Nestled between the inky black shadows of the forest and the gently adorned firmament of the starry skies, a brilliant blue hue tinted the air, stirring the trees' familiar silhouettes into a frenzy. Thick smoke had billowed into the night air, choking those nearby with a noxious haze. Yet, the trees swayed side to side in a tranquil manner, seemingly irreverent of the raging flames. Blue flames waltzed with the wind, transforming the surroundings into a forlorn, yet serene dreamscape. A tragically beautiful setting, its natural poise marred by the ear-piercing cries that echoed within the valley.
"More water, put it out!"
"The fire won't stop spreading!"
Men were shouting over the roar of the inferno, heaving buckets of water that had been quickly carried to the scene from the flowing river nearby. Regardless of how many buckets of water the men threw, it only seemed to feed the flames. The wall of fire appeared to grow larger with every bucket, as if taunting the villagers for engaging in such futility.
"My son—he's still inside!" Shrieked a hysterical mother, worry and desperation rooted deeply within her voice. She had tried to run towards what was once her warm and comforting home, now under the onslaught of relentless, azure catastrophe. The walls had already been singed black, and began to slowly crumble from the intensity of the heat.
"Honey, you can't! It's too late to save him!"
A hand had firmly clasped around the mother's wrist, pulling her back. It was her husband.
"No, no! Jian! Liu Jian!!"
She screamed her son's name until her voice was hoarse as her eyes filled with tears; bloodshot and glued to the blaze. The man simply encircled her within his strong arms, locking her in his embrace. A few stray tears stained his own cheeks, his expression solemn and filled with regret.
"It's a spirits' fire! Only a cultivator can put it out, send a messenger for help!"
Another despairing wail rose from within the panicked crowd upon hearing those words.
Everyone knew that, for them, it was impossible to extinguish. Caused by evil spirits lingering on Earth, spirits' fire was largely recognized by its characteristic blue color, and is unable to be extinguished through normal means. Quelling this type of fire required spiritual power, specifically that of a cultivator with water roots.
Mere mortals were helpless. Nothing would be able to stop the fire's advance until the cultivators came.
The remaining survivors could only watch helplessly as their entire village burned down, as sorrow was burning within their own hearts.
Their loved ones, food, and precious trinkets all burned together in one night.
By the time the cultivators arrived in the early morning, there was nothing left but collapsed rubble filled with soot and ashes.
The few remaining villagers, with heavy hearts, called this night, "The March of Wrathful Spirits".
5 years later.
"Protective talismans for sale! Come one, come all! Placing a few talismans around your home will ward off the evil spirits that lurk at night!"
A merchant bellows to the bustling marketplace. Upon hearing his words, many people run over to his stall to get the cheapest deal. Women bargain while using their charms, even going as far as attempting to seduce him. Men bargain using their intellect, and the merchant is able to sell out of his protective talismans within an hour.
A large stack of coins rests neatly on the small table within his stall as he counts them up with a hearty smile.
To be able to replicate the exact form of a talisman infused with spiritual power made him a talented artist. The 'talismans' he had sold were all fakes, all drawn on regular pieces of paper that were cut into the same size as normal talisman. And because he was only a normal human who had no spiritual roots, of course those 'talismans' weren't going to protect anyone from anything!
It was too easy to make money nowadays, especially with the increase of spirits' fires starting in so many villages. The amount of people going mad had also increased the last few years, due to spirits possessing human bodies. They say that once a spirit takes over a body, the person will slowly go mad and even ruthlessly massacre others once their body was fully taken over!
Now, how exactly did the sudden influx of spirits happen?
Five years ago, life was much more peaceful. There were not as many evil spirits on Earth as there are at the present. That is, until "The March of Wrathful Spirits".
That night, when the first village was burned down by the spirits' fire, cultivators immediately used their spiritual power to communicate with the souls of those who died within the flames.
Because those souls had just been released from their deceased bodies, they were still lingering around the village and had not yet turned evil.
"...I know that I have died, but I cannot go to the Spirit Realm," the melancholic spirit told the cultivator. "At the moment, the King of Spirits who is supposed to pass judgement upon us… he is not present. He has disappeared from the Spirit Realm, his massive spiritual power that imprisons evil spirits within it has dissipated. Because of his absence, all of the evil spirits were able to break free from the realm and travel to Earth for revenge. Now we can only roam the Earth. Without the King of Spirits, there is no Spirit Realm."
Chaotic uproar ensued; even the Heavens seemed to shake in anger to hear that the King of Spirits had abandoned his post. Nobody had any inkling as to what happened to the King, and countless questions were asked.
Then, one day, a cultivator who had reached the Immortal Ascension stage, hypothesized that perhaps the King of Spirits had traveled to Earth himself! It was not a ridiculous theory at all. In fact, it was highly probable. In the first place, the King of Spirits was an immortal being. To have to pass judgment on each and every soul seeking reincarnation for all eternity was surely a burdensome job. Furthermore, since the King was immortal, there was no way he could 'die'. How could a spirit die? The King of Spirits was a nebulous being with no physical body. The only places for 'spirits' to go are the Spirit Realm, the Underworld, and Earth. Since there had been no news about the King of Spirits roaming about in the Underworld, the only place the King could be was Earth!
This theory made the humans uneasy. If this was true, then wasn't Earth in danger? Evil spirits roaming freely about, killing as they please. Not only that, but the King of Spirits himself was roaming the Earth as well! He could very well possess anyone that he wanted and disguise himself as them. There would be no telling who was who.
The only way to restore the balance between the three realms was to hunt down the King of Spirits, and vanquish him, sending him back to the Spirit Realm where he should continue to imprison rampaging evil spirits with his spiritual power.
Now, the only problem at hand was: how will they be able to find the King among all of the evil spirits possessing countless bodies a day?
Because of the King's massive amount of spiritual power, any cultivator that is at least at the middle-stage of the Qi Condensation level should be able to sense his presence. The hunt for the King of Spirits on Earth had been set into stone. Cultivators of different sects gathered together to find the King and vanquish him. Surely, sending an immortal king back to the Spirit Realm would make any cultivator famous!
Mere mortals, however, would not be aware of anything at all. Evil spirits, or the King of Spirits—humans would not be able to know the difference, if they even noticed at all.
That was why protective talismans were extremely popular on the market nowadays. The number of normal humans greatly outnumbered talented cultivators, and they resorted to using protective talismans infused with spiritual power from cultivators to protect themselves from the evil spirits.
Luckily for this merchant, Wen Po, he was able to create and sell fake talismans for a hefty amount of money. While everyone else were afraid of evil spirits, he did not give a care in the world. His philosophy was simply: "I am here for a good time, not for a long time". To put it bluntly, this merchant had already accepted that he will die one day eventually, so he should live to the best of his ability until then.
As he busies himself with counting the coins he'd received from the sale from earlier, a small, charming voice called out to him.
"Excuse me, good merchant."
Wen Po does not care enough to glance up. If he is to engage in a conversation with this person, he would lose count. He only hopes that the person will get the message and leave him alone after ignoring him.
The voice clearly belongs to a male.
Did he not get the message? If someone is counting money, then leave them be, you brat!
Wen Po ignores him once again. Where was he? Ah, yes. 119… 120… 121…
"Forgive this young one for bothering you…"
Yes, yes, yes! Go away! Scram!
"...But I have an important question for you, it will only take a moment of your time, I promise!"
Ignore him, ignore him! 122… 123… 124…
"...I'll pay you!"
Wen Po immediately snaps his gaze onto the young male standing in front of his stall. He could count the money later, he could do it anytime!
His previously uninterested expression from before had been completely wiped away with a nonchalant smile.
"How may this humble merchant help you, young sir?"
The male seems to be in good spirits after finally receiving a response. He looks rather youthful, with unblemished skin, unrivaled golden eyes, and an endearing smile. His dark-brown hair is messily wrapped into a bun, tied with a dark band. Although he only wears simple cream-colored robes, his very appearance has already lightened up the mood of Wen Po.
"I am but a travelling cultivator searching high and low for any wind of the King of Spirits. If you know of any useful information regarding any recent news of body possessions, I will present you with three coins."
Wen Po watches as the young male pulls out three coins from his pouch with greedy eyes. And then, his smile brightens. His own smile was not bad compared to the young male's—both of them were quite good-looking in their own ways.
"Of course, this merchant knows of all news regarding evil spirits! Having traveled from village to village myself, I had heard plenty of useful information! Male spirits, female spirits, dog spirits, King of Spirits—ah, yes, recent body possessions around here? I know of a few!"
The youth's golden hues practically sparkled upon hearing such great news.
"Please, tell me everything you know about those incidents!"
Wen Po continues merrily, "Well, let's see. A young male in his twenties named Lang Jing was just recently possessed. He was in the early stages of turning mad, everyone could tell because his usually calm and gentle demeanor had suddenly changed to vicious and arrogant! With such a drastic change in such a short amount of time, the village had deemed him to be possessed and banished him to the woods!"
The youth leans closer, as if he would be able to find a secret message tangled within Wen Po's words. "And what did the cultivators say? Was he an evil spirit, or the King of Spirits?"
"That, I do not know. The cultivators hadn't even come to confirm if he was possessed or not, but the poor lad was already banished by the villagers. Seems like everyone is on high alert nowadays, especially with the nearby Mo Village suddenly being consumed by spirits' fire a few days ago…"
The youth frowns, before placing his index finger and thumb upon his chin, deep in thought.
"Is that so? Then is it safe to say that no one knows what happened to Lang Jing after being banished?"
The merchant leisurely nods his head. "No one is crazy enough to follow someone who had turned mad! Not unless they want to throw their life away."
"I see… and the other incidents?"
"There was also a woman named Yao Mei that had been possessed in the next village over, while gathering vegetables in preparation for dinner that night. As she was cutting a few carrots with a knife, suddenly, she turned around and stabbed her own husband in the stomach! And her husband was not the only victim—her daughter and son had also been ruthlessly murdered. But she didn't stop there—going around the village, she massacred about ten people before a group of men had banded together to hold her down. Cultivators who arrived at the scene a few hours later deemed that an A-ranked evil spirit had possessed her body."
Evil spirits were often ranked based on their destructive capability. Rank C, B, A, and S.
Rank C spirits were spirits who had to take a few days to take over the host's body before killing one or two people. Rank B were spirits that took less time to possess a body—one or two days at most. These spirits usually killed around three to seven people. Rank A spirits only took a few hours to take over the host, and would be powerful enough to kill over seven people! However, rank S, the one no one had yet to find, was undoubtedly the King of Spirits. He could immediately take over someone's body in an instant, and do anything he pleased for as long as he wanted within that body. Whether it be killing, thieving, or even doing the naughty 'papapa!' in bed, no one but cultivators would know the host had been possessed!
"So, it was not the King of Spirits…" The youth mumbles thoughtfully, before seemingly setting his mind upon a decision. "Do you know any relevant information that would pertain to the King of Spirits?"
Wen Po pauses, surprise evident on his face. Experienced cultivators were already struggling with detaining C rank spirits, yet this single youth wants to go straight to S rank, the King of Spirits? Just how powerful is this young man?
A complicated expression was upon the merchant's countenance. "No one knows where he may be. The moment he's discovered, he immediately flees and finds a different host. His whereabouts are completely unknown. Because of this, there's never any way to pinpoint his exact location. And besides—if there were some kind of miracle that we could easily find the King of Spirits, what could you do by yourself? You are too young to face an S rank spirit yourself, surely you have little to no experience."
"I may be inexperienced and young, but that is precisely why I must find the King of Spirits and vanquish him. If I pass up this opportunity, I won't be able to prove my seniors that I am capable of becoming a formidable cultivator." The youth replies automatically, as if he's been asked the same question many times before. His previous high-spirited smile had long disappeared, with a straight line formed upon his lips instead.
"Are you courting death?" Wen Po questions, raising an eyebrow as he blatantly ignores the change of the youth's mood.
"Courting death is much better than living meaninglessly," he replies without a bit of hesitance, before throwing the three coins onto the stall. "I'd much rather choose my own end, than let the Heavens above choose for me."
With those words, his eyes glow with determination and spirit.
Wen Po is rendered speechless as he simply stares, having no snarky comeback to reply. The depth of those words made him rethink his own philosophy of living an enjoyable life in contrast to a meaningful one until his death.
The youth notices this, and cups his hands together while slightly bowing. "This young one thanks the humble merchant for answering his inquiries. I shall be on my way now."
And with those parting words, the youth promptly leaves the scene and blends into the crowd, leaving Wen Po to gather the three coins within the palm of his hand.
He picks up a coin with his other hand, examining it, as if it were the most fascinating item he's ever seen before.
"...Haha, choosing my own end, instead of letting the world choose for me, huh…?"
Wen Po lightly laughs, before placing the three coins among the large stack to his right.
"That kid sure has guts. That doesn't sound like a bad way to leave this world at all."
Somewhere not too far away, a handsome male had been watching the two's exchange within the shadows, listening in on the conversation with attentive ears.
Snapping open his white fan, he flutters it lightly in front of the bottom half of his face, hiding his devilish smirk.
"...Interesting," he chuckles lowly, before briskly walking deeper into the alley.