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    About two days later, Mang-ryang obtained a jar filled with poisonous water that was as big as a child. Carefully adding various substances in the workshop, he began to mix them. After roughly three stages of the process were completed, a pungent smell similar to gunpowder began to fill the air. Soon enough, a jar’s worth of poison was ready. Mang-ryang handed me the finished product.

    “Here it is.”

    “What would happen if a human were to ingest this?”

    Mang-ryang chuckled.

    “Before one takes ten breaths, paralysis will begin to spread through the body, and before another ten breaths, one will be completely immobilized. If left untreated for half an hour, they will die.”

    “……”

    “First, I would like to hear your thoughts. Is a cult involved in activities so nefarious that we must resort to using this poison?”

    I felt it was time to tell the truth. Since Mang-ryang was accompanying me to Chamgeuk Village anyway, he was currently my most important ally. The more he knew, the more helpful it would be for me. So I calmly laid out the truth.

    “They are not just a simple cult. The Embroidered Uniform Guards is aiding the sorcerers.”

    “……!!”

    Mang-ryang’s eyes widened. He had not heard anything about the Embroidered Uniform Guards’s involvement before. He looked crestfallen and seemed to be deep in thought. Then he glared at me and said,

    “Why didn’t you tell me about this before?”

    “I needed time to observe you as well.”

    Had I told Mang-ryang everything right from the beginning, his extreme reaction would not have been beneficial to me. Moreover, there was no guarantee that he would be loyal. Given the sudden revelation, he might have withdrawn his involvement in the matter, so it was crucial for me to secure the poison first and then assess his trustworthiness.

    However, Mang-ryang eventually handed me the finished product. That’s why I told him everything. He sighed as if he had read my mind.

    “Well, it doesn’t matter now… So you’re saying you’re willing to oppose the Embroidered Uniform Guards and the imperial family?”

    “They demand sacrifices from others while risking nothing themselves. If left unchecked, they will become unstoppable in the future.”

    I was straightforward in sharing my sentiments about the Embroidered Uniform Guards and the royal family. Mang-ryang nodded in agreement.

    “You’re right. But it’s a shame you didn’t tell me earlier; we could have been better prepared.”

    “Better prepared?”

    “If the enemy is the Embroidered Uniform Guards, I could have sought my master’s help. But it’s too late now, so let’s forget about it.”

    Master?

    It occurred to me that I never asked how Mang-ryang had acquired such extensive knowledge and wisdom. I had assumed that he was self-taught, being a genius, but it turns out he had a master. I inquired about the master, but he was evasive.

    “Give me time to observe you as well.”

    “Alright.”

    What goes around comes around.

    I shrugged my shoulders and then proceeded to tell Mang-ryang everything I knew about the Embroidered Uniform Guards and the sorcerers. After absorbing the information, Mang-ryang began to calmly outline our next steps.

    “If we ride horses, we should arrive in the village in three days. You seem to be convinced that a tragedy will occur there; by then, what stage do you think the Embroidered Uniform Guards and sorcerer will be at?”

    At the moment, I have at least ten or more days ahead of schedule. Maybe even more than fifteen days. The time to get to Huangshan was significantly reduced due to my increase in internal strength, and I hadn’t wasted any time going to my hometown for unnecessary revenge, so I have a lot of time to spare.

    I don’t know for sure, but when I first encountered the tragedy, a significant amount of time had already passed. Additionally, when the cultivator discovered their misdeeds, they were not yet at the stage of human sacrifices but were in the brainwashing phase. Considering all of this, I answered.

    “Very likely, they are still exploring the village in search of targets to assassinate. Or they haven’t even left Luoyang yet.”

    “If what you’re saying is true, that the Embroidered Uniform Guards’ only moves after the sorcerer’s flute sounds, then it would indeed be best to find and neutralize the sorcerer in the village before that happens.”

    I nodded my head.

    “Exactly. That’s why I was thinking it would be good to infiltrate the village as soon as possible.”

    “So you’re planning to neutralize the sorcerer in the shortest time possible once they show up in the village?”

    “That was the idea, yes.”

    After a moment’s thought, Mang-ryang shook his head.

    “Um, no. That seems like a good idea but it’s a 하책 (inferior plan). We have time, so we should choose a better plan.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Before I explain, do you have anyone else who can help us in this mission? Aside from me, I mean. Any other allies?”

    I immediately replied.

    “On my way here, I came across a Taoist of the Wudang Sect’s branch, called Taejong. The master of that branch, Taoist Hyuncheon, is a top expert, a former elder of the Wudang Sect. If we could get him to participate, he would undoubtedly be a great help.”

    “Interesting. I was thinking of hiring mercenaries from the Twin Gates in Luoyang, but if we have someone like that, it should be sufficient.”

    “Mercenaries?”

    “The Twin Gates of Luoyang, Iron Blood Gate and Great Sword Gate, often send out their disciples, who are experts at the master level, to work on external contracts. It’s not common, but if you have connections, you can hire a high-level expert from the Twin Gates. They don’t work too hard, but they are worth the money, so I’ve heard.”

    “…”

    “Even the Four Great Houses sometimes take money for work, but they have a very closed network, making them hard to reach.”

    I thought perhaps the head of Iron Blood Gate or the leading disciple of Gate Sword Gate might be those exceptions. Experts of the first-rate caliber who would occasionally take on external jobs to earn money for their sect. Even the so-called elders might be working as mercenaries.

    I ventured to say,

    “Mang-ryang, what about using that secret method to hire mercenaries?”

    “It’s not a bad idea, but it’s already too late. How are we supposed to go to Luoyang now and hire someone? If it were two days ago, I could have sent a letter to my master to arrange it, so they’d arrive just in time.”

    “…”

    “Don’t worry. Just you, me, and Taoist Hyuncheon should be enough.”

    With a rustling sound, Mang-ryang took out a map from somewhere and spread it out. Upon closer inspection, it was a detailed map of the area around the village, covering a radius of about thirty li. I was surprised and asked,

    “Did you draw that map yourself?”

    “Of course not. I had one of my subordinates steal this confidential document from the government office two days ago. The office always has military maps prepared for emergencies.”

    “…”

    It seemed like this man didn’t hesitate to employ any means necessary. He acted as soon as he heard my words.

    “Why are you looking at me like that? I did my best to prepare.”

    Mang-ryang pointed to a spot on the map.

    “Look here. The middle of this mountain is connected to the water source of the Gyeongha River. The village is barely touching this tributary, which is directly connected to their well. It’s not just a simple structure for drawing groundwater. Besides, if the village wants to get water from elsewhere, they would have to go through the cumbersome process of carrying it from the Gyeongha River dozens of li away.”

    “I see.”

    “By locating the water flow’s choke point and pouring poison there, we could potentially paralyze the village. The wells are interconnected from deep within.”

    Mang-ryang smirked, subtly wiping his finger.

    “… Of course, this is only if we arrive late and have no choice but to suppress the village.”

    “What are you talking about?”

    “I mean if we can preemptively suppress, we have better options. Using this poison would kill at least a hundred people, and isn’t it better to save everyone instead? This is a neurotoxin, so there’s no effective antidote.”

    “……?”

    Mang-ryang’s continued words were utterly perplexing.

    “Let’s set fire to the village.”

    Three days later, Mang-ryang and I arrived at Taejong Hall on horseback.

    Chuckles

    Mang-ryang was eyeing Taejong Hall uncomfortably. Then he spoke.

    “I’m not very fond of these Taoists.”

    Though he’s a master of martial arts, fundamentally he lacks any divine power and earns his living by fraud. Naturally, he found Taoists uncomfortable. I chuckled and said,

    “Don’t worry. The Taoist Hyuncheon is not a bad person.”

    “Hmph.”

    As Mang-ryang and I dismounted and walked, the disciples in Taoist robes standing in front of Taejong Hall were visibly startled. Then, they aimed their exorcism swords at us. These are not ideal for actual combat, but they are sharp, and Taoists often carry them for self-defense.

    “Who are you?”

    I laughed softly and replied,

    [We’ve come to see the master of Taejong Hall. We mean no harm, so please understand.]

    “Uh… sound transmission.”

    The disciples stiffened upon realizing that my internal energy was at least at the level of an apex expert. It didn’t take long for them to mistake me for a highly experienced master who looks like a teenager. A disciple in his 20s, sweating from his forehead, spoke nervously.

    “Please wait here while I fetch master.”

    [There’s no need to worry. We won’t cause any trouble.]

    “……”

    It didn’t take long for him to return with the Taoist Hyuncheon. Seeing him after such a long time stirred my emotions.

    The Taoist cautiously observed me and spoke formally,

    “An exalted one has graced us with a visit. To which sect do you belong?”

    I didn’t feel the need to boast about my martial prowess to Hyuncheon. He was an extraordinary peak expert and could gauge my abilities on his own. Instead, I answered with a slight bow.

    “My name is Baek-woong, and this is my friend Mang-ryang. We have come to seek Master Hyuncheon of Taejong Hall’s assistance for a very important matter.”

    “Assistance you say…”

    Hyuncheon chuckled, bemused.

    “Hehe… Your internal energy has already reached superhuman levels, and yet you seek the aid of an old Taoist like me? I’m just cultivating here with my disciples and have no desire to be involved in worldly affairs.”

    As expected, he would say something like this.

    Taoist Hyuncheon was not the sort of person who would actively engage in the use of force unless he had personally verified matters with his own eyes. Unless he witnessed the tragedy himself, it seemed unlikely that he would become an ally. Therefore, recruiting him seemed to be quite a difficult task, as he was a rare Daoist who couldn’t simply be bought with money.

     

    However, I absolutely needed Taoist Hyuncheon’s power. Although my internal energy and martial arts had generally increased dramatically, the power of an individual from Embroidered Uniform Guards was still too much for me to handle alone. Moreover, they had even refined combined attacks and tactics, making it very likely for me to be fatally attacked. If Taoist Hyuncheon helped, the situation would undoubtedly become twice as easy.

    At that moment, Mang-ryang stepped forward.

    “Taoist, do you not know how to read the Heavenly Signs? A malevolent star has appeared in the heavens, indicating that something unfortunate will happen soon. Are you just going to sit there and wait for the calamity?”

    Taoist Hyuncheon then looked at Mang-ryang with deep eyes.

    “I too have sensed the recent celestial anomalies. However, this is a great disaster for the world. It is not something a weak individual like me can handle. I have too much burden to blindly follow external forces.”

    It seemed true that the Heavenly Signs were indeed abnormal. Both Mang-ryang and Taoist Hyuncheon seemed to know how to read the heavens, and there appeared to be a lot of ominous signs recently. Just as I thought this could be useful information and was putting it in my mind, Mang-ryang grinned and spoke.

    “Even if you’re a skilled taoist, you can’t observe the world’s energy better than me. I can assert this. Evil men will surely rise in the vicinity.”

    “What are you saying? Who are you to make such outrageous claims?”

    Taoist Hyuncheon sounded like he was at a loss for words. As a Taoist who excelled not only in martial arts but also in various other practices, he naturally included celestial observation among them. Nobody in their right mind would disrespect him like that.

    Mang-ryang then confidently said, “I am known as Esteemed Monk Mang-ryang. Have you not heard of me?”

    What nonsense is this?

    I almost shouted in bewilderment. Monk Mang-ryang was just a famous soothsayer around Luoyang, and neither Jinrang Valley nor anyone else thought of him as more than that. It was absurdly self-aggrandizing to present himself that way to Taoist Hyuncheon’s caliber. I thought I had made a mistake in trying to recruit him and tightly closed my eyes.

    Unexpectedly, however, Taoist Hyuncheon seemed shocked upon hearing the name Esteemed Monk Mang-ryang.

    “Could you be that person?”

    “I am the one known as Je Mang-ryang, the formation master.”

    “Heh heh… Is it true that you are the greatest sorcerer of the Middle Kingdom’s unorthodox paths?”

    “Yes, that’s correct.”

    Swoosh

    “This is my signature treasure, the Five Fires-Seven Birds Divine Fan.”

    [TL/N: Five Fires-Seven Birds Divine Fan is one of divine artifacts according to novel  Investiture of the Gods. The fan has feathers from seven different birds: phoenix, qingluan, roc, peacock, white crane, swan, and owl. It also combines five different kinds of fires: aerial fire, stone fire, wood fire, Samadhi fire, and earthly fire. On the surface, it has inscriptions and incantations, and on the reverse side, there is a poem.

    https://bkimg.cdn.bcebos.com/pic/7af40ad162d9f2d3572c828ed3ba9d13632762d06601?x-bce-process=image/resize,m_lfit,w_536,limit_1/quality,Q_70 ]

    Mang-ryang took out his usual folding fan and handed it to Taoist Hyuncheon. Upon receiving the fan, Taoist Hyuncheon carefully examined it from various angles. After a while, he let out a sigh as if giving up and spoke.

    “Indeed… the legend that a human received a treasure directly from an immortal was true… This is a genuine treasure that cannot be made by human skill. I acknowledge you as Esteemed Monk Mang-ryang.”

    That was a treasure?

    Having seen Mang-ryang use it to scratch his ears when they itch, I couldn’t believe it.

    “Thank you.”

    “Follow me. As fellow Taoists, I will at least hear what you have to say.”

    Taoist Hyuncheon was a martial arts master from the Wudang Sect, but it seemed he couldn’t ignore the visit from the highest authority from an Unorthodox faction. I followed him into Taejong Hall in bewilderment, wondering if the nickname ‘Mang-ryang’ was just something loosely given. Did he really have another identity, as the top sorcerer of unorthodox factions in the Central Plain?

    ’Didn’t this guy does not have any spiritual power? Wasn’t he unable to use any magic?’

    I secretly asked Mang-ryang through a telepathic message.

    [What’s going on? Are you really a sorcerer expert?]

    Mang-ryang seemed to indicate that he would explain later with a quick glance. I had no choice but to trust him and see it through. Shortly after, the three of us sat around a table in Taejong Hall’s reception room and began to drink tea.

    Mang-ryang said,

    “Taoist Hyuncheon. I can say this on my name. A calamity will soon strike a nearby village, and it will not be a natural disaster, but a man-made one. I foresaw the future through divination, and it seemed like an evil cult is planning to use people as sacrifices.”

    “Hmm… But why a nearby village…”

    “This area has poor transportation, making it easy to isolate. The cultists have probably taken note of that.”

    As Mang-ryang spoke with such extreme confidence, Taoist Hyuncheon had no choice but to be convinced. Although Taoist Hyuncheon already half-believed him, he soon looked at me and said,

    “Warrior Baek-woong’s energy has already surpassed extraordinary limits. And yet, you say we need the power of the orthodox paths? Are these cultists that powerful?”

    “Those people sacrifice humans and commit slaughter without hesitation. Furthermore, unidentified peak masters are aiding them. While Baek-woong possesses great martial skills as my bodyguard, he can’t handle them alone.”

    Bodyguard?

    I was stunned to see Mang-ryang concoct a situation on the spot, but it seemed to work well on Taoist Hyuncheon. He was furious upon hearing the term human sacrifice.

    “Such evil people…!! Are they receiving help from The Eight Gates of Demonic Path?”

    “I don’t know. However, there are two or three peak masters who have mastered joint techniques. They are not to be taken lightly.”

    “Hehe… such a force is definitely not common.”

    Taoist Hyuncheon seemed puzzled. A ‘peak master’ wasn’t a title anyone could have; only the high-ranking members or elders of a powerful clan could obtain it. To operate several such masters in one organization, the organization must be of at least Nine Sects—Eight Factions level scale.

    Mang-ryang spoke,

    “We are trying to get rid of the wicked ones so that the people of the world will not suffer. I’ve looked for meaningful martial artists around here, but everyone seems to be avoiding us. We absolutely need the help of a Taoist to uphold the justice of the Gangho!”

    “Hmm, understood! I will definitely help!”

    “……”

    Just like that, in a blink of an eye, Mang-ryang persuaded Taoist Hyuncheon, left a message saying he would come back tomorrow, and retreated from Taejong Hall with me. Probably, when he returns tomorrow, he will gain Taoist Hyuncheon as a reliable ally who is well-prepared. As I stepped far away from Taejeong Hall, I was astounded and said,

    “What kind of lie did you tell? You’re not even a sorcerer master…”

    “That’s correct. As you know, I can’t use anything beyond basic spells because I don’t have any mystical power.”

    “Then what on earth…”

    Mang-ryang gave a bitter smile.

    “It’s not all a lie. The talisman is real, and as you can see, the Esteemed Monk Mang-ryang actually exists. It’s just that it’s not me.”

    What did he mean?

    However, Mang-ryang shook his head.

    “Explaining everything would complicate things too much. Let’s go scout the village right now.”

    “We should.”

    Our top priority at the moment was one thing:

    To scout the village and confirm its condition!

    If that is not achieved, our subsequent goals cannot be met.

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