Ye Que wasn't in a desperate need for magic treasures of the Cultivation World, but tonight, the little fox demon reminded him that the Demon World ought to have begun invading the Human World. People might not pay it much heed now, but the time left for him was certainly limited.
Ye Que had a plan to improve his cultivation, but he couldn't get anywhere without things he needed. It required some luck to obtain certain spiritual herbs and ingredients. If there was an auction with things prepared for him, it wouldn't be a bad idea to pay a visit.
Noticing Ye Que's excitement, Qian Shuxiao swiftly added, "Sir, rest reassured. Whatever that you like, you don't even have to lift a single finger. I'll definitely get it and present it to you with both hands. In Luoyang City, the Qian family has never been afraid of anyone when it comes to riches."
"If I do find something I like, I'll owe you a favor," Ye Que said in low voice.
"Please don't say that. It's a tremendous favor to have you accompany me." Qian Shuxiao was so overjoyed that he was grinning.
There was no need for Qian Shuxiao, the sole heir to the Qian family of Luoyang, to be so servile when befriending someone. However, his family was a merchant family. For generations, their offsprings were blessed with a keen eye for people. They knew whom to befriend, whom to share a close friendship with, and whom to befriend no matter the cost. Humans were the best investment. The Qian family owed their survival to the fact that they always had the help of nobles.
From the first time he laid eyes on Ye Que, he was shaken by the latter's skills. Moreover, Ye Que also saved his life. In his opinion, Ye Que was the luck-bringer of his life.
The so-called group of four young masters of Luoyang was no more than fair-weather friends. He could have fun but not endure tribulations with them.
Ignoring Han Yu and the rest, Qian Shuxiao immediately led Ye Que out of the Peony Pavilion.
It was soon midnight. The entire Luoyang sank into a state of drowsiness and the bustle of the night market also dwindled. The diners in the lobby on the ground floor of the Peony Pavilion had deserted the place as well. The owner was currently calculating his income for the day using an abacus. The waiters swiftly finished their work with agile hands and feet. The guests on the first and second floors were fast asleep.
The kitchen of the Peony Pavilion was located behind the lobby, and on the left of the kitchen was a lodge. Beneath the lodge was a wine cellar that contained aged fine wine that wasn't commonly sold. The wine was kept inside the cellar all year round. If there was a great shortage, the wine would be replenished. Recently, several circuses from the Western Regions had come to the night market of Luoyang. Thus, the Peony Pavilion was especially busy, and the aged fine wine was also running out at a faster rate than usual. Today happened to be the day the wine would be restocked.
Zhang Xiaojiu was the nephew of the owner of the Peony Pavilion. Thus, the nice task of replenishing the wine stock naturally fell on his shoulders. He touched the bulging money pouch tied to his waist. Humming, he walked toward the wine cellar while carrying the last jar of aged Du Kang's wine.
With one hand holding the wine jar and the other holding onto the wooden ladder, Zhang Xiaojiu climbed down into the wine cellar with great familiarity. It was only about three or four meters deep. In the blink of an eye, he found himself his way into the wine cellar. Having spent so much time on replenishment duty, he wouldn't trip even if he walked with his eyes closed.
"Never mind dragons and phoenixes and put aside talk of fated marriage. Your appearance alone has made you an occupant of my heart." After receiving the wine from the winery, Zhang Xiaojiu was in a particularly good mood and hummed a little song with great interest. The wine cellar wasn't small but since he was the only one inside, the echo of his voice was naturally magnified.
Zhang Xiaojiu yelled uncertainly. Just now, he seemed to have heard some faint movement in the depths of the wine cellar.
He had just finished yelling when he heard two more sounds. It was as if something was rubbing against the ground.
Zhang Xiaoqiu's palms became drenched with cold sweat. After all, he was in this dark underground cellar at midnight. If something happened, he wouldn't be able to even find a place to cry. He subconsciously took out a match and blew on it with all his strength while quivering. Soon, the whole wine cellar was lit up.
He raised his head and narrowed his eyes to get a better look. There was nothing inside the wine cellar except for hundreds of jars of wine. Zhang Xiaojiu exhaled. He patted his chest and wiped the sweat off his palms. A person could very well frighten himself to death.
"I'll never restock at night next time. This place is too eerie," Zhang Xiaojiu muttered. He casually placed the jar of Du Kang's wine in his hand onto the shelf next to him. He turned around and immediately walked out of the cellar. He was a little scared now and didn't want to stay here for even a second longer.
"Buddha, please bless me. Buddha, please bless me," Zhang Xiaojiu murmured as he walked.
However, at the moment he turned around, the blood-red tongue of a snake poked out from within the shadow of a wine jar. Then, the head of the green snake appeared as well. In no time at all, the green silhouette zigzagged toward Zhang Xiaojiu. The moment he raised his leg to climb the wooden ladder, the snake bared its four white fangs.
"What the heck?" Zhang Xiaojiu felt a jab of pain in his ankle before an aching numbness abruptly washed over him. He held up the match in his hand and looked down at his feet. When the match slid behind him, his eyes widened, and an expression of extreme fear appeared on his face. He swore he had never seen such a terrifying scene in his life.
As far as his eyes could see, the wine jars that filled the wine cellar were surrounded by snakes—black, cyan, green, and of any color. There were too many of them to count.
On the wall in the far end of the cellar, the light of the fire cast a dark shadow. The silhouette was both human and inhuman.
A shriek came from the underground cellar.
However, the lodge where the wine cellar was located under was some distance away from the lobby of the Peony Pavilion. The kitchen was also empty at this hour, so no one heard Zhang Xiaojiu's last cry for help,
Even though time seemed to fly, only a quarter of an hour had passed.
The sound of snoring permeated the guest room on the first floor, where a fair and fat merchant was lying on the bed. From time to time, he would also mutter in his dream. The fat merchant didn't let down the bed curtains, perhaps because he couldn't stand the heat. His room happened to face east, where moonlight filtered in. Under the moonlight, a long and slender shadow slowly moved its way to the bed. As if the shadow had the ability to target its victim, it directly climbed up the fat merchant's belly and bared its fangs.
At the same time, a woman who came to visit relatives from another country staying on the second floor was also surrounded by snakes. In the neighboring room on the corner, a young man who came to Luoyang to make a living was also killed. The cry of help could only be heard from one room on the first and second floors of the entire Peony Pavilion. It was a scholar from Qingzhou Prefecture who came to Luoyang to take part in the imperial examination. He studied hard through the night, forgoing sleep. However, he happened to witness the entire process of being besieged by snakes. Though he was awake, he only lived for a few more seconds. How could a weak scholar defeat a den of snakes?
The owner of the Peony Pavilion was counting the bills when he suddenly raised his head and asked one of his staff, "San'er, was there a sound just now?"
"It seems to be coming from the second floor," the staff called San'er answered uncertainly.
"What bad luck! It's nighttime but the problems are never-ending. First, it was that young master surnamed Qian. Then, it was that young master surnamed Han. What's the matter now? Is there any honored guest on the second floor?" The owner rubbed the space between his eyebrows. He could feel a headache coming. "San'er, go up and have a look. Tell them to rest early if they have nothing to do and ask them not to look for trouble. This is Luoyang. There are laws and rules here."
"Got it, boss. I'll go right away." San'er gave a quick reply and went to the first floor.
He walked slowly to the first floor, but in an instant, he ran down in panic and shouted in fright, "B-boss! S-snakes!"
"Snake? Where? Do you have to cause so much fuss just because of a snake? Just find someone to throw the snake out and your problem is solved. Look how useless you are!" the owner scolded with a stern face.
"No, not just one." San'er gesticulated while tripping over his words. It must be noted that he was a waiter of the lobby and his work mostly depended on how well he talked. "B-boss, behind, behind you..."
"Thud, thud, thud."
"The sky is dry, and the ground is parched. Be careful of things that burn."
On Yong'an Street west of the Bridge of Long Life, the old watchman staggered past the Peony Pavilion. He smiled contently as he thought of the small jar of wine he had drunk before nightfall.
The Qian Manor wasn't located on Yong'an Street but on Vermilion Bird Street further north. The manor boasted of ten houses and hundreds of rooms. Even though the area the manor occupied wasn't as large as the one in their hometown, this was Luoyang where every inch of land was worth money. It was said that manor used to be the official residence of a prince of the previous dynasty. When there was a regime change, the Qian family spent great amounts of money to buy it.
It took a long time before Qian Shuxiao's large six-person sedan chair stopped in front of a garden enveloped in the shade of green trees.
"We're home, Young Master."
After getting out of the sedan chair, Qian Shuxiao pointed to a house in front. "Sir, this guestroom is the best location in my family manor. There's a pond with a hundred of fish in the back and a green bamboo forest in front. It's only 100 meters away from my room. It's quiet and elegant, with green trees and red flowers. Please see if it's to your taste. If it's not, I'll find another room for you."
Ye Que looked in the direction where Qian Shuxiao was pointing to. At the end of a path paved with gravel that led through a small bamboo forest was a house with a red roof and green tiles. "I can live anywhere. I don't have much of a requirement for these things. You're free to put me anywhere as long as it's not too noisy."
"Then I'll have to ask you to put up with this, Sir. This way, please." Qian Shuxiao led the way. "By the way, how should I address you in the future?"
"The Que comes from the idiom 'better to have nothing (Que) than substandard choices'."
"Are all merchants so fond of flattery?"
"I'm not flattering you. Your name is really excellent." Qian Shuxiao clutched his hair awkwardly. Even he himself didn't believe that those weren't words of flattery.
It was nearly midnight by now. Many houses and rooms in the Qian Manor had turned off their lights for a night's rest except for some maids and servants working the night shift. However, what was strange was a brightly lit room north of the green bamboo forest several steps away. Judging from the size and structure of the room, it obviously wasn't the servants' quarters.
Qian Shuxiao was particularly apt at discerning what people were thinking from their body language. With one glance at Ye Que, he explained, "This room was originally empty, but for some reason, my Elder Sister insisted on moving here some time ago. She also became obsessed with writing and painting here. Sometimes, she would spend the entire night painting. It's strange."
"Has your sister painted before?" Ye Que casually asked.
"Though my Elder Sister's name is Qian Shuhua, she never touches a paintbrush."
A demon would surely be found at the root of any strange phenomena. Ye Que subconsciously looked at the brightly lit room and saw the silhouette of a short-haired woman by the window. Judging by her posture, she seemed to be painting. The front door of the house was open, with two little maids standing on the left and right of the door. Both were so drowsy that they were beginning to yawn. There was a painting hanging on the wall behind the main door of the room. The mountain and river in the painting were blanked in a dense fog.
From a distance, the painting looked imbued with meaning. Upon closer look, the mist unexpectedly resembled a fierce beast that ate humans. The cluster of clouds formed the beast's gaping mouth.