Arthis paused, and then turned to stare at the rear half of the Echoing Worm.
The latter half of its body that was partially obscured by the fog… was actually empty!
To be more exact… the latter half of its body had been chewed up by an unknown entity, and only the top half of its body remained!
Clatter! Oda Nobunaga, Murai Sadakatsu and Mori Ranmaru immediately stood back to back with each other with their katanas unsheathed as they gazed warily into the darkness around them.
There was something unknown hidden in the darkness, devouring the hill-sized Echoing Worms.
Qin Ye gulped nervously. Copious amounts of Yin energy converged about him in an instant, and he promptly transformed into his Hell’s Emissary state. With his mourning staff in arm, he picked up the remains of the Echoing Worm and took a closer look at it.
“It wasn’t chewed off with a single bite…” He gazed back into the dark, roiling fog about them, “Rather… it appears as though it had been gnawed away by countless ants and mice. The Echoing Worm’s remnants reveal the aftermath of hundreds of little bite marks.”
Like a silent whimper, the dark fog that was roiling gently caused everyone’s hair to stand on end.
Finally, after a long time, Arthis spoke up one more with a hushed voice, “In any case, we should head further into Hell and take a closer inspection at what’s become of this place. With the Book of Life and Death paving the way for us, no creature under the level of a Yama-class existence would even dare draw close to us. We’re absolutely safe under its care. Besides… not even I can part the fog of Yin energy for a closer inspection of what’s hidden within.”
Nobody had any objections.
Everyone simply moved with greater vigilance. Oda Nobunaga’s eyes narrowed subconsciously - ‘Old’ Hell? It looks like something massive did happen to Hell…
His hand remained firmly gripped around the hilt of his katana.
It felt as though something was gazing intently at their group of people from the depths of the fog. This was something that they could sense as a group, and yet there was a tacit understanding that none spoke of it. In fact… they could all tell that it wasn’t a single entity that was eyeing them. Rather, it was a group.
The feeling of being watched from the depths of the darkness was incredibly stifling and oppressive.
After all, the fear of the unknown was the most terrifying of all.
Nobody spoke a single word. They simply followed Qin Ye’s lead and continued to head into the depths of the old Hell. The Book of Life and Death paved the way for them, parting the fog dozens of meters ahead of them and creating a path for their travel. Several hill-like creatures could be seen retreating away quickly from the path, especially at the fringe where the light from the book met the darkness of the fog. As they retreated, they emitted soft gurgling sounds that sounded no different from rumbling thunder. Additionally, these sounds were also interlaced with sounds of a soft rustling.
After walking on for some time, they arrived at the end of the road, where a towering shadow appeared. Countless spots of netherflames flared up in the surroundings - green, white, black, red… it was a bleak and desolate, yet somewhat beautiful and melancholic sight.
“This is Hell’s Gate.” Arthis explained.
“Why didn’t I get to see it the last time?” Qin Ye asked in bewilderment.
“It’s normal. Hell’s gate was previously known as a forbidden zone for the living, but it eventually became the land of the dead. As soon as you step foot onto the land of the dead, you will never be able to return to the mortal realms. These consequences are as opposed to the forbidden zone for the living, where encroachment doesn’t translate to irreversible consequences. In a way, you can think of the land of the dead as a realm that is qualitatively more extreme than the forbidden zone for the living.”
“The premature reaping of souls can only be rectified while the souls remain at the forbidden zone for the living. Those in the mortal realm who wish to summon the spirits can likewise only do so while they are at the forbidden zone for the leaving. The total length of the Yellow Springs Road is four hundred kilometers, and it would take the average Yin spirit a total of seven days to complete the journey. This is also known in the mortal realm as the first seven. The deceased’s spirit can only be recalled to the mortal realm during the first seven. In a sense, you can consider this a tolerance zone or a buffer zone for the souls that have entered Hell.”
Arthis continued, “Not even I know the exact appearance of this length of journey that has been constructed in Hell. The fog of Yin energy here was created by the second King Yanluo of Hell by tapping on the abilities of his unparalleled cultivation. Not even the Yama-Kings of the Ten Palaces are able to disperse the fog here. Hell’s Gate is hidden somewhere within its midst, and one can only see it when he looks back after crossing it. Otherwise, do you really think that Hell’s Gate would be visible to us if not for the brilliance of the Book of Life and Death? Back when Granny Meng first took you on the Netherworld Odyssey… you didn’t turn back to take a look, did you?”
Do you think I’d even dare to look back at that time?
Qin Ye chuckled awkwardly - You must be mistaken if you think I’ve got guts of steel like that! Even the Echoing Worms were sufficient to cause me to tremble back then, alright?
He was just about to continue forging ahead when he suddenly paused in his steps.
“Did you guys feel that?” Qin Ye turned around and looked at everyone, “Earlier… Arakshasa’s mentioned that the Echoing Worms are already closing in on the boundary between Yin and Yang. But have you guys noticed…”
He pointed at the black fog behind him, where countless shadows appeared to interlace with each other in the dark, “They didn’t appear to be intentionally making their way out of Hell. Rather… it appeared more as though they had been driven further from the recesses of Hell by something.”
Everyone looked in the direction which he was pointing towards.
They had simply glossed over this anomaly earlier. But upon closer inspection, they realized that… they could vaguely make out hill-like silhouettes shrieking as they collapsed from time to time. Furthermore, there was the incessant echo of what appeared to be scuttling or rustling sounds. The prospects of what were hidden in the darkness gave all of them goosebumps.
Something was hidden within the darkness, devouring the massive Yin spirits that were ostensibly fleeing as best as they could.
“Let’s go.” Oda Nobunaga spoke up for the very first time, “I’ve got a feeling that it’s not safe here… it’s absolutely unsafe. There’s no reason to remain under a collapsing wall.”
Suppressing the doubts in their hearts, everyone transformed into a nethergale and pressed forward towards Hell’s Gate. Then, when they were finally approximately three hundred meters away from it, they all gasped in unison - even Oda Nobunaga and Arthis alike.
“My god…” Murai Sadakatsu stared at Hell’s Gate with great disbelief. Just then, with a soft, swishing sound, a colourful robe beside them immediately transformed into a great gale of Yin energy and surged towards Hell’s Gate in an instant. A split second later, both Qin Ye and Oda Nobunaga followed suit.
Tap tap… They closed the distance of three hundred meters in an instant. Qin Ye had rushed forward towards the majestic building ahead of him with great incredulity in his eyes.
It was as tall as the sky, and approximately a thousand meters in depth.
It was vast as the lands, and so grand that it appeared no different from the Three Gorges Dam.
This was a gate appeared to rise endlessly into the heavens.
It was designed with an ancient Cathayan flair, and appeared no different from an ancient memorial arch. The gate was divided into hundreds of sections, and the words ‘Hell’s Gate’ were scrawled in majestic calligraphy that appeared to float in the air. It was a majestic and glorious sight to behold.
However, this wasn’t what shocked them at all.
Instead, what caused them to feel at a complete loss were the two towering figures that were standing guard on either side of Hell’s Gate, each of which stood at a height of two thousand meters!
The figure on the left was Ox-Head, bearing the head of a bull and a man’s body. His horns were orbiting about over his head, and he was clad in ancient Cathayan armor and wielding a steel pitchfork.
The figure on the right was Horse-Face, bearing the head of a horse and a man’s body. He was also clad in ancient Cathayan armor and wielding a large copper saber.
Ox-Head and Horse-Face!
They stood guard at the sides of Hell’s Gate like valiant guardians, scrutinizing every single Yin spirit that passed through Hell’s Gate.
Qin Ye gasped. Back in the glory days of the old Hell, tens of thousands of Yin spirits would congregate around these parts daily, passing through the gates under the close scrutiny of both Ox-Head and Horse-Face. But now, the two valiant guardians were completely engulfed by dense clouds of Yin energy, leaving no more than their blazing pupils peeking out of the roiling darkness. This sight… was simply frightening!
Towering gates, and commensurately towering guardians. This was a sight that was impeccably majestic and awe-inspiring even in spite of the fact that the old Hell was no longer in operation. In fact, Oda Nobunaga and his two retainers couldn’t help but feel their hearts skip a beat, and their lips trembled for several seconds, before he finally drew a deep breath and lowered his head.
The splendour and majesty of Hell was so imposing that it appeared to bear down on them like an indomitable force, so much so that they weren’t able to look directly at it.
“Spirit molt.” Arthis spoke up, “The soul has ascended, but the body still remains. Ox-Head and Horse-Face are superior Yin spirits, and their flesh can be considered immortal. If we head further in… we might even see the spirit molts of various asuras and rakshasas.”
Qin Ye nodded. He was just about to look away when he suddenly froze once more.
“What’s the matter? Arthis was bewildered.
Qin Ye waved his hand dismissively and continued staring at Horse-Face. Everyone followed his gaze and looked over as well. And then, under everyone’s watchful eyes, Horse-Face’s eyelids… twitched.
Crack… It was a movement that was visible to the naked eye. In fact, it appeared almost as though Horse-Face was attempting to open his eyes. The sight startled everyone, including Arthis, and they all retreated in unison.
A silent nethergale swept through the desolate gate of Hell. And then, as everyone watched with bated breath, the towering guardian… actually opened his eye!
That said, it didn’t reveal the existence of any eyeball within. Instead… what appeared to be a tide of dark waters flowed out from it.
“This is…” Arthis was taken aback. And then, almost as though she recalled something of grave importance, she gasped in horror, “Blight vermin?! And in such numbers?! I get it… I finally get it! So that’s what it is!”
“We have to leave!!”
Arthis waved her sleeves before Qin Ye and the others could even respond, instantly dragging them through the air with her as they rushed through Hell’s Gate like a soaring cloud.
“What the Hell is going on?!” Qin Ye asked immediately. The grave expression on Arthis’ face gave Qin Ye a terrible premonition of what was to come.
Arthis didn’t respond. Instead, her expression only grew more and more ashen over the next few moments, until she finally gnashed her teeth and cursed under her breath, “Damn it…”
Then, she drew several deep breaths, before finally muttering through gritted teeth, “Blight vermin are creatures that would never appear in the mortal realm or the heavenly realm. These are creatures that only appear when a high-ranking official of Hell ascends into paradise. In particular, they would appear in the spirit molts left behind by these officials, where they would feed off the remnant Yin energy until all traces of the spirit molt have been completely devoured and consumed.”
“This is part of the natural cycle of death and decay that is unique to Hell. In the past, as soon as someone gains ascension, the blight vermin would consume the entire spirit molt, and then be annihilated by the specialist exterminators of Hell. But… none of that exists anymore.”
Qin Ye nodded. Then, realization dawned on him, and he gasped in horror as his voice became drifty, “Y-y-you mean to say that… Hell is currently…”
“Who knows how many blight vermin are running rampant in Hell right now?!” Arthis bellowed in rage, “This is something that was too natural… so natural that I’d taken it for granted… No… Not even Granny Meng had expected something like that to occur. After all, every single one of the high-ranking officials of Hell have been whisked off into paradise. We’re talking about thousands of spirit molts that have been left behind! There must be countless blight vermin crawling all over the old Hell right now! And their only purpose in life… is to consume everything that stands before them. In other words, they’re going to consume the entire old Hell!”
This was part and parcel of the natural cycle of death and decay. Qin Ye finally understood everything, and he gulped nervously, “Then… why are we still heading in?”
Arthis bit down on her lips for some time, and then finally sighed with great regret, “It’s my fault this time.”
“Qin Ye, listen up. The great collapse of Hell was a sudden occurrence. Every single soul in Hell vanished in an instant, but… the legacies, records and collections of the old Hell are still around. This is why I wasn’t anxious to return to collect these things to begin with.”
“Hell’s hidden archives, barracks of the Yin soldiers, the Ten Abyssal Courts, as well as the accompanying knowledge that have been accumulated over thousands of years are all still around. It’s impossible to whisk these things away into paradise. However, both Granny Meng and I have failed to realize that as soon as Hell is emptied out, it would immediately begin its countdown to the commencement of the natural cycle of death and decay…”
Qin Ye’s heart thumped wildly, “Are you saying that… these blight vermin are currently gnawing away at the entire Hell?! Including the great legacies that have been left behind?!”
Arthis was livid and ashen, “Anything that contains Yin energy would be seen as a source of food for these blight vermin. Right now… even I can’t be sure just how much of the old legacy remains intact…”
“SHIT!!” Qin Ye couldn’t resist the urge to scream and explode at Arthis, “That’s why I’ve always said that we should grab everything we can from the old Hell as quickly as possible! Look at what you’ve done! Complacency has ruined us! Why didn’t you think of such things sooner rather than later!!”
Arthis didn’t respond. Instead, she made another series of hand seals, and the Yin energy around them instantly rushed towards their feet, imbuing them with far greater speed than before.
They traversed through the entire length of the Yellow Springs Road in an instant. Qin Ye could feel his eyelids twitching all this time. Yellow Springs Road should have completely dried up by now, and yet it was instead densely filled with a tide of blight vermin beneath which formed a massive river of blight! These ravenous creatures glanced about maniacally with their scarlet eyes, scanning their surroundings intently for anything that could be devoured by them.
Even the bones of the ferryman weren’t spared, and there was only half of his entire body which remained right now!
“Listen up.” Just then, Arthis’ voice sounded in his mind, “The appearance of blight vermin in such numbers… might well mean the appearance of a monarch vermin…”
“WAIT A MINUTE!!” Qin Ye was simply going crazy. Hell’s legacy was on the line. He wasn’t aware of the extent of Hell’s legacy back then, and yet, to think that the first time he learns of it would be in the face of such exigent circumstances. How could he not be filled with anxiety?
How did Hell use to interact with the other underworlds?
How many of the darkfeathers sent out by Hell are still around right now?
The roster of the feudal officials and vassal states of Hell! Hell’s arts! Hell’s treasuries! Hell’s legacy that had been passed down from generation to generation! These were all inheritances of the old Hell that would be incredibly useful to him!
He had managed to scramble together the supplies to secure a strong foundation in support of Hell’s soaring growth in the near future. And yet, to think that they would run into such a terrible situation at the most crucial times!