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The Legend of the Condor Heroes - Chapter 11

Chapter 11 – Changchun Admits Defeat

Seeing his martial brother in critical danger, Sha Tongtian leapt over to quickly try and break Mei Chaofeng's grip. As soon as their hands met they both felt their arms struck by a sudden ache. Meanwhile over to their left came the sound of darts whizzing through the air. Peng Lianhu was throwing his darts directly at Mei Chaofeng. She deftly shifted her arm and threw Hou Tonghai straight towards the stream of darts. “Aiyo!” yelled Hou Tonghai as the darts smacked into his body.

Huang Rong called out “Congratulations Three-Horned Dragon! You managed to catch so many darts!”

Sha Tongtian, seeing the amazing power of Mei Chaofeng's throw and his martial brother down on the ground seriously injured, leaped towards Hou Tonghai and with a stretch of his hand pulled him upright. Hou Tonghai flew up like a paper sparrow but looked as if he would collapse again. There was no strength left in his body. Sha Tongtian had accidentally hit his three carbuncles.

All these events happened within a blink of an eye. While this was going on Ouyang Ke and Liang Ziwong were attacking Mei Chaofeng from the front and rear in concert with Sha Tongtian who was attacking from the right.

Mei Chaofeng was able to judge from the sound of the darts in the air where they were. She sent them flying back in four directions towards Ouyang, Liang, Sha and Peng. She asked Guo Jing “What does ‘Gather the Five Elements’ mean?”

Guo Jing replied “The eastern ghost is wood, the western soul is metal, the southern spirit is fire, the northern essence is water and the central will is earth.”

Mei Chaofeng called out “Aiyo! I might have guessed that earlier! What does the ‘Perform the Four Harmonious Signs’ mean?" Guo Jing replied, “Hide the eyes, concentrate the hearing, regulate the breath and seal the tongue Qi.” Mei Chaofeng sighed, “Ah, so that is the original meaning. What about the ‘Five Primary Chambers’?”

Again Guo Jing replied, “Don't use your eyes to see, rather locate your soul in the liver; don't use your ears to listen, rather locate your essence in the kidneys; don't use your mouth to chant, rather locate your spirit in the heart; don't use your nose to smell, rather locate your soul in your lungs; don't move with your four limbs, rather locate your mind/concentration in your spleen. These are the ‘Five Primary Chambers’.”

The ‘Four Harmonious Signs’ and ‘Five Primary Chambers’ were key techniques contained in the ‘Nine Yin Manual’ practiced by Taoist priests. Not having anyone to explain the meanings of these key phrases to her, Mei Chaofeng had struggled without success for over ten years to understand them. Now with Guo Jing's explanations she suddenly understood everything and was delighted. Again she pressed for more information "Now, how do I perform the ‘Gathering Three Flower Tops’. This technique was the crucial key to putting everything together. She had strived all those years for just this key point so she listened intently for Guo Jing's answer.

Guo Jing replied, “Essence is transformed into Qi, Qi is transformed into Spirit ”

Mei Chaofeng, by concentrating on Guo Jing's words, became less attentive to the fight and her four opponents. Just as Guo Jing was saying the two sentences she was struck on her left shoulder and right side by Ouyang Ke and Sha Tongtian's fists. She felt a severe pain that was hard to bear.

Huang Rong had planned to have Mei Chaofeng obstruct their enemies in a fight while she and Guo Jing took the opportunity to slip away. She never expected that Guo Jing would be dragged into the fight as well by becoming a conveyance to carry Mei into the battle. This made it impossible for them to get away. Now she became both worried and angry.

Meanwhile Mei Chaofeng was becoming alarmed at being suddenly put on the defensive and called out, “Hey! What did you do to annoy so many fierce opponents? Where is Shifu?” At this time Mei Chaofeng’s thoughts were conflicting. On the one hand she was hoping her old Shifu would appear and see with his own eyes how she was helping to save his daughter from the savage onslaught of these four highly skilled martial artists and would leap in to help her dispatch them. On the other hand, when she thought about how wild and strange his nature was, she was struck with terror at the thought of meeting him again.

Huang Rong called out, “He's coming soon, but why worry…these guys are no match for you. Even if you just sit on the ground none of them would be able to harm a hair on your head.” She was hoping that with a bit of flattery Mei Chaofeng would feel emboldened enough to let Guo Jing go and fight it out alone. However Mei Chaofeng had already begun to feel that she would not be able to manage the four opponents by herself. She was already showing signs of despair and no amount of flattery was going to make her change her mind. Further more, she still had a few more questions to ask Guo Jing about the secrets of the manual and was not about to let him go even if she could win the fight sitting alone on the ground.

After a few more strikes were exchanged, Liang Ziwong leaped into the air with a sudden cry. Mei Chaofeng knew someone was executing a sneak attack and extended both arms to block and sweep in defense. She felt her hair being pulled upwards by Liang Ziwong. Huang Rong saw the situation was critical and struck outwards with her fist towards Liang Ziwong's back. Liang Ziwong hooked his right hand backwards and grabbed Huang Rong's wrist while maintaining his grip on Mei Chaofeng's hair. Mei Chaofeng struck upwards and forced Liang Ziwong to release his grip in order to avoid being hit by her powerful attack.

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

Huang Rong laughed, “She…my Shifu? Even if she trained for another hundred years she still wouldn't be good enough to become my Shifu!”

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

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

Peng Lianhu thought to himself, “If we don't kill her now, when her husband, ‘Copper Corpse’ arrives, we will be in deep trouble!” The events of that night when Chen Xuanfeng died had not become known in the martial world. However the infamy of the ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’ was widely known and their reputation was such that even highly respected martial artists such as himself were filled with dread at the thought of facing both of them together.

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

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

Huang Rong was preparing to raise her voice again when a voice from atop the wall said, “Everyone hold it, I have something to say.” Huang Rong turned her head and saw six figures on top of the wall, some tall, some short and in the darkness, she could not make out their faces clearly. Peng Lianhu and the others knew that some people had arrived, but did not know if they were friend or foe. At present, the battle was growing ever more intense and nobody could bring themselves to stop. Two people leapt down from the wall and headed straight for Ouyang Ke; one waving a whip and the other raising a staff.

The short plump man that held the whip exclaimed, “You lecher, let’s see you escape this time!” Upon hearing this voice, Guo Jing yelled gladly, “Shifu! Save me!” The six people that just arrived were the ‘‘Six Freaks’ of Jiangnan’.

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

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

Ouyang Ke’s white robes stood out in the darkness and Han Baoju together with Nan Xiren attacked immediately. Hearing Guo Jing’s call, the ‘‘Six Freaks’’ were both surprised and glad. Zhu Cong and the rest looked more closely and saw that the person weaving the barrier with a long silver whip was none other than ‘Iron Corpse’, Mei Chaofeng! Mei was sitting on Guo Jing’s shoulder and it certainly looked like Guo Jing had fallen into her clutches. With their faces pale with shock, Han Xiaoying immediately brandished her sword and rushed forward as Quan Jinfa tumbled into the silver whip’s defensive radius, both hoping to rescue Guo Jing. Peng Lianhu and the others thought it strange that six people should suddenly arrive. Now these six people were attacking both Ouyang Ke and Iron Corpse, making it even more impossible to tell whose side they were on.

Peng Lianhu halted his attack and, still using his ‘Earthen Palm’, got out of the whip’s radius. “Everyone stop fighting, I have something to say,” he shouted. Like a large booming bell, his shout rang loudly in everyone’s ears. Liang Ziwong and Sha Tongtian were the first to stop fighting.

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

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

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

Mei Chaofeng pondered, then asked: “How does one transform?” Suddenly, she felt her body soaring through the air. While she had been dwelling on the deeper meanings of this nei gong (internal energy) mantra, Guo Jing had used the opportunity to toss her more than ten feet away. At the same time, he summoned his internal energy and leapt backwards; even before he landed, Mei’s ‘Poison Silver Dragon Whip’ was already flying towards him, its hooks sparkling brightly.

Han Baoju exclaimed, “Not good!” He unleashed his own whip and the two whips met. Suffering waves of shock from the extremely close encounter, Han Baoju’s whip was snatched by her Poison Silver Dragon Whip. Just as Mei Chaofeng was about to land hard on the ground, her outstretched palm met it first and she lightly seated herself. Having heard Ke Zhen’E’s voice and fighting briefly with Han Xiaoying, she knew the ‘Seven Freaks of Jiangnan’ must have arrived. Her was heart filled with loathing and, at the same time, a little fear. She thought to herself, “I have searched in vain for them everywhere and now they have delivered themselves to me. If it were any other day, I would’ve thanked the heavens, but on this night I am surrounded by other strong enemies and found them hard to handle. With the addition of these seven scoundrels, I cannot possibly hope to live past tonight.” She gritted her teeth and decided: “I have no grudge with Liang Ziwong and the others. As for the ‘Seven Freaks’, I will fight them to the death and make sure that if I perish, they perish with me. One dead ‘Freak’ make one less and I’ll take as many as I can with me.” Gripping her Poison Silver Dragon Whip, she listened carefully to the ‘Seven Freaks’ movements and wondered, “Out of seven only six came, I wonder where the other is hiding?” She did not know that the Smiling Bhudda, Zhang Ahsheng, had been killed by her husband on that fateful night on the steppes.

The ‘Six Freaks’, Sha Tongtian and the others knew the power of her silver whip and stood far away from her, being careful not to stray within forty to fifty feet of her. For a moment, all was silent. Zhu Cong whispered to Guo Jing: “Why are they fighting? Why were you helping that wretch?” Guo Jing replied: “They wanted to kill me, but she saved me.” But Zhu Cong and the other Freaks remained puzzled.

Peng Lianhu called out: “What business do you have, sneaking into the Palace in the middle of the night? Provide your names.” Ke Zhen’E replied coldly: “My surname is Ke. We are seven brothers, and people call us the ‘Seven Freaks of Jiangnan’.”

Peng Lianhu said, “Ah, so it is the Seven Heroes from Jiangnan. I have long admired you.”

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

After hearing the name ‘Seven Freaks of Jiangnan’, he immediately remembered the shame his four disciples had suffered. In one swift movement, he moved forward. Appraising the ‘Seven Freaks’, he saw that Ke Zhen’E was blind, Han Xiaoying was a woman, Quan Jinfa was skin and bones, Han Baoju was short and fat and Zhu Cong had the air of someone cultured but not of a pugilist. Only Nan Xiren had the bold, proud qualities of a fighter. Not wanting to waste his time on the rest, he struck straight at Nan Xiren’s head. Nan Xiren stuck his pole in the ground and met Sha Tongtian’s palm with his own. After a few moves, it was clear that Nan Xiren was not his match. Han Xiaoying and Quan Jinfa readied their weapons, sword and scale respectively, and rushed forward to help.

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

Quan Jinfa retorted, “This hand scale of mine is for weighing you bunch of skinny pigs!”

In a fit of anger, Peng Lianhu rushed forward striking with both palms furiously. Quan Jinfa was, of course, unable to defeat his attack. Seeing his Sixth brother in danger, Han Baoju quickly went to his aid. Even though he no longer had his whip, his basic hand-to-hand ability was still quite powerful. However, even at two against one, Peng Lianhu still seemed almost impossible to handle. Ke Zhen’E maneuvered his staff, Zhu Cong brandished his fan, and both joined in the battle. Ke Zhen’E and Zhu Cong were much more powerful than the rest of their group, so naturally with their addition, the battle tipped in the Freaks’ favor. Over on the other side, the battle between Hou Tonghai and Huang Rong had grown extremely intense. Hou Tonghai’s kung fu was by rights better than hers, but when he thought of this rascal’s Soft Hedgehog Armor and the thorns that resided in her hair, his fist and palm strikes did not dare come into contact with her body, much less grab her by her hair. Sensing his fear and hesitation, Huang Rong took full advantage and charged about brashly, forcing him to back away repeatedly.

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

Huang Rong replied: “Sure, but you must first slice off those three lumps on your forehead, if not then it’s still unfair.” Hou Tonghai retorted: “My three lumps do not hurt anyone!”

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

Hou Tonghai replied angrily: “I will not!”

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

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

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

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

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

From the beginning, Liang Ziwong’s eyes never shifted from Guo Jing. Seeing that the ‘Six Freaks’’ defeat was imminent, he immediately tried to grab Guo Jing with both arms. Guo Jing quickly resisted, but of course he was not Liang Ziwong’s match. After exchanging a few moves, Liang Ziwong had successfully grabbed him by the chest and his right hand gripped Guo Jing’s stomach. Guo Jing shrunk his stomach in anxiety and his clothes tore with a ripping sound and the bags of medicine had been snatched away. Liang Ziwong knew the bags contained medicine, he’d sniffed it out long ago and conveniently pocketed them. He followed with a second strike on Guo Jing. Guo Jing successfully struggled out of the grip on his chest and sprinted towards Mei Chaofeng, yelling, “Hey! Save me, quickly!”

Mei Chaofeng thought to herself, “There are still many things I don’t understand about that mysterious school of nei gong.” Still breathing hard, she said aloud: “Come, take hold my legs; don’t be afraid of that old bat.” Guo Jing knew that holding her legs was easy, but to escape afterwards would be hard. So he did not dare to go close to her and instead sprinted wildly around her in circles. Although Guo Jing had already entered the perimeter of her ‘Poison Silver Dragon Whip’, Liang Ziwong still followed him relentlessly, nevertheless wary of a sneak attack. Mei Chaofeng pinpointed Guo Jing’s position with her hearing and unleashed her silver whip across the ground towards his legs.

Although Huang Rong was engaged in a duel with Hou Tonghai, she held the upper hand with her Soft Hedgehog Armor and had always been looking out for Guo Jing. First he was captured by Liang Ziwong but she was too far away to help and was anxious to the extreme. Then Guo Jing sprinted into Mei Chaofeng’s perimeter. Her whip flew towards him and he was unable to dodge. Out of anxiety, Huang Rong flew in their direction and threw herself in front of the whip. Mei Chaofeng’s silver whip withdrew after hitting a target and circled back, wrapping itself around Huang Rong’s waist. Huang Rong was thrown up into the air and shouted: “You dare hurt me, Mei Ruohua?”

Hearing Huang Rong’s voice gave her a huge shock. She thought, “My whip is tipped with reversed hooks. Now that I’ve injured her, Shifu has even more reason not to spare me. But I have already come this far, and either way I have betrayed my school. I’ll kill her first.” Raising her silver whip, she pulled Huang Rong closer to her and laid her on the ground, thinking that all the hooks must have torn deep into her flesh by now. She never expected the hooks to only tear Huang Rong’s clothing, leaving her body completely unharmed. Huang Rong said laughingly, “You tore my clothes, I want compensation!”

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

Huang Rong signaled Guo Jing to come over and he did so. The two of them now stood ten feet or so from Mei Chaofeng, where Liang Ziwong did not dare to venture.

Over at the other battle, the ‘‘Six Freaks’ of Jiangnan’ had formed a tight circle with their backs towards each other and were trying their best to resist Sha Tongtian, Peng Lianhu, Ouyang Ke and Hou Tonghai. This was a formation they had mastered on the steppes of Mongolia. When faced with tough opponents, this formation made it unnecessary for them to defend their backs and instantly increased their power by half. But Sha, Peng and Ouyang were simply too strong and danger came from all directions; the ‘‘Six Freaks’’ were far from being their match. Not long after, Han Baoju’s arm was injured. Han Baoju knew that if he left the formation there would be an opening for their opponents to exploit and their lives and Guo Jing’s would be in grave danger. He could only grit his teeth and hold on with great effort.

Of their opponents, Peng Lianhu was the most vicious in his attacks and repeatedly targeted Han Baoju. Guo Jing saw that the situation was urgent and rushed towards them with flying feet. With the double palm technique ‘Separating Cloud and Moon’, he aimed for Peng Lianhu’s back. Peng Lianhu let out a chilling laugh and with a wave of his hand deflected Guo Jing’s attack. In just three moves, Guo Jing found himself in a dangerous position.

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

Mei Chaofeng went cold and did not respond. Sha Tongtian, Peng Lianhu, Ouyang Ke and Liang Ziwong immediately shifted their attention to Mei Chaofeng and attacked her. All four harbored the same thought, “The ‘Nine Yin Manual’ is the world’s top martial arts manual and it’s been with the ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’ all along...” Now the four couldn’t care less about anything else and their focus was to kill Mei Chaofeng and obtain the manual.

Mei Chaofeng began brandishing her silver whip and for the moment, none of them dared to venture within its perimeter. Seeing them lured away by the ‘Nine Yin Manual’, Huang Rong whispered to Guo Jing urgently, “Let’s go!”

At this moment, a figure emerged from a thicket and hurried towards them. It shouted, “Gentlemen! Father requires your help with something urgent.” The person wore a gold cap crookedly on his head and his voice was filled with worry. It was none other than the young prince, Wanyan Kang. Peng Lianhu and the others thought, “Prince Zhao has been generous in exchange for our services. Now that there is something urgent, how can we not go to his aid?” With this thought they backed off reluctantly, not wanting to give up the ‘Nine Yin Manual’. Their gaze still lingered on Mei Chaofeng.

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

Originally, Wanyan Honglie had led his troops out of the Palace to chase Bao Xiruo, but they lost sight of her. Remembering the resourceful martial artists in his residence, he hurriedly sent his son to summon them. Wanyan Kang was caught up in anxiety and the night was dark, so he did not notice Mei Chaofeng seated on the ground.

Peng Lianhu and the others thought, “Oh my, the Consort has been abducted? If we don’t go to her rescue, what are we here for?” They further thought, “It must have been the ‘Seven Freaks’. Six of them kept us here to distract us, allowing the other to abduct the Consort. The manual will have to wait. Anyway, with so many accomplished fighters around, I can’t hope to claim it for myself. I’ll need to come up with a plan some other time.” With that, they hurriedly followed Wanyan Kang. Liang Ziwong trailed behind, still longing for the blood in Guo Jing’s body. He actually didn’t care about rescuing the Consort but was alone in wanting to stay behind and had no choice but to follow miserably.

Guo Jing called, “Hey, return my medicine!” Fuming, Liang Ziwong turned and shot a bone-penetrating projectile straight at his head. The projectile cut through the night air with incredible strength. Zhu Cong dashed forward and deflected the projectile with the handle of his fan. As the projectile fell, he caught it with his left hand and held it to his nose to have a sniff. “Ah,” he said, “seals throats when it touches blood; this is a ‘Bone-Penetrating Meridian Nail’.

Hearing the name of his secret weapon startled Liang Ziwong; he spun around and yelled, “What?”

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

Liang Ziwong retrieved it calmly. He knew that with Zhu Cong’s level of kung fu, he could not harm him. Zhu Cong saw that Liang Ziwong’s left sleeve was covered with mud and grass and used his own sleeve to swipe the dirt away. Liang Ziwong said angrily, “I don’t need your bootlicking!” With that, he turned around and left.

Guo Jing was in a miserable position. If he went back without the medicine, all the night’s misadventures would have been for naught; but if he tried to regain it forcefully, he would undoubtedly be defeated by Liang Ziwong. He was still hesitating when Ke Zhen’E said, “Let’s go.” Ke Zhen’E leapt to the top of the Palace wall and the other five ‘Freaks’ followed suit.

Pointing at Mei Chaofeng, Han Xiaoying said: “Elder brother, what about her?” Ke Zhen’E replied: “We promised Priest Ma to spare her life.”

Huang Rong did not acknowledge the ‘‘Six Freaks’’ and leapt on to the other end of the wall, grinning. Mei Chaofeng hollered: “Little martial sister, where is Shifu?”

Huang Rong giggled and said, “My father is, of course, on Peach Blossom Island, why do you ask? Are you going to pay him a visit?”

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

Still laughing, Huang Rong replied, “He doesn’t know you’re here, but rest assured I’ll tell him for you. I’m sure he’ll come straight away. Don’t worry, I’m not bluffing.” Enraged, Mei Chaofeng braced herself with both hands and sprung up suddenly. With staggering steps, she charged towards Huang Rong.

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

At this moment, her senses were consumed with fury, so much so that she forgot about her paralysis. She was in a state where she had disengaged from her body and was only aware of a violent surge of anger rushing up to her heart. Suddenly her legs had become part of her body again and she charged towards Huang Rong. Shocked that Mei Chaofeng had regained the use of her legs, Huang Rong leapt down to the other side and fled into the night.

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

For the ‘Six Freaks’ to kill her now would be an easy task; but they had promised Ma Yu to spare her life. So they leapt over the wall and left the palace with Guo Jing.

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

Guo Jing roughly sketched the events leading up to this point…Wang Chuyi coming to his rescue, getting poisoned at Wanyan Kang’s banquet, stealing the medicine, bumping into Mei Chaofeng in the tunnel, et cetera. For the moment, however, he did not mention the Yang family saga.

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

o0o

Having just been reunited with his wife, Yang Tiexin felt an inexpressible mixture of joy and sadness. Carrying her in his arms, he leapt out of the palace. His foster daughter Mu Nianci was anxiously waiting outside the palace walls when she saw him carrying a woman in his arms. Surprised and curious, she asked, “Father, who is she?”

Yang Tiexin replied, “She’s your mother. Let’s go.” Mu Nianci said, bewildered, “My mother?”

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

After a time, Bao Xiruo slowly regained consciousness. It was near daybreak and in the dim light, she saw that the person bearing her was the husband she had been thinking of day and night for eighteen years. She didn’t know if it was real or just an illusion. She felt like she was in a dream and reached out to caress his face. Her voice quivered as she spoke, “Tie-ge, am I dead too?” Crying joyfully, he replied in a gentle voice, “Both of us are alive and well…” His sentence was interrupted by shouts from behind. Light from torches lit the area as soldiers quickly streamed forward. Raising their swords and spears, they yelled, “Don’t let the Consort’s kidnapper escape!”

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

The scene at Lin’an’s Ox Village eighteen years ago suddenly sprang into Bao Xiruo’s mind: her husband fleeing with her in his arms, the cries of soldiers in the night and the eighteen years of separation and grief that followed. Sensing that the tragedy was to repeat itself, she held on stubbornly to her husband, refusing to let go. The soldiers were getting near and Yang Tiexin thought it better to die fighting than be captured and humiliated. With that, he pried his wife’s fingers away and entrusted her to Mu Nianci. Turning around, he charged towards the soldiers and with a fist, knocked out a foot soldier and seized his spear. With a spear in hand, Yang Tiexin was even more lethal. The troops’ commander, Tang Zude, was speared in the leg and promptly fell off his horse. With their leader down, the rest of the soldiers scampered away in all directions. Seeing there were no skilled pugilists amongst them, Yang Tiexin felt slightly relieved even though it was a pity not to have been able to grab a horse. The three of them continued their escape.

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

Hearing this, Yang Tiexin was suddenly aware of a sharp pain in his arm. Because he had exerted too much strength during the fight, the wound from Wanyan Kang’s claws had re-opened and was now bleeding profusely again. Earlier he had been fixated with escaping and was not aware of the pain; but now both arms felt stiff and weak and he was unable to lift them. Bao Xiruo was about to bandage his wounds when loud calls came from behind and the dust from countless pursuing soldiers appeared. With a bitter smile, Yang Tiexin said, “No need to bandage.” He turned and said to Mu Nianci, “Child, run for your life! Your mother and I will stay here…”

Mu Nianci successfully fought back tears and raised her head proudly, saying, “The three of us will die together.” Confused, Bao Xiruo asked, “How… how is she our daughter?”

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

Of the two priests, one was ‘Scarlet Sun’ Ma Yu and the other was ‘Eternal Spring’ Qiu Chuji. The two of them, along with ‘Jade Sun’ Wang Chuyi, had arranged to meet in Zhongdu to discuss the upcoming duel with the ‘Seven Freaks of Jiangnan’. Both had hurried here and chanced upon the Yangs. Qiu Chuji had an accomplished level of nei gong and thus his appearance had not changed much over the eighteen years. Only the hair on his temples was speckled with white. Hearing this greeting, he looked more closely, but it was someone he did not recognize.

Yang Tiexin said, “Eighteen years ago at Ox Village in Lin’an, we once drank and killed enemies together, do you still remember?” Qiu Chuji said, “You are…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep inside, Qiu Chuji marveled at this and was just about to ask for his name when someone from the left shouted, “Who is this priest from the Quanzhen Sect?” His voice carried immense power. Qiu Chuji leapt to his right and saw four people; Peng Lianhu, Ouyang Ke, Liang Ziwong and Hou Tonghai.

Qiu Chuji cupped his fists and said, “My surname is Qiu, may I know your names?” Qiu Chuji’s mighty name was well-known and feared in the Northern and Southern parts.

Sha Tongtian and the others thought, “It’s no wonder he is so famous. He is indeed powerful.”

Peng Lianhu thought, “We’ve already injured Wang Chuyi and forged animosity with Quanzhen Sect. If we combine forces and kill Qiu Chuji today, our names will travel far and wide!” He shouted, “Everyone, attack together.” Before he even finished pronouncing the last word, Peng Lianhu had already retrieved his ‘Judgmental Twin Brush’ and advanced towards Qiu Chuji. He knew this opponent was powerful and was vicious with his onslaught, targeting his ‘Yun Men’ accupoint at the top and his ‘Tai He’ accupoint below. These two hits came in full force and left no room for mercy.

Qiu Chuji thought to himself, “This shorty is impudent! To be fair, his skills are also above average.” With a swishing sound he drew out his sword and pierced Peng Lianhu’s right arm, scraped Sha Tongtian’s waist and, drawing back the sword, sent its hilt ramming into the critical Zhang Men accupoint in the side of Hou Tonghai’s ribs. With one move he had struck three people, displaying amazing skill with the sword. Sha Tongtian and Peng Lianhu propped themselves up with their weapons. Hou Tonghai had narrowly missed having his accupoint blocked and managed to withdraw quickly, but alas a heavy kick to the buttocks sent him flying to the ground. Call it a coincidence but he landed straight on the three lumps on his head. Inwardly shaken, Liang Ziwong propelled himself forward like a monkey and attacked.

Ouyang Ke saw that Qiu Chuji was occupied with Sha Tongtian and Peng Lianhu and now Liang Ziwong had also joined in. It was an advantage that just begged to be taken, and if not now – when? Feinting with his left hand, his right hand moved to block Qiu Chuji’s ‘Tao Dao’, ‘Hun Men’ and ‘Zhong Shu’ accupoints with his iron fan. It seemed as though Qiu Chuji had no way out when a figure moved beside him and in a flash, a single hand reached out and halted the movement of the fan. So it was that Ma Yu, who had been observing in silence from the side, was flabbergasted to see a group of highly-skilled pugilists ganging up on his younger Martial Brother. With just three fingers he had trapped the fan; Ouyang Ke immediately felt a surge of formidable inner power coming from the handle of his fan and quickly leapt backwards in astonishment.

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

Ouyang Ke said: “Priest, what is your revered name?” Ma Yu replied: “My surname is Ma.”

Peng Lianhu said, “Ah, so it is the ‘Scarlet Sun’, Revered Priest Ma. We have been rude.” Ma Yu replied, “With my shallow cultivation, how dare I claim the title of Revered?”

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

Peng Lianhu said, “I have long admired the great names of the Quanzhen Seven. Where are the other five? How about inviting them here so we can meet them?”

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

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

At this, Ma Yu and Qiu Chuji were both startled, thinking, “This person’s kung fu is impressive, so that his name must be famous. But this name, San Heimao, is so strange yet I’ve never heard of it.”

Peng Lianhu tucked his ‘Judgmental Twin Brushes’ back into his waist and approached Ma Yu. He said, smiling, “Nice to meet you, Priest Ma.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At this point, Sha Tongtian and Liang Ziwong were embroiled with Ma Yu. Ouyang Ke and Hou Tonghai came forward to aid Peng Lianhu, one to the left and the other to the right. Faced with strong opponents, Qiu Chuji felt even more energized. With gliding palms and flashing sword, the more he fought the swifter his attacks became. Qiu Chuji was fighting three people by himself and had not lost the advantage. Over on the other side, Ma Yu was having trouble maintaining the situation. His right palm was already swollen and afflicted with numbness and itching as the poison gradually took effect. Although he knew that the needles were poisoned, he never expected such drastic reaction. He understood that the more he exerted himself, the faster his blood would circulate and the quicker the poison would attack his heart. Immediately he sat down and engaged his internal energy to halt the poison’s progress, while still wielding a sword in his left hand for self-protection. Liang Ziwong’s weapon was a shovel, similar to the ones used for grave digging. Between slashing vertically, scooping horizontally, and at times sweeping across or striking directly, the variations in his attack were plentiful. Sha Tongtian’s iron stick was heavy and even more dangerous. After ten moves or so, Ma Yu’s breathing increased and his defensive circle shrank. Inwardly resisting the poison and outwardly defending against two enemies, he soon felt lethargic in spite having an accomplished level of internal energy.

Qiu Chuji was shocked at the sight of his Elder Martial Brother seated on the ground, with hot vapor rising slowly from his head as if he were being steamed. He wanted to finish off his three opponents quickly and rush to aid him, but these opponents were sticky and he could not spare a moment to pause in his attack and escape. Admittedly Peng Lianhu was a weaker fighter, but Ouyang Ke was proficient in both internal energy and external moves. His attacks were both fierce and unusual. In terms of ability, he was way above Peng Lianhu. From what Qiu Chuji could tell, Ouyang Ke’s kung fu looked similar to that of the ‘Western Poison’, someone the Quanzhen Sect had always feared. This startled him and he thought, “Who is this person? Could he be a disciple of the ‘Western Poison’? Has ‘Western Poison’ arrived on the Central Plains? I wonder if he’s actually here in Zhongdu.” While following this train of thought he momentarily lost concentration and repeatedly encountered close shaves. Yang Tiexin knew in his heart that the skills of these two priests were way above his, but seeing both of them in danger he immediately lifted his spear and thrust towards Ouyang Ke’s back. Qiu Chuji yelled, “Brother Yang, don’t throw your life away in vain!” By the time he finished his sentence; Ouyang Ke had already broken the spear with his left foot and kicked Yang Tiexin to the ground with his right. At this very moment they heard the sound of hooves as a great number of horses galloped swiftly towards them. Leading the way were none other than the father and son, Wanyan Honglie and Wanyan Kang.

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

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

Only after repeating this a few times did Peng Lianhu and the others finally retreat; the soldiers and Mu Nianci also halted. Wanyan Kang approached Qiu Chuji and bowed. “Shifu, let your disciple do the introductions,” he said. “These are all senior pugilists engaged by my father.”

Qiu Chuji nodded and went to check on his Elder Martial Brother. Ma Yu’s right palm was black all over and, lifting up his sleeve, he saw that the blackness had spread all the way to the upper part of his arm. Astonished, he said, “How could the poison be like that?” Turning around, he said to Peng Lianhu, “Hand over the antidote!”

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

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

Wanyan Kang rushed over to his mother and exclaimed, “Mother, I’ve finally found you!” Bao Xiruo was frightened and replied, “Do not ask me to return to the palace. I never will!” Shocked, Wanyan Honglie and Wanyan Kang said in unison, “What?”

Bao Xiruo pointed at Yang Tiexin. “My husband is still alive and I will follow him to the ends of the earth,” she said.

This came as no ordinary blow to Wanyan Honglie and he silently mouthed something to Liang Ziwong. Liang Ziwong understood the prince’s intentions and flicked his right hand, sending three of his ‘Bone-Penetrating Meridian Nails’ flying towards Yang Tiexin’s essential junctions. Qiu Chuji saw the flight of the nails but it was too late for him to do anything and Yang Tiexin would surely not be able to evade them. Having no projectiles with him, he grabbed a Jin soldier out of desperation and hurled him towards the space between Liang Ziwong and Yang Tiexin. With a loud “ah”, the three ‘Meridian Nails’ struck the soldier.

Liang Ziwong regarded his ‘Bone-Penetrating Meridian Nails’ as his greatest skill. Having sent three nails simultaneously, it was absurd to think he would miss the target. Seeing Qiu Chuji foil his move in such a peculiar way, he roared angrily and attacked. Peng Lianhu saw this and decided against providing the antidote, knowing that the little prince’s priority was rescuing his mother. He leapt forward abruptly and grabbed hold of Bao Xiruo’s arm. With two swishing sounds, Qiu Chuji sent his sword thrusting towards both Liang Ziwong and Peng Lianhu. Both saw the fierceness of the strokes and were forced backwards. Qiu Chuji thundered at Wanyan Kang, “Ignorant boy, you have called your enemy ‘father’ and led eighteen years of your life in folly. Now that your real father is here, aren’t you going to acknowledge him?”

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

“Shifu, don’t listen to this person’s nonsense,” Wanyan Kang said. “Please help rescue my mother!” “You stubbornly refuse to listen still, you’re worse than a beast!” Qiu Chuji replied angrily.

Seeing that Shifu and pupil had fallen out, Peng Lianhu and the others started to attack even more fiercely. Wanyan Kang knew Qiu Chuji was in danger, but did not attempt to again stop the fight. Qiu Chuji was enraged and shouted, “Little bastard, you really have no conscience.”

Wanyan Kang had always been very afraid of his Shifu and secretly hoped that Peng Lianhu and the rest would kill him to avoid any trouble in the future. Shortly into the battle, Qiu Chuji was struck by Liang Ziwong’s spade and though it wasn’t serious, blood seeped through his robes. From the corner of his eye he caught a hint of delight on Wanyan Kang’s face and he was further incensed and swore continuously. Ma Yu retrieved a sparkler from his robes and tossed it in the air, sending a blue blaze soaring through the sky. Peng Lianhu thought it must be a communicative signal for the Quanzhen Sect’s members and alerted the others, “The old priest is sending for help.”

After exchanging a few more moves, another blue blaze appeared from the northwest not far from here. “Younger Martial Brother Wang is nearby,” Qiu Chuji said with delight. Switching his sword over to his left hand, he attacked from the top with his sword and from the bottom with his right palm, executing seven or eight fatal moves one after another forcing his enemies steadily backwards.

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

Weapons in hand, Yang Tiexin and Mu Nianci rushed in that direction while guarding Bao Xiruo. Ma Yu followed closely behind. Qiu Chuji interrupted his sword mid-move and in the next instant he had also turned to leave. Sha Tongtian repeatedly employed his ‘Change Form Exchange Place’ technique, hoping to bypass Qiu Chuji and snatch Bao Xiruo, but Qiu Chuji’s sword was too swift and he did not succeed. It was not long before they arrived at the small inn where Wang Chuyi was staying. Qiu Chuji wondered to himself, “Why hasn’t Younger Martial Brother Wang come out to greet us?”

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

Qiu Chuji called out, “Retreat back into the inn.”

“Hand the Consort over in one piece and I’ll spare your lives,” Wanyan Honglie hollered.

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

Despite being exhausted, Qiu Chuji still refused to yield and his swordplay remained as enthralling as ever. Seeing this, Peng Lianhu and the others were inwardly impressed. Yang Tiexin contemplated, “Since things have already come to this, it will not be easy to escape our end. We mustn’t risk Priest Qiu’s life for us.” Grasping Bao Xiruo’s hand, he stepped forward.

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

Bao Xiruo felt no sadness. With a bitter smile, she pulled the spear out of her husband’s body and braced it on the ground while saying to Wanyan Kang, “Child, you still don’t believe he’s your real father?” She leaned forward and sank onto the tip of the spear.

In horror, the color drained from Wanyan Kang’s face. “Mama!” he cried, rushing forward wanting to save her. Seeing this astonishing development, Qiu Chuji and the others stopped fighting. Reaching her side, Wanyan Kang saw her body was pierced through her chest by the spear and he began sobbing uncontrollably. Qiu Chuji went forward to inspect the couple’s wounds and saw that the spear had pierced fatal points on their bodies. There was no room for hope. Wanyan Kang held his mother and Mu Nianci held Yang Tiexin as the two wept with grief.

Qiu Chuji said to Yang Tiexin, “Brother Yang, tell me if you have a request and I will see that it gets done. I… I didn’t manage to save you in the end, I… I…” He felt a dull ache in his heart and choked up with sorrow.

At this very moment the sound of footsteps came. Everyone turned and saw the ‘Six Freaks of Jiangnan’ hurrying over with Guo Jing. Upon seeing Sha Tongtian and the others, the ‘Six Freaks’ immediately pulled out their weapons. Getting closer, they saw a man and a woman on the ground and looks of surprise appeared on their faces. They turned around and saw Ma Yu and Qiu Chuji and were further surprised.

Guo Jing saw Yang Tiexin lying on the ground covered with blood and hurriedly went to his side. “Uncle Yang, how are you feeling?” He asked.

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

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

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

Yang Tiexin said to Guo Jing: “In…in honor of your late father, I hope you treat my daughter well…” “I… I can’t…” stuttered Guo Jing.

Qiu Chuji said, “I will see to everything, go… go in peace!”

Yang Tiexin had all but given up hope of finding Guo Xiaotian’s descendent, and so arranged the ‘Joust for a Spouse’ for Mu Nianci. Today, he was not only reunited with his beloved wife but had also found his sworn brother’s son; his daughter would have a husband to rely on. With that, having no further regrets, he closed his eyes for the last time.

Guo Jing was both sad and confused, thinking, “Rong’er has deep feelings for me, how can I marry someone else?” With this thought, his mind suddenly turned to something else and he was further taken aback. “How could I have forgotten Hua Zheng? The Khan has betrothed her to me, this… this… how could this be?” All this time he had kept his good friend Tolui in his thoughts, but seldom did he think of Hua Zheng. Although the ‘Six Freaks’ regarded this wish difficult to fulfill, they couldn’t bear to say so in front of Yang Tiexin, a dying man.

Wanyan Honglie had gone to great lengths scheming to marry Bao Xiruo, but to the end she had been unable to forget her husband. For over ten years he had loved and labored for her, but at the end of it all, things still unfolded this way. Though she was dead, Wanyan Honglie saw true happiness and contentment in her face. In all their eighteen years together, when had she ever looked at him this way? He might be a prince, but in her heart he was much, much inferior this village peasant. Despondent and heart-broken, he turned to leave.

Although the three Quanzhen priests were injured, the arrival of the ‘Six Freaks’ meant that Sha Tongtian and the others wouldn’t necessarily win. Since the Prince had already turned to leave, they followed.

“San Heimao,” shouted Qiu Chuji, “leave the antidote behind!”

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

Qiu Chuji went cold, thinking, “It’s no wonder this person is so powerful; so it is him.” The poison had penetrated deep into his Elder Martial Brother’s body and only the unique antidote from Peng Lianhu could save him. He loudly said, “Who cares if you’ve got a thousand hands or ten thousand? If you don’t leave the antidote behind, don’t hope to leave this place.” Maneuvering his sword exquisitely, a flash of brilliant light advanced towards Peng Lianhu. Though only left with one brush, Peng Lianhu was not afraid. Brandishing it, they clashed head-on.

Zhu Cong saw Ma Yu was seated on the ground, working his internal energy. One of his palms was all black. “Priest Ma … how did you get hurt?”

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

“Ah. He’s not that great.” Turning to Ke Zhen’E, he said, “Elder Brother, pass me a caltrop.” Not understanding his intentions, Ke Zhen’E retrieved a poisonous caltrop [water chestnut] from his bag and handed it to him. Zhu Cong turned to look at the fight between Qiu Chuji and Peng Lianhu. The fight was intense, and it would be impossible to break it up with his level of kung fu alone.

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

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

Both Qiu Chuji and Peng Lianhu felt surprise hearing Zhu Cong’s remark and thought, “How come we’re ‘on the same side’ now?” Seeing the two Freaks come forward, they broke apart and waited to hear exactly how they were ‘on the same side’.

Laughing cheerfully, Zhu Cong said to Peng Lianhu: “Eighteen years ago, the ‘Seven Freaks of Jiangnan’ and Priest Qiu had a small dispute that ended with five of our brothers injured. On the other hand, the famed Priest Qiu also sustained heavy injuries that nearly left him dead. This dispute has yet to be resolved…” Zhu Cong turned to Qiu Chuji. “Am I right, Priest Qiu?”

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

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

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

Zhu Cong laughed. “Since Chief Peng and Priest Qiu both have feuds with the ‘Seven Freaks of Jiangnan’, wouldn’t you then be on the same side against a common enemy? Ha ha, what are you still fighting for? Wouldn’t Chief Peng and I also be on the same side? Come; let’s get to know each other.” Zhu Cong stretched out his hand for a handshake.

Having listened to this warped nonsense, Peng Lianhu thought, “The Quanzhen Sect saved the ‘Seven Freaks’ disciple, so they’re obviously in it together. I won’t fall for your trickery. Want to trick the antidote from me? It’s not so easy.” Seeing Zhu Cong’s outstretched hand, Peng Lianhu laughed and said, “Splendid!” He tucked his Brush back into his waist and slipped on his ‘Poison Needle Ring’.

Startled, Qiu Chuji said: “Brother Zhu, be careful.” Zhu Cong ignored this and stretched out his hand. With a slight crook of his little finger, he had hooked the ‘Poison Needle Ring’ from Peng Lianhu’s finger. Peng Lianhu did not realize this and went ahead with the handshake, both parties exerting strength.

Suddenly, a small pain penetrated Peng Lianhu’s palm and he struggled to let go. Raising his hand, he saw three holes in his palm that were much bigger than those of his Poison Needles, with black blood oozing from them. Instead of pain, the wound felt both numb and itchy and the sensation was rather nice. He knew that the more potent the poison, the less painful the wound would be because the numbness would be overpowering. Both angry and frightened, he had no idea how he had fallen into this trap. Looking up, he saw Zhu Cong hiding behind Qiu Chuji, holding up an object in each hand. In between two fingers of his left hand was Peng Lianhu’s ‘Poison Needle Ring’. In between two fingers of his right, however, was a black object shaped like a water chestnut with a sharp tail, and it was stained with blood.

Nicknamed the ‘Magical Hands Scholar’, Zhu Cong’s skill with his hands was near magical and impossible for any human to detect. To first take Peng Lianhu’s ring then pierce his palm with the poison caltrop was child’s play to him. Fuming, Peng Lianhu attacked.

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

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

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

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

Zhu Cong chuckled and quipped, “Good thing Chief Peng has a ‘Thousand Hands’. Allow me to give you a piece of friendly advice – why not chop off the hand that’s been poisoned? You’ll still be left with nine hundred and ninety-nine. However you’ll have to alter your nickname a bit to become the ‘Butcher with Nine hundred and ninety-nine Hands’.”

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

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

Before Peng Lianhu could reply, Sha Tongtian said quickly, “That will do. Hand the antidote over.”

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

“Brother Zhu, don’t fall for his trap,” warned Qiu Chuji. “Let him hand over the antidote first.” Zhu Cong said cheerily, “We are all men of honor, I’m not afraid.”

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

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

Zhu Cong laughed. “Take it!” He said. “We said we’d give it to you. The ‘Quanzhen Seven’ and the ‘Seven Freaks of Jiangnan’ are men of our word.”

Sha Tongtian knew that Zhu Cong was skilful with his hands. Not wanting to be taken advantage of, he extended his iron stick horizontally. Zhu Cong placed the antidote on the stick and Sha Tongtian retrieved it. The bystanders were perplexed, not understanding why Zhu Cong gave him the antidote so casually without forcing Peng to handover his. Suspecting that the antidote was not genuine, Sha Tongtian said, “The ‘Seven Freaks of Jiangnan’ are renowned figures in the martial arts world. Surely you wouldn’t use bogus medicine to harm others?”

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

Peng Lianhu was dumbfounded. “Those items are mine! How did they end up with him?” he thought.

What happened was that Zhu Cong, while using his right hand to shake hands, employed his ‘Empty Magical Hands’ with his left. As a result, all the items in Peng Lianhu’s robes had been lifted.

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

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

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

Guo Jing bolted into the inn and fetched two bowls of clean water. He gave one bowl to Ma Yu and helped him drink the antidote. He then applied the grey powder to Ma Yu’s palm. Just as he was about to give the other bowl of water to Peng Lianhu, Zhu Cong said, “Hold it. Give the other bowl to Priest Wang.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That couldn’t be better,” said Peng Lianhu. “If we don’t meet the ‘Quanzhen Seven’, it will be the biggest regret of our lives. Priest Qiu, please set the date and venue.”

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

Peng Lianhu thought, “With all of the ‘Quanzhen Seven’, plus the ‘Seven Freaks of Jiangnan’, we will be heavily out numbered. We must gather more allies. Six months should be sufficient. Prince Zhao wants us to head to Jiangnan to steal Yue Fei’s manual, so we can take the chance and meet there.” So he said, “How thoughtful of Priest Qiu to arrange a martial gathering of friends on Mid- Autumn Festival. But we must also find a tasteful venue – let’s make it the hometown of the ‘Seven Freaks of Jiangnan’.”

Qiu Chuji replied, “Excellent. We’ll meet in the Jiaxing Prefecture by the South Lake at the ‘Pavilion of the Drunken Immortal’. Everyone is welcome to invite a few more friends.”

“It’s a deal.”

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

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

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

Peng Lianhu replied angrily, “Thanks for your concern.” Sha Tongtian applied the yellow antidote to his palm and, supporting him, turned to leave.

Wanyan Kang knelt on the ground and kowtowed four times to his mother’s body. Then he turned and kowtowed a few times to Qiu Chuji. Raising his head and not uttering a single word, he walked away.

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

But Wanyan Kang did not answer. He did not join Peng Lianhu and the others, but took another turn and went on a separate path alone. Qiu Chuji was stunned for a moment, then turned and bowed to Ke Zhen’E and Zhu Cong.

“If not for the help of the Six Heroes, my Martial Brothers and I might have lost our lives. Besides that, my disgraceful pupil has turned out to possess a wicked character. He cannot hold a candle to your virtuous pupil. For us martial arts practitioners, character and integrity are of the foremost importance; kung fu is secondary. I’m ashamed to have a disciple like him. The duel at Jiaxing’s ‘‘Pavilion of the Drunken Immortal’’ has reached a conclusion – I admit defeat. Word will henceforth spread throughout Jianghu that Qiu Chuji has been trounced by the ‘Seven Freaks of Jiangnan’, and I have sincerely and gladly admitted my loss.”

The ‘‘Six Freaks’’ swelled with pride as he spoke – their eighteen years of effort on the steppes of Mongolia had finally paid off. Ke Zhen’E uttered a few words of humility. But the ‘‘Six Freaks’’ then thought of their Fifth Brother, Zhang Ahsheng, who died on the steppe and sadness descended on their hearts. It was regretful that their Fifth Brother did not live to hear Qiu Chuji admitting defeat.

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

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

Qiu Chuji glanced at Guo Jing, and then said to Mu Nianci, “How did your father end up adopting you?”

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

“Ah. Your father’s surname is actually Yang, not Mu, so you should change your name accordingly.” “No, I won’t take the surname Yang. I will still use Mu.”

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

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

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

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

Mu Nianci replied, “When I was thirteen, I met a strange person and he taught me kung fu for three days. It’s a pity I was born unintelligent so didn’t manage to learn much.”

Wang Chuyi said, “He taught you just three days of kung fu and you managed to defeat your father? Who is this expert?” “Priest, I wouldn’t dare to hide anything but he made me vow that I would never reveal his name.”

Wang Chuyi nodded and did not question further. Instead, he recalled her stances and moves during her fight with Wanyan Kang and conjectured, but still failed to discover which school her kung fu came from. The more he thought about her moves, the more he felt it was peculiar. He asked, “Elder Martial Brother Qiu, you taught Wanyan Kang for about eight or nine years, right?”

“Exactly nine and a half years,” Qiu Chuji replied, sighing. “I never thought he would turn out so rotten.” Wang Chuyi said, “That’s strange!”

“Why?”

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

Qiu Chuji replied, “It was such a coincidence. After we made the bet, I traveled widely seeking news of the Guo and Yang families. Years passed and still there was nothing, but I did not give up. The year I went again to Ox Village looking for some clues to their whereabouts, I saw a few government officials removing objects from Brother Yang’s old home. I followed them and eavesdropped on their conversations. These officials were actually Prince Zhao’s guards from the Jin Empire. They were under orders to remove each and every item from the house, be it broken chairs or iron spears; nothing was to be left behind. I suspected that there was something much more to it, so I followed them all the way to Zhongdu.”

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

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

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

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

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

The conversation then shifted to the Mid-Autumn Festival duel. Zhu Cong said, “The ‘Quanzhen Seven’ will be assembled there. What have we to worry about?”

“It’s just that those scoundrels might bring along enough good fighters to outnumber us,” Ma Yu said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that Ma Yu phrased it this way, Qiu Chuji did not dare to rebut. The ‘Six Freaks’ never knew the ‘Quanzhen Seven’ had a Martial Uncle. From Ma Yu’s words, they deduced that this matter was not something that the Quanzhen Sect was proud of. It would not be tactful to make any comments and so they refrained; but nevertheless they were curious. Wang Chuyi listened to their dialogue but remained silent, mulling over something.

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

Mu Nianci’s face reddened and she stood up. Lowering her head, she walked out of the room. Watching her stand up and walk out, a notion flashed through Wang Chuyi’s mind and he got out of bed, sending his palm straight at her shoulder. This move was swift and by the time Mu Nianci sensed it, his palm had already reached her right shoulder. He paused there for a moment, waiting for her to exercise internal energy to resist. At the very moment when the energy was just about to respond, Wang Chuyi yanked her shoulder. So distinguished a character was the ‘Immortal with the Iron Foot’, ‘Jade Sun’ Wang Chuyi that even though he had not recovered from his heavy injuries and his arms were devoid of internal energy, he was still able to pinpoint the void in her qi. With this push and pull, Mu Nianci swayed and instantly fell forward. Wang Chuyi extended his right hand to support her right shoulder and she was upright again. It was all beyond her control and her lovely eyes widened with a mixture of surprise and bewilderment.

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

Mu Nianci said in surprise, “Uh? Yes, that’s right. Priest Wang, how did you know?”

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

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

Wang Chuyi let out a sigh. “You should be content. You have gained more in those three days than what others can teach you in ten or twenty years.”

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

Laughing, he replied, “Now you’ve got me stumped. I last saw him at Mount Hua over twenty years ago and have not heard from him since.” Disappointed, Mu Nianci walked slowly out of the room.

Han Xiaoying asked, “Priest Wang, who is this Elder Hong?” Wang Chuyi smiled and seated himself on the bed. Qiu Chuji said, “Heroine Han, have you heard of the ‘Eastern Heretic’, ‘Western Poison’, ‘Southern Emperor’, ‘Northern Beggar’ and ‘Central Divinity’?”

Han Xiaoying replied, “I’ve heard people say they are the five strongest martial artists in the world, but I don’t know if it’s true.” Qiu Chuji said, “It is.”

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

Wang Chuyi replied, “That’s right. The ‘Central Divinity’ refers to our late founder, the Reverend Wang.”

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

Han Xiaoying asked, “Priest Wang, how could you tell that she was taught by the ‘Nine-Fingered Divine Beggar’ by just pushing her shoulder?”

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

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

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

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

The ‘Six Freaks’ thought what he said made sense, and admired the Quanzhen Sect’s extensive knowledge. Zhu Cong said, “Priest Wang has seen the ‘Nine-Fingered Divine Beggar’ display his kung fu?”

Wang Chuyi said, “Over twenty years ago, my late Shifu competed in the Mount Hua Tournament with the ‘Nine-Fingered Divine Beggar’, Huang Yaoshi and the other Greats. Elder Hong’s kung fu was truly outstanding but he is also very gluttonous and Mount Hua was short of delicacies. Feeling extremely bored, he took sword as wine and fist as dishes and began chatting about the theories of sword and fist with my late Shifu and Elder Huang Yaoshi. At that time I was serving my Shifu and was very lucky indeed to have heard these brilliant theories. In fact, I learned a lot.”

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

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

Guo Jing went red. “I’m not marrying her.” Startled, Qiu Chuji said, “What?”

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

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

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

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

Panicking, Guo Jing kowtowed. “I never met my father and my mother has never mentioned anything about his wishes. Priest, please enlighten me.” At this, Qiu Chuji lost his cold smile and his expression softened at once. “So you are really not to blame. I was too quick to jump to conclusions.” He then explained everything from beginning to the end – his meeting with the Guo and Yang sworn brothers eighteen years ago at Ox Village, the slaughtering of soldiers that night, his search for the Guo and Yang family wives, his misunderstanding with the ‘Seven Freaks of Jiangnan’ and the wager that followed, et cetera.

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

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

Wiping away his tears, he replied, “I can’t marry Princess Hua Zheng either.” Surprised, Han Xiaoying asked, “Why?”

“I wouldn’t like her as my wife.”

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

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

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

“I won’t marry Miss Mu either.”

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

Han Baoju and Qiu Chuji asked sternly in unison, “Who is it?”

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

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

Han Xiaoying muttered to herself, “I heard Mei Chaofeng call her Little Martial-Sister and addressed her father as Shifu…” Qiu Chuji and Ke Zhen’E stood up at once and said together, flabbergasted: “She’s Huang Yaoshi’s daughter?”

Holding Guo Jing’s hand, Han Xiaoying asked, “Jing’er is her surname Huang?” Guo Jing answered, “Yes.”

This response left Han Xiaoying speechless.

Ke Zhen’E muttered, “You want to marry Mei Chaofeng’s Younger Martial-Sister?” Zhu Cong asked, “Her father has betrothed her to you?”

Guo Jing replied, “I’ve never met her father, nor do I know who her father is.” Zhu Cong asked again, “So you have an illicit engagement?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because the ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’ had killed the ‘Smiling Dhuda’ Zhang Ahsheng, the ‘Six Freaks’ bore a grudge as deep as the ocean towards them and they hated their Shifu to the core. They all thought that the kung fu the Twin Killers used to kill Zhang Ahsheng had been taught by Huang Yaoshi; had there been no Huang Yaoshi in this world, Zhang Ahsheng wouldn’t have died.

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

Suddenly, a clear female voice shouted from outside the window: “Why are you bullying him like that? How shameless!” Everyone was startled. The girl called, “Jing ge ge, hurry outside.”

Surprised and delighted to hear Huang Rong’s voice, Guo Jing dashed outside and saw her standing in the courtyard with his ‘Blood- Sweating Horse’. The little red horse saw Guo Jing and let out a long neigh, raising its front hoofs.

Han Baoju, Quan Jinfa, Zhu Cong and Qiu Chuji followed him out of the room. Guo Jing said to Han Baoju, “Third Teacher, that’s her, she’s Rong’er. Rong’er isn’t a demoness!”

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

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

Huang Rong started clapping and sang: “Shorty-gourd, tumbling ball, with one kick, rolls three times; with two kicks…” Guo Jing exclaimed, “Rong’er, stop being discourteous! These are my Shifus.”

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

Huang Rong held the reins in her right hand and held Guo Jing’s hand with her left. Though they had parted for less than half a day, they had just gone through an agonizing experience. Though one was inside the room and the other outside the window, both had similar feelings of anxiety. Now it felt like they had re-united after a calamity. Guo Jing’s heart was clouded with indecision – running from his Shifus like this was hugely wrong. Yet when he thought of giving up this girl in his arms, who was dearer than his own life, and never seeing her again, he would rather slice his neck and bleed to death.

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

Jumping in surprise, Huang Rong said, “What is it?” “We’ll head back and see my Shifus.”

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

“Yes. I want to hold your hand and tell my six Shifus, Priest Ma and the rest, ‘Rong’er is not a demoness’…” Holding Huang Rong’s little hand and lifting his head, he said firmly, as if Ke Zhen’E, Ma Yu and the rest were in front of him, “Shifus, you have shown me great kindness that I will never be able to repay even with my life. But, but, Rong’er is really not a demoness, she’s a very, very good girl, very, very good…” In his heart he had innumerable words and phrases in defense of Huang Rong, but when the words were in his mouth, he could say nothing but ‘very, very good’. Huang Rong found it funny at first but as Guo Jing went on she felt greatly moved. Gently, she said, “Jing ge ge, your Shifus hate me to the core. Nothing you say will make a difference. Let’s not go back! I’ll follow you to the secluded mountains, to an island in the sea, to someplace where they’ll never find us and live there forever.”

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

“But they’ll surely separate us,” she wailed. “Then we’ll never be able to see each other, ever again.” “Then we’ll just not separate, until death parts us.”

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

She said aloud, “Jing ge ge, I will abide by you forever. We’ll just won’t separate until death parts us.” Guo Jing said with delight, “I’ve always said you were a very, very good girl.”

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

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

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

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

Turning to Huang Rong, Guo Jing said, “We’ll catch up with them.” They left the inn, mounted the horse and headed south in pursuit, but failed to catch sight of the three priests or the ‘Six Freaks’. So they turned back once again. The little red horse, spirited as ever after having done two trips, still showed no signs of weariness and continued galloping relentlessly. Along the way they made inquiries about the three priests and ‘Six Freaks’ but no one had seen anyone like them and Guo Jing was thoroughly disappointed.

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

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

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

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

One day they arrived in Xiqing Prefecture, which was east of Jingdong Road and was controlled by the Taining military. As it grew closer to noon, the weather became increasingly humid. Having ridden with haste for nearly half a day, trickles of perspiration formed on their foreheads and backs as the bright, orange sun shone directly on them. Sand and dust from the trail scattered all around them as they rode, the particles sticking to their sweating faces. The discomfort was unbearable.

“Let’s not hurry anymore. We’ll find a cool and breezy place to rest,” Huang Rong suggested. Guo Jing replied, “Sure. Let’s have a pot of tea in the next town before doing anything else.”

As they spoke, their horses caught up with a sedan chair with a scrawny donkey leading. Riding the donkey was a big fat man clothed in yam-colored gauze robes, continuously fanning himself with a big white fan. The donkey staggered under the weight of his 227 jin [113kg / 250lb] body, with every step proving to be a hurdle. As for the sedan chair, its screens were lifted for cooling purposes and within it sat a fat middle-aged woman in pink robes. Coincidentally, the two sedan-bearers were also thin and frail and both were panting heavily. Beside the sedan was a servant girl with a sunflower-fan, relentlessly fanning the fat woman. Huang Rong urged her horse forward and overtook this group of people and passed them by seventy or eighty feet. She then reined in and turned around to face them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This scared the living daylights out of the fat man and he immediately knelt, whimpering: “Mercy, big Lady King! I… I have silver!” Huang Rong made a face. “Who wants your silver? Who is this woman?”

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

“Both of you are fat and robust; why can’t you walk? I can show mercy, but you have to follow my orders.” “Yes, yes,” he sputtered. “We’ll obey Lady King’s orders.”

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

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

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

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

“All right,” Huang Rong said. “Today, it’s your turn to be the sedan chair bearers. Lift it up!” The fat woman cried, “I… I only know how to sit in them; I don’t know how to carry them!”

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

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

The fat man quickly lifted one end of the sedan chair and said, “We’ll carry it, we’ll carry it!”

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

Huang Rong and Guo Jing cheered in unison, “Well carried!” They trailed behind the sedan chair on their horses for about a hundred feet before Huang Rong urged her horse to a gallop.

“Jing ge ge, let’s go!”

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

“That fat woman is both cruel and hideous and is actually quite a suitable choice. I originally wanted to capture her and give her to Qiu Chuji as a wife; it’s too bad I can’t beat that Ox-nose in a fight.” “Why would you give her to Priest Qiu?” Guo Jing asked, baffled. “He wouldn’t want a wife.”

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

Hearing this, Guo Jing’s smile faded and he was silent for a moment. Then he said, “Rong’er, Miss Mu is neither wicked nor ugly. But I’ll only take you as my wife.”

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

They continued their journey until the sound of rushing water emerged from behind a row of trees. Huang Rong wove her way past a big tree and gave a cry of delight. Guo Jing followed and soon saw a clear stream; so clear in fact that you could see the stream bed made up of green, white, red and purple pebbles. Hanging willows graced both banks and their branches lightly brushed the water’s surface, beneath which many fish swam freely. Huang Rong removed her outer robe and jumped into the water with a splash. Alarmed, Guo Jing went near the edge of the stream only to see both her hands raised high, grasping a green fish that was about one chi long [33.3cm / 13in.]. The fish wriggled desperately, struggling to escape. Huang Rong called out, “Catch!”

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

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

“Come in, I’ll teach you,” she urged.

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

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

“Jing ge ge, let’s try and make it up to the cliff from the waterfall,” Huang Rong said. “Okay, let’s give it a try. You’d better wear your ‘Soft Hedgehog Armor’.”

“No need!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rong’er," Guo Jing called. "Are you afraid?” Smiling, she said, “I’m with you, I’m not afraid.”

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

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

The two of them journeyed eastward a few li and the little red horse trailed behind them obediently. Huang Rong used her E’Mei dagger to cut open the chicken’s stomach and proceeded to remove its organs, but she did not pluck its feathers. Wetting some earth with water, she coated the chicken with mud and roasted it over fire. Some moments later, a sweet fragrance seeped through the mud. When the mud had become completely dry, it was removed and the chicken skin and feathers came off with it, exposing tender white meat and releasing a rich, savory aroma that filled their nostrils.