Ring Pendant City sat right at the edge of Tea Town... this gave rise to an inexplicable feeling in Lu Sheng.
'This news was sent out a month ago. In other words, the incident has occurred a month ago, or maybe even earlier.
At that time, I was still occupied with ambushing Scarlet District Mistress' Lu Sheng drummed the table top lightly. Something smelled fishy about this case.
The disappearance of a branch leader was rare. Even for a demon- and ghost-infested world like this, not even the average ghost could trap an expert at the level of a branch leader. The branch leader might not have been able to defeat the ghost, but would surely be able to flee at least.
And even if he was somehow unable to flee, he would have been able to send out a distress flare. Moreover, all Anomaly sites with even a little bit of danger were marked out. He would not enter one lightly.
Lu Sheng rapidly flipped ahead and found a letter in the midst of Zhao Jiaojiao's intelligence report.
'Rumor has it that a mysterious manor has appeared deep in the mountains. Some firewood gatherers and herb gatherers have entered and never been seen coming out again. Suspected new case of ghost activity. Preparing to investigate.'
Lu Sheng shut his eyes. His instincts told him that some connection existed between these two cases.
Tea Sect, Tea Town.
The Sect Leader sat uneasily in the hall with a cup of clear green tea in her hand. But she did not drink even a single mouthful from it.
The news that the Deputy Sect Leader had just reported worried her.
Recently, huge swathes of tea trees and tree mountains have dried and withered. Their growth have been deteriorating; the reason is unknown. The harvest this year is likely to be affected.
She had paid a visit in person and was unable to discern the cause indeed.
Dong Qi rose and placed the tea cup on the table. Gloomy and downcast, she walked out of the hall and went to the courtyard outside for a stroll, to take a breath of fresh air.
"Sect Leader, a man outside the door claims that he can help us deal with the withering of the tea trees!" A guard stepped forward and whispered.
Dong Qi was surprised.
She had not had time to release news of the tea trees' withering. How would this person know about it then?
Could a mole have been planted in the sect?
With her hands behind her back, she hesitated and nodded.
"Invite him to the guest hall; I'll be there shortly."
"Yes, ma'am." The guard retreated.
Dong Qi tidied up her thoughts, took a few sips of tea, then headed towards the guest hall.
Upon entering through the doors, she was immediately attracted by the figure in the middle of the hall.
It was a young erudite, scholarly man with a slender figure and handsome features. This man was filled with self-confidence and a composed air. Holding on to a black umbrella, he stood in the hall, admiring a painting of a sunset over the sea hung on the well.
"I'm Duan Xichen. Greetings to Sect Leader Dong." The erudite man cupped his fists together with a smile. "Hearing that the tea mountains have withered, Xichen has come to recommend himself out of confidence in his own abilities. I hope Sect Leader Dong will not take offense."
"Of course not!" Dong Qi smiled. "Your eyes sparkle with intelligence, sir. If you are truly possess the skills to help us, our sect will certainly reward you handsomely."
"Sect Leader is too kind." Duan Xichen smiled. Suddenly, he seemingly casually mentioned, "Come to think of it, Tea Sect's headquarters look rather dark and sinister. I even heard that there was a ghost incident recently?"
Caught off guard, Dong Qi quickly shook her head.
"What ghost incident? It's simply some shameful affair that happened internally within the sect..."
"Is that so?" Curiosity appeared on Duan Xichen's face. "Can you tell me about it? Leave Tea Sect's problem to me. Rest assured."
Dong Qi could not even bear to pry her eyes away from him. Just listening to his voice alone made her feel warm all over. Subconsciously, she felt inclined to satisfy his request.
"It's all in the past. But since you'd like to hear, sir, I'll tell you."
Deep in the mountains.
Thunder rumbled and rain pelted down. The dense forest swayed left and right under the ferocious gale of the storm.
At the foot of an inky black slope, Zhang the Fifth lay in a ditch, moaning in pain. The rain, mixed with mud, had soaked his lower body through and through.
After rolling down the slope, his legs were covered in bruises and wounds. Now, soaked with mud and murky water, it was swelling up in pain.
He touched them. The skin on his legs were turning numb.
'This is bad. I've got to get up quick. If I stay lying down here, I may even lose my life!' With great difficulty, he pulled himself up. Earlier, he had fallen unconscious after hitting the back of his head. Hence, he had missed the best opportunity to return.
And now the storm raged on, casting the forest into a pitch-black darkness. He could hardly even see the road. All around him were sharp bushes and thick trunks and branches that threatened to cut him.
It was difficult to get home now.
"I can't stay here. I've lost so much blood... I'll surely attract some wild beasts..." Having been a herb gatherer and hunter in these mountains all year round, Zhang the Fifth was very experienced in such matters.
Lumbering, he got up and stumbled out of the ditch at the foot of the slope. He looked left and right, desperately looking for the road back home in the brightness cast by lightning, which streaked across the sky every now and then.
But, having fallen down the slope, he was no longer on his usual path anymore. Add to that the lightning storm and darkness of the inky black night, and finding the path home was an impossible task.
But he knew that if he did not persist, he would not last a single night out in the wild. He would freeze to death before the day dawned.
The Northern Lands were cold to begin with. And now, autumn was turning into winter and the temperature dropped even lower. Not long after Zhang the Fifth woke up, he began to shiver from the cold. He even had to keep moving some parts of his body to keep them from turning stiff.
"Is anyone there?" he tried shouting.
But his yell was merely a whisper in the howling gale and roaring thunder.
Helpless, Zhang the Fifth had no choice but to continue dragging his weary body forward, trying his best to hide under the shelter of canopy. But while he might have avoided the brunt of the pelting rain, the freezing wind still assaulted him as it blew against his wet skin.
Suddenly, he lifted his head as he walked on in the forest. A glimmer of white light had appeared out of the blue ahead of him.
"Light? Somebody's there??" Zhang the Fifth was overjoyed. Instantly, he found new energy in him and quickened his steps towards the source of that light.
Lightning streaked across the sky, lighting up the world in a split second of tragic white.
Zhang the Fifth dragged his fatigued body onwards. With great effort, he walked out of the thick forest and arrived before that light.
What appeared before him was a dilapidated village. Stone houses sat haphazardly on a plot of black land, as coarse as old tree bark.
The light had come out of a large stone house by the entrance to the village.
The stone house was situated on slightly higher ground and was taller than other stone houses. The main door of the house led to a flight of stone steps cascading to the left.
Zhang the Fifth swallowed his saliva. Seized with joy, he hastened his steps towards it.
It was like striking the lottery to find an inhabited shelter in such deep mountains.
"Is anyone in!!!? Sorry to disturb!!" he shouted, doubling up to the stone steps.
Apart from this house which was lit, all the other stone houses in the village were pitch black. Moreover, this house was near the entrance of the village and so he headed straight for it without question.
"Sorry to disturb! Is anyone in??" hearing no reply the first time, Zhang the Fifth shouted again.
He struggled up the steps, one step at a time, until he finally arrived before the wooden door of the stone house.
"Dong dong dong."
He knocked hard against the door.
To his surprise, the wooden door was not closed. His knocks had pushed the door open with a creak.
Zhang the Fifth's heart lurched. Leaving the door open at midnight in such dangerous, deep mountains was absolutely unusual!
One had to understand that the mountains were teeming with wild beasts. Not closing the door at night was a recipe for disaster should any panther, wolf, or tiger be led to it.
But now, under the threat of the thunderstorm, the excruciating cold and his intense hunger, he threw caution to the wind.
Biting his teeth, Zhang the Fifth shoved the door open and entered.
A broad courtyard lay behind the door. Further into the courtyard and facing the entrance was a lit hall. Through the paper window, Zhang the Fifth could see a person seated inside.
Instantly, Zhang the Fifth was filled with hope.
'Perhaps the owner simply forgot to close the door. And maybe he didn't hear me shouting earlier because of the pelting rain.'
Closing the door behind him, he limped towards the main hall.
"Help!!! Anybody!??" he yelled as he felt the pain growing sharper in his body.
At that exact moment, however, a peal of thunder rang out, thoroughly covering over his yell.
Helpless, Zhang the Fifth could only limp quickly towards the hall.
In one breath, he made it under the roof. The stone house now shielded him from the storm and gale. Only then could he heave a sigh of relief.
"I'm Zhang the Fifth! I slipped and fell in the deep mountains late into the night and fell unconscious till now. Will the owner please allow me to stay for the night! I will surely repay your debt in the future!" he shouted at the inside of the hall.
Standing outside the paper window, he could clearly make out the shape of a person seated inside.
The person was seated right at the center of the hall, his shadow cast on the window. He sat there without a budge, as if he had fallen asleep.
"Hello? Anybody? Help!"
"OWNER, HELP ME!"
Again and again, Zhang the Fifth shouted and slapped the door.
Yet not a sound came from within.
Suddenly, fear gripped his heart.
'Could it be... could it be... I've met a ghost!?' Zhang the Fifth's face turned pale as paper as an unsettledness fell on him.
The door swung open.
Overjoyed, Zhang the Fifth hurriedly limped over and stepped into the hall.
The interior of the hall was brilliantly lit and warm as spring. Intricately decorated, it formed a stark contrast with the coarse simplicity of the exterior of the stone house.
Fine motifs and patterns had been carved into the wooden furniture and some unknown precious decorative items embellished the wall. A middle-aged man sat right in the center of the hall.
It was a plump, emotionless middle-aged man.
"Tell me a joke," the man spoke abruptly.
Zhang the Fifth stood at the door blankly.
"What...?" He gazed at him, wondering if he had misheard him. "I'm Zhang the Fifth, a herb gatherer living nearby. By accident, I fell down a slope and fell into a coma until now. I'm stranded from home and had no choice but to come here for help. I hope"
"Tell me a joke," the middle-aged man said once more.
This time, Zhang the Fifth was sure he had heard correctly. But it made no sense to him. He looked around him. No one else was in the hall apart from this man.
Deep in the middle of the night, this man sat in the hall used to receive guests without a budge, without so much as a trace of emotion on his face. No matter how he looked at the situation, it was extremely bizarre.
"I... I... don't know any jokes... I'm sorry..." Zhang the Fifth suddenly felt a cold shiver running through him. His legs began shaking involuntarily.
"Tell me a joke."
For the third time, the man's spookily placid voice rang out again.
Zhang the Fifth was tottering on the verge of a breakdown. He stepped backwards, attempting to retreat out of the room.
"I... I..." Beads of sweat seeped out of him. His breathing turned shallow and weak.
Without warning, the doors slammed shut.
All light was extinguished in the hall and everything was plunged into pitch-black darkness.
After some unknown length of time, the inky black hall was lit up once more. Peace had returned.
A man sat in the hall without a budge, his shadow cast on the paper window.
Apart from him, no one else was in the hall...
"Help...help!!" Suddenly, a series of footsteps rang out from outside the stone house.
A man covered in mud all over stumbled unsteadily into the courtyard. At the sight of the brightly lit hall, he was overjoyed and ran towards it.
The wooden door opened and shut again.
"Tell me a joke," the voice spoke again.