63 How Cute Are the Spider-Men?
The battle within Guan Nie’s illusion had raged for an unexpectedly long time; by the time we crossed the endless boundary forest of the Southern District and into the Eastern District, the skies had grown dark.
Even though it wasn’t the Western District we had returned to, I still felt a sense of ease wash over me the moment we crossed the border.
Lifting her fingers to her lips, Jiao S blew a resounding whistle. All of a sudden, we were surrounded by ten silhouettes of people who leapt down from the trees.
But the ten of them…
There was no telling each individual’s gender, for they were all wearing matching Spider-Man outfits, complete with the mask. Seeing the ten of them in front of us, I felt a strong urge to say something teasing. However, as my grief had yet to dwindle, I chose to repress that urge.
“Commander, you’re back. Lord Tao Lie instructed us to lead the entire Rank E troop and stand guard in the boundary forest around the clock, awaiting your return.” The Spider-Man at the forefront of the group said.
(T/N: The honorific variation of ‘you’ was used throughout their address to Jiao S.)
Two, three, four Spider-Men…
My mind was still fixated on their choice of costume. Whoever said the people in the Eastern District were vicious and horrifying?
Look at how adorable they are…
Look at how cute the Spider-Men are…
Jiao S gave a slight wave, her voice back to its usual hoarse and deep tone. “What happened while I was gone?”
The same Spider-Man answered immediately, “After you left, there was an incident where more than a hundred residents died, without rhyme or reason; it wasn’t the doing of a splitting key either. With you still absent from our district, our entire team of Rank C members was very concerned.
“We suggested that Lord Mu Li lead us and strike our way into the Southern District, but the three Lords had instead commanded Lord Tao Lie and Lord Mu Li to protect the Eastern Residence––from Level 27 and above––from harm. They also commanded the ten of us in Rank C to lead Rank E into the boundary forest and take turns guarding the boundary lines. Half of the Rank F team were also sent to stand guard at the Western District’s boundary lines.”
Jiao S nodded. “How did the other residents react to the massacre?”
“You weren’t back, so the other residents didn’t probe much either. Everyone trusted that you would give them a proper explanation. They have simply been waiting for your return.”
Jiao S contemplated for a moment before she spoke. “Get Tao Lie and Mu Li to meet me. We’ll be heading to the Dorms at the Academy first to clean up; it’s too far away to rush from here to the Residence block. And tell them to hurry up; make use of the time we’ll need to pass through the Marketplace before the Academy, and appear before me by the time we’re done washing up.”
Spider-Man nodded. “Yes, Commander!” He turned towards the other nine Spider-Men and made a gesture. At this, one of them stepped out and received their leader’s instruction. “Go look for a phone and contact Lord Tao Lie. The rest of you will continue guarding the boundary forest with me!”
The nine silhouettes promptly returned to their position atop the trees, with the other running at full speed ahead. When I lifted my head, the view still within my range of visibility but despite this, I was surprised to note that I could not spot even a single one of them in concealment.
I was secretly impressed by Jiao S’ methodical way of governing. I didn’t have long to dwell on it, however, before she turned to us and said, “The Marketplace is right around the corner; we’ll still need to work a little more and strive to reach the Academy in ten hours. I’ll arrange accommodation there so you can rest.”
The group of us nodded, with the exception of Guan Nie who stepped away from us. He yawned lazily. “Since we’re back at Eastern District, then I’m relieved of my duty to protect you. Send someone to the 29th Floor if you need me––I still have matters I need to attend to.”
After dropping that on her, he turned to Nie Zun with a coquettish smile and his coy eyes, “My pet, I hope we’ll meet again.”
With that, he swung the sleeve to his long garment and disappeared right before our eyes without a hint of sentimentality.
“This Rank A personnel of yours seemed to do as he pleases…” I told Jiao S.
Jiao S’ rigid face donned a small smile. “He has always been this way, nobody knows what he’s thinking. Besides, his condition for coming over to the Eastern District was that we leave him be unless absolutely necessary. Even when we do need him to handle matters, we can’t restrict his freedom once it’s done.”
“Where was he from? The Southern District?” Since the Western District didn’t have Guan Nie in their organization during Li Qing’s time, I grew curious.
Jiao S’ eyes shone of something indecipherable. “He didn’t belong to any district before us; one of the exceptions permitted by Mr Blond. When I heard about his extraordinary skills, I specifically sent someone to search for him––they eventually located him in the Southern District. In convincing him to come over to Eastern District and render his services to me, we made an agreement.
“Come on, let’s walk and talk. We have to get to the Academy as soon as possible––we can even clean ourselves up there.” Jiao S gestured for us to make haste with a wave of her hand. Rightly so, otherwise it would take us more than ten hours to get through the Marketplace to the Academy.
We made a mad dash the whole way, and I began to feel exhaustion creep up on me. While I do love running about wildly in the dead of night, the stimulation to both my body and mind over the past few days had pushed me to my limits. Furthermore, my split symbol is still unsealed, and hence blocked from my full potential. Every time I exert my MF, I lose some of them in the process. While they do get replenished overnight, somehow it seemed as though my mental strength wasn’t able to withstand it for much longer.
In order to distract myself from my own fatigue, I started up a conversation with Jiao S. Looking at her now, she’s no longer as terrifying as I once thought her to be. “Hey, Jiao S. If Guan Nie is as you described––that is, a freeman who has never followed anybody’s orders––then what kind of deal did you strike to convince him to help you?”
Jiao S was quiet for a moment before she eventually decided to answer my question. “I agreed to make Si Luo leave Gaoqin Jiuye.”
… Wait, what?
What did she mean by “make Si Luo leave Gaoqin Jiuye”?
Guan Nie had always been submissive, and I’ve always thought there was something strange about the way he treated Gaoqin Jiuye, yet at the same time, it also seemed as though he was jealous of Gaoqin Jiuye’s loyalty to Si Luo. Then, how do you make sense of Jiao S’ words?
Unless… Could it be…? Could it be that Gaoqin Jiuye is gay too?! Is Si Luo his partner? Was Guan Nie jealous?!
In the split zone, my very own Senior Gao Qi is actually gay???
I played the entire theatrics of their possible love triangle over in my head.
Jiao S looked sideways at me, perplexed. “What’s with that weird look on your face?”
A little awkwardly, I hastily replied, “Oh, no, it’s nothing. I just didn’t understand. Si Luo and Gaoqin Jiuye, are they… that?”
Watching my wild gestures as I spoke, Jiao S frowned. “What do you mean by ‘that’?”
“Ai-ya, you know… Gay! The Si Luo you adore is gay?”
Jiao S looked at me incredulously. “It’s no wonder you got diagnosed with mind-splitting disorder.”
I choked at that.
Hey, now just wait a minute––who in the split zone wasn’t diagnosed with some sort of mental disorder, huh? Why are you discriminating against my mind-splitting disorder!
In resignation, she continued. “They’re not in that sort of relationship, but I don’t know how Guan Nie feels towards Gaoqin Jiuye. In any case, it doesn’t matter. I promised him.”
I suddenly remembered another matter and swiftly changed subject. “Oh yeah, I meant to say––what’s the secret to the split zone you wanted to tell me?”
Jiao S’ eyes darkened. “Have you ever seen a legitimate soul splitter?”
I shook my head. “No, I’ve only heard about them. Didn’t they say Mi Fu’s a soul splitter, though? And then there’s Li Wen, she said she’s one too.”
Jiao S sighed, “Sure, but we only have their word for it. We’ve never actually seen it with our own eyes; we’ve never seen someone return to the real world by inserting their splitting key into their soul splitter. I’ve seen a soul splitter once… but they looked identical to their counterpart.”
“Huh? What does this mean?”
Jiao S shrugged and shook her head. “I don’t understand it either. Regardless, I have seen someone who inserted their key into their soul splitter’s symbol and the two of them looked exactly alike. I suspect the split zone has been concealing soul splitters, and that they are our doppelgängers. Still, Li Qing and Li Wen have the same symbols but they look different… though it’s possible one of them has been using their MF to disguise themselves.”
I furrowed my brows. “Why do you think so? Just because you’ve seen it once doesn’t mean that it’s true of everyone.”
Jiao S let out another sigh. “I don’t know why either. Still, I have a strong feeling I’m right. Besides, wasn’t there another Nie Zun who was causing trouble?”
Jie Pa chimed in at this point. “That might have been part of You Ji’s conspiracy. Nie Zun told me about the night You Ji came to sow discord, spoke about the powers in Nie Zun’s hands. We suspect that was You Ji’s ability; maybe she was the one who masqueraded as Nie Zun in front of Yu Liang and Song Lu.”
Surprised, I sought clarification. “Do you mean You Ji has the ability to replicate other people’s skills? But that doesn’t necessarily mean she can pretend to be another person convincingly.”
Although… was that why she could manipulate the airflow too?
It wouldn’t be that difficult a feat for her to masquerade as Nie Zun either; after all, she had known both Song Lu and Yu Liang for a long time now.
Jie Pa nodded. “That’s our theory.”
Jiao S had an epiphany then. “Even if that’s the case, how was she able to replicate their abilities? Did she activate her split symbol too?”
I shook my head, uncertain. “I have no idea where her split symbol is hidden. I reckon it’s on the lower half of her body; she always had a serpent tail for that part, so I couldn’t see anything.”
Jie Pa turned to Jiao S and asked, “Ms Jiao S, who is the person you saw with their corresponding soul splitter?”
In her eyes there was a flicker of heaviness, a shield concealing her own emotions. “I really can’t tell you that.”
Jie Pa pushed up his glasses in a gesture of silent understanding.
“Is this the secret about the split zone?” I continued probing.
With another exhale, she breathed out the words, “I’m afraid many speculations I had in the past were proven wrong. Our situation evolved too much, too quickly. It was too unexpected, and we can’t even get in contact with Mr Blond right now.”
“Actually, haven’t you been in the split zone for almost four years now? Did you never research about the soul splitters?”
There was a quick flash of embarrassment to Jiao S at that. “I… Well, for the past three years, I’ve always been researching about Si Luo. It was only when these stranger things began happening that I considered leaving the split zone…”
My mouth twitched. How unexpected it was that this bizarre woman was actually a hopeless romantic, that she had never once thought of leaving the split zone––instead, she was enchanted by the most gorgeous man in the entire split zone, as labeled by rumors.
Still, I wonder what happened between them. Why did she agree not to step foot inside the Southern District for three years?
As I sped on, I twisted my head to look at Jiao S. She looked as though she was deep in thought as well, her eyes glazed over. Her gaze was locked straight ahead, yet at the same time seemed to see nothing at all.
I wondered, but ultimately chose not to ask about it.
Nie Zun, who had been quiet all this while, spoke up. “Don’t forget to ask Mu Li about the scent of those poisonous insects. The man from our district had a similar scent––the very person who collapsed with his entire back gnawed by those insects.”
Jiao S hummed an acknowledgment. “Mm-hmm, I’ll handle it. Are those bugs the same as the ones we saw in the Southern District?”
Nie Zun shook his head. “No, they’re different. Still, the split zone isn’t supposed to have creatures like that. I suspect they’re related.”
Jiao S conceded with a dip of her head.