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Quicker than could be stated, that frigid murderousness, swirling as it filled the sky, was then forcefully taken back, the muffled sound of a strike the only thing to be heard before him. Presumably, his counterpart had been forced to retract his momentum partway through, causing himself backlash.
Li Man was now thinking that this was quite the easy hostage to use, but before he could grab Tang Fan by the neck, he felt a sharp pain on his back, making him scream. The one he had used as a shield was already gone. His wrist suffered a strong hit instead, which made him go numb enough to automatically release the dagger he held.
In the span of a second, this situation had undergone a massive change.
Li Man had a merchant’s background, making his skills no sort of better than Tang Fan’s, else he wouldn’t have been so out-of-control in strength when he had swung that axe. His two underlings were much more formidable than him, but when faced with the Brocade Guard’s all-sides assault, they struggled for a good minute before they had no option but to be captured.
“How are you all here?!” Hands roughly bound behind him, Li Man glared at the man before him in disbelief.
Nature toyed with people. The feeling he had just been giving to Tang Fan had instantly been turned back around onto him.
A Guard walked over and slowly pushed the stone door open. Under Li Man’s staring eyes, Pang Qi led Qian San’r and the rest of the Guards in calmly coming in from outside.
The door was shut once again.
The threat of the encroaching monster had been just a fantasy.
Sui Zhou loosened Tang Fan’s bonds himself, concerned. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” Tang Fan shook his head, then started looking all around.
From what he could see of the set-up, this large hall they were in was the heart of the Gong noble’s vault, the coffin in it’s center where the body was placed. The decor on said coffin confirmed Tang Fan’s previous speculation that this was the grave of a pre-Qin noble.
Due to this space being relatively large with antechambers mimicking the occupant’s residence in life, Li Man’s group having lit only one candle meant that aside from one tiny circular region around the flame, everywhere else was in utter darkness.
Wherever one was, they tended to go towards the light and shun the dark, making it easy for them to subconsciously look towards where the candle was. As such, when their eyes looked anywhere else thereafter, they would have temporary blindness. Sui Zhou and them had taken advantage of that, concealing themselves in the antechambers, holding their breath, and then striking when Li Man had let his guard slacken.
Even though Li Man had also figured that out, he still felt it impossible to believe. He had always been self-assured in his own arrangements, yet it seemed like he had been repeatedly getting planted right into Tang Fan’s hands. “This can’t be…! Our people clearly drew you all away! How did you run over here from there?!”
Sui Zhou paid him no mind, instead looking at Tang Fan.
“Envoy Sui’s brilliance and power are things thou art ne’er capable of fathoming,” Tang Fan joked.
A hint of amusement showed in Sui Zhou’s eyes, but once he turned back to Li Man, his face had resumed its cold, ripple-less look. “We more or less already knew this grave’s layout before we came down here—“
“No way!” Li Man called out before he could finish.
There was, of course, a reason he had said so.
To prevent grave robbery in the entombing of nobility, even the craftsmen that helped construct the tomb would sometimes be killed. That no heirloom data would be left to be passed down was therefore a given. There had also been those like Cao Cao, who had created seventy-two feint burial mounds in order to confuse the later generations and completely prevent theft.
The efficacy of those was never guaranteed, but everyone had done things like this since time immemorial regardless. Having a bit of caution was never wrong.
This vault was right under Eternal Deep. Very few even knew of it, let alone its structure.
Confronted with Li Man’s expression that said ‘I’m well-read, you can’t fool me’, Tang Fan patiently gave him an explanation. “Before I became an official, I traveled the land in my studies, once passing through the Shaanxi region, which has no lack of burial sites. The tombs of pre-Zhou royals had been purportedly long dug out and plundered dry long ago, but the pits and ruins of them are still there. From my observations, the standards of those pits were all pretty much the same.
“Eternal Deep only had two floor to its crypt, as was written in clear terms by our forebears. Yingzong of Song was buried in a rush, so no secret passages could have been made. Even though you’re not the real Liu Daniu, it must have taken you great pains to draw us down here.
“Your words were not all lies, of course. They were at least half true. Qian San’r didn’t lie, either, so upon combining both of your statements, it wasn’t hard to draw one conclusion: the so-called ‘third floor’ of the crypt you two were talking about had to be a separate noble’s tomb.
“That was why I kept the secret. After flipping through the county annals, I found that this place was the former site of the Nation of Gong, classified as being in the range of the Zhou Emperors’ territory, a fief nation of the Zhou clan. In this tiny country, all the standards had to imitate those of the Zhou clan, and graves were no exception.”
“So you went off of the layouts of the Zhou Dynasty tombs you saw in Shaanxi,” Li Man took over.
Tang Fan nodded. “Yes, but I was really just going off a poor imitation. The tombs can’t all be copies of each other; even if we knew the general layout, there would definitely be spots of error in it. We couldn’t have known where those grave mechanisms were, for example, but you all gave us a hand this time around.”
Li Man’s voice was rough. “What hand?”
“After we came down, there were only bits of valuables scattered around, no corpses. If it was said that the monster swallowed the meat and bones together, that would be understandable, but from Qian San’r’s account, we know that Li Kui’s group fought with the monster. There had to have been a hard battle in that interim, meaning that the areas we passed through could not have been tidied up so neatly. Regardless of how vicious the creature is, it would definitely have left behind a stump of limb or chunk of torso or two. If something’s abnormal, then something strange is behind it — that must have intentionally been cleaned up by people in order to lead us downwards.”
“Makes sense. What else?”
“Since we were being deliberately led here, you would naturally safeguard your own safety before anything else, and never get thwarted by the traps here. That was why Sui Zhou and I could bring people down here without worries.”
Li Man scowled. “When I tried to kill you just now, the monster started howling.”
Tang Fan hummed. “Qian San’r.”
Having been called, Qian San’r quickly walked out from the darkness, gave Tang Fan a brown-nosing smile, then put a hand up to his mouth.
A sound that could cause one to shudder sounded out — it was that ghostly wailing they had just heard!
Li Man and his two subordinates were bug-eyed. Qian San’r puffed out his chest in quite a lot of pride. “Stealing isn’t my only talent!”
His vocal mimicry had been unmatched in the Yellow River Gang; he wouldn’t have been brought along to help keep watch by his Master, otherwise. Though it wasn’t a huge help, it was handy at certain junctures… like fooling Li Man’s group, as a matter of fact.
This was actually a very simple matter. Li Man had schemed to guide Sui Zhou’s and company away while he got ready to pick them off, starting with Tang Fan and Yin Yuanhua. Against his expectations, the others had long made preparations by using his plotting against him — by means of that White Lotus follower that had wanted to lead them away, they had instead gotten a feel for the mechanisms installed here.
In addition to the prior preparations Tang Fan had made, they’d had a comprehension of the ground plan here before coming down, so as long as they went along for a bit, they wouldn’t have been confused by these befuddling traps.
And then, Tang Fan and Yin Yuanhua, who had just been following behind the Guards, had vanished.
Just as Tang Fan had a deep understanding of Sui Zhou, Sui Zhou had a deep understanding of Tang Fan. He had known that the other would definitely do all that he could to stall for time in wait for their rescue. The only issue had been exactly how they would cross paths.
Thus, Sui Zhou had ordered Qian San’r to copy the cry of the monster, drawing Li Man’s group over to the main hall. Such was how the previous scenario came to be.
Li Man laughed aloud. “I once heard Old Li say that you’re quite smart, cracking cases like a god of justice. Now that I’ve seen it, you really haven’t let your reputation down! I fell right into your hands from the beginning! My loss is no injustice!”
The Old Li he referred to had been the former steward of the Li’s. He’d had a good relationship with Tang Fan, but was later burned alive in the Li home.
Tang Fan shook his head. “This official doesn’t feel the least bit of honor getting praised by you.”
Li Man sneered. “Unfortunately, you’ve guessed wrongly. This isn’t the headquarters of the White Lotus Society, just a branch temple, at best. If you want to use this to get a promotion, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed!”
“I’m not really disappointed. To not reciprocate favors goes against courtesy; I just confessed the ins and outs of what happened to you, so isn’t it your turn now?”
“Ask away. I’ll say what I know.”
Li Man was straight to point, and switched to being very happy to be after finding he had no way to resist. With the Brocade Guards watching him like hawks nearby, he had no desire in the least to test out their techniques.
Tang Fan wasn’t going to ask him about why he had shown up here and other such nonsense. That could all be left for later discussion. The most urgent topics right now were…
“How many Society followers are hiding out here? Where are the others, apart from you three? And did you all set this monster free?”
“We had about thirty to begin with, but after randomly finding this place, the majority of us were lost in a fight with the monster. Now, there’s only five left. Three are here, two are outside. They’re the ones who were leading you all away. As for the monster…” Li Man glanced at them all. “That’s a tomb guardian.”
Out of Li Man’s tale, they came to learn that there was a passage connecting this vault and the Luo, with a stone door in the middle that was opened and closed by a mechanism. Whenever the Luo’s water level dropped, the door would open, the tomb guardian would return to the Luo, and the door would close. Then, when the water level rose, the door would open again, where the tomb guardian would return to the vault from the river.
The tomb guardian hadn’t started out as a tomb guardian, of course. It had probably been some beast that had swum from the Yellow River to the Luo, then had simply been used by the ancients two thousand years ago as a guardian to prevent grave robbery.
Li Man’s group had been wanting to tomb raid, only to inadvertently find this Nation of Gong vault. Even though they all had been tossed into a crushing defeat with disastrous losses, there had been extremely abundant funerary tributes inside. Tossing away those bronze artifacts that they had believed held no worth, the gold, silver, and jewels alone could be congregated together to stack up high in a side-chamber.
That sort of wealth was emotionally moving. Following the loss of the financial source that the Southside Gang had been, the Society had just-so-happened to be in need of a large amount of supplemental income. Li Man’s group had been eager to make contributions. After the loss of so many people, they had finally figured out the pattern to the tomb guardian’s appearances, and tried to get the treasures together, preparing to smuggle them out.
However, they had already invoked the ferocity of the guardian, hence why, starting from a year ago, the people of Luo River Village had been hearing that bizarre crying from time to time — it was being made by the guardian.
Tang Fan and them had already known that in order to discover the wailing’s source, the village had sent two batches of people out. The first six had gone and not returned; they had all believed that river gods were acting up, but the truth was that the Society had moved to silence them.
Amongst the second batch had been bailiffs from the county capital, as well as the village’s chief, and they had been led into a thief’s cave. Li Man had originally wanted to use them as food for the guardian, but he had feared that these people disappearing would draw more attention from the authorities, so he had intentionally released the already-insane bailiff and the old chief.
After that, he had used the old chief’s grandson to threaten him, forcing him to feign madness and tell the people of the world that there were gods in the river. With that, everyone’s attention would have been shifted away, thus causing them to not notice the thief’s cave below, and giving Li Man’s group more time to move the valuables.
Yet, they could not have foreseen that Qian San’r’s group of grave robbers would come excavating at that point in time, open another entrance into the Song tomb, and thus discover the Nation of Gong vault beneath it.
What came after that could be completed with logic. Li Man and the rest had used the same method to get rid of the thieves, yet had overlooked Qian San’r, the fish that had slipped the net by being outside. That had resulted in Tang Fan’s group mining a lot of clues out of him, then going down themselves to slay the tomb guardian.
None of this had been predicted by Li Man. Had these people arrived a few days later, he and the others would have fled with their loot without any hitches, and their counterparts would have solely encountered the vicious tomb guardian once they descended.
The calculations of humans were inferior to those of the Heavens. Despite his complete plan, he hadn’t been able to cover every base. A slight negligence in the finer details had turned into the cause of today’s failure.
He hadn’t expected that the imperial ambassador the Court would send would be his ‘old friend’, Tang Fan.
He also hadn’t expected that with the huge pile of dead folk preceding them, this bunch of people would still be willing to brave the dangers of the tomb, having no fear of death.
He further hadn’t expected that they would have long made ample preparations, even getting an approximate feel for the grave vault’s layout prior to their descent.
Having suffered a slice wound on his back, the feeling of blood loss was making darkness appear before him. After explaining all of that, his mouth became even more parched, and he was weak all over.
All of a sudden, Yin Yuanhua raised his foot and viciously kicked him. “Where did you hide away all those treasures?!”
With his bound hands, Li Man got kicked to the ground out of nowhere, yet he wasn’t angry, only panting harshly. “If I tell, will you spare my life?”
Grudging that these guys had just hogtied him, Yin Yuanhua sneered at that. “You lot plan to rebel and cause chaos to the realm! Not killing nine generations of your family would be good enough as it is, yet you want to ensure your life? If you don’t tell, you can just wait to lose that life here and now!”
Like he had heard a massive joke, Li Man immediately bust out laughing, the pain from his wound making his grin distort.
“What are you laughing at?!” Yin Yuanhua shuddered from his laughing, but still wanted to kick him again, only to get stopped by Sui Zhou.
Li Man laughed without restraint, tears even leaking out of his eyes. He gave Yin Yuanhua an eerie smile. “I’m laughing at your stupidity! Me saying all that was just to stall you so that I can live longer, but for all of you, your time of death is here!”
As if to collaborate with him, the second he said that, a strange wailing noise came from beyond the stone door.
Everyone’s expressions changed.
He kept laughing. “I said before that the tomb guardian moves with the scent of blood, and is most sensitive to its smell! My blood drew it over! You know everything that’s gone on, but you’re still going to end up dying here!”
A banging sound came from outside the door, like some force was smashing against it. It was only probing, at first, but as the other party felt out how strong the door was, it used more force. The hall itself even shook a bit from the hits, much ash falling down in hisses.
Li Man still laughed. “The secrets of this place will remain concealed forever! None of you will be getting out!”
The back of his head was slapped hard by Pang Qi. “Aren’t you going to die here, too?! Cut the shit and think of something!”
The other grinned evilly. “The Holy Society’s grace to me is as heavy as a mountain. Without it, there would be no wealthy Li Man! The time has come for me to repay that favor! If I can get this many of you buried with me, my death will be no loss!”
While he spoke, the stone door was struck hard again.
The door relied on wit to be opened. For humans, that wasn’t hard, but for animals, the door was an impeding obstacle. However, the tomb guardian outside obviously had some wisdom in it; after discovering that its continuous strikes weren’t working, it gradually stopped its offense and switched to other ways to try.
Those inside the room had believed that even though they couldn’t get out for the time being, the tomb guardian outside couldn’t get in, either, so as long as they waited for a good amount of time, it would leave on its own after it lost patience. Yet, when they saw the door get slowly pushed open, they couldn’t help but feel utter dread.
A black claw — as sharp as a bird’s talon, yet several times larger than an ordinary one — came searching through the crack in the door.
With how strong the creature was, being snatched by such a claw would likely make one’s head explode messily. That thought made everyone’s hearts pound hard.
“Go and hold the door!” Sui Zhou shouted.
There was no need for him to say that, really, as many had long since rushed forward to firmly block the gate with their bodies. Still, the force beyond was much too great, and everyone putting their tremendous strength into it was only barely enough to push the door back shut.
Before they could sigh in relief, it was struck hard again!
Many were still pressed against it, and their limbs were shaken numb at once, leaving them powerless.
Another hit came!
“Cannons at the ready!” Sui Zhou ordered.
At that reminder, many remembered that they were still equipped with hand cannons. The Guards carrying them quickly filled their insides with gunpowder, aimed at the door tensely, and waited solely for its collapse when it could no longer be held back…
But ill events seemed to happen whenever they wanted to. Before they were fully ready, the stone could no longer withstand the massive force of the impacts, breaking into two chunks with a bang. It fell backwards, those without time to dodge getting crushed at once.
Accompanying the complete destruction of the door, a burst of noxious wind struck them all in the face, the stench nearly making them vomit.
The sole candle in the hall extinguished completely in its wake, too.
Fortunately, before that had happened, Sui Zhou had already ordered for four flamesticks to be lit and thrown into each corner, making it so that in this moment, they were at last able to see the face of the tomb guardian Li Man had spoken of, a black figure accompanied by stinking wind.
The beast was not that tall, but it was long and stout, with a long neck. Its entire body length was about three or four times that of a grown man’s. It was covered in black scales, its ghastly white teeth and massive maw making its biting force clear to them all. Two blood-red eyes were embedded in its head raised high, which slowly turned to glare malevolently at everyone present, as if it was already taking them for a feast.
It had scales and no horns, but its limbs had claws. It resembled a snake, yet wasn’t a snake, and was several times bigger than an alligator. A name suddenly flashed past in Tang Fan’s head, but that thing had originally been recorded in a book of oddities from the Northern and Southern Dynasties. No one had spotted one in person for centuries. He was surprised to find one appear here today.
He wasn’t feeling a bit of excitement at seeing a creature of legend, however. The hall had turned into chaos from the monster’s appearance.
Its body was firmly blocking the doorway, with even the slightest movement of its head or tail stirring the humans up into disarray. A sharp spring-gilt sabre slashed down upon those black scales, but they weren’t chipped, while the sabre that could be used to chop firewood was instead bent and curled.
The beast’s tail swept over. A Guard was instantly sent flying, after which he landed heavily upon the floor, his status unknown.
Sui Zhou took advantage of when the monster was contending with the others to leap onto its back. The creature appeared to be angered, opening its mouth and letting out a shrill cry — it was not a roar, but the ghostly wailing they had heard countless times before.
The sound echoed around the stone chamber, causing one’s ears to buzz and hairs to stand on end.
Accompanied by a loud, dull boom, the gunpowder in the four cannons ignited, then exploded outwards, each summarily hitting the beast.
However, under everyone’s expectant watch, the monster’s cry just got sharper as it became all the more irritated. With the momentum of a lightning bolt, it honed in on one of the Guards with a cannon, then opened its putrid mouth.
The Guard’s scream abruptly cut off. His arm and half of his shoulder had been torn clean off, blood quickly spurting out of it and splashing onto the face of his unsuspecting comrade next to him.
Everyone had to stop and blankly watch this spectacle.
With such frightening offensive strength, all of them put together wouldn’t even be its match!
When they had heard Li Man say that he had lost over twenty people, they hadn’t taken that seriously, but now, it seemed like his statement had not been an exaggeration at all.
“Another round!” Sui Zhou bellowed, snapping the staring people out of it.
Pang Qi snatched the cannon out of the hands of a subordinate next to him, shouting, “Fill it!”
The next instant, the beast’s tail thrashed over to them, and they had to tuck and roll with the cannon in hand, dodging desperately.
Within this chaos, martial-arts-less people like Tang Fan and Yin Yuanhua could do nothing but dodge everywhere and do all they could to not add to the confusion for the Guards. If they landed into trouble as well, even more people would be implicated.
Seeing that the four flamesticks were about to go out, Tang Fan found some time to light more up and toss them around. On the other side, the cannons fired once more, striking the monster right on its tail. Flashes filled the air, giving off more dull sounds.
Despite the beast’s scales helping out and making it unafraid of firearms, the force of impact still made its enormous body quake. Snatching this extremely rare opportunity, Sui Zhou, who had been trying hard to steady himself this whole time, jumped up the beast’s body, raised his sabre high, and pierced it right into one of its eyeballs!
Its screech sounded like a woman’s howls. The enraged creature threw him off. “Attack the abdomen!” he shouted.
The Guards raised their sabres and hopped up. By means of the monster’s one blind eye, excruciating pain, and disordered movements, the blades went to hack towards its stomach, the softest part of its entire body.
In spite of the injured animal not being as nimble as it had been, its strength got even greater. Under its crazed flailing, the Guards couldn’t get close at all. Many of them were even stepped on or slashed by the monster’s claws, getting bones broken and spewing blood.
The power of the two sides was not equal in the least. Even if they had the power of numbers on their side, this situation was as dangerous as ever. They had come here specifically to kill any monsters, hence why Sui Zhou had gotten the cannons; in this day and age, having firearms was basically tantamount to being invincible, making even the Mongol cavalry a cinch, but none of them had anticipated that even the cannons wouldn’t have any effect on this beast.
Their opponent was protected by an armor of scales, its only weakpoints the belly and eyes. On top of that, it had no loss in agility despite its size, its attack power just as potent. It was hard for them to find chances to attack, too, as that eyeball hadn’t been ruined easily.
Still, now that they knew its weakness, there was following hope for a resolution.
That lone remaining eyeball was seen to glare more ferociously and bloodily than before. Roaring like mad in the hall, it waved its tail and claws, reaping living things wherever it went, like a sickle.
Yin Yuanhua was shaking against a wall. All of a sudden, those claws came slashing over — he was deathly pale, staring blankly, forgetting to react.
Right then, Tang Fan reached over and pulled him out of the way. Yin Yuanhua stumbled, barely avoiding the claws, which acutely cut across the wall and left three deep gashes.
Had he still been there, there would be a slashed-open carcass there right now.
He dazedly leaned against the wall to catch his breath, as if disbelieving that he had just escaped calamity.
“Go to an antechamber!” Tang Fan hollered, a contrast to his typical elegance. He had just put a lot of strength into pulling Yin Yuanhua away, his complexion currently not much better-looking than the other’s.
However, danger swiftly descended yet again.
The tomb guardian appeared to notice that there were two humans that were easier to deal around. With a twist of its head, its giant mouth opened, its fangs close enough to touch. The timeframe of Tang Fan rescuing Yin Yuanhua, to the beast turning its head, was like an eternity passing in the blink of an eye!
It was impossible for the guardian beast to chomp down on two people at once; its first target was Yin Yuanhua. The man was as wan as ever, but his response time seemed to be a little faster now.
It was too late to flee. The monster’s figure was much bigger than them, and had already cut off their means of escape.
Yin Yuanhua finally reacted — he elected to pull Tang Fan in front while hiding himself behind him, intending to use him as a meat shield to slow the monster’s momentum, after which he would plot to flee.
In this split second’s worth of time, no one had expected that he would do something like this.
There was no time for Tang Fan to avoid it. He watched as his shoulder was apparently about to be bitten off like that one Guard’s before him, but the glint of a sabre flashed before his eyes as the beast’s teeth came down upon a sabre!
At this critical moment, Sui Zhou had dashed over to provide aid, using his spring-gilt sabre to block the beast’s momentum!
The sabre caused the beast’s soft mouth to be stained with blood. It furiously bit on the blade, then gave it a vicious flick, immediately slamming Sui Zhou against the wall.
The latter fell down hard, spitting out a mouthful of blood.
“Guangchuan!” Tang Fan threw himself over to help him up, eyes so wide, they were about to split open.
Sui Zhou’s complexion was like joss paper, his eyes shut tight. His internals had likely suffered injury, as he didn’t even have the strength to speak for a time.
The warm body in Tang Fan’s arms was very close, but in that second, he felt the fear and uncertainty that he was about to lose him.
In the first half of his life, his parents had passed early, and his older sister had married far off. He had believed himself to be alone in the world; worry-free, uninhibited. He had believed that if he couldn’t handle being an official, he could just hang up his cap and leave, and that there was nothing in this world that he couldn’t let go of.
It was only now that he realized how heavily he valued this man in his heart — so heavily, he couldn’t bear the thought of losing him.
Right then, Yin Yuanhua noticed that the monster had come away from the doorway, and couldn’t help but be delighted, running out without delay.
Seeing this, Pang Qi shouted, “This monster is too strong! We need to draw back, then find troops and—“
He didn’t get to finish, as a horrible scream came from outside the door.
It was Yin Yuanhua!
Before anyone could react, a head flew inside, spinning as it rolled on the ground.
Yin Yuanhua had died with his eyes open.
“There’s another one outside!” Pang Qi sharply shouted.
Inside the passageway enshrouded with dense darkness, unknown perils looked to be buried.
This one alone was hard enough to deal with, yet there was another one?
These beasts were so sly. One swept the inside while another kept watch outside, firmly confining them here with no escape.
A dark shadow rose up in everyone’s hearts.
Right. Li Man had only said that ‘the’ tomb guardian existed, not that there might be multiple!
Tang Fan realized that he himself had made an error.
He had underestimated Li Man. Because the man had fallen into his hands last time, he had seen the man as a run-of-the-mill figure. Little had he known that behind his seemingly-vulnerable ‘admittance’, he had kept many things hidden.
If the White Lotus Society’s true power was actually that weak, how could the Court be having such trouble in completely getting rid of it?
Li Man had probably anticipated these circumstances long ago, awaiting all of their deaths here!
And what of Li Man himself, now?
At this moment, he was making use of this chaotic scene, where no one had attention to spare him. He had run to the coffin, and was attempting to push its lid off with his upper body.
The translator says: *looks at YYH’s death* Anyways.
So, it’s not an alligator, but a… giant monitor lizard? A megalania? Which went extinct millions of years ago? And it’s also thousands of years old? MXS explain. Why an immortal dinosaur here.