Qi Yin grabbed the note left by Fu Lan and didn’t react for a while.
Several senior martial brothers and sisters surrounded the note under the light, carefully cut without any frayed edges. The handwriting was very elegant, with each stroke clear and fluid, in line with his brother’s usual style.
However, there were only four words on it – “Will be back soon.”
After reading it, Liu Bai concluded, “Junior martial brother wasn’t kidnapped. He left this note himself.”
At first, Qi Yin didn’t understand why there was a random note next to his pillow. It wasn’t until the third watch, when the bell sounded and his brother was still nowhere to be found, that he realized what the note meant.
“That bastard…” Qi Yin grabbed his head, suddenly feeling like a jilted lover. He was so angry that he felt like his head was about to explode. “Why did he leave without a word? He didn’t even say where he was going!”
“Don’t accuse him wrongly. He clearly left four words.” Yun Zhi patted Qi Yin on the back.
“He might as well have said that he died outside!” Qi Yin said angrily.
Where did he go? What’s most infuriating was that he didn’t take Qi Yin with him! Qi Yin was so angry that his chest hurt. He sat there, sulking, thinking about how to punish that bastard when he returned. Should he make him kneel and scrub the washboard? Or should he give him a spanking? After thinking for a while, he felt that neither was appropriate, as it was like a shrew punishing her own man.
Just as everyone was about to discuss whether to tell the two senior martial uncles, there was a knock at the door. Sang Ruo opened the door, and it was Zhao Ran standing outside. He bowed to everyone and asked, “Has Senior Martial Uncle Yun Lan returned?”
Everyone looked at each other. Yun Zhi cleared his throat and said, “Junior martial brother has been sweeping snow every day to finish his punishment early. He is probably still sweeping snow now.”
“I see,” Zhao Ran said with concern. “Please come with me, senior martial uncles. Senior Martial Uncle Yun Lan may have encountered an accident.”
Everyone was stunned and went to the suspended stairs together. It was already crowded with people. Qi Ling Shu was squatting there examining footprints. There was a broom on the steps, which was often used by Fu Lan. Qi Yin hurriedly squeezed in and asked, “What happened to my brother?”
Qi Ling Shu fell into a moment of contemplation, then turned to look at him with a serious expression. “Junior Brother Yun Lan’s footprints end here, and there are no return footprints. If I’m not mistaken, he may have accidentally slipped and fell. Judging from the thickness of the snow on the footprints, he fell at least half an hour ago.”
Qi Yin was stunned for a moment and suddenly understood. Fu Lan was more stable than a rooster’s head on his feet. How could he have slipped? He probably jumped down by himself. Qi Yin leaned over the snow steps and looked down. It was dark and murky down there. It should be the Forbidden Forest below, and tomorrow was the day they would set out to find Qi Shen Wei. What was Fu Lan doing jumping into the Forbidden Forest?
Qi Ling Shu pulled him back by the collar. “We can’t delay any longer. Saving people is the top priority. You guys send someone to inform the Sect Leader and the two senior brothers from Feng Huan, and then send someone to come with me to save people.”
Zhao Ming muttered behind, “Do we still need to save him? Several people fall off this suspended step every year. Every time we go down to look, either we find a pile of broken bones, or they’ve been dragged away by monsters and eaten, and we can’t even find the bones.”
When he said this, everyone fell silent. Sang Ya didn’t know what was going on and thought Fu Lan was really gone. She burst into tears. Qi Ling Shu turned around and looked at Zhao Ming with cold eyes like winter snow.
“As cultivators, we must find them whether dead or alive.”
He always spoke so bluntly, without caring about anyone’s face. Zhao Ming shivered and didn’t dare to say anything more. Qi Ling Shu took out the Forbidden Forest token and opened the teleportation array. He was the first disciple of Wu Fang, and he was also designated as the future elder of swords, so he was also in charge of a Forbidden Forest token. Brilliant golden light spread on the ground, forming a gorgeous and complex pattern. The onlookers stepped back one after another. Zhao Ming volunteered and stepped into the array.
This was a good opportunity to enter the Forbidden Forest, much safer than following the pig monster. Yun Zhi grabbed Qi Yin and pulled him into the array. “Junior Uncle, take me and Yun Yin with you!”
The golden light flickered. In the blink of an eye, the step was empty.
Shao Ruan received Qi Ling Shu’s order and hurried to report to Sect Leader Yuan Ji. Walking halfway, he suddenly met Qing He, who was holding a guqin and walking slowly. Shao Ruan bowed his head and greeted him. Qing He smiled and asked what he was going to do. Shao Ruan answered softly.
Qing He sighed and smiled. “I happen to be going to play chess with Sect Leader Yuan Ji. Let me take care of this for you.”
Shao Ruan hesitated for a moment but still bowed. “Thank you, Senior Uncle.”
In an instant, the world spun around, and his organs were turned upside down. In what felt like a year, he finally landed on solid ground. Qi Yin couldn’t stand up and fell to the ground, retching. Yun Zhi squatted down and lightly patted his back. It took a while for Qi Yin to catch his breath, and he felt slightly better.
Xin Xiao Xiao stood there, looking lost and helpless, clutching at the corner of her clothes. “I also want to help find Lan Gege.”
Qi Ling Shu looked as serious as ice, not blinking as he reopened the talisman and coldly said, “Go back.”
Xin Xiao Xiao was about to cry, looking around for someone to help her plead her case. Finally, her gaze fell on Qi Yin, but he just made a helpless gesture and said nothing.
Qi Ling Shu felt annoyed, not quite understanding why these people always needed him to repeat himself over and over again. He pressed his forehead and patiently repeated, “Go back.”
Xin Xiao Xiao’s eyes were red, but she didn’t move. She wiped her tears and choked out, “Do you know why nobody dares to approach you?”
Qi Ling Shu was taken aback.
“You’re always like this, never giving anyone a good face even when they mean well. Last time during the Dao conference, my two senior sisters saw you practicing your sword in the early morning and made bone broth for you to help nourish your body. But you… just let them get twenty palm strikes on their hands.” Xin Xiao Xiao’s eyes were red. “If you don’t want it, just refuse it. Why do you have to trample on their goodwill like this? Lan Gege would never do that. When I make soup for him, he says thank you and even washes the bowl and returns it.”
Make soup? Qi Yin was confused. Fu Lan always lived on the bare minimum, not eating or drinking anything. But wait. He suddenly remembered that these past few nights, Fu Lan always brought back soup for him and Lord Cat. Fu Lan had always been good at household chores. He hadn’t thought much about it and assumed it was soup that Lan had made himself. But it turns out this kid had taken the soup that someone else made for him and offered it to others.
Fu Lan wasn’t good with people, so he probably hadn’t thought much about it. But if this girl knew that all the bone broth she had painstakingly made for him had gone into someone else’s belly, she would be heartbroken. Qi Yin quietly covered his face, and Yun Zhi guessed what was going on. After all, he had also had a few sips of that soup. He pressed Qi Yin’s shoulder and tried to hold back his laughter.
Seeing Yun Zhi’s pained expression, Zhao Ming asked in confusion, “What’s wrong with you?”
Qi Yin covered his mouth and said, “Nothing. He’s sick. Just needs a beating.”
Qi Ling Shu stood in the shade of the tree, his pale face stretched tight like a hard piece of marble. He pursed his lips and said nothing.
Yun Zhi finally managed to hold back his laughter and opened his mouth, “Junior Sister is mistaken. Who said nobody wants to approach Junior Uncle? I’m quite happy to do so.” He smiled and hooked his arm around Qi Ling Shu’s neck, winking at him. “After all, we’ve been close since we were kids, wearing open-crotch pants together, right?”
Qi Ling Shu: “…”
The appearance of Yun Zhi, who was hugging and leaning on Qi Ling Shu, was truly rude. Qi Ling Shu looked like a helpless girl forced into his arms. Zhao Ming was so angry that his eyes turned black and he said, “You… quickly take your dirty hands off! My junior brother is a refined and elegant cultivator. How could someone like you touch him with your filthy hands?”
“Shut up,” Qi Ling Shu said.
Zhao Ming reluctantly closed his mouth and gave Yun Zhi a hateful look.
Qi Ling Shu pushed away Yun Zhi’s hand and asked Xin Xiao Xiao in a softer voice, “What is your ranking on the sword competition?”
Xin Xiao Xiao whispered, “Just the 100th place. I was injured and could have done better.”
There were at least three hundred disciples participating in the sword competition, so it was a remarkable achievement for this girl to rank in the top 100, especially since she had only recently started training, like Qi Yin. Qi Yin blushed.
Qi Ling Shu did not say anything else and collected his talisman, then turned around to lead the way. Xin Xiao Xiao saw him agree to bring her along and finally smiled. Everyone took out their monster-repelling sachets and held their talismans, using their swords to clear the way as they walked deeper into the forest.
They hurried along the way, and moonlight flowed silently through the dark forest. The grass was lush and grew as high as a person, with sharp stems and leaves that scraped their faces painfully. There was residual snow on the ground, and the dark soil was very muddy. Qi Ling Shu forbade anyone from speaking, and the forest was so silent that it felt like a stagnant pool, where not even the sound of birds could be heard. In the darkness, it seemed like countless pairs of eyes were watching them.
The Forbidden Forest was so different from Feng Huan. Qi Ling Shu remembered that in Feng Huan, the evening breeze was gentle, and a distant mermaid’s song floated softly like a woman’s delicate hand brushing across his cheeks. But now it was pitch black, and the trees and bushes formed a deep shadow that seemed to hide countless sharp claws and fangs.
Qi Ling Shu really wanted to know where his brother had gone, and what was in the Forbidden Forest that was attracting him. Why did he leave so suddenly? He knew nothing, and could only wait for that bastard to come back and provide him with some answers. The bitter aroma of wormwood mixed with the smell of decay from the forest wrapped around their noses. They passed by a pale monster corpse, skirted around a saltwater swamp, and finally arrived at Fu Lan’s landing site.
There was a large pit about ten yards in diameter, with a ring of bushes and trees that had collapsed all around it. It was definitely Fu Lan’s landing spot. The force of the descent and the impact of spiritual power had destroyed the surrounding vegetation, much like the huge pit he had made in the tapir’s dream.
Zhao Ming was dumbfounded. “Yun Lan’s body is really tough…”
Qi Ling Shu remained silent, carefully examining the pit and its surroundings with his talisman. There was a trail of footprints in the pit, which extended from the center all the way to the outside, but then disappeared in the bushes.
Zhao Ming murmured, “He fell from such a high place, and he can still walk upright?”
Ordinary people would have turned into minced meat if they fell like that, only Fu Lan had the divine power to come out unscathed. Seeing that they were about to be exposed, Yun Zhi walked over and said, “How could it be my junior brother? It must be a demon who carried him away. My junior brother has delicate skin and tender flesh, which demons love to eat.”
Qi Yin also squatted down and pretended to examine the footprints. “That’s right, these are not my brother’s footprints. My brother’s feet are seven point eight inches. This size is wrong.”
“We need to hurry then,” Xin Xiao Xiao said anxiously. “If he’s dragged back to the demon’s lair and eaten, even Nuwa may not be able to save him.”
The group immediately set off in the direction of the footprints. In the darkness, Yun Zhi walked up to Qi Yin and whispered, “Qi Ling Shu is acting strange.”
Even without him saying so, Qi Yin had already noticed. Their lies were full of loopholes. According to the depth of these footprints, there was no way that it could have been the weight of Fu Lan and a demon combined, and there were no footprints entering the pit. Others may not have noticed, but Qi Ling Shu had been following Qi Shen Wei to fight demons since he was young. There was no reason for him not to notice, but he remained silent. Qi Yin looked at the white-clothed man ahead of them. His face shrouded in moonlight and shadows, so Qi Yin was unable to discern his expression, but he felt a chilling aura.
Things were getting stranger and stranger. Qi Yin furrowed his brows, wondering how much this seemingly innocent man knew.
After walking for who knows how long, the eastern sky gradually brightened. The branches and leaves of the thornbush were soaked in light, as if covered with a layer of thin mercury. Faint mist flowed through the forest. Qi Ling Shu kept squatting down to examine the footprints, brushing aside wild grass and stems. There were many horseshoe-shaped footprints of horse demons, half-moon-shaped hoof prints of mules, and drag marks of snakes.
Everyone was exhausted. Qi Ling Shu turned around and said, “Rest for half a stick of incense.”
Only Qi Yin and Yun Zhi knew they had completely gone the wrong way. Qi Ling Shu had been checking the footprints all along, but Fu Lan had been jumping from tree to tree because Qi Yin had discovered Fu Lan’s shoe prints on the branches of several cypress trees an hour ago. Yun Zhi walked over to Qi Ling Shu and suggested, “Perhaps we should go to Elder Qi Shen Wei’s tomb and take a look.”
Qi Ling Shu looked at him, waiting for him to continue.
“We haven’t seen any remains of Yun Lan for so long. If he was eaten by demons, according to their habits, there would be bloodstains, broken limbs, and other remains left behind. This indicates that Yun Lan may have regained consciousness midway and found a way to escape,” Yun Zhi said confidently, despite lying.
Qi Ling Shu replied nonchalantly, “Go on.”
Yun Zhi unfolded a map and pointed to a red circle. “The nearest tomb is Elder Qi Shen Wei’s tomb. It’ll take about the time it takes to burn an incense stick to get there. Do you want to go and take a look?”
Qi Yin was sitting on a tree stump, massaging his legs. Qi Ling Shu was practically an iron man, running so far without even panting. He took out a water bag from his Qiankun bag, drank some water, and wiped his sweat with a handkerchief. The corners of the handkerchief had little blue fish embroidered by his brother, some wagging their tails, some blowing bubbles. Qi Yin touched the little fish and thought of Fu Lan, feeling resentful.
Suddenly, a low cry came from behind them. Qi Yin thought something had happened and hurried over. Zhong Ming and the others were gathered by the swamp, with Xin Xiao Xiao covering her nose, looking like she was about to vomit. The stench was too strong, making Qi Yin feel nauseous. Covering his mouth and nose, he approached and saw Qi Ling Shu and Yun Zhi squatting by a corpse.
The body was very strange, face down in the mud, with both hands twisted unnaturally behind his back, as if his arms had been twisted backward before he died. What was even more terrifying was the countless holes all over his body, as if he had been pierced by coarse needles all over.
Xin Xiao Xiao asked with red eyes, “Is it Lan Gege?”
Qi Yin comforted her, “Look at the height. It’s much shorter than my brother. It’s definitely not him.”
Yun Zhi was very brave and poked the holes on the body with a stick. “Could it have been killed by a porcupine spirit?”
The body was so mutilated that it barely looked human. Qi Yin asked, “Is this a person or a demon?”
“Why would there be people in the Forbidden Forest? Of course it’s a demon,” Zhong Ming said.
However… as Qi Yin looked at the corpse, the more he felt like it was a person. If a demon transformed into a human, it should revert back to its original form upon death.
Just as he was pondering this, Qi Ling Shu suddenly looked up and shouted, “It’s not dead. Back away!”
The corpse violently shook and its arms twisted like dough, the joints cracking with a teeth-grinding sound.