Three were missing from House Kuang, and one each from Xuan and Xue. The situation exploded. House Kuang’s seniors especially couldn’t sit still.
They could’ve accepted the loss of one genius. After all, no trial was a hundred percent safe. However, they’d lost all three! This was a complete wipeout. How could they accept such a travesty? This was tantamount to just straight up killing them.
These seniors couldn’t imagine how they would relate the situation to their patriarch. And how would the elders react?
“Imperial Prince Huo, how come we’re missing five people?” One of House Kuang’s seniors interrogated the imperial prince rather brusquely.
The prince’s palms were clammy with sweat. The five that hadn’t come out yet were probably dead.
“Master Kuang Han, perhaps something is holding them up inside? Perhaps we should send an expedition to look for them?” He turned to the chief warden. “Old Ding, send in a group of your best subordinates in to search. Remember, you must at least find some clues as to their whereabouts. Search every corner if you have to!”
“Of course, sir. I will go myself.” The chief warden hurriedly obeyed.
The chief knew how important this was. If the eight houses’ geniuses had an unfortunate accident on Winterdraw, he wouldn’t be able to absolve himself of the responsibility. He handpicked a thousand men to come with him. The large group entered the Blackwraith Mountains for a very detailed search.
Jiang Chen sat near House Xuan’s people, completely quiet. He pretended that he was meditating; the outside world was nothing to him.
Thankfully, Xuan Rui was ordinarily rather antisocial. Thus, his behavior went unnoticed. House Xuan’s other members didn’t find it strange whatsoever.
Though House Kuang was down three people, the tabulation of the results continued. This pertained to a competition between the eight houses, after all.
The ranking was quickly decided. Disguised as Xuan Rui, Jiang Chen was fourth place. It was a standard rank for someone of his ability, one that no one could find fault with. If Kuang Rong hadn’t died, perhaps he would’ve been fourth instead. An average performance, all in all – or so everyone else thought.
Everything was going according to plan. Jiang Chen hoped that the search would finish as quickly as possible. Then, he could leave Winterdraw.
As quickly as possible.
Even a single extra breath meant a sliver of additional danger. Who knew what could happen in the next moment?
There was another stretch between Winterdraw and the wider world. It was impossible to guarantee his identity would stay concealed in the airboat. Thus, he hoped to leave at the earliest opportunity. Less time wasted meant a smaller likelihood of trouble.
Though he appeared to be deep in thought, he was actually acutely observing his surroundings. He’d be able to pick up the slightest disturbance.
The search took half a day, but yielded no results.
The chief warden and his team extricated themselves from the mountains. The chief’s expression was dark and gloomy.
“How did it go?” Imperial Prince Huo hurriedly strode up.
The chief shook his head helplessly. “There are no humans remaining inside. However, we found traces of the forbidden grounds in being broken open. There was evidence of heavy fighting after that, but nothing particularly useful to us.”
House Kuang’s seniors became terribly dour after hearing this. “What do you mean by that, Ding?” one called out. “Do you suspect that our geniuses are trespassing on your forbidden grounds?”
“Not at all, sir.” The chief warden looked panicked. “I was only offering a hypothesis. Perhaps they wandered in there unawares.”
“Ridiculous! Winterdraw isn’t some remarkable place. Polylore has more than its fair share of sacred grounds to spare. Why would they be interested in your pathetic forbidden grounds? The eight houses’ young geniuses are a disciplined bunch. Their competition is a hundred times more important than what you’re proposing!”
The chief warden was speechless. What could he do against the roars of Polylore experts? Did he dare argue?
Imperial Prince Huo’s lips trembled. “Master Kuang Han, please do calm down. Shall we wait a bit more? Maybe they saw something truly amazing and followed it?”
A guess like that was nothing more than self-comfort and a fiction.
Kuang Han shook his head. “Impossible!” His spittle spewed everywhere. “How many times do I have to repeat myself? Our house’s scions are all very disciplined. There is nothing more important than our competition. They wouldn’t have chased after something to hold up its conclusion!”
Imperial Prince Huo had no reply to that. No matter what he said, he would get yelled at. Was it really true? Had the eight houses’ geniuses been taken down by Winterdraw’s own?
The proceedings sank into a standstill.
It was then that someone near the imperial prince offered some counsel. “I have a suggestion, Your Highness.”
“Speak your mind.” Imperial Prince Huo waved.
“Perhaps we should count the Winterdraw contestant tokens? If we’ve collected them all, then that means whoever barged into the forbidden grounds is…” The advisor didn’t dare go on. He didn’t have the guts to insinuate that the eight houses’ scions had ventured deeper into the mountains.
The imperial prince’s eyes lit up. He glanced towards Kuang Han.
Kuang Han harrumphed before striding to the tabulation area.
Jiang Chen was depressed. He hated the advisor with every fiber of his being. Wasn’t counting so finely going to ruin things for him?
He had a lot of tokens on his person that he hadn’t handed in. They were spoils from the six he had killed. If he had handed all of them in, he would’ve been first place.
As expected, there was a large number of tokens missing.
“What’s the point of counting? The missing tokens are probably in the hands of the missing youths.”
Kuang Han glared at the imperial prince. “That was a stupid idea. Are all your subordinates this foolish?”
He felt that he had done something rather pointless. What was that supposed to accomplish?
“If we go inside again to check the corpses, we’ll be able to see exactly who’s missing,” the advisor added intrepidly.
It was a blunt and unwieldy idea, but its usefulness and practicality became more pronounced.
“Old Ding,” the imperial prince turned to the chief warden. “I need you to make another trip. Take the faction heads and their men and have them help you search for the missing ones. It will be more efficient this way!”
Jiang Chen cursed to himself at their conscientiousness. He wasn’t worried about giving anything away, but the delay was in itself dangerous.
The chief warden could hardly refuse at this juncture. He called up Sin City, Nefarious Vale, and Terminus Place as well as the second-rate factions.
“Friends, this is a matter of vital importance. I hope you give the search everything you have. Don’t let even a single clue escape you. I leave this important task in your hands.”
It was rare for the chief warden to adopt such a low posture. None of the factions dared refuse. The team that went inside this time was several thousand strong.
This made the search rather more efficient. Two hours later, all the corpses and remnants were brought out. After repeated verification, the chief warden came to a rather reasonable conclusion.
“Imperial Prince Huo, we’re missing two bodies,” the chief warden reported.
“Which two?” the imperial prince asked.
“They’re both from Sin City’s list. Jiang Huang and Su Hong. Both were elites.” The chief warden snuck a look at the city’s lord, Xie Wushang.
Xie Wushang was greatly displeased that he was being implicated so oddly. He hadn’t known the reason for the selection in the first place. Was Sin City supposed to be responsible simply because two of its chosen geniuses’ bodies were missing?
He couldn’t take that lying down.
“Xie Wushang, come here. Tell me a little about those two.” The imperial prince beckoned to him.
Sin City’s lord felt deeply resigned, but complied in the end. “Su Hong is very famous in my city. According to the public, he is one of the best young geniuses on Winterdraw,” he supplied truthfully. “As for Jiang Huang, I don’t know his origins. Apparently, he entered the selection after only having come to Sin City for a couple of days. No one has anything substantial on him. The only information I know is that his pill dao is reportedly quite decent. His martial dao potential… limitless.”
Imperial Prince Huo snuck a glance at Kuang Han with some struggle.
Kuang Han snorted. “What? What are you trying to express? You want to say that a young genius from Winterdraw can kill all three of House Kuang’s geniuses? And House Xuan and House Xue’s as well?”
“Not at all.”
“Then what are you trying to imply, eh?” Kuang Han was losing control of his emotions.
Imperial Prince Huo had no idea what he wanted to hear. “What should we do now, Master Kuang Han?”
“Open up the second restriction and search inside.” Kuang Han was absolutely certain.
The imperial prince swore silently. Hadn’t he just said that his house’s scions wouldn’t venture into the forbidden grounds? So why did he want to look inside then?
That was completely contradictory.
Alas, he could only wonder about that to himself. He didn’t dare express a shred of it.
“Master Kuang Han,” he uttered with some difficulty. “If the second restriction is opened, I worry that Winterdraw’s foundations will be shaken. I believe that your geniuses definitely did not venture inside.”
“Who cares about Winterdraw’s foundations? Can this place compare to the importance of the eight houses’ geniuses?” A senior from House Xue piped up angrily.
“That’s right, Imperial Prince Huo. We only came because of your invitation. Is this the kind of hospitality you should be showing, hmm?” Another senior from House Xuan expressed his displeasure.
The imperial prince felt cold sweat drip down his back.
At this moment, another from the eight houses interceded. “Oi, you three. Stop bothering Imperial Prince Huo. You know how trials are! Some are lucky enough to live, some are unlucky enough to die. I think it’s high time to leave, now that our little competition has concluded.”
“Quite so. Time is limited. Deal with your private affairs yourselves. Don’t hold the rest of us up!”
The eight houses were indeed not a unified bunch. Some of the other houses were jumping out to sing a different tune.