Thousand Autumns Chapter 51-60

Chapter 51

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No one in the Jade Cloud Sect expected the battle to be so intense.

Kunye was, after all, an expert of his generation as well as the disciple of Hulugu, a person who almost broke even with Qi Fengge in his time. Such an opponent could not be brushed off easily.
Shen Qiao had already lost once, which must have left a great psychological effect on him. Winning the second round would be even harder for him than winning the first because not only must he defeat his opponent, he must also overcome himself.
Even though the disciples of the Jade Cloud Sect were worried, the presence of their sect leader at least gave them the feeling of security that their sect leader could still take on the fight even if Shen Qiao lost. Only Yue Kunchi knew very well that Zhao Chiying’s martial arts were already damaged due to her forcibly breaking out of the Closed Door Meditation. If Shen Qiao lost this battle, what awaited the Jade Cloud Sect would be the fate of submitting itself to the mercy of others.
But could Shen Qiao win?

He held back the restlessness inside him and refocused all of his attention onto the battle itself.
Kunye’s martial arts followed a wide-ranged, masculine and domineering style. As his blade came down, the formidable wind it brought stirred up an earthquake. The Blade Qi struck the ground, but those who were watching the fight felt like the earth was shaking together with it. Their ears buzzed with the sound of the blade
 cutting through the air. The sound was so shrill and hard to bear that those with weaker martial arts foundations were already covering their ears.
But if one were to think that Kunye’s lightness skill was bad because of these, then they couldn’t be more wrong.
They carried the battle from flat ground all the way to the cliff edge, then continued as they hung themselves against the cliff wall. Crushed stones splattered in all directions, and streams of inner qi darted around freely, dazzling people’s eyes. Compared to Kunye’s overbearing attacks, Shen Qiao’s moves appeared to be a little too gentle. His sword, just like himself, was mellow and lasting like a flower caressing one’s cheek or a spring breeze rubbing the willow branches. While its extreme purity and clearness very much resembled the nature of Daoism, it also lost the aggressive sharpness.
However, after the two exchanged over a hundred or so moves and Shen Qiao still showed no signs of being at a disadvantage, those who had been worrying about Shen Qiao finally realized that the situation was totally different from what they expected. If the power of Kunye’s blade resembled the unstoppable, rumbling thunders, then Shen Qiao’s sword, though it started out like an unremarkable trickling stream about to be stifled by the Blade Qi, continued uninterruptedly and gradually evolved in terms of intensity and scale. In the end, it was so majestic and seemed to tolerate everything around it just like an ocean accepting all rivers and their surging waves.
The more he fought, the more terrified Kunye became.

Back then on Half-Step Peak, he could only use eight layers of Blade Qi, but now he could do nine. His blade arts skill had definitely reached new heights, and he had confidence that even if Shen Qiao wasn’t injured in the first place, he could still take him on.
 The opponent in front of him appeared to be shallow and delicate like a clear puddle one could easily see through. However, when he put his hand in, he found out that he could not reach the bottom no matter what.
The puddle turned out to be a deep pool!

Like its name “Rainbow Shadow” suggested, this set of lightness skills from Mount Xuandu, when used looked as if a feather-like rainbow was stretching freely across the clear sky. The Grieving Celestial Sword left several traces of white Sword Qi on the steep cliff, as if someone was painting a freehand style art. However, if one were to look closely, the Sword Qi carved so deeply into the hard stone surface that if these marks appeared on a human body, then that person’s bones were probably exposed with their blood running all over the floor.
Looking from afar, the light and shadow of the weapons intersected and criss-crossed with each other, but the brutal Blade Qi wasn’t able to take any advantage.
Yue Kunchi breathed out a sigh of relief. He turned to his side and asked Zhao Chiying, “Junior Sister, do you agree that Daoist Priest Shen should be able to win this time?”
But Zhao Chiying replied with a headshake, “It’s not that easy. Did you realize that Kunye has already attained the ninth layer of Blade Qi? As an equivalent to the highest state of Sword Intent, this last layer is extremely overbearing indeed. Each strike can turn into a myriad of shadows, capable of destroying the invincible. But so far he has only used it once
—— that one attack which Daoist Priest Shen almost failed to shield.”
Yue Kunchi couldn’t help but let out a surprised gasp, his heart once again in his throat, “Is he trying to exhaust Daoist Priest Shen’s inner qi?”
 “That’s true. Daoist Priest Shen can’t compete with Kunye in terms of inner qi right now. The longer they fight, the more disadvantageous it is for him.”
Yue Kunchi started to feel a little anxious, “Then what should we do? Did Daoist Priest Shen not realize it? Is he just going to let Kunye have his way like this?”
Zhao Chiying didn’t say anything. She did not believe that Shen Qiao hadn’t figured out Kunye’s intention, but neither could she tell what Shen Qiao’s plan was.
Shen Qiao was also testing.

He was testing his own bottom line.

If The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang had the ability to rebuild one’s foundation and strengthen one’s muscles and bones, then, as a martial arts which had integrated the merits of the Three Schools, the Inner Qi it generated should also have the characteristics of each of the Three Schools.
Daoism claimed that the greatest virtue was like water, in which to strive for is the same as to not strive for. This coincided with his sword arts style, and because of their common origin, he had no problem using it.
Buddhism honored solemnity, which contained both the awe of its guardian deity’s terrifying gaze as well as the kindness one would find on Bodhisattvas. This was a rather abstruse depiction. The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang blended this concept into its inner qi. Its rigidity, together with the softness of Daoism, formed a harmonious balance of Yin and Yang. This made it possible for him to blend in a trace of indomitability into his flexible sword moves and also allowed him to switch his style freely between that of a gurgling stream and of a turbulent ocean.
 Confucianism, however, was more of a mixture. When Tao Hongjing wrote The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang, he took the benevolent and tolerant aspect of Confucianism and used it to integrate and adjust each school’s merits. When a practitioner exhausted their inner qi, their Dantian could produce more. Like spring coming upon a withered tree, such a steady flow of unlimited inner qi is capable of bringing one back to life.
Before, Shen Qiao had the inner qi from Mount Xuandu as his foundation, which actually slowed down his progress when he studied The Strategy of The Vermillion Yang later. Now that he had to learn everything from the beginning again, he was finally able to feel its wonder. It was indeed the most miraculous book in the world. In fact, most people probably didn’t know its real marvel when they fought for it.
What was even more intriguing was that Tao Hongjing probably had foreseen that it would be hard to keep a book in a world of chaos when he wrote it, and its content might not stay intact after he passed away. Therefore, even though the book had five volumes, each volume was a standalone. People would not lose the context when reading each by itself. If they could learn all of them, they would naturally attain the perfect state. But even if they only studied one or two volumes, their martial power would not be crippled —— it just might not have as obvious an effect.

Therefore, Shen Qiao was also using the battle to test the result of his many days of practice through Kunye. A person could never display the limit of their capabilities during friendly competitions. Only a life and death crisis could bring out their full potential and push them towards a new breakthrough.
The Way of martial arts was like rowing a boat upstream, to stop moving forward meant to fall back. Otherwise, people like Qi Fengge and Hulugu wouldn’t have to stubbornly choose to go forward at the risk of losing their honorable status and many years’ worth of martial
 power or even their lives.
The situation was extremely dangerous for Shen Qiao —— his Sword Qi was entirely suppressed by Kunye’s blade, and his inner qi was also running out. The speed of his attacks was significantly slower compared to that of before; even the power of Sword Qi was gradually weakening. It looked like he was going to lose in no time. Kunye swung his blade at him, and a frightening wave of inner qi suddenly burst out of it. Blade Qi turned into an inescapable net, surrounding Shen Qiao from all sides. It carried with it an imposing momentum, burning all plants, evaporating all rivers, and even killing all birds in its way, and in the end, it blew right at Shen Qiao’s face!

This was the ninth layer of Blade Qi that Kunye took pride in!

Surrounded by it, one could not imagine a second way to deal with such a bullying Blade Qi except to take it with brutal force. Kunye had indeed proven himself as a disciple of Hulugu. There were few in the world who could even survive this one blade-strike from him.
Concentrating all of his inner qi on the blade, he swung it down right at Shen Qiao’s head from midair in such a magnificent manner as if it was going to split even the stars!
Shiwu opened his eyes wide. He was staring so fixedly at the two people across the deep chasm that he even forgot to breathe.
He wanted Shen Qiao to win more than anyone else, but even a martial arts beginner like him could tell that the situation was unfavorable to Shen Qiao.
Above him was the boundless clear sky, and below him was the bottomless crevice. From Heaven to Earth, the dozen-meter high cliff he stood on was the only place he had. At this most critical moment, there was not even enough time for him to use lightness skill to flee. What should he do to hold back this all-out strike from his opponent?
 Zhao Chiying frowned. She couldn’t help reach out to cover Shiwu’s eyes. She didn’t want him to see his master’s blood splashing right before him.
Shiwu had already lost one master. He would not be able to take the blow of losing another one dear to him!
She regretted deeply inside. She should be the one fighting. If she had known this earlier, she would never agree to let Shen Qiao take her place. Seeing how confident Shen Qiao was, she thought he had a trump card against Kunye, but she never anticipated that the other person would really fight with their life and place himself in such a dangerous state!
The Blade Qi was quick like lightning. Within almost no time, it was already touching the end of his brows. But Shen Qiao’s breath suddenly slowed down. He closed his eyes. He didn’t choose to escape; instead, he raised his sword and moved towards it.
Feel first the world then oneself; forget first oneself then the world. Only by doing so, a person can forget both the world and themselves and then become truly unaffected by all ups and downs in life.

The Grieving Celestial Sword turned into a band of white Sword Light, and within the light, Shen Qiao’s figure was nowhere to be seen.
The assertive smile on Kunye’s lips suddenly froze. His Blade Qi could not advance any further!
Shen Qiao’s sword pierced straight through his Blade Qi and was striking right at his chest.
This was not right!

Kunye immediately turned around and swung the blade in his hand horizontally before him. Just as he expected, Shen Qiao appeared
 behind him, and the two strands of white Sword Intent turned back to suppress his Blade Qi.
This was impossible!

The thought flashed through Kunye’s head, but he didn’t have time to think deeply about it. Concentrating power on his feet, he leaped high into the air and, as he turned around, struck down at the cliff behind him. The rocks on the side of the mountain crumbled almost immediately with a deafening sound. Stones of various sizes started falling one after the other. He then jumped upwards again and landed directly on the top of the cliff.
He glanced down, but amidst the falling rocks, his opponent’s trace was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, an alarm rang in his head!
Kunye turned around and made another strike.

But this one didn’t land on his enemy. Instead, he felt a sharp pain on his back —— the other person was even faster than him and had obviously detected every move he intended.

It was impossible! Impossible!

He thought Shen Qiao had reached the state of Sword Intent, but this clearly wasn’t Sword Intent!
Wherever the sword was, it was also the place where the Way was. Knowing each other inside out, connected through flesh and soul
—— Shen Qiao and his sword were like two hearts sharing a common
beat.

Sword Heart!

It was Sword Heart!

Shen Qiao actually comprehended Sword Heart!
 After he discovered this terrifying fact, Kunye dashed forwards like hell. The pricking pain followed behind him like a shadow. It never stopped, as if it was tied to him by an invisible thread, and he was the puppet on the other end, unable to escape its control no matter what.
This felt absolutely terrible. Kunye had never felt so horrified even when he was chased by Yan Wushi. Yan Wushi was only after him to test his martial arts. Kunye knew it too, so he didn’t use all of his strength at that time. But now it was different. Since he had the intention to kill Shen Qiao, Shen Qiao could also kill him.
If both parties were giving it their all, then luck was out of the question.
Given enough time, this person would definitely become a great enemy of his!
But the future was too distant for Kunye. What he needed to do first was to escape.
He couldn’t help crying out loud, “I admit my defeat! I lost!
Don’t kill me!”

He could still sense the prickling pain, but it seemed to have suddenly been mitigated by a lot.
Kunye dared not let down his guard as words rushed from his mouth, “I have something to tell you! It’s about Yan Wushi! He has belittled and humiliated you so many times. Now that his time of death is close, don’t you want to kill him with your own hand?!”
The Sword Light swept past his hair and nailed the tree trunk in front of him, instantly splitting the latter into two parts across the middle.
Kunye felt a sharp prickling pain in his outer ear and his cheek. It
 must’ve been caused by the Sword Light. But if he hadn’t said those words just now, the tree trunk surely wouldn’t be the only thing it had cut through.
He ran out of strength and stopped. Using his blade as a stick, he leaned on the stone wall behind him and breathed heavily, not even caring to wipe away the bloodstain next to his mouth. He could almost hear the pounding of his own heart.
“I lost. You win.”

The last thing he could have expected was for Shen Qiao to reach the state of Sword Heart. At this moment, all he could think of was him escaping death and the lingering fear that came after it.
He also knew that once he admitted his defeat, someone like Shen Qiao who adhered strictly to martial ethics would never run him to earth and hit him when he was already down.
Qi Fengge and Hulugu would have done the same.

Kunye asked, “Have you ever heard of the Coiling Dragon Fair?”
Shen Qiao didn’t respond. Apparently he was waiting for the other to continue.
Kunye took a breath and said, “On September 9th, a grand gathering called the Coiling Dragon Fair will be held in the capital of Tuyuhun, Fuqi City. Merchants from all walks of life gather there every year, and there are almost always rare treasures being brought to the daylight and sold to whoever makes the highest offer. It is said that one of the auction items this year belonged to Yan Wushi’s mother.”
Shen Qiao frowned slightly.

As if he had sensed the other person’s doubts, Kunye sneered, “I
 heard from my senior martial brother that Yan Wushi’s original family name was Xie. He was said to be a descendant of the Xie Clan in the Chen Commandery.”
This clan started around Wei and Jin Dynasties. During that time, they and the Wang Clan were both top rich and powerful families in the world, and the most famous person among them all was Xie An. However, things changed as time passed, and old glories no longer shone. The Xie Clan had already declined greatly, but a lean camel was still bigger than a horse — — the family was still well-renowned in the southeast region.

It was the kind of prestige that was completely unrelated to the pugilistic world but purely built among scholars and in the Imperial Court.
But Shen Qiao was thinking one level deeper, “This information must be extremely secret. You spend most of your life on the prairie beyond the Great Wall and are not involved in the affairs in the Central Plains. How did you know about it? Unless… Someone else told you?”
“You’re right. Yan Wushi has made many enemies, and all of them will be satisfied with nothing short of Yan Wushi’s destruction. On September 9th, all talents will come together at Fuqi City. The five top martial experts in the world are closing in on Yan Wushi for the kill  —— even if his martial arts are unrivalled, it is impossible for him to escape from this siege. As someone who was  once  twisted  around  his little finger, you must be looking forward to going there and witnessing his death yourself, aren’t you?”
Shen Qiao suddenly said, “I finally understand.” “Understand what?”
Shen Qiao said, “Out of all countries, the Northern Zhou is
 most likely to unify the world. Yuwen Yong joined forces with Chen, and they attacked Qi with a crushing force. As Qi destruction is within sight, it leaves the next target of Zhou to be either Tujue or Chen. The Cleansing Moon Sect is assisting Yuwen Yong; therefore, in order to kill Yuwen Yong, you must kill Yan Wushi first. So you cooperated with the Linchuan Institute to kill Yan Wushi. With the Linchuan Institute’s huge influence in Southern Chen, they were also able to help you find out the identity and origin of  Yan Wushi.”
At this point, Kunye wasn’t going to cover it up anymore. “You got most of it right, except for one thing. The one who helped us find Yan Wushi’s background was not the Linchuan Institute. It was the Six Harmonies Association. I said earlier that Yan Wushi has made many enemies. Back then on that night in the Beyond Clouds Monastery, he straightly ruined Dou Yanshan’s good deal and destroyed The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang in front of everyone. How can Dou Yanshan not hate him?”
“Then what about the Linchuan Institute? Ruyan Kehu is wholeheartedly focused on restoring the Han nation’s legitimism. If such a plan can eliminate Yan Wushi and thus take away Yuwen Yong’s right-hand man, it would be impossible for him to just sit by and watch. Many months ago, he fought against Yan Wushi in the Chen Dynasty. It was to test Yan Wushi’s skills as well as to prepare for the action on September 9th.”
“That’s right.”

“But Ruyan Kehui was also injured, so he cannot attend the gathering on September 9th. Who else is coming besides Dou Yanshan and Duan Wenyang?”
“Your martial brother Yu Ai, the sect master of the Mirror
 of Arts Sect Guang Lingsan, and the former Great Preceptor of Zhou Zen Master Xueting.”
Every name he uttered was more frightening than the one before. But if one thought carefully, it all made sense.
Yu Ai had been collaborating with the Tujue people. When Duan Wenyang invited him, it was only natural for him to be happy to lend a hand. The three Demonic Sects were enemies with each other in the first place. Once they killed Yan Wushi, the Cleansing Moon Sect would be without a leader, and, with the Harmony Sect’s internal conflicts, the Mirror of Arts Sect would finally stand out, which was reasonable enough for Guang Lingsan to stay in. As for Zen Master Xueting, he was originally the Grand Preceptor of Zhou. After Yuwen Yong’s succession to the throne, he started persecuting Buddhism and even dismissed Xueting from his post. The status of Buddhism in Zhou suffered a devastating decline ever since. Whether it was for the sake of orthodoxy or “killing the devil”, Zen Master Xueting would also join them in the fight.
It was true that killing one with five didn’t sound very honorable for a martial arts grandmaster, but who would refuse if they could gain the utmost benefit out of it?
After a moment of silence, Shen Qiao asked, “How do you know that Yan Wushi will go? He might have gotten wind of it already.”
Kunye said, “My senior martial brother once said that people like Yan Wushi will go even if he knows it is a trap, because he believes too much in his own ability and is too proud. In his mind, even if he loses, he can still manage to leave without trouble. Things that are too rigid tend to break easily
—— isn’t this one of the favorite sayings of  you  Central Plains people?”
 Shen Qiao now completely understood. He sighed, “Ruyan Kehui fought against Yan Wushi on purpose. His intention was to lure out the flaw in Yan Wushi’s martial arts. Since Guang Lingsan is from the Demonic Sect, he must know how to kill Yan Wushi. So this time you all have come prepared and are determined to succeed.”
“That’s right. I know you also hate Yan Wushi to the core. It will be such a grand gathering. Even if you don’t participate yourself, how can you not come and have a look at least?”
However, as he was saying it with a smile, he suddenly raised the blade in his hand and swung it at Shen Qiao!
He knew Shen Qiao would be shaken by the news. A person’s defense was at its lowest when their mind wavered; therefore, he was certain that this stroke would succeed!

This person would surely become a huge pain to both him and Tujue. He could not let him live!
Kunye had already made up his mind as early as when he admitted his defeat. He poured all of his martial power into this move.
He would win, or he would perish!
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Chapter 52

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Even though Shen Qiao was able to attain the state of Sword Heart in a life and death moment, this new state was not yet stable. The fight with Kunye had also exhausted him both physically and mentally that he could hardly continue. Now as Kunye’s blade thrusted down from above, he only stood fixedly on the spot as if he was in a trance, his face pale, and could not react in time.
The other people were far from them. All they saw was that Shen Qiao, despite having the opportunity to kill Kunye, stopped after the latter cried out begging for mercy. The two said something, then Kunye caught a moment of Shen Qiao’s absentmindedness and suddenly attacked!
Shiwu couldn’t help scream, “Master! Watch out!”

Kunye’s breath grew heavier. He could almost hear his own heart thumping. This strike, if hit, could definitely crush Shen Qiao’s skull and kill him on the spot!
He didn’t think his behavior was dishonorable and unjust. Not only was he a martial artist, but he was also the Left Wise King of Tujue. Shen Qiao was against the collaboration between Tujue and Mount Xuandu. If he let Shen Qiao master Sword Heart, it would become a tremendous potential threat to both Tujue and Mount Xuandu. Therefore, he had to kill this threat while it was still in the cradle. He could not give it any chance to grow and expand!
All of these things happened in just a split second.

Earth-shattering Blade Qi pressed down from above. Shen Qiao
 stood in the exact same place, not moving at all. Perhaps he didn’t have time, perhaps he still hadn’t come back to himself, or perhaps he was stunned by the other person’s powerful offense. He didn’t even raise the sword in his hand. All he did was take three steps backwards.
It was only three steps in other people’s eyes, but for Kunye, these three steps were no different from a natural chasm. His blade actually missed because of it!
Shen Qiao finally struck.

Like a white halo piercing through the sun, the Sword Light penetrated the boundless curtain of Blade Qi and crashed straight into Kunye’s chest!
After missing his strike, Kunye’s body seemed to freeze as well as the expression on his face. He couldn’t move any further, his eyes gazing fixedly at Shen Qiao without blinking.
“How…” He finally uttered a word using all of his strength.

The Sword Light disappeared. Shen Qiao stood only inches away from Kunye. The two of them were so close that they seemed to be breathing into each other.
But the tip of the Grieving Celestial Sword had already pierced Kunye’s chest.
Shen Qiao’s face was just as pale as Kunye’s. If it wasn’t for the fact that his sword was still inside the other person’s body, he might look more like the defeated one.
“Because I’ve been keeping an eye on you all this time,” he said coldly. “You can’t put too much faith in the martial ethics of a person who poisons his opponent with Quietus.”
Shen Qiao said to him, “I am very disappointed in you. My
 master once said that Hulugu was  a  respectful  opponent. You, however, as his disciple, are not even one tenth of his character. You’re unworthy to be his disciple!”
Kunye opened his mouth as if he wanted to retort. But when Shen Qiao pulled out the sword in his hand, what rushed out of Kunye’s mouth was nothing but fresh blood.
Shen Qiao tapped lightly on the ground with his feet and slid out a few meters, dodging the blood gushing out of the other person’s heart when he pulled the tip of his sword out of Kunye’s body.
Kunye didn’t move at all. His breathing gradually faded, but his eyes were still wide-open. His body refused to collapse.
To remain firmly standing even after one’s death —— such a solemn and tragic scene shouldn’t appear on a person like him.

Holding the sword in his hand, Shen Qiao walked over and pushed him lightly.
Kunye fell straight down on his back and finally exhaled his last breath.
Shen Qiao stared at him, but there was no joy on his face.

This person was the start of all chaos on Mount Xuandu, and his invitation for a duel on Half-Step Peak was also the prologue to all of Shen Qiao’s setbacks and misfortunes.
Kunye was now dead, but everything was still far from coming to an end. Mount Xuandu could never return to its past peacefulness, and this world would inevitably witness another round of the flames of war.
Shiwu and the rest of the group all cheered after seeing Kunye fall down. But before their happiness could last any longer, they were once again terrified when they saw Shen Qiao: while supporting
 himself with the sword, he slowly fell onto his knees and spat out a mouthful of blood.
Shiwu’s lightness skill was not good enough for him to directly leap over the natural chasm lying between them. Just as he was worried sick, Zhao Chiying had already landed next to Shen Qiao. She took the other person by the arm, wrapped her other hand around Shen Qiao’s waist, then brought him back.
As they got closer, everyone finally realized how pale Shen Qiao’s face was. He only had half of his martial power left nowadays. Even though he was able to break into the state of Sword Heart at the last moment, the consequence of forcibly breaking the limit using all of his inner qi was a complete overload of his body. Spitting blood was but a natural result.
What was more serious than him spitting blood was that he could not even stand by himself. Most of his body weight fell on Zhao Chiying.
“I apologize for my manners…” Shen Qiao frowned, his voice too light to be heard.
“Daoist Priest Shen, you put your body and soul into saving the Jade Cloud Sect, while I, the sect leader, did nothing but watch on the side. I should be the one to apologize.”
After she finished, she simply bent down and carried Shen Qiao on her own back as they returned to the sect.
Yue Kunchi was speechless, “…”

He was thinking about offering to carry Shen Qiao himself, but before he could say it, his junior martial sister had already taken action. The words ended up stuck right in his throat — — he could neither swallow them nor spit them out. In the end, he could only stare at Zhao Chiying’s back in awkwardness.
 Shiwu followed them here and there like a little tail. He wasn’t able to help much, but it seemed like seeing Shen Qiao with his own eyes was the only thing that could set his mind at rest. However, Shen Qiao fell unconscious as soon as he was brought back by Zhao Chiying and could not be woken up no matter what. Even though Zhao Chiying told Shiwu it was because Shen Qiao had overused his martial power and needed time to recover, the boy still insisted on staying next to Shen Qiao and refused to leave for even a moment.
Shen Qiao slept for a really long time. Many grotesque people and things flashed across in his dreams, and when he finally woke up, he still looked a bit lost and in a trance.
“Master?” Shiwu anxiously waved before Shen Qiao’s eyes. Shen Qiao pulled the boy’s hand down and smiled, “I’m fine.”
Ever since he started practicing The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang again after his foundation was destroyed, he looked rather sickly. In addition to his eyes which hadn’t fully recovered yet, no one out there would believe he was actually a martial arts expert who
had already attained the state of Sword Heart —— a person who was
bedridden with a lingering disease would sound much more convincing.
As the actual person who saved him at death’s gate and brought him back to life, Shiwu had a deeper understanding of the condition of Shen Qiao’s injuries. He always had this deep down fear that Shen Qiao would collapse at any moment.
As if Shen Qiao had caught the boy’s mood, he gently stroked Shiwu’s head and asked, “Did Kunye die?”
Shiwu nodded, “He’s dead. Sect Leader Zhao confirmed it herself.”
Shen Qiao slowly let out a breath of relief.
 It had been almost a year since the battle on Half-Step Peak, but so many things had happened in between that when he looked back, it was like yesterday.
“Shiwu, if a person puts you in the hands of a malicious evildoer which eventually causes your foundation to collapse and your Daoist Core to be destroyed, will you hate him?”
Shiwu nodded, “I will.”

“Now this person is trapped in a dangerous situation. If you watch him die, it may lead to many other innocent people losing their homes or even their lives.  Will  you  choose  to save him?”
Shiwu frowned deeply, trying hard to think of an answer. This question was apparently too sophisticated and abstruse for a child his age. After all, the most tragic and complicated thing he had ever experienced so far was the death of Zhu Lengquan and Chuyi.
Shen Qiao laughed in spite of himself. He already had an answer in his mind, so why bother making things difficult for a child?
Shiwu sensed something. He looked up and asked, “Master, you’re going to save that person, aren’t  you? Is he  the one who caused you to almost lose your life?”
Shen Qiao didn’t try to hide it. He nodded, “Yes.”

“That cruel-hearted bastard doesn’t deserve to be saved!”
Shiwu said angrily.

Shen Qiao shook his head, “He’s not cruel-hearted. He just doesn’t have a heart for others. He treats everyone in this world equally heartlessly — — he’s not particularly kind to anyone. I didn’t understand this at first and thought I could melt even the hardest heart of ice. I am the one who sees him as a friend, and it is also my own wishful thinking that he
 should treat me the same.”

“If you think he is your friend, shouldn’t he feel the same?”

Shen Qiao smiled, “That is incorrect. There are many things in this world that even if you have spent time and effort on it, you still may not get anything in return. You  need  to  be aware of this before making your investment, otherwise, you will only hurt yourself.”
Shiwu felt that there seemed to be something deeper in Shen Qiao’s smile when he said it. But he could barely understand what these words meant, let alone getting to the content behind them.
“…So, are you going to head down the mountain to save that person?”
After a long period of silence, Shen Qiao said, “Yes.”

“I’m going with you!” Shiwu said without the slightest hesitation.
And that was the last thing he said to Shen Qiao while he was still conscious.
Zhao Chiying took over Shiwu from Shen Qiao’s arms —— the boy fell asleep immediately after Shen Qiao hit his sleep acupoint —— and heaved a sigh, “Is this really necessary?”

“Parting comes regardless of people’s reluctance. He’s still young. There are countless dangers awaiting me on this trip. I can’t have him come with me. He will understand after he wakes up. I here entrust Shiwu to you, Sect Leader  Zhao. Thank you for taking care of him.”
After he finished, he cupped his hands at Zhao Chiying and bowed
 deeply.

Zhao Chiying said, “Why do you insist on going knowing there will be dangers ahead? Yuwen Yong is not necessarily a wise ruler. No matter how the political situation in this world changes, how does it relate to us? With your capability and aptitude, if you focus on cultivating in the Jade Cloud Sect, even breaking through the Sword Heart state and apprehending Sword Spirit is just a matter of time.”
Shen Qiao gave a self-mocking smile, “There are certain things in this world that a person just has to do despite being aware that it may not be possible. The result is not often what one likes, but as long as there’s the slightest hope, I wouldn’t want to give up easily. Perhaps I’m just  an  innocent  and naive person.”
Zhao Chiying thought for quite some time and heaved a long sigh at the end, “You’re not naive. You know all the consequences that might happen, yet you still choose to proceed with no second thoughts. You always hold righteousness above everything else. I have to admit you’re better than me!”
Shen Qiao shook his head, “I’m not as great as you think. All I wish is to meet that person one more time, to see the disappointed look on his face and let him know that he didn’t succeed in planting the Demonic Core in me. Neither did I fall under its control — — I’m still me.”
He cupped his hands at her again and headed straight down the mountain without looking back.
During his stay at the Jade Cloud Sect, Shen Qiao had already taken off his casual clothes and changed back into the Daoist robe he always wore before. Now, with his hair fixed by a jade hairpin and his white Daoist robe fluttering in the wind, he looked like an immortal from afar, so gorgeous that one could hardly take their eyes off him.
 Zhao Chiying looked after him in silence and suddenly thought of two verses in a poem.
For the ideal that I hold dear to my heart, I’d not regret dying a thousand times.
ð ð

Chapter 53

ð ð
The path to Chiban is tortuous,

Even the official road spirals on endlessly. The cold wind seeps into my bones,
Even my flesh is covered in ice.
—— Excerpt from Shen Yue’s poem
It wasn’t the first time Shen Qiao visited Chang’an, and this time, his mindset was already different.
He entered the city alone. Even though he was carrying a sword and was wearing a Daoist robe, because of his sickly appearance, his bad eyes, and his slow gait, he didn’t look like someone from the pugilistic world at all. Rather, he resembled a traveling Daoist Priest who brought with him a random sword just to protect himself from the turmoil in the world. One could not feel the slightest threat from him.
The city was filled with talents from all over the world, just like how he remembered it. But this time, it appeared to be even more lively than before.
He asked around a bit more and finally learned that many of them were on their way to the Coiling Dragon Fair that was held in the capital of Tuyuhun, all because some trouble-lover had spread the news that The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang would appear in the fair this year. There were also rumors that the Tai’a Sword which was
 once a burial object of the First Emperor of Qin and later unearthed by the King of Western Chu would also be there.
It was no longer news that three of the remaining scripts of The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang were owned by Northern Zhou, the Tiantai Sect, and Mount Xuandu respectively. They were already claimed, but people had never given up trying to obtain them. However, to this day, no one was truly able to seize any of the three remaining scripts, so it was clear how difficult it must be that even ordinary martial arts experts could not do it. As for the one kept in the Tiantai Sect, not to mention other people, even grandmasters such as Yan Wushi and Ruyan Kehui might not be able to escape unscathed.
The remaining two volumes were scattered around the country, and no one knew where they were. The Six Harmonies Association obtained one of them. Originally, they intended to transport it to the south among other escorted goods, but Yan Wushi ruined the plan. The book was destroyed, and from then on, it no longer existed in this world.
Thus, if a volume of The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang really appeared at the Coiling Dragon Fair, then it would become the only ownerless one in this world. Obtaining this one would be much easier than searching all over the Tiantai Sect or Mount Xuandu or challenging the experts within the Imperial Palace of Zhou. How could a martial artist not covet it?
People were attracted by wealth, but for martial artists, the temptation of money was not even comparable to unrivalled martial arts skills. For example, Qi Fengge was able to freely roam the pugilistic world only because he was the number one martial artist in his time, and everyone had to yield to his whims and pleasures. How mighty he must have been! Wasn’t this what a man was born for?
As for the Tai’a Sword, it was once the national treasure of Chu and later fell into the hands of the Emperor of Qin. It was always believed
 to be the King’s Sword, therefore despite being a great weapon itself, it had way more symbolic meaning behind it than practical value. It was said that whoever seized the sword was going to rule the world, which made it almost comparable to that famous Heirloom Seal of the Realm. As a result, both Southern Chen and Northern Zhou paid extremely high attention to this year’s Coiling Dragon Fair and even sent their men to confirm the news.
No matter what kind of objectives they all had, one thing was certain: Shen Qiao was not going to be lonely on this trip.
Seeing that the inns were all packed, he decided to go on a little further and put up the night in the town outside the city.
To his surprise, outstanding men gathered here from all over the world —— not only did he see the disciples of major sects everywhere, but even those small sects that few people knew of had dispatched their forces one after another. While some of them were just here for the bustling scene and to open their minds, some also wanted to see if they could profit off these disturbances. All in all, as Shen Qiao kept on, the sky turned completely dark, but even the inns in the small town outside of Chang’an seemed to have been filled.
He stopped by a few and was informed by each one of them that even the storage rooms had been taken. A sense of helplessness grew inside him. His bad eyes made it very inconvenient to camp in a field: he could still make out blurry outlines of everything during the day, but at night, he was no different from being completely blind. How ironic. The trip all the way from Mount Tai had been so smooth while a big city like Chang’an was causing problems for him.

“We apologize, Daoist Priest, but we’re currently fully booked. Even the firewood storage has been taken. There’s really nothing I can do to get you another room!” The servant at the inn smiled at him bitterly, twisting his hands in awkwardness.
Just as Shen Qiao was about to ask again, he heard a sweet,
 delicate voice next to him, “I reserved a premium room. It’s quite spacious. You’re welcome to share a bed with me if you don’t mind.”
The lobby was packed with people. Those who were close to them, after seeing that an astounding beauty was giving the glad eye to a sickly priest were almost instantly offended.
Someone teased, “If this young lady feels lonely, you should at least find someone stronger. This priest looks like he can be blown away by the wind. Are you sure he can fill your need?”
People immediately started laughing on the side.

The beauty smiled sweetly, “But I am fond of handsome priests like him, not dirty-minded guys!”
As soon as she finished, the person who had been teasing her screamed. More than half of his hair was missing without him even noticing how. He felt with his hand and was too shocked to speak.
The beautiful girl laughed, “I’m in a very good mood today because I get to meet an old friend. I don’t want to see blood. You guys should really try your best to behave. Just in case my friend refuses to talk to me, then you’re out of luck.”
While they were still talking, Shen Qiao had already left the tavern.

“Who the hell are you?!” The person who just lost half of his hair shouted, threatening in manner but cowardly at heart.
But the girl disdained to deal with them anymore. She moved, leaving them nothing but a fragrant scent at the place she once stood.
“My name is Little Peony. Don’t you think it’s a lovely name?”
 Her voice was still lingering in their ears. They looked at each other, all of their faces changing in anger, “Bai Rong from the Harmony Sect?! Why did this wicked woman come too?!”
Bai Rong left the inn. Seeing that the person in front of her had already become a distant silhouette, she gritted her teeth and used her lightness skill to catch up, shouting, “Shen Qiao! Stop!”
Perhaps he had heard her, and the silhouette finally stopped.

Shen Qiao turned around and sighed lightly, “What can I do for you?”
Having grown up in the Harmony Sect, Bai Rong had seen the most vicious mind and the most filthy look possible for a human being. She thought her heart must have turned into stone a long time ago, incapable of being moved by anything anymore. But at this moment, when she saw how compelled and unwilling Shen Qiao was to see her, a strong sense of grievance rushed to her head.
“Priest Shen, you sure turn a cold shoulder on people fast. Back then when you were hiding in the White Dragon Monastery, we went searching for you under my master’s order. If I hadn’t bought time for you, you wouldn’t be standing here today. Is this how you repay me? With this attitude?”
Seeing that Shen Qiao didn’t respond, she couldn’t help but let out a sneer, “Don’t tell me you’ve counted the deaths of those two Daoist priests on me as well. The Elder in my sect was standing on the side, and Xiao Se was also glaring at me, ready to catch my mistakes. Are you asking me to risk myself for two strangers?”
Shen Qiao shook his head, “I need to thank you for what happened that day, but Brother Zhu and Chuyi are also dead. This is a crime done by the Harmony Sect. A wrong has its
 source. I will ask them to pay for it sooner or later. Many things are already irrevocable, and it would be meaningless to argue over whose fault it is now.”
Bai Rong bit her lower lip. After a moment of silence, she said, “I heard you wanted to take down my master with you at the risk of losing all of your martial arts, and were severely injured by him to the point that you almost died. You…are you feeling better now?”
“I’m okay. Thank you for asking.”

“Master was also injured pretty badly. He was worried that Yuan Xiuxiu would take the opportunity to get rid of him completely, so he found himself a secret place to recuperate. No one knows where he is.”
“Not even you?”

Bai Rong smiled bitterly, “Why? Don’t tell me you really think he trusts me.”
Shen Qiao knew she was probably feigning that expression just to make him sympathize with her, but he still didn’t have the heart to make any harsh remarks.
Bai Rong said softly, “I know you want to find my master and get revenge. Even if I know where he is, I won’t tell you, let alone that I don’t. The current you is far from being his match. I can’t watch you throw away your life like that.”
Shen Qiao nodded, “Thank you for letting me know, but  I have no plans to look for him for now.”
“Then who’re you looking for? Are you going to the Coiling Dragon Fair in the royal capital of Tuyuhun? Do you want to save Yan Wushi?”
 She had always been exceptionally smart and guessed Shen Qiao’s purpose in coming in no time.
Seeing that Shen Qiao did not answer, Bai Rong sighed, “Mister Shen, do you have any idea what you’re doing? It’s true that Yan Wushi’s martial arts has reached the apex, and few people in this world are his match. But even an immortal will not be able to survive the joint attack of those five martial experts. He has treated you like that. How can you just forgive him? Even a cat or a dog remembers those who harm them and dare not come near them the next time, let alone people. Do you really love him that much?”
Shen Qiao frowned, “Do I have to love him in order to save him?”
“If you don’t, then why bother risking your own life? There’s no way you can hold off five enemies all by yourself, however strong you might be. You can’t do it,  Yan  Wushi can’t do it, my master can’t do it, even if Qi Fengge comes back to life, he won’t be able to do it! The Coiling Dragon Fair is on September 9th, but the ambush is on the 8th. Today is already the 5th. Even if you hurry now, you still won’t make it on time!”
Shen Qiao remained silent. Even her always-smiling face showed a rare trace of anger. “I just don’t want to see you throw away your own life! Do you really not understand?”
Bai Rong liked him. Shen Qiao was not a piece of wood. He felt it.
For someone like Bai Rong who by nature only did things that benefitted herself, she would never risk her life or betray her sect simply because she liked Shen Qiao. She wouldn’t even disobey her master for his sake. She was willing to offer Shen Qiao a little convenience and a little help when capable, without harming her own interests —— this was already a very rare thing for her to do.
 But she didn’t understand Shen Qiao, and neither did Shen Qiao intend to explain any further. He didn’t want Bai Rong to mistake his attitude. It would be better for her if he drew a clear line between them from the very beginning.
“Thank you very much for your advice, but I have to go.” He stared at Bai Rong. “The Harmony Sect may be a dangerous or even cannibalistic place in other’s eyes, but you  seem  to enjoy it like a fish in water.”
“After all, you scorn wicked women like me. That’s it.”

Shen Qiao shook his head, “You misunderstood what I meant. I know you will not be content with being just an ordinary disciple in the Harmony Sect. I have no right to tell you what to do. All I hope is for you to take good care of yourself and not become someone like Huo Xijing and Sang Jingxing. You’re different from them.”
‘You’re different from them.’ Bai Rong felt a lump in her throat, but she didn’t show it on her face. She quickly replied with a sweet smile, “Then why don’t you stay with me? That way you can keep an eye on me and make sure I don’t become like them!”
“I’m sorry.” That was all he said before he turned around and left.
Bai Rong stomped her feet and shouted, “Shen Qiao!”

However, using the Rainbow Shadow, Shen Qiao glided across the sky like a bird, not even stirring up any dust. In the blink of an eye, he was already meters away, his robe fluttering in the wind, until he finally disappeared without turning back.
September 8th. At Fuqi City, the royal capital of Tuyuhun.
 The Western Regions always had more sandstorms than rain, but this year had been a little unusual. It had been raining non-stop for days since fall. Even the surface of the royal castle, which was covered in dust all year round, seemed to have gained a new shine.
Under the influence of the Central Plains culture, the nobility and aristocrats in Tuyuhun all spoke and wrote using the Han Chinese language; even the Han style clothes were a popular trend. With the Coiling Dragon Fair opening in a few days, many Central Plains people also gathered inside the city. At first glance, it almost felt like one was back in Chang’an.
Outside the city, there was a pavilion called the Yin-Yang Pavillion. The date which it was built was no longer known, but the name came from its location: the pavilion was sitting between the mountain on the left and the body of water on the right —— dividing Yin from Yang one might say.

For most of its parts, the pavilion was built intimating the Central Plains style. Only in fine places like cornice and eaves one might occasionally spot that exotic taste. After so many years, even the majority of the three characters “Yin-Yang Pavillion” had peeled off, revealing the original wooden lustre underneath the black paint.
Yan Wushi stood in the pavilion with his hands clasped behind him.
No one knew how long he had been there.

He was staring out of the pavilion with a rather relaxed posture, almost as if he was waiting for someone or simply enjoying the rain.
Far away, a person’s image appeared among the moist grass and woods.
He was wearing a black kasaya. There was not a single hair on his head. His face was extremely pretty; however, one could not help but notice a glimpse of marks left by age at the corner of his eyes. He was approaching slowly while holding an umbrella in one hand.
 “May the lord Buddha preserve us. I hope you’ve been well since we last met, Sect Master Yan?”
He sounded like he was having a casual conversation, but his voice was so clear in people’s ears that it was not at all diminished by the distance between them.
Yan Wushi answered coldly, “You haven’t grown a single hair since we last parted at the Beyond Cloud Monastery, an obvious sign of how much you have been worrying and how vexing life must have been. Is living as an  ordinary  monk really that difficult for you?”
Xueting sensed the acrimony and sarcasm in his tone. He forced a smile, “Sect Master Yan’s words are just as unforgiving as usual!”
“I have an appointment with Duan Wenyang. Why did you show up? Don’t tell me that the former Grand Preceptor of Zhou has self-degraded himself to the extent of colluding with the Tujue people.”
Zen Master Xueting said, “Sect Master Yan’s reappearance in the pugilistic world has brought a reign of terror over the land, ruining everyone’s peaceful life. In my humble opinion, it’s better for you to find a place and focus on your martial arts enlightenment so as not to commit more murders in your hands.”
Yan Wushi burst into loud laughter, “I’ve always hated you bald donkey, you’re so full of your Buddhist doctrines. But today you’ve been smart, not spouting that nonsense and getting straight to the point. Good!”
Zen Master Xueting looked down, “Buddha can be forgiving and advises people to act kindly. ‘Put down the butcher’s knife, and one becomes a Buddha,’ they say. But for those
 that’re unrepentant, he can also exert the power of lightning and thunder. What’s the use of lecturing people like Sect Master Yan about the Buddha’s teachings? There’s no other choice than to subdue you through forceful means, to stop killing by killing.”
“Let me guess the reason why you and  Duan  Wenyang agreed to ambush me together. Yuwen Yong refuses to give the Buddhist sects any political importance, so you sent your men to infiltrate Tujue. Day after day, even the Taspar Khan became a Buddhist. However, the Tujue people are ruthless by nature, and the influence of Buddhism remains limited. You’re left with no choice but to turn your attention back to the Northern Zhou.”
“Yuwen Yong is very conscious about the Buddhist sects. Even if you wipe out the Cleansing Moon Sect, he still won’t put the Buddhist sects in an important position. Therefore, the best option is to kill me first, then Yuwen Yong, and make the crown prince Yuwen Yun the emperor. Unlike his father, Yuwen Yun is very fond of Buddhism —— I must say that your years of lobbying efforts weren’t wasted completely at least. As soon as he gains power, the Buddhist sects can once again resume their former glory in Northern Zhou.”
“May the lord Buddha preserve us. Yuwen Yong  has  too much blood on his hands. A wise ruler should never exploit the people and drain the treasury like this. His declaration of war towards Qi is so much more taxing on the mind and body of every citizen that it’s just a matter of time before it overwhelms them.”
Yan Wushi showed quite some interest, “Are you saying that the crown prince Yuwen Yun is the true wise ruler?”
Zen Master Xueting only replied, “The crown prince has a deep root in Buddhism. His clear heart is evidence of his fated
 affinity with the Buddha.”

Yan Wushi slowly pulled a smile, “Given what Yuwen Yun was like, it must take you some efforts to lie through your teeth like that. If all you want to do is to kill me, then bring it on! Where’s Duan Wenyang? Tell him to come out!”
As he finished, clear, bright laughter rang in the air, “Sect Master Yan is just as haughty as usual. Have you never thought of the possibility that today will become your death day?”
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Chapter 54

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Yan Wushi sneered, “You, old bald donkey, are praised as one of the top three martial arts experts, yet you still need Duan Wenyang’s help to kill me. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”
Zen Master Xueting’s expression remained indifferent. “My reputation and self-respect don’t matter as long as Sect Master Yan dies here today. You cling too much to the external appearances. Maybe you should focus more on the essence.”
Yan Wushi burst into laughter, “If you need an assistant from Tujue, why don’t you just conjure Hulugu’s spirit? What can Duan Wenyang do to me?”
“There’s no need to be overly confident about yourself. When you end up losing your life here today, it will only bring shame to yourself even in hell.”
The person’s movements were not at all slowed down by the talking. In just a split second, the shadows of his whip had already covered the entire sky, blocking all of Yan Wushi’s escape routes above.
Duan Wenyang’s old whip was destroyed in the fight with Li Qingyu and Shen Qiao. The one he was holding right now was a newly made one named, “Ten Miles of Red”. The efforts put into making it wasn’t any less than what was spent on that old one —— in fact, this one was perhaps even more flexible. Under the movement of his wrist and his changing body positions, the whip created a myriad of dazzling phantoms, making others perplexed.
 His martial power had apparently improved significantly since their last encounter at the Residence of Su.
A man would continue to improve as long as he was neither stupid nor content with being just ordinary —— their enemies alike.
Duan Wenyang’s whip followed a strange and changeful style with some western bladearts techniques mixed into it. As a combination of both, it appeared so vast and boundless like a never-ending sandstorm blowing straight into people’s faces, drowning them in desperation until they lost all will to fight.
But his opponent was Yan Wushi.

Yan Wushi had no weapon in his hand. He put two fingers together as his “sword” and moved casually between two of the greatest martial experts of their generation. All flower petals and dead leaves turned into thousands of sharp blades under the manipulation of his inner qi, nullifying all of Duan Wenyang’s attacks in an instant.
Xueting didn’t show much expression. In fact, he looked more like a god than those Buddha statues in temples. There was neither displeasure nor fondness on his face, as if he was never affected by the external world.
Even after he saw Duan Wenyang suffer a setback, he didn’t show any surprise or concern. He formed a print with both hands, then slowly pushed them forward. The condensation of inner qi had given the tips of his fingers, which were already exceptionally pale, a faint, almost crystal-like glow. Even his face appeared to be covered by a thin layer of moonlight, making him look as handsome as a jade statue.
The “Acala Prints” had a total of six stances. He had just used three in a row, yet they were proven ineffective on Yan Wushi. Right now, he was forming the fourth and the fifth ones —— the “Immovable Mountain” and the “Serene Smile”.
 The former was a defensive move used in place of an attack, while the latter countered the strong with softness. The complicated and changeful prints turned into something extremely beautiful and pleasing in his hands, making people lower their guards subconsciously.
When he released the “Immovable Mountain”, everyone heard their ears ringing, and their heads blanked momentarily. Even the whip in Duan Wenyang’s hand paused for a second. However, Yan Wushi wasn’t affected by it at all —— the man even sneered. Completely ignoring the flower-like print that Xueting had just released was approaching him from behind, his hand reached out for Duan Wenyang’s whip. As if the invisible curtain weaved by layers upon layers of whip shadows was nonexistent, he caught the other person’s whip with his bare hand just like that! He pulled it towards himself and, with a quick twist, he turned around and redirected all of Duan Wenyang’s inner qi back to Zen Master Xueting!

Xueting tapped the ground with his feet and slid several meters back. Despite having to fight two people by himself, Yan Wushi did not retreat but chased immediately after him. For a brief moment, they stood face to face as their palms clapped.
The strong finally met the strong. The inner qi from two grandmaster-level martial experts clashed on a narrow path, and the power it created was terrifying. With a deafening bang, a vortex formed around the two people as if it was going to engulf the entire world. Duan Wenyang felt strong turbulence hitting him right in the face. He had to withdraw his whip and take five or six steps back before he could escape its dreadful impact.
But the two people at the center of the storm remained perfectly still. The debris under their feet was carried up by the inner qi and swirled freely over the sky.
Xueting stared at Yan Wushi fixedly, his face completely emotionless. A strong feeling suddenly welled up inside him: if he
 could not kill the other person today, he might not ever have the chance to do so!
Xueting also had the pride of a grandmaster. If the situation allowed, he would rather have an open and fair duel with Yan Wushi all by himself. But he was also responsible for the revival of the Buddhist sects, with Yan Wushi being his biggest obstacle. Only by eliminating Yan Wushi could the Buddhist sects regain their prior status in Northern Zhou. He could not afford to lose this fight. He must win!
Yan Wushi suddenly smiled at him. The smile was inexplicably strange. Xueting couldn’t help but slightly frown.
The next moment, Yan Wushi stopped fighting him. He turned around and threw himself at Duan Wenyang.
At the same time, Duan Wenyang had just raised the “Ten Miles of Red” high above him and was going to swing it at Yan Wushi’s head.
This whip carried the weight of a thousand tons. Because he had exerted all of his inner qi onto it, the whip became a band of bright light.
But he didn’t expect Yan Wushi to suddenly abandon Xueting and start walking towards him.
Walking, indeed. Or casually strolling to be more precise. However, with just a few steps, he was already in front of Duan Wenyang. He lifted his hand, reaching toward that band of white light.
It was a weird move. His hand seemed very slow, but it accurately captured the trace behind those whip shadows —— Yan Wushi caught the “Ten Miles of Soft Red” just like that, without even a scratch on his hand.

The look on Duan Wenyang’s face changed. Before he could react,
 the other person had already pulled his fingers together, and the whip which had cost Duan Wenyang quite some thoughts to make crumbled under the force of the grip!
“Hasn’t your master taught you that all weapons are meaningless before an absolute expert?”
Yan Wushi’s lips curved into a cruel smile. As he was talking, his hand was already following the whip’s cracks and sliding towards Duan Wenyang’s arm.
An ordinary person would probably be caught by him, but Duan Wenyang was not ordinary. He didn’t waste more time mourning the loss of his whip. The moment the whip was destroyed, he had already released his hand while striking the other one towards Yan Wushi’s chest.
Zen Master Xueting’s attack arrived at the same time. The “Acala Prints” had already reached the middle of Yan Wushi’s back. Despite the fact that Xueting had initiated it after Duan Wenyang, his palm was somehow even faster than the latter’s!
Yan Wushi didn’t move his feet, but his body had already disappeared in front of Duan Wenyang. The latter knew it was probably just a diversionary trick. It was not possible for a person to suddenly vanish so completely without leaving even an afterimage. He didn’t slow down his attack at all.
But his hand indeed missed!

How could there be a lightness so fast? Duan Wenyang couldn’t believe it.
On the other side, Yan Wushi and Xueting’s hands clapped for the second time.
This time, the force it created was even stronger. Shaken by their
 inner qi, the trees near them shuddered so violently that they were almost falling to the ground, their trunks cracking at a speed visible to the naked eye.
This time, both Yan Wushi and Xueting took three steps backwards. Is this man a monster?!
Such a thought suddenly flashed across Duan Wenyang’s mind after he saw the man’s skill and the fight between the two.
He always flaunted himself as being exceptionally gifted, that even his master Hulugu couldn’t have done any better at his age. However, ever since he encountered the monster-like Yan Wushi, he had experienced nothing but setbacks. Back then when he first heard how his martial brother Kunye ended up all battered and exhausted from being chased around by Yan Wushi, he had sneered at the other guy’s incompetence. But now it looked like he wasn’t any better than him.
Was having three top-level grandmasters working together, including Zen Master Xueting who was said to be one of the best three in the world, still not enough to kill Yan Wushi?!
“The move he just used is called Shadow Shifter. One who masters it can reach the state where even the horizon seems just a foot’s distance away. He may appear to be right next to you, while in fact, he has never approached you. His focus has always been on that monk Xueting. Don’t be confused by him.”
A voice sounded next to Duan Wenyang’s ears. The other person had concentrated the sound into a narrow beam so only he could hear it, but Duan Wenyang was no stranger to that voice.
As soon as the voice drifted off, a sword suddenly appeared on Yan Wushi’s left.
 Together with the sword came a few isolated zither notes.

The dense purple sword light roamed around in the air, acting in perfect harmony with the sound of the zither. The sound, using the zither as a medium and taking the opportunity that Yan Wushi was completely focused on fighting Xueting, broke right through the inner qi which Yan Wushi had cautiously constructed to protect his body. Having originated from the same source, the shared foundation of their demonic martial arts allowed it to quickly find the other person’s hidden weakness.
The instant the weakness was revealed, the sword light came just in time, tearing the space and aiming right at Yan Wushi!
“The Fundamentals of Phoenix-Qilin has a flaw. The better one gets, the more fatal this flaw becomes. Yan Wushi has already reached the ninth stage, and this flaw is exactly what’s keeping him from perfecting it. If we want to kill him, now is the time!”
Guang Lingsan’s voice sounded loud and clear, but no one saw where the person was. Maybe he had arrived a long time ago and had been hiding all this time, waiting for the right time so the enchanting effect of his zither could be maximized.
Out of everyone present, if there was one person who had the right to comment on Yan Wushi’s martial arts, it had to be the sect leader of the Mirror of Arts Sect who was also a member of the Demonic sects just like him.
The purple sword light darted forth unstoppably and pierced right through Yan Wushi’s clothes. His back was instantly soaked in blood.
Yan Wushi humphed, “A bunch of useless people. I’m tired of playing with you all!”
He turned around and pushed away Yu Ai’s sword. The Saintly
 Principle Sword swung slightly to the side but still managed to charge towards Yan Wushi.
The zither melody suddenly turned from subduing to enthusiastic! Guang Lingsan shouted, “There’s the weak point of his
Demonic Core!”

Before he finished the last word, another person appeared from the other direction, greeting Yan Wushi with his fierce strike!
At the same time, Zen Master Xueting’s hands were busy forming the last seal, the final stance of the “Acala Prints” —— Fire of Karma!

The fire was like a vast, boundless sea of red lotuses, and the raging flames were its tides, ready to burn all the absurdity in this world.
Yan Wushi’s meticulous, perfect inner qi finally showed a small slit.

The fire permeated it slowly, gradually expanding the cracks. In the end, it suddenly tore it apart and went straight for the Demonic Core, pulling it up by the roots!
In the next second, five fine, slender fingers stamped right on Yan Wushi’s chest.
A trace of blood came out of the latter’s mouth.

But his expression also turned ferocious. He flung his sleeve towards Xueting. The powerful inner qi rushing out of it forced the latter to dodge. Xueting leaped half a step back.
This half a step was all Yan Wushi needed. He turned around, grabbed the sword which was still buried inside his body and gave it a hard twist. Just like when he smashed Duan Wenyang’s whip, the Saintly Principle Sword immediately shattered to pieces! Yan Wushi
 curled his fingers into a claw shape and went straight for Yu Ai’s face. Within a mere instant, the two of them had already exchanged a few dozen moves. Right at this moment, however, Dou Yanshan happened to strike another palm, and it successfully hit the unguarded spot on Yan Wushi’s back.
I got him!

Dou Yanshan didn’t think it would work and was delightfully surprised by this sudden turn of events. He had used all of his martial power on that attack. There was no way Yan Wushi could come out safe and sound after taking a firm hit like this.
Having the strikes from Zen Master Xueting and Dou Yanshan lay the cornerstone greatly reduced the pressure on Duan Wenyang and Yu Ai’s side.
Even though Guang Lingsan never showed his face, the contribution of his zither could not go unnoticed. In fact, he was the one who discovered Yan Wushi’s weak point that was left by the qi deviation after the man’s last fight with Ruyan Kehui, and it was this discovery that allowed them to directly nail Yan Wushi’s core.
Seeing that Xueting didn’t follow up with the initial success but only watched from the side, Dou Yanshan stopped too and asked, “Master, why did you stop?”
Xueting replied, “Yan Wushi and I each have our own political stands, but there’s no personal grudge between us. This ambush is a must, but it is against my own will. No matter what, a rival like him deserves respect, not death in such a place.”
Dou Yanshan sneered in his head. He thought to himself, ‘If you’re as noble and virtuous as you claim to be, then you shouldn’t participate in this at all.’ But he didn’t show any of it on his face and only admired him with a smile, “Master, you really show the
 demeanor of a true expert!”

Xueting seemed to know what was passing in the other person’s mind. He replied coldly, “Chairman Dou should know this: even if we kill Yan Wushi, you still can’t get back that piece of the script he destroyed.”
Dou Yanshan chuckled, “Yan Wushi has stirred up trouble for the entire world. His death will probably bring  everything back to peace, and the Buddhist sects can thrive once again. Speaking of which, I still need to congratulate you for it!”
While they were talking, Yan Wushi was hit by another palm. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to leave, but because his weak point had already been revealed, his mind was now hampered by the sound of the zither. The two hits he had taken earlier also inflicted internal injuries, causing his martial power to decrease drastically. Now, under Yu Ai and Duan Wenyang’s pressing moves, his defensive inner qi finally collapsed, and another two more palms hit his body.
Of course, Yu Ai and Duan Wenyang weren’t doing much better. One of them broke his sword and had taken three strikes on the chest. He took a few heavy steps backwards, his face ghastly pale, and finally collapsed onto the ground. The other one lost his whip and was also internally injured with some broken ribs as he spat out several mouthfuls of blood.
Surprisingly, with a situation like this, Yan Wushi still had enough strength to escape. His body turned into a series of afterimages. The look on Dou Yanshan and Guang Lingsan’s faces changed simultaneously, but it was already too late for them to stop him.
At the same time, Xueting disappeared from where he was. He pushed his lightness skill to its best and stopped Yan Wushi midway. The “Acala Prints” forced Yan Wushi to take the enemy head-on, and as a result, he lost the final chance to escape. However, Xueting had retreated more than five steps this time. His face suddenly
 turned extremely red then extremely pale the next second —— he was forcing himself to swallow back the blood welling up to his mouth.
Yan Wushi burst out laughing.

But the laughter stopped abruptly as he spouted a mouthful of blood.
Dou Yanshan quickly moved in, striking a hand right at the Baihui Acupoint on the top of Yan Wushi’s head!
Yan Wushi finally fell to the ground.

Zen Master Xueting frowned. In the end, he decided not to say anything.
He watched as Yan Wushi’s eyes slowly closed, chanted the Buddha’s name one more time, put his hands together and bowed. Then he turned around and left without another glance.
Yu Ai and Duan Wenyang were both seriously injured. Seeing that Yan Wushi had no way to survive, they also left one after the other to treat their wounds.
Dou Yanshan lowered his body and examined the corpse carefully. After confirming that the other person had indeed stopped breathing, a smile finally appeared on his face. He said to Guang Lingsan who had just walked out holding a zither in his arms, “Congratulations, Sect Master Guang! The day for you to unify the Three Sects is just around the corner.”
“Thank you for your kind words. Are you certain that Yan Wushi is dead?”
“Of course, my hand just crashed his skull, plus his internal organs are probably ruptured and still bleeding  from  the many strikes he took earlier. There’s no way he can live.”
 Guan Lingsan smiled, “There is one set of martial arts practiced among the Demonic sects called the  Nether.  It allows one to sacrifice their own health and enter a state similar to a feigned death before they completely lose the opportunity to live, thus preserving a slim chance of survival. The only problem is that one has to suffer extreme pain while practicing it, and it isn’t very useful during normal times, therefore few are willing to learn it.”
Dou Yanshan asked, “Are you worried that Yan Wushi may have also practiced such martial arts?”
“The main action has already been taken. There’s no harm in being more careful with the cleanup.”
He walked towards Yan Wushi and reached for the latter’s wrist. A sheathed sword stopped him.
The body of the sword was so simple to the point of being almost crude. There was nothing extraordinary about it, except the four seal characters engraved next to the hilt —— “ Grieving Celestial
Sword”.

Guang Lingsan’s expression changed. He didn’t even know when the person appeared.
“He may have made many enemies when he was alive, but he’s still a grandmaster of his generation. The dead deserve the greatest reverence. Isn’t your action a little inappropriate to a respected opponent?”
Dou Yanshan squinted his eyes and announced the arriver’s name, pausing after each syllable.
“Shen. Qiao.”
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Chapter 55

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Shen Qiao nodded at them, “How are you doing?”

After the initial shock, Guang Lingsan quickly calmed back down. He looked at Shen Qiao carefully. “I heard that Daoist Priest Shen had a fight with Sang Jingxing and you injured him quite badly. It’s surprising to see how you have recovered so fast. I’m glad for you!”
No other person was present during that fight, and since Sang Jingxing was seriously wounded by Shen Qiao, he wouldn’t have gone around broadcasting it. But Guang Lingsan who was also a member of the Demonic sects had his own ways of obtaining news not known to others.
Dou Yanshan couldn’t help but also find it astonishing. He reevaluated Shen Qiao’s strength in his mind.
Shen Qiao shook his head, “Can’t say that I’ve completely recovered yet.”
Ironically, not many believed what he just said was actually true. Even though martial arts focused a lot on the concept of diligence, every sect had their own esoteric secrets. Who knew if Qi Fengge hadn’t taught him some powerful martial skills?!
Guang Lingsan smiled, “The others might not know  much about this, but I’ve heard about how Sect Master Yan treated you in the past. I even heard that he was the one who forced you to fight with Sang Jingxing in the first place.”
 “Yes.”

“He treats you just as coldly and heartlessly as he treats anyone else.”
“Yes.”

“I’m sure you didn’t come all the way here just to bury his dead body. You’re here to save him, but  unfortunately, you’re too late.”
Shen Qiao answered every one of his questions, “Yes.”

Guang Lingsan finally showed a sign of surprise, “What do you see in Yan Wushi that makes you willing to do so much for him? Is it really like what the rumor says, that you have a more intimate relationship with him?”
Shen Qiao sounded almost indifferent, “I’m not saving him because of personal relationships. I’m doing it for the greater good.”
Dou Yanshan couldn’t hold back the funny look on his face. He burst out laughing, “This is the first time I’ve heard someone put Yan Wushi’s name next to ‘the greater good’! Are you saying that the world will be in a worse state if Yan Wushi dies?”
Shen Qiao said, “Yan Wushi is not a good person, but since he works for the Emperor of Zhou, he can be counted as one of Zhou’s supporters. You all have your own  reasons  for killing him, but don’t they all have something to do with this after all? His support for the current Emperor of Zhou conflicts with your interests, and therefore  you  must eliminate him first. But I believe Yuwen Yong is the  only person who is able to put an end to this chaos. This is where we disagree.”
 Dou Yanshan shook his head, “Shen Qiao, you’re a member of the Han ethnicity, yet you deliberately put your loyalty in a Xianbei person. No wonder Mount Xuandu thinks you are inadequate to be their sect leader.”
Shen Qiao replied with a smile, “It only tells me that Chairman Dou has never experienced what it is like to be on the opposite side of everyone else. As long as I believe this is worth doing, Why should I care about how other people see me or what they may think of me? Your family, your friends, those who truly like you and have your best interests in mind will definitely understand you one day.”
Guang Lingsan said, “Since Yan Wushi is already dead, how we plan to handle his dead body should not concern you. There’s no reason for you to stop us.”
Shen Qiao frowned. “When a person dies, they leave nothing behind, just like a flame having burnt its last. No matter what happened, he is still a martial arts expert of this generation after all. As an acquaintance of his, I wish to collect and bury his remains, and I hope you would allow me the opportunity.”
Guang Lingsan shook his head, “We put so much effort into killing him. Of course, we’d like to confirm that he is as dead as a doornail and will never come back to life. Let me cut off his head first, then you may bury his body.”
“What if I say no?”

“Daoist Priest Shen is a handsome man indeed. Unfortunately, neither Chairman Dou nor I are interested in men. I’m afraid we won’t have much compassion for you.”
When he said it, he was still wearing that smile on his face. He tossed the zither up, letting it flip in his hand, while his other hand pulled out a sword from inside it. In just a flash, the tip of the sword
 was already touching Shen Qiao’s nose!

Shen Qiao glided backwards and unsheathed the Grieving Celestial Sword!
The two streams of sword qi crossed paths, instantly turning into a white streak of light. Purple fog rose from the east and covered the metal clinks with a layer of frost. It was only the beginning of fall, yet Dou Yanshan suddenly felt there was biting wind and freezing rain blowing into his face. Shivering inside, he unconsciously took a step back and almost immediately realized this shameful act. But it was quickly replaced by a rising sense of alarm.
If this former sect leader of Mount Xuandu became someone’s enemy, he was definitely not going to be an easy one to deal with.
In fact, Dou Yanshan was not the only one shocked by it. Guang Lingsan also had a tempestuous storm going on inside his mind.
He had met Shen Qiao only a few times —— or strictly speaking, twice. In the first time, Shen Qiao had just exhausted all of his strength fighting off Bai Rong and was already powerless by the time he appeared. He was also blind, another indicator of how seriously wounded he was. Now when they saw each other again, even though the other person still looked sickly as usual, as soon as he drew the sword, he was like a sick tree suddenly turning afresh with a new shine, looking bright and dazzling as ever.

No, Shen Qiao himself was now a sharp sword!

The Sword Intent was like the shimmering water and glistening ripples. It might appear to be soft, but it was also endless and omnipresent. It not only broke the other person’s Sword Light but also weaved a fine net, wrapping both Guang Lingsan and himself inside it.
Override the strongest of all using the softest of all, then nothing in
 the world can compete against you.

The man and the sword had finally become one. From this point on, he had no more weak points.
Was this the true strength of Qi Fengge’s disciple, the sect leader of Mount Xuandu?!
Sword art was not Guang Lingsan’s strong point. He was more used to having a zither as his weapon, but his skill was still enough to dominate an area. But at this moment, in front of Shen Qiao’s airtight defenses and attacks, he suddenly felt a sense of helplessness. He didn’t even know where to begin.
He bet it wasn’t just him. Even if a true swordmaster was here, they would probably feel the same!
Without any hesitation, Guang Lingsan gave up the sword and went for the zither. Taking advantage of the brief breathing moment he had after he exited the sword net, he grabbed behind him, and the zither that he had been carrying on his back suddenly appeared in his hand. The metallic sound of its strings gradually assailed Shen Qiao with a thundering momentum.
As if he had seen through his impatience, Dou Yanshan could not just stand by and watch anymore. He leaped up and also struck a palm at Shen Qiao.
Shen Qiao was not Yan Wushi —— there was no need to make it a life-or-death situation. This palm was just to mess up the other person’s rhythm and catch him on the hop, making him fluster and lose.

But to his surprise, he found that as his hand approached within three feet of Shen Qiao, all of the fierce inner qi surrounding his palm was engulfed by the Sword Light. Like throwing a pebble into an ocean, the effect it created was so small that it was practically
 negligible!

On the contrary, the Sword Light soared because of it. It became so huge that it looked like it was going to spread to Dou Yanshan.
Both his and Guang Lingsan’s martial arts could be ranked among the top ten. Even though he didn’t use all of his strength, it was already enough to kill an ordinary person. However, Shen Qiao had been fighting them for quite some time yet he still showed no signs of being at a disadvantage, clearly showing how terrifying and unfathomable his strength was. After he reappeared in the pugilist world this time, he truly became a person one would not wish to offend.
If the fight went on, they would definitely breed enmity with each other. The Six Harmonies Association conducted businesses all over the world and believed that harmony was the key to wealth. The reason he agreed to participate in the ambush was because there were others in charge and all he had to do was follow the lead. But with Shen Qiao, things were different. Since he wasn’t determined to kill him, a martial expert like him could cause countless troubles for the Six Harmonies Association in the future.

Dou Yanshan weighed the pros and cons and quickly decided to give up. Yan Wushi was most likely dead —— even Zen Master Xueting and Duan Wenyang had left already. He stayed only to take revenge on Yan Wushi for destroying the script of The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang. It was not something worth risking his life for.

As soon as he thought this through, he let out a loud laugh and chose to withdraw.
“It would be unfair for us to fight you with an advantage in numbers, so I’ll leave Sect Master Guang to enjoy the fun. Now if you would please excuse me, I’ll see you two in the future!”
 Guang Lingsan couldn’t complain about Dou Yanshan’s treacherous act. The five of them didn’t have much of a friendship to begin with, not to mention that they also had different positions and interests. The only reason they were able to gather together was because they had a common goal —— to kill Yan Wushi. Once that goal was achieved and Yan Wushi was dead, the temporary cooperation naturally ended with it too.

But since the others all left, why was he still here fighting Shen Qiao, sweating himself all over just for a thankless job?
Guang Lingsan glanced at the side. Yan Wushi was still lying there unconscious, bleeding from every orifice he had. The chance of him surviving would be less than Qi Fengge’s chance at coming back to life.
At this point, he was no longer interested in continuing the fight with Shen Qiao. The zither melody turned once again enthusiastic. Shen Qiao didn’t block his senses, and the sword in his hand couldn’t help but pause for a brief moment. Guang Lingsan took advantage of the opportunity to escape. He struck a palm at Shen Qiao, then floated away immediately afterwards.
“Daoist Priest Shen is a kindhearted man. Yan Wushi may have made many enemies in his life, but a friend like you sure is enough for him to smile even in his grave. I see no harm in taking a part in your benevolent act!”
Hearing what he said, Shen Qiao also withdrew his sword and took a step back. “Thank you very much, Sect Master  Guang.  I really appreciate it.”
Guang Lingsan nodded at him smilingly, then turned around and left.
After today’s battle, the news of Yan Wushi’s death would soon spread across the entire pugilistic world. Having lost their backbone,
 the Cleansing Moon Sect wouldn’t be able to hold on much longer with only Bian Yanmei and Yu Shengyan. The power balance among the three Demonic sects would also change accordingly, which would create an opportunity for the Mirror of Arts Sect to return to the Central Plains. He still had many things to take care of.
Shen Qiao stood where he was. After he saw that Guang Lingsan had left, he finally heaved a long sigh of relief. With one hand over his chest, he barely forced back the metallic taste that welled up his throat.
No matter how powerful the inner qi of The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang was, he had just started practicing it, and it was already unimaginably fortunate for him to be able to recover over half of his martial power. But now he tried to fight two enemies by himself, and the enemies were top-ten level martial experts while he himself was pushed to the limit like a spent arrow. In fact, if they had just tried a little harder, they would have noticed it. Luckily, neither Guang Lingsan nor Dou Yanshan was interested in extending the fight any longer than needed, and his preemptive attack at the beginning also deluded them, making them think that Shen Qiao’s strength was unfathomable.
Shen Qiao pulled a bitter smile. After circulating his inner qi around his body for quite some time, he finally felt better. He walked over to Yan Wushi, bent down and reached for the other person’s wrist.
It was cold and lifeless. He couldn’t feel any pulse.

The shock and pain that Yan Wushi had inflicted on him when he gave him to Sang Jingxing still felt as fresh as if it was yesterday. After all the efforts he made, Shen Qiao was finally able to crawl back from the edge of death, carrying the blood debt of the abbot and Chuyi with him, and once again rose from ashes. When he heard that this person was in great danger, Shen Qiao decided to discard all personal grudges and come rescue him in the end, but it was still too late.
 He heaved a light sigh and whispered, “Nevermind. I hope you take care of yourself on your way to the other world.”
As soon as he finished, the wrist he was holding loosely suddenly moved almost imperceptibly.
Shen Qiao went blank for a second. Before he realized what happened, someone grabbed his wrist!
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Chapter 56

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It happened so suddenly, completely taking Shen Qiao by surprise.

Since even people like Guang Lingsan and the others had walked away so readily, Yan Wushi’s chance of survival must be so slim that it was practically impossible for him to still be alive. Shen Qiao was already prepared to bury his body and set up a tombstone for him. He totally did not expect to see this.
The other person didn’t use much strength, as if that one action had exhausted all the energy he ever had in his life. Right after his hand touched Shen Qiao’s, it relaxed and slid to the side, then never moved again. His eyes were still tightly shut, his pale face suffused with a lifeless lividness. The blood that came out of his body was still there. Yan Wushi appeared in front Shen Qiao in such a wretched and tragic state never before known to the other person, as if he was telling Shen Qiao the move just now was but the last struggle before death.
Shen Qiao put his hand over Yan Wushi’s heart. Just as he expected, there was not even the slightest hint of warmness. Nothing but coldness remained. Shen Qiao tried to pass inner qi into the other person’s body, but it immediately vanished like clay oxen thrown into the sea —— never to be found again.

He untied Yan Wushi’s hair and, running his fingers through the silky strands, he soon felt a noticeable fissure around the Baihui Acupoint.
A normal person would definitely have been killed by such a blow, but one could not take Yan Wushi as someone ordinary. This was a
 person who had stood against five top martial experts including grandmasters like Zen Master Xueting and yet was still able to hold his own. Shen Qiao arrived too late to witness the fierce battle himself, but he could imagine how marvelous and matchless it must have been.
The fissure was not long, but it was very deep. The person who inflicted it must have used all of their martial power. Shen Qiao too agreed that even though there was no splashing of brain matter, the impact must have fractured his skull —— even Yan Wushi could not have survived such a strike.

Shen Qiao was not a doctor. There was nothing he could do with this level of injury. He could only release his hand and hold the nape of Yan Wushi’s neck carefully as he continued to examine the rest of his meridians.
His bones were not broken, his meridians intact as well. The fatal damage came from the sword piercing through his chest in addition to the several strikes which had severely injured his organs. As for the fissure on his head, it was the final straw that broke the camel’s back.
The more Shen Qiao checked, the deeper his heart sunk. Is there really no way to save him?
Suddenly, he let out a sound of surprise.

The sound was so faint that it was only audible to himself.

But it was enough to reveal how extremely astonished he was inside.
He suddenly discovered that there was a faint, almost imperceptible trace of inner qi quietly circulating in what should have been Yan Wushi’s already cold and fragmented Dantian.
 He thought for a moment, wrapped the other person’s arms around his shoulder and walked forward carrying him on his back.
The capital of Tuyuhun was unfamiliar territory to Shen Qiao. This area was said to be windy and dusty all year round, surrounded by the endless Gobi Desert, and the oasis where the royal capital was located was the only city of scale within miles. However, since this was also the only way to Gaochang, Yutian and other countries in the western regions, the population was not entirely concentrated inside the city. If one went west from the city and looked down from the hill, they would find scattered villages and households as far as the eye could see.
The boundless expanse of the Gobi Desert didn’t even have many caverns to keep away the sandstorms. Not to mention, Shen Qiao was also bringing with him a person no different from a living corpse. Finding water and food would be a big problem. They could not just hide in random caves like they did in the fields of the Central Plains. No matter how much he did not want others to find them, he had no choice but to first settle down in a place that was both inhabited and also kept far away from the pugilistic world.
Under the blinding sunlight, Shen Qiao squinted his eyes and searched for a long time. In the end, he chose a place in the distance and headed there with Yan Wushi on his back.
Staying in the royal city where there were far too many men and too many mouths was out of the question. The only nearby options he had were these villages scattered around the city.
Shen Qiao brought Yan Wushi to a small village next to the Zhaling Lake. The village had a few dozen households. It was close to the main road often used by traveling merchants. Occasionally, some travelers would come to stay. As a result, the village was not very lively, but neither was it too detached for people to feel hostile towards an outsider like Shen Qiao.
 Shen Qiao chose this place mainly because of Yan Wushi’s current state: if the other person still had a chance of survival and could come back to life at last, then the news must not be disclosed for the time being. Yan Wushi’s enemies were all over the world. If Guang Lingsan and the others knew that Yan Wushi did not die, they would certainly come to kill him. Even Qi Fengge could not deal with hundreds of martial experts all by himself, let alone Shen Qiao who had only recovered half of his martial power.

It was almost nightfall. The families in the village lit up their dwellings one after another. Carrying Yan Wushi on his back, Shen Qiao knocked on the door of one of the houses.
A young lady opened it. She was wearing a red dress, with a long braid over her shoulder hanging in front of her chest. Her face was tanned from being exposed to the sun for years, a common characteristic among the local people, but her facial features were not ugly. She must also laugh a lot, for the dimples on her cheeks would show up whenever she chuckled, which was quite cute.
Shen Qiao told her why he was here, saying that his friend was seriously injured and asking if they could stay at her place for some time to recuperate. He also promised to leave as soon as his friend got better and not to cause any trouble to the host.
The Central Plains currency was generally accepted here, but people living near the outskirts were more used to battering. Shen Qiao took out a big chunk of salt and a small, delicately forged golden flower. This kind of golden flower could be found in any jewelry shop in the Central Plains, but it was a rare item here. In fact, Zhao Zhiying asked her disciples to prepare it for Shen Qiao before he left, and it turned out to be handy indeed.
The girl was obviously used to merchants coming to ask for lodging, but she did not expect such a handsome man to knock on their door this time. She felt her face getting hot as she listened to him talking gently, and her eyes were immediately attracted to the
 golden flower. However, she did not agree right away. She told Shen Qiao with a mixture of the local Qiang language and some broken Han Chinese along with hand gestures that she lived together with her grandfather, so she had to ask him first.
Shen Qiao expressed his understanding and waited outside, still carrying Yan Wushi on his back. He thought he needed to wait a long time, but not soon after, the door opened again. A grey-haired old man walked out, followed by the young lady.
The old man was very fluent in Han Chinese. He asked Shen Qiao a few questions, then opened the door and let them in. After a brief conversation, Shen Qiao finally learned that the old man had lived in the Central Plains when he was young, saved some money and built the biggest house in the village. Unfortunately, his son and daughter- in-law died early, leaving him only a granddaughter to live with.
The reason why Shen Qiao chose this household was because they had large courtyards and a lot of rooms. This way, even if he needed to heal Yan Wushi using his inner qi, they could avoid unnecessary attention from others.
The old man had seen a good deal in his life and was not surprised at people carrying weapons around like Shen Qiao. The girl, however, seemed to be quite curious of this young man in a Daoist robe. She stood behind her grandfather and gazed and gazed. But every time Shen Qiao looked over, she would lower her head and blush.
They exchanged a few words of courtesy, then the old man hesitantly said, “You have traveled a long way here, and we welcome you sincerely. However, it seems like your friend is injured quietly badly. His enemies must be strong, I’m afraid? As you see, my granddaughter and I are just a normal family. We’ve never caused any big troubles. Please be honest with us, Daoist Priest, so I can make my decision.”
“I will be honest with you. This friend of mine has indeed
 provoked quite a big trouble. Now his enemies all think he is dead, but I wish to give it another try. However, due to the distance, we can’t return to the Central Plains immediately, and thus we have no choice but to ask for your hospitality. My friend is safe as long as no one knows he’s here. If anything goes wrong, I promise to take him away immediately and not cause you any problems.” 
The old man was still hesitating, when Banna tugged the corner of his clothes. “Papa, he doesn’t look like a bad guy. They’re in trouble. Since we can help, we should help!”
Seeing his granddaughter speak up for them, the old man sighed, “Never mind. If that’s the case, you two can stay here, and we’ll make sure no one knows who you are. I’ll just tell them that you’re two traveling scholars from the Central Plains. I would also like to ask you to not go out unless it’s absolutely necessary to avoid causing trouble for us.”
Shen Qiao felt greatly indebted. Ever since what happened to the abbot and Chuyi, he refused to involve innocent people unless it was absolutely necessary, so now he naturally expressed his profuse gratitude. He planned to only stay for a short while. Once the Coiling Dragon Fair ended and the pugilistic people left, he could take Yan Wushi back to Bian Yanmei in Chang’an.
Banna took a slight fancy to Shen Qiao and wanted to talk to him more. Seeing that he was carrying Yan Wushi to the side yard, she went up to help them open the door. Her finger accidentally touched Yan Wushi’s arm, and she was immediately startled by its iciness. She stepped back and pointed at Yan Wushi, panic-stricken.
“Mi-mister Shen, is the person on your back really still alive?”
Shen Qiao laughed bitterly to himself, thinking he too didn’t know whether Yan Wushi could still be counted as “alive”. But on the
 surface, he could only comfort her by saying, “He’s not dead, just fainted from severe injuries.”
Banna left, not quite convinced. The girl saw Yan Wushi several times afterwards, and the man looked just as dead as before. He didn’t rot or reek like normal corpses, but he was ice-cold from head to toe and gave no vibe about being alive. What was even more creepy was that once she put her finger under the other person’s nose when Shen Qiao was not looking, but she didn’t feel any breaths.
She almost suspected that Shen Qiao was overly grieved by his friend’s death and refused to admit the fact that the other person was already dead. However, there was also an advantage to it —— apart from delivering meals twice a day, she stopped coming to their courtyard every now and then. Otherwise, for someone like Shen Qiao, he really didn’t know how to stall her off or make her leave.

After everything was settled, Shen Qiao finally started focusing on studying Yan Wushi’s situation.
The inner qi in his Dantian seemed to increase gradually day after day, a promising signal for coming back to life. Apparently, The Strategy of the Vermilion Yang’s inner qi had been acting inside Yan Wushi, similar to what happened to Shen Qiao. There was a difference, however. Yan Wushi didn’t lose all of his martial arts, which meant he could not break through and rebuild everything like Shen Qiao did, nor was his fatal wound caused by a collapsing foundation. One could rebuild their foundation, but one did not just hear about people’s heads growing back after they were cracked open. If Yan Wushi stayed like this, he would eventually die.
Turning it over and over in his mind, Shen Qiao could only think of one way.
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Chapter 57

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Dou Yanshan must have put all of his martial power into that strike. There was no way he could have shown any mercy to his opponent. As a result, not only did it fracture Yan Wushi’s skull, but what was more troublesome was that it must have severely damaged the inside as well. After turning it over in his mind, Shen Qiao could only start with breaking down the blood clots in Yan Wushi’s head, then continue on slowly correcting all other damaged meridians in his body as well as repairing the internal organs. As for whether Yan Wushi would wake up again or remain in this half-dead state for the rest of his life, that would be Heaven’s call.
He was here racking his brains out thinking of a way to save him, while the other person just laid there in a deep coma, eyes closed and breaths feeble, completely unaware of the changes happening in the outside world. Shen Qiao glanced at him and sighed softly, then pulled a bitter smile.
They had two meals per day, mostly lamb and pancakes —— after all, a small foreign village couldn’t offer anything better. But Shen Qiao had always been an easygoing person. He ate whatever they brought him and never complained.

As for Yan Wushi, things were rather complicated. He was totally unconscious and could at most eat some broth. However, with his jaw tightly closed and his tongue blocking the front of his throat, it was impossible to feed him with a spoon. Even if one could get the soup in by force, it would only later dribble away from the corner of his mouth. There were special tools designed for feeding decoctions nowadays, but Shen Qiao had no way of getting ahold of one in the
 small Tuyuhun village. Left with no other choice, he first took a sip of the soup himself, then pried open Yan Wushi’s teeth and depressed the other’s tongue with his as he forcibly fed the soup mouth-to- mouth. This way, he could at least make the other person swallow a mouthful or two.
Yan Wushi’s body was recovering extremely slowly. The inner qi in his Dantian never disappeared, but it was so faint and so little in amount, much like a candle in the wind that could go out at any minute. Shen Qiao’s own martial power hadn’t fully recovered yet, so he could only transfuse his inner qi to Yan Wushi and guide it through his body once every day. He didn’t know what to do in this situation. He was more or less just trying anything he could think of.
The once unbridled, egotistical, and insufferably arrogant man could only lay on the bed now at the mercy of others. Even that shadow of a smile that always teased the corner of his lips no longer existed. The face was handsome as before, but that was all there was. All those extra traits and temperaments which reminded people of a grandmaster of the demonic sects had disappeared, all except the scattered, starry white next to his temples and the hard-to- believe docility on his face.
The table was turned. Perhaps even Yan Wushi himself had never guessed that he would one day fall into such a state.
That being said, according to what Shen Qiao knew of the man, even if he had foreseen the ambush, he was likely going to attend the appointment anyway. The others might avoid it like the plague, but for Yan Wushi, it was a battle opportunity hard to come by.
His mistake was that he was overconfident. He thought he would never lose. Even if he did, he would still be able to leave easily. What he didn’t expect was that, as a fellow member of the demonic sects, Guang Lingsan was determined to participate and eliminate him even at the cost of giving away the hidden flaw of the Fundamental Records of Phoenix-Qilin.
 Shen Qiao didn’t have the medicinal ingredients needed to make decoctions. All Yan Wushi had was that sole trace of inner qi which Shen Qiao had transfused to him. However, on the fourth day, his breaths once again weakened to the point of being almost imperceptible. Shen Qiao knew this would not work. Even if the man still had a chance of survival, dragging on like this for a couple more days would make him eventually snuff off.
Holding the soup bowl in his hand, Shen Qiao slightly frowned and fell into deep thoughts. Suddenly, he saw that Yan Wushi’s eyelids seemed to tremble.
The movement was so small that he almost thought it was an illusion.
“Sect Master Yan?” Shen Qiao tried calling his name, but just as he expected, there was no response.
He grabbed the other person’s wrist. The pulse was so weak that it was almost neglectable. Without looking closely, the man appeared to be no different from a dead body.
Somehow, Shen Qiao suddenly felt a sense of ridiculousness.

When Yan Wushi brought Shen Qiao to Sang Jingxing with his own hands and forced Shen Qiao into that blind alley, it probably never occurred to him that he would end up where he was today, much less having himself be butchered at others’ will. Had Shen Qiao not come, with the way Guang Lingsan and Dou Yanshan handled matters, Yan Wushi would have been decapitated a long time ago. At that point, even the most powerful immortal wouldn’t be able to come back to life anymore.
Even at this moment, if Shen Qiao could make just another strike on his chest or head, it would be enough to turn Yan Wushi from this half-dead state to a completely dead man.
 For a long time, Shen Qiao stared at the other person in silence before he finally raised his head a little and took in a mouthful of soup. Then, holding Yan Wushi up by the nape, he grabbed the other’s chin, forced him to open his mouth and slowly fed the soup to him.
Having repeated it for several days, Shen Qiao was already very skillful and fluent at this set of actions. His Daoist Heart was pure, and his intention was to save people. Therefore, he did not think it was awkward or overly intimate.
In other people’s eyes, however, things were entirely different.

Bona adored Shen Qiao. Despite the fact that Yan Wushi’s state of existence still scared her, she insisted on delivering the daily meals herself just so that she could talk to Shen Qiao a little more whenever he came to open the door himself. Although the language barrier made communication between them rather difficult, she was still perfectly content.
Today she brought lunch over like usual. For some reason, perhaps the dish tray was a little heavy, she didn’t feel like knocking on the door. She shouldered it open and went straight through the yard to the back room.
The door to the back room was left open, and there she was, standing agape and speechless at the scene before her eyes: Shen Qiao was bending over, holding the dead man’s jaw as he pressed his lips against the other’s, completely ignoring the fact that Bona had just walked in. Under the dazzling sunlight, Bona even saw their tongues intertwining!

To be more precise, Shen Qiao’s tongue was trying hard to push between the other’s clenched teeth and reach in as far as possible so that he could successfully deliver the soup into Yan Wushi’s mouth.
But the other person was unconscious —— a living corpse after all.
 Even after all the efforts, some soup and dribble still trickled down the corner of his mouth.
People in the western regions were more open-minded, and Bona was young, beautiful and very popular among the boys in the village. Even so, in the many years of her life, she never once had such intimate interaction with a man. For a long time, she stared at them, her face burning, her heart racing, her mouth dry, but she was unable to move a step.
Shen Qiao was in the middle of feeding soup to Yan Wushi and was not expecting Bona to suddenly come in. He had no choice but to finish what was left in his mouth before he set down the soup bowl and greeted Bona who was now flushing hotly.
Watery-eyed, Bona asked Shen Qiao in her broken Chinese, “So you like him. That’s why you don’t come close to  me,  or accept my love. Is that right?”
The misunderstanding was huge indeed! Shen Qiao smiled bitterly, “This village doesn’t have the tools for feeding decoctions, so I have to feed him like this. Please don’t misunderstand, we are not even friends.”
Bona asked puzzledly, “Then why does Mister Shen refuse to accept my love? Is it because I’m not as good-looking as girls from the Central Plains? Or is it because I’m not as gentle and ladylike? You can tell me, and I will learn.”
Little did Shen Qiao expect that he would get himself a love affair during his short stay. Women in the Central Plains would never say it out loud so frankly even if they fell in love with a gentleman at first sight. However, Bona didn’t care. If she liked a person, she had better confess early. Otherwise, by the time the other man returned to the Central Plains and they could never see each other again, it would be too late to cry.
 Shen Qiao patiently explained to her, “I’m a Daoist priest.
Priests can’t marry.”

But Bona did not buy it, “Papa said priests can still choose to resume a secular life.”
She actually came prepared.

Caught between tears and laughter, Shen Qiao had no choice but to tell her, “You’re only fourteen, but I’m already past the age of independence. The age gap between us is too big.”
“What’s the age of independence?” “That would be thirty years old.”
Surprised, Bona said, “You’re thirty already? I can’t tell at all!”
“Martial artists tend to live longer.”

Bona bit her lips and asked, “Are you still going to look like this when I’m fifty?”
Shen Qiao shook his head, “How’s that possible? I’m not an ageless immortal. I’ll probably look similar to him at that time.”
Bona looked at Yan Wushi. Apart from the grizzle scattered along his sideburns, the man looked extremely handsome and showed no trace of senility.
She asked, her voice shaking, “How old is he?”

Shen Qiao thought for a moment, then answered with some uncertainty, “Less than fifty, I guess?”
It struck Bona like a bolt from the blue. Since the western regions were always full of wind and sand, the faces of those forty or fifty-ish
 men in the village were already weather-beaten and covered in wrinkles. How could they even compare with Yan Wushi? Not to mention that women aged even faster: most of them started to gain weight over thirty, their wrinkles deepened too. Bona knew she was still young and beautiful, but what about ten or twenty years from now? What if the man she loved was still as handsome as ever yet she was already old and hoary-haired? Even the mere thought of it pained her.

The poor girl just experienced what was probably the dawn of love in her life, yet she had already run into such an unsolvable problem. It immediately battered her out of her senses, leaving her in an abyss of sadness beyond description.
With tears in her eyes, Bona shoved the dish tray into Shen Qiao’s arms and sobbed, “Never mind. The Buddha sent you to me, but he refused to make us a pair. It is clear that we’re not destined for each other. I hope he will bless you two with a happy life, until death do you part.”
Shen Qiao: “…”
Despite the awkwardness, Shen Qiao had no choice but to stop Bona who was running away crying, searching for a corner to heal her emotional scars, “I need to leave for half a day to go to the city. If anyone asks about us, you can just pretend that you don’t know. But if his enemies come and demand to take him, and there’s no other way around it, you can just hand him over. It is more important to keep yourself safe. There’s no need to risk your life for him.”
Bona wiped away her tears, “Does he have a lot of enemies?”

Shen Qiao nodded, “Quite a lot.”

Bona was deeply worried, “Isn’t it dangerous for you to be with him?”
 The girl was pure and innocent and spoke her mind. She liked Shen Qiao, so she told him directly. She was deeply grieved when she was rejected, but as soon as she heard that Yan Wushi had many enemies, she immediately started to worry about Shen Qiao’s safety.
The malevolence in people’s hearts was often more terrifying than demons, but it was because there was also kindness to be found within it that this kindness was all the more precious.
Shen Qiao felt warmth in his heart. He comforted her, “Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing. I’m just afraid that we would implicate you and your grandpa, so promise me to be careful, will you?”
He and Yan Wushi had been staying in this small village for the past few days without any news from the outside, so he had to make a trip back to the royal capital. If all those martial artists were gone, he could take Yan Wushi back to Chang’an and give him to Bian Yanmei sooner. The demonic sects had many secret techniques. Perhaps Bian Yanmei would know how to save his master.
After he parted with Bona and her grandfather, Shen Qiao returned to the royal capital. The city was crowded, bustling with people just like before. The Coiling Dragon Fair ended just yesterday, and it was now the only topic of discussion in the inn. Shen Qiao, wearing a common desert cloak over his Daoist robe and hiding his head and face under it, sat down in a corner without anyone noticing.
In order to get more information, he intentionally chose the largest, busiest inn in the city, ordered a bottle of liquor and some meat, then quietly listened to all those voices around him.
“Have  you  heard?  The  Tai’e  Sword  now  has  an  owner.
Someone bought it with twenty thousand taels of gold!”

The words immediately stirred up a wave of exclamations in the surrounding.
 “They must be insane, or simply have too much money to throw away! The Tai’e Sword is a famous sword indeed, but it’s only slightly sharper than others. How can it be worth that much?”
The person laughed, “There’s a reason, of course. The person who bought it was the Duke of Pengcheng District of Qi, Chen Gong.”
The others immediately understood, “Then it’s not surprising. The Tai’e Sword was once known as the King’s Sword in the country of Chu. I guess he wants to offer the sword to the Emperor of Qi.”
Someone heard it and sneered, “Qi as a country is on  the verge of being destroyed. Do they really think that the Tai’e Sword is going to protect them?”
“Who knows? They say that Chen Gong is a courtier who got his position by fawning over the Emperor of Qi. If Qi is destroyed, all of his fortune and even his life will probably go down with it. He’s most likely just trying anything he can at the moment, making that last-minute effort, you know!”
As soon as his last word faded, a group of people walked in. The leading man was tall and sturdy, donning a gaudy robe tied with a jade belt. His face was not that handsome, but it had a lively, heroic spirit that even the luxurious clothes could not conceal. He surveyed the room after coming in, then, with a brief nod, servants immediately hurried before him to arrange seatings and dishes. That air of greatness instantly differentiated him from the rest of the pugilistic people.
Speak of the devil, and here he was. The people who had been talking excitedly about him just a moment ago all felt more or less a bit awkward and quieted down.
 Not only were the others peeping at Chen Gong, but Shen Qiao, without moving his face, also cast a glance at the man from his corner.
If it was not for the fact that one could still vaguely make out that familiar contour of his face and all the people around him whispering to each other: “The person is here, cut it out,” Shen Qiao would never dare to make the connection between this arrogant, reserved young aristocrat and that boy in the shabby temple back then.

The landlord didn’t need to know his identity to realize that this was an important customer he must not offend. Bringing the servants with him, he quickly cleaned up the few tables left by the previous group. Face wreathed with smiles, he then led Chen Gong to his seat.
As soon as Chen Gong and his men took their seats, another group showed up in succession.
Shen Qiao quickly glanced at them and frowned, thinking to himself what a coincidence it must be, as he pulled the hood that was already covering his forehead even lower.
Yu Ai and Dou Yanshan sat down at the same table. Yu Ai was by himself. He didn’t bring any disciples with him, while Dou Yanshan was accompanied by several members of the Six Harmonies Association. Two of them looked somewhat familiar, resembling the Hu brothers whom Shen Qiao recognized from that night in the Beyond Cloud Monastery.
However, he couldn’t see clearly and was also afraid that they would notice if he stared for too long, so he quickly lowered his head and went back to tasting his wine, waiting patiently for everyone to leave.
The inns outside of the Great Wall didn’t particularly care about details. Even this one, the biggest and best inn in the royal city, didn’t have any private rooms. Having so many people gathering
 under one roof was quite lively, but their voices were all over each other too. As a result, those who spoke louder would naturally be heard by others.
Since Chen Gong was here and had brought with him a large number of servants, apart from a few troublemakers, the martial artists did not wish to make enemies for themselves for nothing. Thus, the topic of the Tai’e Sword was over, and it was only natural for them to bring up the other extremely shocking news which had already been mentioned countless times in the past few days.
“Do you think Yan Wushi is really dead?”

Judging by the way he spoke, the man who was talking wasn’t very skilled in martial arts, nor was he from a prominent sect. Because when he said those three syllables, “Yan Wushi”, he unconsciously lowered his voice, as if he was afraid that a living Yan Wushi would suddenly appear in front of everyone the next second just like Chen Gong did.
The name apparently carried an extraordinary amount of power. As soon as the first person brought it up, the room fell into a momentary silence just like when Chen Gong came in. Then someone replied, “I guess so. It was said that Sect Leader Yu and Chairman Dou also participated in the ambush. They’re sitting right over there. If you don’t believe it, you can go ask them.”
In the past, whenever the pugilistic people heard Yan Wushi’s name, their hearts would inevitably tremble slightly. However, after the recent news that he was killed by five of the top masters in this world, it actually aroused more dissent.
What did being ambushed by five top martial experts mean? In other words, these five men weren’t confident that they could win the fight one-on-one, so they needed to join hands in order to kill him. The pugilistic world always respected the strong. Admittedly, many felt relieved when they heard about what happened, but there
 were also many people who secretly admired Yan Wushi because of it: they believed he would probably become the next number one martial expert in this world after Qi Fengge, if he hadn’t died.

Most people dared not say it out loud, but some were stubborn and overly outspoken. They heard someone say loudly at once, “After all, using many to defeat a few is against the pugilistic principle. It’s a pity that a grandmaster like Yan Wushi would die so unjustly!”
Yu Ai darted him a cold glance but didn’t say anything. Dou Yanshan, on the other hand, lightly flicked his finger, and the person who was talking immediately cried out and covered his mouth, appearing to be in pain.
Pale with fright, his friend immediately jumped to his feet.
“Brother, are you okay?!”

He then cupped his hands at Dou Yanshan, “Chairman Dou is a generous person. My brother always has trouble holding his tongue and tends to babble nonsense  when  he’s  a  little drunk. Please don’t take it seriously!”
Dou Yanshan sneered, “You can eat whatever you want, but you cannot say whatever’s on your mind. I only knocked out one of his front teeth. It’s just a small lesson for him. That’s enough mercy already.”
Sure enough, while Dou Yanshan was talking, the other person spat out a mouthful of blood foam and a tooth. His face still looked indignant, and he was about to say something to refute, but his friend quickly covered his mouth, scolding, “Don’t cause trouble!”
That person could only shut up in embarrassment. His friend pulled him up and the two left in a hurry.
With this short interlude, the people didn’t dare to talk drivel again.
 The Six Harmonies Association had business all over the world. Offend Chen Gong and you would at most be beaten up badly and never be allowed to enter the state of Qi again, but if you offended the Six Harmonies Association, you might not even be aware of when you accidentally trespassed on their waters or used the goods they escorted.
However, it was hard to keep quiet with so many mouths in a room. After only a brief silence, as some left and some came, the clamor and noise once again rose to its high point. Yan Wushi’s death was undoubtedly an inevitable topic, and this was only a remote town beyond the Great Wall, so one could imagine the amount of waves and trouble it would stir up when the news spread to the Central Plains.
Shen Qiao heard someone next to him say, “Since Yan Wushi is dead, Shen Qiao must be having a hard time.” They didn’t say it loudly, presumably talking to their friend.
“How’s that so?”

“Didn’t Shen Qiao lose all of this martial arts and go to Yan Wushi for refuge and become his boy-toy? Now that his big daddy is dead, what can a useless person like him do? Do you really think he still has the face to go back and ask Mount Xuandu to take him back in?”
These people obviously didn’t know that it had been quite a while since Shen Qiao last showed up together with Yan Wushi. The last they had heard was still when Shen Qiao attended the banquet at the Su Residence of Su on Yan Wushi’s behalf.
“You’re right. I bet he dare not go back. Didn’t Mount Xuandu already send a message out that Shen Qiao was no longer their sect leader?”
“But they never publicly expelled Shen Qiao. They must
 still care about the relationship they had before. Why do you think he could just wallow in disgrace like this that he would rather follow the Demonic Sovereign around than return to his sect?”
“Maybe Yan Wushi can give him the pleasure that no one else can?”
After he finished, the two chuckled salaciously, the expression on their faces blatantly reflecting their thoughts.
They had no idea that the person they were gossiping about was sitting at the table right behind them, quietly listening to their conversation without so much as batting an eyelid. In fact, Shen Qiao even had the leisure to make himself a beef roll, put it in his mouth, and enjoy it slowly.
“Since the Cleansing Moon  Sect  and  the  Harmony  Sect came from the same origin, they must also share certain techniques. What you just said is not totally impossible. The Demonic Sovereign is skilled in martial arts — — he must be even more skilled in bed. Maybe Shen Qiao can’t live without him after he had a taste of that man. Perhaps the Demonic Sovereign is already tired of him, and he is the one begging to stay!”
As soon as he finished the last word, the person screamed and covered his mouth with his hand, immediately bending down and rolling on the floor in pain.
The sudden incident shocked everyone. They all looked over at the same time.
The person capable of hurting him obviously was not sitting behind him.
Shen Qiao was also somewhat surprised and looked in front of the
 person.

He saw Yu Ai, sitting upright and still, slowly put down his chopsticks and ask coldly, “Since when does an outsider  have the right to humiliate the disciples of Mount Xuandu?”
ð ð

Chapter 58

ð ð
Even if some of them didn’t know who Yu Ai was beforehand, after those words he just said, it was impossible for anyone to remain ignorant.
The reason they had no scruples talking and commenting about Shen Qiao was because they thought he was just an abandoned disciple of Mount Xuandu who, having lost all of his martial arts as well as his halo, posed no threats to themselves. They didn’t believe Mount Xuandu would continue to protect him either. However, to everyone’s surprise, Yu Ai stepped up.
After the initial startle, Shen Qiao slowly put down the beef roll. He knew what it was for.
No matter how much of a complete failure he was, Shen Qiao once belonged to Mount Xuandu. When others talked about him, they were also staining Mount Xuandu’s reputation, and Yu Ai could not tolerate it.

What he did not understand was that if Yu Ai truly cared so much about Mount Xuandu’s reputation, why did he agree to ally with the Tujue? Wasn’t being conferred by a Tujue Khan just as shameful?
Shen Qiao slightly shook his head. He was no longer interested in the farce before him. He was only waiting for the others to eat their fill and walk away before he could get up and leave himself.
The person who had lost his teeth to Yu Ai was now in a towering rage. He mumbled indistinctly, then grabbed the longblade next to him and threw himself at Yu Ai!
 But Yu Ai didn’t even pull out his sword. He took the other party down with the single chopstick in his hand.
The person he just beat was Ji Jin. He was nicknamed the Godly Nine-Tailed Fox, though people usually referred to him as Ji the Bigmouth behind his back because he was careless, overly outspoken, and often offended others. Ji Jin was quite skilled in martial arts, and although he might not be a first-rate master per se, he was at least second-rate. He usually knew when to stop and would not speak ill of others in front of them. This time, for some reason or another, he failed to realize that the sect leader of Mount Xuandu was sitting right in front of him. It was admittedly an unfortunate mishap and caused him extreme public humiliation.
His friend dare not back him up. He helped Ji Jin get on his feet and had to smile and apologize to Yu Ai on his friend’s behalf, “Sect Leader Yu, please forgive us. My brother had a bit too much liquor today and must have been talking junk!”
Yu Ai didn’t respond to him. His eyes went straight over the man and fixated on the person behind. “Ah-Qiao, are you not going to greet me even after such a long period of separation?”
Shen Qiao sighed softly. They grew up together and knew each other too well. Even with his face covered, his body and movement still showed a sense of familiarity. Yu Ai was not stupid. He would eventually realize it after some time.
Shen Qiao put down his hood and heard someone say next to him, “It’s Shen Qiao!” The voice immediately triggered a wave of surprised murmurs.
Quite a few of them felt a bit guilty —— the person whom they had commented loudly on just now had been sitting right next to them all this time, listening.

What is wrong with today? some of them thought. They talked
 about Chen Gong, and there Chen Gong was. They talked about Shen Qiao, and Shen Qiao was here. With this rate, could Yan Wushi also show up later?
They couldn’t help but shiver at the thought of it and looked around.
“It’s been a while since we last met. I hope everything is going well with you, Sect Leader Yu.”
Since Yu Ai already saw him, Shen Qiao didn’t bother to pretend anymore. He nodded and greeted Yu Ai gently as if they were just two nodding acquaintances who hadn’t seen each other for a long time.
For a moment, all the clamor and noise in the inn ebbed like tides, leaving only Shen Qiao’s voice in Yu Ai’s ears.
He looked Shen Qiao up and down as if he wanted to determine how the other person was doing himself. After a long time, he finally said, “You’ve lost weight.”
Shen Qiao didn’t reply to the statement. He was only here to gather information. There was no point in staying after they found out about him.
“I still have some errands to run, so I’ll excuse myself first.
May Sect Leader Yu and Chairman Dou enjoy your meal.”

But Yu Ai wouldn’t let him off this easily, of course. His feet moved, and the next moment, he already blocked Shen Qiao from the front, “Ah-Qiao, come back to Mount Xuandu with me.”
Shen Qiao’s expression didn’t change. “Sect Leader Yu must be joking. Since I’m no longer a disciple of Mount Xuandu, there isn’t any ‘coming back’.”
Slightly enraged, Yu Ai asked, “I never ordered to have you
 expelled. You’re still a disciple of Mount Xuandu. Are you saying that you don’t even want to acknowledge our Master anymore?”
Shen Qiao shook his head, “I think you’ve misunderstood something. I am Qi Fengge’s disciple, and this will never change no matter what happens. But ever since you colluded with Kunye to poison me, plotted my defeat against him, stole the position of the sect leader and started collaborating with the Tujue people, Mount Xuandu is no longer the place I know. Even without your order of expulsion, I will not acknowledge myself as a disciple of Mount Xuandu anymore.”
Under Shen Qiao’s calm, bland tone, these hair-raising words sounded all the more jarring and intricate.
No one had anticipated so many hidden stories behind Shen Qiao’s fall that day. They were all stunned listening to him. When they finally came back to their senses, the hall immediately burst into another round of buzz.
Neither had Yu Ai expected that Shen Qiao would choose this moment to reveal the truth in public. Redness flashed across his face, not from embarrassment but exasperation.
Of course, Shen Qiao had no evidence. He couldn’t do anything to Yu Ai even if he said it out loud. But Yu Ai still felt greatly insulted as if his clothes had just been stripped off.
With an effort, he controlled the rage inside him and said calmly,
“Ah-Qiao, come back with me.”

To which Shen Qiao replied coldly, “Yu Ai, everyone knows that the Tujue people are ambitious like wild wolves, yet you, for the sake of your own fame and prospects,  willingly  took favors from them. You even forced Mount Xuandu onto your
 chariot. I can’t stop you now, but it doesn’t mean that I approve of this result nor that I agree to join your evil deeds.”
“You…”

“Since we have come to this point, we might as well ask the people here to be our witnesses. As Qi Fengge’s mantle disciple, I hereby announce: from now on, you are no longer a disciple of Qi Fengge. We will henceforth walk our own paths and will no longer have anything to do with each other!”
Shen Qiao stood on the spot, his face tranquil and indifferent as usual, as if he was totally unaware of the storm his words would arouse. His Daoist robe fluttered underneath the cloak without the help of the wind, and his face projected a natural dignity and power without the existence of anger. Hidden beneath the once mild and harmless handsomeness was a fierceness so pressing that people could hardly look at him directly —— he was like a sword kept in a box, whose sharp glisten poured out even before it was unsheathed.

Shocked and offended, Yu Ai roared, “How dare you! Master has already passed away. How can you speak like that in his name?!”
Shen Qiao said, “I was the only one around Master when he passed away, and I am his only mantle disciple. What I say represents what he desires! The reason I have  endured silently up till now is to take into consideration the interests of all —— I didn’t want to see Mount Xuandu divided by internal strife. However, you have pressed on, and you even willingly accepted the Tujue’s conferment. This is against Master’s teachings, and therefore I am obliged to expel you!”
Even buddhas had wrathful projections. The gentleness on his face finally subsided, giving way to a  thunder-like rage. “Yu Ai, you
 listen to me. You have no right to punish me, because no forefathers of Mount Xuandu will ever acknowledge you as the sect leader! I hope you stay responsible to yourself. If you insist on having things your way and do not repent, I will come back one day to deal with you!”
The hall was dead silent. Everyone stared at Shen Qiao, not able to connect him with that man who was rumored to have abandoned himself and fooled around with the Demonic Sovereign.
After Shen Qiao finished, he strode straight to the gate without another glance.
Yu Ai stopped hesitating. He gripped the Saintly Principle Sword, hoping to stop Shen Qiao. But Shen Qiao was even faster. The others could only see a black shadow pushing away Yu Ai’s sword. Only upon looking closely did they realize that Shen Qiao didn’t even unsheath his sword.
Right at this moment, Dou Yanshan joined.

His original plan was to stay out of the internecine strife between these two martial brothers of the same sect and simply enjoy the show. However, seeing how indecisive Yu Ai’s movements were, he knew the man still hadn’t made up his mind and might not even be able to stop his martial brother. Dou Yanshan had no choice but to lend a hand.
“Even though I haven’t known Sect Leader Yu for long, I can tell he values old friendships a lot and doesn’t want to handle you with a heavy hand. Daoist Priest Shen, why don’t you try to cool down a little? We can sit down and set aside some time for a heart-to-heart talk!”
But Shen Qiao did not wish to fight against Dou Yanshan. His footwork changed; using the moves from the “Rainbow Shadows”, he circled around Dou Yanshan and landed directly at the entrance of
 the inn.

“Ah-Qiao! Don’t make me do this!” Yu Ai snapped, unsheathing the Saintly Principle Sword.
Before Shen Qiao replied, another person jested on the side, “To fight the few with many, to conquer the one with the crowd
—— Don’t tell me you plan to deal with Daoist Priest Shen the same way you did to Yan Wushi?”
Chen Gong, who had been looking on all this time, stood up. This should have nothing to do with him, but for some reason he decided to horn in.
Dou Yanshan laughed, “The Duke of Pengcheng District just acquired the Tai’e Sword. You should hurry up and be on your way to report the mission back to the Emperor of Qi. Why are you still idling around here, meddling in other people’s business?”
There seemed to be a taint of indistinct sarcasm in the words, “Duke of Pengcheng District” when they came out of his mouth. Chen Gong was the new nobleman of Qi, but since he had no relationship with the pugilistic world, the Six Harmonies Association didn’t see him as someone important.
Chen Gong didn’t answer Dou Yanshan’s question. Instead, he turned to Shen Qiao and said gently, “If Daoist Priest Shen is looking for a way to get out of the pester, I have rented an entire courier hostel in the city. You can follow me and rest there.”
Shen Qiao replied, “Thank you very much for the offer, but please allow me to kindly decline it.”
He then cupped his hands and was going to leave.

But Yu Ai would not let him go easily. “Wait!” he shouted as he
 reached for Shen Qiao.

Shen Qiao didn’t turn his head. Like he had eyes on his back, he gently slid a few steps to the side as he turned around and held the sword across his chest, blocking off Yu Ai’s hand. The sword sheath was infused with inner qi. The latter felt a slight shock and uncontrollably released it.
However, Yu Ai reacted quickly. He immediately pulled out the Saintly Principle Sword using his other hand. The sword light darted swiftly and gracefully as the sword swung towards Shen Qiao’s face. Its speed was so fast that even Dou Yanshan was slightly surprised by it, thinking to himself that Yu Ai probably didn’t use his full strength during their fight against Yan Wushi earlier: the guy might’ve appeared to be severely injured, while in fact he just didn’t want to charge first.
In any case, Yu Ai was determined to keep Shen Qiao here. This time, without Yan Wushi standing in the way, he would not allow Shen Qiao to escape right under his nose again. He knew how powerful Quietus was —— Shen Qiao was still so weak and sickly when they last met on Mount Xuandu. There was no way he could completely recover in such a short period of time.

However, every man deserved a new appraisal every now and then. Yu Ai’s sword Light transformed a myriad of times as it cast down on Shen Qiao, but the person who was supposed to be enshrouded underneath suddenly disappeared. With a movement so swift and volatile that it was almost impossible to describe, Shen Qiao emerged behind Yu Ai, his sword still in its sheath, as he lifted a finger and tapped on the curtain weaved by sword light.
The instant he touched it, the entire curtain crumbled underneath the inner qi into broken pieces, scattering in all directions!
There was a trace of disbelief on Yu Ai’s face. The tip of his sword quivered slightly, creating another dozen or so twirling ripples as it
 wound towards Shen Qiao.

As if it was a brush painting a landscape in emerald and gold, or a bright green rending the sky, it was so bright, so resplendent, like the flashing iridescence reflected by colored glasses.
It was from the last set of moves in the Azurewave Sword Arts, but slightly altered. Qi Fengge had no incompetent disciples, and Yu Ai had made improvements to the sword arts to better suit himself. Most of the time, he appeared as a cold soberside, yet when it came to sword arts, he was extremely fond of these kinds of flashy, gorgeous moves. Even his sword qi carried with it a thundering, raging fierceness. As the sword thrust forwards, it seemed to rumble right next to everyone’s ears. Those who were slightly inferior in martial powers could already feel their blood and qi churning inside them, and they couldn’t help but retreat a few steps.
But Shen Qiao didn’t. Shen Qiao didn’t retreat!
It greatly surprised everyone, including those who had looked down on him earlier, thinking he was just one of Yan Wushi’s boytoys and attachments.
Shen Qiao finally drew his sword!

The sword qi of the Grieving Celestial Sword soared straight to the sky in a burning rainbow, its mellowness and richness spreading out from Shen Qiao’s hand, making people want to indulge in that comfortable warmth. However, so many people still hadn’t recovered from the shock just now and didn’t even realize that Shen Qiao’s sword was already pointing to the front.
Everything happened within the blink of an eye. Before the others knew it, the two had already leaped off the ground, the tips of their swords pressed against each other. Yu Ai was as quick as lightning,
 but Shen Qiao was even faster: his body became one with his sword and suddenly vanished from Yu Ai’s sight.

In the world of martial arts, speed defined the winner!
The next second, Yu Ai suddenly felt alert. He immediately turned around and swung the sword across, but it was too late —— the other person’s Sword Intent was only inches away from him. There was no place to escape. He only had time to make out the tiny, white sword light. Yu Ai’s heart sunk. Before he had time to think carefully, he pushed the “Rainbow Shadow” to his best and retreated at the fastest speed like never before in his entire life. It almost looked like he had teleported three feet away!
Shen Qiao could have chased after him: his white Sword Intent had already reached perfection. One step further he would enter the realm of Sword Heart. Even though he only had about half of his martial power right now, the white Sword Intent alone was enough to frighten and pale many souls.
But Shen Qiao didn’t continue his victorious pursuit, and Yu Ai stopped too. They stared at each other, their eyes meeting, as they each indulged in their own surging feelings: they both knew deep in their hearts that they could never return to the past.

Shen Qiao was standing there, tall and straight like a pine tree, the tip of his sword pointing to the ground. He looked steadily at Yu Ai and said in a low voice, “You should understand that if you and I fight, you may not be able to win, and I may  not  be defeated. Don’t think you can hold me in the palm  of your hand and have me at your disposal. Even though I  am  no longer the sect leader of Mount Xuandu, I am still Shen Qiao, and I am still Qi Fengge’s disciple!”
There was a complicated look on Yu Ai’s face, “Yuan Ying and Hengbo miss you a lot. They all wish for you to come back…”
 “Yu Ai, ever since you poisoned me with Quietus, I no longer believe anything you say.”
Yu Ai’s expression changed. Waves surged slightly in his eyes, hinting at the tempestuous storm that was about to come. “That one was my fault. But from now on, I will never hurt you again.”
Shen Qiao shook his head, “There’s no meaning in saying it now. The damage is done, and it’s impossible to make up for it. What you call a remedy is nothing but self-deception. The reason I’m not going back to  Mount  Xuandu  is  because  I don’t want Mount Xuandu to fall apart, much less having all the painstaking efforts of our forefathers go  up  in  smoke. Now that you have taken the step together with Mount Xuandu’s disciples, you should be prepared to bear all the consequences. When you’re no longer able to do so, I’ll go find you myself.”
Yu Ai’s chest heaved rapidly. After a long time, he finally laughed grimly, “Good, good, good…”
He said ‘good’ three times in a row. There seemed to be a trace of dismay in his chilly tone, but it was so faint and fleeting as if it was but an illusion.
He didn’t say anything else and just returned the sword to its sheath. Then he turned around and left, without giving Shen Qiao another glance.
Dou Yanshan stroked his nose. Since Yu Ai had left, he no longer had an excuse to intervene. Not to mention that he also feared Shen Qiao’s martial arts, so he would not easily dip his feet in this muddy situation.
“Congratulations, Daoist Priest Shen, for recovering your martial power! As you know, I am somewhat friendly with
 Sect Leader Yu, so I had to speak up for him just now. I hope you will not take it as an offense.”
There was a reason why this man was able to command the largest sect in the world. He was subtle and shrewd, not someone easy to get along with. Just a minute ago he joined the fight with no hesitation, yet now he apologized almost immediately afterwards
—— crisp and decisive, characteristics that truly resembled the
manner of a formidable man.

An angry fist did not hit a smiling face, let alone someone exceptionally cultured like Shen Qiao. Upon seeing this, he nodded, “We each have our position, I understand. Chairman Dou is too polite.”
Dou Yanshan said, “Daoist Priest Shen previously took Yan Wushi’s body with you. I’m sure you must have buried him already. It is a great pity that the grandmaster of the demonic sects has perished in this remote piece of land beyond the northern borders. Since the dead deserve the greatest reverence, and the Central Plains people believe that burials bring peace to the deceased, I would like to ask Daoist Priest Shen a favor. If you would allow me, the Six Harmonies Association is willing to help escort Sect Master Yan’s remains to Chang’an and hand him over to the disciples of the Cleansing Moon Sect.”
Shen Qiao responded flatly, “I very much appreciate Chairman Dou’s kindness. However, the body has already been interred. It would be inauspicious to dig it out again. We martial artists are not particular about these rituals. Since he has made numerous enemies when he was alive, he should have foreseen such an end. The reason I gathered his remains is only due to the little mutual affection we had in the past.”
The other person tried a good deal to probe deeper. Unfortunately,
 Shen Qiao’s responses were seamless.

Shen Qiao looked around the crowd and slowly continued, “Your mouth is yours. You can talk about me however you like and I will not interfere. If you are discontent with me, you can come to me at any time. However, if I hear anyone insult my master or Mount Xuandu, then they shall excuse the sword in my hand for speaking no mercy.”
As soon as he finished, a white light flashed before everyone, and before they could react, the bamboo pole outside the inn broke and fell down in six clean-cut pieces; even the banner on top was reduced to fine powder amidst that bright sword light.

Everyone stood there, completely stupefied, especially those who had just criticized and slandered Shen Qiao behind his back —— they could feel their hearts trembling.

They knew very well that this sword light alone was already far beyond what the majority of them could ever achieve in their lifetimes.
Shen Qiao obviously did it as intimidation, a warning, not just to the others, but also to Dou Yanshan.
However, Dou Yanshan only smiled. He looked completely normal and even clapped his hands, acclaiming, “Daoist Priest Shen must have reached the pinnacle of sword arts!”
Shen Qiao said, “Just a minor trick not worth showing in public. I must have incurred Chairman Dou’s ridicule.”
If it was in the past, Shen Qiao’s temperament would never allow him to show off his martial power like this. But over the course of time, he realized that some spoke with only fists but not reasons: they honored the strong and saw kindness as nothing but a form of weakness.
 After a year’s worth of wandering in the pugilistic world, Shen Qiao finally learned to treat different people with different means.
He paid the servant the compensation fee for destroying that banner pole along with the bill for his meal, then walked away.
This time, no one stopped him.

Since Dou Yanshan and Yu Ai were still around, Shen Qiao didn’t dare to leave the city in haste, much less find a medicine shop to fill prescriptions. Otherwise, with their shrewdness, they would immediately find out that something was wrong. Therefore, he found himself another inn and pretended to stay there for the night. Until the sky was completely dark and the curfew bell rang, he finally left the city without making a sound and rushed towards the village.
The impressive move he had put up in public earlier in the day was nothing but an empty show of strength. He knew better than anyone else that his current martial power was only barely enough to fight with Yu Ai. It was just that Yu Ai felt guilty inside. Besides, Yu Ai had also taken a blow from those words Shen Qiao said, so he didn’t suspect otherwise. But Dou Yanshan was different. As a spectator, he saw everything clearly and probably still doubted Shen Qiao’s martial arts. At a time like this, with a “deadweight” surnamed Yan waiting for him in the village, Shen Qiao could not afford to make any mistakes.
By the time he arrived at the village, the moon had already climbed to midheaven, its gentle radiance pouring down, shining over the entire river below. Shen Qiao finally slowed down his pace as he walked towards Bona’s house.
The village was exceptionally quiet after night, except for the occasional barks in the distance.
Shen Qiao knocked on the outer gate, a few soft taps. But in the still night, it was clear enough for those inside to hear.
 The candlelight still burned in the room, evidence that the person inside was still awake.
A moment later, he heard the brisk steps of someone approaching. The gate was opened, and Bona’s slightly frightened face appeared behind it.
Shen Qiao’s eyes didn’t work very well at this time of the day, but he was long used to being blind and had learned to tell people’s emotions from their breaths and footsteps. His heart sank slightly at once. “Did something happen?”
“Mister Shen, you’re finally back!” Bona exclaimed, patting her chest in relief. “Papa’s not home, and I was so scared all by myself. That…that dead man woke up!”
From the Author:
Ah-Qiao really stood up in this chapter, looking more and more like a gong. Old Yan, what’d you think?
Yan Wushi: According to the plot, I’m just a living corpse right now. I can’t speak, and I can’t eat soup. Ah~~ [Slightly opening his mouth]
Shen Qiao: … ð ð

Chapter 59

ð ð
Shen Qiao grabbed Bona’s shoulders. The action seemed to calm her down a little.
“He’s awake? Did you go in and check?”

Bona nodded. “I heard some noise in that room today and went in to take a look. I was quite glad at first, seeing that he had opened his eyes, and was going to offer him something to eat. But he suddenly clutched my throat! I didn’t dare to call for help. I was afraid it would draw others over. Later…later he let go of me and fell down all of a sudden…”
Seeing that Shen Qiao was still heading in, she quickly stopped him. “You must be careful,” she said. “He’s crazy and doesn’t seem to recognize people. He  almost  choked  me  earlier. Look! The marks are still here!”
Shen Qiao hadn’t noticed them before she mentioned it. His eyes had long been completely damaged by the poison and he could no longer see clearly. Now as he looked closely under the moonlight, there were indeed five dark fingermarks on one side of her neck, a ghastly sight to behold.
Bona then rolled up her sleeves, and there were similar marks on her wrist too.
Shen Qiao felt terribly apologetic. He and Yan Wushi had already caused her enough trouble by staying here, yet now she was even injured. He said to Bona, “I am very sorry. There’s an ointment for bruising in that room. Let me get some for you.”
 Bona said cheerfully, “There’s no need. This kind of injury is nothing. I’ve had worse when travelling with Grandpa!”
Bona had locked Yan Wushi’s room from the outside earlier. She took out the key and handed it to Shen Qiao. “If he’s still crazy, you can just run out and lock him in!”
“Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing,” Shen Qiao comforted with a smile. While they were talking, he had already opened the door and walked in.
The houses beyond the northern borders weren’t as detailed as those in the Central Plains; they didn’t have screens in the center either. One could take in the entire room with one glance.
Bona couldn’t help but scream under her breath ——
That living corpse was sitting right there on the bed, staring at them.
“Sect Master Yan?” Shen Qiao asked.

The other person didn’t respond. Not only did he not speak, but he also didn’t blink. In fact, he looked utterly weird, almost like a puppet doll.
Bona whispered, “He wasn’t like this before…”

Shen Qiao nodded and approached step by step. Bona, scared but curious at the same time, followed after him, occasionally poking her head out for a glance.
“Sect Master Yan, can you hear me?”

Yan Wushi just stared at him, his eyes filled with nothing but Shen Qiao’s reflection.
“I’ll take your pulse.” Shen Qiao picked up Yan Wushi’s wrist.
 The man still made no reaction. He let Shen Qiao handle him freely, although he was still staring at Shen Qiao. Whether Shen Qiao was bending over or straightening his back, Yan Wushi’s eyes never left him.
His pulse was so weak that it felt almost intermittent; the damaged organs hadn’t fully recovered yet, and there was another strand of chaotic qi running all over his body —— the situation really didn’t seem very promising.

Shen Qiao remembered that Yan Wushi once told him that there was a flaw in the Demonic Core in the Fundamentals of Phoenix-Qilin. The more skilled one became, the more evident its impact was on the body. In the end, it would completely stagnate the practitioner’s martial power and even affect their lifespan.
Since Guang Lingsan was also a member and leader of a demonic sect, he must have discovered the flaw too. During their last siege against Yan Wushi, he first used music to divert Yan Wushi’s attention, then tore the weak point apart while the others attacked, thus aggravating the damage it dealt.
It could be said that without Guang Lingsan’s help, even if Yan Wushi could not defeat the other four, he would at least have no problem escaping. However, the existence of such an enemy who knew him too well became the root cause of Yan Wushi’s crushing defeat.
Yan Wushi was now awake, but the flaw did not disappear or heal because of it. On the contrary, it had gradually expanded to his viscera and major meridians. In other words, whether he woke up or not made no real difference.
Just as Shen Qiao wrinkled his brows in concentration, Yan Wushi suddenly smiled at him.
The smile was different from those vague, ambiguous half-smiles
 he had before, nor did it carry any taunt, sneer, or that unparalleled arrogance —— it was just a smile, like he was looking at not Shen Qiao but a beautiful flower.
Shen Qiao: “…”
The smile did not bring Shen Qiao joy. Rather, it looked indescribably creepy and horrifying.
Bona was also scared. She stuttered, “He…what…what happened to him? He wasn’t like this during the day!”
Shen Qiao looked back and asked her, “What was he like during the day? Did he do anything other than clutch your neck? Did he speak?”
Bona shook her head. “No. He was very ferocious at  that time. But now…now…”
Her Chinese wasn’t fluent. After a long period of mulling, she finally found the word: “But now he’s very meek.”
Everyone would agree that “meek” was such a comical term to be used on Yan Wushi. Even Shen Qiao found it a bit funny, or even slightly ridiculous, but he couldn’t say anything to refute.
Because Yan Wushi was indeed very meek at the moment. Except for smiling at Shen Qiao, he did nothing.
Shen Qiao took out the ointment and gave it to Bona. “It’s late already. You should go rest. You’ve really done a lot of work today and must be tired. Apply this ointment on your bruises, and they should disappear tomorrow.”
Bona suggested, “How about you sleep in my grandpa’s room? What if he goes crazy again at night?”
 Shen Qiao shook his head and assured her, “It’s fine.”

He refused to say anything more, so Bona had no choice but to leave reluctantly, looking back three times after each step.
After Shen Qiao sent Bona away, it finally occurred to him that they hadn’t lit up the candle for the room yet. It was all because of the bright moonlight tonight: as the silver beams poured in through the window, Shen Qiao didn’t even realize that they were missing something.

He walked over to light the lamp. As soon as he turned around, someone suddenly threw their arms around his waist.
Shen Qiao was slightly startled. Before he could push the hands away, he heard a muffled, intermittent voice behind him, “Don’t…go…”
Every syllable and word was squeezed out with great effort, as if the person’s tongue was stiff. In fact, Shen Qiao wouldn’t even have understood him if the two weren’t so close.
Shen Qiao believed that Bona wasn’t lying, which meant Yan Wushi’s current situation was somewhat unusual.
But, whether the other person was truly insane or just pretending it, what did it have to do with him?
Shen Qiao flicked a finger, and the other person uncontrollably let go of their hands. He walked over to the window, lit the candle, then turned around.
“Sect Master…”

Shen Qiao wasn’t able to finish the name, because he saw the other person’s flustered, frightened eyes. As if he was afraid that Shen Qiao would leave like this, he struggled desperately to get up and walk over, but because his limbs were still weak, he almost
 tumbled to the ground.

Shen Qiao watched him fall down. His hand, which was reaching halfway out, paused in the air and never made it through.
“Are you alright?” Shen Qiao asked.

“Don’t…go…” Yan Wushi only repeated the sentence over and over.
Shen Qiao stood there and watched for a long time. Then, with a soft sigh, he went over and raised the man.
“Do you still remember your name and who you are?” he asked.
Yan Wushi looked confused. He didn’t answer, but smiled gently at Shen Qiao once again.
Shen Qiao felt the top of Yan Wushi’s head with his hand. The fissure was still there, so presumably the inside of Yan Wushi’s head was still injured. It was not clear how deep the crack ran. He couldn’t just open the other person’s skull to see what was going on in there, so he couldn’t tell how bad the wound was, nor whether Yan Wushi had indeed become an idiot.
“I am Shen Qiao. You should have some impression of me, I assume?”
Yan Wushi repeated, “Shen…Qiao…” “Your name is Yan Wushi.”
Yan Wushi didn’t say anything, as if he was still digesting what Shen Qiao just said. After a long time, he finally answered, “Um…Shen…Qiao…”
Shen Qiao smiled, “If I was the one who fell to the ground,
 you certainly would not come over to help me. Instead, you would stand there and see how long it would take me to struggle to my feet. Do you not agree?”
That perplexed expression once again clambered up Yan Wushi’s face, as if he couldn’t understand what Shen Qiao was talking about.
Shen Qiao heaved a soft sigh and gently unclenched Yan Wushi’s hand.
“Your injury is too serious to recover in just a couple of days. I’ll bring you back to Chang’an once things out there quiet down a little. Rest for now, and everything else can wait till tomorrow.”
Before Yan Wushi said anything, Shen Qiao walked over and sat down cross-legged on the felt blanket on the side. Then, closing his eyes, he started meditating.
Considering Yan Wushi’s current state, even when Shen Qiao was training his martial power through meditation, he didn’t dare to bring all of his senses and heart with him into that state in which he would become one with nature. He left a part of his consciousness outside to watch for what happened around him.
The night soon passed. A bright glow emerged on the east horizon.
Shen Qiao’s inner qi, guided by himself, circulated through the meridians in his body. At the completion of every round, the qi would accumulate in his Dantian, then multiply, giving birth to even more qi. The process repeated itself in endless cycles, until the three energies —— the essence, the qi, and the spirit —— finally gathered in his head, making him glow with radiating liveliness, as if he had entered a higher realm too wonderful for words.

He could see each of the meridians in his body slowly unfold. Those previously clogged vessels were now clear and open. The warm inner
 qi cleansed all the residual stains in them. His foundation, after all the mending and rebuilding, was even more stable than before. Even when he burned out himself and rushed into a fight with others in spite of the gaps between their strength, he only felt a short period of discomfort afterwards. His qi and blood churned, boiled inside him, but he didn’t spit out blood easily like before.
With every loss there came something good. Maybe his eyes would never recover completely, and he might never see things clearly like before, but Shen Qiao never regretted what happened. The past was the past, and people should always look forward. If he hadn’t been poisoned with Quietus and fallen off Half-Step Peak, perhaps he would’ve never discovered the real secret behind The Strategy of the Vermilion Yang. Then the progress of his martial arts would have stopped there for the rest of his life.
At this moment, Shen Qiao seemed to have broken free from the shell of his physical body, and his mind was now travelling in the boundless expanse of the primeval chaos. The countless stars in the sky, every manifestation of nature in the world below, the land which now looked like a chessboard, all the mountains, the rivers, the plants, the trees, the wind, the moon —— each and every one of them looked so distinguishable, so fine and complete.

It was as if he was the only one who ever existed since the birth of time.
There was something formless and perfect, born before Heaven and Earth.
It is serene. Empty. Solitary. Unchanging.
Infinite. And eternally present.1

It is formless. It is natural. It is found in the subtlest. It starts from
 the spaceless. It is in everything.

This was Dao!

At that instant, everything became crystal clear before Shen Qiao’s eyes. He seemed to see a sparkling, translucent Daoist Heart, the representation of nature’s finest work, rotating, shifting not far from him. But before he could walk over and touch it, he heard a voice from an unknown space in the far distance.
“Shen Qiao.”

He slightly jolted, and darkness suddenly closed in. All those splendors turned into nothingness like a tall platform collapsing down, shattering into pieces.
Shen Qiao suddenly spouted a mouthful of blood! He slowly opened his eyes.
Yan Wushi was sitting on the bed with his back against the wall, his disheveled hair hanging loosely. He was still staring at Shen Qiao, but his expression was different from the one last night.
That was too careless of me, Shen Qiao thought to himself with a bitter smile. He wiped the blood next to his lips.
He had spared a part of his consciousness to take care of the outside, but because of the sudden enlightenment, he had completely lost himself in that realm without realizing it.
“Sect Master Yan, how do you feel?”

“You…really surprised me,” Yan Wushi said. He looked exhausted, but he was no longer perplexed like last night. The one who smiled gently at Shen Qiao, who held tightly onto Shen Qiao and refused to let him go, flashed like a night-blooming cactus and disappeared together with the night.
 But Shen Qiao, who had been on tenterhooks all this time, actually felt relieved. Cold, heartless, looking down on everyone else —— this was the Yan Wushi that he knew.

“I thought Sang Jingxing would destroy you…” Yan Wushi spoke very slowly, and his voice sounded pale probably due to his injury. After he woke up, he didn’t ask about his own situation but rather slowly started talking about Shen Qiao.
Shen Qiao replied flatly, “I’m sorry. It must be such a disappointment for Sect Master Yan to see that I’m still alive and kicking.”
Yan Wushi pulled the corner of his mouth. “No. I wasn’t…disappointed… I was …pleasantly surprised. You…destroyed…the Demonic Heart…I planted in you, didn’t you?”
Shen Qiao looked back at him, “You should know that I had no way to fight against Sang Jingxing back then. The only option I had was to destroy my own foundation and martial arts in order to take him down with me.”
Yan Wushi nodded, “Yes. It was your…only choice.”

“Yan Wushi, I know you want to destroy me. You believe that there is no kindness in this world, that a softhearted person like me has no reason to exist. You want to open my eyes and show me the cruelty of human hearts, to make me sink and struggle in hell until I finally become a part of it.”
A trace of a smile appeared at the corner of Yan Wushi’s mouth. Slowly, he continued, pausing after each word, “But, I didn’t expect…that you could rise up once again…even in that kind of extreme desperation.”
Shen Qiao closed his eyes, then opened them again. Those little
 waves that were in his eyes a moment ago had completely disappeared, leaving nothing but tranquility behind. “I would be dead if it were not for the sake of The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang. Your hypothesis is correct. The book can indeed rebuild a person’s foundation. In order words, it has the ability to bring one back to life, and is deserved to be called the most wondrous book ever. However, the precondition is that you are willing to destroy everything you have learned in the past dozens of years. You’re deeply wounded, but your Demonic Core did not break. In order to learn The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang, you have to break the core just like what I experienced.”
But Yan Wushi only gazed at him and made no comments to his words. Instead, he asked, “Were you in a lot of pain at that time?”
It was like someone was tempering his bones and smelting his tendons, like someone was skinning him alive and slicing off his flesh, and like he had trudged through all eighteen layers of hell.
However, Shen Qiao didn’t want to think about that experience anymore. Instead of the physical pain, it reminded him more of the abbot and Chuyi from the White Dragon Monastery, of their tragic deaths, along with those presumptuous and wishful thinkings he once held. Little did he know that a heart of stone could never be warmed, and the person he regarded as a friend only saw him as an object for an experiment.
Shen Qiao suppressed all those emotions and said steadily, “When I went to the royal capital yesterday, Dou Yanshan and the others were still there. We need to wait a few more days until those pugilists are gone before I can take you back to Chang’an.”
Yan Wushi only shook his head. Even this simple action appeared to be extremely taxing for him. “It is too late…”
 What was too late? Shen Qiao wanted to ask, but he saw Yan Wushi had already closed his eyes and stopped moving.
His heart tightened. He quickly stepped forwards to feel Yan Wushi’s breath.
The person was still breathing— — he had just fallen into a deep slumber.
But his pulse appeared to be even more chaotic than before: if one were to make an analogy between inner qi and a human, it would be like having dozens of people fighting inside his body.

Shen Qiao tried to transfuse a small amount of inner qi to the other person, but it soon refluxed. Even those tumultuous streams inside Yan Wushi flooded truculently towards him. Shen Qiao had no choice but to withdraw at once.
Yan Wushi slept all the way past noon.

The old man still hadn’t returned. According to Bona, some traveling merchants hired him as their guide yesterday, and he wouldn’t be back for several days. This wasn’t the first time. To the west of this village was the endless Gobi Desert, and the path through it was long and difficult to discern. It was not uncommon for people to stray deep into the sands and never return again. But the locals were familiar with the roads and knew how to get out of the desert.
The bruises on Bona’s neck and wrist had almost healed. Shen Qiao talked to her for a while, then she went off to take the sheep out for a graze while Shen Qiao returned to his yard with the lamb soup Bona just made.
When he came back, Yan Wushi’s eyelashes trembled. He was about to wake up.
Shen Qiao divided the soup into two bowls. He was waiting for Yan
 Wushi to wake up before asking the other person about those words he said prior to passing out.
Yan Wushi opened his eyes. He stared into the muslin canopy above him with a misty gaze.
Shen Qiao asked, “Do you feel any discomfort? I just took your pulse, and there are several strands of inner qi in your body…”
Yan Wushi said, “Pretty. Brother.”
Shen Qiao: “…”
An awkward silence spread inside the room. Even the continuous stream of the savoury smell from the lamb soup seemed to mock Shen Qiao’s loss of speech.
Yan Wushi said, “Me. Hurt.”

It sounded nothing like the Yan Wushi that Shen Qiao knew, but more like someone else had occupied and was speaking through Yan Wushi’s body. Shen Qiao stared hard at him, almost suspecting that the sect leader of the Cleansing Moon Sect had been possessed.
Shen Qiao tried to compose himself. “What happened to you?” “Hurt…” Yan Wushi said, staring at him. There was a slightly hurt
expression in his eyes, as if he was accusing Shen Qiao for standing
over there and not coming over.

In his thirty years of life, Shen Qiao had experienced all sorts of difficulties and setbacks, but not once did he feel as lost at what to do as he was now.
Was Yan Wushi playing the victim?

No, that was impossible. The reaction he had before falling asleep
 would be more in line with his character.

Shen Qiao suddenly remembered that gentle, harmless smile Yan Wushi had last night.
But this was somewhat different.

“Do you still remember your name?”

Yan Wushi blinked. The expression made Shen Qiao’s mouth twitch.
“I am…Xie Ling…”
Xie Ling…Xie?
Suddenly, Shen Qiao remembered Kunye once told him that Yan Wushi was a descendant of a clan from the previous dynasty. His original family name was Xie. The reason he had come to the Coiling Dragon Fair was to retrieve one of his mother’s belongings.
Even as he thought of it, Shen Qiao still found it quite hard to believe.
He frowned and fell into silent contemplation.

The lamb soup was getting cold, its surface now glazed with a layer of oil.
Yan Wushi’s eyes wandered back and forth between the soup and Shen Qiao. He said hesitantly, “I’m hungry…”
Prior to this moment, Shen Qiao could never imagine Yan Wushi
—— even in the latter’s most stranded, disgraceful state —— looking at him with puppy eyes and a face full of bewilderment, saying, “I’m hungry.”

Even when the other person was all unrepentant and sarcastic like before, Shen Qiao only thought it was normal, because that was what
 Yan Wushi was like.

But why did he, out of everything, become like this?

He couldn’t help rubbing his temples, finding the situation an absolute headache to deal with.
“Except for the name Xie Ling, what else do you remember?” 
Yan Wushi’s hands were still too weak to hold the bowl steadily, so Shen Qiao had to feed him spoon by spoon.
“Nothing…”

“Do you remember the name Yan Wushi?”

Yan Wushi shook his head with a genuinely puzzled face.

Shen Qiao couldn’t help wanting to sigh again. “Nothing at all?”

Combining Bona’s testimonies together with Yan Wushi’s behaviors before and after his several wakings, Shen Qiao somehow grasped some clues.
In a nutshell, the reasons for the huge changes in Yan Wushi’s disposition might lie in the qi disorder and the head injury.
He was asleep longer than he was awake, but almost every time he woke up, he would assume a different kind of behavior. Sometimes, it was a temperament forged by fragmented memories; sometimes he was normal like before; sometimes he was like what Bona had described, frantic and cruel and completely out of control.

But Shen Qiao was not a doctor. That was all he could think of. As for how to make Yan Wushi return to normal, he had not even the slightest idea.
Neither did he know if Yan Wushi would show more dispositions
 besides the ones he had already displayed.

“I remember…” Yan Wushi licked his lips after finishing an entire bowl of lamb soup.
“What?” Shen Qiao was planning to get up. He looked back at Yan Wushi after hearing him speak.
“When I was sleeping. You kissed me…It tasted like lamb soup, too.”
Shen Qiao: “…”
Shen Qiao, who was always extremely good-tempered, suddenly felt the urge to dump the other bowl of soup in his hand on Yan Wushi’s head.
Yan Wushi seemed to have sensed Shen Qiao’s mood. He couldn’t help but shrink back, staring back at Shen Qiao with that puppy dog face again.
Pressing his forehead in despair, Shen Qiao silently looked to the Mighty Heavens.
Translator’s Notes:
1. Edited based on Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Tao Te Ching.
ð ð

Chapter 60: Can you guess who I am now?

Bona returned with the flock of sheep at sunset. Just like usual, she first drove the sheep to their pen except for the little lamb she was holding in her arms. Instead, she brought it with her as she went knocking on Shen Qiao’s room.

Shen Qiao soon came to open the door. After he saw Bona, he greeted her smilingly, “You’re back.”

He turned his body sideways, but Bona, fearing that Yan Wushi would lose his mind again like yesterday, did not go in. She only stuck her head into the room and looked around.

But that person merely sat on his bed and quietly stared at her. His expression didn’t seem as violent as the day before either.

Bona asked, “Has he fully recovered yet?”

Shen Qiao shook his head, forcing a smile. “I’m afraid he’s worse.”

Bona let out a sound of surprise and was all the more afraid of entering.

Shen Qiao didn’t know how to explain the complex situation happening with Yan Wushi. He could only try to summarize it in a few words, “He was hit on the head, and is now sometimes sober and sometimes not —— most of the time he’s not.”

“Is he sober now?” Bona asked. She looked at Yan Wushi curiously, and the latter looked back at her. His emotionless black eyes somewhat made her shiver. 

“…No, he’s not,” Shen Qiao answered.

Bona panicked a little, “Does he still clutch people’s necks?”

Shen Qiao said, “That I don’t think so. Right now he has a mind similar to that of a young child, and he can’t even speak clearly. It was my fault last time. I was too careless. I will not let him harm you and your grandfather again.”

Bona had never heard of something like this before. She looked at Yan Wushi and blinked.

Yan Wushi actually blinked back.

Bona: “…”

Shen Qiao: “…”

He kneaded his temples.

Bona thought for a moment, then put down the lamb she was holding. She drove it towards Yan Wushi and said cheerfully, “How about letting him play with the lamb? The children in the village all like lambs.”

The lamb was white like snow. Just the sight of it made people want to hug and rub it in their bosom. Even Shen Qiao thought it was very lovely.

But Yan Wushi knitted his eyebrows as he saw the baby lamb totter towards him, lowering its head in an attempt to sniff at the lower hem of his robe. Suddenly, he flung out his hand and shoved it to the side.

The lamb bleated. It stumbled for a few more steps, then sank to its knees.

Bona, who was now too worried to think about her fear of Yan Wushi, hurried over and picked up the lamb.

Shen Qiao also turned to Yan Wushi, scowling in displeasure, but the latter only looked back with a pair of innocent eyes.

“Bona, I will take care of this. You can go do what you need to do.”

Bona clearly hadn’t recovered from the small incident just now and was still in a state of shock. She nodded and took the lamb with her as she left obediently without saying anything else.

Shen Qiao asked Yan Wushi, “Why did you push the lamb away?”

Yan Wushi did not answer. He just stared at Shen Qiao.

But Shen Qiao seemed to realize something.

No matter how much a person’s disposition shifted or how confused their memories became, some of the most basic things deeply etched into people’s bones would never change. Yan Wushi had always been a suspicious man, and this fact would remain true even if he had only a few scattered memories left.

Shen Qiao said, “Give me your hand so I can take your pulse.”

Yan Wushi held out his hand.

There was a sharp contrast in his attitude towards Shen Qiao and Bona.

However, Shen Qiao knew it was due to the other person’s almost magical intuition: he knew that Shen Qiao would never hurt him.

Shen Qiao put three fingers on Yan Wushi’s wrist, asking, “Are you able to move your arms and legs now? Can you walk?”

Yan Wushi nodded, “I can. But dizzy…”

Shen Qiao tried to remind him, “You told me this morning that it is now too late to go back to Chang’an. Do you still remember it?”

Yan Wushi replied with a blank stare.

Shen Qiao couldn’t help but sigh heavily.

“Why don’t you lie down and take a rest?” Shen Qiao suggested, thinking maybe the person would become normal again the next time he woke up.

Even if Yan Wushi continued to mock him with burning satire, it would still be better than this state of complete ignorance.

But Yan Wushi said, “Don’t want it.”

He meant he didn’t want to sleep.

When it came to ordinary children, there were always many ways to coax them into doing something, but this person clearly was no child. Looking at Yan Wushi’s face while saying such tender and soft words as if to a kid, Shen Qiao simply could not do it.

The two of them gazed at each other in speechless frustration when they suddenly heard someone knock on the door.

Shen Qiao, as if he was just released from long-term imprisonment, unconsciously heaved a sigh of relief and got up to get the door.

It was Bona outside.

She made some oil pancakes and brought it together with the lamb soup.

The two exchanged a few words at the entrance. Shen Qiao thanked her. After Bona left, he finally closed the door and came back inside.

He put the lamb soup and the oil pancakes in front of Yan Wushi. “Are you hungry? Let’s eat.”

Yan Wushi glanced at Shen Qiao. Then he quickly lowered his head and muttered, “You feed me.”

Shen Qiao: “… ”

Yan Wushi didn’t hear a reply for quite some time, so he looked up at Shen Qiao and said hesitantly, “Like last time. Kis…”

If I knock him out right now, will he wake up with a more normal personality? Shen Qiao brooded in all seriousness.

As if he had sensed the danger, Yan Wushi swallowed the unfinished word “kiss” into his stomach, his entire body curling up at the corner of the bed.

With another sigh, Shen Qiao pushed the lamb soup towards Yan Wushi and picked up the oil pancakes himself. He broke off a small piece, put it into his mouth, and chewed on it slowly.

Only then did Yan Wushi move back from the corner and reach for the soup bowl.

Both his meridians and bones were damaged during the fight. His hands were shaking slightly while holding the bowl, but it was already a lot better than when he first woke up.

As Shen Qiao watched Yan Wushi lower his head and slowly sip the broth, he suddenly thought of something and asked, “Did you ask me to feed you because you were suspecting the soup?”

Because if that were the case, Shen Qiao would be the first one to drink the soup, and if the soup was poisoned, he would be the first one to fall.

Yan Wushi didn’t reply, but his silence was enough of an answer.

Shen Qiao should feel angry, but he only said calmly, “I don’t know how much you still remember. Even if I tell you that I have no intention to harm you, you probably won’t believe me. But Bona and her grandfather are both kind people. Since we’re living at their place, you should take it down a notch to avoid hurting their feelings, and I won’t let you harm others again either.”

Seeing that Yan Wushi remained silent, Shen Qiao didn’t know what else to say and also stopped talking.

He once believed that absolute sincerity could melt even a heart of stone —— given enough time, even people like Yan Wushi would eventually be moved, but now he finally realized how wrong he was.

No matter what kind of a person Yan Wushi became, he only trusted himself.

The two of them sat separately, one on the bed, one next to the table. They were not very far apart, but their eyes did not cross.

More precisely, Shen Qiao was eating with his head down, while Yan Wushi was looking at Shen Qiao.

After a while, Yan Wushi finally opened his mouth, “Pretty. Brother…”

Shen Qiao shuddered at those words. Just as he was about to correct the other person, he suddenly heard some noise outside.

He listened attentively for a moment, then suddenly got up and started walking towards the door, not forgetting to turn his head to warn Yan Wushi on his way, “Stay here and don’t come out.”

On the other side, Bona also heard the noise. She didn’t think much about it and thought her grandfather had come back, so she cheered and ran out to greet him.

As soon as she opened the gate, she saw a small troop approaching at full gallop, raising a cloud of dust behind them.

Her grandpa was not among them.

Bona immediately remembered that Shen Qiao and his friend were still here. Suspecting that these people were coming after them, she closed the gate at once and turned around to tell Shen Qiao.

However, the other party was even faster than her. He reined up and dismounted the horse, then strode up to the gate and kicked it open at once —— everything was done so smoothly that it left Bona no time to react.

Bona let out a sound of surprise. The impact created by the door-kicking pushed her several steps back. She staggered and almost fell on the ground.

But a hand reached out and held her retreating body by the waist, stopping her from falling back further.

Shen Qiao moved his hand away as soon as he helped her stable herself. He turned to those people and asked, “Who are you?”

A person from the back of the group dismounted his horse. He walked up to them, pulled down the kerchief covering his face, and cupped his hands at Shen Qiao, “Sorry that my men’s rudeness startled this young lady. There were too many people back then at the inn, and we didn’t get a chance to talk much, so I came here looking for you. How have you been doing recently, Daoist Priest Shen?”

Every man deserved a fresh appraisal every now and then. His speech was polite and refined, and even his smile brimmed with confidence. One could tell with a glance that he must be used to being in a high-ranking position and living in a favorable environment. He was no longer that past Chen Gong who was illiterate and rough-tempered, yet also attentive.

There were also some familiar faces among the people Chen Gong had brought with him. Shen Qiao recognized a couple, and Murong Qin, the head of the Murong Family in Country of Qi, was one of them. He was there that night when experts from all places gathered at the Beyond Cloud Monastery to fight for the goods escorted by the Six Harmonies Association. As time passed by, things changed. Seeing this martial expert who worked for the imperial court of Qi now become one of Chen Gong’s subordinates, one couldn’t help but sigh at the unpredictableness of fate.

Shen Qiao withdrew his eyes from Murong Qin, Tuoba Liangzhe and the others. He looked at Chen Gong and asked in a deep voice, “This village is distant and out-of-the-way, and yet County Duke Chen was still able to find your way here. May I ask from where did you hear my whereabouts?”

Chen Gong glanced at Bona and smiled, “I met an old man. He must be this young lady’s grandfather, I assume?”

Bona was alarmed yet still somewhat confused, but Shen Qiao’s expression changed slightly as soon as he heard it. “Whatever you have come here for, make it between us only. There’s no need to pull others into it.”

Chen Gong, on the contrary, comforted him, “Don’t be so nervous. I just wanted to ask him where you were. Since I got the answer already, I won’t do anything to him. The wind is pretty strong out here, not the best place for conversations. Are you not going to invite me in?”

When Bona heard that her grandfather was captured, she almost collapsed. Shen Qiao stretched out a hand to help her. After a brief moment of silence, he said, “Please come in.”

Murong Qin and the others were going to follow behind, but Chen Gong stopped them: “Daoist Priest Shen is a man of honor. He won’t do anything to me. You can wait outside.”

As the number one martial expert of the imperial court of Qi, Murong Qin assumed such arrogance that night in the Beyond Cloud Monastery. But now, he looked timid in front of Chen Gong like a mouse before a cat, acting on each order without an extra word. He cupped his hands at Chen Gong, then brought the others with him to guard the outside.

Chen Gong followed Shen Qiao into the room. He let out a sound of surprise and then smiled, “Where’s Sect Master Yan?”

Shen Qiao didn’t answer. The other person had probably gotten a lot of information from the old man already. After they each took their seat, Shen Qiao directly asked the question, “What has brought you here, County Duke Chen?”

Chen Gong smiled, “We are old acquaintances after all, and you did me a favor before. It would be too brute and inhumane of me to bite the hand that once fed me. Therefore, Daoist Priest Shen doesn’t need to give me that face.”

Shen Qiao replied flatly, “I dare not claim the credit for myself. County Duke Chen has already repaid that small favor with several chests of burgers. If County Duke Chen could show us mercy and agree to release Bona’s grandfather, I will be deeply grateful.”

“He’s doing fine, and I will let him go. There’s no need to worry. When we were in the royal capital, there was something I wanted to talk to you about, but you left in a hurry and disappeared almost immediately after. I had no choice but to take the last resort.”

Shen Qiao didn’t respond.

Chen Gong didn’t mind his cold attitude. After a brief pause, he added, “The reason I came here today is because there is something that I would like to cooperate with Daoist Priest Shen on.”

He then changed the topic, “There’s a rumor out there that Sect Master Yan is dead. I never expected for him to still be alive, much less that you are the one who saved him. From what I know, Yan Wushi treated you very poorly, yet you are willing to forgive him and even requite evil with good. Such a breath of mind is truly admirable!”

Shen Qiao was not someone who liked to satirize others. However, he was triggered by the fact that Chen Gong used the old man as a hostage, and he couldn’t help but reply, “Since there are people who return kindness with ingratitude everywhere in this world, how is requiting evil with good any stranger?” 

Chen Gong understood the implied meaning immediately, and his expression changed slightly. But the next moment, he smiled again as if nothing happened, “It’s been a long time since we last saw each other, and Daoist Priest Shen has become quite sharp-tongued. I wonder what those martial experts who ambushed Yan Wushi would do if they knew he was still alive. Daoist Priest Shen’s martial arts skill is admittedly superb, but even if you can fight Yu Ai by yourself, can you deal with Guang Lingsan and Duan Wenyang at the same time? Not to mention that old monk Xueting.”

“Is making such a speech the so-called cooperation County Duke Chen was referring to?”

Chen Gong said, “Of course not. Has Daoist Priest Shen ever heard about Ruoqiang?”

Ruoqiang.

Shen Qiao repeated it twice in his mind. It sounded like a person’s name. He shook his head.

Chen Gong said, “It is stated in The Book of Han – Memoirs of the Western Territories: ‘The first country outside the Yang Pass is called Ruoqiang.’ This small country was later destroyed by Shanshan.”

It was surprising how a person who had been illiterate just last year could now recite from The Book of Han in perfect ease. Even though the emperor of Qi was a muddle-headed ruler, if he were to dote on someone, it must be because there was something extraordinary about him. From this perspective, Chen Gong was indeed worthy of the emperor’s favor.

Shen Qiao didn’t say anything. He quietly waited for the other man to continue.

Chen Gong said, “I’ll be honest with you. Ruoqiang is rich in jade veins. Although it has been destroyed, the ruins of the ancient city are still there. It used to produce in abundance a kind of chalcedony that isn’t seen anywhere else, and I want to find it. As for why I want to collaborate with you, for me, your martial arts skill can be a great help, while for you, there’s another thing that grows around the chalcedony called jade cistanche. It can reconnect fractured bones and muscles and is an amazing remedy for internal injuries. I think Sect Master Yan will need it.”

After he finished, he waited for Shen Qiao to respond in silence.

The room was quiet, except for the occasional sobbing from Bona whose eyes were red-rimmed from crying.

After a long time, Shen Qiao finally said, “You’re afraid that I will refuse to go with you, so you’re keeping Bona’s grandfather somewhere else and using him to threaten me.”

Chen Gong admitted, “That’s right. I don’t know why you saved Yan Wushi. Since he treated you poorly in the past, I’m not sure if you are willing to put yourself at risk for his sake. But from what I know, you’re not the kind of person who can just sit idly and watch innocent people get implicated because of you.”

Shen Qiao said flatly, “Thank you for knowing me so well.”

“So, Daoist Priest Shen has agreed?”

“Do I have any other choice?”

Chen Gong smiled, “Well, you don’t. Relax. That old man is fine. I’ll let him go after we come back.”

“You release him first, and I’ll go with you.”

Chen Gong shook his head and smiled, “That’s not possible. Why would Daoist Priest Shen even say something like that? You will only go with me wholeheartedly when the old man is in my hand. Oh, right. Considering the fact that Sect Master Yan’s health might not be in a good state, I already asked my men to prepare enough food and medicine for him. You don’t need to worry about bringing him along.”

Chen Gong said those words to test Shen Qiao, because he suspected that even if Yan Wushi didn’t die from the joint attack of five great masters, he would at least be disabled. In either case, it would be very difficult for his martial power to recover to the state it was before.

However, Shen Qiao didn’t make any comment and showed no signs of continuing the topic. Chen Gong could only say, “If there’s no other problem, let’s set off early tomorrow morning. I’m sure Murong Qin has already found us a good dwelling for tonight. I’ll go take a rest first and meet you tomorrow. You should have a good rest too. There’s still a long way to go to Ruoqiang. We need to recuperate well and conserve our strength.”

After he finished, Chen Gong got up and left.

“Mister Shen…” Bona looked at Shen Qiao for help.

Shen Qiao finally showed a bitter smile, “I don’t even know how to express my apology to you. This is all because of me. I promise you I will come back soon, and I will make your grandfather return safe and sound as well.”

He took out all of the little money he had left on him. “Take these. Just in case you need it.”

Bona shook her head. “I don’t want it.”

Shen Qiao said softly, “Be good. Stay at home and don’t go far unless you need to. I will definitely bring your grandpa back safely.”

No one could resist being told by Shen Qiao to “be good.” Bona’s heart had been rushing about in distress all this time, but now she gradually calmed down. She didn’t blame Shen Qiao for bringing troubles to her family, because the kind and considerate girl knew that Shen Qiao must be a hundred or even a thousand times more miserable than she was.

She nodded. “You…be careful.”

Shen Qiao smiled at her soothingly and said only four words, “It will be fine.”

Just as Chen Gong expected, Murong Qin had already occupied a relatively cozy house in the village through some unknown means. The original owner was driven out and forced to stay at someone else’s place. All of the villagers avoided these unexpected newcomers like deadly scorpions, but luckily, Chen Gong had no intention to stay for long.

Early the next morning, Murong Qin came to knock on Shen Qiao’s door on Chen Gong’s order.

After the third knock, the door was opened from the inside, and Shen Qiao stepped out with Yan Wushi.

It had been a while since the latter last got up and walked on the ground. His limbs were still quite stiff, plus he was also seriously injured internally and every step he took would stir the wounds. He walked very slowly.

On that night in the Beyond Cloud Monastery, Yan Wushi descended out of the blue and completely destroyed The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang. Even Murong Qin and the others were greatly humiliated by his venomous slander. At the moment, seeing that the once formidable sect master had lost his power, his face pale and his body eaten up by disease, Murong Qin couldn’t help but delight in the other’s misfortunes. He sneered, “I’m sure Sect Master Yan still remembers the old friends from the Beyond Cloud Monastery. You don’t look so well, do you?”

Murong Qin couldn’t care any less about Yan Wushi who was now a public enemy to the whole world —— every political and martial force could not wait to kill him.

The other person’s face remained impassive. Even his eyes looked like they had just been soaked in well water; the iciness within them could pierce right through people’s bones.

Somehow, being stared at by such a pair of eyes, Murong Qin was unable to spit out more of the unpleasant words he had prepared.

Chen Gong walked over slowly and gracefully, followed by quite a number of people.

He now seemed like a man with great bearing; he was no longer that helpless young boy who was oppressed by his stepmother and ran away from home in resentment. Environments could change a man’s manners, and cultivation could change a man’s inner qualities —— when a person’s status and position changed, it would naturally affect their temperament as well.

“Daoist Priest Shen, are we ready to go?”

Shen Qiao nodded.

Chen Gong said, “We’ll ride on horses first. There’s a small town right before we enter the desert, and we will switch our mount there.”

He looked so relaxed and carefree, not at all worried that Shen Qiao would suddenly turn hostile and take his words back. Because althoughBona’s grandfather was still in his hand, even if Shen Qiao took Chen Gong as a hostage, they would still be outnumbered. In fact, Chen Gong’s men could just grab a random villager as a hostage and Shen Qiao would have no way around it.

Shen Qiao also understood this very well, so he did not act rashly.

“What do you need the chalcedony for?”

Chen Gong laughed, “I thought you would ask me about it yesterday, but you waited until now. The chalcedony is extremely important to me, but the ruins have been deserted for many years. I don’t know what kind of dangers we will face on this trip. More people is more strength. I wasn’t going to choose you at first, but the show you put up in the royal capital gave me a lot of confidence. With Daoist Priest Shen joining us, we will be twice as powerful!”

Shen Qiao said no more. Seeing that the other person led over two horses, he said, “I will share one with him.”

Chen Gong glanced at Yan Wushi, asking, “What kind of injury did Sect Master Yan suffer? He looks a bit stupid. Can’t he even recognize people anymore?”

Yan Wushi replied coldly, “I still recognize you. I just don’t feel like saying nonsense. Do you think playing up to Gao Wei is enough to make you a top dog? In my eyes, you are still just a nobody.”

Chen Gong’s face changed slightly, but he reached out and stopped Tuoba Liangzhe behind him from drawing his sword.

“Sect Master Yan is a true hero, using brave words even when you have fallen into dire straits. I hope you can still make such a speech when the Tujue people and the Buddhist sects know you’re still alive.”

Yan Wushi sneered, “Did Gao Wei only teach you how to work your mouth on his bed? If you are not convinced, feel free to show me what you’ve got.”

Chen Gong frowned. He was a little uncertain and thought it might be that the information he got was wrong. Could it be that Yan Wushi not only survived but wasn’t even injured at all, and that the five masters were all tricked by him?

He knew this was extremely unlikely, but even the strangest things seemed rational and expected when they were related to an evil troublemaker like Yan Wushi.

Not to mention Chen Gong, even Murong Qin and Tuoba Liangzhe were not without fear.

Just like how bigger trees had larger shadows, the greater a person’s fame was, the more protection it provided. The sect master of the Cleansing Moon Sect’s mere existence by just standing there was enough to make everyone question themselves.

As the old saying stated, only evil people were capable of tormenting other evildoers. Shen Qiao could never achieve this no matter how strong he was.

Chen Gong didn’t waste too much time. With a single wave, everyone got on their horses and was ready to set off.

Shen Qiao let Yan Wushi get on the horse first, while he himself sat in front of the other person to steer the horse.

A dozen or so horses slowly trotted on the road. Wind and sand covered their voices, and it became all the more difficult to talk, because as soon as they opened their mouth, they could taste sand.

No one liked eating sand, so they all nuzzled their chins into their breasts and only communicated with hand gestures.

Yan Wushi tightly wrapped his arms around Shen Qiao’s waist from behind, his chest right up against Shen Qiao’s back. He moved his mouth next to Shen Qiao’s ears and said softly, “Ah-Qiao, are you satisfied with how I handled it?”

As soon as Shen Qiao heard that gentle tone, he knew it wasn’t the “normal” Yan Wushi.

He noticed that he had been sighing more often these days than ever before. “Is it Xie Ling?”

Yan Wushi was a little surprised. “How do you know that my old name is Xie Ling?”

Shen Qiao found himself speechless.
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