tendrils illuminating the night.
The wind howled, lifting the fallen strands of hair like ribbons caught in a tempest, as the thunder clapped its applause.
Lin Shouxi’s blade hovered at the brink of her cheek, its gleaming edge but a hair’s breadth from flesh.
Meanwhile, Mu Shijing’s finger, unyielding, stood steadfastly pointed at his own chest.
And in that instant, the outcome was determined.
The young man was cast into the air, hurtling towards the moonlit platform with a thunderous impact, landing amidst the pounding rain.
His right arm, now broken, hung askew.
The raindrops that dared to touch it hissed and boiled away, transformed into wisps of white steam that vanished into the night.
Mu Shijing’s hand withdrew, and she strode forth from the Guanyin Pavilion, her fingers laced behind her in a display of regal grace.
The catastrophic collision of true energy had wrought destruction upon the already fragile eaves, causing them to crumble and fall in a tempest of broken timber and dust.
Mu Shijing remained unaffected by the ruins of the Guanyin Pavilion, her gaze fixed upon Lin Shouxi, who lay still and prone in the rain’s relentless downpour.
To Mu Shijing’s amazement, her peer of the Demon Gate, whom she had thought defeated, had the fortitude to rise up and take a seated position.
Yet that was all the energy he could muster.
“Why did you choose to succumb to the demon?” Mu Shijing queried, her voice calm and steady, as was her custom.
“I was taken in by my master as a child, and he nurtured me as if I were his own kin,” Lin Shouxi replied, a hint of annoyance in his voice, as he thought her question was stupid.
“How could I possibly betray one who had shown me such kindness?”
“Your master has passed, but there is still hope for redemption,” Mu Shijing spoke softly, her words tinged with a hint of compassion for her only equal.
“Surrender to me, and I shall offer you a chance to atone for your sins before the gods of the Tao.
If they find forgiveness in their hearts, and you are willing to abandon your dark path, the Tao Gate may yet show mercy and set you free.”
“I crave life, but not at the cost of your charity,” Lin Shouxi sneered, a bitter laughter on his lips.
“The Demon Gate recognizes no gods, least of all those of your Tao.”
“If you must choose this path,” Mu Shijing sighed softly, her eyes growing distant and inscrutable, “I can only ask if you have any last wishes?”
Lin Shouxi lay huddled in the murky puddle of his own blood, the chill seeping into his bones like slithering worms.
He trembled uncontrollably, his once strong features now drained of color, washed pale by the rain’s relentless downpour.
Through his hazy vision, Lin Shouxi caught a glimpse of those elegant white boots as Mu Shijing drew near.
“What about you?” Lin Shouxi countered.
“Do you harbor any regrets?”
“Pardon?” Mu Shijing queried, her brow furrowed in a delicate frown.
“Will taking my life prove your Tao heart?” Lin Shouxi asked, his voice barely audible.
He longed to lift his gaze, to look upon his adversary one last time, but his weary body refused to obey.
All he could do was cast his eyes downwards, towards the soaked earth.
Mu Shijing understood his question.
As sworn enemies, this fight between them had been a matter of fate.
Yet, it was a final confrontation that had been anything but fair because before Mu Shijing could lay pursuit, he had already been severely injured by her elders.
“My sect did not want me to take any unnecessary risks, and my master would not allow me to endanger the sect’s future,” Mu Shijing explained, her lips pursed.
“This battle won’t prove my Tao heart, but it can prove the legitimacy of the Tao Gate.”
“The legitimacy of the Tao Gate?” Lin Shouxi sneered, gritting his teeth against the pain as he spoke.
“They seek to break your Tao heart by using me as a pawn.
You are too powerful, and once I am gone, the Demon Gate will be utterly destroyed, leaving the Tao Gate unrivaled.
At that point, you will become a threat… Your future won’t be much brighter than mine.”
Mu Shijing did not dispute his words.
She gazed upon the young man as he lay dying, and said, “I grew up in the Tao Gate.
My master nurtured and educated me.
It is a kindness I cannot forget.
Furthermore, for three centuries, the Tao Gate has devoted itself to expelling demons and protecting the Tao.
As the current inheritor, the flame of the Tao burns within me, and I must protect it from extinguishment.”
“Are you trying to convince me or are you trying to convince yourself?” Lin Shouxi sneered.
Mu Shijing remained silent.
She cradled her sword with her delicate fingers, brandishing it before her.
The brilliant shine of the blade was focused at her fingertips.
Lin Shouxi, unable to resist, lifted his head fervently, as if he were trying to etch her face into his memory forever.
Today marked Lin Shouxi’s first encounter with Mu Shijing, though tales of her legend had reached his ears.
It was said that on her visit to the Buddha Gate, she sat and listened as the rector expounded upon the Dharma.
Her comprehension had been so profound that it shattered the Zen minds of countless Buddhist disciples within but a single incense stick’s worth of time.
In Lin Shouxi’s eyes, the young woman from the Tao Gate was even more breathtakingly beautiful than the legends had portrayed.
Yet, in this moment, her beauty was nothing but a harbinger of death, ominous and foreboding.
Another lightning strike split the sky and the world became bright and dark.
Lin Shouxi’s pupils constricted!
As the veil of death descended upon him, his gaze abruptly diverted from Mu Shijing’s face and fixed upon something behind her, a sight even more terror-inducing than death itself.
Mu Shijing shook her head gently, a look of disappointment etched upon her face, “Do you really think I will fall for such a trick?”
Lin Shouxi appeared not to have heeded her words, his gaze empty and devoid of life, as if he had already passed on
As Mu Shijing’s eyes beheld the blood that flowed from the corners of Lin Shouxi’s eyes, a gasp of surprise escaped her lips, and a chill descended upon her neck.
With hesitance in her every step, she slowly swiveled about.
What she saw next rooted her to the spot.
The Guanyin Pavilion had collapsed, yet the statue of Guanyin still stood in the rain-soaked night, its appearance illuminated by the flashing lightning.
But upon closer inspection, Mu Shijing realized that this was not a statue of Guanyin at all.
Mu Shijing felt as though a lance of fire had pierced her eyes, rending her with pain.
A low moan escaped her lips, as she hung her head, unable to bear the searing agony that burned within her gaze.
Yet, even through the haze of agony, the image of the “statue” remained etched upon her mind: a divine figure garbed in a tattered yellow cloak, its visage hidden behind a ghostly mask, and its hand, jagged and bony, reaching forth from its cloak, clutching a seal of ivory.
She didn’t dare to take a closer look, but from her position, she could see the cloak hung suspended, exposing the writhing mass of bloated, scabrous tentacles that writhed and pulsed beneath it.
The stench that wafted from the obscene tendrils was overpowering, filling her nostrils with a noxious reek.
With mounting terror, she beheld that the dingy yellow cloak was festooned with eyes and gaping maws, sending shudders down her spine.
Each eye gleamed with malevolent intent, and each maw gaped hungrily, as though eager to devour all that lay before it.
Of course, a statue alone would hardly be cause for fear, but the truly harrowing aspect was that these nauseating appendages were not statues at all, but instead writhed and squirmed with a life of their own, even as the tempest raged around them.
What manner of being was this?!
Mu Shijing’s body was seized with fear, as a chill ran through her veins and her slender form was wracked with uncontrollable tremors.
Lin Shouxi, his vision briefly clouded, likewise lowered his head.
His master’s words rang true, for there indeed roamed untold horrors in this world.
The realization that this entity had loomed so close, behind him, filled him with a frigid dread that seeped into every fiber of his being.
They must flee, escape from this accursed place!
Whether it be a living entity or not, in this moment, flight was their only thought.
Yet, try as they might, their bodies remained rooted to the spot, frozen in terror, as their minds struggled to break free from the paralyzing grip of fear.
And then, the terror mounted as Lin Shouxi felt an ethereal hand, icy to the touch, trace down his spine, counting each of his vertebrae as it reached his neck.
Nay, that was not a hand!
Lin Shouxi, with great effort, turned his head to gaze upon the source.
That intangible hand was none other than the heavy, encroaching fog.
In the blink of an eye, a massive fog descended upon them, a pale tide that obscured the city and reduced it to a deep chasm obscured by a dense, billowing veil.
In this ‘abyss’, they could sense the presence of unseen and frightening ghosts, their true forms obscured by the fog, yet their crazed howls and shrill cries still echoed through the veil.
Where was this the city of death? This was clearly the vestibule of purgatory!
Despite their gifts and abilities, Lin Shouxi and Mu Shijing were but children, mere fifteen years of age.
Under the relentless onslaught of terror, their hearts, honed by the Tao, teetered on the brink of collapse.
“Do you… remember the stories about the day we were born?” Lin Shouxi croaked, his voice hoarse and strained as he struggled to form each word.
It took a moment before Mu Shijing gave a small nod in response.
Though they had not witnessed the scene themselves, the tragedy of that fateful night was a somber tale, forever imprinted upon the minds of the elders who had seen it.
And for fifteen years, the story had been imparted to all who would listen.
On the night of Lin Shouxi’s and Mu Shijing’s birth, a mysterious white fog descended upon the city, and the sky was torn asunder by the claws of a demonic presence.
Yellow lightning writhed in the sky, striking the city with ferocity, and rain poured down in sheets, drenching the land in a deluge of sorrow.
When the storm cleared and the morning dawned, the city was left a ghost town, with naught but bodies littering the streets.
The fateful event that had claimed the lives of all save two newborns… now stood before them once again, threatening to repeat its tragedy.
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