The mine of Mongkant was bustling and crowded this morning, but on their return on the same evening, it looked bleak and cheerless with deserted streets—even the street lamps looked dimmer.
Gu Yu and Xiaojin had yet to figure out what had happened, but the three soldiers paled at the scene, for they could see none of their patrolling comrades. They ran hastily to the jade-gambling casino and were relieved to see that the old master was still there.
"Ge Thantwe's troops are coming. Mia Lwin is gone," said the old man, caressing a piece of jadeite without even looking up.
The three soldiers were greatly disturbed by the news. They did not receive any orders regarding the retreat, which meant they had been abandoned by their senior officer. Although the three forces had a ceasefire agreement in Hpakant, all troops would be more than happy to "clean away" such stray sheep of the other two sides.
"It's all your fault!"
One of the soldiers reacted the most strongly. With his broken Chinese, he yelled at Gu Yu and tried to grabbed him by his collar.
"Sorry about this…"
Gu Yu apologized wholeheartedly before he knocked the three men unconscious like whacking moles.
He then put their guns in a pile and set a confinement around it. "Old master, these three will stay here for a while. The streets are not safe tonight, so I would advise you to seal all doors and windows and stay indoors."
The old man chuckled in his cracked voice and waved at Gu Yu without uttering a word.
After that, the two went outside. Xiaojin asked, "Brother-in-law, what are we going to do now?"
"Absolutely nothing. We'll just wait until that Ge Thantwe gets here! Sigh, things are so messy when there's no government." He felt quite helpless about this.
"Huh? So we just wait around doing nothing?" Xiaojin searched inside her head for an idea and grinned. "Brother-in-law, how about we look around and see which direction they're coming from? There're over thirty mines around here!"
"Um, I guess we can do that." Gu Yu thought for a minute and said, "So, are you coming with me…"
"I'll go over there and you over there! Don't worry, I won't make any trouble! Promise!" she interrupted before he could finish the sentence.
Gu Yu eyed her for a moment before saying, "All right. We'll meet here again in an hour. Don't go too far."
"Sure! Got it!"
"Do you have your flying message talisman with you? Don't forget to use it."
"Gosh! I know!"
As if she had just received a royal pardon, Xiaojin dashed away after a hasty reply and soon disappeared into the night street.
Mongkant was only the size of a small village. Xiaojin ran through two or three streets and saw that most of the customers had left. The only ones remaining here were the miners and owners of the shops who were lazily squashing mosquitoes with open palms.
Apparently, they had gotten used to situations like this and none of them seemed troubled in the least.
"There really is no one!"
She soon covered the entire Mongkant, but did not stop there. She kept running. Further ahead was the mine of Dak Gwunti, where she found a similar scene—it also looked deserted.
After Dak Gwunti was the mine of Weekat… one after another, she felt as if the entire mining area was wrapped in a dead silence. The street lights were of little help. Instead, they made the atmosphere stranger and emptier.
Xiaojin ran very fast and finished searching four mines in no time. When she reached Momauk, she blinked as soon as she set foot on in the area. "Teehee, interesting!"
She swaggered in with an expression saying "yup, I'm the newbie". Unlike the last time they were here, the row of brothels were all closed for business and none of the "physical therapist" made their appearance.
She knocked open a random bar and stuck her head in. "Uncle, I hear the new army is coming. Which mine are they heading for?"
"Here, actually. You're a bold one. How come you're still sticking around?" The owner found her presence remarkable.
"You stayed, why can't I?"
"Haha, they don't kill people at random, but there are wild ones among them. You're such a pretty girl. I think you'd better stay indoors. Don't run around the streets."
"I see. Thanks!"
Xiaojin left the bar and could not care less about the warning. She strolled the streets with her hands in her pocket. While looking this way and that, she spotted an alley randomly.
It was narrow, deep, and flanked by bungalows on both sides. It was barely wide enough for a person to go through. She casually made her way in, her shadow grew longer under the dim lights.
All of a sudden, a lump of shadow erupted behind her and floated soundlessly in mid-air, almost devouring her own shadow. It rolled and tumbled, then expanded suddenly, as if a curtain was drawn open.
Inside were a dozen heads with pale faces and bloody eyes, which were squirming frantically as if they were filled with maggots fighting for the only flesh and blood left on them.
Momentarily, a long-haired woman's head managed to move to the top. It then opened its mouth all the way from one ear to the other and bit down at Xiaojin.
Xiaojin was strolling slowly the entire time—apparently unaware of what was happening behind her—but disappeared from where she was that instant and reappeared behind the heads in a flash.
She ignored them completely, but looked beyond them to a spot at the entrance of the alley. Where the light and darkness met stood a stooped figure. It was emaciated like a dry skeleton with a wooden staff in one hand.
"You dodged my enfant ghosts, so I presume you are the one. Did you kill that useless pupil of mine?"
The person spoke in perfect Chinese with a hint of ancient style in it.
Xiaojin could not see her face clearly, but recognized the voice of an elderly person. She chuckled. "Why, grandma, don't try to swindle me just because I'm in a foreign country. My family's got some money, but I'm not planning to waste it on you. Who is this pupil of yours again?"
"Thant Tun. Do you know that name?"
"Thant Tun… oh, as a matter of fact, I do! He made quite some effort to stir things up in Diannan and they had to scrape his body off the ground. You can't blame other people, really. The man did not know what he was doing."
"Haha, that's right. He really didn't know what he was doing!" The old woman laughed instead of getting angry. "You're from China. For centuries, cultivators of your country and mine have been fighting over this or that. I'm not going to take advantage of a youngster. Let's play it by the book. Now, tell me which sect you are from."
"You can play by my a*s! Which grave did you crawl out of? It's a new world out there and even if there are rules, we're the ones writing it!" Of her twenty-or-so years, Xiaojin had never flinched from a fight. She raised her chin. "Bring it on!"
"Fine, fine!" The old woman really lost her temper this time. "I see the Taoist community has no one left but this ignorant kid! Let us see if you are still this tough after I make you into a Flying Head!"
As soon as she finished those words, she hit her wooden staff hard against the ground.
That lump of shadow began to swell up like an inflating balloon, which soon grew to over three meters. The dozen human heads expanded with it, rolling around, and flew out.
They were the most bizarre things. There was no body or shape; all they had were the heads cut down at the necks.
"What the hell?"
Xiaojin found them so disgusting that she clapped her hands and produced her big gourd, shouting, "Go!"
A stream of black torrent consisting of sand granules gushed out of the opening. The torrent floated in mid-air and soon formed a cloud covering an area as wide as several hundred m^2 in front of her.
It was Thundercloud Grit, a gift from her sister after Xiaojin reached perfection in Metal Thunder, and her only refined instrument at the moment.
The human heads pounced at her and dived into the cloud head on. The overspreading black grit sensed the impact and began to collide into one another. As the collision took place, flickering lightning began to crackle.
Instantly, streaks of golden-purple divine lightning as thick as adult fingers struck down, dimming all other lights in the area as if a heavenly tribulation had descended.
Fear crept up the old woman's face and she thumped her wooden staff again. "Come back!"
Those flying at the back had time to change course, but the first four or five had entered the territory of the lightning already. Thunder possessed the power of Nature itself and was the unbeatable rival of the evil and sinister beings.
Those few Flying Heads were now ice under the scorching sun, completely defenseless.
"Rumble… crack… bang!"
The hubbub quieted down in a while, revealing the cracked and collapsed bungalows on both sides of the alley together with the scattered remains of the heads and the charred ground.
The old woman forgot about the Flying Heads that had turned into ashes and fixed her gaze on Xiaojin. In her voice were surprise as well as rage. "The Thunder Technique was passed down in the Taoist community? It can't be! That's impossible!"
"You're about to find more impossible things… Thunder, come!"
Xiaojin put away the gourd and waved her hand. A streak of golden-purple lightning several times thicker struck down at the old woman.
"You have pushed it too far!"
The old woman had finished activating her skill before she finished her sentence. Black air gushed out from all over her body frantically, hiding her entirely. The black air swept out into all directions in tidal waves, making whistling and roaring sound as it moved along.
In half a heartbeat, the whole alley was devoured and the black air kept expanding.
"Help! What is this?"
Screams were coming out of the shops in the nearby alleys. Some locals staying behind had probably fallen victims to the black air and died a miserable death.
Wherever the Metal Thunder struck down, there was a hollow in the black air, which was instantly refilled by the surrounding blood-filled black air.
"Hey, grandma, have you run away already?"
Xiaojin's brows knitted in a frown. This air was extremely strange. It was trying all it could to bore through her skin, as if it wanted to take over her body. Her ears were filled with ghostly screams and shrill cries. The noise was diabolical.
Both her vision and sight were reduced to a minimal level.
As she activated her spiritual essence to fight it off, she made purposeful provocations. In a few minutes, she realized that this black fog had a viral quality, enabling it to replenish its energy through feeding on human beings.
"Humph! You degrading creature!"
She snorted and grabbed into the thin air. The next moment, a stone was in her hand, to which she attached a blue talisman. She then pinched her fingers together and cast the spell in a low voice. "Change!"
Clouds rolled up and the talisman transformed into the perfect replica of herself.
"You sleazy old cat, do you dare to confront me in a face-to-face combat instead of hiding in this smoke? Old cat, come out here!"
As she probed with her words, she secretly sent the replica an order, and it strode off with its long legs and ran deep into the smoke with a somewhat rigid gait.
The truth was, ever since that incident in Changbai Mountain, while Xiaojin might've appeared to be the jolly person she always was, deep down, she found it the humiliation of her life.
She was working hard on her cultivation before that, but after what had happened, she was working her a*s off, gathering experience from the constant beatings she received from her sister. Only her appearance remained as harmless, which could deceive anyone who did not know her better.
This was her second time fighting an enemy alone and she was nervous as hell. However, the more nervous she felt, the better she performed. So far, her moves were almost impeccable.
Bang! A moment after the replica ran in, she heard the sound of attack a dozen meters ahead to her right. There was a fluctuation of her mental force, marking the end of that replica.
She took the action before her brain could react as she shouted, "Thunder, strike!"
There was a flash of lightning and, almost simultaneously, she heard a scream and a thump. Someone seemed to have fallen to the ground.
Xiaojin was delighted. Activating her Void-arranging Technique, she arrived at the scene in two strides. However, the black fog filled the spot as anywhere else. There was no one but a ghost plate on the ground.
It was not until now that she finally felt flustered. In that moment, she forgot about setting up her defense.
A head shot up from behind her. The giant mouth opened and bit down at her neck.