Thousand Autumns Chapter 61-70

Chapter 61: I’m not Yan Wushi.

If talking with Yan Wushi before would make one livid enough to go and die, then talking with the current Yan Wushi would probably piss them off to go die and then come back to life again. In fact, those without a strong will couldn’t even carry the conversation forward.

Shen Qiao let out a sigh and simply shut his mouth, refusing to talk anymore.

However, the person behind him, after seeing that Shen Qiao had stopped talking, wrapped his arms even tighter. He rested his chin on Shen Qiao’s shoulder and asked, “Ah-Qiao, why are you ignoring me?”

‘Because I am trying to decide whether I should knock you out first before taking you on the trip,’ Shen Qiao thought. He turned his head slightly to the side and lowered his voice, “Since you still remember who you are, do you know why Chen Gong is looking for chalcedony in the ancient city of Ruoqiang?”

“That I do not know, but I’ve heard about jade cistanche before. It is usually found deep inside the Gobi Desert, often hidden among rock cracks, and therefore is extremely hard to find. It is a rare treasure indeed. However, it is obvious that Chen Gong only wants the chalcedony. He only mentioned jade cistanche to lure us into running the errands for him.”

Even before Yan Wushi was injured, Shen Qiao had hardly heard him analyze anything in such a mild tone.

“Yes, I’ve noticed it as well. But even without the jade cistanche, as long as he is still holding Bona’s grandfather as a hostage, we are left with no choice but to go with him. Although, if we can find the jade cistanche on the way, then your wounds will be able to recover completely.”

Yan Wushi said, “The main injury I have is the flaw in my Demonic Heart. Jade cistanche can only cure external cuts. It won’t help much.”

Shen Qiao was a bit amused, “But you have a fissure on your head. Jade cistanche can heal fractured bones and torn muscles. Doesn’t it come in handy? We have to treat the external cut first no matter what.”

“Actually, I don’t want it to heal,” Yan Wushi said, sounding a little down.

Shen Qiao frowned. “Why not?”

He had a feeling that Yan Wushi’s current disposition was different from all the others he had seen so far —— in fact, it closely resembled the one from a few days ago who smiled gently at Shen Qiao right after waking up.

“Because I may not be able to talk to you again once it heals. Don’t tell me that you prefer the other Yan Wushi who was not only blind to your sincerity but even gifted you to Sang Jingxing.”

“You are him.”

“I’m not him.”

Shen Qiao felt a bit speechless. “Who are you then?”

After a moment of silence, Yan Wushi said, “You can call me Ah-Yan.”

“…”

“Would you please say it once at least? I’ve never heard you call my name before.”

Shen Qiao said dully, “I can’t when I’m looking at a face like yours.”

Yan Wushi complained bitterly, “The face is just a person’s outside appearance, an empty shell. There’s no need to focus too much on it. I know all the things he has done to you. Yan Wushi is ungrateful and heartless, but I will never let you down. Ah-Qiao, one cannot find a second person in this world who is as good as you. If he doesn’t cherish you, I will. Will you let me?”

Shen Qiao stopped talking and completely ignored him, but Yan Wushi did not give up. He wanted to say some more, then he saw Chen Gong’s horse suddenly slow down. The other man turned around, and, seeing that Yan Wushi and Shen Qiao had been chit-chatting all this time, could not help but tease, “Looks like the rumor out there isn’t true. From what I see, Daoist Priest Shen and Sect Master Yan are in a very good relationship, which I find to be quite a relief. With you two aiding me, I have no worries about not finding the chalcedony this time!”

Shen Qiao looked up at the sky. He had been living here for several days and had some knowledge of the local weather.

“Is there a sandstorm coming?” he asked

Chen Gong had not the slightest idea, but he had brought with him people that did know. Murong Qin, for example, answered at once, “You’re right. There’s a small town just ahead of us. Why don’t you take a rest there first, My Lord? We can also switch our mounts at the place and continue the journey tomorrow?”

He used to be such a haughty person, but now he was even willing to address Chen Gong as his lord. Shen Qiao couldn’t help but glance at him.

Murong Qin’s expression looked just as usual, as if he didn’t think that this master-servant relationship was a disgrace to his social status.

He should be serving directly under Qi’s emperor Gao Wei, and yet now he was referring to Chen Gong as his master…

As if he knew what the other person was thinking, Yan Wushi approached Shen Qiao from behind and whispered into his ear, “The Murong Family has already pledged their loyalty to Chen Gong in private.”

As the hot steam blew into Shen Qiao’s ear, he unconsciously leaned forwards. 

It didn’t take long before they reached the small town. Chen Gong’s party, which was both rich and overbearing in style, booked the best inn in town as soon as they arrived (while it was the best, it was also the only one). The living condition was a lot worse even compared to Bona’s house, not to mention the other inns in the royal capital. However, since the town was so remote, they were fortunate enough to even find a place to stay and really had nothing to complain about. Everyone returned to their own room after dinner without saying a word.

The number of rooms available was limited, therefore Shen Qiao and Yan Wushi shared the same one.

Shen Qiao was not a person of great curiosity. However, he couldn’t help but wonder how Chen Gong, who had been just an ordinary teenager not long ago, suddenly became a person full of secrets in such a short time, especially when these secrets seemed to also be related to the goal of their trip as well as their safety —— Shen Qiao had to be more prudent.

“All of Chen Gong’s power and status comes from the Emperor of Qi. Without the Emperor, Chen Gong has nothing. But Murong Qin, the best martial expert in the imperial court, has willingly become Chen Gong’s subordinate. This is very strange indeed.“

Ever since Yan Wushi‘s temperament underwent that huge change, his eyes constantly followed after Shen Qiao. Whether Shen Qiao was getting up or sitting down, Yan Wushi would stare at him unblinkingly. Shen Qiao was not dead. He too felt it, and it only made him extremely awkward. After he said those words, he couldn’t help but ask with a frown, “Why do you keep staring at me?”

“Because you’re very good-looking.” Yan Wushi flashed him a smile —— it was like ten miles of peach blossoms blooming in the spring breeze, with their branches glittering and glowing under the pouring moonlight.

“Now, let’s get down to business.” Shen Qiao sighed. The current Yan Wushi wasn’t very normal either, but he was at least slightly better than the ones before.

“Did Chen Gong know martial arts before?” Yan Wushi suddenly asked.

His question reminded Shen Qiao of where the strange feeling he had been getting lately had come from.

Not only did Chen Gong know nothing about martial arts in the past, but he was also illiterate. Where could he have possibly learned it from? All the boy knew back then were a handful of moves which Shen Qiao had taught him for self-defense, but those were only enough for handling a few bandits at most. The Chen Gong they saw today, however, walked in light and graceful steps with an imposing shine hidden in his eyes —— his martial arts must have already reached a certain level. Even if he was not a first-class master yet, he must be at least second-class and rank high in the world.

How was he able to advance by leaps and bounds in such a short amount of time? Normally, people had to start practicing martial arts at a very young age, but Chen Gong was like a tall building that suddenly rose overnight. It couldn’t help but make people suspicious.

Shen Qiao said, “There’s yet another thing. When I mentioned going back to Chang’an earlier, you said it was too late. Is it because something’s going to happen in Chang’an? Is the emperor of Zhou in danger?”

Yan Wushi shook his head. After spending almost an entire day riding on horseback, he looked quite tired. Even though he only sat on the horse and didn’t need to pay attention to the way it was heading, since he had been seriously injured beforehand, the amount of jolting was still enough to make the old wounds tear again.

“My head hurts…” His face showed a slight trace of pain as he reached for the wound on his head.

Shen Qiao was fast enough to spot it and stopped the other person’s hand. “Don’t move.”

He pressed his palms on Yan Wushi’s back and infused a few strands of inner qi into the other man’s body.

The inner power Shen Qiao was practicing right now came from The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang. It was the most neutral and mild type of qi. However, when it entered Yan Wushi’s body, it unexpectedly aggravated the other person’s pain, so much so that even his face began to twitch.

Left with no other choice, Shen Qiao quickly withdrew his hands.

Yan Wushi’s body temperature was so high that it was as if he was inside a burning furnace. This had never occurred before.

“Sect Master Yan?” Shen Qiao whispered.

Yan Wushi grabbed Shen Qiao’s hands, not forgetting to remind the other person even in a semi-unconscious state: “Call me Ah-Yan…

Shen Qiao:  “…”

“Many of the things you said felt like nothing but a blur in my head that I can’t explain. Maybe Yan Wushi knows, but I really don’t…”

‘That is to say, each of the different dispositions he has displayed doesn’t actually remember everything?’ Shen Qiao thought to himself as he frowned.

“I’ll take a nap first…” Yan Wushi said. His voice gradually faded, and by the time he finished the sentence, he had already closed his eyes.

In fact, the reason why Zen Master Xueting and the others wanted to kill Yan Wushi was not because Yan Wushi’s death would restore order to everything. They also wanted to stop the Cleansing Moon Sect’s expansion in Northern Zhou as well as to prevent it from assisting the emperor of Zhou in unifying the world. That was to say, their final target was still Yuwen Yong. From an outsider’s perspective, Yan Wushi was already dead. The Cleansing Moon Sect had just lost its leader, and it would only be natural for Bian Yanmei, who must be overwhelmed at the moment trying to maintain the sect’s internal stability, to lower his guard on protecting Yuwen Yong, thus creating a great opportunity for the others.

Therefore, when Yan Wushi said, “It’s too late,” he probably meant that something was about to happen to Yuwen Yong.

But they had just arrived at Tuyuhun, a place thousands of miles away from Chang’an, and they were about to enter the boundless, uninhabited desert. Even without taking Yan Wushi into consideration, as long as Bona’s grandfather was in their hands, Shen Qiao still could not leave them behind. The only plan right now was to go forward and help Chen Gong obtain the chalcedony first.

Early the next morning, when Chen Gong sent his men over to wake them up, Yan Wushi was still deeply asleep. They could not wake him no matter what.

Shen Qiao had no choice but to arrange Yan Wushi to sit at the front of the horse while he himself sat in the back. He wrapped his arms around Yan Wushi’s waist and grasped the reins in front of the other person in order to prevent him from falling off during the trip.

Upon seeing this, Chen Gong handed a bottle to him. “Here’re some pills that can tonify one’s qi and help them stay awake. You can give some to Sect Master Yan. It might help.”

“Thanks,” Shen Qiao replied, “but since I don’t know what his current condition is, I suppose we should not apply the medicine so rashly.”

Chen Gong laughed, “Relax. These pills are made of mild ingredients like wolfberry and red sage. Even if it’s not effective, it won’t kill him either. If I have guessed correctly, the reason he is in such a state must have something to do with him getting seriously injured during the fight with Dou Yanshan and the others. Normally I would have looked on with indifference or even laughed at him. But we’re now on the same boat. If anything happens to Yan Wushi, you will be distracted as well, and it does me no good.”

What he said was true. Yan Wushi’s health condition did not look very optimistic —— the inner qi within his body was in disorder, and because of it, he could not accept inner qi from anyone else. There was nothing Shen Qiao could do about it.

He took the bottle from Chen Gong, took out two pills, and fed them to Yan Wushi.

Soon, the latter moved. He coughed up a mouthful of blood and slowly opened his eyes.

Shen Qiao was struck by a thought: If the ingredients in the pill were really as mild as Chen Gong said, it should not have worked such wonders.

He asked Chen Gong, “What else is in the pill?”

This time, Chen Gong answered honestly, “There are also ginseng and snow lotus. I didn’t tell you at first because I was afraid that you would worry about the strong effect and not let him take it.”

Shen Qiao asked Yan Wushi, “How do you feel?”

The other person didn’t say anything. His drooping eyelids raised slightly as if he glanced at them, then they closed again while he barely managed to straighten himself on the back of the horse.

But his face still looked pale and ghastly, and his forehead seemed to be sweating as well.

Chen Gong said, “Looks like he’s well enough to keep going. Let’s continue then.”

Chen Gong seemed to be in a hurry to reach the destination —— which he didn’t express too obviously, but Shen Qiao still sensed it.

The little town didn’t have any camels available, so they had to continue on horseback. Luckily, this area wasn’t completely covered in sand. There were still exposed rocks scattered around, indicating that it was still part of the Gobi Desert.

Yan Wushi didn’t talk to Shen Qiao again for the remainder of the trip. He only leaned against Shen Qiao’s back, full of rich drowsiness.

The fact that he was still alive was already conspicuous enough. However, amongst the people Chen Gong brought with him, including Murong Qin and the other martial artists, no one paid much attention to him. They seemed to have another goal in mind, one that was much more important than Yan Wushi.

It was very difficult for the horses to move in the desert. As the sandstorm got stronger, the group had to dismount and walk the horses on foot. As a group of martial artists, they traveled pretty fast and actually made quite a distance from the little town in a day’s time. There was nothing but sand as far as their eyes could see. Even martial artists could do nothing about it. Fortunately, they were well prepared and had already covered their heads with cloaks and coverchiefs, thus avoiding filling their mouths with sand.

The one leading the team was a middle-aged man who was far from handsome. Shen Qiao didn’t know the person, nor did Chen Gong show any intent to introduce him. But the man clearly didn’t know martial arts and was not together with Murong Qin. Chen Gong had probably brought him to scout for them.

Holding a compass in his hand, the man sat high on a horse. He was in charge of finding the bearings, so he had people lead the horse for him.

Suddenly, he raised one hand up in the air.

In almost the next second, Murong Qin shouted, “Halt!”

Everyone stopped. All of them stared at the middle-aged man from behind.

The man looked down and studied his compass for quite some time. Then he turned around and ran up to Chen Gong, wiping the sweat off his face with a coverchief as he said, “My Lord, this is…this is strange. The compass stopped working after we got here!”

Chen Gong frowned, “But didn’t you say that we should go this way?”

Under Chen Gong’s piercing gaze, the middle-aged man almost failed to utter a complete sentence, “Yes! Yes, I did! But now…Please take a look at this!”

He handed the compass over to Chen Gong. The latter glanced at it —— the pointer was spinning crazily with no sign of slowing down.

Chen Gong, of course, didn’t understand. “What does this mean?”

The man smiled apologetically, “If I have guessed correctly, the ancient city Ruoqiang that you’re looking for is right below us. There must be something in there that’s interfering with the compass. It might even be the chalcedony you want. But because of this interference, I am unable to locate the real entrance to the ruins!”

The group raised their heads and looked around: all they could see was the vast, yellow expanse of sands, blurring even the boundary between the sky and the ground. Occasionally, they could spot a few bare rocks nearby, but there was not the slightest sign of the so-called ancient ruins.

Chen Gong asked Murong Qin, “What do you think?”

Murong Qin thought for a moment and replied, “My Lord, what about we wait for the sandstorm to stop first?”

Chen Gong knitted his brows once again, “But there’s no shelter around here.”

He turned back to the guide. “Should we keep going or stop right here? You make the call.”

Chen Gong sounded very casual, but the other man absolutely dared not take it lightly. He hesitated, fearing that his words would lead them down the wrong way and eventually cost his own life. Scratching his head in anxiety, he stammered, “We’ll…it’s…”

Chen Gong said coldly, “Think carefully before you answer.”

The middle-aged man shuddered and blurted out at once, “We should keep going!”

Chen Gong asked, “Are you sure?”

“Yes! Yes! I’ll lead the way. According to the compass, the destination should be somewhere around this area. There’s no mistake. We can definitely find it if we just search a bit more!”

“Let’s go then.”

The troop continued forwards, and Shen Qiao followed after them. He looked back at Yan Wushi who was now leaning behind him, hesitated a moment and asked, “Are you Yan Wushi? Or someone else right now?”

The other person quietly extended out a hand from underneath the robe and grabbed Shen Qiao’s wrist on the hand that was holding the reins. “It’s me. Ah-Yan.”

“…” Shen Qiao was speechless, but at the same time, he also felt somewhat relieved.

It was true that he had saved Yan Wushi’s life, but deep inside him, he didn’t want to have too much contact with the man.

From Shen Qiao’s perspective, let it be “Ah-Yan” or “Xie Ling”, both of these personalities which had split off from Yan Wushi as the result of the great change in his temperament were much easier to talk to than the original person —— at least when Shen Qiao was with them, he was able to see them not as Yan Wushi, but as two different people.

Suddenly, someone at the front screamed, “My Lord, the man’s gone!”

Chapter 62: There may be hundreds of thousands of Chen Gongs in this world, but there is only one Shen Qiao.

As soon as the words were out, everyone stared over and sure enough, the middle-aged man was nowhere to be seen. The air was getting thicker before them; whipped by gusts of wind, sands formed swirls on the ground. Visibility had dropped to its lowest. Amid the blowing sandstorm, Shen Qiao couldn’t even tell which one was Chen Gong, let alone the middle-aged man.

Murong Qin worked his way up to the front of the group. He pulled Chen Gong back and shouted, “My Lord. The wind is too strong. Let’s take shelter on the side for now!”

Chen Gong clenched his teeth and refuted, “That won’t work. None of us know our way around here. We have to follow the guy closely!”

Right after he finished, the sandstorm became even stronger, and one could see with a lift of their head dark clouds carrying the yellow sand as they swept across the land. The sand made their eyes tear and their vision blurry. Under such a circumstance, even exceptional martial experts would not be able to contend against the mighty force of Heaven. They could only tighten their cloaks and coverchiefs, yet the storm still made it extremely difficult for anyone to move a step.

Shen Qiao tried to bend himself over as much as possible to reduce the wind force while tightly holding Yan Wushi’s wrist.

Alerted, the horses started to wriggle and kick restlessly. Shen Qiao wasn’t looking, and by the time he realized it, he had already lost the reins in his hands. He looked back, but the horses were gone.

There was nothing but howling wind next to his ears, and no other color but blinding yellow before his eyes.

“My Lord, this way…”

Shen Qiao vaguely heard Mutong Qin say so. He hurried over towards the direction of the voice. Suddenly, he missed his step and found himself sliding downwards!

Below him seemed to be a bottomless abyss. The slope was so extremely steep that Shen Qiao felt like he had been falling for ages yet he still hadn’t stepped on firm ground. 

Such a state lasted for quite some time before he finally felt the slope getting slightly flatter. Shen Qiao pressed against the rock behind him and managed to stabilize himself on the incline.

It was pitch black down there. One couldn’t even see their own fingers. But for him, the situation actually felt quite familiar, a feeling he hadn’t experienced for a long time.

The wind that had been whistling next to his ear disappeared. The world around him became dead silent.

All except for the fast and feeble breathing sounds which came from below.

“Who’s there?” Shen Qiao asked.

The breaths paused. After a while, someone said in a faint voice, “…It’s me.”

Shen Qiao groped with his hand to feel the direction of the incline. After a few leaps, he reached the source of the voice, asking, “Why are you down here?”

He clearly remembered that he had released Yan Wushi’s hand before he fell.

Yan Wushi said, “Ah-Qiao, I think my hand is dislocated. And my head hurts too…”

Shen Qiao: “…”

Your head is still cracked. It would be more surprising if it didn’t hurt after you fell from a height like this.

He had no choice but to walk over and ask, “Which one?”

“My right hand.”

Shen Qiao felt his way through and reset the other’s dislocated joint. The latter let out a muffled grumble, but he didn’t whine about the pain this time.

“Wait for me right here. I’ll go take a look at what’s ahead of us,” Shen Qiao said to him.

As soon as he was about to step away, Yan Wushi immediately grabbed the hem of Shen Qiao’s robe.

Shen Qiao asked, “Won’t it make your head hurt more if you get up and walk right now?”

“…No.”

Shen Qiao didn’t want to waste too much time on the conversation. He too feared that if they were to lose direction down here, they might not be able to find the others again. So he said, “Alright. Let’s walk slow and find Chen Gong first.”

Even though they talked quietly, there was still a lingering echo to their voices, indicating that they were in a rather spacious place below the ground —— something like a cave.

But everything happening was so bizarre that they had to make sure they stayed on guard…

The ground underneath was covered with uneven rocks. One could easily trip on them if they were too careless. But these stones didn’t seem to lay in random patterns. Shen Qiao bent down and touched a few of them. To his surprise, they were neatly cut into well-defined shapes and even had chiseling marks on their surfaces, all of which indicated that they were actually man-made products.

Yan Wushi asked, “Ruoqiang?”

Perhaps the fall just now had given him another concussion — his voice sounded somewhat shaky. He tried to avoid talking as much as possible and condensed a sentence like, “Could this place be the Ruoqiang they were talking about,” into just two syllables.

Shen Qiao agreed, “It’s possible.”

He took out a fire stick and lit it up.

The firelight was only enough to brighten the small area around them. However, as soon as Shen Qiao saw the place they were at, his heart sank at once.

Where they were standing right now wasn’t the bottom yet, because just a few steps next to them, the ground dropped sharply once again, forming an enormous, bottomless pit. If they hadn’t fallen right there but instead went a bit faster and directly into that “abyss”, it would be hard to tell what they’d be like now. 

Right around this time, Yan Wushi suddenly whispered next to Shen Qiao’s ear, “Ah-Qiao, I think I saw someone over there just now.”

Shen Qiao asked, “Did you see who the person was?”

But Yan Wushi’s next sentence was slightly hair-raising, “I don’t think it’s a ‘person’.”

The fire stick in their hands made them extremely conspicuous in the dark. If Chen Gong or his men saw them, there was no reason that they would keep silent.

But there was only one way before them. If they didn’t go forward, they could only go back.

Shen Qiao said, “Let’s go the opposite direction then.”

The path was very narrow and only allowed one person to pass at a time.

The firelight flickered and was about to go out, while the darkness was vast and boundless. Humans became so extremely minute and insignificant that they could be engulfed by the darkness at any time.

Yan Wushi suddenly asked, “How did you feel when you were blind before?”

Shen Qiao was slightly startled. After a moment of silence, he said, “Nothing in particular. You eventually get used to it.”

“Why didn’t you hate others because of it?”

Shen Qiao thought for a moment and replied, “I did have complaints, but nothing to the degree of hatred. It’s very tiresome when one puts too much burden on themselves. It is true that there are many malicious minds in this world, but there are also many people who are willing to lend a helping hand. I want to remember them, not the things that only bring me desperation and pain.”

Yan Wushi heaved a sigh, “But all I have seen during our trips are people who treat you illy. Without you, Chen Gong would not be half as well-off as he was today. Not only did he not remember the kindness you had done to him, but he even requited it with enmity, threatening you to explore Ruoqiang with him.”

Shen Qiao said flatly, “There are also good people. You just don’t know. Back then when you handed me to Sang Jingxing and I was forced to destroy my own foundation to take him down, were it not for the little Daoist priest living in the White Dragon Monastery —— who happened to be the young boy that we saved the other day outside the Xiang Prefecture City —— for saving me in time, I would not be standing here and talking to you today. Afterwards, when the Harmony Sects came looking for me, even though the abbot knew that he could save his own life by handing me over to them, he still died for me. Since people like them exist, how could I possibly dare to let myself be carried away by hatred? Shen Qiao’s heart is rather small. There’s only enough room for kind people like them. As for those who’re not worthy to be remembered, I have nothing to spare, not even hatred.”

“What about Yan Wushi? Do you not hate him either?”

“If it isn’t for the fact that your death may very likely affect the political state of Northern Zhou or even the entire world, we would not be having this conversation.”

Yan Wushi laughed, “So you still hate him. It’s just that you’re too forgiving and softhearted that even your hatred doesn’t last very long. Ah-Qiao, your weakness is so obvious. That’s why anyone can use it against you just like Chen Gong. If you took him under control at the beginning and threatened him to hand over Bona’s grandfather, it would be a much better choice than following him all the way here.”

Shen Qiao said, “You’re right. I could have done that. But then you wouldn’t be able to get away from them. Are you saying I should have just left you behind?”

Yan Wushi said softly, “No, but I do understand the reason why the former me treated you the way he did. Because he is suspicious by nature and never trusts anyone. No matter how good you are, he will always want to bring out that dark side in you. He doesn’t understand that you are just you. There may be hundreds of thousands of Chen Gongs in this world, but there is only one Shen Qiao.”

Shen Qiao heaved a sigh, “Now I’m a little convinced that you really aren’t him, because Yan Wushi would never say something like that.”

Yan Wushi said gently, “Of course I’m not him. My name is Ah-Yan!”

“…Don’t you have a headache? Why are you still able to talk so much?”

Yan Wushi stopped saying anything.

As they were talking, they had walked in a single file for about two or three minutes. 

Shen Qiao suddenly stopped.

The fire stick, after giving off its last glow, died down in the darkness.

There was some puzzlement in his voice, “Did we just come back to where we started?”

At the end of the narrow path was a pitch-dark cave entrance, just like what they had seen on the other end.

“Could it be that this place is an enclosed circle, and we just walked from one end to the other?”

As soon as he finished, he heard someone say from the front, “Is it Daoist Priest Shen over there?”

It was Tuoba Liangzhe’s voice.

Shen Qiao raised his voice and replied, “Yes! Where are you?”

Tuoba Liangzhe said, “I fell down from above as well, hit my head and passed out and just woke up. May I ask if you have seen our lord and his men?”

“Not yet. We couldn’t get out of here after the fall. Have you found anything yet?”

“There’s an entrance that seems to lead to a staircase, but it’s too dark for me to tell. I lost my fire sticks when I fell. Do you have any extras?”

“We have one more.”

No matter what political position they held, they were now on the same boat and would have to make concerted efforts if they wanted to get somewhere.

Shen Qiao lit the fire stick and walked over. Tuoba Liangzhe was already waiting for them at the entrance. Looking closely, it wasn’t hard to see the large bloodstain on his forehead.

Tuoba Liangzhe asked, “Did you see any other exit on your way here?”

“No.”

“Then it looks like we have no choice but to go down.”

Right at this moment, Shen Qiao suddenly saw a hairy hand behind Tuoba Liangzhe, its five fingers neatly spread out and nails glinting red, ready to place itself on the man’s shoulder.

The creature had approached without making a sound. Even they did not see it coming and couldn’t tell whether it was a human or not.

Before Shen Qiao said anything, Tuoba Liangzhe seemed to sense that something was not right. He turned around and immediately thrust his swords forward.

But the sword did not pierce the creature’s body. As if it was met by an iron wall, the tip of the sword actually curled a little.

Tuoba Liangzhe quickly retreated. Shen Qiao shoved the fire stick into Yan Wushi’s hand as he drew out the Grieving Celestial Sword and charged over.

The other figure was tall and sturdy and didn’t look like anyone from their group. Shen Qiao, remembering how Yan Wushi said it “may be non-human”, didn’t dare to take the risk. Wrapped by inner qi, his sword glowed a faint white. Even if the other party was a real iron wall, the sword would still be able to pierce through it.

However, despite its heavy and clumsy-looking figure, the monster was very quick. It twisted about and was actually able to dodge Shen Qiao’s sword. As if it was more interested in Tuoba Liangzhe, it unfolded its claws and snatched right at him!

As they got closer, Shen Qiao could feel the stink hitting his face. The monster was covered with hair, its eyes suffused with a faint green glow, looking more like an ape.

It all happened so fast. Tuoba Liangzhe thought that Shen Qiao had shared most of the pressure, but he did not expect that the ape would make an unflagging effort and rush towards him again. On his right was the bottomless abyss, and behind him was Yan Wushi. There wasn’t much space for him to dodge about. He had no choice but to climb up the left stone wall and move forwards quite a few feet with only a couple of leaps.

However, the ape chased closely after them, climbing at a speed even faster than these martial artists! It was about to catch Tuoba Liangzhe in no time! 

The latter lowered his body and stepped to the side, then he made a move which Shen Qiao did not expect —— 

He grabbed at Yan Wushi, hoping to throw the man at the ape in order to free himself.

Out of his surprise, his hand missed!

Chapter 63: He could still feel a bit of warmth in his chest.

The ape threw itself at Tuoba Liangzhe, and they both fell into the deep abyss. Only Tuoba Liangzhe’s cry echoed across the empty space, lingering for quite some time before it ceased.

Yan Wushi, whom Tuoba Liangzhe had originally planned to use as his scapegoat, stood with his back against the stone wall, panting. His face was as pale as that of a ghost. Under the flickering candlelight, it seemed to possess an almost apathetic coldness.

Shen Qiao let out a sigh of relief. “Are you alright?” he asked as he walked over to take Yan Wushi’s pulse.

Yan Wushi turned a little stiff as Shen Qiao’s hand touched his, but he soon relaxed and let the other person have his wrist.

Shen Qiao knitted his brows, but it wasn’t because of Yan Wushi’s reaction.

“How come your inner qi is even more chaotic now? It’s like they are fighting over each other inside your body!”

“I had to use my inner qi just now,” Yan Wushi said.

Shen Qiao was surprised that he could almost hear how burnt out the other person was simply from these few words.

Before he was able to respond, Yan Wushi was already collapsing towards him.

Shen Qiao had no choice but to extend his arms to keep the man from falling. The latter’s body was so cold that it gave Shen Qiao, who was totally unprepared, a shudder.

In fact, the situation was somewhat similar to the time when Yan Wushi had a qi deviation after his fight with Ruyan Kehui in the Chen Dynasty.

And the root cause of his current illness also started on that same day.

Yan Wushi was trembling as well. It made him subconsciously want to snuggle close to Shen Qiao to draw more warmth.

Due to what happened last time, Shen Qiao dared not pass inner qi to him anymore. “How do you feel? If you can’t walk, we can rest here first.”

Yan Wushi clenched his teeth and said with great efforts, “Let’s go…”

Shen Qiao sighed. He bent down and carried Yan Wushi on his back; then, using his sword as a walking stick, walked towards the cave entrance.

Sect master Yan who was once unrivalled in the pugilistic world probably had never imagined even in his dreams that he would be in such a state one day.

They didn’t have any more fire sticks left, but before the last one went off, Shen Qiao did see a flight of steps behind the cave entrance. It was extremely steep, but the existence of stairs was also a sign that there must be people living down there at one point in history —— ten to one it was the ancient city of Ruoqiang that Chen Gong was looking for.

The person on Shen Qiao’s back was still shivering slightly. But he had such a strong will that he refused to let out any groans.

The ape that attacked us earlier must have waited here for a long time. In that case, since it took Tuoba Liangzhe as it jumped off, does that mean what’s below isn’t the aforementioned abyss, but a path leading somewhere else?

Shen Qiao climbed down the stairs step by step as he thought about it.

Yan Wushi said hoarsely, “I’m not your Ah-Yan.”

“I know.”

From Yan Wushi’s expression as he watched Tuoba Liangzhe fall off the edge and the way he reacted when Shen Qiao touched his gate of vitality, Shen Qiao knew that the other person had probably switched personalities once again.

After spending several days together, Shen Qiao more or less had some clues.

Out of the several personalities he had, one of them was the original one, which could just be referred to as Yan Wushi.

One was the “Xie Ling” who would call Shen Qiao “Pretty Brother.” This one may be a bit naive, but he was just as cautious and didn’t talk a lot. However, he trusted Shen Qiao, perhaps because Shen Qiao was the first person he saw after waking up, or perhaps he could tell that Shen Qiao had no malicious intentions towards him. In any way, “Xie Ling” did whatever he was told to do, which saved Shen Qiao a lot of worries. The real Yan Wushi would never do something like this.

Another one was the “Ah-Yan” whom Shen Qiao had been talking to just now. This personality had a rather gentle temperament and was capable of discussing certain matters. Among all of Yan Wushi’s personalities, it was probably the easiest to get along with.

Shen Qiao asked, “Who are you right now?”

But Yan Wushi’s response was rather paradoxical: “I’m him, yet I’m not him.”

He must be in great pain at the moment, since the inner qi in his body had been roaming around in disarray. But if he didn’t want to focus so much on the agony, he had no other choice but to use talking as a way to distract himself.

“So you’re neither Yan Wushi, Xie Ling, nor Ah-Yan?”

Yan Wushi said, “I don’t know. My mind is a mess right now. Sometimes I can remember certain things, but sometimes I feel those things didn’t actually happen to me. Maybe I can’t even tell what I did a moment ago…”

Shen Qiao was already used to dealing with this situation. “Once we find the jade cistanche, things should become better.

“Jade cistanche can only cure external injuries. It’s useless against internal ones.”

“Then what do we need to do to help you recover?”

“Wait till I fix the flaws in the Fundamental Records of Phoenix and Qilin.”

“Didn’t you say that the flaws in your Demonic Core were not fixable?”

Shen Qiao’s slightly surprised voice echoed down the tunnel.

Yan Wushi couldn’t remember much right now, but he still remembered how “he” had treated Shen Qiao in the past: the desperation in the other person’s eyes when he handed him to Sang Jingxing with his own hands, and Shen Qiao’s words to “him” —— “The reason I am betrayed over and over again is not because I am too naive, but because I believe that kindness exists in this world. Without fools like me, where would Sect Master Yan find your pleasure?”

It hadn’t been long since that day.

How did Shen Qiao feel when he faced “Yan Wushi” once again?

“I’ve found the way to do it already,” he said flatly.

He could still feel a bit of warmth in his chest. It was what “Xie Ling’ and “Ah-Yan” had left there, the feeling they had whenever they thought of Shen Qiao.

However, Yan Wushi forcefully wiped it from his heart. His eyes fell on a place not far from Shen Qiao.

“Someone’s there,” he said.

Almost at the same time, Shen Qiao stopped.

He too heard that fleeting yet heavy breathing sound.

“Who’s there?” Shen Qiao asked.

Glowing in the dark like two lamps from hell, a pair of faint green eyes floated in midair and stared at them.

At the same time, the strong smell of blood started to reek in the area. 

The ancient ruins of Ruoqiang, a place that humans hadn’t set foot on for years, was indeed full of dangers.

Chapter 64: Nobody would dare to look down at Shen Qiao anymore.

Shen Qiao stopped. The other party didn’t advance either. They stood opposite each other, and the air between them became rather strange.

Shen Qiao had already seen the same kind of green-glowing eyes on the other monkey earlier, so he wasn’t very surprised to see them again. He just felt a little strange. Why were there so many monkeys in such an ancient ruin which had been desolated and sealed up for many years?

Were they really able to live here for hundreds of years without any food or water?

Seeing that Shen Qiao made no moves and showed no signs of impatience, the owner of the pair of green eyes couldn’t hold back anymore. The green glow flashed and then disappeared, and everything once again returned to darkness. Even the stink of blood quickly faded in the air.

Did it really leave this easily?

The stairs ran deep. As Shen Qiao groped his way through, he discovered that there were decorative patterns carved on the walls on both sides of the stairs. Apparently, this place once belonged to a bustling city. However, after Loulan annexed Ruoqiang, the country completely disappeared from historical records, together with its people and countless treasures. Perhaps Loulan took everything with them, or perhaps they just passed into oblivion. In any case, not a word about them was heard again in the ever-flowing river of history.

Shen Qiao climbed down the stairs step by step, carrying Yan Wushi on his back. The darkness reaching far out into the emptiness seemed to slow each step infinitely. Yan Wushi’s breaths hovered next to Shen Qiao’s ears, sounding a bit heavy because he was injured and was unable to repress them. The faint heat they brought, and the sound of the Grieving Celestial Sword as Shen Qiao tapped it on the ground scanning for the path —— all of these trivial details seemed to give Shen Qiao the illusion of an endless road.

If there is no end to it, then why not stop and rest?

We won’t be able to leave no matter how far we walk… 

Suddenly, he felt a sharp, cold sting on his nape. Yan Wushi had touched him with his hand, and it made Shen Qiao shudder involuntarily.

The place was so poorly ventilated for so long that it was inevitable for people to feel stuffy after staying here for a long time. Their thoughts would become sluggish, and therefore it was easy for them to feel muddle-headed as well.

Shen Qiao was too busy thinking about that monkey just now that he failed to notice this and almost fell for the same trick.

“Thanks,” he said.

Yan Wushi did not reply.

Shen Qiao was used to it. The inner qi in Yan Wushi’s body was in disorder. The person could hardly control himself and was constantly switching between his several personalities. The current one probably didn’t like to talk.

The two walked a little further. Suddenly, Shen Qiao felt that the stairs underneath him had disappeared, the walls on the sides gone as well. He was now stepping on flat ground. However, the current situation only made them more uncomfortable, because they could not guess how large this empty area was or whether there would be traps taking them by surprise from below.

A sword was approaching Shen Qiao’s face soundlessly. In the darkness, even its cold body which used to shine like chilly water had lost its lustre.

But Shen Qiao had stayed in the dark for a long time. He was used to listening to everything with his ears, and his ears were exceptionally sharp. The tip of that sword was still an inch away from his eyes, but he had already jumped off the ground and started moving backwards rapidly, holding his sword across his chest. With a loud clang of metals, the other party’s tempestuous attack was completely dissolved by this simple action.

“What kind of demons are you?! Tell me your name!”

Before Shen Qiao could speak, the other party had asked first.

Feeling slightly awkward, Shen Qiao challenged back, “Then please inform me of your name first.”

This time, the other person actually recognized his voice and asked, “Is it Daoist Priest Shen?”

“And you are?”

“I’m Chu Ping. I came together with the lord.”

Chen Gong had brought more than a dozen people with him. Besides those like Murong Qin whom Shen Qiao was already acquainted with, he had close to no interactions with the rest of the team.

Shen Qiao admitted, and then asked, “Where’s Chen Gong?”

Chu Ping said, “They’re in front of us. A monkey-like monster took away two of our men just now, so I thought you were… Please excuse me, and follow me this way!”

His voice still sounded a bit shaky, and he was panting as he spoke —— the person clearly had just finished a tough fight. 

“Are there any traps around this place?”

“Not that I know of. This place should be a terrace, and there’s a turn right at the front. Lord and the others are just around the corner.”

Shen Qiao followed Chu Ping and used the sound of the latter’s footsteps to determine the direction they were heading. A moment later, he heard someone ask, “Who is it?”

Chu Ping answered, “It’s me, Patriarch Murong. I’ve found Daoist Priest Shen.”

Murong Qin’s voice sounded a little tense, “Hurry up and come over!”

Chu Ping became nervous as well. “What’s wrong? Did the monkey come again?”

Murong Qin did not speak. Soon, they heard a light screech in the dark, and there was a small flame in his hand. 

By the fire light, Shen Qiao saw that there were other people standing next to Murong Qin. But, the group seemed to have decreased in number compared to when they first arrived.

After seeing that it was Shen Qiao who had come, Chen Gong looked much more relaxed. “I’m glad you two are safe.”

“What happened?” Shen Qiao asked.

“The storm blew away the sand that covered the deep pit, so we fell down the hole which turned out to be connected to the ancient city of Ruoqiang. However, this place is quite large. Since our men were separated by the fall, it took us some time to bring everyone back together.”

“Where should we go now?”

Surprisingly, Chen Gong answered each of his questions. “My men did a quick scouting around just now. If I have guessed correctly, our current location is still within the original city wall. Jade cistanche grows under the ground, and therefore we must find the passage leading to the underground portion of the city and proceed further from there.”

Shen Qiao said, “This city has been buried by the sand for hundreds of years. Even if there once was a passage, it has probably been blocked by now. We may not even be able to find it before we run out of supplies.”

Chen Gong said, “You may rest assured. I happened to see a cartography sketch of Ruoqiang before I came and have some idea of where the passage may be. Back then, the Ruoqiang people built an altar on the north side of the royal city. The passage should be right below the altar, so all we have to do right now is find that altar in the north.”

He then continued, “There are some monsters down here. I’m sure you’ve seen them on your way over. Probably some kind of monkeys that live around this place. They have sharp ears and eyes and are used to living in the dark, and their speed is very much comparable to that of a martial artist. We need to be careful and not make the same mistake again.”

He wasn’t just talking to Shen Qiao, but more to those subordinates accompanying him. Perhaps because they had just lost a few members due to some reason or another, everyone agreed in chorus right away. Then, with Murong Qin leading the way, they all followed the spark in his hand and proceeded.

Since they had more people now, everyone seemed to be much more relieved, feeling that they had at least someone to depend on. Especially after Shen Qiao joined —— ever since they had witnessed with their own eyes in the capital city of Tuyuhun how Shen Qiao was capable of fighting against Dou Yanshan and Yu Ai by himself yet showed no sign of disadvantages, they all had already placed Shen Qiao among the first-rate martial experts in their minds.

Not many knew about Kunye’s death at this time. Once that news spread out, nobody would probably dare to look down at Shen Qiao anymore.

This was just how materialistic the pugilistic world was. Underneath the lofty ideals and noble swords laid the same set of worldly principles —— the survival of the fittest and the admiration to those who were strong.

Those monkeys hidden in the dark were probably daunted by how many people they had and didn’t dare to come out. So, Chen Gong’s group was able to travel in peace for quite a long time. Since Ruoqiang was only a small country even before its destruction, it was reasonable to conclude that its capital would not be very large either. The distance they had traveled should be more than enough for them to go from the south part of the city all the way north.

They all had doubts, but due to the gap between their social statuses, no one dared to question Chen Gong. Only Shen Qiao asked, “How long do we still need to go?”

Chen Gong was also somewhat uncertain. After all, what he saw inside the imperial palace of Qi was only a fragment of the cartograph passed down from the Han Dynasty. “We should be close now,” he said.

However, as soon as he finished, someone in their group suddenly shouted in a low voice, “Sixth young master is missing!”

Another cry followed immediately after, “What is this?!”

In order to save the fire sticks, Murong Qin was the only person in the group who had one lit. Before he was able to pass the fire stick over, someone was already fumbling in their pockets in panic, hoping to find another one to light up. But because he was too nervous, his hand trembled and the fire stick dropped right on the ground.

Murong Qin hurried over. The small fire lit up the ground, and they immediately saw a hairy spider on the fire stick that they had just dropped. It was dark gray all over, and its body —— not including the legs —— was already close to the size of a grown man’s palm. On its back were three white stripes that looked like a person’s face with closed eyes. Once the spider started to move, the “eyes” would open, as if they were “blinking”.

The people had never seen anything creepy like this. They were not afraid, but all of them did feel their hair standing on end and they felt utterly nauseous.

Some of them couldn’t stand it anymore and swung their swords at the spider, cutting it right in half. However, more baby spiders instantly swarmed out of its abdomen and started crawling towards their feet one after another.

“Sixth young master! It’s the sixth young master!”

Another person lit up a fire stick. As the light flickered and hovered to the ground further away, they immediately saw a corpse lying over there. They still recognized the clothes it was wearing, but the body was so completely dried up that the skin was wrapped tightly around its bones, looking quite gruesome. 

“Don’t let these get close to us!” Murong Qin shouted in a stern voice.

He drew out his sword as he spoke, and with a few swift flashes of sword lights, he killed all the spiders that were coming towards him and Chen Gong.

But the others were not as lucky. The baby spiders moved at an extremely fast speed. They climbed up along people’s feet and trouser legs and went through every slit they could find. As soon as they touched warm human skin, they would immediately inject venom and paralyze their prey. Those people wouldn’t feel anything or even make a sound until the spiders sucked up all of their blood.

In the blink of an eye, a few more members fell. These people didn’t know much martial arts except a few punches and kicks and they mostly only served Chen Gong as his lackeys. They had no chance of fighting back and collapsed silently just like the sixth young master of the Murong Family.

Upon seeing this, the other people were horrified. No one dared to let down their guard anymore. They all took out their weapons and started attacking those spiders. But the spiders were too small and continued to rush out from nowhere. In addition to the dim lighting and nervousness, they couldn’t help but miss a few of them. As soon as they hit a big one, small ones would start crawling out of it. The number of spiders simply looked endless and impossible to defend against. 

All except for where Shen Qiao was: shrouded by the sword light of the Grieving Celestial Sword, not even one spider was able to get close. He shielded Yan Wushi behind him, and the sword light tightly surrounded them, not letting a single drop of water through. It was like a silver waterfall against the darkness, so bright and dazzling that it was hard for people to look away.

The spiders tended to impose upon the weak but feared the strong. As soon as they realized that they couldn’t get close to Shen Qiao, they immediately turned around and rushed towards the others. 

Chen Gong scolded his men angrily, “Who told you to stab them on the abdomen? Just set a fire and burn them all!”

He had also kept himself busy, with one hand holding his sword and the other swinging a fire stick back and forth over the ground. The spiders feared the firelight and didn’t dare to come up, so he was able to take the opportunity and burn some of them. 

However, they only had a limited amount of fire sticks after all. Seeing that the spiders were still pouring forth in endless waves while he had already lost a few people on his side, Chen Gong had no choice but to order, “Run straight!”

Unfortunately, disaster loved company. Right at this moment, they felt a chilly gust of wind behind them, and before they could react, another person fell facedown with an awful scream.

“It’s the demon monkeys! Those monkeys are back!” someone shouted frantically.

Caught between two fires, the people had no place to escape even if they wanted to. In extreme fear, they unconsciously gathered around Murong Qin and Shen Qiao, for those two were the strongest people among the group. So far, they were still capable of handling everything with ease without a scratch.

But things weren’t easy for Shen Qiao either: two monkeys were pouncing on him at the same time. On one hand, he had to deal with the spiders in front of him, and on the other hand, he had to manage the two monkeys from behind while keeping Yan Wushi safe at the same time. With the three events happening together, he was simply too busy for anything else.

Just like Chen Gong said, the monkeys had stayed in the dark for too long that they had already developed night vision. They were like a bunch of cunning hunters hiding in shadows, watching with cold eyes as the people ran around in circles under the spiders’ besiege, waiting for the best timing to deliver the killing blow.

The clashing of weapons rang through the cave. However, many people noticed that their sword strikes, despite appearing to be able to pierce the monkeys’ chests easily, were either blocked by the hard skin underneath the fur or dodged by the monkeys at the last moment. After a few turns, they not only had to worry about those blood-sucking spiders but also had to deal with the monkeys with inexhaustible energy. Not long after, the entire group was exhausted from all the running about and they were more or less wounded.

The monkeys’ nails seemed to possess a certain poison as well, for the scratches they made soon began to burn.

“The monkeys are the spiders’ natural enemy. As soon as they appeared, the spiders retreated.”

Yan Wushi suddenly spoke up. His voice sounded weak and hoarse; it no longer had the kind of arrogance it used to have before as if everything was under his control. But as soon as he spoke, it always had the power which made people unconsciously listen to him attentively.

Everyone who heard this sentence flickered for a second. In between their fighting with the monkeys, many people glanced at the ground, and sure enough, all those spiders whose mere sight gave them horror were gone.

Without the spiders impeding them, everyone felt an uplift in spirits as if a load had been taken off their mind. For a moment, streams of inner qi and sword qi swept across the cave. Even those monkeys were forced to retreat a few steps.

But the peace did not last long. Along with a long hiss, which sounded like a woman’s wailing, suddenly tore through the darkness, the monkeys’ attack became fierce again. Some of them threw themselves forward even after they were wounded by other people’s inner qi as if nothing could stop them except for death.

Shen Qiao said to Yan Wushi, “The monkeys must be following a leader’s commands. There will be no peace until we catch it. You can stay with Murong Qin for protection for now, since I will go search for that leader and may not be able to take care of you for a while.”

Yan Wushi agreed, but said nothing more.

But they weren’t friends in the first place —— nor enemies either, at least not yet. In terms of his current personality, it was different from his original one, but they were equally coldhearted. In fact, Shen Qiao would be rather surprised if the other person actually said something like “be careful”.

He watched as Yan Wushi disappeared into the protruding crevices against the wall. After making sure that the monkeys would not find him for a moment, Shen Qiao leaped up the stone wall and, using the cracks on it as landing spots, moved towards the source of the shriek. After a few ups and downs, he quickly disappeared into the darkness as well.

With a sword in one hand and his Daoist robe fluttering behind him, Shen Qiao glided across the ground without bringing up a speck of dust. He must have looked very much like an immortal if seen under broad daylight and would have attracted countless eyes. Unfortunately, in a place like this, everyone was too busy struggling to survive. Only Yan Wushi cast a meaningful glance at his vanishing figure, then, instead of going to Chen Gong and Murong Qin for shelter like Shen Qiao had told him to, he walked past everyone straight into the deeper darkness.

No one noticed his disappearance, including Shen Qiao, who had been listening carefully with his eyes closed, searching for the location of the monkey leader. But it made no sound after that cry, so he could only look for it based on his previous impression.

The clashing and clinking of weapons from below grew farther and farther away. Shen Qiao held his breath and became one with the ruins behind him as he focused on the boundless tranquility and unknown brought by the darkness.

All of a sudden, the cry sounded once again!

It was long and wistful at first, then it suddenly changed to a sharp note, something like a bugle or signal that made the monkey group below start attacking Chen Gong and his group frantically again.

This was the time!

Clang——!

The Grieving Celestial Sword shot out of its sheath with a crisp sound similar to the cry of a phoenix nestling!

Shen Qiao tapped his feet on the ground and leaped into the darkness.

There was no place to stand, but he was able to soar through the air. The strike itself was not fancy, but it was extremely fast that its sword light almost wrapped Shen Qiao’s entire body as it turned into a bright white light flashing through the sky. With a slight tinge of purple, the light shot straight towards the source of the sound!

Midway through, the sword light suddenly brightened. The monkey was not dead and must have sensed the threat. But as the leader of the monkeys, the king of this ancient ruin, it had ruled over the place for so long that when it saw someone dared to challenge its authority, the first thought it had was not to run away but to be irritated and pounce upon Shen Qiao. 

Under the bright sword light, Shen Qiao finally realized that different from the rest of the monkeys, this one had the face of a man. What was even more bizarre was that on its hairy human face were a pair of green glowing eyes, gazing at Shen Qiao with bitter resentment. A pair of sharp claws carried with it the stink of blood mixed with an inexplicable strange smell completely ignored Shen Qiao’s sword light and pressed down from above with mountain-like momentum!

Shen Qiao suddenly remembered what the smell was —— it was the smell that permeated the air as the spiders died all over the ground. These monkeys had spent a long time living underground. Without other food sources, they must have fed on the spiders and therefore gradually became the spider’s natural enemies over time. This was why the spiders all fled as soon as the monkeys appeared.

But with so many people appearing all of a sudden, to the monkeys it was like finding a lot of extra food. They were naturally attracted and started pursuing after them relentlessly.

The monkey didn’t know how powerful the sword light was. It thought its skin was as strong as iron, so it showed no fear and struck out its claws. The attack carried with it a strong wind and a fishy stink. If one were firmly hit by it, they would definitely have their brain matter splattered.

The two crossed paths: the inner qi wrapped around the sword light pierced right through the skin on the monkey’s chest, and the tip of the sword was an inch into the flesh. 

The monkey leader was both shocked and furious. It immediately made a shrill cry. Upon hearing it, all of the monkeys surrounding Chen Gong’s party abandoned their original target and, bouncing a few times on the wall, turned straight to Shen Qiao! 

These monkeys not only had powerful attacks and crisp movements, their skin was also hard as iron. Normal weapons couldn’t even cut through it. Even the Grieving Celestial Sword could only hurt them when infused with inner qi. If they were to fight one-on-one, Shen Qiao wouldn’t have any concerns. But if ten or more were to hop on him at the same time, it would be too much to take even for a grandmaster level martial artist like Zen Master Xueting.

He immediately withdrew his sword and retreated. However, since Shen Qiao had injured the monkey leader, it refused to let him leave so easily. Not only did it throw itself towards Shen Qiao, it also ordered the rest of the pack to encircle him.

Seeing that all of the monkeys were lured away by Shen Qiao, Murong Qin quickly said to Chen Gong, “Lord. We better hurry and leave now!”

But Chen Gong refused, “No. Go help him!”

Murong Qin was slightly surprised, “My Lord?”

Chen Gong said with a frown, “We’re on the same boat right now. Shen Qiao can be a lot of help to us. We should help him as much as we can!”

After he finished, he carried his sword and jumped up first.

Murong Qin and the rest had no choice but to grit their teeth and follow.

However, the monkey chief had a very strong enmity towards Shen Qiao for hurting it that it could think about nothing else except for tearing this human apart. Other monkeys, under the might of their leader, were no longer in the mood to fight with Chen Gong’s group. They all rushed towards Shen Qiao. In fact, the appearance of Chen Gong and his men only made them even more crazy and irritable. They were so dauntless and unstoppable that even Chen Gong carelessly got a cut on his arm so deep that one could almost see the bone underneath.

Upon seeing this, Murong Qin called out anxiously, “Lord!”

He was busy applying medicine on Chen Gong while the others shrank back in fear after seeing what happened.

Shen Qiao had no connections with them. Even though he was now trapped because he wanted to capture the monkey leader first, it happened to solve their crisis at the same time.

Murong Qin lowered his voice and said to Chen Gong, “There’s no time to lose, my lord. We need to hurry and leave now! If these demon monkeys kill Shen Qiao, they’ll immediately turn to us and it will be too late.”

After a moment of silence, Chen Gong finally made his decision. “Withdraw!”

Before he left, he turned around and glanced for the last time: surrounded by the monkeys’ frantic, spine-chilling roars, the few bands of sword light seemed fierce but lonely. It was hard to say how much longer they could hold up.

Chen Gong turned back and left with Murong Qin and the others without hesitation.

Shen Qiao killed two monkeys, and he indeed started to feel tired.

After all, his martial power hadn’t recovered to its full bloom yet, not to mention that these monkeys threw themselves at the sword qi one after another as if they were out of their minds. However, the sword qi was not endless. As Shen Qiao’s sword made a long cut on one of the monkey’s chests, the monkey’s blood splashed onto his face, immediately hitting him with its disgusting stink. Even Shen Qiao couldn’t help but pause slightly.

While the other monkeys were attacking Shen Qiao, the leader had been waiting patiently on the side for an opportunity. Now, it finally spotted its chance. With a thundering roar, it pounced on Shen Qiao and locked him in its arms while knocking him backward!

Shen Qiao was tightly embraced by it. Unable to free himself, he couldn’t help but fall backwards uncontrollably. The next second, he lost his footing and fell into a deep hole.

Right at this moment, the monkey leader released him. Taking the advantage that the other monkeys were pulling it by its tail, it knocked Shen Qiao into the deep pit angrily. Then it howled loudly as if it was celebrating its victory! 

Bearing Shen Qiao’s weight, the Grieving Celestial Sword left a trace of sparks on the stone wall, but Shen Qiao was still unable to stop himself from falling farther. This place was like a real abyss: no one knew how long it would take to hit the bottom. Shen Qiao’s arm was getting sore; every wound on him was hurting —— he had gotten them while fighting with the pack of monkeys, and now they were burning extremely painfully.

Shen Qiao looked down. There was a faint red glow down there. He couldn’t tell what it was.

He couldn’t feel his arm anymore. With momentary carelessness, the Grieving Celestial Sword missed the wall and he immediately started to drop!

But as soon as he felt himself falling, someone had already firmly grabbed him by the other arm!

Shen Qiao raised his head and saw that Yan Wushi had suddenly appeared out of nowhere. In order to catch Shen Qiao, he had extended his entire upper body over the edge.

“Hold on tight!” he said to Shen Qiao sternly.

Chapter 65: Why don’t you ask me?

With this acting as a cushion, Shen Qiao was able to readjust his breath. He focused his strength into his hand, and the Grieving Celestial Sword sunk deeply into the stone wall. Then, stepping on the jutting edge of the crevices, he held his breath, leaped up, and landed where Yan Wushi was hiding with a flip.

It was not a cave, but a crevice formed by the cracking of the wall due to age. After the city was buried by wind and sand for many years, it had already become one with the underground world.

Before he could ask, Yan Wushi already said, “What’s down there should be the red chalcedony Chen Gong is looking for.”

Shen Qiao had been busy fastening himself to the wall just now. Therefore, he did not pay much attention. As he looked down, he found that there was actually a red glow. Under broad daylight, the red glow was just the light of the ore itself and would not be considered dazzling, but in the dark, it was enough to light people’s faces.

They made several turns on their way from there to the front, and there was chalcedony lighting on both sides. However, the chalcedonies were all deeply embedded into the rocks. There was no way to dig them out. They were surely beautiful enough, but what did Chen Gong need them for? The emperor of Qi very much favored him and showered him with endless glory and wealth —— even Murong Qin now served him loyally, not to mention all the money and treasures he had. The Chen Gong before had nothing and would probably risk his life for the chalcedony, but today’s Chen Gong had so much more. Why did he still decide to come here despite all the risks?

Shen Qiao withdrew his gaze and turned back his head. “Thank you very much. Why are you here?”

But Yan Wushi did not answer his question, “There’s a shortcut leading to the place below.”

Shen Qiao asked, “Have you been there already?”

“I didn’t get close. There are still two monkeys around there guarding it.”

“Did you see the jade cistanche?”

Yan Wushi gave a positive reply.

Shen Qiao briefly checked his own status: there were more than a dozen or so cuts on him, big and small, most of which were scratches from fighting with the monkeys while he was protecting Yan Wushi. Others included bruises and scuffings from the fall, but they were all external injuries. Even if the monkey’s claws were poisonous, the poison was weak enough to be easily forced out of his body through the circulation of his inner qi.

Compared to theirs, the injuries on Chen Gong’s side were slightly more severe.

Yan Wushi said, “The monkeys have lived here for hundreds of years without daylight, feeding on human-faced spiders and jade cistanche. Their skin is so hard that it can’t be penetrated unless one uses sharp weapons infused with inner qi, and their bodies are as lithe as that of a swallow. This is what makes them so difficult to deal with.”

However, Shen Qiao actually felt uplifted. “Let’s go then. Now that we’re here, we should as well finish the last step. Once we have the jade cistanche, we can heal your external injuries soon.”

Yan Wushi glanced at him, “Do you need to take a rest?”

Shen Qiao shook his head, “Let’s get the jade cistanche first, just in case we run into Chen Gong later and things become unpredictable again.”

Yan Wushi nodded and didn’t make any more comments. “Follow me.”

He got up and led the way in the front while Shen Qiao followed behind him.

After they left the chalcedony cluster, the red glow disappeared, and the path was once again shrouded by darkness. They tried to walk with light footsteps; amidst the rustling of their clothes, the two people’s breathing sounds intertwined with each other, with one behind the other location-wise, creating an atmosphere which might seem intimate but was in fact estranged at its core.

The trip was not short, and there were quite a few crooks and turns along the way. Yan Wushi moved at a slightly faster pace since he had already walked it once. After about fifteen minutes, he suddenly halted. Luckily, Shen Qiao reacted fast and stopped himself in time, otherwise, he would have directly bumped into Yan Wushi.

“It’s right in front…” Yan Wushi turned around and said softly.

However, before he could finish, a stinky gust of wind greeted their faces. Shen Qiao pulled Yan Wushi behind himself and held up the sword in his right hand to block it.

A weight of a thousand pounds suddenly pressed down from above. Shen Qiao was taken by surprise and retreated three steps in a row, but he soon drew out his sword and swiped it across before him. The monkey made a long hiss. It took a step back, but it quickly threw itself at him again. At the same time, another monkey also jumped on Shen Qiao, joining the chaos.

The darkness blinded Shen Qiao, but it also made his senses more acute. He stepped back and waited for the two monkeys to rush forward together, then, infusing his sword with inner qi, he turned the weapon into a white ray of light. The two monkeys were caught off guard; they howled in pain as the blade cut through their skin and immediately attacked Shen Qiao even more fiercely.

Shen Qiao said to Yan Wushi, “I’ll keep them here. You go get the jade cistanche!”

He didn’t need to say it. Yan Wushi was already bending over and had uprooted a few thickets of those white, hand-shaped fruit growing right above the chalcedony in the narrow crevice. These things were a bit shaped like aloe vera; they were originally ash gray, but the glow of the chalcedony had tainted them with a tinge of pale red. Some of the broken stems flowed out a milky white liquid that had a faint fragrance.

According to folklore, jade cistanche was extremely precious. They were known for their amazing curative effects in healing wounds. You might not be able to find any even in an imperial palace. However, after Yan Wushi picked a few stalks, he looked back at the chalcedony growing below the cliff without so much as a glance at the rest. Then, to everyone’s surprise, he uprooted all of the jade cistanches which had already fruited, destroyed them, and threw them off the cliff. Amid the flaming glow, the cistanche fruits soon flew out of sight. 

After he was done with it, the sound of rapid footsteps came from the other end of the passage. Chen Gong’s group was finally able to get rid of the monkey pack after quite some effort, but they soon ran into the human-faced spiders along the way. The two parties fought for a while. With the monkey pack eventually catching up to them, the group had no choice but to push forward as they fought and finally arrived at this place. They thought they had found the way out, but it turned out to be an unexpected reunion with some old friends. 

“Daoist Priest Shen?”

Chen Gong’s voice sounded quite surprised and uncertain. He thought there was no way that Shen Qiao would’ve survived the monkeys’ attacks, but out of all things, the other person was not only still alive but arrived even faster than him.

But there was no time for anyone to feel guilty or to interrogate, for the monkey pack in the back had already caught up to them. As for the two monkeys in the front, Chen Gong’s appearance made them change their target —— they immediately saw everyone as invaders, which actually helped take some of the burden off of Shen Qiao.

Chen Gong and his men swore under their breaths for the bad luck. They thought they were finally able to obtain the chalcedony after all the trials and tribulations, but they did not expect that there would be yet another fierce battle waiting. These monkeys were ferocious and unremitting. If they couldn’t eliminate them completely, not to mention getting the chalcedony, they couldn’t leave this place at all.

They had no choice but to hold up their weapons and fight with those monkeys. Luckily, those monkeys were not unbreakable. They were also a little exhausted after fighting with Chen Gong and his subordinates for so long. Soon, two of the monkeys already died at the hands of Murong Qin and Shen Qiao with their necks sliced open. 

The monkeys had already developed humanlike emotions. The death of their kind both grieved and intimidated them, except for the monkey leader who was even more enraged and started attacking everyone more crazily. 

However, despite its frenzy appearance, the monkey leader had already been thrown into confusion. On the other hand, after fighting with the monkeys for such a long time, everyone gradually grasped the tricks, which was to not confront force with force. The monkey’s neck was the softest and weakest place on its whole body. As long as they could find the right opportunity and stick their sword in it, they could at least kill the monkey by cutting open its throat if not decapitate it.

Thus, not a few monkeys lost their lives under their swords within half an hour. Chen Gong, seeing that victory had already been secured, slowly withdrew from the battle circle and walked over to the edge of the cliff. 

The chalcedony cluster was only a few meters below the cliff, a distance that was almost negligible to those who were good at lightness skills. Chen Gong had come all the way from the capital of Qi for these chalcedonies and had almost lost his life on his way here. Now, as he suddenly saw his ultimate target right before his eyes, he couldn’t help but become overwhelmed by excitement. 

He calmed himself down, casting aside all the useless emotions. Then, he turned around and glanced at Murong Qin and the others again.

Among the men he had brought with him to this trip, these were the only three left other than himself: Murong Qin and his nephew Murong Xun, and a man named Sa Kunpeng. They were the best three martial artists in the group, but all of them were still fighting with the monkeys at the moment and were not able to spare time or energy for anything else. Chen Gong didn’t have the patience to wait till they were available to search under the cliff, so he jumped down along the stone wall himself.

There were no monkeys or spiders down below, only chalcedonies in crystal-like clusters. The red glow was not dazzling; nor did they remind people of fresh blood. On the contrary, it actually felt slightly peaceful and auspicious. Chen Gong couldn’t hide his excitement. He couldn’t help but reach out and touch one. The crystal surface was pure and smooth and even reflected the outline of his fingers.

After a moment, the excitement finally quieted down.

Chen Gong looked around. These naturally-formed crystals were exceptionally hard and could not be obtained easily. In fact, it might require several dozen or even hundreds of men chipping and mining repeatedly to succeed.

But Chen Gong did not intend to take these chalcedonies with him. They were undoubtedly precious, but it was never his goal to bring them back.

He untied the Tai’e Sword which he had been carrying on his back all this time, chose a chalcedony with the sharpest edge, then placed the joint between the sword hilt and the sword body next to it.

The joint immediately broke with a soft clink. He cut a famous sword which had been passed down for many generations in two halves just like that!

However, Chen Gong looked rather happy. He threw the sword body to the side and carefully took out a piece of silk from the hollow in the handle.

The silk was cramped with written words. Chen Gong looked at it for a while, his face looking more and more cheerful. In the end, he simply stood in the middle of the chalcedony clusters as he read it carefully.

However, a moment later, his expression suddenly changed. He looked down at his right hand and saw that the entire palm had already turned purplish without him realizing. The color was gradually spreading upwards along with a mixture of prickling and itching pain which made him want to scratch it badly. Chen Gong did, but it did not stop the itching. In fact, he scratched till the skin started to bleed but it still did not help.

Under the skin, the itchiness and pain became so intolerable as if thousands of bugs were biting his flesh. The veins started to show, winding their way up along the direction of blood flow, slowly spreading to his wrist.

Without anyone telling him, Chen Gong knew he had been poisoned.

This time, Chen Gong couldn’t care less about anything else. He climbed back up the cliff with a few leaps and returned to the original passway. Around the same time, Murong Qin and Shen Qiao had just managed to wipe out the majority of the monkeys, forcing the monkey leader to retreat. However, Yan Wushi had triggered some mechanism on the wall, and a huge sealing stone suddenly dropped from above. Everyone seized the opportunity and took a step back. The huge stone separated them from the monkeys, granting the group a moment to catch their breaths.

But Chen Gong was so occupied with the fact that he was poisoned that he had no stomach for the monkeys. Murong Qin, seeing how terrified he looked, hurried over to help him.

“Quick! Do you have any antidotes on you?!”

After Murong Qin saw Chen Gong’s palm, he couldn’t help but also look astonished, “My Lord, this is…?!”

The purplish-blue was already spreading to his wrist.

Chen Gong was almost roaring, “Antidotes!”

He had taken quite a lot of them at the bottom of the cliff, but they had no effect. Murong Qin was his only hope right now.

But antidotes were not a remedy for everything. Whatever Murong Qin had, Chen Gong probably had it as well. After taking several pills to no avail, Chen Gong was already on the verge of desperation.

He didn’t expect that after he had finally achieved his goal after all the efforts, he was going to lose his life because of it.

“Does Daoist Priest Shen have any way to cure this poison I have?” he said hoarsely, his eyes brimming with hope as if Shen Qiao was the last life-saving straw.

Shen Qiao had no idea how the other person had gotten poisoned. He only saw Chen Gong going down the cliff, and when the latter climbed back up, he was already like this. “Are there poisonous things down there?”

Chen Gong said, “It’s the chalcedony! Those chalcedonies are extremely poisonous! Can you save me, please? I heard that Mount Xuandu has a special skill for refining medicines. You’re the sect leader — you must have many ways to cure it. If you can save me, I’ll give everything I have to repay you!”

Shen Qiao shook his head, “I left in a hurry, and was forced to come here under your threat. There was no time for me to prepare any kind of antidote.”

But Chen Gong thought Shen Qiao simply did not want to help. He fished out another piece of jade from his bosom and threw it at Shen Qiao. “Actually, even before you agreed to come with us, I had already set the old man free. He’s probably back home with his granddaughter already. If you’re still worried, feel free to take this jade and ask for him at the Yunlai Inn in the royal city. I paid the owner to keep him there temporarily. Even if he hasn’t released the old man yet, you can show him the jade and ask him to let the old man go. I know you are a noble man, and you have saved my life many times in the past. Making you come with me on this trip was a last resort. I had no other choice. I did not intend to hurt anyone. Please help me for the sake of our old friendship!”

He spoke extremely fast. One could only imagine how nervous he must be.

Shen Qiao said helplessly, “I truly do not have the antidote.”

As soon as he said it, Chen Gong’s face turned ashy.

He tried to force the poison out with his inner qi, but the circulation of the qi only sped up the invasion of the poison. Seeing that the purplish-blue was almost reaching his elbow, Chen Gong gritted his teeth and said to Murong Qin, “Hurry! Cut my arm off!”

Right at this moment, Yan Wushi who had been quietly hiding in the dark suddenly said, “Why don’t you ask me if I can help?”

Chapter 66: You and I do not travel the same path. We never did, and we never will.

Chen Gong stared fixedly at Yan Wushi, asking, “Does Sect Leader Yan have a way?”

Yan Wushi said, “You probably noticed already while you were fighting the monkeys that their nails are not only sharp but also poisonous. As a result, as soon as they leave a scratch on one’s body, the cut would immediately swell and start to itch.”

He spoke at a moderate pace, apparently not at all affected by the fact that Chen Gong was poisoned. In fact, there was even a kind of carefreeness in his voice as if the matter had nothing to do with him.

“Claws as sharp as theirs must be sharpened often. Since this place doesn’t offer a variety of rocks to choose from, the chalcedonies guarded by those monkeys naturally became their best choice. They polish and sharpen their claws on it from time to time, but they do not get poisoned by it. That is because, within 500 meters of any highly toxic substance, there must exist something that counters it, just like the spiders and the monkeys in this ancient ruin.”

Murong Qin found the key in his words, “Is Sect Master Yan saying that there is an antidote for the poison my lord has?”

Something suddenly flashed through Chen Gong’s mind. He shouted, “The jade cistanche! Is it the jade cistanche?! Hurry, go see if there’s any jade cistanche around there!”

Murong Qin and the others quickly ran to the cliff edge. They looked around, and sure enough, there were some jade cistanches.

“Lord! There’re indeed jade cistanches!” Murong Qin said with joy.

Shen Qiao couldn’t help but glance at Yan Wushi: the latter only stood there with both hands gathered inside his sleeves, his body half-hidden in the shadow —— he clearly did not intend to respond.

Chen Gong flew into a rapture. “Bring it over!”

Murong Qin and his nephew cut off all the jade cistanches they saw and brought them back. Without so much as a glance, Chen Gong wolfed everything down in one gulp.

However, no miracle occurred. About fifteen minutes passed, and his right hand was still unbearably itchy. The purplish color even gradually darkened while it continued spreading upwards and was already reaching his shoulder.

Chen Gong’s face was so livid that it was almost the same color as his arm.

Only then did Yan Wushi finally explain slowly, “The jade cistanche is indeed an antidote for the poison. However, its branches and leaves are useless. The only part capable of detoxifying is its fruit. Because the monkeys have been eating these fruits for generations, they are not afraid of the poison on the chalcedony or the spiders and are thus able to live here. Since this place was once an altar, these monkeys might have been trained by the Ruoqiang people back then to guard the cistanches. Have you seen the monkey leader yet? It has already developed a humanlike face. You can clearly tell that it must be unusually crafty.”

These words should have been interesting. Unfortunately, the speaker’s rather methodical tone made it sound quite dull. Chen Gong was not in the mood to listen to him detailing the monkeys’ origins. Normally, he would have flown in a rage and had Murong Qin arrest the person by now, but since his life was still in the other person’s hand, he had no choice but to swallow his anger: “It seems that Sect Master Yan has picked all of the fruits. I don’t know what you want from me, but I’m willing to do anything I can. Please give me the jade cistanche fruits.”

Yan Wushi demanded, “You know what I want.”

He simply would not say it explicitly. 

Chen Gong knew Shen Qiao very well. He knew that Shen Qiao was a gentleman and that a gentleman could be deceived by a pretense of reason, therefore he had always gained an upper hand in his confrontations with Shen Qiao. However, he could not do the same to Yan Wushi. The latter was known for his erraticity and presumptuousness. One could not use common sense to predict how Yan Wushi would act. In fact, Chen Gong knew that even the news of Yan Wushi’s survival could not be used against him. On the contrary, Yan Wushi currently held the jade cistanche fruits, and those were Chen Gong’s life-saving straws at the moment.

“How can I know if Sect Master Yan doesn’t make it clear?” Chen Gong was making his final struggle.

Yan Wushi replied coldly, “Why don’t you guess if I can destroy the fruits before those dogs of yours rush into action? If you agree to take the risk, I’m not against giving it a try.”

As soon as he said it, Murong Qin, despite the rage rushing to his head, had no choice but to give up his original plan of approaching Yan Wushi.

Chen Gong gritted his teeth, “You want what’s inside the Tai’e Sword?”

Yan Wushi did not say anything.

There was nothing else Chen Gong could do except fish out the piece of silk from his bosom and hand it to Yan Wushi.

“Where’s the jade cistanche?”

Yan Wushi took over the piece of silk. Then he fumbled out a fruit from some place and threw it to Chen Gong.

Chen Gong was not reconciled to his defeat. He couldn’t help but ask, “You already guessed what I came here for, and therefore you deliberately went ahead of us so you could use the fruit to threaten me?”

Perhaps because he was in a good mood after obtaining the silk cloth, Yan Wushi finally had the mercy to answer Chen Gong’s question, “The Tai’e Sword once belonged to the Xie Family of Chen County. Its hilt is empty, but because the metal used to cast it is very rare and exceptionally hard, the only way to hide anything inside its hilt is to first forcibly break open the sword using an queer rock from outer space and then reforge it afterwards. The sword was never heard about since it was lost until it reappeared in the royal city of Tuyuhun.”

Chen Gong finally felt less uncomfortable after eating the jade cistanche fruit. The toxins took quite some time to disappear, so he could only divert his attention by talking.

“Therefore, as soon as you saw me holding the sword, you knew that someone had already opened and reforged it. And because I went straight to Ruoqing looking for the chalcedony, you could also guess that I was looking for a way to break open the sword and take out the content within. Thus, you threw away all the cistanche fruits in advance and kept only a few on you, waiting to threaten me to hand over the item to you when I was poisoned!”

Finally realizing what happened, Chen Gong couldn’t help but sneer, “Even with you being seriously injured, Sect Leader Yan’s calculation and scheming can still beat us hollow.”

Murong Xun on the other side snapped,  “How despicable and shameless of you for reaping the fruits of other people’s work!”

Yan Wushi laughed grimly and didn’t care to quarrel with them.

Murong Qin dodged slightly to the side and then jumped forward, trying to take down Yan Wushi. Unexpectedly, Shen Qiao suddenly made a move: he raised his sword horizontally across his chest and blocked Murong Qin’s attack.

After the two exchanged a few moves, Murong Qin realized that he wasn’t able to gain any advantage over Shen Qiao. It took him by surprise.

In less than a year, the blind man who was once too weak to kill a chicken at the Beyond Clouds Monastery had already recovered to such an extent, making people dare not to look down on him.

Right when Shen Qiao blocked the attack, Yan Wushi stepped aside into the darkness. “He’s gone!” Murong Qin shouted. Following his voice, everyone turned around and looked in this direction.

Sa Kungpeng rushed forward to check. Sure enough, he did not find any sign of Yan Wushi.

“Lord. There seems to be a mechanism here. I pulled it, but nothing happened!” he shouted.

“He must have controlled it from the other side!” Murong Qin’s nephew, Murong Xun, complained angrily.

Right behind them was the tomb seal stone. Not to mention that this thousand-pound seal stone completely blocked their way out, but even if it could be lifted again, the monkey leader and poisonous spiders were still waiting for them on the other side. They could defeat those monsters, but it was just too energy-consuming. Even thinking about those all-pervasive spiders gave them goosebumps.

In front of them was the cliff, and below the cliff were clusters of chalcedony crystals. They were beautiful, but they couldn’t fill one’s stomach. In addition, these things were also extremely poisonous. After seeing how miserable Chen Gong was just now, no one would desire the expanse of red chalcedony and invite trouble for themselves again.

Now, that meant they were trapped here with no way out.

Unable to vent out the rage which had been burning inside him, Murong Qin thundered at Shen Qiao, “Shen Qiao, are you satisfied now?!” 

Shen Qiao was resting with his eyes closed and did not respond to the rebuke at all.

Chen Gong said in a low voice, “All of you, go look around and see if there are other exits. If Yan Wushi can get out of here, I’m sure we can do it too.”

As Murong Qin and the other two people busied themselves searching for a way out, Chen Gong turned to Shen Qiao, “Pardon me to think so, Daoist Priest Shen, but Yan Wushi was already seriously injured when he was besieged by the Five Experts. You didn’t have to take him, but because I said there might be jade cistanche at this place, you still decided to bring him on the trip. Such benevolence is enough to move, not just friends, but even strangers to tears. However, now he has obtained the jade cistanche and my piece of silk, he simply left by himself and didn’t even take you with him. Even if you don’t feel wronged yourself, I can’t help but want to call out the injustice for you.”

Shen Qiao said indifferently, “If I expect return for the kindness I do, how much will you have owed me by now? And how many times do you need to pay me back? Back then in the shabby temple, how could you have beaten those ruffians if I hadn’t stepped out? Later in the Beyond Clouds Monastery, if it wasn’t because of me, you would’ve been killed by Murong Qin already, and you wouldn’t be able to order them around like you’re doing right now. But what have you repaid me? Leading Mu Tipo to me? Or using Bona’s grandfather to threaten me to come to Ruoqiang with you?”

Chen Gong was at a loss for words. All the provoking speeches in his head suddenly could be said no more.

Shen Qiao continued, “You and I do not travel the same path. We never did, and we never will.”

Chen Gong felt a bit guilty at first, but what Shen Qiao said actually angered him. He said with a satirical smile, “You are extremely noble and virtuous, but what benefits does that bring you? Everything I have today was obtained through my own efforts. There’s nothing shameful about it. Let me tell you. I was born with the talent to memorize everything I see or hear. Even though I was still mostly illiterate at the Beyond Clouds Monastery, I was able to memorize everything you said word for word. Out of all those martial experts present that night, who would have thought that a nobody was capable of doing something none of them could? Mu Tipo is cruel and ruthless. Those people whom he dotes on do not last more than a month, and many of them end up tragically. However, I was able to make him recommend me to the Emperor of Qi with my own ability, and this is my real stepping stone to greater power.”

Despite the fact that Murong Qin and the others had already submitted to Chen Gong, they still felt somewhat awkward listening to Chen Gong talking about his experience as a boy-toy. However, Chen Gong did not find it so himself as he continued with ease and composure:

“Obtaining the favor of the Emperor of Qi is not my final goal. No man in the world is willing to serve others with their appearances, even if they are the ones taking the initiative in bed. With the Emperor’s favor, I asked him to find me a teacher so I can learn to read. I know very well that people with a background like mine can never be approved by those aristocratic families. But I don’t need their approval. There are only two things in this world that can grant a person popularity among the people: book and sword. Therefore, I needed to learn the most characters and read the most books in the shortest amount of time, and I did it.

“Shen Qiao, why do you think Murong Qin and the others turned to me? For glory and wealth? Wrong! No one is born to be king. The country of Qi is destined to fall, and they know that as soon as Qi suffers a landslide defeat, everyone will leave it like rats leaving a sinking ship. Serving the Emperor promises no future, so they’d rather follow me. At least I know what my limits are, unlike the Emperor and most of the nobles.

“What about you? Shen Qiao, I admit that you are truly lofty, a real gentleman. To be honest, I admire you very much because I can never be like you, requiting evil with good with no complaints. But a gentleman like you cannot survive in a world like this. You will be chewed alive without a bone left. Just now you were betrayed by Yan Wushi yet once more, but in the end, you have no choice but sit here with an ‘enemy’ like me while we wait for our deaths. Isn’t this ridiculous?”

Shen Qiao did not say anything. Only after the other finished did he finally say slowly, “Chen Gong, ever since I met you, I can tell you’re different from the rest in your hometown. You’re smart, vigorous, ambitious, and strict to yourself as well as to others. In troubled times like now, you have the potential to become a formidable ruler. Therefore, it is because of your capability that you’re able to play up to Mu Tipo and then gain the favor of the Emperor of Qi through him. I won’t look down on you because of things like this. The reason that you always think of me as aloof is that the conscience in you hasn’t died yet. You know what you’re doing isn’t appropriate, so you subconsciously compare yourself to me and care how I think about you. Otherwise, everyone has their path in life. You can just move forward, so why do you need to stop and look at others?”

Chen Gong was speechless. After quite some time, he suddenly laughed out aloud, “Right! Well said! Thank you for untying this knot in my mind. I’m sure I can attain yet another level from now on.”

Shen Qiao said plainly, “Congratulations then.”

He closed his eyes again. Leaning back against the cold stone wall, he let himself, both physically and mentally, completely sink into the darkness.

Ever since the moment Yan Wushi handed him to Sang Jingxing, Shen Qiao had learned to not hold any expectations. Because without expectations, one would not be disappointed or desperate. Therefore, when Yan Wushi abandoned him and left by himself just now, he only felt a little surprised at the beginning, and even the little amount of surprise soon became ordinary and common.

This was just who Yan Wushi was. Despite the huge change in temperament, the selfishness and indifference that was part of his innate character did not become any less.

Not every effort would be repaid.

He was already used to it. How could he still be disappointed at this?

Murong Qin and the other two people searched everywhere and started to feel hopeless. They still had rations on them, and martial artists needed a lot less food than an ordinary person. So, these rations could last a very long time, but they couldn’t stay here forever. Not to mention that this place was deep underground. There was no sunshine, and the air was very stagnant too. Even if they didn’t die of hunger, it would just be a matter of time before they would suffocate to death.

At this moment, Sa Kungpeng suggested, “What about I go search the bottom of the cliff? Maybe there are other exits around.”

Chen Gong thought for a moment and said, “That works too. Even though there are many chalcedony clusters down there, it is still possible to get a foothold. Just be careful not to touch those chalcedonies.” 

Sa Kunpeng agreed. Murong Xun who was still young and full of vigor got bored after sitting for so long, so he got up and they went together.

Everyone had been more or less scratched by the monkeys. The wounds were itchy and swelling, but they weren’t anything serious. These were only external injuries, and they didn’t need to eat the jade cistanche fruits. Applying the juice squeezed from the root of the jade cistanches to the wounds could also relieve the inflammation and itching.

After he told Murong Qin to go down and help the other two search around, Chen Gong asked Shen Qiao, “What’s your plan if we get out of here?”

Shen Qiao slowly opened his eyes. In the darkness, no one saw the perplexion in those eyes.

Based on Yan Wushi’s speed and the amount of time that had passed, the other person should have returned to the ground any minute now. With his ability, even if he wasn’t able to directly confront the Buddhist sect, he could at least quickly contact people from the Cleansing Moon Sect so as to not get himself caught in a dangerous situation. In other words, even without the presence of Shen Qiao, Yan Wushi could still live well.

Shen Qiao suddenly thought of something, “What you just obtained is one of the remaining books of The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang. Is that correct?”

Chen Gong admitted, “That’s right.”

“Is there anything special about this one compared to the other books?”

Chen Gong was silent for a moment. Then he asked back, “How much do you know about The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang?”

Shen Qiao said, “It consists of a total of five books which integrate the merits of the Three Schools, a fruit of the painstaking labour of Tao Hongjing’s lifetime.”

“You’ve read a few parts yourself. What do you think?”

“It is indeed the most wondrous martial arts book in the world. I’ve benefited a lot from it.”

“It looks like you’re only aware of one aspect of it. It is true that The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang has five books. It is also true that it combines the merits of all Three Schools, but those are just the contents of the other four books. There’s another book which has been lost for many years. No one knows where it is, but it is said that what’s in it has something to do with the martial arts of the demonic sects.”

Shen Qiao was slightly surprised. But thinking it over, what Chen Gong said did make sense.

Yan Wushi had attempted many times in the past to make the inner qi of The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang his own. He even experimented with Shen Qiao, repeatedly trying to bring out the potential in the latter. However, it was proven that the foundation of his martial arts lay within his Demonic Heart and was completely incompatible with Shen Qiao’s Daoist Core. The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang was but a piece of “chicken rib” to him —— something that was worth little but would be such a waste to throw it away.

If the book only recorded martial arts from the Three Schools, Yan Wushi would not have said to Shen Qiao that he had already found the way to fix the flaw in his martial arts. With his skill, it was very likely that he had already inferred that one volume of The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang was hidden inside the Tai’e Sword, and the book was precisely the one he needed.

After he thought the whole sequence of events through, Shen Qiao slowly exhaled a breath, his face showing a faint trace of weariness. He suddenly felt a little tired.

But his voice still sounded as calm as before, “I see. Tao Hongjing was indeed a person who devolved deeply and studied the relationship between Man and the Heavens. No wonder the disciples of the demonic sects want The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang too. It seems like this piece of silk is precisely what they are looking for. Is it because you are also practicing martial arts from the demonic sects that you are anxiously longing for it as well? Did you join the Harmony Sect?”

“What a joke! With my current social status, why would I ever want to join the Harmony Sect and let myself be ordered around by other people? It is the Harmony Sect that needs me to provide them all sorts of conveniences, so we’re just cooperating on a business that benefits us both.”

However, these explanations were also useless. The reality was that they were still stuck down here and could not get out.

Murong Qin and the others went around one more time and came back empty-handed. Everyone felt a little disheartened. Chen Gong stopped talking too and took the opportunity to meditate and preserve his energy as well as reciting the contents on the silk cloth he just saw from that quick glance, trying to utilize it himself.

He was never someone who would just sit and wait for his death. Even under such circumstances, he still tried his best to create a favorable environment for himself. This was why Chen Gong was able to turn from a penniless commoner to the person he was today in these troubled times, and that even people like Murong Qin who was the top martial expert in the imperial court of Qi were willing to serve at his commands.

No one knew how long had passed before there was suddenly a sound from the stone wall. The group of people who were originally full of rich drowsiness all opened their eyes at once. One after another, they turned to where the noise came from and saw a figure appear at the spot where Yan Wushi had disappeared.

Murong Xun was the first to react. He jumped up and, holding the sword in his hand, was going to charge at the person immediately.

“Yan Wushi?!”

Each of the three syllables was pronounced through clenched teeth with the greatest hatred.

Chapter 67: Don’t be mad at me, okay?

However, Yan Wushi stopped Murong Xun with only one sentence:

“The road branches out there. Without me, you won’t be able to leave this place.”

“Third young master!” Chen Gong stopped Murong Xun.

The latter reluctantly withdrew his weapon and retreated behind Chen Gong.

Chen Gong cupped his hand at Yan Wushi and said quite courteously, “Thank you very much for coming back, Sect Master Yan. We greatly appreciate it. If you agree to show us the way out, I promise I’ll hand over this cloth I just obtained right away and never ask for it back.”

Yan Wushi glanced at him. He didn’t say anything — he just turned around and started heading back the way he came from.

Murong Qin looked at Chen Gong and asked, “Lord, should we follow him?”

Chen Gong nodded, “I’ll lead the way. All of you can follow me.”

Murong Qin immediately opposed, “Lord!”

With a smile, Chen Gong said, “Stop the nonsense! Just come!”

Murong Qin and Murong Xun were both somewhat moved. They didn’t say anything else and followed Chen Gong in large strides.

Chen Gong did not win over people like Murong Qin for no reason. For a country boy like him with no money and no background, becoming the most favored person of the Emperor of Qi alone was not enough to make an arrogant martial expert like Murong Qin serve under him willingly. In fact, Shen Qiao had already nailed the key point earlier: Chen Gong was very talented. The ability to memorize everything he saw allowed him to not waste that precious encounter with The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang. In addition, he was also hard-working and didn’t contend with being the emperor’s favored minister. Judging by his accomplishments, he did have the potential to become a formidable leader.

Going one level deeper, people like Murong Qin who came from a royal family of the previous dynasty would have already lost their power and influence in the new era if it weren’t for his martial arts skills. Their family was not hereditary, so the emperor would not give them a lot of power. The only choice left for them was to become the imperial court’s hired hounds. Even the ordinary aristocrats in Qi looked down on them. Under such circumstances, Chen Gong offered them a new opportunity and won them over with what he had demonstrated. Therefore, it was only natural for them to switch to a wiser ruler and pledge their loyalty to Chen Gong.

Even though Shen Qiao didn’t know all the ins and outs, after living in the secular world for a long time under Yan Wushi’s influence, he now understood the political situation and people’s mindsets much better. Chen Gong was indeed a very capable person — he was able to rise to a high position and have so many people support him in such a short time. Let it be Yan Wushi, even though the person understood how everything worked, because he was arrogant and willful by nature, he might not be able to submit himself when needed like Chen Gong did. 

The passage was purely cut out of the mountain, and Chen Gong still had fire sticks on him. He lit one up, and they could see candle holders lining both sides of the road. However, the collapsing and sinking of Ruoqiang City might have caused some of the rocks to cave in as well, so some places in the middle were blocked by boulders that had fallen from above. Only a narrow gap was left in between. They had to clear the stones first, then carefully slide through.

Murong Xun was still a little worried, “There are no spiders on this side, right?”

Murong Qin said, “Those spiders have a rotten smell to them. Since I don’t sense it here, there probably aren’t any.”

As they were talking, the road suddenly branched off in front of them.

Everyone stopped and stared at Yan Wushi’s back.

“Go left,” the latter said.

Murong Xun questioned, “Wait! How do you know we should go left?”

Yan Wushi said, “I’ve been to the right one already. There were spiders.”

“Why should we trust you? And how did you escape unscathed if you encountered the spiders?”

Yan Wushi ignored him and continued forward.

Murong Qin and said in a low voice, “He has jade cistanches.”

That’s right. Murong Xun just realized. Jade cistanches were the antidote for the spider’s poison, so it should be able to keep the spiders away from him as well. 

However, if that was the case, why did Yan Wushi come all the way back to guide them out? It couldn’t be that he was suddenly moved by a guilty conscience, could it?

But would the Cleansing Moon sect leader have a guilty conscience like that? No one would believe it, not even Murong Xun himself.

The passage was a consistent gentle upward slope, indicating that they were approaching ground level. No one said anything, but they all started to believe what Yan Wushi said until they walked some more and reached another fork.

This time, it was a three-way split.

Yan Wushi suddenly stopped. “I only walked up to here before I started heading back.”

It meant that he didn’t know which way to go either from this point on.

However, everyone now understood that because they didn’t follow the normal path when they first came in, they were currently re-walking the inner passageways of the royal city. These paths and forks led to all directions, just like the ones within the royal palaces in the Central Plains. While some of them probably led to different palaces, there were also ones connected to the royal city, and those would be the real exit. If they chose any other ones, not only would they take a detour, but they might even get into more trouble than what they could handle if they encountered the spiders or the monkey pack again.

Chen Gong asked Yan Wushi, “Which one will you pick?”

Yan Wushi didn’t say anything.

Shen Qiao, who had been quiet all this time, suddenly spoke up, “Since none of us know, we can leave a mark here and choose a random one. Whether it be left or right, it’s all pure luck. So if someone happens to choose the wrong way, there’s nothing else but his own bad luck to blame.”

“That works too,” Chen Gong agreed.

He picked up a stone and drew a few marks on the stone wall.

This action made Shen Qiao do a double-take on him.

Although he knew the other person was quite good at martial arts, he was busy fighting the monkeys earlier and didn’t have enough time to observe. Chen Gong had obviously poured inner qi into each stroke he made. The white marks were inches deep into the stone wall, indicating how mature his skill was.

After the marks were ready, Chen Gong suggested, “How about we start with the middle one? Maybe this one leads outside.”

No one disagreed.

Seeing that Yan Wushi still hadn’t moved, Murong Xun couldn’t help but ask, “Why did you stop?”

Yan Wushi said, “I haven’t walked. This road before. I’m not leading.”

He seemed to pause slightly when he talked. The others didn’t notice it, but Shen Qiao did.

Murong Xun sneered, “Heaven knows whether you’ve gone through it or not. Now that you refuse to go first, how do we know if it isn’t because you have already set up traps in the middle for us?”

If it was before, Murong Xun would’ve never dared to speak to Yan Wushi like this. But this was just how humans were: once they saw a defeated man in dire straits, the man’s place in their heart would also drop a thousandfold to the point where they might even feel that the person must be worthless and that they could defeat him too.

Yan Wushi didn’t answer, because he responded with his action.

Murong Xun was standing next to him. The latter was so fast that Murong Xun didn’t even have time to draw out his sword before Yan Wushi already took him by his throat and pressed him up against the stone wall!

Murong Qin struck a palm at Yan Wushi but was blocked by a sword sheath that was as light as a feather.

Shen Qiao said emotionlessly, “The danger hasn’t been cleared, yet everyone cannot wait to kill each other already?”

Murong Xun grabbed at Yan Wushi, but before he could lift his hand, Yan Wushi had already released him and withdrawn back behind Shen Qiao.

Chen Gong shouted, “Everyone, stop!”

He said to Murong Xun, “Sect Master Yan didn’t have to come back, but since he was willing to do so, we should appreciate his kindness. You must not be rude to him again.”

Then he cupped his hands at Yan Wushi, “I apologize to Sect Master Yan on his behalf. I was the one who chose the middle road, so I’ll go first!”

After he finished, he held up the fire stick and went ahead.

Although he showed the courage to take the lead, Chen Gong walked step by step with exceptional caution. If he sensed anything that felt slightly wrong, he would immediately stop and observe for a long time.

Perhaps the Heavens really favored them, they bet on the right way this time. They went all the way through the tunnel with no impediments, walked through the royal city, and returned to the place where they first fell down to.

Finding an exit out here might be a difficult task for an ordinary person, but all they needed to do was leap upwards using their lightness skill, secure themselves on the stone wall using their weapons, then climb up step by step.

The moment they saw the sun again, everyone was almost blinded by the strong sunlight. But at the same time, anyone who had been underground for three days and almost lost their life would find the sunshine too precious.

Shen Qiao covered his eyes with a cloth to prevent them from being blinded by the sudden stimulation. A moment later, after his eyes became more used to it, he slowly removed the cloth and saw Yan Wushi standing right behind him: the other person had already lost his cloth, so he could only use his hands to cover his eyes while standing closely next to Shen Qiao as if he was afraid that Shen Qiao would run away —— it almost seemed a bit silly.

Chen Gong asked, “What’s Sect Leader Shen and Sect Master Yan’s plan afterwards? We’re going to pass Chang’an on our way back to the Country of Qi. Therefore, I can give you two a ride if you don’t mind. This way, you can also avoid exposing Sect Master Yan’s identity and causing unnecessary troubles.”

His original goal of this trip was to open the Tai’e Sword and take out the silk cloth within, but now, clearly knowing that the cloth was on Yan Wushi, Chen Gong didn’t even mention it. This could only mean that he had memorized everything on it already. However, the purpose of his speech was not only to express goodwill towards Shen Qiao and to show his generosity, but he also told Shen Qiao and Yan Wushi that he had no intention to reveal Yan Wushi’s whereabouts.

Everyone deserves a new set of appraisals every now and then: the Chen Gong today could no longer be measured through the old pair of lenses.

Shen Qiao glanced at Yan Wushi: “I appreciate your kindness, but I have another place to go to. As for Sect Master Yan, he will make his own decisions.”

“I’m following you.”

Chen Gong smiled, not seeming to mind, “Fine. We’ll part here then. The world is not very big. I’m sure we’ll see each other again someday. I hope by the next time we meet, Sect Master Yan will have already recovered fully and Daoist Priest Shen will have regained control over Mount Xuandu.”

Shen Qiao made no comments on Chen Gong’s words and only cupped his hands at them, “Bye.”

If they wanted to leave Tuyuhun, they must follow the same road they came from, stop at the little town to rest and buy horses there, return to the royal city of Tuyuhun, and then leave for other places afterwards. But Chen Gong and Shen Qiao had different plans from the very beginning. Shen Qiao still had many questions for Yan Wushi, so he didn’t plan on travelling together with them.

They watched as the other three people left, leaving a stream of deep or shallow foot imprints on the fine sand. Afterwards, a gust of wind blew past, and the imprints once again disappeared completely. Shen Qiao turned around and said to Yan Wushi, “Chen Gong is not a generous person. You took his silk cloth. Even if he can memorize its contents, he will still bear grudges against you in his heart. This will cause you trouble in the future.”

Yan Wushi stared at him fixedly. Suddenly, he said in a hurt tone, “Pretty Brother, I’m not the one who took it.”

“I know. It’s the…it’s the ‘Yan Wushi’ before you. But the item is still on you after all, isn’t it?”

Yan Wushi said happily, “Can you tell us apart?”

After a moment of silence, Shen Qiao said, “If it was one of your other personalities, I’m afraid he would never have turned back after he left.”

“I’m so happy you didn’t mistake me. I knew he had left you behind and I was so worried. I had to use all of my strength to take the control of this body and go back.”

He grabbed Shen Qiao’s hand: “Don’t be mad at me, okay?”

Shen Qiao heaved a long sigh, “He wouldn’t be Yan Wushi if he didn’t act that way. Neither would the real Yan Wushi say something like this to me. I just didn’t expect that a temperament like his could give rise to someone like you. It should have been impossible.”

Yan Wushi’s smile suddenly showed an almost unperceivable trace of slyness, “That’s not true.”

Shen Qiao didn’t understand what he meant, “What did you just say?”

“Nothing. When are we heading back? Do we need to wait till they are farther away? I’m hungry.”

Chapter 68: Out of sight, out of mind.

They were fighting against the enemies together in the ancient city of Ruoqiang, but that was only because they had common enemies. After they were back on the ground, Chen Gong and his two subordinates might not have any advantage over Shen Qiao at the moment, but they held the biggest secret against him —— not only did Yan Wushi not die under the attack of five top masters, but Shen Qiao even rescued him.

If this information was known to others, the five great powers that besieged Yan Wushi surely would not leave the matter like this, and Shen Qiao, who would be alone at that time, might not be able to fight against that many people. Even though Chen Gong hinted that he would not leak their whereabouts, Shen Qiao could not easily believe in him again. Therefore, he would naturally take precautions in everything he did so as to avoid making the same mistake twice.

To get back to Tuyuhun from their current place, they must first pass through the small town they rested at last time, but Shen Qiao did not want to meet Chen Gong again, so he did not stay at an inn in the town but instead asked to stay a few days at a household outside town.

The financial situation of this household was even worse than Bona’s. They did not even have lamb soup and could only offer oil pancakes. Neither were there many empty rooms. In the end, they only managed to vacate one.

“You said before that jade cistanche has miraculous effects on external injuries. Since you took so many jade cistanches, isn’t there the possibility that your head wound can fully recover?”

Yan Wushi took out a jade cistanche from his sleeve and passed it to Shen Qiao. “This is for you.”

Shen Qiao asked in surprise, “What for?”

Yan Wushi said, “You were also scratched by the monkeys in the underground palace at Ruoqiang, weren’t you? The amount of juice each jade cistanche has is limited, and its effect is just so-so. They’re not as good as the fruits.”

Shen Qiao took the jade cistanches. He suddenly asked, “You are Ah-Yan, not Xie Ling right?”

After a moment of silence, Yan Wushi said, “How did you know?”

Shen Qiao shook his head, “You talk too much. Xie Ling barely says a word in a whole day. Also, from what I know of Yan Wushi, he is a person that will never treat himself poorly, not even a bit. You all have different personalities, but many intrinsic qualities don’t change. During the few days we’ve spent at Bona’s house, Xie Ling would never touch oil pancakes if there was lamb soup. Even if there were only oil pancakes, Xie Ling would just silently force himself to not eat it. But now, even though you show dislike on your face, you still ate the oil pancakes.”

Yan Wushi chuckled, “Ah-Qiao, I didn’t know you paid so much attention to every one of our moves. I feel extremely flattered!”

“If I don’t pay close attention, I am afraid that a fool like me will be lied to again without even knowing.”

These words were said leisurely and calmly without the slightest resentment. How much malice must he have encountered in this world to forge this kind of chivalrous and tender heart?

Yan Wushi sighed lightly, “Ah-Qiao, if you are a fool, then there are no smart people in this world!”

Shen Qiao could not help smiling, “Thank you for your praise.”

Yan Wushi asked in a sweet voice, “Do you like me or Xie Ling more?”

After blanking out for a moment, Shen Qiao recomposed himself and replied in a light manner, “Regardless of whether it’s you, Xie Ling, or any other personality, all of you are just a thread of Yan Wushi’s inner demon, and since you’ve already obtained the piece of silk, it’s only a matter of time before he fixes the Demonic Core. In time, all of you will disappear, and Yan Wushi will still be Yan Wushi. Whoever I like is not important.”

Yan Wushi laughed, “You’re right, at the end of the day, we all emerged from Yan Wushi and are attached to him. We cannot have our own separate existence. The reason why you like Xie Ling the most is that he is the most unlike Yan Wushi, isn’t it?”

Shen Qiao did not answer. He only sighed, “We did not get to sleep well in Ruoqiang. Let us rest for now, I’m also tired.”

Without waiting for the other to speak, he closed his eyes, crossed his legs, and started to meditate.

In the few days inside Ruoqiang City, even though every step of the way was full of danger, Shen Qiao experienced new things. Those monkeys, though not as sly as humans, were tenacious and even more aggressive than humans. When he was fighting them, there were many times when he felt like he was wandering between life and death, and it was in these moments that his comprehension of martial arts was brought to the next level.

The defeat at Half-step Peak was completely unexpected. When he fell off the cliff, Shen Qiao was full of anger and disbelief just like any other person. However, after walking through the world and experiencing all kinds of human affairs, his warm and gentle heart had been tempered, and he could even face death calmly. This mindset was also reflected in his swordplay. Take the Azurewave Swords Arts as an example: in the past, even though he could wield the sword effortlessly and make it change at will, it lacked some indifference towards life and death. But now, everything simply flowed out naturally without a trace.

When The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang was rebuilding his meridians, it also subtly influenced his original personality.

Only when a person’s mind was extremely quiet and empty could they understand the most magical and subtle beauty of nature. Shen Qiao himself was like a lone crane flying high above the boundless mortal worlds: even though Heaven’s Way was merciless and unfeeling, he was the only one who had attained it.

From the perspective of an outsider, his temperament looked more and more light and otherworldly. Even in ordinary Daoist gowns, he looked more like an immortal than anyone else.

For Shen Qiao himself, this kind of realisation had brought him into a mysterious state, one that was half-conscious and half-dreamlike. He was in darkness, yet he was able to feel everything around him —— the households that were asleep, the cold moon outside the window, the dogs sleeping next to the fences, the light breeze brushing over the branches…and even the Yan Wushi in this room.

Shen Qiao suddenly opened his eyes.

The person who was supposed to fall asleep was staring at him with wide-open eyes.

Shen Qiao asked with some uncertainty, “Is it Xie Ling?”

Yan Wushi confirmed it. He did not even blink his eyes.

Shen Qiao asked, “How come it’s you?”

Yan Wushi said, “I wanted to come out, so I did.”

These words sounded a little strange, but Shen Qiao actually understood them.

The other person meant that because of its overly strong obsessiveness, the personality “Xie Ling” was able to temporarily take control over the body.

Concise and comprehensive, with occasional pauses between words —— these were indeed Xie Ling’s style.

Shen Qiao said, “I should thank you, thank you for turning around and bringing me out when we were in Ruoqiang. It was just that when we came out, you had already switched to Ah-Yan so I waited till now to say it.”

Yan Wushi said, “No need.”

Nevertheless, his eyes were still looking at Shen Qiao.

Without the unstable temperament, without the cold and distant teasing, Xie Ling’s personality became more clear cut.

To Shen Qiao, if Yan Wushi was Xie Ling from the start, many incidents would not have happened. But there were no what-ifs in life. Yan Wushi was still Yan Wushi. Xie Ling was part of Yan Wushi, but Yan Wushi would never be Xie Ling.

Shen Qiao said, “In the past when I was practicing The Strategy of the Vermilion Yang on Mount Xuandu, I always felt like I was looking at a beauty through a silk curtain: I know she is beautiful, but I can’t see her clearly nor can I do anything about it. Until I lost all my martial arts during the battle against Sang Jingxing, I finally understood what it meant to desperately fight for one’s life. Starting everything over was actually the way to make the greatest use of The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang. However, giving up everything is easier said than done. For people like Dou Yanshan and Duan Wenyang, even if they know that the book can rebuild their meridians, do you think they would be willing to abandon their years of cultivation and start over?”

Yan Wushi did not say anything.

Shen Qiao also did not need him to answer. He laughed and then said, “I don’t need their answers to know that few people are willing to do so. Not to mention others, even me, before I lost all my martial arts, I would also have scruples in making such a decision. But with so much worry in one’s mind, even if they could force themselves to have their martial arts taken away, they would not be able to master The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang. To put it in a Buddhist verse, one must put down his own life and death before he can let go of everything and achieve great peace.

“But the Demonic Core and Daoist Core are fundamentally different. You didn’t lose your martial arts either. You only need to fix the flaws, and it surely will be a lot easier than what I faced at the time.”

Yan Wushi said, “Why, are you saying, these?”

Shen Qiao said, “You once said that only opponents who are on the same level as you can have the right to be seen as your equal. I didn’t have that right in the past. Even today, I still cannot compare with you at that time. With your capability, fixing the flaws in your Demonic Core is just a matter of time, and you will fully recover your martial arts sooner or later. What I said just now was what I understood and experienced while I was practicing The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang. I hope they will benefit you. As a martial artist, I am also looking forward to having a square battle with you one day.”

Yan Wushi said, “I am. Xie Ling.”

Shen Qiao said, “I know. I’m certain that not only you, but all your other personalities can also hear these words.”

Yan Wushi looked at him without saying anything.

Shen Qiao was already used to this. In his mind, this was the reaction that “Xie Ling” should have.

He tapped on the other’s shoulder. “It’s late already. Go to sleep.”

After quite some time, the other party finally closed his eyes.

Shen Qiao also closed his eyes and continued to sit cross-legged and meditate.

After another couple days, Shen Qiao reckoned that Chen Gong’s party was in a hurry to return to Qi and therefore would not stay in Tuyuhun for long. In fact, they might have reached the borders of Tuyuhun or even left Tuyuhun already in the past few days. So he left the small town with Yan Wushi and headed to the royal capital of Tuyuhun which they had not seen for many days.

Just as expected, they didn’t see Chen Gong on their way. It had already been a while since the Coiling Dragon Fair ended, and the Central Plains martial artists had already left the city, which greatly lowered the chance that Yan Wushi would be recognized by others. But Shen Qiao felt that their behavior and characteristics were too distinct and attracted too much attention. If they continued travelling south, it might cause them unnecessary problems. Therefore, he took off his Daoist robe and changed into a set of ordinary Han clothes. Then he brought over a set of women’s clothes and some cosmetics and placed them in front of Yan Wushi.

Yan Wushi looked at him speechlessly.

Shen Qiao coughed: “Your appearance is too outstanding. It’d be better if you put on a disguise.”

Yan Wushi did not speak, but the look on his face was obviously asking why Shen Qiao was not the one who had to dress up as a woman instead.

Shen Qiao said, “You will be able to wear a veil after changing into women’s clothing. If others think that you are a woman, they usually won’t stare at you because they don’t want to be seen as frivolous. But if you continue to wear men’s clothing, when we encounter observant people such as Dou Yanshan and Duan Wenyang, they can still make out the clues. Therefore, in order to avoid getting into conflicts before we meet up with the Cleansing Moon Sect, women’s clothing is the safest choice.”

The two gazed at each other speechlessly for quite a while.

Shen Qiao frowned. “Are you wearing it or not?”

Yan Wushi shook his head. “What if I don’t?”

Shen Qiao said, “Then I will hit your acupuncture point, help you put it on, and then rent a carriage for you. Even though it may require more work this way, at least I will have a lot less trouble.”

Yan Wushi lowered his eyes. “I’ll wear it.”

“Good boy.” Shen Qiao was pleased, thinking that Xie Ling was indeed the easier one to talk to.

The grizzled sideburns had to be dyed black, but there was no need to change the overall hairstyle since many women also tied their hair on top; the eyebrows needed to be slightly trimmed; both cheeks and lips needed some rouge —— the makeup didn’t have to be very detailed —— just a general look would be enough. Even though the body figure still looked quite strange, Yan Wushi’s expression was also stiff and gloomy. There was still some handsomeness in his overall features which could be seen as a different kind of appeal.

Upon seeing how tense he was, Shen Qiao laughed, “Don’t be scared. Whenever I see portraits at Mount Xuandu fade, I was the one who always did the touch-ups. Drawing portraits and doing makeup shouldn’t be that different.”

After everything was done, he stood up and looked at Yan Wushi from head to toe. Then he nodded, “Not bad, do you want to take a look at yourself in the mirror?”

The other party expressed no interest in looking into the mirror at all and straightforwardly put on the veil.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Chapter 69: No, I want you.

When Shen Qiao and Yan Wushi returned to the royal capital of Tuyuhun, it was already winter. There were a lot fewer merchants who stopped by on their way to the western countries. The entire city looked somewhat lonely and desolate, completely different from when they first left.

“But this is only temporary,” said the peddler selling sugar figurines on the street. “It’s quite difficult to travel west during winter, so many caravans set off in autumn and come back next spring. There will be more people once winter is over!”

He was a member of the Han ethnic group. More than ten years ago, he met a Tuyuhun girl while passing by with a group of travelling merchants. Ever since then, he settled down and established his family here.

Shen Qiao seemed to have a kind of natural attraction or affinity that would make anyone around him extremely comfortable as if they were bathing in a spring breeze. Yan Wushi had stood in front of the stall for quite a while just now, but the peddler didn’t speak to him. However, when Shen Qiao came up and asked a few questions, the peddler immediately started chatting casually with him as if they were old friends.

“There were actually quite a lot of Han people in the city. Even the royal and noble Tuyuhun families can speak the Han language and wear Han-style clothes. It’s just that this place is too far to the west after all, and most people won’t leave their hometowns easily.”

Shen Qiao smiled, “That’s true. Your wife must be a very wise and beautiful lady to be able to make you stay. Also, I can tell from the way you talk that you must be a scholar who reads a lot. But because of her, you are willing to stay in this place that is thousands of miles away. The deep love between you and your wife really makes others jealous!”

After hearing Shen Qiao’s praise, the peddler scratched his head. Looking both proud and a little embarrassed, he said, “I am very flattered. I only went to a few years of private school when I was young and am not worthy of being called a scholar! Where did you come back from? You look quite travel-worn. Did you come back here with a travelling caravan to spend the winter?”

Shen Qiao said, “We have been travelling west for a while. Now seeing that the weather is getting colder with each passing day, we dared not continue, so we came back. We heard that there was a Coiling Dragon Fair in the capital city a few days ago. It must have ended by now, I assume?”

The pedder replied, “It ended a long time ago, and people are already gone. However, it was quite crowded this year. So many martial artists came, but since I mainly sell sugar figurines, my business did not do much better. On the contrary, after those people arrived, many people drew their swords against each other on the street during those days. I was so scared that I went back and hid in my home for a few days!”

Shen Qiao asked, “Are you saying that there are no more pugilists in the city now?”

The peddler said, “Yep. They all left not long after the fair ended. Do you see those inns? All of them were once fully booked. But now, they can’t get enough customers even with discounts! Anyways, I heard that Zhou destroyed the country of Qi. Who knows if we will have even fewer travelling merchants from the east next year because of it!”

Shen Qiao was originally worried that if the news of Yan Wushi’s “death” spread out, Yu WenYong’s life would be in danger. However, he did not expect that a huge incident like this would happen within the few months since they left Chang’an. He couldn’t help but glance at Yan Wushi beside him. 

The latter was wearing a veil, so others couldn’t see his expression clearly.

Shen Qiao asked, “Country Qi was destroyed? I didn’t expect it to be this fast. Was there not any resistance?”

The pedder sighed, “Who knows. Perhaps the Zhou army was too strong. Now that I think about it, my hometown is in Qi. Even though I have been living in this faraway place in Tuyuhun, I sadly still hear news of the muddle-headed country leader for the past many years. But I never thought that a large country like Qi would disappear just like that!”

Shen Qiao replied, “The unification of the Northern countries is still a good thing to the people. Once everything quiets down, there will only be more caravans travelling back and forth between the Western Regions, not less.”

The peddler broke into another smile, “That’s true. I’ll take your words then. I’m still waiting for the Central Plains to become truly peaceful one day, so I can take my wife and my son back to see my hometown!”

His conversation with Shen Qiao lasted for quite a while. He wished to continue, but upon seeing Yan Wushi stand silently beside Shen Qiao, seemingly taking an interest in the sugar figurines, he suddenly remembered that he still had a business to run. He laughed hurriedly, “This lady must be your wife. Is she also from Tuyuhun?”

Shen Qiao said, “She is my little sister.”

Yan Wushi interrupted, “Wife.”

Shen Qiao: “…”

The peddler: “…”

Shen Qiao reckoned that Yan Wushi probably said it intentionally because he was unhappy about having to wear women’s clothing, but he couldn’t say anything in front of an outsider, so he only coughed and quickly explained, “She is my cousin. She’s a little stubborn, so please do not take it as an offense.”

The peddler wouldn’t think much if Shen Qiao hadn’t tried to explain. But as soon as he did, the other person immediately started picturing two cousins eloping to a land thousands of miles away because their family could not accept their love. He quickly nodded, “I understand! I understand!”

Shen Qiao, however, was at a complete loss and thought to himself: What do you mean you understand? I don’t even understand it myself.

On the other side, Yan Wushi pointed a finger to the sugar figurines and said, “I want this.”

His voice was deep and low and didn’t sound like a woman’s voice at all, but the peddler did not question it. After all, due to the sand and wind outside the Great Wall, some Tuyuhun girls also sounded hoarse.

After hearing Yan Wushi’s words, the peddler’s spirit was immediately uplifted. “What shape would you like? I can make just about anything!”

Yan Wushi said, “Horse, cattle, sheep…”

Shen Qiao found it both funny and awkward, “One should be enough. What are you going to do with so many of them?”

Yan Wushi said, “I’ll have just one then.”

The peddler laughed, “Alright! Would you like a horse, a cattle, or a sheep?”

Yan Wushi pointed to Shen Qiao: “I want him.”

The peddler stared blankly at him. “What?”

Yan Wushi said, “Make him.”

Even though Shen Qiao was never involved in a romantic relationship, after the misunderstandings from earlier and seeing the mild, ambiguous glance from the peddler, it was impossible for him to not understand what the other person must have mistaken.

He said to the peddler, “She’s just joking. How about making a sheep then?”

Yan Wushi objected, “No, I want you.”

He then asked the peddler, “Is it okay?”

The peddler, as if he had sensed the burning glaze through the veil, hurriedly said, “Yes, of course!”

Shen Qiao held his forehead in desperation.

The peddler’s skill was definitely not bad. In less than a minute, a realistic-looking sugar figurine had already appeared in his hand.

All in all, figurine was made of sugar syrup. It was impossible to show clear facial features, but the figurine man’s pose of walking forward while carrying a cloth bag on his back definitely resembled some of Shen Qiao’s grace.

Shen Qiao laughed, “Difference in profession really makes one feel worlds apart. Looking at this handcraft of yours, I’m sure this level of skill can only be obtained with years of practice!”

The praise made the peddler quite happy, and he let out a laugh: “You flatter me!”

Yan Wushi took the sugar figurine and brought it behind the veil, snapped off its head with his teeth, and started crunching it.

Shen Qiao: “…”

To avoid attracting too much curiosity and attention from the peddler, Shen Qiao quickly paid the money and pulled Yan Wushi away. 

Zhou’s successful elimination of Qi meant that the North would soon be unified. Chen and Tujue undoubtedly would not want to sit and watch Zhou grow stronger. It was certain that they would think up every possible way to lay their hands on Zhou, for the crown prince of Zhou, Yuwen Yun, currently showed no traits of a wise ruler. Therefore, as soon as Yuwen Yong was dead, Zhou would be left without a leader and be scattered like a box of sand.

Yan Wushi must appear in Chang’an as soon as possible. He must show up next to Yuwen Yong and let everyone see that he was still alive.

By proving that he had survived safely and soundly under the attack of the top five martial experts, Yan Wushi’s reputation and status would surely rise to an even higher level. Whether this kind of fame was a good thing or not, everyone would hesitate in taking action against Yuwen Yong for fear of Yan Wushi.

However, the problem was that even if Yan Wushi did not die, he was severely injured and the flaw in his Demonic Core had not been cured yet. Additionally, not only had his temperament changed drastically, but he had also split into multiple personalities, some of which even spoke ill of himself. They might be able to trick ordinary people, but it would be very hard to get past the smart ones, especially geniuses like Dou Yanshan and Duan Wenyang —— they could easily see through it.

While Shen Qiao was mulling over the situation, Yan Wushi had already finished gnawing the waist portion of the sugar figurine and started moving towards its thighs.

Seeing the way he looked right now, who could believe that this person was Yan Wushi? If he acted like this in front of Duan Wenyang and others, he would probably be beaten up so badly without even ashes left.

Shen Qiao couldn’t help but heave a long sigh. He dragged Yan Wushi into an eatery. After they sat down, he asked, “You heard what the person just said. Do you have any thoughts?”

Yan Wushi lifted up the veil and shoved the rest of the figurine into his mouth. He stared at Shen Qiao expressionlessly, his cheeks moving up and down as he crunched on the candy.

Even Shen Qiao who was extremely good-mannered could not help but feel the corner of his mouth twitching slightly upon seeing this, “Even though you are Xie Ling right now, you should be able to understand what I said, right?”

Yan Wushi replied with an affirmative sound.

Shen Qiao asked, “What’s your plan then? Should I take you directly to your disciples in Chang’an?”

Yan Wushi said, “No.”

He seemed unwilling to talk and even frowned slightly. After quite a while, he finally said, “Send them. A message.”

Shen Qiao nodded, “That works too. We can wait for Bian Yanmei to receive your message and come meet you first, then you two can discuss the next best thing to do. The Cleansing Moon Sect has quite a big influence in Qi. Once we get to Qi territory, we should be able to find the sect members, right? How should I contact them?”

Yan Wushi said, “I don’t remember.”

He meant “Xie Ling” didn’t remember.

Shen Qiao felt the impulse to sigh again, “Nevermind. This can wait till we get back to Northern Zhou.”

While they were talking, the waiter had already brought the food over. The place was much nicer than the town they stayed at previously, and they could order a lot more than just lamb soup and oil pancakes. In fact, they could even find Manchurian wild rice on the plate, which was very rare during the winter.

The eatery was located at the center of the market. They sat next to the window on the second floor and could see many people doing small businesses down below —— vendors hawking their wares and customers bargaining for better prices. Right below them was a man dancing with a giant brush made of weasel bristle in his hand. As he flipped and jumped, the brush would leave an elegant and agile water trace on the ground. Looking closely at it, he was actually copying the Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion, the famous calligraphy work of Wang Xizhi from the East Jin Dynasty.

The show was unique and amusing and soon attracted many people to gather around him. Not all these locals were literate enough to understand what he was writing, but the performer’s moves were so light and graceful that people cheered with every stroke.

Seeing that Yan Wushi was watching attentively, Shen Qiao also threw a glance. However, when he saw the writing that the brush left as it moved across the floor, it plucked a string in his heart, and he suddenly felt enlightened by it.

The man’s performance couldn’t even be considered as martial arts. They were just some rough street fighting techniques. But the man was smart. He combined them with Western Regions style dances, so he looked like he was dancing as well as juggling while doing calligraphy in between the gaps. In the other people’s eyes, the performance was rather fresh and amusing. Even if the rich ones gave only a few copper coins, the money would be enough to support the performer’s livelihood.

But the man didn’t skimp out on his work just because the others were only expecting some light entertainment. Even though the Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion written on rough ground with a giant brush wasn’t good —— if it was in the Central Plains, countless experts would immediately express their disdain. The man wrote each stroke with complete focus as if he was too absorbed with his own dance that he had already forgotten about his own existence. He stared fixedly at the ground, fully focusing on the strength applied to each stroke and the structure of the characters, refusing to show any carelessness.

The Way of martial arts was rather profound. It required talent, diligence, and most importantly, it required the ability to comprehend. One could very likely train hard for many days or even many years without seeing any progress. However, if they could find that occasional light of truth, they would suddenly comprehend everything and immediately enter a whole new realm.

Now, as Shen Qiao watched the performer’s movements, a picture naturally appeared in his head.

In that picture, the performer became Shen Qiao himself, and he was no longer holding a brush but a sword in his hand.

The highest good is like water.

Water gives life to all creatures yet it does not strive;

It flows in places men reject —— 

It is like the Way.

The waves of the ocean,

The jaggedness of the mountains ——

All are like the great Way,

They match their subtle beauty and share their dust.

The sword danced in his hand, moved and flowed like clouds and water. The moves were very similar to those of the Azurewave Sword Arts of Mount Xuandu, but Shen Qiao knew they were different. It was a set of techniques he created himself.

The set of sword arts slowly took form inside his mind. Shen Qiao almost forgot everything around him, forgot the fact that he was still inside a tavern, and that Yan Wushi was still next to him. He immediately jumped to his feet and rushed towards the city outskirts so fast that it almost looked like he was gliding through without touching the ground.

He could not wait to test out this new set of sword techniques!

Chapter 70

“ This corporeal world, this self, forgotten.

— FOR THOSE WHO HAVE STUDIED WUGONG and reached the pinnacle of their art, to wander alone with the knowledge can be harmful for them. This is why, when they have reached a certain level, wugong technique becomes similar to that of a foreign object—it is not necessarily the key to victory. 

However, this certainly does not mean that technique is not essential. Just as words are the voice of the mind, what is beautiful on the inside should be just as well on the outside. If only one’s neigong is unparalleled their whole life, then it would be tantamount to possessing a mountain of treasure with empty hands, yet not knowing how to use it. 

Qi Fengge was the most brilliant wugong master of his time. Those who have thoroughly studied swordsmanship can be lost by the splendor of countless sword techniques; they may not know how to apply each one. The better choice is to simplify what is complicated; so Qi Fengge took the swordplay techniques of Xuandu Mountain and consolidated them. In the end, he left behind two sets of techniques: of them, one was the famous Canglang Sword Technique.

The sets of sword techniques from Xuandu Mountain combined the Daoist doctrines of tranquility and inaction, as well as the Daoist practice of ziran theory. There is an emphasis on moving as one with silence and striking only after one’s opponent has, as well as on agility and elegance. As it happened, Shen Qiao’s personality worked well in accordance with this skillset, so when he studied it, his approach often yielded twice the results.

But when he had begun to cultivate the true qi from the Zhuyang Ce, his former swordplay techniques gradually became less suitable for him, for the true qi of the Zhuyang Ce did not only contain Daoist theory, but also the essence of Confucian and Buddhist teachings combined into one. The capable and vigorous nature of Confucianism, as well as the unwavering strength of Buddhism could not possibly be embodied in the Canglang Sword Technique. 

However, even if all things in this world had their differences, they will also inevitably share some similarities. Earlier, when he had seen that performer dancing as he practiced calligraphy, he noticed that the performer did not seem to perform for the crowd of onlookers, despite being in a loud market and performing his art to turn a profit. Instead, he was wholeheartedly immersed in what he was doing. He performed, with unwavering concentration, a dance filled with joy. The dancing style of the Western regions was bold and unrestrained; yet calligraphy was a meticulous art. By bringing these two arts together, he created an exotic sort of harmony that bridged both strength and gentleness. Though onlookers may simply think that his actions were very beautiful, Shen Qiao had vicariously learned through the experience, and from it, he had created an entirely new sword technique. 

At this moment, his body rose as his blade fell. The light from the blade shined freely as the winter sun fell behind the tops of the trees. Though much life has withered here, this single person and his sword swept over the land, cleansing it. He turned his body and began to move in such a way that it resembled the supple and yielding nature of the spring breeze and rain, and other times, the firm and transcendent nature of the Buddhist chu.

The mild spring sun, the clear summer moon, all of it was within him.

The rustling autumn breeze, the cold winter grass, conceal, but do not harm.

The pure mountains and rivers, the torrential Jianghan river, their essence as though heaven-made.

A divine light shines and departs, 

and it would be suddenly light, suddenly dark.

He stood as though like a crane, bringing its lithe and graceful body to its feet,

preparing to fly, having yet to soar. 

As his soul was in his sword,

his sword was in his person. 

The corporeal world, this self, forgotten,

and with this, he comes to a clear, transparent understanding.

The surrounding trees collapsed, one after the other, as the jian qi drew near it, as though experiencing the effects of the jian qi upon itself. A narrow trail of jian qi emerged from the soil beneath him, which was once cold and hard. The jian qi was sometimes deep, and sometimes shallow; sometimes it was long, and sometimes it was short. Occasionally, the dead leaves would part from their branches one by one, as though in awe of the jian qi--yet before they touched the ground, they would be spun around by the jian qi that encircled it. 

Suddenly, the point of the sword would tremble, and the withered leaves would seem to move somewhat with it, before each leaf suddenly shooting ahead with such force that it plunged three zhang deep into the trunks of the trees—not revealing any more, and not leaving any less. 

That a master could pour true qi into flowers in the breeze or falling leaves to wound someone was not unheard of; however, to use a sword to defend from the leaves was at least a level beyond that.

The Shanhe Tongbei sword hummed a low vibration, as though fluctuating with its user’s frame of mind. Concealed within it were the boundless mountains and rivers; the sound of the wind, the thunder, the ocean waves. The light of the blade was not so bright that it blinded the eyes, but only enough to produce a weak layer of illumination to the body of the sword, having a much softer appearance than before. However, this light could move with Shen Qiao’s will—appearing and disappearing intermittently, rising and falling as he did.

With this technique complete, Shen Qiao stood and sheathed his sword. He exhaled a slow, long breath. The excitement he experienced in his heart had not yet completely subsided, while the blood had gone cold in the pit of his stomach, leaving him close to nausea. 

He understood that this was because he had understood the realm of jian xin, but his nei li was not yet sufficient enough to manage jian xin, so the jian qi had retaliated against him. 

Those who study wugong only wish for a single thing in their lifetimes: to progress without end, climbing each new level. Therefore, while the less talented look up to these masters, it is these masters who, in contrast, wish to continue forwards and climb over such obstacles, with no limits as to what they have yet to learn in this sea of knowledge. How can wu dao ever have limits? Jian dao had four boundaries: jian qi, jian yi, jian xin, and jian shen. To many people, jian shen was only something heard of in legends. Outside of the couple Gan Jiang and Mo Ye sacrificing themselves and sacrificing their lives for their swords, having obeyed orders and achieving the boundary of jian shen in this way, from the past until now, nearly no other person would ever reach this stage.

As far as those who have reached the stage of jian xin, one would scan all the land and the past several decades, and they would only find that Tao Hongjing and Qi Fengge were the only two people who had ever done this.

And they have passed on. Tao Hongjing and Qi Fengge, in the end, remain a part of history.

While Shen Qiao lives in this moment. 

Shen-daozhang sheathed his sword, and remained standing where he was. He slowly relaxed his quick, chaotic breathing. He felt the contentment that had filled his heart gradually disappear. And he suddenly remembered a very serious issue: he had forgotten Yan Wushi back at the restaurant.

Shen Qiao said to himself, this isn’t good, and swiftly headed back to the city. 

Yan Wushi didn’t have a fraction of a wen on him. Shen Qiao had even left. If the restaurant’s keeper were to press for money for the meal, it would be difficult to imagine what the other person would do, even if the near-harmless “Xie Ling” was the disposition in control.

Once he thought of this, Shen Qiao’s pace quickened. In the blink of an eye, he had returned to that very restaurant.

Sure enough, standing by their spot by the second-floor window were about seven or eight people. Amongst them was the owner of the restaurant, as well as a few customers.

Yan Wushi was surrounded on all sides by a crowd that fixed their gazes upon him. However, he did not move. Beneath the mi li, one would be unable to make out the expression he wore. At first glance, it would seem that he had just been scolded and sat there, meekly, not daring to move. 

Shen Qiao quickly approached them. 

“I’m very sorry. Earlier, I had a brief matter to attend to and left for a moment. How much is it together? I’ll pay for it!”

The owner of the restaurant was a Han person. The moment he laid eyes on Shen Qiao, it was as though he had caught sight of his savior. Wearing a bitter look, he began: “Langjun, we’re but a small business. It is difficult in many respects to carry on, especially in a foreign country. We did not want to cause any trouble. But this young niangzi hasn’t any silver money on her. Had you not returned, I would have just regarded this as a loss and moved on. Who would have known that this young niangzi would loiter here and refuse to leave. The moment we tried to persuade her, she...she...”

Shen Qiao looked where the restaurant owner pointed, and could see a cup on the table that had been shattered into a small pile of fine dust, and a pair of chopsticks that had been stabbed into the table. The corners of his lips could not help but twitch somewhat at the sight. 

Seeing this, and finding the situation both laughable and rather sad, he apologized repeatedly and paid for the food as well as the tableware that had been destroyed. Once this was done, he pulled Yan Wushi with him and left.

“You...are still Xie Ling, aren’t you?” Shen Qiao asked.

“Mn,” Yan Wushi said.

Shen Qiao cleared his throat somewhat. 

“I’m sorry. When I saw that person’s dance performance, I had a sudden spark of inspiration.”

He tugged Yan Wushi down the stairs. The performer was still dancing; though this was one of the coldest days of the year, his forehead shimmered with sweat. One could see that he exerted great effort.

A pity that, in the copper bowl before him, there were very few coins, and the number of people watching him had also fallen. 

Shen Qiao counted out nearly half of their coins and placed them into the copper bowl. The performer’s mouth hung open, and he thanked them repeatedly. Shen Qiao nodded at him, before leaving with Yan Wushi.

Once they had walked a good distance, Yan Wushi suddenly said: “You gave him a lot.”

“He had unknowingly planted a willow that grew and gave shade,” Shen Qiao laughed. “He helped me comprehend jian xin. I had actually thought that we had given him too few. It’s just that we do not have much money on us at present, so I could only do as much as I could.”

Yan Wushi did not speak.

He spoke much less than he did regularly. Shen Qiao thought that it was perhaps because Xie Ling resented him for abandoning and leaving him just then, scaring him. After all, ‘Xie Ling’ and the real Yan Wushi did differ to some extent. Shen Qiao smiled as he apologized.

“Are you still angry? I was wrong, I shouldn’t have left you there and went off the way I did. So don’t be angry anymore. I wanted so much to try out that swordplay technique, so I was careless. If you want something to eat or to play with, I’ll go and buy it for you. How about that?”

Yan Wushi was silent for a moment, before saying: “I want another tang ren.”

Shen Qiao was silent.

When the other person said he wanted tang ren, Shen Qiao suddenly felt a small regret. But then again, he had been the one to dig his own grave and jump right into it. He had stated the terms, so how could he not commit to them? Because of this, he could only bring Yan Wushi back to the vendor from earlier that made tang ren. The vendor still recognized them, and smiled curiously: “You two have come back again? Perhaps you still want tang ren?”

Shen Qiao said, embarrassed: “Yes. Please give us another one.”

“Two more,” Yan Wushi said.

“...two more please.” Shen Qiao could only compromise.

Who could possibly regret business at their door? The vendor beamed with smiles, and moved quickly. Two tang ren were immediately spun from sugar and produced.

Yan Wushi took one in each hand. He bit into one and crunched loudly, while Shen Qiao could only pretend not to hear, and took him to the inn for a room.

Every time they had a room, always, one person would sleep in the bed, while the other would meditate. Shen Qiao’s nei li was gradually recovering, so when they had time, he would meditate instead of sleep. This was not only because the other person would not practice wugong, but also because it served as a form of rest.

“Since we have that sheet of silk, you can heal your demonic core now. You had ought to...” Shen Qiao said to Yan Wushi.

But halfway through, he suddenly stopped.

This was because Yan Wushi had removed his mi li and already finished one tang ren. He was just starting on the other tang ren’s “head” and was licking it slowly. He licked it so that the Shen Qiao tang ren’s face and head were glistening all over.

“...what are you doing?” Shen Qiao asked.

Yan Wushi said, innocently: “I’m a little full. So this one, I have to, eat slowly.”

Shen Qiao certainly could not say, ‘could you not lick it?’, because it would sound rather strange. He was eating candy after all. If Shen Qiao were to say this, he would seem overly sensitive.

He could only choose to put it out of sight and out of mind. 

“The Central Plains is not like the Western Regions,” Shen Qiao said, finishing his earlier thought, “The moment we enter the country of Zhou, our whereabouts will be revealed sooner or later. Now that you have the sheet of silk, healing your demonic core is imminent. Now that we have time, there isn’t any harm in refining it.”

One he said this, Shen Qiao could not help but shake his head and laugh, spitefully: “Actually, if you were now the real Yan Wushi, you would not leave it to me to caution you about this over and over.”

“If the demonic core is healed,” Yan Wushi said, suddenly, “Xie Ling might not be able to be here.”

Shen Qiao’s smile faded. He was silent. A long moment passed, before he sighed, lightly. “But you cannot possibly be like this for the rest of your life. Perhaps Xie Ling is willing, but Yan Wushi may not.”

'Xie Ling’ was a part of Yan Wushi. However, Yan Wushi would never have returned to save him after he had freed himself and left. 

Perhaps it was that every person who had a heart of stone would always have a fragment of tenderness deep within them. Though it was only a fragment so small it was almost nothing, Xie Ling had gotten his share of this fragment. And he had poured all of it into Shen Qiao, who he had deemed most worthy of his trust. 

But now, one day, when ‘Xie Ling’ disappears, will this gentleness also disappear with him and leave no trace?

And Yan Wushi, will he remain the selfish and cold Huanyue zongzhu, who would not be swayed by any person?

The other person looked at him with deep, black eyes. He clearly devoted all of his attention to him, possessing no sign of impurity. This was the first time that Shen Qiao had ever seen anything like this in any of Yan Wushi’s other dispositions.

This was Xie Ling, and not Yan Wushi.

Shen Qiao told himself this, before approaching him, and softly caressing the top of the other’s head.

The other person allowed him, only raising his chin slightly, as though rubbing against Shen Qiao’s hand somewhat. 

This was something that only Xie Ling could do.

Shen Qiao’s heart became soft at once. And within this softness emerged an inexplicable, sadness.

With the use of the yu congrong herb, Yan Wushi’s head wound had gradually begun to heal over. However, the damaged meridians within him needed to be repaired. It was not something that could be done in a night, and Yan Wushi’s disposition, at present, was fickle, and may not necessarily focus on healing himself, the way he was now. When his body was being controlled by Xie Ling, the desire to heal fell to its absolute lowest point, and his manner of thinking had also simplified somewhat. Even a tang ren was enough to satisfy him. 

“The sheet of silk is still with you, right? Let me see it,” Shen Qiao said.

The other person took it out and gave it to him.

Shen Qiao took the sheet of silk and narrowed his eyes, so as to read it. Upon it were characters that were as small as a fly’s head that could have only been embroidered with thread, not written with a brush. For this reason, it did not fade despite the months and years that passed it by.

Written upon it did indeed concern the wugong of the demonic sects. Tao Hongjing, in those years, perhaps had seen the Riyue Sect’s wugong records. The silk sheet was filled with around one thousand characters, and most of it reflected his observations and commentaries on the wugong style of the demonic sects. There was not a concrete discussion about how the key to success with the wugong style of the demonic sects, nor its secret methods. Shen Qiao’s vision was now inadequate; under the weak candlelight, he was able to struggle to finish reading it. His eyes immediately felt so sore that it was difficult to endure. Tears had nearly begun to shed from them.

“It doesn’t seem to say anything about healing the flaw in the demonic core, does it?” he said curiously, handing the sheet of silk back to him.

“There is,” Yan Wushi said.

“Where?” Shen Qiao said.

Yan Wushi shook his head. 

After a moment, he said once more: “I don’t know, but he does.”

The meaning of this was that Xie Ling didn’t know, but the original did. 

Shen Qiao nodded, and did not ask any more. He waited for the other person to fall asleep before finding a cotton mattress to sit upon and meditate.

Moonlight fell upon them like water, as the hours gave way to night. 

Even the distant sound of dogs barking also disappeared. Heaven and earth became immersed in sleep; tranquil quiet permeating inside and out. 

The person in bed, however, did not sleep peacefully. Occasionally he would move somewhat, as though he were struggling.

Shen Qiao noticed his movements and opened his eyes. He stood and approached him, so as to look more closely.

“Xie Ling?” he called out in a soft voice.

The man’s brow was tightly knit, as though he were caught in some sort of nightmare.

Shen Qiao extended one hand to touch his forehead. Before he was able to, the other man suddenly opened both of his eyes. 

This wasn’t ‘Xie Ling’!

The moment their eyes met, Shen Qiao quickly became cautious. He pulled his hand away and began to draw back. 

However, Yan Wushi moved much more quickly than he expected. The other man sat up, as though he were a demon, and grabbed Shen Qiao’s face.

“Yan-zongzhu, it’s me!” Shen Qiao shouted.

But it was to no avail. The other man did not care; his attack was ruthless and severe, every move filled with cruel, killing intent.

Yan Wushi had certainly sustained heavy wounds; however, his wugong was not completely destroyed. Shen Qiao suddenly realized this fact. Before, the man rarely attacked anyone, which was why Shen Qiao had the wrong impression of him. 

However, even if this were the real Yan Wushi, he would not attack someone the moment he opened his eyes without caring who they were. He clearly wore a dazed, confused expression...

Shen Qiao suddenly remembered when Banna had said that Yan Wushi had grabbed her neck. However, after that moment, Shen Qiao had never seen the other man exhibit such fierce and irrational behavior, so this incident gradually faded from his memory.

Perhaps this was yet another one of his dispositions revealing themselves?

Shen Qiao was utterly helpless. The two of them exchanged several moves. The current Yan Wushi was not Shen Qiao’s opponent, but how he attacked without regard for his own life concerned Shen Qiao greatly. Shen Qiao absolutely could not kill him either, so in order to prevent their movements from disturbing the other guests at the inn, Shen Qiao searched for an opportunity to close his acupoint.

Yan Wushi fell over, unable to resist any longer. Shen Qiao caught him, and noticed that the other man’s face had suddenly become red and congested. He quickly took the other man’s pulse and found that the energy within him was in complete disorder, rapidly moving everywhere throughout his body. These were clear indications of qi deviation. Shen Qiao, alarmed, quickly reopened the other man’s acupoint.

However, the moment his acupoint was reopened, Yan Wushi suddenly grabbed his neck and leaned into him, and immediately bit his lip!

Shen Qiao felt a sudden pain and wound his arm behind the other man’s neck before striking him harshly. The other man loosened, and then fell on top of him.

It was finally quiet. 

Shen Qiao exhaled a sigh of relief. He grasped Yan Wushi’s wrist and took his pulse, and could not help but utter an yi in surprise.

If one were to say that the man was in a state of qi deviation earlier, then at this moment, which was not very long after, his meridians had become completely at peace. Additionally, by complete contrast, a vigorous force of life had even...emerged?

Author’s Note: 

Tomorrow, Master Lao-yan will be slowly coming back. →_→

Xie Ling: Meiren-gege.

Shen Qiao; Good boy. (He pats his head.)

Lao Yan: Ah-qiao (~ ̄▽ ̄)~

Shen Qiao: Yan-zongzhu. (His expression is cold and detached.)

Lao Yan: (╯‵□′)╯︵┻━┻”
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