Zheng Shuang had barely settled in but he immediately dove right into business. "The online ID you asked for my help has been found, Brother!"
I nodded. I poured him a glass of beer as I asked, "Relax. Take your time." He took the glass of beer from me and took a sip. "The owner of the online ID is a smart one. He has not done any verification with his true name, and every login IP we've traced came from Internet cafes. Safe to say, it's merely a burner account, so there's not much value I can give you, I'm afraid." Chongxi slapped the table. "Heavens! All the trouble for nothing!" But I chuckled through the smoke of my cigarette and hushed him down. "Relax. Let Zheng Shuang finish."
Zheng Shuang gave me a quick nod and smiled. "Well, it's not completely nothing, though. We were not able to find the identity of the ID's user, but we know where is he from! The IP addresses every time he logs into the ID shows that he is from Yizhou City!"
"I see," I chortled lightly and said, "Well, I'd say that it's not unexpected. But with your confirmation, my guess is coming true." The dishes were being laid, and Chongxi was already beginning gorging down on whatever he could find. "I get it now!" He exclaimed through a mouth full of food. "The owner of the ID is from Yizhou City, and the weasel demons are from there too! That's too coincidental to be a coincidence! There's no way that they do not know each other!"
I reached for a piece of pork liver and put it into my mouth. "Correct. There's also the old weasel who helped to heal the boy. There's something fishy about him too. I suspect kindness has little to do with his willingness to help. There might be another story we've yet to be privy to." "Just let me know if you need the help of the police..." Zheng Shuang was saying, but I cut him off with a wave of my hand. "No," I said at once, "It's not prudent for you to interfere this time. Moreover, these are demons we're talking about." Zheng Shuang nodded knowingly and tendered no objections.
Lin Feng nipped at his glass and asked, "Shiyan, I remembered hearing the old weasel saying about Smoky's triumphant routing of the weasels at the Yellow Soil Ridge. Should we not be prepared for any countermeasures that they might come up with?" I responded with a nod of assent. But I shook my head hastily after. "No. It's still too early to tell. We can only plan on the go for now. The main theater of war here is nevertheless the battles raging between the weasels and the foxes, and as a human, notwithstanding me being a lordling of the foxes, it may be inconvenient for me to interfere too directly."
Despite my earlier intentions of merely driving the weasels away and warning them against trying to exploit any chances during the Crucible, it seemed that there might be more to their schemes than simply trying to claim the lands of the Yellow Soil Ridge.
Time flew swiftly that it was almost ten when we left the restaurant. We separated with Zheng Shuang at a junction and walked back to the Center. The Center was within our sights when my eyes caught a dark silhouette sitting at the door! "How is this possible?! Has Smoky lost in battle?! Or have the foxes returned for another plea for help? But wait, how can Smoky be defeated so easily?! In its present form, it could have easily given the old weasel a hard time! That must not be Smoky. But, what else could it be?"
We hastened back towards the direction of our Center, eager to find out who it was. Our hearts thumped anxiously as we grew nearer until the silhouette got up suddenly, sending a jolt of shock through us that we nearly jumped! It was a man! But how could a man be waiting outside a closed shop when we already had our contact number printed outside!
I drew closer warily. To my amazement, the person began moving towards us when he saw us. As he stepped out of the awning of the strip mall into the pale glow of the moonlight, we could finally see him. It was an old man with white flowing hairs and beard that resembled the image of deities and wise sages of old. Even the clothes he was dressed in were ancient Chinese robes with large flappy sleeves. The first thought that came to me was, "Could this actually be the true chieftain of the foxes of the Yellow Soil Ridge? But no, there was no demonic aura or the distinct air of divinity that only immortals possessed. Who could this old man actually be?"
A warm smile creased on the elderly face of the old man who immediately knitted his fingers into a salute. "Greetings, Master Shiyan! I'm afraid I have to apologize for calling upon you at such an inopportune hour!" I responded with an equally friendly gesture and said, "Please, there's no need for such formalities. How can I be of service? Is it something urgent, given the hour of your visit?" Unlike my two companions, a helpful Edelweiss was already unlocking the door, motioning us to enter.
"Let's talk inside, dear sir," I said to the old man and ushered him inwards. "Please," he quipped, much to my chagrin! "Can we not talk with normal, everyday language instead of such refined mannerism?!"
Nevertheless, despite my disquiet, I observed a hint of anxiety on the rosy cheeks of the old man, even though he had been trying hard to conceal it. Realizing that he could be needing urgent help, I skipped through the usual customs of making tea, and instead extracted a can of Coke from the refrigerator. I set it down on the table and asked, "How can we help you, old man?" The old man took out a small, marble flask and unstoppered it. Immediately, Smoky emerged out from the thumb-size bottle quietly!
"What in the world?!" I almost blurted. The hairs on my arm stood at once like needles as my mind heightened to peak alertness from the little grogginess I had been feeling after drinking and dining with Zheng Shuang. "But wait, there's no way he's an enemy, else he would not have to allow Smoky to return to us." A quick look at Smoky told me that it was very weak, with much of its mana expended. I took out my Spirit Gourd at once and returned Smoky into it. After watching everything, the old man finally spoke again, "My apologies again, Master Shiyan for the late hour." I nodded. "How can I help you, old man?" I repeated myself again. But the old man fell quiet as if he was wrestling with the notion of confiding to us. Finally, he said, "I am the Mountain Deity who oversees the Yellow Soil Ridge. My name is an old and ancient one, that I am afraid you might not have heard of it. But I'm commonly known by the name, Lao Tao (literally, Old Tao)."
"WAIT A MINUTE!" I almost cried out loud again, "You are Lao Tao?!" The name was one I had once heard before, although I had never expected to hear it now, of all times. During our first encounter with Master Six, he had subdued a weasel demon and a vengeful spirit who had reborn into a cat. At that time, Master Six had shown leniency to the culprit, a weasel demon, and ordered it to seek out an entity called Lao Tao at the Yellow Soil Ridge. "Was the Lao Tao that Master Six had mentioned then really this old man?!" Then again, this would explain the absence of any demonic nor divine aura, because Mountain Deities were hardly demons and yet they were hardly immortals with invincible powers and magic. "No wonder my Spirit Sight picked up nothing!"
Still, it was only prudent that I establish some bona fides; with as much politeness I could muster, I asked, "I presume you are the Lao Tao of the Yellow Soil Ridge that Master Six had spoken of?" My guess was confirmed with a curt nod by him and a short reply, "Indeed, I am he." But his presence now and Smoky's exhaustion of mana only added to the grimness of this late-night encounter. Mountain Deities, despite being immortals with relatively weaker powers and magic, wielded great importance and authority. They were in charge of all entities that walked their domain; be that demons or beasts, spirits or sprites, every living being in the area answered to them. "Is he here because of a crisis that not even he could handle on his own?"
My doubt must be showing on my face, for the Mountain Deity then explained his visit, saying, "The gang of weasels came to me this morning about the matter of territory." "I see. Because of my spirit cat, they failed to take it by force, so they're asking you to intervene?" "Nay," the elderly deity shook his head, much to my surprise, "They came to me with your spirit cat. They would do to me, just as what they did to your spirit cat, if I do not do as they want. Moreover, they wanted me to be a messenger as well; to return the spirit cat and say this to you: the foxes have you as their strong support behind them, but as do they. The weasels have sworn to fight to the end. What a pity, that despite my position, I am powerless against them. I'm afraid that even I can do nothing if the weasels really have a strong and powerful benefactor aiding them..."
To describe himself as "powerless" seemed more like an overstatement; as a Mountain Deity, Lao Tao must have methods and powers of his own, notwithstanding his authority. On one hand, I had Master Six and Father to support me, but Lao Tao must have realized that the Yizhou weasels must have powerful aid themselves, so he relented...
Nevertheless, there was no other way but to continue down the road we had been treading upon. With a smile to Lao Tao, I said, "Rest at ease, old sir. We'll accept the challenge of the weasels and we will not surrender either!"