Split Zone 13
54 The Heart in Chaos
"Cut it out, Li Shen," Nie Zun interjected, "There's no way we'll be able to find them. Besides, I'm worried about Jie Pa and Song Lu. We should go back. We can't just keep Huan Qing out of sight, out of mind either—we'll need to get him out of the airflow."
What Nie Zun said was true, but I was still reluctant to leave matters as they were. Stuck in a dilemma, I looked towards Jiao S.
"Nie Zun is right." Jiao S conceded, unexpectedly calm. "We should head back first. Under such circumstances, not only should we return to Jie Pa, we'll also need to get back to our respective districts soon. We can't even be sure if our districts are in jeopardy as it is, rushing in blindly will only get us killed."
Retreat back to the Western District? That's right. I wonder how Old Man Fan and the others are doing… but what about Laurel? And Yu Liang…?
I clenched my teeth. Just imagining the countless sorts of peril the Western District could be in had me nodding my head in agreement. Retreat was the only option.
They weren't under any sort of attack during the time we were gone. Everything was as per normal when we got to the academy's lab, with the obvious exception of Song Lu's state of unconsciousness. Hence, I had no other choice but to convey everything that happened to Jie Pa and Guan Nie.
Guan Nie was the first to speak up and for the first time, I noticed a glint of harshness in his almond-shaped eyes. "So you're saying that Gao Qin Jiu Ye returned to Si Luo's side just like that?"
Guan Nie burst out laughing with a hand over his mouth, as if I'd just told the funniest joke of all time but the mirth did not reach his eyes. "Gao Qin Jiu Ye… Hahahaha, truly splendid! You really would do anything for Si Luo."
"Ms Ah Shen," Jie Pa spoke up, pushing up his glasses. "If the situation is as you described, then I suggest we leave Southern District for now. Since the last time Old Man Fan had reported to me on his suspicions about Ms You Ji, Nie Zun and I have not been able to get in contact with him.
"Moreover, we don't know what is going on there. In my opinion, returning to our own districts should be the main priority. I'm worried about Song Lu's condition too. We don't have much MF left for combat; it certainly would not be enough to fight against those people you just mentioned."
I pursed my lips tightly together, repressing the reluctance in my heart.
Jiao S exhaled a long sigh. "I know the idea of turning back after coming this far is hard to swallow, but we may lose our lives if we don't. Most importantly, even Mr Blond is unreachable now. Who knows what kind of conspiracy lurks behind all these incidents?"
Before she could go on, Nie Zun turned to her and interrupted, "Regardless, it's as I've said before. You and Li Shen should at least trust and cooperate with each other."
I exchanged eye contact with Jiao S. Somehow, the demon I had once feared and hated was now my only trustworthy ally.
"Let's start planning the journey back to our districts then," I directed my words at Jiao S. "We'll settle matters at our own districts and decide who to bring along the next time we return. We'll get to the bottom of this."
Jiao S rolled her eyes, but eventually gave a nod. She handed me something that looked akin to amber, its core wrapped around what seemed to be a drop of blood.
"This Scarlet Compass was made from my own blood," Jiao S explained in her usual hoarse voice, "I don't have a phone or anything like that, but I’ll be able to sense it if you break the compass during the most critical moment. Through my subordinate’s Scarlet Compass Formation, I can get to you within ten minutes.
"However, these things are difficult to craft—there are only three in existence as of now. Use it only when absolutely necessary; otherwise, it would be best if you can come find me personally or have Nie Zun contact Tao Lie."
Sharply dipping my head in acknowledgement, I took the amber from her and placed it securely behind the waistband of my red skirt.
"In that case," Nie Zun started, "let's head towards the border before dark."
With those words, Song Lu instantly came to mind. I turned to Jie Pa. "Will you be able to estimate when she'll wake?"
Jie Pa shook his head. "Song Lu is badly injured. We can't wake her up by force—all we can do is wait. For now, I can't do anything about the insect either; I'll need to return to the Western District and enquire about them with those who possessed the necessary competency."
A wave of helplessness crashed in my heart but I still managed a nod.
Without warning, Jiao S widened her eyes. "There's someone we've forgotten—Huan Qing!"
"You're right! Quick, let him out." My hand smacked against my forehead.
Following the motion of her left hand, the whirlwind began to appear beside Jiao S. With a whoosh, she dragged Huan Qing out the airstream and flung him to the ground.
She just… flung him… to the ground.
I was speechless. Huan Qing had already been reduced to such sorry state, yet it seems that Jiao S still didn't spare the slightest bit of sympathy.
Jie Pa looked down at Huan Qing's motionless and haggard body. "Is this what happens when you've completely exhausted your MF?"
Jie Pa crouched beside Huan Qing, wrapping a white handkerchief around his hand before checking up on the unconscious man.
"Jie Pa, you seemed to have a slight obsession with cleanliness as well, just like that perverted Nie Zun." I asked with interest.
Jie Pa adjusted his glasses and flashed a small smile. "Indeed, just a little."
"How is he?" I pointed at Huan Qing who was still on the floor.
Jie Pa kept his handkerchief. "It's nothing serious. Seeing as he had sealed his symbol before, his MF is temporarily depleted. Going by what you've mentioned, he maintained a last illusion in this condition, which must mean that he exhausted every last bit of his MF in order to do that. It seems like he will remain in a catatonic state, just like Song Lu. It will probably be a while before he regains consciousness."
"It's less than ten hours until nightfall and we're still in the academy," Jiao S noted, "Furthermore, we haven't had much rest over these past few days—at this rate, our MF will be compromised.
"To make matters worse, we now have two comatose casualties on our hands as well as another who absolutely cannot get injured. Venturing out at night in this state isn't a good idea. I suggest we stay another night before heading out for the boundary lines in the morning."
I thought over it carefully. She was right, we haven't slept in days—on top of the extraordinary amount of strength exhausted today, our MF had suffered as a result. Besides, I have not activated unrestricted control over my MF. Under these conditions, an attempt to make it to the border at night would undoubtedly be a terrible idea. With that in mind, I nodded in consent. Noting my agreement, Jie Pa and Nie Zun didn't voice any objections either.
"Let's return to our respective rooms and rest for the night then. Jie Pa, I'm afraid we'll have to trouble you again in taking care of Song Lu and Huan Qing." I said wearily.
Jie Pa nodded.
Nie Zun turned to Guan Nie. "Since Jie Pa can't be in harm's way, and both Song Lu and Huan Qing are in coma, can you stay with them for now and protect them with your illusion?"
As the words tumbled out of Nie Zun's lips, his eyes gleamed with tenderness. Guan Nie caught his gaze and gave a coquettish grin. "Whatever my pet says, goes. This is a piece of cake, leave it to me."
Surprisingly, Jiao S was the first to twitch at the scene in front of us. "I've never seen you this submissive even towards me, your own district commander."
Guan Nie pouted and whined. "Ahhh, but this pet is my lover."
… Someone just kill me now.
Even in the presence of two unconscious bodies and an extremely vulnerable gentleman—piled haphazardly above the mess we recently found ourselves in—my exhaustion triumphed my concerns. I felt the accumulated fatigue from past sleepless nights flood through me at the thought of finally being able to rest.
I took lead in leaving the lab, but not before informing Jie Pa and his companions about taking the room opposite ours, and to notify me immediately should any situation arise. Nie Zun followed quickly after me, as did Jiao S.
"Let's sleep in the same room tonight." I turned and posed the suggestion to Jiao S.
Jiao S must not have expected those words to come from me out of the blue; her usual wide, hollow eyes had a fleeting glimmer of something different but it was gone just as soon. She didn't refuse the offer so the three of us returned to our room on the first level.
"The room is big but every dorm in the split zone is limited to a single bunk bed. One of us will have to make the supreme sacrifice in this case." With a hand thumping against my chest and an expression of awe-inspiring righteousness, I continued, "Since I'm such a kind-hearted person, I'll take the lower bunk. Nie Zun, you'll sleep on the floor."
I ignored them thereafter and went straight for my bed before shutting my eyes. I could hear the sound of movement once my eyes were closed; perhaps it was the sound of Jiao S clambering up to the top bunk, or maybe it was Nie Zun getting a cup of water. Regardless, I kept my eyes shut. I was too exhausted to care about anything else.
Except… I couldn't fall asleep.
After all the events from the past few days, my mind was in chaos. It was when I could finally stop the gears in my body from turning, that I finally had the time to digest the imprints left upon them. Even though I'm neither human nor ghost here, but I'm still alive in a sense—and as long as one is alive, they end up pondering. No matter how terrible the situation was, I still needed to calm down and think through everything properly.
The first person who came to mind was Gao Qin Jiu Ye.
I have no idea why he was the first person I thought of but I did know that there was no stopping this train of thought. In the darkness, I pressed my eyes tightly together, as though I could hide from my own tremors this way. I could still remember his abrupt appearance by my window not that many nights ago, the way he walked straight towards me.
Gao Qin Jiu Ye, no matter how many times I reminded myself not to expect anything of you, I still can't help but wonder… Are you really a cruel and ruthless grim reaper? Do you really not care about anyone else besides Si Luo?
And Si Luo… This is the first time I've felt such insatiable curiosity towards a person. What kind of person must he be to have people like Gao Qin Jiu Ye and Jiao S throw all caution to the wind just to chase after him?
Still, Si Luo did not linger long in my cluttered mind. In the end, my thoughts went right back to Gao Qin Jiu Ye.
Actually… It's not like we have known each other for a long time either. Why is it that meeting you made me think of Gao Qi less than before? Hadn't it been your striking resemblance to him and that same charming voice that swayed my emotions each time? With all these similarities between the two of you, exactly why do I find myself forgetting him because of you?
Gao Qin Jiu Ye, you really do look like him—no, you're exactly alike, like two peas in a pod.
I have always been aware of my feelings; I have never denied my love for Gao Qi nor my yearning and longing for him. I’m not the kind of girl who would conceal her feelings. I knew clearly throughout my college life that I loved him. Even after arriving at this treacherous place, Gao Qi, there is not a shadow of doubt that I still miss you, that I still love you.
Split Zone 13
55 The Return Journey
I know I'm not fickle-minded but, Gao Qi, neither have I ever forgotten that I was the murderer who killed you. Even if I have no recollection of that moment, I could still remember the wave of panic and helplessness when I first saw Gao Qin Jiu Ye. I can't define it exactly… Just like how I feel towards you, Gao Qi.
Those numerous meetings atop our school roof when you—the popular you, who captured everybody's attention—would willingly give me the time of day just to listen quietly as I recited Faust. I was barely audible even to myself.
"The demon Mephisto said, 'this world is an abyss of misery and it will never change.'"
Gao Qi, if you're still here… Would you remember that day? You tilted your head and all the warmth of the sky melted in your eyes. You smiled at me, then said, "Ah Shen, if this world's really just an abyss of misery, what do you think is the most miserable of all?"
I don't blush, not even when you looked at me with that smile of yours but I would drop my gaze timidly, as though direct eye contact with you was enough to swallow my sight. It was why I had the tendency of lowering my eyes and the habit of talking to you in whispers.
That time wasn't any different either, when all I could manage was a soft mumble. "I guess… it'll be loneliness."
And as always, you said, “That's a great answer.”
I used to get tired about the definition of time and love in romance novels, but I believed in them nonetheless. Throughout countless meetings with you by my side on that roof, I had always hoped for time to freeze into eternity. Instead, I ended your eternity and in that, I've ended my own.
Now, I'm faced with another you.
Actually, Gao Qi, what do I have to complain about? Wouldn't I be able to share my forever with you if we're both here?
Even if Gao Qin Jiu Ye isn't really you, I could tell myself that it was fine. Murdering you isn't something I could convince myself that it's fine, but what if the split zone was really giving me the opportunity to start over? Whatever four districts of this world, there will still be no one better than you in my heart.
Except… Is there really no one else?
If loneliness is truly the most tragic in this abyss of misery, then who is the loneliest out of us? Is it me—the ostracized, mentally-ill loner—or you, the popular senior who felt like no one understood despite being surrounded by thousands of others?
Or perhaps it is…
Somehow, during the serene darkness of tonight and the rare chance I had to reminisce about Gao Qi, the moment was inadvertently interrupted by another.
Perhaps it is… Nie Zun.
As expected, you are the loneliest, right?
Unable to understand my true feelings, unable to comprehend the bond I have with Nie Zun, I slowly opened my eyes. As it turns out, Nie Zun wasn't sleeping at all. His lean but strong body was slouched against his favorite wall with both hands tucked into the pockets of his windbreaker, and his gaze was cast towards the ground.
I wondered what was on his mind.
In the dark, I scrutinized the silhouette of Nie Zun from head to toe.
His fine bangs drooped over his forehead, covering the idle, indifferent eyes of his that seemed to coat with loneliness. His head was lowered and the collar to his windbreaker was pulled up high, hiding his sharp chin within its confines.
I couldn't put my finger on it, but the longer I looked at him, the more foreign he felt to me. It was like watching a stranger I've never met. An surreal sense of solitude surrounded him, blurring into my vision.
Nie Zun… if the world is an abyss of misery, would you need to be saved? Why do you always act as though you don’t need saving? Why does that other identity of mine resonate with you? No matter how much I’ve searched for an answer, we still have nothing in common apart from our loneliness. Could it be that you were once ostracized too?
Even so, you’re so much stronger than me and I’m truly envious of you. I'm jealous of the way you don’t seem to care about anything.
I really want to know if you have something you care about too.
As I stared at Nie Zun in the dark, that question rippled in my heart. While I couldn't explain the reason behind this sudden curiosity, it felt strangely logical at the same time. At that moment, as if he had heard the words spoken in my heart, Nie Zun lifted his head suddenly.
His bright and indifferent eyes swept over to me casually yet seemingly deliberate. He met my eyes which had widened in shock by his abrupt movement. It was as if everything went without saying, like he understood all of it. Looking at me, a corner of his lips lifted slightly; an indecipherable smile spilled, flowing into my sight.
What are you thinking about? His eyes seemed to question.
Then… I averted my gaze. What about you? What are you thinking about?
"What are the two of you doing, exchanging affectionate looks instead of sleeping?" The hoarse and deep voice of Jiao S sounded from above me.
Startled by the intrusion, I was yanked back into reality. I tilted my head up to see Jiao S hanging down from the edge of the top bunk, her straight hair cascading down from the side of the bed, a pair of hollow eyes flitting from me to Nie Zun.
"Can you not scare others like that?" I rolled my eyes and straightened my back, trying to get into a more comfortable position.
Jiao S actually smiled for a moment; that rigid face of hers was still strange, but she seemed to be smiling a lot more these days and I've begun to grow accustomed to them.
"Seriously though, the two of you better get some rest. We don't know what awaits us tomorrow. Eastern District may be faring better; after all, I still have the S Clan. Western District has already fallen into the hands of the enemy, and you are still awake? Hurry up and rest so you can head back to regroup." Looking towards Nie Zun, she continued, "You too, Nie Zun, get some rest soon."
Nie Zun was surprisingly compliant. Nodding his head, he laid on the floor with a simple, "Alright."
I was taken aback. My gaze drifted from Nie Zun, who was already lying on his back with his eyes closed, to Jiao S who still had the slightest hint of a smile on her face. It has been a long time since I felt a rush of affection and for some reason, the sight warmed my heart tonight.
I smiled back. "Alright, I'm going to sleep now."
I managed to have a peaceful night of sleep without dreams and had just woken up when Jie Pa knocked on our door. Jiao S and Nie Zun were both awake.
"There are still three hours till daybreak, should we hurry on to the boundary lines?" Jie Pa asked while he made his way in. "What should we do about Mr Huan Qing though, do we bring him along?"
"Is Guan Nie watching over them now? Neither of them woke up?" I asked, rubbing the sleep from my eyes.
Jie Pa nodded. "They are still unconscious and from what I can tell, they probably will be for a long while. Mr Yu Liang is still missing, so it may be better that Ms Song Lu doesn't wake. She will be devastated if she finds out that we are retreating without searching for him."
Sitting on the bed, I couldn't help the slight jerk of my fingers when I processed Jie Pa's words. It will definitely be a difficult task heading back to the district; Nie Zun and I will have to protect Jie Pa, along with the unconscious Song Lu and Huan Qing. Once Jiao S and Guan Nie part with us at the Eastern District, the two of us will have the sole responsibility of keeping the three of them safe. I'm afraid that our ability may fall short of our ambitions, but if we don't try then I will never know what is going on in the Western District.
Besides, Old Man Fan is missing too.
Jiao S lowered her head in deep contemplation before speaking up. "How about this, Li Shen. Seeing as the current situation has made both retreat or advance difficult, why don't we adopt a tactic of neither?
"While I'm sure my Eastern District must have lost quite a few lives as the situation stands, I can still trust in S Clan's loyalty towards me. Since we are allies in this, I won't just sit idly by you and your companions' plight. So, how about this: come back to the Eastern District with me, I will gather the right people and we will decide what to do from there."
Noting my silence, she continued, "I know you're worried about the Western District and all that you hold dear, but your district may be suffering persecution by now. All around us are pitfalls waiting to drag us down; we really have no other option. We'll be worried if you returned to the Western District too.
"Li Shen, you know what kind of place the split zone is, you don't have time to take care of everyone. This is not the world we came from. Here, you have to learn to abandon them when you must because even if you don't, they won't survive in the long run if they don't learn to protect themselves. You don't even have time to protect yourself, much less their forever."
Nie Zun looked at me, his eyes flowing with an ink-black radiance. "She's right. I know you're worried about Old Man Fan, but you can't even save yourself now."
In a baffling way, I felt dispirited by their words. It wasn't like I had thought that much about it, but could it be that I had made my concerns this apparent? Burying my face in my hands, I conceded. "Fine, fine, fine. I'll listen; I'll do whatever you think I should do."
Jie Pa cut in, "Ms Jiao S, will you be able to use your whirlwind to transport both Mr Huang Qing and Ms Song Lu at the same time?"
Jiao S didn't answer his question immediately. Instead, she asked, "Why do you address everyone so formally?"
My lips curled upwards at once, my eyes held a teasing glint. "No no no, Nie Zun's the only exception to that."
Jie Pa straightened up, lifting his hand to adjust his glasses then spoke in his usual, respectful manner. "That's because I'm a gentleman."
Though Jie Pa was indeed a gentleman, but I couldn't help doing a spit-take as I watched such a composed person sing their own praises.
Jiao S smiled rigidly but I have learnt by now that these smiles came from the bottom of her heart. She waved a hand, "I'll go ahead and place those two unconscious people in my whirlwind, but this means that I'll need your protection on this journey back. After all, I'll have to spend a lot of MF to support them."
Tch, tch… Jiao S' coquettish behaviour was honestly unsettling.
Eventually, our discussion concluded and we left the academy in preparation to depart for Eastern District. Before we left, Jie Pa carefully stored a bottle with the huge beetle in his bag.
Walking along the Southern District in broad daylight, it was only natural that we would attract quite a bit of attention. After all, we have a 'beauty' like Guan Nie, Nie Zun in all his Dark Lord glory, along with Jiao S' Sadako cosplay.
Of course, if one must attest that I am equally attention-grabbing, then it must be due to my beauty and not those bright red hair or skirt of mine. (Passerby A flew backwards from the impact of my kick before he could get a word in.)
Split Zone 13
56 Long Time No See
We saw the silhouette of a man hurrying towards us from a short distance, not long after leaving the academy. Upon closer inspection, I recognized the person as Ku Fei, the young guy we met at Southern District's tea shop when we first arrived.
The cuffs of Ku Fei's sleeves were rolled up high, revealing his muscular arms. His thick and sharp brows were tightly knitted together like he was perturbed.
His eyes shone when they met mine and he rushed towards me immediately. "You—I heard from the others that you're the Western District commander, Li Shen. Do you remember me?" He waved both arms at me, his speech seemed a little slurred.
Noting his nervous disposition, I smiled and attempted to calm him down. "That's right, I'm Li Shen. Of course, I remember you. What's wrong? Why are you so anxious?"
Ku Fei blushed faintly, raising a hand to tousle his own hair, "Th—the last time… I heard from the neighbors that you came to look for me one of those nights, but I have no recollection of what happened then."
Recalling the night I was torn to pieces after falling down that pit, my lips twitched slightly. Heh, it's a good thing he doesn't remember. A good thing indeed.
He continued hastily, his eyes seemed to reflect his apprehension once more. "Actually, I figured you and your companions must have been pranked by Ms Mi Fu that night. And I… I know you hate her but she really is a good person, she didn't mean anything by it. I asked around about the child you were looking for—she wasn't the new toy that Ms Mi Fu had acquired, s-so can you… can you please not hurt her…?" His last sentence was spoken with even more caution than before.
I frowned. "Hurt her? Why would we hurt her?"
Nie Zun was the first to unravel the situation at hand. Emerging from the group, he flashed Ku Fei a smile as well. "Are you worried because Ms Mi Fu hasn't been seeking you out these days?"
Ku Fei nodded his head fervently. "She hasn't come by in a long time, and I heard… I heard that no one has seen her or her illusionist on the streets of Southern District either. I'm a little worried that she might be in some kind of danger…" He stole a glance towards me as he trailed off.
I choked back on my boiling anger. Do I really look like someone who would hold grudges over petty matters like this, to the extent of kidnapping a little girl?! (Passerby B interjected, "You do!") I rolled my eyes but witnessing at how ill at ease Ku Fei was, I replied patiently. "We didn't hurt her."
"Th, th-then…" Ku Fei grew even more anxious upon hearing that. "Then do you know where she and that illusionist went?"
We exchanged a look, at a loss for a suitable response. Eventually, it was Nie Zun who spoke up. "Ku Fei, calm down. Mi Fu shouldn't be in much danger, you should head back and tend to your tea shop. Perhaps she will return soon."
Disappointment filled his eyes. "Do you really not know where she is…?"
I couldn't bear to tell him the truth but Jiao S replied before I could, "We don't. In fact, we are returning to our respective districts now. You should head back as well."
Jiao S' voice had always been cold and hoarse, with her face clear of any emotions, but I knew she had Ku Fei's best interests at heart. After all, seeing how worried he is, there was no way we could delve into the stranger things that has been happening in the split zone.
"Alright then. Do come back if you have the chance, and be sure to drop by my shop for some tea." His smile was strained yet his words were filled with sincerity. Perhaps it was because of his overwhelming concern for Mi Fu that he looked glum even with a smile.
"Of course." Nie Zun gave him a pat on the shoulder before gesturing for us to leave with a shift of his eyes.
As I walked by Ku Fei, I couldn't help but glance sideways towards his young and energetic face, now filled with such a dispirited expression. I told myself to stop looking and just like that I walked right past him.
It was a short distance before Ku Fei called out to us again. He caught up to us, swiping his gaze over the group. "Uh… B-before, you… you mentioned about wanting to look for the commander? Did you manage to meet him?"
I shook my head.
Ku Fei furrowed his brows tighter. "Have you tried?"
I nodded. "We tried, but we couldn’t find him."
If at all possible, his frown seemed to deepen even further. "If that's the case, that means it's really—"
Without waiting for him to finish, Jiao S waved her hand impatiently. "That's your district's problem; whether it's your commander or that alleged goddess. Whatever the case, you should stop meddling with it. It's not something that is within your power anyway."
Once she was done, Jiao S reached for my hand and pulled, indicating that we should leave. There was nothing I could do about it. Following the others, we continued moving towards the boundary lines. From time to time, I would look back to the sight of Ku Fei standing at that same spot with his downcast eyes, and I would feel the urge to let out a long sigh. He had been such a young and energetic boy. What a pity, why did he insist on being so kind towards that stubborn and vicious Mi Fu?
At that thought, I recalled the old lady who claimed to be Ku Fei's grandmother, and nudged Nie Zun hurriedly. "Do you all remember Ku Fei's grandmother? She said that Mi Fu was a soul splitter. Do you reckon that's the reason Rong Jin and the others took her?"
Nie Zun did not say a word, but the expression in his eyes told me he was considering the possibility.
Jiao S answered instead. "But didn't Ku Fei say he didn't have a grandmother? I wonder if she was one of Huan Qing's illusions."
"Why would he feel the need to show us that?"
Jiao S shrugged. "We'll only get the answer to that question once he wakes."
I sighed inwardly but nodded.
The group returned to the boundary forest between Southern and Western District. Walking into the forest, the betrayal of You Ji was still vivid in my mind. I took a deep breath but didn't think the air within Southern District felt all that fresh. As we walked on, Jiao S came to an abrupt stop.
"What's wrong?" Perplexed by her actions, I looked over at her.
Her eyes grew gradually wider. "I feel a familiar aura but I can't put a finger on it. Somehow, I have a feeling we've left out something."
My heart jolted at her words. Indeed… Something feels amiss. But… What was it exactly?
"It's getting nearer…" All of a sudden, Jiao S' eyes snapped open.
Meanwhile I could feel a headache coming on—must something always go wrong whenever we enter the boundary forest? Seriously, did the boundary forest exist with the sole purpose of being our battleground?!
I secretly shook my head.
Jiao S stretched an arm out and gave me a light push. "Don't let your guard down. I really did sense an aura… a sort of familiarity I haven't felt in a long while."
Nie Zun piped up, "She must have a keen sense of intuition. Nevertheless, if there really is someone in close proximity, then who could it be…? Who could conceal their whereabouts when we've already sensed their presence?"
I observed my surroundings and did not find anything unusual, at least within the circumference of visibility I had in this boundary forest. With such dense forest all around us though, it was hard to tell.
Guan Nie yawned, bearing an air of indifference. "What's there to be afraid of? From what you've mentioned, those weirdos should be gathered at Si Luo's by now. Unless Si Luo is hiding in here, which I highly doubt. If those people aren't here, then there's nothing to be worried about with our numbers."
Is this… the theory of strength in numbers?
For some reason, I couldn't sense anyone approaching us but I did feel like we had forgotten something. This uncomfortable feeling of not knowing was akin to feeling a pea under those eighteen layers of mattress.
When Guan Nie brought up Si Luo, he looked towards Jiao S vaguely but she did not react. Her eyes was staring wide, frowning while she turned her stiff neck around to sweep the area around us.
"Perhaps you're too sensitive? Just as Guan Nie said, there's no reason for any of them to be here." I tried to adopt Nie Zun's method of comfort and moved to give her a pat on the shoulder.
However, just as I lifted my hand, my heart sank sharply. I remembered what we had forgotten. My eyes widened in gradual realization. At the same time, Jiao S seemed to have made a connection about the owner of that unnerving aura. She turned swiftly with a creak in her neck and looked at me.
When our eyes met, I knew… We were thinking of the same person.
She appeared before either of us had the chance to speak. She hadn't been hiding. Rather, she had always approached things from afar and in an unhurried manner. She drifted in from mid-air, at a slightly higher altitude above where we stood.
She always loved floating around like this since a long time ago. I could still remember her beautiful smile when she said to me, "Ah Shen, the split zone is actually pretty nice! Look, you can float like this, just like a flower."
She really did look like a flower.
Not the stereotypical, cheesy type of flower. More like a fusion of beauty and pureness from all the flowers in this world, like the queen of flowers. And at this moment, that was exactly what she looked like. Smiling that beautiful smile of hers, whirling around and floating like the wind, slowly drifting towards us.
Her black hair was coiled gorgeously into a bun at the top and flowing down her chest on the lower half, strands of it framing her face, lightly fluttering with the breeze. There were also those limpid eyes of hers. Where Guan Nie's beauty was coquettish, hers was soft and gentle. Just as I've said before, she was someone who could make others feel good simply with her presence.
She had always taken a liking to dressing herself in ancient costumes and she suited them well, looking much like the beauties in those tales of old. If she could travel back in time, she would have looked even more beautiful than she did in modern clothes. Right now, she wore an ancient garb and a yellow yarn dress. I recognized her—of course I did—but before I could call her name, Jiao S was already ahead of me.
Her eyes were slowly flooding with a complex loathing, her raspy and heavy voice sounded. “Li Wen. So it's true that you are still alive.”
Li Wen smiled gently, then glided to a spot not far away from us, landing light on her feet. A pair of plain, white cloth shoes softly touched the ground.
"Ah Shen, Jiao S, long time no see," she chimed, her voice drifting towards us along with her moving gaze.
Split Zone 13
57 I'm a Soul Splitter
I suppose I must have looked rather bewildered at that moment.
I wasn't able to gather myself on such short notice, nor could I put on an appropriate expression to face situation before me. What was even more awkward, was that even Jiao S had fallen silent. At the sight of that smile tugging along the corners of Li Wen's lips, the few of us stood under the grey, overcast sky in stillness.
I swear, this was the exact type of scenario I loathed the most. With a turn of my head, I attempted to seek Nie Zun's help but came to a halt at the unexpected sight of Jie Pa. With a push against his glasses, he made his way to Li Wen and extended a friendly handshake towards the gentle but stern woman.
"Long time no see, Li Wen. You've been missing for so long--where did you go? You didn't even pay us a visit."
Jie Pa spoke naturally, as though there was nothing abnormal with this interaction but what he said was indeed true. In Western District, Li Qing once thought very highly of Li Wen. I don't know how close Jie Pa and her had been, but to me… she and I were close enough to be sisters. Still, I didn't know what to say. Not when so much time had passed. Not when Jiao S had told me about Li Wen being Li Qing's soul splitter. Not when--above all of this--there was the lingering speculation that she might have been related to yesterday evening's incident.
Li Wen's lips moved slightly, her voice still soft. "Jie Pa, we've known each other for a long time now. If the intention behind your handshake is to sense my body constitution and compare them to that of Song Lu, then don't trouble yourself. That's precisely the reason I'm here today."
Jie Pa grew a little embarrassed but he calmly retracted his hand, nodding with a smile of his own.
Li Wen stroked the hair along her cheeks elegantly, her limpid eyes directing their gaze towards me. "Ah Shen, you must have a lot of questions, right?"
My lips moved as it attempted to search for all the right words to say, but it was futile; I didn't breathe a word.
Jiao S' hoarse voice resounded instead. "If you have something to say, then spill it! What's with the suspense?!"
Li Wen's gaze swept across to Jiao S. It was as though she had no memory of being stripped bare and humiliated in front of everyone by Jiao S; there was not a single trace of hatred or disgust in her eyes. In fact, she didn't even appear to pay Jiao S any mind at all. She merely swiped her gaze over to her leisurely, as one would to a bird up in a tree.
I turned my head to look at Jiao S. Her big eyes were staring once more and I could feel her dismal mood rising slowly.
"Ah Shen, I was the person you saw that day. I'm also the one who flung all those innocent people out of their windows and to their deaths." Li Wen's voice was smooth as water, and her tone light and casual as if this was just a casual heart-to-heart talk between girls.
Except this wasn't whispers spoken in confidence between teenage girls but an admission to her heinous crime. I finally found my voice. "How could you talk about them like they were nothing, Li Wen?"
Li Wen lowered her eyes gently then lifted them again with a smile. "Sometimes, there's nothing wrong with sacrificing the redundant in exchange for what's necessary. The purpose of my visit today is to warn you to stay out of it and stop meddling in this affair. I know about You Ji's betrayal; Western District is now in her control."
She stepped forward as she spoke, moving that slight bit closer to me. "Ah Shen, how could you be so careless? You gave You Ji so much time to prepare for her betrayal. All three of us survived under Li Qing's care and guidance, and after all that time together even I could see her for who she truly is. Why is it that you just can't seem to do that?"
There was no a hint of hesitation in my response this time. I parted my lips and looked at her without fear. "After all this time, neither have I seen you for who you really are, isn't that right?"
There was a flicker in Li Wen's eyes.
Jiao S scoffed. "What right do you have to mention Li Qing? If it wasn't for you, she would have been able to return to the real world a long time ago!"
It was as though Jiao S' words had gone unheard; Li Wen's gaze remained fixated on me. "Ah Shen, Li Qing left the Western District in your care. If that's your attitude, then perhaps You Ji should continue running the district."
"So you're on You Ji's side now?" I smiled, my eyes never leaving hers.
She reciprocated the smile. "How could I be? I'm just telling you that it's time you snap out of it."
"You used more than a hundred innocent lives, just to tell me that?" I was still smiling, yet there was an increasing hostility with every sentence.
Li Wen's soft eyes flickered once more. "When did you get this critical?"
With a slight lift of my head, I narrowed my eyes, my sardonic smile deepening. "Li Wen, I have always been like this. After such a long time, haven't you seen me for who I am?"
That's right, I have always been like this, Li Wen. Li Qing knows, as does Nie Zun, and even You Ji should too. But, do you?
In reality, I'm a weirdo with mind-splitting disorder. I'm that kid who couldn't gain the acceptance of others. Did you think I would be soft-tempered and beautiful like you? I'm afraid I will never be that.
Li Wen… I guess you never knew how envious I was of you. I was so envious of you and still, I liked you so much. Even through my jealousy I adored you; you were such a perfect person. I used to watch as you stood alongside Li Qing with that gentleness of yours against Li Qing's valiance. I imagined it countless times; if I could be just like you with that untainted disposition, could I then be worthy of Gao Qi?
But I can never be like you. Not even in my wildest dreams.
I am a strange woman filled with darkness and cracks. Before the split zone, there was practically no one who liked me apart from my parents. I admit that I'm trash, one who would envy the happiness of others. I had once been jealous of you too, yet somehow, when I saw Jiao S torturing you that day, there was a gnawing pain in my heart. It was so painful that it rendered me useless; all I could do was clutch my chest and kneel on the ground. That part of me… that is someone you would never understand no matter how long it took, right?
So, why do we even bother playing the blame game?
"Ah Shen, you've changed." Li Wen whispered. Her voice was as gentle as before but her smile was beginning to fade. Her eyes were smeared with an indiscernible sorrow. See, this is how easily you are able to touch a person's heart, even if your only weapons were those subtle gaze and gesture.
"It’s too boring to talk about that now." My smile mirrored hers, fading gradually and I let my eyes relax. "Let's talk about what's going on with the recent incidents instead."
Li Wen sighed. "Alright. Let me tell you about it then."
Then, she grew more grim. "All the incidents you've encountered recently were led by a broken-armed woman named Du Yue. Du Yue is from Northern District and none of you have ever met her because you don't know the secret to that district. However, I can't tell you much about that either. The only thing I can tell you, is that Du Yue came to Southern District for a massive experiment. If she succeeds, then many lives would be compromised."
Jiao S and I were unusually in sync, both without any questions. Li Wen continued with a sigh. "Now, her main subordinates executing this are You Ji and Rong Jin. They are planning to have two perfect body constitution to be used as the most powerful weapon for murder. One of them is the type of blood within Song Lu. Without exception, any damage caused by the blood-stained weapon could be fatal, even if it was the body of our consciousness in the split zone."
I frowned. "But it lost effectiveness when I attacked You Ji with the blood-stained Piercer."
Li Wen's lips parted again. "That because Song Lu wasn't the perfect specimen for experiment, just like me. Once her blood has left her body for more than ten minutes, it will no longer have the same effect. I'm the same--we are both failed experiments."
Jie Pa seemed to have reached an epiphany. "Which means to say, while your blood may be used to kill someone, it has a time-restriction?"
Li Wen nodded. "That's exactly right. I've been observing all of you in the dark. That is the reason for Song Lu's regurgitation of those poisonous insects. Those bugs with the same fuchsia color as the beetle--they are the offsprings of those leeches that fused with us."
Ugh… A sense of nausea rushed towards my chest. Offspring? Those beetles were the offspring of that long, oversized and repulsive centipede-like creature with the two pincers? Did it have to be this disgusting? And they were reproduced within Song Lu's stomach.
Li Wen seemed to notice my repulsion. "That's right, those things originated from the soul snatcher. Rong Jin snatched the souls of centipedes, leeches and crabs, and forcibly brought them into Split Zone No. 13. Through methods that even I have no understanding of, they refined them. Still, the abilities of a soul snatcher have limitations; they were unable to force the souls of organisms into this world unrestrictedly, which is why they thought of using the female body to conceive them.
"Of course, the body in the split zone cannot conceive but they are trying to devise a way. After all, only bodies projected by consciousness exist in this world--and they are the most realistic form of a body--so there's always a way to make the people here a subject to their experiment. Song Lu and I are among those people but I was the first to fail. Not only does my blood lose its effect within ten minutes of leaving my body, I was also unable to conceive those creatures."
Jiao S looked at her firmly. "Why?"
Li Wen returned her stare. "You should know. It's because I'm a soul splitter."
Even though Jiao S had already told me this, even though I've believed her all along, hearing Li Wen acknowledge the fact was still enough to startle me. There was an actual soul splitter standing right in front of me. Even those at the sidelines--Nie Zun, who had been casually leaning around, and Guan Nie who was fiddling with his hair--froze. Without moving, they glanced up at Li Wen.
Li Wen's lips arched into a smile again, her beauty enough to cause the fall of a city. "Yes, you heard that right. I'm a soul splitter… I'm Li Qing's soul splitter."
Following that, she turned around slowly, lifting up her yellow dress as she revealed the back of her snow-skinned waist. Her slender waist was displayed so casually but what captured my attention was the split symbol on it.
The back of her waist was imprinted with Li Qing's peach blossom-shaped symbol.
Split Zone 13
58 Don't Even Think About Taking Song Lu
After revealing her symbol, Li Wen rearranged her clothes unhurriedly before turning back around. "This is the truth. I am a soul splitter and so is that broken-armed woman. I don't know with whom her symbol corresponds, only that you won't be able to defeat her."
"The soul splitters we've been pursuing for so long have never made an appearance in the split zone and now, out of nowhere, there are two?" Jiao S scoffed. "How do you expect us to believe it?"
Li Wen smiled. "It doesn't matter either way. This is the truth. Every single person here has been to the hall of Northern District. Do you recall that there isn't a ceiling over it?"
At her words, the image came back to me at once. That's right. The hall had been almost a thousand square metres in size, surrounded by four slabs of snow-white porcelain walls. With the exception of the screen which could show real-time snippets of the real world, there was nothing else there. Looking ahead, the only thing you could see was a flood of blinding white light.
However, if you did look up, you would realise that there was no ceiling over it. The top of the hall was nothing but an infinite black hole. I had once pondered over it too but did not pay it much mind. Since the sky in the split zone is grey, I didn't bother dwelling on any other strange phenomenon that happens here. Back then, I had only lifted my head slightly; the hall looked as though it had been built at the bottom of a pitch-black pit, seemingly running endlessly deep. Even if you did lift your head to its full extent, you would not be able to spot the end of that tunnel. All you would be able to see… is total darkness.
"That black hole you saw is the habitat of soul splitters. Mr Blond can't reach it either. No one knows the secret to split zone's soul splitters; it's mere conjecture even on Mr Blond's part." Li Wen's gentle voice was strong and forceful at the same time, slapping us with these words of reality.
I deepened my frown. "If there is truly such a secret, then why are you telling us?"
With a faint smile, Li Wen replied. "I didn't say anything and I never will. I'm a soul splitter after all. The only thing I can tell you is that, if Du Yue succeeds with her experiment then a bloodbath in the split zone will not be far away."
My eyes widened. "This… What exactly is this experiment about?"
"There are two segments. One of them is the body constitution that would allow reproduction of these diabolical leeches and seamlessly infuse them with the body at the same time. Their blood will carry an eternal ability to damage those who come in contact with it, and the offsprings of those leeches will be the perfect specimen to continue on to their next subject. This is where Song Lu and I failed.
"Then, there's Laurel. Her experiment is on mental strength. Children have greater potential in honing their mental strength due to their young age, and they are easily manipulated and controlled. They want to create a child with high MF. Laurel was the first experimental subject who was near success, but the specific details aren't known since she ran away."
I clenched my first, my mind preoccupied by the words: Experimental subject… Experimental subject… how could they, Laurel is still so young!
"Why would they choose a soul splitter like you to conduct the experiment? Isn't that claim too far-fetched?" Jiao S sneered.
Li Wen shook her head in resignation. "I'm just their sacrificial lamb. They wanted to find out if a soul splitter's body was any different to a regular body of consciousness. In any case, I can't say anything more than that. The reason I'm here, is to take Song Lu away."
At her words, I firmly and immediately shook my head. "Don't even think about it! Li Wen, after all that you've spouted, your real motive had been to take her away?"
Li Wen stopped smiling, and looked me right in the eye. "Ah Shen, I know this is upsetting but you must hand Song Lu over to me. I'm still one of them which means two things. One, I have to bring her back to them and two, you will only end up getting her killed if she continues to stay by your side!
"Her body is imperfect. I suppose she only regurgitated those worms once? Did you think that will be the end of it? I trust you saw how she looked then, and it's going to happen again for a second or third time but never more than that. After the third, there's no doubt that she will be die. Even if it's to continue the experiment, the only way we can save her is for me bring her back."
"No! Absolutely not! Don't even think about it!" I was practically screaming those words. I can never forget about that day outside that stone wall; because of my hesitance and cowardice, I saw for myself the torture they put Song Lu through. Apart from Li Qing, Song Lu was the one person who was kindest to me, who treated me well. I will never condemn her to that hellhole again!
As I screamed, a wisp of red hair swept across my face and stuck itself to my quivering lips. Song Lu was still here, right by my side, yet for some reason it felt as though I had just been robbed of my dearest treasure. The image of Song Lu covered in blood that day, her sunken eyes, her flesh relentlessly torn apart by those poisonous insects to such an extent where she was unable to even let out a proper cry. That image… For the past few days, I hadn't even the strength to recall them.
No… I will not allow that to happen again!
I bit down on my bottom lip harshly and the taste of blood spread across the tip of my tongue.
Li Wen looked as if she was caught between a rock and a hard place. "It doesn't matter if you believe what I've said or not. Regardless, you'll have to return to your own districts now. As far as I'm concerned, they're still lacking something and will not be able to complete the experiment immediately. Please stay united no matter what; only with the alliance of the Western and Eastern Districts will you have even a glimmer of hope at winning."
All of a sudden Guan Nie, who had thus far stayed silent, stopped toying with his hair and directed his words at Li Wen. "If everything is as you say, then I'd like to know more about that broken-armed woman, Du Yue. Why is she looking for Si Luo?"
The look in Li Wen's eyes shifted at the mention of Si Luo and I grew alert as well. Why is everyone connected to Si Luo in some way?
As I was stuck in my musings, Li Wen had already started her response. "I can't answer that. I can only tell you about the things you have to be on guard against. There's not much time left--please hand Song Lu over to me."
Without warning, Jiao S started laughing hysterically. "Li Wen, I see you're still as cunning as ever! When all is said and done, aren't you just afraid you'd get decapitated by the broken-armed woman if you don't return with Song Lu?"
Li Wen, who had always been gentle and pure, suddenly let out an alluring laugh. "Decapitated? I'm a soul splitter, Jiao S. Have you forgotten? Only Li Qing's split key would be able to kill me, but Li Qing… As you know—"
Before she could even finish her sentence, Jiao S was already glaring. "I won't allow you to sully her name!"
A sudden storm surged, the influx of air howled and columns of whirlwind charged towards Li Wen. I have grown so accustomed to the unpredictable attacks of those with control over airflow that by this time, no matter how much I swayed unsteadily against the storm, my expression remained relaxed. For some reason, I had a random thought: Gust and gale however they pleased--the boundary forest was sturdy enough anyway.
Perhaps I was trying to conceal my worries about our situation. Whether it was Li Wen trying to take Song Lu away, or the fact we may be forced to fight Li Wen at some point--neither was a scenario I was willing to confront. Somehow, since arriving at Split Zone No. 13, I've always been forced into this type of situation.
Just when I was feeling a little down, Jiao S pulled out her sword with lightning speed and sprung towards Li Wen.
"Don't even think about taking any of us!" Jiao S' shout was unusually loud, and with her hoarseness it sounded almost gruff.
I was taken aback for a moment--not because of the harsh tone of her voice, but that she had used the word 'us'.
Even in face of Jiao S' attack, Li Wen was unperturbed. Her black hair fluttered loose in the wind and danced in the air, her cheeks tugged with the hint of a smile. As Jiao S rushed at her with sword in hand, Li Wen's plain shoes tapped the ground below and, lithely, she leapt.
In mid-air, Li Wen's red lips parted and she spoke easily. "Since you chose to fight with a sword, then let me show you mine too!" Just as the words left her, she reached back with her right hand and pulled out a slender sword from thin air. Her expression was graceful and calm, as though what she's holding wasn't a sword sharp enough to wound but a peaceful dove.
We spent quite a bit of time together in the past but I have never seen her wielding a sword.
A feeling of unease filled my heart but I couldn't be bothered with worrying any longer. Holding up the bow that was slung on my back, I set my sight on Li Wen with the three arrows. "Li Wen, if you insist on fighting her, then don't blame me for this!"
Just as I was about to fire, Jiao S' sword had already struck. Li Wen ignored me; instead, her gentle lips were curved into a cold arc. With light movements, her slender sword sliced in both horizontal and vertical strokes, drawing the shape of a plus sign.
Following her strikes, something akin to a cross materialized in the air and like a shield, it blocked the razor light that came from Jiao S’s attack. Jiao S reeled backwards as it deflected the attack back onto her faster than it had before. Jiao S arced her body backwards in haste, the light just grazing the tip of her nose.
From the impact of the contact, Jiao S fell back onto the ground. Stumbling a few steps back, I could see blood gradually flowing from her nose but the arrows in my hand never left. I clenched my teeth, watching Li Wen who had floated way up high.
Li Wen was never able to fly this high in the past because that would exhaust a great amount of MF. Yet, seeing her now, I realized that even as a soul splitter, she must have been hiding her real potential all this while.
She didn’t give me extra time to think either; with a smirk, she lifted the slender sword again and drew another three crosses in the air. Then, along with the first giant shield from before, those four shields fell from the sky without warning. Sensing the threat that rang in my subconscious mind, I immediately pulled out the Piercer with my left hand.
The first cruciform shield which attacked Jiao S had seemingly gained sight as it adjusted its direction like a homing missile and began charging towards me.
Crack! I waved the Piercer with immense strength and a flash of violet light shot forward.
Thump! Deflected by the shield, the violet light ricocheted towards me again. I jumped away from attack and the shield leapt along with me into mid-air. The other three giant shields seemed to come alive too, starting their attack towards Jiao S, Nie Zun and Guan Nie respectively.
No matter how I dodged, the cruciform shield followed closely at my heels without slowing down. I didn't know what would happen if I collided against it and any attack will only be deflected… All I could do is to keep evading.
Split Zone 13
59 War at Sea
In the midst of dodging, Guan Nie leapt, his white hair flowing behind him. With a glance, he overflowed with grace. "I hate fighting and the like; they are not beautiful at all! You're very beautiful yet you chose to do such unbeautiful things, so don't blame my beautiful self for being discourteous!"
His words went right over my head; forget about that tongue-twister, did he really have to refer to himself as 'my beautiful self'?!
Guan Nie squinted his almond eyes and shouted, "Sleep!"
What?? What is he playing at? Sleep… What sleep?! Sleep where, with who?
To hear such a ridiculous cry coming from him in the middle of this constant evasion, at such a time of confusion, it was a moment before I suddenly realized our surroundings had changed drastically. In an instant, the boundary forest disappeared and was instead replaced by the vast ocean. Countless rocks lined upon the sea and each of us stood upon a different piece.
I haven't seen the ocean in such a long time, it was with uncontrollable awe that I stayed stupefied by the sight. Could it be… that this is an illusion? If it truly is an illusion, I suddenly wished to never wake up.
A wave crashed against the rock underneath my feet.
The giant shields were gone. Just as the rest of us, Li Wen was standing atop a rock not far away from me, the slender sword in her hand had vanished. I looked around me: except for the absence of Guan Nie, everyone else was in the same position, each standing on a different rock. Above us the sky was still grey but the water beneath us was a sea of dark blue.
Li Wen stopped smiling, her eyes taking in the new surroundings with a cursory glance. "An illusion?"
It seemed Jiao S didn't intend to dwell on that possibility nor had she planned to give Li Wen a breather. She narrowed her eyes and waves after waves of airstream surged from the surface of the sea.
Caught between the drastic tumbling of airflow, I wobbled on my spot. From a distance away, I could see Jie Pa balancing unsteadily as well and grew worried. If it was true that you could get hurt even in an illusion, then in Jie Pa's vulnerable state--with the body of a regular person from the real world--there was no way he could fight this battle at sea!
Before I was done fretting, Nie Zun had already begun jumping his way towards Jie Pa along the lined rocks. He grabbed onto Jie Pa with an outstretched arm and the latter immediately flashed a grateful smile. With Nie Zun by Jie Pa's side, there was not much left to be anxious over.
Securing my Piercer back into the waistband of my dress, I took aim at Li Wen with my bow. Jiao S' airstream had raised giant tides which were now charging towards Li Wen. Billows of water vapor hissed in the air--there was simply no way I could take aim!
Li Wen curled her lips. "Combining the power of illusion with your air manipulation? He lives up to his reputation indeed; I have long heard rumors that the skill of Eastern District's Guan Nie is on an equal footing with Southern District's top illusionist!"
Right after her high praises, she pulled both hands from her dress and made an intersection with her arms, into the shape of a cross. "Fall!" With her soft command, the sky began raining innumerable cruciform swords. Although they appeared smaller than the shields, all four points of the sword were extremely sharp.
With nowhere to hide from the attack, I held up the Piercer and braced myself in deflecting any falling swords. At the speed they were dropping, however, it seemed this would be a difficult task to follow through.
Jiao S yelled out suddenly, "Freeze!"
Bang, bang, bang!
At the sound of her shout, layers of water vapor solidified rapidly over our heads. Still, it was apparent that the intensity of the cruciform swords' fall was powerful as layer after layer of frozen vapor shattered upon impact.
A violent storm was whirling in Jiao S' eyes. As her black hair whipped behind her, it was obvious that she was exhausting a extensive amount of MF just to protect us.
The frozen layers of vapor above Nie Zun were splintering as well. He retained an arm around Jie Pa as his lips pulled into a smirk, slowly bringing his free gloved hand to his slightly pale lips then pressed them around the tip of fabric around his middle finger. Before he was done with his delicate movement, the surface of the water around us suddenly swelled into huge waves.
Countless waves lashed themselves towards the sky, smashing the remaining barriers into smithereens along with the cruciform swords. Relentlessly, the waves rushed and in a blink of an eye the swords were all thrusted out of sight.
Li Wen bit her lips lightly at the scene before her, face tinted with restrained anger. "Guan Nie, it seems that I won't be able win this battle without escaping your illusion first."
She shut her eyes abruptly, then exclaimed again, "Shatter!"
The myriad of cruciform swords appeared once again from all directions but instead of attacking us, they formed a ring and tore away at full speed towards the far corners of our surrounding.
"Let's see how expansive an illusion you're capable of constructing--I refuse to believe I won't be able to destroy it!" Right as she finished speaking, the swords seemed to collide with the edge, emitting a continuous cacophony of banging.
All of a sudden, a devilish laughter rang out from the skies. "Actually, the rumor isn't all that accurate; saying I'm on equal footing with the number one illusionist in Southern District isn't all that true but—Ah, but what about it? Heh… Why don't you witness it for yourself?"
In the distance, the tumbling sound of endless tsunamis seemed to roll in from the edge of the shattered illusion. I couldn't see them clearly, and neither did I understand what was happening. In the midst of the air turbulence and waves, I was only focused on staying steady on this rock. On the other hand, Nie Zun's gaze seemed hold a gleam of strange anticipation. He stopped clamping the glove between his lips and had instead grabbed the unstable Jie Pa with both hands.
Li Wen's expression shifted upon hearing the distant roaring. "Are you able to manipulate elements of nature now? Without bounds? That's not possible, my cruciform swords collided with the edge of your illusion earlier!
"But… ehehe… Even if I'm not powerful enough to attack an illusionist, aren't you underestimating me a little too much, Guan Nie?" Li Wen murmured under her breath, raising both arms up high at the same time. The action heralded the arrival of an endless number of giant cruciform swords from the bottom of the sea.
Their emergence caused the surface to shake once more and I swayed along with the momentum. Just like before, we weren't the target of those giant swords. Instead, they soared upwards towards the grey sky. In the midst of my swaying, I could see Nie Zun lifting a hand, still wearing his black glove. He was gazing intently at one of the swords not far behind me, shooting towards the sky like all the others. He reached a hand towards the sword with an open palm and suddenly curled his fingers into a tight grip.
I looked back in haste--the sword had changed direction with Nie Zun's gesture and rushed towards him instead. Witnessing the scene, shock swept across Li Wen's eyes. Attracted to Nie Zun's unknown magnetism, the giant sword whistled as it whizzed past me.
Right before it reached Nie Zun, he jerked his hands in another direction and an even more inconceivable thing happened. It was as though his hand could stretch limitlessly to wield that giant sword as the weapon began altering its direction on his whim. This time it flew in a spiral, like the darts in movies and it rushed towards Li Wen.
"Such a minor trick!" Li Wen scoffed. Lifting her right hand, the slender sword appeared again. She drew a cross in front of her chest vigorously and her shield materialized once more. The cruciform sword charged decisively towards it.
My mind was filled with trivially irrelevant thoughts: Was this a contest between the strongest sword and the strongest shield? Which would win?
However, reality soon hit when the sword collided against the shield--it swiftly rebounded back at Nie Zun. Still, he looked as composed as ever; from the corner of my eyes, I caught a glint of wicked slyness flashing across his. With an effortless flick of his wrist he deflected the sword just as it was about to graze him.
It was then that I suddenly realized Jiao S had snuck up behind Li Wen without my knowledge.
She raised the sword high above her head and in that instant, it grew tenfold in size and into the image of a large sword. Jiao S hacked towards the back of Li Wen's head with immense strength, seemingly without hesitation. By the time Li Wen tore her eyes from Nie Zun and reacted to Jiao S' attack, the sword was already by the top of her head.
My face twitched. What was deal about bringing a gun loaded with those mental inhibitor bullets when we first arrived, then? These people… Once they have activated their split symbol, they gained the ability to manipulate the elements of nature. What use would a gun be towards them?
Just as Jiao S' sword was about to strike Li Wen's forehead, something hit me.
Li Wen's a soul splitter--does that mean she possesses the same powers as us? Could she activate her split symbol? Did she have a splitting key? I didn't see one when she revealed her symbol to us… Did that mean her powers were not activated? If that's the case… then it means all her current strength was in spite of an unsplit symbol.
I shuddered, but there was no need to ponder any further--Jiao S' sword had relentlessly split Li Wen into half.
Puuu! Fresh blood splattered.
Jiao S did not hold back nor did she hesitate. From head to toe, she sliced Li Wen into clean halves and the once beautiful Li Wen was not even remotely as charming anymore. Her eyes were now in separate bodies while fresh blood spouted from each side. The seemingly endless sprays of blood stained the rocks and ocean, before the droplets were soon swallowed by the sea, gone without a trace.
That was a truly gruesome style of fighting, Jiao S… I felt sickened just thinking about it. That's definitely not the style for me.
Of course, Li Wen would definitely heal. Which was why, when both parts of her body collapsed against the rock, Jiao S called out, "Jie Pa!"
Jie Pa stood not too far away alongside Nie Zun, and he seemed to understand Jiao S' intention. He lifted both hands calmly and faced the slowly healing body of Li Wen with a gesture that signified stop. He whispered a soft, "Seal!"
Just like that, the two halves of Li Wen's body stopped moving mid-way through healing. My vision was suddenly overwhelmed by the gruesome sight of her body. Her lower body had completely healed and was covered in fresh blood, but anything above her waist had stopped its recovery and remained a huge crack. Li Wen's face was likewise split into two. With her torso teetering on her lower body, it made her exceptionally horrifying to look at.
Yet Li Wen's lips, which had not managed to reconnect, were still able to move. Her eyes seemed to move with them.
"You… You really are belittling me."
I couldn't tell if the tugging at her lips was a smile; with her split into halves, there was simply no way of telling if she was smiling or crying.
Split Zone 13
60 The Worst Battle
The split lip that was decorated with dried blood twitched began singing a sharp tune, "Yi~ Ah~ Ci~ Ah~ Yi~" The bizarre sound seemed to have a sort of melody to it but the unusually piercing tune became increasingly intense, spreading through the air.
I couldn't help covering my ears at the sound. As I brought my hands to my ears, I saw Jie Pa growing unstable; judging by the change in expression, his enchantment doesn't seem to be holding up either. A loud thump sounded. While it wasn't clear exactly what had shattered, Li Wen's body was beginning to heal again.
Li Wen, now fully healed, was still drenched in fresh blood. The ruthlessness of scarlet red bloodstains, stark against her tender and affectionate gaze, was contrasting but alluring in its own way, exuding an almost blinding charm. The smile she wore was a mix of both cruelty and warmth as she slowly got to her feet. Jiao S who had landed behind her, made haste to retreat back to her own piece of rock, clearly sensing the danger in our current situation.
Li Wen straightened up with a smile, then continued with the piercing tune. "Yi~ Ah~ Ci~ Ah~ Yi~" The strange melody seemed to be infused with MF, causing a stabbing pain to spread from my eardrum all the way to the heart.
Jie Pa was the first to cover his ears and crouch. The storm brewed in Jiao S' eyes and her brows were knitted together. Nie Zun, on the other hand, was bent at his waist supporting Jie Pa but maintained his gaze on me.
"… Ci~ Ah~"
The horrifying tune was intensifying; my heart felt like there was a needle stabbing at it relentlessly. Between my eardrum and my heart, it was as though a piece of rope was tugging hard. Following the melody's growing ferocity, the rope was likewise getting tighter, threatening to snap at any moment. I gritted my teeth; the tune was too much to bear and I was slowly reaching my limits. With both hands, I cupped them tightly around my ears.
Li Wen remained at the same spot, her smile still tender yet merciless when suddenly she widened her mouth and began singing even louder.
"Yi~ Ah~ Ci~ Ah~ Yi~!"
"Yi~ Ah~ Ci~ Ah~ Yi~!"
"Ah—!" I couldn't help crying out at the profound shot through the heart, the gnawing pain made me hunch over. The last image engraved in my mind was of Nie Zun and Jiao S, both crouched over in agony, neither of whom was able to endure this strange melody.
"Yi~ Ah~ Ci~ Ah~ Yi~!"
"Yi~ Ah~ Ci~ Ah~ Yi~!"
I attempted a step forward but even the slightest movement seemed to tear my heart into shreds. Quickly realizing that covering my ears did nothing to stop the piercing tune's effect, I let my hands fall from my ears and tried going for my bow again. The moment I shifted my hands, I felt the prickling, sharp pain in my ears.
Both my inner ears seemed to have erupted in fresh blood. My head was buzzing and even my sight started to blur.
The sharp tune was still getting stronger and I finally reached my breaking point. Falling to my knees, a mouthful of fresh blood escaped my lips and I struggled to look towards Nie Zun. He had both hands wrapped around Jie Pa's ears and seemed to be exhausting his MF in order to protect the other man from harm. Perhaps that was why, even when Jie Pa looked miserable, he wasn't bleeding from any of the seven openings in his head. It was a relief to see Jie Pa, who no longer could heal like us, almost unscathed.
(T/N: Seven openings include 2 for the eyes, 2 for the ears, 2 for the nostrils and 1 for the mouth)
Nie Zun wasn't as lucky; both his eyes and ears were spilling with blood but he was still unruffled, as though the liquid oozing out of his eyes wasn't actually blood but mere eye drops. He was looking at me and as my eyes were continued dripping with blood, it left my vision clouded in bright red. I was beginning to lose sight of his gaze.
Turning around, I looked towards Jiao S who mirrored my position on the ground. It seemed that the melody was prohibiting her from controlling the airflow--in a vicious repetition, her eyes would fog up with mist before it cleared again. Streams of blood slowly flowed from both her mouth and ears as well.
The excruciating pain worsened and spread itself all over my head and heart. After a few failed attempts at raising my hand with intention of wiping the blood from my eyes, I gave up and laid semi-paralyzed upon the rock.
Li Wen maintained her elegant smile, the corner of her lips covered in blood as she continued singing.
"Yi~ Ah~ Ci~ Ah~ Yi~!"
"Yi~ Ah~ Ci~ Ah~ Yi~!"
The sky of the illusion seemed to tremble with a rumbling start, and the roaring waves of the ocean seemed to gradually subside into tinier swells.
"Guan… Guan Nie…" Jiao S wanted to call out to him but she couldn't contend with the destructive singing--a spurt of blood sprayed from her mouth instead.
Li Wen stopped her singing at that, smirking at Jiao S who was now lying prostrate on another rock. "This Demonic Tune can cut through an illusion and into Guan Nie's ears. No matter where he's hiding now, he would have issues taking care of himself. Are you still counting on him to save you?"
"Li—Li… ugh…" I pressed a hand to my chest and hurled another mouthful of blood. "Li… Li Wen, why are you…"
Li We turned her focus to me. "Li Shen, I've already told you this. You won't be able to protect any of them. Give Song Lu to me."
Distracted by her conversation with me, Nie Zun took advantage of the short period of pause; with his attention focused on the piece of rock beneath Li Wen's feet, he winked his left eye lightly. Even as more blood dribbled from his eye from that small action, he remained quiet and calm.
Li Wen staggered as the rock under her feet promptly exploded into innumerable fragments. She was quick in stabilizing herself. With a touch of her plain shoes, she floated in the air once more and the fragments of rock sank slowly into the sea.
While she was caught up in her moment of shock, I lifted my bow and shot two arrows towards her eyes without hesitation. When she looked back, the set of double arrows flew from my bow and whizzed into her eyes.
Blood squirted from them but she seem unfazed, the corner of her lips still sported that same smile. "Li Shen, you really haven't changed that preference for shooting other people’s eyes." When she said this, she reached up to pluck out the arrows.
Laying on the ground, Jiao S whipped her head up and clenched her teeth. The storm in her eyes was back as she stared intently at Li Wen.
The two columns of airstream appeared out of nowhere and pushed against the two arrows still in Li Wen's eyes, instantly plunging them through her head. Li Wen stumbled backwards in the air, her mouth grew rigid from the pain caused. The shattered sky and calm sea from before started shaking once more. This time from the wrath of Guan Nie.
Boom, boom, boom!
A colossal wave arose from behind Li Wen.
Li Wen tilted her head as though she sensed the changes to the surface of the sea. She bit her lip, angered. Without a care for the arrows in her eyes, she parted her lips and practically screamed out the tune. With her increased volume, I collapsed against the rock at the very first note of the Demonic Tune, unable to resist the damage it caused and began heaving huge mouthfuls of blood.
Rumble… Bang, bang bang!
Like the image of towns and markets of an oasis during an earthquake, the illusion began disintegrating with a crashing sound. It was as if we were in a stereoscopic mirror before. As our surroundings became fragmented and the sea gradually disappeared, the scenery of the boundary forest was revealed once again.
I continued expelling mouthful after mouthful of blood, glancing up from my position on the ground. Enshrouded among the bloodied rays of light, I reaffirmed that we were back into the forest. Guan Nie was sitting atop a tree not far away, his cascading white hair stained with his own blood.
There was a trailing bloodstain by the corner of his lips, his eyes flashing a cold glint of viciousness. He had a hand to his chest and another supporting his weight against the tree trunk. The others were the same as me, spewing blood onto the ground in misery. Nie Zun's hands never left Jie Pa; even when Jie Pa was likewise puking mouthful of blood, his other features seemed unmarked.
Li Wen floated in the air, tossing the two arrows she had just yanked from her eyes onto the ground. She looked towards Guan Nie, "Your MF is strong enough indeed. Even my Demonic Tune couldn't make you fall?"
Guan Nie let out a sardonic laugh. The bloodstain along his lips seemed to be dripping with fresh blood again. "MF? No one here has a weak MF but none of us could have prepared against something we've never seen before. Did you really think you're all that capable?"
Sprawled on the ground, I grinded my teeth. Why isn't my MF sufficient enough to turn myself invisible? Is it because my split symbol hasn't been activated?
Li Wen raised the sleeve to her yellow dress and wiped her mouth gently. “Come on, Guan Nie. I'm not capable? I have yet to activate my split symbol and yet, the Demonic Tune was already enough to reduce all of you to this state. Do you still think I won't be able to handle the few of you on my own?"
Guan Nie's stiffened at her words.
Jiao S scoffed from her position on the ground. "If I hadn't promised Si Luo about not using that particular skill, do you really think you could still be standing this obnoxiously in front of us?"
Li Wen smiled. "Jiao S, you still wouldn't be able to deal any real damage to me. Ah, all of you."
At that, she whirled around towards Nie Zun who still had his hands around Jie Pa's ears as a precaution. "Nie Zun, that ability just now… was that a form of force, a skill controlled by the pupils?"
There was still a track of blood from when it flowed from his eyes earlier, as with the corner of his lips. When Li Wen called his name, his indifferent eyes swept a fleeting glance at her but he did not answer. Seeing as Nie Zun bore no intention of responding to her, Li Wen laughed scornfully but did not attempt to force a reply.
Instead, she turned gracefully around and the slender sword appeared in her hand again, casting it towards Jiao S. The action came so unexpectedly that even Jiao S had no time to react before she let out a hiss. Just like that, the slender sword was thrusted into Jiao S' back.
Jiao S spewed a gush of blood, furrowed her brows and glared. Just as she seemed to move towards tugging the sword from her back, shock filled her eyes.
"Stop using your MF. Do you really think you won't exhaust your MF once you've activated your split symbol? The layers of protective barriers you cast over them in the illusion used up an extensive amount of natural elements, and now you won't be able to regain your MF for a period of time. You'll need time… but this Parting Sword of mine will absorb your MF and restrict such behavior!"
Following her words, as though the stealth enchantment had lost effectiveness, two other people appeared from thin air and fell to the ground; they were the still unconscious Song Lu and Huan Qing!
Li Wen spared a glance at the two who lay motionless on the ground, then smiled. “See, your MF isn't even enough to support that airflow dimension of yours anymore."
Jiao S clenched her teeth tightly, a deep hatred evident in her eyes.
Split Zone 13
61 A Difficult Choice
My own head and heart were beginning to heal while Jiao S was trapped on the ground. Just as I started to get up, the silhouette of a man dashed out from the jungle--out of nowhere, Ku Fei emerged. His eyes were washed with anger when he stared at me. "Li Shen, you lied to me?!"
He glanced over at Huan Qing then rushed to his side, supporting the unconscious man on himself and glowered at me once more. "You did have something to do with Lord Huan Qing and Ms Mi Fu's disappearance! It was a good thing I followed all of you in secret. I even took a long time searching for you when you disappeared out of the blue!"
I was just about to speak when Li Wen got there before me, her brows creased. "You've been following them all this while? That means to say, you've been there all along until we disappeared? So you heard everything we spoke about earlier?"
Ku Fei was stunned at the fact that the beautiful Li Wen was speaking to him, but he quickly gathered himself and responded immediately. "Yeah, but what was the deal about all of that? I can't be bothered about anything else, I just want to know the whereabouts of Ms Mi Fu. Where have you people taken her?"
Li Wen's eyes flashed with an indecipherable delight. My heart sank.
Sure enough, Li Wen worked MF suddenly, "Fall!"
In that instant, a cruciform sword fell from the sky and drove towards Ku Fei. At the same time, Li Wen lifted a hand and dug her nails into the pulse of her other wrist. Blood sprayed from the punctured wrist and as the sword flew past her in mid-air, she coated it with her blood.
No… That's not good. She's planning to send him to his doom! Her fresh blood was enough to let Ku Fei lose his healing abilities. I reacted at once, stumbling to my feet with full intention of rushing forward but there wasn't enough time. The sword was going to plunge itself into Ku Fei and Huan Qing any second now.
All of a sudden, there was a flash of movement and they… they actually disappeared! With a thump, the sword stabbed straight into the ground instead.
I hadn't caught Ku Fei's movement at all. In the midst of my shock, I saw Ku Fei carrying Huan Qing in his arms, having dodged to the other side of the attack. Ku Fei's eyes were filled with rage, but both his arms held onto Huan Qing steadily.
Li Wen was obviously bewildered, "How did you—Your speed could actually surpass my cruciform sword? Who are you?"
Ku Fei was fuming with anger. "What do you mean who am I?! What's so difficult about dodging that giant sword of yours? I've never met anyone who could run faster than me! And while we're talking about that—are you crazy, woman?! I heard the talk about you being a soul splitter, which means you're not associated with Li Shen and the rest, so why in the world did you attack me?!"
Li Wen stared wide-eyed at the mention of her being a soul splitter. "Because you've heard things you shouldn't!"
Ku Fei leapt further away from Li Wen with Huan Qing in his arms. "Who cares about all that? I just want to know where Ms Mi Fu is!"
I replied hastily, "Ku Fei, listen to me. We weren't the ones who hurt Huan Qing, we brought him along to save him! You didn't see it when we disappeared but we were the ones who concealed his presence so we could prevent this woman from hurting him! Mi Fu was also taken by them!" I declared loudly, pointing to Li Wen.
Yet Ku Fei only shook his head furiously. "Stop lying to me! I'm not going to believe any of you--I'm taking Lord Huan Qing away!"
He had probably realized there was no way he could go up against us all by himself, and so with his words he fled in haste into the deeper end of the forest. Li Wen swung her sleeves with full intention of chasing after him, but with a wave of his hand Guan Nie obstructed her sight with a puff of fog.
Li Wen glared at Guan Nie and halted in her steps, lifted a hand and waved it downwards again. With that movement, the sword she had stuck into Jiao S let out a violent, raucous wail.
I twisted my head towards Jiao S and saw the sword in her back glowing in a blinding light. All at once Jiao S' eyes widened, as though she was enduring some form of torment.
Just as I was about to rush over, Li Wen spoke up coldly, "Li Shen, one more step and I will leave her in such an overwhelming agony, she'd rather die. My Parting Sword can absorb MF and forcefully drag it out of her. She's already regaining MF at a slower pace too. With the combination of the two, I suppose, I can completely damage her mental strength at any time. If you dare take another step forward, I will leave her forever wrecked in paralysis!"
I bit my lips, my enlarged eyes turned to glower at Li Wen, an arrow already locked and aimed at her.
Li Wen merely smiled at the bow in my hands. "Li Shen, recklessness won't do you any good. Look at your situation now--none of you can resist my Demonic Tune in this state. Even if you were able to, with just a shift of my hand, Jiao S' mental strength will be completely exhausted by my Parting Sword. I presume you didn't know about this before but her split symbol is also on her back… and my Parting Sword is now jabbed right into it, able to completely destroy her MF at my whim! Even if it's not stained with my blood and I'm unable to kill her, she will still remain paralyzed for the rest of time.
"And you… Are you confident that you'll be able to kill me in the split second before I drop my arm?"
My lips had already been injured from my biting and was slowly beginning to mend, but I didn't give it the chance. I continued chewing till it split open once more. I honestly had no idea what else I could do to vent this misery in my heart.
There was a dull aching along the rim of my eyes, I suppose the damage caused by her Demonic Tune had yet to be fully recovered, but I couldn't bother with such insignificant pain and attempted to widen my eyes even more to glare at Li Wen.
Li Wen had already lifted her arm slightly, a gentle smile on her face. "Look at the people around you."
Following her words, I looked towards Nie Zun who remained by Jie Pa's side, both hands protecting him and prepared to shield the man from any attack that might threaten him. On the other side, Guan Nie sat atop the tree, the blood along his lips had yet dried and with his almond eyes, he stared intently at Li Wen's back.
"None of you here are confident that you'll be able to subdue me before I drop my arm, right?" Li Wen chuckled.
Jiao S gasped, obviously using all her might to keep from crying out in pain. The split symbol is the most important part of our body in the split zone; it is where our mental strength converged. To have your split symbol pinned down by such a MF weapon… I can't imagine the kind of pain she must be going through.
I could hear wheezing from Jiao S who was still lying on the ground, her hoarse voice travelled from behind me, "No, no, no. Don't bother about me."
I clenched my teeth.
Li Wen's smile became even gentler. "Li Shen, there's really no need for us to be like this. I never had the intention of injuring any of you, so why are you even doing this? All I wanted was to take Song Lu away. I promise, as long as you allow me to take Song Lu away without a hitch, I will not hurt Jiao S."
I took a look at the unconscious Song Lu. Her wavy hair had slightly covered her pale face and her eyes were still a little sunken. She was lying quietly on the ground, unaffected by the unrest and bloodbath around her.
Song Lu, if you are dreaming… Then, is the world within that dreamland more peaceful than it is here?
Tears streamed from my eyes.
"Ah—!" With the slight lowering of Li Wen's arm, Jiao S was finally unable to restrain herself as a strangled cry escaped, her voice was hoarse and shrill. How I wished I could just rush towards Li Wen and tear her into shreds, yet, for Jiao S' sake, I mustn't move a single step.
I spoke through gritted teeth, "Li Wen, it seems the time we spent together was too short. If I had known that you were such a character, I would have cheered and applauded back when Jiao S was tearing you apart in front of everyone!"
There was a fleeting look of dejection in Li Wen's eyes, but it was gone soon enough and she fitted her smile again. "Think whatever you want. If you can't bear to let Song Lu return as an experiment subject, then you'll have to pay the price. If you can't bear to hurt Jiao S, then you'll lose Song Lu. Li Shen, this is the split zone--what right do you have to be a commander if you can't grasp this simple logic? Seeing you like this, don't you think Li Qing would be bitterly disappointed?"
Jiao S who had been panting behind me shouted in her gruff voice, "Don't you dare bring up Li Qing!" But what followed after was a horrible shriek of pain.
Li Wen's smile turned cold, "I don't have much time to talk through it all with you. If you continue on like this, then the choice you make today will be nothing but a mere drop in the ocean; one day, you're going to lose everyone you care about!
"Li Shen, make a choice; allow me to take Song Lu away or let me disable Jiao S." Li Wen seemed to have run out of patience, presenting me with an ultimatum.
All of a sudden, from afar, Guan Nie's voice rang out, "Li Shen, Jiao S is still my district commander. If you allow for her to be paralyzed, then don't blame me, Guan Nie, for disregarding all the rapport we've built up over the past few days!"
Nie Zun spoke coolly before I could breathe a word. "Guan Nie, trust her."
Listening to Nie Zun, Guan Nie swept his gaze coldly over me but said no more. My lips have already by ruined by my chewing and even my gums were beginning to bleed. I knew it was impossible for us to stop Li Wen before the drop of her arm, so I could only make a choice between the two.
Raging tears streamed from my eyes; I truly am sick of myself for being such a crybaby, but when I looked to Song Lu in her sleep, my heart felt like it was being pulled and wrung.
I could still hear the ceaseless pants of Jiao S. Even though she could hardly talk anymore, she still managed to force a speech in a low voice. "Guan… Guan Nie, I want y-you to help Li Shen kill her. Don't bother about me!"
On the tree opposite us, Guan Nie squeezed his eyes shut, unable to bear hearing those words from her.
Li Wen moved her hand slightly but Jiao S didn't scream this time round. It was as though she could no longer muster any cries, although I could hear her increasing labored breathing. I didn't dare to turn back, didn't dare to take a look at her. My falling tears merged with the blood on my face.
The streaks of tears on my face seemed to dry instantly with the gust of a chilly wind, taking with it the last trace of warmth.
"Song Lu…" I shut both my eyes, refusing to let the tears that had welled up escape once more. "Just take her."
Split Zone 13
62 We'll Get Her Back
Li Wen smiled tenderly, her bloodied face was shaking a little with laughter, her eyes curved into a coquettish arc. "You made the right choice, Li Shen."
She stretched her arms out and directed a cross towards Song Lu. Following the simple action, a shield appeared on the ground above her body. Li Wen waved her hand, using MF to place Song Lu's body on the shield and with another eccentric gesture, the cross began glowing. In the midst of the glow, Song Lu's sleeping form slowly faded away with the shield, right in front of my eyes.
I didn't cry. I just watched in silence at the spot where Song Lu had vanished.
When Song Lu wakes up to find that we are no longer by her side, when she realizes she's back in that horrifying place… How terrified and helpless would she feel? Would she cry? Would she think that I have abandoned her?
Song Lu, please promise that you’ll hate me, else I won't be able to forgive myself.
Only solemn silence filled me, watching helplessly as she disappeared until the sound of Li Wen's voice rang in my ears, "You should go back to Western District. Trouble might not have found you so quickly if you hadn't come to the Southern District. You really should never have been here, Ah Shen."
My eyes were still frozen on the spot where Song Lu had vanished. After a long pause, my lips curved into a callous smile and I finally lifted my eyes towards Li Wen. "Thank you for your warning. I will definitely be returning to the Western District, but I will also be coming back here."
I turned and walked to Jiao S, reached out my hand and pulled the Parting Sword from her spine; it wasn't the handle that I held on to, but the blade.
Li Wen didn't stop me.
A sharp pain shot through the palm of my hand but I didn’t care. Clenching the blade tightly, I yanked and Jiao S gasped. With the removal of the Parting Sword, it wasn't long till she recovered her mobility, then tried getting up. I threw the Parting Sword back to Li Wen with my bloodied hand. The sword vanished with a mere shift of her eyes.
With an outstretched arm I helped Jiao S up. Her body still had a slight tremor to it but the hole in her back was already beginning to mend. As I supported her weight, I spoke in a soft voice to Li Wen, "Li Wen, you should go. It doesn't matter if what you said was true, or if you did this for 'our own good'… the sisterhood between you and I ends today."
The words were spoken softly, without a hint of force. I helped Jiao S into a sitting position so she could lean on me while waiting for her injuries to fully heal. She had exhausted too much MF, and so her rate of recovery was compromised. I had not once spared Li Wen a glance when I spoke, and neither had she responded.
Jiao S looked over at me, her face stained with blood. Her spiritless, wide eyes were observing me quietly and she was still panting a little. Only after I had settled her in a comfortable position did I look towards Li Wen.
Li Wen was still floating in the same spot, but her eyes held a hint of sorrow as she watched me.
I smiled at her, and my eyes swept over her yellow and now blood-stained, dress. "Li Wen, you've always been so perfect. Those bloodstains don't suit you at all, just as I'm not suitable to be your friend. Perhaps that was why you left us, or why you left Li Qing."
A glimmer of sorrow fleeted across Li Wen's eyes.
I kept smiling, continuing in a soft voice, "Stop gazing at me with such despondent eyes. My heart used to ache for you whenever you looked like that… But now, seeing them just makes me nauseous."
Another gust of wind blew and the hem of her dress swept up with it.
My voice was calm but detached, no longer agitated like it was before. "Just go. From this day on, I will regard you as an adversary when we meet."
Unexpectedly, Li Wen laughed with tears welling up in her eyes. The sight made me feel as though she had laughed to the point of tears. "Ah Shen… Is this about Song Lu? I know you feel miserable about this but you'll understand one day. You'll truly lose her if you insist on keeping her by your side. One has to go through pain at some point. Her tribulation is her fate, you can't blame yourself for it."
I laughed weakly. "From the moment You Ji showed up right up to today when you appeared in such a manner, I finally understood something. You both truly are my sisters--both of you had taken pity on me, knew that I was a monster, so you were willing to turn yourselves into one to accompany me. How could Song Lu be the reason I'm treating you this way?"
There was a pause, before I continued, "I'm only retaliating because this was how you chose to treat me. As you said, this is the split zone. Because, this is… the split zone."
Maybe words spoken in that soft voice was to emphasize this fact, or maybe it was because I have given up all hope. In any case, I no longer wished to speak any further. "Just go, Li Wen. Let's hope we never meet again."
Li Wen finally stopped responding, her eyes shone with indecipherable forlorn. With a turn, she floated away. I lowered my head and helped Jiao S to her feet once she was gone. "Can you stand?"
Jiao S' uniform was drenched with blood but she stood up successfully. Her wide eyes turned to me slightly. "Li Shen, thank you."
I didn't breathe a word, nor did I respond.
Guan Nie descended from the tree as Nie Zun helped Jie Pa up. Jie Pa let out a few coughs before heading towards us. "Are you both hurt?"
"I'm fine. Are you alright? It'll be difficult to manage you getting injured."
Calmly, Jie Pa laughed. "I'm alright. Nie Zun was protecting me with his MF all this while. I'm basically unscathed."
At this admission, his usually composed gaze was laced with guilt. "I'm sorry, Ms Ah Shen. I wasn't able to protect Ms Song Lu…"
I brought up a hand immediately, gesturing for him to stop going on about it. "You should go check on Jiao S, see if her injury is serious." Seeing the state I was in, he kept quiet and headed towards Jiao S.
I lifted my head towards Nie Zun who was standing in front of me. The fine bangs that curtained his forehead fluttered in the wind. Even under the grey sky you could still clearly see his starry eyes; quiet, indifferent and calm.
I can't explain it, but seeing his calm demeanor even after such a bitter defeat brought about an uncontrollable stream of tears flowing down my cheeks. I smiled and reached out to caress his cheek, but halted when my bloodied hand was a mere centimeter away from his face.
I parted my lips slowly. "If my other self is just like you… If she's able to treat everything with such composure… Can you return her to me? Just let her come back to me. I really wish I could be just like the two of you…"
To my surprise, Nie Zun's eyes betrayed an obscured hint of grief.
I doubted what I saw--what I thought I saw--but I grinned anyway and allowed the tears to flow to the corner of my mouth, bitterness and slight saltiness spreading across the tip of my tongue.
I finally cupped my hand against his cheek, "I—"
I had wanted to hurt him further with my words, wanted to mock his indifference; I was jealous of him. I was jealous of the fact that he could remain this unconcerned regardless of the situation. I am evil, I am hurting now, and because of that I wanted him to be as heartbroken as I am.
But I wasn't able to say another word, for he had wrapped both arms around me and engulfed me in a hug, resting my head against his shoulder.
There wasn't much warmth to the hug. Instead, it carried an air of desolation. His shoulders didn't seem too dependable either; he was strong, but the body under that black shirt was still slender.
He didn't use much strength, just held me gently against him and said in my ears, "She's right here. You… Can you feel it?"
I was taken aback by his sudden action and those words, to the point where my tears stopped abruptly. I was stumped by the change in tone, and for a split second I forgot the heavy blow of Song Lu's newfound captivity, the bitterness of reality.
I didn't know how much time had passed before Jie Pa cleared his throat from beside us. "Uh… Ms Ah Shen. Jiao S isn't badly injured and her MF has recovered. Her body's recuperation rate is pretty strong, even I'm surprised."
I fell back to reality with a crash. Regaining my composure, I frantically loosened myself from Nie Zun's grip. His eyes seemed to glint with glee.
For some reason, my face felt a little warm and I immediately turned my back towards Nie Zun. Scratching a part of my head that didn't even itch, I answered Jie Pa with an awkward laugh. "A-ah, is that right? That's good to hear, good to hear indeed."
Jiao S sported a small smile. "My regeneration has always been strong, even before this life." Then, she looked down at her own body, seemingly lost in a daze of her own thoughts.
I thought back to the day when she was bleeding out in that room, thought of her mentioning someone hurting her true body back in the real world and my brows furrowed. I walked over to her, seeking answers to countless questions but was met with a soft tilt of Jiao S' head, silently assuring me that all was fine. And so, eventually, I stayed silent and kept my questions to myself.
Guan Nie shook his white hair and came to my side, the corners of his lips still stained scarlet red. His almond eyes were coy. "Aiya-ya-ya, Li Shen. You better not have a dalliance with my pet. He’s mine."
Had he stopped there it would have been fine, but oh no--on 'mine', he turned and shot Nie Zun an alluring look.
… I can’t even be bothered with him.
Nie Zun chuckled. "It’ll be turning dark soon. Best cross the forest before it does and head back to the Eastern District."
Jiao S nodded. "Let’s go."
The group of us continued stalwartly towards the boundary lines. I know I don’t have the luxury of time to be hurting, but I couldn’t help myself turning back once more before we left, my eyes fixated at the place where we just battled upon.
When we arrived in this district, I would never have believed any of this could have happened. We failed to save Laurel, we have no idea whether Yu Liang is still alive, and now Song Lu has been taken away to be an experiment subject. Adding insult to injury, Jie Pa lost his ability to heal and even the Western District has fallen into the hands of the enemy.
And me… I just keep losing.
From losing Gao Qi, my motivation, then finally losing my sanity and arriving at Split Zone No. 13… I keep losing.
I began to wonder… if Gao Qin Jiu Ye looked identical to Gao Qi, then was fate toying with me on purpose? He pointed to me and said, "I don’t care about anything or anyone, including you."
A mirthless smile tugged at my lips.
I am truly useless. I can’t protect anyone around me, just as Li Wen said; I can’t even protect myself. I came to the split zone, have lived here since, but… for what purpose?
Jiao S seemed to notice I was deep in thought, and came back to my side. "Li Shen, let’s go," her hoarse voice brought me back to the present. "We’ll return again, and when we do we will take back everything we’ve lost."
I twisted my head to look at her. It was a long while before I could muster up a smile. "Yeah," I finally said. "We will take back everything."
With that, the two of us hastily caught up with the three people ahead of us, and continued towards the boundary lines.
Split Zone 13
63 How Cute Are the Spider-Men?
The battle within Guan Nie's illusion had raged for an unexpectedly long time; by the time we crossed the endless boundary forest of the Southern District and into the Eastern District, the skies had grown dark.
Even though it wasn't the Western District we had returned to, I still felt a sense of ease wash over me the moment we crossed the border.
Lifting her fingers to her lips, Jiao S blew a resounding whistle. All of a sudden, we were surrounded by ten silhouettes of people who leapt down from the trees.
But the ten of them…
There was no telling each individual's gender, for they were all wearing matching Spider-Man outfits, complete with the mask. Seeing the ten of them in front of us, I felt a strong urge to say something teasing. However, as my grief had yet to dwindle, I chose to repress that urge.
"Commander, you're back. Lord Tao Lie instructed us to lead the entire Rank E troop and stand guard in the boundary forest around the clock, awaiting your return." The Spider-Man at the forefront of the group said.
(T/N: The honorific variation of 'you' was used throughout their address to Jiao S.)
Two, three, four Spider-Men…
My mind was still fixated on their choice of costume. Whoever said the people in the Eastern District were vicious and horrifying?
Look at how adorable they are…
Look at how cute the Spider-Men are…
Jiao S gave a slight wave, her voice back to its usual hoarse and deep tone. "What happened while I was gone?"
The same Spider-Man answered immediately, "After you left, there was an incident where more than a hundred residents died, without rhyme or reason; it wasn't the doing of a splitting key either. With you still absent from our district, our entire team of Rank C members was very concerned.
"We suggested that Lord Mu Li lead us and strike our way into the Southern District, but the three Lords had instead commanded Lord Tao Lie and Lord Mu Li to protect the Eastern Residence--from Level 27 and above--from harm. They also commanded the ten of us in Rank C to lead Rank E into the boundary forest and take turns guarding the boundary lines. Half of the Rank F team were also sent to stand guard at the Western District's boundary lines."
Jiao S nodded. "How did the other residents react to the massacre?"
"You weren't back, so the other residents didn't probe much either. Everyone trusted that you would give them a proper explanation. They have simply been waiting for your return."
Jiao S contemplated for a moment before she spoke. "Get Tao Lie and Mu Li to meet me. We'll be heading to the Dorms at the Academy first to clean up; it's too far away to rush from here to the Residence block. And tell them to hurry up; make use of the time we'll need to pass through the Marketplace before the Academy, and appear before me by the time we're done washing up."
Spider-Man nodded. "Yes, Commander!" He turned towards the other nine Spider-Men and made a gesture. At this, one of them stepped out and received their leader's instruction. "Go look for a phone and contact Lord Tao Lie. The rest of you will continue guarding the boundary forest with me!"
The nine silhouettes promptly returned to their position atop the trees, with the other running at full speed ahead. When I lifted my head, the view still within my range of visibility but despite this, I was surprised to note that I could not spot even a single one of them in concealment.
I was secretly impressed by Jiao S' methodical way of governing. I didn't have long to dwell on it, however, before she turned to us and said, "The Marketplace is right around the corner; we'll still need to work a little more and strive to reach the Academy in ten hours. I'll arrange accommodation there so you can rest."
The group of us nodded, with the exception of Guan Nie who stepped away from us. He yawned lazily. "Since we're back at Eastern District, then I'm relieved of my duty to protect you. Send someone to the 29th Floor if you need me--I still have matters I need to attend to."
After dropping that on her, he turned to Nie Zun with a coquettish smile and his coy eyes, "My pet, I hope we'll meet again."
With that, he swung the sleeve to his long garment and disappeared right before our eyes without a hint of sentimentality.
"This Rank A personnel of yours seemed to do as he pleases…" I told Jiao S.
Jiao S' rigid face donned a small smile. "He has always been this way, nobody knows what he's thinking. Besides, his condition for coming over to the Eastern District was that we leave him be unless absolutely necessary. Even when we do need him to handle matters, we can't restrict his freedom once it's done."
"Where was he from? The Southern District?" Since the Western District didn't have Guan Nie in their organization during Li Qing's time, I grew curious.
Jiao S' eyes shone of something indecipherable. "He didn't belong to any district before us; one of the exceptions permitted by Mr Blond. When I heard about his extraordinary skills, I specifically sent someone to search for him--they eventually located him in the Southern District. In convincing him to come over to Eastern District and render his services to me, we made an agreement.
"Come on, let's walk and talk. We have to get to the Academy as soon as possible--we can even clean ourselves up there." Jiao S gestured for us to make haste with a wave of her hand. Rightly so, otherwise it would take us more than ten hours to get through the Marketplace to the Academy.
We made a mad dash the whole way, and I began to feel exhaustion creep up on me. While I do love running about wildly in the dead of night, the stimulation to both my body and mind over the past few days had pushed me to my limits. Furthermore, my split symbol is still unsealed, and hence blocked from my full potential. Every time I exert my MF, I lose some of them in the process. While they do get replenished overnight, somehow it seemed as though my mental strength wasn't able to withstand it for much longer.
In order to distract myself from my own fatigue, I started up a conversation with Jiao S. Looking at her now, she's no longer as terrifying as I once thought her to be. "Hey, Jiao S. If Guan Nie is as you described--that is, a freeman who has never followed anybody's orders--then what kind of deal did you strike to convince him to help you?"
Jiao S was quiet for a moment before she eventually decided to answer my question. "I agreed to make Si Luo leave Gao Qin Jiu Ye."
… Wait, what?
What did she mean by "make Si Luo leave Gao Qin Jiu Ye"?
Guan Nie had always been submissive, and I've always thought there was something strange about the way he treated Gao Qin Jiu Ye, yet at the same time, it also seemed as though he was jealous of Gao Qin Jiu Ye's loyalty to Si Luo. Then, how do you make sense of Jiao S' words?
Unless… Could it be…? Could it be that Gao Qin Jiu Ye is gay too?! Is Si Luo his partner? Was Guan Nie jealous?!
In the split zone, my very own Senior Gao Qi is actually gay???
I played the entire theatrics of their possible love triangle over in my head.
Jiao S looked sideways at me, perplexed. "What's with that weird look on your face?"
A little awkwardly, I hastily replied, "Oh, no, it's nothing. I just didn't understand. Si Luo and Gao Qin Jiu Ye, are they… that?"
Watching my wild gestures as I spoke, Jiao S frowned. "What do you mean by 'that'?"
"Ai-ya, you know… Gay! The Si Luo you adore is gay?"
Jiao S looked at me incredulously. "It's no wonder you got diagnosed with mind-splitting disorder."
I choked at that.
Hey, now just wait a minute--who in the split zone wasn't diagnosed with some sort of mental disorder, huh? Why are you discriminating against my mind-splitting disorder!
In resignation, she continued. "They're not in that sort of relationship, but I don't know how Guan Nie feels towards Gao Qin Jiu Ye. In any case, it doesn't matter. I promised him."
I suddenly remembered another matter and swiftly changed subject. "Oh yeah, I meant to say--what's the secret to the split zone you wanted to tell me?"
Jiao S' eyes darkened. "Have you ever seen a legitimate soul splitter?"
I shook my head. "No, I've only heard about them. Didn't they say Mi Fu's a soul splitter, though? And then there's Li Wen, she said she's one too."
Jiao S sighed, "Sure, but we only have their word for it. We've never actually seen it with our own eyes; we've never seen someone return to the real world by inserting their splitting key into their soul splitter. I've seen a soul splitter once… but they looked identical to their counterpart."
"Huh? What does this mean?"
Jiao S shrugged and shook her head. "I don't understand it either. Regardless, I have seen someone who inserted their key into their soul splitter's symbol and the two of them looked exactly alike. I suspect the split zone has been concealing soul splitters, and that they are our doppelgängers. Still, Li Qing and Li Wen have the same symbols but they look different… though it's possible one of them has been using their MF to disguise themselves."
I furrowed my brows. "Why do you think so? Just because you've seen it once doesn't mean that it's true of everyone."
Jiao S let out another sigh. "I don't know why either. Still, I have a strong feeling I'm right. Besides, wasn't there another Nie Zun who was causing trouble?"
Jie Pa chimed in at this point. "That might have been part of You Ji's conspiracy. Nie Zun told me about the night You Ji came to sow discord, spoke about the powers in Nie Zun's hands. We suspect that was You Ji's ability; maybe she was the one who masqueraded as Nie Zun in front of Yu Liang and Song Lu."
Surprised, I sought clarification. "Do you mean You Ji has the ability to replicate other people's skills? But that doesn't necessarily mean she can pretend to be another person convincingly."
Although… was that why she could manipulate the airflow too?
It wouldn’t be that difficult a feat for her to masquerade as Nie Zun either; after all, she had known both Song Lu and Yu Liang for a long time now.
Jie Pa nodded. "That's our theory."
Jiao S had an epiphany then. "Even if that's the case, how was she able to replicate their abilities? Did she activate her split symbol too?"
I shook my head, uncertain. "I have no idea where her split symbol is hidden. I reckon it's on the lower half of her body; she always had a serpent tail for that part, so I couldn't see anything."
Jie Pa turned to Jiao S and asked, "Ms Jiao S, who is the person you saw with their corresponding soul splitter?"
In her eyes there was a flicker of heaviness, a shield concealing her own emotions. "I really can't tell you that."
Jie Pa pushed up his glasses in a gesture of silent understanding.
"Is this the secret about the split zone?" I continued probing.
With another exhale, she breathed out the words, "I'm afraid many speculations I had in the past were proven wrong. Our situation evolved too much, too quickly. It was too unexpected, and we can't even get in contact with Mr Blond right now."
"Actually, haven't you been in the split zone for almost four years now? Did you never research about the soul splitters?"
There was a quick flash of embarrassment to Jiao S at that. "I… Well, for the past three years, I've always been researching about Si Luo. It was only when these stranger things began happening that I considered leaving the split zone…"
My mouth twitched. How unexpected it was that this bizarre woman was actually a hopeless romantic, that she had never once thought of leaving the split zone--instead, she was enchanted by the most gorgeous man in the entire split zone, as labeled by rumors.
Still, I wonder what happened between them. Why did she agree not to step foot inside the Southern District for three years?
As I sped on, I twisted my head to look at Jiao S. She looked as though she was deep in thought as well, her eyes glazed over. Her gaze was locked straight ahead, yet at the same time seemed to see nothing at all.
I wondered, but ultimately chose not to ask about it.
Nie Zun, who had been quiet all this while, spoke up. "Don't forget to ask Mu Li about the scent of those poisonous insects. The man from our district had a similar scent--the very person who collapsed with his entire back gnawed by those insects."
Jiao S hummed an acknowledgment. "Mm-hmm, I'll handle it. Are those bugs the same as the ones we saw in the Southern District?"
Nie Zun shook his head. "No, they're different. Still, the split zone isn't supposed to have creatures like that. I suspect they're related."
Jiao S conceded with a dip of her head.