In the 21st year of the Qi dynasty, the frost descended.
A group of riders on horseback were galloping on the official road, both people and horses covered in dust. Suddenly, the young leader shouted, "The boundary marker is here!"
Not far away stood a stone stele over ten feet tall with blood-red characters dancing on it, fierce and threatening. It read: "Chiyuan, no living being may pass, trespassers will have their bones crushed and ashes scattered."
In front of the stele, a middle-aged warrior with a team of guards welcomed them. The guards wore armor and held sharp weapons, kneeling in unison, "Greetings to Your Royal Highness."
The young leader dismounted from his horse. His horse had not yet stopped, and he stumbled slightly as the warrior went forward to support him, "Be careful, Your Highness."
"It's fine." The young man waved his hand and asked, "Where is my...father?"
As he spoke, someone nearby called out his nickname, "Xiaotong'er, come here."
The young crown prince looked in the direction of the voice. It was a man in black standing alone at the other side of the stele that read "trespassers will be killed." He took a quick glance at the blood-red characters on the stele and without any hesitation, he dashed across it nimbly and knelt before the man in black, "I..."
The man in black reached out to steady him, "Be steady, no need to rush."
The man spoke and acted with calmness and grace. He appeared mature and dignified from behind, but when he turned his head, he revealed a face that was unmarked by time, looking somewhat eerie and out of place.
Just by looking at this face, no one could ever imagine that he was Sheng Xiao, the Emperor of Qi, who had already been on the throne for twenty-one years.
His eyebrows were like swords, not prominent, sloping into his temples. The corners of his eyes tilted downwards with a hint of tenderness and sentimentality, presenting a handsome and proper appearance.
The crown prince stood up and called out softly, "Uncle."
It turned out that this crown prince was not the biological son of Emperor Sheng Xiao. As Sheng Xiao had no children of his own, he adopted his late brother's orphaned child and made him the crown prince. Sheng Xiao was naturally distant and cold, not fond of being close to others, so in public, the crown prince referred to him as "father," but in private, the two still addressed each other as uncle and nephew.
Sheng Xiao said to the crown prince, "Walking with me on this side of the border marker, are you afraid?"
The crown prince replied, "No. I have heard that when my uncle was young, he defeated Chiyuan, conquered evil spirits, and killed a million ghost soldiers, restoring our country. Although I am not even one or two percent as good as you, I dare not speak lightly of fearing your reputation."
"What reputation? Do you mean infamy?" Sheng Xiao smiled and walked forward, "Did you hear anything just now?"
The crown prince listened carefully for a while, but there was only the silence of the world, only the sound of the wind. He shook his head, "I didn't hear anything."
Sheng Xiao smiled, "Yes, there's nothing to hear."
The Crown Prince was taken aback and suddenly remembered a legend he had heard when he was young. It was said that the fiery abyss of Chiyuan was sealed with the vengeful souls of a million fallen soldiers, whose resentment reached the heavens. As a result, the fierce winds in the Great Canyon never stopped, and those standing outside the boundary marker could hear the screams and cries from the other side. But at this moment, he was walking around safely inside the boundary marker, and everything was fine except for the unbearable heat.
The Crown Prince thought to himself, "Folklore is really just hearsay and exaggeration."
After walking just over a hundred meters inside the boundary marker, he already felt the heat wave rushing towards him. It was already deep autumn, and the Crown Prince was only wearing a thin padded jacket, which was already soaked with sweat. The beads of sweat were rolling down his forehead, but he secretly glanced at his uncle and resisted the urge to wipe it away.
Emperor Qi Zheng's reputation was not very good. Those Jianghu artists fabricated stories that he was a capricious madman. They said he was born in a pool of blood from his father and brothers, and his birth was inauspicious.
They also said that he killed his mother, killed his teacher, burned books, banned speech, colluded with evil officials, waged war and slaughtered loyalists.
But in the young Crown Prince's heart, this man was his only relative.
No matter what happened, this man was always gentle and calm, and he had never seen him speak harshly or act without grace. The Crown Prince had looked up to him since he was a child. Now, as an 18-year-old heir, he could shoot the heaviest bow and govern the country with skill, but he still instinctively followed the man's back like he did when he was a child.
After they passed the boundary marker, they walked for over a mile, and Sheng Xiao stopped. The smell of sulfur had already begun to fill the air, and the Crown Prince was having difficulty breathing.
"We'll stop here for this year. If we go any further, the heat will harm us," said Sheng Xiao.
The Crown Prince was confused. "This year?"
"Yes, this year." Sheng Xiao reached out and pulled out the Crown Prince's sword, which had protective charms engraved on it. When the scorching wind from Chiyuan swept over the sword, the charms on the blade turned red. Sheng Xiao plunged the sword into the ground and said, "This is the first thing I want to tell you, and it's the most important. I've been entangled with Chiyuan for a lifetime, and I've finally achieved some results. If my estimation is correct, this sword can be pushed forward five miles every year. In less than ten years, the fire of Chiyuan should be completely extinguished, and when the fierce winds disperse and the sword reaches the edge of the cliff, you can send people from the 'Qingping Division' to stay here permanently."
The Crown Prince was taken aback, vaguely sensing a different meaning from his words: "Unc...Father, you..."
Sheng Xiao said faintly, "I will pass the throne to you."
The Crown Prince knelt down with a thump.
In fact, the Crown Prince was somewhat prepared in his heart. During the past year, Emperor Qizheng had gone on two inspection tours to suppress the four corners of the kingdom, and gradually let go of the internal affairs, orderly paving the way for the future generation and letting the Crown Prince take the reins of the kingdom.
But when it really came to this day, the young heir was still at a loss as to what to do.
"I have taught you what you need to know," Sheng Xiao said without looking at him, "As for the rest...Zhang Bo and Kong Yu can be trusted. Zhao Kuan is still in prison, he is innocent, release him and exonerate the Zhao family. He will serve you well in the future. Do not speak ill of your father. If it is inconvenient for you to talk about me in the future, just blame everything on Yang Dong. That little guy is not a good person. He has been living comfortably for these years, I raised him as a gift for you."
The Crown Prince knelt deeply on the ground: "Father, may you live long and prosperous..."
A faint smile appeared on Sheng Xiao's face: "What, are you planning to let me work until I am old and still breathing or till I’m buried under the soil? I have been worried about you for half my life, so take some pity on me too. The edict of abdication, Zhang Bo and Feng Chun each have a copy. Old Feng was your father's closest friend, he will protect you, don't be afraid."
The Crown Prince's eyes turned red.
Sheng Xiao stood with his hands behind his back, looking towards the direction of Chiyuan. Suddenly, he asked, "Do you remember how your biological parents died?"
"Your child does not dare to forget for even a day."
"That's good," Sheng Xiao nodded, "You have grown up and know how to walk your own path. Go, Chiyuan will be destroyed, but there is still some residual warmth here, it is not good to stay here for too long."
"What about you..."
"I will stay for a few more days," Sheng Xiao waved his hand, not saying much, just said, "The country cannot be without a ruler. The affairs in the capital are complicated, so go back quickly."
Emperor Qizheng's words were final, and the Crown Prince did not dare to disobey the order. He had to reluctantly leave with his head turning back thrice. When he reached the boundary marker, he couldn't help but glance back at the man. He saw Sheng Xiao sitting on the ground before his sword with his back to him.
In that moment, the Crown Prince inexplicably felt a sense of farewell, but immediately shook his head, feeling that he was just dizzy from the heat. He knelt in front of the boundary marker, saluted the man in black meticulously, and then hurried back to the capital overnight, heading towards his own destiny.
After seeing off the Crown Prince, Sheng Xiao ordered the guards to wait at the official post, and only one close attendant stayed behind.
As night fell, the attendant came to Sheng Xiao's side, knelt down and curled up his body. His armor fell off his body, and after a moment, his robes fell to the ground. There was actually a small bird the size of a palm that flew out and approached Sheng Xiao closely.
"I nearly forgot about you." Sheng Xiao scratched the bird's neck with his finger, and a very fine gold wire was hooked out from its neck. The wire was adorned with intricate inscriptions, as if it were grown on the bird's neck. Sheng Xiao gently pinched the wire, and it instantly shattered on his fingertips. Suddenly, the bird raised its head, its body growing more than ten times in size, and its wings spread out. It lifted its head and let out a long howl, stirring up the starry sky in the southern night - it turned out to be a young Bifang!
Sheng Xiao stood up and said, "From now on, you don't have to monitor me or be driven by me. We are both free."
The Bifang hesitated for a moment and timidly held onto his clothes.
The man turned his head and looked at it, and the little Bifang shrank back and loosened its beak nervously under his gaze.
Sheng Xiao took off his headgear, crookedly placed it on the bird's head, and then removed his seal, finger guard, jade pendant, and other items one by one. Finally, he took off a jade-carved human-shaped pendant from his neck, took a glance at it, and casually threw it aside. The little Bifang didn't know what important thing it was, and its feathers ruffled as it anxiously chased after the pendant, carefully holding it in its beak. But by the time it looked up again, the man had already walked away with his hair and clothes disheveled, heading towards Chiyuan.
The little Bifang anxiously called out and didn't care about the jade pendant anymore, flapping its wings to catch up. Chiyuan was cracked for thousands of miles, rolling with violent magma, with no grass growing on either bank. As it neared the edge of the cliff, the feathers on the Bifang's wings suddenly ignited in black flames, causing it to scream in agony and roll to the ground, almost turning into a roast chicken, unable to move forward.
However, Sheng Xiao had walked step by step to the edge of the cliff, his robe sleeves and boots already charred. The mask-like calm on his face cracked, revealing a hint of pleasure and madness.
It's still better to be a mortal.
A mortal only experiences a few decades of joy and suffering in their fleeting life. The pain that the body can feel is always limited, often before the pain is even felt, the person is already released from it.
But he, he might have to suffer a little.
The little Bifang let out a miserable scream, and Sheng Xiao leaped into the sea of fire.
The hot wind hit him in the face like flames, and his skin and flesh were quickly burned into charcoal. Layer by layer, from his hair to his skin, his blood vessels burst inside his body, blasting through the charred skin and flesh. His blood boiled, and all the meridians in his body were shattered. He coughed up a mouthful of ash, not knowing whether it was his heart or lungs.
Next, his body crashed into the molten lava of the earth's core. The surface of the lava had a hard shell, but his body was too strong. Falling from a towering cliff, he didn't break apart, but instead his spine was shattered and his body was battered against the lava's shell. Flames surged high like banners, and the earth's core, which could melt gold and jade, opened its mouth and swallowed him whole.
Even then, he still didn't die.
If a person could experience a bone-crushing and ash-rising event, then all the so-called heart-wrenching moments in the world would probably become nothing more than floating ashes on a rock.
The ups and downs of his life, joys and sorrows, all melted together with his consciousness, being refined and purified by the great fire.
On that day, laughter echoed through Chiyuan.
Until the leftover limbs that could not be burned slowly sank and the disturbed lava returned to its calm state.
"Emperor Wu, the youngest son of Emperor Ping, Sheng Xiao.
Emperor Ping was killed by the Yao clan and died in battle in Chiyuan. Qi Wu succeeded as emperor. In his youth, he experienced hardships and tribulations. At the age of 23, he beheaded the demon king under the city of Yong'an and changed the reign to Qizheng. He restored the country, expanded its borders, and his achievements were comparable to those of the Five Emperors. He was ruthless and cruel, and overturned the norms of society. He enjoyed his reign for 21 years before he killed himself under the fire of Chiyuan, and his body and bones were completely destroyed.
Emperor Wen succeeded him. Ten years later, the fire was extinguished, and Chiyuan became peaceful. Emperor Wen removed the boundary markers and established the tomb of Emperor Wu."
After thousands of years, the forest grew on the ashes of Chiyuan, and the original forest in the Chiyuan canyon became a national 5A-level scenic spot.
A mysterious movement deep within the earth was felt, followed by blurry and unsettling murmurs. The noise grew louder and louder, being carried by some unknown process and pierced into his consciousness like steel needles.
What... is that sound?
Who dares to make such a racket?
"I am willing to sacrifice everything..."
"As a medium...as a medium..."
"Under the Nine Nether Springs, the ancient gods and demons..."
His consciousness was awakened by the noisy clamor, but for a moment, he was confused.
Before he fully regained his senses, his perception instinctively betrayed his will. His senses, which had been dormant for thousands of years, suddenly awakened, greedily extending their tentacles and expanding outward, sucking in every fresh detail around him.
This caused the noisy world outside to rush into his consciousness, flowing in through his senses– the feeling of mud, the scent of soil, the sound of the wind, the rustling of leaves, footsteps, human voices...
"What kind of person is disturbing my sleep?" The feeling of losing control stirred up his anger, and he was momentarily furious. A foreboding black cloud surfaced in his sea of consciousness, and his thoughts manifested as sharp claws that struck back at the sound that dared to disturb him. "How dare you!"
But just then, in the midst of chaos and restlessness, his newly awakened senses suddenly caught a faint but familiar scent, like a gentle breeze passing by. His turbulent sea of consciousness suddenly cleared, and his heart trembled inexplicably for the first time in thousands of years.
What was that?
His killing intent dissipated in an instant.
But before he could capture it, the scent disappeared again.
Wait, don't... don't go.
He couldn't remember who he was or where he was, but he instinctively wanted to keep that elusive scent. Ignoring the other noises in his ears, he struggled desperately. The next moment, his sea of consciousness shook violently, and he could feel his body. Then, there was a crisp sound, and the wind brushed his forehead. He suddenly opened his eyes, and the long-lost sunlight made him shed tears. He then realized that he was lying amidst the shattered remains of a coffin, with a small cluster of thin, fiery red bird feathers...down feathers in his arms.
After being buried underground for who knows how many years, they had already dried up, sustained only by a faint spiritual energy of unknown origin. They dispersed at the slightest breeze, but he had just managed to grab them. The small cluster of feathers turned into floating dust in his palm, dissipating into thin air.
He curled his fingers and looked at his empty palm for a while, then slightly tilted his head back, squinting at the billowing dust and chaos in the air.
"Human world..." he thought, "Am I a zombie?"
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