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“What exactly did the monster look like? Did your Master get a good look at it?” Tang Fan asked Qian San’r.
The other shook his head. “He said that its entire body was black. It looked like a big python, though it was much bigger than a snake, and had legs. It stood even taller than us. Both of its eyes were red, which was terrifying… they had only glanced at it before running away. If they had taken any more time, they would have stayed down there…”
“Was it an alligator?”
“What’s an alligator?”
“…Pretend I never asked.”
Even though they had been able to flee like that once, there wouldn’t be a second time. After their first escape and new lease on life, instead of stopping there, they had been unwilling to part with the treasure inside and had entered anew, the result of which had been the vain loss of their lives.
Even so, they had been thieves with ill intent in their hearts. Them dying in the imperial tomb they had broken into was not an injustice.
Sui Zhou, who had been standing quietly nearby this whole time, suddenly asked, “You’re certain that the secret path your Master went down is Eternal Deep’s?”
“They said they went down below the crypt’s second floor, but they didn’t say whether it was part of Eternal Deep. This lowly one has no idea,” Qian San’r answered timidly.
The death of the old chief was the largest point of suspicion, but Tang Fan and Sui Zhou had both investigated in person. He had indeed killed himself; it hadn’t been done by an outside force.
Qian San’r had also been interrogated, but he kept harping on that his group had avoided the villagers’ detection to conduct their tomb raiding, completely unaware of that passed elder in the house. Whether he was lying or not didn’t matter for the time being — Tang Fan ordered for him to be brought back to the city and questioned in detail via Pang Qi’s hand.
“Bury your father, before anything else,” Tang Fan said to Chief Liu. “We’re heading back to the county capital, and will return in a few days. Don’t fill in the thief’s cave for now, as we might still have a use for it. Also, don’t let anyone get too close to the river, especially at nighttime, and no one is permitted to perform human sacrifices. This official will leave some people here to stand guard. If orders are violated, you will be the first they come to ask about it.”
Chief Liu nodded repeatedly. “This humble one will remember to.” He paused, then asked, “Sir, are you planning on bringing people down that cave?”
Tang Fan hedged around the question. “So what if I am? So what if I’m not?”
“If you are, then please bring me with you!” Chief Liu requested, hands clasped. “I can help show you the way!”
“Brother, are you mad?!” the Second Liu shouted from beside him.
“Sir Tang is speaking! It’s not your place to interject!” Pang Qi rebuked.
Tang Fan looked at Chief Liu with some surprise. “You know it’s dangerous in there, yet you still want to go in?”
There were tears in the other’s eyes. “I must tell you that despite me being dim, I know that that place has to have something to do with my father’s death. Ever since he came out of there, it was like he was a completely different person! I want to avenge him!”
“Sir, when this humble official first sent people down to scout the way for compensation, he was one of the ones that descended,” Magistrate He chimed in.
Tang Fan raised his brows. “You’ve been down there before?”
Chief Liu nodded. “I was walking with another in there for almost half a shichen. By that time, we reached the second floor of the complex, and saw that it went even further down. We walked for some time, but then felt apprehensive and too afraid to go further, so we went back up.”
Tang Fan made some mental calculations. Qian San’r had claimed that he had been watching outside for over two shichens before his Master had come out. According to this statement, the time Chief Liu had taken was around the same amount to get to the third floor. As such, the two’s timings matched up exactly, no gaps to be seen.
“Your filial piety is commendable and worthy of praise, but this matter has not yet been finalized. This official still needs to consider some things. The villagers are gullible; as their chief, you cannot incite panic in them, and absolutely must not recklessly spread rumors.”
“Yes. I will keep this in mind.”
Tang Fan exchanged a few more words, but right as he prepared to bring people with him in depart, someone’s crisp voice was heard. “Hold it!”
Yin Yuanhua walked over. “I dare to ask, Sir, but how could you allow this elder to be buried when his death is so suspicious?”
“What is your wise opinion, Brother Yin?” Tang Fan asked.
“This case is crystal-clear, now. Obviously, the old man was in cahoots with those robbers, tacitly agreeing to them robbing the tombs here. Then, because he got found out, he made up those ‘river gods’ to fool ignorant peoples — and now that the plan’s fallen through and been exposed, he died in short order to shield his family!” Yin Yuanhua pointed at the terrified Chief Liu. “Maybe all the Liu’s are guilty of being accomplices! They should all be arrested and taken in for strict interrogation! How can you so rashly let them off?!”
He had followed Tang Fan and the rest all the way here, then got carriagesick and thrown up until he was half-dead, then had to stay the night in this dinky little village. A fire had long been stuffed up inside him. With how Tang Fan was dominating the overall situation, and how the ever-domineering Brocade Guard was willing to be ordered around by him, Yin Yuanhua inevitably refused to accept who the leader was, thinking that if things kept going like this, there would be no point in him coming along at all.
Tang Fan didn’t get angry upon hearing that, only asking, “Did you hear that strange noise last night, Brother Yin?”
Yin Yuanhua’s face went red. “I was sleeping a little deeply, so I didn’t.”
“Envoy Sui, me, and the others did, so we went outside, traced it to the proximity of the imperial tombs, and saw those two people die violently ourselves. You saw the corpses, as well. Why do you think that anyone would silence someone by biting the lower half of their body off?”
The other was speechless for moment, so Tang Fan continued. “If you don’t believe me, that’s simple to fix. Continue to stay in the village tonight, wait until you hear the sound at midnight, then go to the riverside to look. If you have good luck, you might be able to see the river gods descending down and capture them all in one go for us to deal with later.”
There was a malicious grin on his face. Yin Yuanhua was so angry, his teeth itched. “This humble official will be making a report to the higher-ups on how negligently you’re handling this case, Sir Tang!”
Tang Fan gave a light sneer. “Do as you please.”
That same day, the group returned to the city. With the old chief now dead and the monsters nowhere to be seen, them hurrying back like this seemed to be a weak finish to a strong start. In reality, though, Tang Fan and Sui Zhou were making dual-handed preparations.
Upon arrival at the city, Sui Zhou didn’t make any extra stops, directly leading a team to the Guard’s post in Henan to lend hand cannons from it. Meanwhile, Tang Fan returned to the posthouse to write out a memorandum, which listed all of what they had verified since coming here and requested further instructions from above.
The two of them had already talked this over in private; to find out the truth, they were going to end up having to go underground, but they couldn’t do so like they were now. Full preparations needed to be made.
At the same exact time, Yin Yuanhua was also writing a report, but he wasn’t writing it to Minister Shang — it was for his teacher, Assistant Minister Liang.
Were the fight between Yin Yuanhua and Tang Fan said to have merely been sprouted from the latter being an airborne Chief that had snatched the former’s original position, thus drawing his backlash, it had now become a way for the two backers behind them to fight amongst themselves.
Minister Zhang wasn’t looking forward to entering the Cabinet, and Assistant Minister Liang was watching the Minister position like a hawk. How could Zhang Ying tolerate his fancy? He fully supported Tang Fan for this case, and not only that; he had helped him win the lead imperial ambassador position, as without as much, it would not have been Tang Fan’s place to preside over this expedition.
Thus was why Liang Wenhua had agreed to his student going with Tang Fan. It was not just to have him get some blackmail material on Tang Fan, but also a bid to prove that Minister Zhang had no clear grasp on people’s abilities. As it happened, Head Vizier Wan An had been dissatisfied with Zhang Ying as of late, feeling that the old man wasn’t obedient enough, and wanted to replace him with the more obedient Liang Wenhua. Tang Fan being incapable of handling this case would similarly implicate Minister Zhang.
Where there were people, there was strife. Even though a case like this appeared to have nothing to do with the capital whatsoever, it was still affected by the interest struggles of all involved in the background.
Since Zhang Ying was supporting Tang Fan, he couldn’t disappoint his hopes. Regardless of what was said, the old man yet had some principles and bottom lines in the way he conducted himself. Letting him be the Minister was definitely better than letting Liang Wenhua be it; at the very least, he wouldn’t have to worry about his life always being made difficult for him.
Tang Fan and Yin Yuanhua’s memorandums were separately sent to the capital, post-haste. There was no way that the capital’s end would have been able to reply within two days, but Sui Zhou’s actions were very quick, and he came back the very next day with four hand cannons.
The instant arms arrived, they were like already-powerful tigers growing wings. Tang Fan didn’t waste any time, directly calling the other civil officials over. “I have reported the situation here to the capital, but no matter how quick this exchange goes, it’ll be at least five days before word comes back, while things at Luo River Village cannot be delayed. Now that the Brocade Guard has borrowed hand cannons, I’m going to go down the cave with Bastion Envoy Sui and take a look, or perhaps even catch the man-eating monster and resolve this disaster. The danger below is immeasurable; since you’re all civil officials, you don’t need to follow me in this peril. It would be better for you to remain in the posthouse to fulfill the role of contacts. If a message comes from the capital, help me with issuing a response without delay.”
Cheng Wen and Tian Xuan exchanged looks. They, too, had heard what Qian San’r and Chief Liu had said that day, so they were perfectly happy to not do anything risky, but… were even the lead envoy to go down while they, the supporting roles, simply watched the excitement from the side, if something happened after that, they would inevitably be getting punished.
“Sir, you’re the lead envoy of this assignment. You only need to be center command. Why would you brave the risk yourself?” Cheng Wen urged.
“Envoy Sui is an imperial ambassador, as well, and isn’t he heading down?” Tang Fan countered. “Each person cherishes their own selves, so how could they all be made to come with?”
Seeing that Cheng Wen was choking on words, Tian Xuan quickly picked it up. “Wouldn’t it be best to wait until the Court sends a message back, first?”
Tang Fan shook his head. He actually had other machinations in mind, but there were some things that he couldn’t explain to them right now. “I’ve already made a decision. There’s no need to say more. If something happens to Envoy Sui and I, you will be responsible for leading who’s left back to the capital, reporting on the truth, and then sending more people down. The hidden risks of this place must be completely resolved.”
Upon hearing how grave he was, the two were somewhat helpless, having no choice but to agree.
“This official is willing to come with!” Yin Yuanhua contrarily said. “I ask for your permission, Sir!”
Cheng Wen and Tian Xuan were too afraid to go down because they valued their little lives, but Yin Yuanhua had other motives. Whatever creatures there were underground, he had boundless confidence in the four cannons the Brocade Guard had. The Guard’s skills were not to be compared to those of a mob of grave robbers, besides.
Deep infiltration into enemy territory was a dangerous thing, but if the treasure-filled chamber Qian San’r had spoken of could be found, that would be an immense credit. Yin Yuanhua had taken such pains to come here — how could he be willing to let Tang Fan pick the total sum of those fruits?
Tang Fan creased his brow. “The monster is of unknown origins and has a savage penchant for slaughter. This will be an extremely treacherous trip. It would be best for you to remain here.”
Yin Yuanhua straightened out his neck. “Are you worried that this humble official will snatch your credit, Sir?”
People like this had no distinction between what was good and bad to do. If Tang Fan did actually prevent him from going down, the guy would send a complaint higher up and affix him with the accusations of being bossy, arrogant, self-proud, dictatorial, and whatever else, which would be enough to cause him trouble.
Bringing this to mind, Tang Fan was disinclined to bother with him. “You want to go, so you can. There’s just one rule: you need to obey orders, and are not allowed to act on your own.”
Under the pressure of that look in his eyes, Yin Yuanhua had no choice but to clasp his hands. “I will earnestly observe your orders.”
Having received the cannons and reconvened, Tang Fan and Sui Zhou didn’t waste much time, leading the Guards straight back to Luo River Village the very next day.
In spite of Magistrate He having the mind to curry favor with a higher rank, he was not as willing to go all out as Deputy Zhao, since he still cherished being alive. All he could do was place a big heap of flattery on Tang Fan to express his good faith, whilst Deputy Zhao took it upon himself to ask for Tang Fan’s instructions, saying that he was willing to be on the frontlines, and even bringing along two bailiffs recruited from the bureau, who were also decent in skill and willing to forge ahead.
The villagers were quite shocked to see them come and go. Tang Fan had some others head for the thief’s cave ahead of time, then brought Deputy Zhao with him to call on Chief Liu.
By ill coincidence, Chief Liu wasn’t present; it was the Second Liu that came out to receive them. “My older brother is out. He said that he was going to buy a good axe in the county capital, so that he would have a self-defense weapon to use when he goes down with you.”
“When did he leave?” Tang Fan asked.
“Last night. Because it was so late, he spent the night in the city, and might be back in the morning. Can you prevent him from going, Sir? This lowly one is willing to go with you!”
Deputy Zhao was displeased. “Do you think we’re buying vegetables? Why are you still haggling? Two days ago, your older brother was clearly the one to request that he accompany us, as he’s been there before and is familiar with it. What use would you have if you go?!”
The Second Liu stammered, unable to answer.
Tang Fan stopped Deputy Zhao from continuing to menace him. “Why do you want to come with? Don’t you know what dangers there are below?”
“I-I don’t want him to send himself to his death!”
Deputy Zhao rolled his eyes. Were Tang Fan not next to him, he would really want to give this fool a big ol’ slap in the face. What did he mean, ‘send himself to his death’? Were they all getting ready to do that, then?!
Tang Fan just smiled warmly. “You have a strong brotherly bond, to prefer to go to a dangerous location in your brother’s stead.”
The Second Liu nodded. “Yes. My brother has had a hard life. His wife died young, and in order to get me my own, he didn’t marry again, with no children for himself even now. After our father’s incident, he will have to both be the village chief, and take care of the family… I-I can’t just do nothing…”
Against expectations, however, Tang Fan asked an additional, blindsiding question. “Did the old chief discover something below that then forced him into suicide?”
The other had a face full of confusion. “Um?”
Clearly, he had no idea what he was talking about.
Tang Fan and Yin Yuanhua had previously had a similar notion, where they’d been under the impression that there had to be some connection between the tomb raiders and the old chief’s death, but Qian San’r’s later testimony had capsized his conjecture. Qian San’r’s group hadn’t had a thing to with the old chief, or even the villagers — they really had just come to set up a loot point after hearing that the imperial tombs were easy to get to.
That said… why had the old chief killed himself, then? It had obviously been to cover up some sort of truth, but what exactly had he been wanting to cover up? And if it had nothing to do with Qian San’r’s group, what did it have to do with?
Such was why he had just cast that inquiry at the Second Liu, but, judging from the man’s reaction, he was obviously ignorant of the inside story on his father’s death.
No matter how good someone was at masking, as long as they had demons in their hearts, they would always reveal some subconscious hints. And yet, this man had no evasiveness in his eyes, no pauses in his speech, nor other such things that would indicate guilt.
Tang Fan smiled lightly, changing the subject. “Your brother is heartbroken over your father’s death?”
The Second Liu nodded. “He is. I urged him not to go with you, but he wouldn’t listen, saying that if there really is a monster below, he’ll kill it to avenge our father. Brother… can you really not let me go in his stead?”
Was my prediction entirely wrong? Tang Fan thought to himself. Did the old chief kill himself simply because he had been too terrified, genuinely?
Right as he thought to speak, he saw the Second Liu’s eyes light up. “Big brother is back!”
Chief Liu strode over with a sharp, brand-new axe in hand. He looked at Tang Fan and Deputy Zhao with befuddlement, as well as pleasant surprise. “Why are you all back so soon, Sir? Are we descending today?”
Tang Fan nodded. “Everyone’s here. We’re just waiting for you.”
Chief Liu wiped the sweat from his brow, smiling honestly. “It’s good that I came back early. Let’s head out!”
The Second Liu quickly grabbed him. “Brother, let me go with you!”
Chief Liu scowled. “Stop it! You have to take care of our mother! Go back, now. If I don’t return and you tell the folks as much, they’ll have to elect a new Chief, you know?”
It would have been fine for him not to say that, as doing so made the Second Liu even more sad. “Brother…”
The other clapped him on the shoulder. “Alright, alright, cut the crap. Get a pot of stewed meat while you wait for me to come back. And add some blanched bok choy!”
Sniveling, the Second Liu nodded briskly.
The two brothers parted ways, with Chief Liu following Tang Fan to the imperial tomb.
Sui Zhou and the Guards had long been waiting there. Qian San’r was present too, of course. Even though he had never gone down, as the one who had heard his Master’s and Fat Lu’s accounts, he was more familiar with the internal environment here than the rest of them were. There was no way Tang Fan would leave him on the surface.
Kindness was to be given to those it should be given to, not misused on those that didn’t need it. People unfamiliar with Tang Fan would believe that he was gentle in nature and easy to speak to, but the reality was that he had a standard in his heart. Whenever it came time for him to be tough, he would never hesitate in the slightest.
They went out early, and it was now just after the time of the Dragon.(7-9am) In light of the time it had taken Qian San’r’s Master to go down and come back up, a day would be sufficient, when everything was added up. If things went well, they would be able to get out by nightfall. If things went poorly…
Mister Tang suddenly realized that before he left the capital, he seemed to have not had the time to pass some last words on to Ah-Dong. If neither he nor Sui Zhou could return, the little girl was probably going to be orphaned again.
Alas! For Ah-Dong’s sake, he was going to have to do his best in the difficult task of not casting his life away!
Amongst their people, Sui Zhou, Pang Qi, and the other Guards were the calmest. An occupation like the Brocade Guard, where going abroad was frequently required, meant that they had grown accustomed to confronting danger and unfathomable situations at any time; the only difference here was that they might not be confronting mere humans this time around.
Still, with the hand cannons in their possession, even Pang Qi, who had had some doubts regarding the scene from that one night, had calmed down. In the Yuan era, the cannons had received ample use on the battlefield. At the end of Yuan and start of Ming, they had played an essential role during the Great Ancestor’s fight for supremacy over the realm. In the three major Capital Battalions, there was even the lone Godly Works Battalion that specialized in firearms units.
With cannons in their hands, there was nothing else to ask for, thus why the Guards were collected.
Qian San’r had never gone down, but he did have the lessons his two predecessors had left him. Although he was now greedy for the treasures below, he liked his life more. Despite that, there was no way he could escape this, obliged to put on a face like he was attending a funeral, fearing that he would be going to keep his Master company with a single second of inattention.
His mood was visibly affecting Yin Yuanhua. Even though the latter had brought up coming down here of his own will, he was still a civil official, lacking in the psychological qualities of the Guards. Whenever he gave thought to the condition of those two corpses, his knees would automatically start to get wobbly.
Tang Fan ordered Deputy Zhao and the two bailiffs stay topside to provide support, then glanced at Yin Yuanhua. “You still have time to turn back if you have regrets.”
“This humble official has zero regrets,” Yin Yuanhua insisted, gritting his teeth.
Tang Fan didn’t feel like persuading him further, turning to the others. “Even though I’m the lead envoy of this task, on account of the unknowable circumstances below, everyone — including me — must obey Envoy Sui’s directions. If no orders are had, no one is allowed to act without permission.”
This was an integration of commanding authority.
The Guards had no dissent. On the contrary, they were quite pleased; it was only natural that they would be happier to listen to Sui Zhou than a directing civil official that they had never collaborated with before. Tang Fan had similarly no desire for a confusion in orders to crop up that would end with everyone’s lives lost, simply passing off all authority to Sui Zhou.
The latter still had facial paralysis. He never said much in the presence of outsiders, but would still always say a little something. Upon seeing the Guards all watching him expectantly, he coldly spat out two words: “Move out.”
The crowd: “…”
Sui Zhou promptly walked up to the thief’s cave, preparing to head down. Turning his head and noticing them all staring blankly at him, he couldn’t help but show some baffled inquiry in his eyes.
Only then did the men recover, hurriedly following after him.
They had thought that their leader would at least give them instructions or encouragement to boost morale or something…
The cave was narrow, only able to tolerate one person going down at a time. In light of Chief Liu’s recounting, the last time they had descended to the crypt’s second floor, their journey had gone without a hitch, no danger encountered at all. In light of the tragic deaths of those other two, however, everyone slowed their pace, cautiously moving forwards.
Chief Liu went on ahead. As the one responsible for leading the way, he had to be in the forefront. Sui Zhou and the guards came after him, followed by Qian San’r, Yin Yuanhua, Tang Fan, and Pang Qi bringing up the rear.
The cave was very twisty, having been windingly excavated. While going down, one could only tread with toes pointed down, body pointed up as they went step-by-step, supporting themselves on both sides of the surrounding soil wall.
It was bright outside. When just entering, one’s line of sight would be fairly clear, but the further down they got, the dimmer the light was. Being used to the shiny sensation of the outdoors, it was all the more difficult for the eyes to adapt to the dark, cramped space, which resulted in everyone walking slowly.
Though the cave was narrow to start with, as it went down, it got more spacious, later turning wide enough to accommodate two people at a time. They all had to keep their bodies snug against the rock wall, so as to avoid the huge slope making their entire self slide downwards.
As Tang Fan supported himself on the wall, he could tell that some areas were sticky and had a faint stink, as if a corpse had been ripped to shreds, droplets of blood and bits splattering everywhere… no! He wasn’t going to keep thinking down that road!
He had to look inside himself and say that even though he wasn’t that much of a clean freak, thinking in detail about all that was nauseating.
“It’s here!” Chief Liu’s voice came from up ahead.
Soon, Tang Fan was waiting for each of the people ahead of him to jump down, after which he leapt himself, immediately planting his feet firmly onto the ground.
But, he had forgotten that Yin Yuanhua was behind him…
When the other jumped down, he apparently sprained his foot, letting out a cry of pain as he tumbled right onto the unlucky devil in front of him.
Mister Tang, the ‘unlucky devil‘, felt a sharp bout of pain on his back, unable to even get a glimpse at the scenery in front of him before he was crushed to the ground by this guy.
A Brocade Guard Gonfalon named Yan Li was walking with Sui Zhou in front, surveying the environment before them, when he unexpectedly saw the latter’s figure bolt.
By the time he got a good look, his boss had already thrown Yin Yuanhua to the side, making him involuntarily roll several times away like a carriage wheel, then carefully helped Sir Tang up, asking after him in a hushed voice.
Even though Yin Yuanhua would never dare to offend the Brocade Guard, he had also never let loose enough to make friends on his own time, forever putting on the air that civil officials had. As a matter of course, Yan Li and the rest of them didn’t much like him.
Bearing witness to this event, Yan Li only had one thing he wanted to say: Good job, boss!
The translator says: “yeah I just went into the city to get this shiny new ax that’s perfect for chopping people up” I Do Not Trust You My Guy