A biting wind swept across the lands, carrying with it a gritty sand that coated any passing travelers. These were the northwestern plains. It was now midwinter, and yet, no snow had fallen. It was a dry place, filled with yellow earth and bare hills. Occasionally, dried leaves would flutter drearily off barren trees, accompanied by the desolate caws of crows and ravens.
Li He cleared his throat and then spit; before the spittle could even reach the ground, it was frozen.
“The weather here is horrific,” he said. “Sand everywhere. Your spit even freezes as soon as it leaves your mouth. Without strong energy arts, you’d probably freeze if you stayed out in the open. How do people survive the winters here?”
One of the other freshman students opened his mouth to reply, only to have it filled with sand, causing him to devolve into a fit of coughing and cursing.
Yang Qi was there in the team of five.
They had accepted the mission to eliminate vampire brigands, all in the hopes of earning some merit points.
There were other groups who had accepted the mission as well, but were acting on their own. That was how it usually went in the Demi-Immortal Institute; small groups would form, and if things went well with them, they might eventually form official organizations.
Licking his lips enviously, Hua Yinhu looked over and said, “Yang Qi, how can you be taking this so casually? Your true energy must be way more powerful than ours!”
Yang Qi was actually surrounded by a shimmering barrier of energy, which kept the sand and wind away from him. He was the only one among the group who was completely clean, unlike the others, who were covered with sand.
The truth was that they could all create similar barriers if they wanted to.
After all, they were all in the eighth phase, and could perform Mind Incarnation. However, none of them were willing to casually waste their true energy in the way that Yang Qi did.
When they first arrived in the northwestern plains, and saw Yang Qi doing so, they had assumed it was because of his inexperience. After all, conserving true energy was one of the most important things to do on missions. One didn’t want to run low of it in a crucial moment.
To waste true energy on keeping warm and sand-free seemed like suicide.
However, Yang Qi’s energy fluctuations didn’t seem to be weakening at all. His face was not flush from the effort, and was not even close to gasping. He seemed to be taking it all completely in stride.
None of them had ever encountered anyone with such boundless energy reserves.
One of the other students, He Jili, seemed very intrigued. 
“Hey, Yang Qi,” he said. “We’ve seen you working on your cultivation, but haven’t seen you fight yet. What are your energy arts and cultivation base like? We're all curious. Want to exchange some pointers? Warm up a bit?”
He Jili was in the eighth phase, and had an impressive background; he was born to a noble family from the Sage Ancestor Dynasty, which was far richer than the country bumpkin Yang Clan. They even had Lifeseizers there. Despite that, he had still been sent to study in the Demi-Immortal Institute.
“Hey, did you notice that?” Yang Qi said. “Forget exchanging pointers. I smell blood. Come on, let’s go check it out!” He suddenly burst into motion, sending sand flying out everywhere as he shot off in a certain direction.
“Blood? How come I don't smell anything?”
The other four students shook their heads, but followed along.
They sped along for a few dozen kilometers before arriving at a desert bazaar. What they saw instantly caused their jaws to drop.
It was a huge market city, and everyone in it was dead. There were corpses everywhere, and the entire place was splattered with blood. There were men, women, the old, and the young. Even babies. All of them had been drained of blood, leaving them as nothing more than desiccated corpses. Furthermore, everything of value had been taken away.
Expressions of horror could be seen on the twisted corpses, as though their final moments had been filled with unimaginable pain.
There were already wolves present, gnawing at the corpses. The sound of crunching bones made the entire scene seem like hell itself.
Yang Qi very nearly gasped at the sight.
After looking around, he noticed that the nearby corpse of a particularly burly man had a wound on his neck that looked like a bite mark. Shockingly, these people had been bitten on the neck, and then had their blood sucked out of them.
The winter wind swept through the bazaar, and it sounded like the wailing of ghosts and the moaning of gods; it was enough to cause one's heart to twitch.
Some of the wolves howled, and then, noticing that there were living humans present, rushed toward the freshman students. However, Hua Yinhu quickly killed them.
“What cruel vampirism!” he said. “I wonder what energy art they were using. It's forbidden to cultivate vampiric arts; they can lead to rapid cultivation advancement, ten times the speed of ordinary people. But anyone found to be practicing such things would be killed instantly. Who would have ever thought that vampire brigands would rise up in the northwestern plains? If we don’t drive them out immediately, who knows how much damage they’ll incur?”
He shook his head. As the son of a marquis from the Sage Ancestor Dynasty, he knew much more about the world than the rest of the students. Kneeling down, he reached out to touch the blood that filled the hoof marks leading off into the distance.
“These people have only been dead for a few hours. Thanks to the temperature, a lot of evidence has been left behind. Looks to me like there were a few thousand brigands. They swept through the bazaar and killed everyone in roughly the time it takes an incense stick to burn. If we follow these tracks, we should be able to catch up to them.”
‘This Hua Yinhu knows what he's doing,’ Yang Qi thought. Although he knew himself to be extremely powerful, it was obvious that it was going to take a lot of work to catch up to the other experienced students when it came to things like investigation and reconnoitering. He knew how to fight, but when it came to non-combat skills, the best thing to do for the moment was to keep quiet and learn from those who knew what they were doing.
“Since we have their trail, let’s track down these vampire brigands and slaughter them all!” Filled with righteous indignation, the students immediately focused on ridding the world of devils and demons like the brigands.
Yang Qi was in full agreement. These vampires were dangerous, and the world wouldn’t be safe until they were all dead.
Hua Yinhu took the lead, and the rest of the group followed him as he began to track the hoof prints off into the distance.
The northwest was gloomy at this time. Occasionally, they would pass hills or other terrain features where common people had set up residence. Sadly, all such structures had been destroyed.
Thousands of years ago, the northwest had been a prosperous place, but eventually, it had been taken over by desert sands, and descended into ruin. As the group continued on, they saw evidence of the civilizations that had existed in this place many years ago.
When they were a few hundred kilometers away from the bazaar, evening began to fall, and the sky turned dark. Thankfully, everyone in the group was an energy art expert, and could easily see in low light. From the thick clouds that choked the sky, it seemed likely snow would begin to fall soon.
At one point, Hua Yinhu stopped and pointed out in front of him. “Look, up ahead! The ruins of an ancient city. Be careful everyone. I’d say it’s highly likely the vampire brigands have taken up residence in those ruins.”
The winter wind howled across battlements which had watched thousands of years pass by.
The team of five sped forward until they were at the city gates. At that point, they realized that there was absolutely no signs of passage, neither of humans nor horses.
“Did we lose them?” Hua Yinhu murmured.
“It's fine,” Li He said. “These brigands move about like the wind. Look, it’s getting late. Why don’t we find a place in these ruins to make camp? We can come up with a new plan tomorrow. Besides, it looks like it’s going to snow, and we don’t want to get stuck out in the open if that happens.”
Everyone exchanged glances, and could see that they all agreed.
Not even people in the eighth phase would want to get stuck in a freezing storm that lasted the night. If spit turned into ice during the day, it could be imagined how cold the night would be.
And thus, the group of five entered the city gate.
The whimpering of the wind was even more ghostly inside the city, almost as though they had passed through the gates of hell. The shops that lined the streets were so old that their signage had long since rotted away into nothing.
“Let’s look for a place that—” Before Li He could finish his sentence, a creaking sound filled the air as the city gates closed behind them of their own accord.
Other than Yang Qi, everyone was shocked. Spinning, Li He said, “Who’s there!?”
Suddenly, they all had the feeling that they had walked into a trap.
Cawing like that of a crow or raven suddenly echoed out on the street, a sound that resembled that of fiendish ghosts who stalked the night. Whispering sounds could also be heard, although it was impossible to determine where exactly they came from.
“Watch out!” Hua Yinhu barked. “There’s something strange about this city. Everybody stand back-to-back!”
Even as the words left his mouth, a shadowy figure appeared behind Hua Yinhu, the color of blood, with sharp fangs and claws. At the same time, a ghostly wind blew across them that caused their hackles to rise.
A claw slashed through the air, pulsing with blood-colored energy as it made contact with Hua Yinhu’s defensive true energy.
An aroma of blood inundated the group that was so strong they nearly collapsed into unconsciousness.
Startled, Hua Yinhu let out a shout, but didn’t have time to react before the blood-colored claw was almost right on him.
“Die!” Yang Qi growled as he attacked like lightning. Instantly, a wave of true energy shot out from him and struck the blood-colored figure.
The thing screamed, then flew away, disappearing into the city.
As it turned out, it was Humanoid True Energy, dispatched by a Master of Energy.
“Who’s out there?!” Hua Yinhu shouted. “Vampire brigands? Your end is nigh! We’re students from the Demi-Immortal Institute! Get out into the open, you freakish hellions! It’s time for you to die!”
At the same time, however, he projected his voice to everyone else in the group. “We're in trouble. We fell into their trap. Who would have thought that they had a Master of Energy on their side?”
Hey everyone, for those of you who like to use acronyms for the books, I suggest we use SaMo instead of SM. Honestly SM seems just too vague. I've been using SaMo in my record-keeping and notes and whatnot, and it seems better to me. Just a suggestion.