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Chaos was already in the large hall.
The hand cannons could not be fired continuously, requiring refills after every shot of gunpowder, which took time. The monster was nimble, making it difficult to aim at, and any bit of inattention got somebody injured.
Sui Zhou had collapsed unconscious, meaning that commanding authority had been transferred to Pang Qi. Using the interim of the monster’s single-eye blindness, the remaining Brocade Guards stood shoulder-to-shoulder, welcoming its stomach with their successive weapons. They weren’t so easy to land, however, and many were sent flying instantly.
The coffin placed in the center of the hall was supposed the be the resting place of the Gong noble. Its lid was extremely heavy, to the point that in normal times, pushing it with both arms might not even work. As of right now, neither of Li Man’s arms were of use, so he was using his body to push, which wasn’t moving it at all.
On account of the chaos here, everyone else was focusing on pouring their energy into dealing with the monster’s grand appearance, with practically no one having the free time to care about him.
The coffin had been liable to be affected from being in the middle, but because the candle on it had previously been extinguished, the current illumination was primarily congregated on the flamesticks strewn about everywhere. In order to be able to see the monster’s weakpoints with higher accuracy, everyone was both consciously and subconsciously leading it to those.
That made things easier for Li Man.
The two underlings he had arrived with had since died; one had been used as a shield by him, and the other had been hooked in the chest and hung up on the spot by the monster’s claws. Li Man clearly did not put their status to mind — he was wholeheartedly using his upper half to push the lid off, only wishing that he could be a little faster. Unfortunately, he had been tied up into a meaty zongzi. He had to occasionally take a look at the situation around him to defend against the monster racing up before him, making him sweat profusely out of anxiety.
However, just because practically no one was paying attention to him didn’t mean that absolutely no one was.
In the middle of his use of force, he suddenly got picked up from behind, then knocked straight to the ground.
“What do you think you’re doing?!”
The next instant, he was slapped hard. Half of his face immediately swelled into looking like a pig’s head, just as he had done to Tang Fan not long before.
The karmic cycle of retribution really did its work.
Li Man was enraged, but once he saw the other’s face, that anger turned to joy. “Little brother, don’t hit me, don’t! You don’t want to die, right? I know how to escape, but don’t tell!” he lisped out.
Qian San’r looked at him skeptically. His face suddenly changed, and then he dragged him to the side, barely managing to avoid the tomb guardian’s sweeping tail. Not only did that very powerful tail have scales on it, but they were sharp enough to pierce; getting swiped by it really wouldn’t be any fun.
Qian San’r pressed him into a corner and slapped him again. “Weren’t you just being all showy?! Why are you a coward now?! If it wasn’t for you, my Master and them wouldn’t be dead!”
Li Man had gone light-headed from the trashing. On any other day, he would have long started cussing, but he now forced down his fury to pull out a warped smile. “They’re dead, but you’re still alive. Do you want to die here like them?”
“Another monster’s outside! How could I escape?!”
“There’s a way. You just need to untie my binds first.”
Ignore him having just put on a righteous air, where he’d said that he lived and died for the Holy Society; even ants still desired to live. People like Li Man — where the more they had, the more they feared death — would never let go of a thread of survival, so long as it existed.
Since he feared death, how could he not have a follow-up move after attracting the beast here?
Right now, Tang Fan was busy with checking the state of Sui Zhou’s injury, and had no time to care about them over there. Li Man had contended with him several times, so he was well aware of how top-class smart he was; previously, the other had just been blinded by the situation, and thus had been a bit careless. Once Tang Fan came to, he would definitely poke through his little scheme, and then Li Man really would die without a proper burial.
Such was why, no matter what, Li Man needed to use this moment of opportunity to flee and leave the others to brawl with the tomb guardian. He had faith that the creature’s ferocity was capable of slaughtering this group in totality. When the time came, he would try to get the valuables out again, and the government’s people could never even think to catch them again in the wide open world!
Qian San’r was a thief, not an authority. Li Man was consciously aware that it would be child’s play to entice him. “You’ve already learned that I’m the Vicar of the Society’s Henan branch temple. As long as you follow me, you’ll never have to steal ever again, let alone be ordered around and trampled on by these Court thugs. Quick, untie me!”
The other’s guard was not slackened, but he slowly got a moved look in his eyes. “Tell me where the exit is, first.”
Li Man coldly laughed on the inside, but said sincerely, “No harm in telling you. That coffin was hollowed out a long time ago; there’s a road beneath that can take you straight to the Luo. Someone would pick us up, then.”
Qian San’r grabbed him by the collar. “Don’t lie to me! If the vault’s connected to the river, water would flood it, and I’m no duck!”
“Moron! No one said it was in the river!”
As soon as Li Man said that, he got slapped again, his back molars popping loose. Qian San’r was glaring at him. “You still got the fucking guts to insult me?!”
Li Man gulped down his annoyance. “I’m not lying to you, little brother. The other end is connected to the riverbank. It’s a bit far, but it’s perfectly safe.”
Qian San’r was half doubtful. “Didn’t the monster swim in from the river, though? Before I came in, I saw that the Luo’s water level was about to rise. What if it gets out and chases after us?”
Li Man grinned menacingly. “Did you forget that there’s still people outside? Those two are my close confidantes. I made arrangements a while ago; as long as we leave, they’ll all be dying here, regardless of whether the shitheads are human or beast! That huge pile of treasures in the Gong vault has long been hidden away by us. You saw those things all scattered on the ground before, right? How could the real valuables ever be comparable to those gewgaws? Come with me, and you’ll have glory, wealth, and anything else you could desire!”
Qian San’r gave an ‘I see’, nodding.
Li Man’s heart burned with anxiety. “Now you’ll release me, right?”
“What does ‘gewgaw’ mean?”
Li Man nearly spat out a mouthful of blood.
At last, he learned that this punk had been playing him all along. He had probably just been eking stuff out of him with no intention to set him free from the get-go!
Unfortunately, he had realized that fact too late — Qian San’r had already taken a dagger out and stabbed him viciously in the heart!
Li Man’s eyes widened incredulously.
Unto his own death, he couldn’t comprehend why Qian San’r would want to kill him.
The latter drew the dagger out of the man’s chest, the blood from his heart splashing onto his face, which was wiped off along with his tears.
“…Master, I’ve finally avenged you,” he muttered to himself. He then stood up quickly, shouting at Tang Fan and the others. “Sir Tang, Li Man said that there’s an exit to the Luo in the coffin! We don’t need to escape to the outside!”
When the crowd heard this, their vigor was revitalized.
At the start, everyone had thought that there was only one way out, yet that door was firmly blocked. Knowing that even if they managed to kill the tomb guardian using all of their might, there was another one keeping watch outside, they had gradually come to despair. Now, though, Qian San’r’s words had given them hope for survival.
“Pang Qi, don’t be eager for battle! Fight as you retreat!” Tang Fan yelled.
In the hall, where the tomb guardian’s body crashed around, the sound of whistling wind mixed in with its shrill cry. Even though it was injured, the humans here were kind of in over their heads. The guardian waiting outside in preparation to nab the finished products lost its patience, leaning its body in slightly to scout things out, showing off its horrifying fangs as it took in the humans with blood-red eyes.
Pang Qi found time to turn and roar with vigor, “Sir, how is he doing?!”
“He won’t die!” Tang Fan put Sui Zhou on his back, then ran for the coffin.
Qian San’r was already there and forcefully pushing its lid off, which revealed wooden boards inside. He lifted them away to see that there was indeed a dark hole down below, becoming excited. “There’s a way down, Sir Tang! Li Man didn’t lie to us!” he called over his shoulder.
“Let’s go!” Tang Fan ordered. Everyone steadily began to move in close to the center of the hall.
The two creatures seemed to sense their plan. Carrying slicing, stinking wind, they pounced towards them. The injured one in particular grew more prominently crazed, its attacking power a bit stronger than before. Pang Qi and them slowly became suppressed, yet another Guard bit right in the throat due to not having time to dodge.
Pang Qi’s eyes were red, but there was nothing he could do. The fighting strength of the two sides was simply on on the same level.
Right then, a loud noise came from the distance, shaking even the ground beneath their feet and nearly knocking them over.
The two beasts that had been about to attack the crowd paused slightly after this fright.
Tang Fan’s face twisted up. He finally realized what Li Man’s plan had been, but he couldn’t explain much at the moment, only able to shout, “Let’s go, now! This place is probably going to collapse soon!”
Qian San’r headed down the hole first, then turned to help Tang Fan, who passed Sui Zhou down. “Are you still not coming?!” Tang Fan shouted at Pang Qi.
The latter still wanted to make use of the monster’s injury to kill it, but after the other one came in, he knew that that goal was pretty much impossible to achieve. He was sourly forced to give up and retreat the whole way to the coffin’s vicinity.
Using the time the beasts were startled, their group successively moved themselves through the hole. At the same time, the shaking of the whole vault was getting worse and worse, with even the walls and ground splitting apart at a rate visible to the eye. Loud sounds came, one after the other, both near and far, practically shattering the eardrums from the force.
The two scared tomb guardians began to scramble around all over the place. Upon seeing Tang Fan and the rest evacuate one by one, they couldn’t resist letting out shrieks and thinking to catch up with them. The rearmost Pang Qi threw his spring-gilt sabre right on over, slightly hindering their progress, then hunched his shoulders as he made his way into the coffin.
Behind him, with the accompaniment of a harsh rumbling, the stone walls of the hall exploded and fell, bringing rocks overhead down with them that firmly crushed down upon the coffin, thus completely separating them from the horrifying cries of the tomb guardians.
Within the long and narrow tunnel, the sound of everybody’s panting rose and fell consecutively, nearly filling the ears.
The exploding sounds seemed distant, but the underground tunnel was still getting influenced by them, the tremors a constant thing. Cracked bits of stone were continuously falling upon their heads, some slightly larger ones drawing blood.
“Quick! If we’re too slow, this place might cave in!” Tang Fan urged.
Qian San’r walked ahead with Sui Zhou on his back, while Tang Fan helped attend in the rear.
Due to Sui Zhou’s protection, he had not been too gravely injured, but his accumulated, fragmentary little wounds were not few. Adding that on with his seriously overdrawn physical strength, his complexion was not any sort of better than the rest’s. To be more accurate, if he wasn’t being propped up by one current of thought, he probably would have long fallen over.
Still, no one felt that the martials-arts-less Tang Fan was a burden, because if it hadn’t been for his advance plans, there would be even fewer of them walking here now.
The White Lotus Society had put a lot of effort into this place. The passageway had been dug out much wider and higher than Qian San’r’s group’s tunnel from before, making it not that hard to walk through. Presumably, they had been watching the Gong noble’s vault like tigers starting from a year ago, getting to it from the very start. The hindrance of needing to move the valuables away ahead of time had prevented them from blowing the vault up until right now.
By ill fate, they had run into Qian San’r and Tang Fan, one after the other, which had led to their intended harm backfiring on them, with even Li Man getting buried inside. Their strategies and calculations had been too clever, and had ended up taking their lives. That was all.
Qian San’r had since informed Tang Fan of what Li Man had said prior to his death. Considering the veracity of Li Man’s words, all day long he had toyed with him, even concealing the burial of gunpowder in the vault unto his death, wanting to kill them all in the explosion along with the beasts.
In light of such, Tang Fan dared not fully believe anything that he had said. Even so, Li Man saying that the passage led outside and that people were waiting to greet them should be the truth.
On account of Li Man’s self-serving personality, those valuables had to have been set right beneath his nose for him to be at ease. There was no way he would have allowed his fellows to run off with them without him.
While walking forth, Tang Fan would occasionally search out Sui Zhou’s pulse, after which he would feel relief at the beat beneath his fingers.
The group wasn’t sure how long they walked until Qian San’r suddenly stopped in his tracks. “There looks to be an exit up ahead, Sir.” He set Sui Zhou down, went over, and had a feel around. “It seems to be blocked by something.”
Tang Fan motioned for everyone to be quiet. Asking for Qian San’r to come and look after Sui Zhou, he switched places with him and groped the wall around.
This was indeed the end, and the only exit was here. He painstakingly felt for the object pressing on the exit outside, lightly tapped it, and put his hand under his nose and sniffed. “That’s a chest. It should be for storing clothes.”
Qian San’r was confused. “How do you know it’s a clothes chest?”
“It’s pear wood. In general, people don’t use this type of wood to store miscellaneous items, so it has to be a chest. If the contents are too heavy, then it would have been hard for Li Man’s group to get out. Plus, from what I just smelled, the scent of camphor oil is still on it, meaning that it has to be used for storing things that are likely to get eaten by insects, which can only mean clothes.”
Qian San’r near about prostrated himself on the ground in admiration to him. He had felt around a long time, himself, yet he hadn’t found anything.
Upon hearing Tang Fan speak now, he had a sudden feeling of epiphany. Looking at Pang Qi and the Guards, they had obviously long gotten used to Sir Tang’s fine scrutiny and knowledge that no one else could achieve.
Tang Fan had no idea that he had gained another admirer. He helped Sui Zhou up, adjusted him into a comfortable position so that he could easily lean into his arms, then said to the rest of them, “Outside should be a stronghold of the Society. While we were walking, I paid close attention to the distance and direction; the building ought to be located in the outskirts, accordingly. What isn’t certain is if there’s any Society troops outside, and if so, how many.”
Influenced by the vault’s gunpowder, the tunnel had been raining rocks down this whole time, the force of the tremors getting greater and greater. It was unknown how much tremendously powerful gunpowder Li Man’s group had hidden for it to have this effect.
Everyone bore with this stifling aura. Remaining inside this passageway that was in danger of collapsing at any time was not an easy task.
Many of them had lost too much blood and were beginning to teeter. Graver cases that were unconscious like, Sui Zhou, could only be carried by comrades with less severe injuries.
These despotic Guards had likely never been in as sorry a state as this ever since their entry into the Northern Bastion Office.
Over twenty people had gone in, and now there were only about eighteen left in this tunnel; though, compared to Li Man’s tragedy, this was apparently not that bad.
The departed were done, but the alive still had to do all they could to keep living.
“Sir, let’s charge out! There might still be a way for us to survive!” Pang Qi had to say.
Tang Fan just shook his head. “No. Use a sabre to cut the box open along the hole’s opening. If there’s clothes in it, it won’t make much noise when it falls. After that, we can take cover, observe for a bit, then act.”
Pang Qi felt that this method was much too unmanly, compelled to protest. “Why take such trouble? Many of us can’t hold on for much longer! The more we drag this out, the smaller our chances of success are!”
Tang Fan stopped all protests with one single sentence.
“Guangchuan handed you all over to me, and I’m going to have as many of you survive as my abilities will allow.”
This was a long-deserted little village on the Luo’s banks.
Some year way back, the river had overflowed, sparing not even one of the village’s crops, which had resulted in the villagers all gradually moving out. Over the course of time, no one lived in these few run-down homes anymore.
Wu Laosi had been here for nearly half a year, but he hadn’t been the first to come. At the time of his arrival, there had already been the smoke of civilization around.
White Lotus followers with his status had been ordered to disguise themselves as villagers coming to settle down here. Piloting a few small boats to fish every day at sunrise, then resting at sunset, they looked no different from regular commonfolk.
The only real difference was that they had to keep a sharp eye out, paying attention at all times for the possible appearance of suspicious people peeping nearby.
As for the aim in them keeping watch, or the time when they would be able to leave, Wu Laosi hadn’t a clue. Those were not things that members of their level were to know.
Two months after his friend and he had come here, several others had come in succession. One among them had been an alluring young woman escorted by a throng of people, who had gone inside the home that had been tidied up the best in the village. Wu Laosi and the rest of them had never been allowed to approach that house.
They had guessed at her identity more than once in private, using vulgar jargon that only a certain type of man could understand. They all knew that she had to be an important figure in the Society; perhaps she was the Vicar’s wife.
No matter what her status was, it had nothing to do with them. They weren’t able to say even one word to her, and ever since she had entered that house, she had been a recluse. People were always coming and going outside, and frequently went in and out of that building, yet she had rarely come out.
In result, they’d had all kinds even more obscene versions of their guesses.
The sunset clouds today were gorgeous and dazzling, not much different from any other time. He had long been sick of seeing sights like this. He hauled his boat ashore lazily while carefully watching for any suspicious strangers near, as he was accustomed to.
Everything was as usual.
He had no idea how long it had been since he had last gone for a romp. If he could, he would have long trampled this boat beneath his feet, gone right into the city, and found a few women to put out his fire.
Nothing was to be done, though. He had been ordered to keep watch here, and without orders, he wasn’t allowed to step one foot outside.
Why had the higher-ups insisted upon making them wait around in this lousy place?!
Wu Laosi was both curious and a bit indignant, but he wasn’t qualified, or bold enough, to go find a Cleric to comment. These thoughts could only twist around in his head. His hands kept going as they typically did, shaking out a few fish that were not much bigger than shrimps from his net while greeting his friend that had also beached nearby.
His companion lowered his voice. “Come to my place tonight. I’ll get a bottle of wine!”
As soon as he heard that, Wu Laosi’s eyes quickly lit up.
However, the next second, there came a shriek from that mystery house not too far away!
It was the young woman’s voice!
His heart jumped in alarm, and he subconsciously looked at his friend.
As average followers, their skills were also quite average. Unlike the higher echelons, Wu Laosi had no thoughts towards rebellion, nor did he have any notion to ‘dare to get a new sky to house the sun and moon.’ His original goal in entering the Society had been simple: to simply have a strong backer and eat well in his life.
People like this were the most practical and perceptive. While something was happening in the small house, Wu Laosi and his friend were thinking of not how to rush to the rescue, but how to try and escape.
Immediately after this, they were dumbstruck to witness the most unforgettable scene of their lives: over a dozen people dressed in flying-fish robes and wielding spring-gilt sabres charged out of the house, slaughtering Society-goers that threw themselves at the hut, like flying hawks!
Wait a second!
They had clearly seen only about three people in the house, all of whom had been Clerics of this locality’s branch temple, and influential in rank. How did they get swapped out for Brocade Guards in such short order?!
Could that house transform people?!
Watching the two sides fight into a mess, the two looked at each other, hesitating on whether they should go up and help out, or just run from the discouraging situation.
Quickly, they found that despite the Guards’ visible ferocity, after eliminating the experts in the house, they had gradually begun to lose strength.
“What do you think, Laosi? Should we go help?”
“No!” Wu Laosi answered, not even needing to think about it. “Not one Cleric has come out of that house, so they definitely all got killed! Those are Brocade Guards! Something big might have happened in the Society. Our lives are important, so let’s not get mixed up in it. We should find a chance to slip away.”
His friend thought that correct, too. Honestly, they had accumulated several private residences these years, their hearts having long broken away from the Society. Because of its strict regulations, however, they had never had such an opportunity. There was nothing good about stubbornly opposing the government; they couldn’t comprehend the thoughts of those above them, and were not interested in devoting themselves to the Holy Society.
Plotting together, the two used the chaos to sneak away, go far away to the South, then start small businesses, take wives, and sire children, which was a story for later.
On the small house’s end, the mysterious young woman Wu Laosi and them had seen every day was actually Lady Chen, who Li Man had brought to the Li home many, many days ago, claiming to have taken her as a concubine. She was also the older sister of Lady Ninth, the envoy of the White Lotus Overseer Tang Fan had met in the capital’s outskirts.
No one would have ever thought that inside this originally-abandoned village, there was an underground passage going right to a Gong noble’s vault beneath Eternal Deep, the entrance to which Lady Chen had been guarding.
After she had birthed a son for Li Man, she had handed the child over to a nearby farmer to raise while she watched the house, as well as the large amount of treasures that Li Man had moved over from the grave vault.
The appointed time had long passed while Li Man and the rest were slow to show. Lady Chen hadn’t dared to go looking, as she feared the tomb guardians inside. After lounging around for a very long time, she had determined that they had died in there, then couldn’t help but get the idea to embezzle the treasure.
She was wanton by nature, differing from women of conventional families. After she had latched onto Li Man, that nature had been slightly curbed, but the man had ultimately been in his fifties. No matter how good his disguise and illusory techniques had been, his physical prowess had never compared to that young men.
Now that the man was likely dead, she had lost her misgivings and deliberately seduced several of his subordinate Clerics.
With her graceful figure, there came to be no man that had resisted the bait. Therefore, when Tang Fan’s group had found this place, she was in the middle of going at it with those several men, not even aware of what day it was.
Li Man probably hadn’t been aware unto his death that his woman would go mingling with other men in the blink of an eye. If he had, he might have been able to rage himself back to life, then rage himself back into death.
Following a moment of speechlessness, this had been easy pickings for the Guards. Taking advantage of the ‘battle royale’ on the bed, they had jumped out, killing Lady Chen’s cuckolds before any of them had time to react.
In order to capture Lady Chen alive, the Guards had made an oversight, which had given her the chance to scream and attract the followers outside. The two sides had quickly begun to fight, the battle fierce, blades flashing all around and blood splattering everywhere.
According to logic, the followers shouldn’t be the Guards’ matches, but they had been physically spent prior to this. They were unable to fight as hard as they could have, looking like their limbs were tied up.
Tang Fan’s skills were nothing, making it impossible for him to mix in with it and be an obstruction. He could only watch from the side, clapping Qian San’r on the shoulder. “You did great today! We were lucky to have you!”
Qian San’r was a bit taken aback by this favor. Ever since his childhood, he had followed his Master in doing various sorts of thievery, all of which had gone against the authorities. Now that he had received acclamation from an imperial ambassador, he was immediately so excited, he couldn’t tell which way was North. “Th-th-this lowly one is really undeserving of accepting your praise, S-Sir!”
Seeing him get so excited, a slight smile appeared on Tang Fan’s weary face. “You weren’t fooled by Li Man into following him into the swamp. That’s enough to prove that you’re not a bad person. Your Master is no longer around, so don’t do those piecemeal crimes anymore. If you walk too much at night, you’ll inevitably meet ghosts; when we go back, you should find an honorable occupation.”
The other suddenly knelt down before him. “I never wanted to do those black-hearted things, but… I can’t do anything aside from them. Please point me towards a lighter path, Sir!”
This guy had immediately tried to butter him up. Tang Fan wasn’t revolted, instead thinking him quite clever and of decent heart, someone with promise. “We’ll talk more on it when we get back.”
Once he said that, Qian San’r knew that he had agreed, immediately going over the moon. He kowtowed to him three times, going bang-bang-bang.
However, his head bangs had been too forceful. The intense fighting between two forces right in front of them had failed to rouse Sui Zhou, but the sound of Qian San’r’s head meeting the ground had made him crease his brows.
Tang Fan noticed the movement of the man in his arms, lowering his head to look. “Guangchuan, you’re awake!” he called out joyfully. “Are you okay?!”
Sui Zhou slowly opened his eyes, Tang Fan’s expression that was full of concern and worry entering them.
What was that reaction? Was he concussed?
Tang Fan couldn’t help but reach out to feel the other’s forehead, gaze meeting with Sui Zhou’s smiling eyes.
Mister Tang had apparently forgotten about Li Man slapping him, which had caused his not-swollen face to swell up on one side. His elegant image had been switched out for a pig’s head placed upon an altar for divine sacrifice, which Sui Zhou couldn’t resist laughing at the instant he opened his eyes.
However, after that laugh, his heart had gotten even softer. He focused on Tang Fan as one thought slowly came to be left by itself in his mind.
It’s good that he’s okay.
Even though he himself had suffered heavy injury, it was worth it.
“…Where’s Li Man?” he asked in a hoarse voice.
“Dead. Qian San’r killed him,” Tang Fan answered.
Qian San’r was bashful, thinking to make a few modest remarks, but Sui Zhou didn’t even glance at him.
Right now, the small world in his eyes only had room for one person.
Their gazes intertwined for a time, bringing about a certain ambiguity that even Tang Fan couldn’t detect.
Then, with Qian San’r as a witness, Mister Tang, whose face was as thick as the Great Wall, slowly came to a blush.
Hold on. Why did this seem a little weird…?
And… just what about it was weird?
Qian San’r was endlessly confused about the right answer to those. After racking his brain for half the day, he still didn’t realize that he had the option to choose: ‘I’m the third wheel here.’
The translator says: Qian ‘Third Wheel’ San’r must be protected.