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Chapter 77: The Hand in the Shadows

Necropolis Immortal
     Take the river god alive!

    Both Qing Han and Yuying exuded excitement when they heard Lu Yun’s plan, especially Qing Han. Although the god wasn’t quite as he’d imagined, he couldn’t help a surge of excitement.

    He was but sixteen and knew the stories surrounding the Dusk River God, having studied countless texts and records about the deity. Now, not only had he seen the mythical river god with his own eyes, but he was going to capture it!

    Whoosh!

    Emerald Mistfire leapt out of Yuying’s hand and cast an emerald radiance in the abyss.

    “What are those?!” Qing Han stopped in his tracks before entering the underwater palace.

    White, strangely-shaped monsters covered the ground. They were lying prostrate with heads lifted, mouth at the top and eyes at the bottom. Slender limbs propped slim bodies up like spiders’ legs, the joints reversed. They’d been staring at Lu Yun and the others with black, dark eyes, but as soon as the light of the Emerald Mistfire illuminated their habitat, they started and skittered away.

    “Ghouls!” Lu Yun called out. “They’re often seen in ancient tombs with thick yin energy or burial mounds of ten thousand bodies. They crave everything yin and fear all things yang. It’s rare for them to attack the living of their own accord; just ignore them.”

    He’d encountered ghouls back on Earth before, and hadn’t expected to see such a large group within the abyss. They possessed the strength of an ox, but the courage of a mouse. They never attacked unless they were provoked first.

    Qing Han and Yuying nodded slightly and made their way into the underwater palace. It was a tattered representation of what it had been, but there were hints of a once extravagant architecture.

    “Qing Han,” Lu Yun suddenly asked, “do you find this place familiar?”

    “I do.” Qing Han nodded. “It looks just like the palace in the burial mound under Myriad Formation Summit.”

    “That’s right. It’s very similar. The palace in the burial mound was designed for burial purposes, whereas this is a real palace.” Bafflement gleamed in Lu Yun’s eyes. “That one was obviously built after the burial mound was set up, and it was based on the layout of this underwater palace.”

    Lu Yun struggled to grasp a fleeting inspiration in his mind, but something was still missing.

    “Do you think the river god had something to do with the burial mound?” asked Qing Han.

    “Perhaps.” The governor shook his head, his mind a mess of tangled thoughts.

    “How—how dare you come inside!” the hoarse voice shrieked. The river god was hiding in the depths of the main hall, and her expression tensed when she saw the humans follow her into the palace.

    Corpsefish emerged from beside her, creating several trapping formations with their tentacles to form the layout of Ghost Yanking Feet.

    Whoosh!

    Emerald Mistfire surged and reduced the corpsefish to ashes before they could come closer.

    “Stay away! Don’t come any closer! Wait, no, come here. Come to me!!” The river god garbled forlorn squawks, highlighting the insane edge to her voice. There seemed to be something wrong with her mind.

    “Wait!” Qing Han grabbed Yuying. “Don’t. There’s something there!”

    The Scroll of Shepherding Immortals flickered in and out of existence over Qing Han, imbuing him with power.

    “What is it?” Lu Yun couldn’t see anything with his Spectral Eye.

    Earlier, Qing Han had been the first to see the Dusk River God. The barrier around the tomb for the living not only segregated the abyss and its terrible inhabitants from them, but also prevented those in the tomb from seeing the monsters. Therefore, no one other than Qing Han had seen the river god in the underwater palace in the beginning.

    The Scroll of Shepherding Immortals granted him a good variety of abilities, allowing him to see what Lu Yun couldn’t. Meanwhile, the Dusk governor could detect all dead things, but not living beings, or those that were stuck between the two realms.

    “It’s the thing that ate the river god’s tail!” Eyes widened with fear, Qing Han hastily retreated a few steps. “No, no…. There’s something bigger. We’re inside its mouth!” He grabbed Lu Yun and beelined for the exit. “Go, go, go!”

    Raaaagh!!

    A tremendous roar tore through the air, shaking the palace and crumbling the premises. It felt like a giant mouth was gradually closing.

    “This isn’t a palace,” Qing Han cried out, “but the mouth of a monster!!”

    “What?!” Lu Yun couldn’t believe his ears. This turn of events was utterly fantastical and almost incomprehensible.

    The palace was actually a monster’s mouth? They’d checked before entering and seen nothing around or behind the architecture. So where had the monster come from?

    Yuying swiftly reacted and brought Lu Yun and Qing Han to her side, moving so quickly that she almost turned into a streak of emerald flame herself.

    Crackle.

    Rumble.

    The maw bit closed and crushed the palace.

    “Hahahaha!” A peel of ear-splitting laughter escaped the river god’s mouth. “Come, you lowly slaves! Didn’t you want to capture me? Come on!!”

    She stood inside the giant mouth, losing all semblance of sanity.

    Raaaaaaaagh. A low growl emitted from the mouth of the giant monster.

    Rumble rumble rumble.

    The terrain under the abyss trembled and rumbled as terrible cracks spread through the palace. Something was emerging from the earth.

    “What, what have you done?!” screamed the panicked zombie king. The tomb for the living was shaking and wavering, covering the barrier with fine cracks.

    “Halt!” ordered a clear voice before a corpsefish swam out from underneath the monster, her body penetrated by a brass spear. It was the last river god, who’d been nailed to the wall.

    Her body transformed in the next moment, keeping the fish tail but turning her upper body into that of a beautiful human girl. Just like the current river god, she, too, was a mermaid.

    Her figure was full and lustrous, her complexion radiant. Long, pale blue locks floated as if underwater. She now fully resembled her living self. Wrapping her slim hand around the spear in her chest, she yanked it out with a firm tug.

    “Go back from whence you came!” she snapped, the spear radiating beams of iridescent light, suppressing the giant monster erupting from the earth.

    Gradually, peace returned to the abyss. The underwater palace reemerged before Lu Yun, but now it was eerie and terrifying in his eyes.

    “Humans should not be here,” the mermaid turned and disapproved in a lilting voice.

    “Aren’t, aren’t you dead?” Qing Han stared at the mermaid, wide eyed and tongue tied. Her curvy body brought a faint blush to his cheeks.

    The mermaid sighed faintly but didn’t respond. “This is the Divinewater Talisman of the clan residing in the Dragon Palace. If you manage to enter the Dusk River, this will allow you to escape.”

    With a flip of the god’s wrist, the droplet-shaped talisman fell into Qing Han’s hand. Then, she buried the spear back into her chest with a sudden motion. Her body slowly reverted back into that of a corpsefish and pinned itself to the exterior wall of the palace.

    Silence was restored to the bottom of the abyss. It was as if nothing had happened, and the previous river god hadn’t made an appearance at all.

    “The Dusk River God is a true god, born of sacrifice and worship,” murmured Yuying. “Although she’s been dead for a thousand of years, her will to protect all lives lingers…. Perhaps it really was her who sealed the great tomb.”

    “Then why would she leave instructions for such a terrible ritual, using ninety-nine pairs of children as tribute?” Lu Yun stared at the dead corpsefish, befuddled.

    “I’ve read records from the year of the disturbance. It’s said that the ritual the river god passed down didn’t use young boys and girls as tribute, but wood, grass, and dogs made from hay. Worshippers received strength in exchange for the sacrifices.

    “However, the next governor appointed after the great disturbance believed the power one received from offering grass and wood wasn’t enough to keep the great tomb sealed. Therefore, he changed the sacrificial goods to children, while leaving the rest of the ritual the same.” Qing Han spilled the beans on everything he knew. He had previously labeled the Dusk River Sacrament as nothing more than a conspiracy, but hadn’t dwelled on the details. But now that the previous river god had shown herself and saved them even after her death, the disguised girl realized there was something amiss.

    “The river god must’ve fallen victim to a plot too.” Lu Yun frowned. “Who was the governor after the calamity?”

    The previous governor had died in the unrest, so there would’ve been a new one appointed after him.

    “Wayfarer,” replied Qing Han.

    “What?!” Yuying started, looking at Qing Han in disbelief. “What did you say? Wayfarer? Which one?”

    “There’s only ever been one—the master artist known as the Art Saint.” Qing Han considered Yuying carefully. The latter’s identity was very apparent now.

    Wayfarer and Yuying had been very close, both as master and disciple, and close friends. Many had viewed them as a match made in heaven.

    If Wayfarer had been the next governor, he must be responsible for everything, including the calamity in Dusk Province a thousand years ago. He’d even gotten the previous river god killed.

    However, Lu Yun had unanswered questions. Everyone had seen the river god falling into the river after exhausting her power. Why was there a spear embedded in her, then? And how had she turned into a corpsefish?

    “What are you doing here?” Lu Yun asked when he saw the zombie king, Mo Yi, Feinie, and the three august immortals walk out of the tomb for the living.

    “The barrier is broken,” the zombie king responded with an impassive expression. “We are here to welcome our death.” Her eyes glinted with bloodlust. If it hadn’t been for the mermaid driving away the local monsters, everyone in the tomb would’ve already been eaten.

    “Wait!” hurried out Lu Yun before the zombie king could open up with slaughter. “She gifted us with a Divinewater Talisman. If we can enter the river, we’ll be able to escape with it!”

    “What?!” The zombie king lit up with excitement.

    “Before that, however,” Lu Yun said decisively, “I’m going to capture that false river god!”

    The river god was still hiding in the palace and sneaking glances outside.