"Since we’re all here, let’s begin. I’ve invited all of you here to discuss the disappearance of the entire She Lin Society’s upper rank," the Prefect Li Zhenyi said somberly.
"Regarding this matter, I’ve dispatched capable experts to gather intelligence and investigate it thoroughly," said the Army Superintendent Yuan Xu. "I swear to bring the murderer to justice!"
"I fear the murderer may not be human," Taoist Bai Feng remarked slowly. Glancing at Lu Sheng, he continued, "With respect to that, let’s hear about the thorny issues from External Head Lu. Crimson Whale Sect calls the shots in the Northern Lands. Even She Lin Society submits to it. I’m sure you must have leads."
"So what if it’s human? And so what if it’s not human?" Lu Sheng asked emotionlessly.
"If it’s human, then it falls under me, the Army Superintendent’s purview. If it’s not, then it falls under the jurisdiction of the Intelligence Agency. The Intelligence Agency has recently brought in several extraordinarily skilled experts," the Army Superintendent chuckled.
Taoist Bai Feng made no attempt to deny it. He simply stared at Lu Sheng, watching to see how he would respond.
Lu Sheng’s eyes narrowed to a slit as his thoughts went back to the order issued by Zhen Family previously. Instantly, Lu Sheng suspected that other Noble Families were behind the Intelligence Agency’s sudden interference in this matter. Highly plausibly, other Noble Families or factions were testing Zhen Family’s reaction to their involvement.
"This junior is a mere brute. I’ve no idea what’s been going on. Old Sect Master’s been the one handling these matters personally," he decided to beat around the bush.
"If even External Head Lu isn’t clear, then who is?" Army Superintendent Yuan Xu’s tone seemed rather confrontational.
"Anyway, we’ve not received any news about this case. If the Intelligence Agency intends to dig into it, I will actively cooperate," Lu Sheng chuckled. "If any clues are found, please inform us at the first available opportunity so that we can be prepared."
"Isn’t it all because of She Lin Society’s business conflict with Crimson Whale Sect in the past…" an elder sitting at a lower-ranked seat could not help but mumble to himself.
"Eh?" Lu Sheng eyes widened in a glare, instantly sending shivers down the elder’s spine. The elder hurriedly looked down, not daring to say a word further.
Crimson Whale Sect’s title as the King of the Underworld had not been won through compassion and kindness; it was fought for and earned with blades and swords. All of the underworld's factions in the city fell under Lu Sheng’s control. One could say that his words carried weight unmatched by any except for the Prefect Li Zhenyi. That was also the reason why the yamen had specially invited him over.
"This Prefect has invited External Head Lu firstly because External head Lu is the Number One expert in Mountain-Edge City. Your prowess is unmatched," at these words by Li Zhenyi, Taoist Bai Feng smirked indiscernibly.
"Secondly, it's because I want to request for External Head Lu’s assistance in the She Lin Society case," Li Zhenyi and the rest of them pretended not to notice the Taoist’s expression and continued.
"Naturally I will give my assistance, but…"
Suddenly, a messenger rushed in from outside, interrupting Lu Sheng's reply.
"Your Excellency, all seventy-two members of the Three Surplus Clan south of the city have been slaughtered. Their corpses were discovered in a well in the courtyard!"
"WHAT?!" Li Zhenyi jumped to his feet, color drained from his face.
Lu Sheng’s heart lurched. Although Three Surplus Clan was not large, they were Zhen Family’s vassal just like Crimson Whale Sect and were highly skilled in gathering intelligence. Its importance was second only to Crimson Whale Sect. Yet now…
"Looks like your sect is about to get in trouble," Taoist Bai Feng looked at Lu Sheng and smiled.
"Whether or not we get in trouble is none of your concern," Lu Sheng had roughly guessed at the factions standing behind Taoist Bai Feng. If he previously harbored any hope in the court, it was now completely wiped out.
Crimson Whale Sect was like a ship that would capsize anytime. The storm had already begun and now everyone wanted a share out of it.
"Three Surplus Clan is an ally of our sect. Since something’s happened to them, this junior must dig into it. Farewell," since he saw no help coming from the court, Lu Sheng spared no time to rise and bid them farewell.
"If External Head Lu is interested, you may consider joining our Intelligence Agency. Perhaps you may find a way out for yourself," behind him, Taoist Bai Feng advised.
Ignoring him, Lu Sheng left. From his line, Lu Sheng surmised that Intelligence Agency must have already gotten wind of the dire straits Crimson Whale Sect was facing.
If Scarlet District truly launched a full frontal assault, a member of the upper echelon like himself would never be spared. Moreover, he had previously killed many of Scarlet District’s ghosts, burnt a pleasure boat, and struck a vendetta with them. Hence, this supposed offer was merely lip service.
‘Perhaps they had no way to be sure if Zhen Family had left. But now, with the Three Surplus Clan massacre, they got the confirmation they needed,’ Lu Sheng understood that the court would not get itself involved in this battle. They would be happy to sit back and watch; expecting them to come to Crimson Whale Sect’s aid was impossible. They should already count themselves lucky if the court does not strike them while they’re down.
Exiting the yamen from the backyard, he was greeted by the duo including Xu Chui.
"External Head, where to now?"
"You guys return to the sect!" Lu Sheng said composedly. "I’m going to find someone."
"My lord, do you need our company?" Ning San asked.
"Not necessary," Lu Sheng waved his hand. The situation was getting more and more urgent with the pressure exerted by Scarlet District. He had to hurry.
He flipped himself up on a horse and instructed Xu Chui and Ning San to find themselves a carriage. Alone, he headed straight for Three Surplus Clan.
Because it was located within the city, the headquarters of Three Surplus Clan occupied a rather large plot of land.
A perimeter of soldiers and officials surrounded it, obstructing all entry.
Lu Sheng gazed at it from afar without walking up to it. An acrid rotten stench with threads of faint Yin Qi hidden in it stung his nose.
‘It’s done by those things indeed…’ his face fell.
‘So it seems that Scarlet District was uncertain if Zhen Family had truly left. They were testing the waters. Maybe they were afraid of a retaliation and so started off with its vassals, slowly clipping off its wings.
In that case, I don’t have much time left…’ Lu Sheng looked at Three Surplus Clan’s headquarters, then turned and left.
In the city, he first found Chen Jiaorong and borrowed his jade pendant for a while. Secretly, he dripped a drop of blood onto it and absorbed its Yin Qi.
Then, he visited Fine Treasures Hall again but was still unable to find any artifacts with Yin Qi. Finally, he had no choice but to contact Zhuo Wenyu.
A pity that Zhuo Wenyu did not show up even after burning the piece of flesh used to contact her.
Lu Sheng waited for two full hours in the agreed spot in vain. Only then did he return helplessly.
The only source of Yin Qi he could find was Chen Jiaorong’s jade pendant.
But as a consolation, the Yin Qi volume in the jade pendant was sufficient to upgrade two levels of a Strength Proficiency hard body skill, though it was still inadequate to upgrade Ultimate Crimson Nine Furies Skill.
In the several days after realizing that Crimson Whale Sect was going to be the next target and that he had no chance of escaping, Lu Sheng poured all his energy into cultivating Jewel Pillar Skill.
Simultaneously, he continued to receive reports from Jade Lotus.
An incident occurred in the Crimson Whale Sect's branch in a small city. Dozens of members were either killed or heavily wounded. Only those who had been dispatched on missions escaped death by coincidence and brought word back.
Before long, contact was lost with another base of operations in a mining sector. The sect dispatched an External Affairs Emissary who led a team of thirteen experts forward to investigate. Yet, like a rock sunk in the sea, none of them returned.
Lu Sheng had only cultivated for ten days in the casino and the situation was already spiraling downwards.
Any Crimson Whale Sect disciple who left the Crimson Whale for a distance of several dozen miles in any direction would immediately vanish without a trace. It was as if the whole region had become a forbidden zone.
Another two days later, Lu Sheng had settled his family down, forbidding them from leaving the city. Then, responding to Hong Mingzi’s summons, he led his men for the Crimson Whale.
White smoke rose in a straight line from the incense furnace.
On the mahogany bed, Hong Mingzi half-lay on a pillow, thick medicinal smell emanating from his body.
A man and a woman stood in the bedroom, both of them in their thirties or forties and resembling Hong Mingzi in appearance. Both of them exuded the aura of those in power. They were the two remaining children of Hong Mingzi.
Lu Sheng sat in front of the bed, gazing at his frail and weak senior apprentice brother, waiting for him to speak.
Under the feeding of his daughter, Hong Mingzi sipped a mouthful of medicine and coughed. Turning around to face Lu Sheng, he panted, "Junior Apprentice Brother, I’ve called you here to… entrust you with something."
"Please speak, Senior Apprentice Brother," Lu Sheng said earnestly. Hong Mingzi had worn himself out during this period. Watching the results of half his life’s hard labor breaking into pieces right before his eyes so easily was devastating to him. Moreover, his health had originally been poor to begin with. Finally, he collapsed in infirmity.
"I’ve gotten old… whether it’s Crimson Sun Sect or Crimson Whale Sect… I no longer have the strength to rule them…" Hong Mingzi coughed.
"From this day forward, I hereby confer upon you the position of Chief of Crimson Sun Sect. As for the Sect Master position of Crimson Whale Sect… if you like, I’ll confer it upon you as well. If not, that’s fine too. I’ll pass it onto Chen Ying."
"Daddy!" Displeasure filled his son and daughter’s faces.
"Don’t interrupt!" Hong Mingzi rebuked. His words still carried authority with his children, for they trembled and closed their mouths.
"Junior Apprentice Brother, what do you think?" Having rebuked his children, he looked at Lu Sheng again.
"Is Zhen Family really gone?" Lu Sheng thought for a moment and asked again.
"Indeed. They’ve packed up and left. Not a single one of them stayed behind," Hong Mingzi chuckled bitterly.
Aside, the two children’s faces turned as white as paper. Before they could speak, however, Lu Sheng spoke slowly,
"Alright. I’ll take up the position as Chief. As for the Sect Master position, I’ll take it too."
"HAHAHAH!! Great, great, great!!!" Hong Mingzi was overwhelmed with joy. He was no longer able to see through the depths of Lu Sheng’s power; Lu Sheng must have already surpassed him. Perhaps under his leadership, Crimson Whale Sect would find a way out.
"I’ve already prepared the team. Junior Apprentice Brother, you just need to disguise yourself and take these two unfilial children of mine straight to Central Plains. I’ve arranged a total of thirteen teams to set off at the same time…"
"Senior Apprentice Brother. Just call for a Grand Assembly," Lu Sheng cut him off. "It’s no use. Running away now will only cause the situation to deteriorate even sooner."
Hong Mingzi’s voice froze.
"From this day forward, I hereby confer the position of Sect Master on my Junior Apprentice Brother—the External Head Lu Sheng."
In the gigantic hall in the Crimson Whale, Hong Mingzi coughed as he amplified his voice with inner force.
Seated on the Sect Master’s throne, Lu Sheng’s face was calm as he listened to old Sect Master Hong Mingzi’s careful reading of the sect’s rules.
Line by line, these rules and pledges were written when the sect was first founded.
Below the throne, the members of the upper ranks burst out in exclamations of surprise. Instantly, the buzz of murmurs and whispers arose. Someone stood up, about to question the move when he hesitated at the thought of the recent hapless cases that kept popping up.
Standing by the side, Chen Ying’s face was filled with worry for some mysterious reason.
The Master of Ceremony came forward and handed the red jadeite short sword, which was the Sect Master’s representative token, to Hong Mingzi. Hong Mingzi unsheathed the sword and handed it to Lu Sheng by its hilt.
As the ceremony proceeded, the buzz and commotion in the hall gradually died down.
Soon, everyone’s gaze was trained on Lu Sheng, seated on the highest seat.
"The meaning of the crimson whale is courage, compassion, righteousness, and serenity. Nine generations of Sect Masters have declared, ‘Evildoers will always lurk under the heavens…"
Without warning, a crisp crack rang out from outside the hall.
Instantly, the entire upper echelon of the sect, including the Internal Affairs Emissaries, Elders… etc., turned their heads around to look at the door. A guard’s face turned grim as he exited to check on the noise.
The Master of Ceremony paused, then continued to read the ordination pledge.
"…persistent as metal and stone. The Crimson Whale roams in the frozen sea, unstoppable and unchallenged. Hundreds of feet wide, clear as jade…"
Another ear-piercing crack.
"Men! Go investigate what’s going on!" Chen Ying’s face turned cold. Being in charge of defense, anything that happened was his responsibility.
"Where’s Ren Tao who just went out!?" He barked sternly.
The men looked at each other.
Chen Ying’s voice was amplified by inner force. Typically, the guards on sentry outside the hall would be able to hear him. They would then quickly enter the hall and reply him.
But presently, not a single sound could be heard outside the doors.
"Guards! WHERE ARE THE GUARDS!!??" Chen Ying hollered.
Not a pin drop could be heard coming from outside the hall.
Fear surfaced on the faces of the upper ranks.
Everybody had been living with the sword of Damocles over their heads these few days. Some intelligent ones among them had already guessed that they were headed for days of trouble.
But what none of them had expected was that even the Ceremony of the Succession of the Sect Master would meet with mishap.
"A few of you. Go out and take a look," Chen Ying ordered, an ugly expression on his face.
In that instant, another crack rang out.
Silence descended on the entire hall. Every single pair of eyes was trained on the stone doors of the hall.
A hot-tempered Elder with more guts than the rest humphed loudly, stood up and walked towards the side door. Three men followed him.
After that… there was no ‘after that’.
They had left the hall for no more than a few breaths when all sounds of them vanished. Even their footsteps.
Someone called out for them by the side door. But there was no reply.
The air was still. Then pandemonium broke out in the entire hall. Everyone shouted in panic and many of them drew their weapons.
"Silence! SILENCE!!!" Chen Ying bellowed, attempting to stabilize the crowd’s panic in vain. Panic and hysteria was scribbled over everyone’s faces.
"Everyone… listen to this old man for a moment…" a trifle unsteadily, Hong Mingzi stepped forward and attempted to calm everyone down. But again it was useless.
The Master of Ceremony’s face turned pale. On his hands, the Sect Master’s shoulder armor piece shook intensely as he trembled all over, looking as if they might fall on the ground any moment.
Seated on the main seat, Lu Sheng’s face remained impassive as he allowed the Master of Ceremony to help him don the armor.
The intricate red jadeite shoulder piece was placed many times on his left shoulder, but kept slipping down his arm.
At the third crack, the doors of the hall finally swung open slowly…
Everyone in the hall held their breath, not daring to make a sound.
The eccentric shrill laughter of a girl rang through the inky black gap left by the door that was now ajar.
Lu Sheng grabbed onto the Master of Ceremony’s hand and pressed the fiery red shoulder armor firmly on his shoulder through his hand.
A red shoe stepped in through the gap in the door. Slowly, he rose from his throne.