"Yes I wish to employ you and your men. Working for me would obviously be better than being bandits wouldn't it?" Zhang replied.
A hint of hesitation could be seen on Xi Ning's face.
"That or you can continue to be bandits." Zhang said.
Xi Ning looked around at his men all wearing rags and his nephew beside him. Once a part of a mighty army now reduced to this.
Just thinking about how they got here he cursed at himself. Had he known how to back down instead of always pushing forward blindly they wouldn't be in such a situation.
"Fi-fine my men and I will be in your service." Xi Ning said as he bent down on one knee.
"Good from today on I'll be your lord and you will be my men!" Zhang yelled so all of the bandit could hear him.
"Uncle does this mean we don't have to be bandits anymore!?" Xi Yan yelled out with joyful tears falling from the corner of his eyes.
"Ye-yes." Xi Ning said as his eyes moistened. However, no tears fell.
Cheers from the men rang out and some even broke out in tears.
The entire time they were bandits ate away at their conscience but sadly there was nothing they could do. They tried to run but there was nowhere to run to.
However, now they had a chance to start anew. With the gold Zhang presented they would be able to pay this eyes tax that was placed on the village and with the extra bit left over they may be able to spend it on their families.
"My lord if you would come with me." Xi Ning said respectfully to Zhang.
Xi Ning has a naturally stubborn personality which caused him to clash to with the Jin clan however he was a loyal man so once he bent his knee to Zhang he had pledged his loyalty to Zhang. Before his loyalty was only to his brothers in arms but not it was extended to Zhang.
In his eyes Zhang have him and the entire village a possible way out of their misery.
"Let us go pack our things." Yan Li said.
"No need I will have some men do it." Xi Ning said.
"Alright lead the way." Zhang said.
"Is it alright to follow them just like this?" Jian Wei asked as he caught up to Zhang.
"We won't know until we get there. If anything they will be the ones in trouble, I have some tricks left in my sleeve."
"Okay good. I can tell these men although somewhat out of shape are all veteran soldiers. And their leader most likely is a very experienced general." Jian Wei said.
Xi Ning lead Zhang and his party through the forest and then on a narrow pass up a small mountain.
Their village was built in a very strategic location. It overlooked a vast area of land and only had two possible ways to enter or exit. This allowed for it to be easily defendable.
The village has high walls made of logs to keep wild animals out and provide a bit of protection to its people. Sentry towers were placed from the top of the walls and on the sides of the mountain.
"Welcome to our village." Xi Ning said as he pulled out a horn from a pouch he was carrying.
"I knew it was a trap!" One of the sailors yelled as Xi Ning blew the horn.
"He's calling for reinforcements from the village." The sailor yelled.
"Calm down man." Jian Wei yelled after slapping the man to calm him down.
Moments later the front gate of the village opened and from within many shadows walked out.
Once they got closer many women, children and elderly people could be seen. These were the families of Xi Ning and his men.
The horn simply signaled their return and it was safe to open the gates. They were obviously not the only bandit group in this area so naturally they had to keep their loved ones safe.
Once the women, children and elderly saw the men return they were filled with joy. Young wives running to husbands. Children running to fathers. Parents running to their kids.
Xi Ning preceded to guide Zhang's group into the village and arrange places for them to sleep.
He then gathered all of the members of the village at the center of the village.
"As of today we will no longer have to be bandits." He yelled.
Many of those who did not know looked toward their loved ones in disbelief and then those looked quickly changed to looks of joy. They knew that the men for not wish for this but had to.
These men would rather fight and die honorable deaths on the battlefield then this. But to keep their loved ones fed and to pay the unbelievably high tax they had to.
After the news was announced everyone went back to their own homes.
Xi Ning and Zhang walked to what seemed like a meeting hall. Once inside Xi Ning thanked Zhang.
"How many men do you have under your command." Zhang asked.
"My lord we have roughly five thousand men." Xi Ning replied respectfully.
"Five thousand?" Zhang asked somewhat confused. He was expecting more along the lines of five hundred towards a thousand men.
"Yes when I was in Red Mist city I recommended a regiment of soldiers and when I left most of the men left with me. Most of the people in the city are fed up with the lord of the city. However, they are too afraid to do anything."
"Is that so. Here take this and use it to equip the men with armor and weapons." Zhang said as he waved his hand and made thousands of gold coins appear.
" I will be traveling toward Aurora city but afterwards I will be back. There's a score to settle with that Jin clan." Zhang said as he slammed his palm onto s table.
"Make sure no one knows about your preparations." Zhang added.
"Milord you are going to Aurora city?"
"Yes what of it."
If you are going to Aurora city, then you must pass through the Dragon's Maw. If so I know a shortcut through it." Xi Ning said as he pulled out a large map.
On the map Xi Ning pointed to a certain hill on the map.
"This is a secret pass that not many know about. If you traveled through here than your travel time will be halved. Also there is a hidden spring along the path that is great for cultivation."
"Hmmm intriguing." Zhang said.
"And from the looks of it you my lord have conflicts with the Jin clan." Xi Ning said.
"Then you must take this route because they control the entrance to the dragon’s maw".
"How did you know about this path?" Zhang questioned.
"Before when I was still a general within Red Mist city I happened upon an ancient map that described this secret path. And when we were scouting for places to build our village we stumbled upon the entrance. However, we never fully explored the inside."
"Then it's settled we will take this path." Zhang decided.
After talking briefly with Xi Ning, Zhang decided to give him another task. Leaving him with more gold coins Zhang had instructed him to recruit and train more men. And begin the construction of a certain project.
In the morning Zhang's group now in possession of the map leading to the secret passage and a guide provided by Xi Ning headed off.
The guide quickly led them through the forest. Once the guide led them to the entrance of the oath Zhang ordered the man to return to the village.
This secret path had only enough space for three people to walk side to side. So the group entered it in a single filed line. The path lead to an opening in the side of a cliff. Zhang took point and walked into the cave.
Within the cave the walls were lined with glowing stones illuminating it.
If the group used this group, they would go under a part of the Dragon's Maw. And since the path did not have twists and turns like the surface above they would be able to travel much quicker.
After traveling for a few hours the group decided to pitch camp. It would take them a few more days before they reached the end of the cave and there were in no rush to tire themselves out.
Like before Zhang, Yuying and Ai would be staying in the same tent. While everyone else would have their own arrangements.
The group started cooking dinner after setting up their tents. And after a light meal everyone retreated to their tents.
"Now is the time." Zhang thought.
"Ahhh." He yelled he sat onto the ground.
"What's wrong brother!" The two girls asked as they ran into the tent to see Zhang on the floor rubbing his back.
"I stumbled over a rock and hurt my back." Zhang said while continuing to rub his back and with a painful look on his face.
"Here I'll help you up and you can sleep on the bed and we will sleep down here on these blankets." Yuying said as he gently held Zhang's arm and began helping him up.
After Zhang got up she lead him toward the bed and let him lay down.
"Step one down complete now on to step two." He thought.
"You two I forgot to do something can you both come and help me get up?" Zhang asked.
Yuying and Ai each came to one side of the bed and put out their slender hands to help Zhang up. Zhang reach out both of his hands and held onto the hands of the two beauties.
Then with a tug he pulled them down. Taken by surprise both Yuying and Ai fell over landing on top of the bed.
"Gotcha!" Zhang yelled and he let loss of their hands and embraced both of their waists.
"Mission is a success!" He yelled out in his mind.
The faces of the two beauties turned deep red as he embraced them.
"You rascal." Yuying cried out as she worked her way out of his embrace.
"You made us worry for no reason you jerk." Ai yelled as she also worked out his embrace.
"He he he." Zhang chuckled with a grin on his face.
"As punishment you are to sleep on the ground again." Yuying said as she pointed to the ground.
"Okay okay." Zhang said as he got up and jumped onto the small den of pillows and blankets on the ground.
"Next time if you want to you should have just said so!" Yuying said with a blushing face.
"What was that?" Zhang asked with a grin on his face.
"No-nothing!" Yuying yelled as she jumped on the bed and covered herself with a blanket.
Soon Ai joined her and the trio fell asleep. Zhang slept soundly with a wide grin on his face that night.
After a few hours of sleep, it was time to continue their journey so the group began packing away their tents. However, something odd happened one of their horses was gone.
Through the night they did not hear a sound and everyone slept peacefully. Had a horse ran off they obviously would have heard its hooves hit the stone floor.
"Maybe we were all just too tired and didn't hear it." Jian Wei said as he tried to calm everyone. The worst thing to do now was to join to conclusions.
"Yea let’s get moving staying here and jumping to conclusions don't get us anywhere." Zhang said backing up Jian Wei.
So the group began their journey once more. The man who had ridden the horse that disappeared had to share a horse with someone else.
As they got further the cave opened up more and more.
"You could fit a small city down here!" Ai yelled out.
An echo of her voice could be hear passing through the empty space in the cave.
After half a day or so of traveling it was time to set up camp once more.
This time the two beauties ignored Zhang and went directly to sleep.
Tonight however Zhang would not go to sleep. He decided to stay up and make sure that there wasn't something else inside this cave with them.
Zhang sat on the ground inside the tent and began meditating. He had not had the chance to cultivate for a long time so now was the time to do so.
He pulled out a small bottle from his interspatial ring and drank it. This bottle was filled with Phoenix blood. Once the Phoenix blood entered his system Zhang used the Underworld Heart to circulate it throughout his body.
Normally a person would only receive fifty percent of the Phoenix bloods power however thanks to the underworld heart Zhang is able to utilize one hundred percent of its energy.
The power within Zhang surged and pushed him through the next level. Now spiritually Zhang had reached level five. while physically he is still behind his old self and is only level four. But thanks to being a combination of both and along with his high level equipment he can outclass most of his opponents.
Zhang sat there through the entire night regulating his energy increase. The entire night he did by hear a single sound.
However, in the morning another horse went missing and to everyone's horror one of the sailors also disappeared. When examining the man's tent there was no sign of any struggles which made it even more odd.
So it was decided the form now on that everyone would sleep in the same tent as someone else. Two people per a tent.
The group consisted of seventeen people now so besides the trio there would be seven pairs. After traveling through the cave the group once more pitched camp.
However, the festive and adventurous feeling that sweeper everyone's hearts was no more. Everyone was vigilant and afraid.
Maybe they would be the next person to disappear was the thought that was constantly on everyone's mind.
Fear of the unknown and fear of death filled the air and suffocated everyone within the group. Well everyone besides the trio of course.
Of the entire group the trio would most likely be the ones to survive. They simply have to sleep dressed in Lightning Eater scale armor and their chances of surviving most ordeals would drastically increase.
Tonight instead of one campfire several were lit and almost encircled the camp. It served as a sort of barrier to reply the darkness and the vile creatures that lurked within it.
And so the third night passed and without a sound more people disappeared. This time it was two horses and four sailors.
These four had their tents pitched on the outer ring of the camp.
Zhang swore that tonight would be different in his mind. Tonight he had arranged for everyone to break up into groups three tents and for two people to be on constant watch.
And after certain intervals of time they would signal to each other by whistling.
Zhang could of had everyone sleep without a tent in a large group. However, the goal was not to ensure everyone's survival but to find out the reason as to why everyone is disappearing and stop it. In the process of doing so if he found out those who disappear were killed he would avenge them and by doing so ensure everyone's safety.
Minutes passed as if they were hours and hours stretched on endlessly for those who stayed on watch.
Zhang was one of the people on watch and a few hours had passed without any disturbances. Then suddenly a scream could be heard in the tent next to his.
Zhang pulled out his dagger and slashed at his tent splitting the fabric. This would be way quicker than making his way to the flap of fabric that lead out of the tent.
Once out said he saw a man being dragged away by something.
Seeing this Zhang sprang to action he launched out his dagger into the darkness. Once the dagger connected with something a loud shriek could be heard. And the man although panicking was able to get up and run toward Zhang.
"It it came out of nowhere as I went to go take a piss. I couldn't tell what it was but whatever it was is big and strong." The man said to Zhang.
By now everyone had woken up and ran out of their tents.
"What happen brother?" Ai asked as she saw the panic filled face of the man
"We caught our perpetrator." Zhang said calmly.
And began pulling on the chain in his hand. As he pulled a loud shriek sounded out.