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Wen Kexing watched him silently, gaze like an awl, as if he was about to pierce into his core. Lao Meng suddenly felt a little panicked, automatically going over all his own mental calculations from start to finish.
Rebellion. He hadn’t started planning for that only just recently, but for a long time beforehand. Back when Sun Ding and Xue Fang began to overtly and covertly fight, he had already started to scheme and prep. The Hanged Ghost pilfering the key, betraying the Valley, and leaving had practically been an opportunity given to him by the Heavens.
He still remembered how the man before him had gotten the position of Valley Master eight years back. He had merely been a young, unknown man that Lao Meng had never taken notice of, only thinking that the delicate-featured fellow being able to bring his little girl to live in a place like this was something rather amazing.
The former Valley Master of the time was dissimilar to the present one, and had honed in on flashiness. Yama Hall hadn’t even been as desolate as it now was, frequently full of song and dance.
The old Master seemed to have appreciated him. In what way had he appreciated him, though? Lao Meng wasn’t certain, as back in those years, no one had dared to say anything. Regardless, he had been transferred over to be a close attendant of Yama Hall, occasionally giving him pointers in martial arts when in a good mood. Wen Kexing would show up behind the Master from time to time, standing in a set spot, never speaking too much, and always following the rules, like a wooden man that didn’t talk or move.
Yet, it was this wooden man that had, one night, set the insides of Yama Hall into a sky-soaring blaze, those organ-tearing, miserable screeches seeming to linger around its roofbeams for three days afterwards.
Silently bearing with it for three years, one half of the former Master’s attendants went with him. Anybody that opposed would get rended apart, thrown into a fire, and roasted well the day of. Like so, killing a few would make the rest have no rebuke, no matter how stupid they were.
Xue Fang ate a maiden’s heart every month, and Sun Ding liked to drink wine paired with human blood, but even they both thought that that night had been a nightmare. The blood within the Hall had looked to be smeared all over. The former Valley Master had howled for over two shichens. Some said that Wen Kexing had sliced him into pieces, staunching the bleeding all while he cut, then forced him to eat those pieces. Others said that he had skinned him, peeling him whole while he still lived.
When this man came out from inside, he had been wearing a bright red robe. At that moment, no one could tell whether it had been red to begin with, or had been dyed with fresh blood. His face, forever wooden and placid, had shown a smile for the first time before all.
“He’s dead. I got rid of him,” they had heard him say. “Anyone unconvinced can come fight me, but otherwise, be good and obey from here on out.”
After that came a war, a royale, a massacre… and then the dust finally settled.
There was no sort of conspiracy. This was exactly how to survive in the Valley — the strong were respected, and that was it. Wen Kexing trusted no one, except for the girl he had raised, so on his second day of being the Valley Master, he had immediately ordered for the extra people of Yama Hall to be cleared away. In the Valley, no living thing apart from Gu Xiang was allowed to come within three chi of him without permission.
He was temperamental, unreadable, and of ever-mysterious whereabouts.
Over those eight years, secrets got all the deeper. At times, Lao Meng would even get the illusion that the man, from the strands of his hair down to his fingernails, did not have a single area about him that wasn’t permeated with the horrific stench of blood; he was a through and through madman, born to slaughter. For that reason, Xue Fang and the rest preferred to fight amongst themselves before anything else, refusing to enrage the lunatic when their wings were not yet developed, and they still could not kill him in one blow.
Coming to this day… Lao Meng believed that he had since made proper preparations.
Everything was ready, except for one little thing.
Inside the Valley’s unrest, while the Ghost Master had wandered outside without return, Lao Meng had not remained idle. Now, he grasped control over seventy-percent of the Valley’s personnel. Even if this man truly did have three heads and six arms, even if he truly did have divine, peerless arts…
Zhao Jing was nothing to be worried about, as once he caught Xue Fang and got the key in his hand, he would have his goal. Thus, Lao Meng settled himself, then raised his head to meet Wen Kexing’s gaze. “Please give enlightenment, Valley Master,” he said, unworried.
The news of Zhao Jing’s group fighting beneath Fengya Mountain had not only reached Green Bamboo ridge, but had quickly been delivered to the Scorpion’s ears in that small town. In the middle of listening to a sixteen-year-old girl singing in a teahouse, he frowned upon hearing this, feeling that this was an unexpectedly thorny issue.
The praying mantis hunted the cricket, only for a siskin to be behind it. But if the mantis shrank back at the approach of battle, quitting and putting down its claws, that would be a bother, too.
He pondered for a short moment, then spoke into the arrival’s ear for a spell, who withdrew with their order.
Grabbing a handful of melon seeds, he ate them quite merrily while he kicked a nearby Poisonous Scorpion with his toes. “She sang well, so reward her… hm, the old guy playing the qin wasn’t bad, either. Reward them both.”
The girl thanked him for the money, helped up her grandpa that was shakily holding a huqin, and slowly left.
They went all the way to the outside of the door, after which the elder took out the majority of the money he had just been given and passed it to her. Once he opened his mouth, the voice that came out was extremely slow, hoarse, and aged. “Good child, take this and buy some snacks. Rest your throat well.”
She refused it. “That won’t do, mister. You’ve constantly been giving money to me these days, but what are you going to do, yourself?”
As it turned out, these two were not an actual grandparent-grandchild pair. “Cough, just take it, take it,” the old man said, waving his hand. “I am an old one that has a today, but no tomorrow. Why should I demand payment? I can just scrape by with what I need. Your father is still sick, and can only come out to perform with you if he’s cured quickly, yes? Furthermore, if it wasn’t for your good singing, who would watch a decrepit elder like me play?”
Her face went red, as she really was pressed for cash. She stood there at a loss, not sure what she ought to do.
The elder didn’t give her an opportunity to refuse it, turning to slowly leave with his huqin. As soon as he was somewhere that no one else was, the old man that looked to have a foot in the grave suddenly became invigorated. His muddied, slack gaze focused, brightening unusually, and his back straightened out — where was even a bit of that hobbling look at?
He was the Scorpion-tailing Zhou Zishu. When the Scorpion had lowered his voice to speak, bystanders couldn’t have heard, but Zhou Zishu’s strong hearing had caught it clearly. He was a tiny bit surprised; he hadn’t expected that Zhao Jing’s group would fight amongst themselves before even getting on the Mountain, which made the situation even more complicated. It signified that the minds of those inside that formation weren’t uniform, and that there might be many that each harbored their own motives, getting ready to do something rotten.
For the sake of compelling them to be on the same page, the Scorpion was sending his Scorpions to sneak-attack while pretending to be Ghost Valley’s people. Zhou Zishu lightly furrowed his brow. He thought about Wen Kexing’s circumstances in the Ridge right now, as recently, there had seemed to be an atypical calm in the Valley. That Wen trash hadn’t… had anything happen to him, right?
He suddenly wanted to throw the Scorpion away and head straight for Fengya Mountain, but he was still Zhou Zishu, after all. That notion merely flashed past his brain, then was suppressed — the present gameboard was in chaos, and all the factions were already on it, aside from the Scorpion. Hastily mixing in with it would instead make him liable to be unclear on its shape, so it would be better to just follow said Scorpion.
That guy… since he had been the Ghost Valley Master for so many years yet still had all his limbs, he should generally have some capability.
Zhou Zishu unconsciously streaked his fingers across the strings of his huqin, making a faint sound, and then his figure disappeared into the alley.
The Scorpion had come prepared, getting more than thirty Scorpions to ambush Zhao Jing’s group. Clearly, he had long been planning to fish in besieged waters, having no sort of good intentions… because those thirty had ghost-face tattoos patterned on them, the ink for which had been separately obtained from Lao Meng and Sun Ding. That was some real forward-thinking.
Zhao Jing’s group had just endured many misfortunes. Mo Huaikong had nearly come to blows with Mo Huaiyang, only barely able to be held back. Everyone was unsettled, and then, all of a sudden, a group of uninvited guests arrived, catching them badly off-guard. The people in black, who had come out of who-knew-where, were extremely cunning, both battling and retreating, not getting rashly tangled up. If someone couldn’t be beaten, they ran, but it wouldn’t take them long to take advantage of someone’s inattention to pop out again.
The scarred man took the clothes off one’s corpse, exposing the ghost face that the Scorpion had deliberately made up beneath the crowd’s staring eyes. Zhao Jing frowned, then looked at Mo Huaiyang. “Sect Leader Mo, the time is now. The problems between us should be discussed a bit later. We’re all very sad over you losing your beloved disciple, but this is a period of life and death for the martial world. I hope that you’ll weigh the situation at large!”
Mo Huaiyang thought about it. Feeling that he could not put on a rival stageplay to ‘life and death of the martial world’ for right now, he silently acquiesced to Zhao Jing’s collaboration. The group of heroes that had dawdled for so long at the mountain’s base finally remembered what they were supposed to be doing, and with an order from Zhao Jing, they fought their way up the mountain.
In order to handle Wen Kexing, Lao Meng happened to have transferred the majority of his manpower to the vicinity of Yama Hall, practically allowing those warriors to enter a no-man’s-land. The war, given a push by the Scorpion, had finally begun.
Behind Yama Hall, Wen Kexing was heavily surrounded. He grinned, thinking that Lao Meng really had a high evaluation of him, to confront his foe like so. Those beside him, once cowed by the Valley Master’s might, had noticed the strife and changed sides — that was how Wen Kexing himself had killed the former Master.
In Ghost Valley, if there was no even match-up, and one side looked to be slightly weaker when viewing the scene, there would be a huge quantity of people immediately going turncoat. That was because ‘loyalty’ had never existed here, only the weak having no choice but to attach themselves to the strong, and once an even stronger person emerged, the one from before would no longer have use.
Wen Kexing swept a look at the bow and arrow in the hands of the person nearest, raising a brow at Lao Meng. “Xue Fang hasn’t yet been found, and Zhao Jing is still at the mountain’s base. With such troubles inside and out, you’re still itching to take care of me first?”
He remained having no look of surprise or panic at all. Lao Meng’s heart was getting increasingly bottomless, and he suddenly felt that the downmountain Zhao Jing and missing Xue Fang were both nothing compared to the man in front of him.
Right at that moment, a gray-clothed Ghost hurriedly barged in. “Zhao has brought people in for an attack!”
Lao Meng hadn’t anticipated that Zhao Jing would settle his dilemma so quickly, instinctively sensing that something was off, yet having no time to think deeply on it. It was instead Wen Kexing who dragged out his voice, rueful, and with a lot of schadenfreude. “Oh, how awful. Is this not a fire burning the brows?”
Lao Meng scowled viciously, took in a deep breath, and waved his hand. The archers of the innermost surrounding layer looked at each other, then slowly lowered their arrows that had been aimed for Wen Kexing. Lao Meng cupped his hands at him, using the same deferential tone as ever. “Valley Master, now that the Valley has reached this plight, I believe that we should both take a step back and resolve the newcomers. We’ll discuss this later, yes?”
Deal with the outsiders first, continue wrangling later; Lao Meng was worthy of being a bad egg, as once he had torn off his face, he would do away with sham politeness and just be forthcoming.
Wen Kexing crossed his arms over his chest, looking as gentle as a spring breeze. “I’m a general that’s fallen in rank to a prisoner of war. What else can I possibly say?”
The corner of the other’s eye twitched. With a motion of his hand, he made a path. “If you please, Valley Master.”
Ye Baiyi hadn’t senselessly gone to get mixed up with them, as he wasn’t interested. All he did was place Gu Xiang on his horse’s back, steering the horse, bearing Dragon’s Back, and holding the small jar while he slowly went in the opposite direction. After a non-great amount of time, she woke up. Without shifting, she got up on her own, dazed for a minute, then turned to lay her back on the horse. Gazing at the sky, the horse’s bumpy steps seemed to make the Heavens jolt as well.
She stared and stared. Tears dampened the hair at her temples, but she seemed to not feel them.
He looked back at her, reining his horse as he found it hard to keep quiet. “Dry your tears.”
She bit her lip. “I’m not crying,” she whispered.
Even though she had said that, her tears seemed to be deliberately acting against her. They fell, track after track. She raised her hand and wiped them off, then wiped them once more, but no matter what, she couldn’t wipe them clean away, only able to unconsciously rub at them again and again.
Ye Baiyi hadn’t anything to say to such a young girl to begin with, so he had no idea what to do upon seeing her like this. After a half day of thought, he said stiffly, “How about we go back and fetch your lover’s corpse.”
He had been trying to console her, but her tears only fell all the harder.
Since that didn’t work, he frowned. “Don’t cry. Everyone dies, or… what are you thinking of doing?”
Gu Xiang abruptly sat up, jumped off the horse, then buried her face in her sleeves, as if she was about to suffocate herself to death on them. A while later, she looked back up. “Zhou Xu and them are at an inn in the outskirts of Luoyang. Go find him.”
With that, she turned and left.
He got off to stop her. “Where are you going? You can’t defeat that guy. I’d advise you to—“
Not looking back, she stubbornly straightened out her back, then bounded for Fengya Mountain, vanishing without a trace.
Ye Baiyi subconsciously lifted his hand, placing it upon the tiny Writ pendant on his chest. Being speechless for a short time, his horse simultaneously got a bit impatient and rubbed against his graying hair, which seemed to only then bring him back to his senses. He sighed, lowered his head to look at the jar, then mounted the horse again. “Ah, Changqing. I’ll find that unfilial son of yours for you,” he said to himself. “Don’t worry. I’ll have someone bring him home for you, too.”