70 Empty City
“What should we do now, then? We still have no clue about the situation in Western District.” I turned towards Nie Zun and asked.
Nie Zun was looking ahead, but the expression in his eyes seemed to have drifted even further.
“Does any of you feel like our surroundings have changed?” Nie Zun muttered suddenly.
I looked around but… All around us was still the same boundary forest of Western District. Apart from the battle earlier, there was nothing different about it that I could pinpoint.
Nie Zun exhaled a soft sigh, “Let’s carry on forward then.”
His tone seemed to suggest that we had arrived at an unfamiliar place, as opposed to the Western District where we resided in. I complained inwardly. Sigh… The atmosphere had grown so tense, and those two weirdos from before did nothing to help it.
After a little more than an hour, the group of us finally got through the boundary forest.
The thought of Western District being on the other side of those line of trees in front of us left me worrying about the look of fear or contempt I may face in my resident’s eyes. Even so, it was still difficult to conceal my excitement at the idea of returning to a familiar site.
Such mixture of emotions was completely vanquished by the scene that unfolded in front of me.
While Western District’s boundary forest may not be as dense as that of Southern District’s, it was still planted by our own residents seed after seed. I didn’t catch the faintest whiff of decay as I walked through the exuberant forest, so why… Why was I greeted by such a dilapidated sight the moment our district came into view?
When we finally got through the boundary forest, whether it was me who had always appeared jovial, or Jie Pa who remained calm and composed through everything, or even the indifferent Nie Zun, all of us were rooted to our spot from shock.
At this moment, there was only a sort of indescribable emotion mashed out of glazed stares, fear, incomprehension, helplessness, so on and so forth.
The Marketplace which was supposed to stand proudly by the boundary forest was no longer there. Right in front of our eyes was a scene that shouldn’t have existed, nor should it ever have been able to exist.
“This… Am I seeing this right?” Almost hollering out the question, Mu Li asked.
Even Tao Lie’s bulky stature seemed to have shivered a little, “Li—Ms Li Shen, the people we have sent to survey your district have never crossed over the boundary forest. We didn’t know about this… this… Wh—what exactly is going on here?”
I could feel the trembling of my legs, but it wasn’t out of fear. It was out of concern; an excessive and overwhelming worry.
Such apprehension wasn’t the same as when others warned you about the arrival of doomsday. Such apprehension… was as if you had witnessed the end of the world with your own eyes.
I couldn’t divert my gaze, and so I allowed my attention to be stubbornly fixated upon the wasteland in front of us.
That’s right. A wasteland.
It was not the Western District that we knew which appeared in front of us, but a wasteland.
Like an ancient castle which had caved in, the sight that welcomed us out of the forest wasn’t the Marketplace… No, perhaps it might have been, but you could no longer identify it in its current state.
The spot where the Marketplace used to be was now replaced by a collapsed building.
A boundless odor of decay filled the air all around the debris, with brown pieces of rocks and jet-black rubble resting upon it. The sky was filled with drifting dust and dirt.
At a glance, there was only an overcast of smoke and dust. At a glance, there was not a single soul in sight.
I wanted to step towards the ruins, yet, when my right foot moved forward, it was as though a withered hand had materialized from the ground, coiling an iron grip over my ankle. My leg faltered in pain and were giving way; I felt an overwhelming urge to fall on my knees where I stood.
It was Nie Zun who held me up.
“Nie… Nie Zun… What’s going on? Where… Where’s Western District?” I could feel an unexplainable grief filling my eyes and I clutched tightly onto Nie Zun’s hand in return. Staring into his eyes, I asked with trepidation.
“Calm down. Let’s continue forward and check the situation ahead.” Even though his voice remained in its apathetic tone, but I saw the fleeting gaze in his eyes. It was as though he couldn’t bear it either.
I sucked in a deep breath and repeated Nie Zun’s words, reminding myself to hold myself together. With that, we began moving along, going increasingly faster with every step, never stopping.
As we went deeper into the district, there was nothing new that caught our eyes. On each flank, the view that surrounded us was nothing more than barren land and ruins.
It was like walking through a vast desert which had buried an abandoned, ancient castle. The corners of countless collapsed buildings were buried within the unique stone ground of the split zone, bringing forth an aura of doom.
We ran even faster.
Ruins, ruins, and even more ruins.
I didn’t know how long we had been running through this area, but wherever we looked, all we could see were ruins.
There wasn’t a single building that was left intact, not a single tree, not even the plaza square that would typically be outside the buildings. There was only an empty land of stone grounds, void of everything else but ruins.
There was not a single person.
“What the hell is going on?!” Unable to bear the heinous scene anymore, I stopped in my tracks and screamed out without care.
“Is this still the Western District? Did we get trapped in an illusion?” Even Jie Pa, who always stayed cool-headed, began asking as he swept his gaze around.
“Where’s everyone?” Tao Lie and Mu Li asked at the same time.
But, did I look like I have the answers?
We stayed glued to the ground and glanced at one another. Eventually, no one was able to explain the scene that we were faced with.
There was not a single soul or thing, in the entire Western District.
Apart from the normalcy we found in the boundary forest, everything else in the Western District seemed to have been struck by calamity, leaving the remnants of graves with no bodies.
There was no response to my yelling, not even an echo. The vast area in front of us seemed surreal, but at the same time, it was beyond the shadow of doubt, real.
Nie Zun continued running, and while I could distinctly feel the wobbling of my legs, I ran along.
It seems like there was nothing I could do, besides running.
We didn’t know how long we had ran before we finally spotted something different from those relics.
No… Not something.
It was a person.
“Ah—!” Erupting from my throat, I let out a high-pitched scream that reverberated throughout the abandoned and desolate land.
In this infinite stillness, we finally found a familiar face.
According to the blueprint that had been so deeply engraved in our minds through the years, we should be near the center of Western District, in front of the Academy.
But… could we have sprinted too far ahead? All that littered the place were fragments of building tiles.
The only difference was the man in the middle.
Specifically, it was an old man who had been turned to stone. His feet were buried deep in the rubble, with both hands placed clasped in prayer in front of his chest. His eyes were shut tight, and his entire person was covered in stone.
His head… was lacking its crown.
During this state of petrification, the scarlet red of blood no longer seeped through. Instead, within his bare skull sat his brain in jet-black.
It was Old Man Fan.
“Grandpa!” I screamed out when I rushed to his side, my outstretched arm attempted to touch him.
But… I didn’t know where to start.
Old Man Fan had both his eyes closed, his entire body was besmirched by soil, and even his limbs and organs seemed to have been turned to stone, albeit not completely. As though he hadn’t completed his fusion, he became half human and stone, abandoned in the midst of this chaos without a hint of breath.
Jie Pa rushed forward and pulled me back, advising against laying my finger on Old Man Fan.
“What happened to him? Huh? Jie Pa!” I was almost shouting at this point.
“Ms Ah Shen, don’t panic. Let me take a look.” As Jie Pa attempted to calm me down, I could see the slight quiver to his hand when he held out his handkerchief. Despite how much he tried to conceal under the calm facade, it was obvious that he was unnerved too.
Surprisingly, it was when I noticed his distress in my peripheral vision than I quietened down. I mustered all my faith in the single gaze that I shot him.
Jie Pa nodded at me, and began his investigation with the handkerchief between his right hand and the stone statue.
He tried moving Old Man Fan’s hand to no avail.
“He has been turned to stone?” Tao Lie asked, as aghast at the sight as we were.
Jie Pa nodded solemnly. “It seems so. Still, looking at the brain that’s been exposed through the top, it appears that there are still flesh and blood underneath the surface.”
Taking the time when Jie Pa was studying Old Man Fan’s body, I surveyed our surroundings. Similarly, Nie Zun circled the circumference at full speed.
“There seems to be nothing else here in Western District, except this.” Finally coming to a conclusion, Nie Zun pointed to the battered stone figure—Old Man Fan.
“What do you mean there’s nothing else? How can there be nothing else?” I was in disbelief at the news.
Nie Zun sighed, his eyes held a gleam of perplexing worry.
“Ms Ah Shen, this should be Old Man Fan’s body. As for how he had been transformed into this state, I honestly have no way of knowing and neither have I encountered such a situation before. The flesh and blood beneath this stone surface have been completed frozen over as well; I don’t know if he’s still alive, or if he still has MF.” Jie Pa exhaled, then added, “I really… have never seen something like this before.”
“Tao Lie, Mu Li…” I was about the speak when Tao Lie moved to remove his sunglasses, revealing those eyes that were brimming with vigor. He seemed to have guessed my next words before I even spoke. As though revealing his eyes was a form of affirmation of his answer, he replied before I even had to ask, “Ms Li Shen, such an occurrence is unheard of, much less witnessed by us.”
“That’s right. Those officials we had concealed in our boundary forest mentioned that there were always throngs of people scuttling around on this side of the forest, as if someone was instigating an uprising. As such, we speculated that Western District had fallen into chaos. Now that we’re here, however, there’s not a single person in sight and the entire district seemed abandoned. We’ve never imagined it to be reduced into such desolation!”
My heart was overwhelmed with the cold sense of dread.