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Chapter 2. Rogue friends
The boy's eyes suddenly narrowed, his voice low, "Why am I not like him?"
Meng Xueli replied, "He's a coward who doesn't even dare raise his voice."
On the boy's face was a smile yet not at the same time, the expressions gave him a bewitching aura. Snow swirled in the air, and his facial features slowly changed. The corner of his eyes got narrower, the tail of his eyebrows thinner, his nose higher. He looked beautiful yet vicious at the same time.
He stretched lazily and walked toward Meng Xueli, his bones also stretching and crackling loudly like a growing bamboo tree. In a blink of an eye, his robe was torn.
Meng Xueli conveniently hit him, "I know it's you right away."
Han Shan was heavily guarded; furthermore, this was a very special time period. If intruders were ever found, they would be beaten to death for sure.
But Que Xianming was not human.
He was a phoenix demon who prided himself on his superior bloodline and gifted abilities, excelling in changing appearance and hypnotyzing.
Que Xianming groused, "I risked my life getting in right under the Big Six's eyes just to help you and you aren't even moved to tears at all, do you have any conscience left?"
How many rogue friends can you afford in one lifetime, who will save you whenever you're in need?
Internally Meng Xueli was warmed, but on the outside he was still merciless, "And why do you have to help me? I have good food and wine and live a happy life everyday. Are you coming here because you got involved with dangerous business back in the Demon World and had to flee?"
"Damn you, did Ji Xiao make you stupid?" Que Xianming knew this person was always full of nonsense and was a lazybones. He took out three explosive talismans, "Demon fire will leave marks, so I have to use these…"
Meng Xueli grabbed his arm, "What are you up to?"
"I'm gonna blow this place up and carry you away. What do you think about 'The mountain road below the Peak collapsed and Elder Meng fell into the abyss, unknown whether he's dead or alive; it's possible that he committed suicide in the name of grief'? Han Shan is overwrought with problems right now, no one has the time to notice you."
"Then where can I run to afterward?" Meng Xueli replied softly, "I can't return to the Demon World anymore."
"We won't go there, I have a hiding cave at Old Grounds."
At the place where the world of human, ghost and demon connected was a vast wasteland. No laws existed there, magical energy dwindled, and the place often collapsed. The humans called it the Outer-Border, and the demons called it Old Grounds.
Que Xianming said, "The place is unbalanced, but it's safe. As soon as you regain your strength and your demon core strength, you can return to being as powerful as before! Then we can do things like old times, travelling across the Three Realms! Let's go, we can talk more along the way out."
To him, the scariest thing about Han Shan was not the protecting formations or the layers upon layers of prohibition spells—those terrified him none—but it was Ji Xiao's sword intent. It caused fear even though it could not be seen or touched.
Ji Xiao's reputation of being unmatched anywhere in the world was not just bluffings after all; even when he died, his sword intent remained.
Meng Xueli shook his head, "You should go, I have unfinished business here."
Que Xianming lost some of his patience. "What?"
Meng Xueli stopped smiling. "Ji Xiao's death was suspicious. Recently I was thinking about…"
In this world who would harbor the most hatred toward Ji Xiao to the point of wanting him dead? After his death, who would benefit the most from it? But this was a matter that involved the entire three realms, there were so many figures and trails to follow, so at the moment he could not make things clear yet.
Que Xianming was horrified, "Wasn't he killed by you?"
Meng Xueli was even more horrified, "He's my cultivation partner, why would I?"
"For freedom? Even though he saved your life, he locked you up in here." Que Xianming turned his gaze to Chang Chun Peak, "Three years of being trapped1, yet you endured."
"It really wasn't me." Meng Xueli was startled, he did not think of the fact that even he would have motives for killing Ji Xiao.
But soon enough, he donned a smile, "You know now I'm merely a frail and delicate beauty."
Que Xianming wanted to throw up in disgust.
Seeing that escape was not on the table, he put the explosive talismans away, carefully changing his appearance to that of Liu Xiaohuai, tugging at Meng Xueli so that they both sat down.
They sat on the narrow path hanging in midair, leaning back on the mountain wall. Under them was the bottomless chasm, being covered by cloud and fog.
"Right, you didn't kill him, so there's no need to run." He took the apricot blossom branch in Meng Xueli's hand and drew three straight lines on the snow.
"But listen to me. First of all, the formations that keep Chang Chun Peak up cost a fortune, so you already aren't in Han Shan's good book. Now that Ji Xiao is dead, they have no reasons to support you either. Secondly, Ji Xiao made a lot of enemies back when he was alive, and even though they can't take it out on him, you will be dragged in because you're his family. Thirdly, Ji Xiao left behind many treasures after his death, don't you think many people will fight for them?"
Meng Xueli interrupted smugly, "Aren't I the most precious treasure Ji Xiao left behind?"
Que Xianming really wanted to just push him down to end everything.
"Stop talking nonsense. You are the zhanren's…" He paused for a few seconds, trying his best to force the word out, "…widower, so you will directly inherit his property. But at the moment you can't protect yourself and can only rely on Han Shan for shelter. Those three points I've made before will cause your death, what good would it be for you to remain in the human world?"
Meng Xueli looked at him in appreciation, taking back the branch and drawing six circles beside the lines.
"There aren't just those three points. Now that the six big sects have gathered; beside Han Shan, what do you think of the other five?"
Que Xianming said, "Are you going to remarry and use Ji Xiao's treasures to trade for safety? Forget about it, who can beat Han Shan's sword cultivation?"
Meng Xueli shook his head. "Ji Xiao told me once that Ming Hu and Han Shan were on the same level, being dubbed 'Lake of the South, Mountain of the North'. Among the other four, Wu Yin seems to be on good terms with Ming Hu. Song Feng Valley nurtures physicians and Nan Ling Temple's cultivation roots itself in Buddhism, so they can somewhat be considered the neutral party. Bei Ming Shan's beast tamers are not favored by anyone, so it's not worth talking about them. Beside those six, there are countless smaller sects… Next spring will the the time when Han Hai's2 secluded region opened to redistribute cultivation resources for the next twenty years. When that time comes, can Han Shan really remain the number one sect?"
"There are troubles both inside and outside." Meng Xueli snapped the branch, "Even if Han Shan willingly follows Ji Xiao's wish and treats me well, at that time they won't be strong enough to; my days will not go by easily."
Que Xianming fell into silence, he rembered a saying he heard a long time ago—
Treat Ji Xiao-zhanren with reverence, for he is the peacekeeper of the world.
"Then why won't you leave? Do you want to wait until Han Shan falls apart?" He shook his legs to distract himself from getting frustrated, voice hiding thorns, "Back then you agreed to be his husband to save your own life, do you really deserve to talk about sentiments?"
Meng Xueli was not riled up at that, he only smiled, "Look at me truly. This body is made of human organs inside and human skin outside, Ji Xiao has made me anew. Now I'm entirely human and my demon core power is a thing of the past, the only cultivation I can follow is that of the mortals. It might as well be said that I've restarted my life. In the Demon World I was dead anyway, and it's better left like that. Meng Xueli is the only one alive now."
Que Xianming stared at him dumbfoundedly, as if he could not believe those words just came out of the other's mouth.
After a good while, he mumbled, "Don't you want revenge? Don't you want to be the Demon King anymore? You're willing to let all of that go?"
Meng Xueli answered leisurely, "I'm forever touched that you risked everything to come here for me. But I owe Ji Xiao my life, and so I cannot go."
The northern wind howled and the snow danced wildly in the air. The scenery several feet around them was vast and obscure, and the path ahead was hazy to the eyes.
Meng Xueli stood up. "As for what good it will be for me to stay in the mortal realm, I can't give you an answer, but…" He smiled, "There are endless paths in life, I will always find a way."
"You have changed." Que Xianming had regained his calmness, "Now I'm a little curious, what kind of person is Ji Xiao?"
The two sentences were said in sequence, strongly implying his conclusion that it was Ji Xiao who had changed his friend.
Meng Xueli internally disagreed but did not say it out loud. "Him? He was…"
Que Xianming was ready for a lengthy speech about his and Ji Xiao's history.
Meng Xueli opened his mouth many times but the words could not come out, and at the end he only said,
"He was a good man."
Que Xianming wanted to curse at that answer.
What made a good man?
Using his sword to travel thousands of miles, crushing demons to ashes could be said to be the acts of a good man; helping a fallen elder up, saving children from hoodlums could also be the acts of good men.
But the former was often given names like Elder, Master, Buddhist Saint or Honored Swordman… all the awe-inspiring titles possible.
"At least he's a good man" could only be said in passing about the mediocres who had no other good traits worth praising and had never done any wrong in their life.
Que Xianming, who had wandered the human world for a long time, turned up his nose at this sentence.
Meng Xueli thought, Being an extraordinary swordman is indeed really hard, but it's even harder being a good person at the same time.
The three years he stayed at Chang Chun peak had slowly taught him that.
He patted his friend's shoulder, "You should go, I will see you off. If fate allows, we will meet again."
Que Xianming wanted to say something but stopped, hearing faint footsteps amidst the snow and wind.
Meng Xueli spoke without making a sound, "Someone's here."
At the moment Que Xianming's senses were way more acute than his, he knew that the incoming figure was on their own and not a worthy oppoment, so he did not spare any further concerns. With the face of a young boy, he lowered his head in fake compliance, falling two steps behind Meng Xueli.
Meng Xueli held his heater close, ready to put on his "Ji Xiao's cultivation partner" façade.
With the coming footsteps and the curved path right in front of them, this seemed like an unwanted encounter.
In a hurried manner, the boy in green spoke with an intimidated, small voice, "Oh my, Elder, Elder Meng, the Patriarch has been looking…"
Que Xianming raised his eyes. How coincidental, was this not Chang Chun Peak's little servant? He was really timid… Oh no! I'm wearing his face right now!
Meng Xueli did not get to give a warning in time.
Two identical faces stared at each other.
Liu Xiaohuai's eyes widened, looking at himself.
He did not even heave a breath, eyes rolling back into his head, immediately fainting.
Que Xianming was so panicked that he fumbled, "I didn't kill him, this is not on me!"
1 The author used the idiom "Tiger lost in Ping Yang, dragon trapped in shallow water".
2 The Gobi desert in Mongolia.
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