The bright moon hung high in the night sky like a jewel on blue velvet.
Xia City basked in its silver glow, its own night lamps and houses casting an orange radiance in response.
House Luolan's headquarters contributed to some of that radiance, its defenses tight as bodyguards patrolled the perimeter.
Yet at present, a black shadow passed the defenses stealthily, entering the property. He was clothed in black from head to toe, a suspicious character by all accounts. Yet the guards of House Luolan moved past him without batting an eyelid, or even taking the slightest notice.
They had not all gone blind. Rather, this enigmatic intruder possessed powerful arts to cloak his presence from all outsiders.
It was a mark of his incredible skill.
"Is House Luolan completely useless after losing Li Taixuan and Tan Tailan?" he mumbled to himself, shaking his head as he made his way deeper in.
House Luolan headquarters, back kitchen.
Having just finished preparations for dinner, Ox Biaobiao strolled out of the kitchen, his bald head gleaming with a miniature reflection of the moon.
He looked up at the real deal and sighed.
"Li Taixuan, Tan Tailan, you two bastards... Saddling me with the kids? What am I? Your nursemaid?
"I was damned unlucky to meet you two."
He rubbed his head ruefully and turned to regard House Luolan. "Watch the kids, watch the house... I'm not a watchdog, damn it."
Ox Biaobiao's hands slid down to the shining cleavers at his sides, walking out past the kitchen and into the shadows.
A corridor in House Luolan.
The enigmatic black shadow walked on without a care in the world. Abruptly, he stopped, staring intently into the darkness ahead. "So there is one hidden in House Luolan..."
"I say, little tramp, I see your ilk skulking around year after year on the night of the Ghost Festival. Finally felt bold enough to come in, eh?" Ox Biaobiao emerged from the gloom with a grim smile.
"A powerful Duke expert, whiling away years as a chef at House Luolan. Should I praise Li Taixuan and Tan Tailan for their persuasion, or decry your willingness to slave?" The shadowy figure spoke with measured pace, his voice coming from all directions.
"Little tramp, all you do is skulk around, too afraid to show yourself. You remind me of the rats feeding off swill in the kitchen," Ox Biaobiao said.
"All these years spent languishing at House Luolan's headquarters, not setting foot outside even once. House Luolan is in shambles, and yet you have not lifted a finger. I am curious. Why?"
Ox Biaobiao laughed. "House Luolan was always for the two kids to try their hand out. Who cares if it succeeds or fails?"
"I'm curious too. You and the others who have been watching House Luolan. Why? Who are the powers behind you? You've been watching House Luolan for a long time now," Ox Biaobiao said, his eyes turning cold as well.
The black-robed intruder smiled thinly. "Why bluff? Of course everyone wishes to know the secrets that Li Taixuan and Tan Tailan left behind. I appeal to you: leave behind the ruined House Luolan and your guard. Whatever promise you have to Li Taixuan and the others, your years of service must have repaid them all. If you join us, your future will be brighter than it is here."
"Join you?" Ox Biaobiao echoed. "Sure. And do tell, what is your faction’s position in the Xia Kingdom?"
The intruder shook his head with a wry smile. "Tell me the secret that Li Taixuan and Tan Tailan left behind, then I will initiate you."
Ox Biaobiao sighed. "Well then... up yours, and your mother."
The intruder said no more, wordlessly gathering energy.
With a sudden wrench, he bent the energy to his will, summoning a carpet of black fire that covered the sky.
One palm stretching out of a black sleeve, he flicked a finger upwards, and the black flames obediently moved to the tip.
This was just a small flame, but no one would doubt its deadliness.
"Let me see just how strong the watchdog Li Taixuan and Tan Tailan left behind is," he said with a cold smile, flicking the black flame out at Ox Biaobiao.
Ox Biaobiao watched the flame fly forward at a controlled pace. It seemed impossible to avoid, but he did not look worried at all. He rubbed his bald head with some consternation.
"...did a fourth-rate Duke get to look down on me?"
A cold flash of light, and a clear, metallic timbre rang out. It seemed like a demigod had climbed out of hell itself, such was the savagery of the move.
Ox Biaobiao appeared behind the black-robed intruder. He did not seem to have moved an inch; even his cleavers were still resting on his belt.
An after-image of Ox Biaobiao remained at his original position for a moment longer before it faded with the night wind.
The black flame had frozen in mid-air, then it fell apart, sliced cleanly into two. It then dissipated.
A thin line of light was visible in the middle of the black-robed figure. He had also been split clean in two.
"What fierce knife skills..."
The black-robed man said, now much more serious than before. "Fascinating. A chef who never sees blood, and yet is able to cultivate knife skills not seen in the Xia Kingdom in centuries... Li Taixuan and Tan Tailan are really something else, to get someone like you on their side.
"But it only makes us even more curious about their secret. Ox Biaobiao, you will not be able to hold on to it.
"I can feel that the wards they left are fading with the years. And as for you, perhaps it is not that you will not leave House Luolan's headquarters, but that you cannot...
"You're just a dog, chained here by them."
His body caught fire and burned away into nothingness.
The worldly natural energies returned to their normal equilibrium, and the sounds of the night returned.
Ox Biaobiao looked morosely at the spot where the intruder had been standing. He had made a run for it. Moreover, he had not sent his real body, only an energy clone.
Still, only a Duke should have been strong enough to penetrate the wards that Li Taixuan and Tan Tailan had set around House Luolan. The fact that the black-robed Duke could send an energy clone inside was a clear indication that the wards were indeed waning.
"What a pickle..."
Ox Biaobiao shook his head and looked up at the moon again.
"Looks like I'll have to talk to the kids."