As the midday sun made its way to the center of the sky, while Zhang and Wenji were enjoying hearty lunch together near a serene artificial pond located in the center of the Zhou Manor’s gardens, a sudden series of clamoring yells rang into their ears, shattering the peaceful atmosphere that the duo was very much enjoying.
“Young master! Young mistress! We have a problem!” Zhong Cheng’s voice could be heard screaming frantically.
“What’s the problem?” Wenji asked in a calm tone.
“Young mistress, terrible news! A group of roughly one hundred of our workers have been taken, hostage!” Zhong Cheng said frantically.
“Who dares?” Zhang asked as he placed the cup of tea in his hand onto a stone table in front of him.
“I believe they had a run in with members of the Mang Clan.” Zhong Cheng reported.
“Mang Clan? Didn’t I instruct to steer clear of them?” Zhang asked as an unhappy expression appeared on his face.
“Young master, like you’ve instructed, whenever we spot people from the three great factions we avoid them like the plague.” Zhong Cheng replied hastily.
“Give us a clear account of what had happened, from beginning to end and then we’ll decide if we were in the wrong or if they were.” Wenji said in a gentle tone.
“Yes, right away, young mistress. According to reports sent back from the fort, our people had stumbled on a large patch of Crimson Speckled Roses hidden within a small ravine deep in within the Black Devil Mountains.” Zhong Cheng said as he tried to give a short accounted of what had happened.
“Crimson Speckled Roses? Wenji, weren’t those the flowers are required to make midgrade essence supplement pills?” Zhang asked, interrupting Zhong Cheng.
“Yes, Crimson Speckled Roses are essential to making midgrade essence enhancement pills. But first, let give the man a chance to finish his account.” Wenji said with a chuckle.
“Uncle Cheng please continue.” Zhang said while scratching his head.
“After our people began harvesting the Crimson Speckled Roses, members of the Mang Clan appeared and demanded that our people hand over all of the herbs that they’ve managed to collect. Which our people did in order to avoid a confrontation with them, however, once they were given an inch they wanted a mile and demanded that from now on we are to give them fifty percent of the herbs we collect as a tax or else they won’t allow us to enter the Black Devil Mountains anymore. When our people tried to reason with them, everyone was severely beaten and taken away. They said that if we want our people back, not only do we have to agree to their terms but we also have to pay one hundred gold coins per a person.” Zhong Cheng said, causing anger to swell within Zhang’s chest.
“Those bastards might as well be bandits!” Zhang roared angrily as the small cup in his hand bursted into bits, startling not only Zhong Cheng but the other people present also.
Over the few weeks that they’ve been working for Zhang, no one has ever seen him so as much as frown or even raise his voice, thus everyone was quite taken back when they saw that Zhang wasn’t the young and weak scholarly businessman that they thought he was, rather the angry glare in his eyes belonged to someone who did not mind claiming the life of another.
“Where have they taken our people? I’m sure they wouldn’t go back to the city with so many people in town.” Wenji asked as her eyes sharpened.
“According to our scouts who trailed them, the members of the Mang Clan took our people to a large outpost they have in a hidden part of the mountains.” Zhong Cheng reported.
“Gather a small group of our combatants... We are heading out... It seems that our efforts at keeping a low profile have ended up backfiring…They’ve taken out passiveness for weakness… Although I would prefer to avoid conflict for now, if they want a fight they’ll be in over their heads.” Zhang said as he got up from his seat and walked toward the manor’s horse stables.
“Young master! Is that a wise idea? The Mang clan have been ruling this city for a hundred years and they hold immense power, I heard they have a few core realm cultivators amongst their ranks on top of a dozen or so elementary realm cultivators. Although our production would be cut by nearly half, it’s still better than facing them and possibly facing destruction.” Zhong Cheng said as he tried to persuade Zhang.
“Half our production…” Zhang mumbled as the rage inside his heart burned violently. If the herb operation’s progress diminished to help, that would mean the rate at which Zhang and Wenji could further their cultivation would fall to half and that in itself would result in many disadvantageous situations.
“Let’s go, there’s no point in trying to persuade him when he gets riled up.” Wenji said with a chuckle. After spending so much time together with Zhang, Wenji felt she had a really good grasp on his personality, he was the kind that would slowly scheme to ensure their success, in other words, a merchant to the very core, however, if push came to shove and the situation required it he could charge forward regardless of the consequences.
If he could fight an enlightened realm cultivator and a group of core realm cultivators for her while disregarding his own life, there’s nothing within Twin Blade City that could deter him if he wished to act. From beginning to start it hadn’t ever been about whether or not they would clash with the three great powers, it was a matter of when and where, so Wenji wasn’t too worried about having their plans hindered at this point.
With a loud whistle, Zhang called forth a pair of fur balls that were now as tall as his knees, and in a flash, a group of roughly fifty horsemen departed from the Zhou Manor’s.
“Young master shouldn’t we bring more men?” Zhong Cheng asked as his horse galloped beside Zhang’s.
“No, we will need them to remain in the manor and defend it in case anyone dares to attack while we are not home. If we need, we can call for the men stationed at the fort to come reinforce us.” Zhang said as he and Wenji led the group of horsemen through the city streets.
Not long after departing, Zhang and his group of followers could be seen speeding out of the city gates and galloping toward the mountains, leaving a thick trail of dust in their wake.
“Uncle Cheng, lead the way.” Wenji said as she directed Zhong Cheng to take point. With the wind causing her long silky hair to flutter and a vibrant sun shining down above, Zhang couldn’t help but pin his gaze on Wenji and allow his mind to drift, despite the current turn of events.
After riding into the mountains for about two hours, Zhong Cheng pulled the reins on his horse, prompting it to come to a complete stop.
“Young Master, the outpost should be located about a mile from here.” Hong Cheng said as he pointed toward the northeast.
“You guys stay here and wait for our signal, we’ll go and scout out the outpost. Little Red and Little Blue, keep an eye on them for us.” Wenji said as she glanced at Zhang who nodded in response before the two of them dismounted from their steeds and sped into the forest, without giving Zhong Cheng or anyone else the opportunity to protest their decision.
“Head steward, is it okay to let the young master and young mistress go off on their own like that? What if the people from the Mang Clan end up capturing them too, wouldn’t that leave us as a dragon without a head?” One of Zhang’s guards asked as a worried expression surfaced on his face.
Having been recently hired by Zhang and offered much better pay and benefits than any other clans or factions within the city, the guard was very much afraid that if something bad happened to Zhang and Wenji, he may lose his bowl of rice.
“Although it’s only been about a month since we’ve work under those two, I believe that it is best not to underestimate them due to their age. If they were any other pair of teenage kids then we should be right to worry, however, those two were able to carve a place for themselves within Twin Blade City in a little under a month, they've been able to accumulate so much power in so little time that the usually passive Mang Clan is baring its fangs. If anything, ones that should be worried should be the people that dared to provoke those two.” Zhong Cheng said as he stared in the direction that Zhang and Wenji headed off in.
“So, what do you think we should do?” Zhang asked Wenji as he spotted a few guard towers peeking out from behind the forest canopy.
“Depending on how many people they have, just the two of us should be enough to rescue everyone. Even if they have one or two core realm cultivators stationed out here, which I doubt, we should be able to handle them ease. However, I’m not sure if we should kill or not.” Wenji replied.
“I’m not sure whether we should kill them or not either, although they’re intentionally provoking us, if we kill their people, things would blow out of proportion and turn into a blood feud. Although it can be said that we have a solid foundation within the city and that there are few people who can rival our individual power, they are after all the clan who had built the city up from the ground and I’m sure they have quite a few allies. Things could get tricky.” Zhang said as he scratched his head.
“Then it’s settled, we’ll just beat them to a bloody pulp and rescue our people.” Wenji said with a chuckle as she and Zhang found themselves but a few feet from a tall stone wall that stood about twenty feet tall.
Channeling his powers and stretching his shadow onto the stone wall, Zhang made skeletal hands rise out from the darkness and form into footholds for him and Wenji to use to scale the wall.
Using quick footwork, the duo stealthily arrived at the top wall while under the gaze of the last rays of the sun while vigilantly scanning their surroundings as a question popped up in their minds.
“Why did the Mang clan build such a large fortress out in the middle of the mountains.” Both Zhang and Wenji wondered as they both saw no real strategic or economic value to the fort and its location.
With a few hand gestures, the duo signaled to each other and leaped off the wall before charging into the outpost without ever so much as stirring a single murmur.
Like ghosts and shadows, Zhang and Wenji crept beside the side of a large hall and peered inside, hoping to find a clue in regards to where their people were kept. Inside the hall were a total of five men who were all clad in similar looking leather armor, hunched over a table and gambling with one another, these five men were oblivious to the two shadows lurking outside.
“I win! All of you pay up!” A young man with crooked teeth said in a loud tone as he tossed down a hand full of cards.
“Pay up? Mang Chang, I think you’ve forgotten that you still owe all of us a few hundred gold coins each.” A chubby man with a potbelly said with a laugh.
“Yea, Mang Chang, don’t think we’ve forgotten that you owe each of us a thousand gold coins.” Another man said.
“Even if we total your winning’s this time, you still won’t have enough to pay even a fraction of what you owe us.” Yes, another man said.
“Hmph, once I find that treasure, I’ll have more than enough to pay back you four saps.” The man named Mang Chang said with a snicker.
“You find the treasure? What makes you think out of all of the members of our clan who have been searching these mountains for the last one hundred years that you of all people would be the one to find the treasure?” The chubby man said in a slightly mocking tone.
“Maybe there isn’t any more treasure left for us to find.” The chubby man added.
“How could there not be? Wasn’t it said that our ancestor Mang De, had found clues to a larger treasure hidden somewhere in the mountains? If there wasn’t any treasure what has our clan been doing for the last hundred years? Are you questioning our ancestors? Do you think they are all idiots?” Mang Chang said.
“Calm down, Mang Chang! I was just kidding. Of course, there is still treasure hidden somewhere in these mountains, if there wasn’t why would we need to go to all the effort of keeping everyone far away from this place.” The chubby man said as he saw that he had riled up Mang Chang.
“Speaking of keeping people away, what are we going to do to those people we caught in the morning? Has the clan head decided on what to do yet?” Someone asked.
“I don’t know, the messenger we sent back to the clan hasn’t returned yet. I hear their employer is a big shot that’s recently come to our city. Although not much is known about him, I heard the guy was really rich, so if he’s willing to fork over some money maybe we’ll let those people go. If not, then they’ll more than likely become slaves like the other folks we’ve captured. The chubby man said.
“Ha, are you kidding? When have we ever let, anyone leave this place? If anything, maybe these guys will get to work alongside their boss and help us look for the treasure.” Mang Chang laughed.
“Treasure…” Zhang mumbled as his eyes glinted in excitement.