The succubus queen traded many blows with god-tiered Lan Zhan when she regained consciousness. The battle became a long string of attacks and defenses flavoured with superfluous names and descriptions, thrown at each other in perfectly logical sequences; the Seven-String Turbulent Waves Beneath The Mighty Long River was flung at the succubus, but her Dragon Sword’s Three Circular Breaths Of Insidious Malaise nullified the powerful sound-based shocks. She countered with an infallible Five Restless Roars Of Underworld Blasphemous Screams, which Lan Zhan had to block with his sleeves, thus rendering him temporarily blinded and deaf, and by the time he shook off the effects, the succubus had her serpentine blade aimed at his throat. He flipped splendidly at the last second to narrowly avoid being nicked by poison-coated metal, then sent a flying Gusu’s Three Level Waterfalls kick to the enemy’s abdomen. As the shijie was thrown off-balance in mid-air, Lan Zhan took the opportunity to swipe his blade upwards to launch a combo move of Dustless Three-Way Slashes and Five-Way Cleansing Power Vacuum Strikes. However the succubus seemed to have anticipated such classic Gusu Lan sword fighting styles, that she easily dodged the rushing gusts of slicing winds, and prepared a magical Meteoric Fireball attack from her thick fat tail. They flew and spiralled around the atrium, wrecking massive destruction to the solid brick construction until nearly half the Tian Mi Mi-esque building that housed the succubi nest was torn down into rubble and ruins.
Lan Zhan scowled faintly when he realized that he wasn’t making any progress; both of them fought using the foundations of classic Gusu Lan hand-to-hand and ranged combat techniques - which was pretty much standard martial arts protocol of throwing one powerful attack after another, and parrying when the enemy got too close. It didn’t help that Tian shijie kept spouting threats and claims in between blows, that taunted him to fight harder, but not necessarily smarter.
“You are weak! Your blade cannot even touch me, how could you even call yourself a worthy Gusu Lan man?!”
“Hah! Did that hurt? My magical offensive power is unlimited, thanks to all the Lan boys that I’ve consumed over the past few months! Don’t slow down, otherwise you will be eaten as well!”
“It’s the end of the line for the Lans! Revenge is ours, once we get rid of you and your brother! There will be no more Gusu Lans left in existence!”
Lan Zhan remained silent at those provocative barbs, and slowly pieced together information. He postulated that the succubi aren’t as up-to-date as he would have thought - she still considered him more of a Gusu Lan rather than his newly-minted sect (which was technically still correct); the succubus queen wasn’t aware that at least a hundred Lan disciples had escaped to safety and thus, there is no immediate threat of extinction; her speech patterns didn’t quite match what he remembered as the kind, intelligent and patient shijie he knew from his past timeline - so he was sure that although the succubus that confronted him was physically derived from the person he once knew - a clone - however, tying back to the fact that 31st-century cloning technology had faults in replicating intelligence, abilities, emotion and behaviours - an inferior copy, taking Wei er ge as an example of being not as bright as the real Wei Wuxian despite being borned of the same drop of blood - Lan Zhan concluded that he had to think out of the box, step out of line, and take a page from his spouse in order to secure the checkmate in a wayward game of chess.
He flew away to put a safe distance between the two of them, and stood on the crumbling edge of a blasted balcony that used to face the central skylights.
“ Shijie , put down your weapons and stand back. I do not wish for more bloodshed. If the Tians withdraw, so will my brother and I. He waits for my signal on a mountain not far from here, to launch the greatest explosive device known to any sects. You have my word that if you sheathe your sword and leave this place, I will not send a signal flare to the blue skies that will destroy everything within the vicinity,” he announced clearly and allowed his voice to echo into the cavernous and nearly demolished chamber.
The succubus queen violently thrashed in mid-flight with boiling anger, “What?! You lie! Your brother fled Gusu’s borders before we erected the barriers. I know this because it was I who interrogated him the night before to demand a full list of Lan sect members and their whereabouts - which he vehemently denied having, despite being the Sect Leader! What a dishonorable coward; a Sect Leader who had signed the treaty with the Imperial forces, pledged his loyalty to the leaders from the Tian family, and yet he backed out at the last moment and feigned ignorance, incompetence and “I don’t know”s… I’ve lost count of how many times he said those words… it’s unbelievable, what a hopeless Sect Leader he was! However his treachery is for naught, because we can still trace everyone using other registry records found in towns, cities and villages!”
Lan Zhan’s lips twitched. He was glad that Director Nie, no matter how useless or crafty that fox was, managed to pass a few lessons to the rigid and morally upright Lans. He exhaled, and calmly responded, “Say what you will, I know my brother better than you do. In fact, even my uncle is prepared to back us up. He waits in faraway Dashan village to the west, directing many to farm enough food and train new disciples so that we grow in strength and shall strike back with tenfold the true ferocity of the Gusu Lans.”
Tian shijie - or at least her demonic clone - screeched like a banshee, “You… you’re lying! You’re confused, not me! The Imperial troops led by the Tians have laid waste to everything in the west other than the city of Yiling and its surroundings, where your branch-sect will surely be swallowed by the unstoppable forces of our formidable elites, and be extinguished once and for all!” then pointed a clawed forefinger at him (how disrespectful; Gusu Lan never taught their disciples, even former disciples, to point at people rudely).
“All your elders have fallen under our influence and have been consumed before the last full moon, except for one sickly old man who waits in his deathbed. He has caught a disease of coughing out dirty blood and has deteriorated over the months. I was personally guarding his bedroom and tried to end his life - but he tastes so bad and he spat blood at my naked body, that I have decided to grant him a little mercy, so that he may live until the time when his life force snuffs out on its own, and we can finally rid the last human from Caiyi Town,” she added haughtily and raised her bountiful boobs towards the skylight.
Lan Zhan had to close his eyes for a second to erase the cursed sight of abominable watermelons jiggling in mid-air, and he calmly responded, “No, shijie , I know my uncles better than you do. Also, there are more allies of the Gusu Lan sect in Caiyi Town and in other towns and cities in the province. Get your facts right, and do not embarrass yourself further. My closest disciples are in Caiyi, frequently visiting teahouses for drinks and now they hide until the time our sect’s signal flares light up brighter than the blue skies, and we will emerge to defeat you.”
It was only a matter of time; something probably triggered and snapped inside the emotionally-unstable succubus queen. She roared - an ugly howl more befitting of graveyard phantoms - then her tail lashed to the sides and grew tremendously in size until it could rise above her horned head from behind. The whiplashing forces were admirable and generated typhoon-strength winds at her opponent - Lan Zhan had to steady himself, lest he loses his footing at the edge of the ruined platform.
“How dare you! We have tracked down every known person in Gusu’s towns and cities, kept them in cages, and made sure to fill our bellies with their life force until nothing but skin and bones remain. There is no one left in Caiyi that were unaccounted for, however, your presence here tells us that you’re looking for survivors in Caihong, which we had suspected for some time due to the incomplete town registry records - and now I can report to the Grandfather Patriarch about this finding, and finally solve this mystery!”
The monstrous tail hissed and morphed into a sucker-like appendage that unsurprisingly looked like a vagina with serrated teeth, dripping with black, toxic saliva. Tentacles grew out of her watermelons and the uncovered bits between her legs - at that point, Lan Zhan visibly shuddered. “Enough of this futile banter! I will make sure to behead you and suck your life energies while your dying body slowly suffocates to death!” she screamed and lunged straight at the man with clawed limbs ready to grapple and slice everything within range; the tail swung from side to side like a snake that had been disturbed from its nest, and poised to strike.
Lan Zhan has had enough (the tentacle-y watermelons were frightening, after all), and convinced himself that it was time to promptly exit the stage. He silently thanked his older brother for sending the short, cryptic message full of hidden meanings to the ‘Mounds; by locating Tian shijie , he had a chance to gather enough information from the Tian’s top dog (or bitch) from the encounter, and be assured that Gusu can still be saved.
With that, he promptly muttered an apology and teleported himself out of the way; the cavalry has arrived.
The succubus queen screeched in surprise when her jaws knocked into a broken pillar and her claws struck cracked walls rather than a mortal’s flesh. She yelped, then fell to the ground and landed atop her pile of dried corpses, dazed and head spinning from the impact.
There were crunches of giant boots on desiccated human bodies, groans and heavy panting, of belts and armours being shifted and unbuckled. Tian shijie moaned from the pulsing pain and the blinding light flooding from the skylight right above her. Her vision was pure-white - then, slowly, five, no, ten, no… more towering black masses loomed over her.
A crew of twelve-feet tall giant incubuses surrounded the female lying on her pedestal of corruption and death, and she was about to be devoured in the same way as her victims. Those incubi were fat, ugly, full of warts and phallic protrusions, covered with battle-scars and tattoos and they smelled bad from acrid body odour, smokes and alcohol. One by one, each undressed and unveiled fanged penis-headed tails, drug-laced claws, hairy bodies with multiple penis-shaped tentacles growing out from all angles, and horrors of horrors, giant turgid pendulums swung between their legs that looked more like snakes with many heads and fingers, and they hissed and salivated at their prey on the ground.
“Hello sweetie. I don’t usually make a habit out of raping little girls like you, but you’re so pretty that I might make an exception.”
“Play with us, sweetheart, my incubus body is totally ready for some hot lovin’! Your titties look so plump, you could be the right one for us! Come, come pull off those panties, don’t be shy...”
“Oooh, oooh, can I have a go? I’ve not tasted a queenie’s pussy before, but I might make her pregnant today if she’s delicious enough! I could blow a week’s load into that fat pussy of hers!”
“Ah ha ha! I’ve brought enough brown vials for our fun, boys! Special concoctions just for today’s party! Everyone grab one and pour it on her, she’ll do your bidding immediately!”
The merry band of mutated bandits licked their greasy lips in anticipation and uncorked their vials, while some had already started masturbating excitedly in front of the horrified succubus queen.
Wei Ying tried to think like an ordinary Gusu Lan man; in logical sequences, following the concept of cause-and-effect, and none of the usual bullshit of creating new spells from existing talismans, fashioning new gadgets out of spare parts, or sending forth an army of zombies equipped with futuristic technology.
“Hmm… if vampires and other denizens of the dead rise from the ground and attack people, one would surely run to the temple where there are protective amulets and barriers, spell-wielding chanting monks and holy statues to drive away evil.
And if the temple gates have been breached,” Wei Ying stared at the broken doors and his gaze led him to the interior of the temple grounds, through shrines and smaller annexes, “one would seek refuge along with the monks, and rely on their centuries-old wisdom to survive the holocaust.” He ran into the main temple complex, with a spacious courtyard in the center flanked by four pagodas each on every corner. The ground was a sea of skeletal remains of priests, defeated fierce corpses, broken furniture, pottery and burnt debris, bloodied tapestries, fallen effigies and toppled-over altars, fractured swords, shattered armour and shields, splintered quarter staffs and mace, and even pockmarked by a deluge of arrowhead imprints.
“If the fighting monks have fallen and the shrines are desecrated, the survivors would risk their lives to protect that most important treasures - first, the holy scriptures and tomes!” he told himself. Wei Ying explored the temple’s library pavilion, which had been ransacked and set on fire, and - he noted sourly - the shelves that held documents pertaining to births, marriages and other important daily life rituals that the temple oversees, and deaths, had been emptied. With nothing else of value other than dog-eared boring-looking history books, sutra chanting scripts and portraits of past temple councillors partly burnt to ashes, he quickly left.
“Hmm… where else would they go, if their source of wisdom, the library, has been destroyed? Ah, their source of belief! The last sacred bastion which is the patron saint or god to whom the temple is devoted to!” he gleefully solved his own puzzle and ran back into the temple complex. At the heart was a huge chamber with an impressive two-storey high statue carved from mountain granite, a robed figure seated in a lotus position with palms pressed together at the front. Unfortunately its head was sliced off with a large sword - he smelled the smoky metallic tang of a dragon-blade - and a pile of broken rock lay adjacent to the statue; he couldn’t recognize the local god that was worshipped by the temple, unfortunately. Again, more bodies and corpses and their ruined equipment littered the holy but abandoned grounds.
Wei Ying scratched his head, “Ahh… if the source of belief is gone too, then… to their source of their spiritual beings?” He wasn’t certain, and wished he’d paid more attention to classes about Gusu Lan religion and rituals during his younger days studying in the Cloud Recesses. He supposed that if the monks no longer have a legacy to pass down to future generations, if their worshipped god had been smashed right in front of their eyes, then they would feel broken and have had lost all hope - they would rather die fighting, or die with their teachers and mentors, rather than to surrender to the Dark, evil forces. Teachers and mentors might qualify as the source for their spiritual strength, he briefly thought.
He remembered that Si Zhui had brought a casket and received permission to store it in the temple. Putting one and one together, he wagered that he should visit the temple’s mausoleum next, which was located a little further away from the main temple grounds and hidden behind a clump of tall trees. Remains of past Head Priests and other important historical figures are put to rest in crypts beneath such sturdy buildings, there was usually some food kept as prayer offerings, and enough bulky furniture and bronze statuettes to build barricades if needed, plus the walls of the building are thick to withstand the weather elements, and could resist devastating attacks; he knew that much based on the martial arts-themed graphic novels he’d read during his early days, which were tried and tested knowledge put into story books for consumption by the young, the adventurous, the easily awestruck, and the over imaginative, including himself, of course.
As soon as he approached the mausoleum which was a rectangular building with marble-tiled roofing decorated with sculptures of Underworld gods, he noticed that the main teakwood doors were slightly ajar.
Master Lan Qi Ren knew his time had come - he could feel it in his bones, his stomach, his hands and even the tips of his fingers. He had seen everything, overcome all of life’s adversities from a childhood full of discipline and restrictions, a rough upbringing rising through the ranks of the sect, becoming a senior council member, a tough tutor, a wise mentor, even raising orphaned children to follow his steps toward a fulfilling, untroubled, peaceful life (and later, losing one such precious child to a yaoguai disguised as a charming but unrepentant upstart youngster)--
He had been lying on a stained, unwashed bed for months , sealing away all inputs and outputs from his body so that he stood next to death’s doorstep. It was the ultimate Gusu Lan cultivation technique for extreme survival situations, and only practised by those whose cultivation levels were high enough. He nearly ceased breathing, stopped consuming everything except for the qi circulating in the atmosphere, and his body had metabolically shut down. Once in a while, his captive form was visited by the enemy - demons that created fierce corpses for their cruel amusement after sucking life energies off men, which was even worse than that said yaoguai - but they regarded him as unfit for consumption. One tried to sit on his crotch and straddle him, but she was awfully overweight, and his body immediately rejected the unholy touch - he vomited blood even while remaining unconscious, there was a screech-y scream, and he was not touched again after that. However, he had been ill for many years that robbed his fast-ebbing strength, even through the passing of seasons and the changes of Chief Cultivators, and he was afraid that he may not last while maintaining this near-death state with a fast-declining health.
He thought that finally, his weakened body had given up, his golden core had fizzled out its last spark, and that he found himself in a strange kind of heaven.
It was surreal to have that orphaned child he’d lost so long ago, now returned to his teenage years, massaging his creaky shoulders, while he lay on a fancy lounge chair lined with velvet and other plush materials. His bones rattled and loosened from a very nice vibrating grip from the young man, and he moaned, then tilted his neck to silently ask for more, more, a little more to the right, please; the wish was granted, to his delight.
On his stomach lay the fluffiest and most adorable pillow of sorts, and it looked like a giant fat two-feet long silkworm with a drool-coated mouth at one tapered end, and a slightly bloated tummy on the other. The pillow worm snuggled on his belly, weighed comfortably on his abdomen, and kept him warm - all old men like him loved to have their bellies warmed. Being a true blue Gusu Lan man, he couldn’t resist the satiny white fur which resembles a rabbit’s rump, and he kept running his fingers over it; in response, the living pillow coo’d and gurgled happily, gently rolled over and curled up higher against his chest; he learnt, over minutes and hours of playing with this endearing elongated ball of fluff, that the worm’s belly was squishy and could be kneaded in circles, and if he reached to the other side - the back, he presumed, because he couldn’t feel any backbones or any bones for that matter - he could scratch in an up-and-down motion, with added circles and claw-like grips, on the plump and very appealing baby-soft skin, and the pillow worm would seize and convulse cutely - like getting a tender electric shock -, accompanied with soul-cleansing crystalline tinkles of a baby’s laughter. He thought that behaviour resembled Wang Ji’s, because the boy also loved to have his back scratched when he was just a toddler, long, long ago.
Speak of the devil - of sorts -, the massage on his shoulders stopped briefly, and next, he heard some tableware clink, then he was served a sumptuous meal on a bamboo tray. The pillow worm politely moved aside to cuddle up around the man’s left arm, while his right arm was free to pick up a spoon or a pair of chopsticks. The tray was meticulously placed on the master’s warmed stomach, and he smiled at his third, maybe fourth, in-house fine dining in this slice of heaven tailored to his tastes - perfectly-heated chicken and tofu congee with freshly simmered summer leafy greens, a plate of boiled river fish with all the bones picked out and drizzled with sweetened soy sauce and spiced oils, a small plate of steamed minced pork patty mixed with pickled vegetables, a bowl of herbal soup with perfectly diced chunks of a variety of nutritious root vegetables, and a pot of pu’er tea, with all necessary cutlery and napkins lined up on the side in perfect sequential order.
“ Shu gong , please enjoy this banquet meal,” the teenager said with a clear voice to greet the elderly man to start his meal, and he bowed at such a perfect angle befitting Gusu Lan’s dining etiquettes, that for a moment, Master Lan Qi Ren really thought that the boy was the Wang Ji he’d missed for too long - down to the white garments and silver-white hairpiece - except for the strange, slightly off-putting devilish black colour in his eyes where there should’ve been whites. The pillow worm in his left arm gently rubbed at his ribs to nudge the man to stop staring at the boy, and try the food. It started murmuring adoringly with a little girl’s voice - in a repetitive, but not necessarily annoying way - “ gong gong, gong gong, gong gong (公公) … ” as though it called him a ‘grandfather’.
A perfect meal dined strictly according to the sect’s decorum is done in absolute silence, other than the tip-taps of chopsticks or the polite clinking of a porcelain spoon against a bowl, and Master Lan Qi Ren thoroughly enjoyed his tranquil time with the nourishing, mild and surprisingly very tasty food, on top of the ergonomically pleasant lounge chair.
As he took a sip of pu’er tea from the empty tray, he finally asked with calm, “Why do you keep calling me shu gong ? Is this not my afterlife where I deserve eternal peace living amongst my ancestors in a world filled with clouds, misted mountains and ever-flowing waterfalls? How would there be descendents in this place if I am not informed of their passing? Or have you already passed on too, Wang Ji?” The master continued to enjoy his tea but his eyes glanced to the side at the boy.
The Wang Ji with blackened eyes bowed again - such refined manners, indeed - and answered without hesitation, “As I’ve said before when you arrived in this special place,” he gestured around them to show the elderly man a room with a single large curtained window showing a beautiful silvery portrait of a full-moon nightsky, a few stars and clouds, and trees in the horizon gently rustling to the breeze; the room resembled the inner chambers of the Jingshi, being sparsely decorated with a few choice but tasteful pieces of decor, comfortably lit by candle lamps reflecting off waxed rice paper and casting blurry shadows upon wooden screens, potted plants, and tables and chairs, “I am Ernie, and the white creature that your mind keeps calling ‘pillow worm’ is my sister Ni-er, and we’re children of Lan Wang Ji and Wei Wuxian. It is only right that I call you shu gong , although my sister is too young to appreciate the nuances in Lan family formalities, so you’re simply her favourite grandfather. I have taken the form of my father in his younger days, but I am not human - hence the devil-eyes that your heart speaks so fondly of - but rest assured, the two of us mean you no harm, and we want to treat you as our family member. You are safe in Qishan Lan’s territory, founded by my parents, who are also well.”
Master Lan Qi Ren sighed, and thought that even age had caught up with him in heaven. There were so many things right about what the boy said, and an equal number of things wrong too. He didn’t want to argue, not while he's savouring the pleasures of his afterlife.
“Hn. It seems my nephew has even consummated his relationship with that yaoguai and sent their offsprings to rile me up,” he said, as he put away the cup of tea and waved his hand - Ernie dutifully collected the tray and walked away into the darkness beyond the wooden screens opposite the window. “But no matter, I shall not be bothered nor be provoked by anything that disturbs the beauty of this heaven. I’ve had enough of qi deviations while I was alive, so that’s that,” he announced with an air of finality and sank back into the soft cushions that came with in-built massaging functions.
Little Ni-er crawled back to her grandpa’s belly and curled up into a warm pastry roll of sorts, to the satisfaction of the old uncle. Ernie emerged again with a small senior-friendly anti-slip bowl filled with sliced apples and peaches, and handed it to the master. “Here, more fruits from Heaven’s summer orchards, as you desired from the bottom of your heart,” he said, and indulged in the unspoken secret requests from the finicky old man.
“Hn. As expected, of course, to be served only the best in this wonderful heaven,” Master Lan Qi Ren remarked and gladly took the bowl before he started to grab a tooth-picked fruit wedge. “In this world where my dreams finally come true, Wang Ji knows everything in my mind and heart without having me to say anything, and he obeys without question. Since you’re such a good boy, tell me more about this Qishan Lan, and what ridiculous stories you have about my nephew and that yaoguai of his, so that I may go to sleep again after such a nice meal and be woken up for another,” he added while munching on a juicy peach - it was against Lan family rules to talk while eating, but the Peaches of Immortality were so good - he didn’t know the name of the fruit, other than just plain ‘peaches’ that had ripened to perfection -, he could make an exception while thinking he’s gone to his own private corner of heaven. He thought that with each bite, he could feel his long standing illness melt away a little more, and his body a little stronger.
“Of course,” the boy replied with another perfect bow, before returning to his spot behind the lounge chair, and started to massage the back of the smiling old man, who had closed his eyes and looked every bit relaxed and happy to be in his very own paradise. “And in case if you’re wondering, yes, I will line up a rejuvenating body spa, a luxury manicure and pedicure service, three more types of full body massages with aromatic oils and heated stones, and a cucumber-flavoured exfoliating face mask to brighten up your skin, after you’re done with dessert,” he followed up without having to ask, which pleased the master almost too much.
At one point, Master Lan Qi Ren, already being lulled to sleep by long-winded fantastical accounts of the Qishan Lans and their First Fathers while enjoying a mix of Swedish and shiatsu massages, asked what was beyond the shadowy part of the room that lie opposite of the serene nightsky peeking through the window, and Ernie coolly responded that the path lead to the outside world, “where a hundred or so Gusu Lan youngsters and more refugees from the war live and play noisily all day… there are markets and fun fairs packed with bustling crowds too... alternatively, you can decide to stay here a bit longer, if you want, shu gong .” At that point, Lan Qi Ren simply “Hn”s impassively and said no more; he wasn’t too keen to ruin his paradise yet. He snored after a few minutes.