Shrine of an Forgotten God, Henan
Despite it being early spring, warmth had still not come to the central province. The barren outskirts were no different. The gentle breeze rustled the trees and grass. A chorus of nature filled the air. The setting sun coloured the forest with a warm orange glow.
A long set of stairs led up a hill. Each step was weathered to the point of becoming uneven. Overgrown grass and roots battled what remained of the steps. At the top was a single temple. The wooden building would have rot long ago if they hadn't been created with care. Though, nature did seem eager to reclaim it. Vines covered half of the one-story temple. While there had been signs of pruning, it had not been cut for a long time. It was easier to let the vines stay fully grown that constantly fight over who the temple belonged to, after all. It wasn't a shrine for Buddha nor was it a place of worship for Taoists. The only clue to what the shrine had been built for was a statuette of an unknown figure in the middle of the courtyard. Despite the disrepair the shrine faced, the statuette had been swept clean and protected from the encroaching wilds.
A man wearing a red-peaked straw hat climbed the uneven steps. A dog of the martial alliance, as the recusant would call those who wore that hat. Those within the martial alliance knew them as the hands of the current head. To call them elite warriors wouldn't be correct. No, the most notable thing about them were their loyalty. Even so, he certainly had the aura of a master. Despite his ragged eyes and exhaustion, he carried himself nobly with each step. What was most strange about him was the book he was carrying. It was strange for someone to have a book with them considering how valuable they usually were.
It was strange that someone like him would be at the outskirts of civilization. Nothing happened in a place like this. Despite that, the man seemed to have been travelling for a long time with little time to recuperate at civilization.
"Hello?" The man said with a whistle. "Anyone out here?"
A thin haze of smoke covered the streets of Xincai. Incense was in the air as the dense streets were filled with warrior and townsfolk alike. Vendors hawked whatever they could sell. What once had been a humble town had evolved into a bustling city thanks to the war. Xincai had been relatively untouched for Henan. With so much trade being disrupted around it, it was only natural that goods began to flow through Xincai.
With trade came prosperity and with prosperity came growth. Though, not all of the growth had been healthy for the new city. Bandits had quickly moved in to capitalize on whatever they could. With bandits came warriors to protect the merchants. Brothels, restaurants, and inns were built to separate the newly wealthy from their coins. Intoxicating smoke filled the streets as businesses and citizen alike burnt incense not for prayer but for leisure.
Xincai was a city where the only ruler was wealth.
As it stood, the city was home to those of every faction. Under the watchful eyes of the merchant king, the city's functions remained independent from any faction. Anyone was welcome as long as they had coin. Those who didn't? Well, there was sure to be work in the city. There was always someone who needed some hired muscle.
"This is 'bout as far as we can take you." A large, rough-looking warrior said.
"What do you mean? I still need to get to Sichuan!" Replied a small scholar.
"Little lady, we aren't exactly the most welcome in the west. And... I'll be honest. The pay was practically us doing you a favour since we were heading 'ere anyways." The rough-looking warrior and his companions had already began to walk away.
"But we had-" The young scholar tried to follow the warriors.
Before she had a chance to complete her sentence, the young scholar dropped her scrolls as she collided with a busy-looking man. The set of warriors with her had already vanished into the crowds of Xincai. Thankfully, the man she had bumped into was too busy to pay her any mind.
The young scholar pouted as tears welled in her eyes. Her face was blush with anger, stress, or embarrassment. It was difficult to tell which. She was out of place, even for someone in Xincai. Her clothes were covered in dirt and dust, yet they were still of noticeable quality. The silk of her dress had been woven into an unusual design of golden clouds. Even though her clothes were high quality, the young scholar didn't seem to care about them judging by her desperation in recollecting her scrolls. She looked more like a rat than a creature of elegance as she crawled around to pick up her scattered scrolls.
The Golden River inn was a place where most martial artists congregated in Xincai. Though, it mostly had to do with the large portions of food the inn served. It helped that there was a large board pinned with various jobs and offers for warriors.
One of the most noticeable boards was a poster of a woman in the middle of a board. It was an offer asking for help in finding someone. Attached was a name and portrait. Tang Yuying. It was a familiar name for those who paid attention to those within the jianghu. The Madwoman of Sichuan. Rather than being known for her martial talents, she was known for her eccentric behaviour. Either she wasn't a great martial artist or her eccentricity eclipsed her talent. Most people couldn't tell which. It was fairly easy to tell that she was a strange person even if they didn't know her. Most people didn't have an abundance of red ink smudged across their eyes on their portraits.
Most important was her presumed location. Northwest of Xincai. The wilds outside any path someone would usually take.