Legend spoke of a giant sal tree beneath the eighteenth level of hell that kindled hellfire with its own body. The pillar of the underworld, the tree shouldered the full weight of hell itself.
Or rather, the Tome of Life and Death had imparted this story to Lu Yun just moments prior, and it was now persistently reverberating in his mind. The tree in front of him was the very same Sal Tree of Life and Death!
He also finally realized what the netherworld that lay beyond the Gates of the Abyss was: Hell.
Earth’s legends spoke of a world of immortals, an underworld, and the eighteen layers of hell. Having arrived in one of the legends, Lu Yun had seen no evidence of hell all this time. He’d also come up empty-handed from digging through the memories of his four envoys. Nothing was recorded in the chronicles they’d perused of times before the great war, either. Hell… seemed to have been entirely erased from history.
A pair of giant eyes slowly opened on a humanoid face adorning the front of the sal tree. Confusion veiled the titanic eyes, so large that they dwarfed Dusk Province.
“Wait, wait, there’s something wrong with it!” Lu Yun suddenly realized something. “This isn’t just the Sal Tree of Life and Death. Since hellfire burns on its own body, the tree would never develop self-awareness. So what’s the deal with this face?!” He gaped at the half-asleep face.
“Who… dares interrupt… this king’s… rest!” an all-encompassing voice traveled from the giant mouth as its wooden eyes gradually pried themselves open.
Clasping the Tome of Life and Death and blazing with hellfire, Lu Yun didn’t even amount to a spark compared to this star-sized colossus. However, the enormous eyes were firmly locked on to his figure. Or, more exactly, the book in his hand.
“That book… this tree wishes for it… Hand it over!” the giant face roared frantically, shaking the tree from top to bottom.
Tongues of hellfire converged into a turbulent sea of flames, roiling toward Lu Yun. The terrible compulsion appeared again, trying to dominate his will. But this time, the power radiating from the materialized Tome of Life and Death fully negated the attempt at mind control.
Terrifying hellfire crashed upon the governor in giant, successive waves. He steadfastly endured it all, unmoving, in an imitation of an eternal reef by a seashore. Twin flames danced in his eyes as the Tome of Life and Death absorbed the surging hellfire like a whale guzzling water.
“Wait wait wait, the sal tree is sending me this hellfire of its own volition!” Astonishment struck Lu Yun. “A daunting existence must’ve latched on to the tree as a parasite and is slowly fusing with it.”
Though the Sal Tree of Life and Death wasn’t self-aware, it still possessed base instincts. Since the entity leeching off the tree was using hellfire to attack Lu Yun, the tree itself poured all of its strength into directing the hellfire to the Tome of Life and Death!
Though the sal tree could house hellfire, the fire wasn’t part of the tree itself. Instead, the flames originated from the Tome of Life and Death.
Lu Yun was immune to hellfire to begin with, but conversely, the sal tree would weaken once it was deprived of the black flames. That would also mean the parasite would no longer be able to feed on the tree’s life force.
Crack crack crack!
The tree suddenly moved, countless black branches converging into a pair of giant arms that slammed at Lu Yun even as the torrent of flames beat a hasty retreat back to the sal tree.
The mighty existence attached to the tree understood by now that hellfire was worthless against the human. Although it didn’t know what the Tome of Life and Death was, it could sense the tree’s secret yearning for the book, like one might long for one’s home.
Hence, the book was certainly a supreme treasure.
“I understand now. Your own body suffered critical damage, so you had no choice but to meld with the tree.” Lu Yun remained stoic in the face of the oncoming giant fists. “But you’ll never be able to use this tree to injure me!”
Hellfire erupted from all around him and set the very air of this miniature world aflame. It instantly shattered the arms woven from the sal tree’s branches.
“Let’s see what kind of abomination you are, you damn parasite!” he roared. Tremendous energy surged from the Tome of Life and Death once more, as Lu Yun transformed into a ball of fire and brutally slammed against the star-sized tree.
On the ground, Qing Han stared unblinkingly at his friend, his heart leaping into his throat. Violet-gold light slowly glimmered between his brows as he readied himself to assist at a moment’s notice.
A series of blasts sounded from within the tree, as though it’d been hit by a barrage of explosions. The very foundations of the tomb realm shook from the giant face’s howls.
A hazy silhouette suddenly slipped out of Qing Han’s body and stared in astonishment at the sal tree.
“I had long sensed a ghastly presence dwelling inside this world born from the tomb, yet I find myself surprised to see it is a tree!” the violet shadow exclaimed softly.
Qing Han shook from head to toe. “A—aren’t you supposed to be dead?”
The figure, namely Empress Myrtlestar, shrugged.
“Your little paramour already saw through my plans. If I kept hiding, he might truly locate my presence and erase me forever.” The empress sighed faintly. “As he said, such is human nature. I, too, wish to be reborn.”
Qing Han fidgeted in an awkward fashion and subconsciously moved away from this empress.
“Why don’t we conduct a transaction?” offered the empress with a smile.
“What sort of transaction?” Qing Han replied cautiously.
“Although your little sweetheart can restrain the tree itself, I can clearly see that he is no match for the one occupying it. Even on the verge of death, it can snuff out your lives like blowing out a candle the moment it emerges.” The empress smiled brightly. “Allow me to live inside your Scroll of Shepherding Immortals. In exchange, I shall destroy this creature. What say you?
“Once inside the scroll, I’ll become another of the painting’s creatures, similar to the dragon and tiger spirits already inside. I will no longer be a threat to you, and can guide your cultivation. In return, you will help reforge my soul and restore my body. As for reclaiming the honor of my kin, that will be left to me. Are we agreed?”
“We are!” Qing Han accepted without hesitation. There was nothing he could do to help Lu Yun at the moment, making the empress his only option.
“Here, this starstone belongs to you!” He took out the stone that’d been solidified from the Imperial Star’s power and handed it back to the empress, but Myrtlestar shook her head.
With a wave of her hand, a soul fragment emerged from the Imperial Star and sank into Qing Han. The latter could feel a small gap cracking open on the Scroll of Shepherding Immortals to allow the soul fragment inside, whereupon it transformed into the picture of a noble and graceful woman.
“The current you will perish the moment you part ways with the Imperial Star. You can return it to me after you find a way to prolong your life.”
Qing Han nodded wordlessly.
“The one who drew this scroll was an old friend of mine; I wonder if he is still alive.” Empress Myrtlestar took in a deep breath, summoning the energy of this world to her being. Her illusory form instantly took on the appearance of flesh and bone. Moments later, she lifted her head and observed the giant tree towering close by.
The enormous tree shuddered before the trunk cracked open in a cloud of black hellfire and broken branches.
“Awooooo!!!!” A lengthy dragon roar resounded in the air, followed by the figure of a dark azure dragon barrelling out of the tree into the vast expanse of the sky. Its terrifying aura spread to every nook and cranny of the tomb realm, but upon closer observation, it was only half of a dragon’s body. Neither the lower half nor the hind claws were anywhere in sight. Someone had split it right across the middle, and one could even see dark blue flesh constantly wiggling inside the wound.
The half-dragon roared with fury the moment it emerged from the tree, its one pair of dragon claws furiously trying to grab Lu Yun’s figure as one would try to capture a spark.
“So you’re still alive, Divine Azure Dragon King!” Empress Myrtlestar shouted as she arrived in front of the dragon in a stream of light, bathing the tomb realm in violet-gold radiance.
“Empress Myrtlestar!!” The azure dragon shrieked with terror the moment he witnessed her violet-gold halo.