That day, Young Master Yan didn’t even come out to eat—was the food at the rundown inn meant for humans?

He reluctantly stuffed himself with two pastries and had a restless night’s sleep.

Despite the Dao servant cleaning the thatched hut inside and out a hundred and eighty times, he still found the bedding had an odor. The bed board was uncomfortable, the room stuffy and hot, and every scent was irritating.

In short, in this unprecedentedly wretched place, Young Master Yan began to doubt his entire life. Unable to bear it any longer, and upholding his principle of not letting himself or others feel at ease, he jumped up, ready to hold his Master accountable.

Yan Zhengming dismissed the Dao servant and turned into a headless fly, angrily wandering around the rundown inn.

Since the inn was so dilapidated and the owner looked like a black-market vendor selling human buns, they were the only ones staying here. The spacious courtyard was empty. After passing by several thatched huts resembling haunted houses, Yan Zhengming found his impoverished Master in the innermost one.

However, he didn’t rush forward because Yan Zhengming saw from a distance that Wood Chisel True Person was with the inn’s owner, Wenya.

It was fine to cause trouble for his Master in private, but Yan Zhengming didn’t intend to humiliate his Master in front of others.

But after finally finding his way here, he couldn’t just turn back. Feeling unwilling, Yan Zhengming hesitated for a moment, then reached into his purse and pulled out a piece of cicada wing.

This ghostly thing was naturally made by Li Yun. The small cicada wing had five holes, which were tied with string, allowing it to be worn around the neck to hinder others’ senses to a certain extent and conceal one’s whereabouts.

Of course, what advanced stuff could Li Yun make? This little gadget had limited functions. It was out of the question to make oneself disappear or be invisible and silent. But if one stayed far enough away and was cautious, it could provide some assistance.

This gadget was Han Yuan’s tool for stealing bird eggs. After Yan Zhengming saw it, he sternly lectured him, then promptly claimed it for himself.

Yan Zhengming circled around to the other side of the thatched hut, slipped in through the drafty courtyard, and hid behind the hut, planning to wait for Wenya to leave before confronting his Master.

Yan Zhengming had been practicing swordsmanship for years, so although he didn’t work hard, he was more agile than the average person. With the support of Li Yun’s cicada wing, he approached the two True Persons ahead without alarming them.

Yan Zhengming found a place to sit, ready to put on a confrontational face and wait for his Master to send Wenya away.

But at that moment, the voices of the two men reached his ears.

Wenya said, “Last year, I predicted a heavenly anomaly and wondered what it was. It turned out to be the descent of a celestial demon. With the celestial demon’s descent, the Demon King grew angry, and coupled with the rebellion of the demons, I presume the Demon Valley will turn into a sea of blood. The celestial demon is still in its egg. If that person hadn’t forcefully quelled the chaos and sent the celestial demon’s egg away… A celestial demon born from bathing in blood, tut, that must be more than just the calamity of Mount Fuyao. By the way, where is the celestial demon now? Has it hatched?”

Wood Chisel True Person calmly replied, “It has hatched, in your courtyard. I will go take a look later, to prevent it from wetting your bed.”

Wenya, “…”

Immediately, before he could recover, Wood Chisel’s voice suddenly became serious. Yan Zhengming heard him involuntarily lower his voice and ask, “I ask you, who is the demonic cultivator with the power of the Northern Darkness? What is their connection to our sect? Why would they willingly sacrifice their soul as a talisman to fend off calamity for our sect?”

Wenya replied, “He didn’t tell you?”

Wood Chisel True Person sighed, “Even if they are a great demonic cultivator, sacrificing their soul is a severe blow. Since that day, I haven’t seen them again.”

Upon hearing this, Wenya pondered for a moment before saying, “When he asked me to give you that thing, he only identified himself as a discarded disciple of the Fuyao Sect. I thought you knew him.”

Wood Chisel True Person said, “Since the founding of our sect, there have been many who deviated from the orthodox path. Just among those I can recall, there were two predecessors referred to as ‘Northern Darkness Sovereign.’ Not to mention those later ones who concealed their identities and refused to disclose their sect… After so many years, how would I know which one he is?”

“In any case, there is no ill intent.” Wenya said, “Rather than worry about that remnant soul, you should think about how to deal with your old acquaintance.”

The phrase “old acquaintance” was deliberately lowered in volume by Wenya, sounding eerie, low, and full of a heavy warning. Just a few words, and others could sense the giant man’s fear.

Yan Zhengming, eavesdropping behind the house, was startled.

Old acquaintance?

This time, Wood Chisel True Person remained silent for a long while. Yan Zhengming couldn’t help sitting up straight and cautiously peering out.

After a long while, his Master finally spoke.

“Wenya brother,” Wood Chisel True Person said quietly, “If I… If my… children become a burden in the future, I will trouble you to take care of them.”

Wait, what does that mean?

Yan Zhengming concentrated all his keenness, which he had cultivated for sixteen years, on this one ear. He even forgot he was eavesdropping and his thoughts raced. He held his breath for a moment.

Wenya sneered lowly, seemingly tinged with sarcasm, but it was unclear who he was mocking.

“Give it up, I’m just a small fry. How can I bear such responsibility?” Wenya said. “Your Mount Fuyao is extraordinary and renowned for producing extraordinary and wicked beings in every generation. It’s not something an ordinary person like me, with average talent, can handle. Besides, don’t you have a poor soul willing to sacrifice itself as a talisman for your sect? I suggest you go seek his help.”

Wood Chisel True Person understood Wenya’s meaning and wisely did not dwell on the topic.

Soon, the two of them casually engaged in small talk. These middle-aged and elderly men in the cultivation world were well aware of the ups and downs spanning five centuries, and their conversations flowed incessantly like the eternal rivers.

Yan Zhengming’s legs nearly went numb. Only then did he confirm that he couldn’t hear anything anymore. He cautiously stood up and made his way back, retracing his steps silently.

In the scorching June weather, he broke out in a cold sweat in his palms.

Leaving his Master’s thatched hut, Yan Zhengming went straight to Cheng Qian’s. The sky was already dark, and Cheng Qian had already gone to sleep. However, Yan Zhengming forcefully pulled him out of bed.

Disturbing his sleep for no reason, Cheng Qian stared at Yan Zhengming with a brewing storm in his eyes, as if he was about to scratch his face.

But Yan Zhengming completely ignored his expression, picked up the clothes on Cheng Qian’s bedside, and threw them at him, sternly saying, “Get dressed and come with me.”

Yan Zhengming furrowed his brow, anxiously pacing around Cheng Qian’s room. He was so preoccupied that he didn’t notice the clothes on Cheng Qian’s bedside were freshly worn today, nor did he take the opportunity to criticize the messy creases on his belt like dried salted vegetables. He simply urged Cheng Qian relentlessly.

Based on this detail, Cheng Qian deduced that something was wrong and, at least from Yan Zhengming’s perspective, it was likely serious. He hastily threw on an outer robe, not even having time to comb his hair, and was dragged away by Yan Zhengming to Li Yun and Han Yuan’s place.

Han Yuan was nowhere to be found. Since they descended the mountain, he had become a wild horse, wandering off who knows where.

Li Yun, on the other hand, was still awake, studying under an oil lamp. When he saw the two of them arrive together, he was initially very surprised. Then his gaze fell on the cicada wing around Yan Zhengming’s neck, and he asked with some confusion, “Senior Brother… Did you just eavesdrop on someone?”

Yan Zhengming gave up on finding Han Yuan. He didn’t bother with any pointless argument and sat down, meticulously wiping a porcelain cup inside and out several times. At the same time, absentmindedly, he repeated the words he had heard from their Master earlier.

Li Yun and Cheng Qian exchanged glances. Cheng Qian took the porcelain cup that Yan Zhengming had wiped off, which had lost a layer of glaze, and poured him a cup of long-cold tea. Yan Zhengming unknowingly accepted it and took a sip.

Li Yun furrowed his brows and asked, “Senior Brother, do you… know who the ‘old acquaintance’ is?”

Li Yun was actually quite observant, but he was too mischievous and indulged in unorthodox practices, lacking focus. Yan Zhengming lowered his head, stared at the cool water in the cup for a moment, and admitted, “Yes.”

Cheng Qian confidently added, “Then I know. It must be a demonic cultivator.”

Yan Zhengming asked, “How do you know?”

Cheng Qian had long felt that something was amiss—after spending time chanting scriptures with their Master, he noticed that although their Master often spouted nonsense, there was a consistent theme of “The Great Dao is formless” and “Follow the principles of heaven and nature.” There was no mention of anything improper about demonic cultivation or demonic path. It was actually Big Senior Brother, who appeared unconcerned, that detested these things.

Cheng Qian said, “When we were in the Demonic Beast Valley last year, Second Senior Brother mentioned demonic cultivation, but Big Senior Brother stopped him. I felt… Big Senior Brother seemed particularly averse to the demonic path.”

Yan Zhengming waved his hand, “I was afraid he would casually say something and corrupt you.”

Cheng Qian didn’t even blink, “Oh, then Big Senior Brother sleeps during morning lessons to lead by example, so he shouldn’t be afraid of corrupting us.”

Yan Zhengming, “…”

This brat knows how to seize the opportunity!

Yan Zhengming gave him a disdainful glance, fell into silence for a while, and slowly said, “I probably never told you how I met our Master. When I was seven or eight years old, I got angry for some reason and, in a fit of temper, I left the sight of the household servants and ran out alone. But along the way, someone abducted me.”

A three-year-old looking after an old person, this was indeed something Big Senior Brother could have done.

“I remember that person was a man, very handsome, but his complexion was as if he was terminally ill, with a layer of lifelessness,” Yan Zhengming recalled as he spoke. “He brought us to an abandoned Daoist temple.”

Cheng Qian blinked his eyes, “You guys?”

“Yes,” Yan Zhengming said, “there were about four or five kids around my age, all boys except for one girl. That person was a demonic cultivator. He killed the girl first. I saw him strangling her neck, but he didn’t kill her directly. Instead, he extracted her three souls and seven spirits from her brow. Afterward, the little girl could still breathe and her heart still beat. She remained barely alive, like a lingering breath, for seven or eight days before finally dying… It was the first time I saw a dead person.”

Nearly ten years had passed, yet Yan Zhengming could still recall every detail from that time, indicating that the memory was deeply ingrained in his mind.

Li Yun was stunned, “What’s the purpose of a demonic cultivator killing children?”

Yan Zhengming said, “He put the girl’s soul into a lamp filled with foul-smelling lamp oil, and the flame immediately ignited. It burned continuously without extinguishing. After that, it was our turn. He didn’t kill us directly but took our blood every day and poured it into the lamp oil. At first, aside from feeling nauseous, it didn’t have much effect. However, children don’t have that much blood, and within a few days, some couldn’t bear it and were near death.”

As Cheng Qian listened, he found the story increasingly familiar and couldn’t help blurting out, “Is it the Soul-Devouring Lamp…”

“What?” Li Yun asked.

But Yan Zhengming’s expression suddenly turned fierce, “How do you know?”

Cheng Qian replied, “I saw it in the scripture hall. The Soul-Devouring Lamp can refine souls. The lowest-grade lamp uses the soul of a virgin girl as the wick, and the lamp oil is made from refined corpse oil and the fresh blood of a virgin boy. It burns for forty-nine days, and it can refine the girl’s soul into the cultivator’s ghostly shadow. It’s a type of demonic cultivation called the Ghost Path.”

Yan Zhengming grabbed his wrist forcefully, his tone sharp, “Cheng Qian, I let you into the scripture hall to learn how to extract blood and refine souls?”

Cheng Qian wasn’t afraid of him and confidently replied, “There’s no rule against looking. In the Three Thousand Paths of Demonic Cultivation, I just casually skimmed through it.”

“Enough,” Li Yun quickly intervened, smart enough to sense that the conversation was going in the wrong direction. “Senior Brother, continue your story. What happened to that murderous demonic cultivator afterward? Did our Master save you, so you joined him?”

Yan Zhengming glared fiercely at Cheng Qian, “Indeed, our Master saved me, but that’s not the crucial point…”

He paused involuntarily, “Our Master and that demonic cultivator knew each other. I overheard our Master calling him ‘Senior Brother.’”