"Anyway, where was I? I've been in pursuit of Chao Long to investigate the whereabouts of the Red Pardon Pearl. The Dugu Family of the Eastern Seas have offered a handsome bounty for it. As you know, your senior apprentice brother here doesn't have many talents, but peeping... hehehe..." Wan Hezi began to chuckle wickedly.
Yan Kai sighed helplessly.
"Senior Apprentice Brother, are you sure you really want to pursue Chao Long?"
"Of course! I've taken on Dugu Family's offer of reward..."
"WHAT!? You've taken on the offer??!" Alarmed, Yan Kai stood up with eyes as wide as saucers.
Even Duan Rongrong's jaws fell to the ground. Clearly, she was shocked.
"Are you crazy!? Wan Hezi!" Yan Kai yelled softly involuntarily, exasperated. "Do you know the consequences of taking on their offer!?"
"Er... what consequences?" Wan Hezi stared dumbly at the both of them.
"Should you fail to complete the terms, your soul will be ripped out of your body and become fuel for Dugu Family's Evil Poison Soul Fire, used for forging weapons!" Yan Kai felt so angry that his chest was about to explode.
"AH!!???" Realizing the trouble he had gotten himself into now, Wan Hezi was stumped. He thought about how gleeful he had been in being the fastest person to take on the offer.
The reward on Dugu Family's notice was too handsome; its lavishness was unheard of. It took him only one glance to pounce at it at his fastest speed and tear it down.
And he had even been curious about why the gazes directed at him by those around him had been so weird.
Now, he finally understood...
"I'm finished..." Wan Hezi felt his body turn limp and cold; all his strength left him. "I'm done for..."
"You....!" Yan Kai pointed a finger at his senior apprentice brother disappointedly and angrily, at a loss for words.
"Junior Apprentice Brother, Rongrong... I'm in deep shit now... Senior apprentice brother... has never tasted a woman in all my life... Rongrong, how about you offer me your body just once..." Wan Hezi mumbled with a dazed look.
"I'm telling Sis Bing Yuan!" Duan Rongrong immediately rose to her feet.
"DON'T, dont'!!" Wan Hezi immediately snapped back to his senses. His face was covered in grief. "I was wrong, ok? Isn't that enough? Forget it. I asked for it... I'll go to Dugu Family now and see if there's any hope left."
"What now?" Duan Rongrong did not know whether to be angry or to laugh. She could tell that Wan Hezi was merely putting up a front and joking around. But after learning of the truth, he was clearly at a loss of what to do. Hence, she looked in Yan Kai's direction.
She knew that Brother Yan Kai would not disappoint her.
Although Wan Hezi had always been a scoundrel, he did help and save them more than once.
"The only option we're left with now... is to first be clear about the mission Senior Apprentice Brother has committed himself to," Yan Kai said in resignation.
The sedan was lowered slowly in front of the doors of Tea Sect.
Respectfully, Ning San pulled the veil away. Immediately, little umbrella girl was first to hop out and stand to a side, hoisting her red umbrella and turning around to look behind herself.
Lu Sheng stepped out of the sedan slowly. He looked at the Sect Master of Tea Sect, Dong Qi, who was standing by the doors of Tea Sect, and the Winged Honor Guard Commander beside her.
"Dong Qi greets Sect Master Lu."
"Li Qiong from Winged Honor Guard greets the Sect Master!"
Both of them gave their greetings.
Lu Sheng nodded. He had met Dong Qi the previous time. As for Li Qiong of the Winged Honor Guard, he was a disciple of the sect who had long ago enlisted in the Winged Honor Guard and only recently been promoted. Part of the reason why he had been promoted was because of Lu Sheng's reign over the Northern Lands.
Presently, Crimson Whale Sect alone ruled unchallenged in the Northern parts of the Song Nation. Behind it stood Shangyang Family, one of the Nine Great Families of the Central Plains. Shangyang Jiuli had stepped into Manor Lord level and entered the Snake realm. Given her talents, she was certainly above the lower three grades of the Snake realm.
As one of Shangyang Jiuli's key assets, Lu Sheng naturally enjoyed a high status by extension. His reputation and power grew by the day.
"How's the situation? Any word about the missing Elder?" Lu Sheng inquired as he walked into the headquarters of Tea Sect.
"No... we've still got no news of Elder Xu till now. External Affairs Emissary Chen has been searching everywhere in vain ever since receiving notice of his disappearance... Sect Master should wait till External Affairs Emissary Chen arrives and ask him," Li Qiong from Winged Honor Guard whispered in reply.
Lu Sheng strolled along the wooden corridor, gazing at the small garden of artificial mountains beside the corridor.
Several children chased each other around the garden, causing a loud ruckus. Curious, they cast glances over at Lu Sheng.
"Erm... they're the younger generation of the Elders in the sect. They don't know the customs... your subordinate will immediately" Dong Qi broke out in cold sweat. She had explicitly instructed that everyone should leave and vacate the surroundings. Yet these children were here, and might very well cross the path of Sect Master Lu Sheng. She knew his temper all too well. Under that mild gentle appearance was a cold-blooded merciless killer.
"Doesn't matter." Lu Sheng raised his hand, completely unbothered.
"Such a tiny Tea Town... and yet it's my second time here," he said placidly, without any trace of joy or anger in his tone.
"Yes. Previously, Sect Master came to deal with the stained-glass mirror incident... come to think of it, time has passed in the blink of an eye," Dong Qi hurriedly replied reverently.
"Well, it hasn't been that long." Lu Sheng smiled. "Where's Zhao Jiaojiao?"
Li Qiong rapidly replied, "External Head Zhao has also gone out to investigate and has yet to return."
"Oh?" Lu Sheng arched his eyebrow. "Interesting. Even Zhao Jiaojiao has fallen here. One Elder and one External Affairs Emissary. To think that two people from my Crimson Whale Sect would fall here just like that..."
Neither Dong Qi and Li Qiong nor Ning San and Xu Chui and the rest dared to make a sound. Lu Sheng's stature was growing more and more imposing and grave. Each word and gesture by him brought crushing pressure on those around him, making them involuntarily nervous.
A guard dashed in.
"External Affairs Emissary Chen has returned and seeks an audience with the Sect Master!"
"Bring him here," Lu Sheng ordered.
Very soon, a pale, forlorn, and sickly white-haired old man hurriedly entered and knelt on a single knee before Lu Sheng. With his head bowed, he said, "Your subordinate Chen Zongtao greets the Sect Master! Will Sect Master please punish me!"
"Rise. What wrong have you committed? Tell me what happened in detail," Lu Sheng said calmly.
Chen Zongtao began narrating his encounter.
"That day, your subordinate ventured into the deep mountains together with Elder Xu Chuanzhou to search for leads. As we've heard that the Unlaughing Master appears only at night, we continued the search all the way into the night.
As we continued searching, your subordinate suddenly heard a cry for help by Elder Xu, and immediately rushed over. But when I reached the spot where the cry had come from, I found nothing at all.
Not only Elder Xu, but the entire team with him has all vanished without a trace."
"You mean you neither saw nor know how Elder Xu had disappeared? All you heard was a cry?" Lu Sheng asked composedly.
"Yes... that's exactly what happened!" Chen Zongtao bowed his head fearfully.
Lu Sheng stared at him without a word.
Just merely a moment's gaze by Lu Sheng caused Chen Zongtao's back to break out in cold sweat, drenching his robes.
Without warning, Chen Zongtao was sent flying and smashing into a pillar by a kick. Instantly, he spewed out a mouthful of blood.
The rest around them shuddered. Even Xu Chui and Ning San's eyelids twitched. Dong Qi shut her eyes, not daring to watch any longer.
"I'm asking you one more time." Lu Sheng walked to the front of Chen Zongtao. "Did you really only hear, but not see Elder Xu?"
Chen Zongtao fell and tumbled to the ground, but quickly picked himself up into a kneeling position again, his mouth full of blood.
"Your subordinate... your subordinate..."
"ANSWER ME!!" Lu Sheng's eyes burst wide open as he roared.
Chen Zongtao trembled all over. Finally, he could take it no longer.
"Your subordinate did see... did see Elder Xu!!" He choked in tears. An old man in his seventies was reduced to crying like a baby.
"You saw Elder Xu's cry for help, didn't you?" Lu Sheng asked placidly.
"Yes... yes, I did... your subordinate did see... but, at that time, your subordinate... was truly too frightened... that stone house..." Tears and mucus flowed down Chen Zongtao's face. "So many of them go swallowed in one gulp... not even their shadows were left!!" He crawled to Lu Sheng's feet.
"Sect Master, it wasn't that your subordinate was scared for his own life... but rather, it was because there was no chance of winning at all. I'd just be sacrificing my life for nothing even if I went to help!! It was out of consideration for the lives of my men!"
"Bring him down. Deal with him according to the sect's law," Lu Sheng instructed emotionlessly.
Several guards immediately went over, grabbed hold of Chen Zongtao on both his left and right and dragged him away.
Chen Zongtao shook uncontrollably all over his body, yet did not dare to budge an inch. Like a pile of wet mud, he was dragged away by the two men.
Nobody spoke up for him. Lu Sheng punished him not because he chose to turn a blind eye to the plea for help, but rather because he did not report truthfully.
Moreover, this was a huge matter concerning the life and death of a comrade in the sect. And yet he concealed the truth to save his own skin. According to sect laws, he was to be subjected to the Twin Saber Punishment. Although it wasn't the death penalty, having two sabers stabbed into your ribs was akin to claiming half your life.
"See to it that he says everything he ought to. Then let's go take a look and see what on earth hides in these mountains that dares to touch my Crimson Whale Sect's men," Lu Sheng declared calmly.
"Yes, sir." Xu Chui slowly retreated, then ran in the direction in which Chen Zongtao had been taken away.
"Now let's discuss that supposed legend spreading in Tea Town." Lu Sheng gazed at Dong Qi.
"It's the legend of the Unlaughing," Dong Qi explained politely with her head bowed. "Recently, there's been people in our Tea Sect going missing deep in the night too. We're not in the deep mountains, and yet they're still vanishing into thin air mysteriouslymany of them right in their own homes.
Legend has it that there exists a stone house in the deep mountains. An Unlaughing Master lives in it. Someone barged into his house by accident and woke him up, causing him to leave the deep mountains.
This Unlaughing Master came into town. Somebody needs to tell him a joke that will make him laugh. Otherwise, he'll keep on going around killing people."
"Tell him a joke?" Lu Sheng was caught by surprise.
"That's right." Dong Qi nodded and continued, "According to this legend, once one encounters the Unlaughing Master, one must say a joke within an extremely short period of time and make him laugh in order to pass the test. Or else one will not live to see the dawn."
Lu Sheng shook his head and glanced to his left and right.
"Do you believe it? Such a legend?"
Ning San pondered the question earnestly.
"Your subordinate thinks that it's extremely possible for it to be true. Since such a rule and story concerning this Unlaughing Master exists, somebody must have had survived an encounter with him and lived to tell the tale."
"That makes sense." Lu Sheng nodded.
The rest around him nodded in agreement as well.