The Legend of the Condor Heroes Chapter 1-5

Chapter 1 – Incident in the Blizzard

Day in and day out, day after day, the Qiantang River majestically winds through and around Ox Village, near the city of Linan, on its journey toward the sea. On the shores there stood thirty or so tallow trees, leaves red like fire, yet another sign that it was now August. The wild weeds and grass around the village had just started to turn yellow. The sun shone down at a low angle on the grass, adding even more to their bleakness. Underneath two giant pine trees there gathered a group of villagers; the crowd included both men and women along with more than ten children. All of them were listening to a thin old man, giving him their complete attention.

The old man was about fifty or so, the green robe that he was wearing had been washed to a bluish-gray. He banged two pieces of wood together a couple of times, with the little bamboo stick in his left hand he started to beat on a little drum to keep pace. He started to sing: “The peach blossoms without fail, vast unused fields feeding the crows. After the soldiers by the well, families gather in sorrow."

The old man banged the drum with the stick a couple of times more, and then continued: "Old Man Yie had a wife, a son, and a daughter. They lost each other when the Jin invaded. Finally, after many hardships and much difficulty, they were able to get back together. They returned to their home to find that the Jin soldiers had burned it to the ground. They had no choice but to head off to Bianliang (modern day Kaifeng, capital of North Song). 'The heavens produce unexpected storms, people have unforeseen misfortunes'. As soon as the four of them got to Bianliang, they ran into a troop of Jin soldiers. The leader of the soldiers looked down and saw that Young Miss Yie was quite beautiful; he jumped down from his horse, and grabbed her. With a laugh, he threw her onto his saddle and said: 'Pretty little girl, you are going to go home with me.' How could young Miss Yie agree? She struggled with all her might. The leader yelled out: 'If you don't stop struggling, then your family will die!' He picked up his ‘wolf fang’ club and smashed it down on her brother's head.”….‘The nether world gains a new ghost, the real world loses one more soul.'

“Old Man Yie and his wife fell onto their son's body and started to cry their hearts out. That Jin soldier lifted up this ‘wolf fang’ club twice more and took care of them. Young Miss Yie did not cry, she simply said: ‘Sir, please stop killing people. I'll go with you.' This made the soldier extremely happy. Just as he let his guard down, Young Miss Yie suddenly grabbed the saber at his waist, pulled it out, and thrust at his heart. It looked like she was about to avenge her family's death; but alas it was not to be. That soldier had much experience on the battlefield; with out thinking, he merely pushed her forward very naturally, sending Young Miss Yie to the ground. He had just enough time to say: 'Little bitch!' But Young Miss Yie has already brought the blade to her neck. Poor girl: ‘With a flower's beauty and the moon's grace, such a sweet soul dying sadly so young.'"

He alternated between talking and singing. Every single one of the villagers was now sighing in sadness and rage. The man continued: “Dear audience members, as the saying goes: ‘Treat others with an honest heart, hold your head up on high with pride. If evil deeds go unpunished, only the evil will survive.’ The Jin has conquered half of our Great Song, killing, burning, raping and pillaging; not an evil deed left undone. Yet no punishment whatsoever seems to be forthcoming. Our Great Song's officials are responsible for this. China has plenty of healthy and available soldiers; yet every time we go up against the Jin armies, all they do is turn around and run, leaving us peasants behind to suffer. There are stories, like the one about Young Miss Yie and her family, by the thousands north of the river. Living here south of the river is truly like being in heaven on earth, but we fear the day the Jin soldiers come invading. ‘Rather be a dog in peace, than a man in troubled times!’ My name is Zhang Shiwu, thanks everyone for listening to the story of 'Miss Yie, the Young Martyr'." After banging the drum several more times, he held up a tray.

Many of the villagers placed a coin or two in the pan, which quickly filled up. Zhang Shiwu thanked the villagers and gathered the sixty or seventy coins into his travel bag. He got up and started to walk off.

A young man of around twenty years of age walked out from among the villagers. He asked: "Mr. Zhang, did you just come from the north?" The young fellow was very tall and very well built with big eyes and a pair of very bushy eyebrows. Zhang Shiwu answered: "Yes." The young man answered: "Then let's have a couple of drinks. I'll pay, what do you say?" Zhang Shiwu replied: "I dare not receive such a favor as a stranger." The young fellow laughed and answered: "Once we’ve had a couple of drinks, then we are no longer strangers are we? My surname is Guo, given name Xiaotian” Pointing at a clean, white-faced fellow behind him, he continued: "This here is Yang Tiexin. The two of us were just listening to your story. As expected, it was a good story; but we still have several questions we wanted to ask." Zhang Shiwu replied: "No problem, no problem. To run into the two of you today is probably fate doing its work." Guo Xiaotian led Zhang Shiwu to one of the small wine shops in Ox Village and sat down at one of the tables.

The owner of this little wine shop is a cripple. Supported by two crutches, he slowly brought out two jugs of wine, a plate of peas, a plate of salted peanuts, a plate of dried bean curd, and a plate with three salted eggs. Afterwards he sat down on the stool by the door and stared at the setting sun, not even glancing at the three men.

Guo Xiaotian poured the wine and made Zhang Shiwu down two bowls before he began: "Here in the country, we only get to buy meat on the 2nd and the 16th, so we don't have any meat to go down with the wine. Please forgive us." Zhang Shiwu replied: "At least we’ve got wine, can't complain about that. From your accents, seems like you two are from up north." Yang Tiexin answered: "We are both from Shandong province. We moved away three years ago because we couldn't stand the Jin running loose around there. When we arrived, we fell in love with the people here and settled down. Just now you were saying that us living here south of the river is like living in heaven itself, fearing only an invasion by the Jin. Do you really think that the Jin will invade?"

Zhang Shiwu sighed: "Gold and silver could literally cover the ground and there are beautiful women every which way you look; such is the richness and enchantment of the south. There isn't a day that passes without the Jin thinking about invading. But the final decision about the invasion of the Jin is not made by the Jin, but is made by the Imperial Court of our Great Song in Linan!" This took both Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin by surprise. They asked as one: "Why do you say that?"

Zhang Shiwu continued: "We Han Chinese outnumber the Nuzhen by more than one hundred to one. If only the Imperial Court started using honest and loyal men. With one hundred of us going up against one of them, how could the Jin army win? The northern half of our country was literally handed over to the Jin in the past by Hui Zong, Qin Zong, and Gao Zong. Those three emperors, from grandfather to grandson, trusted and used corrupt officials, oppressed the masses, and then they either killed or somehow got rid of all the generals that were fighting the Jin. Such a beautiful land, and they literally put it right into the hands of the Jin. Of course the Jin people respectfully accepted it. If the Imperial Court continues to do what it did then, trusting and using corrupt officials, then it is as if they are kneeling on the ground asking the Jin army to come. How could the Jin refuse?" After hearing that, Guo Xiaotian couldn't help but to slam his hand down onto the table in rage. All of the bowls, plates, and chopsticks on the tables jumped from the impact.

Zhang Shiwu continued: "Thinking back, Hui Zong was all set on trying to live forever and become immortal. He was surrounded by corrupt and useless officials: Zai Jing and Wong Yu only knew how to raise taxes and skim off the top. Tong Guan and Liang Shichen were eunuchs that only knew how to suck up. Gao Qiu and Li Bangyan only knew how to lie around and get girls for the emperor. The emperor did not attend to official matters at all; if he wasn't going off to visit monks to ask for guidance, then he was traveling around in search of rare and interesting looking rocks. Once the Jin came, he became a turtle, hiding in his shell and passing the throne to his son, Qin Zong. At that time Li Gang was defending the capital Bianliang and fought off the Jin army. But who would think that Qin Zong would believe some rumors that were started by corrupt officials and dismiss Li Gang. On top of that, he did not replace Li Gang with another experienced and able general. Instead he put the defense of the capital in the hands of a self-proclaimed “Ambassador from the Gods” named Gao Zong and asked him to invite the Army of Heaven to defend the city. The Army of Heaven did not show up. How could we not lose the capital? At last both Hui Zong and Qin Zong were captured by the Jin army. These two fools had it coming and got what they deserved. But they also brought disaster to millions of Chinese peasants who did nothing to deserve it."

Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin were just getting madder and madder. Guo Xiaotian said: "We have all heard about the capture of the emperors, and the disgrace of the year of Jing Kang, many times. We have also heard about the 'Army of Heaven' talk before, but we just thought it was a joke or some unfounded rumor. Could this possibly be true?" Zhang Shiwu answered: "Absolutely true." Yang Tiexin added: "Afterwards Lord Kang declared himself emperor in Nanjing. He had under him such able and loyal generals as Yue Fei and Han Shizhong. If he had immediately attacked north, although he might not have reclaimed all the lost lands, he would have had no problem recapturing the capital Bianliang. But that hated traitor Qing Hui only wanted to negotiate; he did an about face and killed our beloved General Yue." [Note: the year of Jing Kang translates to A.D. 1127.] Zhang Shiwu poured a bowl of wine for all three of them and downed his bowl in one gulp. He went on: “Beloved General Yue once said these two lines: 'Only aspire to eat Tatar flesh, and chat away while drinking Hun's blood.' This poem conveyed what is in the heart of every Chinese. Ay! This traitor Qing Hui is awfully lucky. It’s a shame that we were born 60 years too late." Guo Xiaotian asked: "What do you mean?" Zhang Shiwu replied: "Then you two heroes would go into Linan and kill this traitor. Then the three of us would eat his flesh and drink his blood and there would be no more need for us to come here to eat peas and drink cold wine anymore!" All three of them laughed heartily at that comment.

Yang Tiexin noticed that the jug of wine had been emptied and ordered another one. The three of them just sat there cursing Qing Hui. The cripple placed another dish of peas as well as a dish of peanuts on the table. Hearing the three men's spirited cursing of Qing Hui, he suddenly let out a rather loud snort.

Yang Tiexin turned to him and asked: "Qu San, what's the matter? You don't think we are wrong to curse at Qing Hui do you?" Qu San, the cripple, answered: "Good cursing! Great cursing! There’s nothing wrong with that. It is just that I have heard that Qing Hui wasn't the chief culprit in killing Yue Fei in order to negotiate peace." The three men asked in surprise: "Qing Hui wasn't the main culprit? Then who was?" Qu San replied: "Qing Hui was the Chancellor; whether or not peace was negotiated he still was and would keep on being Chancellor. But our beloved General Yue only wanted to destroy the Jin and bring back the two emperors Hui and Qin. Once those two emperors return, how do you suppose Emperor Gao Zong was going to keep his crown?" As soon as he finished saying what he said, he turned around and struggled back to the stool, and returned to staring at the sky as if in a trance. Qu San's face looked no older than twenty something, yet he was hunched over, with traces of white in his hair. From the back, he looked like an old man.

Zhang Shiwu and the two men looked at each other in silence. After a while, Zhang Shiwu spoke up: "That is so true! Sir, you have really hit on something! The real culprit behind the killing of our beloved General Yue could very well not be Qing Hui, but Emperor Gao Zong. This Emperor Gao Zong was shameless to begin with, he definitely could do something like that!"

Guo Xiaotian asked: "Is he really that shameless?" Zhang Shiwu replied: "Back when the beloved General Yue had just beaten the Jin army in several battles in a row, along with the rebellion of our patriotic brothers in the north, we had the Jin army against the wall. The Tatars were just beginning to panic wondering what to do, when suddenly Gao Zong sent them a letter of surrender and asked for peace negotiations. Naturally the Jin Emperor was ecstatic, but he replied: 'There will be no peace negotiations unless Yue Fei is killed.' So Qing Hui went about his evil plan and our beloved General Yue was killed in the Pavilion of Changes. The beloved General Yue was killed November of the 11th year of Zhao Xing. One month later, peace was agreed upon. The boundary between Song and Jin was drawn at the River Huai and Emperor Gao Zong called himself a subject of the Jin Emperor. How do you think the letter of surrender was written?" Yang Tiexin answered: "Shamelessly, of course."

Zhang Shiwu replied: "Of course! I happen to know what was written in the letter. It read: 'Your humble subject asks for forgiveness and mercy. If received, your subject will be forever grateful; our humble sons and descendants will forever be of service to your majesty. Your humble subject also swears to give yearly tribute in the amount of two hundred fifty thousand taels of silver and two hundred fifty thousand bolts of silk. Not only did he sell himself as a servant, but all of his descendants as well. Him becoming a servant is really no big deal, but is that not like saying that every Chinese is their servant as well?"

Bang! Guo Xiaotian slammed down hard onto the table again, this time tipping one of the bowls over, spilling wine all over the table. In anger, he shouted: “Shameless! Disgraceful! How did this sorry excuse of a man ever become an emperor?”

Zhang Shiwu continued: “When our nation heard about this treaty, there was not a person on the street who was not enraged. Those Chinese people north of the River Huai were especially grief stricken because they saw that our country is no longer whole. Gao Zong, knowing that his seat on the throne is secured, immediately rewarded Qing Hui for his ‘meritorious service’. Qing Hui was already Lord of Lu, and now Gao Zong added the title of Grand Marshall to his name, giving him almost supreme power under the emperor. Xiao Zong succeeded Gao Zong, and Guang Zong succeeded him; all the while the Jin are still controlling half of China. Now Emperor Qin Yuan has succeeded Guang Zong. He has been on the throne for 5 years now, mostly going along with what the Chancellor Han Tuozhou says. What is the future going to be like? He…he, it’s hard to say, hard to say!” During the last few words, he did not stop shaking his head.

Guo Xiaotian replied: “What’s so hard to say about it? This is the countryside and not like Linan where you might get your head cut off! There isn’t a person in the world that doesn’t call Han Tuozhou a crook! If you compare his betraying the country and oppressing the people, the man is practically a sworn brother of Qing Hui!”

Now that they were talking about current affairs, Zhang Shiwu was starting to feel a little tinge of fear and dared not criticize and talk straight from his heart as he did before. He downed another bowl and said: “Thanks to both of you gentlemen for the wine. May I offer a modest word of advice? I know both of you gentlemen are passionate men, but it is still most wise to be cautious in words and deeds so as to avoid any possible calamities. At this point, the most that us normal folk can hope for is to muddle along and do the best that we can. Ay! Just like the saying: “Surrounded by the mountains in the halls, when will the West Lake parties finally go? Southern fragrances intoxicate all, happily mistaking Hangzhou for Bianliang!”

Yang Tiexin asked: “What’s the story behind those four lines?” Zhang Shiwu answered: “There is no story. It is just a saying indicating that the officials of our Great Song dynasty only care about partying and drinking on the shores of the West Lake. They want to pretend that Hangzhou is our capital and never bother thinking about taking back our land and moving back to Bianliang again.”

By the time Zhang Shiwu said goodbye he was dead drunk. As he stumbled toward Bianliang, one could hear him muttering to himself the words of “River Soaked in Red” by Yue Fei: “Jing Kang’s Disgrace, still fresh in mind; people’s hatred, when will it stop? I drive my cart….”

Guo Xiaotian paid the tab and walked home with Yang Tiexin. The two of them lived right next to each other; after walking a short distance, they made it back to their homes. Guo Xiaotian’s wife Li was just chasing a chicken into a little trap. Turning around, she smiled and said: “You two went drinking again? Brother Yang, why don’t you and your wife come over for dinner tonight? We are going to cook a whole chicken.”

Yang Tiexin smiled back and answered: “Alright, I guess we are going to inconvenience you two once again. We have so many chickens and ducks to waste food on, but we can’t part with any of them.” Li replied: “Well your wife is just that kind hearted. She says that she raised those chickens and ducks since they were babies; how could she possibly kill them?” Yang Tiexin laughed and replied: “I told her that I would kill them if she can’t make herself do it, then she started crying. Ay! What can I do? Tell you what, tonight I’m going to go hunting and we’ll invite the two of you over tomorrow night!” Guo Xiaotian cut in: “We are family! Quit talking about who’s inviting who and who is not! Tonight we go hunting together!”

At midnight, Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin went into the woods 3.5 li west of the village, hoping to catch a boar or something of that nature. But after waiting for more than two hours, they heard nothing. Just as they were about to lose patience, they suddenly heard faint sounds of metal banging together coming from outside of the woods. They looked at each other, both wondering: "What's going on now?"

At that moment, from afar, there came the sounds of several men shouting: "Where do you think you are going?" "Stop this instant!" Then a shadow jumped into the woods. Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin finally were able to see the person now that he is in the moonlight. The two of them were shocked. For this man was the crippled owner of that wine shop in the village, Qu San. He thrust his left crutch onto the ground, producing a "Zeng sound". His body flew off the ground and behind a tree. This was a display of an incredible level of Qing Gong. Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin looked at each other again in astonishment, both of them thinking: "We had no clue that Qu San's kung fu is this good, and we have been living here for three whole years!" Both of them stayed hidden in the bushes, not daring to move or come out.

Footsteps keep on getting closer until three men had made it to the edge of the woods. They whispered something to each other and started to walk slowly into the woods. All three of them were dressed in military clothing and each of them had a saber in hand. In the moonlight, the sabers gave off a faint green glow. One of them shouted: "Damned cripple! Your old man here can see you, better quickly surrender and come out!" Qu San kept still behind the tree. The three men started waving their swords wildly, swinging and taking a cut at anything in their way. Very slowly, the three of them got closer and closer. Suddenly there came a faint thump. Qu San had thrust his right crutch out from behind the tree, hitting one of the men squarely on his chest. That man gave out a muffled groan before flying backwards and falling on the ground. The other two men immediately began to hack at Qu San.

Qu San gave his right crutch a push and jumped several feet to the left, avoiding the sabers. His left crutch immediately went straight for one of the men's face. The man's kung fu was not that bad either; he tried to parry the crutch with his saber. Qu San did not wait for the two to meet before withdrawing his crutch to support himself again. His right crutch came swinging in at the other man's waist. He used his crutches with great speed and quickness. Even though he always had to use one of them to support himself, leaving only one to fight with at all times, he was not losing to the men. Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin noticed that he was carrying a huge bundle on his back, seemingly very cumbersome. After some more fighting, one of the sabers came down and hit the bundle. "Dang!" The bundle ripped and the objects inside spilled onto the ground. Qu San took advantage of his temporary distraction and smashed down hard on the head of the man with his crutch. The man fell onto the ground without so much as a whimper. The only man left was by now scared to death; he turned around and started to run. Qu San took out something from his bosom and raised his arm very quickly. A ball-like object flew through the air in the moonlight, followed by a muted thump as the object hit the back of the man's head. The man let out a ghastly scream and dropped his saber as his arm started to swing wildly out of control. Slowly, he fell back and crumpled to the ground. After a couple of twitches, he stopped moving.

Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin had just witnessed Qu San kill three men in succession while displaying a level of kung fu that neither one of them had ever seen before. Both of their hearts were racing, afraid to even breath too loudly, for both of them were thinking the same thing: "He’d just killed government officials; that is a huge crime. We don't stand a chance if he finds us here and wants to kill us to keep this quiet."

Qu San turned around and slowly spoke: "Brother Guo, Brother Yang, you can come out now!" Once the two of them got over their shock, they had no choice but to step out of the bushes, although both of them were holding their pitchforks rather tightly. Yang Tiexin snuck a look over at Guo Xiaotian and the pitchfork in his hand and took two extra steps. Qu San smiled: "Brother Yang, your Yang Family Lance Technique (Yang Jia Qiang Fa) can be used with a pitchfork, but your sworn brother uses a pair of short halberds and the pitchfork does not fit his skills, so you step up in front of him. Such righteousness…such friendship!" Yang Tiexin, hearing Qu San spell out exactly what he was thinking, suddenly felt very exposed and couldn't decide what to do. Qu San continued: "Brother Guo, let's say you had your double halberd in hand. Do you think the two of you together can beat me?"

Guo Xiaotian shook his head: "No, we can't. The two of us must have been blind, living here together with you for all these years and not even noticing that you knew kung fu, let alone were a master."

Qu San shook his head and sighed: "I can't even use my legs, how can I be considered a master?" As if his spirits were waning, he continued: "Before I lost their use, would I have had so much trouble with several armed guards? Ay! I'm useless now! Useless!" Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin glanced at each other, not sure how, or should they, dare to respond. Qu San continued: "Would you two help out this cripple and bury these three bodies?" The two of them glanced at each other again, Yang Tiexin answered: "Alright!"

The two of them dug a big hole using their pitchforks and tossed the three bodies in. While they were moving the last body, Yang Tiexin notices that part of the black object was still sticking out of the back of the man's head. He gave it a good tug with his right arm and pulled it out. Turned out it was an Eight Diagram throwing weapon made out of iron, he wiped the blood off on the body and handed it back to Qu San. [The Eight Diagram is made of eight combinations of three whole or broken lines used in religious, mostly Taoist, ceremonies. The eight combinations usually surround a yin-yang symbol. The flag of South Korea is very similar except it has only four of the eight diagrams.]

Qu San took the Eight Diagram weapon and said: "So sorry for troubling you." He puts the Eight Diagram weapon back into his pocket. He then laid the piece of cloth that used to be his bundle onto the ground and started to put the objects that were scattered on the ground back into it. Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin finished putting dirt back into the hole, turned around and saw three rolled up paintings on the ground as well as many other bright and shiny metal objects. Qu San left out a golden jug and a golden bowl. After putting everything else back in the bundle, he held those two things up to Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin, saying: "These things were stolen by me from the Royal Palace in Linan. The emperor has done enough harm to the peasants; taking a little bit of what he stole from them isn't really a crime. Consider these two things a present from me."

The two of them couldn't believe that he was actually brazen enough to break into the Royal Palace and steal. Neither one of them dared to accept his gifts.

Qu San said in a stern voice: "Are you guys afraid to accept, or do you two not want to?" Guo Xiaotian replied: "The two of us did nothing to deserve such gifts and that's why we can't accept them. As for what happened tonight, you don't have to worry about a thing brother, neither one of us is going to let this secret get out." Qu San replied: "Hmph! Why should I be worried about you two leaking this secret? I know all about you two and your backgrounds; why else would I let you two leave here alive? Brother Guo, you are the descendant of Guo Sheng, one of the heroes of the Water Margins of Mount Liang. You use the halberd skill that is taught in your family, only the halberd is short instead of long, and has two blades instead of one. Brother Yang, you ancestor is Yang Zaixin, one of the generals who served under the beloved General Yue. You two are descendants of two patriotic heroes. When the Jin army conquered the North; you two began wondering the martial world and became martial brothers. And then the two of you moved to Ox Village together. Am I right so far?"

[Note: Those familiar with Heroes of the Water Margins should remember two characters that used halberds that are always together: Lu Meng and Guo Sheng. The nickname of Lu Meng was "Little Vassal" while Guo Sheng's was "Benevolent Aristocrat". They joined the rebellion at the same time and were always deployed in battle in pairs. The two of them even died together, smashed by rocks while attacking a higher position during the effort to quell the Rebellion of Fang La, who is the head of the Ming Cult mentioned later on in this novel and in Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber.]

The two of them, now knowing that Qu San knew their pasts inside out, were even more shocked. All they could do was nod.

Qu San continued: "Guo Sheng and Yang Zaixin were both rebels before going over to the government's side to fight for the Great Song Empire. Both of them have stolen from the thieving government. So tell me, are you two going to accept my gifts or not?" Yang Tiexin thought to himself: "If I refuse, then it will surely offend him." So he took the gifts from Qu San's hands and said: "We are very grateful for this. Thanks."

Qu San was pleased by this; he picked up the bundle and put it back onto his back. Turning around he said: “Time to go home." The three of them walked side-by-side out of the woods. Qu San said: "I got a couple of prize pieces tonight; two paintings by this Emperor Dao Jun and a sheet of his writing showing off his calligraphy as well. This fellow is no emperor, but his Red Green Plume and Thin Gold Form is indeed supreme in the world."

The other two men had no idea what in the world "Red Green Plume" or "Thin Gold Form" is, so all they did was nod in agreement. [Red Green Plume is a style of ancient Chinese painting featuring birds and animals with emphasis on the colors of red and green, obviously. Thin Gold Form is a style of calligraphy.]

After walking for a while, Yang Tiexin spoke up: "Earlier today you said that half of our Great Song's land was lost to the hands of Emperor Dao Jun. So what is so good about his paintings or writings? Why would you brother to go to such trouble and take such a big risk as to go into the Royal Palace to steal it?" Qu San smiled: "This is something that I guess you just won't understand." Guo Xiaotian spoke up as well: "If the Emperor Dao Jun can be so good at painting and writing, he must be pretty smart. It’s pity that he does not concentrate on being a good ruler. When I was little my dad told me that a person, no matter what he does, must concentrate on doing one thing. If he tries to learn a little bit here, do something there, in the end he will get nothing accomplished."

Qu San answered: "For a normal person, this is true. But in this world there is someone who is a genius at everything. From language to kung fu; including writing, painting, music, and Go [Weiqi]; from math to military tactics; even medicine, astrology, and the five elements; there is not a thing that he does not understand, not a thing he has not mastered. It's just that you guys won't ever meet him." He looked up at the waning moon, and let out a long sigh.

Under the moonlight, Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin suddenly noticed tears on Qu San's face. When the two of them got home, they buried the two golden objects deep within their backyard, not even telling their wives about it. After that night the two of them acted as if nothing had happened; they lived off their farms and whatever they caught and when there was spare time they practiced their kung fu. Even when by themselves, neither ever brought up what had happened that night. The two of them still visited the little wine shop occasionally for a couple jugs of wine. Qu San still served the wine along with some peas, peanuts, and other snacks that helped the wine go down. Afterwards he always went and sat down by the door and went off into his own little world, lost in his thoughts. It was as if that night had never happened. The only difference was that when Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin look at Qu San, their eyes were filled with respect.

Autumn slowly gave way to winter; the days just keep getting colder and colder. One night, with the cold north wind blowing, it started to snow. The day after that it continued to snow even more. The whole sky was filled with snowflakes and the ground looked like it was covered with precious jade, white as far as the eye could see. Yang Tiexin told his wife that tonight he is going to get some wine and food so that they can invite his sworn brother and his wife over so all of them can have a nice dinner and enjoy the snow. After lunch, he grabbed two big gourds and went off to the wine shop to get some wine. When he got there, he noticed that the door was shut tight; even the wine shop sign was taken down.

Yang Tiexin knocked on the door a couple of times and shouted: "Brother Qu San, I'm here to buy three liters of wine." No response came. After waiting a bit, he called out again and still no response came. He walked over to a window and looked inside, everything in the room is covered in a layer of dust. He thought to himself: "I haven't come here for several days; turns out that Qu San hasn't been here for several days as well. I hope nothing’s happened." So he had to brave the blizzard and walk to the wine shop 5 li away in Red Plum Village to get the wine as well as a chicken. When he got back he killed the chicken and gave it to his wife to take care of the rest. His wife's surname is Bao, and her given name was Xiruo. She's the daughter of a teacher at the private school in Red Plum Village. They have been married for a little under two years now. She put the chicken along with some cabbage, bean curd, and thin noodles made from bean starch (fen si) into a big pot. While the pot is boiling on top of a fire, she cut a plate of cured meat and cured fish. At dusk, she went over to the Guos’ and invited them over for some wine, food and to enjoy the snow.

Guo Xiaotian happily came over. His wife Li was not feeling very well for the last couple of days because of her pregnancy. She had been throwing up anything she eats, so she decided not to come over. Li's given name is Ping. She and Bao Xiruo are like sisters and the two of them chatted for a long time. Only after making her a pot of tea did she finally return home. When she got back she saw that the two men had already moved the charcoal stove onto the table to keep the wine warm. The two of them had already started.

Guo Xiaotian said: "Sister, we weren't patient enough to wait for you. Please come and join us." The two men has always gotten along and both are men of character, add that to the fact that in the country nobody really cares about the rules regarding men and women gathering together. Bao Xiruo smiled and nodded, putting some more charcoal onto the stove; she picked up another bowl for the wine and sat down beside her husband. She noticed that there are hints of anger on both men's faces; she smiled and asked: "Something wrong again? What's gotten the two of you so angry?" Yang Tiexin answered: "We were just talking about the stuff that goes on in the Imperial Court in Linan."

Guo Xiaotian added: "I was at the Joyful Rain Pavilion, the tea house at the head of the Tranquility Bridge, yesterday when I heard some people talking about that bastard, Chancellor Han Tuozhou. It didn't sound like they were making the stuff up either. One man said that no matter which official is filing a report, if the report does not have the words: 'Also present this -whatever - to the Chancellor', this bastard Chancellor does not even give the report another glance!" Yang Tiexin sighed: "When you have this kind of emperor, you'll get this kind of chancellor. When you have this kind of chancellor, then you'll get these kinds of officials. Big Brother Huang, who lives outside of Gushing Gold Gate of Linan, told me this story. One day he was cutting trees for firewood at the side of the mountain, when he suddenly saw a bunch of soldiers protecting a crowd of officials coming his way. It turned out that Chancellor Han Tuozhou was taking a sight seeing trip with all his underlings. He kept on minding his own business and went on cutting his trees. Suddenly he heard Han Tuozhou sighing and say: 'The bamboo fences and thatched cottage here really do make an extraordinary country scene. Pity it's missing the sounds of chickens crowing and dogs barking.' Soon after he said this, there suddenly came barking from the bushes." Bao Xiruo laughed a little: "That little dog really knew how to please." Yang Tiexin answered: "It sure did, after barking for a bit, it jumped out of the bushes. What kind of dog do you suppose it was? Turns out it was our dignified and honorable Magistrate from the city of Linan, His Excellency Zhao!" Bao Xiruo doubled over with laughter. Guo Xiaotian observed: "This little dog act by His Excellency Zhao has probably insured that he will be promoted very quickly." Yang Tiexin answered: "Of course, it's only natural."

The three of them drank for a while. The snow outside was coming down even harder, but with some wine in their bellies, all three of them felt very warm and cozy. Suddenly, from the east, there came the sound of footsteps on the snowy road. The footsteps were very rapid. The three of them looked out and saw a Taoist priest.

The Taoist priest is wearing a bamboo hat and a cape, but snow covered his body. There was a sword on his back and the yellow tassel hanging off the handle of the sword swung back and forth in the wind. Snow filled the sky, and a lonely figure was walking in the snow; such a grand and gallant scene. Guo Xiaotian spoke up: "This Taoist knows quite a bit of kung fu, he looks like a real man of honor." Yang Tiexin replied: "That's right. Let's invite him in for a couple of drinks and make friends with him." Both men loved to make new friends, so they both stood up and stepped outside. They noticed that the Taoist was already past them by more than two zhangs [1 zhang = 3.3 meters / approx 11ft] even though he is only walking. Such levels of qing gong [lightness kung fu] are rarely heard of in the world.

The two of them looked at each other in astonishment. Yang Tiexin yelled out: "Reverend, please stop!" The Taoist turned around and nodded at Yang Tiexin. Yang Tiexin continued: "With such weather outside, Reverend, why don't you come inside and drink a couple of bowls to warm up."

The Taoist sneered and in an instant arrived in front of them. Face full of disdain, he asked coldly: "You want me to stop, what for? Be frank and tell me!"

Yang Tiexin thought the Taoist's rudeness was completely uncalled for, so he just lowered his head and didn't bother to answer. Guo Xiaotian cupped his fist and replied: "The two of us were just sitting by the fire keeping warm and drinking wine when we saw the Reverend walking alone in the snow. So we boldly asked Reverend to join us, please forgive us for our offenses." The Taoist rolled his eyes and said rather loudly: "Alright, alright! If you want to drink, then let's drink!" And he walked through the door.

This made Yang Tiexin even madder, he grabbed the Taoist's left wrist, and with a pull he shouted: "You still haven't told us how to address the Reverend." Suddenly he felt as if he was grabbing onto a slippery fish rather than a hand as the Taoist's hand escaped his grasp. He knew he was in trouble and tried to back away; but before he could a pain shot through his wrist as the Taoist grabbed it. It was as if he was cuffed, and feeling both enormous pressure and heat, he hurriedly tried to struggle out of the Taoist's grasp. His entire right arm felt lifeless and weak, and his wrist was in great pain. Guo Xiaotian knew, judging from his blood red face, his adopted brother was getting the worst of it. He just wanted to make an acquaintance and wanted to avoid offending the Taoist; or anyone in the martial world for that matter. So he spoke up: "Reverend, please sit here." The Taoist sneered a couple of times more and let go of Yang Tiexin. He walked to the center of the room and sat down with a rather arrogant matter before saying: "The two of you are obviously from Shangdong, yet are here pretending to be farmers. It’s a pity that your accents are still obviously the Shangdong accent. Why would a peasant know any kung fu anyway?"

Yang Tiexin felt both embarrassed and angry as he walked into the backroom. He took out a small dagger from the drawer and hid it in this shirt before walking back out again. He poured out three bowls of wine and toasted one for himself, all the while not saying a word.

That Taoist just stared at the snow outside of the house with an arrogant look on his face, not drinking any wine nor saying anything. From the hostility on the Taoist's face, Guo Xiaotian figured that he is suspicious of trickery in the wine. So he took the bowl of wine in front of the Taoist and drank it. Then he said: "Wine gets cold very quickly. Reverend, let me get another warm one for you." He poured another bowl for the Taoist, which the Taoist drank down in one gulp. Afterwards the Taoist said: "Even if there were knockout drugs in the wine, it wouldn't affect me." Yang Tiexin finally had about all he could take: "We nicely invited you to come and have a drink with us, why would we try to harm you? If you plan to keep talking to us in such a manner, then please leave now! It's not like we had sour wine and rotten food that we can't get rid off!"

The Taoist ignored him and grabbed the wine gourd. Pouring and drinking, he downed three bowls in a row. Then he suddenly took off his bamboo hat and cape and threw them on the floor. Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin looked him over carefully. The Taoist is about thirty or so, squared faced with slanted eyebrows and a hint of redness. His eyes were bright and piercing. Next he untied the leather bundle on his back and threw it on the table. Immediately, Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin jumped up. Because from the leather bundle rolled out a bloody human head!

Bao Xiruo screamed in fear and ran into the back room. Yang Tiexin felt his chest to make sure the dagger was in place. The Taoist gave the leather bundle a shake and two more bloody objects fell out: a heart and a liver. From the looks of them they are probably not a pig’s heart and pig’s liver, but very likely human. Yang Tiexin shouted: "Taoist bastard!" as he took out the dagger and thrust it towards the Taoist's chest.

The Taoist snickered: "Eagle Talon. So you want to fight now?" He lightly hit Yang Tiexin's wrist with his left hand. Yang Tiexin felt a numbing pain in his wrist as his fingers lost all their strength. Before he knew it, his dagger had been taken away.

Guo Xiaotian was shocked to see all this. He knows that his adopted brother is the descendant of a renowned hero and, from their daily sparring, knows his family's kung fu is slightly superior to his own. But seemed as though he was nothing in front of this Taoist; the move that he just pulled off was obviously the ‘Bare Hand Seizes Blade’, was a skill that he had only heard off in the martial world. He immediately picked up the wooden bench that he was sitting on, waiting to block the dagger when the Taoist inevitably stabbed his sworn brother.

But the Taoist completely ignored them. He just wildly cut the human heart and liver to pieces with the dagger. Suddenly, he let out a huge roar, so loud that it rattled the tiles on the roof. He lifted up his right hand and brought it down hard, so hard that the contents on the table jumped at the impact. The two men looked over and saw he had just smashed the head’s skull bones to smithereens; even the middle of the table was cracked. The two of them were still recovering when the Taoist shouted: "Shameless scoundrels, the Reverend will today have to really break the no-killing rule!"

Yang Tiexin couldn't get any madder; he grabbed the iron spear that was leaning against a corner of the room and jumped outside. He shouted back: "Come on! Let's teach you a lesson in the art of the 'Yang Family Spear'!" The Taoist snickered a bit: "You think you are worthy enough to use the 'Yang Family Spear' based on all this fake bravado?" He walked out of the door as he was finishing the sentence.

Seeing the situation deteriorate to this point, Guo Xiaotian ran back to his house and got his double halberds. When he got back the Taoist was still standing there with his sword still in it’s sheath and his sleeves flapping noisily in the wind. Yang Tiexin yelled out: "Unsheathe your sword!" The Taoist replied: "Even if the two of you come at me together, I would still fight you with my bare hands."

Yang Tiexin made a gesture signaling that he is about to start and followed it with a ‘Poisonous Dragon Coming Out from the Cave’. The red tassel on his spear shook, creating a huge flash of red heading towards the heart of the Taoist. The Taoist was briefly surprised and praised: “Excellent!” His body went along with the spear and dodged to the left. His left palm spun around and came up to meet the spearhead in an attempt to grab it.

Yang Tiexin has worked hard with this spear since he was a little kid and had fully received his father's skills. The ‘Yang Family Spear’ is nothing to scoff at. Years back, Yang Zaixin took a spear and three hundred Song soldiers into battle against forty thousand Jin soldiers at the Little Merchant Bridge. In the battle, they killed more than two thousand Jin soldiers, not to mention one commander of ten thousand men, as well as more than one hundred commanders of one thousand men and one hundred men. Actually, the Jin arrows came flying in like rain; as soon as he was hit by an arrow he would break the wooden part off and keep on fighting. At last his horse got tripped up in mud and he finally gave his life for his country. When the Jin army burned his body, the amount of melted metal from the arrowheads topped an amazing two jins [1kg / 2.2lbs]. This battle shocked and frightened the Jin army and made the ‘Yang Family Spear’ famous in all of China.

Although Yang Tiexin is not as great as his forefathers, he does almost fully understand the spear skill inside out. So there he is, parrying, thrusting, swinging, flicking, blocking, fending, and obstructing. The point of the spear flashed silver, the tassel blurred red. What a spear skill! Yang Tiexin pulled out all the stops and his moves were swift and agile, changing and faking as if they were an illusion. But the Taoist's body followed the spear around, easily dodging forward and back, making him almost impossible to hit. After using all seventy-two moves of the ‘Yang Family Spear’, Yang Tiexin couldn't help but be anxious and upset. He turned around and walked away carrying the spear backwards. As expected, the Taoist started to chase very close behind. Yang Tiexin let out a big shout, held the spear with both hands, suddenly twisted his waist and extended his arms, and thrust the spear back right at the Taoist's face. This move was ferocious, for it is the move in ‘Yang Family Spear’ that is used to break an enemy formation and kill enemy generals, called the “Return Horse Spear”. Back before Yang Zaixin changed his allegiance to the Song army, when he battled Yue Fei, he used this exact move to kill Yue Fei's younger brother Yue Fan.

The Taoist, seeing that the spears had already arrived in front of him in an instant, couldn't help but praise: "Excellent move!" Smacking his hands together, he was able to clamp onto the spear point. Yang Tiexin gave one mighty push, but spear did not move at all. Shocked, he tried with all his might to pull the spear back. But it seemed as if the spear was caught underneath a mountain, with no chance at all of pulling it out. His face turned red as he tried three times more, but the spear still would not leave the Taoist's hands. The Taoist let out a hearty laugh; suddenly his right palm came up and with the speed of a lightning strike hit the handle of the spear. Yang Tiexin felt the part between the base of his thumb and index finger go numb and immediately released the spear, letting it drop onto the snow covered ground.

The Taoist smiled and said: "You are really using the ‘Yang Family Spear’. Sorry for any offense. Please honor me with knowing your surname." Yang Tiexin still hadn't recovered from the shock of all this, so he replied without much thought: "My surname is Yang, given name is Tiexin." The Taoist asked: "Are you related to General Yang, Yang Zaixin?" Yang Tiexin answered: "He's my great grandfather."

The Taoist cupped his fist and saluted: "I mistook the two of you for scoundrels, turns out that you are descendants of patriots, please forgive me. May I be so bold as to ask this gentleman's surname?" Guo Xiaotian answered: "Surname is Guo, given name is Xiaotian." Yang Tiexin added: "He's my martial brother, he is the descendant of Guo Sheng, one of the Heroes of the Water Margins of Mount Liang." The Taoist replied: "Your humble Taoist acted rashly and rudely, please forgive me." Then he saluted again.

Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin both bowed and cupped their fist and saluted back: "No problem, no problem at all. Would Reverend please come in for three more bowls?" Yang Tiexin quietly picked up his spear. The Taoist smiled and said: "Of course! I just got the urge to drink it up with you two."

Bao Xiruo was worried that her husband might get hurt, so she stood in the doorway anxiously observing. Seeing the three of them stop fighting and become friends, she felt greatly relieved and started to set the table back up.

After the three of them sat down, Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin asked the Taoist for his Taoist name. The Taoist replied: "My name is Qiu Chuji ” Yang Tiexin jumped up and shouted: "Ah Ya!" Guo Xiaotian was shocked as well: “elder ‘Eternal Spring’ (Chang

Chunzi)?" Qiu Chuji smiled and replied: "That's the name that my Taoist friends gave me, I do not dare to claim such a name." Guo Xiaotian replied: "The hero elder ‘Eternal Spring’ of the Quanzhen Sect, I am honored to make your acquaintance!" The two of them threw themselves onto the floor and saluted.

Qiu Chuji hurriedly helped them up and said while smiling: "I personally killed a traitor today. The government’s men were chasing me very closely, and you two gentlemen suddenly invited me in for a drink. This is the capital area and neither of you are normal farmers, so I became suspicious." Guo Xiaotian replied: "This martial brother of mine has always a temper. Before we entered he tried a hand move at Reverend, I think that probably furthered Reverend's suspicion." Qiu Chuji agreed: "How could a normal farmer be that strong? I thought that you two gentlemen were dogs of the government who were waiting here, undercover, for me. That's why I was so rude, too rash and rude." Yang Tiexin smiled and replied: "Can't blame those who don't know." The three of them laughed heartily. After several rounds of drinks, Qiu Chuji pointed at the head that is now in pieces on the floor: "This man's name is Wang Daokun, a traitor! Last year when the emperor sent him to pay respects to the Jin emperor on his birthday, this man actually started to collude with the Jin in their effort to invade the South. I chased him for ten days before finally getting him." The other two men had long heard in the martial world of elder ‘Eternal Spring’ Qiu Chuji's amazing kung fu and heroic character. Seeing his patriotism at this moment, killing a traitor for the country, they admired him even more. The two of them seized the opportunity to ask him some questions about kung fu, Qiu Chuji was only too happy to help.

Even though the ‘Yang Family Spear’ never met an enemy on the battlefield, when going up against a kung fu master, it seemed rather lacking. Although Qiu Chuji's inner and outer kung fu cannot be considered at the highest of levels, they are nevertheless of a very high level, how could Yang Tiexin last umpteen moves against him? It turned out that Qiu Chuji was surprised to see his skills, so he purposely yielded in order to make him use up all seventy-two moves of the ‘Yang Family Spear’ to make sure that it was authentic. If they were really going at it, Yang Tiexin's spear would have been knocked out of his hand in a few moves. At this point, Qiu Chuji observed that the ‘Yang Family Spear’ was intended to be used on horseback; if used on foot, then one had to be more creative and imaginative and not use it in a rigid fashion. The two men could not stop nodding upon hearing this. The ‘Yang Family Spear’ has always been a skill of the Yang males, so even though Qiu Chuji is very knowledgeable, he still did not fully understand the inner workings of the skill. So he asked Yang Tiexin a few questions about it as well.

The three of them had their ears turn warm from the wine and were really hitting it off. Yang Tiexin suggested: "We two brothers are really fortunate to be able to meet Reverend today. Reverend, why don't you stay a couple of days?"

Qiu Chuji was just going to answer before his face suddenly froze: "Someone is here for me. No matter what happens, you two stay inside and don't come out, understand?" The two men nodded. Qiu Chuji picked up the human head, walked out of the door, jumped up in a tree, and hid among its leaves.

Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin didn't really understand his strange actions, there were no noises whatsoever other than the howling of the wind. After a while, there came faint hoof beats from the west. Yang Tiexin thought: "The priest's ear is incredible." Then immediately his thoughts followed: "This Priest's kung fu is amazing, but compared with Qu San, who would come out on top?" After another while, the hoof beats got closer and closer. Finally, about twenty riders, all dressed in black, appeared out of the flying snow. Galloping, they arrived in front of the door.

The leader of the group suddenly pulled his horse to a stop and yelled out: "The footprints stop here. It looks like there's just been a fight." Several people behind him jumped off their horses and inspected the footprints in the snow.

The head of the pack ordered: "Search the house!" two more men jumped of their horse to knock on the door. Suddenly an object flew from the trees, hitting one of them on the head. The object was thrown with such an incredible amount of force that it smashed the skull of the man. The other men all started to yell and scream as several men surrounded the tree. One man picked up the object that was thrown and yelled in shock: "It's His Excellency Wang's head!"

The leader pulled out a saber and let out a loud yell. Quickly ten or so men surrounded the tree. He gave out another command and five men raised their bows and shot five arrows toward Qiu Chuji.

Yang Tiexin picked up his spear and was just about to go outside and help when Guo Xiaotian grabbed him and whispered: "Reverend Qiu told us not to go out. Besides, if he starts having trouble with their numbers, then it still won't be too late for us to help." Just as he finished, an arrow came screaming down from the top of the tree. Turned out Qiu Chuji had dodged four of the arrows and caught the last one, and then he just threw the arrow back down like a throwing weapon. With a scream of "Ah!", one of the men in black was hit and fell off his horse. His body rolled into a bush and stopped.

Qiu Chuji pulled out his sword and jumped down. The sword had just started flashing when two men were hit. The leader shouted out: "Bloody Taoist! It's you!" “Sha, sha, sha!” He made three short bows, and then his horse came forth as his saber came slashing through the wind. Qiu Chuji's sword continued to flash in the snow as two more men were hit and fell off their horse. Yang Tiexin was awestruck, knowing that even if he practiced kung fu for 10 more years, he still would not be able to even see such a sword clearly, much less fight back. If Qiu Chuji wasn't holding back just then, he would have been a dead man by now.

Qiu Chuji moved as if carried by the wind and now is fighting the rider with the saber. That man's saber skill was not bad, each move, be it a parry or a slash, came out ferociously. After fighting for a bit more, Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin both figured out that Qiu Chuji was prolonging their duel on purpose so as to use openings and breaks to pick off the other opponents. He was doing this in order to kill every one of the enemy; if the leader was killed, the rest might just turn and run for their lives, making it impossible to kill all of them.

After more fighting, there were only six or seven of them left. The leader knew he was not good enough, so he turned and tried to escape. Qiu Chuji reached out with his left hand and grabbed the horse's tail. With a slight pull, his body jumped off the ground. Before even landing on the back of the horse, his sword had already penetrated the man's back all the way out of his chest. Qiu Chuji threw down the body, grabbed hold of the reins, and started to chase the others. Silver colored iron horse shoes danced in the snow as silver flashes of his sword danced in the air. Amidst the screams, one body followed another onto the ground. Blood stained the ground, that was covered in pure white snow, to a deep red.

Qiu Chuji stopped and looked around. Seeing only several rider-less horses running off, he laughed heartily. Turning to the two men by the door, he waved and said: "How did you men like that?"

Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin had just opened the door and walked out, so they had not completely calmed down from what they just witnessed. Guo Xiaotian asked: "Reverend Qiu, who are these people?" Qiu Chuji replied: "We'll know when we search their bodies."

Guo Xiaotian searched the body of that saber using man and found an official document. It turned out to be an order from that very Magistrate Zhao, who had pretended to be a dog, saying that the Ambassador from Jin has ordered that the Song government troops and Jin troops to work together to catch the man that murdered Wang Daokun as soon as possible. Guo Xiaotian was just about to explode in rage when Yang Tiexin yelled out. In his hand were some tags found on the bodies of some other men, the tags were written in the Nuzhen language. It meant that within this group of men, there were several Jin soldiers.

Guo Xiaotian spoke up: "The enemy soldiers can do whatever they want, including capturing and killing, within our borders, and our Song officials are actually obeying orders from their Ambassador! What kind of world is this?!" Yang Tiexin sighed: "Even the Emperor of Great Song has to refer to himself as an official of the Jin emperor, so it's no surprise that our officials and generals are becoming their servants as well." Qiu Chuji bitterly said: "We priests are supposed to be merciful and benevolent in our hearts and actions. But then we see a bunch of traitors and enemies that do nothing but add to the suffering of our people, and I could never be merciful nor benevolent." The two other men replied at the same time: "You were right to kill them! They deserved to die!"

This small village did not have many people to begin with. Now with the blizzard blowing, nobody was coming out at night. Even if someone witnessed what just happened, they would have ran back home a long time ago. Who had enough guts to come out to inspect and ask questions? Yang Tiexin took out shovels and hoes and the three of them buried all of the bodies in one big grave.

Bao Xiruo picked up a broom and started to sweep all traces of blood on the snow. After a while, the smell of blood went straight to her stomach. Her eyes went blank for a second as she let out a little moan and sat down on the snow-covered ground. Yang Tiexin was shocked and immediately ran over to help her up, all the while asking over and over: "What's the matter?" Bao Xiruo's eyes were closed and she did not answer. Seeing her white face and feeling her cold hands, Yang Tiexin just got more and more worried.

Qiu Chuji came over, grabbed Bao Xiruo's right wrist, and felt her pulse for a bit. Suddenly he burst out laughing and said: "Congratulations! Congratulations!" Yang Tiexin was quite taken aback and asked: "What?" At this time Bao Xiruo suddenly woke up with a grunt. Seeing the three men standing around her, she can't help but feel a little shy and immediately walked back into the house.

Qiu Chuji said with a smile: "Your wife is pregnant!" Yang Tiexin couldn't quite believe it and asked: "Really?" Qiu Chuji smiled and replied: "Of all the things I learned in my life, I take comfort in saying that I know a little something about only three things. First is medicine, I couldn't master inner strength, but came into contact with a lot of medicinal and herbal knowledge because of that. The second thing is writing a couple of messed up lines of poetry. The little cat-like tricks called kung fu that I know can only be placed third." Guo Xiaotian replied: "Reverend, if your kung fu can only be called 'little cat-like tricks', then we two brothers can only lay claim to 'not even rat-like skills'!" The three of them finished burying the bodies while talking and laughing. After that they went back into the house and started on the food and drinks again. With all the Jin that Qiu Chuji killed today, all of them felt great joy and excitement.

Thinking about his wife's pregnancy, Yang Tiexin could not stop smiling. He thought: "Reverend here knows poetry, then that means he excels in all facets." So he suggested: "Brother Guo's wife is pregnant as well. Could we bother the Reverend to think of two names?" Qiu Chuji thought for a bit and said: "Brother Guo's child will be called Guo Jing, and Brother Yang's child will be called Yang Kang. It doesn't matter if they are boys or girls, they can still use these names." Guo Xiaotian replied: "Great! Reverend's reminding us two to remember the disgrace of the Year of Jing Kang, the humiliating capture of the two emperors."

Qiu Chuji replied: "That's right." He reached into his shirt, took out two daggers, and put them on the table. The pair of daggers are identical in everyway with a green leather sheath, gold hand guard, and ebony handles. He picked up one of the daggers and carved the words "Guo Jing" on the dagger's handle. Then he carved "Yang Kang" on the handle of the other dagger. He carved with great speed and quickness, faster than most people can write. Before Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin figured out what he was doing, he had already finished carving the words. Smiling, he said: "I do not have anything else worthy with me, only this pair of daggers. Why not leave them for the two kids?" The two men thanked him and took their respective daggers. When the daggers were unsheathed, a sinister coldness came from them. Their blades were obviously very sharp.

Qiu Chuji explained: "This pair of daggers came into my possession by coincidence. Although they are sharp, their small design does not fit me at all. But the kids can use them to protect themselves. Ten years from now, if I’m lucky to be still in this world, I will come to this place again and teach the kids some kung fu. How does that sound?" The two men could not be any happier and thanked him repeatedly. Qiu Chuji concluded: "The Jin are occupying the north and torturing the people there. This situation cannot last long. Gentlemen, please take care of yourselves." He picked up his bowl of wine and downed it in one gulp. Then he got up and walked out of the door. Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin jumped up to try to invite him to stay. But his steps were fast and steady as he was already very far away.

Guo Xiaotian sighed: "Masters like him are always coming and going like the wind. We were lucky to make his acquaintance today, I was thinking of talking to him and asking for his views a bit more. But alas, it was not to be." Yang Tiexin smiled and replied: "Big Brother, at least Reverend Qiu was able to kill many Jin today and vented some of our anger for us as well." He held up the dagger and unsheathed it again. Gently stroking the blade, he suddenly spoke up: "Big Brother, I have a stupid idea, tell me what you think of it?"

Guo Xiaotian asked: "What is it?" Yang Tiexin explained: "If both our kids are boys, then they will be sworn brothers. If they are girls, then they'll be sworn sisters ” Guo Xiaotian cut in: "And if it is a boy and a girl, then they'll be husband and wife." The two of them

grabbed each other's hand and laughed heartily.

Bao Xiruo came back out from the sleeping room, smiled, and asked: "What has made you two so happy?" Yang Tiexin repeated what they just said to her. Bao Xiruo blushed, but she was happy in her heart as well. Yang Tiexin suggested: "Let's trade daggers right now as a pledge to the engagement. If they turn out to be sworn brothers or sisters, we can still switch back. If they are a little couple ”

Guo Xiaotian joked: "Then I'm really very sorry, for both daggers would belong to my family then." Bao Xiruo laughed and replied: "You never know, maybe they will both belong to our family instead." So the two men switched daggers right there. Actually, arranging marriages before a child is born happens very often, there was nothing unusual about it.

Guo Xiaotian took the dagger and happily ran back home to inform his wife. When Li Ping heard it she was quite happy as well.

Playing with the dagger and drinking by himself, Yang Tiexin was drunk before he knew it. Bao Xiruo helped her husband onto the bed and collected the dishes and bowls. Noticing that it is quite late, she went out to the backyard and collected the chicken cages. As she was closing the back door, she suddenly saw some drops of blood in the snow just in front of the door. Startled, she thought: "So not all of the blood was taken care off. If some official sees this, then we will all be in trouble." So she hurriedly grabbed a broom and started sweeping.

The drops of blood led all the way to the woods behind the house. There were also traces of someone crawling along in the snow. Bao Xiruo’s suspicions rose as she followed the blood trail into the pine trees. She arrived behind an old grave and saw something black curled up on the ground.

Bao Xiruo walked closer for a better look. Turned out it was a corpse. The man was covered in black, obviously one of the men that came for Qiu Chuji earlier. He probably didn't die right away after being wounded and crawled here. She was just about to go wake her husband to take care of this corpse when she suddenly thought: "What if someone came and saw him right at this moment?" So she summoned up her strength and went over to the corpse. She wanted to pull it into a bush close by and then go get her husband. But just as she gave a pull, the corpse suddenly twitched and groaned.

This scared the wits out of her, thinking it was a zombie; she wanted to turn around and run for her life. Yet it was as if her feet were nailed to the ground, she could not move at all. After a long wait, seeing that the corpse did not move again, she gently nudged it with her broom. The corpse groaned again, but this time much weaker. Only now did she realize that the person was still alive. She looked closer and saw that the back of his shoulder had been hit by a ‘wolf fang’ arrow. The arrow was embedded deep and the arrow shaft was covered in blood. Snow was still falling and there was already a thin layer of snow on his face. It would only be a little while longer before he is frozen to death.

She had always been kindhearted ever since she was little. If she saw an injured sparrow, frog, or even a bug, she just had to take it home and take care of it until it had fully recovered. Only then would she release it. If for some reason she couldn't nourish it back to health, she would be unhappy for an entire day. This little quirk of hers never changed with her age and led to her house ending up crawling with small critters of many kinds. Her father, being the time-tested country scholar that he was, gave her a name that went along with this personality of hers: Xiruo, meaning weak or compassionate. The Bao family in Red Plum Village had an unusually high number of old roosters and hens. This was because once Bao Xiruo had taken care of a chick; she would never allow it to be killed. If her parents wanted to eat one, they would have to go and buy one at the market. So the chickens that the family raised all lived to a very old age before dying. Because Yang Tiexin loved this flower-like beauty that is his wife, he always went along with whatever she wanted. So naturally, the yard of the Yang house had become a haven for chickens, ducks and other little critters as well. The little chicks and ducklings have slowly grown to be adult chickens and ducks. There weren't any old chickens or ducks because she hadn't been in this household for very long. But if things continued as they were, it would only be a matter of time.

Right now, seeing this man lying in the snow about to die, her kind heart started to react. Even though she clearly knew that this man was not good, she couldn't just watch him bleed and freeze to death. She hesitated for only a second before running back to the house to discuss this with her husband. But Yang Tiexin was deep in sleep because of the wine, no matter what she did he wouldn't wake up.

Figuring that she should save the person first and then worry about the rest, she took out her husband’s blood clotting powder. Grabbing a small dagger, some pieces of cloth, and half a jug of warm wine that was on the stove, she ran back to behind the grave. That man was still lying on the ground, not moving. Bao Xiruo helped him sit up and slowly poured the leftover wine in the jug into his mouth. She had been taking care of and curing animals ever since she was little, so she had a little bit of medical knowledge. The arrow had embedded itself deep inside of him, pulling it out might cause blood to shoot out of him and kill him. But if the arrow isn't pulled out, there will be no way to start taking care of the wound. So she gritted her teeth, cut open the flesh around the wound using the dagger, grabbed a hold of the arrow shaft, and gave one hard pull. The man let out a tortured scream and passed out. Blood shot out of the wound as Bao Xiruo's shirt was covered with little specks of blood, but that arrow had been pulled out. Bao Xiruo's heart was beating wildly as she anxiously and hurriedly applied the blood clotting powder onto the wound and firmly bandaged it with the pieces of cloth. After a while, the man slowly began to come around, but was too weak and tired to even make a sound.

Bao Xiruo had been frightened to the point that there was no way for her to gather up enough strength to help move this man. Suddenly an inspiration came to her, she went back home and grabbed a door plank. She dragged the man onto the door plank and then pulled the door plank along the snow, as if she was pulling a sled. She pulled him back into the house and set him up in the barn. After being fully occupied for so long, only now did she get the chance to calm down. She changed out of her bloodied shirt and washed her hands and face. She poured out a bowl of unfinished chicken soup, grabbed a candle, and went to the barn once again to check on the man. When she arrived the man's breathing was weak but steady. Bao Xiruo felt a little better and started feeding him the chicken soup. The man drank down half a bowl before suddenly breaking out in a violent coughing bout.

Startled, Bao Xiruo held up the candle for a closer look. Under the candlelight, she saw the man's delicate features and rather high bridged nose. He was actually a very handsome young man. Her face suddenly flushed and her left hand shook, disturbing the candleholder and several drops of wax fell onto the man's face.

That man opened his eyes. In front of him was a face as beautiful as a flower, cheeks blushing red, and eyes like twinkling stars, filled with both sympathy and bashfulness. It was as if this was a dream and he couldn't help but become spellbound.

Bao Xiruo whispered: "Feeling any better? Here, drink the rest of this bowl of soup." That man tried to take the bowl in his hands, but he had no strength in his hands whatsoever and almost spilled it on himself. Bao Xiruo immediately grabbed the bowl back. At this time the most important thing is to save a life, so she fed him the soup little by little.

After drinking all of the soup, that man's eyes slowly gained back some life. He stared at her, obviously grateful beyond words. But Bao Xiruo was getting embarrassed by the stare. So she grabbed some straw, put it on him to keep him warm, and went back into the house with the candle.

She did not sleep well at all for the rest of the night and she had several nightmares in a row. Suddenly she would see her husband spearing that man to death. But then she would see that man killing her husband with a saber and then start to chase her; she was surrounded by darkness and had no where to run or hide. Several times she was frightened awake by her dreams and was covered with a cold sweat. When she woke up in the morning, her husband had already gotten up. Seeing him grinding the head of his spear, her dreams of last night came rushing back into her mind. She anxiously made her way to the barn and pushed open the door. Even more startling, there was nobody in the barn, only a messed up pile of straw. The man had disappeared.

She ran to the backyard and noticed the backdoor was only half-closed. The snow showed the traces of someone crawling and rolling toward the west. She stared at the traces and became lost in thought. After a long while, a gust of wind blew in her face as she suddenly felt a pain in her stomach and her legs felt weak. Sleepy, she walked back to the main room. Yang Tiexin had already made some porridge and put it on the table. Smiling, he said: "See, my porridge isn't that bad after all." Bao Xiruo knew that her husband is being even more considerate because of her condition. She smiled, sat down, picked up the bowl, and started to eat the porridge. She figured that if she told her husband about what happened last night, he would be jealous and angry. He would no doubt chase the man down and kill him. Wouldn’t that be the same as her killing the man? So she decided to never mention it ever.

Winter ended and spring returned. In a blink of an eye several months had passed. Bao Xiruo's stomach slowly got bigger and she began to feel more and more tired. The incident of that night when she saved a man gradually slipped from her memory. On this particular day, the Yang family had just finished dinner and Bao Xiruo was sitting by a lamp working on a new pair of trousers for her husband. Yang Tiexin was hanging up on the wall the two pairs of straw sandals he just finished. Remembering that he broke the head of the plough while working in the fields earlier that day, he turned to Bao Xiruo and said: "The head of the plough is broken. Tomorrow I'll go to Zhang Mu’Er on the east side of the village and have him add a bit of iron and take care of it." Bao Xiruo replied: "Alright." Yang Tiexin looked at her and said: "I have enough clothing already. Your body is weak and is carrying a baby, you should rest as much as you can. Don't worry about making clothes for me anymore." Bao Xiruo turned her head towards him and smiled, but her hands did not stop. Yang Tiexin walked over and gently took the needle and thread out of her hand. Only then did Bao Xiruo let out a yawn, blew out the lamp, and went to bed.

At midnight, Bao Xiruo was suddenly snapped out of her dreams by the sound of her husband sitting up. Faint sounds of hoof beats could be heard coming from very far away. The sound came from the west. After a while, hoof beats started coming from the east and followed by sounds coming from north and south. Bao Xiruo sat up and asked: "How come there are horses in all four directions?" Yang Tiexin jumped out of the bed and started to put on cloths. Soon, the hoof beats were getting closer from all four directions and the dogs in the village started to bark. Yang Tiexin replied: "We are surrounded!" Shocked, Bao Xiruo asked: "What for?" Yang Tiexin replied: "I don't know." He handed the dagger that Qiu Chuji gave him to his wife and said: "Take this, to protect yourself!" He took down a spear from the wall and firmly held it in his hands. By now the horse neighs and the human voices from all four directions were loud and chaotic. Yang Tiexin opened up a window and looked outside. A group of soldiers, with torches in hand, had already surrounded the entire village. Seven or eight of them were galloping back and forth on horseback.

The soldiers shouted as one: "Catch the traitors, don't let them get away!" Yang Tiexin thought to himself: "Are they here to catch Qu San? I haven't seen him around recently. Luckily he isn't here, otherwise there is no way he could beat all of these soldiers, no matter how great his kung fu is." Suddenly one of the men on a horse shouted: "Guo Xiaotian, Yang Tiexin. You two traitors come out now and get what's coming to you!"

This shocked Yang Tiexin and Bao Xiruo's face turned white. Yang Tiexin whispered to her: "I don't know what's gotten into the authorities, they only know how to malign us normal citizens. We won't stand a chance with them. The only thing we can do is run for our lives. Don't panic, with this spear of mine, I can assure you that we'll get out of here." His kung fu was good and had made a living in the martial world before. So even though he was in grave danger, he did not panic. He put a bow and arrow bag onto his back and grabbed his wife's right hand.

Bao Xiruo spoke up: "I'll pack." Yang Tiexin replied: "Pack what? We are leaving everything!" Bao Xiruo's heart suddenly trembled as tears rolled down her cheeks. She said in the shaking voice: "What's going to happen to our home?" Yang Tiexin answered: "All we need to do is to survive. We can start another home somewhere else." Bao Xiruo asked: "What about these little chicks and ducklings and cats?" Yang Tiexin sighed: "Silly, why are you still worrying about them?" After a pause, he tried to console her: "Why would the authorities bother the little chicks, ducklings and cats?"

Just as he finished his sentence, the light from the torches outside fluttered. The soldiers had just lit two thatched cottages on fire. Two more foot soldiers were heading this way with torches to light this house on fire, all the while shouting: "Guo Xiaotian, Yang Tiexin. If the two of you don't come out now, we'll burn all of Ox Village down to the ground!"

Yang Tiexin had about all he could take, so he opened up the door and walked out. He shouted at the top of his lungs: "I am Yang Tiexin! What do you people want?" The two foot soldiers were shocked and they dropped their torches, turned around, and ran back. In the firelight, a man rode forth on his horse and shouted: "Good, so you are Yang Tiexin. Come with us to the magistrate. Seize him!" At once four or five foot soldiers ran up. Yang Tiexin twirled his spear, swung a ‘White Rainbow in the Sky’ move, and swept three of the soldiers onto the ground. He followed it up with the ‘Madly Deafening Spring Thunder’ move as he picked up a soldier by the spear shaft and threw him into the crowd. He shouted: "If you want to arrest me, first tell me what crimes I committed."

The man shouted back: "Traitor! How dare you resist arrest?" Even though he was calling him names, he nevertheless feared his foe's courage as well as skill and was afraid to get any closer. Another man on horseback behind him shouted: "Just come with us to the courthouse peacefully, that way there won't be more punishments added to your crimes. We have the official document for your arrest here." Yang Tiexin replied: "Let me see it!" That man replied: "What about the other traitor, Guo Xiaotian?"

Guo Xiaotian stuck half of his body out of a window with his bow and arrow in hand and shouted: "Guo Xiaotian is here!" The arrow was aimed at the man on horseback.

The man's heart felt all fluttery as cold waves of fear washed up his back. He shouted: "Put down your bow, and then I'll read the document to you." Guo Xiaotian viciously shouted back: "Read it now!" He pulled his bow full draw. Seeing that he had no say in the matter, the man brought up the document and read aloud: "Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin of Ox Village of the Prefecture of Linan colluded with traitors and criminals with intentions of wrong doing. Capture them and bring them in to be strictly judged by the law." Guo Xiaotian asked: "Which official issued the order?" The man replied: "Chancellor Han himself."

Both Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin were shocked by this: "What could be so important that Han Tuozhou himself got involved? Could it be that Reverend Qiu's actions that night were discovered?" Guo Xiaotian asked: "Who is the plaintiff? Based on what evidence?" That man shouted back: "We only worry about capturing you guys, if you want to plead your case then come to the courthouse with us." Yang Tiexin shouted back: "Chancellor Han only knows how to do harm to us good honest people, everyone knows that! We won't fall for that lie!" The leader shouted in response: "Refusing arrest! That is another crime to your sheet!"

[Actually Han Tuozhou is not as bad as portrayed in the book. Between Yue Fei's execution in 1142 and Han Tuozhou's ascension as head chancellor in 1206, the Southern Song emperors did not once invade the Jin territories in an attempt to reclaim some lands. Only after Han Tuozhou became chancellor was another attempt was made. However, this attempt was poorly planned and general preparations were lacking. On top of that add the internal conflicts within the imperial court, and it is no surprise that it failed. Ning Zong, the emperor at the time, and a bunch of officials favoring peace executed Han Tuozhou and presented his head to the Jin emperor as a show of their willingness for peace. This was the last attempt by the Southern Song dynasty to drive out the Jin. So Han Tuozhou was actually a patriot who died for his country instead of how he is portrayed in this book.]

Yang Tiexin turned toward his wife and said: "Quickly put on some more clothes. I'll go get his horse for you. Once I shoot down the leader, the rest of them will panic." The sound of bow being released was followed by a meteor-like arrow hitting the leader's right shoulder. The leader let out an "Ai-Yo!" before tumbling down onto the ground. All the soldiers shouted in surprise. Another official shouted: "Seize them!" All the soldiers came rushing forth. The two men were shooting arrows one after another and in an instant, they had already shot down six or seven soldiers. But there were too many of them and they still managed to charge to the front of both houses.

With a loud shout, Yang Tiexin jumped out of the door with his spear making the soldiers back up in surprise and fear. He jumped to the side of an official that was riding a white horse and thrust the spear at him. The official tried to parry with his spear but the ‘Yang Family Spear’ was too fast; Yang Tiexin's spear flashed down and hit the official on his leg. He then lifted his spear up and flipped the official off his horse.

Yang Tiexin put his spear shaft on the ground and pushed off, jumping onto the horse. He squeezed his legs, making the horse neigh and gallop towards the house. Yang Tiexin killed a soldier by the door with a thrust, leaned down, extended his arms, grabbed Bao Xiruo, and lifted her up onto the horse as well. He then turned and shouted: "Brother, follow me!" Guo Xiaotian was waving his twin halberds and protecting his wife as he charged out from the crowd. Seeing the ferocity of the two men, none of the soldiers dared to get any closer. So they started to shoot arrows at them.

Yang Tiexin made his horse run to Li Ping's side and shouted as he jumped off: "Sister, get on!" Li Ping anxiously said: "That won't be any good." Yang Tiexin didn't care what she said and threw her onto the horse. The two sworn brothers followed behind the horse and slowly walked off while battling off the soldiers.

After a bit of walking, they suddenly heard loud shouting coming from ahead as another group of soldiers came charging in. The two men silently groaned. As they were looking for another direction to run, arrows started coming in from ahead. Suddenly, Bao Xiruo screamed: "Ai-Yo!" Her horse was hit by an arrow and it fell over, throwing the two women on its back off. Yang Tiexin said: "Brother, you guard them; I'll go get another horse." He charged toward the crowd of soldiers. Ten or so soldiers lined up, pointed their spears at Yang Tiexin, and let out a yell together.

Seeing the overwhelming number of enemies, Guo Xiaotian thought: "For us two brothers, escaping is not hard. But with enemies in front and behind, there is no way our wives can escape. It is not like we broke any laws, so going to the courthouse in Linan to argue our case is much better than dying here for no reason. When Reverend Qiu Chuji killed all of the men there, not a single one of them got away. Therefore there is nobody to prove we did it, so the court can't say for sure that we were guilty of anything. Besides, the two of us didn't kill any officials or Jin soldiers." So he yelled: "Brother, stop! Let's go with them!" Yang Tiexin was very surprised by this and ran back dragging his spear behind him.

The leader of this group of soldiers ordered the men to stop shooting and surround the two men. Then he shouted: "Throw down your weapons, and your life will be spared."

Yang Tiexin spoke up: "Brother, don't fall for their lies." Guo Xiaotian shook his head for a while and then threw his twin halberds onto the ground. Yang Tiexin looked over at his beloved wife and could not bear the frightened look on her face. He sighed and threw his spear on the ground as well. As soon as both of their weapons fell on the ground, ten or so long spears immediately came and surrounded the four of them. Eight foot soldiers walked up and tied the four of them up with their hands behind their backs.

Yang Tiexin held his head up high and sneered. The leader of the group lifted his horse whip up and smacked Yang Tiexin squarely on his face: "Damn traitor! Do you really want to die?" A welt appeared on Yang Tiexin's face from his forehead all the way down to his neck. In rage, Yang Tiexin replied: "Ok! What is your name?" That official got even madder as his whip came down like rain: "This old man is Duan Tiande! Remember that? When you get to the gates of hell you can tell them all about me!" Yang Tiexin did not back down or flinch as he stood there staring at him. Duan Tiande continued: "I got a knife scar on my forehead and a birthmark on my face! Can you remember all that?" His whip came down again.

Seeing her husband being treated like this, Bao Xiruo cried out while tears rolled down her cheeks: "He's a good man and has done nothing wrong. Why are you... you beating him? Don't... Don't you know anything about justice?" Yang Tiexin suddenly spit at him, hitting him on the face. Furious, Duan Tiande pulled out his saber and screamed: "I'm going to kill you traitor, right now!" He brought his saber up and swung it down. Yang Tiexin sidestepped the strike. The two foot soldiers by him pushed their spears up against his sides to stop him from moving as Duan Tiande chopped down once again. With nowhere to dodge on the sides, Yang Tiexin could only jump back to avoid the strike. It turned out this Duan Tiande knows a little bit of kung fu, even though he missed again, he immediately thrust his saber forward. The saber he was using was saw-toothed and with his move he sawed a gash on Yang Tiexin's left shoulder. He then immediately followed it with another chop.

Seeing that his sworn brother's life was in grave danger, Guo Xiaotian suddenly jumped up and aimed his feet at Duan Tiande's face. In shock, Duan Tiande brought his sword back to parry this away. Even though Guo Xiaotian's hands were tied behind his back, his footwork was still quite formidable. So before his body fell down, he twirled his left leg and brought it back and at the same time sent out his right leg, hitting Duan Tiande in his stomach.

In extreme pain and rage, Duan Tiande shouted: "Stick those spears in them! Orders from above, if the traitors resist arrest, kill them all!" The soldiers thrust with their spears. Guo Xiaotian kicked down two soldiers in a row, but having his hands tied behind his back was restricting his quickness as he had to jump away from the spears. Duan Tiande came up from behind him and swung down hard, chopping Guo Xiaotian's entire right arm off at the shoulders. Yang Tiexin was trying to struggle out of the ropes but could not, no matter how hard he tried. Suddenly seeing his sworn brother wounded on the ground, a surge of strength came from somewhere inside him and he snapped the ropes from his body, punched a soldier, grabbed his spear, and whipped out the ‘Yang Family Spear’. This time he was fighting without regard for his own life; it was as if he could take on tens of thousands of soldiers all by himself. He had just started but had already taken down two soldiers.

Seeing that the situation had turned, Duan Tiande immediately backed away. The last time, Yang Tiexin was holding back somewhat, not really wanting to kill government soldiers; but now he could not care less. Flicking right and swinging left, he killed several soldiers in an instant. Seeing his ferociousness, the rest of the soldiers scattered at once.

Yang Tiexin did not bother chasing them as he helped his sworn brother sit up. Blood was gushing from where Guo Xiaotian's arm was chopped off and by now his whole body was covered in blood. Yang Tiexin could not stop tears from falling at the sight. Guo Xiaotian gritted his teeth and shouted: "Brother, don't worry about me... leave, leave now!" Yang Tiexin replied desperately: "I'm going to get a horse, and then I'm going to fight until I die to make sure you escape." Guo Xiaotian faintly replied: "No... no " He passed out. Yang

Tiexin took off his outer shirt so he could bandage up the wound. But Duan Tiande had chopped off his shoulder and portions of his chest as well; the wound is almost half-a-body in length and impossible to bandage up. Guo Xiaotian slowly came to and shouted: "Brother, go save our wives. I... I can't... make it " Before he finished what he was saying, he slumped over and died.

The two sworn brothers always thought of each other as real blood brothers. Seeing his brother die like this, a phrase popped up amidst the anger and the rage in Yang Tiexin's mind. It is the phrase that they said when they became sworn brothers: "Hope to die on the same day of the same month of the same year." He lifted his head up to look around. The two wives had gone missing in all the chaos. He screamed: "Brother, I'm going to avenge your death!" He grabbed his spear and ran toward the crowd of soldiers. By now, the soldiers had already lined up in formation. Duan Tiande issued an order and immediately arrows flew towards him. Yang Tiexin did not care, as he knocked the arrows out of the way and charged ahead. An official swung the saber in his hand down hard at Yang Tiexin's head. Yang Tiexin ducked and suddenly scrambled underneath the belly of his horse. That official was just about to turn his horse around when a spear penetrated through his heart from the back. Yang Tiexin threw off the corpse and jumped onto the horse. Waving his spear around, none of the soldiers dared to come closer to battle and they started to run off.

After chasing for a while, he suddenly saw an official running away as fast as he could with a woman in his arms. Yang Tiexin jumped off his horse and knocked down a foot soldier. Picking up the soldier's bow and arrow, he aimed the best he could in the dim fire light and let loose. The arrow hit the horse's behind, making the horse kneel down all of the sudden. The two people on the horse came tumbling off. Yang Tiexin let loose another arrow and killed the official. Running up he saw that the woman on the ground, who was now trying to sit up, is his wife.

Overwhelmed with surprise and excitement upon seeing her husband, Bao Xiruo jumped into his arms. Yang Tiexin asked: "Where's our sister-in-law?" Bao Xiruo answered: "Ahead, with with more soldiers." Yang Tiexin instructed: "You stay here and wait for me.

I'm going to save her." Bao Xiruo suddenly said in shock: "But there are more soldiers coming from behind!"

Yang Tiexin turned around and, as she had said, there really was a group of soldiers coming this way with torches in hand. Yang Tiexin gritted his teeth and said: "Brother is dead. No matter what, I have to save Sister-in-Law to save the Guo family bloodline. If the heavens pity us, there will be a day when we meet again." Bao Xiruo put her arms around her husband's neck and would not let go. She said in between sobs: "We'll never be apart, you said it yourself, even if we die we will die together! Remember? You said it yourself!" Yang Tiexin's heart went sour for a moment as he picked up his wife and gave her a kiss. Then despite every part of his heart not wanting to, he shook free of her arms and charged forward with his spear. After charging for ten steps he turned around and saw that his wife was sobbing in a cloud of dust and the soldiers had already arrived at her side.

Wiping away the sweat, blood, and tears on his face, Yang Tiexin threw his consideration for own life out and thought only about saving Li to make sure that his sworn brother had descendants. After chasing for a while, he got another horse. After grilling an official, he found out that Li was just a bit ahead. So he raced on as hard as he could on the horse. Suddenly, he heard the cries and screams of a woman coming from the woods by the path. He immediately turned the horse and charged into the woods. Li had freed her hands from the ropes and was desperately fighting off two foot soldiers. Being born and raised on the farm, she was very strong for a girl; so although she did not know any kung fu, her desperate fighting was quite tough to handle. The two foot soldiers were cursing and laughing at her, but, at the moment, still could not quite handle her. Yang Tiexin did not bother to say anything and just charged up and killed the two soldiers with two thrusts. He then helped Li up onto the horse. The two of them rode back together, trying to find his wife. When they got back to the place where they parted ways, nobody was there. By now the sky is getting slightly brighter, so he jumped off the horse to inspect the ground. There were traces of someone being dragged away; his wife was probably captured by the soldiers again.

Yang Tiexin immediately jumped up onto the horse and gave the horse several wild kicks in the stomach. In great pain, the horse shot forward. Just as they were galloping at full speed, a bugle suddenly sounded to the side of the path and ten or so warriors clad in black charged out. The first one lifted up his ‘wolf fang’ club and smashed down. Yang Tiexin parried it with his spear and answered with a thrust. That man replied by swinging his club sideways. His club techniques were very unique, as if it wasn't a skill from the Central Plains.

When Yang Tiexin and Guo Xiaotian used to discuss kung fu and kung fu techniques, they talked about one of the Heroes of the Water Margins, Thunderclap Fire Qing Ming, who used to be the best in the world in ‘wolf fang’ club techniques. But outside of him, it was very rare to meet someone in the martial world who uses this weapon. Because of the sheer weight of the weapon, it required that the user had to have enormous upper back strength. However, the Jin army loved to use this weapon. This was because the Jin people lived in the freezing cold climate of Liaodong, so they were all very strong. When using this weapon on the battlefield, its heaviness gave them a distinct advantage. Back when the Jin invaded and defeated the Song armies using the ‘wolf fang’ club, the rage and anger of the peasants and farmers, resulted in a joke that went around. The first person said: "What's so scary about the Jin army? For any one thing they have, we have one thing to counter them." The second person responded: "They’ve got Acute." The first replied: "We’ve got Protector Han." The second went on: "They’ve got Crippled Horse." The first replied: "We got Thin Coarse Saber." The second said: "They’ve got the ‘wolf fang’ club." To which the first replied: "We’ve got the crown of our heads." Meaning that when ‘wolf fang’ club comes down, the farmers of Song could only meet it with the top of their heads. This joke is actually filled with bitterness and anger.

By now Yang Tiexin had fought several exchanges with this man with the ‘wolf fang’ club. Remembering his discussion with Guo Xiaotian, he became more and more suspicious. From the moves and techniques of this man, it was obvious that he was a Jin army official. What's he doing here? Several more exchanges passed when he suddenly quickened his spear moves and stabbed the man off his horse. The rest of them turned around and ran in shock.

Yang Tiexin turned around to check up on whether or not Li was hurt in that last fight. Suddenly an arrow was shot out from the woods. It caught Yang Tiexin by surprise and hit him from behind. In utter panic, Li shouted: "Brother Yang, arrow! Arrow!" Yang Tiexin's heart went cold: "So this is when and where I die! But I have to at least disperse these bastard soldiers before I die, that way Sister-in-Law can get away." So he waved his spear wildly and charged straight at an area crowded with soldiers. But the pain from the arrow in his back was too much and his eyes lost focus as he fainted.

Back when her husband pushed her away, Bao Xiruo felt as if her heart had been shredded. In a blink of an eye the soldiers made it to her side. Before she had time to run away, she was already tied up and thrown onto a horse. One of the army officials brought a torch up to her face and gave her a good look-over. Nodding, he said: "Hard to believe those two bastards could actually do a thing or two, and wounded so many of our men." Another official smiled and said: "Well, finally we can call an end to it and a job well done. After all that trouble, I would have to say that everyone deserves at least ten taels, or more, of silver each." The first official replied: "Hmph! Let’s hope the higher ups don't take it all for themselves." Turning around, he instructed the bugler: "Let's head back!" The bugler brought up his bugle and blew several notes. Bao Xiruo could only sob because all she could think about was her husband and whether or not he's still alive. By now the sky had brightened up somewhat and people are slowly appearing on the path. Seeing a group of soldiers, all of the farmers quickly got out of the way as far as they could. At first Bao Xiruo was worried that the soldiers might get ideas about her; but surprisingly these men actually were polite in their actions and words, so she slowly stopped worrying about it.

After several li, shouts suddenly came from ahead as ten or so armed men dressed in black came charging in from the side of the path. The leader of the group yelled: "Shameless scum! Killing good innocent people! Come down here at once and get what's coming to you!" The leading official was furious and shouted back: "Who do you think you dogs are, making trouble here in the outskirts of the capital? Get out of the way, now!" The gang of men in black did not reply as they charged into the soldiers. Even though there were more soldiers than they, the men in black were all well versed in kung fu, so neither side seemed to have gained an advantage for the moment.

Bao Xiruo was silently excited as she thought to herself: "Maybe Dear Tie's friends heard the news and came to rescue us." In the chaos of battle an arrow came flying in and hit the butt of the horse she was on. Driven by the pain, the horse ran off as fast as it could to the north. In utter shock, Bao Xiruo grabbed hold of the horse's neck with both arms in fear of falling off. The sound of hoof beats came as another horse chased up from behind. In an instant a black horse overtook her. The man on the horse twirled a lasso in the air a couple of times and skillfully tossed it around her horse's neck. The two horses galloped side-by-side. The man slowly shortened the lasso and together, the two horses gradually slowed down. After several more steps, the man whistled and the black horse immediately stopped dead in its tracks. Because of the lasso, Bao Xiruo's horse could not continue forward and reared up on its hind legs, neighing loudly. Bao Xiruo had been worn out by the events of the night. In a mixture of sadness and horror, she could no longer hang on to the reins. She fell off the horse and fainted.

After sleeping for what seemed like forever, she slowly woke up. It felt like she was sleeping on a very soft and comfortable bed with a thick cotton quilt over her; she felt warm all over. She opened her eyes and the first thing that she saw was the green colored canopy of a bed, as it turned out, she really was sleeping on a bed. A lamp was lit on the table by the bed and it seemed like there was a man dressed in black sitting by the bed. Hearing her turn, that man immediately stood up, parted the bed curtains, and quietly asked: "Are you awake?" Bao Xiruo hadn't completely recovered her consciousness; all she could tell was that this man was somewhat familiar. The man placed his hand on her forehead and gently said: "Still very hot, don't worry; the doctor will be here soon." In a daze, Bao Xiruo slowly fell back to sleep.

After a while, it seemed like a doctor was examining her and then someone was feeding her medicine. After that, all she could do was sleep. She snapped out of a dream and screamed: "Dear Tie! Dear Tie!" followed by someone patting her softly on the shoulder and gently consoling her.

The next time she woke up it was in the middle of the day and she couldn't help but groan. A person walked up and parted the bed curtains. This time as they faced each other, Bao Xiruo saw the face clearly. She was shocked; for this handsome, smiling man in front of her was the very man she’d saved from certain death in the snow several months ago.

Bao Xiruo asked: "Where am I? Where's my husband?" The young man waved his hand, telling her not to be loud and then lightly replied: "The soldiers are outside looking all over the place. Right now we are borrowing a room at a farmer's place. I’m very sorry, I had to lie and say that I am your husband, please don't accidentally tell them the truth." Bao Xiruo blushed and nodded, but she asked again: "Where's my husband?" The man answered: "Your body is very weak right now. After you get better, then I'll tell you everything."

Bao Xiruo was shocked and from his tone of voice, it seemed like something had happened to her husband. She grabbed the corner of her quilt tightly with both hands and asked in a shaking voice: "He... What... What happened to him?" The man only replied: "Worrying will accomplish nothing now. The most important thing is your health." Bao Xiruo kept on asking: "Is... Is he dead?" The man's face showed that he realized he had no choice in the matter so he gently nodded: "Mr. Yang was killed by those bastard soldiers." He shook his head and sighed. Bao Xiruo felt as if her heart was being torn and she fainted. When she came to after a long time, she started crying her eyes out.

That man gently consoled her. In between sobs, Bao Xiruo asked: "He... How did he die?" That man replied: "Was Mr. Yang a tall, broad-shouldered man around the age of twenty, and uses a spear as a weapon?" Bao Xiruo answered: "Yes, that's him." That man answered: "Earlier today I saw him fighting with several soldiers, killing a couple of them. But... ay! But one of the army officers snuck behind him and stabbed him squarely in the back with his spear."

Bao Xiruo fainted again. She did not drink nor eat for that entire day as she felt obligated to die with her husband. The man didn't try to force her either and he just talked to her in a very gentlemanly manner to keep her company. As this continued Bao Xiruo started to feel as if she was neglecting him, so she asked: "What is your name? How did you know that we were in trouble and come to help?" The man replied: "My surname is Yan, given name is Lie. My friends and I were just passing by yesterday, when we saw soldiers causing trouble. We didn't like what we saw so we decided to help. Who knew that I would end up rescuing my savior? It was as if we were destined to meet like this."

Hearing the words "destined to meet", Bao Xiruo's face turned a little red as she tried to ignore him by turning her face away. She thought about all this in her head for a while. Suddenly something suspicious popped up in her mind as she found a hole in his story. She turned and asked: "Are you on the same side as the soldiers?" Yan Lie was shocked: "Wh... What?" Bao Xiruo explained: "Back on that day, weren't you with the soldiers that tried to catch that Taoist Priest? That's why you were injured right?" Yan Lie answered: "Such bad luck on that day. I came from up north and was heading for Linan, passing by your village. Who was to know that an arrow was going to come out of nowhere and hit me in the shoulder? If it wasn't for your benevolent heart and kindness I really would have died without even knowing why or how. Why were they after that Taoist Priest anyways? Taoist Priests catch ghosts, but soldiers catch Taoist Priests, what kind of logic is that?" When he got to that point he couldn't help but laugh a little.

Bao Xiruo observed: "Oh, so you were just passing by and were not with them. I thought you were one of the people that were there to catch the Taoist. I really didn't know whether or not I should have saved you." She then went on to explain why the soldiers were there and how Qiu Chuji killed them all.

After talking for a while, Bao Xiruo suddenly noticed that he was staring at her with an entranced gaze and immediately stopped talking. This snapped Yan Lie out of his trance, he smiled and said: "Sorry. I was just thinking about how we can escape without being caught by the soldiers."

Bao Xiruo started to cry and replied: "My... My husband is gone now, how can I live on? Why don't you just escape by yourself and not worry about me?" Yan Lie replied with a straight face: "Madame, your husband was murdered by those bastard soldiers; his death has not been avenged. Yet you are not trying to bring the culprits to justice and are only seeking death. Your husband was a hero among men when he was alive, I'm afraid he won't rest in peace when he finds out about this in the underworld."

Bao Xiruo replied: "I'm only a weak female, how can I possibly avenge his death?" In anger, Yan Lie replied: "Madame's burden, I will gladly take upon my shoulders. Do you know who the culprit is?" Bao Xiruo thought for a bit and answered: "The leader of the soldier's name is Duan Tiande. He has a knife scar on his forehead and a birthmark on his face." Yan Lie replied: "With a name and a way of recognizing him, no matter how far away he runs off, we have to bring him to justice!" He went outside and came back with a bowl of porridge with some salted eggs. He spoke up: "If you don't take care of your health, how can you get your revenge?" Bao Xiruo thought what he said made some sense, so she took the bowl and started to slowly eat its contents.

The next morning, Bao Xiruo arranged her clothes and got off of bed. She brushed her hair properly in front of a mirror, found a piece of white cloth and placed a white flower in her hair to pay respects to her husband. What she saw in the mirror was a beautiful woman in the prime of her life, yet her husband had already left her behind. Overwhelmed by sadness and loneliness, she put her head down and started crying. Yan Lie walked in and saw her. He said softly: "The soldiers are gone now, let's go." Bao Xiruo followed him out. Yan Lie gave a bit of silver to the master of the house and then led two horses over. The horse that Bao Xiruo had ridden on was hit by an arrow, but Yan Lie had taken care of the wound.

Bao Xiruo asked: "Where do we go to now?" Yan Lie gave her a look, signaling her not to talk so much in front of others. He helped her onto the horse and the two of them rode side by side northward. After riding for many li, Bao Xiruo asked again: "Where do we go now?" Yan Li replied: "Let's find a place where we can settle down for a while and wait out this storm. After the soldiers stop looking for us and let their guard down, then I'll go and find your husband's body so we can give him a proper burial. After that I'm going to find that bastard Duan Tiande and kill him."

Bao Xiruo had a very tender and selfless personality; rarely did she come up with ideas of her own. Besides, right now she's all by herself in the world, and seeing that he had it all figured out, she could not help but be touched. She said: "Mr. Yan, how... how will I ever be able to repay you?" Yan Lie confidently replied: "Madame, this life of mine was saved by you. Even if I have to jump into boiling oil or be smashed into dust, I will serve you for the rest of my life." Bao Xiruo replied: "I only hope that we can avenge my husband's death and kill that evil Duan Tiande as soon as possible so I can join him on the other side." When she had that thought, tears started to roll from of her eyes again. The two of them rode for the rest of the day and then stopped at a little inn in Changan for the night. Yan Lie put the two down as a couple and got one room. Bao Xiruo could not help but feel that there was something wrong about this. She did not utter a word during dinner and she secretly touched the dagger that Qiu Chuji gave her to make sure it's there. She made up her mind: "If he gets any ideas, I will kill myself right there on the spot."

Yan Lie instructed the floor manager to bring him two bundles of straw into the room. He waited until the floor manager left before locking the door and laying out the straw on the floor. He lay down on the straw and covered himself with a felt blanket. He turned to Bao Xiruo: "Goodnight Madame." And then he closed his eyes.

Bao Xiruo's heart was beating a mile a minute. Remembering her dead husband, she felt all torn up inside. She blankly sat there for over an hour before finally sighing and blowing out the candle. Still clutching the dagger tightly, she climbed onto the bedding with her cloths on.

When Bao Xiruo woke up the next day, Yan Lie had already packed and readied everything, as well as instructing the floor manager to get some breakfast ready. Bao Xiruo was very thankful for his gentlemanly actions and let most of her guard down. By the time she ate breakfast, she noticed that there was a dish of chicken fried noodles, a dish of ham, a dish of sausages, a dish of smoked fish, and a small pot of deliciously smelling rice and stock gruel. She was raised in a moderately well off family. Even after marrying into the Yang family, she had always led the life of typical farmer. Usually, breakfast for her was a couple of salted vegetables and half a salted egg. Other than the New Year and weddings, she had never eaten such delicacies. As a result she felt quite uncomfortable during the breakfast.

Once she finished eating, the floor manager came in with a bundle. By now Yan Lie had left them room. Bao Xiruo asked: "What is this?" The floor manager replied: "Mister went out as soon as the sun rose and bought a change of clothing for Madame. He told me to ask you to change into it." Once he finished he put down the bundle and left. Bao Xiruo opened the bundle and was shocked. It was a completely white mourning dress made out of silk with matching white socks, shoes, inner garments, and jacket. Also included were a matching scarf, bandanas, and other accessories. She thought: "It’s hard for a young man like him to think of everything." When she changed into the clothing, the thought that Yan Lie bought these himself made her blush. She had left her home in a hurry in the middle of the night, so her clothing was not very neat to begin with. After a whole night of misadventures, she was covered in dirt and sweat. Now that she had cleaned up somewhat, her spirits picked up somewhat as well. When Yan Lie returned, she noticed he had changed into colorful and expensive attire as well.

The two of them got on their way again. Sometimes one of them rode in front while the other one followed, other times they rode side- by-side. The season of spring was in its full glory south of the Yangtze; willows brushed people's shoulder on the road, flower fragrances filled the air and people's hearts. Now plants were starting to sprout on the farms.

In order to distract her thoughts and ease her troubled mind, Yan Lie kept on talking to her about various random subjects. Bao Xiruo's father was an unaccomplished scholar in a little village, her husband and his sworn brother were both straightforward and unrefined men. She had never met someone as refined, gentlemanly, and knowledgeable as Yan Lie. When they talked, she felt that every word, every sentence that he spoke were highly intelligent and thought-provoking; she could not but secretly look at him in wonder. However, they kept on heading north and getting further and further away from Linan; not only that, he never once mentioned revenge or even bring up the subject of a proper burial for her husband. Finally, she could not keep it in anymore and asked: "Mr. Yan, what are your plans regarding my husband's body?"

Yan Lie relied: "It's not that I don't want to search for your husband's body and give him a proper burial; but I killed government officials when I rescued Madame. Right now it is very dangerous for me there. As soon as I show myself around Linan, I would no doubt be killed by the soldiers. Besides, right now the soldiers are all over the place looking for Madame. After all, your husband did commit treason by killing officials, this is a huge crime. If his relatives are captured, the men will be executed and women made into prostitutes for the soldiers. Dying for me is no big thing, but if nobody was around to protect Madame and the soldiers catch you, I could not bare to think of the consequences. Even in the underworld, I would be saddened beyond my own imaginings." Seeing how honest and sincere he looked and sounded, Bao Xiruo nodded. Yan Lie continued: "I have thought this over thoroughly; the most important thing right now is to give your husband a proper burial. So we are going to Jiaxing so I can obtain some money and get someone to take care of it in Linan. If Madame has to do it herself, then let me settle you down in Jiaxing and take the risk by myself."

Bao Xiruo felt she was expecting a bit too much for him to take such a big risk for her and replied: "If you can find someone reliable to take care of the whole matter, then that would be for the best." She continued: "My husband had a sworn brother with the surname of Guo; he died with my husband. I am sorry to trouble you by asking you to try to give him a proper burial as well. I... I " She started

crying.

Yan Lie replied: "It's no trouble at all, just leave it all to me. As for revenge, that bastard Duan Tiande is a government official; killing him is not so easy. Besides, he will be extra careful right now, all we can do is wait patiently for our chance." Bao Xiruo wanted to kill Duan Tiande to avenge her husband and then follow him into the underworld. Even though Yan Lie's every word seemed true, she didn't know how long she would have to wait for this to happen. In a moment of impatience, she started to sob loudly. In between sobs, she replied: "I really don't know about revenge. Even a hero like my husband could not defeat him. I... I'm just a weak woman, what...

what can I do? Just let me die and join my husband and that'll be that."

Feeling that the situation was truly difficult, Yan Lie thought for a long while before finally saying: "Madame, do you trust me?" Bao Xiruo nodded. Yan Lie continued: "The only thing we can do now is to head up north to avoid the soldiers. The Song officials can't chase us if we are in the north. As soon as we cross the Yangtze, we should be out of danger. We'll wait until things have cooled down before returning south and avenging your husband. Madame, please be rest assured that I will take care of this whole matter of justice for your husband."

Bao Xiruo hesitated: "I am homeless without any relatives in the world, if I don't follow him, where can a woman like me settle down in this world? The faces of the soldiers that night were beastly; if I had fallen into their hands, I would have definitely suffered a fate worse than death itself. Yet this man is not a friend or a relative, should a widow like me be traveling together with a young man like him? If I tried to kill myself right now, he would without a doubt stop me." She felt lost; the only thing she was sure of is that the future will be difficult. Thinking forward and looking back like this, she felt as if her insides were being twisted. For several days straight she had shed tears and now it seemed as if she had ran out of tears to shed.

an Lie spoke up: "If Madame feels that any part of my plan is bad, then please tell me. There is nothing I wouldn't do for you." Seeing how accommodating he is, Bao Xiruo actually felt a little bad about hesitating. Other than committing suicide, she really could not find another way out. Having no other choice, she lowered her head and replied: "Why don't you take care of it."

Yan Lie could not be happier: "I will forever be grateful that Madame saved my life. Madame   " Bao Xiruo interrupted him: "You

don't have to mention that matter ever again." Yan Lie replied: "Yes, yes of course."

That night, the two of them stopped at an inn in the town of Xiashi, still only getting one room. Ever since Bao Xiruo agreed to go up north with him, Yan Lie's actions have not been as gentlemanly and proper as before. Once in a while his excitement would get out of hand. Bao Xiruo felt an indistinct notion that something might not be appropriate. But seeing that he had not shown even the slightest trace of getting any ideas, she figured that he must be a little too excited about being able to fully show his gratitude.

he two of them reached Jiaxing at noon the next day. Jiaxing is a big city in the western parts of Zhejiang. Since this was the place where many trade routes came together, it had always been a very prosperous place. When the Song dynasty moved south, Jiaxing had also become much closer to the capital, thus becoming even more prosperous and bustling.

Yan Lie suggested: "Let's find an inn and rest up for a bit." Bao Xiruo was worried about soldiers finding them and said: "It's still early; we can still cover some ground." Yan Lie replied: "The stores here aren't half bad. Madame's clothing is old and worn; we’ll have to buy some new ones." This surprised Bao Xiruo as she took a moment to recover and replied: "Didn't you just buy this yesterday? How is it already old and worn?" Yan Lie answered: "There was a lot of dust on the way, after wearing the same clothing for a couple of days it is no longer colorful anymore. Besides, as beautiful as Madame is, how can Madame possibly not wear the best clothing in the world?"

Hearing him praising her beauty, Bao Xiruo was secretly happy inside, but she lowered her head and said: "I am in the middle of paying my respects " Yan Lie immediately cut her off: "Yes, of course. I understand." Bao Xiruo did not say anything more. Her

husband had never praised her beauty to her face like this before; she peeked over at Yan Lie and saw only sincerity on his face. At once her heart shook, but she couldn't figure out if it was from happiness or sadness.

In Jiaxing Yan Lie asked about accommodations and was directed to the biggest inn, the ‘Elegant Waters Inn’. After washing up, Yan Lie and Bao Xiruo ate some snacks together, sitting across from each other. Bao Xiruo wanted to ask him for a separate room but didn't know how to word it. Her face changed color several times for this was a heavy burden on her heart. After a bit, Yan Lie spoke up: "Madame, please make your self at home. I'm going out to buy some things and am coming right back afterwards." Bao Xiruo nodded: "Please don't spend too much money." Yan Lie smiled and replied: "Pity that Madame is wearing mourning apparel and can't wear any jewelry. Even if I want to spend too much I can't." 

Chapter 2 – Seven Freaks of the South

Just as Yan Lie walked out of the door, he saw a middle aged scholar walking his way in the hallway, dragging his feet and yawning constantly. He was sort of smiling but not really and kept on giving him curious looks, all the while looking very relaxed and lazy. He was covered with dirt and oil and his clothing was a mess. He obviously hadn't taken a bath in a long time. He had an old broken black oil paper fan in hand that he was fanning himself with as he was walking.

Seeing such an obviously refined scholar looking so dirty, Yan Lie frowned and picked up his pace in fear of getting some dirt on himself. Suddenly the scholar began laughing dryly; a laugh that was very harsh on the ear. As he was walking by him, he casually reached out with his fan and patted Yan Lie on the shoulder. Even though Yan Lie knew martial arts, he was not able to get out of the way in time, this set him off and he shouted: "What do you think you’re doing?"

The scholar laughed dryly again as he kept on walking, dragging his feet all through the hallway. He approached the manager and said: "Hey, fellow, even though I look really rough, I have lots of money. You have to watch out for some people though; they trick people with their nice and refined looks. They put up a show for everyone, seducing women, eat free food, live in inns for free, you know the type, so be on the lookout for them. To be safe, make them pay the bill beforehand." He didn't wait for the manager to respond before walking off, still dragging his feet. Yan Lie got even angrier, knowing that that whole conversation was aimed at him.

After that little comment from the scholar, the manager turned his eyes toward Yan Lie; he now couldn't help but feel a little suspicious. Walking up to Yan Lie, he yawned a little, smiled and said: "Sir, please don't mind too much, it's not that I want to be impolite " Yan Lie knew what he meant as he humphed and replied: "Put this money in the drawer!" He put his hand into his shirt to

take the money out and was shocked. There had been at least forty or fifty taels of silver in his shirt, but, now that he was reaching for it, there was nothing there. The manager saw the expression on his face and actually thought that the scholar's words were true. Immediately his expression became less polite as he thrust his chest out and asked: "What? No money?"

Yan Lie replied: "Wait here, I'm going to get some right now." He thought that he had forgotten his money because he was in a hurry to leave. As it turned out, when he went back to the room and looked into the bag that he had with him, even the taels of gold he’d had were gone as well. As to where his money went, he had no idea at all. He thought: "Just a bit ago Madame Bao and I both went to the water closet, but that only took several minutes or so, how could anyone have entered and messed around with the room? The thieves here in Jiaxing are really getting good."

The manager stuck his head in through the door and looked around; seeing that he did not have any money, he got angry: "Is this woman your wife? If you're doing something indecent, then don't come here because it'll bring us trouble as well!" Bao Xiruo was thoroughly embarrassed and her face turned burning red. Yan Lie took one quick step towards the door and swung his arm, slapping the manager so hard that his face was covered with blood and he lost several teeth. The manager had his face in his hands as he began to scream: “I see! First you don't pay, now you want to fight!” Yan Lie added a kick to his behind and the manager went tumbling out of the room.

Shocked, Bao Xiruo suggested: "Let's get out of here; we can't stay here any longer." Yan Lie smiled: "Don't worry, if we don't have any money then we'll just ask them for some." He grabbed a chair and sat down by the door. Not long afterwards, the manager came back with twelve or so men, each with a club or stick in hand as they charged into the room. Yan Lie let out a big laugh and shouted: "So you men want a fight?" He suddenly jumped forward and confidently grabbed a stick from one of the men; faking left and hitting right, in a blink of an eye he had already knocked four or five men down. These ruffians usually got by using intimidation and bullying the weak, but seeing that their opponent was actually a match for them, they immediately threw down their weapons and scrambled out of the room. Those who were on the floor were crawling and rolling with all their might in fear of being left behind and hit again.

Bao Xiruo, who had been frightened a long time ago, said in a shaky voice: "Things are getting out of hand and the authorities might catch wind of this." Yan Lie smiled and replied: "I want the authorities to show up." Bao Xiruo could not figure out his plan, so she decided to stay quiet and see what happened.

In less than an hour's time, a ruckus occurred outside as ten or so government officials came bursting in with iron sabers in hand. The rings on the sabers were banging against each other, making all kinds of noise; they shouted above the cacophony: "Not only kidnapping, but assault as well, how dare he? Where is the scoundrel?" Yan Lie sat there motionless in the chair. Seeing his fancy clothing and his proud arrogance, the officials didn't really dare to charge up to him. The leader of the group shouted: "Ay! What's your name? What are you doing here in Jiaxing?" Yan Lie shouted back: "Go get Gai Yuncong!"

Gai Yuncong was the governor of the prefecture of Jiaxing; hearing that he dared speak their superior’s name directly, the government officials were both shocked and furious. The leader shouted: "Are you crazy? How dare you shout the Honorable Prefect Gai's name in public?" Yan Lie took out an envelope from inside his shirt and put it down on the table; he looked up at the ceiling and said: "Take this to Gai Yuncong and see if he comes or not!" The leader took the envelope, seeing the words on it, he took a step back in shock; unsure if it was real or not, he whispered to the other men: "Look after him, don't let him get away." He then went flying off. Bao Xiruo just sat there in the room nervously, not knowing what would happen next.

Soon another ten or so government men came running in, along with them came two men wearing official uniforms that scrambled in front of Yan Lie and knelt while saying: "Humble Prefect Gai Yuncong of the city of Jiaxing and District Magistrate Jiang Wen of the district of Xiushui are honored to meet your Excellency. Your humble servant did not know that your Excellency had arrived, so please forgive us for not welcoming you properly." Yan Lie waved his hand a little and shifted his weight slightly: "I lost a little bit of money in this county and would like to request that you two brilliant judges investigate the matter." Gai Yuncong immediately nodded: "Yes, of course." He then waved his arm, two of the followers came walking up with a plate in each of their hands; one of them was glowing yellow because of the gold yuan bao [boat shaped ingot] on it, the other one, needless to say, had silver yuan bao on it.

Gai Yuncong spoke up: "To think that there are such brazen thieves in my jurisdiction, it is my fault as well. I hope your Excellency will accept this as a slight compensation." Yan Lie smiled and nodded. Gai Yuncong reverentially held up the envelope and said: "Your humble servant has just cleaned up my humble dwelling and would be honored if your Excellency and Madame would move there." Yan Lie replied: "This place is suitable; I enjoy the peace and quiet.” His face suddenly darkened, "Don't come around disturbing us anymore." Gai Yuncong immediately nodded and said: "Yes, yes of course! If your Excellency still needs anything, then please do not hesitate to ask your humble servant." Yan Lie did not reply, he only shook his head and waved his arm repeatedly. The two men quickly led the other men away.

The manager was scared out of his wits as the owner of the place dragged him into the room. The owner kneeled down and kowtowed asking for mercy for them both. He said that as long as they are left alive, they would be willing to accept whatever other punishment might come their way. Yan Lie took out a silver yuan bao from the plate, threw it down on the floor, and said smiling: "Take it, it's a reward. Now get out of my sight." The manager couldn't quite believe it all, but the owner saw that Yan Lie had no ill will in his expression, so he immediately picked up the silver yuan bao, kowtowed a couple of times, and dragged the manager out of sight in fear that Yan Lie might change his mind.

Bao Xiruo could not quite believe what she had just seen: "What kind of magic does that envelope hold? How come the authorities were frightened out of their wits when they saw its contents?" Yan Lie smiled: "I actually have no power over them really, but these officials are hopeless. Zhao Kuo only has this kind of people serving him; if he doesn't lose this country, then there is no justice in the world." Bao Xiruo asked: "Zhao Kuo? Who is that?" Yan Lie casually replied: "The present Song Emperor Ningzong." Shocked, Bao Xiruo immediately admonished: "Quiet! How can you say His Majesty's name out loud like that?" Seeing that she cared about his safety, Yan Lie was ecstatic; smiling, he said: "It's no big deal if I say it out loud. Up north, what would we call him if we don't call him Zhao Kuo?" Bao Xiruo was confused: "Up north?" Yan Lie nodded and was about to explain when hurried hoof beats suddenly come from outside as ten or so riders came and stopped in front of the inn. Some color had just returned to Bao Xiruo's white face; but upon hearing the hoof beats, the events of that night all came back to her. This made her face turn white as a sheet again. Yan Lie was frowning, looking as if he was not very pleased. Then came sound of boots as several soldiers in fine clothing came walking in. Upon seeing Yan Lie, their faces immediately broke out in smiles as they simultaneously shouted: "Your Majesty!" All of them kneeled down and saluted. Yan Lie smiled: "So you’re finally here." Hearing that they called Yan Lie "Your Majesty", Bao Xiruo was both surprised and puzzled. As those men got up off the floor, she noticed that they were all very strong and well built. Yan Lie waved his arm and said: "Go wait outside." The soldiers answered and quickly left. Yan Lie turned to Bao Xiruo: "How do you think my men compare with those Song soldiers?" Bao Xiruo was even more surprised: "They are not Song soldiers?" Yan Lie smiled: "I guess I have to be honest now, they are all Great Jin's elite soldiers!" He could not help but laugh out of pride.

Bao Xiruo suddenly realized: "Then... you... you are..." Yan Lie smiled and answered: "To tell Madame the truth, my surname needs one more word: 'Wan’ and my given name also has one more word: 'Hong'. Wanyan Honglie, the Sixth Prince of Great Jin, and titled the Prince of Zhao, at your service."

Ever since she was small, Bao Xiruo had heard from her father the devious ways that the Jin used to take the land of her Great Song. The shame caused by the capture of the two emperors, and the cruelty with which the Jin torture and treat the Han peasants up north. It was the same after she married Yang Tiexin, who hated the Jin even more. To find out that the person that she had spent all this time with these last couple of days was actually a prince of the Jin, she was left speechless.

Seeing the expression on her face change, Wanyan Honglie smiled and continued: "I have always been fascinated by the south. Last year I asked my father to let me travel down to Linan as the good will ambassador for the New Year celebrations. Besides, the Emperor of Song still owed a couple hundred thousand taels of silver in annual tribute, so father wanted me to collect that on my trip as well." Bao Xiruo interrupted: "Annual tribute?" Wanyan Honglie replied: "Yes, the Song Emperors, in order to convince us not to invade, pay us a tribute every year in silk and silver. But they always complain that not enough revenue was generated through taxes, so they never gave us the tribute on time. This time I didn't leave any room for Han Tuozhuo to fall back on. I told him that if he didn't get all the money together within the month, I would personally lead an army down to collect it ourselves: then he wouldn't have to worry about it anymore." Bao Xiruo interrupted again: "What did Chancellor Han say?" Wanyan Honglie proudly replied: "What can he say? By the time I left Linan, the silk and silver were all north of the river! Ha...ha!" Seeing Bao Xiruo was looking downwards and not responding he went on: "Actually, this tribute stuff didn't really need me; any emissary could have done the job. What I really wanted was to see the south, to experience its beauty and to meet its people for myself. Who knew that I would meet Madame, I dare not hope for such good fortune." Bao Xiruo was at a loss as to what to make of the situation and still did not reply. Wanyan Honglie offered: "I'm off to buy some clothes for Madame now." Bao Xiruo replied with her head down: "No need." Wanyan Honglie smiled and said: "The traveling money Chancellor Han gave me under the table wouldn't be gone if I bought a new set of clothes for Madame every day for a thousand years. Madame, don't worry, my soldiers are stationed all around this place, nobody would dare to trouble you." After he finished, he walked off. Bao Xiruo thought about all that had happened since she met him; a royal prince like him, treating her as politely as he does, what does he plan to do? Then her thoughts drifted to her husband's love and caring for her, yet he was killed and left her here alone. She really didn't know what she should do or could do. In desperation, sadness and confusion, all she could do is clutch her pillow and cry her heart out.

Wanyan Honglie, having put the gold and silver into his shirt, walked out onto the street. Seeing the friendly attitude of the place and the people, even though most of them were peasants, there were still many refined and educated people, he could not help but be impressed. Suddenly, hurried hoof beats came from ahead of him as a horse galloped through the streets towards him. This street wasn't very wide to begin with and now it was filled with people and merchants; added to that, people had sent up small vendor booths on both sides of the street, how could a horse gallop through it? Wanyan Honglie immediately dodged to the side of the street and, in the blink of an eye, a yellow horse came bursting through the crowd of people. This was no ordinary horse; it was tall and fit with muscles rippling throughout its body, obviously it was a very rare thoroughbred. Wanyan Honglie was admiring the horse and when he looked up at the rider he was surprised yet again. Such a beautiful horse, but its rider was a sorry looking fellow who was both short and fat; he looked like a giant slab of meat riding on that horse. This person's arms and legs were amazingly short, he did not have a neck, yet his head was extraordinarily big, as if his neck was sucked into his shoulders. It seemed rather odd that horse was galloping through the crowd of people at full speed, yet it did not run into a single person or knock over a single object. Its hooves landed on the ground softly and nimbly, jumping over pottery, side-stepping vegetables; it seemed to be flashing through some non-existent gap in the crowd, as though this crowded street was a wide open plain. Wanyan Honglie could no longer contain himself and shouted out loud: "Excellent!"

Hearing that praise, that short chubby fellow turned his head and glanced at him. Wanyan Honglie noticed that his entire face was covered with red spots caused by drinking too much wine; his big and round as well as equally red wine nose looked as if there was a red tomato stuck on his face. He thought to himself: "Such an excellent horse; I have to have it, no matter the price." At this moment, two kids playing tag ran onto the street just in front of the horse. They came out of nowhere and gave the horse quite a scare as it had no room to get out of the way. The horse's left foot was just about to land on one of the kids when the rider lifted up the reins and jumped off of the saddle. Suddenly becoming lighter, the horse's stride became higher and longer, easily flying over the kid's head. That rider then softly and gently landed back onto the saddle.

Shocked, Wanyan Honglie immediately decided, that even though there were a great number of skilled riders among the Jin, none were a match for this man. If he could get this man to go back with him to train the cavalry, then his cavalry would be almost invincible; this was something much more important to him than a great horse. On this trip south, he made mental notes on where an army could be stationed and where the rivers could be crossed; he even asked around about the skills and names of every administrator in the counties he crossed. Seeing the amazing skill of this short fellow, he couldn't believe how stupid the Song authorities were for letting a talent like this go to waste. He decided then and there that he was going to somehow convince this man to go back to Yanjing with him. Having made the decision, he immediately started running after them, fearing that, with the horse's speed, he would lose him. He was just about to shout at them when he saw the horse had run to the corner of the street and stopped. This was quite unexpected as he figured that, with the speed that the horse was running, he would have to slowly come to a stop, yet this horse was able to stop instantly. This is something he had never ever seen before; even some great martial arts practitioners wouldn't be able to come to a complete stop when they are exerting themselves like this. The short, fat fellow jumped off the horse and charged into a building.

Wanyan Honglie hurried to the front of the building, inside the building was erected a large wooden sign: "Handed Down from Venus"; it was a two-storied restaurant. Looking up, a huge sign hanging from the roof had the words "Pavilion of the Drunken Immortal" written on it; the calligraphy was very elegant. On the side was written, in smaller characters, "By Resident Dongpo", it turned out that the words were written by Su Dongpo [One of the greatest scholars of the Song dynasty as well as all of Chinese history.]. Seeing the grandeur of this restaurant, Wanyan Honglie thought: "Since he is here, then I might as well invite him to a great big meal; that way I can become great friends with him and everything after that would be simple." All of a sudden that fellow came running down from upstairs to the horse's side with a wine jug in hand. Wanyan Honglie immediately got out of the way.

Now that he was standing on the ground, the fellow looked even more out of proportion. He wasn't over 1.5 meters [5 ft] high, yet he was almost 1.5 meters wide as well. The horse was very tall in stature because of its long legs and the man’s head was barely as high as the stirrup from the saddle. He placed the wine jug in front of the horse, gently hit the jug a couple of times, and then casually picked the top half of the jug off, turning the jug into a gigantic bowl of wine. The horse reared up on its hind legs and let out a loud neigh before coming back down and drinking from the bowl. From the sweet smell in the air, Wanyan Honglie could tell that the wine was actually the famed wine "Blushing Daughter" [Nu’er Hong] from Shaoxing county in Zhejiang province. From the fragrance, it had been left aging for more than 10 years.

The short, fat fellow walked back into the restaurant and tossed a huge silver ingot onto the owner's desk: "Prepare three tables of the best food; two of them can have meat and wine, the other one can't." The owner smiled and replied: "Right away, Mr. Han. We just received four Sai Lu fish from the Song River; they are the best when served with wine. Please take the money back Mr. Han, we'll sort all that out later." The short, chubby fellow rolled his eyes and shouted: "What's the matter? Eating and drinking are free? Do you think I'm broke and just beg off of other people?" Still with a smile on his face, the owner argued no further as he turned and shouted: "Men, prepare some really good stuff for Mr. Han!" The cooks and waiters around the place answered and went about their jobs.

Wanyan Honglie was taking all this in: "Although he's dressed plainly, he spends money like a wealthy man; judging from how everyone is treating him with such manners, he's probably a powerful man in Jiaxing. It would seem that convincing him to go up north with me to teach horse riding is going to be quite difficult. Let's see who the people are he's inviting to lunch before going any further." So he went into the restaurant, sat down at a table by the window, and ordered a couple of small dishes along with a bottle of wine.

The Pavilion of the Drunken Immortal was situated on the shores of the South Lake. The lake surface was covered by a light fog and several small boats were slowly making their way around the lake. Green and smooth looking water caltrop leaves [water chestnut] cover about half of the lake. Seeing such a sight, he immediately felt relaxed and at peace. Jiaxing is a famous city of the ancient state of Yue; the plums grown here were sweet and delicious like the best wines. During the Spring and Autumn Period this place was called Zuili, meaning Drunken Plums. It was also here that the famed King of Yue, Gou Jian, had thoroughly defeated the famed King of Wu, He Lu. This place was the point at which travelers and merchants from the two states came together. The South Lake was famous for another thing, the green water caltrops [water chestnuts] grown in it. Not only are the fruit of the caltrops sweet and smooth, they are also crunchy and refreshing, deservedly proclaimed as the best in the world. This resulted in a lot of caltrop being grown in the lake. It was right in the middle of spring, the lake was clean and the leaves were green, as if someone had covered a sheet of jade glass with small pieces of jadeite.

Wanyan Honglie was just enjoying the scene when he suddenly noticed a single boat come flying into view. This boat was unusually narrow in width and the bow of the boat was extraordinarily high. Along the sides of the boat there were two rows of waterfowl. At first he didn't pay much attention to it, but in a blink of an eye, the boat had overtaken another boat that was far ahead of it. The speed at which the boat was going was astounding. As soon as it got closer, Wanyan Honglie saw that there was a person sitting in the middle of the boat; another person wearing a straw cape sat in the back steering the boat, surprisingly it was a girl. She had only to lightly flick the oar in the water and the boat would shoot forward like an arrow. That one flick had to be at least powerful enough to move a 100 jin object. It was odd enough that a girl would be so strong, but how could she exert such a force through a wooden oar? A few more strokes and the boat neared the pavilion. The sun shone down onto the oar which appeared to be made of copper. The girl tied the boat to one of the wooden posts beside the stone staircase next to the pavilion and nimbly jumped ashore. The man sitting in the middle of the boat put a pole with a load of firewood on each end onto his shoulders and followed her ashore. The two of them walked up into the pavilion. The girl shouted happily at the chubby fellow: "Third Brother!" She proceeded to sit down next to him. The fat man greeted the two people: "Fourth Brother, Little Sister, you two showed up early." When Wanyan Honglie sized the two newcomers up, he noticed that the girl was about seventeen or eighteen years of age with a slender body, big eyes, long eye-lashes, and snow white skin; she was obviously a local girl from south of the Yangtze. She had the copper oar in her left hand and took off her straw hat with her right hand, revealing a head of soft, shining, black hair. Wanyan Honglie mused: "Although this girl isn't as beautiful as Madame Bao, she is still very attractive in another way."

The man carrying the firewood was about thirty or so; his clothing was green colored with a belt made of straw around his waist and straw sandals on his feet. His hands and feet were huge and his face appeared without emotion. He put down the two loads of wood and rested his carrying pole against the table. "Errrrr"! The entire table was pushed several centimeters down by the weight of the pole. Shocked, Wanyan Honglie inspected the pole closely, but there seemed nothing out of the ordinary with this pole. It was black and smooth all over with a slight curve in the middle and two little caps on either end. For this pole to be that heavy, it had to be made of iron or some other kind of heavy metal. A wooden ax hung from the man's waist and there were some noticeable dents on the blade of the ax.

The two of them had just sat down when the sound of foot steps came from the stairs as two more men came walking up. The girl shouted: "Fifth Brother, Sixth Brother, did you two come together?" The first man was big and tall, at least 130 or 140 kilograms [around 285 to 308 lbs], he wore an apron around his waist. His body was naturally oily and the top of his shirt was open, revealing some of what must be a chest full of hair. His sleeves were all rolled up as well and his arms were covered with black hair that was several centimeters long and hanging from his waist was a foot-long knife. From his appearance he was a butcher. The one behind him was unusually short with a small felt hat on his head and a small scale and bamboo basket in his hands; he looked just like a street vendor. Wanyan Honglie could not help but wonder: "These three people obviously know martial arts, yet they call these two average city dwellers brothers?"

Suddenly there came a constant clunking outside on the street, like that made from metal hitting stone. The clunking slowly came up the staircase, and a blind man dressed in ragged clothing followed. He looked around forty years of age; his lips were thin and his cheekbones prominent. His face looked gray and seemed full of hate and anger. The five people sitting at the table all stood up and greeted: "Big Brother!" The girl lightly knocked on the seat of one of the chairs: "Big Brother, you sit here." The blind man replied: "Alright, is Second Brother here yet?" The man that looked like a butcher replied: "Second Brother has arrived in Jiaxingg, so he should be here any time soon." The girl laughed: "Speak of the devil!" The sound of someone dragging his feet as he walked came from the staircase.

Before Wanyan Honglie figured it all out, up the stairs appeared a dirty torn fan which was flicked a couple of times, and only then did a poor, lackadaisical scholar come walking up. The very one that he had met earlier in the inn. A thought popped in Wanyan Honglie's mind: "He must have been the one that took my money    " Just as his anger was rising, the man shot a smile at him and then stuck his

tongue out and made a face; only then did he turn to the others and greet them. It seemed that he was second among them. Wanyan Honglie speculated: "Looks like every one of them is a martial arts master; if I can somehow take them under my wing, they would be an enormous amount of help for our endeavors. As for the small matter of the poor scholar taking my money, that could easily be forgiven. It would be best to see what's going on first." The poor and pedantic scholar downed a cup of wine, then proceeded, still shaking his head from one side to the other, to loudly orate: "Dishonorable riches... let it go     The Jade Emperor [Yu Huang Da Di, the

Supreme Deity of Taoism] will get mad!" As he was reciting these lines, he reached into his shirt and took out one gold or silver yuan bao after another and neatly lined them up on the table. In total there were eight of silver and two of gold.

From these yuan baos' color and shape, Wanyan Honglie knew that these were his. But he did not get mad; on the contrary, this piqued his interest even more: "Entering my room and stealing the money wasn't hard; but he only tapped my shoulder one time with his fan, yet he was able to steal all the money that was inside my shirt without my noticing. That magical hand skill of his is indeed something rarely seen in this world."

From the actions of these six men and a woman, it seemed like they were doing the inviting, and had invited two tables of men here for a drink. Because the guests hadn't arrived yet, the seven of them were only drinking some light wine and the dishes hadn't been brought out either. On the other two tables was only one pair of chopsticks each; that meant there were only two guests. Wanyan Honglie mused: "These seven freaks are waiting for guests; I wonder what kind of weird guests they’ll have?" After waiting for about the time it would take to boil a pot of water, a voice came up from downstairs: "Amida Buddha!" The blind man spoke up: "The venerable monk Jiaomu [Burnt Wood] is here!" He stood up; the other six freaks followed him as they all stood up in preparation to welcome the guest. "Amida Buddha!" The voice said again as a monk that looked every bit like a burnt piece of wood came walking up the stairs. This monk was about forty or so, he was wearing a yellow monk’s robe and in his hand was a piece of wood with one end burnt black. It's unclear what it's used for.

After the monk and the seven of them went through the formal greetings, the poor scholar led him to one of the empty tables and all of them sat down. The monk rose slightly out of his seat in respect and said: "When that person came all the way to our gates, I knew that I was no match for him. Now that the Seven Heroes of the South are willing to lend a hand, I could not be anymore grateful."

The blind man replied: "Venerable Monk Jiaomu, you do not need to be so polite. We seven brothers and sister have all been dependent upon the monk’s hospitality now and then; now that monk Jiaomu is in trouble, how could we not get involved? Besides, that man came and, relying entirely upon his martial arts skills, made trouble for the monk for no reason. It is clear that he thinks nothing of us here in the martial world from this area. Even if the Venerable Monk did not ask us, we would have come had we found out about "

He hadn't finished what he was going to say when the stairs started groaning as if they were going to collapse. It was like a huge, heavy beast, like an elephant, or at least a huge water buffalo, was walking up the stairs. The owner of the place and the waiters were all screaming downstairs: "Ay! You idiot, you can't take that up there!" "The stairs are going to collapse!" "Quick, quick, stop him, get him back down here!" But the sound of wood bending got louder and louder. "Crack"! One of the wooden stair treads snapped. Soon two more snapped as well.

For a moment Wanyan Honglie wasn't sure he believed what he was seeing; a Taoist priest came walking up the stairs with a huge copper vat in his hands. After taking another look, he was frightened out of his wits; the Taoist priest was the ‘Changchun Zi’ [Eternal Spring] elder Qiu Chuji.

Wanyan Honglie's mission as emissary to the Song Imperial Court was to coerce some of the officials of the Song court, so that when they eventually invade the south, there would be agents lending a hand from the inside. The Song Emissary, Wang Daoqian, who accompanied him down from Yanjing (Present Day Beijing) was greedy and corrupt; he had already secretly sworn allegiance to the Jin dynasty. When they arrived at Linan, he was the one that did the legwork for Wanyan Honglie. But unexpectedly he was killed suddenly by a Taoist priest; even his head, heart, and liver was gone. Shocked and in fear that someone had found out about his plan, Wanyan Honglie decided to lead his bodyguards and, with the best city guards of Linan leading the way, personally chase down the assassin. When they chased him to Ox Village they caught up with Qiu Chuji. Unexpectedly, this Taoist priest was a martial arts master. Wanyan Honglie hadn't even made a move before he was pierced through the shoulder by an arrow that Qiu Chuji threw back. The men that came with him were all killed. If Wanyan Honglie had not quietly crawled away during the confusion of the battle and was then rescued and treated by Bao Xiruo, the dignified and honorable royal prince of the Jin dynasty would have died there in a farm village without even really knowing how he had been killed. Wanyan Honglie forced himself to calm down, and noticed that Qiu Chuji glanced at his face for a moment before moving his attention entirely onto the monk Jiaomu and the group of seven; obviously, he had not recognized him. Figuring that this was because he had been injured as soon as he showed up that night so Qiu Chuji was not able to see his face clearly, only then did he feel a little better. But when his eyes moved back to the copper vat, he was shocked again, so much so that he almost jumped out of his chair.

This kind of vat was common in temples and shrines and was commonly used for burning papers, incense and fake money for the dead. It was more than a meter across and was probably around 400 jins [200 kilograms / over 400 lbs] or so. From the vat came the sweet smell of wine, obviously it was filled with expensive wine, which without a doubt added a lot more weight to the vat. But he did not seem to be using any strength in his arm at all. Every step he took the floorboards moaned and bent from the weight. Panic engulfed the bottom level as the owner, waiters, cooks, all the patrons and everyone else scrambled out, fearing that the entire floor would collapse on top of them.

Coldly, the monk Jiaomu spoke up: "I am honored that my Taoist brother would show himself here, but what's the point in bringing the paper burning vat from our humble little temple? Let me introduce you to the Seven Heroes of the South!" Qiu Chuji made a respectful gesture with his left hand and said: "This humble Taoist has just visited your holy temple where I heard from the other monks that the Venerable Monk was inviting me for a drink at Pavilion of the Drunken Immortal. I figured that you would have undoubtedly invited some other friends; it turns out I was right. I have long admired the Seven Heroes of the South; I am fortunate today to make your acquaintance." Monk Jiaomu turned to the seven people and said: "This is elder ‘Changchun Zi’ Qiu Chuji of the Quanzhen Sect, I'm sure everyone has heard of him." Turning around to Qiu Chuji, he pointed at the blind man and continued, "This is the head of the Seven Heroes, the hero Ke, ‘Flying Bat Soaring through the Sky’ Ke Zhen’E." He followed by introducing the others, all the while Wanyan Honglie giving this all of his attention and memorizing their names. Number two in rank was that poor and downtrodden looking scholar that stole his money, named ‘Magic Hands Scholar’ Zhu Cong. The fat, short fellow that arrived first was ‘Horse God’ Han Baoju, he ranked third. The peasant that carried the load of firewood was number four; his name was ‘Wood Chopper of the Southern Mountains’ Nan Xiren. Ranked number five was that huge man that looked like a butcher, ‘Smiling Dhuda’ Zhang Ahsheng. The little fellow that looked like a merchant was surnamed Quan, Jinfa was his given name, and his nickname was ‘Hidden Hero of the Bustling City’. The fisher girl was called ‘Yue Maiden Sword’ Han Xiaoying, obviously the youngest of the seven Heroes.

All the while the monk Jiaomu was introducing everyone, Qiu Chuji would very respectfully bow a little as a sign of respect, but his right hand was still holding up the vat and there was no sign of fatigue at all. A few of the braver ones of the people downstairs saw that there was no immediate danger and actually walked back in to see what was going on.

Ke Zhen’E spoke up: "People call us seven brothers and sister the Seven Freaks because we are a rather odd collection of characters; we dare not assume the name 'Seven Heroes' that the monk Jiaomu called us. All of us have long admired the famed Seven Masters of Quanzhen, especially the elder ‘Changchun Zi’, who’s many chivalrous deeds we have all heard of. The monk Jiaomu is a most warm and friendly man; we can't understand how he could have offended elder Qiu. If the elder thinks anything of us, then please let the seven of us be a mediator for the dispute. Besides, even though Taoism and Buddhism worship different types of deities, you two gentlemen are still both monks or priests and members of the martial world. Why don't we forgive and forget so we can just gather here and have a nice little drink together?"

Qiu Chuji replied: "I have never met the Venerable Monk Jiaomu before, nor is there any gratitude or grudges between the two of us. As long as he hands over two people, then I personally will immediately go to the Fahua Monastery to ask for forgiveness." Ke Zhen’E asked: "Which two people?" Qiu Chuji replied: "I have two very good friends who were killed by corrupt officials working with the Jin. Their widows are all alone in the world. Hero Ke, do you think that I should step into this matter?" When Wanyan Honglie heard this, the cup in his hand suddenly shook and some wine spilled onto the table. Ke Zhen’E replied: "It wouldn't even matter if they are widows of the monk's good friends. Even if none of us have ever met them, if we knew about something like this happening, we would step in and do the best we can to take care of them. This is something that should be done without any hesitation." Qiu Chuji loudly replied: "That's right! I just want the monk Jiaomu to hand those two widows over to me! He is a monk, how could he keep two widows in his monastery and not hand them over? The Seven Heroes here are reasonable and righteous people; please do the right thing!" When he finished saying this, not only were the monk Jiaomu and the Seven Freaks shocked, Wanyan Honglie was quite surprised as well. He thought: "Is he not talking about Madame Yang and Madame Guo but someone else?"

The monk Jiaomu's face was burnt yellowish to begin with, now it was even more burnt looking. He could not bring himself to reply for a while as he could only stammer: "You... you... are talking nonsense... nonsense "

Qiu Chuji was furious: "You are a man of the martial world too, how dare you do such a shameful deed!" He pushed with his right hand and the several hundred kilogram heavy vat with the wine in it went flying towards the monk Jiaomu. The monk immediately jumped aside.

The people that gathered at the end of the stairs were frightened out of their wits and all of them turned around and pushed their way down the stairs in a panic.

‘Smiling Buddha’ Zhang Ahsheng figured that, although the vat was heavy, he would still be able to handle it with his strength. So he stepped up, channeled some inner strength into his arms, and waited until the vat arrived before he, with a shout, grabbed a hold of it. The muscles on his back and his shoulders bulged out as he was actually able to control the vat all by himself. As he lifted the vat up over his head, the amount of force exerted under his feet was too great and with one loud ‘crack’, his left foot went through the floorboards, causing the crowd downstairs to scream. Zhang Ahsheng took two steps forward, bent his arms slightly, and, with the move ‘Opening the Windows to View the Moon’; he threw the vat back at Qiu Chuji. Qiu Chuji caught the vat with his right hand and laughed: "The Seven Freaks of the South are just like the rumors say, very deserving of their fame!" Then his expression darkened as he turned to the monk Jiaomu: "What happened to those two widows? You are forcing two widows to live in your monastery, what for? If you dare to touch a single strand of their hair, I'll smash your bones until they are dust and burn down that monastery of yours!" Zhu Cong flicked his fan and said while shaking his head: "The monk Jiaomu is an honorable and respected monk, how could he do such a shameful thing? Elder Qiu must have heard of this from someone shameless and despicable. This kind of gossip can't be trusted."

Qiu Chuji was still furious: "I saw it with my own eyes, how could it be untrue?" The Seven Freaks were surprised by this. The monk Jiaomu finally spoke up: "If you want to come here and make a name for yourself here south of the Yangtze, that’s fine. But you don't need to drag my name through the dirt... you... you... go out into Jiaxing and ask around, see how many people think I would do such a thing?" Qiu Chuji snickered: "Alright, you’ve got helpers and want to win by sheer numbers. I am involved in this matter now, so there's no way you can get away from this. You are using the sacred ground of your deity to hide women, that's bad already, but the women's husbands are the descendants of patriots and they were murdered."

Ke Zhen’E spoke up: "Elder Qiu accused monk Jiaomu of hiding two women, but monk Jiaomu denies it. Why don't all of us go to the temple and see who's right and who's not. Although I'm blind, my ears are still working fine." His six brothers and sister immediately agreed with him.

Qiu Chuji sneered: "Search the temple? I have already searched it inside and out. But two women walked in and apparently disappeared. The only possibility is that he hid them. I will forget this if the monk hands them over." Zhu Cong replied: "What if it turns out that those two women aren't women." Qiu Chuji was confused: "What?" Zhu Cong answered with a straight face: "They are fairies and either know how to become invisible or become one with the earth!" The other Six Freaks couldn't help but laugh at that remark. Qiu Chuji was furious: "So you are mocking me? Alright, it seems like you people are taking the monk's side, true?"

Ke Zhen’E righteously replied: "Although our martial arts might be laughable in the eyes of a master from the Quanzhen Sect, we still have a bit of a name here south of the Yangtze. Ask around, people will say: 'The Seven Freaks of the South? They may be crazy, but they are not cowards.' We wouldn't dare bully others, but we can't let others bully us either." Qiu Chuji replied: "I have heard much about the good name of the Seven Heroes of the South. This matter does not concern you so please do not get involved in this sticky matter. Let this monk and I settle it between us. Monk, follow me." He reached out toward the monk Jiaomu's wrist. Monk Jiaomu dipped his wrist and dodged this move. Seeing that the two of them have started to fight, ‘Horse God’ Han Baoju shouted: "Reverend Qiu, why are you being so unreasonable?" Qiu Chuji stepped back and asked: "What do you mean?" Han Baoju replied: "We trust the monk Jiaomu, if he says there aren't any women then there really aren't any women. Which man living in the martial world would lie?" Qiu Chuji replied: "If he isn't lying, then am I causing him trouble for no reason whatsoever? I saw it with my own eyes! If I'm wrong then I'll dig out these two eyeballs and give them to you. I am definitely going to see this to the end. It seems like the seven of you are definitely getting involved right?" The Seven Freaks answered simultaneously: "Right!"

Qiu Chuji replied: "Alright, I'll drink a toast of wine to all seven heroes. Let the fight get started after we are finished toasting." He dipped his right hand and lowered the vat to his mouth. After taking a good gulp, he shouted: "If you please!" With one flick of the hand, the vat went flying towards Zhang Ahsheng again.

Zhang Ahsheng thought to himself: "If I catch it over my head like I did last time, then it would be impossible for me to drink out of it wouldn't it?" So he took two steps back, held his hands in front of his chest, and waited for the vat. Once it arrived, he threw his arms to the side and let the vat hit him straight in the chest. He was born chubby so his chest was covered with layers upon layers of fat and muscle, which acted like a cushion as the vat hit his chest. He immediately took a deep breath, flexed his chest muscles, brought his arms along the side of the vat, and caught the vat. He then lowered his head and took a huge gulp of the wine: "Excellent Wine!" He praised as he suddenly retracted his arms back to the front of his chest and, before the vat could fall onto the floor, executed the move ‘Mountain Moving Double Palms’, sending the vat flying back towards Qiu Chuji. This move was quick, powerful, and fast, obviously a move from a master of martial arts moves. Wanyan Honglie was secretly shocked by what he had just witnessed.

Qiu Chuji caught the vat and took another gulp before shouting: "A toast to Big Brother Ke!" And the vat went flying towards Ke Zhen’E.

A thought shot across Wanyan Honglie's mind: "This man is blind, how is he supposed to catch it?" But it turned out that not only was Ke Zhen’E the head of the Seven Freaks, his martial arts were also the best and he could easily tell where the smallest of weapons were from the sound they made, so this huge vat was no problem for him. He just calmly sat there as if he didn't notice anything until the vat was just about to hit his head. Only then did he suddenly raise his right arm and hit the bottom of the vat with his staff. That vat spun endlessly at the top of the staff, just like those plates at the end of an acrobat's stick. Suddenly his iron staff moved a little off-center and the vat began to lean as if it was going to fall onto his head. For some reason the vat could not fall over and it stayed there, tilted. As the wine in the vat poured out of it in a neat little steam, Ke Zhen’E opened his mouth and the wine flowed neatly into it. After taking three or four mouthfuls, his iron staff moved and was again in the middle of the vat bottom. He pushed his staff upwards and the vat flew straight up; with a swing of the staff, he smacked the vat back towards Qiu Chuji with a loud "Bang!" The echoes could still be heard when Qiu Chuji caught it again.

Laughing, Qiu Chuji commented: "Hero Ke must like to spin plates in his spare time." Ke Zhen’E coldly answered: "When I was little, I used to live off of the money I got from that little trick." Qiu Chuji observed: "Not forgetting where he comes from is the sign of a real man! Fourth Brother Nan, a toast!" He took another gulp from the vat and threw it at him.

Nan Xiren didn't say a word as he waited for the vat to arrive and then lifted his carrying stick to block. ‘Dang’! The vat was stopped cold in mid-air and began to fall. Nan Xiren cupped his hand, scooped up some wine from the vat, and downed it. While holding his carrying stick flat, he knelt down on his right knee with the middle of the carrying stick resting on his left knee. He pushed down on one end of the stick with his right hand and caught the bottom of the vat with the other end, flicking the vat up in the air once again.

He was just about to hit the vat back to Qiu Chuji when the ‘Hidden Hero of the Bustling City’ Quan Jinfa laughed and said: "I make a living selling stuff, so I like taking advantage. I might as well get a bit of wine without doing anything." He ran up to Nan Xiren's side and, when the vat fell back down again, scooped up a bit of wine and downed it. Suddenly he jumped up, curled his legs so that the bottom of both of his feet were on the vat, and as he pushed in midair, he caused his body to take off like an arrow and the vat to fly off in the opposite direction towards Qiu Chuji. His body landed on the side of the wall and he lightly clambered down. The fan in ‘Magical Hands Scholar’ Zhu Cong's hand did not stop flicking and he could not stop from commenting: "Beautiful, beautiful!"

Qiu Chuji caught the vat and took another big gulp before saying: "Wonderful, wonderful! And now a toast to Brother Zhu!" Zhu Cong shouted in desperation: "Aiyo! Don't do that! I'm not even strong enough to subdue a chicken, and I can't hold my alcohol at all! I'll surely drink to death if I'm not squashed to death first    " Before he finished, the vat was already heading his way. Zhu Cong was

shouting at the top of his lungs: "Someone's going to be smashed to death! Help! Help    " He made a scoop with his fan into the vat

and brought it up to his mouth. Then he turned the fan around and hit the bottom of the vat with it and sent it flying off. "Crack!" The floorboards beneath him suddenly collapsed, forming a huge hole in the floor and he fell through it, all the while screaming: "Help! Help!" Everyone present knew that he was just playing around so nobody was really surprised or worried. Wanyan Honglie however, seeing that he was able to flick away a huge vat with a small fan and with a force that was no weaker than that which came from Nan Xiren's stick, was once again shocked.

The ‘Yue Sword Maiden’ Han Xiaoying shouted: "My turn for a drink!" She hopped off with her right foot and she took off like a bird. Just as she flew over the top of the vat, she lowered her head and took a gulp before nimbly and gently landing on the windowsill on the opposite side of the room. She was skilled at Qing Gong [lightness kung fu] and swordplay but her strength wasn't up to par with the others; she figured that there was no way she would be able to catch this vat when it came flying toward her. Tossing it back towards Qiu Chuji was even further out of the question; so she seized the opportunity and took her turn using her Qing Gong.

Meanwhile the vat was still flying out the window and into the street. With the street crowded as it was, it would be disastrous if the vat landed outside. Qiu Chuji was a bit worried and was just about to jump out onto the street to catch it. He suddenly heard a whistle as a person in yellow ran past him. Another whistle and the yellow horse that was downstairs ran out onto the street.

To the people gathered around, it looked as if the huge ball of meat suddenly hit the vat and fell as one with it. The ball of meat and the vat both landed on the back of the yellow horse. The yellow horse ran forward a couple of zhangs [1 zhang = 3.3 meters or 10+ feet] before turning around and running back into the pavilion and up the stairs.

The ‘Horse God’ Han Baoju's body was actually underneath the belly of the horse with his left foot in the stirrup and his right foot and both of his hands were holding the vat, balancing it neatly on the saddle. The horse was fast and steady, as if the stairs were flat ground to him. Han Baoju jumped back onto the horse, he put his head into the vat and took a huge mouthful before pushing the vat off onto the floor of the room with his left hand. Letting out a hearty laugh, he cracked his whip and the horse jumped out of the window and, like a Pegasus, gently landed in the middle of the street. Han Baoju jumped off his horse and walked back up the stairs along with Zhu Cong.

Qiu Chuji complimented: "The ‘Seven Heroes of the South’ are really as good as the rumors say! I am speechless at the display of martial arts I have just seen. Giving the Seven Heroes face, I promise not to cause this monk anymore trouble if he hands over the two women and I will leave at once when he has."

Ke Zhen’E replied: "Elder Qiu, you are in the wrong here. The monk Jiaomu has been meditating and has cleansed of worldly emotions for several decades now, he is a truly enlightened monk. He is someone that all of us have admired for a long time. The Fahua Monastery [Temple of Oriental Zen] is also one of the famous sacred Buddhist landmarks here in the city of Jiaxingg. How could any females, not to mention widows, possibly be hidden inside it?" Qiu Chuji replied: "In this world, there are always those people who are hypocrites and do not deserve their reputations." Trying to control his anger, Han Baoju shouted back: "So is the elder saying that he doesn't believe us?" Qiu Chuji replied just as loudly: "I much rather believe my very own eyes." Han Baoju replied: "So what is elder Qiu planning to do now?" Even though he was short, he still was quite intimidating and heroic in his own way because of his loud and clear voice.

Qiu Chuji replied: "This matter originally had nothing to do with you seven, but since you are insisting on jumping into this matter, you are obviously quite confident of your abilities. Forgive me for daring to challenge the Seven Heroes; if I lose, then I'll do as everyone here wishes." Ke Zhen’E replied: "If the elder insists on going through with this, then would the Reverend please choose how we should settle this matter."

Qiu Chuji thought for a moment and said: "We never had any grudges previously nor have we ever wronged each other. I have long admired the heroic name and reputation of the Seven Heroes of the South. I don't think any of us want to start fighting with swords or fists, so how about this?" He shouted: "Inn keeper! Bring fourteen big bowls!"

The innkeeper had been hiding on the floor below, but upon hearing his instructions and noticing that it had been quiet for a while upstairs, he immediately went to bring the bowls up.

Qiu Chuji instructed him to place the bowls in two rows and fill them to the brim with wine. Turning to the Seven Freaks, he said: "I challenge everyone to a drinking contest. For every bowl you guys drink, I will drink one as well until there is a winner. What do you say?"

Han Baoju and Zhang Ahsheng were both huge drinkers, so they immediately agreed without any hesitation. Ke Zhen’E frowned and replied: "This is one against seven; even if we win we didn't win it fairly. Could Reverend please choose something else?" Qiu Chuji frowned: "What makes you so sure that you'll beat me?"

Even though Han Xiaoying was a girl, she was still quite macho, so she immediately answered back: "Alright, let's go at it then! This is the first time I have met someone that dares to look down at us so much." As she talked she grabbed a bowl of wine and downed it in one breath. It was obvious she drank it too quickly as her face flushed red immediately.

Qiu Chuji complimented: "Miss Han really is a man among females! Everyone… please!" The other six of the Seven Freaks each picked up a bowl and drank it. Qiu Chuji responded by downing seven bowls of wine in an instant; each with just one gulp and without a single pause for breath in between. The innkeeper immediately shouted praise for everyone and filled up the fourteen bowls, which the eight finished off immediately.

By the third round of drinks, Han Xiaoying could only drink half a bowl before having to pause because her hands were shaking. Zhang Ahsheng took the bowl out of her hand: "Sister, I'll finish this for you." Han Xiaoying inquired: "Elder Qiu is that alright?" Qiu Chuji replied without hesitation: "Of course, it doesn't matter who drinks it as long as it is seven bowls." Another round and Quan Jinfa had to back out as well.

Seeing that after twenty-eight bowls Qiu Chuji was still looking sober and normal, the Seven Freaks were quite shocked. Wanyan Honglie thought as he looked on: "Hopefully this Taoist will get drunk and these Seven Freaks will finish him off before he can do anything."

Quan Jinfa calculated that his side still had five men left, each a heavy drinker and could probably drink three or four more rounds, the opponent could not possibly be able to hold another twenty or so drinks in his belly… or could he? Even if he really could not get drunk, his belly could only hold so much. Figuring that victory was in hand, he was feeling pretty good; then he accidentally glanced down at the floor and saw that the floorboards under Qiu Chuji's feet were obviously soaked through. Shocked, he whispered to Zhu Cong: "Second Brother, take a look at his feet." Zhu Cong only looked down for a moment before muttering: "Not good, he's using his inner strength to force the wine out through his feet." Quan Jinfa quietly replied: "That's right; I didn't think that his inner strength would be so powerful, what should we do now?"

Zhu Cong thought to himself: "With this little trick, he could go a hundred more bowls without any problem. I have to come up with another contest or something." He took a step back before suddenly falling through the hole in the floorboards that he caused earlier and then climbing back up through the hole, all the while shouting: "So drunk, I am so drunk!"

Another round of drinks and now the floor boards under Qiu Chuji's feet were saturated with wine and a little bit of a fountain squirted out from the boards onto the floor below. By now Nan Xiren, Han Baoju, and everyone else had noticed, and everyone was secretly admiring such a powerful display of inner strength.

Han Baoju put his bowl back onto the table and was just about to admit defeat when Zhu Cong shot him a look and turned to Qiu Chuji: "Elder’s inner strength is almost god-like and we can't but admire such a display. But it is still five against one; it doesn't seem quite fair really." Qiu Chuji was a bit surprised and asked: "Then what does Second Brother Zhu suggest we should do?" Zhu Cong smiled and said: "I say let the two of us battle it out to see who's best."

All the spectators were rather baffled by this; Zhu Cong was the one, of the group of five still going up against him, who was obviously losing, why would he go and lower his odds even more? But the other six Freaks knew that although this brother of theirs doesn't seem to take anything seriously, he's full of ideas and tricks and his actions were often pure genius. Figuring that he must have a plan in mind, the six of them didn't object.

Qiu Chuji let out a little laugh: "The Seven Freaks of the South really do want to look good no matter what. How about this? If Second Brother Zhu finishes the wine left in this vat with me, if neither is losing, then it'll count as a defeat for me...how about it?"

By now the vat was a little bit less than half full, with many bowls remaining; this would mean that only two drunken Buddha’s with their big bellies could hold all of it. But Zhu Cong didn't seem to mind that as he smiled and said: "Although I am not a very big drinker, I once beat several pretty big drinkers during one of my adventures. A toast," he said waving his fan in his right hand and his left shirt sleeve, he downed a bowl.

So the two of them downed one bowl after another; in between drinks, Qiu Chuji asked: "What kind of big drinkers?" Zhu Cong replied: "Well, once I traveled to India and the king dragged out a water buffalo to challenge me in a drinking match. But in the end neither of us won or lost."

Knowing that Zhu Cong was poking fun at him, he just snorted in response and downed another bowl. However, he noticed that even though Zhu Cong was waving his hands all over the place while talking nonsense, he was still matching him bowl for bowl. There wasn't any wine spilling out from his hands or feet, so obviously was not forcing the wine out of his body with inner strength; but there was a huge bulge in his stomach so he figured that Zhu Cong may know how to expand and retract his stomach at will. He was feeling rather puzzled when Zhu Cong spoke up again: "The year before last I went to Siam, ha, now that's even more ridiculous. This time the King of Siam got an elephant to challenge me. That huge thing drank seven vats! How much do you think I drank?"

Even though Qiu Chuji knew he was just making stuff up, he could not help but ask: "How much?" Zhu Cong's face suddenly turned dead serious as he lowered his voice and said: "Nine vats!" Suddenly he raised his voice again and shouted: "Drink up, drink up!"

So he just went on like this, sort of drunk but not really, kind of crazy but kind of not, and soon the two of them had finished off the entire vat. The rest of the Freaks had no idea that he could hold all of that wine and all of them were pleasantly surprised.

Qiu Chuji gave him thumbs up: "Brother Zhu really is amazing!"

With a smile, Zhu Cong replied: "To keep the wine out of our bodies, Reverend used inner strength, but I had to resort to merely outer techniques. Here, have a look." With a hearty laugh, he suddenly did a back flip and when he landed there was a wooden bucket in his hand. With a slight wave of his hand, the fragrances of the wine that filled half the bucket came pouring out. All of the people present were martial arts masters and, with the exception of Ke Zhen’E, were sharp enough to pick up on any trickery or fake moves, yet not a single one of saw where the bucket came from. Looking down, Zhu Cong's belly had suddenly returned to its normal flat shape; obviously the bucket was hidden underneath his robe. The Seven Freaks of the South all burst out laughing and Qiu Chuji was shocked.

As it turns out, Zhu Cong was best at trickery and illusions and that was where the nickname ‘Magical Hands Scholar’ came from. This little trick that he just pulled was passed down by magicians all the way to today. A magician would walk onto the stage with nothing in hand, with one back flip a goldfish bowl would be in his hand, another back flip and a bowl filled with water appeared; this would go on until there were enough bowls on stage and suddenly there was one goldfish in each bowl. This is absolutely astounding when witnessed first hand and has to be seen to be believed. The second time Zhu Cong fell through the hole was when he hid the large bucket underneath his robe. All the crazy talk was to distract Qiu Chuji. When a magician does his trick right, even hundreds upon hundreds of pairs of eyes could not spot how the trick was done. Qiu Chuji did not even suspect that he would be pulling this kind of trick and was not able to catch him pouring one bowl after another into the bucket underneath his robe. Qiu Chuji snorted: "Hmph! You call this drinking?" Zhu Cong laughed: "And what you did was? The wine I drank is in this bucket, the wine that you drank is on the floor, any differences there?"

He paced back and forth as he talked, suddenly he accidentally slipped on the puddle of wine by Qiu Chuji's feet and fell towards Qiu Chuji. Qiu Chuji caught him and let Zhu Cong balance himself. After pacing back and forth once more, he suddenly said in a loud voice: "Wonderful poem! Such wonderful poetry! Mid-Autumn have always... moon most bright, cool winds lead the way... for refreshing night. A day's fortunes... sinks man and silver, the dragons in four seas... leap out water " His voice was slowly dragging

out as he began to sing the lines.

Shocked, Qiu Chuji thought to himself: "That's the poem that I started but didn't finish last Mid-Autumn; I always have it by my side in case I ever think of the next four lines. Nobody else has seen it, how does he know it?" Reaching into his shirt, he found that the scroll that contained the poem was missing.

With a smile, Zhu Cong unrolled the scroll and laid it out on the table: "Not only are elder Qiu’s martial arts among the best in the world, his poetry and style is as well. Amazing…truly amazing!" He had slipped and fallen on purpose, enabling him to use those magical pick-pocket skills of his to steal the scroll from Qiu Chuji.

Qiu Chuji thought to himself: "I didn't notice it at all when he reached into my shirt and took the scroll out. If he didn't intend to take my poem but was instead trying to stab me, would I still be alive now? Obviously he had my life in his hands and let me live." Now that he thought about that, the anger in him subsided and he said: "Since Hero Zhu has finished this entire vat of wine with me, I will do as I promised and admit defeat. In this little match today in the Pavilion of the Drunken Immortal, Qiu Chuji lost to the Seven Heroes of the South."

Amid smiles, the Seven Freaks of the South replied: "No, no, that's ok. This kind of game can't be taken seriously." Zhu Cong added: "Besides, Reverend Qiu’s inner strength is miles above all of us."

Qiu Chuji continued: "Although I have admitted defeat, those two widows have to be rescued." He saluted with his hands and lifted up the vat: "I'm heading off to the Fahua Monastery to get them." An angry, Ke Zhen’E demanded: "You have admitted defeat, why are you still troubling monk Jiaomu?" Qiu Chuji replied: "Lives are at stake, it has nothing to do with winning or losing. Honored Hero Ke, if your friend met an unfortunate end and his widow was suffering in the hands of others, would you do all you could to save them?" Suddenly his expression changed and he shouted: "Oh I see how it is, you had more people coming! Even if you get the entire Jin army here I'm still going to see this to the very end, even if it means giving up my life!"

Zhang Ahsheng replied: "There's just the seven of us, no need for more people." But Ke Zhen’E had heard several dozen of men running in this direction as well as the clanking of their weapons, so he immediately stood up and commanded: "Everyone back off!" Zhang Ahsheng and all the others hid their weapons since all of them had heard the footsteps by now. Before long, several dozen men came running up the stairs.

These men were Jin soldiers. Qiu Chuji respected the Seven Freaks of the South and figured that they were being kept in the dark by the lies of the monk Jiaomu. He was careful of what he said so as not to offend them too much. But suddenly seeing dozens of Jin soldiers showing up, he could not control his anger any longer and he shouted: "Monk Jiaomu, Seven Freaks, how dare you people actually befriend someone, then ask the Jin for help against them! How can you still call yourself righteous men of the martial world?" Han Baoju shouted back: "Who's asking the Jin for help?"

These soldiers were actually the personal guards of Wanyan Honglie; they followed him into town and became unsettled because Wanyan Honglie had been out of sight a long time. Upon hearing that there was fighting in the Pavilion of the Drunken Immortal and fearing the worst, they came running.

Qiu Chuji snorted: "Hmph! Alright, alright! Please forgive me for not staying any longer! This matter between us is not over yet!" He picked up his vat and started to walk toward the stairs.

Ke Zhen’E stood back up: " Reverend Qiu, there's some misunderstanding here." Still walking, Qiu Chuji replied: "Misunderstanding? You people are supposedly righteous heroes? Why ask Jin soldiers to help you in a fight?" Ke Zhen’E replied: "But we didn't." Qiu Chuji rebuked: "I can see what's going on in front of me, I'm not blind." What Ke Zhen’E hated the most was the fact that he was blind and anything that reminded him of it. He slammed his iron staff onto the floor and demanded: "And what if I am blind?" Qiu Chuji didn't answer as he lifted up his left hand and struck a Jin soldier on his forehead with his palm. The soldier did not even have a chance to mutter a sound before his head split open. Qiu Chuji shouted back: "He is a good example!" Flipping his sleeves in the Seven Freaks' general direction, he walked down the stairs.

Seeing one of their own die, the Jin solder’s actions immediately became chaotic as several of them charged at Qiu Chuji with lances pointed at his back. He did not even turn around and, as if there were eyes on the back of his head, he knocked each of the lances down one by one. The rest of the soldiers were just about to charge up from below as well when Wanyan Honglie ordered them to stop. Turning to Ke Zhen’E, he said: "This Taoist bastard is intolerable, whey don't all of us sit down and have a nice drink while we discuss how to take care of him?" When he ordered the Jin soldiers to stop, Ke Zhen’E had figured out that he was the leader of the soldiers, so he shouted back: "Damn it [TaMaDe]! Get out of my face!" Wanyan Honglie hadn't even recovered from this shock when Han Baoju added: "My Big Brother told you to get out of his face!" He bumped Wanyan Honglie on his waist with his right shoulder. Wanyan Honglie stumbled back several steps as the Seven Freaks and the monk Jiaomu quickly filed out.

Zhu Cong was trailing behind them. As he walked by Wanyan Honglie, he gently tapped him on the shoulder with his fan and asked with a smile: "Have you sold off that girl? How about selling her to me? Ha…ha!" As he hurried down the steps he was still laughing. Although Zhu Cong did not know anything about Wanyan Honglie, he could tell from the way that he was treating Bao Xiruo that they were not a couple. Then he overheard him bragging about his wealth, so he had to take a bit of his money, just to cause a little trouble. But now that he found out that he's a leader of Jin soldiers, how could he not take more of his money?

Wanyan Honglie reached into his shirt and, as expected, all the money that was in his shirt had, inexplicably, disappeared. Not only was he worried about the fact that all these men were such great martial arts masters, but if they somehow found out that he had Madame Bao with him, what a disaster that would be? Luckily, since Qiu Chuji and the Seven Freaks still haven't worked out their misunderstanding, this was the perfect time for him to get out of town. He immediately went back to the inn and headed north with Bao Xiruo that very night. They traveled until they arrived back at the capital of the Jin Empire, Yanjing. [Modern day Beijing]

As it turned out, after that night in which Qiu Chuji killed Wang Daoqian and met the two men, then killed another group of Jin soldiers, he arrived in Hangzhou in great spirits. He spent several days in a row by the lake. The Ge Peak at the north end of the West Lake, besides being a famous Taoist retreat, it was the place where Ge Hong concocted his medical pills at that time. Qiu Chuji spent his mornings enjoying the land and the people and his afternoons inside the Taoist temple on top of Ge Peak, making medicine and practicing martial arts.

One day, he was walking on a pier on the shore of Qing River when he suddenly saw a group of ten or so government soldiers walking by in a very sorry state with their armor falling apart and their weapons broken. Obviously they had just lost a battle. He was rather puzzled: "We aren't at war with the Jin nowadays, and I haven't heard anything about any ruffians or uprisings around here. Where in the world did they lose this battle?" He asked around but nobody knew about it either. His curiosity piqued, he followed the soldiers back to their camp, at Command Post Six.

He waited until after midnight before he snuck into the camp and dragged a soldier out into a small alley to interrogate him. That soldier was in the middle of a dream when suddenly, out of nowhere, a sharp blade was put up against his throat. In shock and fear, he did not hide a thing and he spilled all the secrets about going into Ox Village to capture two men and everything else that happened that night. Qiu Chuji could not believe it when that soldier told him that Guo Xiaotian had died that night, and Yang Tiexin, gravely wounded, was missing and most likely dead as well. The soldier kept on saying that the two widows had been captured, but on their way back, out of nowhere, they had run into another group of soldiers and, for some weird and stupid reason, they fought and lost. Qiu Chuji was about to lose his temper when he realized that this man was merely a soldier who was following orders and not truly responsible for what happened. So he demanded: "Who's your superior?" The soldier answered: "The commander's... s... surname is Duan, given name Tiande." Qiu Chuji let him go and snuck back trying to find Duan Tiande, but to no avail.

The next morning, a pole was erected in front of the commander’s house; a head was dangling off of the top of it, as a warning to other criminals. Qiu Chuji only took one look and recognized that it belonged to Guo Xiaotian. In sadness and anger, he thought: "Qiu Chuji, Qiu Chuji, this man is a descendent of a patriot. Out of kindness, he asked you to have a drink with him, yet you brought upon him such calamities. If you do not find justice for him, how can you go on pretending to be a man?"

After forcing himself to wait until nightfall, he climbed up the pole and took down Guo Xiaotian's head. He dug a hole on the shore of the West Lake and buried the head there. After several kowtows, he wiped the tears away from his face as he silently swore: "I promised to teach the two hero's children martial arts. I’ve kept every promise I have ever made and if I can not turn your children into heroes among men, then let me never see my brothers in the afterlife; I will no longer deserve such an honor." He calculated that the first thing he needed to do was find that Duan Tiande and get revenge for his two dead sworn brothers. After that he would rescue the two widows and take them to some place safe, so that the two kids could be born and leave a legacy for those two heroes.

For two straight nights, he searched through Command Post 6, but was not able to find Duan Tiande at all. He became worried that this man, because of greed and corruption, did not follow military regulations and might not spend time with the soldiers under him at all. On the third night, he stepped out in front of the command post and shouted: "Duan Tiande! Come out here this instant!"

Because of the fact that Guo Xiaotian's head had been taken, Duan Tiande was inside interrogating Li Ping about any other criminal masterminds that her husband might know when, suddenly, there was chaos outside. He stuck his head out of a window and saw a big, tall Taoist, with incredible ferocity and style, grabbing a soldier with each hand and tossing them out of the way as he made his way through the crowd of soldiers. One of the commanders repeatedly shouted: "Let loose the arrows! Let loose!" In the chaos, some of the soldiers grabbed a bow but couldn't find any arrows while other soldiers gathered some arrows but did not grab a bow.

Furious, Duan Tiande pulled out his saber and charged forward screaming: "Want to rebel?" He swung at Qiu Chuji's waist. Seeing that he was an officer, Qiu Chuji did not budge at all. Instead he tossed aside the soldier that was in his hands and, with one simple motion of his left hand, grabbed Duan Tiande's wrist and demanded: "Where's that bastard Duan Tiande?"

Writhing in pain, Duan Tiande immediately replied: "Is the Reverend looking for Mr. Duan? He... He's drinking by the West Lake; don't know if he's going to make it back today." Believing him, Qiu Chuji let him go. Duan Tiande turned to two soldiers by his side and ordered: "Take the Reverend to the lake shore so that he can find the commander." The two soldiers didn't catch on, so he shouted: "What are you standing there for? Hurry! The Reverend will get mad!" The two men finally caught on and began walking. Qiu Chuji followed them off.

Not daring to stay a moment longer, Duan Tiande took several guards and Li Ping and headed straight towards the 8th Command Post. The commander was his drinking pal and, upon hearing what had happened, immediately offered to dispatch some help for him to catch this Taoist bastard. He was just about to dispatch his troops when his camp suddenly broke out in chaos as one of the soldiers ran in and reported that a Taoist had come charging into camp. Turned out the soldiers that were with him couldn't take the pressure and told him about the places that Duan Tiande frequently went to.

Being the alert man he was, Duan Tiande did not hesitate and he grabbed Li Ping and ran. He ran to the 2nd Command Post outside of the city, figuring that he could lose Qiu Chuji because of its remote location. After he settled down, the images of that Taoist rampaging through the army haunted him. By this time his wrist began to hurt and swell again. He went to an army doctor in the camp and it turned out that two bones in his wrist had actually snapped. Too frightened to go home, he decided to stay in the 2nd Command Post for the night. He slept till midnight when a disturbance outside woke him up, apparently one of the soldiers standing guard had disappeared.

Duan Tiande jumped out of his bed, somehow knowing that the guard must have been kidnapped by that Taoist. Deciding that no matter where he hides in the army camps, the Taoist would eventually find him, he had to find something else to do! This Taoist had already met him and was only coming for him and him alone. Even though there were lots of soldiers in the army, he was probably not going to come out unscratched. He was about to break down in a panic when he suddenly remembered that his uncle, who's martial arts were quite good, had retreated to the Yunlou Temple [Cloudy Pavilion Temple] to become a monk. Why not hide there? Figuring that this Taoist's attacks probably had something to do with Guo Xiaotian, he ordered Li Ping be changed into a soldier's uniform and then dragged her to the Yunlou Temple with him in the middle of the night. He thought that if he really got into trouble he could use her as leverage against the monk.

His uncle, given the Buddhist name of Kumu [Withered Wood], became a monk a long time ago and had become the Abbot of the Yunlou Temple. Before that he had been an army officer and his martial arts training came as a disciple of Xianxia Sect that was prevalent in the provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu and could be considered a branch of Shaolin martial arts. He had never approved of Duan Tiande's character and kept a distance between them. Seeing him stumbling into the monastery in such a sorry state in the middle of the night, he was quite annoyed and asked coldly: "What are you doing here?"

Knowing that his uncle hated the Jin to the bone, Duan Tiande knew that if he told the truth his uncle might kill him on the spot himself, so on the way here he had already thought of a lie. Seeing his uncle's cold stare at this moment, he immediately knelt down and kowtowed: "Someone is troubling me, please help me uncle!"

Buddhist monk Kumu replied: "You are an army officer; it's a miracle if you don't go troubling others, who would dare to trouble you?" With an innocent look on his face, Duan Tiande replied: "I'm no good, but I’m hiding here and there from this Taoist bastard. I hope that uncle will, for the sake of late father, save me." Out of pity, the monk Kumu asked him: "Why is the Taoist chasing you?"

Duan Tiande knew that the more repentant he sounded the better off he was, so he said: "It's all my fault… my fault! Two days ago I went to the Wah-Zi on the west side of Clear Coolness Bridge " The Abbot Kumu snorted and his face dropped. "Wah She", or "Wah-

Zi", was the slang word for brothels back at that time; from that came the saying "Wahs gather when time comes, wahs scatters when time goes", which is used to describe something that comes easily and goes just as fast.

Duan Tiande continued: "There was someone there that I had met on many occasions and she was in the middle of a song when a Taoist suddenly burst in and said that she had to entertain him because her song was so good " Abbot Kumu abruptly cut in: "Bull!

What is a priest doing in a place like that?" Duan Tiande replied: "That's what I said and then I told him to leave. But it turned out that Taoist was a low-life and cursed me for enjoying myself in spite of the fact that I would lose my head in the next couple of days." Abbot Kumu asked: "What is he talking about?" Duan Tiande replied: "He said that the Jin army was going to cross the river and invade south soon and was going to kill every single one of us Song soldiers."

Furious, Buddhist Abbot Kumu demanded: "Did he really say that?" Duan Tiande nodded: "Yes! I guess my temper was not really good either and I got into an argument with him, saying that if the Jin really did invade, we would at least all die fighting and wouldn't necessarily lose." This really rubbed the Abbot Kumu the right way, so much so that he could not help but nod in approval as he thought this was the best thing that this nephew of his ever said. Seeing him nod, Duan Tiande's hope lit up and he continued: "We just kept on arguing until we began to fight, but I wasn't a match for the Taoist. He came chasing after me; I had nowhere else to go, so that's why I came here. Uncle, please help me!" The monk Kumu replied: "I am a monk, I'm not getting involved in this kind of name- seeking matters that you men get yourself into." Duan Tiande begged: "Just this one time, uncle, I will never do anything like this again."

Remembering his brother of yesteryear and quite angry at the Taoist for saying what he said, the Venerable Kumu finally relented: "Alright, you can hide here for a couple of days. I don't want any kind of trouble from you." Duan Tiande agreed to everything and anything he demanded. Abbot Kumu sighed: "An honorable army officer, pah…utterly useless! If the Jin army really does invade, then what will we do? Ay! Back then, I " Frightened by threats from Duan Tiande, Li Ping just stood there by his side through all his lies,

not daring to say a single word. The next afternoon, the guest attending monk [Zhike Seng] ran in and reported to monk Kumu: "There's a Taoist priest out front, shouting all kinds of stuff and creating havoc, saying something about making Duan Commander Duan, come outside."

Abbot Kumu went and got Duan Tiande and told him. In a panic, Duan Tiande said: "It's him, it's him!" Abbot Kumu asked: "Which sect does this vicious Taoist belong to?" Duan Tiande replied: "I don't know which hole that barbarian crawled out of, but his martial arts don't seem that great, it’s just that his arm strength is enormous. The only reason I lost is because I didn't know any martial arts at all." Abbot Kumu replied: "Alright, I'm going to go meet him in person." Walking out to the Main Hall, he ran right into Qiu Chuji who was trying to break into the temple. The guard monks were trying their best to slow him down, but they were failing. The Abbot Kumu walked up to him and gently pushed Qiu Chuji's shoulder, using a bit of inner strength; he figured he would just push Qiu Chuji out of the Main Hall. But, to his surprise, it felt as if he was pushing down on a pile of cotton, there was nothing there that he could actually push against. Knowing he was in trouble, he immediately tried to pull back. But it was too late as he stumbled back out of control and backed into the offerings table. "Crack!" "Boom!" Half of the offerings table collapsed and all the offerings on it were scattered and fell onto the floor.

Shocked, a thought ran through his mind: "This Taoist's martial arts are truly amazing, much more than just enormous arm strength, undoubtedly." He immediately held his palm up and saluted: "May I ask why the reverend has come to visit our humble monastery?" Qiu Chuji replied: "I'm looking for an evil criminal with the surname of Duan." Knowing that he himself was no match for Qiu Chuji, Kumu replied: "We men of religion should always be merciful and forgiving, why is the Priest stooping to the same level as laymen?"

Ignoring him, Qiu Chuji walked into the Inner Hall. By now Duan Tiande had already hidden himself and Li Ping. Yunlou Temple's incense was very popular and it was the Spring Pilgrimage season, so the hall was filled with believers of both genders. Realizing that it was impossible to search thoroughly, Qiu Chuji snorted and walked out.

When Duan Tiande came out from his hiding place, monk Kumu demanded angrily: "Barbarian? If he wasn't holding back, I would be dead by now!" Duan Tiande replied: "That barbaric Taoist is a spy for the Jin; why else would he make a point of specifically troubling us officers of the Great Song?" The Zhike Seng came back in and reported that the Taoist had left. Monk Kumu asked: "Did he say anything as he left?" The Zhike Seng replied: "He said that he would never give up until we turn over that that officer named Duan."

The Kumu shot an angry look at Duan Tiande and said: "Judging from what you said, I can't figure out why you are hiding. This Taoist's martial arts are really too strong. You probably won't come out alive if you fall into his hands." After quietly thinking for a while, he continued: "You can't stay here any longer. My younger martial brother monk Jiaomu's martial arts are better than mine. He's the only one who has a chance of stopping that Taoist; why don't you go and hide with him for a while?" Duan Tiande didn't even dare to utter a single word fearing that he might anger his uncle. Later his uncle handed him a letter to give to the monk Jiaomu explaining the situation. He immediately rented a boat and headed for Jiaxingg in the middle of the night.

How could the monk Jiaomu have guessed that the person he dragged in with him was actually a woman? Since he had the letter from his elder martial brother, he naturally allowed Duan Tiande to stay. When Qiu Chuji found out about this, he came pursuing as well. He even spotted Li Ping in the back gardens of the temple. But by the time he’d burst into the temple, Duan Tiande had already dragged Li Ping into the underground storage room with him. Qiu Chuji, still thinking that Li Ping was in the temple, demanded that she be handed over. Since he saw her with his own eyes, he did not believe any answers that the monk Jiaomu came up with, and their argument got worse and worse. As soon as Qiu Chuji revealed a bit of his martial arts, the monk Jiaomu knew absolutely he was no match. Having always been a good friend of the Seven Freaks, he set up a meeting with Qiu Chuji in the Pavilion of the Drunken Immortal. That huge vat that Qiu Chuji had with him came from that very Fahua Monastery. When he ran into the Jin soldiers in the Pavilion of the Drunken Immortal, Qiu Chuji's misunderstanding got even worse.

The monk Jiaomu really did not know much about the truth of the matter. On the way back to the Fahua Monastery from the Pavilion of the Drunken Immortal, he told the Seven Freaks about the two men that his martial brother Abbot Kumu sent to him. He added at the end: "I have heard that all of the Seven Masters of Quanzhen Sect are masters of martial arts, each receiving the direct teachings of Master Chongyang. Among them, elder Changchun Zi was known as the best, and it turns out that he's as good as they say. Even though he's rather rude, he doesn't seem to be the kind who doesn't care for reason, and there aren't any enmities between the two of us. There must be some great misunderstanding at work here."

Quan Jinfa suggested: "I think the best thing to do is to bring out the two men that your martial brother sent to you so we can sort this out." Monk Jiaomu acknowledged, "Good point, I haven't really interrogated them very well yet." He was just about to send some people to go get Duan Tiande when Ke Zhen’E spoke up: "That priest Qiu Chuji's temper is really something, quite explosive. He obviously does not consider us people in the martial world south of the Yangtze as worthy of respect. His Quanzhen Sect may be able to act like bosses up north, but we can't allow them to act like bosses when they come down south like this. If we can't clear up the misunderstanding, then we have to sort this out with martial arts. If we go up against him one-on-one, none of us are a match for him. But he didn't come here with good intentions." Zhu Cong added: "Let's gang up on him together!" Han Baoju commented: "Eight against one? Not very heroic don't you think?" Quan Jinfa reasoned: "It's not like we are going to kill him, we are only trying to calm him down so he will listen to the monk Jiaomu's explanation." Han Xiaoying was rather worried: "If it gets out that monk Jiaomu and the Seven Freaks of the South ganged up on someone, wouldn't that tarnish our name?"

The eight of them hadn't worked out what to do yet when a thunderous noise came from the Main Hall of the temple followed by the thundering of metal banging on metal. Qiu Chuji was banging the huge bell that hung from the ceiling of the Main Hall with the bronze vat. After several hits, the vat began to crack. The look on his face was furious. The Seven Freaks didn't know that Qiu Chuji wasn't always this rash and unreasonable. He had been so frustrated by his own inability to capture Duan Tiande that he was about to lose control; that, added to his deep-seated hatred of the Jin, led to his behaving this way. The Seven Freaks all thought that he was trying to bully them with his reputation, so they decided to fight it out. The more famous the Seven Masters of Quanzhen were, the more determined the Seven Freaks were not to back down and appear to be bullied. If Qiu Chuji had been some unknown martial arts practitioner, this situation would have, ironically, been much easier to resolve and probably already would have been.

Han Baoju shouted: "Sister, let's take the lead." He was Han Xiaoying's first cousin on her father's side and, of the seven, had the least amount of patience. In one motion, the ‘Golden Dragon’ whip that was around his waist was now in his hands and he swept a "Wind Swirling the Crippled Cloud" causing the whip to snap toward Qiu Chuji's right hand which was holding up the vat. Han Xiaoying unsheathed her sword as well and thrust toward the center of Qiu Chuji's back. Attacked from both fronts, Qiu Chuji rotated his wrist, causing the whip to hit the vat instead. Then he turned his body slightly sideways and let the sword pass by his side.

In the last years of the Spring and Autumn era, the states Yue and Wu were mortal enemies. The King of the state of Yue, Gou Qian, in order to remind himself of the shame of defeat and to motivate himself to excel, tortured himself by sleeping on a straw bed and tasting everyday a gall-bladder that he hung from the ceiling. Nevertheless, the King of Wu had a general under him named Wu Tzushi who, being a disciple of Sun-Tze's school of war, was a great tactician and trainer. Seeing that his army was still no match for his enemy's, Gou Qian got more and more depressed. One day, a beautiful young girl with amazing sword skills suddenly appeared inside the Yue borders. Happy beyond words, Gou Qian immediately asked her to teach his soldiers her skills and was finally able to defeat the Wu army because of it. Jiaxing, being the meeting place between the two states, was a place where several battles occurred. It was no surprise that the entire sword technique was passed down in this area. The only problem was that the sword skill was designed to be most effective on the battlefield. It was mostly used to chop down numerous soldiers and bringing down horses in a crowd. It was not nimble or agile enough when used against martial arts practitioners in the martial world. It was only in the last days of the Tang dynasty that this sword technique received a much needed upgrade from a swordplay genius from this area. This sword master made the moves much more complex and speedier. Although Han Xiaoying hadn't yet mastered the entire repertoire that she learned from her master, she was still very deadly. Her nickname "Yue Sword Maiden" was a reference to this. [Note: The entire story regarding this sword technique is covered in another Jin Yong short story, Sword of the Yue Maiden, or Yue Nu Jian.]

After only a few moves, Qiu Chuji had figured out her repertoire and decided to beat its speed with even more speed. She was fast, Qiu Chuji was even faster. Using his right arm to block Han Baoju's whip, his left hand came shooting out in an attempt to snatch the sword out of her hand by sheer force. In an instant, Han Xiaoying was forced to retreat to the side of the temple’s statue of Buddha.

Nan Xiren and Zhang Ahsheng charged in and attacked from both sides. Nan Xiren was just as quiet as can be and let his carrying stick make all the sounds. But Zhang Ahsheng was completely opposite, shouting and screaming all kinds of street talk and all in his south Yangtze accent. Qiu Chuji didn't understand any of it, so he just pretended he didn't hear it.

In the flurry of the fight Qiu Chuji's left palm suddenly came straight out right at Zhang Ahsheng's face. Instinctively, Zhang Ahsheng bent himself over backwards to avoid it, but the move turned out to be a decoy. Qiu Chuji's right foot came flying out hitting Zhang Ahsheng's right wrist, knocking his knife loose. But Zhang Ahsheng is much better with nothing in his hands, so he did not miss a beat as he balanced himself with his left leg, faked with a right hand, and attacked with his left fist.

Qiu Chuji let out a shout of approval before dodging out of the way and uttering: "Pity, pity!" Zhang Ahsheng had to ask: "What?" Qiu Chuji replied: "Pity that you, such a martial arts expert, would bring on shame to yourself by befriending evil monks and serving the Jin." Made furious by that accusation, Zhang Ahsheng shouted back: "Bastard Taoist, you are the one that's serving the Jin!" He took three swings at Qiu Chuji in quick succession during that exchange. Qiu Chuji dodged out of the way and tilted the vat, causing two of Zhang Ahsheng's punches to actually land on the vat.

Seeing that they were still losing despite of their four to one advantage, Zhu Cong made a gesture towards Quan Jinfa and the two of them charged into the scuffle. Quan Jinfa's weapon was a huge hand scale with which he used the scale handle as a bat, the scale hook as a flying hook, and the scale weight as a mace; literally tree weapons in one. Zhu Cong, on the other hand, excelled at hitting pressure points. That dirty and broken fan of his was actually made of iron which he used like an extension of his arm. This facilitated hitting pressure points and deflecting other weapons or enemies coming at him. Qiu Chuji spun and tilted the vat in his right hand at will, making it a huge shield that guarded his front side while using his left hand to fight back and attack. With such a huge burden in his hand, he could no longer move around as nimbly as he should, but it was still quite advantageous for him because he could use the vat to block many of the attacks coming towards him.

The monk Jiaomu, seeing the fight quickly getting out of hand, figured that someone could be seriously hurt any moment now. He tried to get everyone's attention by shouting as loud as he could: "Everyone please stop! Please listen to what I have to say!" But who would actually stop in the middle of a fierce fight?

Qiu Chuji shouted back: "Hypocrite! Who wants to hear you talk? Watch this!" Suddenly his left hand turned ferociously towards Zhang Ahsheng as it shifted between fist and palm over and over again without rhyme or reason. This move, called "Flying Mountain Outside the Heavens," was based on strange form and incredible speed, and was meant to take an opponent by surprise, as it did Zhang Ahsheng. Monk Jiaomu shouted: "No! Reverend! Please don't!" Qiu Chuji had been fighting for so long and against so many able opponents that he was afraid that the fight would last too long. Since there were two men standing on the sidelines waiting to jump in at any moment, he was worried very much about his own life. Now that he had found an opening in his opponent’s defense, how could he just let it go? Therefore, he put all his strength and power behind this move.

In his martial arts training he trained his body specifically to strengthen the toughness of his skin. The fact that he liked to wrestle with wild bulls and buffaloes for work and as a hobby, Zhang Ahsheng's body was covered with a layer of thick and hard muscles, which resembled the thick skin of bulls. Even though he knew that this strike packed quite a force, and since he figured that he couldn't get out of the way, he immediately gathered his inner strength and prepared himself for a strike on his shoulder and shouted: "Come on!". Hence, he caught the palm full on. "Crack!" Incredibly, his collar bone, despite of all his preparation, snapped under the pure inner force of the Quanzhen Sect. Shocked, Zhu Cong attacked aggressively with his iron fan, aiming right at a pressure point on Qiu Chuji. As the saying goes, offense is the best defense; Zhu Cong attacked to protect his sworn brother from further harm now that he was injured. But Qiu Chuji, having just gained the upper hand, immediately began trying to seize some of the weapons that were flying around him. "Ai-Yo!" Quan Jinfa shouted as Qiu Chuji got a hold of his scale. With a jerk, Qiu Chuji pulled him a meter closer. This put him between Qiu and the two other attackers, Nan Xiren and Zhu Cong. Qiu Chuji's left palm flew toward Quan Jinfa’s scalp.

Han Baoju and Han Xiaoying both immediately jumped in and thrust their weapons at Qiu Chuji's head in an attempt to stop him. Qiu Chuji had no choice but to dodge out of the way and let Quan Jinfa escape. Having just escaped death, Quan Jinfa was covered in sweat; nevertheless he took a kick to his side that made him writhe on the ground in pain, unable to get up.

The monk Jiaomu didn't want to actually come to blows. He’d hoped that his misunderstanding with Qiu Chuji would have been peacefully worked out by now. Seeing the friends that had come to his aid were going down one by one, he had to join in the scuffle. He tossed his long sleeve, raised the piece of burnt wood in his hand, and lunged at Qiu Chuji. Qiu Chuji thought: "So it seems that this monk is a master at hitting pressure points." He put up his guard against him.

Ke Zhen’E figured from all the shouting that his sworn brothers and sister were hurt, so he grabbed his iron staff and was about to charge into the fight when Quan Jinfa shouted: "Big Brother, fire your projectiles! First at 'Jin', then go for 'Xiao Guo'!" Before his voice even died down, two projectiles flew directly toward Qiu Chuji's forehead and right hip.

Qiu Chuji was shocked. It's not often that one meets a blind man able to fire projectiles so accurately, even with a person on the side telling him where to fire them. He immediately spun the vat in his hand and knocked the two projectiles down. These projectiles are used only by Ke Zhen’E, and had corners on all 4 sides like a diamond, but as sharp anyone could make them. He learned to use them after he was blinded because the projectiles were heavy, making it easy for him to be accurate. After knocking the projectiles down with the vat, Qiu Chuji actually felt the vat shake! He thought: "Amazing, what strength!"

By now all the other Freaks had dodged out of the way. Quan Jinfa still kept shouting: "'Zhong Fu', now 'Lie'!     Good, now the Taoist

has moved into ' Ming Yi"    " He had done this with Ke Zhen’E so many times over the years that it almost seemed as if his eyes were

Ke Zhen’E's. He was the only one among Freaks that could do this. Ke Zhen’E was firing as if he could see and in an instant he had fired dozens of projectiles. So many that Qiu Chuji was now forced to fend off the projectiles with no opportunity to fight back whatsoever.

Suddenly a thought came to Ke Zhen’E: "He's hearing sixth brother as well, so he's prepared every time, no wonder I can't hit him." Quan Jinfa's voice was getting softer and softer with moans sandwiched in between, obviously in great pain. Ke Zhen’E did not hear Zhang Ahsheng make a single noise at all and nobody was quite sure whether or not he's alive. Quan Jinfa struggled to get out: "Hit...

hit... 'Tong Ren'    " But this time Ke Zhen’E did not follow his advice, instead he threw up both arms and fired four projectiles, one

each at the "Jie" and "Sun" positions right of "Tong Ren" and the other two heading for the "Feng" and "Lie" position left of "Tong Ren."

Not expecting Ke Zhen’E to suddenly use trickery, Qiu Chuji took a big step left and dodged the "Tong Ren" position as two people suddenly screamed in pain. Qiu Chuji's right shoulder was hit, but the projectile aimed towards the "Sun" position hit Han Xiaoying's back. Surprised and pleased, Ke Zhen’E shouted: "Little sister, come here!"

Knowing that her big brother coated his projectiles with a virulent poison, Han Xiaoying immediately scrambled to his side. Ke Zhen’E took out a small, yellow colored pill from his bag, stuffed it in her mouth, and instructed: "Go to the yard outside and sleep, do not move, I'll come and attend to you later." Han Xiaoying immediately got up and ran towards the yard. But Ke Zhen’E shouted: "Don't run! Don't run! Walk slowly!" Han Xiaoying immediately understood and cursed at herself for being so stupid. Because her blood will circulate faster when she ran and if the poison was carried into the heart, there would be no way she could be saved. She stopped and slowly walked out.

After being hit, Qiu Chuji just ignored it because it was not very painful and just kept on fighting against the rest of the group. However, in the midst of the fight he suddenly heard Ke Zhen’E shout "Don't run!" several times. A chill went through his heart as he suddenly noticed that his arm around the wound felt very numb. He realized that the projectile had poison on it. Not daring to hesitate, he collected his strength and aimed a punch at Nan Xiren's face as hard as he could.

Noticing that the punch coming his way, Nan Xiren bent his knees, held his iron carrying stick across his chest, and pulled a move called "Iron Chain Across the River" to block the punch. Qiu Chuji did not pull the punch at all. On the contrary, he actually took a deep breath and put even more force into the punch, hitting the stick squarely in the middle. Nan Xiren's body shook violently and he had to drop his stick as the part of his hand between his thumb and index finger split open and blood began rushing out. As it turned out Qiu Chuji wasn't keeping anything in reserve in an attempt to bring the fight to a speedy end so he could save his own life. He pretty much put everything he had into this punch, causing massive internal injuries to Nan Xiren. Feeling weak on his feet, numbness in his mouth as well as seeing stars, Nan Xiren suddenly fell to the floor throwing up blood.

Although he had taken down another foe, the numbness in Qiu Chuji's shoulder was getting worse and worse, causing him to start having trouble controlling that huge vat in his hand. So with a shout, he swept his left leg, making Han Baoju leave his feet to dodge the attack. "Where do you think you are going?" Qiu Chuji yelled as he pushed the vat off so that it came down on top of Han Baoju. Because he was in midair, Han Baoju could not do a thing other than do a half flip. By then the vat had already covered his head. In an attempt to avoid any serious injuries, he immediately put his hands over his head and curled up into a ball. "Bang!" The vat hit the floor and conveniently and neatly covered up Han Baoju.

As soon as he let go of the vat, Qiu Chuji unsheathed his sword. With a little kick against the ground with his toes, he jumped up and cut the rope that held the huge bell to the ceiling. At the same time, he gave the bell a little push to aim the bell directly at the vat, making it come down right on top of the vat. Now Han Baoju was truly stuck. However, Qiu Chuji had really expended a huge amount of energy with these last two moves and as a result, all of his extremities were beginning to feel numb and huge drops of perspiration were beginning to bead on his forehead.

Ke Zhen’E shouted: "Drop your weapons and stop now! If you wait any longer, your life could be in danger!" But Qiu Chuji figured that since the monk was in league with both the Jin and the Song soldiers and hid women in his temple, then his friends, the Freaks, could not be anything better. He would rather die than to submit to these bastards. So he turned around and began to try and fight his way out.

With only Ke Zhen’E and Zhu Cong still unharmed and the condition of the others still unknown how could either one of them let him get away? So Ke Zhen’E held up his iron staff and stood in front of the door, blocking his way out. Desperate to get out any way he could, Qiu Chuji stuck his sword out right at Ke Zhen’E's face. Ke Zhen’E's nickname ‘Flying Bat Soaring through the Sky’ came about for a reason, so he easily heard what was going on and parried the sword with his staff, almost knocking the sword out of Qiu Chuji's hand. Shocked, Qiu Chuji said to himself: "How strong is this blind man's inner strength? Could it possibly be stronger than mine?" He immediately followed with another thrust, which was parried again. But Qiu Chuji had found out that it wasn't because Ke Zhen’E's inner strength was stronger, it was because his right arm was wounded and therefore he could not exert his full force through it. He switched the sword over to his left hand and began using a skill that he’d never used in combat before, ‘Swordsmanship of Common Demise’. The sword flashed as one move after another came flying towards the vitals of Ke Zhen’E, Zhu Cong, and the monk Jiaomu; he wasn't defending at all, every single one of his moves was an attack.

The name ‘Swordsmanship of Common Demise’ was designed for a person to fight for his life against a much more powerful opponent. Every move is designed to attack the enemy in a vital spot with incredible force and without the slightest care for one's own life. Although this is a highly refined sword skill, it's actually very similar to those scraps between ruffians and the lowlifes of the streets. As it turns out the Quanzhen Sect has a nemesis that resides in the western regions. This man was much more powerful than any of the Seven Masters of Quanzhen, and he was as ruthless as he was powerful. At one time only the disciples' master could subdue and control this man, but now that the master had passed away, there was a chance that this man could come back to the central plains at any time and destroy the entire Quanzhen Sect. The Seven Masters of Quanzhen do have a "Big Dipper Formation" that could contain this man; however, this formation only works with all seven disciples present. There was the possibility that they might run into this man without every one being present. This ‘Swordsmanship of Common Demise’ was meant to be used against this man, especially in single combat, in the hopes that the two combatants would both perish and thus preserve the sect. Poisoned and surrounded by three martial arts masters, Qiu Chuji had no choice but to use this skill.

After about a dozen exchanges or so, Ke Zhen’E's leg was hit. Monk Jiaomu shouted: "Big Brother Ke, Brother Zhu, why don't we just let him go on his way?" But because of this little distraction, his right rib was hit, causing him to fall to the ground screaming.

By now, Qiu Chuji was having trouble keeping his balance as well. His eyes were bloodshot; Zhu Chong exchanged several more moves with him, all the while cursing at him nonstop. Ke Zhen’E, not being able to see, was completely baffled by the sound created by Qiu Chuji's sword and was hit again, this time on his right leg, and he fell to the ground.

Zhu Cong cursed: "Dog of a Taoist, bastard Taoist! The poison in your veins has reached your heart by now! Why don't you try and make three more moves with me?"

Furious, Qiu Chuji simply came charging at him, but Zhu Cong's lightness martial arts were very good and he flew around the hall. Knowing that he could not keep this up any longer, Qiu Chuji stopped and sighed. Suddenly every thing turned dark in front of him. He tried to shake his mind clear and was just about to look for a way out when suddenly something smacked his back. It was a shoe that Zhu Cong had taken off.

Even though the shoe was soft, it still carried quite a bit of force with it because of Zhu Cong's inner strength. Qiu Chuji teetered as he fought hard to maintain consciousness. Suddenly something else hit the back of his head. This time it was a wooden fish [muyu] that Zhu Cong had found laying in front the Buddha statue. [Note: the wooden fish (muyu) is a wooden percussion instrument that Buddhist priests use to keep rhythm while chanting.]

Fortunately, Qiu Chuji's inner strength was very strong; a normal person would have undoubtedly died from that hit, but he did almost black out from it. Qiu Chuji yelled at the top of his lungs: "Forget it, forget it! ‘Changchun Zi’ Qiu Chuji shall die today at the hands of these shameless bastards!" Feeling his knees suddenly give away, he collapsed onto the floor.

Fearing that he might jump back up again, Zhu Cong reached down to hit the pressure point in the middle of Qiu Chuji's chest when he suddenly saw Qiu Chuji's left hand move. Knowing that he was in trouble, Zhu Cong immediately tried to bring his right arm back in front of his chest to block the blow. But a huge force came up from below his belly and shot him away. He was spitting out blood even before he landed. Even though he could not move, Qiu Chuji had put all the strength left in him into this strike. There was no way in the world that Zhu Cong could take such a force.

None of the other monks in the temple knew any martial arts; in fact, none of them even knew that their master knew martial arts. The sudden chaos in the main hall had sent them fleeing for their lives a long time ago. Only after things had quieted down for quite a while did a couple of the braver monks stick their heads out to see what had happened. What they saw was, blood everywhere, bodies everywhere; this sent them screaming and scrambling to Duan Tiande.

Duan Tiande had been hiding in the underground storage room the entire time and was ecstatic on hearing the news that both sides were completely destroyed in the fight. Making sure that Qiu Chuji was among those fighting, he told the monks to go and check whether or not the Taoist had died. Only after the monks came back with the news that the Taoist was lying on the floor with his eyes shut did he finally feel safe and dragged Li Ping to the main hall.

He gave Qiu Chuji a kick, causing Qiu Chuji to let out an almost imperceptible moan. Duan Tiande pulled out his saber and shouted: "Do you have any idea how much suffering you have caused me you Taoist bastard? Well now your foe is going to send you on your way to the Western Paradise!"

Even though he was greatly injured, monk Jiaomu summoned all his strength and shouted: "Don't... don't harm him!" Duan Tiande asked: "Why not?" Monk Jiaomu, still recovering from the shout, got out between breaths: "He's a good man... just a little im... impatient, so there was some misunderstand    " Duan Tiande replied: "A good man? Who cares? Let me kill him!" The monk Jiaomu

angrily rebuked: "Are you going to listen to me or not? Put    put down your saber!" Duan Tiande laughed heartily at that remark and

shouted back: "Put down my saber? Then what? Become enlightened on the spot?" He lifted up his saber and began to swing it down at Qiu Chuji. [Note: Duan Tiande's becoming enlightened remark is a reference to a Buddhist saying that one could put down his weapon and become enlightened on the spot.]

Furious, the monk Jiaomu summoned up all his strength again and tossed the piece of burnt wood in his hand at Duan Tiande as hard as he could. Duan Tiande tried to dodge out of the way, but his martial arts were just not good enough and it caught him on the side of his mouth and knocked out three of his teeth. In pain and humiliated, Duan Tiande, ignoring the fact that he owed his life to the monk Jiaomu, lifted his saber and tried to chop off the monk’s head. However, a small monk who was right beside him grabbed onto his right arm and held on for his life while another one grabbed his collar. In fury, Duan Tiande swung his saber back and brought it down upon those two monks. Even though Qiu Chuji, Jiaomu, and Freaks were all martial arts masters, every single one of them was gravely injured or kept from the battle and could not do a thing to stop him.

Li Ping screamed: "Bastard! Stop! Stop!" She had been dragged all over the place by Duan Tiande and had been patiently waiting for an opportunity to present itself to her to avenge her husband. Seeing the ground covered in blood and this man about to commit more murders, she could not hold back any longer. She charged up to him and began to fight him for all she's worth. The others had thought she was just an underling of Duan Tiande because of her uniform. Everyone was quite surprised when she suddenly attacked Duan Tiande.

Being blind, Ke Zhen’E's hearing was especially sensitive and knew that she was female as soon as he heard her. He turned to Jiaomu: "Monk Jiaomu, we are all going to die because of you. You really did have a girl hidden in your temple!"

After a moment of surprise, the monk Jiaomu understood what had happened. He thought that because of one slight oversight on his part, he had not only got himself hurt, he had taken his friends down with him as well. In anger and humiliation, he punched the ground with both hands to help him stand up and charged at Duan Tiande with all his might. Seeing him coming with such ferociousness, Duan Tiande immediately dodged out of the way in fear. Not being able to control his own body because of the injury, the monk Jiaomu ran straight into one of the temple’s columns head first and died on the spot.

Frightened out of his wits, Duan Tiande grabbed Li Ping and ran off as fast as he could. Li Ping's shouts for help got further and further away. 

Chapter 3 – The Winds of the Steppes

The monks were crying because of the venerable monk Jiaomu's death but some of them were still able to take care of the wounded by bandaging up their wounds and carrying them into the guest rooms. Suddenly there came an incessant banging from the vat underneath the huge bell. Not knowing what kind of monster was present, the monks looked at each other with blank faces. Not knowing what to do started to chant the ‘Sutra of the High King’ [Gao Wang Jing]. But the banging continued through all the chants of ‘Help the Sufferers’ and ‘Amida Buddha’. Finally, a dozen or so of the more courageous monks pulled the huge bell back up again with a huge thick rope. As soon as they lifted the vat, a huge ball of meat came rolling out from underneath it. Scared beyond words, the monks scattered. That ball of meat suddenly stood up, it turned out to be Han Baoju. Being covered for the last half of the fight, he had no idea what had happened. Looking around, he noticed monk Jiaomu had died and all his sworn brothers were greatly injured and almost panicked. He walked over to Qiu Chuji and was about to strike down at his head with his ‘Golden Dragon Whip’.

"Third Brother, NO!" Quan Jinfa shouted. "Why not?" Han Baoju demanded in anger.

"You... just can't," was all Quan Jinfa could get out because of the pain in his abdomen.

Even though both of his legs were wounded, Ke Zhen’E's mind was still working fine. He took out the antidote for his poison and instructed the monks to give the right amounts to both Qiu Chuji and Han Xiaoying, all the while explaining what had happened to Han Baoju. Enraged, Han Baoju was about to go chasing after Duan Tiande when Ke Zhen’E shouted: "We'll find that bastard sooner or later. First help those of your brothers who suffered internal injuries."

Both Zhu Cong and Nan Xiren had suffered severe internal injuries and that kick to Quan Jinfa's stomach was quite a blow too. Zhang Ahsheng's collar bone was broken and his chest was hit as well, knocking him out temporarily. Once he woke up, it turned out he wasn't in any mortal danger. He immediately began helping others in the temple. The monks of the Fahua Monastery [Temple of Oriental Zen] sent a couple of errand runners to report the events to Abbot Kumu at the Yunlou Monastery [Cloudy Pavilion Temple] and also began to make funeral arrangements for the monk Jiaomu.

After several days, the poison in Qiu Chuji and Han Xiaoying's body was eradicated. Being the medical expert that he was, Qiu Chuji immediately began combining herbs and treating Zhu Cong and others as well as massaging and snapping bones back into place. Luckily, everyone's kung fu base was strong enough so that the internal as well as the external injuries were not serious. After several more days, everyone was able to sit up again. One day, all eight of them gathered in one of the monk's rooms and reflected on how they were manipulated into fighting each other, resulting in the death of the monk Jiaomu and injuries to all parties. All of them were silent, not knowing what to say.

After a while, Han Xiaoying finally broke the silence: "Everyone knows about Priest Qiu's intelligence and wit, and the seven of us didn't exactly begin wandering the world yesterday. Yet we were all manipulated into this by some little nobody. If this ever gets out, everyone in the martial world will laugh at us. Reverend, do you have any idea as to how to clean up this mess?"

Qiu Chuji had been blaming himself for the last couple of days, thinking that if only he had sat down and calmly talked with the monk Jiaomu then all of this could have been avoided. So, in deference, he turned to Ke Zhen’E: "Big Brother Ke, what do you say?"

Ke Zhen’E's temper was bad to begin with; after his eyes were blinded it got even worse. The fact that Qiu Chuji himself brought down all seven of them combined was, in fact, what he considered to be one of the biggest embarrassments of his life. Coupled with the fact that the pain in his legs from the sword wound was still throbbing, he was barely able to hold back his indignation. He sneered and replied: "Priest Qiu uses his sword skills to take down anyone in his way and never needs to respect anyone. Why consult us over this matter?"

Qiu Chuji was taken aback for a moment, but immediately realized that he was still angry about the matter. He stood up, cupped his fist, and bowed to the Seven Freaks. "I was wrong in my actions; I was too rude and headstrong. This entire matter is entirely my fault and I ask you all for your forgiveness."

Zhu Cong and the rest of the Freaks returned the gesture. Ke Zhen’E pretended not to notice and coldly replied: "I say the seven of us have lost all of our rights to meddle in the affairs of the martial world. We should settle down here, fishing, chopping wood, or whatever. As long as Priest Qiu does not come around again, we would at least be able to spend the rest of our lives in peace."

Qiu Chuji blushed a little from that verbal slash. After a brief pause, he suddenly stood up and said: "Since I was at fault this time, I will never dare step into this area again. As for retribution for monk Jiaomu's death, it will all fall on my shoulders and I will kill that bastard with my own hands and avenge him. Having said all that I need to say, it's now time for me to leave." Qiu Chuji bowed towards everyone again and began to walk out.

"Stop!" Ke Zhen’E shouted.

Qiu Chuji turned around and said, "Does Big Brother Ke have something else to say?"

"You have injured all of us," Ke Zhen’E replied, "and you expect all of this to just disappear because you said a couple of words?" "Then what does Big Brother Ke want? As long as it is within my abilities I will try my best to do it."

"We just can't let this slide right now," Ke Zhen’E answered, "so it would be nice if Reverend gives us something more."

Although the Seven Freaks were all very righteous and moral individuals; they were also very proud and acted very strangely, making them well deserving the title of "Seven Freaks". Each is a master of kung fu and they always worked together, so they had never come out on the short end of a struggle when going up against others in the martial world. Several years ago they got into a fight with the Huaiyang Clan; the seven of them killed over one hundred or so of the Huaiyang Clan members on the shores of the Yangtze. Back then Han Xiaoying was still a child, but she still managed to kill two foes. The name ‘Seven Freaks of the South’ became famous throughout the martial world. Defeat by the hands of Qiu Chuji did not go down very well with any of them. Add that to the fact that the monk Jiaomu, a good friend of the Freaks, died, one could argue, because of Qiu Chuji's rashness. But there was still the fact that a woman WAS hidden inside the temple and she WAS the widow of Guo Xiaotian, as Qiu Chuji had claimed. This made the Freaks partly to blame; however, at this moment, the Freaks had forgotten about that.

"I was hit by your projectile," Qiu Chuji replied. "And if it wasn't for Big Brother Ke's antidote, I would have been dead a long time ago. So for this fight, I wholeheartedly admit defeat."

"If that's the case," Ke Zhen’E replied, "then leave that sword that you carry on your back and you can go." He knew that if the two sides fought again at this time only the Han siblings would be able to put up a fight and that victory for his side was impossible. But all of the Freaks would rather die than to let the matter pass like this.

This angered Qiu Chuji greatly: "I have already given you people a lot of face and that should be enough. I also admitted defeat, what else do you want? The sword is for my protection," he continued, "just like that staff Big Brother Ke carries around."

"Are you poking fun at my blindness?" Ke Zhen’E shouted back. "I dare not!"

"We are all injured right now, so it's hard to actually fight at this moment." Ke Zhen’E shouted angrily. "So I invite priest Qiu to come and duel with the seven of us a year from today at the Pavilion of the Drunken Immortal."

Qiu Chuji frowned at that remark. He thought, “Because the Seven Freaks weren't bad people, there was really no point in keeping this grudge going between us. The day after the Venerable Jiaomu died, Han Baoju could have killed me easily once he got out from underneath the bell. Besides, this whole matter was caused more or less by my own rashness. A real man knows what's right and wrong. If he's wrong then he should admit it. To sort all this out with the Freaks won't be easy either.” After thinking silently for a bit, an idea suddenly came to him, "If you really want to determine who is better between us, then we could do that," he said. "But only according to the rules I lay down. Otherwise, I have already lost to Hero Zhu at the Pavilion of the Drunken Immortal, and I lost again fighting here in the temple. I have already lost twice and would inevitably lose the third time as well, there’s no point in going any further."

Han Baoju, Han Xiaoying, and Zhang Ahsheng immediately stood up, the other four could not stand but all sat up as much as they could. They answered in unison: "When the Seven Freaks of the South duel with someone, we always let our opponent choose the time, place, and method."

Seeing how competitive they were, Qiu Chuji smiled: "So I decide how we should fight no matter what?"

Figuring that no matter what dirty trick Qiu Chuji would come up with, it wouldn't necessarily mean defeat for them, Zhu Cong and Quan Jinfa answered simultaneously: "That's right!"

"A man's word..." Qiu Chuji replied.

"... wild horses can't bring back!" Han Xiaoying finished, but Ke Zhen’E remained silent.

[The saying "A man's word can't be brought back by wild horses" is a famous saying in China about keeping one's word. When a person says it, it means that he will not go back on his word.]

"If you people feel that my way is unfair in any way," Qiu Chuji continued, "then I will admit defeat right here and now." Obviously planning to gain ground by giving up a little, he knew that the Freaks would never let him admit defeat that easily because of their competitiveness.

"There’s no need to play all these word games to anger us, just tell us what it is," Ke Zhen’E replied, as expected.

Qiu Chuji sat down and began to explain: "The method I have in my mind might be a little bit dragged out, but what it really measures is abilities and skills and is susceptible to some temporary mishaps or conditions. Everyone knows any martial artist can fight with blades and fists. We all have names in the martial world and absolutely cannot stoop down to the level of lowly underlings.”

"What's left to fight with if we can't do it with blades or fists? Are we having a drinking contest again?" All of the Freaks wondered at that comment.

"This huge contest between us, you seven against me, will not only measure our kung fu skills, but also our will, determination, and wit. With this contest, we will see once and for all who the real hero is."

This entire conversation had all of the Seven Freaks shaking in anticipation and excitement. "Stop stalling, tell us!" Han Xiaoying demanded. "The harder it is the better!"

"If we are competing meditating, making medicine, fortunetelling, or ghost-banishing, then we are no match for priest Qiu at all." Zhu Cong said with a smile.

"And I don't really want to compete with Second Brother Zhu in stealing chickens or taking sheep." Qiu Chuji replied with a smile. This caused a little bit of laughter from Han Xiaoying, who quickly went back to urging Qiu Chuji on: "Come on, say it!"

"At the very bottom of all of this and the misunderstanding that led to our fight, was saving the descendants of a couple of good men. This matter would be best ended in that way as well." Qiu Chuji went on to tell how he met with Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin all the way to how he pursued Duan Tiande to this temple. Throughout his entire explanation, the Freaks could not stop cursing the Jin as well as the Song government for its corruption.

After he finished the story, Qiu Chuji went on: "That woman that Duan Tiande dragged away was Guo Xiaotian's widow, Madam Li. Other than Big Brother Ke and the Han siblings, I'm sure the other four of you saw them."

"I remember her voice," Ke Zhen’E interrupted, "I will never forget that voice!"

"Great." Qiu Chuji continued, "As for Yang Tiexin's widow, Mrs. Bao, there is no clue as to where she might be. I have seen her before, but you people haven't. So what I propose we do is "

" the seven of us would go rescue Mrs. Li while you go save Mrs. Bao and that whoever succeeds wins. Right?" Han Xiaoying

eagerly cut in.

Qiu Chuji smiled and replied: "Saving people, while definitely not easy, can't really be used to determine who's a hero and who's not. What I have in mind is much harder and more troublesome." "So what are you suggesting?" Ke Zhen’E demanded.

"Both of the women are pregnant," Qiu Chuji explained. "After we save them, we must make sure they settle down nicely and allow them to give birth. After that I will teach the Yang child while the seven of you teach the Guo child "

The Seven Freaks were getting more and more amazed with every word that he said. They were practically mesmerized when Han Baoju cut in: "Then what?"

"After eighteen years, when the kids are both eighteen, all of us, as well as invited friends from all over the martial realm, shall gather at the Pavilion of the Drunken Immortal once again for a huge feast. Then, when we are all sufficiently full and merry, we'll let the two kids duel to see whether it is my disciple who is better or is the disciple of the Seven Heroes really the best." The Seven Freaks stared at each other, completely speechless.

Qiu Chuji continued: "If the Seven Heroes fight me once more and defeat me, then it could easily be because you outnumber me; not much glory there. But if I pass all my kung fu to one person and you guys pass all of your kung fu to one person, then whichever one wins must mean that their master or masters were better."

Filled with pride, Ke Zhen’E slammed his iron staff onto the floor: "Alright! That's what we'll do!" "What if that bastard Duan Tiande has already killed Mrs. Li? What then?" Quan Jinfa asked.

"That's just the luck of the draw," Qiu Chuji replied. "The heavens wanted me to win, what more could be said?"

"Alright!" Han Baoju pitched in with his opinion. "Rescuing widows and orphans was the right thing to do to begin with. Even if we weren't competing against you we would do it."

Qiu Chuji gave him a thumbs-up and declared: "Third Brother Han is exactly right. If the Seven Heroes are willing to care for the Guo child to adulthood, then I would like to thank everyone for my late Brother Guo." He bowed to each of them again.

"This idea of yours is rather cunning," Zhu Cong observed. "With those several sentences of yours, we brothers and sisters would have to give up eighteen years of our lives?" Qiu Chuji's face changed color a little and he suddenly let out a loud laugh.

"What's so funny?" Han Xiaoying demanded.

"I have long heard and admired the name of the Seven Freaks of the South," Qiu Chuji replied. "Everyone says that the Seven Heroes are truly righteous heroes who are always there when you need them. But today, I see that the rumors were greatly exaggerated."

This made all of the Freaks furious. Han Baoju slammed his fist down onto the bench that he was sitting on and was about to say something when Qiu Chuji cut him off: "Since ancient times, for real heroes and men, making a friend was for life in every way and giving one's life for a friend would be no big thing if loyalty and friendship called for it. Nobody has ever heard of Jing Ke and Nie Zheng haggling about some small thing. The Yang and Guo family are in need of help right now, how could anyone start haggling about it?" [In popular Chinese lore and most versions of Chinese history, Jing Ke and Nie Zheng were two great friends that had helped the Lord of Qi during the beginning of the Spring and Autumn Period. Their friendship was legendary and, in the view of most Chinese, including Confucius, the epitome of what friendship should be.]

After that little speech, Zhu Cong's face was flushed with embarrassment. He flicked his fan and replied, "The Reverend is right, I realize my mistake now. The seven of us will take on this matter!"

Qiu Chuji stood up and said: "Today is the twenty-fourth of the third month, eighteen years from today at noon, we'll meet again upstairs in the Pavilion of the Drunken Immortal. There, in front of all of the martial world, we will find out who's the real hero!" With a flick of his sleeve, he walked out of the door.

Han Baoju shouted: "I'm off to look for that Duan Tiande now, if he’s crawled into a tortoise hole and disappeared, we are going to have to waste a lot of energy."

He was the only one among the Seven Freaks that wasn't injured, so he charged out of the door, mounted ‘Wind Chaser’, his yellow horse, and began to go chase after Duan Tiande and Li Ping.

"Third Brother…third Brother!" Zhu Cong shouted. "You don't know what they look like!" But Han Baoju wasn't the patient type and with ‘Wind Chaser’ well deserving of his name, he was long gone.

o0o

Once he was out of the temple, Duan Tiande ran as fast as his legs would carry him, all the while dragging Li Ping. Only after he was sure that nobody was chasing after him did he finally stop and take a breath. Then he ran to the bank of the nearest river and jumped on the first boat that he saw. Taking out his saber and putting it up against the neck of the fisherman, he ordered the man to start moving the boat. The rivers and canals south of the Yangtze were as dense as a spider web and boats were the everyday mode of transportation; as common as horses and carriages were up North. Hence the saying: "Northerners ride horses, Southerners ride boats." With Duan Tiande looking as vicious as he did, as well as being dressed like an official, how could the fisherman dare disobey? He immediately undocked and guided the boat out of the city.

"What a mess! If I go back to Linan, if nothing else, my uncle will kill me on first sight." Duan Tiande thought to himself. “Probably the best thing would be to head north to get away for a while. Hopefully that bastard of a Taoist and those Seven Freaks have all died from their injuries and then my uncle will get so angry that he passes away. Then I can return and get my position back."

Once he made up his mind, he instructed the fisherman to start heading north. Even though Han Baoju's horse was faster, he was nevertheless searching on land, and thus let the two of them slip through.

Duan Tiande switched boats a couple of more times as well and changed his clothes and forced Li Ping to change hers. After ten days or so, he arrived in Yangzhou and decided to check into an inn. He was hoping to be able to settle down in the city for a while and wait out the storm. By an extraordinary coincidence, he just happened to overhear someone inquiring about his whereabouts. Shocked, he peeped through the little crack in the door and saw an amazingly ugly, short, and fat guy with a beautiful young girl. Both of them had a Jiaxing accent. Guessing that they were some of the Seven Freaks, he immediately grabbed Li Ping and ran out of the back door. Luckily, the Yangzhou native at the front desk did not quite understand their dialect and didn't understand what they were asking about. This made it possible for Duan Tiande to get away and rent another boat. Not daring to stop even for a second, he made his way north, up the Grand Canal, all the way to the shore of Liguo Post on the shores of Mount Wei Lake inside the borders of Shangdong province.

Li Ping, who was quite plain looking and whose stomach was bulging by now, was spending days on end cursing and crying. So even though Duan Tiande was by no means a gentleman, he never had any inclinations towards her. All the two ever did was fight and curse at each other; there wasn't a moment of peace between them.

After several more days, that ugly dwarf and pretty girl showed up again. Duan Tiande had hoped to hide in the back of their accommodations. Li Ping, knowing that her rescuers were near, began to shout at the top of her lungs. Duan Tiande immediately stuffed a wad of cotton into her mouth and beat her. Li Ping struggled and shouted for all she was worth. Even though she wasn't successful in her attempt to get their attention, it was too much of a close call for Duan Tiande.

At first, Duan Tiande brought Li Ping along hoping to use her as a hostage and thereby help him get out of a jam should it ever come to that. But the situation had changed. Figuring that it would be much easier if he was by himself and that this feisty woman was a disaster waiting to happen, he decided that it would be best to kill her. Once the Han cousins had left, he took out his saber.

Li Ping had been waiting the entire time for an opportunity to avenge her husband's death. However, she was tied up every night, making it impossible. Now, upon seeing the murderous look in his eyes, she prayed: "Xiao Ge, please protect me and allow me to kill his monster. Then I will join you." She reached into her shirt and placed her hands on the dagger that Qiu Chuji gave her. She had hidden the dagger very well and was able to slip it past Duan Tiande's search. [Note: Xiao Ge is an affectionate term used by Li Ping with Guo Xiaotian.]

With a chuckle, Duan Tiande raised his saber and swung down at her. Prepared to die, Li Ping summoned all her strength, pointed the dagger at Duan Tiande, and charged. Feeling a burst of murderous cold air upon his face, Duan Tiande flicked his saber in an attempt to knock the dagger out of her hand. Unexpectedly, the dagger was so sharp that, with a loud ping, it sliced the saber in half. The saber fell onto the floor as the tip of the dagger touched Duan Tiande's chest. Shocked, Duan Tiande instinctively jumped back. Nevertheless, the front of his shirt was slashed wide open. In complete shock and panic, he picked up the chair at his side and shouted: "Put that down this instant or else I'll kill you!" Li Ping was exhausted and the baby in her belly was kicking non-stop. Not able to fight any longer, she fell onto the floor and tried to catch her breath. But she was still clutching the dagger tightly.

Duan Tiande was afraid that Han Baoju would come around again. If he ran off by himself, he was afraid that Li Ping would reveal where he was going to those chasing him. So he immediately forced her onto another boat and went further north up the Grand Canal, passing Linqing, Dezhou, and arrived in Hebei province.

Every time he set up camp, no matter how remote the location, before long there would be several men arriving to look for him. Eventually, the ugly gnome and the girl were joined by a staff wielding blind man. Luckily, none of them recognized him, so he was able to escape every time.

Soon another troublesome thing happened; Li Ping suddenly began acting crazy. Every time they stopped somewhere, she would periodically begin shouting and screaming nonsense. Sometimes, she would even start to tear and rip at her clothes and make all kinds of weird faces and gestures. At first Duan Tiande thought that she really had gone crazy, but after a few days he suddenly figured it out. As it turned out, she was afraid that her pursuers had lost them and was purposefully leaving a trail for them to follow. This was what was making it even harder for him to lose them. By now the end of summer had passed and the cool breezes began to blow. In order to avoid capture, Duan Tiande went well up into the North Country. The money he had taken with him was about to run out, yet the Freaks were still close on his trail.

"Back in Hangzhou, I was important, I was somebody. Meat, wine, money, women, I had it all. But I had to get greedy and go to Ox Village and kill this bitch's hubby and get myself into this mess." He cursed himself.

Several times, he was on the verge of leaving Li Ping and running off by himself. But each time, he could not summon up enough courage to do it. Every attempt to kill her ended in failure as well. What was supposed to be protection had somehow turned into a curse that he just could not get rid of. On top of everything else, he had to be constantly on guard against her attempts to avenge her husband. He was frustrated, frightened, and angry; yet there was nothing he could do.

Before he realized it, he had arrived at the capital of the Jin Empire, Yanjing. Duan Tiande thought for a bit and decided to try and find an out of the way place and finish off Li Ping. In such a huge and bustling city, there was no way those who were chasing him could find him.

Happy that things were finally going to work out, he made his way towards the city. Unexpectedly, just as he arrived in the front of the gate to the city, a team of Jin soldiers came walking out from inside. Not even bothering to ask any questions, they seized both him and Li Ping, handed them each a carrying stick, and commanded them to carry cargo for them. Because Li Ping was short and a woman, her load was reasonably light. But Duan Tiande was given two 50 kilogram [110 lb] loads and they were practically forcing him to his knees.

This group of soldiers followed an official as they headed north. As it turned out, that particular official was an emissary who was being sent out to present Royal Warrants from the Jin Emperor to the Mongolian subjects of the Jin Empire. The Jin soldiers that accompanied him were seizing any random Han Chinese that they ran into, forcing then to carry their heavy cargo and food supplies so as to save themselves from the labor. Duan Tiande argued back a couple of times and was immediately answered by several stinging lashes to his head. This situation he had seen many times before so it was all quite familiar to him; but before, he had been the one that was doing the whipping, not receiving it.

By now, Li Ping's belly was huge and doing all this heavy work was on the verge of killing her. However, so determined was she to get revenge that she tried her best not to let the Jin soldiers find out about her condition. Fortunately, she had been working on a farm ever since she was able to walk, and this made her strong and used to this kind of grinding work. Having basically resigned herself to death, she was barely able to manage the dozen of days they spent walking through the freezing and miserable steppe.

Even though it was only October, being as far North as they were, a blizzard hit one day that not only brought snow, but also a sandstorm. Having nowhere to hide from the sand and the snow, the entire group, all three hundred or so of them, lined up single-file and continued to make their way through the endless grasslands of the steppe. Suddenly, faint shouting could be heard approaching from the north. Through the sand filled air, an army of countless horsemen came charging at them.

Before any of them realized what was going on, the army had arrived. As it turned out they were an army from some unknown tribe from the north that had just lost a battle. Chaos descended on the group as everyone tossed their weapons away and began running for their lives. Some of those who did not have horses were quickly trampled by those who had.

The Jin soldiers, seeing that defeat was inevitable, immediately scattered. Li Ping was originally at Duan Tiande's side, but lost him during the chaos of the attack. She threw off her share of the cargo and ran as fast as she could in the direction where there seemed to be the least number of people. Luckily, everyone was so concerned with their own survival that nobody harmed her.

After some running, her stomach began hurting intensely. Not able to go any further because of the pain, she lay down behind a sand dune and fainted. After what seemed like forever, she began to slowly come around. In the back of her mind, there seemed to be the crying noises of a baby. Not completely coherent, she still wasn't quite sure whether or not she was dead or alive. But the crying gradually got louder. She twitched and suddenly realized that there seemed to be a warm object between her legs. By now it was after midnight, the snow had just stopped and the moon had finally appeared from behind the parting clouds. She snapped wide awake and began to cry. In this impossible situation, the baby in her womb was born.

She immediately sat up and took the baby in her hands. It was a boy. Overjoyed and crying, she used her teeth to bite off the umbilical cord and hugged the baby as tightly as she could. In the moonlight, she saw that the infant's eyes were huge and bright and looked very much like her deceased husband and his crying was incredibly loud. Under normal circumstances, there should have been no way that she was going to survive after giving birth in such harsh conditions. But upon seeing her child, she suddenly found strength that she didn't know she had and she slowly got up on her knees and with one hand, crawled into a small ditch close by to escape from the cold. Looking at the baby and thinking of her husband, bittersweet memories and emotions overwhelmed her.

The two of them spent the night in that ditch. The next morning, hearing nothing around her, she summoned up enough courage to climb out of it. Amongst the white snow and yellow sands, the ground was covered with discarded weapons and corpses. Nobody alive was to be seen.

She scrounged some preserved food from one of the dead soldiers as well as a fire making stone and knives. After carving some horse meat and cooking it, she searched around for some thicker clothing. She wrapped some around her baby and put some on herself as well. Luckily, the weather was so cold around this time of the year that nothing rots, so the horse meat was able to last her for a good few days, during which she was able to recover her strength. Then, carrying her baby, she began walking confidently towards the East. Even though she had lost the hated Duan Tiande, all the hatred in her heart submerged and turned into love and tenderness. All she wanted was to protect her baby's face from the harsh steppe winds.

After several more days, she noticed that the plant life around her was getting denser. This particular dusk, she suddenly spotted two horses galloping towards her. The riders noticed her and stopped to ask her what happened. Making wild gestures with her arms, she described her experience of meeting the defeated army and giving birth in the snow. These two riders were Mongolians. Even though they couldn't understand her at all, they, being the friendly and hospitable kind of people Mongolians are, felt sorry for her and invited her to spend the night with them in their Mongolian ger. Mongolians are a nomadic group of people, migrating along with their herds and the seasons. They live in huge shelters called gers that are easily put up and taken down. The next morning this particular group of nomads departed, but they decided to leave her four small sheep to help her survive.

After much suffering and labor, Li Ping settled down on the steppe. She erected a little hut using tree branches and reeds and obtained food through barter using the sweaters she knitted from wool of the sheep.

Time flew, and the little boy was soon six years old. Following the wishes of her former husband, Li Ping gave him the name of Guo Jing. The boy was rather slow and only began to speak at the age of four. Luckily, he was a very strong boy and was able to herd the animals by himself. The two of them, mother and son, relied on each other, surviving on only the barest of essentials and leading a very simple and happy life. Both of them had learned Mongolian, and only when they were alone with each other did they speak in the Linan dialect of Chinese. Seeing the manly face on her son and hearing him speaking everything in the Linan dialect of her home frequently made her feel a bittersweet sadness: "Your father was a man among men in Shandong, you should by all means speak the Shandong dialect as well. But we weren't together a long enough time and I couldn't learn it from him, so I can't teach you."

It was October and the weather was slowly becoming colder and colder. Guo Jing climbed onto his own little pony and set out, with a shepherd dog, to herd the sheep. Around noon, a huge black eagle suddenly appeared in the sky and dove down towards the herd. A particular young sheep was frightened and began to run for its life towards the East. Guo Jing shouted several times at it to make the sheep stop, but it just kept on going.

Guo Jing immediately climbed onto his pony and went chasing after it. After 4 or 5 li or so, he finally caught up to the little sheep. Just as he was about to head back, he suddenly heard a very loud and constant rumble. Startled, he could not figure what the rumble was, even though he suspected that it might be thunder. The rumble got louder and louder until, after a while, he was able to detect the sounds of horses neighing and humans screaming within the rumbling. Having never heard such things before, he was frightened and hurriedly led his little pony and the sheep into a clump of bush on top of a nearby hill top. Only then did he dare to stick his head out to see what was going on.

What he saw was dust covering the sky as countless numbers of chariots rushed about. Several leaders were shouting out commands as the armies were lining up. One was to the East while another one was to the West and both contained more people than Guo Jing thought there were in the whole world. Everyone was wearing a white-colored bandana on their heads; some even stuck colorful feathers in them. By now Guo Jing wasn't frightened anymore; he was too curious and excited.

After another pause, from the left there suddenly came the sounds of horns and several rows of soldiers charged. They were led by a tall and thin looking young man wearing a blood red cape. He was holding his saber above his head, ready to strike at anyone he happened upon. The two armies clashed and gruesome fighting ensued. The attacking side was outnumbered and was slowly being overwhelmed and began to retreat. But reserves soon came in support and the fighting escalated to a deafening level once again.

It looked as if the attacking armies were about to collapse once again when the ten horns that had signaled the start of the battle suddenly came to life again, making the noise level even more deafening than it had been. The attacking soldiers shouted: "Temujin is here! The Great Khan Temujin is here!" Even though the two armies were still fighting relentlessly, everyone's head periodically turned toward the East, where the horns were located.

Following their gaze, Guo Jing looked toward the East as well. Through all the sand and dust that was filling the sky, he saw a group of riders galloping forth. Within the group there was a huge pole, on which there was several white feathers. The cheering got louder as the riders got closer and the attackers seemed to fight more and more fiercely. The formations of the defending army were torn apart instantly. The huge pole slowly moved toward the very hill that Guo Jing was hiding on; he retreated even deeper into the bush, but was still peeking out with his huge, bright pair of eyes. He noticed a very big and tall middle-aged man in the midst of the riders who ridden onto the hill. He was wearing an iron helmet on his head and had a brown tuft of beard on his chin. His eyes were beaming with energy and force. What Guo Jing didn't know was that he was the leader of the Mongolian tribe, Temujin; but even if he did know, he wouldn't have known what a "khan" was.

On his horse, Temujin, accompanied by several riders, calmly surveyed the battle that was occurring at the foot of the hill. After a while, the young man with the red cape rode up the hill. "Father, there are too many of them, should we retreat a bit?" He shouted once he made it up the hill.

By now Temujin had already finished surveying the battlefield. In a low voice, he commanded: "Take your team and fall back to the East."

"Muqali, go with the second Prince and fall back to the west. Bogurchi, you and Tchila'un retreat to the north. Kublai, you and Subotai take your army and head south." Temujin continued, never taking his eyes off the battlefield. "When you see my banner raised up high, that's my signal. Immediately sound the horns, turn around and counter-attack!" All the officers rode off with their orders. Within seconds, the Mongol troops began retreating on all fronts.

The enemy soldiers let out a great collective howl and, upon seeing Temujin's White Feathered Banner being raised high on the top of the hill, shouted in unison: "Capture Temujin…Capture Temujin!" Like ants, the opposing army began charging up the hill, completely ignoring the retreating Mongol troops. Horses and men charged with abandon; a yellow fog surrounded the hill from the dust they kicked up.

Temujin stood at the top of the hill, not moving and resolute. A score of foot soldiers held up their shields and were protecting him from arrows flying from all directions. Temujin's sworn brother Kutuku and standout general Jelme, along with three thousand elite troops, were defending the base of the hill with everything they could muster, determined to the last man.

Amid the flashing of blades and spears, the cries of battle were shaking the earth. Witnessing this, Guo Jing was at the same time excited and scared.

After an hour or so of intense fighting, and under the relentless charges of tens of thousands of enemy troops, Temujin's elite guard of three thousand had suffered about four hundred casualties while cutting down more than ten thousand enemies. Looking out, Temujin saw that even though the battlefield was covered with enemy bodies and rider-less horses running aimlessly, the number of enemy arrows flying in was still intense. On the northeastern end of the battle, the enemy attack was especially fierce and the defense looked closer and closer to collapse. "Father," Ogedai, Temujin's third son, anxiously asked, "is it time to raise the banner?"

"Their troops aren't tired yet!" Temujin answered gravely, not moving his eyes away from the battle, even for a moment. By now there were three black banners at the northeast end of the battle, indicating that the enemy had gathered three standout generals there to command the troops. The Mongol defenders were steadily dropping back. Up the hill came Jelme, shouting at the top of his lungs: "Khan, we can't hold them any longer!"

"Can't hold them?" Temujin angrily shouted back. "What kind of man are you?"

Jelme's expression changed and he grabbed a saber from one of the foot soldiers. With a shout, he charged into the enemy formation. Fighting with utter abandon, he carved a path of blood to the black banners. The enemy commanders, seeing his ferocity, immediately pulled hard on their reins and backed away. Jelme, with three swings of his saber, cut down the three men that were carrying the banners. Throwing down his saber, he wrapped his arms around the three banners, took them back to the top of the hill, and stuck them into the ground upside down. Seeing this incredible display, the enemy’s morale was rocked. The Mongol troops responded with fury and the hole in the defense on the northeast end was quickly plugged.

After more fighting, an enemy general with a black cape suddenly appeared in the southwest corner. Not wasting a shot, he quickly took down a dozen or so Mongol soldiers with his bow and arrows. Two Mongol officers turned and charged at him with their spears. Using only two arrows, he easily shot the two officers off their horses.

"Such amazing skill!" Even Temujin had to praise him after seeing that. By now, the general with the black cape had fought to near the foot of the hill. With the faint twang of a released bow, an arrow hit Temujin in his neck. Another arrow quickly followed, heading straight for Temujin's stomach. Realizing that he had been hit and another arrow was coming, Temujin immediately pulled hard on his reins, making his horse rear up on its hind legs. The arrow buried itself into the horse's chest all the way to the feathers, knocking the horse to the ground. Seeing the leader hit and falling, the Mongol troops were shocked. Screaming at the top of their lungs, and pouncing on the opportunity, the enemy charged forward like floodwater.

Ogedai had just finished helping his father pull out the arrow in his neck and was tearing off his shirt to bandage up the wound when Temujin shouted: "Forget about me, defend the hill!" Nodding quickly, Ogedai turned and immediately shot down two enemy officers.

Kutuku was commanding his troops guarding the west side of the hill, but, because they had run out of arrows and spears, he had to retreat. Jelme's eyes turned red as he saw him: "Kutuku, are you going to run like a scared rabbit?"

"Who's running?" Kutuku smiled back, "I ran out of arrows."

Temujin, still lying on the ground, took a handful of arrows and tossed them over to him. Kutuku quickly put an arrow onto his bow and shot the closest black bannered general off his horse. Quickly charging downhill, Kutuku grabbed that general's horse and returned.

"Brother, you are really something!" Temujin praised.

Covered with blood from head to toe, Kutuku quietly asked: "Can we raise the banner and sound the horns?"

"The enemy still isn't tired yet, just a bit longer." Temujin said, blood streaming down his palm that was pressing hard on the wound in his neck, trying to stop the bleeding.

Upon hearing that, Kutuku dropped to one knee and begged: "We owe our lives to you and have no reservations about dying here. But Khan, please, you have to take care of yourself."

Temujin shakily stood up, took the reins of the horse from Kutuku, and struggled mightily before finally mounting the horse. Waving his saber and shouting, "Hold the hill!" at the top of his lungs, he cut down three enemy soldiers that had charged up the hill. Seeing Temujin reappear, the opposing army's morale was shaken once again and the momentum shifted and they began to fall back down the hill.

"Raise the banners! Sound the horns!" Temujin commanded, seizing on the fact that their enemy's morale was at a low.

The Mongol army let out a collective howl as an officer climbed onto a horse, stood up, and raised the white feathered banner up as high as he could. The horns from all corners sounded. Immediately, the screaming of men drowned out the horns as row after row of Mongolian solders suddenly appeared from far away and approached with lightning speed.

The enemy outnumbered the Mongols, but they were gathered around the hill. As soon as the soldiers on the outer edge began to fall back, the middle of their formation became chaotic. The general in black, noticing that the tide was turning, immediately began giving orders in hopes of rallying his troops. But the formation had already collapsed and the soldiers had no desire to fight any longer. Within an hour, the army had been smashed into pieces; those who weren't killed were running for their lives. The general in black, riding his black horse, turned and joined them.

"Fifty taels of gold for the man that catches that scoundrel!" Temujin shouted. This immediately sent several score of Mongolian elites after him.

The general in black, not missing a shot, turned and shot down about a dozen or so pursuers one after the other. The rest of the pursuers did not dare get too close and, in the end, let him get away. Seeing all this from inside the bushes, Guo Jing was in awe of that general's bravery and skill.

The battle was a complete victory for Temujin, destroying more than half of his nemesis, the Tatars, army. Surveying the battlefield, Temujin’s memories of his past flashed before his eyes again: the poisoning of his father, being captured by the Taijiuts, and all the torture and shame he went through at their hands. Although his mental wounds were still not healed, his joyful heart was filled with the sweet taste of revenge. Unable to hold it in any longer, he leaned back and laughed in triumph. Every soldier joined in with cheers, which shook the earth as they began to organize into formations and leave the battlefield.

Guo Jing waited until even the gravediggers had left due to darkness before he came crawling out of the bush. It was midnight when he got home and his mother, who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown waiting for him to come back, was overjoyed to see him. Guo Jing described what had happened to his mom, as best as he could. Li Ping, seeing his face alight with joy and amazement and without a trace of fear, thought to herself, that even though he was just a kid and a bit dumb, he was still very much like his father in this respect. Bittersweet feelings filled her heart.

Two mornings later, Li Ping went off to the marketplace 30 li away with two hand made wool blankets. Guo Jing was guarding the sheep out in front of his house when his mind wandered back to what he had seen two days ago. Deciding to have a little fun, he raised his shepherding whip and began waving it around. Riding on his little horse, shouting at the top of his lungs, and moving the flock around, he felt just like a general commanding his own troops into battle. Just as he was really getting into it, he suddenly heard the sound of horse hooves from the east. A solitary horse slowly approached with a person lying on its back. The horse got close and stopped, causing the man on the back of the horse to lift his head and look up. The sight of the man made Guo Jing shriek in fear.

The man's face was covered with mud, dirt, and blood. It was the general in black that he had seen the day before yesterday. In his left hand was the bottom half of what had been a saber, which was stained purplish red with blood. The bow and arrows that he had fought so many foes with were gone. It looked as if he had another encounter with his enemies after escaping two days ago. His left cheek had been slashed open and was bleeding profusely. His horse was injured as well. His body shuddered as his blood-shot eyes fell upon Guo Jing, muttering in a hoarse and exhausted voice: "Water, water... some water?"

Guo Jing immediately ran into the house and brought out a bowl of water from the water tub. That man grabbed it out of Guo Jing's hand and drank it all in one gulp. "More!" He demanded.

Guo Jing retrieved another bowl for him. He drank half before the blood dripping off of his face turned the water red. The man let out a loud laugh, then suddenly, his face twitched and he fell off his horse and fainted.

Guo Jing panicked; he didn't know what to do. Luckily, the man came to after a while. "Give my horse some water too," he said, "and do you have anything to eat?"

Guo Jing brought out some roasted lamb for him and got a whole bucket of water for the horse. After gulping down the hearty meal, the man was thoroughly refreshed and got up off the ground.

"Thanks, brother." He said as he took off the gold bracelet he had around his wrist and held it out at Guo Jing. "Here, take it." Guo Jing shook his head: "Mom said that we should take care of guests and not ask for or take anything in return."

The man laughed at this and commented: "You are a good kid!" He put the bracelet back on his wrist, tore off half of his sleeve, and began to attend to both his and his horse's wounds. Suddenly, from the east came the faint rumblings of horses galloping. The man's face dropped: "Huh, looks like they are not going to let me go!"

The two of them ran out of the door and saw that the land in the distance was covered by dust kicked up by countless horses heading this way.

"Kid, do you have a bow and arrows in the house?" The man asked.

"Yah, sure." Guo Jing replied just before darting back into the house. Hearing that, the man looked somewhat relieved, but that soon changed when he saw that Guo Jing had just brought out his own little toy bow and arrow. He let out a little laugh before frowning: "I need the fighting kind, the big one." Guo Jing merely shook his head.

The pursuers were getting closer, theirs banners could be faintly seen waving in the distance. The man figured that, with his horse injured, he wouldn't be able to get away. While hiding is always dangerous, he had no alternative. "I can't beat them all by myself, so I’ve got to hide." He said, turning to Guo Jing. He looked around and noticed that there was nowhere to hide in or around the hut. In desperation, he settled on the big pile of grass outside.

"I'm going to hide in there. Could you chase my horse as far away as you can? Be sure to find a good place to hide for yourself too and don't let them catch you." he instructed as he dug himself into the grass pile. Traditionally, as soon as the scorching summer has passed, Mongolians would immediately cut down all the available tall grass and pile it up. During the harsh winters, Mongolians relied on these grass piles for feed for the animals as well as fire for warmth. Often these grass piles would be bigger than their gers. The man was actually very well hidden inside the grass pile and probably wouldn't be discovered without careful inspection.

Guo Jing turned and gave the black horse a couple of good lashes, causing the horse to gallop off. Only until it was almost entirely out of sight did it finally stop and started to graze. Guo Jing jumped onto his little horse and took off to the west.

The pursuers, noticing that someone was there, sent two advanced scouts forward to give chase. Guo Jing's pony wasn't fast and the two scouts soon caught up. "Kid, did you see a man riding a black horse around here?" One of them demanded.

Guo Jing didn't know how to tell a lie, so he couldn't find the words to answer the question. The two scouts asked several more times, but there was still no answer. "Let's take him to the First Prince!", one of them finally suggested, seeing blank looking face on the kid. The two scouts took hold of Guo Jing's reins and led him back to the hut. "I just won't say." Guo Jing made up his mind on the way back.

A good number of Mongolian soldiers surrounded a tall and skinny young man. Guo Jing recognized the face, he had seen him on the hill two days before. Noticing that the soldiers were all obeying his commands, Guo Jing decided that he was an enemy of that black robed general. "What did the little kid say?" The First Prince shouted.

"This kid is scared stiff; he hasn't said a word."

The First Prince looked around and suddenly noticed the black horse grazing in the distance. "Is that his horse? Go and bring it here," he quietly ordered. Ten Mongols split into five groups and quietly surrounded the horse. By the time the horse noticed and tried to escape, it had already run out of places to run.

"Isn't this Jebe's horse?" The First Prince asked rhetorically in an arrogant voice. "Yes sir, it is!" The solders answered in unison.

The First Prince, using his riding whip, lashed the side of Guo Jing's head and shouted: "Where is he hiding? Spit it out. Think you can fool me?"

Hiding in the pile of dried grass, Jebe held his broken saber tightly. Seeing Guo Jing getting hit and a huge welt immediately starting to develop on his head, his heart began to beat wildly. He knew that this was Temujin's eldest son, Jochi, whose cruelty and savagery was famous throughout the entire Steppe. He figured that the kid would undoubtedly be frightened into telling where he was hiding, and then he would have to jump out and fight to the death.

Guo Jing wanted to cry, but, trying with all his might, he kept back the tears. Holding his head up high, he asked: "Why did you hit me? I didn't do anything wrong!" He knew kids only get beaten when they did something wrong.

"Trying to be tough huh?" Jochi shouted angrily before he whipped Guo Jing again, making Guo Jing burst out crying.

By now other soldiers had already given Guo Jing's house a thorough search. Two of the soldiers even poked about the grass pile with their spears. Luckily, the grass pile was huge and they didn't hit Jebe. "The horse is still here, he couldn't have gone far. Kid, are you going to tell or not!" Jochi continued as he lashed at Guo Jing's head three more times. Guo Jing reached out and tried to grab the riding whip, but how could he?

Suddenly, they heard horns sounding from afar. "The Khan is coming!" All of the soldiers shouted as Jochi stopped and turned to greet his father. "Father!" He shouted as an army with Temujin at the head came galloping in.

The wound that Jebe inflicted on Temujin turned out to be severe. During the battle Temujin was able to fight through it, but after the battle was over he actually fainted several times from the pain. His trusted general Jelme and third son Ogedai took turns sucking the bad blood clots out of his wound. The officers and his sons waited by his bedside for an entire night until he was no longer in mortal danger. The next morning, swearing to catch Jebe and quarter him so as to avenge this wound to the Khan, the Mongol soldiers spread out in all directions. By dusk on the second day, a small scout team finally ran into Jebe, but was decimated by him. However, Jebe was injured as well in the melee. Upon hearing the news, Temujin immediately sent his eldest son Jochi after him before taking his other sons with him as a rear guard.

"Father, we found that bastard's horse!" Jochi reported, pointing at the black horse. "I don't want the horse, I want him!" Temujin replied.

"Yes father, we will find him." Jochi answered before returning to Guo Jing's side. Pulling out his saber, he swung it in the air a couple of times and shouted: "Are you going to tell me?"

His face covered in blood from the earlier beating, Guo Jing actually got feistier and shouted back: "I'll never tell! I'll never tell!"

From that response, Temujin noted how innocent the kid was, replying with "I'll never tell" instead of "I don't know", giving away the fact that he knew where Jebe was hiding. So he turned to Ogedai and whispered: "Go and trick it out of him."

Smiling, Ogedai walked up to Guo Jing, removed two gold studded peacock feathers from his helmet and said: "If you tell me, this is yours."

"I'll never tell!" Guo Jing still replied.

"Let loose the dogs!" Chagatai, Temujin's second son ordered as the soldiers immediately brought forth six huge hunting dogs.

Mongolians love to hunt and all of the aristocrats or people of wealth own hunting dogs and falcons. Chagatai especially loved dogs and this search for Jebe presented a perfect use for his dogs. So he ordered the dogs be taken around the black horse a couple of times before letting them loose to find where Jebe was hiding. The dogs barked wildly as they ran in and out of the hut repeatedly.

Guo Jing had never met Jebe before, but two days ago he had greatly admired his bravery and skill on the battlefield. Being whipped several times by Jochi had brought out Guo Jing’s natural stubbornness and feisty nature. He called his shepherd dog. By now Chagatai's hunting dogs were getting very close to the grass pile, so, on Guo Jing's command, the shepherd dog positioned itself between the grass pile and the hunting dogs, not letting any of them get closer. Chagatai gave a loud shout and all six huge hunting dogs leapt forward and the air was quickly filled with the cacophony of dog barking as the seven dogs fought. The shepherd dog, smaller to begin with and battling one against six, was quickly covered with bite marks but still fought back ferociously, not backing down one bit. Guo Jing was cheering his shepherd dog on loudly between sobs. Seeing this, Temujin, Ogedai, and everyone present knew that Jebe must be hiding in the grass pile, so they just smiled and enjoyed the show of the dog fight.

Furious, Jochi began to hit Guo Jing with his riding whip again, causing him to roll around in pain. He rolled next to Jochi's legs before suddenly jumping up and grabbing his right leg. Jochi tried to throw him off with a kick, but the boy's grip was surprisingly strong and he couldn't get him off. The other sons, seeing their older brother in such an awkward and embarrassing state, began to laugh loudly. Even Temujin began to snicker a bit. His face flushing blood red, Jochi unsheathed his saber and brought it down toward Guo Jing's head. Just as it looked as if the kid was about to be hit, a broken saber suddenly struck out from inside the grass pile. "Clang!" The two sabers collided and Jochi, feeling his hand go numb, almost dropped his saber. The soldiers let out a collective gasp as Jebe jumped out of the pile.

Pulling Guo Jing behind him with his left hand, he sneered: "Bullying a little kid, have you no shame?"

The soldiers immediately readied their spears and surrounded Jebe. Seeing that he had nowhere to run, Jebe tossed aside the broken saber. Jochi charged at him and landed a punch on his chest with Jebe not even trying to protect himself.

"Kill me now!" He shouted, but then he added with in a quiet and heavy voice: "Pity that I cannot die at the hands of a true hero!" "What did you say?" Temujin cut in.

"To die on the battlefields, at hands of the hero that beat me, is dying with no regrets. But today the eagle has fallen onto the ground and was bitten to death by ants!" Jebe replied with fury in his eyes and let out a tremendous howl. Chagatai's hunting dogs, who had collectively pinned Guo Jing's shepherd dog onto the ground and were relentlessly biting it, jumped at the howl and ran away whimpering behind their trainers.

"Khan, don't let this little bastard boast like that." A person stepped out from beside Temujin and shouted. "Let me duel with him!"

"Alright, have a duel with him." Temujin replied, happily discovering that the man was Bogurchi. "We don't have much of anything else, but we do have some heroes."

"I'm going to kill you by myself, so that you can die with no regrets." Bogurchi took a few steps forward and shouted at Jebe. "Who the hell are you?" Jebe shouted back, noticing that the challenger was very well built and had a very deep and loud voice. "I'm Bogurchi! Heard of me before?"

A cold feeling shot through Jebe's heart: "So this is him; rumors say that Bogurchi is the hero of heroes among the Mongols." Not wanting to reply, he simply shot a sideways look and hmmphed.

"You boast about your skills with the bow and arrow, and others even call you Jebe. Why don't you and this friend of mine have a little shooting contest?" Temujin declared. In Mongolian, "Jebe" means both "arrow" and "divine archer." Jebe had another name, but because of his incredible skill with the bow and arrow, everyone called him Jebe and his real name had long been forgotten. [Note: According to Mongol records, when he first entered Temujin's tribe, Jebe gave his name as Jirgadei.]

"So you are a friend of his?" Jebe shouted at Bogurchi. "Then I guess I'll kill you first." This remark caused all of the Mongol soldiers to let out an audible laugh, for everyone of them knew that Bogurchi was unbeatable as a fighter and was famous through out the entire Steppe. Even though they saw how great Jebe was with the bow, claiming to be able to kill Bogurchi was just a bit too much for them to stomach.

Back when Temujin was still a boy, he was once captured by the Taijiuts, who placed him in a wooden neck collar. The many tribes of the Taijiuts gathered at the Onon River to celebrate by drinking and whipping him at the same time. After the gatherers were sufficiently drunk, Temujin knocked his guard unconscious with his collar and escaped into the nearby woods.

The Taijiuts conducted a massive search trying to find him. It was then that he met a young man named Tchila'un who, in spite of the enormous danger, took him into his house. It was Tchila'un who smashed the collar off of him and threw it in the fire; and it was also Tchila'un who hid him in a cart of fleece. When the Taijiut scouts came around and searched Tchila'un's house, they came upon the cart of fleece and began to take it off layer by layer.

Just as Temujin's feet were going to be revealed, Tchila'un's father suddenly interrupted: "Such a hot day, how could anyone hide in a pile of fleece? If he did he's probably roasted to death by now."

It was dead in the middle of summer and everyone was sweating profusely. The scouts thought what he said made sense and didn't look any further. Temujin's life was filled with dangerous moments and close calls, but this was the most dangerous and closest call of them all.

After he ran away, Temujin lived a squalid existence along with his mother and brother and they were forced to rely on captured prairie squirrels and marmots to survive. One day, the eight white horses that Temujin had were stolen by a small group of thieves from the Taijiut tribe. As Temujin rode after them all by himself, he ran into another young man who was milking his horse. When Temujin stopped to inquire about the thieves, he learned that the young man's name was Bogurchi. "Our lives are full of the same hardships," Bogurchi said, "let's be friends."

The two of them rode off together. It was three days before they finally caught up to the thieving tribe. The two of them, by themselves, took on a couple hundred foes and took back those eight horses. Temujin offered to split the horses with him and asked him how many he wanted.

"I did this as a friend, so I won’t take a single one." was Bogurchi's answer. From that day forth, the two of them worked together and Temujin continued to insist on calling him his good friend. Theirs was a true friendship forged in times of trouble.

Bogurchi and Tchila'un, together with Muqali and Boroqul were the four foremost founding generals of the Mongolian Empire.

Knowing how great Bogurchi was with the bow, Temujin handed his own bow to Bogurchi and hopped off his white colt. "Ride my horse, use my bow and arrows, then it'll be as if I killed him."

"Yes sir!" Bogurchi hopped onto Temujin's treasured horse with bow and arrows in hand. Turning to Ogedai, he said: "Let Jebe use your horse."

"Well, lucky him." Ogedai commented before hopping off and ordering a guard to walk the horse over to Jebe.

"I am already surrounded," Jebe turned to Temujin after securing himself onto the saddle, "if you wanted to kill me, it would have been easier than killing a sheep. Since you have already showed mercy by letting me duel him with the bow, I dare not ask for anything more. Therefore I ask only for a bow and no arrows."

"No arrows?" Bogurchi shouted feeling insulted. "That's right. I can kill you with just a bow!"

This time the laughter from the Mongolian soldiers was even louder. "What a braggart!" One of them shouted as Temujin ordered him to hand over his best bow to Jebe.

Bogurchi had seen Jebe in action during battle and knew very well what a great marksman he was and didn't dare to take him lightly. However, with no arrows, how could Jebe apply his great skill? Bogurchi, knowing that Jebe must be planning to use the arrows that he himself shot, gave his horse a good squeeze with his legs, urging it into a gallop. Not only was this particular colt fast, it had been through many a battle and was especially perceptive to the whims of its rider. Because of this, Temujin had taken quite a liking to it.

In response of the opponent's speed, Jebe pulled on the reins, making his horse slowly back up. Bogurchi fitted an arrow onto the bow and, aiming directly at Jebe's face, let loose. Jebe tilted his body and with incredible hand-eye coordination grabbed the arrow by the shaft out of mid-air.

"Oh that's good." Bogurchi muttered under his breath and shot another arrow.

Hearing the arrow’s feathers slicing through the air, Jebe knew that he would not be able to catch this one. He leaned forward, laying his body flat against the neck of the horse. The arrow flew over his head, barely missing grazing him. Immediately he made his horse gallop forward with a little kick and sat back up. But what he didn't know was that Bogurchi was a master at shooting arrows one after another and two more arrows bore down on him. Not expecting such skill from his foe, Jebe was forced to immediately slip off his saddle and, hooking his right foot through the stirrup, leaned almost to the ground. The horse was still galloping at full speed, making it look as if there was a dancing bird at its side. Jebe twisted his body around. He had already loaded that arrow he had just caught onto the bow when he was barely half around, and let loose aiming at Bogurchi's belly. Then he immediately flipped back up onto the saddle.

"Excellent!" Bogurchi shouted as he aimed at the coming arrow and let loose. The two arrows met nearly head on and shot off in different directions before both arrows, still carrying a great force, stuck into the ground with their feathers up. The exchange caused Temujin and all other spectators to cheer in amazement.

Bogurchi feigned shooting to the left, waited until Jebe reacted to the right before suddenly letting off a shot towards the right. Jebe flicked his bow with his left hand and knocked the arrow down onto the ground. Bogurchi followed with another three shots, all of which were dodged by Jebe. Jebe, speeding his horse up, suddenly slipped off the saddle, reached down, picked up three arrows off the ground, sat back up, and shot one of them all in one motion.

Wanting to show off a bit of his own skills, Bogurchi jumped onto his saddle. Keeping his balance with his left leg, he kicked away the arrow with his right foot. Then, still standing, he used the height advantage and let loose an especially fierce shot. Jebe pulled his horse to the side to dodge the shot and responded with another shot, which, with a "crack", split the arrow that Bogurchi had shot, in half along the shaft.

"He doesn't even have any arrows and yet we are fighting to a draw up to now. How can I get revenge for the Khan?" Bogurchi thought to himself. Getting impatient, Bogurchi began to shoot arrows one after another nonstop, so much so that it all became a blur to the spectators. Not having enough time to grab the arrows, Jebe was forced into just dodging them. However, the arrows just kept on flying in and they kept on getting faster and more numerous until finally, he was hit in his left shoulder. Seeing this everyone present cheered in unison.

Ecstatic, Bogurchi was just about to shoot several more arrows and end Jebe's life when he reached down into his arrow bag and came up empty. He had actually used up all of his arrows while he was showering Jebe with them. He always brought a tremendous number of arrows with him when he entered a battle, two quivers on his side and six more on the horse for a total of eight quivers filled with arrows. However, this time he was using the Khan's own supply of arrows and, in the midst of battle, he had forgotten that there was a limit on arrows and resorted to his habitual way of using them. Shocked to discover that he had used all of his arrows, he immediately turned his horse around and reached down to pick up some arrows from the ground.

Clearly seeing all of this, Jebe pounced on the opportunity. Before the sound of the arrow piercing through the air had faded from everyone's ears, the arrow had already hit Bogurchi's back, right where his heart was. The spectators gasped in shock. But strangely, even though this arrow was shot with great force and caused a wave of pain to shoot through Bogurchi's back, it didn't penetrate his clothing and fell off onto the ground. Bogurchi reached down, picked up the arrow, and inspected it. It turned out that Jebe had actually taken off the arrowhead as a show of mercy. He flipped himself back onto the saddle and shouted: "I am seeking revenge for my Khan. I don't need your mercy!"

"I, Jebe, never show any mercy to my enemies! That last arrow was to exchange one life for another!"

When he saw Bogurchi hit, Temujin was devastated. However, now that he realized that Bogurchi was not dying, he was overjoyed. At this moment he would have absolutely been willing to trade all of the sheep, oxen, and horses in his tribe in exchange for Bogurchi's life without the slightest bit of hesitation. Hearing Jebe's remark, he immediately answered: "Alright, there’s no need to go any further. You let him go so I'm letting you go. His life for your life."

"I'm not asking to exchange my life for his life." "What then?" Temujin was puzzled.

"I'm asking for an exchange for his life!" Jebe answered, pointing at Guo Jing, who was standing by the door of the hut. "I ask that the Khan not trouble this boy further.”

"As for me…" He continued, raising one of his eyebrows higher. "I wounded the Khan and deserve whatever punishment that comes to me. Bogurchi, come on!" As he finished, he pulled the arrow from his shoulder and, with blood still dripping off of it, fitted it onto his bow. By now, Bogurchi's underlings had re-supplied him with six more quivers of arrows. "Alright, let's try this again!" Bogurchi replied as he showered Jebe with arrows. The arrows were coming so fast that they seemed almost connected, creating a chain of arrows in the air.

Seeing the situation, Jebe, holding himself up by hooking his foot through the stirrup, flipped himself beneath his horse's belly. Leaning sideways so as to not hit the ground, he aimed and fired a shot at Bogurchi's stomach. The white colt, not waiting for his master to pull the reins, instinctively dodged to the left. Unfortunately, the shot from Jebe was much faster than any normal shot and the colt was not able to get out of the way in time. With a thud, the arrow hit the colt in the head and instantly brought it down.

Lying on the ground, Bogurchi dare not risk Jebe shooting a follow up shot; he immediately twisted around and fired another shot, snapping the bow in Jebe's hand. Losing his weapon, Jebe cursed the fact he wasn't able to fight back any longer, and he had to resort to zigzagging in an effort to dodge Bogurchi's shots. The Mongolian soldiers present all began to shout and cheer for Bogurchi as he loaded another arrow onto the bow. "He really is quite a hero!" Bogurchi thought as he aimed for Jebe's back and let loose.

A great marksman never misses when it matters and this arrow hit Jebe on the back of his head. Jebe's body shook and he fell off the horse, the arrow falling to his side. Bogurchi, not able to bring himself to kill such a hero, had also taken the arrowhead off of his arrow. Bogurchi loaded another arrow onto his bow and aimed at Jebe before turning towards Temujin: "Great Khan, I ask you to show mercy and let him go!"

By now, Temujin had grown to admire Jebe's courage and skill, so he shouted: "Are you still not going to surrender?"

Seeing Temujin sitting there in all his glory and magnificence, Jebe was suddenly won over. He ran over as fast as he could and, with his head lowered, knelt down in front of Temujin.

Temujin let out a hearty laugh: "Wonderful! Wonderful! From now on, you are with me!"

Mongolians frequently sing to express their feelings and thoughts. At this moment, still kneeling on the ground, Jebe began to sing: "Oh Great Khan, you showed me mercy and let me live. In the future, be it jumping into boiling water or walking on fire, I will do it. I would cross the black seas and crush the mountains to protect the Great Khan. Conquering foes, digging out their hearts! Just ask of me and I will do it. For the Khan I would lead charges and run one million li a day!"

Ecstatic at the turn of events, Temujin took out two gold ingots and give one each to Bogurchi and Jebe. Jebe thanked him and asked: "Great Khan, is it permitted that I give this ingot to that boy?"

"My gold I can give to whoever I want," Temujin replied with a smile, "your gold you can give to whoever you want!"

Jebe walked over to Guo Jing and held out the ingot. But Guo Jing just shook his head: "Mom said that helping guests is the right thing to do and that it's wrong to take anything from guests.”

Temujin had grown to like Guo Jing because of the unyielding toughness the boy showed earlier. Hearing those words now, he liked Guo Jing even more. "Bring the boy into our tribe as well." He instructed Jebe before leading the soldiers back. Several of the soldiers stayed behind to put the white colt's corpse on the backs of two horses before leaving as well. Able to save his own life and find a master at the same time, Jebe was overjoyed and tired. So he lay down on the ground, rested until Li Ping returned from the market, and explained to her what had happened.

"Now that's a good son," Li Ping said to Guo Jing upon hearing of how courageous and loyal he was, even though she was greatly distressed by all the wounds on his face. "That's how a man should act and behave." She figured that joining the army and going through the vigorous training would be much better for Guo Jing than shepherding, especially if Guo Jing was to avenge his father. So the mother and son followed Jebe into Temujin's tribe.

Temujin made Jebe a Squad Leader under the command of his third son, Ogedai [Wo Kuo Tai]. After meeting with the Third Prince, Jebe met up with Bogurchi. Fueled by mutual respect, the two of them became fast friends. Feeling he owed Guo Jing a debt of gratitude, Jebe took great care in looking after the mother and son. He decided that he would begin teaching Guo Jing about the bow as soon as Guo Jing got a little older.

On one particular day, Guo Jing was just tossing some rocks around with a couple of Mongolian kids when they saw two Mongolian riders flying into the camp, obviously carrying urgent news for the Khan. Not long after the two riders had entered Temujin's ger, the horns started to sound, causing the soldiers to pour out of their gers. Temujin had an iron fist when it came to the training and discipline of his army. Ten soldiers were organized into a squad, which was led by a Squad Leader. The squads were ordered into platoons made up of ten squads that were led by a Hundred Man Commander, ten Hundred Man groups were led by a Thousand Man Commander, which were then organized under one of the few Ten-Thousand Man Commanders. When Temujin gave an order, it was as if he just moved his fingers and no order was disobeyed or not carried out.

As Guo Jing and the other children looked on and at the end of the first blow of the horns, all the soldiers had already picked up their weapons and mounted their horses. When the horns sounded for the second time, the world shook from the sound of men and beasts moving. By the time the third sounding of the horns came to a stop, the plain just outside of the main gates of the encampment was covered with some fifty-thousand mounted men and soldiers in formation. Other than the snorting of horses, there wasn't another sound, neither chattering noises of conversations nor any sounds of weapons colliding.

Temujin, escorted closely behind by his three eldest sons, walked out of the main gate. "We have beaten many foes and news of our feats has reached the Great Jin Empire." He shouted at the top of his lungs. "At this moment, the great Emperor of the Jin has sent the Third Prince and Sixth Prince here to officially anoint your Khan as a Jin officer!"

The soldiers, in unison, raised their sabers and shouted with joy. At that time, the Jin controlled Northern China with a fierce and strong army. Their empire was famous and powerful. On the other hand, the Mongols were just a small tribe among many in the middle of the Steppe. That was the reason why Temujin would feel honored to be an official of the Jin Empire. Temujin ordered the eldest son Jochi to take ten-thousand men with him to welcome and escort the guests while the other forty thousand men lined up in formation, waiting.

In reality, the Jurchen Emperor at the time, Wanyan Jing, who took the title of Zhang Zong, was apprehensive of growing power of some tribes on the Steppe such as Temujin's tribe, the Toghril, Ong Khan's tribe and the Keraits. Fearing that his northern neighbors would grow to be troublesome, he sent the Prince of Rong, his third son Wanyan Hongxi, and the Prince of Zhao, his sixth son Wanyan Honglie to anoint the leaders as officers of Jin. But in addition to tightening the ties of the tribes to Jin and increasing tributes, the princes had another mission: to scout the tribes and make note of the weakness of each so as to be able to gain the upper hand in case of future conflicts. The Prince of Zhao, Wanyan Honglie, was the same one that had traveled to Linan, was wounded by Qiu Chuji at Ox Village, and met the Seven Freaks at Jiaxing.

Guo Jing and the kids stood at a distance, trying to catch a glimpse of this happening. After a long wait, a cloud of dust appeared on the horizon as Jochi met up with Wanyan Hongxi and Wanyan Honglie. The Wanyan brothers had with them ten-thousand elite soldiers, each wearing silk capes, iron armor and carrying a spear in the left hand and a wolf-fang club in the right hand while riding on their horses. The clanging of the armor could be heard for many li around. As the army got closer the silk shone and the armor glowed even more under the bright sun, creating a spectacular scene. The two brothers approached shoulder to shoulder, while Temujin, his sons and generals waited by the roadside to welcome them. Seeing Guo Jing and all the other kids standing there staring at him, Wanyan Hongxi burst out laughing. He reached into his shirt and took out a handful of gold coins and tossed them towards the crowd of kids. "A gift for you kids!" He shouted with a laugh, figuring that the kids would undoubtedly cheer and scramble around on the ground for the money which would show off of his own magnanimity and wealth.

However, host-guest etiquette and respect was of utmost importance to the Mongolians. Not only were his actions inappropriate for the occasion, it was very disrespectful. The Mongol generals and solders were left aghast at his actions. Every one of the kids was a son or daughter of the Mongolian soldiers and generals. Even though they were little, each of them had a sense of self-respect. As a result, none of them picked up the coins. His joy dampened, Wanyan Hongxi tossed another handful of gold coins and shouted: "Come on! Fight over them little devils that you are!"

This caused an even bigger stir upon the Mongols. Even though the Mongolians had no written language at the time and little culture, they placed a great deal of importance on politeness and respect, especially regarding guests. Mongolians, traditionally, never curse, even when facing a lifelong nemesis or just joking around. When someone enters their gers, no matter if the person was a friend or not, that person would be treated with great respect and honor. By the same token, the guest must absolutely not disrespect his hosts either, for it was considered the greatest of insults. Even though what Wanyan Hongxi shouted was in Jurchen and none of the Mongols understood it, everyone could tell that he was cursing at the kids from his body language and the tone of his voice.

Constantly being told stories of how the Jin rape, pillage, and steal from the people of China; of how the Jin corrupted officials and had Yue Fei killed, Guo Jing's young heart had long been filled with hatred for the Jin. Now, seeing how rude this Jin Prince was, he picked up a couple of gold coins from the ground and, taking a little run, threw them at Wanyan Hongxi with all his might. "Who would want your money?" He shouted. Wanyan Hongxi tilted his head sideways to avoid the coins; but nevertheless, one of them hit him squarely on the cheekbone. Even though Guo Jing wasn't strong and it really didn't hurt, he was still made to look bad in front of tens of thousands of people. Every Mongolian from Temujin downwards cheered on the inside.

Wanyan Hongxi was furious. When he was in China, he had many times killed people at his slightest displeasure. Never had he been humiliated like this. As his temper flared up, he grabbed a spear from the guard that was riding at his side and threw it at Guo Jing's chest with all his might and shouted: "You want to die you little bastard?"

"Third Brother…no!" Wanyan Honglie shouted, knowing this was bad. But he was too late; the spear was already on its way. Just as it looked as if Guo Jing was about die from the spear, an arrow suddenly shot out of the Mongolian army to the left. Like a meteor shooting around the moon, the arrow hit the spear dead on the head with a loud "bang!" Packed with incredible strength, the arrow was able to deflect the spear away despite being many times lighter. Guo Jing immediately scrambled away. The Mongolian soldiers all cheered in unison, shaking the Steppe. The person who shot the arrow was none other than Jebe.

"Third Brother, don't bother with him anymore!" Wanyan Honglie whispered to his brother. Seeing and hearing the might of the Mongolian army, Wanyan Hongxi was a bit shaken, so he just shot a mean look at Guo Jing and cursed under his breath: "Little bastard!"

At this point, Temujin and his retainers had come forth to formally welcome the two Jin Princes and took them into the main ger. There they served up koumiss and vast quantities beef and lamb. There were translators on both sides, translating between Jurchen and Mongolian. Wanyan Hongxi read the royal decree out loud, granting the title of ‘The Northern Ambassador of the Empire of the Jin’ to Temujin. Temujin, who knelt on the floor during the reading, humbly accepted the official document and the Golden Belt, which signified his allegiance to the Jin Emperor. [Note: Koumiss is a very strong Mongolian alcoholic drink made from horse milk.] That night the Mongolians celebrated with a huge feast to entertain the honored emissaries.

"Tomorrow, my brother and I are going to bestow a post on Ong Khan." Wanyan Hongxi, somewhat under the influence of koumiss, said to Temujin. "Will the Ambassador join us?"

Temujin was overjoyed at the news and immediately agreed to come along. Ong Khan, a Toghril, was the leader among the tribes on the Steppe. His tribe was the richest and most powerful; furthermore, he was a good man, always treating others as equals. It was no great exaggeration to say that he was respected and liked by every tribe. Ong Khan had once been the sworn brother of Temujin's father. After Temujin's father was poisoned by his enemies and Temujin had nowhere to go, it was Ong Khan who took him as a step- son. Not long after Temujin was married, his wife was taken away by the Merkits. It was only because of Ong Khan and Jamuka, Temujin's sworn brother, joining him that he managed to defeat the Merkits and save his wife. That was the reason Temujin was elated on hearing that Ong Khan would be granted a title as well. "Is the Great Jin Empire going to grant titles to anyone else?" He asked.

"No, that's all." Wanyan Hongxi replied. "But that's entirely because, up here in the North, there are only two great heroes: Ong Khan and the Great Khan yourself." Wanyan Honglie immediately added onto his brother's statement. "None of the others are worthy."

"There is another person around here that perhaps Your Excellencies haven't heard of." Temujin replied. "Really? Who?" Wanyan Honglie asked.

"He just happens to be your humble servant's sworn brother, Jamuka. He's a righteous man who is very adept at commanding an army. I humbly request that the Third Prince and the Sixth Prince consider granting him a title as well."

o0o

Temujin and Jamuka were childhood friends who grew up together and at that time they became sworn brothers. When Mongolians become sworn brothers, they call it swearing "anda", which was Mongolian for sworn brother. Mongolian tradition dictates that when swearing anda, the sides must exchange gifts. At the time, Jamuka gave Temujin a granite stone that resembled a deer thighbone while Temujin gave Jamuka a granite stone that looked like it was made of brass. Mongolians used small granite rocks to hunt rabbits, but Mongolian kids often played catch with them and competed to see who threw them the furthest. After the two became andas, they went and threw rocks on the frozen Onon River. The next Spring, while the two of them were out shooting arrows with their own little wooden bows, Jamuka gave Temujin a noisy-arrowhead that he carved himself using two little ox horns, Temujin returned the gift with a cypress tipped arrowhead and the two of them swore to become anda once more. [Note: noisy arrowheads are arrowheads that are carved with slits in them so that they create a very loud screeching noise once they were shot. These arrows are often used to relay messages and orders in battle.]

After they grew up, both of them lived with Ong Khan's tribe and were still very close. Everyday they would compete to see who got up earlier; whichever one got up earlier would get to drink one cup of koumiss out of Ong Khan's own jade cup. Later, after Temujin's wife was kidnapped and was rescued with the combined help of Jamuka and Ong Khan, Temujin and Jamuka exchanged gold and horses and became sworn anda to each other for a third time. The two of them drank out of the same cup in the day and slept in the same ger at night. However, having to migrate with the changing weather and rain, they and their tribes parted. As Temujin's tribe rose in fame and power, Jamuka's tribe was growing nonstop as well. Their friendship was still as strong as ever and was deeper than blood brothers. That's why Temujin, realizing that his brother was not being honored, would ask for him to be honored as well.

o0o "There are so many Mongolians, where can we find all the titles if we give one to each of them? How many titles do you think we have?" Wanyan Hongxi, half drunk, casually answered back without much thought. Wanyan Honglie shot his brother numerous meaningful looks trying to get him to stop, but was ignored.

Feeling slighted because of the remark, Temujin offered: "Might Your Excellencies consider giving your humble servant's title to him instead?"

"Are you belittling the titles of the Great Empire of the Jin?" Wanyan Hongxi smacked his leg and shouted. Temujin slammed his palm down on his table and stood up in anger. Finally, barely holding back his fury, he did not say another word and grabbed his cup and drank its conger in one gulp. Wanyan Honglie immediately told a joke and changed the subject.

The next morning, Temujin and his four sons organized five-thousand troops to escort Wanyan Hongxi and Wanyan Honglie to Ong Khan. By the time the sun was barely peeking over the distant horizon, Temujin had already mounted his horse and the five-thousand soldiers had already lined up in perfect formation. The Jurchen soldiers and generals, however, were still fast asleep.

At first, Temujin was impressed by the Jurchen army’s grandeur and organization. But after seeing what an undisciplined and fun seeking group they were, he humphed and turned to Muqali, "What do you think of the Jin army?"

"A thousand of us Mongolian troops can defeat five-thousand of theirs!" Muqali observed.

"I’ve thought so too," Temujin replied with a smile. "But it's said that the Jin Empire has an army of over one million strong. We only have fifty thousand people."

"A million troops can't enter battle all at once," Muqali responded. "Divide and conquer, we can take down ten thousand today and then sweep another ten thousand tomorrow."

"When it comes to military strategy, your opinions are always the same as mine." Temujin smiled and patted him on the shoulder. "A 50 kilogram man can eat ten cows that weigh over ten thousand kilograms. He just won't do it in one day." The two men burst out in laughter.

Temujin settled back straight in his saddle and suddenly saw that Tolui's horse was rider-less. "Where's Tolui?" He shouted in fury.

Tolui was just nine years old, but Temujin had always been a harsh disciplinarian whether he was training troops or bringing up sons; he never showed mercy to anyone who violated his rules. With him shouting so loudly in anger, all the generals and troops immediately got a bad feeling in their stomachs. General Boroqul, Tolui's mentor, almost panicked and offered: "The kid has never overslept before, let me check."

Just as he turned his horse to gallop off to search for Tolui, he saw two kids come running up hand in hand. One of them, with a silk bandana on his head, was Tolui while the other turned out to be Guo Jing. Tolui ran straight towards his father and shouted: "Dad!"

"Where were you?" Temujin demanded in a harsh tone.

"Guo Jing and I just became andas down by the river. Look, this is what he gave me." Tolui replied, waving a red handkerchief with a flower embroidered on it in the air. It was something that Li Ping made for Guo Jing.

Reminded of the time he and Jamuka became andas as kids, Temujin's face immediately became calm. "What did you give him?" He asked the two cute and innocent kids standing in front of him.

"This!" Guo Jing replied, pointing to the top of his head, where Temujin saw the golden necklace that his youngest son often wore. "Now you two have to help and look after each other in the future, you hear?" Temujin said with a smile. Both of the kids nodded. "Now get on your horses," Temujin ordered, "Guo Jing can come with us too." Ecstatic, Guo Jing and Tolui both mounted their horses.

After another period of waiting, the Wanyan brothers finally finished dressing and exited their gers. Wanyan Honglie, seeing the Mongolian soldiers were already in formation, immediately ordered his soldiers to fall in. However, Wanyan Hongxi, determined to put the Mongolians in their place, took his time slowly drinking several cups of wine and ate a little breakfast before finally climbing onto his horse. After another hour of general chaos, the ten thousand Jin troops were finally in formations.

The army marched northwards for six days before meeting up with Ong Khan's welcoming committee, comprised of Ong Khan's son Senggum and adopted son Jamuka. Upon hearing that Jamuka was here, Temujin immediately rode forth to meet him. The two men hopped off their horses and bear hugged each other. Every one of Temujin's sons rode forth to greeting their adopted uncle as well.

When Wanyan Honglie first laid eyes upon Jamuka, he saw a tall and skinny man with a few strands of gold in his mustache and a pair of eyes that were filled with energy and enthusiasm. He looked strong and spirited. Senggum, on the other hand, was fat and pale, probably from living in luxury all of his life and not at all like someone who grew up on the Steppe. Not only that, he had an arrogant look on his face and seemingly ignored Temujin whenever he felt like it; a stark contrast to the warmth of Jamuka.

After another day of riding, they were very close to Ong Khan's encampment when two of Temujin's advanced scouts suddenly returned with news. “There are Naimans blocking the way ahead. About thirty thousand of them," they reported.

"What do they want?" Wanyan Hongxi asked, panicking a bit after hearing the news through his translator. "From the looks of it, they want to fight," the scouts reported.

"They.... they have.... they really have thirty thousand troops?" Wanyan Hongxi stuttered. "That... that's more than us... this... this "

"Go and find out what's going on," Temujin ordered Muqali, not waiting for Wanyan Hongxi to finish his sentence.

Muqali headed off with ten bodyguards while the rest of them stopped and waited. Muqali returned not long after. "The Naimans said that since the great Jin princes granted a title to our Khan, they want to be granted a title too," he reported. "If not, then they say they will take Your Excellencies the princes as hostages until they too are granted titles from the Great Jin Empire. They also said that they want a title that's higher than our Khan Temujin's."

"Demanding titles by force? That that's rebellion! What do we do?" Wanyan Hongxi's face went pale on hearing this news. Wanyan

Honglie began organizing troops into fighting positions in case of any unexpected escalations.

"Brother, those Naimans frequently steal our livestock and cause trouble for us. Are we really going to let them get away with this?" Jamuka said to Temujin. "I don't know what the Jin princes would have us do?"

By now, Temujin had thoroughly surveyed the surrounding landscape and was confident of victory. "Let's show the Princes how the two of us do things around here!" He replied to Jamuka before letting out a howl and cracking his whip in the air twice, causing the five thousand Mongolian soldiers to simultaneously howl in response and startling the unprepared Wanyan brothers.

A cloud of dust had appeared ahead as the enemy slowly approached, forcing the advanced scouts to return. "Brother, order our boys to charge now!" Wanyan Hongxi said. "These Mongols are of no use now."

"Let them fight first," Wanyan Honglie whispered back.

Immediately understanding his brother's intentions, Wanyan Hongxi simply nodded and sat back. The Mongolian soldiers let out another loud shout, but did not move. "What on Earth are these Mongols doing shouting like rabid dogs?" Wanyan Hongxi frowned. "It's not like they are going to scare the enemy away no matter how loud they are."

On the left side of the formation was Boroqul. "Follow me and don't fall behind. See how we defeat our foes," he instructed Tolui, who, along with Guo Jing, were shouting at the top of their lungs just like the others.

In a heartbeat, the approaching army emerged out of the cloud of dust only a few paces away. Yet the Mongolians still did nothing but shout. This time it was Wanyan Honglie who got nervous, seeing how spirited the Naimans were. Fearing his formation would be broken if they continued unimpeded, he ordered: "Fire arrows!"

The Jin army discharged several volleys, but because of the distance between the two armies, most of the arrows fell onto the ground before reaching the enemy. Frightened by the ferociousness showing on his enemies' faces as they gritted their teeth and charged at full speed, Wanyan Hongxi began to panic. "Why don't we just give them what they want; give them some bullshit title and be done with all this?" he turned around and suggested to Wanyan Honglie. "So what if the title is a little big? It’s not like we are going to lose anything."

Suddenly, Temujin cracked his whip in the air several times. The Mongolian army immediately stopped shouting and split into two groups. Temujin and Jamuka, each leading a wing, immediately heading towards the high ground on either side. The two of them leaned down into their horses and galloped along with their troops, shouting out orders as they rode. The Mongolian troops split up into smaller and smaller groups so that, in a very short amount of time, they occupied the high ground in every direction. With the height advantage, the Mongols loaded arrows onto their bows and aimed at the opposing army, but not firing.

The leader of the Naimans, sensing that he was in a disadvantageous position, ordered his troops to head straight for the high ground. The Mongolian troops set up soft walls made of several layers of fleece to shield themselves from arrows. The bowmen shot from behind the walls as the troops stationed on nearby high ground fired arrows in support as well. With the enemy on either side of them, confusion descended upon the Naimans as they tried to attack both sides.

"Jelme, attack the rear!" Temujin shouted, seeing the opposing army had become disorganized from his position on the left.

With a huge saber in hand, Jelme led a group of one thousand soldiers down in a charge and cut off the enemy's retreat. Jebe, determined to slay the enemy general in order to show his gratitude to Temujin for sparing his life, was at the front of the charge with his spear sticking out in front of everyone. Being hit head on by a charge like this, the Naiman rear collapsed in chaos, and their forward units were shaken as well. The Naiman general was at a loss as to what to do next, when Jamuka and Senggum began to charge down from their positions as well. Attacked from both sides, the Naiman army completely collapsed before long. The leading general turned around and tried to escape, followed by several retainers as they headed back in the direction they had come from. Jelme didn't order a pursuit and let most of the opposing army go by. Only when there were about two thousand enemies left did he order his army to charge out and block their retreat. With nowhere to go, the brave Naiman soldiers that were left either fought to the death or laid down their weapons and surrendered. In this brief battle, the Mongols killed over a thousand foes and captured over two thousand while sustaining only a little over one hundred casualties.

Temujin ordered all captives be stripped of their armor and split into four equal groups, one for the Wanyan brothers, one for his adopted father Ong Khan, one for sworn brother Jamuka, and one for himself. All Mongolian families that had a relative die in the battle received five horses and five captives as slaves as compensation. Only now did Wanyan Hongxi finally calm down from his fright. "They want a title? Brother, why don't we give them the title of 'Ambassador of the Defeated Losers?' Ha…ha!" He could not stop talking about the battle that just occurred.

The Mongolian victory, in spite of being outnumbered, made Wanyan Honglie even more nervous than he was before the battle. "At this moment, the only reason that our northern borders are safe is because the northern tribes are battling amongst themselves. If Temujin or Jamuka ever brought all the tribes on the Steppe under their rule, our Great Jin Empire would no longer have any peace." he thought to himself.

Other things troubled him as well. Even though his own troop of ten thousand did not enter into battle, their formation began to waver when the Naimans initially charged and there was fear on every one of their faces. The battle had not yet begun but the outcome had already been determined. Such courage and efficiency displayed by the Mongolians represented a huge threat in the future. He was still pondering things over in his mind when a cloud of dust appeared up ahead as another army approached. 

Chapter 4 – Twin Killers of the Dark Winds

“Alright, let's fight again!” Wanyan Hongxi proclaimed out loud.

Unexpectedly, the forward scouts came back with a different report. “The Ong Khan is here to personally welcome the two Jin Princes!” Temujin, Jamuka, and Senggum immediately rode forward to greet him.

From the dust clouds an army emerged. With several hundred personal guards with him, the Ong Khan rode up, rolled off of the back of his horse in one easy movement, then with his adopted sons Temujin and Jamuka at his side, approached and kneeled before the two princes. He was a rather chubby man with glittering silver hair. He wore a robe made of the finest black leopard furs that was held in place by a golden belt around his waist. The way he carried himself was one of great dignity and confidence. Wanyan Honglie hurriedly got off his own horse and returned the gesture, but Wanyan Hongxi remained on his horse and merely replied by cupping his fists.

“Your humble servant just heard the news of the Naimans' rudeness and was worried that Your Highnesses might have been disturbed. Your humble servant brought a force here as soon as possible. But fortunately, due to Your Highness's awe-inspiring presence, the three kids were able to defeat them.” The Ong Khan spoke.

Next, he took the lead and courteously led the Wanyan brothers all the way back to his own ger. The inside of his ger was covered with leopard and fox furs and well fitted with the finest furniture and wares. Even his personal guards were dressed in more luxurious clothing than those of Temujin’s guard, not to mention Temujin and his son. The bellowing of horns continuously sounded for several kilometers surrounding the ger; men and horses bustled about, giving an atmosphere of something great going on. Never had the Wanyan brothers seen anything approaching such grandeur since they’ve been outside the Great Wall.

After the ceremony of bestowing the title was finished, everyone settled down. That night, Ong Khan held a huge banquet in the big ger to celebrate the arrival of the Wanyan brothers. Scores of female slaves danced for entertainment as the banquet progressed late into the night; it became quite lively, and was miles apart from the simple and slightly backwater reception they received from Temujin's tribe. Wanyan Hongxi was having one hell of a time; two female slaves had caught his fancy and he was pondering ideas in his head. It never occurred to him to talk to Ong Khan.

After about half of the koumiss had been consumed, Wanyan Honglie turned to the Ong Khan. “Your heroic deeds are known far and wide; even we who reside within the Great Wall have long admired your greatness. But I really want to meet some of the heroes of the younger generation of Mongolians.” He said.

“Well, my two adopted sons just happen to be the two greatest heroes of Mongolia.” The Ong Khan responded with a smile. Senggum, his own son who sat to one side, did not react well on hearing this and began downing one cup of koumiss after another.

“Your own son is another hero, why aren’t mentioning him?” Wanyan Honglie asked, taking note of Senggum's displeasure.

“After I die, he will naturally take over my tribe.” The Ong Khan smiled and replied. “But can he compare with his two adopted brothers? Jamuka is smart and intelligent. Temujin is even more brave and courageous; he started with nothing and made himself into what he is today with his own hands. What Mongol warrior wouldn't want to put his life in their hands and serve them?”

“Does that mean that the generals under hero Ong don't compare to Temujin Khan's generals?” Wanyan Honglie queried. Noticing that there was a hint of instigation in his words, Temujin shot a look towards Wanyan Honglie and mentally prepared himself for what might come next. The Ong Khan slowly stroked his beard and did not reply. Instead he took another gulp from his cup of koumiss.

“The last time, when the Naiman came and stole several thousand of my livestock, it was only because of Temujin and his ‘Four Aces’ that we were able to get the livestock back. Even though he doesn't have many men under him, each and every one of them is skilled and brave. Your Highnesses must have witnessed that first hand today.” Senggum's face turned even angrier as he slammed the gold cup in his hand onto the table, causing a loud bang.

“What good am I really? What I have today is simply because of the attention and care that my adopted father showered on me.” Temujin hurried to add.

“His ‘Four Aces’? Who are they? I want to meet them.” Wanyan Honglie changed the subject as well.

“Why don't you summon them inside?” The Ong Khan asked Temujin. Temujin lightly clapped his hands and four men walked into the ger.

The first one looked gentle and scholarly with a white, clean face; he was the master of strategy, Muqali. The second man had a strong, sturdy build and his eyes were as piercing as an eagles; he was none other than Temujin's good friend, Bogurchi. The third man was short but agile and his steps were light and swift; he was Tolui's master Boroqul. The last one's face and hands were covered with battle scars and his face was blood red; this was the man who had saved Temujin's life so many years ago, Tchila'un. The four of them were the founding generals in rise of Mongolia and were called the ‘Four Aces’ by Temujin.

After looking at them, Wanyan Honglie praised each one some what, and then awarded all of them with a big cup of koumiss.

“On the battle field today, there was a general with a black cape who led the charge through enemy formations, nobody could stop him; do you know who he was?” Wanyan Honglie inquired after the ‘Four Aces’ had finished their drinks.

“That's a Squad Leader that I just recruited,” Temujin answered. “Everyone calls him Jebe.”

“Then why don't we invite him in for a drink as well?” Wanyan Honglie suggested. Temujin turned and issued the command. Jebe entered the ger and properly gave thanks for the reward of a drink. He was just about to drink when he was interrupted.

“How dare you, a measly Squad Leader, drink from my gold cup?” Senggum shouted. Jebe was shocked and furious, but stopped the cup as it came up to his lips. He looked over at Temujin for the proper course of action. In Mongolian culture, stopping someone from drinking is an enormous insult. Not to mention that this was done in front of all these people, how could anyone bear such an insult?

“For my adopted father's sake, I'm going to let Senggum get away with this insult.” Temujin decided turning to Jebe.

“Bring it over here. I'm thirsty, let me drink it!” He took the cup from Jebe's hands and drank all of its contents in one gulp. Jebe shot an angry look towards Senggum, turned, and began to walk out of the ger.

“Come back here!” Senggum commanded fiercely, but Jebe just ignored him and walked out of the ger with his head held high.

“Even though Brother Temujin has his ‘Four Aces’, I have something that could defeat all four of them as soon as I let it loose.” Unhappy that things were not working out to his liking, Senggum changed the subject. He chuckled when he said that. Even though he called Temujin brother, he was not an anda of Temujin; he only did it because his father was Temujin's adopted father.

“Really? What could that be? What could be that powerful?” Wanyan Hongxi's interest was piqued by that statement. “Well, we can go outside and I can show you.” Senggum said.

“We are having a good time drinking, what are you trying to stir up now?” Ong Khan objected. “Just sitting here and drinking is getting boring, let's see something different.” Wanyan Hongxi very much wanted to see some trouble started, so much so that he had already stood up by the time he finished his sentence and walked out. The others had no choice but to follow him.

The Mongolian troops had started several hundred camp fires and were celebrating beside them. When the Khans exited the ger, there was a huge rumble as the large section of troops to the west stood up immediately. They were lined up in perfect formation, not one of them was moving. They were none other than Temujin's troops. To the east, the Ong Khan's troops, slowly and disorganized, picked themselves up from the ground; there were even faint sounds of joking to be heard within their ranks.

“Even though the Ong Khan's troops are much more numerous, they can't compare with Temujin's troops!” Wanyan Honglie concluded upon seeing this display.

“Wine!” Temujin called. He had noticed, in the glow of the fire, that Jebe's face was still showing fury. So he ordered that a big jug of wine be brought to him.

“Today's tremendous victory over the Naiman was a result of everyone's hard work and dedication!” He loudly declared to everyone. “It's because we were led by Ong Khan, Temujin Khan, and Jamuka!” All of the soldiers answered in one voice.

“Today, I saw someone who was especially brave, charging the enemy's rear no less than three times. He shot down several dozens of the enemy, who was he?” Temujin asked.

“Squad Leader Jebe!” The soldiers answered again.

“No, not Squad Leader, but Company Commander Jebe!” Temujin corrected. Everyone was momentarily taken aback before realizing what he meant and began to cheer.

“Jebe is a great warrior! He well deserves to become a Company Commander!” They all shouted with approval. “Bring my helmet to me!” Temujin instructed Jelme. Soon Jelme returned with the helmet and presented it to him.

“This is the helmet that I wear onto the battle field! This is the helmet that I wear as I kill my enemies!” Temujin raised the helmet high above his head for everyone to see. “Now this will be a cup for a warrior to drink from!”

He opened the jug of koumiss and poured all of its contents into the helmet. Bringing it up to his lips, he took a huge gulp from the helmet, and then offered it to Jebe.

Overwhelmed with gratitude and with lowered head, Jebe knelt down on one knee to receive the helmet and finished the rest of the koumiss.

“Even the most precious diamond studded gold cup in the world cannot compare with my Khan's helmet.” He said in a low voice. Temujin smiled as he took his helmet back and put it back onto his head.

The Mongol troops had all caught word of how Jebe had been humiliated by Senggum and felt bad for him; even those troops under the Ong Khan had thought that Senggum was wrong in what he did. Now, seeing how Temujin treated him, they all burst out with a great cheer.

“What a man among men this Temujin is! At this moment Jebe would gladly die one thousand times for him!” Wanyan Honglie thought to himself. “Back in the Imperial Court all the officials insisted that the north is populated by brainless barbarians; it's obvious that they have grossly underestimated these people.” But Wanyan Hongxi was only concerned with finding out what was that thing that Senggum claimed could defeat all four of the ‘Aces’.

“So what is it that you have that's so powerful that it could defeat all four of the ‘Aces’?” he said, as he casually sat back down onto the tiger-fur covered chair that his personal servants had carried out.

“I invite Your Highness to get ready to see something very special. ‘Four Aces’ my foot; they probably won't even measure up to those two bastards of mine.” Senggum quietly said with a smile before turning around to the troops and loudly asked. “Where are my Brother Temujin's ‘Four Aces’?”

The four men came walking up and saluted their superiors. Senggum turned and whispered something to the trusted servant at his side who nodded before running off. Soon after, the sound of roaring beasts could be heard as a pair of huge golden leopards came gracefully out from behind the ger. As they slowly approached in the darkness, the leopard eyes glowed like a pair of jade lanterns. This gave Wanyan Hongxi quite a fright as he immediately gripped the handle of his saber tightly. Only when the leopards walked close to one of bonfires did he see that, in fact, there was a leash and collar around their necks and each leopard had a big fellow on the other end of the leash. Both had a long stick in their other hand, and, as it turned out, they were specially charged with raising and taking care of the leopards. Mongolians love raising leopards for hunting purposes. Not only do leopards run faster than hunting dogs, they are especially feisty; being caught by the leopard means instant death for whatever they are set upon. The only draw back was that the leopards consumed a great deal of food; so only royalty or top officials could afford to keep leopards. Although the leopards were restrained by men, they were still snarling and clawing while glaring viciously at everyone. The muscles on their bodies looked as if they contained boundless energy within them, ready to explode at any moment. Wanyan Hongxi felt his heart get a little fluttery and he was exceedingly uncomfortable. From the power and might that these two leopards were showing, it looked as if they could easily break out of the grip of their masters should they choose.

“Brother, if those ‘Four Aces’ of yours are truly great warriors and can subdue these two leopards of mine bare handed; then I'll be truly convinced.” Senggum said, turning towards Temujin.

The ‘Four Aces’ were furious as the same thought ran through their minds. “You humiliated Jebe, now you are going to humiliate us? Are we just game? Are we wild wolves? Why should we fight your leopards?”

Temujin was far from happy about this whole proposal as well. “I love my men like my own life, how can I let them fight a leopard?”

“Is that so?” Senggum burst out with a loud laugh. “Then why claim to be ‘Four Aces’ or whatever you want to call them. They’re not even brave enough to fight my leopards!”

Of the ‘Four Aces’, Tchila'un’s temper was the shortest and he could not stand such an insult any longer. He took a huge step forward. “My great Khan, it doesn't matter if they laugh at us, but we cannot allow you to be shamed.” He said to Temujin. “I'll fight the leopards!”

Wanyan Hongxi was ecstatic to hear this. So much so that he removed a bright red ruby-studded ring from his finger and tossed it on the ground, proclaiming, “If you can beat the leopard, then that's yours.”

Tchila'un did not even give the ring a look before lunging forward, only to be held back by Muqali. “Our names are known throughout the Steppe because we have defeated so many foes. Can a leopard command an army? Can a leopard ambush or surround enemies?” Muqali reasoned loudly.

“Brother Senggum, you win.” Temujin said as he bent down, picked up the ring, and placed it in Senggum's hand. Senggum immediately put the ring on one of his fingers and let out a triumphant laugh as he raised his hand to show off his newly won ring. Ong Khan's troops began to cheer in response. Jamuka stayed silent throughout but was frowning heavily. Temujin kept a calm expression on his face. The ‘Four Aces’ bitterly retreated back to their ranks. Disappointed and terribly unhappy about not seeing a man versus leopard fight, Wanyan Hongxi asked Ong Khan for two female slaves and retired to his own ger.

Next morning, Tolui and Guo Jing ran off to play. Hand in hand, they made their way far from the main camp. Suddenly a white rabbit ran by right in front of them. Tolui brought up his little bow and arrow, aimed, shot, and hit the rabbit squarely in the belly. Because he was so young the arrow lacked power, so even though it was a direct hit, it was not immediately fatal and the rabbit scuttled off screeching with the arrow imbedded in it. The two little kids, screaming at the top of their lungs, chased after the rabbit.

After running for quite a while, the rabbit finally collapsed. The two kids let out a simultaneous cheer and were just about to retrieve the rabbit when seven or eight kids suddenly came pouring out from the woods from one side. One particular kid, who was of about 12 years or so, was quick to recognize the situation and grabbed the rabbit. He pulled the arrow from the rabbit's belly, threw it on the ground, shot a fierce look in Tolui and Guo Jing's direction, before stomping off with the rabbit.

“Hey, I shot that rabbit, why are you taking it?” Tolui shouted. The kid whirled around and came back. “Who says that you shot it?” He laughed.

“Well, this arrow is mine isn't it?”

The older kid's eyebrows suddenly rose and his eyes bulged out. “This rabbit was my pet, you are lucky I'm not asking you to pay for it!” He shouted back.

“You are lying, this is obviously a wild rabbit.” Tolui shot back.

The kid became even angrier and he walked up and shoved Tolui. “Watch out who you are accusing! My grandpa is the Ong Khan, my dad is Senggum; do you know that? Even if you did shoot this rabbit, I'm taking it anyway; what can you do?”

“My dad is Temujin!” Tolui proudly answered.

“Pei! So what if he's Temujin? Your dad's a coward! He's scared of my grandpa and scared of my dad!” The kid's name was Dukhsh and he was Senggum's only son. After having a daughter, Senggum had to wait several years before finally having a son; after him he had no other offspring. He had always spoiled his son, letting him bully as he pleased. Temujin, Ong Khan, and Senggum had not met for a long time; even though their sons had met before, this was, for all practical purposes, their first true meeting.

Hearing someone make fun of his father, Tolui was filled with anger and proudly shouted back: “Says who? My dad's not afraid of anybody!”

“When your mom was kidnapped, it was my grandpa and my dad who went and took her back for your dad. You think I didn't know that? So what's the big deal if I just take this measly little rabbit of yours?” Even in the past, Senggum was envious of Temujin's fame. When they helped Temujin that one time, Senggum made sure to tell everyone about it; even his son had heard it many times.

Temujin had always viewed that event as an incredible embarrassment for himself, he naturally never told Tolui about it. Hearing this at this moment, Tolui was so mad that his face turned purple. “You’re a liar! I'm going to tell my dad!” He angrily threatened before turning around and walking off. “Your dad's afraid of my dad, so what if you tell him?” Dukhsh laughed at Tolui. “Last night, when my dad brought out his two leopards, your dad's ‘Four Asses’ were so afraid they couldn't even move!”

Of the ‘Four Aces’, Boroqul was Tolui's master. Hearing this only made Tolui even angrier. So angry he could barely speak. “My master isn't even afraid of tigers, why would he be afraid of leopards? He just didn't want to fight wild animals.” He finally stuttered out.

Dukhsh took a step forward and suddenly slapped Tolui squarely on his face. “How dare you talk back to me? Aren’t you afraid of me?” He yelled. Tolui was startled as his cheeks instantly turned blood red. He wanted to cry, but would not let himself.

Guo Jing had been seething on the side all this time, but now he could no longer hold back. He suddenly lunged forward and rammed his head squarely into Dukhsh’s stomach. This caught him by surprise and knocked him flat on his back.

“Yay!” Tolui clapped for joy for a moment before grabbing Guo Jing's hand and trying to run away.

“Kill those two boys!” Dukhsh screamed, still on the ground. Dukhsh's companions ran up to the two boys and a fierce fight quickly broke out. Dukhsh picked himself up from the ground and angrily charged into the fray. Dukhsh's gang was older than the boys to begin with and also outnumbered them; they were able to pin down Tolui and Guo Jing very quickly.

“Give up? Give up?” Dukhsh shouted as he continually rained punches onto Guo Jing's back. Guo Jing tried with all his might to get back up, but was weighed down by his foe's weight. At his side, Tolui was also being ganged up on by two kids.

It was at this precarious moment that the sound of horse bells could be heard coming from just over a sand dune as a small group of riders appeared. The leading rider was a short, fat fellow riding on a yellow horse. Seeing the kids fighting in the distance, he let out a little laugh.

“Hah, fighting!” Only when he rode closer for a better look did he realize that it was seven kids bullying two much smaller kids. They’d pinned them down on the ground and were beating them. The two smaller kids' faces were already full of bruises.

“Shame on you; let them go!” He shouted.

“Piss off!” Dukhsh shouted back. “Do you know who I am? I'll beat up whoever I want to, and you can't do anything about it!” His father was one of the most powerful men in the North, so he was used to bullying everyone and nobody dared to challenge him.

“How dare you act like that? Let go of them!” The rider on the yellow horse yelled back. By this time, the rest of his group had joined him.

“Third Brother, stop meddling in affairs that don't concern us, let's go.” There was a woman in that group. “Look at them, what kind of fighting is this?” The rider on the yellow horse replied.

These riders were the Seven Freaks of the South. They had followed Duan Tiande all the way north onto the Steppe before losing his trail. These past six years, they had roamed up and down the Steppe in search of Duan Tiande and Li Ping. All seven of them had actually learned Mongolian by this time, but they still could not find any clues as to the whereabouts of Li Ping. The Seven Freaks were all stubborn characters, and very competitive as well, so even if faced with ordeals ten times more difficult and more dangerous than this, they would not concede this bet to Qiu Chuji. Without ever conferring, the seven of them had the same plan, even if they never find Li Ping, they would still search until the eighteen years was up. At that time they would go to Pavilion of the Drunken Immortal in Jiaxing and admit defeat to Qiu Chuji's face. Besides, Qiu Chuji might not find Yang Tiexin's widow either. If neither side could find their widow, then a tie would result and then maybe another challenge would be issued.

“Two against one, we can't allow that.” Han Xiaoying hopped off of her horse and pulled the two kids that were sitting on Tolui's back off of him. Suddenly realizing that all the weight was off of his back Tolui struggled to get up. Dukhsh paused for a moment and Guo Jing took advantage; he flipped his body violently and crawled out from between Dukhsh's legs. The two, having finally freed themselves, immediately tried to run away.

“Go after them!” Dukhsh yelled as he led the rest of his gang in hot pursuit.

Seeing these little Mongolian kids fight reminded the Seven Freaks of all the misadventures that they had together when they were little, causing them to smile quite fondly at the memories.

“It’s time to go. Let's get to the market ahead before it disperses, or else we will miss a chance to ask the people there!” Ke Zhen’E suggested. By this time, Dukhsh's little gang had caught up to Tolui and Guo Jing once again and surrounded them.

“Do you give up?” Dukhsh demanded. Tolui, still looking very angry, did not reply but instead fiercely shook his head. “Well you asked for it!” The kids converged upon one another yet again.

Suddenly there was a cold flash as a little dagger suddenly materialized in Guo Jing's hand. “You want some of this?”

Li Ping, out of love for her son, had already given him the dagger, that her husband left her, to carry around. She felt that this object was good for warding off evil and had intended that this dagger protect her son from evil spirits. Because of the bullying Guo Jing was receiving, he pulled it out. Seeing that he had a weapon with him, none of Dukhsh's gang was brave enough to challenge him.

‘Magical Hands Scholar’ Zhu Cong was already on his way when a sudden flash caught his eyes. The way the dagger reflected the sunlight lit up his heart.

“This reflection is incredibly strong; I’ve got to see what this precious little toy is.” Having stolen from government treasuries and rich gentry’s vaults all his life, he was quite an expert at discerning precious objects. He immediately pulled his horse around and saw that one of the kids had a dagger in his hand. The dagger reflected a blue light that flickered endlessly, obviously an extremely rare weapon. But how did it end up in the hands of a little kid? Looking over the kids again, he noticed that other than Guo Jing, all the other kids were wearing expensive shirts made of leopard skins. But Guo Jing made up for it by having a golden crown-looking ring on top of his head. Obviously the kids were all members of wealthy and influential Mongol families.

“The kid probably stole his father's favorite knife to play with. Stealing from kings and aristocrats won't cause too much harm.” Once he made up his mind, he jumped off of his horse and smiled sweetly as he approached the kids.

“Come on everyone, stop fighting. Play nice.” As he was talking, he suddenly flashed into the circle of kids and grabbed the knife. Having devoted an incredible amount of training to capturing weapons with bare hands, only the best martial arts masters could hope to stop him from taking their weapons, never mind a small kid like Guo Jing.

As soon as the dagger was in his hand, Zhu Cong immediately scuttled out of the circle and hopped onto his horse. With a jerk of the reins, he laughingly galloped off and caught up to the rest of his group.

“Well, today wasn't a total loss; I ended up with this little gem.” He laughed quite heartily at his success.

“Second Brother, you won't ever get rid of that stealing habit of yours will you?” ‘Smiling Buddha’ Zhang Ahsheng joined in on the laughter.

“What little gem? Let me see it.” ‘Hidden Hero of the Bustling City’ Quan Jinfa, being a merchant by trade, was curious. With a flick of his arm, Zhu Cong tossed the dagger over. A streak of blue shot across the sky in the sunlight; the light from the dagger wavered, looking as if a small rainbow had just materialized, causing everyone present to shout in praise.

“Excellent!” Quan Jinfa involuntarily yelled as the dagger flew towards his face, sending a shiver down his spine. He reached out and caught the dagger by the handle. He "tch"ed endlessly in admiration as he examined the dagger. When his attention moved to the handle, he saw the characters ‘Yang Kang’ carved onto it. “This is a Han name! How did this dagger end up here in Mongolia?” A question shot through his mind. “Yang Kang, Yang Kang? I have never heard of a hero named Yang Kang. If he isn't a martial arts hero, why would he have such an exceptional weapon?”

“Big Brother! Do you know who Yang Kang is?” He called out.

“Yang Kang?” Ke Zhen’E searched through his memory for a while and shook his head. “I have never heard of him before.”

‘Yang Kang’ was the name that Qiu Chuji had given to the baby that was still inside of Bao Xiruo. The two fathers had exchanged daggers and that was how Li Ping ended up with the dagger that had ‘Yang Kang’ carved on it. Of course, the Seven Freaks did not know of this matter. Of the seven, Ke Zhen’E was the oldest as well as the most knowledgeable. If he did not know, then there was no way that the other six did.

“Qiu Chuji is searching for Yang Tiexin's widow, could this Yang Kang have something to do with Yang Tiexin?” Quan Jinfa's attention to detail made him ask.

“Well, if we find Yang Tiexin's widow, we would still have one-upped that Bull Nose.” Zhu Cong joked. But having searched endlessly and fruitlessly for the past six years, this seemingly remote and completely unrelated lead was something that none of them were willing to let slip by.

“Let's go back and ask that kid.” Han Xiaoying concluded.

Han Baoju's horse was the fastest, so he arrived back where the kids were first, only to discover that the kids were at it again. Tolui and Guo Jing were, once again, pinned down to the ground. Han Baoju ordered the kids to break it up, but none of them heeded his words. Getting impatient, he grabbed a couple of kids and threw them off to the side.

“You two dogs come back tomorrow and we'll fight again!” Dukhsh threatened Tolui, because he was too scared to carry on fighting.

“OK…tomorrow!” Tolui shouted back as Dukhsh led his gang away. He already had plans for what to do; he would go and ask his third brother Ogedai for help as soon as he got back. Of all his brothers, Ogedai was the nicest to him, and strong as well. He would surely help if asked.

“Give it back!” Despite having his face covered with blood from his nose, Guo Jing put his hand out to Zhu Cong.

“Sure, no problem,” Zhu Cong waved the dagger back and forth in front of Guo Jing's face. “But you have to tell me where you got this dagger.”

“My mom gave it to me.” Guo Jing answered, wiping blood away from his still bleeding nose with a sleeve. “What's your dad's name?” Guo Jing never had a father and was caught speechless by the question. All he could do was shake his head.

“Is your surname Yang?” Quan Jinfa asked. Once again, Guo Jing shook his head. Seeing that this kid was rather slow, the Seven Freaks were quite disappointed.

“Who's Yang Kang?” Zhu Cong probed further. Guo Jing still only shook his head. The Seven Freaks had always valued their integrity above all else, so they always kept their word, even to a kid. Zhu Cong handed the dagger back to Guo Jing.

“You can go home now.” Han Xiaoying took out a handkerchief and wiped off the blood from Guo Jing's face as she tenderly told him. “Don't fight anymore. You are still small, you can't beat them yet.”

Afterwards, the seven of them climbed back onto their horses and began to leave. Guo Jing just stood there, watching them ride off to the East.

“Guo Jing, let's go back.” Tolui suggested.

The Seven Freaks were already quite a distance away, but Ke Zhen’E's hearing was incredibly sensitive. When he heard the name ‘Guo Jing’, his entire body shook violently; he immediately jerked his horse around and rode back to the kids.

“Boy, your surname is Guo? You are Han Chinese and not Mongolian, right?” He anxiously asked.

Guo Jing grunted an assertion, sending Ke Zhen’E’s mind into the clouds with joy. “Who is your mother?” He hurriedly asked. “Mom is mom.” Guo Jing answered, making Ke Zhen’E scratch his head for a bit. “Can you take me to your mother?”

“My mom’s not here.”

“Sister, you ask him.” Ke Zhen’E suggested, realizing that there was some hostility in Guo Jing's responses. Han Xiaoying hopped off of her horse and walked up to Guo Jing.

“Where's your father?” She asked in a warm voice.

“My dad was killed by bad people; when I grow up, I'm going to kill them and avenge my father.”

“What was your father's name?” Han Xiaoying was so excited that her voice was trembling. But Guo Jing just shook his head. “Who killed your father?” Ke Zhen’E asked.

“His... his name is Duan Tiande!” Guo Jing could barely contain his anger as he said that name.

Because Li Ping knew that in such a desolate and remote place as the Steppe, any moment could bring with it many dangers. She knew that her chances of ever returning to China were nearly non existent. If something should happen to her suddenly, her son would never know the name of his mortal enemy, and that would not do. She had long ago told her son, over and over again, the name and appearance of Duan Tiande. She was an illiterate farm girl and had always called her husband ‘Xiao-Ge’. She had heard other people call him ‘Brother Guo’ but had never cared about what her husband's real name was. This was why Guo Jing had only ever known his father to be his ‘dad’ and did not know that he had other names.

‘Duan Tiande’. That name did not come out of Guo Jing's mouth very loudly, but when the Seven Freaks heard it, the shock rendered them speechless. Even if three bolts of lightning suddenly struck beside them on this clear and sunny day it would not have shocked them as much. In the blink of an eye, it felt as if the earth beneath them shook, as if the wind and air around them became colored. Only after a very prolonged silence did Han Xiaoying suddenly let out an ecstatic shout. At the same time, Zhang Ahsheng was beating his fists onto his chest like a mad man. Quan Jinfa had thrown his arm tightly around Nan Xiren's neck and Han Baoju was doing back flips on his horse’s saddle. Ke Zhen’E reared his head back and laughed crazily, while Zhu Cong was spinning like a top. Seeing them act like this, Tolui and Guo Jing could not decide whether they were funny or just plain crazy. Only after a long time did the Seven Freaks finally, slowly, calm down, but their faces were filled with joy.

“Merciful Bodhisattva, thank you, thank you!” Zhang Ahsheng knelt down and prayed.

“Little brother, let's sit down and talk.” Han Xiaoying said to Guo Jing. Anxious to get back and ask his brother Ogedai for help as well as having a bad feeling about these seven strangers with their strange accents and even stranger behavior, Tolui did not want to stay any longer. Even though these same strangers had just helped them in a fight, Tolui incessantly urged Guo Jing to start heading back.

“I need to go now.” Guo Jing finally relented and began to walk away hand in hand with Tolui.

“Hey…hey! You can't go now. Let that little friend of yours go back by himself.” Han Baoju almost panicked and yelled at the top of his lungs.

The two little kids were scared of the man's ugly complexion and immediately started to run as soon as he began to yell. Han Baoju chased them and was just about to grab the back of Guo Jing's neck with his fat hands when Zhu Cong cut him off.

“Third Brother, don't be so rude.” Zhu Cong lightly parried Han Baoju's hand and stopped it in mid-move, much to Han Baoju's surprise. Picking up a little speed, Zhu Cong quickly got in front of the two little kids. “I'm going to do some magic, you guys just watch, ok?” He smiled at the kids as he picked up three stones. Guo Jing and Tolui's curiosity was immediately piqued and both of them stopped and watched him. Zhu Cong held his right hand out for all to see and placed the stones in the middle of his hand.

“Gone!” He shouted as he balled his hand into a fist. When he opened his hand again, the stones were gone, shocking the little kids.

“Get in there!” Zhu Cong pointed at the old hat that was on top of his head before taking it off. The stones were sitting right in the middle of the hat. Guo Jing and Tolui let out a loud cheer and applauded with joy.

At this moment, a flock of wild geese flew toward them in a spear formation. This gave Zhu Cong an idea.

“Now we’ll let my Big Brother show you a trick.” He fished out a handkerchief, handed it to Tolui, and pointed at Ke Zhen’E. “Put this blindfold on him.”

“Is it hide and go seek?” Tolui hopefully wondered out loud as he put the blindfold on Ke Zhen’E.

“No. He will shoot a wild goose out of the sky while blindfolded.” Zhu Cong answered as he produced a bow and an arrow. “How could he? I don't believe you.” Tolui concluded.

While the conversation was going on, the wild geese flew straight overhead. Zhu Cong flicked his arm and tossed the three stones in his hand up at the geese. Because of his powerful hands, the stones shot up and startled the geese, causing the lead goose to honk several times as he readied to lead the formation in a different direction. But Ke Zhen’E had already determined its location, drew his bow to the fullest, and let loose. He hit the goose squarely in the belly and the goose, with the arrow still in it, tumbled down onto the ground.

Tolui and Guo Jing exploded with another cheer. They ran off to retrieve the goose and brought it back to Ke Zhen’E, their young hearts filled with admiration.

“Remember how the eight boys ganged up on you two earlier? Well, if you know some martial arts, then you wouldn't have to worry about there being more than one of them.” Zhu Cong told the kids.

“We will fight some more tomorrow and I'm going to get my older brother to help.” Tolui told him.

“Get help from your older brother! Hmph, that's something that useless kids do. I'll teach you a couple of moves that I guarantee will help you win tomorrow.” Zhu Cong replied.

“You mean the two of us beating the eight of them?” Tolui asked. “Yes!”

“Yay! Come on, teach me!” Tolui was greatly excited at the prospect of beating Dukhsh.

“How about you, don't you want to learn too?” Zhu Cong asked him. He’d noticed that Guo Jing was standing to the side, seemingly uninterested.

“Mom told me that I shouldn't fight others; if I learn how to fight, then my mom will be unhappy.” “Little chicken!” Han Baoju lightly berated him.

“If that’s true, why were you in a fight just now?” Zhu Cong asked again. “Because they started it.”

“So what are you going to do when you see your enemy, Duan Tiande?” Ke Zhen’E asked in a heavy tone.

“I'll kill him to avenge my father!” Just hearing that name made a fiery glare flash from Guo Jing's young eyes.

“Your father was an expert in martial arts yet was still killed by him; how could you kill him if you don't know any martial arts? How can you get your revenge then?” Ke Zhen’E rendered Guo Jing speechless with those questions.

“See? You have to learn some martial arts.” Han Xiaoying concluded for him.

“See that peak over there?” Zhu Cong pointed at a deserted mountain top to his left. “If you want to learn martial arts and get your revenge then come to the top of that mountain tonight at midnight. But you have to come by yourself. Besides this little friend of yours, you can't let anybody else find out about it. Brave enough to do it; afraid of ghosts?”

Guo Jing was still stupidly standing there, but Tolui was getting impatient. “Come on, teach me, please!”

Zhu Cong suddenly grabbed his wrist, hooked his left foot behind him, and gently tripped him, sending Tolui onto the ground. “Why did you trip me?” Tolui angrily demanded once he got back up off the ground.

“That was martial arts, did you learn it?” Zhu Cong smiled as he answered. As it turned out, Tolui was quite smart and understood right away. He mimicked Zhu Cong and showed the move against an imaginary foe.

“Teach me something else.” He said to Zhu Cong. Zhu Cong faked a punch toward Tolui's face. Tolui dodged to the left, but Zhu Cong's right fist was waiting there for him. This punch had no force behind it and stopped the moment it touched Tolui's nose.

“Yay! Teach me something else!” Tolui was ecstatic. Zhu Cong suddenly braced himself and gently bumped his shoulders squarely into the little kid's stomach; sending him flying off. Quan Jinfa jumped up, caught him in mid air, and gently put him back onto the ground.

“Mister, teach me something else!”

“If you master those three moves, most adults won't be able to beat you, enough is enough.” Zhu Cong smiled and told him before turning towards Guo Jing. “Did you get them?”

Guo Jing was still dumbstruck and not really thinking of anything as he absent mindedly shook his head. When compared to the smart and intelligent Tolui, Guo Jing seemed incredibly stupid and slow to the Seven Freaks, who were very disappointed at this turn of events. Han Xiaoying let out a long sigh and her eyes reddened.

“I say that we stop wasting energy and just take the mother and son back south and hand them over to Qiu Chuji. As for the competition, let's just admit defeat.” Quan Jinfa observed.

“This kid's make up is just too hopeless; he's not the kungfu practicing type.” Zhu Cong agreed.

“There isn't a bit of fight in him; I don't see how it's going to work either.” Han Baoju also agreed and the Seven Freaks began discussing the matter amongst themselves in their Southern dialects.

“You two can go home now.” Han Xiaoying waved at the two little kids. Tolui grabbed hold of Guo Jing’s hand and they happily skipped off.

Having searched for six long and hard years all over the boundless Steppe, the Seven Freaks were joyous beyond description when they finally found Guo Jing. As it turned out, the joy was only temporary; when they discovered that the kid was so dumb that it would be incredibly difficult for him to ever amount to much as a martial artist. They could not help feeling defeated. This set back could only be matched by the one they would experience had they, in fact, never found Guo Jing. Han Baoju, whip in hand, was relentlessly beating the ground, trying to vent his frustration and nobody could get him to stop. All this time, only the Wood Chopper of the Southern Mountains, Nan Xiren, remained silent.

“Well, what do you think, Fourth Brother?” Ke Zhen’E asked. “Very good.” Nan Xiren replied.

“What's very good?” Zhu Cong inquired. “The kid's very good,” he added.

“Fourth Brother always acts as if speaking costs him money.” Han Xiaoying said, letting the frustration get to her. “He will never say a word more than he has to.”

“I was also very dumb as a kid.” Nan Xiren gently smiled. He was always very quiet and every word that he spoke had already been carefully thought over, meaning that he was rarely wrong. Hearing him, the other six Freaks found a glimmer of hope and instantly became more confident.

“Right…that's right! Since when have I been smart?” Zhang Ahsheng agreed, looking in Han Xiaoying's direction. “Let's wait and see if he’s got the guts to come tonight.” Zhu Cong suggested.

“I say most likely not.” Quan Jinfa replied. “I'm going to go find where he lives first.” He jumped off of his horse and trailed far behind Tolui and Guo Jing until he saw them walking into their own gers.

That night, the Seven Freaks waited on the deserted mountain top. It was fifteen minutes to ten and the Big Dipper had noticeably changed its position, but Guo Jing was nowhere to be seen.

Han Baoju sighed, “The Seven Freaks of the South never lost to anyone in our lives. But in the end, we lose to that Taoist priest.”

Zhu Cong said, “The Quanzhen Sect is fighting the Jurchens in the north and helping the poor Chinese citizens there. Everything the sect does is chivalrous and admirable. The Seven Masters of Quanzhen are great martial arts experts and honorable individuals, Qiu Chuji is even said to be the most exceptional one of the Seven Masters. Losing to him won't damage our good name. Furthermore, we are trying to save the lives of survivors of an honorable man, which is a good deed. When people in Wulin learn of this, they can only praise us and say: “Well done!”” The other six Freaks agreed and felt better.

Looking to the west, dark clouds were gathering on top of each other off on the horizon. But above their heads not a cloud could be seen in the dark blue sky. The winds were swirling around them from the northwest; sometimes it would gust, other times it would be still. In the middle of the sky hung the bright moon, but a faint yellow ring could be discerned around it.

“Looks like there's going to be a storm tonight.” Han Xiaoying observed. “The kid is not going to come.” “Then let's go to him tomorrow morning.” Zhang Ahsheng replied.

“Being a little slow is not a big problem. But if this kid is afraid of the dark... Ay!” Ke Zhen’E sighed and shook his head.

The seven of them were just wandering around when Han Baoju suddenly spotted something in a bush. “Hey what's that?” He pointed at three piles of white objects that looked awfully strange in the moon light.

Quan Jinfa walked over to investigate only to discover that they were human skulls placed neatly in three piles.

“It must have been those little kids that piled up the skulls like that.” He laughed before suddenly noticing something else. “What… Second brother, come quickly!”

The sudden change in the tone of his voice was easily noticeable and unsettling for everyone. Other than Ke Zhen’E, the other Freaks made their way over to him.

“Look at this!” Quan Jinfa picked up one particular skull and handed it over to Zhu Cong. When Zhu Cong inspected the skull closely, he noticed that on the dome of the skull there were five holes positioned as though they were made by fingers. He tried with his own hand and the five holes were positioned properly for his fingers. The hole for his thumb was a little bigger than the others, while the hole for his pinky was a little smaller. It seemed as if somebody had carefully carved the holes into the skull to match a particular hand. Obviously it was not a child’s toy that the little kids had left here. Zhu Cong's expression changed dramatically. He bent over and picked up two more skulls and discovered that they also had these holes in them.

“Could somebody have made these holes with their fingers?” He wondered. But there had not been anybody in the world with martial arts skills so powerful as to be able to smash holes through bone just using fingers. With this realization, he was rendered silent and awestruck.

“Could it be some man eating beast or monster that lives around here?” Han Xiaoying said, almost yelling. “That's right, it must be a monster.” Han Baoju concurred.

“But if it is some beast, then why would it or could it put the skulls in such neat piles?” Quan Jinfa asked, deep in thought. “How are they placed?” Ke Zhen’E said, after making his way over to them.

“In a three pyramid formation; every pile consists of nine skulls.” Quan Jinfa answered.

“Are they stacked in three layers, with five skulls on the bottom layer, three in the middle layer, and one on the top?” “Yes!” Quan Jinfa was shocked. “Big Brother, how did you know that?”

“Go one hundred steps northeast and northwest and tell me what you see!” Ke Zhen’E did not answer his question but instead, anxiously directed them.

His demeanor was one of extreme anxiety, almost bordering panic. This was so different from his normal calm steadiness that the other Freaks did not dare waste one second and in threes, they headed off in the two directions. Soon, Han Xiaoying, who went to the northeast, and Quan Jinfa, who went to the northwest, yelled out at the same instant.

“There are skull piles here too!”

“This is a matter of life and death!” Ke Zhen’E literally flew over to the pile of skulls at the northwest and forcefully, but quietly ordered. “Don't raise your voice, no matter what!”

The three Freaks were quite taken aback by his words and weren’t quite sure what to make of them. Ke Zhen’E quickly made his way to Han Xiaoying's group to the northeast and told them the same thing.

“Is it monsters or mortal enemies?” Zhang Ahsheng asked, with a hushed voice.

“They are mortal enemies of mine. They are formidable experts and they killed my brother.” By this time the Freaks in the other group had made their way over as well. Hearing his words, all of the Freaks were quite surprised.

The six knew that Ke Zhen'E's brother, Ke Pixie had higher skills than Ke Zhen'E and was also a very intelligent and cautious man. His killer must have been a lethal nemesis. The Seven Freaks talked about everything with each other and about two years ago they learned of the death of Ke Pixie. But Ke Zhen'E never revealed how his brother died or who was responsible.

Ke Zhen’E picked up a skull and ran his hands over it inspecting it. After finding the holes he took his right hand and tried out the holes with his fingers. “They did it. They did it. They actually mastered it.” He mumbled to himself before turning to the other Freaks. “There are three piles here as well?” “Yes!” Han Xiaoying answered.

“Are there eight skulls in every pile?” Ke Zhen’E inquired.

“One pile has nine; the other two piles have eight.” Han Xiaoying again answered.

“Go and count the other groups as well.” Han Xiaoying swiftly ran over to the other group and then returned just as quickly. “There’s a pile of seven over there; they are all decapitated heads and the flesh has not decomposed yet.”

“Then that means they will be here very soon.” Ke Zhen’E concluded quietly and handed the skull over to Quan Jinfa. “Carefully return this to where it was, and don't leave any trace of our presence.”

Quan Jinfa quickly placed everything back in their original positions and returned to Ke Zhen’E. All of their eyes were upon Ke Zhen’E as they quietly waited for his explanation.

“It's Copper Corpse and Iron Corpse!” Ke Zhen’E looked as if he was looking up at the sky and his face twitched continuously. “But aren't they dead? Can they still be alive?” This news shocked Zhu Cong tremendously.

“I thought they were dead as well. But it turns out that they have been hiding here training their ‘Nine Yin White Bone Claws’,” Ke Zhen’E said. “Brothers, quickly mount your horses and ride south as fast as you can and don't come back! Wait for me after you have gone five thousand li. Wait for ten days. If I don't show up on the tenth day, then you need not wait any longer.”

“What are you saying Big Brother?” Han Xiaoying anxiously asked. “We have all tasted each other's blood when we swore to live and die together! Why are you telling us to leave now?”

“Go! Leave!” Ke Zhen’E repeatedly waved his hand. “You don't have any time to waste!” “What do you take us for; a bunch of heartless bastards?” Han Baoju angrily rebuked.

“If the seven of us lose, then we'll just end our lives together. That's what we have always said.” Zhang Ahsheng said, voicing his objection. “Since when have we ever run away?”

“These two possess incredible martial skills. Now that they’ve mastered the ‘Nine Yin White Bone Claws’, the seven of us are definitely no match for them. Why stay here and waste your life for no reason?” Ke Zhen’E protested.

The other Freaks knew how proud Ke Zhen’E was and that he would never admit defeat. Even when facing a master like Qiu Chuji he would still throw caution to the winds and fight with abandon. To hear him talk about these two people like this, it could be inferred that their power was something beyond comprehension.

“In that case, let's leave together!” Quan Jinfa proposed.

“They condemned me to a life of suffering; but that I can deal with.” Ke Zhen’E coldly replied. “However, I have to avenge what they did to my brother!”

“Share the blessings, share the hardships!” Nan Xiren declared. He never says much, but he need say nothing more.

Ke Zhen’E thought about it. He knew that his sworn brothers and sister were people who valued honor and would never consider running to save their own lives. The words he just said were based on his worry for their lives and he now realized that they bordered on being offensive to them. With this thought, he sighed. “Alright, if that's the case, then please be careful,” he said. “‘Copper Corpse’ is a man, ‘Iron Corpse’ is a woman and they are husband and wife. They are called the ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’. About two years ago, the two of them were just starting to train the 'Nine Yin White Bone Claws'. They killed a lot of innocent people. My brother was invited to join an expedition against them, so he sent someone to inform and invite me to join the expedition. However, at that time the seven of us were in Shandong and Hebei provinces looking for Li Ping. We’d just found some clues about her whereabouts. It seems that some years back someone saw a military commander and a pregnant woman in man's clothes shouting and screaming in the streets. That woman was seemingly mad and shouted that she wanted to kill that commander for killing her husband. They were on their way north, so it must have been Li Ping and Duan Tiande. I couldn't just leave and join the expedition, especially since we'd finally found some clues about where Li Ping went. When we were up north, we lost track of Li Ping and Duan Tiande. It was years later before we found out that Li Ping was in Mongolia and had given birth to Guo Jing. Last year in the spring, a messenger came to tell me that my brother had been killed in the expedition against the ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’. It was also that messenger who informed who the ‘Twin Killers’ were and where they came from and what styles of martial arts they practised. I knew that I would be unable to avenge my brother then and decided not to tell you and we continued our search for Guo Jing.”

Ke Zhen'E looked very serious now and said, “What all of you need to watch out for is those claws of theirs. Sixth brother, go one hundred steps to the south and see if there’s a coffin there.”

Quan Jinfa, as quickly as he could, counted his steps. When he made it to one hundred, he did not spot a coffin. But upon closer inspection, he suddenly noticed that there was a corner of a stone slab protruding out of the ground. He pulled on it, but the stone slab did not budge. So he turned around and waved his arms; soon the other Freaks joined him. Zhang Ahsheng and Han Baoju both got down and, together, could barely lift the stone slab. In the moonlight, they were able to see that there was a grave hidden beneath the stone slab. In the grave lay two bodies, both of them dressed in Mongolian attire. “Those two monsters will come soon and use these corpses for practice.” Ke Zhen’E hopped into the grave. “I'll hide here and ambush them. You hide yourselves around here and make sure that they don't find you. Once you hear that I have began fighting with them, attack at once and try to catch them off guard. Please don't hold anything back. This type of ambush might not be righteous, but our foe is too powerful this time. Ambush is the only way; otherwise, none of us may make it out of this alive.” The other six Freaks listened intently to his every word.

“They are also extremely attentive and intelligent. They will spot even the slightest trace of disturbance from far away.” Ke Zhen’E continued. “Put the stone slab back and just leave a small slit for me.”

The six Freaks nodded and gently placed the slab back where it had been. Afterwards, they grabbed their weapons and hid inside bushes and behind trees in the area immediately surrounding the grave.

Seeing Ke Zhen’E worry like she had never seen before, Han Xiaoying was worried as well as curious. When she looked for a hiding spot she made sure to find one close to Zhu Cong.

“Who are ‘Copper Corpse’ and ‘Iron Corpse’?” She asked him as quietly as she could.

Zhu Cong answered, “Two years ago, Master Ke Pixie sent a messenger to contact big brother. Big brother was afraid the news would leak out and asked me to go with him to talk to that messenger. He also wanted my opinion as to whether that messenger was real or was trying to deceive him. According to that messenger, ‘Copper Corpse’ and ‘Iron Corpse’ are disciples of the lord of the Peach Blossom Island in the Eastern Sea ”

Han Xiaoying softly interrupted, “Disciples of Peach Blossom Island? That makes them people from Zhejiang province, just like us.”

Zhu Cong nodded and said, “Yes, it is said that they were disowned by the Lord of the Peach Blossom Island. They are highly skilled and very vicious; they are also very secretive and cautious. After they killed Ke Pixie and some others of the expedition, they suddenly disappeared. Everyone thought that they’d paid for their crimes and were killed somehow. Little did we know that they were hiding here in Mongolia.”

“What are their real names?” Han Xiaoying asked.

“‘Copper Corpse’ is a man; his name is Chen Xuanfeng. He has a burnt yellow complexion like copper, and never showed a bit of emotion on his face, like a corpse. That's why everyone referred to him as ‘Copper Corpse’.”

“So does that woman, ‘Iron Corpse’, have a dark complexion?” “Yes, her surname is Mei, full name Mei Chaofeng.”

“Big Brother said that they were training something called the ‘Nine Yin White Bone Claws’. What kind of kungfu is that?” “I haven't heard of it either.”

Han Xiaoying looked over at a pile of skulls near her and saw that top skull was positioned in such a way that the holes where the eyes were faced directly at her, as if it was staring at her. She shuddered involuntarily and turned away, not daring to take another look.

“How come Big Brother never brought this up?” She asked. “Could it be ”

She had not finished when Zhu Cong suddenly covered her mouth with his left hand and pointed to the bottom of the hill with his right hand. Han Xiaoying followed his finger and looked out from behind the bush. In the moonlight near the horizon, a faint black shadow could be seen quickly approaching at incredible speed.

“I should be ashamed!” Han Xiaoying reprimanded herself. “I was too busy talking to Second Brother and did not watch for the enemy.”

In a blink of an eye, the black shadow had made it to the foot of the hill. By now they could discern that it was actually two figures, which was why it looked so broad from afar.

“The ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’ truly do have a bizarre kungfu.” The Six Freaks thought to themselves. “Running at that speed yet they were still able to stick together so closely to each other; it really is as if they are inseparable!”

The six of them held their breath and cowered even lower, quietly waiting for them to come up the hill. Zhu Cong clutched tightly to his pressure point hitting fan. Han Xiaoying quietly buried the blade of her sword in the dirt so as to avoid giving herself away because of reflections off the blade; nevertheless, her right hand held a tight grip on the handle.

The sounds of sand and rocks being kicked could be heard as feet traveled up the hill. Each and everyone’s hearts pounded with every step and each moment seemed to last an eternity. By this time, the northwest wind had picked up as well. The dark clouds to the west looked like individual mountain tops as they came rolling relentlessly in.

A few moments later, the sound of footsteps ceased. On the open space, on the top of the hill, two silhouettes could be seen. The first, immobile, with a leather hat on its head, looked like a Mongol; the second, with long hair floating with the wind, was visibly a woman.

“Here are ‘Copper Corpse’ and ‘Iron Corpse’,” thought Han Xiaoying. “Let's see how they train themselves.” They saw the woman slowly move around the man, and heard her joints crack quietly. Then she accelerated and the crackling became drum-like; increasingly loud and closer together.

“Is her internal strength truly that strong?” Han Xiaoying wondered. “It’s not surprising that Older Brother acts so prudently!” The woman moved her hands back and forth and, each time, the joints in her arms crackled. Her long hair was streaming nearly horizontally from the speed, and it gave her a terrifying presence.

Han Xiaoying felt a chill in her heart and the hairs began to bristle on her body. Suddenly, the woman raised her right palm and struck the man's chest with her left palm.

“This is strange”, the six thought, “could it be that her husband's body is capable of resisting her palm strokes?” The man fell backwards, but she had already sped behind him and hit his back. Going back and forth at high-speed, she hit him with eight palm strokes, each time quicker, and each time more powerful. The man didn't make a sound. After the ninth stroke, she suddenly leaped very high, then, coming down like an arrow, raised the man’s leather hat and planted the five fingers of her right hand in his head!

Han Xiaoying fought back a scream. The woman dropped to her feet and exploded with laughter. The man, who had collapsed on the ground, didn't move. She stretched her hand, spotted with blood and brain matter, and examined it in the moonlight still laughing. She turned her head, and Han Xiaoying saw that her face, although a little dark skinned, was rather pretty and she seemed to be about forty years old.

The six now understood that the man was not her husband, but had been captured as a living target for the purpose of her practice. The woman must be ‘Iron Corpse’, Mei Chaofeng.

She stopped laughing, stretched out her hands and tore at the dead man’s clothing. In the north, where the weather was extremely cold, everyone wore thick leather coats. Yet she tore these very resistant clothes as if they were paper, without any effort. Then she plunged her hand into the poor wretch’s chest and withdrew the internal organs one by one, which she examined attentively in the moonlight. Afterwards she threw them on the ground. Even from a distance, the six could see that all the organs, heart, lungs, liver, spleen, had been completely destroyed. They now understood the intent of this practice: she had hit the body of this man with nine palm strokes and had succeeded in smashing the internal organs without breaking the bones of the skeleton. By examining the damaged internal organs, she could see the progression of her strength.

Very angry, Han Xiaoying wanted to attack immediately. She raised her sword ready to attack, but Zhu Cong silently restrained her.

“For the moment,” the ‘Magical Hands Scholar’ thought, “‘Iron Corpse’ is alone. Although she seems dangerous, the seven of us should be able to make an end of her. If we get rid of her first, it will be easier to take care of ‘Copper Corpse’ later. We would be absolutely incapable of facing the two of them at the same time... But ‘Copper Corpse’ might be hidden, ready to fall on us unexpectedly. Older Brother knows well the habits of these two monsters; it’s better to follow his instructions and wait for him to launch the first attack...”

After inspecting the internal organs, Mei Chaofeng seemed satisfied. With a smile on her lips, she sat down cross-legged facing the moon, and began to practice the regulation of breathing. With her back turned to Han Xiaoying and Zhu Cong, they could see her shoulders rising and falling as she inhaled and exhaled.

“If I use the stroke ‘The Lightning Illuminates the Big Sky’,” Han Xiaoying considered, “I am nearly certain I’ll be able to pierce her right through. But if I miss my stroke, our entire plan will be compromised!” She was unable to decide what to do and her body trembled.

Zhu Cong didn't dare move either; he felt a trickling sensation down his back as he broke out in a cold sweat. Raising his eyes, he noticed that the black clouds coming from the west had covered half the sky, like a sheet of rice paper that someone had spilled ink on. Inside the dark clouds lightning flashed, increasing the anguish and fear in the hearts of the Six Freaks. The thunder roared dully, as if it was suppressed by the thickness of the clouds.

After practicing the breathing exercises for a period of time, Mei Chaofeng arose; then she dragged the dead man behind her towards the grave where Ke Zhen’E was hidden. She bent down to raise the stone slab. The six Freaks tightened their grip on their weapons, ready to attack her as soon as the slab was removed.

Mei Chaofeng, hearing a rustle of leaves that didn't seem caused by the wind, turned her head suddenly and saw a human shape at the top of a tree. Releasing a long scream, she leaped in that direction.

The man hidden in the tree was Han Baoju. Taking advantage of his small size, he had hidden himself perfectly in the foliage, but, as he got ready to jump, he made a slight move which alerted Mei Chaofeng. Her leap at him came with irresistible force! Han delivered a stroke ‘The Black Dragon Inhales Water’, slashing down with his whip at Mei’s wrist. The woman, contrary to all expectations, did not try to avoid the stroke, but instead seized the tip of the whip. Han Baoju, who was very strong, pulled her quickly toward him. This was to her benefit since it brought her nearer and she counterattacked with a lightning palm. Han Baoju felt the power of that stroke arriving and, knowing that he could not resist it, released his weapon and somersaulted down from the tree. ‘Iron Corpse’ didn't let him escape and followed right behind him, aiming her claw-like hands at the small man’s back.

He seemed to feel an icy breath on the nape of his neck and made an extraordinary effort to move faster. At the same time, Nan Xiren and Quan Jinfa, hidden at the bottom of the tree, threw their nearly invisible projectiles at the pursuer. A ‘Piercing Bone’ awl came from the first and a dart [fei biao] hidden in the sleeve from the second. She swept them away with a flick of her left hand, while her right hand tore off a piece of clothing from the back of Han Baoju. The small man touched the ground with his left foot and rebounded away immediately. However Mei, as agile as wind, was already in front of him.

“Who are you?” She shouted. “What did you come here to do?” At the same time, she planted ten fingers in his shoulders. Han felt the lightning flash of pain, as if ten iron awls had suddenly pierced his flesh. He sent a kick toward ‘Iron Corpse’s’ stomach that she avoided while delivering a stroke with her right hand, nearly breaking his ankle. Barely escaping from her, he threw himself to the ground and rolled to clear himself.

As Mei was about to trample him, a heavy black rod struck her foot; it was Nan Xiren, the ‘Wood Chopper of the Southern Mountains’.

Abandoning Han, Mei Chaofeng quickly moved back to avoid the rod. In an instant, she found herself surrounded by enemies. A scholarly looking man, holding an iron fan, tried to hit the vital points on her meridians; while a girl handling a sword attacked from the right.

A big strong paunchy man armed with a large knife and a small skinny fellow with a weird weapon came from her left; facing her was a vigorous looking peasant-type moving his iron rod. The sound of footsteps behind her had come from the man with the whip. All these people were completely unknown to her, yet they seemed to be eminent experts in martial arts.

“They are too numerous,” Mei Chaofeng thought, “It will be necessary to use strong methods and eliminate some of them without delay. No matter what their names or their origins... Aside from my beloved master and my bastard of a husband, I will kill anyone in this lowly world!” She jumped, all claw-like fingers extended, at Han Xiaoying. Seeing the power of this attack, Zhu Cong, fearing for her, jumped forward pointing his iron fan at her vital point ‘Sinuous Pond’ situated in the hollow of her elbow. However, it didn't seem to bother her. She stretched out her right hand while Han Xiaoying defended herself with the stroke ‘White Mist on the Stream’, with the intention of hitting her arm. But ‘Iron Corpse’ turned her wrist, trying to catch the sword with her bare hand, as if she didn't fear the blade. Han Xiaoying was afraid of this and moved back. At this moment, the fan of the Scholar accurately hit her ‘Sinuous Pond’ accupoint. This is a very important vital point on the human body and Mei’s arm should have been paralyzed immediately. Zhu Cong was delighted at having succeeded with his stroke until he saw her arm suddenly move down and her dangerous nails were practically on his head! He moved back at the last moment and escaped death by a hair!

“Doesn't she have any vital points?” he wondered, surprised and afraid. Han Baoju had collected his whip by now, and the Six, moving their weapons, surrounded Mei Chaofeng. However, she didn't seem at all impressed. Her bare hands, with which she tried to seize their weapons, appeared as efficient as claws made out of steel. The Freaks were particularly worried since it seemed that their adversary's nickname was not exaggerated. ‘Iron Corpse’ appeared to have, effectively, a body of iron! She had just received two strokes on the back, inflicted by the weighing scales of Quan Jinfa, without apparently causing her any injury. They knew that she had succeeded in pushing the resistance of her body to an extreme. Apart the sharpened tip of Zhang Ahsheng’s large knife and the sword of Han Xiaoying, she seemed to not fear any of the other weapons. She didn't even try to avoid them! Her only desire was to attack.

She increased speed and seized Quan Jinfa’s arm who was too slow trying to escape. The other five moved quickly, but were too late; Mei, with a violent stroke, pulled a piece of flesh from his arm.

“All those that practice the iron body technique,” Zhu Cong thought, “must possess a nodal practice location which is impossible for them to protect using this technique. This point is particularly vulnerable and a small touch is sufficient to severely wound or kill them... Where could this shrew's nodal location be?” He bounded to the right, to the left, moving the fan, trying successively to touch the meridian point ‘Meeting of the Hundred’ on the top of the head, the point ‘Screen of the Spring’ on the throat, then the point ‘Tomb of the Mind’ in the hollow of the navel, followed by the point ‘Hollow of the Middle’ on her back... He tried about ten points, all the while thinking that, if she takes particular care to defend a point…that will be her nodal location.

The significance of his back and forth movements didn't escape Mei Chaofeng. “Lowly ‘Scholar’,” she shouted, “my technique is perfect to the point that I don't have a nodal location!”

She struck and seized Zhu’s wrist. Although surprised, this man fortunately had a quick mind and agile hands. Before Mei could plant her nails in his flesh, he had pulled back his wrist and slipped his fan into his adversary's hand while whispering, “Careful, there’s poison on the fan!”

Suddenly feeling a hard object in her hand, Mei Chaofeng, speechless and afraid of the poison, threw the fan to the ground.

Zhu Cong used this opportunity to escape and move several steps back. He looked at his hand, the back of which showed five bloody grooves, and felt a flush of cold sweat. The fight had only lasted a short time and not only had the Freaks not finished her off, but three of their number were already wounded. If ‘Copper Corpse’ arrived, they would all lose their lives. Zhang Ahsheng, Han Baoju and Quan Jinfa were already quite tired and covered with sweat. Only Nan Xiren, whose neigong was more powerful, and Han Xiaoying, lighter bodied, didn't seem tired; whereas their enemy became more and more violent. Zhu Cong suddenly saw, in the pallid gleam of the moon, the three heaps of skulls on the left. He shivered, and then had an idea; he hurried towards the hole where Ke Zhen’E was hidden, while shouting. “Run for your lives!” The other understood and moved back while still fighting.

“Bastard children from nowhere,” Mei Chaofeng sneered, “you wanted to trap me here, but now it is too late to run away!” She rushed after them. Nan Xiren, Quan Jinfa and Han Xiaoying did their best to engage her, while the three others united their strength to raise the slab of stone. It was just in time, because Mei Chaofeng had seized Nan Xiren’s iron rod and was moving her claws in direction of his eyes.

“Come quickly and help us”, Zhu Cong shouted. He pointed his finger upward and made gestures with his other hand, as if calling for the help of someone hidden on the heights. Surprised, Mei Chaofeng couldn’t stop herself from raising her eyes; but all she saw were the low clouds veiling half the moon... There was no one up there! “Seven steps right!” Zhu Cong shouted. At these words, Ke Zhen’E threw six poisoned projectiles seven steps to his right, two at head height, two to the middle and two below, while bounding out of the hole. The other Freaks attacked from all sides at the same time. Mei Chaofeng let out a shriek of pain; two projectiles had reached her eyes! Fortunately for her, her agility allowed her to move her head back immediately, so that the invisible projectiles didn't penetrate into her brain, but she had definitely been blinded!

Feeling pain and rage, she struck downward with her two palms; but Ke Zhen’E had already escaped to one side. They heard two thuds, because her palms had hit a rock. Made even more furious, she sent out a kick that struck the slab and made it fly off. The Seven, afraid of the strength of her attacks, remained carefully to the side.

Since she couldn't see them any longer, she thrashed out with her senses, striking, scratching, and kicking. She looked like a furious tiger, or a demon, breaking everything in her path, while raising clouds of dust, breaking the branches of the trees, all without hurting any of her enemies, who were sufficiently far away, holding their breath. Later, her vision became completely dark, and she knew that the poison had taken effect. “Who did this?” she said with a terrifying voice. “Say it quickly, so that I die knowing who killed me...”

Zhu Cong made a gesture in direction of Ke Zhen’E to ask him to be quiet and to let Mei die in ignorance. Then he remembered that his Older Brother was blind, how could he have seen his gesture?

“Mei Chaofeng.” Ke said with an icy voice, “Do you remember ‘Divine Dragon Soaring through the Sky,’ Ke Pixie, and ‘Bat Soaring Through the Heavens,’ Ke Zhen’E?”

Mei Chaofeng responded with a thunderous and terrifying laugh. “So Old Bastard, you didn’t die! You’re the one that used the poisonous projectiles, aren’t you? Have you come to avenge ‘Divine Dragon Soaring Through the Sky’s’ death?”

“Precisely! Since you haven't died yet…that suits me well!” Mei sighed and stayed silent.

The Seven Freaks remained on guard. At that moment, the moon was nearly hidden by the dark clouds, and everyone felt the insidious and penetrating cold. Mei Chaofeng stood immobile like a stone statue, her hands alongside her body, and the moon light reflecting off her sharp nails. The strong wind that blew from behind her raised her long hair. Han Xiaoying, who was in front of her, saw blood oozing from her eyes. Suddenly, Zhu Cong and Quan Jinfa shouted at the same time, “She attacks, Older Brother!”

As their voices resounded again, Ke Zhen’E sensed a hit was about to arrive on his chest. He bounded into the air by delivering a heavy stroke to the ground with his staff, and landed on top of a tree that was behind him. The blow delivered by ‘Iron Corpse’ missed its target; instead, she planted her ten fingers in the trunk of the tree. The Six Freak’s faces were pale with terror. Had Ke Zhen’E lingered for only one second, the nails would be planted in his body. How would he have been able to escape alive?

Having missed her adversary, Mei Chaofeng released a sudden long and weird howl, very piercing, but with a power that carried far.

“How unfortunate”, Zhu Cong thought, “she calls her husband ‘Copper Corpse’ for help.” Quickly, he shouted, “It is time to finish her!”

He mobilized all his energy into his arm and heavily hit Mei Chaofeng’s back, while Zhang Ahsheng raised a big stone which he brought down at her head.

‘Iron Corpse’, who had just lost her vision, didn't yet know how to protect herself by using her hearing, like Ke Zhen’E. The big stone, while coming down, made a noise that she could hear and she quickly avoided it. But she could not avoid Zhu Cong’s stroke. Even though she had trained her body for extreme resistance to accupoint strikes, the ‘Scholar’ not only had quick hands but also strong ones; she felt a stabbing pain in her back.

Zhu Cong wanted to take advantage of his position and continued to hit her, but Mei Chaofeng counter-attacked with a slash of her claws, and he moved back.

Just as the other Freaks got ready to step in, they heard a long howl coming from far away. It had the same tonal quality that Mei had used a while ago, and it gave them the creeps. Shortly, a second howl was heard, but this time a lot nearer.

“That person moves quickly,” the Seven thought, alarmed. “Be careful, that is ‘Copper Corpse’!” Ke Zhen’E shouted.

Han Xiaoying ran over and looked down the hill; she saw a shadow approaching at a quick pace, howling. Mei Chaofeng had adopted a defensive stance, no longer attacking. She concentrated her internal energy to arrest the progress of the poison in her body, while waiting for her husband's arrival to help destroy the enemy.

Zhu Cong made a sign to Quan Jinfa and the two men hid themselves in the brush. ‘Iron Corpse’ was dangerous by herself, but from the speed of ‘Copper Corpse’, Zhu Cong suspected that he could be even stronger than his wife. It was obviously impossible to defeat them when they were together. On the other hand, a chance existed if they took them by ruse.

Suddenly, Han Xiaoying uttered a shriek of surprise; she saw, in front of the running shadow, another smaller silhouette that was also climbing the hill. This silhouette moved more slowly, and, because it was small, no one had seen it before. She watched more attentively and saw that it was a child, Guo Jing certainly. Surprised and delighted, she hastened to meet him. She was not very far from him and the downward slope was easy to descend, but ‘Copper Corpse’, a remarkable expert in lightness kung fu, was gaining on him quickly. Han Xiaoying hesitated: “I am not skilled enough to face ‘Copper Corpse’... But the child is going to fall into his hands, how can I not help?” She accelerated and shouted, “Quickly, child, run faster!”

Seeing her, Guo Jing uttered a yell of joy, unconscious of the imminent danger that threatened him.

For years, Zhang Ahsheng had been secretly in love with Han Xiaoying, but never dared express his feelings towards her. Seeing her running into terrifying danger, he feared for her safety and sprang forward to catch up and protect her.

On top of the hill, the other Freaks had stopped attacking Mei and observed the slope of the hill, keeping their invisible projectiles concealed, ready to intervene.

In the blink of an eye, Han Xiaoying reached Guo Jing; she took his small hand and turned on her heels to run back with him. They had hardly started, when she felt Guo Jing’s hand slip from her grip. The child uttered a loud scream; Chen Xuanfeng had grabbed him from behind. Han Xiaoying turned around with an agile move and, using the sword stroke ‘The Phoenix Nods it’s Head’, feinted towards the enemy's left armpit; then, moving to the side, raised the tip of the sword for a quick and precise thrust, aimed at his eyes. It was the very essence of the sophisticated technique of ‘The Sword of the Yue Maiden’.

Chen Xuanfeng took the child under his left arm, parried the stroke with his right, deflecting the blade. He followed with the palm stroke ‘To Push the Skiff while Following the Current’. The young woman retracted her weapon and moved away. But the arm of Chen Xuanfeng suddenly seemed to lengthen by half a foot. Han Xiaoying, who originally had the impression that she was outside of his range, was reached and struck on the shoulder. She fell to the ground.

This exchange took place in a flash. The merciless ‘Copper Corpse’ followed with a stroke of his claws directly at the top of Han Xiaoying’s head. The ‘Nine Yin White Bone Claws’ was a dangerous and cruel technique which destroyed flesh and broke bones. The stroke could not fail to penetrate the skull of the young woman. Zhang Ahsheng was some steps away and understood the danger; without thinking about his own safety, he threw himself on top of her, protecting her with his body. The claw fell, and the five fingers of ‘Copper Corpse’ penetrated the ‘Smiling Dhuda’s’ back. Zhang Ahsheng let out a terrifying howl and tried to reach his enemy's chest with his large knife. Chen Xuanfeng defended against it, causing the weapon to drop. ‘Copper Corpse’ returned with another palm against Zhang as he lay on the ground. Frightened, the other Freaks shouted as they hurried to their rescue.

“My ‘Shrew’,” shouted Chen Xuanfeng, “what happened here?”

“They destroyed my eyes!” Mei Chaofeng replied with anger while leaning against a tree. “If you let one of them escape, my ‘Bastard’ husband, you will deal with me!”

“No worries, my ‘Shrew’,” Chen Xuanfeng shouted, “Not one will escape alive. You... Are you hurt? Don't move...”

‘Copper Corpse’ slammed down his hand again at the head of Han Xiaoying. Han used the move ‘A Lazy Dunce makes a Somersault’, and she escaped rolling.

“Do you believe you will be able to escape me?” mocked Chen, raising his left hand.

Zhang Ahsheng, severely wounded and confused, saw that his beloved was in danger of being killed. Mobilizing every last bit of strength, he sent a kick toward the enemy's hand. Chen planted his fingers in Zhang’s leg. Zhang, goaded by the pain, straightened up and wrapped his arms around his aggressor. Chen caught him by the neck, wanting to throw him far away, but the ‘Smiling Dhuda’, fearing still that he would hurt Han Xiaoying, stubbornly refused to release him. ‘Copper Corpse’ gave him a violent blow to the head that stunned him. The butcher fainted, and his grip relaxed.

The intervention of Zhang had given the young woman enough time for her to jump to her feet and take the fight to Chen. She didn't dare approach him closely and was content to whirl around the enemy using her lightness technique.

“Fifth brother,” she shouted, “how do you feel?” She had made two whirls round Chen, when the others arrived and joined in. Zhu Cong and Quan Jinfa immediately threw their invisible projectiles.

‘Copper Corpse’ was surprised to see so many enemies of this strength. “We are in the middle of the deserted steppe,” he thought, “where did these expert fighters come from? My ‘Shrew’,” he shouted, “these skilled people, who are they?”

It’s the members of the ‘Bat Soaring Through the Heaven’s’ group. The leader is the brother of ‘Divine Dragon Soaring through the Sky’.

“Good, a group of bastards we've never met. Never mind, we will kill them anyway!”

Fearful of his wife's injury, he shouted, “And you my ‘Shrew’, are you seriously wounded? Tell me at least that it doesn’t threaten your life?”

“Hurry up and slaughter them”, Mei Chaofeng shouted furiously. “I am not dead yet...”

Seeing his wife leaning on the tree and not coming to lend him assistance, Chen understood then that, in spite of her usual stubbornness, she was seriously injured. Worried, he hoped to eliminate the enemy as soon as possible and take care of her. At this moment, five Freaks were surrounding him; only Ke Zhen’E remained aside ready to intervene at any time. Chen Xuanfeng threw Guo Jing to the ground and sent a punch in the direction of Quan Jinfa. Quan, worried about the child, ducked to avoid the stroke and used this chance to snatch up Guo Jing. A somersault got them out of the enemy’s range. This movement, named ‘The Mischievous Cat Catches the Mouse’, is used to avoid and save at the same time. It had been executed with agility and precision. Even Chen Xuanfeng was in awe of his move.

‘Copper Corpse’ was cruel by nature; the stronger his adversaries were, the more he wanted to make them die with atrocious suffering. Because they had injured his beloved wife he wanted it even more. The ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’ had, for a long time, trained in two dangerous techniques; the ‘Nine Yin White Bone Claws’ and the ‘Heart Breaker’ palm. He had now mastered them to eight or nine tenths of their power. With a terrifying howl, he attacked his enemies without worrying about his own safety, attacking with deadly strokes every time.

The five knew that their lives were at stake at this precise moment and didn't take his attacks lightly. They mobilized all their strength to defend themselves. But they could not approach the enemy too closely since he was so dangerous.

Han Baoju decided to attack, using the technique ‘Whip at the Even Soil’, rolling on the ground and delivering whip strokes from all sides at Chen Xuanfeng’s legs. Chen, troubled by this unexpected attack, received a stroke on the back from Nan Xiren’s stick that made him utter a scream of pain. He turned around and stretched his claws towards the ‘Wood Chopper’.

Nan didn’t have the time to retract his stick for defense because he sensed the claws coming at him. He fell backwards to escape. Then he heard popping sounds coming from the joints of ‘Copper Corpse’, whose arm suddenly stretched out an extra several inches. His hand was against the ‘Wood Chopper’s forehead. In a fight between experts, the murderous strokes were often avoided by one or two inches. Nan Xiren had thought that the extension of his adversary's arm had reached its extreme, yet it had stretched still farther! How would the ‘Wood Chopper’ escape this stroke? He soon felt the tips of Chen’s nails on his forehead...

In panic, he raised his left arm and seized the enemy's wrist with a ‘Catch and Control’ technique, trying to block it. At that moment, Zhu Cong jumped on the back of ‘Copper Corpse’ and jammed his forearm onto the adversary's throat in order to strangle him. By doing that, he fully exposed his own chest, but to save the life of his sworn brother, he didn't worry about breaking the elementary precautionary rules of fighting.

At this moment, when the lives of the fighters were held by a thread, thunder sounded and the clouds covered the moon completely. It was total darkness; a person couldn’t even see the fingers of his own hands and a heavy rain started to fall.

They heard the sound of two crunches and a plunk. Chen Xuanfeng had just broken the left arm of Nan Xiren and, at the same time, had given a stroke from his elbow to Zhu Cong’s chest. Zhu Cong felt a terrible pain that forced him to stop the pressure on his enemy's neck and fall backwards. ‘Copper Corpse’, close to suffocating, stood to one side catching his breath.

“Move back everyone,” Han Baoju shouted in the blackness. “Seventh sister, how do you feel?” “Silence!” replied Han Xiaoying while moving several steps.

Astonished by the sounds of the movements made by his friends, Ke Zhen’E asked, “Second brother, what’s happened?”

“The darkness is total,” Quan Jinfa answered, “no one can see anything!” ‘So the Heavens come to help us,” Ke Zhen’E thought, delighted.

The Seven Freaks, three of whom were severely injured, were thinking that they had just lost the first part; but now dark clouds had covered the sky and it was raining heavily. Each of them kept their breathing silent and no one dared move. The extremely fine hearing of Ke Zhen’E allowed him to recognize that the breathless man that was standing seven or eight steps away from him, on the left, was not one of his brothers. He immediately threw six poisoned projectiles in that direction.

Chen Xuanfeng sensed the arrival of the invisible projectiles and jumped into air. He was indeed very strong and because of it, he succeeded in avoiding all six while at the same time, determined their source. Without making a sound, he suddenly leapt, all claws extended, toward Ke Zhen’E. Ke heard him, briskly moved to the side, and attacked with a stroke from his staff. For him, there was no difference between day and night. Since Chen Xuanfeng couldn’t see anything, his power was greatly impaired. The two men were now on an equal footing. After about ten exchanges, ‘Copper Corpse’ had the impression that his enemy was attacking from all directions, without knowing for sure if his own strokes were directed in the proper direction. It was like living in a nightmare.

Slowly probing around, Han Baoju, Han Xiaoying and Quan Jinfa were trying to help their injured brothers. The fate of Ke Zhen’E also preoccupied them, but they weren’t able to help him in this darkness. Amid the sound of the rain, they heard the hisses produced by the hands of Chen Xuanfeng and the staff of Ke Zhen’E. The two fighters had hardly exchanged thirty strokes, but, to the other Freaks, it seemed to last for an eternity. Suddenly, they heard two strokes, and ‘Copper Corpse’ started screaming in pain; he had been struck by the staff. The Freaks were delighted just as lightning flashed in the sky, illuminating the summit of the hill.

“Watch out, Older Brother!” Quan Jinfa shouted.

Chen Xuanfeng had benefited from this instant of vision to orient himself. He advanced, concentrating his energy in his left shoulder and suffered, without flinching, the staff’s strokes. He then seized it with his left hand and his right hand grabbed at the blind man's chest. Ke Zhen’E, surprised, released his staff and leaped backwards. ‘Copper Corpse’ wasn’t going to let such a great opportunity pass; the claw that had already torn his adversary's garment, turned suddenly into a fist. Without a single movement of his body, Chen’s arm stretched and delivered a stroke loaded with internal energy, to the blind man's chest and he was propelled violently backward. At the same time, he threw the blind man’s staff like a javelin. All these gestures were executed with smooth continuity; ‘Copper Corpse’ was very proud of it and issued a long howl of joy, accompanied by thunderous growls.

During another lightning flash that illuminated the area briefly, Han Baoju saw the staff flying towards his older Brother. Conscious of the danger, he lashed his ‘Golden Dragon’ whip, causing it to wrap around the projectile and make it fall.

“Now,” Chen exclaimed, running towards him, “I’m going to take your dog life!” Carried away by his impetus, he stumbled on something that felt like a body; he bent over and grabbed it. It was a small boy, Guo Jing.

“Let me go!” the child shouted.

Then a new lightning flash illuminated the area. Guo Jing saw the face of the man that held him in air, a sallow face with a menacing look. He was so frightened that, instinctively, he drew his dagger and plunged it into the man's body, right in the middle of the navel, until he could push it no further.

Chen Xuanfeng let out a terrifying howl and fell backward. In the technique that he used to make his body invincible to the strokes, the vulnerable nodal location he’d chosen was situated precisely in his navel. Even though Guo Jing’s dagger had an extremely sharp blade, even a simple knife, if it struck this place, would have been fatal to him. This was the reason that, during a fight, he took every precaution to protect this part of his body. When he seized the child, he didn't feel that he was a danger to him. After having caught him on the flank of the hill a little while ago, he knew that the youngster surely didn't know any martial arts. However, as the proverb says, "It is the good swimmer who drowns, and it is on flat land that the cart reverses itself". Who would have predicted that this dangerous expert was going to lose his life at the hand of a small, weak and ignorant boy!

After fatally injuring ‘Copper Corpse’, Guo Jing remained petrified, standing still without knowing what to do. He seemed on the verge of crying, but didn't dare let himself go.

Hearing her husband's long scream, Mei Chaofeng hurried, stumbled, fell and crawled to reach him. “My dear brother,” she shouted, “how are you?”

“It is done, my little…sister”, he mumbled, “hurry, flee…before you...” “I am going to avenge you”, she croaked.

“I will miss you, my little sis....little sister. I...I cannot take care of you anymore ” and with those last words Chen Xuanfeng died.

“Good brother I will miss you too! Don't leave me!”

Han Baoju, Han Xiaoying and Quan Jinfa, taking advantage of the first glow of the pre-dawn, rushed to the attack.

Mei Chaofeng had not only lost her vision, but she felt her head spinning from the poison’s effects. While training in the ‘Nine Yin White Bone Claws’ the spouses had, for about ten years, absorbed arsenic acid in small quantities regularly. They neutralized the toxic effects with their internal energy. Using this dangerous method was the only way that Chen Xuanfeng had found to increase their internal and external strength. With time, Mei had been partially immunized against poison; otherwise the poisoned projectiles of Ke Zhen’E would have killed her long ago.

She defended herself so ferociously that the Freaks didn't even manage to reach her and were repeatedly put in danger. Han Baoju was beginning to get angry. He thought to himself, “If we can't manage to overcome her on a three against one basis, and even worse, she’s injured and blind, what a blow to the reputation of the ‘Seven Freaks of Jiangnan’!” He then attacked more furiously with his whip, focusing on trying to hit her back. Han Xiaoying and Quan Jinfa, noticing their enemy staggering, also increased the vigor of their attacks. Just as it seemed they would carry the day against her, a storm arose and dark clouds covered the sky again. Suddenly, the mixed violent gusts of wind and rain blinded them again. The three Freaks dropped to the ground to protect themselves. Much later, the storm abated and the moon again showed from behind the clouds. Han Baoju jumped to his feet and uttered a scream of frustration; Mei Chaofeng and the body of Chen Xuanfeng had disappeared. What greeted him was the sight of his severely injured friends lying on the ground. The small head of Guo Jing slowly appeared from behind some rocks. Everyone was soaked to the bone.

The three uninjured survivors rose to take care of the injured. Nan Xiren had a broken arm, but fortunately no internal injuries. Ke Zhen’E and Zhu Cong, whose neigong was powerful, were not too affected either, even though they had been hit by several strokes from ‘Copper Corpse’. However, Zhang Ahsheng had been hit two times by the ‘Nine Yin White Bone Claws’ and also received a deadly stroke to the head. He was conscious but his life was on the line.

Seeing him close to death, the Six collapsed in sadness, especially Han Xiaoying who knew very well that the Fifth brother had been in love with her for a long time. But she was a bit of a tomboy, enjoying martial arts above all else, and had little to do with matters of the heart. Zhang Ahsheng, for his part, laughed it off the whole time; they had never admitted to any feelings. Thinking of how he had thrown himself under the enemy's claws to protect her, she hugged Zhang sobbing.

Zhang Ahsheng’s plump face was normally cheerful and smiling. Even now he smiled slightly and his big hand softly caressed Xiaoying’s hair. “Don’t cry”, he said to her trying to comfort her. “Don't cry. I am alright.”

“Fifth brother”, she said while hiccupping back her sobs, “do you want to marry me?” Zhang gave a silly laugh, causing the pain from his injuries to make him suffer badly, and he began to lose consciousness.

“Fifth brother”, she continued, “I assure you that I already consider myself your wife... I won't ever marry anyone else. After my death, we will remain together for eternity.”

“Seventh sister”, mumbled Zhang, “I have not taken good care of you... Me... I am not worthy of you...” “You always took very good care of me”, she sobbed. “I always knew it...”

With his eyes full of tears, Zhu Cong asked Guo Jing, “When you came here, was it to learn martial arts from us?” “Yes”, the child answered.

“Then you must obey us from now on.” Guo Jing nodded his head.

“We, the seven brothers and sister will all be your Shifus,” continued Zhu Cong while wiping away his tears. “But now, your fifth Shifu’s spirit is going to leave us, kowtow and pay him homage.”

Guo Jing didn't know what precisely what ‘spirit is going to leave us’ meant, but he immediately obeyed, kowtowing and touching the ground with his forehead.

Zhang Ahsheng, his face white like linen, forced himself to smile. “That is sufficient... Brave boy, I won’t be able to teach you my knowledge... Ah, but if I did and even if you had learned what I know, it would not serve you very well. I am not naturally quick witted, and rather lazy about practicing... I relied on the little strength that I had... had I worked more, maybe I would not have met a sad end today...” He almost fainted and became even paler.

“Neither are you”, he said while panting, “naturally gifted; it’s absolutely necessary for you to put in a lot of effort. When you’re tempted to be lazy, think about your Fifth Shifu and the state in which you see him...” He wanted to continue, but didn't have any more strength.

Han Xiaoying lowered her ear to Zhang’s mouth, and heard him barely say, “Teach the child well... Don’t let us lose to that cow-nose Taoist priest...”

“Be assured”, said Han Xiaoying, “the ‘Seven Freaks of Jiangnan’ will not lose!”

Zhang Ahsheng gave a small foolish laugh, closed his eyes, departed this world, and returned his soul.

The Six Freaks broke into sobs. Since they had become sworn brothers, a very strong bond united them. During the past years searching for Li Ping and her son, they had lived day and night together. And now, at this moment, one of them had tragically died in this foreign land. How could they not be overwhelmed with grief? After having cried themselves out, they dug a grave and buried Zhang Ahsheng. When they finished, they erected a big rock to mark the place of his grave. By then the sun had already risen.

Quan Jinfa and Han Baoju left to search for visible clues that could lead them to Mei Chaofeng. After the storm, the sand showed no traces of her passing and it was impossible to know where she had gone. They extended their search for several li around the mountain, but came up with nothing.

“In the steppe”, Zhu Cong said, “I imagine that this blind... this woman can’t go very far. The poisoned projectiles should have taken effect by now and she will probably die somewhere. Let’s take the child back home first and take care of our injured. After that, Third and Sixth brother, and Seventh sister can continue the search.”

All agreed and shed some more tears while saying farewell at the grave of their deceased brother. 

Chapter 5 – Crooked Bow Shooting Eagles

A row of people came down the mountain. After walking for a while, they suddenly heard the roars of wild beasts in front of them. Han Baoju leapt on his yellow horse, and went to see what was happening. After galloping for a while, the yellow horse suddenly stopped and no amount of urging would make it move.

Knowing in his heart that there was something strange ahead, he stood in the stirrups and looked into the distance; he could see a group of people with some leopards clawing at the earth. Knowing the yellow horse’s fear of leopards, he jumped off and took hold of his Golden Dragon whip. Moving forward, he saw that the two leopards had uncovered a body. Continuing forward a few more steps, he saw that the body was that of ‘Copper Corpse’ Chen Xuanfeng. The area from his collar bone to his lower abdomen was a blood covered mess, as though the skin had been sliced off.

Surprised, he thought, “He was killed by the boy last night with a dagger thrust through his navel, so why is his corpse here? Since he is already dead, why would anyone do this to his corpse? Who did it and what is the meaning behind it? Do the ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’ have another enemy in the desert with hatred that strong?”

Not long after, Zhu Cong and the others arrived. No one could understand the reason behind the mutilation. They looked at Chen Xuanfeng's corpse, whose face still showed a fierce expression, which caused a quick shiver of fear in everyone. Thinking back to last night's terrifying fight on the barren hills, they knew, that if not for Guo Jing's lucky hit with his dagger, the outcome might have been very different. Just thinking about it brought a chill to their hearts.

By this time, the two leopards were chewing on the corpse. To one side, there was a little boy on a horse loudly urging the leopard handlers to drag the leopards away. Turning his head, he saw Guo Jing, and shouted to him “Ha! So you are hiding here. You didn't have the guts to help Tolui fight, what a useless friend!” It was Senggum's son Dukhsh.

“You all fought Tolui again? Where is he?” worried, Guo Jing asked. “I'm taking the leopards to eat him up. You’d better surrender now, or else I will include you too,” Dukhsh replied smugly. He had seen the ‘Six Freaks of the South’ at one side, if not for them, Dukhsh would have already sent the leopards to attack Guo Jing.

Guo Jing persisted, “Where is Tolui?”

Ignoring him, Dukhsh shouted loudly, “The leopards will eat Tolui now!” as he led the leopard handlers away. One leopard handler advised him, “Little master, that boy is Temujin Khan's son.” Dukhsh immediately hit the leopard handler with a slash of his riding whip, shouting, “What is there to be afraid of? How dare he raise his hand to hit me today? Move aside!” The leopard handler, not daring to disobey his order, followed Dukhsh. The other leopard handler was afraid that this might cause some irreversible problemss; he turned and ran, shouting, “I'm going to inform Temujin Khan.” He was gone before Dukhsh could stop him. Dukhsh said bitterly, "Fine, by the time Uncle Temujin comes, it’ll be too late! Then we’ll see what kind of solution he comes up with.” He whipped his horse, forcing the group to move faster.

Although Guo Jing was terribly afraid of leopards, he was more worried about his sworn brother's safety. He said to Han Xiaoying, “Shifu, Dukhsh is going to get the leopards to eat my sworn brother. I need to inform him so he can escape.”

“If you hurry there, may be the leopards might eat you too? Aren't you afraid?” Han Xiaoying asked. He replied, “I'm afraid.”

“Are you still going?”

After hesitating for a split-second, Guo Jing affirmed, “I'm still going!” before running away rapidly.

Because Zhu Cong's wound was still painful, he was quietly lying forward on his horse's neck. Noting Guo Jing’s chivalrous heart, he mused, “This child may not be very smart, but he is, nevertheless, a person worthy of our generation.”

Han Xiaoying replied, “Fourth brother's perception is right! Let's go save them.”

Quan Jinfa cautioned the rest, “This little lord keeps leopards at home; he must be the son of an important general. We’d better be careful not to create trouble, since three of us are injured.”

Han Baoju used his lightness kung fu to catch, pick up, and place Guo Jing on his shoulders. Although Han Baoju is small with short legs, he can still move very quickly. For Guo Jing, sitting on his fat and sturdy shoulders was like riding on a good war horse, fast and steady. Han Baoju rushed to ‘Wind Chaser’s’ side, and with a great leap, he took Guo Jing with him onto the horse's back. Within moments, they caught up with Dukhsh and the leopard handlers. After a short gallop, they saw ten or more kids surrounding Tolui. It was Dukhsh's gang following his orders. They were not trying to attack him, just trying to keep Tolui from leaving.

Having been taught three skillful moves by Zhu Cong, Tolui had practiced the moves that night until he was familiar with them all. Come morning, he was not able to find Guo Jing or to get his third brother Ogedai to help him. Tolui bravely went to fight Dukhsh by himself. Dukhsh had brought along ten or so reinforcements. Seeing him alone rather surprised him. When Tolui requested that they only fight one on one and not attack him as a group, Dukhsh agreed immediately. He thought that there's no way Tolui could beat him. But once they started fighting, Tolui kept using the three moves that Zhu Cong taught him, and incredibly, he managed to best Dukhsh. Although the three moves that Zhu Cong taught him were simple, they were actually the essence of the ‘Vacant Fist’ technique. Furthermore, since these three moves had no complicated changes, Tolui, being very smart, picked it up immediately. So when he used them, the other Mongolian kids were no match for him. The Mongolians place great importance on keeping promises. Since they had agreed to battle one on one only and even though they were upset, they could not do anything about it. Tolui made Dukhsh fall twice, and even hit him on the nose. Dukhsh was furious, so he ran off to get his father's hunting leopards.

After single handedly winning against so many kids, Tolui was very proud of himself. That was why he stood quietly in the center of the surrounding kids, not even thinking about running away. Unknown to him, big trouble was coming.

From the distance, Tolui heard Guo Jing's faint shouts, “Tolui, Tolui, run away now. Dukhsh is bringing his leopards to eat you up!”

Tolui was shocked and tried to rush out of the circle. But the kids surrounding him kept blocking him; there was no way for him to escape. Soon the Six Freaks of the South, together with Dukhsh, arrived one after the other. Following them, the leopard handlers led the leopards there. Though the Six Freaks of the South could have prevented the oncoming danger by catching Dukhsh, they did not want to create more trouble. They also wanted to see how Tolui and Guo Jing faced the danger, so they did not offer any help.

Suddenly, they heard sound of numerous horses coming like the wind. Someone shouted at the top of their lungs, “Don't let the leopards go, don't let go of the leopards!” Muqali, Boroqul and the rest of the ‘Four Aces’ had arrived. When they heard the leopard handler's report, they didn’t have enough time to inform Temujin, and hurriedly rushed to the scene. Temujin, Ong Khan, Jamuka, Senggum and the others were at the Mongolian camp chatting with Wanyan Honglie and his brother. Hearing the leopard handler's report, they were shocked and ran out of the ger and leapt on their horses.

“Quickly inform them that I order Dukhsh not to do this. It is important that Temujin Khan's son is not injured,” Ong Khan ordered. His men rode their most spirited horses to where the trouble was.

Because Wanyan Hongxi was not able to see the leopards fighting against men yesterday, he was still feeling bored. Hearing this, he felt excitement rise and stood up exclaiming, “Let's all go take a look!” Wanyan Honglie speculated, “If Senggum's leopards really kill Temujin's son, then their families will no longer be friendly. After that happens, they may start fighting. Who knows, maybe both sides will suffer terrible loses and be severely weakened. That will definitely be good fortune for my Jin country!”

The Wanyan brothers, Ong Khan, Senggum, Jamuka and the others arrived at the scene, only to see that the two hunting leopards' chains had already been unfastened. The leopards crouched on the ground with low growling noises coming from their throats. In front of the leopards stood two kids, Tolui and his younger sworn brother Guo Jing. Temujin and his ‘Four Aces’ raised their bows and pointed them at the leopards; they were ready for action. Although Temujin saw his youngest son in a dangerous situation, he also knew that those two hunting leopards were very precious to Senggum. Senggum had caught the leopards when they were young; he reared and trained them until they grew strong and ferocious. Since that could not be achieved easily and took much time, Temujin felt that if the leopards did not attack, he wouldn’t harm them.

Seeing the crowd arriving and relying on his grandfather's and father's adoration for him, Dukhsh felt even more courageous. He kept urging the leopards to attack.

Ong Khan then shouted, “Stop this now!”

The sounds hooves were heard as someone riding a red horse arrived. On the horse was a middle-aged woman, clad in leopard fur, and in her arms, a little girl. It was Temujin's wife, Tolui's mother.

She had been chatting in the camp with Senggum's wife. When she heard the news, she immediately rushed out with her daughter Hua Zheng. Seeing the danger, she was both shocked and worried. She shouted “Quickly, shoot the arrow!” With all her being focused on her son, she absentmindedly placed her daughter on the ground, forgetting about her safety.

As a little girl of four years, how was Hua Zheng supposed to know of the leopard's ferocious nature? She happily bounded over to her brother's side. Spotting the leopards with their pretty colored fur, she was reminded of her second brother Ogedai’s hunting dogs. She stretched her hand out, wanting to pat the leopard's head. The crowd was startled, and yelled at her to stop; but it was already too late. The two leopards, already nervous and agitated, growled at the same time, and leapt forward fiercely. Alarmed, the crowd called out in distress.

Although Temujin had already aimed his arrow, Hua Zheng's sudden appearance was something that no one had expected. In the blink of an eye, the leopards were in the air. Hua Zheng was blocking Temujin's aim at the strategic spot on the leopard's head where they have to be hit to ensure an instant kill. A shot by Temujin now would only injure the leopard, and that would aggravate it further. The ‘Four Aces’ threw down their bows and drew their knives. As they moved forward, they saw Guo Jing roll forward to pick up Hua Zheng; at the same time one leopard's front claws was on Guo Jing's shoulder. The ‘Four Aces’ raised their knives, only to hear several faint sounds. When the noises passed, the two leopards suddenly fell growling and rolling from side to side. After a short time they were motionless.

Boroqul went forward to find out what had happened. He saw blood running from the leopards’ foreheads. It was obvious that a kung fu master had used a hidden weapon to hit the leopards’ brains. He turned around and saw six calm, composed Han people standing to one side watching the on-going scene. He knew that the hidden weapons had been thrown by them. Temujin's wife hurriedly picked up the now bawling Hua Zheng from Guo Jing's arms and pulled Tolui to her bosom as she tried to comfort Hua Zheng.

Senggum asked angrily, “Who killed the leopards?”

The crowd remained silent and no one answered. Ke Zhen’E had heard the leopards’ growls, and fearing that the leopards would harm Guo Jing, had thrown four projectiles with poisonous tips. Since that action only took a wave of the hand, and since everyone had their eyes focused on the leopards, there was no one who actually saw who fired them.

Temujin smiled and said, “Brother Senggum, I'll repay you with four good leopards when we get back, and I'll add eight pairs of black eagles.”

Senggum was seething with anger when he heard that, but he remained silent. By now, Ong Khan was angrily scolding Dukhsh. Humiliated at receiving this treatment in front of the crowd, he tried to deflect the blame from himself. In a fit of temper he lay down on the ground and began rolling and hitting, crying and shouting. Ong Khan loudly commanded him to stop, but he did not care.

Because Temujin was still grateful for what Ong Khan had done for him in the past, he felt that it would be a pity to break up the two families' friendship over such a small matter. He smiled and bent over to pick up Dukhsh. Dukhsh was still crying and yelling and tried his best to struggle, but could not. Still smiling, Temujin tried to salvage the situation, “Step-father, the kids were only playing, there's no need to get worked up. I think he is a good boy and I'm thinking of betrothing my daughter to him. What do you think?”

Ong Khan saw that Hua Zheng had eyes like glistening dew, and skin like a baby lamb, fair and cute, and felt happy in his heart. Laughingly, he said, “What could be wrong with that? Let's have an even closer relationship; I'll betroth my eldest granddaughter to your son Jochi.”

Temujin agreed, “Thanks Step-father!” He turned around and said to Senggum, “Brother Senggum, we are now in-laws!”

Senggum had always felt that he was of a higher status than Temujin. He was already jealous of Temujin, yet looked down on him. Although he was not happy about becoming in-laws with Temujin, he could not go against his father's wishes. He could only smile weakly. At this point, Wanyan Honglie noticed the ‘Six Freaks of the South’, and he was shocked. “What are they doing here? I'm sure they are chasing me. I wonder if the temperamental Taoist priest with the surname Qiu is around here as well?” he asked himself. Since he currently had the protection of numerous soldiers, he was not afraid of them. But if he gave the command to capture them, he was afraid that it might cause trouble. The ‘Six Freaks’ were listening to Temujin’s and the others' conversations and had not even noticed him. He turned and moved behind the crowd of soldiers, while at the same time thinking of ways to handle the matter. As for Ong Khan and Temujin's families' engagement, he did not think much of it.

Temujin knew that it was the ‘Six Freaks of the South’ that saved his daughter's life, and he waited for Ong Khan and the others to leave, before commanding Boroqul to reward them richly with furs and gold. He then reached his hand out to stroke the top of Guo Jing's head and repeatedly praised him for his courage and valor. Temujin said that risking his own life to save another, is something that not all adults will do, much less a small child. When he asked Guo Jing why was he so brave, Guo Jing just stood there dumbly since he could not find an answer. After pondering for some time, he said, “Leopards will eat people.”

Hearing that, Temujin laughed loudly. Tolui then told why he started fighting with Dukhsh. When Temujin heard how Dukhsh kept mentioning embarrassing events from his past, anger boiled deep in his heart. He said nothing about it, only saying, “In the future, don't bother with him.” Temujin then turned to Quan Jinfa and asked, “How much gold do you want to stay in my camp to teach my son kung fu?”

Quan Jinfa thought, “We were thinking of finding a place to teach Guo Jing kung fu. If we can teach him here, there would no better place.” He replied, “The Great Khan's willingness to accept the six of us is something we could not have asked for. You can pay us whatever you decide is suitable, we wouldn’t dare to discuss or argue about the amount.” Temujin was pleased and he told Boroqul to look after them; after that, he left to see off the Wanyan brothers.

The Six Freaks of the South rode slowly behind the others while they discussed the matter.

Han Baoju said, “The skin on the chest of Chen Xuanfeng's corpse was removed by someone; it must have been an enemy of his.”

Quan Jinfa replied, “The ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’ are cruel and ruthless; having many enemies isn't something to be surprised at. But I don't understand why his enemy didn’t simply chop up his body, or slash him all over. Why only slice off a large piece of skin from his chest?”

“I have been thinking of that all this time, but I still cannot figure out the reasoning behind it,” Ke Zhen’E replied. “The most pressing task at hand is to find out where ‘Iron Corpse’ is.

“Precisely! If that person is not killed, she will bring much danger to us in the future. I'm afraid that she will not die from the poison,” Zhu Cong agreed.

With tears in her eyes, Han Xiaoying spoke up, “Fifth brother's dead, how could we not avenge him?”

So Han Baoju, Han Xiaoying and Quan Jinfa, rode their fast horses to try to find ‘Iron Corpse’. But after numerous days of searching, they were not able to find a trace of her. Han Baoju considered, “The woman's eyes were hit by elder brother's poison projectiles. The poison must have worked on her by now; she probably died in some mountain valley." The rest of them agreed. Ke Zhen’E knew in his heart that the ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’ were very smart and devious. Unless he could touch her corpse with his own hands, it would always remain a heavy weight on his heart. He did not want to bother his younger brothers and sister with his worries and did not tell them of his concerns.

From then on, the Six Freaks of the South remained on the steppe, teaching Guo Jing and Tolui kung fu. Temujin knew that kung fu is for protecting oneself in close contact with an opponent. He wanted Tolui and Guo Jing to learn these techniques briefly, and to spend most of their time learning riding, shooting with their bows and arrows, and learning other important skills of the battlefield. The ‘Six Freaks of the South’ were not familiar with these Mongol skills so Guo Jing and Tolui learned these from Jebe and Boroqul.

In the evenings, the ‘Six Freaks of the South’ taught Guo Jing alone, teaching him fists, sword, hidden weapons, and lightness kung fu. Although Guo Jing was slow by nature, he knew that he had to avenge his father in the future using kung fu, so he did not complain and worked as hard as he could.

Zhu Cong, Quan Jinfa and Han Xiaoying's kung fu was a bit too hard for him to comprehend. With Han Baoju and Nan Xiren's basic kung fu, he just followed their directions exactly and slowly but steadily learned it. This basic kung fu strengthened bodies but was not designed to overcome an enemy and win a fight.

Han Baoju often said, “Training you is like training a camel. Strong is strong, but can a camel be victorious over a leopard?”

Whenever he heard that, Guo Jing only showed a silly smile. When the Six Freaks taught Guo Jing, they only supervised his learning, instead of explaining it to him. Of the ten moves they tried to teach him, he couldn't learn a single one; they could not help feeling discouraged. Whenever they talked about it, they would only sigh and shake their heads. Although they knew that their chances of being victorious over Qiu Chuji’s disciple were almost non-existent, an agreement had been made so they couldn't give up. As a business man, Quan Jinfa’s talents lay in the field of intricate calculations. He often said, “For Qiu Chuji to find the Yang family widow, I figure he has about an eighty percent chance of success. That improves our chances by twenty percent. Whether the Yang family widow gave birth to a boy or girl, who knows? The chance that she gave birth to a boy is only half, with that, we potentially gain another forty percent. If it's a son, maybe he won’t survive to adulthood, we then gain another ten percent. Even if he manages to grow up, maybe he'll be as stupid as Jing’er. Therefore, I’d say that we still have an eighty percent chance of winning.” The other five ‘Freaks’ thought that what he said wasn't wrong, however, saying that the Yang family's son’s aptitude for learning martial arts might be the same as Guo Jing’s, they had to know that Quan Jinfa was trying to console them. Luckily, Guo Jing had a good heart and he is exceedingly obedient, so the ‘Six Freaks’ really liked his character a lot.

On the prairies of Outer Mongolia, the coming of green summer grass and the brilliant white of winter snows, ten years quickly went by. Guo Jing had become a sturdy youth of sixteen. There were only two years left until the martial arts competition, so the ‘Six Freaks’ stepped up their supervision. They ordered him to stop practicing riding and shooting temporarily, and from dusk to dawn, concentrate on practicing fists and the sword. During these ten years, Temujin had many battles and had swallowed up numerous other tribes into his own. He commanded his subordinates strictly, and all his soldiers were courageous and excelled in fighting. He was both courageous and resourceful and knew when to attack using force or attack using strategy. In all of Mongolia, no one could be compared to him. As the livestock bred and numbers grew, the population also increased, so that the differences between Temujin and Ong Khan’s tribes became smaller.

The violent winds gradually stopped and the heavy snows began to decrease, but the outer prairies of Mongolia still remained bitterly cold. A certain day arrived; it was the Pure Brightness Festival. (Note: Qing Ming Festival. A day for paying respects to the dead. The Chinese pay their respects at their ancestor’s / family's graves, and may clean up the grave and pull out the weeds etc.) The ‘Six Freaks of the South’ arose early and Guo Jing with them; they took cows and sheep as sacrificial items to Zhang Ahsheng's grave and swept it. Since the Mongolians are nomads, they move around more or less continuously. They have no fixed place to stay. At this point in time, the Mongolian camp was quite far away from Zhang Ahsheng's grave. Even riding fast horses, it took them more than half of a day to get there. The seven of them climbed the barren hill and swept away the piled up snow from the grave. They then lit candles, burned incense, and knelt in front of the grave praying.

Han Xiaoying secretly prayed, “Fifth brother, for the past ten years we’ve given all of our energy and our hearts to teaching this child. His gift for learning isn't good and he can’t learn our martial arts properly. I hope that fifth brother's spirit in the heavens will watch over him now and at the Jiaxing martial arts competition in two years time. Do not let this child spoil the prestige and name of the ‘Seven Freaks of the South’!"

The ‘Six Freaks’ were born and lived their lives in the south, with its warm hills and waters. During the time they stayed in the Mongolian desert with its cold winds, they had become weaker and frailer and their faces looked lean and somber. The hair at their temples had started turning white. Although Han Xiaoying's charisma and attractiveness had not lessened, she was no longer the pink- cheeked young girl of yesteryear.

Zhu Cong surveyed the graveside piles of skulls. After ten years of enduring winds and snow, the skulls had not started to decay. In his heart, there was a feeling that he could not express. Throughout these years, he had searched all over the surrounding country for hundreds of li with Quan Jinfa. They searched in every mountain valley and in every cave, trying to find Mei Chaofeng. Had she died from poisoning, there should be a skeleton left behind. If she did not die, it would be very hard for a blind woman to live in seclusion for a long time and not leave a trail of some kind. Nonetheless, she had vanished into thin air like a spirit. On this lonely hill in the wilderness, in this grave and the piles of white bones, lay the only marks that the ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’ had left behind in the desert. The seven stayed in front of the grave to have a memorial meal and drink; then returned to their dwellings. After a short rest, the ‘Six Freaks’ took Guo Jing to the hillside to practice his martial arts.

One day his fourth master, ‘Wood Chopper of the Southern Mountains’ Nan Xiren and he practiced using the ‘Open Hills Palms’ Technique (Kai Shan Zhang Fa). Nan Xiren intended that he use as much martial arts as he could. They sparred for around seventy or eighty moves continuously before Nan Xiren suddenly pushed his left palm outwards and flipped his body in the move ‘The Hawk Hunting Rabbits’ (Cang Ying Bu Tu), aiming the palm at Guo Jing's back. Guo Jing bent over to avoid his move; then moving his leg in a circular motion with the move ‘Autumn Winds Sweeping the Fallen Leaves’ (Qiu Feng Sao Luo Ye), he swept his leg towards his teacher's lower body. Nan Xiren countered using ‘Iron Bull Tilling the Land’ (Tie Niu Tian Di), attacking with his palms. Guo Jing had just started to withdraw his leg to change his stance, when Nan Xiren suddenly shouted “Remember this move!” His left hand swiftly moved out and tried to hit Guo Jing's chest from the front. Guo Jing's right palm hurriedly moved to block, because this palm is considered rather fast. Then Nan Xiren's left palm flew out, and with a slap, both palms connected. Although Nan Xiren only used about thirty percent of his power, Guo Jing could not help falling over. Both his hands hit the ground, but he immediately jumped up, with a look of shame showing on his face.

Nan Xiren was just about to instruct him about the essence of this move, when suddenly, from a grove of trees, came two bursts of laughter. Then a youthful girl came out, clapping her hands and smiling. She shouted, “Guo Jing, are you beaten by your teacher again?”

Guo Jing's face turned red as he said, “I'm practicing now, don't bother me!” The young girl laughed, “I like seeing you getting beaten up!”

The girl was Temujin's young daughter Hua Zheng. She, Tolui and Guo Jing were around the same age, and they’d played together since they were small. Because her parents doted on her, it is not surprising that she was a bit arrogant and willful. Since birth, Guo Jing's character was straight forward and simple; whenever she threw a tantrum without reason, they always clashed. However, after arguing, they would soon make up. Hua Zheng knew that she was wrong and would sooth his feelings with soft words. Hua Zheng's mother still remembered how Guo Jing risked his life at the leopard's mouth to save her daughter. She was especially fond of him and often gave gifts of clothing and livestock to his mother and him.

Guo Jing said, “I'm practicing with my teacher, go away!” Hua Zheng laughed and said, “This is practicing? I'd call it getting beaten up!”

While they were talking, several Mongolian soldiers arrived. One Ten Soldier Leader got off his horse, and bowed to Hua Zheng, saying, “Hua Zheng, Great Khan is calling for you.” Mongolians are simple by nature, and do not have the courteous customs of the Han people. Although Hua Zheng is the Khan's daughter, everyone still called her by her name. Hua Zheng said, “What for?” The Ten Soldier Leader replied, “Ong Khan's messengers have arrived.”

Hua Zheng wrinkled her brow and said angrily “I'm not going.”

The Ten Soldier Leader continued, “If you don't go, the Khan will be angry.”

When she was very young, Hua Zheng had been betrothed to Ong Khan's grandson Dukhsh by her father. But over the years, she had developed a close relationship with Guo Jing, although it really couldn’t be said that there are feelings between them. Yet, whenever she thought about having to part from Guo Jing to marry that infamously arrogant Dukhsh, she couldn't help but feel sad. She pursed her small mouth and kept silent as she thought. In the end, she did not dare disobey her father's command, and followed the Ten Soldier Leader back to the camp.

Ong Khan and Senggum decided that Senggum’s son has grown up and wanted to pick a date for the marriage. Therefore, they sent people with gifts and Temujin wanted her to meet the messengers.

That night while Guo Jing was sleeping, he suddenly heard the soft sound of someone clapping three times outside the ger. He sat and heard someone speaking the Han language, “Guo Jing, come out.”

Guo Jing was curious but didn’t know the voice. He lifted up a corner of the flap of the door cover and peered outside. In the moonlight he saw a person standing near a large tree.

Guo Jing went out of the ger and moved forward to see that the person was dressed in a large sleeved long robe and hair combed into a bun; this person looked like neither a man nor a woman. The face was hidden by the shadows of the tree and couldn't be seen clearly. The person was actually a Taoist priest, but Guo Jing had never seen a Taoist priest before and asked, “Who are you? Why are you looking for me?”

The person said, “You are Guo Jing?” “Yes,” Guo Jing replied.

The person demanded, “Where's your dagger that can cut iron as though it were mud? Take it out and show me!” He suddenly moved and leapt close by to him; then he sent out a palm aimed right for his chest. Guo Jing knew that the person attacked without reason and his attack was vicious; he was greatly surprised and moved sideways immediately to evade the palm. He shouted, “What was that for?”

The person said with a smile, “Just testing your abilities.” Then with his left arm, he sent out a fist with strength that was fierce and swift.

Guo Jing, feeling anger rising, slanted his body to avoid the move. Then he raised his right hand and fiercely grabbed the enemy's wrist while his left hand moved to take his opponent's elbow. This move was the ‘Strong Soldier Breaks the Wrist’ (Zhuang Shi Duan Wan) from ‘Disconnect the Muscles and Separating the Bones’ technique (Fen Jing Cuo Gu Shou). You need only catch hold of the enemy's wrist, then the elbow, push forward a little, then a twist, and with a "kacha" sound, the right wrist bone will be twisted out of place. The ‘Disconnect the Muscles and Separating the Bones’ technique was passed on to him by his second teacher Zhu Cong. Although Zhu Cong's language and everyday behavior tends to be comical, his mind is actually very sharp. Ke Zhen’E and he had secretly held several discussions about Mei Chaofeng. Although both of her eyes were injured by poisoned projectiles, her martial arts are unusual and strange; perhaps she was able to resist the poison. If she did not die, she will definitely seek revenge. The longer the time before she shows herself, the more thorough her plans will be and the more vicious and evil her methods. In the past ten years, even though no trace of Mei Chaofeng had been discovered, the ‘Six Freaks’ were never complacent; in fact, they were even more cautious then ever. Whenever Zhu Cong looked at the fingernail scars left on the back of his hand, he couldn't help but feel fearful. When he thought about her strong martial arts, he knew it would be very difficult to harm her. To resist the ‘Nine Yin White Bone Claw’, why not use the ‘Disconnect the Muscles and Separating the Bones’ technique? This kung fu set focuses on dislocating or breaking the opponent’s bones, using ultra fast methods, to attack the other party's limbs, skull and neck bones.

In the past, back home in China, Zhu Cong regretted he had never asked for advice from any Masters that were experts in this style of kung fu. None of his brothers and sister knew it either.

After thinking for some time, he remembered that all the martial arts in the world were created by people. Since there is no one here to teach this technique to me, will it be hard for me to create my own version? His nickname, ‘Magical Hands Scholar’ (Miao Shou Shu Sheng), referred to his very fast hands. Furthermore, he was very familiar with attacking accupoints and knows their positions well. Using his unique talents, he re-created the ‘Disconnect the Muscles and Separating the Bones method without too much difficulty. After numerous years of practice, the essence of this technique was deeply ingrained in him. Although his method may differ from Shaolin kung fu, it was still powerful. He analyzed and worked on it with Quan Jinfa, and then passed on his techniques to Guo Jing.

Guo Jing was battling a strong opponent, so when he started attacking, the first move he used was the ‘Disconnect the Muscles and Separating the Bones’ move.

Although not an expert, he practiced this kung fu a lot, and the way he used the moves was close to perfect. That person's wrist and elbow was suddenly held by Guo Jing, and in surprise, he sent out his left palm swiftly, aiming for Guo Jing's face. Guo Jing wanted to twist the enemy's wrist bones out of place, but the enemy's palm suddenly came. With both hands holding onto his enemy, he had no way to defend. All he could do was let go and leap backwards. He felt the force of the palm sweeping past his face with an uncomfortable burning sensation.

When he turned around, he saw his enemy was actually a handsome youth of around seventeen or eighteen years, with a refined face and long lashes. He heard him say in a low voice, “Your kung fu is not bad. You did not waste the Six Freaks of the South's ten years of teaching.”

Guo Jing was only using one palm to protect himself, so he was very cautious and asked, “Who are you? Why are you looking for me?”

The youth shouted, “Let's spar again.” Before he stopped speaking, he’d already raised his palms from his side.

Guo Jing stayed calm and did not move; he waited until he could feel the movement of the air caused by the enemy's palm nearing his chest. He moved his body slightly and his left hand grasped the enemy's arm. He raised his right hand and pinched the enemy's cheek. He had only to hold onto the enemy's face, swiftly pull outwards, and the jaw joint will dislocate.

This move was given a humorous name by Zhu Cong; he called it ‘Jokes will Undo the Jaws’ (Xiao Yu Jie Yi), meaning laughing until the chin drops. This time around, the youth was more alert, and used his right hand to defend while attacking horizontally with his left. Guo Jing still used the ‘Disconnect the Muscles and Separating the Bones’ technique to defend. Within a short time, they had exchanged more than ten moves. The youthful priest’s movements were light and graceful; his palms swift and powerful. Before the palm hits, his body had moved, and it was hard to tell where the palms came from.

This was the very first time that Guo Jing fought an enemy using martial arts, and it was against one with high kung fu skills. After battling for awhile, he felt despair. The youth's left foot flew out, and with a pat, hit Guo Jing's right hip. Luckily, the enemy did not use all his strength and Guo Jing's basic kung fu was very strong. His body only shook a little, and immediately both palms were flying again, protecting all the weak spots on his body, as he tried his best to defend and attack. The youthful priest kept pressing him hard, and Guo Jing knew that he could not cope for much longer. Suddenly he heard a voice from behind him shouting, “Attack his lower body!” It was his third teacher Han Baoju's voice, and he felt joy in his heart. He angled his body to the right then turned around. He saw that all of his six teachers had been standing behind him for a long time. With all of his concentration focused on battling the enemy, he did not notice that they were there.

His spirits rose greatly and he followed his third teacher's advice, fiercely attacking the priest's lower body. The priest's body was lightly built, and his lower body, as his third teacher was pointing out, was definitely not very strong. Since spectators could usually see the flaws from the sidelines, the Six Freaks of the South had seen his from the beginning. After being attacked by Guo Jing for a time, the youth couldn't help but fall back. Guo Jing felt that victory was near. Seeing his enemy stumble, he attacked with a series of ‘Mandarin Duck’ kicks (Yuan Yang), with both feet flying. But his enemy was only trying to trick Guo Jing with this ruse; both Han Baoju and Han Xiaoying called out together, “Watch out!”

Because Guo Jing lacked experience, he didn’t even know what to watch out for, when his right foot kicked out, it was instantly grabbed by the enemy.

The youthful priest took advantage of the way he kicked and sent his palm out to hit him. Guo Jing couldn't resist it, and with a somersault, he fell onto the ground. He landed on his back and it hurt terribly. With the move ‘Carp Flipping Upright’ (Li Yu Da Ting), he immediately sprang up to attack again, but saw his six teachers surrounding the youthful priest. The priest neither resisted nor tried to attack; he raised his hands together in the traditional greeting manner, and said in a clear voice, “Disciple Yin Zhiping is following the instructions of my honored teacher ‘Chang Chun Zi’ [Eternal Spring] Qiu Chuji, who asks if the masters are well.” While saying that, he respectfully kowtowed.

Hearing that this person was sent by Qiu Chuji, the ‘Six Freaks of the South’ were curious but feared that it might be part of some scheme. They did not raise their arms to help him up. Yin Zhiping stood up and took out a letter. With both hands, he presented it to Zhu Cong.

Ke Zhen’E heard patrolling Mongolian soldiers coming nearer so he said, “Let's talk inside.”

Yin Zhiping followed the ‘Six Freaks’ into their ger. Quan Jinfa lit a candle made of sheep's fat. It was the ger that the five male Freaks lived in; Han Xiaoying lived in another ger with other unmarried Mongolian women. Yin Zhiping saw that the furnishings in the ger were simple and rough and thought that the ‘Six Freaks’ everyday life must be quite tough. He bowed again and said, “Every elder here must have suffered greatly from being here for all these years, my teacher is grateful to you beyond words. He specially commanded this disciple to come and thank each of you.”

Ke Zhen’E let out a hmph, thinking, “If that truly is the reason you are here, then why did you fight Jing’er till he fell over? Were you trying to make us feel inferior before the competition?”

Zhu Cong had by now opened the envelope and taken out the letter. In his clear and resonant voice, he read out: “Quanzhen disciple, Qiu Chuji respectfully greets the ‘Six Heroes of the South’. Master Ke, Master Zhu, Master Han, Master Nan, Master Quan and Heroine Han. The years have passed quickly since we parted in the south. The ‘Seven Heroes’ are people of their words and your righteousness and your integrity is awe-inspiring. Your benevolence and chivalry matches the ancients of old.”

After hearing this, the wrinkled face of Ke Zhen'E looked somewhat pleased. Zhu Cong continued: “Hearing that Master Zhang died in Mongolia was very saddening. I am still very shaken by Master Zhang's death. Due to your good fortune and my good luck, I was able to find the son of the late Mr. Yang nine years ago ”

"Ah " the other five Freaks said simultaneously. They knew that Qiu Chuji was very capable and the disciples of the Quanzhen sect

are spread throughout the country. It was to be expected that he would find Yang Tiexin's offspring. He must always have kept in mind the scheduled meeting for the competition in Jiaxing. Finding the mother, whose whereabouts were unknown, was like searching for a needle in a haystack. Whether the child was a girl or boy, was up to the heavens. Had it been a girl, there would be a limit to the power of her martial arts. Hearing that the child had been found, gave them a momentarily shock. The six had never told Guo Jing’s mother or him about this matter. Zhu Cong slid his eyes towards Guo Jing; seeing no change in his expression he read on, “After two years, when the flowers are blooming and the grass is long in Jiangnan, I will meet and drink with all of you masters at the Pavilion of the Drunken Immortal. Life passes like the dew, and these eighteen years are like a dream. Will the brave heroes of the world laugh at my foolishness?” When he read to this point, he stopped.

Han Baoju asked, “What is below?”

“The letter ends there. It is definitely his handwriting,” Zhu Cong replied. That day in the inn, Zhu Cong had stolen a piece of poetry from Qiu Chuji's pocket and recognized his handwriting.

Ke Zhen’E asked in a somber voice, “The Yang family's child is a male? His name is Yang Kang?” Yin Zhiping replied, “Yes.”

Ke Zhen’E continued, “So he is your junior brother?”

“He is my senior brother. Although this disciple is older than him by a year, senior brother Yang started learning from the Quanzhen two years earlier,” Yin Zhiping replied.

The ‘Six Freaks of the South’ had seen his kung fu, and Guo Jing was definitely not his match. If the junior brother is already so good, his senior brother must be even more powerful. At this point, they felt their hearts sinking. It seemed Qiu Chuji knew of their actions in detail; he even knew of Zhang Ahsheng's death. They all felt that they were on the losing end already.

Ke Zhen’E said coldly, "When you sparred with him earlier, was it to test his abilities?"

Yin Zhiping heard the hostile tone in his voice and felt anxious. He hurriedly said, “Disciple would not dare.”

Ke Zhen’E said, “Go back and tell your teacher that, although the ‘Six Freaks of the South’ may not be as good as he, they will definitely not miss the appointment at the Pavilion of the Drunken Immortal. Tell your teacher not to worry. There will be no replying letter!”

After hearing these sentences, Yin Zhiping did not know whether to reply or not, and felt very awkward. He’d followed his teacher's instructions to come up to the north and pass on the letter, and Qiu Chuji had indeed told him to find a way to test Guo Jing's character and kung fu. The elder ‘Chang Chun Zi’ actually cared about his friend's son and his intentions were good. But Yin Zhiping, as a youth, was naturally more adventurous; upon reaching the Mongolian plains, he did not hurry to see the ‘Six Freaks’, but instead sparred with Guo Jing in the middle of the night. Seeing the unfriendly expressions the ‘Six Freaks’ were wearing, he felt afraid and did not dare to delay leaving. He bowed to everyone, saying, “The disciple will go now.”

Ke Zhen’E suddenly said, with a sharp tone in his voice, “You should turn a somersault too!” Swiftly sweeping his left arm out, he caught hold of Yin Zhiping's collar. Yin Zhiping felt fear and used both his hands, trying to push Ke Zhen’E's arms away. He wasn’t aware that if he had not attempted to get away, he would only have been made to fall with a somersault. By resisting, he only made Ke Zhen’E angrier. He bent his left arm, he lifted up Yin Zhiping's body and with a "hey" sound, threw the little priest heavily onto the ger’s floor.

After landing, Yin Zhiping's back hurt badly as though it was cracked; but after awhile, he slowly struggled up and limped away. Han Baoju said, “The little priest has no manners. It's a good thing that big brother taught him a lesson.”

Ke Zhen’E was thinking, and after quite a long while, took a deep breath. The five ‘Freaks’ felt the same way and everyone was depressed.

Nan Xiren suddenly said, “No matter what, we still have to fight, even if it can not be won!”

Han Xiaoying said, “Fourth brother is right. After we seven became sworn siblings, we traveled over the world together. We went through many dangers and the ‘Seven Freaks of the South’ never retreated."

Ke Zhen’E nodded and said to Guo Jing, “Go back to sleep. We will work even harder starting from tomorrow.”

Thereafter, the ‘Six Freaks of the Jiangnan’ were even stricter in their training. However, in studies or martial arts, as in music or mahjong, when someone tries for quick success, he risks getting precisely the opposite result and progress stops. The Six hoped for so much from their disciple that they put immense pressure on him. To make things even more difficult, Guo Jing didn't have a quick intelligent mind; on the contrary, he was slower than most young people his age. The more they wanted from him, the more he panicked and lost concentration. Since the nocturnal visit of Yin Zhiping, he hadn’t made much progress for three months; he even seemed to have regressed somewhat. It was precisely what the popular belief says: ‘The one that hurries too much doesn't arrive safely’, and ‘The one that swallows too much gets a stomach ache’.

The ‘Six Freaks’ were remarkable masters in their respective arts, acquired at the cost of constant effort over a long period. Wasn’t it an illusion to wish for Guo Jing to acquire a mastery of all those arts in just a few years? An extremely gifted person would have a lot of trouble to accomplish such a prodigious feat; how could someone hope for the same thing from a young and not very gifted boy? The Six were conscious of the problem, and considering the character of Guo Jing, he could have practiced the techniques of Han Baoju or Nan Xiren alone and, after twenty or thirty years of fierce effort, maybe have half of their respective skills. If Zhang Ahsheng had not died prematurely, his teaching would have been the most compatible with Guo Jing’s abilities. The Six wanted to beat Qiu Chuji so much that, even knowing it would be better to teach one skill rather than teach all, they could not restrain themselves and tried teaching everything they knew to this dumb disciple. During the last sixteen years, Zhu Cong had not stopped thinking about the fight in the Pavilion of the Drunken Immortal and in the Buddhist Fahua Monastery. He reviewed with precision every movement and every stroke made by Qiu Chuji. Though he had a great memory and replayed them in his mind, he didn't succeed in finding any flaws. Sometimes, he even thought that only ‘Copper Corpse’ and ‘Iron Corpse’ would be able to beat the Taoist.

In the morning, Han Xiaoying taught Guo Jing two movements of the ‘Sword of the Yue Maiden’. To execute the first, ‘The Branch Hits the White Gorilla’, it was necessary to leap, make two turns with the sword before straightening it to attack. Guo Jing had worked hard on the stability of his lower body, but lacked the agility for the jumps. He could hardly make a half a turn in air before landing heavily. After seven or eight attempts, he didn't succeed in making it any better. Han Xiaoying began to get angry and had to force herself to stay calm. She continued her explanations, indicating to him how to land on tiptoe, how to make his jumps, etc. But when he jumped sufficiently high, he forgot to do the turns, and his landings remained clumsy.

Han Xiaoying thought that, after suffering the rigors of the Mongolian steppe for more than ten years, and Fifth brother losing his life here, the end result was so disappointing! She felt a pain in her heart and began sobbing. Throwing her sword to the ground, she left with her hands covering her face.

Guo Jing ran after her, but didn't catch her. He stood there, stupidly immobile, with his heart broken. He knew that he owed everything to his Shifus and had hoped to succeed in the martial arts to prove to them his recognition of their teaching. Though he made every effort, he still couldn't succeed and he didn't know what to do any longer. He was lost in thought when he suddenly heard Hua Zheng’s voice calling him, “Guo Jing, come quickly! Come quickly!”

He turned around and saw her on her horse with an anxious and excited expression. “What’s happened?” Guo Jing asked. “Quickly, come and see,” Hua Zheng answered. “There’s a fight with two big eagles.”

“I’m training now.”

“You trained so badly that your Shifu scolded you, am I right?” Guo Jing nodded his head miserably.

“It is indeed a terrifying fight, come let’s see it...”

Guo Jing was very tempted, but he remembered the disappointment he caused the Seventh Shifu, and shook his head sadly. “I won't go.”

“I came especially to tell you,” an excited Hua Zheng said. “If you don't come, don't expect to find me later!” “Then quickly go alone. If you tell me later how it went, it will be almost the same thing...”

Hua Zheng jumped down from her horse and with a stubborn look on her face she walked up to him. “If you won't go, I won't go either. I wonder if it’s the black eagles that are going to win, or the white ones...”

“Is it the pair of big white eagles, that live on cliff?”

“Yes! Even though the black eagles outnumber them, the white ones are still very dangerous; they’ve already killed three or four blacks with their beaks...”

On the top of the cliff, a couple of white eagles nested. White feathers were very rare amongst eagles, and these eagles were not only completely white but also of exceptional size. The Ancients used to say that they had never seen their equal, and considered those eagles ‘Divine’ birds. Some women even avowed them in a cult.

Listening to her, Guo Jing couldn't hold back any longer. He took Hua Zheng’s hand and the two jumped onto the back of her horse and rushed to the cliff. When they got there, they saw the white eagles fighting against seventeen or eighteen black ones, attacking them with their beaks and their talons, making feathers fly. The white eagles were bigger and stronger. A single stroke of their powerful beak on the head was enough to kill an enemy, who then fell to the ground. The others flew away; but came back soon after to surround the pair again.

The spectacle had attracted many spectators; more than six hundred men and women, from many tribes, were gathered and commenting on the fight. Even Temujin, accompanied by Ogedai and Tolui, had come and watched the fight with interest.

Guo Jing, Tolui and Hua Zheng often played at the bottom of the cliff, and saw the white eagles nearly every day flying to their nest or leaving it when going to hunt. Sometimes, the children threw them some cuts of sheep meat; the eagles then dove and snatched them with precision while in the air. By doing this, they created close ties between them and the eagles. Because the white eagles were fewer in number, the children encouraged them with great vigor. “Go, white eagles! Attack! Watch out, enemy on the left! Quickly! Well done!”

Two more black eagles fell, but the white eagles were also wounded and their white feathers were covered with blood. Suddenly, a particularly big black eagle uttered several screams and flew away, followed by about ten of its companions. They disappeared into the clouds. Four other black eagles remained fighting. Thinking they had seen the victory of the white eagles, the spectators uttered shouts of joy. Shortly after, three other black eagles also flew away to the east, pursued by one of the white eagles. Soon, they were out of sight. The remaining black eagle tried to escape the single white eagle and was about to succumb, when suddenly, strident screeches came from clouds and about ten of the black eagles that had previously flown away appeared out of the clouds and attacked the lone white eagle.

“Excellent strategy!” exclaimed Temujin, admiringly.

The isolated white eagle was not able to, in spite of its bravery, resist the constant assault of its adversaries and fell onto the cliff, overwhelmed by black eagles. The children were very worried, and Hua Zheng exploded in sobs. “Quickly, dad!” she said while crying. “Kill the black eagles!”

But Temujin was thinking about the ruse used by the winners. “The black eagles won,” he said to Ogedai and Tolui, “thanks to a very clever strategy. Don’t forget it!”

His two sons acknowledged this.

After having finished the white eagle, the black eagles flew towards a cavity in the cliff. One could see the heads of two white eaglets that would likely succumb to the attack of the aggressors.

“Guo Jing, can you see?” Hua Zheng cried. “The eagles have eaglets! How come we’ve never noticed them? Ah, father, shoot quickly and kill those black eagles!”

Temujin smiled, aimed his bow and shot an arrow of iron that, like the lightning, slicing through the body of a black eagle. The crowd applauded. The Khan then gave his bow to Ogedai. “It’s your turn!”

Ogedai pulled back the bow and also knocked his target down, as did Tolui. The black eagles started to panic. Other officers and soldiers also started to help the white eaglets, but the remaining black eagles had gained height, and it became very difficult to reach them.

“A reward for those that will make a hit!” shouted Temujin.

Jebe, a skilled archer, wanted Guo Jing, his pupil, to have his moment of glory, and handed him his own war bow. “Knee on the ground,” he recommended in a low voice, “aim for the neck.”

Guo Jing complied, putting his right knee on the ground. His left hand firmly held the powerful bow, and he drew the bow with his right hand. After ten years of training with the ‘Six Freaks of Jiangnan’, even though he had not assimilated their sophisticated martial arts, nevertheless he had acquired strength in his arms and outstanding precision when aiming a bow. Seeing two eagles flying one above the other to the left, he turned, aimed for the neck and released his projectile.

It was precisely, as the popular expression described it: "The bow bent as the full moon, the arrow flashing like a meteor". The first eagle didn't have the time to escape before the arrow pierced its neck, continuing its way and planting itself in the flank of the second bird! Only one arrow for two eagles, which fell like stones! The crowd noisily applauded and the other eagles didn't stay any longer and rushed to disperse themselves.

“Offer the two eagles to my father,” whispered Hua Zheng in the ear of Guo Jing.

He obeyed. He collected the two eagles, ran to Temujin, and kneeling, he offered the two eagles to him respectfully.

Temujin appreciated, above all, skilled fighters. He was delighted to see Guo Jing suddenly bringing two eagles down with a single shot; especially since these eagles from the North were dangerous birds. The span of their wings passed one meter, their feathers were as hard as iron, and they were so strong that they could seize and carry away in the air ponies or large sheep! Even tigers and leopards were afraid of them! To kill two eagles with a single arrow constituted a remarkable exploit. “Brave boy,” Temujin said while accepting the offering. “You manage the bow quite well!”

“It is master Jebe who taught me.”

“The master is Jebe,” said Temujin while laughing, “the disciple is also jebe.” [In Mongolian, jebe means ‘skilled archer’.]

“Father,” Tolui said, wanting to help his sworn brother, “you promised a reward to the one that could bring an eagle down. My anda killed two of them with one shot. What reward will you grant him?”

“Whatever he wants,” answered Temujin still smiling. “Guo Jing, what do you want?” “Is it true?” insisted Tolui, delighted. “What ever he wants?” “Do I have the habit of lying… even to children?”

During all these years, Guo Jing had lived under the Khan's protection. Everyone in the tribe liked him for his simplicity and his kindness, and no one rejected him even though he was Chinese. Seeing the Khan in such a good mood all had turned towards the young man, hoping that he would get a good reward.

“The Khan is so good to me,” said Guo Jing, “and my mother has everything that she needs, you don’t need to trouble yourself giving me a reward...”

“That is a good example of filial piety,” Temujin said. “You always think about your mother first... But for yourself, what do you wish? Speak without fear.”

Guo Jing thought an instant, and then knelt before Temujin. “I don't want anything for me, but I have a wish for someone else.” “What is it?” asked Temujin.

“Dukhsh, the son of Senggum, is cruel and mean. If Hua Zheng marries him, she will be very unhappy. I implore the Khan to not give her in marriage to that dishonorable man.”

Temujin was disconcerted at first, but then exploded in laughter. “These are indeed the wishes of a child! How could this be possible? I am going to give you a very precious object.” From his belt he removed a dagger which he handed to Guo Jing. All the officers displayed their admiration and appreciation noisily; it was Temujin’s favored weapon with which he had killed innumerable enemies. If he had not made a solemn promise, he would never have parted with it. “Take my golden dagger,” Temujin said, “and kill some enemies for me.”

“I will,” Guo Jing answered. Guo Jing thanked him and took the dagger. He had often seen it on the Khan's belt, but it was the first time that he examined it closely. The girdle was of pure gold, and the end of the handle was decorated with the grinning head of a tiger, also in gold.

Hua Zheng, exploding in sobs, bounded onto her horse and left at full speed. Temujin had a hard heart, but he could not stop sighing while thinking of his daughter's pain. He then took the eagles to the camp, followed by his officers and soldiers.

After the crowd dispersed, Guo Jing drew the dagger and felt the coldness of the blade. He had the impression he could see traces of blood on it. It was a short massive weapon, and it impressed him because it had killed many people! He moved it about for a moment and then put it back in its sheath, which he attached to his belt. Then he drew his sword and started practicing the ‘Sword of the Yue Maiden’ again. In spite of all his efforts, he didn't succeed in executing the movements of ‘Branch Hits the White Gorilla’ correctly. He either didn't jump sufficiently high or he didn't have the time to make the turns. The more frustrated he got, the less he controlled his breathing; the result was catastrophic and he was sweating heavily. Suddenly, he heard a galloping horse; it was Hua Zheng coming back.

She stopped not far from him, got off the horse and lay down on the grass with her chin on her hand, to watch Guo Jing train. Seeing that he seemed to be suffering a lot, she shouted to him, “Stop, rest for a while.”

“Don't disturb me,” Guo Jing retorted, “I don't have the time to chat with you.”

Hua Zheng didn't say anything else, but observed him while smiling. Then, she took a handkerchief from her pocket, made two knots in it, and threw it to him. “Wipe off the sweat with it!”

Guo Jing grumbled, but didn't look up to catch it, and continued to train.

After a little while, she asked, “You asked dad to not marry me to Dukhsh. Why?”

“Dukhsh is very mean. He once released leopards so that they could devour your brother Tolui. If you marry him, maybe he will beat you...”

“If he beats me, you will come to defend me!”

“But,” thought Guo Jing, speechless, “how would that be possible?”

“If I don't marry him, who WILL marry me?” Hua Zheng said with a tender look. “I don't know,” Guo Jing said, shaking his head.

“Pah!” Hua Zheng said, while the face that had blushed earlier became suddenly furious. “You never know anything!”

Some moments later, she softened her attitude. Then they heard the eaglets, on the summit of the cliff, calling. Loud screeches sounded in the sky; it was the second white eagle coming back after having been drawn afar by the black eagles. From the heights, it saw its beloved companion dead on the cliff; then it flew like a white cloud in concentric circles.

Guo Jing stopped and raised his head. The white eagle didn't stop whirling, still uttering screeches of pain. “Watch,” Hua Zheng said, “the eagle is unhappy!” “Yes,” Guo Jing agreed, “it must be very sad.”

The eagle uttered a long call and suddenly flew off up towards the highest clouds. “Why does it go up so high?” Hua Zheng wondered.

Suddenly the eagle came down again like an arrow and dove onto the cliff, where it smashed itself. Horrified, Guo Jing and Hua Zheng uttered a scream of surprise, and didn't know what to say.

Suddenly, they heard a loud voice behind them saying, “Admirable…admirable.”

They turned around and saw a white-haired Taoist and with a red-face. His clothing was strange and to his hair were attached three high adornments. He wore the immaculate dress of a Taoist, which was a surprising sight on this windy and dusty plain. Since he had spoken in Chinese, Hua Zheng didn't understand him and lost interest.

“The two eaglets lost their father and mother,” she said, looking up at the top of the cliff, “how will they survive now?”

The extremely steep cliff reached up into the sky, and it looked nearly impossible to climb. Obviously, the two eaglets, which had not yet learned to fly, were going to die of hunger in their nest.

“Unless,” said Guo Jing, “someone has wings and flies there, it is the only way to save them...” He collected his sword and started to practice. In spite of all his efforts, he still didn't manage to execute the movements; just as he began to despair, he heard a voice behind him say coldly, “If you keep doing it that way, you will still be dragging your sword a hundred years from now, and you won't progress as much as a hair!”

Guo Jing turned around; it was the Taoist with the three adornments. “What did you say?” he asked.

The man smiled, didn't answer, and suddenly advanced. Guo Jing felt like his arm was paralyzed and, without knowing how, saw his sword, that he had held firmly, in the hand of the Taoist! Zhu Cong had already taught him the technique ‘To Seize a Blade with the Bare Hand’; even though he hadn't mastered it entirely, he had assimilated the principles of it. However, this time, he didn't have the slightest idea as to how the Taoist did it. Frightened, he moved back three steps. He stood in front of Hua Zheng to protect her and drew Temujin’s knife.

“Watch closely!” the Taoist shouted.

He jumped as if it was nothing special, made six or seven turns with the sword, before softly landing again on his feet. Guo Jing was awestruck.

The man threw the sword on the ground and said while laughing, “The white eagle was quite admirable, it is necessary to save its offspring!”

He sprang toward the cliff and began climbing at full speed using his feet and hands, as agile as a monkey and as light as a bird. The slope rose very steeply and was, in part, as straight as a wall. But the slightest bump was sufficient for him to climb up higher. Even when the rock appeared smooth as a mirror, he climbed like a lizard.

Guo Jing and Hua Zheng were very anxious; if he slipped, the fall would definitely kill him. The silhouette became smaller and smaller and gave the impression he was about to enter the clouds. The girl closed her eyes, afraid of seeing what could happen: “Where is he now?” she asked.

“He’s nearly at the summit,” Guo Jing answered. “There, he made it!”

Opening her eyes, she saw the Taoist fly off as if he was going to fall and let out a scream of fright. In fact, when he reached the summit, the large sleeves of his robe floated in the violent wind that blew there. One had the impression, seen from below, that he was a huge bird.

The man slipped his hand into the nest, caught the two eaglets and put them against his chest. Then, back to the slope he went, where he let himself slip, grabbing a hand on a bump here or giving a kick from time to time, to slow his fall, and reached the ground very quickly.

Guo Jing and Hua Zheng ran towards him. He took the eaglets and said to the girl, in Mongolian, “Will you take good care of them?” “Yes, yes, yes,” she answered quickly. Hua Zheng, surprised and delighted, stretched out her hands.

“Be careful of their beaks,” warned the Taoist, “they are small, but their bite is dangerous...”

Hua Zheng undid her belt and attached it to the legs of the fledglings. Then she held them against herself, delighted, “I am going to look for meat to feed them.”

“Wait,” the Taoist said. “If you want the eaglets, you must promise me one thing.” “What?”

“You must not tell anyone that I climbed the cliff to catch the birds.” “Okay,” Hua Zheng said joyfully. “That’s easy. I won't tell anyone.”

“While they are growing,” warned the Taoist while smiling, “these two white eagles will become aggressive. Be very careful while feeding them!”

Happy, she told Guo Jing, “Each of us will have one, and it will be me who keeps them in the meantime, okay?” Guo Jing nodded his head. Hua Zheng got on her horse and happily rode off.

The young man stayed immobile, as if hypnotized, reviewing in his head the ease of the movements of the Taoist executing ‘The Branch Hits the White Gorilla’. The man grabbed the sword and kindly offered it to him and turned on his heels. Seeing that he was leaving, Guo Jing said, in panic:

“You... please... Don't leave...” “Why not?” asked the Taoist.

Guo Jing scratched his head, not knowing what to say. Suddenly, he kowtowed, knocking the ground with his forehead, without stopping.

“Why do you prostrate yourself before me?” the Taoist asked.

There was a deep ache in Guo Jing’s heart. Seeing the kind face of the Taoist, he felt as if he had met a relative with whom he was able to confide. Suddenly, two big tears rolled down his cheeks and he said while choking back sobs. “Me... Me... I am very dumb, I can't manage to learn martial arts, and I am a disappointment to my six Shifus, to whom I owe everything...”

“What are you going to do?” the Taoist asked.

“I give all of myself, day and night, and still I don't manage to do it properly... I really can’t manage to learn it...” “Do you want me to show you a way?” he asked.

“Yes, please!” replied Guo Jing, kowtowing again.

The Taoist smiled, “It seems to me that you are full of sincerity. Very well, let's meet each other again in three days; we will meet on the fifteenth day of the month. When the moon is full, I will wait for you at the summit of the cliff. But you must not tell anyone!” Then he left.

“But I won't be able to climb up there,” Guo Jing protested in a rush.

The Taoist didn't answer and it appeared, as he departed, that his feet didn't touch the ground at all, and he was already far away.

"He made that promise on purpose to embarrass me; he doesn't want to teach me.” Then he said himself, "I am not yet without a Shifu and my six Shifus have caused themselves much pain trying to teach me; it’s me that is stupid, what choices do I have ? This Senior is probably very strong, but I won't be able to learn any of what he knows from him anyway; why should I even try?” He contemplated the top of the cliff, and then he tried to not think more about it. He took his sword, and repeated the moves again and again of ‘The Branch Hits the White Gorilla’, until sunset, when hunger urged him to go back home.

Three days passed in the blink of an eye. That afternoon, Han Baoju taught him the ‘Whip of the Golden Dragon’. This kind of flexible weapon required particularly close attention; if one didn't master all the refinements of it, not only would you not reach the enemy, but you risked getting injured by it yourself. Guo Jing, of course, made a false move, and "slash", the whip turned against him, striking him on the head causing a big bump. Han Baoju, who had a legendary harsh character, immediately gave him a slap. Guo Jing didn't dare to shy away and continued to practice. Seeing him putting in a lot of effort, Han Baoju regretted having lost his temper. Even though his pupil made mistakes several more times, the master didn't scold him again. He showed him five more movements, encouraged him, and recommended that he train by himself. Then he left on his horse.

To practice the ‘Whip of the Golden Dragon’ wasn’t an easy task. After having executed the set of the sequences about ten times, Guo Jing’s forehead, arms, and thighs were covered with blue welts. Tired and aching all over, he fell asleep on the grass. When he woke up, the moon had appeared from behind the mountains. He felt burning pains on his whole body and notably on the cheek, where Han Baoju had slapped him.

Contemplating the top of the cliff, he had suddenly a burst of self-esteem, “If the Taoist can climb up there, why not me?” he thought. Clenching his teeth, he ran to the cliff and began to climb it, clinging onto the plants that grew there, slowly going up. At the end of six or seven zhangs, [1 zhang = 3.3 meters / approx. 11ft] the cliff became completely smooth without any vegetation or bumps to grasp. How could he advance further in these conditions? He gritted his teeth, tried two times, but his foot always slipped, and he almost fell. Understanding that any new attempt would be in vain, he wanted to go back down again. When he glanced behind him, he was terrified! He had forced himself to follow this path of ascent, and now found his feet were unable to use the same support points on the way down. If he jumped, he would certainly smash himself below! Caught in a desperate situation, the words of his Fourth Shifu came to mind, “In this world, there’s nothing impossible to the men of good will.” Since death stared at him from all sides, rather than remain in an untenable position, it was better to continue. He drew his dagger and dug two small holes, in which he slowly placed one foot and steadied himself, and then the other. He rose thus a few more inches. Then he continued to dig in the wall, making more hand and footholds, rising laboriously a few zhangs. Because of the difficulty of the task, his head started to spin and his limbs burned with exhaustion.

He stopped to clear his mind, holding closely to the wall, controlling his breathing. Then he wondered how many holes it would take before arriving at the summit. As strong as his dagger was, it would probably be able to dig ten more holes, and then it would break. Since he had made it this far, he could no longer go back. After a brief rest, he got ready to dig again; then he heard a burst of laughter coming from the summit of the cliff.

Not daring to lean backward to look, he remained, nose against the smooth wall of the cliff, wondering who this laugh came from. Then he saw a thick rope slip down and stop next to him. He heard the voice of the Taoist saying, “Tie the rope around your waist, I will pull you up.”

Delighted, Guo Jing sheathed his dagger. Holding tightly with his left hand, he took the rope with his right hand and wrapped it around his waist two times and made two knots.

“Did you tie it firmly?” the Taoist shouted. “It’s done,” Guo Jing said.

The Taoist seemed to not have heard. “Did you tie it?” He asked again. “It’s done,” Guo Jing repeated, with out any response.

Some instants later, the Taoist laughed again and said. “Ah, I forgot…your breathing is not yet sufficiently powerful, your voice cannot carry as far as mine. If you tied it well, pull three times on the rope!”

Guo Jing obeyed and pulled three times. Suddenly, the rope grew taught; his body flew up toward the summit of the cliff. He knew that the Taoist was going to pull it, but not with such speed. In the blink of an eye, he landed again on his feet, right in front of the old man.

He knelt and got ready to kowtow, but the Taoist held his arm. “Three days ago, you kowtowed more than a hundred times, it is more than enough! You are a child with good character!”

On the summit of the cliff was flat ground covered with snow. The Taoist showed him two big round rocks that looked vaguely like stools, “Sit there.”

“I will remain standing to serve you, Shifu,” Guo Jing said.

“You don't belong to my school,” the Taoist said, still smiling. “I am not your Master, and you are not my disciple. You may sit.” Guo Jing, perplexed, obeyed and sat down.

“Your six Shifus,” the old man continued, “are well known in the martial arts realm. I don't know them personally, but I’ve always felt a lot of admiration for them. It would be more than enough for you to acquire the techniques of one of them to make yourself a name in the Jianghu. It is not due to a lack of effort on your part, yet, during the past ten years, you haven't progressed that much. Do you know why?”

“It is because I am too dumb. My Shifus have tried very hard to teach me the best they could, but it didn’t help.”

“It’s not really because of you,” the Taoist said. “It’s, as the popular saying goes, ‘If those that teach don't know how to teach, then those that try to learn won’t learn anything’!"

“Shif... uh, I don't understand what you’re saying.”

“If we look only to the core martial arts, the level to which you’ve arrived is not negligible. At the time of your first real fight since the beginning of your training, when you were beaten by the Taoist youth, you questioned yourself and thought it was impossible for you to beat him. On this point, however, you are completely mistaken!”

“How does he know of this matter?” Guo Jing wondered.

“This Taoist youth made you do a somersault, but he did it with a trick. Comparing basic techniques, it’s not at all certain that he surpasses you. Besides, your six Shifus are probably as strong as I am, that’s why I cannot teach you martial arts.”

“He’s right,” Guo Jing thought. “My six Shifus are very strong, it’s me that’s too dumb.”

“Your seven Shifus made a bet,” continued the Taoist. “If I teach you some martial arts, your masters will be sad when they learn of it. They are brave, and place a lot of importance on loyalty and honor. They would refuse to accept any sort of unfair advantage in a bet.”

“What bet?” Guo Jing wondered. “So you don’t know about it then? Well, if your masters didn't tell you anything about it yet, it’s because you don't have to know about it at the present time. During the next two years, they will certainly explain it to you in detail. Let's look at it this way: you are full of sincerity, and it seems that our meeting was written in destiny. I am going to teach you some methods of breathing, of sitting down, of walking and sleeping.”

The astonishment Guo Jing felt knew no boundaries. “To ‘breathe, to sit down, to walk, to sleep’,” he thought to himself, “I know how to do that already, why would I have to learn it again?” He thought of a lot of questions, but didn't say anything.

“Clear the snow from this big rock,” the Taoist ordered, “you will be able to sleep there.”

Guo Jing thought it strange, but obeyed. He swept off the layer of snow and lay down on the rock.

“Not like that,” the Taoist said. “If it was just sleeping like that, I wouldn’t need to teach it to you. Here are four formulae, remember them well: ‘When the thought fades, the feelings will be forgotten’; ‘When the body empties, the breath will circulate’; ‘When the heart dies, the mind will live’; ‘When the sun rises, the darkness will vanish’."

Guo Jing repeated the formulae several times to learn them by heart, but he didn't understand the meaning of them.

“Before sleeping,” the Taoist continued, “it’s necessary to clear the mind, letting no thoughts or preoccupations remain there. Then, it is necessary to compose the body, while lying on your side, and to breathe in a continuous way through the nose, so that the soul doesn't wander inside and the mind doesn't go outside.”

And so he taught Guo Jing breathing and the mastery of the breath, the technique of meditating and of eliminating worries.

Guo Jing did what the Taoist explained to him. In the beginning, his thoughts stayed chaotic and difficult to control. But after applying the breathing method, exhaling and inhaling deeply, after a certain time, he slowly felt his heart calm down, and a slow breath brought slowly into his ‘dan tian’ (the area between the groin and the navel) brought a warm feeling. An icy wind blew on the summit of the cliff, but he didn't feel any need to resist it. He remained immobile, stretched out on his side, for close to an hour, before feeling some “ants” in his limbs. The Taoist, who was sitting cross legged in front of him, practicing meditation, opened his eyes, “Now,” said the Taoist, “you can fall asleep.”

Guo Jing obeyed and fell asleep. When he woke up, the rays of the sun had begun to radiate from the east. The Taoist let him down the cliff attached to the rope, telling him to come back this evening. He reminded him not to speak of it with anyone.

Guo Jing returned that evening and the Taoist brought him up with the same rope. During his practice with the six Shifus, he often did not go back home at night, but his mother didn't worry about him.

And so he went in the evening and left at dawn, practicing meditation and the mastery of breathing all night on the summit of the cliff. It was strange; the Taoist hadn't taught him any movements at all, not even the smallest sequence, and yet, in his daily practices, he became lighter and faster. Six months later, the movements that he hadn't managed to do before, now were executed perfectly. The sequences that he had never completed some months ago were executed with speed and precision. The ‘Six Freaks of Jiangnan’ believed that, with age and the regular practice, he was finally open to learning martial arts. They no longer felt the frustration they had at the beginning of his training.

Every evening, when he arrived at the cliff, the Taoist climbed with him, showing him how to use his breathing and his strength. They went up together until he was incapable of continuing, then the Taoist rushed to the summit and raised him with the rope. With the passing of the months, the young man climbed more and more quickly, and higher and higher. The steps once so difficult were cleared with only one jump! Only some particularly difficult places still required the help of the rope.

Another year passed, and only a few months remained before the competition. The ‘Six Freaks of the Jiangnan’ spoke of this event as though it was going to change the world of martial arts and attract the attention of all the brave heroes in the country. Observing Guo Jing’s lightning progress, the Six felt sure to win, and the idea of returning to their home in Jiangnan filled them with joy. However, they still hadn’t explained to Guo Jing the reasons for this competition.

One morning, Nan Xiren said to Guo Jing, “Jing’er, in these last few months, you’ve mastered the weapons. It may be that you still lack enough practice fighting with bare hands. Today, we are going to work the palms more.

Guo Jing nodded his head.

They arrived at the place where they usually trained. Nan Xiren got ready to begin the lesson when they suddenly saw clouds of dust rising not far away, accompanied by screams and neighs. A herd of horses approached at a fast gallop and the beasts were agitated; the Mongol who herded them had problems retaining control of them with his whip.

Just when they’d barely settled down, one could suddenly see, coming from the west, a small red horse, with the hair the color of fire. It was speeding along in the herd, harassing it with hoofs and bites, before disappearing northward at the speed of the wind. Then, the red tornado came back in the blink of an eye, provoking a considerable tumult in the herd again. Furious, the herders tried to capture this spoilsport, but the horse was so fast that it was impossible to catch it. In an instant, the horse had moved off and stood several zhangs away, neighing proudly, as if he was very happy with the shambles he’d caused. The Mongols didn't know whether to laugh or be angry. When the small horse charged in for the third time, several guards sent arrows in its direction, but he was so astute and fast that he departed before the projectiles reached it. An expert in martial arts couldn’t have done it any better! The ‘Six Freaks’, along with Guo Jing, were fascinated. Even Han Baoju, who loved horses above all else, had never seen such a magnificent and fast animal. His own horse, ‘Wind Chaser’, had rare speed, unequaled even in Mongolia. However, the small red horse surpassed them all. Han asked the herders where this marvel came from.

“This wild horse,” answered a herder, “comes from some mountains. We first saw it a few days ago, and found it so beautiful that we wanted to capture it, but did not succeed. Our attempt put it in a mean mood and, for these past few days, it keeps coming to bother us.”

“It is not a horse,” said a very serious old horse herder. “What is it then?” Han Baoju wondered.

“It is a transformed celestial dragon, we shouldn’t bother him!”

“A dragon transformed into a horse!” another horse herder mocked. “What nonsense!”

“What do you know of it? I’ve kept horses for several years, but I never saw an animal as fabulous as this one, ever!” He had not finished speaking when the small red horse sped again into the herd.

The equestrian arts of Han Baoju, nicknamed the ‘Horse God’, were remarkable. Even the Mongols, who constantly lived in the saddle, recognized his superiority. Seeing that the small horse had come back, and knowing well which way he was going to leave, he stood in a strategic position and awaited the passage of the animal. When it approached, he suddenly jumped, a very calculated jump, so that he should have managed to straddle the beast. He had tamed so many stubborn horses in his life that he had the conviction that once on its back, he wouldn’t fall. However, in a split second, the small red horse accelerated, making Han Baoju miss his mark. Furious, he ran after him, but how could he have caught up with such a fast animal?

Suddenly, someone jumped and seized the mane of the horse with his left hand. Surprised, the horse galloped even faster. Still clutching the horse’s mane, the man let himself be pulled along with his body off the ground. The spectators noisily applauded.

Astonished and delighted, the ‘Six Freaks’ saw that it was Guo Jing that was being cheered! “But where,” Zhu Cong asked, “did he learn a lightness technique that sophisticated?”

“Our Jing’er has made immense progresses lately,” Han Xiaoying said. “Could it be his dead father that guides him from the heavens? Or would it be Fifth brother?...”

How could they have known that, for the past two training years, the Taoist of the three adornments had taught him every evening, on the cliff summit, the art and mastery of breathing? Even though he didn’t teach him any fighting skills, he had initiated him into the superior art of neigong.

[Neigong could be regarded as a form of internal martial arts involving controlled breathing, meditation and the awareness of what’s happening inside ones own body and to some extent controlling it. It can be used as an aid in the recovery of ones health from illness or injury and improves the skills of external types of martial arts.]

Every evening, when he climbed and descended the cliff, Guo Jing practiced, without the knowledge of his teachers, a very subtle lightness technique called the ‘Flight of the Golden Eagle’. Having a naturally simple and confident mind, he was completely unconscious of what he had learned from the Taoist. His progress in the mastery of his internal energy and in this technique of the ‘Flight of the Golden Eagle’ only appeared when he practiced lightness techniques with Zhu Cong, Quan Jinfa or Han Xiaoying. He didn't realize it, and the ‘Six Freaks’ were pleasantly surprised at his improved performance, without suspecting the truth.

Observing the neigong of their disciple and his suppleness that didn’t corresponded at all to what they had taught him, they looked on in astonishment, suspecting that the young man had another master.

Guo Jing suddenly executed a somersault in the air and dropped astride the horse. The horse reared, kicked with its hind legs and bounded to all sides as if possessed! But the boy clamped down with his thighs and didn't allow himself to be tossed off.

Han Baoju shouted some instructions to him and told him some tricks to master the horse, which ran with renewed vigor for more than an hour, apparently untiring.

His audience was in awe: the old horse herder knelt and whispered some prayers, imploring the sky not to punish the man for having offended the ‘Dragon Horse’, before shouting to Guo Jing to let him go. But he didn't hear a thing, and stayed glued to the horse as if he was attached by a rope, reacting to all of its movements smoothly.

“Come down off that horse,” Han Xiaoying shouted. “Let your Third Shifu replace you...”

“Absolutely not!” protested Han Baoju. “Changing the trainer now would risk all of the work he has done up to now!”

He knew very well that such a stallion had to have a strong character. If someone managed to tame it, it would respect its master and would stay forever faithful to him. But if more than one tried to overcome it, it would rather die than submit!

Guo Jing also had an obstinate character. When he began to get tired, he slipped his arms around the neck of the horse and began to tighten them, making use of his internal energy. The animal bounded, jumped, and shook itself in all directions, without getting rid of this pressure that was suffocating it. It then knew that it had met its master, and stopped. “Bravo!” exclaimed Han Baoju, delighted. “That’s it! You have succeeded!” Fearing that the horse would run away again, Guo Jing didn't dare dismount. “You can come down,” Han Baoju reassured him. “Now it will follow you all of your life. Even if you wanted to get rid of it you wouldn’t be able too...”

The young man jumped to the ground. The horse licked his hand, showing affection that made everyone there laugh. A guard approached it a little too closely and the animal gave him a kick that made him somersault. Guo Jing led it to the water, to wash it and calm it down.

Since this session of horse breaking had tired him a lot, the Six released him from practice for now; but doubts still troubled them.

After the lunch, Guo Jing came into the ger of his masters. “Jing’er,” Quan Jinfa said, “I would like to see your practice of the ‘Crunching Mountains’ palm strokes.”

“Here, in the ger?”

“Yes. One can meet enemies in any place; it’s necessary to train to fight even in closed spaces.” He feinted with the left, and delivered a stroke with his right fist.

Guo Jing, respecting the rule of courtesy due to elders, defended three movements before responding. Quan Jinfa then attacked with violence. Suddenly his fists hit the young man’s chest, with a movement named ‘Penetrating Deeply in the Lair of the Tiger’. It was no longer a practice stroke, but a deadly, violent and heavy one, used to kill! Panicked, Guo Jing wanted to move back, but he already had his back against the wall of the ger. Trying to protect himself when confronted with danger is a natural reaction especially since he had a rather slow mind. Without even thinking about it, he turned his left arm, and blocked the attack of Quan by repulsing his arms. The fists had already touched his chest, when Quan realized with surprise, that it was as soft as cotton, without any resistance. Then he was repulsed with strength, and his arms were afflicted by a jolting pain; he moved back three steps before recovering his balance.

Guo Jing was speechless and knelt before saying, “I probably did something that I shouldn’t have,” he exclaimed, “I accept the punishment of the Sixth Shifu!” Afraid and surprised, he wondered what crime he could have committed that was worthy of his master's anger, to the point of wanting to kill him!

Ke Zhen’E and the others got up, all with stern expressions. “You train with someone besides us,” Zhu Cong said. “Why did you hide it from us? If Sixth Shifu hadn’t tested you like that, you would have continued to lie to us, am I wrong?”

“There is only master Jebe,” Guo Jing said, “who teaches me the bow and the spear!” “Do you dare lie to us again?” an angry Zhu Cong said, with a severe look.

“I would not dare to lie to my Shifus ever!” Guo Jing said with his eyes full of tears.

“Then where did you learn this mastery of neigong?” Zhu Cong insisted. “Now that you have the support of a powerful master, you no longer have any respect for us!”

“Neigong?” Guo Jing wondered. “But I don't have a neigong!”

“Pfui!” Zhu Cong spat, still doubtful. He moved his index finger toward a location situated two inches below the sternum, named ‘Tail of Turtledove’. A stroke to this essential point on the body induces immediate unconsciousness. Guo Jing didn't dare to avoid or to defend against it and remained immobile. However, he had practiced for almost two years with the Taoist of the three adornments and, even though he didn't know it himself, his body was filled with internal energy. On contact with Zhu Cong’s finger, his flesh naturally retracted and then expanded itself, repulsing the finger. The stroke still hit the point effectively, but caused only a certain amount of pain, without succeeding in affecting that point on the meridian. Zhu Cong had not used all of his strength, but Guo Jing’s internal energy had succeeded in neutralizing him. When he realized it he was astonished and angry. “And that’s not neigong?” he shouted.

“Could the Taoist master have taught me neigong?” wondered Guo Jing finally understanding. He said, “During these past two years, someone came, every evening, to teach me how to breathe, to sit and meditate and to sleep. I found it funny, but I followed his instructions. But he didn't teach me any techniques, but he did tell me to not talk of it with anyone. Since I thought that there wasn’t anything wrong with it and that it didn't affect my practicing, I didn't speak of it to any of you. I recognize my mistake; I won't go to him anymore.” He kowtowed.

The Six looked at each other and thought, “The young man seems sincere, and he doesn’t seem to be lying.” “Don't you know what the neigong is?” Han Xiaoying asked.

“I really don't know what the neigong is!” Guo Jing said. “He told me to sit and meditate and to breathe slowly, without thinking about anything while concentrating only on the way the breath circulates inside the body. In the beginning I couldn't manage to do it, but lately I’ve had the impression that, inside me, there was something like a hot small mouse running through all of my body; it was very funny.”

The Six were surprised and delighted at the same time, to see that this simple-minded kid had succeeded in reaching such a level. This was not very easy, especially for him.

In fact, Guo Jing did have a simple mind. Compared to so-called intelligent people, he didn't have a head cluttered full of difficult and meandering thoughts to bother him. His type of mind encouraged progress in the acquirement of neigong. Thus, in barely two years, he had succeeded in reaching this level. “Who taught it to you?” Zhu Cong asked.

“He doesn't want me to say his name,” answered Guo Jing. “He said that the kung fu of my Shifus is not lower than his, and that’s why he cannot teach me martial arts and cannot be my Shifu. He made me swear to not ever describe his appearance to anyone.”

The Six Freaks were more and more astonished. In the beginning, they thought to themselves that Guo Jing had by luck met an expert, and were delighted for him. But this individual appeared so mysterious that they were now suspicious. With a gesture, Zhu Cong asked Guo Jing to leave.

“I won't dare go and amuse myself with him anymore,” the young man said.

“You can go,” reassured Zhu Cong. “We are not angry with you, but you don’t need to tell him that we know.”

Guo Jing acquiesced and, seeing that his masters weren’t annoyed anymore, happily left. Outside of the ger, he saw Hua Zheng with the two white eagles, which had grown a lot. Standing next to her, they were nearly as tall as her.

“Come quickly,” Hua Zheng said, “I’ve been waiting for you a long time.”

One of the eagles fluttered over and came to perch on Guo Jing’s shoulder. “A while ago,” he said, “I tamed a small red horse that runs with incredible speed! I don't know if it will let you mount it...

“If it doesn't let me,” said Hua Zheng, “I’ll slaughter it!” “No you won’t!”

The two young people, hand in hand, ran on the plain to have fun with their horses and eagles.

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