the subject directly. “Regardless of its purpose, its desire to attack isn’t strong at the moment. The energy storage of the purifiers is limited. If it is fully opened, it won’t be able to sustain until you leave the heavily eroded area… It’s better to save it until it shows aggressive tendencies.”
“That makes sense. Ah, this is the first time we’ve been pulled in directly. Before this, Zhu Yanchen would always give an assessment report on the swamp.” Hu Yan scratched his head. “Shu—bah—Gray Claw, what do you think?”
Shu Jun always had unconventional ideas, and Hu Yan hoped that he would come up with some more unusual ones.
“My opinion is the same as Smoke’s.” Shu Jun suddenly understood how Zhu Yanchen felt—after knowing the truth, he didn’t want his teammates to take risks. “Something’s not right here. Safety comes first.”
“…Okay, then let’s do that,” Hu Yan instructed the remaining members again. “Don’t try to act like heroes and investigate randomly. Stay here honestly and stay alive.”
The rocky mountain had already been eroded into strange shapes by the erosion. The cave was like an ant’s nest, with tunnels leading in all directions that were so deep it looked bottomless. If the team members were simply trapped, with Hu Yan’s abilities, they wouldn’t take more than three hours to get out. But this Erosion Swamp could make human skin balloons, so things were uncertain.
Before they approached, no one knew if the cries for help and knocking were made by “people.”
Hu Yan was straightforward, but he couldn’t be called impulsive. He commanded the rock wall to split and gather, allowing them to avoid many dead ends, and they didn’t need to advance in the narrow and suffocating rock passage. The route was integrated by Hu Yan into a straight and flat passage so that the four of them could turn back and escape at any time.
However, as they went deeper, faint cries for help came from all directions.
“Those two sides shouldn’t be it.” Yu Jin twisted the fibers on the rock wall. “Judging from the torn cloth, they were washed to the far left by the water.”
“Thanks, brother.” Hu Yan turned his flashlight in annoyance—they were getting closer and closer to the liquid column, and all their equipment was being rapidly eroded. At the moment, the light kept flickering, making people dizzy.
“I’ve collected a lot of corpses on the edge of the erosion zone before, but I didn’t expect that trick to work here.” Yu Jin turned to Shu Jun and murmured.
Shu Jun: “…” Has this person been infected by Hu Yan’s pessimistic words?
“I hope they’re okay. When I think what’s calling out over there isn’t a human, I get goosebumps… Wait, there are some marks over there. Let me take a look.” Yu Jin didn’t slack off and went over to the shining object at the cave entrance.
“How’s it going?” Shu Jun took the opportunity to turn his head and interview the only Erosion Swamp expert present.
“It’s still testing the waters.” Zhu Yanchen stared at the readings on the device. “When it detects an abnormal Erosion Swamp, the exploration team is inevitably the best. It seems that it intends to trap this team here. Then, in the next wave, and the next, until it is certain that humans really have no threats.”
Unlike Sweet Edge, which only sought death, this thing wanted them to use all their means to survive, as direct slaughter was too crude.
Before it confirmed that they were of no value, this Erosion Swamp wouldn’t attack on its own and would only observe quietly—after all, even if it did nothing, the air containing high-concentration erosion substance was enough to kill them.
‘I can’t just attack,’ Shu Jun thought. If he really defeated this Erosion Swamp, the “big boss of the Erosion Swamps” hidden behind it would definitely be alert. For now, it was best to find the missing team members as soon as possible and try to leave quietly.
But if they could also think of this, then the Erosion Swamp was likely thinking of it too.
Two hours passed, and the four of them had found nothing. The flashlight finally gave out, plunging them into darkness. Hu Yan sighed and began to use a cold light stick for illumination. The dim light illuminated the pitch-black rock walls, and the shadows pressing in from all sides felt more suffocating.
To conserve their energy, the trapped team members stopped shouting and began tapping the walls. The similar frequency tapping sounds came from all sides, making people shudder.
“I need a break… This mountain is about to break me, and there’s still no progress.”
Hu Yan had been fixing the cave all the way, and his physical exertion was the highest. Afraid of dropping the ball at a critical moment, he stopped and struggled to take a sip of the fluid food. The concentration of erosion substance here was too high, and even eating and drinking carried a high risk. Shu Jun watched him anxiously, silently suppressing the erosion around them.
The footsteps of the four people disappeared, leaving only the eerie sound of knocking echoing around them.
“Come to think of it, this ability is a bit like Sweet Edge’s.” Unable to withstand the oppressive atmosphere, Shu Jun muttered to Zhu Yanchen. “If this Erosion Swamp knew how to fill the human skin with something, I might not have recognized it at first.”
“Sweet Edge’s ability is ‘Creation’.” Zhu Yanchen stopped in his tracks. “To be precise, it uses erosion to construct structures similar to living beings. From the perspective of those four-legged monsters, her ability to control their appearance isn’t very strong.”
“Why?” Shu Jun asked curiously. He had obtained a similar creation ability, which allowed him to repair wounds. Neither he nor Zhu Yanchen had created anything as bizarre as those monsters.
“Because your repairs are partial and the original prototype remains. When she created those things, most of X City’s victims had been swallowed up by the Erosion Swamp. She could only extract information from the fragments of the bodies and create something similar to them.”
Zhu Yanchen’s voice was low and serious.
“This Erosion Swamp’s ability leans toward ‘Replication’. Rather than creating from scratch, it’s more like a mirror. If I’m not mistaken, it probably heard our conversation near the heavily eroded area and modified the content.”
Shu Jun understood. Since it was a mirror, it couldn’t reflect the interior. If it filled the layer of “human skin” with pure erosion substance, it would be more difficult to control the shape and more likely to be exposed.
“A mirror… A’Yan, let me confirm something.”
“Does it keep in contact with other Erosion Swamps?” Shu Jun glanced at the surrounding darkness. “The uninterrupted kind.”
“Can’t. The transmission of information through the erosion substance is more like sending letters. Even if it sends information outside regularly, there will still be a certain time delay.”
“I see.” Shu Jun rubbed his chin.
He gestured to the path that Hu Yan had opened up and stirred up a breeze around him, then fell into deep thought.
“Something’s not right,” Yu Jin suddenly said. “We’ve turned so many corners, but the distance of the knocking sound hasn’t changed much, and this part of the path behind us is too clean. I couldn’t find any human traces.”
“There’s still an hour left.” Hu Yan gritted his teeth. “This place isn’t that big? I don’t believe it.”
Shu Jun took the opportunity to pick up the topic. “Captain Hu, can you sense the situation of the entire mountain now that we’ve come this far?”
“Of course I can…” Hu Yan was really close to breaking through the mountain.
“Yu Jin, how many sources of knocking sounds are there around us?”
“Five. Why do you ask?”
“Captain Hu, open up all the channels where the knocking sounds are coming from. Can you do that if someone is directing the direction?”
“I can.” It seemed pointless and just a waste of energy, but Hu Yan recognized this tone—Shu Jun must have thought of something devious.
“Open them up now.”
Hu Yan and Yu Jin looked at each other. Hu Yan clicked his tongue and pressed his hand against the rock. Yu Jin’s skeptical gaze ran around Hu Yan, but he still cooperated obediently.
“That channel over there, and that one—I’ll mark them with a fluorescent pen,” he muttered, pointing them out.
The remains of the rocky mountain weren’t large, and under Hu Yan’s control, it trembled slightly, and a lot of fine dust poured down on the four of them.
Then the wind rose.
The wind was neither too strong nor too weak, and it blew forcefully against the cave wall. The dull collision sound came from all directions.
Ten human skin balloons were pushed all the way by the strong wind, rolling and bumping through the tunnel, and collapsed at the feet of the four.
“…It’s even more sinister than I thought,” Shu Jun murmured. “It didn’t even create a single group.”
Yu Jin’s mouth opened and closed—only players had abilities, and Hu Yan’s ability was clearly written on the player information. This wind didn’t seem natural, so it must also be an ability…
“It looks like we have to fight.” Shu Jun drew out his greatsword. “Lao Hu, lead the way.”
The NPC’s tent was some distance away from the players’, so the two sides wouldn’t communicate unless it was necessary. However, it was impossible for Hu Yan not to come over after finding out that Shu Jun was here.
For players, the standard supply for missions was basic. Most people would bring some food and drinks and try to have some fun on the journey. Hu Yan liked to eat meat, so he brought small cans of meat as usual. As soon as Zhu Yanchen arrived at the tent, he was blocked by Hu Yan.
Hu Yan had a good personality, but he was a bit blunt and didn’t hide his likes or dislikes. When Yu Jin came over to shake hands, it was obvious that he had a good impression of him—while both Shu Jun and Zhu Yanchen only received one can of meat, Yu Jin received two.
Shu Jun: “…Are you dividing it up according to body size?” You know you’re the Blackbirds vice captain, right?
Hu Yan: “Well, of course.”
Yu Jin was a bit surprised. He touched his missing left eye and happily accepted the cans of meat. “Captain Hu, you’re too polite.”
“You’re welcome. You worked hard today.” Hu Yan’s smile couldn’t be concealed behind the gas mask. “Our people are ready. We just need to complete the information… Oh, Xiao Zhang?”
Shu Jun had some impressions of Xiao Zhang. He was a logistician among the combat personnel, responsible for contacting headquarters in areas with poor signals. At the moment, the young man was running out of breath. “Captain Hu, new information from headquarters has come in. Dong Lao finished the map analysis, and the result was given. He asked us to proceed with caution. Even if the mission is canceled, there will be no punishment… But as usual, he needs your opinion.”
“Send me the weather information and map analysis.” When it came to work, Hu Yan’s playful attitude was replaced by a serious one. “Let me see…”
He deliberately opened the screen projection so that the three “NPCs” could see it clearly.
“Oh, I have to say, this intelligence is much more detailed than what Dong Lao gave before. It’s very similar to Marshal Zhu’s.” Hu Yan looked at the terrain scans and labels and touched his chin.
Shu Jun pulled on Zhu Yanchen’s coat and lowered his voice. “You’re really good at multitasking, aren’t you?”
“I prepared an auxiliary chip.” Zhu Yanchen turned his head after reading the light screen.
Shu Jun had heard of this thing. It was a special error-correcting program that could infer flaws in a plan.
Auxiliary chips were more common in industries with relatively simple plans and no personalization. In terms of tactical planning, almost no one would deal with this kind of messy thing.
The reason was simple. Firstly, everyone had a different work style, making it difficult to apply the auxiliary chip universally. Secondly, it required a massive amount of data support and a particularly thorough understanding of its opponent—that being, the behavior of the Erosion Swamp.
Perfecting the data was a hard task, which required the designer to manually input all possible developments and unexpected situations and then learn and mature based on this. In other words, this thing needed to be taught frame by frame. When it was finally learned, the effect wasn’t much different from discussing it with a live person.
Most people wouldn’t do something so strenuous and thankless.
As for why Zhu Yanchen created the auxiliary chips… From the perspective of his purpose, it was probably part of his “posthumous arrangements”.
While he was alive, the chip was worthless. But once this “tactical master” died, the chip could ensure that his successor’s command level wouldn’t collapse and could also be used to veto tactics that were too radical under the pretext of style.
But that wasn’t the point of concern for Shu Jun.
No matter how much of a genius Zhu Yanchen was, this thing couldn’t be done overnight. Even if he worked tirelessly and completed it on his own, it would take about six years. Not to mention that this person also had to conduct research on the Erosion Swamp and chummy up with the border settlements.
…When did Zhu Yanchen start planning this fake death plan?
Shu Jun’s slight feeling of ease in his heart dissipated.
The longer he spent with Zhu Yanchen, the less he understood the person beside him. But no matter what the answer was, he had to keep him alive until he got it.
Shu Jun reached out and grabbed Zhu Yanchen’s wrist, his heart’s blood turning to lead. Zhu Yanchen was startled but didn’t resist.
Hu Yan’s voice came from the other end. “…Good, good. Originally, I was worried that the other side would drop a level and I would have to drop mine, thus we would lack a critical member of our team*. I was afraid we might run into trouble on this mission.”
*Two tanners can’t work without one who stinks (臭皮匠二缺一) Idiom referring when in a group or team, there’s always one person who has a unique or important skill that others don’t have, and that person is essential to the success of the team.
“Captain Hu.” Shu Jun gritted his teeth and adjusted his emotions for a moment. “Let’s keep things auspicious and stop talking nonsense.”
Hu Yan coughed twice. “What do you guys think?”
“It seems fine, and the weather is stable. But just in case, we should explore during the day and camp at night. It’s safer that way.” Yu Jin spoke first. “This way, we can make things more secure than usual.”
Zhu Yanchen looked meaningfully at Shu Jun, who understood and tightened his grip on Zhu Yanchen’s hand. “I didn’t notice anything wrong. But the data is indeed a bit strange, and I agree with ‘One Eye’s’ opinion.”
“Alright, my thoughts are similar. Leave 30 people as backup for emergencies. Cleanup teams A and B continue forward and carefully purify the surroundings. The vanguard, prepare 9 people. We’re setting off in ten minutes.”
The Erosion Swamp hated light and loved water, which was why the sky was particularly gloomy nearby. The dozen or so members of the vanguard entered the heavily eroded area first, each of them tightly wrapped in protective suits, looking like a team of wobbly gingerbread men.
Gingerbread Shu Jun was still holding Gingerbread Zhu Yanchen’s hand. People thought they were just supporting each other and conserving energy, so their attention was focused on the Erosion Swamp on the horizon.
Unlike Sweet Edge, this Erosion Swamp was even stranger.
The nearby ground was quite moist, and the dark clouds were reflected in the black water, disturbed by concentric ripples. The remains of a rocky hill protruded slightly on the horizon, and a slender column of erosion liquid extended from the mountain, pointing straight to the sky that was impossible to see the end of it.
It was like a suspension cable connecting heaven and earth.
There was also good news: There were no mutant beasts nearby. But with the strange atmosphere around them, this good news was starting to turn sour.
Three NPCs were leading the way, checking their surroundings as they walked. Their speed was as slow as an old ox strolling. The protective suits were already dull and heavy, and people gradually lost their desire to chat. As the sun was about to set, the team gradually came to a stop.
Apart from the fact that the nearby Erosion Swamp was a bit closer, the surrounding scenery had hardly changed. There were rolling dark clouds in the sky and on the ground, and they seemed to be advancing in a state of chaos.
Only one person still had plenty of energy at the moment—
“That Erosion Swamp looks a lot like a garden eel.” Shu Jun observed the swamp in the distance and initiated a conversation. “We’ve come this far, but I still don’t have any special feelings, and there’s no camouflage mirage nearby… The distance should be safe.”
“The concentration of erosion substance hasn’t changed significantly, which is a bit strange,” Zhu Yanchen raised his wrist and glanced at the detector.
“Except that it’s a bit damp here, I haven’t noticed any difference. The ground is just too wet, making it a bit difficult to set up camp.” Seeing the two of them start to chat, Yu Jin joined the conversation while panting.
After installing the erosion-resistant road signs to mark the route, the water vapor from his breathing caused the protective goggles to get wet and then dry. “It’s hard to explain. Logically, things should be going smoothly, but I just feel like something’s not right. Anyway, let’s call it a day here and tell Captain Hu. We should set up camp… Oh, that’s great. Despite the strangeness, we have canned meat to eat tonight.”
As soon as they finished setting up the waterproof stand, an unexpected event occurred—
Messenger Xiao Zhang had come again.
Thanks to the safety markers, Xiao Zhang caught up with them using a mud sled—they were completely cut off from the outside world here and could only use human messaging.
“What’s the matter?” Hu Yan was a bit surprised to see Xiao Zhang jump off the sled. Contact in the heavily eroded area was extremely difficult, so the next order wouldn’t usually come so quickly.
“Dong Lao’s new order.” Xiao Zhang still looked short of breath. “The previous scanning data was incorrect, and the result of this Erosion Marsh is normal. Don’t waste too many resources. It’s best to go early and come back early.”
Hu Yan didn’t make a fuss. Instead, he furrowed his brows. “Are you sure?”
“Very sure.” Xiao Zhang nodded and took a few steps forward. “Captain Hu, I’m also very surprised. But their information is absolute. This time, Dong Lao didn’t even give new intelligence data, and it’s likely that they really made a mistake.”
“I understand. Thank you for your hard work.” Hu Yan nodded. “You should use the mud sled first—”
Before Hu Yan could finish his sentence, a black shadow swept by, and a large sword split Xiao Zhang directly into two pieces. Hu Yan didn’t react and remained standing in place.
Shu Jun wielded his sword horizontally, separating Xiao Zhang and the rest of the team—he loosened the white cloth that covered Monday’s mouth and brain. Despite his clothes being bulky, his movements were still clean and neat.
Just a step away, “Xiao Zhang” fell down. His entire body was cut neatly into two pieces, but there were no hot and fresh internal organs or blood gushing out.
He was empty.
The outside of “Xiao Zhang” was covered by a protective suit and skin, indistinguishable from a living person, but inside there was only air, like a paper doll that had been stuffed and made to look alive. It sagged softly when it was cut by the large sword and gradually dissipated in the black water on the ground. The next moment, the mud sled also leaked air and melted into the ground.
“What—What—” Hu Yan was tongue-tied, but his gestures weren’t slow. Before Shu Jun could put away his sword, the Blackbirds members had already formed a defensive formation.
“The ripples it created don’t seem quite right,” Shu Jun whispered. “It doesn’t feel like a heavy object was ‘stepping down’, but more like a balloon ‘bouncing up’.”
“Retreat!” Seeing this anomaly, Zhu Yanchen almost immediately reacted. “We must retreat immediately. Otherwise, we will—”
“I guess it’s already too late,” Shu Jun muttered.
“What are you talking about?”
Hu Yan was still a bit stunned, while Yu Jin was still fiddling with the waterproof stand in place. Zhu Yanchen and Shu Jun looked at each other and stepped away from each other.
“Use your captain’s authority to activate maximum erosion protection for everyone’s protective suits. Then activate the emergency oxygen supply,” Zhu Yanchen said to Hu Yan. “Right now!”
“Take the waterproof cloth from your tent and wrap it around yourself as tightly as possible!” Shu Jun twisted the speaker on the protective suit and deliberately pinched his throat. “Hurry up. Don’t just stand there!”
The Blackbirds members looked at each other, but since this person was an official NPC and his tone of reprimand was quite familiar, they subconsciously followed his instructions.
Hu Yan was also decisive. He took a deep breath and gritted his teeth as he followed the instructions.
“It’s done, now tell me why—shit!” Before he could finish his question, he got his answer.
There was a disturbance coming towards them.
At this point, Hu Yan had also come to his senses. If the giant liquid column was the flower stamen, this evil flower had hidden its thin petals beneath the surface of the water. The Erosion Swamp had spread its erosion substance extremely thin but was still solid, so the concentration of erosion substance along the way wasn’t very high.
Now that it had been exposed, it had collected these flattened “petals” towards the center, wrapping them in a circle. As for the water used to hide the erosion substance, it converged into a broad and unrecognizable petal and surged up, turning into a huge wave that attacked everyone.
From the moment the vanguard team stepped into the heavily eroded area, they were facing a trap.
Yu Jin reacted quickly. He ran over with the waterproof cloth and wrapped the four of them inside. Shu Jun held onto Monday with one hand and Zhu Yanchen, who was closest to him, with the other.
She knew that Ai Xiaoxiao didn’t like her, and she didn’t have any good feelings towards Ai Xiaoxiao either—people say that businessmen should be friendly, but this woman was very stingy when it came to money, and her temper wasn’t very good either. Xia Liang was used to being domineering that even Zhu Yanchen couldn’t be bothered to argue with her, but Ai Xiaoxiao, her subordinate, always opposed her.
Not to mention, her mood was particularly bad today.
Since Zhu Yanchen’s fake death, she had to manage daily operations and also supervise the Fourth Squadron. After finishing her work on the surface, she had little private time left, and now she had even less.
She was exhausted from work, and her personal life was also not going well.
Her planned dates were all ruined, and just yesterday, her girlfriend, who couldn’t take it anymore, finally broke up with her. Ms. Xia was stubborn. Though she knew she was in the wrong, she wasn’t the type to make amends and try to win her love back. Thus, the relationship had come to a bitter end.
Just after being dumped, she didn’t even have time to recover. She came to work at the clinic in the middle of the night, only to be scolded by Ai Xiaoxiao.
Xia Liang was filled with anger. Since she had to do security checks, she took out all the testing equipment and decided to investigate thoroughly. After all, she had to regain some of her dignity.
But before she could dig too deep, she stumbled upon an abnormal signal.
This was great. Xia Liang grabbed her tools and was about to open the door on the spot to check it out. She didn’t expect the security measures at Ai’s Clinic to be comparable to a command center. After a heated argument, Ai Xiaoxiao reluctantly opened the door with gritted teeth, and Xia Liang finally felt relieved.
However, that sense of victory didn’t last for two seconds before the scene inside shattered it.
For a moment, Xia Liang thought she was looking at the storage room for synthetic humans in a stronghold.
The room behind the door was quite spacious, much larger than the area occupied by the ground floor of Ai’s Clinic. Unlike the strongholds that displayed hibernation pods in rows, the pods here were arranged in a circular shape, with a rough count of as many as one or two hundred. They were arranged around a central pod, with several IV bags hanging over each pod, and the medicine flowing quietly into them.
The ceiling of the room was covered with rough machinery. Countless wires were entangled like ropes, and together with the infusion tubes, they penetrated into the pods. Small indicator lights twinkled in the dim light like spider eyes.
Xia Liang took a few steps inside.
The room was full of outdated hibernation pods, with translucent lids that revealed the appearance of the contents inside. Xia Liang was naturally brave, but seeing this, even she couldn’t help but shudder.
What was inside could hardly be called “human” anymore.
The “contents” in the outer circle still vaguely resembled human forms, but the ones in the inner circle had become completely different things—the contents looked like a pile of mixed-up squid, with opaque grayish-white skin that shimmered with water. But there were no squid tentacles visible in this mass; only scattered organs and exposed viscera, as well as strands of hair poking out from between the seams of flesh.
Furthermore, within the mixed organs, there were obvious non-human scales and claw tips, with no discernible pattern in terms of species.
They only had one commonality—their exposed hearts beat slowly, with deformed eyeballs covered in thin membranes, sleeping soundly.
“Do you think they look good?” Ai Xiaoxiao sneered when she noticed that Xia Liang had remained silent for a long time.
Xia Liang ignored her and walked around the room until she stood in front of the central hibernation pod and performed a proper examination.
The signal source was indeed here, or more precisely, it was the rough mechanical cluster on the ceiling. The signal it emitted was very similar to a stronghold, and it could only be distinguished when it was closer.
Since there was a difference, it couldn’t be considered an abnormal signal. Xia Liang put away the detection machine and glanced at the hibernation pod in the center. The thing inside was more like a grayish liquid than a piece of meat.
“The signal is safe.” The unnamed anger was dispersed. Xia Liang squeezed out the old man’s voice from her throat and said, “As agreed before, I won’t ask any questions.”
Ai Xiaoxiao looked at her with some surprise, and her expression relaxed slightly. “Then get out quickly.”
As she spoke, she squeezed herself through the door, adjusted the air conditioning setting for a while, and then carefully locked the door. Xia Liang looked at the side of the person’s face—facing this room full of monsters, Ai Xiaoxiao’s expression was a bit complicated, but it was still gentle overall.
Forget it. For her to be able to carry out such a big operation in her own clinic, she must not be a normal person. Xia Liang was normal to the extreme and had to stay away from such weird people.
The night passed without incident. Xia Liang returned to the Xia mansion at dawn and started to put on makeup.
The Xia family was well aware of Xia Liang’s sexual orientation. To be honest, they didn’t care much—there weren’t many elements of love in the family’s arranged marriages, and many people had extramarital affairs after marriage. As long as Xia Liang picked a fiancé who was a good match for her, even if she went out to find a lover to spend the night with every day, they would turn a blind eye.
For example, now. Even though she returned home at five in the morning, the nanny didn’t show any surprised expressions.
Xia Liang had always disliked her family’s attitude, but she couldn’t change the ideas of the Xia’s elders. When she got older, she secretly started her second career, following Zhu Yanchen into the battlefield.
It wasn’t because she sympathized with the situation of the synths or had some soft and pitiful emotions. She simply felt miserable.
The Xia family had always been committed to being a fence-sitter between the Zhu and Tang families. They raised their sons to be followers of the other two families and married off their daughters. Over the years, as one of the well-behaved dogs raised by both families, she naturally got a share of the meat.
Xia Liang was one of their most successful “chips”. She looked very much like her grandmother, a national singer, and since she was young, they had been training her in the direction of her grandmother’s image—the public was quite nostalgic for the singer from decades ago, and that obsession had smoothly transferred to Xia Liang, and the Xia family made a lot of fame and fortune from it.
Xia Liang herself didn’t dislike a life of luxury and extravagance, but she found it distasteful that some people chewed their food slowly and delicately, giving off an air of being too petty-minded.
Additionally, she didn’t like singing at all.
She preferred to shoulder her responsibilities and speak up with her abilities rather than grovel to become someone else’s superior. However, if she were to reveal this desire, she would likely be regarded as a childish and immature little girl throwing a tantrum. The likely outcome would be that some family would reward her with a meaningless position, just to placate her.
So the “Dong Lao” from a humble background appeared.
During the negotiation process, Zhu Yanchen’s attitude was direct and cold. Regardless of whether she was being foolishly hopeful or not, he simply said, “Start from the bottom. Continue if you succeed. Leave if you fail.”
Several years passed, and she became Zhu Yanchen’s top advisor. Xia Liang swirled her lipstick and stared at the bright red color.
…It was incredibly satisfying to create one’s own path.
With a flip of her hand, she crushed the lipstick head on the table and swiped it fiercely. The low, piercing sound of friction rang out, gradually dissipating along with the grievances and anger of the night.
When she raised her head again, a carefree and sweet smile hung on her face.
“I heard Ms. Xia is coming to the command center today,” Luo Duan said.
When they arrived at Yi Ning’s office, he commanded a water column and immediately swept the access card under the desk. Yi Ning simply assumed that he had accidentally dropped it and didn’t suspect anything.
“Hmm? Oh, I know,” Yi Ning said, still showing signs of sleep deprivation. “The Xia family wants her to do some kind of morale-boosting performance.”
“The target is probably you,” Luo Duan said with a gentle smile. “It seems the Xia family has high hopes for you.”
“Forget it. I don’t have the time or energy for that. There are so many things I need to do now, and they’re still fooling around… If the economy continues to decline this year, the border settlement area will likely become unstable.” Yi Ning laughed dryly.
“You really care about the ‘people’.”
“After all, I’ve seen everything. The people in the border areas suffer greatly. Even worse…” Yi Ning originally wanted to say, “than synthetic humans”, but realizing the identity of the person he was talking to, he swallowed the second half of his sentence.
“Even worse…?” Luo Duan’s smile grew even warmer.
“Nevermind that. In any case, we need to find a way to quickly boost the economy.” Yi Ning immediately changed the subject.
“As for last night’s topic… How about we bring back the people from the border settlement areas as labor since there’s a shortage of labor?” Luo Duan played with a water droplet on his fingertip. “I know, education is a problem, and their age and health status may not be suitable. But they can still be considered part of the labor force, can’t they?”
That was indeed the case.
…But compared to the elderly, sick, and disabled, synthetic humans were more useful. It was all because Zhu Yanchen was too conservative. If Zhu Sheng’s “reform law” had been implemented earlier, they wouldn’t have had to spend so many years training synths and could have truly achieved mass production.
This was the first challenge that Yi Ning faced at the moment, but he couldn’t bring himself to tell Luo Duan about it.
“We’re… considering other options,” he answered vaguely. “Other measures to increase the labor force.”
Luo Duan looked at him fixedly for a moment. “I see. Actually, I’m curious about the details… In my opinion, it’s most reasonable to incorporate the people from the border settlements as soon as possible.”
Then, he turned his gaze outside the window, his tone becoming light and airy. “But it’s okay. We’re just chatting for fun anyway. This issue doesn’t matter. We can discuss something else.”
As the atmosphere became increasingly tense, Yi Ning decided to turn on the TV and switch to a message channel for gamers, hoping to lighten the mood.
But the first news story completely caught their attention—
“Breaking news, the Y-9091 base’s garrison discovered Marshal Zhu Yanchen’s whereabouts. Marshal Zhu survived a serious injury and was rescued after a night of emergency treatment. According to Marshal Zhu Yanchen himself, he encountered a mutant beast attack and was lucky to survive. He managed to escape and wandered near the erosion zone for many days…”
“What?” Yi Ning almost choked on his own saliva.
In the distant erosion zone, someone asked a similar question.
Shu Jun: “What?!”
Yu Jin choked on his breakfast. “What the hell, Brother Gray Claw, why are you making such a fuss about it? It’s just some game being played by those above. It has nothing to do with us.”
“…No, I just read his obituary before, so I was startled…” Shu Jun turned up the volume knob of the radio—they had been walking in the erosion zone for two days, and the signal was so weak that it was almost negligible, so the radio’s sound was intermittent.
Zhu Yanchen sat upright, as usual, pushing his mask up slightly, and ate his soft food package methodically, appearing completely emotionless.
Shu Jun felt a bit skeptical about life. It was said that when two flowers bloom on the same branch, they each represent a branch*. In Marshal Zhu’s case, he had faked his own death twice, leaving a “body” on each side. Even the gods weren’t that extraordinary.
*Idiom referring when the story becomes multi-facet, each “branch” will be told one by one, || In this context, it’s kind of like a sarcastic remark about how there’s now two Zhu Yanchen, both who seemed to have escaped death/was resurrected twice. Not even the gods could do such a feat.
“Zhu Sheng made his move.” After finishing breakfast in all seriousness, Zhu Yanchen glanced at Yu Jin, who was listening, and commented lightly. “That person very likely isn’t his son.”
Shu Jun took a gulp of liquid food. “That’s possible?”
“He probably didn’t want to leave a leadership vacuum for too long and let Yi Ning take advantage of the situation to gain the public’s favor. When Zhu Sheng’s term ends, he will have to step down completely. It won’t look good if he comes back again, so I’m not surprised by this development at all.”
Zhu Yanchen balled up the soft packaging and threw it into the garbage bag, revealing a small part of his face that showed no emotion.
“Compared to this, today we need to make our initial contact with the outer edge of the Erosion Swamp. This kind of thing isn’t worth being distracted by… Let’s go.”
Shu Jun had better control over his emotions than he had imagined. Facing his old teammate, he didn’t lose his cool too much. But as soon as the conversation began, Zhu Yanchen was momentarily stunned when Hu Yan mentioned “honeymoon”.
If Shu Jun had a lover, he certainly would have mentioned it to ‘Smoke’.
Countless feelings instantly converged, and for a moment, Zhu Yanchen couldn’t tell if it was bitter or salty. But thinking about it, he and Shu Jun were originally separated by a huge gap, and text communication was only the result of his reluctant effort—the virtual city was heavily protected, and he had to carefully avoid those technicians to quietly tear a gap.
There were two main purposes for their communication.
Publicly, Shu Jun liked to share tactics with other captains, and he was very open about it. Zhu Yanchen could quietly pass on safer strategies, allowing players to live longer.
Privately, it was bitter to go it alone, and people always needed support.
He had exhausted all his efforts, thoroughly understood all the issues related to the Erosion Swamp and left behind a spark that was enough to ignite a wildfire before he died. As for the original agreement, this could be considered an explanation. Both of them didn’t have much time left, and Zhu Yanchen hoped that he could go ahead of Shu Jun. When he reached the underworld, he would be able to welcome Shu Jun in an upright manner.
He knew that Shu Jun couldn’t remember the past, and he also knew that he couldn’t get rid of the shock in his brain and wouldn’t be able to save his former friend. At least in the last few years of his life, Zhu Yanchen just wanted to chat a few words with that person.
However, Shu Jun was more enthusiastic than he had imagined. At first, the two of them talked smoothly about tactics, and later, this man even wanted to share the interesting things that happened in his life. Infected by the other person’s warmth, Zhu Yanchen couldn’t help but open up a bit and speak up from time to time.
After all, this was the moment when he needed the least consideration. In the end, it could be considered comfort during his final pain.
Now that he had survived, Zhu Yanchen couldn’t help but hope that he could be more special—at least not an ordinary acquaintance who couldn’t even get close. It seemed that even Hu Yan knew that Shu Jun had a lover.
Before Zhu Yanchen could react, Hu Yan dropped another bombshell: “Sister-in-law’s game ID is ‘Smoke’.”
Zhu Yanchen: “…”
He reacted quickly and instantly guessed that this was the system’s handling the aftermath. Despite this, he still had a hint of inexplicable joy. Seeing Shu Jun outside the tent, embarrassed and scratching his head, Marshal Zhu took the initiative to defuse the situation, which was rare.
Who would have thought that after a conversation, Shu Jun’s mood would darken again? That night, Zhu Yanchen turned over and saw that there was no one beside him. The sleeping bag was icy cold, and the only sound in his ears was the sound of Yu Jin’s snoring.
Even Monday, who was lying next to him, was gone.
Zhu Yanchen immediately sat up, hastily put on his protective suit, and left the tent.
He was a little worried—Shu Jun exceeded his expectations. After knowing the truth, he didn’t recklessly save people at all costs, nor did he spread his hatred to humans like himself, Ai Xiaoxiao, or Yu Jin. Just recently, the two of them had been running around trying to solve the problem of synths, and surprisingly, they were getting along quite well.
But even if things were gradually being resolved, that hatred still existed.
Shu Jun hadn’t gone far. To avoid the wind, the Blackbirds set up camp by a low cliff. Shu Jun was sitting on the cliff at the moment by himself. He pushed his gas mask aside, and his gray-white eyes sparkled in the night.
Monday was the first to notice Zhu Yanchen. It exhaled vigorously. “Zhu! Zhu—”
“That’s enough.” Shu Jun pressed his hand on the hilt of his sword. He didn’t turn around and just shifted his body a little to give Zhu Yanchen a place to sit.
“Don’t worry. I won’t have an emotional breakdown and just run away with Hu Yan and the others.” After Zhu Yanchen sat down, Shu Jun turned his head with a somewhat complicated expression. “After all, you are such a reliable partner. If I lose you*, I won’t dare mess around.”
*After passing this village, there’s no other shop like this (过了这村就没这店了) Idiom used to describe missed opportunities or regretting not taking action when the chance was available. || In this context, he’s saying there’s no one who can replace Zhu Yanchen (as a partner).
“I’m not worried about that.”
“Really?” Shu Jun laughed and moved his position again. The two of them were close enough, and the night was cold, making the warmth from his body even more evident.
Zhu Yanchen was silent for a few seconds and found that he didn’t know how to respond, so he just made a hum in agreement.
“A’Yan, you said a few days ago that I could talk to you like we used to.” Shu Jun’s voice was clear and powerful. “So I’ll tell you. I had a dream just now—a really strange one.”
This was indeed a topic they used to chat about online.
“I dreamed of myself, but it was the normal me from before—it was oozing erosion substance all over, bones were exposed, and its face had been eroded away. It stood in front of me and kept nagging, telling me to kill you and then kill Yu Jin, directly take Blackbirds to capture several strongholds, and seek revenge against humanity.”
Zhu Yanchen: “…” He really didn’t know how to respond to all this.
“I found it quite interesting. I dreamt about it last night, and it came again tonight. I rarely dream, so it’s definitely not a coincidence.” Shu Jun yawned and stroked Monday. “As soon as I fall asleep, it starts mumbling, like clocking in for work.”
At this point, Zhu Yanchen could hear the hidden meaning behind Shu Jun’s words. He held his breath and looked at Shu Jun.
“I’ve told you before, I hate humans. Y City is really lively, with groups of people trampling on our corpses to live their lives. Ignorance is not an excuse, in my opinion. However, personally speaking, those who knowingly promote the player system despite knowing the truth are the ones I want to kill.”
Shu Jun raised his hand and casually pointed upward with his sharp claws.
“But before that, I will do everything possible to ensure that my compatriots survive. Regardless of how the situation changes, this is definitely the top priority… So I think that nagging thing in my dream shouldn’t be my subconscious.”
“When did this dream start?” Zhu Yanchen asked seriously.
“Just these two days. The biggest recent event was probably infiltrating the command center to steal information. Tell me, Grand Marshal—”
Shu Jun propped himself up with one hand, leaned in close to Zhu Yanchen’s face, and the heat radiating from him made Zhu Yanchen purse his lips.
“—Is your command center really secure?”
“It’s hard to say.” When he spoke again, Zhu Yanchen noticed that his voice was a little hoarse. “The purification defense of the command center is relatively sound, so the formed Erosion Swamp can’t get in. But in order to ensure the coming and going of synths, it won’t completely exclude erosion substance.”
“Hmm…” Shu Jun hummed, wrinkling his brow.
“There are also loopholes.” Zhu Yanchen continued, “They rely too much on the purification system and only check it regularly according to regulations. Even if they find something wrong, it will take some time to go through the application process.”
He subconsciously thought of something, but when he went to investigate it further, that sense of inspiration disappeared.
“Well, it seems like I need to have more dreams and see what the purpose of that thing is.” Shu Jun smiled again, reached out, and pulled Zhu Yanchen’s coat off his shoulders. “I dreamt of something uncomfortable, so I was just trying to clear my mind. Let’s go back. Your body is still human, so be careful not to catch a cold.”
There was no vegetation in the erosion zone. The erosion substance liked water, so the entire zone was like a desolated swamp. The sky was always dark, and even though Shu Jun stopped the wind around him, the air was still uncomfortably damp and cold, as if every step could pass through a ghost.
“If you can’t handle those negative emotions…” Zhu Yanchen stood up.
He wanted to say, “You can also talk to me about them”, but as a member of the human race, that sentence was a bit stinging. He threw out the first half of the sentence, but the second half died in his chest.
Shu Jun stopped laughing. He stared at Zhu Yanchen for a moment before blurting out, “You have an interesting perspective. I’m sure you’ve been through a lot and have rich experience.”
The sentence didn’t sound sarcastic but carried three parts anger and seven parts dissatisfaction. Before he finished speaking, Shu Jun reached out to button up Zhu Yanchen’s coat, exuding an air of wanting to strangle him.
“Let’s go back, quickly.” After buttoning up the coat, Shu Jun raised his claws threateningly. “If I can’t stand it, I won’t keep quiet, and I’ll howl in front of you for three days and nights. Not like someone who pretends to be an eighty-year-old man, planning to quietly disappear from the world.”
“Okay, don’t look like that. I understand your reasoning. Your choices were limited, but does that have anything to do with me not feeling good?”
This was the first time Zhu Yanchen had met such an unreasonable collaborator, leaving him speechless. Although there was nothing to refute, a sour feeling rose in his chest.
“We should go back. We have to get up early tomorrow.” After being scrutinized by Shu Jun’s gaze for a few minutes, Zhu Yanchen spoke in a dry voice. “Regarding the command center, I’ll contact Ai Xiaoxiao.”
“Afterwards, you… No, we can communicate about emotional issues, two-way.”
“That’s about right.”
In Y City, Ai Xiaoxiao wasn’t sleeping either.
Since obtaining that jar of brain matter, she had been studying it with fervor and enthusiasm. Unlike Zhu Yanchen, who was focused on studying the Erosion Swamps, she was more skilled in treating late-stage erosion with drugs. In terms of medication, she was confident.
She was waiting for the machine’s analysis results, crunching on her fifth coffee-flavored lollipop.
With no guests in the late night, time seemed to stand still, making it the perfect time for research. Unfortunately, her life had recently been disrupted by an unwelcome guest—Zhu Yanchen’s faked death had thrown off her original plans. In order to handle Zhu Yanchen’s orders, Dong Lao had begun coming over repeatedly, specifically choosing late night hours when there were few people around.
And today was no different.
If it weren’t for the fact that the old man liked to hide in corners where no one could find him and that he didn’t come here to mooch off food and drink, she would have kicked him out. Being called away to open or close the door when inspiration was surging was already at the limit of what she could bear.
Ai Xiaoxiao rolled her eyes, picked up the prepared solution from one side, and began carefully dripping the new drug into it. She had just dripped the third drop when the alarm on the workbench started blaring, and Ai Xiaoxiao’s hand shook, wasting the entire tube of solution.
“Fuck!” She squeezed out a curse through her teeth.
Today was her breaking point. She no longer planned to show any respect for the old man and was definitely going to beat him into a pulp. Ai Xiaoxiao grabbed her keychain from the hook, stormed down the corridor with an air of menace, and charged toward another underground passage.
When she reached her destination, Dong Lao’s expression was even uglier than hers.
“Explain.” His voice was hoarse.
“Excuse me? You’re messing around in my house, and you want me to explain?”
“The detector detected an abnormal signal, and I have to make sure that this place hasn’t been bugged or invaded.”
“So you fucking didn’t tell me beforehand and was just going to barged in yourself?!”
“How could I possibly dare? You said that if I disturbed you during the experiment, you’d pluck my bones out and use them as brooms to clean up the waste from the urology department.” Dong Lao was equally unceremonious. “Now, explain. This place has a very complex mixed lock, and no one should be able to get in except for you.”
Dong Lao stood in front of an old door. The door was made of metal, very thick, and covered with mottled rust. It was locked with various types of locks, from the oldest physical locks to the newest electronic ones.
Ai Xiaoxiao sneered. She saw a bulge under the sleeve of his shirt, which was probably a gun.
“If you weren’t one of Zhu Yanchen’s men, you would be dead by now.” Behind the large ring-shaped keychain, she was holding, a cold scalpel glinted. “It’s none of your business. Have you heard of Bluebeard’s room*?”
*Reference to Bluebeard. He has a room where he keeps all his murdered wives’ corpses. You can read the story in the Wikipedia.
“Have you heard of Bluebeard’s ending*?”
*Clarity:Bluebeard’s latest wife became curious and managed to open his locked door, finding all of his previous wives’ corpses. When Bluebeard was about to murder her, she asked for one last prayer, which he granted, allowing time for her family to show up and kill him. || In this context, Ai Xiaoxiao is saying “You don’t want to know what’s in that room” and Dong Lao is retorting “You know what happens to people who hide secrets, right?”. Think of it like that.
“If you don’t trust me, you can ask Zhu Yanchen.”
“But that will have to wait for a while, won’t it? I won’t give you time to prepare, and I’m not interested in your personal affairs. If our interests coincide, you can show me. Regardless of whether it’s a demon or something else inside, as long as there’s no abnormal signal, I won’t say a word.”
Ai Xiaoxiao stared at him for a moment.”Fine, for Zhu Yanchen’s sake,” she said. “As an exchange, if you say a single word, I will definitely skin you alive—literally. I mean what I say.”