Lu Yun himself hadn’t anticipated such a frightening, bloody outcome to today’s confrontation. It was fortunate for House Ba that all of its members had been driven away, apart from the lone Ba Chuyi. Otherwise, they too would’ve been annihilated.
Their thirst for violence quenched by the carnage, the ninety-nine surviving soldiers formed orderly ranks behind Lu Yun again, fresh blood still dripping from their figures.
He’d brought one hundred and one soldiers with him: a hundred golden core cultivators and an origin core captain named You Tu.  It’d been a stroke from You Tu’s sword that’d felled House Ge’s nascent spirit powerhouse. The latter might’ve been distracted by Miao’s illusion, but cutting him down in a single strike was still proof of the captain’s strength.
“Let’s go.” Lu Yun cast a meaningful look at the soldiers, his feelings conflicted. Had it been the right choice to make them his private army? They were a fearsome, double-edged blade that he couldn’t carelessly unsheath.
Without a word, the men lifted their two dead comrades and fell in line behind him as they left.
“The Dusk Phalanx is well worthy of its reputation!” Lu Yuanhou finally came out from his hiding place, his complexion a bit ashen.
“It really is just a group of butchers!” murmured Feng Li. Being of noble birth, the two of them were no stranger to killing, but it was their first time witnessing such a bloodbath.
“With this group of warriors following him around, Lu Yun won’t be easy to handle.” Feng Li’s face twisted in an ugly scowl.
“Lu Yun! I, Lu Yuanhou, vow to never rest until I see you dead!” the Lu scion vowed grimly. That painful beating back in Dusk City had been a fatal blow to his dignity. Lu Yun’s maid was but an appetizer that far from mollified his hatred.
“Do you want to kill him?” a cold, ominous voice suddenly reached his ears.
“Fifth Uncle!” Lu Yuanhou’s eyes widened.
“What do we do now?” An unpleasant feeling welled up in Qing Han’s chest at the sight of Lu Yun’s obvious concern for Wanfeng. Is this... jealousy?
“Let’s check the altar and see if we can save her.” Lu Yun’s current mood was nothing if not tense and glum. He hadn’t even had time to count his spoils or rest after his adventure in the terrifying burial mound. There was simply no end to his troubles.
“You may return to the city lord’s mansion for now. You won’t be needed for the next part,” he said, turning back to You Tu. Expressionless, the officer made an about-face and led the other ninety-eight soldiers away.
Dusk River lay in its banks twenty-five kilometers away from Duskwater Prefecture’s western gates. Somewhere around four kilometers wide, it originated from the ancient Dusk Tomb at the center of the province, and ran through half of the province’s lands before flowing into the North Sea.
No living creatures populated its inky black waters, and not a single blade of grass grew within three kilometers of its banks. The Dusk River Sacrament altar stood on these very same banks, its appearance vague and hazy from afar due to the dark fog currently shrouding the river.
“Wanfeng!” From up close, Lu Yun promptly spotted his maid lying unconscious on the altar beside nine pairs of boys and girls.
Other than the nine pairs, the ceremony originally called for a hundred qi realm cultivators as well. But the sacrifice of Wanfeng and her empyrean-grade spiritual root had spared a hundred men and women from this dire fate.
In fact, every step of the ceremony should’ve been overseen by the governor, including the selection of the offerings. But everyone saw Lu Yun as a mortal without an ounce of cultivation. What gave him the right to preside over such an event?
Qing Han had been dispatched to this end instead, but three days ago, he’d gone off with Lu Yun, Li Youcai, Mo Yi, and the rest to Myriad Formation Summit and his whereabouts had been unknown ever since.
By the time Feng Li and Lu Yuanhou arrived, the figures of authority in Duskwater City and the prefecture at large were missing, giving them free rein to take control of the Sacrament, thanks to their imperial token. In exchange for the human lives, many would obtain tremendous blessings from the river god. For the two of them, it’d been too good an opportunity to pass up.
“Stop!” Qing Han and Mo Yi rushed to prevent Lu Yun from approaching the altar.
“It’s been activated, so the altar is surrounded by an invisible barrier. You’ll trigger its defenses if you get any closer,” Mo Yi hastily explained.
“But how can it be active? The required elegy is in my possession.” Qing Han frowned at the dark light shrouding the altar. It should’ve been impossible to activate without that special funeral oration, yet there it was. The impossible conundrum thoroughly confused him.
The governor was the elegy’s custodian in ordinary times, but rather than being passed down to Lu Yun following the previous governor’s death, it’d been recalled by the Nephrite court.
Regaining his composure, Lu Yun suddenly asked, “Qing Han, don’t you think this altar is rather familiar?”
“Hm?” Startled, Qing Han inspected it carefully. “It resembles the one in Truewater’s ruins, only much smaller... wait! Are the two of them related?”
“I’m afraid the altar awoke because of us,” Lu Yun murmured.
“What?” Mo Yi and Qing Han exclaimed.
“Truewater’s altar was suppressed by the Portrait of Emptiness, but came to life when we took the painting away. Coincidentally, this altar was also activated during the three days we spent inside the burial mound.”
Lu Yun had scrutinized the altar before them and discovered the same exact runes he’d seen on Truewater’s altar. Even the overall design and structure were more or less identical. Only, at more than thirty meters tall, the one in Truewater towered like a small mountain, whereas the present one was less than twelve meters tall.
“If my guess is right, with the elegy in my possession, I could’ve obtained the Portrait of Emptiness even without traveling to Myriad Formation Summit,” he whispered to himself, paying no heed to Qing Han’s and Mo Yi’s astonishment.
As an old hat at journeying through ancient tombs, he was well-versed in the structure of all sorts of burial sites. In particular, he specialized in extrapolation, allowing him to connect seemingly disjointed elements into layouts as exquisite as they were uncanny.
The same skill could be applied to everything in life. He could connect the dots and uncover the inexorable connections between seemingly isolated events.
For example, the connection between Portrait of Emptiness and the Dusk River Sacrament.
As for Mo Yi, she hadn’t cared at all when she’d learned of Qing Han obtaining the Portrait of Emptiness. Aloof by nature, she cared little for treasures and the like. Even an immortal item surpassing ninth-rank left her indifferent.
“Who goes there!” Lu Yun suddenly bellowed as he stared at the center of Dusk River. Unbeknownst to them, a giant vortex had formed on the surface, and the governor could discern a white figure slowly rising from its center.
“Is someone coming?” the startled Qing Han and Mo Yi asked. Neither of them could see the whirlpool, nor did they see the newcomer.
1. Reminder: golden core, life core, origin core, nascent spirit.
1. Reminder: golden core, life core, origin core, nascent spirit.