On the gray-yellowish mountain path, dust and stones were sent flying into the air by hooves. An athletic horse raced along the path, leaving gusts of wind which forced the wild grass growing alongside down in its wake.
Sweat broke out profusely on the back of the masked rider dressed in black athletic robes. Green veins popped up on his forehead. His back had long since been soaked through and through.
"Hit!" A sudden growl rang out.
A black stone shot towards him from his side with great force, landing squarely on his left shoulder.
With a thud, the rider was knocked off his horse.
The horse neighed loudly and fled in fright, leaving behind its fallen rider who was struggling to get back on his feet.
A large foot in a riding shoe stepped mercilessly on his shoulder, pinning him down on the ground again.
"A footman from Ashoka Manor. Oh my, its actually a Black Robe Guard messenger!" A bald monk dressed in unkempt filthy clothes jumped out from the bushes.
He lifted the black-robed rider up in the air with great familiarity, then sliced through the clothes and skin on the riders forearm with his razor-sharp fingernails to retrieve a small yellow parchment.
"Who who on earth are you!?" Having been knocked off a horse galloping at high speed, the riders body had been sent slamming into several chunks of rocks and he was already gravely wounded. Blood was gushing out of his mouth and he was losing his sight. But that did not stop him from questioning the identity of his assailants angrily.
"We? After so many encounters with each other, havent you lot figured it out?" The monk laughed, the fat on his cheeks and his grease-stained monk robes shaking along with his laughter. He ignored the rider and began to read the parchment.
"Let this Buddha see what intelligence we have here. Zhen Family has fled Northern Lands in chaos Shangyang Family has stationed itself here"
"Youre the remnant scum of Yun Province!" The black-robes riders eyes widened as he recalled something.
The fat monk stepped hard onto his chest, killing him instantly as he nailed the rider's body to the ground.
"Master!" Several more people emerged from the cliff nearby. Seeing that there were people here, they hurried over.
The man right in front was blessed with a handsome appearance. His striking eyes and fair skin instantly revealed him to be a young master used to a fine lifestyle, contradicting the coarse linen he wore.
"Youre here, Young Master Li! Heh, I captured a messenger from Ashoka Manor by coincidence. I thought we could gain some valuable intelligence, but its just some random news irrelevant to us," the monk tossed the parchment to the people who had just arrived.
This young master Li was the very same Li Shunxi who had just departed Mountain-Edge City and had been roaming in the region between the Northern Lands and Central Plains. Behind him, surprisingly, were the extremely ugly Liu Family sisters.
The terrain between the Northern Lands and Central Plains was extremely complicated, filled with mountains, forests, plains, and jungles. It was only by chance that Li Shunxi had avoided death in several deadly encounters with the supernatural. Either he managed to escape by his own skills, or he happened to meet the pitiful orphansthe Liu Family sisters.
The three of them had banded together due to their common enmity against Duke Ashoka. While taking refuge in a dilapidated temple along the way one night, they chanced upon this fat-headed, big-eared monk who called himself Master Pure.
"Master Pure acts too prematurely. If we had kept him alive, wed have been able to learn of Duke Ashokas next move from him," Li Shunxi smiled in regret.
"Weve been fighting Ashoka Mansion for such a long time; whatever there is to know, we already know. You and the Liu Family girls just need to follow this monks lead. Youll know why when we reach the place. Duke Ashoka has committed too many offenses against nature and the heavens. Therere many like-minded people who want to bring him to justice," Master Pure chuckled.
"But our strengths so insignificant. What difference would it make even if we joined your faction?" Li Shunxi said helplessly.
"Thats not true. See how deeply the Liu Family girl trusts you some things may not be clear to you now but in time to come, youll understand," Master Pure cast a meaningful glance at the Liu Family sisters behind Li Shunxi.
The younger among the sisters bowed her head coyly. Her elder sister, however, humphed coldly and glared at her younger sister with a look of extreme dissatisfaction.
Had it not been for the fact that this girl had fallen head over heels for Li Shunxi, why would she ever deposit half of that most precious item from their family into Li Shunxis body? By the time she found out, it was too late.
"Alright, lets keep going. Ashoka Manors experts should be closing in on us. Weve got to rush to our destination," the fat monk urged them.
"Fine, then. If the day comes that this junior is truly able to avenge my family, I will never forget your grace of guidance today, Master," Li Shunxi bowed respectfully to Master Pure.
"Lets go, lets go, dont dilly-dally!" Master Pure did not receive his bow. He waved his sleeves and began walking off.
Li Shunxi chuckled to himself and glanced behind at the Liu sisters.
"Shall we, ladies?"
"Mm," Liu Caiyun quickly agreed shyly.
Furious, Liu Qin folded her arms across her chest and stormed past Li Shunxi, towards the fat monk.
In the Tang Ancestral Ninth Year of the Song Dynasty, the war between Zhen Family and Scarlet District in the Northern Lands was concluded at last. The Noble Family vacated the area, leaving ghosts to fester unfettered.
Without suppression of a Divine Weapon, safety of passage through the Northern Lands was no longer guaranteed. Soon, it began to enter a period of economic decline. Huge quantities of leather and fur products were accumulated, for it was impossible to export them. At the same time, imported grain dropped drastically in quantity, resulting in a gradual impending food crisis across the entire Northern Lands. All sorts of daily necessities inflated in price; life was miserable for the common folk.
Mountain-Edge City, Golden Light Pagoda.
On the apex of the nine-story tall Golden Light Pagoda, Lu Sheng, dressed in white robes which floated behind him in the wind, gazed into the distance from the overlook.
From this height, the entire Mountain-Edge City fell within his view like a giant basin of sand. Wide swathes of red-tiled roofs occupied the bulk of his field of vision, broken by occasional buildings such as pagodas, towers, stone monuments etc., that rose like spikes.
"If the famine goes on like this unchecked, I fear it may soon spiral out of control" Lu Sheng frowned.
In the hall behind him, Hong Mingzi was chewing slowly on the dishes laid out on the table before him, chopsticks in hand.
"Gangsters and ruffians are beginning to pop up, and cases of robberies and theft are on the rise. But this is the yamen authorities responsibility. We just need to do our part."
Lu Sheng nodded, then turned around, "Shangyang Family doesnt seem very concerned about the Northern Lands. Since Shangyang Jiuli has been posted here, I havent seen her even once apart from when Scarlet District retreated two months ago. Shes been cooped up in solitary confinement, training all the time."
He continued, "Thats both good and bad at the same time. Whats good is that we dont have to worry about ceding our power to her. Whats bad is that theres practically no difference whether or not theres actually a Nobleman stationed here, unless its a matter of utmost urgency."
"Isnt that even better?" Hong Mingzi replied. "We Crimson Whale Sect can occupy the entire Northern Lands to ourselves."
"With the businesses contracting and the economy declining, our gains from occupying the entire land arent even as much as previously. Whats the point?" Lu Sheng shook his head. "Senior Apprentice Brother, youve truly given up your hold on everything now that youre no longer in the position."
"Its not that Ive given up my hold. But rather, we truly are at the end of our strength here. Without a local Noble Family like Zhen Family to suppress the supernatural, the most Shangyang Family can do for us is to guarantee the continued operation of Crimson Whale Sect. But the festering and multiplying ghosts will not simply cease their activities. Were mortals at the end of the day. Theres only so much we can do," Hong Mingzi lifted up his wine cup and sipped lightly.
"Yea Shangyang Family is just a Noble Family of the Central Plains after all" Lu Sheng nodded. Since Scarlet Districts retreat, its District Mistress had not returned, making the umbrella girl his greatest opponent in the Northern Lands.
Since Shangyang Jiulis visit to Scarlet District a month ago, he had tried to contact Zhuo Wenyu to gather more Yin Qi items. But it was as if she had vanished into thin air. Perhaps she was discovered by the Scarlet District. Or perhaps Zhuo Wenyu had given up on their agreement given Lu Shengs new status and level of exposure.
Hence, the small cauldron stayed in Lu Shengs hands. He studied it for a while, yet it ended without any discoveries. So, he cast it into his secret chest and ignored it for the time being.
As a result, however, his source of Yin Qi had been terminated.
"Oh yes, Senior Apprentice Brother, have you got any leads on what I asked you to find?" Lu Sheng asked suddenly.
"Oh, collecting antiques I did find a few stores, but theyre mostly the same as the ones that youve visited. Im afraid you wont find anything you like," Hong Mingzi shook his head.
Lu Sheng had publicly declared himself a collector of antiques. Some time ago, he had even organized an Antiques Valuation Meeting. But he still did not discover anything useful.
"Indeed" he, too, felt that his haphazard, net-like search was too inefficient.
"News!" Suddenly, a disciple dressed in athletic robes dashed towards them from the staircase and knelt on one knee.
"Reporting to the Sect Master: Squire Xiao Hongye is hosting a banquet and has sent his invitation."
"Xiao Hongye?" Lu Sheng was surprised.
This grand steward of Duke Ashoka was now hosting a supposed banquet out of the blue. Who knew what he was up to?
"Hand it over," he said calmly.
The disciple immediately stepped forward reverently and handed the invitation to Lu Sheng.
Receiving it, Lu Sheng opened it gently. The agenda of the banquet was written on it in general terms. Simply put, there was an important matter that Lu Sheng was invited to discuss.
Closing the invitation, he fell into thought.
"Ill pay a visit to this man tonight. Ashoka Manorthis faction straddling between the world of Noble Families and ghosts as well as the world of mortalsappears rather mysterious. Previously, they would invite me to a straightforward meeting to discuss matters. This is the first time theyre inviting me to a banquet. I want to find out what game Steward Xiao Hongye is playing."
Now that he was in command of Crimson Whale Sect, he wielded rather significant authority and thus would be in contact and negotiations with Taoist Bai Feng and Xiao Hongye every now and then. Some thorny matters had to be decided by all three of them together. Those were the so-termed meetings.
"As long as you know what youre doing, Junior Apprentice Brother," Hong Mingzi nodded.
Lu Sheng nodded in response.
Both of them rested for a little longer on the top of the pagoda. Lu Sheng handled some matters in the sect as well. When noon drew near, he headed back for home.
The sun hung high in the sky. The climate had completely entered the warm season.
Lu Family had established themselves in Mountain-Edge City. After listening to Lu Shengs suggestion, Lu Quanan had been stocking up on grain and food, which was presently turning into their first pot of gold to rebuild their family estate. With these large earnings, they were able to open many stores and began setting up a medicine business.
Fortuitously, plenty medicinal herbs were stored in the Northern Lands; very little of them could be exported, causing the prices to plummet. The Lu Family purchased them in bulk. At the same time, Crimson Whale Sect had high demand for medicinal herbs. So Lu Sheng gave the Lu Family some business under the table. These allowed Lu Family to develop rather well.
After riding a short distance in the city, Lu Sheng arrived at Lu Manor.
Immediately, a servant came forward in welcome.
"Eldest Young Master, youve come back!"
"Wheres the Family Head?" Lu Sheng asked upon alighting.