The three of them went from house to house, searching for any clues. After half a day, the night was approaching, and all they found were a group of mice and a few dirty, skinny cats.
The houses were fully stocked with daily necessities and there was plenty of food and water, with nothing out of the ordinary.
The villagers had disappeared without a trace, and Shi Jingzhi was getting more and more frustrated. He wanted to turn around and find Zheng Fengdao to fight it out. At least Zheng Fengdao was still breathing and was a solid living creature.
"Ah Ci, remember to leave some bronze coins after taking what we need. Do we...do we really have to spend the night here?"
"It's getting colder these days, and sleeping outside would make us freeze to death," Yin Ci said truthfully.
He wasn't picky and started cooking meat and porridge in a pot, preparing to rest for the night. He had figured out Shi Jingzhi's temperament, and his master was easy to please - as long as someone was with him, he would eventually accept his fate after his crazy anxiety subsided.
Sure enough, Shi Jingzhi pulled his cloak and approached him.
"Everything is neat and tidy, unlike being attacked by bandits."
"If a herd of beasts came by, they wouldn't leave the livestock untouched."
"Ah Ci, where did all the people here go?"
Yin Ci scooped up a spoonful of hot porridge, turned to feed his master, and helped him shift his attention: "Shizun, where do you think Yan Qing went?"
Shi Jingzhi suddenly panicked, and was almost choked by the porridge. He dragged Yin Ci out of the room. Yin Ci didn't even have time to put down the iron spoon, and the rice soup met the cold wind, instantly freezing into a thin layer of ice.
Fortunately, Yan Qing didn't evaporate into thin air. He didn't go far before stopping at the entrance of the courtyard. The young man stood in the snow, as straight as a tree. He breathed into his frozen hands and looked confusedly towards the empty village.
"Yan Qing, come back inside first. This place is cursed. It's going to be pitch black soon, and who knows what might come out..."
"Sect Leader, I want to go home and take a look."
Shi Jingzhi was stunned for a moment before realizing what he meant by "home."
Yan Qing claimed to be half a resident of Xizhuang. At the age of eleven, he had hidden his identity and joined Taiheng. But before that, he must have had a home here.
However, Yan Qing's face was filled with mixed emotions, making it difficult to distinguish which ones were sadness.
His background was sensitive, and Shi Jingzhi did not inquire about his childhood experiences. Now it seems that Yan Qing's life was even more difficult than he had imagined.
Shi Jingzhi sniffled and said, "It's not safe for you to go alone. We'll accompany you. Ah, but if you mind..."
"It's fine," Yan Qing croaked.
Xizhuang may be small, but each farmhouse was clean and tidy. Yan Qing led them through the empty houses and towards the corner of the village, stopping in front of a dilapidated house.
The abandoned house was half the size of the surrounding farmhouses and had been deserted for a long time. From afar, it looked like a pile of rubble. The walls were covered in lumps of dirt, and the roof had caved in completely.
In front of the door stood a broken tree, and beneath it was a huge boulder covered in snow. As the night grew darker, the snow on top of the boulder turned a cold, gray-blue color.
Yan Qing crouched in front of the stone, wiping away the snow to reveal a series of crooked and twisted carvings - the tomb of Yan Ziren. There were no birth or death dates, only five simple characters.
It was shocking to see someone bury their own father in the backyard and casually place a stone as a tombstone. Even though Shi Jingzhi was not one for propriety, he was still deeply shaken. He coughed up blood before finally managing to speak, "Yan Qing, is this...?"
"My father," Yan Qing replied with a complex expression, not performing any rituals.
"Isn't this a bit... Shouldn't we pick an auspicious time and move your father's resting place?"
"No need. He gave me life, and I supported him until his death. We owe each other nothing."
Yan Qing sat down on a patch of empty ground, rubbing his temples as if trying to vomit out his emotions.
"Sect Leader didn't ask about my background before, and I'm grateful for that. But since we're here, I'll share about it so that you can rest assured."
Yin Ci sensed a hint of hostility and stood quietly beside Shi Jingzhi, listening attentively.
Yan Qing's background was rather ordinary, with no thrilling tales of swords and battles. His father had tried to take refuge in the Ling Sect when he was young, but firstly he lacked the ghost eyes, secondly he had no inheritance that could prove bloodline, and thirdly he knew no martial arts.
As a result, he was directly mistaken for a fake and had half of his leg crippled. It was difficult to prove his ancestry, but the pursuers from the martial world would rather kill the wrong person than let him go. Later, Yan Qing's father got married and fled to Xizhuang with his wife to avoid being hunted down.
Ever since Yan Qing could remember, Yan Ziren only knew how to drink. When Yan Qing finished his work and returned home, he would either hear Yan Ziren muttering about how great their ancestors were, or be beaten by him.
During rare moments of sobriety, he would only tell his son that when he joined the Ling Sect in the future, he would become a superior person, enjoying the finest food and wine, picking any woman he wanted, and living like a god.
At this point, Yan Qing fell silent and looked at the stone in front of him. There was no hatred in his eyes, as if he was looking at someone who had nothing to do with him.
For a moment, Shi Jingzhi forgot his fear and spoke softly, "What about your mother?"
"My mother was pregnant and supported my disabled father all the way here. After giving birth to me, she passed away. It's a pity that she gave her heart to a dog, and my father married her just to keep the Yan family bloodline alive... My mother doesn't even have a grave."
Yan Qing slowly reached out and covered his eyes with his palm.
"My father must really want these ghost eyes," Yan Qing said. "He dreams of sending me to Ling Sect to prove that he is a descendant of the Yan family."
Shi Jingzhi took a deep breath, "Then how did you...?"
He didn't finish his question, but Yan Qing understood his meaning, "The villagers know about the ghost eyes and are keeping a close eye on me. They're afraid I'll expose them and bring shame to the village by having them labeled as 'protectors of the demon's descendants'."
Yan Qing withdrew his hand and revealed an ugly smile. His red pupils emitted a faint light, like dying embers.
"Some of them wanted to kill me, but they're afraid of being haunted by Yan Budu's ghost, so they haven't made a move... My father once hoped that I would grow up and take him to escape to Ling Sect. Unfortunately, when I was nine years old, he went crazy from drinking and hit his head on the door frame, and died.
"As for what happened next, you all know. I changed my surname and joined Taiheng, where I stayed for ten years."
Yin Ci suddenly realized. A child who had to bend down and scheme for food from a young age wouldn't care about those intangible and elusive pride. Yan Qing's father was truly useless, causing his son to suffer, yet he didn't even cultivate any resentment towards the world.
Having to take care of a disabled drunkard from a young age, it's no wonder Yan Qing is so skilled. Compared to that, Taiheng Sect can be considered a paradise on earth.
Shi Jingzhi was quite moved: "I understand now, you've come to formally bid farewell to your father, sigh..."
Yan Qing shook his head.
"My father had a Mountain Ghost Coin carved from pure silver that he loved dearly and didn't exchange for alcohol. When I left, I was too young to carry it with me, so I buried it under a tree."
It turned out that he had come to retrieve the coin, and Shi Jingzhi's touched feelings were gradually frozen by the cold wind.
Yan Qing used his sword to dig into the soil and soon picked out a small wooden box. However, when he opened the box, his face slowly froze - there was no Mountain Ghost Coin inside, only a poorly crafted longevity lock.
Yan Qing threw the box and rushed straight into the house. The abandoned house had no cover and was in a mess, covered in thick snow. Yan Qing had a clear goal and found his way to the window, using his fingers to vigorously scrape at the cracks in the window frame. He actually scraped out a piece of cloth.
The fabric was pure white, obviously recently stuffed in. Yin Ci and Shi Jingzhi crowded together to take a closer look. On the cloth was words written in blood, with fewer words than even the tombstone. The handwriting was extremely sloppy, as if hastily written: "San-zi, run fast!"
Shi Jingzhi asked, "Who is San-zi?"
"It's me." Yan Qing clenched the longevity lock tightly. "It's impossible. How could Ah Si...Sect Leader, can we stay here a little longer to figure out what happened?"
Shi Jingzhi's heart was soft, but his mind was clear.
"Yan Qing, to be honest, the abilities of the Ku Mountain Sect are limited. The situation in Xizhuang is strange, and your friend has already told you to run. It's best for us to leave as soon as possible, or things may get worse."
Yan Qing valued loyalty and friendship, but he had only stayed in Xizhuang for a few years and his childhood friendships were not as important as the three lives of the Ku Mountain Sect.
As soon as the words left his mouth, Yan Qing realized that his request was a bit too much. He was an honest person and didn't know how to be pushy, so he could only hold onto his small longevity lock and stand there feeling helpless.
Yin Ci intervened in a timely manner to smooth things over, "How about this, we can wake up early tomorrow and explore some more before we leave."
Shi Jingzhi was always cautious in his actions, but Demon Lord Yin was a troublemaker who didn't mind leading him astray. The longer one lives, the rarer it is to come across something new. If they missed this opportunity, they might never find another one like it.
Shi Jingzhi didn't answer, his chin was tense, clearly still hesitant.
Yin Ci grabbed his master's arm and added fuel to the fire, "Grandpa once told a story that's quite similar, these people might have 'stumbled into immortals'. Yan Budu's map includes the Zongwu Mountain, maybe this is the reason."
After some thought, Shi Jingzhi finally relented, "We'll wake up at the hour of the tiger tomorrow and spend another three hours searching before we set off."
The three of them returned to the room and each had a bowl of meat porridge. They carefully blocked the doors and windows. Yan Qing neatly arranged his few belongings and sat against the wall, unable to sleep all night.
The night passed without incident.
Shi Jingzhi kept his word and woke up on time at the hour of the Tiger. It was freezing cold, and Yin Ci was still glued to the bed, refusing to get up. The room was too small, and it was difficult to use the bamboo pole to poke someone with force.
Sect Leader Shi sneered and went outside for a walk. When he returned to the room, he rolled up his sleeves and put his two cold hands into the blanket, touching Yin Ci's neck and shoulder.
Demon Lord Yin almost exploded on the spot.
He had to reluctantly get up and deliberately made a breakfast of plain soup and water. Throughout the night, nothing strange happened, which gave Shi Jingzhi a bit of confidence.
He comforted Yan Qing, who had lost his appetite, saying, "Yesterday we arrived too late and couldn't see anything in the dark. Now that it's slowly getting light outside, there might be some clues."
Yan Qing had dark eyebags beneath his eyes, and he absentmindedly replied, "Thanks for the encouragement, Sect Leader."
Yin Ci finished his meal early and was bored. "Tell me about your friend. You have such a good relationship, have you been in contact all this time?"
"I haven't seen him in ten years, I thought he was dead."
Yan Qing's face was blank, and his chopsticks paused in mid-air.
"…As for Ah Si, he wouldn't come back to the village to stay for long. He must have come specifically to find me."
The two of them exchanged a glance - hearing this explanation, "Ah Si" didn't seem like a simple childhood playmate. It was no wonder, Yan Qing had been born with a pair of bright red ghost eyes.
Even if the villagers could barely accept him, they wouldn't let their own children provoke such a "dirty thing". Anyone who could play with Yan Qing must not be an easy person.
Shi Jingzhi took over the conversation: "Doesn't your friend live in the village?"
"Yes. The shortcut we took coming here was the same as the one we took to escape in the past."
"The villagers all call him the 'Cuckoo's Calamity' and keep their distance... now that I think about it, I don't know if he's even human."
Today's Fox Shi: Inserting his cold hands under the covers.
Demon Lord Yin: ?!
The future Fox Shi: Completely burrowing under the covers.
Demon Lord Yin: (embracing him)
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