“ I’m going to buy you some fingernail polish.
— THE SORT OF STATE THAT YAN WUSHI WAS IN NOW was a hundred times more complicated than Shen Qiao was before.
Although Shen Qiao sustained heavy wounds from falling from the cliff, his illness lingered as a result of the xiangjianhuan poison flaring up within his body. However, his damaged meridians had already been thoroughly repaired by the true qi of the Zhuyang Ce, and the remaining xiangjianhuan poison had already been expelled from his body after he had destroyed his wugong. Even though his eyes suffered from the effects of the poison and would never completely heal, his foundations were reconstructed by the Zhuyang Ce and his wugong would have to be relearned from the beginning. However, he would not be met with any future troubles any longer.
But Yan Wushi would not be like this. His original demonic core had suffered a flaw—this had always been the problem. It had a flaw, and this flaw was taken advantage of by Guang Lingsan when the masters had besieged Yan Wushi. They had caused the flaw to become even larger, as well as severely wounded his head, leaving his meridians in such disorder, his neixi in such chaos that it impacted his natural disposition and caused it to experience such change.
As a result, there were at least three things that had to be done. The first was to treat his head wound. They already had the yu congrong, so this did not pose any trouble any longer. The second was to sort out his meridians, and the third was to repair his demonic core. The second and third matters were mutually linked to one another—taking care of one would, in turn, take care of the other. If the flaw remained unable to be repaired, then he would remain in qi deviation. The dangers of his disordered meridians, as well as the issues his meridians posed in general would once more impact the pace at which his wugong would recover.
When Shen Qiao had taken his pulse, this was not necessarily Yan Wushi’s true pulse, but instead an omen that suggested that, while all might be fine at first glance, there was still chaos taking place within. However, this could be considered a good start. After all, Yan Wushi was blessed with talent. Since he had already said that the sheet of silk could heal the flaw in his demonic core, then that meant that this would certainly be able to be done. The only thing was whether it would be sooner as opposed to later, as well as how effective it would be.
Shen Qiao laid the man on the bed. He then pulled out something white from his sleeve.
This was the yu congrong that ‘Xie Ling’ had given him at the ancient city of Ruoqiang. Shen Qiao’s wounds that he sustained from being scratched by the monkeys had, at the time, already healed, so he never ate the fruits. Because he now had the support of the Zhuyang Ce’s true qi, this would not have had a great effect on him, even though the yu congrong certainly could have regulated his qi and breathing.
Shen Qiao took the yu congrong into his hand. He also found an empty cup, and squeezed the fruit in his hand. The juices of the yu congrong trailed down his fingers, and filled half of the cup. He poured in a little bit of warm water, before pressing down Yan Wushi’s chin to pry open his lips and have him drink the yu congrong water.
This item was capable of being regarded as a sacred healing fruit, so naturally it would have a miraculous effect. Normally, even the imperial palace wouldn’t have something like this. One would have to go to a place in the Gobi Desert like that of the underground ancient city of Ruoqiang to be able to find it. One did not need words to express how precious this fruit was. The monkeys ate the yu congrong as a source of food for them throughout the year, which was why their strength was so great and their intelligence so advanced that they were able to pose such a threat.
At the time, Yan Wushi had plucked four fruits and destroyed the rest, so as to threaten Chen Gong. Afterwards, he had eaten two, and given Shen Qiao one. He most likely did not think that this fruit would end up being used for him.
Had this been any other person, they would be unlikely to give it to another person, even if the fruit wouldn’t have any effect on their person.
Once he had drank the yu congrong water, Yan Wushi’s complexion had evened out somewhat. Only then did Shen Qiao put the cup down and continued to meditate, while also thinking about the issue that concerned the Zhuyang Ce.
The Zhuyang Ce was composed of five volumes. Amongst them, one was written about the wugong of the demonic sects. This was precisely the contents of the sheet of silk that Yan Wushi had seized from Chen Gong’s hands. Chen Gong had also read several of the thousand characters. They were sublime words with profound meaning, and had indeed been a commentary of the Riyue Sect’s wugong in that year. It was no use for Shen Qiao to read it over more than he did, because he cultivated a Daoist core. This had nothing to do with him.
Amongst the four volumes that dealt with the Confucianist, Buddhist, and Daoist schools of thought, Shen Qiao had studied two of them. One was taught to him by his enshi, Qi Fengge. The other, he had gotten a hold of at Chuyun Temple. He had read it aloud himself as everyone watched. It was already destroyed by Yan Wushi.
As for the other two volumes, one was hidden in the Imperial Palace of Northern Zhou, while the other was with the Tiantai Buddhist Sect.
Because of the Zhuyang Ce’s reputation, everyone considered this the most remarkable book in the entire world. Each person would fall over one another in their eagerness to possess it. That day, when Dou Yanshan had received news regarding the whereabouts of a volume of the Zhuyang Ce, he had ordered Yun Fuyi, the secondary bangzhu of the Liuhe-bang, to buy it under the identity of a hired escort, and using that same identity, deliver it there. Who knew that it would be intercepted by Yan Wushi halfway, and, in the end, destroyed by him. As a result, Dou Yanshan hated Yan Wushi down to the bone. The fact that he participated in the assassination was not strange at all. To anyone else, they would think that Yan Wushi’s methods were truly deserving of hate.
However, many knew of the Zhuyang Ce’s advantages, but they did not know how it was so advantageous, even going as far as to assume that its contents were about some exceptional wugong that, when cultivated, would allow them to be the greatest master in the world. Even the former Qi Fengge and present Yan Wushi did not see through its contents in its entirety. Up until Shen Qiao had destroyed his wugong did he know the unusual essence of the Zhuyang Ce, and with this essence did he reconstruct his foundations. If one had, from the beginning, started to cultivate true qi of the Zhuyang Ce—which combined the greatest aspects of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism—then their skills would surpass that of many other people right then. As their foundations would be different, then the realm that they would enter afterwards would naturally be different from them as well.
However, even if many of the great masters knew of this, they could not possibly destroy their own wugong and begin to cultivate the Zhuyang Ce. Additionally, those who had already read parts of the Zhuyang Ce would naturally have a sentimental attachment to it, and most of them would not want to share their knowledge with others. As a result, the number of people in the world who could truly understand the Zhuyang Ce’s essence most likely was not more than a handful at first glance.
At present, Shen Qiao could be said to be solemnly standing halfway up a great mountain and able to see that the world was great and vast, that everything was possible. However, this was not quite as good as a person who stood at the peak of the mountain. Though each volume of the Zhuyang Ce were independently written one after the other, all of them were connected, to some extent, with one another. As a result, Shen Qiao would now occasionally cultivate up to a certain point that he would not necessarily understand, and be unable to find an answer, forcing him to fumble for one on his own. Perhaps once he finished reading the other two volumes, this sort of issue would be completely reversed.
The volume in the Imperial Palace of Northern Zhou was quite possible. But with the last time that he had met Yuwen Yong, the man would perhaps be unwilling to allow him to read it.
But the one hidden in Tiantai Sect would be much more difficult. The Buddhist and Daoist sects have never shared friendly relations. As every sect in the world was fighting to unite the world under their own systems, they already found their own leaders to support. All of them fought amongst one another endlessly. The Tiantai Buddhist Sect would not possibly give their own sect’s well-guarded treasure to someone who had no relation to them without rhyme or reason.
Shen Qiao thought about this until the middle of the night. His head dizzied with this, he gradually fell asleep.
Until the light of early dawn reached their room and thoroughly woken him up.
This moment of sleep was not very deep. However, Shen Qiao had studied the practices of the Daoist schools ever since he was a child. His personality was such that he did not desire great fame or wealth. He never had been met with any situation that was so hopeless that he would bury it in his heart. Additionally, he had always resigned to carry a clear conscience through all matters, so naturally he would not spend each day filled with anxiety. Though he did not think deeply on these things, he was able to recuperate somewhat as a result.
However, this simple way of living carried with it a sense of naivete. But after having essentially experienced a series of falls, this naivete had precipitated from his nature. Admittedly, he still treated others with the same utter innocence and whole-hearted devotion that he always did. Yet he had also gradually learned how to distinguish the true intent of other people, and would not so easily be deceived by others any longer.
Though his eyes had not yet opened, he could still sense someone gazing at him from the bed.
He did not need to see to be able to know who it was. However, he did not know which disposition would greet him when he woke this time. If it were that ruthless and cruel one from the evening before, he would have to knock him out again. Either that, or hire a drawn carriage and toss him in there before carrying on with the journey, so as to avoid any more inconveniences from then on.
Shen Qiao’s thoughts quickly came to a stop. He slowly opened his eyes. Though there was some distance between them, he was able to make out the expression the other man was wearing.
Though Yan Wushi’s complexion was calm, his gaze was unknowable. His heart beat somewhat anxiously.
“Yan-zongzhu?” he said in a voice that did not sound especially happy.
Yan Wushi laughed thoughtfully. “What? You seem as though you didn’t want to see me.”
“That isn’t it,” Shen Qiao said, his eyelids falling somewhat.
“It was most likely you that put this woman’s disguise on me, wasn’t it?” Yan Wushi said.
“The situation was rather serious, and I needed to act quickly. This was to prevent people from wanting to pay close attention to us, and allow Yan-zongzhu to return to Chang’an as quickly as possible.”
Yan Wushi did not seem to mind. He even touched his hair and his sleeves as though deeply interested in this fact, before saying to Shen Qiao: “If you’re going to disguise me as a woman, then you should at least try to make me look like one. Most women paint their fingernails. And if they don’t do that, then they’ll at least apply a little bit. Otherwise, if someone observant were to notice their bare hands, then they would immediately know that they were a man disguised as a woman.”
Shen Qiao frowned. How would I know something like that? he thought. It’s not like I’ve ever been disguised as a woman before.
Instead, he said: “Yan-zongzhu is correct. If you would like some polish, then I will certainly go out to purchase it for you.”
Yan Wushi raised one eyebrow and laughed. “You really seem like you don’t want to talk to me at all, do you? What’s wrong? Xie Ling is but a fraction of some fragment of my spirit. To think that he would win over your respect so much that you would even wait on him with such gentleness, and yet refuse to even spare a word with me. Could it be, Ah-qiao, that you’ve forgotten who the real Yan Wushi is?”
The day that Shen Qiao had decided to save Yan Wushi, he did not do this because he wanted the man to repent for what he had done, much less try to win his favors. But who would have known that Yan Wushi’s disposition would become fragmented the way that it did, and that he would be met with ‘Xie Ling’ and ‘Ah-yan’? Such a thing was completely beyond his expectations. Otherwise, he did not wish to quarrel with the man at all. He could only eagerly look forward to the future where he would never even see his face again.
“Xie Ling is Xie Ling. Yan Wushi is Yan Wushi. No matter what happens, I would not dare to forget Yan-zongzhu,” Shen Qiao said, indifferently.
Yan Wushi’s gaze fell upon the wound on Shen Qiao’s lip. He laughed, taken aback by the sight
“What, did Xie Ling lose so much of my memories that he even forgot how to kiss someone, and instead bit you out of fear?”
Only after Shen Qiao had come to did he realize himself that a small pain spread through his lips. However, he was never very good at answering back with sarcasm, and could only remain silent and refuse to answer.
Yan Wushi did not seem to mind. He laughed once more and said, “Since we’ve already found that sheet of silk, the day that the flaw of my demonic core will be healed is imminent. This matter is, indeed, thanks to you. Had you not taken me into Ruoqiang, I would never have been able to take the sheet of silk from Chen Gong. Ah-qiao, to think that you’d return my cruelty with such kindness. You’re making me feel somewhat remorseful for handing you off to Sang Jingxing that day!”
Though he said that he was remorseful, the truth was that his tone did not carry the slightest remorse at all. This was the true Yan Wushi. With the way that he handled matters, even if he had to bear the weight of all the people in the world, he would not feel even the slightest guilt. Even if time could be reversed, it was quite likely that, in order to push Shen Qiao’s boundaries, he would still pick the very same decision.
Simply, it was just as Yan Wushi said. He did not need friends. He only needed an opponent, and his opponent was someone who would be matched in strength with him, someone who was worthy enough to stand beside him. Everything else was simply Shen Qiao’s miscalculations, having suffered from an unrequited affection, and nothing more.
How could Shen Qiao possibly not understand this up until now? For this reason, he didn’t respond. Instead, he asked about the matter at hand.
“Once we have departed from Wang City and began to head towards the Central Plains, the chances that your whereabouts will be leaked becomes greater still. With your present cultivation, you would most likely want to avoid running into Xueting-chanshi and the others for now, I’m sure. You are, at present, a target for all, and completely surrounded by enemies. If you are discovered, then it would be endlessly troublesome. However, the journey from here to Chang’an is not a short one. Do you have any plans on how we should go about it?”
Yan Wushi, upon seeing how indifferent his expression was, clearly did not want to keep chattering about on his own. Yet the sight of that wound on Shen Qiao’s lips destroyed whatever self-restraint he had. He looked like the carved statue of an immortal that had suddenly been stained with the smoke and fire of the mortal world. His heart suddenly took interest in this, and he could not help but deride him further: “You have never had any connection with Northern Zhou. It couldn’t possibly be because you’d met Yuwen Yong that one time that you are suddenly so willing to stand by him and help me, could it? Let me take a guess, then. Could it be that you had some feelings for me early on? And then you became so heartbroken by the fact that I had given you off to Sang Jingxing—but old loves are hard to forget. When Xie Ling appeared, it must have reignited some former affection of yours, which compelled you to dress me in women’s clothing. Perhaps you wanted to take advantage of me when I was unconscious, since it would be too late for me to do anything to you, and have me offer myself to you?”
Even though Shen Qiao was an honorable and decent man, he was still embittered by the narcissistic nature of his words: “If Yan-zongzhu is unwilling to speak properly, I could simply hit you unconscious and take you back to Chang’an just the same.”
Yan Wushi burst out laughing.
“Okay, okay. There’s no need to be angry. We won’t be returning directly back to Chang’an. We will first go to Weizhou.”
He always had that sort of temperament that changed repeatedly. Before, when his mood was good, he would talk and laugh in a soft, gentle voice. That he would use his gentleness to lure and deceive was also not uncommon.
“Why?” Shen Qiao frowned.
“It’s just as you said. My wugong has yet to recover,” Yan Wushi said, “and my presence would attract too much attention. The Liuhe-bang, Buddhists, Hehuan Sect, Fajing Sect, and even people of Tujue all want me dead. And with your present abilities, you wouldn’t be completely able to protect me either.”
Shen Qiao could only think, and who is to blame for that? You have enemies all over the world. This isn’t something that a number of people, no matter how small, are capable of doing. If it weren’t for the fact that I am considering the present situation and deciding not to argue with you, then I’d have long ago joined them in chasing and killing you myself.
Yan Wushi did not hear his thoughts, but Shen Qiao’s expression had already betrayed them. Yan Wushi thought that it was deeply amusing. He gazed at him for a long time, before asking: “Has there been any news from Chang’an?”
“I heard that Northern Zhou’s army drove directly into Northern Qi without any resistance. Northern Qi did not have the strength to resist. If nothing unexpected has happened, then they most likely have already taken Ye City. “
Yan Wushi responded with a soft en: “When I was by Yuwen Yong’s side, I had already arranged a number of people to watch over him. Nothing should happen to him in a short time. If something does happen, then we wouldn’t be able to make it back in time even if we tried. Huanyue Sect has an official residence in Weizhou. Let’s go there first to rest, before finding someone to send a message to Chang’an.”
Since he had made the decisions, Shen Qiao did not object to it.
“Then you should rest first.”
“Where are you going?” Yan Wushi asked.
“I’m going to buy you some nail polish,” Shen Qiao said.
For the first time in his life, Yan Wushi was at a loss for words.
The two of them remained in Wang City of Tuyuhun for several more days, before setting out to return to Northern Zhou.
Before they left, Shen Qiao had gone alone in secret to Banna’s house to visit. It seemed that Chen Gong did not go back on his word. Her grandfather had indeed returned, and the two of them, grandfather and grandchild, were safe and sound. Only then was his heart at ease, and left without a sound.
Yan Wushi’s other dispositions continued to fluctuate as they always did. However, while the moments where he was conscious became more and more common, Shen Qiao noticed that the first disposition to be put to rest was the violent and ruthless one that attacked and never spoke. The others rarely made themselves present in the day, but instead would come out at night, one after the other.
In other words, the Yan Wushi that was present in the day, was no different from his former self.
However, each time that ‘Xie Ling’ appeared, he would still depend greatly on Shen Qiao. He would even go without sleeping, instead choosing to gaze at Shen Qiao all throughout the night. This was something that the original Yan Wushi had no way to control. As a result, during most of the day, Yan Wushi lacked energy, and would have to meditate and rest.
At the beginning of the second month, they arrived at Weizhou City.
And the impending danger had also, quietly, grown nearer.
“ Just looking at you annoys me.
—WEIZHOU WAS SITUATED IN NORTHERN WEI, right at the source of the Weishui River—hence the name, Weizhou. In reality, the seat of its local government was called Xiangwu, but everyone had long gotten used to grouping it with Weishui River and calling them Weizhou City.
The city was certainly not comparable to Chang’an, but it could be considered a strategic town to the west. If Northern Zhou and Tuyuhun were to go to war, then this area would be situated on the military front. However, there was no such danger for this moment of time. Since it was not yet the beginning of spring, the weather had yet to warm; the merchants passing through here were few in number, and so Weizhou City was continuing as it always was—tranquil and peaceful.
Early in the morning, Ah-qing took a broom and headed towards the gate.
It snowed just the day before, so naturally he had to sweep the area clean. Else Wu-bo would slip and fall once he came home from getting the groceries. He hummed a little tune that only he knew to be off-beat, with a melody that only he could understand. The only thought in his mind was to quickly finish clearing the snow at the gate, as he had to go to the rear court and check if that yellow cat was there. Most days it ran to their room where they stored firewood so as to avoid the cold. If it was there, then Ah-qing would bring it some food.
The night before had been a scene of heavy snow. A thick layer had accumulated by the gate, as expected. Every now and again, a big pile of snow would slide down from the rooftops with a loud pa.
At this moment, Ah-qing had already given a good sweep around the courtyard. He was exhausted, but he wasn’t very cold. His breaths had just become heavy, so he took a break.
He had suddenly looked up, and was met with two people walking by down the street.
Ah-qing’s attention first fell upon the man wearing bluish-green clothes. From far off, he could not make out the man’s features, but the way this man carried himself already gave Ah-qing the sense that he was not an ordinary person. Ah-qing felt that it was difficult for him to find a suitable word to describe him. If he had to find one, then he thought of the liang gao he ate in the summer—white as snow, pure and transparent, its essence penetrating deeply into the heart. One only had to look at it, let alone eat it, to feel inexplicably at ease.
Once they had grown nearer, he realized that likening the man to liang gao was actually quite fitting. Ah-qing had never seen such a handsome and beautiful man. The moment he laid eyes on him, he had begun to stare blankly, up until he realized that these two people were walking in his direction, and growing closer still, before he recovered his composure.
The liang gao—no, the man carrying the long cloth bag on his back had approached Ah-qing and cupped his hands.
“Excuse me, but is this the Xie residence?”
Had it been before, Ah-qing certainly would have turned and said to him: The characters for ‘Xie Residence’ are written right on top of the roof, and real big at that. What, are you blind or illiterate? Why would you ask a question with such a clear answer?
But this time, not only did he not say such cutting words, but his face had even grown red. Normally, he was quick with his words and would vanish without a trace. However, he could now only stammer out: “But I...I don’t know who you are.”
“Young langjun, you are also a member of this residence, aren’t you?” The other man asked, smiling politely as he did.
Ah-qing only felt as though half of his bones had gone weak.
At that moment, a voice came from beside the man in teal, sounding as though within it carried a sneer: “Ah-qiao. If you ask all slow like that, when are you going to ever get the entire question out? Just have him bring Lao Wu out, and tell him that his master’s here.”
Ah-qing’s attention finally fell upon the person who had come along with the man in teal. It was a woman in a long skirt, wearing a mi li that made it so that her features were unclear.
Naturally, women from closer to the border were very tall and slim. However, one could not describe this woman as tall and slim. She seemed to have the height and figure of a man. Women like that were very rare indeed.
And her voice was not exactly unpleasant to hear, but it absolutely was not a clear and gentle voice that women typically had.
Ah-qing was a little confused.
“Are you sure you didn’t get the wrong place? Our master, the langjun of this Xie Residence, left many years ago to travel far away. Up until now he has yet to return!”
Before Shen Qiao could inquire further, Yan Wushi had tossed something to the boy.
Ah-qing subconsciously caught it. He looked down and found that it was a piece of topaz, hardly half the size of his palm. However, the carving upon it was exquisite and fine—a moon shining through the narrow branches of trees, enclosed by the mist of Kunlun Mountains.
“Give it to Wu Mi, and have him come see me,” said the woman, who was completely unlike a woman.
Ah-qing suddenly gave a start. He remembered that Wu-bo had once explained this to him, and finally understood exactly who this person before him was. He said not another word before turning right around and running back inside and closing the gate behind him, leaving Shen Qiao and Yan Wushi outside.
He was unexpectedly quite vigilant. A pity though that he had yet to attune his senses, leaving much of his behavior to appear rather childish and naive to any observer.
The two of them stood outside for some time, before seeing the gate open once more. An elderly man of about sixty years old came out, and behind him was the boy from earlier. The old man glanced past Shen Qiao before his gaze fell upon Yan Wushi, who was wearing the mi li.
Yan Wushi responded with an en.
It was only an en, but the old man couldn’t possibly have mistaken it for anyone else. He was overjoyed to the point that he was just about to salute him right there. However, after taking several steps forward, he seemed to resist from doing so and instead hurried them inside.
“Please do come in first, we’ll talk once you do!”
Ah-qing followed Wu-bo from behind, scrutinizing the two men curiously.
He was not a member of Huanyue Sect; he was but a little orphan that Wu-bo had had taken in. Ever since then, he remained at the residence and accompanied Wu-bo, helping him tidy up the rooms. Wu-bo had never talked much about the subject, but Ah-qing had the indistinct awareness that this house had a master. Wu-bo only helped look after it. But where the master of the house was, no one really knew; nor did anyone know when they would return. Perhaps after several years, they would; or perhaps, for the rest of this life, they would not.
Ah-qing had thought that the master that Wu-bo said had “gone out traveling far away” had already passed away in some accident. He never thought that there would come a day that the man would suddenly appear in front of them, even disguised as a woman.
“Ah-qing,” Wu-bo said, “go to the kitchen and prepare some zhou, and then some small dishes. Langjun has clearly returned from a long journey. He will need something to eat so as to warm him.”
“Ai, I’ll do it right now!”
Ah-qing listened very well to Wu-bo. He acknowledged Wu-bo’s words and then hurried off.
Yan Wushi watched Ah-qing as he ran off, before removing his mi li: “His foundations aren’t bad. He’s just a little stupid. Huanyue Sect’s people must be able to think quickly, and handle social matters with ease. He isn’t qualified the way that he is.”
“Xiaoren simply took him in to accompany him so as to lighten up these boring days. I would never consider such a thing!” Wu-bo said, anxiously.
This residence was one of Huanyue Sect’s strategic locations. It was purchased under Bian Yanmei’s name. Because the aliases of Huanyue Sect’s disciples were all surnamed Xie, every single residence was unified as a singular Xie residence. Wu-bo was responsible for keeping watch of this one. After having known him for several years, he did indeed come to love Ah-qing as his own, and hoped that there would be an opportunity for him to formally become a part of the Huanyue Sect.
However, he absolutely did not dare bring this idea up to Yan Wushi. He had considered requesting it from Bian Yanmei or Yu Shengyan had they ever stopped by the place, but who would have expected that neither of them would not only never come, but the Great Buddha himself did, and had even told him not to even think about it.
“To be ‘stupid’ simply means that one is not easily enticed by mere worldly possessions,” Shen Qiao suddenly said. “It doesn’t mean that he cannot study wugong wholeheartedly. I think that boy’s thoughts are very pure, which is very good. If he does not end up associated with Huanyue Sect, and still wants to practice wugong, I could recommend him to another sect on his behalf.”
At that moment, he was thinking about Bixia Sect’s decline after having suffered such a serious blow. Finding worthy disciples was certainly not so easy. Ah-qing’s natural talents were perhaps not worthy of those who were as ambitious as Yan Wushi, but he would be a significant addition to the Bixia Sect.
Yan Wushi laughed. “Ah-qiao ah, I didn’t see you exchange such kind graces to anyone this whole trip. If you’re talking about natural talents and foundations, wouldn’t that filial little boy we happened upon before be much better? Are you only saying that because you noticed how he was gazing at you, completely enraptured by your features?”
“Because Yan-zongzhu is inclined to lust,” Shen Qiao said, “you assume that everyone else is as lustful as you are.”
He originally did not want to pay any attention to Yan Wushi, usually because each time they argued, he lost more often than he won. Therefore, when Yan Wushi returned to his original disposition, Shen Qiao had gradually stopped talking to him to the best of his ability. Who would have expected that he was able to manage it the entire trip, but lose restraint right here.
Just as expected, Yan Wushi laughed.
“Lust is as natural as appetite. Everyone is like this. Indeed I take pleasure in your features, but I am much more in love with how cold you are to me and how you ignore me. Is this not something good to be acknowledged? You’ve treated Xie Ling and Ah-yan with a hundred different methods of gentleness, yet you would not even dare speak half a word to me. But honestly, regardless if it’s Xie Ling or even Ah-yan, they are all a dimension of me, Yan Wushi. But if Xie Ling or Ah-yan had shown themselves up on Wu Mi’s old face and treated you with such intimacy, would you still treat them as favorably as you did before?”
Wu-bo, who was completely innocent and yet was dragged into their argument and, on top of this, could not determine Yan Wushi and Shen Qiao’s relationship, did not dare say a word. He could only force a smile.
Shen Qiao responded with a soft en: “Just looking at you annoys me. Instead of speaking with you, I would much rather exchange a word or two with Xie Ling.”
Although Yan Wushi laughed, the smile on his face had become somewhat dangerous.
Wu-bo wanted to leave, but couldn’t. He only stayed there feeling awkward and embarrassed. As he listened to them speak, he could only wish that he could have just become invisible.
He had been with Yan Wushi for a short period of time before. He knew very well that any time that smile showed on that man’s face, then someone was sure to have a bad day.
To think that, after flashing a smile like that, Yan Wushi would instead speak in a tender voice: “All right. Let’s just say that I spoke out of line then. This entire trip, I let you disguise me as a woman without any complaint whatsoever. I tried so hard to be accommodating to you. Are my efforts worth so little to you that you won’t even put on a good face for me? Shen-zhangjiao, da-ren, please have great mercy on me. I’m sure you don’t want to bother with me.”
How often would one ever be able to see the zongzhu of Huanyue Sect relent and apologize to another person, with how wildly arrogant he was? Shen Qiao was caught off-guard by this, not to mention Wu-bo.
Shen Qiao did not respond to this. When he did speak, however, his tone was somewhat milder: “I am sure that you and Wu-bo have much to speak about. I won’t trouble you any longer. Is there a guest room here? I think that I will rest for a bit.”
Seeing that Yan Wushi did not have any objections to this, Wu-bo said, hurriedly: “Yes. We’ve tidied it up regularly throughout the year, so that one can rest in it whenever they need to. Allow me to take you there.”
He led Shen Qiao away and quickly returned to pay respect to Yan Wushi.
“To see that zongzhu is safe and sound is truly fortunate! Before, I heard that you had been...that you had been...! I didn’t dare believe it, and as expected, it was just a rumor!”
“It wasn’t a rumor,” Yan Wushi smirked. “I sustained a few injuries that have yet to heal.”
“Ah...so that young man from earlier is...?” Wu-bo said.
“He is surnamed Shen,” Yan Wushi said. “While he is here, you will treat him the way that you treat me.”
Wu-bo acquiesced, not daring to ask any more.
“What has been the state of things on the outside during this period of time?” Yan Wushi asked.
“News of your death has already spread across jianghu,” Wu-bo said. “I did not dare to believe it, so I had even sent a message to Chang’an. But the eldest langjun never responded. I heard that Hehuan Sect had taken advantage of this opportunity and decided to make trouble for us. However, I kept your instructions in mind the entire time, and never exposed the whereabouts of this residence.”
“What of Yuwen Yong?” Yan Wushi asked.
“The Emperor of Zhou took to the field himself and felled the country of Qi. As of now, he is at the peak of his power, like that of the sun at noon. Even the people of Tujue and Southern Chen do not dare cross the point of his blade. The Emperor of Zhou, upon hearing of your news, had apparently sent out people to look for and bring trouble to those who had made the attempt on your life that day. However, except for the fact that the Liuhe-bang may be easily tracked down, the whereabouts of the others are uncertain. Their sects are not located within the borders of Zhou, and the Emperor of Zhou is not a person of jianghu. The power of the imperial court was not enough. In the end, they were only able to issue disciplinary action against the Liuhe-bang’s activities.”
“How long ago did you send a message to Chang’an?” Yan Wushi asked.
“Last year, on the fifteenth day of the twelfth month, during the new year.”
Sending a message and waiting for a response certainly could not take place so quickly. However, there was also a change that Bian Yanmei had run into some unforeseen events of some kind.
“I’ll be staying here for a few days,” Yan Wushi said. “While I’m here, I’ll wait for a response from Chang’an. You go on and get everything prepared. Do not let anyone who is not associated with us divulge any information.”
“Yes, zhuren. Don’t worry! Although Ah-qing does not know my identity, the boy’s lips are sealed, and his history is pure. He will not stir up any trouble,” Wu-bo said anxiously.
After personally taking Yan Wushi to his room to rest, Wu-bo left the rear court. He caught sight of Ah-qing, who was bringing over the food he had just prepared.
“Ah-bo, the meal is ready. Should I bring it over to them?”
Wu-bo nodded. “Remember, don’t talk too much. Don’t ask anything that you shouldn’t. You can talk on and on before me, but not before zhuren. He doesn’t like people that talk too much.”
Ah-qing listened, but could not help but ask: “Ah-bo. Your master, the langjun of this Xie residence--are they a man or are they a woman, ah?”
Wu-bo’s face darkened. “Naturally he is a man! Can you not tell men and women apart or something?”
“Well, how should I know?” Ah-qing muttered. “Sure seems like he might have a special little hobby. Looks like he gets along real well with the other langjun he came here with.”
He said this in such a small voice, and yet Wu-bo had heard it anyway. He smacked the back of the boy’s head: “What are you murmuring about! Hurry up and bring their food over and shut your mouth! The more one speaks, the more mistakes they make! Silence is golden! Do you understand this or not?!”
“ You sound like a mother hen protecting its eggs!
—AH-QING WAS QUITE YOUNG. He had grown up in Weizhou ever since he was a child, and had never seen the outside world, but was quite satisfied with things as they were. And now, all of a sudden, two more people had arrived in their house. Naturally, he found it incredibly curious. Though Wu-bo had told him over and over not to trouble them, each day Ah-qing would take advantage of the time he had to bring food to Shen Qiao and exchange a few words with the other man.
Of course, had he run into Yan Wushi, he would never have engaged in any small talk with the person, even if he had nerves of steel. Young boys had that natural instinct, similar to that of knowing a wild beast was nearby. Who was easy to talk to, and who not to disturb—he knew these things himself very well.
That day, he was passing by as usual with a meal in his arms. He knocked on the door to Shen Qiao’s room.
No one in the room responded, but Ah-qing had already become used to this. After waking, Shen Qiao would often go into the courtyard and practice his sword. Ah-qing simply pushed the door open and entered, placed the basket on the table, and took the zhou and small dishes and laid them out.
Ah-qing raised his head at the sound of footsteps behind him. He grinned and said: “Shen-langjun, you’re back! Just in time—“
But his sentence came to an abrupt stop. He almost choked on his own saliva before quickly coming to his feet. The broad smile he wore had quickly become a reserved and forced smile: “Hello, zhugong.”
“You look as if you don’t want to see me,” Yan Wushi frowned as he walked in, self-possessed as always.
He was not wearing the women’s clothing that he had worn at the door. Even the hair at his temples had returned to their original color, and he was dressed in black, wearing a deceitful smile. His appearance was quite refined and distinguished.
However, Ah-qing suddenly experienced a sense of fear. He did not even dare to meet his eyes. The ease he had felt earlier had also gone away. He quickly stood and brought his hands together: “Ah-qing would not dare. Wu-bo had explained that Ah-qing must treat zhugong with utmost respect, and not to offend in any way.”
The corner of Yan Wushi’s lips turned up somewhat. He simply took a seat at one end of the table as he liked. “You’re so reserved with me, and yet you’re so at ease with Shen Qiao. You clearly like him, don’t you?”
“Shen-langjun...he is a very good person!” Ah-qing could not help but stutter.
Yan Wushi gave a small en: “He certainly treats everyone very well. Even if he were put off and felt as if he were being disturbed, it wouldn’t show on his face.”
In Ah-qing’s eyes, Shen Qiao seemed to possess a completely perfect character that he yearned for: he had a good temperament, he was beautiful, his wugong was skilled, and he treated others with kindness. This sort of person would be adored and liked by many young people Ah-qing’s age, not to mention Ah-qing himself. Ah-qing only had Wu-bo by his side every day. He didn’t have even a single friend that was within his age, and now suddenly, there was Shen Qiao. It was only natural that he would feel close to and want to speak with him every now and again. This was such a normal thing.
But to hear it said from Yan Wushi had caused Ah-qing to feel as though he were strange. When Ah-qing heard this, he felt hurt and as if he had lost something. He thought to himself, so every day I had come here to talk to him, I had actually been making trouble for him instead?
The boy hung his head, like that of a sick puppy.
But Yan Wushi did not spare him any pity. Instead, he had added more to the flame, and gave the final word: “So you’re well aware then.”
“Yes,” Ah-qing said.
His voice was small. He seemed so hurt that he was about to cry.
Right at this moment, Shen Qiao had come in with his sword in hand. There was light sweat on his forehead, but because his face was all the more fair, it seemed as though a faint halo were radiating from him.
“What’s wrong?” He only saw the two of them—one sitting, the other standing—and did not understand the situation.
“And what are you doing in my room?” The second question was directed at Yan Wushi.
“Your food smelled so nice that I wanted to come over and take a bite,” Yan Wushi said, smiling.
Shen Qiao frowned.
“Did Ah-qing not bring some to you?”
Yan Wushi was as carefree and at ease as ever: “One’s own meal never smells as nice as another person’s. Seeing someone else have an appetite makes them want to eat all the more.”
Shen Qiao did not believe a word of what he said. He still felt that something was strange—that something had happened just before he had come in.
“Ah-qing?” Shen Qiao saw the boy hanging his head, and spoke to him in a gentle voice. “What’s wrong?”
“N-nothing! Zhugong and Shen-langjun, please enjoy your meal. Once you’re done, I’ll come by and tidy up!” He said this quickly before turning around and dashing off.
From the corner of his eye, Shen Qiao had noticed that the boy’s eyes were somewhat red. Further doubtful, Shen Qiao gazed at Ah-qing’s back, before turning to Yan Wushi: “Did you say something to him just now?”
Yan Wushi continued with a smile: “Ah-qiao ah, you sound like a mother hen protecting its eggs! Don’t forget that Ah-qing belongs to me. I can treat him however I like; that’s just how it is. A stranger gets a little close to you, and you treat him in such a favorable light. But the two of us have been traveling together for so long! Why haven’t you changed your attitude towards me?”
If one could describe Shen Qiao’s expression earlier as completely normal, then they would say that he looked completely unmoved now: “Yan-zongzhu does not care what my attitude is like.”
When the flaw in his demonic core had been exposed and his disposition fragmented, Yan Wushi was actually capable of seeing and experiencing the world. However, he could only watch—he did not have any means to control his body.
Therefore, he had ‘seen’ the ways that Shen Qiao treated the other dispositions. Even if that ‘Ah-yan’ was gentle and sincere, Shen Qiao still approached him with great vigilance. Only in Ruoqiang when ‘Xie Ling’ had once more taken control—he was never supposed to have awoken in that time at all—and returned to look for Shen Qiao, the supposedly fast asleep Yan Wushi had looked on with cold eyes as Shen Qiao smiled at ‘Xie Ling’, and could feel the sudden movements of Shen Qiao’s heart.
To have such a soft heart in this life. When others offered him a piece of theirs, he would return the favor with ten of his own. Others who withstand the likes of Chen Gong and Yu Ai would feel their hearts become cold as ash, not to mention filled with hate. But this person had instead valued kindness even further, even if such kindness was, in the eyes of others, insignificant.
So this was why Shen Qiao had treated Xie Ling so favorably.
Or perhaps, ever since then, Shen Qiao had taken ‘Xie Ling’ as a completely independent person all together. Only when confronted with him did Shen Qiao separate Xie Ling and Yan Wushi from one another. Shen Qiao treated the former with good nature; the latter with cool indifference.
But the clearer this was, the more Yan Wushi found it wonderfully interesting.
Before, he had teased Shen Qiao for two reasons. One was because this person was rather ridiculous. He had suffered the betrayal of others repeatedly, and had yet a thing at all. Every person’s heart, deep down, carried a certain malice. It was simply a question of whether or not it was hidden deep down or closer to the surface. Shen Qiao could not possibly have been an exception to this. As a result, he wanted to pull to the surface the cruelty deep within his heart using every possible means that he could. The second reason was to see what would happen if the demonic core and Daoist core melded together, as he had planted the demonic core within him. He had taken Shen Qiao as a sort of experiment for himself.
How could he expect that nothing would change? Shen Qiao, even from the start, had never gone according to the way Yan Wushi had planned him to. Instead, he had walked a completely different path all together. Though he had gone through such trials and confronted the cruelties of humanity, his inherent nature had never changed. He even willingly treated the ‘Xie Ling’ that fragmented from Yan Wushi with such contented gentleness, with such adoration.
Was this sort of person foolish or stubborn?
In Yan Wushi’s eyes, however—regardless if it was Xie Ling or Yan Wushi, regardless if it was evil or good, painful or perfectly fine—all of it should have been special to Shen Qiao. They did not need any Ah-yan, Ah-mao, or Ah-gou to further dilute this unique quality.
Upon hearing Shen Qiao’s words, Yan Wushi laughed and said: “Who said that I didn’t care? I care so much, you know. If you could only give me a fraction of what you give to Xie Ling, I don’t know how happy I’d be.”
Shen Qiao heard, but he wasn’t listening. He simply looked down and ate his zhou.
Right now, if Yan Wushi were to say ten things, Shen Qiao would barely listen to half of one, unless ‘Xie Ling’ appeared. And this half-of-a-thing, once processed, would have to be pulled apart and chewed to pieces before it was polished, so as to avoid making the same mistake as he did before. If someone were to fall into the same river twice, then that would be much too sad. Though Shen Qiao believed that he himself was not an especially smart person, he knew that he was, at least, not that foolish.
Seeing that he did not wish to respond, Yan Wushi only continued to smile. He did not say anything, and started on his zhou.
For the two of them, these past few days were perhaps the most peaceful and comfortable ones. Let us not mention the series of disturbing events that took place in the underground city of Ruoqiang. Ever since they departed from Tuyuhun, Shen Qiao had to deal with Yan Wushi’s changing dispositions, for the flaw in his demonic core had yet to have been eliminated. At the same time, Shen Qiao had to pay close attention to their surroundings, simply because Yan Wushi’s enemies were great in number and scattered across all the world. Therefore, he could not put his guard down for even a moment. Only when they reached this place was he able to gradually feel at ease, and begin to focus his efforts on using the true qi of the Zhuyang Ce to cultivate.
As for Yan Wushi, it was clear from just his expression that his dispositions had gradually become stable, though Shen Qiao did not ask about this. It was rare to have any situation where his disposition had become completely different any longer. Most likely, whatever the sheet of silk contained had given Yan Wushi a sort of revelation and, with his abilities, the healing of his demonic core was going to happen sooner or later. And when the time comes, his studies of the Fenglin Yuandian would advance another level. Though the progress of his wugong is yet to be unparalleled, he wasn’t far from reaching this point. By that time, when the five great masters once more make an attempt on Yan Wushi’s life, they may not necessarily be able to.
It’s just a pity that Xie Ling...
The thought flashed within the depths of Shen Qiao’s mind, leaving him faintly melancholic. He sighed to himself.
“Why do you treat Ah-qing especially well?” Yan Wushi suddenly asked. “It isn’t because he resembles Xie Ling that it makes you so affectionate towards him, is it?”
Before him, Shen Qiao had suddenly become more silent than usual. If he had the choice not to speak, then he would not say even a word. However, Yan Wushi seemed as if he had guessed Shen Qiao’s mood, and smiled somewhat: “You might like him, but I find him a pain to look at. If you don’t tell me the reason why, then once you’ve left, I’ll have Wu-bo make him leave.”
Shen Qiao was unmoved: “Yan-zongzhu has always done as he pleases. Do what you want. It’s not like I have a say.”
Yan Wushi laughed. “All right, all right. I won’t have him leave then, okay? Won’t you tell me?”
A leader can submit or stand tall as required. Yan-zongzhu will reach his final goal by any means possible, without any regard for moral rightness. He has never cared for the concept of moral integrity. He didn’t care that a dignified master of great learning and integrity would say anything to further his own means, while others couldn’t
Shen Qiao was open to being persuaded, but not coerced. Yan Wushi had long ago known this very fact about him. In any case, sympathetic words were always superficial in nature. Though others are often concerned with honor and integrity, people of demonic sects did not care so much for this.
As expected, though Shen Qiao’s expression seemed somewhat unwell. However, he continued: “Ah-qing reminds me of a disciple I recently took in.”
Yan Wushi laughed. “How is it that I didn’t know you took in a disciple?”
“You know him,” Shen Qiao said, his tone becoming insipid. “He is Shiwu, that boy from Bailong Temple.”
The moment he mentioned this, he couldn't help but remember Guanzhu and Chuyi, as well as their deaths.
Still, he blamed himself. And naturally, whatever pleasant expression he wore in Yan Wushi’s presence had disappeared.
All right, are you happy now? Of all the kettles you could’ve picked, you picked the one that wouldn’t boil. Yan Wushi was highly intelligent; and he wasn’t ill, either. How could he not have realized this series of causes and effects?
However, he did not seem to notice the “I really don’t want to talk to you anymore” written across Shen Qiao’s face. Instead, he continued to speak, with a smile: “I did see Shiwu once. His foundations and natural talents are indeed quite good. If he comes upon a wise teacher, he just might make some great achievements in the future.”
This sort of shameless behavior was something that Shen Qiao had also accepted.
He wanted to ask Yan Wushi to leave. However, suddenly, a knock rang out through the residence.
The distance between this courtyard and the main entrance was at least two hallways away. However, those who study wugong have good hearing; therefore, the two of them were able to hear Ah-qing’s “Coming!” and the sound of him rushing to open the door.
The Xie Residence was always quiet; rarely did anyone ever visit. Wu-bo had gone out once more to buy groceries, and had also left through the back door. He almost never left through the main door.
At nearly the same time, both Yan Wushi and Shen Qiao found it abnormal, so much that it was difficult to describe. It was as though they had read each other’s minds; the truth was that, once reaching a certain level, martial artists would experience this sort of reaction.
The Shanhe Tongbei sword was by his side. As Ah-qing ran to open the door, Shen Qiao’s hand had already fallen upon its sheath.
“Who is it?” Ah-qing’s voice echoed distantly.
“Young shizhu, I hope you are well. May I ask if this is the Xie residence?”
The moment he heard his voice, Shen Qiao’s complexion darkened.
Though they had rarely interacted, how could Shen Qiao not have known who this was?
Yet they were incredibly cautious this entire way. Of course they weren’t perfect, but they left almost no trace of their whereabouts. How could Xueting-chanshi possibly have found them so quickly?
Is it possible that Chen Gong had...?
He exchanged a look with Yan Wushi who was surprisingly composed. His expression had not changed even a little bit.
With their present cultivation, the two of them were not fit to be Xueting’s opponent. However, Xueting’s target was not Shen Qiao. Even if Shen Qiao were unable to defeat him, he would be able to escape from him.
“It seems that we’re too late,” Yan Wushi frowned.
Just as he said this, Xueting’s voice echoed from the courtyard.
“As one would expect, Yan-zongzhu is a truly extraordinary man. This poor monk truly respects you.”
In the blink of an eye, he had moved from the gate to the courtyard outside their room. At that moment, Ah-qing had begun to chase after them from behind, wearing himself out of breath with his shouting. But he couldn’t even catch up with Xueting’s shadow, much less the corners of the others sleeves.
To move so quickly that dirt would not touch the bottoms of their feet, and cover such a large distance—very few people in jianghu would be able to do such a thing.
Before, the door to their room had yet to be closed. From where Shen Qiao and Yan Wushi were, they naturally were able to see a monk dressed in black silk.
Yan Wushi sneered. “It’s truly difficult to get rid of you, old bald ass. I haven’t yet settled things with you from that day you and those clowns conspired against me. You have some nerve showing your face here!”
Xueting-chanshi brought his hands together in greeting, before continuing: “This poor monk did not think that Yan-zongzhu would be so powerful. The five great masters had besieged you, and yet, by some trick, you had come out unscathed.”
He once more looked in Shen Qiao’s direction to greet him: “Shen-daozhang is here with us as well. What a coincidence.”
Xueting-chanshi’s voice was gentle. There was not the slightest anger. Even the way that he said “what a coincidence,” did not carry with it any audible irony. If it did, then only he would have known.
Yan Wushi laughed.
“All the rest were mediocre, save for you, old bald ass Xueting. It was five against one, yet you couldn’t even kill me. Such a useless bunch you all were, and yet you think you have the right to call yourselves ‘masters’? To think that you, Xueting, would even lump yourselves in with them! It’s true that the longer you live, the worse off you end up!”
Xueting-chanshi did not seem angry in the least. He wore a mild expression, and gazed at Yan Wushi without any malice.
“The generation of the new shall take the generation of the old. This poor monk has aged. Sooner or later, I will allow someone more qualified to take my place. Given some time, Duan-shizhu, Dou-bangzhu and the rest will not necessarily remain beneath this poor monk.
“This poor monk must admit, the fact that Yan-zongzhu has returned from the dead as though nothing has changed is truly something admirable. Certainly Yan-zongzhu must know that the path of wudao is one that continues onwards longer still. To come upon a partner with equivalent skill becomes more difficult by the day. If there was a choice that could be made, this poor monk would much rather have tea and play a round of weiqi, and study wugong from you—all as friends, and as opponents.
“However, these are not ordinary circumstances. As such, they call for extraordinary actions. When Yuwen Yong has Yan-zongzhu by his side, he will proceed amorally, and Buddhism will once more be suppressed. In the interests of Buddhism, this poor monk can only proceed in this way. It is not for any personal grudge. Hopefully Yan-zongzhu will excuse us.”
The meaning of these words was this: he had come today with the clear goal of not returning empty-handed—that there would be an end to all of this.
“I must ask, da-shi,” Shen Qiao said. “How were you able to learn that Yan Wushi was here?”
“Monks do not lie,” Xueting said. “The truth was that this poor monk had run into Chen Gong in Chang’an. As Yan Shou from the Hehuan Sect had once wounded this poor monk’s disciple, and because Chen Gong worked closely with the Hehuan Sect, this poor monk had asked to hear where Yan Shou was located from him. Chen Gong said that he didn’t know, so as to free himself, he told us that Yan-zongzhu was not dead, and had even told us that he had taken the remaining volume of the Zhuyang Ce.”
Just before departing, Chen Gong had promised not to divulge Yan Wushi’s whereabouts. However, Shen Qiao did not place much hope in Chen Gong’s so-called ‘promise’. Hearing Xueting’s words, he felt somewhat as though he had expected this.
“But between Chang’an and Tuyuhun,” Shen Qiao said, “there are many residences in different states. Chen Gong could not possibly know where we were going, and where we would stop.”
“That’s true,” Xueting said. “This poor monk searched everywhere this entire journey from Chang’an, and decided to rest in Weizhou. We were meaning to leave tomorrow. But we heard two people speaking with one another; one of them was a vendor who said that each day he had gone to every house to sell vegetables, and that only one house had suddenly, without reason whatsoever, needed twice as many than it usually did, which made him quite happy.”
Shen Qiao sighed. “Da-shi is very meticulous, having inspected everything in every way. If this type of ability were used to arrest robbers and settle accounts, I’m sure that there would never be injustice in this world again.”
“Thank you for your praise, Shen-daozhang,” Xueting said. “Today, this poor monk came here for Yan-zongzhu. Shen-daozhang is unrelated in any way. I must ask that you do not involve yourself, so that you do not hurt yourself accidentally.”
“How strange,” Shen Qiao said. “Da-shi, you want to kill him, whereas I want to protect him.”
Xueting’s expression betrayed an ounce of astonishment: “According to what this poor monk knows, the demonic sects have never had friendly relations with that of the Daoist sects. And Yan Wushi treats Shen-daozhang with such ingratitude, repaying your good with evil. For what reason does Shen-daozhang wish to protect him?”
“It is as Da-shi says,” Shen Qiao said. “Whenever he is present, Yuwen Yong remains safe and sound. When we survey the present countries in the world, we see that Qi has fallen, and only Zhou and Chen can be said to be the strongest. However, the southern dynasties protect and support the Confucian schools. There is no room for the Buddhists to step in there. Could it be that the reason why Da-shi wishes repeatedly to kill Yan Wushi is because you want to pave a road and allow the people of Tujue to enter the Central Plains?”
Xueting chanted an amitabha: “Shen-daozhang, are you saying that you wish to stand on the side of the Emperor of Zhou?”
“You’re correct,” Shen Qiao said.
Xueting sighed somewhat. “Then it seems that today, this poor monk will have to pass through Shen-daozhang first.”
Once he said his final word, his golden staff gently tapped the limestone floorboards. An oppressive sound almost seemed to burst by Shen Qiao’s ears.
At the same time, Shen Qiao had unsheathed the Shanhe Tongbei sword with a clash of metal and stood quickly. The sword and staff met one another in the air; lights and shadows interweaved with one another in the span of a moment. The neili from their combat had dispersed layer by layer into the air. For those who did not have any foundational wugong, like Ah-qing, the vibrations were so strong that his ears had begun to ache and he gave a sharp cry, before retreating until he could hide behind a wall for the time being.
Shen Qiao had assumed that Yan Wushi would be skilled in reading the room. What great master would want to burden someone? There was no need to explain himself; if he saw that he would only impede upon Shen Qiao’s fight against Xueting, then he would certainly turn around and leave. But who would have guessed that while Shen Qiao was exchanging moves with Xueting, out of the corner of his eyes, he could spot Yan Wushi standing where he was, without moving an inch.
“Why aren’t you running?! What are you standing there staring off for!” Shen Qiao shouted, furiously.
“Ah-qiao, calm down. I want to run off, but you’ll have to ask that old bald ass if he’ll let me or not.”
The corner of Yan Wushi’s lip curled upwards somewhat. However, his eyes were hardly smiling.
Almost as though in response to his words, two young monks appeared on his left and right at the same time, both bald and wearing the same black silk clothes. They both stood upon the tiles of the roof.
“This poor monk is Lian Sheng.”
“This poor monk is Lian Mie.”
Both of them spoke together: “We wish to pay a visit to Yan-zongzhu!”
“ There’s no need to throw yourself into my arms!
—THE REASON WHY XUETING-CHANSHI WAS INCLUDED in the top three strongest masters in the world was absolutely not because he was good at bringing everyone together to gang up against his opponents, but because he was actually pretty strong.
Shen Qiao did not doubt this. Ever since he had met Xueting-chanshi, he had almost always expected this fierce battle that they would have today.
Xueting was not that much younger than Qi Fengge. However, once you have studied wugong to a certain extent, your appearance no longer ages. The effects of old age are much more gradual as well, especially when compared to that of ordinary people. Just before Qi Fengge passed away, for example, he looked around thirty to forty years old. No one would have imagined that his true age was close to one-hundred.
Therefore, when ordinary people catch sight of Xueting-chanshi, they find him quite handsome. Were it not for the fact that he did not have a single hair on his head, he would certainly have the wealthy and elevated look of some young master. However, he looked so calm and composed, so regal and dignified. One would be unable to detect the slightest trace of the mortal world on him.
It was true that Shen Qiao was also as distantly elegant as an immortal; however, his heart was still soft. The sight of those weaker than he would compel him to reach out to help them. Sometimes, he seemed even more empathetic than most ordinary people. He and Xueting. One who follows Dao, one who follows Buddhism. The latter was like a Buddhist statue in a temple—resolute in heart and his words, without any mercy to speak of. While the former was like that of a pool of azure waters—tranquil at first sight. Yet when a swan skims over its surface, ripples would form, filled with tender sentiment.
The Acala Seal’s first repetition: all forms are emptiness, as all forms are countless, all possessing false decoration. Many people of this world are unable to recognize this, and thus, amongst those who become victim to such vices and unable to free themselves, only those who stand by a heart as clear as glass would be able to distinguish truth from false, to disregard demons of temptationand simply pursue their true intentions.
The Seals came in all directions, leaving layers of palm marks all over the surrounding area. The strength of his right hand, as white and unflawed as snow, was infinitely amplified. The dignified and solemn Vajra Seal overcame all evil—it was unavoidable, even if you tried.
However, Shen Qiao did not move from where he stood. His left hand remained behind him, while the wrist of his right hand flicked outwards somewhat. The Shanhe Tongbei sword was unsheathed with a tremor. Like that of a song of weeping—an ode, a cry—drawn out and distant, it split apart the countless seals, having been able to find truth amidst false with but a glance, and took direct aim at Xueting’s right hand!
Xueting now changed his palm maneuver. The tips of his fingers resembled the leaves of a willow tree blown by the wind—so graceful and flexible that one would be unable to take their eyes from them. Compared to the previous maneuver, this took a more offensive position, as though preparing to release an overpowering force that would split even bamboo. At once, like that of a cold wind freezing over a great field of snow and, in the next moment, suddenly turning itself over to the open skies and high clouds over a river in spring—geese and orioles, peach blossoms hanging over the water. So lithe and graceful it was that it escaped language.
But Shen Qiao did not take advantage of this moment to attack him, but instead immediately began to retreat. However, Xueting extended his palm and swept it over the area. The bluestone flooring began to crack inch by inch, while true qi filled the area. Even Ah-qing, who stood several chi away, felt as though a sharp blade was coming in the direction of his face, and experienced a sharp stab of pain.
Shen Qiao used his Tiankuo Hongying and rushed forwards several chi, his body so light it resembled floating dust. Suddenly, he leapt up, suspending himself upside down in midair. As he did this, his jianshen was like that of a great white cloth; his jianqi spilled down from above like that of water that flowed endlessly without a source, like that of millions of snow lions surging forward in waves and rushing forth accompanied by the fury of a thunderous hurricane! Its prestige, threatening; the edge of its blade relentless!
This series of changes had actually taken place within the blink of an eye. Xueting’s attitude was like that of water—unsurprised by great waves. But up until this point, his expression betrayed the slightest astonishment. Jianqi enveloped him from above like that of a tornado, entrapping him within.
And at that moment, Xueting seemed to have a number of choices. However, these choices did not include breaking free of this envelopment of jianqi. As the jianqi drew ever closer to him, he lifted up his left hand, so that his golden staff met the jianqi, both of them releasing a great, booming sound. Its essence seemed to have stopped in mid-air. Neither of them advanced towards the other; instead, both forces, having been shaken apart, began to retreat several steps.
“It has yet been several months, yet Shen-daozhang’s wugong has once more advanced another level. This is truly worthy of celebration!” Xueting-chanshi’s expression was dignified and imposing. Finally, he no longer paid any attention to Lian Sheng and Lian Mie, but rather, focused completely upon Shen Qiao.
But, in Shen Qiao’s case, this wasn’t exactly good news. Though he had certainly progressed, this did not mean that the others hadn’t.
If an already high-ranking teacher and master like that of Xueting-chanshi wanted to advance their skills any further, it would naturally be very difficult. However, because they have practiced wugong, they will similarly achieve a sort of understanding of their frame of mind. If their frame of mind continues to remain proficient and flawless, it will externally manifest, with great certainty, in the increased and formidable strength of their wugong.
Shen Qiao once wondered this. Back before he had sustained his injuries, he could have reached a draw in a match with those like Guang Lingsan and Duan Wenyang. However, against Xueting-chanshi, he would certainly have to admit that he was somewhat inferior--not to mention his present state. Yes, he was certainly lent the help of the Zhuyang Ce’s great power. However, with regards to his foundation as a result of the reconstruction of his strength, it was made up of the strongest essences of the Confucianist, Buddhist, and Daoist schools combined into one. This foundation could be easily compared to the foundations of a house being significantly more secure than that of many others. However, this did not mean that the building of the house itself would be any faster. Shen Qiao had already reached the jianxin stage of the jiandao, only a step away from jianshen. But his neili was hardly seven-tenths of what it was before. There wasn’t any way for him to exhibit jianxin’s power in its entirety.
On top of this, having to face off with a master like Xueting was truly, completely unlucky.
But Shen Qiao could not let him see these specific details. Otherwise, it would show that there was no one at present capable of stopping him.
Shen Qiao lowered the point of his blade. He stood in the same place and said, unhurried: “In the end, the Buddhist Sects and Huanyue Sect do not harbor any personal grudges against one another. Da-shi, you have also already killed Yan-zongzhu once. Why must you pursue him again like this, so mercilessly? Even if Yan Wushi were no longer here, and even if Huanyue Sect no longer existed, so long as Yuwen Yong is emperor another day, there will be some other party that supports him. With Da-shi’s farsighted wisdom, I am sure you wouldn’t miss this understanding, would you?”
At that moment, despite finding himself two against one, Yan Wushi somehow found the time to add: “Ah-qiao, those words of yours have really made progress under my care, haven’t they? This bald ass here was so taken aback by your words that he’s speechless! I’m sure he’s so ashamed he’s going to fly into a rage and torment you more intensely now!”
If this had been before, ten Lian Shengs and ten Lian Mie’s wouldn’t have been fit to be Yan Wushi’s opponents, let alone one of each. However, with the way things were now, this sort of circumstance was impossible. Xueting had certainly anticipated this, which was why he had brought these two disciples along.
Even if Lian Sheng and Lian Mie were unable to seize Yan Wushi within a short time, they would at least be able to stall him.
Xueting was able to see Shen Qiao’s intentions. He shook his head and said: “Shen-daozhang, you must know that this concerns the survival of Buddhism. It will not do any good to say anymore. The reason why this poor monk has come here was simply for Yan-zongzhu alone. If Shen-daozhang is willing to withdraw and not concern himself with this, this poor monk would not be able to thank you enough.”
What an interesting man. Though he almost completely had the upper hand, he still treated Shen Qiao with such courtesy. He was not indignant, nor was he angry; he was as indifferent as a light breeze, truly possessing the presence of a great sect scholar.
Had their paths not run counter to one another, unlike this present moment—the two of them with swords drawn and bows bent at one another, ready to go to war at any second—Shen Qiao would have wanted to sit and have a long talk with him.
Yan Wushi, on the other hand, seemed to find Shen Qiao’s new perception of Xueting-chanshi completely unbearable. Nevertheless, he found an opportunity to break through Shen Qiao’s realizations: “Ah-qiao. That question you asked was really just too stupid. Old bald ass knows very well that he just has to kill Yuwen Yong and all his troubles would come to an end, yet here he is chasing me down relentlessly. Naturally it’s because the Buddhist Sects want to maintain their just and honorable image. They don’t want to dirty their hands with the sin of killing a king! Even if they wanted to kill Yuwen Yong, then they’d rather have someone else go out and do it so that they can stay nice and clean, without a speck of dirt upon themselves. Old bald ass, just say it—am I right or am I wrong, ah?”
Xueting did not feel like wasting his words with Yan Wushi. He simply bowed his head and chanted a brief Amitabha, before continuing: “Shen-daozhang. Since you are not only unwilling to remove yourself and become an onlooker, but also insist completely on protecting Yan Wushi until the end, then this poor monk has no choice but to wrong you.”
Once he said this, he barely took a step before suddenly appearing right at Shen Qiao’s side, accompanied by the sweet, unending ring of a small jade bell. The golden staff lightly tapped against Shen Qiao’s chest.
Xueting’s movements were very slow; slow enough that someone could see every single detail. But at the same time, it was so fast—so fast that one could not react in time.
Shen Qiao came to the cruel realization that his own strength really was much too inferior. Even though he was able to make out the direction Xueting was going to extend his hand, he still could not react in time. The moment that he was able to raise his sword, something in his chest had become numb before a sudden intense pain spread within him. Shen Qiao flew backwards, his body unable to put up any resistance. A sweet, raw taste rose up in his throat. He was at a loss for a moment before he suddenly spit out a large mouth of blood, and was thrown against a pillar in the veranda!
But Shen Qiao could not remain there for even a moment. He used all the strength he had, and the blade of his word suddenly glowed like that of moonlight touching water, billowing upwards with the lurching waves of a river. In a split second, it took on a jade-like radiance—tens of thousands of times as beautiful as brocade, its light falling layer upon layer and surging directly towards Xueting-chanshi. Even with Xueting’s cultivation, in a moment, not even he could make out the sword from its user.
At that moment, both Lian Sheng and Lian Mie were working together in harmonious and solemn coordination, as if they were a match fated to be. Their intentions were mutually linked. Yan Wushi’s wugong was completely unlike that of before, and the flaw in his demonic core had also yet to be fully mended. His attacks would inevitably leave him somewhat vulnerable. The two monks took advantage of this opportunity. With Lian Shen on defense and Lian Mie on offense, they surrounded Yan Wushi. However, they did not intend to kill him; instead, they did not give him any room to escape, surrounding him with a force like that of Taiji and heaven and earth.
It seemed as though they were following some instructions Xueting had given them beforehand. they knew that with their abilities, it would still be somewhat difficult to kill Yan Wushi, even though his abilities had diminished significantly. They could only search for a way to stall him and wait until Xueting had defeated Shen Qiao before assisting them.
Such a shame that they ended up waiting around for so long. After exchanging several moves with him, the two monks were starting to work up a sweat on their foreheads, yet Xueting was still being held up by Shen Qiao and did not intend to separate from him right then.
Lian Sheng was becoming anxious. He could not help but take advantage of the moment that Lian Mie was attacking Yan Wushi and glanced in his shizun’s direction.
It was only a glance, and yet their circumstances suddenly changed so much!
Yan Wushi, who had been on the defensive this entire time, suddenly attacked them. He used the tips of his fingers as though they were the point of a blade and struck the center of Lian Mie’s palm. Earlier, Lin Mie had seen Yan Wushi’s indifferent expression, and could not help but underestimate his strength. He had even thought, the great zongzhu of Huanyue Sect is hardly anything to fear. In the end, just as he finished that thought, he felt a sharp pain in the palm of his hand, as though a scalding hot iron bar had stabbed right through him.
He could only give a horrible shout as he stepped away reflexively. In the center of his palm was a bloody hole, with fresh blood gurgling up and flowing out. Within this wound he could barely make out the sight of muscle and white bone.
Lian Sheng quickly ran back upon hearing this. Upon seeing the state of things, he was completely taken aback. But before he could act in time, the light of a blade suddenly flitted across his face.
“Let’s go!” Shen Qiao shouted harshly.
With this, he grabbed Yan Wushi’s arm and took off in the south-eastern direction.
Shen Qiao did not dare underestimate Xueting, so he used his Tiankuo Hongying technique to its utmost power.
To an outsider, Shen Qiao with Yan Wushi in tow looked like nothing more than shadows swaying in the wind. However, he still did not feel at ease. Worried that Xueting would chase after them, he flew forwards without stopping. The rows of trees on either side of them became phantoms, gliding past them at full speed. Yet he did not slow down the slightest bit.
Though he had yet to turn around, Shen Qiao could feel a menacing presence behind him—it felt both very close and far away, suspended at some distance from him, sending a chill down his back. That was clearly Xueting chasing them from behind, unwilling to leave matters as they were. Even though Shen Qiao was a step faster than him, being able to shake off Xueting’s entanglement was not necessarily possible.
Shen Qiao, with Yan Wushi in tow, exited the city, and made straight for Jianshan Mountains right by Weizhou.
At the foot of the mountains was a dense forest, where they could easily hide. Yan Wushi, however, said: “Head up the mountain.”
Shen Qiao did not even think. He did not stop, and swept up the mountains.
Right then, it was just the beginning of spring. The icy rivers were beginning to melt, and hundreds of flowers were in bloom; at the same time, birds were beginning to sing from within the mountain’s springs. All of this was filled with such life. But it was because of this that the forest trees were interlocked with one another, that the mountain rocks were that much more rugged, the path up the mountain precariously steep. There wasn’t a good area to place one’s feet at all. From halfway up the mountain looking down, there was a cliff that jutted straight out, entangled with misty clouds. The sight of this made it seem even steeper than it was.
Up until the halfway point of this mountain, Shen Qiao noticed a cave, concealed by a thicket. It was dark and winding within, with the sound of a stream rushing past it. The cave was actually quite deep. After entering it with Yan Wushi, they had walked several zhang inwards before happening upon a wide, bright area. It was lit by the glossy sheen of the neatly arranged rock walls, and the area itself was about the size of the hall belonging to a wealthy family.
And if you were to look upwards, you would see that there wasn’t a rock ceiling to cover it. Sunlight scattered down through the gaps of the thick foliage above and illuminated the dead leaves beneath their feet.
“Right around here,” Yan Wushi said. “Xueting knows that we will try to hide somewhere by the trees at the foot of the mountain. He certainly wouldn’t be able to imagine that we were up here.”
Shen Qiao, who was so focused earlier, was finally able to relax his mind. However, what followed was not the joy of relief, but his bending over to vomit a mouthful of blood.
This was from the internal wound he had sustained after having battled with Xueting. Afterwards, when he had taken off with Yan Wushi, his chest had been filled with an unbearable pain from start to finish. However, he was afraid that just opening his mouth would cause blood to gush out, so he did not speak at all, up until this point.
Not many people could withstand a strike from one of the top three masters in the world. Counting this with the fact that Shen Qiao’s inner strength had not yet fully recovered, that he was able to have such a long match with him and even escape with Yan Wushi was completely a result of his relying on his not-yet proficient level of jianxin. But this was nothing compared to the endless nature of neili and true qi. As a result, even before they had begun their match, Shen Qiao had already decided not to fight Xueting-chanshi to the bitter end, and instead decided to search for a good moment to retreat.
Wanting to disappear from Xueting-chanshi’s line of sight was no easy task, especially when he had another “burden” to shoulder. And yet Shen Qiao had done it anyway.
It was clear that, although neither of them had discussed the matter of retreating beforehand, Yan Wushi still had the very same thought himself. As a result, they did not need to speak to one another, and had reached a tacit agreement and common understanding.
Just as he vomited a mouthful of blood, Shen Qiao’s vision blurred, and he felt suddenly dizzy. He did not even have the strength left to stand. This was the result of having used up all of his strength and having sustained internal injuries. His sight faded to black, and his ears began to ring. He could only fall forwards.
Yan Wushi automatically reached out to hold him, even laughing as he said: “Ah-qiao, I know that you like me, but you don’t have to throw yourself into my arms like this, you know!”
His voice sounded as though it lacked zhongqi. It was clear that he had also sustained some injuries, but such injuries did not take away the wanton recklessness in Yan-zongzhu’s words.
As soon as he said this, Shen Qiao coughed up another mouthful of blood. With almost half of his body in the crook of Yan Wushi’s arm, Shen Qiao’s face turned stark white, as though he were gasping his last.
“You didn’t just cough up that bit because you got angry, did you?” Yan Wushi said, clicking his tongue.
Naturally, it wasn’t because Shen Qiao was angry that he had coughed up blood. But he did not have the energy to refute him. He could only say, weakly: “What will happen to Wu Bo and Ah-qing now that we’ve left?”
“Xueting isn’t Sang Jingxing,” Yan Wushi said. “After all, he has to keep wearing that Buddhist face of his. He also knows that threatening those two won’t be of any use to me. As such, he will not do anything useless.”
Shen Qiao nodded. Blood stained his lips. Against the stark pale white, it took on an even deeper hue of red.
With his thumb, Yan Wushi wiped away the residual blood from Shen Qiao’s lips.
Shen Qiao’s chest was filled with a strong, unbearable pain. It was difficult for him to even breathe. He had no way to focus his energy on anything around him. His senses had even grown sluggish. Even when the other man had pushed some sort of food into his mouth and gone so far as to prevent Shen Qiao from spitting it out, Shen Qiao had been caught off guard and unable to resist. His eyes widened, yet his body had reacted before him—it had taken whatever that food was and swallowed it completely.
His throat suddenly became so dry that it hurt. He had nearly choked to death, before suddenly flying into a coughing fit. His internal injuries had been affected somewhat. Even his eyes had become moist.
“ He was already so angry that he didn’t want to talk to him anymore.
—“YOU’VE NEVER HAD IT BEFORE, SO HOW COULD YOU KNOW THAT IT’S YU CONGRONG?” Yan Wushi said, astonished. “Clearly it’s poison.”
Though Shen Qiao had suffered internal injury and hardly had the strength to even speak, he could certainly tell the difference between poison and medicine.
“Yu congrong can only be used on physical wounds…it won’t help me much…”
One of Shen Qiao’s ribs was broken after he was struck by Xueting. Now, the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed sent an unceasing stab of pain throughout him. But for those who practiced wugong, this sort of physical wound was fairly routine. Especially after Shen Qiao had battled Kunye, the wounds he suffered became too many to count. A broken bone was hardly anything to mention. The more troublesome thing was an internal wound.
“Then just cough it back up again,” Yan Wushi said, almost lazily.
He’d already swallowed that thing down to his stomach. How could he possibly just cough it back up again?
The truth was that bickering with Yan Wushi would be completely useless. Shen Qiao simply shut his mouth, and then fell into a deep sleep.
He didn’t sleep for very long; the truth was that, even though he had closed his eyes, his body felt as though he were in a constant state of alert, drifting in and out of a dream. When he came to, it was already noon. When he looked around, he noticed that Yan Wushi had disappeared.
Yan Wushi left on his own. This was the first thought to come from Shen Qiao’s mind.
He made an effort to sit up, resting his back against the stone walls in such a way that he would not further irritate his wounds. The moist vines from above hung over him. Droplets of dew rolled down his forehead, bringing an ice-cold sensation.
The pain in his chest from earlier had become a dull pain. It was clear that the yu congrong had some effect on him. Shen Qiao sat down cross-legged, circulating qi throughout his body to heal it. After one full revolution, the true qi in his body flowed through every part of him carrying a warm, numbing sensation to each of his limbs. Even the internal injury he had sustained earlier had improved somewhat as a result.
Just as he opened his eyes, he could hear footsteps against the narrow road by the mouth of the cave.
Shen Qiao didn’t stand, because he could already determine the person’s identity from the sound and rhythm of each step. Ever since his vision had been damaged, he had intentionally put more effort into training his hearing, even going as far as to recognize the subtle differences in the steps of each person. With each passing day, his hearing had become decently sharper than that of those who practiced wugong.
Sure enough, Yan Wushi came into view with a skewer of sparrows.
“You went out?” Shen Qiao asked.
Yan Wushi responded with an en: “Lend me your Shanhe Tongbei sword for a second.”
Shen Qiao naturally did not think that Yan Wushi was going to kill him with his own sword, so he handed over the sword that he had always kept close to him, asking: “Did you run into Xueting outside?”
The moment he said this, he noticed that the man had taken his sword and begun to use the sword to shave off the feathers of the sparrows.
“What are you doing?!” Shen Qiao shouted furiously.
Yan Wushi was somewhat taken aback.
“Do you eat sparrows with their feathers on or something?”
Blood rushed through Shen Qiao. He had nearly coughed up another mouthful of blood as he said: “That’s the Shanhe Tongbei sword that shizun gave me!”
Yan Wushi was completely calm in the face of Shen Qiao’s rage.
“Ah-qiao, what are you getting so anxious over? Careful, you’ll cough up blood again. Qi Fengge is practically a god in your eyes, but the man had to eat food too, you know. If he had used his sword to shave or something, you wouldn’t even know, would you?”
In the moment that he said all of this, the sparrows had been shaved clean of their feathers. It should have been difficult for Yan Wushi to use a longsword to do this, yet he handled it with ease, having used it as he would a dagger.
He took the sword and washed it in the stream, clearing away the sparrow’s feathers that dirtied the surface, before sheathing it and giving it back to Shen Qiao. He used his cold hands to pat the other man’s cheek: “All right, all right. Qi Fengge’s been dead for so long, anyway. Even if you’d really used it to shave, it’s not like he could suddenly show up and yell at you. The real sword is in your mind, not the one by your side. But only you would treasure it the way you do! Just look at Yu Ai. I destroyed his “Junzi Buqi '' sword, and he didn’t say a word before getting a new one. I didn’t see him run to Qi Fengge’s grave wailing and crying.”
Shen Qiao was already so angry that he did not wish to speak to him any longer. Luckily enough he had circulated his qi throughout his body earlier, else he really would have coughed up blood again.
Yan Wushi, on the other hand, seemed to be in a pretty good mood. He found a dry place, put some dead leaves and twigs together, and then lit a huozhezi before roasting the skewer of sparrows over it.
Soon after, a charred fragrance began to fill the area.
He turned and gave another look at Shen Qiao. The other man had closed his eyes so as to circulate his qi again. The sight of his profile was like that of white jade, taking on a warm and gentle radiance under the sunlight. The teal collar of his robes covered the graceful contour of his neck. His cool and ascetic indifference betrayed a slight, nearly undetectable warmth.
Yan Wushi had seen countless beauties in his life. Among them, there were no lack of those who were as pure and untouchable as a flower growing upon the tallest mountains; yet he had never seen any that were like the man before him—resembling that of a god with his eyes closed, yet filled with the great tenderness of humanity with his eyes opened.
Just as he thought this, Shen Qiao opened his eyes: “Once night has fallen, I will return to check on Wu-bo and Ah-qing.”
Yan Wushi removed each sparrow from the skewer with perfect collectedness: “I’d already said it before. Xueting has to maintain the glorious image of Buddhism, so he cannot possibly lay his hands upon them out in the open like that. Since Xueting showed up, that residence has already been compromised. Wu Mi will know exactly how to deal with this himself.”
He was naturally a cold and distant person, who rarely took to heart the lives and deaths of others. To him, Wu Mi belonged to Huanyue Sect. To die for Huanyue Sect as Wu Mi’s final task was only proper. Yan Wushi would certainly not have the slightest compassion for even Ah-qing; however, he knew very well what sort of person Shen Qiao was. It was very likely that if he said something like this, the other man would immediately return to see how they were.
Had this been before, Yan Wushi would have looked on as he did. But today, at this moment, he had instead dispelled Shen Qiao’s suspicions.
“Do you know why I brought back six sparrows?” Yan Wushi asked.
Shen Qiao stared blankly. He did not understand why Yan Wushi had suddenly asked him such a thing, nor did he understand what other meaning it had. He tilted his head to the side, as though earnestly thinking of an answer.
Seemingly from out of nowhere, Yan Wushi pulled out a piece of tree bark and placed the roasted sparrows on its surface.
As Shen Qiao watched, he almost could not help but feel the corners of his lips twitch.
Upon this sheet of bark, the six sparrows were laid out very neatly, with one in the center and five placed around it.
“This dish is called ‘plum blossom sparrows.’”
Shen Qiao was silent. Did you come up with that name?
“You have to eat the one in the middle before you can eat the ones on the sides,” Yan Wushi said.
“...why?” Shen Qiao asked.
“Because that way it can still look nice. If you eat the ones on the side, then the ‘plum blossom’ won’t be whole anymore,” Yan Wushi said.
Shen Qiao had nothing to say. He suspected that Yan Wushi’s illness was flaring up again, and could not help but look at him for a good long time.
But Yan Wushi’s expression was completely calm and at ease. He even laughed at Shen Qiao’s reaction and said, in a gentle voice: “Ah-qiao. Do you really have the heart to waste this act of kindness of mine?”
Shen Qiao had never expected the other man to thank him in any way for risking his life to save him. But this act of thanks...it’s just too weird, isn’t it?
But with the way that Yan Wushi did things, Shen Qiao once more thought that if, next time, he made some sort of ‘pear blossom sparrow’ or ‘peach blossom sparrow’, it wouldn’t be especially surprising either.
After all, most people didn’t exactly stack up every single soybean on their plates when they ordered some at a restaurant when they were bored.
He hesitated for a second, before finally taking the sparrow in the middle and taking a bite out of it.
Except for the fact that it wasn’t salted, the taste was not bad.
“How are your wounds?” Shen Qiao asked.
Yan Wushi smiled somewhat. “Wouldn’t you be able to figure that out on your own?”
Once he said this, he extended his hand towards Shen Qiao without the slightest hesitation.
The acupoint of the wrist was one of the mingmen; it didn’t matter how powerful your wugong was. If someone were to take hold of it, then it wouldn’t be something you could take lightly. Had it been ‘Xie Ling’ who had done this sort of action, then Shen Qiao would have found it strange; but Shen Qiao knew very well that this was not him.
Shen Qiao repressed the peculiar feeling in his heart, before taking Yan Wushi’s pulse. After a moment, he murmured: “There are some internal wounds, but they aren’t serious. After resting for one or two days, you’ll be all right. Within this mountain, it is cold and damp. It’s unsuitable to stay in. Perhaps we will be all right for a day or two, but we can’t remain here for long. Do you have any other plans?”
“We’ll first go to Hanzhong,” Yan Wushi said, “and then head to Chang’an.”
Shen Qiao was taken aback. That way, it would just be just walking themselves in a circle.
“I had assumed you would go directly to Chang’an. Once you’ve entered Chang’an, you will have Huanyue Sect’s power and the Emperor of Zhou’s protection. Xueting would not dare to take action against you.”
“If Xueting caught news that I’m still alive,” Yan Wushi said, “then if others haven’t, they surely will in a few days time. If you make the decision to return to Chang’an, others will also be able to predict it as well. There is only one road from here to Chang’an. If we were to take it, we would certainly run into countless obstacles and ambushes.”
Shen Qiao responded with an en. He had thought of this matter already as well.
Yan Wushi sneered. “Did you really think that Xueting and the rest only mean to kill me?”
“Their true target is most likely the Emperor of Zhou,” Shen Qiao said.
“That’s right,” Yan Wushi said. “I’d said it once before. The Buddhists want to broaden their influence, and they can only do this through the means of a ruler. As a result, they absolutely cannot stain their hands with the crime of regicide. Otherwise, even without Yuwen Yong, it wouldn’t matter who would take up the throne. They would not place the Buddhists in any important position. The same applies to Tujue, Liuhe-bang, Fajing Sect and all the rest. If they were to do such a thing, not only would their titles be illegitimately conferred, but they would run into trouble after trouble as a result. It wouldn’t be as convenient as having someone close to Yuwen Yong laying their hands on him.”
Yan Wushi’s words was like that of lightning, illuminating an area that Shen Qiao had yet to explore: “Empress Ashina-shi is a person of Tujue!”
“Look at that. A student worth teaching,” Yan Wushi teased. “Ashina-shi has been left to the side by Yuwen Yong for so long, as he doesn’t trust her. Naturally she would want to help Duan Wenyang add fuel to the fire. As for the prince, he hates to work and prefers leisure. He spends his days entertaining himself and hardly thinking of progress. He too understands that if he doesn’t take advantage of the fact that his old man hasn’t yet the heart to remove him of his status and strike him down first, then there’s a high chance that he won’t be able to hold onto his title as prince.”
Shen Qiao was shocked by his words. After a moment, he said: “The prince is his son. He wouldn’t...”
He barely said half of his sentence, but could not say anymore. Shen Qiao had suddenly thought of Yu Ai, and the affection he had towards him. It couldn’t be any less than that of the prince and the emperor, could it? And yet the other man had poisoned him with xiangjianhuan without any mercy. Royal families were known for their ruthlessness. It wasn’t beyond the prince to be able to commit patricide.
Yan Wushi sighed.
“Ah-qiao, you aren’t stupid. You’re just soft-hearted, and that’s what holds you back. When you approach matters and people, you almost always consider their good points; you’re completely unable to anticipate the darkness in their hearts. Honestly, what would happen to you if I weren’t around?”
If you weren’t around, my days would go a hundred times smoother! Shen Qiao nearly blurted out.
But he was a kind man of noble character. How could he possibly say such a thing? Instead, he brought his focus back to their earlier topic at hand as a result.
If things continued like this, then the chessboard was truly becoming all the more shocking with each play, each turn closely linked to one another.
As Yan Wushi had experienced such an incident, Huanyue Sect was lacking a leader. The other two demonic sects almost certainly could not help but cause trouble for Huanyue Sect, and Bian Yanmei would be busy dealing with them. He would certainly be careless in watching over the empress and the prince—Yuwen Yong’s spouse, and his flesh and blood son. Bian Yanmei was incredibly skilled. But he could not possibly stay by the emperor’s side all hours of the day. If they wanted to do something to the emperor, then it would certainly be much more convenient on their end than it would be for a wugong master to directly assassinate him.
Shen Qiao coughed twice. “Then what of Hanzhong?”
“The prince of Qi, Yuwen Xian, resides in Hanzhong. There are also military forces there. First, we’ll go there and see what the situation is like, before heading to Chang’an.”
Shen Qiao understood.
Yan Wushi believed that everything regarding Yuwen Yong led to disaster, so he needed to find a different way out. The prince himself followed Buddhism and did not see Huanyue Sect as being useful to him in any way. Yan Wushi also looked down on the prince as well, which was why he would rather pledge his support to the Prince of Qi, Yuwen Xian. Before this, Huanyue Sect had almost certainly put a lot of time and effort in Yuwen Xian.
Xueting believed that they would go to Chang’an; as a result, the others most likely thought so as well. It was very likely that no one would think that they would go to Hanzhong.
The way that a crafty hare has three burrows, a sly person has more than one hideout. No one could be better than Yan Wushi at this sort of crooked and dishonest practice.
Night came especially early in the mountains. As the sun set in the west, the dense foliage overhead had absorbed the last few rays of light.
Within the cave, the firewood continued to crackle with light, finally dispelling the cold of the spring night.
But Shen Qiao was not using qigong to circulate his qi; rather, he was sleeping.
After having battled Xueting, he had sustained a number of nontrivial wounds. Even though he had the true qi of the Zhuyang Ce to protect his body, he was still only human. The distance between his and Xueting’s levels was still quite great. His wounds would not be able to heal within only a day or two. That night, he even had a fever; his forehead was scalding hot, and he had drifted into a nightmare.
His dream was grotesque in shape and filled with bizarre colors. Many different people appeared one after the other; Shen Qiao was so deeply stuck within his dream that he couldn’t free himself from it.
His dearest, most admired shizun held up the Shanhe Tongbei sword, matted with bird’s feathers, and began to interrogate Shen Qiao, asking why he used the sword to shave the feathers of a bird, while Shen Qiao said, deeply indignant: “Shizun, Yan Wushi did that.”
Qi Fengge pinched Shen Qiao’s chin, and held the sword up to his face. “Do you see what else is on here?”
Shen Qiao looked on with a dumbstruck expression, and realized that the sword had dark hairs on its body. He immediately said: “Shizun, did you really use the Shanhe Tongbei sword to shave your face?”
“Nonsense!” Qi Fengge shouted, angrily. “Clearly, you took the sword your shizun gave you and caused trouble with it! You’d even gone so far as to blame another person! I had just taught you the character for ‘honest’ yesterday, yet today, you’d deliberately gone and misbehaved! Clearly you’ll have to be punished!”
“Your disciple was wrong!” Shen Qiao responded without thinking, frightened to death.
But Qi Fengge did not seem to hear him admit his wrongdoings. Instead, he had him lie down, and then took a large rock and placed it on top of him. “If you know you’ve done wrong, then you must be punished. You’ll stay here for a while. You will not be permitted to stand unless shizun tells you.”
Shen Qiao did not know where his shifu thought of such a strange punishment. He could only feel that his chest became so tight and filled with such pain from the weight that he could hardly breathe. He could only beg for mercy: “Shizun, please take the rock off of me!”
But Qi Fengge pretended as if he did not hear a thing. Instead, he turned away and left, gradually becoming further and further away, until he disappeared without a trace.
“Your disciple was wrong...shizun, please don’t go...”
Shen Qiao’s eyes were closed, with his brows knit tightly together: “My chest hurts so much...”
Yan Wushi awoke to the sound of his murmurs. He sat by him and looked down. By the light of the fire, he could see the other man’s tear-stained face. To think that he had actually cried as a result of his dream.
Yan Wushi extended one hand to brush them away. They left his fingers moist. He had thought that these tears would have had some residual warmth, but instead, they were startlingly cold.
To think that this man, showered with such love and adoration as a child, could have developed such a soft and tender heart as an adult.
Yan Wushi had wanted to say something, but he heard begin to murmur about yet another dream, and suddenly uttered two words: “Xie Ling...”
The words startled him. Suddenly, a strange mercilessness rose up from within him, as though a mask had been suddenly split open.
And—so quickly—dozens of emotions flashed across his face—some that were brutal, others disaffected, and some even gentle. It was as though countless different faces were fighting one another at the same time to take control, the sight of which would have left someone trembling in fear.
The true qi within his body had begun to surge chaotically within him. It was so much like all of those times before, when he had nearly entered qi deviation—this was but a symptom of what was to come. Yan Wushi suddenly shut his eyes!
After a long moment, he opened them. He extended one hand to slowly stroke Shen Qiao’s face, before meandering further down, so as to support the back of his neck and draw him upwards. And then, he bent down to take every word of his soft, incessant murmurs into his mouth.
“ This is what they mean when they say, lust is born from warming up and eating well.
—SHEN QIAO WAS IN A DAZE. Though he had a mind like that of an arrow readied on a bow, always alert and ready to wake, his eyelids were shut tight. No matter what he did, they wouldn’t open.
And then to have a strange and sudden warmth spread up from his lips. It was like that of something invading and wreaking havoc upon him. He struggled for some time, making a soft groan as he did, before finally opening his eyes with great effort.
The fire had been burning for almost the entire night, and its light had gradually weakened. He was being held close in the arms of someone else, only separated from the warmth of the other person’s body by a layer of clothing. It was the sort of warmth that would have settled into someone’s bones and emit a sort of indolence from them, leaving them wanting to sink even deeper into sleep, and never wanting to wake.
Shen Qiao suddenly felt as though he were out of breath. However, this pressure was not from his wounded chest, but rather from his mouth and nose.
“To think that the great zhangjiao of Xuandu Mountain can’t even inhale and exhale right. If anyone found out about such a thing, then they’d probably laugh themselves to death, wouldn’t they?” He could make out his teasing voice, which sounded as though it were both far away and close by at the same time. But the truth was that it was just by his ear, and that their faces were very close. The other man had pulled his tongue from Shen Qiao’s parted lips before slowly kissing him once more. Only then did he finally draw back somewhat and pinch both of Shen Qiao’s cheeks. “Surprised?”
Shen Qiao finally came to from his muddled state. He immediately struck Yan Wushi, who shouted an aiyah! and pulled away. “Ah-qiao, it’s me, Xie Ling!”
Shen Qiao stopped and stared at him, frowning.
Yan Wushi once more held him close, speaking in a gentle voice: “It’s me, Xie Ling. You don’t recognize me?”
Shen Qiao did not say a word. Instead, he raised his hand once more and struck him again.
Yan Wushi was quick to react. He caught Shen Qiao’s arm and said, astonished: “You’d even hit Xie Ling when you’re in a daze from sleeping?”
Shen Qiao was hardly in a mood to talk: “Why would Xie Ling call me ‘Ah-qiao’?!”
Yan Wushi burst into laughter. “That’s right, I forgot. He calls you meiren-gege. But you know, I couldn’t get myself to say it! I didn’t think that, with your good looks, you’d take advantage of me for so long. Every time you heard Xie Ling call out to you, you never let it show on your face, but deep down, you were incredibly happy, weren’t you?”
Shen Qiao turned around, refusing to face him: “Stop talking!”
Yan Wushi kissed his cheek. He took advantage of the fact that the other man had yet to react and stopped before provoking him any further, instead making sure there was three chi of distance between them.
Shen Qiao wanted to stand. But because of his internal injury, he could only cough while holding his chest, allowing the pain to slowly pass over him.
He could only shout angrily between coughs, “It’s this time of night, and you’re—still acting like this—!”
Yan Wushi couldn’t help but break into laughter: “Ah-qiao, you’re just too cute! You can’t even curse people right! What do you mean, acting—like—this—? Here, I’ll teach you: this is what they mean when they say, lust is born from warming up and eating well.”
The face of this beautiful man had turned red from both anger and his coughing fit. He had coughed so much that there were tears in his eyes, blurring his vision. With the fire’s soft brilliance spreading over them and his desire unfulfilled, Yan Wushi could not take his gaze from Shen Qiao’s heaven-made beauty. A shame that he could only look and not feast.
After realizing that Yan Wushi had purposely teased him so as to make him angry simply for his own enjoyment, Shen Qiao gradually calmed down: “If you anger me again, my wound won’t be able to heal over fully. If someone were to attempt to kill us, I may not be able to protect you.”
Yan Wushi laughed. “That’s not a problem. I have my own plan around that.”
Shen Qiao was not convinced. “What sort of plan?”
“Last time, didn’t you dress me up in women’s clothing? That was quite smart. This time, why don’t we both dress up like women, rent a carriage, and pretend we’re going to Hanzhong to live with our relatives. That way, we’d practically be able to cross even the sea with just a trick.”
Shen Qiao heard this, and knew at once that he was trying to get even for last time.
Though he had been unwell before, the person who had to dress up had been ‘Xie Ling’. But they shared the same body, so Yan Wushi absolutely couldn’t have been unaware.
Shen Qiao blinked. He completely avoided touching upon the subject any further and asked, “How are you feeling?”
“Are you asking me, or are you asking how Xie Ling is feeling?” Yan Wushi asked.
Shen Qiao was silent for a moment. He responded with a soft en.
He suddenly remembered the dream he had before. The first half had been about his shizun. Most likely it was because his chest was wounded that he had dreamt his shizun had placed the rock on top of him. It was a strange and ridiculous dream. But the truth was that, perhaps it was because he had, deep down, missed his shizun so intensely that he had dreamed this. Before, on Xuandu Mountain, their wugong studies were truly arduous. But their shizun had sheltered them from human cruelty like that of a great tree. By the time that he had experienced the difficulties that he did, he remembered those bygone years, and deeply missed them. Back then, shizun was still with them; he and his shixiongdi were as close as brothers and loved one another greatly. They did not think of anything else except for studying wugong, truly free from all worries. They were hardly burdened with anything.
As for the second half of the dream, it was only flashes of people he had seen in the latter half of his life. A blur of people appeared, one after the other. The last person that had caused him to wake up, and the only one that he could remember seeing, was Xie Ling.
Like this, Yan Wushi asked: “Ah-qiao, do you wish that Xie Ling were still here? Or that he hadn’t been here?”
'Xie Ling’ was the disposition born from the fragments of Yan Wushi’s qi deviation. Any moment that he existed naturally meant that Yan Wushi had yet to fully recover.
Seeing that Shen Qiao did not know how to answer, Yan Wushi smiled somewhat. “If it’s the former, then I’ll have to disappoint you. Though I have yet to heal the flaw in my demonic core, I have already suppressed the significant changes to my disposition that occurred as a result of my qi deviation. From now on, Xie Ling will never again exist in this world.”
Shen Qiao was faintly taken aback. He did not speak, but his eyes slowly betrayed a sense of sadness from within them.
He wrapped his outer robe around himself more closely, wearing a blank look. He looked so lonely and desolate, so pitiful and lovable.
However, Yan Wushi knew very well that, underneath this seemingly weak and delicate appearance, was the unyielding strength of a man who would not yield to any circumstance, be it harsh winds or rain.
Had it been before, malice would have surfaced from his heart. He would have attempted to find a way to wear him away, layer by layer, so as to see the soft flesh within him, to see whether or not he can experience what it meant to be destroyed, and if he could remain the same as he did before.
But now, a faint, strange sensation had welled up within his heart.
Though he had smothered ‘Xie Ling’, was a trace of him still left, unwilling to leave?
Yan Wushi smiled mirthlessly to himself. What good is that? The Shen Qiao that you love so much will forget you sooner or later. And you will never again be able to approach him.
Shen Qiao did not know what it was he thought. After some time, he sighed, lightly, and only said: “I’m tired. I’m going back to sleep again.”
He laid down weakly and wearily, as if struck with illness. His outer robe was especially thin. Because he was unwell, he felt rather cold and could not help but tuck his body in closely. Yan Wushi watched him from behind, unable to make out his expression.
Yan Wushi approached him. The other man did not react.
He extended one hand to touch him. Though Shen Qiao had brushed him off, the tips of Yan Wushi’s fingers had touched something moist.
“You’re crying?” Yan Wushi said, as if it were a completely unfathomable thing. “You’re crying, just like that? Xie Ling is but the fragment of a soul. You couldn’t even call him a person.”
Shen Qiao responded, crestfallen: “Perhaps to you, he is nothing more but the fragment of a soul. But to me, he was someone that had once existed.”
Yan Wushi sneered. “Is it simply because he returned to search for you in the underground city?”
Shen Qiao did not take notice of him.
To Yan Wushi, amongst all of his dispositions, only Xie Ling was the weakest and easiest to take advantage of. It was the disposition most unlike him. Who would have imagined that it would be the one that Shen Qiao would like the most?
Upon thinking of this, his face revealed a displeased expression: “With how weak you are, how could you ever talk about becoming my opponent in the future, or even having a match with me? If you keep thinking like this, you’ll most likely never reach the peak of wu dao.”
A long silence followed after. Shen Qiao suddenly said: “What does Yan-zongzhu believe to be the peak of wu dao? Would it be that of my shizun, Qi Fengge? Or Cui Youwang? Or even Tao Hongjin?”
Every time that he called out Xie Ling, his voice was filled with such tender affection. And now, as they faced each other, completely within reach, he called him Yan-zongzhu in a voice that lacked any feeling at all.
Yan Wushi repressed the unpleasant sensation within him, and responded, coldly: “Their wugong was certainly masterful. But it could not be considered the peak of wu dao.”
If someone ordinary were to say something like this, one would think that they had overestimated their own abilities. But before Yan Wushi experienced a qi deviation, he did indeed have the qualifications to say such a thing, despite the fact that there was a discrepancy between his wugong and the three other men.
“That’s right,” Shen Qiao said. “Wu dao is a path that never ends. So what can be considered the peak? Though this poor daoist lacks talent, I know that there is no correlation between a soft-hearted disposition and wugong. You, Yan-zongzhu, have your own path—and I have my own. Do not do to others what you would not have done to you. I am mourning an old friend who is no longer here; what does this have to do with you? I must ask that you conduct yourself with some dignity.”
He had known him for a number of days, and met him sparsely. He did not even know why Xie Ling was named Xie Ling; and yet he called him an old and departed friend?
Yan Wushi laughed bitterly in his mind. Yet his expression was as cold as frost. He continued in a tender voice: “All right, all right. There’s only the two of us here, and we are relying on one another to live. We were only having a chat. What are you getting so angry for?”
Shen Qiao’s response to this was to pull his outer robe over himself so as to cover his head, to express that he declined to discuss anything with him any longer.
Yan Wushi: “...”
The night passed without a word between them.
The day after, Shen Qiao woke early. By the time he had come to, Yan Wushi had already come back washing his face by the stream. Upon meeting Shen Qiao’s eyes, he said while smiling: “Ah-qiao, lend me your Shanhe Tongbei sword.”
His expression was warm and gentle, while his mood seemed good. It was as though he didn’t even wear that unpleasant mood he had last night.
Shen Qiao responded, guardedly: “I got a stomach ache after eating yesterday. You didn’t shave the birds’ feathers well enough.”
Yan Wushi responded: “Oh? That’s because I realized that it was better to pluck the bird feathers by hand. This time I won’t use your sword to shave bird feathers.”
Shen Qiao was still concerned. “What are you going hunting for? Why not let me do it instead?”
The moment he stood, a dull pain throbbed throughout his ribs.
Yan Wushi watched as he frowned. He said, gently: “You were wounded because of me. I’ll go. In any case, I’m not taking your sword to shave any birds’ feathers.”
Shen Qiao did not believe that within the short span of a night, Yan-zongzhu would suddenly possess a heart filled with gratitude. But because his wugong had experienced such a setback, it would be better for him to carry a sword on his person, just in case if he did run into any danger. At the very least, he would not lack the capability to strike back. After much thinking, he decided to hand the sword over to him.
Yan Wushi took the sword and headed out. Before leaving, he was considerate enough to roll up some leaves to bring water to Shen Qiao to wash his face.
It was only the beginning of spring. The cool water against his cheeks cleared his mind at once. The effects of the yu congrong fruits were truly extraordinary. Although his chest wound had yet to completely heal, he felt that it had improved quite a bit after waking up. Even the pain that had come with breathing had eased up somewhat.
He sat cross-legged to circulate his qi and heal his wounds. After quite some time, Yan Wushi finally returned.
“You left the mountain?” Shen Qiao asked, astonished.
“I didn’t,” Yan Wushi said, “I just walked around to see what the situation was like for a bit. If nothing out of the ordinary happens, I think that we should be able to leave the mountain by this evening.”
Shen Qiao nodded. He noticed that he carried a long tree branch that acted as a skewer for two fish. He then asked: “How did you get those two large fish.”
“There’s a lot of rain in the spring. Of course the fish are more delicious.”
Shen Qiao suddenly experienced a somewhat foreboding feeling rise up within him. “How did you gut and scale them?”
Yan Wushi didn’t even raise his head. “I used the sword, naturally.”
“I did not give you the Shanhe Tongbei sword so that you could scale fish with it!” Shen Qiao shouted furiously.
Yan Wushi sighed.
“Ah-qiao, you really didn’t reason anything out. You said that I couldn’t use it to shave bird feathers, and I promised you that I wouldn’t. But now, here you are saying that I can’t use it to scale fish. In any case, aren’t you getting half of these fish anyway? Or are you saying that, now that your sword smells like fish, you won’t be able to use jianxin on your opponents any longer?”
He wore an expression that said, “You’ve gone and deliberately made trouble. You’re lucky that I’m lenient and forgiving towards you.” Shen Qiao was so angry that he nearly picked up a nearby rock and flung it at him.
“ She cursed him, hoping that his lover would remain unsatisfied with him.
—IF YOU BRING UP THE TOPIC OF FABRIC ALTERATIONS, across all of Tongsu County, one would consider He Ji one of the most famous alteration business of them all.
Any outsider would think this. And the owner of He Ji, Su-niang, would think this as well.
She wasn’t very old—she hadn’t even turned thirty yet. Yet she lived as a widow for a little over ten years. Back when she had just married into her husband’s family, hardly two years passed before her husband died of an illness. At that time, Su-niang was pregnant with his child; her parents-in-law felt deeply guilty, and gave her money to open the fabric alterations business. Afterwards, when her parent-in-laws passed away, their family property was passed onto her brother-in-law. A shame that he was incapable, though. After several years, he’d squandered it all. On the other hand, it was Su-niang’s fabric alteration business that became bigger the more that she worked. She did not only open a business in Tongsu County, but she even had a branch of He Ji in the capital of Fengzhou, Liangquan County.
But Su-niang did miss her homeland. Although she had property in Liangquan County, she often remained in Tongsu. Today, Su-niang woke up bright and early to look over one of her stores. The shopkeeper, upon hearing that the business owner was coming, quickly came to welcome her.
At that moment, someone had come in from the outside.
“I’m sorry, keguan. Our owner has come to audit accounts. For the moment, we aren’t...” The shopkeeper quickly approached him and said, smiling.
However, he only said half of what he had wanted to say, before he found himself awestruck by the other man’s facial features and imposing manner and unable to say more.
Yan Wushi frowned. “You aren’t doing business today?”
Su-niang pushed the shopkeeper away and said, sweetly: “We’re open, and we even came to greet you. Where does it look like we aren’t doing business? My employee was improper; allow me to apologize to you on his behalf, langjun. May I ask, what sort of fabric does langjun want to purchase today? We have ready-made clothes here, and many different styles as well. If you’d like to choose the material first, then the fastest we can have it prepared is two days.”
She had done merchant work for over ten years. Her first-hand knowledge and speculations were not like that of usual married women; but who would have thought that upon seeing this person, she felt as if she were looking at the sky from the bottom of a well.
His features and mannerisms were extraordinary. No senior official in their prefecture could even compare, let alone one of their county magistrates.
Merchants starting a business absolutely never have a reason to reject people at their door, especially not such a remarkable character as this one. What young woman would not feel a sudden rush of restlessness at sight of him, or even a sudden affection?
Even Su-niang’s smile had become more distinct at that moment.
Yan Wushi had wanted to pick out two outfits at first, but after hearing her words, instead had a change of heart: “In that case, you must have ready-made women’s clothes, correct?”
“Yes, of course!” Su-niang’s smile did not change, though she couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed deep down.
Such a handsome langjun as this looked quite proud and overbearing. Furthermore, he did not look like someone who could be controlled by the likes of a gentle and docile woman. Yet what was he doing here, personally buying clothes for some young woman?
Half a month earlier, the two of them had left the cave in the mountains and headed south. Up until yesterday, they had reached Tongsu County in Fengzhou, which was not far from Hanzhong, and decided to rest there.
Shen Qiao was of a quiet temperament; if he were left to practice wugong at the inn all day, he would not mind how dull it was. Yan Wushi, on the other hand, went out on his own.
For the purpose of keeping themselves safe, they would naturally refrain from going out at all before arriving at Chang’an. Anyone could see that this was the most appropriate thing to do. But this was impossible right from the start. In order to eat and room somewhere, you’d need to find an inn. If he was going to cower from fright at the smallest possibility of danger, then that wouldn’t be Yan Wushi.
He had wanted to purchase two sets of clothes before, but upon hearing Su-niang’s words, decided to change his mind.
Su-niang asked: “Does langjun wish to buy this for a lover, for his sister, or for his older relatives?”
“What’s the difference?” Yan Wushi asked.
Su-niang laughed: “I can tell that langjun hasn’t ever bought clothes for women before. This matter naturally has quite a lot to know about. If you’re buying clothes for your elders, then the colors shouldn’t be too bright. They should appear somewhat modest. Having fewer embroidered patterns is also a new style now. If you are giving it to your little sister, then you can choose something in a light pink or light blue. The skirts and sleeves can also have designs such as butterflies and roses and such. If this is for an elder, then such designs would be much too frivolous.”
“Then what about for a lover?” Yan Wushi said.
Su-niang repressed her disappointment: “If it’s for a lover, then just pick their favorite color and design. What color does your lover like?”
Yan Wushi gave it some thought. “Sky blue?”
“Sky blue is quite difficult to wear well, unless your lover’s skin is very fair.”
Yan Wushi smiled somewhat. “Their skin is indeed quite fair.”
“Then would you like to purchase something already made, or select some cloth and have something made now?” Su-niang asked. “If you would like something already made, we have all sorts of clothes in any sort of measurement you need. How tall is this young woman?”
Yan Wushi purely wanted to take revenge and have Shen Qiao have a taste of what it was like to be disguised as a woman. But upon hearing Su-niang’s words, he could not help but find it rather interesting.
“They’re shorter than me by about half a head, and are rather thin.”
Su-niang was taken aback. “Shorter than you by only half a head? Then she’s quite tall for a woman! I don’t know if this store has anything in the size that you need. Are you not going to pick the designs then?”
Yan Wushi furrowed his brow. He looked her over once before saying: “Design? In that case, I think the design you’re wearing is quite nice.”
Su-niang’s heart began to beat quickly after he looked her over. At that moment, her eyes began to wander. She bit her lip and laughed as she said: “Does langjun really like the one I’m wearing?”
The two of them stood very close to one another. They were nearly touching.
The shopkeeper and shop assistant remained evidently calm seeing the owner like this. They had already closed the shop’s doors, and kept themselves away in another part of the shop.
Yan Wushi smiled somewhat. He pressed down on her chin and lowered his head so as to look at her closely. It seemed as though he wanted to kiss her.
Su-niang felt as though something were going to happen. Her cheeks became flushed, and her body felt suddenly limp and weak. Even her breath had become hotter.
“A shame that your clothes are so nice,” Yan Wushi said, “yet your face is hardly memorable. It’s an unreasonable waste of good fabric.”
Su-niang’s face became blank. It seemed that she was unable to react. After the man stepped back several steps, she finally came to as though she had just been in a dream. Her face paled, and she began, fuming with rage and through gritted teeth: “We aren’t doing business today! Why don’t you take your leave, langjun!”
What is more intolerable than saying that a woman is ugly? She wanted to tell him to get the hell out, but business people lived by the saying, amiability begets riches. Su-niang did not want to bring any trouble either; less difficulty was certainly better than more. It was just that the design on her chest rose and fell somewhat as she breathed, so it was clear that she was incredibly angry.
Yan Wushi sneered somewhat. “You couldn’t carry it on, and now you’re flying into rage from shame?”
He took out a fairly heavy pouch and set it on the table: “It must not be good for business if you get angry this easily. If you keep on frowning like that for a while, won’t you look much older?”
Su-niang angrily retorted: “You have such a venomous mouth! The way I see it, your lover must have suffered eight lives worth of bad luck to have someone like you favor them!”
Once she said this, she took the pouch with the intent to throw it at him. However, the moment that she took it into her hands, her face immediately changed color.
She saw that the shallow imprint the pouch left upon the mahogany table was the outline of an yin ji.
This table was made from wood, and certainly not from that of a wetland. A large rock would not be able to break it in half from being set upon it, much less a bag of silver money. Su-niang knew then that she had run into a man of high ranking. Her expression changed significantly. Finally, she forced her face into a smile: “Great langjun, please have mercy on me. Don’t waste your efforts on a woman like me! If you want some ready-made clothes in sky blue, then I’ll have someone look for some for you!”
Though she said this, deep down within her heart, she had already begun to hate Yan Wushi to death. Over and over, she cursed him, hoping that his lover would remain unsatisfied with him and eventually leave his side.
Yan Wushi naturally could not tell what Su-niang thought. And even if he did, he couldn’t care less. After buying the clothes, he had someone deliver it to the inn, and departed from the shop empty-handed, leaving Su-niang fuming.
The streets in this town were not as lively as that of the capital, but there were some people coming and going. Yan Wushi walked several steps, before suddenly coming to a stop.
He laughed softly, and said: “What little rat is wandering about, afraid of its own tail and refusing to show its face?”
He spoke softly and slowly. Yet to everyone else, it felt as if their ears were suddenly about to burst.
The common people did not understand why; however, after overcoming their shock, they kept their distance without thinking, so as to prevent from inviting disaster to their own selves.
Yan Wushi put his hands behind his back. He looked up and caught sight of the birds flying over the horizon. He looked completely carefree, yet he did not move.
“Before, when we had heard that Yan-zongzhu had been killed at the hands of the five greatest masters, our shizun felt so sorry for you for so long! Who would have thought that Yan-zongzhu was such an extraordinary person that he would live through such an event? It’s truly something to be respected!”
The coquettish laughter was sweet and pleasant to the ear. It was as though both far and near at the same time, drifting about without a resting place. However, an instant after uttering the word respected, a woman dressed in red suddenly appeared on top of the roof on Yan Wushi’s right.
Yan Wushi did not look in her direction. He said, insipidly: “You’re already here, yet you hide your head and tail. Hehuan Sect’s people are quite good at this, it seems. It’s not surprising that you relied on the country of Qi. But now that Qi has been felled, you’ve become stray dogs. Whose house will you run to serve next?”
“Yan-zongzhu, your words are truly ridiculous. Someone could have even thought that Huanyue Sect was noble and virtuous from just that. But the truth is that Huanyue Sect is a slave of Yuwen Yong’s, isn’t it? What a pity that Yuwen Yong’s life won’t be very long. Without your protection, I’m afraid that your disciples and subordinates must seem even more wretched than that of a stray dog!”
A cold laugh accompanied her words. Before Yan Wushi, another person appeared.
If Shen Qiao were here, he would have recognized who it was with a glance.
“If they aren’t capable and need to rely on my protection for everything, then they should save me the trouble and hurry up and die faster for me!” Yan Wushi looked at Xiao Se and shook his head. “And you. My sympathies to Yuan Xiuxiu for taking in an ingrate of a disciple who spends his days fooling about with Sang Jingxing. But Sang Jingxing’s eyes aren’t anything special either. That disciple of his, Huo Xijing. Though his behavior was completely mindless, at least his wugong was somewhat presentable. And here you are. Not only do you have a completely useless brain, even your wugong is completely worthless. Looks like Hehuan Sect is fated to get worse with each generation.”
Xiao Se was enraged, yet he grinned: “Yan-zongzhu, you’re showing off your words so quickly. Hopefully you won’t kneel and beg for forgiveness after!”
With Xiao Se and Bai Rong’s skills together, they could be considered first-class in all of jianghu. If the two of them were to join forces, then with Yan Wushi’s present condition, it would be quite difficult if he wanted to repel them. However, Yan Wushi’s present objective was not fixed on either of them at the moment. Rather, it was on the person slowly approaching him from behind.
“Were you all waiting here this long just for me?”
Bai Rong spoke in a sweet voice: “We heard that Xueting-chanshi met with you once in Weizhou, and lost track of Yan-zongzhu afterwards. Yan-zhanglao said that Yan-zongzhu must certainly have gone to Chang’an, but since you were avoiding your enemies, you would surely not take the shortest route there. Therefore, we took the long way around, and decided to wait a bit in Fengzhou. We didn’t think that things would be just as Yan-zhanglao said!”
“However, Yan-zongzhu, there is no need to be upset. Even if you were to have taken a different route, it would be no use. Hanzhong has the Liuhe-bang’s people, and Yangzhou has Tujue’s people. You’re surrounded no matter where you go. There’s nowhere you can escape to. If you have to blame something, then blame it on the fact that your enemies are just too many. Everyone in the world wants to end you. Even if a god were to come help, it would be no use.”
The person who said this was Yan Shou. He approached them step by step, his pace incredibly slow, and quite firm. His eyes did not part from Yan Wushi even the slightest bit, as though he were a cheetah, prepared and waiting for action from its prey. At any time, he could pounce on him and use his sharp teeth to tear his enemies apart.
Yan Wushi burst into laughter: “God? I’ve never believed in any god!”
The moment he said this, he made his first move!
“ His hair, raven-black; his clothes, sky blue. His silhouette, tall and elegant, resembled that of an immortal.
—WHEREVER THE THREE CHARACTERS OF YAN WUSHI’S NAME WOUND UP, they carried a frightening gravity—despite the fact that these three knew that the five great masters had made an attempt on his life, and despite the fact that they knew that his wugong was almost completely lost and his present strength was not as great as it was before. They hardly needed Sang Jingxing to personally show up. The strength of these three were more than enough to rely on to bring him down.
However, even as they thought this, not a single one moved at all. An undercurrent surged up from within Hehuan Sect. From the movements of Xiao Se and the rest, anyone would be able to see this.
Yan Shou once lost at Yan Wushi’s hands—additionally, he had lost in a completely miserable state. This time, he arrived not because of the rumored lost volume of the Zhuyang Ce in Yan Wushi’s possession, but because the day of his crushing defeat had such a deep impression upon Yan Shou. Though he appeared composed and undisturbed before Yan Wushi, something that suggested otherwise arose in his heart.
Xiao Se was Yuan Xiuxiu’s disciple. However, he wanted to take Yan Wushi’s head to Sang Jingxing and take credit for killing him. However, seeing that no one else moved, he did not move either.
All four people faced each other, creating a sort of strange situation. Hehuan Sect clearly had the upper hand; however, they decided not to act first.
Yan Shou narrowed his eyes. He observed Yan Wushi closely, waiting for him to make the smallest misstep.
Yan Wushi finally moved.
But he did not move towards Xiao Se or Bai Rong, who stood before him—and he certainly did not move towards Yan Shou, who stood behind him. Instead, he immediately soared into the air, like that of a breeze lifting one’s sleeves, like that of a crane preparing for flight!
Xiao Se’s expression immediately shifted: “Not good!”
Who could have imagined that the great zongzhu of Huanyue Sect would perform such a two-faced act just to baffle his opponents?
Xiao Se was ordinarily a gongzi that carried himself with intelligence and elegance. But at this moment, he could not help but curse loudly: “Don’t you go anywhere, you bastard!”
A roar of laughter echoed in midair: “As you wish!”
His silhouette appeared as though form thin air. However, within the blink of an eye, he had already arrived before Xiao Se’s eyes. And Xiao Se was not yet able to see what sort of move the other man was going to make, before the man suddenly struck his chest with an open palm!
Xiao Se was caught off-guard. He already did not have time to hide away, and could only brace himself for the impact. They each engaged in close combat. The other man’s true qi was like the surging waves of a river—relentlessly turbulent, nearly engulfing Xiao Se’s true qi. It flowed with such arrogance and tyranny, resembling that of its owner so much that it was moving to see.
They had heard that Guang Lingsan had taken advantage of the flaw in Yan Wushi’s core when the five great masters besieged him and even caused him to suffer even more serious injury. Yet could it be that after he had come into possession of the remaining volume that he could have healed the flaw in such a short amount of time—and even strengthened his wugong to another level?!
This thought flashed through Xiao Se’s mind within the span of time it took to light a flame with flint. He was astonished—and then a sharp pain spread through his right arm. He could not help but shout out wretchedly as he retreated backwards. However, the bone in his right arm had already been completely broken. The wound became entangled with that of his chest, as though he had been viciously struck by a hammer. Xiao Se coughed up a stream of blood, and could only collapse towards the ground. He turned his head and once more vomited several mouths of deep red blood.
“Xiao-shixiong! Are you all right?” Bai Rong shouted, surprised. She flew to his side to support him.
Every member of the demonic sects was selfish and held no regard for others. Let us not even mention how Bai Rong and Xiao Se have long had problems with one another. If this were an ordinary day, Bai Rong would have certainly taken great pleasure in seeing Xiao Se’s unfortunate luck, and might as well have dropped some stones on him while he was down. In truth, it really wasn’t her style to step forward and support him by the arm. However, this way she could easily avoid facing Yan Wushi head on, so she didn’t mind exhibiting a false sense of fraternal affection.
Xiao Se’s setback caused Yan Shou to delay his attack somewhat, despite the latter having been prepared to strike earlier. However, he still chased the other man and obstructed his path.
“Yan-zongzhu. For what reason are you running off in such a hurry? Don’t you want to reminisce about the years past with your old friend?”
“I would also like to reminisce with Yan-zhanglao. I must ask Yan-zhanglao, are you presently free?”
The person who responded was not Yan Wushi, but someone from behind Yan Shou.
Upon hearing these words, Yan Shou did not turn around. Instead, he leapt to the roof of a building, so as to look down on this newcomer.
“If it isn’t the stray dog coming around once more,” he said with disdain.
Shen Qiao carried his sword on his back, walking towards them with an unhurried pace from the other end of the street.
His hair, raven-black; his clothes, sky blue. His silhouette, tall and elegant, resembled that of an immortal.
“Yan-zhanglao has yet to repay to this poor daoist the debt of the two lives he took at Bailong Temple,” Shen Qiao said. “Do you still remember?”
“I had heard for a long time that the person to whom the former zhangjiao of Xuandu Mountain, Qi Fengge, handed his legacy down to was a man whose wugong was unrivaled in all of jianghu,” Yan Shou said. “A pity that he lost and fell from a cliff in his battle with Kunye, and was never well-regarded since, and can only rely on Yan Wushi to protect him. The way I see it now, it seems that the rumors are not necessarily untrue.”
Shen Qiao said, indifferently: “Then I cannot help but wonder if Yan-zhanglao has heard that Kunye, upon causing trouble at the Bixia Sect of Taishan mountain, met his death by my sword?”
Yan Shou’s face betrayed a faint look of astonishment.
After Kunye’s death, the Bixia Sect suffered an almost total collapse due to the internal disorder from before, and has been occupied with recuperating. The Tujue people could not possibly take this matter and make it public. As a result, they concealed Kunye’s death. Everyone still believed that he had returned to Tujue--no one could have imagined that he was killed by Shen Qiao.
Bai Rong laughed sweetly: “It’s hardly been a few months, yet Shen-lang’s wugong has progressed so! It’s truly something worthy of celebration! However, our zongzhu has already ordered us to take the remaining volume of the Zhuyang Ce from Yan Wushi. Sang-zhanglao and Baoyun-zhanglao are on the way here now. Shen-lang, your wugong is certainly strong, but you’re certainly not yet capable of taking on all of Hehuan Sect are you? And besides, this matter doesn’t even concern you. Why don’t you just stand back and watch?”
“Hmph. Since you’ve already come, there’s no need to leave! You might as well stay a while!” Yan Shou said coldly.
Yan Shou’s nickname was the “Bloodstained Monk”. His wugong was the sort that was both reserved and gentle, yet severe and ruthless. However, the sight of the fingers of his right hand bent into those of a claw and thrust in Shen Qiao’s direction sending a cold breeze into his face resembled that of a demon’s cry. All around him were mountains of corpses and oceans of blood, no different from that of the underworld. They were immediately submerged in a foreboding omen that filled all the sky with a rush of dread and hopelessness.
Shen Qiao leapt backwards, unsheathing the Shanhe Tongbei sword at the same time. Immediately his jianqi was like that of a rainbow, rising up to illuminate the clouds, enveloping Yan Shou’s imposing figure in but a moment.
Yan Shou chased after him relentlessly. Both his hands rushed in the direction of Shen Qiao’s attack as though to dispel it. He even performed three or four open palm maneuvers, each one as fast as lightning, unable to be completely seen.
Each maneuver came down in torrents like that of an ocean, each wave stronger than the other—there was no opportunity for his opponent to react!
Though Yan Shou was not considered one of the ten greatest martial artists in the world, this did not mean that his wugong was ordinary. When Yan Wushi had gone into seclusion for the past ten years, Huanyue Sect’s central focus was operating within the imperial court of Northern Zhou, while Fajing Sect went further out into Tuyuhun. Only Hehuan Sect remained in the Central Plains, having developed especially well under the power of the country of Qi. And Yan Shou played a significant role amongst the many members of Hehuan Sect, one that was equal to even that of Sang Jingxing—clearly, this simply wasn’t because he happened to be pretty.
Shen Qiao carried his sword in his hand. The blade of the sword cut a length that filled the sky, its light dazzling the eyes. In a moment, all was inverted like a reflection upon a body of water, as stern and cold as ice and snow. Following it was the sense of murderous intent, engulfing everything in its path, passing through like that of a chilled wind brushing through trees!
Though this battle was only then becoming satisfying to watch, it wasn’t as though the other was going at a leisurely pace. Xiao Se and Bai Rong, standing side by side at first, started towards Yan Wushi, before each one blocked him from in front and behind, leaving him unable to escape.
As he fought with Yan Shou, Shen Qiao caught sight of Bai Rong and Xiao Se’s offense. He could not help but knit his brow.
The two of them were the greatest masters of Hehuan Sect’s youngest generation. Without considering that of the elders, it was quite certain that one would have to say that their wugong was the best. Xiao Se and Bai Rong’s natural talent were similarly great. Every time one would meet them, it would seem as though their wugong had once more improved and reached yet another level unceasingly. Especially Bai Rong. When Shen Qiao had first met her, the girl had only been one notch above ordinary; but now, her skill had improved vigorously. Her signature move, Qinglian Seal, had already attained its highest perfection. Her lithe and graceful figure concealed such murderous intent that was difficult for anyone to guard against.
Shen Qiao was very aware that Bai Rong had been merciful to him several times. Earlier, she had secretly clarified, with great intensity, that Sang Jingxing was on his way, so as to force Shen Qiao not to pay attention to such matters that did not concern him. However, this softness she treated Shen Qiao with was completely lost on Yan Wushi. At that moment, she was cooperating with Xiao Se against him, their every move filled with the intent to kill, more and more forming a tight encirclement around him. They shared some implicit understanding of something they did not keep from the other, and had simply cornered Yan Wushi all around.
Because Yan Wushi had suddenly inflicted such wounds upon Xiao Se, the two of them were anxiously vigilant. They were unwilling to use all of their energy; however, only Shen Qiao understood that Yan Wushi’s strength was limited. He had not yet recovered, and certainly was unlike that of when his skill had flourished. To have been able to seriously injure Xiao Se was already the limit of his skills. To face off with Bai Rong, whose skill had improved significantly, was already something he would only barely be able to do. If they lingered on for too long, the two of them would certainly be able to sense out where everything exactly stood. They certainly would not hesitate any longer and would use up all of their strength to deal with Yan Wushi. On top of this, Shen Qiao also had to deal with Yan Shou, which made it so that he was inevitably unable to manage both things at one.
Having thought up to this point, Shen Qiao no longer hesitated. His strength surged up to its utmost point; he dismissed any other distracting thought, and immediately entered the realm of jian xin.
In a split second, the light of his sword shone endlessly, changing all color of the sky and earth as though filled with the fury of lightning. The clear light shimmering from the rivers and oceans was condensed into this single sword.
His person outside of the sword, yet his heart lay within; once at jian xin, every living thing was as though hollow and vacant!
Yan Shou’s stern expression changed quickly. He immediately pulled his hands away and began to retreat, not daring to rush into the cutting edge. However, the moment the sword’s blade shone, it cannot possibly be retracted. His jian qi rode upon this white light and rushed towards Yan Shou mercilessly, firmly stopping him. Accompanied with what sounded like thunder, like the endless waves of water, his sword carried within it the power to disperse everything beneath the skies, despite its unsteady first reveal.
The moment he brandished this sword, Shen Qiao did not advance, nor did he retreat. Instead, he flew towards Bai Rong.
The three of them—Bai Rong, Xiao Se, and Yan Wushi—circled one another in a deadlock, subtly in balance. Yan Wushi’s strength had almost certainly been reduced over some time, or else he would not have allowed for such an impasse. The longer that time went on, Xiao Se and Bai Rong became inevitably suspicious. However, a teal silhouette glided past them, and took Yan Wushi away.
After seeing this, the three of them naturally chased after them—however, because Xiao Se had sustained such a serious wound that he was unable to pursue them closely, only Yan Shou hung close to them from behind, unwilling to let the two of them out of their sight.
“You go on first! Get to that forest we passed through before entering the city, I’ll hold them back!” Shen Qiao spoke his words quickly before directly shoving Yan Wushi in front of him. He did not wait for his reaction and turned around, rushing in the direction of their three pursuers.
Yan Wushi turned around, and gazed deeply at him. He said nothing, before turning back and leaving.
Yan Shou watched as his target faded further and further into the distance, becoming more anxious as Shen Qiao stood in front to block him from advancing further. The style of his palm maneuver was filled with bloody malice, every move aimed at Shen Qiao’s body.
Shen Qiao’s stance, however, remained flawless. His sword technique became much more steady. He went against Yan Shou with an offensive strength that resembled that of strong wind and swift rain. Without Yan Wushi by his side, he was even more able to concentrate on responding to the situation before him. The wind resonated against the Shanhe Tongbei sword, while his figure, dressed completely in teal, fluttered with a celestial essence. The Canglang Sword Technique was an infinitely majestic scene to witness after having improved with Shen Qiao’s skill. It washed over the land with great ease, like that of thousands of flowers in bloom; its light filled every corner of the sky, completely engulfing the three of them within it, preventing them from approaching any closer.
Yan Shou scoffed lowly to himself. Suddenly, a human figure appeared with such speed. One would be unable to tell the difference from the points of this person’s slender fingers from that of a sharp blade. Wherever they went transformed into a sea of blood and corpses—and suddenly, their hand broke through the sea of light from the sword, before directly grabbing the sword Shen Qiao grasped!
Shen Qiao flew on his return. The blue of his silhouette resembled that of a dragonfly skimming the surface of water—wanting to touch the ground, but always remaining just above it. The tips of his toes seemed as though they never before did touch the ground. The Tiankuo Hongying was Xuandu Mountain’s unique qinggong technique, and Shen Qiao used it with such perfection. Had Qi Fengge been able to see this, even he would not be able to suppress his praise for him.
The two rows of trees on either side of his body quickly faded behind him the longer he used this qinggong technique, growing indistinct in the distance. Even his merciless pursuers from behind disappeared temporarily without a trace.
But Shen Qiao would not lower his guard as a result. He took a sigh of relief. His robes were lifted by the wind, untouched by the dirt beneath him. His grace resembled that of a bird, though perhaps only somewhat inferior.
This route went quickly. He had to first pass by the mountains outside the city, so as to deceive his pursuers. Afterwards, he had to follow the sheltered area beneath the mountain, before reaching the small grove by the foot of the mountain that one would need to enter if they were on their way to the city.
Although this grove of trees was certainly not large, it relied on its lush and green position by the mountain. Its verdant color made it resemble a part of the earth. Had any ordinary person entered this place, they would have almost seemed to have been swallowed whole by the forest, with its long entanglement of vines and rugged terrain. They would certainly not be able to find a way out of it.
Shen Qiao supported himself with the trunks of each tree as he went further into the forest. Though he had slowed down greatly, he made sure that he did not leave even the slightest trace of his steps. Even if their enemies were to chase them into this area, they would not be able to determine whether or not they have entered it.
He walked for as long as it took a stick of incense to burn. Already, he could see that he had entered the very depths of the forest, and would quickly reach the area by that of the mountain. He finally could not bear it any longer, and stopped for a moment to rest.
His wrist was grabbed by someone’s hand, which had extended past him without warning.
Shen Qiao was vigilant and sensed this, before trying to pull his hand away and retreat. However, after seeing the other man’s face, he stopped, and sighed.
“It’s me,” Yan Wushi said. He had grasped Shen Qiao’s wrist in one hand, while his other was supporting his waist, helping him walk further into the forest. “Why did it take you so long to get rid of them?”
Shen Qiao had exhausted all of his strength, and allowed Yan Wushi to support him by the arm. He leaned half of his weight somewhat into the other man’s body.
“Of course, if it were only those three I had to deal with, there wouldn’t be any reason for anxiety,” Shen Qiao said. “I had wanted to kill Yan Shou to avenge the Guanzhu and Chuyi. I didn’t expect that behind him would be yet another person dressed as a monk. They seemed younger than Bai Rong, yet their wugong was not beneath that of Yan Shou. The longer we fought, the more unfavorable it became for me. I could only find an opportunity to escape.”
Content Warning: Implied Sexual Assault (Highlight to read)
He did not know what the identity of this person was, but Yan Wushi knew at first mention: “That person is most likely Baoyun. They are one of the elders of Hehuan Sect. He likes to pretend to be a monk and spread Buddhist teachings all over the country. That way, he can fool a number of worshippers that are women and sleep with them. The Buddhists hate him for dirtying the good reputation of monks, and have repeatedly hunted him down in recent years. He rarely shows his face to the outside world, yet his wugong is hardly beneath that of Yan Shou’s.”
End of Content Warning
After hearing the actions of this man, Shen Qiao could not help but frown, his expression filled with disgust: “Earlier, Bai Rong said that Shang Jingxing and Baoyun were just behind them. If Baoyun is here, then Sang Jingxing is most likely not far from them either. We need to get away from here as soon as we can. Otherwise, with how many people are on their side, it’ll be unlikely that they’ll leave this place unsearched.”
“Are you able to move?” Yan Wushi asked.
Shen Qiao smiled bitterly and shook his head.
“I have a way,” Yan Wushi said.
Yan Wushi stroked Shen Qiao’s face, which was ashen from having exhausted his strength. Shen Qiao turned away, though the other man was able to have stroked it once. Shen Qiao glared at him, but Yan Wushi laughed: “Sang Jingxing was heavily wounded because of you, so naturally his hate for you is so deep that it reaches into his bones. But Hehuan Sect’s other members don’t carry any similar grudge against you. Rather, they greatly fear you. You should leave this place on your own. Don’t worry about me any longer. You should focus on ridding yourself of them, instead of burdening yourself even more with me.”
Shen Qiao sighed: “I thought that you were actually going to come up with a good plan. Stop with your nonsense already. Let’s head up the mountain first.”
“Is this not a good plan?” Yan Wushi asked.
“If I had wanted to get rid of you from the start,” Shen Qiao said, “why would I wait until now? If I am to save a life, I will go through with it completely, as one would escort the Buddha to the west. If I lend my hand to you in the beginning, then I will naturally do all I can for as long as I can.”
The two of them continued forwards. Shen Qiao, after having completely used his qinggong to his utmost power, now felt that every step demanded too much effort. He could not help but say: “I really can’t move anymore. You head up first, and I’ll cover for you here.”
Yan Wushi laughed: “Ah-qiao, you’re really so cute. If I were to rely on you covering for me with your present state, then once Sang Jingxing comes around, he’ll eat you right up, bones and all.”
Before Shen Qiao could respond, he felt the ground disappear from beneath his feet as the other man carried him on his back.
“ Ah-qiao, you’re so foolish. When have I ever treated you well?
—SHEN QIAO DID NOT EXPECT that he would do such a thing, so he was quite startled.
The other man moved with lithe and graceful steps. A moment passed, and they had already left the small grove and reached the foot of the mountain, following an upwards path that led to the opposite side of the mountain.
Shen Qiao’s mind went blank for a good moment, before asking: “We’re going up the mountain?”
“On the other side is a temple, hidden within the mountain itself. It’s been abandoned for several years,” Yan Wushi said.
Shen Qiao was suspicious. “You seem to be familiar with this place.”
“After I battled with Cui Youwang that year, I had entered seclusion in this mountain,” Yan Wushi said.
Shen Qiao suddenly understood, but did not ask any more questions. He was indeed very tired. Earlier, he had fought with all of his strength against four people. Bai Rong, Yan Shou and Baoyun had all come at him, each one stronger than the other, and this wasn’t including Xiao Se, who had been severely wounded by Yan Wushi. With Shen Qiao’s present internal strength, even if he possessed the realm of jian xin, it still wouldn’t mean that he could escape completely unscathed.
Though Yan Wushi’s pace was rather quick, it was also very steady. Shen Qiao could feel the warmth of his body through the fabric of his clothing. Without the strength to think much more, he fell asleep without realizing it.
The next time that he opened his eyes, he found that he was no longer surrounded by a thicket of trees like earlier, but instead what looked to be a temple.
Due to how old it was, the incense sticks within the temple had already been broken in half. They didn’t even know where the incense burner could have been. The statue of Buddha had been severed at the head, and around them were large nets of dust. However, where Shen Qiao had slept was clean. Beneath him was a curtain, pulled down from two nearby pillars. Though it was rather old and tattered, it wasn’t nearly as bad as sleeping on the cold stone floors.
He rested his back against the wall for a moment. Though he had not sustained any heavy wounds from earlier, the internal wounds he sustained from battling with Xueting had been somewhat irritated, which resulted in his present condition, leaving him unable to utilize his full strength in battle. This was also the reason why he was unable to kill Yan Shou. Afterwards, with Baoyun being added into the battle as well, this opportunity was, in the end, lost to him.
Shen Qiao dizzily rubbed his head, and sighed softly.
A cool hand brushed past him. Shen Qiao was completely unprepared. A tremble passed through his body as he felt the ice-cold fingers make contact with his skin.
“What are you sighing for?”
Yan Wushi was sitting beside him. He was reading the sheet of silk in his other hand.
Shen Qiao narrowed his eyes at the sheet, scrutinizing it. Sure enough, it was the lost volume of the Zhuyang Ce that the man had taken from Chen Gong that day.
He wanted to speak, but could only watch as Yan Wushi turned over his hand and placed the sheet of silk in the fire. In an instant, it was swallowed by the flames.
Shen Qiao was silent.
Yan Wushi turned and caught sight of Shen Qiao’s expression. He did not wait for the man to ask, and instead spoke: “I’ve already memorized the contents. What use would there be if I left it?”
“As a last resort, you could have given the sheet of silk to Hehuan Sect so as to escape them,” Shen Qiao said. “Why won’t you even give yourself this way out?”
“Even if I did give them the sheet of silk, do you think that they’ll believe that it’s really the last volume?” Yan Wushi asked.
Shen Qiao frowned and did not speak.
Yan Wushi smiled unkindly: “In the past, the Riyue Sect had a secret technique that I’m sure even you haven’t heard about. In truth, it is simply the Moyin Shexin utilized at its utmost perfection. If you can achieve this, then you can control the minds of others and force them to speak the truth without their realizing it. If it were my choice to make, I would much rather decide to use this method of getting information I want to hear, rather than believe some characters written on a sheet of silk.”
“Then if Yan Shou and the others take advantage of your greatly reduced cultivation, capture you and take you back to Hehuan Sect, they could easily have you recite the contents of the lost volume of the Zhuyang Ce,” Shen Qiao said.
“That’s right,” Yan Wushi said. “My worth to them cannot even compare to that of a corpse. Additionally, with possession of the Zhuyang Ce and my position as the zongzhu of Huanyue Sect, they can easily control Huanyue Sect as they like if they capture me.”
It was as Shen Qiao thought. Yan Wushi had read the lost volume of the Zhuyang Ce, which means that he had already read three of the five available volumes. Most significant was the one that they had found in the underground city of Ruoqiang, as it had specifically corrected and further supplemented parts of the Fenglin Yuandian. Sang Jingxing and Yuan Xiuxiu both studied the Fenglin Yuandian, and naturally understood the effects of the flaws within the demonic core. Any day they went where the flaw was yet to have been corrected was another day that they could not cultivate the Fenglin Yuandian to absolute perfection. As a result, they would want the contents of this volume more than anyone.
Had it been the Yan Wushi of before, so at ease and far above the rest of them, his mere identity would have made them too afraid of the consequences of taking any rash action against him. But the present Yan Wushi had just returned from the brink of death after the five great masters made an attempt on his life. His wugong was significantly inferior to what it was before. If they did not act now, then when?
Shen Qiao understood very well the methods that the members of the demonic sect utilized.
Content Warning: Implied rape. Gruesome imagery (gore). (highlight to read).
The reason why Sang Jingxing wanted to ruin Shen Qiao’s wugong was because of the day that Shen Qiao had killed his disciple, Huo Xijing. He wanted to cut off his limbs and keep them as his trophies; and after recklessly toying with him, he wanted to give him to the rest of Hehuan Sect to violate him. And considering the relationship between Huanyue and Hehuan Sect in the past few years, as well as Yan Wushi’s venomous words and overindulgent behavior, the treatment that Yan Wushi would receive at the hands of the members of the Hehuan Sect wouldn’t be that much better than that of Shen Qiao.
Content Warning End.
Upon thinking of this, Shen Qiao’s frown only deepened. “If that’s the case, then we ought to hurry up and set out, so that we won’t get caught by them.”
“Are you being this considerate to me,” Yan Wushi started, laughing, “because you want me to be moved to tears and devote my heart to you?”
Shen Qiao paid no mind to the derision in his tone, and instead responded solemnly: “I know that Yan-zongzhu has never cared for anyone. But this is a matter of life and death. Your flaw has yet to heal over, and your strength has yet to be restored. If it were only Yan Shou and the others, then perhaps we could handle them. But once Sang Jingxing comes, not even I will be able to ward him off. It would be best to be cautious.”
However, Yan Wushi did not seem even the slightest bit disturbed. He simply fed a nearby branch into the fire so as to make it brighter, and suddenly asked a question that had nothing to do with anything: “If you could do everything over again, would you still choose to let me save you at Banbu Peak?”
This question caught Shen Qiao off guard. He simply shook his head: “I’m afraid that such matters aren’t for me to decide.”
“In that case,” Yan Wushi said, “even if you knew from the beginning that you would have become hopelessly entangled with me, and that I would have personally handed you off to Sang Jingxing, you wouldn’t regret it?”
“There is no cure for remorse,” Shen Qiao said. “For as long as we live, we will never be able to recover that which has passed us by. Rather than clinging to such resentment and never allowing myself relief, it would be better to thank you for having taught me how to see this world and the sentiments of its people.”
The light of the fire illuminated his earnest expression, revealing a rare sort of gentleness.
Yan Wushi suddenly began to laugh. He said in a tender voice: “Ah-qiao, you’re so foolish. When have I ever treated you well?”
He extended one hand in Shen Qiao’s direction, as though wanting to stroke his cheek. However, Shen Qiao backed away, evading from him, while raising one hand to ward him off. Who would have thought that Yan Wushi drew his other hand over him—however, it was not to attack him. He had merely brushed his sleeve past Shen Qiao’s eyes.
Shen Qiao halted his breathing the moment he caught the strange scent from it. However, it had already entered his nose. His body, which had already lost so much of its strength already, became even weaker. The other man took advantage of this, and closed Shen Qiao’s acupoint.
“When will you finally rid yourself of this ailment you have of letting your guard down?” Yan Wushi shook his head. “Or perhaps you’ve already considered me to be someone trustworthy deep down in your heart?”
After saying this, he did not pay any mind to how Shen Qiao stared at him, his eyes wide. Instead, he bent down and kissed the tip of his nose, before taking Shen Qiao into his arms and carrying him towards the Buddha statue.
Only then did Shen Qiao realize that the other side of the Buddha statue had a deep recess within it. The space was not large, nor was it small. It was enough for a single person to sit cross-legged within it.
Yan Wushi explained to him, as though he had all the time in the world: “It isn’t cheap to cast a full-bodied statue of Buddha. Many temples will usually ask to have the statue be hollow from behind, so as to reduce the cost. I had come by this temple before in the past. This statue was turned out in large quantities without much regard for the quality that it was in. Even the hollowed-out inside was so lazily put together. Whoever made it seemed inclined to only carve something half-decent in the front. But lucky for you, it’s to your benefit now.”
Shen Qiao frowned: “What do you mean to do?!”
“That year, I’d also seen the lost volume of the Zhuyang Ce stored in the imperial palace of Northern Zhou. But we’re in a hurry now. There isn’t any time for me to recite it to you. If you wish to see it, then look for Yuwen Yong in Chang’an. He has met you once, and recognizes your worth. I’m sure that he will be willing to make an exception for you. Also, you must tell Bian Yanmei. Tell him not to worry about me any longer, but instead have him take advantage of the fact that Zhou has annexed Qi, and extend Huanyue Sect’s influence over Qi before thinking of anything else.”
Shen Qiao’s expression suddenly darkened: “I’m not a member of Huanyue Sect. You should be the one saying all of this yourself. What does this have to do with me?”
Yan Wushi laughed, but did not speak. He simply stroked Shen Qiao’s cheek. This action he performed slowly, and with great care, as if he wanted to take in the sensation of the tips of his fingers brushing the other man’s skin. The atmosphere took on an indescribable ambiguity. He was unexpectedly met with the sight of both Shen Qiao’s cheeks slowly becoming dyed a faint, soft red.
“Our Ah-qiao is ever so beautiful. No wonder even that girl Bai Rong has taken such a liking to you. With her around, she will certainly help conceal your whereabouts just as well. She won’t let you fall into the hands of Yan Shou and the rest.”
If Shen Qiao still didn’t understand what he meant to do after saying this, then he would truly be too stupid.
“Yan Wushi! I did not go through the hardship of helping you escape this entire journey so that you could give yourself up in the end!”
Yan Wushi laughed loudly: “I never regret handing you off personally to Sang Jingxing—not then, and not now. Yet here you are with the opportunity to witness me experience such misfortune, and wearing such a grief-stricken face! Ah-qiao ah, Ah-qiao. You’ve really disappointed me! You should be rejoicing in my disaster, you should be celebrating deep inside! How could you possibly wear such a pitiful look? I can’t keep myself from wanting to draw closer to you!”
He said this, and he truly took Shen Qiao’s chin between his fingers before bending in and invading Shen Qiao’s lips with his own, only stopping when he felt the other man’s breath become ragged and his eyes glisten.
“All that I’ve ever done was for myself and no one else. I have never regret a thing, and this is no different. This isn’t to atone for any crime, much less is it for anything as ridiculous as guilt. There’s no need to think that you are indebted to me, or even mistakenly believe that this is something it’s not. That would only make me sick.”
He wiped away the glistening shine of Shen Qiao’s lip, before laughing in a low voice: “I will wait for the day that you can honor your promise, and become my worthy opponent. Perhaps that way, I will be able to gaze at you a little longer.”
Shen Qiao tried with all his strength to reopen his acupoint, but to no avail. Yan Wushi’s methods were too sly. Every attempt he made to undo them were completely unsuccessful. Instead, he had exerted himself so much that sweat appeared upon his forehead and his face reddened even further, as though he were both humiliated and filled with resent.
As he watched Yan Wushi pull away and prepare to leave, Shen Qiao was in such distress that even the tone of his voice had altered greatly: “Stop!”
The other man paused for a moment upon hearing him, before extending one hand to close his ya acupoint.
Shen Qiao’s chest rose and fell repeatedly with increasing urgency. His eyes seemed to be filled to the brim with clear, smooth tears, shimmering with a glossy light that could have moved any man.
Yan Wushi bent down to say this in his ear, before laughing softly: “You shouldn’t wear such a face around other people. Otherwise, I won’t be able to hold myself back, much less Sang Jingxing.”
After this, he pushed the statue in front of a wall, so that the area where Shen Qiao was hidden seemed to have been joined with it, making him much harder to be discovered.
He then put out the fire and, with a wave of his hand, caused debris to fall upon the area where Shen Qiao had been sitting, leaving no further trace that he was there.
Once he had done all of this, Yan Wushi experienced a sense of impending danger, as though someone with a strong desire to kill were approaching them from far away.
But for those who have reached a certain point in their studies with wugong, the reaction they have when confronted with danger is one that is incredibly mysterious and abstruse.
A smirk slowly revealed itself upon his face. With great strides, he left the temple. His silhouette flew forwards, and in a moment, disappeared into the night.
Moonlight spilled into the temple, illuminating the ruined walls and cracked tiles of the temple, bringing a weak light to the person that hid within the Buddha statue.
His tears had finally condensed, and began to fall from his eyes.
However, only a short moment passed before he was able to hear the voices of people from the outside: “With Sang-zhanglao’s wugong, how could he possibly be unable to capture that insignificant Yan Wushi?”
“Insignificant Yan Wushi?” Bai Rong laughed coldly. “Xiao-shixiong, would you dare to say such a thing to Yan Wushi’s face?”
“Stop talking!” Yan Shou, who had no patience for noise, frowned, and continued: “Yan Wushi left on his own, and Shen Qiao was not by his side. It’s more than likely that he’s hiding away nearby. And after having fought with us earlier, Shen Qiao had exerted a great amount of energy. He couldn’t have gone far--search this place over, and then we’ll discuss this later!”