It was dark outside as Bai Xiaochun frantically tried to activate the command medallion. It was so deathly quiet around him that it would have been possible to hear a pin drop.
Slowly but surely, his hair began to stand on end. He simply couldn’t remain calm, and was doing everything he could to activate the command medallion as quickly as possible. However, at some point during the night, his work was interrupted by the sound of footsteps coming from outside the building he was in.
Thump thump. Thump thump…. It almost sounded like a beating heart, although Bai Xiaochun was quite certain they were footsteps. However, after sending some divine sense outside to check, he couldn’t see anyone in the area.
That, of course, caused his scalp to tingle so hard it felt like it might explode.
“It’s really… really haunted….” He felt like crying; other than death, the thing he feared most in life was ghosts. It didn’t matter that he was in the Heaven-Dao Nascent Soul stage, he still couldn’t shake that deep-seated phobia. Without any hesitation he procured a big stack of paper talismans from his bag of holding and began to slap them down all over himself.
They were leftover talismans from his days back in the River-Defying Sect, which he had also used in the Arch-Emperor’s labyrinth. At the moment, he didn’t care at all that using them could theoretically reveal his identity, and he even forgot to use the powers of his mask to change their appearance. After plastering himself all over with them, he was still shaking in fear, and kept pushing the command medallion to activate. At the same time, he kept looking around anxiously, worried he would see a face looming in the darkness.
“I'm the inspections commissioner, and this is the Inspections Manor! How could this be happening…? It shouldn’t be like this…!” As he sat there nervously, he suddenly realized that he could hear more and more footsteps outside, until it sounded like an entire army was passing by.
By this point, he was virtually going crazy.
“So many ghosts….” he thought, his face white as a sheet. It was at this point that, without any warning, someone suddenly knocked on the door.
It was a rigorous, methodical knock that frightened Bai Xiaochun so badly he leaped to his feet and stared at the door, panting and trembling.
After a moment, the knocking stopped, and then the footsteps went off into the distance, as though whatever army was outside had move on.
Eventually, when Bai Xiaochun was sure that everything was quiet, he wiped the sweat from his brow. All of a sudden, he felt a bit embarrassed. After all, he was a powerful cultivator, a Wildlands necromancer who used countless vengeful souls to conjure magical flames. And yet, here he was being bullied by ghosts. All in all, he couldn’t help but feel a bit scornful of his own actions.
“Come on! Is Lord Bai really afraid of ghosts? Nah, I just don’t want to go out until I'm finished activating the command medallion. After all, I wouldn’t want to cause any misunderstandings.” Having reached the conclusion that this was definitely the best way to look at it, he no longer felt very embarrassed, and was just about to continue working with the command medallion when….
All of a sudden, a rumbling sound echoed out as some massive force pushed against the door, causing it to swing open. As it did, a chill wind rushed inside, startling Bai Xiaochun so much that he screamed and unleashed all the power of his cultivation base. Lunging backward, he shouted, “I'm the inspections commissioner! We’re all on the same team here….”
It was impossible to say whether or not it was because of what Bai Xiaochun had just shouted, but after the door opened, it was obvious that there wasn’t anyone standing in the doorway. It was completely empty.
Sweat poured down Bai Xiaochun’s forehead, and his aura trembled unstably. Outside, Arch-Emperor City seemed completely dark, which wasn’t how Bai Xiaochun remembered the place usually being at night. Back in Borough 89, it had always been a lively place. Furthermore, he was now in the central district of the city, in Borough 4, a place which should have been even more bustling.
In the center of the city, the streets were packed day and night. But strangely… even with the door open, Bai Xiaochun couldn’t hear even a whisper of the hustle and bustle that he should have. Everything was dark and quiet.
Apparently, this part of the city center was aware of how things worked near the Inspections Manor, and turned off all of their lights at night.
“What the hell kind of place is this?!” Teeth chattering, he performed an incantation gesture with his right hand and then waved his finger, causing the door to swing closed. Looking around the area vigilantly, he scanned everything with divine sense, but again came up with nothing. Finally, he patted his bag of holding to produce a soulhoarding pagoda, out of which Bai Hao flew.
“You’re a ghost cultivator, my apprentice,” he said. “Help me look around and see if there are any other beings like you around here.” Bai Hao was a bit taken aback, but he looked around for a moment, then closed his eyes for a while. Eventually, he frowned.
“Master,” he said hesitantly, “there are definitely no ghosts around here that have mental faculties like I do…. However, there’s definitely something strange about this place, as if it exists somewhere between the realms of death and life. I really can’t put my finger on it. It’s like this place….” At this point he realized that his Master’s face had turned deathly white, and that he appeared to be completely terrified.
“What’s wrong, Master?” he asked.
Bai Xiaochun licked his lips and mused that he definitely couldn’t allow himself to look scared in front of his apprentice. Thumping himself on his chest, he said, “Hahaha! Nothing! I'm not scared at all, go on with your explanation.”
“Uh, Master… I never said you looked scared.”
“Huh? Oh. Hahaha! Well, let’s not talk about that. You were just saying something but didn't finish. What about this place?”
Looking oddly at Bai Xiaochun, Bai Hao continued, “To me, this place doesn’t feel like it’s empty at all…. In fact, it’s like there are people all around us… hidden figures in large numbers….”
His words caused goosebumps to cover Bai Xiaochun’s skin, and he looked around left and right to see if he could see anything. He couldn’t.
“Master, um… are you sure you’re not scared?” All of a sudden, Bai Hao found the situation somewhat funny. This was his first time seeing his Master looking scared like this. He hadn’t even been afraid when going up against hundreds of chosen.
Inside, Bai Xiaochun was wailing in fear. However, on the outside, he simply glared at Bai Hao.
“Nonsense,” he said loudly. “Me? Scared?! I'm not scared of anything!”
After that, he decided to change the topic again. Pulling Bai Hao a bit closer, he continued to work with the command medallion, and simultaneously began to chat randomly with Bai Hao.
“So, my apprentice, how have you been doing lately? Um… oh, how is the eighteen-colored flame coming along? We won't be going back to our shop, you know, so we need to think of a new way to get our hands on some more souls.”
Bai Xiaochun chattered on, changing the conversation topic constantly. Although an odd expression could be seen on Bai Hao’s face, he continued to answer the questions. As the two chatted, time passed, and eventually Bai Xiaochun started to run out of things to talk about. That was when he related to Bai Hao what had occurred during his meeting with the Grand Heavenmaster.
Earlier, Bai Hao hadn’t dared to let even the slightest fluctuation out, for fear that he be detected. Therefore, he wasn’t privy to what had gone on between Bai Xiaochun and the Grand Heavenmaster. As Bai Hao listened, his expression turned very somber.
“Investigate who is loyal to the Arch-Emperor….” Bai Hao was shocked, and at the same time, realized that his Master had been dragged into an enormous web of intrigue.
Eyes flickering with intelligence, he provided his analysis of the situation, “Master, this is no small matter. Not only did the Grand Heavenmaster defy the wishes of the majority by not killing us, but he then went on to appoint you as the inspections commissioner…. Obviously, he's using the fact that you offended so many people to use you as a tool!”
“I thought of that too,” Bai Xiaochun said, his eyebrows dancing up and down. “Master is just too outstanding, don’t you say?” Although Bai Xiaochun had temporarily stopped thinking about what an eerie place he was in, he didn't stop using the powers of the mask to conceal himself.
As for Bai Hao, he continued to ponder the matter, using his superior intellect to analyze how the situation would be most beneficial for his Master.
“Master, this situation might be a good opportunity for us. All of it will come down to the Grand Heavenmaster’s stance…. He obviously took a liking to you because of how you offended everyone. In that case… he probably wants to use you, not just like an ordinary tool, but like a sharp knife! Master, from here on out, the more people you offend, the safer we’ll be!”
Bai Xiaochun had long since become convinced that Bai Hao was extremely intelligent, most especially because of the incident with Sun Yifan and Sima Tao. Therefore, after hearing his analysis, he nodded in agreement.
Bai Hao was very pleased to have the approval of his Master. Eyes flickering with strange light, he continued to think about the matter for a moment. Then he leaned closer to Bai Xiaochun, lowered his voice, and said, “Master, I think I have an idea of what the Grand Heavenmaster is thinking. First you need to smooth out the internal crises. After that, you need to weaken the aristocracy…. In terms of smoothing out the internal crises, I don’t have any plan for how to do that. But as far as weakening the aristocracy… when the time comes, I have a plan that will completely crush the influential clans and other powers, and at the same time, make you more valuable than ever to the Grand Heavenmaster!”
With that, he went on to elaborate his plan.
“So ruthless….” Bai Xiaochun murmured, his eyes widening.
“Master,” Bai Hao replied quietly, “since we've started down this path, we need to walk it to the end….”