The Legend of the Condor Heroes – Chapter 11

Peng Lianhu had been fighting with Mei Chaofeng for a while before he became aware that she was actually one of the “Evil Pair of the Dark Winds” pair. Seeing Huang Rong aiding her he called out “You lying brat! You denied that you are a disciple of the Evil “Dark Winds” sect but it’s obvious that you are!”

Huang Rong laughed “She? My ShiFu? Even if she trained for another hundred years she still wouldn’t be good enough to become my ShiFu!”

Peng Lianhu clearly saw that Huang Rong’s Gongfu attacks were very similar to those of the Dark Wind’s school yet she not only continued to deny she was a disciple, but actually went so far as to insult Mei Chaofeng. He couldn’t think of why she would be doing this leaving him astonished.

Sha Tongtian yelled “To kill the man, first shoot his horse!” and shot out a kick towards Guo Jing with his right foot. This change of tactic took Mei Chaofeng off guard. She thought “This kid’s martial arts skills are very low. He can’t possibly defend himself against their attacks. If I don’t act fast I’ll be dispatched by them.” There was the sound of a low whistle as she bent low and shot out her hand as if to grab Sha Tongtian’s foot. Ou Yangke took advantage of this moment to launch an attack against her back. However Mei Chaofeng just gave a humph and shook her right hand causing something to flash in the moonlight. All of a sudden a silver whip appeared dancing and weaving all around her and Guo Jing forming an impenetrable barrier.

Lian Penghu thought to himself “If we don’t kill her now then when her husband the “Copper Corpse” arrives we will all be in deep trouble!” The events of that night when Chen Xuanfeng had died had not become known about in the Martial World. However the infamy of the two “Dark Winds” was widely known and their reputation was such that even a highly feared martial artists such as himeself was struck with dread at the thought of facing both of them together.

Mei Chaofeng’s “Poison Dragon Silver Whip” was powerful in the extreme. If anyone approached from any direction they would die instantly. But Sha Tongtian, Peng Lianhu, Liang Ziwong and Ou Yangke were not about to give up so easily. Suddenly there was the sound of a whistle and Peng Lianhu began tunneling under the ground! Mei Chaofeng was prepared to defend against the sky and all four directions but not from below! At the sound of digging she became greatly alarmed and struck a slap down on the ground.

Seeing Guo Jing in danger, Huang Rong was about to rush to his aid but Mei Chaofeng was one step quicker. Using her long Silver Whip, she had already weaved a defensive barrier around herself and Guo Jing, making it impossible for Huang Rong or anyone to penetrate. However, Huang Rong knew that with just Mei Chaofeng’s individual might, she would not be able to successfully defend against Peng Lian Hu’s attack for much longer. Sensing that the situation was dire, Huang Rong yelled, “Everyone hold it, I have something to say.” But Peng Lian Hu of course paid no heed to her. Why should he?

Huang Rong was preparing to raise her voice again when a voice from atop the wall said, “Everyone hold it, I have something to say.”

Huang Rong turned her head and saw six figures on top of the wall, some taller, some shorter. In the darkness of night, she could not make out their faces clearly. Peng Lian Hu and the others knew that some people had arrived, but did not know if they were friend or foe. At present, the battles were growing ever more intense and nobody could bring themselves to stop. Two people leapt down from the wall and headed straight for Ouyang Ke; one waving a whip and the other raising a pole.

The short plump man that held the whip exclaimed, “You lecher, let’s see you escape this time!” Upon hearing this voice,

Guo Jing yelled gladly, “Shifu! Save me!” The six people that just arrived were the Six Freaks of Jiang Nan.

After parting with Guo Jing at the inn, the Freaks had tailed the eight girls from White Camel Mountain. When they discovered that Ouyang Ke was leading his concubines to abduct innocent girls at night, they fought him there and then. After all, how could the Six Freaks of Jiang Nan sit by and do nothing while such atrocities were being committed? Although Ouyang Ke was highly-skilled, the Six Freaks had spent more than a decade in the desert working hard and had improved significantly since they left the Central Plains. Surrounded by six fighters, Ouyang Ke was hit by Ke Zheng’E’s mace and subsequently had his left little finger dislocated, courtesy of Zhu Cong’s Bone Dislocation technique. Left with no choice, Ouyang Ke was forced to leave the abducted girls behind and flee. The two concubines that had accompanied Ouyang Ke for the mission, however, were killed by Nan Xi Ren and Quan Jin Fa.

After escorting the teenage girls back to their homes, the Six Freaks went in pursuit of Ouyang Ke. But Ouyang Ke was extremely sly; he must have taken another route and thus, the Six Freaks were unable to locate him. They knew that, individually, none of them were his match, and so they did not dare to split up and search. Fortunately, the girls who rode on white camels had a strange and distinct way of dressing, and it was not difficult to ask around for their whereabouts. Thus, the Six Freaks pursued them all the way to Zhao Palace.

Ouyang Ke’s white robes stood out in the darkness, and Han Bao Ju together with Nan Xi Ren attacked immediately. Upon hearing Guo Jing’s cry, the Six Freaks were both surprised and glad. Zhu Cong and the rest then looked more closely and saw that the person weaving the barrier with a long, silver whip was none other than Iron Corpse, Mei Chao Feng! Mei was sitting on Guo Jing’s shoulder and it certainly looked like Guo Jing had fallen into her clutches. Their faces paling in shock, Han Xiao Ying immediately brandished her sword and rushed forward, Quan Jin Fa tumbled into the silver whip’s defensive radius; both hoping to rescue Guo Jing. Peng Lian Hu and the others already thought it strange that six people should suddenly arrive. Now these six people were attacking both Ouyang Ke and Iron Corpse, making it even more impossible to tell whose side they were on.

Peng Lian Hu halted his attack and, still using his Earthen Palm, got out of the whip’s radius. “Everyone stop fighting, I have something to say,” he shouted.

Like a large booming bell, his shout rang aloud in everyone’s ears. Liang Zi Weng and Sha Tong Tian were the first to stop fighting.

Ke Zheng’E could tell from his shout that this person was a force to be reckoned with and called out: “Third brother, Seventh sister, don’t be rash!”

Upon hearing their Eldest brother’s orders, Han Bao Ju and the rest backed off. Mei Chao Feng had also withdrawn her silver whip and was panting. Huang Rong stepped forward and told her, “You have reaped much credit for yourself this time. My father will be pleased.” Using both arms, she motioned to Guo Jing, telling him to toss Mei Chao Feng away.

Guo Jing understood Huang Rong, and knew that she had spoken to Mei Chao Feng to distract her. He said: “The ‘Three Flowers Gathered Atop’ is Essence transformed into Qi, Qi transformed into Spirit, Spirit transformed into Nothingness. Remember that!”

Mei Chao Feng pondered, then asked: “How does one transform?”

Suddenly, she felt her body soar through the air. While she had been dwelling on the deeper meanings of this nei gong (internal energy) mantra, Guo Jing had seized the opportunity and tossed her more than ten feet away. At the same time, he had summoned his energy and leapt backward, but even before he could land, Mei’s “Poison Dragon Silver Whip” was already flying towards him, its hooks sparkling brightly.

Han Bao Ju exclaimed: “Not good!”

He unleashed his own whip and the two whips met. Suffering waves of shock from the extremely close shave, Han Bao Ju’s whip was snatched by her Poison Dragon Silver Whip. Mei Chao Feng was just about to land hard on the ground but her outstretched palm met the ground first, and she lightly seated herself. Having heard Ke Zheng’E’s voice and fought briefly with Han Xiao Ying, she knew the Seven Freaks of Jiang Nan must have arrived. Her heart filled with loathing and at the same time a little fear, she thought to herself: “I have searched everywhere for them in vain, and now they have delivered themselves to me. If it were any other day, I would’ve thanked the heavens, but this night I was surrounded by other strong enemies and already found them hard to handle. Now, with the addition of these seven scoundrels, I cannot possibly hope to live past tonight.” She gritted her teeth and decided: “I have no grudge with Liang Zi Weng and the others. As for the Seven Freaks, I will fight them to the death and make sure that if I perish, they perish with me. One dead Freak is one less – I’ll take as many as I can with me.” Gripping her Poison Dragon Silver Whip, she listened carefully to the Seven Freaks’ movements and wondered: “Out of seven only six came, I wonder where the other is ambushed?” She did not know that the Laughing Buddha Zhang Ah Sheng had already been killed by her husband on that fateful night in the Steppes.

The Six Freaks, Sha Tong Tian and the others all knew the power of her Silver Whip and stood far away from her, careful not to stray within forty to fifty feet of her. For a moment, all was silent.

Zhu Cong whispered to Guo Jing: “Why are they fighting? Why are you helping that wretch?”

Guo Jing replied: “They wanted to kill me, but she saved me.” But Zhu Cong and the other Freaks remained puzzled.

Peng Lian Hu called out: “What business do you have, sneaking into the Palace in the middle of the night? Leave your names.”

Ke Zheng’E replied coldly: “My surname is Ke. We are seven brothers, and people call us the Seven Freaks of Jiang Nan.”

Peng Lian Hu said: “Ah, so it is the Seven Heroes from Jiang Nan. I have long admired.”

Sha Tong Tian said in a strange voice: “Great, the Seven Freaks have come knocking on my door. I have long wanted to spar with you and see just how good you are.”

Upon hearing it was the Seven Freaks of Jiang Nan, he immediately remembered the shame his four disciples had suffered. In one swift movement, he stole forward. Appraising the Seven Freaks, he saw that Ke Zheng’E was blind, Han Xiao Ying was a woman, Quan Jin Fa was skin and bones, Han Bao Ju was short and fat, Zhu Cong had the air of someone cultured but not the air of a pugilist – of them, only Nan Xi Ren had the bold, proud quality of a fighter. Not wanting to waste his time on the rest, he struck straight towards Nan Xi Ren’s head. Nan Xi Ren stuck his pole in the ground and met Sha Tong Tian’s palm with his own. After a few moves, it was clear that Nan Xi Ren was not his match. Han Xiao Ying and Quan Jin Fa readied their weapons, sword and scale respectively, and rushed forward to help.

With a roar, Peng Lian Hu leapt towards Quan Jin Fa and attempted to grab his weapon. Upon sensing Peng Lian Hu’s intentions, Quan Jin Fa quickly drew back his weapon and sent both ends of it – a scale mace and scale hook, flying towards Peng. For all of Peng Lian Hu’s experience in the martial world, he had never seen anything like Quan Jin Fa’s weapon before. With a “Weird Python Flip”, he dodged Quan’s attack and exclaimed: “What is this? You’re using a scale from the market as a weapon!”

Quan Jin Fa retorted: “This hand scale of mine is precisely for weighing you lot of skinny pigs!”

In a fit of anger, Peng Lian Hu rushed forward with both palms striking furiously – Quan Jin Fa was, of course, unable to break his attack. Seeing his Sixth brother in danger, Han Bao Ju quickly went to his aid. Though he no longer had his whip, his basic melee was still quite powerful. But even with two versus one, Peng Lian Hu still seemed almost impossible to handle. Ke Zheng’E flourished his staff, Zhu Cong brandished his fan, and both joined in the battle. Ke Zheng’E and Zhu Cong were much more powerful than the rest of their brothers, so naturally with their addition, the battle tipped in the Freaks’ favor. Over at the other side, the battle between Hou Tong Hai and Huang Rong had grown extremely intense. Hou Tong Hai’s wu gong was by right better than hers, but when he thought of “this rascal’s” Soft Hedgehog Armor and the thorns that resided even in her hair, his fist and palm strikes did not even dare come into contact with her body, much less grab her by her hair.

Sensing his fear and hesitation, Huang Rong took full advantage and charged about brashly, forcing him to back away repeatedly.

Hou Tong Hai shouted: “This is unfair. Take off your Soft Hedgehog Armor before we continue fighting.”

Huang Rong replied: “Sure, but you must first slice off those three lumps on your forehead, if not then it’s also unfair.”

Hou Tong Hai retorted: “My three lumps do not hurt anyone!”

Huang Rong replied: “I feel disgusted when I see them, isn’t that letting you have a huge advantage? On the count of three, you slice off your lumps and I’ll take off my armor.”

Hou Tong Hai replied angrily: “I will not!”

Huang Rong said: “It’s a very good trade-off, I think you should.”

Hou Tong Hai exclaimed: “I will not fall for your tricks. I won’t slice them off no matter what you say!”

Ouyang Ke saw that the battle was not going well and thought: “I’ll kill these six scoundrels first. That wretch is unable to escape anyway, we can finish her off later.” Wanting to show off his skills, he pointed both feet and displayed his family’s “Thousand Miles in a Flash”, a superior qing gong technique, and promptly appeared beside Ke Zheng’E.

He shouted: “Blind scoundrel, I’ll let you have a taste of your master’s prowess for being such a busybody.”

Moving forward, Ouyang Ke struck out his right palm. Ke Zheng’E roused the end of his staff to meet the strike but caught nothing, only the sound of wind brushing past his right ear. Instead, the real attack came from the left with Ouyang Ke’s reverse left palm flying towards him. Ke Zheng’E dipped his head to avoid being struck, then used the “Diamond Guard” staff technique and fiercely attacked forward, but by this time, Ouyang Ke was already embroiled with Nan Xi Ren. Skillfully weaving his way through, Ouyang Ke had already attempted fatal blows on all 6 Freaks within a short period of time.

From the beginning, Liang Zi Weng’s vision never shifted from Guo Jing. Upon seeing that the 6 Freaks’ defeat was imminent, he immediately tried to grab Guo Jing with both outstretched arms. Guo Jing hurriedly resisted, but of course he was not Liang Zi Weng’s match. After exchanging a few moves, Liang Zi Weng had successfully grabbed him by the chest and with his right hand, gripped Guo Jing’s stomach. Guo Jing shrunk his stomach in anxiety and his clothes tore with a ripping sound; the bags of medicine had been snatched away. Liang Zi Weng knew the bags contained medicine – he had sniffed it out long ago and now conveniently pocketed them, followed by a second strike on Guo Jing. Guo Jing successfully struggled out of the grip on his chest and sprinted towards Mei Chao Feng, yelling: “Hey! Save me, quick!”

Mei Chao Feng thought to herself: “There are still many things I don’t understand about that mysterious school of nei gong.” Panting, she said aloud: “Come hold my legs, don’t be afraid of that old bat.”

Guo Jing knew to hold her legs was easy, but to escape after that would be hard. Thus, he did not dare to go close to her, instead sprinting wildly around her in circles. Though Guo Jing had already entered the perimeter of her Silver Whip, Liang Zi Weng still followed him relentlessly, nonetheless still wary of a sneak attack. Mei Chao Feng pinpointed Guo Jing’s position with her hearing and unleashed her Silver Whip across the floor and towards his legs.

Although Huang Rong was engaged in a duel with Hou Tong Hai, she already had the upper hand with her Soft Hedgehog Armor and had always been looking out for Guo Jing. First he was captured by Liang Zi Weng but she was too far away to help and was anxious to the extreme. Then Guo Jing sprinted into Mei Chao Feng’s perimeter; her whip was flying towards him and he was unable to dodge. Out of anxiety, Huang Rong flew in their direction and threw herself in front of the whip. Mei Chao Feng’s Silver Whip withdrew itself upon hitting a target and circled back, wrapping itself around Huang Rong’s waist. Huang Rong was thrown up into the air and shouted: “You dare hurt me, Mei Ruo Hua?”

Mei Chao Feng heard that it was Huang Rong’s voice and this gave her a huge shock. She thought: “My whip is littered with reversed hooks. Now that I’ve injured her, Shifu has more reason not to spare me. But I have already gone this far, and either way I have already betrayed my school. I’ll kill her first.” Rousing her Silver Whip, she pulled Huang Rong closer towards her and rested her on the ground, thinking that all the hooks must have tore deep into her flesh by now. She never expected the hooks to tear only Huang Rong’s clothes, leaving her body completely unharmed.

Huang Rong said laughingly: “You tore my clothes, I want compensation!”

Mei Chao Feng was surprised to hear no hint of pain in her voice, then thought: “Ah, Shifu has naturally given his Soft Hedgehog Armor to her.” Feeling lenient, she said aloud: “That was my fault. I will return you a nice new set of clothing.”

Huang Rong signaled for Guo Jing to come over, and he did so. The two of them now stood 10 feet or so within Mei Chao Feng, somewhere Liang Zi Weng did not dare to venture.

Over at the other end, the 6 Freaks of Jiang Nan had formed a tight circle with their backs towards each other’s and were trying their best to resist Sha Tong Tian, Peng Lian Hu, Ouyang Ke and Hou Tong Hai. This was a formation they had mastered in the deserts of Mongolia. When faced with tough opponents, this formation made it unnecessary for them to defend their backs and instantly increased their power by half. But Sha, Peng and Ouyang were simply too strong and the dangers came in all directions; the 6 Freaks were far from their match. Not long after, Han Bao Ju’s arm was injured. Han Bao Ju knew that if he left the formation there would be a loophole for their opponents to exploit, their lives and Guo Jing’s would be in grave danger. Thus, he could only grit his teeth and hold on with great effort.

Among their opponents, Peng Lian Hu was the most vicious in his attacks and repeatedly targeted Han Bao Ju. Guo Jing saw that the situation was urgent and rushed towards them with flying feet. With the double palm technique “Separating Cloud and Moon”, he aimed for Peng Lian Hu’s back. Peng Lian Hu let out a chilling laugh and with a wave of his hand, dismissed Guo jing’s attack. In just three moves, Guo Jing found himself in a state of emergency.

Huang Rong saw that he was unable to escape and in her anxiety, suddenly remembered the saying: “A simple man is sinless, but a man wearing a piece of jade will be sinned against.” Thus, she yelled: “Mei Chao Feng, you stole my father’s Jiu Yin Sutra, hand it to me now so I can return it to father!”

At this, Mei Chao Feng went cold and did not respond. Sha Tong Tian, Peng Lian Hu, Ouyang Ke and Liang Zi Weng immediately shifted their attention to Mei Chao Feng and attacked. All four harbored the same thought: “The Jiu Yin Sutra is the world’s top martial arts manual. So it really has been with the Twin Killers of the Dark Winds all along…” At present, all four couldn’t care less about anything else. Their only focus was to kill Mei Chao Feng and obtain the Jiu Yin Sutra.

Mei Chao Feng began brandishing her Silver Whip and for the moment, none of them dared to venture within its perimeter. Seeing them being lured away by the Jiu Yin Sutra, Huang Rong whispered to Guo Jing urgently: “Let’s go!”

At this moment, a figure emerged from the thicket and was hurrying towards them. It shouted: “Gentlemen! Father requires your help with something urgent.” The person wore a gold cap crookedly on his head and his voice was filled with worry. He was none other than the little prince, Wan Yan Kang.

Peng Lian Hu and the others all thought: “Prince Zhao has been generous in exchange for our services. Now that there is something urgent, how can we not go to his aid?” At this thought they backed off reluctantly, not bearing to give up the Jiu Yin Sutra. Their gaze still lingered on Mei Chao Feng.

Wan Yan Kang said softly: “My mother… my mother has been abducted by villains. Father has requested that you help to rescue her, please set off at once.”

Wan Yan Hong Lie had originally led his troops out of the Palace to chase Bao Xi Ruo, but they lost sight of her after a while. Remembering the resourceful pugilists in his residence, he hurriedly sent his son to summon them. Wang Yan Kang was caught up in anxiety and the night was dark, so he did not notice Mei Chao Feng seated on the ground.

Peng Lian Hu and the others thought: “Oh my, the Consort has been abducted? If we don’t go to her rescue, what are we here for?” They further thought: “It must be the 7 Freaks. 6 of them have led us here to distract us, allowing the other to go abduct the Consort. This Jiu Yin Sutra or whatever will have to wait. Anyway, with so many accomplished fighters around, I can’t hope to claim the Sutra for myself. I’ll need to come up with a plan some other time.” With that, they hurriedly followed Wang Yan Kang. Liang Zi Weng trailed behind, still longing for the blood in Guo Jing’s body. He actually didn’t care about rescuing the Consort but was alone in wanting to stay behind, and so had no choice but to follow miserably.

Guo Jing called: “Hey, return me my medicine!” Fuming, Liang Zi Weng turned and fired a bone-penetrating projectile straight at his head. The projectile cut through the night wind with incredible strength.

Zhu Cong dashed forward and deflected the projectile with the handle of his fan. As the projectile fell, he caught it with his left hand and held it to his nose to have a sniff. “Ah,” he said, “seals throats when it sees blood, this Bone-Penetrating Meridian Nail.

Hearing the name of his secret weapon startled Liang Zi Weng; he spun around and yelled: “What?”

Zhu Cong went up to him and stretched out his palm, the Meridian Nail resting on it. He said lightly: “I’ll give it back to you, old mister!”

Liang Zi Weng retrieved it calmly. He knew that with Zhu Cong’s low level of wu gong, he could not harm him. Zhu Cong saw that Liang Zi Weng’s left sleeve was dirtied with mud and grass, and used his own sleeve to swipe the dirt away.

Liang Zi Weng said angrily: “I don’t need your bootlicking!” With that, he turned around and left.

Guo Jing was in a miserable position. If he went back just like that without the medicine, all the night’s misadventures would have been for naught; but if he tried to snatch it forcefully, he would undoubtedly be defeated by Liang Zi Weng. He was just hesitating when Ke Zheng’E said: “Let’s go back.” Ke Zheng’E leapt to the top of the Palace walls, and the other 5 Freaks followed suit.

Pointing at Mei Chao Feng, Han Xiao Ying said: “Elder brother, what about her?”

Ke Zheng’E replied: “We promised Priest Ma to spare her life.”

Huang Rong did not acknowledge the 6 Freaks and leapt on to the other end of the wall, grinning.

Mei Chao Feng hollered: “Little martial sister, where is Shifu?”

Huang Rong giggled and said: “Of course my father is in Peach Blossom Isle, why do you ask? Are you going to pay him a visit?”

Mei Chao Feng seethed, her breath growing heavier and quicker. After a moment, she said: “Didn’t you just say that Shifu was on his way here?”

Still laughing, Huang Rong replied: “He doesn’t know you’re here, but rest assured I’ll tell him for you. I’m sure he’ll come straight away. Don’t worry, I’m not bluffing.”

Enraged, Mei Chao Feng propped herself up with both hands and sprung up suddenly. With staggering steps, she charged towards Huang Rong.

Originally, Mei Chao Feng had lost the use of her legs as a result of forcefully practicing the nei gong she didn’t understand. A stream of Qi had flowed down to her lower dan tian (energy field) and was unable to work its way back up, paralyzing her lower body with numbness. She had stubbornly continued attempting to work the Qi back upwards but the harder she tried, the stronger the resistance met.

Presently her senses were consumed with fury, so much so that she forgot about her paralysis. She was in a state where she had disengaged from herself, her body; she was only aware of a violent surge of anger rushing up to her heart, suddenly her legs had become part of her body again and she charged towards Huang Rong.

Shocked that Mei Chao Feng had regained the use of her legs, Huang Rong leapt down to the other side and took flight into the night.

Suddenly regaining her senses, Mei Chao Feng thought: “Eh, how come I can walk now?” With this thought, a sudden wave of numbness washed over her legs and she fell, losing consciousness.

For the 6 Freaks to kill her now was a piece of cake, but they had a prior agreement with Ma Yu to spare her life. Thus, they leapt over the wall and left the palace together with Guo Jing.

Han Xiao Ying was the most anxious and hurriedly asked: “Jing’er, how did you end up here?”

And so, Guo Jing roughly narrated the events leading up to here – Wang Chu Yi coming to his rescue, getting poisoned at Wang Yan Kang’s banquet, stealing the medicine, bumping into Mei Chao Feng in the tunnel, et cetera. For the moment, however, he did not mention the Yang family saga.

Zhu Cong said: “Let’s hurry and see how Priest Wang is coping.”

Having just been reunited with his wife, Yang Tie Xin felt an inexpressible mixture of joy and sadness. Carrying her in his arms, he leapt out of the palace. His foster daughter Mu Nian Ci was anxiously waiting outside the palace walls when she saw him carrying a woman in his arms.

Surprised and curious, she asked: “Father, who is she?”

Yang Tie Xin replied: “She’s your mother. Let’s go.”

Mu Nian Ci said, bewildered, “My mother?”

Yang Tie Xin said, “Hush, we’ll talk afterwards,” and sprinted off urgently.

After a distance, Bao Xi Ruo slowly regained consciousness. It was near daybreak and in the dim light, she saw that the person bearing her was the husband she had been thinking of day and night for 18 years. She didn’t know if it was real or just an illusion, but she felt like she was in a dream and reached out to caress his face. Her voice quivered as she spoke: “Tie-ge, am I dead too?”

Tearing joyfully, he replied in a gentle voice: “Both of us are alive and well…”

His sentence was interrupted by shouts from behind. Light from torches lit the area as soldiers streamed quickly forward. Raising their swords and spears together, they yelled: “Don’t let the Consort’s kidnapper escape!”

Yang Tie Xin quickly surveyed their surroundings but there was no place they could hide. He thought: “The heavens have pitied us husband and wife and allowed us to reunite against the odds. Even if I were to die now, I have nothing left to wish for.” He called to Mu Nian Ci: “Here, hold your mother.”

The scene at Lin’An, Ox Village 18 years ago suddenly sprung to Bao Xi Ruo’s mind: her husband fleeing with her in his arms, the cries of soldiers in the night and the 18 years of separation and grief that followed after. Sensing that the tragedy was to repeat itself, she held on stubbornly to her husband, refusing to let go. The soldiers were nearing and Yang Tie Xin thought it was better to die fighting than be captured and humiliated. With that, he pried his wife’s fingers away and entrusted her in Mu Nian Ci’s arms. Turning around, he charged towards the soldiers and with a fist, knocked out a foot soldier and seized his spear. With a spear in hand, Yang Tie Xin was even more lethal. The troop’s commander, Tang Zu De, was speared in the leg and fell promptly off his horse. With their leader down, the rest of the soldiers scampered away in all directions. On seeing that there were no skilled pugilists amongst them, Yang Tie Xin felt slightly more settled, only that it was a pity not to have been able to grab a horse. The three of them continued their escape.

By this time it was already morning. Bao Xi Ruo noticed the bloodstains on her husband’s clothes and said, frightened: “Are you hurt?”

Hearing this, Yang Tie Xin was suddenly aware of a sharp pain in his arm. Because he had exerted too much strength during the fight, the wound from Wang Yan Kang’s claws had burst and was now bleeding profusely again. Earlier on he had been fixated with escaping and was not aware of the pain, but now both arms felt stiff and weak and he was unable to lift them. Bao Xi Ruo was about to bandage his wounds when loud cries came from behind, and in the dust countless of soldiers were yet emerging in pursuit.

With a bitter smile, Yang Tie Xin said: “No need to bandage.” He turned and said to Mu Nian Ci: “Child, run for your life! Your mother and I will just stay here…”

Mu Nian Ci successfully fought back tears and raised her head proudly, saying: “Three of us will die together.”

Confused, Bao Xi Ruo asked: “How… how is she our daughter?”

Yang Tie Xin was just about to answer when he heard the soldiers nearing. Looking up, he saw two Taoist priests coming towards them – one had a white beard and brows and looked kindly; the other had a long black beard and slung a long sword over his back, and he looked grand and dignified. Great delight replaced his initial astonishment and Yang Tie Xin called out: “Priest Qiu, we meet again!”

Of the two priests, one was the Scarlet Sun Ma Yu and the other was the Eternal Spring Qiu Chu Ji. The two of them, together with the Jade Sun Wang Chu Yi, had arranged to meet in Zhong Du to discuss the upcoming duel with the 7 Freaks of Jiang Nan. Both had hurried here and chanced upon the Yangs. Qiu Chu Ji had an accomplished level of nei gong and thus his appearance did not age much over 18 years, only the hair on his temples were speckled with white.

Upon hearing this greeting, he looked more closely but it was someone he did not recognize.

Yang Tie Xin said: “18 years ago at Ox Village in Lin’An, we once drank and killed enemies together, do you still remember?”

Qiu Chu Ji said: “You are…”

Yang Tie Xin declared: “I’m Yang Tie Xin, have you been well?” Yang Tie Xin approached him and bowed.

Qiu Chu Ji hurriedly returned the formality but still harbored doubts. 18 years of hardship and grief had eroded his youthful appearance and Yang Tie Xin looked vastly different from before. Yang Tie Xin sensed his doubts but the soldiers were nearing, and it was not a good time to clarify in detail. Raising his spear, he displayed “Phoenix Striking Head”. The red tassel trembled as the spear headed for Qiu Chu Ji’s chest and he said: “Priest Qiu, you may have forgotten me, but you can’t have forgotten the Yang Family Spear!”

The spear froze inches away from Qiu Chu Ji. Qiu Chu Ji saw that this was indeed the authentic Yang Family Spear and immediately recalled that night’s fight in the snow; it was indeed Yang Tie Xin from 18 years ago and a bittersweet feeling washed over him. He said loudly: “Aha, brother Yang, you’re still alive? Thank Heaven!”

Yang Tie Xin withdrew his spear and said: “Priest Qiu, save me!” Qiu Chu Ji glanced at the approaching soldiers and said jovially: “Elder martial brother, I’m going to start killing again today, don’t get angry!”

Ma Yu replied: “Kill less, just scare them off.”

Qiu Chu Ji laughed loudly and took a huge step forward. With a stretch of both arms, he plucked two soldiers off their horses and flung them towards another two soldiers behind. The four soldiers knocked against each other and fell in a heap. Qiu Chu Ji’s arms moved at the speed of lightning and, like a canon, had fired eight more soldiers towards another eight.

Terrified, the other soldiers turned their horses and fled. Suddenly, a chiefly figure with a bald and shiny head emerged from behind the fleeing soldiers. He bellowed: “Where has this scoundrel come from?” With a slight sway of his body, he had already stole up to Qiu Chu Ji and attacked with his palms. Qiu Chu Ji saw that this person was highly agile. Raising his palms to obstruct the attack, their palms met with a clap and both subsequently withdrew three paces. Surprised, Qiu Chu Ji thought to himself: “Who is this person with such good kungfu?”

Little did he know that the Dragon King of Hades Sha Tong Tian was concealing the pain in his arms from their exchange and was even more surprised than he. With an angry roar, Sha Tong Tian swung his fists forward. Qiu Chu Ji did not dare to be sluggish and with full might and concentration, sent both palms darting straight at Sha Tong Tian. After exchanging 10 moves or so, Qiu Chu Ji successfully brushed his palm against Sha Tong Tian, leave five streaks of red on his bald head. Though Sha Tong Tian could not see the marks, he could feel a stinging pain coming from the top of his head. Knowing that he would not be able to beat this Taoist empty handed, he immediately pulled an iron stick from behind. This weapon was heavy but its power was great and with a “Reviving Qin Behind the Sword”, the stick struck in the direction of Qiu Chu Ji’s shoulder. Qiu Chu Qi greeted the attack with his technique of seizing weapons with bare hands. But Sha Tong Tian had been using this weapon for more than 10 years and had extraordinary skill with it, and Qiu Chu Ji failed in his attempt.

Deep down, Qiu Chu Ji marveled at this and was just about to ask for his name when someone from the left shouted: “Who is this priest from Quan Zhen Sect?”

This voice carried immense power. Qiu Chu Ji leapt towards his right and saw four people – it was Peng Lian Hu, Ouyang Ke, Liang Zi Weng and Hou Tong Hai.

Qiu Chu Ji cupped his fist and said: “My surname is Qiu, may I know your names?”

Qiu Chu Ji’s mighty name was well-known and feared in the Northen and Southern parts.

Sha Tong Tian and the others all thought: “No wonder he is so famous. He is indeed powerful.”

Peng Lian Hu thought: “We’ve already injured Wang Chu Yi and forged animosity with Quan Zhen Sect. If we combine forces and kill Qiu Chu Ji today, our names travel far and wide!” He shouted: “Everyone attack together.”

Before he even finished pronouncing the last word, Peng Lian Hu had already retrieved his Judgmental Twin Brush and advanced towards Qiu Chu Ji. He knew this opponent was powerful and was vicious on the onslaught, targeting his Yun Men acupoint at the top and his Tai He acupoint below. These two hits came in full force and left no room for mercy.

Qiu Chu Ji thought to himself: “This shorty is impudent! To be fair, his skills are also above average.” With a swiping sound he drew out his sword and pierced Peng Lian Hu’s right arm, scraped Sha Tong Tian’s waist and, collecting back the sword, sent its hilt ramming into the critical Zhang Men acupoint at the side of Hou Tong Hai’s rib. With one move he had struck three people, displaying amazing skill with the sword. Sha Tong Tian and Peng Lian Hu propped themselves up with their weapons. Hou Tong Hai had narrowly missed having his acupoint blocked and managed to withdraw quickly, but alas a heavy kick on the buttocks sent him flying to the ground. Call it a coincidence but he landed straight on the three lumps on his head. Inwardly shaken, Liang Zi Weng propelled himself forward like a monkey and attacked.

Ouyang Ke saw that Qiu Chu Ji was occupied with Sha Tong Tian and Peng Lian Hu, and now Liang Zi Weng had also joined in. It was an advantage that just begged to be taken, and if not now – when? Brandishing a void move with his left hand, his right hand moved to block Qiu Chu Ji’s “Tao Dao”, “Hun Men” and “Zhong Shu” acupoints with his iron fan. It seemed like Qiu Chu Ji had no way out when a figure shifted beside him and in a flash, a single hand reached out and halted the passage of his fan. So it was that Ma Yu had been observing in silence by the stands and was flabbergasted when a group of highly-skilled pugilists ganged up against his younger Martial Brother. With just three fingers he had trapped the fan; Ouyang Ke immediately felt a surge of formidable inner power coming from the handle of his fan and quickly leapt backwards in astonishment.

Ma Yu did not pursue him, but said: “Gentlemen, may I know who you are? We have never met. If there has been some misunderstanding we can talk it over, why resort to violence?” Though his tone was gentle, his voice carried abundant Qi. The projection for each word was crystal clear and bore straight into their eardrums. Sha Tong Tian and the others were immersed in their fighting when Ma Yu’s sentences made them go cold. They collectively ceased fighting and withdrew, appraising Ma Yu.

Ouyang Ke said: “Priest, what is your revered name?”

Ma Yu replied: “My surname is Ma.”

Peng Lian Hu said: “Ah, so it is the Scarlet Sun Reverend, Priest Ma. We have been rude.”

Ma Yu replied: “With my shallow cultivation, how dare I claim the title of Reverend?”

Though Peng Lian Hu coated his words with politeness, inwardly he was thinking: “Since we have already created a grudge with Quan Zhen Sect, it is unlikely that there will be any goodwill to forgive and forget. These two characters are the main pillars of Quan Zhen Sect and we have fortunately caught them alone. If we join forces and finish them off today, we will have less to worry about in future. I just wonder if there are any skilled pugilists from Quan Zhen in the vicinity.” A quick look around revealed only the 3 members of the Yang family – there were no priests around.

Peng Lian Hu said: “I have long admired the great name of the Quan Zhen Seven. Where are the other five? How about inviting them here so we can meet them?”

Ma Yu replied: “Instead of concentrating on cultivation, my Martial Brothers have often meddled in worldly affairs and earned themselves an empty reputation. I’m afraid they have made a fool of themselves. The seven of us live in separate Taoist monasteries and hardly gather together. I have made this trip to Zhong Du with my Martial Brother Qiu to look for our Martial Brother Wang, and by chance met all of you. All the world’s martial arts branched from the same stem. Red lotus or white root, we all come from the same family. Since we have affinity, how about becoming friends?” Being honest by nature, Ma Yu never expected that Peng Lian Hu was merely sounding him out.

Hearing that there were indeed no Quan Zhen pugilists nearby, Peng Lian Hu thought they could win with numbers. Not only that – the two priests had yet to meet up with Wang Chu Yi, and Ma Yu was trusting and off guard. All Peng Lian Hu had to do was keep up this friendly pretence and they would be able to pull a sneak attack. Beaming, he said: “We are honored that Priest Qiu and Ma do not look down on us, and to be friends would be fantastic. My surname is San, my full name is San Hei Mao [三黑猫 – three black cats].”

At this, Ma Yu and Qiu Chu Ji were both startled, thinking: “This person’s kungfu is impressive, so his name must be famous. But this name, San Hei Mao, is so strange and I’ve never heard of it.”

Peng Lian Hu tucked his Judgemental Twin Brushes back into his waist and approached Ma Yu. He said, smiling: “Nice to meet you, Priest Ma.”

He stretched out his hand for a handshake. Unsuspectingly, Ma Yu reached out to shake his hand but the moment their hands touched, he suddenly felt Peng Lian Hu’s grip tighten.

Ma Yu thought: “Hmph, trying to test my kungfu.” He merely smiled and applied his internal energy in response, squeezing Peng Lian Hu’s hand. Suddenly, an intense pain drilled into his five fingertips and it felt as if he was pierced by many steel needles. He quickly withdrew his hand, astonished. Peng Lian Hu burst out laughing and retreated a few feet. Ma Yu raised his palm and saw that all 5 fingertips had been punctured with holes that went deep into his flesh, lined with black.

So it was that when Peng Lian Hu was keeping his Judgemental Twin Brushes, he had secretly slipped on his special Poison Needle Bangle on his right hand. Made from refined steel, this bangle was as slender as a thread and on it were five thin needles armed with lethal poison. As long as the needles penetrated the flesh and drew blood, the victim would undoubtedly die within ten hours. Peng Lian Hu usually wore this bangle to increase the potency of his palm attacks when exchanging blows, thus ensuring that his opponent would not live beyond half a day. He had also deliberately introduced himself as “San Hei Mao” (Three Black Cats”) so that while Qiu Chu Ji and Ma Yu were busy being astounded, he could seize the chance and sneak an attack.

Characters of the pugilistic often harbor no admiration for one another on the first meeting, but tact and face made public aggression improper. Thus, they would often reach out for a handshake in the guise of friendliness, but in actuality it was a duel of sorts. It was not unusual for the inferior fighter to have his bones broken and his hand swollen, or beg for mercy when the pain became too much. Ma Yu only thought that Peng Lian Hu was practicing the old pugilistic habit of being friendly on the surface but secretly appraising each other’s strength. He never thought that Peng Lian Hu would have another vicious trick up his sleeve – thus, when both of them exerted strength, the five poisonous needles not only pierced his fingertips but sunk straight down to the bones of his fingers. By the time Ma Yu realized what had happened and struck forward with his right palm, Peng Lian Hu had already leapt away.

All Qiu Chu Ji knew was that his Elder Martial Brother had been normally shaking hands with someone when suddenly, his facial expression changed and he attacked. Qiu Chu Ji hurriedly asked: “What happened?”

Ma Yu replied angrily: “Crafty scoundrel, he poisoned me.” With that, he advanced towards Peng Lian Hu.

Qiu Chu Ji had always known his Elder Martial Brother to be tolerant and had never seen him attack anyone in over 10 years – yet at this moment, he had opened his attack with the most formidable of Quan Zhen’s skills – the “Three Flowers Atop” Palm technique. Qiu Chu Ji knew it must have taken a great reason for him to be so furious and thus, with a flick of his sword, weaved left and right to reach Peng Lian Hu. With a quick “swish, swish, swish”, he had dealt him three strokes. By this time Peng Lian Hu had already retrieved his Twin Brushes and successfully deflected two of Qiu Chu Ji’s strokes while managing to deal a strike with one brush. But Peng Lian Hu never expected Qiu Chu Ji’s palm technique to be as ferocious as his sword. In that very instant when he was about to withdraw his brush – but not yet – Qiu Chu Ji had reached out and grabbed it by the tip. He shouted: “Withdraw!” Combining internal power and external force, Qiu Chu Ji tried to rupture the brush but despite using full energy, Peng Lian Hu was a formidable opponent and did not allow the brush to shatter. Qiu Chu Ji followed by steering his sword straight forward and Peng Lian Hu had no choice but to let go of his brush and evade. With the sword in his right hand and palm technique on his left, Qiu Chu Ji kept up the attack ceaselessly. Peng Lian Hu had lost one brush and his right arm was also feeling stiff and weak. Having lost sharpness, he continuously retreated.

At this point, Sha Tong Tian and Liang Zi Weng were embroiled with Ma Yu. Ouyang Ke and Hou Tong Hai came forward to aid Peng Lian Hu, one on the left and the other on the right. Faced with strong opponents, Qiu Chu Ji felt even more energetic. With gliding palms and flashing sword, the more he fought the swifter his attacks became. Qiu Chu Ji was fighting three people by himself and yet had not lost advantage, but over at the other end, Ma Yu was having trouble sustaining the situation. His right palm was already swollen and besieged with numbness and itch as the poison gradually took effect – though he knew that the needle was poisoned, he never expected such drastic reaction. He understood that the more he exerted himself, the faster his blood would circulate and the quicker the poison would attack his heart. Immediately he sat down and engaged his internal energy to halt the poison’s passage, while wielding a sword in his left hand for self-protection. Liang Zi Weng’s weapon was a shovel, similar to the ones used for exhumation. Between slamming vertically and scooping horizontally, at times sweeping across and at times hitting directly, the variations in attack were plentiful. Sha Tong Tian’s iron stick was all the more heavy and dangerous. After ten moves or so, Ma Yu’s breathing was hastening and his defensive circle, shrinking. Inwardly resisting the poison and outwardly defending against two enemies, he soon felt lethargic despite having an accomplished level of internal energy.

Qiu Chu Ji was shocked at the sight of his Elder Martial Brother seated on the floor, with hot air rising slowly from his head as if he were being steamed. He wanted to quickly finish off his 3 opponents and rush forward to aid him, but these opponents were sticky and he could not spare a moment to pause his attack and escape. Admittedly Peng Lian Hu was a weaker fighter, but Ouyang Ke was proficient in both internal energy and external moves. His attacks were both fierce and unusual and in terms of ability, he was way above Peng Lian Hu. From what Qiu Chu Ji could tell, Ouyang Ke’s kungfu looked similar to that of the “Western Poison”, someone Quan Zhen Sect had always feared the most. This startled him and he thought: “Who is this person? Could he be a disciple of the Western Poison? Has the Western Poison arrived at the Central Plains? I wonder if he’s actually right here in Zhong Du.” While following this train of thought he momentarily lost concentration and repeatedly encountered close shaves.

Yang Tie Xin knew in his heart that the skills of these 2 priests were way above his, but upon seeing both of them in danger he immediately lifted his spear and stabbed towards Ouyang Ke’s back.

Qiu Chu Ji yelled: “Brother Yang, don’t throw your life away in vain!” By the time he finished his sentence, Ouyang Ke had already broken the spear with his left foot and kicked Yang Tie Xin to the ground with his right. At this very moment there emerged the sound of hoofs; a great number of horses were galloping swiftly towards them. Leading the way were none other than Wan Yan Hong Lie and Wan Yan Kang, father and son.

Wan Yan Hong Lie caught sight of his wife seated on the ground from a distance. Delighted, he hurried to her but suddenly a blade sliced through the air and came hacking right at him. Slanting his body to avoid the blow, he saw that the wielder of the blade was a young girl dressed in red. At this point, his soldiers came forward and started fighting Mu Nian Ci.

Over at the other end, Wan Yan Kang was secretly startled on seeing his Shifu and shouted: “We’re all on the same side, everyone stop fighting!”

Only after repeating a few times did Peng Lian Hu and the others finally retreat; the soldiers and Mu Nian Ci also halted. Wan Yan Kang approached Qiu Chu Ji and bowed. “Shifu, let your disciple do the introductions,” he said. “These are all senior pugilists engaged by my father.”

Qiu Chu Ji nodded and went to check on his Elder Martial Brother. Ma Yu’s right palm was blackened all over and, lifting up his sleeve, Qiu Chu Ji saw that the blackness had spread all the way to the upper part of his arm. Astonished, he said: “How come the poison is like that?” Turning around, he said to Peng Lian Hu: “Hand over the antidote!”

Peng Lian Hu hesitated, thinking: “Just a little while more and this person will die, but it won’t be appropriate to offend the little prince. Should I save him or should I not?”

Now that Ma Yu had no more enemies attacking him, he concentrated all his internal energy on resisting the poison and sure enough, the poison halted at his arm and could not travel further upwards. Instead, the blackness gradually started moving downwards.

Wan Yan Kang rushed over to his mother and exclaimed, “Mother, I’ve finally found you!”

Bao Xi Ruo was frightened and replied, “Do not ask me to return to the palace. I will never!”

Shocked, Wan Yan Hong Lie and Wan Yang Kang said in unison: “What?”

Bao Xi Ruo pointed at Yang Tie Xin. “My husband is actually still alive, and I will follow him to the ends of the earth,” she said.

This came as no ordinary blow to Wan Yang Hong Lie, and he subtly mouthed something to Liang Zi Weng. Liang Zi Weng understood the prince’s intentions and hoisted his right hand, sending three of his Bone-Penetrating Meridian Nails flying towards Yang Tie Xin’s essential junctures. Qiu Chu Ji saw the flight of the nails but it was too late for him to do anything, and Yang Tie Xin would surely not be able to evade. Having no projectiles with him, he grabbed a Jin soldier out of desperation and hurled him towards the space between Liang Zi Weng and Yang Tie Xin. With a loud “ah”, the three Meridian Nails had struck the soldier.

Liang Zi Weng prided his Bone-Penetrating Meridian Nails as his greatest skill. Having fired three nails simultaneously, it was absurd to think he would miss the target. Seeing that Qiu Chu Ji had foiled his move in such a peculiar way, he roared angrily and attacked. Peng Lian Hu saw this and decided against giving the antidote, knowing that the little prince’s priority was rescuing his mother. He leapt forward abruptly and grabbed hold of Bao Xi Ruo’s arm. With two swishing sounds, Qiu Chu Ji sent his sword piercing towards both Liang Zi Weng and Peng Lian Hu. Both saw that the strokes came fierce and were forced backwards. Qiu Chu Ji thundered at Wan Yan Kang: “Ignorant boy, you have called your enemy ‘father’ and led 18 years of your life in folly. Now that your real father is here, aren’t you going to acknowledge him?”

Having heard it from his mother, Wan Yan Kang was already 80% convinced. Hearing it from his Shifu now further reinforced his belief and he glanced at Yang Tie Xin. Wan Yang Kang saw that his clothes were old and tattered and his face, smeared with dirt; turning around, he saw his ‘father’ wearing fine, embroidered robes and expensive jewels, looking handsome and refined. There was a world of difference between these two men. Wan Yan Kang contemplated in his heart: “Am I actually going to give up this life of luxury and riches and roam the streets with this poor man? No, never!” His mind was made up.

“Shifu, don’t listen to this person’s nonsense,” said Wan Yan Kang. “Please help to rescue my mother!”

“You still stubbornly refuse to listen, you’re worse than a beast!” Qiu Chu Ji replied angrily.

Upon seeing that teacher and pupil had fallen out, Peng Lian Hu and the others started to attack even more fiercely. Wan Yan Kang knew Qiu Chu Ji was in danger, but did not attempt to stop the fight again. Qiu Chu Ji was enraged and shouted: “Little bastard, you really have no conscience.”

Wan Yan Kang had always been very afraid of his Shifu and secretly hoped that Peng Lian Hu and the rest would kill him to avoid any trouble in the future. Shortly into the battle, Qiu Chu Ji was struck by Liang Zi Weng’s spade and though it wasn’t serious, blood had seeped through his robes. From the corner of his eye he caught a hint of delight in Wan Yan Kang’s face and he was further incensed, swearing left right and centre.

Ma Yu retrieved a sparkler from his robes and tossed it in the air, sending a blue blaze soaring through the sky. Peng Lian Hu thought it must be a communicative signal for Quan Zhen Sect’s members and alerted: “The old priest is sending for help.”

After exchanging a few more moves, another blue blaze emerged from the Northwestern corner not far from here. “Younger Martial Brother Wang is nearby,” said Qiu Chu Ji in delight. Switching his sword over to his left hand, he attacked from the top with his sword and from the bottom with his right palm, executing 7 or 8 fatal moves one after another and forced his enemies steadily backwards.

Ma Yu pointed to the blue glow in the Northwestern direction and said: “Go in that direction.”

Weapons in hand, Yang Tie Xin and Mu Nian Ci rushed in that direction while guarding Bao Xi Ruo. Ma Yu followed closely behind. Qiu Chu Ji interrupted his sword mid-move and in the next instant he had also turned to leave. Sha Tong Tian repeatedly employed his “Shapeshift” [移步换形] technique, hoping to bypass Qiu Chu Ji and snatch Bao Xi Ruo over, but Qiu Chu Ji’s sword was too swift and he did not succeed. It was not long before they arrived at the small inn where Wang Chu Yi was staying, and Qiu Chu Ji wondered to himself: “Why hasn’t Younger Martial Brother Wang come out to greet us?”

Just after this thought, Wang Chu Yi came walking unsteadily towards them, supported by a wooden stick. At the sight of each other, all 3 Martial Brothers were shocked to see that Quan Zhen Sect’s top 3 pugilists were all injured.

Qiu Chu Ji called out: “Retreat back into the inn.”

“Hand the Consort over in one piece, and I’ll spare your lives,” Wan Yan Hong Lie hollered.

“Who needs your mercy, you treacherous Jin dog?” Qiu Chu Ji shot back. He raised his sword and started fighting.

Despite being exhausted, Qiu Chu Ji still refused to yield and his swordplay remained as enthralling as ever. Seeing this, Peng Lian Hu and the others were all secretly impressed. Yang Tie Xin contemplated: “Since things have already come to this, it will not be easy to escape our end. We mustn’t implicate Priest Qiu’s life for us husband and wife.” Grasping Bao Xi Ruo’s hand, he stepped forward.

“Everyone, stop fighting,” he yelled. “My wife and I will end our lives here and let that be the end of it.” Raising his spear, he stabbed it towards his heart. With a “pu” sound, blood splattered in all directions and he fell backwards.

Bao Xi Ruo felt no sadness. With a bitter smile, she pulled the spear out from her husband’s body and propped it on the floor, saying to Wan Yan Kang: “Child, you still don’t believe he’s your real father?” She leaned forward and sank into the tip of the spear.

The color flew from Wan Yan Kang’s face in his horror. “Mother!” He cried, rushing forward to save her. Upon seeing this astonishing development, Qiu Chu Ji and the others stopped fighting. Reaching her side, Wan Yan Kang saw her soft and dangling body and the spear piercing through her chest, and he started sobbing without restraint. Qiu Chu Ji went forward to inspect the couple’s wounds and saw that the spear had struck at fatal points of their bodies. There was no room for hope. Wan Yan Kang held his mother and Mu Nian Ci held Yang Tie Xin; the two of them wept in grief.

Qiu Chu Ji said to Yang Tie Xin: “Brother Yang, tell me if you have any wish and I will see that it gets done. I… I still didn’t manage to save you in the end, I… I…” He felt a dull ache in his heart and choked in sorrow.

At this very moment came the sound of footsteps. Everyone turned and saw the 6 Freaks of Jiang Nan hurrying over with Guo Jing. On seeing Sha Tong Tian and the others, the 6 Freaks immediately pulled out their weapons. Going closer, they saw a man and a woman on the floor and looks of surprise set in to their faces. They turned around and saw Ma Yu and Qiu Chu Ji, and were surprised even further.

Guo Jing saw Yang Tie Xin lying on the floor with blood all over and hurriedly went to his side. “Uncle Yang, how are you feeling?” He asked.

Yang Tie Xin was barely alive and broke into a smile when he saw Guo Jing. “Your late father and I had a pact, if we bore a son and daughter then they would be married,” he said. “I don’t have a daughter, but this foster daughter is like my own…” He turned his gaze to Qiu Chu Ji. “Priest Qiu, help me see to this marriage and I… I will go in peace…”

“That’s easy. Don’t worry,” Qiu Chu Ji assured him.

Bao Xi Ruo was lying beside her husband and clutched his arm with her left hand, afraid that he would leave her again. In a haze, she heard him mention the betrothal agreement from years ago. She fought to retrieve a dagger from her robes and said: “This… this is the token of remembrance…” She then said: “Brother Tie, we are finally dying together, I’m… I’m so happy…” With that, she gave a small smile and passed away peacefully, looking warm and enchanting as always. Qiu Chu Ji received the dagger and saw that it was none other than his gift to them at Ox Village in Lin’An; the words ‘Guo Jing’ were carved on its handle.

Yang Tie Xin said to Guo Jing: “On… on account of your late father, I hope you treat my daughter well…”

“I… I can’t…” stuttered Guo Jing.

Qiu Chu Ji said: “I will see to everything, go… go in peace!”

Yang Tie Xin had initially given up hope of finding Guo Xiao Tian’s descendent, and so arranged the ‘joust for a spouse’ for Mu Nian Ci. Today he was not only reunited with his beloved wife, but also found his sworn brother’s son so his daughter would have a husband to rely on. With that, he had no further regrets and closed his eyes for the last time.

Guo Jing was both sad and confused, thinking: “Rong’er has deep feelings for me, how can I marry someone else?” At this thought, his mind suddenly turned to something else and he was further taken aback. “How could I have forgotten Hua Zheng? The Khan has betrothed her to me, this… this… how could this do?”

All this time he had often kept his good friend Tolui in his thoughts, but seldom did he think of Hua Zheng. Although the 6 Freaks had felt this wish to be difficult to fulfill, they couldn’t bear to say so in front of Yang Tie Xin, a dying man.

Wan Yan Hong Lie had gone through lengths of scheming to be able to marry Bao Xi Ruo, but in the end she was still unable to forget her husband. For over ten years he had loved and labored for her, but at the end of it all, things still unfolded this way. Though she was dead, Wan Yang Hong Lie saw true happiness and contentment in her face. In all their 18 years of marriage, when had she ever looked at him this way? He might be a prince, but in her heart he was much, much inferior to a village peasant. Despondent and heart-broken, he turned to leave.

Though the three priests from Quan Zhen were injured, the arrival of the 6 Freaks meant that Sha Tong Tian and the others wouldn’t necessarily win. Since the Prince had already turned to leave, they followed also.

“Hey, San Hei Mao,” shouted Qiu Chu Ji, “leave the antidote behind!”

Peng Lian Hu laughed. “Your Stockade-Chief goes by the surname Peng, people in the pugilistic world call me the Butcher With A Thousand Hands. Priest Qiu, have you lost your eyes?”

Qiu Chu Ji went cold, thinking: “No wonder this person is so powerful, so it is him.” On seeing that the poison had penetrated deep into his Elder Martial Brother’s body and only the unique antidote from Peng Lian Hu could save him, he said aloud, “Who cares if you’ve got a thousand hands or ten thousand? If you don’t leave the antidote behind, don’t hope to leave this place.” Maneuvering his sword exquisitely, a flash of brilliant light advanced towards Peng Lian Hu.

Though only left with one brush, Peng Lian Hu was not afraid. Brandishing it, they clashed head-on.

Zhu Cong saw that Ma Yu was seated on the ground, working his internal energy. One of his palms had gone all black.

“Priest Ma, how did you get hurt?”

Ma Yu sighed. “I was shaking hands with that fellow Peng, and he hid poison needles in his palm.”

“Ah. He’s not that great.” Turning to Ke Zhen’E, he said, “Elder Brother, pass me a caltrop.” Not understanding his intentions, Ke Zhen’E retrieved a poisonous caltrop from his bag and handed it to him. Zhu Cong turned to look at the fight between Qiu Chu Ji and Peng Lian Hu – the fight was intense, and it would be impossible to break it up with his level of kungfu alone.

“Elder Brother, let’s go and break them apart. I have a plan that can save Priest Ma,” he said. Ke Zhen’E nodded.

“So it is the Butcher with a Thousand Hands, Chief Peng!” shouted Zhu Cong. “We’re all on the same side, stop fighting. I have something to say.” Pulling Ke Zhen’E along, the two went forward and broke them apart – Zhu Cong with his fan and Ke Zhen’E with his staff.

Both Qiu Chu Ji and Peng Lian Hu felt surprised upon hearing Zhu Cong’s remark and thought: “How come we’re ‘on the same side’ now?” Seeing the 2 Freaks come forward, they broke apart and waited to hear how exactly they were ‘on the same side’.

Laughing cheerfully, Zhu Cong said to Peng Lian Hu: “18 years ago, the 7 Freaks of Jiang Nan and Priest Qiu had a small dispute that landed 5 of our brothers injured. On the other hand, the famed Priest Qiu also sustained heavy injuries that nearly left him dead. This dispute has yet to be resolved…” Zhu Cong turned to Qiu Chu Ji. “Am I right, Priest Qiu?”

Qiu Chu Ji was enraged, thinking: “Fantastic, you’re going to take advantage of my precarious situation.” Aloud, he retorted: “That’s right, now what?”

Zhu Cong continued, “But we also have a small feud with Dragon King Sha. One inept disciple of ours once single-handedly defeated Dragon King Sha’s top four disciples. We’ve also heard that Dragon King Sha and Chief Peng are the fastest of friends. Since we’ve offended Dragon King Sha, then we’ve also offended Chief Peng.”

“Heh heh, how dare I?” said Peng Lian Hu.

Zhu Cong laughed. “Since Chief Peng and Priest Qiu both have feuds with the 7 Freaks of Jiang Nan, won’t you then be on the same side against a common enemy? Haha, what are you still fighting for? Won’t Chief Peng and I also be on the same side? Come, let’s get to know each other.” Zhu Cong stretched out his hand for a handshake.

Having listened to this warped nonsense, Peng Lian Hu thought: “Quan Zhen Sect saved the 7 Freaks’ disciple, so they’re obviously in it together. I won’t fall for your trickery. Want to cheat the antidote from me? Not so easy.” Seeing Zhu Cong’s outstretched hand, Peng Lian Hu laughed and said: “Splendid!” He tucked his Brush back into his waist and slipped on his Poison Needle Ring.

Startled, Qiu Chu Ji said: “Brother Zhu, be careful.”

Zhu Cong ignored this and stretched out his hand. With a slight crook of his little finger, he had hooked down the Poison Needle Ring from Peng Lian Hu’s finger. Peng Lian Hu did not realize this and went ahead with the handshake, both parties exerting strength.

Suddenly, a small pain assaulted Peng Lian Hu’s palm and he struggled to let go. Raising his hand, he saw three holes in his palm that were much bigger than that of his Poison Needles, with black blood oozing from it. Instead of pain, the wound felt both numb and itchy and the sensation was rather nice. He knew that the more potent the poison, the less painful the wound would be because the numbness would be overpowering. Both angry and frightened, he had no idea how he had fell into this trap.

Looking up, he saw Zhu Cong hiding behind Qiu Chu Ji, holding up an object in each hand. In between two fingers on his left hand was Peng Lian Hu’s Poison Needle Ring. In between two fingers on his right, however, was a black object shaped like a chestnut with a sharp tail, and it was stained with blood.

Nicknamed the “Scholar with Nimble Hands”, Zhu Cong’s skill with his hands was near magical and impossible for any human to detect. To first pick Peng Lian Hu’s ring then pierce his palm with the poison caltrops was child’s play to him. Fuming, Peng Lian Hu attacked.

Qiu Chu Ji raised his sword and warded off the blow, shouting: “What are you going to do?”

Zhu Cong grinned. “Chief Peng, these poisonous caltrops are my Elder Brother’s specialty projectiles. Once you’re hit, it doesn’t matter if your name is tiger [Peng Lian Hu – ‘hu3’ means tiger], lion, leopard, pig, dog or any other beast on this earth. You will still not live beyond 4 hours.”

“Big Brother Peng, he’s insulting you,” said Hou Tong Hai.

“You talk too much,” Sha Tong Tian reproached. “Do you think Big Brother Peng hasn’t realized that?”

Zhu Cong chuckled and quipped: “Good thing Chief Peng has 1000 hands. Allow me to give you a piece of friendly advice – why not chop off this hand that has been poisoned? You’ll still be left with 999. It’s just that you’ll have to alter your nickname a bit to become the ‘Butcher with 999 Hands’.”

By this time, the numbness had already spread to Peng Lian Hu’s wrist. Panic-stricken, he couldn’t be bothered with Zhu Cong’s taunts. Beads of cold sweat dripped from his forehead.

“You have your poison needles, I have my poison caltrops; these are two completely different poisons that require completely different antidotes. If you can’t bear to give up the nickname of “Butcher with 1000 Hands”, how about we exchange antidotes?” suggested Zhu Cong. “We’re on the same side, after all.”

Before Peng Lian Hu could reply, Sha Tong Tian said quickly: “That will do. Hand the antidote over.”

Zhu Cong said, “Elder Brother, pass him the antidote.” Ke Zheng’E retrieved two small medicine packets from his robes and handed them to Zhu Cong.

“Brother Zhu, don’t fall for his trap,” warned Qiu Chu Ji. “Let him hand over the antidote first.”

Zhu Cong said cheerily, “We are all men of honor, I’m not afraid.”

Peng Lian Hu reached into his robes and felt for the antidote, and his expression changed at once. He said in a low voice: “Oh no, the antidote is gone.”

Qiu Chu Ji flew into a rage. “Hmph, up to your tricks again! Brother Zhu, don’t give it to him.”

Zhu Cong laughed. “Take it!” He said. “We said we’d give it to you. The Quan Zhen 7 and the 7 Freaks of Jiang Nan are all men of our words.”

Sha Tong Tian knew that Zhu Cong was skilful with his hands. Not wanting to be taken advantage of, he extended his iron stick horizontally. Zhu Cong placed the antidote on the stick and Sha Tong Tian fetched it. Bystanders were all perplexed, not understanding why Zhu Cong gave him the antidote so casually without forcing him to handover his. Suspecting that the antidote was not genuine, Sha Tong Tian said: “The 7 Freaks of Jiang Nan are renowned figures in the pugilistic world. Surely you mustn’t use bogus medicine to harm others?”

Zhu Cong laughed, saying: “Of course, of course.” He then returned the poison caltrops to Ke Zhen’E and started leisurely fishing out item after item from his robes. There was a handkerchief, some notes, a few pieces of loose silver and a white snuff bottle.

Peng Lian Hu was dumbfounded. “These items are all mine! How did they end up with him?” he thought.

What happened was that Zhu Cong, while using his right hand to shake hands, employed his ‘empty magical hands’ with his left. As a result, all the items in Peng Lian Hu’s robes had long been picked.

Zhu Cong uncorked the snuff bottle. It was divided into 2 compartments; one side contained red powder, the other side contained grey powder. “How is this applied?” he asked.

Though sly and aggressive by nature, Peng Lian Hu’s life now hung on a thread and he dared not be crafty. “The red is for consumption, and the grey for topical application.”

Zhu Cong said to Guo Jing, “Hurry and fetch some water, and two bowls.”

Guo Jing bolted into the inn and fetched 2 bowls of clean water. He gave one bowl to Ma Yu and aided him to drink the antidote. He then applied the grey powder on Ma Yu’s palm and was just about to give the other bowl of water to Peng Lian Hu when Zhu Cong said, “Hold it. Give the other bowl to Priest Wang.”

Though confused, Guo Jing followed Zhu Cong’s instructions and gave the water to Wang Chu Yi. Wang Chu Yi also did not understand, and accepted the bowl of water.

Sha Tong Tian said, “Hey, how is your antidote applied?”

Zhu Cong replied, “Don’t be anxious, nobody will die in such a short while.” He reached into his robes and took out over 10 packets of herbs.

Guo Jing was delighted. “Yes, yes, that’s the medicine for Priest Wang!” He opened all the herb packets and laid them in front of Wang Chu Yi. “Priest Wang, you pick the ones that you need.”

Wang Chu Yi recognized the herbs and picked out “Tian Qi”, “Xue Xie” and two other herbs. He chewed on them and swallowed with water.

Liang Zi Weng was both furious and impressed, thinking: “This dirty scholar has truly remarkable skill with his hands. All he did was dusted my sleeve, and actually managed to steal the packets of herbs in my robes.” Turning around and brandishing his spade, he shouted: “Come, come, let’s see who the real winner is in a weapon fight!”

Zhu Cong laughed. “At that, I am definitely not your match.”

Qiu Chu Ji said, “So this is Chief Peng Lian Hu, what about the others? I do not know your names yet.” Sha Tong Tian declared himself in a hoarse voice. Qiu Chu Ji said, “Great, all of you have renowned reputations! There has been no clear winner between us today, and it’s a pity both sides now have injured parties. Looks like we’ll have to arrange a gathering another day.”

“That couldn’t be better,” said Peng Lian Hu. “If we don’t meet the Quan Zhen 7, it will be the big regret of our lives. Priest Qiu, please set the date and venue.”

Qiu Chu Ji considered: “Elder Martial Brother Ma and Younger Martial Brother Wang have both been severely poisoned, and will need at least a few months to recuperate. Younger Martial Brothers Tan, Liu and the rest are all scattered and we will need some time to notify them.” So he said aloud: “Six months later in August on Mid-Autumn Festival, we’ll admire the moon while discussing wugong. Chief Peng, what do you think?”

Peng Lian Hu thought: “With all of the Quan Zhen 7, and plus the 7 Freaks of Jiang Nan, we will be heavily disadvantaged by numbers. We must gather more allies. Six months would be sufficient. Prince Zhao wants us to head to Jiang Nan to steal Yue Fei’s manual, so we can take the chance and meet there.” So he said: “How tasteful of Priest Qiu to arrange a martial gathering of friends on Mid-Autumn Festival. But we must also find a tasteful venue – let’s make it the hometown of the 7 Freaks of Jiang Nan.”

Qiu Chu Ji replied, “Excellent. We’ll meet in the Jia Xing Prefecture amid the South Lake, at the Misty Rain Inn. Everyone is welcome to invite a few more friends.”

“It’s a deal.”

Zhu Cong said, “Looks like us 7 Freaks of Jiang Nan will have no choice but to play host and foot the bills! Of all the places both of you had to pick Jia Xing so you can feast on our expense, how sly. But since it’s so rare that all of you grace Jia Xing with your presence, we will be able to afford it. Chief Peng – about the medicine – the white is for consumption and the yellow is for topical application.”

By this time, half of Peng Lian Hu’s arm had already gone numb. It took him great effort to bear with it and converse with Qiu Chu Ji, and then he had to put up with Zhu Cong’s incessant and useless chatter. The anger boiled in his chest but he dared not be impolite while his life was still in their hands. Finally he heard Zhu Cong’s last sentence and hurriedly swallowed the white antidote.

“Chief Peng, for forty-nine days you will not go near wine or women,” said Ke Zhen’E coldly. “It will be a shame if we do not see you at the gathering in Jia Xing.”

Peng Lian Hu replied angrily, “Thanks for your concern.” Sha Tong Tian applied the yellow antidote on his palm, and supporting him, turned to leave.

Wan Yan Kang knelt on the ground and kowtowed 4 times to his mother’s dead body. Then he turned and kowtowed a few times to Qiu Chu Ji. Raising his head, not uttering a single word, he walked away.

Qiu Chu Ji said sternly, “Kang’er, what is the meaning of this?”

But Wan Yan Kang did not answer. He did not join Peng Lian Hu and the others, but took another turn and went on a separate path alone. Qiu Chu Ji was stunned for a while, then turned and bowed to Ke Zhen’E and Zhu Cong.

“If not for the help of the 6 Heroes, my Martial Brothers and I might have lost our lives. Besides, my disgraceful pupil has turned out to possess such a wicked character. He cannot hold a candle to your virtuous pupil. For us martial arts practitioners, character and integrity is of foremost importance; wu gong is secondary. I’m ashamed to have a disciple like this. The duel at Jia Xing’s Drunken Fairy Inn has reached a conclusion – I admit defeat. Word will henceforth spread throughout jiang hu that Qiu Chu Ji has been trounced by the 7 Freaks of Jiang Nan, and I have sincerely and gladly admitted my loss.”

The 6 Freaks swelled with pride as he spoke – their 18 years of effort in the deserts of Mongolia had finally paid off. Ke Zhen’E uttered a few words of humility. But the 6 Freaks then thought of their Fifth Brother Zhang Ah Sheng who died in the desert, and sadness descended upon their hearts. It was regretful that their Fifth Brother did not live to hear Qiu Chu Ji admitting defeat.

After they had helped Ma Yu and Wang Chu Yi back into the inn, Quan Jin Fa went and bought coffins to prepare for the Yang couple’s funeral. Qiu Chu Ji saw Mu Nian Ci grieving sorrowfully and felt awful himself. He said, “Miss Mu, how did your father spend the last few years?”

Wiping her tears, Mu Nian Ci replied, “My father and I have been wandering for over ten years, never settling at one place for more than a month. Father said he wanted to look for a… a Brother by the surname Guo…” Her voice trailed off and she slowly lowered her head.

Qiu Chu Ji glanced at Guo Jing, then said to Mu Nian Ci, “How did your father end up adopting you?”

“I came from Lotus Pond village in the Lin’An Prefecture,” she replied. “About ten years ago, father took refuge at my place to recover from his injuries. Soon after, an epidemic broke out, killing my parents and brothers. Father then took me in as a daughter and taught me martial arts. To find this Brother Guo, we roamed all over and started… started the ‘joust for a spouse’.”

“Ah. Your father’s surname is actually Yang, not Mu, so you should change your name accordingly.”

“No, I won’t take the surname Yang. I will still use Mu.”

Qiu Chu Ji said, “Why? You don’t believe me?”

Mu Nian Ci replied softly, “How would I dare to doubt, Priest? But I’d rather my surname be Mu.”

Qiu Chu Ji saw that she was stubborn and dropped the matter, thinking that she must be too traumatized by the sudden loss of her father to understand. Little did he know that he was the one who did not understand. Mu Nian Ci was actually thinking of something else – she had already committed her life to Wan Yan Kang. Since he was her father’s real son, he must of course take the surname Yang. If she had the same surname, how could they marry?

Wang Chu Yi was gradually recovering his energy after taking the antidote and lay on the bed, listening to their conversation. There was one thing he failed to understand, and so he asked, “How come your wu gong is so much better than your father’s?”

Mu Nian Ci replied, “When I was 13, I met a strange person and he taught me wu gong for 3 days. It’s a pity I was born unintelligent, and so didn’t manage to learn much.”

Wang Chu Yi said, “He taught you just 3 days of wu gong and you managed to defeat your father? Who is this expert?”

“Priest, I wouldn’t dare to hide anything on purpose but he once made me vow that I will never reveal his name.”

Wang Chu Yi nodded and did not question further. Instead, he recalled her stances and moves during her fight with Wan Yan Kang and tried to conjecture, but still failed to tell which School her wu gong came from. The more he thought about her moves, the more he felt it was peculiar. He asked, “Elder Martial Brother Qiu, you have taught Wan Yan Kang for about 8 to 9 years, right?”

“Exactly 9 years and a half,” Qiu Chu Ji replied, sighing. “I never thought he would turn out so rotten.”

Wang Chu Yi said, “That’s strange!”


But Wang Chu Yi did not reply. Ke Zhen’E asked, “Priest Qiu, how did you manage to find Brother Yang’s descendent?”

Qiu Chu Ji replied, “It was such a coincidence. After we laid down the bet, I traveled widely for news of the Guo and Yang families. Years passed and still there was nothing, but I did not give up. That year I went again to Ox Village for some clues to their whereabouts, and incidentally saw a few government officials moving objects from Brother Yang’s old home. I tailed them, eavesdropping on their conversation. These officials were actually guards of Prince Zhao of the Jin Empire. They were under orders to move each and every item from the house – broken chairs or iron spears, none could be left behind. I suspected that there was something much more to it, so I followed them all the way to Zhong Du.”

Guo Jing had seen Bao Xi Ruo’s living quarters in the Palace, and now he fully understood.

Qiu Chu Ji continued, “To find out why Prince Zhao had moved all these old and broken things all the way from Ox Village, I sneaked into the Palace at night to investigate. What I saw made me both furious and upset – Brother Yang’s wife had become a Consort! In my great anger I initially thought of killing her, but then I saw her living in the old house and caressing Brother Yang’s spear, sobbing all night. I felt she wasn’t totally heartless after all and hadn’t forgotten her dead husband, so I spared her life. Later, I found out that the little Prince was actually Brother Yang’s flesh and blood. When he was a few years older, I started teaching him martial arts.”

Ke Zhen’E said, “So all along he was none the wiser about his roots?”

“I did sound him out a few times, but found that he hankered after riches,” he replied. “He was not a person of integrity, so I never once revealed the truth to him. Every time I tried to teach him important moral principles, he would always behave apathetically and retort with his slippery tongue. If it wasn’t for our wager, why would I even waste my time on him? Initially I had hoped for both sides to reconcile no matter who won the duel, and I would tell him the truth about his birth. We would then rescue his mother from the Palace and settle down in a quiet area. How was I to know that Brother Yang was alive still? But both Elder Martial Brother Ma and I were injured by those scoundrels, and still failed to save him and his wife… hai!” Hearing this, Mu Nian Ci hid her face and started weeping softly again.

Guo Jing then explained how he met Yang Tie Xin, and how he had seen Bao Xi Ruo in the night. Everyone agreed that though Bao Xi Ruo had lost her virtue in Zhao Palace, she was, after all, under the impression that her husband was dead. In the end she still followed her husband in death, and there was no one present that did not admire her loyalty and sigh at the tragedy.

The conversation then shifted to the Mid-Autumn duel. Zhu Cong said, “But the Quan Zhen 7 will be assembled there. What have we to worry?”

“It’s just that they might bring along a multitude of good fighters to outnumber us,” said Ma Yu.

Qiu Chu Ji said, “Which other good fighters can they bring along? Are there that many good fighters in the world?”

Ma Yu sighed. “Younger Martial Brother Qiu, your skills have improved greatly in the past few years and brought glory to our Sect. Yet, you still haven’t been able to curb the arrogance of youth. You…”

Qiu Chu Ji laughed and completed, “I must know that there will always be a higher person, like there will always be a higher heaven.”

Ma Yu smiled. “Isn’t it so? The people we met just now really possess skills that are no lower than ours. If they invite more fighters of their caliber to Misty Rain Inn, then it’s hard to tell who will win.”

Qiu Chu Ji cocked his head proudly and said, “Elder Martial Brother, you worry too much. Is it even possible that Quan Zhen Sect would lose to that bunch of thugs?”

Ma Yu replied, “Nothing is certain in this world. If not for Brother Ke and Brother Zhu, the decades-old reputation of Quan Zhen Sect would have been ruined in the hands of us three Martial Brothers.”

Ke Zhen’E and Zhu Cong declined modestly. “It was just because the opposition employed dirty tricks. How can it be taken into account?”

Ma Yu sighed again. “Martial Uncle Zhou was taught personally by Teacher, and his skills are ten times better than ours. Alas, because of his stubborn and competitive nature, he has gone missing for over ten years. We must take this as a lesson and always remain cautious.”

Now that Ma Yu phrased it this way, Qiu Chu Ji did not dare to rebut. The 6 Freaks never knew the Quan Zhen 7 had a Martial Uncle. From Ma Yu’s words, they deduced that this matter was not something that Quan Zhen Sect was proud of. It would not be tactful to make any comment and so they refrained, but nevertheless they were curious. Wang Chu Yi listened to their dialogue but remained silent, mulling over something.

Qiu Chu Ji glanced at Guo Jing and Mu Nian Ci. “Brother Ke, you have nurtured a fine and gallant disciple. With such a son-in-law, my Brother Yang will be able to rest in peace.”

Mu Nian Ci’s face reddened and she stood up. Lowering her head, she walked out of the room. Seeing her stand up and take steps, a notion flashed through Wang Chu Yi’s mind and he got out of bed, sending his palm straight at her shoulder. This move was swift and by the time Mu Nian Ci sensed it, his palm had already reached her right shoulder. He paused there for a moment, waiting for her to exercise internal energy to resist. At the moment where the energy was just about to reach – but not yet – Wang Chu Yi yanked her shoulder. So distinguished a character was the Iron Footed Fairy, Jade Sun Wang Chu Yi – even though he had not recovered from his heavy injuries and his arms devoid of internal energy, he was still able to pinpoint the void in her circulation passage. With this push and pull, Mu Nian Ci swayed and instantly fell forward. Wang Chu Yi extended his right hand to support her right shoulder and she was upright again, beyond her control. Her lovely eyes widened with a mixture of surprise and bewilderment.

Wang Chu Yi laughed and said, “Don’t be frightened Miss Mu, I was just testing your kungfu. The senior expert who taught you for three days – did he dress like a beggar and have just 9 fingers?”

Mu Nian Ci said in surprise, “Eh? Yes, that’s right. Priest, how did you know?”

Wang Chu Yi smiled. “This 9-Fingered Divine Beggar, Elder Hong, goes about things in a truly mysterious manner. It’s just like seeing the heavenly dragon’s head but catching no hint of the tail. To have been taught personally by him is your great fortune and a cause for celebration.”

“It was a pity he was busy and only taught me for 3 days.”

Wang Chu Yi let out a sigh. “You should be content. You have gained more in those 3 days than what others can teach you in 10, 20 years.”

Mu Nian Ci said, “Priest is right.” After a brief pause, she continued, “Priest, do you happen to know where Elder Hong is?”

Laughing, he replied, “Now you’ve had me stumped. I last saw him at Mount Hua over 20 years ago, and have never heard from him since.” Disappointed, Mu Nian Ci walked slowly out of the room.

Han Xiao Ying asked, “Priest Wang, who is this Elder Hong?”

Wang Chu Yi smiled and seated himself on the bed. Qiu Chu Ji said, “Heroine Han, have you heard of the Eastern Heretic, Western Poison, Southern Emperor, Northern Beggar and Central Divinity?”

Han Xiao Ying replied, “I’ve heard people say these are the five strongest martial artists in the world, but I don’t know if it’s true.”

Qiu Chu Ji said, “It is.”

Ke Zhen’E said, “So this Elder Hong is the Northern Beggar?”

Wang Chu Yi said, “That’s right. The Central Divinity refers to our late Teacher, Reverend Wang.”

Upon hearing that this Elder Hong was mentioned alongside the Quan Zhen 7’s Teacher, they were immediately filled with awe. Qiu Chu Ji turned and smiled at Guo Jing. “This wife of yours is the disciple of the great 9-Fingered Divine Beggar. Who would dare bully you in future?” Guo Jing felt his cheeks burn and wanted to dispute this, but he just stammered and did not manage to say anything.

Han Xiao Ying asked, “Priest Wang, how did you tell that she was taught by the Nine-Fingered Divine Beggar by just pushing her shoulder?”

Qiu Chu Ji motioned for Guo Jing to come over, and Guo Jing went to his side as instructed. Qiu Chu Ji pushed Guo Jing’s shoulder with his palm, exerting pressure with internal energy. But Guo Jing had cultivated profound internal energy under Ma Yu’s guidance, and also endured over 10 years of hard physical training from the 6 Freaks. As a result, he had considerable internal and external strength. With this push, Qiu Chu Ji could not bring him down. Laughing, he said, “Good lad!” and the pressure loosened.

Guo Jing had exercised his internal energy to resist the push, and now he relaxed both outwards and inwards. Quick as lightning, Qiu Chu Ji seized this instant; Guo Jing’s earlier energy had dissipated and his new wave of energy had yet to catch on, leaving a gap. With a light pull, Guo Jing fell backwards. He extended his hands and, using his fingers, propelled himself upright again.

Everyone burst out laughing. Zhu Cong said, “Jing’er, remember this expert move that Priest Qiu taught you.” Guo Jing nodded in obedience.

Qiu Chu Ji said, “Heroine Han, when pulled by the shoulder, all martial artists in the world will fall backward if they are unable to resist. But with the unique kungfu of the 9-Fingered Divine Beggar, one will fall forward instead. This is because his kungfu is rooted in extreme, rigid toughness. When faced with strength, it responds with greater strength. Though Miss Mu only spent 3 days under his tutelage, she has evidently grasped his martial arts philosophy. Though she was unable to withstand Younger Martial Brother Wang’s pull, she refused to succumb to the situation. Even if she had to fall, she would fall in the opposite direction of the enemy’s strength.”

The 6 Freaks thought what he said made sense, and admired Quan Zhen Sect’s proficient knowledge. Zhu Cong said, “Priest Wang has seen the 9-Fingered Divine Beggar display his kungfu?”

Wang Chu Yi said, “Over 20 years ago, my late Teacher competed in the Mt. Hua Tournament with the 9-Fingered Divine Beggar, Huang Yao Shi and the other Greats. Elder Hong’s kungfu was truly outstanding but he was also very gluttonous, and Mt. Hua was short of delicacies. Feeling extremely bored, he took sword as wine and fist as dishes and began chatting about the theories of sword and fist with my late Teacher and Elder Huang Yao Shi. At that time I was waiting on Teacher and was very lucky indeed to have heard these brilliant theories. In fact, I learned a lot.”

Ke Zhen’E said, “Oh, so out of the ‘Eastern Heretic, Western Poison,’ Huang Yao Shi must be the so-called ‘Eastern Heretic?”

Qiu Chu Ji replied, “Correct.” He then turned to Guo Jing and said jovially, “Though Elder Martial Brother Ma has taught you some internal energy, luckily you are not officially his disciple. If you start comparing seniority, you’ll be one level lower than your wife! Then you’ll never be able to raise your head in this life.”

Guo Jing went red. “I’m not marrying her.”

Startled, Qiu Chu Ji said, “What?”

“I’m not marrying her!”

“I’m not marrying her!” Guo Jing repeated.

Qiu Chu Ji’s face sank and he stood up. “But why?”

Ever doting on her disciple, Han Xiao Ying saw that Guo Jing was in a tight spot and hurriedly explained on his behalf: “We received word that Master Yang’s child was a male. Thinking that the betrothal agreement was annulled, Jing’er has already gotten engaged in Mongolia. The Khan of Mongolia, Genghis Khan, has appointed him as his imperial son-in-law.”

Qiu Chu Ji’s face hardened and he glared at Guo Jing. Laughing icily, he said, “Brilliant, this girl is a Princess, a precious imperial descendent – commoners can’t hold a candle to her, so you’re just going to conveniently ignore the wishes of the dead? You lust for riches and betray your roots. How different are you from that scoundrel Wan Yan Kang? And what of your late father’s wishes?”

Panicking, Guo Jing bowed. “I have never met my father, and my mother has never mentioned anything about his wishes. Priest, please enlighten me.”

At this, Qiu Chu Ji lost his cold smile and his expression softened at once. “So you are really not to blame. I was too quick to jump to conclusions.” He then explained everything from beginning till the end – his meeting with the Guo and Yang brothers 18 years ago at Ox Village, the slaughtering of soldiers that night, his search for the Guo and Yang families, his misunderstanding with the 7 Freaks of Jiang Nan and the wager that followed, et cetera.

Now knowing the circumstances of his birth and how everything had begun, he broke down in sobs. His father died a horrible death and had yet to be avenged; he then thought of the great kindness of his 7 Teachers — how could he even hope to repay them in this lifetime?

Han Xiao Ying said kindly, “It’s very common for a man to have more than one wife. Just let the Khan know about this and marry both women. That way, all your problems will be solved. I reckon the Khan himself has even more than 100 wives.”

Wiping his tears, he replied, “I can’t marry Princess Hua Zheng.”

Surprised, Han Xiao Ying asked, “Why?”

“I don’t like her as my wife.”

“But haven’t you always been on very good terms with her?”

“I view her as a younger sister and a good friend, but I certainly don’t want her as my wife.”

Qiu Chu Ji said happily, “Good child, you’ve got backbone! Khan or not, Princess or not, who cares? Just obey your father and Uncle Yang, and get married with Miss Mu.” Unexpectedly, Guo Jing shook his head again.

“I won’t marry Miss Mu either.”

Everyone present was bewildered, not knowing what was running through his head. But Han Xiao Ying was a woman, and she paid heed to details. “You like someone else?” she asked gently. Guo Jing blushed and, after a moment or two, nodded his head.

Han Bao Ju and Qiu Chu Ji asked sternly in unison, “Who is it?”

Guo Jing opened his mouth to answer, but faltered. During the fight with Mei Chao Feng and the others in the Palace the previous night, Huang Rong had the attention of Han Xiao Ying. She had secretly marveled at this girl with her graceful movements and a face as delicate as those you only see in paintings. Thinking back, Huang Rong did seem very affectionate towards Guo Jing and had been looking out especially for him. Han Xiao Ying asked, “It’s the young girl who dressed in white, isn’t it?” Guo Jing went red as he nodded.

Qiu Chu Ji said impatiently, “What young or old girl in white or black?”

Han Xiao Ying muttered to herself, “I heard Mei Chao Feng call her Little Martial-Sister and addressed her father as Teacher…”

Qiu Chu Ji and Ke Zhen’E stood up at once and said together, flabbergasted: “She’s Huang Yao Shi’s daughter?”

Holding Guo Jing’s hand, Han Xiao Ying asked, “Jing’er, is her surname Huang?”

Guo Jing answered, “Yes.”

To this, Han Xiao Ying was speechless.

Ke Zhen’E muttered, “You want to marry Mei Chao Feng’s Younger Martial-Sister?”

Zhu Cong asked, “Her father has betrothed her to you?”

Guo Jing replied, “I’ve never met her father, nor do I know who her father is.”

Zhu Cong asked again, “So you have an illicit engagement?”

Not knowing what an ‘illicit engagement’ meant, Guo Jing widened his eyes and did not reply. Zhu Cong continued, “You’ve told her that you will definitely marry her, and she’s also said that she’ll definitely marry you, is that right?”

Guo Jing replied, “Never said that.” After a brief pause, he continued, “We don’t have to say it. I can’t do without her, and she can’t do without me. We know this in our hearts.”

Having never experienced the feeling of love, Han Bao Ju was displeased upon hearing this and said impatiently, “What nonsense is this?”

However, Han Xiao Ying’s mind flitted to Zhang Ah Sheng: ‘Among us 7 Freaks, Fifth Brother’s character was the most similar to Jing’er. But he only loved me in secret – he always thought he wasn’t good enough for me and so he never expressed his feelings. Was it like Jing’er and that girl, what with ‘we both know it in our hearts; I can’t do without her, she can’t do without me’? If I had let him known just a few months before he died that I actually couldn’t do without him, he would have at least a few months of true happiness in his lifetime.’

Zhu Cong said calmly, “Her father is a ruthless monster who kills without blinking, did you know that? If he found out that you got close with her daughter in secret, how could even you hope to live? Mei Chao Feng hasn’t even learned one-tenth of his kungfu and she is already so formidable. If the Master of Peach Blossom Isle wants to kill you, who will be able to save you?”

Guo Jing said softly, “Rong’er is so nice, I doubt… I doubt her father will be a bad person.”

“Bullshit!” Han Bao Ju berated. “Huang Yao Shi is utterly evil, how could he not be a bad person? Quickly vow that you’ll never see that little demoness again.”

Because the Twin Killers of the Dark Winds had killed the Laughing Buddha Zhang Ah Sheng, the 6 Freaks bore a grudge as deep as the oceans towards them and hated their Teacher to the core. They all thought that the kungfu the Twin Killers used to kill Zhang Ah Sheng was taught by Huang Yao Shi; if there was no Huang Yao Shi in this world, Zhang Ah Sheng wouldn’t have died.

Guo Jing was in an extremely difficult position. On one hand was his deep gratitude towards his Teachers, and on the other hand was a love both sincere and true. If he could never see Rong’er ever again, how could he live on? His Teachers’ eyes were fixed sternly on himself and with an aching heart, dropped down to his knees, tears streaming down his cheeks. Han Bao Ju stepped forward and said harshly, “Say it! Say that you’ll never see that little demoness again.”

Suddenly, a clear female voice shouted from outside the window: “Why are you forcing him like this? How shameless!” Everyone was startled. That girl called: “Jing-gege, hurry outside.”

Surprised and delighted to hear it was Huang Rong, Guo Jing dashed outside and saw her standing at the courtyard with his Blood-sweat Horse. The Little Red Horse saw Guo Jing and let out a long neigh, raising its front hoofs.

Han Bao Ju, Quan Jin Fa, Zhu Cong and Qiu Chu Ji followed him out of the room. Guo Jing said to Han Bao Ju, “Third Teacher, that’s her, she’s Rong’er. Rong’er isn’t a demoness!”

“You ugly and short fatty, why did you call me a little demoness?” Huang Rong scolded. She then pointed to Zhu Cong and said, “And you, sly and sloppy scholar! Why did you say my father’s a monster who kills without blinking?”

Not taking a little girl to heart, Zhu Cong merely smiled. Looking at Huang Rong, he thought that her beauty was indeed peerless and none he had seen in his life could match hers – no wonder Jing’er was so crazy about her. Han Bao Ju, however, was absolutely furious, so much so that the moustache at the edge of his lips had curled. He yelled, “Get out, get out!”

Huang Rong started clapping and sang: “Shorty-gourd, tumbling ball, with one kick, rolls three times; with two kicks…”

Guo Jing exclaimed, “Rong’er, stop being naughty! These are my Teachers.”

Huang Rong stuck out her tongue and made a face. Moving forward, Han Bao Ju struck out his arm to hit her. Huang Rong sang again: “Shorty-gourd, tumbling ball…” All of a sudden, she reached out and grabbed the cloth on Guo Jing’s waist. With a hard tug, both of them had mounted the horse together. With a lift of the reins, the Little Red Horse bolted forward and away like an arrow leaving the bow. No matter how fast Han Bao Ju was, how could possibly he catch up with the lightning pace of a Blood-sweat Horse? By the time Guo Jing had slightly settled himself, he turned his head only to see that the faces of Han Bao Ju and the others were already blurred; in the next instant they were reduced to little black dots. His own face was wrapped in rushing wind and his ears, enveloped in the sound of it. The Little Red Horse continued to surge forward with amazing pace.

Huang Rong held the reins in her right hand and held Guo Jing’s hand with her left. Though they had parted for less than half a day, they had just only gone through an agonizing experience. Though one was inside the room and the other, outside the window, both had similar feelings of worry and anxiety, and now it felt like they had re-united after calamity. Guo Jing’s heart was clouded with indecision – escaping from his Teachers like this was a huge wrong, yet when he thought that he would have to give up this girl in his arms that was dearer than his own life and never see her again, he would rather sever his head and bleed to death.

Only after the Little Red Horse had galloped more than 10 li past Yan Capital did Huang Rong withdraw the reins and halt, leaping off the horse. Guo Jing followed and dismounted. The Little Red Horse kept rubbing its head against Guo Jing’s waist, displaying great affection. Guo Jing and Huang Rong held hands and gazed at each other in silence, each having a multitude of words to say but not knowing where to begin. But even in the absence of words, their hearts were linked and they had long been aware of each other’s thoughts. After a long while, Huang Rong lightly released her hand and retrieved a towel from the leather sack on the horse’s side. She wet the towel by the small stream and gave it to Guo Jing to wipe his face. Guo Jing was currently in a dazed state and did not receive the towel, but said suddenly, “Rong’er, we have to do it!”

Jumping in surprise, Huang Rong said, “What is it?”

“We’ll head back and see my Teachers.”

“Go back? Go back together?” She said, stunned.

“Yes. I want to hold your hand and tell my 6 Teachers, Priest Ma and the rest: Rong’er is not a demoness…” Holding Huang Rong’s little hand and lifting his head, he said firmly as if Ke Zhen’E, Ma Yu and the rest were in front of him: “Teachers, you have shown me great kindness that I will never be able to repay even with my life. But, but, Rong’er is really not a demoness, she’s a very, very good girl, very, very good…” In his heart he had innumerable words and phrases in defense of Huang Rong, but when the words were at his mouth, he could say nothing but ‘very, very good’.

Huang Rong found it funny at first, but as Guo Jing went on she felt greatly moved. Gently, she said, “Jing-ge-ge, your Teachers hate me to the core. Nothing you say can make a difference. Let’s not go back! I’ll follow you to the secluded mountains, to an island in the sea, to someplace where they’ll never find us and live there forever.”

Guo Jing’s heart gave a start, but he said seriously, “Rong’er, we must go back.”

“But they’ll surely separate us,” she wailed. “Then we’ll never be able to see each other, ever again.”

“Then we’ll just not separate, till death do us apart.”

Huang Rong’s initial misery abated with these words; words that weighed more than a thousand vows and a million promises. Suddenly she was filled with such a confidence, feeling that their two hearts had long been knotted stubbornly together, so stubborn that no person or force in this world could separate them. She thought to herself: ‘Yes, that’s it. In the worst case we’ll only die, surely there can’t be anything worse than death?’

She said aloud, “Jing-ge-ge, I will abide by you forever. We’ll just not separate till death do us apart.”

Guo Jing said in delight, “I’ve always said you were a very, very good girl.”

Smiling gaily, Huang Rong retrieved a large piece of raw beef from the sack and coated it with moist earth. Gathering some dry twigs and branches, they started a fire. She said, “Let the Little Red Horse rest for a bit. We’ll set off after eating.”

After they had finished the beef and the Little Red Horse had had its fill of grass, the two of them mounted the horse and went back the way they came. Not long after passing the placard, they arrived at the inn. Guo Jing held Huang Rong’s hand and together, they stepped inside. The shopkeeper had once been recipient of Guo Jing’s silver and looked joyous upon seeing his return. Hurrying forward, he welcomed Guo Jing, saying, “Good day to you, sir! The other guests have all left the city. What would you like to eat?”

Guo Jing said, surprised, “They’ve all left? Did they leave any message?”

“No, they didn’t. They headed south and haven’t been gone for more than 4 hours.”

Turning to Huang Rong, Guo Jing said, “We’ll catch up with them.” They left the inn and mounted the horse, heading southwards in pursuit, but eventually failed to catch sight of the three Priests or the 6 Freaks. And so, urging the Little Red Horse, they turned back once again. The Little Red Horse was ever spirited and lively; having gone two trips it still showed no signs of weariness but continued sprinting relentlessly. Along the way, they made enquiries about the 3 Priests and 6 Freaks but no one had seen anyone like them, and Guo Jing was thoroughly disappointed.

Huang Rong said, “All of them will be gathering at the Misty Rain Inn during the Mid-Autumn Festival, so you’ll definitely be able to see your Teachers then. It still wouldn’t be too late to tell them that I’m ‘very, very good’.”

“Mid-Autumn Festival is a whole 6 months away,” he replied.

Smiling cheerfully, Huang Rong said, “Then in these 6 months we’ll have fun and be merry, wouldn’t that be great?”

Besides being adventurous by nature, Guo Jing, like all young people, was also playful. Furthermore, he would be accompanied by the girl he loved and to this, couldn’t ask for more. Applauding the idea, the pair hurried to the nearest town to spend the evening. The next day they bought a white horse; Guo Jing insisted on riding it, letting Huang Rong ride the Little Red Horse. With rein in hand, they travelled leisurely and enjoyed themselves along the way. Sometimes they lay asleep beside each other in the wilderness, other times they shared a room in an inn. Despite their deep love for each other, they were young and innocent and did nothing licentious. Huang Rong did not think it was anything unusual; Guo Jing, however, felt that this was how things were meant to be.

On this day they came to the Xi Qing Prefecture, which was East of Jing Dong Road and controlled by the Tai Ning military. As it grew closer to noon, the weather became increasingly humid. Having ridden with haste for nearly half a day, trickles of perspiration emerged on their foreheads and backs as the bright, orange sun shone directly on them. Sand and dust from the path scattered all around them as they rode, the particles sticking on their greasy faces. The discomfort was unbearable.

“Let’s not hurry anymore. We’ll find a cool and breezy place to rest,” Huang Rong suggested.

Guo Jing replied, “Sure. Let’s have a pot of tea in the town further up before doing anything else.”

As they spoke, their horses caught up with a sedan-chair and a scrawny donkey in front. Riding the donkey was a big fatty clothed in yam-colored gauze robes, continuously fanning himself with a big white fan. The donkey limped under the weight of his 250 – 60 jin body, with every step proving to be a hurdle. As for the sedan, its screens were lifted for cooling purposes and within it sat a fat middle-aged woman in pink robes. Coincidentally, the two sedan-bearers were also thin and frail, and both were panting heavily. Beside the sedan was a slave girl with a sunflower-fan, relentlessly fanning the fat woman in the sedan. Huang Rong urged her horse forward and overtook this group of people by 70 or 80 feet. She then reined in and turned around to face the sedan.

Curious, Guo Jing asked, “What are you doing?”

“I want to see how this madam looks like,” came her reply. Peering into the sedan, she saw that the fat woman was 40-odd years of age. She had a gold hairpin in her hair, and sitting on the edge of her temples was a large, red velvet flower. She had a broad mouth, beady eyes, two flapping ears and a nose so flat it looked like it wasn’t there. Her plump face was as round as a plate, with a thick layer of powder slapped on. However, streams of perspiration from her forehead had already dissolved streaks of powder to create several dikes in her face. Hearing Huang Rong’s words, she raised a pair of bushy eyebrows and glowered fiercely at her.

“What’s there to see?” The fat woman said rudely.

Huang Rong long had intentions of creating trouble, and she couldn’t have been happier now that the fat woman took the initiative to stir the rift. Halting the Little Red Horse and blocking the way, she grinned and said, “I’m admiring your slim figure, it’s really nice!” All of a sudden, she lifted the reins with a cry and the Little Red Horse charged straight at the sedan. Shocked, the two sedan-bearers dropped the sedan immediately and fled to the sides. The sedan toppled over and the fat woman came tumbling noisily out, landing right smack in the middle of the path. Her arms and legs flailed helplessly about, and she was unable to pick herself up. But Huang Rong had already halted the Little Red Horse and was now clapping her hands, howling with laughter. She had intended to ride away after this prank, but the fatty on the donkey brandished his mule whip and lashed it ferociously towards her.

He bellowed: “Where did this little witch pop up from?”

Lying horizontally spread across the path, an even worse slew of obscenities escaped the fat woman’s mouth.

Huang Rong caught the whip with her left hand and gave it a small tug, causing the fatty to tumble off his horse. Raising the whip, she lashed it towards him. The fat woman screamed loudly, “Female robber! Murder! She’s blocked our way and robbed us!” Unrelenting, Huang Rong pulled out her E’Mei Dagger and bent down. With a “chi” sound, blood splattered across the fat woman’s face and she shrieked like a dying pig. Her left ear had been sliced off.

This scared the living spirits out of the fatty and he immediately knelt, whimpering: “Mercy, big Lady King! I… I have silver!”

Huang Rong made a face. “Who wants your silver? Who is this woman?”

“She… She’s my wife! We… we… she went back to her mother’s house to visit.”

“Both of you are fat and robust, so why can’t you walk yourself? I can show mercy, but you just have to follow my orders.”

“Yes, yes,” he clamored. “We’ll obey Lady King’s orders.”

Huang Rong burst out laughing when she heard him address herself as ‘Lady King’, thinking it was a pretty interesting title. She said, “Where are the two sedan-bearers? Get inside the sedan – all three of you, together with that slave girl.”

Not daring to defy her, the three servants propped the fallen sedan back to balance and climbed inside. Thankfully, all three of them were thin and small-built so it wasn’t much of a squeeze. In fact, their combined mass might’ve even been smaller than that of the fat woman’s. At present, six pairs of eyes – the three servants’, Guo Jing’s and the fat couples’ – were fixed nervously on Huang Rong, not knowing what strange ideas she might have.

Huang Rong said, “You husband and wife have led a life of power and luxury, bullying the poor just because you have a little stinking money. Now that you’ve met the big ‘Lady King’, would you like to live or die?”

By this time, the fat woman had long stopped her wailing. With her left hand pressed firmly on the wound on the side of her face, she said together with her fat husband, “We want to live, we want to live! Please have mercy, Lady King!”

“All right,” said Huang Rong. “Today, it’s your turn to be the sedan-bearers. Lift up the sedan!”

The fat woman cried, “I… I only know how to sit in sedans; I don’t know how to carry them!”

A dagger flew past her, grazing the tip of her nose. Huang Rong shouted, “If you don’t carry the sedan, I’m going to slice off your nose.”

Thinking that her nose had already been sliced off, the fat woman shrieked, “Aiya, the pain is killing me!” Huang Rong shouted again, “Are you going to carry the sedan, or not?”

The fatty quickly lifted the sedan and said, “We’ll carry it, we’ll carry it!”

Left with no choice, the fat woman lowered her body and placed the end of the sedan pole on her shoulder, then stood upright again. Both husband and wife were truly sturdy and robust, having eaten plenty of tonics. They strode away with the sedan on their shoulders, looking like experienced sedan-bearers.

Huang Rong and Guo Jing cheered in unison, “Carried well!” They trailed behind the sedan on their horses for about 100 feet before Huang Rong urged her horse to sprint.

“Jing-ge-ge, let’s go!”

Together, they galloped swiftly and after a distance, turned back to look. They couldn’t help but burst out in peels of laughter at the sight. The fat couple was still walking with the sedan on their shoulders, not daring to put it down.

“That fat woman is both cruel and hideous, and is actually quite suitable. I originally wanted to capture her and give her to Qiu Chu Ji as a wife, but it’s too bad I can’t win that Bull-nose in a fight.”

“Why would you give her to Priest Qiu to be his wife?” Guo Jing asked, baffled. “He wouldn’t want it.”

“Of course he wouldn’t. But at the same time, why doesn’t he understand? You said you didn’t want to marry Miss Mu, but he still tried to force you to. Hmph, when one day I can defeat that Bull-nose Priest, I’ll force him to take a wicked and ugly woman as his wife and let him have a taste of being forced to marry!”

At this, Guo Jing’s smile faded and he was silent for a moment. Then he said, “Rong’er, Miss Mu is neither wicked or ugly. But I’ll still only take you as my wife.”

With a lovely smile, Huang Rong said, “Even if you don’t say it, I know.”

They continued their journey until the sudden sound of rushing water emerged from behind a row of trees. Huang Rong weaved her way past a big tree and gave a cry of delight. Guo Jing followed and saw that it was a clear stream, so clear that you could see the stream bed, made up of green, white, red and purple pebbles. Hanging willows graced both its banks, their branches lightly brushing the water surface, beneath which many fish swam freely. Huang Rong removed her outer robe and jumped into the water with a splash. Alarmed, Guo Jing went near the edge of the stream only to see both her hands raised high, grasping a green fish that was about 1 chi long. The fish wriggled desperately, struggling to escape. Huang Rong called out, “Catch!”

She threw the fish towards him. Displaying his seizing method, Guo Jing caught the fish. But the fish was extremely slippery and slid out of his hands immediately, lurching and flipping wildly on the ground.

Clapping and laughing, Huang Rong called, “Jing-ge-ge, come down and swim.” Having grown up in the desert, Guo Jing did not know how to swim and shook his head with a smile.

“Come down, I’ll teach you,” she urged.

Huang Rong looked like she was having a lot of fun in the water, so he removed his outer clothes and waded slowly down. But Huang Rong gave his leg a tug and he lost balance, falling and gulping down a few mouthfuls of water in panic. Huang Rong laughed as she helped him up, and began teaching him the technique of swimming. The essentials of the skill lay in regulating one’s breathing. Since Guo Jing was acquainted with internal energy practice techniques and proficient with breath regulation, it took him only half a day’s practice to get the hang of swimming. That night they slept by the bank of the stream, and early the next morning it was back to one teaching, one learning. Growing up on an island in the sea, Huang Rong had been proficient in aquatic skills since young. Be it literature or martial arts, there was nothing Huang Yao Shi did not excel in, yet his aquatic skills were far behind that of his daughter’s. Under the guidance of this brilliant instructor, Guo Jing spent 8-10 hours underwater every day. After 7 or 8 days had passed, he could swim up and down as he pleased; float and sink as he wished.

On this particular day, they had been swimming for hours and still their enthusiasm seemed boundless. They defied the current and had just swum a few li upstream when they heard the sound of falling water. Turning a bend, their eyes were greeted with what looked like flying pearls and sprinkling jade – it was actually a waterfall of a few hundred feet in height, with its large bodies of water spilling down ceaselessly from the cliff peak.

“Jing-ge-ge, let’s try and make it up to the cliff peak from the waterfall,” said Huang Rong.

“Okay, let’s give it a try. You’d better wear your Soft Hedgehog Armor.”

“No need!”

With a determined shout, the pair drilled their way into the waterfall. The current was extremely urgent – forget climbing up, they couldn’t even stand properly, and with a slight shift of their feet their bodies were rushed far, far away by the current. After a few unsuccessful attempts, they finally gave up in exhaustion. Feeling extremely discontented, Guo Jing said with rousing anger, “Rong’er, we’ll have a good rest tonight and come again tomorrow.”

Huang Rong said, laughing, “Okay! You needn’t get angry at the waterfall, though.”

Realizing he was being silly, Guo Jing laughed along. The next day they tried again, and this time managed to climb over 10 feet. Fortunately, both were proficient in their lightness skill (qing gong) and every time they were rushed down by the water, they only fell into the deep waterfall and did not hurt themselves. On the 8th day, Guo Jing finally managed to reach the peak. Stretching out his hand, he hauled Huang Rong up and they jumped up and down in jubilation, delirious in their triumph. Then, hand-in-hand, they slid down the waterfall once more.

And so, having spent nearly 10 days in this fashion, Guo Jing’s aquatic skills were no longer weak, thanks also to his deep internal energy. Though he was still far behind Huang Rong, she told him that he had already surpassed her father. Only when the waterfall ceased to interest them did they finally get back onto their horses and journey Southwards.

On this day, the sun had already set and the vast, cloudy sky was a dark blanket of blue when the pair arrived at the banks of Changjiang River. Guo Jing gazed east where the great river’s waves broke forth, steadily and unfaltering. All around him was an abundant excess of nature, seemingly infinite. Water flowed into the river from upstream unceasingly; it was steadfast, and it would run for eternity without rest. With such awe-inspiring scenery before his eyes, feelings of heroism and valor stirred in his chest and he felt like his body had merged into one with the river. Guo Jing continued admiring the scenery for a fairly long while before Huang Rong suddenly spoke: “If you want to go, let’s go.”

Guo Jing replied, “Okay!”

Having spent all these days together, there was no longer a need for too many words between them before they knew what each other was thinking. Huang Rong could see from the expression in his eyes that he wanted to swim across the river. Guo Jing released the white horse’s reins and said, “You’re of no use now, go your own way.”

With a pat on the back of the Little Red Horse, they leapt into the river together. The Little Red Horse let out a long neigh and swam in front, while Guo Jing and Huang Rong swam side-by-side behind it. By the time they reached the heart of the river, the Little Red Horse was already way ahead of them. Above them, a myriad of stars sparkled in the sky and aside from the sound of the rolling waves, all else was quiet and it was as if they were the only two people in heaven and earth.

After swimming for a while more, dark clouds suddenly started gathering in the sky and on the river, all was pitch black. Lightning and thunder followed continuously and each roar of thunder seemed like it had struck their heads.

“Rong’er,” Guo Jing called. “Are you afraid?”

Smiling, she said, “I’m with you, I’m not afraid.”

The rain then started falling mercilessly, and eventually ended as abruptly as it began. When they finally reached the other side of the river, the storm had already ended and the clear moon had begun to give passage to the sun. Guo Jing gathered some dry twigs and started a fire. From her bag, Huang Rong retrieved a dry set of clothing for both of them and they changed, hanging their wet clothes above the fire to dry.

A short nap later, brightness crept slowly over the horizon. In a small peasant hut by the river, a single rooster cleared its throat and started its long crow. Huang Rong yawned and exclaimed, “I’m hungry!” She sprinted towards the hut and returned within a quarter of an hour with a big fat chicken in hand. Chuckling, she said, “Let’s go farther away so the owner won’t see.”

The two of them journeyed eastwards for a few li, and the Little Red Horse trailed behind them obediently. Huang Rong used her E’Mei dagger to cut the rooster’s stomach and proceeded to cleanse out its organs, but she did not pluck its feathers. Wetting some earth with water, she coated the chicken with mud and roasted it over fire. Some moments later, a sweet fragrance seeped through the mud. When the mud had become completely dry, it was skinned off and the chicken feathers fell off with it, exposing tender white meat and a rich, savory aroma that assaulted their nostrils.

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