After gently swiping dirt off the tablet, Lu Sheng grasped it with one hand and lifted it. Instantly, the stone tablet was pulled out of the ground.
Large amounts of dirt and soil clumps dropped off the meter-tall black stone tablet.
A few more lines of words were carved near the bottom of the tablet. Although they were blurry and faded, Lu Sheng could just barely make them out.
'Walking on the path of loneliness, leading towards the pain of despair. Joy, life, death, hope'
Beneath that line of words were contents that looked like some form of explanation. Lu Sheng's gaze swept across them and he finally realized why they could not find this supposed Unlaughing Master.
"What's this? Some stupid Anomaly game?" He put the stone tablet down and surveyed his surroundings.
"Everyone. Return to Tea Town. This investigation is over."
The Crimson Whale Sect disciples were immediately caught by surprise. But the Sect Master's words were not to be defied, so they respectfully bowed in acknowledgement.
Xu Chui and Ning San stared hard at the stone tablet. They did not know the ancient Song script, and neither did they know what the Sect Master had seen, much less mention the meaning of the words carved on the tablet. But they knew that it must have been the contents carved on the tablet that changed the Sect Master's mind.
The party of men rapidly pulled out, leaving only a small group behind to stand watch here.
Lu Sheng had them guard the entrance of the village and instructed them absolutely not to enter it. Being experienced with hunting ghosts and Anomalies, these guards who followed Lu Sheng everywhere knew what to do and gave Lu Sheng no cause for worry. Moreover, they were equipped with much anti-illusion medicinal powder produced by the pill room. The average illusion had no effect on them.
Without any stops along the way, Lu Sheng brought the trio including Yan Kai back to Tea Town. Although the three of them were perplexed, they know that Crimson Whale Sect must have had a reason for pulling out. After all, an Elder in the sect had fallen into the hands of an Anomaly, his life or death unknown. There was no way they would let this case go easily.
"As Chao Long said, you can see what you wish to see only if you go to that place at a specific time." In the study in Tea Sect, Lu Sheng stood with his hands behind his back and said calmly to Yan Kai, Xu Chui and the rest.
"Specific time? Come to think of it, the legends surrounding Unlaughing Master all took place around midnight. Could it be that the Unlaughing Master appears only at that time?" Yan Kai whispered.
"Is Mr. Yan Kai very interested in this legend?" Lu Sheng looked at him with a smile.
"Er a little. But since Sect Master Lu has come in person, nothing will go wrong, I'm sure," Yan Kai said politely.
"But that Serpent of the Eastern Seas, Chao Long, has come all the way across such distance to this small town to find Unlaughing Master. There must be some hidden agenda," Duan Rongrong reminded softly.
"It doesn't matter. Tonight, I'll make a trip personally. No matter how many people go to that place, it's the same. They all see the same thing." Lu Sheng shook his head.
"Do you need me to come with you?" Appearing out of nowhere, little umbrella girl walked out behind a shelf in the study.
"No need. Very soon... very soon, this will be over." Lu Sheng smiled. "This time, we'll cut down our numbers before going again. But it might not be today."
The rest had no idea what he meant. But since the Sect Master had spoken, they did not dare to speak any further.
They rested for some time in Tea Sect. Meanwhile, Tea Sect located the person who had first started spreading the legend.
As expected, that person had been dead for days by the time he was found. It was only because his corpse was rotting in his house and producing a repugnant stench that his neighbors realized he was dead.
All leads were broken. Everything was in chaos again.
Time flew. In the blink of an eye, several days had passed.
Seeing that Lu Sheng had no intention of moving out again and no sign of Chao Long could be seen in the town, Yan Kai's party began getting anxious, especially since they knew that Chao Long must be standing guard at that place.
Yan Kai tried asking Lu Sheng several times, but failed to get a reply about when he would make his move. After several days, he had no choice but to take his senior apprentice brother Wan Hezi and Duan Rongrong with him towards that village again silently.
The thick fog hung everywhere in the mountains, casting everything in a white gloom.
Yan Kai, Wan Hezi, and Duan Rongrong returned to the village, retracing the route with ease.
The fog-shrouded village was as quiet as a cemetery. All around them, a palpable stillness pressed down on them.
Yan Kai stood at the entrance of the village and looked around him.
"Where're they? Aren't Crimson Whale Sect guards and Wandering Heart Society's men supposed to be here? Why can't I see anyone?"
In order to complete their mission of investigating Chao Long, they had to pursue his company without any breaks. They had established contact with Lu Sheng to borrow their strength, but the developments after that did not go as they had expected. Crimson Whale Sect withdrew their party and sat on their hands.
Lu Sheng seemed to be waiting for something. Ever since seeing that stone table, he had been biding his time.
The trio including Yan Kai were left with no other option. Dugu Family's deal had a time limit. If it dragged on like this, Wan Hezi would still be in trouble in the end.
Hence, the three of them could only act on their own.
Standing at the entrance of the village, Yan Kai turned behind him and exchanged a glance with Duan Rongrong.
"Senior Apprentice Brother, why don't you sit out on this one? Let Rongrong and me enter at night. You can use your ability to spy on the outside. You just need to find him; don't worry about the rest," Yan Kai whispered.
"Absolutely not!" Wan Hezi shook his head vigorously. "I'm the one responsible for this. I took up the offer of reward. You and Rongrong have got nothing to do with it. Let me go in alone. When it comes to telling jokes, your senior apprentice brother is still pretty confident." He plastered on a forced smile.
"Senior Apprentice Brother" Yan Kai could see Wan Hezi's determined resolve. Although Wan Hezi was often very flighty, he could become absolutely reliable and persistent when he turned serious. Nothing could sway him after he made up his mind seriously.
"Stop talking. Junior Apprentice Brother, I know you mean well for me. But I must take responsibility for my actions. This mess I've gotten myself into... I'll clean it up myself," Wan Hezi said with a tone of finality. Immediately after he finished, he strode into the village without hesitation. In the blink of an eye, he was lost to them in the thick blanket of fog.
"Senior Apprentice Brother!" Startled, Yan Kai and Rongrong hurried after him. Strangely, however, Wan Hezi was nowhere in sighteven though he should only have been a few steps ahead of them.
Presently, in the dead of the night, they heard not a single footstep in the sea of white fog around them.
Yan Kai pulled Duan Rongrong onwards, with their backs against a wall. He pressed his palm against the cool rough stone wall, slipping occasionally when his hand landed against slippery algae.
Trepidation crept into their hearts. This was the place of trouble that ensnared even a Crimson Whale Sect Elder. Even for people of experience like the both of them, they had to take every step with extreme caution. It was simply too dangerous to charge in like Wan Hezi did.
"Follow close behind me, Rongrong!"
Hearing the reply from behind him, Yan Kai reassured himself. All along in their wanderings, the two of them had kept themselves unscathed with the acute sensitivity of their bloodline to dangers and threats. Right now, no response was coming from within them, and so they must have been safe.
Leading Rongrong on, Yan Kai continued along the stone wall, his eyes and ears on high alert.
Suddenly, a figure flashed across them in a blur. It looked like Senior Apprentice Brother Wan Hezi.
"Senior Apprentice Brother!" Yan Kai shouted, then pulled Rongrong forward in pursuit.
The figure made no stops. Sharply, it turned and raced up a flight of stone steps into a stone house.
Yan Kai hesitated. Then, as he focused his gaze, he indeed saw the corner of the robe that Wan Hezi had been wearing on the figure as it disappeared into the house.
Without further ado, he grit his teeth and let go of Rongrong's hand.
"Rongrong, wait for me outside the door. I'm going in after Senior Apprentice Brother!"
"Alright!" Duan Rongrong's voice rang out behind him.
Without time for further thought, Yan Kai shoved the door open and charged into the stone house.
An empty courtyard greeted him, without any trace of Wan Hezi in sight. Who knew where he had gone?
Slowly, Yan Kai pulled out the long sword strapped to his back and eyed his surroundings cautiously. Step by step, he neared the main hall.
"Pa pa pa"
Without warning, raindrops began to fall.
The thick fog was shrinking at a visible rate, dispersed by the wind. Within the span of several breaths, all the fog had completely dissipated.
A bolt of lightning streaked across the sky. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Instantly, the rain turned into a downpour.
Only then could Yan Kai see his surroundings clearly.
He was standing in the courtyard of a stone house. Right in front of him was the main hall of the stone house, brilliantly lit. The wooden door of the stone house was closed, but the silhouette of a person seated within the house was visible through the paper window.
His eyes narrowed. Slowly, he began to step backwards in retreat. The fog had dissipated too quickly for it to have been caused by the laws of nature.
And the scene before himthat man seated in the main hallbore too close a resemblance to how Unlaughing Master often appeared in the legends for comfort.
He was not ready yet to face this legend.
"Aiya, there's light here! Right here!!! Come quickly!" In the downpour, three young persons in long robes dashed towards the stone house.
The brilliantly lit stone house was like a beacon of light in the gloomy weather. It represented shelter, hot tea and the like.
Chen Ziguan and Zu Pei had intended to travel to the town nearby to rest. But the hour got late and they did not make it in time. Along the way, they had also been delayed by an accident. And now, still a ways from the town, they were caught in the rain. Left with no alternatives, they could only seek shelter here.
By the time they got under the roof, the scholar robes on both of them had been drenched thoroughly.
"I hope the clothes in our backpacks aren't soaked through. Who'd have expected that the ox cart would break down. Sigh... this trip's really filled with accidents." Chen Ziguang sighed.
"Tell me about it. This is my third time going for the exams, but it's the first time I got caught in such pathetic straits." Xu Pei sighed along helplessly.
The two of them, both scholars on their way to the city for the exams, were accompanied by a book boy. Little did they expect to be caught in the torrential downpour along the way.
"Let's go in and ask for a cup of hot tea," Chen Ziguang suggested.
"Dong dong dong."
The book boy stepped forward to knock.
With a creak, the door was opened from the inside.
Yan Kai stared in surprise at the three people standing outside the door. He had not expected that others would come at this moment too.
"May I know if you are the owner of the house?" Xu Pei hurried forward and asked politely.
"No... I've come for shelter from the rain." Unsure who the three standing before him were, Yan Kai lied.
"What a coincidence. We're here to seek shelter from the rain as well!" The trio including Chen Ziguang's eyes lit up.
"Who's that outside?" A sonorous voice rang out from within. The wooden doors of the main hall were pulled open and a well-built man with a saber strapped to his back and a scar across his face strode out.
"Have you come for shelter from the rain too?" he eyed Yan Kai and the other three cautiously.
"Er..." Yan Kai was caught off guard; he had not expected that the man seated in the house was this scar-faced man.
"Junior Apprentice Brother! I'm here!" Another man walked out from within the hall. It was Wan Hezi, who was drinking some water from a porcelain tile.
"Why are you alone? Where's Rongrong?" Wan Hezi quizzed. "The fog dissipated all of a sudden earlier. I stepped in and saw this brother here drinking water and resting in the house, so I asked for some. That was when I heard sounds coming from outside."
"Oh, so looks like we're all here for shelter from the rain." Realization dawned on the scar-faced man. "If you guys don't mind, come on in and rest. It's a little dirty and messy inside, but at least the roof isn't leaking."