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285 The Level of Thinking

 Meng Qi's heart beat faster as he unconsciously exhaled, seemingly having grasped something.

The silver-haired old man smiled and changed the topic. "Young man, were you feeling somewhat frustrated earlier?"

He stared at Meng Qi squarely as if even a chat required his full attention.

It was only now that Meng Qi saw the old man's appearance clearly. He was fooled by the man's silver hair, but he wasn't actually that old. He was close to 50s, with a few wrinkles lining his face. Though his features were ordinary, his sense of concentration gave him a charming side.

"Yes." Meng Qi suppressed his excitement after getting a hint. He chatted with the old man as if he was talking to an elderly family member. "I've run into trouble in Maoling."

He became humble as a sign of respect to the old man.

The old man listened carefully without noticing these details. When Meng Qi finished speaking, he asked, "You seemed to have resolved your troubles and calmed down after leaving this place yesterday. Yet you felt anxious again. Is it because of your future encounters?"

The man spoke the truth without hiding or showing anything.

Meng Qi was even more convinced that this old man was someone wise. After some consideration, he replied in a casual tone, "I immediately informed my partners after getting a clue yesterday. We rushed to Chu Guan's house as quickly as we could, but we were still late. He committed suicide while shouting about how Civil Star would avenge him."

He continued, "Earlier, we hid and disguised ourselves and tried to get there without delay. But the information was still leaked. I think there are two possibilities. Either we're followed by an insanely strong master or there's a mole among us."

Generally speaking, the perpetrator could just send a regular master to trace all their tracks. For example, a genuine street vendor could trace every street they had passed and that would expose their destination. Having considered this point, Meng Qi had asked everyone to disguise themselves and hide their breaths.

Being half-step Exterior Scenery masters, Dai Fei and Chen Yasong had remained alert to their surroundings as they traveled along that road. If they didn't notice there was someone following them, then the stalker had to be extremely strong.

The old man's expression remained untouched as he listened carefully. Like a vast sea capable of containing a giant stone, he would remain calm in any peril.

When Meng Qi was done, the old man didn't comment and instead smiled as if he could see through Meng Qi. "Since you've already guessed it, then it's not the problem that worries you, is it not?"

Meng Qi blushed and scratching his head in embarrassment. The old man had discovered that he was deliberately trying to come up with a conversation. "Yes, I have a guess. What concerns me most is what he had shouted as he died, that Civil Star would avenge him."

"Well, did you find it self-contradictory?" The old man stopped carving and concentrated on talking with him.

Meng Qi exhaled and nodded. "Yes. We had no clues about the orchestrator, but his last words told us it was Civil Star. In my opinion, he was trying to use his death to lay a trap for us."

He had had other suspects at that time, but Chu Guan's last words almost exposed the true identity of Civil Star. This made him felt this was Chu Guan's trap, borne out of hatred for Civil Star.

If Chu Guan committed suicide at his own will, it was only normal for him to die quietly without saying a word. Even if he lost his mind as he died, at most he would just say someone would be avenging him. Why did he specifically call out Civil Star? On the contrary, if he was forced to do so, then there must be something important enough that he would kill himself to protect. Then why would he expose the perpetrator? Wasn't he afraid of that the perpetrator would destroy whatever precious thing he was trying to protect?

In the beginning, he didn't realize this abnormality. It was only after he returned home that he made this realization.

The old man smiled and asked him the fundamental question, "Since you've already discovered something was off, then why are you still feeling frustrated?"

Meng Qi smiled self-mockingly. "It's precise because I've discovered something was off that I'm frustrated. I feel like there's something missing in this puzzle but I don't know what is it no matter how I think about it. It was only after I watched you carve and calmed down that realization hit me."

"What have you realized?" The old man had basically not given any of his opinions throughout their conversation, merely echoing Meng Qi all along.

Meng Qi's face became solemn. "Since the perpetrator dared to entrap Wang Siyuan, then the trap naturally wouldn't be so easily discernible to me. I'm afraid the truth is buried even deeper."

"If I even realized the paradoxical nature of Chu Guan's last words, how can the perpetrator not?" he continued.

"Just like the first trap I've fallen into, it was full of obvious coincidences and intentional leads, so I didn't consider it a real one. In my eyes, a genuine trap would have many flaws, look stupid, and rely more on inapparent coincidences. Thus, being overconfident in my strength, I was sure I could exonerate myself and escape unscathed. This was why I dared to go to the Flower-viewing Garden to disrupt the opponent's plan. However, it turned out to be a real trap."

"I have to admit that the orchestrator of all these thought about these more deeply than I did. He knew I would find something wrong, so he laid out a predictable and deliberate trap. The conspiracy felt so poorly done that I mistook it for a fake one. Besides, I still don't understand why he could make such a naturally perfect trap. I neither know the inevitable reason behind it nor why Wang Siyuan told me I'd fall into the trap regardless what I'd do."

The old man winked and laughed. "In other words, it's the same this time?"

"Yes. If even I found the mention of Civil Star paradoxical, so could the other three once they calmed down. But we'll all subconsciously consider it a deliberate set-up. We'll definitely neglect Civil Star to find out the perpetrator!" Meng Qi's voice became grim. "The perpetrator has exposed his identity but made it so that we've already neglected him!"

The old man played along, echoing his words. "The man behind the whole conspiracy is still Civil Star."

Meng Qi nodded. "Yes. This is a thinking trap. As long as he thinks one level deeper than we do, he'll control us at his will."

"Don't you think he's thinking more profoundly than you now? His objective is to hide and set Civil Star up at the same time," the old man asked rhetorically.

Meng Qi confidently said, "I only need to think more profoundly than my foe, otherwise, it'll just backfire on me. After all, a deeper thought doesn't always bring me benefits."

"For example, if we all stand at the first level of thinking, Civil Star's plan would backfire and expose himself. However, if I've fallen into the trap, Jiang Hengchuan, Dai Fei and Chen Yasong would absolutely understand something is wrong. After all, they're all mindful and experienced, especially the latter two. They'll naturally think another level deeper. Since the orchestrator won't hide a trap on the third level of thinking to prevent exposure, they don't need to think any deeper than that."

If Wang Siyuan didn't tell me that he had set a trap with someone, I wouldn't have paid more attention to our foe. Thus, even if I was entrapped once and gained some experience, I still wouldn't enter the second level of thinking."

The old man asked again, without offering any of his opinions, "What if you're not standing at the second level of thinking?"

"If I was the orchestrator, I'd..." A bold thought came to Meng Qi.

Without waiting for him to clear his thoughts, the old man asked again with a smile, "How about you now? Do you feel more composed after thinking your ideas through?"

Meng Qi was startled to hear that, only to realize that he had really calmed down. He cupped one hand in the other before his chest and said, "Yes. Thank you for your guidance."

The old man just nodded with a smile. He once again immersed himself in carving the piece of wood with a graver. He was so focused and pious, making for a charming sight.

Meng Qi understood that the old man wanted to be left alone. He stood up and left. He stopped at the entrance of the alley and secretly waved his fists, looking inspired.

He decided to come here whenever he could to cozy up to the old man!

...

The minute he reached his house, Meng Qi saw Jiang Hengchuan pacing up and down before his yard.

"Brother Jiang, what's up?" Meng Qi walked up to him.

Jiang Hengchuan wore a serious expression. "I'm here for two things. One is about Chu Guan's last words. Since no conspirators would expose themselves, something must be wrong. We were clueless at the first, but then suddenly discovered the perpetrator to be Civil Star. It's too unreasonable!"

Meng Qi was stunned but replied with a faint smile, "I think it's a deliberate setup too."

Jiang Hengchuan was glad that his standpoint was recognized. He continued while laughing, "Great minds think alike. We must inform Green-ribbon Dai and Chief Chen immediately."

"What is the other thing about?" Meng Qi asked without commenting.

Through Secret Voice-sending, Jiang Hengchuan answered, "I've been tailing Qiu Fei lately and he hasn't noticed thanks to Oneness of Heaven and Men. I found out he had been visiting the hill beside Jin River for two days. Since it's likely he'll go again tonight, I'm here to invite you to join me. We can hide and see what he's up to."

In order to protect himself, he couldn't follow him closely.

Touching the Reincarnation Charm in his sleeves, Meng Qi agreed after some consideration.

On the bank of Jin River, some places were full of fanciful songs and dances while others were boisterous. There were also secluded places, such as the hill outside the city.

Meng Qi and Jiang Hengchuan arrived ahead of Qiu Fei and hid in a covert place. They held their breaths, erased the tracks they had left, and waited for night to fall.

Wild grass covered the entire hill, with footprints marking some spots. But Meng Qi and Jiang Hengchuan were the only ones there.

Time flew with the bright moon slowly hanging high in the sky. A figure furtively climbed the hill against the moonlight. It was none other than Qiu Fei, the Wind-chasing Stick.

With the reddish Eyebrows-abreast Stick in his hand, he stayed vigilant and inspected his surroundings.

Meng Qi used his Will-projecting and Eight Nine Mysteries to successfully mislead Qiu Fei while Jiang Hengchuan depended on his realm of Oneness of Heaven and Men.

After confirming that no one was following him, Qiu Fei suddenly stomped on the ground with a great force, making a loud sound.

"What is he doing?" Meng Qi was surprised at his strange behavior.

The ground abruptly shook and the bulges appeared on the mud as two silhouettes emerged from the earth. They were half-dead men with weak breaths and pale faces.

It was the Life-changing Sect! Meng Qi's heart instantly raced for he seemed to have found some answers he had been looking for.

Why did the Life-changing Sect disciples happen to arrive on the exact day that Old Zhong left?

Why did they happen to finally found clues on the exact same day after hunting down Old Zhong for so long?

Why did the non-core disciple carry an Exterior-level zombie?

Why did the mad Swordsman of Ning Province disappear since then?