As winter drew to a close, the chill of spring set in.
The headquarters of the Red Hook Sect was located near the northwest sand dunes, overlooking the desert. The weather was even harsher than other places. Even the powerful Dark Blood Witch was holding a bowl of hot soup to warm her hands.
She looked out the window at the bleak snow scene, absentmindedly stroking the copper water jug as if holding a living creature. The table was filled with snacks and hot tea, all untouched.
"Sect Leader, there's new information. Prince Rong has made a deal with the Taiheng Sect and exchanged their map fragments. Now both sides have eight pieces, just like our sect."
A few days ago, the Red Hook Sect had just fought a bloody battle with the Ling Sect. The Ling Sect, fueled by some unknown anger, fought back like a mad dog. A third of the Red Scorpion Feet troops were lost, but they managed to obtain the Buddhist bead map from the Ling Sect.
With this, the Red Hook Sect had obtained eight out of the fourteen maps and was clearly in the lead. But then, Prince Rong made a move and the three sides were once again tied.
The Dark Blood Witch showed no surprise, "The Taiheng Sect has always had deep connections with the court, it was only a matter of time. That Xu Jingming kid's capabilities can't contain his ambition, he's probably waiting to pick the fruit of Taiheng... Tell Prince Rong's spies to leave him and go to Jiang Youyue's side."
"Spy on the National Teacher?! Sect Leader, please reconsider. If the court blames us, we..."
The old woman interrupted coldly, "Don't mention the Shi Rou, even immortal wine has never been touched by the current emperor. If he wants to interfere, do you think us jianghu rogues will be his concern? If the emperor doesn't care, that's fine, but this charlatan Jiang Youyue is also sitting back to watch. There must be hidden motives. Who knows where he has set his trap, we must be prepared."
"We, the Divine Sect, will never touch the Imperial Tombs. But if Jiang Youyue were to die, even if it's his grave, I can also dig it up. Not to mention if he's alive, why would I care about offending him."
"Yes, Sect Leader."
The subordinate took a moment to digest the shocking order before continuing, "There is another matter. Five days ago, in Qi Wu City, Zheng Fengdao was killed by Shi Jingzhi of the Ku Mountain Sect. It seems that the Ku Mountain Sect has no intention of collecting the maps and is heading to Huilian Mountain."
"Zheng Fengdao is dead? That little Shi Jingzhi is truly exceptional."
Dark Blood Witch chuckled. Zheng Fengdao was cunning and cautious, never overestimating himself. For Shi Jingzhi to kill him, it was not a stroke of luck.
"Sect Leader, do we need to intervene with the Ku Mountain Sect? And that person--"
"No need to bother with him." Dark Blood Witch finally turned her head, "He belongs to the Red Hook Sect and can't escape even if he tries."
"Anxiously heading towards Huilian Mountain, that kid surnamed Shi probably discovered some clues. The Buddha's Heart Formation ah, I've never seen it before. If only I were twenty years younger..."
She paused abruptly in the middle of her sentence and gazed out the window.
A thousand miles away, at the foot of Huilian Mountain, the four members of the Ku Mountain Sect were on edge as they made their way around Yongsheng, finally managing to reach Huilian Mountain.
Sect Leader Shi's medicine was indeed effective, and Su Si, who had been the most vocal about not wanting to move, was now completely healed. As for Sect Leader Shi himself, he was in good health and bouncing around once again.
This time, as they ventured into the Buddha's Heart Formation, Sect Leader Shi remained calm and composed.
The Huilian Mountain was where the righteous and prestigious sect resided. It lacked the eerie atmosphere of the Ghost Tomb and the discordance of the Yuanxian Village.
Only a simple and towering mountain stood, covered in glistening white snow, backed by a light blue sky. The wind stopped at the solid rocks, and the snow lay on the green pines. With just a glance from afar, the majestic and solemn aura came forth, able to suppress any wandering thoughts.
Despite the Buddha's Heart Formation, this mountain gave people an indescribable sense of security.
Sect Leader Shi gazed at the comforting mountain, slowly opening his arms and exhaling deeply, as if he wanted to embrace it.
Since joining the Ku Mountain Sect, Su Si had been worried about the mental state of his master and disciple: "...What is the sect leader doing?"
Yin Ci glanced at his master's melancholic back and couldn't help but smile: "I reckon he's thanking the heavens that he no longer has to deal with those sinister things."
After passing through the Ghost Tomb and the Yuanxian Village's forbidden area, even Yin Ci wanted to change his mood.
Su Si had never seen the forbidden area of the Yuanxian Village and couldn't understand: "Really? I've heard that there are many monsters living in Huilian Mountain. After we lose our internal strength, if we were to encounter the Heart Demons, we will definitely suffer."
Shi Jingzhi turned around when he heard this: "I've said before that the Buddha's Heart Formation was created by the monks. Even if it's inclined towards evil, how evil could it really be? Besides, the Heart Demon is something that can't be seen or touched. At most, it will only torture our spirits. There's no need to worry too much."
Although he spoke with great seriousness, Yin Ci could sense a hint of self-comfort in his words.
As they approached the foot of the mountain, the meaning of the Jianchen Temple's closure became more and more apparent. A row of half-height stone sculptures of Arhats sat around the mountain, with a fierce aura. The stone statues were seven steps apart from each other, with different shapes and vivid expressions, and there was no trace of snow on them.
Colorful Buddhist flags were placed between the gaps of the stone statues. The flags swayed in the cold wind, making a rustling sound that made people feel drowsy.
The Arhats glared angrily, while the Buddhist flags fluttered outside. Together, they formed a row of fences that were filled with rejection, enclosing the entire mountain.
The four did not dare to cross the boundary recklessly. They cautiously circled around Huilian Mountain, finally finding an entrance. The monks did not completely seal off the mountain, but instead, they placed two huge stones in front of the dangerous area at the back of the mountain, creating a prominent stone gate for this enclosed fence.
Two giant stones stood solemnly, with the left one reading "There is no tree of enlightenment*" and the right one reading "The clear mirror is not a stand**". The writing was powerful, and the sense rejection was even stronger than that of a Buddhist flags and the Arhats - as if there was an invisible stone hanging at the top, with the words "Don't be suicidal" written in large letters.
*T/N: True enlightenment cannot be found in any external object or concept, but is rather an innate quality that exists within the mind.
**T/N: The mind, like a clear mirror, reflects the world without distorting it, but is not a separate entity from the world itself. In other words, the mind and the world are not two separate things, but rather interdependent and interconnected.
On the other side of the door, the magnificent mountain scenery remained.
Being in the shade of the mountain, the scene in the formation became clearer. The stone steps were covered with a thin layer of snow, leading straight into the depths of the mountain. The pine and stone pavilions were all well-designed and perfectly placed. However, unlike usual, there were some headless stone statues standing in the mountains, covered in bright green moss, which looked extremely out of place in the vast winter scenery.
The stone statues were exquisitely carved, with men, women, old and young all represented. If it weren't for the missing heads, their movements would have been quite festive.
The four members of the Ku Mountain Sect hesitated for a long time in front of the entrance of the giant stones, and then unkindly pushed out their weakest member.
Lord Bai was shooed along by Shi Jingzhi with his flag, swaying and shaking as he crossed the giant stones. Every two steps, he would turn his head and glare fiercely at them.
Upon entering the Buddha's Heart Formation, Lord Bai did not show any unusual behavior. However, after half an incense stick's worth of time, the pair of antennae on his head slowly stood up. Suddenly, it seemed as if he had seen something extremely terrifying, and the whole goose collapsed into the snow, playing dead.
Perhaps this is the legendary Heart Demon.
But the goose was unharmed and did not struggle to break free. This formation was probably safe.
Yan Qing pondered, "My experience is the simplest, I'll go try it first."
Shi Jingzhi nodded and made way. Yan Qing looked at the giant stones on both sides, carefully stepped into the formation. As soon as he entered the formation, Yan Qing looked around and then looked at Lord Bai, his expression gradually becoming strange.
Su Si held his breath and asked, "San-zi, what did you see?"
Yan Qing hesitated for a moment before replying, "I...I need some time to process it before I can tell you."
Half an incense stick later, Yan Qing suddenly looked down at his hands and let out a bitter smile. Then he took a step forward and walked out of the entrance made of giant stones, only to quickly return to the formation.
"I think I know what's going on. You can only see the anomaly once you're inside the formation. It's hard to explain in one go, so why don't we all go in and take a look?"
Seeing that Yan Qing was his normal self and moving freely, Su Si followed him into the formation, followed closely by Shi Jingzhi. Yin Ci observed from outside for a moment before finally joining them.
As soon as they entered the formation, they were hit by a sudden loss of internal energy and a bone-chilling coldness, as if a bucket of ice water had been poured over their heads. Unfortunately, they were too distracted by the strange sights in front of them to pay much attention to it.
After a hundred years, the legendary Buddha's Heart Formation has once again emerged before the visitors' eyes.
The headless stone statue still stands in the distance, covered in bright green moss. However, there are now some strange "bald branches" near the statue. They are a dull grayish-red color, with a texture that resembles both wood and flesh, and are so thick that three people cannot wrap their arms around them. These peculiar objects shoot straight up into the sky, with no end in sight. As they ascend, they become thinner and thinner, swaying gently in the wind.
There are thousands upon thousands of these "bald branches," stretching as far as the eye can see, seemingly covering the entire area of Huilian Mountain. Looking up at the sky, the visitors feel as though they are standing in the midst of a towering forest of flesh-colored trees.
Yin Ci repeats his master's words slowly, "The Buddha's Heart Formation was created by the monks, so it must not be too sinister."
Shi Jingzhi is sweating profusely, "...Let's investigate the Heart Demons first."
Lord Bai's condition was quite alarming.
Behind the dejected Lord Bai floated a roasted goose, its skin bright and translucent, with mixed meat juices and oil dripping down, and the hot steam scattered in the wind.
Could this be considered a Heart Demon? If it was, this Heart Demon actually looked quite delicious. No wonder Yan Qing hesitated to describe it directly, it was a bit funny.
Seeing everyone calm down, Yan Qing spoke calmly, "The Buddha's Heart Formation can seal off one's internal strength and also make your Heart Demon take shape. However, it's difficult to express the concept of 'Heart Demon taking shape' in words."
"Your 'Heart Demon' taking shape requires time, so let's focus on my side first. My thoughts are still clear, without any strange emotions, I just... can see these things."
With the contrast of the white snow and gray branches, the orange-red roasted goose was too eye-catching, and the other three people only noticed Yan Qing at this point.
Unlike outside the camp, Yan Qing had many scars on his body. These scars didn't look like they were caused by sharp weapons, but rather like they were from punches, kicks, and beatings with sticks that left burns.
Yan Qing noticed the stares of the rest and smiled indifferently, "My father was fond of drinking, and it's all just childhood trivialities. Don't mind it."
He raised his wrist to let everyone see the focal point.
On Yan Qing's wrist hung a bloody and fleshy shackle. The shackle seemed to have been made by twisting someone's tendons, and blood dripped down like grapes on a vine. The shackle was adorned with scattered eyeballs, resembling the berries on a vine. Each eyeball had a red pupil that occasionally rotated and looked around.
Shi Jingzhi: "..."
He quickly retreated from the giant stone gate and took a few breaths outside the formation. When he returned, the expression in the Sect Leader's eyes had changed. He looked towards Huilian Mountain with a hint of resentment in his gaze, as if he was not facing a lifeless mountain, but a heartless person who had deceived him of his true feelings.
"Perhaps it's just that my Heart Demon is strange," Yan Qing said, covering the eyeball-covered shackles with his sleeve, trying to comfort him. "Look, Su Si's Heart Demon isn't as freaky as this."
"Not as freaky?!" Su Si almost screamed.
Compared to the delicious roasted goose and eyeball shackles, Su Si's Heart Demon was ordinary and somewhat incomprehensible - half an incense stick passed, Su Si stood and watched, then suddenly fell to the ground with a thud. His lower body twisted together in front of everyone, turning into a thick, black snake tail.
With his facial features and beauty mark, he looked like a snake demon straight out of a comic book.
Poor Su Si had been a two-legged man for twenty-one years and had no idea how to walk like a snake. He lay paralyzed next to Lord Bai, his tail stretched out straight like a frozen dead snake.
So far, although the anomaly was strange, everyone could still reluctantly accept it.
According to the order of entry, it was now Shi Jingzhi's turn to have his "Heart Demon take shape".
Shi Jingzhi stood still, closed his eyes tightly, and dared not move. After a while, he opened one eye and looked around - there were no floating foreign objects, no strange fleshy shackles, and his limbs were still the same, without any distortion.
Upon receiving this result, Shi Jingzhi was shocked and acted out of character. He planted his flagpole and frantically felt his body with both hands, but still did not feel any changes.
...How is this possible?
His internal strength had been sealed. How could the Buddha's Heart Formation only be half effective?
The expression on Shi Jingzhi's face was grim. He had long harbored the idea of using the Buddha's Heart Formation. If this formation could really draw out his Heart Demons, he might be able to find the reason for his abnormality. But to his surprise, the Buddha's Heart Formation did not respond at all, and Yan Qing's Heart Demons were even more terrifying than his own.
Suddenly, a cold wind seemed to blow through his body, leaving him shivering. Shi Jingzhi placed a hand on his chest, feeling his heart beating rapidly.
Was his uncontrollable sense of possession just his "nature"?
First it was his father, then his older brother. He had been so successfully confined that he was like a wild beast with its fangs removed, fed on minced meat until now. He couldn't really say he had suffered, but he had never truly lived either.
It made sense. How could someone who had never truly lived have Heart Demons?
Without knowing why, Shi Jingzhi subconsciously looked towards Yin Ci, as if trying to grasp something. But upon seeing his new disciple's condition, Shi Jingzhi's heart shook once again, filled with sadness that almost spilled over.
Yin Ci stood at the entrance of the giant stone, gazing into the depths of Huilian Mountain. Several semi-transparent shadow arms wrapped around him from behind, resembling evil spirits from the stories.
Those palms clasped together at Yin Ci's chest, while the ends of the arms twisted together behind him, forming an especially thick "chain." The other end of the shadow chain disappeared into the edge of the large formation, still not revealing its complete appearance.
Judging from Yin Ci's expression, he seemed to be completely indifferent to his Heart Demons.
"If Brother Su can still move, why don't we continue deeper? There's a pavilion up ahead, it would be better to rest there." Yin Ci said.
Ignoring the densely packed arms on his body, Yin Ci took a few steps forward. He was further away from the entrance now, and the ghostly chain was dragged out further.
Su Si and Yan Qing both took a deep breath at almost the same time, while Shi Jingzhi remained silent, his heart slowly growing colder.
"Ah Ci, come here. Your hairpin is crooked, let me fix it for you," Shi Jingzhi said softly, suppressing the tremble in his voice.
Sect Leader Shi's eyes were fixed on Yin Ci as he spoke, slowly backing away from the entrance to the formation. Yin Ci seemed accustomed to Shi Jingzhi's sudden outbursts of affection. He was too lazy to refuse and calmly walked over to Shi Jingzhi.
As Yin Ci approached, Su Si hugged Lord Bai and struggled to look away, and even Yan Qing took a few steps back.
But Shi Jingzhi did not retreat.
When Yin Ci stopped in front of him, Shi Jingzhi lifted the black hair at the side of his disciple's temple and looked into the other's dim pupils.
For the first time, Shi Jingzhi felt this way - he should have been focused on his own emptiness, but seeing the scene in front of him, he couldn't help but want to hold Yin Ci down and force out his disciple's past.
His heart was torn between himself and Yin Ci, almost being split in half.
After what felt like a long time, Shi Jingzhi spoke again. He was surprised to find that, as the situation became more strange, his voice became unexpectedly calm.
He carefully adjusted the white jade hairpin and spoke with a heart full of sadness, "Ah Ci...you can't see anymore, why didn't you say anything?"
This person's expression was indifferent, walking as usual, perhaps knowing how to navigate by following the flow of air. Yin Ci's performance only had one flaw, but it was a fatal one. No matter how he disguised himself, he couldn't hide it.
Yin Ci's Heart Demon was not just those chain-like ghost hands.
At first, they only saw glimpses of it, because the Heart Demon was so massive that it took until Yin Ci was ten yards away before its full form was revealed.
Ghostly hands were linked together, forming chains of shadows. As they moved towards the back, the translucent hands became more numerous, eventually intertwining into a slimy, slug-like mass that was a dull, ebony black. Looking up, they saw an enormous, half-rotted head that was pressed into their view.
Excluding the ghostly hands that were the base, the height of the decapitated head was around nine yards, comparable to three city walls stacked on top of each other. The head was upside down, without a jaw, and its features had all rotted away, leaving behind gaping holes that revealed its empty interior.
Overall, the massive Heart Demon looked like a strange, eerie Eternal Flame Lamp, the kind that would be dug up from the Ghost Tomb.
There was even a small flame flickering in the center of the half-head.
The flame was unlike any other fire in the world, pure black and incredibly cold. It flickered gently, absorbing all the light around it. The nearby "bald branches" seemed to sense its presence and swayed even more vigorously.
Perhaps this thing shouldn't be called a "Eternal Flame Lamp," but rather a "Eternal Darkness Lamp". Su Si and Yan Qing's hair stood on end as they tried to distance themselves from it. Just getting close to this monstrous thing was enough to make one feel uncomfortable all over.
In comparison, the shadowy chain of ghost hands was as delicate as a strand of hair. It followed Yin Ci's movements, dragging the Eternal Flame Lamp along with it. At first glance, it seemed a bit comical, as if Yin Ci was dragging a mountain with just his own body.
Under such a powerful mental attack, Yin Ci still maintained a calm expression, that was only possible if he could no longer see.
Shi Jingzhi repeated the question again, his throat dry and sore. "You can't see, right?"
The others' reactions were strange. Even if Yin Ci couldn't guess it perfectly, he could still figure out quite a bit. He lowered his eyelids and after a moment, he gave a proper answer, "Indeed, I can't see anything. It seems that the Buddha's Heart Formation is interfering with my sight. But it doesn't affect our mission, and my sight will return after we leave the formation... It's nothing, I don't want to trouble Shizun."
He paused for a moment and continued, "It seems that my Heart Demons are more eye-catching than others."
Not only were they eye-catching, but they were exceptionally strange. In terms of size, even the Jianchen Temple on the mountaintop could see them. If the monks weren't outside the formation, they would have probably been attacked by now.
Shi Jingzhi looked at his disciple in front of him, with a thousand words stuck in his chest. He was always good at socializing, but at this moment, he couldn't say a word.
Yan Qing and Su Si were both twenty-one years old. Setting aside Yan Qing, Su Si at least had already experienced the most difficult kind of life. Even so, he only grew a snake tail.
His disciple was only twenty years old. Could it be that since Yin Ci became sensible, he had been living in the eighteenth level of hell? Shi Jingzhi looked at the huge human head lamp and felt not fear, but a cold daze.
What kind of experience must a person go through to develop such a Heart Demon?
Shi Jingzhi had always believed that as long as he maintained a good relationship with Yin Ci, he would eventually open up to him. After all, between master and disciple, they should share their hearts with each other, it was only a matter of time.
But now he wasn't so sure.
For a moment, Shi Jingzhi had a cold intuition.
The figure in front of him seemed not to be human, but a dark abyss.
Heart Demon (Physics)
...Of course, I wouldn't write about a normal Heart Demon (^ρ^)/
Shi Jingzhi: ??? The only normal person is me, how is that possible.
Everyone's internal energy has been sealed, and Yin Ci, who was the hope of the entire village, has instead gone blind (...)
They were taking a known risk after all, it's impossible for things to go smoothly.
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