Zhao Yunlan said coldly, “The villain with a long opening monologue in legends will be shot dead. Do you believe it?”

Rustling sounds came from all directions in the woods, as if countless tiny footsteps were walking among them. Zhao Yunlan lit a lighter, raising the small flame high to cast a faint halo.

Suddenly, he turned abruptly, and a small figure flashed past him from behind, floating straight into the air and instantly disappearing from its original spot, leaving behind long, spider-web-like garment trails that swiftly streaked by at an imperceptible speed.

A laughter resembling the mournful cry of a mourning bird followed.

Zhao Yunlan stood still for a moment, and that thing seemed to be wary of him as well, constantly circling around him, appearing and disappearing. However, it never came close to him.

Suddenly, a long whip whizzed through the air, intercepting that thing from a cunning angle, and coiled tightly around it. Zhao Yunlan flicked his wrist, and the whip’s end fell heavily, causing the thing to emit a stifled scream. Looking closer, it was a “person” just over a meter tall, now sprawled on the ground.

The gender of that “person” was unclear, their face covered in wrinkles with an extremely protruding nose that occupied most of their face, squeezing the other features into a cramped space. At first glance, they looked like an ominous large bird, their pair of small eyes murky, almost devoid of white, and when they looked at people, it was sinister. When they suddenly smiled, a mouthful of uneven, yellow teeth was revealed.

Zhao Yunlan squatted down, propping his elbows on his knees, and locked eyes with the person for a moment before bluntly asking, “Hey, what kind of thing are you?”

The person stared at him ominously and replied in a voice that sounded like a saw, “Kid, don’t be ignorant.”

“Oh,” Zhao Yunlan sized him up, “then why don’t you enlighten me about how high and mighty you are?”

He reached into his pocket, flicked his wrist, and brought a cigarette to his mouth. The lighter nimbly flipped between his fingers, creating sparks that lit the cigarette. The slight minty aroma filled the air, causing the person to lean back and cough.

With the other end of the Soul-Suppressing Whip still in his hand, Zhao Yunlan didn’t loosen his grip and asked, “Were you the one selling something earlier?”

The person coldly snorted, “Yes, so what do you want to buy?”

Ignoring his response, Zhao Yunlan squinted and asked, “So, it’s true that you have the Pen of Merit?”

The person remained silent, their sly eyes fixed on Zhao Yunlan like venomous snakes.

Zhao Yunlan flicked off some ash from his cigarette, then grabbed the person’s collar, lifting them up to eye level. “I don’t believe that the Four Divine Artifacts were pulled out of the ground with the radish. Who sent you? And who made you lure me with a fake Pen of Merit as a pretext?”

An evil smile appeared on the person’s face, making them look even more like a large bird. They sneered, “You’ve provoked someone you shouldn’t have.”

Rather than getting angry, Zhao Yunlan laughed instead. Holding the cigarette at a slant, he lazily said, “The people I shouldn’t have provoked are my mother and my wife. Do you think you, with all due respect, can meet their aesthetic standards?”

Before waiting for a response, Zhao Yunlan released his grip, throwing the person to the ground. He then stomped on their small frame mercilessly, his smile disappearing from his face as he coolly said, “I’m running out of patience. If I lose my temper, I might just kill you. Speak up!”

The person being trampled underfoot looked at him with an odd expression and asked hoarsely, “The dog guarding the Western Sea, the pig guarding the Northern Sea, it’s thirteen thousand li from the shore. And there’s the Weak Water circulating endlessly… Separating the Great Gates, bound by Heaven, such imposing spirit and aura. Do you still remember?”

Zhao Yunlan’s face remained expressionless as he replied, “You should talk to my wife about that. I’ve always been bad at Chinese literature.”

The person chuckled, their crippled arms moving with difficulty as they reached into their chest and took out a small golden bell. “Then do you also not remember this?”

As soon as Zhao Yunlan saw the bell, goosebumps rose on his skin. The bell was spirit-conductive, typically used for summoning and gathering souls. With his left shoulder lacking a Soul Flame and his three souls and seven spirits already less stable than others, he didn’t hesitate. He stomped down on the person’s arm, bending over to pick up the small golden bell.

However, no matter how he tried, his hand couldn’t lift it. The bell, the size of a fingernail, seemed to weigh thousands of pounds, causing his wrist to ache. He couldn’t even lift it by a millimeter.

The short person burst into laughter. “So… you can’t even pick up a little bell, hahaha. Is there anything more absurd than that in the world?”

At that moment, a demonic wind suddenly blew, and the bell hanging on the stump of the short person lightly tinkled. Zhao Yunlan immediately tensed up, swinging the Soul-Suppressing Whip and swirling away a massive ball of ghostly fire. The fire landed on the treetop, with the trunk of a thick tree visibly withering and blackening in the blink of an eye, turning into a completely dried-up dead tree.

Soon after, clusters of ghostly fire came with the wind, but when Zhao Yunlan attacked with his whip, the person had already retreated twenty meters away.

He felt like his luck had run out this year. Besides being successful in love, everything else seemed to go wrong. It was bad enough to be dirt poor, but the various troublemakers disturbing public order that he encountered while enforcing the law seemed to have supernatural powers, one more powerful than the other.

Bony claws emerged from the graves in the mountains, crawling up from the ground. The short person who had been stepped on earlier floated up into the air, surrounded by dense clusters of ghostly fire in a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree spherical arrangement. The small golden bell hung on the short person’s severed finger swayed gently in the wind, emitting almost inaudible tinkling sounds. It seemed to awaken the entire mountain’s gloom. Thick clusters of white mist billowed out from the tree canopy that had been dormant in winter, causing the trees to wither completely. Crows nesting on the trees cawed loudly, flying into the endless depths of the night sky. The moon, at some unknown point, turned blood-red.

Zhao Yunlan knew that this night was going to be far from peaceful.

He extinguished the cigarette butt and ran toward the edge of the forest, saying, “Hey, don’t come at me without reason. Haven’t you told me why you led me here?”

Now that Zhao Yunlan had come out to maintain public order and pursue peace, he had no idea who had just stepped on someone’s arm.

“I doubt you’re just itching for a fight with me, right?” Zhao Yunlan said. “I spend most of my time in the office and don’t exercise regularly, so fighting is definitely not my forte. We can seek a more civilized way to resolve this. What do you think?”

The short person only sneered in response.

Chased by a ball of ghostly fire, Zhao Yunlan grabbed onto a branch of a large tree with both hands, swiftly hoisted himself up, and somersaulted in mid-air before landing. He knelt on one knee for cushioning and faced the short person, asking, “Manipulating ghostly fire with the power of life and death… Are you a ghost cultivator or an earth immortal? As far as I know, ghost cultivators are afraid of dealing with living beings, fearing that it would damage their pure yin physique or stir up their inner demons, reminding them of their past lives. So, esteemed sir, are you someone among their ranks who is working in the Underworld? I’m just not sure in which department you hold a high position.”

The short person hesitated for a moment, then firmly denied, “What does the Underworld amount to? I don’t even bother dealing with them!”

“Oh,” Zhao Yunlan nodded, “I understand now. With your appearance, you must be from the Black Crow clan, the ‘Hearers of the Dead,’ right? Still, I’ll have to ask the elder of the demonic race about it. Although I have a good relationship with the demonic race, we’re not as close as brothers. However, when we meet, we’re at least polite to each other. What exactly does your group mean by this?”

The short person realized that they couldn’t let him continue guessing, and suddenly shook the small golden bell in their hand. At that moment, Zhao Yunlan burst into laughter and extended his hands from behind him.

At some point, he had injured his own fingers, using the bloodstains to draw a complex pattern between two yellow paper talismans. Each piece of paper had burned quietly, one pointing toward the sky, the other pointing toward the ground.

Suddenly, Zhao Yunlan released his grip, and a thunderclap erupted, giving birth to a fire dragon. The heavenly thunder provoked the earthly fire, instantly turning the entire hill of wild graves into a charred black. Countless ghostly fires were silently engulfed within, without a sound, as they were swallowed up. The flames burned the short person’s clothes, but the unremarkable demonic figure stood motionless within it.

Their figure was slender, and in that moment, an ugly face revealed a sense of determination.

Zhao Yunlan locked eyes with the person and couldn’t help but pause.

But all he could do was invoke heavenly thunder and manipulate earthly fire. Trying to control or make them stop had long surpassed his abilities. Zhao Yunlan reached out his hand, as if he wanted to grab the person or say something.

However, in the midst of the blazing fire, the short person suddenly rose with a half-human, half-bird face. Black raven feathers appeared on their withered, deformed wings, instantly burning and falling behind them, looking pitifully like a pair of charred barbecue wings.

The short person let out a long howl to the sky and, suddenly, transformed into a cloud of black mist within the raging flames, plunging into the golden bell.

The firelight around the golden bell suddenly changed color, as if tens of thousands of bright lights had converged in one spot. Zhao Yunlan hurriedly closed his eyes, but it was too late. A sharp pain shot through his eyes, and he instinctively pushed his arms forward, quickly retreating in the darkness. Then, the sound of the bell, like a drill, pierced his ears.

In a daze, he seemed to hear the sound of mountains collapsing, colossal pillars breaking in half, and jagged boulders rolling down from above, rumbling continuously, as if the sky itself was collapsing.

Zhao Yunlan felt that there was suddenly another person behind him, someone who had been secretly observing their struggle. At this moment, they took advantage of the chaos and reached out to grab his shoulder.

Ignoring the dizziness that almost made him lose balance, Zhao Yunlan stepped sideways, swung the Soul-Suppressing Whip back at the person, but he could hardly see or hear anything. He had no idea where the whip landed, only hearing a light sound followed by a strong force at the tip, as if it was going to pull him over.

Zhao Yunlan didn’t care about his whip and immediately let go, reacting swiftly.

However, at that moment, a hand touched his neck like a ghostly presence. The person took advantage of the situation expertly, catching Zhao Yunlan who had completely fainted.

The enormous sleeves of the ghostly figure fell among the remaining embers on the ground, extinguishing the raging fire. The thunderous sound also subsided.

Seemingly effortless, the person carried Zhao Yunlan in one hand and picked up the small bell, which was as heavy as a golden hoop. They pinched it with two fingers, examined it closely, and suddenly chuckled. They tucked it into their sleeve, turned around, and walked away.

Shen Wei found nothing in the apartment, so he rushed to No. 4 Guangming Road, only to find that all the lights were out except for a group of ghosts meticulously marking their attendance. Shen Wei was extremely anxious and turned around in the courtyard, taking a few deep breaths to barely calm himself down. He forced himself to calm his mind and calculated Zhao Yunlan’s whereabouts.

Then, to his surprise, he discovered that Zhao Yunlan was coming towards him.

Where did he go in the middle of the night? Why did he come to the Special Investigations Department?

Shen Wei turned around abruptly and saw a familiar figure suspended in mid-air.

The refined and scholarly Professor Shen’s face changed in an instant.

The ghostly figure calmly looked at the Soul-Cleaver Dagger pointing at their chin, showing no fear. Instead, they lowered their head patiently and tidied up Zhao Yunlan’s disheveled clothes caused by the wind, lightly laughing, “You always follow him so eagerly, but when you see me, you strike me first. Isn’t he biased against you?”

Shen Wei almost squeezed out a sentence from between his teeth, “Let go, don’t touch him with your dirty hands.”

“Dirty hands?” The ghostly figure chuckled softly, “Are you so clean?”

Shen Wei’s face turned cold.

The ghostly figure smiled mysteriously, lifted their hand, and tossed Zhao Yunlan aside. Shen Wei quickly withdrew his dagger to avoid injuring him, reaching out to catch him steadily.

“They never considered you as their own, but I’m different,” the ghostly figure said patiently, “I hope you can think carefully about who treats you better. Is it worth destroying yourself for those unrelated people? Even I pity you.”

Shen Wei coldly replied, “Don’t worry about me.”

A sinister smile appeared on the mask of the ghostly figure, “Alright then, don’t regret it.”

After speaking, the figure turned around. Their large cloak billowed behind them as they disappeared into the night sky.

Shen Wei immediately brought Zhao Yunlan back to his apartment. Zhao Yunlan’s injuries didn’t seem severe, just some minor scrapes and bruises. The back of his neck was slightly red, probably from being knocked unconscious by a palm. Apart from that, Shen Wei couldn’t see any other problems with him, so he anxiously sat by his bedside, waiting for him to wake up.

Zhao Yunlan slept soundly until noon the next day. During that time, his phone rang incessantly, but the person on the bed remained motionless.

Only when the sun had risen to its zenith in the south did Zhao Yunlan’s fingers twitch suddenly. Shen Wei noticed the movement and immediately held his hand, gently shaking it. With a hint of nervousness, he said, “Yunlan?”

Before Zhao Yunlan could open his eyes, he instinctively covered his neck and muttered, “Damn it, who the hell did…?”

Seeing that he still had the energy to curse, Shen Wei let out a sigh of relief. However, he then heard Zhao Yunlan’s heavy voice calling him.

Shen Wei hurriedly asked, “Hmm, what is it?”

Seemingly still a bit groggy, Zhao Yunlan asked inexplicably, “What time is it? Why are you still awake? And why didn’t you turn on the lights?”

Author’s Note: Note: “Surrounding the West Sea… reverberating” is from “Records of the Ten Continents within the Sea.”

“The arrangement of the heavenly gates, the decline of the celestial portals” is from the “Huainanzi.”