“The Dragon Prince’s chambers?” Lu Yun was perplexed. “Wasn’t this the Tiger Prince’s territory? Where did this ‘Dragon Prince’ come from?”
Before he could fully understand what was going on, a mass of shadows pounced on him. An enormous, draconic shadow was poised a short distance behind the group.
“Back off!” An imperious command from the dragon shadow immediately dispersed the charging mass. “Where did the Tiger Prince go?” it demanded. The pressure it exerted on Lu Yun was identical to the Tiger Prince’s—both were so heavy as to be suffocating.
However, Yuying was an immortal as well, now. She could suppress these living layouts with her Panorama of Clarity, Dragon Prince included.
“The Tiger Prince? He’s dead.” Lu Yun calmed down. He lifted Qing Han off his shoulders and returned the envoy to his back, to which the other youth let out a sigh of relief.
“No, the Tiger Prince isn’t dead!” There was a hint of expectation in the Dragon Prince’s voice. “Where did you send him? Send me there too.”
“What?!” Lu Yun traded a stunned look with Yuying.
“The Tiger Prince and I share the same life. If he were dead, I would disappear as well.” The Dragon Prince was only a shadow, but his yearning was nearly tangible. “He’s not dead. Instead, he’s undergoing metamorphosis. I can feel that he’s evolving to a higher level.”
The dragon shadow’s voice was low, indistinct, and altogether strange. “I know what’s going on. He met you earlier, didn’t he? The place he’s gone to must be the reason for his transformation.”
“Yuying.” Lu Yun glanced at the brilliant envoy.
Yuying? A thought popped into Qing Han’s head. The Panorama of Clarity! No wonder. So Yuying didn’t die a thousand years ago.
He didn’t dwell on it, however. Within this burial mound, Lu Yun had displayed a wide range of incredible talents. He wasn’t strong himself, but his collection of tricks had resolved every problem so far with ease.
He must have many secrets about him.
The eighth governor of Dusk Province was rumored to have died during her heavenly tribulation, but whether she had actually died or not, who knew? That was twelve hundred years ago, regardless.
Yuying understood her master’s intentions. She extended her fingers, slowly unfurling the Panorama of Clarity. The painting depicted mountains and rivers in washed ink, but there was a new addition: a small tiger, napping in the midst of the landscape.
“There!” The Dragon Prince’s voice was filled with longing. “Send me in!”
“I can do that,” Lu Yun allowed. “But first, you need to tell me how we got here so suddenly. I’m sure we were in the Tiger Prince’s territory.”
“I brought all of you here.” The Dragon Prince calmed down once more. “If I hadn’t, you would’ve died at that undead hag’s hands.”
Lu Yun frowned, but said nothing.
“The Tiger Prince and I are spirits born of this space. He and I are bound to each other by our existences. He represents the body, and I, the spirit. The rules here force us to fight tooth and nail, but they also prevent us from ever coming face to face. We can only fight our war by proxy, as in sending other creatures at each other. Our proxies were also born of this place.”
Lu Yun finally understood the situation. The Duality of Dragon and Tiger couldn’t allow the two kingly creatures to actually come face to face. If they did, they would fight to the death. If one of them was gone, the layout would also be broken.
No wonder they were separated by the duality of body and spirit.
He recalled the tiger head outside the corpse coffin, and the venom in its eyes. That head was the tiger part of the layout, spawning the Tiger Prince from its essence. Now that the Tiger Prince was gone, the tigrine portion would disappear shortly thereafter, leaving only the draconic.
If the Dragon Prince went into the Panorama of Clarity as well, the entire layout would dissipate.
“This is the mindspace of the coffin, where I’ve taken up residence. The undead hag can’t come in here, so you’re safe for the time being,” continued the Dragon Prince.
“Aha, so that’s it.” Lu Yun nodded. If the Dragon Prince embodied spirit and thought, then his residence was a purely mental space.
“Wait a second. What mindspace? That coffin can think for itself!?” Qing Han instinctively shrank back.
“No, it’s not the coffin’s mind, it’s the undead hag’s,” corrected the Dragon Prince. “She was the one that was originally buried in the tomb. Because of what she turned into, her soul hasn’t been able to enter the wheel of reincarnation. In fact, it’s eroded to nothingness. On top of that, her mind was extracted and fused into the corpse coffin, so she would suffer for eternity. Her corpse gradually transformed into an undead hag, sealed away in the abyss by the floating summit.”
“If it were me, I would do the same.” Lu Yun nodded. “This is the only fitting retribution.”
Qing Han flattened his mouth in disgust.
“Don’t curl your lips like that,” the Dusk governor chuckled. “What would you do if your family members were refined into corpse coffins?” He meant it as a rhetorical question. “I’d wipe out the perverted race responsible, then refine the one buried in my family into a corpse coffin themselves. Give them a taste of their own medicine, so to speak.”
The suffering visited upon the coffin itself would be transferred to the mind of the buried individual.
Qing Han fell silent for a time. “My family isn’t all that kind to me,” he remarked quietly.
A strange feeling entered Lu Yun’s heart. “That’s enough of that,” he coughed softly. “What’s down in the abyss?”
He’d tried to examine it using his Spectral Eye, but the energies of life and death there were too chaotic. He could see nothing but the teeming dead.
“I don’t know,” responded the Dragon Prince. “But maybe the fox does.” He nodded at the nearby Miao, who shook his head slightly.
“I don’t know either. The abyss is outside the boundaries of the burial mound. I tried to go down there a few times in my dreams, but ended up back here every time I jumped in.”
“The burial mound might have landed here because of that abyss,” speculated Lu Yun.
“Can you let me into that painting now?” Anticipatory joy colored the Dragon Prince’s voice.
Lu Yun inclined his head. “Will we be forced to leave if you go into the painting?” he asked.
“The undead hag has already left,” the Dragon Prince answered in perfect understanding of what he meant. “Still, you need to be careful. Since you let it out by removing that floating summit, there’s not much else here that can restrain it.”
Lu Yun’s mouth quirked slightly upwards, but he said nothing. Not much else here? Not necessarily.
The Panorama slowly unfurled, then absorbed the Dragon Prince, adding the image of a juvenile dragon to the painting. In the next moment, Lu Yun felt his body grow heavy, as if he were falling, then landing somewhere. However, nothing in his field of view had changed in the slightest.
“Come! We need to go find Yueshen!”
“Mommy! A ghost!! Save me!” Li Youcai’s earthshaking wails traveled in from the far off distance. His voice climbing several octaves, he’d tightly plastered his body on a large boulder. His flabby cheeks trembled and oscillated like ocean waves.
Yueshen and the vengeful ghost were still fighting relentlessly in front of him.
“The Portrait of Emptiness!” A shrill shriek burst out of the ghost’s mouth. Having noticed Lu Yun’s arrival, she pounced recklessly toward Qing Han on his back. She’d glimpsed a corner of the scroll that was so intimately familiar to her.
The Portrait of Emptiness was an ultimate treasure that Truewater’s city lord had used to seal away the altar. Now that the portrait was in Qing Han’s hands, the ghost’s thoughts were consumed by obsession, violence, and hatred.
Protecting her people by keeping the altar sealed had been her fixation in life, and she was furious to see the tool she’d used to do so in different hands. As such, she rebuffed Yueshen with a single blow, then flashed in front of Lu Yun.
“Grab her!” the young man shouted with his eyes wide.
Yueshen pounced onto the ghost’s back without hesitation, clutching the other’s form as tightly as she could. Though ghosts were incorporeal, they could interact with each other.
“Yuying!” urged Lu Yun.
The envoy knew what to do. She unfurled the Panorama of Clarity, sucking both Yueshen and the vengeful ghost inside. But her face paled in the next instant.
“The Panorama can’t hold her!” The scroll in her hands began violently shaking, the vengeful ghost about to break free at any second. The potent treasure wasn’t able to suppress ghosts and the like.
“Give me the scroll,” Lu Yun exhaled, then took the painting from his servant. Opening the Gates of the Abyss, he sent it right in, ghost and all.
If I could form a golden core and enter the core realm, I would’ve been able to simply use the gates on it. The ghost was too strong for his current death arts to be effective. He couldn’t just let it inside the gates without a filter of some sort, as he'd probably die from the overflow of energy.
The gates were manifested through the realms of yin and yang, which meant they were ephemeral, rather than physical structures. Still, his success with the ghost considerably raised his spirits. Ignoring the trembling Li Youcai curled up on the ground, he looked at the annex room.
“That’s where the Formation Orb is!” Lu Yun’s pulse quickened. Once I get my hands on that, I’ll be better able to integrate my feng shui skills with the formations of this world.
He peered at the door expectantly, but then his expression suddenly stilled. “Wait, is that... dragonseal stone?”
Tomb raiders absolutely hated encountering the stuff. Doing so generally meant going home empty-handed. In fact, it was jokingly nicknamed ‘Death’s threshold’, since it’d take becoming a ghost to get past.
He hadn’t noticed it earlier, because all of his attention had been on the vengeful ghost, but the discovery of what the door was made of had really put a dampener on his mood.
“What’s dragonseal stone?” Qing Han asked, noting the ugly expression on Lu Yun’s face.
“An uncommonly heavy, durable kind of stone. If that’s what’s keeping the annex room shut, I’m probably not getting the Formation Orb.” Lu Yun was noticeably disappointed. It was the third time he’d encountered dragonseal stone, and his previous two run-ins had proved frustratingly fruitless.
“Violetgrave is a ninth-rank sword that’s incredibly sharp. It should be keen enough to cut through dragonseal stone,” Qing Han said softly.
“Violetgrave? A ninth-rank sword? Really?!” Lu Yun’s eyes lit up. He moved to the stone.
“Put me down first,” Qing Han added hurriedly.
“Oh yeah, you’re still on my back,” the young man laughed, with some embarrassment. He let his friend down and propped the young man up against a wall. “Take care of him, Yuying.”
“Yes, sir.” The envoy nodded, standing at attentive guard.
Qing Han bit his lip, watching Lu Yun’s figure with an unblinking gaze.
Violetgrave in hand, the young governor stepped up to the slab of dragonseal stone. The monolithic door, deep bluish-green in hue, emanated a chilling cold. It seemed almost like a heaven-sent obstacle.
Lu Yun raised up Violetgrave and brought it down on the stone.
“Heavens! What in the blazes is that?!” Li Youcai began to cry from terror again. A corpse hag had crawled out from the corpsewater pond behind them and lurched toward him.
“Yueshen, shut him up.” Lu Yun’s cut had left a faint mark upon the stone.
“Okay!” Now that the vengeful ghost was safely inside the Gates of the Abyss, Yueshen could come back out with the Panorama. She immediately took possession of Li Youcai, deluding his senses once more. Her presence calmed the fat official’s fearful heart down.
“Oho, ohohoho. You’re a monster who dares to steal my treasures!” Li Youcai rolled up his sleeves and walked toward the corpse hag with a ferocious expression.
“This can work!” Lu Yun returned to the stone with renewed excitement. He took a deep breath, then put everything into the next cut.
Violet light burst forth, leaving a much deeper impression upon the stone.
There seemed to be a blue gas escaping from the rock as well.
“You can stop now!” Qing Han interjected. “Now that the dragonseal stone is damaged, its essence has dispersed. You can use Emerald Mistfire to do the rest.”
He raised his volume a little too much in giving the pointer, which sent another wave of weakness through his frame. How come I’m so exhausted after using Violetgrave just once, while he’s perfectly fine after all this time? The unfairness of it all was rather upsetting to the beleaguered Qing Han.