Chapter 537: Steeped in Mystery
“The scent is quite faint, but I’m very certain they left in that direction,” said A’te as he raised his head and looked towards the west.
“I want you to lead the way. A’ze and A’fei, follow behind him.” Yun Jiuge and Zi Shang sat on A’ze’s body, and the two black eagles trailed behind A’te closely.
A’te darted towards the west on all fours, and he would occasionally stop in his tracks to sniff the air before continuing his run.
After running for close to an hour, A’te reached a vast Dead Tree Forest and circled around the outer area of the forest once. Thereafter, he backtracked his way to a stream that they had passed by earlier. Once there, he raised his head and yelled at Yun Jiuge and the rest, “The human-leopard hybrid clan disappeared here.”
“Here?” Yun Jiuge looked down at the dried upstream, but she did not notice anything out of the ordinary due to how far away she was.
“Get down there, A’ze,” Zi Shang ordered before he jumped down from A’ze’s back and landed on the dry stream bed.
Yun Jiuge and the rest followed suit and landed near him.
Da Meng accidentally stepped onto a dark black puddle of silt as he moved along, and the silt splattered in all directions when he tried to remove his leg from it.
“Stay away from me!” Maya looked at Da Meng in disdain before she walked away hastily.
Yun Jiuge also quietly distanced herself from Da Meng as well. The silt was simply too smelly.
“Look over here,” said Zi Shang. He pulled on Yun Jiuge’s arm and gestured for her to look at the grasses by the stream.
Yun Jiuge took a closer look and noticed a series of messy footprints that were on the verge of becoming invisible on the ground. The footprints could be traced all the way to the Dead Tree Forest in the distance.
“A’te, what’s going on?” Yun Jiuge asked.
“The last place in which the human-leopard hybrid clan’s scent can be picked up is in the forest ahead. However, the actual place in which they disappeared is next to this stream,” A’te said as he walked over to Yun Jiuge and Zi Shang.
“Why would they do that?” Yun Jiuge asked in puzzlement.
“If I was them, I wouldn’t bring the clan members into the Dead Tree Forest. You’d leave behind clear footprints on the ground there. Someone must have staged the scene,” A’te said in a cool voice.
“Alright then. I want everyone to search this entire area carefully. You can choose to search either the north, south, east, or the west,” instructed Yun Jiuge. She was about to choose a particular direction for herself when she was stopped by Zi Shang.
“This stream looks like it only dried up a while ago.” Zi Shang squatted down and held up a handful of silt from the stream bed. It was very moist.
“Could they have been attacked while they were trying to drink water from the stream?” Yun Jiuge asked as she squatted down next to him.
“That’s very likely.” Zi Shang’s eyes swept over the messy footprints by the stream before he went on to say, “They must have been caught off guard by something.”
“In that case, where could they have been taken to?” Yun Jiuge stood up and surveyed her surroundings. There was nothing but the Dead Tree Forest around her.
“I don’t have an answer to that.” Without his Demonic Power and Divine Knowledge, even someone as powerful as Zi Shang would find it difficult to find the human-leopard hybrids and the lizard-like therianthropes who had vanished.
About 15 minutes later, A’ze and A’fei reported their findings to the pair as they flapped their wings, “Lady Yun, there’s nothing but wilderness in the east. There might be a cliff or a Death Swamp at the end of it, but it’ll take us at least two days to find out what exactly is there.”
A short while later, Da Meng and Maya returned as well. “There’s only wilderness in the west. We didn’t find any signs of the human-leopard hybrids or the lizard-like therianthropes either,” they reported.
A’te and A’sang were the last to return. A’sang could only shake his head in frustration when he noticed Yun Jiuge’s questioning gaze on him. He went on to say, “We didn’t find anything.”
“That leaves the Dead Tree Forest then.” Yun Jiuge gazed at the forest that was covered in black-colored air.
“Lady Yun, I’m very certain that they disappeared near this stream,” said A’te insistently.
“I want you three teams to swap directions and search the surrounding area one more time. I’ll check the forest with Ye Zi. I believe there should be some clues left behind in the forest if someone deliberately tried to lead us into it,” Yun Jiuge said.
“Lady Yun, the Dead Tree Forest is too dangerous. Let Maya and I check it out instead!” Da Meng immediately tried to stop Yun Jiuge.
“There’s no need for that,” said Yun Jiuge. She trusted her own two eyes more than the human-beast hybrids.
“Lady Yun, we’re your bodyguards. We should be the ones putting ourselves in danger,” Da Meng said hastily, and the other human-beast hybrids nodded their heads in agreement.
Yun Jiuge was the human-beast hybrids’ savior. If something were to happen to her, they would not be able to face their clan members upon return.
“I want all of you to stay here and help A’te to find clues that’ll help us in our search. This is an order,” said Yun Jiuge with a solemn face. The excessive loyalty that the bodyguards held towards her was an issue.
Yun Jiuge’s words sent Da Meng into a panic. He was so flustered that his ears were on the verge of springing upwards. He was just about to say something in response when Maya placed a hand on him and shook her head.
Advisor Jun had given all the bodyguards a lesson before they joined the team. There was only one thing that he emphasized during those lessons back then, and that was to obey Lady Yun and Lord Ye Zi at all times, or else they would be asked to leave the team.
“Lady Yun and Lord Ye Zi. Let me carry the both of you into the forest at the very least!” A’ze went.
“There’s no need for that. We’ll be back very soon.” Yun Jiuge noticed that A’ze and the other human-beast hybrids’ had distraught faces, and she felt immensely troubled by the sight.
It looked like she had been too focused on doing research over the past few days, and this had led the human-beast hybrids to view her as a weakling. She must show them her Holy Power someday.
“Let’s go!” Zi Shang pulled Yun Jiuge with him and the pair quickly vanished before A’ze and the other human-beast hybrids’ eyes. A moment later, they appeared before the Dead Tree Forest.
“There’s a clue over there,” said Zi Shang as he pointed at a gray dead tree in front of him.
“That does look to be something that was deliberately left behind.” Yun Jiuge took a closer look at the claw marks on the tree. They had been left behind by the human-leopard hybrids while climbing up the tree.
“Let’s go in and take a look.” Zi Shang followed the claw marks on the trees and ventured deeper into the Dead Tree Forest.
The Dead Tree Forest was filled with grayish white trees that bore grayish black leaves. The leaves emitted a whiff of black air, and they also gave off a repulsive stench.
The marks that were left behind by the human-leopard hybrids were clear as day, and they would find one set of such marks after passing by a few trees. The marks led them all the way towards the heart of the Dead Tree Forest.
“There’s most likely a trap waiting for us up ahead. Are we still going there?” Yun Jiuge looked at the area where the marks were pointing towards. The black air in that area was extremely dense, and it felt as though there was a vortex before them.
“Of course we are. As the saying goes: know yourself and your enemies, and you will not need to fear the outcome of a hundred battles. We’ve to understand what kind of tricks Qiu Sen and Nangong Yue have up their sleeves.” Black scales covered Zi Shang’s body as he spoke, and he began walking towards the area where the marks were pointing at.
Yun Jiuge had only taken two steps forward when she felt something heavy underneath her feet. In the next second, a gray vine wrapped itself around her ankle and attempted to drag her into the depths of the forest.
Zi Shang turned around and stomped on the vine before he pulled Yun Jiuge behind him.
The Dead Tree Forest began to come alive. The dead trees charged towards them like a pack of sharks that had just detected the scent of blood. Countless vines flew towards them as well.
“Use your Spiritual Eye to find the Heart of the Dead Trees,” said Zi Shang, who jumped from side to side with Yun Jiuge in his arms. He then waved his fists about and destroyed the dead trees before him.
However, the trees quickly regenerated after getting destroyed, and their numbers kept growing bigger and bigger. There was simply no end to them.
Yun Jiuge surveyed her surroundings keenly with her Spiritual Eye, and she eventually found an orb that exuded a grayish light. The orb kept moving all over the place, and she was certain that that was the Heart of the Dead Trees.
“It’s over there,” said Yun Jiuge. She unleashed her Moon Spirit Silk Thread and made it cling onto the gray orb.
Zi Shang immediately led out his snake tail and flung it towards the orb. In the next moment, all the dead trees before him instantly turned to ashes.
Yun Jiuge was about to crush the orb by wrapping her Moon Spirit Silk Thread around it when she heard an extremely petrified voice begging her for mercy. “Don’t kill me,” the voice went.