Sheng Lingyuan murmured, "What would you do if you were in my shoes?"
It seemed like he was asking Xuan Ji, but also like he was asking someone who was watching them from the shadows.
Xuan Ji looked towards the entrance of the cave.
In the memory space of 'Retracing', this cave was not yet the burial mound of the witch people, nor was it buried underground.
The faint light at the entrance illuminated Sheng Lingyuan's face, casting half of it in shadow and revealing the clear and smooth bone structure beneath his skin.
Suddenly, footsteps could be heard from the entrance of the cave, and someone shouted in the heart-wrenching language of the witch people.
Sheng Lingyuan's head throbbed with pain, and he pressed his forehead against the cold rock wall with all his might.
Xuan Ji asked, "What did he say?"
Sheng Lingyuan replied in a muffled voice, "The altar has been opened. The old man and the child have already gone in."
"The altar is a forbidden place for the Witch Clan," Sheng Lingyuan's voice was almost drowned out by the noisy crowd and footsteps.
The panicked witch people were like animals driven by floods, brushing past the onlookers thousands of years later.
"There are curses without solutions, ancient secrets... all sealed here. There are seals outside that are much more complex than the Dongchuan barrier. The mountain god they worship is enshrined on the altar. The witch people worship mountains and rivers, believing that the mountain god is their mother, able to properly manage people's evil thoughts and accept everything from their own people."
From the cave entrance came a desperate cry.
This time, even without translation, Xuan Ji could guess that the person was urging their fellow clansmen to hurry into the altar.
Perhaps from listening too much in the 'Retracing' space, Xuan Ji could now distinguish the pronunciation and tone of the witch language.
Then, the voice of the shouting witch was interrupted by a scream, and a strong smell of blood rushed into the cave. The roar of the monster seemed to be just around the corner.
A young witch child stumbled and fell at Xuan Ji's feet.
Instinctively, he reached out to grab the child, but his hand passed through the child's shoulder.
Xuan Ji was stunned and withdrew his hand, asking hesitantly, "Dongchuan is besieged, the barrier is broken, and the witches can't hold on. So, are they trying to retreat to a hiding place? Wait..."
"Wait for me," Sheng Lingyuan said in a low voice.
Every time Aluojin got into a conflict with someone, Sheng Lingyuan couldn't bear to argue with him and would do everything he could to smooth things over.
Over time, Aluojin began to take this for granted. He believed that as long as he held on, Lingyuan would come to his aid. And when Lingyuan did come, the other clans who had been at odds with him would retreat, leaving him free to deal with the demonic beasts who took advantage of the chaos.
Lingyuan was like a mountain god at the altar, omnipotent. He was not only Aluojin's faith, but also his older brother who had led him through the moonlight.
"Wait for me to come and save him," he vowed.
With the brave warriors of the witch people, Aluojin fought to buy time for his tribe to escape into the altar.
The peaceful Dongchuan was ignited by the flames of war, as the tongues of fire swept across the mountains and fields, devouring the round wooden houses, the vast forests, the lively squares, and the vast and distant starry sky.
"Chief, be careful!"
Aluojin, who was covering the rear, heard the warning and immediately rolled off his horse without looking back.
A giant python chased after him, opening its blood-stained jaws as wide as half a cave.
The stench of blood filled the air as the beast bit through Aluojin's horse at the waist, spilling its guts all over the ground, but its two front hooves continued to charge forward.
Aluojin bit his finger and quickly drew a strange symbol in the air.
He pushed it forward and the bloody spell collided with the head of the giant snake, causing both the snake and Aluojin to recoil.
The snake reared back and broke a thick tree, while Aluojin flew horizontally into the cave. The waiting witch immediately activated the mechanism and the entrance rumbled as it sank down.
"Hurry! Hurry! Close the mountain gate!" Xuan Ji finally realized that the "witches' tomb" was not buried underground due to tectonic movements, but was actually a mechanism that could be sealed from the inside.
Outside the cave, the giant snake was slamming into the mountain rocks, making a terrifying sound.
Several witches rushed forward and helped the exhausted Aluojin up, saying, "Chief, we can't stay here for long!"
Aluojin was breathing heavily and said, "My people..."
"Don't worry, over forty thousand people are here now!" one of his attendants said, bending down to lift Aluojin onto his back and running inside.
One stone door after another fell behind them, drowning out the sounds of battle outside.
The surviving members of the witch people looked at each other in shock.
The core of the altar, which would later become Aluojin's tomb, was off-limits. The tribe members rested in the outer caves, quietly weeping or comforting each other.
Aluojin took a deep breath and went alone to the entrance of the forbidden cave.
The entrance was covered in small white flowers that "bled" when touched, and only a glimmer of water could be seen through the vines.
Aluojin's expression turned wooden, his knees buckled, and he fell to the ground in despair.
His father was killed by the demon clan, and the Great Sage had grown old and despondent, feeling helpless against his fate. Before long, he too passed away, leaving behind no words to guide him.
Aluojin had betrayed the teachings of his ancestors and taken a path full of thorns.
Aluojin vaguely felt that he had done something wrong, but he didn't know how he had ended up where he was.
He absentmindedly took out the wooden mask that was given to him during the Purification Festival years ago by Sheng Lingyuan. He felt like a lost child, staring blankly for a long time.
Finally, trembling, he put on the mask that represented the protection of his father and brothers.
"That flower is called the 'Life-Death Flower'. It grows in the altar pool and can clear the mind and focus the spirit. On moonlit nights, its dewy petals are as red as blood, and when consumed, it has a miraculous effect on hysteria. It can even restore the sanity of the insane... Yes, and it can also help forgetful old folks remember their past lives," said Sheng Lingyuan. "The pool symbolizes the mother, and the witch tribe believes that they are born here and will return here after death for protection and rest."
Xuan Ji leaned towards the cave entrance and peered inside through the vines. After a moment, he asked, "Are there many forbidden spells in there? Why doesn't Aluojin use them?"
"He dares not. That would be blasphemy," replied Sheng Lingyuan. "Besides, the more powerful the secret technique, the greater the cost. The former clan leader left in a hurry, and Aluojin only has a partial understanding of the witch tribe's spells. He's afraid of making things worse."
Xuan Ji looked around and said, "Staying here for a day or two shouldn't be a problem. Did you get delayed on the road and couldn't make it in time?"
"No, I wasn't delayed. I arrived just in time," replied the other person.
After three days and nights of being besieged, the brave warriors of Dongchuan were exhausted. After a brief rest, except for a few night watchmen, everyone else was lying unconscious with injuries, including Aluojin who was curled up sleeping next to the altar.
With the mountain god by his side and the faint light of the Life-Death Flower shining on him, he wore a mask and slept like a baby, feeling safe.
As the night wore on, Xuan Ji watched as the guards grew increasingly tired.
Suddenly, he caught a whiff of a sweet scent, light and delicate, like the scent of spring leaking from a garden a hundred meters away on a gentle breeze.
Xuan Ji immediately pinched his nose.
Sure enough, the guards swayed for a moment before collapsing to the ground.
Then, one of Aluojin's personal guards, who had been wide awake the whole time, slowly stood up.
Xuan Ji met his lifeless eyes and suddenly realized, "Wait a minute, isn't he a traitor? Didn't he say that the old chief of the Witch Clan was killed by something disguised as a 'human skin puppet'?
Then what about this...
"Little demon, you have sharp eyes," Sheng Lingyuan said. "How could Dan Li, a Taoist, let something slip out of his control?"
Xuan Ji shuddered.
The "human skin puppet" silently walked over to Aluojin's side, lowered its head to look at the ignorant young tribal leader, and behind its inorganic eyes seemed to be another soul.
Then, it bent down towards Aluojin.
Xuan Ji thought to himself, "If this were a horror movie, I would have to activate my 'side-eye' mode."
But unexpectedly, the human skin puppet did not take advantage of the situation to do anything bad.
It simply pulled out a cloak and gently draped it over Aluojin, then brushed aside the dirty braid on his face like a gentle father.
Aluojin felt the warmth and snuggled into the cloak, muttering something in the language of the witch tribe.
The skin puppet seemed to let out a small sigh, carefully stepping over his legs and walking towards the altar. As he walked, he pulled out a match from his pocket and flicked his finger on it. The match suddenly lit up, but the flame was strange, almost a bright red color, like the setting sun about to touch the ground.
It was warm, yet had a chill to it.
The vines covering the altar seemed to retreat like they had encountered a natural enemy as the match approached.
Soon, a small entrance appeared that was just big enough for one person to pass through.
The entire altar was revealed - a tranquil pool of water, and a stone platform that held pots of various sizes and leaves with writing on them.
At that moment, Aluojin may have felt the light, and he groggily opened his sleepy eyes.
He was confused for a moment, but finally woke up and looked in shock, "What are you doing?"
The skin puppet didn't turn around, but bent over and flicked the fire into the pool.
The fire not only wasn't afraid of the water, but also ignited the pool like gasoline!
Aluojin jumped up, but before he could catch the arsonist, the person's skin quickly shriveled up, sticking to the bones, revealing a wooden puppet inside. Aluojin was stunned.
Suddenly, everything seemed to connect like a thread, pointing vaguely to a truth - the family letter, the murdered old chief, and the secretly replaced personal guard who had grown up with him.
Aluojin shouted and rushed towards the altar, but it was already too late.
Those who betray their ancestral teachings will no longer receive the protection of the mountain gods.
Perhaps the deities will crumble alongside the clay sculptures, or maybe what people believe in is simply delusional.
Finally, the water boiled. The sealed earthen jars on the altar shattered one by one, and the floating shadows resembled released ghosts, careening wildly within the sacred space.
In a moment of desperation, Aluojin used his own body to block the opening and shouted back at his stunned kin, "Quickly, leave the altar! Go!"
The malevolent flames fueled by the forbidden spells caught the scent of flesh and greedily lunged towards him.
Aluojin's voice suddenly changed tone - his body was torn apart by one of the spells, and the wooden mask on his face, which he hadn't had time to remove, split in half, leaving only one side covered in blood.
However, before he could even close his eyes, he was hit by another forbidden curse and the Life-Death Flower turned from white to red, blood-like liquid flowing all over his body.
He struggled to keep his mind clear as he was torn apart by different poisonous curses, constantly dying and being reborn.
The witch people cried out and fled, opening the tightly closed mountain gate one by one. The altar floated back to the ground, but soon the first person to rush forward screamed and retreated - the entrance was on fire!
It was a demon fire, burning pure white.
The first brave warrior of the Witch Clan gritted his teeth and tried to rush out of the flames, but as soon as he touched the fire, he turned into ashes. The flames quickly rolled towards the cave entrance, burning everything in its path, even seeming to melt the stone entrance.
The panicked witch people quickly sank the altar back into the ground.
At this moment, Aluojin, who was blocking the entrance to the altar, had already been torn apart and sewn back together countless times. The torture was far from over, and blood flowed from his feet, pooling in a small depression on the ground.
Suddenly, sesame-sized butterfly larvae emerged from the blood and rapidly grew into a butterfly, spreading its wings.
Unlike the illusory Mirror Flower Water Moon Butterfly, this blood-stained butterfly fluttered away from the human body, its wings shimmering with the same red light as the evil fire on the altar.
It flew towards the crowd!
"Didn't you want to know what those different human-faced butterflies are?"
Xuan Ji heard Sheng Lingyuan's voice from a distance.
"There it is, a curse that even demon fire cannot burn."
As Xuan Ji's eyes widened, he was almost brought to tears by the sudden brightness.
After a moment, he realized that his perspective had once again shifted outside of the cave. The entire Dongchuan region was engulfed in a ghastly white demon fire, and someone shouted as they charged towards it.
Following the sound, Xuan Ji turned his head and saw a large group of people struggling to restrain the young Sheng Lingyuan.
He had only been delayed by one day...one night.
"This fire has been burning for seven days and seven nights," Xuan Ji heard Sheng Lingyuan say beside him. "No one can put it out. Do you know why?"
A chill ran down Xuan Ji's spine.
Before he could answer, the scene collapsed once again, and the two of them were forced to follow the stumbling young emperor into the sacrificial altar.
After seven days and seven nights, the fire finally went out.
The place was burned to a crisp, and the entire altar resembled a giant oven, with the smell of charred meat wafting everywhere. The people inside should have been cooked to death, but the charred corpses were all standing upright!
They chatted and laughed as if nothing had happened, just like in the evenings on the mountaintop in Sheng Lingyuan's memory.
At the entrance of the altar at the end of the cave, Aluojin was unscathed.
He looked through the crowd, his expression unclear, as if he was laughing and mocking at the same time. With a tilt of his head, his head fell to the ground.
Aluojin sighed and beckoned to his own head.
The androgynous youth's head rolled back to him and he picked it up, clumsily placing it on his neck. Half of his wooden mask had fallen off, revealing a flawless, snow-white face that had been protected by the mask, while the other half was charred black and unrecognizable.
Aluojin replaced the mask over his terrifying burn scars and opened his mouth, his voice echoing through the cave as he called out, "Lingyuan."
The young emperor had gone mad, shaking off his followers and about to follow when a voice suddenly stopped him.
"Halt!" the newcomer said. "Do you want to end up like the people inside?"
It was Dan Li's voice.
Xuan Ji turned his head to see a man walking towards them, wrapped in a long robe and wearing a mask over his face.
In a split second, Xuan Ji's mind connected the dots and pieced together the situation.
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