The Legend of the Condor Heroes Chapter 11-15

Chapter 11 – Changchun Admits Defeat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hou Tonghai replied angrily: “I will not!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

o0o

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a deal.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wouldn’t like her as my wife.”

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

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

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

“I won’t marry Miss Mu either.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

This response left Han Xiaoying speechless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jing ge ge, let’s go!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come in, I’ll teach you,” she urged.

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

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

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

“No need!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 12 –The Proud Dragon Shows Remorse

Huang Rong was on the point of cutting up the chicken when they heard a voice behind them: “A third portion please; I will take the back-end portion!”

The two youngsters jumped; how had somebody been able to approach them without them realizing it? They turned and beheld a beggar, older but forceful. The man had a rectangular face, a goatee and vigorous but rather massive limbs. His clothes, frayed everywhere, were, however, very clean. He held with one hand a green stick, made from translucent bamboo like jade, and carried on his back a large red gourd. He looked so eager and impatient that one had the impression that if his portion was not offered, he was going to seize some by force! Before the two young people had time to answer, without much ado, he was already sitting down in front of them. He took his gourd, opened it, and a heady alcoholic perfume spread itself in the air. He thirstily swallowed several mouthfuls before capping it again. To Guo Jing he said, “A drink for you, little urchin!”

Guo Jing found the man rather impolite, but sensed distinctly that he was no ordinary individual, so he did not dare to show disrespect. “No, thank you," he said courteously, “I do not wish a drink at the moment, but you having one won’t bother me.”

“And you, little girl,” the beggar asked Huang Rong, “Do you drink?”

Huang Rong shook her head. Suddenly, she saw that the hand which held the gourd had only four fingers; the index had been severed at the first knuckle. She started and thought of the conversation between the Taoists and the Freaks, which she had overheard outside the window of the inn the other day, concerning the ‘Divine Nine-Fingered Beggar’. “Could this be a stroke of luck,” she wondered, “that we meet by chance, that Elder? Let’s try to probe him a little...” The eyes of the beggar were fixed on the chicken held in her hand and he salivated in anticipation. She could not stop secretly laughing. She then cut out the bird into two and the end portion was handed to him. Captivated, the beggar seized it and took a full bite. While devouring it, he did not cease praising, “Delicious! Delicious! Even I, who am the leader of all the beggars, could not improvise such a delicious ‘Beggar's Chicken’!” Huang Rong smiled and offered the other piece to him. “But no,” protested the beggar, “neither of you have eaten yet!” This attempt at manners was in vain and purely a formality, since it did not prevent him from seizing what was offered to him. In a flash, there remained nothing but bones!

He tapped his belly then and exclaimed, “Ah, my belly, my belly! Hasn't it been a long time that you have been starved of such good chicken?”

Huang Rong burst out laughing, “By the greatest good chance, I prepared ‘Beggar's Chicken’ and here it has entered the majestic belly of the leader of the beggars! It's a true honor!"

The beggar burst out laughing, “Little girl, you are quite brave!” He withdrew from his pocket several gilded projectiles. “Yesterday,” he explained, “I saw several individuals brawling about something unknown to me The missiles which one of them launched shone like gold. I was the one who benefited from it and I took some of them. In fact, the inside is cheap metal, but outside, to look good, it is genuine gold. Little urchin, take them and have fun. When necessary, you can get some money for them.”

Guo Jing shook his head, “We regard you as a friend, and when one invites a friend to eat, one does not accept payment!” By saying this he honored the Mongol’s rules of hospitality.

The beggar, feeling thwarted, scratched his head. “Then, I am also embarrassed! I have no trouble begging for scraps from people, but today, you provided me such good chicken! Such a benefit, that I cannot return it, that...”

“Why speak about benefit and repayment, for such a small chicken?” Guo Jing said. “To be honest, we stole this chicken...” “We took this chicken in passing,” confirmed Huang Rong, “and you ate it as you passed here, very well done...”

The beggar burst of laughing. “You two,” he said, “funny enough, I like you well. Good, if you have any wishes, just ask.” Guo Jing, understanding that he proposed to help them, which again infringed the rules of hospitality, shook his head again.

But Huang Rong intervened. “In fact, this ‘Beggar's Chicken’ is really not a great thing; I have other small dishes that I would readily make for you to taste. Why won't you come with us?”

“Splendid!” exclaimed the beggar, enchanted. “Splendid!” “What is your honorable name?” asked Guo Jing.

“My surname is Hong, and as I am the seventh in my family. You kids can call me Qigong.”

“It is indeed him,” Huang Rong thought, “The ‘Divine Nine-Fingered Beggar! But he seems to be younger than the Taoist Master Qiu, so how could he be a contemporary of a master of the Quanzhen Seven? Hmm...Actually, my dad isn't old, yet he is a peer of Qigong! That must be explained by the incompetence of those seven old Taoists, who wasted their time!” She’d always held some resentment against Qiu Chuji for his wanting to force Guo Jing to marry Mu Nianci.

They headed south and arrived in a small town, where they took a room in an inn. “I'll go to the market,” Huang Rong said. “It's better for you men to rest a little.”

“She...isn't she your little wife?” Qigong asked Guo Jing with a smile while watching her leave. The young man reddened, not daring to agree nor to disagree. Qigong burst out laughing, and then began to drowse in a chair. More than one and a half hours later, Huang Rong finally returned and settled in the kitchen. Guo Jing wanted to help her but the girl laughingly closed the door. Another half an hour passed.

Qigong yawned, stretched, and inhaled deeply. “That smells very good,” he said. “But what could that be? It's odd...” He stretched his neck, trying to look through the door of the kitchen. Looking at him, both impatient and longing, Guo Jing could not stop himself from secretly laughing. Delicate aromas emerged from the kitchen, but Huang Rong remained invisible.

Qigong could not hold still any longer; he scratched his head, rubbed his cheeks, rose, and sat down, again and again as if he were on burning coals. “I am like that,” he confided to Guo Jing, “I have this unpleasant vice of gluttony; when I think of eating, I forget everything else!” He opened his right hand and showed its four fingers. The man said, “The ancients said: ‘index finger moves’.* That’s completely true! Each time I see or smell a dish that is original or exquisite, the index finger of my right hand cannot prevent itself from quivering. Once, because of it, I messed up an extremely important matter. Then, I got so angry with myself that, with a stroke of a knife, I sliced off my index finger!” [*The Chinese word for the index finger, ‘shi zhi’, literally translates as ‘food finger’.] Guo Jing started as Qigong sighed, “But I cut off my finger in vain, because my gluttony remained.”

At this moment Huang Rong entered, smiling, carrying a large wooden tray which she placed on the table. On the tray, were three bowls of white rice, a wine cup and two large bowls containing the main dishes. Guo Jing smelled a delicious, extremely appetizing aroma. In one of the large bowls were laid out roasted beef sticks which, apart from their scent, did not seem exceptional. The other contained a clear soup the colour of jade, in which floated many red cherries and ten pink petals. At the bottom lay young fresh bamboo shoots. The association of the three colors - red, white and green, formed a multi-coloured whole that was extremely pleasant to the eye. The sense of smell was also engaged because the soup emitted the delicate scent of lotus. Huang Rong poured wine in a cup which she placed in front of Qigong while smiling. “Qigong, taste my dishes and tell me what you think of them!”

Hong didn't need to be told twice! Without even drinking the wine, he brandished his chopsticks and seized two meat sticks that he consumed voraciously. An exquisite taste filled his mouth; this was not mere beef! As he chewed, different flavor sensations struck him; sometimes oily and juicy, sometimes a succulent freshness. Flavors succeeded themselves in complex and unpredictable variations, like the blows of a martial arts expert. Startled and delighted, Qigong examined the sticks more closely and saw that each of them was formed by four small intertwined sticks. He shut his eyes to savor the taste better. “Hmm,” he said, “there is mutton thigh on one stick, another of pig ears in milk, a third one of calf kidney, and the last one...the last one...”

“If you guess,” Huang Rong said with a grin, “you're really fantastic...”

She had barely finished her sentence before Qigong cried, “Deer thigh mixed with rabbit!” “Bravo!” applauded the girl. “Well guessed!”

Guo Jing was completely stunned. “These meat sticks needed so much work!” he said to himself. “Qigong is truly astonishing to have been able to distinguish the five different meats!”

“There are only five meat types,” Qigong went on, “but the blend of pork and mutton gives a certain taste, the deer with beef another... how many variations there are, that, I can’t say?”

“If one does not count the order of the variations,” Huang Rong said with a smile, “there are twenty-five, corresponding to the five times five petals of the plum flower. Just as the meat stick resembles a flute, this dish has a name …it is called ‘Plum Flowers Fall to the Jade Flute's Song’ The ‘variations’ mentioned in your question means that there is a placement sort to the test. Qigong, you passed the test, you are the master of all gourmets!”

“Bravo!” the beggar said to himself. No one knew whether he applauded the name of the dish or his own skillfulness in discerning the tastes. Then he placed two cherries in a spoon and said, laughing, “This bowl of lotus-leaf soup, with those bamboo shoots and cherries, is so pretty to look at, one almost regrets to have to eat it!” He swallowed and cried, “Ah!” Then he said to himself, astonished, “Eh?”. He took two more and exclaimed again, “Ah! The freshness of the lotus leaf, the taste of the bamboo sprouts, the sweetness of the cherries, all that leaps to the taste buds; but what's more, the cherries, after having been pitted, have been filled something...”

“In the cherries,” Qigong said while hesitating, “what's there?” He closed his eyes again, trying to recognize the taste. “This is lark's meat!” he mumbled to himself. “No...if this is not partridge, then it’s turtledove! Yes, that's it, it’s turtledove!”

He opened his eyes, saw that Huang Rong raised her thumb and couldn’t help feeling very pleased with himself. “So what's the complex name of this soup with lotus leaves, bamboo sprouts, cherries and turtledove?” he asked.

“Elder Hong,” Huang Rong said, “you haven't mentioned one more ingredient.”

“Ah yes?” Hong said, astonished. He regarded the soup again. “Yes,” he agreed, “there are these flower petals...” “Exactly!” confirmed Huang Rong. “Can you figure out the name of this soup from these five ingredients?”

“If this is a riddle, I declare I've lost. Tell me quickly...”

“I'll give you a clue,” Huang Rong said, “You just need to think about the ‘Book of the Odes’!”

Note: The Book of Odes is also known as the Book of Songs (Shi Jing in Chinese), one of the Five Classics. The Four Books and Five Classics were the standard texts that all scholars studied back in the day. The other four Classics are the Book of Changes (Yi Jing) - this one features a lot in the wuxia genre, Book of History (Shu Jing), Book of Rites (Li Ji) and the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chun Qiu). The Four Books are the Great Learning (Da Xue), the Doctrine of Mean (Zhong Yong), the Analects of Confucius (Lun Yu) and Minces (Meng Zi).

“Ah no!” Qigong protested, “I know nothing in the books!”

“The flower hints at a beauty's complexion,” explained Huang Rong, “the cherries to her small mouth, isn't that right?” “Ah, this is therefore the ‘Beauty's Soup’?”

“No,” Huang Rong said, shaking her head, “The bamboo is a symbol of modesty so it characterizes a gentleman, just as the lotus is the most eminent of the flowers. Thus, bamboo and lotus relate to a gentleman.”

“Oh,” Qigong said, “this is therefore the ‘Gentleman and Beauty's Soup’?"

“What about the turtledove?” Huang Rong said. “Indeed, all these elements meet again in the first poem in the ‘Book of the Odes’ that finishes thus, ‘The gentleman is in good company’. Thus, this soup is called the ‘Soup of Good Company’!”

Qigong burst out laughing. “Since there is such a complex and strange soup, it's good that it has such a complex and strange name. Very well! Very well! You're a complex and strange little one yourself and I would like to know which complex and strange father sired you...In any case, this soup is truly exquisite and much better tasting than the soup with cherries that I ate, approximately ten years ago, in the kitchen of the Imperial Palace.”

“You have a pass to the imperial kitchen?” asked Huang Rong. “Tell me of a dish and I'll try to prepare something that will please you just as well." Qigong devoured the soup and didn't have time to reply. He stopped when he had reached the bottom of the bowls. “In the Imperial Kitchen,” he explained, “there are lots of good things of course, but nothing compares to the two dishes here... Ah, if there was it would be the ‘Five-flavored slices of Mandarin Duck’. That was delicious, but I don't know how it was prepared.”

“And it was the Emperor that invited you?” asked Guo Jing.

“Absolutely,” Qigong said while laughing, “the Emperor treated me, but he didn't know it! I lived hidden on a big beam of the Imperial Kitchen for three months and tasted each of the dishes intended for the Emperor. If I found it to my taste, I kept it for myself; otherwise, I left it to him! The cooks believed that there were ghosts about!”

“This person really is excessively gluttonous,” thought Guo Jing and Huang Rong to themselves, “but he is also insanely audacious!”

“Young lad,” Qigong said, laughing, “your little girlfriend is the best cook in the world; your happiness is assured! Goodness! Why didn't I meet such a woman when I was young?” He seemed sincerely sorry. Huang Rong, with a hint of a smile, prepared the remainder for Guo Jing and herself. One bowl of rice was more than enough for her, while the young man put away four big bowls. As for the exquisite arrangement, it did not seem to make a difference to him.

Qigong shook his head while sighing. “Like a bull chewing on peonies! What a shame! What a shame!” Huang Rong put a hand in front of her mouth to stop herself from laughing.

“Bulls... do they like peonies?” Guo Jing asked himself. “There are many bulls in Mongolia but no peonies; indeed I have never seen bulls eating peonies. But why does he keep saying ‘What a shame’?”

Qigong patted his stomach and said, “Good. You are both practitioners of martial arts; I saw that right away. The little one that went to so much trouble to prepare such exquisite dishes for me certainly has a devious motive, such as, persuading me to give you some instruction. Is that not correct? Good, I recognize that after having eaten so well, it would be inconsiderate of me to leave without giving something in return. Come, come with me!” He took up his gourd and bamboo cane, and went out.

Guo Jing and Huang Rong followed until they were outside of town. “What do you want to learn?” Qigong demanded of Guo Jing.

“Martial arts are so varied,” said the young man to himself, “if I want to learn something, how is he so sure that he'll be able to teach it to me?”

While he reflected, Huang Rong had begun to speak’ “Qigong, his kung fu is inferior to mine so he gets angry often because he's always trying to best me.”

“When did I get angry?” Guo Jing protested. Huang Rong glanced at him, telling him to be quiet.

“For my part,” Hong Qigong said while laughing, “I have the impression that all his movements are firm and assured; that means that he has a good basis of neigong. How would he be inferior to you? Why don't you two match skills a little?"

Huang Rong moved aside some steps and called, “Jing’Ge ge, come on!" Guo Jing hesitated.

“If you don't show what you're capable of,” Huang Rong said, “how do you expect this Elder to correct you? Get ready!” She jumped at him and attacked with a palm stroke; Guo Jing blocked the blow, but she already had changed tactics, and attacked with a kick.

“Well done, little one!” Qigong said. “Pretty move!” “Fight seriously,” Huang Rong advised in a low voice.

Guo Jing concentrated and executed conscientiously the powerful ‘Southern Mountain Palm’ taught by Nan Xiren. Huang Rong defended herself nimbly, jumping upwards and back. Then suddenly, she modified her technique and executed the ‘Peach Blossom Island Divine Sword Palm’ technique, created by her father. This palm technique resembled its name, ‘Divine Sword’, for it was adapted from a sword technique. She moved her arms in all directions; her opponent was encircled by the palm shadows, unable to determine if they were feigned or real. It was as though the wind had arisen in the woods dropping a thousand flowers. The beauty of the gestures resided in their lightness and their aerial grace; so well that Huang Rong resembled a butterfly taking flight. Since her neigong lacked power, her blows were not as violent and as terrifying as they should have been. It mattered little, for Guo Jing, stunned by the multiplicity of the shadows in front of his eyes, had lost all means to resist. In some seconds, he received four palm blows, on the shoulders, on the chest and on the back. He was not injured, since Huang Rong had not struck with force. She stepped back with a smile.

“Well done, Rong’er!” Guo Jing exclaimed with genuine admiration. “What a beautiful palm demonstration!”

“Your father is so powerful,” Hong said in an icy voice. “Why do you want me to give lessons to this simple-minded one?”

Huang Rong was startled. “According to Father,” she said to herself, “since he created this ‘‘Peach Blossom Island Divine Sword Palm’, he has not ever used it himself; how did this Elder recognized it?” “Qigong,” she demanded, “you know my father?”

“Indeed, he is the ‘Eastern Heretic’ and I, the ‘Northern Beggar’; don't you think that we had occasion to match skills?”

“He matched blows with Father,” Huang Rong said to herself, “and managed to survive; that's really astonishing. Now I understand how the ‘Northern Beggar’ can be ranked alongside the ‘Eastern Heretic’!” “And how did you recognize me?” she demanded again.

“Just look at yourself in a mirror!” Hong replied. “Your nose and your eyes, are they not as those of your father? At first, I did not think about that; I only felt that your face appeared familiar to me, but your demonstration revealed everything! Do you believe that this old beggar does not recognize the kung fu of Peach Blossom Island? Even if I never had seen this palm, I would not doubt that a crafty fellow such as your dad would have been able to invent it. Heh…heh...and the names of your two dishes, what were they? ‘Plum Flowers Fall at the Jade Flute's Song’, and the ‘Soup of Good Company’; it was doubtless your dad that invented them.”

“You really can read minds,” Huang Rong said, laughing. “Then, according to you, my dad is very strong, isn't that right?” “Of course he is powerful,” Qigong said coldly, “but he is not the most powerful in the entire world!”

“Then, surely you're the most powerful in this world?” Huang Rong exclaimed while applauding.

“Not necessarily,” Qigong said. “Twenty years ago, all five of us, ‘Eastern Heretic’, ‘Western Venom’, ‘Southern Emperor’, ‘Northern Beggar’ and ‘Central Divinity’, met at the summit of Huashan (Mount Hua), to match ourselves. The confrontation lasted seven days and seven nights. Finally, ‘Central Divinity’ revealed himself to be the most powerful, and we all gladly recognized it.”

“Who then is this ‘Central Divinity’?” asked Huang Rong. “Your father never told you?”

“No. Father said that, in the martial arts world, there are more bad things than good and that there was no point for girls from good families to hear bout it. He scolded me very fiercely; he didn't love me anymore so I ran away. He doesn't want anything to do with me...” With a sad face, she lowered her head.

“That old monster!” Qigong swore. “What ...!”

“I won't allow you to insult my father!” Huang Rong exclaimed.

“What a pity that I was always too poor!” Qigong exclaimed, laughing. “No one ever wanted to marry me! Otherwise, I would have had a kind girl like you, and never would I have left you...”

“Indeed!” Huang Rong said, laughing. “If I leave, what will you do for food?”

“Fair enough!” Qigong agreed with a sigh. “Well, to answer your question, the ‘Central Divinity’ is Wang Chongyang, founder of the Quanzhen Sect. But, since his death, it's difficult to say who's the world's most powerful.”

“The Quanzhen Sect?” Huang Rong said. “There is a fellow called Qiu, another called Wang, and yet another named Ma. They are all cow-nosed Taoist priests. I found their kung fu rather pathetic! When they fought, they were either poisoned or injured in two or three stances.”

“Ah yes? They were doubtless disciples of Wang Chongyang. It seems that, among his seven disciples, Qiu Chuji is the most powerful... But, it is certain that they are not even close to their martial uncle, Zhou Botong.” Upon hearing this name, Huang Rong was startled; she was about to say something, then stopped herself.

Guo Jing, who had been content to listen to their conversation, interrupted, “It's true, Master Ma said that they had a martial uncle, but he did not mention the name of this Taoist master.”

“Zhou Botong is not a Taoist,” Hong Qigong replied. “He is a secular person, who was personally taught by his martial brother, Wang Chongyang... Eh, I say, my simple-minded one, you seem rather clumsy to me! Does your father-in-law, so fine and so crafty, really appreciate you?” Guo Jing, who didn’t think he had a ‘father-in-law’, spluttered, not knowing how to reply.

“My father has yet to see him,” Huang Rong said, smiling. “If you would be kind enough to give him some pointers, then, thanks to you, my dad will have some appreciation for him!”

“Little rogue,” Qigong grumbled, “who has learned not even a tenth of her father's kung fu, but who has inherited all his trickery and cleverness! I don't like your flattery or your toadying! And also, I never take disciples! Who wants a stupid one like that? You planned to get me to teach your dumb little husband! Huh, this old beggar will not fall into such a trap!”

Huang Rong bowed her head, red faced. She never had applied herself to learn martial arts. Her father himself was so powerful, yet she had not learned seriously from him; why would she want to learn from Qigong? But Guo Jing’s kung fu was not up to the mark and his six Shifus considered her to be a ‘little witch’, so she rejoiced at having met a master such as Qigong. She hoped that he would pass on a little of his knowledge to her loved one so that, in front of his masters and in front of Qiu Chuji's Taoists, Guo Jing would not have to be afraid, like a mouse in front of the cats. Qigong was very gluttonous and always grinning but he was not stupid; he had seen through her act all along!

The old beggar, muttering to himself, left without a backward glance. The two young people stood silently for a long moment.

“Rong’er,” Guo Jing finally said, “this Elder has a rather unique character!” Huang Rong heard a light rustle in the foliage above their heads and realized that Qigong had made a loop before returning, discreetly, to the top of the tree. “He's a really kind person,” she then said. “And his kung fu is much stronger than my father's.” “He hasn't shown his skills,” Guo Jing wondered aloud, “how do you know that?”

“My dad told me so.” “What exactly did he say?”

“He said that, in today's world, there was only one person who could beat him, and that was the Divine Nine-Fingered Beggar, Hong Qigong. Unfortunately, since this Elder is always wandering, he has seldom had the occasion to see him and exchange pointers.”

In fact, after he had moved away, Qigong had used his incomparable qinggong and had returned to the top of the tree, high above the heads of the young people. He wanted to hear their conversation and to assure himself that they had not been sent by Huang Yaoshi to steal his skills. The words of Huang Rong filled him with pride. “So,” he said to himself, “Huang Yaoshi never wanted to accept my superiority; but deep within himself, he admires me nonetheless!” How could he have guessed that it was all pure and simple invention by the girl?

“I didn't learn great things from my father,” Huang Rong went on, “but that's my fault. I enjoyed having fun too much and never wanted to apply myself! Having had the good fortune to meet Elder Hong and had he wanted to give me some lessons, it would have been much better than learning from my father! What a shame I offended him without intending to!” Then she started to sob. At first she pretended and Guo Jing tenderly tried to console her. Then she thought about the death of her mother, the intransigence of her father and started to truly weep. Qigong, atop his tree, was nearly convinced.

“I heard father say,” Huang Rong continued while sobbing, “that Elder Hong had an exceptional skill of incomparable power that even Wang Chongyang feared. It's called... It's called... What is it called? I can't remember... Anyway, I had it on the tip of my tongue all this time and I wanted to beg him to teach it...to you- it's called...it's called...” Indeed, she did not know of any such skill and talked in a rambling way.

Hearing her hesitate, seemingly searching for the name without finding it, Qigong could not hold back and cried as he jumped to the foot of the tree, “It is called the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’!” Guo Jing and Huang Rong bounded up in surprise, one's surprise was real, the other's was feigned...

“Ah, Elder Hong,” Huang Rong cried, “how did you get up in the tree? By flying? Yes, that's it, the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’! Exactly! How could I have forgotten it? Father often told me that the kung fu that he admired most in the world was the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’!”

Qigong was delighted. “Then your dad knows what the truth is! I believed that, after the death of Wang Chongyang, he considered himself to be the most powerful in the world!” He turned towards Guo Jing. “Indeed, your kung fu isn't inferior to that of your little friend. The problem is that your palm technique is not at all up to the mark. Little girl, you return to the inn!”

Huang Rong realized that he was going to give a lesson to Guo Jing and she went away, well satisfied. Qigong addressed Guo Jing solemnly, “You will kneel down and promise me that, without my permission, you will not transmit my kung fu to anyone else, not even to your crafty little woman!”

Guo Jing was greatly embarrassed. “If Rong’er insists that I teach her,” he said to himself, “how can I refuse?” “Sir,” he said, “I do not want to learn from you. What does it matter if she is more skilled than me?”

“And why not?” Hong asked.

“If she wants me to teach her, I cannot refuse without offending her and I cannot accept without offending you...”

“Simple-minded though you are,” Hong Qigong said, laughing, “you have a good heart and you speak directly. That is good. Very well, I will teach you a stroke called ‘The Proud Dragon Shows Remorse’. I would imagine that Huang Yaoshi has enough pride that he won't, although he would desire to, copy my superior skills. In any case, our schools are completely different; I cannot learn his kung fu and he cannot learn mine...” At that, he bent his left knee, pivoted and straightened his arm, made a circle with the upright hand and pushed outwards with the other. His palm touched a great pine and ‘craack’, its trunk snapped! Guo Jing stood petrified, shocked by the power contained in this blow.

“This tree could not move,” Qigong said, “if it were human, it would obviously try to avoid the blow. The difficulty of this technique is to strike precisely so that your opponent cannot, no matter what, avoid it and so well that once you land your blow, ‘craack’, the enemy will collapse like this pine!” He repeated the demonstration twice, explaining in detail how to concentrate and project the internal energy. It was only one stroke, but the lesson took more than an hour.

Guo Jing was not clever but he had a good basis in neigong. To learn a move such as this, made with simple movements but having unequaled power, suited him perfectly. He trained conscientiously and, at the end of two hours, had grasped the majority of this technique...

“In that little imp's technique,” Hong said, “there are many more feints than real attacks. If you try to follow her, she will run around you as if you were a donkey and you will always fall. You will never be as quick as her. You will think that, after all these feints, the next blow will be real, but no, it will be a feint! And the blow following you will believe to be a feint, but she will strike a real blow and you will be in trouble!” Guo Jing nodded his head in agreement. “Therefore, to fight her, the clever way is to completely put the thought of whether it is a feint or not out of your mind. When she attacks you with a palm blow, whether it is a feint or not, return it with a blow of ‘The Proud Dragon Regrets’. Against the power of your attack, she will be forced to withdraw and defend herself; so much so that all her tricks fall into water!”

“And after that?” Guo Jing asked.

“What do you mean, ‘and after that’?” Hong replied, his face suddenly darkening. “You great idiot, do you think she is able to withstand this blow that I taught you?”

“But if she can't withstand it,” Guo Jing said, very worried, “won't she be injured?”

Qigong shook his head and sighed. “If, in such a blow one seeks only to send out the force and not to keep it, if one cannot somehow control its lightness or its power, firmness or softness, how can one consider himself a master of these unique 'Eighteen Dragon- Subduing Palms'?”

Guo Jing was eager to agree, but he had made a mental decision. “Since I haven't learned to control my force perfectly, I won't fight with Rong’er!”

“You don't believe me?” Hong Qigong said. “In that case, try it!” Guo Jing took up the position, imitating his senior's posture, picked a pine with a particularly slender trunk and struck it with a violent blow. The pine shook but was not at all broken.

“You big fool,” Qigong said, “Why are you shaking this tree; to catch squirrels or to drop pinecones?” Guo Jing, red with shame, laughed with an air of denial, not knowing how to reply.

“I already demonstrated it for you.” Hong Qigong said. “It is necessary to put the opponent in a position such that it cannot back up or get away. Your blow just now had enough force, but all the pine needed to do is shake itself a little for it to escape the full force. It is necessary that you learn to approach and strike in such a way that the tree cannot budge, in order to be able to break it in one go.”

This was, for Guo Jing, enlightening. “Then,” he cried joyously, “It’s necessary for the force to be particularly swift, delivered in such a way that the opponent has no time to defend himself!”

Qigong shot him a bleak look. “Absolutely! That goes without saying! You’ve sweated blood for such a long time and you only now understand this truth? One really can say that you aren't clever! For this stroke, known as ‘The Proud Dragon Shows Remorse’- it's essence is not found in the word ‘Proud’ but rather in the word ‘Remorse’. If one concentrated only on pure violence, brute power, a little force in the muscles would suffice. If that were true, how could this technique be admired by Huang Yaoshi? As the old saying goes: ‘The Proud Dragon itself regrets, the surplus will not last a long time’. This is the reason that if there is transmission, there must be retention. When you send out a force of ten, it is necessary to preserve within yourself a force of twenty. The day when you know to appreciate the full meaning of the concept ‘Remorse’, then you will be able to say that you have understood thirty percent of this stroke. Just as a fine old wine that has had time to age at first tastes not very strong, but afterwards it releases its full heady flavor, that explains the concept ‘Regrets’.”

Guo Jing didn't understand anything about these matters, but he tried to memorize them in order to reflect upon them later. To learn martial arts, he always had adopted the same method: ‘To that which others may assimilate in a morning, I will devote ten days!’ Then he concentrated on the study of the palm technique. At first, the pine absorbed each of the blows that it received. Towards the end, these blows became more and more powerful, but the tree shook less and less. He realized that he had progressed and rejoiced somewhat. His palm had become red and swollen, but he did not treat it and continued to train with determination, never relaxing.

Hong Qigong, who had initially laughed at his persistence, had stretched himself on the ground and snored contentedly. Little by little, Guo Jing felt more comfortable as he attained a mastery of his energy…to carry the blow and to keep it. He brought his breath into his dan tian, advanced his palm violently, and withdrew his force immediately; so well that the tree did not move at all. Delighted, the young man repeated it in the same way while concentrating his force on the edge of his palm. He heard a ‘craack’, and the small pine broke apart.

“Bravo!” Huang Rong, who had seen the scene from a distance, cried. She approached slowly, carrying a heavy shopping basket.

Before even opening his eyes, Hong Qigong had smelled the delicious aroma of the food that she brought. “That smells good! That smells very good!” he shouted, jumping to his feet. He seized the basket from the girl's hands and opened the lid. He beheld a dish of roasted frogs thighs, a very fat duck suited to the ‘Eight Treasures’, and a big bowl of white and immaculate money noodles. With joyful sounds, he pounced on the food, continuously praising as he devoured it. But, since his mouth was full, one couldn't understand anything he said. In an instant, the bowls containing the frog thighs and the duck were emptied. Realizing that Guo Jing again had not eaten, the old beggar felt a little ashamed of his gluttony. “Go on, eat up,” he said, “these noodles aren't bad...” And as he felt really bothered, he added, “They are even better than the duck!”

Huang Rong laughed and said, “Elder Hong, you haven't yet tasted my best dishes!” Surprised and delighted, the old beggar eagerly asked, “What dishes? What dishes?”

“You can't name them all,” Huang Rong replied. “For example, stir-fried Chinese cabbage, steamed tofu, stewed eggs, sliced meat...”

As a well-informed gourmet, Qigong knew well that it was in the simplest dishes that the true masters really showed their talents. The same applied to martial arts…wondrous execution of the simplest techniques…that was the hallmark of the great masters! These words of Huang Rong’s delighted him so much that his expression was almost imploring. “Good, good!” he said. “I always said that you were a brave little girl. Do you want me to buy you cabbage and tofu? Please?”

“It's not worth your while,” Huang Rong said, laughing. “What you buy may not necessarily suit me.” “Fair enough,” Qigong said. “No other but you can choose your ingredients.”

“Just now,” Huang Rong said, “I saw him break the trunk of a pine; he's already more powerful than me!”

“Not at all,” Hong Qigong protested, shaking his head. “He isn't up to standard at all! It's necessary that the point where the trunk breaks be perfectly neat. Look, it's all twisted like a saw's teeth…what pathetic kung fu! Besides, this pine is as slender as a stick, no, as slender as a toothpick! This kid isn't up to the mark at all!”

“But if he attacks me with this palm,” objected Huang Rong, “I will not be able to defend myself. This is all your fault! If he bullies me later, how will I resist?”

Qigong, who wanted to get back into her good books and did not want to keep annoying her, clearly saw that she was being devious. “So what, according to you, must I do?”

“Teach me a skill with which I can beat him. After that, I'll cook for you.”

“Very well, we're agreed,” Qigong said. “He only learned a single blow; it's easy to beat him. I will teach you a fist technique called ‘Wandering Strides’.” No sooner had he finished speaking, he rose to his feet to demonstrate. He jumped to the right and to the left, with grace and nimbleness, while his big sleeves flew...

Huang Rong, quick to learn, silently memorized every movement. When the old man had finished the complete chain, she had already half-learned it. After he had given all the supplementary instructions, it didn't take more than two hours for the girl to execute perfectly the thirty-six movements of the ‘Wandering Strides’. In the end, she executed the skill at the same time as Qigong. They moved together and leaped in concert, the one to right, the other to the left, twirling like a jade swallow and gliding like a great eagle in the skies. At the end of the thirty-six movements, they landed on their feet at the same time. While looking at each other they burst into laughter and Guo Jing applauded vigorously.

“This little one is a hundred more intelligent times than you,” Hong Qigong said to Guo Jing.

“So many movements and variations,” marveled the latter while scratching his head, “how did she learn so quickly? And how does she manage not to forget? Me, when I learn the second movement, I've already forgotten the first one!”

Qigong burst out laughing, “Indeed you absolutely cannot learn this ‘Wandering Strides’! Even if you memorized the steps, you are incapable, in practice, of producing the spirit of striding! Executed by you so painstakingly and clumsily, this fist technique would become a real chore!”

“You've got a point!” Guo Jing laughingly conceded.

“The ‘Wandering Strides’,” Hong said, “is a kung fu that I practiced in my youth. I taught it to the little girl because it compliments her style of kung fu. It actually doesn’t match my current kung fu style.. Thus, I haven't used it myself once during the past ten years.” What he implied was that the ‘Wandering Strides’ was a lot less powerful than the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’.

Huang Rong was delighted. “Elder Hong, if I beat him again he'll surely be unhappy; please teach him some other blows.” She herself had no real intention to learn and it was only a pretext to push the old beggar to give more lessons to her love. If she really had wanted to learn martial arts, she had at her disposal a great master in the person of her father, all of whose skills she never could have learned.

“This dumb kid,” Hong said, “He hasn't even fully digested the single blow that I taught him. He’s bitten off more than he can chew! As long as you prepare me lots of dishes and I will grant all your wishes!”

“Very well then,” Huang Rong said, smiling. “Ill leave for the market.” Hong Qigong laughed heartily and returned to the inn leaving Guo Jing alone in the pine forest where he resumed training with determination, late into the night.

That night, Huang Rong indeed prepared a cabbage dish and a plateful of tofu for Qigong. She had carefully selected the most tender cabbage heart, then she stir-fried with chicken oil and duck leg filaments. But the plateful of tofu was really extraordinary - she had cut a ham in two and then dug twenty-four small spherical cavities in which she placed balls of tofu, before closing the ham and beginning to steam it. At the end of cooking, the flavor of the ham had passed into the tofu, while the ham itself was left out. After tasting this dish, Hong was naturally overwhelmed. This steamed tofu had a name inspired by Tang poetry and was called ‘Full Moon Night on the Twenty-four Bridges’. [Note: This refers to poetry composed during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). The most famous poets of the era were Li Bai (sometimes known as Li Po) and Du Fu.] If the girl had not had at her disposal the family technique called ‘The Orchid Skims the Point’, her ten nimble and delicate fingers would not have been able to cut twenty-four small balls in the fragile mass of the tofu. To do it demanded as much delicacy as engraving characters on a grain of rice or sculpting a boat in a nutshell. It would have been easy to cut pieces of tofu in cubes, but where has one seen square full moons?

After dinner, each retired to bed. Hong Qigong was astonished to see Guo Jing and Huang Rong going to separate rooms. “Huh? Aren't you husband and wife? Why don't you sleep in the same room?”

Huang Rong, who had joked with him without reserve, felt embarrassed. Her cheeks blushing and looking upset she said, “Elder, if you continue to talk nonsense, I won't cook for you tomorrow!”

“What's this?” Hong was astonished. “When did I talk nonsense?” After a moment’s reflection, he realized, “I'm old and senile, indeed,” he said, laughing. “You're clearly dressed like a girl and not a wife. You are therefore promised to each other secretly, without the consent of parents or a matchmaker or a wedding ceremony. Don't worry; I will be your go-between. If your father does not accept, I'll challenge him to a duel and we'll fight, my goodness, for seven days and seven nights if we have to, until he yields!”

Huang Rong was worried about this matter and she feared that her father would not like Guo Jing. The words of the old beggar filled her with joy and she returned to her room, her face radiant.

The next day, Guo Jing went back to the pine forest at dawn. He practiced about twenty rounds with much sweat and rejoiced at the progress he accomplished. Suddenly he heard a voice speaking amongst the trees.

“Shifu,” a voice said, “we must have traveled more than thirty li this time, isn't that right?” “Indeed,” replied another voice, “you've achieved some progress in endurance...”

This voice seemed very familiar to Guo Jing, who then saw four individuals appear, the first of which had white hair and ruddy complexion. It was none other than his number one enemy, Liang Ziwong, the ‘Ginseng Immortal’! He shivered internally and took to his heels. But Liang Ziwong had already recognized him: “Where do you think you're going?” he called out while leaping forward in pursuit. The other three men were his disciples and seeing their Shifu running after an enemy, they split up in order to surround the young man.

“I need to get out of the pine forest and back to the inn in order to be safe,” Guo Jing said to himself, while running even faster. But the first disciple of Liang Ziwong barred his way and shouted, while crossing two palms, “Little bastard, kneel!”

He attacked with a technique of qinna [capture and control] taught by his master and sought to seize Guo Jing by the chest. The young man bent his left leg slightly; with his extended arm turned in, he made a circle with his right palm and struck out powerfully. It was precisely the blow that he had just learned, ‘The Proud Dragon Shows Remorse’. His opponent felt the sudden power and attempted to evade it, but it was so powerful that it broke his arm and threw him a distance of a zhang [3.3m /11+ft] or so, making him lose consciousness. Guo Jing never would have believed that his blow was going to be so strong but could not delay a moment and resumed his flight.

Surprised and irritated, Liang Ziwong jumped in front of him. Guo Jing had just left the pines when he found the ‘Ginseng Immortal’ in front of him. Very frightened, he got in position and launched once again his newly learned ‘The Proud Dragon Shows Remorse’. Liang Ziwong did not know this blow but, sensing its power, knew that he could not handle it. He had to roll to the earth to avoid it. Guo Jing took the opportunity to flee again.

When Liang Ziwong recovered, the young man had reached the front of the inn. Guo Jing hollered, “Rong’er, disaster! It's the evil one that wants to drink my blood!”

Huang Rong poked her head out the window. “How did that old monster get here?” she asked herself. “That's fine; I'll try out this new ‘Wandering Strides’, which I have just learned, on him. Jing ge ge,” she cried. “Don't be afraid of that old crust. Begin the fight; I'll come to help you and we'll teach him a good lesson!”

“Rong’er doesn't know the power of this old monster,” Guo Jing said to himself, “that's why she speaks so recklessly.” But Liang Ziwong had already jumped on him. In the face of the violence of the attack, the young man had no other option but to launch once more his ‘The Proud Dragon Regrets’. Liang Ziwong twisted and dodged several feet to the side, but his extended arm was almost touched by the force of the palm and it left a burning and painful feeling. The ‘Ginseng Immortal’, frightened inside, was amazed that this kid, in the space of some few months, had progressed so much. “This must be,” he thought, “due to the absorption of the precious blood of the snake.” This thought absorbed him and he jumped again to the attack. Guo Jing defended himself again with the same blow. Conscious that he could not oppose it, Liang Ziwong retreated. Noting that the young man seemed not have at his disposal other such fearful blows to press his advantage, Liang’s fear lessened. “Little idiot,” he shouted, “Do you know only that one blow?”

Guo Jing tumbled right into his trap, “With even this one blow,” he replied, “you still won't be able to avoid it!” He advanced, launching once again his ‘The Proud Dragon Shows Remorse’. Liang Ziwong dodged and jumped behind Guo Jing to attack him. He turned and attempted to attack again in the same manner, but his opponent once more slipped behind him. The young man, who only knew how to make frontal attacks, was completely disturbed and could not manage to face him.

Seeing him on the verge of losing, Huang Rong called out, “Jing ge ge, let me take me care of him!” She sprang forward and interposed herself between the two fighters, attacking Liang Ziwong with palms and kicks, who returned the attack. Guo Jing retreated two steps to watch them. Huang Rong had learned well this wonderful ‘Wandering Strides’ technique, but, aside the fact that she had learned it too recently to truly master it, Liang Ziwong was in fact a lot stronger one than she. Therefore, without the protection given by her soft armour, she already would have received several blows and certainly would have been injured long ago. Before even deploying the full thirty-six movements of the ‘Strides’, she was losing form badly. The disciples of Liang Ziwong, supporting their injured elder brother, observed the fight and, seeing their Shifu winning, shouted encouragement to him.

Guo Jing prepared to assist Huang Rong when all of a sudden Hong Qigong was heard to shout from behind the window, “His next blow is called ‘The Evil Dog Blocks the Road’!”

Very surprised, Huang Rong observed that Liang Ziwong, legs firmly spread in the ‘Horse Stance’ and the fists stretched horizontally, was indeed taking the stance of the ‘Evil Tiger Blocks the Road’. She couldn't prevent herself from laughing inside. “Hong changed the name of this blow, but how was he able to guess that it would be that one?”

Then she heard the old beggar shout again, “And his next blow is ‘The Stinking Snake Inhales Water’!”

She realized that this was the ‘Green Dragon Inhales Water’, in which one lengthened the fist forward, thus unveiling a weakness to the back. The Beggar Clan leader had no sooner finished speaking than she had already slipped behind Liang Ziwong. He attacked effectively with the ‘Green Dragon Inhales Water’, but the girl, warned in advance, had the advantage and attacked from behind. He avoided the danger only because of his exceptional technical mastery, which allowed him to change position right in the middle of a movement and to fly further away. He landed on the tips of his toes, surprised and furious at the same time. “Who is the powerful master that hides in the shack?” he shouted towards the window. “Why don't you show yourself?” But there was only silence behind the window. Liang Ziwong was lost in bewilderment. “How could this person succeed in predicting my blows?”

Fortified by the support of a great master, Huang Rong now feared nothing. She had regained the initiative and launched herself to the attack. Liang Ziwong resorted to killer blows so that the girl was forced to yield the upper hand. “Don't fear anything!” Hong Qigong shouted. “He will do a ‘Monkey with a Rotten Bottom Climbs the Tree’!”

Huang Rong burst out laughing, raised her fists and attacked downwards. Liang Ziwong had chosen the ‘Phenomenal Gorilla Climbs the Tree’ and had, after jumping into the air, prepared to attack downwards. But Huang Rong had preceded him and if he continued the jump he would simply offer his head to her falling fists. He had to change his technique immediately! In a fight, if the opponent knew in advance all your blows, it would not take long for him to overcome you! The ‘Ginseng Immortal’, fortunately for him, was a lot stronger than Huang Rong and this allowed himself to extricate himself from a bad situation at the last moment.

He suddenly jumped back and shouted at Guo Jing, “If you persist in not fighting yourself, I won't hesitate to be ruthless towards this girl!” Changing his tactics and rained down blows like hail in a storm; so much so that Huang Rong absolutely could not adjust and Hong Qigong had not the time to call out his blows in advance. Seeing his dearest friend in danger and reduced to dodging right and left, Guo Jing leapt forward and sent out once more his ‘The Proud Dragon Shows Remorse’. Liang Ziwong jumped back.

“Jing ge ge”, Huang Rong said, “give him three blows!” She turned and went back into the inn.

Guo Jing prepared, awaiting the approach of Liang Ziwong. No matter what technique the ‘Ginseng Immortal’ employed he replied with ‘The Proud Dragon Shows Remorse’. His opponent, surprised and furious, wondered, “Where on earth did this dumb little fellow learn this strange blow and why only that one!” But even if he knew only this one blow the dumb little fellow had to be respected and Liang Ziwong could do nothing. Having reached a stalemate, the two held their positions.

“Silly boy,” Liang Ziwong then shouted. “You'd better watch out!” He jumped at his young opponent, who continued using his time- tested defense. Liang changed direction in mid-flight and suddenly struck with three ‘Accupoint Piercing Bones’ that sped towards the young man from three different directions. As Guo Jing hurriedly dodged, Liang Ziwong thrust himself forward with lightning speed and seized him by the nape of his neck. Very frightened, the young man struck an elbow blow at the chest of his opponent. To his great astonishment, he had the impression that his elbow had sunk itself in a soft mass, like cotton.

Just as Liang Ziwong prepared himself to deal a fatal blow he heard Huang Rong scream, “Old monster! Look here!” Knowing that she was very crafty, he decided not to take any risks. He struck Guo Jing upon the ‘Jianjing’ accupoint so that he was unable to move, before turning his head. He saw the girl advancing slowly and saw that in her hand was a bamboo stick, its green as clear as jade. This froze him in terror. “Hong...” he stammered, stunned, “Clan Master Qigong!”

“Why haven't you released him!” threatened Huang Rong.

At the time he heard someone calling out his blows before he even carried them out, Liang Ziwong was very surprised, but he had not thought that it could be Hong Qigong. Now, with the appearance of the green bamboo stick, he realized that the voice behind the window was indeed the person that he dreaded most in the world. Terrified, he quickly unsealed Guo Jing.

Brandishing the stick, Huang Rong approached him and said severely, “Senior Qigong wants to ask you how you dare to do evil here again? What impudence!”

Liang Ziwong dropped to his knees: “Your servant did not know that Clan Master Qigong was here,” he stuttered. “Even if I had courage, I would never have dared to offend Clan Master Qigong.”

“Nonetheless, this fellow is very powerful,” Huang Rong said to herself, astonished, “How is it that he is so terrified at just the mention of Hong's name? And why does he call him Clan Master Qigong?” But she didn't allow any of her thoughts to show and assumed a threatening air. “And which punishment do you deserve?”

“I beg you to please say some words in my favor to Grand Master Qigong! Say to him that Liang Ziwong recognizes his great sins and that he implores Clan Master Qigong to spare his life!”

“Say a word in your favor? Why not? But several words, this would be really too much to ask. In the future, you mustn't cause trouble for either of us.”

“Your servant offended you in his ignorance,” Liang Ziwong said. “If you do not think harshly of me, then in the future, I will not dare to do...” Huang Rong, very proud of herself, smiled and re-entered the inn hand-in- hand with Guo Jing. They found Hong Qigong sitting at a well-laid table with a knife in his left hand and chopsticks in his right, in the process of treating himself. “Master Qigong,” Huang Rong said, laughing. “He's on his knees and doesn't dare to move even a hair.”

Hong Qigong replied, “Give him a hiding to vent your anger; he certainly won't dare to defend himself."

By the window, Guo Jing saw Liang Ziwong kneeling petrified, with his three disciples behind him, also kneeling, all four looking miserable. He felt pity for them and said, “Senior Qigong, why not forgive him?”

“Little good-for-nothing,” Hong reprimanded. “Someone comes here to trouble you and you aren't capable of defending yourself. Yet you accept the situation and you want to forgive your enemy! How can you be so foolish, I ask you?” Guo Jing wasn't sure how to reply.

“I'll take care of him,” Huang Rong said, laughing. She took up the bamboo stick and went out of the inn. Liang Ziwong remained kneeling respectfully, his face full of fear.

“Hong Qigong said that if you persist in doing evil,” Huang Rong thundered, “then it is absolutely necessary to cut your throat today! Fortunately for you my Jing ge ge has a good heart and he did not stop pleading your cause, so much so that Qigong finally agreed to spare you.” She wielded the stick and struck him a blow on the buttocks while screaming, “You go in!”

Liang Ziwong spoke to the window, “Clan Master Qigong, I want to see you, to thank you for sparing my life!” Only silence greeted his plea. Liang Ziwong did not dare to rise and continued to kneel humbly. After a short while, Guo Jing came out and waved his hand, Senior Hong is asleep,” he said in a low voice. “Do not disturb him...” At that, Liang Ziwong got up, shot a hate-filled look at the two young people, and left along with his disciples.

Huang Rong, heart full of joy, re-entered the inn. She saw Hong Qigong lying on the table snoring. She touched him on the shoulder to awaken him, “Qigong!” she called. “Your precious magic stick has wonderful power. Since you’re not using it, why not give it to me?”

Hong raised his head, yawned and said, “You speak so lightly about it” he said, laughing, “That is the work instrument of your teacher! A beggar without a dog-beating stick, how would that look?”

Huang Rong continued to tap it while simpering, “You have such powerful kung fu! People even fear the sound of your voice. Why would you need this stick?”

“You conniving imp!” Hong said, laughing. “Quickly, prepare some dishes for me and I'll explain it for you presently...” Huang Rong obeyed and quickly went into the kitchen to prepare three small dishes.

With his right hand holding a wine cup and his left squeezing the bone of a ham that he slowly gnawed, Qigong began: “The proverb says ‘That which resembles itself assembles itself’. The lowly have to form a clan; the outlaws of the highway who rob the passersby form a clan, we others that freely pass our lives begging food leftovers also form a clan...”

“I understand,” Huang Rong exclaimed while clapping her hands. “That old man Liang called you ‘Clan Master Qigong’, are you the chief of the beggars!”

“Precisely. As we wander, and someone sets the dogs on us, if we did not group together in a band, how could we survive? The ordinary citizens, in the north of the country, are for the moment under the authority of the Jin; in the south, they are under the authority of the Song emperor; but every beggar in the country...”

“Whether they be in the south or the north,” interrupted Huang Rong, “are under your authority!”

“Eh, yes!” Qigong agreed with a smile. “This bamboo stick and this gourd have been passed on from generation to generation, since the end of the Tang dynasty. In other words, it has passed on from one leader of the Beggar Clan to the next. For we beggars, this is like the jade seal of the little emperor.”

“Just as well you didn't give it to me,” Huang Rong said, sticking out her tongue. “Why not?” he replied.

“If every beggar in the country came to find me to sort out their affairs, that would be a catastrophe!”

“You are right,” Qigong sighed. “Since I am lax and of a lazy nature, the weight of being Clan Master of the Beggar Clan is too heavy for my shoulders. Since I can't find a person to whom I can entrust it, I’ll have to bear with...”

“So that's why old Liang fears you so much. If all the beggars in the country came after him, he would be in big trouble. If each one dropped a louse in his collar, that would trouble him until the end of his days!” Hong Qigong and Guo Jing burst out laughing.

“No,” the old beggar said at last, “it’s not just for that; he's also afraid of me.” “Why is that?” she said.

“Nearly twenty years ago, he was committing an evil deed when I fell upon him...” “What evil deed?”

“That old monster,” Qigong hesitantly said, “believed a section of the adage: ‘Gather the yin to nourish the yang...’ He had obtained for himself several virgins and he violated their bodies, supposedly to obtain immortality.”

“What's that, ‘to violate the body’?” Huang Rong asked. The girl, whose mother had died in childbirth, had been raised and taught by her father. After the treachery and escape of Chen Xuanfeng and of Mei Chaofeng, Huang Yaoshi, furious, had crippled his other disciples and they had all fled. No others remained on Peach Blossom Island other than some mute servants. Because of this, no one had spoken to the girl of the things that happened between men and women. Since then, she had met Guo Jing and she felt a joy and an incredible softness in his company. When she was separated from him even for a moment, a feeling of melancholy and an unbearable solitude overcame her. She believed that being husband and wife meant nothing more than never parting from each other; that was why for so long now she had considered Guo Jing as her husband, without knowing the nature of conjugal relations. Her question therefore put Qigong in great difficulty.

“To violate the body of the virgins,” the girl insisted, “is to kill them?”

“No,” Hong responded, “when a woman undergoes such an outrage, this is sometimes more painful than death itself. The proverb says: ‘To be dishonored is grave, to die of hunger is nothing’. That says well what I want to say...”

Huang Rong did not understand. “Does that mean to cut the ears or the nose with a knife?”

“Pah!” Qigong said, bothered, “not at all! Little imp, you better ask your mother when you get back home...” “My mother is dead...”

“Ah!” said the beggar. “Then you will understand after your wedding night with our silly young fellow!”

Huang Rong reddened, understanding at last that it was a matter of shameful things. She said softly, “If you do not want to explain... Therefore, you fell on the old monster in the process of committing this evil deed…this was in past then?”

Qigong, relieved to see that she did not put up anymore embarrassing questions, continued, “Well, I intervened, that's right. I caught this rascal, gave him a good thrashing and pulled out all his hair! Afterwards, I obliged him to take those girls back to their homes and to promise solemnly that he would not try it ever again. If he resumed doing it, he would regret ever having been born! It would seem that, for all these years, he never broke his promise and that's the reason why I spared him today.” He said then, “Goodness, did his hair grow back?”

“Oh yes!” Huang Rong said while bursting out laughing. “Pulling out all the hair…that would have been really funny!” The three finished the meal.

“Master Qigong,” Huang Rong then said, “now, even if you wanted to give me this bamboo stick, I wouldn't want it. But we cannot remain close to you all our lives! What if we come across this Liang fellow, and he says to us: ‘Well little brat, last time you sheltered yourself under the name of Clan Master Qigong and you hit me with his bamboo stick, today I'm going to avenge myself. I will pull out all of your hair!’ What will we do then? When my Jing ge ge fought with him, his one and only blow, ‘The Proud Dragon Regrets’, is of course powerful, but that means little all the same, true? I am sure that Liang will say in his heart: ‘Clan Master Qigong has kung fu of infinite power, but when it comes to teaching a disciple; this is really not that troublesome!”

“I well know,” Qigong said, “that you utter all these stupidities, so provoking and threatening, so that I'll teach all my skills to you two! Well, so long as you prepare some good dishes for me, I won't disappoint you.”

Huang Rong, delighted, took Hong Qigong by the hand to go into the pine forest.

Hong imparted to Guo Jing the second blow of the Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’, called ‘Flying Dragon in the Heavens’. In this stance it was necessary to jump into the air and strike from the top down; an extremely powerful attack. Guo Jing took three days to assimilate it. During these three days, Qigong took the opportunity to experience ten more delicious dishes even better than the others. Huang Rong, for her part, asked nothing from him for herself; provided that he continued to teach her loved one. This was more than enough to satisfy her.

In the space of a month, Qigong taught Guo Jing fifteen of the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’, from ‘The Proud Dragon Regrets’ to ‘Sighting the Dragon in the Field’.

These ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ were Qigong's ultimate skills. He had originally learned them from his Shifu and they were instrumental to his reputation. The number of blows was of course, limited, but each of them was full of exceptional power. At the time of the first Huashan tournament, when the Five Supreme Masters measured themselves, these Eighteen Palms were not completely up to the mark, but they did give rise to respect and general admiration. Thereafter, Qigong often expressed his regret that if he had concentrated all his efforts to perfect this technique some years earlier, the title of "First in the Martial World" might not have fallen to the Grand Master of the Quanzhen Sect, Wang Chongyang, but to himself!

At first, Hong had no intention of passing on to Guo Jing more than two or three of these Eighteen Palms, which would have been more than enough for him to defend himself. But Huang Rong was really an unparalleled cook; every day she prepared new dishes of exceptional taste, never repeating herself. The old beggar could not resolve himself to leave. So, day after day, he ended up teaching the fifteen blows. Guo Jing did not understand the stances quickly, but the little that he learned, he retained and repeated day and night. Working with such determination he achieved a good mastery of the fifteen blows and what he lacked in power, time and practice alone could give to him. Thus, in a little more than a month, his kung fu had achieved such progress that he was no longer the same person!

That morning, after breakfast, Qigong said, while sighing, “My children, we've been together for more than a month, it's time we took leave of each other.”

“Ah no,” Huang Rong protested. “I have many more simple dishes for you to taste...”

“There are not endless banquets, but there is an infinity of dishes... I never have, in all my life, taught anybody for more than three days. This time, I've done that for more than thirty days! If this continues it'll be a catastrophe!”

“Why's that?”

“Well, you will strip me of all that I know!”

“You've started a good work; why not take it to the end! Teaching him the Eighteen Palms would be a real accomplishment!"

“Pah, that would be an accomplishment for you two, but not for me...” Huang Rong, worried, wondered what stratagems she could invent to get Hong to teach the three remaining blows to Guo Jing, but the old beggar did not give her the time. Flipping his gourd over his back, he left without speaking another word.

Guo Jing chased after him, but Qigong went so quickly that he disappeared in a wink. The young man raced into the pines and called, “Qigong, Qigong!” Huang Rong had followed him and added her calls to his. Suddenly, a shadow arose from the pines; it was Hong, who addressed them angrily, “Dirty kids, what are you still bothering me for? If you want me to teach you more, that is absolutely impossible!”

“You have already taught us too much,” Guo Jing said. “I am more than satisfied, how could I want more? It's only that I did not thank you again for your kindness!” He knelt then and kowtowed, striking the ground with his forehead, several times.

Qigong’s expression changed: “Stop,” he shouted, “That which I taught you is nothing other than a suitable payment for the small dishes that she prepared for me. There has never been a relationship of master and disciple between us!” At that, he also knelt and kowtowed in front of Guo Jing.

Stunned, he attempted to kowtow again, but Qigong extended a hand and touched a pressure point, freezing him with his legs half bent. The beggar released him only after having prostrated himself four times in front of him: “Remember,” he cautioned, “Never mention that you kowtowed to me and that you are my disciple!” Understanding that he had a stubborn character, Guo Jing didn't attempt to contradict him.

“Grand Master Qigong” Huang Rong sighed, “you were so good to us and now we must part. I had the intention of preparing some simple dishes for you, but... unfortunately... I fear that this is not possible anymore...”

“And why not?” Qigong asked.

“Many people want to do evil to us... aside from that old monster the ‘Ginseng Immortal’, there are many more evildoers! One day, we will end up dying at their hands!”

“What is death?” Hong said with a smile. “Everyone must die one day.”

“Of course”" replied Huang Rong while shaking her head, “it's not a big deal to die, but I'm afraid that they will capture me and, learning that I received your teaching and that I cooked for you, they will force me to cook for them all those dishes that I prepared you. This would be a stain on your reputation!”

Qigong knew well that the girl was trying to trick more skills out of him, but, the thought that someone might force her to cook, while he himself could not taste those succulent dishes, caused a feeling of great anger. “Who are these villains that scare you?” he demanded.

“There is,” Huang Rong replied, “a certain old monster of the Yellow River, Sha Tongtian. He eats in such a disgusting way! What a shame it would be for him to have my delicious dishes!”

“There's no need to fear Sha Tongtian!” Qigong said while shaking his head. “In one or two years, this dummy Guo Jing will be stronger than him. There's nothing to fear...”

Huang Rong mentioned the Tibetan monk Ling Zhi and Peng Lianhu. To which Qigong replied again, “Nothing to fear!”

But when Huang Rong mentioned the young master of White Camel Mountain, Ouyang Ke, Hong Qigong seemed taken aback. He questioned her about the techniques and moves of this new opponent, before nodding his head. “That's indeed him!”

Seeing the seriousness of his face, the girl became serious herself, “He's very powerful, isn't that right?” “There's nothing to fear from Ouyang Ke!” Qigong said. “It's his uncle, the old West Venom, who is fearsome.” “The old West Venom? No matter how fearsome, he cannot be stronger than you, isn't that right?” Qigong didn't reply. He thought for a while, before he stated, “At one time, we were equals. But that was twenty years ago... In those twenty years, he's surely trained harder than lazy and gluttonous me. Huh, but to beat this old beggar, nonetheless, won't be easy...”

“Then he certainly can't beat you!”

“We will see,” Qigong said, shaking his head. “Since the nephew of the old West Venom, Ouyang Feng, is after your head, we must be careful. I will eat your cooking for fifteen days. But let's make one thing clear…if, during these fifteen days, you present the same dish to me twice, I'll get up and say good-bye...”

Huang Rong was delighted. She decided to give the full measure of her talents. Not only did she not repeat the same dish, but she prepared infinite variations in the accompaniment of noodles and rice for every meal. Fried dumplings, steamed dumplings, boiled dumplings, fried rice, rice porridge, sticky rice, flower-shaped buns, rice flour noodles and a type of bean soup. Qigong, for his part, took pains to teach the two young people the art of adapting oneself to all the fighting positions, to react and to better defend themselves. But he never taught the three blows lacking from the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’. Guo Jing, of course, deepened his mastery of the fifteen stances, and he equally increased the power of all the martial arts he had learned with the Six Freaks of Jiangnan. Hong Qigong had, before the age of thirty-five, practiced much diversified kung fu and learned innumerable fist and palm techniques. From among them he deliberately chose bizarre types for Huang Rong, but it was just as a joke. These techniques were beautiful to look at, simple and direct, but their real effectiveness in battle was far inferior to the Fifteen Palms Guo Jing had learned. Huang Rong desired only to have fun, so without really applying herself in this apprenticeship she had learned them to amuse herself.

Guo Jing was practicing his palms one evening, when Huang Rong climbed a tree to gather bamboo shoots and plums for an unconventional dish called ‘The Three Friends of Winter’, which has three distinct flavors.

Hong Qigong couldn’t stop himself from drooling. Then he suddenly bent over into a thicket of grass and fished out a two-foot-long blue snake.

“Snake!” Huang Rong shouted.

With his left hand, Hong Qigong lightly pushed Huang Rong on her shoulder, forcing her back a few feet. The thick patch of grass rustled again, revealing more snakes. Hong Qigong struck each snake with the dog-beating stick on the center of its head. The blow immediately killed them. Huang Rong cheered. Suddenly, two snakes silently slithered behind her and bit her.

Hong Qigong knew the blue snakes, although small, possessed a highly venomous poison without comparison. Alarmed, he tried to think of a way to neutralize the poison. The sound of continuous hissing was heard, as a hoard of snakes materialized about ten zhang away. “How do you feel?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” Huang Rong laughed. Fear struck Guo Jing when he saw the two snakes still hanging onto Huang Rong.

Hong Qigong told Guo Jing to be careful. In his anxiety Guo Jing had already removed a snake. He noticed blood dripping from its head. They were already dead. Hong Qigong understood. “Your father gave you his soft hedgehog armor.” When the snakes bit Huang Rong, they were immediately killed by the spikes on her armor, which pierced their heads. Just as Guo Jing went to pull the other snake off Huang Rong more snakes emerged from the forest. Hong Qigong placed a yellow herb in his mouth and chewed. By this time, over a thousand snakes had emerged from the forest. Many more were out of the sight.

“Master Qigong, let’s get out of here,” Guo Jing said.

Hong Qigong didn’t answer. Instead, he unstopped his gourd and took a large swig from it. He mixed the yellow herb with the wine, which he spit from left to right, creating an arc in front of the three.

When one blue snake attempted to cross the medicated wine, it immediately died. None of the other blue snakes dared to cross the wine after that. Indeed, the ones in the front attempted to retreat, but more snakes were emerging from the forest. Both groups crashed into one another causing a writhing chaotic mass. Huang Rong clapped her hands and shouted with pleasure. The forest suddenly emitted a strange noise just before three men dressed in white emerged from it. They used a pole to herd the snakes as if they were oxen. Huang Rong found this all amusing. But then she suddenly felt like vomiting. Hong Qigong struck at a snake with his dog-beating stick. He then took the snake and used two fingers to extract its gallbladder.

“Quickly swallow this,” he said to Huang Rong. “Don’t bite or chew it or you will feel pain.” After swallowing the gallbladder, Huang Rong’s chest immediately felt at ease.

“Jing ge ge, do you feel dizzy?” Huang Rong said. Guo Jing shook his head.

Because he had drunk the blood of the giant snake, Guo Jing had become impervious to over a hundred poisons. The snakes also felt fear whenever they smelled the scent of the blood on Guo Jing. When they emerged from the forest, they were really after just Hong Qigong and Huang Rong.

“Master Qigong, these snakes were raised by people,” Huang Rong said. Hong Qigong nodded and angrily glared at the three men in white. The three men were also angry after they saw Hong Qigong feed the gallbladder to Huang Rong. They reorganized the snake line.

“You three bastards!” one of them shouted. “Are you tired of living?” “No, you must be the three bastards who are tired of living!’ Huang Rong shouted back.

Hong Qigong clapped Huang Rong on the shoulders in approval. The three men became even angrier. The sallow-cheeked, middle- aged man standing in the middle thrust the long pole at Huang Rong with a surprising amount of force. Hong Qigong pressed the dog- beating stick against the pole, which immediately stopped. Startled, the man pulled on the pole with both of his hands. Hong Qigong shook the dog-beating stick and shouted, “Be gone!”

The man stumbled and flipped over, landing right in the middle of all the deadly snakes. He had luckily eaten a herb earlier, so the snakes were unwilling to bite him. Shocked, the other two men took a step back. “How was it done?” they said. Indeed, the other man had fallen so hard that he crushed ten snakes and felt sore all over.

One of his companions, a fair-skinned man, held out the pole to the sallow-cheeked man to support him. They were reluctant to fight again.

“Who dares to stop our snakes with that herb?” the sallow-cheeked man said. Laughing, Hong Qigong paid no attention to them. “Who are you to send out so many poisonous snakes to injure people?” Huang Rong replied.

The three men looked at one another, trying to figure out how to respond when another man dressed in white appeared at the edge of the forest. He walked through a narrow path between the snakes while fanning himself. Both Guo Jing and Huang Rong recognized him as Ouyang Ke, the master of White Camel Mountain, whose presence amongst their ranks caused the snakes to disperse.

The three men welcomed their master and told him of Hong Qigong’s amazing ability and the situation that had just transpired. Ouyang Ke was surprised. Then he nodded.

“In their ignorance these three servants offended the old senior,” he said. “I apologize.” Then he turned to Huang Rong and smiled. “Ah, the lady is here,” he said. “I am at your service.”

Huang Rong turned her attention to Hong Qigong. “Master Qigong, you should take care of this bad egg,” she said.

Hong Qigong nodded and said to Ouyang Ke, “How can you lawlessly herd these snakes through the country in broad daylight? You obviously intend to use these snakes for reckless acts. Who do you intend to use them on?”

“These snakes have traveled a long distance,” Ouyang Ke said. “They can’t feed themselves in the conventional manner.” “How many people have you hurt?” Hong Qigong said.

“We’ve herded the snakes through the country,” Ouyang Ke said. “Not many people were hurt.”

Hong Qigong glared at the other man. “Not hurt many people!” he said. “Your family name is Ouyang is it not?” “That’s correct,” Ouyang Ke said. “The lady must have told you. And what is the venerable one’s name?”

“This man’s rank is a generation above yours,” Huang Rong said. “If he told you, he’d scare you to death!” But Ouyang Ke didn’t get angry. He laughed instead and cast a sidelong glance at her.

“You are the nephew of Ouyang Feng, aren’t you?” Hong Qigong said.

Ouyang Ke didn’t respond, but the three snake herders shouted in anger, “Old man, how dare you use the given name of our master!” “I say what others do not,” Hong Qigong said with a smile.

The three snake herders continued to yell at Hong Qigong, when the beggar, who was on the ground with the dog-beating stick, suddenly appeared in sky like a large bird. He struck down three times so quickly that the three men had no time to react. Before their bodies hit the ground, Hong Qigong had already jumped into the air again.*

“Good move!” Huang Rong said. “Why haven’t you taught it to me yet, Master Qigong?”

When the three men arose they could not make a sound because Hong Qigong had hit them on the tiny muscle near the chin that connects to the jaw.

Startled, Ouyang Ke said to Hong Qigong, “Senior knows my uncle?”

“Ah, so you are Ouyang Feng’s nephew,” Hong Qigong said. “It’s been over twenty years since I’ve seen the ‘Old Poison’. Is he still not dead?”

Ouyang Ke grew angry, but he knew the level of Hong Qigong’s kung fu was very high. And because he knew his uncle, he must also be a senior of enormous ability. “Uncle has often said that he would never die before any of his friends,” Ouyang Ke said. “So he dares not go to heaven before you.”

Hong Qigong looked skyward and laughed. “Good! You turn my words around and insult me!” he said. “Now, why did you bring all these treasures?” he said, indicating the snakes. “I have spent all my life in the West,” Ouyang Ke said. “This is the first time I have ventured to the Central Plains [zhong yuan]. The journey is lonely and solitary, so I thought I’d bring these snakes along for some fun.”

“That’s a lie,” Huang Rong said. “How can your journey be lonely and solitary with so many of your wives and concubines to accompany you?”

Ouyang Ke snapped open his fan and looked over it at Huang Rong. Laughing, he recited, “My distant heart held no one within, but today I have met its princess.”

Huang Rong made a funny face at Ouyang Ke and laughed. “I don’t need your compliments, just as much as I don’t need you to miss me,” she said.

Ouyang Ke was speechless: He was enthralled by the goddess-like Huang Rong and her pleasant expression.

“Your uncle rules the western region tyrannically, so obviously no one has disciplined you,” Hong Qigong shouted. “So you’ve come into the Central Plains with the idea of doing as you please. Well, today, I will give your uncle face and leave you alone. Get out of my sight right now.”

Ouyang Ke stopped himself from spitting out hateful words. Knowing himself to be no match for Hong Qigong, he began to retreat obediently, though his heart was full of distaste. “Junior bids you farewell. If senior makes it through the next few years without suffering any serious illness, please come to the White Camel Mountain for a visit.”

Hong Qigong laughed. “Little punk, you dare challenge me to a duel? If I do come, it will have nothing to do with an agreement. Your uncle isn’t afraid of me and I’m not afraid of your uncle. Twenty years before yesterday, in the early morning, a group of us fought one another and found ourselves to be evenly matched. We need not ever fight again.”

His face abruptly changed. “You are still here in front of me instead of being far away!” Hong Qigong shouted.

Ouyang Ke was startled again. “I’ve only learned thirty percent of uncle’s kung fu,” he thought. “This man doesn’t seem to be lying. I’ll accept this loss of face for now and get back at him later.” Ouyang Ke didn’t respond, and the three men, with their chins still aching, made no sound. Casting a glance at Huang Rong, Ouyang Ke turned and walked back into the forest.

The three men then made strange noises to direct the snakes, but because of the injury to their jaws, their voices at their loudest only came out as a weak rasp. Like a wave, the snakes moved back into the forest, leaving a trail of gleaming slime across the ground.

“Master Qigong, do you know where these snakes come from?” Huang Rong said. “Were they raised?”

Hong Qigong gave no response. He took a swig from his gourd, used his sleeve to wipe off the sweat from his brow and let out a sigh of relief. “So dangerous; so very dangerous!” he said.

“How so?” both Guo Jing and Huang Rong asked.

“Those poisonous snakes were only temporarily blocked by my efforts,” Hong Qigong said. “They would have soon been able to cross over. With so many snakes, they would have been like a flood. How would we be able to stop them? Luckily, those people were inexperienced and didn’t realize my ruse since I frightened them so much. If the ‘Old Poison’ had come, you two kids would have been in a terrible position,” he added.

“We wouldn’t stay — we’d run away,” Huang Rong said.

“This senior wouldn’t be afraid, but you two kids would run away,” Hong Qigong laughed. “But how would you flee if the ‘Old Poison’ sent out one of his palms?”

“Is that man’s uncle really that powerful?” Huang Rong said.

Hong Qigong laughed. “Powerful? ‘Eastern Heretic,’ ‘Western Poison,’ ‘Northern Beggar,’ ‘Southern Emperor’ and ‘Central Divinity’: Your father is the Eastern Heretic, and Ouyang Feng is the Western Poison. The number one martial artist, Wang Zhenren [Wang Chongyang], passed away. The remaining four of us, who fought against one another in eight pairs, were found to be equal. Is your father not fierce?” he added. “Is my own ability negligible?” [Note: Zhenren is a title for respected for Taoist priests.]

Huang Rong had secretly pondered these points before and was not able to put the pieces together. “My father is a good person, so why is he called ‘heretical’ and ‘evil?’ I don’t like his nickname.”

“Privately, your father probably likes his nickname,” Hong Qigong said with a laugh. “That man possesses a strange spirit. He follows his own unorthodox way — is that not perverse? I am convinced that the proper ancestry of all orthodox kung fu is through Quanzhen’s teachings.”

“You’ve learned Quanzhen’s neigong haven’t you?” he said to Guo Jing. “Ma Yu taught me at length for over two years,” Guo Jing said.

“Indeed, indeed — you didn’t learn that in any short span of time,” Hong Qigong said. “Had you not, how would you be able to learn my ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ if you didn’t possess a good neigong basis?” “Who is Southern Emperor?” Huang Rong said.

“Southern Emperor is indeed an emperor [huang di],” Hong Qigong said. Guo Jing and Huang Rong were surprised. “Do you mean the emperor of the Song?” Huang Rong said.

Hong Qigong erupted in laughter. “That kid emperor is only strong enough to eat from a golden rice bowl. If there are two, he wouldn’t be able to pick it up! Southern Emperor is not the Song emperor. No, this Southern Emperor possesses very powerful kung fu. Between the three of us, your father and I were slightly inferior. But the ‘southern fire overcoming the western gold’? Indeed, the ‘Old Poison’, Ouyang Feng, was unable to overcome his star.”

Guo Jing and Huang Rong wanted Hong Qigong to finish his story but the beggar was lost in thought and fell into silence. They didn’t press him. Hong Qigong looked skyward. His eyebrows creased as if he were pondering some sort of difficult problem. He walked back into the inn alone.

Suddenly, Huang Rong and Guo Jing heard the sound of tearing. As Hong Qigong passed through the gate into the inn, a nail got caught on his sleeve and tore a large hole into it. Huang Rong gasped in surprise. But Hong Qigong didn’t notice. He kept walking as if he were in a daze.

“I’ll mend it for you,” Huang Rong said. Huang Rong went to the proprietress of the inn and borrowed a needle and thread. Then she fixed the hole in Hong Qigong’s sleeve.

Hong Qigong shook himself from his reverie when he saw Huang Rong with the needle in her hand. He abruptly snatched the needle and ran outside the inn’s gate. Curious, Guo Jing and Huang Rong followed, only to see Hong Qigong throw the gleaming needle out. Huang Rong watched the needle arch and pierce a grasshopper. She shouted in delight.

“This will do,” Hong Qigong said, looking satisfied. “This style will do nicely.” Guo Jing and Huang Rong waited for Hong Qigong to continue.

“Ouyang Feng, the ‘Old Poison’, loves to raise poisonous snakes and poisonous insects,” Hong Qigong said. “Coming up with a way to deal with all those blue snakes is not an easy thing.” He paused before continuing. “When I saw that young Ouyang and found him to be no good, and knowing his uncle who opposes everyone, I realized that you two needed some way to disperse the snakes since I might not always be around to save you.”

Huang Rong clapped her hands. “You would use the needles to pin the snakes to the ground.”

Hong Qigong smiled at Huang Rong. “This girl is so clever,” he said. “You say one sentence, and she already knows the next one.”

“You don’t want to use the yellow herb anymore?” Huang Rong said. “You just spit it out with the wine and the poisonous snakes will refuse to cross it.”

“That will only work for so long,” Hong Qigong said. “I have to practice this stance ‘Blossoms Rain from the Sky’, which uses needles. The snakes will approach in the future, and I will throw out these needles, hitting each snake, one by one. After I get enough needles, I will go and kill all those snakes in about a fortnight.” Both Guo Jing and Huang Rong laughed.

“I’ll go get you your needles,” Huang Rong said, before immediately heading off in the direction of the town market.

Hong Qigong sighed in admiration. “Jing’er, why don’t you have her split her intelligence and cleverness in half and give one half to you?”

“Split in half her intelligence and cleverness?” Guo Jing said. “You can’t split those apart.”

Huang Rong returned from the market around the next meal time. She removed from a food basket two packages of sewing needles, and, smiling, said, “I bought every single needle in town. Tomorrow, all the men are going to get an earful from their women.”

“Why?” Guo Jing said.

“Yelling at them would be useless!” Huang Rong said. “There’s not a single needle left to buy in the town.”

Hong Qigong burst into laughter. “Didn’t you two kids want me to teach you projectile kung fu? Let’s see how hard you can work You two kids won’t get another opportunity to learn from this old man. It turns out this old beggar was smart after all! By not marrying, I’m spared the torment of dealing with women” Laughing, Huang Rong followed him out.

“I don’t want to learn Master Qigong,” Guo Jing said. “Why?” Hong Qigong said.

“Senior has already taught me so much kung fu that I haven’t practiced enough,” Guo Jing said.

Hong Qigong understood: Guo Jing refused to be greedy. The beggar had said he would no longer teach anymore kung fu to Guo Jing, but the recent emergency situation made teaching more techniques imperative. Nevertheless, if Guo Jing allowed Hong Qigong to teach him again, it would appear to be opportunistic. Nodding, Hong Qigong pulled Huang Rong by the hand and said, “We practice.”

Once alone, Guo Jing went out and practiced the first fifteen palms of the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ and thereby increased his understanding.

Huang Rong studied ‘Blossoms Rain from the Sky’ for ten days. She learned how to throw ten needles and simultaneously hit a person’s vital areas, but could not master hitting the vital points of multiple targets at once.

One day, Hong Qigong and Huang Rong were out practicing with the needles. The beggar threw them all at once. The needles fell to the ground in two groups — each ten feet across. Satisfied, he looked skyward and fell into contemplation. But his thinking was muddled, so he said aloud, “Old Poison, why did you train all those snakes?”

“With his kung fu already at such a powerful state, he can handle almost anyone near him,” Huang Rong said. “So what would the snakes be for?”

Hong Qigong slapped his head. “Of course!” he said. “It’s to deal with the Eastern Heretic and the Southern Emperor. Both the beggars and Quanzhen are numerous in manpower and the Southern Emperor is an actual emperor with many bodyguards and soldiers protecting him. Your father is a cultivated intellectual possessing many strange and powerful skills, which can help him face multiple enemies alone. When the ‘Old Poison’ fights alone, no one in his generation can completely face him. But if his enemy brings a companion and so on, then the ‘Old Poison’ facing them alone is in a terrible position.”

“Therefore, the ‘Old Poison’ raised the snakes to help him,” Huang Rong said.

Hong Qigong sighed. “Us beggars often catch snakes and raise them for food,” he said. “We’ve been able to do this with about seventeen or eighteen snakes. We sometimes even release them into fields at night to catch frogs. But the process isn’t easy at all. Now, the ‘Old Poison’ has actually had the time to catch innumerable numbers of snakes. Rong’er, the ‘Old Poison’ has spent a great deal of time on this, which means he must be planning something.”

“He is certainly planning something,” Huang Rong said. “But luckily for us, his nephew revealed the snakes.”

Hong Qigong slapped his head. “Of course, the Ouyang kid revealed the secret through his frivolousness,” he said. “But what does the ‘Old Poison’ know about what others have? These thousands of snakes could not have come from the western region. They must have been collected from the mountains in the East. Although that Ouyang kid betrayed a part of the plan, he might not have completely revealed the whole scheme in which he plays a part.”

“That’s not a good thing,” Huang Rong said. “Luckily, this ‘Blossoms Rain from the Sky’ style prepares us in advance to take care of those snakes when we meet them, as opposed to having to deal with them while fighting with the ‘Old Poison’ himself.”

Hong Qigong hesitated. “But suppose he wraps me up and prevents me from throwing the needles,” he said. “How would I deal with those thousands of snakes?”

Huang Rong thought for a while, “Just run away,” she said.

“Bah!” Hong Qigong said with a smile. “What kind of method is turning around and running away?” Suddenly, Huang Rong exclaimed, “I’ve got it! I just thought of a good plan.”

Joyful, Hong Qigong said, “What kind of plan is it?”

“Just keep the two of us by your side,” she said. “Should we meet the ‘Old Poison’, you will fight him and Jing ge ge will deal with his nephew. I will simply use the sewing needles to kill all the snakes. The problem is Jing ge ge doesn’t know three of the strikes from the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ and might not be able to deal with those devious ones.” Hong Qigong stared.

“You are the devious one,” he said. “You just want to trick me into teaching your ‘Jing ge ge’ the last three palms. With regard to Guo Jing’s moral conduct, I would teach him all eighteen palms without any hesitation. But when did this boy become my disciple? He is so dull that if I took him as a disciple, I would be giving people the right to laugh at me!” Huang Rong laughed.

“I’m going to buy some groceries,” she said, knowing that food would make it harder for Hong Qigong to leave.

She went to the market and purchased many different kinds of vegetables and meats while making sure she bought ingredients with sufficiently unique tastes. With the groceries held in her left hand and her right practicing the “Blossoms Rain from the Sky” technique, she leisurely strolled back to the inn. Suddenly, she heard the sound of a bell approaching. In the distance, she saw a lone, female rider dressed in white nearing the inn very quickly. Huang Rong saw it was Yang Tiexin’s daughter, Mu Nianci, whom Guo Jing’s teachers wanted him to marry. Huang Rong’s heart turned sour and, as Mu Nianci got closer, she refused to make a sound. “What’s so good about this girl?” she thought. “Jing ge ge’s six masters and that ox-nosed priest of the Quanzhen Sect all want him to marry her.” After more thinking, Huang Rong grew angry. “Let me go fight her and relieve some of my frustration,” she thought. But when Huang Rong went to place the groceries in the inn, she found Mu Nianci already sitting at a table.

An anxious-looking innkeeper asked Mu Nianci what she wanted to eat and drink. “Bring me a bowl of noodles and some beef,” Mu Nianci said. The innkeeper quickly left to fill the order.

“How is simple beef any good to eat?” Huang Rong said. Mu Nianci looked at Huang Rong. At first she couldn’t recognize her, but then she remembered it was the girl who had so suddenly left with Guo Jing. She exhaled. “Little sister is here too?” she said. “Please sit with me.”

“Did that smelly scholar, the fat dwarf, or the other ones come too?” Huang Rong said. “No,” Mu Nianci said. “I came alone. They are all off somewhere together.”

At first Huang Rong feared running into Qiu Chuji, but she felt joy after learning Mu Nianci was there by herself. Blinded at first by the possibility of the Taoist’s presence, Huang Rong now examined Mu Nianci closely and noticed her small boots, dress and her hair entwined with a white flower, signifying that she was in mourning. And though she had lost weight and wore a sad expression, Mu Nianci remained elegantly beautiful as opposed to pitiable. Huang Rong then noticed a dagger worn at Mu Nianci’s waist.

“That is the dagger exchanged by Jing ge ge’s parents with her parents to mark their marriage,” Huang Rong thought. Unable to bear the thought, Huang Rong shouted, “Little sister, may I take a look at that dagger?”

The dagger was indeed the one Bao Xiruo gave away just before dying. It had been recovered after she and Yang Tiexin killed themselves and now served as a keepsake of the two adoptive parents.

Mu Nianci looked at Huang Rong and noticed her strange expression, but before she could do anything, Huang Rong had already reached out, taken hold of the dagger and casually removed it.

She looked at the weapon and noticed the two characters “Guo Jing” carved into its hilt. “This belongs to Jing ge ge,” she thought bitterly. “Why does she get to have it?” She removed the weapon from its sheath. A cold air immediately emanated from the weapon. “Good dagger!” Huang Rong said. She put the dagger back into the sheath and placed it within her shirt. “I’m going to go give this to Jing Ge ge,” she said.

Stricken, Mu Nianci said, “What?”

“The two characters engraved on the hilt proves who the rightful owner of this dagger is,” Huang Rong said. “I’m going to give it to him.”

Mu Nianci cried out angrily, “That is the only possession I have from my adoptive parents. How can you take it? Quickly give it back to me.” She stood up and walked towards Huang Rong.

“If you have a problem, come and get it!” Huang Rong shouted as she ran out of the inn. Huang Rong knew Hong Qigong was asleep in the forest and Guo Jing was up on the mountains practicing his palms. She ran to the left.

Mu Nianci pursued anxiously, fearing Huang Rong would ride the red horse. She continued to chase until she heard a loud noise, which she followed.

Huang Rong had taken a bend into a clearing surrounded by tall, locust trees. She stopped there and laughed.

“You’ve won,” she said. “You’re the better horse. Now let us match against one another to see who gets the bride’s dagger.”

Mu Nianci’s cheeks reddened. “Don’t joke little sister,” she said. “When I see this dagger, I see my adoptive father. Why did you take it away?”

Huang Rong’s brow dropped. “Who is your sister?” she shouted. She immediately jumped at Mu Nianci with her palm extended.

Mu Nianci tried to dodge, but Huang Rong used the ‘Palm of the Divine Sword Felling the Hero’. Employing the many and mysterious variations in the style, Huang Rong hit Mu Nianci twice in the ribs, causing a lot of pain. Angry, Mu Nianci turned to the left before also returning her own palm stroke, which was a violent strike.

“That is the ‘Wandering Strides’ fist!” Huang Rong shouted. “How is this possible?”

Mu Nianci was surprised upon hearing Huang Rong’s shout. “This was the style Hong Qigong passed on to me alone,” she thought. “How could she know about it?” Mu Nianci watched as Huang Rong retracted her left palm and attacked with her right as a fist. After three moves, Mu Nianci recognized the style to be none other than the ‘Wandering Strides’. Surprised, she jumped back. “Stop!” she shouted. “Who taught you this style?”

“I just figured it out myself,” Huang Rong said with a smile. “What’s so special about this rough and crude kung fu?” So saying, she attacked again with the ‘Wandering Strides’, employing its two central moves, ‘Alms Bowl at the Door’ and ‘Seeing a Benefactor’, in a continuous attack.

Mu Nianci became even more bewildered after avoiding another move, ‘Traveling the Seas Without Worry’. “You know Senior Hong Qigong?” she said.

“He and I are old friends,” Huang Rong said with a smile. “You can use this style. I’ll use the kung fu I know and then we’ll see who wins.”

With a menacing chortle, Huang Rong immediately attacked. She did not use the ‘Wandering Strides’ style. Instead, she employed the martial arts taught to her by her father to get the better of Mu Nianci, whose skills were taught to her by Hong Qigong. How could Mu Nianci block?

Mu Nianci tried to flee but she couldn’t. She watched a palm rise like a sword slashing across with a roaring wind. Feeling the spear- like force, Mu Nianci twisted her body to the side to dodge, but then felt pain in her neck as Huang Rong successfully hit her with ‘Brushing the Orchid Blossoms from the Road’. The palm had struck the neck vertebrae precisely where the blood vessels regulate the body, hands and feet. After being hit, Mu Nianci’s hands and feet immediately became numb and weak.

Huang Rong then stepped forward and pressed an acupoint on Mu Nianci’s waist. Mu Nianci immediately fell over. Huang Rong took out the dagger and laughed, before slashing at Mu Nianci’s cheeks with ten different strikes. None of them hit — but they were only one inch away from striking flesh.

Mu Nianci closed her eyes, expecting death, but to her surprise she felt a cool air near her cheeks that didn’t hurt. When she opened her eyes, she saw the dagger coming towards her eyes, only to see it stop next to her face. “If you’re going to kill me, kill me,” she yelled in anger. “Why all the threats and theatrics?”

“You are not my enemy, nor do I hate you,” Huang Rong said. “Why would I kill you? You just have to swear one oath, and I’ll release you.”

Although they were indeed not enemies, Mu Nianci refused to even consider giving an oath. “Lady, you threaten to kill me because you want me to swear an oath,” she shouted. “You must be dreaming.”

Huang Rong sighed with admiration. “It would be a real pity to kill a beautiful lady of marriageable age,” she said. Mu Nianci closed her eyes and waited for death, but she heard not a sound.

After a moment, Huang Rong gently said, “Jin Ge ge and I have already shared our hearts. If you were to marry him, there is no way he would give you the same.”

Mu Nianci opened her eyes. “What did you say?” she asked.

“I know you won’t promise not to marry him,” Huang Rong said.

“Who is it that you like?” Mu Nianci said in confusion. “Who is it you think I want to marry?” “Jin Ge ge, Guo Jing,” Huang Rong said.

“Oh him,” Mu Nianci said. “What do you want me to swear?”

“I want you to swear a heavy oath that you will not marry him,” Huang Rong said.

Mu Nianci giggled. “You put a dagger to my throat when I already cannot marry him,” she said. “Is it true?” Huang Rong asked joyfully. “How can this be?”

“Although my adoptive father betrothed me to brother Guo Jing, honestly…” she said before lowering her voice. “Honestly, my adoptive father, despite all his wisdom, neglected to prevent me from giving my heart to someone else.”

“I’ve made such a bad mistake about you,” Huang Rong said ecstatically before immediately un-sealing Mu Nianci’s accupoints and massaging her numb hands and feet. “Elder sister, who have you matched yourself with?”

Mu Nianci blushed before cooing, “You’ve seen this person before.”

Huang Rong tilted her head and thought for a moment. “I’ve seen him before?” she said. “What kind of person around this town is worthy of ascending to elder sister’s level?”

Mu Nianci laughed. “In this world, this man is unrivaled by anyone except for your Jing ge ge,” she said. “Elder sister, is he so crazy that he hasn’t married you?” Huang Rong said with a smile.

“Is brother Jing crazy?” Mu Nianci said. “His character is honest, and his heart is chivalrous. I admire him very much. He treated my father and me very well that day when he helped us at the risk of his own life. I am very grateful for that. This quality of man is very rare in the world.”

Worried, Huang Rong pressed, “Did you say that you couldn’t marry him just so I wouldn’t put this dagger against your throat?”

Mu Nianci noticed how Huang Rong pressed the issue and concluded the imprudence she exhibited before wasn’t far off. She grasped Huang Rong’s hands and slowly spoke, “Little sister, your heart is already set on brother Jing. Finding another man his equal will be difficult even with all the thousands of men in the world, right?”

“Yes, I do believe it’s very unlikely to find another his equal,” Huang Rong said.

“If brother Jing heard your praises of him, his heart would be filled with joy,” Mu Nianci said. “During the contest my father set up in Yanjing, a man defeated me.” Huang Rong understood. “I know now,” she said. “The person in your heart is the Little Prince, Wanyan Kang.”

“Yes, it is the young prince,” Mu Nianci said. “He is the one my heart wants. He’s a good person underneath. I can make him stop being rotten. ”

Though she spoke softly, Mu Nianci’s expression was very firm. Huang Rong nodded her head when she suddenly realized she felt the same way about Guo Jing as what Mu Nianci said in such simple words. They grasped each other’s hands and sat side-by-side below the locust trees with the sensation of shared feelings. Huang Rong thought for a moment. Then she gave the dagger back to Mu Nianci.

“Elder sister, let me return this to you,” Huang Rong said.

Mu Nianci did not take it. “Keep it — this is your Jin Ge ge’s possession,” she said. “His name is carved there on the hilt. With it everyday, I …” She paused. “If I should carry it everyday, it wouldn’t be very good.”

Huang Rong lovingly took the dagger and stowed it near her bosom. “Elder sister, you are truly good,” she said. After receiving the valuable dagger, Huang Rong was momentarily distracted from her thoughts. “Elder sister, what business has drawn you to the South alone?” Huang Rong asked. “Maybe little sister can help you?”

Mu Nianci blushed and lowered her head. “I don’t have any pressing matters at hand,” she said. “In that case, I will take you to see Master Qigong,” Huang Rong said.

Mu Nianci felt joy. “Master Qigong is here?” she said.

Huang Rong nodded before grasping Mu Nianci’s hand and pulling her up. Suddenly, she heard a sound among the branches above. A piece of bark fell to the ground. In the distance, they could see one person’s shadow jumping happily from locust tree to locust tree. After a while, they could tell it was Hong Qigong.

Huang Rong picked up the bark and saw characters carved onto its surface with a needle. “Two dolls like this are very good,” she read. “But if Rong’er deliberately causes trouble again, then Qigong will hit your eldest child on the ear.” The bark was not signed at the bottom. Instead, a gourd was carved in its place. Huang Rong knew Qigong carved the bark and couldn’t help blushing. She knew Qigong had observed the whole fight and knew all about the particulars of the oath she wanted Mu Nianci to swear. Both people had entered the locust grove and did not even notice Hong Qigong. The pair walked hand-in-hand back to the inn.

Guo Jing, who was sitting inside after he finished practicing, was shocked to see Mu Nianci. He quickly said, “Sister Mu, did you see my masters?”

“Your respected masters and I left the capital together and went south to Shandong,” she said. “We split up there, and I have not seen them since.”

“Are my masters well?” Guo Jing said.

“Be at ease, brother Guo,” Mu Nianci said with a smile. “They are not angry with you.”

Guo Jing was indeed very worried, fearing his masters were very angry with him. He rose and fiddled with some tea and food as his simple mind was lost in thought. Mu Nianci turned to Huang Rong and asked how they met Hong Qigong. Huang Rong told the tale.

“Little sister, you are so blessed,” Mu Nianci said with a sigh. “You spent so much time with Master Qigong that you lived like a little family. But I only wanted to see him and he is not here.”

“He was looking after you,” Huang Rong said comfortingly. “He would have revealed himself if I tried to injure you. If I had hurt you, how could he not have acted?” Mu Nianci nodded in acceptance.

Guo Jing thought this was strange. “Rong’er, why would you want to injure sister Mu?” he asked. “I cannot say,” Huang Rong said quickly.

Mu Nianci smiled. “She feared … feared I would,” she said without finishing. Although she started to speak of the matter, she felt shy about the subject.

Huang Rong reached out and tickled Mu Nianci’s armpit. “You dare to speak of it?” Huang Rong said with a smile.

Mu Nianci stuck her tongue out and then shook her head. “How would I dare?” she said. “Don’t you want me to swear an oath?” Huang Rong spluttered as she recalled trying to force Mu Nianci into swearing to not marry Guo Jing. Both her cheeks turned a bright red. Seeing their shared emotions, Guo Jing felt great happiness.

After eating, the three went into the middle of the forest and strolled about as they idled away their day. Huang Rong asked Mu Nianci how she had received instruction from Hong Qigong.

“It happened when I was very young,” Mu Nianci said. “I followed father to a river in Henan province. We stopped at an inn, and while I played at the entrance, I saw two beggars lying on the ground, bleeding profusely. No one was willing to help them for fear of getting themselves dirty.” Huang Rong made the connection. “Oh, so you showed compassion!” she said. “You tended their injuries.”

“I could not do much for their injuries,” Mu Nianci said. “But I pitied them and took them to father’s room where I cleaned their wounds and bandaged them. When my father returned, he said I did the right thing, and then sighed and said how his former wife was kind hearted as well. Then my father gave the two beggars some money to help them with their injuries. They thanked him and left. After several months, we went to Xinyang, where we ran into those two beggars again, who had recovered from their wounds. They took me to a temple where I first met Hong Qigong. After praising me, he taught me the ‘Wandering Strides’ form, which took three days. On the fourth day, when I returned to the temple, the master had gone.”

Huang Rong said, “Master Qigong won’t allow us to teach his skills to others. But if you, my sister, would like to learn my father’s skills, I could spend the next few days teaching you some of them.” When she found out that Mu Nianci did not want to marry Guo Jing, a burden was lifted from her heart. Now she felt that she was a really nice person, so she wanted to make her a gift.

Mu Nianci said, “Many thanks, but at present I have some urgent matters to attend to. In future I would ask you even without you suggesting it.”

Huang Rong wanted to ask her what was it but one look at her face and Huang Rong knew she did not want to talk about it and thought, “From her shyness, it seems like she’s made up her mind. If she doesn’t want to mention it, it’s alright.”

Mu Nianci left the inn around noon in a hurry and only returned after dusk. Huang Rong noticed the joyful expression on her face but pretended that she did not notice. After their meal, the two ladies retired. Huang Rong saw her cheek resting on her palm and her heart seemed full of emotions, so she pretended to sleep. After a while, she saw her reach into her bundle and take something out, kiss it lightly and look at it fondly. Huang Rong looked over her back and saw that it was a piece of finely-embroidered handkerchief.

Suddenly Mu Nianci jerked around and the handkerchief fluttered. Huang Rong was shocked and immediately shut her eyes while her heart pounded. She only heard the slight breeze in the room and carefully lifted her eyelid. She saw Mu Nianci pacing around the room executing moves randomly. She said to herself, “Hey, that’s the handkerchief she snatched from that young prince during their sparring match.” She saw Mu Nianci smiling to herself, and felt that she was reminiscing of that day’s events as she was imitating Wanyan Kang’s movements and actions. She did that for some time before walking near her bedside.

Huang Rong closed her eyes tightly as she knew Mu Nianci must have been looking in her direction. After a brief moment, she sighed, “You’re really beautiful!” She suddenly turned around and opened the door and walked out. Huang Rong became curious and gave pursuit, utilizing her lightness kung fu [Qinggong] to follow her. Her Qinggong was better than Mu Nianci’s, but she kept her distance to evade detection. She saw her jump onto a roof and glance around. Mu Nianci then jumped to a larger building to the south. Huang Rong had been visiting the place daily to buy groceries, and knew that this was a rich man’s house, so she thought, “Most likely she’d run out of money, so she came here to ‘get’ some.”

Huang Rong saw that the door was brightly painted and there were two large lanterns suspended at the door inscribed with the words, “The Great Jin Kingdom’s Envoy” and there were four Jin soldiers guarding the door. She had passed this door numerous times but had never seen this before, so she thought, “She wants to rob the Great Jin’s bounty; that’s great, after she’s done I can also help myself.” She then followed Mu Nianci to the back courtyard and saw her hide at every other corner, so she followed suit.

They saw the candlelight coming from the kitchen and there was a man’s shadow there pacing about the room. Mu Nianci cautiously walked over and gazed at this shadow. After some time, the shadow was still pacing around while Mu Nianci was starring at him motionlessly. Huang Rong became impatient and thought, “Sister Mu is hesitating; why doesn’t she just barge in and immobilize him?” She went around the other side and thought, “I’ll help her by immobilizing him and hiding in one corner to surprise him.” Just as she was about to enter through a window, she suddenly heard the door open and a man went in, saying, “Reporting, sir, the Southern Imperial Court will send a special envoy here the day after tomorrow.” The man nodded and the messenger left.

Huang Rong thought, “So the guy inside is a Jin nobleman, Sister Mu must have some good reason for coming here and not for burglary; I shouldn’t interfere.” She dipped her finger in her mouth and poked a hole in the window panel and peeped in. She was surprised; it was none other than the young prince Wanyan Kang. In his hand was a black object, and when illuminated by the candlelight, Huang Rong saw that it was a head of a rusty spear. [Note: Window in those days were made of oiled paper.]

Huang Rong did not know that this spear was his father Yang Tiexin’s property and only felt that it had something to do with Mu Nianci, so she laughed to herself, “The two of you are really acting in concert; don’t tell me you’re inseparable.” She let out an uncontrollable laugh. Wanyan Kang was startled and quickly extinguished the candle, exclaiming, “Who’s that?” Huang Rong took this chance to sneak behind Mu Nianci and swiftly sealed her accupoints, rendering her immobile. Huang Rong laughed, “Don’t be afraid, I’m just letting you meet your sweetheart.”

Wanyan Kang opened the door and was about to run out when he heard a girl giggling, “Your sweetheart is here, catch!” Wanyan Kang exclaimed, “What?” A soft, warm and fragrant body landed in his arms, and the girl who spoke was swiftly over the wall laughing, “Sister, how can you ever thank me?” As the laughing faded, the girl in his arms struggled to get down. Wanyan Kang was shocked beyond words and immediately stepped backed, asking, “Who’s this?” Mu Nianci said softly, “Do you still remember me?” He felt her voice was familiar and stammered, “You… you’re Miss Mu?” She replied, “Yes.” He asked, “Who came with you?” She said, “It was a mischievous friend; I didn’t know she followed me.”

He stepped in and relit the candle, saying, “Come in.” Mu Nianci bowed her head and entered, sitting on a chair silently but with a thudding heartbeat. Wanyan Kang saw that she was blushing profusely and said soothingly, “Why are you here to find me at this time?” She did not reply. He thought of his parents’ deaths and said softly, “Since your father is dead, you can stay with me and I will regard you as my sister.” Mu Nianci replied, “He was my foster father…” Wanyan Kang was surprised and thought, “She’s telling me we’re not related by blood.” He took her hand in his and smiled. Mu Nianci’s face reddened even more and her head bowed lower. Wanyan Kang’s heart was on fire and he hugged her, whispering into her ear, “This is the third time I’ve hugged you. The first was during our sparring match, the second was just outside and now there’s no one else around.”

Mu Nianci said “Mmm” and felt an extremely sweet flush inside, which was happening for the first time in her life. Wanyan Kang smelled her fragrance, felt her slender body and decided that it was so surreal. After a while he asked, “How did you find me?” Mu Nianci said, “I’ve been following you. Every night I stare at your shadow but I didn’t dare…” Wanyan Kang realized that her feelings were deep and was very touched, so he kissed her forehead. In the heat of passion he hugged her tightly and kissed her for a long time.

Mu Nianci whispered, “I’m an orphan… Don’t abandon me.” Wanyan Kang embraced her and stroked her hair, saying, “Don’t worry! You’ll always be mine and I’ll always be yours, OK?” Mu Nianci felt great joy in her heart and looked into Wanyan Kang’s eyes, and nodded. Wanyan Kang saw that she was blushing profusely and did not care anymore; he blew out the candle flame and carried her to the bed and tried to undress her.

Mu Nianci was somewhat intoxicated by his affection, but when he touched her, she hastily pushed him away and said, “No, we can’t do this.” Wanyan Kang hugged her and said, “I will definitely marry you. If my heart changes I shall die a horrible death.” She placed her hand over his mouth and said, “I believe you.” He then said, “Then allow me.” She pleaded, “No… no…” Wanyan Kang was really aroused and tried to undo her clothes. She struck out with half her maximum force. Wanyan Kang did not expect her to use her martial arts at this moment and he was shoved away. Mu Nianci jumped from the bed, snatched the spearhead and pointed it towards herself, saying, “If you force me I shall die in front of you.”

Wanyan Kang’s passion immediately turned to ice and he said, “Alright, let’s talk about this, don’t do that.” Mu Nianci said, “Though I’m a poor girl who wanders through Jianghu, I have my dignity and self-respect. If you truly love me, please respect me. I have no other wish in life but to be with you. In future… in future if I marry you I’d of course… obey you. But today if you try to violate me, I’d rather die.” Though she said this softly, she never hesitated. He silently admired and respected her, saying, “Don’t be angry, it’s my fault.”

He got off the bed and relit the candle. Mu Nianci heard that he knew his mistake and said, “I’ll wait for you at my foster father’s home in Ox Village. You can send… the matchmaker anytime.” She paused and said, “If you never show up, I’ll just wait for my whole life.” Wanyan Kang was really touched and quickly said, “Don’t worry, when my official business is complete, I’ll come immediately. In this life I shall never change my mind.”

Mu Nianci smiled shyly and turned to leave. Wanyan Kang shouted, “Don’t leave…let’s chat for a while more.” Mu Nianci waved and left. Wanyan Kang stood there and stared at her departing shadow and felt like it was but a dream. She did leave a few strands of hair behind from their struggle and those he placed in his pouch. When he first sparred with her, he did not think much about it, but he did not expect her to follow him here and stare at his shadow every night. Yet she strongly cherished her chastity, deeply earning his respect. He smiled and sighed. 

Chapter 13 – The Crippled Person of Five Lake

When Huang Rong returned to the inn for the night, she thought in her heart how she had done a good deed and was extremely delighted. Following that, she fell into a sweet sleep, and told Guo Jing all about it when she awoke the next morning. Guo Jing had actually spent a lot of effort on this matter. The last time, he got into a messy situation and had to fight for his life with Wanyan Kang and he was also nearly forced to marry Mu Nianci. When he heard that Mu Nianci and Yang Kang were in love, he secretly felt relieved and happy, especially since Qiu Chuji and the Six Freaks of Jiangnan would not be able to force him to marry Mu Nianci anymore. He ate and chatted with Huang Rong and after some time, Mu Nianci still had not come back.

Huang Rong smiled and said, “We don’t have to wait for her, let’s just go.” Following that, she went back into her room and put on a male disguise. Both of them went to the market and bought a donkey and rode to the Jiang residence. When they saw the lantern, which read ‘The Jin Ambassador’ at the door smashed, they thought that Wanyan Kang must have left and Mu Nianci must have followed him.

Guo Jing and Huang Rong decided to tour the countryside and rowed a boat to the south along the Grand Canal [Dà Yùnhé]. That day they visited the famous Yixing city, which specialized in pottery making and was renowned as the pottery capital [tao du]. The rows of ceramic creations [zisha pottery] made with purple sand and clay lay amongst the green hills and blue waters which created a beautiful sight. They traveled towards the east and not long after, came upon a huge lake [Lake Tai]. Since the lake was situated between three cities and it took about five hundred li [1li=500m / 1/3mile] to reach the east or south side, the lake was named Five Lake. Guo Jing had never seen such a huge body of water before and pulled Huang Rong to the lakeside. They saw the sky far away from them, a huge, never-ending space in front, with the lake in the middle and couldn’t help but yell happily.

Huang Rong said, “Let’s go and play on the lake.” They found a fishing village near the lake, borrowed a small boat and left the donkey with the owner before rowing out into the waters. After rowing some distance away from the shore, the space between all four corners of the lake seemed so empty and huge that it seemed like heaven to them.

Huang Rong’s robes and hair floated gently in the wind and she smiled, “Long ago, Advisor Fan escorted Xi Shi across the Five Lake…what a clever man. His court position is nothing compared to the peaceful life here.”

Guo Jing didn’t know anything about Advisor Fan’s story and asked, “Rong’er, how about you tell me the story.”

Huang Rong began to tell of how Fan Li helped the King of Yue avenge the Yue kingdom and how he successfully retreated with Xi Shi to a peaceful life on Lake Tai. She continued on about how Wu Zixu and Wen Zhong were killed by the King of Wu and the King of Yue respectively.

[Historical background: Xi Shi is one of the legendary Four Beauties of China. The others are Wang Zhaojun, Diao Chan and Yang Guifei (Note that Guifei is a title for the emperor's consort).

** This occurred during the Spring and Autumn period (722-481 BC), before China was united as one empire. At that time, many small states existed. It is against this backdrop that this story took place.]

As the story goes, the King of Yue had once been a prisoner of the King of Wu. He was obsessed about revenge for his humiliation. Fan Li, a minister of the Yue kingdom, came up with a scheme whereby Xi Shi was sent as a gift to the King of Wu. The King of Wu was so enamored by her beauty that he neglected his state, spending all his time with her. Wu Zixu was his best general, but was killed by him.. Eventually, the weakened Wu state was defeated by Yue.

Wen Zhong was a minister of Yue. It was he who ruled Yue while its king was a prisoner. After the defeat of Wu, he was killed by the King of Yue. As for Xi Shi, some legends hold that she disappeared with Fan Li (like what Huang Rong said). Others say she was killed by the King of Yue because he was afraid of succumbing to her beauty like the King of Wu.]

Guo Jing was in a daze after listening to the story and after a while, he recovered and said, “Fan Li was clever, but Wu Zixu and Wen Zhong are admirable too, for dying for their country.”

Huang Rong gave a little laugh, “Absolutely. As the saying goes, if a country is virtuous and one does not change, he is the strongest. If a country is corrupted, and one still does not change, he remains the strongest.”

Guo Jing asked, “What does this mean?”

Huang Rong replied, “If a country is virtuous, even though one rises to be a powerful official, one would still be as alert and cautious as before. When the country becomes weak one day and you are still willing to die for your country, then you are the real hero.”

Guo Jing nodded his head and said, “Rong’er, how clever of you to think of this!”

Huang Rong laughed, “Ai ya! If I could think of this, I would be a sage. These are Confucius sayings which my father taught me when I was young.”

Guo Jing sighed, “There are so many matters I can never understand. If I had read more books and learned more sayings, I would have understood more.”

Huang Rong said, “That may not always be the case. My father always tells me that a lot of sayings by sages and scholars are nothing but rubbish. I often see my father reading and saying out loud ‘No, No what nonsense, this is atrocious!’ Sometimes, he would also say ‘What sage! It’s a pack of rubbish!” Guo Jing laughed out loud hearing how Huang Rong described her father.

Huang Rong continued, “I somehow regret spending so much time studying and practicing art and calligraphy. If I hadn’t pestered my father to teach me such stuff as well as all sorts of other things such as the interesting ways of calculations, I would have devoted more time to practicing my martial skills and we wouldn’t have to be afraid of people like Mei Chaofeng and the old Liang creature! But don’t worry Jing ge ge, you’ve learned Qigong’s ‘Eighteen, but short three, Dragon-Subduing Palms’ and thus you don’t have to fear that old Liang creature anymore.”

Guo Jing shook his head and said, “I don’t think that’s possible.”

Huang Rong laughed and said, “It’s a pity Qigong left. If he hadn’t, I would have confiscated and hidden his dog beating stick and forced him to teach you the remaining three stances before returning it to him.”

Guo Jing hurriedly said, “No, no. I’m more than satisfied to be able to learn the fifteen stances. How can we make trouble for Senior Qigong?”

Both started chatting and stopped rowing, allowing the wind to move the boat freely. Without realizing it, they were already miles away from the shore. They saw a fisherman fishing lazily from a boat not far away and there was a servant at the bow of the boat.

Huang Rong pointed and said, “As the mist clears, one can see the shape of a straight bamboo rod. It’s just like a painting of water inked scenery.”

Guo Jing asked, “What’s water inked scenery?”

Huang Rong answered, “That’s paintings which use only black ink and no other colors.”

Guo Jing saw the green hills, blue waters, white clouds and orange sun but could not find anything black in color. He shook his head, not understanding Huang Rong’s words. Huang Rong chatted more with Guo Jing. Later she turned around and saw that the fisherman was still sitting straight in the boat and his rod had not moved an inch. Huang Rong laughed, “This person does have a lot of patience.”

A gust of wind blew over them and little waves of water sloshed gently against the boat. Huang Rong swung her arms about and started singing a song entitled ‘The Water Dragon’s Hum’ which tells about life on the lake. She finished singing the first part of the song before resting a little. Guo Jing noticed tears in her eyes and was just about to ask her the meaning of the song when suddenly, they heard a melancholy voice singing the exact same song Huang Rong was singing earlier, except that it was the second part. When they looked around, it seemed as though the fisherman was the one singing the song. His voice sounded somewhat forceful yet gentle. Guo Jing did not understand what both of them were singing about but thought that it sounded very nice. However, when Huang Rong heard the song, she looked stunned.

Guo Jing asked, “What’s the matter?”

Huang Rong answered, “My father often sings this song, I didn’t expect a common fisherman to know it too. Let’s check it out.” Both of them rowed the boat over only to see the fisherman holding his fishing rod and rowing his boat forward. When both boats neared each other, the fisherman asked, “To think I was fortunate enough to meet such special guests, can I invite you in for a drink?”

Huang Rong thought his speech sounded composed and refined. She was secretly curious, and answered, “We do not wish to bother the senior.”

The fisherman laughed, “It’s not easy to meet such special guests, but since we meet by chance on the lake, we should treasure it. Please come over.”

The two boats moved even closer. Huang Rong and Guo Jing rowed the boat along side the other boat and climbed in to greet the fisherman. The fisherman greeted them while staying seated and said, “Please be seated. I am crippled so can’t stand up, I apologize for any inconvenience.”

Guo Jing and Huang Rong said, “It’s alright.”

Both of them sat down and observed the fisherman. He looked about forty years of age, had a rather thin face and looked as if he were ill. He was very tall and even though seated, he was still half a head taller than Guo Jing. The servant at the back of the boat began warming up some wine.

Huang Rong said, “My older brother’s surname is Guo, whereas junior is surnamed Huang. I was excited for a moment and started singing in the middle of the lake. I haven’t offended the senior have I?”

The fisherman laughed, “I am fortunate to be able to listen to such a clear voice. My surname is Lu. Little brother, is it your first time touring this lake?”

Guo Jing answered, “Yes.”

The fisherman ordered the servant to bring out some dishes and wine for the guests. Although the four dishes were nothing compared to Huang Rong’s cooking, they tasted good too and the wine cups and dish plates looked quite unique, and no doubt belonged to some precious collection.

The three of them started drinking. The fisherman said, “Just now I heard little brother singing the song ‘The Water Dragon’s Hum’ which has such perfect lyrics. It is such a surprise that little brother, though so young in age, is still able to comprehend the deep meanings of the words.”

When Huang Rong heard his admiring words, she gave a little smile and said, “Ever since the Song moved south, song writers often write sad songs for the country.”

The fisherman nodded in agreement. Huang Rong continued, “The song ‘The Six Cities’ by Zhang Yuhu has the same meaning.”

The fisherman started singing the lyrics, “When people pass by, one would cry tears of loyalty and anger…” He drank up three cups of wine and engaged in conversation with Huang Rong. Actually Huang Rong is just a young girl and had not experienced any real sorrows caused by ‘one’s country’. She did not really identify with the deep meaning of the lyrics. It was just that she’d listened to her father explain the meanings before and thus used her father’s explanation which was a very refined and sophisticated one. This awed the fisherman, who could not help but praise Huang Rong. Guo Jing listened from one corner and did not understand a single word, but he was delighted hearing the fisherman praise Huang Rong. After chatting awhile, he saw that the landscape had paled and the mist surrounding the lake had thickened.

The fisherman said, “My residence is close by the lake, if you don’t mind, I would like to invite both of you there for more discussions.”

Huang Rong asked, “How about it, Jing ge ge?”

Guo Jing hadn’t had a chance to answer before the fisherman said, “My house is built against the backdrop of beautiful hills. Since both of you are touring the countryside, why not stop by for a visit?”

Guo Jing felt that he seemed honest and earnest and thus answered, “Rong’er, we’ll have to impose on Mr. Lu.” The fisherman was delighted and implored the servant to row the boat back home. When they reached the lakeshore, Guo Jing said, “We will have to return the boat first and collect the donkey and my horse.”

The fisherman smiled and said, “I’m acquainted with everyone in the area. You can let him handle the matter.” With that, he gestured to the servant.

Guo Jing said, “My horse is bad tempered; I’d better handle it.”

The fisherman said, “If you insist; I’ll wait for your arrival at my residence then.” With that, the boat rowed off and disappeared into the distance.

The servant followed Guo Jing and Huang Rong to get the things done. He got a larger boat from one of the villagers, which had enough space to hold the donkey and horse. Six hardy boatmen rowed the boat for some distance before the front of an island came into view. They stopped the boat at the jetty, which was made of green stone. When they arrived on shore, they saw a cluster of small houses, which formed a huge manor. They crossed a large stone bridge and arrived in front of the manor. Guo Jing and Huang Rong looked at each other, since they didn’t expect a fisherman to live in such a luxurious place. Before they could reach the main entrance, they saw a man who looked about twenty years of age coming up to them. About six servants followed behind him. The youth said, “My father sent me to receive his guests.”

Guo Jing and Huang Rong made grateful gestures. They noticed that he wore a long robe and had similar facial features to the fisherman, except that he looked stronger and well built. Guo Jing said, “May we know brother Lu’s name?”

The youth said, “This humble one is named Guanying; please just call me by my name.” Huang Rong answered politely, “No, how can we?”

The three began chatting while proceeding towards the main hall. Guo Jing and Huang Rong noticed that the interior of the hall was designed and decorated beautifully. As Huang Rong walked, she concentrated on the layout of the place and its pathways. She looked a little puzzled.

As the three of them crossed the front yard and entered the guest hall, they heard the fisherman call out from behind a screen, “Please come in.”

Lu Guanying said, “My father is unable to walk and thus has to receive you in his east study.”

The three of them went past the screen and saw that the door of the study was open; the fisherman was sitting on a couch, inside. However, he was no longer dressed as a fisherman but as an elderly scholar. He held a white goose feather fan in his hand and was fanning himself cheerfully. Guo Jing and Huang Rong entered and sat, but Lu Guanying didn’t dare sit and stood to one side. Huang Rong saw that the study was filled with shelves of literary classics and poetry collections. The tables were decorated with precious ornaments, such as jade antiques and a black ink painting hung on the wall. The painting depicted a middle-aged scholar who was posing with a sword stance in the backyard in the moonlight. But the scholar had a lonely expression on his face. On the upper left corner of the painting was a poem.

‘The night is silent without any chirping from the birds. It is already late in the night when I fall into deep sleep. I awake only to carry on alone, there is no one but the bright moon there. A hundred pieces gain recognition and success. The aging hills and withering branches block my path.

There are so many things buried within me but no one is willing to listen, to whom can I confide in my problems?’

Huang Rong recognized this poem as one written by Yue Fei entitled ‘Little Strong Hill’. It had been taught to her by her father. She saw the signature at the bottom which read ‘The Crippled Person of Five Lake is seriously ill’ and realized that the ‘Crippled Person of Five Lake’ must be the pen name for the owner of this manor. The strokes of the words were written in a harsh and forceful manner and seemed like they were tearing through the paper.

Master Lu saw that Huang Rong was concentrating on the painting and asked, “Brother, how do you find my painting? Would you care to give me some pointers?” [Reminder: Huang Rong is dressed as a boy.]

Huang Rong answered, “I will express my thoughts then, but I hope Master Lu does not get offended.” Master Lu said, “Please go on.”

Huang Rong said, “The poem in the painting is Yue Fei’s ‘Little Strong Hill’, which he wrote in his Wu Mu collections. The words depict a distressed and depressed mood. However there are specific meanings to them. General Yue was a courageous soul and fought hard for his country and people. The phrase, ‘A hundred pieces for recognition and success’ in the poem is probably to show his humble being. At that time, many court officials were corrupt and were on the side of the Jin. Yue Fei was a strong official but it was a pity no one was willing to listen to him. This was probably why he wrote the phrase, ‘There are so many things buried within me but no one is willing to listen, to whom can I confide my problems?’ The phrase depicts a despondent Yue Fei, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that he wanted to oppose the court. However when master wrote this poem, you were in an agitated and aggressive mood and thus asserted much force in your brush strokes; it seems as if you wanted to fight it out with your sworn enemy and thus, your intentions and mood do not tie in at all with Yue Fei’s at the time when he worked on his Wu Mu collections. Forgive me for my ignorance but from what I know, if one strives to over achieve or over express in literary and art works, the true and pure intentions will be lost and the work will be unable to achieve its brilliance.” When Master Lu heard what Huang Rong said, he gave a long sigh. He wore a miserable expression and was silent. Huang Rong saw his unusual response and thought, “I’m afraid I have been too direct in my words and offended him. But it’s exactly what father taught me when he explained this poem.”

She said, “This humble one has been too ignorant and spouted nonsense. Please forgive me Master Lu.”

Master Lu recovered a little and then wore a delighted expression on his face. He asked happily, “Brother Huang, please don’t say that. You are the first person who can actually read my feelings, what a great confidant you are. As for the over use of expression, it is one of my worst habits. I thank brother for your pointers.” He turned to his son and said, “Hurry and ask the servants to prepare the banquet.”

Guo Jing and Huang Rong hurriedly conveyed their thanks and said, “Please don’t bother.” But Lu Guanying had already disappeared from the room.

Master Lu said, “Brother is wise and knowledgeable, you must have mastered a high level of literary classics and your father must be a brilliant teacher. I wonder what his honorable name is?”

Huang Rong answered, “This humble one knows nothing much and thus does not deserve all this praise. My father lives in isolation and does not have any students; thus his name is not well known.”

Master Lu sighed, “What a pity it is, not being able to meet such talent.”

After the banquet, they returned to the study for a chat. Master Lu said, “The scenery outside is some of the best, why don’t the two of you reside in one of the houses in the manor and enjoy the view? Furthermore, it’s getting late and it is time for you to rest.”

Guo Jing and Huang Rong stood up and bid their farewell. Huang Rong was about to leave the room when she suddenly looked up and saw that eight pieces of iron strips were fixed above the study’s lintel. The iron strips were arranged to form the ‘Eight trigrams’, but it was not as neat as the usual arrangement. The iron strips were arranged in a rather sloppy and messy way. Huang Rong’s heart skipped a beat but she remained silent and expressionless and followed Guo Jing to a guest room. The guest room was decorated in an elegant way; the two beds faced each other and the pillows and sheets were clean.

A servant served them some fragrant tea and said, “If sirs need anything, just ring the bell beside the bed and I will come. Please be reminded never to leave the room.” With that, he left the room and gently closed the door behind him.

Huang Rong asked in a low voice, “What do you find peculiar about this place? Why do they ask us not to leave the room?” Guo Jing said, “The manor is huge and the pathways lead out in all directions. Maybe they’re afraid that we will get lost?” Huang Rong gave a little laugh, “The manor has an unusual design. What kind of person do you think Master Lu is?”

Guo Jing said, “Maybe a retired official?”

Huang Rong shook her head, “This person is no doubt highly skilled in martial arts. Did you see the iron ‘Eight Trigrams’ just now?” Guo Jing asked, “Iron ‘Eight Trigrams’? What’s that?”

Huang Rong answered, “That’s used to practice the ‘Thrusting Air Palms’. Father taught me this set of palm techniques but I was bored and stopped learning it after a month. I would never have expected to see it here.”

Guo Jing said, “Master Lu means us no harm. Since he did not mention anything about it, let’s just pretend that we are unaware of it.”

Huang Rong nodded and smiled. She gently thrust out her palm towards the candle and a ‘chi’ sound was heard just before the candle went out.

Guo Jing praised in a low voice, “Great palm technique!” He asked, “Is that the ‘Thrusting Air Palm’?”

Huang Rong smiled, “I only learned it to this level. It can be used for fun but it is totally useless when used in a real duel.”

There was a sudden distant humming in the middle of the night, which startled Guo Jing and Huang Rong, who had been sleeping before that. They strained to hear more and heard the sound again, which sounded like someone was blowing a tune on a seashell. After a while, the humming started again. There was definitely more than one person creating the noise as both hums were created at the same time. It seemed like there were two people standing apart and blowing the shells to communicate. Huang Rong whispered, “Let’s go and see what’s up.”

Guo Jing answered, “Let’s not go and find trouble.”

Huang Rong argued, “Who says we’re finding trouble? I only suggested that we check out what’s happening.”

They pushed open the window quietly and looked out. They saw many people running about with lanterns in their hands, but there was no clue as to why they were rushing about. Huang Rong looked up and saw three or four blurred figures crouching on a nearby rooftop. The light from the lanterns shone briefly onto the figures and Huang Rong saw the moving light reflecting from the weapons which those people carried. After a while, the crowd of servants ran out of the manor. Huang Rong was curious and pulled Guo Jing towards the side of the window. She made sure no one was about and gently leaped out such that the people on the roof weren’t aware of her movements.

Huang Rong signaled to Guo Jing to walk backwards. The pathways in the manor turned and twisted such that the directions were very complicated. The most unusual thing was that the railings and pillars at every turn looked exactly the same. After a few whirls, one would not be able to distinguish between the different directions. Huang Rong, however, was not the least bothered about this obstacle and walked around without any hint of worry or suspicion. Several times, it looked as if it was no pathway but she always managed to identify a fake rock and spin past it; or she would just twirl round the flowers and they would be back on the main path. At times, it looked as if there was a dead end in front of them, but somehow or other, there would always be a way past a screen of a huge trees. At times, there would be a path through the opening of a grotto but Huang Rong would never walk through. Instead, she would miraculously be able to identify a hidden and unnoticeable entrance in the walls and push through. The more Guo Jing proceeded the more curious he became. He whispered, “Rong’er, the pathways of this manor are really bizarre, how is it that you are always able to identify the right way?”

Huang Rong signaled for him to be quiet and after seven or eight more turns, they arrived by the wall of the backyard. Huang Rong examined the wall and used her fingers to count before walking and counting her footsteps. Guo Jing heard her mumble, “Form a trigram first, thirdly prepare, fifthly supplement, repeat the seventh…”and he did not understand a single word.

Huang Rong counted as she walked, and after a particular count, she stopped in her tracks and said, “We can only leave from here; the rest of the place is filled with traps.”

She leapt onto the top of the wall and Guo Jing followed suit. Huang Rong continued, “This manor is built according to sixty-four bearings (positions) which are concealed. My father is a master in this particular type of pattern, which requires one to design eight different types of routes. Master Lu can obstruct others, but he can’t trap me.” Her tone was filled with pride.

The two climbed up a small mound situated behind the manor and looked out towards the east. They saw a person walking towards the lake with a lantern raised high. Huang Rong tugged at Guo Jing’s sleeve and both of them flew forward using their lightness skill. Arriving closer, they hid behind a huge rock and noticed a row of fishing boats near the shore of the lake. A crowd of people slowly boarded the boats and after they did so, each put out their lanterns. Guo Jing and Huang Rong waited till the last batch of people boarded and it was pitch dark before leaping out and landing on the tail of a large boat. After they heard the fishing boats begin to move, they leaped on top of the sail of the boat and looked down. It was then they saw someone sitting inside the cabin of the boat and the person was none other than the junior of the manor, Lu Guanying.

As the row of boats started moving, the tune from the seashell could be heard again. A person on the boat walked to the front and also started blowing into a shell. After the boat moved some distance, one could see many little boats drifting on the lake. The myriad of little boats looked like tiny ants in the distance as though one had painted hundreds of black dots on a large sheet of paper. The person on the boat blew his shell three times and the large boat dropped its small boat into the middle of the lake. About ten little boats started moving in from all directions. Guo Jing and Huang Rong were mystified and they were not sure whether or not a battle was going to take place. They lowered their heads and peeped at Lu Guanying, who looked calm and normal; he did not show any hint of anxiousness as one would show in times of war.

Not long after, the boats sailed nearer. Every boat had either two or three people who boarded the boat. Every person, after boarding the huge boat, would bow to Lu Guanying and were respectful in their behavior. It seemed that seats had been arranged for the visitors from the little boats according to their status. Some people had arrived earlier but sat at the back, whereas some who arrived later got to sit in the front. A tea server ushered the visitors to their seats. The visitors had stern and rough expressions and their actions were swift and fierce. Although they dressed like fishermen, it seemed as if all of them were well versed in martial arts and were definitely not the usual type of fisherman.

Lu Guanying raised his arm and said, “Brother Zhang, what have you found out?” A skinny man sitting in the middle stood up and said, “To answer Junior Master, the Jin Ambassador has decided to sail across the lake tonight. Commander Duan should arrive in about one shichens. [one shichen = 2 hours] He is using the pretext of greeting the ambassador to engage in some plunder along the way. That is why he is late. ”

Lu Guanying asked, “How much has he ransacked?”

The man answered, “There have been harvests from every village and his soldiers are still robbing the villagers now. When I saw him board the boat, his soldiers were struggling with more than twenty heavy chests of treasure.”

Lu Guanying asked, “How many soldiers and horses does he have with him?”

The man answered, “About two thousand. Those who cross the lake do not have horses with them. Since there are not enough boats, there are about a thousand of them who stayed back on shore.”

Lu Guanying turned towards the audience and asked, “Bothers, what do you think?” Everyone answered, “We will follow Junior Master’s orders.”

Lu Guanying placed both hands into his sleeves and said, “These corrupt officials go around confiscating money through immoral means. We, the people of the lake, would not be delivering justice if we do not get that money back. We will do our best to take as much as we can. Half of it will go to the poor villagers by the lake and the other half will be split between us.” The audience all roared in agreement. It was then that Guo Jing and Huang Rong realize that these people were the pirates of the lake and Lu Guanying was probably their leader.

Lu Guanying said, “Without further delay, let’s get going. Brother Zhang, take five small boats and continue to keep watch.”

The skinny man took the order and immediately sailed away. Lu Guanying went on to assign everyone their tasks, such as who would lead, who would be the back ups, who would lead the ‘water ghosts’ to swim and create damage to the enemy’s boat, who would grab the treasure, who would capture the official and so on. He carefully assigned the various tasks in a very organized way.

Guo Jing and Huang Rong were puzzled. They had just dined and chatted with Lu Guanying earlier in the day and found him to be a polite, proper and decent chap, not forgetting that he was from a wealthy and cultivated family. Who would have guessed that he was a pirate leader? Just as Lu Guanying finished assigning the various tasks and everyone was setting out, someone from the middle of the group stood up and said coldly, “We people have no assets and it is alright to rob some wealthy businessmen. But if we attack such an official, won’t we have trouble living on the lake in the future? We should not offend the Jin Ambassador.”

Guo Jing and Huang Rong thought the voice sounded familiar. When they squinted to have a better look, they realized that is was Sha Tongtian’s disciple, one of the ‘Four Demons of the Yellow River’, ‘Spirit Capturing Whip’ Ma Qingxiong; they had no idea how he ended up in this group. Lu Guanying’s expression changed; he had yet to answer when a few pirates in the crowd starting hooting.

Lu Guanying said, “Brother Ma is a first timer and doesn’t know the rules here. Since everyone is determined to carry out the task, we’ll give our all and make sure the soldiers have no chance to retaliate, only then can we die without regrets.”

Ma Qingxiong answered, “Alright, you people go ahead; I would rather not get involved and get myself into trouble.” With that, he turned and started to walk off the boat. Two men blocked him and called out, “Brother Ma, you swore that you will go through thick and thin with us!”

Ma Qingxiong pushed out with both palms and retorted, “Move away!” The two men were hit and fell to the side. As Ma Qingxiong was about to leave the boat he suddenly felt a gust of wind fly towards his back, when the wind passed him he used his left hand to take a dagger from his boot, twist his arm and thrust the dagger behind him. Lu Guanying stretched out his left arm and positioned it on the entrance door; at the same time, he leaped and thrust his palm forward. Ma Qingxiong used his right arm to block the attack while using his left arm to thrust the dagger forward. The two men exchanged attacks in the narrow passage-way of the boat. Guo Jing once fought with Ma Qingxiong back in Mongolia. When he first saw Lu Guanying’s moves, he thought that it would not be easy for him to win. But after more moves, Lu Guanying gained the upper hand and was clearly going to win. Guo Jing was suspicious and thought, “Why is Ma suddenly not strong anymore? Ah, yes, that day when he fought with me he had the support of his martial brothers; but now, he’s alone surrounded by many enemies, of course he’ll be afraid.” But Guo Jing did not know that the real reason lay in Hong Qigong’s training of the past two months. Guo Jing had mastered fifteen stances of the world renowned ‘Eighteen Dragon- Subduing Palms’, accompanied by pointers and advice provided by Hong Qigong himself. Because of this, although he did not understand the full essence of the skill, his martial arts had improved tremendously and were at a very much higher level than the skills he learned from the ‘Seven Freaks of Jiangnan’. At this point in time, Guo Jing was still unaware that his skills had already exceeded his six teachers, and thus, he still thought that he was inferior to Ma Qingxiong. He saw the two men exchange further stances when Lu Guanying shot out his left fist and a ‘pa’ sound was heard; the blow hit Ma Qingxiong on the chest and he stumbled and fell back. Two pirates behind him pierced him with their daggers and Ma Qingxiong lay dead. The two pirates then lifted the corpse and threw it into the lake.

Lu Guanying continued, “Brothers, let’s embrace our mission bravely.” The crowd began to cheer loudly and each group separated, went back to their respective boats and began to head east. Lu Guanying’s huge boat sailed at the rear of the others. After awhile, they spotted around ten huge and brightly lit boats from afar, heading west towards them.

Guo Jing and Huang Rong thought to themselves, “Those big boats must belong to the officials.”

The two quietly climbed up the mast of the boat and sat on top at a cross arm hiding themselves behind the sail. They heard the seashell tunes from the little boats as the opposing sides got closer. There were sounds of yelling, scolding, clashing weapons and the sounds of splashing as bodies dropped into the water. After awhile, the officials’ boats were on fire which lit up the dark sky and cast a fiery red glow over the lake. Guo Jing and Huang Rong knew that the pirates had succeeded in their mission and saw a few little boats sailing forward furiously with shouts of, “The soldiers have been defeated and the commander has been captured.”

Lu Guanying was delighted as he walked to the bow of the boat and shouted, “Inform the various chiefs on each boat to put in a little more effort so that we can capture the Jin Ambassador!” The pirate who delivered the news obeyed and flew off to pass on the message.

Guo Jing and Huang Rong nudged each other at the same time and had the same thought, “That Jin Ambassador must be Wanyan Kang; I wonder how he will deal with this.”

They heard the seashell tune coming from various boats again and saw that the group of boats had turned back in their direction and the pirates were tugging at their sails. The west wind suddenly blew furiously, causing the boats to sail like arrows shooting towards the east. Lu Guanying’s boat had been at the rear of the fleet, but now his boat had become the lead. Guo Jing and Huang Rong were now sitting on the cabin’s roof with the wind blowing on their backs. They were sailing fast across the misty lake and the myriads of stars in the sky came into view and they had the urge to sing out loud. Suddenly, the little boats sailed past one by one and ended up in front of the boat Guo Jing and Huang Rong were on.

The boats sailed for about an hour and the sky turned brighter before two boats sailed quickly towards the boat. One of the men in the boat raised a green flag and waved it, shouting, “We have spotted the Jin boat! The commander’s boat has already taken the lead to capture it.”

Lu Guanying, standing in the bow of his boat, called out, “Good!”

After a short while, another small boat sailed back and reported, “That bastard Jin Ambassador has deadly claws; our commander is injured but leader Peng and Dong are currently trying to subdue him.”

In a while, two pirates carried the injured and unconscious commander onto Lu Guanying’s boat. As Lu Guanying was inspecting the wounds, two small boats rowed up and the pirates helped their two injured leaders up onto the boat. The pirates also reported that Piao Miao Peak’s Leader Guo suffered a deadly blow from the Jin Ambassador and fell into the lake. Lu Guanying was furious and shouted, “I am going to personally kill that vicious Jin dog.”

Guo Jing and Huang Rong were strongly against Wanyan Kang’s actions but could not bear to let him fend off the group of pirates alone. This would make Mu Nianci hate them forever. Huang Rong whispered into Guo Jing’s ear, “Are we going to help him?”

Guo Jing replied with a slight sigh, “Save him but make him repent.” Huang Rong nodded. At the same time, Lu Guanying leaped onto a small boat and yelled, “Let’s go!”

Huang Rong said to Guo Jing, “Let’s go and stop the small boat.” Both of them leaped onto the side of the small boat and heard some shouting from the group of pirates in front. They looked out and saw the Jin Ambassador’s boats slowly sinking one by one. They thought that it must have been the doings of the ‘Water Ghosts’ who were in charge of wrecking the bottom of the boats from below.

As the pirates waved the green flag, two small boats hurriedly rowed over and reported, “The Jin dog fell into the water and has been captured by us!”

Lu Guanying was delighted and leaped back onto his boat. After awhile, the seashell tune was blown again and the various little boats assembled, one by one bringing along with them the Jin Ambassador and his guards onto the boat. Guo Jing and Huang Rong saw that Wanyan Kang had his hands and feet bound with ropes and his eyes were tightly shut. They thought that he must have swallowed too much water but his chest had not congested and he was still breathing. By this time, the sky was already light as sunlight shone brightly from the east revealing a line of boats floating gracefully on the lake.

Lu Guanying commanded, “The various leaders may return to the manor and hold a banquet to celebrate. Please lead your teams and await your rewards.”

The pirates cheered loudly and the boats parted ways and slowly disappeared into the cloud of mist. The lake became peaceful and quiet once more. Guo Jing and Huang Rong waited for the boat to sail back to the Lu Manor and after Lu Guanying and his group of pirates left, they flew back to the shore. The pirates were overjoyed with their rewards and did not notice that there had been people secretly hiding on their boat. Huang Rong sought out the directions and led Guo Jing into the manor via the backyard and back into their room.

By this time, the servant who took care of them had checked a few times to see if they had awakened, but since the room door was still locked, he thought that the two young men must have had a long day yesterday and thus slept longer. After they got back into their room, Guo Jing opened the door and two servants who waited outside came forward to greet him before bringing some breakfast. One said, “Master Lu is waiting in his study. Please go and join him after your breakfast.” The two ate some dishes and buns before following the servant to the study.

Master Lu smiled and said, “The winds from the lake are strong and when they blow against the shore, the noise might be disturbing. Did you two sleep well?”

Guo Jing wasn’t used to lying so when he heard the question, he froze for a moment. Huang Rong answered, “We only heard sounds of seashells blowing during the night, I think it must have been the monks and Taoist priests chanting and practicing their rituals.”

Master Lu laughed and did not ask more. Instead, he said, “I have collected some artistic works and would like you two brothers to have a look.”

Huang Rong answered, “Of course. Anything that Master Lu collects must be priceless.”

Master Lu ordered the keeper of the study to bring out some artistic pieces and Huang Rong observed each of the pieces curiously. Suddenly, noises came from outside. They could hear footsteps and it sounded like a group of people chasing someone. A voice said, “Once you’ve stepped into the manor grounds, it will be impossible for you to escape!”

Master Lu acted as if nothing had happened and as if he hadn’t heard anything. He asked, “The art of calligraphy in our dynasty is dominated by the four families, Su, Huang, Mi and Cai. I wonder which family brother Huang likes best?”

Huang Rong was about to answer when the door of the study suddenly burst open and a person, who was wet from head to toe, rushed in. It was Wanyan Kang. Huang Rong tugged on Guo Jing’s sleeve and whispered, “Look at the pieces of art, don’t look at him.” The two turned around and lowered their heads to the calligraphy works.

Wanyan Kang didn’t know how to swim; when his boat sank earlier, though he was well versed in martial arts, he could not save himself. He passed out and when he regained consciousness he had been captured and brought to the manor for questioning by Lu Guanying. Wanyan Kang noticed that the pirate guarding him did not carry his usual dagger and came up with a plan. He summoned his internal strength and used his fingers to grab onto the ropes which bound him and used the ‘Nine Yin White Bone Claw’ to free himself. The guards were stunned and rushed forward to re-capture him but were attacked by his claws and fell to the ground. Wanyan Kang ran off but couldn’t have guessed that the manor was structured with bizarre mazes. If a stranger did not know the secret to the formations and did not have a guide from the manor, he or she would get trapped on the manor grounds. Wanyan Kang, anxious when he could not find his way out, barged into Master Lu’s study. Although Lu Guanying knew that he had freed himself from the ropes, he also knew that Wanyan Kang would not be able to find his way out of the manor grounds and was not worried. He chased after Wanyan Kang and saw him dash into Master Lu’s study. Afraid that his father would get hurt, he dashed forward and stood in front of his father. The section leaders of Lake Tai blocked the doorway.

Wanyan Kang was furious at being trapped; he pointed a finger at Lu Guanying and yelled, “Despicable pirates! You people used dirty tricks to sink my boat. Have you no sense of shame; aren’t you afraid you’ll be mocked by the other Jianghu swordsmen?”

Lu Guanying laughed heartily and said, “You are a Jin Prince, what business do you have with us Han swordsmen? What have the people of Jianghu got to do with you?”

Wanyan Kang answered, “When I was in Yanjing, I heard of many stories regarding the heroes of Jiangnan and thought that the men of Jiangnan were all upright and courageous. Hah! Who would have thought that you people…hai, you people do not live up to your reputations at all!”

Lu Guanying was furious and shouted, “So?”

Wanyan Kang answered, “You people are no more than despicable cowards who use vast strength to defeat one person!” Lu Guanying laughed coldly, “So if anyone takes you on alone and wins, then you will die without regrets?”

Wanyan Kang was using words to infuriate Lu Guanying and trick him into saying exactly this. He immediately replied, “If the manor has just one person who can exceed me in terms of fighting, I would willingly give in and will die without regrets. But I wonder who would I spar with?” As he said this, he arrogantly looked around the crowd with hands behind him laughing coldly.

These words angered Lake Tai’s Mo Li Peak’s chief, the section leader, ‘Golden Rock’ who shouted, “Bastard, I am going to beat you!” With that, he rushed into the study, stretched out both fists and using the stance ‘Sounds of the Striking Bells’ aimed towards Wanyan Kang’s Taiyang accupoint. Wanyan Kang gently shifted his body and flipped his left palm to grab hold of the back of his opponent’s robe before swinging him out of the door.

Lu Guanying, having seen Wanyan Kang’s vicious strokes, was secretly alarmed. He knew that none of the section heads were his match and yelled, “Excellent skills, let me exchange a few stances with you. Let’s go out into the yard.” Lu Guanying knew that his opponent was strong and was afraid that if they fought in the study, one of them would accidentally harm his father and his guests, since none of them knew how to fight.

Wanyan Kang answered, “It’s the same wherever we fight, why not just stay here? Please display your stance section leader!” Actually, his words were hinting at another meaning. What Wanyan Kang was actually thinking in his heart was, “I only have to use a few stances to defeat you, why bother changing the place of the fight?”

Lu Guanying, seething, said, “Alright, since you are the guest, please start first.”

Wanyan Kang relaxed his right palm and used his left palm to attack Lu Guanying’s chest. His first stance already used the ‘Nine Yin White Bone Claw’, and was intended to injure his opponent immediately.

Lu Guanying mentally scolded, “Arrogant fellow, let me show you what I am capable of.” He sucked in his chest subtly but did not retreat. Instead, he used his right fist to attack his opponent’s moving elbow, while two of his left fingers pointed towards Wanyan Kang’s face, with the intention of piercing his eyes. Wanyan Kang saw that his stances were swift and was a little nervous. He secretly thought to himself, “Who would have thought there would be such a skilled fighter in this out of the way place?” With that, he hurriedly retreated half a step, flipped his wrist and aimed at Lu’s arms. Lu Guanying twisted to his left and put both hands together in the form of a pouch with the thumb and index finger of one hand facing those of his other hand. The move was none other than ‘Holding the Moon Against One’s Chest’. Wanyan Kang knew that his opponent was strong and did not dare underestimate him any longer. He became serious and displayed the Quanzhen fist techniques which Qiu Chuji had taught him. Lu Guanying was the favorite pupil of Honorable Kumo of the Yun Qi monastery. He learned the fist techniques of the Xian Xia School, which was affiliated with the Shaolin monastery in the hills of Henan. Therefore, the skills Lu Guanying learned were orthodox; he was cautious of his opponent and used different skills to counter whatever his opponent used. He knew that Wanyan Kang’s claw techniques were superior and thus made sure that he didn’t let Wanyan Kang’s fingers touch his body. When he saw the chance to attack Wanyan Kang, he used his legs. His teacher had taught him, “Use your fists thirty percent and your legs seventy percent. Your hands are just like fans; concentrate on using your kicks.”

Lu Guanying learned skills that did not belong to his family and his kicking techniques were excellent. The longer the two fought, the faster their stances became and they looked like two dancing shadows sparring with each other in the study. Guo Jing and Huang Rong did not want Wanyan Kang to recognize them and retreated to the side of a bookshelf and secretly observed the fight. Wanyan Kang was getting agitated the longer he fought and secretly thought to himself, “If this goes on, even if I can defeat him this round, there will still be others wanting to spar with me. By that time, how will I have any energy left for fighting?”

His skills were actually much superior to Lu Guanying’s; but because he had nearly drowned and swallowed so much water he’d lost quite a bit of energy and his body was exhausted. Furthermore, it was the first time he’d been trapped in this sort of situation and was somewhat nervous and therefore allowed Lu Guanying to gain the upper hand for more than ten stances. He forced himself to concentrate and put more force into his attacks. A cracking sound was heard as Lu Guanying’s shoulder was injured by Wanyan Kang’s fist. Lu Guanying stumbled and retreated backwards. He saw that his opponent was using this chance to attack further and leaped up, kicking his right leg forward towards Wanyan Kang’s chest. The stance, called ‘Bosom Kick’ is a very swift and powerful one which Lu Guanying had practiced since young. He had tied himself to a rope so as to develop his speed since the stance emphasizes the swiftness of the kick such that the opponent is caught by surprise and cannot defend himself in time.

Wanyan Kang felt a pain in his chest and he twirled his right hand jabbing his fingers into Lu Guanying’s calf. He used his left palm and thrust towards Lu Guanying’s calf while yelling, “Down!”

Lu Guanying was actually standing on one foot but after that strong push by Wanyan Kang, he lost his balance and fell backwards towards his father. Master Lu stretched out his left arm and caught Lu Guanying before gently placing him on the floor. When he saw the blood that flowed from his son’s leg he was shocked and furious. Master Lu shouted, “How are you connected to the ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’?”

Everyone was surprised when Master Lu intervened. Wanyan Kang and the various section leaders were unaware that Master Lu knew martial arts; even his son, Lu Guanying did not know it. Everyone thought that because Master Lu was crippled, it was natural that he would not know martial arts and could not fight. Even since he was young, Lu Guanying never asked about or probed into his father’s affairs. Who would have expected that that move which Master Lu displayed to save his son would be steady and strong? Huang Rong had seen the iron ‘Eight Trigrams’ on the study’s lintel last night and had pointed it out to Guo Jing. They were the only ones who did not seem that surprised.

When Wanyan Kang heard Master Lu ask about the ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’, he froze for a moment before answering. “What are the ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’?” Although Mei Chaofeng had taught him martial arts, she never told him about her past and Wanyan Kang did not even know her name. It was therefore understandable that he did not know anything about the ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’.

Master Lu was furious and shouted, “Who are you bluffing? Who taught you the deadly ‘Nine Yin White Bone Claws’?”

Wanyan Kang replied, “I have no time to listen to more of your nonsense, good bye!” With that, he turned and headed towards the door.

The various section leaders were furious and took up their weapons, ready to guard the doorway. Wanyan Kang turned towards Lu Guanying and laughed coldly, “Didn’t you give your word just now?”

Lu Guanying was pale and waved his arm saying, “Heroes of the lake keep to their promises; brothers, let him go. Brother Zhang, please lead him out.”

The section leaders were all unwilling to do so but since the Junior Master had given orders, they could not oppose him. Leader Zhang said, “Follow me then. I bet a rascal like you would not be able to find the way out yourself.”

Wanyan Kang said, “Where are my men?” Lu Guanying replied, “We let them all go.”

Wanyan Kang pointed to him and said, “Good, you are a man of your word. As for the rest of you leaders…until we meet again.” He said rudely and arrogantly.

Just as he was about to leave the room, Master Lu suddenly called out, “Hold it! This Elder here is untalented but would like to have a taste of your ‘Nine Yin White Bone Claws’.”

Wanyan Kang stopped in his tracks and laughed, “Alright!”

Lu Guanying hurriedly said, “Father, you should not deal with this rascal at your age.”

Master Lu replied, “Don’t worry, his ‘Nine Yin White Bone Claw’ is not up to standard yet.” He stared at Wanyan Kang and said weakly, “I am crippled and am unable to move, come here.”

Wanyan Kang laughed but did not move. Lu Guanying’s leg wounds were hurting but he did not want his father to fight with Wanyan Kang and leaped out of the door shouting, “I will represent my father to exchange a few blows with you.” Wanyan Kang laughed and said, “Good! Let’s practice again.”

Master Lu shouted, “Ying’er move away!” With that, he leaped up, his left arm gripped the couch he was sitting on and he used his left arm’s strength to support the weight of his body. His right palm lashed out towards Wanyan Kang’s head. At the sound of the crowd’s anxious gasps, Wanyan Kang raised his hands to counter the blow but felt his left wrist trapped. He’d seen the swift shadow of his opponent’s palm which was heading towards his shoulder, but Wanyan Kang did not expect his opponent’s seizing stance to be so fast and unique. He hurriedly used his right hand to strike back while struggling to free his left hand from his opponent’s grasp. Master Lu shifted his weight onto Wanyan Kang’s wrist and was able to float in midair. His left palm unleashed several killer strikes while Wanyan Kang used all his strength to escape his grip; but to no avail. He tried to unleash a flying kick towards Master Lu but missed. The crowd was delighted as they watched the ongoing fight. Master Lu raised his palm, ready to unleash a strike onto Wanyan Kang when the latter stuck out his fingers and aimed towards Master Lu’s palm. Master Lu suddenly lowered his palm and struck Wanyan Kang’s shoulder accupoint. Wanyan Kang felt his upper body going numb and following that, his right wrist was also seized by Master Lu. Two sounds were heard before Wanyan Kang’s wrists were released. Master Lu’s stance was very quick as he used his right hand to push against Wanyan Kang’s waist while his left hand pushed against Wanyan Kang’s shoulder, thus borrowing Wanyan Kang’s strength to leap back steadily onto his couch. Wanyan Kang felt both legs giving way and he collapsed. The section leaders were stunned and it was only after a moment’s silence that they started to cheer.

Lu Guanying hurriedly ran towards the couch and asked, “Father, are you alright?”

Master Lu smiled and shook his head but his expression turned suspicious and he said, “When the teacher of this Jin dog comes for him, I will have to have a serious talk with him.”

Two section leaders took some rope and tied Wanyan Kang up. Leader Zhang said, “Amongst the belongings of Commander Duan, we found iron locks and chains, let’s use them for this rascal and see whether he can break them!” The crowd cheered in agreement and someone ran out to retrieve the chains and locks before returning to bind Wanyan Kang with them. The pain in his wrists was torturing him and Wanyan Kang sweated profusely; but he bore with it and refused to make a sound.

Master Lu said, “Bring him here.” Two men grabbed Wanyan Kang by the shoulders and brought him in front of the couch. Master Lu tapped the accupoints of Wanyan Kang’s lower spine and left chest. Wanyan Kang suddenly felt the pain subsiding and though he was still fuming inside, he was secretly surprised. Before he could say anything, he was taken away while the other section leaders slowly left the room.

Master Lu then turned towards Huang Rong and Guo Jing and smiled, “I was concentrating so hard on fighting with that young man that I forgot my manners, I hope you won’t laugh.”

Huang Rong saw that his palm and accupoint techniques were those of her family and was even more puzzled. She smiled and asked, “Who was that? Did he steal from the manor and thus made Master angry?”

Master Lu laughed heartily and said, “Yes, he did steal a lot from us. Come, let us not get distracted by that evil rascal; let’s continue to appreciate the pieces of art.”

Lu Guanying left the room to the three of them. Master Lu chatted about the scenic backdrops, human expression and more with Huang Rong while Guo Jing just listened without understanding a single thing as usual. After lunch, Master Lu ordered two servants to accompany them on a tour of the countryside and they enjoyed themselves until nightfall before returning to the manor. Before sleeping, Guo Jing asked, “Rong’er. How are we going to save him?”

Huang Rong answered, “Let’s stay here for a few more days because I still can’t guess Master Lu’s true identity.” Guo Jing answered, “His skills are very similar to yours.”

Huang Rong sighed deeply, “That’s the unusual part, and, hmmm, does he know Mei Chaofeng?”

The two could not guess and were afraid that someone might eavesdrop and so did not discuss it further. In the middle of the night, they suddenly heard a slight sound on the rooftop followed by a sound on the ground. They immediately got out of their beds, quietly pushed open the window and peered out. They saw a black shadow amongst the roses. That person looked around before heading towards the east. The person did not seem to be a resident of the manor since he or she was alert and on guard. Huang Rong had actually thought that this manor only housed heroic pirates of the lake, but after seeing Master Lu’s display of skills earlier, she felt curious and decided to find out more. She waved to Guo Jing and they leaped out of the window, secretly trailing that intruder. After following that person for a while, the moonlight showed that it was a lady with average skills. Huang Rong quickened her pace and moved nearer to her. She turned her head slightly, revealing that it was Mu Nianci.

Huang Rong laughed inwardly and thought, “Good, his rescuer has come; let’s see what tricks you use.”

Mu Nianci circled the garden and lost sense of direction after a while. Huang Rong understood the layout of this garden since her father, Huang Yaoshi, was a master of these formations and would discuss it with her once in a while. She thought the formations in this garden unusual but it was nothing compared to those on Peach Blossom Island, which were weird and confusing, just like its owner.

Huang Rong thought to herself, “If you carry on walking like that, you won’t be able to find him in a hundred years.” With that, she picked up some soil from the ground and when she saw Mu Nianci hesitating in her tracks, she threw a lump of soil to the left side of the track and said in a low voice, “Go that way.” before hiding behind some flowers.

Mu Nianci was alarmed; she turned around but saw no one. She grabbed her dagger and walked to the left. Huang Rong and Guo Jing’s lightness skills were much better than hers and they hid themselves, not allowing her to spot them.

Mu Nianci was worried and she thought to herself, “I wonder whether this person is helping or hindering me. But since I can’t find my way, I might just as well follow the directions given.” With that, she followed the directions given and walked towards the left. Every time she came to a junction, she heard the sound of a lump of soil thrown to show her the way. Another lump hit the window of a small hut. Mu Nianci saw a blurred vision as two black figures quickly flew by and disappeared. Mu Nianci thought for a while and then ran towards the small hut. She saw two guards lying on the ground. Though their eyes were wide open and looking at her, they were motionless and did not make a move for their weapons. Mu Nianci guessed that they must have had their accupoints sealed by someone. Mu Nianci knew that someone was secretly helping her. She pushed open the door quietly and listened; there seemed to be someone breathing inside. She called out in a low voice, “Brother Kang, is that you?”

Wanyan Kang was surprised when he saw the guards at the door collapse; but when he heard Mu Nianci’s voice, he was even more surprised and delighted. He called out softly, “It’s me!”

Mu Nianci was overjoyed and walked towards the voice in the darkness and said, “Thank heaven I found you, that’s good, let’s go.” Wanyan Kang replied, “Did you bring any weapons?”

Mu Nianci asked, “Why?”

Wanyan Kang gently shook himself and the sounds of chains could be heard. Mu Nianci stretched out her hand and touched the chains. She was filled with regret and said furiously, “I shouldn’t have given that dagger to Sister Huang!”

Huang Rong and Guo Jing were listening outside and the former silently laughed and thought to herself, “I’ll let you worry for awhile before I return the dagger.”

Mu Nianci was anxious and said, “I’ll go and steal the keys.”

Wanyan Kang replied, “Don’t go. The people in this manor are highly skilled and there’s no point risking yourself and getting caught.” Mu Nianci replied, “Then, I’ll carry you out.”

Wanyan Kang laughed, “You should give me a kiss.”

Mu Nianci moved away and said, “I’m so worried and you can still joke.” Wanyan Kang laughed cheekily, “Who’s joking? I’m serious.”

Mu Nianci ignored him and tried to think of a plan. Wanyan Kang asked, “How did you know I’m here?” Mu Nianci answered, “I followed you.”

Wanyan Kang was touched and said, “You lean on me, I’ll tell you something.” Mu Nianci sat on the ground and leaned into his arms.

Wanyan Kang said, “I am the Jin Ambassador so I don’t think they will dare do anything to me. But if I stay here any longer, it will affect father’s plans. What shall we do? Sister, help me with something.”

Mu Nianci asked, “What is it?”

Wanyan Kang answered, “Take off the golden seal hanging from my neck.” Mu Nianci stretched out her hand and took off the golden seal.

Wanyan Kang continued, “This is the seal of the Jin Ambassador. Take it to Lin’an and seek assistance from Prime Minister Shi Miyuan of the Song Dynasty.”

Mu Nianci asked, “Prime Minister Shi? Would he see a commoner like me?”

Wanyan Kang laughed, “When he sees this golden seal, he’ll welcome you. Tell him that I’ve been captured by the pirates of Lake Tai and cannot see him personally. But you must remember one thing, if the Mongolian ambassador is there, make sure that you avoid letting him and the prime minister meet at all costs. This is a secret mission ordered by the Jin Emperor, you must fulfill it.”

Mu Nianci asked, “Why?”

Wanyan Kang answered, “These are army matters; you won’t understand. You will be doing me a great favor by telling Prime Minister Shi what I just I asked you to. If the Mongolian ambassador reaches Lin’an first and meets with the Song Officials, it will put us Jin in a very unfavorable position.”

Mu Nianci replied indignantly, “What ‘us Jin’? I am a citizen of the Song Dynasty. If you don’t explain clearly to me, I’m not going to help you with this mission.”

Wanyan Kang smiled faintly, “Aren’t you going to be the concubine of a Jin in the future?”

Mu Nianci stood up angrily and said, “My adoptive father was your real father; you are in fact a Han. So you still want to be a Jin Prince? I know…know you…”

Wanyan Kang answered, “What?”

Mu Nianci answered, “I always thought that you were a strong, smart and upright man. I thought you were pretending to be the Jin Prince for a while so as to help Great Song. But you…you really want to acknowledge the enemy as your father?” Wanyan Kang heard her tone change to a furious one; she was choking with anger and could not speak for a moment. Mu Nianci continued, “Great Song has lost half of our empire to the Jin and so many Han have been tortured and slaughtered by them. Doesn’t that bother you at all? You…you…” She stopped here and could not go on. Following that, she threw the golden seal on the floor and was about to leave when Wanyan Kang called out, “Sister, I’m wrong, come back.”

Mu Nianci stopped and turned, “What?”

Wanyan Kang said, “When I am freed from the burdens as Jin Ambassador, I won’t go back to the Jin, alright? I will live a carefree and simple life with you, which is much better than having to suffer in silence like now.”

Mu Nianci sighed and was silent. Ever since she sparred with Wanyan Kang and fell for him deeply, she had viewed him as an upright and just hero. She thought that there must be some reason that Wanyan Kang did not want to acknowledge his real father. When he became the Jin Ambassador, she thought of an excuse for him…that he was secretly spying for the Song and would help crush the enemy for the Song. Who would have guessed that it was all wishful thinking on her part; Wanyan Kang was nothing more than a greedy and shameful traitor. She was heartbroken and felt dejected.

Wanyan Kang asked in a low voice, “Sister…what’s wrong?” Mu Nianci did not reply.

Wanyan Kang asked, “My mother told me that your adoptive father is my real father. I did not have a chance to clarify it before they both died. I have been really confused all along. My birthright and origins cannot be so simply or haphazardly defined right?”

Mu Nianci was secretly comforted and thought to herself, “So he is not clear about his birthright. He cannot really be blamed then.” Out loud she said, “Don’t mention anything about taking the golden seal to Prime Minister Shi anymore. I will find Sister Huang and ask her for the dagger to save you.”

Huang Rong had actually thought of returning the dagger to Mu Nianci but when she heard what Wanyan Kang said about aiding the Jin, she was fuming and thought, “Father hates the Jin, let him stay here for a couple more days then.”

Wanyan Kang continued, “The pathways in this manor are bizarre, how did you find your way through?”

Mu Nianci replied, “Luckily there were two masters secretly directing me, though I don’t know who they are and they do not want to reveal themselves.”

Wanyan Kang sighed deeply, “Sister, I’m afraid that you’ll be discovered the next time you come here. If you want to save me, then help me find a certain person.”

Mu Nianci replied angrily, “I’m not going to find any Prime Minister for you.” Wanyan Kang replied, “Not the Prime Minister, but help me look for my teacher.” Mu Nianci replied, “Ah!”

Wanyan Kang continued, “Take my belt with you and use a knife to carve ‘Wanyan Kang is in danger at Guiyun Manor [Cloud Manor] located on the west bank of Lake Tai’ on the gold buckle. After that, go to Suzhou and travel thirty li north to a deserted hill. Find nine human skulls there and stack them together into a pyramid, with five skulls at the base, followed by three in the middle and one on top. Lastly, place the belt under the top skull.”

Mu Nianci was puzzled and asked, “Why?”

Wanyan Kang replied, “My teacher is blind, but when she finds the belt and feels the carvings, she will come and save me. Therefore, you must carve the words deeply.”

Mu Nianci asked, “Isn’t your teacher ‘Eternal Spring’, Taoist Qiu? How can he be blind?”

Wanyan Kang answered, “No, it’s not Taoist Qiu, it’s my other teacher. After you place the belt, you must leave immediately. My teacher has a weird temperament; if she finds you near the skulls, she might harm you. She is highly skilled and can save me. You just have to wait for me in front of the Xuan Miao Monastery in Suzhou. ”

Mu Nianci said, “You have to swear that you will not acknowledge the enemy as your father and betray your people.”

Wanyan Kang refused and replied, “After I find out the truth about everything, I will then act according to my morals. What use is it to force me to swear now? If you are not willing to save me, then so be it.”

Mu Nianci replied, “Alright! I’ll help you seek help.” With that, she removed Wanyan Kang’s belt. Wanyan Kang asked, “Sister, are you leaving? Come over and let me kiss you.”

Mu Nianci replied, “No!” With that, she stood up and headed for the door.

Wanyan Kang said, “I’m afraid that they might kill me before my teacher arrives and then I’ll never get to see you again.”

Mu Nianci’s heart softened; she gave a long sigh and walked back into his arms, allowing him to kiss her on the cheek a few times. Then suddenly she beat on his chains and said, “If you do not walk the right path in the future, I cannot do anything but blame myself for my ill fate and will die in front of you.”

Wanyan Kang wanted to cuddle and sweet-talk her a while, half hoping that she would change her mind and agree to take the golden seal to Prime Minister Shi. Then he felt her body shaking and her breathing was harsh, signaling that she was upset. He had not expected her to say anything like that and was shocked for a moment. Mu Nianci stood up and walked out of the door.

When she came out, Huang Rong again guided her and Mu Nianci ran till she saw a wall leading to the outside of the manor. Before she left, she called out softly, “Since senior does not want to show him or herself, this junior will just have to look to the sky and express my gratitude.” With that, she kneeled on the ground and kowtowed three times. She heard a gentle giggle and a clear voice spoke out, “Ah, I cannot accept this!”

When she raised her head, she only saw stars in the sky and the empty surroundings. Mu Nianci was puzzled and thought that the voice sounded like Huang Rong’s, but how could she be here and how would she know the way around this confusing place? She pondered this matter as she walked along but was not able to come up with an explanation. After walking about ten li [5km / 3+miles] from the manor, she decided to rest under a large tree and wait for the boat that would take her to Suzhou the next day.

Suzhou is a busy city in the Southeast and although it isn’t comparable to the capital of Hangzhou, it is still a prosperous and booming place. The Song officials in the South also ruled the territory of Jiangnan and had almost forgotten about the suffering of the people under the Jin in the North. Since the cities of Suzhou and Hangzhou were rich and prosperous it gave rise to a saying ‘Heaven above, Su Hang below’ indicating the importance and grandeur of these two cities. Actually, the River Huai was the source of wealth and also a symbol of beauty for these two cities in the south.

Mu Nianci admired the colorful scenery in the city before settling down at an inn. Then she carefully started to carve the words Wanyan Kang had told her onto his belt. She thought about how recently the belt had left its owner and prayed for Wanyan Kang’s safety, hoping that the belt would return to its owner once more. She secretly wished that Wanyan Kang would come to his senses and marry her and that she would personally help him put the belt on. After day daydreaming awhile, she placed the belt beneath her robe and couldn’t help thinking, “This belt is like his arm, wrapping around my waist.” She immediately blushed and didn’t dare think more. After eating a quick bowl of noodles, she saw the sun moving to the west and she hurriedly traveled towards the north, following Wanyan Kang’s instructions to find his teacher.

The road on the hill was deserted and Mu Nianci felt uneasy when she heard weird sounds made by the birds and the sun had begun to set as well. She left the main path and went to the valley on the other side of the hill to search for the skulls which Wanyan Kang had asked her to search for. As it slowly turned to night she was still unable to find them. She mulled over the matter and decided to continue the search the next day. With that, she went to see if there was any place nearby in which she could seek shelter for the night. She ran up a mound, looked out into the distance and spotted a manor to the west. She was relieved and immediately rushed there.

As she approached the place, she realized that the manor was actually a rundown temple and there was a signboard above the door, which read ‘Temple Earth’. She pushed open the door gently and the door gave a creak before falling down, blowing up a pile of dust. It was then that Mu Nianci realized that it was an abandoned temple and no one lived there. She walked into the hall and saw cobwebs on the statutes of mother [tu di po] and father [tu di gong] earth. She pressed on a table and gave it a blow but found that the table was still sturdy and did not break. She found some hay to clean the table with and went on to place the broken door back into position. She ate some dried food before lying on the table and slept with her travel-bag as her pillow. She could not help but feel heartbroken and ashamed when she thought about Wanyan Kang’s personality and tears rolled down her cheeks. But when she thought about his gentleness and honeyed words, she felt a hint of warmth in her heart. She thought about many things and tossed what seemed a million times before she was finally able to fall asleep.

In the middle of the night, Mu Nianci heard a funny noise. Alarmed, she sat upright as the noise grew louder. She hurried to the door and peered out. It was then that she got the shock of her life as the moonlight shone onto the ground, revealing thousands of snakes gliding along. The stench came in through the door. After what seemed a long while, the number of snakes began to lessen and she then heard footsteps as three men in white appeared with long poles in their hands, controlling the snakes. Mu Nianci was afraid that she would be discovered and hid behind the hall door, not daring to look any longer. She heard a few footsteps and peered out again. The snakes were gone and the surroundings were quiet and deserted. She thought she must be dreaming and she couldn’t believe what she had just seen.

She opened the main door quietly and peered out. She walked a little in the direction that the snakes had gone but could not find those men in white. She was somewhat relieved and was about to return to the temple when she saw the moonlight shining on a strange pile of white objects in the distance. She went for a closer look and let out a low gasp; it was a pile of skulls neatly arranged in the form of a pyramid, with five on the bottom, three in the middle and one on top. She’d searched for them during the day but found nothing. Now suddenly, they had appeared in front of her in the middle of the night. She found the skull formation scary but her heart beat fast since she was happy to have found them. She approached the skulls slowly and took out Wanyan Kang’s belt. With hands shaking, she reached out to lift the skull stacked on top. She touched the skull and felt five holes in it which fitted her five fingers; it was as if the skull had formed mouths, which swallowed her fingers. Mu Nianci was astonished and screamed before turning about to run. She had run awhile when she stopped again and realized that she was just scaring herself. She giggled nervously and went back to put the belt on top of the three skulls before placing the skull in her hands back onto the top of the formation.

She thought to herself, “His teacher is really weird; I wonder whether she looks frightening as well.” After placing the skull back into place, she secretly wished, “I hope that teacher will get the belt and immediately go and save him. I hope that you will teach him properly so that he ends his bad habits and changes his ways.”

She was thinking about the chained up handsome sweet-talker Wanyan Kang when she felt someone gently patting her shoulder. She was shocked and did not dare turn around. Due to her nervousness, she accidentally fell onto the pile of skulls. Mu Nianci clutched her chest and turned around. As she turned someone gently patted her shoulder again. She turned around about six more times but still could not spot the person behind her; she didn’t know whether it was ghost or a demon. Mu Nianci broke out in cold sweat and did not dare move. Quivering, she asked, “Who are you?”

The person placed his head near her neck and sniffed before laughing, “What a nice scent! Guess who I am.”

Mu Nianci hurriedly turned around and saw a scholarly dressed man with a fan in his hand and a charming expression: It was one of the culprits who had forced her godfather to commit suicide back in Yanjing, Ouyang Ke. She was both surprised and angry; but since she knew that she was not his match, she turned to run. Ouyang Ke was, however, already in front of her laughing with arms out stretched ready to hug her if she took a few more steps. Mu Nianci retreated hurriedly then ran to her right. She had only run a few steps when Ouyang Ke was in front of her again. She ran in all directions but still could not escape him.

Ouyang Ke saw the pale colour of her beautiful face and was delighted. He knew that he could capture her in one move but he wanted to play the cat and mouse game with her, trapping her and letting her run again. Mu Nianci knew that she was in danger and pulled out a green dagger, aiming for his eyes.

Ouyang Ke laughed and said, “Aiya, don’t be rough.” He twisted his body, grabbed her arms with his left hand while holding her waist with his right arm. Mu Nianci struggled but felt numbness in her throat and her dagger had already been snatched away by Ouyang Ke. She managed to free herself after awhile only to be captured in his arms again. The way he held her was similar to the way he’d seized Huang Rong at Wanyan Kang’s residence causing her own hands to seal her accupoints and immobilizing herself.

Ouyang Ke laughed lightly and said, “Accept me as your teacher and I’ll immediately release you and teach you this stance; but I’m afraid that by that time, you won’t want me to let go of you.”

Mu Nianci was trapped by his arm and Ouyang Ke used his right hand to gently brush against her cheeks. She knew that he was up to no good and was so frightened that she passed out. After awhile, Mu Nianci woke up but she felt numb and weak all over. Someone was hugging her tightly and in the confusion, she thought it was Wanyan Kang and was delighted. Then she opened her eyes and realized that the person hugging her was Ouyang Ke. She was embarrassed and nervous and struggled to stand up only to realize that she could not move. She opened her mouth to call out but realized that Ouyang Ke had stuffed a handkerchief in her mouth. He was sitting on the ground but he wore an anxious expression. On both sides of Ouyang Ke were eight women in white each with a weapon in their hands and all of them staring suspiciously but silently at the pile of skulls.

Mu Nianci was curious and tried to think what they were up to. When she turned her head, she was frightened out of her wits as she saw thousands of green snakes behind Ouyang Ke. The snakes were motionless but were hissing as their tongues flicked out. The moonlight shone on what looked like a sea of red tongues; it was a frightening sight. Amongst the snakes stood three men in white with long poles in their hands; they were the same men Mu Nianci had seen earlier. She didn’t dare look anymore and turned away. It was then that she saw the shiny gold belt amongst the nine skulls and thought anxiously, “Ah, they must be waiting for his teacher. From their expressions, they must be prepared to deal with his teacher. If his teacher comes alone, how could so many people be defeated? And there are so many poisonous snakes around as well.”

She was extremely anxious and hoped that Wanyan Kang’s teacher wouldn’t come. But she also hoped that his teacher would know what to expect and come prepared, defeat these evil people and save her. After waiting for more than half an hour, the moon rose ever higher and she saw Ouyang Ke constantly looking up at the moon. She thought to herself, “Will his teacher only appear when the moon reaches the middle of the sky?”

She saw the moon rise above the top of a tree. The surroundings were empty, the worms were making sounds in the earth and there were the calls of birds in the distance. Ouyang Ke glanced at the moon once more before placing Mu Nianci into the arms of a woman beside him. He took out his fan with his right hand and stared at the edge of the hill. Mu Nianci knew that the person they were waiting for was coming soon. The silence was soon broken by a strong and piercing flute tune, which grew nearer after awhile. A figure flashed by as a woman with long hair suddenly appeared from the cliff. As she passed by she slowed down; it seemed like she had noticed that there were people nearby. It was ‘Iron Corpse’, Mei Chaofeng.

After Mei Chaofeng had gotten a few verses of the secret formulae for the cultivation of her internal energy from Guo Jing, she studied them carefully and it was not more than a month before her legs recovered and she could move normally. Furthermore, her internal energy had improved tremendously. Ever since she found out that the Six Freaks of Jiangnan had returned from Mongolia, she had started to plot revenge while following the ‘Little Prince’ as he set out on his mission. She practiced her skills every night. Mei Chaofeng found riding boats with many people inconvenient and thus decided to travel by herself at night. She had arranged to meet Wanyan Kang in Suzhou. She did not know that Wanyan Kang was in the hands of the Heroes of Lake Tai, nor was she aware that Ouyang Ke, who wanted to take revenge on her for killing his men and humiliating him earlier, wanted to lay hands on her ‘Nine Yin Manual’ He had earlier searched for and found out her whereabouts, gathered together thousands of snakes and was now secretly waiting for her at the spot she practiced her skills every night. She had just passed by when she heard the breathing of several people and immediately stopped in her tracks to listen. She heard many weird noises behind the group of people.

Ouyang Ke saw her alarmed expression and cursed inwardly, “What a brilliant blind Bitch!” Fanning himself gently, he stood up and summoned his internal energy. He was about to strike out at Mei Chaofeng when he saw another person coming from the cliff. He hurriedly took back his strike and studied that person. He saw that the man was slim and tall; he was wearing a green robe and part of his hair was bound with a squared cloth. He looked like any cultured person but Ouyang Ke was unable to see his face clearly.

The amazing thing, however, was that Ouyang Ke was unable to hear any footsteps or breathing coming from that man. Even a highly skilled person like Mei Chaofeng would inevitably make some light noises when she walked; but this person was walking casually, as if his body were floating, forming a somewhat ghostly image. It seemed as if nothing would cause him to make any noises while moving. That person glanced at Ouyang Ke before standing behind Mei Chaofeng. Ouyang Ke studied his face in detail and gasped. That person had a very strange face and aside from a pair of eyes glancing around, the rest of his face was like a dead person’s. Although the skin was stiff, it was not ugly but neither was it appealing. The man looked extremely cold and emotionless and it gave one chills. Ouyang Ke regained his senses and saw that Mei Chaofeng was approaching him. He knew that her strikes were going to be vicious and deadly and knew he had to gain the upper hand first. He made a signal with his left hand and the three men controlling the snakes started blowing their flutes, causing the snakes to glide forward. The eight women in white sat still since they had applied some substance which caused the snakes to ignore them and slither past.

Mei Chaofeng heard the sounds of snakes approaching and knew there were countless numbers of them. She was alarmed and jumped back some distance. The snake men used their poles to urge the thousands of snakes to disperse in all directions. Mu Nianci saw that Mei Chaofeng’s expression had paled with fear and could not help but worry for her. She thought, “Is this strange woman his teacher?” She saw Mei Chaofeng suddenly turn around and uncoil a long silver whip from her waist to protect herself. She was however surrounded by the poisonous snakes and several snakes, which were excited by the flute tune began to attack her, only to be slashed by her whip.

Ouyang Ke yelled, “Demoness Mei, I don’t want your life. You just have to hand me the ‘Nine Yin Manual’ and I’ll let you go.”

When he was at Prince Zhao’s residence, he heard that the ‘Nine Yin Manual’ was in Mei Chaofeng’s hands and, being greedy as he was, he was very much tempted to get it at any cost. It would definitely make his uncle, who had tried every means to get the manual, very happy. Mei Chaofeng ignored Ouyang Ke and used her whip to strike out even more furiously.

Ouyang Ke called out, “Since you’re so stubborn, I’ll see how long you can dance. I’ll wait until tomorrow and we’ll see whether or not you will hand the manual over to me.”

Mei Chaofeng was very anxious and tried thinking of a plan to escape. She listened carefully and realized that there were snakes everywhere. She didn’t dare move much and she was afraid that the poisonous snakes would bite her if she stepped on them.

Ouyang Ke sat down and after awhile, called out arrogantly, “Sister Mei, you stole the manual and have been familiarizing yourself with the contents for the past twenty years. What use is it to die trying to keep it? Why not lend it to me for a look and let’s be friends, isn’t it better that way?”

Mei Chaofeng replied, “Take the snakes away first.” Ouyang Ke laughed, “Hand me the manual first.”

The contents of the ‘Nine Yin Manual’ were tattooed on her late husband’s skin and Mei Chaofeng valued it more than her life. She was, of course, unwilling to hand it over. She decided that if she was bitten by the snakes, she would immediately tear the manual to pieces.

Mu Nianci wanted to shout and tell her to jump onto a tree so that the snakes would not be able to bite her but she could not do so since a cloth bound her mouth. Mei Chaofeng was not aware of the few tall trees near her. She realized that if she continued fighting, her internal energy would deplete and thus pulled out something from her pocket and shouted, “Alright, I give in, take it.”

Ouyang Ke called out, “Throw it over here.”

Mei Chaofeng called out, “Catch”, and flung something with her right hand.

Mu Nianci heard a few faint cries and saw two women in white collapse. Ouyang Ke had fallen onto the ground and managed to avoid her deadly concealed weapons. He broke out in cold sweat and was both shocked and angry. He retreated a few steps and yelled, “Alright Bitch, I’ll let you suffer horribly!”

Mei Chaofeng had shot out three ‘Shapeless Needles’ which traveled as fast as lightning. She was secretly impressed with Ouyang Ke’s ability to escape her attack and was all the more anxious. Ouyang Ke studied her arms and plotted to set the snakes on her once she relaxed a little. By this time, Mei Chaofeng had already killed hundreds of snakes but there were thousands more surrounding her. How would she be able to kill all of them? Ouyang Ke saw that her whip skills were excellent and knew that she had hidden weapons and thus did not dare to go near her.

After half an hour, the moon moved towards the west and Mei Chaofeng was beginning to feel more and more anxious and her breathing became harder. Her whipping dance was not as smooth as earlier and she therefore struck out at shorter distances so as to preserve her energy. Ouyang Ke was delighted and commanded the snakes to move nearer and nearer to her. But he was also afraid that if she was still unwilling to surrender and destroyed the book, it would ruin his plans. This point in time was crucial to him. Mei Chaofeng heard the snakes moving closer and closer to her and could not help but touch the manual in her pocket. She looked very pale and cursed silently, “I haven’t obtained my revenge yet and who would have thought that I would die at the hands of this bloody rascal.”

Suddenly, there came a noise which sounded like the tune from a qin [zither], but it also sounded like the sounds made by jade. Following that, there was the sound of a clear and smooth flute tune. Everyone was taken by surprise. Ouyang Ke looked up and saw the odd man in green sitting on top of a tall tree, playing his flute. Ouyang Ke was puzzled. He knew that he had very sharp eyesight and yet, even under such bright moonlight, he did not notice that that man had gone up the tree. The wind was blowing and the trees were swaying but that man was still able to sit steady and motionless on top. Ouyang Ke had been taught by his uncle since he was young and he knew that even if he trained for another twenty years, he would be unable to achieve the standards of this man. Is that man a ghost then?

By this time, the tune from the flute was flowing continuously and Ouyang Ke lost control of his emotions and was smiling unnaturally. He felt his blood pounding and rushing inside him and had to dance crazily in order to feel better. He had just stretched out his arm to dance and was shocked. He summoned all his concentration and noticed that all of the snakes were rushing to the bottom of a tree and writhing about following the flute’s tune. The three men and six women in white moved under the tree as well dancing around crazily. They tore their clothing and scratched their faces furiously leaving bloody steaks on them while laughing stupidly at nothing. It seemed like they had all gone mad and unaware of any pain.

Ouyang Ke was extremely shocked and knew that he had encountered a strong opponent tonight. He took out six poisoned projectiles and flung them towards the man’s head, chest and limbs. The projectiles were about to strike the man when he gently waved the end of his flute and blocked the projectiles. When he used his flute to block the projectiles, his lips continued to blow and did not leave the flute hole for a single moment. The tune coming out from the flute was not interrupted for a single second. Ouyang Ke could not stand it any longer and opened his fan, again wanting to dance.

Luckily Ouyang Ke had a rather good grasp of his internal energy and knew that if he started dancing, unless his opponent stopped blowing the flute, he would not stop dancing until he died of exhaustion. Ouyang Ke was a clear-minded and sharp man and forced himself to take back his arm with the fan in it. He suddenly thought of a plan, “I’ll tear some cloth off my robe and stuff the cloth in my ears so as to block the sound.” But the flute sound was marvelous and, although Ouyang Ke had torn off some cloth, the flute tune made him lose control of his actions; he struggled but could not put the cloth into his ears. He was alarmed and frightened and broke out in a cold sweat. He saw Mei Chaofeng sitting on the ground with her head lowered, circulating her internal energy. He guessed that she was summoning her internal energy to combat the flute’s sound.

At this moment, three of Ouyang Ke’s least skilled apprentices had fallen onto the ground, ripping and tearing their clothing while twisting and turning uncontrollably. Mu Nianci had her accupoints sealed and could not move. Even though her emotions and concentration was deeply disturbed and provoked by the flute’s tune, she did not kick or dance madly because she could not move and just lay silently on the ground.

Ouyang Ke’s cheeks had turned bright red, his head was burning and his throat was dry and uncomfortable. He knew that if he did not stop this now and escape, he would die. He summoned up all his determination and bit on his tongue. The pain diverted his attention from the flute tune and the sound had less impact on him for a moment. He grabbed this opportunity to escape and ran for his life. It was not until he was several li away from the place and he could not hear the flute sound anymore that he felt relieved. Ouyang Ke was thoroughly exhausted and felt extremely weak, as if he had fallen very ill. He thought to himself, “Who is that strange man? Who is that strange man?”

o0o

Meanwhile, Huang Rong and Guo Jing returned to their rooms to sleep after they sent Mu Nianci off. They were pleased with their relaxing trip on the lake so far. Guo Jing knew that once Mu Nianci was off, Mei Chaofeng would soon appear. She was vicious and deadly in her attacks. He worried that there will be no one to match her and many people would get hurt. Guo Jing decided to consult Huang Rong and asked her, “I think we better tell Master Lu about Mei Chaofeng and plead with him to let Wanyan Kang go and save the people in the manor from any injury.”

Huang Rong waved her hand and replied, “That’s not a good idea. Wanyan Kang is an evil brat; let him suffer a few more days. If he is let off so easily, then he will not learn his lesson.” Actually Huang Rong couldn’t care less about whether Wanyan Kang repented or not. She thought that since he was the disciple of ‘two bad eggs’ Qiu Chuji and Mei Chaofeng, then he might as well stay a baddie. She thought it fun making life difficult for Wanyan Kang. But Huang Rong was also afraid that if Wanyan Kang did not repent Mu Nianci would not marry him and if Mu Nianci does not have a husband, the busybodies would once again try to force Guo Jing to marry her. This would be disastrous. Therefore, she decided that it would be better for Wanyan Kang to repent.

Guo Jing asked, “What shall we do if Mei Chaofeng arrives?”

Huang Rong smiled, “Then we’ll try out what Qigong taught us on her!”

Guo Jing knew that it was pointless to argue with Huang Rong and so returned her smile. But he thought that since Master Lu had taken such good care of them, he would risk his life to protect everyone in the manor no matter what.

Two days later they told Master Lu that they would not leave just yet. Master Lu was even nicer to them since he had hoped that they would stay longer. On the third morning, Master Lu was chatting with Huang Rong and Guo Jing in his study when Lu Guanying rushed in with a pale face. Behind him was one of the housekeepers who carried a wooden tray. There was something on the tray wrapped up with a green cloth.

Lu Guanying said, “Father, someone sent this just now.” With that, he removed the green cloth to reveal a white skull with five finger holes in it; it was indeed Mei Chaofeng’s work.

Guo Jing and Huang Rong were not surprised, since they knew that Mei Chaofeng would appear sooner or later. Master Lu was however shocked and he paled. Quivering, he asked, “Who…who brought this here?” He straightened his body as he asked.

Lu Guanying knew that skull appeared strange but he was a daring and skilled fighter and furthermore, he was the leader of the pirates of the lake. Therefore he did not really take this matter too seriously. But when he saw how upset his father was, he was surprised and even more frightened. He answered hurriedly, “Someone put this in a box and sent it here. The housekeeper thought it was a normal gift and tipped the person without asking its origins. When he brought it to the accounts room and opened the box, he found the skull and when he went to ask the person who sent the gift that person was already gone. “Father, what do you think is going on here?”

Master Lu did not answer but inserted his fingers into the holes in the skull, which fitted his fingers perfectly. Lu Guanying asked in shock, “The holes in the skull are made by fingers? Are fingers that powerful?”

Master Lu nodded and sighed deeply before saying, “Ask the servants to pack up and send your mother to the north manor in the city to stay for the time being. Order the section leaders to gather and stay with their sections for three days. No matter what happens to Cloud Manor, tell them not to interfere.”

Lu Guanying was astonished and asked, “Why, father?”

Master Lu smiled weakly and turned towards Guo Jing and Huang Rong saying, “It is a blessing to be able to make friends with both of you. I had hoped that you could stay longer but I made two enemies when I was younger and they are coming to seek revenge. It’s not that I want to chase you away but Cloud Manor is…is in danger. If I am fortunate enough to survive, we will meet again; but … but there is only a slight chance of that.” He laughed bitterly and shook his head before turning to the study keeper and said, “Bring forty gold taels to me.” The keeper left to do so. Lu Guanying did not dare ask any more questions and left the study to carry out his father’s instructions.

After a while, the keeper came back with the money and Master Lu offered it to Guo Jing saying, “The lady is beautiful and talented and is a perfect match for you. This small amount of money is for your upcoming marriage ceremony; please accept this humble gift.”

Huang Rong blushed and thought, “This person is very sharp, he knew all along that I was a girl. But how did he know that I am not married to Jing ge ge?”

Guo Jing did not know the art of politeness and just thanked Master Lu before accepting the gift. Master Lu then retrieved a glass bottle from the study table and poured out more than ten red pills before wrapping them up in some paper. He continued, “I am not talented but my teacher taught me some medical formulas and I used them to make these pills which can prolong lives when taken. Take them as a form of my respect.”

When Master Lu poured out the pills there was a sweet scent in the air. When Huang Rong smelled it, she knew immediately that those were the ‘Nine Flower Jade Dew Pills’. She had helped her father make those pills before and had to collect the dewdrops from nine different types of flowers. To make the pills, one had to know how to brew the substance on the correct days and season of the year. It was a very painstaking process and the pills consisted of many different types of scarce and precious herbs.

Huang Rong knew that Master Lu was being too generous giving them so many and spoke out, “It is not easy to create the ‘Nine Flower Jade Dew Pills’. We would be more than grateful to accept two pills each.”

Master Lu was slightly surprised and asked, “How did Miss know the name of the pills?”

Huang Rong answered, “I know because I was weak when I was young and an honorable master gave me three pills which had positive effects when I took them.”

Master Lu showed a smile and said, “You don’t have to resist my offer. It would be a waste to keep them anyway.” Huang Rong knew that he was prepared to die and so did not argue and kept the pills.

Master Lu continued in a serious tone, “I have already prepared a boat so please cross the lake quickly. Even if you notice something strange, do not bother to stop. Remember this!”

Guo Jing wanted to stay and help but he caught Huang Rong’s eye signal and had no choice but to agree with Master Lu. Huang Rong said, “Forgive little sister for her ignorance, but I have something to ask.”

Master Lu answered, “Please speak, Miss.”

Huang Rong replied, “Since Master Lu knows that there are formidable enemies coming to seek revenge, why not hide from them? As the saying goes, a hero avoids obvious dangers.”

Master Lu let out a huge sigh and answered, “Those two people have made me suffer so much! They are the ones who caused me to be crippled. For the past twenty years I have not sought revenge because I am unable to walk. Since they are coming now, no matter what, I will risk my life to fight them. Anyway, they offended my teacher. Even if I am unable to seek revenge for myself, I will definitely have to seek revenge for my teacher at all costs. I don’t hope to defeat them. I am more than happy as long as I can die together with them and thus, repay my teacher’s kindness.”

Huang Rong thought, “How come he keeps saying there are two people? Ah, I know, he still thinks that ‘Copper Corpse’, Chen Xuanfeng, is alive. I wonder what animosity he bears towards them? It is unfortunate for him but I won’t probe further, although I am still curious about something.”

Huang Rong asked out loud, “Master Lu, it’s not surprising that you were able to see through my male disguise but how did you know that we are not married since we stayed in the same room?” Master Lu was dumbfounded by her question and thought to himself, “It’s obvious that she is still a virgin but how do I explain it to her? This little Miss is intelligent and talented in all areas but how come she’s so blind when it comes to matters like these?” He was thinking of a way to answer her when Lu Guanying entered the study and said in a low voice, “I have given the command but leaders Zhang, Gu, Wang and Tan refuse to leave. They say that they will remain in Cloud Manor even if it means risking their lives.”

Master Lu sighed and said, “It is not often that you find such loyal and courageous people! Hurry and send these two guests off.”

Huang Rong and Guo Jing bid Master Lu farewell before following Lu Guanying out. The housekeeper had already prepared Guo Jing’s little red horse and their donkey on the boat. Guo Jing whispered to Huang Rong, “Are we going to get on the boat?”

Huang Rong whispered back, “We’ll leave and come back.”

Lu Guanying wasn’t bothered by their whispering since he was in a state of confusion and wanted to hurriedly send off the guests so as to be able to help out with the preparations against his father’s enemies. Guo Jing and Huang Rong were about to board the boat when Huang Rong spied someone on the bank, walking fast towards them. The person looked strange since he was supporting a huge jar on his head as he walked towards them without a pause. When he came nearer, Guo Jing, Huang Rong and Lu Guanying saw that the man’s hair was white; he wore a short yellow robe and carried a huge feather fan in his right hand, fanning himself gently as he quickened his pace. The jar looked as if it was made from iron and seemed like it weighed a hundred jin [110lbs / 50kg].

The man walked past Lu Guanying, glanced nonchalantly at them and continued walking. He had not taken but a few steps more when his body hunched a little and some water spilled out from the jar. The three then realized that the jar was filled with water, which would now weigh about a hundred jin more. The old man must be highly skilled to be able to balance such a heavy weight on his head.

Lu Guanying thought nervously, “Is this man father’s enemy?” He ignored the danger and went up to the man, while Guo Jing and Huang Rong stole a glance at each other before following him. Guo Jing heard his six teachers mention their fight with Qiu Chuji at the ‘Pavilion of the Drunken Immortal’ before and knew that Qiu Chuji was skilled enough to lift up a huge jar. But the size of the jar Qiu Chuji lifted as described by his teachers did not seem as big as this jar the man was lifting now. Guo Jing suspected that this old man’s skills were above those of ‘Eternal Spring’ Master Qiu Chuji. The old man walked on before reaching the bank of a small river with graves all over the place.

Lu Guanying thought to himself, “There is no bridge here so let’s see whether he crosses the river to the north or goes towards the west.”

Lu Guanying was stunned by what he saw next: The old man walked without a pause over the river; his body was steady and only his lower legs were submerged in the water. When he reached the opposite side of the river he placed the huge jar on the grasses next to a hill before returning to the river and walking on the water back to the other side again.

Huang Rong and Guo Jing had heard their seniors talk about all sorts of skills from various sects and schools but they never heard of the skills which the old man just displayed: Carrying a huge jar on his head and walking on water. They’d thought that such skills only existed in myths and legends; who would have thought that such skills do actually exist on earth? If they had not seen for themselves, they would never have believed such stuff and were secretly in awe of this old master.

The old man’s hair was white and he laughed heartily before turning to Lu Guanying, “You must be the leader of the pirates, Junior Master Lu right?”

Lu Guanying bowed and answered, “I dare not accept such praise, I wonder what is elder’s name?” The old man pointed towards Guo Jing and Huang Rong and said, “You two boys come here as well.”

Lu Guanying turned around and got a surprise when he saw Guo Jing and Huang Rong behind him. It was then that he realized that the two had been following him. Their lightness skills were so good that they made no noise and he was not even aware of them following him. Guo Jing and Huang Rong bowed and said, “Greetings to elder.”

The old man laughed, “No need for such greetings.” He turned towards Lu Guanying and said, “Here is not a place to talk, let’s find somewhere to sit.”

Lu Guanying was suspicious and thought, “Is he father’s enemy?” He decided to be direct and asked, “Does elder know my father?” The old man replied, “Master Lu? I have never met him before.”

Lu Guanying thought that the man didn’t seem like he was lying and asked some more, “My father received a strange gift earlier in the day, does elder know of this matter?”

The old man asked, “What strange gift?”

Lu Guanying replied, “It’s a dead person’s skull on the top of which is five finger holes.” The old man said, “That’s funny; could it be someone playing with your father?”

Lu Guanying thought silently, “This man’s skills are exceptional. Even if he wants to fight father, he would do so openly and does not need to lie about it. It seems like he really doesn’t know anything. Why not invite him to the manor to help us instead? If he agrees to help us, it will be alright no matter how great father’s enemy is.” The more he thought about it, the more delighted he was and answered, “If elder does not mind, why not come to my residence for some tea?”

The old man hummed slightly and replied, “That will be good.” Lu Guanying was overjoyed and waved for the old man to go first. The old man pointed towards Guo Jing and said, “These two young men are guests of the manor right?”

Lu Guanying answered, “They are father’s friends.” The old man did not probe further and walked in front with Guo Jing and Huang Rong following behind Lu Guanying. When they reached the manor, Lu Guanying ushered the old man to a seat in the main hall and sped off to find his father.

Not long after, two servants carried in a bamboo couch with Master Lu on it. Master Lu greeted the old man politely and said, “I hope my ignorant son has not offended elder in any way.”

The old man shifted his body slightly but did not greet him back. He replied blandly, “Master Lu may dispense with the formalities.” Master Lu asked, “I wonder what elder’s name is?”

The old man replied, “My surname is Qiu and my name is Qianren.”

Master Lu was shocked and asked, “Could it be that elder is the renowned ‘Iron Palm Who Floats on Water’, elder Qiu?”

Qiu Qianren smiled slightly and answered, “To think that you can remember my nickname, you really have a good memory. I have not been active in Jianghu for the past twenty years and thought that people had long forgotten me!”

The name ‘Iron Palm Who Floats on Water’ was indeed a formidable name twenty years ago. Master Lu knew that the old man was the chief of the Iron Palm Sect in Hunan. He had been famous and active in Jianghu but had disappeared suddenly for a very long time so it was not surprising that many juniors born later would not know of him.

Master Lu was surprised and curious by his visit and asked, “I wonder what has caused Senior Qiu to come here? If you need junior’s help, I would be more than happy to offer it.”

Qiu Qianren stroked his beard and laughed, “It’s nothing big actually, just that I have been too softhearted and fate has it that it will not end…um, I would like to seek a secluded place to practice my skills; we’ll talk again in the night.”

Master Lu saw that he wore no evil expression but was still unsettled and asked, “I wonder, did Senior happen to meet the ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’?”

Qiu Qianren replied, “The ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’? That evil pair are not dead yet?”

Master Lu was greatly comforted by what he heard and spoke out, “Ying’er, please bring Senior Qiu to my study to rest.” Qiu Qianren gave everyone a nod and left with Lu Guanying.

Although Master Lu had never seen Qiu Qianren’s skills before, he had heard his formidable name. He knew that when the five greats, Eastern Heretic, Western Poison, Southern Emperor, Northern Beggar and Central Divinity met for the Hua Shan tournament, they had invited him but he had something to attend to and thus turned down the invitation. His skills must have been exceptional to get the invitation; even if he was not up to the level of the greats, he should not be far from their standards. Should the ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’ come, they would not be able to mess around with him.

He turned to Guo Jing and Huang Rong, “You haven’t gone? That’s very good. The Elder Qiu’s skills are formidable, how lucky that he should appear at this moment. I do not have to fear my opponents any longer! Later on you can rest in your rooms but please do not leave them and you’ll be fine.”

Huang Rong gave a little laugh, “Can I watch the fun?”

Master Lu let out a deep sigh and replied, “I’m afraid that my enemy will bring lots of people so I’m afraid that I won’t be able to protect myself and will allow you two to be hurt. Alright then, but you two must stick with me. With Senior Qiu around, it will be useless no matter how many people they bring!”

Huang Rong clapped her hands in delight and laughed, “I love seeing people fight. It was so interesting that day you defeated that Little Jin Prince.”

Master Lu replied, “This time it will be the Little Prince’s teacher who is much more skilful than him; that’s why I’m worried.” Huang Rong answered, “Ah! How do you know?”

Master Lu replied, “Miss Huang, you won’t understand these fighting matters. That claw technique which the Little Jin Prince used to attack my Ying’er’s thigh is the same as the skill used to create those finger holes in the top of the skull.”

Huang Rong answered, “Oh, I understand now. Wang Xianzhi’s calligraphy was taught by Wang Yizhi and Wang Yizhi was taught by Lady Wei whose teacher was Zhong You. Thus, any professional would be able to guess the family or sect the calligrapher belongs to merely by looking at his works.” Master Lu laughed, “Miss is highly intelligent. I just have to give you a hint and you are able to understand everything. My two opponents are evil and vicious. Compared to Zhong Wang, they have smeared the reputation of their teacher and ancestors.”

Huang Rong pulled Guo Jing’s hand and said, “Let’s see what great skill the white bearded Grandpa is practicing.” Master Lu was alarmed and said, “Ah, don’t…don’t disturb him.”

Huang Rong laughed, “It’s alright,” and stood up to leave.

Master Lu was sitting on the couch and could not move. He thought nervously, “This young lady is too mischievous. How can she spy on him?”

He hurriedly ordered the servants to lift up the bamboo couch and hurry to the study to stop them. When he reached it he saw them bending down and looking into the room through a hole made in the paper covering the window frame. When Huang Rong heard the servants’ footsteps she hurriedly turned and signaled to them not to make a single sound; at the same time she waved to Master Lu asking him to come over and see.

Master Lu was afraid that if he did not go over, the little miss would throw a tantrum and alert Qiu Qianren. He immediately ordered the servants to walk silently and help him over to the window. When he looked through the hole Huang Rong made, he was baffled to see Qiu Qianren sitting cross-legged with eyes shut and smoke continuously coming out of his mouth.

Master Lu’s teacher was highly skilled and knowledgeable. When he trained under him in his younger days, he often heard his teacher talk about the various skills of different sects and schools but had never heard of a skill involving breathing out smoke. He did not dare look longer and pulled Guo Jing’s sleeve, signaling him not to look anymore. Guo Jing respected him and besides, he never thought it proper to spy on others. Guo Jing immediately stood up and took Huang Rong by the hand, following Master Lu back to the hall.

Huang Rong giggled, “That old fellow’s skills are fun. There’s a fire burning inside his stomach!” Master Lu answered, “You do not understand. This is an amazing type of internal energy.”

Huang Rong asked, “Could he breathe out fire to burn someone?” Huang Rong was not joking as she said this; she was indeed curious about Qiu Qianren’s mysterious skills.

Master Lu replied, “No one can breathe out fire, but to be able to attain such profound internal skills would mean that he can probably injure someone using mere flowers and leaves.”

Huang Rong laughed, “Ah, tear a flower to hurt someone!” Master Lu smiled slightly and answered, “Miss is very smart.”

There was a poem entitled ‘Barbaric Buddhist’ which was written by an anonymous poet during the Tang dynasty, which read: “When the peonies reveal real pearls, a beauty walks by the hall.

With a gentle laugh, she asks the gentleman, ‘Which is prettier, the flower or the lady?’ The gentleman mulls it over and answers, ‘The flower is beautiful.’ The lady throws a mild tantrum and flings the smashed flower at him.” [The underlying meaning is actually used to refer to an insolent woman, who is not respected. In the past, the ideal woman is supposed to be gentle and docile.]

The poem thus spread far and wide. Once, there was a court case in which an evil wife broke her husband’s legs. When the Tang Emperor, Xuanzhong learned about it, he laughed and said to his Prime Minister “Isn’t this tearing a flower to hurt someone?”

Master Lu was relieved when he saw how powerful Qiu Qianren was. He ordered Lu Guanying to send people to inspect the lake and politely invite any suspicious-looking person back to the manor. He also ordered the servants to open the main entrance to the manor so as to welcome any guests. Evening came and the servants lit many candles in the main hall of Cloud Manor. The bright lights surrounded the whole hall, as if waiting for a banquet to begin. Lu Guanying personally went to invite Qiu Qianren to the hall in which he was offered the middle host seat. Guo Jing and Huang Rong sat beside him while Master Lu and his son sat on seats beneath their tables. Master Lu made his toasts but did not dare ask Qiu Qianren the purpose of his visit and only engaged in casual talk with his guests.

After drinks, Qiu Qianren spoke out, “Brother Lu, Cloud Manor is the leader among all heroes of the lake and therefore your skills must be good. I wonder whether you would be willing to display a stance or two for me?”

Master Lu answered hurriedly, “Junior’s skills are nothing compared to senior’s, I’m afraid I’ll embarrass myself. Furthermore, I have been crippled for a long time now and have given up the skills my teacher taught me long ago.”

Qiu Qianren replied, “Who is your teacher? I may know him.”

Master Lu let out a long sigh and his face paled. After a long while, he answered, “Junior is dumb and rough and is unable to serve my teacher. Due to the doings of others, my teacher disowned me. This is such a shameful story and I do not want my teacher’s name to be smeared. I hope Senior understands.”

Lu Guanying thought silently, “So father was disowned by his teacher and thus never displayed his skills. I didn’t even know what a skilled fighter he is. If it weren’t for that Jin dog that hurt me, father would never have displayed his skills. He must have experienced a very devastating and hateful event in his life.” Lu Guanying was deeply saddened and disturbed by this thought. Qiu Qianren answered, “Brother is at the peak of his life and is the leader of a group of heroes. Why not take this opportunity to make your name known? It will help extinguish the wrongs done to you and make the seniors in your school regret them.”

Master Lu replied, “Junior is crippled and is hopeless. Senior’s advice is insightful but I cannot accept it.”

Qiu Qianren answered, “Brother is too courteous. There is a pathway but I’m not sure whether brother will agree to take it.” Master Lu answered, “Then I shall bother Senior to help me out.”

Qiu Qianren laughed softly but continued eating and did not answer. Master Lu knew that this man had hidden himself for twenty years and thought, “There must be some reason why he has resurfaced in Jianghu. Since he is a senior master, it is not proper for me to probe further and I can only wait for him to tell me.”

Qiu Qianren spoke, “If brother does not want to display your skills, it’s fine with me. Cloud Manor is a famous name and the leader must be from a famous school.”

Master Lu gave a small laugh, “The matters of Cloud Manor have long been handled by my son Guanying. His teacher is the monk Kumo of Yun Qi Monastery.”

Qiu Qianren answered, “Ah, Kumo is a skilled fighter of the Xian Xia sect which is affiliated to Shaolin. His skills are also commendable. How about the Junior Master displays some stances for me?”

Master Lu said, “It is the child’s fortune to receive some pointers from Senior Qiu.”

Lu Guanying thought it was rare to be able to meet such a highly skilled master and his advice would be insightful and precious. Therefore, he hoped to receive a few pointers. He immediately walked to the centre of the hall and said, “Elder, please give some pointers.”

With that, he positioned himself and displayed his best stance, the ‘Luo Han Subduing the Tiger’ fists which created some wind when he punched with his fists. He was indeed the disciple of a skilled martial artist. His skills were unique and he displayed them for a while longer before releasing a loud roar which sounded like a tiger’s roar; the candle lights wavered and a gust of wind blew to the four corners of the room. The servants felt a chilling sensation and were startled by his performance. Lu Guanying continued with a palm technique while shouting loudly, looking very impressive. He did a flip and crouched on the floor; then suddenly stretching his left palm out straight, displayed a stance of the ‘Ru Lai Buddha Palm’. After a while longer, his roar grew softer but the pace of his ‘Luo Han Fists’ quickened and with his last stance, he attacked the floor and the force broke some bricks nearby. Lu Guanying flipped upright into position and with his left arm in the air and his right leg kicking out, he steadily and motionlessly formed the image of a Luo Han Buddha.

Guo Jing and Huang Rong cheered out loud and shouted, “Excellent palm technique!”

Lu Guanying relaxed, stood in normal position again, then turned to face Qiu Qianren who gave a slight smile. Master Lu asked, “How are this child’s set of palm techniques?”

Qiu Qianren answered, “Passable.”

Master Lu said, “If it’s far from perfect, I hope Senior gives some pointers.”

Qiu Qianren replied, “Your son’s palm techniques can be used to build up his body but is useless when fighting an opponent.” Master Lu answered, “I would like to hear Senior’s comments so that he can improve them.”

Guo Jing could not understand either and thought silently, “Junior Master’s skills are not formidable, but how can the Elder say that they’re useless?”

Qiu Qianren stood up and walked to the middle of the hall and returned to his seat with a two pieces of the bricks which Lu Guanying had broken earlier. He did something with his hand and a cracking sound was heard as the pieces broke into smaller pieces. He kneaded the pieces and they turned to powder, which floated off the table. Everyone was astonished by what they saw.

Qiu Qianren swept the dust and powder on the table onto his clothes and walked to the middle of the hall before shaking off the powder onto the floor. He laughed softly as he went back to his seat and said, “It is commendable for Junior Master to be able to break the bricks with a palm but think about this: The opponent is not a brick and will not stand there quietly, waiting for you to attack him or her. Furthermore, if the opponent’s internal energy is stronger than yours and your palm strikes him or her and they repel the strike, you will be heavily injured yourself.” Lu Guanying nodded silently.

Qiu Qianren sighed and continued, “There are many martial artists these days but only a few can be considered skilled fighters.” Huang Rong asked, “Which few?”

Qiu Qianren replied, “Wulin’s well-known five greats: Eastern Heretic, Western Poison, Southern Emperor, Northern Beggar and Central Divinity. However, Central Divinity Wang Chongyang has the most profound skills. As for the other four, they are skilled in their own way. But a person has strengths as well as weaknesses. If one knows their weakness, it is not difficult to defeat them.” With those words, Qiu Qianren shocked Master Lu, Huang Rong and Guo Jing. Lu Guanying did not know of the five greats and did not know why the rest were surprised. Huang Rong was actually in awe of Qiu Qianren when she saw his display of skills, but when she heard his disrespect towards her father, she was furious and gave a polite laugh before asking, “So if Elder can defeat the five greats, wouldn’t that be incredible for you?”

Qiu Qianren answered, “Wang Chongyang has already passed away. I was caught up with some affairs at home during the Hua Shan tournament and could not attend it. That allowed that old Taoist to steal the title ‘number one’. At that time, the five were competing for the ‘Nine Yin Manual’, deciding that the most skilful fighter and winner would get the manual. They dueled for seven days and seven nights and Eastern Heretic, Western Poison, Northern Beggar and Southern Emperor lost. Later, when Wang Chongyang passed away, there was chaos again. I heard that the old Taoist passed the manual to his martial brother, Zhou Botong. Eastern Heretic, Huang Yaoshi rushed there and Zhou Botong was not his match, thereby allowing the former to steal half of the manual. No one knows what happened later.”

Huang Rong and Guo Jing thought silently, “So there were things which happened in between. Half of the manual was stolen by the ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’.”

Huang Rong said, “Since Elder is the higher skilled, then the manual should belong to you!”

Qiu Qianren replied, “I cannot be bothered to fight for it. The four greats are mediocre and have been practicing all these years so as to compete for the number one title. It would be fun to see the second Hua Shan Tournament though.”

Huang Rong asked, “There is a second Hua Shan Tournament?”

Qiu Qianren replied, “Once in every twenty-five years. If the old ones die, the young ones will take over. The next Hua Shan Tournament will take place in a year’s time. But all these years have passed without any outstanding talents. I think it will be us old fellows once again. Ah, there are no outstanding descendants; the skills of the future generations will not be as great as the earlier ones.” He shook his head as he spoke as though filled with deep regret.

Huang Rong asked, “Is Elder going to participate in the next Hua Shan Tournament? If yes, please take us alright? I love seeing people spar with each other.”

Qiu Qianren grunted, “Ah, such childish talk! How can you call that sparring? Initially I didn’t want to go. I am so old already, why bother about fighting for all these useless titles? However, I have a very important matter at hand, which involves the lives of everyone. I would be a selfish and greedy person if I do not step forward to help or the matter will turn into a catastrophe.”

The four of them were astonished by his agitated tone and hurriedly asked him what was it.

Qiu Qianren answered, “This is a highly secretive matter. Since Brothers Guo and Huang are not Jianghu people, its better that you don’t hear about it.”

Huang Rong laughed, “Master Lu is my good friend; if you tell it to him then he will tell it to me.” Master Lu secretly scolded Huang Rong for being so cheeky but did not deny her words.

Qiu Qianren replied, “Since this is so, I will tell all of you then. But before the matter is resolved, I would like all of you to keep it a secret.”

Guo Jing thought, “We are not related to him in anyway and since it’s a secretive issue, it’s better not to hear it.” With that, he stood up and announced, “Both us juniors bid our farewell.”

He pulled Huang Rong’s hand and was about to leave when Qiu Qianren replied, “Since both of you are Master Lu’s good friends, you are not outsiders. Please sit,” With that, he tapped Guo Jing on the shoulder. Guo Jing did not find his energy spectacular but obeyed and returned to his seat.

Qiu Qianren stood up and toasted the wine to the four people before saying, “Not more than half a year from now, Great Song will be in trouble. Does anyone know why?” The others were stunned by his serious expression. Lu Guanying waved to signal to the servants to leave the room and ordered them not to bring in any more food.

Qiu Qianren continued, “I have gotten news that in six months time, the Jin will attack the south with a formidable army and our Song Empire will be lost. Hai, this is so sudden that we cannot do much about it.”

Guo Jing was alarmed and asked, “Then Elder Qiu had better go and inform the Imperial Court and ask them to prepare and make plans to counter the enemy.”

Qiu Qianren stared at him and scolded, “What does a young man like you know? If Great Song is prepared, they will lose out even more.” No one understood what he was saying and looked at him with alarm.

He continued, “I have wracked my brain for a plan to protect the safety and happiness of the people and there is only one way to protect the country. I have traveled all the way to Jiangnan for this. I heard that the Little Jin Prince and Commander Duan are held in this manor. Why not invite them in for a discussion?”

Master Lu did not know how Qiu Qianren knew of this but hurriedly ordered two servants to bring them in. He ordered their chains removed but asked the servants to place them on the floor and denied them any utensils for dinning. Guo Jing and Huang Rong noticed that Wanyan Kang looked weak and exhausted. Commander Duan looked like he was in his early fifties, had a thick beard and wore a frightened expression.

Qiu Qianren looked at Wanyan Kang and said, “Little Prince has suffered?”

Wanyan Kang nodded and thought, “I wonder why Guo Jing and Huang Rong are here?” The day he fought in Master Lu’s study, he didn’t notice them hiding in one corner. The three looked at, but did not greet each other.

Qiu Qianren faced Master Lu and said, “There is much wealth in front of your manor but why hasn’t brother retrieved it?” Master Lu was curious and asked, “I live a simple, rural life. What wealth is Elder talking about?”

Qiu Qianren answered, “When the Jin Army attacks the South, a great war will start and many lives will be lost. If brother gathers the heroes of Jiangnan and you fight together, you will banish the Jin and attain peace.”

Master Lu thought silently, “This is a serious matter indeed.” He answered hurriedly, “It is my honor to help fight for my country and it is something that I am responsible for. I am loyal to my country but the Imperial Court does not appreciate it. If a person is evil, even if he becomes a priest, it is useless if he does not have the right morals. I hope Senior creates a pathway for me and Junior to follow and we will be more than grateful. I do not crave any wealth or rewards.”

Qiu Qianren stroked his beard and laughed. He was about to answer when the housekeeper rushed forward and said, “Leader Zhang has spotted six suspicious-looking people on the lake. They have already reached the Manor.”

Master Lu paled and called out, “Invite them in quickly.”

He thought silently, “Why are there six people? Could it be that the ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’ have found allies?” 

Chapter 14 – The Master of Peach Blossom Island

What he saw was six people, five men and one woman, entering the hall. They were the Six Freaks of Jiangnan. They had been wandering around the north and south and on this particular day had arrived at Lake Tai, where they met some Jianghu people on a boat who received them attentively.

They had been away from their hometown for such a long time that they did not know the current affairs of the martial arts world. They weren’t sure who these people were, so Zhu Cong exchanged some pleasantries with them. It turned out these people were Manager Zhang [zhai zhu] and his men from ‘Cloud Manor’ [gui yun zhuang].

They had received orders from Lu Guanying to guard the lake and to report any unusual activities. They did not know who these six people were, and since these six wielded weapons, they were inclined to regard the six as the enemies of the Old Manor Master. Therefore, Manager Zhang acted with utmost prudence and received the six cordially then invited them to enter the manor while at the same time sending a report to the Manor Master.

Guo Jing, however, was ecstatic to see his six masters. Quickly he knelt and greeted them one by one, “First Master, Second Master, Third Master, Fourth Master, Sixth Master, and Seventh Master! You are all here! This truly is wonderful!” He was overly exuberant, but because of his spontaneity everyone could see his sincerity and genuine delight.

Although the Six Freaks were angry with him over the Huang Rong affair, in all honesty they loved him dearly. They were pleasantly surprised to see him and all anger simply vanished into thin air.

“Child, where is that female demon of yours?” Han Baoju could not help scolding him.

Han Xiaoying, however, had a pair of sharp eyes. She saw Huang Rong wearing men’s clothing sitting amongst the group. She tugged Han Baoju’s sleeve and whispered, “Calm down. We will talk this over later.” Initially Master Lu also suspected that his enemies had arrived, but then he saw that these six were total strangers to him. Moreover, Guo Jing had addressed them as his masters. He was relieved. Cupping his fists in respect he apologized, “I have crippled legs; please forgive me for not standing up to welcome you,” and immediately gave the order to prepare another banquet table for the guests.

Without wasting another second Guo Jing introduced his Masters. Master Lu was delighted and said, “I have heard of your illustrious names and admired you for a long time. It is very fortunate to finally meet you in person today.” His manner was very cordial.

Qiu Qianren, on the other hand, did not show any interest in the six guests. He simply smiled faintly and kept eating and drinking. Han Baoju was irritated and could not hold his temper. “And who is this gentleman?” he asked.

“I am pleased to introduce him to you, Six Masters,” Master Lu proudly said. “He is the highly respected Senior of Wulin, the Taishan (Mount Tai) and the Big Dipper Constellation [meaning – the ultimate] of this present age.”

The Six Freaks were startled. “Is he the Peach Blossom Island Master Huang Yaoshi?” asked Han Xiaoying. “Could he be the ‘Nine- Fingered Divine Beggar’ [jiu zhi shen gai] Hong Qigong?” asked Han Baoju.

Master Lu smiled and explained, “No, he is neither. He is the ‘Iron Palm Floating on the Water’ [tie zhang shui shang piao], Senior Qiu.”

“He is Senior Qiu Qianren?” Ke Zhen’E asked, surprised by the revelation. Qiu Qianren laughed heartily with a smug face

By that time the manor staff had finished preparing a new banquet table and the Six Freaks took their seats. Guo Jing wanted to sit with his masters. He tugged Huang Rong’s hand for them to go together, but Huang Rong simply smiled and shook her head. She was not willing to sit with the Six Freaks.

Master Lu laughed and said, “I thought Brother Guo did not know martial arts. Who would have known that you are the disciple of these well-known Masters? Truly my eyes are blind and could not see the hidden treasure right in front of me …”

Guo Jing stood up. “My skill is mediocre,” he said, “I was indeed taught by these Masters. I do not dare to show off in front of the Manor Master. I beg your forgiveness.”

Ke Zhen’E was delighted listening to their conversation. He was proud that Guo Jing was well-behaved.

Qiu Qianren suddenly said, “The Six Freaks of the South [Jiangnan] are prominent characters in the Jianghu world. This old man has a very important matter to deal with. It would be wonderful if I could acquire your valuable assistance.”

“Senior Qiu was just about to explain the matter when the six guests arrived,” explained the Manor Master. “Now would Senior please enlighten us?”

Qiu Qianren complied and said, “For we who live in the Jianghu world, the ultimate purpose of our existence is chivalry and helping the suffering people. Right now we see with our own eyes the Jin army moving south. If our Song Dynasty cannot discern good from bad and is not willing to surrender, when the war breaks out, I wonder how many lives will perish? As the saying goes, ‘shun tian zhe chang, ni tian zhe wang’ [following Heaven’s will means prosperity, opposing Heaven’s will means death]. Therefore, this old man is going to make contact with the valiant people of the south and to take up arms alongside the Jin army and attack the Song Dynasty from both sides. This will render it helpless and thus it will not have any choice but surrender. If we succeed, not only will we gain riches and honor, but the gratitude of the common people as well. That way our martial arts skills are not useless and we do not taint the two characters ‘xia yi’ (chivalry) with dishonor.”

Hearing this, the Six Freaks’ countenances flushed and the Han siblings were ready to open their mouths. Luckily Quan Jinfa – who sat between them, quickly pulled their sleeves and signaled with his eyes towards the Manor Master, hinting that they should wait to see how he responded.

So far Master Lu had showed great admiration for Qiu Qianren; but listening to his speech he was unable to restrain his great surprise. He forced a smile and said, “Even though Junior is unworthy and my body is as worthless as grass, I have never dared to forget ‘zhong yi’ [loyalty and brotherhood]. The Jin army is going south to attack my country and they mean harm to the people. Junior will certainly join other Jiangnan heroes to fight the invaders to my death. Senior, what you just said, was that to test me?”

“Brother Lu, how can you be so short sighted?” Qiu Qianren asked. “What good is it to help the Song fight the Jin? Most likely you will end up like Yue Wu Mu [General Yue Fei], who suffered a tragic death at the ‘Crisis Pavilion’ [Feng Bo Ting].”

Hearing this, Master Lu was shocked and angered at the same time. Initially he thought he could count on Qiu to help him deal with the ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’ [hei feng shuang sha]. Who would have thought that he had decided to betray his own country? It was useless to possess a high martial arts skill if the person had such a low character and was this shameless. He flicked his sleeve and said, “Junior is facing a formidable enemy tonight. I was going to ask Senior to help me uphold justice; but since we do not hold to the same values, I do not dare to entertain your honorable presence even if blood should splash from my neck. Please!” He cupped his fists. His intention was clear; he did not want the guest to stay any longer.

The Six Freaks of Jiangnan – along with Guo Jing and Huang Rong, were delighted and secretly admired their host. Qiu Qianren smiled but did not say anything. As his left hand gripped the wine cup, his right hand moved towards the cup’s mouth, revolving the cup around in his hand. Suddenly he flipped his right hand and flicked the cup away. To everyone’s amazement the cup was cut smoothly into two parts: the cup bottom and about half an inch of porcelain ring. To crush a cup is not difficult, but to cut the cup smoothly was a demonstration of profound energy worthy of respect.

Master Lu realized he was being threatened. While he was still hesitating, the ‘Horse God’ [ma wang shen] Han Baoju had already leaped out of his seat. Angrily he called out, “Shameless scoundrel, let us see who is superior, you or I!”

Qiu Qianren did not falter. “I have heard for a long time of the Seven Freaks of Jiangnan’s stellar reputation. Today I want to see whether what I heard is true or not. All six of you, come!”

Master Lu knew Han Baoju was no match for the old man. He was delighted to hear the old man challenge all six of them. He quickly said, “The Six Freaks of Jiangnan always move forward and backward together. Facing a single enemy or fighting an army, the six go together, not a single one of them willing to be left behind.”

Zhu Cong understood very well the Manor Master’s intention. “Very well,” he said, “let us five brothers and our sister fight this famous Wulin character!” He waved his hand and his five brothers and sister immediately left their seats.

Qiu Qianren also stood up, picked his chair up, strolled to the center of the hall, set the chair down, and sat with his right foot above his left. He calmly said, “This old man will fight you sitting down.”

Ke Zhen’E and the others were startled. He knew that the old man would not dare to act so arrogantly if he did not have a very high level of martial arts.

While his six masters had not made any moves yet, Guo Jing quickly moved forward. He had heard amazing stories about this old man’s kungfu and knew his masters were not this old man’s match. He had received his masters’ kindness and even though he knew the risk, he stepped in front of his masters and boldly said, “Junior is asking for some lessons from the Senior.”

Qiu Qianren was surprised; then exploded in laughter. “It wasn’t easy for your parents to raise you. Why would you waste your unworthy life for nothing in this place?”

Almost in unison Ke Zhen’E and the others called out, “Jing’er, move back!”

But Guo Jing was determined. He was afraid his masters would hold him back, so without saying anything he bent his left leg a little bit, moved his right palm in a circular motion, then thrust it forward, hard. It was the ‘The Proud Dragon Shows Remorse’ [kang long you hui] from the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’, which he had unceasingly trained hard up to this day. It could not be compared to what it was when Hong Qigong first taught it to him.

Qiu Qianren had judged Han Baoju’s skill when he leaped out of his seat. It wasn’t extraordinary so it was natural that he thought Han’s disciple would not be good either. It was beyond his comprehension that Guo Jing’s attack would be so fierce. He was shocked and hastily leaped up from his chair, only to hear a loud cracking sound. His chair had been destroyed by Guo Jing’s palm.

“Confounded kid!” he shouted angrily when he landed back on the floor.

Guo Jing was a bit wary; he did not dare to advance. “Senior, please give me some pointers,” he said politely.

Huang Rong wanted to disturb Qiu Qianren’s mind so she called out, “Jing ge ge, don’t be so polite to this old scoundrel!”

The old man was livid! As long as he had roamed Jianghu, who would dare call him ‘old scoundrel’ to his face? He was about to thrust his palm to attack her, but suddenly remembered his own reputation. He sneered and lifted his right hand and positioned his left hand on his eyebrows. Then, just when Guo Jing darted sideways to fend, redirected his hand to make a claw then retracted it. The hand on his eyebrows moved forward in circular motion. His right hand followed, changing from a fist to a palm.

Huang Rong called out, “What’s so special about that move? That is the ‘Lone Goose Leaves the Flock’ [gu yan chu qun] from the ‘Open Arm Six Palms Technique’ [tong bi liu he zhang]!”

Qiu Qianren was surprised that she recognized his move. It was indeed the ‘Open Arm Six Palms Technique’, which was created based on the ‘Open Arm Five Elements Technique’ [tong bi wu xing zhang]. It was not an extraordinary move, but he had perfected this move for decades. The word ‘open’ here actually meant that his right and left arms were interchangeable. Guo Jing saw his right hand coming fast, while his left hand moving to the right, then the right hand went back and supported the left hand. Both hands were supporting each other, increasing the strength of both hands and was very fierce.

Guo Jing had seen his amazing strength and he lacked experience in combat. He was a little bit nervous and did not dare to counterattack. He kept stepping back.

Qiu Qianren thought, “This kid could destroy a chair because of his strength, but actually his martial arts are only average.” He immediately launched several stances: ‘Penetrating Palm Hacking Down in a Flash’ [chuan zhang shan pi], ‘Lifting the Cloud Palm Technique’ [liao yin zhang], ‘Step Across the Tiger to Climb a Mountain’ [kua hu deng shan], getting stronger with each stance.

Huang Rong was anxious seeing that Guo Jing was losing. She approached the two with the intention of stepping in if Guo Jing was in danger.

When Guo Jing saw her coming, he turned his head to see her anxious face and could not help but feel nervous. Qiu Qianren saw this and, wasting no time, he attacked with the ‘White Snake Spitting Sign’ [bai she tu zhi]; his palm hit Guo Jing squarely on the chest.

Huang Rong and the Six Freaks – as well as Master Lu and his son, all called out in alarm. They thought that with Qiu’s strength hitting such a vital part, Guo Jing must be dead or at least severely injured.

Guo Jing was also shocked, so he immediately circulated his chi and lifted both arms. Strangely he did not feel too much pain, which puzzled him no end. Huang Rong saw him staring blankly and thought that he was internally injured and was about to pass out. She immediately jumped forward to support him and asked anxiously, “Jing ge ge, are you all right?” Her heart was so shaken that tears flowed involuntarily from her eyes.

Guo Jing’s response was unexpected, “I am all right! Let me try again.” He stuck his chest out, walked toward Qiu Qianren and boldly said, “You are the senior ‘Iron Palm Who Floats on Water’, hit me again!”

Qiu Qianren was furious; he immediately struck another palm at Guo Jing’s chest with all his strength. But instead of collapsing, Guo Jing laughed loudly and shouted, “Masters! Rong’er! This old scoundrel’s skill is only ordinary. As long as he did not hit me, his secret was safe; but as soon as he hit me, his secret is revealed!” His words were followed by a sweep of his left arm, forcing Qiu Qianren to step back. “Now you can feel my palm!” he shouted.

Qiu Qianren saw his movement and thought, “You said ‘palm’ but your hand forms a fist, do you think I am blind?” He underestimated Guo Jing’s attack and simply blocked the fist with both hands in front of his chest. Who would have known that Guo Jing was using the ‘Dragon Battling in the Wilderness’ [long zhan yu ye] which was the most mysterious stance of the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’. Both left and right arms could be either solid or void without any specific rules.

Qiu Qianren saw Guo Jing’s left arm move while his right arm hung loose; suddenly the right arm thrust forward and hit Qiu Qianren on the right shoulder, followed by a punch to his chest. Qiu Qianren’s body flew out of the hall through the main entrance like a kite with broken string!

Just as everyone uttered a startled cry, somebody suddenly appeared in the entrance. She held Qiu Qianren by his collar while entering the main hall with big strides. She put Qiu Qianren down on the floor and stood coolly at the center of the hall. Her face was cold and expressionless and her long hair lay scattered about her shoulders. She looked up. It was none other than ‘Iron Corpse’, Mei Chaofeng. Every heart skipped a beat.

Behind her was another person no less peculiar than ‘Iron Corpse’. That person was tall and rather thin and wearing a dark green robe. His countenance was pale and expressionless. Other than his eyes, the rest of his face seemed frozen like a wooden statue. He stood still and stiff like a standing corpse. As soon as everyone saw this person, a chill crept down their spines. They immediately turned their gaze away from this person, not daring to look at his face any longer with their hearts thumping.

Master Lu was perplexed. He would never have thought that the world famous Qiu Qianren would collapse unexpectedly from the first blow of his opponent. He was about to smile but, seeing Mei Chaofeng’s arrival, his smile froze.

Wanyan Kang saw his master and was very excited. He immediately stepped forward to pay his respects. Everybody could see that these two, master and disciple, were actually similar in appearance and could not help but be astonished.

Master Lu raised his cupped fists and said, “Martial Sister Mei, it’s been twenty long years and we finally meet here. How is Martial Brother Chen?”

The Six Freaks exchanged glances with Guo Jing. They clearly heard Master Lu calling her ‘Martial Sister’ and could not help but feel dismayed. Ke Zhen’E was upset. “We fall into a trap today,” he said. “Mei Chaofeng alone is not easy to deal with, now she has her martial brother at hand.”

Huang Rong on the other hand secretly nodded her head. “This Master’s martial arts and literary knowledge, as well as his general conduct and manner of speaking, resemble those of my father. I suspected he must have a martial relationship with us. But who would have thought he’s my father’s disciple.”

Mei Chaofeng replied coldly, “Is the speaker my martial brother Lu Chengfeng?” “Yes,” Master Lu answered. “Has Martial Sister been well since our last meeting?”

“Why do you ask?” Mei Chaofeng answered. “Both of my eyes are blind. Can’t you see it? Your Martial Brother Xuanfeng was murdered a long time ago. That was your expectation, was it not?”

Master Lu was both pleasantly surprised and shocked. The ‘Twin Killers of the Dark Winds’ had roamed Jianghu and turned it upside- down...how could ‘Copper Corpse’ have been murdered? But he was also relieved because he had one less formidable enemy and moreover, the one left behind was blind. However, he recalled their apprenticeship together on Peach Blossom Island and could not help but feel sad. “Who killed Martial Brother Chen?” he sighed and asked. “Has Martial Sister sought revenge?”

“I have wandered everywhere looking for them,” Mei Chaofeng answered.

“Let Little Brother help you,” Master Lu said. “Afterward we can sort out our own business.” “Humph!” Mei Chaofeng sneered. “Mei Chaofeng!” Han Baoju could not hold himself. He slapped the table and shouted, “Your sworn enemies are here!”

He was going to pounce on her, but Quan Jinfa quickly pulled him back. Mei Chaofeng, on the other hand, was taken aback. “You … you …” she stammered.

At that time Qiu Qianren, who had been silent because of the chest pain from Guo Jing’s punch, felt the pain subsiding. He opened his mouth to say, “What is it you were talking about…revenge? Why, your own master was killed and you don’t know it? What kind of hero are you?”

“What did you say?” Mei Chaofeng almost screamed. She tightly crushed Qiu Qianren’s hand so that he cried out in pain, “Let go…let go!”

Mei Chaofeng ignored him, “What did you say?” she repeated.

“The Master of Peach Blossom Island has been killed!” Qiu Qianren answered. Lu Chengfeng was stunned. “Is that true?” he asked anxiously.

“Why would it not be true?” Qiu Qianren answered. “He was surrounded and killed by the Quanzhen Seven Masters, Wang Chongyang’s disciples.”

Before he finished speaking Mei Chaofeng and Lu Chengfeng had called out loudly. With a loud thud Huang Rong fell backwards from her chair…unconscious. The others initially did not believe that with his expertise, Huang Yaoshi would easily be killed by anyone; but since it was the Quanzhen Seven Masters, they had to believe it. They knew very well the combined power of Ma Yu, Qiu Chuji, Wang Chuyi and the others would be difficult for Huang Yaoshi to defeat.

Guo Jing, frantic, hugged Huang Rong and called out, “Rong’er, wake up!” He saw Huang Rong’s face was deathly pale and her breathing uneven; he was even more anxious and called his masters, “Master…Master…help!”

Zhu Cong immediately came over and held his hand beneath her nose. “Don’t worry,” he said. “She was only shocked…she is not going to die.” Then he rubbed her ‘Fatigue Palace acupoint’ [lao gong xue] while slowly transferring internal energy.

Huang Rong slowly recovered. “Father…Father! I want my Father!” she cried.

Lu Chengfeng was surprised, but immediately realized, “She is Master’s daughter. No wonder she knew about the ‘Nine Flower Jade Dew Pill’.” He shed some tears and loudly called out, “Little Martial Sister, let us go after those scoundrel Quanzhen priests to seek revenge. Mei Chaofeng…are you coming or not? If you don’t come, let me fight you to the death right now! It … it was because of you that Master met his fate.”

Lu Guanying knew his father was too deep in sorrow to speak coherently. He quickly supported him and urged, “Father, please don’t be so sad. We need to consider it further.”

Lu Chengfeng ignored his son and cried louder. “Mei Chaofeng! You bitch! You have caused me much harm! You are shameless! You ran away with your man, which was all right with me, but why did you have to steal Master’s ‘Nine Yin Manual’ as well? In his anger he smashed the ligaments in the legs of us four martial brothers. Not only that, he expelled us from Peach Blossom Island. I was hoping Master would change his mind and have compassion on us who hadn’t done anything to deserve such punishment. Now that he’s passed away, my hope is shattered …”

“I always thought you were spineless,” Mei Chaofeng scolded, “and you are still spineless. Three…four times you lead other people to deal with us, forcing us – husband and wife to be without shelter; we had to run for our lives and ended up suffering on the Mongolian Steppe. Now you don’t have guts enough to seek revenge for our Master, but keep nagging about settling your own old debts with me. I say we go and find those seven scoundrels and deal with them. If you can’t walk, I’ll carry you!”

All this time Huang Rong was still weeping, “Father! I want my Father!”

Zhu Cong intervened, “Let us ask about this more directly,” he said, walking towards Qiu Qianren. He brushed some dust from Qiu Qianren’s clothes and apologetically said, “My young disciple was ignorant and has offended you; he has no regard for seniority.”

Qiu Qianren was angry, “I am old, my eyes are not clear, I let it slip by. Come, let us fight again!”

Zhu Cong patted his shoulder and pulled his left hand gently, then persuasively smiled, “Senior is an expert; there is no need to fight with him.” As soon as they got to the table, Zhu Cong picked a wine cup up with his left hand, while his right hand covered the cup’s mouth. Then he revolved it around, just like Qiu had done, and flicked the cup to the table. With a clanking sound the wine cup landed on the table, broken into two parts: the cup bottom and about half an inch of porcelain ring. Exactly like Qiu Qianren demonstrated earlier. Everyone was amazed!

Zhu Cong smiled and said, “Senior’s skill is extraordinary. Junior has stolen it from you. Please forgive my offense and many thanks to you.”

Qiu Qianren’s face changed color immediately. Now everybody knew there must be some kind of trick, but nobody really knew what was going on. “Jing’er, come here!” Zhu Cong called, “Let me teach you a trick and later on you can use it to deceive other people.”

Guo Jing came near and Zhu Cong showed him a ring on his left middle finger. “This is Senior Qiu’s; I borrowed it from him a moment ago. Go ahead and put it on,” he said while taking the ring off his own finger.

Qiu Qianren was startled, then fuming mad. He did not understand how the ring on his finger had moved to Zhu’s finger. In the meantime Guo Jing had already taken the ring. Zhu Cong explained, “This ring has a diamond chip on it, the hardest material on earth. Put the diamond’s tip on the wine cup and rotate the cup with your right hand.”

Guo Jing did so. Now Lu Guanying and the others began to understand. They were unable to restrain a smile and softly murmured amongst themselves. Guo Jing turned the cup in his right hand and sure enough, the cup was smoothly broken into two parts. If one looked carefully, the diamond had left a deep mark on the porcelain pieces; it wasn’t profound internal energy at all.

Huang Rong was amused and she was smiling through her tears; then the memory of her father came flooding back and she cried again.

“Don’t cry, Miss,” Zhu Cong comforted her, “This Senior Qiu loves to deceive people and his words may not be necessarily true.” Huang Rong was puzzled and she looked at him with a questioning look.

“Your father’s martial arts are so profound; how could he be killed by other people easily?” Zhu Cong said with a smile. “Also, the Quanzhen Seven Masters are respectable people and they have no enmity towards your father. Why would they kill him without a reason?”

“Perhaps it was because of Qiu Chuji and the other ox-noses [derogatory term for Taoist priests] Martial Uncle Zhou Botong,” Huang Rong said, expressing a guess.

“What about him?” Zhu Cong asked.

“You wouldn’t know about it,” Huang Rong said, crying again. Even with her intelligence, she was not really sure what really happened. First of all, it had something to do with her mother and Huang Yaoshi did not want to talk too much about it. Second, the business between her father and Zhou Botong was more complicated than her young mind could grasp. She did not want to believe the Quanzhen Seven Masters would attack her father, but the fact was….she was not sure.

“Whatever it was, I’d say this old man’s word is a little bit smelly,” Zhu Cong said. “You mean he was only … only …,” Huang Rong stuttered.

“Yes, he was just farting!” Zhu Cong laughed. “He has so many tricks stored in his pocket and guess what he would do with them.” Then he groped into his pocket and produced some things which he placed on the table. Among those things were two bricks, some dry grass, a piece of cloth to light a fire, a knife for the same purpose and a piece of flint.

Huang Rong took a brick and as soon as she tightened her grip she could feel the brick was soft. She gripped it harder and, without too much effort, the brick crumbled into powder. After listening to Zhu Cong’s words her sadness was greatly reduced. Her face broke into a smile, showing her two dimples. “This brick is made from bread flour. He used it to demonstrate his profound internal energy earlier.”

Qiu Qianren’s face turned from pale to red and back to pale. He was greatly ashamed. He thought that with the news of Huang Yaoshi’s death, everyone’s attention could be diverted and he would find an opportunity to escape. Who would have thought that his scheme would be revealed by Zhu Cong? He flicked his sleeve and turned around to walk out. But Mei Chaofeng reached backwards, snatched him, and then threw him on the floor.

“You said my Master passed away, did you tell the truth?” she asked menacingly. Qiu Qianren was in too much pain to say anything, he only whimpered.

Huang Rong noticed that the grass was half burnt and immediately realized what had happened earlier. “Second Master, light the grass, put it inside your sleeve, then inhale and exhale.”

The Six Freaks of Jiangnan initially had some problems with Huang Rong, but Qiu Qianren’s trickery had united them in facing a common enemy. Zhu Cong happily complied. Actually he liked Huang Rong’s cunning mind and her eccentricity. Now that Huang Rong called him ‘Second Master’ he liked her even more. He did what was asked and while doing that, he even closed his eyes and swayed his head solemnly.

Huang Rong clapped her hands in delight. “Jing ge ge,” she said laughing happily, “Didn’t we see this old man practicing his internal strength a while ago exactly like this?” She walked to Qiu Qianren’s side and said, “Stand up!” As she pulled him up, she suddenly struck his ‘Holy Way’ [shen dao] acupoint under the fifth rib on his back with her left hand, using the ‘Orchid’ acupoint sealing technique [lan hua fu xue shou]. She shouted loudly, “Tell me, did my father die? If you say he did, I will take your life away!” With a flip of her hand she placed a shiny butterfly shaped steel piece on his chest.

Everybody was amused hearing her threat. She asked him for the truth but she didn’t want him to say Huang Yaoshi was dead.

Qiu Qianren was writhing in pain and also suffering from an itch. “I am afraid he is not dead yet. I don’t know …” he said, trembling. Huang Rong beamed from ear to ear. “Very good!” she said, “I will spare you.” She struck his ‘Open Basin’ [que pen] acupoint to ease his suffering.

Lu Chengfeng thought, “Little Martial Sister’s question was one-sided and really missed the point.” So he asked, “You said my Master had been killed by the Quanzhen Seven Masters, did you see it with your own eyes, or did you just hear it from somebody else?”

“I heard it from somebody else,” Qiu Qianren replied. “Who was it?” Lu Chengfeng pursued.

Qiu Qianren hesitated, but finally said, “It was Hong Qigong.” “When did he tell you that?” asked Huang Rong.

“About a month ago,” Qiu Qianren answered.

“Where did you two meet?” Huang Rong asked again.

“At the summit of Mount Tai [Taishan],” Qiu Qianren answered. “We were having a match and he lost to me. He unintentionally mentioned it.”

Huang Rong was ecstatic. She hopped around like a little kid. Her left hand grabbed his chest, her right hand pulled away some of his beard. Giggling she said, “Hong Qigong lost to this old scoundrel? Martial Sister Mei, Martial Brother Lu, don’t listen to him, he was just … just …” Being a girl, she didn’t have the heart to use vulgar language.

Zhu Cong continued for her, “He was just farting!” then he covered his mouth, laughing.

Huang Rong continued, “A month ago Hong Qigong was with Jing ge ge and I. Jing ge ge, give him another blow!” “Right!” Guo Jing said, moving towards Qiu Qianren.

Qiu Qianren was frightened and he turned around to escape, but Mei Chaofeng was standing in the middle of the doorway. He turned around again, but this time Lu Guanying blocked his way. He quickly pushed until Guanying staggered and fell. Even though he had gained his fame by deceiving people, Qiu Qianren still possessed some real martial arts skill. If he did not, he would not recklessly dare to challenge the Six Freaks and Guo Jing. Lu Guanying was certainly not his match.

Huang Rong jumped to block him. “You carried an iron cauldron over your head and walked on water, how did you do it?” she asked. “That was my special skill,” Qiu Qianren answered. “My title is ‘Iron Palm Floating on Water’; that was the ‘Floating on Water’.” “You are still boasting,” Huang Rong said with a smile. “Aren’t you going to tell me the truth?”

“I am old, my martial arts are not as they used to be,” Qiu Qianren answered. “But my lightness kungfu has been trained to perfection.”

“Very well,” Huang Rong said, “There is a large cistern containing gold fish outside in the courtyard. Why don’t you demonstrate your ‘Floating on Water’ so that everybody can see your skill? Just go out of the hall, turn left beneath the sweet-smelling ‘osmanthus’ [gui hua] tree.” [Note: A fragrant evergreen tree/shrub native to China.]

“How can someone train in a cistern …?” Qiu Qianren had not finished speaking when something flashed brightly in front of his eyes and, without him realizing it, his foot had been grabbed and he was hanging upside down.

“Your death is imminent, yet you still open your big mouth!” Mei Chaofeng shouted. Her ‘Poisonous Silver Dragon Whip’ [du long yin bian] curled in midair and hurled him toward the cistern, following Huang Rong’s directions.

Huang Rong quickly moved to the cistern, waving her butterfly shaped steel piece menacingly. “I won’t let you out of the cistern unless you explain to me your ‘Floating on Water’!”

Qiu Qianren kicked the cistern’s bottom, trying to leap up, but Huang Rong’s steel punctured his shoulder. He fell back into the cistern, soaking wet. With face showing much pain he said, “In that cauldron was laid a thin sheet of iron which was sealed; above it I put three inches of water. In that creek I hid some wooden poles about five to six inches below the surface to make them invisible.”

Huang Rong laughed, then re-entered the hall, not paying Qiu Qianren any more attention. He quickly leaped up from the cistern and hastily ran out of the manor without looking back.

Mei Chaofeng and Lu Chengfeng smiled in embarrassment. They had fought and cried over nothing. Their master had not been killed. Now that this matter was made clear, they felt uneasy towards each other. Mei Chaofeng hesitated for a moment, then clearing her throat she said, “Lu Chengfeng, let my disciple go. For the sake of our Master I won’t remember our past differences any longer. As for the fact that both husband and wife had to flee to Mongolia … oh well, that was our fate.”

Lu Chengfeng heaved a deep sigh. He said in his heart, “Her husband has died, her eyes blinded and she is alone and forsaken in this world. Both my legs are crippled, but I have a wife and a son. I have a family and I have a business. Actually my condition is a hundred times better than hers. Both of us are decades older than we were then, why would I keep holding resentment towards her?” Therefore, he answered, “You can take your disciple away. Mei Shijie [older martial sister], your younger brother will leave for Peach Blossom Island to visit our benevolent master tomorrow. Will you come with me?”

“Do you dare?” Mei Chaofeng asked with a trembling voice.

“To visit Peach Blossom Island without Master’s permission is a big violation of our banishment, but after listening to that old man Qiu talking nonsense, my heart was troubled. I want to make sure he is all right. If I don’t go, I will be haunted with uncertainty for the rest of my life.”

Before Mei Chaofeng could answer Huang Rong had already said, “Let us all go together. I will ask his forgiveness on your behalf.”

Mei Chaofeng was silent for a moment. Two lines of tears flowed down her cheeks. “I don’t have face to see him,” she sadly said. “Our benevolent master had compassion on a wretched child like me. He took me as his disciple and raised me. But because of wild ambition I have betrayed him…” Suddenly she lifted her head and shouted, “I only want to seek revenge for my husband. Afterwards, I know what to do. Seven Freaks of Jiangnan…let us sort out our business now. Martial Brother Lu, Little Martial Sister, you stand aside; don’t even think of interfering. No matter who lives or who dies, I don’t want you to help either side. Do you hear?”

Ke Zhen’E walked in big strides to the main hall, his iron staff striking the brick floor. Then he said clearly with his hoarse voice, “Mei Chaofeng, you can’t see me, neither can I see you. That night when we fought on that barren hill, your husband died a violent death, but our fifth brother also died at your hands. Did you know that?”

“Oh…there’s only six of you left?” Mei Chaofeng asked.

“We promised Taoist Priest Ma Yu to no longer seek vengeance towards you, but it is actually you that looked for us. Good! Even though the world is wide, we always meet each other. It seems like the heavens won’t allow the six of us to co-exist with you in this world. Come!” Ke Zhen’E coldly said.

Mei Chaofeng snorted. “The six of you can attack together,” she said icily.

Zhu Cong and the other Freaks quickly arranged themselves near their elder brother, guarding against Mei Chaofeng’s sudden attack. Everybody unsheathed their weapons.

Suddenly Guo Jing moved forward. “Let your disciple fight her first,” he said.

Lu Chengfeng was in an awkward situation. He heard Mei Chaofeng’s challenge and the six accepted. He did not know how to be the mediator and he hated himself for not having authority or influence over these people. But hearing Guo Jing’s words an idea suddenly came to his mind. He quickly said, “Both sides please stay your hands for a moment. Please listen to Little Brother’s words. Although Mei Shijie and the Jiangnan Six have deep enmity between you, each side has suffered an unfortunate loss. In Little Brother’s opinion, no more blood needs to be shed. Let today’s match only decide victory or defeat, please don’t deepen the enmity. The Six Freaks, although they always face the enemy together, it is still six against one; that, in my opinion, is not fair. Why doesn’t Mei Shijie teach several moves to young Brother Guo?”

Mei Chaofeng snorted and coldly said, “How could I fight an unknown junior?”

“Your husband died at my hands. What does it have to do with my Masters?” Guo Jing called out.

Mei Chaofeng was furious. She jumped up and shouted, “Precisely! I will kill you first, little scoundrel!” By listening to voices she knew her enemy’s position. Her five fingers stretched towards Guo Jing’s skull.

Guo Jing leaped to avoid the attack. “Senior Mei!” he called out. “I was very young and ignorant and I accidentally killed your husband. But one has to be responsible for one’s actions. Today you want to kill me and I won’t run away. But will you still look for my Masters in the future?” He realized he was no match for Mei Chaofeng and was ready to die under her fingers; but he was determined to protect his Masters in any way he could.

“You really aren’t going to run away?” Mei Chaofeng asked. “No!” Guo Jing asserted.

“Good!” Mei Chaofeng shouted. “I am willing to write off the Six Freaks’ debt. Good boy, come, follow me!”

“Mei Shijie, he is a real man. You on the other hand, will be the laughingstock of the heroes of Jianghu!” Huang Rong suddenly called out.

“How?” Mei Chaofeng was angry.

“He is the only heir to the Jiangnan’s Six Freaks’ skills,” Huang Rong explained. “The Six Freaks martial arts of today cannot be compared to theirs of the past. It would be quite easy if they really wanted to take your life. But they have actually forgiven you. Not only that, they also gave you face. It was you who didn’t know the good from the bad…yet you are still boasting.”

“Did I want them to forgive me? Bah! ” Mei Chaofeng was furious. “Six Freaks, have your martial arts improved greatly? Want to try me?” “Why would they want to fight you personally? Even their disciple won’t necessarily lose to you,” Huang Rong said.

Mei Chaofeng was so angry she almost screamed, “If I can’t kill him in three stances, I will kill myself right here right now.” She had fought Guo Jing in the Zhao palace and thought she knew his level of martial arts. What she didn’t know was that in the past few months Guo Jing had received the tutelage of the ‘Nine-Fingered Divine Beggar’. His skill now couldn’t be compared to his skill then.

“Good!” Huang Rong said, “Let all the people here bear witness. Three stances are too few, let’s give you ten.”

“I will match Senior Mei for fifteen stances,” Guo Jing said. He’d only learned fifteen out of the eighteen moves of the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’, hence he thought he could at least survive fifteen stances.

“Ask Martial Brother Lu and the guest who accompanied you to be the witnesses,” Huang Rong added.

“Who accompanies me?” Mei Chaofeng was taken aback. “I rushed to this manor alone...who came with me?” “Who is that behind you then?” Huang Rong asked.

Mei Chaofeng threw a sudden backward punch, quick as lightning. Nobody saw the man move, but her attack hit empty space. That person moved like he was a ghost or spirit; the amazing part was that he moved without making a sound.

After she arrived in the Jiangnan region Mei Chaofeng always had the feeling that somebody was following her, but no matter how she spoke or attacked, she could never hear anything. She thought she was losing her mind, or it was a ghost haunting her. And then she heard the flute driving away the snakes and she was certain someone with a very high level of martial arts was shadowing her. She had tried to express her gratitude to the air, but nobody answered. She waited among the trees, but was not sure if that person had left or not. Now she heard Huang Rong speak and she was unable to hide her feeling.

“Who are you?” she asked, trembling, “What do you want from me?”

That person did not answer. Nobody knew if he even heard the question. Mei Chaofeng thrust herself forward. That person did not seem to move but again she did not touch anything. Everybody was stunned. They had never seen someone with this person’s immeasurable skill.

Lu Chengfeng boldly asked, “The Honorable Guest has come from a long way and I have not had the opportunity to welcome you. Would you please sit down and have a drink with me?”

That person turned around, seemingly floating on air as he went outside.

Mei Chaofeng gathered her courage and asked, “Is Honorable Senior the one who played the flute to help me? Mei Chaofeng is deeply grateful.”

Nobody was able to restrain their amazement. Being a blind woman, Mei Chaofeng had very sharp ears, but she could not hear that person leaving the hall.

“Mei Shijie, that person has already left,” Huang Rong said.

Mei Chaofeng was startled. “He did? I … How could I not hear him?”

“Go after him quickly; don’t boast about yourself in here,” Huang Rong said.

Mei Chaofeng was dumbfounded. Her face showed sadness, yet there was a tinge of anger. Suddenly she shouted, “Guo Kid, take this!” She lifted both hands with all ten fingers out-stretched, emanating a spooky bluish green aura in the candlelight; but she did not attack.

“I am here,” Guo Jing said.

As soon as Mei Chaofeng heard the word ‘I’ her right hand moved, followed by her left hand’s five fingers, towards Guo Jing’s face.

Guo Jing saw her fast movement; he slightly leaned his body sideways and sent his left palm toward her. Mei Chaofeng heard the sound of the palm and was about to evade, but she was not fast enough for the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ exquisite move and her shoulder was struck. She was shaken and forced to retreat three steps. But her martial arts were not weak. While stepping backwards she sent her fingernails to counterattack. Guo Jing was taken by surprise and his right wrist was caught by Mei Chaofeng on three acupoints: ‘Inner Gate’ [nei guan], ‘Outer Gate’ [wai guan], and ‘Ancestor Meeting’ [hui zong]. Guo Jing had carefully heeded his masters warning, that Mei Chaofeng’s ‘Nine Yin White Bone Claw’ [jiu yin bai gu zhua] was very lethal; hence he guarded himself carefully. But now he could not avoid being grasped by those deadly fingers. “Not good!” he screamed. His whole body felt weak. In that critical moment he managed to bend two fingers, and with his hand forming a half-palm-half-fist he hit her chest. That was the ‘Hidden Dragon is Forbidden’ [qian long wu yong]. It was supposed to be followed by his left hook – a brilliant stance difficult to fend; but since his left wrist was in the enemy’s hand, he could only launch a half stance. But the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ was amazing and even a half stance was no small matter.

Mei Chaofeng heard the incredible wind generated by this half-palm-half-fist move; she did not dare to parry but tried to elude it. Still her shoulder was hit very hard and she was forced to let Guo Jing go. As Guo Jing was struggling to free himself, he pulled hard, so when his hand was suddenly free both people were thrown backwards and each hit a pillar. The roof shook and bricks, stones and dust fell down into the hall. Many manor people cried out and ran to escape.

The Six Freaks of Jiangnan looked at each other with amazement but were also pleasantly surprised. “Where did Jing’er learn this kungfu?” they asked in their hearts. Han Baoju looked at Huang Rong suspiciously; he thought she was the one who taught Guo Jing and secretly felt admiration, “Peach Blossom Island’s martial arts are amazing.”

By now Guo Jing and Mei Chaofeng were engaged in a fierce battle. Palms, fists, and claws were exchanged. Mei Chaofeng was furious and she fought with gusto. Guo Jing was calm but agile. Both had exerted their full strength and the hall was filled with the sound of their blows.

Suddenly Mei Chaofeng jumped vertically; her attacks seemed to come from every direction, one after another, ever changing. Guo Jing knew this attack was fierce and he would suffer defeat if he left any openings in his defense. He recalled Hong Qigong’s lesson on how to deal with Huang Rong’s ‘Peach Blossom Divine Sword Palm [tao hua shen jian zhang]; no matter how many changes his opponent executed he steadily used fifteen moves out of the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’.

By repeating these fifteen moves he was able to defend himself for forty to fifty moves; without giving Mei Chaofeng even half a step advantage.

Huang Rong was keeping her eyes on her ‘Jing ge ge’ with a smile on her pretty face. The Six Freaks stood still in amazement, sometimes clucking their tongues in praise. Lu Chengfeng and his son could only look on in dismay.

“Mei Shijie has improved so much,” Lu Chengfeng thought. “If I had to fight her, I would certainly lose my life in only ten moves ... This young Brother Guo, how could he master such a profound kungfu at his young age? I was really blind … Luckily I was not careless or indiscreet, but treated him with politeness and respect.”

Wanyan Kang was also upset, “I was supposed to compete with this boy; with his kungfu, how could I win?”

“Mei Shijie, you have been fighting for more than eighty moves. Why don’t you admit defeat?” Huang Rong loudly called out. Actually they had only fought for about sixty moves, but she exaggerated by adding twenty more.

Mei Chaofeng was fuming. “I have trained hard for dozens of years but cannot cope with this kid?” she thought. She ignored Huang Rong’s remark and increased the speed of her attacks. Her kungfu was actually many times better than Guo Jing’s; but first, she was at a disadvantage because of her blindness, and second, she could not think straight because her heart was filled with rage in her efforts to seek revenge for her husband. Anger is a big taboo in a battle between two martial arts experts. Thirdly, Guo Jing had the advantage of a youth’s strength, plus he had mastered most of the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’. Therefore, the battle between these two was extremely fierce.

After about a hundred moves, Mei Chaofeng started to recognize and become more familiar with Guo Jing’s fifteen moves. She knew Guo Jing’s line of defense was formidable; she could feel the wind from more than ten feet away. But she also knew that performing the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ took a lot of energy, and her internal energy was stronger than Guo Jing’s. Therefore, Mei Chaofeng changed her tactics and was trying to tire him. She used the ‘Nine Yin White Bone Claw’ and ‘Heart Destroying Palm Technique’ [cui xin zhang] interchangeably.

Huang Rong knew if this fight was further prolonged, Guo Jing would suffer defeat. “Mei Shijie, it’s more than a hundred moves and quickly will reach the two-hundredth move. You still don’t want to admit defeat?” she called. But Mei Chaofeng turned a deaf ear and increased the intensity of her attacks.

Suddenly Huang Rong had an idea; she leaped to a nearby pillar and called out, “Jing ge ge, look at me!” Guo Jing launched two moves in succession: ‘Wading a Wide Creek’ [li she da chuan] and the ‘Phoenix Slowly Arises from the Land’ [hong jian yu lu], and managed to push Mei Chaofeng back far enough so that he could turn his eyes to Huang Rong. He saw her running around the pillar and making some hand signals, but did not understand what she wanted. So she called out again, “Fight here!”

Guo Jing finally understood; he turned around and leaped toward a nearby pillar. Mei Chaofeng followed with her five fingers to grab him, but her claw ended up penetrating the pillar. As a blind woman, she used sounds to know the whereabouts of her opponent; but the pillar was fixed in place and did not make any sounds at all. When Guo Jing hid behind one, how would she know?

As soon as Guo Jing overcame his surprise he immediately launched a palm which Mei Chaofeng parried. Two forces collided and both were pushed back several steps while Mei Chaofeng’s fingers were freed from the pillar. Mei Chaofeng was very angry and she did not waste another second. Before Guo Jing could steady himself she sent another attack his way.

Guo Jing was able to elude it, but his clothes were ripped and his arm was scratched by her fingernails. Luckily he was not injured, but Mei Chaofeng had scared the hell out of him. Guo Jing quickly counterattacked by launching three successive moves combined with hiding behind the pillar. Mei Chaofeng shouted angrily as once again her fingers pierced the pillar.

Actually Guo Jing did not want to take advantage of her blindness, so he loudly called out, “Senior Mei, my kungfu is far inferior to yours; please show me mercy!”

Everybody could see that Guo Jing had gained the upper hand albeit with the help of the pillar. They knew he was giving Mei Chaofeng face by asking her to stop. Lu Chengfeng also thought that this was a good time to stop the fight. But Mei Chaofeng coldly said, “If we were competing in martial arts and when I could not defeat you in three moves I should have admitted defeat. But today’s fight is not a martial arts competition; I am seeking revenge for my husband. I have already lost to you, but I still want to kill you!” As soon as she finished speaking both arms launched successive attacks: three times with her right hand and another three with her left. Each attack hit the pillar squarely on. Finally both her hands hit the pillar at the same time. With a loud crack the pillar broke and the roof collapsed.

The people in the hall were martial artists; even though they were shocked they could still jump out to escape. Lu Guanying grabbed his father and rushed outside just in time before half the hall was filled with debris. Unfortunately the Jin officer was not able to escape and his legs were pinned beneath a beam. He was screaming for help. Wanyan Kang rushed to his rescue. He lifted the beam up, pulled him up, grabbed his hands and took him out of the hall. As soon as they turned their backs they suddenly felt numbness; without knowing who, someone had sealed their acupoints.

Mei Chaofeng had always concentrated her attention on Guo Jing. As soon as she heard Guo Jing move she followed. By now, under heavy cloud, the outside was dark. As soon as everybody was able to calm him or herself, they could see Guo Jing’s and Mei Chaofeng’s fight had become fiercer than ever. They fought in the dim light; both parties exchanged swift blows one after another, creating gusts of wind everywhere. Compared to the fight inside the hall this fight was more intense.

The darkness was a disadvantage for Guo Jing and he started to fall under Mei Chaofeng’s attacks. Mei Chaofeng’s left leg made a sweeping move, followed by her right leg kicking toward his legs. If he was hit, his leg would break for sure. But this kick was a trick move. Mei Chaofeng unexpectedly held her leg half way and her left arm grabbed Guo Jing’s leg. Lu Guanying was looking from the sidelines. “Watch out!” he cried. He had experienced defeat from Wanyan Kang with this exact same move.

In this dangerous situation Guo Jing tried hard to overcome his fear and used his left hand to parry Mei Chaofeng’s hand. He was fast enough, but his strength was waning. As soon as their hands collided, Mei Chaofeng understood his situation. She immediately turned her hand over and used three fingers: middle, ring, and little finger to scratch the back of Guo Jing’s hand. Guo Jing also realized the danger he was in as his right palm thrust toward her. It was a fierce attack; if Mei Chaofeng did not back off, both of them would be injured. Mei Chaofeng avoided the attack by leaping sideways and then uttered a sinister laugh.

Guo Jing felt his left hand become numb and itchy, then felt a burning sensation. Lowering his head he saw three scratch marks on the back of his left hand. The scratches were bleeding only a little but the blood slowly turned black. He suddenly remembered the time he climbed that hill on the Mongolian Steppe and saw nine skulls Mei Chaofeng left behind. Priest Ma Yu had told him that Mei’s fingernails contained lethal poison and he knew immediately that his life was in grave danger.

“Rong’er, I have been poisoned!” he called out. Without waiting for Huang Rong’s response he immediately jumped forward and threw both palms at Mei Chaofeng. His intention was to seize her and force her to hand over the antidote. It was his only chance of survival.

Mei Chaofeng recognized the fierceness of his attack and jumped back to elude. Huang Rong and the others were greatly shocked by Guo Jing’s revelation. Almost together Ke Zhen’E with his iron staff followed by Huang Rong and the rest of the Six Freaks jumped forward and surrounded Mei Chaofeng.

“Mei Shijie!” Huang Rong shouted, “You have already lost! How could you keep fighting? Quickly, bring out the antidote and save him!”

Mei Chaofeng felt Guo Jing’s attack was both swift and fierce; she did not dare to lose her concentration by replying to Huang Rong’s remark. In her heart she was delighted, “The more you exert your energy, the quicker the poison will attack your system. Should I die here and now, I still have succeeded in gaining revenge for my husband.”

Guo Jing noticed his vision blurring, his head felt dizzy and his whole body felt weak. As he gradually lost control of his left arm, he decided to stop fighting. The poison had begun to enter his system. Had he not drunk the snake’s blood he would have died by now.

Huang Rong saw his dazed condition and loudly called, “Jing ge ge, get back!” Taking out a butterfly steel needle she jumped toward Mei Chaofeng.

Guo Jing heard her call and it raised his spirits. He thrust his left palm using the eleventh stance of the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’, ‘Sudden Advent’ [tu ru qi lai] only his arm moved slower than it was supposed to.

Huang Rong, Han Baoju, Nan Xiren and Quan Jinfa moved together to attack Mei Chaofeng but saw Guo Jing’s palm squarely hit Mei Chaofeng’s shoulder. She fell down without even having tried to fend against the attack. Mei Chaofeng relied on her ears to locate her opponent’s movement and Guo Jing’s attack was so slow it did not make any noise. That was the reason she was easily hit.

Huang Rong was startled, but Han, Nan and Quan had simultaneously thrown themselves on Mei Chaofeng’s body to seize her. But she struggled and was able to send Han Baoju and Quan Jinfa flying backward, while at the same time striking backward to grasp Nan Xiren’s arm. Nan Xiren saw this attack coming and rolled out of the way.

Mei Chaofeng took advantage of this chaotic situation to leap up, but Guo Jing’s palm unexpectedly arrived on her back and she tumbled down one more time. Guo Jing’s palm was swift and silent, but it was weak. Even though she was hit on a vital place, she was not injured.

After attacking twice Guo Jing’s energy was depleted; he staggered and fell down right next to Mei Chaofeng. Huang Rong immediately threw herself toward him to protect him. Mei Chaofeng heard someone falling at her side and without wasting a single moment she sent five fingers to grab, but to her surprise she felt pricking pain. She realized she had hit the thorns on Huang Rong’s ‘Soft Hedgehog Armor’ [ruan wei jia]. Hastily she used ‘To Leap Like a Carp’ [li yu da ting] to get away.

Suddenly somebody shouted, “Take this!” and something was thrown her way. Mei Chaofeng did not know what was being thrown so she just lifted her right arm to parry. That thing fell down broken to pieces. It turned out it was a chair.

That chair was followed by another thing, bigger than the first. This time ‘Iron Corpse’ stretched her left hand to grab it. It was a tabletop; wide and slippery, so she could not get a good grasp. Who threw all these things at her? It was Zhu Cong. He immediately threw a couple of table legs her way. Mei Chaofeng lifted her leg and kicked them away. Zhu Cong eluded them but at the same time stretched out his right hand and suddenly Mei Chaofeng felt three things slip down her collar. They were cold and slippery, and kept wiggling inside her clothes. She was frightened, “What are these things? Is it some witchcraft or secret weapons?” Hastily she groped around inside her clothes and caught three goldfish.

She was relieved, but suddenly she froze! Her porcelain antidote bottle had disappeared, along with her dagger and the scroll of the ‘Nine Yin Manual’ which was wrapped around the dagger.

The three goldfish were from the cistern that was crushed when the roof collapsed. Zhu Cong knew Mei Chaofeng was careful and could not be easily deceived, unlike Peng Lianhu or Qiu Qianren; so he used the goldfish to divert her attention while at the same time executed his quick hand to take Mei Chaofeng’s pocket’s contents. He took the porcelain bottle out, pulled its stopper and took it to Ke Zhen’E to smell while whispering softly, “Well?”

Ke Zhen’E was an expert at using poison. As soon as he smelled the antidote he said, “To be taken orally and also applied to the wound. This is the antidote.”

Mei Chaofeng heard their conversation and immediately realized what happened. Furiously she leaped toward them. Ke Zhen’E swung his iron staff to block her, assisted by Han Baoju’s ‘Golden Dragon Whip’ [jin long bian], Quan Jinfa’s ‘Weighing Scale’ [cheng gan], and Nan Xiren’s ‘Steel Carrying Pole’ [chun gang bian dan]. Mei Chaofeng quickly put her hand to her waist to retrieve her own ‘Poison Silver Dragon Whip’ but suddenly heard a gust of wind from a sword coming her way. It was Han Xiaoying. She was forced to parry this attack first.

Meanwhile Zhu Cong gave the antidote to Huang Rong. “Have him swallow some, then spread some on his wound,” he said. Then he put the dagger he took from Mei Chaofeng into Guo Jing’s pocket. “This dagger was yours,” he said. Joining his brothers and sister he raised his iron fan to attack Mei Chaofeng. The six had trained hard these past ten years and had improved their martial arts considerably. Therefore, this battle was many times fiercer than the one on that barren Mongolian hill.

Lu Chengfeng and his son were amazed witnessing this fierce battle. “Mei Chaofeng’s martial arts are no doubt swift, fierce and ruthless, but these Six Freaks of Jiangnan certainly live up to their names,” they thought. “Ladies and gentlemen, please stop! Please listen to what I have to say!” Lu Chengfeng shouted loudly. But both parties were fighting fiercely, who would actually have time to listen to him?

Not long after he took the antidote, Guo Jing was slowly regaining his sense. The poison had attacked his system quickly, but the antidote also neutralized it fast. His wound was still hurting, but he was able to move his left arm. After putting the dagger away he immediately jumped up and re-joined the battle. Learning from before, he started slowly and when his palm was almost touching Mei Chaofeng’s body, he added more strength. It was the stance ‘A Hundred Li Shock’ [zhen jing bai li]. Mei Chaofeng was busy fending off her attackers and could not hear Guo Jing’s palm. She was hit suddenly and fell down immediately right at the moment when Han Baoju’s whip and Nan Xiren’s pole were coming down on her.

Guo Jing leaned and parried those two weapons. “Masters! Please show mercy!” he shouted. The Six Freaks complied. They withdrew their weapons and leaped back.

Mei Chaofeng stood up and got ready to fight again. Knowing that Guo Jing was fierce and she could not see, she took her ‘Poison Silver Dragon Whip’ [du long yin bian] and readied it in front of her. Guo Jing did not move, “We are not going to fight you anymore. You are free to go!” he shouted.

Mei Chaofeng put her whip back and said, “Please return my manual.” Zhu Cong was puzzled. “I did not take your manual,” he said. “You know the Seven Freaks have never lied.” He did not realize that the skin wrapped around the dagger was the ‘Nine Yin Manual’.

Mei Chaofeng knew that even though the Seven Freaks of Jiangnan had deep enmity toward her, they always meant what they said and never deceived anybody. She thought the manual must have fallen when she was fighting Guo Jing a moment ago. So she bent down and groped around on the ground looking for the manual. Where could that manual be?

A blind lady groping around the ground made a pitiful scene. Lu Chengfeng told his son, “Guanying, help your Martial Uncle Mei to look.” But in his heart he was thinking that the manual belonged to his Master, therefore, it must be returned to the Master. He faked a cough to signal his son and Lu Guanying understood. He nodded. Guo Jing was also looking around, but where did that manual go?

“Mei Shijie,” Lu Chengfeng said, “Your manual is not here; perhaps you dropped it on your way here.”

Mei Chaofeng did not answer; she kept groping around. Suddenly everybody’s eyes were blurred as that green-robed man reappeared beside her. His movement was so swift that nobody saw anything as Mei Chaofeng’s body was lifted off the ground and an instant later they were gone, vanishing among the trees outside the hall. Mei Chaofeng was very skilled, yet that man had captured her without any struggle. They looked at each other in blank dismay. This person’s skill was unbelievable.

The hall was quiet; only the distant sound of the waves of the lake lapping the shore could be heard. A long while later Ke Zhen’E broke the silence. “My young disciple fought that wicked woman and damaged your mansion. I feel deep regret.”

“I do not dare complain,” Lu Chengfeng answered. “The Six Freaks and Hero Guo visiting our place today was an honor to us all. No need to mention that you have helped my family escape a disaster. What Hero Ke just said, wouldn’t that make us seem like strangers?”

“I invite the honorable guests to take a rest inside the hall,” Lu Guanying added. “Brother Guo, are you still in pain?”

“I am all right,” answered Guo Jing. At that moment the green-robed man came back along with Mei Chaofeng. They stood in front of the hall. Mei Chaofeng put her hands on her waist and shouted, “Guo Kid! You used Hong Qigong’s ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ to fight me. I am blind and could not see your moves. Mei Chaofeng does not care about life or death, victory or defeat; but if this matter were spread in the Jianghu world, wouldn’t the reputation of my Benevolent Master of Peach Blossom Island be ruined? Come! Let us fight again!”

“I am not your match,” Guo Jing answered honestly. “I took advantage of your blindness to protect my own life. I admitted defeat a while ago.”

“The ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ have eighteen moves,” Mei Chaofeng asked, “Why did you only use part of it?”

“Because I am not smart …” Guo Jing answered; Huang Rong signaled him not to reveal his secret, but Guo Jing continued, “… Senior Hong only taught me fifteen moves.”

“Very good!” Mei Chaofeng said. “You only know fifteen moves yet you defeated Mei Chaofeng. Is that old man Hong Qigong really that good? No! I can’t accept it. We must fight again!”

Everybody felt this was strange; apparently Mei Chaofeng had not come back to avenge her husband, but to dispute Huang Yaoshi and Hong Qigong’s reputations.

Guo Jing was still calm. “Miss Huang is younger than I am, yet I’m still not her match; how could I be your match?” he said. “I have always admired Peach Blossom Island’s martial arts.”

“Mei Shijie,” Huang Rong interrupted. “What are you talking about? Who in the world can surpass Father’s martial arts skill?

“Still, I must fight him again!” Mei Chaofeng insisted. Without waiting for Guo Jing to answer she stretched her claw towards him. Guo Jing could not hold himself back much longer and so eluded the attack. He said, “If that’s the case, I will ask Senior Mei to give me some lessons.” Then he launched a strong counterattack.

Mei Chaofeng parried it by turning her hand. “Use your silent moves!” she said, “You are not my match if you are using loud moves.”

Guo Jing leaped back several steps and said, “My First Master Ke’s eyes are not perfect. I hate when others bully him with silent moves. How could I use silent moves to bully you? I was injured by your poison and at that critical moment I inadvertently use a silent move. If we fight fair and square, frankly I am not your match.”

Mei Chaofeng could hear the sincerity in his voice, her heart was stirred. “This kid is kind hearted,” she thought. But she shouted, “I told you to use your silent moves. I have a way to counter it, why do you keep nattering like an old woman?”

Guo Jing looked at that strange green-robed man. “Could it be that he taught her how to cope with silent moves just now?” he thought. But because Mei Chaofeng insisted, he did not have any choice but to comply. “Very well,” he finally said. “I will fight you another fifteen moves.” He thought that by using the fifteen out of ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ he might not win, but at least he could defend himself.

Guo Jing jumped to get closer to her, then continued by tiptoeing forward, slowly sending his palm to strike. But before his palm hit its target he heard a light sound and Mei Chaofeng turned her wrist to grab his hand. It was like her eyes were not blind at all. Guo Jing was surprised; he immediately pulled his left palm and slid his body to the left to launch the ‘Skillfully Crossing a Vast River’ slowly.

His palm had only moved several inches when again he heard a light sound and Mei Chaofeng blocked his attack. Guo Jing retracted his palm a little bit too slow and Mei Chaofeng’s fingernails swept very close to his face. He hastily leaped back and thought, “How could she know where my next attack would be?”

His third attack was his fiercest stance, the ‘Proud Dragon Shows Remorse’ [kang long you hui] but again, following a light sound, Mei Chaofeng’s steel-like fingernails moved to grab his wrist. Guo Jing knew the secret must be in that light sound, so with his fourth move he stole a glance at that strange man. This time he was able to see that man flick something into the air and that thing created a light sound.

“Ah, it really is him!” Guo Jing understood. “But how could he know where my next move will be? Hmmm … it was like the time when Huang Rong fought that old man Liang Ziwong; Hong Qigong had deduced his attacks in advance. Now this man is using the same method to defeat me. All right, I’ll fight for the full fifteen moves, and then I will admit defeat.”

Even though the stances of the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ did not change and Guo Jing had not learned the whole set, his attacks were not light. However, Mei Chaofeng always knew in advance where his attack would go and sometimes she would move ahead of Guo Jing so that instead of being defensive, she was actually on the offensive.

Several moves later that strange man flicked three pebbles in succession. Mei Chaofeng was following the sound and launched three attacks one after another. Guo Jing was forced to elude one and barely managed to parry the other two.

The fight was getting fiercer and the winds generated by their hands were getting stronger. Periodically the light sound of a pebble was heard. Huang Rong understood the situation was not favorable. She silently picked some debris from the floor and flicked them away. Some were just aimed at nothing in particular, trying to confuse Mei Chaofeng, while some were aimed to knock the strange man’s pebbles down. But, unexpectedly, the man’s pebbles were not knocked down by Huang Rong’s debris; on the contrary, Huang Rong’s debris was knocked down while his pebbles kept flying. His clues to Mei Chaofeng were not hindered.

Lu Chengfeng, his son, along with the Six Freaks, were greatly amazed. “The strength of this man's fingers is amazing; how is he capable of giving the pebble this kind of force? Even an arrow would not create such a strong noise. If this pebble hit someone, wouldn’t that someone’s bones be shattered by it?” they thought.

By now Huang Rong had stopped her intervention. She stood and stared blankly at that strange man. In the meantime Guo Jing was starting to lose; Mei Chaofeng’s attacks became swifter and fiercer.

Suddenly two loud hums were heard as two pebbles flew from the strange man’s hand. The first one was slower than the latter one. The latter hit the first and two pebbles broke into pieces and flew in all directions. Mei Chaofeng took that opportunity to pounce on Guo Jing. He stumbled trying to avoid the attack. Remembering Nan Xiren’s advice, ‘If you can’t win, run!’ [da bu guo, tao!] He turned around and ran away.

Out of the blue Huang Rong called out, “Father!” And she rushed toward the strange man, threw herself into his arms and loudly cried, “Father! Your face … what happened to your face …?” Nobody expected this and the strange man stood still without saying anything.

Guo Jing turned around and saw Mei Chaofeng standing very close to him. She was trying to listen to the sound of the pebble. Guo Jing saw a very good opportunity and sent his right palm slowly toward her shoulder using only about ten percent of his strength. But as soon as his palm hit, his left palm followed at full strength. Mei Chaofeng was squarely hit by both palms and fell down; she was not able to stand back up.

Lu Chengfeng heard Huang Rong call that strange man her father; he was overwhelmed with joy and sorrow at the same time. He forgot his legs were lame and jumped toward the man, but fell face down on the floor.

The strange man’s left arm was in Huang Rong’s embrace and lifted his right hand to slowly take off a thin mask from his face. He was wearing a genuine skin mask; no wonder his face was emotionless like that of a corpse. His true appearance was clear and good- looking, with a hint of sadness. Yet an aura of dignity surrounded him; resembling the image of deity.

Huang Rong’s tears had not dried yet she shouted with joy. She snatched the mask from her father’s hand and placed it on her own face while bouncing up and down and hugging the man’s neck, giggling continuously. The man was indeed the Master of Peach Blossom Island, Huang Yaoshi.

“Father, why did you come here?” she asked, grinning from ear to ear. “That old man Qiu said bad things about you. Why didn’t you teach him a lesson?”

“Why did I come?” Huang Yaoshi sternly asked. “I came looking for you!” Huang Rong was ecstatic; she clapped her hands and shouted, “Father! You were looking for me? Wonderful…that’s just wonderful!”

“What do you mean ‘wonderful’?” Huang Yaoshi asked. “Do you think it was wonderful finding a useless girl like you?”

Huang Rong felt bad. She knew after losing the second half of the ‘Nine Yin Manual’ to his own disciples, Chen Xuanfeng and Mei Chaofeng, her father was determined to master the skill with his own intelligence. He once said that the ‘Nine Yin Manual’ was created by a human being. If a man could create it, why wouldn’t he be able to re-create it? He then made a vow not to leave Peach Blossom Island until he had mastered the skill. Unexpectedly his prodigal daughter had run away so that he was forced to break his own vow and come looking for her.

“Father, I promise to be a good daughter and will listen to you from now on until the day I die,” Huang Rong solemnly promised.

Huang Yaoshi was very happy to find his daughter well and listening to her promise put him in an excellent mood. “Help your Shijie get up,” he said.

Huang Rong immediately complied. Lu Guanying helped his father to kneel down in front of his Master. Huang Yaoshi sighed and said, “Chengfeng, you are a good disciple. I was wrong to lose my temper and act so rashly as to falsely accuse you.”

Lu Chengfeng was sobbing. “Master, are you well?” To which Huang Yaoshi replied, “Luckily I’ve not been irritated to death.” Huang Rong looked at her father with a mischievous look, “Father, you’re not talking about me are you?” Huang Yaoshi snorted and said, “You are part of it.”

Huang Rong stuck out her tongue and diverted his attention. “Father, let me introduce you to my friends. These are the well-known heroes of Jianghu, the Six Freaks of Jiangnan; Jing ge ge’s Masters.”

Huang Yaoshi did not even look at them. “I don’t want to meet outsiders,” he said coldly. The Six Freaks were irritated by his arrogance, but since the man practiced god-like martial arts, they kept their peace.

“Do you have anything you’d like to take home with you?” Huang Yaoshi asked his daughter. “Get them and we’ll go home together.”

“Nothing,” Huang Rong answered with a smile. “But I do have something I need to give back to Martial Brother Lu.” She took out the ‘Nine Flower Jade Dew’ pills from her pocket and gave them back to Lu Chengfeng. “Lu Shige (Elder Martial Brother Lu), these pills are not easy to make. We have two pills from you and that’s enough.”

Lu Chengfeng waved his hand and said to Huang Yaoshi, “The disciple has seen the Benevolent Master today. I am extremely joyful. I want to present those pills to you. I wonder if you could stay for a while in my humble abode. I will be …”

“Is he your son?” Huang Yaoshi interrupted him, pointing toward Lu Guanying. “He is,” answered the disciple.

Lu Guanying did not wait for his father’s prompting. He immediately kneeled and kowtowed several times and said, “Disciple pays his respects to Grand Martial Master.”

“It’s all right!” Huang Yaoshi said. Without bending his body he extended his left hand as if he was going to help Guanying to stand up; but unexpectedly his right hand struck Guanying’s shoulder.

Lu Chengfeng was shocked! “Master, he is my only son …” Huang Yaoshi’s palm was not light. Lu Guanying was thrown back seven or eight steps then fell face down on the floor.

“You are a very good disciple,” Huang Yaoshi told Lu Chengfeng. “You have not passed your skills to him. Is he a disciple of the ‘Immortal Red Cloud Sect’ [xian xia pai]?”

Lu Chengfeng was relieved to know his master was only testing his son’s martial arts. “Your disciple did not dare to disobey our school’s rule. I did not dare to teach my skills to others without Benevolent Master’s permission. This child is indeed the disciple of ‘Great Teacher Kumu’ [ku mu da shi] of the ‘Immortal Red Cloud Sect’.”

Huang Yaoshi sneered, “Kumu dares to call himself ‘Great Teacher’ [da shi can also mean ‘great master’] with his skills? Your skills exceed his a hundred fold. Starting tomorrow you will teach your son. The ‘Immortal Red Cloud Sect’s’ martial arts do not hold a candle to ours.”

Lu Chengfeng was ecstatic and hastily told his son, “Quick! Express your gratitude to the Grand Martial Master!” Lu Guanying immediately kowtowed again to Huang Yaoshi. Huang Yaoshi lifted his head, completely ignoring Guanying.

Lu Chengfeng had learned martial arts on Peach Blossom Island; even though both his legs were lame he did not lose any skills pertaining to his upper body. He realized very well the superiority of his own school. He had seen with his own eyes how hard Lu Guanying trained, yet his achievements were limited. This upset him, but since he did not dare to violate his school’s rule, he had to restrain himself. In order not to disappoint his son, he pretended he did not know martial arts at all. Now that his master had given him permission he knew his son’s martial arts skills would improve by leaps and bounds; how could he be not happy? He wanted to say some grateful words, but he was choked up.

Huang Yaoshi saw this and he simply said, “Take this!” He waved his right hand and two sheets of paper gently flew toward Chengfeng. The distance between them was actually more than ten feet, but the papers flew gently like they were hand delivered to Lu Chengfeng. This demonstration of internal energy was even more impressive than flicking pebbles, since the paper was flimsy and more difficult to throw. No one could help but feel very impressed.

Huang Rong was very happy, she quietly approached Guo Jing and asked, “Jing ge ge, what do you think of my Father’s martial arts?”

“Your Father’s martial arts are superb,” Guo Jing answered. “Rong’er, as soon as you are home, you have to train diligently, don’t waste your time playing.”

“You are coming with us, aren’t you?” Huang Rong asked.

“I have to follow my Masters,” Guo Jing said. “I will look for you later.”

Huang Rong was anxious. “No! I don’t want to leave you.” Guo Jing grinned; he did not want to be separated from her either, but he knew they did not have much choice and was sad too.

Lu Chengfeng took the papers and examined them. He saw the papers were full of characters. Lu Guanying took a torch from a manorr; he came close to his father and held the light for his father to read. Lu Chengfeng could see the papers were full of characters and symbols. They were instructions for training martial arts in Huang Yaoshi’s own handwriting. He had not seen his master’s handwriting for twenty years, yet he recognized it. The Master’s handwriting was tall and straight, as elegant as he remembered it. On the right hand was the title, ‘Sweeping Leaves Whirlwind Leg’ technique [xuan feng sao ye tui fa], six characters. Lu Chengfeng knew that the ‘Sweeping Leaves Whirlwind Leg’ and the ‘Peach Blossom Island Divine Sword Palms’ [luo ying shen jian zhang] were his Master’s own ingenious martial arts creations. None of his master’s six disciples had ever learned this leg technique. He imagined how delighted he would have been if he’d learned this technique. But still, due to his master’s mercy, he could still teach this technique to his son. He was grateful. He put the papers into his pocket and bent down to express his gratitude.

“This set of leg techniques is entirely different from the ones you knew,” Huang Yaoshi said. “The external techniques remain, but the energy to drive the technique must be developed internally. If you practice and meditate daily, and if your progress is good, you will be able to walk without a cane within five or six years.”

Lu Chengfeng was emotional with all kinds of feelings flowing in his heart.

“Your disability is permanent,” Huang Yaoshi added. “You won’t be able to fight relying on your leg techniques; but if you diligently train, you won’t have any problem walking like normal people. Oh …” He regretted that consumed with anger he had punished his four innocent disciples severely. In recent years he’d racked his brain to create the new ‘Sweeping Leaves Whirlwind Leg’ technique with improved internal energy training methods. His plan was to find his four disciples and bestow this new technique so that they would be able to walk again. He was too arrogant, so even when his heart was full of regret, his mouth was not willing to admit it. Therefore, although this leg technique was entirely a new creation of his, he still used the irrelevant old name; pretending he had not done anything wrong. After a while he continued, “Look for your three other brothers and teach them this new technique.”

“Yes,” Lu Chengfeng answered. Then he added, “Qu shige (older martial brother) and Feng shidi’s whereabouts are unknown to me, but Wu shidi passed away many years ago.”

Huang Yaoshi felt a stab of pain in his heart and his eyes glistened. Then his penetrating gaze turned toward Mei Chaofeng. Luckily she was blind and could not see it, but the other people around her shuddered just looking at his gaze.

“Chaofeng,” he said icily. “You have been extremely wicked, but you also have suffered greatly. When that old man Qiu said I was dead, you shed tears and even wanted to seek revenge for me. Because of those tears I am willing to let you live a few more years.”

Not in a million years did Mei Chaofeng expect her master to forgive her that easily. She was delighted and quickly kowtowed. “All right, all right!” Huang Yaoshi said. Then he stretched his hand toward her back and tapped gently three times.

Mei Chaofeng suddenly felt a stabbing pain, which gradually became more intense and she almost passed out. With a trembling voice she begged, “Benevolent Master, your disciple deserves to die ten thousand times. I ask for your mercy to kill me quickly, but please spare me from the ‘Bone-Penetrating Needle’ [fu gu zhen].” She had heard for a long time from her husband that once their master’s ‘fu gu zhen’ entered their bodies, it would attach itself to the bone and slowly dispense poison. Six times a day, following the circulation of the blood, the poison would cause excruciating pain, but it would not kill immediately. It could take as long as a year or two for that person to die slowly from the pain. A highly skilled martial artist would channel his internal energy to counter the pain, but the more he does so the greater the pain. A normal person would only grit their teeth when in pain. Using internal energy to suppress the pain would be like drinking poison to satisfy a thirst, because the next attack would be more intense than the previous one. As far as they knew, there was no antidote for this poison.

Mei Chaofeng was desperate; she had entered a living hell, why would she want to live much longer? She frantically thrashed her whip fiercely trying to take her own life. Huang Yaoshi quickly stretched his hand and snatched the whip away. “Why are you so anxious to die? It’s not that easy!” he said coldly.

Mei Chaofeng did not give up easily. “Master must want to torture me, that’s why he won’t allow me to die,” she thought. Unable to restrain her grief she turned toward Guo Jing and smiled sadly, “I have to thank you for killing my husband; at least that way my bastard husband died an easy death.”

Huang Yaoshi ignored her remark and said, “The ‘Bone-Penetrating Needle’ will work after a year. I’ll give you three assignments to do within this one-year period. Once you complete your assignments, come and see me at Peach Blossom Island. I have a way to neutralize the poison.”

Mei Chaofeng’s hope was rekindled. “Your disciple will go through fire or water to accomplish whatever Master cares to assign to me.” But Huang Yaoshi coldly answered, “You haven’t heard what I have to say, yet you comply that quickly?” Mei Chaofeng did not dare to answer, she only kowtowed.

“First, you have lost the ‘Nine Yin Manual’,” Huang Yaoshi continued. “You have to find it and give it back to me. If somebody else laid their eyes on it, you must kill that person. If there are a hundred people who have seen it, kill the hundred people. If you only kill ninety-nine, don’t even think of coming to see me.”

All who listened shuddered involuntarily. The Six Freaks of Jiangnan thought, “Huang Yaoshi is known as the Eastern Heretic; his character is very evil.”

They heard him continue, “Qu, Lu, Wu and Feng, your four martial brothers have endured suffering and hardships because of you. You are to find your brothers Lingfeng and Mofeng, and find out if Mianfeng left behind any family. You are to bring them all to ‘Returning Cloud Manor’ [gui yun zhuang] and let your martial brother Chengfeng take care of them. This is your second assignment.”

Mei Chaofeng nodded her head repeatedly. Lu Chengfeng thought, “I could manage this.” But knowing his master’s temperament he did not dare to say anything.

Huang Yaoshi raised his head, looking at the starry sky above and slowly said, “You stole the ‘Nine Yin Manual’. I did not teach you nor did I tell you to practice it. You know what to do.” He paused for a moment then said, “This is the third.”

Mei Chaofeng was silent for a moment; she did not fully grasp her master’s intention. After pondering in her heart she suddenly understood. With a trembling voice she said, “After I have completed the first two assignments, your disciple knows how to get rid of the ‘Nine Yin White Bone Claw’ and ‘Heart Destroying Palm’ I have learned.” Guo Jing did not understand; he pulled Huang Rong’s sleeve and, signaling her with his eyes, asked for an explanation. Huang Rong’s countenance was sad; she lifted her right hand and made a chopping action toward her left arm. Guo Jing finally understood, “Oh, she is going to chop off her own arms.” His mind kept wandering, “This Mei Chaofeng is really wicked, but she repented. Why is the punishment so harsh? I need to talk to Rong’er; perhaps we can ask her father to show mercy.”

While he was still thinking, Huang Yaoshi beckoned him to come over and asked, “Your name is Guo Jing?” Guo Jing stepped forward and made an obeisance. “Disciple Guo Jing is at Senior Huang’s service.”

“You are the one who killed my disciple Chen Xuanfeng, aren’t you? Your skill must be extraordinary, eh?” Huang Yaoshi said.

Guo Jing understood his sarcasm; his heart turned cold. “I was very young and ignorant. Senior Chen seized me; I was scared and panicked. I injured him inadvertently.”

Huang Yaoshi snorted and coldly said, “Chen Xuanfeng was indeed my rebellious disciple; but it was our right to punish him. How could a disciple of Peach Blossom Island be punished by an outsider?” Guo Jing was dumbstruck.

Huang Rong quickly came to his rescue. “Father, he was only six, what did he know?” Huang Yaoshi did not like what he heard; he continued, “The old man Hong usually does not take disciples and he is very proud of his ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’; but he taught you fifteen moves, so you must have something good in you. If not, you must have sweet-talked him into teaching you. You have defeated my disciple with his skill; next time he sees me, I bet he will boast to no end.”

“Father, the sweet talk part was indeed true,” Huang Rong said with a smile. “But it was not him, it was I. He is just a simple honest kid. Your words were too harsh, you have frightened him.”

After he lost his wife, Huang Yaoshi was very fond of his daughter. In fact, he was too lenient with her so that she became spoilt. That day he scolded her she immediately ran away from home. He thought that being a spoilt kid and after wandering Jianghu for a while Huang Rong would be destitute and in bad condition. Who would have thought that she was not thin and pale, but as tender and beautiful as ever? Then he saw her affection towards Guo Jing and how she was always trying to protect him. Secretly he was jealous because she had never shown the same affection to him. His jealousy turned to anger. He ignored his daughter and said to Guo Jing, “By teaching you the old Beggar obviously does not hold me in high regard. He let you defeat Mei Chaofeng; he thinks my disciples are a bunch of nobodies …”

Huang Rong understood that her father was upset because Mei Chaofeng was defeated by the ‘Eighteen-Dragon Subduing Palms’. She hurriedly said, “Who says Peach Blossom Island disciples are nobodies? He was lucky because Mei Shijie’s eyes are blind, what’s so special about that? If they were fighting fair and square, he would have been defeated a long time ago. Let your daughter prove it to you.” She jumped out and called to Guo Jing, “Come! Let me use the skills my Father taught me to fight Hong Qigong’s special skill.”

She knew that by this time both Guo Jing and she had improved tremendously. They were more or less equally matched. She thought that as long as they could fight fairly for about a hundred moves her father would be satisfied. Guo Jing understood her intention; besides, Huang Yaoshi did not say anything, so he agreed and said, “You are always superior to me. All right, I will let you beat me a couple more times.” And he immediately walked to Huang Rong.

“Watch out!” Huang Rong called out. Her hand swept horizontally with a gust of wind, it was the ‘Heavy Rain Fierce Wind’ stance [yu ji feng kuang] from the ‘Peach Blossom Divine Sword Palm [tao hua shen jian zhang]. Guo Jing immediately countered using the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’. However, he was very fond of Huang Rong so did not use his full strength. Unfortunately, the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ relied heavily on strong internal energy; in terms of palm techniques, it could not be compared to the exquisite moves of ‘Peach Blossom Divine Sword Palm’. After several moves he was hit several times by Huang Rong’s fist. Huang Rong, on the other hand, knew that Guo Jing was strong and resilient, so to appease her father she used her full strength. “Aren’t you going to admit defeat?” she called out loudly. Her mouth said those words, but her hands did not stop hitting him.

Huang Yaoshi sneered, “What kind of acrobatic show are you demonstrating?” Nobody saw him move, but suddenly he was near the two, stretching both hands to grab and throw them away. Although the movements were similar, he only flung his daughter to the side, while his right arm threw Guo Jing at full strength. His intention was obvious; he wanted Guo Jing to hit the ground hard. However, although Guo Jing was not able to resist the throw, but he was able to turn his body in midair; when he landed, he did not fall down, but stood firmly on the ground. His face was pale and he looked about ready to throw up.

Instead of praising his skill, Huang Yaoshi’s anger flared. “I don’t have any disciples to fight you. Come! Let me test your few stances.”

Guo Jing hastily bowed and said, “Even if I had courage as high as the sky I still would not dare to fight Senior.”

Huang Yaoshi sneered. “Humph, fight me?” He coldly said. “You are not my match, boy! Tell you what, I will stand here while you attack me with your ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’; if I even move or raise my hand to parry, you win.”

“Junior still does not dare,” Guo Jing said.

“I don’t care! Dare or not, you have to fight me!” Huang Yaoshi said.

Guo Jing did not know what to do. “I don’t have any choice; I’d better hit him several times, but I think he is going to borrow my own strength to shake me up. So what if I have to fall a few more times?” he thought. Huang Yaoshi saw him hesitating, but his face showed his willingness to try. So he urged him, “Quickly hit me! If not, I am going to hit you!”

“Since Senior commanded it, I would not dare to disobey,” Guo Jing said. He bent his body and moved his hand in a circling motion, launching the ‘The Proud Dragon Shows Remorse’. He was afraid he might injure Huang Yaoshi; also, he worried that if he used his full strength the counterattack would be fierce. Therefore, he used only sixty percent of his strength. His palm struck Huang Yaoshi’s chest; but to his surprise his palm slid like the chest was slick with oil. “Why, you didn’t even want to hit me,” Huang Yaoshi mocked. “Do you think I cannot take the overwhelming power of the ’Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’? Is that it?”

“Junior does not dare,” Guo Jing answered. Then he launched his second move, the ‘Leaping the Abyss’ [huo yue zai yuan]. This time he did not hold back. Exhaling, his left palm lunged toward Huang Yaoshi’s throat, his right palm swiftly moved in front of the left, going straight to Huang Yaoshi’s lower abdomen.

“Now you are fighting,” Huang Yaoshi said. Hong Qigong had Guo Jing train this stance against a pine tree. The tree needed to be still, then Guo Jing was supposed to hit it with a sudden movement. Only then did he manage to break the tree. He had practiced this stance thousands of times. But as soon as his palm touched Huang Yaoshi’s clothes he felt Huang Yaoshi’s abdomen shrink and his palm was sucked in; he felt pain because his wrist joint was dislocated. He immediately leaped back several feet. His hand hung limp.

The Six Freaks of Jiangnan saw that Huang Yaoshi’s body did not move, nor did he lift a hand to parry; yet he was capable of dislocating Guo Jing’s wrist. They were amazed but also worried.

“You have to receive my palm also!” Huang Yaoshi suddenly shouted, “I want to let you know which one is superior, the Old Beggar’s ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ or my Peach Blossom Island’s martial arts.” Before he finished speaking a gust of wind had already blown toward Guo Jing. He endured his pain and jumped to avoid the attack. Unexpectedly Huang Yaoshi did not continue his palm but swept his legs instead. Guo Jing went tumbling down.

Huang Rong was alarmed. “Father, no!” she cried, and quickly jumped forward and bent down to protect him.

Huang Yaoshi did not stop; he simply changed his fist to an open palm. He grabbed his daughter’s vest and lifter her up, while his left fist went straight toward Guo Jing.

The Six Freaks of Jiangnan realized that if Guo Jing got hit, he would certainly die or at least suffer a very heavy injury. They moved at once. Quan Jinfa was the first. He struck Huang Yaoshi’s left arm with his steel balance arm. Huang Yaoshi calmly put his daughter aside; waved both hands casually and that steel balance arm changed direction; striking the long sword in the hands of Han Xiaoying. Both the balance arm and the sword broke into four pieces.

“Master … !” Lu Chengfeng called out. He wanted to ask his master to stop, but knowing his master’s temperament well, he did not dare to continue.

Huang Rong cried. “Father, if you kill him,” she shouted. “You will never see me again!” Without further ado she ran out towards Lake Tai and leaped into the water.

Huang Yaoshi was surprised, then angry. He knew his daughter was very good in water. She used to swim and dive in the East China Sea [dong hai]; playing with fish and turtles. Sometimes she went swimming for a whole day. But this time he was not sure when he would be able to see her again. So he ran toward the lake to try to grab her, but he was too late. Huang Rong had already vanished in the dark water. Huang Yaoshi stared blankly from the lakeshore.

After a long while he turned his head and saw Zhu Cong mending Guo Jing’s wrist. His anger flared and he wanted to vent his frustration towards these people. “You six people! Quickly kill yourselves and save me the trouble,” he said coldly.

Ke Zhen’E wielded his iron staff in front of his chest and proudly said, “Real men do not fear death. Do you think we are afraid of suffering?” Zhu Cong also said, “The Six Freaks of Jiangnan have returned to our hometown. If our bones can be buried here by Lake Tai, what more could we want?” The six unsheathed weapons or readied their bare hands and assumed a battle formation.

Guo Jing thought hard. “My six masters do not have enmity with this man. They will give up their lives in vain. How can I let them go in harm’s way?” he said in his heart. He quickly jumped forward. “Chen Xuanfeng died at my hand! It has nothing to do with my masters! I will pay for his life with mine!” But then he had another thought, “The First Master, Third Master and Seventh Master are hot-tempered. If they see me losing my life, they will surely fight to their deaths. I have to stall. I must deal with him later, alone.” He boldly positioned himself between Huang Yaoshi and the Six.

“My only regret is that my father’s death has not yet been avenged. I beseech Senior to give me a month’s grace. After thirty days I will personally come to Peach Blossom Island to give up my life,” he said fearlessly.

Huang Yaoshi’s anger had subsided by now; plus, he was worried about his daughter. He’d lost his appetite for fighting. So he waved his hand casually and walked away.

Everybody was surprised; how did Guo Jing’s simple speech send him off just like that? They were suspicious that he was playing a trick; so they kept their eyes open at full alert. But after waiting a time, Huang Yaoshi still did not come back.

After a while Lu Chengfeng regained his composure and invited everybody to go back to the hall for some rest. Mei Chaofeng laughed suddenly, waved her sleeves, then turned around and leaped outside. Before long she had vanished in the dark. “Mei Shijie!” Lu Chengfeng called out, “Take your disciple with you!”

But the darkness swallowed his voice. Mei Chaofeng had already gone far. 

Chapter 15 – The Divine 

A moment later Lu Guanying remembered their other guests; he helped Wanyan Kang stand up but he could not move because his acupoints were still sealed; only his eyes were moving.

“I accepted your Master’s request, you may go,” Lu Chengfeng said. He did not want to unseal the acupoints, since it was someone outside his school who did that. If he did, he would be showing disrespect towards other people. He therefore cast his glance toward his guests. Before he even said anything Zhu Cong had come up to Wanyan Kang and hit several times on his waist, and tapped some more on his back; unsealing the acupoints.

Lu Chengfeng was impressed. “This Wanyan Kang’s martial arts are not weak, yet this man was able to seal his acupoints without any resistance. His martial arts must be good,” he thought. What he did not know was that Zhu Cong took advantage of the commotion caused by the collapsing roof so that Wanyan Kang did not even realize what was happening.

Wanyan Kang was ashamed; he turned his back and walked away without saying anything. Zhu Cong saw the Jin officer still lying around; he unsealed his acupoints and called out, “Who is this officer? Take him away.”

That officer had thought that he was going to die, but he was unexpectedly released. He was delighted and hurriedly kowtowed, “Valiant Hero … thank you so much for saving my lowly life. Duan Tiande will not forget it as long as I live. Next time when you visit the capital, please make sure you stop by my residence, I will be at your service with all my heart …”

Guo Jing heard that name ‘Duan Tiande’; his ears were buzzing. With a trembling voice he asked, “You … your name is Duan Tiande?”

“That’s right,” answered Duan Tiande. “Duan Tiande at your service, Young Hero.” “Eighteen years ago, were you serving as a military officer in Lin’an?” Guo Jing asked.

“How did the Young Hero know that?” Duan Tiande asked; and then he remembered that Lu Chengfeng had mentioned that Lu Guanying was a disciple of the monk Kumu; he turned his head to Lu Guanying and said, “I am Monk Kumu’s nephew, only I did not attend the monastery. I say we belong to the same family. Ha … ha …!” He laughed merrily.

Guo Jing looked at him strangely but did not say anything. Meanwhile Duan Tiande was still smiling happily. After a while Guo Jing regained his composure and turned his head to Lu Chengfeng. “Manor Master Lu, may I please borrow your courtyard for a moment?” he asked.

“Sure, use it as you wish,” Lu Chengfeng answered.

Guo Jing took Duan Tiande’s arm and led him to the courtyard in big strides. The Six Freaks of Jiangnan were having mixed feelings; they thought the heavens did indeed have eyes. Had he not said his own name, they would not have known he was the person they’d been looking for these past seven years and tens of thousands li.

Lu Chengfeng and his son, along with Wanyan Kang followed behind. They had no idea what Guo Jing was about to do.

The courtyard was bright with the torches held in the manor servants’ hands. Guo Jing requested the use of some writing instruments, which the servants also quickly provided. Guo Jing then turned to Zhu Cong.

“Second Master,” he requested, “Would you please write down my father’s name?” To which Zhu Cong complied. He wrote in large characters, ‘Guo yi shi Xiaotian zhi ling wei’ [memorial tablet for the righteous warrior Guo Xiaotian] and placed it on the center table.

When he was taken out of the hall, Duan Tiande thought they were going to enjoy some refreshments; but as soon as he saw the name ‘Guo Xiaotian’ the blood drained from his face. He looked around and found the Six Freaks of Jiangnan had taken positions surrounding him. He was especially wary of Han Baoju with his short and stout stature; involuntarily he wet his pants. That day when he took Guo Jing’s mother to the north with the Seven Freaks of Jiangnan hot on his trail, he stopped at an inn for the night. He heard a commotion and took a peek through a crack in the door and had seen Han Baoju. Han’s short and stout stature was not easily forgettable. Earlier that day they met in the hall, but since he was a prisoner, he was more worried about his own fate so that he did not pay too much attention to anyone else. But now under the bright torch light it was impossible to mistake Han Baoju for someone else.

Guo Jing smashed a table and loudly shouted, “Now tell me, do you want a quick and easy death, or do you want me to slice your body with a thousand cuts before killing you?”

Duan Tiande knew he was not going to see another day. He scrambled to find something; anything to save his life. “Your father the chivalrous hero Guo’s death was unfortunate and I did have a small role in his death, but … what could I do as a lowly officer against higher authority?” he stammered.

“Who was that? Who sent you to harm my father? Quick, say it!” Guo Jing shouted. “It was the Sixth Prince of the Great Jin, Prince Wanyan Honglie,” Duan Tiande said. “What did you say?” Wanyan Kang was startled.

At this point all Duan Tiande could think of was, if he was going down, other people were going down with him. Who knows? He might get away with his crime. Therefore, without concealing anything he narrated how Wanyan Honglie was infatuated with Yang Tiexin’s wife, Bao Xiruo; how he conspired with Song authorities to kill Yang Tiexin while Wanyan Honglie would pretend to be the good guy who rescued Bao Xiruo. He told how they ransacked Ox Village and ended up killing Guo Xiaotian; how Duan Tiande then took Guo Jing’s mother to Beijing and then joined the Jin envoy to Mongolia. He explained how, during the chaotic times in Mongolia, he got separated from Guo Jing’s mother; how he decided to go back to Lin’an and worked diligently as a career soldier, finally to get promoted to his current position. He ended his story by kneeling in front of Guo Jing.

“Young Hero Guo, Guo Da Ren [‘honorable’ – someone in high position],” he said. “Please do not blame your lowly servant. I saw how chivalrous your father was, how solemn his expression was; I wanted to befriend him, only … only … your lowly servant was a very low ranking officer and I must obey orders. It was useless for me to have good intentions. Heaven is my witness, how I, Duan Tiande, did not have any enmity towards anybody …” He saw Guo Jing’s expression had not changed a bit and he did not say anything either. He quickly scooted over to the table and kneeled in front of Guo Xiaotian’s memorial. “Master Guo,” he continued. “I am sure your spirit in heaven is very clear that it was the Sixth Prince Wanyan Honglie who killed you, and not this lowly creature in front of you. Today I witnessed that your son is an extraordinary young man, your spirit must be very proud of him. I pray, with your blessing, he will forgive a lowly dog like me …”

While he was still babbling, Wanyan Kang swiftly leaped, struck with both hands and shattered his skull. He collapsed and died instantly.

Guo Jing kneeled in front of the table, sobbing uncontrollably. Only now did Lu Chengfeng understand the real story, so along with his son and the Six Freaks of Jiangnan they bowed to pay their respects in front of Guo Xiaotian’s memorial. Wanyan Kang also kneeled and kowtowed several times. Then he stood up and said, “Brother Guo, today I know that … that Wanyan Honglie is our archenemy. Little Brother did not realize it and has committed many-many despicable actions, more like heinous crimes.” And then he remembered his mother’s suffering and wept bitterly. “What are you going to do then?” Guo Jing lifted his head and asked.

“Little Brother found out today, that my surname is actually ‘Yang’, the name ‘Wanyan’ does not have anything to do with me. From now on, I will be called ‘Yang Kang’,” Wanyan Kang answered.

“Good!” Guo Jing exclaimed. “Finally you are a real man who does not forget your origins. I am going to Beijing tomorrow to kill Wanyan Honglie. Are you coming with me or not?”

Yang Kang still remembered Wanyan Honglie’s kindness in raising him from childhood; he hesitated for a moment. But seeing Guo Jing’s stern expression he hastily answered, “Little Brother will accompany Big Brother to seek revenge.”

Guo Jing was delighted. “Good! You know that our late fathers were sworn bothers and my mother told me that they made a pact to make us sworn brothers too. What do you say?”

“That is precisely my wish,” answered Yang Kang. So they asked each other their respective ages, it turned out that Guo Jing was born two months before Yang Kang. They kneeled in front of Guo Xiaotian’s memorial, bowed eight times toward each other and became sworn brothers.

With everything under control, they turned in to take some rest in Returning Cloud Manor. Early the next morning the Six Freaks, Guo Jing and Yang Kang bade farewell to Manor Master Lu and his son. The Manor Master presented each guest with a generous amount of money as a farewell gift to cover their traveling expenses.

Leaving the village Guo Jing said to his six Masters, “Disciple and Brother Yang are going north to kill Wanyan Honglie. I am asking Masters to give me some advice.”

“The mid-autumn festival is still weeks away, while we do not have anything pressing to do. I think we’d better accompany you to take care of this important business,” Ke Zhen’E said. Zhu Cong and the rest voiced their approval.

“Your kindness towards your disciple is as heavy as a mountain. Wanyan Honglie’s martial arts are mediocre. With Brother Yang’s help, I am sure killing him will not be a difficult task. For your disciple’s sake my Masters have been away from Jiangnan for more than ten years. Now that you are back in your hometown, your disciple does not dare to trouble Masters with my personal business.”

The Six Freaks thought Guo Jing was being very reasonable; also, they had seen with their own eyes that Guo Jing’s martial arts had improved tremendously. Hence they did not press him and one by one they gave their blessings to him.

Finally Han Xiaoying said, “On the matter of Peach Blossom Island, I don’t think you should go.” She knew Guo Jing was uprightly honest and that Huang Yaoshi was hot-tempered and strangely cruel. If Guo Jing went to Peach Blossom Island chances were he would meet some unfortunate events.

“If disciple does not go, wouldn’t that mean I broke my promise to him?” Guo Jing asked.

“When dealing with a monster we don’t have to have good faith,” Yang Kang countered. “Big Brother, I think you adhere too rigidly to old-fashioned values and traditions.”

Ke Zhen’E snorted and said, “Jing’er, as chivalrous heroes we have to do what we say. Today is the fifth day of the sixth month; we will meet again on the first day of the seventh month at the ‘Pavilion of the Drunken Immortal’ in Jiaxing [in modern day Zhejiang]. Then we will go to Peach Blossom Island together. Now you’d better rush to Beijing on your red horse to seek revenge. You don’t always have to be with your younger brother. If you can achieve your goal, that would be great. If not, we can always look for the Quanzhen Sect’s priests to help us kill the traitor. Their righteousness is as heavy as a mountain; they certainly will not turn down our request.”

Guo Jing understood his First Master’s love toward him as shown by his willingness to go with him into a dangerous situation. His heart was overwhelmed and he kneeled and kowtowed respectfully.

“Your younger brother comes from a rich and honorable family, you must be careful,” Nan Xiren reminded him. Guo Jing did not understand, he only looked at his master. Han Xiaoying smiled, “You don’t understand your Fourth Master’s words. It’s all right. You will understand later. Just be careful at all times,” she said. “Yes,” Guo Jing said.

Zhu Cong smiled, “Huang Yaoshi’s daughter is actually very different from her father,” he said. “We shouldn’t provoke her anymore, should we, Third Brother?”

Han Baoju twitched his moustache. “That little brat scolded me even though she is as short as a winter melon; she even thinks herself pretty.” Speaking thus he could not restrain a smile.

Guo Jing knew his masters no longer bore any grudges toward Huang Rong; he was delighted. But then he remembered her whereabouts was unknown, he couldn’t help feeling depressed.

“Jing’er,” Quan Jinfa said, “The sooner you leave, the sooner you will be back. We will wait patiently in Jiaxing.” With that the Six Freaks of Jiangnan headed south.

Guo Jing held his red horse’s reins and followed his masters with his eyes until he no longer could see them. Then he turned his head toward Yang Kang. “My worthy younger brother [xiandi], this red horse of mine is extremely fast; we can go to Beijing and back within ten days. What do you say I accompany you and spend several days looking around?” Yang Kang agreed. Two young men mounted the horse and headed slowly to the north.

Yang Kang sighed with heavy feelings. Only a month ago he lived a luxurious life. He came to Jiangnan with a great company as a special emissary of the Great Jin, with all the power and prestige that came with it. Now he was traveling back to the capital quietly, with nobody pampering him along the way. It was like he was having a pleasant dream and suddenly woke up to the harsh reality of life. Guo Jing might not necessarily take him along to kill Wanyan Honglie; which made him more distressed. He contemplated warning Wanyan Honglie, but could not make up his mind about it.

Guo Jing, noticing his grim expression, thought that he was mourning the death of his parents and so tried to console him.

Around noon they arrived in Liyang and straightaway tried to find a restaurant for some refreshments. Out of the blue, someone who looked like a restaurant worker, approached. “Are you gentlemen Mr. Guo and Mr. Yang?” he bowed as he asked, smiling broadly. “The table is ready, please come with me and eat.”

Guo Jing and Yang Kang were baffled. “How did you know us?” Yang Kang asked.

“A guest arrived earlier and asked us to prepare a meal for you. I was even given a detailed description of how Mr. Guo and Mr. Yang look,” he said, still with a smile on his face. He then took the horses’ reins and led them to the stable.

Yang Kang snorted and cynically said, “The Returning Cloud Manor Master Lu is so kind.” They entered the restaurant and sat down. As it turned out, the food was exquisite and the wine was superb. Guo Jing even found some chicken that he liked very much. They ate to their hearts’ content and were about to pay the bill, but the restaurant worker simply smiled and said, “No need to pay gentlemen, everything has been taken care of.” Yang Kang laughed and tipped him generously. He thanked them profusely and led them out of the restaurant, bowing and smiling the whole time.

Guo Jing praised Manor Master Lu’s generosity. Yang Kang, however, still bore a grudge because he had been captured and held prisoner. “I assume he uses this trick to befriend the people of Jianghu; no wonder he’s the leader of the Lake Tai area,” he said.

“Isn’t Manor Master Lu your martial uncle?” Guo Jing wondered.

“It’s true that Mei Chaofeng taught me some martial arts,” Yang Kang answered. “But that doesn’t necessarily make her my master. If I had known they came from a heretical sect, I would not have wanted to learn any of it and I wouldn’t have fallen into this situation.”

“How so?” Guo Jing was confused.

Yang Kang realized he had made an indiscreet remark. He blushed and said with a smile, “Little Brother feels the ‘Nine Yin White Bone Claw’ and her other martial arts are unorthodox.”

Guo Jing concurred. “What my worthy younger brother said is correct. Your master, Priest Changchun’s [Eternal Spring] martial arts are exquisite and he comes from an orthodox Taoist school. If you tell him the truth and repent, I am sure he will be willing to forget past matters.” Yang Kang silently agreed.

That evening they arrived at Jintan. Again, another restaurant worker welcomed them and led them to a table full of choice foods and wine. This happened for the next three days. The next day the two crossed a river and arrived at Gaoyou and received the same welcome. Yang Kang sneered and said, “I want to see just how far Returning Cloud Manor extends their hospitality.” However, Guo Jing was starting to get suspicious; every time they ate, he would find one or two bowls of his favorite food. If it was Lu Guanying, how would he know what he liked?

After they finished eating Guo Jing proposed, “My worthy younger brother, let me go ahead and investigate.” Mounting his red horse he quickly rode ahead, passing three scheduled stops and soon arrived at Baoying. Sure enough, nobody welcomed him there. Guo Jing found the biggest inn in town and checked into the best room. That evening he heard a horse with loud ringing bells galloping and stopping right in front of the inn. Someone entered and ordered some food scheduled for tomorrow, for Mr. Guo and Mr. Yang.

Guo Jing had guessed earlier it must be Huang Rong; but on hearing her voice he was overjoyed nonetheless. He restrained himself from coming out to see her. He thought that since Huang Rong liked to play around, he would surprise her later that evening. He slept soundly until about the second hour, quietly got up and went tiptoeing to scare Huang Rong in her room. Then he saw a shadow flashing on the roof; it was Huang Rong. “Where is she going in the middle of the night?” Guo Jing wondered.

Quickly using his lightness kungfu he followed behind. Huang Rong ran without looking around to the outskirts of town; oblivious that somebody was following her. She stopped at the bank of a small creek and sat beneath a willow tree. She took something out of her pocket and bent down to play with it.

The moonlight shone on her beautiful face as a cool breeze swayed the willow branches and her clothes gently fluttered. The creek whispered softly and the insects chirped quietly. It was a beautiful scene to behold. Guo Jing was about to come near when suddenly he heard Huang Rong quietly say, “This is Jing ge ge, this one is Rong’er. You two sit down nicely face-to-face. Yes, like this …”

Guo Jing tiptoed behind her. He could not see clearly in the dim moonlight, but he saw in front of her two clay figurines, one resembled a man, the other a woman. These figurines were made in the famous Wuxi city; they were round, fat and really cute. During their stay at Returning Cloud Manor Guo Jing had learned from Huang Rong that although mere toys, Wuxi’s products were the result of very high quality craftsmanship. The locals called them ‘da a fu’ [big lucky]. Huang Rong owned several such figurines on Peach Blossom Island.

Guo Jing came nearer and saw in front of the figurines tiny clay bowls filled with flower petals, leaves, and so on. He heard her saying softly, “Jing ge ge can eat this bowl, Rong’er will have this one. Rong’er cooked them herself. Aren’t they delicious?”

“Delicious, very delicious!” Guo Jing said as he stepped out.

Huang Rong was startled. She turned her head and smiled sweetly; rushed into Guo Jing’s arms and hugged him tightly. They sat shoulder-to-shoulder beneath the willow tree busily talking about what had happened during their few days of separation [which felt like years to them]. Actually it was Huang Rong who busily talked; Guo Jing was content with simply looking at her face and listening to her chatter.

Huang Rong told him how that night after her father threatened Guo Jing’s life she had jumped into the lake. After hiding for some time she figured out her father must have left, so she came back to the village. She saw Guo Jing was safe and sound and was greatly comforted; but recalling how she had been so harsh with her father she felt really bad. The next morning she saw Guo Jing and Yang Kang heading north to Beijing; thereupon she preceded them and arranged for meals along the way.

They talked all through the night in the warm sixth month’s weather. The weather was pleasant and Huang Rong’s heart was happy; after a while she became sleepy, her speech became fuzzy and not too long afterward fell asleep against Guo Jing’s chest; her jade- white skin felt cool and her breath blew softly. Guo Jing was afraid he might awaken her, so he sat motionless against the willow tree and after a while he too dozed off.

Guo Jing did not know how long he slept, but by the time he opened his eyes he could hear the birds chirping merrily and he smelled the sweet fragrance of the wild flowers. The sun was rising; but Huang Rong was still asleep. With her eyebrows creased, her ruddy complexion, her graceful smile, she looked like she was having a sweet dream.

“Let her sleep a bit longer; I must not make any noise,” Guo Jing thought. He looked like he was counting her long eyelashes when suddenly a voice was heard, coming from about twenty feet to his left.

“I found the Eldest Miss Cheng’s room; it is on the second floor of the building surrounded by a flower garden behind the Tong Ren pawnshop,” the voice said.

“Good! We will work tonight,” another voice replied, it sounded like an older man. Both men spoke in low voices, but in the quietness of the morning Guo Jing could hear every single word clearly. He was startled; they sounded like some ‘flower picking thieves – rapists’ [cai hua yin zei], naturally he could not let them do all kinds of evil things.

Suddenly Huang Rong opened her eyes; she leaped out of Guo Jing’s arms and called out, “Jing ge ge, catch me!” She ran toward a big tree. Initially Guo Jing was perplexed, but Huang Rong kept beckoning him to come. Finally he understood. They were pretending to be a young couple playing hide-and-seek in the morning. He pursued her while laughing and joking loudly, intentionally made his footsteps heavy to conceal his lightness kungfu.

The two men were not expecting anybody else to be around that early in the morning. They were startled, but upon seeing a young man and a young woman noisily playing, their suspicions vanished. However, they did not continue talking and left immediately.

Huang Rong and Guo Jing could see their backs. They were dressed in rags and looked like they were beggars.

“Jing ge ge, what do you think they are going to do to that Eldest Miss Cheng?” Huang Rong asked after they had walked far enough. “Most likely not a good thing,” Guo Jing answered. “Do you think we should help her?”

“For sure,” Huang Rong answered with a smile. “Only I don’t know if they belong to Hong Qigong’s clan or not?”

“I don’t think so,” Guo Jing said. “But then Qigong said that all beggars under the heaven are in his care … Hmm … perhaps those two are impostors.”

“There are tens of thousands beggars in the world; certainly some of them have turned bad. I don’t care how good Qigong is, he will not be able to manage each and every one of them. Looks like these two are the bad ones. Hong Qigong has been so kind to us that it is impossible to ever repay him. I think he will like it if we take care of these bad ones.”

“You are right,” Guo Jing agreed. Even though he was a little bit tired, the thought of repaying Qigong’s kindness lifted his spirits.

“Those two men’s bare legs were covered with boils. I am sure they are not false, so those two were real beggars. Other people would not disguise themselves like that,” Huang Rong said.

“You really are very observant,” Guo Jing said admiringly.

The young couple went back to town for some breakfast; then they walked idly down the street toward the west end of town. There they saw a very big pawnshop with four characters painted on the white wall, ‘Tong Ren Pawnshop’, with each character taller than an average man. Behind the shop was a garden and in the middle was a two-story building. There was a dark green bamboo curtain covering a big window on the second floor. Guo Jing and Huang Rong looked at each other and smiled. Hand-in-hand they walked away to play elsewhere. After dinner that evening they retreated to their respective rooms for some rest and meditation. About one o’clock that night they ran toward the western part of the town; leaped up on the garden wall and saw the dark shadow of the big building. Silently they climbed to the roof and swung their bodies down from the eaves. It was a summer night, so the window was open. They looked around the big room and to their surprise there were seven young girls, all about eighteen or nineteen years of age. One beautiful girl was sitting next to a lamp, reading. They thought she must be Miss Cheng. The other six were dressed as servant girls, all holding unsheathed weapons in their hands; they looked stern yet graceful, obviously they knew martial arts.

Guo Jing and Huang Rong initially intended to help this young woman, but, seeing she was well prepared, they thought they would wait and see. So they quietly climbed back to the roof and waited.

Not too long after they heard a faint call from outside the wall. Huang Rong immediately pulled Guo Jing and they looked down to see two shadows leaping the wall and walking toward the building. The shadows looked like the two beggars they’d seen earlier. One of the beggars whistled softly. A servant girl drew back the curtain and asked, “Have the hero brothers from the Beggar Clan arrived? Please come up.” The two beggars leaped up and entered the room.

In the darkness outside Guo Jing and Huang Rong looked at each other in surprise. Earlier they thought that as soon as the beggars arrived there would be some fighting or something interesting; who would have thought that they knew each other?

Miss Cheng immediately stood up, paid her respects, and uttered some pleasantries. “Would you tell me your honorable names, please?” she asked.

“My surname is Li,” the older beggar answered, “And this is my martial nephew Yu Zhao.”

“So you are Senior Li and Elder Brother Yu,” Miss Cheng said. “The valiant heroes of the Beggar Clan always uphold justice and are admired by the people of the martial arts world. It really is an honor for me, young disciple, to finally meet two revered role models. Please, sit down.” Although what she said was common Jianghu pleasantries, her facial expression was shy. She paused a lot in between sentences; which showed she was not used to this kind of talk. She said ‘admired by the people of the martial arts world’ with sincerity, but sounded like she was not sure what she was talking about. When she finished speaking her head hung low and her face blushed.

Shyly she looked up toward the old beggar’s one eye and timidly asked, “Senior Hero, aren’t you the venerable ‘Serpent King of the East River’ [jiang dong she wang] Li Sheng?”

The old beggar laughed. “You have keen eyes, Miss! I have had the honor of meeting your master, the ‘Sage of Tranquility’ [qing jing san ren]. Even though we are not the best of friends, we’ve always had great respect for each other.”

Guo Jing had also heard the name ‘Sage of Tranquility’ mentioned and was delighted, “The Sage of Tranquility, Sun Bu’Er, is one of the Quanzhen Seven Masters; therefore, this Miss Cheng and those two beggars are not strangers.” He heard Miss Cheng continue, “I am very grateful to receive the Senior Hero’s aid in upholding justice. I will listen to Senior Hero’s instructions.”

“Miss, you are worth a thousand gold taels,” Li Sheng said. “But for this licentious man to look at you, even with one eye, is still too much.” Hearing this Miss Cheng’s face blushed profusely. Li Sheng continued, “Now I suggest you stay overnight in the main house, along with these honorable servants of yours. I will deal with that conceited man alone.”

“Young disciple is not skilled in martial arts, but I am not afraid of that villain,” Miss Cheng said. “How can I let Senior deal with him alone?”

“Please don’t say such things Miss,” Li Sheng said. “Our Clan Leader Hong and your honorable founder Senior Wang were good friends; that means we belong to the same family. Why do you want to consider it otherwise?”

Actually Miss Cheng wanted to try out her own martial arts, but she listened to Li Sheng since she dare not defy him. So she bowed and said, “Then I will leave everything in Senior Li and Elder Brother Yu’s capable hands.” After saying that, she gracefully led her maidservants downstairs.

Li Sheng walked towards the young lady’s bed, pulled back the embroidered quilt, and without taking off his shoes laid his dirty body on the sweet smelling bedding. “Go downstairs,” he told Yu Zhao, “Be on guard with everyone else. Do not make any moves without my command.” Yu Zhao complied. Li Sheng then hid his entire body under the blankets after extinguishing the candle beside the bed.

“Miss Cheng might not want to sleep under that blanket anymore,” Huang Rong laughed inside. “The members of the Beggar Clan are just like their leader, they like to deliberately create trouble in a funny way. This matter is actually much more amusing than I originally thought.”

Because there were other people standing guard, Huang Rong and Guo Jing quietly hid themselves under the eaves. About an hour later she heard the night watch sounding the signal ‘knock, knock, bang, bang, bang …’ at the front of the building. It was the third hour. Then she heard a pebble fall in the flower garden.

A moment later eight people came leaping over the wall and headed straight to the second floor. They lit a lantern briefly, enough to see the bed, then quickly extinguished it. In that very short time Guo Jing and Huang Rong could see their appearance. It turned out they were the female disciples of Ouyang Ke who dressed like men and all wore white clothing. Four of them pulled open the bed’s curtain and covered Li Sheng’s head with a silk hood; firmly held, they lifted him up. Two of them opened a big sack and in went the blanket with Li Sheng inside it. They quickly tightened the sack mouth and lifted up the sack. They worked swiftly and quietly in the dark, without making any noise. It seemed they were very skilled in what they were doing.

They leaped back downstairs. Guo Jing was about to make a move when Huang Rong whispered in his ear, “Let the Beggar Clan go first.” Guo Jing complied. He stretched his neck and saw four female disciples carrying the sack with Li Sheng in it, while the other four were guarding the rear. Further back, about ten yards behind them, were the Beggar Clan members, each wielding a wooden staff.

Guo Jing and Huang Rong waited a moment to put some distance between them before they quietly leaped out of the garden and followed from afar. A little while later they arrived at the edge of the town. The eight women took the sack to a big house, while the four Beggar Clan members spread out to surround the building.

Huang Rong pulled Guo Jing’s arm and they walked toward the back of the building; jumped over the back wall and saw that the building was actually an ancestral temple. The main hall was full of memorial tablets. On the main beam hung big banners with the deceased people’s merits and honorable titles written on them. The hall was lit by four or five big red candles; and in the center sat a man waving a folding fan.

Guo Jing and Huang Rong had guessed earlier it must be Ouyang Ke’s doing and they were right. They hid themselves under a window, not daring to move at all, while wondering in their hearts, “Would that Li Sheng fellow be able to fight him?”

They saw the eight women entering the hall and one said, “Young Master, Miss Cheng is here.” Ouyang Ke sneered coldly. He looked outside and said, “Friends, you have been so kind to visit, why not come in and introduce yourselves?”

Hiding on top of the wall, the Beggar Clan members knew they had been found out, but without Li Sheng’s command they did not dare to make any noises.

Ouyang Ke turned his head and looked at the sack. “I did not expect such a beautiful lady as you would be so easily invited to come here.” He walked slowly forward, waving his folding fan slowly. When he folded the fan, it resembled an iron pen.

Huang Rong and Guo Jing saw his hand movements and his expression; they were shocked. It seemed Ouyang Ke had already discovered that an enemy was hiding inside that sack and was going to strike.

Huang Rong instantly put three steel needles into her hand, aimed toward the fan; ready to strike if Li Sheng was in danger. Suddenly there were swishing sounds and a couple of sleeve-arrows flew toward Ouyang Ke’s chest. They were released by a beggar who appeared on the windowsill. They also had seen the danger threatening Li Sheng and launched a pre-emptive strike.

Ouyang Ke moved his left hand sideways, his index and middle fingers pinched one arrow, his ring and little fingers pinched the other, with a ‘crack’ sound the two arrows became four pieces.

The Beggars saw this and were amazed. “Martial Uncle Li, come out!” Yu Zhao called. He had not even finished shouting when the sack was ripped open; out came two blades followed by Li Zheng rolling on the floor. He used the sack as a shield and quickly stood up.

Li Sheng knew Ouyang Ke was a fierce opponent and he was not sure he could defeat him; that was the reason he wanted to attack him by surprise by hiding inside the sack. Who would have thought that Ouyang Ke would foil his plan?

“A beautiful lady turned into a beggar. That was a good sack trick!” Ouyang Ke laughed.

Li Sheng ignored his remark. “This city has lost four girls in three days. All were your doing, I presume?” he countered.

“This Baoying County is certainly not a poor area, how did a law enforcement officer turn into a beggar?” Ouyang Ke smirked.

Li Sheng remained calm. “I am not begging for food here,” he answered. “But I heard yesterday that four adolescent girls suddenly vanished without a trace. My curiosity was piqued, so I took a look.”

Ouyang Ke reluctantly said, “Actually those girls are not exceptional; since you want them and considering we are the people of the martial arts world, I’d like to give them to you. Beggars usually eat dead crabs; so I am sure you will treat these four girls as your treasures.” He waved his right hand, and several female disciples of his went inside to get the four girls. The girls’ clothes were unkempt, their faces thin and pale and their eyes red from crying.

Li Sheng was outraged to see this. He loudly shouted, “What is your honorable name? Whose disciple are you?”

Ouyang Ke still maintained his carefree attitude. “My surname is Ouyang. What is it that you want, my friend?” he nonchalantly answered.

“I want to fight you!” Li Sheng roared.

“Nothing could be better!” Ouyang Ke replied. “Please start!”

“Good!” Li Sheng shouted and moved his right hand. Just before he struck a white shadow flashed with a gust of wind. He was very shocked and leaped up immediately, but his neck was scratched nonetheless. Luckily he was swift, if not; his neck would have a hole in it.

Li Sheng was an eight-bag disciple of his clan; a highly respected position. His martial arts were strong and the beggars in Liangzhe area came to him for advice. In short, he was one of the Beggar Clan’s elite fighters; who would have thought that he was nearly injured in just one stance. His face flushed with anger and embarrassment. Without turning his body he launched his hand backward.

“He knows the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’,” whispered Huang Rong. Guo Jing nodded.

Ouyang Ke could see this move was fierce and did not dare to meet it head-on; he jumped sideways. By this time Li Sheng had turned his body around and stepped forward. He lifted both hands in front of his chest and with a loud cry pushed them forward.

This time it was Guo Jing who whispered into Huang Rong’s ear, “Is that move from the ‘Wandering Strides’ fists technique [xiao yao you quan fa]?” Huang Rong nodded; but she noticed that Li Sheng’s movements were heavy and not elegant like the ‘Wandering Strides’ should be executed.

Ouyang Ke saw Li Sheng’s step was steady and his hands were proficient at launching wonderful moves; he did not dare to act casual and underestimate his opponent any longer. He slipped his folding fan into his waist and quick as a flash launched a counterattack toward Li Sheng’s shoulder.

Li Sheng parried with the ‘Begging for Rice’ move [fan lai shen shou], still from the ‘Wandering Strides’ fists technique. Ouyang Ke parried with his left hand, which forced Li Sheng to lift his right arm; Ouyang Ke swiftly moved toward Li Sheng’s back and stretched both hands with all fingers forming two claws attacking Li Sheng’s vital ‘Sleeveless Garment’ [bei xin] acupoints.

Huang Rong and Guo Jing were startled, “That move is difficult to defend against.”

By that time the rest of the Beggar Clan members had entered the hall. They saw Li Sheng was in grave danger and were rushing to help.

Li Sheng could hear the wind behind his back and felt the claws almost touching his clothes. Again he launched his hand backward using the ‘Divine Dragon Swings its Tail’ [shen long bai wei] from the Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’. The stance came from the trigram, ‘to tread on’ which is part of the Yi Jing [Book of Changes]. The master who created the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ actually named the stance ‘Treading on the Tiger’s Tail’ [lu hu wei]. It was a more powerful description compared to ‘Attacking the Tiger from Behind’ because if one steps on the tiger’s tail, it will no doubt turn around and attack furiously. However, the later generation felt that this description in the Yi Jing was too soft and not pleasing to the tongue. Thus, they changed it to the ‘Divine Dragon Swings its Tail’.

Ouyang Ke did not dare to meet this attack head-on, so he flexed his body and jumped back.

“A very close call!” Li Sheng said in his heart. He turned his body around to face his opponent again. His martial arts were inferior to Ouyang Ke’s exquisite moves. They had fought thirty or forty moves and already his life was threatened five or six times. Fortunately he could always use the ‘Divine Dragon Swings its Tail’ to get out of trouble.

“Looks like Hong Qigong only passed on this single move to him,” Huang Rong whispered. Guo Jing nodded. He recalled the time when Hong Qigong passed on to him the ‘Proud Dragon Show Remorse’ and he fought Liang Ziweng using this single move over and over. Later on Hong Qigong taught him a total of fifteen moves, while this important figure in the Beggar Clan only knew one move. His heart swelled with gratitude toward Hong Qigong.

In the meantime Ouyang Ke had increased the intensity of his attacks and step-by-step he forced Li Sheng into a corner. Earlier Ouyang Ke sent his fierce attacks without any particular target, but now his moves were intended to prevent Li Sheng from turning around and launching his backward palm. Li Sheng understood his intentions very well, so he worked hard to step back into the middle of the room.

Suddenly Ouyang Ke let out a long laugh; he whirled the fist straight up from below hitting Li Sheng’s chin. Li Sheng stuttered in pain and cried out in alarm. He tried to stretch his hand to counterattack but he was a split second too late. Ouyang Ke’s fist had struck its target. Li Sheng was hit five or six times on the head and chest. He felt dizzy and his body weak as he wobbled and fell to the floor.

The Beggar Clan people rushed to help but Ouyang Ke turned around, grabbed two of the front most attackers and threw them to the wall. They fainted immediately. The rest of the beggars did not dare continue.

“What, did you think that a bunch of stinky beggars would deceive me so easily?” Ouyang Ke sneered. He clapped his hands and two female disciples came out dragging a young woman along. Her hands were tied behind her back, her face forlorn and tears flowed down her cheeks; it was none other than Miss Cheng.

Everybody, including Huang Rong and Guo Jing, was shocked and baffled.

Ouyang Ke waved his hand and his disciples took Miss Cheng back inside. With a smug expression he said, “While the old beggar went into the sack, I worked downstairs capturing Miss Cheng and came back here immediately to wait for the rest of you.”

The beggars looked at each other in blank dismay; they’d lost this bout big time.

Ouyang Ke casually waved his fan and mocked, “The Beggar Clan’s name is well-known throughout the world. Today I have seen it with my own eyes; it’s a fame that will make people laugh until their teeth fall out of their mouths! Your special skills of stealing chickens, stroking dogs, begging for food, catching snakes, I have seen them all. Now, do you still dare to meddle in your Young Master’s business? I am willing to spare this old beggar’s life, but I must take his two lights as a souvenir.” After saying that, he stretched out two fingers toward Li Sheng’s eyes.

“Hold it!” a voice suddenly called out. A man leaped into the hall and immediately sent an attack toward Ouyang Ke.

Ouyang Ke sensed the swiftness and fierceness of the attack; he moved sideways to evade, but could not get out of the wind. His body shook and he was forced to draw back two steps. He could not help but be inwardly startled. “Since I left the Western Regions I have fought many skilled masters; who is this man who has an unexpectedly high martial arts skill?” He turned his eyes toward the newcomer and once again he was startled. He had fought Guo Jing before at the Zhao Palace and his martial arts were only average; how did his palm carry such profound strength just now?

“You have committed all kinds of evil, but instead of repenting you wanted to injure this good man. Do you really not have any consideration for the heroes of Jianghu?” Guo Jing scolded.

Ouyang Ke thought that Guo Jing’s last attack was just a fluke. He looked down on Guo Jing, “Are you one of those ‘heroes’?” he mockingly asked.

“I do not dare to call myself a hero,” Guo Jing answered. “With all due respect, I am asking you to release Miss Cheng and return to the west immediately.”

“And what if I don’t want to listen to your childish request?” Ouyang Ke smirked.

Before Guo Jing had a chance to reply, Huang Rong called from outside the window, “Jing ge ge, just punch that bastard!”

When Ouyang Ke heard Huang Rong’s voice, his spirits were shaken. “Miss Huang, you want me to release Miss Cheng, that is easy, just as long as you follow me wherever I go. Not only Miss Cheng, but I will also release all my female disciples; moreover, I will promise you not to take another female disciple. Wouldn’t that be good?”

Huang Rong leaped inside the hall, smiling as she said, “That is very good! We are going to tour the Western Regions. Jing ge ge, are you coming?”

Ouyang Ke shook his head, “No, I want you to come with me. I don’t want this stinky kid to come along,” he said, still smiling. Huang Rong was angry, her palm slapped backward. “You dare to slur him? You are the stinky one!” she shouted loudly.

Ouyang Ke was mesmerized with Huang Rong’s gracefulness and her sweet smile while talking to him. She looked so innocent yet free. His spirit was enthralled. Who would have thought that she would abruptly turn hostile? He was not on guard against her and Huang Rong used the exquisite move from the ‘Peach Blossom Divine Sword Palm’, the ultimate in Peach Blossom Island palm techniques. His left cheek was slapped. Fortunately Huang Rong did not use her full strength, but his face burned with pain nonetheless.

“Bah!” Ouyang Ke spat. His left hand suddenly stretched out toward Huang Rong’s breast. Huang Rong did not elude him but threw both hands toward the top of his head. Ouyang Ke was lascivious and seeing that Huang Rong did not move, he was delighted. Ignoring the blow on his head his hand caressed her breast. Who would have thought that as soon as his fingers touched her clothing he felt a stabbing pain. It suddenly dawned on him, “She is wearing the soft hedgehog armor.” Luckily he was being frivolous and had not used much strength. Quickly he lifted his arm to parry her blow.

“It’s not easy for you to hit me,” Huang Rong smiled. “I can hit you, but you can’t hit me.”

Ouyang Ke was exasperated; he could not get angry with Huang Rong, so he directed his anger toward Guo Jing. “Let me kill this kid first; I hope then her feelings toward him will die,” he thought. While his eyes were fixed on Huang Rong, his leg flew backward towards Guo Jing’s chest. This leg movement was swift and ruthless. It was the ‘Western Poison’ Ouyang Feng’s unique family skill. It was difficult to fend against. Once the leg hit its target, the ribs would fracture in towards the lung.

Guo Jing did not have enough time to jump back, so he turned his body around and launched a backward palm. With a loud crash Guo Jing’s palm hit Ouyang Ke’s leg just as Ouyang Ke’s leg almost simultaneously hit Guo Jing’s chest. Both men felt pain that seared to the bone. They turned their bodies around facing each other and stared at each other angrily; then they immediately attacked each other again.

The Beggar Clan people were surprised and thought, “This move obviously is Li Sheng’s unique skill, the ‘Divine Dragon Swings its Tail’, how come this young man can use it? Moreover, his movement was superior to that of Li Sheng.” By now they had already pulled Li Sheng, who had come to his senses, to the side. He also recognized not only the ‘Divine Dragon Swings its Tail’, but other stances as well. He saw Guo Jing’s moves were exquisite and powerful; he was amazed. “The ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ is Clan Leader Hong’s special skill. Because I had no regard for my own life and rendered a great service, the leader generously rewarded me with one stance. Where did this youth learn the full set of eighteen stances?” Obviously he did not realize Guo Jing only knew fifteen stances.

Ouyang Ke was also amazed. He secretly admired Guo Jing’s progress. “How could this kid’s martial arts improve so much in just two months?”

In a short time they already exchanged about forty moves. Guo Jing had repeatedly used his fifteen stances several times. It was enough for him to defend himself; but in all honesty he had to admit that Ouyang Ke’s martial arts were several levels above his. He realized he would not win.

Another ten or so moves later Ouyang Ke changed his tactics. He swiftly moved in all directions to divert Guo Jing’s attention then he launched an attack from an unexpected direction. Guo Jing tried hard to fend it off but his left hip was kicked. He stepped backward limping. Luckily his stances were concentrated in his palms, so he could still launch his fifteen moves in succession.

Ouyang Ke did not dare to press the situation for a while. He tried to force an opening in Guo Jing’s defense line. About a dozen or so moves later, he did see an opening and immediately launched an attack. Guo Jing had finished all fifteen moves and was about to repeat the whole set. After the fifteenth stance, the ‘Seeing the Dragon in the Fields’ [jian long zai tian], he could have launched the first stance, the ‘Proud Dragon Shows Remorse’ [kang long you hui]; but he could also repeat the last stance, the ‘Seeing the Dragon in the Fields ’. His mind was not quick enough as he pondered, “Shall I repeat from the beginning, or shall I reverse the order?” This slight hesitation was enough for Ouyang Ke. He immediately took advantage of this small flaw and attacked Guo Jing’s shoulder.

Guo Jing was taken aback; he did not have any chance to think which one of the fifteen stances he could use to parry that attack, so in reflex he stepped backward and slapped his opponent’s hand. It was a move that followed no martial arts principles; it was a move without a move. It took Ouyang Ke by surprise and his arm was squarely hit. Ouyang Ke was shocked; he leaped back and immediately examined his arm. Luckily, even though it hurt, it was not broken.

Guo Jing was delighted with this unexpected result. He thought, “I realized there are three areas on my body that are not protected well: my shoulder, left hip and right waist. If only I could develop more stances using both hands …” His mind was still reeling as Ouyang Ke launched another attack.

Guo Jing was not the smartest kid in the country. Even if he painstakingly racked his brain for ten days or two weeks, he would not necessarily come up with even half of a new move. Right now he was engaged in fierce combat, how would he have a chance to think? All he could do was clumsily modify whatever principles he had learned from the ‘Dragon Palms’ just to protect these three areas, his shoulder, left hip and right waist.

Ouyang Ke was anxious. “His stances are limited, and given enough time, I am sure I can gain the upper hand. Where did the three additional stances come from?” he thought. He did not know that Guo Jing’s three additional moves were actually useless; but he was a little bit wary since he was hit before. He slowed his pace and concentrating his strength on defense, carefully studied Guo Jing’s new moves. After a while he could see the flaw. “Right! He has not mastered these moves yet, that was the reason he did not use them at the beginning,” he thought. While still moving his body around he thrust his left hand to divert Guo Jing’s attention and at the same time swung his right leg straight toward Guo Jing’s left hip.

Guo Jing was not able to use his three self-developed stances to their full extent yet. Suddenly seeing his opponent attack his weak point, he was nervous. As he was launching a palm, he suddenly retracted it halfway and diverted his palm to parry his opponent’s kick.

Huang Rong was secretly disappointed. “To hesitate in a match like this is truly martial arts biggest taboo. In this one single move Jing ge ge has wasted seven or eight opportunities. Not only that, even if he won’t be able to injure the enemy, he should be able to defend himself. By turning his palm around like that, he actually made the flaw bigger,” she reasoned. She knew for sure that Ouyang Ke had put all his strength into that kick and Guo Jing might not be able to parry it. Immediately seven or eight steel needles flew swiftly from her hand.

Ouyang Ke quickly drew the folding fan from his waist and in one fluid motion opened it and waved it gently to block the needles. He was sure all needles were knocked down so he did not slow down his kick toward Guo Jing. He was confident Guo Jing would get hit hard and fall to the floor; but then he felt a slight numbness as though the acupoint above his ankle was sealed. His kick did not stop, but it had lost all its strength. Ouyang Ke leaped back in great surprise. “Which meddler was brave enough to backstab your Young Master?” he fumed, “Come out if you have guts …”

But before he finished he heard a noise from above and something flew his way. He lifted his hand to block that thing, but it came too fast. Before he knew it something had entered his mouth. It was a little bit salty and hard. He was startled and frightened. Quickly he spat that thing out. As it turned out it was a chicken bone.

Nervously he looked above him, but at that precise moment more debris came down on him. He quickly leaped sideways while spitting the dust from his mouth. Just as he opened his mouth several chicken bones came hitting his teeth. They were not knocked out but it was painful! Ouyang Ke was wild with rage. Suddenly he saw something fly down from a shadow on the roof beam above; he immediately launched a palm to strike that something. He managed to knock it down to the floor only to see that something was a half- eaten chicken foot. Then he heard the shadow on the beam explode in laughter. “How is the beggar’s stealing chickens skill?”

Huang Rong and Guo Jing leapt with joy as soon as they heard his voice. “Qigong!” they shouted together.

Everybody looked up and saw Hong Qigong sitting on the roof beam, his legs spread and with half of a chicken in his hand, which he ate enthusiastically. The Beggar Clan people bowed and open their mouths together, “Clan Leader! We wish you well Senior.”

Ouyang Ke saw it was indeed Hong Qigong and his heart sank. “If what he threw at me was not chicken bones but projectiles, I would be dead by now. Real men are not afraid of defeat; the most important thing now is escaping.” He bowed and said, “Uncle Hong, your nephew kowtows to you.” His mouth said ‘kowtow’ but he did not kneel.

Hong Qigong was still chewing the chicken. “Are you not returning to the west? You have committed evil acts here, do you want to end your little life in the ‘Central Plain’ [zhong yuan]?” he asked indistinctly. “In the Central Plain Uncle Hero is invincible,” Ouyang Ke replied. “As long as Uncle Hero shows mercy and did not come here to bully the young and the weak, your young nephew has nothing to fear. My uncle has instructed me that if I ever see Uncle Hong I should be respectful to you. He warned me about the difference between our skill levels and that Junior simply could not even touch you. Should I insist on trying I would be the laughingstock of all the heroes of the world.”

Hong Qigong laughed heartily and said, “You flatter me and try to prevent me from fighting you. But there are actually a lot of people on the Central Plain who want to kill you. I don’t have to move my finger if I really want you dead. Earlier you said that you have seen my skills of stealing chickens, stroking dogs, begging for food and catching snakes and you belittled those skills, did you not?”

Ouyang Ke hastily answered, “Your young nephew was not aware this old hero is Uncle Hong’s disciple. It was very disrespectful of me. I beg Uncle and this old hero’s forgiveness.”

Hong Qigong leaped down from the beam. “You called him ‘the old hero’ but he was defeated by you. Aren’t you the hero then? Ha … ha … aren’t you ashamed?”

Ouyang Ke was angry, but knew his martial arts were too far below Hong Qigong’s so he did not dare to say anything wrong. He suppressed his anger and did not make a sound.

“Your skills were imparted by that old Western Poison and you are thinking of running amuck in the Central Plain. Humph … did you really think I am already dead?” Hong Qigong said.

“Uncle holds the same rank of honor as my uncle; Junior will have to listen to Uncle’s instructions,” Ouyang Ke said.

“Is that so?” Hong Qigong said. “You are saying that I’ve put you on the spot; that the older bully the younger?” Ouyang Ke did not say anything, which was the same as agreeing to what Hong Qigong was saying.

“Even though the Old Beggar is the leader of all beggars, old and young alike, not all beggars are my disciples,” Hong Qigong continued. “This man surnamed Li has learned a superficial amount of my martial arts; how could he be regarded as my successor? His ‘Wandering Strides’ fist technique has not yet reached perfection. You belittled my stealing chickens and stroking dogs skill, humph … if the old beggar really takes a disciple, he wouldn’t be inferior to you.”

“Naturally,” Ouyang Ke agreed. “Uncle Hong’s disciple would be much stronger than your nephew. But your martial arts skill is too high; it wouldn’t be easy for anybody to learn.”

“Your mouth is sweet,” Hong Qigong said, “But I am sure you are scolding me in your heart.” “Your nephew does not dare,” Ouyang Ke answered.

“Qigong, don’t believe his lies,” Huang Rong quipped. “He scolds you in his heart all right and he scolds you really bad. He said that although your martial arts are not bad, it only benefits you; you don’t have the ability to teach. Even if you teach your stealing chickens and stroking dogs’ skills to the end of your life, nobody would be able to learn it to perfection.”

Hong Qigong just stared at her. He snorted and mumbled, “This little girl knows how to provoke me.” He turned his head and said, “So? This kid dares to scold me?” Suddenly he stretched out one hand and, quick as lighting, he snatched the folding fan from Ouyang Ke’s hand. He unfolded the fan and saw some painted peonies and two characters ‘Xu Xi’. He did not know that Xu Xi was a poet from the Northern Song Dynasty. Although the peonies were beautifully painted, he still said, “Not good!” There were several lines of characters written on the fan and at the end was a signature, ‘Young Master of the White Camel Mountain’ [bai tuo shan shao zhu]. It was Ouyang Ke’s handwriting.

“What do you think of these characters?” Hong Qigong asked Huang Rong.

Huang Rong raised her eyebrows and said, “Very crude. But what do you expect? A spoiled rich kid like him wouldn’t know how to write. I bet he hired a pawnshop clerk to write those characters.”

Ouyang Ke prided himself on being both a martial arts and literature expert, which was actually not too far from the truth. Upon hearing Huang Rong’s words he was really angry. He shot a glare towards her, only to see in the candlelight the corners of her eyes showed a very faint smile. She looked so sweet and innocent that his anger vanished into thin air.

Hong Qigong spread the fan in his hand, raised it, and wiped his mouth with it. He had just eaten a chicken, so his mouth was greasy. As soon as he did that, the painting and calligraphy were completely destroyed. Then he casually crumpled the fan, made a paper ball and tossed it to the floor.

Other people would think nothing of it, but not Ouyang Ke; his fan’s spines were made of steel. The fan was his weapon. It was a demonstration of profound internal energy. He was terrified.

“If I personally fight you, you will die unsatisfied. So I am going to take a disciple and let him fight with you,” Hong Qigong said.

Ouyang Ke pointed to Guo Jing. “This fellow has fought with me for dozens of stances. If Uncle Hong had not appeared, I would have gained the upper hand. Brother Guo, don’t you agree?” he said.

Guo Jing nodded his head, “I might lose.” Ouyang Ke smiled with satisfaction. Hong Qigong looked up and laughed. “Jing’er, are you my disciple?” he asked.

Guo Jing recalled he kowtowed to Hong Qigong, but Hong Qigong returned those kowtows. “Junior is not fortunate enough to be your disciple,” he quickly replied.

“Did you hear?” Hong Qigong asked Ouyang Ke.

Ouyang Ke was dissatisfied. “You can’t fool me; where did this kid’s exquisite palms come from?” he asked.

Hong Qigong turned toward Guo Jing. “If I don’t make you my disciple, that little girl brat will not let me die peacefully. She will pester me with hundreds of evil schemes forever. I guess the old beggar has to admit defeat. All right, bow to me; I’ll take you as my disciple,” he said.

Guo Jing was ecstatic. Quickly he dropped to his knees and quickly kowtowed several times while calling out, “Master!” That day at ‘Returning Cloud Manor’ he had recounted to his six masters how Hong Qigong had taught him most of the ‘Eighteen Dragon- Subduing Palms’. The Six Freaks of Jiangnan were very happy and all said it was a pity this highly skilled extraordinary character of the Wulin world was not willing to take Guo Jing as his disciple. They told him that if Hong Qigong happened to reveal his willingness to take him, Guo Jing should accept without reservation.

Huang Rong was even happier. She smiled broadly and said, “Qigong, I have helped you find a very fine disciple. My contribution is not small. Starting today you will have somebody you can call your successor. How will you thank me?”

Hong Qigong made a face at her, “Kiss my ass!” Then he turned to Guo Jing and said, “Stupid kid [sha xiao zi - it’s a vulgar term, lit. foolish/dumb etc.], let me first teach you three stances.” He immediately taught Guo Jing the last three stances of the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ right in front of everyone. Of course, compared to Guo Jing’s own three desperately-brewed stances, these moves were a world apart.

Ouyang Ke said to himself, “This old beggar’s martial arts are outstanding, but he is not too smart. He is concentrating on teaching his disciple, totally forgetting that I am standing here, watching.” With rapt attention he watched Guo Jing’s every move. But he did not see anything extraordinary. Sometimes Hong Qigong whispered something into Guo Jing’s ear. He guessed it must be the theory behind these three moves. Sometimes Guo Jing would nod his head, but most other times he just stood there, staring blankly or shook his head. Hong Qigong would repeat what he just said until Guo Jing reluctantly nodded his head; obviously he did not fully comprehend the theory. “This guy is really stupid,” he thought, “This short period of time is not enough for him to learn the three stances. I might as well take the opportunity to study them.”

In the meantime Hong Qigong had Guo Jing practice them six or seven times. “Good, smart disciple,” he said. “You have mastered about fifty percent of these three stances. Now go and beat this lecherous thief for me.”

“Yes,” Guo Jing answered and moved forward two steps and launched a palm toward Ouyang Ke. Ouyang Ke slanted his body and counterattacked with a fist. Thus the two engaged in a fight again.

The secret of the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ lies in the exact timing of energy exertion. The moves themselves were quite simple. That was the reason that although Liang Ziweng, Mei Chaofeng and Ouyang Ke’s martial arts were higher than Guo Jing’s, he was able to fight them without losing ground. Just a moment ago Ouyang Ke was watching Hong Qigong pass on the three stances to Guo Jing and he knew Guo Jing had not fully comprehended the moves while he himself had memorized the stances. Yet, now that he was fighting Guo Jing, he found it difficult to overcome those three stances.

Guo Jing, on the other hand, had now mastered the complete set of the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’. He was able to use it from head to tail and back to head again. The fierceness of the original fifteen moves he had already mastered was greatly increased.

Ouyang Ke had used four different kinds of martial arts, yet he could only match Guo Jing without being able to gain the upper hand. Dozens of moves later he started to get anxious. “If I don’t use my family’s unique skills I may lose,” he thought. “I was trained by my uncle since childhood. How come I cannot defeat the old beggar’s disciple who received instructions just a moment ago? I am afraid the old beggar will look down on my uncle.”

A dozen or so moves later Guo Jing raised his hand to parry Ouyang Ke’s fist which suddenly turned around and hit Guo Jing’s skull from behind. Guo Jing was stunned. He ducked to avoid a blow while simultaneously throwing a fist slanting upward. Ouyang Ke stepped sideways and sent another fist. Guo Jing did not dare to parry that fist; he dodged to the right. Who would have thought that Ouyang Ke’s arm would suddenly move like a whip! Guo Jing clearly saw it was aiming at his left side but suddenly twisted to the right and struck Guo Jing’s shoulder.

Guo Jing was hit three times in a short period of time. These three hits were heavy; he was anxious for he had no idea how to deal with them. “Jing’er, stop!” Hong Qigong called out, “Let’s just admit defeat this time.”

Guo Jing leaped back about ten feet; he felt pain in the parts hit. To Ouyang Ke he said, “Your martial arts are really brilliant; turning your arm around like that was really odd.” Ouyang Ke was proud of himself; he cast a boastful look toward Huang Rong.

Hong Qigong said, “The Old Poison raises snakes for a living; this set of the ‘Snake’s Flexible Skin’ [ruan pi she] fists technique must be developed from the movements of venomous snakes’. It was brilliant. The old beggar has not been able to devise a method to overcome it. Just consider yourself lucky. Now, get out of my way!” Ouyang Ke’s heart turned cold. “Uncle warned me a thousand times not to use this ‘Spirit Snake Fist’ [ling she quan] unless in an extremely dangerous situation. Today I have let the old beggar see it. If my uncle finds out, I will be in big trouble.” His self- satisfaction disappeared almost immediately. He bowed toward Hong Qigong and walked out the temple.

“Hold on a second! I have something to say,” Huang Rong called out. Ouyang Ke halted his steps; his heart beat faster. But Huang Rong did not pay any attention to him. She turned toward Hong Qigong and bowed respectfully. “Qigong,” she said. “You have to accept two disciples today. Good things come in pairs; you have accepted a male disciple, now you must accept a female one. Otherwise I won’t let you off easily.”

Hong Qigong shook his head. “I have already made an exception by accepting one disciple,” he smiled. “The old beggar doesn’t want to talk about it. Moreover, your father is also highly skilled in martial arts, how could he let you take the old beggar as your master?”

Huang Rong pretended to be suddenly enlightened. “So, you are afraid of my father!” she exclaimed. Hong Qigong was provoked, but he was actually very fond of her. “Me? Afraid of your father?” he said with a straight face. “All right, I’ll take you as my disciple. I want to see if Old Heretic Huang will eat me alive.”

Huang Rong smiled. “You’ve said it, you can’t take it back,” she said. “You know, my father oftentimes remarked that after Wang Chongyang died, amongst the martial experts in this world, only you and he were the two people that counted. The Southern Emperor and the rest of them are not even in his books. I am sure father will love that I take you as my master. Master, how does a beggar catch a snake? Please teach me this skill first.”

Hong Qigong was not sure he knew her intentions, but he did know the young girl was smart. She must have had some clever trick up her sleeve. So he explained simply, “Grab the snake seven inches from its head. Use your two fingers like a pair of tongs. As long as you pinch the snake at seven inches, no matter how venomous the snake is, it won’t be able to move.”

“What if the snake is very big?” Huang Rong asked.

“Lure it to bite your left hand, then, use your right hand to hit it at seven inches,” Hong Qigong answered. “Do you have to be extremely quick?” Huang Rong asked again.

“Of course,” Hong Qigong replied. “You have to put some ointment on your left hand, so even if it gets bitten by the snake you won’t get hurt.”

Huang Rong nodded. She winked at Hong Qigong and asked, “Master, please apply the ointment to my hand.”

Catching snakes was the Beggar Clan’s specialty. Hong Qigong had never used any ointment or antidote; he would simply beat the snake with his stick. But, seeing Huang Rong’s meaningful glance, he took the scarlet gourd from his back, which actually contained some wine, and applied the wine to both of Huang Rong’s palms.

Huang Rong sniffed her palms, made a face, and said to Ouyang Ke, “Hey, I am now a world famous beggar, the Old Hero Hong’s disciple. I am asking for a lesson on the ‘Snake’s Flexible Skin’ from you. But I must warn you that my hands are full of the antidote to your poison, so you must be careful.”

“Having a match with you is exactly what I hoped for,” Ouyang Ke thought. “I don’t care what witchcraft is on your hands, as long as I don’t touch them.” So he smiled brightly and said, “I am willing to die by your hands.”

Huang Rong said, “Your other martial arts are so sloppy and ordinary, I only want to fight your stinky snake moves. If you use any other martial arts, you lose.”

“Whatever Miss says, I wouldn’t dare to disobey,” Ouyang Ke said.

Huang Rong laughed. “I can’t believe a bastard like you would have a very sweet mouth,” she said. “Watch out!” As soon as she finished speaking her fist came flying with Hong Qigong’s ‘Wandering Strides’ technique.

Ouyang Ke let the fist pass to his side. Huang Rong followed with her left leg kicking horizontally, while her right hand formed a hook. It was a stance from the ‘Peach Blossom Divine Sword Palm’, her own family heritage. Unfortunately Huang Rong was still too young and the time she spent on training was limited; however, this time her purpose was a victory, so she used whatever kungfu she knew, regardless of who passed it on to her.

Ouyang Ke saw the exquisiteness of her moves; he did not dare to be careless. His right arm extended and suddenly curved back to hit her shoulder. This move from the ‘Spirit Snake Fist’ was swift. His hand almost touched Huang Rong’s body when he suddenly remembered that she was wearing the soft hedgehog armor. Had he proceeded, wouldn’t his fist be dripping with blood?

Huang Rong quickly dodged and sent both her palms whishing toward an opening on his face. Ouyang Ke brushed his sleeve and parried her palms.

Huang Rong’s body was protected by the soft hedgehog armor, her hands were covered with ointment; the only part unprotected was her face. Ouyang Ke was in a predicament; he was getting attacked without any chance to hit back. Even though the ‘Spirit Snake Fist’ was wonderful; he was forced to fly east and dodge west trying to elude Huang Rong’s attack, while keeping himself from touching her palms. “If I hit her face to gain victory, that would be offensive to her, and if I pull her hair, I treat her rudely; other than that I can’t think of anything else,” he thought. But he suddenly had an idea. He stepped aside and quickly tore the corner of his sleeve; ripped it into two parts and wrapped them around his hands. With protected hands he tried to grab Huang Rong’s palms. “You lost!” Huang Rong jumped out of the arena and called out. “That’s not the ‘Stinky Snake Fist’.”

“Oh, I forgot,” Ouyang Ke said.

“Your ‘Stinky Snake Fist’ is not that special, it cannot defeat Hong Qigong’s disciple,” Huang Rong continued. “At the Zhao Palace you defeated me, but that was because you had Liang Ziweng, Sha Tongtian, Peng Lianhu, Reverend Ling Zhi, and also that wart- headed Hou Tonghai at your side. I was overwhelmed by sheer numbers; also I did not want to get into trouble, so I admitted defeat. All right, now that we have defeated each other, let’s just have a match to decide victory or defeat.”

Li Sheng and the others were taken aback, they thought, “Even though this young girl’s martial arts are good, she is definitely not this man’s match. She won by using a trick. Why would she add something superfluous and ruin the victory? What else does she want to prove?”

Hong Qigong on the other hand fully realized that this girl was full of clever tricks; she must have something in mind to trick the enemy. So he simply smiled but did not say anything. He continued gnawing the chicken leftovers and ate noisily; like that chicken was the best food in the world.

“Why are you so serious?” Ouyang Ke laughed. “You’ll win or I’ll win, it doesn’t make a difference. But if you really want to play, I will accompany you.”

“At the Zhao Palace we were surrounded by your friends. Had I won, they would surely attack me; thus I was not willing to fight you seriously,” Huang Rong said. “But now you have your friends,” she pointed to the female disciples/concubines in white, “and I also have my friends. Although you have more friends than I do, I am not afraid. Let us fight just like we did before: you may draw a circle on the ground; we will follow the same rule; whoever steps out of the circle first, loses. I have kowtowed and taken Senior Hong as my master; I also have highly skilled martial siblings, including this young man. You do not have to tie your hands behind your back as before.”

Ouyang Ke was amused. What she said was partly funny, but also, if you thought about it, it did make sense. So he planted his left foot on the floor, and used it as the axis; while his right foot was stretched three feet away. He turned around and made a circle about six feet in diameter.

The Beggar Clan people did not like him, but seeing this they could not help but secretly praise him.

Huang Rong entered the circle and said, “Are we going to fight the ‘soft’ way [‘wen’ – literary] or ‘hard’ way [‘wu’ – military, or martial arts]?”

Ouyang Ke was baffled, “You are eccentric,” he said in his heart, but his mouth asked, “How do fight the ‘soft’ way? And how do you fight the ‘hard’ way?”

“If we fight the soft way, I attack you three times, you don’t counterattack; then you attack me three times, I won’t counterattack,” Huang Rong explained. “If we fight the hard way, we can fight each other at will. You can use your ‘Dead Snake Fist’ or ‘Live Mouse Stance’, I don’t care. Whoever steps out of the circle first, loses.”

Ouyang Ke thought for a moment. “I think we’d better fight the ‘soft’ way,” he said. “That way, we can avoid injury and won’t spoil our friendship.”

“If you chose the ‘hard’ way, you will certainly lose,” Huang Rong said. “But if we fight the ‘soft’ way, you still have a chance. Good! Let us fight as you wish, the ‘soft’ way. Do you go first, or I go first?”

How could Ouyang Ke hit her first? “Certainly ladies first,” he said.

Huang Rong smiled. “You are sly! You know you will suffer a loss if you hit me first. All right, I am being generous to you; let me hit you first.”

Ouyang Ke was going to say, “In that case I will hit you first.” But before he could open his mouth Huang Rong had already shouted, “Watch out!” She immediately sent her palm to attack. Something flashed in her hand; as it turned out she was throwing some hidden projectiles.

Ouyang Ke saw the multitude of projectiles; normally he would use his folding fan to parry an attack like this, but his fan was crushed by Hong Qigong’s hand. He could also use his long sleeve to trap the projectiles, but he’d torn his sleeves earlier. The steel needles encompassed an area about six or seven feet wide; if he leaped sideways, he would be out of the circle. He had no time to consider any other alternatives, so he leaped about ten feet vertically. The steel needles flew below him.

Huang Rong waited until he was at the peak and was falling back down before she called out, “Here comes the second attack!” Her hands launched about a hundred steel needles. It was the ‘Blossoms Rain from the Sky’ needle tossing technique [man tian hua yu zhi jin zhen] from Hong Qigong. She did not even try to aim and just shot the needles toward Ouyang Ke.

Even if Ouyang Ke’s skills were much higher, his body was midair and there was simply no way he could avoid them. “I am finished!” he sighed in his heart, “This girl is so vicious.” Right at that moment he felt someone pulling his collar and his body moved back upward; with swishing noise the needles fell to the ground. Ouyang Ke knew somebody must have saved him. He was thrown back to the ground. It was not too hard, but the energy behind that throw was peculiar – a sign of a highly skilled martial artist; he fell left shoulder first. Naturally he tried to stand back up, but he was unable to do so. He rolled around on the floor a bit before he finally managed to stand. He knew it must be Hong Qigong, because nobody in that vicinity had that kind of skill. He was terrified yet upset and immediately walked out the temple without saying anything. His female disciples followed.

“Master, why did you save that scoundrel?” Huang Rong asked.

Hong Qigong smiled. “His uncle is an old friend of mine. That kid has committed many disgraceful acts; he deserves to be damned. But it wouldn’t be good for his uncle’s face if he were injured by my hand.” He patted Huang Rong on the shoulder and said, “Smart girl, you have given me much good face today. How should I reward you?”

Huang Rong stuck out her tongue. “I don’t want your bamboo stick,” she said.

“Even if you want it, I cannot give it to you,” Hong Qigong said. “I have a mind to teach you one or two kinds of kungfu, but I am too lazy these past few days. I don’t have any interest in doing anything.”

“I’ll prepare some good food for you to boost your interest,” Huang Rong offered.

Hog Qigong’s eyes lit up; but then he heaved a big sigh. “I don’t have time to eat right now. What a pity, what a pity …!” He turned to Li Sheng and the others and said, “The Beggar Clan has several matters we need to discuss internally.”

Li Sheng and the others came to Guo Jing and Huang Rong, expressing their gratefulness for saving their lives. Huang Rong had cut the rope that bound Miss Cheng’s hands and feet. Miss Cheng was extremely shy; she held Huang Rong’s hand and quietly said her thanks. Huang Rong pointed to Guo Jing and said, “Your Eldest Martial Uncle, Priest Ma taught him kungfu, your Martial Uncles Qiu and Wang are also very fond of him, so I can say that we belong to the same family.”

Miss Cheng turned her head toward Guo Jing and suddenly blushed. She lowered her head and after a while quietly stole a glance toward Guo Jing again.

Li Sheng and the others also congratulated Hong Qigong, Guo Jing and Huang Rong. They knew Qigong did not usually accept disciples; even amongst the Beggar Clan members did he rarely teach more than one or two stances. They wondered how Guo Jing and Huang Rong persuaded him so that he was willing to take them. In their hearts they envied these two.

“We are going to prepare a banquet tomorrow evening to congratulate Clan Leader on having accepted two very fine disciples,” Li Sheng said.

Hong Qigong smiled, “I am afraid they won’t like filthy foods, the kind we beggars eat.”

“We will certainly come,” Guo Jing hastily said, “Big Brother Li is a Senior Hero, Junior would very much like to know you.” Li Sheng had been saved by Guo Jing; thus he kept his eyes on this young man and listening to his humble speech he was even more delighted. He decided right then and there to befriend Guo Jing.

Hong Qigong said, “I am glad you two feel like old friends at your first meeting; but I warn you not to persuade my first disciple to be a beggar like you! You, my younger disciple, go and take Miss Cheng back home. We, the beggars are going to steal some chickens and beg for some rice.” After saying these words, he left the temple followed by all the beggars. Just before leaving Li Sheng told Guo Jing that the banquet tomorrow would be held in that very same temple.

Guo Jing accompanied Huang Rong escorting Miss Cheng back home.

Miss Cheng quietly told Huang Rong her full name was Cheng Yaojia. Even though she had learned martial arts from the ‘Sage of Tranquility’ Sun Bu’Er, she was born to a rich family and had been pampered since her childhood. Thus, by nature, she was very shy and did not know too many people. She was very different from Huang Rong who was carefree and brave. She did not dare to say even a half word to Guo Jing. Occasionally she would steal a glance and immediately lower her head; her cheeks blushed profusely. 

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