Heavy darkness enveloped Yin Long, he felt as if he was at the bottom of the ocean and continuously sinking deeper, not a single trace of light around him. But strangely enough, the heavy darkness didn't feel suffocating or crushing, it felt comfortable and warming, it was as if he was a fetus returning to the womb.
Yin Long hadn't even tried to use the Netherworld energy to heal himself, firstly because he was uncertain if it could heal a wound that was only a few centimeters away from cutting him in half and secondly because he needed to die. He had to die in that battle to further cement Lang Huo's position, she needed to become someone who used her own strength to strike down a great sinner that dared question her position.
But even so, it didn't seem like he had died yet. Or could it be that what he was experiencing now was just the last few moments before he fully descended into the dark embrace of death, a fleeting moment of comfort and clarity before the final end? Yin Long didn't know, and racking his brain about it seemed pointless given the situation, so he simply enjoyed the warming feeling that suffused every inch of his being.
But whatever his current situation was, a bright yellow light shining up from below suddenly interrupted it. He wanted to inspect the light so he did what he would usually do to move his neck, his vision turning and landing on the light, which was practically blinding. But just like the darkness around him, this light felt so comfortable and dear that Yin Long almost felt like crying, his body getting rapidly sucked into the light.
Yin Long passed through the light and suddenly found himself standing atop a massive dome-like hill that was so large that it towered above even the largest mountains he had seen before. The entire hill was covered in ankle-height grass that was light pink and swayed in the faint breeze that blew through the area, a seemingly endless forest spreading out all around the hill.
Yin Long couldn't get a proper look at the leaves to see what type of tree the forest was made of, but each tree had leaves so crimson that they seemed to be alight as they fluttered in the wind. Hidden away within the section of the forest to his left was a city so large that he guessed that it might actually be larger than even Wolfsoul city, showing just how large the forest was, that it could even hide such a gargantuan city.
The sky above him was blue, a large yellow sun hung high in the sky, and the scenery around him was entrancing and charming. But even so, Yin Long's vigilance only rose when he inspected his surroundings. The energy flowing all around him, the energy that his soul was currently greedily sucking in and adding to the yellow-black orb floating in his soulsea was so familiar that Yin Long wouldn't mistake it for anything, it was Netherworld energy.
The air, the earth, the grass, everything around him was filled to the brim with Netherworld energy that his soul greedily drew in for later use, and there was only one place one could find such an abundant amount of Netherworld energy, within the actual Netherworld. Ending up in the Netherworld wasn't outside of Yin Long's prediction, he had absorbed so much Netherworld energy previously that he had abandoned all thought of ever entering the Celestial world or reincarnation.
But what he hadn't expected was that he would be utterly surrounded the moment he entered the Netherworld. Right now, a sea of beasts and people of various shapes and sizes surrounded the hill, trampling the pink grass underneath their feet as they all looked at the top of the hill, at Yin Long.
As Yin Long looked at the sea of people around him, the phenomenon that happened when he looked at Tao Enlai at the end of their battle repeated itself. He could see flames flickering within the chests of all the beings, each one varying in size and intensity. But without fail, all the flames were a different shade of yellow, only about five of them were slightly different and had a tinge of black mixed into them.
The five beings with a slight bit of black mixed into their flames stood at the forefront of the sea of people, only about 100 meters away from Yin Long. The five of them also looked directly at him while actually trembling slightly before dropping to their knees, a nearly five meters tall man who seemed more like a hulking mass of muscles covered in small bone-spikes speaking out in a deep voice.
"Your subordinates greet you, Lord of the Everburning Trees! We are overjoyed at your return!"
The words of the hulking man seemed to serve as a signal to the sea of beings, all of them dropping to their knees while lowering their heads. The sudden change in situation caught Yin Long completely off guard and left him flabbergasted, not quite sure what to think or how to react. They were clearly talking about him, but he had no idea where they got that strange title from, he was also certain that he had never been in the Netherworld before so these beings shouldn't know him. But while his mind was racing to figure out the situation, another one of the five beings, a three-headed blue eagle, raised its heads and respectfully spoke to Yin Long.
"My Lord, we are overjoyed that you have managed to return to us, but where is your other half? Where have your ever-burning flames gone?"
Yin Long had no idea what sort of answer to give the three-headed eagle, he still wasn't even quite certain on the situation. But before he got the time to think about it much further, the entire area seemed to suddenly freeze, even the wind itself stopping as frost started to creep up on the frozen grass. The sky suddenly cracked and split open as if it had been frozen solid, a handsome youth with pristine white hair and icy-blue eyes that had slit pupils stepping out from the cracks. The youth walked through the air as if he was on land, looking down at Yin Long with a ferocious glint in his eyes.
"Burning Trees, so you've finally returned! This time there will be no escape, I will not give you another chance to take the Grand General spot for the next war!"
The youth stretched out his right arm and held out his hand, everything to his right, the forest, the sky, and even the earth for as far as the eye could see, all of it started cracking and fragmenting as if it had already been frozen solid long ago. A horrifying chill seeped out from the cracks and flew towards the outstretched hand of the youth, gathering within his palm and compressing until it turned corporeal. But just as the icy energy started turning corporeal and wriggling into a proper shape, a deafening rumbling sound echoed throughout the area.
The gazes of everyone turned skyward, landing on a massive white vortex that had suddenly appeared high in the sky above them. The vortex unleashed an atrocious energy that pushed down on every living being in the area and nearly forced them all to lay down on the ground. The cracks in the surrounding area that the white-haired youth had created all vanished under the energy of the vortex, which quickly locked on and focused on Yin Long.
His feet left the ground as the energy dragged him into the air, the ocean of people and the white-haired youth left with no choice but to watch as he was pulled towards the vortex. His soul seemed to realize that Yin Long wouldn't be able to stay here much longer, drastically increasing the speed at which it sucked in the surrounding Netherworld energy, it practically acted like a beggar who saw a meal for the first time in years.
Yin Long was sucked into the vortex and felt the Netherworld energy vanish, the charming scenery ending up replaced by a pure white world. He continuously flew upward through this pure white world, he could just barely feel that he was actually going faster and faster with each passing second.
When the world of pure white finally vanished, Yin Long could feel his own eyes shoot open wide and his body rapidly sitting up. He quickly turned his head and saw that he was sitting at the bottom of a rather shallow grave, there was even a small wooden rod with the word 'Yin' engraved in it placed in the earth right behind him.
He could somewhat recognize where he was right now, this was an area within the upper section of Underearth forest that he passed through from time to time. This meant that he had at least left the Netherworld, but he had no idea how or why he could. To get an answer to these questions, he turned his head to look at the person sitting in front of his grave, Lang Ru.
"What... just happened?"
Lang Ru smiled at the questioning Yin Long with a tinge of sorrow and loneliness apparent at the corners of her lips, swiping her interspatial ring and tossing Yin Long a gourd of wine. Her hands were covered in dirt, quite a bit of blood seeping out from underneath her fingernails. Clearly, she had dug up his shallow grave using just her hands, for some reason choosing to not use a shovel or her Qi. She waited for Yin Long to take a sip of the wine before pointing at his chest and responding.
"You died just now, how did it feel? Well, I say just now but it actually happened a day ago. The funeral was done quickly and shoddily after your name was removed from the clan, Little Huo couldn't even attend for fear that she would throw away the opportunity you created for her."
Yin Long lowered his head and saw a massive scar that went from his right shoulder all the way to his left waist, the wound that had just killed him. He traced the scar with his finger but didn't feel the slightest pain or discomfort from it, his gaze eventually returning to Lang Ru as he forced his mind to calm down and focus on the things he could somewhat understand.
"I'm guessing that you have something to do with this?"
She had dug him out of his grave with her own hands and was right there when he came back, he refused to believe that Lang Ru had nothing to do with his sudden, and seemingly impossible, revival. Lang Ru removed another gourd from her interspatial ring and took a large gulp of it, letting out a sigh once she swallowed it.
"Far more than you think. I thought about not telling you, but looking at how much you sacrificed, you deserve to know. The one who killed those three elders and pinned the crime on you was me. Or rather, I gave the order to have them killed. I was also the one who spread the rumors and the one who had the evidence planted, I was the one who pushed you into your dead-end."
Lang Ru's confession struck Yin Long like a bolt of lightning from a clear sky. He had spent a lot of time mulling over who might be trying to frame him, but not once had his thoughts turned towards his own sister, not once had he even considered the idea that she might be capable of something like that. He didn't say anything straight away, his brows furrowing as his thoughts moved and Lang Ru continued to explain.
"As the big sister, how could I possibly just sit back while Little Huo bore the weight of the clan and you bore the weight of the darkness? You may have been the great darkness of the clan, the sharp blade that mercilessly cut down all who wanted to go against Little Huo, but I was the rat that scurried around within the darkness. You had Jiu Meiyu, Lan Yun, and the four operatives in the other villages, but I had the pickpockets, the thieves, some of the guards, and some more average assassins, ones that wouldn't be considered terribly useful. Jiu Meiyu also helped me, I provided him with a lot of information on targets and he made sure to keep me hidden from you."
This was a point that Yin Long hadn't thought about before, he simply hadn't considered using the pickpockets and petty thieves for his jobs. Because just like she said, he didn't consider them to be terribly useful. He also hadn't expected Jiu Meiyu to also help Lang Ru, but giving it a bit of thought made him realize that it made sense. A shadow could only be properly utilized if it managed to remain hidden. Lang Ru gave him a bit of time to digest the information and then continued talking, getting to the main part.
"And after you came back from the attack on the hidden Tao clan group in Mirror Lake Village and so openly announced Little Huo's wedding, I decided that it was time to act. I had been hesitating for a while, not certain if it was the right thing to do, but that event became the final straw. I am tired of seeing you suffer, I am tired of seeing you abandon yourself for the sake of me and Little Huo, tired of seeing you rot away within the clan. You are like a beast, Little Yin, you were born to be free and untamed, the Lang clan is no more than a shackle to you, a shackle you refused to abandon. So I forced you into a dead-end, I killed you so that you could be free. You may hate me if you will, but I don't regret my actions, if anyone deserves freedom then it is you, the one who has sacrificed the most."
Lang Ru spilled the entire truth to Yin Long, allowing him to understand exactly what had happened and what set the events into motion. And now that he understood the truth, he couldn't help but think back to what Lang Ru had told him back before the battle, 'Having to hurt those we care for to do what's best for them, what an accursed thing it is.' Back then he thought she spoke about him because she had learned of his plans, but now it seemed like she had also been talking about herself.
He chose to die to strengthen the position of his little sister and she chose to kill him so that he could be free of his shackles. And those shackles had been severed practically for good, there was no way he could return to the Lang clan. If so much as a single person within the clan learned that he was still alive then that information could be used to undermine his sister, people could use it to say that she was too weak of mind to even kill a traitor and a sinner, too weak of mind to be the clan leader. Even if he wanted to stay, Yin Long had to leave, staying would only harm those he died to protect. Yin Long traced the scar on his chest, eventually giving a light shake of his head.
"I can't hate you, you know that. I only had to die to help Little Huo, but you and she had to bear the pain of killing me, the two of you still ended up far more hurt than I did. Tell me, does she know? And just how did you bring me back from the dead?"
If there was one thing that was impossible for Yin Long then it was to hate his family. Lang Ru may have forced him to die, but it was clearly with the intent to bring him back all along, all so that he could be free to finally live for himself, free to no longer abandon himself for them. Lang Ru shook her head slightly in response to his question, listing those who knew that he was alive.
"No, she doesn't know yet. I'll wait for everything to calm down a bit before I tell her and Sister Fen. With the two of them, only four people will know of your secret, but as one of them will be leaving with you there will only be three people in the city who will know. To everyone else, the man known as Lang Yin will truly be dead and buried, his name stricken from the archives so that he is forgotten."
Yin Long originally wanted to ask who this fourth person was, but hearing that this person would be leaving with him he could already start to form a guess. Lang Ru gave him freedom so that he would no longer abandon things for them so it only made sense that she wouldn't ignore one of the few things he had seemingly picked up and kept for himself. Once she finished telling him about who else knew his secret, she answered the other question he had asked.
"As for how I brought you back, did you know that I also received a gift from Uncle Xiang when I was born? You received his lessons and Little Huo received the Heart of Fire cultivation manual, my gift was much tamer so I don't think I ever even bothered mentioning it to you. My gift was the blessing of being able to choose, but it was also the curse of having to choose. He gave me a pill that could do one of two things, it could either extend someone's lifespan or it could bring someone back from the dead. He worded it a bit differently, but as I grew older I started to realize why he gave it to me. He gave it to me so that I could choose, either extend mother or father's lifespan, or bring you back from the dead so that you could be free. I don't know how he knew that you would end up on the path you did, but he clearly knew about your death even before you were born."
Lang Ru sipped some wine to moisten her throat after she finished talking, both she and Yin Long descending into a short silence as she allowed him to digest everything he just heard. Yin Long digested her words and found that she was right about Bai Xiang, him knowing about Yin Long's death ahead of time would also explain why he gave Yin Long two names when he was born. One for his family and one he would bear in front of the world until his death. Lang Yin had died, all that remained now was Yin Long. The silence continued for a bit of time, the two siblings quietly sharing a drink before Lang Ru let out a soft sigh and broke the silence.
"You can't stay here much longer and neither can I, it'll only look suspicious and cause trouble for Little Huo if I stay here for too long. I gave a one-time teleportation scroll to Lan Yun, who should be waiting about seven kilometers away from here by a river, it'll take you to the border between the Lang clan and the Deshi clan territory. After that, where do you think you'll go?"
Yin Long raised his head slightly upon hearing the question, gazing past the tree crowns and looking at the brilliant blue sky as he somewhat lost himself in his own thoughts. He eventually lowered his head again and gave a slight shake of his head, a touch of a soft smile appearing on his face.
"I don't know exactly where, I'll probably just wander for a bit. But I want to polish my sword, I want to make it sharper and more perfect than ever before. I want to grow stronger, walk further, I want to see exactly what the path of cultivation has. Then, maybe there will be a day where I can proudly show off my sword, a day where it can reach so high that it will touch even the Celestial World. After all, Mother and Father always wanted to see your children, it would be a shame if they never got to see Little Huo and Sister Fen's children."
Lang Huo and Tang Fen were both women, but that didn't mean that they couldn't have children together. As long as one of them reached the middle stages of the Earthen Door realm, the realm above the Immortal Doors, then it would be possible for them to have children together by merging a large amount of their Qi, blood, and a few pieces of their souls.
Lang Ru looked at the soft smile on Yin Long's face, a slight smile forming on her own face. There were no longer any shackles on Yin Long, now he could finally be free to do what he was meant to do, what he yearned to do, he could travel and cultivate, he could make his sword stronger and stronger. These were the things he was born to do, he was never meant to be locked up in a clan and play the part of the frivolous young master, this was something she was certain of.
The two siblings stood up and shared a deep look, Lang Ru raising the gourd she was holding and emptying the remainder of the wine with a single large gulp. Yin Long did the same, the two sharing what might be the last bit of wine they would ever drink together. Lang Ru smiled at Yin Long after he finished his drink, her smile containing a mixture of joy and sorrow.
"Go, I look forward to the day where your sword reaches the peak of the skies and overshadows all else. At that time, not even the Lang clan will dare say anything against you even if you should come for a visit, perhaps I might even be able to pop open the wine I'm still saving for your wedding."
Her words were a silent message, she would always keep at least one jug of wine saved away for him, just in case he ever returned to the clan with his head held high and his sword sharper than anything else. The two siblings shared one last look before Yin Long stepped forward and embraced her, whispering quietly but confidently.
"That day will come, you just look forward to it."
The two ended the embrace after a few handfuls of seconds, Yin Long giving his surroundings one last look before he turned and left in the direction that Lang Ru had pointed out earlier. He didn't know when or if he could ever return, but he knew that he had to leave. Lang Ru remained in place and gazed somewhat absentmindedly at his back, the soft smile on her face growing a bit larger.
"We are wolves who can only look up and howl at the moons, but you are a dragon born to soar even above the moons and turn into a sun so incandescent that you blot out everything else. This little pool isn't for you, so go and spread your wings in the wide world where you belong."
(End of Book 1. Next book; Prince of Fallen Leaves.)