Demi-Gods & Semi-Devils – Chapter 1
Translation by Jenxi Seow.
The righteous scholar travelled the perilous peak.
The dark steel blade glimmered as it caught the sunlight. The young man feigned a thrust the sword at the left shoulder of his middle-aged opponent, then he struck at the man’s right shoulder. The man parried. The swords clashed loudly and hummed audibly as the blades vibrated from the force of the impact.
The swords flashed again and three rapid moves were exchanged even before the hum faded. The older man suddenly swung his sword downwards at his head. The young man side stepped to the right to dodge the strike, and guided his opponent’s blade with his left hand towards his opponent’s thigh.
Their swordplay was fast and they fought with all their might.
Two persons sat on the eastern boundary of the practice ring. A Daoist nun about forty years old sat ashen-faced in the left seat with her lips tightly sealed. An old man in his fifties sat in the right seat. He stroked his beard with his right hand, seemingly pleased with what he saw.
Around twenty male and female disciples stood behind each of them. The western boundary was lined by ten over guests sitting in a row of chairs. The attention of the spectators was focused on the duellists in the practice ring.
The duellists exchanged over seventy moves. Each move was faster and closer to hitting the target than the previous, but neither had the upper hand. The middle-aged man suddenly misjudged the force of his strike and appeared to lose his balance. A boy in blue sitting in the western guest seats could not help but chuckle. Realising he was being rude, he quickly stifled his laugh with a hand over his mouth.
The younger duellist struck with his palm at his opponent’s exposed back. The older man stepped forward and avoided the attack. His sword suddenly swung in a circle and he shouted, “Strike!”
The sword struck the young man’s left leg, making him stagger. He stabbed his sword into the ground and steadied himself to continue the duel. However, his opponent had sheathed his sword and smiled, “Zhu shidi,1师弟 – Shīdì. Male junior. Both of them were under different masters but were from the same martial arts school. Shī means teacher. Dì means younger brother. thanks for going easy on me.2This phrase expresses humility in victory and is a sign of respect to the opponent. The victor claims to have won not because he is the better but because his opponent allowed him to. This can be used to indirectly mock the opponent, especially if it is obvious that the victor’s skills is far superior. Are you badly hurt?”
The younger man’s face turned pale upon hearing those words. He bit his lower lips and replied, “Thank you for being merciful,3This is to acknowledge that the opponent did not use his full strength and spared him from being more grievously hurt. Gong shixiong.”4师兄 – Shīxīong. Male senior. Both of them were under different masters but were from the same martial arts school. Shī means teacher. Xīong means older brother.
“The Eastern Sect has won three matches. It appears that Jianhu Palace5剑湖宫 – Jiànhú gōng. Name of a palace. Jianhu literally means Sword Lake. Sword refers to the residence being a palace to learn swordsmanship. Lake refers to the presence of a lake near the palace. will house the Eastern Sect for another five years. Xin shimei6师妹 – Shīmèi. Female junior. Shī means teacher. Both of them were under different masters but were from the same martial arts school. Mei means younger sister., do we still need to continue the contest?”
The nun sitting to his left could barely suppress her anger. “Zuo shixiong has indeed nurtured capable disciples. But I wonder if Zuo shixiong’s has gained great insight from studying the Wuliang Cliff7无量玉壁 – Wúlìang Yǜ Bì. Wuliang means infinite or limitless. It is the name of the mountain where the palace is built. Yǜ literally means jade and Bì means cliff. When combined, the compound word means a beautiful cliff. So a proper translation would be the Beautiful Cliff of Wuliang. I have chosen to simply call it Wuliang Cliff. in the past five years?”
The old man stared at her and his tone became stern. “How can you forget the rules of our school, shimei?”
She snorted with displeasure and dropped the issue. The old man was Zuo Zimu8左子穆 – Zǔo Zǐmù., head of the Wuliang Sword School’s Eastern Sect. The nun was Xin Shuangqing9辛双清 – Xīn Shuāngqīng., head of the Wuliang Sword School’s Western Sect. They were on Mount Wuliang in the Dali Kingdom10大理国 – Dàlǐ gúo. The Dali Kingdom was situated in modern Yunnan province, China from 937 until 1253 when it was conquered by the Mongols. Its kings continued to administer the area as Mongol vassals until the Ming conquest of Yunnan. See Wikipedia. and it was the Yuanyou11元祐 – Yuán yoù. The regnal era (1086–1094) of Emperor Zhezong of Song. era of the Song Dynasty12The Northern Song Dynasty was an period of the Song Dynasty between 4 February 960 to 20 March 1127. See Wikipedia..
The Wuliang Sword School13无量剑派 – Wúlìang Jiàn Pài. Wuliang refers to Mount Wuliang, where the school is located. Wuliang means infinite or limitless. Wú means no or without. Liàng means limit or measure. was split into the Northern, Eastern and Western Sects. The Northern Sect has been in the decline in the past decade, while the Eastern and Western Sects flourished with talent. The Wuliang Sword School was founded on Mount Wuliang, Nanzhao14南诏 – Nán zhào. A kingdom that flourished in what modern day southern China and Southeast Asia during the 8th and 9th centuries. It was centred on present-day Yunnan in China. See Wikipedia. during the reign of the fifth Tang Emperor. The head of the school resided in the Jianhu Palace on Mount Wuliang.
Since the splitting of the school into three Sects during the Song Empire, these Sects held a duelling contest in the practice arena of Jianhu Palace every five years. The winning Sect would reside in the palace for the next five years. When the sixth year comes, the Sects would meet again to compete for the right of residence in the next five years. The best of five round was the winner.
During the five years between the contests, the defeated sects would train hard in hope of erasing the shame of their previous loss in the next contest. Likewise, the winners did not dare to become complacent.
The Northern Sect won forty years ago but was evicted from the palace after their defeat five years later. The furious head of the Northern Sect led his people to the western face of the mountain, ending their participation in the contest and severing all communications with the other sects.
In the thirty-five years since the exodus of the Northern Sect, the Eastern and Western Sects each had their share of victories and defeats. The Eastern Sect was the champion of four contests, while the Western Sect had two wins to their name. This was the ninth contest. The duel between Gong and Zuo was the fourth match. Gong’s victory gave the Eastern sect three wins. Thus, a fifth bout was unnecessary.
Guests from other schools sat along the western boundary of the practice ring. Some of the visitors were witnesses invited by the heads of the Wuliang Sects, while the others came to watch the competition. They were notable individuals from the martial arts scene in Yunnan. The exception was an unknown youngster dressed in cyan sitting at rightmost end of the boundary. It was him who laughed when Zuo appeared to lose his footing during the duel.
The youth arrived in the company of the elderly wushi,15武师 – Wǔshī. A person practising martial arts and is involved in the matters of the martial arts scene. Mawu De, from Pu’er, southern Dian.16Pu’er (普洱 – Púěr) is a city in the southern part of Yunnan (云南 – Yúnnán). Dian (滇 – Diān) is another name for Yunnan. As a successful tea trader, Mawu was rich and influential. He was known for his hospitality and his easy-going nature. When any wushi in the jianghu17江湖 – Jiānghú. The world of the martial arts. It is akin to the underworld of the mafia and triads. Another way to translate it is the martial arts scene. Often literally (and badly) translated as rivers and lakes. See article. was in dire straits, they count on his unrestrained assistance. This made him very popular. However, his martial arts skills were mediocre.
When Zuo Zimu welcomed Mawu De,18马五德 – Máwǔ Dé. the latter introduced the youth with the family name Duan. That was the royal family’s name of the Dali Kingdom. Countless individuals bear the Duan family name within the boundaries of the kingdom, so Zuo Zimu did not think much of it. He assumed that he was probably Mawu’s disciple. Since Mawu’s martial arts skills were average, his apprentice would be no better. Zuo did not bother to say “I’ve long admired you”19久仰 jiǔyǎng. This is a courtesy phrase used when meeting someone for the first time. The literal translation is “long admired” and it means having heard of someone and have been looking forward to meet for a long time. but simply raised his hands with his left palm over his right fist in greeting before leading them into the guest seats.
Zuo did not expect the youth to have the nerve to mock when his favoured disciple feigned a move to create an opening.
“The four disciples fielded by Xin shimei this year made impressive advancements in their swordsmanship. Especially in the fourth match, which we were lucky to win. Zhu shizhi20师侄 – Shīzhí. Disciple of one’s senior or junior. In this case, Zhu was the disciple of Xin, who was Zuo’s shimei. Shi means teacher. Zhi means nephew or niece. is young but has made good progress in his training. With such potential, his future is bright indeed. Perhaps the Eastern and Western sects will have to swap places five years from now.”
Zuo let out a hearty laugh, before abruptly turning to stare at Duan. “Young Brother21世兄 – Shìxīong. A friend or acquaintance who is two or more generations younger. I chose to translate it as young brother to avoid confusion with shixiong (male senior). Note that the shi here hass the fourth tone compared to the first tone of shixiong. Duan seems to disapprove when my second-rate disciple used the Staggering Step feign to win. Could Brother Duan please step into the ring and give my disciple a pointer or two? Brother Mawu has a resounding reputation in southern Dian. As the saying goes, there is no weak soldier under the command of a strong general. Brother Duan must be highly skilled.”
Mawu De flushed as he hurriedly said, “Brother Duan is not my disciple. How can I take in a disciple with my superficial skills? Please don’t tease me, young brother Zuo. Brother Duan came to my humble abode in Pu’er and discovered that I was going to Mount Wuliang. He has heard of the peaceful and scenic Mount Wuliang, hence he came along to enjoy the sights.”
Zuo Zimu thought to himself, “If Duan were Mawu’s disciple, I would have gone easy on the former out of respect for the latter. Since he was just an ordinary guest, there was no need to be tactful. When someone ridicules the gongfu22功夫 – Gōngfu. Martial arts, commonly translated as kungfu but we use the pinyin translation here. of Wuliang Sword School’s Eastern sect, how can I maintain my credibility if I don’t teach him a good lesson and chase him off the mountain?”
Zuo Zimu sneered, “How do I address you, Brother Duan? Who is your esteemed master?”
The youth had delicate features and looked like a scholar. He did not seem like someone skilled in martial arts. Duan smiled, “My name is a simply Yu. I have never learnt any kind of martial arts. I saw someone trip. Regardless of whether it was real or feigned, I can’t help but laugh.”
The lack of respect in his tone infuriated Zuo Zimu. “What’s there to laugh at?”
Duan Yu[foot]段誉 – Duàn Yù[/foot] gently fanned himself with his folding fan and explained with studied understatement, “There’s nothing to laugh at if a person is sitting down. There’s also nothing to laugh at if he’s lying in bed. However, it is very funny if he’s lying on the ground. The only exception is if he’s a three year old baby.”
His tone was increasingly disrespectful. Zuo Zimu was could not contain his fury. “Brother Mawu, is Brother Duan your good friend?”
Mawu De and Duan Yu were new acquaintances and knew nothing about each other. Mawu was an amicable person. Therefore, when Duan Yu wanted follow him to Mount Wuliang, he did not refuse and brought him along. Sensing frustration in Zuo Zimu’s tone, Mawu knew that he would hurt Duan Yu if they were to duel. Duan Yu was a pleasant young man and Mawu did not want him to be harmed. “Although Brother Duan and I do not have a profound friendship, we came here together. Brother Duan seems like a refined gentleman. I doubt he knows any martial arts. His laughter earlier must be unintentional. Come on, I’m hungry. Please prepare the feast, Brother Zuo. We’ll drink three toasts to you.[foot]This is usually as a sign of respect or apology.[/foot] It’s an auspicious day today, let’s not ruin it by arguing with a junior.”
Zuo Zimu said, “Since Brother Duan is not a good friend of Brother Mawu, Brother Mawu’s reputation will not be tarnished if I offend you in anyway. He was mocking you, Guangjie. Step into the ring and spar with him to get some pointers[foot]He was pretending to be polite by asking his disciple to learn from Duan Yu, when he actually mean it as getting his disciple to teach Duan Yu a lesson.[/foot].”
The middle-aged Gong Guangjie[foot]龚光杰 – Gōng Guāngjié[/foot] had been eagerly waiting for his shifu[foot]师父 – Shīfu. Master or teacher from whom one is learning martial arts. Shi means teacher. Fu means a male of a senior generation.[/foot] to say that. He drew his sword instantly and made his way to the centre of the ring. Holding the sword backwards, he raised his hands with his left palm over his right fist to salute Duan Yu. “Duan Yu, my friend. After you.”
“Very well. You go ahead and practice. I’m watching.” Duan Yu remained in his seat. Gong Guangjie’s face turned purple with rage immediately. “What… what did you say?”
Duan Yu said, “You are swinging a sword in your hand. I assumed you wanted to practice your swordplay. So, go ahead. I’ve always disliked watching others duel. However, since I came all the way here, I should try to enjoy. There’s no harm watching anyway.”
Gong Guangjie yelled, “My shifu wants you to enter the ring as well and duel with me, brat!”
Duan Yu gently fanned himself and shook his head. “Your shifu is your shifu. Your shifu isn’t my shifu. Your shifu can order you around, but your shifu can’t order me. Your shifu wants you to duel and you did. Your shifu wants me to duel with you. First, I don’t know swordplay. Second, I’m afraid of losing. Third, I’m afraid of pain. And fourth, I’m afraid of death. Therefore, we don’t need to duel. I don’t want to duel, hence we don’t duel.”
His switching between “your shifu” and “my shifu” sounded like a tongue twister, making many people in the arena break out in helpless laughter. Wuliang Sword School’s Western sect had an even split of male and female disciples. Several of the female disciples let out girlish giggles. The tensed atmosphere in the practice arena vanished instantly. Gong Guangjie strode across the practice ring and pointed his sword at Duan Yu’s chest. “Do you really have no knowledge of swordplay or are you just feigning it?”
The sword was mere inches from Duan Yu. A slight thrust would send the sword deep into his chest. Despite that, he did not panic. He said, “I really don’t know, of course. What’s so fun in pretending to be stupid?”
Gong Guangjie said, “You must be tired of living to come to Wuliang Sword School’s Jianhu Palace and behave so atrociously. What’s your affiliation? Who instigated you to do this? Don’t blame me for being ruthless if you don’t tell reveal the truth.”
Duan Yu said, “Why are you so unreasonable? I’ve always disliked watching others fight. Your esteemed school is called Wuliang Sword School and lives on Mount Wuliang. The Buddhist Sutra says that there are four infinities[foot]无量 – Wúliàng. Wuliang means infinite or limitless. The brahmavihara in Buddhism, are called wuliang in Chinese. See Wikipedia.[/foot]: kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. All of you knows the meaning these four infinities. Wishing all sentient beings be happy. Wishing all sentient beings to be free from suffering. The wholesome attitude of rejoicing in the happiness and virtues of all sentient beings. Not to distinguish between friend, enemy or stranger, but regard every sentient being as equal. Since you’re from Wuliang Sword School, you should be compassionate, a believer of Amitayus[foot]无量寿佛 – Wúliàng Shoùfó. Amitābha Buddha which is Wuliang Shou Buddha in Chinese. See Wikipedia.[/foot], Amitabha[foot]阿弥陀佛 – Ēmítuófó. The Chinese pronunciation for the Sanskrit name of the Amitābha Buddha. The Emituo is the transliteration of the Sanskrit word “amita” which means boundless (wuliang). Fo is the Chinese word for Buddha. See Wikipedia.[/foot]. Amitabha, amitabha…”
As he continued to ramble on about the Buddhist Sutra, Gong Guangjie sheathed his sword. Then he suddenly swung his hand and gave Duan Yu a solid slap. Duan Yu tilted his head to dodge but Gong had already retracted his hand. His handsome face was immediately swollen and the five-finger mark very obvious on his pale skin. Everyone was stunned. They expected him to be a skilled fighter since he appeared unconcerned by the threats, and he was full of nonsense as he teased his opponent. He could not even dodge a casual slap by Gong Guangjie. It appeared that he really did not know any martial arts. It was very common for highly skilled martial artists to act dumb to toy with their opponents. However, a person who had no knowledge gongfu would never be so bold and reckless. Gong Guangjie was also shocked that he struck true. He then grabbed Duan Yu’s chest and lifted him off the ground. “I was wondering what kind of a formidable figure you were. I didn’t expect you are just a useless fool.”
He slammed Duan Yu onto the ground. The latter rolled and his head struck the foot of the table loudly. Mawu De could not bear watching and rushed over to help him up. “You really don’t know any martial arts, young brother. Then why did you come here and cause trouble?”
Duan Yu rubbed his temple. “I came for the sightseeing. How would I know they would be fighting? What’s so nice to watch them hack and slash at each other? It’s more interesting to watch a monkey show. Farewell. Farewell, sir Mawu. I must take my leave.”
A young disciple leapt from Zuo Zimu’s side to block Duan Yu. He said, “Since you don’t know any martial arts, if you want to flee with your tail between your legs, it’s fine. Why did you say that watching us duel is worse than watching a monkey show? That’s just too much. I’ll give you two choices. Either you duel with me so that I can teach you about swordplay that’s no better than a monkey show, or you kowtow eight times to my shifu and say ‘talking nonsense’ three times.”
Duan Yu laughed, “You farted[foot]放屁 – Fàngpì. The Chinese words for “talking nonsense” and “farting” are homonyms.[/foot]? No wonder it stinks!”
The disciple was furious. He threw a forceful punch at Duan Yu’s face. He was about to leave Duan Yu with a swollen eye when something flew in the air and wrapped around the youth’s wrist. It was cold and slippery. Once it wrapped around the wrist, it started slithering. The young disciple was shocked and retracted his arm hastily, only to see a crimson snake over a foot long coiled around his wrist. Its green and red patches looked terrifying. He shrieked and shook his arm forcefully, but the snake remained firmly wrapped around his wrist, refusing to be flung off. Suddenly, Gong Guangjie shouted, “Snake! Snake!”
His face paled as he reached into his collar to search his back. His hands could not reach whatever he was trying to get. Panicking, he hopped around as he frantically removed his shirt. These sudden turn of events left everyone in a daze. A sudden laugh sounded overhead. Everyone looked up to see a young girl sitting on the beam of the roof with both hands full of snakes. The girl was around sixteen years old. She was dressed in black and her smiling face was beautiful. She held around ten snakes snakes in her hands. Some of the snakes were green, some had coloured patches. Their triangular heads indicated that they were poisonous. Yet the girl held them as though they were toys and without a hint of fear. The crowd only glanced at her briefly. Hearing Gong Guangjie and his shidi screaming and shouting in dismay, the crowd’s attention was drawn back to them. Only Duan Yu continued to look at the girl, watching her swing her legs as though it was very fun to sit on the beam. “Are you the one who saved me, miss?”
“Why didn’t you fight back when the wicked man hit you?” she asked. Duan Yu shook his head. “I don’t know how to fight back…”
Suddenly, the crowd cried out in unison. Duan Yu turned to look at the practice ring and saw Zuo Zimu with sword in hand. There were blood stains on the blade. A snake cut in two laid on the ground. Fresh blood soaked the ground. Zuo Zimu slew the snake on his young disciple’s wrist. Gong Guangjie’s clothes had been removed. He was jumping around half-naked as a snake slithered up his back. He reached back to grab it but he could not catch it even after several attempts. Zuo Zimu roared, “Stand still, Guangjie!”
Gong Guangjie was stunned. There was a flash and the snake was already sliced into two. Zuo Zimu’s blade was swift. The snake was already chopped before they knew it and Gong Guangjie’s back was unharmed. The crowd cheered. The girl on the beam shouted, “Hey! Why did you kill my snakes, you long-bearded old man? I’m going to turn nasty.”
Zuo Zimu asked angrily, “Which family are you from? What are you doing here?”
He was secretly shocked that no one noticed the girl climb onto the beam. Even though everyone had their attention fixated on the duels, there was no excuse for them to be unaware that someone was hiding above them. If word of it got out, Wuliang Sword School would be shamed. She wore a pair of light green shoes embroidered with a few small yellow flowers. She was dressed like a little girl. As he watch her swing her legs, Zuo Zimu stated, “Get down now!”
Duan Yu said hurriedly, “It’s so high. If she jumps down, won’t she’ll hurt herself? Ask your people to get a ladder at once!”
A few people could not help but laugh at his words. The female disciples of the Western sect thought, “He appeared to be a talented man, yet he turned out to be a dimwit. If the girl could get onto the beam without anyone knowing, her qinggong[foot]轻功 – qīnggōng. The ability to move swiftly and lightly. Qing means light. Gong means skill.[/foot] must be good. Why would she need a ladder to come down?”
“Compensate me for my snakes. Then I’ll go down to talk to you.”Zuo Zimu said, “It’s only two snakes. What’s the big deal? You can easily catch two snakes from anywhere.”
Seeing the girl play with poisonous things so casually, Zuo Zimu knew that while she was no big deal given her tender age, her father, brother, shifu or shixiong might be someone formidable. Hence, he was more tolerant when talking to her. She smiled. “You make it sound easy. Go ahead and catch two for me then.”
“Get down now.”
“I’m not coming down.”
“If you don’t come down, then I’ll be going up there to drag you down,” Zuo Zimu threatened.The girl giggled. “You can try. If you can drag me down there, then credit to your ability.”
As head of a sect, Zuo Zimu could not play around with a young girl in front of the many notable figures and the disciples of his school. “Xin shimei, please get one of your female disciples to bring her down here.”
“We don’t have someone with such good qinggong in the Western sect,” Xin Shuangqing replied.Zuo Zimu’s face darkened. He was about to retort when the girl said, “Since you don’t want to compensate me for my snakes, I’ll give you a taste of my power!”
She drew a furry ball from the leather pouch on her left hip and tossed it at Zuo Zimu. Thinking it was some strange sneak attack, Zuo Zimu did not dare to catch it but hurriedly dodged to one side. He did not expect the ball to be alive. It twisted in mid air and pounced onto Gong Guangjie’s back. It was a greyish white marten. It was extremely lively as it rapidly ran around Gong Guangjie’s back, chest, face and neck. His hands clawed desperately but while his reflexes were quick, the marten was ten times faster. Each time he failed to grasp it. To others, he appeared to be flailing his arms, clawing hitting at his back, chest, and neck. He struck himself loudly each time yet the marten continued darting around.
“Brilliant! Brilliant! This marten is fascinating!” Duan Yu laughed.
The marten was almost a foot long. It had gleaming red eyes and its claws were very sharp. Gong Guangjie’s naked torso was soon full of bloodied scratches. The girl suddenly whistled a few times. There was a white flurry of movements. The mink had pounced onto Gong Guangjie’s face and swept its fluffy tail towards his eyes. He snatched at it with both hands, but the marten had already darted to nape of his neck. His fingers nearly poked his own eyes. Zuo Zimu took two steps towards his disciple and struck swiftly with his sword. The marten had scurried back to Gong Guangjie’s face. Zuo Zimu raised his sword and stabbed at the marten. With a twist of its body, it bounded to the back of Gong Guangjie’s neck. The tip of Zuo Zimu’s sword stopped barely touching his disciple’s eyelid. Even though this move did not strike true, the crowd gasped in admiration of his skill. Had the sword lunged half an inch more, Gong Guangjie would have lost his eye. Xin Shuangqing conceded quietly, “Zuo shixiong’s swordsmanship is impressive. This Golden Needle’s Salvation[foot]金针渡劫 – Jīnzhēn dùjié[/foot] move alone is way beyond my mastery.”
Zuo Zimu’s blade swooshed as he struck four times consecutively. Although his moves were extraordinarily fast, the marten was one step ahead. The girl called out, “Your swordsmanship is good, long-bearded old man.”
She gave two shrill whistles. The marten scurried downwards and disappeared. Zuo Zimu was surprised. Gong Guangjie started clawing at his thighs. The marten had entered his pants from the ends of the trousers.
“What an eye-opener for me today. Amazing!” Duan Yu laughed heartily as he clapped in appreciation.
Gong Guangjie fumbled to remove his trousers and revealed his hairy thighs. The girl remarked, “Wicked man. You like to bully others. I’ll make you strip naked and see if know shame!”
She whistled twice again. The obedient marten climbed up Gong Guangjie’s thigh burrowed into his underpants. There were many girls in the arena. There was no way he would be willing to remove his underpants. Instead, he hopped around and slapped his lower abdomen and buttocks. Then he let out a yelp and stumbled hurriedly out of the arena. Just as he reached the entrance of the arena, another person rushed in through the door. They slammed into each other. Both of them were in a headlong rush, one leaving the arena while the other was entering. The force of the impact made Gong Guangjie stagger backwards, while the other person was flung onto the ground.
“Rong shidi!” Zuo Zimu cried.
Gong Guangjie ignored the marten as it darted from his left thigh to the right, and then to his buttock. He hurried to help the person up instead. The marten suddenly scampered to his crotch. He let out a loud shriek reached with his hands to grab the marten instinctively. The person fell down once again. “That’s enough torturing.”
The girl on the beam giggled. She let out along whistle. The marten leap out of Gong Guangjie’s underpants, up the wall and darted onto the beam back into the girl’s arms.
“Good marten!” She praised it and then held a small snake by the tail with two fingers. She dangled the snake and let it wriggle in front her pet. The marten held the snake with its front paws and started to eat the snake. All the snakes that the girl had on her hands were actually pet food. Duan Yu had never seen something like this before and he watched with keen interest. The marten finished the snake and went back into the leather pouch at the girl’s waist.
“Rong shishu[foot]师叔 – Shīshu. Male junior of one’s shifu. Shi means teacher. Shu refers to someone younger than one’s father. In this case it is to refer someone Kunio to one’s shifu.[/foot], what… what’s wrong?” Gong Guangjie exclaimed as he helped the person up once more. Zuo Zimu rushed over. His shidi Rong Ziju’s[foot]容子矩 – Róng Zíjǔ[/foot] eyes were wide open and his expression was one of bitter fury. However, he had ceased breathing. Zuo Zimu was startled and hastily massaged him, but he could not revive his shidi. Zuo Zimu knew that while Rong Ziju’s abilities were inferior to his, they were definitely superior to Gong Guangjie’s. Not only was he unable to avoid the collision, he died immediately after being hit. This meant that he had already been severely injured before he entered the arena. Zuo Zimu quickly removed Rong Ziju’s robes to examine his injuries. Eight words were written in black on his chest: “The Shennong Guild[foot]神农帮 – Shénnóng Bāng. Shennong is the legendary god of farming. Shen means god. Nong means farming.[/foot] will exterminate Wuliang Sword School”.
The crowd cried out in unison. The words were etched deep in the flesh. They were neither written in ink, nor were they carved by a pointed object. They were actually written with a toxic substance that corroded deep into the flesh. Zuo Zimu was momentarily stunned. He flicked his sword angrily, causing it to hum deeply, and shouted, “We’ll see if it’s the Shennong Guild eliminating Wuliang Sword School or if it’s the other way round. What kind of a person would I be if I don’t avenge my shidi?”
He checked the other parts of Rong Ziju’s body and found no other signs of injury. “Guanghao! Guangjie! Go outside and check it out!”
Gan Guanghao[foot]干光豪 – Gān Guāngháo[/foot] and Gong Guangjie, the two eldest disciples, drew their swords and acknowledged their shifu’s command. The practice arena was thrown into chaos. Everyone did not bother about Duan Yu and the girl on the beam, but crowded around Rong Ziju’s corpse to discuss about the situation instead. This matter also involved the Wuliang Sword School’s Western Sect. Xin Shuangqing was ashen faced but remained silent. Mawu De said in a low voice, “Brother Zuo, how did your esteemed school developed a feud with the SHennong Guild?”
Zuo Zimu choked as he mourned the tragic death of his shidi. “It all started from gathering of herbs. Last autumn, four chiefs from Shennong Guild came to Jianhu Palace asking for permission to gather some herbs from the back of the mountain. Gathering herbs is a trivial matter. The Shennong Guild originally made a living out of gathering and selling herbs. Although there wasn’t any friendship to speak of between the guild and our school, there wasn’t any feud either. But Brother Mawu knows that we do not simply allow outsiders enter the back of the mountain. Even all of the dear friends present have never been to the rear side, not to mention mere acquaintances from the Shennong Guild. This is just a rule passed down from the founder of our school. It’s just that, as descendants, we dare not violate the rule. It is actually not a big deal…”
The girl on the beam placed the snakes in her hands into a bamboo basket on her waist. She reached into the front of her robes and produced a handful of melon seeds. She continued to swing her legs as she ate the seeds. Without warning, she flung a melon seed at Duan Yu, hitting him on the forehead. She laughed, “Hey, do you want to eat melon seeds? Get up here!”
“I can’t go up without a ladder.”
“That’s easy!” She removed a green silk sash from around her waist and lowered it. “Hold onto the sash. I’ll pull you up.”
“I’m heavy. You won’t be able to hoist me up,” Duan Yu said.The girl laughed again. “Just give it a try. It’s not as though you will fall to your death.”
Seeing the sash dangling before him, Duan Yu reached and held it. “Hang on tight!”
Duan Yu was gently lifted off the ground. She heaved a few times, hand over hand, and pulled him onto the beam. “That’s an interesting marten you have. It’s very obedient.”
The girl took the marten out of her pouch and held it out with both hands. The marten’s coat of fur was silky smooth and its red eyes shimmered as it looked at Duan Yu, who found it extremely adorable. “Is it okay for me to touch it?”
“Go ahead and touch,” the girl replied. Duan Yu extended his arm and gently stroked the marten’s back. It felt warm to touch. Suddenly, the marten snorted and darted back into the pouch. Duan Yu was caught off guard. He shied backwards instinctively and lost his balance. He almost fell off the beam. The girl grabbed the back of his collar and pulled him close to her side. “You really don’t know any martial arts. That’s strange.”
“What’s strange about that?”
“You don’t know any gongfu, yet you come here alone. You’re bound to be bullied by these wicked people. Why are you here?”
Duan Yu was about to reply when the sound of footsteps interrupted him. Gan Guanghao and Gong Guangjie rushed into the arena. Gong Guangjie had already worn his trousers but his upper torso was still naked. Their faces were filled with consternation as they strode up to Zuo Zimu. Gan Guanghao reported, “Shifu, the Shennong Guild has gathered on the mountain opposite us. They have posted guards along the mountain trail and claimed that no one is allowed to descend the mountain. Seeing that they outnumbered us, we didn’t dare to start a fight without your orders.”
Zuo Zimu said, “Hm. How many people did they bring?”
Gan Guanghao said, “Around seventy to eighty.”
Zuo Zimu laughed coldly, “They want to eliminate Wuliang Sword School with only seventy to eighty persons? I doubt it’s that easy.”
“They shot a message over using an arrow. The casing of the message was had words that were exceedingly disrespectful.” Gong Guangjie presented the letter to his shifu. Zuo Zimu looked at the envelope. It was marked with the words: “Addressed to Zuo Zimu.”
He did not take the letter, instead he said, “Open it and have a look.”
“Yes!” Gong Guangjie tore open the envelope and took out the letter. The girl whispered into Duan Yu’s ear, “The wicked man who hit you is going to die.”
“Why?” Duan Yu asked. The girl explained softly, “The envelope and the letter are covered with poison.”
“How can it be so powerful?”
Gong Guangjie started reading the letter, “The Shennong Guild addresses Zuo… the person listening to this”—he did not dare to address his shifu by name[foot]In Chinese culture, it is extremely rude for a junior to address a senior by name, especially the full name.[/foot], thus he glossed over the words “Zimu” after he read the word “Zuo”—”Within two hours, all of you are to break your right arm, destroy all weapons and leave Jianhu Palace. Or else, everyone will be slaughtered.”
Xin Shuangqing, head of the Wuliang Sword School’s Western sect, sneered, “Who do the Shennong Guild think they are to make such a daring boast?”
Gong Guangjie suddenly collapsed. Gan Guanghao was standing beside him. He cried out as he reached out to help him up, “Shidi!”
Zuo Zimu took two steps forward and blocked Gan Guanghao with his arm. He exhaled slightly and shoved him, making the latter stagger back by three steps. He yelled, “Don’t touch him, there’s might be poison!”
The muscles on Gong Guangjie’s face twitched uncontrollably and the hand holding the letter turned black. His feet jerked a few times and then he was dead. It had taken less than the time needed for a meal for two elites of the Wuliang Sword School’s Eastern Sect to die consecutively. Everyone present was dumbstruck.
“Are you also from the Shennong Guild?” Duan Yu whispered. The girl spat. “Pfft! I’m not. What are you blabbering about?”
“Then how did you know that the letter is poisoned?”
“This method of applying poison is very rudimentary. It is easy to spot. These kinds of stupid tricks can only harm ignorant fools.” The girl laughed. Everyone in the arena heard her words. They looked up to see her cracking melon seeds and swinging her legs. Zuo Zimu looked at the letter in Gong Guangjie’s hand but did not spot anything amiss. Tilting his head for a closer look, he could see the faint shine of phosphorous on both the envelope and the letter. A cold shiver ran down his spine. He turned to the girl and asked politely, “May I have your name, miss?”
“My name. I can’t tell you that. It’s called a secret.”To hear those words at that moment, Zuo Zimu was furious. However, he forced himself to refrain from lashing out. “If that’s the case, then who’s your father? Who’s your shifu?”
“Haha! I won’t be tricked by you. If I were to tell you who my father is, then you would know my surname. And since you know my surname, you can find out my name. My mother is my shifu. As for my mother’s name, all the more I can’t tell you.”
Zuo Zimu could tell from her accent that she was undoubtedly a local from Yunnan. He thought, “Among the Yunnan wulin[foot]武林 – Wǔlín. Martial arts community.[/foot], which qinggong experts could possibly be her parents?”
She had yet to strike any moves, so he was unable to guess based on the style of her martial arts. He said, “Please come down here, miss. Let’s discuss a solution for the situation. The Shennong Guild said that no one is allowed to descend the mountain. Even you would be killed.”
The girl laughed. “They won’t kill me. The Shennong Guild will only kill those from Wuliang Sword School. I heard about it on my travels, hence I rushed here to watch. Long-bearded old man, your swordsmanship is not bad, but you don’t know how to use poison. You’re no match for the Shennong Guild.”
Her words rung true and highlighted the weakness of Wuliang Sword School. If they were to compete based on real martial arts, with both the Eastern and Western Sects of Wuliang Sword School and the eight experts invited to witness the contest, they would definitely defeat the Shennong Guild. But if it were to boil down to the use of poisons, all of them had no knowledge of using poisons. Her tone sounded like she was taking pleasure out of other’s misfortune. It was as though the more casualties Wuliang Sword School incurred, the happier she would be. Zuo Zimu snorted, “What did you hear about on your travels, miss?”
He was used to order others around with simple gestures. Others had to give a proper answer even if he asked a casual question. Instead of replying, the girl asked, “Do you want to eat melon seeds?”
His face darkened slightly. Had the enemy not been right at their doorstep, he would have blown his top. Barely restraining his fury, he replied, “I don’t!”
“What kind of melon seeds are those? Sweet olive, rose or pine nut flavoured?” Duan Yu interrupted. The girl said, “Huh! You mean there so many variants of melon seeds? I have no idea. Mother fried these melon seeds with the gall bladders of snakes. Eating them regularly improves your eyesight. Try some.”
She grabbed a handful and stuffed them into Duan Yu’s hands. “If you’re not used to the taste, you might find them slightly bitter. They are actually really tasty.”
Duan Yu could not refuse, so he popped a melon seed in his mouth. It tasted bitter with a tinge of spiciness initially, then it left a sweet after-taste similar to white olive. That made him salivate and he started eating one after another. He placed the shells on the beam, while the girl simply spat them out without a care. The shells flew over the heads of the crowd below and many frowned as they dodged.
“If you tell us what you heard on your travels, I… I would be extremely grateful.” His tone and choice of words were very polite for the sake of getting information from the girl. She asked, “I heard members of the Shennong Guild talk about some Wuliang Yu Bi. What’s that?”
Zuo Zimu was startled. “Wuliang Yu Bi? Could it be that there’s some precious jade or jade pendant[foot]This is a play of words. Yu means jade. Bi means cliff. Yu Bi here actually means a beautiful cliff rather than a jade cliff. The word jade is used as an adjective to express beauty. However, bi is a homonym for pendant. Zuo Zimu is pretending to assume she meant Wuliang Jade Pendant instead of Wuliang Cliff.[/foot] on Mount Wuliang? Haven’t heard of it. Shuangqing shimei, have you heard of it?”
Before Shuangqing could reply, the girl interjected, “Of course she hasn’t. There’s no need for the two of you to put up an act. If you’re unwilling to say, then save it. Hmph! I’m not interested!”
Zuo Zimu appeared embarrassed by the girl’s outburst. “Ah! I remembered. They are probably referring to the smooth rock on the side of the White Dragon Peak of Mount Wuliang. This rock is as flat and smooth as a mirror, and you can actually see the reflection of strands of hair in it. Some say that it’s jade, but it’s actually just a white and shiny rock.”
“You should have said it earlier. Wouldn’t it make things simpler? How did you become enemies with the Shennong Guild? Why do they want to kill everyone from Wuliang Sword School?”
Seeing that the girl had gained the upper hand, Zuo Zimu knew that he would have to answer her first before she would divulge any information. Although the situation was dire, there were many guests present, so he could not drag her down and interrogate her. “Please come down, miss. I will inform you of the full details.”
The girl swung her legs and said, “There’s no need for you to go into the details. Since your words are a mix of truth and lies, I can only believe three to four tenths of what you say. So tell me whatever you want.”
Zuo Zimu’s brows were furrowed and his rage was visible on his face. He restrained himself immediately and continued, “When the Shennong Guild wanted to gather herbs from the back of the mountain last year, I didn’t allow them to. So they sneaked in to do so. My shidi, Rong Ziju, and a few disciples chanced upon them and admonished them. Those members of the Shennong Guild said, ‘This is neither the Jinluan Palace[foot]金銮殿 – Jīnluán diàn. The Emperor’s audience hall.[/foot] nor was it the Yu Floral Garden[foot]御花园 – Yù huāyuán. The imperial garden.[/foot], so why can’t outsiders enter? Did Wuliang Sword School buy Mount Wuliang?’ Both parties had a clash of words and then they started fighting. Rong shidi showed no mercy and killed two of them. And that’s how the feud begun. Both sides fought again some time later on the banks of Lancang River[foot]澜沧江 – Láncānɡ jiānɡ. A large river in south-western China that flows from the Danggula Mountains (唐古拉山) in Qinghai (青海), through Tibet, till southern Xishuangbannan (西双版纳), Yun’nan, where it exits China, after which it is known as the Mekong River in South-east Asia.[/foot] and a few more lives were taken.”
The girl nodded, “Oh, that’s how it is. What herbs did they want to gather?”
“That, I’m not too sure,” Zuo Zimu admitted.
The girl said gleefully, “I thought so too. Since you already told me how the feud was started, I’ll tell you two things as well. I was catching snakes in the mountain for my Lighting Marten the other day—”
“Your marten is called the Lightning Marten?” Duan Yu butted in. The girl said, “Yeah. Isn’t it as fast as lightning when it runs?”
“Indeed. Lightning Marten. That’s a very apt name!” Duan Yu approved. Zuo Zimu glared at Duan Yu, angry that the latter interrupted him. However, the girl was getting to the crucial part and if he were to reprimand Duan Yu, the girl might be angered and refuse to divulge any further information. Hence, he remained silent. “Lightning Marten loves to eat poisonous snakes and nothing else. I raised it since it was a baby. It’s four this year. It only listens to me. It doesn’t even obey Father or Mother. When I ask it to frighten others, it frightens. When I ask it to bite, it bites. This marten is really obedient.”
As she said that, she reached into her pouch to pet to marten. Duan Yu said, “Mister Zuo is waiting anxiously. Just tell him what he wants to know.”
The girl laughed and looked down at Zuo Zimu. “When I was looking for snakes in the grass, I heard several persons walking over. One of them said, ‘If we don’t slaughter everyone from Wuliang Sword School this time round and take over Mount Wuliang and Jianhu Palace, the members of the Shennong Guild should just cut our own throats.’ The talk of slaughtering everyone sounded fun, so I squatted there and kept quiet. They continued discussing about being under the order of Lingjiu Palace[foot]灵鹫宫 – Língjiù gōng[/foot] on Piaomiao Peak[foot]缥缈峰 – Piāomiáo fēng[/foot] to ascertain the truth behind Wuliang Cliff.”
At that point, Zuo Zimu and Xin Shuangqing glanced at each other. The girl asked, “What’s Lingjiu Palace on Piaomiao Peak? Why does the Shennong Guild need to submit to its command?”
“This is the first time I’ve heard of Lingjiu Palace on Piaomiao Peak. I had no idea that the Shennong Guild were actually under the order of someone else to cause trouble with us.” Zuo Zimu admitted. If the Shennong Guild were forced to act under the command, it meant that whoever it was on Piaomiao Peak would be very powerful. There were countless mountains and peaks in Yunnan, but Zuo Zimu had never heard of one by the name of Piaomiao Peak. That made him more worried and he started frowning unconsciously.
The girl ate two melon seeds before continuing, “Then I heard another person saying, ‘If the waternut herb could cure our guild leader’s illness, we brothers must risk even excruciating deaths to get hold of this herb.’ The other person who spoke earlier sighed and said, ‘Other than the Tianshan Child Granny herself, no one is able to remove the Mark of Life and Death on me. Although the waternut herb has mystical medical properties, it would only slightly reduce the torturous agony when the Mark of Life and Death comes into effect…’ As they spoke, they walked further and further away. So have I said it clear enough?”
Zuo Zimu did not reply. Instead, he lowered his head and remained deep in thought. Xin Shuangqing spoke, “Zuo shixiong, the waternut herb isn’t something extraordinary. If the Shennong Guild’s leader Sikong Xuan[foot]司空玄 – Sīkōng Xuán[/foot] wants to use it as a cure or analgesic, then give some to him. Wouldn’t that solve the problem?”
“What’s the use of giving him some waternut herb? Didn’t you hear that they have the intention of occupying Jianhu Palace?” Zuo Zimu was furious. Xin Shuangqing snorted and remained silent. The girl placed her right arm under Duan Yu’s armpit and said, “Let’s go down!”
She straightened herself and leap off the beam. Duan Yu cried out in shock but he was already in mid air. The girl landed gently with her right arm still supporting Duan Yu’s left arm. “Let’s take a look outside and see what the Shennong Guild looks like.”
Zuo Zimu stepped forward, “Wait, I have a few more questions. Miss, you mentioned that the old fellow Sikong Xuan has a Mark of Life and Death on him. Once it takes effect, he would be in extreme agony. What is it? Who is the Tianshan Child Granny?”
“Firstly, I don’t know the answer to both of your questions. Secondly, you asked me in such a rude manner, so even if I knew, I’d definitely not tell you,” the girl replied.
Zuo Zimu was very unwilling to make another enemy as Wuliang Sword School was already besieged by a strong enemy. However, the girl’s words contained many important points related to the reputation and survival of Wuliang Sword School. He had to get to the clarify every point. Shifting his body, he blocked the path of Duan Yu and the girl. “Miss, the evil people of the Shennong Guild are out there. If any mishaps were to befall on you out there, Wuliang Sword School would blame ourselves.”
“I’m not a guest you invited. Moreover, you don’t even know my name. If I were to be killed by the Shennong Guild, my parents would definitely not blame you for not protecting me.” As she said that, the girl pulled Duan Yu’s arm and walked towards the exit. Zuo Zimu drew his sword that was sheathed at his waist. “Miss, please stay.”
“You want to fight?” The girl asked. Zuo Zimu assured, “I only want you to repeat what you told me earlier in greater detail.”
The girl shook her head. “If I refuse to say, will you kill me?”
“I can’t think of any other way around this.” He levelled his sword before his chest to block their path. The girl turned to Duan Yu. “This bearded old man wants to kill me. What should we do?”
Waving his folding fan, Duan Yu said, “We will do whatever you say, miss.”
“If he kills me with one strike, what do we do?”
“As the saying goes, share the blessings and face adversity together. Since we shared melon seeds, we will face the blade together.” Duan Yu stated.
“Very well said. You are a friend indeed. It isn’t a waste to be acquainted with you. Let’s go!” She strode towards the exit, ignoring Zuo Zimu’s gleaming black sword. Zuo Zimu shifted his sword to point at the girl’s shoulder. He had no intention of hurting her, but only wanted to stop her from leaving the arena. A middle-aged Wuliang Sword School disciples rushed forward and grabbed the girl’s arms. The girl tapped her pouch and whistled twice. Suddenly, there was a white flash as the Lightning Marten darted out and pounced onto the disciple’s right arm. He fumbled to grab it, but true to its name, the marten was lightning quick. It bit his right wrist before darting back into the pouch. The middle-aged disciple cried out and dropped one knee to the ground.His wrist was swiftly went numb and he cried out, “Poison! Poison! Your… Your damned marten is poisonous!”
He gripped his wrist tightly with his left hand in an attempt to prevent the poison from spreading. All the disciples of the Wuliang Sword School Eastern Sect rushed forth. Two of them propped up their shixiong, while the rest unsheathed their swords and surrounded Duan Yu and the girl. “Hand over the antidote now or we will slaughter this wench.”
The girl smiled. “I don’t have the antidote. You just need to gather some waternut herb and boil it into a bowl of thick soup. Feed it to him and he will be fine. However, he shouldn’t move in the next six hours or the poison will penetrate his heart. That would be terrible. Why are all of you blocking me? You want to be bitten by this marten as well?”
The girl took the marten out of the pouch and held it in her left hand. Pulling Duan Yu with her right hand, she walked towards the exit. Seeing the awkward state that his disciple was in, Zuo Zimu’s disciples knew that with their skills, they would be unable to avoid the lightning quick attack of the marten. They could only watch helplessly as the Duan Yu and the girl left the arena. The guests were dumbstruck by the astounding speed of the Lightning Marten and none of them dared to go forth and stop the duo. Duan Yu and the girl stepped through the doorway shoulder to shoulder. Some disciples of Wuliang Sword School were in the practice arena, while others stood guard outside in anticipation of an attack by the Shennong Guild. However, as the two of them left Jianhu Palace, they did not run into anyone.
“Lightning Marten has eaten thousands of poisonous snake in its lifetime. Its teeth are very poisonous. The fierce man should have cut off his arm immediately after he was bitten. If he delays for a mere few hours, he wouldn’t be able to live past the eighth day,” the girl muttered.
“Didn’t you say that they only needed to gather some waternut herb, boil it into a thick soup and drink it as an antidote?” The girl laughed. “I lied. If not, would they have let us leave?”
“You wait for a moment. I’ll go and tell him,” Duan Yu replied in alarm. The girl held him and chided, “Idiot. If you told him, would they let us live? My marten may be powerful but if they were to attack together, how would I be able to hold them off? You said that since we shared melon seeds, we will face the blade together. I definitely can’t abandon you and escape on my own.”
He scratched his head. “Then give him some antidote.”
The girl sighed. “You are such a sentimental person. You were hit and yet you are still so kind.”Duan Yu touched his face. “I was hit once and it’s no longer painful. Why harp over it? It’s a pity that the person who hit me died instead. Mencius says, ‘A compassionate heart is the sign of humanity.’ Buddha says, ‘Saving one life surpasses the seventh level of enlightenment.’ Although their shifu Zuo Zimu is ruthless, he was rather courteous when talking to you. Even though he had grown such a long beard[foot]This referred to his age. In ancient China, hair was considered a gift from one’s parents. Hence, the people then did not trim their hair as a sign of filial piety.[/foot], he still referred to himself lowly[foot]There are several ways to refer to oneself other than using “I”. These are usually used to show superiority or respect for elderly and superior persons. Zuo Zimu used the term “Zaixia” (在下) which literally means the lower one or the one who is below. It is used to express humility.[/foot] even though he spoke to a young lady like you.”
The girl giggled. “I was sitting on the beam. He was on the ground so naturally he was the one who was below. You are putting in a good word so that I would give him the antidote. But I really don’t have it. Only Father has the antidote. Moreover, those people from Wuliang Sword School will be exterminated by the Shennong Guild shortly. By the time I ask for the antidote from Father, that man’s head would not longer be on his neck. So it wouldn’t matter whether there was the corpse was poisoned or not, would it?”
Duan Yu shook his head and decided to stop pursuing the matter on the antidote. The luminous moon had just risen and it shone on her pale face that was tinged with red, making her appear even more charming. “You couldn’t tell the bearded old man your esteemed name[foot]尊姓大名 – zūnxìngì dàmíng. It literally means honoured surname and big name.[/foot]. Could you tell me?”
The girl laughed. “What esteemed name? My surname is Zhong. Father and Mother call me Ling’er. I have a surname but not a big name[foot]大名 – Dàmíng. A proper name, as opposed to a milk name. It is referred to as a big name to differentiate it from a small name.[/foot]. Only a small name[foot]小名 – Xiǎomíng. A milk name.[/foot]. Let’s go sit on that slope over there. Tell me what you are doing here on Mount Wuliang.”
They walked side by side towards the mountain slope on the the north-western face. Duan Yu spoke as he walked, “I escaped from home to wander around. When I reached Pu’er, I ran out of money. Then I heard people saying that Uncle Mawu De is very hospitable, so I went to his home to live off him. He was about to come to Mount Wuliang. I’ve heard of the tranquillity and the scenery of Mount Wuliang, hence I followed him for a scenic tour of the mountain.”
Zhong Ling[foot]钟灵 – Zhōng Líng[/foot] nodded and then asked, “Why did you escape from home?”
“Father wants me to learn martial arts, but I refused. He kept forcing me so I had to run away.”
Zhong Ling stared at him wide-eyed and looked at him from top to toe, her curiosity piqued. “Why won’t you learn martial arts? Are you afraid of hardship?”
“It’s not because I’m afraid of hardship. I just couldn’t sort my thoughts, so I disobeyed Father. Father became angry, then he started quarrelling with Mother again…”
Zhong Ling smiled. “Your mother always defends you and argues with your father, right?”
“My mother is the same.” Zhong Ling sighed. She let her gaze drift to the distant west and became lost in thought for a while. Then she asked, “What were the thoughts you couldn’t sort out?”
“I grew up under the teachings of Buddha. Father hired a tutor to make me study the Four Books and Five Classics[foot]These are the authoritative book on Confucianism. The Four Books are Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, the Analects and Mencius. The Five Classics are the Classic of Poetry, the Classic of History, the Classic of Rites, the Classic of Changes and the Spring and Autumn Annals.[/foot], poetry and music. He also hired a distinguished monk to teach me about the Buddisht Scripture. For the past ten over years, I’ve been taught the Confucian way of having good morals and helping others selflessly, and studied the Buddhist teaching to be benevolent and to abstain from violence and anger. Father suddenly wants to teach me how to fight, and to learn how to assault and to kill. Naturally, I couldn’t accept it. Father debated with me for three consecutive days but I was not convinced. He recited many quotes from the Buddist Scripture wrongly. His interpretations of the phrases were incorrect as well.”
“So your father got angry and gave you a good beating, right?”
Duan Yu shook his head. “Father did not beat me. He simply reached out and tapped two of my acupoints. Suddenly, I felt as though there were millions of ants biting me all over my body and it was as if many mosquitoes were sucking my blood at the same time. Father said, ‘How do you like this? I’m your father so I would unblock your acupoints in a while. But if you encounter an enemy, you would have to endure the torment. You could try to commit suicide though.’ After he sealed my acupoints, I couldn’t even lift a finger, not to mention suicide. Moreover, I’m enjoying my life so why would I want to kill myself? Later, Mother started quarrelling with Father and he unsealed my acupoints. I secretly ran away the next day.”
Zhong Ling was listening quietly. Then she exclaimed, “Your father actually knows how to seal acupoints and to inflict numbness and itchiness. That’s the top acupoint sealing gongfu in the world. He just need to jab you at some place on your body and you would be immobilised and feeling numb and itchy all over, right?”
“Yeah. What’s strange about that?”The expression on Zhong Ling’s face was one of pure disbelief. “You asked what’s strange about that? You actually asked what’s so strange? If anyone in the wulin is given the chance to learn a little of your father’s acupoint sealing gongfu, he would willingly kowtow ten thousand times and beg for ten to twenty years for it. Yet you refuse to learn. That’s indeed very strange.”
“I think this acupoint sealing gongfu is no big deal.”Zhong Ling sighed a few times. “You mustn’t say that. And it’s important that you don’t let anyone know.”
“Why?” Duan Yu enquired curiously.
“You don’t practice martial arts that’s why you don’t know about all the bad things in the jianghu. The acupoint sealing gongfu of the Duan family is peerless. It’s called the Yiyang Finger[foot]一阳指 – Yìyáng zhǐ[/foot]. People from the wulin would drool upon hearing the words Yiyang Finger. They would be so envious that they wouldn’t be able to sleep for ten days and ten nights. If someone were to discover that your father knows this gongfu, there might be some evil persons who would kidnap you and to demand your father to use the instruction manual of Yiyang Finger to exchange for you. What would happen then?”
Duan Yu heard his parents mention that his father’s skill was indeed Yiyang Finger. Duan Yu scratched his head and said, “Father would be angry and give that person a good fight.”
“That’s right. Others won’t dare to pit themselves against the Duan family. However, it’s hard to say if it is for the sake of the manual of Yiyang Finger. Moreover, if you were in the hands of those people, it would complicate the situation. How about this, from now on, don’t tell others that your surname is Duan.”
“There are tens of thousands of people in the Dali Kingdom who have the surname Duan. Yet you don’t see everyone using Yiyang Finger. If my surname is not Duan, then what surname do you want me to use?”
Zhong Ling smiled. “Then you just use my surname for the time being!”
Duan Yu smiled. “That sounds good. If that’s the case, you would have to call me big brother. How old are you?”
“I’m three years older than you,” Duan Yu said.
Zhong Ling plucked a blade of grass and tore it bit by bit. Then she shook her head. “I really can’t believe that you actually don’t want to learn the Yiyang Finger. You are lying, right?”
Duan Yu laughed. “You make the Yiyang Finger sound so amazing but can it really be used to make a living? I think your Lightning Marten is more powerful. But it can kill so swiftly with its bite, so I don’t like it.”
“If Lightning Marten couldn’t kill quickly with a bite, wouldn’t it be useless?” The girl sighed.”You are a young girl, why do you keep thinking about fighting and killing people?”
“Do you really not know or are you pretending?”
“What?” Duan Yu asked curiously. Zhong Ling pointed to the east. “Look!”
Duan Yu’s gaze followed the direction she was pointing. Streaks of dark smoke billowed from the middle of the eastern face of the mountain. There were about ten over clusters of smoke. He was not sure of what it meant. Zhong Ling said, “You might not want to fight or kill, but if others want to attack and kill you, surely you can’t show them your neck and let them kill you, can you? The black smoke is caused by the Shennong Guild’s preparation of poisons that they will be using to deal with the Wuliang Sword School later. I only hope that we can sneak out and not be involved in this.”
Duan Yu waved his fan and disapproval, “The fighting and killing in the jianghu is getting more and more out of hand. Members of Wuliang Sword School killed members of the Shennong Guild. Rong Ziju was murdered by the Shennong Guild today, and Gong Guangjie was harmed as well. An eye for an eye, so now they are even. If there are any grievances, they should bring the matter to the authorities and let the local magistrate pass judgement. How could they resort to violence so casually? Is there no law of the land in our Dali Kingdom?”
Zhong Ling clicked her tongue thrice, disdain showing on her face. “You sound like a relative of the Emperor or an official. We common folk don’t care about you.”
She looked up to check the colour of the sky to gauge the time of the day. Pointing to the south west, she said in a low voice, “We’ll wait till there’s a dark cloud blocking the moonlight, then we leave quietly from there. That way, the members of the Shennong Guild will probably not spot us.”
“No! I want to meet their guild leader to tell him explicitly not to kill so carelessly,” Duan Yu said. Zhong Ling gaze pitifully at him. “Big Brother Duan, you think too highly of yourself. The Shennong Guild is sinister and ruthless. They are experts in the use of poison. You saw for yourself how they killed the two person just now. Let’s not make any trouble and quickly leave.”
“No. I must settle this matter. If you are afraid, then wait for me here.” As he said that, he rose and walked eastward. Zhong Ling waited for him to move several yards before leaping to her feet to chase after him. Reaching out with her right hand, she seized him by the shoulder. Duan Yu heard footsteps behind him and was about to turn around, but his right shoulder was already held. Zhong Ling then hooked his leg with hers. Duan Yu lost his balance and fell forwards. His nose slammed into a rock and blood started pouring from his nose. He scrambled to his feet in a huff and demanded furiously, “Why did you pull such a prank? That was a painful tumble.”
“I wanted to test you again to see if you were pretending or if you really don’t know any martial arts. I’m doing this for your own good.”
“What good does it do?” Duan Yu spat angrily. He rubbed his nose with his hand. His hand was bloodied and fresh blood dripped, staining a dark red patch on his chest. His injuries were minor but upon seeing so much blood, he started crying out in pain. Zhong Ling became worried and hurriedly took out her handkerchief to help him wipe away the blood. Duan Yu was still annoyed by her so he pushed her away. “I don’t need you to be nice to me. I’m going to ignore you.”
As he did not know any martial arts, he had no spatial awareness. He simply thrust with his hands and his palm went towards her chest. Zhong Ling caught his wrist instinctively and threw him along the direction of his motion. Duan Yu was sent tumbling and his back of his head struck the rock soundly, knocking him unconscious. Seeing him lying motionless on the ground, Zhong Ling shouted, “Get up now. I have something to tell you.”
Seeing him lying motionless, she started to panic. She bent down to examine. His eyes had rolled back and his breathing was shallow. He had fainted. She quickly pinched his philtrum and then rubbed his chest forcefully. After some time, Duan Yu gradually regained consciousness. He felt his back leaning against something soft and he could smell a faint fragrance. He slowly opened his eyes and saw Zhong Ling looking at him anxiously. Seeing he had come to, Zhong Ling let out a long sigh. “Thank goodness you didn’t die.”
Duan Yu found himself lying in her arms with the back of his head resting on her waist, and his heart skipped a beat. Then he felt a throbbing pain at the back of the head where he was hit, causing him to cry out involuntarily in pain. Zhong Ling was alarmed, “What’s wrong?”
“I’m… in great pain.”
“You didn’t die. Why are you yelling?”
“If I were dead, how could I yell?”
Zhong Ling laughed and cradled his head. The back of his head was had swollen as big as a chicken’s egg. Although it wasn’t bleeding, she knew that it must be painful indeed. She said angrily, “Why did you make such a frivolous and perverted move? If it were someone else, I would have killed them on the spot. I went easy on you to let you off with just a tumble.”
Duan Yu sat up and asked in confusion, “I… I was frivolous and perverted? What? That’s an unfair accusation!”
Zhong Ling only knew a little about boy-girl relationships. Upon hearing his words, she flushed red. “I’m not telling you. Whatever it is, it’s your fault. Why did you reach out to push me here… here…”
She pointed at her chest. Duan Yu instantly realised what she meant and was embarrassed. He wanted to explain but felt that it was inappropriate. “I… I really didn’t mean it.”
He stood up and Zhong Ling did likewise. “Since it wasn’t intentional, I’ll let you off. You finally woke up. I was so worried.”
“If it weren’t for your help earlier in Jianhu Palace, I would have had to endure two more slaps. Now that you’ve thrown me twice, we’re now even. It’s just my fate so I can’t avoid it,” Duan Yu said.
“From the way you say it, does it mean you’re still angry at me?”
“You mean after you hit me, I should gleefully say, ‘That’s a good strike.’ Should I thank you?” Duan Yu asked. Zhong Ling tugged his arm apologetically. “From today onwards, I won’t hit you ever again. So don’t be angry this time.”
“Only if you let me give you two tight slaps.”
Zhong Ling was very unwilling but seeing him turn furiously to leave, she lifted her head. “Fine. I’ll let you give me two slaps. But… but you mustn’t hit too hard.”
“If I don’t hit hard, how can it be considered getting revenge? I must hit hard. If you don’t let me hit then forget it.”
Zhong Ling sighed and closed her eyes. She said softly, “Fine! After you hit me, you cannot be angry anymore.”
Realising that Duan Yu had not slap her after a while, she opened her eyes, only to him looking at her, a smile tugging at his lips. “Why haven’t you hit me?”
He raised his right pinky and gently flicked on both her cheeks, smiling as he said, “Are these two hard strikes very painful?”
Zhong Ling was delighted. “I knew you were a kind person.”
She stood only a few feet apart before him, her fragrance drifted in the hair. The more he looked at her, the more beautiful she appeared. For a moment, he could not bear to leave. After some time, he said, “Alright. Since I have avenged myself, I need to go look for Guild Leader Sikong Xuan.”
Zhong Ling said frantically, “Idiot. You can’t go! You know nothing about the matters in the jianghu. If you violate their taboo, I won’t be able to save you.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be back in a while. You just wait here for me,” he said, smiling as he shook his head. Then he started towards where the dark smoke was rising from. Zhong Ling called out to stop him but he refused to listen. She paused for a while before saying, “Fine. You said that we will share melon seeds, and we will face the blade together!”
She caught up with him and proceeded to walk side by side with him, ceasing her attempts to persuade him. They walked for a short while before seeing two men in yellow approaching them quickly. The older man on the left shouted, “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
Both men carried medicine pouches on their shoulders and they held sabres with unusually broad blades. Duan Yu replied, “I’m Duan Yu. I wish to speak to Guild Leader Sikong Xuan.”
“I will speak after I meet your guild leader,” Duan Yu replied. The man asked, “Which school are you from, sir? And how do I address your master?”
“I don’t belong to any school. My shifu’s surname is Meng. His name is Shusheng. His style name is Xuru. My shifu specialises in studying the Book of Changes and has considerable achievements in the study of interpreting divination symbols.”
Duan Yu was actually referring to the tutor who taught him about the Four Books and Five Classics. However, the old man assumed that the Book of Changes and interpreting divination symbols referred to two peculiar forms of martial arts. Moreover, Duan Yu stood there gently fanning himself, appearing to be someone with hidden consummate abilities. Hence, the man did not dare to show disrespect. Although he could not recall anyone in the wulin with the name Meng Shusheng[foot]孟述圣 – Mèng Shùshèngè[/foot], his seemed to have considerable achievements, so he doubted it would be casual boasting. “If that’s the case, please wait while I pass the message, young xia[foot]侠 -Xiá. A person adept in martial arts and conducts in a chivalrous manner.[/foot] Duan.”
After he left hurriedly and rounded the mountainside, Zhong Ling asked, “You lied to him about the Book of Changes[foot]The Book of Changes is called Yili (易理). Zhong Ling’s actual words were Yili and Nanli (难理). There’s no such thing as Nanli. It is simply a play of words. Yili literally means easy to reason, so he threw in the term Nanli, which means difficult to reason.[/foot]. What kind of gongfu is that? If Sikong Xuan wants to test you, it might be difficult to continue the act.”
“I’m very familiar with Zhouyi[foot]周易 – Zhōuyì. Another name for the Book of Changes.[/foot], so if Sikong Xuan were to test me on the sublime words and deeper meanings, I can probably manage,” Duan Yu said. Zhong Ling was at a loss for words. The old man had returned, his expression dark. “What were you babbling about? The guild leader wants to see you!”
From the looks of it, the man had been admonished by Sikong Xuan. Duan Yu nodded and followed him along with Zhong Ling. Shortly, the trio rounded the mountain ridge and they saw twenty over people sitting in circle amongst a pile of rocks. As they approached, they saw a short and skinny old man sitting on a tall rock high above everyone else. He had a long beard and wore a haughty expression. Duan Yu presumed he was the guild leader of the Shennong Guild, Sikong Xuan. He raised his hand with left palm over his right fist in greeting. “I, Duan Yu, am honoured to have been invited by Guild Leader Sikong.”
Sikong Xuan nodded but did not stand up. “What matter brings you here?”
“I heard that your guild has a feud with the Wuliang Sword School. I just saw two members of Wuliang Sword School die horribly. I really couldn’t bear it so I came specially to dissuade you to stop this. Know that enmity is easy to develop but hard to resolve. Moreover, such vicious violence is against the law. If the authorities know of this, it would lead to much inconvenience. Please stop this before it’s too late, Guild Leader Sikong. Quickly return and don’t seek revenge with Wuliang Sword School again.”
Sikong Xuan listened coldly and waited until he was finished. Even then, he remained silent and simply looked at him from the corner of his eyes. Duan Yu continued, “These are my valued advice so please reconsider, guild leader.”
Sikong Xuan continued to look at him curiously. Suddenly, he threw his head back and laughed. “Who are you to come here and waste my time? Who asked you to come here?”
“Did anyone tell me to come here? I came here on my own to talk to you.”
Sikong Xuan snorted. “In the forty years I’ve been in the jianghu, I’ve never seen a nonsensical lad as bold and outrageous as you are. A’sheng, seize them.”
A burly man replied in affirmative and held Duan Yu’s right his arm. Zhong Ling called out, “Wait! Guild Leader Sikong, this mister tried to persuade you nicely. If you choose not to listen, then fine. Why the need to resort to violence?”
Turning to Duan Yu, she said, “Big Brother, the Shennong Guild won’t listen to you. We don’t need to mind other’s business. Let’s go!”
A’sheng had already placed both of Duan Yu’s hands behind his back. His gaze was locked on Sikong Xuan, waiting for his command. Sikong Xuan said coldly, “The Shennong Guild dislike busybodies the most. For two children to come and nag at me, there is something odd about this. A’hong, tie the girl up as well.”
“Yes!” Another big man replied and tried to grab Zhong Ling. With a sway of her body, she retreated sideways by three steps. “Guild Leader Sikong, I’m not afraid of you. It’s just that my parents don’t allow me to cause trouble. Quickly tell this person to release my Big Brother, else I’ll be forced to fight. That would be most inconvenient.”
Sikong Xuan laughed heartily. “The girl is boasting. Why haven’t you caught her, Ahong?”
“Yes!” Ahong acknowledged and reached out to grasp Zhong Ling’s arm. Zhong Ling retracted her arm and suddenly lashed out with her other hand, her palm shaped like a knife, to chop at A’hong’s neck. He lowered his head to dodge but she brought her other fist upwards, striking his jaw and knocking him to the ground. Sikong Xuan said mildly, “This girl knows a few tricks. But it’s not enough to come to the Shennong Guild and behave so atrociously.”
He looked at a tall, old man at his side and gestured. The old man stood up immediately and closed in on Zhong Ling with two steps. He was almost two feet taller than Zhong Ling. Reaching down with his ten fingers looking like talons, he grabbed at her shoulders. Seeing the ferocity of the attack, Zhong Ling dodged hurriedly. The old man’s fingers clawed in the air merely five inches from her face. She felt the strong gust of wind caused by the force of the strike and was terrified. “Guild Leader Sikong, tell him to stop now. Else, I would not hold back any more. If Father were to scold me, it won’t do you any good also.”
As she spoke, the old man had already attacked thrice. Zhong Ling barely avoided him each time. Sikong Xuan said sternly, “Catch her!”
The old man led with one hand and made a circular motion with the other. His fingers suddenly changed directions and he held her arm. Zhong Ling cried out in terror as the pain caused her face to pale. She shook her free hand and whistled twice. There was a flash of white and the tall, old man snorted and released her arm, and then he sat onto the ground. Lightning Marten bit the back of his hand and leapt back into Zhong Ling’s arm. A middle-aged man at Sikong Xuan’s side rushed forth to help the tall, old man up. The old man’s body was shaking and there was a black patch on the back of his hand. Zhong Ling whistled twice again and Lightning Marten sprung towards the face of A’sheng. He reached out to hit it and Lightning Marten bit his palm. A’sheng’s cultivation was not up to the level of the tall, old man, hence all the more he could not withstand the poison. He curled into a ball and wailed in pain. Zhong Ling grabbed Duan Yu’s arm and turned to leave, whispering, “We’re in trouble. Let’s go!”
The people around Sikong Xuan were the best fighters of the Shennong Guild. They have been gathering herbs and using drugs all their lives, so they have seen and tried all sorts of poisons. However, the speed of the Lightning Marten and the high potency of the poison were something they had never encountered. Sikong Xuan ordered, “Capture the girl immediately. Don’t let her escape.”
Four men cried out in affirmation and leap to their feet. They split into pairs and descended on both flanks. Zhong Ling whistled repeatedly. Lightning Marten leapt from on person to another. In a few moments, all four men had been bitten by it. The men were either rolling on the ground or curled up on the floor. Although the members of the Shennong Guild saw that the marten was frightening, they dared not cower before their guild leader. Another eight persons rushed over. Zhong Ling warned, “If you want to live, don’t come any closer!”
These eight people were all armed. Some carried hoes while others had broad-bladed sabres. They hoped to be able to block the attacks of Lightning Marten with their weapons. However, the marten was faster than any sneak attacks in the world. It only had to bounce over the back of the sabres and then leap to bite the enemy. Shortly, the eight persons were left rolling on the ground. Sikong Xuan held up his robes and quickly took out a bottle of medicine from his bosom. He poured the medicine in his palm and hastily applied it on his hands and lower arm. With three leaps, he was already blocking the path before Zhong Ling and Duan Yu. He shouted in a deep voice, “Hold it!”
Lightning Marten bounded from Zhong Ling’s palm towards the nose bridge of Sikong Xuan. He held his hand upright, secretly afraid as he did not know if the specially brewed snake antidote would work against the unknown poison of the marten. If it were useless, his life and those of the Shennong Guild members would be forfeit. The marten opened its mouth to bite his palm. Suddenly, it twisted in mid air and pushed its hind feet on his fingers to leap back to Zhong Ling. Lightning Marten had gathered snake poison within its body. Sikong Xuan’s specially brewed snake antidote was very effective against snake poison. Hence when Lightning Marten caught the scent of the strong antidote, it could not take it.
Sikong Xuan was delighted. He hurriedly struck with his palm. Zhong Ling could not dodge and almost lost her footing. The wind generated by the force of the palm was so strong that Duan Yu was thrown into the air. Zhong Ling was shocked. She whistled repeatedly to spur Lightning Marten to attack. It darted out once again but the snake antidote on Sikong Xuan’s palm was overpowering. So it tried to bite his head and legs. Sikong Xuan’s palms danced around to prevent it from getting near him. He had seen the speed of the marten and he was still scared of it, so he started issuing orders.
More than ten guild members surrounded them. Each held a bundle of herbs and lighted it, causing thick billows of smoke to rise into the air. Duan Yu had just gotten back to his feet when he suddenly felt faint and fell down again. Through his blurred vision, he could see Zhong Ling’s body swaying and then collapse onto the ground. Two guild members rushed forth to seize her but Lightning Marten defended its mistress. It leapt forth and bit them both. The crowd retreated in shock. They maintained the circle, shouting at the marten but no one attacked. Sikong Xuan ordered, “East side burn realgar. South side burn musk. West and North sides disperse.”
The guild members followed his orders. The Shennong Guild had a reputation of being well prepared with any kind of herbs, and the herbs that they used were all of the finest quality. The realgar and musk they used were very pure. Upon lighting, they released thick, pungent smoke that was blown by the south-eastern wind towards Zhong Ling. However, Lightning Marten was not affected by the smoke and remained as agile as before. It soon took down another five guild members. Sikong Xuan frowned as he planned his next move. “Shovel the soil. Bury the girl and the marten alive.”
The guild members that were carrying hoes used for unearthing herbs started digging large piles of soil and flung them onto Zhong Ling. Duan Yu knew that he caused the trouble, and if Zhong Ling ended up being buried alive, he would be too ashamed to live either. He threw himself with his remaining strength onto Zhong Ling. As he held her, he shouted, “We are going to perish together anyway.”
The soil and stones fell like rain, covering his head. Sikong Xuan heard what Duan Yu said and it struck a chord in his heart. Twenty over guild members had collapsed around him, and eight of them were important members of the guild. Even two of his disciples were among the injured. If he were to kill the girl, it might help him vent his resentment. But the poison of the marten is too peculiar. If he did not obtain her unique antidote, he might be unable to save the lives of all the injured. “Keep them alive. Don’t cover their heads.”
Soon, the two of them were covered with soil until their necks. Zhong Ling could feel a heavy weight pressing down on her. Although their bodies were buried in the soil with only their heads exposed, Duan Yu was hugging her so she did not feel that terrified. Duan Yu said in a low voice, “It’s because I didn’t listen to you, that’s why I brought this upon you. I’m really sorry.”
Zhong Ling said, “You are pretty loyal to me rushing over to die with me. You are a good person.”
Duan Yu said, “To die with such a beautiful girl like you, it’s a good way to go.”Zhong Ling giggled and said in a low voice, “Do you really think I’m beautiful or are you just saying it to make me happy?”
“Of course it’s true. If the both of us don’t die this time, you’ll be my good friend in the future, alright?”
Zhong Ling smiled sweetly, “Alright. But after a few days you’ll forget about me.”
“I’ll never forget you,” Duan Yu said and then he squeezed her shoulders. Their cheeks were only an inch apart. Her rosy cheeks, pale complexion, and slightly open mouth looked lovely. Duan Yu leaned over and kissed her gently on her cheek. Zhong Ling’s face immediately flushed red with embarrassment. Sikong Xuan sneered, “Hey, do you two want to get out and become husband and wife? Or do you want to stay in the soil and become enemies in the afterworld?”
Duan Yu said, “Of course it’s better to get out!”
“Fine! Quickly hand over the antidote for the marten’s poison and I’ll spare your life,” Sikong Xuan said. Zhong Ling shook her head. “Sparing me isn’t enough. You must spare both of us.”
“Fine then! I’ll spare your worthless lives. Where’s the antidote?”
“The antidote is not with me. Only Father knows how to treat the potent poison of Lightning Marten. I told you before not to force me to fight, or else Father would definitely be provoked and be mad at me. What good would it do to you?”
Sikong Xuan said sternly, “Girl, you still spout rubbish now. I might just let my anger get the better of me and leave you here to starve.”
“Everything I said was the truth. Yet you don’t want to believe me. Sigh. This is such a terrible mess. I might not be able to keep it from Father. What am I to do?”
“What’s your father’s name?”
“You’re not young any more, why are you so unreasonable? How can I simply tell you Father’s name?”
Sikong Xuan had been in the jianghu for decades and he can be considered a notable figure in the wulin. However, he could not deal with the two jokers, Zhong Ling and Duan Yu. He said through clenched jaws, “Bring a torch. I’ll burn the girl’s hair to make her tell me.”
A guild member passed him a torch and he took two steps forward. Zhong Ling could see the fierce ruthlessness that gleamed in his eyes under the light from the fire and she became scared. “Hey. Hey. Don’t burn my hair. If you burn my hair, my head would be in extreme pain. If you don’t believe, try burning your beard.”
Sikong Xuan laughed evilly. “Of course I know it hurts a lot. I don’t need to burn my beard to know that.”
Raising the torch, he swung it in front of Zhong Ling’s face. She screamed in fright. Duan Yu hugged her tightly. “Bearded fellow, I was the one who started this so burn my hair instead!”
Zhong Ling said, “No! You’ll feel the pain too.”
“Since you’re afraid of pain, then hand over the antidote now and save my brothers.”
Zhong Ling said, “You’re a really stupid person. I already told you that only Father can cure Lightning Marten’s poison. Even Mother don’t know how to. Lightning Marten is a rare and exquisite. The potent poison on its fangs is extremely strange. Do you think it is so easy to cure?”
From the strange sounds of the people around him groaning in pain, Sikong Xuan knew that the poison would be very difficult to cure. Otherwise these were tough, proud men who have an arm or leg chopped off and not make a sound. Other guild members had already applied medicines to treat snake poison for the injured, but the moaning meant that the guild’s mighty snake antidote was not working. Some members even tried using antidotes for the venoms of scorpions, centipedes and spiders, but it only made the wounded members scream even louder. Sikong Xuan glared at Zhong Ling and bellowed, “Who’s your old man? Tell me his name now!”
“Do you really want me to say? Aren’t you afraid?”
Sikong Xuan flew into rage and raised the torch to burn Zhong Ling’s hair. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain at the back of his neck as something bit him. He was shocked. He hastily shielded his head. Tossing the torch aside, he reached behind his neck to grab, only to feel the back of his hand sting with pain. Lightning Marten had quietly burrowed its way out after being buried in the soil. It launched a surprise attack when Sikong Xuan lowered his guard. He had applied snake antidote on his palms and arms before he attacked earlier, however he did not apply it on his neck or the back of his palms. Sikong Xuan was terrified after being bitten twice. He sat on the ground and began channelling his inner energy to expel the venom. The guild members hurriedly shovelled the earth to cover the marten. The marten bounded and bit two persons before disappearing into the bushes.
Sikong Xuan’s underlings hurriedly took the snake antidote and applied it all over their bodies before consuming it. They then tended to their guild leader, taking out a wild ginseng and stuffed it into his mouth. Sikong Xuan channelled his inner energy to resist the two sources of venom. After a while, he could no longer tolerate it. Gritting his teeth, he whipped out a sabre and chopped off his injured hand. As the saying goes, when a poisonous snake stings the wrist, the hero cuts off his arm. However, he could not behead himself to deal with the bite on the back of his head. The guild members shivered at the sight and rushed to apply medicine to stop the bleeding. However, the blood flowed heavily from the dismembered limb and washed away the medicine. Someone tore off his shirt and bound it tightly to the arm to stop the bleeding. Seeing such a horrifying sight, Zhong Ling’s face was pale and she did not dare to make a sound. Sikong Xuan asked deeply, “How many days can I live after being bitten by the marten?”
“Father said seven days. But… but Guild Leader Sikong Xuan has immense inner energy and your skills are respectable. I’m afraid… you’ll definitely live a few more days.” Zhong Ling’s voice quivered.
Sikong Xuan snorted. “Drag that brat out.”
The guild members acknowledged and pulled Duan Yu out from the pile of earth. Zhong Ling cried out in panic. “Hey, it’s none of his business. Don’t hurt him.”
She struggled with her hands and feet in an attempt to use the opportunity to crawl out. The guild members quickly filled the hole created where Duan Yu was lying in. Zhong Ling was unable to move again and she started crying loudly. Duan Yu was afraid but forced himself to be calm. He smiled. “Lady Zhong, a man faces death unflinchingly. Do not appear weak before this evil person.”
“I’m not a man! I don’t want to face death unflinchingly! I want to be weak instead!” She cried.
Sikong Xuan said, “Feed him the Gut Severing Powder. Give seven days’ dosage.”
A guild member poured half a bottle of red powder from a bottle and forced Duan Yu to swallow it. Zhong Ling shouted, “That’s a poison. Don’t eat it.”
Duan Yu had already guessed from its name that the poison was a potent one. However, he had been captured by them and there was no way of refusing the poison. He swallowed it and licked his lips. “It tastes sweet. Are you having half a bottle as well, Guild Leader Sikong?”
Sikong Xuan snorted angrily. Zhong Ling laughed through her tears and then continued crying again. “This Gut Severing Powder will come into effect after seven days. Your intestines will break into inch-long parts and then you’ll die. You shall fetch the antidote for the marten poison. If you rush back within seven days, I will give you the antidote and release this girl.”
Zhong Ling said, “The antidote alone is not enough. You need Father to use his unique inner energy technique to cure the Lightning Marten’s poison.”
“Then ask him to bring your father here to save you.”
“You make it sound so easy. Father wouldn’t leave the valley.”
Sikong Xuan remained silent as he pondered. Duan Yu said, “Tell you what, all of us go to Lady Zhong’s residence and request for her father to cure the poison. Wouldn’t it be faster?”
“No, no! Father made it clear that, anyone who steps into our family’s valley will have to die.”
Sikong Xuan thought, “The matter with Wuliang Sword School had not been resolved, so we can’t leave. If I were to fail, the Tianshan Child Granny would not let me off. I would only die a more horrible death.”
The wound on the back of his head became increasingly painful and he could not resist but groan.
“I’m sorry, Guild Leader Sikong!” Zhong Ling said. Sikong Xuan bellowed, “Sorry my ass!”
“Guild Leader Sikong, it’s ungentlemanly to be so vulgar before Miss Zhong, ” Duan Yu chided.
Sikong Xuan raged, “Gentleman, your granny!”
He thought, “When the Mark of Life and Death on me is activated, I would be subjected to hellish torment. I might as well die a clean death here.”
He turned to Zhong Ling, “I don’t care about all these. It’s fine by me if you don’t want to bring your father. Let us perish together.”
His tone was full of sorrow and resignation. Zhong Ling thought about it and said, “You let me out and I’ll write a letter to Father to beg him to come and save you. Send someone who’s not afraid of dying.”
“I’m asking this Duan boy to go. Why should I send another person?”
Zhong Ling asked, “How did you know his surname is Duan?”
“He said it just now.”She said anxiously, “But no matter who it is, once they step into my family’s valley, they would be killed. I said that earlier. I don’t want Big Brother Duan to die, understand?”
“He doesn’t have to die, so that means my subordinate has to die? Then don’t go, let everyone die. Let’s see if you’ll die first or if I’ll perish earlier.”
Zhong Ling started crying again. “You’re a shameless old man. You only care about bullying a girl like me! Now everyone in the martial arts scene will know! Everyone’s saying that the reputation of Guild Leader Sikong of the Shennong Guild is tarnished and that he doesn’t behave like a hero.”
Sikong Xuan concentrated on resisting the venom and ignored her.
“I’ll go. Miss Zhong, when your father sees that I’m there to send a message to request for him to save you, I doubt he would harm me,” Duan Yu said .Zhong Ling suddenly had a joyous look on her face. “I know! I have an idea. Don’t tell Father that I’m here so if he were to kill you, he wouldn’t be able to know where I am. But once you bring him here, you must flee immediately or you’ll be in trouble.”
“This idea sounds workable.” Duan Yu nodded.”
“Guild Leader Sikong, Big Brother Duan has to flee once he returns. How would you be able to give him the antidote for the Gut Severing Powder?” Zhong Ling asked Sikong Xuan.
Sikong Xuan pointed at a huge rock in the north-western corner. “I’ll dispatch someone to bring the antidote and wait there. When Mister Duan escapes to that spot, he’ll be able to get the antidote.”
Since he was getting Duan Yu to bring someone to save him, Sikong Xuan became very polite when addressing Duan Yu. He commanded his guild members to dig Zhong Ling out of the pile of earth, cuffed her hands with iron cuffs, and then buried her back in the soil. “If you don’t release my hands, how could I write?”
“You are full of tricks. If you were to write a letter, you probably have something up your sleeves. Give Duan Yu a keepsake to show your father.”
Zhong Ling laughed. “I hate writing the most. It’s wonderful that you don’t want me to write a letter. What keepsake do I have? Yeah, Big Brother Duan, remove my shoes. Father and Mother would recognise it once they see it.”
Duan Yu nodded and bended down to take off her shoes. Her bare foot was slender, making his heart skip a beat as he held it in his hand. He looked up and met her gaze, and the both of them smiled at each other. Under the flickering light from the torches, he saw tear drops glistening on her cheeks. Yet her eyes were filled with joy and he was mesmerized. Sikong Xuan yelled impatiently, “Go, go. Why are you children looking at each other for? Brother Duan, please make haste and return with her father. I’ll release this young lady to be your wife. If you want to touch her leg, you’ll have plenty of time to in the future.”
Duan Yu and Zhong Ling flushed red. Duan Yu hurriedly removed Zhong Ling’s shoes and placed them in the front compartment of his shirt. He looked at her unconsciously and she giggled. “Brother Duan, leave early and return early! Everyone’s life is in danger. If there were any delays on your travels, all of us will perish. Miss Zhong, how many days will it take for him to return if he were to set off immediately?”
“The fastest would be two days. At the most it would take four days,” Zhong Ling replied. Sikong Xuan was slightly relieved and he urged, “Go quickly!”
“I’ll give Big Brother Duan the directions to my home. You people move away a little and don’t eavesdrop,” Zhong Ling said. Sikong Xuan waved his hand and the guild members walked far away from them. Zhong Ling stated, “You as well.”
Sikong Xuan gritted his teeth and silently swore to ruthlessly deal with her once he recovered from his injuries. He stood up and left them alone. Zhong Ling sighed. “Big Brother Duan, we only met today and now we have to part.”
“I’ll be back in four days. It’s pretty quick, though I can’t bear parting with you,” Duan Yu smiled.
She gazed at her with her big, round eyes for a few moments, then sighed before saying, “You meet Mother first and explain the situation to her. Then let her tell my father. That’ll make things easier.”
She reached out with the tip of the foot and drew the directions on the ground. Her home was in a valley on the western banks of Lanchang River. It was not very far away but it was very well hidden. There were many traps at the entrance. An unguided outsider would have a tough time finding their way into the valley. Duan Yu had an excellent memory and he remembered the directions after listening to her descriptions of the twists and turns. Once she finished, he said, “Ok, I’m off now.”
Then he turned to leave. After he walked about ten paces, Zhong Ling suddenly remembered something. “Hey, come back!”
“What?” Duan Yu turned back. Zhong Ling instructed, “Don’t say that your surname is Duan. And you must not mention that your father knows the Yiyang Finger. Because… because Father might get ideas.”
Duan Yu smiled. “Got it!”
Thinking that the young lady was just being overcautious, he started humming a tune and left.
The moon had risen to the mid sky. Duan Yu continued westwards. Although he had no martial arts training…