Another sky-splitting explosion sounded, producing a ball of smoke that rose from the tree. Like a dragon, the smoke coiled and bound itself around Guo Pingrong's arm. Fragments of paper and flesh splattered everywhere, and those around the tree were instantly thrown into a layer of ash and dust.
Guo Pingrong's shriek broke the silent night, and a wild dog started barking from afar.
Within the painting hid an explosive, which Guo Pingrong's ferocious punch had activated, leading to his arm injury.
Meng Fuyao's series of plans had succeeded, from taking the guards down and diverting Guo Pingrong's attention to hiding a bomb within a beautiful painting, which had as planned provoked a heavy punch from him.
In that moment of explosion, Meng Fuyao hesitated no further. She gave him the finger and burst into maniacal laughter. Then, she fled westward with Qiao Ling still safe on her back.
Dashing through the icy snow grains sent a comfortable wave of shock through her facial features. Despite having a fully-grown girl on her back, Meng Fuyao only increased her speed, flitting through endless houses and leaving those suffocating cries and smoke far behind.
A series of untidily arranged houses appeared before her. She looked around and noticed an abnormal-looking wall behind the courtyard. There seemed to be a few mini doors, so she dashed over without wasting any time.
No guard was patrolling around in the courtyard, so it was absolutely silent all around. Flights of stairs extended toward the hall, whose end appeared deep and dark like a gigantic mouth. At its extreme end hung a horizontal board that vaguely flickered under the moonlight. Because it was so far away, Meng Fuyao couldn't make the words out.
She squinted her eyes and slowed down her pace, wondering, 'What is this place? Doesn't look like the servants' house...'
Before Meng Fuyao could finish her thoughts, she felt the area behind her ears go numb. She felt as though the blood within her body had come to a standstill, and that she was losing consciousness bit by bit. Even the snow in the sky was spinning and zooming in at great speeds. Before long she toppled over like a boulder.
She could hear a voice, but it was becoming distant as if covered by three layers of cowhide. Nevertheless, she could distinguish that it was Qiao Ling's cries.
Her cries contained panic, guilt, helplessness, and grief all at once.
"Sorry, sorry...he promised to treat me better if I capture you...please let me live my life."
Another voice, even more distant, drifted into her ears. It belonged to Guo Pingrong, and it contained complacency and an air of evilness.
"How dare you trespass the festival hall? This matter must be made known to the crown prince. Your whole family will be beheaded."
At that, he paused for a moment before continuing, somewhat surprised, "Did the crown prince make his way here from the Shangyang Palace? Is anything the matter? Why the rush? Has there been unrest in the southern border again?"
Silence. Amid Meng Fuyao's limited consciousness she could identify Guo Pingrong's demonic laughter and the removal of clothing articles, one after one, from belt to sword holder. Like the tiding of waves, those sounds seemed at times close and at times far.
"Just right. I'll enjoy myself first before charging you and letting His Highness deal with it."
Every single object swayed back and forth within her hazy line of sight, layering over one another and morphing non-stop. Amid her distorted vision she caught sight of a man, pants half unbuckled, holding onto his bleeding palm and approaching her with a sinister smile on his face.
His smile was devilish and gloomy, his face askew. Beneath his slitted eyes was a widely-opened mouth that resembled a deep, dark cave, in which his sparkling white teeth resided.
The ongoing whimpers of Qiao Ling annoyed Meng Fuyao. She struggled to reach for the needle that had been pierced into the back of her neck, before jabbing it backward.
The whimpers stopped, and the man opposite of them was shocked. "You can move?" he exclaimed, quickly striding over to untie and toss Qiao Ling aside before grabbing hold of Meng Fuyao. He princess-carried her up and gave the wall a good kick, immediately causing it to shift open with a rumble. A hidden room revealed itself, and Guo Pingrong made his way in.
Meng Fuyao's mind was floating, but she hadn't fainted. A vague herbal scent, sharp and fragrant, shot up her nostrils and into her muddled brain. The grains of awareness that had vanished like sparks came flying back and gathering into a pile, gradually forming a complete blueprint.
The ripping of garments sounded by her ears, and she immediately felt a cool sensation before her chest area. A pair of warm hands, carrying the smell of blood, leaned over to touch her skin, slightly trembling in the process.
Guo Pingrong had no idea what state of consciousness Meng Fuyao was. His bloodshot eyes were only focused on her overwhelming beauty. The disguise on her face had already been wiped off, revealing the same complexion he had caught a glimpse of that night. Her long lashes moved gently above her delicate nose and plump, pomegranate-red lips. He let his gaze slide downward...
Meng Fuyao's clothes had been ripped open, exposing skin that was even brighter than the snow outside. It carried a moistened luster like that of jade and exuded a fragrance and visible softness. The hand, stained with blood, rubbed against her skin, smearing it red and painting a jarring image of the last of frail autumn leaves separating from their branches. It was, disturbingly, as though she was timidly inviting him to ravage her.
Such a silent invitation could best arouse a man's primal instincts. Guo Pingrong let out a low groan, and with a wave of his hand extinguished every candle in the room. He then leaned his body over while breathing loudly.
The room dimmed significantly, as the only light came from a lamp someone had lit outside. Its color was a rare, faint purple, and it seeped through the wall creak and into the room, making the narrowness of it even more noticeable.
Meng Fuyao shook suddenly.
Confined room... penetrating purple light... it was a scene so foreign yet so familiar as if she had seen it every day from a long, long time ago...
As if her brain had been sliced into two by a blunt sword, Meng Fuyao felt a searing pain shooting through her consciousness. Her flickering vision jolted as though some deeply hidden and old memories, long repressed, had been peeled from a corner and was spiraling outward... in that narrow space...a purple palace lamp suspending from high above...a middle-aged uncle's smiling face...extending a veiny hand...
The event replayed like a bad dream, rousing the buried memory from deep down. The last traces of slackened consciousness gathered in that moment, setting off a wave of indignation and resentment, which surged straight out of her chest.
Meng Fuyao sprung up and lifted her head, a fresh mouthful of blood spraying out of her mouth like rain, before dripping down Guo Pingrong's body.
Guo Pingrong shot up, holding onto his half-loosened pants and retreating. He was beyond shocked. How had she managed to recover from his Soul-Locking Needle?
Meng Fuyao leaped up, still spraying dark red blood, in which her fury burned like a raging inferno. Upon lowering her head and catching sight of her unkempt appearance, she immediately threw a glare at Guo Pingrong.
Her eyes were burning hot and menacing, like a red spider lily burning amid a flame and releasing a deadly aura like that from the Underworld. She fixed her attention on his expression as if using her eyes like chains. For a split-second Guo Pingrog felt that his soul had been trapped and it was being dragged into hellfire, turning it into ashes.
The way Meng Fuyao stared at him brought sweat to his back. He subconsciously reached for a sword while withdrawing three consecutive steps.
Guo Pingrong wasn't sure why he had withdrawn. Meng Fuyao's skills weren't necessarily threatening, but it was her eyes that instilled fear in him. He had never seen a gaze so sharp and powerful.
Suddenly, a memory resurfaced in Guo Pingrong's mind. He had seen once such a gaze. It was many years back, where the youthful crown prince had revealed the exact same expression upon hearing that piece of news, causing the knees of everyone present to buckle...
He hadn't imagined that he would once again witness such a dark, murderous gaze so many years after that incident.
Guo Pingrong readied his sword, and just as he was about to execute his Splendor of Heaven and Earth, he saw Meng Fuyao, hair draped over her shoulders, pouncing onto him like a starving tiger.
As she moved her inner energy surged so powerfully that the table and chairs within the room started overturning. The canopy fluttered, putting out the candles on the table. In the darkness Meng Fuyao flew forward like a ball of black cloud, her hands conveniently grabbing a brocaded chair and smashing it onto Guo Pingrong's head.
Guo Pingrong's pupils shrank to the size of a needle tip. When had she gotten so strong? Her strike had the ability to split the sky.
And, as a disciple of one of the ten strongest men to roam the earth, how could he have cowered in fear from a girl's angry punch?
Guo Pingrong twisted his longsword angrily, forming a sheet of raging waves that stacked into a high crystal wall that stood before himself. Water spurted out from within the wall with a gentle whizz, transforming into an acute ray that shot, bullet-like, toward her bared chest.
Brightness filled the sky as a thread of light swept across the room like a comet, and all one could see was the absolute splendor of immeasurable stars.
The light enveloped Meng Fuyao, who let out a scream.
She jolted her wrist, and a green ray surged forward, instantly wrapping it in a jade-green glow, which only increased in brightness and solidified into an indestructible, jasper pestle.
It was the fifth level of the Cleaving Nine Heavens - Luminosity.
Meng Fuyao hadn't been able to engage her inner energy in normal days, and now that she had been provoked, she finally unleashed all that she had without regard for consequences.
Guo Pingrong growled, blocking her attack with his sword. He immediately altered his stance, and silk spun continuously from his sword, drawing arcs in the air before binding Meng Fuyao.
In the blink of an eye, the two individuals had been entangled. Within the dark room, there was no movement of swords, no exchange of words, and no sound of objects falling or shattering. In fact, the growls from before had dissolved as well, leaving only a vague imagery of two figures soaring in the air, so fast that whistles could be heard. Accompanying the visuals was a sprinkling odor of sweat and fresh blood.