Yuchi Bing Xia and Wu Min Huan finally arrived at another village. It was several times smaller than the town they had visited before, only consisting of a dozen thatched huts.
Yuchi Bing Xia glanced at his disciple and waved him over towards the market square. A handful of women had gathered there, sorting through an assortment of wild plants and herbs. He cupped his fists and bowed. “Greetings, we’ve come from the Yun Zou Sect to investigate the disappearance of several children around this area. Might you know something about this occurrence?”
The women looked up and stared at Yuchi Bing Xia and Wu Min Huan. The two of them didn’t mind. A lot of villagers had never seen cultivators and only heard of them from some merchants or other travelers. Only the white robes they wore tipped this kind of people off that they might be the kind of person described in those stories.
One of the women got up and dusted off her hands, greeting them with a wide smile. “Greetings.” She fell silent afterward, not knowing what else to say. She only looked at Yuchi Bing Xia in a daze. Compared to the men in their village … She smiled awkwardly and twisted her fingers.
Yuchi Bing Xia didn’t mind. He smiled back at her and tried a different approach. “Did any children vanish in your village?”
The woman hurriedly shook her head. “No, no, no. Nothing like that happened. We don’t have many children here anyway, just one or two.” She turned to look at the other women and tugged at a strand of her hair.
Yuchi Bing Xia nodded. “So it’s like that. Then might you have heard of something from the other villages?” He raised his brows and glanced from her to the other women.
All of them shook their heads and the first woman piped up again. “There aren’t many villages this close to the forest. So we don’t hear a lot of news from them. We mostly keep to ourselves.”
Yuchi Bing Xia nodded slowly. “So it’s like that,” he repeated and glanced at the women again. “In that case, we’re sorry for disturbing you. Would you be able to point us in the direction of the next village?”
The woman nodded eagerly and turned away from the forest, pointing in the direction they had come from. “It’s over there. It’s quite a bit bigger than our village too so they should hear more from the outside world. They’ll certainly be able to help you.”
Yuchi Bing Xia smiled. “Thank you again for your help then, Madam. We’ll be on our way then.” He turned away and nodded at Wu Min Huan, leaving the village with him.
Wu Min Huan glanced over his shoulder. “Master …”
Yuchi Bing Xia smiled and patted his shoulder. “Let’s go.” He continued forward as if he hadn’t understood his disciple’s misgivings.
Wu Min Huan furrowed his brows. He didn’t believe that he had just imagined that something was wrong with these villagers. Could it be that reality was even worse than his imagination? Could the simple-looking people be the demonic practitioners that were behind the children’s disappearances? Was that why his Master pretended not to have noticed anything and returned to the city? He didn’t dare to ask and just silently followed behind him. He definitely couldn’t risk giving his Master’s thoughts away.
Finally, Yuchi Bing Xia stopped in his tracks and looked back toward the village. “I’m afraid we won’t be able to find out much. Even if the townspeople saw one of these women, they would never suspect them to have anything to do with this.”
Wu Min Huan nodded. Even though women could become practitioners or cultivators, the general populace still imagined men whenever they talked about them. If they were to tell them that a group of women were the demonic practitioners that had kidnapped their children, they would likely believe them to be scams instead of suspecting the women of any evil deeds. In their minds, a woman would never be able to become a demonic practitioner and even harm an innocent child.
“Then we’ll investigate on our own?”
Yuchi Bing Xia nodded. “We have to make sure that we don’t alarm them further though. They were hidden rather well considering their cultivation stage. So either they didn’t do anything overboard other than kidnapping those children or they have the help of somebody stronger. Before we know for sure we can’t act rashly.”
Yuchi Bing Xia examined their surroundings and finally motioned to a path leading by the town they had visited before. “Let’s take that way and circle back to the forest. They were sorting through herbs so they should have been in the forest before. It’s likely they’ll have left some traces if they brought the children there. Especially so if there were more than those two.”
Wu Min Huan nodded and followed his Master to the path. Together, they went back to the forest, delving into the shadows beneath the treetops. Their white robes glimmered under the few rays of light that shone down from above. They certainly weren’t inconspicuous.
Wu Min Huan looked around, trying to see any traces that might tell him where the demonic practitioners had gone to or come from but he turned up empty-handed. It was as if nobody other than them had entered the forest in the last few months.
Yuchi Bing Xia also examined their surroundings. They had entered the forest at a spot almost two li away from the village. Considering how close to the village was to the forest’s edge, it was likely that the demonic practitioners entered at a spot close by. They weren’t likely to find any hints here.
The two of them quietly followed the path in the direction of the village, keeping an eye out for traces of the children. They didn’t find any but they happened upon something different.