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Chapter 1: Prologue

It was two quarters past midnight. All the offerings on the Guixuan platform had been neatly arranged, and the priests had lit the eight rectangular long lamps from all directions. The flickering flames illuminated the surroundings as brightly as daylight.

The Guixuan platform stood thirty zhang high, with thousands of steps from bottom to top. Every ten steps, there were two bronze incense burners. When the mountain wind blew, the warm and unstagnant fragrance filled the air, bringing a sense of peace and tranquility to the chest. This was the most precious incense in the clan, only used during the ritual to worship the gods every sixty years.

(T/N:zhang, an old Chinese measure of length equal to 10 chi, or 3.58 metres (11 feet 9 inches). The value was agreed upon by China in treaties (1842–44 and 1858–60) with England and France. It was thereafter used by Chinese maritime customs as the standard value for assessing all tariff duties.)

This was the first time Yuan Zhong had smelled such a fragrance. He couldn’t help but crane his neck. Sometimes the mountain wind brought the scent closer, and sometimes it dispersed it. He always caught only a faint whiff. The priest, Xin Mao, patted his thin shoulder gently and whispered, “Yuan Zhong, don’t fidget.”

“When will the Heavenly God arrive?” Yuan Zhong looked towards the central area of the Guixuan platform, enclosed by jade railings adorned with celestial flowers. A look of longing appeared on his youthful face.

According to the age calculation of the Fox clan (Youhu clan), he was only eleven this year. Experiencing this sixty-year ritual for the first time, everything seemed fresh and curious to him. The Guixuan platform was usually sealed off, not even allowing the elder monks to enter without permission. Ordinary celebrations were not held here. It was said that soon, the heavenly gods would descend upon the platform to visit their people left behind in the mortal realm. The Guixuan platform belonged to the realm of the heavenly gods.

“Count in your heart. When you reach a thousand, you’ll see the heavenly gods.” The priest, Xin Mao, smiled kindly, unwilling to disappoint the child prematurely. Every young member of the Fox clan, experiencing the ritual for the first time, was filled with expectations and dreams. Their clan had an innate closeness to and reverence for the heavenly gods. If they were to know that the heavenly gods had never appeared in nearly ten thousand years, it would be a great disappointment. Even the elder monks and the elders before them had experienced this disappointment, and some even doubted if the heavenly gods had ever existed.

Recorded in the clan’s archives, tens of thousands of years ago, after the legendary battle between gods and demons, all the gods disappeared. Before that, the Fox Clan had been a noble tribe serving the heavenly gods. Every member of the clan knew this from birth, engraved in their hearts.

They were noble, they belonged to the heavenly gods, and they were different. However, as time passed, these records became more and more regarded as mythical legends. What they believed in seemed more like an obsession than reality. Even the monks among them no longer believed that the heavenly gods would appear during the ritual. The ceremony was more of a fulfillment of an obsession.

Yuan Zhong didn’t know the heavy thoughts in Xin Mao’s heart. He devoutly closed his eyes and silently counted. The wind on the Guixuan platform rose and fell, the elders and the nobles kneeling in perfect order on the ground, while the common people filled the area below, silent except for the howling wind.

Perhaps nearing the hour, someone opened the ten precious jars of tribute wine, “Unparalleled Under Heaven,” and the rich aroma of wine wafted with the wind, almost making Yuan Zhong sneeze.

He held his breath, afraid to sneeze, and continued counting earnestly in his mind: “Nine hundred and ninety-five, nine hundred and ninety-six…”

Xin Mao left his side and walked towards the central forbidden area.

“Nine hundred and ninety-seven, nine hundred and ninety-eight…”

The priest Xin Mao’s slightly cold voice came: “Pour the wine; offer it to the heavens and the earth.”

“Nine hundred and ninety-nine…”

Just about to reach a thousand, Yuan Zhong nervously opened his eyes. He watched as the priest Xin Mao waved his sleeves, and the ten jars of “Unparalleled Under Heaven” rose up in circles, splashing golden wine all over the ground, intensifying the fragrance.

“It’s time.” The priest Xin Mao solemnly knelt down and began to recite the ancient prayer to the gods.

“…A thousand.” Yuan Zhong’s little heart was about to burst out of his chest. His eyes eagerly looked towards the central forbidden area, not daring to blink.

Suddenly, the forbidden area lit up with a dazzling light—not the gentle divine light he had imagined, but piercing and unbearable. Yuan Zhong’s eyes were stung by the light, tears streaming down, but he couldn’t bear not to look, so he squinted his eyes to barely look straight.

Both the elders and the clan members above and below the platform exclaimed in disbelief. For tens of thousands of years, such a phenomenon had never occurred. Could it be that the forbidden area was emitting light? Was it the radiance of the heavenly gods?!

The light grew brighter and brighter, almost like the sun. The priest Xin Mao trembled all over, prostrating himself on the ground, tears of excitement falling down his face. Had the heavenly gods finally remembered their people left behind in the mortal realm after tens of thousands of years?

Yuan Zhong covered his eyes with his hand and looked out through his fingers. He felt that the light from the forbidden area gradually weakened, from the glaring sun-like brightness to a cold silver-white moonlight. A distant moon hung in the sky like a jade disc, and on the Guixuan platform, it seemed like there was another small moon, shining brightly and clearly.

In this moonlight, he faintly saw a figure, vague and ethereal, floating lightly, but he couldn’t see clearly. Yuan Zhong couldn’t help but lower his hand, staring blankly at the figure.

No one restrained his rude behavior. When the heavenly gods descended, they were not allowed to look directly at them. Even the priest Xin Mao kneeled on the ground, trembling with fear and pressing his forehead to the ground.

The figure became clearer and clearer, resembling a woman in white, seemingly real yet illusory. Yuan Zhong stared at her dumbfoundedly, feeling that she was close to him yet also very, very far away. Her hair was long, and her bun was simple—something he had never seen before. She seemed to be standing yet also drifting, her white clothes gently swaying in the wind, high above.

Yuan Zhong desperately wanted to see her face clearly. Slowly, he got up from the ground and walked towards the forbidden area. The priest Xin Mao, whose mind was shaken by the presence of the heavenly gods, finally noticed this bold child and immediately reached out to grab his clothes, lowering his voice to scold him, “Bold! Kneel down at once!”

Yuan Zhong couldn’t hear his voice; his soul had been completely absorbed by that figure. He felt like he was about to see her features clearly—those eyebrows, those eyes… How beautiful her eyes were—more precious than the most treasured black gemstone in the clan. In that moment of clarity, he felt like all his senses had been awakened, unable to stop trembling slightly.

The cold, lingering moon—was it a dream? An illusion?

The force pulling at his clothes suddenly increased, and Yuan Zhong, not paying attention, was pulled down and fell. The priest Xin Mao was glaring at him with a face full of anger; the elders on the platform had all risen, and the light from the forbidden area had disappeared. That person… that person was also gone, and everything that had just happened felt like a dream.

“Go back, and I’ll punish you properly later.” The priest, Xin Mao, pushed him aside, no longer paying attention to him.

It was the early autumn of the year Bingyou, after nearly ten thousand years, when the heavenly gods descended upon the Guixuan platform once again. There was no decree, only a brief moment of appearance, yet it became the greatest honor for the fox clan.

After that, three decades passed, and the heavenly gods never appeared again.

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