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Yan Kai opened his mouth, but made no sound. He couldn't figure out what was going on.
"Brother Yan Kai." Presently, Rongrong also squeezed in through the doors. "This is… what's happening here?" She looked at the scene before her in bewilderment.
The rain grew in intensity as it fell down in sheets, while the thunder grew louder. Left with no choice, the group entered the main hall to take shelter.
It was a scene of ruin inside the main hall. Dusty spider webs covered every inch of the walls, and the only things that remained intact within were a couple of chairs and a table.
That scar-faced man plunked his b.u.t.tocks on a chair and reached out for a thick branch, which he used to stir the fire on the ground.
"I was met with this treacherous weather right after just reaching this area. Originally, I intended to head to the city nearby to find my big bro, but now, I guess I'll just have to wait till tomorrow."
The trio including Chen Ziguang kept quiet. It was common knowledge that one should not reveal too much about oneself when out on the roads. However, unbeknownst to them, their ident.i.ties were already obvious from their dressing alone.
"Oh, you're here to take shelter from the rain as well?" Yan Kai asked in surprise.
"What else do you think I'd be here for, brother?" The scar-faced man looked at him quizzically.
"Erm… nothing. Nothing worth mentioning." Yan Kai guessed that he had most likely been disoriented earlier.
He glanced at Duan Rongrong and his Senior Apprentice Brother Wan Hezi, both of whom seemed perfectly normal and weren't any different from their usual selves.
"Speaking of which, that huge fog earlier…"
"That fog earlier was indeed heavy." The scar-faced man nodded too. "But, strangely, it disappeared suddenly in the blink of an eye. We should all take some precautions in this isolated wilderness."
"Yes, yes. This brother is right to say so." Chen Ziguang nodded in response.
A bolt of lightning flashed across the sky, lighting up the room in blinding white.
The group of them huddled around the fire to dry their clothes and began to chit-chat.
Only then did Yan Kai learn that the scar-faced man was named Sun Chankuang. He had come from a foreign place to cast his lot with his big bro, a pugilist. According to him, he was from a certain Giant Eagle Clan.
The two scholars with a book boy, on the other hand, were on their way to the city nearby for the examinations.
The warm glow of the fire was a stark contrast against the gale, storm, and lightning outside the house. The Northern Lands, being close to the frozen oceans, were already characterized with low temperatures in the first place. And now that it was turning into winter, the air got even colder. Without a fire, the frost of a single night would claim their lives.
"This house's pretty big. It's got three connected rooms. I'm taking one on my own. As for the rest, feel free to divide it among yourselves. It's turning late; I'm gonna sleep now."
After some chat, the scar-faced man Sun Chankuang yawned and rose to his feet.
"Help yourself, Brother Sun. The three rooms divide neatly among the three groups of ours." Feeling at home with Sun Chankuang after the chat, Chen Ziguang quickly stood up and cupped his fists.
"Don't mention it. Ought we not help one another when we're out in such lands?" Sun Chankuang laughed heartily.
"It's getting late. We'll turn in as well." Xu Pei arose too.
"Alright, we'll go rest as well." Yan Kai followed suit and smiled.
He made eye contact with Duan Rongrong and Wan Hezi, who both stood up as well. The three groups of trav
ellers went into their respective rooms in the side of the stone house.
"Tonight... let's sleep on the ground. That bed frame doesn't look usable anymore. We can only make do with the ground." Yan Kai had originally wished to ask the two of them about what had happened to them earlier. But though the words came to his mouth, he could not quite bring himself to discuss it.
"Brother Yan Kai. Earlier in the fog, I saw someone who looked exactly like you heading deep into the village. Had I not heard your voice in the courtyard at that moment, I might have been drawn into the village by that person," Duan Rongrong whispered all of a sudden.
Yan Kai's eyes widened and he nodded. "Be cautious. Look carefully first before you make any decisions. Don't do anything rashly."
"Junior Apprentice Brother, both of you should go back early next morning. I'm the one who landed myself in this trouble. I'm the one who should end this..." Wan Hezi said solemnly.
"Don't say that, Senior Apprentice Brother." Yan Kai shook his head. "Be careful. Something bizarre is running amok here. In all circ.u.mstances, make you we're safe first. No matter what we see, don't act rashly."
"Mm, I understand." Wan Hezi nodded.
Each with a heavy heart, they found a corner of the wall and went to rest leaning against it.
Early in the morning, Lu Sheng walked out of his bedroom. The day had not yet dawned. He stood silently in the courtyard, gazing at the flashing lightning and rumbling thunder in the sky.
Little umbrella girl jumped out of the corner of the courtyard and glanced at Lu Sheng timidly. Then, she walked to the side of the well in the middle of the courtyard and began drawing water out of it with a bucket effortfully.
"Creak, creak." She spun the axle.
"Oh, it's Yingying. You're up early too." Lu Sheng could recognize which mode umbrella girl was in right now without even so much as a turn of his head.
"... No need... to sleep," little umbrella girl whispered in reply.
Lu Sheng chuckled,
"That's right, I forgot."
He gazed at the mountains in the distance, in the direction of the village.
"Do you know about that village? Come to think of it, you should be older even than Hongfang Bai. Haven't you heard anything about that village before?"
"I'm... I'm sorry..." Yingying bowed her head in apology.
"Doesn't matter. I was just asking casually." Lu Sheng smiled. "That place... it's not somewhere we can enter safely at will. I need to understand what exactly is in it and what can I get out of it. And why Chao Long would come all the way for this place."
"..." Yingying could not quite comprehend Lu Sheng's thoughts. From her point of view, could that place possibly be any stronger that her sis in her prime?
Yet Lu Sheng was able to defeat even her sis in her peak. There no longer existed anything or anyone he needed to fear in these lands.
"Forget it if you don't understand." Lu Sheng shook his head. His ident.i.ty was somewhat of a sensitive issue at the moment. He needed to raise his strength in the shortest amount of time. Only when he finally attained an unparalleled strength could he be free from the trouble and threat of the n.o.ble Families and ghosts and demons.
After all, his strength was what would enable him to overturn the system of power in this world.
But before then, any needless moves or actions by him were dangerous. Each time he made a move, he risked being exposed.
Yingying had finished drawing water. After standing in the courtyard for a little longer, Lu Sheng headed for the study.
In the study, Dong Qi of Tea Sect had already been waiting for him there.
"Reporting to Sect Master, the Unlaughing Master has appeared again! Last night, there was another case of mysterious disappearance. From the signs left behind, it should have been due to the appearance of Unlaughing Master."
"Oh?" Lu Sheng's interest was immediately piqued. "How did that person go missing?"
Dong Qi said gravely, "Right in his own house. His family said that they heard a tragic cry in the middle of the night. They got up and searched everywhere, only to find that he was nowhere to be found. This is the sixteenth death in this town till date."
"Even the sole survivor of this case is now dead. It's tricky." Lu Sheng's eyes narrowed to slits.
"Everyone is living with their hearts in their mouths now. n.o.body knows what we should do next." Dong Qi stared at Lu Sheng in antic.i.p.ation, hoping that he would come up with a solution.
"There's no hurry... How about Chao Long?" Lu Sheng grinned and asked.
"No signs yet of his whereabouts... Oh, and the trio including Yan Kai have gone missing as well. It's very odd," Dong Qi said, baffled.
"Sect Master!" Xu Chui dashed in before Dong Qi could finish her sentence, a look of worry on his face.
"Our men in the sect have gone missing too!" The first words out of his mouth instantly caused Lu Sheng and Dong Qi's faces to fall.
"Soon... soon..." A glint of coldness flashed across Lu Sheng's eyes. But he remained impa.s.sive. "We'll continue waiting. Bring the men out to safety in the meantime."
"Yes, sir!" Xu Chui immediately agreed.
Crimson Whale Sect took no action. Despite the fact that some of their own men had gone missing, they retreated out of Tea Sect for Ring Pendant City under Xu Chui's leadership, as if nothing had happened.
Tea Sect regained its peace, as if that Unlaughing Master legend had vanished.
But Lu Sheng understood that it had not vanished. Rather, it was merely lying low.
Thunder exploded in the flash of lightning.
Dong Qi sat up straight on her bed slowly. She had been awoken by the urge to pee. Outside, the storm fell in sheets and the gale howled madly. The rumbling thunder sounded like drum beats.
The windows were dyed into a tragic shade of blue in that second.
Slowly, she composed herself with a few deep breaths, then got off the bed and put on her shoes.
Gently, she opened the door. The latrine that Dong Qi needed was across the guest hall. The originally lit lanterns hung on the walls had been extinguished by the gale.
Standing at the door of her bedroom, she tugged her collar, feeling the chilly gusts of air beating at her.
'I'll make it quick and be back real soon,' she thought.
With hurried steps, she got out of the bedroom and entered the guest hall, making a beeline for the latrine.
Suddenly, she noticed that the lanterns in the guest hall were lit.
The dim yellow glow of the lanterns cast a blurry light in the guest hall.
Dong Qi slowly shut the bedroom door behind her and surveyed the guest room with her gaze.
'It's already so late... could the servants have forgotten to extinguish the lanterns?' she thought.
All of a sudden, out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of a man sitting quietly in a chair facing the door.
It was a middle-aged man, rather tall and slightly plump, with a straight back.
But with the dimness of the room, Dong Qi could not make out who that person was from her distance.
Suddenly, from her distance, she saw that man's head turn around stiffly to look at her.
She could not make out the person's face. But, vaguely, his eyes seemed very black—like two gaping pits.
"Who? Who's there?" Dong Qi's heart throbbed. She had no recollection or recognition of any man like that.
Swiftly, her right hand reached behind her back in her robes and pulled out a dagger.
"Tell me a joke." A voice rang out from that man suddenly.
Dong Qi stood rooted to the ground, frozen all over. That voice had not come from the direction in front of her.
Slowly, she turned her head around. The wooden door to her bedroom was wide open.
A man who looked exactly like the one she had just seen was standing at the door, this time much nearer to her. Now, she finally saw clearly why the man's eyes were black.
They were basically two black pits, without any eyeb.a.l.l.s in those sockets. Nothing at all was in them—they were simply two blood-stained holes, so black that she could stare right into his body.
Shivers crawled down Dong Qi's spine. The dagger nearly slipped out from her hand. Her face was ghastly white and her body was cold. Her inner robes were soaked with cold sweat.
Slowly, she took two steps back.
She screamed at the top of her lungs and made a dash for the main doors behind her.
Outside the doors, in the middle of the courtyard, Lu Sheng wrapped his hand around the saber stabbed into the ground before him and rose to his feet. He stared at the ma.s.sive frame approaching behind him.
"I've waited a long time for you, Chao Long..."
The man behind him paused in surprise.